The Gallows Man
by Karin Torrey
Do not let them steer you. You have a single purpose, and consequences will trail you like buzzards when the line is crossed.
Four-by-fours were what he ordered. They bungled it up every time. Four-by-fours and two-by-sixes and hemp rope thirty feet in length. He would not supply it. In Redwood, they had rough-sawn lumber and a few pulled-up floorboards, and he had to go to the saloon to find the man in charge and complain about the materials. There was something about hanging a man that made people prone to mistakes. As if the silent part of the soul was honor-bound to sabotage it.
He brought his tools: a mallet, a hammer, auger, spirit level, ruler, plumb bob, planer, saw and square. The leather fold he wrapped them in. Taken all together, his tools, sawhorses and personal effects weighed about a hundred pounds. His jenny, Dorcas, was accustomed to the weight.
In Tucumcari, they had given him half the lumber he had ordered. "Not enough for a long drop, not enough by a mile. You can do a short drop without a scaffold, just throw the rope between the rafters or over an oak branch. You still have to pay my fee; I've made two days to get here."
But they liked the construction. It certified the ordeal, made it seem legal. They said they would find the lumber. The prisoner could wait another three days, and he did.
There was a purpose for every board. The joinery was simple but sturdy. The last smell the prisoners smelled was fresh cut pine and the soap on the knot behind their left ear. He made sure there was no creaking of the boards. For a man prospecting for any sense of hope, false hope was cruel.
Among other measurements, the prisoner had to be weighed. He would not do it himself.
"Sheriff ain't here. Took sick last week; ain't seen him." The postal clerk had a lazy way of standing out in the street, as if he were desperate for a countertop or, lacking that, a post of any kind to lean on.
"Then fetch his deputy."
"He's five miles out of town. Just to weigh a man he should spend a half a day traveling?"
"I don't undertake the particulars. I build you the scaffold. I test it, and I instruct your hangman. I depart before the deed."
"Deputy won't do it, judge is over in Albuquerque. Mayor . . . " The clerk looked around at the near-empty thoroughfare and shrugged.
"I don't undertake the particulars."
That was roughly how he came to be standing in the jail in Socorro. The prisoner stepped out of the cell, a young man, long brown mop of hair. His leathers were crusty from the mud they had dragged him through. The barber had brought over his scale and stood chewing a toothpick in the doorway. The lawyer stood beside him, cleaned his spectacles with a soft square of flannel. The postal clerk leaned on the open window sill. The ruler had the man at six foot two.
"Weigh him with the shackles. Won't risk a surprise."
Shackles on his wrists and ankles, the young man stepped on the scale and the bar thunked to the side. The carpenter avoided his gaze while he measured the mass of the man before him, sliding each weight to the right until it balanced level.
"I never seen myself weighed before. What's the verdict, Red?" When the prisoner looked up, his eyes were a searing flash of lapis, the way a finch could dart before you like a bright shock in the browns of a landscape.
He had never looked the prisoner in the face. He focused on the weights, the calculation not coming to him.
"Shut your mouth," said the barber.
"Hundred sixty-three. With iron shackles at wrists and ankles. Don't go switching to rope the day of, on some romantic historical whim, you wouldn't be the first to try, nor the first to regret it."
He could put up his tent next to the jail, near his tools and the livery where Dorcas was stalled between his flea-bitten Pinto and Carl's swaybacked Paint. He began laying out the boards in the single-man pattern out on the side of the thoroughfare as the sun was setting, and lit some lanterns to arrest the dark.
It was one of those gnawing facts to know, that it took a young ponderosa, of some forty years, in order to hang a man. It should be thirty feet high, stripped, planked. It was enough to construct a small scaffold with ten steps, a single upright, the horizontal and the brace. If they paid more, a rail could be added. For multiple hangings, it was two verticals and braces, and room for up to four, costing maybe two or three trees then.
This was for one man, this young, blue-eyed man with the mud-crusted leathers. What sins he had committed, of God or man, was not the carpenter's business.
He hadn't felt confident about his work since Carl had died. After that, there was no one to second guess the work, to double check the measurements. It was as if he had stored part of his memory in his partner, and left it under a pile of rocks at the foot of a well-joined wood cross outside of Cimarron. He had taken time to carve the name with the tools he had for fashioning scaffolds.
The one tiny window facing the alley was the jail cell's outlet for light and air, and the young man squeezed his face against the bars to watch the carpenter come back to his canvas for tools. The carpenter lifted a board and the hammer dropped from his belt onto his toes.
"Looks like you could use some help, Red."
He picked up the hammer and set the board on the sawhorses to measure.
"My daddy was a natural builder. Owned a hardware business for a while," the prisoner said.
The carpenter lost his concentration measuring and measured again, the flat pencil in his teeth.
"A man might call it old fashioned, but he liked mortise and tenon for a strong joint."
Carl used bridle joints for most scaffolds, and so he used bridle joints. It must be strong enough to hold the judgment of men. Often the jailer, the preacher, the mayor and the prisoner stood there all at once. They had heard about a scaffold collapsing in the act outside of Santa Fe, the work of some handyman who made cabinets and coffins and probably thought he could scale up a door frame into a scaffold. The preacher was killed in the fall, while the prisoner attempted a clumsy escape, still pulling the broken crossbeam behind him from the rope around his neck before he was shot between the shoulders. Shameful, Carl had said, trimming his nails by the fire. The dilettante should have slunk away and never touched a plank again.
The prisoner hung his forearms out through the bars and kept talking from inside. "We built a barn or two, good sturdy hay barns back in Oklahoma. One day he went and hung himself from one of the beams. So what I'm saying is one of them joints will hold."
"Shut up there."
"Can't bear to know the man you're hanging? The money you make don't spend as nice when it talks from the grave, does it?"
Never talk to a prisoner, never look him in the eye. You won't do the work you ought, nor near as well. Your reputation will crumble thereafter, and rightfully so.
"You know that from experience?"
"Me, no." The prisoner gripped the bars again and pressed his face through as far as he could get. "But I am a card cheat, I will admit to that. Additionally, I drove a herd of cattle that weren't strictly my own property from Los Lunas to Magdalena, that being the hanging offense in this case. But I was not the brains nor beneficiary of the operation, so I am no more guilty of the offense than that mallet is guilty of making the gallows to hang me by. The Van Zandts, that's who should be hanging, but don't bother telling that to the judge." Silence. "Given another night on your side of the bars, I'd undo what I done, if I could, that's the God's-honest truth of it."
"Don't make me fetch that barber to shut you up. I will, one more word."
"I know what you're thinking, the mallet ain't got the brains to choose what it does, I do know that. But consider the choice a man has if he's gone hungry or thirsty: his choice is death or duty to his needs. And here it was death all along." The prisoner's voice choked up. "Damn my impulses!" he sobbed. "And not another chance to do right."
With the uprights clamped, the carpenter began to saw the grooves, and could not hear the prisoner going on over the noise. When he turned out the lamp, the little window was empty.
In the morning, he continued, and the usual onlookers made passing comments on the grimness of the construction, and hid their exaggerated horror behind handkerchiefs and gloved hands. He had once mused to Carl that it felt in some ways they were building a stage.
Carl had kept sawing for a minute, then stopped to wipe his face. I have no doubt that we are.
Three weeks later, he had curled up with an ache in his guts, and he was dead by morning.
* * *
The lawyer came by with the man who had taken an oath to serve as the one to pull the lever. Some men took to the idea with a certain reserved relish, some watched him demonstrate the pull as if their souls depended on getting it right, and some masked their discomfort with jokes and goofing. He had rehearsed and refined his speech as he made the distance between towns, and as he recited it here, this man, a rancher in his mid-forties, a married man by appearances, seemed to catch on to what he had agreed to, the evidence in his paling face, his dry swallow, his widening eyes.
"Once you have done it, it is done. I have no authority over the process you set forth, but I recommend a meeting of the eyes of the administrators on the platform that all are agreed as to the timing and the act. Immediately thereafter, once you have locked eyes with them all, pull medium-hard—as though you are slowing your team, not with such vigor as to rope a steer, and not tugging your wife's tender hand." He used other analogies depending on the profession of the hangman, be it pulling molars or ringing church bells. It was, being specific, 58 pounds of pressure to spring the trap door. Too much enthusiasm risked a malfunction; delicacy risked drama or unmeet comedy.
"Have you ever hanged a man you pegged as innocent?" The rancher's voice was the echo of the carpenter's voice on the road to Acoma. Ahead of him, Carl's hips and back swayed with each sauntering step of the Paint. His answer was Carl's practiced answer, spoken out to the flats and the mesas rising beyond.
"I don't commit the hanging. I come by the order of the town to build the right structure for the job. I leave the judgment and the duty to the discretion of law-abiding folks, trusting they will do their job as well as I have done mine. I am just the same as the rifle maker, or the stone the axe is ground on."
In the jail window, the prisoner's hands clutched the bars.
The congregation now dispersed, the carpenter got back to setting up the frame and got on the braces to test his weight against it. Funny how the view from that altitude gave him a little tip of vertigo. Had never happened before. The frame creaked, settling.
"My name is Jake Tyler, in case you wondered," the prisoner said as he stepped down.
"I had not."
"Well in case you had." He watched the carpenter root among his tools for what he sought, not finding it in the assortment there, flipping over the leather fold, searching the ground around, standing up winded with his hands on his hips.
"How about you, Red? What do they call you?"
The carpenter took another dive into his effects. There was the plumb bob, used in cathedrals to measure the uprightness of the spires, and in the humble gallows. Straight up is straight down, heaven and hell. Makes all men consider their sins, somewhere beneath thought.
"Well hey. There's something we got in common. More than one thing, you could say. I had a brother named Carl. Died back in Arkansas."
"What's the other thing?"
"The two of us are in a desolate land, brother. We don't mind being loners, but it gets into your bones out here. Invites a man to get wrapped up in something he didn't mean to, just because he was lured by a bit of company around a fire. You think about it, you'll find it's true. I'm the living proof."
The carpenter found the square and spirit level and balanced himself on the frame. The bubble rocking back and forth and settling just a little queer. He adjusted the bolt on the crossbeam a couple of degrees, and the arm settled into the brace more tightly, and the bubble this time was dead center. Repeating this on all four sides meant all adjustments affected the next, and it was a good bit of dancing around the whole scaffold to get this bit right and that bit right and tuning them all like the strings of a fiddle until they were balanced and the bubble resting center on every straight, or close enough.
He took his tools back to the drop cloth and pitched them down.
"Is that my lasso?" The arm pointed out at the thick, fresh cut of hemp rope coiled and hanging, drying out in the sun.
"That's the rope, yes."
"Damned if it isn't a little funny, though, me roping beeves, and getting roped myself as a result."
"It isn't funny at all. You young men don't think about the consequences." Lightning blue eyes, smiling at the bars. He was hardly old enough to have had a sweetheart, let alone to leave one missing him.
"I would now, Carl, you could bet on that if I wasn't sitting here out of luck."
"Whose fault is that?"
"Well Jesus, Red, you don't have to twist the knife."
The platform planks went in next, and he stuffed wads of cotton in his ears to do it. It could have been the sun, the altitude getting to him worse up here than he'd felt in Taos, but the metallic strike of his hammer on the nails was a sharp ping and starting to make his brain ache. He stopped; no, the sound was only the report of his hammer.
Numb-headed with the cotton in his ears, he felt like he floated back to the leather drop cloth and got another handful of nails. His pulse whooshed when he stood and he grazed his cheek on the adobe side of the jail. He thought for a minute he had laid his effects out too close to the window, and took a quick inventory of the assortment. The window was high, and small, the odds unlikely that Jake had fashioned some way to get at his things. He was getting paranoid, that's what.
The lawyer came by with the washerwoman to collect Jake Tyler's clothes, and a set of poor-box clothes to put on in the meantime. He stood at the open door half in and half out, checking on Jake with a glance now and then.
"Looks like you know what you're doing," he called over.
He pulled up the last board to nail down, and dug the cotton out of one ear. "Like to think so, anyway. I've built a few by now."
"Your own design?"
There was a lawyerly tone in his voice, something that made it seem likely he wasn't passing time but marking it.
"My old partner's. He built over forty in three states. Ain't heard of one failing yet, if that's what you're sniffing out."
"In short, he's got a working design," said Jake from inside. A shirt and pants were tossed to the doorway wadded in a ball, and the washerwoman took them. "No need to worry about any pain and suffering here. I trust my soul will be squoze out my stunned mouth before the rope constricts."
The lawyer wiped his glasses and curled them again behind his ears. "You wouldn't be able to show your face again if you built a dud. Mistakes lead to the cruel and unusual. As long as we are of one mind on that."
He spent the next day nailing in the steps and the railing. He strung the rope, and—the townsfolk loved this part—made the dummy of a hundred and sixty pounds in sand bags in a gunny sack, the rope around it, to test the trap door. The thud made them jump no matter how expected it was. One woman shivered. Jake Tyler watched, and someone shouted over it must be making him shiver in his boots watching.
That afternoon, the window was dark as Jake Tyler sat inside, not making his usual remarks. The lawyer brought over his final meal from the restaurant across the street, some cornbread and barbecued beef ribs, and he and the deputy stood in the jail waiting. The good humor was gone, as was his appetite. They left him with the cold plate, and the evening air, sweet with sage, was cool as the deputy locked the jail doors.
"So that's it, Carl? That's my scaffold?" Jake's voice from inside the jail was small.
And he was struck by the sadness in his voice as he rolled out his sleeping mat and started a little fire for his cook stove. "Think of it as a train platform, not so differently constructed. Taking you from one place to the other. We all have to go there someday." He cleared his throat, wiped his nose on Carl's old handkerchief.
The jail window was empty. The fire didn't want to stay lit in the cold air, kept dying away. There was something substantial in the air commanding attention. The Pueblos might blame a spirit, something that didn't want to be ignored. A few times he opened his mouth to say something, cleared his throat, and didn't find the words.
From the jail: "Well you did the job, Red. If you say your scaffold will take me one place to another, that's what I'll go up there thinking."
A breeze put out the flame. He stood up defeated, and after lingering frozen, wondering what to say or do, found himself walking through town. In the saloon, a chandelier gave off a low light over an empty round table, and he felt invited to sit there. Took off his hat and set it on the table, smoothed out his sweaty hair. Avoided the stares of the other men inside, the townsmen keeping to each other. Over on the flower-papered wall, a single picture was hung up high, angled down and crooked a few degrees. Of a coast line somewhere, water and whitecaps, steep bluffs like mesas. Water blue as anything he had seen. Recalled the prisoner. He tested out his name silently, Jake Tyler.
"What was that, honey?" A woman with an apron around her little waist stood beside him. He cleared his throat, wiped his dry lips on the back of his hand.
She leaned one hand on his table. "Bet you worked up a thirst today. I've got just the thing. It'll slake you right through and cure a headache." She patted him on the shoulder as she left, and returned with a glass of cool beer, along with a bowl of boiled peanuts.
She leaned on his table, seeing how he liked the beer and taking a minute for herself away from the bar. "That'll be one 'thank you,'" she said.
He wiped his mustache clean. "Excuse me. Thank you. Sorry."
She winked at him. "I can always tell who has been out of civilization on his own for a while. We're quick to lose our customs."
"It's very good, thank you."
"You all striking out alone, coming back like starved cavemen. I had one customer who used to show up sometimes, had nothing but himself and his mule and no more than a bedroll, guessing by his appearance. I think he spent so much time without a conversation partner he forgot basic speech. But he would endure the teasing of any man in here as long as he could just set near them for a while, sat himself down at strangers' tables and they would make fun of him until I had to tell them to stop."
"I suppose I look like the lonely type to you."
She rocked back and smirked. "You can still make a little small talk. You're not too far gone yet." She took his empty glass to refill it and perched on his table when she set it back down. "I'm Eliza." She held out her hand in a manly way.
"Now we've made friends, and you can always say you know someone in this town."
* * *
It was upright like a church spire, as it had to be. A church spire and a long arm pointing away, as if commanding him to leave now that his work was done. The mechanism worked, a switch from one track to another. Three days after he had arrived, he rolled up his things and gave Dorcas more time at the trough while he worked. They were already preparing for the day. The washerwoman brought Jake's clothes, clean and pressed. The deputy arrived in his own good clothes, the rancher was late, and the preacher paced on the boardwalk while the lawyer leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, casually watching Danny packing up.
He was down into the valley four miles already by noon, the bells faint in the distance, or perhaps just his imagination. As he rode, with Dorcas trailing, his mind was forming the notion of building a giant scale, one that could hold all the different choices of men, and then his mind was on Jake Tyler, his shirt washed and white in the noon sun, breezing against his chest and arms, untucked from his trousers, with his wrists and ankles shackled, and of the knot being fitted against his neck, and the drop to the sandbags not very far. How the preacher spoke out some last prayers not watching the crowd, not looking at the words, losing his place in the prayer, and the judge afterward, clearing his throat, announcing the charge, and the rancher there to do the deed, staring at the lever suddenly paralyzed by the full weight of 58 pounds of pressure and the gravity of his volunteerism. The people in the thoroughfare billing their hands over their eyes in the sun, squinting. The young man facing them, white shirt blazing. In a split second it was over, and for more than a split second, the consciousness of everyone there was stunned blind by the act of taking a man's life, the reality they were never prepared for. They watched but could not react as the young man's boots landed on the sandbags stacked one level too high, and he reeled back and slipped his head out of the stiffened rope and kicked off the shackles he'd chiseled through. Time stood still as he darted eight feet away to the waiting Paint and raced down the alley out of town on the valley road. In the time it took for someone to unholster a gun, he was gone.
Karin Torrey is a writer and fiddle player living in Minnesota when she's not catching fish in Montana, hiking in New Mexico, or playing bluegrass in Colorado.
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by James A. Tweedie
It was late September in 1848 when Lucky Lars arrived in the muddy, dusty, god-forsaken goldrush boomtown of Auburn, California. Men from every corner of the world were pushing and shoving their way into the Sierra foothills hoping of grab a piece of the Mother Lode pie—determined to either make their fortune or die trying.
Lars quickly discovered that shovels, pans, tents, or food—all the things a man might need—were priced more than he could afford.
Winter's comin' and I ain't got nothn', he thought as he sat dejected on the steps of the newly-built Mercantile. If I can't work fer myself, then I'm gonna have to sign up and start diggin' fer sombody else.
Despite his name, Lars had never really been lucky at much of anything. Back home in Indiana he had tried his hand at farming but, just before harvest, his crops caught fire and burned up. Then, after he moved to Missouri, he tried raising cattle but his first, small herd was stolen by two cattle rustlers. The men were later caught and hung but not until they had slaughtered the herd and sold off the meat. Lars was completely broke when he heard that gold had been discovered in California.
Now he was in Auburn, where pair of muddy boots covered in horse manure appeared on the step to his left—boots worn by a man who sat down next to him, reeking of sweat, unwashed clothes, and breath sour enough to cause a grizzly to back up, turn around, and head back into the hills.
Not that Lars smelled any better, but a man gets used to his own smell once he's lived with it for weeks at a time.
"Call me, Billy," the man said without turning his head or extending a hand.
Now Billy, it turned out, was just the opposite of Lars. Everything he ever did had turned out well. But after his wife died of scarlet fever he had given up and quit doing much of anything. The news of the gold rush offered him a reason to keep on living so, like Lars, he found himself in Auburn.
Neither Lars nor Billy could afford to buy everything they needed, so, they got together and decided if they put their money together, they could afford to buy it all. So, they bought some shovels, a pick axe, some gold pans, a sluice box, some buckets and two small cases of dynamite in case they needed to blast through some rock. Billy already had a canvas tent, some blankets for sleeping and some pots and pans for cooking their food."
For ten days they searched for a place to dig for gold but other miners had already staked claims everywhere they went. Finally, when they were just about ready to give up and quit, they found an unclaimed section along Gold Creek, just off the Bear River, eight miles east of Grass Valley.
They dug down in the rocky ground and, at first, sifted water through the dirt and gravel in their pans. They found some gold dust and a few small nuggets but not enough to make a living. So, they set up their sluice box and started digging deeper.
Billy did most of the digging and Lars ran the sluice box, making sure that there was enough water running through it to separate out any gold or gold ore from the rest of the dirt and gravel. Soon the creek was surrounded by large piles of all the dirt and gravel that had been sifted out.
After several months they temporarily closed up camp and went down to Grass Valley to sell their gold and buy some more food. Before they left, Lars took the two cases of dynamite, wrapped them in a waterproof oilskin cloth and buried them next to a granite boulder.
Although Lars later denied it, some folks said the two of them brought a small fortune in gold back to Grass Valley that day.
The way Lars told it, after three days in Grass Valley Billy left town and headed back to camp by himself. When Lars got there two days later, he couldn't find Billy anywhere. When he went to dig up the dynamite, he found nothing there except for a large hole the ground. After looking around he found Billy's pick axe stuck half-way up the trunk of a nearby Sugar Pine. Billy's gold pan was lying behind the boulder, all bent-up, and part-way down the hill he found what looked like a piece of the fancy belt buckle Billy was wearing the day he left Grass Valley to go back to the camp.
Lars began telling the other miners that Billy must have started digging a new hole with his pick axe and accidentally stuck it into one of the cases of dynamite and that must have been the end of Billy. But other people said they hadn't heard the dynamite explode until after Lars had come back to the camp and still other people wondered if maybe they had found so much gold Lars figured this was his chance to be really lucky for once and had blown up Billy so he could keep it all for himself.
One night a group of vigilantes came into the camp, grabbed Lars and took him down to Auburn to be put on trial for murder. Lars, of course, denied all of it and said they hadn't really found very much gold at all.
As one of the witnesses put it in Lars' defense, "There ain't been any of Billy's body parts found anywhere so who's sayin' that he's really dead for sure or not?"
The jury, which was made up mostly of other miners, had seen too much of arguing and feuding between partners before and they knew that, in a moment of drunken confusion, it was all too easy for one man to strike down and kill a man who had, until that very moment, been his best friend.
When the verdict came in it was unanimous: "Guilty as charged."
The next day Lars was strung up on the well-used tree in the town square and hung by the neck until dead, just like the men who had stolen Billy's cattle back in Missouri.
That would be the end of the story except for a couple of things. The first thing is that with both mining partners dead their claim was free to be picked up by someone else. It was, in fact, picked up by the man who had been the foreman of the jury that had convicted Lars.
The man found a lot of gold on the claim. He eventually became very wealthy and built a small mansion in San Francisco, on California Street just down from the top of Nob Hill.
The second thing was a rumor; a rumor confirmed by a number of men who claimed to have been in the Red Eye Saloon in Grass Valley several days after Lars had been hung and buried in Auburn. According to these men someone who looked exactly like Billy walked into the saloon and ordered a shot of whiskey. After downing the whiskey, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a nugget of gold the size of a walnut and set it down on the bar.
"That oughta be more than enough to pay for the whiskey," he said. "And," he added, "you can keep the change."
He then walked out of the bar and the men rushed out to see where he was going but when they stepped outside, he was nowhere to be seen. Another miner, who had been sitting outside the saloon door keeping an eye on his mule, swore no one had gone into the bar or come out of it the whole time he had been sitting there. But the gold nugget was real and worth a small fortune.
James A. Tweedie was born and raised in California, but has lived his adult life in Scotland, Utah, Australia, Hawaii, and now, on the Pacific coast on the north side of the mouth of the Columbia River in Long Beach, Washington. He is the author of six novels, three collections of poetry and one short story collection all published by Dunecrest Press. His poetry and short stories have appeared in both online and print media, including regional anthologies and national and international literary magazines. This is his second story with Frontier Tales.
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He Rode from Natchez
by Glenn A. Bruce
He came from Natchez, this man with a horse. He rode the high country and braved the wind. He hid in his own shadow from the unforgiving sun. He saved his horse. He came from the high country for a purpose. He came to do good, but ended up doing ill.
He rode home with remorse and his horse died on the steep slope. He had lost everything a man can have because he came to do good but did the opposite of good. He paid the price in his heart, and his soul that died with his horse on that steepest slope while his new wife waited at home.
She bathed the children and baked the bread. She kept things going while he was gone. She always did. She had no choice in the matter; he gave her none. He went to do what he was asked to do, and she could not stop him. He always went to do good and always did, and always came home, and things were good at home until he had to do good again, and he left.
They called him Honcho. "Hey, Honcho!" they said, and he nodded. His real name didn't matter anymore. He was Honcho. The Big Honcho who rode away when he wanted, when he went to do things for no other reason than they needed to be done and who else was going to do it. His name was Honcho and he was an honest man, they said. He was a good man who did good things and got paid for his work, which was fine and fair because no one else wanted to do those things that were so hard to do, so very hard to do—so hard to find some good, honest man somewhere to come and do the good that needed to be done no matter how bad it was.
He rode hard and long. Wherever he was needed was never close. No one close would ever call on him to do good because he was here; and because he was here, good was already here and good remained and would never go. So they left him alone and basked in the goodness that surrounded his presence.
His wife's name was Ingrid. Ingrid from Germany. Ingrid who came to America as a little girl just in time to see the first trains cross the plains and the mountains to the shining seas she had come to celebrate. She was only twelve when her father sold her to a farmer in Colorado. Her father the man of God who knew no god or he would not have sold his daughter to be a wife to any man, much less the cruel Hoeniger he had known in Hamburg.
She would kill Hoeniger. No one would know. She would run away in the night and he would be dead forever. People would say bad men had killed him, bad men had raped Ingrid and taken her with them. No one would shoot Hoeniger in the face with his own gun and take his money unless they were very bad men.
People would say this because they wanted to believe it. They would say this to each other as if trying to convince themselves that this was the truth, that little Ingrid who was barely sixteen by then and had born Hoeniger one strong young son would run away on her own and leave the boy. They would say this and think this and believe this and would never believe the truth or dare to think it. The truth could never be true, so they never let it in.
Truth came hard. Truth came fast. Truth came in the middle of a black and starless night, the threat of winter thick and hard as that truth. Pushing. Pushing with the hard wind on the backs of the bad men who came for him, for Hoeniger.
They came for him because they knew him. They knew him because he had taken their money for cows that he knew were sick, cows he knew would die. Cows for market that would never make it to market. He took their money and shook their hands and wished them well in their travels. He took their money and put it away.
One of them saw him put that money away. They were bad men who knew other bad men. Bad men who saw signs, who knew the sound of hollow echoes, understood empty promises behind empty eyes. They knew how to protect their investments. One of the bad men circled back. He circled back and waited and watched because he knew as soon as darkness fell, Hoeniger would lock his young wife-her name was Ingrid, they thought-lock her in a closet and tell her not to come out so that he could go alone to where he kept his money, and carry his new money that he had taken from the bad men for the bad cattle, and hide it with the rest of his money he had gotten from good cattle and bad, righteous deals and wrong, crookedness and wickedness and spite-hate-money, revenge money, any money. Bad money.
They rode for high country, these bad men with their sick cattle that were dying even before they paid good money for them. The first cow fell dead on the third day. By the sixteenth day, twelve of the twenty-three head lay dead along the trail, the rest left to wander because the men knew, they understood, they saw what had happened, what Hoeniger had done to them. They did not wait to see it all play out. They did not need to.
They turned back.
Before the last cow died along on the trail, wandered off to pass in peace, the bad men were handing the gun to Ingrid and she was shooting her husband in the face. He would rape her no more. She would leave her child, hidden, because the bad men did not know about the boy.
Someone would come. He would be fine. She left him with food and water; she left him with faith. A baby has nothing else. He would be dirty, he would be filthy; his rash would be fiery, but he would be alive. And so would she.
Hoeniger would be dead forever, like his sick cows.
If the men did not kill her, she told herself, she would start a new life somewhere—a better life without a godless preacher for a father, a man so bereft of morality that he would sell his daughter for a hundred dollars to The Butcher of Hamburg—a man so full of evil he had to leave the continent in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of a black night in a barrel in the bilge of a slaving ship bound south. A man so full of sin that he could not be killed. A man so full of hatred that he would not be killed. A man so fully evil that he could never be killed unless a greater evil was created, so powerful that it could overcome his worst sins. As far as he believed, as far as he had seen, as far as he ever knew: no such evil had ever been created.
Until he created it.
Ingrid Reignstagen was that evil, created. Years of the strap for the mildest transgression, a morsel of bread left on a plate he expected to be clean, her hide red and bleeding, bred the evil. But it took Hoeniger to give it life. To give it life so strong that he might die, that her evil would become so powerful that it could push his own evil down in the dirt and spit in its face—so confident that it could laugh and run away, never looking back, never regretting, never remembering.
He was surprised that night; not by the men who came back for their money and revenge—he had half-expected that—but by the gun in her hand, his gun in her hand, his gun the men he had cheated had given to his young wife because they knew the kind of man Hoeniger was and knew without knowing the things he had done to her, probably every day for four years and three months and seventeen days.
Hoeniger's big, rough hands made the preacher's strap seem like soft honey. The Butcher of Hamburg had no kindness or mercy for any of God's creatures, even if they were his own. The things he did to the child, the beatings to his own child, the boy given to him by his Ingrid, would never leave her dreams. Pulling the trigger only released a bullet.
Her freedom was won and lost in the same moment. The bad men did take her with them, when she asked to go. They would be no better than her father, but not as bad as Hoeniger. This she knew. This she could tell, not by their kindness, but by their efficiency. They brought the money from the hiding place into the cabin which was how Hoeniger saw them and the only reason he let them in. They already had his money. All of his money. How did they get it? How did they even know where it was?
Then he knew. They had waited, they had seen; that was the only way. They knew not to trust him and did not. They waited and they saw. So they were smart. Too smart to turn away or shoot. The two at the door with his money were certainly not alone. If they had his money they were too smart for that. There were others and they would kill him if he did not let them in.
How many had there been? Five? Six? He had been so filled with greed and joy at ridding himself of the sick and dying cattle that he failed to notice. He failed to save his own life, should that time come, should they come back and he would know just how many he had to kill. But he had counted their money instead of the men, and they were on him before he could attack, before he could save himself.
They wanted revenge; this much was obvious and logical. Fair. That they already had his money, all his money, and wanted inside his house, his home, his small cabin on the edge of the plain by the wilds, meant that they did not want to talk much—just enough to make him know they would kill him, just before they did.
Hoeniger was smart, too. He was known to be clever, to be relentless in his pursuits, ruthless in his dealings, vengeful in his losses. He was smart enough to know that he was going to die in his cabin that night unless he did the unthinkable. Unless he could give them the one thing they would never think he would tender.
What he did not calculate was that Ingrid would agree. That the men would see her eagerness to be bartered again, and they would understand in that instant that Hoeniger was even worse than they had imagined. That he deserved to die in a way that even he had never envisaged. And he was surprised when they took his gun and handed it to his young wife.
The men laughed at Hoeniger's stupidity, his arrogance, his certainty that he could never be killed, that he never would be killed—his young wife killing him before he could offer the murderous thieves his infant son. They laughed and knew that Ingrid might turn the gun on them next but that, for that one moment, that brief window of grief and confusion and hope and despair and pain and fear and relief, they could retrieve Hoeniger's gun safely and they did.
Since they were unsure as to whether they would kill her as well, Ingrid took that moment, that one moment she knew they would be unsure and uncaring and elated and relieved and sated and flush and afraid and confident and uncertain of their next move to tell them: "Take me with you. I want to go."
She thought to add that she could give then what they needed, whatever they needed, whenever they needed it, but those words never needed saying in that place at that time or any other place and time like it in those places at that time. In that way, times and places never changed. Only dates.
"Just let me get a few things," is what led her to the baby's room and the silenced baby in the warm cupboard with the bread and the water and the knowledge that other men who owed money to Hoeniger would be coming around to pay under the weight of the fear of his harsh reprisal if they did not. Or maybe the one man to whom Hoeniger owed his soul, who would come to collect his pound of flesh with the same hard weight, Hoeniger thinking he would kill that man first someday, because he always thought that, but doubting he would ever have to. Easier just to pay what he owed as he owed it and keep the rest. Now his thoughts no longer mattered, as they mattered even less than the man himself, than Hoeniger, than his cooling corpse.
Ingrid knew that some one or several of those men who would come to pay or collect would find the boy and figure what happened the only way they knew to figure. That story would stick, as Ingrid knew it would. She knew the bad men would have their way with her as soon as they got the urge, and that itch would not be far down the road. The men knew this was not new for her and she knew they knew so she let them in and pretended. In their surprise she hoped for escape, which never came.
When the men returned home to west Colorado with their money and Hoeniger's, they figured never to have to work again. They fought and one died. One was taken away and never returned. The remaining four made a pact of peace and, though they never fully trusted one another, managed not to steal from or kill any of their gang. That price seemed too high. They had what they needed: enough money to live all or at least most of their lives
And they had Ingrid. Ingrid who cooked and cleaned and provided pleasure when they wanted it even if, as time went on, her own lack of pleasure became pronounced and she hoped someone would find her or see her and understand and kill them all and take their money and let her go. If they would not let her go, she would go along with them as well, again, and she would keep going with them, whoever they were, until one of them was not looking or forgot to lock the chains or incorrectly assumed he did not have to and she would be gone as far away as the chased sun before they knew it.
The day Ingrid turned nineteen, a traveling preacher rode up to offer these four bad men the perspective of God and the goodness that went with a life that offered back to God even the most paltry moments of faith and glory on the most irregular of schedules. "He hears every word of praise."
The men were not moved to the spirit but refrained from showing their Colts and Remingtons, their Henrys. This young preacher, wise for his years, saw that a woman's hand was at play in the house. "And which of you fine gentlemen be wed?" he asked. "Perhaps your wife would offer your prayers for you."
Not able to think past suspicions, the bad men declined possessory information—and showed him the Henrys. He protected his heart with his upheld Bible and passed freely, his mule slow but steady in the path of resurrection.
He had heard of a man, this young preacher had—a man who did good work for the Lord. A man who rode out of Natchez on his horse, over the high slopes and down, across the plains up into New Mexico. He asked no money, this good man, only that his word be noted on the prayerful tongues of others, an atonement, the young preacher had heard, an atonement for the worst sins a man can commit, sins that cannot be described and should not be imagined, sins that should remain unknown, but that God might forgive if the atonement came sincere and fruitful, plentiful and insolvent.
Honcho found Ingrid chained to a pine trunk in the root cellar. The bad men were dead. Three of the men had not heard of this man from Natchez, this man with his black steed who rode out when he wanted, when called to good duty. One man had heard but did not believe. Honcho did not give him time to repent in his belief, though he believed he did hear the man pray before the bullet split his skull. The others went next almost as one, this man with the false name arriving so swift and thorough.
Ingrid did not know for sure where they kept the money but she had a good idea and she was correct. They were bad men, not clever men. On their way back to Natchez, the man whose name she did not yet know left all the money—Hoeniger's and the outlaw cattlemen's—in a small church in the poorest town in New Mexico. He knew the priest there would not spend it on a new and larger church, but would feed the poor and clothe the naked, take in the infirmed, comfort the aged, and give council to the dying. He was a good priest. A good man.
"There aren't many of them," Honcho told Ingrid just before he told her his real name was Lawrence Jefferson Taylor—and he was wanted for the murder of six men in South Dakota, but that he had killed more than twice that. But now, no one came after him for doing bad in the past; they came asking him to do bad to do good. Every man has needs and limits. Perspectives change.
Ingrid was thirty-two when Honcho rode out for the last time. She had been violated so badly and so many times in the twenty years prior that she could bear Lawrence no children, which suited him. "My seed is bad," he said. So, they took in two orphaned Indian children—a girl they named Esmerelda and a boy they named Lawrence against Honcho's fears.
Though Ingrid did not know why she felt it or how she knew, she understood in some dusty corner that her man, her savior, would not return this time; or that if he did, he would not be the same. Honcho had no such feeling, or if he did, he did not show it or share it or fear it as she did. So, her fear left her and she fell into her own soul and drowned.
The man from Natchez with two names, neither of which mattered to him anymore—one he abandoned, one he donated to his adopted son, distancing himself so that his legacy would not burn a hole in the boy's future—rode on his black steed up the steep slopes and away, knowing this time was different. For the first time he could remember, he missed Mississippi, the green optimism of the place. Now, he could feel the sky pressing down, the rivers running away from him, and the brown grasses blowing aside to make way for his passing. He was no longer either of those names; he was just a man with a horse, going to do what had to be done, one last time.
Neither he nor Ingrid knew or could foresee or even imagine that such good work could turn bad so quickly. That the boy he had come to save would not understand and would want to avenge his fallen father. That he would take up arms and track the man on the black horse and ambush him in the early morning hope with the low sun behind his back, his sister at his side, taller and with her hair tied back, in pants and chaps, a shovel hanging from her hand looking like a long rifle-looking like a man with another man with a Henry who actually had a Henry, spitting fire at the unknown man who had come to save him by murdering his father.
He had killed the boy's father in one shot, one painless shot, to save the boy who did not know he needed saving—who did not know his father was not his father. The father who had killed a whole family in the Missouri Breaks over a card game gone wrong, buried them and sold their land to immigrants who knew no better; the father who had never felt an ounce of remorse for it; the father who had lain with his daughter when his wife would lie with him no more; the daughter who now carried his child; the father who planned, once that child was born, to bury the son who was not his son at all, but a child he had found abandoned in a bureau in a cabin at the edge of a wide plain.
The child was thirsty and hungry, yowling—not to get saved by the men, but to get saved from the burning hell that was his skin, his world—his faith unformed and of no use, his fear only that his mother would never return while not knowing he would forget her before a year was past. The infant boy whom the father took so that he could have a son. He would tell anyone who asked—and he would tell his barren wife to say the same—that she had the boy a year earlier that time she was away visiting her sick sister; the barren wife who had no sisters, sick or otherwise; the wife who had died by falling and receiving a blow to her head one week before the preacher sought out The Man from Natchez one last time. The daughter who would now give birth in four months and the whole town would know; the father who planned to run away and start a new life in the Missouri Breaks with his daughter who carried his only hope; the son who was not his son, a millstone around his neck, a tie to this town and the empty truths around it; this father who calculated that the boy who was not his son was already living on borrowed time, who should have been dead in that bureau save his adoptive father's generous offer to placate his barren wife; the father who was the first to arrive at Hoeniger's to pay down his debt so that Hoeniger the Butcher would not have him killed, or do it himself; the first one there who found Hoeniger dead and his young wife Ingrid gone; the young wife everyone would assume had been kidnapped by the bad men who killed Hoeniger and took Ingrid and their baby; Ingrid and the baby probably lying in a ditch dead, somewhere, violated and shot.
The hardest truth came that night just before dawn when the man with a big black horse blocked the father's way and the father knew his road had ended, his runaway life had run away from him, taking everything he had; taking his daughter and her daughter whom he had pledged privately to be the first he would never hurt. The first he would love. The first he would cherish. The first he would never see alive again. That much had already been settled by a higher power.
The girl in the chaps with her hair pulled back, a shovel in her hand, and life inside her that would never see life—that was already dead inside her—who went along with her young brother to kill the only man who knew the truth, who would be the only one to go on knowing that truth. The man who would use her shovel to bury her and her brother, their father's Henry and the truth—and leave it. No one would find them, no one would know. This man would never come back to this town or this place. It was better this way. Only he and the preacher man knew; and the preacher did not know any of this.
The man with no names who would see a flash of Ingrid's face in the boy's face—a death mask stretched perfectly over his—a second before the first earth obscured it. The nameless man who would ride for home, but never arrive whole. He would never arrive, the man who was once from Natchez and who once rode the beautiful black steed up the steep slopes through the high country and down again. Down again.
Longtime WGA and ITW member Glenn A. Bruce is the author of the political thriller Last Blast (World Castle Publishing, 2021), He Rode (Dusty Saddle Publications, 2020), and its prequel Three Rode (also DSP released March, 2021), with a second prequel Three Rode On for release later this year. Glenn holds an MFA from Lindenwood University where he was Associate Editor for the Lindenwood Review and received an "Outstanding Alumnus" award in 2014. He has had over 50 short stories, essays, and poems published in the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, and India, and has won awards for writing, screenwriting, and directing. Glenn began his career in Hollywood where he wrote the hit movie Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger, Baywatch, the original G.L.O.W. Show, and sketches for Cinemax's Assaulted Nuts. Glenn taught screenwriting at Appalachian State University for over a dozen years and currently lives in Florida where he just completed his 20th novel.
You can find Glenn at:
Website - http://www.glennabruce.com
Amazon - https://tinyurl.com/wbudccg
Imdb - https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0115486/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_4
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/GlennArdenBruce
Goodreads - https://tinyurl.com/we3ksk9
Recent interview re: He Rode by Int'l Thriller Writers' The Big Chill magazine - https://tinyurl.com/538cbk6a
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Rescue at Elk Creek
by A.R. Matlock
At fifteen, I was an experienced woodsman running the woods and the rolling hills around Elk Creek. The day I showed Ma and Gatlin, my older brother, I was strong enough to aim my rifle and hit where I pointed. I went out on my own.
I counted myself a good shot, but Gatlin was better. Living most of my life in the woods had taught me to be careful, especially today. I was young in years but I wasn't dumb. So I waited in a grove of persimmon before crossing an open patch of ground leading down to the creek.
My senses told me something was not quite right, but I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Hunkering down and resting my rifle across my knees, my eyes searched every shadow. Scanning the woods from left to right, I saw nothing out of place. The creek was about a hundred yards away, with plenty of cover. What was wrong? Gatlin had taught me to use all my senses. No new smell! I couldn't see anything out of place. No strange sounds! Where were the birds and cricket sounds? The crows normally would be squawking their heads off, but nothing. That was the problem! No sounds!
Mr. Blaylock, who owns the trading post, said that a big battle was shaping up here at Honey Springs. The Confederates had a large supply depot just up Texas road a ways and the Union soldiers were moving down from the north. The Johnny Reb's weren't going to retreat without a fight. Today might be the day of battle.
As I lay on the ground waiting for something to show or happen my mind considered how the day begun.
Finishing my chores for the day, I took up my fishing pole and headed for the barn. It had been raining early on and I knew those night crawlers were on top of the ground and would almost fight to stay out of the bait can. I had made up my mind, I was going to catch the big one this morning.
Ma's words still rang in my ears. "Shad Rawlins No-Fire, now you hear me good! Take your gun and be real careful! You know what Mr. Blaylock said, Union soldiers are rumored to have crossed the Arkansas River and moving this way." Looking at me and taking the edge from her voice she said, "You catch something and I'll fry it up for supper and fix you a molasses cake for your birthday, you're fifteen today. You forgot! This is July 16!" She always called me by my full name, when she wanted me to hear really well. How about that! I forgot my birthday.
After her folks died of the fever Ma had married Pa, who was three quarter Creek Indian blood. I was just thirteen when the war started two years ago, too young to join up, so I was to care for Ma while Pa and Gatlin went off to fight with the Confederates. Pa was killed at a place called Pea Ridge and we didn't know where Gatlin was. Now Gatlin was the woodsman. I reckon he stood eight feet tall in my book and I sure missed him going fishing with me.
As for Pa, he never seemed to have time to provide for his family but plenty of time to drink. Pa would come home drunk and take his spite out on Gatlin and me. Farming just wasn't something he liked doing, so most of the time you could find him at Blaylock's store, setting out back with Jess Wheeler, drinking home brew. Pa never hurt Ma because he knew what Gatlin would do. Course I would've helped too. I guess he must have loved Ma some. I thought about Pa getting killed, but I reckon I wasn't sorry.
Elk Creek, lay about two miles from the cabin, it didn't have a lot of water, but it had deep holes where some of the biggest channel catfish I've ever seen hung out in the shadows. The holes were fed by three springs and the water stayed clear and cool just about year round. The water tasted as sweet as honey, some people said. Guess that was where the name came from.
The sun was straight up when I finally picked up gun and fishing pole, headed for the creek. It was a nice walk to the creek. The rolling hills were covered with persimmon groves, Osage-orange and ash trees lined the trail with plenty of sage-grass covering the ground. It being July, summer had set in pretty good. The grass had greened up some since the rain early this morning. I hoped the fish was hungry.
Some of the Creeks would noodle and even trap those big fish. I enjoyed just sitting and waiting for those night crawlers to do their job. Sometimes I wondered if maybe those big crawlers were scaring the fish away. Not this day, I was going to catch the big one.
The bushes moved off to my left, snapping my mind back to a possible dangerous situation I was in. Blue uniforms came into sight. I pushed further back into the bushes fearing that I would be discovered. There were several men leading their horses, moving carefully. Must be forward scouts for the Yankees, guess the rumor was true. Snaking backward on my belly, even further, until the soldiers were out of sight, in one motion I pushed myself up from the ground and sprinted about fifty yards to a grove of persimmon trees. Stretching out in a shallow wallow, I hunkered down and listened.
A blue uniformed man with three stripes said, "Sir, I been here for twenty minutes, don't think we've been spotted. This is a good place to wait on the column. We got water and grass."
I was sure glad I had listened to my senses or I might be dead or maybe taken prisoner by now.
"Sergeant, have the men care for their horses and break out the coffee pots, and bring that prisoner up here!"
The sergeant barked an order and two privates showed up, on either side of a man who was dressed in a dirty, wore out gray uniform. His black hair was matted with mud, leaves and blood. The privates stood him up before the officer. The man tugged his uniform, what was left of it, into place. But he could do little to improve his appearance. A full beard covered his face. Something looked vaguely familiar about him.
The officer offered him a hard biscuit and water. "What unit are you with soldier?"
"Now you know I cain't tell you that sir!"
I almost jumped up outta my hiding place, when I heard Gatlin's voice. Calming down, I listened to what was being said. "Son, you are my prisoner and you will be taken care of. Your fighting days are over. Where's your unit located?"
Defiantly Gatlin said, "I don't have a unit. I've been laid up from a wound I got. I was hoping to get attached to one in this area." I could tell that he wasn't fully healed from his wound. He stumbled and almost fell, had it not been for the two privates stepping up to brace him.
The Officer told the soldiers to take Gatlin and secure him to one of the small trees just inside the camp circle. I had to let him know that I was here. Maybe I could get closer to him once the camp settled down.
It wasn't more than fifteen minutes when a soldier rode in and reported to the officer in charge. Afterward the officer told the sergeant, "The column is about two miles northeast of us and will make camp there. Apparently the Colonel got word that the Rebels are going to make a stand somewhere in that area. We are to continue our patrol, see if we can make contact with the Rebels."
Don't know why, but I thought about Ma, waiting on me. Being out in the woods so much, Ma knew that I sometime forgot the time of day, so maybe she wouldn't get worried about me not being home before dark. I had to think of how to get Gatlin free and get him home. My stomach told me it was getting near suppertime. I had stuffed a biscuit and sausage in my sack before I left home, that made a right nice lunch. Smelling bacon cooking over an open fire sure makes the hunger pains get stronger. I occupied my mind and time while I waited for the sun to go down, working out a plan to help Gatlin escape.
It wasn't much of a plan, just get closer, like I'm doing now, and let Gatlin know that I was close by giving out with a No-fire imitation of a quail. We had it worked out as a warning between us, if we ever were in a dangerous situation. I figured now would be a good time.
Working myself around through the trees to where Gatlin was about twenty yards away, I gave out with three quail calls. Gatlin's head came up off his chest and looked around before settling on the bushes in front of me and then moved on. He was letting me know he was ready. One of the soldiers said, "I'm going out and wait for that quail to call again. I sure would like some quail for supper. I used to throw a stick and get two or three at the same time. Maybe I'll get lucky."
I had to move for he was coming directly for the bushes. Gatlin raised his head and said, "Hey, blue boy, my mama gave me a recipe for fried quail that is so good, you'll be fighting for a taste. You get a quail and I'll cook it for you." Gatlin bought me some time, so I could move away from the bushes. Ol' Gatlin sure could think fast.
Some minutes went by before the soldier finally decided the quails had moved away and so did he. Supper was on and those soldier boys were getting all relaxed like they didn't expect any trouble. I sure didn't want to make them any but me and Gatlin was heading for home in a little while.
The shadows were long to the east when I started moving toward that tree where Gatlin was tied. I was Indian crawling directly behind the tree, figured I could cut the ropes and being in the shadows, we could be long gone for a few minutes before they discovered ol' Gatlin wasn't there.
"That you Shad, you going to get yourself killed? Ma will never forgive me, if you do."
How did he know I was even there? I was being real careful. "Yeah, it's me. I'm cutting the ropes. Just give me couple of minutes so I can setup to cover you while you slip out of here."
Setting up behind a pretty good size maple, I made sure my rifle was primed and ready. I could barely see Gatlin moving slowly like a snake, sliding to the side and around the tree. It had taken maybe two minutes and we were crawling away, when we heard the alarm.
Gatlin wasn't in shape to run so we had to find a hiding place real quick. "Shad you know that big cottonwood tree next to your favorite fishing hole? Make for it! I know where we can hide."
My mind was racing, trying to figure where we could hide there, but if Gatlin said it, it's true. Giving Gatlin as much help as I could we were by that old cottonwood in just a few minutes. He said, "Get right down that creek bank to the water's edge and push through those cane bushes. There's an opening between the roots." Sure enough the dirt had been washed or dug away from those old roots. There was an opening big enough for both of us.
I pulled the bushes back in place behind us just as the soldiers came barreling over the creek bank. Not able to see much in the darkness, they just naturally tumbled right down into the water. I never heard so much cursing before, guess they weren't much used to water. One Yankee had his face in the water not four feet from us.
I poked the muzzle of my rifle out through those bushes, pointed where his eye brows come together and said, "Yankee boy, if you want to hunt quail again I better not hear anything except, 'he ain't here!' Okay?"
He blinked his eyes, wiped the mud and water from his face and said, "he ain't here else we would be dead by now. I say more power to him. He's hurt anyway. Sure would have liked some of his Mama's quail recipe though. I wish him good hunting."
"Soldier, I just hope we don't face him down a rifle barrel one of these days. I bet he can shoot the whisker off your chin." All of a sudden the war started just on the other side of the ridge to the north. The Sergeant said, "Get back to camp and ready to ride. We got a fight on our hands."
It was plumb dark when I opened the front door and Ma was sitting in her rocking chair. "Shad Rawlins No-fire, where have you been, I've been worried sick."
"Ma I didn't catch the big one, but look what I fetched you." Shock and then tears of thanksgiving came into her eyes as Gatlin came into the room. After we had supper and a slice of molasses cake, ol' Gatlin told Ma, how I had faced that Yankee boy down and got us clean away before killing started. I felt real proud the way Ma looked at me.
Ol' Gatlin and me are back doing what we enjoy most, trying to catch that big channel catfish in Elk Creek. Ma says, she's going to wash my mouth out with soap, if I don't stop lying, but, I swear those night crawlers are vicious enough to bite your hand off, when you pick them up. I carry a club when I get bait for fishing.
Gatlin is on the mend and Ma is fussing over him like he's the grandest man alive. Maybe he is! He stands tall in my book.
A.R. "Al" Matlock is retired from the Air Force and Civil Service. His home is in Sallisaw, OK. He's a greenhorn in the writing field.He grew up on a farm, working the fields, hunting and fishing and reading Zane Grey and Lamour.
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The Price of Freedom
by Dick Derham
Will Murfee stared across the gray-blue waters as the Yellowstone River clickety-clacked by and feasted his eyes on the grasslands rippling in the breeze in all their spring freshness, grass no cows had chomped on yet this season. He relished the sight of the white-barked aspen leafed out in its new finery, he counted more than a dozen variegated shades of green from the window of the train , green—a color absent from his existence for two years past, as anyone observing his loose-fitting fresh-from-the-rack suit of clothes or his close-clipped blonde hair would surmise.
What a difference six hours can make. A normal morning began, like the eight hundred that had preceded it, awakening to the din of the screw banging his swagger stick on the bars as he strode down the corridor; then shivering outside his cell in his well-worn drawers for roll call; then the march to the regimented two-minute shower, one squad at a time; stand under one of the nozzles and brace for the blast of cold water; out the other door; pull on the formless dish-water gray trousers and shirt and march to the mess hall for the usual tasteless, barely nourishing, gruel; formation call, and finally disperse to his steamy duty in the prison laundry. One more day, one more dollop of bitterness splashed on his soul, no chance at all that he was growing "penitent." Two more years to go.
"Murfee report to the Superintendent's office." Even if the call relieved him from his tedious work, it was a summons never to be welcomed, not when it routinely resulted in punishment for some petty infraction of incomprehensible rules the only purpose of which seemed to be to provide the autocrat of his confined world a pretext to inflict pain.
That this time was different was clear from the surly snarl on the Super's face while Murfee slouched before his desk in a sullen semblance of attention, showing as much hostility as he could without drawing down more punishment upon himself. This day, Murfee quickly learned, his petty tyrant was reluctantly relinquishing his hold on one of his playthings, but only after assuring Murfee "I'll keep your cell for you. Your kind is never gone for long."
Once he realized why the Super was unusually dyspeptic, Murfee relaxed and let him have his fun. As soon as he was dismissed, he tossed his prison grays on the discard pile to be reassigned to the next caged animal the "justice" system consigned to the Devil's Island that was Deer Lodge Penitentiary. From the quartermaster he obtained the requisite issuance of clothing, from a new pair of clean cotton drawers out to the gabardine trousers and brown twill jacket he now wore, choosing from the two sizes the prison offered: too large or too small. Finally, he signed the receipt for the ten dollars cash the law required each convict be provided on release, and was handed the train ticket. And here he was.
Why? There was reason to ask, to worry perhaps. His sentence still had three years to run. He had steadfastly snarled at lawmen, government men, attorneys from the Bureau of Indian Affairs all of whom offered him freedom. "Freedom" he snarled the word. There was no freedom worth the price he would have to pay to get them to turn the key. Some things a true man never did. He had not asked for reasons from the convict-clerk who handled the out-processing paperwork. Why risk a discovery that it was not bank robber Will Murfee, as they called him, but one-horse thief Bill Murray, due to be released? Let them find their mistake out later. Let them catch him if they could.
Meanwhile, the free air of Montana served as a tonic, its freshness unpolluted by the intangible stink confined men always exuded. Already the dullness that had oppressed his soul in Deer Lodge was giving way to the eagerness of resuming a man's life. And to the anticipation of something important about to happen. For whatever the reason for his release, it had not been a confusion between him and Bill Murray.
The engine chugged to a halt at a minuscule station house. The signpost said only Mile 349, a whistle stop on the mainline. Why here? Because a passenger was getting off at this backwater place Murfee had never heard of. Murfee rose to his feet as the train jostled to a stop and walked down the aisle.
They were supposed to give a man a ticket back to where he had been arrested. That would be Billings. But his passage had been paid only to Mile 349. Someone wanted him here. Someone who had bribed Murfee's passage out of his Purgatory. Someone with motive and wealth enough to make the underlings of the prison system jump to his will. What kind of someone remained to be seen. There were two options, only one of them good. A smarter man would have traded the ticket in for a horse and ridden in the opposite direction. But he owed his freedom to someone, and Murfee prided himself on always paying his debts.
The depot consisted of nothing more than a squat 10' x 10' waiting room, an empty room now, but he expected that. Across the rutted wagon road, a building tried to dignify itself as a hotel—he knew the kind—communal sleeping rooms and, in the rare event more than half a dozen sought accommodations, communal beds. And one or two rooms in the back that served the carnal needs of cowhands for miles around.
A few yards from the hotel was a small general store that likely overpriced customers for everything from tins of Arbuckle's Coffee, to work shirts any color a man wanted as long as it was blue, to sacks of Bull Durham. The one thing he most needed, it would have. A short-barreled Harrington and Richardson's pocket revolver. Two dollars by Sears and Roebuck mail order, but five dollars in the store. And maybe, just maybe, the best investment he had ever made. Beyond the store stood a livery stable with a corral out back where three horses stood hipshot and showing no more interest in him then he had in them.
The final building, a dingy room, a pinewood bar, tables scattered throughout the interior, a saloon that did so little business that it lacked even the reassuring stale beer smell. But one of its stained tables sat in a welcoming corner darkness. So it met his needs.
For now, the saloon was empty. Whoever had manipulated him to this desolate whistle stop craved privacy for what he planned and would not show himself until ready.
Murfee pounded a fist on the bar until a frazzled man scurried out from the back room, pulling up his suspenders as he came. "Whiskey," Murfee ordered. "I'll take a bottle and you can go back to your snoozing."
He paid for the bottle with his remaining cash, took it and two shot glasses over to the corner table and settled himself in the shadows, back to the wall, where he could eyeball anyone coming in, front or rear. As he felt the long-denied burn of the whiskey lubricating his throat, he began to calculate who would spend so much effort to get him here, and why, and more important, what he could do about it.
Even in prison he had heard of the change of the political party running things. The new cabal came in like they all do, proclaiming their commitment to root out corruption. He knew what that meant. They wanted to banish the thieves and grafters of the old party and make room for their own "reformers." Nothing ever changed, and a man who thought otherwise would swap one set of friends for two sets of enemies. Will Murfee would not play the fool. The lawyers, the investigators, who had insulted his honor by repeatedly pestering him at Deer Lodge, all wanted one thing and were willing to pay for it by springing him from the lockup. But he had kept his mouth sealed tighter than one of those new bank vaults. Was he here today as a reward for his lockjaw? Or had the man he worked for grown tired of worrying about whether he would crack.
A horse clomped down the road and stopped by the hitch rack out front. One horse only. Did that mean he wasn't expected to ride away from Mile 349? Had he made a fatal mistake in loyally following the bread crumb trail they had left for him when he could have disappeared any place a stolen horse could take him?
Murfee watched as the bat wings slammed open to reveal a man who believed that clothes made the man, dressed as he was in black shirt, black trousers, black plainsman's hat, even a black neckerchief, everything black except for the shiny polished gun-metal gray object that rode securely in his holster, Denny Stiles, the last man Murfee wanted to see, but the first man he had expected. Not a good beginning. The revolver in his lap had been a good investment.
"Enjoy your rest cure, Murfee?" the newcomer asked, his supercilious smile unchanged from the last time they met.
"You should try it sometime, Stiles. For a while, Montana would be a better place."
"I see spending time with your betters hasn't changed you none." Stiles swaggered across the empty saloon, his thumb suggestively brushing his holster with each step. Murfee noticed the keeper thong had been flicked off.
"I thought maybe they'd send a man to meet me," Murfee said. "'Pears I was wrong."
Stiles' fake smile was replaced by a snarl. "You always sniffed down your nose at the real men drawing our pay from the Crazy K. Like you was better. You stole other men's cows. You ran a scam on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But you thought you was too good to dirty your hands at good manly gun work."
"Mr. Kershaw gave me my assignments, Stiles. Jobs that required a man with more than hair under his hat."
Murfee had always had a way of enraging Stiles. The gunman dropped the air of condescension as his face clouded over. "How about you and me just go for a walk, and then I report that no one got off the train."
Murfee let his hand fall below the table to the revolver resting on his lap. "You got a problem, Stiles. You can't see my back."
And so, his new life began where his old life left off, an angry confrontation with Mr. Kershaw's side-pocket gunman, the man who would kill him as soon as talk to him, and maybe wouldn't even need an order to do so.
"Empty that glass, Murfee. I want to be five hours on the trail by sundown."
"I only heard one horse, Stiles. Are you my new daddy, fixing to carry me on your lap all the way?" Or, . . . Murfee pondered the alternative. His small revolver would be little defense against the brutal professional killer, but it was all he had. Ostentatiously, Murfee used his left hand to lift the glass to his lips.
Stiles slammed a wad of bills on the table. "Buy yourself a nag and tack at the livery. Get some duds that won't reek up my trail camp with prison stink."
And so, in thirty minutes, Murfee was trailing behind Stiles on the road out of town, on a gray mare with an unfamiliar brand, dressed properly for the first time in two years with cowhand Levi's, a maroon flannel shirt, riding boots, his Texas origins proudly proclaimed by his cream-colored Stetson, and most important of all, bouncing against his thigh, a man-sized piece of equipment favored by cowhands, lawmen, and men of other lines of work from the banks of the Rio to the frosty north.
* * *
"Number 1074." The number on his shirt back had reduced him to nothing more than a fungible bit of human protoplasm denied the dignity of individuality. An inmate has two choices, go along and forget that you're a real flesh-and-blood man or resist, assert your own individuality, demand your dignity, and be crushed. Either way you emerge as a shell, a once-man devoid of spirit. Either way they win.
Murfee had tried to negotiate the narrow path between the depths of the abyss on one side and the jagged rock face on the other, but even that struggle changed him in ways he didn't yet understand.
"Bank robber" they had branded him.
It was a lie, of course. And they knew it was a lie, Sheriff, U. S. Marshal, prosecutor, judge, too, most likely. He had never even gone into Billings on that trip, never entered the bank, never in his life taken so much as a Double Eagle that he had not earned with his own sweat.
He'd been just a simple twenty-year-old cowhand when Mr. Kershaw awakened his ambitions to be more by tapping him as trail boss for the regular beef delivery to Wind River Indian Reservation. He fell quickly into a simple routine. Once delivery had been completed, he released the trail hands for their spree in Billings so no one could ever talk about the business dealings. Then he made the final dicker with Abel Rucker, the Indian Agent, a man too deliberately near-sighted to notice the intermixture of brands Murfee and the crew had gathered along the way, a man not as precise on the trail count as if he had been paying with his own money, a man never happy to waste government money on primitive savages, not when a friendly cattle dealer would work with him to shift some of that government money to his own pockets. It was a sweet deal that hurt nobody. Still Mr. Kershaw had impressed on him that no one must ever know—especially the government auditors and lawyers, all of whom were likely just working their own graft.
Like always, with the money from the sale in his saddlebags, he had circled the town, avoiding any risky human contact. Like always, he carried no paperwork, no receipts, nothing in writing which would show a trail count that contradicted the records of the Crazy K and would reveal that Mr. Kershaw was being paid for fifty percent more cattle than the Circle K books reflected with some of the excess left behind in the sticky fingers of Abel Rucker. It would have been easy for Murfee to dip into the pouch and skim off fifty dollars, one hundred dollars, even two hundred dollars and Mr. Kershaw would never suspect. But Will Murfee was an honest man; he'd never even considered stealing from his boss.
So, when the sheriff had booted him awake in his soogans and ordered him to turn out the contents of his saddlebags, he'd been surprised to find himself in a heap of trouble. "Big bad Billings bank robber snoozing away the morning," the sheriff had laughed at him.
"Never been in that bank," Murfee had asserted. But that only invited the inevitable question, the one he couldn't answer without talking about Mr. Kershaw's business. "Where this money come from," the sheriff demanded. What was he going to say? He had no paperwork, nothing but saddlebags full of money. He did the only thing a man could do; he lost his voice. Admit the truth and be charged with fraud—and serve half the sentence of a bank robber but spill things Mr. Kershaw didn't want talked about? Not and still call himself a man.
And so, the sheriff had jugged him in the Yellowstone County jail house, charged him with bank robbery, and set him on ice for a month until his trial. His silence protected the man he owed his loyalty to, and the Indian Agent as well. His silence kept them safe and free. But there was another way they could ensure their safety, even with him lodged in the Yellowstone County jail. The man he was riding behind on the trail would have been first to urge Mr. Kershaw to "take the simple solution." Every time the door to the cellblock had clinked open, especially at night, his heart had raced. An apparent jailbreak supported by friends on the outside would surprise no one. And since a wanted jailbreaker couldn't seek refuge with the Crazy K, he would disappear. Permanently.
Not until he reached the comparative safety of Deer Lodge had he begun to feel that he would live out his sentence.
Now here he was, jogging along an isolated trail behind Denny Stiles, wondering what the killer's orders really were.
* * *
After three days on the trail, after the sun yielded to the moon, after the cowhands had finished supper and withdrawn to their bunkhouse—had the slow start in the morning, the long noon break shown that Stiles manipulated their arrival so none of the cowhands would see him?—they rode up and dismounted behind the ranch house.
Randolph Kershaw did the honors himself, passing out the whiskey to Murfee, Stiles, and Bailey Crowe, his ranch foreman. When each man had his drink in hand, Kershaw raised his glass in toast toward Murfee. "To your freedom."
Murfee waited, then raised his own glass. "And to the man who gave it to me."
"It shouldn't have taken so long, Will," Kershaw said apologetically. "We had it arranged, but then our 'reformist President,'" the sarcasm in Kershaw's voice was unmistakable, "sent out a new territorial governor so you had to suffer until he could be taught Western ways."
"I'd have served it all, Mr. Kershaw. A true man don't never turn rat. I wouldn't—"
Kershaw waived a hand casually. "You got more character than a dozen of those prison guards put together. I've always trusted you." Kershaw passed over a thick envelope. "Your back pay. You never stopped working for me."
Only fifteen minutes, but so much different from what Murfee had expected. Sitting in the boss's office for the first time in his life, drinking his high-grade whiskey, Kershaw then pushing a stack of money into his hand, and Murfee understood he hadn't been snaked out of Deer Lodge just to go back into the bunkhouse as a standard dirt-and-sweat cowhand.
"You remember the Northern Operation that Giffords has been handling for me?"
"The horse business. Of course." A simple operation. Raise some horses, steal more, run them across the border into Canada and sell them to the Mounties. Steal horses there and bring them back to sell to ranchers in Montana.
"I have other work for Giffords, and I need someone with a strong hand to take his place. Someone dependable, smart, an honest man I can trust in everything. In all your time working for me, you never even dipped your fingers into the money pouch to skim off a Double Eagle."
Murfee's eyes flared at the job Kershaw was dangling before him, a big responsibility, a big step up to being an important man in northern Montana. The narrow trail of a simple cowhand's life had suddenly opened onto a broad avenue of responsibility and success beyond anything he had ever imagined possible. "Don't know horses near as well as I do cows, Mr. Kershaw," Murfee said. "But I'll work hard to learn."
"I know you will. But first I have another assignment that needs to be done, and, since you're here, I couldn't find a better man for it." Kershaw quickly laid out the problems with the Wind River operation since Murfee's arrest. "That agent, Rucker, turned crooked, said he didn't trust the new trail boss, and kept my money from last year's delivery 'on account,' he claimed. Before I could work that out, the damn politicians interfered and the Bureau of Indian Affairs tossed Rucker out on his well-padded ass. He's living in Billings now, and I want you to go to collect what he owes me."
"Glad to do it, Mr. Kershaw," Murfee said. He flashed a glance at Stiles "But why not . . . ?"
"Once I knew you were getting sprung, it made sense. He knows you're my man and I don't have to put anything in writing."
"If you move out tonight, you can get several hours start on the trail to Billings," Crowe pointed out. Murfee tossed off what remained of his whiskey and got to his feet.
"You understand, Will," Kershaw said confidentially, "Rucker is of no further use to our operation. He must not become an embarrassment." Kershaw got to his feet and reached out his hand to shake Murfee's. "Get it done and be back in two weeks. I need you in the Northern Operation."
Crowe walked Murfee to the back door and out to his horse. "'Not an embarrassment,' Mr. Kershaw said. You understand what you're to do."
For a thirty-and-found cowhand, spurs, riatas, branding irons and such are the tools of the trade, and what bounces against his thigh is mere ornament. But for a big promotion, Murfee understood a man had to show he could handle whatever came his way. "Mr. Kershaw don't never need to worry about me."
Back in the ranch office, Crowe commented, "you turned mighty generous, letting him have all that back pay."
Kershaw's face was stony. "Nothing more than a short-term loan." Across the room, Stiles had been silently watching Kershaw parlay with Murfee, his chair tilted back against the wall, a sardonic smile on his face. He acknowledged Kershaw's words with a short nod.
* * *
Abel Rucker was a fleshy man on the downhill side of fifty, his tailored business suit unable to conceal the middle-age swelling around his waist. The widow peaks and his graying hair had grown more pronounced in the two years since last they met. His troubles had aged him, Murfee reflected. He had to look twice to be sure the man approaching down Montana Street was Rucker.
"No words of welcome for your old business associate?" Murfee challenged. "No 'happy to see you'? But of course, if what Mr. Kershaw tells me, that would be a lie."
"Will!" Rucker's surprised recognition had a forced warmth to it. "You've grown. You're bigger—"
"Harder," Murfee interrupted, "that's what you mean. Prison refines a man's iron." He looked Rucker up and down. "And you're softer, fleshier, your hair's grayer. Must be you're worrying a lot."
"Didn't expect you'd be—"
"Out?" Murfee interrupted. "While you sweated your sheets every night wondering when I'd take a 'talking parole' and make room in Deer Lodge for them I could name."
Rucker shook his head nervously. "Not you, Murfee. Never had no doubts. But now you're—"
"Back working for Mr. Kershaw, Rucker. You remember him. Your good partner." Murfee's raspy voice had all the harshness of his message. "The man you owe money to."
Rucker tried to look somewhere other than Murfee's eyes. He clutched for something to say. "Don't look good to be seen together, could cause trouble," he said. "You come to my house. You hide out there until our business is done." Neither man thought what trouble that could cause.
Dinner was potluck, some extra potatoes cut up in the beef stew, a couple more onions and carrots, and smaller pieces of peach pie all around. But his compliments for the first real wholesome appetizing meal he had eaten in more than two years were genuine.
The conversation was less genuine. Rucker tried to keep bringing up safe subjects, talk about the weather, talk about railroads, politics was a bit tricky, but all Murfee had to do to keep conversation going was to punctuate Rucker's angry denunciations of the current crowd of corrupt politicians—the ones who had fired him—with an occasional sympathetic grunt that let Rucker continue his inconsequential blathering of no interest to Murfee.
Something else did interest him. He tried to categorize her. Three years younger than him. Square of face, nose a little off-line, wearing none of the color-from-a-bottle to animate her face, brownish hair stringy and uncombed. Not a woman to notice in a crowd, or even across a dinner table. There was nothing special about her. So why did his eyes incessantly stray from his dinner plate and always in the same direction? And increasingly, to his surprise, they locked with hers.
Rucker's direct question about how the cattle ranges were running forced him back into the conversation.
Finally, dinner came to an end and Rucker took him to the front room where he poured a generous glass of brandy in the forlorn hope that hospitality would divert Murfee from his mission. Murfee listened wordlessly to Rucker's lame protestations that he planned to pay the money, poured himself a second brandy and listened more to Rucker's assurances that all he needed was more time, and, finally brought Rucker's yammering to an end.
"Money's owed. Money will be paid." And with those uncompromising words, Murfee left Rucker to solve his own problem.
* * *
Uncharacteristically, Murfee lounged in bed long past sun-up until he was certain Rucker had left for the Northern Pacific division office where he handled the books. His ultimatum to Rucker had been clear. Giving the thief an opportunity for more lying promises would accomplish nothing.
She poured him a cup of steaming Arbuckle's when he came downstairs and quickly broke eggs on the skillet, serving him the first three-egg omelet he'd had in years. This morning she looked different. Her hair was combed, that was the first thing he noticed, long flowing locks down to her shoulders. Her freshly ironed deep blue skirt with a contrasting lemon-yellow blouse showed a vital energy which her father's old work shirt had concealed.
As he ate his eggs, it dawned on him that, incomprehensible as it seemed, her change in appearance was for his benefit, He knew there were men whose vitality drew women to them, at least if the boasts of his cellmate had a grain of truth to it. But not him. They were big men, physical in appearance, their stance promising a woman the power she wanted. Or they were hard men, men with the musky scent of danger in their taut coiled bodies, men like Stiles with a face confident in their own power.
But a dinky little dirt-and-sweat cowhand like him, barely average in height, the prison-issued suit that he wore in town turning him into a lumpy blob of a man, his dusky brown hair not yet long enough to tempt a woman's fingers, his face guarded and uncertain of his status as he began his career move from range ranny to a man of substance. Just a common working man trying to do his job. Nothing special. Nothing to draw the interest of a cultivated woman with radiant energy like Janet Rucker.
And yet, as she reached to take his finished plate, her hand brushed his and he felt a tingle run up his arm. For some reason he did not fully understand, he tensed his arm, hardening his muscles, even as he knew how inane trying to impress her was. She had felt better, harder muscles than his. She must have. Then their eyes met and he found it hard to look away.
His voice was unusually husky as he forced himself to say, "Thank you for your courtesy, Miss Rucker."
"Can't you call me Janet?"
With what he was, with what he was going to do . . . For the first time in his life, the cost of the decisions he had made weighed heavily. He rose to leave.
"I wish I had the right, Miss Rucker. A man like me—"
"I give you permission," she told him. Maybe it was natural that as she stepped to pick up the plate, she moved in close to him. Maybe her head tilted back just because she was shorter than he. And maybe he wasn't thinking either as he inclined his head forward where her lips could reach up and brush against his. Just a little brushing, but his breath caught. His lips pushed back, not with a matching gentleness, but with a hunger he didn't know he had.
His arms closed around her and pulled her to him. His breath was coming in ragged gulps now. Minutes passed and he felt a clean surge of desire that was as unfamiliar to him as it was compelling.
Suddenly, perhaps at the last moment he could, he pushed her back and turned aside. Without another word, he walked out the door, frightened at himself and at some feeling within him he did not understand. He tried to push the encounter from his mind as he walked down Sheridan Street.
* * *
Rucker looked up in alarm as Murfee entered his office. On his feet in an instant, he crossed the small room and closed the door securely. "Told you to wait for me at the house. Keep our business private."
"It's better this way, Mr. Rucker, believe me," Murfee declared with no word of explanation. "You know that little side canyon ten miles down river?" When Rucker nodded, Murfee continued. "I'll be waiting for you there." His face took on an uncompromisingly grim aspect. "Don't keep me waiting long."
"Tomorrow. Two days max."
"Two days, then. On the third day, I come looking for you. It won't be pleasant."
* * *
The two days passed slowly for Murfee, squatting in his dry camp under the sheer rock wall of the canyon. Murfee's mind roiled as he contemplated Mr. Kershaw's final instructions. Just a cowhand and trail boss, Murfee's pistol experience amounted to no more than flesh-wounding some defenseless tin cans. Why not ask Stiles? Murfee had wanted to demand. But he knew the answer. Loyal, always dependable in the simple tasks he had been given, but now he was in line for a major promotion and naturally Mr. Kershaw needed him to prove he could handle whatever the Northern Operation might require, that he had loyalty to the brand, that he would fight for the brand; even, he forced himself to say it, even the ultimate test of loyalty, that he would kill for the brand.
And who was Rucker, anyway? A thief, first from the government, and now from Mr. Kershaw. What right did he have to interfere with a man's future? Murfee thought of Rucker trying to make conversation at dinner, lamely talking about things that made no difference to anyone, a small, weak failure of a man who no one would miss. Unbidden, Murfee's mind shifted to the dinner at Rucker's house, to the morning, to Janet Rucker, to the electric feeling when their lips touched. "She ain't part of this," he growled to himself. He owed his freedom to Mr. Kershaw, and everything good comes with a price.
Why couldn't it have been Stiles? he asked again. Rucker knew Murfee, and not Stiles, that's what Mr. Kershaw would say. But that wasn't the real reason. Stiles was nothing beyond what he carried in his holster, not someone to trust with the Northern Operation or even with the saddlebag full of money Murfee was here to collect. Not a man who needed to be given a chance to prove his loyalty to Mr. Kershaw, to earn the job that would make him an important man and him only twenty-four. Compared to an ambitious man on the upswing of his life, what was Rucker? Just a used-up petty thief no one cared about.
No one at all, he insisted, trying to blank out the image that flashed into his mind, to force himself to forget Janet Rucker standing before him in the crisp lemon-yellow blouse, to forget the gentleness of her voice as she spoke his name, to forget their shared desire as he clasped her in his arms, as their lips met.
The Northern Operation, he tried to insist. It's just a little thing you're to do, he reminded himself. Or do you want to show Mr. Kershaw that Denny Stiles is more of a man than you are? Over a runty little excuse like Abel Rucker? He scoffed. Just remember the prison laundry where you'd be sweating today, think about the freedom you owe to Mr. Kershaw, you being a man who always pays his debts. Rucker was nothing to him, nothing at all. Just someone who stole from his partner, wasn't that what he had done by keeping Mr. Kershaw's money, who no one would miss. No one except . . .
And around the circuit his mind churned in an endless loop.
* * *
Finally, Rucker arrived and Murfee could focus on business.
"Bring me Mr. Kershaw's money, did you?" Murfee demanded.
Rucker squatted and passed over a pouch. "It's all there. You can count it."
"Of course, I can," Murfee growled. "Mr. Kershaw would braid my guts for a new bridle if I rode back a dollar short." Methodically, carefully, he counted the assortment of hundreds, twenties, even singles. "Would have been nice if you'd made them all hundred-dollar bills," Murfee groused. But finally, he was satisfied. Only one duty remained. He looked at Rucker.
The Ex-Indian Agent sagged despondently against the canyon wall. "I wish I had never met you, never done business with Kershaw." He looked down at the ground as he continued. "I had to steal that money. You know I'm going to jail."
Until that moment, Murfee had not fully understood Kershaw's concern and the need for the harsh order he had given. Suddenly he saw his own role in the Northern Operation vanish. This pitiful little man would hold nothing back. The warden's prophecy would be fulfilled. If Rucker ever talked, Murfee would quickly return to Deer Lodge, starting on a new sentence, this time for the Indian Agency fraud. Murfee wondered whether he could cut off Rucker's testimony there? Could he do his job? Could he protect Kershaw?
His duty was clear. The risk of Rucker giving evidence against Mr. Kershaw had to stop here. It was his responsibility, and only his. Without further thought Murfee eased his revolver from his holster. "You'll never go to jail, Mr. Rucker," Murfee declared. "I won't allow it."
Rucker blanched as Murfee's intent became clear. "You wouldn't . . . " Murfee looked in disgust at the shaking little man. Rucker's quivering voice dropped to barely more than a whisper, something Murfee tried not to hear. "What will happen to Janet?"
"A man makes choices, Rucker." Murfee thumb-cocked. "You made yours. I made mine. Simple as that." Except something in his mind nagged at him, something he couldn't understand. Something he couldn't push away. Something that wasn't simple. He fought to get control of his shaking hand, to blot out images that fought for his attention in an overwhelming kaleidoscope of confusion. Suddenly, overwhelmed by the swirling images, his mind closed down, blanked out. Instinct, muscle reflex, not thought, took over. The canyon echoed with the sound of three quick shots.
* * *
Murfee ignored the black-clad gunman just emerging from the barn as he wrapped his reins around the hitching post and tromped up the stairs to the ranch house, Mr. Kershaw's money in his saddlebags. Stiles followed him and soon the two of them, Crowe, and Kershaw were seated in the ranch office.
"You'll want to count it, Mr. Kershaw," Murfee said.
"No need, Will," Kershaw replied. "If I didn't trust you on a simple thing like settling things with Rucker, I'd never have put you in charge of the Northern Operation." Kershaw raised the glass of whiskey in toast. "Getting you out of Deer Lodge was the best return on investment I ever had," he said. "You'll see I'm grateful."
"It's me that owes you, Mr. Kershaw. And you can count on me to pay my debt."
"Rucker?" Stiles prompted. "Will we be reading about him in the Billings Gazette?"
Murfee didn't want to talk about that cloudy morning of his life. "Montana buzzards don't talk a lot, but he'll never trouble you again."
Stiles scoffed. "Will Murfee, Montana's imitation John Wesley Hardin. Never figured you had the grit to thump a man."
Kershaw seemed oblivious to the bad blood between his two hired hands and picked up an envelope from his desk. "Here's a letter from me to Giffords telling him to turn things over to you."
Murfee took the envelope. The letter was unsealed, the flap simply folded inside the envelope, a sign of the trust Mr. Kershaw had in him. "I'll pull out now, and get half a day's travel done before sundown."
"Denny here will catch up to you. He and Giffords have some errands to do on the way back."
The three men listened to Murfee's footsteps as he walked down the hall, and waited wordlessly until the front door had closed behind him. Then Kershaw turned to Crowe. "He do everything we needed him for?"
"Done it all, apple pie order, and not a way it can ever be traced back to you. Only one loose end left."
Kershaw turned to Stiles and nodded. "Go ahead as planned."
* * *
The Montana day was warm and fine, a late spring afternoon, the glorious interregnum between the icy northern winds of a High Plains winter and the parched sweltering summer to come. The yellow paintbrush, the blue-eyed Mary, the lousewort, and the shining penstemon had erupted in their profusion of color. The joyous birdsong matched the music in Murfee's heart.
Less than a month ago, he'd have been grimy and sweaty from his work in the laundry. Now he had attained a status that outreached his highest ambitions. Running the Northern Operation of Mr. Kershaw, getting paid a percentage of the profits almost made him a partner of Mr. Kershaw. And him only 24 years old. Not even the snide yakking of Kershaw's vest-pocket gunman riding along side, could dampen his high spirits. He had everything a man could ever want.
The nagging yearning began as a dim shadow in the recesses of his sun-lit brain, something he had never considered, something that had no place in a simple cowhand's life. The thought tried to edge out of the shadows, and he ignored it. It pushed forward more urgently and he shouldered it aside. Finally, he looked at it foursquare and faced up to it: "you ain't part of my life. You never will be. Now scat." For the rest of the day, that seemed to work.
But as he and Stiles broke camp after their breakfast of flapjacks and Arbuckle's, the unwelcome distraction kept coming back to him. In the morning freshness of the sage, he could smell her clean aroma. In the gentleness of the breeze, he could feel her soft touch. As they passed a burbling brook, he could hear her laughter. Resolutely he insisted to himself that he had chosen his life, he had crossed that bridge, and he couldn't cross it back. It seemed to help. The man he was going to be—the man rewarded by living up to Mr. Kershaw's expectations—he now knew, was not the man he was, he doubted it was the man he could make himself into. But like he told Rucker, he had made his choice.
He was on the trail to a successful life, better than he had ever expected. That had to be enough. He realized now, when it was too late, that it would always be a hollow life.
The morning of the third day found the men in their camp on a seldom used trail toward the Missouri River and the Citadel Rock crossing. Murfee shivered in his Long Johns as he crawled from his soogans and reached for his trousers. The brisk northern breeze coming down the pass portended a late snow that was already dusting Smoky Butte as it loomed over their campsite. Breakfast was a hasty cup of Arbuckle's as the men broke camp intending to be on the trail before flakes began to fall. Murfee booted out the embers of the fire while Stiles saddled his horse. When Murfee had finished rolling up his bedroll he slung it over his left shoulder and hefted his saddle in his right hand. "Be ready to go in a minute, Stiles," he said.
"Guess not," the gunman replied.
Murfee turned to see Stiles smirking as he stood, legs spread apart in gunfighter's stance. His meaning was unmistakable, but . . .
"We come far enough that even if circling buzzards attract someone before the varmints are done scavenging your meat, you won't get traced back to Mr. Kershaw."
Murfee let saddle and bedroll fall. He tried to make sense of what Stiles was threatening. "I done my job for Mr. Kershaw. He's got no beef with me."
Stiles laughed scornfully in Murfee's face. "You simple cow-dogger. You really think a big man like Mr. Kershaw would trust his whole Northern Operations to a dinky little three-for-a-nickel jailbird like you?"
"The day I got out Mr. Kershaw said—"
"You been a puppet dancing on his string since you got on the train at Deer Lodge, all the way to doing the Rucker errand that he got you sprung for, and now to the end of your story here in the Montana Badlands."
"You're enjoying this." Murfee accused. But words didn't matter. He knew that. Stiles hadn't drawn his revolver yet, but that just added another second or two to his life. Stiles was a professional. He knew his job. A man is a fool thinking he can draw to an inside straight.
Stiles knew that too. Part of the pleasure in his life was lording it over little pipsqueaks like the one he was about to put down and laughing at them sniggling in their helplessness. So when Murfee showed unexpected spunk and made a desperate reach for his revolver, Stiles was surprised. Only for a second though, not enough for Murfee's fumbling draw to outrace him. But perhaps it rushed him, because his first shot only plowed a furrow in Murfee arm. His second shot came almost at the same time as Murfee's first, but by then Stiles was falling backwards. Murfee shot again, knocking Stiles' leg out from under him.
Murfee looked down at the wounded killer. "Denny Stiles, pistolero," Murfee said. "You got one thing right about me. I never killed a man." He thumb-cocked. "And I'm not killing one now."
Stiles' shirt blossomed crimson as his heart exploded.
In five minutes, Murfee had washed and wrapped the wound in his arm. Then it was time to worry. No place in Montana would ever be safe. Kershaw's tentacles reached into Wyoming as well. And what could he do in Colorado or Arizona? Start over as a three-for-a-nickel cow hand? His life there would be just as hollow as running Kershaw's smuggling operation would have been.
His mind floated back to that morning with Janet Rucker, the morning that had tempted him with what his life could have been, that had shattered his self-assuredness without him even knowing it. And then to that dusty dry canyon and the morning Rucker had turned over Mr. Kershaw's money, and to the final moments when an unconscious reflex had overridden the turmoil of his mind.
When the rock shards rained down on Rucker, it was hard to know who had been more surprised. "I just put my life in your hands, Rucker," Murfee grunted out to the quaking man. "If Mr. Kershaw ever gets a whiff you're still alive, he'll send Denny Stiles after me so quick even a New Yorker couldn't catch up. And when he's done with me, Stiles will be looking for you, your daughter too. Maybe I just made the biggest mistake of my life. You play this right or we're both dead."
His instructions to Rucker were uncompromising: stay away from Billings, horseback himself to Dakota Territory and ride the Northern Pacific someplace east where he would never be tracked. Back to Duluth, Rucker had said. Then Murfee's life could continue on the trail to the sunny uplands Mr. Kershaw had set before him.
But now his life was shattered. There was no place in all of cattle country he would be safe. Maybe, just maybe he could start a new life in a town where no one knew him.
Almost no one.
He swung to his saddle and headed east.
Dick Derham, a native of Seattle, has been reading Western history and fiction since his teenage years. A member of the Wild West Historical Association, he has written over twenty stories for Frontier Tales.
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by Dennis Goodwin
"Hitch up and roll out!" a stern voice commanded. Then a contradictory order rang out. "Form a corral with all haste!" The endangered emigrants, like their divergent leaders, scattered in disarray. "The entire company seemed almost wild with excitement," wrote a sixteen-year-old group member. That evening she made a notation in her diary of seeing "children crying, mothers screaming or praying, men running wildly, not knowing what to do."
The chaotic scene was their response to a previous warning cry of "Indians! Indians!" A group member had scouted a gathering war party of Sioux. As the gravity of their dilemma sank into the minds of the 1845 travelers, it looked as if the calmer thinkers might prevail. Rather than hitching up and fleeing, several men decided to arrange the wagons into a circular fortress and prepare to defend themselves against the expected onslaught. Eventually however, despite the pleas of the older and wiser travelers, the group's captain ordered the wagons to line up and prepare to move forward. This directive produced, as our young writer noted, "a medley of sounds and sights, a moving to and fro of frightened men, women and children. All was utter confusion and uproar."
Some of the more seasoned members tried to calm the others by reminding them that Indians didn't usually attack in the daylight. Then suddenly, the panic-stricken party of western emigrants saw the distant metallic flash of firearms. Despite their fatigue, the frightened settlers felt a surge of emotion. "You can imagine our unbounded joy in the surprise," the young diarist noted, "They were a regiment of U. S. soldiers . . . " The troops, lead by Captain Kearney and Lieutenant Fremont, had been dispatched by the government to escort emigrants across the plains. They had executed the type of last-minute rescue that would be reenacted in the cowboy movies of the next century. The feared Indian attack never materialized.
The soldiers remained with the settlers for about ten days as they worked their way along the Platte River toward the Rocky Mountains. While they traveled, Captain Kearney gave the emigrants tips for defending against an Indian attack. He told them to form a perfect circle by laying the tongue of one wagon right behind the rear wheels of the preceding one. He also directed them to build their campfire just outside the circle of wagons. This would make it more difficult for the Indians to observe their movements within the circle at night. If they were attacked, Kearney instructed, the women and children should climb into the wagons and remain on the floor. The men were to then shoulder their guns and prepare to fire. Although the immediate danger had passed, before their journey concluded, the emigrants would need to follow those instructions to the letter.
The group of travelers who made up this party had first banded together in St. Joseph, Missouri in the spring of 1845 several weeks before the Indian incident. Although none of the group knew the exact path, one of the members brought a copy of a Lewis and Clark report. Using that as a guideline, they decided to head north along the bank of the Missouri River. Their destination was the Willamette Valley in present-day Oregon where they had heard of the distribution of donation land-claims.
The teenage diary-writer was a young lady named Sarah Walden. Much later in her life, as Sarah Cummins, she transcribed her diary entries into a small book written primarily for her family. Like the other settlers who turned their joys and heartbreaks into lines of ink on paper, she captured a vivid piece of our country's history, forever suspended in time. The journey she would preserve was actually prompted by her family doctor. In February of 1845, Sarah, along with her father and brother, suffered an attack of "lung fever." They sent a messenger thirty miles to the nearest doctor for medicine. Old Doc Vellmon, however, would have nothing to do with simply sending the messenger back with packets of pills. He made the rigorous overnight trek himself and pulled them through the illness.
As he left their house, Doctor Vellmon gave Sarah's father a stern warning not to stay in Missouri for another winter. "Your lungs and the boy's and the girl's are not made for weather such as this," he cautioned. "Go to Oregon where there are pine and fir trees and grouse." Taking their doctor's advice to heart, Sarah's family sold their house and began making the preparations for their trip. As a young girl, Sarah had dreamed of studying in an eastern school to become a missionary and write children's books. "But my star of destiny," she reflected, "was to arise in the far West . . . "
Not only was Sarah embarking upon a new destiny, she had only recently begun another new life-style. Three weeks previously she had married a young man named Benjamin Walden. Despite the major changes in her life, Sarah kept her equilibrium and launched into the prepara-tions with enthusiasm. Like the rest of her family, she didn't dwell on the dangers that might lie ahead. "It seems a special providence of God," she later observed, "that our hearts were kept strong and true to the task before us."
Once in St. Joseph, Sarah and her family joined a number of other groups who had previously arranged to make the journey together. While they waited for everyone to arrive, each gun was examined and put in perfect condition while charges of ammunition were safely stored away. The expanding party selected a captain who, as Sarah noted, "had been in mountainous countries and had clear ideas of the possible dangers that we were to encounter." She said they decided to elect a new captain every month to assure that "no one be too long burdened with the duties and cares of that office."
Although there would be plenty of "duties and cares" down the path, the journey started on a fascinating note. "Within a few hours time," Sarah remarked, "we began to sight vast herds of buffalo on their way to and from the plains . . . " The grand sight, however, soon took on an ominous tone. "One bright morning," she related, "several thousand of these horned beasts were seen coming directly toward our train." The captain shouted an order for the drivers to stop and veer sharply to the left. His quick thinking likely saved the party. The stampeding herd barely missed the wagons. For the next two hours, Sarah and the others watched the seething mass of buffalo flood by. She said the galloping motion of the individual animals gave the herd "the undulating movement of a great sea as it rises in regular billows and falls in gently undulating troughs." The terrified settlers knew all too well they could have easily been trampled beneath that "great sea."
Within a few days, their wagon train had reached the plains of the Platte River. The high winds, Sarah observed, would lift the treeless soil and heap it in huge drifts. One of the group members said it resembled the great Sahara desert he had witnessed in the wild region of Africa. Sarah let her imagination carry her there, saying the semblance seemed complete, "had we but camels to complete the 'panorama' . . . "
Despite the absence of camels, another fascinating animal soon caught their attention. The small creature raced across the plain one afternoon just after the party had stopped for dinner. "A little old man mounted a fleet horse and went in pursuit . . . " Sarah wrote. The small critter soon left the man and his "fleet horse" in its dust. After the defeated pursuer had returned and faced the group's laughter, he said the animal resembled one described in one of his natural history books. He had decided from its first jump that it must have been an antelope. "Chasing antelopes," Sarah added, "now became a favorite sport for the younger men . . . "
While the men were fooling around chasing antelope, the women were faced with a considerably less pleasant activity. In the sparse plains, they could find very little wood for the cooking fires. Many times, to their disgust, they had to substitute dried buffalo chips. Apparently they didn't all suffer in stoic pioneer resignation. "Many were the rude phrase uttered," Sarah noted, "far more humiliating to refined ears than any mention of the material used for fuel could have been."
The inconvenience of using the buffalo chips, however, soon faded from prominence. This was the time-period when Captain Kearney's men thwarted the feared Indian attack. After the incident, Kearney and Fremont trailed along with them for several days. Along the way they met with a Sioux chief and secured safe passage through his land for the wagon train. Sarah reported that once the soldiers left her party, they headed "to the foot of the Rocky Mountains and established Fort Kearney."
Following their Indian scare, the party welcomed the day-to-day sameness of the journey. As the emigrants persevered, the trek became, as Sarah observed, "a good place to study human nature." One wagon for instance, would pull out ahead of the others every morning. The lady of the family said their stock wouldn't have enough to eat if they remained with the group. Then in the evening, seeking the security of the group, she would ask that they be voted back into the train. "This was kept up so regularly," Sarah noted, "that at last some of the crowd would vote "no" just to annoy the lady . . . "
Fortunately, the strain of the trip brought out positive traits as well. Another woman had placed her soup kettle over a fire made from the slender branches available for fuel. The branches holding the pot burned in half and, as Sarah noted, "down went the kettle, soup and all." The struggling cook salvaged the soup bone, prepared the contents again, and placed it on another spot on the fire. Once more the branches broke and the kettle hit the ground. It wasn't until the fifth attempt that the kettle held up long enough for the soup to cook. Turning to those observing her ordeal, she said simply, "Well, I intended having that soup for supper after all."
As the days melted together, the lack of excitement gradually turned from comfort to tedium. "We continued our daily journeying," Sarah reported, "listening to the regular tramping of the poor four-footed beasts over the plain and through the dust . . . " She said a weary sameness and an expression of stern desperation gave the "look of similarity to the outline of each one with whom we came in contact." For the first couple months, they had stopped to observe Sunday as a day of rest. Now, however, they pushed forward every day. They were acutely aware of the hazards of traveling too late into the season.
When the landscape finally changed, it did so dramatically. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, they approached the wonders of the Yellowstone area. As they traveled through the fascinating rock forms, her husband and father recognized pyrites of copper, silver and gold. "It was often remarked," she wrote, "that we were passing over more gold than we would ever possess in any new lands which we might conquer." No one considered stopping to prospect since, as Sarah noted, "the thought of snow falling in the mountains was a continual menace to any tendency to tardiness or delay."
Nature began to play tricks on them in the Yellowstone region. They camped one evening near a small marsh formed by spring water. When the tired animals stooped to lap up the refreshing treat, they suddenly lurched back. Like his bovine companions, a dog trotted over for a drink. But, as Sarah put it, "One lap of his tongue was quite enough to satisfy the good canine." The mystery was solved when one of the men filled a pail for drinking water. "Boys," he called out, "it's hot enough to cook eggs!"
As they left Yellowstone, their surroundings turned rugged and the animals often struggled to maintain their footing. "It became evident," Sarah observed, "that we were ascending the Rocky Mountains." The hazards of their environment, however, would soon pale next to the danger from the area's inhabitants. A small group of horsemen approached to issue a warning. The little party, led by a Doctor Whitman, included several friendly Nez Perce Indians. They had traveled overnight from the Snake River Mission near present-day Lewiston, Idaho. Doctor Whitman informed Sarah and the others that Indian spies had sighted their party and that large numbers of hostile Walla Walla Indians were advancing across the Blue Mountains to attack them. Captain Kearney's earlier warnings were about to transform from vivid mental images to cold reality.
Doctor Whitman and the Nez Perce remained with the party, guiding them along the Powder River toward the Grande Ronde valley. That evening, shortly after the group stopped to camp, several Nez Perce advance scouts returned at full speed. They reported that they had sighted the Walla Wallas approaching rapidly, and that they were prepared for immediate attack. When the Walla Wallas arrived, they did so, as Sarah reported, by "sauntering up in groups, on foot, and in roving bands mounted on ponies." They were shocked to see the settlers armed and prepared for their attack. Doctor Whitman assumed immediate control, approaching the Walla Walla chief and extending his hand in friendship. Sarah said the chief at first hesitated, then after conferring with his warriors, shook hands with the doctor "pretending great friendship for all his paleface brothers . . . "
After a tour of the camp, the chief instructed one of his warriors to fill a pipe with finely cut tobacco. Sitting inside a circle of twelve of his tribesmen, he took a puff of the pipe and passed it around the circle. Then the oldest white man was presented with the pipe and handed it on until everyone had smoked. At the end of this ceremony, the chief rose to leave. Convinced that the Walla Walla were still going to carry out the attack the Nez Perce had predicted, Doctor Whitman ordered the chief to stop in his tracks. "Most of our people were surprised," Sarah wrote, "but some others understood the situation and it was deemed our only hope of life to hold the chief prisoner." She said the wisdom of Dr. Whitman's move became apparent as night bands of warriors continued to approach. "We could hear their grunts of disappointment," she noted, "as they learned that their plans were interrupted." "It was a night of terror to all, " Sarah added, "not a breath of sleep except the younger children."
By morning, a band of Nez Perce had arrived to help protect the frightened settlers. The Nez Perce chief lectured the captive Walla Walla chief. "The Great Spirit watched the white man," he informed him, "and the Indians should know better than kill them." The Walla Walla chief refused to respond, but grudgingly accepted a cup of morning coffee and some breakfast. Sarah said he then "walked slowly to where his pony grazed, followed by his warriors."
Doctor Whitman's party and the Nez Perce chief and his band accompanied the emigrants through hazardous Indian Territory into present-day Oregon. On the fourteenth of September, 1845, two days before Sarah's seventeenth birthday, they reached The Dalles, Oregon. The little settlement consisted of a few missionaries who enjoyed a friendly relationship with the local Klickitat Indian tribe. The mission provided Sarah with a pleasant dose of civilization. The Hudson Bay Company maintained a trading post there and the missionary families had constructed a small church. Sarah and her friends re-stocked their supplies and attended the little church service. As they relaxed, with the Willamette Valley beyond the Cascade mountain range, it likely seemed the toughest struggles of their journey were behind them. Unfortunately, they were actually looming just ahead.
Even as they relaxed in the little mission, another segment of their party was encountering disaster. Before they had reached the Grande Ronde River, several members of their group split off after a bitter argument over directions. Rather than heading overland to the Grande Ronde, they decided to follow a stream toward the Snake River. Sarah said they "left us shouting good-byes and waving hats." Several days after Sarah and her group reached The Dalles, a lone man staggered into the mission. He had been one of the "hat wavers" who had veered off toward the Snake river. "He was scarcely able to walk," Sarah reported, "and had not tasted food for three days." He tragically related that his group was a day's journey up the Columbia river and that some had already died from starvation. Sarah's father and several others immediately packed a horse with provisions and headed toward them. "Of their sufferings and deaths," Sarah lamented, "the world will never know."
In fact, the world very nearly never knew of Sarah's story. In late September, several of the group members left The Dalles to search for a potential route across the Cascades. Sadly, upon their return, they judged it an impossibility for the wagons to cross. They said only loose cattle and people on foot could make it through. The wagons and other goods, they decided, would have to be taken apart and loaded on boats for the remainder of the group to transport down the Columbia River. Feeling the river trek would be safer than the mountain journey, Sarah's parents decided she should join them on the boat. But both her husband and brother had been selected for the group to drive the cattle over the mountain. That cemented her decision. She resolutely joined them. "To this there was a strong remonstrance," she reflected, "but my will was not to be swayed in that matter."
Sarah's "un-swayed will" would soon be tested to its limits. On the second day of their journey across the mountains, one of the group stayed behind to bring the pack horse while Sarah and the others rounded up the cattle. Within minutes, a straggling Indian band emerged, stole the pack horse and galloped out of sight. When Sarah and the rest returned with the cattle, she said they found the man riding dejectedly with "nothing to prevent us from starving." Since they were already two days on the trail, they decided to continue. After another day or so, they finally ran into a little luck. A party of five young men and an old trapper overtook them. Learning of the theft of their packhorse, the young men divided their supplies with them. The biscuits and bacon they provided would soon make the difference between life and death.
Sarah's party, although bitterly disappointed by the theft of the packhorse, hadn't panicked. After all, they were surrounded by cattle, so at least there would be plenty of meat. That life-saving contingency, however, vanished on the sixth day. They ran into such dense growths of Mountain Laurel that they had to turn back to the previous night's camping spot. Worse yet, the cattle had grazed freely on the toxic shrub. Sarah and the others suddenly realized the depth of their plight. "They were so poisoned," she asserted, "that we dared not eat the meat."
Hunger was soon joined by another complication— bitter cold. One morning they awoke to a blinding snowstorm. As the snow deepened, even the horses gave out and had to be led. "As night was coming on," Sarah noted, "it seemed we all must perish, but weak, faint and starving, we went on." Their hopes for a life-saving fire at the day's end was also diminishing. The packed snow on their clothing had melted enough during the day to drench them to the skin. Even if they found wood, they would need some dry cloth for kindling to start the fire. As they trudged into the late evening, Sarah became so weak that her husband, Benjamin, had to drag her much of the way, valiantly lifting her over obstructions along the frozen path. Benjamin and another man tried hoisting her onto one of the horses— but with no success. "Not one step would the poor beast take," Sarah reflected, "even though I weighed less than eighty pounds at that time."
Finally, in the midst of their struggles, a welcome sound materialized. "We have found wood," shouted a distant voice from the head of their frozen little group. But when Sarah and Benjamin finally worked their way forward, they found that "most of the men and all of the boys were shedding tears." None of them even had the strength left in their frozen fingers to pull the trigger of a gun to ignite a fire. Even if they could, there was not a stitch of dry clothing to use for kindling. "All were panic-stricken," Sarah declared, "and all hope seemed abandoned."
Somehow Benjamin still held onto a grain of that hope. He told everyone to take off their coats and search for any patch of dry cloth. In the inner lining of one of the coats, he located a small section of dry quilted material. Carefully placing the treasure in a handful of wood whittlings, he loaded a gun. "All realized," Sarah recorded, "that upon that charge depended our lives." Summoning the energy from within, Benjamin depressed the trigger and fired a bullet into the little pile. "A great shout of thanksgiving burst forth," Sarah wrote, as flames appeared. Within minutes, they were crowding around a roaring fire.
Despite the fire, Sarah had sunk into a state of total despondency and, as she put it, "was perfectly indifferent to the result." Benjamin carefully urged her near the fire. She wrote that as the warmth slowly penetrated her frozen body, she was "wild with pain and could not forebear the scream that rent the air on that wild mountain." With that scream, fortunately, Sarah's struggle with the environment was slowly turning her way. The group slept soundly beside the roaring fire and awoke to a cloudless sunny sky. But their ever-weakening bodies were still racked with hunger pangs. "My case," Sarah solemnly noted, "now developed the last stages of starvation."
Finally, the pitiful little group happened upon bushes loaded with huckleberries. The welcome delicacies gave them the energy to continue. They decided to head west, hoping to run into Oregon City. "The men were becoming desperate and had lost all fear of wild beasts," Sarah wrote, "so that even the sight of a grizzly bear would not have frightened us." Fortunately, they didn't run across one . . . but they did manage to shoot a bird, which they cooked and ate. The shared bird and the huckleberries, however, wouldn't stop the escalating effects of starvation. It was vital that their last desperate march toward the west lead them to some form of civilization. About two in the afternoon, eleven days after they wandered into the Cascades, that civilization finally materialized. They stumbled across an occupied cabin. As Sarah staggered toward the doorway, the lady of the cabin, Mrs. Hatch, caught her in her arms. Sarah's nightmare was finally over.
Once they regained their strength, Sarah and the others stayed in Oregon City over the winter and got word to the rest of their group that they would join them in the Willamette Valley in the springtime. As with all the other pioneer chronicles, their real-life joys and tears would eventually transform into lines of dried ink on yellowed paper. But as we read them, those lines once again spring to life. The rough-edged adventures they document remind us that those who carved out a future in the untamed wilderness definitely required an "un-swayed" will.
Dennis Goodwin has been a history buff for years, writing over 200 nonfiction stories for magazines and short-story collection books. Many of these have centered around the old west. One of his short-story books, Out of the West, is dedicated entirely to this field. You can find this book on Amazon @ https://www.amazon.com/Out-West-Dennis-Goodwin/dp/1482728842. He lives in Snellville, Georgia with his wife and a couple of nearly neurotic cats.
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