Booty for a badman.
him when the outlaws made their move.
When my roan topped out on the ridge, the first thing I saw was that girl. She was far off, but a man riding lonesome country gets so he can pick out anything strange to it, and this girl was standing up straight beside the trail like she was waiting for a stage. Trouble was, nothing but riders or freight wagons used that trail, and seldom.
With 50 pounds of gold riding with me and three days ahead of me, I was skittish of folks. Most times wild country is less trouble than people, no matter how rough the country. And no woman had the right to be standing out there in that empty desertmountain country.
We Sacketts began carrying rifles as soon as we stood tall enough to keep both ends off the ground.
When I was 14 I traveled from Cumberland Gap in Tennessee down to the Pine Log Mountains in Georgia, living on cougar meat and branch water, and I killed my own cougars.
Man-grown at 15, 1 hoofed it north and joined up with the Union and fought at Shiloh, and after our outfit
was surrendered by a no-account colonel, I was among those exchanged to go north and fight the Sioux in Dakota.
At 19 1 saddled our roan and fetched it for the West to try my hand at gold panning, but I wasn't making out. Seems like everybody in camp was showing color but me, and I was swallowing my belt notch by notch for lack of eating when those four men came to my fire.
Worst of it was, I couldn't offer them. There I was, booting up for a fresh day with my coffeepot on the fire so's people wouldn't know I hadn't even coffee, but all there was in the pot was water. I dearly wanted to offer them, but I was shamed to admit I was fresh out of coffeethree days out, actually. And so hungry that my stomach thought my throat had been cut.
"Tell," Squires suggested, "you've had no luck with mining, so nobody would suspect you of carrying gold. If you rode out of camp today, folks would take it for granted you had called it deep enough and quit. That way you could carry our gold to Hardyville and nobody the wiser."
The four men facing me had taken out the most dust and, knowing about the Coopers, they were worried men. Three of them were family men, and that gold meant schooling for their youngsters and homes for their wives and capital for themselves. They were poor, hard-working men, deserving what they had dug up.
Thing was, how to get it past the Coopers?
"We'll give you $100," Hodge said, "if you make it through."
With the best of luck it was a fiveday ride, which figured out to $20 a day. With such a grubstake I could take out for California or come back with a grubstake.
My belly was as empty as my prospect hole, and it didn't seem like I had much choice. Coopers or no Coopers, it sized up like the fastest $100 I would ever make. It was Bill Squires done it for me, as we'd talked ftiendly ever since I staked claim on the creek.
Jim Hodge, Willy Mander, and Tom Padgett stood there waiting for me to speak up, and finally I said, "I'll do it, of course, and glad of the chance. Only, I am a stranger, and--"
"Squires swears by you," Padgett interrupted, "and even if we don't know you very well, he's known you and your family. If he says you are honest, that's all there is to it."
"And this is a chance to get you a stake," Squires interrupted. "What can you lose?"
Well, the last two men who rode out of camp with gold were found dead alongside the trail, shot down like you'd shoot a steer; one of them was Jack Walker, a man I'd known. Neither of them was carrying as much as I'd have.
"Take a pack horse," Squires suggested, "load your gear." He glanced around and lowered his voice, "It seems like somebody here in camp informs the Coopers, but nobody will know about this but us, and all of us have a stake in it."
Later, when the others had gone, Squires said"Hope you didn't mind my saying I'd known your family. They were willing to trust you if I did, but I wanted them to feel better."
So I packed up and rode off, and in my saddlebags there was 50 pounds of gold, worth around $1,000 a pound at the time, and in my pocket I'd a note signed by all four men that I was to have $100 when the gold was delivered. Never had I seen that much cash money, and since the war I'd not had even $10 at one time.
Now, that woman standing down there sized up like trouble aplenty. Pa, he always warned us boys to fight shy of women. "They'll trouble you," pa said. "Love 'em and leave 'em, that's the way. Don't you get tangled up with no female woman. They got more tricks they can do than a monkey on 60 feet of grapevine."
"Don't believe that, Tell," ma would say. "You treat women right. You treat a woman like she was your sister, you hear?"
Pa, he would say, "There's two kinds of women, Tell, good and bad, and believe me, a good woman can cause a man more trouble than a bad one. You fight shy of them."
So I fought shy. Of mountain cats and bears, of muskrat and deer, even of horses and cows I knew a sight, but I wasn't up on womenfolk. Orrin now-he was my brother-he was a fiddler and a singer, and fiddlers and singers have a way with women. At home when strange womenfolk showed up, I'd taken to the hills.
Looked to me like I was fair trapped this time, but I wasn't about to turn and run. Any woman waiting in lonesome country was a woman in trouble. Only I begun to sweat. I'd never been close to no lone woman before.
Worst of it was, there was somebody on my trail. A man like me, riding somewhere, he doesn't only watch the trail ahead, he looks back. Folks get lost because when they start back over a trail they find it looks a sight different facing the other way. When a man travels he should keep sizing up the country, stopping time to time to study his back trail so he recognizes the landmarks.
Looking back, I'd seen dust hanging in the air. And that dust stayed there. It had to be somebody tracking me down, and it could mean it was the Coopers.
Right then I'd much rather have tangled with the Coopers than faced up to that woman down there, but that no-account roan was taking me right to her. Worst of it was, she was almighty pretty. There was a mite of sunburn on her cheekbones and nose, but despite that, she was a fine-looking girl.
"How do you do?" You'd of thought we were meeting on the streets of Nashville"I wonder if you could give me a lift to Hardyville?"
My hat brim was down over my eyes, and I sized up the country around, but there was no sign of a horse she might have ridden, nor any sign of a cabin or camp.
"Why, I reckon so, ma'am." I got down from the saddle, thinking if trouble came I might have to fetch that big Colt in a "My packhorse is packing light, so I can rig that pack saddle so's you can ride it sidesaddle."
"I would be grateful," she said. First off, it shaped like a trap. Somebody knowing I had gold might have this woman working with them, for it troubled me to guess how she came here. There were a sight of tracks on the ground, but all seemed to be hers. And then I noticed a thin trail of smoke ftom behind a rock.
"You have a fire?" "It was quite cold last night." When she caught my look, she smiled. "Yes, I was here all night." She looked directly at me from those big blue eyes. "And the night before."
"It ain't a likely spot." She carried herself prim, but she was a bright, quick-to-see girl, and I cottoned to her. The clothes she wore were of fine, store-bought goods like some I'd seen folks wear in some of those northern cities I'd seen as a soldier. Where I came from it was homespun, or buckskin.
"I suppose you wander what I am doing here?"
"Well, now." I couldn't help grinning. "It did come to mind. Like I said, it ain't a likely spot."
"You shouldn't say 'ain't.' The word is 'isn't.' "
"Thank you, ma'am. I had no schooling, except what ma gave me, and I never learned to talk proper."
"Surely you can read and write?" "No, ma'am, I surely can't." "Why, that's awful! Everybody should be able to read. I don't know what I would have done these past months if I could not read. I believe I should have gone insane."
When the saddle was rigged, I helped her up. "Ma'am, I better warn you. There's trouble acoming, so's you'd better have it in mind. It may not be a good thing, me helping you this way. You may get into worse trouble."
We started off, and I looked over my shoulder at her. "Somebody is following after me. I figure it's them Cooper outlaws."
Worst of it was, I had lost time, and here it was coming up to night, and me with a strange girl on my hands. Pa told me women had devious ways of getting to a man, but I never figured one would set out alongside a lonely trail thataway. Especially one as pretty as she was.
Moreover, she was a lady. A body could see she was quality, and she rode there beside me, chin lifted and proud like she was riding the finest thoroughbred at a county fair, or whatever.
"You running from something, ma'am? Not to be disrespectful, ma'am, but out in the desert thisaway it ain't-isn't-just the place a body would expect to find a lady as pretty as you."
"Thank you." Her chin lifted a mite higher. "Yes, I am running away. I am leaving my husband. He is a thoughtless, inconsiderate brute, and he is an Army officer at Fort Whipple."
"He will be mighty sorry to lose you, ma'am. This here is a lonesome country. I don't carry envy for those soldier boys out here, I surely don't."
"Well! It certainly is not a place fit to bring an officer's bride. I'll declare! How could he think I could live in such a place? With a dirt floor, and all?"
"What did he say when you left?" "He doesn't know it yet. I had been to Ehrenberg, and when we started back, I just couldn't stand the thought, so when no one was looking, I got out of the Army ambulance I was riding in. I am going to catch the steamer at Hardyville and go home."
When I looked to our back trail, no dust hung in the air, and I knew we were in trouble. If it had been soldiers looking for this girl, they would not have stopped so sudden-like, and it looked to me like they had headed us and laid a trap, so I swung up a draw, heading north instead of west, and slow to raise no dust.
It was a sandy wash, but a thin trail skirted the edge, made by deer or suchlike, and we held to it. When we had been riding for an hour, I saw dust in the air, hanging up there in a fair cloud about where I had come up to this lady. Again I turned at right angles, heading back the way I had come. Off to the north and west there was a square-topped mesa that was only a part of a long, comblike range.
"We are followed, ma'am," I said, "and those Coopers are mighty thoughtless folks. I got to keep you out of their hands. First off, we'll run. If that doesn't work, we'll talk or we'll flight leaving it up to them. You hold with me, ma'am."
"Surely they wouldn't bother me," she said. "I am the wife of an Army officer."
"Most Western men are careful of womenfolk," I agreed, "but don't set no truck by being an officer's wife. The Coopers murdered two Army officers not a week ago. Murdered them, ma'am. They just don't care a mite who you may be. And a woman like you-they don't often see a woman pretty as you."
She rode up closer to me. "I am afraid I didn't realize."
"No, ma'am, most folks don't."
It was still the best part of two days to Hardyville, and nothing much there when we arrived. Hardyville was head of navigation on the Colorado, and last I'd seen there were only three or four buildings there, and about that many folks.
Nobody seemed to know how many Coopers there were, but the guesses ran all the way from five to nine. They were said to be renegades from down in the Cherokee nation and mighty mean.
We held to low ground, keeping off sky lines, finding a saddle here and there where we could cross over ridges without topping out where we could be seen. It was darkening by then, with long shadows reaching out, and when we came up the eastern flank of that mesa I'd headed for, we rode in deep shadow.
When we found a way around the butte, we took it, and the western slope was all red from the setting sun, and mighty pretty. The wind blew cool there, but I'd found what I was hunting-a place to hole up for the night.
A man hunting a night camp with somebody trailing him has to have things in mind. He wants a place- he can get into and out of without skylining himself or showing up plain, and he also wants a place where he can build a fire that cannot be seen, and something to spread out the smoke. And here it was, and by the look of it many an Indian had seen the worth of it before this time.
The falloff from the mesa rim made a steep slope that fell away for maybe 500 feet. A man could ride a horse down that slope, but it would be sliding half the time on its rump. The wall of the mesa raised up sheer for some 300 feet, but there at the foot of that cliff and atop the slope was a hollow behind some rocks and brush.
Maybe it was a half acre of ground with grass in the bottom and some scraggly cedars at one end. We rode down into that hollow, and I reached up and handed down the lady.
"Ma'am, we'll spend the night here. Talk low and don't let any metal strike metal or start any rock sliding."
"Are they that close?" "I don't rightly know, ma'am, but we should hope for the best and expect the worst. Pa said that was the way to figure."
When the saddles were off, I climbed out on one of those big rock slabs to study the country. You've got to see country in more than one light to get the lay of it. Shadows tell a lot, and the clear air of early morning or late evening will show up things that are sun blurred by day. A man scouting country had best size it up of an evening, for shadows will tell him where low ground is, and he can spot the likely passes if only to avoid them.
Pa, who trapped with Bridger and Carson, never lost a chance of teaching us boys how to judge terrain, and the best time was at sundown or sunup with the shadows falling toward you.
When I finished my study, I came down off the rock and cleared a spot of needles and leaves under one of arched out toward us. My fire was about the size you could hold in your two hands, for the smaller the fire, the less smoke, and such a fire will heat up just as well if a man wants to cook. And rising up through the branches thataway the smoke would be thinned out so much it could not be seen.
"I'm ftom Tennessee," I said to her"and my name is Tell Sackett."
"Oh-I am Christine Mallory, and I was born in Delaware."
"Howdy, Mrs. Mallory. Mostly, the Delawares a man meets out here are Indians. Good trackers and good fighting men."
When I dug out what grub
I had, I was ashamed it was so little. it was a mite Squires stakes me to before I taken out. The coffee was mostly ground bean and chicory, and all else I had was jerked venison and cold flour.
When the coffee was ready I filled my cup and passed it to her. "Mrs. Mallory, this isn't what you have been used to, but it's all we've got."
She tasted it, and if she hadn't been a lady I think she would have spit, but she swallowed it, and then drank some more. "It's hot," she said, and smiled at me, and I grinned back at her. Truth to tell, that was about all a body could say for it.
"You'd better try some of this jerked venison," I said. "If you hold it in your mouth awhile before you begin to chew, it tastes mighty wholesome. All else I've got is cold flour.
"Cold flour-it's a borrowed thing, from the Indians. Only what I have here is white-man style. It's parched corn ground up and mixed with a mite of sugar and cinnamon. You can mix it with water and drink it, and go for miles on it. Mighty nourishing too. Pa was in Montana one time and traveled two weeks on a couple of dry quarts of it."
Last time I got up to scout the country around I caught the gleam of a far-off campfire.
Standing there looking across country and watching the stars come out, I thought of that girl and wondered if I would ever have me a woman like that one, and it wasn't likely. We Sacketts are Welsh, and a proud people, but we never had much in the way of goods. Somehow the Lord's wealth never seemed to gather to us; all we ever had was ourselves and our strength and a will to walk the earth with honesty and pride.
But this girl was running away, and it didn't seem right. She was huddled to the fire, wrapped in one of my blankets when I came down to the fire. Gathering cedar boughs and grass, I made her a bed to one side, but close to the fire.
"The fire smells good," she said. "That's cedar," I said"and some creosote brush. Some folks don't like the smell of creosote. Those Spanish men call it hedondilla, which means little stinker. Some of the Indians use it for rheumatism."
Nobody said anything for a while, and then I said, "Creosote-brush fires flavor beans-the best ever. You try them sometime, and no beans ever taste the same after. "
The fire crackled, and I added a few small dry sticks and then said, "It ain't right, leaving him thisaway. He's likely worried to death."
She looked across the fire at me, all stiff and perky. "That is none of your business!"
"Mrs. Mallory, when you saddled yourself on me, you made it my business. Girl who marries a soldier ought to think to live a soldier's life. Strikes me you've no nerve, ma'am, you cut and run because of dirt floors. I'd figure if a girl truly loved a man it wouldn't make her no mind. You're spoiled, ma'am. You surely are."
She got up, standing stiff, coming the high and mighty on me. "If you do not want me here, I will go."
"No, you won't. First off, you haven't an idea where you are or which way to go to get there. You'd die of thirst, if that lion didn't get you first."
"Lion?" "Yes, ma'am." I wasn't exactly lying, because somewhere in Arizona there was sure to be a lion prowling. "There's snakes, too, and at night you can't see them until they get stepped on."
She stood there looking unsure of herself, and I kept on with what I had to say. "Woman needs a man out here -needs him bad. But a man needs a woman too. How do you think that man of yours feels now? His wife has shamed him before others, taking on like a girl-baby, running off."
She sat down by the fire, but she looked at me with a chilly expression. "I will thank you to take me to Hardyville . I did not mean to 'saddle' myself on you, as you put it. I will gladly pay you for your trouble." "Ain't that much money." "Don't say 'ain't'! " She snapped her eyes at me.
"Thank you, ma'am," I said, "but you better get some shut-eye. We got to ride 50 miles tomorrow, and I can't be bothered with any tired female. You sit up on that horse tomorrow or I'll dump you in the desert."
"You wouldn't dare!" "Yes, ma'am, I surely would. And leave you right there, and all your caterwauling wouldn't do you a mite of good. You get some sleep. Come daylight we're taking out of here faster than a scared owl."
Taking up my rifle I went out to scout the country, and setting up there on that rock slab I done my looking and listening. That fire was still aburning, away off yonder, like a star fallen out of the sky.
When I came back, she was lying on the bed I'd made, wrapped in a blanket, already asleep. Seen like that with the firelight on her face she looked like a little girl.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||short story, part 1|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Sep 1, 1988|
|Previous Article:||Good morning, Joan Lunden.|
|Next Article:||Just coasting.|
|From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom.|
|PC NICKED TEA FUND.|