In-Laws and Outlaws

HashknifePosse

Chapter 1

Laying aside the month old Arizona newspaper, Texas rancher Slim Jim Rutherford looked across the breakfast table at his wife and shaking his head told her, “Well, I see your three brothers have been at it again. The paper here lays blame on the recent violent rustling jobs up near Holbrook up in Arizona on a small off shoot gang from the Hashknife group. That’s the group your brothers rode for.

Lifting the newspaper up once again to a reading position he continued speaking,” It says here, Known for their rough and tumble ways, the Arizona based Aztec Cattle company, commonly called the Hashknife Cattle Company (due to their unique cattle brand shaped like a cooks hashknife), is being blamed once again for a series of recent cattle rustlings in Navajo County Arizona by local ranchers. Aztec owner, Edward Kinsley, denies the charge saying it was not their men and is laying the blame on a small group of men who had earlier instigated much lawlessness on the surrounding ranches in the area. Mr. Kinsley stated that the group, led by a trio of brothers, were forcefully driven off the Aztec land a year earlier. The brothers, being named Jedediah, Ezekiel and Crete Britchen  and their small gang of followers (all ex Hashknife employees) are believed to be holed up somewhere  in or around the Navajo and Yavapai Counties  and have reportedly been seen as far south as the Superstition Mountains.  The United States Marshal Service is forming a posse to hunt the rustlers down as well as to keep an eye on the Aztec Cattle operation. Numerous complaints from small ranchers contending that the Aztec group is involved in rustling and rebranding of their stolen cattle has forced the Marshal service to act.”

Sally Rutherford pensively looked up at her husband exhaled quietly replying. “Just so long as they stay out of Texas. The last thing we need is them showing up here!”

 

Twenty two years earlier the Britchen family loaded up their belongings in a Conestoga wagon and left Missouri in search of greener pastures out west. Their trail ended up in Southern Utah where the parents of the children met up with a group of Mormon settlers from Ohio and converted to Mormonism. It turned out the parents conversion was not so much from the heart but what could be gained by joining such a group. The parents took immediate advantage of their new friends and neighbors. The three brothers and their lone sister Sally were raised in the strict Mormon ways in public but inside the home was another matter. It was a home where everything was for show. 

Jed and Zeke, as the brothers were commonly called, were rambunctious kids who tested the boundaries of their Mormon upbringing but they paled in comparison to their youngest brother Crete. By age fourteen, Crete cursed while speaking, was fond of smoking and was suspected of breaking into his neighbor’s house and coveting his neighbors goods… and their daughter.

Most times, Crete could be the sweetest of boys to his siblings, yet his siblings were becoming increasingly afraid for their own safety, especially during his many ‘mood spells’.

Crete’s wild mood swings had no rhyme or reason to their occurrence.

In the middle of a laugh he could become dark and sulky or was once heard laughing hysterically during a funeral. His parents believed him ‘tetched in the head’ and prayed for the day he would be old enough to leave home.

 When Sally, the youngest of the four and only girl, came to the marrying age of fourteen, her father announced that she would be marrying their fifty eight year old Bishop, a severely overweight man prone to sweating and loud wet mucus spewing coughing spells. Sally would be his fourth wife, yet unfortunately not the youngest of them.

No amount of begging by the four children would change her father’s decision. In return for his daughter, the Bishop promised him a large parcel of tall grass pasture in central Utah he owned. Not surprisingly, this also would keep Sally out of touch with her family.  The two men were like two  peas in a pod. Both used each other to gain what they wanted, both abused their authority upon those under them and both were using their Faith to achieve a secret comfortable living not available to everyone else. 

Sally’s brothers were for lynching the Bishop in secret but realized his detestable son Abaddon, would then most likely claim their young sister for himself through inheritance. The four children decided enough was enough and having no other alternative slipped out of Utah under cover and headed south into the Arizona territory.

In the three years that followed, Jed and Zeke became hard working Hashknife Cowboys for the infamous Aztec Cattle Company out of Holbrook. Crete on the other hand hung around town and rarely worked yet always seemed to have plenty of cash on hand. When his two brothers discovered that he had been suspected by the law of robbing miners and other loners, they decided to hide him within the safety of the Hashknife group where no one there asked questions.  The corrupted ways of the Hashknife cowboys on the Aztec Ranch suited Crete well and even the two brothers began to fall into the easy life style that rustling offered.

Meanwhile, Sally had taken a job on the Aztec Ranch as a cook’s helper. Kept apart from the realities of how the Aztec Ranch worked, she was blissfully unaware of her sibling’s wrongdoings. Her monthly pay was minimal but the Ranch offered her secure housing arraignments, meals and even a few dollars a month for personal needs. It was there that she met ‘Slim Jim’ Rutherford.

 Most all the hands liked and got along well with Slim Jim.  The tall, wide shouldered, sun darkened cowboy of few words and soft voice was not to be underestimated though. More than one drunken galoot found himself waking up black eyed and rib sore after a fisticuffs altercation with him.  Chided only in fun for his carrying a Bible within his possible satchel, he lived by the golden rule but never demanded others to believe as he did.

 It was true though that if asked a question of a Biblical nature, he happily complied by giving simple answers and left the questioner to make their own minds up. This brought him great respect even amongst the hardest of men… all except for one, Crete Britchen.

 Slim Jim Rutherford worked as a­­­ horse breaking cowboy for the Aztec Ranch which kept him far from the Hashknife crowd.  Breaking horses for the Ranch’s remuda was his main job but roping and branding always took precedence before a drive. Like Jim, most hands working for the Aztec Ranch were honest and hard working men. It was only the Hashknife group within the ranch that participated in the shady but all too common acts of cattle rustling. This physical separation of the two groups should have been enough to keep Slim Jim unknown to Crete but it wasn’t.

Hearing rumors being spread concerning his sister and Slim Jim, her new beau, Crete rode up to the ranch house to see the man for himself. After dismounting his exhausted horse, he left it hitched in the hot Arizona sun to fend for itself. Slim Jim Rutherford was everything that Crete wasn’t, such as being Kind, thoughtful, slow to speak, handsome and willing to put in a hard day’s work. These were traits that drove Crete to distraction and Slim had them all. At first greeting, Slim Jim stuck out his hand in a friendly way only to have it left hanging in the air. Crete, seeing the outstretched hand, spat on the ground in front of Slim and turned away saying. “I’d rather see my sister dead than tied with the likes of you.”

Jed and Zeke tried unsuccessfully for months to convince Crete that Slim Jim was the right man for Sally and if he didn’t like him, then he should at least leave the two alone. He didn’t.

Crete went out of his way to convince his fellow Hashknife hands that the Devil, if he existed at all, had a special place prepared for him in Hell. Openly mocking God and his Word, Crete in short order began to evolve from being just underhanded and distrustful to being downright evil. Taking some well heeded advice from Jed and Zeke, Slim Jim Rutherford eloped with Sally one night and headed into Texas and away from Crete to safety. They settled just north of Amarillo outside the cow town of Wheeler alongside the banks of the Canadian River. Only the oldest brother Jed knew of the couple’s whereabouts.

Shortly after their sister and Jim took flight into Texas, the two remaining brothers found that controlling Crete’s actions was becoming a losing proposition. His anger seemed continuous and took no provoking. He began telling his brother’s that he despised them and harbored a deep hatred for everyone except for his own mother. For reasons unknown, he held the belief that she alone was without fault and it were only she alone that he trusted. He believed that she visited him in his night dreams to comfort and give him guidance and advice. In truth, when her children fled Utah, she dismissed Crete as no longer living and was glad to be rid of him.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

After reaching the safety of Texas, Jim and Sally Rutherford discovered a land flooded with abandoned cattle from the war. Not being bred Texan’s, they were permitted by the Federal Army overseeing the law in Texas, to gather a herd and drive them out of State. This was something denied true Texans as part of the Federal Government’s nine year post war Reconstruction Act. The hated Reconstruction act was in fact enacted as punishment for those Southern States including Texas for siding against the North during the war. However, to the general public it was presented as a humane act of repatriation. Northern politicians and their friends took little time in capitalizing on the manacles placed on the South and bled the Southern States dry for their own financial gain. Millions of fertile acres, plantations, homes and factories suddenly found themselves under new ownership under this act. These carpetbaggers, as they were called, had little interest in the freed slaves lives other than to gather them together under a new and even crueler form of slavery called sharecropping.  

With signed papers from the Army allowing the Rutherford’s to gather and drive what cattle they could find out of Texas to market, Slim Jim gathered a group of out of work Texas cowboys as his chosen employees. Hiring these Texans rankled the Army Commander but he was legally unable to stop it. In response though, certain restrictions were placed on the Texas cowboys. Unable to carry guns, permanently leave Texas and required to sign papers of loyalty to the Federal Government, the out of work cowboys went ahead and threw themselves fully into their job which made Slim Jim proud of each and every one. The cow hands took to liking Slim Jim and treated their first and only female trail cook, Sally, as they would their own kin. Within three years the Rutherford Ranch, called the Bar None Zero, was in the black and a little one was expecting to grace the Ranch’s presence before winter’s end.

 

After reading the news article to Sally, Jim set the newspaper aside and reached over to clasp his pregnant wife’s hands across the breakfast table. “Don’t worry none dear, your brother Jed’s been keeping us secretly informed of matters and I’m sure he’d let us know if they were to head our way. And look outside. We got over forty hands working for us, you think they’d sit still while your brothers wrecked havoc here? Why I pity the man who’d go up against this group of Texans!”

Smiling at the thought, Sally squeezed Slim Jim’s hand three times quickly. It was their way of saying, “I love you”. The answer came back to her in four quick squeezes, “I love you too!”

A bulky form suddenly filled the kitchen doorway. The two looked up seeing Biscuit, the camp cook that replaced Sally on cattle drives. “Folks?” With hat in hand he asked, “Are you needin’ anything else? If not, I’m gonna clean up here an head on into town.  I got some purchases to make an’ my hair an’ beard could use a trimmin’.”

Jim looked up at the grizzled character blocking the doorway as he stood rubbing his beard as if it were growing longer as he spoke.  Smiling slyly Jim asked, “Why Biscuit, I believe it was just last Saturday that you got trimmed up! I’ve never known you to get a haircut more’n twice a year. This doesn’t have anything to do with widow Johnston does it?”

Turning red faced, Biscuit harrumphed loudly then with false bravado replied, “Well… maybe it does an’ maybe it don’t! None a your business any hoo. Besides, the widow Johnston wouldn’t take kindly to hear the two of you flappin’ your jaws about her love life, hurrumph!”

Chuckling, Jim replied, “Give her our regards.

Suddenly Sally stood up at the table, “Oh, Biscuit, I’ve just been reminded, I have something for you. Here, let me get it.”

Looking in question at Jim, Biscuit shrugged asking. “Wonder what she got fer me?”

Sally quickly returned with a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. Handing the package to Biscuit she exclaimed, “I mistakenly ordered two of these from Humbolts Emporium. Jim has plenty and I couldn’t figure a finer time or a more deserving person to give it to.”

Unwrapping the string tied package, Biscuit unrolled it into the palm of his hand. “Why I’ll be! A bottle of hair tonic! Bay Rum no less! Why thankee deeply. It’s been years since I had some a this. Dang barber in town don’t use it, instead he splashes on that terrible smelling Hoyt’s trash. Smells like a French Mad’am if you git my point. Why back in the day, I can remember when lookin’ good meant a smidgeon of wagon wheel grease combed into your hair an’ some Mum tonic rubbed around your pits!  Why it put off takin’ a bath for a month or more! Still, I am quite particular to Bay Rum though, it shore will come in handy this afternoon!”

After Biscuit had cleaned up the breakfast mess and rode on into town, Jim pulled Sally aside as they walked outside onto the porch. “Hair tonic? Bay Rum? Sally, Bay Rum is an aftershave, sure it smells good but it’s really meant to keep any infection starting from shaving cuts. Biscuit has a beard, he never shaves!”

Sally stopped and chuckled saying, “If I went and bought him a man’s parfume so he’d smell good for widow Johnston, do you really believe he’d splash it on before visiting her? Not on your life. Much to womanly smelling, but a hair tonic is another thing all together. A man can smell like Bay Rum and still be a man. Who cares if he wears it on his head or in his beard? At least Biscuit won’t smell like baked beans and coffee grounds!”

“Good point dear, good point.”

 

 

The weeks passed uneventfully and a few spring crocus were starting to poke their heads above the melting snow.  In March, Sally gave birth to a chubby baby boy whom they named after Slim Jim’s father Joseph. Widow Johnston accepted Biscuits proposal of marriage and they asked Jim and Sally if the two of them could be taken on as the ranch cooks. Biscuit said he’d continue on as the trail or wagon cook and Belinda, his wife could replace Sally in her own kitchen. They reasoned doing so would free up Sally to tend to her child. It was agreed upon that shortly after their marriage, Biscuit and Belinda would take up permanent residence upstairs in the unoccupied portion of the house. A rear stairway leading from the upstairs hall down to the kitchen was installed so Belinda could start her four am day without disturbing the child. Nothing further had been heard from Jed regarding her sibling’s whereabouts so the fear of them showing up in Texas was put on the slow burner.

The Bar None Zero ranch became a beehive of activity just days after the baby Joseph was born. The activity wasn’t due so much from his birth but rather the time of the year. It was time to start getting a herd together for the drive to the Kansas City stockyards. Forty cowhands at first sight seems to be a large number of hands until they get broken into groups and sent in different directions gathering cattle. Some men headed south into the rocky desert while others headed east and west. The idea being that each group would gather as many unbranded cattle as could be found, brand them with the Bar None Zero brand and then drive them up to Amarillo to the tall grassy plains where the Bar None Zero sat. Once at the Bar None Zero, the herd would be divided into breeding stock and those that were going to market. Breeding stock included new born calves and their mama’s. Calves slowed down a drive and many never made it to market due to dehydration, lack of grass or predators. It just wasn’t worth the effort or expense loss so calves would have to wait until a later drive or used as breeding stock. Young bulls needed to be castrated before rejoining the herd. Even then it took some time for their natural sex drives to settle down so working with them was a chancy affair at best. Many a horse and rider were gored or trampled as a result of these amorous passions so cowboys had to be extra alert to his surroundings.

By the middle of April a decent sized herd had been gathered for the drive. The Bar None Zero now had a total stock of over five thousand head. It was decided that 2,400 of these were going to market. If the herd loss could be kept to below four hundred, it would put the Rutherford’s so well into the black that folks might even consider them pretty well off. 

The night before the drive was to start, Slim Jim kissed Sally goodbye and rode out to where the hands kept watch over the herd. Approaching one of the night riders, Slim hallowed him using a sing song voice to prevent the herd from catching a fright and starting a stampede. Newly gathered herds were the most skittish as no leader had yet come forward. It might be days on the trail before a natural leader showed itself and took charge of the herd and controlled their direction and moodiness.

 

The lone cowboy nodded his head towards Slim Jim and quietly replied, “Evenin’ Boss.”

Sidling up next to the man called Frank, Slim waited for the cowboy to continue.

“Been quiet for the most part.” Frank said, “ A few were buttin’ heads but that was during daylight. We’re keeping the herd moving in a slow circle until the moon comes up. Once they can see again and see there ain’t no predators about they’ll calm down even more. How’s the miss’s and baby doing?”

“Both are fine, thanks for asking’. By the way,  is Biscuit’s chuck wagon nearby, I could use some coffee.”

“He’s about a mile and a half east of here by Old Woman’s Creek boss. Because of the noise his pots an’ pans make gettin’ banged around while cooking, he decided to set up camp far enough away to keep the cattle from ’catchin’ a fright. You can’t miss the sight of his cook fire or for that matter, just lift your nose an’ you’ll smell his coffee.”

Chuckling lightly, Slim quietly said after taking a long inhaled breath through his nose, “By golly, you’re right, I do smell coffee!  It’s going to be a long night and even longer day tomorrow. Unless you got a couple toothpicks to prop open my eyes with, I’m gonna go and get me a mug of that eye opener. See you’ later Frank.”

Biscuit was busy cleaning up from the last shift of cowboys to eat their dinner. Two, 2 gallon coffee pots hung over the cook fire. Slim dismounted, secured his mare to the wagon’s wheel and strode over to the fire.

Pointing to the hanging pots he asked, “Which ones ready?”

“The one on the right has some left in it, the left ones almost done. If I were you, I’d give it a few and get a mug of the fresh stuff.”

“Thanks, I’ll wait then. It’s got egg shells in it?”

Biscuit stopped his washing of a large pot and stood facing Slim with hands on his hips. “How long have I been cookin’ fer ya’ an’ how many times you gonna ask me that?  ‘Course they got egg shell in’em! An’ until you start buyin’ me some a them Arbuckle beans, they always will.”

“Your wife said even with Arbuckles, the coffee’s better with shell in them. I’m not arguing, just repeating what Belinda told me.”

“Well, that’s ‘cause back at the house she feeds you that girly coffee.”

“Girly coffee? You mean because she adds a bit of sugar and cream to it, it’s now girly coffee?”

Hiding a twinkle in his eye, he replied. “Sure! Men don’t drink coffee with cream an’ sugar in it! Why next she’ll be servin’ ya’ll them Englishy crumpets and those sconey things!”

 Grabbing the coffee pot tilter hanging over the fire, Slim poured himself a large tin mug of the brew. “Well God forbid you ever eat anything more than beans and biscuits!” He laughed.

“What’s wrong with my biscuits? You sure are startin’ this drive off wearin’ the wrong pair a boots if you’re gonna now complain about my biscuits! And, you know I make the best beans in all a Texas.”

To himself Jim quietly mumbled while shaking his head, “It’s like talking to a fence post for all the good it does.”

“What’s that you say?”

“Nothing, just thinking out loud, that’s all.”

“Well, while you’re settin’ there with your mind all noisey like, let me tell you where tomorrow night’s rendezvous is. Since we’ve done this trail a bunch times before, you might remember that little box canyon about 10 miles east of here? Well, I figure with the cattle well fed and watered, it should be no problem getting’ the herd that far, besides, it’s pretty flat land from here to there. I’ll set up camp in front of the canyon that way you can keep the remuda corralled inside it.”

“Great, leave a full pot for the night riders when you turn in.”

“I always do, don’t I boss?”

It took Biscuit less than four hours to make the next day’s rendezvous location and set up camp for the evening meal. After unhitching the team, as required in order for the riders to know where they were, Biscuit lifted the wagon tongue to point at the North star. The camp cook had to keep ahead of the drive by using a leap frog motion. This meant it was he who determined the distance the herd traveled and its route each day. Of course it was the trail boss who really set the parameters but it was left up to the trail cook to determine the exact location of each evenings stopping point. Ahead of the cook rode the scout. It was his job to find water holes, fresh grass and any obstacles the herd might run into. The information he found was then passed onto the cook and the trail boss.  Behind the chuck wagon rode the trail boss, point rider or both. The point rider rode at the head of the herd and micro managed the drives direction that the trail boss decided upon. The steering of the herd was the job of the swing riders who were placed near the front of the herd on each side. Behind the swing riders were the Flank. They kept the herd bunched when needed or rode the length up and down to keep cattle from straying. The worst job and normally left up to green horns was the drag rider. Drag riders followed the herd from behind. They kept the herd pushed forward, they also ate the most dust. Graduating to the flak position a drag rider was then considered a working cowboy.

 

 The remuda or horse herd (of Spanish origin meaning change of horses), was kept away from the piercing horns of the cattle by being positioned off to one side. These cowboys in charge of the remuda were called Wranglers. Their job was to make sure the horses stayed healthy, well watered and fed. Any horse or mule doctoring needed being done was left up to the remuda boss.

It was on the third day that shortly after setting up for the evening camp, a rider hailed from a safe distance to warn the camp of his approach. As normal, Biscuit was alone at the time but knew the herd was not for off. This meant the trail boss, or point rider was probably with the range of gunfire. Biscuit hailed back and shouted, “Dismount and git yourself some coffee friend!”

The rider turned out to be Captain Oswald sent by Commander Wilcox, the Army commander and Federal overseer out of Fort Worth.

The lone Captain dismounted then turned south to whistle loudly. Within a minute, six other riders could be made out in the oncoming darkness. “Can my men get a mug also? We’re pretty worn out but worse, my man inadvertently left behind the sack of Arbuckles at the Fort”

“Why shore Cap’n, There’s a bunch a clean mugs in that hinged crate over there. Are ya’ passin’ through or need I ride out an’ get the trail boss?”

“If he’s nearby, it can wait. We’ll make camp here with you all tonight anyway. We’re about done in with today’s heat and all.”

Biscuit nodded, “Yep, it shore is a hot one for just bein’ spring, had to be in the high eighties. Why I remember once back in… oh maybe around late Seventy something, it got so hot my biscuit flour cooked itself in the sack and there was no need for a coffee fire neither! I just threw some grounds in the coffee pot an’ walked away. The men’s mugs never cooled off, we had hot coffee the whole night!”

Knowing a tale when he heard one, Captain Oswald just chuckled.

 

Chapter 3

One of the soldiers who had been relaxing in a lounging manner with his coffee, suddenly sat upright shouting.“I think I hear them comin Cap! Yep, here they come.”

Within an hour the herd had been circled and calmed, the remuda roped off and the hands that were not on duty were gathered around eating a hot meal of beans and beef.

Upon seeing the Captain, Slim Jim introduced himself. After a short time of small talk the Captain got to the point. “Seeing that you all hired Texans for this drive, I’ll be needing to see the men’s paperwork before you leave Texas.”

It rankled Slim to see his men treated this way, them being as American anybody else but he decided to let it ride and yelled for his men to get their permission papers out. Each man handed the Captain his paperwork of allegiance.

“The captain took them and carefully inspected each one. “Well,” He finally said, “Everything looks in good order. Your men can return to whatever they were doing, sorry for the inconvenience but I’m only doing following orders.”

“Sure, no hard feelings Captain.”

The experience left a sour taste in each mans throat though. The Captain, feeling the mood of the Texans and himself getting uncomfortable, ordered his men to set up that night’s camp on a small bluff away from the cowboys camp.

Later, he returned. “Mister Rutherford? May I speak to you in private?”

Slim Jim tossed the last of his coffee away and stood up saying, “Sure, take a walk with me. I enjoy the night sounds other than cattle bellowing in my ears.”

The two walked past the small bluff where Jim could see the soldiers tents had been set up. The white peaked tops stood reflecting the rising moonlight. A lone coyote began singing and soon others joined in his chorus. Night birds could be heard fluttering in and out of the cactus tops and brush. It truly was a magnificent night and Captain Oswald said so.

“It sure is a beautiful country, Texas. I’m from Louisiana myself. My folks were raised in the bayou swamps and that’s where they raised me. They were French Creole from back in the early days of the Country. They sent me away to boarding school and then to military school in Virginia. I’m a true Southerner Mister Rutherford and it pains me to see my neighbor Texans treated as they are. I sincerely apologize for forcing your men to prove their American loyalty. Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie must be turning in their graves over this mess”

“Yeah, I’m originally from the Arizona Territory myself,” Jim said, “I worked most my life on ranches up near the Rim just south of the canyon. It was a blessing I hailed from another State than Texas, it gave my wife and I a chance to seek our fortune here where Texans couldn’t. I felt bad seeing some of the best cow punchers I’ve ever seen having to take any job offered. Cattle is what most all of them know. They’re not used to even walking on foot some of them. They grew up sitting on a horse. That’s why when I saw a way around the law, I hired them straight off. I know it mightily peeved the Commander but he was bound by the law to let me have my Texans.”

“You mentioned you are married, you still that way?”

“Oh yes, and happy about it too. We eloped when the two of us was working for the Hash…er a cattle ranch up near Holbrook back then.”

“Holbrook you say? I heard some news from over that way. I was within earshot of my Commander and a U.S, Marshal when I overheard some talk about Holbrook They were talking about a group of no goods having left the Holbrook area and might be headed into Texas. It seems this group is led by three brothers and one of them is over the cliff crazy like. I heard that the crazy one murdered a few folks over nothing! It seems they were just minding their own business and for no reason the man guns them down in cold blood. The men weren’t even together, just walking the same boardwalk. Then as he left town he put fire to the new Methodist Church being built there and then shot the knees off its Pastor as he ran out to fight the blaze.”

During this time Slims stomach dropped to the ground. It could only be Crete and Sally’s brothers!

“Did they say anything more, like where they were headed to when they left Holbrook.”

“Not really, I heard they only returned to Holbrook to tie on a drinking binge. The Marshal said his men have tracked them all over the Territory and New Mexico and were only hours behind them when cleared out of Holbrook. One things for sure. They won’t find a safe place anywhere in the Arizona Territory or New Mexico for all the killing they’ve done in both places. I’m figuring that’s why the Marshal went and paid a visit to the Commander, he must figure they’re headed for the safety of Texas since they’re not wanted here yet.”

Now Jim’s stomach really churned. If the trio should make their way anywhere near Amarillo, then they’ll be sure to come upon the Bar None Zero Ranch and Sally.

“Now that I’ve spilled the beans about this group of rustlers, this is the real reason I was sent to check your men’s paperwork. We wouldn’t want them escaping the law under the cover of assumed names. I doubt you’ll run across them but if you hear anything of value along the way on your drive, would you send a message regarding such information to Commander Wilcox at Fort Worth?”

“Absolutely.”

“I am taking my men up to the border. When you get there we’ll meet up and I’ll escort you across and out of Texas. We won’t be there when you return of course so that means it’ll be up to you to sign the men in at Fort Worth upon your return.”

Slim absently replied, “Of course.”

The two casually walked back to the bluff where they parted ways. In the morning, the soldiers packed up and continued on their way without further conversation with the cowboys.

Slim Jim Rutherford was in a quandary. By law, he had to be with his Texans the entire trip, going there and back to insure their return. On the other hand, he needed to get back to the ranch as fast as possible and warn Sally and the others of the possible approach of the three brothers. If he were to leave and the Texan’s were stopped, then they would face jail time along with himself, for not being in their presence when they re-crossed the border upon their return.

Pulling a trail map from one of the many compartments within the Chuck Wagon, Jim unfolded the map and taking a ruler, tried to determine how many miles it was to the Oklahoma Territory border. The border lay between six and eight miles ahead, almost a full day away. Still, if he were to see the men over the border he could possibly sneak back into Texas unseen and speedily ride his way back to his ranch. After he returned, he could fortify his place, make plans or even get Sally away from there before Crete and his brothers showed up. Nodding to himself he knew that was the way it had to be but first he needed to take Biscuit and the point rider into his confidence.

 

Chapter 4

Biscuit sat there stunned.”Boss, you sure lead an interesting life, yes you do! How is it I figured the two of you to be just a pair of easy going married folk that never saw nothin’ more exciting than a dust devil or two? Why them brothers of hers is three of the biggest outlaws alive!”

The point rider Jason shrugged and said. Whatever you want us to do we’ll do Boss. I see no problem in getting to Kansas City or even back again without you. On the other hand, I know we’ll be required to stop in at Fort Worth and see the Commander to show we’re all accounted for. That’s the only problem that I can see. Maybe you can get on down to Fort Worth in time to meet up with us…if everything goes well back at the ranch. Besides, Texas is a big Territory, I bet your in-laws never even get close to you or up to Amarillo.”

“I wish that were true but the fact is the oldest brother Jed knows where we live. I’ve trusted him over the years and until now there’s been no reason to fear that he spilled the beans as to Sally and my whereabouts to his siblings. That changed I guess when the Marshal Service started hunting them down for murder. I’m figuring they’ll want to use my ranch to hole up at. Damn it!”

Biscuit rose up brushing his pant legs saying, “Come what may, I still got forty odd hands to feed tonight, I need to be goin or the men will go hungry. Jason, you too, let’s get movin’, there ain’t nothin’ more we can do sitting’ here blabbin’ about it!”

Jim also rose, “Biscuits right, start the drive. I’ll just have to do what I think I can get away with. I’ll decide something before we reach the Oklahoma border later today.”

Saying that, the men parted ways to start the days drive.

 

 

 “Borders just ahead Boss” Shouted Jason, “I can see the soldiers too.”

It took nearly three hours for the cattle and men to cross the border. There was no creek or sign to notify a soul they had just crossed the border. Instead, a soldier sat staring into a sextant as if he were onboard a ship. Earlier that day, the scout and chuck wagon had made the crossing. They were now a few miles ahead and pointed towards the east. From this point they would head east across the Western and Chisholm trails which headed north to the rail yards in Dodge City and Wichita. The last and final trail would be the Shawnee. At that point they would turn onto this trail and head north to the stock yards in Kansas City. The Bar None Zero would have to drive their cattle without the benefit of the rail road because of their sheer volume. Having over 3,400 head sent by rail meant many more deaths than the Rutherford’s could afford to lose. While rail was faster, it also meant losing control of your entire herd. It was up to others to feed, water and make sure no one rustled your stock. This skepticism was well founded. There was more than one herd that arrived at the yards having a different owner than the one that shipped them.

Once safely across and out of sight of the Captain and his men, Jim rode parallel to the border and re-crossed it five miles from where the Captain remained camped. If Jim was lucky, the troops would wait a day or two to rest up before heading back south to Fort Worth. This would give him ample time to skirt their line of sight and make his way back to Amarillo.

A Bar None Zero ranch hand out gathering strays saw Jim driving his horse hard as he headed towards the ranch gate. With foam flying from its mouth, the sweat drenched flanks glistened in the afternoon sun as if they were mirrored. Racing after his Boss, the man on a fresh mount still could not catch up to Jim. It wasn’t until Jim had stopped and dismounted at the ranch house before the hand caught up to him.

“Boss! What’s goin’ on? What’re you doin’ back here? Where’s the herd?”

“Too many questions right now, just hang here a bit until I come out. Take care of my mount, no water yet, she’s too hot, just walk her and give her a good rub down first, then water but only a small amount at first.”

“Sure Boss, I know what to do, she’s in good hands.”

With that, Jim took two steps at a time as he made his way up the porch. Just then Sally appeared holding the baby in the doorway. “Jim! What’s wrong?”

Over a cup of coffee and some pie Jim explained all he had heard from captain Oswald. Sally outwardly looked calm but Jim noted she had lost all the color in her face. She waited until Jim had finished then spoke.

“Jim, you have no choice, Crete will kill the two of us if you don’t kill him first.”

“But Sally, he’s your brother!”

Crete made his bed, now he must lie in it. You can’t call the law, they’d discover you have left the Texans and would arrest you and them. For their sake and ours, please, do what you know you need to do.”

“What about Jedediah and Ezekiel, am I to kill them too?” Jim asked, hoping she’d say no.

“That will have to wait to be seen, that’s all I can say. It mortifies me to ask you to do this but I’ve run this scenario through my mind many times over the last couple of years. We have a family now, many men depend on their wages from us. We have too many responsibilities to let my insane brother take all that away. If Jed and Zeke didn’t do anything to stop him by now, they won’t after they arrive here either. I believe all of my brothers have gone to the bad. If the law were to catch up to them, they’d all hang for their crimes. Is it a sin then to act in a like manner? I believe not.”

That evening Jim gathered the remaining hands and explained the situation. “We have no idea if there are others that ride with them. For all we know it could be just the three or it might be thirty, we have no idea. What we need to do is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. There are seven of us here not counting Sally and the baby. What edge we have is that they have no idea we know they are coming.

Looking at the gathered group Slim Jim told them. “Keep your side arms handy loaded and worn at all times. You men who have saddle rifles make sure they’re in their holsters if you have to ride off anywhere. I know this will test your morality a might but this is a life or death situation, shoot first and ask questions later. Just because these men are Sally’s brothers doesn’t mean a hoot. They’re wanted for murdering innocent folk and if they make it here to the ranch, your lives won’t be worth a plug nickel. No matter what, don’t let ‘em start talking to you, crazy men can make a heap of sense and they’re capable of talking the skin off a snake.”

The group nodded heads as one. They had lived on the range long enough to accept that sometimes there was no other way and killing must be done. This part of Texas had no Law, other than the Army out of Fort Worth and they held little concern for local problems unless directed by their superiors back in Washington.

“I want two men to go with me. I figure if they come to Texas it won’t be through the desert but along the Canadian. Two of us will scout along the Canadian, if we run into them, the third person high tails it back here for reinforcements.  Phil? Why don’t you take Erney here and saddle us up the horses? Make sure you hang a holster for a long gun on your saddle too. We’ll head out in a half hour.”

In a short time Phil and Erney sat on horseback ready to leave. Slim Jim exited the house in front of Sally who was carrying the baby. With his horse held between the other two riders, Slim mounted after kissing Sally. Without further word, they rode off west towards Tascosa and the Canadian.

 

Chapter 5         

Crete woke up with a stiff neck. Grumbling as he twisted his neck to and fro he wandered behind a large group of boulders to relieve himself. It had been a long ride through New Mexico but by noon the small group of hardened men should make it to the border of Texas.

 When he returned to the camp, the others were awake and getting a morning meal started. Six men were left following the three brothers making the group nine in all. Crete wanted to get rid of a few of them from the group. He told Jed and Zeke that their mother had visited him and told him that three of them would end up betraying them.

“Which three?” asked Zeke.

 Neither Jed nor Zeke believed their mother spoke in Crete’s dreams to him and that any vision was fabricated within his own mind. “Besides,” Jed told Zeke under his breath, “Ma ain’t dead yet and although we know Mormons believe in an afterlife, we also was taught there weren’t no such thing as ghost. Crete’s vision’s is from bein’ teched in the head, nothin’ more.”

With a cutting side glance, Crete stopped to look at his two siblings asking them, “Why do you want to know? You gonna warn ‘em or something? I’ll tell you which three!”

Walking away from the cook fire, he removed his pistol from its holster, spun the cylinder to make sure he was fully loaded and turned around. Facing the group of breakfast occupied men, he raised his pistol and calmly began pulling the trigger. Crete may have been insane but his craziness had no affect on his crack shot abilities. Within seconds three innocent men tumbled to the earth.

“What the hell are you doing?” Zeke shouted at him as he ran to disarm his brother. Out of the corner of his eye, Crete judged the closing distance of his brother, then turned and fired point blank into his head.

Watching Zeke’s body collapse and fall forward into the camps fire, the last of the three followers in stunned disbelief threw up their hands in surrender.

Jed stood speechless half expecting Crete’s gun to turn his way.

Holstering his weapon, Crete spoke to the remaining group members. “Naw, the rest of you’s is alright. Put your hands down, ya’ look stupid sittin’ there like bunch a school children! Unless Mama tells me different, them three I shot is the ones that was going to turn us over to the law.”

One hardened man slowly rose. “That is my cousin you just plugged! Weren’t no way he woulda’ turned on us. Your Mama ain’t said shit you idiot! You’re just plain crazy and I’m cuttin’ my ties with you all here and now.”

Calmly, Crete shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “Alright,” then lighting fast pulled his iron and fired the last remaining two bullets into the man’s chest.

With six pulls of the trigger, five men lay dead, one his brother and three loyal followers.

 

“If’n anybody else is upset enough to pull iron on me, remember, I also carry this.” Removing a small caliber pistol from a hidden holster from behind his back, he brandished the small but deadly weapon in front of the men. As he waved the gun about, his face took on the evil expression that Jed was so used to seeing. Crete began to breath hard and saliva began to leak from his mouth like a panting dog.

Turning to face Jed, a large glob of foamy slobber dripped out from Crete’s mouth onto his vest. Using his sleeve, Crete ineffectively wiped the foamy saliva from his face. “I told ya’ll that I hated each ‘an every one of you! Remember brother, Sally and you ain’t immune to my hate neither! After we get to Texas and find where her an’ that bastard Slim Jim is holed up at, I’m gonna deal with ‘em like Mama told me to!”

“And ruin our only means avoiding the law? We ain’t wanted in Texas for no crime. If you kill them, it won’t be but a short time before them Texas Rangers are on our tail. They’re like she badgers, they never give up once they got your scent.”

“I don’t give no hoot about any Texas Rangers, they ain’t no where’s near as smart as I am! Have we been caught up with yet? No! You know why? Because Mama watches over me, that’s why!”

“Is Mama dead that she speaks to you Crete? Last we heard she ‘an Paw were doin’ their Mormon thing and was alive an’ well.”

“Mama ain’t never gonna die Jed, she leaves her soul come night and lays down next to me. She tells me all the secrets you and others been hidin’ from me, she knows everything. She told me Zeke needed to die but never said when. It just happened that it was his time. Mama keeps some stuff to herself.”

Zeke was your brother, her son. Do you really believe she wanted him dead? Why would she want that?”

Crete snarled, “Because she only loved me, that’s why!”

At that instant, Jed knew his brother meant to kill him as he did Zeke, without remorse.

 

The four men made their way into Texas from New Mexico using the Canadian River as their guide just as Jim thought they would. Crete, now heading up the gang unopposed, decided to shy away from the larger town of Tascosa and instead opted to make camp just outside the tiny burg of Cheyenne alongside the Canadian River. Without him knowing it , this placed him only twenty miles from the Bar None Zero Ranch. That night under the cover of a sliver moon night, the two remaining gang members slid out unseen into the surrounding desert.

A grey streak on the Eastern skyline announced the coming dawn. It was then that the already high strung and paranoid Crete discovered the missing men.

“They’s gone!” He yelled to his still sleeping brother. “We gotta get outa’ here, I know they’ll tattle on our whereabouts fer sure! Listen… is that horses I hear? Yes? No?”

Jed, alert now, stood up to listen. “Naw, there ain’t no horses.”

“Are you sure?” A look that changed from near panic to suspicion came over Crete. “Maybe there is horses comin’! Maybe you told those two to high tail outa’ here. Maybe you an’ them are in cahoots with each other an’ I’m bein’ left holdin’ the bag while you all set me up for capture. While you all escape”

Suddenly Jed looked past where Crete stood and pointed. “Look, their horses are still tied to the highline between them two trees! That means they left on foot.”

Searching where the men’s bedrolls had been, they saw the two large canteens the group had were missing, along with the only rifle the group had.

The sudden change in the situation seemed to sober Crete up somewhat. “Well, for sure, the two couldn’t have gone far, most likely they either made their way into Cheyenne but more likely they are on their way to Tascosa. We should take the horses and circle around south of Tascosa then enter town from the east. They’ll most likely be keeping a lookout expecting us to come in from the west.”

Crete looked skyward at the rising sun and blew heavily through parsed lips. “Mind you Jed, this don’t mean we’s done with what was started between us brother. One of us is going to die, Mama told me that but she didn’t say which one of us. I’m makin’ sure I’m the one who walks away.”

 

Chapter 6

Slim, along with riders Phil and Erney sat in their saddle overlooking the Canadian river outside of the town of Tascosa. The town wasn’t much as large towns went. Unlike the crowded mountain towns or large cities, the buildings had plenty of empty space between them. Few good sized trees existed as most were cut down for building lumber. What trees existed were misshapen or stunted. In contrast to the bland town, the valley the town lay in was a cattleman’s dream having tall grass, good water and plenty of both. As desirable as the land was to others, it held little interest for Jim. He knew that if the brothers came by the Canadian River, they would most likely stop here. He regretted ever trusting Jed, the eldest of Sally’s brothers with the information of the Bar None Zero’s location. In all the time that the two had sent secret letters to each other there was never any indication of Jed having gone truly to the bad. On the other hand, Jim and Sally had gained precious information on Crete. By letter, they had watched him deteriorate into lunacy. It was through these letters that especially Sally, had determined that her brother was dangerously insane to the point it was either him or them that would die. She, unlike Crete’s belief, knew it was going to be he that died.

Three groups of men were converging onto the small town at the same time, each using a different route. Entering the town from the west on foot, the two fleeing members of Crete’s gang headed straight for the saloon located in the center of the town. Figuring if Crete was on their tail, he’d start at one end and work his way to the other. If they kept a good eye out, they’d spot him and have time to either ambush him or take cover until in frustration, he left to search elsewhere.

Crete and Jed entered town from the East and true to the ex gang members thinking, started searching from one end and heading to the other. What the two men hiding in the saloon didn’t realize was that while they were correct in pre guessing Crete’s method of search, they didn’t realize the brothers has come in from the opposite end. They realized their mistake when the salons bat wing doors opened and in stepped Crete.

Meanwhile, Crete wasn’t doing so well himself, not that he was aware of this of course. As Crete and Jed circled their approach into town the two made a fatal mistake, that of riding for a short distance along the peak of the Canadians embankment. The two brothers on horseback, along with the two empty saddled horses behind them, stuck out in the slanting late afternoon sun like cut out silhouettes against the backdrop of the flat grassy landscape.

“That’s them!” Whispered Slim. “No mistake, I’d recognize Crete anywhere. He rides all lazy like, and slumped down in the saddle. Let’s pull up just a bit more and ride behind ‘em. The last thing either is going to suspect is us tailing them. We’ll observe where they go and what they’re up to before we make our move. Phil, hold up a might on runnin’ for help. It appears that they’re alone. Those two bare nags behind them must have belonged to a couple of their gang. I bet ten to one the rest took to their heels when they realized their boss was a crazy man!”

It would have been comical if it weren’t so serious. As Crete and Jed stepped into the saloon, just behind them with hats lowered over their eyes, strode in the real man Crete wanted dead, Slim Jim Rutherford, the hated husband of his Sister Sally.

The sound of the batwing doors opening caused the two ex gang members to turn in unison. The one sitting furthest from the door, dropped his beer mug and went for his gun.

The first sight Slim saw on entering the salon behind Crete and Jed was a man standing at the bar raising his iron towards the door they had just come through. Slim yelled “Duck!” Hoping Phil and Erney wouldn’t take the time to size up the reason for his warning, Slim dove to the floor to protect himself and behind him he heard the twin thumps of his two as they too kissed the floor. The single shot that the man at the bar got off caught Jed in the upper leg. Screaming in agony from a shattered thigh bone, Jed fell like a rag doll. With his bleeding brother rolling around screaming, Crete dove to the right. This once again left Slim and his two hands exposed to deadly gun fire. Crete rolled once and in a single motion, stood up and pulled his pistol.  In three rapid shots, Crete expertly blew the shooter clean off his stool.

Unfortunately for Crete, the second ex gang member was now pouring deadly slugs in his direction. Crazed and stumbling forward as if demon possessed, his gun hotly spit lead and fire. Crete’s left ear disappeared from his head then his hat, along with a bloody portion of his scalp. Still, Crete’s aim remained deadly accurate during the smoky barrage and eventually the shooter, bleeding out from multiple holes, rolled backwards off his stool dead.  Making his way jerkily to where the two ex gang members lay, Crete stood tottering over the two like a drunk.  Other than the screaming of Jed, there was no other sound in the saloon.

Fatally shot more than once, Crete fell heavily to his knees. The empty pistol dropped to the floor as Crete’s arms and torso began jerking as if controlled by strings. A loud inhale was heard then his last words gurgled through his blood frothed lips. “Ma ma?”   The sound of Crete’s face smacking itself on the wooden floor ended his fate more solidly than any judges gavel.

In a state of disbelief, the crowd remained silent in the gun smoke filled room. 

 

Slowly, Slim turned to look behind him. Lifting his head cautiously, he asked his men, “You two hit?”

“Nope, not me!” came the reply from Phil as he ended flapping his hands over his body looking for wounds.

 “Me neither Boss, but I need to buy some new under drawers, I believe I’ve gone and filled mine up!”

Suddenly the salon came to life. This was the most excitement this dusty cow town had seen in ages. With whoops and hollers and mouthing gun shots, the patrons began loudly reenacting what they had just witnessed.  No one hurried to drag the bodies outside nor tend to the now unconscious Jed. The bar tender did walk around to the front of the bar to where the two dead gang members were sprawled out on the floor and began going through their pockets. Looking up at the cowboys gazing down at him in repulsed disbelief, he told them, “They owe me for their beers yet!”

Slim made his way over to where Jed silently lay bleeding out from his shattered leg. “Get a Doctor!” He yelled.

A gruff voice behind him made him turn, “Right here Mister, I’m the Doc.”

Looking down at Sally’s brother he asked, “Can you save him? His legs half blowed off!”

“Maybe, but there ain’t no savin’ that leg, it’s a goner fer sure.”

“Do what you can for him, he’s kin.”

Digging into his pocket Slim pulled out a small roll of money. Here’s forty dollars, I’ll come back for him in a few weeks. If that legs to come off, try and get a wooden one on him. There should be more than enough there for everything but if not, I’ll make good on any further debt when I come back.”

“What do you want I should do if he dies?”

“Bury him well and keep what’s left of the money for your services.”

 

Chapter 7

Making his way back to the Oklahoma and Texas border, Slim camped a few miles beyond the bare grassy plain on the Oklahoma side. There he waited for his drive cowboys to return from the trail drive. Luckily, no sign of Captain Oswald or his men were seen. If all went well, he would re-cross the border with his men and with them head to Fort Worth to verify to Commander Wilcox that all the Texans had returned.

Since he had sent Phil and Erney back to the Bar None Zero to tell Sally all that went down, he camped alone.

Back at the Ranch, Sally cried over the deaths of her brothers but knowing their demise was inevitable she didn’t cry for long.

 She asked Phil and Erney if they would return to Tascosa within the next two weeks with a wagon and retrieve her remaining crippled brother Jed, if in fact he had survived.

 If in fact he had survived, the Rutherford’s would be faced with another problem. Fellow ranchers and cattle buyers would then associate Jed with the Hashknife cattle company and the alleged rustling they were being blamed with. Any missing cattle in the area would be blamed on the Bar None Zero Ranch. Just the mere suspicion could destroy all that Slim and Sally had worked so hard for.

 

Three weeks had passed when Slim noticed dark forms moving slowly in his direction from the North east. Knowing this was the same direction that he expected his men to come from his mood lightened at the thought of seeing them and knowing the cattle had made it safely to market. Disappointment did not raise its head as he recognized Biscuit’s chuck wagon. Breaking camp he rode out excitedly to meet them.

Once again united with his men, Slim crossed back into Texas where they headed to Fort Worth. During their ride, the men heard all that had gone on and each night around the campfire that story was all the topic.

Heading south, the group crossed over the Canadian and Red River and when the reached the Brazos they headed Southeast towards Fort Worth. The money made in the large sale would give each man his wage plus a bonus equal to his wages for risking the venture out of Texas. Slim also told them that to prevent his men from being skinned by gamblers, saloon keepers and whores, he had Sally set up each mans bonus in an account at the bank in town. Every bonus a man relieved from now on would be placed within this account which could not be accessed for one full year from the date of its opening. Each man would receive a small ledger book from the bank showing each deposit. Since none of the men had ever had a savings, it was a novelty to them. Some bragged that on the day the money was made available, they’d head into town and experience the biggest blow out ever seen. Most of the men though said they’d like to save up even more for new Mexican made saddles and such.

Fort Worth lay between the Brazos and Trinity rivers just west of the town Dallas. It was an easy trip and uneventful in nature. The four hundred mile trip took twenty one days to complete as the group could only go as fast as Biscuits chuck wagon. The men were festive in nature and had little desire to immediately rush back to start gathering up the next herd. During this time, Slim Jim Rutherford grew to know his men and in return, they him. 

 

A disgruntled, red haired sentry with a scruffy beard stood obediently outside Commander Wilcox’s door. Looking through narrowed eyes at the dusty trail weary man in front of him the sentry crossed his arms on his chest and loudly asked, “Who might you be and state what business you might be having with the Commander!

Slim held his tongue and tried to remain polite. “My name is Jim Rutherford, I just drove a herd of cattle out of Texas to Kansas City using born Texans to do it with. Commander Wilcox ordered me and my Texans to report back just soon as we returned. I’m here to report our return.”

The guard lifted his nose skyward in obvious distain at the thought of Texans making an honest living. Pointing to a row of hard wooden benches placed against the wall the soldier in an obviously Eastern accent sneered, “The Commander is a busy man, he’s all booked up for the next few days. You and your men better get used to ridin’ those benches over there. I’ll add your name to the list of those wanting an audience with the Commander. If for any reason you leave, I’ll remove your name and you’ll be placed at the end of the line again.”

Slim looked around and seeing no one in wait asked, Where are all the others? I don’t see a line anywhere.”

The soldier leaned forward. “There ain’t gotta be one, I make up the line and I say you wait until I’m damn well ready to show you in to see the Commander! If you give me any lip, I’ll add another day’s wait every time you piss me off!”

Slim became red faced and stood with clenched fist going nose to nose with the guard. Just as he was about to speak through his clenched teeth, the door swung violently open and there it stood the Commander whose face was redder than Slims.

“Soldier!” He shouted at the man, “ Did I just hear you right?”

“Yes Sir! Er… no Sir, I mean this man is wasting your time Sir! I’m only trying to keep order here Sir!”

“Order my ass! I bet if I waited a bit longer, I would’ve heard you play this man for a bribe to see me! Am I right Corporal?”

“I can’t rightly say Sir, I’m sorry Sir!”

“Don’t apologize to me Mister, apologize to the man you tried to skunk!”

The sudden change in the man would have been almost humorous if Slim wasn’t so mad at him.

“My deepest apologies Sir, The Commander is not as busy as I thought, he’ll see you now.”

Pointing to the frosted glass door the Commander told the guard, “In the future, you may want to remember  that I can hear every sound made out in this hallway through this thin door soldier, including every word you speak and every bribe you try to make!”

Without accepting the man’s apology, Slim then entered the room behind the Commander.

The Commander showed Slim Jim to a seat and shaking his head said, “I swear, the men they assigned to my post out here are the dregs. At the end of the War, the commanding brass gave out all the good post to the ass kissers and those well connected. Those of us who took the job seriously, like me, ended up in no man’s land babysitting a bunch of misfit lazy men whose only skill is looking for the easiest way out of work.” Settling into his own chair, the Commander looked up pleasantly at Slim asking, “ Now, what can I do for you and your men Sir?”

“As I told your guard Commander, I legally took a group of born Texans across the border and as agreed to, I am here to sign them each back into the State as the Law requires me to.”

“Ah… you’re the one. Captain Oswald sent word that you’d be in to see me. Welcome back.”

“Thank you Sir, I have all the men’s paperwork here.”

Taking the forty some sheets of signed releases from Slim, the Commander laid them on his desk and asked. “Are all the men here? Did you lose any? I mean did any die on the trail?”

“No Sir, not a one. I’ve never seen a group of men as determined to do a job well done as these were.”

“Texans, they sure are a different breed alright. I’ll take your word all is in order. I’ll sign these and absolve the men of any further need to wait to get back home. They’re free to go whenever they want, as you are. Welcome back.”

Stepping back into the outer hall, the reprimanded guard looked away as Slim closed the door behind him. Not wanting to get himself or any of his men in trouble his mind raced as a way to even the score with the obnoxious guard. Knowing any spoken threat or physical action against the man could be considered reason for his arrest, Slim sauntered up and stood closely next to the man. Not knowing what Slims intentions were, the Guard stood silently waiting for Slim to make his move. Suddenly, a loud, wet sounding blast of foul smelling bean fueled pent up intestinal flatulence was expelled. After waiting a few seconds for the foul aroma to escape his britches, Slim calmly walked away. As he and the men walked down the hall towards the main doorway snickering, slim heard loud hearty laughter coming from the Commanders office.

 

Chapter 8

Hugging Slim tightly, Sally had met him as he and the rest of the cowboys rode into the yard. Before he could speak though, Sally pulled him away from the men. “Slim, when Phil and Erney came back with the story of my brothers, I asked them to fetch Jed if he still lived and return with him back here. It may have been a mistake but he’s the only family I have left. He’s not doing well.” She turned and faced the house.

“Jed spends all his time in that wheeled chair contraption staring out the window. He barely eats and refuses to exercise or be fitted for a wooden leg.  He asked me to send you to him when you returned, he’s in the parlor.”

Tired as he was from the long dusty ride, Slim denied himself the few private moments with Sally that he had hoped for. Instead, he slapped off the dust as best he could using his hat and stepped into the house. The coolness of the place surprised and pleased him. After being sun blazed for so long any shade was welcome. The smell of an upcoming noonday meal made its way from out of the kitchen. It was good to be home.

Stepping into the dimly lit parlor, Slim saw Jed in his wheeled chair in front of the window. A Navajo colored blanket covered his lower half. Slim assumed this was because Jed did not want folks to see his stump. Walking quietly up to Jed, Slim spoke.

“Morning Jed, mind if I sit down myself? It’s been a long ride and I’m near done in.” Settling himself heavily into one of the overstuffed chairs, Slim looked the man over sitting next to him. “I see you survived, minus a leg but you survived. I’m not going to pretend I’m pleased to see you here but Sally says you wanted to talk.”

Jed turned his unshaven face away from the window and turned his chair to face Slim. Jed’s demeanor had changed from that of an older wiser brother to that of a broken man. Sad, bloodshot eyes stared back at Slim.

“My coming here wasn’t my idea. Sally insisted and with a missing leg there wasn’t much I could do but be dragged back here by your men.”

Exhaling heavily that almost sounded like a sob, Jed lifted his head saying. “I know what my presence here will do to your operation. For harboring a member of the Hashknife group, even an ex one, you’ll be blamed for every missing cow within a hundred miles. When word gets out what happened up in Tascosa the folks around here will want to finish the job by dangling me from the nearest tree.”

“No one’s gonna’ hang nobody one my spread.”

“It’d be best if they did. No one’s gonna honor your business deals once they find out our relationship. You’re kin and in Texas that means you’re just as guilty as I am. No, I didn’t want to come here. I wanted Sally to be free from her brothers and the bad name we made for ourselves, by whatever means. You gotta send me away, fast, before folks find out just who I am and that I’m here. It’s the only way Slim, the only way.”

I can’t, like you said, like it or not, you’re kin.”

“Slim, I’ve already said my piece to Sally, I’m sorry for not bein’ the brother she needed. To you, I just ask for your forgiveness. I want nothin’ else.”

“If Sally forgave you then who am I to hold a grudge? We’ll think of something. ”

Slim started for the front hall then turned. “I’ll think of something Jed, I’m not sure how to clean up this mess yet but I’m sure there’s a way.”

From inside the parlor Slim heard a soft reply, “There is Slim, there is.”

Thinking Jed had come to grips with the situation and that he’d let Slim and Sally do the thinking, Slim walked out onto the porch where Sally awaited him.

“What did he say?”

“Well, not a lot really. He apologized and felt deeply about not being the kind of brother you deserved but to tell the truth, he seemed more worried about our future with him staying here than even I was. I know it’ll be a rough sell to folks but I can’t just hand him over to any old mob to get hung. He might not be a wanted man in Texas but that won’t stop folks from feeling as they do or even acting on those feelings.”

As they stepped off of the porch and made their way toward the men, Sally placed her arm around Slims waist and drew close to him. “I’m afraid I made a mistake Slim, maybe it would have been best to let nature take its course up in Tascosa and leave him be. No one would have then found out we were related.”

It was the familiar but gut wrenching sound of a single gunshot that caused the two to turn on their heels and face the house.

The men stood motionless, as if glued in place. Suddenly finding his legs, Slim tore into the house on a dead run. Sliding to a halt at the parlors entranceway, Slim saw the blood splattered window and the slumped form of Jed in his wheeled chair.

From behind him, he heard Sally stifle a cry. Turning to look at his wife, he saw her standing at the entranceway with her fist crammed into her mouth as if trying to hold back a scream.

 Wheeler Texas up near Amarillo is not known for its hills but a small rise was found less than a mile from the house to cradle the grave of Jedediah Britchen. It was a better send off than what his two brothers received, for sure.

Slim held Sally close as the rest of the men stood silent. Only a short prayer was offered but before Sally turned from the mound that held her brother she said to it, “In your own way you tried to be the big brother I deserved. You accomplished that. Thank you for your final act. It saved our ranch. You can rest in peace brother.

That day a new iron was added to the familiar Bar None Zero brand. The Resting J.

Listen to the Magpies and you will hear…

Chapter 1  

It was the persistent chattering of the Magpies that warned Jute that he wasn’t alone. All his Montana bred life, Jute had dealt with the obnoxious birds. Considered a nuisance by rancher and sod buster alike, this was the first time he was thankful for their presence.

In Red Lodge Montana, just north over the Wyoming border, each winter had brought flocks of Magpies to invade the freshly harvested fields. When the fields were gleaned of any left behind seed, the hungry birds soon began to eyeball the chicken yards, pig pens or any other place food might be. In spring, before most of the yapping magpies departed to places unknown, they raided the eggs in any bird nest or coop. From centuries of following the buffalo herds, even newborn calves felt the piercing thrust of their beaks. Mostly it was for the tasty ticks but every so often it turned into a wild feeding frenzy that left the newborn’s blind or hides so badly riddled with holes that putting the poor beast down was the only humane thing to do.

While despised, a fella’ had to hand it to the birds for their high intelligence. They learned quickly and somehow spread the word as to who, what and where it was safe. Similar to the way a squirrel will chatter to sounding a warning, a flock of magpies will put whatever warning a squirrel came up with to shame. Standing nervously on fence post, tree tops, limbs and the roofs of barns and houses, an incredible warning network sometimes a mile in length was in play. When one bird took to panicked flight, the entire network sounded warning and took to flight.  While thirty or forty birds may not sound like a lot, when the sky suddenly filled with these fleeing avian noise makers it was wise to take notice… and Jute did just that.

Two days earlier, three trail weary mountain men on horseback arrived at the home of the Grundvig farm and cattle ranch. They reined up but it was only the elder of the three that dismounted. A tall wiry blond haired man having a great bow mustache answered the knock on his door. After making a brief introduction, the oldest of the three turned to the two on horseback and waved for them to join him.  The two wearily dismounted and stepped stiffly up the porch steps.

Having emigrated from Sweden nine years earlier, the Grundvigs were still accustomed to treating strangers as they would have in the old country so they invited the trail weary three indoors to partake in a cool drink and rest a spell in the large log cabin’s great room. The interior of the cabin showed evidence both of a woman’s touch and that of a skilled carpenter. Each log was scraped clean of bark and chinked tightly to keep out the weather.

The younger two were of darker skin and hair than the older grey haired mountain man and they respectfully removed their hats as they made their way into the home.

Once inside, the three stood wide eyed taking in the beautiful handmade furnishings. Jute noticed the three mens repetitive wide eyed glances at the three new Golden Boy rifles hanging above the big stone fireplace. The younger men fidgeted with their hats and not speaking while waiting for the owners wife to enter the room with the cool glasses of the reconstituted powdered lemonade.

The time of refreshments passed quietly and after downing the sour drinks in just a few thirsty gulps, the elder mountain man calling himself Trap, introduced himself and the two men with him to the Grundvig family in a friendly manner.

“Begging all your pardon, my two boys here, Carl and Deloy ain’t been inside a strangers home for some years now, they’s a bit unaccustomed to bein’ indoors and it kind of gets them antsy.  I guess spending half your life outdoors does that to a person. We trap for the Hudson Bay Company headquartered back East at York Factory…that’s in Hudson Bay Canada. I suppose that makes us Canadians bein’ from there.  The last twenty years there’s been such a demand for beaver pelts back East that the beaver is bein’ wiped out. We had to keep moving our traps further and further west in order to find enough beaver to make a livin’.  Some thirty odd years ago, I started up in eastern Ontario just north of Lake Huron and there was plenty back then. There’s naturally not much beaver west of here unless we head back up north into the Northwest Territories but I’m getting too old for those northern winters. The boy’s Mother was Ojibway Indian so they fare better in the cold than I do. That’s where they get their color from, their Mama.”

Trap stopped speaking and a sadness entered his aged eyes.

“Ten years back, I decided to take the boys with me that fall to teach ‘em all about trappin’. We left her behind in a snug and well supplied cabin we had built in Manitoba. In the late winter when we returned, she was gone missing. Like myself, she was getting’ on in age so I figured sometime during the early part of winter when the ice is still thin, she musta’ plunged through while fishin’ an’ didn’t have the strength to pull herself out. That spring when the lake thawed, the boys an’ I looked up an’ down the lake banks for sign until one day Carl here found her fur mitten washed ashore. After her death, I took the boys full time trappin’ with me. It’s been ages since they saw the inside of a cabin or had any real social contact.”

Sven sat quietly listening then asked, “What made you stop here? It does not sound like you are the type to need to be around talkative people a lot.”

“I don’t but I saw your spread here as we passed by and hoped we could buy a mule if you have one for sale.”

Sven replied “We have both donkeys and mules to sell. Cattle too but I see you have no need for them. My names Sven, the boy here is my son Jute and this is my wife Rika. You are more than welcome to clean yourselves up and sleep in the hayloft if you wish. It is clean and warm with fresh hay for your horses.”

Rika looked kindly at her husband and quietly cleared her throat causing Sven to look at her as she tugged slightly at her long blond hair.

“Rika wants you to know she has a pair of sharp scissors if you’d like a haircut and I own a good Swedish steel razor if you want to shave. I know myself how difficult it is when you are on the trail to tend to those things.”

“That’s mighty kind of you Sven. It’s been quite a spell since we bathed with soap and had a proper haircut. Trappin’ puts us in the water everyday but I ain’t never met no beaver yet that took the time out to put a mixing bowl over my head an’ cut my locks with scissors! Ha ha! We’ll take you up on your kind offer. First though, how much are you asking for a donkey? ”

“Well, I am not asking for much money for a donkey and to be honest, we have little use for them since Jute’s been training the mules to plow and the horses to ride and pull Rika’s carriage. How about you telling me what you are able and willing to pay, is that fair?”

“More than fair Sven, we won’t cheat you, fair is fair.”

That evening after dinner, the three went out to the barn yard near the well, soaped up and rinsed themselves off with buckets of cold well water. When dried off, they sat patiently each wrapped in a blanket on a milking stool while Mrs Grundvig transformed them into human beings with a razor and scissors. The two boys joked and made fun of each other’s clean looks and became even more slap happy as their father went under the speedy blur of Rika’s scissors. It took twenty years off of Traps appearance.

Rika finished and stood back looking at her work.“I see Mister Trap, that you are not such an old gubbe after all!”

“Gubbe?”

She reached out and gave his hair a friendly yank, “It means, Old wind bag in Swedish”.

The two boys fell over laughing.

At four in the morning the men entered the house to the smell of eggs, bacon and buckwheat flap jacks. They had slept soundly in the hay while under the protection of a roof over their head. By late dawn the three had packed their new donkey with fresh provisions also purchased from the Grundvigs. As it neared the time to take their leave, Trap turned around and faced Sven. “Uh, listen Sven, I can’t leave here without tellin’ ya’ the truth, it’s a warning I suppose. You and your family have been fine folks to us. If we left here not sayin’ anything an’ somethin’ was to happened to ya’, it’d weigh heavy on me.”

Sven looked confused. “What kind of warning are you speaking of? There are no Indians here other than the Blackfeet and we get along well with them ever since Rika saved the son of a Chief when we first arrived here. From that time on they have brought us meat and took the time to teach us the ways to survive. We have no fear of them.”

“It’s not Indians I’m talkin’ about Sven. We ain’t been able to eyeball exactly who it is yet but they’ve been doggin’ our trail since we entered Montana. I fear it’s a group of trappers like us but French. All I really know is that whoever they is they ain’t the friendly type. ”

Sven asked, “Have they harmed you then?”

“No, not directly. They been keepin’ their distance but one night they pulled all our traps and cut up into pieces the beavers caught in ‘em. We never found the traps and we’re hopin’ they might still be at the bottom of the pond. We’re on our way back there to look for ‘em now. Another time they cleaned us out of all our grub while we was away from camp and just a week ago they run off with Old Geezer our donkey in the middle of the day. That time we lost our extra tent and a case of trade knives and hatchets for the Indians. We’re trappers, not fighters so we been tryin’ to stay outa’ their way. ‘cause we were plenty outnumbered.”

“Being trappers we got to pack light. We only got one gun between us and that’s an old seventy two cap an’ ball rifle I bought years back in case of bears and the need for fresh meat. If them that’s doggin’ our trail knew that’s all we carried, I’m sure they’d a made a move on us before this.”

Jute spoke up, “Is that why you and your sons were studying our rifles over the mantle? At first I thought you might be thinking of taking them…but I apologize, that was before we got to know you.”

“That’s understandable, I take no offense. Them rifles look like they could piss off a Grizzly for sure but I’d never think of takin’ something that don’t belong to me. If I were you though, I’d keep ‘em loaded an’ close at hand until you’re sure there ain’t nobody around that would bother ya’.

“Thank you, we’ll take your advice. Are you all going to be safe going back to search for your traps with those men still out there?”

“That’s a matter to be seen. We ain’t got much choice, do we? Without our traps we might as well be on a picnic. That pond ain’t too far from here, you may know of it. It’s just a two days ride south between Red Lodge Creek and the Big Rosebud River, in that swampy area that’s been made by all them beaver dams. Once we get our traps and fur cache, we’ll be passing through here again. We’ll stop and let you know how things turned out.”

“Please do that, and yes, I am familiar with the swamp area. I take Jute into the Bear Tooth Mountains there to hunt game. He’s an excellent hunter, much better than myself. When we first came here and Rika saved the chiefs son, the Blackfeet took to Jute right off. They schooled him in ways I was not able to. He can track and hunt as well as any of them. Rika gets nervous when we go off to hunt but I tell Rika not to worry about us. The worst that will happen is upon our return she will have to let out my clothes  from Jute’s good cooking!”

Sven knew Western folk, especially mountain men, liked to keep their personal problems to themselves but curiosity got the better of him.

“Excuse my being forward, but seeing as you have only one rifle and you will be making your way through here on your return, please, would you honor me with a favor?”

“Sure, if I’m able to?”

“I’m sure you are able. We want you to take one of the Golden Boy rifles along with you and four boxes of cartridges. Upon your return, you may give it back. If you do not return, then I will know you at least were better armed and went down fighting. Ja?”

Trap stood there holding the new Golden Boy rifle that Jute had brought out from the house. Carl and Deloy were handed two boxes each.

”These are the cartridges, fifty to a box put some of them in your pockets” Jute instructed. “That way, no matter who grabs the rifle, there’s a ready supply of ammunition.”

“Sounds like your boy knows his stuff Sven, he’ll do all right,”

“ I told you, he learned from the best. Hopping Crow, the Chief’s son Rika saved, is his best friend. There kind of a friendly rivalry between them. Hopping Crow’s Uncle, Two Knives, was the one who took Jute under his wing as his teacher.”

“I sure want to thank you for the loan of the rifle Sven. We’ll each take some target shot on it after we’re out of hearing range. That way you won’t go thinkin’ we’s under attack.”

Trap looked tired as he mounted his horse and said to no one in particular, “I sure will be glad when I can quit this business. It sure ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure.”

Sven walked over to where Trap sat mounted.

“Trap, from what you’ve told us, it sounds like being a trapper may not have the longest of futures. What will your two boys do if the beaver are all trapped out?”

Trap looked at his two strapping sons, both dark featured and handsome in their own right, especially after a shave and hair cut. He sat there for a moment in thought before answering.

“I want my boys here to settle down an’ marry someday. You’re right, the fur trade is dyin’ out quick. I’ve been following the beaver halfway across the country in order to make enough money for a future for my boys. I figured if I save up enough, then someday we can get a spread, something like you folks all have here an’ maybe be lucky enough down the road to get me a passel of  gran’kids to go fishun’ with.”

Sven smiled and shook Traps hand. “You are welcome back here anytime my friends. This is a good valley to settle in. We can teach you what you need to start your farm and ranch. Winters can be hard but if you prepare for it, it is not too bad. It would be a pleasure to have good people like you as neighbors”

“Someday you might just look up an’ see a familiar group of sod busters movin’ into the valley here. Until that day comes though, take care Sven, and keep a clear eye out for the next week or so around here.”

With those words sounding pleasantly in their ears, the three mountain men sporting freshly cut hair and shaved faces, took to the trail that led towards the valley that held numerous lakes and ponds… and presumably their traps.

 

Chapter 2

   That evening after dinner found Sven and Jute cleaning and oiling the two remaining Golden Boy’s.

“We’ll put one by the front door and one by the rear.” Jute told his parents. When we go outside, take one with you. Before taking care of the animals in the barn, stop and eye the woods and fields from the upper windows. Stay within the shadows to prevent being seen by anyone. Be sure to listen to the animals, they will warn you if they smell or hear anyone approaching. If you hear them give a warning, take a hammer and beat the anvil three times loudly with it. That way those of us in the house will know also but those approaching will only assume someone is pounding a horseshoe in the barn. After hitting the anvil three times, go and hide in the upper loft with the rifle and keep alert.”

Rika asked him, “What if they come from the prairie and not the woods. Whoever is in the barn will not know of there approach.”

“If they come from that direction, they will not be able to see the rear of the house, only the front or at best, including one side. Close the kitchen shutters and yell loudly as if calling the pig, ‘Here pig, pig, pig!’ This will alert anyone inside the barn or an outbuilding of impending trouble from the front of the house.”

“Jute,” Sven said with a smile, “When you see Two Knives, give him my thanks. He has trained you well son. I never would have been able to think of all that.”

“Don’t ever think I learned any less from you Dad. The Blackfeet never taught me anything about cattle, farming or all of the thousands of little things I could have only learned from you.”

Sven answered with a smile, “All the same, I am glad you paid attention then to both of us. What do we do right now?”

“We have a farm and ranch to run. I don’t think we will have a problem until they study us and our movements. Whenever possible stop and look around without being too obvious about it, but let’s keep on working like nothing has changed.”

A week passed and Jute wondered how the three trappers had fared. They might be back on their way if they found the traps, reset them and harvested their catch. As trained by Two Knives, Jute did not let his guard down while waiting, nor would he let his parents relax. If these men were capable to outwit seasoned mountain men then they would know most people become careless after a few days of peace. Of course they may have skirted around the ranch and picked up the trappers trail further west…but in his heart he doubted it.

He had been thinking long and hard on those dogging the trio. Why would they? Trap and his sons had no prior run ins with anyone. No killings, no fights, no upset husbands. It could only be about money. Trap had never mentioned a bank and yet year after year he sold his valuable pelts.

Trap had paid his father in British gold sovereigns. That had to be it. He said the fur trade was collapsing fast, who would be most affected by that? There was only one group as back woods savvy as the trio of trappers. Other trappers…specifically French fur trappers!

Chapter 3

Over breakfast the next morning Jute decided it was time to tell his parents.

“Mother, Dad? I think I’ve figured out who’s after our trapper friends. I thought it out and the only group it could be are French trappers looking to rob them. Ask yourself this. How would the French trappers know when and how many furs the trio sold? It’s because they all worked for the same Hudson Bay Company as Trap and his sons. Who else is capable of stealing a donkey from under their noses, or stealing their food? Only Indian trained men, that’s who. French fur trappers are known to live among the Indian camps, many marry their women as did Trap.”

Sven thought about it and agreed. Jute further explained to them that the out of work French trappers were opportunist preying on the secluded ranchers and farmers. Knowing a farm ranch such as the Grundvigs had would contain many valuables that could be sold to other settlers for top dollar, they could not pass it up without trying their best to get their hands on them.

“If there are even five or six in the group, we’re in trouble but able to still take them on. If there are more than that, we need a miracle. I think they are waiting to show up here just in case our friends warned us about them. They’ll figure that by now we’ve returned to our normal routine and have let down our guard. It’s been long enough, If I were them I’d try for tonight.”

The next couple of hours were spent quietly securing the house for an attack. Sven dragged a steel watering trough into the great room and many buckets later, had it filled with water. “In case of a fire” he said. Rika placed a box of fifty cartridges at every window and door. She removed the pistol kept on her side of the bed, made sure it was fully loaded and slipped it into her apron pocket.

Sven closed the upper shutters but left one on each side of the house unlatched and ready to peer out of. The largest window in the great room had no shutter so a trip to the barn was needed for wooden planks. While inside the barn he opened all the stall doors and unlatched and cracked open the barn doors. This way, in case the French Trappers set fire to the barn, the animals could freely escape. He then set out extra feed and filled the interior trough with water. The animals would now be able to survive in case of a few days siege occurred.

By noon, all was secure and ready for an attack. There was only one thing left for Jute to do. In order to be an effective fighter, he needed to be away from the house, and be outside.

It was the persistent chattering of the Magpies that warned Jute he wasn’t alone…

Chapter 4

Making his way around the far side of the corral, he watched as the furthest magpie took to the air. Armed with one of the Golden Boys rifles, he ran bent over into the woods.

From that position he saw one after another magpie take to squawking flight. He wondered if the French trappers knew of the magpies. Quite possibly not he mused, the magpie was considered a western bird. Watching the magpies circle and land elsewhere, he knew exactly where the group was located.

The group was slowly making their way to the eastern side of the house behind the barn. He thought of slipping into the barn and taking a stand there but again his training told him that was a foolish move.

Instead, he decided to stay put in order get a good count on their numbers as they passed quietly nearby. When they had passed and gathered behind the barn for nightfall to come, Jutes stomach churned. Jute had counted twenty two men!

“Our friends must be carrying a fortune” he thought to himself. “If their money was worth splitting it between twenty odd trappers, they must have thousands of dollars in gold on them. On the other hand, Trap did say they had saved enough to buy a farm or ranch outright.”

Jute could not remember any large satchel being carried so either it was in the horses saddle bags or hidden somewhere and the French were unaware of it. “I bet that’s why they stole the food and donkey.” He thought, “They first thought the food was the money satchel and later thought the donkey was carrying the money”.

Jute came to the conclusion that the money was definitely the reason the three trappers were being hunted.

The slanting yellow sun cast long shadows over the landscape. The shadows were Jutes friend. Moving to the west, he knew the trappers would have the sun directly in their eyes. It was time for Jute to start the dance so he tossed out his calling card.

Seeing a lone figure slipping away from behind the barn, he watched as the man stood urinating in the bushes. He pressed his rifle against his shoulder and slowly sighting it, he adjusted it upwards for the bullets drop at such a distance then pulled the trigger.

The figure stood for a moment. Then it tumbled face forward into the bushes.

There was nothing he could do about the sound but being in front of the sun, he was invisible to the trappers as they fled into the nearby dark woods. Their cover blown, their sneak attack turned into a free for all. Gunshots were heard and each time Jute saw a muzzle flash, he returned a bullet at the spot. Screams of the injured mixed with the sounds of gunfire. Because many of the trappers had fled into the ill lit woods they began shooting in each other’s direction in confusion.

Being one of many trying to hide or return fire in the long dark shadowed woods was not the safest of places to be. Bullets twanged off of tree trunks, men shot at any movement seen and new howls of pain could be heard over the curses and gunfire. While every now and then a bullet zipped its way into the darkening woods where Jute hid, they were still so ill aimed that Jute held little fear he would be hit.

Instead, Jute smiled and continued to unload his deadly lead into the tree line.

 

Chapter 5

Evening turned into night and the gunfire turned silent. Since Jute had specifically told his parents not to join the attack from inside the house unless the house was broken into, there were no shots were fired. The group was still unsure of its occupancy or firepower so they decided to wait until dawns light to attack.

On the other hand, Jute was now in his Blackfeet trained environment. The night’s darkness belonged to him.

Jean Bernard Leblanc, the leader of the French trappers, sat sullenly near the barn in the woods complaining that someone’s clumsiness must have given them away. No campfire was lit so that meant no hot food.  Leblanc and most all the other trappers were used to living off the land though. A cold meal or none at all, made little difference to them. They were in for the gold and whatever else they could steal along the way. Right now that meant robbing and killing the Grundvig family.

Jute left his woods and casually made his way to the barn. No moon meant no light, just the way Jute wanted it.

Making his way around the barn he smelled the man guarding his position before he saw him. Jute stopped and listened to the guard breathing heavily. Judging by the sound alone, Jute could tell the man was quite fat. The method of disposal would have to be quick. A large man can still put up a fight even when his throat is cut. To knife his heart would work better but in the dark on such a large man, missing the heart would be easy. Jute pondered the situation and decided to maim and not kill the man would serve his purpose even better. He had been taught there where two sure ways to destroy your enemy. One was by using force and the other was by using fear. So fear it was.

From the direction of the barn, the fat guard heard the sound of footsteps casually approaching his post. It was too early to be relieved of his duty yet but on the other hand it was most likely just one of his fellows with a bite of food or drink.

Turning to face the approaching footsteps, he was surprised when he felt a sharp stinging pain sweep over his scalp. Thinking one of his fellow trappers had yanked hard on his hair as a joke, he cursed and slapped his hand onto the top of his head. What he felt stunned him. Instead of a filthy growth of matted hair, his hand found a warm, wet and slippery skull. He had been scalped alive.

The peaceful night air was torn with a horrible blood curling scream.

Men came running with freshly lit lamps only to start screaming themselves when they saw the portly scalped man they called LePaunt or the Smelly one.

LePaunt  continued to roll on the ground screaming and grabbing at his bleeding skull. Finally, in an act of mercy a gunshot rang out and LePaunt lay quivering, not quite dead.    Someone yelled in French “Shoot him again! He is still shaking! I cannot stand to look at him shaking!” Another shot rang out and LePaunt eye was blown from its socket but LaPaunt continued to shake. Again the man cried, “Aieee! Poor lePaunt he still lives!” Three more shots in quick succession ended lePaunts shaking legs.

No sooner had order been somewhat restored when another scream rent the night. This time the man was found running in circles missing his nose and lips. The gaping hole in his face bled freely down his jacket as he ran in circles screaming. It was a nightmare to those watching by the light of the small lamp. The man did not even look human. Instead, with the help of the dark and shadows cast by the lamps, the man resembled a live screaming skull.

Knowing there was no help for the man, Jean Leblanc ordered him shot.

No one slept that night. Talk of the horrors and who could have perpetrated them consumed the conversation. One fellow, a skinny toothless man with bad breath told everyone that the Blackfeet in Montana were known shape shifters. That upon a whim they can change into any form of animal they desire.

Trying to make light of the situation, another piped up that his wife was a shape shifter because every time he wanted to poke her she turned into a bear! The others laughed nervously but soon the memory of the gruesome episodes returned to frighten the men.

Dawn came none too soon for the French trappers. Each gave a silent sigh of relief to see they had made it through the night alive. Well, most anyway. Three more men were found dead. One lay as if asleep between two men that had been fully awake the entire night. His throat had been cut so deeply his head lolled back and forth as if unattached. Another sat with a small bottle of whiskey still in his hands. No outward sign of death was noted but he had no eyes. The last was found naked hanging from a tree in the woods with missing eyes, ears, nose and tongue. A small hole over his heart gave evidence that at least he had died quickly.

What the French did not know was that while Jute was a very good tracker and could even scalp a man if needed, Jute was not a cruel person , quite unlike the Blackfeet, who had helped him throughout the night.

Moments before Jute acted on Lepaunt, a pinching touch on his arm told him his friend Hopping Crow had unexpectedly arrived. It was Hopping Crows idea to scalp the man and to add to their fun, the other hunters that had come with Hopping Crow joined in by dispatching a few more.

After the killings, Jute motioned for his Blackfeet friends to join him inside the house. Once safely inside, he explained the situation to them and his parents.

Hopping Crow in turn explained their timely arrival.

Hopping Crow said that they had actually been on the way over to the Grundvigs place to invite Jute on a hunt when the party noticed the same sudden explosion of the magpies as Jute did. Thinking a predator beast may be in the field, they crept cautiously forward until they saw what had made the commotion. The Blackfeet had a few skirmishes with other French trappers years ago and seeing this group sneaking up on the Grundvig home, they knew the trappers were up to no good. When night fell they observed Jute walking casually toward the barn so they followed silently behind him.

“I did not hear you behind me.”

“You are not Blackfeet” was Hopping Crows reply.

“When you touched me in the way a Blackfeet does, I knew then it was you.”

“A white man would have jumped, you trained well under Two knives.”

Jute then said, “We have three trapper friends who should be returning here soon. Take care that if they come that you do not attack them by accident. They are good men and want only to live in peace.”

“How will we know them?”

Jute thought for a moment then replied. “By their hair! My mother just cut their hair. Look!”

Jute ran into the kitchen and taking up the mixing bowl returned with it on top of his head. That drew giggles and laughter from the Blackfeet.

“This bowl was used to cut their hair. They have no hair from the bowls rim down and around to their neck.” Jute pointed to the bottom edge of the bowl surrounding his head. “The French trappers have long unruly hair tied in knots behind their heads or just hanging down like a mangy horse tail. Our friends have also recently bathed. They will smell different than the French which smell of rotting meat.”

Hopping Crow turned and explained all this to the five other Blackfeet hunters in the room. Nods of comprehension followed.

“We will not attack your friends if they come. Let us now talk of a way to rid the forest and fields of these Frenchmen.”

Chapter 6

Morning’s dawn broke not a moment too soon for the terrified French trappers. After a quick head count and discovering the mutilated naked hung trapper, they quietly gathered their wits about them to plan for their next onslaught on the Grundvig homestead.

Jean LeBlanc spoke. “We will divide into four groups of five. Two groups will attack the house from north, two from the south. The first of the two will attack on my word and the second will attack ten minutes later.

“I sent a man into the barn early this morning, it is empty except for some animals. How many people are in the house and who these people are, I have no idea. Last night they attacked us to put fear into each of you. That means they are outnumbered but have an Indian’s cruelty so be cautious. By attacking from two sides at once though, they will have to divide their forces. When our men tire and run low on ammunition, the next group will take over for them. Inside, the house will become so full of gun powder smoke that it will make their eyes sting and water. This will make it difficult to aim their guns and that means they will expose themselves for longer periods of time at their windows. They foolishly shuttered all of their windows so the smoke will not be removed by a breeze flowing through the house. When we kill them all, we will gather their belongings and divide them fairly between us. The horses will be added to our own remuda. And the mules killed for their meat.”

At eight O’Clock in the morning, LeBlanc gave the word to attack.

A few things then happened all at once. First, at hearing the opening shots, one after another, every shutter was thrown open on the house and then gunfire erupted. The plan to us the gun smoke to their advantages had failed.

Secondly, the two separate groups of five men each rounded the corners of the home only to run head first into the onslaught of fire coming from the Blackfeet hiding there.

Thirdly was the sound of three horses at a hell bent gallop heading their way from the west.

LeBlanc was taken by surprise. It was too much for him to absorb and make adjustments in his attack. He stood there open mouthed watching as his men turn one after another into wriggling painfully bullet ridden contortionist.

With a terrible lack of judgment, he ordered the second group to attack.

By now withering fire was coming from the homes windows, both sides of the yard from the Blackfeet and now from the three men on horseback from behind.

The French trappers turned robbers never had a chance. The Blackfeet took scalps from the screaming living as well as the dead. The shutters once again closed and the men on horseback arrived, dismounted and ran to where jute could be seen standing over a begging Frenchman in the yard.

“I knew it!” Trap shouted, “I felt in my bones they was going to attack you all! We was settin’ the last of the traps when all of a sudden somethin’ told me to get up on our horses an’ hightail it back here. Everything we owned was left a settin’ right where we dropped it!”

“It’s good that you came. And I’m sorry you left your belongings behind.” Sven said stepping out of the back door of the cabin.  “Your timely arrival was enough to cause this man here on his knees to make a terrible mistake in his confusion. His men paid dearly for it.”

Hopping Crow’s hunters had finished their grizzly task of making sure the attacking trappers entered the next world in a humiliating fashion then joined Sven, Jute and their funny haired friends.

Meanwhile, Jean Bernard LeBlanc knelt in the grass crying. Hopping Crow walked over and looking down at the man sniffed. “He shit pants!” and returned to the assembled group in disgust.

After introductions went around, and hands were shook, the bodies of the dead were gathered up for a proper burial. Being a fellow trapper, Trap asked this to be done rather than just dragging them into the woods for the animals to feed on.  He figured that at one time or another in their lives, they might have been good men that had just gone bad. LeBlanc still lay in the grassy yard begging for his life when a single Indian stepped up to him and shot him through the head then quickly scalped him. All turned at the sound of the single gunshot but said nothing until Hopping Crow spoke up. “He needed to die, his friends were lonely and besides, he smells bad.”

The Indians just shrugged making no judgment and later helped to drag the dead men into the common holes in the woods that had been dug for them. Four to a grave and an upright stick to mark the graves was all the evidence they received declaring they had ever walked on this celestial ball.

After the chore of burying the dead was finished, Hopping Crow walked over to Jute and said, “We will go and hunt now. I will tell my Uncle Two Knives of your bravery here. He will be proud!” After saying that, Hopping Crow and his fellow Blackfeet turned and silently walked back in the direction they had originally come from.

Trap rubbed his chin in wonder saying to Jute, “ You was right young fella, them Blackfeet friends you got sure is folks worth bein’ friends with.”

Meanwhile Sven had entered the home and returned with Rika in tow. She had glimpsed the carnage earlier from the lone kitchen window and had thought better of taking a second look, especially during the scalping. She did not approve but understood the cultural difference between the two groups. It was with some trepidation in Jutes earlier tutelage with the Blackfeet that she feared he may become too much of a Blackfeet. Seeing how he handled this situation gave her the confidence he knew where to draw the line.

Sven approached Trap and asked, “What are your plans Trap? Do you plan on going back for your traps and gear? If you do or do not, you and your sons may stay here with us this coming winter if you wish.”

“Last night the boys and I talked it out and decided to leave our gear where it lays. Trapping’s pretty much over with anyhow. The beaver population will take decades to recover before it would pay to start trappin’ again. No, were done for.”

“What will you do instead?” Jute asked.

“Well, I need to talk to your Daddy here about that.” Looking at Sven Trap asked, “You mentioned something about land still available. You think there’s enough land for the two of us to do farmin’ and some ranchin in the same valley?”

The smile on Sven’s face said it all. “There is more than enough my friend. I will even go to the land office with you to file your land claim. But Trap, I must tell you that no bank will loan you money for land out this far from a town. Unfortunately, you will have to save enough up to pay in full.”

“Shoot, that’s what I had intended anyhow! I ain’t never gonna’ be beholdin’ to no fancy pants banker. No siree!”

Sven smiled but a look of doubt clouded his eyes. “Trap, even way out here starting a ranch or farm is not cheap. I come from a well to do family back in Sweden and it still cost me all I had to come to America and put my roots down here. I know you had mentioned once that you have been saving your money but my friend, unless your horse is carrying gold bars on it, I do not see how you could possibly purchase such a large spread as you need. I do not mean to pry into your finances Trap, but just how much money do you have to buy land with?”

“Well… I never really counted it out. I’m not real good at numbers Sven. Suppose I bring it here and you count if for us and tell us how much we got?”

“I would do that for you Trap but where is your money at if you do not keep it in a bank? “

“We buried it!”

“You did what?”

“We buried it right after our donkey was stole by the Frenchies. They almost had it by Gum! That’s what Ol’ Geezer was for, to carry all our gold coins.”

“Deloy here had a dream that someone sneaked up and stole our money. So the next day we all felt it was a sign to hide our coin. Good thing to because that next day Old Geezer was took. Speaking of Old Geezer, we need to round up them Frenchies horses and Old Geezer now that they is all dead.”

Two days later, Geezer arrived along with the three trappers on their horses. Tied to Geezers pack saddle were two large wooden crates, one on each side. After dismounting and stretching the two boys Carl and Deloy, unpacked the crates and pried open the tops for all to see inside.

Trap spoke up in anticipation. “C’mon Sven, let’s see how much we got here. Will you and Rika count it out for us?”

Sven and Rika each took a case to count and when finally finished counting all the coins, they worked their figures on paper then sat back on the haunches and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Trap asked.

“Trap,” Sven replied laughing, “We’ll make that trip to the land office just as soon as you wish. By our count, you and your sons have saved enough over the years to not only buy your land but if you wished, ours as well !”

Trap looked around confused, “Now why would I want to buy your land?”

Everyone laughed.

Chapter 7

For years the two brothers and their families successfully plowed the land and tended their cattle on the ranch their father had purchased for them. As often as they could, they would get together with their neighbors Jute and his wife and their children for picnics and social visits to the growing town of  Red Lodge Montana. At one time their parents were celebrated as early Montana pioneers but to each son they always remained just Mom or Dad until the day came that they too in their old age joined their parents in eternal rest. Their children grew, married and life continued moving forward until the two family’s histories were lost in the blur of time.

For over a century now, Trap Hamblin, Sven and Rika Grundvig, lay resting in obscurity but at peace in the rich Montana soil on the property they had worked so hard to tame. Their children and grandchildren sleep near to them knowing their seed continues on elsewhere.

Perched nervously on the highest tree limbs, steel fence post, aluminum sheeted barn roofs and on top of two forgotten families faded grave stones resting in a common graveyard sit the magpies. They are the descendents of those very same magpies that had warned Jute and the Blackfeet of impending danger.  Today they continue to play out their never ending role as nature’s opportune scavengers yet ever vigilant guards.  Like Jute, have you ever stopped to pay attention to what they might be telling you?

The storm of the century

The storm of the century

As told to writer JW Edwards

Our barn at the beginning of the storm

 

In the pages of my recipe book ( Maw Maw’s recollections, observations and recipes ) where I talked about Baptist fried chicken, I had made mention of the Great Appalachian flood of 1950. I remember it as well yet as you younger folks remember Hurricane Katrina. In fact, it was our Katrina. On Saturday, the 25th of November a freak early winter storm hit our area like a brick going through a window.

On Thanksgiving morning of the 23rd, it was cold, too cold for West Virginia for that time of year. Over the radio, we was warned a severe cold wave was approaching.  Henry and I made sure all the cracks in our wood frame house had been stuffed up with rags. It was a heck of a way to spend Thanksgiving day! Rags had to be stuffed into the uneven spaces between house and the top of the block walls in the basement. A year previous, Uncle David and Henry had dug out under the house and laid in a clay block basement. Not being bricklayers, the rows of bricks ended up looking like sea waves or a roller coaster, but I wasn’t going to complain. We then purchased a deep freezer and an extra refrigerator along with rows and rows of shelves for all my canned goods.

No longer did we need to cut and haul ice from the pond anymore. Henry turned the room under the barn floor into a room for him and his Paps hobby. Cheese making. When he did, however, he hired on a couple tile layers from Hinton to do the job. Henry installed a dumb waiter for hauling up and down milk and cheese products and replaced the steps with wider ones made of steel.

The old walls had a new white ceramic tile laid on them along with a smooth concrete floor.  Stainless steel tanks and tables would be put in along with other cheese making stuff.

It was a paying hobby that in just a few more years would have to move from the barn to a real building. Their hobby would become a true business. The cheese making facility would be housed in a building they’d have built for it up in Princeton. Henry’s Pap retired from the logging business due to bad hips that year . When Henry approached him about moving the cheese making facility up to Princeton and having his Paps run it, his Paps readily agreed.  For the last couple years, they had been producing some fine cheeses in that barn room but without a bigger facility they couldn’t grow any more. The move would give the company the room it needed. Within six months of moving they would have seven employees and their own delivery truck.

But in November of ’50 that building wasn’t even an idea yet and I had Henry home with me tearing up and stuffing rags into our home to keep the pipes from freezing.

We had no television yet. It wasn’t until the 60’s that the Television signal was made powerful enough to be caught by a set of rabbit ear antenna in our neck of the woods.

Until that day came, AM radio was our window to the world.

The radio warned of the freeze coming that night but by noontime on the 23rd, the sky looked angry and dark. In the summertime I would have made for our new basement with a good book to wait out the storm. But this was November and storms of any consequence were rare if not unheard of in our area. Most we ever got was a long cold drizzling rain spell. That night we all enjoyed a hearty Thanksgiving dinner and many of the recipes I used in that meal will be told to you..

The next morning on the 24th, frost was on the ground but we stayed warm and cozy inside the house. The weather report on the radio said there was a low pressure area developing down in South Caroline and was headed up to Virginia.  Other than the cold, it didn’t look too bad. By dinner time it had begun to snow.

The kids sure enjoyed the sight of an early snow and asked if they could go outside to play in it for a bit.  I felt ill at ease there for some reason. I felt there was something ominous about the weather and I spoke to Henry of my concerns.

He’d had his ear glued to the radio waiting for any word about the storm.  Paying attention to his own gut feelings, Henry said we should secure the barn and put out extra feed so’s the animals could get a boost of energy to stay warm. We let the boys outside to play just until we got back from barn chores. On our way to the barn, bolts of lightning started to light up the falling snow. That added to an already uncanny feeling that we were in the first stages of something terrible. We both quickened our steps.

Inside the barn, the animals seemed agitated and skitterish. We laid out two more days supply of hay and extra feed in the troughs. Henry carried water in and filled the big round cattle buckets. We put out extra feed in the chicken coop and made sure each animal was given few moments of attention to help in calming them down before we left.

When we got back to the house, the boys had made a mess of the new fallen snow out front in their fun, but was more than obliging when we told them to get inside. They were soaked with melted snow and froze to the bone. I had the kitchen wood stove fired up from making dinner yet but added even more wood to cut the chill that begun settling in. Henry went down and stoked the wood burning “boomer” gravity feed furnace we had installed in the basement. The house got so warm, we all took our shoes off and enjoyed Henry’s reading a story book to us in our socks by lamp light.

When it came time for the boys to get on up to bed, Henry turned the radio back on. The man on the radio was giving warnings of severe cold for the next day but didn’t mention much else. Now we had heat only on the downstairs floor at that time. Large open cast iron heat grates had been put in each upstairs room’s floor. This way, the  rising heated air would make it’s way from the first floor into the second floor above.

Many houses built in our area used he same method of heating the second floor. It wasn’t until we converted to an electric fan driven coal furnace that heat pipes were installed in every room.

I decided the boys would be warmer if they got their bedding and camped out on the living room

floor. They made a fun time of it and I knew it would be a late night with them staying up from all the excitement.

Their happy faces changed to worried ones when the wind began blowing in gust so hard it ripped the screen door clean off it’s hinges. Henry made a sharp comment regarding not latching the hook when Earl, our youngest, reminded him that he was the last one inside.  Shortly after that episode, something (most likely a branch) slammed into the side of the house with such a bang we all jumped. By now Henry was saying that this weren’ t no regular storm and wanted to check on the animals once again in the barn. He was afraid a latched door or hay loft window may have blown open.

So I told him I’d put the kids down and he could go out and check the barn while I got them settled.

We had electric out in the barn but it wasn’t working when Henry tried to put the lights on. Clicking on his flashlight, He followed the wires outside until he found one hanging loose from the pole. It had been blowed down in the wind.  Fortunately, his tools was kept in the barn. He got the wires reconnected in the freezing wind and snow and thankfully, the lights came back on inside.

By now he was half froze through and his flashlight was on dim. He made a quick check of the latches to see if any had come loose and was satisfied that they was all tightly hooked. He made his way back to the house in the deepening drifts that were now forming. Once he got back inside the house, the boys had fallen asleep being curled up in a pile of warm blankets.

I hugged him ’cause he looked so cold and raw. I loved that man beyond what words could declare. I took his hand and led him upstairs into our bed. 4:30 am came all too soon.

The morning wind had not slowed down one bit, in fact it was worse. I left the boys to lie where they was while I stoked the stove fire back up and started first breakfast. By the time I set the bread on the stove top to make toast, Henry come down stairs. He had left the water running a smidgeon in each tap the night before so’s they wouldn’t freeze up. Good thing too because it was now  just above zero outside. It was November 25th.

The wind was now howling at a constant 60 miles an hour. Some of our tar roof shingles were being blown off. Henry had to go outside in the weather to close the window shutters that had only been closed once before on that house. He found himself in snow up to his knees. It may have been a blessing having the screen door torn off by the wind the night before. No way could Henry have opened it outward with the snow drifted up on the door as high as his waist.  With first light, Henry made his way to each window. What would have been a five minute job was turning into a job that made each trip outside last for a half hour at a time. He’d return each time to warm up before heading back out to continue closing the shutters. By seven am, Henry’d made his last trip and returned to the safety that was inside. All the shutters, high and low were now closed and we felt now more at ease.

Second breakfast had been waiting on Henry to come back in and the boys devoured it right quick when we finally sat down to eat.

Henry went on over to the radio to listen for any updates.  The farm news was on but it was interrupted time and time again with storm updates.

On the radio were stories of far away towns in New York State, Ohio and Pennsylvania reporting constant winds of over 100 miles an hour and very heavy snow fall. Snow fall in southern Ohio was so dense they said visibility was no more than arms length. They was callin’ it the storm of the century.

We worried over how the house would take the high winds. We had never had a sustained blow like this one was giving us. Every now an then we heard a brick or two let loose from the chimney and tumble down the roof. I feared for my own Mam and Paps place not a mile away, but it might have as well been on the other side of the earth. Thank goodness we layed up extra feed for the animals out in the barn. If a latch had gone and let loose, there was no fixen it now. We hunkered down keeping warm while the storms fury pounded the earth outside our little Ark.

For the noontime meal, I put  in a big chicken pot pie to bake. The smell was wonderful and gave us all a sense of peace within the confines of our home. Outside, it seemed the Devil himself was rippen’ tree limbs off and venting his fury on mankind. Some of the windows had jarred loose and snow was blowin’ past the shutters and through the window.

Once when I had gone upstairs to make up the beds, I had to brush a dusting of snow off my own bed! Again went the rags to the cracks.

Having the shutters closed gave the looks that we was in the night time. Just as I made the comment to Henry that I was thankful to the Lord for having the electric to see by, everything went dark. I found that later, over one million souls had lost electricity in West Virginia during that storm.

As the house went black, Henry’d asked if there was anything else I would like to mention seein’ as the Devil had forgot to put us all in the dark…that is, untill he heard me thankin’ God out loud.

By 8pm (close to our bedtime now) we was fearing the worst now. We could see earlier out the window on the door that snow had reached waist high in most places and had drifted more than 30 feet high in places. No longer could we see the barn doors at all.

Our beloved ’39 Chevrolet Deluxe had been left outside next to the house on purpose. Henry had moved it out of the barn just in case we needed it in an emergency. Well that ‘ol vehicle wasn’t being seen now! The snow had drifted well over the top of it.

It would be another week before we freed it up enough to move it.

That night as Henry and I laid on a make shift bed next to the boys in the living room, we all took turns thanking the Lord out loud for his protection then asking for our continued safety. I prayed special hard for our Mams and Paps and siblings. We didn’t have no phone back then either.

I fell into an uncomfortable and restless sleep as the storm continued to rage throughout the night.

The next morning brought more the same. Worry was eaten us like a cancer.

Fearing all our frozen goods was going to melt without electricity, Henry, the kids and I started the chore of moving the still frozen meat and such to bushel baskets and placing them outside the door. I wasn’t fearing an animal would eat the stuff as no animal could get around in that deep snow.

We emptied the deep freezer and put the refrigerated items in other bushel baskets in the attic. It was cold up there but not to the point of being frozen.

We had started a game of “Easy Money” and I was winning over the others when a tree limb the thickness of a mans leg came crashing through the side of the house into our Pantry. It was off our Black Walnut tree out back. With the limb poking through the wall, and snow blowing into the house, the smell of broken canned goods filled the house. Assessing the damage, Henry said the first thing was to cut out the stuck limb. Unfortunately, the saw, as were all the other tools , were in the barn. Henry had no choice but to brave the storm outside and try to make it to the barn. He told me that when he got into the barn, that he’d also care for the animals and I shouldn’t worry if he was gone for a spell. I got out Henry’s Bibbs, another set of Long Johns, more socks and a heavy coat. I kissed him inside the kitchen, opened the door for him and let him out into the still raging blizzard. I watched as he trudged like his feet were made of lead up towards the barn. I lost sight of him partway’s to the barn in the blowing snow.

I was thankful Henry’d mentioned taking time to care for the animals as it kept my worry down to a minimum when after an hour he still hadn’t returned. I was in the middle of pray’n that he was ok

when I heard his boots thump onto the stoop. He was so frozen his hand holding the saw wouldn’t release.  In his other hand he held onto a canvas satchel filled with other hand tools and nails. It took another hour to cut out the limb from the wall. Meanwhile the house was chilling fast. In order to patch the hole up, Henry removed some shelves in the basement holding more canned goods and nailed them up over the hole. We again had a sense of relief come upon us and the chill began to recede.

It wasn’t until Tuesday on the 28th of November, that the storm finally blew itself out. When it did, we woke up that early morning to a quiet that we had not heard in days.

Just because the storm had ended though did not mean we could get on with our daily routines as usual. True, my routine stayed somewhat the same. Cooking, cleaning, and keeping the boys from killing each other. For Henry, it was the start of many days of repairs that were being  made more difficult from the heavy snow fall.

That morning Henry and I both trudged out to the barn. The boys were left to themselves and were

given in clear terms what would fall their upon their backsides if they didn’t behave. They were given the chore of housekeeping. Amazingly, when we returned to the house, we found it to be spotless!

We made it to the man door on the east side of the barn where the drifting was at a minimum. While still outside we looked over the place for obvious damage. None could be seen but we noticed the power lines leading to the barn were nowhere to be seen. Fact was, the pole itself was gone too! Looking further down our entrance road, we noticed every one of those poles the co op had put in was left standing with a lean to them now. We was in for a long winter!

Once inside the barn again, Henry removed his gloves and headed to the feed room. There he took out feed for the chickens, poured some into a pail and handed it silently to me. I went and opened the chicken coop up and fed the chickens and gathered what few eggs was inside. Although the chicken coop was built outside the barn, Henry had made it so’s the one wall was also the wall of the barn. In that wall he had put a doorway so you could enter from inside or outside.

After I filled the feed and water trough I closed the door, thankful no chickens had froze to death.

Henry had finished filling the feed troughs inside and had pulled a few more bales of hay from the hayloft above. We began our inside inspection of our Civil War era built barn. Other than some tin missing from the roof, we could find no further damage. With wind no longer howling through the cracks, the animals seemed calm and back to normal. We cleaned up the manure, spread down more straw and headed back to the house. Later we would notice a great reduction in mice population after that storm. Whether or not the decrease was from being froze or eaten by the barn cats, it didn’t matter, we was still grateful.

Making our way back to the house, the sun come and through the clouds. Lit brightly for the first time in days, we could see what the storms fury had wrought upon us. Nowhere to be seen was the pasture fences, the drifts covered ’em all. The western side of the house had a drift going all the way up to the roof. It looked more like a white mountain had decided to place itself in our yard. Some of the tree’s had only the highest branches exposed. A small animal corral for the goats in the back yard was completely drifted over. I was thankful Henry had moved ’em into the barn when the storm started.

It would take weeks before we had electric strung up again. Even after we did, the main power lines heading to our property weren’t  restrung  until late December.

Repairs were slow going but one by one they were done. Henry had to make his way up to the finishing shed by the saw mill. That shed contained a big planer machine that made smooth a boards surface and made it into a desired thickness. We called it a shed but the fact was, it was bigger than our house.  There was other wood working machines in there too but I really couldn’t tell you what they did.

Anyway, Henry come back with some planks the same as the houses siding that was being stored in there. All day he worked on the hole in the side of the house  made by the falling tree limb. As the days wore on that first week after the storm, the weather improved greatly.

At first we considered it a blessing to see the snow melting away. When patches of grass and fence lines began to appear again, the radio began sending out dire flood warnings for the area. Seems the Bluestone dam in Hinton was causing more problems than was solving them. About twenty miles north east of our place was the town of Hinton. The Government decide it was a good place for a dam since the New River valley was sparsely populated and would provide some needed flood  controls. Work began in ’41 but wasn’t in full operation until ’52. Our storm hit in ’50. This meant the damn wasn’t ready yet for a flood like we got. Luckily, it could have been worse because they had lowered the river in anticipation of the spring thaws.

With the dam not able to handle the rising water level, creeks and such draining into the New River began to swell. Soon the New River overflowed it’s banks causing all the tributaries leading into it to over flow also. The Bluestone Dam never was much of a well built Dam. Constant problems plagued it over the years. Even today, the Government engineers decided that the Dam has the ability to literally move downstream in one piece if the water level rises beyond it’s present “Low water” level. Dang!

At first we only noticed the streams and creeks rising near our place. We see this each spring and it   was no cause for concern. But one morning Henry and the boys went to do morning barn chores and found a lake had surrounded our house!  It was only ankle deep but we had never seen the likes of it before.  Athens town was south.of us and on higher ground but the radio was saying even Athens was experiencing flooding. Now the bottom of the house started about two feet off the ground as it was laid on a foundation that was raised above ground level. It wasn’t the depth of the water so much as the power of the current that scared us. I feared the whole house (like some others we heard of ) would up and drift away in the flood.

Water was near to the top of the stoop by then. With only a few more inches to go before water poured into the house we began to remove everything we could from the basement and bring it upstairs. We kept the gravity furnace going on low heat fearing if the basement flooded, the cast iron insides would crack from the cold water when it became submerged.  Seems all we did from the beginning of the storm was work to survive.  Thankfully, we had no windows put in when Henry built the basement under the house. The original stone block foundation was built water tight.

Since the roads was too flooded for an vehicle to drive on, Henry fired up our gas tractor with a hay wagon behind it and drove on into Athens on it for supplies. Along route 20 there was a small amount of merchants springing up. These were pretty much a loss now. Henry’s tractor made it’s way along flooded low spots that sometimes forced him to lift up his feet. He later told me the water was so high in one spot that most the cooling fan up front was under water and sending out spray like a fire hose!

In town, he found the people there was pretty dry but the lower roads was flooded causing people to evacuate their places and head on into town for relief. The School had been turned into a shelter of sorts for those flooded out. We had nothing like that near us to fall back on accept our own churches…those that weren’t under water anyway.

Our own Baptist church was up on a hill so it never got affected by the flood. Those people displaced from the flood was staying in the recreation room out back. Until the bodies started arriving.

The  funeral home up in Princeton couldn’t handle but six bodies at any one time and besides that, most the roads leading to it on Greasy Ridge was still impassible.

The call went out for emergency space to hold bodies until they could be transferred to Princeton for embalming. No one was being buried ’cause the flooding. Our Pastor approached what elders he could locate and got permission to let any bodies not able to make their way up to Princeton to be stored in the recreation room with the doors open and heat off until the roads was passable  again.

Eighteen of the twenty six that lost their lives in our area ended up in our church’s recreation room. Those that had sought shelter there were now sleeping on the churches pews.  Grieving family members came and identified the dead but a few never found their loved ones at all. They was just listed as “missing” from then on. It was hearing of the dead children that drove me to my knees in tears. How I prayed for those who’s babies was gone forever.

Pastor held prayer services and passed the collection plate each night for the dead and suffering. Henry attended along with Uncle David each night. Henry and his siblings also donated all the fine cut maple boards from their mill so coffins could be made from them. Cabinet makers, Pete Haynes and his son donated all their labor in making the coffins at no cost. Few if any of the dead had insurance.

Uncle Davids ranch suffered only minor damage. No flood damage at all, just from the wind during the storm. My Mam and Paps place needed a new roof and one out building collapsed but none of the  animals lost their lives.

Henry’s Pap injured himself trying to re hang the barn door that got knocked off it’s track, but within a few days he was up and around again and doing fine. Our family was lucky in many ways. We sustained some damages, but nothing that compared to those who had lost everything.

Losing all your possessions and even loved ones was bad. But I truly think there was something lost that was worse yet. It was hope. Some folks had lost so much they couldn’t find the strength to start over again.

There was no FEMA or Government hand outs back then. If you couldn’t pull yourself up with your own bootstraps, even with help of neighbors, family and friends, you might as well just lay down and die. Some did just that. Suicides were a common occurrence for months afterward.  What the storm didn’t destroy, a gun or a razor did.

Today I can drive my vehicle and point out homes still standing and what damage they had had done to them back then. I knew the family’s living there and many I called friends.

They’s all but gone now. Most passed on, some in nursing homes. I’m not sure why the good Lord saw fit to let me live as long as this. I’m still quick in my thoughts and sometimes my mind forgets my bodies old and I find myself doing something an old lady like me shouldn’t do. Like driving maybe.

Still, I could be sad about all the friendships now gone and a loving husband no longer here to warm my bed and rub my aching feet at night. But still I rise up each morning like I did today and think, “what chores do I have to do today?” You got to stay young in your mind to stay alive. Back in the day,  we was the first to have indoor plumbing installed in our area. Today, I’m going Wal-Mart to buy a Kindle!