At the town of Independence he learned that a man with half an ear and his wife had bought provisions and joined a wagon train taking the Oregon Trail. In a crossroads tavern outside of Westport he asked about a man wearing a beaver hat. He was told, "Yup, he come through here with two mules. Made a trade for a horse and saddle with a farmer who had his boy take the mules while he—the farmer I mean—got falling down drunk right there where you're standing."
* * *
"Know which way he went?"
"Home, I guess. His wife sent the boy to come get him. The boy drug him out."
"I don't mean the farmer."
"You mean the man in the beaver hat? Oh, well, he took up with three Texans . . . part of that freebooter Snively's gang of murdering thieves. Suppose they're gone to kill more Mexicans down along the Sante Fe Trail. Won't do 'em much good once the dragoons get after 'em."
James decided to get Vance first, then Howard. The next day he joined a caravan of five wagons loaded with trade goods—from farm implements to men's cotton shirts and women's aprons to barrels of smoked salted pork—headed to Sante Fe.
The lead teamster, called Slim, was pleased to have another gun along. He had four outriders with rifles and one extra gunman in two wagons, but he wasn't sure that was enough. James rode with him on the first wagon. Slim liked to talk and went on about everything from the fine points of mules over horses and oxen to the virtues of the senoritas in Sante Fe. "Is that your reason for this trek, son, the dark-eyed beauties in the cantinas?"
James didn't answer. He only looked ahead, past the team's bobbing heads and thought about Charlie Vance.
"No shame in that, my boy. Nope, there's no shame in that."
At night two men stood guard, which rotated until dawn. James took his turn. All the time he thought over his hunt and the men he'd killed and intended to kill. When the memory of Rachel Wetzel began to cloud his mind like a sore ache, he thought of his brother and how he carried him home and how little Willie cried. His heart stiffened then—yes, there were two more needed killing.
On the fourth night, Slim said, "Some time tomorrow we'll hit the Arkansas. That's where I wash my feet and take a dip that'll last all the way to Sante Fe. Yeah, all the way to Sante Fe."
By the time the sun was shining through the trees, the breakfast of beans and ham fat was eaten and the teams hitched. Just as the drivers climbed onto the wagons, nine raiders came roaring out of the trees and high grass with rifles and pistols firing and a cloud of gunsmoke forming around them. Slim was hit and two of the outriders. The others hid under the wagons and returned fire.
James knelt beside a wagon, aimed carefully, and shot the closest raider. Reloaded, he shot another. The outriders, expert shots with rifles, shot four more. The other three quickly turned their horses and headed for the woods. Several bullets chased them. James saw that one of the three wore a beaver hat.
One of the outriders was killed, but the other one and Slim weren't badly wounded. James got his horse and mounted. He told Slim: "I'm going after them."
"Hell, let 'em go. They won't bother us no more."
"No, there's one I want."
"Want? What you want him for?"
"I intend to kill him."
"Serious? Something personal?"
"Well, good luck, boy. But you take some grub and a canteen of fresh water. Yes, and a rifle and caps and cartridges. That rifle do you better'n that carbine. You got to understand there's three of 'em and damn Texan freebooters at that. I'd send someone with you, but can't do it. I got to get this freight to Sante Fe."
James smiled. "All the way?"
Slim laughed. "Yeah, all the way to Sante Fe."
James never followed an easier trail. It led through the trees then cut south across a wide stretch of tall grass, then brush, then toward more trees and the river beyond that. When he came on them they were crossing at a ford, the water low this time of year. Two were still in the river and Vance, the beaver hat cocked, had just started up the far bank. James shouldered the rifle and fired quickly. Vance's horse reared and fell sideways and Vance jumped free as the horse slid down the bank. The other two glanced back at James and slapped their horses' rumps. They rushed up the bank, knocking Vance to the side.
James dropped the rifle, grabbed the carbine, and slid off his horse.
Vance scrambled up the bank.
When Vance reached the top, James aimed for the center of the back and fired. Vance jerked, reached around to his lower back, turned around to look across the river, stepped forward, and slid down the bank with his face scraping the dirt. He lay there at the edge of the water, the beaver hat next to him. He tried to push himself up but fell back down. He twisted one way then another. He groaned.
James watched with the freshly loaded carbine ready. He waited a long time to be sure the others wouldn't return, then he mounted his horse and slowly rode down to the river and crossed.
Vance now lay on his back and looked up at James. His face was white and twisted from the pain.
James dismounted, cocked the carbine, put it to Vance's chest, and fired. He mounted and crossed the river. He left the beaver hat.
For nearly five years James tried to trace Howard. He asked everywhere he went but usually no one remembered a man missing a piece of ear. He worked at all kinds of odd jobs: sweeping and shoveling manure in a livery stable and feeding the horses, digging ditches, often hauling freight, whatever he could get to keep his belly full. Finally he met a man who scouted for wagon trains to the Oregon territory. The scout recalled Howard and the girl because Howard was maybe the ugliest man he'd ever seen with only a piece of ear but the girl had the prettiest green eyes. "She warn't much otherwise, mind, too skinny, but those green eyes just shined . . . sparkled . . . like . . . like pebbles in a stream . . . you know, like when the water rushes over them in the shallows."
* * *
Six months later James rode into a valley in the Oregon territory. At a general store he asked about John Howard.
The storekeeper shook his head. "Don't know him. No, don't know anybody by that name."
"He has a piece of his ear missing. He'd be with a woman."
"Yes? A piece of his ear? Can't say I know him. What you want him for?"
"I've been hunting him now for some time. It's important."
"Why you hunting him?"
James thought a moment, then said, "His Pa died and left him near a thousand dollars and the farm with fifty or more milk cows. My folks want to buy the place."
"Back home, in Kentucky."
"You come all the way from Kentucky to tell him? You could've wrote a letter."
"Pap did but got no answer."
"All right, I know him . . . but he calls hisself Jack Howell. He has a place out past Gardner's mill."
A man, standing by a barrel with axe handles, said, "It's five or six miles north along the mill stream but a ways off the road. He's got a wife and a boy now, 'bout five or so. He's a neighbor. Borrowed a mule and a plow from me when he first come here. Seed too. Helped him build his cabin, me and my sons. Christian to give a man a helping hand. Just head north and follow the stream. I wondered when Daniel there was going to get around to telling you the truth."
"Well, Abner, you can't be too careful."
"Well, Daniel, you shouldn't be so suspicious—the man looks honest enough."
As James walked out, the two men continued discussing the virtues and faults of caution and suspicion.
James heard the thump and then the wood splitting before he saw the man through the trees. The sunlight slanted between the trees and striped the shadows as the man brought the axe down hard into a cut log end. A woman appeared in the cabin doorway and called, "Jack? Jack, little John wants to come out to help."
"All right . . . long as he keeps clear."
A small boy in home-made overalls came running out. The man stopped and set the axe down. The boy ran toward the man, ran through the slants of sunlight and shadow, sunlight and shadow.
James watched the man and the boy for a minute, then turned his horse and rode away.