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"Oh, they had me cold, all right. There were eight, maybe ten of them. This was in the autumn of '35, if I remember right. Might've been '34; what year it was didn't matter then and sometimes I wasn't sure just when things were happening. The important thing was taking care of today, not worrying about clocks or calendars or the like. Anyway, me and Billy Hargrew were trapping up on the Musselshell that year. Just the two of us. It was Blackfoot country but Billy was a careful man, and me, back then I figured I'd live forever. Huh! Shows what I didn't know, don't it.
"We'd just moved our camp from one drainage over to the next where we figured the beaver was strong and the pelts likely to be prime. Billy went one way, downstream, and I was going up toward the head of this creek. Oh, I remember it plain as plain can be. I heard the commotion when those red, um, so-an'-so's jumped Billy. They must've had him cold. There was a lot of yelling and he got off one shot, just the one. That was all.
"I knew they were onto us somehow, so I slipped back to camp and threw what gear I could onto our horses. Left Billy's mount there, o' course, just in case he made it, though from the sounds, the fact that there was just the one shot and then the yelling, I didn't figure it was likely he'd show. Still, it wouldn't have done for him to get away an' then be trapped for the lack of a horse, so I left his behind but took what else I could an' headed upcreek with my horse an' the two packhorses. Left most of our gear behind, but then hair is always more important than things. That's something a man learns. Things can be replaced. Blood can't.
"Anyway, I took off fast as I could whilst trying to stay quiet and I thought I'd got away with it. Then I heard a shout from past a thicket of crack-willow and I knew they were onto me. Had me cold or so they thought. I knew there were Injuns following along behind so I couldn't double back. The ones off to my left could see me plain an' were in position to cut me off if I tried to go forward. The only way left was to my right, into this dry cut where the spring melt came down to meet the creek from someplace up above. So of course I turned in there. Turned out to be a short, narrow little gulch. What you might call a box canyon nowadays, although I don't think I'd ever heard that term at the time. For sure those Blackfeet had me trapped cold as a trout caught fresh out of a high mountain stream. Wasn't any way out at the back and them pouring into the mouth of this little gulch. I could see them clear as could be then. Like I said, eight, maybe ten of them. They weren't painted for war. It was just bad luck that put them onto us. They were out hunting or whatever and just stumbled onto us, and that was that.
"Well, I stepped off my old horse and saw to the priming on my rifle and made up my mind that they might could put me under but they wouldn't take me free for nothing. I'd give back as good as I got, and if I made them pay dear enough just mayhap they'd decide one more scalp wasn't worth dying for. With Injuns, see, you never knew. Some days they'd fight long as bulldogs. Other times they'd figure they'd done enough mischief an' just turn and go away. You never knew.
"So there I was, see. Surrounded. Ten Blackfeet out there in the brush and no way past them, and me with only the one bullet in my rifle and a pair of horse pistols to hold them off with. The odds didn't seem what you'd call real good at the time."
He paused, quite consciously drawing out the story, and helped himself to a swallow of coffee that had begun to go cold in the cup during the dissertation.
"What happened next, Grampa?" Both little girls were practically shivering with anticipation. Both had wide eyes fixed firm on the bewhiskered storyteller who sat in an armchair in their comfortable, civilized parlor.
"Do you want me to tell you, Rebecca? I've heard this one before, you see," another voice cut in from the direction of the foyer. A slightly paunchy man wearing a suitcoat, knee-high lace-up boots and a handsomely fashioned necktie stepped into the parlor. "He was surrounded at the back of the box canyon, remember. And of course the Indians killed him." The man threw back his head and roared with laughter.
"Daddy!" one of the girls said in a tone of annoyed disgust. "Really!"
"Sorry, Poppa Marsden. I shouldn't have spoiled your fun. I apologize."
Cap Marsden grunted and smoothed his mustache, then set the coffee cup aside. "That one is an old joke and a good one, George, but in fact the story I'm telling today is true. I really was caught by that bunch of Blackfeet, darn them. And they really did put Billy under that day."
"And you fought your way out past all of them, I take it?" George Brenn challenged.
"No, what I did was I grabbed up what little I could carry, which was mostly my guns and tomahawk and such and, if I remember right, about four of my traps. Left everything else behind for the Blackfeet t' claim whilst I climbed out of that gulch hand over hand. Scampered up the side of that rock wall and took off afoot. The Blackfeet couldn't get atop the cliff in time to see which way I went, and a man on foot don't leave much in the way of tracks for even an Injun to follow. That's why horse stealing parties go out on foot when they raid. Or anyway that's what they used to do. They knew if they got away with horses they could ride clear, but if they were caught they couldn't be tracked back to the home village. Which is beside the point. I left most everything behind and climbed out to get shut of the Injuns, then had to make my way afoot all the way down from Montana to about the middle of Wyoming — or so they are now, back then none of this country had names except what we chose to call one place or another — before I found a band o' friendly Crow where I could get some gear together again. Went to rendezvous that next summer with mighty little to show for a winter's work. But I still had my hair." Cap Marsden pushed a gnarled hand through a thick mop of silver hair and grinned. "Still do if you'll notice."
Which was something of a dig at his son-in-law, for George was already showing signs of baldness even though he was still well short of his fortieth birthday.
"Daddy, please. You've ruined the story. Grampa? Grampa."
"Tell us about the buffalo. Please."
"Please," the littler of the two pleaded, her eyes large and bright and as pretty as Cap remembered her grandmother's eyes having been. "Please?"
"All right, Cathy. The buffalo... haven't I told you about them before now? And haven't you seen them for yourselves? Not ever? Really?"
"Oh, all right. The buffalo." Cap took a swallow of the tepid coffee, leaned his chair back on its legs as if it were a rocker, and stared thoughtfully toward the ceiling for a moment while he gathered his thoughts together. For a moment he was distracted. Billy Hargrew. Lordy, he'd been a good partner. Good man too. Cap hadn't thought about Billy in years. And wasn't that a terrible thing. He coughed softly into his fist and tried to concentrate on today. It was already way too late to worry about yesterday and no point in fretting about tomorrow. "Girls," he said after a brief hesitation, "there must be as many buffalo on the plains as there are stars in the heavens. Maybe more. And there isn't any tiny part of them that isn't useful for something. Yes, let me tell you about the buffalo. Now back in the old days..."
Excerpted from Old Marsden by Frank Roderus. Copyright © 1999 by Frank Roderus. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.