Bekke’s Law by JW Edwards

Bekke's law

Chapter 1

I stood there  listening spellbound to the young Lady. She had run from the Diner here to that freight wagon parked by the Mexican leather fella across the road. She soon returned carrying a rifle to where I stood watchin’ it all. As she stood there jackin’ shell’s into it, she began telling me her story. Why? I have no idea except maybe she had a premonition she was about to die. Maybe she wanted someone to know she had once lived and breathed on this here celestial ball. I was a nobody, a bystander  that’s all. Maybe it was because I was a nobody that she felt compelled to spill her tale, I don’t know. She sure was pretty though, except’n she spoke kind’a funny like.

“My name is Bekke Hillstrand and in a few minutes I’m gonna’ go back inside an’ plug the last of the men I hate. My father.  I killed my first one at age seven, pushed him off a cliff as he was makin’ water. He never uttered a word, just made ‘Uh, Uh’ sounds as he went down. I never felt so good, I felt I finally had some control of my life.  It took another nine years before number two got it. Him I run over with a freight wagon up in Yavapai County Arizona an’ made it look like a tragic accident. It was hard not to cheer an’ clap as his body tumbled over and over under the wagon bed. He broke four hundred of the two hundred and six bones in his body by the time the wagon passed over him. I’ll tell you about the other four I kilt but first I need to start at the beginning so’s you don’t think I’m a murderess or vile woman. Men do what I’m doin’ all the time out here in the West an’ they simply call it justice served. So why should it be any different just ‘cause I’m a girl?”

 

One thousand souls, five thousand mix of mules, oxen and horses and almost two hundred wagons left Independence Missouri on a sultry morning in May of 1846. “Wagon’s HO!” was heard up front and the wagon train made up mostly large Conestoga style wagons turned out onto the Santa Fe Trail. It was the second to last train out of Independence that year. The last train was later known as the Donner Party but their fate lay north upon the Oregon trail.  

As the wagons forged ahead towards the Big Blue River west into Kansas, hopes were high and folks got along well with each other. Meeting and greeting was the norm at the end of each day. Light hearted Social dances and musicians that had brought along their instruments were the evening’s entertainment. Friendships were formed, help freely given and the spirit of community reigned. It all gave promise to a pleasant if not exciting adventure.

One family in particular had good reason to be hopeful, the Hillstrands. Johan and Uda Hilstrand had been farming outside the small Ohio town of Athens. As children, their families had emigrated from Sweden looking for the American promise of forging one’s own destiny. Sadly, continual disagreements with their neighbors brought misery to their home until Uda put her foot down. Either Johan move the family or she would leave on her own.  During this time, Uda’s brother in law had been trying to convince Johan that Texas was where the real future lay. A year later the two families found themselves crossing the Big Blue River in Kansas along with rest of the wagon train heading southwest to Texas.

Although the Hillstrands were a good church going family and pleasant to be acquainted with, Uda was prone to her moods. Even as a young bride in Ohio and in love, Uda began showing signs of dark moments. Johan hoped that in starting a family Uda would be lifted from these depressing moods. The birth of their first born, a son they named Sven, convinced Johan that the days of Uda’s moodiness had passed. She doted on the child and loved him as much as any mother could.

Two years later and the year they would leave for the west, a baby girl was born to the Hillstrand household. In memory of her grandmother, Uda named the child Bekke and she remained happy and free of her disturbing past moodiness.

The family of four rolled and bumped their way southwestward along with the other wagons through the tall prairie grasses bound for New Mexico and Texas.  The Hillstrand wagon followed behind that of their in-laws with Uda’s sister Hulda and her eldest son Jesper tending to the two families six cows being driven along with them. All in all, the families were the typical of the immigrant pioneers that settled the West.

One evening at supper, about a hundred or so miles northeast of Fort Smith in New Mexico, they received a visitor to their camp. Johan had seen the man hanging around different camps before  but paid little attention to him, other than an aknowledged ‘Hello’.

“Howdy good folks!” Making himself known, the visitor instead of introducing himself, made his way over to the cook fire and leaned over in order to smell the hanging cook pot of victuals.

“Ah, deer meat!” He exclaimed, Then with narrowed eyes asked, “When did you come across a deer?”

Johan was taken back at the familiarity the man displayed since he had not formally introduced himself but Johan still returned an answered in a kind way. “Friend, this is not fresh meat, we preserve our meat as we did back in the old country. You are welcome to take a plate of this stew if you wish”

“Like ‘an Injun does then Huh? I hear they pound berries into their meat before drying so’s they don’t get the scurvy. Uhuh, that might be alright for some but for my taste it has to be fresh kilt.”

 Still attempting to be neighborly, Uda came over and handed the man an empty but clean tin plate and cup saying, “There is also coffee that will be up in a minute if you wish for some.”

The man stood looking Uda over as a starved man would stare at a juicy flank of meat. “Uhuh, I’s told from other folks around here that you all hail from Sweden.  I also hear tell they grow some beautiful women there. That ain’t no lie as I’m see’in it with my own eyes.  Makes a man think he shoulda’ brought himself a blond whore to keep his own urges pleased. Haw haw“

Uda blushed and turned red and so did Johan, but not from any embarrassment but in anger. Putting his plate down Johan rose to face the thin, wiry built man. “I’m forgiving you only once for your language Mister. Seeing as we all come from different parts we all have our own ways. We Hillstrands have our ways also and those include being gracious guest and when we speak of our women it is with honor and dignity. I’d ask that you apologize to my wife for such base talk. Then afterward, if you wish, you’re still welcome to partake your supper with us.

Tossing the unfilled plate and coffee cup onto the ground beside him, the uninvited guest stood glaring at Johan with hands placed firmly on his hips. “Well la tee da!” He sneared, “A bunch of filthy do gooding firiners raisin’ their noses at a born American. Thanks, but no thanks!”

Turning to Uda the man then winked evilly telling her, “Honey, if ever you need a real man to warm your bed, you just look me up.” With that he turned on his heel and strode out chuckling to himself.

“What is wrong with that vile man?” Uda asked.

“I don’t know but don’t ever let yourself get alone with him.  I feel he’s more than just an uncouth braggart but is dangerous. The way he was looking at you upset me. I almost wish I had purchased that revolver the wagon master advised us to buy.  We will need to keep our eyes open to ones like him and maybe it would behoove us to give warning to some of the other young women you encounter.”

The next two weeks passed uneventfully. Nearing the turnoff to the Upper Road that led into Texas, Johan and Uda were relieved that no further sighting of the man had been noted.

Having traveled well past Fort Smith now, the train camped for the night along a small but clean flowing creek.  The next day the train would divide, some going on to Arizona along the Gila trail while others headed into Texas. This evening, watering the livestock was important since fresh water would be scarce for the next couple of days. The rule for watering any livestock on the trail was strictly enforced; one was to take their stock downstream to keep the water upstream clean for drinking and cooking. This ensured no water born diseases and parasites were transferred from stock to man. Water holes presented their own problems.

This evening was no different than any when camped near a stream. Johan, along with his nephew Jesper led their oxen and cows downstream for water. It was on the way back that the two heard a commotion further up the train. A woman was screaming. Immediately Johan told Jesper to keep the livestock moving back to the grassy area near the wagon and hobble the animals to prevent their wandering too far off.  As Johan ran toward the sound of the screaming woman a gunshot was heard. “Oh Lord,” He prayed, “What is going on up there?”

Out of breath, he made it to his wagon. Throwing open the rear tarp he saw it vacant inside. Thinking Uda may be assisting the screaming woman, he jumped off the rear of the wagon and ran to where a crowd was gathering. Breaking through the circle of onlookers Johan nearly fainted at what he saw lying on the ground. Uda. Her simple dress had been torn off from around her waist thus exposing her nakedness. Her face was quickly swelling with large black and blue areas. She had been beaten and raped.

Grabbing Uda around her shoulders he lifted her fetal form to his lap. Looking up to the gathering crowd he shouted. “Who did this? Who did this to my Uda!”

One man moved forward through the crowd saying excitedly, “I saw a skinny bearded man jump from the rear of your wagon and then heard a woman  screamin’ bloody murder. It was then your lady here appeared an’ fell straight out’a the wagon.  I knew right off by the looks of her that the man had been beatin’ her something fierce.  My pardon Mister, but I deemed that no woman would tear off her dress volunteer like, so I guessed right off what the man had done. Seein’ as me an’ my boy here was about to go hunt up some rabbit or prairie chicken, I had my gun along with me. I took a quick shot at the man as he run off and he jerked upright like he was hard hit but then he continued to run into them woods where the creek flows. I tried to give chase Mister, I really did but he took to his heels faster than I could. He’s hit bad though an’ won’t git far. I give him a mile or two before he bleeds out.”

It was at that moment in time that the Hillstrand family unit began to unravel.

 

Chapter 2

It was decided after the train divided, that a new wagon Master be elected for the train heading into Texas.  The new Wagon Master, a kind but firm man from Illinois named Johnston was elected. Since the train was only weeks away from their destination he ordered a rest of five days. This allowed the animals to recover, water and fatten up for the continued journey into the desert of western Texas. Johnston also worried about Uda Hillstrand and her mind. Meanwhile a party of men formed and went searching for the man who had perpetrated such vileness upon Uda. True to the shooters estimate, he was found not two miles distant, having bled out from a bullet that struck him in the neck. Already the critters of the plains had found him so it was unanimously decided that no burial would be given.

It was on the third day after the attack that Wagon Master Johnston stopped by the Hillstrand wagon to inquire of Uda’s well being.

 

“Well, to be truthful, I fear for her mind.” Johan told him, “She’s always been to prone toher  dark moods. She’s always recovered but this time she’s different, not saying a word, barely eats and has no interest in the babies. Her sister’s been caring for them when she can but she’s got her own brood to tend to. Once we get to Fort Stockton, if she’s no better, I’ll hunt up a Doctor to examine her.“

Wagon Master Johnston nodded regretfully saying, “ What happened  to her is sure a pity. A similar thing happened to my niece years back, she born a child from it then drowned it in the creek. She won’t come near no man no more cuz of it.”

“Well, whatever happens I am not leaving her. She was a good woman, a good mother to our children. If she bears a child from this then we’ll deal with it then. I just pray that it’s true that a woman who’s time it is for bleeding has a lesser chance of getting with child.”

“I ain’t no expert in woman’s particulars but let’s hope” Johnston tipped his hat and walked on.

It was outside Sonora, east of Fort Stockton that the second of two evils occurred.

Johan was half asleep on the driver’s seat. The plodding of the oxen was like a rhythmic lullaby. The babies were inside the wagon with Uda when a man came running up from the rear screaming and waving his arms violently. “Stop! Stop your wagon! Your baby fell out!”

Abruptly Johan jerked backward on the reigns. He had yanked so hard one of them snapped from the strain.   Leaping from the driver’s seat, Johan rounded the rear of the wagon fearing the worst. It was worse than he imagined. There, lying on the ground fifteen feet behind the wagon lay his infant daughter Bekke… with a long leather strap tied around her neck. She had been hung and dragged.  The man who had given shout was already using his knife to cut the infant free of its leather tourniquet.  In his rush to rid her neck of the strap, he deeply cut the child’s throat, but it was either that or the baby would continue to suffocate to death.

Wrapping a torn piece of his shirt around his child’s bleeding neck Johan glanced into the rear of the wagon. Without word he thrust Bekke into the hands of a stranger and leaped into the rear of the wagon.

“Noooooo!” came the cry from within.

By now others had assembled including his in-laws who had been driving their wagon in front of the Hillstrands and had been unaware of the commotion until now. Leaping through the driver’s seat, his brother in law discovered the reason for Johan’s scream. There lay the Hillstrands four year old son Sven. His mother had used a large knife to stab the child’s heart.

Uda sat unmoving still holding the large knife. When Johan began shaking and shouting at her, Uda’s only response was to rock back and forth as if in a rocking chair.

The infant boy Sven was buried near where the train had been halted. A crude cross was placed as his parents were Christian. Uda did not come from out of the wagon nor did she seem to understand the goings on about her. Her only response was to begin rocking when approached.

Thankfully, the neck wound of Bekke had stopped bleeding and was determined not to be a fatal  wound.  A deep raw abrasion ringed her neck from the leather strap but no other physical harm looked in evidence. The child’s hoarse crying continued through most of the night. As each hour passed Johan noticed the child’s voice growing raspier and raspier, by morning she cried as frog croaks. Whether a result from the hanging or the accidental throat wound no one could say.

Reaching Fort Stockton should have been a joyous affair, but it wasn’t.  Uda showed no signs of getting better and now Johan seemed steeped in regrets and misery for leaving his Ohio farm. He decided to let the rest of the train continue on to its final destination without he and his wife. Bekke was taken in by his sister and brother in laws. He would meet up with them later after Uda was either back to her old self or at least able to cope with the world around her once again.

“We decided to head south to Austin instead of San Antonio like we all planned.” Said his brother in law, “Well meet up down there. I’ll write to you here and give you more information once we settle in.” 

The plans were pretty basic for meeting up but no one really cared about firming up further details like exactly where in Austin they would settle. They all just figured that finding each other may be a matter of a few days search. Never in his life would he have thought that as the wagon rolled away towards Austin that it was the last he’d ever see of his in-laws.

 

Chapter 3

Uda wasted away even under a Doctor’s care. It turned she had not conceived a child, that at least was a small blessing. She refused to go out outside of the small rental house in town. She rarely spoke and when she did it was in a single word at best. A mixture of heroin and Laudanum kept her from further rash outburst.

Uda grew weary soon after rising and ended up spending the rest of her day once again sleeping or lying in bed looking at the ceiling. She was a shell, a ghost, there was no one home anymore within her. Her mind had snapped and the medicine just seemed to add to her inactivity.

When Uda finally passed it was a mixed blessing. It had been nearly six months to the day upon their arrival at Fort Stockton. The gloom that had settled over Johan was as thick as rain clouds over the Ohio Valley farm they once had. Johan would shake his head in remorse remembering when their only concern was a disagreeable neighbor. At Uda’s funeral he spoke not so much about Uda as he did about how she and he had perceived life. “Sometimes we have no idea how good we had it until the future unfolds to even a worse life. We should be grateful for what the Lord gives us and not go yearning for what others got. If Uda and I had followed this, she’d be here today as well as our children.”

He never received a letter from his in-laws nor sent one himself. He had little desire to look upon the face of his daughter for all it would do is remind him of how much he missed Uda and little Sven. Delay after delay occurred until months turned into years. By the time he did try to contact his in-laws, they were nowhere to be found in Austin, the string that connected them was snipped. He could only assume child Bekke was still with them.

Bekke was lovingly raised within her Aunt and Uncles household until she reached the age of six. The family had moved on to Abilene, some two hundred plus miles north. Word of their move was left with the Sheriff of Austin in case Johan looked for them. It was then that Uda’s sister Hulda came down with the influenza and passed. Her husband Jorn had been recently injured when a mule kicked him in the leg as he was putting on the mule team’s harness. The freighter he worked for had enough sympathy to find temporary shelter for all the children until he recovered. Jorn lay lame in bed for almost a year and even after that needed a crutch due to his crooked leg. He took his own children and returned to Ohio, leaving Bekke behind.

 Bekke had been given to a family that desired to move soon after they accepted her under their care. They promised to keep her Uncle Jorn informed as to their whereabouts but months later there still was no word where they had gone off to. Bekke’s Uncle shrugged his shoulders and figured the girl at least was under a roof and was eating so why worry when the child wasn’t his anyway.

What the Uncle never knew nor would he, was that the family that had taken Bekke in had been waylaid by robbers on their journey. A gunfight ensued and the father was killed. His surviving wife immediately sold the young girl to a man for twenty dollars who promised to take real good care of her. “I’ll treat her as my own flesh an’ blood Ma’am, even though the kid don’t talk right”.  He took her from Texas and moved into the Mogollon Rim area of Arizona where he worked as a sheep herder.

Unfortunately for the young Bekke, the man was more interested in her as a man would be to a woman than a father.  By the age of seven Bekke had had enough of his foul fondling ways and made up her mind to end his night time shenanigans.

The two had been living in a small sheep herders cabin part way up the slopes of the Rim where the pines trees grow tightly together and disguised the steep cliffs they cling to. It was then that Bekke saw her chance to settle the issue of her abuse.

As the man stepped up to an overhang which was part of the Rims bench, he looked down and whistled when he realized just how steep the cliff was he was perched on.“Wee-ooo, Ya’ll wait back there while I take a leak child…unless you all wanna’ watch ‘Ol Uncle Lester’s stove pipe in action! Haw haw!”

“Yes, let me watch and see” she responded eagerly in her hoarse voice.

Her positive response was the last thing “Ol Uncle Lester” expected and found it excited his loins. “Then come on over here and take a look see at what a prize I was blessed with.”

As she approached him from behind he began to relieve himself. The thin yellow stream disappeared into a spray of droplets part way down the steep cliff.

All it took was a small shove to dislodge him but it was no small shove she gave. Bent nearly backward from the force of her hands applied upon his backside he went over the edge in the shape of a back bent banana. All he could utter was a “Uh, Uh” as he disappeared silently over the edge.  

She waited and figured on hearing a thud or some other sound saying he had hit bottom but none came. Crawling up to the edge of the cliff on her belly she peeped over the edge and discovered the reason. For nearly two hundred feet the drop was straight down then slowly it began to curve outward nearing the bottom. She could see very faintly a small feature spread out on the slope far below. She mistook it for a small animal or even an ant until she realized the vastness of the cliff’s size and that of  the Rim.

Bekke sat there until the sun started lowering to the westward mountain tops. She knew she had just killed a man but needed to place it within her mind that there was no wrong in it. When she finally stood up to leave, she had left behind the seven year old child and walked away as a young girl very much in charge of herself.

She returned to the cabin, gathered up her belongings and what money she found hidden in the man’s belongings and left.

At age nine she was once again faced with a dilemma when the Sheriff of Payson saw her wandering through town and by her looks knew she was a vagrant and homeless child. The Sheriff handed the girl over to his sister to care for until he could locate the child’s parents. The Sheriff was taken back when he heard the hoarse voice coming from such a beautiful face when asked of her parents. “They was kilt dead” she hoarsely told him but he didn’t believe her saying, “Somewhere you got a Mama and a Pa who’s lookin’ for ya’. It’s gonna be my job to locate and return ya’ to ‘em.”

Weeks passed and every inquiring telegram returned with the same reply. Negative. Little did the Sheriff realize he was looking in the wrong State.

Her stay with the Sheriffs sister was prolonged but after a year the woman finally faced the Sheriff. “Look Howard, you either get me some funds to help raise the child proper or I’m gonna’ have to ask that you take her back. I ain’t wealthy and getting’ no younger either. She’s a little hellion of a child. Seems way too grown up for a child that young.” 

Leaning close and to a near whisper she confided, “A few days back I caught her and little Tommy Dolan playin’ Doctor…well Tommy was playin’ anyway. Little Tommy stood there with his drawers to his feet and she went an’ pointed at his peter an’ began laughing in that hoarse laugh she has!  Do you know what she then told him? She said, “You bess close up them drawers boy or than tiny noodle you gots gonna catch a cold ‘an sneeze itself right off, then how’s you gonna make love to your woman when you’s a man?!” Now I ask you Howard, what normal child talks like that?”

The Sheriffs eyebrows rose in surprise to what was just told him and replied, “Ok, OK. I’ll find a place for her somewhere. She does seem a bit too precocious even for a self learned child. Give me a few weeks an’ I promise she’ll be gone.”

A week later Bekke found herself at the front steps of the Yavapai Indian children’s home holding a small satchel of belongings. Though she was not Yavapai nor of any other Indian tribe, they accepted her right off. To not accept her might be getting themselves on the wrong side of the Sheriff.  Little known to the Sheriff however was that the children’s home was a clearing house for child field labor…and ‘other things’ as they grew older. By now Bekke spoke with a distinct rasp but somehow there was a musical chime somewhere hidden in the rasp. A number of male visitors to the home commented on how charming this made the girl.

Bekke stayed until the age of sixteen. It was at that age that the ‘other things’ forced onto the older children became evident. The cute light skinned, blond haired child with sky blue eyes was told by the overseer of the Home that her time to become a ‘lady’ was soon going to be upon her.. Bekke had actually relished the hard work she had been forced to do. She had been made a teamster hauling freight for the Homes side business. Being outdoors again was a blessing to her and the hard work gave her the self worth she had lacked earlier. She grew strong loading and unloading freight and became resilient in her ways and took no guff from any of the other children. 

When she was informed that soon she either become the nightly pleasure for ‘gentlemen callers’ or be sold off into ‘marriage’, she left… but not before she ‘accidentally’ drove a runaway freight wagon over the  overseer of the Children’s home.

Bekke traveled south towards Globe on foot. In Globe she befriended a boy named Jethro Clemens a few years her senior. He worked at the copper mine there and was making himself a good living doing so. Bekke was impressed, not with his money but with his work ethic. Truth be told, she fell head over heels for the young man. Wide of shoulders, strong chin, clear complexion and the most wonderful brown eyes she’d ever looked into. She was hooked.

 The man boy had strong feelings toward Bekke from the beginning. They had met when Bekke had entered a prosperous looking mercantile in town which had posted a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on its door. She entered and inquired about the job. She was told it was a freighters job that traveled daily between Globe and the town of Phoenix. “Well young lady,” the owner replied, “If you was a man I’d say yes right off but seein’ as you’re a little lady, you couldn’t possibly do the job.”

“Why not? Bekke asked. “I can drive a team of mules better’n any man can! I drove a wagon all over Yavapai county for the last three years! I’m more than capable.”

The owner laughingly guffawed at her claim. It was then that a handsome young man spoke up from near the shelves displaying boots. Looking at the blue eyed wonder, the young man winked at her and told the older man, “Hey Pops, why not see if she’s pullin’ your leg? Let her hitch the team if she can!”

Bekke knew what the boy was up to, it wasn’t to humiliate her by seeing her fail the test, it was to help show the man she was what she claimed to be.

“Ha ha! Sure son, we need a good chuckle, let’s go out back. I gotta get the team hitched presently see’n as I’ll most likely end up haulin’ this load to Phoenix myself.”

Bekke was led around back where the man and boy opened the doors to the carriage house revealing inside a large freight wagon and stalls housing four mules. The owner stood looking proudly at the powerful beast and turning to Bekke told her, “Let’s see you work your magic on these here four Missouri Mules sweetheart!”

Without saying a word, Bekke inspected each mule as careful as if she were to purchase them. Using her own skill, she determined which were lead and which were the wheelers, right side and left. Then she inspected the harnesses, yokes, rings, hames, collar and traces. When finished, she went over the wagons gear. Satisfied they were in good condition, she quickly had all four beast harnessed and ready to haul.

The owner and the boy stood there silently watching her. Finally the man stepped up to the mules and exclaimed, “Well I’ll be danged if you didn’t choose the right mule for the exact position they belong in. Let’s see how you can handle these four honey’s of mine.”

Bekke first backed the mules then turned the rig in a complete circle. She then lined up the wagon and backed the wagons tail gate flush to the building without bumping it.

“Sweetheart,” the man exclaimed, “if you was serious about wantin’ the job then they’s all yours to drive! C’mon back inside and let’s talk.”

“The young man walked up to Bekke and whispered to her, “I knew you could do it!” he then turned and once again winked at her as he strode away.

Bekke stepped back inside the mercantile and asked the owner, “That young man who was with us, is he your son?”

“I wish! Nope, he’s a loner now. Parents passed last year with the influenza. Best folks you’d ever meet. I kinda took a liking to him. He’s a good boy an’ see’n as he has no parents no more, I keep a close eye on him for ‘em.”

Bekke looked at the man with sympathy. I understand, My Aunt who helped raise me passed from the same.

 The owner sat Bekke down at a small table used for cutting strips of leather and asked, “It’s none of my business, maybe it is since I’m hiring you on, No matter but do you have a story I need to know about? Any crimes committed that might draw the law on you? That sort of thing.”

“None that I’m aware of. Truth be told, I ran away from the children’s home over in Yavapai County ‘cause they wanted me to start whorin’ for them.”

Stifling a gasp, he declared “Don’t tell! The Indian home up by the rim?”

“The very one. I guess they get away with it ‘cause for the most part it’s only Indian children and the Sheriff and other white folk don’t care what goes on there.”

“Dang me! Sweetheart, you got a place to stay? If’n you don’t, we can make up a bed here in the back room. It’s cool as anything possible here in the summer. Oh, by the way, my names Billy Irons, an this here is my business free an’ clear!”

“Much obliged, thank you Mister Billy Irons. My names Bekke, Bekke Hillstrand, that’s all I’ve been told of me. No one cares anything for me as I’m probably an orphan anyway. I was too young to know how I got the way I did with this scar around my neck an’ all but I was told my Daddy had a lot to do with it. I was told he was a no good and had no use for me so he sold me off. At least that’s what I was told by a sheep herder that bought me from some lady who’s husband was shot an kilt. ”

“Bought you? What do you mean bought you? Like a slave is bought?”

“I guess you could say that. He fed me but handled me too. He was an evil man an’ I was only a child.”

The owner sat staring wide eyed. “You mean by ‘handled’ he touched you?”

“Uhuh, an’ woulda been a lot more if I didn’t fight him off every time he come back to the cabin drunk.”

Irons face turned beet red. “Why if that no good ever shows his face around here, you come ‘an get me understand? He’ll rue the day he ever touched you. There’s bullets made in hell just for men like him”

“There’s no need Mister Irons”

“Why’s that child?”

“I killed him. I pushed him off’ a cliff at the Rim up north of here when he stopped to take a pi…” Sorry, I mean when he went to relieve himself.”

Billy Irons eyes widened even further, “What? You did what girl?”

“I kilt him. I ain’t sorry none about it neither.” She rasped, “ He deserved all he got. I hope every bone in his body broke as he hit bottom too!”

“Well dang my hide child! Keep that information under your hat an’ to yourself from now on. That could be a hangin’ offense… but between you an’ me, you done good alright!”

The weeks passed and Bekke learned each and every twist and turn through the mountain trail into Phoenix and back.  Folks began to know her up and down the trail. Sometimes she was asked to haul freight to some of the local general stores along the way. Billy Irons took advantage of having the only large freight wagon in the area. If a trip could be made more profitable by throwing on someone else’s freight to drop off, then all the better.

One late October day on her return trip to Globe, Bekke noticed she had been being followed for the last couple of hours. Making sure her rifle was within easy reach she continued as if unawares. The keenness of her eyesight and with the use of a small mirror she kept tabs on the lone rider behind her. Something seemed familiar about the rider, the way he sat in the saddle, straight and tall. It suddenly dawned on her who the rider was… her new friend, the young man named Jethro Clemens. 

Pulling her rig over to the side of the trail she searched and found a good hiding spot for it in a nearby small box canyon. Less than a half hour later she heard the clippity clop of Jethro’s horse. Suddenly he stopped. Looking over the top of the boulder she had hidden behind she watched as he looked down the road to where she should be. Jethro removed his hat and scratched his head. “Where the dickens’s did she go to?” She heard him say. ”She should be plain in view right now.”

Meanwhile Bekke had found a small stone the size of a birds egg. As Jethro turned away from her, she rose and threw it, hitting him on the shoulder.

“Ow! What in the heck!” At that moment Bekke showed herself and began laughing.

“Come over here Jethro, “she shouted, I got some jerky an’ water if you wish for some.”

Laughing, Jethro swung his horse off the trail and dismounting, led the horse to the small box canyon where the wagon was stashed. Bekke meanwhile had lowered the tail gate and reaching inside for her grub bag sat upon it.

“I guess I couldn’t fool you no way huh?” He asked her.  “I tried to be sneaky like an’ follow you unseen but I make a terrible Indian. When did you notice I was behind you?”

“A couple hours ago, back by the turn off leading to the Superstitions.”

As Jethro sat next to Bekke on the wagons tail gate he exclaimed, “That far back? Darn, you must be part Injun yourself!”

“Truthfully, I didn’t know it was you until just a bit ago. All I could make out was a lone rider was trying his best to stay hidden from me.“

“Yeah, I did real good huh? All I did was make a fool of myself in front of the girl I got the sweets for.”

Bekke looked sharply at him. “Did I just hear you right? You got the sweets for me?”

“Oh darn! I’m sorry, I shoulda just kept my mouth shut.  Forget I ever said that!”

“Why? I think that’s sweet of you to say that. No one ever told me they had feelings for me before. I got feelings too, I just don’t know what to do with ‘em.”

“Has a boy never loved you then?”

“None that I knowed of. Truth be told Jethro, I’m a hussy. I’ve been handled by evil men. I doubt I’ll ever be loved the way you is thinkin’ of. No man deserves a used woman like me when they can find a girl raised proper like.”

Jethro moved closer to Bekke. “Bekke, I had my share of times, both good n bad. I got to know what makes folks do things. I know you better than you think I do. You liked me right off, I could see it in your eyes when you looked my way the day we first met. Then I heard your story. Not meaning to, I overheard your tellin’ Old Bill your story.”

Saying that, Jethro gently took Bekke’s hands in his. “Bekke, see how clean your hands are? I know in the past they got dirtied up a mite an not on your own account. But you went an’ washed ‘em clean after they was dirtied. Life is like that too Bekke. We get dirty sometimes but we wash ourselves clean an’ go on. I hold nothin’ against you for what you done in the past. If you call yourself a hussy it’s only cuz you want to be one an’ I know that ain’t what you is or want to be known as. So no matter what happened in your past, you’re as clean as a newborn babe to me. Can you understand that?”

A tear rolled down Bekke’s cheek. “You make everything sound so right. Is it really?”

“Yes, it is for sure.”

With Jethro still holding her hands she leaned into his chest. “I’m glad I met you Jethro.”

He replied softly. “So am I Bekke, real glad.”

 There the two sat unspeaking for the longest time. Bekke knew the day was getting on and daylight was needed to traverse the twisting roads safely back to Globe. Looking up at Jethro she quickly kissed his cheek. Telling him, “I’ll be right back, that water I drank is beggin’ to see daylight!”

“Oh, you gotta p.., relieve yourself? OK, I’ll stay here with the wagon an’ you can head into the mesquite trees over there where I can’t see ya. Oh, take your rifle with ya, never know when a rattler will slither out.”

Grabbing the rifle, Bekke headed off to the thickest part of the mesquite cover.

It was while Bekke was busy that Jethro heard the sound of horses approaching.  A group of three hard looking men rode up to face him. “What’s this all about boy? You find an abandoned wagon here? Maybe someone left it for us to go through, Haw haw.”

Two men dismounted and threw back the canvas of the wagon. “Jackpot boys! Look at what we got here!”

Jethro regained his composure and shouted angrily, “Hey, get your hands off of that wagon Mister!”

 Without warning the mounted man pulled and raised his revolver from its holster. Just as Jethro realized what was about to happen he went for his own gun. The advantage was to the no good and he fired striking Jethro. Jethro fell to the ground and cried out loudly in pain.  Once again the man raised his revolver and began lowering its barrel towards Jethro.

 Before he could pull the trigger a second time, Bekke’s rifle bucked from its deadly duty. The top of the riders head exploded in a red mist. He slowly teetered back and forth as if unsure what to do, he then tumbled sideways off of his saddle which ended in a sickening thud in the dust. Faster than the two others could pull iron and return fire, Bekke had sent into each of the men a deadly heart piercing slug of lead. Round after round she sent forth into the expired trio of no goods until her re-cocking of the rifle produced no further live rounds.

As sudden as it started it was finished. The sound of her last shots still echoed through the distant canyons then all was silent.

“Bekke, Help me!” Jethro moaned painfully.  I’m shot in the chest somewhere’s.  Bekke ran to him and dropping the empty rifle, laid him on the ground to examine the wound.   

“Oh it hurts bad. I never been shot before Bekke, I’m sorry if I’m bein’ like a child.”

“No, hush now Jethro, let me get your shirt open. You’re bleedin’ all over the place”

With shaking hands Bekke undid Jethro’s shirt exposing a long deep bleeding gash across his chest. “No wonder it hurts so bad. It plowed a deep crease along the entire front of your chest. A straight in shot woulda’ been a lot less painful for sure!”

 

Bekke ran to the wagon and tore away a piece of cloth from one of the bolts she was to deliver. “Here, this will help with the bleeding but you’re gonna be in some mighty powerful pain. You better lay inside the wagon whiles I tie your horse to the back of it. We need you to get to a Doctor right quick Jethro.”

“Am I gonna make it? I mean am I dyin’?”

“Not yet anyway, I think we’ll be celebrating your next birthday without too much worry. You may pass out though on the ride back, it’s not a smooth one and you’ll get bumped around a lot.”

 “Bekke? You kissed me?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Thank you, that was real nice of you.”

Helping him into the wagon nearly cost him his consciousness but after a moment his eyes cleared again.

Bekke wrapped the tarp around him snuggly and for a moment rested her head on his arm. She then climbed up into the wagon and carefully placed his head between her palms. She then lowered herself to him and kissed him with a gentle but passion filled kiss. “If you pass out,” she told him, “I want the last thing you remember is this kiss.”

“Oh Bekke, I could never forget it even if I was to die.”

The way back seemed to take ages. Finally the mercantile in Globe came into view just as the sun set over the mountains. As she pulled up, Bekke screamed to Bill for help and he came out running like an old buffalo.

“What’s going on Bekke? What…Oh my God, it’s Jethro! Is he dead?”

 “Not yet, he’s been shot but I thought by the time we got here he might die of old age!”

Inspecting the dressing and wound Bill glanced up at her.

“Uhuh, says the girl with a sense of humor.  Glad you kept your cool. He seems a mite torn up but he’ll live as long as infection don’t set in.”

The two unloaded Jethro into the bed Bekke had made for herself inside the back room of the mercantile. She ran up front to the customer counter, grabbed Bills chair and retured with it. Placing it next to the bed she reached over and placed Jethro’s hand in hers. Bill Irons stared down at the sight of her holding Jethro’s hand and smiled knowingly to himself.

 

Chapter 4

Jethro’s recovery took a turn for the worse the next day when fever struck him. For three days he tossed and turned and talked out of his head. When Bekke had finally turned in to sleep, Irons took over watching him. Suddenly Jethro awoke with a start. Bill could tell the boy was still talking out of his head but the pleas for another of Bekke’s kisses was not from any fever dream, the boy was in love with Bekke. Bill Irons kept a cool cloth on the boys head and soon the young man drifted back to sleep.

On the third day of Jethro’s fever it broke. Jethro awoke shaky but hungry, a good sign. Bekke was excited and continually had to admonish Jethro for trying to leave his bed.

“C’mon Bekke, I’m fine! Why I feel better every hour.”

“Now listen Jethro, I need to get back to work drivin’ Bills freight. He’s startin to get short on supplies an’ they need to be gotten.  Plus there’s a few general stores along the way that I drop other supplies off to. I’m needed an’ I like the feeling. Besides, every time you try to crawl outa bed you start oozing blood again.”

Jethro rolled slowly onto his side and looked longingly at her, “I need you Bekke, be safe, OK?”

Bekke leaned over him and tenderly kissed him on the mouth. In her musically raspy voice she told him, “I’m glad you need me Jethro. This is hard for me to say all that’s spinnin’ in my mind but I want you to know this before I leave. I don’t know how it happened or even why but I’ve fallen in love with you.”

As she turned to leave Jethro called out to her.  “I love you too.”

The months passed and Bekke continued to drive the freight wagon for Bill Irons. Jethro recovered enough to return to work but the mine declined to take him back as work had slowed and layoffs were imminent so Irons took him on.

 “I was hoping you’d join up with me here at the mercantile long ago,” Bill told him, “but, I figured you’d think I was given’ you a hand out an’ I know you wouldn’t cotton up to that. But truth be told, I ain’t getting’ any younger and am really lookin’ forward to someday takin’ some time to go east an visit my daughter an’ grandkids back in Virginia. I’d consider it my good fortune if you’d step in my place for a spell an’ run the place while I’m gone. What d’ya say son?”

Without saying a word Jethro stuck out a man’s hand and grasped Bills in it. A quick shake and the deal was done.

 “I’ll draw up the paperwork given’ ya’ access to the bank and all rights to operate the place as you see fit. I’ll make sure it’s done all legal like so’s to avoid any trouble.”

 

In Phoenix, Bekke’s last stop was at a small leather workers shop owned by an elderly Mexican and his plump happy wife. There Bekke was to pick up some bridles, halters and leather britchens for mules and two beautiful hand tooled saddles. While waiting for the old Mexican craftsman to load the goods onto the wagon, Bekke ran across the road to a small café to grab a mid day meal. Inside, the cafe was dark and cool. No sooner had she entered than a girl named Lois who was busy waiting on tables looked up and waved to her. “Hiya’ Miss Hillstrand! I see you finally returned. What’s been keeping you away?”

Bekke found an empty table and pulling up a chair to it sat down. “Oh, too much to tell in one sitting Lois.” She raspingly laughed.

“Well Bekke, I’m all ears as soon as dinner is over, will you be around then?”

“Afraid not, I gotta get back to Globe before dark.”

While the two friends chatted gaily, an elderly looking man rose slowly from the table he had been sitting at and approached the girls on teetering legs. To any patron in the cafe, the old man appeared aged not so much from years but from the burdens of life that had taken their tolls. Where most men seem to grow old gracefully, this fella missed the stage by months.

Reaching them, the old man bowed his head in apology.  “Excuse me for interrupting the two of you.” He said.

 Looking at Bekke his moist blue eyes softened and he quietly asked, “Did I hear right that you are called Bekke Hillstrand?”

“Yes, who wants to know?”

“May I see your neck please?”

“Why?”

“Please, it’s important to me. May I see under your kerchief?”

“Suite yourself,” she chuckled, “but I’ll charge you for a second look.”

Bekke removed the red kerchief she had tied around her neck. Underneath the old scar from being hung and dragged by a leather strap was plainly in evidence.

The old man began to shake visibly. “And your voice, it changed when you received that scar?”

“Mister, I have no idea, I was only a few months old at best.”

The old man’s lips began to quiver, subtly at first but in trying to speak his lips took on a noticeable tremble. “B-Bekke?”

“Mister, I’m not sure what the problem is or what you want but please, I have only a short time to eat before I drive my freight wagon back to Globe. It get’s dark early this time of year and I don’t particularly desire to drive my team blind. What is it you want from me?”

“I want nothing, I just wanted to introduce myself, that is all.”

“Well why didn’t you say so, I’m Bekke Hillstrand and you are?”

The old man looked sheepishly down at the girl and quietly said, “Johan, Johan Hillstrand, I’m your father.”

Bekke stood as if made of stone. Suddenly she spun on her heel and made for the door. Behind her the old man cried out, “Bekke!”

Slamming the cafe diners screened door, she stomped outside where the customers could hear her raspy voice scream the word “NO!”

 Chapter 5

“So this is it Mister. End of story I guess. I promised myself if ever I ran across the dirty dog I’d kill him. It’s gonna be for a different reason than all the others I kilt dead. They all wanted somethin’ from me an’ for that they paid for it. I’ll go in an’ face him, let him know what he did to me, then I’ll punch a hole clean through his liver and watch him bleed out! It’ll for sure be cold blooded murder but justice needs to be served an’ if I’m hung for it fine, I’ve been hung once already.”

She turned to the café and I followed her inside hoping she wouldn’t do what she said she would. She seemed such a nice girl.

“OK old man, out with it. I promised myself I’d let you speak your piece before blasting you. I got too much of my life missin’ an’ out of plain ol’ curiosity I want to hear what you gotta say to me. Of course most all you tell me will be lies, but I’m keen enough to see through them. Still, I might get a few nuggets of truth and for that your still standin’ here breathin’.”

I noticed the man kind of wobble back n forth dizzy like as if he was unbelieving on what he was hearing.

“Daughter Bekke, what is wrong? This should be the happiest day of our lives, yours and mine. I don’t understand why such hate for me is within you. Please, first tell me what grieves you then I’ll answer any question you have with truth. I am old and ill of health, I have no reason to speak falsely.

“OK, first off. In truth, I know only what’s been told to me. I have no memories of you, my mother, nobody! I’ve been told bit’s an’ pieces over the years by different folks. How they knew anything about my past is beyond me but I had no choice but to add their stories together and decide for myself what occurred when I was a babe.”

I saw the girl step up face to face with the old man, then she laid into him with all her grievances.

“I’m beholding to what I come up with. I knowed we arrived safe and sound as a family off a wagon train from the East somewhere’s. I figure Missouri. Then for some unexplained reason you got it in your head that you could do better without a family draggin’ behind you all the time. So first off, I was told, you refused to seek a Doctor or any medicine when my brother fell ill with the grip. He died to your pleasure. Then later you decided I was too much a bother too an’ you ended up hangin’ me in a horse stable by my neck. You thought I was dead but I lived because I weighed so little my neck didn’t snap! When my mama found me hangin’ there gasping for life and faced you for what you did, you kilt her with arsenic pisin you got from your friend the druggist. Before it kilt her though it ad you drove her insane! Ya then left me abandoned on a strangers door stoop. From then on I been handed down from one vile no good to another with few moments of happiness in between. I was forced to be a play thing for men as a child. Now, let me hear your lie’s an’ if I can’t stand them no more I’ll drop you where you stand old man!”

I saw the old man’s tears tumbling down his horrified face as the girl laid into him. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how she could watch his pain an’ yet be so unfeelin’ but I guess when you been through what she’d been through you get a mighty hard heart. When the old man finally spoke all the ears in the café diner was wide open, not a clink of a plate was to be heard.

“M-My heart lies heavy in my chest Daughter,” He sobbed.”What you have been told are lies, all lies. Why someone would say what they did confounds me. Kill me if you wish when I am finished speaking, it will be a blessing to me. To hear what you have endured because of my naivety and dereliction will be added to my sins in hell.”

At this point the old man stopped to wipe his tears with an old kerchief he pulled from his vest pocket.

“Your mother, Uda was her name, was the love of my life. We were both emigrants to America from nearby villages in Sweden. We met one day at a church social in the small town of Athens back in Ohio. it was as they say, love at first sight. We became inseparable friends and soon lovers. Though we had more than two decades separating our ages, no one thought it improper, least of all your mother’s family. Their love for me was overwhelming. We married in the same church that we had first seen each other. Your beautiful brother Sven was soon born and he lit up our lives as the sun lights the day. In truth, your mother had suffered previously to a spell of dark moods. Upon your brothers birth though these moods fell by the wayside. We had been having problems with our neighbor so we decided with the encouragement of your Aunt and Uncle to start over and move to Texas. That is when you were born. How could we not have been the happiest family? Two beautiful children, a new future ahead of us and loving relatives to travel with.

 You were partially correct though, we left by wagon from Missouri but we were not from Missouri. Part way to our destination an evil and vile man brutally attacked and had his way with your mother while I was away tending the livestock. The man was shot and killed by a fellow traveler when he took flight. We found him a short distance away expired, we left the man unburied for the animals to feed on! What your mother went through no one can explain. I believe she lost her mind at that moment and wanted nothing more than to no longer exist. She was the one who killed your brother Sven. He was never  prone to illness but was a healthy strapping boy. Driven by her delusions, she ended his life unknowingly to me as I drove the wagon. Mercifully it was a quick death. He is buried alongside the trail where a cross marks his grave. It is still be standing, it was m-m-made of h-heavy wood and over the years I’ve revisited his little grave n-n-numerous times.”

Again tears flowed freely but this time I noticed moistness in the girl’s eyes. I also noticed the tip of the rifle barrel had drooped towards the floor a mite. Wiping his eyes clear once more, the old man cleared his throat and continued speaking.

“And you… my dream come true, my precious little Bekke. We can only assume what happened as no one saw the act. A man in the  wagon behind us saw you dumped from the rear of the wagon. A leather harness strap had been tightly twisted around your neck. You were dragged with your tiny limbs flaying about as you fought for your life. A stranger arrived in response to our yells and lifted your blue body from the earth. Using his large hunting knife he cut away the noose from around your neck. In his rush to free you though he cut deeply into your throat but not so much that your wound did not eventually heal. To all of us present, we praised God when you sucked in your breath and began crying. Such a strange cry you gave, it was as a frog croaking but it mattered little to me for you were alive. When we reached Fort Stockton your mother’s delusions worsened. A Doctor began to treat her but his experience was with the body, not the mind. In giving their support, your Aunt and Uncle promised to care for you until we all met up in Austin. I found out years later that sometime after they had left, your Aunt passed from the influenza and you were given to another family to be cared for. Your Uncle left with his children to return to Ohio but apparently never made it. No one knows whether they came to an early demise or stopped to settle elsewhere along the way. Our family in Ohio knew nothing of his return. At the time, I knew nothing of all of this and assumed y-you were s-s-still s-s-safe with family.

By now most of the folks in the café diner were in or near tears. I think at that point the pendulum swung from believin’ the girl to believin’ her Dad. I truly believed that if she had pulled the trigger then and there that the entire group of diners would’ve jumped atop her.

“When I realized you and my family were not to be found, I spent the next seventeen years traveling throughout Texas trying to find you and that is the honest to God’s truth. It is by pure coincidence that we meet here today for I had come across a story of a young girl found wandering the desert years ago by a Mormon missionary. I was on my way to Utah to find this missionary to see if it was you he had rescued when in my travels I stopped into this cafe for a meal. My joy would be complete and all of my years of prayers answered except that my precious daughter is pointing a gun at me and wishes my death. I am finished, I can add no more. If you still disbelieve me then I can only say that those who have harmed you are having the last laugh in your killing of the father who truly loves you. What can an old man say to prove he is telling the truth? Nothing. If you feel must kill me to rid yourself of the demons that have tormented you all these years, then you have my blessing to pull your trigger.”

 

It was then I saw the old man stand tall and erect as he waited for the inevitable punch of the bullet. Tears were streaming like a spring thunderstorm down his face but I knew the tears were not from any fear of his death but the from irony of finally findin’ his baby girl, only to lose her in the end. He slowly closed his eyes an’ then spoke to her one last time.

“I love you my precious Bekke…”

The girl stood misty eyed an’ unmoving for a solid minute. What was transpirin’ in her head only the Good Lord knowed. She slowly bowed her head. Closing her own eyes her tears dropped to the floor as did the rifle. Then stepping forward and putting her arms around the old man, sobbing, she hugged him.

“I love you too Dad.”

The place went bizerk in cheerin’! As she and the old man passed by me goin’ out the door to the thunder of congratulating applause, she reached out an’ gave my arm a good squeeze and whispered, “Thank you.”

I stood lookin’ out after ‘em as they headed across the road to the Mexican leather place hand in hand. If I heard correct like, I believe I heard her tellin’ the old man about a young man who had asked her to marry him. Then like two old friends they chattered their way till I could no longer make out what they was sayin’.

Well, I best be getting back home. The wife sent me out to pick up some staples an’ I’ve yet to get ‘em. It’ll be a dickens tryin’ to explain all the happenings here an’ why I was so late in getting’ on back home. I believe the easiest out is to just tell her I stopped in at the saloon and downed a few cold ones an’ lost track of time. Yup, I do believe she’d go for that. Besides, it won’t be no lie, for I sure could go for a cold one right about now!

                                                                 The End

 

 

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A Quaker’s Colt

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Chapter 1

Thomas Jessop was wondering if he had just made a mistake.  Without moving his head he lifted his questioning eyes from the government surveyor’s map up to those of the Land Office clerk.

“Uh…” He stammered, “I just noticed that a lot of the creeks and rivers around where we bought our land have some mighty dismal names to ‘em. Should I be concerned?”

The clerk removed a pair of spectacles from his upper vest pocket and after blowing on the lenses and fitting them on, leaned over the long table to study the map.

After a minute or two the clerk straightened up and shrugging his shoulders told the young couple, “I’m not real familiar with the western territory but since there’s a town nearby, I am led to conclude that whoever named the water sources either had a sense of humor or quite possibly named them to keep folks from settling there.  It wasn’t unusual for surveyors to do that if they planned on returning and settling there themselves. Why just last month we recorded the sale of a five thousand acre section of land to a fellow from Missouri. The land had but one source of moving water on it and that was named Poison Cow Creek. Now if I was buying land for a ranch, I’d have stayed far away from anything with the name poison in it. The truth is, the land is all grassy rolling hills and the creek was named after an Indian guide the surveyors had befriended named Poison Cow. So you just can’t always go by a name.”

Thomas exhaled in relief and reminded his wife of the nearby small lake back in Ohio called Dead Water Lake.

Shrugging his own shoulders, Thomas ran his fingers through his brown hair and said, “I suppose if these names actually were true, word would have gotten out by now.”

The land the couple had just purchased was surrounded by creeks and streams claiming names such as Muddy Creek, Bad Water Creek, Sulfur Springs and Poison Spider lake. Even the mountainous area to the Southeast gave one pause, being called the Rattle Snake Hills.

The clerk restored the wire spectacles to his vest and agreed saying, “I’ve not heard of any poor land anywhere at the western end of the territory. I admit that being here in Rawlins we deal mainly in land sales closer to Laramie than the western wilderness, Even so, it can’t be much different from the area adjacent to yours and that area has names like Wind River, Miners Delight and the Sweet water Mountains.” Hooking his thumbs into the woolen vest pockets he gave a dismissing conclusion. “Like I said, I bet whoever the surveyor was that gave those unusual names probably wanted the area to be left unpopulated. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if he also named the town just east of your place called Lost Cabin too!”

With no further information to be garnered from the clerk, the couple headed back to the rooming house where they ate a dinner of roast venison and potato casserole and finished their feast by ordering an entire apple pie and coffee.

Stuffed to the brim, the youthful couple headed upstairs to plan their next day’s chores.

Having kicked off his boots, Thomas lay upon the bed fully clothed recollecting out loud what they needed to accomplish before leaving for the last leg of their trip. Having traveled from the rolling hills of central Ohio in search of land to start a ranch on, they were now but days away from their goal.

In the two months it had taken to travel to this point, they had all but built their homestead in their heads. On their way west they had joined a wagon train that would pass within sixty miles south of their destination.  The wagon train was headed all the way to Empire City on the Pacific coast in the Oregon territory but had a stopover in the town of Rawlins before entering Idaho.

The Young Jessop’s befriended a handsome blond haired, blue eyed couple along the way named Erik and Bekke Knudsen.  The Knudsen’s, being only five years older than the Jessop’s, had recently come to America from Norway , they told Thomas and Charity of a sparsely settled area in Wyoming just west of the Laramie Mountain range. The Knudsen’s told Thomas and Charity that it was in this area they had planned to start a farm. The Knudsen’s explained that they had purchased one hundred and sixty acres of good farmland off of Erik’s brother Sven who had earlier purchased and settled on a plot of eight thousand acres along both sides of the Wind River. It was a family venture of sorts with Erik’s cousin owning the land west of Sven’s  all the way to Idaho

The four got along famously and it was during this time that Thomas and Charity had decided to investigate the land near where the Knudsen’s were settling. Previous to this, they had only known that it was in western Wyoming that they wished to settle. Having known no one from Norway, the Jessop’s bombarded the Knudsen’s with many questions of their past and family.  After a time, the Knudsen’s traded places asking about the Jessop’s.

Thomas explained that he and his bride Charity had been soul mates since childhood. Back then the brown hair, green eyed pixie had shown no interest in the tall, brown eyed Thomas other than friendship. But, all that changed in a blink of an eye. They were of the same age of fourteen when the couple experienced their first kiss. It was far from planned he told the Knudsen’s and even further from being a mutual act. Chuckling, He told them it was also his first experience in trying to understand the inner thinking of a woman.

It occurred in the Jessop’s barn. Charity had stopped by and volunteered to help Thomas in his chore of throwing hay down the hay chute. This wooden chute led from the upper loft to the lower rooms below the main floor in order to feed the sheep below. It was during this time that near disaster struck.

Unable to see from carrying an armload of the loose hay to the chute, Charity wandered too close to the edge and nearly stepped off of the loft some twenty feet above the floor.

Seeing what was about to happen, Thomas reached out and yanked her roughly from the edge before she was even aware of her predicament. Having her direction so quickly reversed, it caused her to plunk painfully onto her bottom. The armload of hay shot skyward only to land on top of her. Covered with hay she scrambled to her feet red faced in anger and squarely faced Thomas. It was then she realized that if Thomas had not done what he did, she may have fallen to her death. A mixture of emotions shot through her. Whether it was from gratefulness or from her blossoming female hormones, she threw her arms around him and experienced her first kiss.

Charity then immediately stepped back, slapped Thomas and angrily demanded his reason for violating her lips in such a manner! Three years later they married with Thomas still none the wiser at how a woman thinks.

Both being of the Quaker faith meant a long mundane marriage service involving the church members and only their immediate family members. Still, that night both had believed they had died and gone to heaven.

What they did not bother to tell the Knudsen’s was that the next morning, Charity Woke Thomas with numerous tender kisses to his chest told him, “I understand now why our faith says that we are able to experience the joys of heaven while here on earth.”

Thomas rolled Charity gently onto her back and quietly whispered, “Then let’s forsake breakfast, and go back to heaven.”

The two finally made their way downstairs to the knowing looks of those family members gathered at the table enjoying their noonday meal.

 

 

Chapter 2

The next morning Charity woke up excited. Waking her sleeping husband with a kiss, she quickly dressed and urged Thomas to hurry.

The two soon headed downstairs to the large dining room where they ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, biscuits, gravy and bacon. Afterward, the two headed down to the stable where they had paid to store their covered wagon and two oxen. The wagon, purchased in Chicago, was only half the size of the large Conestoga built ones normally used to travel across the wilderness country. Since they would be traveling for the most part through the plains and towns were not too infrequent, there was no need to stock up so heavily on supplies.

If they had planned on traveling over the Rocky Mountains, then that would be another story but they weren’t.

Paying the stable owner, the two then made their way to the mercantile for food supplies and those they would need to build their homestead with.

Thomas already had packed in cases most of the tools needed but had left out many heavy items including a cast iron cook stove, anvil, grind stone set up and small furnace for metal working. From the blacksmiths shop he purchased ten bar stock of assorted thicknesses and widths along with a charcoal maker. At the dry goods store, Charity purchased various bolts of cloth and a treadle powered sewing machine along with a case of various colored thread.

The last stop was at the pharmacy where Thomas purchased a bottle of Lloyds undiluted Cocaine toothache drops for his persistent toothache. It was a temporary measure until he garnered the courage to let Charity pull it.

While there, Charity purchased two bottles each of opium and morphine to sooth coughs and reduce any pain… including those of the looked forward to childbirth and the future teething of the babies.

Being Quaker, they did not purchase the alcohol most folks used to dilute the medicines with. Instead, they opted to dilute using only boiled water.

Going over the written list of supplies Thomas had seen there was one item left that had been advised by many to purchase. A pistol. Thomas already owned a rifle. He had brought along a newly purchased one from back in Ohio. While Quakers were adamant pacifist they did hunt for food and carried arms for protection…against animals only.

A pistol on the other hand was meant for mainly protecting oneself against humans. Back in Ohio, the thought of walking around armed with a pistol was nearly unheard of even for non Quakers. From the time he left Ohio it seemed every person he met warned him that a pistol was as necessary out west as a bucket was to a well. The thought of even aiming a gun at another human being was revolting to him let alone actually firing it. No, he decided at first against it until so many folks told him stories of needing a pistol to shoot snakes and up close critters where a rifle was useless. “Think of it as a short rifle” he was told.

Fearing that being out in the wilderness without any other support nearby he began to see the necessity and wisdom of arming oneself against predators like bears and mountain lion. Both of which can sneak up on you silently. He’d heard stories of black bears attacking folks back in Ohio but had never met a person who personally had that happen to them. Still, the thought of being attacked unawares decided the issue. Quaker or not, he made on last stop… the gunsmiths.

Charity was not so convinced. She became upset when told of his decision to purchase a pistol. He tried the same excuses on her that had convinced him but to no avail.

She told him that she would not ride but would walk beside the wagon unless he packed his new pistol away in a case and kept it hidden in the leather shelf underneath the wagon designed to carry firewood called the possum belly.

Thomas eventually forgot about the pistol ordeal and together they rode eagerly towards their new home.

 

Chapter 3

Thomas stepped from the house onto the newly built porch. Wiping the morning dew from the seat of his home built rocking chair he settled himself comfortably into it as he cradled a cup of hot coffee.

The twin babies inside were being fed at Charity’s breast prompting a rare quiet to return to the household. Thomas smiled as he listened to the baby girls faint suckling sounds through the open door. He closed his eyes allowing himself to be bathed in the aroma of the steaming cup of coffee as it mingled with the scent of Wyoming’s rich morning landscape. It was Sunday, a mandatory day of rest and one which any Quaker could easily meditate on.

An outside sound began to squirm its way deftly into the morning bliss. It was so faint at first that he refused to let it disturb his thoughts.

As if waking to a sound in the middle of the night, Thomas suddenly opened his eyes wide and sat bolt upright straining to recollect the exact sounds he had just heard. It was a cry for help. At the same time he launched himself from the porch, his ears pinpointed the cry’s exact location. He could now make out the cry clearly enough to identify the voice as a man pleading for help.

Running towards the sound he heard Charity’s questioning yell to him from the house. She too had heard the cries and still clasping the blanket covered babies to her breast she stepped into the open doorway to see what the matter was.

Ahead of Thomas now, a man could be seen stumbling forward then falling face forward to the ground. When Thomas arrived at the man, he discovered a blond haired young man wearing only  a bloody  nightgown. The man was half weeping, half moaning as he lay face down in the damp prairie grass gulping for breath.

Grabbing the man by his shoulders and waist, he rolled the injured man onto his back and stumbled backwards in frightened recognition. It was his wagon trail friend Erik Knudsen!

“Erik?” Thomas cried, “What happened? Why are you here my friend?”

Confusion blocked any logical thought as Thomas tried to gain his friends attention. His poor friend was half done in had lost a lot of blood.

The fog of confusion dissipated enough for Thomas to react. He turned his head towards the house and shouted for Charity to place the babies inside and come with the wheelbarrow and some pillows and a blanket.

Placing his injured friend gently into the pillowed wheelbarrow, he covered him with the blanket and with Charity following close behind, headed for the house.

In tending to his friend, Thomas discovered two bullet holes in his chest. Though they were not deeply embedded, they could cause an infection if they were not immediately removed.

Glancing up at the pale face of his wife, he instructed her to bring him the bottle of morphine and pour a pail of hot water from the stove.  Leaving the now unconscious Erik laying across the cleared breakfast table, Thomas busied himself gathering the needed items to treat his friend.

After pouring a good helping of morphine down his unconscious friends throat, using a long pair of pliers, he dug to and fro within the wound in order to find the slug. Once found he removed it and tended to the wound.

“Charity, he’s got some of his nightgown cloth still in the wound, would you bring me two bullets from my rifle? I need to cauterize the wound and trust it burns off the nightgowns fibers inside him.”

Worse than a slug was the dirty nightgown fibers trapped inside. If the wound scabbed over leaving the soiled cloth inside, blood poisoning and a deadly fever would occur.

Removing the lead slug from the cartridge, Thomas poured the cartridges gun powder into the First bullet hole.  Taking a stove match, he lit it and lowered it to the wound. With a whoosh and cloud of white smoke, the gunpowder ignited. Even though unconscious and full of morphine Erik moaned.

In the next hour Thomas repeated the same procedure on the second bullet telling Charity, “It was a good thing these bullets weren’t very deep, just an inch or two in. I think they were either fired from quite a distance or the cartridges were filled with poor powder. Either way I don’t see any lung damage but he’s got some ribs broke for sure. I took out some pieces of rib bone. It’ll be a bit before he’s up and  around, I wonder what happened to him and where is Bekke?”

Charity meanwhile had washed off the rest of Erik’s body of blood and had covered him with a fresh blanket. “I fear we won’t know what happened or where Bekke is until he awakes Thomas, until then there is not much we can do except wait and pray.”

Thomas saw the wisdom in his young wife’s answer. “Yes, let us take a moment and pray for his recovery. I want to ride out and see where his trail led from. I know he had told us that they had a place adjacent to his brothers spread but exactly where I do not know. I just assumed it was much further west, closer to the Idaho border.”

Charity circled the table to stand next to her husband and said, “First Thomas, let us bow our heads and pray for the recovery of Erik and for Bekke’s safety”.

Following the trail of broken and tromped on prairie grass, Thomas found that it did indeed head to the west towards the Wind River mountain range and Idaho. Realizing Erik’s farm could be within the thousands of square miles of wilderness, he turned around and headed back to his own place.

Chapter 4

It was the next day during the noon meal that Charity heard Erik calling out. On her way to the room in which they had made up for him, she stopped at the rear door and rang the steel triangle to call Thomas in.

At Erik’s bedside lifted his head enough to allow him to drink the water they had waiting for him. In it was again a spoonful of morphine for his pain. Lying back, Erik exhaled heavily and asked how he had arrived at the Jessop’s place.

Wiping his brow with a cool damp cloth Charity asked. “You don’t remember? Thomas saw you making your way through our pasture heading to our home. We thought you had somehow discovered our whereabouts after we parted ways in Rawlins. We had no idea it was you until after you collapsed. It was after we undressed you that Thomas  had discovered you had been shot twice. “

It was at that moment Thomas entered the small converted storage room where Erik lie.  “How are you feeling my friend, it’s good to see you again but not under these circumstances. What happened to you and where is Bekke?”

“It’s a long story Thomas,” Erik in near tears croaked.  After we arrived at my brothers there was a house fire one night and he, his wife and children all perished in it. Bekke and I had set up our wagon and tent a mile east of my brother’s house. It was there that we were building our house when time permitted. We’d been living in the large tent since our arrival and that was fine with us. We no idea their place had even caught fire until morning when we saw the spiral of smoke coming from his place. What we found devastated us. All of them dead! At first we thought that maybe they had left a lamp burning and it started the fire but then Bekke found a recently emptied coal oil can and a couple piles of horse dung  near the rear of the house. It was then I noticed that there were places at the windows on the outside that had been on fire but inside across from that there it remained unburnt.  Whatever happened it happened on purpose.”

Thomas had been listening with eyes wide open. Erik’s story mirrored many of those told by earlier Quakers when they moved from Pennsylvania and resettled elsewhere. Resting his hand upon Erik’s shoulder he gave his sympathies but needed to ask more. “How is it you and Belle were not attacked and what then happened to you two?”

“As I said, we had camped about a mile away near a bend in the stream that runs through our land. There are many trees at that bend and it makes for a shady place for a home to be built. I suspect whoever did this had not known of our arrival or we would have been killed outright also. Bekke and I buried my brother and his family on the rise beyond their house. It was a pretty place to be buried but I’m afraid it was also an obvious sign that there was someone that they missed that night. They had returned back to my brothers place to make sure all were dead and that’s when they discovered my brother and his family had been buried. It did not take long for them to find us.”

At this point Erik broke down weeping.

Thomas waited until Erik regained some control and asked, “Then what? Where is Bekke now? Was she killed?”

“No, they rode her down as she tried to run away. I watched as one man, a big man wearing a black drover and silver tipped boots grabbed her up and then laid her across his horse on her stomach in front of him. She was screaming but stopped when the big man pulled his pistol out and hit her on the head with it. He then shouted orders at the men and rode off with Bekke. All I had handy was my single shot old rifle. That new pistol I had bought was still in the wagon. I did get one shot off and the man fell from the saddle but he was not killed. I saw him limp to his horse and remount. The other man rode in my direction firing his pistol at me. I remember being hit but the pain was so great I soon lost consciousness. They must have thought they had killed me because later that evening when I awoke, they were gone.”

“Did they head this way or did you just wonder about?”

“No, I heard the big man tell the others to meet him at Lost Cabin as he rode off. I knew of Lost Cabin from the map of the Territory I had studied before coming out here. In my delirium, I must have thought I could track him down and save Bekke.”

Charity hushed any further questions Thomas had with a scolding look. “Let him rest for now Thomas, we will speak more of this in the morrow.”

“Wait!” Erik cried, “My Bekke! Please search for her, she’s all I have!” At that he began sobbing uncontrollably.

“Give him a dose of cocaine to relax him Charity, he’ll tear open those wounds crying like he is.”

Charity nodded her head and looking up at her husband placed a hand on his arm asking, “Are you going to search for Bekke Thomas?”

Thomas looked into Charities anguished eyes and asked, “If the roles were reversed, would you want Erik to search for you?”

That evening, Thomas and Charity gathered the needed supplies Thomas would require. Just before the girls were born, Thomas traded a group of hungry Shoshone Indians thirty silver dollars and twenty pounds of dried beef for five horses. Two of them had brands upon them and if possible, Thomas would eventually find and return them to their owner. The other three were true Indian ponies.

During the time that Thomas was filling his packs, Charity quietly stepped into the carriage house alone. There she crawled under the wagon and retrieved what frightened her the most… The Colt pistol.

“Well dear, I believe I have everything I need for the journey. I’m not sure what to expect but I’m sure with your and my prayers, the Lord will see fit to keep me safe and let me return safely with Bekke.”

Charity then held out the small wooden crate that she had retrieved from within the wagon’s possum belly. “In the book of Judges, the Lord did not expect Sampson to defend himself bare handed. It tells us that Samson killed 10,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass that the Lord provided to him. While I abhor violence, I also listen and obey when our God speaks to my heart. My prayer is that you never have to use it but if you do, both the Lord and I will understand it was used so that good overcomes evil. Return safe my love and bring Bekke home with you.”

The next morning found Thomas riding east toward Lost Cabin trailing two extra horses. One would carry his supplies and he hoped the other would carry back Bekke. Strapped to his waist was the holster containing the Colt pistol. Ahead he saw the open plains surrounded by the Owl Creek and Rattlesnake mountains.  What Thomas could not see was the troop of angels marching alongside him.

Chapter 5

On the second day out Thomas discovered a pile of horse droppings. Looking eastward he could see a faint trail where the grass had recently been trampled down. It appeared to be of a single horse. He knew there were few settlers in this area but at the same time it could have been made by a trapper or Shoshone Indian. Dismounting, he knelt and brushed the grass gently with his hands to expose a single hoof print. Pressing his thumb into the earth, he discovered the ground resisted his attempt to make an impression. Studying the print he also saw the indentation of the shoe the horse wore. Standing, he once again looked eastward. This was not the print of an Indian pony and the depth of the print said the horse was carrying an unusual amount of weight. Thinking of Bekke, he judged her to be about a hundred pounds, give or take. In inspecting his own horse’s prints he found the one that matched closest to the single print in question was that of his heavily loaded pack horse. It had to be Bekke!

That evening found Thomas camped on the banks of the small southern tributary of Bad Water Creek. He kept his fire small and smokeless as he cooked his meal. Afterward, rather than dousing the fire with water from the creek, he instead shoveled loose dirt over it. This way no steam would be sent skyward for unwanted eyes to see.

It was a no moon night. Only the stars lit the black void of space. Thomas decided to make his way to a hill a half mile away in order to see if there may be a campfire on the plain. He figured the man he was following would not be concerned of being followed so therefore would not take the same precautions that he himself took.

Making his way forward he hoped there were no wild animals lurking in the tall grass and boulders. Reaching the foothills unscathed he began to make his way cautiously upward. From the top of the steep hill he could see the vast east west plain far below him.  He began his search by looking eastward and sure enough, in the far distance a fire could be seen.

Satisfied that he had correctly judged his opponent, Thomas was about to return to his own campsite when he stopped in shock. There to the southeast near the Rattlesnake Range was another campfire. The two fires were less than five miles from each other. Though close, they were still too far apart for each other to see the others fire.

Thomas had to think. If he waited for the two groups to meet up, that would mean double or triple the trouble. He figured the most eastern campfire was Bekke and her captures and the one to the southeast was that of the rest of the gang.

Kneeling on the crest of the hill he sought guidance from his creator. “Lord, you know what I face. My friend is sorely wounded and his wife taken. Only I stand in the way of the evil that is planned for them. Give me the insight to rescue Bekke and discover why all this evil has befallen them. They are good people Lord, not Quaker for sure but you are not a respecter of person’s nor the way in which we practice our faith in you. Bekke and Erik are your obedient children and I pray that you use me and keep me and Bekke safe in all this, Amen”

As Thomas made his way as quickly to his camp as was possible he not only felt a peace come over him but a plan began to unfold within him.

Using a length of rope, he gave the pack horse a long tether so it could feed on the grass further out from where it now stood. Satisfied that there was enough good grass within reach for an extended time, he saddled up the two other horses and galloped off to the southeast towards the campsite of the gang.

Using the gang’s campfire as a homing beacon, Thomas made his way to within a half mile of the camp. Quietly creeping forward to the camp, he finally spotted in the starlight what he had been searching for… their horses.

He knew if he crept on hands and knees, the horses might mistake him for a mountain lion or other predator. Since these horses were used to men then that is the way he would appear to them. Putting his faith to the test that the Lord was protecting him, he stood up in plain sight. Obviously in plain view now, Thomas eased himself quietly to the line of horses that were tied to a single long rope. Spotting what he figured was the lead horse, Thomas made his way over to it.

Raising his hand, he began to stroke the horses head and scratch its ears. The horse immediately settled and breathed easily. The other horses trusting their leader did the same. This surprised Thomas but he wasn’t about to question this small blessing.

Thomas went from lead rope to lead rope tying them firmly to the line meant to hold the group in place. When finished all the horses were tied together in one long line. Untying the rope’s ends from the shrubs that held it, he gently guided the line of horses silently away from the camp.

Without their horses the gang was impotent. There was no way the group could now meet up with their leader and Bekke.  When he had made it two miles from the gangs camp, he broke the remuda of horses into an easy gallop. The tall plains grass quieted the sound of the hoof beats so well that the gang never realized until daylight that their horses were missing.

Halfway between his and the gangs camp, he untied all the captured horses and was about to send them westward with smacks to their rump. Strangely, before he could do so, the lead horse suddenly bolted and raced westward as fast as its legs would take it. The rest of the horses fled after their leader as if commanded to follow. Thomas knew those horses would never be taken again.

“Well Lord, half is done and you took good care of me. I have more work to do so don’t up and leave me quite yet!”

Turning his mount eastward towards Lost Cabin and the campfire he had seen from the hill top Thomas trotted his mount throughout the night. He knew by the time he reached Bekke and her captor, daylight would be breaking. Knowing this he worked himself to within a mile and a half of the campfire and made a fireless camp. There he slept until dawn.

As the grey line of skylight made its way to the west, Thomas was surprised to see the day would have heavily overcast skies. Eating a cold breakfast, he huddled under his duster as it began to drizzle a cold dreary rain.

At first Thomas was filled with disappointment at the weather. Then it dawned on him that the drizzle was not only preventing him from seeing his enemy, his enemy on the other hand could not see him either!  “Thank you Lord, I was about to complain but I see you got things well in hand!”

Bekke sat tied to a small tree growing near a large cluster of horse size rocks. Her captor squatted by the cook fire making a breakfast of fresh killed prairie dog and old biscuits. Bekke had no appetite, especially for the greasy prairie dog. Instead she huddled shivering from the cold rain with her once beautiful blond hair lay plastered to her head like a wet mop. Her soaked mud caked  nightgown was her only protection from the elements.

Using the grey drizzle to disguise his movements, Thomas made his way around the boulders behind Bekke. He knew that once the big man had finished his meal, he would saddle up and head out again.

The big man turned as if hearing something. Thomas froze mid step. Squinting, the man lifted the brim of his dripping hat and stared at Bekke. “Don’t get the idea I’m going to share my meal with you and definitely don’t get the idea of escaping. I’ll shoot you down like this here prairie dog if I even think you’re going to try. I don’t need you, don’t really want you but for the fifty dollars you’ll bring at Lana’s whore house in Lost Cabin I’ll put up with your crap. But, for only so much mind you. If I tire of you or you piss me off, I’ll put a bullet through your head and let you rot here in the grass. You understand me?”

“Yes, I understand but why did you do this? My husband’s brother and his family meant nothing to you. You shot and killed my husband for what? To carry me off and sell me? All for fifty dollars?”

“Look Lady, the fifty in gold I’m getting from you is icing on the cake, that’s all. I was paid four times that to do what I did and I’ll get another two hundred when I get back to Lost Cabin. You ain’t crap, you’re an afterthought Lady, Don’t think you had anything in this. It was all about the land. Your brother in law purchased a spread of land a few years back that my boss found he needed for himself.  See? He wants to build himself Wyoming’s biggest spread but to do it he needed your brother in laws place. It was actually the water he needed more than the land. You see, between Big Piney mountain and Yellow Butt Peak your brother in laws place had the only year round fresh water stream big enough to supply five thousand head. My boss had the land but not the water.”

Bekke lifted her head and asked, “And just who is your Boss?”

The big man started to laugh, “That’s the best part of it ma’am! My boss is your brother in law’s cousin, Olaf Lars!”

Both Bekke and Thomas were stunned!

Bekke’s face turned purple in rage, “You are lying! We don’t even know a Olaf Lars!”

“That ain’t my problem lady, Old Olaf’s been here ages before any of you Knudsen’s come over from the old country. Why the Lars family was one of the first whites to trap this territory.  Olaf done broke up his legs one year when he fell from a cliff top and had to quit trapping. Knowing the area and the Indians, he negotiated a good section of land with them. After the US Government redrew the Idaho border, Olaf found his land cut off from water. The Government folks didn’t recognize Olaf’s agreement with the Shoshone but let him have the land west a few miles of the Wind River to the Idaho border just to keep him from making a nuisance of himself. Later, when he went to buy the land surrounding the Wind River, he found your damn brother in law Sven had already laid claim to it. With Sven out of the way, why then the only relative left to inherit the spread would be Olaf. It worked out fine until you and your husband decided to move here without us knowing about it. After I sell you as a whore, we’ll be back on track where we was and Olaf will pay me the rest of what he owes me.”

Bekke could not believe her ears, she knew of no Lars in her husband’s family tree. Why she thought, the closest thing Sven had to family was a family named Larson but no one knew whatever happened to them after they left the old country. Suddenly it struck her.

“Lars…Larson” Putting her hand to her mouth she realized her captor had been telling the truth. “Oh my God, The missing Larson family!” She looked sickly at her captor and realized her dreams of becoming an American farmers wife were going to truly be changed to becoming an American whore!

Leaning over sideways she vomited.

“Ha ha! It looks like I was right, wasn’t I?”

Stepping over to where Bekke sat, he angrily told her. Take off that filthy nightgown and clean that puke off a you! I ain’t having you ride in front of me smelling like a gutted sheep, besides, It’s time I get a taste of you before I sell you off.”

Moving to stand in front of Bekke, the man dropped his drawers to the ground and stepped out of them. Bekke quickly looked away in disgust and whimpered a quick prayer.

As her captor leaned forward to accost her, an earth shaking explosion above Bekke’s head resulted in the forming of a single black hole in her captor’s forehead. Bekke quickly moved sideways as her half headed captor collapsed beside her. Turning her head quicklyto where the explosion came from, she saw the shaking gun hand of her savior.

“Are you alright Bekke?” Thomas yelled from behind the rocks. She could not make out the words due to the intense ringing in her ears but by the tone of them, she knew she had just been rescued.

Chapter 6

Leaving her captor lay for the beast of the field to devour, Thomas picked up the dead man’s duster coat and placed it around Bekke. “Charity thought of packing you an outfit for the return trip home, it’s at my camp on the southern tributary of Bad Water Creek. I’m sorry I did not act before he made you undress. We will never speak of that again.” Facing her, he placed both hands on her shaking shoulders, Thomas stared into Bekke’s tearful eyes saying, “I was terrified to pull the trigger. It was only when he tried to… uh…well, you know, it pushed me over the edge and I finally fired.”

“You have given me back my life Thomas, I regret Erik will never know that I am with his child.” Speaking no further, she began to weep deeply.

“Bekke! No, Erik is fine! He did not die but made his way all the way to our house where he finally collapsed. Charity and I patched him up. Why I figure by the time we get back he’ll be sitting up eating us out of house and home!”

“Truthfully Thomas? He is alive then?” Her tears now were of joy rather than sorrow as she clung weeping on Thomas.

Chapter 7

The four sat around the Jessop’s table discussing all that had happened. The immediate danger to Erik and Bekke was over but the problem of Olaf remained.

Erik spoke of retribution but Thomas would not hear of it.
“We cannot take the law into our own hands. If we do then we set ourselves up as Judge and Jury. I agree something must be done as Olaf is guilty and must be punished but whatever is done to him, it must have the backing of the Territorial Governor.”

Charity agreed and eventually so did Erik. “We have no law out here yet Thomas, no court, no judge. The army is too busy fighting Indians to concern themselves with domestic affairs of settlers. Other than letting Olaf go free, I have no idea what we can do.”

Bekke spoke up. “I do. Looking at her husband she said, “We need to petition the governor to form a legal network of Lawmen or Sheriffs.  He could place these  men around the Territory to keep the peace until towns grow strong and big enough to have sheriffs and courts of their own.”

Thomas squinted at Bekke and asked, “And just who would be this Sheriff to keep the peace?”

Without blinking, Bekke spoke, “I would choose a man whose entire life has been committed to that of peace. Not someone who on the spur of the moment decides that having peace is a good thing.  I would choose a man who respects life and the responsibility freedom brings. I would choose someone who would use his weapon only as a last resort. I would choose you Thomas!”

“Me?” Why I shook like a child when I shot that man. I still have deep regrets in taking his life!”

Charity reached over and clasped Thomas’s hand tightly, “That’s exactly why you would be the best man for the job my husband. Only a true man of peace can keep the peace. Without becoming a tyrant”

“I don’t know.”

“Yes you do or you would have never done what you did.”

“I was saving a friend.”

“And if someone else had wandered to our house instead of Erik here, would you have turned your back on them?”

Thomas looked crest fallen. “No, I would have risked my life to help another in need.”

Looking at the three, Thomas shrugged in defeat. Telling them, ”If Erik will travel to the Governor’s office with me, I will present myself and our petition for a lawman. I guess since I am the only witness to all the events that took place here, as an official of the law, I then could arrest Olaf and present him to the Territorial Judge for trial. Would you three agree to that?”

Over the years found many changes coming to the Wyoming Territory. It became a State and Law and order was now the order of the day.

Sheriff, Thomas Jessop had been charged with the duty of keeping law and order in the western most counties of Wyoming.

Sheriff Jessop and his longtime friend and Deputy, Erik Knudsen, had yet been required to pull the trigger on another man in keeping the peace. Over in the the town of Lost Cabin, there rest a grave marked only by a simple upright stone. On it is carved;

Olaf Larson.

“The first scoundrel  in Wyoming to be legally hung for murder and greed…

Regrettably, he was not be the last.”

My name is John Wesley Cullpepper

My name is John Wesley Cullpepper

By J. W Edwards

 The shot

Lurching forward and backward to the rhythm of the mule’s steps, the lone hatless rider should have expired and fallen from the saddle miles back. To prevent his falling and imminent death, the rider, while still conscious, had lashed his own gnarled and misshaped hands to the saddle horn using a rawhide lariat. Being tied like that would keep him sitting upright even after death. A dark stain of coppery blood and a few Jumping Cholla cacti clung to his sheepskin chaps. His life sustaining liquid was leaching out from a gut wound. Having worked its way under his wooly chaps and down into his worn boots, it found a hole in his right sole. Once again exposing itself to the open air, it continued down the backside of his boot heel landing in the frying pan sand below.

It was already over one hundred degrees and not even high noon yet. The mortally wounded rider was well beyond thirst. His only awareness was that only he must not die yet, but ride on.

Yesterday at dawn, stopping at a small arroyo he had made his camp. The old timer began roasting a handful of coffee beans for his coffee. The smell of the roasting beans waft past his grizzled beard making his nose scrunch up in pleasure. Only after having watered, rubbed down and fed his mule, did he concentrate on making the small fire under the mesquite tree. The sparse but gnarled branches above helped to diffuse any smoke while the beans roasted. It was at that moment the bullet found and made a home in his belly. He never heard the shot, just the feeling of being kicked violently backwards. Anger overcame him as he lay there on his back gasping from pain in the small arroyo. He had figured he was being tailed so he took extra precautions by checking his back trail often, traveling only at night and riding trails that left few prints. Still, a mule is not a horse. The one thing that could have saved him from his pursuers was denied, the ability to out run them. He wasn’t a man without hope though. Years of prospecting in Arizona’s Sonora desert, gave him the advantage of being able to hide where only a scorpion could make a home. Making his trail sign as difficult to read as possible, he knew he could not shake those following, but could slow them down a bit to his advantage.

Somewhere deep inside of him, a misshaped hunk of lead lay at the end of its devastating path. It had been an impossible shot, pure luck…for those on his trail. They only knew he was somewhere ahead of them on the trail but had little idea as to how far. The shot taken was not from any skill. It was the desire to lash out from pure frustration. The shooter had raised his rifle high and towards the small clump of mesquite growing aside the wash almost a quarter mile away. It was dumb thing to do but it made him feel better. The shooter wasn’t even aware the lone rider was hit let alone was actually camped that close and inside the brush until the next day. That was when they came upon the spot where he bled into the sand.

Reading the signs, they determined the rider had been about to make his dinner before getting a few daylight hours sleep using the tiny mesquite tree as shade. A black frying pan of burnt coffee beans still sat in a bed of cold ashes. Except for the saddlebags and saddle, the rider’s gear lay untouched in a neat pile. Prints told the story. After being hit, the rider had somehow been able to saddle his mule and continue on but in doing so required leaving most of his gear behind. To the pursuers, this meant the rider had received a life threatening wound. No one would leave a canteen of water, bacon and coffee pot behind in the desert, not if he figured on living a bit longer.

Riding with eyes to the ground, the pursuers came upon a lone biscuit laying aside the trail. The rider must have had the sense to put one or more in his pocket when he saddled up. The stale biscuit also meant the rider was not able lower himself down to retrieve it, no matter how hungry he was. The small group of no goods followed the signs and feeling much more encouraged now.

Barely aware of his pain, the rider yet gasped involuntarily as if suffocating. Breathing was getting more difficult and he lacked any feeling in his gut and legs. His driving force in staying alive was to reach the ranch that lay in a well watered valley some 10 miles ahead alongside the Verde River.

Once there he knew he would die for he was sore hit. Death rode beside him but he was determined not give up his ghost until he could pass on the secret to those who waited patiently for him up ahead.

Old timers say once bitten by gold fever you never recover. In the old man’s case, his pick axe days of mining had ended when a cave in left his hands crushed and useless. Even then, the fever never left him. If he couldn’t mine his own claim, he’d hunt the long lost and hidden gold caches said to be still left hidden in the desert. He sold his claim and threw in with a man he had befriended years earlier and together they built the ranch and raised mules. They figured the real gold was in selling mules to the miners and not in the mining itself. Owning less than one sixth of the ranch, His share of the ranch’s profits still allowed him to prospect most of the year at his own convenience. True, Apache’s, bandits and the elements all took their toll but even then, the ranch continued to prosper.

The trip back to the desert outside of Vulture City was going to be the climax of all his years of searching. Having narrowed it down, he knew now exactly where the cache lay hidden.

Chapter 2

High grading

A decade before, gold had been secretly taken out of the Vulture mine ounce by ounce and cached in the desert by two of the mine’s supervisors. This act was called high grading and the thieves were called high graders and high graders were quickly hung. Their plan was to steal enough gold little by little so the two could head to San Francisco and live high on the hog. As their luck would have it though, on the way to their cache about six miles into the desert, they were found out. It was meant to be their last trip…it was.

Most High graders caught were returned and hung back on the mine property to discourage others from high grading. As those who had tried and gone before them, the two supervisors dangled their last dance from the hanging tree not fifty feet from the whore house they were so familiar with. Between the two, they had less than four ounces of the precious metal on them.

Four ounces was a might small amount for a hanging but most everyone suspected the two of high grading for quite some time before they were caught. Not being very well liked and being supervisors and all, no one had a qualm in hanging them right off.

Besides, entertainment (other than the mines saloons and whore house) was hard to come by in the middle of nowhere, so a good hanging was always looked forward to. The gold the two hid was never recovered. Up to now.

 Chapter 3

The mistake

When the old man finally reached where the high graders had hidden the gold, he discovered the cache to weigh over one hundred and sixty pounds. After loading the pack mule, he should have left straight away for the ranch, avoiding any settlements but didn’t. It was a long journey back and he was excited. Leading his mule, The now wealthy prospector headed to town. When he reached Wickenburg he headed first to the stable. There he paid the young Mexican stable boy a generous sum to lock up his belongings in an empty feed room and care for his mule. Figuring his belongings were in good hands and being dressed like he was, no one would figure he was worth robbing. Passing through the doors to the Miss Lilly Saloon in Wickenburg, he did what he had always dreamed of being able to do. He stood at the bar and ordered a bottle of the most expensive whiskey the saloon carried.

Chapter 4

The Ranch

Nestled in the mix of Ash and Cottonwood trees growing along the River banks, was the small adobe ranch house the old man was heading to. There, a man in his forties and his young teenage son headed back indoors and out of the sun from the small corral. They had spent the morning separating fourteen of their best mules from the thirty eight they owned. The plan was to sell the mules in a few days to a buyer who would resell them to the miners working their claims at Stanton City.

It had been thirty hours now since he had been shot. Drifting in and out of consciousness, the man rode just ahead of his pursuers. Stopping without awareness, the mule cropped what it could find to eat along the way. It knew its way home. The old man was unaware of finally passing the sun bleached boards of the corral nor of his being laid gently onto a bunk now stripped of its single blanket. No awareness came to him of his laying naked to expose the festering and mortal just above his belt line. He never woke, never told his secret, never got to enjoy another cup of hot coffee. Sadly, he never even woke to warn the others he was being tailed by killers.

Even though his carcass was lifeless, luck had not completely abandoned him. In stripping his clothes off to view the wound, the crumpled up hand drawn map of the hidden cache was discovered sewn hastily in a seam of the shirt. The boy found it.

As the father of the boy palmed the old mans eyes closed for the last time. The boy glanced at the paper he had found. Trying to make sense of the crude drawing, it made little sense so he put it in his own pocket until later. Angry and upset from the death of their friend, the boy and his Pap none the less continued to ready the old man for his burial. Knowing only that he had been shot some time earlier they assumed wrongly that he had made good his escape from a bush wacker. Getting him into the ground without delay was a priority. In the Arizona heat a body quickly gets ripe. They proceeded to clean up the old man the best they could.

Focused on their morbid chore, they were unaware of the three approaching riders so close to the ranch. Suddenly, both man and boy looked up as they heard horses being pulled up hard out front.

Reaching quickly for his rifle, the man told his son to stay put and out of the way. Seconds before the older man could prime the pan and cock the hammer on the old muzzle loader, the leather hinged door of the cabin burst open.

The three men piled inside with pistols drawn. Squinting to see in the darkened room, the first man through the door without a word raised his pistol and fired directly into the chest of the man holding the ancient rifle. The heart shot man fell forward on top of his dead friend, causing the bed to collapse.

Screaming in blind anger, the boy charged into the gunman. Seeing the boy was unarmed, the gunman powerfully backhanded the boy with his pistol. Falling into a crumpled heap on the floor, the boy’s bladder involuntarily emptied, wetting his pants.

Pointing to the two men on the collapsed bed, it was the last of the three men through the door who spoke through a crazed giggle. Short and fat with a pimply baby face, the third man pointed his finger and giggled as he exclaimed, “Dang, Hee hee! If that ain’t the funniest thing I ever saw, looks like them two’s a married to each other!”

Turning away from the unconscious boy, the man who did the shooting angrily shoved the laughing man against the wall yelling at him, “PJ, you make me sick! Damn you’re rotted brain!”

“Hey, what’s wrong with you Donny? “ It was the second man through the door who in a whiney voice spoke. ” PJ’s just sayin’ what he sees as funny, he meant no harm. We all know PJ’s a bit teched in the head an’ he got that stupid look about him but he don’t mean no harm. He jes’ see’s things different from us right headed people, thas’ all. Don’t take no bother of what he says.”

Still holding his fired pistol, the gunman Donny stood a good six feet and was tipping the scales at two hundred and eighty pounds. Clean shaven, clear eyes and a well trimmed horseshoe mustache rounded out his facial features. His face was pleasant enough to fool most that he was in fact a good man and not a cold blooded gunslinger. Reluctantly slipping the pistol back into it’s holster he turned to his companion. “I cain’t stand PJ’s stupid laughin’ no more. It grinds on my nerves Lester an’ besides killin’s a serious thing. Whatever Law there is out here ain’t gonna concern it’s self with an old man bein’ robbed. ‘Happens all the time. But murder is a hangin’ offense, an no Law, no matter how far away is gonna turn it’s back on that!”

Pointing to the old prospector lying underneath his friend he continued, “He shore was a slippery snake that one. Took most the sand outa ’me trackin’ him this last month. We ain’t had no good night sleep, an’ that desert was a roastin’ me alive. Plus I ain’t had a real meal since we overheard heard him at the Saloon in Wickenburg. Fortunate for us we was sitting where we could over hear him braggin’ to that lady friend. I cain’t believe he’d be so stupid as to tell her he went and found the where abouts of some high graded gold from the Vulture.”

The second man, a dirty and foul looking greasy haired wire thin man in his late forties named Lester replied, “ Yep, that old timer shoulda’ kept his trap shut. Got to drinkin’ an ’tryin’ to impress the lady. Now look what it got him. Dead is what it got ‘em”

Spitting onto the two dead men laying atop each other, he holstered a well oiled colt revolver, he impatiently continued,” Donny, we come for what’s in the old man’s saddle bags, so let’s shoot the boy too and git on outa here.”

Donny went over to where the prospector’s saddle bags were hung on a thick wooden peg. Picking them up, he immediately knew no gold, high graded or not, was within them. Dumping the contents onto the floor his voice rose an octave, “Dang, cain’t be no gold in here!” It don’t weigh but a few pounds.”

The three men had wrongfully assumed the high graded gold was still in the old prospector’s saddle bags. It was, at the start of his journey, but the old prospector had rightfully figured out he was being trailed. Sobered up and acting out of instinct, along the trail back one night, he hid the high graded gold among a outcropping of boulders above a wash.

After burying the gold, he drew a small, crude map showing its location at the outcropping. Knowing the lay of the land and trails leading to it, he didn’t need to draw up the actual location of the outcropping of boulders, just where he hid the gold among them.

All three men now realized when they killed the old man and his partner, they also may have forever lost the secret of where the gold lay buried.

Still trying to muffle his annoying giggle, PJ said,” Maybe he said sumpin’ to the boy before he died?”

All three looked to the boy lying on his backside. His bladder now fully released, soaked his pants…and the map that was quickly stuffed into his front pocket.

No older than 14, the blond haired boy looked like any other boy his age. Though on closer look, he did sport a larger than normal set of hands and his chest and shoulders seemed mighty fit, but then he was desert raised.

Standing over the boy, Donny told Lester, “Wake that dung heap up. See if the boy or that other dead man removed the gold from the saddle bags. An if not, maybe the old man had time to tell of it’s where abouts an’ the boy knows it.”

Poking the boy in his ribs with his boot, Lester yelled at him, “ Boy! You there! Wake up ya little bed wetter!”

Slowly the boy felt awareness coming back. Someone was yelling at him and now a boot shoved his head sideways.

“Hey pee pants! Wake up!”

Suddenly the boy was wide awake and trying to sit up. Desperately he tried to gather his thoughts up. He remembered his Paps telling him to stay put as he went for his rifle. Then he remembered the shot and his Pap falling like a rag doll. Looking at the collapsed bed holding the two men atop it, the boy figured the best thing to do was keep his mouth shut, gather what information he could glean and grieve later. He loved his Pap but revenge would be better left for later. Right now, living was a more important priority.

Keeping the wet pants away from him as best he could, Lester reached down pulling the boy to his feet by his shirt front. “Listen boy and listen with all yo’ might. We been followin’ that ol’ man there for weeks. We know he got gold but hid it somewhere’s.” Squinting through blood shot eyes, he brought the boys face uncomfortably close to his own. Lester’s stinking breath poured forth from his yellow and black teeth as he spoke. “We figur’ he told you where he hid it! Now you tell us what he said or maybe you want to make it a threesome layin’ there?”

PJ started to giggle uncontrollably again. “Look at the boys pants! He sure done wet ‘em good! I think he needs his diaper changed! C’mere Boy, You got a diaper on? Let’s see if yo’s even wearin’ a diaper!”

Donny had reached his limit of patience with PJ’s sick line of thought. Over the months of riding with him, Donny realized PJ was a very disturbed young man. Those kind can be a sack of trouble and a danger to his partners. Out stretching his left arm to block PJ’s advance, He turned to Lester and spoke through his teeth. At the same time slowly pulling his pistol back out of it’s holster and thumbing the hammer back. “Lester, get your idiot brother in law away from that boy right now! If I hear one more of his crazy laughs or sick minded intentions, I’ll fill his and your gut with so full of lead you’ll both need extra men to carry your coffins!”

Staring at the cocked pistol pointed at him, Lester knew PJ’s and his own life stood at a balance point. Giving in to the inevitable, rather than defend PJ any more, Lester guided him outside.

Out of earshot from Donny, Lester spoke. ”PJ, Seein’ as a child you was brain wacked an’ all, your sister made me promise on her death bed that I’d watch over you after she was gone. But as time goes on, I find it harder an’ harder to do so. As much as I promised, her I cain’t do this no more. She was a fine woman and I grieved proper at her funeral, but I’m sorry for this PJ, I really am. But you been a rope around my neck for too long.” Without showing any further feelings, Lester pulled his revolver from it’s holster and shot PJ between the eyes.

Staring down at PJ’s near headless corpse, he began reloading the empty chamber. Behind him, Lester heard the door of the cabin open.

Donny had drug the boy out with him and tossed him down beside PJ’s near crumpled form. “I was wondering how long it’d be before you finally did that. Leavin’ it up to me, I’d a shut him up permanent like long ago”.

Lester turned and walked away Saying nothing.

Chapter 5

My name is John Wesley Culpepper

The boy had not spent the last few minutes in fear. True, his pants were soaked and that shamed him as much as anything could, but he dismissed the act as something he had no control of. Never before had he backed down from a challenge and once while captured for a time by Apache’s, they had even named him Strong Oak. Now as he sat there in the sun and dust, he wondered if he might be in the last minutes of his life.

“You got a name boy?”

“I got more than one, which do you want?”

Donny turned away shaking his head. “Boy, you realize just how close to death you are? See that dead man layin’ there makin’ farting sounds? You think for a minute you’s better protected than him ? You think I give a damn for those two laying atop each other inside? Boy, you’re a dead body walkin’, you gotta understand I ain’t to be played with.”

I wasn’t bein’ smart mouthed. I got two names, one white, one Apache. One from my Paps who you just kilt and one from a Apache I kilt”.

“You kilt him? How? You drown him with your piss?”

“No sir, I slit his throat with his own blade. He and his raiding party attacked our place and took me four winters back . After a while he raised me as his own son, he named me Strong Oak. I don’t bend and I sure don’t break. No wind in this life will uproot me an’ no man will knock me down and no axe will ever be sharp enough to topple me. I waited for the third winter to end and I called him out. It was then I kilt him fair like.

“How does a boy kill a grown Indian ‘fair like’?”

“ I said I called him out. I challenged him to a gunless fight to the death. At first he refused saying he don’t beat on children but when I asked him about all the tiny scalps hanging on his coup stick, he had no choice but to agree. He pulled his knife and nodding his head came at me.”

“Bein much smaller than him, I slipped underneath him right quick and stabbed upward into his belly. Dropping his blade, he fell to his knees. That’s when I used his own knife to slit his throat. The tribe approved, saying I had strong medicine while his had become weak.”

“Dang boy, you sure got some sand, that’s for sure. It might be the death o’ you but I admire it . You kilt your own Indian Paw in cold blood!”

“Yes sir, I had to. But it weren’t really in cold blood. He kilt my maw in that raid an’ for that he was to die. I learned much from him as his son an’ I sure admired him and his ways, but he always knew I’d be the one to claim his life because I reminded him so at each anniversary of my Maws death.”

“He was alright with that?”

“It’s the Apache way. Everyone dies sometime and his death was honorable. He died as a warrior at the hands of a warrior in a fair fight.”

“A warrior? A ten or eleven years old callin’ his self a warrior?

“Not me sir, I called myself ,Strong Oak, my given name . It’s the Tribe that called me a warrior, that’s why they let me go. I still have a home with them if I want. They are also my people.

“ So what name did your Pap here give ya?”

Standing as tall as possible and yet fully aware his pants were soaked, the boy squared his shoulders and spoke. My Paps and Ma named me John Wesley Culpepper. My Paps name was John Theodore Culpepper. My Mam’s name was Elizabeth Anne an’ she’s at rest by the creek. If you so much as degrade her even to the thickness of a cactus needle, I’ll knock you down and tear out your heart with my bare hands while you yet breath. You kilt my Paps, for that I’m gonn’a kill you.”

“Well, John Wesley Culpepper, you sure could make good on your promise. I don’t doubt a word you say but you ain’t gonn’a be able to do that, bein’ dead an all. Now before I commence to send you to your Pap, you’re gonn’a tell me everything that fool ‘ol man said before he passed.”

“ The old man you just called a fool was Chester an’ He was a good honest man, one to ride the river with. He said nothing when he got here. He was dead on arrival! My Paps went seein’ to patch him up but he’d already bled out. I know what you is after. Chester found it and if it ain’t in his saddle bags he reburied it along the way so it’s now lost again. Serves you right it does. You ain’t got no choice now but to scour the desert lookin’ forever since you done kilt him dead. Now who is the real fool here Mister Donny?”

Chapter 6

Dealing a new hand

The boy knew earlier that the slip of paper he had recovered from Chester’s shirt seam had a drawing on it and figured it to be a map of some sort. It sat there crumpled up, soaked with pee in his pants pocket. No way was he going to mention it though to Donny and Lester. By fate, wetting his pants had just about guaranteed they’d not go searching through his pockets.

Lester returned a short time later saying, ” I checked the stable an cabin again an’ found nothin’. No gold anywhere. I also moved PJ’s body inside. Seems the old man for sure hid the gold along the way. That cache of gold got to be some where’s hidden between where we plugged him at that arroyo an the trail headin’ north to Las Vegas outside Wickenburg town.”

Frustrated, Donny yelled, “That would mean up to another 4 weeks of ridin! I don’t think so! This boy has got to know more than he’s tellin’ us!”

Donny turned to the boy pointing the drawn pistol at his forehead. ”Now boy, if you want to live, tell me what you know. If you know nothing? Then I’m wastin’ my time with you” To emphasize his point, he drew back the hammer and aimed the huge barrel of the 45 lower between the boys eyes.

The boy called John Wesley Culpepper, knew his life was at forfeit. He’d played the hand dealt him. Time to call.

“Mister Donny?” The boy said, “You got this hand won. I’ll be interested in dealing you another hand. I’ll tell you what I know, lead you to the place it’s probably buried at and then you’re going to let me go so’s I can later hunt you down and kill you both.”

Lester looked in shock, “What the hell kind a talk is that? Kill us?” Lester had not heard the conversation the boy had with Donny earlier. He was unaware of the boys sand and grit.

Donny lowered the pistol and grinning said, “So you do know more than you’s said? I thought so. Tell you what I’ll do J W Culpepper. You show me that place an’ I’ll give you a five minute head start…no I’ll even give you a 30 minute runnin’ head start, how’s that?”

John Wesley Culpepper stuck out his hand saying solemnly, “It’s a deal Mister Donny. Mind you, don’t think a breakin it ‘cause the consequences is this. You go back on our deal, you die slow an’ painful. If you stay straight with me, you die quick like an’ as painless as possible. ”

Donny stood there looking at the boy knowing he’d do just that. He grunted saying, “Let’s ride then. Boy, you take PJ’s horse, it’s still saddled, he won’t be needin’ it or his gear anymore. Not where he’s at anyhow”

“Mister Donny, I’ll take the horse, gear and saddle, but we ain’t leavin here till I release those mules stabled and those held in the corral. No man should take his misfortune out on any animal. When I’m done doin’ that, I’m burying my Paps and Chester proper like.”

The game had played out to a draw. Donny walked away too tired to argue any further. Stopping briefly he looked back at Lester.

“Get a shovel then boy, an Lester, give the boy a hand. I’ll go an’ release the mules. We’re burnin’ daylight here! ”

Chapter 7

10 years later 

The young but well weathered sombrero wearing cowboy asked, “So what happened after you all rode off from the ranch? Did you find the gold an’ kill ‘em like you said you’d do?”

The twenty four year old cowboy known as Culp, glanced up from telling his tale to the recently fed circle of cowboys sitting around the dying camp fire. The herd of mixed cattle, short and long horn, numbering about four thousand five hundred now, grazed quietly in the evening’s cool air west of Soda Springs. Flank and drag riders keeping guard on the herd sang songs with the setting sun to keep the cattle calm. Culpepper knew that having finally made their way into Idaho territory meant they stood a real good chance of making it to Oregon before winter closed any mountain passes.

Traditionally, this valley was a stopping point for any cattle drives heading west. It was a good spot to give the riders a well deserved rest and let the herd fatten up after the rough drive through Wyoming. Wagon trains heading west stopped here too. Many cattle drives headed from Texas and Oklahoma east towards Kansas and Illinois. Those trails were pretty established with known water and grasslands. Not so the trails heading further west. Like the one they were on.

The Calvary, along with the Hudson Bay Company provided some protection for homesteaders by building forts in strategic locations. Many of the Calvary forts were make shift affairs that violated treaties with the Indians. Many thought that was the main reason for their existence. For instance, to Texans, the Calvary was there to punish them in retribution for their role in the War Between the States. Treating the Texan’s like criminals, the Northern forces put a financial strangle hold on that and any State that sympathized with the Southern Confederacy. Northern politicians took their pound of flesh and lined their pockets at the same time. On the other side of the coin, the Hudson Bay Company built their forts for profit. Being more mercantile oriented than the Calvary’s forts, they prospered without any government help . Even Indians understood the concept of making a profit.

Rail ways were making their inroads from the Midwest connecting dusty cattle trails to their iron rails. This helped to establish settlements other than mining towns. Along with the iron rails came growth and with growth came stability. With stability came women and children, theaters and schools.

Those that drove their cattle west on the Oregon trail, sold them for good money but sometimes paid a higher price in herd loss. Idaho had good passes and friendlier Indians than Wyoming did but winters could come earlier. The result was could mean a stranded herd and a fortune lost.

It right now it was mid August. Thick waist high grass covered the Portneuf Valley near the small Mormon community of Chesterfield where the herd had stopped to rest. Crops now patched the more remote parts of the valley. Mormon families had been encouraged by their Church leaders to leave Bountiful Utah and settle this valley. For the most part, Cattle driving cowboys and Mormons kept apart from each other. Sometimes they did business, sometimes they pulled iron on each other.

Chapter 8

The bluff

John Wesley Culpepper strode over to the woodpile that had been gathered during the daylight. Picking up a few choice pieces, he laid them carefully in the glowing coals. When he was satisfied they’d catch, he found his setting spot again and hunkered down to continue his tale. Seeing the chance to brew up a fresh pot of coffee, Biscuit, the trail cook, hung the large coffee pot back over the blossoming fire. With the smell of fresh coffee brewing for those riding night hawk, Culpepper watched as the last of the sunlight twinkled out over the western Rockies. This was the land and life he loved.

“Well,” continued Culpepper, “We rode for a few days north and met up with the trail heading into Los Vegas town. I had no Idea where the map said the outcropping was. All the dang thing showed was the formation of the boulders and a small “X” and a short note saying “Move the slab.” I wasn’t even sure what part of the desert Chester had rode from. Paps and I only knew he had headed up to Vulture City. That don’t help much, as you all know, it’s a big desert out there.”

Biscuit came through filling everyone’s porcelain tin cup with hot coffee. Culpepper held his out for a refill. Sipping the hot brew he continued, “I needed myself a plan and I knew these varmints would kill me just as soon as I told them all I knew. Now I had read once in a dime novel where a wife had killed her no good husband with a few whiskers from a panther. Chopping them up real small, she added them to his stew one night. Supposedly, it caused him to get stomach tumors and cyst so bad he couldn’t keep nothing down an’ he starved himself to death. She even called the Doc in to tend him. With the Docs diagnosis saying’ he was dying from worms, the widow was never thought unkindly of. That dime Novel got me to thinking. Not having any real whiskers an’ not knowing if it was really a true story, I figured I’d play poker again and bluff ‘em.”

“All along the way, they made me do all the camp chores including the cooking. So one night after dinner maybe a day’s ride or two before they’d realize I was a telling a tale about knowing where the gold was, I spoke up. I had chopped some real fine cactus needles I knew to be somewhat irritable to the skin almost to a powder an’ dumped them into the stew I was making. I wasn’t worried about me eatin’ any since they never let me eat nothin’ but left over’s anyway. I made sure the stew was a tasty one to boot. True to my hoping, they gobbled up the entire pot leaving me nothing.”

“I was making their coffee when I told them they may want to hold off in drinking anything for a while. Well I tell you, that got their attention right quick!”

“What you mean not drink anything?” Lester asked. “Why say that?”

“So I told ‘em I overheard them talking and knew they was going to up an’ kill me just as soon as I told where the gold was and that they’d hide my carcass in the desert. I then reminded them of my promise of making them die slow like if they went back on their word.

Lester jumped up pretending to be all mad, “That’s a damn lie boy! We wasn’t gonna kill you! Why we was even thinkin’ of makin’ you a pard, wasn’t we Donny?”

Putting his plate down, Donny made a terrible evil face that dismissed Lester.

“ What did you do boy? You poison the food?”

“No sir, I didn’t poison it, most poisons ain’t got antidotes for ‘em and this one does. I explained about the panther whiskers an’ said it was an old Apache form of torture. I painted a most agonizing and horrible picture of what happens to a man dying by Panther whiskers. Both of ‘em began licking their swelling lips and tongues, knowing I wasn’t fibbing. Both men were now sweating like they was in the sun. The small hairs of the cactus needles were making their lips and mouth plenty numb, and they believed it was the panther whiskers they ate.”

“Pulling out his gun and aiming it at me, Donny speaking through puffed up lips, demanded I give them the antidote or he’d blow my brains out. My answer to him was, Go ahead Mister Donny, blow my brains out an you’ll both be dead in a week. You’ll be wiggling on the ground holding your belly throwing up blood like you was gut shot.”

“Licking his ever swelling lips again, Donny lowered his gun and said to me, ” Where we at now kid. We playin’ poker again? You might be bluffin’ but I ain’t got hold of a good hand. Not one I’d chance my life on anyway” Slipping the gun back in it’s holster Donny said, “I fold my cards boy, you give us the antidote an you can go free as we agreed to before.”

“ We all knew an Apache settlement was near the border of Wyoming, so I said to him, I ain’t got the antidote on me Mister Donny, but I can get some from the Apache’s a couple days ride east of here. You all have to stay put an’ not drink anything. An’ I mean nothing! If you so much as even drink a teaspoon of water without taken the antidote first, the whiskers will swell inside your gut and it’ll be too late for the antidote work then. “

“Lester looks scared, “Ya mean we cain’t drink no water at all? But we’ll die a thirst out here in the desert.”

“I’ll be gone four, five days at the most. Until I get back, you’ll have to lay still and not move around till I get back. You move, you get thirsty and then you’ll want water.”

“Old Mister Donny sure was breaking out in a sweat! He was caught between a rock and a hard place once again. If he called my bluff an’ I wasn’t fibbing, they’d die a most terrible death from the sip of water. If I was fibbing, I’d escape an’ they’d be without the gold”.

“Finally realizing they had no choice, He agreed to let me go for the antidote but begged I ride hard. They figured I’d be gone for four days if everything went ok. I saddled up but before I took off I told them I needed a good gun to protect myself. After all I said, ”If I get killed by a rattler or Puma, you’re going to die too.”

“So wearing Lester’s fine colt revolver tucked in his Mexican hand tooled holster, I rode off leaving them there in the desert to die.”

“When I rode out, I circled around and returned to the ranch. Someone or some bodies had ransacked the place after we’d left. My mules were gone and the place was in a shambles. The stable was burnt to the ground. With nothing to tie me down, I remounted and left the place for good.”

“Three weeks later I returned to where I left Donny and Lester and see what had taken place during my absence. Their horses were gone. They most likely tore away the brush they was tied to and headed for water. All their gear and saddles still lay on the ground where they had been when I last saw ‘em. I spotted a canteen laying on the ground and lifted it to see if thirst had finally overcome them enough to call my bluff. Nope, it was still full. Scuffle like foot prints lay around where the canteen was found so they must have fought at first trying to stop each other from drinking out of the canteen like fools.”

“ I found Donny. He had stuffed himself into a small crack within a rocky outcropping. His pistol was still in his hands. Two chambers stood empty. It looked like he was hiding from Lester. He was all dried up looking but still weighed some when I pulled him out. Buzzards had somehow missed seeing him so I went through his pockets looking for any money I could use to survive on. Up till then, all I had been able to live on was the food stuff I took with me from the camp and whatever I could harvest from the desert”

“Looking around the camp site, at last I found Lester. At first glance I thought it was just his drover coat laying there. The buzzards hadn’t missed finding him. Not much was left of him now so I let him be. Having found a twenty and a five dollar gold piece on Donny, I knew I could survive for a bit . It looked that neither man was brave enough to call my bluff and take a drink of water. They waited for the antidote that would never come. they eventually died of thirst.”

Telling the attentive cowboys who were making ready their bedrolls, John Wesley Culpepper said, “ Donny and Lester’s salvation lay in the canteen just feet from them untouched. Too afraid to die a horrible death by panther whiskers, instead they died a horrible death from thirst. Well, I done told ‘em if they went back on our deal I’d make sure they had al slow an’ painful death. They did, but it wasn’t by my hand, but by their own!”

The End?