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THE LAST MOUNTAIN MAN RETURN OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN
By WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Boy," Emmett Jensen said looking at his son, "I swear you've grown two feet."
Kirby had slid off Ange and walked to the man. "You've been gone four years, Pa." He wanted to throw his arms around his Pa, but didn't, 'cause his Pa didn't hold with a lot of touching between men. Kirby stuck out his hand and his Pa shook it.
"Strong, too" Emmett commented.
"Thank you, Pa."
"Crops is late, Kirby."
"Yes, sir. Rains come and stayed."
"I wasn't faultin' you, boy." Emmett let his eyes sweep the land. He coughed, a dry hacking. "I seen a cross on the hill overlookin' the creek. Would that be your Ma?"
"When'd she pass?"
"Spring of last year. Doc Blanchard said it was her lungs and a bad heart." And grief, the boy thought, but kept that to himself.
"She go hard?"
"No, sir. Went on in her sleep. I found her the next morning when I brung her coffee and grits."
"Good coffee's scarce. What'd you do with the coffee?"
"Drank it," the boy replied honestly. "Then went to get the doc."
"Right nice service?"
"Folks come from all over to see her off."
Emmett cleared his throat and then coughed. "Well, I think I'll go up to the hill and sit with your ma for a time. You put up them horses and rub them down. We'll talk over supper."
Emmett's eyes flicked over the .36 stuck behind his son's belt. He said nothing about it.
The father looked at his son.
"I'm glad you're back."
The father stepped forward, put his arms around his son, and held him.
Over greens and fried squirrel and panbread, the father and son ate and talked through the years that they had both lost and gained. There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence between them until they both adjusted to the time and place, and then they were once more father and son.
"We done our best," Emmett said. "Can't nobody say we didn't. And there ain't nobody got nothing to be ashamed of. I thought it wrong for the Yankees to burn folks' homes like they did. But it was war, and terrible things happen in war. But the bluebellies just kept on comin'. Shoot one and five'd take his place. They weren't near 'bout the riflemen we was, nor the riders, but they whipped us fair and square and now it's time to put all that behind us and get on with livin'." He sopped a piece of panbread through the juice of his greens. He chewed for a time. "You know your brother, Luke, is dead, don't you?"
"Yes, sir. I didn't know if you did, or not. I heard he was killed in the Wilderness, last year. Fightin' with Lee, wasn't he?"
Luke had always been Pa's favorite, so Kirby had felt.
Emmett nodded. "Yeah. Tryin' to get back to the Wilderness, so I heard." Something in his eyes clouded, as if he knew more about his son's death than he was telling. "I don't see no sign of your sister, Janey, and you ain't brought up her name. What are you holding back, Kirby?"
The moment the boy had been dreading. "She run off, Pa. Last year. Run off with a tinker, so he called himself. But he was a gambler, I'd say."
"Smooth-talker, I'd wager."
"What'd his hands look like?"
"Gambler. How'd your Ma take it?"
"Probably helped kill her." He said it flatly, then shook his head. "Well, past is past, no point dwellin' on it." He rose from the table. "I've ridden a piece these last weeks-wanted to get home. Now I'm home, and I'm tired. Reckon you are, too, son. We'll get some sleep, talk in the morning. I got a plan." He covered his mouth and coughed.
Breakfast was meager: fried mush and coffee that was mostly chicory. A piece of leftover panbread.
"I don't think it good to stay here, boy," Emmett said, surprising the boy. "Too many memories. Land's got too many rocks to farm. I think it best for us to pack it up, sell what we can, and head west. We'll sell the mules, buy some pack horses. The mules is gettin' too old for where we're goin'. What is today, boy?"
"Wednesday, Pa." West! he thought. The frontier he'd read about in the dime novels. Buffalo and mountain men. Then he sobered as he thought: Indians on the warpath.
Emmett pushed his plate from him and put his elbows on the table. "We'll ride into town today, boy. Ask around some. Kirby, I brought that bay out yonder home for you."
Kirby mumbled his thanks, pleased but embarrassed. He had never had such a grand gift.
"How far you been from this holler, boy?"
"A good piece, Pa. I went to Springfield once. Took us a good bit of travelin' to get there, too."
Emmett stuffed his pipe and lit it, then pushed his rawhide-bottomed chair back and looked at his son. "Toward the end of the war, Kirby, some Texicans and some mountain men joined up with us. Them mountain men had been all the way to the Pacific Ocean; but they talked a lot about a place the Shoshone Indians call I-dee-ho. Or something like that. I'd like to see it, and all the country between here and there. I been all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, boy-you never seen so much water. You just got no idea how big this country is. But west is where the people's got to go. I figure we'll just head on out that way, too."
"Pa? How will we know when we get to where it is we're goin'?"
"We'll know," the man replied, a mysterious quality to his voice, as if he was holding back from his son.
Kirby met his father's eyes. "Whatever you say, Pa."
They pulled out the following Sunday morning, just as the sun was touching the eastern rim of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Kirby rode the bay, sitting on a worn-out McClellan saddle; not the most comfortable saddle ever invented. The saddle had been bought from a down-on-his-luck Confederate soldier trying to get back to Louisiana.
In Kirby's saddlebags, in addition to an extra pair of trousers, shirt, long handle underwear, and two pairs of socks, was a worn McGuffey's reader his Pa had purchased for a penny-much to Kirby's disgust. He thought he was all done with schooling.
The boy had no way of knowing that his education was just beginning.
The McGuffey's reader was heavy on his mind. As they rode, he turned to his father. "I can read and cipher." He knew his protests would fall on deaf ears. Once his father made up his mind, forget any objections ... just do it.
"I 'spect you can," Emmett said, his eyes still on the little valley below them. His eyes lifted, touching the now tiny cross on the faraway knoll. He touched his boot heels to his mount and father and son headed west. "What's a verb?"
Kirby looked at him. "Huh? I mean, sir?"
"A verb, boy. Tell me what it is."
Kirby frantically searched his memory. "Well," he admitted. "Reckon I forgot. You brung it up, so you tell me."
"Don't sass me, boy." But there was a twinkle in the father's eyes. "I asked you first."
"Then I reckon we'll find out together, Pa."
"I reckon we will at that, boy." Emmett turned once, twisting in the saddle to look for the last time at the cross on the knoll. He straightened in the saddle, assuming the cavalryman's stiff-backed position. He asked his son, "You got any regrets, Kirby? Leavin' this place, I mean."
"Hard work, not always enough food, Jayhawkers, Yankees, cold winters, and some bad memories," the boy replied honestly, as was his fashion. "If that's regrets, I'm happy to leave them behind."
Emmett's reply was unusually soft. "You was just a boy when I pulled out with the Grays. I reckon I done you and your Ma a disservice-like half a million other men done their loved ones. I didn't leave you no time for youthful foolishness; no time to be a young boy. You had to be a man at twelve. I don't know if I can make up for that, but I aim to try. From now on, son, it'll be you and me." For a little while, he silently added. He coughed.
* * *
Together they rode, edging slightly northward as they went. They skirted Joplin, a town on the Ozark Plateau. It was a young town, only twenty-five years old in 1865. Joplin had a few years to go before it would become the metropolis of the three-state lead and zinc field. Kirby wanted to ride in and see the town; the only other big town he'd ever seen was Springfield. But his father refused, said there were dens of iniquity in there.
"What's a den of in ... in ... what'd you say, Pa?"
"You'll find out soon enough, I reckon."
"Why don't you tell me, Pa?"
"'Cause I ain't of a mind to, that's why." The father seemed embarrassed.
"Sure must be something pretty danged good."
Emmett smiled. "Some folks would say so, I'm sure. Never been to one myself. And don't cuss. It ain't seemly and you might slip and do so around a lady. Ladies don't like cussin'."
"You say hell's fire, Pa," he reminded.
"Boy, you sure ask a lot of questions. Worrisome."
"Well, how else am I to learn?"
"I can cuss now and then 'cause I'm older than you, that's why."
"How long will it be 'fore I can cuss, Pa?"
The father shook his head and hacked his dry cough. "Lord have mercy on a poor veteran and give me strength." But he was smiling as he said it.
They had left the cool valleys and hills of Missouri, with rushing creeks and shade trees. They rode into a hot Kansas summer. Only four years into the Union, much of Kansas was unsettled, with almost the entire western half the territory of the Kiowa and Pawnee; the Kiowa to the south, the Pawnee to the north.
The pair rode slowly, the pack horses trailing from lead ropes. The father and son had no deadline to meet, no place in particular to go ... or so the boy thought. They crossed through Osage country without encountering any hostile Indians. They saw a few-and probably a lot more saw them than they realized-but those the father and son spotted were always at a distance, or were not interested in the pair.
"They may be huntin'," Emmett said. "I hear tell Indians is notional folks. Hard for a white man to understand their way of life. I'm told the same band that might leave us alone today, might try to kill us tomorrow."
"Damned if I know, boy."
"You cussin' again."
When they reached the Arkansas River, later on that afternoon, Emmett pulled them up and made camp early.
"We got ample powder and shot and paper cartridges, boy. I figure more'n we'll need to get through. According to them I talked with, from here on, it gets mean."
"How's that, Pa?"
"We're headin' west and north as we go. Like this." He drew a line in the dirt with a stick. "This'll take us, I hope, right between the Kiowa and the Pawnee. The white man's been pushin' the Indian hard the past few years, takin' land the Indians say belongs to them. The savages is gettin' right ugly about it, so I'm told."
"Who does the land belong to, Pa?"
Emmett shook his head. "Don't rightly know. Looks to me like it don't really belong to nobody. Way I look at it-and most other white folks-a man's gotta do something with the land to make it his. The Indians ain't been doing that. So I'm told. They just roam it, hunt it, fish, and the like."
"But how long have they been doing that, Pa?"
The man sighed. He looked at his son. "I 'spect forever, boy."
* * *
They rode westward, edging north. Several weeks had passed since they rode from the land of Kirby's birth, and already that place was fading from his mind. He had never been happy there, so he made no real attempt to halt the fading of the images.
Kirby did not know how much his Pa had gotten for the land and the equipment and the mules, but he knew he had gotten it in gold-and not much gold. His Pa carried the gold in a small leather pouch inside his shirt, secured around his neck with a piece of rawhide.
The elder Jensen was heavily armed: a Sharps .52 caliber rifle in a saddle boot, two Remington army revolvers in holsters around his waist, two more pistols in saddle holsters, left and right of the horn. And he carried a gambler's gun behind his belt buckle: a .44 caliber, two-shot derringer. His knife was a wicked-looking, razor-sharp Arkansas Toothpick in a leather sheath on his left side.
Kirby never asked why his father was so heavily armed. But he did ask, "How come them holsters around your waist ain't got no flaps on them, Pa? How come you cut them off that way?"
"So I can get the pistols out faster, son. The leather thong run through the front loops over the hammer to hold the pistol."
"Is gettin' a gun out fast important, Pa?" He knew it was from reading dime novels. But he just could not envision his father as a gunfighter.
"Sometimes, boy. But more important is hittin' what you're aimin' at."
"Think I'll do mine thataway."
"Your choice," the father replied.
Kirby knew, from hearing talk after Appomattox, the Gray was supposed to turn in their weapons. But he had a hunch that his father, hearing of the surrender, had just wheeled around and took the long way back to Missouri, his weapons with him, and the devil with surrender terms.
His dad coughed and asked, "How'd you get that Navy Colt, son?"
"Bunch of Jayhawkers come ridin' through one night, headin' back to Kansas like the devil was chasin' them. Turned out that was just about right. 'Bout a half hour later, Bloody Bill Anderson and his boys came ridin' up. They stopped to rest and water their horses. There was this young feller with them. Couldn't have been no more than a year or so older than me. He seen me and Ma there alone, and all I had was this old rifle." He patted the worn stock of an old flint and percussion Plains' rifle in a saddle boot. "So he give me this Navy gun and an extra cylinder. Seemed like a right nice thing for him to do. He was nice, soft-spoken, too."
"It was a nice thing to do. You seen him since?"
"You thank him proper?"
"Yes, sir. Gave him a bit of food in a sack."
"Neighborly. He tell you his name?"
"Yes, sir. James. Jesse James. His brother Frank was with the bunch, too. Some older than Jesse."
"Don't recall hearin' that name before."
"Jesse blinked his eyes a lot."
"Is that right? Well, you 'member the name, son; might run into him again some day. Good man like that's hard to find."
As the days rolled past, the way ever westward, father and son learned more of the wild country into which they rode, ever alert for trouble, and they learned more of each other. Becoming reacquainted.
They saw herds of buffalo that held them spellbound, the size and number and royal bearing of the magnificent animals awe-inspiring. Even though the animals themselves were stupid. And many times, as they rode, father and son came upon the bones of what appeared to be thousands of the animals, callously slaughtered for their hide, hump, and tongue, the rest left to rot and stink under the summer sun.
"Them is the Indians' main food supply," Emmett told his son. "And another reason why the savages is mad at the whites. I got to side with the savages 'bout this."
As they skirted the rotten bone yard, coyotes and a few wolves feasted on the tons of meat left behind. Kirby said, "This don't seem right to me."
"Ain't!" Emmett said, his jaw tight with anger. "Man shouldn't never take no more than he hisself can use. This is just pure ol' waste. Stupid."
"And the Indians had nothing to do with this?"
"Hell, no! Look at them shod pony tracks. Indians don't shoe their ponies and drive wagons that left them tracks over there. The white man did this."
They passed the slaughter, both silent for a time. Finally the boy said, "Maybe the Indians have a point about the white man comin' here."
His father spat a brown stream of tobacco juice from the ever present chew tucked in his cheek. "Reckon they do, boy. Not much is ever just black and white ... always a middle ground that needs lookin' at."
"Like the War Between the States, Pa?"
"Yeah. Right and wrong on both sides there, too."
Excerpted from THE LAST MOUNTAIN MAN RETURN OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE Copyright © 2006 by Kensington Publishing Corp. . Excerpted by permission.
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