When the Spirit Grandfathers spoke.

Chapter 1 

Prancing Doe raised her blood stained face to the sky and howled in anguish. Her husband, Coughing Bear, lay scalped and dead at her feet. Her infant female child bounced violently within the basket being carried away by a warrior of a renegade band. As the warrior rode off with the screaming infant, on his side hung the fresh scalp of the child’s father.

Sinking to her knees, Prancing Doe knelt next to her dead warrior husband. Paying no attention to the open gash on her head, she began hoarsely chanting his death song in order to find his way safely to the hunting grounds where the Grandfathers waited for his arrival. When finished, Prancing Doe pulled out one of the sharp flint tipped arrows still protruding from his back and dug the arrows tip deep along the length of her arms to slice open the arteries inside until she lost consciousness.

In the brightness of the hunting grounds, Prancing Doe knelt beside Coughing Bear as he stood tall and spoke. In wonderment, she saw that all of the tribes Grandfathers were present. Many she only knew by songs and legends, others she had loved and cared for in life.

After addressing the Grandfathers in greeting, Coughing Bear honored them by singing each their own song as was taught to him as a child. It may have taken days but no one cared since the sun never set in the hunting grounds of the afterlife. When finished, the pipe was passed. The Grandfathers approved and the Great Spirit breathed his pleasure over the gathering which caused a stirring of their unbraided hair. A Grandfather rose and Coughing Bear was given by him a fine strong ash bow and a quiver full of straight arrows. Another gave him a sharp knife. In appreciation, Coughing Bear held a tightly wrapped bundle of sweet grass out to each Grandfather. He then stood, left Prancing Doe behind and joined the Grandfathers to his rightful place in the hunting grounds.

As one, each Grandfather turned their respectful gaze to Prancing Doe. The grandfather that had presented her husband the bow and quiver, sang to her a song of honor. Prancing Doe was humbled. When she felt brave enough, she looked up and he spoke to her.

“Prancing Doe. You have swept the leaves from the trail so that Coughing Bear would not lose his way here to the hunting grounds. You sang until his feet stood upon the holy ground. He was not waylaid by the trickster on his journey because of you. You honored him afterward by sending your own spirit to him as a guide and helpmeet. We are pleased. We give you honor and gifts.

The aged Grandfather held out his hand and in it hung a necklace of strong medicine charms. Some were of carved beaver teeth others knapped flint or precious blue stone. Prancing Doe was afraid to touch such powerful medicine. “Take this, wear it.” He told her, “By touching each in their own order, the honor of what you have done for Coughing Bear will be transformed into the power the Great Spirit has blessed you with. The power to heal, the power of seeing in the dark, the power of smell and the power to look down upon your enemy as does the Eagle in flight.”

He placed the necklace over Prancing Does head. The power of it was so great Prancing Doe feared it would consume her and said so.

Seeing her eyes flash in fear the aged Grandfather reassured her, “It is because you are humble that you fear its power, that is good.”

“ Grandfather, I understand and am honored beyond my own might. Still, I am confused. Why would I need such power here? Is this not a place of peace where death visits us no more and where no sickness abides? “

“To those like your Coughing Bear and those true warriors that have come before him, yes, that is true. Every Grandfather from every tribe is here. There is room for all. The Great Spirit flies above us all and as one people we give him honor. In return he blesses us with no hunger or death. Those who were evil, liars and boastful in their own mind are not here with us. They are sitting on their hemorrhoids brushing away gnats and spiders and serving Iktomi the trickster in the land of the dead.”

When you arrived, we were of like mind that you should be called a new name. Prancing Doe is a child’s name, a name of innocence and naivety. It is a name with little power to go before the people of the plains, the mountains and the forest. No, to do what needs to be accomplished you must have a powerful name. You are now called Ina Hoka. Even a warrior of great courage turns from a mother badger. Nothing pursues as the badger and nothing has more determination to protect her young than a mother!”

Ina Hoka blinked. “ Gandfathers, Nothing has such power as the Ina Hoka, all fear her. Why do you bestow me with such power?”

“There is one who does us no honor. He is the one who hid during the attack upon you and your family. He hid from harm behind his horse until Coughing Bears back was to him. Only then did he step forward pretending to be brave. He killed from behind as Coughing Bear struggled face to face with another brave warrior. He shamed us all with his cowardice. By taking Coughing Bears scalp he shamed us even further. Many Grandfathers shouted displeasure and demanded his tribe be banished until Maka Cesli pays for his dishonor. You are to return to the living people and claim your female child. You are to return to save the tribe Maka Cesli was birthed from forever being dishonored. And lastly, you are to return to receive the precious gift we have asked the Great Spirit to bless you with.”

“Grandfathers, I will do as you ask. As for further gifts, I am blessed far too much already. But I must ask you this,  is his name truly Maka Cesli? Skunk Feces? If I am to find him, tell me the name he is known to his people by, for I do not want to mistake another for him.”

‘You are wise Ina Hoka. Though we have vowed never to utter that name again, we will this one time say it, then never again will it be uttered here in the hunting ground. Ohinni Lowacin, I am always full of hunger, is a name no people shall ever use again. His name will be forever Maka Cesli. Even the Trickster will despise him.

Now Ina Hoka, Listen to me with all your might!

When you return to the living land, your eyes will be opened and our talk here will remain strong within your memory. Return and find your child. Now go with our blessing.”

Ina Hoka lifted her eyes beyond the grandfathers to gaze once again at the endless grassy plains and purple mountains of the hunting grounds. She had never seen such beauty before. She would miss the affection of the Grandfathers but knew someday they would smile again upon her final return.

Stepping up to a bundle of smoldering sweet grass she wafted the aromatic smoke over her head then fanned it towards the assembled Grandfathers. Once blessed with the sweet smoke, she touched each Grandfathers hand lightly in reverence. She turned and glanced about in search of Coughing Bear. He stood proudly smiling at her with raised palm. She returned his farewell wave and suddenly screamed in pain.

Chapter 2

“Hold on Ma’am, please lay still or you’ll bust open the dressings I put on your arms. I know they must hurt a load but for your own good, please lie still.”

Ina Hoka woke up screaming from the pain in her lacerated arms. She lay on a makeshift outdoor bed of soft grass and covering her was a stiff cloth of some sort. Turning her head she saw she was still in the same killing field as before. Looking frantically about, she noticed fresh graves had been dug and her husband’s body was no longer lying next to her. True to what the Grandfather had told her, she recalled in perfect clarity her visit to the hunting grounds and all that had been spoken.

Speaking in her own tongue to the man squatting beside her, she asked where her husband’s body was.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, I don’t speak Indian very well, just some trading phrases and such. I found you lying here almost dead. You’ve lost a lot of blood but I got the best of the bleeding most ways stopped now. ”

When she had turned her head, something shifted slightly on her chest, slowly moving her hand to her throat she discovered the strange feeling was the necklace. As if she had spent a lifetime doing so she skillfully fondled the healing beads and chanted. Within a few breaths time, her eyes cleared and her contorted face relaxed as the agony of the pain began to subside. When the pain became manageable, she asked the young man who was attending to her wounds about her husband.

“My husband?” She asked in English, “Did you bury him?”

Jerking backwards her rescuer jumped back in surprise, “Wha?? I’m sorry, you gave me a start Ma’am that’s all. I did not think you spoke any English”

“Yes, I do. My husband, is he buried?”

“If the young warrior that got himself kilt near you was your husband then yes, I gave him a Christian burial along with them old folks too. I heard you Indians bury a person facing East so I did that for them. Ma’am, to tell you the truth, at first I thought you was dead too.”

“I was about to move you over to that there grave I dug when I noticed you were still breathing. After I patched you up, you woke up and started screaming bloody murder. I’m tellin’ you Ma’am, you sure got a powerful set of lungs!”

Ina Hoka understood most of what the man said except for the odd reference to her lungs. She understood her husband was buried with honor and this man had been used by the Grandfathers to also save her life. She made a mental note to ask the Great Spirit to repay his kindness by blessing him when she was up to it.

“I’m putting up a tent over you so don’t get frightened, alright Ma’am? You won’t be moving for a while yet and I wanted to make sure you’re out of the weather if it begins to rain. By the way Ma’am I go by the name  Thomas, Thomas Payne… like the famous Thomas Payne…only I’m not him. ”

“Why do you stop to help me?” She asked.

“Shucks Ma’am, what did you think I’d do? Leave you here all alone to die?”

“Are you a medicine man To-mas that you knew to care for my wounds?”

“No, I’m no Doctor Ma’am. When I was a boy, my Daddy showed me a trick to closin’ up cuts when I was a kid. See that big ant hill over yonder? What you do is rustle up them folks till the big fighters come pouring out of the hive. Then you grab onto one behind the head. If you take the two sides of the wound and squeeze ‘em together and you place the ant just so, the ant will use his pinchers to bite you. All ya’ do then let him pinch the two sides of the wound tightly together with his bite. Once he’s forced the two sides together you pinch off its body and the head stays there keepin’ the wound closed and you end up with a fine stitch. I poured some whiskey on your wounds and the gash on your head to keep you from getting’ a fever from infection. It took a couple hundred ants to sew up your arms but I think it’ll heal fine like. I’m sorry but I don’t have any willow bark to ease your pain.”

Ina Hoka smiled up at him saying, “I have my own means of making my pain leave me.” She placed her hand over her necklace and told him, ”My name is Ina Hoka, I must avenge my husband and find my daughter that was taken by Maka Cesli.”

“I’m not sure who this Maky Selsa fella is but it’ll be a bit a time a’fore you can go chasin’ after him. I’m thinkin’ that if you can tell me where your tribe is, it’d probably be best if I could get you over to them as soon as possible. I’m thinkin’ they might go on out after that Maky Selsee fellow for ya’.”

“The Grandfathers named him Maka Cesli not Makee Selsee, it means skunk dung! His people still call him Ohinni Lowacin.  He is from a tribe that we have struggled with for many winters now. We have fought them over the right to hunt buffalo on the land. At one time there were many buffalo and we all lived in peace.”

“When the buffalo became few, the young warriors of his tribe would not listen to the elders and made trouble. Since that time, war between us has become more and more. Maka Cesli leads a band of young warriors wanting to make big their name to shame their elders into making the big war with my tribe. They have attacked women and children left alone in their lodges while the men went off hunting. I am saddened for my husband’s parents. All they wanted was to see the buffalo one last time before death from old age claimed them. My husband showed them great love and honor in bringing them here to fulfill their desire. Now they are all dead. When I can stand on my own, I will go find Maka Cesli’s camp and take back my daughter. I am a mother badger. I will chase him until he has no strength left and his legs fail him. Before I kill him I will cut off his man stick and send him to the Trickster choking on it!”

Thomas sat fully down in the long grass and looked at the young Indian girl lying there with bandaged head and arms. “I just bet you will too!”

 

Chapter 3

   The summer days passed quietly on the plains. Ina Hoka grew in strength and Thomas tried his best to learn her tongue. He thought at the least, it would come in handy living in the western plains where tribes still wandered freely about. But if the truth be told he began to find Ina Hoka a fascinating woman and discovered she was pleased at his attempts to speak the tongue of the Sioux. Her smile was a reward he looked forward to. He had seen few women as beautiful. Thomas spent part of the day away from Ina Hoka gathering dried buffalo chips to feed the camp fire and spent time gathering wild plants and any meat he could find. As her wounds healed, Ina was able to take on more and more camp chores. The day eventually came though that she had to tell Thomas he was a terrible cook. She shoo’d him away from the gathered supplies and turned a once bland meal into a delicious stew. From that moment on, each began to take unto themselves the chores expected of a man and a woman.

One evening as they sat next to each other eating, Ina looked over at the man who had so unselfishly cared for her. She was troubled in her heart. She had the task asked by the Grandfathers to find Maka Cesli and her daughter but found she did not want to leave the company of Thomas.  “To-mas, I am near the time I must go and find my daughter and kill Maka Cesli.” She then told him of her near death and all that had occurred during that time she was in the hunting grounds.

“How in heavens name will you, a lone woman, be able to accomplish all this? Don’t get me wrong Ina, I know you got the sand to do it but we don’t even know where they’s at.”

Ina Hoka lifted her necklace to him, “The grandfathers gave me this gift. It has powerful charms.” It comes not from this land but from the hunting grounds. It gives me the power to heal, to see into the night, to smell beyond that of the bear and to see as the flying eagle sees in flight.”

“If it heals, why did you not use it to heal your own wounds?”

“The power to heal is not for me but for someone else. When I lay there in pain, I asked the Grandfathers to heal my wounds but they told me it was not meant for me but because I asked, they would at least grant my pain to subside. That much I know. Who it is meant to heal, I do not know. Maybe it is for another time, not now.”

“Have you tried the other charms?”

“Yes, each time you leave to hunt or gather I follow you as the Eagle because I worry on your safety. Before we sleep, I search the night prairie as the Owl.” Then with a giggle she said, “Once I used the smelling charm to smell the distant mountain flowers.”

“You say that giggling, why?”

“To-mas, forgive me but your cooking smelled so bad that if I had not had the smell of the wildflower to revive me, I would have fainted!”

Saying that, the two of them broke into a howling laughter. “Good Lord Ina, it did have kind of a skunky smell to it now that I think back! It musta’ been them weed lookin’ things I added to the meal”

The evening sky darkened as they sat enjoying each other’s company and soon the only light was cast from the glowing campfire. Seeing Thomas’s handsome face framed in the glowing light, Ina could no longer keep her thoughts from becoming words.

“To-mas,” She said quietly, “I do not want to part from you. My heart is torn, it lays on the ground. My husband enjoys the hunting grounds as an honored warrior now. He will have no need or desire for a wife anymore. I have asked the Grandfathers of this. They told me so. I am happy for him yet I am feel shame that I desire to feel as a woman feels for a man so soon after his parting. Though we come from different peoples, I have come to respect you. More than that even. I want you to share my blanket.”

Thomas scooted himself closer to her and placed his arms over her shoulder.  She leaned into him.

“Ina, all this time I’ve been trying my darndest to get you to notice me as more than just a ramblin’cowboy that wandered into your life. I was sure you would never look at me as a suitor. To tell you the truth, as much as I was happy being around you it made me sad at the same time. In your tribe, can a man like me marry you?”

“I have a secret to tell you To-mas. We have spent almost a full moon together alone on the prairie. Even though we have not slept under the same blanket, my people would assume we did. If we arrived not as husband and wife they would think of me as one who jumps from blanket to blanket. You call this woman a whore. To prevent this, I had planned to leave you here as I went in search of Maka Cesli and my daughter. When I returned to my tribe with her, no one would have known about you. But my heart cried out that it wanted you. I could not gather the courage to leave you.”

“So if we showed up at your village, they’d naturally assume you and I are married. But if we act like we wasn’t married, they’d look upon you as a whore and treat you as a outcast?”

Yes.”

Thomas stood up and knelt before Ina Hoka. Taking her hand in his he spoke to her. “Ina, I know we got some big differences between us. I’ve always figured a woman would come my way someday but not until I saw the world an’ made my fortune.”

“I ain’t no good at this Ina so I’ll just come clean with it. I have fallen head over heels in love with you and I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on. I know you said folks would just assume we was married but I’m askin’ you if you’d make it real. Will you marry me? I know there ain’t no one around to say we are but isn’t there something in your tribal way that we don’t need a preacher or judge to be married?”

“By lying together, the Grandfather will know. In their eyes they will see our love and accept our union.”

That night, under a moonlit night under a blanket within the confines of the canvas tent, Ina Hoka became Thomas’s woman and wife. He became the husband to Mother Badger who still had a dangerous task before her. In her dream Ina Hoka spoke to the Grandfather concerning her marriage. “It was not good that you should be alone in life. When we sat face to face last moon, I had told you of one more gift we honored you with. It was the gift of being loved.  Thomas is our gift to you. He is a good man, brave and protective. He has a large heart that now beats for you. Go now, seek your child and destroy Maka Cesli.  Your husband Thomas will be at your side.”

Morning found their camp broken and far off in the distance a man could be seen walking next to a woman who was riding horseback. Together they headed westward where the spirit of a flying Eagle had spotted the band of Maka Cesli many days ahead of them.

Chapter 4

Two weeks later, under a dark evening sky that found the couple within a few miles of where Maka Cesli’s band was camped, Ina spoke to Thomas.  “Listen to me my husband. I have powers that you do not have. I am afraid for you. I will soar once again as an eagle in the night. With my Owl vision I will see all that I need to know. I will descend within the camp and kill Maka Cesli. Then after I have humiliated him, with my talons I will grab up my daughter and return here to you. I must warn you. If they have given honor to the Unkcegila, then the Unkcegila will try to stop me. They are evil spirits that roam the land and hate those that are good. As an Eagle I can fly safely above them but you will be as a mouse to a hawk. I must chant a song of protection over you. Be still and say nothing. Whatever you see, do not let it frighten you. I am singing a song of the giant warrior. He will ride across the sky mocking the Unkcegila and daring them to attack him. They will spit and scream at him as he passes above them. The Giant Warrior will keep the eyes of the Unkcegila upon him and away from you. When I return, the Giant Warrior will become as a mountain and crush the Unkcegila under his weight. He will sit upon them until we are safe and far away.”

Thomas tipped his hat in a sign of affirmation. “I ain’t even gonna’ question any of what you’re tellin’ me Ina. I sure ain’t never heard of such things but it sure ain’t my place to say it can’t be so. Go ahead, sing your song sweetheart, I’ll try not to foul my drawers at what I see goin’ on.”

Ina Hoka told Thomas to sit. Standing over him she began her chant. Thomas was afraid her raised voice would alert someone in Maka Cesli’s band yet after a few minutes he could see no unusual movement by the bands campfire light.

As he watched the firelight miles away, his vision began to play tricks on him. The far away campfire began to waiver. It seemed to move first to the right then to the left. Sometimes it seemed close and other times very far away. Voices could be heard but he could have sworn he did not hear them with his ears. His body took on the weight of stubborn mule causing his arms to dangle uselessly at his side. Across the sky swept a faint blue light as if dawn was about to break. From out of the light in the sky a mountain appeared. As the mountain traveled from east to west it took on the shape of a warrior upon a white horse. The warrior held his coup stick high and screamed insults at an unseen enemy. It was then that he realized he could no longer see Ina Hoka yet her singing was as loud as a nearby drum.

Thomas was about to speak when he remembered her instruction to remain quiet. He realized that if he made even the slightest noise, then whatever evil spirit that was creeping in the prairie grass would hear and attack him. He knew no bullet could protect him from the Unkcegila but that was the duty of the Giant Warrior.

Thomas could now see confusion in the camp. Warriors ran back and forth. With demonic howls the Unkcegila clawed the prairie sky trying to disembowel the Giant Warrior’s horse riding above them. The Giant Warrior laughed and threw insults and humiliation upon the spirits as he rode just out of reach above and past them. The evil land spirits howled and jumped trying to gain enough height to destroy the horse he rode on. Even the horse whinnied back in laughter.

“Aaiiieeeee!” A long horrible scream came from the encampment. It was shameful for a warrior to scream from pain but then Maka Cesli was no warrior. The Giant Warrior paused and pointed his coup stick toward the camp. He threw back his head and laughed. Thomas felt the laughter strike him as close thunder would during a prairie storm. His chest reverberated from it and his head ached from the pressure. Realizing the mountain sized warrior was positioned above the half driven mad Unkcegila demons , he watched as the Giant Warrior settled himself down on top and crushing them.

The pain in Thomas’s head became almost too intense not to shout out. A giant eagle carrying a child in its talons flapped it’s powerful  wings and settled behind him. Just when he felt he could stand it no more, he felt a pair of loving arms wrap themself around him from behind in a hug. Ina Hoka’s calming voice spoke softly into his ear.

“My husband, rise, we must be off. The light of dawn will soon be upon us and we must leave while the Giant Warrior holds down the spirits of the land while it is yet dark. All has been accomplished tonight.”

To Thomas, he felt as if he had suddenly awakened from a dream. No longer could he see the Giant Warrior or the gasping Unkcegila. Wailing sadness could be heard from the camp but no warriors mounted to seek revenge for the humiliating slaughter of their leader.

Holding the child out to Thomas his wife spoke to him, “Rise,  and see our daughter, is she not beautiful?”

Thomas rose and cradled the tiny girl in his arms. “She’s beautiful all right, she looks just like her Mama.”

   The subject of the child’s upbringing and what path she would follow had never been discussed between them. Realizing it must be settled before they entered her tribe’s encampment Ina Hoka asked Thomas who’s culture would they all belong to.

“Well,” Thomas thoughtfully replied, “It seems I’m a bit outnumbered two to one. Ina, I would want what makes you and our daughter happiest. I was always a bit of a drifter after I left home. I would like to plant my roots next to yours if that’s alright with you. Besides, if we lived in a city of white men and I began telling folks all I’ve seen here tonight, they’d lock me up as bein’ crazy. I think it best for all of us if we put our roots down inside a teepee lodge with your people rather than a square house made of wood and stone among strangers.”

“Yes, that makes me happy. I will yet have much explaining to my tribe of all that has happened since my leaving the village. While they will be of sad heart to hear of my husband and his parents deaths, they will sing songs of happiness for our marriage and the return of my child.”

As the three made their way eastward Thomas asked, “Ina, I need to ask you something. Is there some reason why our baby has no name?”

“In our band, a child’s name is given to her by her father. She is yours to name. If you look upon the child your heart will be open to her name. Sometimes if it is an important name the Grandfathers will give you hints other times your Totem will speak to you.”

“I’ve actually just been thinkin’ on that. I would like to give her the name your mother was called. I want to give your Ma some sort of honor seein’ as how she raised such a wonderful daughter herself. What was her name?”

Ina Hoka walked closely beside her husband Thomas as he continued to cradle the child in his arms. “How honored am I?” she thought. “All the gifts that the Grandfathers have given to me and now my husband honors not only me but my own mother. I am complete.”

“Her name is Kimo. It means to be brimming with hope.”

Thomas stopped and lifted the now giggling child to the predawn sky. “Daughter, today you are called Kimo!”

As he handed the baby girl now named brimming with hope back to Ina, a golden shaft of morning sunlight split the dawns clouds. The narrow shaft struck the three where they stood.

Ina Hoka looked up at her husband and smiled widely. She held Kimo closely to her breast and spoke to her husband.

“To-mas, the Grandfathers are pleased you remembered my mother and gave honor to her. Stand quiet as they bless our family with the morning sunlight.”

Thomas looked up into the dawns parting clouds and swore they took the form of an old Indian proudly smiling down upon them. As the clouds continued to be blown clear by the morning breeze, the prairie lit up in the splendor of the sun.

“I love you Ina Hoka, Mother Badger.”

Ina chuckled and wrapped her free arm around his waist, “I love you to To-mas, and like the Badger, you will never escape my love.”

“Why would I ever want to leave you? You’re the best cook I ever met!”

Laughing she squeezed his waist. “So it is true then what the old women of the lodges say of their men? That all a wife is good for is cooking and keeping the Tee Pee clean?”

Chuckling he squeezed her back and replied, “That and uh, you know…”

She quickly tiptoed and kissed him and said smiling back naughtily, “Oh yes, we shall never forget that, will we?”

“Not in my life time we won’t!”

As their laughter drifted over the dew wet prairie, the grandfathers in the sky above looked at each other and smiled. The Grandfather that had blessed them spoke aloud. “Huh, he reminds me of when I myself was young.”

In the distance an elderly female chuckled and was heard to exclaim, “In your dreams my husband, only in your dreams!”

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Taking a chance on hope

2011 photo by JW Edwards ‘Cabin near Tazewell VA.’

Chapter 1

Chance Hooper slowly limped his way through the neglected pasture toward the old log cabin he had grown up in.

The limp, a souvenir gift he received at Gettysburg when a Northerner’s ball plowed into his leg, was all he had to show for the two and a half years of fighting for the South… that and a head full of memories, some good, most bad. The war ended but his leg could have cared less. It healed no faster when it was announced the war was over. Still, it was better than being dead like his twin brother Micah.

The twins had joined the Confederate army together believing at the time that the war would be a few rowdy skirmishes at best. Afterward it was assumed, the politicians would resolve the issue with both the North and the South having to give and take on the issues until a deal was made. Sadly it took many thousands of lives to resolve the differences that the politicians could not settle peaceably over a table.

Up ahead on a small rise at the end of the field sat the log home Chance, Micah and his father had built years before the war. Chance and Micah were just boys then but in the 1850’s, a man was judged by other criteria than just his age. Each log was cut, shaved and carefully notched by hand. A small wood fired steam sawmill in one of the open sided sheds had cut the logs into planks to be made into floorboards, window frames and doors. The single stone fireplace at one time supplied the only source of fire for cooking and keeping the winters cold out. Years Later, a steel chimney pipe poked its way through the side of the house and upward past the roof. Inside, the pipe attached itself to a new cast iron cook stove in the large kitchen.

Continuing his walk forward, the peak of the cabins roof slowly exposed itself. The closer he got, the more the cabin exposed itself. Finally fully presented, Chance saw for the first time the full extent of the damage done to his home resulting from his abstinence during the war years.

Stepping up onto the front door stoop, Chance pushed against the weathered door. It swung in on noisy hinges revealing a surprisingly empty house. Making his way slowly throughout, he realized the house had been methodically stripped of all its furnishings. Not a knick knack, pot or curtain remained. Where once the cook stove had stood in the large kitchen now only a gaping stove pipe hole in the wall remained.  Anger was not the first emotion he felt, hopelessness was. Anger came afterward. Stomping from the house he headed directly to where he was sure he’d find the answer to his question of who stole his parent’s and his property. Double checking the Navy Colt pistol he wore on his hip, he made his way painfully to the road that wound its way through the countryside connecting each farm to its neighbor, he limped to the home of his closest neighbor, that of Bo Spivey.

Pounding on the front door, Chance yelled out, “Spivey! Come on out here, I wanna’ talk to you, you piece a thieving crap!”

The upper window jerked open under protest and a bearded pocked face looked out. “You stop your bangin’ Chance Hooper, I got my sisters babies nappin’ inside. Besides, I ain’t got nothin’ a your’s so get your sorry ass offa’ my property!”

Chance refused to lower his voice and hearing Spivey mention his missing property fed his anger even more.

“I been gone all these years and the first thing you tell me is you ain’t got nothing that belongs to me?  That’s a might tellin’ ain’t it Bo? Get down here or I’ll burst down your door and drag your toothless ass outside and kick it raw into the next county! I ain’t playing Bo, get down here or I’m coming in!”

“OK, hold on a minute, an you just stay right there!”

Less than a minute later the door cracked open a few inches and Spivey’s pock marked face peeked through the crack and shouted. “What’s this all about Hooper, I ain’t done nothing wrong. Besides I heard you all got shot an’ died with your brother Micah!”

“Well you heard wrong. We got shot but I sure ain’t dead! Where’s all my stuff now Spivey? There ain’t nobody around here that would have entered my house while I was gone except for your rotted ass!”

“I ain’t took nothin’, now go away!”

Stepping over to the side of the house, Chance looked up at the metal stove pipe haphazardly exiting the side of the house. Pointing to it he yelled, “That there pipe is the pipe from my stove! You got my cook stove inside Spivey? You got your fat assed shit coated undergarments inside my Mama’s missing chest a drawers too?”

“I ain’t took noth..”

Before Bo Spivey could finish his sentence, Chance angrily ran up onto the porch and kicked the door open with his good leg. Spivey was unprepared and the door slammed into the side of his head nearly taking off his right ear.

Grabbing his head, Spivey screamed, “Aiieee! Ma’ ear!”

Spivey fell backwards into the house on the floor while trying to mash his dangling ear back onto his head using his palm of his hand. “Oh my God!”. Spivey cried, “ Damn your soul Hooper, look what you did to my ear!”

Chance paid no attention to the crying man but stepped inside and walked past Spivey as he continued to thrash about on the floor screaming.

Glancing about, he saw many of his parent’s belongings placed about on shelves and even his grandmothers China tea set lay carelessly in an open crate on the floor.

Walking into the kitchen his eyes rested on the wood burning cook stove he and his father had given to his mother on her fortieth birthday.

Seeing his mothers once spotless stove now covered with rancid grease and old food splatters, Chance’s stomach churned. He stomped past Spivey and looking backwards at him shouted.

“I’m getting the Sheriff Spivey, you robbed my place while I went off to war. That’s a hanging offense in this county!”

Chance limped out of the house slamming the door loudly behind him. Partway down the porch walkway, the front door was thrown open and Bo Spivey appeared from in the doorway with an old flintlock rifle that had been hanging over the fireplace mantle.

Turning to face the noise, Chance recognized the Kentucky long rifle as the one his grandfather had given to him years ago before he had passed. Seeing Spivey lift the rifle to his shoulder, he watched in horror as Spivey’s finger began to pull on the trigger.

What Spivey did not know was that the rifle’s barrel had been severely damaged decades before. Chance had been sternly warned that it was never to be charged and fired for the barrel would never hold. It didn’t.

The warning had just begun to leave Chances mouth when Spivey pulled the trigger. A loud boom and a massive white cloud tinged at its edges with a wet red mist exploded where Spivey’s head was just moments before.

Spivey’s headless body stood teetering slightly from side to side, then fell backwards into the room. Chance had seen many men die in battle but it was a scene he never accustomed himself to. Spivey’s death was no different. His bare feet lay at the entrance to the door quivering as if trying to re awaken the headless body. Soon though, the feet gave up trying and came to a stop.

Chance could not believe what he had just witnessed. Not realizing the gun was a relic and never having meant to be used again, Spivey had foolishly loaded it and hung it over his mantle for emergencies.

There was no helping Spivey at this point, he was dead through and through. Chance stood staring at Spivey’s feet when his eyes caught a flicker of light from within the doorway. Shaking himself out of shock, he focused on the flicker of light, it suddenly dawned on Chance that something within the house had been started on fire by the exploding gun.

Running inside the home past Spivey’s body, Chance headed upstairs taking two steps at a time, His leg throbbed terribly but Spivey had said there were babies sleeping and they needed saving.

Throwing open first one door then the other produced no sleeping babies.

“You lying son a bitch! You never had any babies up here.”

It was then Chance realized his only route of escape by using the stairs was now in flames.  Opening a window he let himself out onto the porch roof where he jumped painfully onto the ground. Turning to face the doorway again, he saw the flames beginning to consume Spivey’s clothes.

Backing away, he watched in silence as the home quickly became engulfed in the hungry flames. Sadly he realized that all his and his stolen parent’s belongings inside were being destroyed. The intense flames removed all hope in salvaging anything. All he had now were the clothes on his back, his gun and whatever monies he had saved up in his money belt.

Feeling utterly exhausted from the recent events, Chance found a nearby tree stump to sit down on. He watched somberly as within minutes, the flames consumed the Spivey home in its entirety. In one final pyrotechnic display, the burning frame leaned forward and collapsed in a massive explosion of sparks.

His mind wandered back to the day the two wide eyed brothers went marching so naively off to war. Friends and neighbors waved and cheered as the towns young stepped in time through town smartly adorned in their freshly pressed uniforms. Gettysburg ended any soldier’s hoorah bravado.  Twenty eight thousand Southern souls left their bodies in that battle. Chance knew the North lost almost as much. When you came from a town of three hundred, twenty eight thousand was incomprehensible.

Taken to a makeshift hospital outside Gettysburg for his leg wound, Chance was told his brother had been killed trying to pull his wounded superior to safety. Both the wounded Captain and his brother had been found afterward with multiple killing wounds. In recognition for his brother’s bravery, Chance was permitted to have Micah’s body interned back home in the family cemetery rather than in one of the mass graves many soldiers would call their last place of rest. A walking wounded soldier from the same town as the brothers hailed from, volunteered to travel back with Micah’s body to make sure he was given a Christian burial.

Chance thought, “At least Ma and Pa didn’t have to deal with Micah’s death.”

The parents had already passed ahead of Micah. Shortly after the brothers marched off to war, they were informed by their Commanding officer that their parents had passed away from a local cholera outbreak. His grieving brother was granted leave time to see them laid to rest properly. Chance grieved but thanked God that being busy learning to be a soldier kept his mind from dwelling too much on it.

Resting on the stump, Chance sat watching the house morph into a large pile of glowing coals. He knew there would be no evidence of Spivey’s remains. With his parent’s belongings gone along with Spivey’s in the fire, Chance felt no great rush to inform the Sheriff of what had happened. For all anyone would know, Spivey simply died in a house fire. In fact, no one was even aware yet the Chance had returned home. Spivey’s death was no fault of his and to tell the story as it happened seemed unnecessary. He decided to just let the Sheriff know that he had discovered the Spivey home burnt down with no sign of Bo Spivey being seen.

  Chapter 2

A females voice behind him made him jump.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to startle you. My names Mary Jane Ashley, I live up yonder up the hill from this place.”

Chance quickly stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. “I was just sitting here. My name is Chance Hooper. I was raised up the road a bit ways. I guess I should explain what happened here.”

“No, There ain’t no need. I saw and heard most everything. You passed nearby me on your way over here. I was over in the elderberry bushes with my pail pickin’ berries when you came by. I didn’t know you so I stayed hid. My Mama told me never to go near here alone but I wanted them berries growin’ alongside the road for a pie. My Mama had an earlier run in with Bo Spivey some time back. I think that’s what did her in.”

“Did her in?”

“ About two months after we moved here from Tazewell, Mama come home one day shakin and I seen she’d been crying. She had some bruising on her face an’ her prime apron was missin’ but she wouldn’t tell me what had happened. We’d just rented the old Haney place up yonder atop that hill over there. She told me she was headin’ to our nearby neighbors to properly introduce herself to ‘em and try an’ sell some of our eggs. Mama would not tell me but I figured it all out. When I said I was going down here to kill him, she begged me to leave things be.”

“What about your Pa? Didn’t he do anything?”

“Pa went off to fight in the war an’ we ain’t never heard back from him. I don’t think he died, just ran off, that’s all. It didn’t grieve Mama much seein’ as all they ever did was fight anyway. Pa wanted a baby boy an’ when I was born he blamed my Ma. They never had no more kids but me.”

“How did you Mama pass?”

“She just died, that’s all. After her meet up with Spivey, she just sat around a lot. She lost all interest in things. Most times, I’d have to scold her even into eatin’. Then one day she just never woke up.”

“So now it’s just you? How do you live being all alone?”

The thin but pretty blond haired girl with sky blue eyes looked shyly downward at her bare feet. “I get along. I hunt and we had us a good garden goin’ from earlier on. I got a coop with some chickens an’ when I gather a basket full of eggs, I go to town an’ sell them. What about you? I saw what happened here, served Bo Spivey right! I’m glad he’s dead.”

“Do you mind if I sit back down? I know it’s impolite to sit in the presence of a woman but my leg is aching something fierce from jumping off the porch roof.”

“For sure! Sit down, I’ll set next to you.”

Before he could answer, she sat down cross legged in front and facing the stump. She motioned for him to sit down.

Chance lowered himself back onto the stump and looking down at her he could not help to notice the blond girls bare knees and legs. A sudden jolt, not unlike a shock one gets off a wool rug while in stockings struck his lions. Embarrassed, he quickly averted his eyes.

Mary Jane Ashley sat staring up at him smiling unaware of what had just occurred. “How did you hurt your leg?”

Chance explained his army service, the death of his twin brother and how he was wounded. He told her the Surgeon wanted to take off the leg but there were so many limbs he had to cut off from other wounded that when Chance begged him not to, the Surgeon just patched it and told him to leave.

“I bled halfway from Gettysburg to here. It’s healing but it’ll be some time yet before I’m back to being whole.”

They spent the entire afternoon talking. Both felt completely at ease sharing the most intimate secrets with each other. It was as if they had known each other for ages.

At one point, Chance drew back his long brown hair from out of his green eyes and smiled down at the girl staring up at him.  “I know this sounds a mite forward Mary Jane, but seein’ your face smiling so pretty and all, I realize there’s more than just sadness in the world. It gives me hope”

Mary Jane beamed wide eyed up at him. “That’s the sweetest thing I ever been told!”

“I think you’re beautiful!”

Shocked at his own forwardness, Chance quickly changed the subject saying, “I suppose it’ll be getting dark before too long. I should be heading home to see if there’s a place to lay my head tonight without the raccoons and snakes investigating me while I sleep. It’s been a heap of time since I spoke to a female, especially one so kind as you. I’ve enjoyed your company immensely and I want to ask if I could stop by your place tomorrow and visit you. I will try to find some fresh meat first though, that is, if you say it’s fine for me to visit you.”

Mary Jane’s face lit up. “I would like that very much Chance but I must ask you, have you eaten anything yet today? We been sittin’ here talkin’ for hours. If you’re hungry I can pick us some vegetables from the garden and make us some soup. Your leg will not heal well unless you eat. Come, let me cook you a meal.”

Saying that, she reached out her hand for him to grab onto after she stood up. “You can lean on me if you are still too sore.” At the touch of her hand he again felt the electric shock he had experienced earlier. Walking side by side back to her place, he put his arm over her shoulder for support as they slowly made their way uphill.

After an hour they neared her house, Mary Jane regretted that their walk would soon end and so would the warm feeling of his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him closer and slipped her arm around his waist. “Chance? Why did your Mama and Dad name you that?”

He looked down at the girl tucked so comfortably under his arm and answered. “My brother’s name was Micah. My Mom said it meant to be “Like God” or Godly like… something along those lines. When she named me I wasn’t doing so well. I wouldn’t suckle at first and I acted like I didn’t want to even taste it.  So she spoke and said, ‘C’mon my little fellow, just try it once, if you never take a chance, you’ll never know how good it is for you’.”

“You must have eventually taken to it, you look mighty healthy to me…other than that leg of yours.”

Chuckling, he answered, “Yeah, I guess you could say I took the chance!”

 Chapter 3 

When the two reached her place, neither felt like letting the other go. Mary Jane dropped her head and quietly said, “I guess I better let you walk up the step by yourself now.”

Reluctantly they parted and Chance followed her into the small log home where they sat down at a rickety wooden table with peeling paint. It was far smaller than his own place but it had the wonderful smell of herbs and drying flowers. He commented on it.

“I like flowers a lot.” She said, “They are so pretty. I think of my Mom when I smell them. She would gather up bunches every day while out walking and place them on the table in a jar. She did that even when I was a child. She’d say that even when you ain’t got nothing, you can always have flowers. It was one thing my Daddy and her never argued about. I think secretly, he enjoyed them too.”

The look on Mary Jane’s face gave Chance the impression that she was a million miles away and in a different time of her life. He let her stay that way until she blinked then looked at him with searching eyes.

“Chance, I’ll make us up some soup right quick, but may I ask what your plans are? I mean are you going to try and salvage your parents place and stay there or are you thinking of moving on?”

“To tell the truth, after Spivey’s house burnt down, I figured there was no reason for me to stay around any longer. The farm is over grown and all the equipment we owned looks like it was took and sold off. I’m sure Spivey and his friends were the culprits. They even managed somehow to remove the steam engine that powered our sawmill. How they did that I’ll never figure out since it was so heavy.  No, there’s nothing left for me here.”

Looking into Mary Jane’s eyes he continued talking. “Until you stepped out of those elderberry bushes, I was figuring on having left here by now. I had the intention of heading west. A friend of mine in the infantry unit I was in told me if ever I was to get out to Wyoming territory that I’d be more than welcome there. We talked of setting up cattle ranches near each other. I know it was just a dream to keep our minds off the war, but somehow that dream kept me sane. I think I’d like to try that though.”

Mary Jane reached over and put her hand in his. A tear rolled down her cheek and with quivering lips she asked, “It sounds wonderful. If you go, would you take me with you? Please?”

Without saying anything, Chance gathered her onto his lap and held her close to him. Tears ran freely down her face and dripped onto Chances shirt. He could feel the hot drops splashing on his chest and knew for certain that he had fallen in love. Slipping is fingers under her chin, he lifted her head to his face and kissed the tears running down her cheek.

“Mary Jane, before today, I hade no hope I’d never know the type of love my parents held for each other. I was too young when I left for the war to seriously court a girl. Before I had a chance to really grow up I saw things in battle that made my world look dark and terrible. I was alive but I had no hope. You’ve changed that. I want nothing more than for you to come with me. But I need to ask you this, “Could you ever love me? The way a wife loves her husband?”

“Chance, that’s the only reason I want to come with you. On our way back to the house, when we were holding onto each other, I didn’t want you to ever leave… not after I just found you. I have nothing here. My Mom’s grave on a rented property? Do you know I buried her myself up on the hill? I marked it with a stone and dug here grave so deep so no plow will ever disturb her rest. No one knew us, we never even met the owner of this place. My Mom set it up with the help of a friend of a friend. They weren’t even sure the person even really owned it! My Mom figured if the day came and someone told us to get out, then we would without any complaint. We only paid two dollars to rent the place an’ they never came back an’ asked for rent ever again. I could leave here this minute without regrets. But if you leave here and decide I ain’t goin’ with you then my heart will close itself off and break in silence ‘cause I’m in love with you.

“Would Wyoming be a place you could be happy at? I know nothing of it but what was told to me. He said it’s got fields so big you could ride horse back for days without coming to the other side. It’s got forest and cold clean rivers and a sky so big that it makes you feel small.”

“It sounds like heaven to me and who would not be happy in heaven. Will you do like your Mama asked when you wouldn’t suckle? Will you take me and give us two a chance?”

“My Mama sure named me right. Yes, let’s take that chance. Will you marry me Mary Jane Ashley?”

Upon making their way into town, Chance told the Sheriff of his finding the Spivey house recently burnt down.  The Sheriff didn’t seem too concerned and he never asked about the whereabouts of Bo Spivey. Instead the Sheriffs only comment was, “Good riddance!” Chance figured Spivey had made no friends and wouldn’t be missed.

Afterward, Chance and Mary Jane stopped at the judges office to take their vows.

Mary Jane Ashley became Mary Jane Hooper and Chance became the husband to the thin but wonderful smiling barefoot girl he met during her berry picking.

They stayed in her small cabin throughout that fall and that winter. When the spring crocuses poked their heads up through the melting Virginia snow, Mary Jane became satisfied that Chances leg was well enough healed to finally travel. A roundness to her tummy foretold that there would be three, not two new emigrants entering Wyoming territory. If it were a boy, he would be named Micah, if a girl… then Hope.

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?

A storm of bad luck

Chapter 1  

Greenhorn rancher Joe Tarboosh was born with bad luck. Even his last name on his birth certificate was misspelled. His parents, both born in Wales, immigrated to America in 1853. She was pregnant when they left the old country and gave birth to Joseph minutes after the boat bumped the dock in New York harbor. The parents considered this a sign of good luck. It wasn’t.

The first sign of impending foul fortune was shortly after the very inebriated doctor filled out Joe’s live birth certificate. Not only had the Italian Doctor misspelled his parents name Tarbush as Tarboosh (he couldn’t figure out the spelling of Tarbush and after three tries, crossed out the attempts and spelled it as he thought it should sound…with an Italian accent). He also dated Joe’s birth a hundred years too early. Date of birth, October 29th in the year of our Lord 1753. At least he had the month and day correct.

So poor Joe at the young age of one, was given the honor of being a living centurion in the New York news papers in the Society section, until of course they finally got around to doing a bit more research and discovered Joe’s parents and even grandparents, were younger than he was!

Living in the bustling city of New York, age meant everything. He was told at a hundred and five that he was too old to attend school with the other children and was told at 116 not to bother applying for the Naval Service as again, he was deemed too old. In fact, he was asked if he had grown up with the likes of George Washington and Paul Revere.

He could have lived a fairly decent life if age were the only factor in his having bad luck but it wasn’t. Joe’s life mirrored the statement, “A dollar short and a minute too late.”

Meanwhile, his parents prospered and like many immigrants, worked hard and accumulated a pretty good amount of wealth. To keep things simple, Joe would give his money he had earned from working odd jobs to his father each week and in return he and his father would both go to the bank together and deposit Joe’s pay into his Fathers account. After all, the family figured that being the only son, if anything would happen to them Joe would inherit it all anyway.

At the age of twenty (or 120 depending on how you want to look at it), Joe discovered that banking under his father’s account may not have been the wisest of choices.

It was in early January. The day started out with blustery freezing weather that by noon had added a major ice storm to its retinue. Sleet, slush and now the wind was blowing ice crystals around like a blind knife thrower in a cheap circus. Joe, his mother and father for some unknown reason, bundled themselves up and ventured outdoors.

Keeping their heads down and only looking up when necessary, the three blazed a path through the deepening slush and snow on the unshoveled walkways. When it finally became too deep to step without effort, they took to the street. Staring at his feet as he trudged through the miserable weather, it was then that Joe realized that he no longer heard his parents grunting and complaining behind him as they made their way forward in the storm. Turning around he soon realized why.

Both parents lay flat as pancakes in the streets center lane where the trolley car tracks ran. Thankfully for the mourners, it was a closed coffin affair.

Upon their demise, Joe discovered too that his parents had never filed a Will. When the case finally wound its way through the Probate Court system, the Court determined that Joe was not a relative as he not only had a different last name but was in fact far too old to be their son.

He was arrested for inheritance fraud and spent thirty five days in jail. Thirty for the attempted fraud and five for misconduct while in a Courtroom. The misconduct occurred when Joe stood up, screamed and rent his clothing from head to toe in frustrated anguish. It may have been understood or even forgiven except that in rending his clothes, he had forgotten he had worn no undergarments that day. Women fainted at the sight and men shouted in an angry uproar.

The judge on the other hand had a look on his face that mimicked that of a dog staring at a meaty bone.

I will go no further in this narration except to say Joe served his time quietly and when released, immediately stopped at the bank with a forged note ‘written’ by his father. Smiling and asking how her day was going, he handed the forged note to a familiar teller. The note stated due to ill health he, the father,  could not make it in person. It also said he had given his son full authority to close the account in order to pay the steep medical expenses he had recently incurred. The teller, used to seeing Joe and his Father come every Friday, gave him her condolences regarding his father’s health and handed him the money.  Joe then jumped aboard a train and headed to the Western Territories. Like a bat out of Hell he disappeared from New York before the Court discovered what he had done.

Chapter 2

It had taken three weeks to get to Laramie, two by train, one now by stage. At last the teeth jarring stage coach crossed into the Wyoming territory from it’s start at the rail head in Kimball Nebraska. The stage driver yelled down to those poor souls inside. “Laramie stations comin’ up ahead folks. For those of you continuing on to Rawlins, be ready to get back aboard in an hour. There’s a café up the street for those wantin’ a hot meal.”

Joe Tarboosh painfully stepped down onto the hard packed earthen street soon after the stage door opened. He waited for the driver to toss down his carpet bag, after grabbing it and his over coat, he stiffly walked up the street where he was told the land office was.

Walking along the wooden plank walkway that connected each building to its neighbor, Joe soon arrived in front of the land office. He was about turn the doors handle to enter when the door was flung violently open. A man resembling three boulders piled on top of each other stormed through the opening and stood red faced staring at Joe.

Turning his head back towards the open door the angry red faced man yelled back inside through foaming lips. “Ach, a bunch a thieves you all are! You knew for years I had been plannin’ on buyin’ that land! An here ya’ go an’ sell it from under me feet! Well damn your heathin’ souls the lot of you! When I find out who the miscreant is that bribed your sorry assess into sellin’ it to him, I promise you now, he’s goin’ to be pleading for his miserable existence as I bare handed strangle him to death!”

Turning away from the door he once again faced the shocked Joe and yelled, “Get your sorry ass out of my way!” Pushing Joe hard against the porch wall of the land sale office, he stomped on.

A thin nervous man wearing a green head visor guardedly poked his head out of the open door. Seeing Joe pressed against the wall he asked him. “Is he gone yet?”

“Yeah, he’s gone, who was that idiot?”

“Well, seein’ as I don’t recognize you, I hesitate to say, you might work for him.”

Joe responded, “I don’t, my names Joe Tarboosh and I need to see the land agent, is that you?”

“let me answer your first question first Mr. Tarboosh, that angry Irishman is Brian O’Donahue owner of the Lazy O Ranch. He’s the man who wants to make you regret you didn’t die in childbirth. See? You’re the miscreant that bought that land he’s been hankerin’ after for all these years. Can’t really blame him, but I warned him for three years that someday, somebody’s gonna up and buy it from under him. He’s just so bull headed and outright mean that he believed there’s no man with big enough cojones to do that. He’d been grazing his cattle on it for free ever since the Toker family moved.”

“Well why in God’s name didn’t you tell me that when I telegraphed the Land Office about available Ranches for sale? Now I’m gonna be fearing everyday that I’ll run into him someday when we’re alone and get pounded to a pulp!”

“Pounded? Naw, he’ll just kill you quick like, that’s his way!”

“Oh that makes me feel so much better! Now what do I do?”

“Hell, if I was you, I’d get over to Nebraska Territory and hop aboard a train as fast I could and go back East! I can resell your property to him. I know he won’t pay what you bought it for. No where nears that much even, but it’s better’n pushin’ up daisy’s.”

“Forget it, I bought it fair and square. I’ve learned when I turned tail and ran it never helped. Where is the Toker ranch I bought? How do I get there?”

“Well, you ain’t gonna walk that far an’ if you ain’t got one, you might think about getting’yourself a mule to ride.  I’d think about a wagon too to carry supplies in. Ain’t nothin’ there but an old empty fixer up ranch house and some weather beaten’ corrals. Ain’t no wagons I know of since Toker done sold off as much as he could. Maybe the drinkin’ well’s still good, I don’t know. I only handle the deed work for the Government.”

“Where can I buy a horse or mule?”

The stable’s next to the Smithy. Just at the end of town. You can’t miss it, follow your ears. There’s hammerin’ goin’ on night an’ day. ‘Ol Mackey got himself an order from the Union Pacific Railroad for an order of ten thousand rail spikes. They’s gonna be a rail road here by next year!”

Joe followed his ears and sure enough the air was filled with the sound of hammering. Walking up the livery, he looked for the owner and not seeing anyone around, stepped next door to the black smith’s shop.

A gigantic black man stood pounding a glowing red piece of bar stock iron over an anvil. When one end of the bar had been hammered into the shape of a two sided point, he chilled the point and dropped it point down into a hole in the anvil and pounded it until the other end took the shape of a rail spikes head. Joe stood staring at the transformation in awe. In less than ten seconds the man had turned a piece of useless iron bar stock into a very well made rail spike.  Joe waited patiently for the Smithy to set down his tools before greeting him.

“Hello, my name is Joe. I was wondering if you knew the whereabouts of the stable owner, I’m in need of a horse or mule to buy”

The powerfully built Smith named Black Mackey didn’t answer right off but instead walked over to a large water bucket and splashed his face in it. He then dipped his head into it and drank his fill of the stale water. Water streamed down his big lips onto his muscular bare chest.

“I am the owner!” The Smiths deep thundering voice reminded Joe of what an avalanche of rock must sound like. “ The stable boy who works for me is off on an errand, otherwise you’d be talking to him and not me.  But, since he isn’t here, Horses are forty dollars, mules twenty five. I can sell you a saddle for either for ten. What’ll it be?”

“I guess a mule? I never rode one, just horses but it can’t be too different can it? I got to keep an eye on how much money I spend, I aim to start a ranch over at the Toker’s place.

“Ha! So you’re the one that bought the ‘Ol Toker place? O’Donahue sure was on the war path when he found out someone had bought it. He just left here in a fit. I finished shoeing his horse not ten minutes ago. He came in here fuming and bellyaching about someone stealing his land!”

Mackey laid aside the hammer he still held and ushered Joe toward the livery stable.

“Seeing as how much I got a charge out of seeing O’Donahue stomp around like a temper tantrum baby, I’ll cut you a deal. You don’t want a mule, they’re too hard to control. A horse would do you much better. I’ll sell you one, a decent one for twenty five and I’ll throw in the saddle for five. Does that sound good to you?”

“Thirty total? Where can I buy a gun? I might need one if O’Donahue shows up at my place”

“If you want, I have a nice Golden Boy to sell for say… ten dollars. Some cow puncher left it to be fixed and later that night he got himself shot dead at the card table.  I was the only one who knew he left it with me. It’s fixed, just had to have the firing pin filed down, kept sticking. I have no use for it, it’s not like I’ll ever have the time to go hunting.’

Two hours later, Joe reigned up in front of a weather worn house that he had bought sight unseen. The glass windows seemed to be intact with only one pane cracked. The corral left a lot to be desired though. Most of the rails lay on the ground and the gate sat sagging on one hinge. But the land… the land was beautiful! The house sat partway up a slight incline so from its wide porch he could view the open valley that lay before him.  The valley floor lay carpeted by prairie wild flowers while patches of black eyed Susan’s and purple spring crocuses grew around the houses foundation.

Joe nodded approvingly at the condition of the outside. He stepped onto the wide porch to see what the inside held.

Opening the unlocked door, he stepped inside to a musty smelling but rather clean house. Whoever the Toker family was, they had made sure the buyer bought a clean place. A woman’s touch was in evidence. Flowered curtains, nicely painted wooden walls, the living room was even wall papered in flower prints. The kitchen cabinets and shelves had held up well. An old cast iron cook stove sat backed against a stone chimney. It would have been a perfect day except for O’Donahue. “Just my luck”, Joe mused, ”I finally get something really nice that’s all mine and someone wants to kill me over it.”

   Two weeks and over one hundred dollars later, the place looked like a home. Joe was proud of his accomplishments. He found he was better at handling tools than he first believed. Not a floor board now stood loose nor was a corral rail missing. Next on his list…buy some cattle!   

 

Chapter 3

Two days later Joe returned to town and once again stopped at the livery. One reason was to thank the Smith Macky for the fine horse he sold him, the second was to ask if he knew of an honest cattle dealer in town and the third was out of pure curiosity… why did the negro blacksmith speak like a white person .

Mackey saw Joe plodding down the street proudly riding his new mount. The grey mare looked pretty handsome with its shiny black leather saddle on her, even if it was used.

As Joe hitched his horse, Mackey stepped out into the sunlight to greet Joe. “Well, well. I see you and Grey Lady seem to be getting’ along pretty nicely. What brings you into town this time, more supplies?”

“The truth is Mr. Mackey, I wanted to thank you for selling me, Grey Lady. I also have to apologize, I fibbed. I said I rode horses before. The truth being, the closest I’ve ever been to a horse was when I rode in a buggy back east. Grey Lady almost seems to know where I want to go, I rarely have to even steer her”

Mackey began chuckling at Joe’s definition of handling his horse “I kind of figured as much, that’s why I sold her to you. She’s the gentlest and smartest creature I ever put a set of shoes on. She knew the way to the Toker’s place because that’s her home. She belonged to Mrs. Toker.”

“Ha! And here I thought I was such a brilliant horse rider too!” Joe continued to laugh thinking of how well he had ‘trained’ his new horse. “The jokes on me I guess.”

“You’re a different kind of man Joe, I don’t believe I’ve ever met a green horn such as you. You didn’t try to talk me down in price and you even come back to thank me for the sale! How’d you know I didn’t rob you blind? I could have you know!”

“You looked like an honest man, Mr. Mackey. I wasn’t going to insult your good intentions for giving me a good deal.” At this point, Joe decided not to ask Mackey about his accent, it could wait.

“That’s another thing Joe, you’re the first person ever to call me Mister! Everybody here just calls me Mackey ‘cause I think they feel uncomfortable calling me Black.”

“Why would they call you that, because you’re a negro?”

“Heck, I’m surely a negro but Black is my Christian name! When I was born my Father said to my Mama, That baby sure is a black one, isn’t he? So my Mama went and named me Black, just as yours named you Joe.”

Joe started chuckling but then became red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I was just thinking of two friends I grew up with. One’s name was Red and the other was Whitey. I wonder if they were named under similar circumstances, that’s all.”

“No need to apologize , there wasn’t any offense taken. By the way, do you do have a last name don’t you or do you like being called just Joe?”

“Oh sure, it’s Tarboosh, it was supposed to be spelled t-a-r-b-u-s-h not T-a-r-b-o-o-s-h but the Doctor was Italian and spelled it the way it sounded to him. It caused a load of problems, especially after my parents passed on. I wasn’t allowed to inherit the house or anything. They even threw me in jail for implying I was trying to steal their home by fraud. But that’s all in the past, I’m starting my herd and I was wondering if you knew of an honest seller of cattle around here?”

Listening to Joe’s story and now his desire for cattle, Black Mackey looked at his feet and shook his head in wonder. “Good God Joe Tarboosh, you’ve sure got a whole heap of bad luck! Maybe before you go buying any cattle, you need to know a bit of history of the ranch you bought and the town here.”

Joe felt bad luck forming like a black storm cloud over his head once again. Any minute he mused, the cloudburst would come and more bad luck would rain upon his head.

“If you can spare a minute, I’d like to hear it. I know nothing of the Toker family or why they left. I’m used to facing things Mister Mackey and for sure I can’t turn around and go back. So, please tell me if you would.”

Macky sat on a stool and waved Joe to sit likewise on another. “The Tokers moved here almost ten years ago. He and the Misses had three children when they first came and added two more to that. They built everything you see out there, house, corrals, barn and two bunk houses for the men. At one point in time, a few years back, their herd numbered over two thousand and they had twelve hired hands. They were a good family, they even went to church service when a preacher passed through.”

“So what happened, why’d they move?”

“Things were going well for them, the land was good, their cattle healthy and the steam that ran through their land was flowing with good cool water from up in the mountains. All that began to change though when O’Donahue bought the land adjacent to theirs on the east side of the Medicine Bow Mountains. First thing O’Donahue did after starting up his ranch was redirect that stream with dynamite that flowed from the mountains through the Toker’s land. It passed through his land before entering the Tokers. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you look at the dried up stream bed. Without that stream, the Toker’s couldn’t support their large herd.”

“What about the Law? I mean there’s laws on water rights isn’t there?”

“O’Donahue offered the water but the price he asked for was beyond anyone’s ability to pay. It did end up in Court. But as you can figure for yourself, when it went before the honorable Judge O’Malley, the outcome was a given. Judge O’Malley is O’Donahue’s brother in law. Nothing was left to do but sell the place an’ move on so they did. They took what they could, sold the rest and headed to the Snake River Valley in Idaho.”

“So is there any way I can get water from another source, I got two drinking wells by the house but I know that won’t water a herd.”

“Water isn’t your only problem Joe, buying the cattle is another. You see, O’Donahue ran out the only other seller of cattle within a hundred miles of here. If you want cattle, you’ve gotta’ go to him. I’m tellin’ you here an’ now, he isn’t about to sell you any and it’s too far drive from Cheyenne to here without at least ten experienced  hired hands to drive them.”

Joe sat there looking down despondently at his new boots. For an instant he began to feel sorry for himself, but having dealt all his life with bad luck, he knew it was dangerous to dwell in self pity. Raising his head, he smiled at Mackey and reached over and squeezed the giant man on shoulder. “Thank you Black, you’re the first person that’s been straight up with me. I see where my problem lies. It’s with O’Donahue.  If I’m ever going to get on my feet out here, I’ve got to meet him head on.”

“Mister Joe? I think you’re a good man and you think like I do. If I wasn’t of a different color, I think we could even be friends. You call on me if you run into things over your head now, you hear me?”

“I will for sure, but why do you say we can’t be friends, is there some law here I don’t know about regarding Negro’s and Whites from being friends?”

“No, none that’s written down in the books anyway. Maybe it isn’t looked down upon in the big city where you came from but here I’m sure it would raise eyebrows.”

“Well that isn’t right! If I want to have a Negro or an Indian or even a Chinese man as my friend, then that’s the way it’s going to be and to hell with those who think differently. It’s true Black, I had people of all different races as friends back East, but what about you? Have folks in this town treated you so bad? I know they have to respect your skills as a Smithy. That’s got to account for something!”

“Huh, never thought about it that way. To be honest, I really never tried being friends with anyone in here in town. I just kept to myself and my family. My Father being from England, warned me all the time about how the Americans might pretend to be friendly but when your back was turned, they’d be looking down their noses at you because of our color. The only thing he ever knew of the American West was from reading books and unfortunately some of those were dime novels. He would confuse tales of the West with those of the South. He had me so mixed up I didn’t know what to believe when we all moved to America. Before we came to America, he was a successful Medical Doctor in North Hampton. He attended Imperial College School of Medicine in London where he graduated with high honors. While his clients were some of the richest and paid well, my father insisted we live in a modest house just outside of town.    Then one day he was made an offer to become the private physician to a rich and powerful family here in America. We arrived here fearing we’d be treated as badly as the Southern slaves were.”

“Did they? I mean was that the way it was or was that the way you saw it because of your father?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I kept to myself, still do. No one’s ever shook my hand in friendship. Maybe I should have tried sticking mine out first just to see what happened.”

“No need for you to do that Black, here.”

Saying that, Joe reached out his hand and presented it to Black Mackey in the act of friendship.

The two gripped hands, one powerful and black as coal and the other soft and as pale as a custard pie. The two looked at each other and smiled.

Black abruptly gave in to a deep sigh. “ Joe, I worry about you. O’Donahue will run you out like he did the Toker family, only I think this time he won’t let you walk away. If you still plan on trying to deal with him, then I’m coming with you!”

When Joe answered it was with false bravado in his voice and both he and Black knew it. “You don’t have to do that Black, I can take care of myself.”

“No disrespect intended but have you noticed he’s a might bigger than you and has a small army of armed men around him most everywhere he goes?”

“I wasn’t aware he had armed men about his place, maybe you coming with me isn’t such a bad idea after all.”

 

Chapter 4

The idea of meeting O’Donahue had Joe’s stomach tied  into knots. Even with his new friend riding beside him, Joe was reminded of the Biblical psalm of walking through the valley of death. Hopefully, not his own.

A week had gone by since their last meet up. Joe had to wait until Black finished the Union Pacific order for ten thousand rail spikes. It had taken Black two days short of a month to fill the order.

Fifty wooden crates had to freighted out by mule drawn wagons.  To their credit, the Union Pacific sent the wagons along with the full payment. Black Mackey was able to take a well deserved day off and planned on using it on the day Joe went to see O’Donahue.

The day arrived and the two rode casually from town and headed west on a well worn trail towards the Lazy O Ranch.

“Over that rise sits O’Donahue’s Lazy O Ranch Joe. The back end of his spread is what butts up against your property. That’s also where you’re your water problem is.”

“What do you think my chances really are Black? Am I being stupid for trying to solve these issues with O’Donahue? Everybody thinks I should pack up and leave, letting O’Donahue take over my spread.”

“Before you shook my hand and called me friend, I would’ve said the same. Thing is Joe, I don’t have but one friend and if he sells out and leaves, then I’m back to having no friends at all. That’s the real reason I’m riding with you. No one tells me, my family or my only friend to get the hell out… Not without feeling the wrath a God coming down on him in the form of one angry as hell giant blacksmith!”

Reining up to the front of the large woodframe ranch house, the two spotted what looked like idle hands casually standing about paying the newcomers little mind. Mackey noted how the low slung holsters had their thongs untied, they were ready for action.

The front door opened and the stocky but powerfully built O’Donahue stepped out onto the porch.

“Ha! You must be the city sniveling cheat that stole my land! If your reason for showin’ up here isn’t to apologize and return the deed to me own land, then it must be you’re wantin’ me to introduce you to Saint Peter!”

The hands began to chuckle thinking they were about to see their bosses fist go into action against the slightly built city boy. The negro was of no concern. No negro in his right mind would challenge a white man as financially powerful as O’Donahue and besides, the negro was unarmed.

“I came here to buy cattle, I need six hundred mixed cows and heifer’s along with a good bull. I also want my stream restored.”

O’Donahue looked incredulously at Joe and responded bitterly. “Ach! An’ I want it to rain gold bars but it don’t ever. You got yourself some balls, I give you that city boy. Are you stupid or just plain dumb showin up askin’ me for cows? I’d rather rot in hell kissin’ Satan’s ass day’n night than sell you a damn cow! I intended that land you’re squatin’ on to be mine and I’m gonnba’ make sure it is!”

With that said, the hands drew their pistols pointed them at Joe and Black then stepped forward.

Makey abruptly spoke up. “Before we go any further Mister O’Donahue maybe you better hear me out. When you drove off the Toker family I held my peace. I knew someday though that push would come to shove so I went and secured me an insurance policy in case it was me that you’d drive out. I know your feelings against negro’s. Sooner or later I knew you’d look my direction.”

“An just what possible form of insurance could you be havin’ to protect yourself from my plans. Tis’ true, I think you need be gone from here. I’ve already looked into me bringin’ in me a white Smithy… to buy you out.”

“Buy me out my ass!, You mean run me out. I know that’s how you get your way. You make sure you’re the only game in town then raise your price till those you don’t like have got to leave. or they just disappear”

Mackey then strode up to the porch steps directly in front of O’Donahue.

“I’ll tell you what I did to protect my interest here Mister O’Donahue but first, let me ask you this? What do you know about me? Have you ever wondered why I came out to no man’s land to open my shop? Did you ever wonder where I came from, what I did, who my family is or why I don’t speak with a Southern or negro accent?” When no response but a blank stare was returned, Mackey answered for him. “No? I didn’t think you did!”

O’Donahue, looking a might uncomfortable at being spoken to by a negro like this was still hesitant to confront the giant man that stood at the bottom of his steps. Even then it appeared to O’Donahue that Mackey still towered above him..

“O’Donahue, A wise man once said, ‘Know your enemy’. In your arrogance and conceit you didn’t do that when you thought to become King of the hill around here. You already been booted from the top of the hill and you’re too arrogant to even see it!

“Why you black son of a …”

“Don’t say it O’Donahue, I know who my Mama is and I know you can’t say the same.  You see, when my Daddy came to America, it was to be the private physician to the family of the man who now runs the Union Pacific Railroad. When my Daddy passed on, that family took to seeing I had every chance of being as well educated as a man could be. I didn’t attend Boston College after graduating from a private school and to their consternation I told them I wanted to follow my real interest, blacksmithing. They eventually relented and sent me through an apprenticeship program. I worked for ten years at different shops before starting my own place out here. Having intimate contact with the head of the Union Pacific gave me certain advantages. One of them was to know where the Union Pacific planned to expand its rail service and the other was to be in the position to ask a favor of that man”

“What kind of favor? I’m not seein’ a railroad track around here and the only rail line is going through Cheyenne through to Rawlins. What’s your point?”

“The point is when you threatened my friend here, I went and cashed in my chips with the Family. I we3nt and sat down with them to negotiate my providing spikes for them, I also asked to be allowed to choose the best route for a rail offshoot from Laramie to Soda Lake where Sodium Carbonate is being mined. I decided your property would make a perfect route for the new railway.”

O’Donahue’s face reddened darkly in anger, “I’d never sell my property to the Union Pacific or anybody else. I didn’t come all the way from Belfast just to see my hard work be taken away by a railroad bandit!”

“You’ll have no choice. The United States Government has given eminent domain powers to the Union Pacific. They’ll take your land and all of your cattle will be confiscated to feed the rail crews. They’ll pay you what I say your spread is worth, nothing more.”

By now O’Donahue had dropped his bluster and began to look like a defeated man. Even a fool knew better than to challenge the Railroad. You never won but you could lose even more by resisting.   “Why wasn’t I told of this?”

“You’re being told right now. Of course, it’s still in my powers to advise an alternate rail route. I might do so if you were willing to sell my friend here a herd at a fair price and reroute the stream you altered back into his spread. But, It’s up to you.”

“That’s blackmail!”

“I prefer to call it making a deal”

“I’ve no choice then, do I”

“Nope, none. The rail offshoot is a done deal, where it goes is up to me. I’m offering you a good deal here O’Donahue. You call down your hired guns and change them out for real Cowboys, give Joe here his water and cattle, forget about running me out of town and the railway will go north of here.”

“What’s to prevent me from changin’ me mind once the rails is laid away from here. All your cards would be played an’ I’d be holdin the Ace.”

Your holding the Joker, not the Ace. The rail road is permitted by law to add ten miles on each side of the tracks to its right of way at any time it wishes, even years from now. One telegram and your Ranch is gone.”

O’Donahue looked at his men still pointing their guns at Joe and Mackey. Admitting defeat was a bitter pill to swallow but in the end he gulped and down went the pill. Waving his hand at his men to holster their weapons O’Donahue spoke in a defeated tone.

“Ok, you win, I agree.”

Turning to his Ranch manager, he told him to separate out the cattle and bull that Joe chose.

“The rest of you put away your guns. Some of you need to be leavin here. I’ll be lettin’ you know who you are and I’ll be given’ you a months extra pay if you leave peaceful like. You have three days to clear out.”

After the cattle were separated and corralled, a bull was chosen, The herd would be delivered after the water stream had been restored and O’Donahue’s cattle moved back onto his own spread.  Back on the trail leading to town, Joe looked over at the man riding along side of him who worked a miracle.

“It Lucky for me that you’re tight with the U.P. President and his family or my infamous black cloud of bad luck would for sure have rained on me again. Thank you my friend, you saved my ranch. I didn’t know you had asked for and was given the job to choose the rail route to Soda Lake. It must have cost you some pride to ask to do it. I know how being indebted to anyone goes against your grain.”

“Oh, it didn’t cost me anything Joe. You see, I never asked them. I already knew the railroad was going north of the Lazy O.  Anyone who picked up a copy of the Cheyenne Leader could have told him that. I just happen to have read it when I negotiated my spike contract with the U.P. while in Cheyenne. ”

Joe halted his mare and looked over at his fried, “You mean to tell me it was all a fib? You being helped raised by the family an all?”

“Oh no, that’s all true. Oliver Ames helped raise me after my Father died. He also sent me to smithing school, that much is true. In truth, if I would have approached him for permission to move the route because it was such a small offshoot track, I’m sure he would have granted that to me. But like you said, I don’t like being beholding to no one, so I didn’t ask.”

Joe shook his head in wonder. “I can’t believe you got away with it!”

“Joe, the first thing I learned when I came out West was to hold your cards close to your chest and learn the art of bluffing. Otherwise, learn the art of playing poker. I don’t really cards but the game is a good way to practice both. You might learn the game Joe, there’s a lot that can be applied to everyday life…as you just saw!”

From that day on, Joe Tarboosh and Black Mackey would sit and play a few friendly games each time Joe stopped in town. Joe began to understand that it’s how you play your cards in life that determines how much luck you have. In the end, there is no such thing as a black cloud of bad luck, just one’s willingness to step up and take a gamble on your dreams…whether you’re holding a royal flush or you’re  just bluffing.

  

Doin’ what’s right even when it’s wrong

Chapter 1  

Outlaw Bo Brooks was feeling the heat of being chased down by Texas Ranger Dusty Austin and now to boot, he had trapped himself inside a box canyon.

The twenty five year old Texas Ranger tracking Brooks was known by both Lawmen and hombres as the best tracker and most dogged pursuer of no goods as could be found north of the Mexican border. Sometimes, like now, it was necessary to go beyond the State line in his pursuit.

Clean shaven with short cropped brown hair and startling blue eyes, Ranger Austin had been every girls heart throb. He could have been one to easily play the field but it was never the case. At fourteen he met the new neighbor’s daughter, twelve year old Lisa, and fell hard and forever in love.

He could never rightly say what attracted him to her. She was at twelve, a wondered eyed somewhat a bony girl with long blond unkempt curls whose knocked knees and clumsy adolescent walk wouldn’t draw boy’s second looks even if she were sixteen. But danged if Dusty Austin was going to let her get away from him. He found the stupidest reasons to traverse over to the Triple T Ranch abutting his father’s own in order to catch a glimpse of the girl hanging fresh laundry or playing in the creek. One time it was to warn of an angry mountain lion he swore he saw prowling nearby, another he said he thought his dog wondered over there.

Lisa seemed to take all his nonsense activity in stride by paying him no more mind than she would a warty toad. Still, Dusty would not give up trying to attract her attention. He daydreamed of saving her from Indians, taking a few arrows in the process then her comforting him afterward.

By sixteen Dusty’s efforts started to pay off. Maybe it was her entering woman hood or maybe he was just plain old wearing her down but whatever the case she began to notice the handsome boy who was goggled eyed over her. At eighteen, Dusty asked her father for her hand. Both families knew of the boys comical attempts at wooing Lisa’s love over the years and permission was freely given. A year later Dusty was taken off the most eligible bachelors list.

He and Lisa settled onto a small starter spread that their Dads had cut out from their own sprawling ranches. The spread included the small stream where years earlier Dusty had hid in the bushes watching her play in the clear water. The small two room cabin was enough until a family was started. Lisa by now had cast off only a minor amount of the clumsy adolescent child. She was still prone to trip over her own feet or stumbled down the front porch stairs in her haste to greet her true love as he returned home exhausted from a hard day’s work on his fathers ranch.

Then one day a visitor would change Dusty’s work habit. A newly formed, government backed group of Lawmen called Texas Rangers had been formed to control any Lawless folk wanted for riding the Owl hoot trail. Ranger Aubrey Smith was passing through but had been convinced by Dusty and Lisa to rest up a few days before heading out again. Since visitors were rare, Lisa and Dusty took this opportunity to pry as much information about the big cities, their people and his role as a Texas Ranger as they could from their visitor. Dusty became enchanted with the idea of traveling the country side hunting down wanted hombres.

On the second day over dinner, Dusty asked, “So what does a guy need to know to get a Rangers job?”

“Well, that depends. Are you any good at handling a gun or tracking or willing to stay away from home for weeks on end with pay being inconsistent? Those are just a few things that you need to ask yourself. If you can answer yes to those, then maybe I can be of help. We just got a new post in Loving County. That’s only twenty or so miles from Pecos here. That’s where I’m being assigned. I have to be there in three days.”

Lisa saw the sparkle come to Dusty’s eyes and reached across the table and gave Dusty hand a squeeze. “Heck,” Dusty replied, “I’m near the best tracker in All Texas, and the same Indian that taught me tracking taught me to shoot and live off the land too!”

“You was taught by an Indian? What’s his name? I might know of him if he ever tracked for the law.”

“Limping Bear. He near raised me when my mother passed when I was a kid. I don’t think he ever worked for the army or law. He was working for my Dad back then breakin’ horses. He took a liking to me an’ me to him. Shoot, I followed him everywhere he went. My Dad was too busy for the most part to raise me so he kind of handed me off to Limping Bear. All I learned was…”

“Limping Bear!” The Ranger shouted. “Limping Bear is my Fathers half brother!”

“That makes us almost related” Dusty laughed.

After a good chuckle, Ranger Aubrey asked, “So whatever became of Limping Bear, is he still around”?

“Naw, I wish he was. He got bit by a rattler while in my Dads corral. Why the horses didn’t see it and make a fuss we’ll never know. It got him high up in the thigh, the Doc said right in an artery. The poison traveled quick and him bein’ old and all, he didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I only met him a few times but he was an imposing character for sure. I grew up south of here outside of Strobel in Brewster County. He’d stop by to visit now and then.”

“Sure, I remember the times he left to visit family there. They was one of the few times he wouldn’t let me tag along. Small world really. Here you an’ I meet up years later knowing the same man but still bein’ worlds apart.”

“So, might the job of being a Ranger interest you at all Dusty?”

“Do I have to live on the post or can I still live and work out of here?”

“Most men are single but you only have to report to the post for orders and after you capture someone in order to fill out the paperwork. I can’t see a problem, you’re only twenty miles away.  When I leave here you wanna ride up there with me?”

 

Chapter 2

That answer was given four years ago when Dusty was sworn into the Texas Rangers. As was Aubrey, he was stationed out of the Loving County post in Mentone. Being from the general territory was a plus as knowing which County you were in was important to a Ranger. Some County Sheriffs were more friendly than others towards the Rangers. Some were downright in your face antagonistic.

In the short time he’d been a ranger, Dusty, Now called Ranger Austin, had racked up an impressive capture count. Where others found little to no trail or evidence, Ranger Austin saw a man’s passage as clear as he’d painted the ground with his feet.

An overturned pebble, a smudge in the dirt for no reason, a bent shoot of grass, the twig on the ground showing evidence of being stepped on, even the birds and lizards cried out the trail he should follow.

He got so well known that a few no goods actually turned themselves in once they found out he was on their tail.

It was the man he now tailed that held his interest. Bank robber, Bo Brooks.

Brooks was an enigma. He was known as one of the friendliest, give the shirt off his back young men folks had ever met. Why he robbed the Santa Lucia Bank over in Pecos County was anybody’s guess. To top it all off, he left word where the others who included themselves in the heist were camped out. He alone was the sole man left to capture and Ranger Austin was hot on his trail. Unfortunately, that trail now led across the New Mexico border. Still, he was the Law and the States overlooked infringements like this for the common good.

It was at the Rio Panasco River near the small town of Roswell and nearly eighty five miles northwest of his post in Loving that he finally cornered Brooks in a box canyon.

Brooks knew he had made a serious mistake. Reaching the end of the canyon proved his worries were well founded. High unclimbable cliffs on three sides of the canyon prevented his escape.

Seeing Brooks make it to the far end of the canyon, Ranger Austin pulled up short at the box canyons entrance. He’d make camp here, knowing Brooks only way out was past him. His confidence grew as he saw smoke from Brooks cook fire. Brooks was wise enough not to panic and foolishly try to scale the steep cliffs. If it meant a standoff, then being well fed was important.

Soon two cook fires were seen spiraling gently skyward from each end of the canyon.

 

Chapter 3

Morning sunlight broke over the canyon’s eastern rim. The reddish brown rock of the western cliffs suddenly lit up like they were on fire. Ranger Austin was a patient man. He knew Brooks had only a little water left and none was visible inside the box canyon. Waiting for the sun to light up the entire canyon, he decided on a late breakfast of bacon and biscuits. Eating this way, only two meals would need to be cooked for the day.

Brooks had no such concerns. A tendril of fresh smoke drifted skyward from his rekindled cook fire. Seeing the smoke, Ranger Austin decided on trying to make contact with Brooks rather than just jump into a hell to all shoot out.

The box canyon was less than a quarter mile wide and not much longer than that. Instead of a nice flat bottom, it rose and fell with strewn boulders and house high dirt mounds. While it was a great place for youngsters playing hide and seek, it didn’t offer enough protection to allow Brooks to sneak past the Ranger. Some small scrub trees and brush made line of sight difficult but a man’s voice could still be heard if one yelled loud enough. So that’s the tact Ranger Austin decided on.

Climbing one of the dirt mounds close to his own camp, Ranger Austin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.

“Brooks! You hear me Brooks?”

“Yeah, I can hear ya!” Brooks shouted back.

“C’mon Brooks, there ain’t no ways outa this here box canyon. Do yourself and me a favor and toss down your weapons an’ give up!”

“I been thinkin’ along them lines Ranger, I just find it hard to voluntarily put a noose around my neck. Let me think some more on it a bit. Maybe we’ll see eye to eye, maybe we won’t. I ain’t decided yet.”

“I tell you what. By tomorrow morning you had better have decided or I’m comin’ after ya’!”

“Fair enough!” Brooks yelled back. This time tomorrow I’ll let ya’ know!”

The sun rose higher in the sky and Ranger Austin finally decided on some breakfast. Stirring the cook fire’s coals into life, he added some fuel and set his coffee pot and fry skillet with bacon on top of it.

Shortly, Brookes voice was once again heard. “Hey, Ranger! You cookin’ up bacon over there? Damn you man, that ain’t fair, all I got is some measly Jerky on my side!”

Austin started chuckling then yelled back, “See? That’s the difference between us! I got me a nice woman who makes sure her man is well taken care of when he’s on the trail! Plus I don’t rob no banks!”

“If you was in my shoes, you mighta’ done the same! Hell man, the smell a that bacon’s doin’ a better job killin’ me more’n  any noose would. You don’t think you could spare a bite for a poor outlaw?”

“Give yourself up and I’ll fry up another pound with your name on it!”

“I knew there’d be a catch! Ha ha.”

While the bantering went back and forth, just outside the entrance to the box canyon another nose sniffed the air determining the direction of the mouth watering smell of the frying bacon.

It was the grunt behind him that caused Ranger Austin to look behind him. There, standing on it’s hind legs staring directly at Austin was a full grown, four hundred pound Black bear.

Realizing his rifle was still stuck inside it’s saddle holster, Ranger Austin reached for the colt pistol strapped to his hip.

The bear charged with a loud roar. Before Ranger Austin could fully aim the gun the bear was on top of him.  Austin was knocked backwards over the fire losing his pistol. It crossed his mind that a face full of steaming coffee could halt the bear but it was only a thought because his eyes were watching the coffee pot go tumbling over and over spilling it’s hot liquid out as it somersaulted away.

Lying on his back he felt himself pulled violently backward towards the ruined fire. Pain shot through his leg as the bear bit deeply into it. A blood curling scream left the young Ranger’s lips as the bear began to toss it’s head back and forth trying to tear off the leg.

In the distance, a yell was heard back but by now Ranger Dusty Austin was losing consciousness as the bear continued to yank and twist at the leg. Suddenly, as if it had tired of the leg pulling game, the bear let go and wandered over to the bacon that had been spilled onto the ground.  Sitting on its haunches, the bear began to gabble down the hot fried bacon. No sooner had it finished when the bear once again stood up looking. Running towards the bear was Brooks waving his hand gun and yelling.

As Bo neared the bear, he fired the small 38 caliber pistol into the bear. Instead of dying, it seemed the tiny bullets just pissed it off. Slapping the air as if bee’s were stinging it, the bear backed off. Two more times Bo fired the small gun. This time the bear’s rear end caught the lead and in a roar it high tailed it out the entrance of the canyon bellowing in pain.

Seeing the Rangers 45 caliber laying on the ground, Bo quickly picked it up and shoved it into his pants.

Making his way over to the unconscious Ranger, Bo bent down to look at the young man’s leg. What he saw made him cringe.

“Hey, Ranger, you with me?” Tapping the Ranger on the face, Bo tried to revive him back into  consciousness.

“Well, you sure got yourself into a pickle here Ranger, that leg is really torn up. I’ll do what I can but I ain’t no Doctor.”

With that, Bo searched the man’s saddle bags and found a small bottle of whiskey and a tin of horse salve. Cleaning the deep wound as best as he could, he applied the horse salve to it and wrapped the leg in part of the Rangers torn off pant leg.

The day passed and no real improvement was seen in the Ranger’s condition so Bo went on back to his camp at the other end of the canyon to gather up his own horse and belongings. Upon his return he noted the Ranger had shifted his position a bit and it was then he heard him moan. Running up to the Ranger, he heard the young man asking for water.

Tilting the Rangers head back, Bo began pouring water into his mouth. After the Ranger had drunk nearly half a canteen of water, Bo pulled it aside. “I’m sure with all the blood you lost you’re as thirsty as a bear…er whatever, but you gotta’ take it a little at a time or you’ll just puke it all back up.”

Ranger Austin tilted his head sideways in order to look over at Brooks.

“My leg,” He asked, “how bad is it?”

“I ain’t no Doctor but I’d say it’s about as bad as can be without it fallen’ off. I cleaned it the best I could with your whiskey and plopped a bunch a your horse salve on it but you need to get to a Doc right away.”

“Hell, you know we ain’t nowhere near a town Brooks. If infection sets in I’m a gonner. How much did I bleed before you applied the salve?”

“Shoot Ranger, you bled out like a stuck pig. It took a bit of time before I got the bleeding slowed down. I had heard if you press real hard on a bad wound that sometimes that stops the bleedin’. I guess it worked but I’m afraid if you start movin’ around, it’ll start bleedin’ all over again.”

“You did good Brooks, The free bleeding may have cleaned out the wound good enough to prevent infection. The whisky and salve will help the surface wound but deep inside is what worries me.”

“Sounds like you know about these things, you a Doctor besides a Ranger?”

“No, just raised by an Indian that’s all. Tell you what Brooks, can we call a truce here? I need some herbs gathered and I gotta trust ya’”

“ Sure, besides I got your gun an’ you ain’t in no condition to arrest me . What kind of herbs you talkin’ about Ranger?”

“Mesquite tree. Carve of some bark until you hit the gum inside. Carve out a good handful of ngum then take a few of the smaller live twigs along with some fresh bark and bring it all here.”

Within a half hour Brooks returned with an armload of mesquite branches and bark. “I got the gum, it’s in my pocket. Here’s the branches. You doin’ OK pard?”

It was the first time that Bo acknowledged the Ranger as more than just a Lawman. Dusty took this in but was in too much pain to answer right off. When he did, it was to instruct Bo in preparing a poultice and tea.

When the gum had been squeezed hard enough a clear liquid came forth from it. “Save that juice, it’s what keeps infections down. You’ll mix it with some of the crushed leaves and pack it inside my wounds. Then make a tea using the small twigs, a bit of bark and some leaves. If I pass out again, just keep on doing what I told you,OK?”

“Sure, thing. By the way Ranger, what’s your first name? Seein’ as we got a truce goin’ on here, the least we can do is call each other by our Christian names.”

With a painful chuckle ranger Austin lowered himself to that of an ordinary citizen and replied, “Dusty, Dusty Austin. I know you go by Bo, is that short for Beau?”

“Yeah, my Momma named me after my grandfather, her father Union General Beau Brooks.”

“Well ain’t that somethin’? General Brooks Grandson is a bank robber, who’d a thunk? Your grand daddy must be rollin’ over in his grave about now.”

During this time Bo had made up the poultice and had filled the spilled coffee pot partway with water, placed it over the kicked apart but still hot coals  and added the leaves, twigs and bark. He then walked over to where Dusty lay.

“Lay still now Dusty, this poultice is gonna hurt when I put it inside the wound. Too bad we ain’t got no more whiskey, I used it up cleaning your wound, you could use some right now.”

“ I’ll do fine, just put a thick twig in my mouth to bite down on.”

Bo placed a thumb sized twig in Dusty’s mouth and undressed the wound.  Fresh blood continued to leak out of the wound but the river was now just a trickle.  Bo slowly parted the wound where the bears teeth had dug deepest. The wound immediately pooled with blood and Bo let it drip freely into the dirt. He then took the thick poultice and began stuffing it into the deepest part of the wound.

It took a second or two but then Dusty arched his back and screamed through the stick in his mouth. Suddenly the stick was bit completely through and then thankfully Dusty passed out.  With Dusty unconscious, Bo was able to complete the poultice without Dusty screaming. Satisfied the wound could hold no more, he then re wrapped the leg and made Dusty as comfortable as possible.

He brought Dusty a cup of the mesquite tea when he woke up. “Here, drink this up. It’s the tea you asked me to make up for ya’. You fainted when I started packin’ your wound and that made it easier to finish the job.”

“I owe you Bo, thank you for being so Christian about all this.” Bo lifted the cup to Dusty’s lips and let him drink.

“I have nothin’ agin ya’ Dusty, you was just doin’ your job. Heck the only reason why I asked for extra time before I turned myself in was ‘cause I wanted to see the night sky as a free man one more time before bein’ hung. I did what I needed to do knowin’ there was a price to be paid.”

Dusty turned his head to look at Bo who was again sitting on the ground next to him. “I can’t figure you out Bo. You seem to be a genuine fella. Everybody thinks you’re the best, but then you go and rob a bank and yet you turn in the rest of the gang. It makes no sense Bo, why’d you do it?”

“For my Ma. She needed the money. Last year my Grandpa, the General, died. He was the hero of the small town we all lived in so when he died the town held a big funeral dirge for him. Some state and Federal politicians showed up vowing a granite monument was in order to honor him. Well they went ahead and ordered the work started on a grand mausoleum with promises that the Government would pay for it. Well, three months later the mausoleum was finished and the folks was lookin’ to be paid for their work. We contacted the Politicians who ordered the work done but they disavowed they had promised anything. My Mom was in a dither.

The workers were threatening to go to court and force the sale of our farm so they could recover their wages. We didn’t blame them none, we blamed the rascal politicians who didn’t uphold their promise to pay. We sure didn’t have the money but I told Ma that I’d think of something.”

“So you figured robbing a bank would solve your problem?”

“Well, yes and no. My cousin found out the bank in Santa Lucia over in Pecos County was owned by the same politician that ordered the mausoleum to be built. So while I was planning on how to rob it, I ran into a group of no goods with the same idea. After talkin’ it over with ‘em, I joined up figurin’ I’d get my share then take off and pay for the mausoleum. What I found out though was they was plannin’ on killin’ me and taking my share. So I set it up that they’d get caught and I’d get away. It almost worked too. As soon as I fled, I stopped over in the next town and had a bank draft made in place of the stolen money. It was a small town and word hadn’t got to them yet about the bank in Santa Lucia bein’ robbed.”

“So where’s the money now?”

“Gone. I left that town and rode till I found a town that had regular post service. From there I sent the draft to my Ma and she cashed it an’ paid for the mausoleum. The workers and stone company got paid and all seemed like it went fine until a customer in the Santa Lucia bank came forward and said they knew who the lone escaped bank robber was. It turned out the retired school Marm I had years earlier recognized me. Seems she moved back to Santa Lucia with her brother after retiring from the school in my home town.”

“ That’s a pile of bad luck alright, I almost wished you’d gotten away with it. I don’t cotton to politicians but I’m still a Ranger and I took an oath to do my duty.”

“Like I said, you got a job to do, I don’t put no blame on you.”

“Well maybe if I say something in court about you saving me they’d be more lenient on you.”

“Fat chance at that Dusty, this is the grand pooba of politicians were talking about in that county. He got total control there. Word has it that I should only get jail except he had it upped to death by hanging. No, I’m a dead man my friend but at least  Grandpa Brooks is layin’ in peace now and my Ma gets to keep the farm. But I do appreciate the kind offer of your words in court.”

That night a low fever started and his wound began to throb heavily with each heart beat. By morning he was delirious with fever. Bo kept his vigil and kept supplying Dusty with water even though it meant none for himself now.  He remembered crossing a small creek about an hours ride back but was afraid to leave Dusty alone. Coyotes, buzzards or even the return of the bear would mean his death, so Bo stayed with him.

By the second night after he relapsed, Bo knew he had to leave the next morning and get more water. There was only a cupful remaining.

Bo looked to the night sky. The stars were so bright he could have read a novel by them. It was then that he felt overwhelmed by the tragedy of what had transpired against the beauty of the night sky. Raising his head to the heavens he asked, “Lord, how can it be that when I look upward, I see beauty and when I look downward I see misery. You know I ain’t nothing, but this here man dyin’ is somethin’ that this country needs. I promise you this Lord, if you let this good man live, I’ll be happy and I’ll even shake your hand after I’m hung.”

Morning found Bo sleeping with his arm tucked under his head like a pillow. He lay there snoring until a voice woke him.

“Hey, bank robber Bo! We got any bacon still stashed in my saddle bags?”

Bo jumped up grinning wildly. “Well tan my hide, he did it!”

“Did what, who did it? Dusty weakly asked.”

“While you was dyin’ I prayed. I ain’t no man of God but I guess he understood my tellin’ him you was needed in this country to keep folks safe an’ all. Good men are hard to come by an need to be kept around.” Bo looked down at Dusty and smiled, “Now that you’re awake I can travel back to that creek we passed an’ refill our canteens. I used it all to slack your thirst during the last couple of days when you was delirious with fever.”

“What about your canteen, surely you have some water left, don’t you?”

Naw, I gave it all to you, you needed it more’n me.”

“Well, I know of one good man that God needs saving and his last name is Brooks!”

Chapter 4

A week later, Dusty was able to sit in the saddle. His wounds were healing nicely and Bo continued to nurse him back to health. Dusty needed to resupply his food and return home to continue his convalescence. He told Bo that it was time they move on.

“Bo, we need to talk. There ain’t no way I can turn a man in to hang when it’s the wrong thing to do. I know I took an oath to uphold the Law but the Law don’t know what I know and the judge won’t give a damn either. Justice will be what that politician says it is. Right or wrong. I want you to do something. You ain’t wanted here in New Mexico. I got a good friend Ted Richards that moved to a town along the Rio Grande called Hillsboro, it’s up in Sierra County. You go on up there. Just tell him I sent you, he’ll take good care of you. When I’m better, I’ll ride over to your Moms place and explain where you’re at. If she wants to sell the place and join you there, I’ll help her do it. If not then at least she’ll know your safe and making an honest living for yourself here. It’s the best I can do, take it Bo, you’re a good man and good men are hard to come by!”

“What about you Dusty? What’ll you tell your captain? You’ll just get into trouble.”

“It’ll be some time before I’m back in the saddle for the Rangers. Maybe my leg will never be the same and I’ll have to call it quits anyway. Besides, I ain’t breaking any law letting you go. We aren’t in Texas and I really have no jurisdiction here anyway. When I do report back, I’ll explain what all happened here and it tell ‘em I decided that under the circumstances of being severely injured, I couldn’t bring you in. That ain’t no lie either. I’m so weak a five year old kid could kick my ass about now.”

The two saddled up and Bo moved his horse up against Dusty’s to say goodbye.

Pulling Dustys pistol from his pants, Bo handed it over to him.“Here, this belongs to you. If you ever get up to Hillsboro, be sure to stop and look me up. I can’t say I’m all broke up that I ain’t returning to Texas but I am wishin’ I didn’t have to say adios to you my friend. If there was ever a man I’d call my friend, it’s you.”

The two shook hands and no more words were spoken, none were needed. Bo turned his horse westward and rode to his new life.

Dusty knew they’d be crossing paths again, after all, Lisa was going into her sixth month now and he’d want to show off his baby to someone besides his Paw. “Heck,” He mused, “maybe they’ll be needing a Sheriff up that a way!”

Wild fire on the Brazos!

Chapter 1

Texas long horn trail boss Dusty Plains, sat rabbit still in the saddle sniffing the air. The herd was only sixty miles east of Austin where they had moved out of four days earlier. His brain continued to flip through long ago scent memories like a clerk searching for a certain file among the thousands stored in a cabinet. Suddenly the file was found and pulled.

“Wild fire!” He shouted, South west of here!”

Spurring the Mare, he galloped forward trying to catch up to the lumbering chuck wagon miles ahead of the herd. It was the job of the Grease belly or camp cook to forage ahead of the herd in order to have each meal hot and waiting for the riders. The cook also spotted the trail ahead for Indians, rustlers and any problem that the trail boss should be aware of.

Reigning up alongside the chuck wagon’s driver, Dusty pointed and shouted over to him.  “Biscuit!  Point them cattle eastward to the Brazos River! We gotta’ get’m on the other side of the river, there’s a wildfire about a day’s ride behind us!”

“Hell boss!” Biscuit shouted back. “It’s gonna be cuttin’ it close fer sure. I figure the Brazos is a good ten miles off yet and we got less than four hours of daylight left. It’ll be a late meal and a cold one at that!”

“Just get across and put up some coffee pots, we’ll survive!”

Dusty turned the mare away from the wagon and galloped back to the herd. Reaching the lead or point riders, Dusty explained the situation to them. Immediately, they began to wheel the herd eastward toward the Brazos and safety.

From there he stopped down the line of trail riders, telling each group to keep the herd in a tight line. Stopping at the flank riders, he informed them the herd was turning and told one of the riders to split off and tell the remuda riders what’s going on while he’d let the tail end or drag riders know. Dusty kept his drive functioning like a well oiled machine. Having smelled water ahead and the transient waves of smoke from behind, the cattle quickened their pace and arrived at the river ahead of schedule.

The herd was driven across the Brazos River without incident as the depth was still shallow this time of year. A month from now the river would be a killer. High water not only drowned cattle and riders but brought out the snakes, something every cowboy feared.

Standing on the bank looking westward toward a growing darkness that was not from the setting sun, Dusty thanked the Good Lord for having given him a good nose.

“We’d be a hog on a spit if you hadn’t got us turned just then boss.” The voice behind him was that of his best friend and lead point man, Bob Fisher. “If you look up north a bit, you can see some smoke now, that’s right where we woulda been spending the night. I’m puzzled boss as to how you knew where the fire was at, we couldn’t even see the smoke at that time.”

“I smelled juniper and persimmon in the smoke. Both grow mainly to the southern plains but it was the burning pecan trees that settled it for me.”

“It’s dang fortunate you got the nose if you ask me.”

Throughout the night the night riders sang songs and circled the herd to keep them calm. The continued smell of smoke made the herd jittery and trail boss Dusty Plains feared if the smoke drifting up from the southwest got any thicker the herd would bolt. If they did bolt, he hoped they’d head north in the direction the wanted to travel and not due east.

Dusty doubled up on the crooning night riders and the result was a herd staying put. The chuck wagon had left before dawn to set up ten miles further up the trail for the noon meal. With little sleep under their belts, the riders slowly got the cattle moving again.

By noon, the heard was within sight of the wagon again. Gallons of Hot coffee, Cowboy beans with bacon and sour dough biscuits rounded out the meal. The drag riders showed up last as was about normal and a bucket of water was put out for them to wash the dust from their eyes. Each drag rider looked as if a dust storm had spun itself around them. In many ways it had.

The point riders were the most experienced cowboys and therefore had the best job. It was the point rider that turned the herd to the desired direction and being in the front had little problem with dust.  The flank riders behind them got some dust as they were spaced further back along the herd but it was the poor drag rider that got the worst of it. Having to trail behind the herd pushing lagers and catching strays, they were exposed to every particle of dust kicked up by the thousands of hooves in front of them. With their bandana’s over their nose and mouths to keep out as much dust as was possible, they looked more like a band of bank robbers than honest forty dollar a month cowpokes.

Dusty once again scanned the skies and sat smelling the air. Some of the cowboys stopped and stared intently at Dusty. The riders sitting fireside waited in anticipation for the word from their trail boss. In silence, they drank their after meal coffee waiting.  Finally Dusty turned to them and spoke.

“head ‘em up boys, that fires crossed the river somewhere south of us. This breeze is gonna’ bring it right up our butts! “

Again the well oiled machine had the herd moving. By now the rest of the riders and for sure the herd could smell the increase in smoke.

“ Biscuit, take the chuck wagon with all our belongings and set the wagon in the middle of the river at a wide point up ahead. It’s only a couple feet deep from here to Waco. Soak and wrap a wet blanket over each mules head. That’ll stop some of the smoke smell and that way they can’t see the fire as it passes ‘em. Whatever you do, don’t  leave the river!”

Riding back to the herd, Dusty continued yelling over the rumble of the herd at the point riders, “Push ‘em harder! Let’s try and put some miles between us and the fire. We may have to zig zag across the river more than a few times to keep that blaze from roasting our hides so be ready to turn ‘em across the river if and when  I say so!”

“You got it boss!” The point rider from the opposite side of Bob Fisher yelled. “We’ll follow your lead! That there smokes getting thicker by the mile!”

It was true. As fast as they drove the herd it seemed the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. Now everyone, not just those riding drag, had their bandana’s on. The cattle started their belly aching bawls and began a panicky run north.

By trailing the east bank of the Brazos, fresh water and grass for the cattle was no problem. Dusty wanted to stay as close to the river for as long as he could. If by chance the wildfire roared north ward up the east bank, they could cross the cattle over to the west side and vice versa.

He wondered how the small ranches and homesteads they had passed were fairing. Were they going to be burned out?  His thoughts drifted to Fayetteville thirty miles outside Austin where his wife’s grave was. He wondered if his old ranch had escaped the blaze or whether it, like any ranch caught in a wild fire, no longer existed. “Well, at least it can’t do no harm to Doris’s resting place, that’s for sure.”

Looking southward, the riders could plainly see the red glow spreading across the horizon now. As Dusty headed over to where the horse remuda was, he signaled Tom Beavers, who was in charge of the remuda, to meet  him. As he passed an older experienced flank rider, the rider asked worriedly if Dusty thought the herd should be headed north east to the high rocky ground where the brush and trees were thinned out.

“I would if it weren’t so far away but that bare high ground is still a good fifteen miles off. Some of the faster herd might make it but the cows with calves wouldn’t, they’re too slow.  It’s all the drag riders can do right now to keep ‘em paced with the herd.  Let’s stick to the river for now and hope the fire turns or burns itself out.”

“What about the remuda then? They’s fast”

Dusty contemplated a second then acknowledged the man that the remuda in fact could make the trip in time and rode off.

Chapter 2

Reaching the horse remuda, Tom rode up to Dusty and pulled down his bandana and yelled. “What’s up Dusty?”

Shouting over the din of the moving bawling cattle Dusty told Tom, “I need you and Ned to get the remuda up to the high ground there to the north east where they’ll be safe. The horses can make it within a couple of hours, easily outrunning the fire. I’d hate to lose forty good horses for no good reason. Take them over that saddle on the rise and head ‘em over the other side of it. I’m thinking the fire will burn till it reaches the base of the rise then starve itself out for lack of fuel! The rest of us will try and dodge the fire as best as we can by keeping the river between it and us!”

Tom tipped his hat in acknowledgement and raced over to Ned. Within a minute they had the horse remuda  racing  across the grassy plain to the bare ground fifteen miles to the north east.

Dusty breathed a little easier seeing the remuda heading safely away. He wished dearly that the cattle could move as fast.

They kept the herd minus the remuda now, heading northward along the eastern bank of the Brazos River as fast as the scared cattle herd would go. Smelling fire and knowing water was nearby, the reaction of the cattle was to continually head for the safety of the water. Dusty knew that if the fire came racing up both banks at the same time without the riders to keep them in control, the cattle could panic, and leave the water. They would then try to outrun the fire on land. Cattle were simple creatures, all they wanted in life was to have good grass and water, they didn’t do a lot of hard thinking. It was up to the riders to do the thinking for them because without the riders, the herd was going to be the main course at the world’s largest Ox roast.

Within another hour flames could plainly be seen on both sides of the Brazos five miles to the south.

“Charlie! I’m gonna’ divide the herd.  Grab a couple of the drag riders and separate the lead cattle and fastest cattle then head ‘em as quick as you can behind the remuda. I’ll stay here with the slower beeves. If you all whip the crap outa them they’ll pace out almost as fast as the remuda. I think you can just make it before the fire crawls up your butts! Do it, NOW!”

Charlie quickly grabbed a couple of the drag riders and started separating the faster animals in the herd. Normally the slowest were further towards the end of the line, those they just left alone. The flank riders assisted in the separation and within a few minutes a third of the herd was hoofing it’s way double timed behind the remuda. With two thirds of the herd still left behind, Dusty gathered the other riders for a quick pow wow.

“I sent the fastest of the herd on ahead behind the remuda. They should be alright! It lookin’ like we ain’t gonna’ be able to zig zag ‘em alongside the river after all. The fires racin’ up both sides about equal now. I want the rest of you to gather the remaining head and get’m maybe six to ten wide in the middle of the river. Keep ‘em away from the banks!  I know it’s going to be hard and we’ll lose some, but not doing anything will cost us near two thousand head.  Use your guns and lariats to keep ‘em in the river. That fires going to sound like a locomotive engine when it passes. Do whatever you think is right to keep ‘em in the river, even if you gotta shoot a few leaders trying to make a run for it.”

A chorus of agreements by the riders followed. “Alright then, let’s get them cattle into the river. I want you all ridin’ up and down  alongside the banks forcing  the cattle back into the water if they go to leave it, now move it!”

Moving the cattle into the river was fairly easy as their instinct told them being in the water was safe. Only two things now could make them leave the water. Panic was one, the other was snakes.

Dusty yelled over to a young Mexican vaquero riding flank. “Carlos! If you see snakes in the water, use that machete you got tied to your saddle on ‘em. Cut ‘em down so’s they don’t get to the cattle.” Then to all the other riders he yelled, “Pull iron and blast any snake you see entering the water from the bank. If you got a scatter gun in your saddle holster, pull it and use it! “

No sooner had he given the order when a cow went bawling and started hopping like a bucking bronco in the shallow water. Coming at the terrified animal were three deadly water moccasins not ten feet away. Immediately guns started spitting lead. To the cows good fortune, none made it to the panicked beast alive.  “Calm that cow down!” A rider shouted and ropes were thrown onto the terrified cow from opposite sides. Once finding itself movement restricted, it surrendered itself to the power of the ropes.

Dusty rode up. “Good job boys! Keep a sharp eye along the banks, there’s sure to be more comin’ once the fire chases them out of their holes. Let’s get these cattle moved to the middle of the river, no more than ten wide.”

If the fire and snakes weren’t bad enough, a gust of wind blew Dusty’s Stetson from off his head. Carlos galloped down steam, leaned over and grabbed it. On his return, Carlos noticed Dusty standing in the stirrups looking to the south. Turning, Carlos followed Dusty’s gaze to the south.

“Dios mio!”  Forgetting his English he yelled out in Spanish and pointed at the horizon, “Senior Dusty, una tormenta de polvo, el infierno!”

“What? Carlos, speak so I understand you dammitt!”

“I am sorry Senior Dusty, look, it is a dust storm straight from hell!”

Behind the angry orange flames and now mixing itself with the grey fire smoke was truly a beast from hell.

Looking heaven ward, Dusty threw both arms skyward. “Really? Wasn’t snakes an fire enough Lord?”

Taking into account all the unearthly going on’s, Dusty yelled to the others as they rode up and down in the shallow water keeping the herd in mid river. Every now and then a few shots were fired, sometimes to scare a cow back into the herd and sometimes to kill another snake. “Got another”, someone yelled, but Dusty had no time to congratulate whoever had made the shot.

“They’ll point upriver once the storm hits. They’ll wanna’ put their butts into the wind. That’s good! The cows won’t see the flames now until they are alongside ‘em! If we’re lucky, when they see the flames  the fire should keep ‘em scared away from the banks.”

Within minutes the hurricane force dust storm slammed into the herd. Horses reared and some of their frightened riders went down. Terrified of more water borne snakes, the thrown riders remounted in the blink of an eye.

The river began to churn with white capped waves heading upstream completely washing over the bawling cattle. Standing in the belly deep water, fighting wind and water, the cows did not see the fire as it tore up the river banks being pushed by seventy mile an hour winds.

Dusty hoped the remuda and the thousand head of cattle he had sent out earlier had made it to the rise.

If Dusty were a bird he could have looked down upon the lee side of the rise and seen the cows and remuda grazing calmly while the riders rode in a half circle oblivious to the oncoming fire and dust storm on the other side. When it did hit, the riders looked skyward seeing only the darkness of the dust storm in the sky. Where they had ended up was in a valley protected on three sides by an eroded cliff. This large natural amphitheater allowed the storm to pass harmlessly overhead.  The riders sat pointing upward wondering what was happening but were unwilling to cross over the ridge to investigate. Shrugging their shoulders and hoping the best for the rest of the herd, they went back to riding their own herd.

Chapter 3

Meanwhile, back at the river miles away, Dusty and the others were doing all they could just to stay in their saddles. The riders had all donned their dusters and pulling the collars up high, the hurt caused by the fires intense heat and the scouring sand was kept to a minimum. The cattle and horses had no such protection. With their rears facing the onslaught, it was a good thing that horses and cattle have no need to sit down.The chuck wagon soon had its canvas covering torn loose from the wooden bows stretching it over the wagon. It landed in the river and was soon lost to sight. Now exposed, Biscuit tucked himself down into the foot well of the driver’s seat and hid.

It had been a half hour since the storm had hit them. The wind driven dust had not abated in the least but Dusty noticed the fire, having consumed all the dry grass and trees along the river bank was no longer a threat. Black smoking earth replaced the tall grasses behind the fire wall.

While most fires would have driven hundreds of snakes into the safety of the water, the wind pushing this fire was causing such tall waves that the snakes were thrown bodily back onto the shore. Dusty would have marveled at this stroke of fortune, and would afterward, but for right now he sat white knuckled trying his best to keep his death grip on the saddle horn as the wind and dust did their best to unseat him.

Miles ahead upriver, the fire continued to race along the Brazos banks leaving a mile wide swath on the eastern side. To the west, the fire was much wider but would soon reach a sharp bend in the Brazos stopping the raging fire in its tracks.

Without warning, the wind began to suddenly abate. The head winds that were traveling at hurricane speed had passed now being replaced by a wind half its speed to that of a common dust storm.

Dusty lifted his head and turning it sideways into the wind, tried glimpsing downstream. What he saw was a blackened landscape that diffused itself into the mile high dust cloud. Understanding now came to him. If it were not for the savage blowing of the earlier wind, the slow moving fire would have taken hours rather than minutes to pass them by. While cursing the millions of needle pricks the blowing sand brought about on exposed skin, that very wind in a very strange way was their savior.

Still too soon to fully face into the wind, Dusty tucked his chin back onto his chest and thanked God for protecting the men and the herd.

Without the fierce wind, the river began to settle back down. Any snakes attempting to find their way into the water though were met by the still smoldering earth and retreated back into their bank side holes.

When the worst had passed, Dusty yelled for the riders to clear the river of cattle. Even with dust still swirling about, the snakes would soon venture back into the water.

With yips and howls the cowboys drove the cattle back onto the burnt landscape. Once again the thin line of cattle were making their way north.

Dusty rode over to each rider asking if any were hurt and in need of  any medical attention. Most shrugged off their minor burns and were just happy to have survived.  Fisher commented that from here on in the trail should be a cake walk seeing as to how “We been through wind, water and fire all in one day!”

Looking northeastward, through the abating dust storm , Dusty could now see the ridge where the remuda and cattle were ordered to be taken to. Taking a small spyglass from his saddlebag, Dusty scanned the ridge for any sign of man or beast. None were seen.

“I don’t see anybody this side of the ridge, let’s heads the herd to the back side of it by circling around the south eastern point. They’re probably holed up on the lee side of the ridge”

Within four hours the slow moving herd rounded the southern tip of the ridge. Dusty was pleased that only a few cattle had been lost and a couple of those had been put down by the riders themselves trying to keep the other cows from following any leader ashore.

By now the dust storm was a gritty memory. No one questioned the single day long dust storm but Carlos gave the storm the name ‘Tormenta Dios miragro’ or loosely translated, ‘The torment of Gods miracle’.

The riders quietly had driven the tired cattle over the scorched earth up to the foothills of the ridge. Once rounding the southern point, green grass once again greeted the hungry cattle. Picking up their pace, the cattle soon joined their grazing relatives within the protection of the valley’s amphitheatre carved into the mountain side.

Dusty stopped and took in the sight. “Well I’ll be doggoned. They’s all safe an’ sound!”

Biscuit and the chuck wagon, being faster than the herd, had already set itself up and had  two, two gallon coffee pots heating over a fire.  One of the flank riders rode up dragging the wagons canvas tarp behind him. “Brought you a present Biscuit”. Then dismounting, he untied the canvas from his rope and headed over to the boiling coffee pots where everyone had gathered.

“what’s sayin’ boss?” Charlie called over to Dusty. “

Dusty untying his Stetson told him, “I tell you this much. this has been one heck of a day! Snakes, fire, dust storm… I don’t know about you boys but to my way of thinking, any one of those things coulda’ put an end to any one of us.”

To a man, a word of Amen was sounded.

Dusty continued talking, “Let’s take another day to get some grass into the herd and give our own bones a well deserved rest. I don’t know about you fella’s but my old bones is beat an’ my muscles is worn to a frazzle.”

Once again a round of ‘amens’ was heard.

Two days later found the herd heading out to the north towards Waco. Once in Waco the herd caught the Chisholm trail and headed onto Wichita Kansas. During the drive into Kansas, Dusty thought things deep and hard and made the decision that this was to be the last cattle drive he’d head up. When he talked over his decision with his friend Fisher, he was surprised that Fisher didn’t fight him on it.

“Heck boss, I was thinking along the same lines myself. The rail road’s gonna’ be the way to transport large herds of cattle pretty soon. Where’s that gonna’ leave us then? I’d rather go out while I can still make a choice to be a cowboy or not to be a cowboy. I ain’t no cow poke boss, I can’t see myself proddin’ cows onto rail cars with sticks from a loading platform. No Sir, I might just follow your lead and find somethin’ else to do for a livin’. You have any idea what you’ll be doin’ and where?”

“I’ve been thinking of a small town near Denver Colorado called Castle Rock. I saved up some for the day I decided to quit. My knees ain’t what they used to be, maybe I’ll buy myself a mercantile or dry goods store.”

“You? A dry goods store? Ha! That’ll be the day, more like a bordello if you ask me!”

“Naw, no whorehouse. I been seein’ things a bit different since that day on the Brazos.  I ain’t gonna’ turn into no Preacher or anything but I’m thinkin’ I should clean up my act a bit. The good book talks about becoming a new man. Who knows, maybe I’m gonna’ try an’ teach this ol’ dog some new tricks.”

“Well boss, whatever you decide, I’m behind you on it. I might even look you up someday…see how you’re farin’ an’ all.”

Dusty reached out and he and Fisher shook hands over their friendship. “You look me up Fisher!”

“I will boss. That’s a promise.”

It would be a promise kept.

To read another story featuring Dusty and Fisher, click on the story called “Homer’s magic bullet”.  JW

Homer’s magic bullet

 

Chapter 1

In the darkened room on the second floor of the Argosy Hotel, a nervous hand slowly parted the window curtains to get a clear view of the street below. The night shadows hid those seekers who might be a danger to him. The only movement he saw was a late night mule drawn cartage wagon that rumbled by.  Down the street, oil lamps lit the walkway and entrance to the Half Dollar Saloon. Inside a skinny old man wearing a well worn bowler derby plinked away at the piano trying his best to remember a tune nobody else recognized. It was a slow night, even a few of the whores had given up and went upstairs to their rooms alone for a chance to get some early shut eye. For all intensive purposes, the town had fallen asleep. Stepping closer, the tall gaunt man pressed his hawk like face sideways to the window pane so he could see further up and down the dark empty street. Seeing no movement he backed away and closed the curtain and for the first time in months he felt safe.

Homer Goldstein, the man in the second floor hotel room, was a scared and wanted man. For the last three months he’d been tailed, had his mail opened and had his home broken into numerous times. Homer really wasn’t the object of attention so much as what he had invented was.

It was the bullet that passed close to his head one night as he sat relaxing in the parlor that settled things for him. Finally conceding that his home, his town and his neighbors and his synagogue had to be left behind if he were to survive, he quickly packed a few belongings and fled his beloved Tennessee home.

Heading west by rail, he eventually ended up in the mountain town of Castle Rock about fifty miles south of Denver Colorado. The small town lay in the shadow of its namesake, a tall butte that claimed the skyline called Castle Rock. Juniper and Ponderosa pine climbed the mountain sides in the distance while a few shade giving oaks and Tulip trees sprinkled themselves around the town.

Homer took a room at the modestly priced Argosy hotel where he unpacked his belongings then headed over to the bank. For a small fee, many banks rented space within their vaults. It was his invention stored securely in its wooden case that was placed within the vault for safe keeping that morning.

For the last fourteen years Homer had worked as a gunsmith. It was the only job he had ever held. Actually, it was the only job he had ever wanted.

His father, a watchmaker in Memphis, encouraged the young Homer to follow his desires even though he secretly had hoped the boy would follow in his footsteps. Homer started out as an apprentice at the Tennessee Bean Rifle works where he quickly rose in rank within the company. Six years later, Homer stood holding the cherished Master Gunsmith Certificate he had worked so hard to get.

Homer had no wife to share his joy with, nor did he want one. He had no close friends either. He cared little for the world outside the shop window. Politics, the cost of pork bellies and the price of a bushel of corn held no interest for him. Only his guns mattered. To Homer it wasn’t machining, it was art.

Lying down on the Argosy’s soft feather bed in his room, Homer wished he’d never sent the letter to the war department asking them to consider his revolutionary designed rifle. His mistake was his naivety and blind trust in Government officials.

Upon receiving the letter, Wilfred Moneymaker, the head of the war department, passed it down the line until it fell on the desk of James Parker, an egotistical ladder climber whose father had gotten him the job.  Parker immediately saw how he could use the letter to his advantage.

In a private meeting with the company that the war department was presently purchasing their arms from, Parker told the owner of Eastern Valley Arms of Goldstein’s invention. It was not so much the rifle itself that interested them, it was the cartridge that went into the inventive gun.

“Without the chemical makeup of the propellent within the cartridge, all you are showing us Mr. Parker, is a multi caliber cartridge. I can list a boat load of arms makers working along those same lines even as we speak, us included. The easy part is the damn gun itself, but we’ve hit a wall on the cartridge. According to this spec sheet, this Goldstein fella’ seems to have figured it out.”

The speaker was Amos Silver, the owner and president of the Eastern Valley Arms company. Reaching into his vest pocket, Silver pulled out a pair of reading spectacles and once again looked over the letter.

“The ballistic performance out does anything thing on the market today. Our newest cartridge has a maximum chamber pressure rating of 23,000 psi. Goldman’s is 45,000 psi. That’s twice the power of our best cartridge. Hell, that much power would blow any of today’s rifles to sky high! Look at the velocity of the thing, 1,100 feet per second. Ours? 450 feet per second.  What he invented gentleman was a hand held cannon, not a rifle.”

“I knew this would interest you Sir,” Parker groveled, “I’m sure I can convince this Goldstein person to give us the chemical makeup of the cartridge’s propellent. After all, he’s just a small time rube gunsmith located in Tennessee and I have the power of the Department of War behind me.”

“I don’t want the War Department to get its hands on the makeup Parker, the idiots there would give it to every Tom, Dick and Harry that makes ammo for them. No, we want it for ourselves Parker. Use whatever means you wish, but we get the formula!”

“If I get it to you, what’s in it for me?”

“Oh don’t you worry son, you’ll have a fat purse for your efforts, as long as this isn’t all some ruse you schemed up.”

“No Sir, no ruse, this is for real. I took the letter to our own gun works people and they confirmed it was possible. Even the steel specifications used in the chamber and barrel seemed accurate”

Lighting a large Cuban cigar, Amos Silver then pointed it at Parker, “Son, you get the makeup of that cartridge and you can quit that lousy low pay Government job, of course if you don’t…” Silver let then let the freshly lit cigar fall to the floor and twisted it under foot. “You get my drift son?”

To Parker’s frustration, the face to face meeting with Goldstein went badly. Homer refused to give away any more information on his invention and withdrew his offer. He had a bad feeling about the young man with greedy eyes and wanted nothing more to do with him.

It was shortly after that meeting that Goldman realized he was being spied upon.

 

Chapter 2

Rising early, Homer went downstairs for breakfast in the Argosy’s dining room. It was a comfortable and surprisingly elegant room. The windows had long velvet curtains from ceiling to floor at each window and the floor was carpeted complimenting the imported wall paper. White linen table cloths dressed each table and real silverware was at each place setting. For the price, Homer felt he had made a very wise decision on choosing the Argosy hotel.

Homer sat politely as a tall skinny waitress taking breakfast orders took his order. In watching her, he found a strange stirring within him. Perhaps, he mused, he should be so bold as to introduce himself to her. As he watched the waitress in a state of  enchantment take his order, a young man dressed in typical cowboy attire and wearing a colt 45 on his hip sat down at the table next to him. It was Homers first encounter with a real cowboy and he was fascinated. Turning to the cowboy, the waitress glanced back at Homer and gave him a perky smile. There couldn’t have been a bigger contrast between the East and the West. Never before had a woman shown him any interest and on top of that, just the idea of wearing a six shooter openly thrilled him.

After the waitress finished taking their orders, Homer turned to the cowboy. “Excuse me Sir,” Homer excitingly asked, “I see you are wearing the new model P Colt 45 Peacemaker, have you had a chance to shoot it much?”

The cowboy turned and stared at Homer for a moment before answering, “A few times, snakes and such. Shoots nice”

“Please, excuse me if I seem forward, I’m newly arrived from Tennessee and have an interest in fine firearms.”

“Well friend, it ain’t for sale if that’s what you want to know, took me a year’s pay drivin’’ cattle to buy it.”

“Oh no, you misunderstand Sir, I’m not interested in buying it from you, you see I am a Master Gunsmith recently arrived. I design and build rifles but have done a few revolvers too. it’s just that I admire fine arms.”

“Oh, that’s it then.” Reaching down, the cowboy removed the Colt from its holster and after emptying the cylinder of its five bullets, he handed it to Homer. “Not that I don’t trust you, but I’d hate to be robbed with my own gun!”

Taking the gun handed to him, Homer began looking at the Colt with expert eyes. “I truly meant nothing more than to ask what you thought of the Colt. It was for my personal interest only. The machining is of an excellent quality. Did you have it custom engraved?”

“Yup,  they come plain but the man I bought it from is also an engraver so he did the designs on it.”

“It’s beautiful Mr..? Oh, I’m sorry, let me introduce myself.”  Handing the revolver back to the cowboy grip first, Homer spoke, “My name is Homer Goldstein, and yours is?,”

“Jesse James…” Seeing the shocked look plastering itself on Homers face, the cowboy chuckled, ” Nah, just joshin’ ya’ friend! Robert Fisher my name, folks just call me Fisher though.” Looking closely at Homer the cowboy asked, ” You a Jew or something Goldstein?”

Looking downward in disappointment Homer replied “Why yes I am. How did you guess?”

“I dunno, maybe the name, maybe the nose and thick glasses gave it away.”

“Does my being a Jew bother you? I know it did back in Tennessee. Most folks shy’d away from us Jews unless they wanted something ”

“Nope, don’t matter to me in the least. You meet all kinds on the trail and ya’ learn to trust them to watch your back. I rode with Mexicans, Negro’s, Swede’s even a number of Irishman.  Never rode with a Jew before, not that I know of anyway.”

His smile returning, Homer replied, “I guess us Jews don’t make very good cowboys, at least I never heard of one. In fact, I never met a real cowboy either.”

“Well there ya’ go, now ya’ met one. So Homer, why’d you leave… what was it, Tennessee you said? What brings you all the way out here?”

“My life. I have some bad people wanting something from me. They tried to kill me back home so I fled out West and ended up here. If they don’t chase me out here I might open my own gun works, I don’t know much about running a business but I’m very skilled at the smithing of firearms.”

“ You picked a good town Homer, nobody but miners and such come out this way. I’m here visiting my old boss. He retired from the cattle drives and settled down here after getting stove up from a Comanche arrow through his knee. I told him after I finished my last drive I’d head out this way to see how he was getting’ on, an see if he needed any help.” He started chuckling, “ I needn’t a worried though. First saloon I stopped into here was wearin’ a new sign over the door declairin’ “Under new ownership, Proprietor Dusty Plains“, that’s my bosses name. He’s doin’ just fine. Maybe my old boss could help you in opening up your place if you decide, seems he knew more about runnin’ a business than I gave him credit for. ”

“I’m sure I’d be delighted to meet his acquaintance.”

“Hopefully your trouble didn’t follow you out here, Colorado’s a good place to start over at.”

Breakfast arrived just then and as was the custom in public dining, all speaking came to a halt.

Afterward, and not wanting to become a nuisance, Homer excused himself telling Fisher he enjoyed the conversation and started to head back towards his room.

“Hey, Goldstein, wait up a second!” The voice was Fishers.

“Just out of curiosity, mind tellin’ me what room you was in upstairs?”

A moment of paranoia made his heart skip a beat but not wanting to sound rude since the cowboy seemed friendly, Homer answered, “Well, I’m staying in room 204, but why do you ask?”

More to himself than to Homer, the young cowboy mumbled, “Huh, just as I figured.”

“Figured what and why?”

Nodding his head in the direction of the stairs Fisher told him, “I saw a man leanin’ his ear against that door. I figured he was tryin’ to listen in. He wasn’t dressed like no burglar I’ve ever seen , and at the time it wasn’t none of my business  so I walked on. It was when you said something about being followed that it got me to wondering what that fella’ was doin’. Maybe it is just coincidence but maybe it ain’t.” Stepping back he appraised the tall slender man up and down. “You ain’t armed are you?”

“No, as funny as it seems I never carry a gun, even though I make them for a living.”

“Listen Goldstein, you seem like a nice fella but a bit of a green horn to how we do things here out West. Tell you what, let me open that door of yours in case that no good got himself inside while we was eatin’”

Relief showed on Homers face, “Oh, if you would I’d be so grateful. I have no friends here and I do honestly feel quite vulnerable.”

Together they took the stairs to the second floor rooms. Stopping in front of Homers room, Fisher whispered for Homer to stay aside of the door and not to enter until Fisher told him it was safe.

Taking the key from Homer, Fisher silently turned the lock and pushed the door slowly open after drawing his gun. Making no noise, Fisher turned to Homer and put the guns barrel to his lips as a warning not to speak.

Quietly swinging the door open, Fisher spotted a figure inside the room facing away from the door. A well dressed man stood bent over Homers open suitcase going through it.

“You all best have real good reason for stickin’ your paws in my friend’s baggage friend!”

The sound of Fishers icy voice took the young well dressed man by surprise. Turning quickly, he attempted to pull a small revolver from his coat pocket.

Robert Fisher, who moments before had only fired his new Colt Peacemaker at snakes and critters, fired a single well aimed hip shot into the forehead of the burglar.

Homer heard the shot and fearing for Fishers safety, ran into the room only to turn right around and vomit by the door.

“Yeah, it’s a mess alright. Can’t blame ya’ for losin’ your breakfast… bein’ from the East an all.”

“Oh my God,” Homer gagged, “his head stuffing is blown all over my room!”

“Sorry about that, maybe I shoulda’ stopped an laid a blanket down before I shot him.”

“I’m sorry, you risked your life and here I am worrying about my laundry.”

“Any idea who he is?”

“No, none. I’ve never seen him before but his clothes are the same style as most men wear in the larger Eastern cities.”

The well dressed corpse lay face up and partially across the bed. Fisher took his time going through all the man’s pockets. When he was satisfied with his search, he placed all the found items atop the dresser bureau. Using his fingers, Fisher poked through the belongings.

An uncashed bank draft for $500 dollars from Eastern Valley Arms in Connecticut drew Fishers interest.

“Looks like a fella’ named Amos Silver signed this draft. Does either name make any sense to you?”

“Yes, I know of both. Eastern Valley Arms is a military arms maker owned by Amos Silver out of New Haven Connecticut. They are known to have multiple long term contracts with the War Department. Some think they rig the bids to favor Eastern Valley but nothings ever been proven.  I don’t understand why he would be involved with my situation, it was that Parker fellow  from the War Department in Washington that I had the problem with.”

“The way it looks to me Homer, is This Parker fella’ may be in cahoots with this Silver person in trying to get at whatever it was that was in your letter.”

Slumping his shoulders in defeat, Homer shook his head exclaiming, “Then I’m not safe after all. If what you said is true then they’re not going to give up until they get what they want.”

“Kinda’ looks that way friend. I think I’ll stick close to you for a bit yet if you don’t mind. There may be more than just this fella’, usually is. Since they didn’t know where your trail would end, I’d say they rode on the same train as you.  All they had to do was wait and watch. When you got off, so did they.”

A clamoring of hard sloe shoes running up the stairs, ended their conversation.

An angry front desk clerk appeared in the doorway. Looking towards Homer, he demanded, “What’s going on here Mr. Goldstein, I heard… Oh my God! Did you shoot that man?”

Before Homer could answer, Fisher spoke up, “Naw, I did. Earlier I spotted this man with his ear to the door. When Mr. Goldstein and I finished our breakfast we come up here an’ discovered him burglarizing Mr. Goldstein’s room.” Pointing to the small handgun lying on the floor Fisher continued.  “When I surprised him, he tried takin’ a shot at me but I got the draw on him.”

A young man dressed as a bell hop had followed behind and spoke from the doorway. “Mr. Peebles? Should I send for the Sheriff?”

Answering the young man without turning to look his way, Peebles directed him. “Yes, and gather some cleaning supplies and get Mr. Jones, he should be at his mortuary. I want this body gone and gore cleaned up as fast as possible.”

Looking disgusted at the mess of blood and brains, clerk Peebles sternly told Homer, “I’m afraid we’ll have to charge you for cleaning up this mess and replacing the ruined wall paper Mr. Goldstein.”

Turning to Fisher, the clerk looked with distain on the cowboy, “The Sheriff will want to hold a hearing on this shooting as soon as possible. I wouldn’t leave town, whoever you are!”

Catching the acid in his comment, Fisher replied, “I ain’t goin’ anywhere. Although I’m thinkin’ when the folks stayin’ at this hotel find out their rooms ain’t safe, they’ll be high tailin’ it outa here for the place across the street.  In fact, seeing how there’ll be a rush on rooms, tell the Sheriff he can find me over there in my new room.”

The clerk looked horror stricken at the thought of all his customers fleeing his hotel for the one across the street and quickly began to back track his mouth.  “ Please, we sincerely value all our guest. I deeply apologize if I spoke rudely just now. This terrible incident must have caused you much distress, I know it did me. Let me make it up to you by giving you both a week’s stay here at the Argosy’s  expense. I’ll have a new room for you right away Mr. Goldstein.  There is no need to speak of this to our other guest, is there now?”

Replying for both of them, Fisher shuffled his feet then spoke up. “Well, if that includes meals, livery care, bath and haircuts, we might find it in us to keep shut about it. What about the Sheriff though, he’ll have it all over town after he hears what we have to say at the hearing.”

With wheels spinning inside his head, the clerk gasped, “Oh my yes, you’re right! I must catch him before he gets up here. I’m on the hearing committee so I’ll just tell him it was a private argument and you had to shoot the man in self defense…yes, that’s what I’ll tell him. Good day to you both, I need to run.”

After the clerk took to the stairs two at a time, Fisher turned to Homer. “Well, we got free room and board for a week, that’s somethin’ good that come out of this wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed! I do feel the need for a free trim, bath and shave Mr. Fisher, would you care to join me?”

Chapter 3

An hour later found the two men each soaking in high backed copper bathing tubs. Homer and Fisher found themselves alone after the Negro bath house house boy had filled the tubs with hot water.

“So Homer, if you don’t mind me askin’, what in tarnation is it that Eastern Valley Arms wants so badly from you that they’d chase you all the way out here?”

“I guess if anyone has the right to know, it’s you. On my account, you’ve gotten yourself neck deep in my troubles. I apologize and thank you at the same time. Tomorrow I want you to go over to the bank with me. I want to show you what the fuss is all about. In fact, if you’d stay with me until I can figure a way out of all this, I’d gladly hire you to act as my guardian.”

“Kind of like your private Segundo huh?”

“If I think that means what I think it does, yes”

As the two stepped into the bank the next day, they were greeted by the owner. “Ah, Mr. Goldstein, I’m so glad you have stopped in! Earlier today, there were three men who stopped in asking if anyone fitting your description had stopped in. I lied, I told them I was unaware of anyone like that. They seemed a bit on the rough side, is everything alright?”

“Yes, all is fine and thank you for being discreet regarding my presence here.” Turning to Fisher, Homer introduced him as his private security person.

“I wish to enter your vault if I may. I need to inspect my property within it.”

“Of course Mr. Goldstein, please follow me.”

Opening the large rented drawer within the vault, Homer removed the wooden case he had carried all the way from Tennessee. Fisher stepped closer in order to see what the inside held once Homer opened it. Unlatching the two locks, Homer lifted the lid.

Fisher let out a slow whistle.

“That is one beautiful rifle my friend, but what’s so different about it that makes them folks so determined to get their hands on it?”

“This.” Homer opened a smaller box and removed one of the multi sized cartridges and handed it to Fisher.

“What in tarnation is this thing? A bullet?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it is. The rifle is designed to fire it. If you notice, the actual bullet is a small 25 caliber projectile mounted within a modified turned down sharps style .50-90 brass cartridge.”

“Whew! I bet she’s got some punch, but ain’t other folks workin’ on similar bullets? I heard they was.

“Yes they are. The difference is this. Every cartridge made today, no matter how many grains it holds, has inside it the same explosive, black powder. This is not black powder but a chemical formula involving powdered metals, extremely reactive oxidizers and other additives that I can’t disclose. It almost triples the power of a sharps and with the smaller projectile will travel over one mile with total calculable accuracy. In fact I have tested it to over one and a half miles and it maintained a killing force.”

Fisher took one long last look and handed the cartridge back to Homer. “God, no wonder them folks want this so bad. It’d put every other gun maker out of business!”

“Yes it would!”

The new voice behind them was so unexpected they both jumped.

Before they could react to the voice, three men with guns drawn stepped forward. “I’ll take that box you have there Mr. Goldstein. I’m sorry I have to do it this way Goldstein but you left me no choice. ” Homers heart sank. It was Parker.

The tough looking no good standing next to Parker spoke up and pointed to the ceiling with the barrel of his revolver. “Put your hands up Goldstein, you too cowboy.”

“Lonny,” said Parker,” get Goldstein out of here. I got a score to settle with this rube cowboy here. He’s the one who killed Troy in the Argosy. ”

“Sure thing Parker, I’ll be waiting for you and Chuck at Old woman Creek”.  Lonny then led Goldstein out the banks rear door where he had their horses waiting. Forcing Homer to saddle up, Lonny tied his hands to the saddle horn and mounted himself behind Homer.  As they galloped away, the two fleeing riders heard the gunshots. Homer knew his newly found friend had just been killed.

Chapter 4

Fisher, Parker and Chuck heard the pounding of hooves as Lonny and Goldstein galloped off. It was then that Fisher made his move. Even he was surprised at the speed at which his Colt Peacemaker left the holster. The two had let Lonny’s leaving distract them ever so slightly. Before they could return their barrels onto Fisher, his Colt was rapid firing its deadly lead.

Fisher aimed first at the hard case standing to Parkers left. His gun was aimed closer to Fisher than was Parkers. The Peacemaker lived up to all that it was known for. Two quick shots plowed into Chucks gut. Before Parker could pull back his hammer the Colt Peacemaker exploded once again. This bullet hit the side of Parkers own gun. Knocking the barrel aside, the lead bullet continued traveling. It entered Parker just above the wrist. Once inside his arm it drilled it way through the arm until it explosively exited from the elbow.

Parkers look of shock matched that of his hired gun Chuck. For safety, Fisher always left the chamber empty under the hammer empty. With only two rounds left in the six shooter, Fisher returned the Peacemaker back to Chuck.

Chuck, doubling over from the two gut shots, leaned forward and saw himself staring down the 45’s barrel. The last thing he saw was the flame. The next thing he saw was God.

Parker let out a terrible scream as the bullet left his arm. The pistol fell to the floor but not before Fishers last bullet had already left the barrel. Parker, always one to dress well and hair meticulously groomed, would have felt chagrined at finding out that his funeral had to be a closed casket affair.

Holstering the Peacemaker and grabbing the precious case, Fisher jumped over the body of the hard case known as Chuck and ran into the banks teller area. There he spotted the bank owner lying on the floor unconscious. A teller lay sprawled out near him. Whether dead or alive, Fisher had no time to find out.

Once out the rear door, he mounted up on Parkers horse… either stolen or rented. It was now Fishers.

The horse jolted forward as if electrified. Running at a full gallop, Fisher knew Lonny had a good lead on him. Knowing a hand gun was near useless in a chase on horseback, Fisher began unpacking the rifle from its case on the run.

Within ten minutes Fisher reached the plains just east of the South Platte River where he spotted Lonny and Homer racing away in the distance.

“Damn! I got to stop them before they get to that rise up ahead.”

Once the two crested the rise, Lonny could stop on the other side and set up an ambush. The chase was beginning to seem like an effort in futility.

It was do or die Fisher decided. He then did something that screamed insanity, he stopped and dismounted.

Finding a large stone about a foot high, Fisher laid down prone behind it. Taking a cartridge from the flat ammo case, Fisher loaded the chamber and shot the bolt home. Resting the rifle barrel atop the rock to steady it, Fisher looked down the sight trying to sight in on the riders ahead. Since Homer had mentioned that he had fired it at a distance of over a mile, Fisher was counting on that it was still sighted in at that distance.

Slowing his breathing he found his target. He considered the distance and lifted the barrel. It was all a guessing game. He felt a slight breeze coming from the Platte River so he moved the barrel to the left. Even after pulling the trigger, it would take the projectile over five seconds to reach his target. All these thoughts spun in Fishers head as he compensated his aim for the variables.

All this took time and with panic rising, he saw Lonny’s horse start the climb up the fifty foot high slope.

Just as he was pulling the trigger, the thought entered his thinking that since this bullet had three times the punch of a normal bullet, it just may travel completely through Lonny killing Homer. As he pulled the trigger, in response to this fear he pulled the barrel up. It wasn’t much, just a micro amount but Fishers heart sank knowing the shot would now travel over their heads.

It was at that moment that Lonny’s horse made it to the crest. Then Lonny did something unusual. He stopped on top of the crest and turned around facing Fishers direction. In horror, Fisher saw that now Homer sat in the direct path of the bullet. Five seconds turned into hours.  At last he saw Lonny lift his firearm skyward in a wave to ridicule the stopped Fisher. Lonny had assumed that Fisher had given up.

As Lonny raised his firearm he opened his mouth and yelled a curse at the dismounted rider over a mile away. Laughing he leaned forward causing Homer to bend forward. It was in the middle of his second set of curses that Homer heard the most unusual sound above and behind him. It was the bullet traveling faster than any bullet previously made . It tore open the air like an exploding lightning bolt.  The sound the near white hot projectile had been making suddenly ended in a burst of sound similar to an exploding pumpkin.

Lonny had nothing to say about it seeing as the projectile had entered his mouth mid curse and disintegrated the entire back of his head. Lonny didn’t slowly roll off his horse, instead it looked as if he was yanked violently backwards out of the saddle.

Turning to see what was happening, Homer watched as Lonny landed ten feet behind his horse. With his thick lenses, Homer could not see well enough to view Fisher clearly but he knew by the sound of the bullet that not only was it his invented cartridge that had been fired and killed Lonny but it could only have been fired by Fisher. Somehow, Fisher had made it out alive after all!

Feeling a world of trouble being lifted off his shoulders, Homer headed down the slope at an easy gait to meet up with the only friend he had ever made. Smiling widely as Fisher came into view, Homer watched Fisher jumping up and down and laughing as he waved his hat around his head.  Homers grin widened to the point that it hurt his face.

Riding back to town side by side, the two talked of Homers next move. ” Tanks to you, I am able to open my own place now that I’m sure its safe. How would you feel about me asking you to stay and help me set it up and run it?”

“I ain’t got much else goin’ on, the railroad and barb wire’s putting a real pinch on cattle drives.” Turning to Homer he reached over and gave him his hand. “Sure Homer, I’d be honored. By the way, does job that include any pay by chance?”

Gripping his friends hand he gave it a firm shake, “A man can’t work for free Fisher, let’s head over to the Argosy for dinner and we’ll hammer out the details.”

Slowly, a wispy smile crossed over Homers face as the memory of the tall skinny waitress smiling over at him at the Argosy entered his thoughts.

“Yes Sir Fisher, I do believe we have a future here, a real nice one too!”