(Artwork is “Winter Travelers” by Alfredo Rodriguez)
This is a work of short fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in this short story are entirely fictional and are of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or organizations or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This story is dedicated to my friend, John Gregory Herring, aka “Spotflare” (1947-2020)
“Keep your nose in the wind and your eyes along the skyline”
It was the waning days of late summer in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty-eight when ‘Red-Tail’ Jack Patterson came down from the Little Belt mountains for his annual visit to the Medicine Gun trading post near the mouth of the Judith river. Coming down into the low country on his three year old roan mare, the mountain man was a spectacle to behold. Everything he wore was self-made (except his tanned buckskins, which he had traded for with the Cheyenne) from his knee length Grizz coat to his red fox and muskrat hat, to his knee high Elk boots trimmed in the finest beaver fur. Resting in a tanned leather scabbard was his trusty fifty caliber hawken rifle while two fifty-caliber pistols were mounted on either side of his saddle horn. Tucked into his belt cross draw was another pistol, this one with a custom short barrel for a wider spread at close-range, along with his fourteen inch drop point knife with a antler horn handle rightly named “Annabelle.” He also on occasion tucked a razor-edged pipe hawk in his belt he had taken off a Crow brave last year after the bastard tried to steal his horse.
The owners of the trading post, Otis and Prudence McSween, were overjoyed to see Jack return since in the thirteen months he had been gone there had been countless rumors of his death from any number of french trappers, wagon train masters and Army scouts alike. As was the custom when Red-Tail visited, before he was ever allowed to put his feet underneath her supper table, Prudence handed Jack a large piece of homemade lye and mint soap, scissors, a small hand mirror and a towel and pointed him toward the creek to bathe.
“I love ya’ like a brother Jack, but My God! Me and Otis smelled you long before we saw you!” Prudence exclaimed, smiling.
Jack slapped Otis on the back and let out a hearty laugh as he took the necessaries from Prudence and headed to the creek whistling an old church hymn.
When he showed up an hour later, the couple did not even recognize him.
“My God, you look like a new man Jack Patterson!” Prudence exclaimed, smiling as she grabbed him by the arm and pulled him inside to the dinner table. Typically Jack would take offense at somebody calling him by his Christian name but Prudence McSween was the closest thing to family Jack had, so she could rightly call him whatever she pleased as long as it was not late for supper!
“So how many this time Prudence?” Jack asked, smiling as he sat down at their large maple dinner table as she poured him a steaming cup of coffee.
“Well, let me see.” Prudence replied, holding the coffee pot with a dish towel and looking up at the ceiling as if she was reading off an invisible tally sheet.
“Three at last count: cree war party, grizz attack and drowned in the Powder river.” Prudence replied with a wise smirk.
Prudence was a tall, handsome wisp of a woman, not yet thirty with dark, raven hair past her shoulders and soft, sad brown eyes. She and Otis had lost their twin daughters to the pox three years prior and the sorrow still clung heavily to her soul. Jack shook his head and laughed heartily as he enjoyed the regal comforts of having good honest white folks for company, a roof over his head and real coffee to drink.
“The Powder this time, huh? Last time it was the Milk, wasn’t it? And Cree? Hell, last Cree indian I saw was Rutting Pony. He tried to marry me off to his humpback sister for two horses and a pistol, can you believe it!”
The comment caught Prudence and Otis totally off-guard and they looked at one another in total shock and then busted out laughing so hard they both had tears in their eyes.
After finishing their coffee, Otis helped Jack unload the few black bear, mule deer and elk pelts from his mule as Prudence cooked up a dinner of venison backstrap, mashed potatoes and fresh squash from her garden. As they ate and talked about local news, Prudence took stock of Jack, whose full Christian name was Johnathan Obadiah Patterson. He was somewhere in his thirties and had deep set blue-grey eyes that often twinkled when he laughed. He had got the name “Red-Tail” not from the hawk as many thought but from his temper. Three years prior at a gathering near the Musselshell, ‘Coon-Eyes’ Jim Grady, a man of fearsome low-reputation and character, accused Jack of poaching beaver on his patch and a fight ensued. After the fight ole’ Coon-eyes actually in fact resembled a coon with both of his eyes blackened courtesy of Jack. After that day Johnathan became known as “Red-Ass” Jack, which later was changed to “Red-Tail” so as not to offend Prudence McSween, the only white woman in the territory Jack cared about not insulting with foul language and bad manners.
To their delight, Jack stayed on and helped Otis and Prudence with several jobs around the place including patching the roof, building a smokehouse and planting a fall garden. On the afternoon of the fourth day however things took an unexpected turn. While working in the garden Jack noticed one of the flea bitten dogs Otis had kept looking up the trail as if annoyed by something. Never one to ignore an animal’s instincts, Jack walked up past the barn to take a look. There, about fifty yards up the path was a skinny and winded grey mare with a man slumped over in the saddle. As Jack looked closer he could see a small pair of arms wrapped around the man from behind. A child! With his protective instincts telling him to run to the horse and help the man and child, his hard taught experience told him to stay put. This could easily be a trap. Besides the riled up injuns, there were bad outlaw elements around these parts since the wagon trains began coming through regular. Slowly backing up off the trail, Jack pulled his pistol and took a knee behind a tree. He sat there for a long minute listening and looking. After deciding they were indeed alone, Jack slowly walked up to the horse with his pistol cocked and trained on the slumped rider.
“Hello there on the horse! I say Hello!” Jack yelled out several times.
The horse was so exhausted it did not so much as flinch at Jack’s approach.
“Easy there girl, easy…” Jack cooed as he gently walked up and put his hand on the reins.
Immediately Jack could see the saddle covered in fresh blood with the slumped man in the saddle unconscious but alive, if not barely. Peering around the side, Jack could now see the child was a little girl around the age of eight, her wheat colored hair and little round face burrowed into the back of the man, whimpering softly like a wounded animal. Jack double checked that the child was not wounded and once satisfied started leading the horse toward the barn. By this time Otis had heard the commotion and came out running with rifle in hand to help.
“We got us a badly wounded man and a scared child here” Jack yelled as Prudence came out the door of the trading post wiping her hands on her apron.
“My God! Bring them both inside now!” Prudence demanded as she quickly went inside and began clearing the table.
Jack gently tried to pry the child’s arms away from the wounded man but the child was not having any of it, letting out a shriek of pure terror.
“Child, you are gonna have to let go so we can help him” Jack pleaded.
After a brief tug of war and the child finally relenting out of exhaustion, Jack gingerly lifted her off the horse and carried her inside to an anxiously awaiting Mrs. McSween who then took the child into their bedroom. After that Jack and Otis went to work lifting the man out of the saddle and into the house.
“Damn this feller’s lost a lot of blood!” Otis remarked as they laid him down.
“We need to find these holes and start pluggin’ em’. Otis, help me turn him over and get these clothes off of him.” Jack commanded, taking out his knife and cutting the bloodied shirt and pants off the man.
As Jack began to examine the man right away he counted two bullet holes high in his chest and one in his stomach. He could not find one exit wound. After a couple more minutes of searching the man let out a soft whimper, took a wet gurgling breath, whispered the name “Celia-Anne” and then died right there on the table.
Otis and Jack both stared at the man for a long moment and then removed their hats out of respect.
“Not much we could have done. He had been shot in the lung twice and had lost too much blood.” Jack said softly.
As Prudence walked in from the back bedroom holding the child to her shoulder, her eyes met Jack’s and he gently shook his head that the man had passed. Quickly Prudence turned back around and shut the bedroom door behind her while softly singing a hymn:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
Jack went through the man’s pocket’s respectfully looking for any clues as to his identity. All Jack could find was a worn brown leather wallet with three U.S. dollars which he promptly handed over to Otis.
“Who do you think he is Jack?” Otis asked, looking concerned as he pocketed the money.
“Well, he’s not a trapper and he’s not a scout. Judging from his haircut and clothes I’m guessing he’s a pilgrim that got lost or separated from the wagon train, maybe.”
“But why would somebody shoot a pilgrim with a child? You think injuns done this?”
Jack shook his head. “I doubt it. And since he still has his wallet, I don’t think bandits did this either. It’s peculiar.”
Otis and Jack then proceeded to wrap the body in a blanket and bury the man behind the trading post in a little makeshift cemetery Otis had created for folks who had died while passing through, either from sickness or being murdered by injuns.
“We don’t even know this feller’s name for a marker.” Otis said, wiping his brow after shoveling the last of the dirt on the grave.
“The Good Lord knows him and I guess in the end that’s all that really matters.” Jack replied, his gaze fixed on the mountains in the distance.
A week passed and although the girl still had not spoken, Otis and Prudence slipped right back into their roles as loving parents. They had taken to calling the little girl “Celia-Ann” and she seemed to cotton to it just fine. Prudence sewed her some right handsome dresses and in the evenings after supper all three of them would go for a walk down by the creek while Jack watched from a distance on the porch smoking down his pipe. One evening Celia decided to pick a small bunch of yellow and blue wildflowers for Jack.
“Well that is right nice of you young lady! Thank You!” Jack said, smiling as he kneeled down and took the flowers.
Celia looked at him for a long moment, her little blue eyes twinkling with delight. Jack could see she wanted to say something but just couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead, she cracked a smile that could break your heart and ran off into the house with a giggle, her sun kissed hair bouncing with every step.
“Someday that girl is gonna start talking and when she does the world better watch out!” Jack said out loud laughing to himself as the sun disappeared behind the little belt mountains and somewhere out in the valley the soft purr of a whip-poor-will floated on the evening breeze.
The next day Jack headed out early to go hunting. With fall quickly approaching the Mule deer and Elk would be active in the valley timber below the snowline and he intended to take advantage of it.
As he was heading out Prudence came out the front door in a rush.
“Wait! You can’t go without taking a lunch!” she exclaimed smiling, handing Jack a small red handkerchief tied up with a hunk of jerky, a sliced onion and some homemade goat cheese.
“Much obliged Mrs. McSween.” Jack replied, tipping his hat.
As Jack rode off he smiled to himself. If any of his old mountain buddies could see him now he would be the laughing stock of the territory. Packing a lunch in a handkerchief to go hunting for the day? Whoever heard of such foolishness! But that’s what living indoors does to a man. Still, Jack may not have wanted to admit it to his buddies or even to himself, but he was fast growing accustomed to these small little pleasantries of life.
Prudence watched Jack until he disappeared around the bend and under her breath uttered a small, earnest prayer for his protection and return.
After about an hour of riding, Jack got off the main trail and headed south. Although he intended to do some hunting, that was not all he intended to do on this outing. He had decided to satisfy a curiosity he had about the man who died bringing Celia to safety. Where had he come from? Jack knew he had most likely been part of a wagon train going west to Oregon. It was the only logical explanation of why an eight year old white child would be out here in this wilderness with a man who was obviously not a trapper. The only problem was the trail the wagons took was over a hundred miles to the south. So the most likely explanation was the pilgrims had gotten lost or separated and went looking for help. The question was why had the man been shot? and by whom?
Although Jack knew the trail would be cold and almost impossible to track, he followed his gut instincts and backtracked south-east. It did not take him long to find something. Stopping at a small spring to fill his flask and let his horse drink and graze, he spotted smoke on a ridgeline to the southwest. Jack ruled out injuns. Injuns did not make big fires for all to see like white men did, they were smarter than that. No, this was most likely eastern tenderfoot pilgrims. Being cautious, Jack decided to make a big circle and approach them from down wind. As he got closer he began to smell their clothes and their cooking. These men had been on the trail for some time judging from how loud they were stinking up the countryside.
Coming within a hundred yards of the camp Jack left his horse in a small stand of ash and maple trees and crept up within earshot of the camp. Taking a knee in the high grass he sat there with his Hawken rifle and watched and listened.
There were three of them, all of them with decent, well-fed mounts.
“How long is that rabbit gonna take to cook? I’m so damn hungry I’m ready to eat it raw!” One of the men complained.
“You watch your mouth young’un! Yeah, you eat this meat raw and you’ll wish you were dead!” An older man replied sitting by the fire, turning the meat in a pan with a fork.
After a few minutes the man cooking by the fire divided up the meat between each of the men.
They all ate like they were starving except the older man who had done the cooking. He restrained himself and ate like a civilized man, savoring the taste.
“How much longer do we gotta stay out here Boss? Pearson and his daughter have either been scalped or are bear turds by now!”
“We stay out here until we find them or find proof they are both dead, it’s that simple.” Boss replied
“That Jake Pearson was stupid to argue with the prophet like he did. He should have just given up his daughter to marry when she turned twelve like all the other families in the wagon train agreed.”
The man called Boss stood up to stretch and looked over in Jack’s general direction. Jack could see clearly he was heeled with a pistol and a large knife.
“We’ll rest up a few more hours and then ride North. An Army scout told me there is a trading post near the mouth of the Judith. It’s possible he could have made it there.”
As the three men settled down for a rest Jack shook his head and cursed under his breath. This beat all he had ever seen or heard. A grown man marrying several twelve year old girls? What the hell was going on? And why did they call that man a prophet? Were they some kind of church? Jack had more questions than answers about who exactly these people were but he knew one thing for certain: These were the men responsible for that man’s death and they were about to ride to the trading post and find Celia. Jack simply could not allow that to happen. Jack crept back to his horse and thought about a plan. Judging from listening to these three talk, only the older one, “Boss” , had much experience with killing. The other two, were just hired pups. The simplest plan would be to just to ride in there with his three pistols and kill all of them in one fail swoop. But it was also damn risky. Better to divide and conquer and pick em’ off quietly, one at a time, using fear as his primary weapon, just like the injuns did. He pulled his Crow pipe hawk from his saddle bag and stuck it in his belt.
Jack waited an hour to let the three men get good and relaxed and then crawled into the high grass not fifteen yards from the camp. He quietly unsheathed his knife, reversed his grip and made several short, quick calls with his mouth that sounded like prairie dogs humping. At first the men paid no attention and then Jack increased the volume and then two heads popped up in unison. Jack smiled to himself. This was going to be fun.
“What in the hell is that?” one of the young pups exclaimed.
“Sounds like a horny prairie dog” Boss replied lazily, uninterested.
“Well they need to shut the hell up!” the kid replied, laying back down on his bedroll.
A few minutes passed and then Jack started up again, increasing the volume.
“Sonofabitch!” The kid yelled out as he got up and stormed toward Jack in the high grass with his pistol drawn.
“I’ll shut you up you little squeaking bastard!”
The kid came bounding through the grass like a pissed off bull elk and stopped within three feet of where Jack was crouched. Jack could now see the kid’s face clearly. He was no older than seventeen, tall and lanky with a baby face and large, scared eyes. Jack doubted he had ever killed a man in his life. Jack let him walk right by him and then in one swift motion came up behind him like a mountain lion springing a trap. With his left hand Jack covered the boy’s mouth and with his right brought his fourteen inch blade down in a plunging motion into his heart. The boy died with a soft gurgle and his eyes wide with horror as Jack gently set his body down in the tall grass. It had all taken less than ten seconds.
Wiping the blade on his pant leg, Jack then made a semi-circle around the camp and waited. When neither of the two men moved, Jack quickly walked over to the other young boy who was lying down on his bed roll with his back to him.
“Did you kill that noisy bastard Seth?” the boy asked with his back turned
“No, but something killed Seth” Jack whispered back, smiling like the devil himself.
As the boy jumped up in fear Jack closed the distance with a razor edged pipe hawk in one hand and a .50 caliber pistol in the other.
“Oh Christ” was all the boy could choke out as Jack brought the pipe hawk down into the boy’s skull with a wet splitting sound, the boy’s blood and brains spilling out into the dirt like thick, black oil.
In all the commotion Boss sprung to his feet and while he was cussing trying to cock his pistol Jack shot him clean through the right knee, sending him crashing down to the ground screaming like a banshee.
Jack casually strolled over and kicked the man’s pistol out of his grasp.
“You sorry bastard!” Boss yelled out in pain.
“Bushwhacking three innocent Christian men! You will burn in hell for this!” Boss spit in anger, his eyes like two red coals.
Jack stood there watching him squirm in agony for a long moment and then drew Annabelle from her sheath and walked over.
“Go ahead! slaughter me like you did those two innocent boys!” Boss spit through yellow, cracked teeth.
Jack kneeled down in front of Boss and in one quick jerk grabbed the man’s hair with his left hand, turning his face so it was inches from his.
“Innocent? You want to claim you and these boys were innocent Christian men? What kind of Christian men hunts and kills a father trying to protect his eight year old daughter from some sick bastard wanting to marry and bed her?” Jack stared at the man with pure hatred.
“The great prophet will deliver this world!” Boss cried out as he writhed on the ground laughing hysterically.
“This is for Celia and Jake Pearson.”
Jack then scalped the man in one quick motion with his knife, the scalp peeling off the man’s skull like ripe melon. Smiling, Jack then proceeded to stuff the bloody pulp of hair into the man’s mouth until he began to choke on it.
“Maybe that will shut you up for a few minutes.”
After gagging and retching for what seemed like forever, the man finally spit out his own scalp and began yelling in pain at the top of his lungs once again.
“Keep yelling like that and you’re gonna attract injuns, most likely Blackfeet, who will take pleasure in roasting you alive for sport.”
Jack shook his head in disgust as he turned and leashed the three horses to his and then gathered all the men’s weapons and stowed them on the trailing horses.
“Oh God! Please shoot me, please mister!” Boss pleaded and cried like a child as Jack mounted his horse and turned North.
Jack refused to look at the man as he rode out of the camp at a slow walk.
When Jack arrived back at the trading post that afternoon, Otis, Prudence and Celia were all waiting on the porch.
“My, my, where did you get those three fine horses?” Prudence asked, walking up with her eyes wide.
“Oh, The Good Lord just dropped them in my lap,” Jack replied with a smile.
Otis walked over and unsheathed one of the captured rifles and then glanced up at Jack with a smirk.
“The Good Lord is mysterious like that I reckon.” Otis replied as he began removing the saddles and feeding the horses fresh hay.
Jack walked over to Celia and kneeled down and gently touched her on the nose, making a funny face.
As Celia let out a long belly laugh at his silliness Jack smiled and a deep sense of satisfaction washed over him like he had never known in his life.
Home had finally found him.
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