Long Ride Home
By W. Michael Gear
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1988 W. Michael Gear
All rights reserved.
The gusting wind blowing out of the black night whipped the tail of the horseman's mount, almost staggering the animal with each icy blast. Theodor Belk sat hunched on the horse, his body giving slightly to the wind as he stared longingly at the small town that lay below the rocky ridge. Yellow light from the windows reflected on the cold, white drifts of snow.
Another gust jerked impatiently at the man's coat and fluttered the brim of his snow-encrusted hat. The horse blew softly and shifted his back to the wind and the stinging sleet.
"Ho, shuh. Easy boy," Theo coaxed to the frosty ear that swung his direction. The sorrel vented a sigh as if in reply and sniffed futilely for the warm stable he knew lay below.
Theo Belk was tired. He was well bundled in a worn army greatcoat. His soogan provided protection from the ever-curious wind and snow that worried the loose wraps of his clothing. Ice rimmed the bandana that pulled the brim of the battered felt hat down over his ears.
"There she is boy. Down there in that house with the pretty red shutters. She married a no-account storekeeper. That's what they told us over to Radersburg." He emphasized the last with a stream of brown tobacco juice that stained the crusted snow.
"Said she wanted to marry a man that would stay at home. Said she couldn't marry a man who had shot someone. Wanted a name in the community, and a family, and ... Ah, hell!"
"Let's make tracks, horse." Theo flicked the reins and prodded the sorrel into the wind and blowing snow, away from the beckoning lights of the town below. His body felt empty, while his emotions churned. He felt the desire to go down there and shoot that damn storekeeper but he knew the townsfolk would hang him.
The thought of how warm and soft her body had been crept in around the edges of his consciousness. He remembered the feeling evoked by her delicate hands and the soft look of her eyes.
It had been the first time in his life that he had allowed himself to get close to another human being. Prior to Liz, Theo had never known there was a deep emptiness in the tough shell of his body. Now she was gone and Theo felt the void — deep, lonely, and bottomless. He had been vulnerable and it scared him.
Snorting at his thoughts he rationalized, "Yep, she done got herself a name now and a nice tame storekeeper to boot. Not half-bad for a line girl from Sylvia's Place." A grim smile played crookedly about his lips and cracked the ice that rimmed his mustache and beard.
The sorrel picked its way carefully down the deeply drifted slope, feeling for purchase among the dark shapes of rock that thrust through the dimly lit snow. Finding better footing in the drainage, the sorrel stepped out, making better time and glad to be moving in the biting wind. The clouds were breaking to the west and soon a thousand stars watched them pass through the cold empty night. They entered the breaks of the river and ghosted between the shapes of cottonwoods that thrust black branches to the dark sky.
Theo pulled up and sniffed the wind, watching the sorrel's reactions. The red horse had better senses than he, and any warning would be relayed by the animal first. Seeing no sign of worry on the sorrel's part, Theo nudged the mount into his camp.
The small fire he had left hours ago was down to a deep bed of coals that shimmered in red waves with the shifting wind. Two packhorses whinnied their greetings as the man swung coldly from the saddle and cared for his horse with stiff fingers. Theo blanketed the animal and made sure of the picket pin before throwing a few more branches onto the dying fire.
"I guess I'm a fool for going up there," he muttered. "You'd think even a damned idiot would learn after a while."
Theo batted snow from his hat and coat before stooping to brush it from his bedroll. He placed the bedroll feet first toward the fire and, pulling off his icy soogan, crawled between the blankets.
"Reckon there's times a warm house and a lard eatin' job wouldn't be half-bad," he growled. "Women! Hell's full of women!" His eyes grew heavy as his body warmed in the blankets.
The next morning he started south. By afternoon he'd picked up the rutted trace of the Bozeman Trail. Leaving the Yellowstone, it skirted the defiant slopes of the Pryor Mountains and the Big Horns. The days were cold, stark, and clear, marred only by the incessant wind. Then the sky clouded and the snow fell in fine flakes while the wind rushed wraiths of snow across the frozen drifts. Four days after his departure from the Yellowstone, the sun came out and the wind ceased. That night, cloud cover gone, the temperature dropped.
The only excitement on the long trip came in the form of a sleeping Sioux village nestled in the breaks of the Tongue River. The man slowly wended his way through the foothills, giving the conical lodges a wide berth. The red brethren were still angry about the white man's roads and forts.
Working his way south, Theo stopped at Piney Creek and stared thoughtfully at the few charred timbers that protruded like blackened limbs above the crusted snow. Here lay the gutted remains of Fort Phil Kearny. The Sioux, after driving the hated white army from their lands, had set fire to the structure. The Bloody Bozeman had been closed at an awful expense of red and white lives.
"Carrington was a fool," he mused aloud. "Damn stupid to put a fort here in the first place, and damn stupid to break the treaty in the second."
The sorrel swiveled an ear to listen. Theo spoke periodically to the horse. They had traveled together for years, covering the empty, windswept steppes of what would become Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado — sole companions in the quiet land.
"The army taught them how to march in straight lines," Theo continued. "Taught them how to fill out forms, build buildings, dig ditches. Taught them how to fight, too. Taught them how to fight armies of their own people. But they never taught them damn martinets how to live with the wind, the snow, the rain, and the heat. They sure never taught them how to fight the Sioux. Book soldiers!"
Working his jaws under his frozen beard, he squinted, looking around at the high, rolling grass- and sage-covered ridges blanketed in the white mantle of winter. The Big Horns rose to the west, stolid, silent guardians of the lonely graves of fallen soldiers.
From the time John Jacobs and John Bozeman first staked the trail in 1863 until Red Cloud drove the army away in 1868, war had been the constant companion of the Bozeman traveler. The land had been granted to the Sioux in the Treaty of 1851. Until gold was found in Montana, no one had a need to cross these last barren hunting grounds.
The wind picked up as Theo headed the sorrel and his pack animals south down the drifted trail. The sorrel took the lead, the packhorses following, the first led by a strap, the next tail hitched.
The second day after leaving Phil Kearny, the slopes of the Pumpkin Buttes rose in the east above the gently rolling grasslands. Theo scowled at the sandstone-capped prominences, aware that Sioux scouts haunted the excellent points of vantage.
Crossing ice-choked Crazy Woman Creek, Theo made camp in the breaks. The low sagebrush fire provided little comfort for the weary man. While the wind whimpered, the horses pawed the crusted snow in search of last year's grasses.
Morning brought low clouds and wisps of snow. Theo growled as he threw the frost-encrusted saddle onto the sorrel. He fumbled with the cinch with frozen fingers. The air warmed and the snow began falling in fluffy white flakes. Taking to the trail, he led the horses down the frozen Bozeman.
Theo was a tall man, wide through the shoulders. His hair was black and hung thickly from his head, falling over the collar of his coat. His beard was long now, unkempt from the lack of attention necessitated by winter. His eyes were blue and cold — cold as the land he surveyed. Framed by deeply etched crow's-feet, his face was lined to belie his age. The weathered skin was blackened from the bite of sun and wind and from squinting out over glaring deserts and snowfields.
As the morning progressed, the trail grew dim from the accumulating snow. The horses began to labor as the ceaseless wind sculpted drifts. Theo hunched in the saddle, twisting his head to maintain some protection for his face in the lee of his hat.
He crossed Ninemile Creek and wound up the breaks, following the trail more by feel than from the vanished visual evidence. By late afternoon they reached the crossing of the Powder River. Theo pulled the sorrel off the trail to flounder up to the burned buildings that marked the wind-blasted site of what had been Fort Reno. Burned rubble looked down from the steep bluff to the river.
This post, too, had been abandoned by the military. Originally called Camp Conner, it had been rebuilt and renamed by Colonel Carrington as a post to protect the Bozeman road. While the fort had not received the beating Fort Phil Kearny had, life had been bloody here, too.
Red Cloud had seen the white man coming, building his road through the last pristine hunting ground of the Sioux Nation. He had been angered by the perfidy of the devious whites who had broken their word and regarded the Treaty of Fort Laramie as so much paper — the words, those of old women.
They had built their road and called in the weak Sioux beggars that cadged handouts from the soldiers along the Medicine Road or Oregon Trail. They made a new treaty with the wreckage of Sioux manhood and called it binding on all the great chiefs and their warriors.
That had been in 1866. By 1868, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse had enforced the treaty of 1851 and the fight over the Bozeman road was over.
A cocky captain named Fetterman had said with pride that with eighty soldiers he could ride through the middle of the Sioux Nation. He finally got his chance; he made all of seven miles.
Men froze in the snow. They died of thirst in the hot sun. They died of dysentery from the water. They died of Sioux bullets and arrows. But beyond the wailings in Sioux villages, beyond the words the chaplain called out over mutilated bodies in mass graves, the government found that war on the Bozeman cost too much money for the depleted treasury to bear. The Bozeman road was closed. Peace with the Sioux and Cheyenne was made; the whites left.
Theo shook his head at the thought and looked over the few standing timbers, blackened by Cheyenne fires as Phil Kearny had been. Then with cold eating through his clothes, he stepped out of the saddle. Ice and snow cracked from his soogan as his numb feet hit the ground.
Stamping, Theo kicked his way to a looted dugout and entered. In the dim light he could see dry wood stacked in a corner. Slapping circulation into his stiff hands, he put together a small fire and warmed his fingers before forcing himself to take care of the horses. Rubbing them down as best he could, he hauled his packs into the shelter and prepared a stew of pemmican and jerky. Satisfied with a warm supper, he rolled out his blankets, checked the horses one last time, and crawled in, falling into an immediate deep sleep.
With sleep came terror. It was the same haunting dream. He saw again — as countless times before — the shining waters of the Blacks Fork River. The Uinta Mountains rose cool, blue-green, and inviting to the south while the gray-and-white-banded spires of the Church Buttes shot up above the terraces of the river. The sky was crystal blue with occasional white clouds.
He was a boy of eight. While he played, his father was busy rearranging the wagon to make the crossing of the ford easier.
Theo let himself pretend to stalk some wily Indian through the low dunes capped with prickly greasewood. He carried a stick that served his young imagination as a rifle. A cottontail rabbit shied and ran for its hole — Theo in hot pursuit.
The rabbit made its burrow and Theo, with the magic little boys invest in their toys, turned the rifle into a shovel and began to dig the cottontail out for supper. The sand made digging easy and before long he had scooped out the hole to the point where he could squirm in to scrape out the wet, cool sand. It was then that he heard the staccato of shots.
A final shot was fired — then there was silence. In panic, he wiggled out of the hole and ran blindly for his parents. His mind pictured howling, screaming Indians besieging the wagon. He stumbled and fell, sliding on the deflated, cobble-covered hardpan between the dunes. His nose was bleeding and he was crying. Rushing up the last dune, he stopped in terror.
The wagon stood there, the horses snorting and stamping in their traces. The body of his father lay face down in the soft white dust of the trail. His old blue shirt was stained crimson in the bright, morning sun.
A big man jumped from the back of the wagon, dragging Theo's mother with him. She struggled to her feet, crying, and the man slapped her down again. Cowed, she whimpered on the ground. Three other men walked from behind the wagon and jeered. The men stood and laughed at her before turning back to their looting. All, that is, except for the big man who stood grinning at Theo's mother, leering. She pleaded, her voice panicky with fear.
He laughed and reached down, grabbing the loose fabric of her dress. Cotton ripped loudly. Theo heard his mother scream. Then she screamed again as the big man lowered himself onto her.
As Theo watched he whined lowly to himself, unable to accept the horrid thing he saw, comprehending but refusing to understand. His security was being destroyed. His father was dead and his mother was being forced. Theo was old enough to know rape.
"Louis," one of the men called as he jumped from the back of the wagon. "Sacré, Louis Gasceaux. Women, zey be zee death of you yet, non? Hurry, someone may come! Let us go quickly!" The rest of the men were removing sacks of goods from the wagon and unhitching the team. Louis stood, buttoning his pants.
"The hell with you, Sabot," Louis cursed. "She's almost done in anyway. Still, she has now known true pleasure. Louis Gasceaux is good, non, cheri?"
Theo's mother whimpered while Louis took three steps toward his companions then absently pulled a pistol, turned, and almost as an afterthought, blew the woman's jaw off.
The boy lay on the low dune, frozen with terror. His sobbing breath was choked in his throat. Spasms of fear began jerking his limbs. He felt the warm rush as his bladder let go, fouling his legs and pants.
The men walked their horses to the wagon and began strapping the loot onto packsaddles. Sabot had turned from this chore and walked to Theo's father. He casually stripped the body and — with his knife — mutilated it beyond recognition. Theo watched muttering incoherently to himself, his teeth clattering fear while tears streaked his dirty face.
Sabot then moved to his mother. She shuddered and cried as the knife slid around the top of her skull. Sabot pulled the scalp loose and cooed as he stroked the bright, blond hair. He laughed and kicked her hard in the side. She gurgled through her bloody, frothing, broken mouth, clutching spasmodically at the dusty ground. Then Sabot used the knife again on her still living flesh, slicing deftly until the whimpers ceased and the blood ceased to spurt from the dismembered limbs.
Theo willed his muscles to work and crawled away from the hideous shrieks rending the still, clear air. Below the dune crest he got hesitantly to his feet, mumbling with terror. He sprinted back the way he had come. Though by chance, he passed the rabbit hole he had dug at so earnestly. Gasping in shock, he pulled himself into the hole, mindless of the stinging of the greasewood, and tugged one of the bushes down on top of himself. In the darkness, he shivered and vomited from horror. ...
With a start, Theo Belk awoke in the dark shelter of a frozen dugout. Sweat was pouring down the sides of his face. He almost cried as he pulled and jerked the blankets away from his body before stumbling out into the snow. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Long Ride Home by W. Michael Gear. Copyright © 1988 W. Michael Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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