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?

Advertisements

It’s finer than Texas

Chapter 1

John  Henry knew something was about to happen. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up like signal flags in warning.  Cautiously, he eased his right hand over to the Henry rifle in its leather scabbard and drew up reign to listen. He was partial to that particular gun for a couple reasons. First, it was a gift from his dear Anna and second, ever since he had found out its inventor, Benjamin Tyler Henry, was a distant relative, he took extra pride in it. He was often heard to say, “Nothing like supporting a family member in his budding business”.

He had been riding with heightened caution for he had been warned the Ponderosa pine forest of the Colorado Plateau east of the Mogollon Rim in Arizona held perfect cover for robbers and other no goods. Murdering the unwary for their belongings was a common occurrence and John Henry wasn’t about to be caught with his pants down and boots off if he could help it.

His travels had taken him from Texas through the New Mexican territory and into Arizona where he hoped to re settle and start anew in the high altitude of Flag Staff. He rode alone now but for the last eighteen years his wife Anna had been his beloved partner. Less than three months before, she had given up the ghost after a short but painful bout of brain fever. He buried her alongside the creek she loved to play in as a child. Her parents, a twin sister and an older brother rested nearby to keep her company.

When John Henry married Anna, both her parents were alive and the small cattle ranch they owned was prospering. Folks in the early days of the West had rough lives and when both parents came down with Typhus, Anna traveled to her old homestead to care for them. Unfortunately, she too contracted the disease and succumbed shortly after her parents had passed.

In his grief, John Henry sold off the parent’s ranch along with his own small spread and left to escape the painful memories Texas held for him. With one last longing look, his eyes took in the placid scene of the graves dug in safely alongside the creek and knew he was right in leaving. It was a place for the dead to sleep at and wasn’t a place for the living to mourn in wakefulness. Saddling up his favorite mare, he mounted and rode out leaving the dead to rest.

Having survived unscathed to date, the further north he got the more he began to relax. The hand drawn map he carried said it was only a few more days to his destination in Flag Staff

The trip took longer and more out of him than he had hoped. Reaching the tall pine forest a week previous, he decided he and his horse needed a good rest.

It was during that rest that he met and immediately disliked Sean O’Leary.

John heard O’Leary making his way through the forest long before he caught sight of him. Reaching for his Henry rifle he waited until the object of all the racket appeared.

Something about the set of the man, how he packed his mule and the noise he made traveling drew red flags of warning. John waited for the man to ease up and declare his intentions. When the familier yell, “Yo the camp!” never came, John jacked a cartridge into the Henry’s chamber and stood up to better show himself.

Seeing the rider was aware of John and the camp but still no shout of greeting to the camp came, John yelled at the forest rider, “Stay where ya’ are an’ state your business mister.”

Stopping a hundred feet from the camp, the rider threw his arms up in feigned surprise and yelled back in a heavy Irish accent, “ Ach, tis just me, Sean O’Leary. A traveler I am and a weary one at that… and hungry to boot! I could no more deny the scent of your cook fire than I could tell the sun is not shining. Ach, The smell is like that of me own dear mothers cookin’, God rest her saintly soul, an’ here’s  me with my belly shouting  a plea sayin’ it’s been a wee bit a time since I paid it any mind. “

John Henry heard the false friendly tone in the man’s voice.“Mister, that don’t tell me your purpose, just that you ain’t ate and you want my grub! Only a fool enters another man’s camp without permission! Ain’t you ever heard of a shout or do you really think you’re immune to getting yourself blowed out of the saddle for your ignorance?”

Paying no mind to the question John asked, the Irishman dismounted without permission.  O’Leary led his mule by the reigns toward Johns cook fire, dropped them and stood alongside the mules pack. “If you could spare a few beans or a potato, you would surely have my eternal gratitude.” Seeing the Henry rifle lift up and center on his belly, O’Leary stopped his advancement and added. “I bet you are now saying to yourself, now how could a man travel such a distance without even a single potato in his sack? Now before you answer, let me be tellin’ you. I was happened upon by a gun slinging galoot named Marcus along the trail the day before. When that hoodlum rode away, he had relieved me of any food I might be havin in my sack. And here I am just a lone Irishman, a babe in the woods if you will. I’d be behooved if I could at least sit a spell and share in your coffee. ”

John Henry lifted the barrel higher up into the face of the lying Irishman. “I didn’t invite you to eat or to stay. I don’t like your looks mister and I don’t believe a word of your story either. Now just you get back on that mule and ride on out’a here. “

John Henry was no fool. He had ridden the Texas trails half of his life and could sniff out a bandit like a horse does a water hole. He had already looked at and decided the man and his mule were a set up for murder or at least a robbery. The story of a robber known as Marcus was bullcrap. John was always aware of his back trail and who was on it. In the past week, no one was within ten miles behind him. Therefore the Irishman had not come from behind him but had swung around the camp from the front to make it look so. John suspected with the limited supplies that were more for show than for survival, and the man being a lone rider in a bandits paradise, it could only mean one thing… the man had accomplices waiting somewhere nearby.

With the tip of his Henry, John then pointed to the mule pack behind the old saddle. “I bet if I threatened to shoot your mule, you’d find food aplenty in that pack. It sure looks like that bacon slab you got in there is staining it” Besides the large dripping pork fat stain, John had noticed an older but well oiled Springfield rifle untied alongside the mule pack and within easy grabbing distance.

Realizing John Henry was a bit more adept at figuring the truth out than he originally took him for, the Irishman decided to make a face saving retreat before any lead flew. “And to think I had it in mind to offer you good coin for some of those beans and coffee!” Reaching down, he grabbed up the mules reignsl. “Never you mind then, I’ll just be on my way.”

As the Irishman was speaking, John Henry could not miss the narrow eyed glances the mule rider was giving his Henry rifle. It wasn’t a look of fear but of covetousness and it made him uneasy.

As the Irishman turned his mule back to the trail, John noticed the Irishman glanced into the forest and gave his head a quick, “No” shake to someone in hiding.

That evening, John Henry bedded down after dowsing the fire. He normally would have left the glowing coals to burn out by themselves but tonight he felt safer having no fire to light up his campsite. He wondered whether the Irishman would return with his gang to kill him for his belongings. To be sure, John knew the man was lying.

He slept that night with one eye open waiting for the Irishman and his cohorts to show up.

The next morning found John still alive and in ownership yet of his rifle and belongings. John lay awake in the early dawn listening to the forest sounds. For the last half hour while he listened, no man sounds could were heard. He felt safe enough then to stand up and show himself. After a quick meal of coffee, biscuits and bacon, he set out heading to the small town of Strawberry.  The town sat just north of the East Verde river near Sunset Canyon. From Strawberry it was less than a two day ride into Flag Staff. As much as he looked forward to a hot meal, a soft bed and a glass of whisky, John decided to pass on through the town without stopping. Being this close to the end of his journey, his desires for comfort could wait another day or two.

He traveled unmolested along the forest trail. John began to believe the Irishman and his band of no goods had decided he wasn’t worth the fight and found himself beginning to relax.

The smell of wood smoke lifted his nostrils to the wind. Pulling out the hand drawn map again, he decided the smoke was coming from the town of Strawberry up ahead and not from any bandits.

By noon, he came upon a sharp overlooking bluff on the trail. From there he could see over the tree tops down to the town of Strawberry not two miles ahead.  It lay not in the forest but outside it where the desert stretched as far as the eye could see.

The strange beauty of the desert held Johns gaze. Here on top of the bluff within the shade of the dense forest a cool breeze blew and the trees kept the harsh sun from reaching the ground. In less than a mile ahead though there was no shade, no breeze and no trees, unless one called a Joshua tree a tree.

He sat there on horseback overlooking the panorama before him when the hairs suddenly stood up on the back of his neck like red signal flags of warning.

Chapter 2

Sounding akin to a bee in flight, the bullet tore into the top of John Henry’s well worn Stetson.

John flung himself from the saddle but in his haste, he landed awkwardly and fell flat faced to the ground. Rearing in panic by Johns sudden movement, his mare then sped off down the trail towards the town of Strawberry.

Realizing his trusty Henry rifle was still snug in its saddle scabbard, John felt his hip to make sure that at least his Navy Colt was still secure in its holster. It was.

Seeing a single clean hole driven into his hat, he grabbed it and plopped it back onto his head.

Cautiously scooting off of the trail into the brush, John Henry lay hidden. Without his horse, he was easy pickings and the moment he stood up he’d be a target of whoever had shot at him.

John had no doubt it had something to do with the Irishman. He figured there were at least a couple more siding with him. “Damn bushwackers, I shoulda’ shot that damn Irishman the moment he stepped into my camp.”

John Henry lay there within the dark shadows of the forest and brush until he felt whoever had shot at him wasn’t going to check on their shot. He crawled parallel alongside the trail until the brush became so dense he could not continue. Reentering the trail, he stood for a few minutes listening to the forest sounds. Nothing seemed out of place.  Flitting birds, ground squirrels and other critters continued to make their usual noises. No alarm warnings are sounded. Figuring whoever shot at him was more interested in what was on his horse than him personally, john started down the trail to Strawberry.

After a mile or so, the trail joined up with what John took to be a wagon road into town. Deep ruts and fresh horse apples said the road was fairly well used. By the time he entered the outskirts of Strawberry, there were long shadows being painted along the dusty street.

Something didn’t seem right to John Henry. While the town was far from any ghost town he’d seen before, he was surprised the street was empty of animals and people.

Making his way into town by walking dead center down the street, John Henry glanced right then left as he walked.

Glancing about he noticed the wooden frame buildings looked in good shape, no broken windows or collapsed awnings. Nothing to say it was a deserted ghost town. The street, while dusty was without trash. There were some dried and even a few fresh looking horse apples laying about.  The horses water troughs seemed to have fresh water in them and the hitching post seemed strong and useable.

No store was open no people were seen. A dress shop window had a recently arrived dress from New Orleans advertized in the window. A tobacco shop had meerschaum pipes and silver cigar cutters in the window, expensive items all left untouched.  .

John Henry could not make out the other end of town clearly but he figured with the desert alkali dust and heat waves radiating off the dirt street that it should be expected. Not pondering on that, he made his way to the center of town.  Once there, he stopped and scratched his head. “What the dickens is going on” he thought, “have I lost my mind or are these folk all out somewhere?”

One way to find out was to see the Sherriff,” if I can find him,” he mused.

As he made his way to the Sheriffs  office, he slowly walked  past the towns  bank. Looking into the windows as he passed, he didn’t see anyone moving about inside. Reaching for the banks front door, he turned the handle and was taken by surprise to find not only the bank unoccupied but all its doors were left unlocked.  “Oh hell, this ain’t right!” He loudly exclaimed.

Turning from the bank, he made swift headway to the Sheriffs office.

Approaching the jail, began to wonder if there could be a celebration or maybe a town function of some sort going on. He could recall as a kid the entire town he lived in at the time turning out for a horse race in a field outside of town. Then another time the entire town showed up to see the reformed town drunk get baptized in the creek nearby. There were reasons for people to go somewhere, maybe this was one of those times. “I bet that’s it, they’s just all gone off somewhere, they’ll be back soon.”

Arriving at the Jailhouse John Henry turned the door knob. The door swung inward on a set of squeaky but well maintained hinges.  Hesitantly, he stuck his head inside the Sherriff’s office and shouted.

“Hey, anybody home?” He yelled, “Sheriff, you all in here?” Silence was the response.

John Henry could figure nothing further so he stepped inside to wait for the Sherriff to show up. Feeling a strange tiredness, his drooping eyes took in the jail cells. They were also empty.

Yawning, he opened the cell door and stepped inside the confined area. A single cot was all the jail cell had within it. Making his way over to the cot, he sat down to rest. His head began to ache and the strange desire to sleep started overwhelming him, he lay down on the cot, and fell into a strange fever  like sleep.

John Henry heard familiar sounds as he lay deep in sleep. Like phantom wraiths they ghosted in and out of his dreams. The sound of horses clopping past, the front door of the jail house opening and closing, men talking within the jail and outside on the wooden walkway. There was the sound of a wagons squeaky, grease starved wheel hub as it made its way down the street. Boots thumping on the wooden walk outside said people were out and about. All the normal sounds for a normal town.

Morning broke through the jails single iron barred window in the cell. Streaking downward and in motion, it finally crawled onto John Henry’s face and eyes.

Abruptly, he awoke and sat up.

Wiping his hand across his eyes in order to sharpen his focus, he stood up and looked into the jails office. Remembering the sounds he heard during the night within the jail, he was surprised no one had wakened him to question why he had put himself in jail. The cell door was still unlocked so he pushed it open and walked into the office.   No one greeted him. The place was as empty as the night before. Spying a coffee pot he lifted it up to see if it contained any brew. While empty, it seemed too warm to be room temperature. Tipping the lid back he saw there was a scant amount yet in the bottom. He swirled it and saw grounds moving within the swirling wave. Someone had made coffee while he slept!

He quietly opened the front door, peered outside then stepped onto the wooden walkway.

Back out in the street, silence and emptyness once again greeted him. “Aw c’mon now” he complained, “What in Sam Hill is going on here?”  Starting up the street he stepped into a pile of horse dung, fresh horse dung. “How in the hell did that end up here if they ain’t got no horses here about? This is plain retarded!”   Swinging around in a full circle and near panic, he again saw a completely deserted town. No horses, only dung, no wagons, just tracks, no people, just unlocked doors.

“This is not right, not right at all” He loudly told himself. John Henry then decided to find a saloon. If anyone was in town, that’s where they’d be.

Seeing a building with a tall false front and a set of batwing doors he walked toward it. The sign over head claimed it was the Dusty Bone Saloon. It advertized food, drinks and the most beautiful woman to be had west of the Mississippi. Thinking of how many months some Cowboys was on the trail without seeing a woman, he figured whoever had named the place had hit the nail on the head.

Stepping up to the saloon’s wood plank walkway, he clomped up to the batwings door. He cocked his head before entering it to listen for any sounds coming from inside.  He heard nothing.

Slowly he swung open the doors and looked into the gloomy interior. Entering the dimly lit room, he took in the place as he walked up to the gaming tables. Cards lay about, even coins! Drinks had been half drunk and left sitting.

“Hey! Anyone in here?”  He glanced at the stairway leading upstairs to the whores rooms and took to the stairs two at a time. Reaching the hallway, he pushed open the first door he came to. Empty. Each room was the same. He turned and ran.

Time seemed to play tricks on him. As he ran from the saloon, he noticed the deepening shadows crawling up the dusty street. Wasn’t it just morning?

Feeling the strange sleepiness coming on once again he headed back to the saloon again and to the whores rooms to nap. Hunger had not seemed to be a concern nor even thirst. He didn’t quite understand, it was as if he was experiencing a brain fog. Reaching the step to the wooden walkway, he took the time to look down the street to the end of town. Once again he could not quite make out the details of the buildings or even the road. The end of town just seemed to blur into a smudge. He shrugged and entered the Saloon again. As he made his way to the stairs, he noticed new glasses had replaced the old ones at the table and bar. A few whisky bottles sat like unmoving pillars among the glasses.

Rubbing his aching head, he climbed the stairs to the whore’s rooms. One room stood with its door open so he stepped in and lay down to rest. Again sleep came upon him as if he had been drugged.  The last thing he thought of before he blinked out was that tomorrow he’d get on out of this strange place. Something just wasn’t right here.

Chapter 3

Again the night sounds came. This time he heard voices clear and distinct. Sometimes it was the huffing, puffing and grunting of cowhands and whores, other times it was sounds in the street. He dismissed the whores even in his sleep for somehow he remembered where he lay and assumed somehow it was being acted out in his dream. The street sounds interested him though. One in particular was the sound of many horses arriving along with cheers and congratulations. John Henry tried to discern what was being said above the din. Something about finding some no goods, a vigilante posse and hanging were some of the words he clearly understood. Then it all faded back into his sleep as a crowd began cheering. He slept until sunrise.

Dawn came abruptly. Jumping up from the bed, John Henry grabbed his hat and tore down the steps into the bar. Again he saw no patrons or bar tender. This time he was not surprised that the glasses and bottles had changed again. Stepping outside into the morning sun he started down the street to the end of town  where he swore in his dream he heard a crowd cheering. By now he was no longer concerning himself as to why there was no one about. He had put that out of his head because just as soon as he could, he’d head out of this crazy town, horse or no horse. Once gone, he figured things would return to normal.

Heading to the end of town he had heard the cheering he abruptly stopped and stood staring slack jawed at what he saw.

There, hanging from one of the few trees in town twisting in the breeze were three men. One of who was the Irishman. Removing his hat as if it would help him see better, John Henry cautiously approached the hanging figures. Black tongues stuck out of their gaping mouths. The two he did not recognize had pissed their drawers and the Irishman had included crap his. It was not a pleasant scene to stare at.

It was then that he realized he was at the end of the town he had not been able to see before. Due to sand being blown or heat wave he did not know, but being as close as he was he figured the end of town would be clearly visible now. It still wasn’t.

A  blur of fog was still preventing him from clearly seeing the end of the street, now only a hundred feet away. So intrigued was he that he turned from the three rope dangling figures and walked towards the end of the street.

As he approached, it seemed the end of the town ended in a blur of light. As he slowly walked towards it, he saw the light becoming more intense.  By the time he stood within feet of the last building the light was brighter than the morning sun. It wasn’t the brightness though that held him in a trance like state but the figure he saw within the brightness. It was his love, Anna.

Slowly, he approached the vision of the love of his life, his mind reeled in disbelief. “Anna?”  His voice cracked, “How? What is going on? That cain’t be really you! I buried my Anna back in Texas!”

In the brightest of light, Anna Smiled at him and spoke. ”My dear Jonathan Dickson Henry, who else would I be?”

Hearing his name spoken forced John Henry to his knees. There was only one person in the world besides his dead parents who knew his middle name, and that was his Anna.

Anna reached out her hand to him, “Come to me John Henry, it’s time now to leave this place. I have been waiting for you .”

“What do you mean, waiting? How did you know I was in this town anyway?”  Looking up in confusion John Henry quietly asked her. “What’s goin’ on sweetheart? Why am I being punished like this. I know you’re not really here.  Tell me, why am I here an’ you there? Have I gone mad?”

“No, you have not gone mad” Anna answered, “Do you remember the Irishman you met and took a dislike to on the trail?

“Yes, I remember seeing him. I didn’t cotton to him right off but I never saw his pards I just guessed he’d have some hidden away somewheres. I take it that’s ‘em hanging over there next to him? For what was they all hung for?”

Anna answered, “It is them, and they were hung because of what they were and what they did to you.”

Did to me? You’re tellin’ me it was them that shot at me an’ put a hole in my favorite hat? While I ain’t partial to havin’ my hat shot off my head, that ain’t no call to hang ‘em. Why they hang ‘em for that?”

“My dear John Henry, He didn’t just shoot the hat off your head, he shot the hat off through your head!”

“What???”

“That’s right, he killed you. Your body was found laying on the trail shortly after some of the town’s folks investigated after hearing the shot.  Your horse has been stabled in town since then. They caught up with those three last night in the forest, brought them back and hung them from that tree.

“Well if I’m dead then how come I’m standin’ here talkin’ to you.  Wouldn’t I know it if I was dead? Besides that, I’d be layin’ in a grave somewhere an’ I think I’d know if I was layin’ dead in a grave somewhere. Wouldn’t I?”

“It’s true John Henry, you are lying in a grave, right over there on the hill. You can walk over and take a look at your grave but I think you’ll believe me without having to take a look.”

John Henry looked over towards the hill, where sure enough, a new grave had been dug and filled. “How come I cain’t see no one except only  them that shot me?”

“Because they are dead. You can no longer see the living. Each time you fell asleep your spirit edged closer here to the light. I was sent to guide you.

The sounds you heard where those of the living. I know you noticed the changes each day. I saw you looking at the glasses and bottles yesterday. You saw they had changed. “

“How come I don’t see nothin’ move?”

“Because you only see a tiny slice of time, less than a blink of the eye, not unlike a painting captures a moment in time.”

John Henry’s mind began to make sense of it all. Rubbing his chin, John Henry looked to his beloved Anna. “So it’s for real then? I’m dead? Huh, maybe that explains why my horse took to the trail without me. She musta knowed I was a goner ‘cause she never woulda’ left me otherwise.”

“She did. I was delighted when she ran towards town for I did not want the Irishman to claim your Henry rifle. I know how much that rifle means to you.”

“It weren’t the rifle itself that meant so much to me Anna. It was ‘cause I knowed how long and hard it was for you to save up that much money to buy it for me without me knowin about it. Yup, I guess I’ll have no need for it now that I’m dead. Say Anna,  this may sound a bit queer but was you watchin’ me the entire time after I was kilt?”

“I’ve been able to see everything, yes.”

“I slept in the whorehouse, you knew that?”

Anna started chuckling, “Yes sweetheart, I watched as you slept and the whores came and went and plied their trade in your bed. It did look a bit crowded at times John Henry, I wish you could’ve seen it!”

It started out as a chuckle but grew into a full belly laugh for the two of them. John Henry slapped his thigh and shouted “Oh my word!” He cried, “that sounds like perfectly horrible sight.”

After a minute, the two stopped their laughing and chuckling. John Henry looked soberly at the town around him. True, the only thing that moved was the slow twisting of the dead men as they hung. He pondered the events and it all fit together too perfectly to be anything but the truth. He then turned his eyes back to his beloved Anna and told her.” I always wondered how I would go. Funny thing is, I never even knew it when I did go. I guess that explains why I ain’t touched no food or ever got thirsty either, huh?”

Instead of answering immediately, Anna reached her hand out to him. “Come home now with me John Henry, it’s finer here than even in Texas.”

Jonathon Dickson Henry closed his hand over hers and told her, “I loved you so darn much that sometimes I wondered if I could live without you after you passed. I guess I couldn’t huh?”

Anna smiled at him.

Together, hand in hand, they turned and walked away from the town and into the sun bright fog.

Anna and John Henry slowly began to dissapear from sight.

“Finer than Texas you say?”

“Yes John Henry, as hard as it is to believe, it’s finer than Texas!”

The End