The author of The Devil’s Posse returns with the tale of one man’s journey from mines to mountain trails and the dangers hunting him every step of the way.…
After gunfire and fear of the law drive him away from his home, young John Slater Engels is forced to seek refuge in the mountains of Montana. There he meets Teddy Lightfoot, who invites the boy to live with his wife and him in a small Crow village nestled in the Absaroka Mountains. In case lawmen are still searching for him, Engels decides to drop his legal name, keeping only his middle name: Slater.
As the years go by and Slater grows into manhood, he also becomes an excellent scout—so much so that he’s hired to assist the soldiers based out of Fort Ellis. But just when Slater’s future begins to look bright, he crosses paths with a dangerous Sioux war chief named Iron Pony, who vows to take his life. And as Slater’s past comes back to haunt him, he’s forced to make some tough decisions—decisions that may cost him everything he holds dear.…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
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It was altogether fitting on this spring day in 1864 that the muddy streets of Virginia City were awash with a flood of water from a violent thunderstorm.
Nothing good can come of a day as dreary as this, Leona Engels thought.
The heavy dark clouds hovering over Alder Gulch erupted again late in the afternoon and threatened to continue their assault of thunder and lightning into the evening. The disagreeable weather had not been sufficient to keep John Slater Engels and his longtime friend and partner, Henry Weed, from their usual visit to the Miners Saloon. It was a ritual that John’s wife loathed, since the little bit of pay dirt her husband and Henry were able to pull from their claim in Daylight Gulch went straight into Gil Mobley’s pockets at his saloon, but she was too fearful to complain about it.
As darkness began to gather in the gulch, Leona became more concerned, for it was well past time when the two men usually came home for supper. She walked to the door of the rough cabin once again to peer out into the rain. There was still no sign of her husband and his partner. Finally she turned and called to her fifteen-year-old son, “Jace, come here, boy.”
John Slater Engels Jr. was originally called J.S. by his parents, but in a short time the initials evolved into the nickname of Jace, since the sounds were not that far apart. The boy carefully put the shotgun he had been cleaning aside and came from the kitchen.
“Ma’am?” he replied.
“I’m startin’ to worry about your pa,” Leona said. “Him and Henry are usually through with their drinkin’ and card playin’ by now. I want you to go down to Virginia City and tell them I’m gonna throw their supper out the door if they don’t get theirselves home.”
“Yes’um,” the stoic young boy replied.
With no sign of emotion, he turned and went to the front corner of the cabin, where he slept on a bedroll, and picked up his hat. It was not the first time he had been sent to find his father and his hard-drinking friend, and it was a chore that he didn’t much care for. It would be a year this month since they had come to the gulch in search of gold. And so far, it seemed the main thing his father had accomplished was to garner a reputation for himself as a drunk and a brawler.
There wasn’t much law enforcement in most parts of Alder Gulch. Outlaws and hell-raisers were ultimately dealt with by the vigilance committee, and Jace felt sure they were keeping an eye on Weed and his father. He was disappointed that his father lacked the backbone to resist the temptations of the lawless crowd. The family had fled Kansas after his father and Weed were identified by witnesses as the men involved in a bank holdup. That holdup had been Weed’s idea, and he had talked Jace’s father into it. It seemed as though every scrape his father found himself in could be traced back to some illegal scheme that Henry Weed had come up with. Mostly Jace was ashamed for his mother, and the abuse she sometimes suffered when his drunken father came home after a night of gambling and dallying with the fancy ladies at the saloon.
On this day, the rain had started in the morning and his father had said it was too wet to work their claim. But he and Weed decided it was not too wet to ride over to Alder Gulch for a drink of whiskey and maybe a hand or two of poker. When Jace had asked how the rain could hurt the gold they were looking for in the water, he received a backhand for his sarcasm. And then off they went, riding to Alder Gulch in the rain after a casual promise to be back by suppertime.
With his hat pulled low to help shield him from the rain, Jace plodded along the trail that led to Virginia City. His coat was soon soaked through, but he ignored the discomfort, concentrating more on what he would say to convince his father to come home.
When he reached the point where the trail ended at the main street that traced the length of Alder Gulch, he was immediately aware of an event going on beside the Miners Saloon. A sizable crowd had gathered to stand in the rain, ignoring the occasional flash of lightning and rumble of thunder. And when he came closer, he realized they were there to witness a hanging. As curious as anyone, he edged up through the noisy circle of spectators to see for himself. There was no tree next to the saloon, but it was not the first hanging that had taken place there. One single pole served as a gallows. Approximately fifteen feet tall, the pole had been notched near the top so that a rope could be tied and secured to support the unfortunate victim as he dangled at the noose end of the rope. With his hands tied behind his back and his feet bound together, the victim hung motionless, his head cocked to the side by the heavy noose around his neck. In the darkness, it was hard to see the man’s face, but from the excited conversation he overheard around him, he learned that the man had been hanged because he killed a fellow he had argued with in the saloon.
Since he didn’t see him in the crowd of spectators, Jace decided he’d best look for his father instead of gawking at a dead man. So he had started to turn away and head for the saloon when he was startled by a sudden bright flash, followed almost immediately by a loud clap of thunder. In those few seconds, he was stunned to see the grotesque features of his father’s face, in the flash of lightning.
“That’s the good Lord saying thank you for riddin’ this world of troublemakers like John Engels,” he heard someone say. It was followed by a hardy chuckle from someone else.
Jace felt his body go numb, and his legs threatened to deny him support as he pushed blindly through the crowd of men standing around the pole. Confused and horrified by the terrible scene he had just witnessed, he didn’t know what to do. After making his way through the mob, he leaned against the wall of the saloon until he could think clearly once again. His father was dead, and that was the only thing he knew for sure.
Weed, he thought then. Where is Henry Weed?
He decided he should find him, so he left the side of the building and started searching through the crowd again. But Weed was nowhere to be found, so he went inside the saloon to look for him there, but to no avail. He was left with no choice but to return home as fast as he could to take the terrible news to his mother.
* * *
Running almost all of the two miles back to the camp, Jace was surprised to find Weed’s and his father’s horse standing beside the cabin. Weed had evidently started for home shortly before the boy arrived at the scene of the hanging, and had somehow circled back on the trail Jace had walked. Perhaps Jace would have seen him if he had not been walking with his head down in the driving rain.
So Ma already knows about Pa, he thought as he opened the door.
He walked into the cabin to find his mother sobbing in Henry Weed’s arms. When she heard Jace come in, she turned and beckoned to him. He went at once to comfort her. She put her arm around him and pulled him close to Weed and herself.
“Oh, Jace,” she wailed. “Did you see your pa?” When he answered yes, she sobbed again. “You poor boy,” she cried. “I’m so sorry you had to see him like that, hung on a post.”
“There warn’t nothin’ I could do to help him,” Henry Weed said. “He got into a tussle with some feller we was playin’ cards with, and before I knowed it, they was goin’ at each other with their guns. John was faster’n that feller, and shot him through the chest before he ever cleared the table with his six-shooter. Then a bunch of fellers that had been standin’ at the bar, drinkin’, took your pa down before he could get off another shot. They said they was on the vigilance committee, and they was fixin’ to put a stop to all the lawlessness in town. I got back here as fast as I could. You don’t have to worry, I’m gonna take care of your ma.”
“I reckon I can take care of my ma,” Jace said.
“Why, sure you can,” Weed said, “but I expect I’d best be the one to take care of both of you.”
Leona stopped crying then. “Henry’s right, Jace. He’s offered to stay with us and take care of us now that your pa’s gone. We’ll talk some more about it later on tonight.”
“What about Pa?” Jace wanted to know. “We’ve got to go get him down from that pole and bury him proper.” He looked at Weed, waiting for his answer.
“I don’t know if we can do that,” Leona said.
“Why not?” Jace asked.
Weed answered for her. “They ain’t likely to let us take John down from there for a while yet. They’ll most likely want him to hang there to let other folks know what happens to troublemakers in Virginia City.”
Jace couldn’t believe the indifference on the part of his father’s wife and his supposed best friend. “How can you just not care what happens to Pa’s body?” he charged. He turned to look into his mother’s eyes. “We’ve got to take care of Pa.”
“We can’t,” Leona said. “It’s best to just do what we can to carry on now without him. I knew it was gonna come to this. It was just a matter of time.”
“The hell we will!” Jace exclaimed.
“Now, don’t be gettin’ yourself riled up about this,” Weed said. “It’s over and done with. Your pa’s gone, and I reckon it was bound to happen—the way things were goin’ and all.”
Jace made no response other than the angry glare he cast in Weed’s direction. His pa wouldn’t be dead if he had never crossed paths with Henry Weed. After a moment, Jace shifted an accusing gaze at his mother, who was no longer crying, but stood wringing her hands in apparent distress. It infuriated the boy that Henry Weed was acting as if John Engels was the wild, hard-drinking troublemaker, and he was no more than an innocent bystander.
Some friend, he thought, glaring at Weed again.
He made up his mind then that he was going to cut his father down from that pole, no matter what his mother or Weed said. He had never had a particularly close relationship with his father, but he was his father, and he didn’t intend to leave him hanging as an amusement for the miners in Virginia City.
“I’ll put the horses away,” he volunteered, and headed for the door.
“That’s a good idea,” Weed said. “There’re some things I wanna talk to your mama about while you’re doin’ that.”
Outside the cabin, Jace paused to study the nighttime sky. The rain had slackened considerably as the thunderstorm moved across the gulch, though the clouds were as dark and thick as before. He led the two horses behind the cabin to the simple shelter that served as a stable for them and the two mules. Having already decided what he was going to do, he left the saddles on the horses, then tied a shovel to the saddle on Weed’s horse. Next, he checked the Henry rifle riding in the sling on his father’s saddle to make sure it was still there and had not suffered any from the rain. Satisfied that Weed would not likely take the trouble to check on the horses, he returned to the cabin.
When he walked in the door, he found the two of them standing before the fireplace, facing the door as if waiting for him. “We need to tell you somethin’,” Weed said. “We decided that the way things are, the best thing is for me and your mama to live together as man and wife.”
Jace recoiled sharply. Seeing his reaction, his mother tried to soften the shock. “Henry has been kind enough to offer to take care of us, now that your father’s gone. I know it’s kind of sudden, but I think John would approve of it. He and Henry were such close friends.”
Unable to speak for a moment while his brain spun wildly, Jace finally blurted, “Pa ain’t even in the ground yet! It didn’t take you long to jump into the bed together!”
“Jace!” Leona scolded. “You watch your mouth! It ain’t like that at all.”
“Your mama’s right,” Weed said. “It’s just the best thing to do. I’ve always had a fondness for your mama, and I intend to make it right when we can stand up before a preacher. We’ll make a new start. Me and John had been talkin’ about movin’ on anyway. We ain’t found much of anythin’ in the sluice box for a while now, so I think it’s best to leave our claim and head up to Helena. There’s a new strike at Last Chance Gulch and we can make a fresh start there—might have a little better luck. There ain’t no reason me and you can’t get along, as long as you mind your ma and me. Whaddaya say?”
“Sounds to me like it don’t make no difference what I think,” Jace replied. “You and Ma have already decided what you’re gonna do.”
Tired of trying to solicit the boy’s cooperation, Weed smirked and said, “That’s about the size of it, boy, so you might as well get used to it.”
Anxious to avoid a conflict between Weed and her son, Leona spoke up then. “Let’s sit down and eat the supper getting cold on the table. No matter what’s happened, we need to eat.”
Jace still found it hard to believe his mother’s apparent acceptance of his father’s death and her immediate acceptance of Weed’s proposal—not much different from changing one horse to ride another when the first one gets tired. But he said nothing more. He sat down at the table with them and ate the supper she had cooked. When he was finished, he excused himself to make a final check on the livestock before going to his bedroll in the front corner of the cabin. “We’ll start a new day in the morning,” his mother said to him as he pulled the quilt that served as his bedroom wall across his little corner.
“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.
He lay there on the thin pallet for what seemed hours, listening to the whispered conversation between his mother and Henry Weed. Finally the talking stopped. Even then he continued to lie there until he felt certain they were both asleep. As quietly as he could, he pulled the edge of the quilt back far enough to peek into the main room. Weed was sprawled on the pallet he had been using before, snoring lustily, the alcohol he had apparently consumed earlier finally rendering him unconscious. Jace slipped outside the quilt and paused to watch the sleeping man. There was no sound from the bedroom.
At least he ain’t already jumped in bed with my mother, he thought, and tiptoed to the door.
Outside, he went quickly to the stable and led the horses out, walking them up the path until certain he was away from the cabin without anyone aware of his departure. Stepping up into the saddle then, he headed back to Virginia City, his father’s cartridge belt around his waist, and his Henry rifle riding in the saddle sling.
The storm had spent its energy and moved on, leaving a dark and damp night. He had no watch to tell the time, but he knew the hour was late when he reached the ridge overlooking the gulch and the lusty town that never slept.
Nudging his father’s sorrel gelding, he descended to the noisy street below, riding along unnoticed by the drunks coming and going from the saloons. He pulled the horses up when he got to the harness shop next to the Miners Saloon, thinking he was prepared to see the grisly sight of his father’s lifeless body dangling from the solitary pole again. He was wrong, however, for the sight of his late father jolted him as before. The crowd that had been there had dispersed, returning to the saloons of their choice to talk about the shooting and the hanging that had followed. At present, there were only two spectators standing at the foot of the pole, gazing up at the late John Slater Engels. Jace remained in the saddle and waited until the novel sight of the dead man yielded to the craving for another drink of whiskey and the two men walked back toward the Miners Saloon.
Jace nudged the sorrel, anxious to do what he had come to do before someone else showed up to gawk at the hanged man. He felt the blood in his veins go cold as ice when he pulled up beside the corpse. Seated as he was in the saddle, his eyes were even with his father’s belt. With his heart pounding inside his chest, he forced himself to remain calm and do what he had to do.
“Easy, boy,” he said softly to the horse. “Steady, now,” he repeated as he pulled his feet from the stirrups and carefully placed one foot on the saddle. Then, using his father’s body to steady himself, he stood up on the saddle. As he pulled himself up, he almost lost his footing when he brushed against his father’s face and looked into the sightless eyes staring grotesquely at him as if already suffering the fiery coals of hell. Forcing himself to look away from the cruel face, he pulled the skinning knife from the cartridge belt and sawed furiously at the rope above his father’s head. It seemed the rope was never going to part, but finally the last strands were severed and the corpse dropped to the ground. Rigor mortis having already set in, the body landed feetfirst and, rigid as a pole, fell face forward in the trampled mud.
Jace dismounted and stood staring at the body for a long moment. It would be no easy task to get the corpse across the saddle. He was still contemplating the job when he was startled by a voice behind him. “Hey, boy! What the hell do you think you’re doin’?”
He turned to find Arlen Tucker walking up behind him. Tucker, a blacksmith and a prominent member of the vigilance committee, was no doubt instrumental in the hanging of Jace’s father. “I’m takin’ my pa for buryin’,” Jace answered.
“The hell you are,” Tucker said. “Nobody told you you could cut that murderer down. Now you can help me haul him back up that pole. I oughta give you a good whippin’ for pullin’ a stunt like that.”
Jace gave no thought to his response to Tucker’s threat. Tucker was just beside his father’s horse, his face was no more than a foot from the butt of the Henry rifle riding in the saddle sling. Following his natural instincts, Jace pulled the weapon from the scabbard, cocking it as he brought it to bear on the surprised blacksmith.
“I wouldn’t advise you to try it,” Jace said. “You look like a pretty stout feller, so I reckon you oughta be able to lift my pa up across that saddle.”
“The hell I will,” Tucker responded. “Boy, you’d better put that rifle down! If I have to take it away from you, I’m gonna break it across your backside.” He threatened, but he made no move toward the determined boy.
“I reckon you could try,” Jace said calmly, “if you think it’s worth gettin’ shot over.”
Tucker hesitated, measuring the cold ominous look in Jace’s eyes. He decided it not worth the risk to test the boy’s resolve. “You’re makin’ a helluva mistake,” he said. “You’re gonna wind up with the same reputation your pa had.”
“Pick him up and lay him across that saddle,” Jace said, motioning with his rifle. “I ain’t waitin’ around here all night.”
“All right, all right,” Tucker replied, “just don’t get careless with that damn rifle.”
He took hold of John Engels’ shoulders and stood him up. Then he bent down, put his arms around his knees, and lifted him up as though hoisting a log. Henry Weed’s roan was not sure it wanted the body across its back, and it sidestepped nervously when the corpse landed on the saddle. The sudden motion caused Jace to quickly grab his father’s shoulder to keep the body from sliding off the saddle. Tucker saw it as his chance to act. He pulled the .44 he wore, to his instant regret. Because of the stiffness of the body, John Engels’ feet kicked up to spoil Tucker’s aim when Jace pulled on his father’s shoulder, causing his shot to miss. Jace took no time to think. Holding the nine-pound Henry in one hand, he pulled the trigger and cut Tucker down with a slug in his belly.
Staring in disbelief, the blacksmith sat down heavily in the mud, clutching his stomach. Equally surprised, Jace paused only a moment to consider what had just happened. Someone was bound to have heard the shots, so, in a panic, he grabbed the horses’ reins and turned to discover a witness staring at him, seemingly in a drunken stupor. Until that moment, he had not noticed the man slumped against the side door of the saloon, obviously having gotten no farther after leaving the saloon. Although he continued to gape openly at the boy, the drunk didn’t move, and he said not a word. Jace paused for only a moment before leading the horses around behind the saloon to secure his father’s body across the saddle. Working as quickly as he could, he bound the body with a rope, hearing voices from the side of the saloon. Thinking the man sitting against the side door was no doubt telling them what had happened, he climbed up into the saddle as fast as he could and rode down the alley behind the stores, leading the roan behind him. When he came to the first trail that led up from the gulch, he followed it out of Virginia City and into the hills beyond. His only quest now was to find a place to dig a grave. It didn’t matter where, as long as it was not easily seen. The burial itself was not as important to him as the removal of his father’s body from public display. So when he came to a grassy ravine with one solitary spruce tree standing as a grave marker, he decided to bury his father there instead of taking him back to Daylight Gulch.
When the grave was done, and his father’s body was in the ground, Jace stood looking at it for a long moment. It was customary to say something about a person when he was buried, talk about all the good things he had done before he died. He continued to stand there while he thought back over his short life and the relationship he had had with his father.
Finally he said, “I can’t think of a damn thing he ever did for me and my ma except make life hard for both of us. Amen.”
* * *
It was in the wee hours of the morning when Jace rode back into the camp at Daylight Gulch, but there was a glow from a lamp in the window of the cabin. Hearing him ride in, Henry Weed burst out the door to confront him. Jace’s mother stood in the doorway behind Weed.
“Where the hell have you been with those horses?” Weed demanded.
“Buryin’ Pa,” was Jace’s stoic reply. He dismounted and led the horses to the makeshift stable with Weed following right behind him.
“You dumb little shit!” Weed blurted. “I reckon you led a posse of vigilantes right back here, too.”
“I might have,” Jace calmly allowed. “So I expect I’d best get my things together and be gone when they get here.” He had already decided that he was not going to live with Henry Weed. He pulled the saddle off Weed’s roan but left the sorrel saddled. “I don’t reckon you and Ma have to worry. It’ll be me they’re lookin’ for.”
“Maybe they won’t be lookin’ for you,” his mother said, just then joining them. “Did anyone see you?”
“Just one man, but I don’t know if he’ll tell or not,” Jace replied.
“Why wouldn’t he, if he saw you?” Weed demanded.
“He was fallin’-down drunk. I’m hopin’ he don’t know what he saw,” Jace said.
“Nobody tried to stop you from takin’ John down?” Weed asked.
“One man and I don’t know if he’ll tell, either.”
Exasperated with the boy’s lack of distress, Weed demanded, “Well, why in the hell wouldn’t he?”
“Because I shot him,” Jace replied. “And I don’t know if I killed him or not.”
“My Lord!” his mother gasped, and clutched the corner post for support. It was almost more than she could comprehend, coming as it did on top of her husband’s death.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” Jace said. “I wouldn’ta done it if he hadn’t tried to shoot me. He didn’t give me no choice.”
She was too distressed to think clearly, but Weed was quick to advise, “He’s right, Leona. He needs to get packed up and get the hell away from here. They’ll be comin’ lookin’ for him, sure as shootin’.”
“But he’s just a boy,” Leona protested. “He said the man was going to shoot him. Maybe if he tells them that—”
“That won’t make no difference to that posse,” Weed insisted. “They’ll string him up, just like they did John. It’s best he gets away from here. If he’s old enough to shoot a man, he’s old enough to look out for himself.”
“I can take care of myself,” Jace assured her. “I’ll be all right.” He was well aware of Weed’s preference that he should leave, even before this happened. “I can tell you where I buried Pa if you want to visit his grave.”
“She don’t wanna visit his grave,” Weed quickly declared. “That’s over and done with.”
Jace ignored the remark and addressed his mother. “Like I said, I can draw you a little map to show you where Pa’s buried.”
She glanced nervously at Weed before answering, “I guess it’s not necessary. I don’t need to see the grave.” Concerned for herself, she realized that it was in her best interest to concede to Weed’s wishes. He clearly wanted Jace out of the picture, and her son had conveniently accommodated him by shooting a man. “Henry’s right,” she said to her son. “It’s best for you to leave before they come here looking for you.”
Jace nodded solemnly, glancing at the scowling Weed, then back at his worried mother.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I’m leavin’ just as soon as I get some things together.” He went back to the cabin then to gather what clothes he had, his blanket roll, and some of his late father’s things. Most of what he might need was already in the saddlebags on his father’s horse. “I don’t reckon you mind if I take this,” he said to his mother as he pulled a rain slicker out from under her bed.
She shook her head, but Weed saw fit to comment, “I reckon it’s fittin’ for you to take some of your daddy’s stuff, but I don’t know about his horse and rifle. They might better be left with your mama and me.”
“I expect I could just walk off in the hills with nothin’ except what I was born with,” Jace replied sarcastically. “But I ain’t gonna. I reckon Pa would druther they was left with me, instead of you.”
Weed bristled a bit at the remark. “I might have more to say about that than you. I ain’t sure I’m gonna let you leave with that sorrel and that Henry rifle. I don’t see as how you’ve earned a damn thing that belonged to your pa.”
Jace dropped his hand to rest on the handle of his father’s single-action Colt .44 he still had strapped to his side. “You and me ain’t ever really got along too good,” he said solemnly. “And right now ain’t a good time to mess with me unless you wanna make my ma a widow for the second time.”
“Jace!” Leona cried out, shocked by the threat from her son. She looked at Weed then and pleaded, “Let him take what he wants, Henry. Just let him go!”
Weed was caught in an uncertain position. This was not the boastful bluster of an immature boy. There was a lethal quality in his tone that promised this was no idle threat. Although smarting mentally at the thought of being faced down by a fifteen-year-old boy, he found himself at a distinct disadvantage, since he was not wearing a gun. And the stony-eyed boy had already shot one man that night.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it for you, Leona.” Back at Jace then, he blurted, “Just get the hell on outta here.”
“With pleasure,” Jace replied calmly.
With no destination in mind, Jace pointed the sorrel’s head toward the north and made his way down through the hills in the dark, being careful to avoid the deep cuts and gravel slides that might cause the horse to stumble. Once out of the higher hills, he continued north across an open plain that stretched seven or eight miles before encountering the foothills of a dark mountain range.
He rode on, and as first light approached, he could see that the range he was entering boasted snow-covered peaks extending up from pine-clad slopes. It looked like the perfect country he needed to escape to from those who might be searching for him. He felt sure he could find a place to hide from a lynch mob in those mountains, thinking the drunken bunch of volunteers would soon weary and go back to the saloons. Montana had been made a territory for less than a year, and Bannack was named the capital. So maybe there was a U.S. Marshal there already; Jace had no idea. But had there been, he might have considered telling his version of the shooting to a deputy marshal.
A line of trees running about halfway across the plain told him there was a fair-sized creek between him and the mountains. As he rode, he considered the occurrence of this unexpected turn in his life, and the sobering thought that at his young age, he had shot a man and probably killed him. He thought about his father, lying dead in a shallow grave, and realized that he did not feel the grief that should come with the loss of one’s parent. He could not recall any happy times spent with his father, only occasions of drunken abuse at worst and almost total indifference at best.
Jace had never been an emotional child. His father had often remarked that the boy had the disposition of a hanging judge, never smiling, never laughing. Maybe he was right. There wasn’t a brother or sister to compare himself to, and no friends his age, so he didn’t bother to care about his stoic nature.
He was not without compassion, however, for those who deserved it—like his mother. He hoped for her sake that she would have a decent life with Henry Weed. But he felt no regret that he would not be there to share that life, for he could not forget how quickly she had agreed to become Weed’s wife, and how she had urged him to leave. The two deserved each other, he decided, and resolved to think of it no further. It was time to consider the rest of his life, and at present, that meant finding a place to camp and rest his horse.
When he reached the creek, he stopped to let his horse drink. It would have been a good place to camp had he not been concerned about a posse riding to catch up with him. So he decided he’d better not stop until he gained the safety of the mountains. With that in mind, he pushed on, following the creek until he came upon a small stream. The stream appeared to come from high up the slope, flowing down a narrow ravine to reach the creek. This, he decided, was more like what he was looking for, so he began to follow the stream back up the mountain.
The higher up he climbed, the harder it became to follow the stream, until he finally determined it was safer to dismount and lead the horse. The trees, mostly pine with patches of firs, grew thick on the mountainside and so close to the stream that it became necessary to walk in the water in many places. About a third of the way up the slope, he came to a grassy meadow, where the stream split in two. This was the spot he picked for his camp.
He pulled the saddle off the sorrel and unrolled his blanket, succumbing to a deep feeling of weariness from not having slept all night. He took the precaution to hobble the horse, however, before crawling into his blanket roll.
It was past noon when he woke to find the sorrel gelding nibbling the meadow grass near his feet. An empty feeling in his stomach told him that he was hungry as well, but it also reminded him that he had no food. It did not cause him undue concern. He had been a skillful hunter for as long as he could remember, and he felt sure game was readily available in these mountains. There remained the question, however, that someone might be close enough behind him to hear the distinctive report of the Henry rifle. He rolled out of his blanket and got to his feet.
Addressing the sorrel, he said, “Well, I’m gonna have to find something pretty soon, or learn to eat grass like you.”
There were other things to think about for a man on his own, and regardless of his age, he was a man on his own. And he was smart enough to know that he couldn’t live forever on nothing more than what he could kill. But that was going to be his diet for the foreseeable future, so he counted the cartridges in his cartridge belt. There were twenty-two left. In addition to those, there were six in the rifle’s magazine, plus five shots in his handgun, the hammer resting on an empty chamber for safety’s sake. He would have to be very conservative with his cartridges, for he had no money to buy new ones. That thought caused him to remember that he had no money to buy basic supplies to live on, either.
“I’ll have to think of something,” he said to the sorrel. “I reckon I’ll have to take up my pa’s trade, if I can’t find some way of makin’ honest money.” He was not inclined to follow in his father’s lawless footsteps, but he didn’t rule out the possibility if it was his only recourse.
Ignoring the gnawing in his stomach, he saddled his horse and pushed on farther into the rugged mountains, his eyes constantly searching for signs of game. The stream led him to a small lake high up the mountain that bore evidence of numerous visits by deer as well as elk and grizzlies. This was the place, he decided, where he would acquire his meat supply. So he dismounted, pulled the saddle off his horse, and left it to graze near the edge of the lake while he picked a good place to hide and wait for a potential target to come for water. As he had suspected, judging by the many tracks, he didn’t have to wait long before supper showed up in the form of half a dozen deer that suddenly appeared in the pines above the lake. Showing no concern for the horse grazing near the lower side of the lake, they filed down to the water’s edge to drink.
Shifting slightly in the gully he had selected for his ambush, he swung his rifle around to sight upon a doe that offered an inviting target as she drank next to a ten-point buck that was obviously the leader of the harem. Jace squeezed the trigger slowly until the Henry suddenly spoke and the doe jumped backward before falling helplessly to the ground. The other deer immediately bolted back into the trees as the echo of the shot rang out from the mountainside.
Jace did not move from his position for a few minutes while he watched the fallen deer from the cover of the gully. He told himself that it was unlikely a posse following him would be close enough to have heard the shot, but it had seemed unusually loud when it broke the silence of the mountains. When all seemed as peaceful as it had been before, he left the gully and hurried down to the edge of the lake. Mortally wounded, the deer tried to get to her feet when he approached, so he drew his knife and ended her suffering as quickly as he could. It was not the first deer he had butchered, so he wasted no time starting the skinning.
It was late in the afternoon by the time he had a good fire going with strips of flesh roasting over the flames. He ate the freshly cooked meat while he continued butchering the carcass, planning to smoke a good supply to last him for a while. His methods were decidedly primitive, since he had not had the foresight to take cooking utensils with him when he left his father’s cabin. Still, he did not let that discourage him. With his belly filled, he started smoking the rest of the meat over the fire. Although it was comfortably cool in the mountains, he knew that the meat would not keep long if it was not prepared properly.
It was then that he had a feeling that he was being watched. There was no reason to suspect it. It was more a sensing that he was not alone. He looked toward his horse, but the sorrel gave no indication that it had heard anything. Having learned to trust his instincts, he became immediately alert while careful not to show any sign of being aware of a visitor. He picked up his rifle as casually as he could and moved unhurriedly out of the firelight.
As soon as he was out of the fire’s light, however, he hurried to circle around toward his horse. Without knowing if his visitor was Indian, grizzly, or a posse man, he knew that his horse would be the primary target for any of the three. When he got in position behind the sorrel, he knelt beside a clump of chokecherry bushes, where he had a good view of his campfire and bedroll, and waited. He was about to conclude that his senses were spooked and he was just being overcautious when he heard the voice behind him.
“What the hell are you doin’ here?”
Startled, but reacting instantly, Jace dropped to the ground, rolling over on his back as he did to end up with his rifle pointed straight at the surprised intruder. “Whoa! Whoa!” the man exclaimed. “Don’t shoot! Just hold on a minute. If I meant you any harm, I’da shot you instead of sayin’ something.”
Jace hesitated, not sure if he could trust the stranger. Finally he said, “Well, you sure coulda sung out instead of sneakin’ up on a man’s camp.”
“I warn’t sure who you were and what you was up to,” the man said. “I heard your shot a couple of hours back, so I figured I’d come over and see who was messin’ around in my huntin’ spot.”
“Your huntin’ spot?” Jace repeated. “Well, I reckon I oughta be proud to get a chance to meet God, ’cause I figure that’s who owns these mountains.”
In the darkness of the trees, it was difficult to make out the features of the man, other than the fact that he looked to be sizable. Jace couldn’t see that his impertinent response had caused a smile to appear on his visitor’s whiskered face.
“God lets me look after it for him,” he said with half a chuckle. “I could smell that meat cookin’ a mile away. Maybe I could help you eat a little of it. Looks like you’ve got a plenty.”
“I reckon,” Jace said, and got to his feet, being careful to keep his rifle in front of him. “Come on over by the fire and you can help yourself to some meat.”
“Much obliged,” the man said, and walked out of the shadow of the trees. “Why, you ain’t much more’n a boy. I couldn’t tell from back yonder. You’re kinda tall and stringy.”
“This Henry rifle don’t know how old I am,” Jace informed him, still cautious, as his visitor was dressed in animal skins, looking much like an Indian.
The man laughed. “Nah, I reckon it don’t. But you ain’t got no reason to worry about me. Like I said, if I was figurin’ on doin’ you any harm, I’da already done it. I was just a little curious about you; that’s all. Anyway, I appreciate your hospitality. My name’s Teddy Lightfoot. What’s your’n?”
When Teddy walked out closer to the light of the fire, Jace could see that he was a white man, although he wore his hair Indian-style in two long braids. He seemed friendly enough, so Jace let his rifle drop by his side.
About to state his name, Jace hesitated. As far as he knew, he was most likely wanted by the law. Maybe it was not a good idea to use his real name. It was not a name his father had brought much honor to, anyway. With no time to think about it, he responded with the first name that came to mind. “Slater,” he said, giving his middle name.
“Slater,” Teddy repeated. “Slater what, or what Slater?”
“Just Slater,” the boy answered. “That’s all.”
Teddy shrugged. “All right, Slater,” he said, figuring the boy had a reason to use only one name, but he was indifferent as to that reason. “Let’s see how good you are at roastin’ deer meat. A little coffee wouldn’t be bad to go with it.” Without waiting for Jace, he strode eagerly over to the fire.
“I ain’t got no coffee,” Jace said.
“Dang! No coffee?” He glanced at the fire as if unable to believe it. When he saw no coffeepot, he took a closer look around the boy’s camp. “I swear, you ain’t got much of anything, have you?” He turned to Jace again and looked him in the eye. “Looks to me like you musta left somewhere in a hurry.”
“I’ve got this rifle and flint and steel to make a fire, so I reckon I won’t go hungry,” Jace stated.
“Until your cartridges run out,” Teddy said, sizing up the situation fairly easily. “Even an Injun don’t live on nothin’ but meat. You’ve got to have some beans and biscuits from time to time. You live on nothin’ but meat and pretty soon your belly will draw up in a knot. And you’ve got to have coffee,” he stated emphatically. “I know I do. Hell, the first thing I cried for after my ma popped me outta the oven was a cup of coffee.” He paused to study Jace’s reactions before concluding. “The way I see it, you musta had to run for it in a helluva hurry, and you didn’t have time to grab everything you need. That about right?”
“Maybe,” Jace replied stoically, seeing no reason to deny it.
“You don’t talk much, do you? Well, don’t matter, I can talk enough for both of us.” He paused then while he continued to study the young man he had happened upon. Although sober and dispassionate, he showed no reluctance to look a man straight in the eye. Teddy decided there was no evil in the steady gaze. “Tell you what,” he decided. “Why don’t we pack your little mess up here and ride on down the mountain a piece? I’ve got a camp in a canyon about two miles from here. We’ll have us some coffee then.” He didn’t wait for Jace’s answer. “I’ll go fetch my horses and we’ll load that meat up.”
Jace watched the huge man as he walked away, and wondered if he was as friendly as he appeared to be. He decided to be cautious until he was sure.
Teddy disappeared into the trees again, but reappeared a short time later leading two horses, one of them loaded with what looked to be a good supply of meat. “You ain’t the only one that’s been doin’ some huntin’,” he announced cheerfully as he led the horses up to the fire. “I got me an elk on the other side of this mountain, and I was on my way back to my camp when I heard you shoot that deer. I’ll be dryin’ the meat for jerky. If you want, I’ll help you smoke that deer.”
Jace took only a moment to consider, not realizing at the time that he was about to make a decision that would set the pattern for his life.
“I reckon,” he said, deciding that he could trust Teddy Lightfoot. The thought of a cup of hot coffee to help choke down his venison seemed too good to pass up and might have had the most influence upon that decision.
* * *
I hope to hell I ain’t gonna be sorry for this, Teddy thought as he led the strange boy down the far side of the mountain. Going solely on his instincts, he had decided there was no real evil in the boy’s intentions. He was in trouble. That was easy enough to see. He was running from someone, and since Teddy couldn’t be sure whether or not that someone was hot on his trail, he thought it best to assume that they were. Consequently, he made sure he didn’t leave an easy trail to follow when they descended the mountain.
Jace had a good sense of direction, so he had to wonder if Teddy had forgotten the way to his camp, considering the many changes in directions, even doubling back to ride up the mountain again, climbing up the middle of a stream when there was a usable game trail right beside it.
In time, it occurred to him that Teddy was making sure no one followed them, and the thought occurred to him then, I hope I ain’t making a mistake. Without thinking about it, he dropped his hand to rest on the butt of his rifle.
Finally they rode over a ridge and down into a secluded ravine lined with aspen and pines. Teddy rode to the lower end and dismounted in a small clearing. Almost hidden from view was a small shelter formed by several young pines bent over and tied together, with a portion of buffalo hide serving as a roof. Jace stepped down and looked around him at the ashes of a fire, but little else. And he wondered about the offer Teddy had made of hot coffee when he saw nothing in the camp in the way of utensils or supplies. He had looked at his host, about to ask, when Teddy said, “Let’s take care of the horses first, and then we’ll get us some coffee started.”
“How we gonna do that?” Jace wondered aloud.
His question caused Teddy to chuckle. “We’re gonna get my coffeepot and the rest of my possibles outta that tree yonder,” he said, pointing to a pine on the side of the ravine. Jace turned to see a sack hanging from a length of rope tied to a slender branch halfway up the tree. “I’ve seen plenty of bear sign near here, so I had to find me a limb too thin to hold a bear. I’da had that sack with me if I’d knowed I was gonna be ridin’ up to where I found you. Didn’t know I’d be gone that long, but it looks like I lucked out. Don’t look like no critters found it.”
What a strange man, Jace thought as he released the cinch and pulled his saddle off.
In a short time, they had a fire going and coffee boiling. Teddy even had an extra cup he had brought along in case he lost the other one. With fresh-killed meat to roast over the fire, they sat back to enjoy their repast.
Teddy reached for the coffeepot and refilled Jace’s cup, suddenly asking, “So, just who are you runnin’ from, Slater?” When the boy hesitated, Teddy asked, “Is it the law? What did you do, steal somethin’?”
“I shot a man,” Jace blurted before taking more time to think about the consequences of his answer.
“Is that a fact?” Teddy responded, not seeming to be especially shocked. “How’d you come to do that?” He kept prodding until Jace finally told him the circumstances that had led him to shoot the blacksmith in Virginia City. “And you don’t know if you killed him or not,” Teddy repeated to himself. “Well, hell, you say he took a shot at you? And all you was tryin’ to do was bury your daddy?” Jace nodded. Teddy went on. “I can’t say as how I might notta done the same thing in your shoes. Least you didn’t steal nothin’. I can’t abide a man that’s a thief.”
He finished his coffee and sat back against a tree to relax for a few minutes before starting the process of smoking the meat.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Charles G. West
“Rarely has an author painted the great American West in strokes so bold, vivid, and true.”—Ralph Compton