Jim Culver has never stayed in one place for too long, but now he’s making tracks to save his own life. The U.S. Army doesn’t take kindly to civilians killing their officers—even in self-defense. And they’ve hired the bounty hunter from Hell to catch him. But Jim has two things in his favor: the new .73 Winchester he’s carrying—and the ability to use it.
If bounty hunters are a breed apart, then Slocum is the most evil of them all. Big, nasty and bullying, he could be an artist’s rendering of pure evil. But the Army thinks he’s just the man to catch Jim Culver. The only hitch is that he has to bring his quarry back alive—and that’s not something Slocum cottons to. But if there’s a way around that—he’ll find it.
“Rarely has an author painted the great American West in strokes so bold, vivid, and true.”—Ralph Compton
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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“Hello, there, little missy. Is your daddy home?”
The thin little girl seated in the soft dirt of the creek bank craned her neck to look up at the huge man riding the iron-gray stallion. Absorbed in her play with the rag doll in her lap, she had not heard the stranger approaching until he spoke. Startled at first to discover the horse and rider right behind her, she quickly felt a feeling of dread as she looked up into the cruel face hovering over her. Although his greeting had sounded friendly enough, the words did not flow naturally from his lips. There was no hint of kindness in that face, a face half covered with heavy black whiskers with one long jagged scar that ran from his left eye to his chin. Annie was at once frightened by the inherent evil she saw in the deep-set eyes that appeared to penetrate the mind of the nine-year-old child.
“Is your daddy down at the house?” Slocum asked again when there was no immediate response from the frightened youngster. He was accustomed to this response from small children, even amused by it. “How about your mama? Is she in the house?” He glanced in the direction of the rudely constructed dwelling, built almost entirely of blocks of mud and straw. It was typical of so many prairie houses, commonly referred to as soddies. “Where’s your papa?” Slocum pressed, his glance still focusing on the soddy some forty or fifty yards from where he now sat his horse. There was no sign of anyone in the pitiful garden plot beside the house or in the corral, where a pair of mules and one saddle horse stood gazing in his direction.
Finding her voice at last, Annie answered, barely above a whisper, “Papa’s not home. He’s gone after the cow.” She hoped that now the sinister stranger would go away, but the narrowing of his eyes and his impatient frown told her that he was not satisfied with her answer.
Without another glance at the child, he turned his horse and moved off down the creek at a slow walk, eyeing the sod house cautiously. When he reached a point directly behind the house, he rode up from the creek and walked the gray up close to the back of the crude structure. Without consciously thinking about it, he reached down and eased his Colt .45 up a little to make sure it was sitting lightly in the holster. Then he dismounted and dropped the reins. Pausing a moment to Listen, he men moved quietly around the side of the dwelling to a window.
Making no attempt to be secretive or hide himself, he peered into the open window. Huh, he thought silently when he saw the woman. Naked from the waist up, she presented a bony back to him as she scrubbed the grimy garden soil from her neck and arms, using a cloth soaked in soapy gray water from the basin on the table. She was not aware of her visitor even though the bright afternoon sun cast his shadow across her pale shoulders. He watched with amused interest for a few moments before moving toward the door. Slocum seldom had thoughts of lust, so he was not distracted from his primary mission by the sight of a woman’s bare flesh.
Without bothering to announce his presence beforehand, he walked through the open door and was standing before the startled woman. Terrified when she turned to discover him, she shrieked as if in pain and frantically clutched her bodice to her breast in an effort to cover herself.
Slocum sneered at her modesty. “Don’t trouble yourself, lady. I’ve seen bigger tits on a bird dog.”
Horrified, she took a few stumbling steps backward, certain that she was about to be struck down by the fearsome brute. Slocum merely grunted his amusement and looked around at the squalor that was home to this woman and her family. Bringing his accusing gaze back to focus on the cowering woman, he snapped, “I reckon you’d be Mrs. Crowder.” She didn’t respond. “Where’s Grady?” Again she made no reply. Her eyes wide with fright, she shook her head slowly, still unable to find her voice. His patience already exhausted, he suddenly grabbed a handful of her hair and pulled her up close to his face. “I ain’t got no time to waste on your scrawny ass. Your little brat said Grady went to get the cow. Went where?” he demanded, yanking hard on her hair.
She cried out again, flinching from his other hand that was poised above her face, threatening to backhand her. “I don’t know,” she said in a whimper. “The cow got out. Grady went looking for her.”
“Which way?” he demanded, raising his hand, still threatening to strike her.
“Yonder way!” she cried, pointing toward a low rise on the other side of the creek.
He hesitated a moment, looking in the direction indicated before releasing her to drop to the dirt floor at his feet. Then he took another look around the room to make sure there was no rifle propped in a corner somewhere that she might grab as soon as he showed her his back. Taking note of the obvious poverty she lived in, he smirked. “Grady weren’t much better at farming than he was at robbing banks, was he?”
Outside the door, he encountered little Annie, who had run to the house, fearful that her mother might be in danger. She backed away immediately to put a safe distance between herself and the dark monster. Slocum favored her with a crooked grin as he strode past her and stepped up into the saddle. The child was terrified after having peeked through the open door to see the abuse of her mother. He gazed at her a moment longer before turning his horse toward the rise on the opposite side of the creek. She would soon be without a father. Slocum didn’t give a damn.
* * *
Grady Crowder cursed the obstinate milk cow as she watched him approach. Taking slow, deliberate steps in an effort not to startle her, he got within ten yards of her before she turned and trotted off again. “Damn you!” Grady spat. He wished then that he had taken the time to slip a bridle on his horse. At least he wasn’t wearing his gun. He might have been tempted to shoot the ornery beast. Still cursing under his breath, he started to run after her again, almost stumbling on the rough prairie ground. This time she stopped after increasing the distance between them to only thirty yards. Maybe she was getting tired of playing this game, he thought, and stopped running. Evidently he was right, because she now chose to ignore him and started grazing on the thin prairie grass.
Unaware of the dingy gray horse slowly topping the rise behind him, or the dark sinister figure deliberately drawing a rifle from the saddle sling, Grady approached his disobedient milk cow. His curses now converted to words of calm, he reached down to pick up the rope trailing behind her. He never heard the bark of the rifle as he stood up again and was suddenly knocked to his knees by the solid impact of the .45 bullet between his shoulder blades. Stunned, he wasn’t even sure what had happened as a veil of darkness descended over his eyes and he suddenly lost all control of his body. Consciousness slipped away and he fell facedown on the prairie.
* * *
Slocum didn’t move for a few moments, his rifle still raised and aimed in Grady’s direction. When it became obvious that a second bullet was unnecessary, he replaced the weapon in the sling and nudged the gray with his knees. Approaching his victim slowly, his hand resting on the handle of his pistol in case Grady might not be as dead as he appeared to be, Slocum pulled up beside the body.
“You sure don’t look like you’re worth two hundred dollars,” he said, looking down at the last member of the five-man gang that had made an unsuccessful attempt to rob the First Citizens’ Bank in Bismarck. The bounty was one thousand dollars for all five. Grady Crowder had been the hardest to find, but Slocum eventually found every man he started out after. He dismounted and tied a rope around Grady’s ankles.
* * *
Back at the house, a worried Ruby Crowder uttered an involuntary cry of alarm when she heard the single rifle shot. She had lived in fear that someone would come looking for her husband ever since he had agreed to go along with Rafe Wilson and his brothers. Grady hadn’t even gone inside the bank. He just held the horses while the Wilsons went inside. It was bad luck that the sheriff was in the bank at the time. The Wilson brothers were caught by surprise and had to shoot their way out. Rafe and one of his brothers were wounded in the gun battle, and all five were lucky to escape, even though they left without one penny of the bank’s money.
Grady had assured her that the law wouldn’t likely come this far to look for him. The bank hadn’t lost any money, he reasoned, and this territory wasn’t even in the sheriff’s jurisdiction. It was Indian territory. But the day she feared had come. Grady hadn’t counted on a bounty hunter.
There had been only one shot, and Grady didn’t have his gun with him. Maybe the shot she heard had been a warning shot. What should she do? She had to help her husband. Annie, standing beside her, began to cry. Ruby pulled the child close to her and tried to tell her not to be afraid. But Ruby was afraid as well. The menacing brute who had surprised her at her bath looked to be capable of any amount of evil. Determined that she must be prepared to protect herself, she took Grady’s pistol out of the bureau drawer and stationed herself by the window.
Her wait was not long. She saw his head first, when it appeared above the rise, with his flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes. Trembling with fear, she tried to steady the hand that held the heavy pistol as she stared at the emerging specter from below the rise. Like an evil sun rising on the horizon, he emerged: head, shoulders, massive trunk, until the man and his horse both topped the rise. But there was no sign of her husband. At once her heart beat with excitement. Maybe Grady got away! But then another thought invaded her mind. Grady may be dead! Maybe that was what the shot had meant. Afraid to take her thoughts any further, she told herself that surely the man would be aiming to capture her husband in order to take him back for trial. Then she caught sight of the rope stretched taut behind the saddle, seconds before her husband’s body bounced over the top of the rise, raising a cloud of dust as Slocum dragged it down toward the creek.
Crying out in stunned despair, she ran from the house in an effort to reach her husband’s body before Slocum dragged it through the creek. She was too late. Driving his horse right by her, Slocum didn’t stop until he was at the corral.
“I reckon I’m gonna need that horse,” he said, nodding toward the one saddle horse in the corral. “I don’t wanna drag his sorry ass all the way to Bismarck—too hard on my horse.” It didn’t escape his eye that she was holding a pistol in her hand. “Your cow’s likely down by the creek, if you’re of a mind to go get her.” He watched her carefully, waiting for her response. She seemed to be in a trance. Her eyes, devoid of tears, were staring wide in shocked disbelief, seeing nothing, the pistol in her hand forgotten. She was seemingly unaware of her daughter, who had run from the house and had now clamped both arms around her mother’s leg.
Slocum, indifferent to her grief, shrugged his shoulders and dismounted. Wasting no more time, he pulled out the two poles that served as a gate for the corral and bridled Grady’s horse. With a cautious eye still on the devastated widow, he picked up Grady’s body and, in one motion, slung it across the horse’s back. In motions practiced countless times, he quickly took the rope tied around Grady’s ankles, looped it around the horse’s belly a couple of times and knotted the loose end around Grady’s wrists. That done, he grabbed the seat of Grady’s pants and tugged a couple of times to make sure the corpse was secure.
“That oughta do just fine,” he said, one corner of his mouth raised in a crooked grin as he cocked his head toward Grady’s wife. Still the woman stood transfixed in a state of shock that served to paralyze her entire body. Her demeanor was a curiosity to Slocum. Most wives screamed and fought in similar situations. This one acted as if she’d been hit in the head. He shrugged and stepped up into the saddle.
“He didn’t even go in the bank,” she said, surprising him with the plaintive utterance.
“Ain’t for me to say, lady,” he replied, turning his horse’s head toward the east. “I just go get ’em.”
“Can’t you at least leave him here so I can bury him proper?” she asked.
“Hell, no,” he replied with a smirk. “That would cost me two hundred dollars.” His smile widened when he added, “I expect that’s a lot more than he was worth when he was still kickin’.” The slight narrowing of her eyes and a sudden tremble in the hand that still held the pistol were enough to alert him to watch himself. He hesitated a moment longer, grinning at the grieving widow before giving his horse a nudge. “Well,” he slurred sarcastically, “sorry I can’t stay to supper with you, but I’d best get ol’ Grady here back to Bismarck before he starts to stink.”
“Goddamn you to hell, you filthy son of a bitch!” she suddenly shouted after him, his sarcasm serving to shake her from her trance.
It was all the warning he needed. His pistol already drawn, he wheeled in the saddle and fired three times before she had time to raise her pistol and aim. Killed almost instantly, Ruby Crowder crumpled to the ground amid the screams of her terrified daughter.
“I can’t abide a foulmouthed woman,” Slocum calmly stated, and holstered his pistol. He started out again, then pulled up on the reins. Looking back at the sobbing child trying to get her mother to speak to her, he said, “I expect you’d best head for the settlement. Salt Springs is thataway.” He pointed toward the distant horizon to the east. “You oughta be old enough to put a bridle on one of them mules.” Satisfied that he had done more than he felt obligated to do, he kicked his horse to a fast walk.
He had gotten no farther than the edge of the yard when he heard the shot, and a bullet whistled harmlessly off to his right. Turning to look back at Annie, who was now terrified that she had missed, he threw back his head and laughed. “Not bad,” he said. “That’s about the age I first took a shot at a man.” The memory of that incident forced a smile to his face. It was the last time his pa had ever whipped him, and his ma never forgave him for making her a widow. He hadn’t thought about that in a long time. In fact, he had no idea if his mother was still living or not. He and his twin brother had left home right after that. His brother was the only other person he had any use for. It was natural, he reckoned, since they were identical twins. But the two of them had parted not long after leaving home together. The last Slocum had heard of his brother, he was looking for gold in Montana territory.
Bringing his mind back to the present, he turned to look again at Annie Crowder. The child’s efforts to shoot him tickled him. “Yessir, not bad. Hell, I believe you’ve got enough sand to make it.”
She could still hear him laughing as he led her father’s horse along the far edge of the garden.
Sheriff Sam Hewitt looked up from his plate when the lone rider leading a horse passed in front of the window. Though he only caught sight of him out of the corner of his eye, there was no mistaking the massive figure of the despised bounty hunter Slocum. Sheriff Hewitt took supper in the hotel dining room every night. Slocum knew that, so Hewitt knew the surly bounty hunter would turn around and come back to the hotel when he found the jail locked. Might as well go on down there, he thought, pushing his plate away. Seeing him takes my appetite, anyway.
Slocum was already back in the saddle when he saw the sheriff walking from the hotel. He dismounted again, stepped back up on the walkway, and waited by the office door. “Evenin’, Sheriff,” Slocum said as Hewitt approached.
“Slocum,” Hewitt acknowledged. He stopped and stood on the walkway, working a toothpick around in his mouth as he gazed at the stiffened corpse draped across the extra horse. “I reckon that would be Crowder,” he stated.
“Yep, that’s him,” Slocum replied, grinning. “That’s all five of ’em,” he reminded the sheriff. There was no love lost between the two men, and Slocum knew it. For that reason he enjoyed Hewitt’s irritation when he brought a man in dead. The notice said “Dead or Alive,” so Slocum figured, why bother with nursemaiding them?
Hewitt stepped down from the walk to take a closer look at the corpse, which exhibited a great deal of trauma as a result of being dragged over a quarter mile of rough prairie and through a rocky creek. He didn’t make any comment at once, taking his time to determine if the body was indeed that of Grady Crowder. Crowder was not well known around town, and Hewitt did not put it past Slocum to substitute any corpse and claim it was Crowder. When he decided it was probably the fifth member of the gang of would-be bank robbers, he finally spoke. “What in hell happened to him? Half the skin’s scraped off him.”
“He put up a fight,” Slocum replied casually.
Hewitt stared at the huge man for a few seconds, considering his reply. “He did, huh?” He pulled the blood-encrusted shirt away from Grady’s back. “Shot him in the back, just like two of the others you brought in,” he said accusingly.
“He run,” was Slocum’s simple explanation.
“He ran,” Hewitt repeated, disgusted, “and you just happened to shoot him in the back.”
Slocum’s grin returned. “Like I said, he run. If he’da run backward, men I reckon I’da shot him in the chest.”
Hewitt shook his head, perplexed. He didn’t like bounty hunters in general, and Slocum was the worst of mem. But mere was nothing he could do but apply for the reward money for the obstinate brute. “All right, dammit. I’ll accept the body, and you’ll get your blood money.”
“Thank you kindly,” Slocum said with a touch of sarcasm.
“You know, if you were the sheriff here, there wouldn’t be no need to have a jail. All we’d need is the graveyard.”
Slocum laughed. “I’ll be back for my money in a week or two.” He untied Grady’s body and slid it off on his shoulder. “‘Scuse me, Sheriff,” he said as he stepped up on the walk in front of Hewitt. With effortless strength, he carried the body over and deposited it beside the office door. With a satisfied grin for the sheriff, he proceeded to mount up and turned to leave.
“What about that horse?” Hewitt asked, indicating Grady Crowder’s chestnut and knowing what the answer would be.
“That’s my horse,” Slocum replied. “Grady musta sold his.” He gave the gray his heels, leaving the sheriff to grumble alone as he led Grady’s chestnut mare behind him.
* * *
True to his word, Slocum showed up before two weeks had passed. Sheriff Hewitt looked up from his desk when the light from the doorway was suddenly blocked out as the hulking man stepped inside. Hewitt reached in his desk drawer and took out an envelope. He tossed it on the desk, and Slocum quickly snatched it up. The crooked grin that Hewitt had come to despise appeared immediately as Slocum tore into the envelope and started counting the money.
“It’s all there,” Hewitt growled, making no attempt to hide the contempt he felt.
“Why, I’m sure it is,” Slocum retorted, enjoying Hewitt’s discomfort. “I just like to count it.” When he finished counting, he flashed his grin again and said, “Come on down to the saloon with me, and I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Thanks just the same,” Hewitt replied dryly. He remained seated at his desk while Slocum stuffed the envelope inside the waistband of his trousers and turned toward the door. The sheriff was tempted to hold his tongue and let the contemptible bully walk out. However, he had promised to deliver a message to Slocum, so he stopped him before he closed the door. “I’ve got a message for you from over at the fort,” he called out.
His hand on the doorknob, Slocum paused. “Is that a fact?” Suspicious at once, he quickly thought back over his movements during the past few months. He couldn’t think of any point at which he might have done anything to rile the military’s anger. Still cautious, he asked, “What in hell’s the army want with me?”
“They might have a job for you.” He wrote a name on a piece of paper and slid it across his desk. “Go see mis captain in the adjutant’s office.”
Slocum picked up the piece of paper and stared stupidly at it. “You know, Sheriff, I ain’t never took the time to learn to read. Ain’t never needed to.”
Hewitt favored him with a tired expression, then said, “Captain Boyd.”
“Captain Boyd.” Slocum repeated the name, then looked up at Hewitt. “Where do I find him? I ain’t spent much time at Fort Lincoln.”
“Hell, I don’t know,” Hewitt replied impatiently. Slocum’s visit had already extended far beyond the sheriff’s tolerance. “He’s with the infantry detachment up on the bluff, is all I can tell you. You fancy yourself a tracker. You find him.”
Slocum’s grin slowly crept back into place. “That I will, Sheriff. Much obliged.”
* * *
Captain Thomas Boyd glanced up at the young private standing in the door. “Sir, there’s somebody out here says you wanted to see him.”
“Who is it?” Boyd asked. He couldn’t recall recently ordering anyone to report to him.
“Civilian, sir—looks like a scout or something—says his name’s Slocum.”
“Slocum.” Boyd pronounced the name slowly, not recalling immediately. Then he remembered his conversation with the sheriff in Bismarck, and the sheriff’s description of the bounty hunter. “Slocum,” he repeated. “Big, nasty-looking fellow?” The private grinned and nodded his head. “Send him in,” Boyd said.
In spite of Sheriff Hewitt’s description of the man, Captain Boyd was still taken aback by the appearance of the brute who crossed his threshold on that morning. Boyd was taller than average. Still the bounty hunter towered over him, with shoulders as wide as the doorway and arms like hams that threatened to split the sleeves of his woolsey shirt. It was the face that caused a man to draw a sudden breath, however. In describing the man to a fellow officer afterward, Boyd likened that face to an artist’s rendering of evil in its purest form. Coarse black hair forced its way from under a flat-crowned hat, the broad brim of which drooped low over his face and the back of his neck. His face was covered by a heavy beard, except for a long, jagged scar on the left side where no beard would grow. At once repelled by the man’s ghastly appearance, Boyd realized that this just might be the perfect candidate for the job he had in mind.
“I’m Captain Boyd,” he said, starting to extend his hand, then deciding against it. Slocum noticed, but couldn’t care less. “Sheriff Hewitt tells me you might be the man I need to do a job for the army. I need a good tracker.”
“That so?” Slocum replied, showing no interest. “What about all them redskin scouts you got hanging around here? Ain’t they supposed to be good trackers?”
“They are,” Boyd said. “But I expect most of them will be going on an expedition to the Black Hills with the post commander in a couple of weeks. Besides, this job isn’t suited for an Indian scout. It may take some time, and you may have to hunt him in towns and forts, as well as in the hills. An Indian scout couldn’t very well do that, and it’s too far to send a cavalry patrol out looking for him.”
“Who are you looking for?” Slocum asked, only mildly interested. He had just cashed in on a big payday, and he felt no urgency to take to the wilds again.
“A fugitive. James Ryman Culver is his name.”
“What did he do?”
“He murdered an officer in the United States Army.” Boyd had been there when Lieutenant Ebersole shot at young Jim Culver on his father’s farm in Virginia, then paid for his bad aim with his life. Perhaps it was more self-defense than murder, but Boyd felt justified in calling it the latter. The army could not tolerate the killing of an officer by a civilian. He went on to give Slocum a description of Jim Culver and where he had last been seen.
“Hell, there’s a lot of fellers that look like that.”
“He’ll be the only one carrying one of those new Winchester seventy-threes with his initials, J.R.C., carved in the stock. He rides a big bay Morgan with a white star on its face, and he calls it Toby.” Boyd paused to try to remember anything else that would help identify Jim Culver. “He’s pretty handy with a rawhide whip. He used it on an officer in Fredericksburg, so he’s probably carrying it on his saddle.
“He fled Virginia and came west. The last report we had was from Fort Laramie. He showed up with a young woman at the sutler’s store just before winter set in. They said he left Laramie to go over South Pass with a man carrying a wagonload of supplies to a little settlement called Canyon Creek.” He paused to judge Slocum’s interest, but the passive giant’s expression offered no clue. “I’m authorized to pay you five dollars a day, but you’ll have to stand the cost of all your supplies and ammunition.”
Slocum’s only response was a slight narrowing of his eyes as he added up the possible total in his mind. He preferred to work on his own time and collect a lump sum, but this wasn’t a bad deal when he realized the length of time a job like that would require. Maybe it might be the start of some regular work for the army. “That’s five dollars a day, starting from the day I leave here?” Slocum asked.
“Fort Laramie’s a hell of a piece from here—take me close to two weeks to get there to even start lookin’ for this feller.”
“More like a week and a half, but I don’t care if you have to follow him to Oregon. I want this man brought to trial.”
“There’s a heap of Injuns between here and there that would love to catch a lone white man traveling across that country.”
“Granted,” Boyd replied. “That’s why I sent for you. Sheriff Hewitt said you traveled in Indian territory all the time.”
“All right,” Slocum decided. “I’ll get him for you.”
“Good. We’ve got a deal. But I’ve been told a little about your reputation. I want you to understand one thing for certain. I want him brought back alive. It’s important that we try this man for murder. Folks have to know they can’t kill an officer of the U.S. Army and get away with it.”
This caused Slocum to cock his head back a notch. “Alive?” he exclaimed. “What if he puts up a fight? What if Ihave to kill him?”
“No deal, that’s what.” The captain was adamant. “You don’t get paid for a dead man. Wounded, if you’ve got no choice, but the army doesn’t want to try a corpse. If you get the job done in a month’s time, you’ll receive a two-hundred-dollar bonus.”
This raised his interest considerably, but the insistence that Culver had to be alive didn’t sit well with Slocum. He never thought much of bothering with a prisoner. It was just a lot more efficient to shoot the son of a bitch and carry the meat home—just like any other kind of hunting. He was almost of a mind to turn the deal down, but decided the potential for additional jobs for the army might be worth the extra trouble. “All right then,” he said. “I’m gonna need me a night in town first. I’ll set out for Fort Laramie tomorrow morning.”
Far west of Fort Lincoln, beyond South Pass and the southern slopes of the Wind River Mountains, Jim Culver stood on a massive outcropping of rock and looked toward the southern end of a valley. Long and narrow, the valley extended far beyond his eyesight. The settlement below him had been named Canyon Creek by the handful of immigrants who had first discovered the upper part of the valley. They were good people, these settlers who had built cabins and cleared land for crops. Hardworking and proper Christians, they asked for nothing more than to be allowed to live in peace, working the land. It was a quality Jim applauded, but knew was not ingrained in his soul. Like his brother Clay, Jim was hard put to stay in one place for very long.
Unaware that anyone back east still had reason to look for him, he decided that it was time to see what was on the far side of the mountains that surrounded Canyon Creek. There were some things that troubled his mind, and he needed room to sort out his feelings. The past few months had been some of the best of his life. He had to admit that. Getting reacquainted with his older brother, Clay, was well worth the time spent helping him build a new cabin for Katie Mashburn. They had built it about one hundred yards from the ashes of the original cabin, a little closer to the river. It was a sight bigger than the one Katie’s father and late husband had built. Lettie Henderson, the young girl whom Jim had met on the trail west from St. Louis, had decided to stay on in Canyon Creek after the winter instead of returning to St. Louis, and Katie had invited her to move in with her. It had been a decision that pleased Jim, although he was reluctant to admit it, even to himself.
As soon as the cabin had been completed, Clay had left. He had obligated himself to scout for the army at Fort Laramie, and was already late in reporting. Jim had taken on the responsibility of helping Katie and Lettie move in and get settled. He had plenty of help from Luke Kendall, a young half-breed boy Katie had more or less adopted. Now that they were situated comfortably, Jim felt free to go in search of his medicine, as Clay had expressed it. And that could best be found in the high mountains, where a man was a notch closer to his maker.
Once he admitted it to himself, he realized the biggest thing that troubled his mind was what to do about Lettie Henderson. No more than a slip of a girl, she had taken over a sizable portion of his mind. There was no denying he had feelings for her, but he wasn’t really sure what they meant. He wouldn’t admit to being sweet on her. It was just that whenever she was away from him, he always seemed to catch himself wondering when she was coming back. She had feelings for him, too. There was little doubt of that. A shiver ran the length of Jim’s spine when he thought of comments Clay had made. That little gal’s already got a rope on you. She’s just giving you plenty of slack right now. When she’s ready, she’ll start drawing you in. Jim was sure he wasn’t cut out to be a farmer. And it bothered him that he couldn’t help worrying about those two women alone in the cabin, trying to work that little farm. They had Luke there to help them now, but how long would he stay? Hell, he’s half Shoshoni. How the hell is Katie gonna make a farmer outta him?
Jim guessed he must have the same blood coursing through his veins as Clay. For, like his brother, he needed solitude to examine his feelings, and maybe sort out a path for his life to follow. Being around people, especially Lettie, clouded his thinking. Even as a boy, back home in Virginia, he had been more at peace in the woods.
Thinking of Virginia, he knew he could never be satisfied going back there after seeing the Rockies. His father’s health had been failing when Jim left, leaving Jim’s two brothers to do the brunt of the work. They were capable. He was confident of their ability to take care of the farm. And after that incident with the soldiers by the Rapidan River, it might not be wise to ever return to his boyhood home anyway.
It had been self-defense, pure and simple. That hotheaded lieutenant had taken a shot at him. Jim had had little choice-but to shoot back. It had just been bad luck for the lieutenant that Jim usually hit what he aimed at, even in a split second, as that had been. The captain knew his officer had fired first. There were four more soldiers as well as the sheriff who had witnessed the killing. Still, Jim had decided not to risk hanging around to see what a military court might decide on the issue. Surely, he felt, the whole incident would have been forgotten after this much time had passed. He sure as hell wasn’t the first man to leave his past in the east and head west with a clean slate.
Now he couldn’t help but feel he was running again, only this time he was running from himself. With the completion of the cabin, the talk had turned to planting this field and that one—what crops to try on that piece above the old homeplace, whether or not the garden could be extended to take in one corner of the old cornfield. He admitted that he had probably panicked, but he had to get away from such talk. He could feel the noose tightening around his neck, and he couldn’t forget the worried look in Lettie’s eyes when he had ridden out that morning. He couldn’t help but wonder if it had been a coincidence that she had put on a dress that morning, instead of the shirt and pants she had been wearing to work on the cabin. There was no doubt that the transformation had had the proper effect on him, for she had implanted an image in his mind that he was not likely to forget. He wanted to leave and he wanted to stay. He knew he had to get away to think things out.
Now, as he put a foot in the stirrup and climbed aboard Toby, he tried to put those thoughts out of his mind. As he crossed over the first ridge, it didn’t take long before the excitement of seeing country he had never seen before took hold of him. For the rest of that day and most of the next, he pushed deeper and deeper into the rugged mountains.
Following an old game trail that led down through a thick belt of arrow-straight pines that towered high over his head, he suddenly emerged to find himself in a lush green meadow dotted profusely with tall buttercups and blue flag. All thoughts of Virginia and Lettie Henderson were immediately forgotten for the moment, banished from his conscious mind by the sheer beauty of the vista before him. He did not consider himself to be an emotional person, but he could not deny the involuntary shiver that touched his entire body as he pulled his horse up to take it all in. It was too much for the mind to contain. He gazed up at the snow-covered peaks above him. Tall and unyielding, they stood like silent symbols of immortality, reminding him that his time on earth held no more significance than that of the deer fly buzzing around his head. And yet he felt a part of it—the rocky cliffs, the trees, the steep meadows sloping steeply away from him, and the intense blue of the sky overhead—and he had a sense of coming home. Farther down the mountain, the slope of the meadow gradually lessened until it finally came to rest at the edge of an emerald lake that filled the narrow valley. On the far shore, an elk bugled his lovesick call and disappeared into the trees that lined the water. God had outdone Himself. There could be no place on Earth that matched it.
Jim made his camp by the water’s edge and hobbled Toby close by to graze in the lush grass. Toby didn’t like hobbles, and probably wouldn’t have strayed far anyway, but Jim decided it was best to take precautions. Clay had cautioned him to be careful. It was Indian territory, either Shoshoni or Crow, depending upon how far north he had traveled. In spite of this, he felt at home in this country. He wondered if the horse felt it, too. Toby seemed content enough, even with the hobbles.
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