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Big Horn Legacy
Robert Campbell caught his reflection in a darkened window. Through all the years, he'd come to dread this dayknowing it lay inevitably just over the horizon. The butterflies in his stomach wouldn't leave him in peace. Fortunately, they didn't show in his face. He studied the reflection in the dark glass. He'd grayed since the old days. His face seemed longer, lined, nose becoming more bulbous, and pads of flesh lay under his hard brown eyes.
"It's harder than you thought, isn't it?"
Filling his lungs in the cool damp air, he walked on, turned the corner, and found the little white sign indicating the AC Freight Company.
Abriel Catton Campbell wouldn't expect him to come strolling in out of the Saint Louis night this 21st of March 1850. Abriel had just "purchased" the AC Freight Company from old Andy Crank, who owed Ab a littlemore money than his poker habit could stand. Turning the company over to Ab had settled the accounts, which beat having to call him a deadbeat in public. Saint Louis still lived too close to the frontier and its unforgiving ways.
Campbell reached for the doorknob, seeing the yellow glow of lamplight through the smoke-stained window. He hesitated, fighting the urge to simply walk onforget this hanging debt from the past. The brass knob lay chill under his fingertips. Heart in throat, Campbell entered, booted heels sounding hollowly on the hardwood flooring.
Ab peered up from a set of ledgers. All the years on the river toting Campbell's freight from hither to yon and back again had built beef on his shoulders. The hard plains sun had darkened and lined his face. He stood, the sudden familiar smile lighting his lips. "Good to see you, sir! Just trying to figure out what Crank did with all his money."
Campbell nodded, words stuck in his throat. "You look ... fit. Being a man of property seems to agree with you."
Ab laughed heartily, pouring a tin cup of thick black coffee from the battered pot gurgling on the heat stove in the corner. "When a kid goes up the trail, be it to Fort William or Taos or if you chunk wood into the steamboat boilers bound for the Upper Missouri and the Montana lands, you stay fit. It's not the business, sir."
Campbell nodded as he stared absently into the coffee in his cup. "You're a man, Abriel. You can take care of yourselfin more ways than one."
Ab's eyes narrowed. "I've had some go-arounds, and with some big and mean men too. I wouldn't swear I could clean up a full-grown grizz with my bare hands but he'd know I'd been earnest!" Then the lines in hisforehead tightened. "You look like the army just welched on a twenty-thousand-dollar deal."
Campbell chuckled. "You know me pretty well, Ab."
"Ought to. You raised me. What's wrong?"
Robert Campbell took a deep breath and looked around. A shy sort of office, it beat the rented corner of rat-infested warehouse he'd started with back in the prime beaver days. One little window looked out on Olive Street, a desk, a safe that might have withstood the curious efforts of a five-year-old, a stove, and back door that led to the stable and the jakes made Abriel's empire. A couple turn-legged chairs lined a wall.
"You've done well, Ab." Campbell remembered his own scrambling existence. He'd come from Ireland and gone west with Jed Smith in 1822 as a lunger, a man dying of consumption. In the Rockies he mended, tussled with the Blackfeet and Crow and helped build the American fur empire in the Far West. He unbuttoned his gray broadcloth coat and hung his tan beaver hat on one of the nails serving for coat hangers.
"You didn't come all the way down here to tell me that." Abriel leaned back against his battered desk, patient, waiting.
Campbell hitched up his trousers and sat, crossing his legs and sipping at his coffee, trying to find a place to begin.
"No, Ab, I didn't." Campbell frowned, staring at the grain in the floorboards. "You had ... I mean, you were raised knowing some pretty interesting characters. Tom Fitzpatrick, Gabe, uh, Jim Bridger, Os Russel, Kit Carson, Clyman, Liver-Eating Johnston. Men who had the bark on."
"If you're in trouble," Ab said, face darkening, "you just tell me and I'll"
"Now, Ab, you've always been that way. Impetuous.Too ..." His face tightened. Say it. Go on, get it out. "Too much like your father."
There, he'd said it. Abriel's frown deepened.
"I never thought you were impetuous. You've always been a keen trader. But impetuous?"
The boy still didn't understand. Campbell felt the beginnings of a headache as he looked up into those honest amber eyes.
Campbell's voice stumbled, hesitant. "For years you have been ... been like my son. I've loved you like you were my own boy. Tried to give you the best, like I did my own."
"But I don't ... What are you saying?" Ab shook his head, confused.
"I've talked about Web Catton." Campbell sipped his coffee, meeting Abriel's serious look.
"Yes. Sometimes until I couldn't stand to hear it. Said he'd always been one of your special friends. Named me after him." Abriel gestured with a hand. "So? You'd better go on, I'm having trouble reading this trail you're laying."
For a brief instant Campbell itched to simply stand up, apologize, cover his tracks with some cock-and-bull story, and walk out. "Abriel, what do you remember when you were very small?"
Ab Catton chewed his lip for a few moments, eyes lost in old memories. "Well, there's a lady with golden-blond hair," he said. "I remember other kids, littler than me. Somebody was always crying in the background. I can remember the lady with golden hair picking me up and making me feel better. She kept me from being afraid."
Campbell snorted amusement, the image drifting into memories of Abriel scrapping with every kid in Saint Louis. "I doubt anyone ever needed to keep you from being afraid!" Then his voice turned soft. "That was yourmother, Ab. A very beautiful lady. Her name was Laura. Laura Catton. I married Virginia just before you came to live with us. You are so much older than my own children. Still you've become very special to me. I'm so proud of you. But Web Catton is your real father." Campbell cleared his throat. "Ab, you'd better read this. This is the last will and testament of your father, Web Catton. Kit Carson wrote and told me he was long overdue from a trapping expedition."
From an inside pocket, he handed Abriel the oil-paper envelope.
Abriel swallowed as he looked at the creased, stained papers. With cautious movements, he lifted a letter out and unfolded it. Nervous fingers clutched the foolscap as he studied the strange scrawling writing in the lamplight.
My dear Abriel:
By the time you read this, two things have happened. First, you have reached your majority, and second, I am dead. I have left you in the care of my best friend, Robert Campbell, for reasons he will explain to you. Upon the death of your mother, it was no longer possible to raise you or your brothers safely. I'm afraid your uncle, Branton Bragg, blames all of you for your mother's death. I can't kill him. I promised your mother. At the same time, I'm not the father you boys need. I can't stay in one place and farm or run a business the way men like Campbell and Sublette can. I'm called to the wild lands, Ab. I'm doing the best thing for all of you. I hope to God you'll understand. You have four brothers and Arabella. I placed each of you where I thought you would do the best and where Branton wouldn't think to look for you. I guess I tried to make up for what I didn't give you. Each of you has a section of map to what I hope will be a satisfactoryinheritance of fifty thousand dollars in gold. I don't suggest that you take any of it to Santa Fe as Governor Armijo's heirs might want to argue ownership. To find it, you must reunite the family. Robert will tell you how. Ab, don't hold what I did against me. I've done the best I could.
With All Love,
Ab looked up, a haunted expression on his face, seeking an explanation in his foster father's eyes.
"Abriel, don't hold it against Web. Branton would have killed you. All of you. The Braggs were a very wealthy family in Kentucky once. Web killed Laura's fatheryour grandfatherhere in Saint Louis. They fought a duel one morning down on Bloody Island. Used sabers. No one would have thought Web knew anything about sabers."
Campbell's lips curled with a smile. "I won't say what I thought of old Bragg's manners. Branton went berserk over his father's body. Needless to say, Web offered to take him next. Branton backpedaled most adroitly and Laura went ahead and married your father anyway. Branton disapproved, but he couldn't stand up to his sisterlet alone Webwho would have killed him outright.
"Dear Laura, she was quite a woman. Her death left us all ... Well, never mind. It happened, is all. Died in childbirth ... Tom's. Web wasn't the man to raise five young boyslet alone Arabella. He left you with me. Jeremiel he left with a family recommended by the missionary Marcus Whitman. Jake went to Colonel Oord and his wife. Bram ended up with One-Eyed Mike." Campbell's face twisted with contempt. "I'll never understand that!"
"And the last brother?" he asked, looking shaken.
"Tom." Campbell nodded, running slow fingers through his gray-shot brown hair. "Tom was left with the Cheyenne. I think you'd better look up Tom Fitzpatrick to find him. Fitz usually knows where White Wolf's band can be"
Abriel stuttered, "O-One of my brothers is an Injun?"
Campbell felt his gut tighten. With the blood-chilling tone of command he'd used to organize his fur caravans, Campbell said, "White Wolf was your father's blood brother. Since you weren't there, I suggest that you keep your own counsel."
Robert Campbell narrowed his eyes, noting that old familiar flush of shame climbing Abriel's cheeks. Just like when he'd been a little boyhe looked the same now. Chastened, disciplined, until the next time.
"I'll think on that," Ab muttered, dropping his eyes.
"See that you do."
Ab lifted his chin. "What are they like? My brothers, I mean. And this ... Arabella?"
"I've met Jeremiel and Jake." Campbell drained most of his coffee. "I'd best leave you to your own impressions when you meet them. Suffice it to say Jake and Jeremiel have done very well in their respective fields. Bram will be the most ... um, interesting, I suppose. I don't think Web figured One-Eyed Mike was going to become the sort of"
"One-Eyed Mike?" Abriel straightened. "You mean from down south? The ... the ..."
"Horse thief," Campbell supplied. "That's him. Used to be a trapper until the beaver played out." Campbell smiled. "Learned his present, shall we say, trade, from the Crow. No one can steal a horse like a CrowandOne-Eyed Mike became as good as the best of them." Campbell winced.
"And this Injun?"
"Tom? They call him Wasatch now, after the Ute word. Well, he's a strange onepowerful among the Cheyenne. And at his age too."
Robert shrugged. "I can't tell you. She's spent her life in the East. I know virtually nothing about her except that Carson wrote her the same time he wrote me. Evidently he kept track of the family that took her in."
Ab's lips pinched and he rubbed the back of his neck. "Well, she won't be involved anyway. If Web was the man I remember you forever telling me he was, no woman is going where he'd have hidden gold."
Campbell grunted his assent and stood, walking across the room. He reached around Abriel and picked up the Damascus blade that rested in its leather scabbard beyond the heavy ledger books.
Abriel nodded. "You gave me that for Christmas one year. It's my one prize possession. Never seen another like it."
"This knife," Campbell told him, the words coming slow and sure, "was from Web, your father. Every year, the Christmas gifts came from him. Had to spoil my boys so Ginny and I could give you gifts of our own." He smiled. "There are only five knives like this in the world. Your brothers have the mates to this one. That's how you'll know them. Somehow, they hold the secret to Web's fortune."
Ab considered, head shaking. "The frontier's a big place to find five young fellas with knives. Gold? At the end of the rainbow, sir? A legacy from a man I neverknew?" He shook his head, eyes dancing. "There's always more gold in hard work."
Campbell nodded. "Generally. But not this time. If Web says he set you kids up ... he set you up." He allowed himself a smile of reminiscence. "Web never stretched anyone's leg over his kids. No, I know for a fact that Armijo lost a fortune when Santa Fe fell to Kearny's troops in '46. Too many Taoseños and traders had fingers in that pieand I knew them all. Kit Carson and Broken Hand Fitzpatrick were there. They heard it too. Now, Web had a hand in all that. If he says he got ithe got it!"
Abriel grunted, head down as he fingered his chin. "West is a big place," he repeated.
"Not that big a place."
Abriel reread the letter in the long silence that followed. Outside, beyond the window, someone yelled a greeting in a heavy Irish brogue. The answer came faintly, beyond Campbell's hearing. From the stove, the fire snapped and crackled. A wagon lumbered down the spring-muddy streets, hissing and squishing.
"I guess I always knew," Abriel said at last, looking up from the letter, meeting Campbell's eyes.
"Yes, you did." Campbell sighed heavily. "You worked real hard to forget ... once ... just after your mother's death. That hurt so bad I think you made yourself forget."
"Why didn't he ever come back?" Abriel asked.
"Afraid Bragg would find you ... somehow, someway."
"But the letter says Bragg's my uncle! An uncle wouldn't hurt his nephew!"
"Oh, come on!" Campbell sniffed his disgust. "This is Saint Louis, Ab! You know what old family honor means here! The Old French poisoned this place. Laura spurnedher own people! Married the man who gutted her father! To Branton you're like a ... a living shame!"
"Old blood," Abriel whispered, reaching up to push his thick hair away. "Old blood, bad blood. Isn't that the statement?"
"Tainted with black honor," Campbell added. "That's why Web never came back. Branton has friends in Saint Louis."
Abriel looked up, a subtle vulnerability in his eyes. "Why did you do it? All those years ago, I mean. Why take on a kid?"
Campbell felt time slip away, seeing the bandy-legged boy Abriel Catton had been. "Because I just plain liked you. You had grit, Ab. Even then. And I, like most people who ever had anything to do with him, owed your father. Saved my life once. Blackfeet would have taken me alive. In those days, it would have been worse than a death sentence."
Silence stretched again.
"How do I thank you?" Abriel began. "I'll make it up to you somehow. I ..."
"That will be enough of that, Abriel," Campbell said, a warmth filling him. "You owe us nothing. No debt is implied. Web sent us more than requirements needed anyway. No matter, even if he hadn't, you were ... my son." It hurt, that admission.
"I just don't"
Campbell waved him down. "Maybe blood mattered in the old country. Here, who knows? To be a father is more than a matter of birth. It's a matter of raising." He reached and took Abriel's hand. "You always have a home with us."
The young man stood, engulfing him in a fierce bear hug that threatened to crack Campbell's ribs. Pushingback, Abriel gazed into Campbell's eyes. "And you think I ought to-find my other family?"
Campbell raised an eyebrow. "Ab, aren't you just a little curious?" He could see a faint scar on Ab's cheek. Another ran through an eyebrow where a boatman's fist had cut it. Indeed, no dandy, this one. He'd raised a boy worthy of the western landsworthy of Web Catton.
A slow smile spread on the lips. "Yes," Abriel admitted, warming to it. "I suppose I am."
Campbell clapped him on the shoulder. "Good. Go." He frowned. "You know, there was always something else Web never told me. Something about the inheritance. Some secret he never let slip. Laura knew. Every time the subject of Bragg and his disgust with your father came up, she'd smile, knowing." Campbell dropped his hands from Ab's shoulders. "Web had a secret. He was somebody ... important. More than a fur hunter, you understand."
"No, that's not what I mean." Campbell gestured. "Take the time up at Chouteau's. Laura was in a family way with Jake at the time. Bragg, like usual, had just made some brutal comment about her bastard child and stomped out. Laura, your mother, instead of blushing with shame, got this incredibly angelic look on her face and whispered, 'If he only knew.'"
"Cryptic," Abriel admitted. "Well, perhaps if I find out I'm George Washington's illegitimate heir, I'll let you know." Slowly his wry grin grew.
"You do that."
"All right, the letter says you know how I can find my family." Abriel turned to the stove, refilling Campbell's coffee cup.
Campbell turned it to balance on his knee, feeling the blistering heat through the tin. "Your brother Jeremiel isonly as far away as Independence. I believe if you hurry you can make it by Sunday." Campbell waited, seeing the sudden concern on Abriel's face. No slouch this one.
"Sunday?" Abriel ventured hesitantly, reserve in the tilt of his lips.
"Absolutely," Campbell chimed, voice clipped. "You see, Jeremiel is a preacher."
"Aw, now, Paw!" he cried out, obviously trying to figure how to go packing some preacher along after Web Catton's gold.
Campbell jumped lightly to his feet. "First, Ab, I am not your father. Second, I taught you long ago that you address your elders as 'sir.' Simply because we have a change in relationships is no excuse for bad manners." Campbell reached for his hat and settled it jauntily on his head before tossing down the hot strong coffee and placing the cup on the desk.
Abriel began to grin evilly.
In a muted voice, Robert Campbell continued, "And third, Abriel, there are preachers and there are preachers!"
With that he raised his finger and touched the brim of his hat. At the door he hesitated. "Don't worry about the business. I'll handle the freighting during your absence." He opened the door, turning back one last time. "And Ab, Branton Bragg probably killed your father. He'll be after the rest of you now. Be very, very careful!"
Copyright © 1988 by W. Michael Gear