That night he drew up near a large pine tree and sat with his back against it. He was too tired to start a fire, but knew he must. As he gathered dead leaves and straw in the area around him, he noticed a piece of broken glass. He held it up to the setting sun and saw it sparkle, a blue hue in the sunset. He thought about the time he’d loaded small rocks and glass into his musket, because he had no more balls to load but still had powder and wadding. The glass killed a boy up close. And he once again saw the face of the boy as he took the shot. His stomach turned over thinking about it. He put the glass in the small cartridge box on his belt, just in case he ran out of lead. The nine cartridges he carried were still intact and he was glad of it. The three load in his revolver made twelve. A dozen rounds to defend his life. He didn’t want to fully load his pistol for fear he’d waste one or two shots. Better to wait and load them if he had to.
The fire was small and smoky. He had nothing to eat but venison jerky, and he drank an extra swallow of water to stave off hunger pangs.
He thought about burying coals and sleeping on them, but the ground had too many pine needles and he worried it would burn him in the night. The wind had picked up at sunset, then died down just as the chill air began to descend from the hills. It was a wet air and soon he was sitting in fog. The yellow glow of the fire surrounded by fog.
A feeling on loneliness ran through him as he stared at the flames. The face of the boy he’d shot came to him, blood spattered, half torn by glass. Then, the many battles he’d been a part of raged in his head. Each memory, a small snippet of moving images, like galloping on the back of a spooked horse, speeding through his mind’s eye: Running through the lines at the battle at The Wilderness. Trees exploding with shot. Dead men lining the trail as he ran over them. Blood and gut-spattered trees.
He stood up and paced, wishing the images away. He held his hand on the sap covered bark of the pine and smelled the pitch on his hands. His fingers stuck together with the pine pitch, but the smell made it better, brought him out of his memories.
He stoked the fire, laid out his bedroll, then rested his head on a small sack stuffed with his extra clothes. He fell asleep seeing the boy’s face as he’d died, cold and lifeless. Then he dreamed of his yellow haired girl, Jilly. She was soft and gentle and had a straight smile. She stood in a brown grass field, in the summer sun. Her whispers caressed his parched lips.
Jilly wanted what he thought all pretty girls want. A good husband, a home and children. A man to come home and take care of the family after a hard day’s work. And he had a mind to give her just that. The thing he remembered most was her soft smell and the touch of smooth skin. Soft as butter, and smelled of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. It calmed him, that smell. Her lips were the color of wine when you mixed it with water and held it up to drink. He’d lost her exactly three weeks and two days ago. His Jilly. She’d left town suddenly, and under mysterious circumstances. As far as he was concerned, she was kidnaped. Witnesses saw it. Bad men took her by force and rode west. He’d been on her trail ever since.
Holding his bedroll in his arms, her in his arms, he was finally able to doze off.
That night, the Wolves came into camp. He couldn’t figure why they didn’t shoot him dead, but instead, they accepted his nervous invitation to chew some jerky. There was six of them. Bad men. He knew they were bad the minute they approached. Good men don’t come at you in waves, sending the kindest looking one first. Good men don’t scare you by the look in their eyes. Dead men reflected in those eyes.
It was the Tall Man who walked into camp first.
A shadow slowly came out of the foggy wood. A black mass. Then he stepped into the light, and Brett thought he was staring at Abraham Lincoln’s ghost. He wore the same long coat, top hat and beard, and had the same wrinkled, worn-out face.
The Tall Man removed his stove-top hat and held it in his hands, a dull twinkle in his eye. “Can you spare any food, mister? Been on the trail for a while.”
Brett held a hand on his revolver, but the Tall Man had a slow, kindly look about him, so he left it by the tree.
The Tall Man continued. “Yes sir, I seem to recall a time on the trail I helped a man and his son. They were half-near starved and cold as a block of ice in sawdust. I saw that in San Francisco. Big city. Ice in sawdust. Have you seen that type of ice, sir? They say it’s the coldest.”
There was a rustling in the bushes and a horse whinnied.
“Who’s that?” Brett asked.
Slowly the men appeared in the camp, legs spread apart, hands on their weapons.
“Just a few compadres. Drawn to the warmth of your fire. No anointing need be.”
A small man in buckskins stepped closer. “Shut your bone-box.”
The Tall Man bowed slightly and placed the hat upon his head. Brett wanted to reach for the revolver, but it was too late.
“That one there cuts the long bow. Pay no mind, neither.” The small man looked around the camp, like he was checking to see if anything was out of sorts. He nodded and said, “We got rum. What you got for trade?”
Brett said, “Not much.”
“What food you got?”
I got jerky. I’m just out of mystery bags. Ate the last for supper.”
“Month of Sundays since I ate a good jerky. What ‘er they?”
“That’s a good taste. Mind if we join yah?”
The men walked into the light of the fire and Brett saw there was too many for it to end well for him. He held out the pouch of jerky. The Small Man took it and smiled, a nearly toothless grin. He chewed on a piece, grabbed two more and passed the bag to the Tall Man, who grabbed a fist full and passed it on. By the time they were done, there was nothing left and the bag was ripped out. Small Man handed the bag back and smiled. Brett noticed him staring at his cavalry hat by the tree.
“That’s tasty, right there. Got coffee?”
“Well, then what else you got in that bread bag? Don’t want no hard-bread. Had enough of that to last.”
Brett frowned. “I’d be happy with some hard-bread. I was expecting that jerky to last me a while.”
“You got any shot?”
“Just for my own use.”
“I need my shot.”
“I don’t give a fart what you need.” They stared at each other. Brett felt the blood rise in his face. “You need yer bag of bones healthy, yah?” A few of the men took a step forward. Brett slowly nodded. “Then we do this my way, the friendly way, or we break yer bones. Now, give me yer shot.”
Brett handed over his cartridge box. The Small Man counted the contents.
“Two, four, six, seven…nine. That’s it?”
Brett nodded. Small Man took Brett’s Spencer repeating rifle and slung it over his shoulder. “You got any coin?”
“No. And please don’t take my rifle.”
“Please? Search him, if you please!” Small Man laughed.
Tall Man grabbed Brett. Two others went through his clothes. They found the five silver dollars he’d saved and had stashed inside his breast pocket. Another two men searched the rest of his belongings. When they were done and had everything they wanted, they mounted their horses and rode away, not saying a word.
Brett stood by the fire and collected himself. They’d taken his Colt Bowie knife, his coin and his Spencer Repeating Rifle. He could kill them, one by one, and vowed to get his things back. He wondered why they hadn’t just slit his throat, then he remembered Small Man looking at his cavalry hat. A veteran maybe?
After a while, Brett sat back by the tree and brooded. He felt hollow. Violated. Like he’d been punched sideways when not looking. The thieves were long gone, having been on horseback. Brett had a feeling he knew where they’d go, though. The only town within a few miles was Collins. Best to get in a few hours rest. They’d left his bedroll and his clothes in a heap. He gathered them up into a bed and after a while nodded off.
Daybreak came quickly and Brett awoke with a start. A tree branch snapped nearby. He sat up and listened. An animal walked in the leaves. Could have been a squirrel or something larger. Brett pulled out the Colt Revolver he’d kept hidden by the tree and cocked the hammer. He was glad they didn’t find his Colt. It had been with him since his darkest days in the war. Rode into battle with it in his left hand, the right being the horse’s reins. He’d shot men dead with that pistol. And as sick as he was of killing, now he would do it again, so help him almighty.
Brett stood by the tree and stared out at the trail. The Tall Man stood not ten-feet away, clutching his side. Blood covered the back of his hand, and he appeared near falling.
Small Man’s name was Roscoe Hunter, and he didn’t like weak men. He’d seen his share of cowards in the war. Turn tail runners, he called ‘em. But that man giving up his Spencer last night, he could tell, was no coward. He’d stood his ground and was polite about it. He respected that.
As they turned up the hill away from the game trail and headed ‘round the slope toward the town, Roscoe Hunter turned his horse and watched for Jeb Castor. He was a lying, fool talk’n, no good, sod busting coward if he’d ever seen one, and he’d grown tired of having to tell that fool what to do. Jeb approached slowly from the rear, riding that tall mare, came up lame every other day. When Jed stopped a few yards back, that stupid look on his face, Roscoe had had enough.
Jeb stood his ground, and Roscoe almost respected that, but he knew it was only out of confusion, not bravery.
Roscoe pointed at the mare and said, “That horse slowing us down a’gin. I ain’t have’n none of it. You get off that hoss and let’s see that rear hoof she bin favor’n.”
“It’s a loose shoe is all, Roscoe. I was gonna mend it first thing.”
Jeb dismounted and walked back his hand to the right rear hoof and lifted. Roscoe was close enough so he could see a nail had come loose and had torn out part of the hoof. “Let me see that.” Roscoe slid off his mount and took hold of the hoof. “You no account Jonah. How you let this animal be like that?”
Roscoe grabbed the nail, twist it out and in one swift motion, ran it into Jeb’s gut. When Jeb bent over, Roscoe slapped him on the face and kneed his forehead. Jeb fell back, the nail still stuck in his side.
“I can’t abide sloppy. I can’t abide cruelty to animals. Now get your ass out of here.”
Jeb sat up dazed, holding his side, a dumbfounded look on his face. “But Roscoe.” His upper lip quivered. “I ain’t done nothing to deserve that.” Tears filled Jeb’s eyes.
Roscoe turned away in disgust. “You ain’t done nothing….”
The other men gathered their mounts around in a circle. They’d seen this show before. Just last week Roscoe kicked a boy out of the group for being stupid with the gun powder, and now he was even angrier at Jeb.
“How long you been riding with us?” asked Roscoe.
“You know how long. I joined you all…”
“I joined you all…” Roscoe mocked.
Jeb turned to the other men for sympathy, but met stone faces. “You all know me.”
“How long, you tall-tale jawing, bone box yapper?” Roscoe said, waving the air the way Jeb did when unfurling a long winded story.
Jeb rubbed dirt into his palms, as if to sooth him somehow. “Since Charlottesville,” he said, almost like it was question.
“My horse’s teat! All the way since then. That’s been half a year or more, and I swear to God you been slowing us down ever since. You lazy! Let your mount rot under foot.” Jeb started to answer, but Roscoe continued. “I’ll tell you what fer. You a lazy, malingering, son-of-a-bitch, and I’ve had done with you. We called The Wolves. Not the Lazy Malingering Jaw-box’s! Now, go on. Git.”
Jeb started to get up, and Roscoe kicked him in the ass. Jeb fell back and the men laughed. When Jeb limped toward his mount, Jeb stepped in front of him.
“Oh, no. You done with this hoss. Now go!”
Now, Jeb stood at the dude’s camp, hoping to get some food or water or more. Maybe it was because the dude had seemed a proper gentleman. Even in the midst of robbing him, he was polite and calm. Or maybe it was because he’d seen the pistol hidden by the tree and hadn’t said anything about it to the others. The dude saw he’d noticed the sidearm and hadn’t raised the alarm. He could have snatched that pistol for himself, but he hadn’t. He’d left the dude a fighting chance. Maybe that would make the dude trust him. Now, he needed that gun. He could talk to the dude, bide his time, gain his trust. Talking is something he could do.
Jeb moved in the shadows of the trees and spoke in a soft voice. “I came to this country as a lad of eight. Travelling with my uncle and cousins. There were five of us in that rickety wagon. We made our way by chopping wood, selling it for fire. Sometimes, we’d get in a bad scrape for chopping the wrong wood.”
The dude held the gun on Jeb. “That’s close enough.”
“We also skinned. Sold the pelts. Since I know how to read, sometimes I taught lessons for coin.”
“You took everything I had.”
“Not I, good sir. As you can see, I am no longer a member in good standing in the Wolves. I can no longer abide their ways. Your robbery was the last straw and I told them as much. Unfortunately, they didn’t see it that way and here I am. At your mercy.”
“What you want?”
“Nothing much, Sir. A crumb of bread. Perhaps a drink. I’ve been traveling through the night.”
“You’re a thief. Been kicked away by worse people that yourself.”
“That’ Sir, is indubitable. However, I’d like a chance to explain myself.”
“I’m leaving now. Go your way, I’ll go mine.”
The man with the gun took a step toward him. “Empty your pockets.”
“I came here in good faith, sir.”
The dude cocked the pistol. Jeb placed the contents of his pockets on the ground. The dude snatched-up his pocket knife.
“That’s my best blade, sir.”
“Y’all stole mine. I’m taking your piddling little sticker. Now, git.”
Jeb smiled, but stood his ground. “Perhaps I can interest you in a partnership? You’ll want your Spencer repeating rife returned, no doubt. I know where the Wolves are heading. You can get all your things back. My name is Jeb, by the way.”
They walked from the scrub and the frozen mud-trails up the rocky hills and into the higher elevations, then down into the cold and windless canyon. A deep hollow between the shimmering ridges of tall pines.
They sat, breathless and wind-burnt, in the snow under an immense pine tree, and struck cold flint to steel. They grappled with the twine and twigs, until sparks flamed into a smoky fire. He packed snow into the rusted can he’d slung along for drinking and it melted over the hot coals. After the can was empty, he packed it again and when it melted, offered it to Jeb, who was sitting, his back against a tall pine.
Jeb rubbed the spot where the nail entered his side. Blood still seeped onto his fingers, sticky and warm. He took the can and drank the warm water.
“Why haven’t we caught up to them, yet?” asked Brett.
Jeb stayed quiet, his hand clutching the wound.
Brett shook his head. “You’ve been playing me for a fool. Been three days. They ain’t up ahead. You’re bringing us up into the colder places.”
“The camp is just a few miles away. I know it well.”
“I don’t believe you. And I don’t have enough to take you any further.”
Jeb’s eyes fell to his worn shoes, his half-frozen toes peeking out the wear-holes. “So, my dear friend; I’m soon gone, anyway. The puss has got me.” He smelled his fingers and shook his head. “I ask you one last favor. Will you bury me when I go? I don’t want to be food for the animals.”
Brett looked away, then half-nodded.
“And take this letter to my girls?”
The tired man unfolded a wrinkled paper and held it out. Brett reluctantly reached for it. As he extended his arm, Jeb lunged forward, exposing a knife in his left hand. He fell on Brett and jabbed him with the blade. Twisting out from under his weight, Brett got to his feet and kicked the Jeb’s hand. The knife flew away, lost under loose snow. Then he kicked Jeb squarely in the head. The tall let out a yelp, staggered in a circle, then fell back, blood seeping from behind his ear.
Brett staggered back and touched his side, his fingers came back warm with blood. He leaned against the tree and carefully felt the wound. It was not deep enough to kill him, at least not right away.
The paper Jeb held out was lying in the snow. A drop of red blood highlighted the fold. He snatched it up and saw it was a receipt for grain, purchased at a store in a town many miles away. He looked at the tall man, his head haloed in red snow, and knew he wouldn’t wake up again.
A search of Jeb’s pockets revealed fifty-cents, a corn-cob pipe filled with half smoked tobacco and a metal button. The eagle on the button was used by the Southern Army in the war. Perhaps he’d been a soldier. Brett didn’t much care. He’d had his fill of the army and killing. He took the man’s meager belongings and started out of the basin.
His legs grew tired and cold in his ragged pants, but he was glad his boots were strong and felt good on his feet. Perhaps the cool weather would help him not need so much water? He walked until his legs ached and his feet began to freeze. When he felt too tired to go on, he walked another half-hour or so before collapsing on the hillside. The snow was melted, but his toes throbbed from the cold and he was sorry he’d waited so long to stop. He built a good fire and sat with his feet near the flames. All night his feet ached, and he had little sleep. Finally, around sun-up, he was warm enough that the pain stopped and he put his shoes on.
To be cont’d….