I woke up on my back in the snow after the party of Blackfoot came down on us. I could hear the horses rushing past and the screams, both of the fighting and of the dying, but I could not get up to look around. There was a throbbing pain in my back and I knew that it was an arrow, but I could not remember being hit with it, nor seeing the advance of Indians, nor of hearing a call for them. One minute our party of twenty-three free trappers was headed for the distant Green River to meet with Bridger and Co., loaded down with fifteen thousand dollars worth of beaver plews, and the next I was laying on my back arrow-stuck and helpless as my friends were being cut to pieces.
I waited my turn.
Minutes passed and the sounds of screams and shots were followed by hatchets rising and falling and then by low exclamations. Eventually the sound died away entirely, and I watched the gray clouds of winter that hung low in the sky floating overhead between the sparse gnarled arms of the boxelders.
I realized at once that the Indians were gone and that I was far from dead but in a bad way. Trying to stand, I turned my head and saw the fallen bodies of Captain Williamson and Caleb Bull some forty feet apart, separated by the sprawled body of a mule felled incidentally with errant fusee fire.With a great deal of pain, I managed to roll over and push myself up onto my feet. There was no shaft of dogwood nor reed protruding out of my chest and I could not feel anything on my back: no blood, no shaft, no feathers. Just a sharp pain between the shoulder blades every time I inhaled.
All around there was death. Some of the mules had been killed in the fighting although the Indians had not stripped their packs of the furs. Finch had died trying to run into the woods on foot, and Carter had been crushed by his horse when it fell. Some of the bodies had been cut up with hatchets and some had not. As far as I could tell none had survived save myself. I did not tarry long to look at them. There were no horses or mules milling about on the loose and I was too near to death to loot the pockets of men whom I knew well. I simply started walking. Strides did not come easy and I could see my breath. Williamson had told us it was forty miles to the Green River but I knew it was closer to sixty. A gambler might've figured some odds.
I was no gambler.
I did not know how badly my back was injured. I could not feel an open wound of a ball nor a blade, and there was no blood on my coat. Still, the pain persisted. I ignored it the best I could. The long and short of it was that I had to cover sixty miles worth of territory on foot before I was likely to meet the second party of men on the river. I had nothing to eat, no water, and no vessel to store water in should I find some. What I had was a tin of cloth and a good piece of chert for fire starting, a belt hatchet, a heavy german horse pistol tucked into my trousers, and two good feet donning a pair of stiff leather boots wrapped in moose skin that had been brought down to a rendezvous long ago by a Canadian named Wentz.
I walked out the daylight that was left to be walked in and could see no use in stopping for night. Dusk meant nothing to me and darkness that much less. The plain was flat and stretched as far as I could see with little variation excepting the grass clumps that stood notably higher than the other grass clumps, and a handful of trees far off that resembled cheap knickknacks sitting on a windowpane in a house with oil lights. I stopped to take a few long breaths and wondered if I would ever again light an oil lantern in Missouri or Arkansas or anywhere else. I spat in the thin snow that was slowly giving way to grass underfoot with each stride.
It made no difference.
Just after I started walking again I realized something was following me. Way back, several hundred yards. All I could see was a shadow in the dusky light, moving south, just as I was. I drew the german pistol from my waist and tamped the barrel twice. Then I started walking again. Whatever was back there was probably just an animal, a lone buffalo maybe. Not likely, but if it was not a buffalo then it was an Indian, and I didn't fear meeting just one of either.
Still yet, I was afraid.
I marched on through the night. The sky cleared off some a few hours before sunrise and I could see the gossamery light put off by the individual bodies of heaven with pristine clarity. Finch had known the names of the stars. He was a smart boy. The smartest I ever saw. His daddy was a learned business man from Maryland who had moved to Pennsylvania, and would eventually draw up a manufacturing device that would allow some boys from Hartford with a factory to put type-writers together twice as fast as they could previously. It was a sad story, that his father made a pert sum of cash working on machines that would allow others to spin tales and histories, but he had no tales of his own. I asked Finch one time, "What are you in the mountains for?" and he said, "I had to get away from home." He never spoke of being beaten, nor of drinking, nor of misfortune of any kind on the part of his family. He said he woke up one morning and realized that he had heard all of his father's stories and that he would not want to marry his mother. Now he was dead. With no story of his own. Finch, just like Williamson, Bull, Carter, and the others, were just bloody spots for magpies to pick at.
What would become of me?
Morning brought with it a mystery. I had lost ground on the thing that followed. Dawn showed it behind me, shadowy but not so far away, and as the Earth turned slowly and gave the sun a purchase on the flat expanse, I saw that I was being followed by a man. Not an Indian, but a white man under a gray brimmed hat whose ears were covered by long black hair, and who wore animal skins of a kind I had never seen before, and have never seen again. I did not know him.
There was no good reason for a white man to be walking over the plain in early winter, yet, here I was. Misfortune had brought such circumstances upon me, but this man, I couldn't say. A hundred yards separated us. I was all at once of a mind to bolt away and to run as hard and fast as I could but I didn't move. My thoughts were careless and unfounded. Even if the stranger harbored ill-will, there was nothing to quarrel about out here. I stopped with my hands on my hips and waited, facing him.
He did not hurry.
"How'do?" Came my offered greeting as he approached, without pause or glance to size me up. There was no response. The man just stood before me, coughed casually into his palm, and gestured towards the Green River in the distance. "You'll follow me from here on out," he said. Then he started walking.
"Pardon, friend? Who are you? Where did you come from? Where am I to follow you to?"
He did not acknowledge that I had spoken, and tramped off without another word. I rattled him with exclamations as I followed behind, unsure of his odd manner and becoming more and more irate as the moments passed. The very least one could do upon meeting a stranger in this land was to introduce oneself. I had the thought to draw my pistol and to put it in this rude fellow's back and to make him talk. The thought had no more than come to mind when I felt fluid burning down my face and saw the swirling world through blurred eyes.
I was laying on my back, propped up by the elbows looking at the strange man who had produced a jet black handgun and thrust it in my face. It looked like a small cannon and I wondered where it had came from. No where in the states, that's for certain. Maybe Mexico. My mouth was bleeding where the barrel had slammed my lower lip into my teeth. I wiped the oily gash with the back of my hand.
"Don't try that again," the Strange Man said. He started off again. I followed.
"My name's Walter Madison," I said.
The Strange Man turned and looked. "I know your name. I know you're twenty-five years in this world. Your family hails from a town called Dover, in Arkansas, and your pap has a farm twelve miles to the northeast. You ran away from home at sixteen and mailed your letters home from St. Louis and Lexington, and you worked as a wagon driver in town."
"How do you know these things?"
"Your baby sister's name was Beth. She followed in your footsteps and left home at nineteen to see the big ole world. Two years she worked in Independence before dying of jaundice in the moldy upstairs store-room of a sir Thomas Crawborne."
"I was told she married Crawborne. He was a newspaper writer. He wrote me a letter of grief."
"Hah!" The Strange Man clasped his hands. "Married! As for the journalist, have you ever known one to tell the truth?"
"Go to hell!"
"In short time, my friend. In short time."
My fists showed white tendons at my sides. I'd never been a pick in a close fight but I wanted to sock the pretty talker until his eyes lollied out of his head. Still, I stayed myself. Blood was still dripping from my face.
He was a strange man.
"How long have you been following me?" I asked.
"A long time Madison. A pert long time." He turned and started walking again, and I trotted behind him like a starved dog. There was no more talking. Just the crunch of one foot besting the other all day long atop the crisp frozen plains-grass below. Towards night we came across a shallow gulley and I got down on my knees, busted the shelf ice with my hatchet, sank my face into the icy current, and drank myself full. When I got up and turned around, the Strange Man was sitting on the ground over a blazing fire with a stack of ironwood just beside, at arms length.
"Where? How?" I stammered.
"You ask too many questions," he said, and added nothing more.
The fire burned hot and it felt good to my stiff fingers. I sat beside it while the Strange Man produced a sack of honeyed sweet cakes from his coat and began smacking them up with relish.
After a moment I said, "I suppose you're going to eat them all."
He shrugged. "What do you expect?"
I stared at him.
"Sorry friend, but this is the way of things. Nothing I throw around is free. If you want a sweet-cake or anything else you'll have to wager. Otherwise, I'd never stay in business."
"Too damn many questions friend. Wager or don't. Makes me no difference."
"What do I have to wager you? I'm played out and starving."
Another shrug. "Best think of something."
I scooted away from the fire that was blistering my face and noted that the grass beneath it had fallen away to a sort of sandy off-colored loam. It struck me as odd in a country of black-soil.
A lot of things struck me as odd.
I thought of waiting for the strange man to go to sleep before shooting him in the face with my pistol, but he sat up by the fire all night and did not move save to shift another piece of dark wood from the stack to the cinders. I was weak from hunger and the long two days of walking and soon was asleep despite an attempt to remain otherwise.
I woke up staring at a noon day sun covered in sweat. Instantly I was on my feet, looking around in horror. The ground beneath me was sand. The ground behind was sand. Three feet to my left was a flowering prickly pear. A kit fox watched timidly and twitched her batty ears from atop a broken rock a hundred yards distant.
The Strange Man was gone.
The iron-wood ashes were strewn about though the fire was dead and cold and a lone set of footprints lay in a dotted line to the south. A greasewood snag lay where the Stranger had sat the night before. It was draped with a water bag full to the seams. I took off my coat and laid it on the sand-hoping I would not need it again, slung the water over my shoulder, and set off in the Strange Man's footsteps hoping to catch him before dark.
We were going to have some words.
When darkness began to overtake the hostile landscape once again, I was still alone. Sweat poured down my face and the water bag was drier than a bad joke told with a mouthful of rye bread in the summertime. The greater sum of my clothes were laying in various places six miles behind. The heavy coat and skins I had bought and tended to for the purpose of surviving the bitter cold of the Blackfoot country were much too hot to wear in this barren land under a sun that burnt the clouds before it could ever blink behind them. I still carted an old pair of canvas trousers on my legs, which had been beaded up by a bored Shoshone gal I knew long before. My shoulders and my head were bare, however.
When night fell in force, the sand sucked up every bit of warmth in the world and took it down to a great flaming hole in the center of the Earth, or might as well have. It got cold and I shivered through the night, afraid of freezing to death should I stop to rest. I could not see the Strange Man's campfire in the distance though I was still following his tracks.
Morning of my last day found me still on my feet.
At least, I supposed it was my last day. I had no water left and could claim no sign of the man who had the answers to the mysteries of this strange place. I no longer knew where I was going. I might as well have known the Green River was on the moon. I did not have the senses to fear anything in addition to dying without the scientific answer to the transpiring events.
It was on the third day that I saw the second set of tracks, walking along beside the Strange Man's. I could not say how long they had been paralleling the trail. My mind was getting foggy. I could not think. The sun beat down harder than ever and I ran out of sweat to sting my eyes. For two hours more I followed the curious pair of prints, before hearing a call up ahead.
"Who's there?" I shouted.
"Why, Madison! You look like a desert rat whose momma never told him no better."
The Strange Man was perched atop an eight foot column of rock fifty yards up the trail, sitting with his legs crossed like a gal with curlycue hair over milked tea in Boston. I wanted to kill the man, but I knew he was right. My bare shoulders were red, with fine silver lines hatching them and long sheaves of ribbony skin peeling off. "Where the hell am I?"
"You're late." He replied, and leapt clear of the rock, landing with a thud. Dust rose around his boot-soles. I coughed. "You have any water?" I asked.
"No. I entrusted it all to you, friend."
"A water bag for two days travel through this hellhole!"
"I did not expect it to take you two days. Let's carry on now, the way isn't far."
The Strange Man started walking. He was placing his feet in yet a third set of footprints, which followed along just offsetting the second. "Mister," I said. "Whose tracks are those?"
He stopped this time, turned, and looked back at my dry, sun-burnt face. "These?" He pointed under his own feet at the tracks he was stepping in, "These are mine. Those? Well, those are Jedediah Smith's." The Strange Man was gesturing to the second set of tracks, which I had come upon many hours before finding him atop his rock perch. "You must be joking," I said. "You're a madman. That isn't possible. Jed Smith's been dead for four years now. Killed by Comanches on a trip to Santa Fe with a company including Thomas Fitzpatrick."
"Nonsense!" The Strange Man replied. "You know, I'm beginning to think ole broken-handed Tom just made that story up. Jed Smith walked this trail with me four years ago, just like you're doing now. He wagered me for a swallow of water."
"No!" I said. "That's not possible. "These tracks will be gone in a few days. They wouldn't last a week, let alone four years."
"Ah," The Strange Man sighed, "That's the problem with you men, you never consider or realize how long the imprints of your feet will last once you leave the divots behind."
"Men? What the hell are you?"
"Too many questions friend. Too many." The Strange Man began walking South again, alongside the tracks that I was told were none other than Captain Smith's.
"Do you have a name?" I asked.
"No, I'm afraid not."
"Even Satan has a name," I said.
"Hmm. You can just call me California, if you have to call me anything."
We walked on in the heat. Late in the evening we came upon an old stack of sun bleached hop-hornbeam with a pile of dark ashes a few feet distant. "This is it," California said. He commenced making camp.
"This is what?" I asked.
California didn't answer. Within minutes he had another blaze going and was sitting on his rump in the sand. All at once he had a mouth harp and was playing and stomping his foot like a careless goof. I looked around the camp and noted that the tracks of Captain Smith ended alongside California's campfire and went no further.
I shouted for him to quit playing and to be sensible. "What's this all about?" I yelled. My heart was pounding. "What the hell am I doing here? What do you want?"
California just tossed the harmonica into the desert casually. It hit the ground with a little huff of sound. His fingers padded together before his knees where he sat and he stared me right in the eyes.
I realized he was waiting.
"Is this about the time I tried to hang my older brother? Because, I do not regret it. He grew up to be a raging drunk that beat his children and died in a blazing hotel room in a stupor that withstood the flames."
California said nothing.
I continued. "I do not regret stealing Peter Abbott's hardware wagon from the warehouse in St. Louis. The man spent his whole life selling boxes of forty-five nails marked 'Fifty Count.'"
California chuckled. A light wind carried dust across the flat and blew smoke into my eyes. All at once it picked up in velocity and a name was blasted into my ears from the heavens: Cries-Half-The-Time.
All at once my stomach was so tight I figured my guts were going to run down my leg and stain the sand.
Cries-Half-the-Time was a Shoshone woman two springs younger than I was as a green kid in the mountains. I met her at my first rendezvous under contract with Fitzpatrick after Campbell had sold his company out to him. Lord, I thought I loved her. She was tall for a Snake and pleasant to look at, and she had heart to work hard, but she only had one eye and didn't speak english well. She kept telling a joke about a red squirrel who choked himself to death trying to swallow a whole pinecone backwards, viz. with the spikes going down first. It was funny the first time, and I laughed a good deal, but that was all she knew how to say to me and after awhile I was compelled to retire from her company for want of real conversation. The next day of Rendezvous, her poor father hunted me up and begged me to marry her for two horses and a jug of whiskey. He was an old man who couldn't see well enough to shoot piss and he was some desperate to be rid of her. But, as I have said, she only had one eye and knew just one joke. Besides, my contract with Fitzpatrick had just terminated and Williamson had offered me a part in an expedition north with a coalition of trappers for five-hundred dollars. So, I traded the old fellow a pipe tomahawk for some beaver pelts and sent him on his way. I found out later that Wentz had brought her with him on an expedition into Blackfoot country. Damned fool. It was his last trip, and I cannot say for certain, but with Cries-Half-The-Time being a Snake and having just one eye besides, she was likely put to the torture.
Sometimes, I do not sleep well at night.
California just looked on through me. "You ever seen five-hundred dollars in gold pieces?"
I shook my head. "I am owed that figure at the end of this trip."
California gestured with a limp arm. "Why don't you check your pantaloons?"
I could tell before I ever moved my hand that my pockets were full of gold. I pulled one of the coins out to look at it, glinting in the light. I swore and looked up. "What happened to Captain Smith?"
California shrugged. "We made a wager. He lost."
I stood up now, my head clear with understanding. I shoveled the coins from my pockets one and all, and threw them in a heap at California's feet. "Take it," I said. "I've no use for it."
"Won't do," he said.
"I'm serious. I've no use for it. I wish I'd never seen it. If I ever get out of this godless place I will board the first keelboat that rides a set of poles back to Lexington and I will shovel horse-shit for the rest of my days and be glad to do it."
"Too thin," California said. He pulled a cigarette from his hatband. It lit spontaneously as he touched it to his lips and drew a breath. "I thought you'd have learned long ago that a life is worth a great deal more than five-hundred dollars."
I stepped away from him. "So that's the wager? My life."
"That's it, friend. An ante of sorts. Soul and whatnot's the round bet. You ever played five card?"
"I have watched dandies from Pittsburg play five card in Missouri grog shops."
"Good," he whispered. California dropped the cigarette into the sand, pulled a purple-backed deck from his pocket, and shuffled it in one swift stroke of his fingertips. "Cut," he said, holding the stack out atop his palm. I made a shallow cut and he dealt five cards facedown.I looked at the cards on the ground before me, reflecting the smooth orange light of the fire in a shattered purple hue. The man across from myself did not pick his up nor glance at them. "You're all in," he said. "Care to draw?"
I would have sooner played blackjack with a rattlesnake in a busy street during a lightning storm than have touched those cards. I took a deep breath, expecting California was growing a mite impatient with his business. I said, "I can't beat you, can I?"
He shrugged. "Anything can happen I suppose. But, nobody ever has."
I stood up and backed away. The horse pistol was still in my waistband and I could shoot as well as anybody from ten feet's distance. Still, my hand did not move. I thought of everything I knew of in the world and of how much I would have liked to have known more of it while I had the chance.
"Draw!" California screamed. "Draw! The cards have been dealt, kid. Draw! Where's your nerve? Draw! Draw dammit!"
I took a step back. "The cards have been dealt a long time, friend. I will follow you no longer."
I turned to walk away into the dark to God only knows where, but was faced with Captain Williamson's visage staring right into mine. There was a light behind him brighter than an irish gal's reflection just after a good bath.
"Lad," he was saying. "We thought you were gone some time now."
"What?" I said. I looked around. Snow was falling on my face-getting in my eyes. I was laying on my back wrapped in a buffalo peel on a wooden travois, and a group of men were gathering around. Among them were Caleb Bull and J.G. Finch. I noticed the pain in my back again right off and set to cussing. "What's going on?" I asked.
Williamson spoke. "You took a fall off your mule nigh on to four days ago. Damn near broke your back and your head too. You've been sleeping like a dead man and we never figured on keeping enough water in your throat to keep you from-from joining ranks with Captain Smith, as you always say."
I laughed. "How far is it to the Green?"
Finch cringed. "Well, can't you hear it? About forty feet. We beat Bridger to the spot and are camped out a' waiting on the old man. Somebody found Wentz's old whiskey cache. It's a shining time pard. I'm going to beg Bridger to tell his tale about the box canyon run from Comanche's tonight like a whole mob of deaf men heckling a fiddle player."
"Well, sit tight, Finch. If you boys will fetch me a drink of water I'll tell you a sight of a story myself."