"This is the West as it really was...savage, heroic, and unforgettable."—Ralph Compton
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Penguin Group|
|File size:||694 KB|
|Age Range:||6 - 11 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
“Let her go, Spanner.”
The voice came from the doorway. There was no hint of excitement, just a simple command. Spanner turned to see who dared to interfere with his pleasure. He half expected to see the girl’s father, but it was not. He grunted and laughed when he saw Tom standing by the front door. He made no move to release the girl.
“Let her go,” Tom repeated, bringing the Winchester up waist-high, at the same time keeping a watchful eye on the three troopers still seated at the table.
“Looo…tenant,” Spanner growled with emphatic sarcasm. “When was the last time an enlisted man told you to kiss his ass?”
“Let her go,” he said for the third time.
Spanner hesitated, looking at the rifle already leveled at him. He considered for only a moment whether or not he could release his hold on the girl and draw his pistol in time. He was angry and half drunk but he had better sense than to try it. Still, he was not willing to give in so easily. “Ain’t you the brave one? I thought I run you out of here once, and here you come crawling back holding a rifle on me. I wonder how big you’d talk if you didn’t have the jump on me.”
Tom was running out of patience. “Sergeant, you might find it difficult to ride back to your outfit with a bullet hole in your hide….”
CHARLES G. WEST
Table of Contents
Tom Allred stood in the doorway of the small room that had served as his quarters for the past two years. The steam from the army issue cup rose upward until it met the cold, crisp morning air, where it was molded into wispy curls that swept gently across his face. He inhaled the aroma of the strong, black coffee as he gazed out across the dusty parade ground, gray now in the early morning light. Soon the first rays of the sun would touch the easternmost rank of the troopers standing down from reveille. The duty officer would soon dismiss the formation, and they would break for the mess tent. Tom knew the routine well. It had been his life for the past twelve years. But it would be his life no more. Yesterday he was Lieutenant Thomas Allred, U.S. Seventh Cavalry. Today he was simply Tom Allred, civilian, the rank and insignia having been removed from his faded blue shirt.
He allowed a sigh to escape his lips as he corralled his wandering mind, lest he permit it to linger on the sadness of this day. The army had been his life, his home, since he enlisted at the age of eighteen and marched off to offer his services, and life if need be, to the Union. Now, on this chilly autumn morning, he was to leave the only family he knew, the Seventh Cavalry. His fellow officers, those who survived the battle at the Little Big Horn, had been his only friends and they were now lost to him. He sipped the coffee gingerly from the metal cup, taking care not to burn his lips. The black liquid was not as hot as the metal cup that held it. He couldn’t help but smile when he remembered Squint Peterson’s complaining that, “By the time the damn cup cooled enough to touch it to your mouth, the coffee was too cold to drink.” Squint was a helluva scout, one of the two best on the western frontier, the other being Andy Coulter. Everything Tom knew about fighting Indians he learned from these two scouts. Of the two, Andy had been the closest to him. It was Andy who took him under his wing when he first arrived from Fort Riley in the summer of ’65, a bright-eyed young lieutenant with thoughts of glory and a long career in the army. But Andy Coulter was gone now. His body was found no more than twenty feet or so from Custer’s body on top of a desolate little hill near the banks of the Little Big Horn. He would sorely miss the scout. A friend like Andy could never be replaced.
His mind recalled a picture of the two old scouts, galloping out from the column, Andy squat and square in the saddle, Squint as big as a great bear. He wondered where Squint Peterson was now, and if he finally made it to the Oregon territory. He was always talking about going to Oregon. Maybe he was holed up somewhere, perhaps in a snug little valley, waiting for the winter that was now barely two months away. The last memory he had of Squint was the sight of his giant bulk bobbing out of sight as he and his horse struggled with the current in the muddy waters of the Yellowstone. Then the sobering thought struck him—what would Squint think about Tom’s situation now?
“Morning, Sid,” Tom returned the greeting from the stocky figure wearing the garrison uniform of an infantry officer.
“I thought I’d catch you before you left this morning.” Noticing Tom’s horse saddled and tied to the porch railing, he added, “I reckon you’re all packed and ready to leave.” He faltered a moment. “I wish I could have done more—”
Tom interrupted him. “Sid, you did the best you could. I’ve got no complaints over the way you presented my side of it. I appreciate what you did for me.” He shrugged and threw the remains of his coffee cup into the dust below the porch. “Hell, there wasn’t much you could do, anyway. I don’t fault the army for it. They couldn’t very well overlook what I did and just say, Don’t do it again, could they?”
The lieutenant fidgeted. “Yeah, but I might have been able to save you your commission if I had been a little more experienced. I sure as hell ain’t a lawyer.” His glance dropped down to his boots as if inspecting them for dust. “I didn’t want the damn job in the first place but somebody had to represent you, so you got stuck with me.”
Tom laughed and put his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Nobody could have done it better. I got no complaints. Don’t worry about it. As far as the army was concerned, I did wrong and I was going to pay for it no matter who my defense counsel was.”
Sid nodded, understanding. He knew Tom was right. The army had to kick him out. At least he escaped having to serve any time in prison which, under most circumstances, would have been the case. Tom’s record had weighed heavily in his favor. He had served with honor at Vicksburg and Chattanooga before being transferred to the Seventh. And then, under Custer’s command, he had campaigned in the raid on Black Kettle’s village on the Washita, fought the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Bozeman Trail, and was in Benteen’s command at the Little Big Horn. He carried two wounds, both earned in battle with the hostiles. Because of this spotless service record, it had been difficult to explain his actions that evening on the Yellowstone, actions that had precipitated his court-martial.
Lieutenant Sidney A. Pearson had less than six months service at Fort Lincoln when he was appointed defense counsel for Tom Allred. An infantry officer, he had arrived too late to participate in the campaign against the Sioux. He had been in garrison when the shocking word of Custer’s annihilation was received at the fort, and he had remained on garrison duty during the three-pronged attack that finally crushed the Sioux at Wagon Box later that summer. Like Tom Allred, he had earned his commission under fire. For him it was Gettysburg but, unlike Tom, he had no experience fighting the Sioux and the Cheyenne.
Initially he had no desire to defend an officer charged with not only permitting the escape of an infamous Cheyenne war chief, but actually effecting the escape—losing not only the prisoner, but a valued army scout as well. What made it even more damnable was that the prisoner was none other than Little Wolf, a renegade so notorious that Custer himself had offered a reward of his own money for the man’s capture. In the weeks before the court-martial, however, Sid came to believe the man he was to represent was an officer of obvious integrity and devotion to duty. He wanted to believe that Tom was innocent of the charges brought upon him by the three enlisted men who were assigned to escort Little Wolf back to Fort Lincoln. But the evidence seemed to point toward his guilt.
The enlisted men, a sergeant and two privates, had discussed the incident at great length among themselves before deciding they should inform the post adjudant of their misgivings about the events that led up to the prisoner’s escape. It was close to dark when it was decided to take that treacherous trail beside the swollen waters of the Yellowstone. They had one of the best scouts in the army, Squint Peterson, so the men figured he knew what he was doing, although it seemed a risky trail to take at that time of day. It was almost dark and what little light there was was fading rapidly. The sergeant, a tall rawboned man named Waymon Spanner, figured it wouldn’t have saved more than two hours’ ride over the long way around that section of the river. Still, Spanner insisted, there would have been no problem were it not for the peculiar actions of the lieutenant and Peterson. It was plain to see that Spanner had a strong dislike for Tom Allred in the way he criticized his handling of the escape. Judging the man to be a born troublemaker, Sid wondered if Spanner knew any officers he didn’t hold in contempt. Still, he was the army’s chief witness, and the man who brought the charges. And it was his accounting the army accepted.
According to Spanner’s testimony, they had reached a point in the narrow trail where part of it had been washed out, leaving room for only one horse at a time to pass. Lieutenant Allred had halted the detail and instructed Peterson to check the prisoner’s bindings. Then he ordered the three enlisted men to pass over the wash-out first. At the time, this seemed like a curious command to Sergeant Spanner since they were better positioned to watch the prisoner from behind. The lieutenant had made some remark to the effect he wanted his men safely across the wash-out before a bloody hostile was permitted to cross. The events that took place within the next few seconds were not clear to him at the time, but soon seemed overly bizarre after discussing it with the other men.
One of the privates led. Spanner was next. Behind him, the other private, a young trooper named Wyatt, followed. Just as Wyatt cleared the wash-out, several shots rang out. At first Spanner thought they were under attack. He could hear horses screaming and the lieutenant shouting, “Halt!” Then the sound of the lieutenant’s carbine filled the canyon. He found out moments later that both Peterson’s and the prisoner’s horses had gone off the ledge into the river. This was the strange part, as far as the sergeant was concerned. Wyatt had managed to back his horse around enough to see what was happening. He was able to get his rifle out and fire a couple of shots after the prisoner as he was washed down with the current. But, according to Wyatt, he was lucky if he even hit the river, what with the way the lieutenant’s horse kept bumping his own. He swore it was almost like the lieutenant was purposely spoiling his aim. It was all over in a matter of seconds, and they could no longer see the two horses or riders in the half-light. But the lieutenant assured them that he had killed the Indian and that maybe Wyatt had shot Peterson. It didn’t make sense. Wyatt doubted very seriously if he had hit anything. But Lieutenant Allred insisted that both men were done for. Adding to the sergeant’s suspicions, they were ordered to proceed on to Fort Lincoln without searching for the bodies. It didn’t appear to be a case of simple carelessness, and the court had little choice but to find Tom guilty of something short of treason. There was just too much evidence against him.
Sid Pearson couldn’t help but like Tom Allred. He would have liked to save his commission for him, but Tom was unable to explain—or maybe he just refused to explain—why he acted as he did that night on the Yellowstone. Army records showed that the Cheyenne war chief, Little Wolf, was regarded as one of the most feared of all the hostile battle leaders. And, to make his crimes against the army even more serious, Little Wolf was not in fact an Indian but a white man raised by the Cheyennes. Lieutenant Allred himself had been wounded by Little Wolf and, had it not been for the actions of army scout Andy Coulter, he would have most likely perished in an ambush staged by the renegade. Sid had the feeling that Tom wasn’t telling him the whole story behind his actions during the incident at the Yellowstone. Still, he did the best he could for him, basing his defense almost entirely on Tom’s service record. Tom was found guilty, but was given a choice. He could remain in the army as a private after serving one year in prison, or he would be allowed to resign and forfeit all pay due him, which amounted to three months’ pay. Tom chose the latter.
“That looks like Andy Coulter’s forty-five-seventy Winchester.”
Tom’s comment startled him, and he realized his mind had been drifting back over the court-martial. “What?” he started. “Oh … yeah, it is,” he answered and held the rifle out toward Tom. “I thought you might need it. From what I’ve heard, Andy would probably have liked for you to have it.” He paused for a second while Tom took the rifle and examined it as if it were a precious thing. “I figured I’d better get it before somebody else confiscated it.”
Tom was touched. “Thanks, Sid. I appreciate it.” Andy had thought more of his rifle than if it had been a wife. It meant a lot to Tom to have it. Andy was seldom caught without that rifle. It was ironic that on the last day of his life, when fighting over- whelming odds, his rifle was back here at Fort Lincoln, getting a new firing pin. Tom rubbed his finger thoughtfully over the smooth surface of the stock, his mind drifting back to better days before Little Big Horn.
“Hell, I wish I could do more for you.” Sid stepped over to Tom’s horse and hooked the straps of a canvas satchel over the saddle horn. “Here’s some cartridges for it. Rifle won’t do you much good without these.”
Tom smiled. “Reckon not.”
“At least they let you keep Billy.”
“Yeah,” was all Tom answered, but he was indeed appreciative of the gift of his horse. Billy, a blue roan, had been with him for two years, and they were comfortable with each other. He was not as swift as an Indian pony. Still, Billy was not slow when it came to a full gallop, and he had staying power. Short legs and a broad chest with plenty of room for heart, Billy was a horse a man could count on.
“Well, I’ve got to go to work.” Sid extended his hand.
“Yeah, time for me to go too, I reckon.” They shook hands and Sid turned and walked briskly back toward the orderly room.
Tom watched Sid Pearson for a few moments until he disappeared around the corner of the officers’ quarters. Then he went back into the small room for one last look around to make sure he wasn’t leaving anything. He reached down and smoothed out a wrinkle in the blanket on the narrow cot. He didn’t do it consciously. It was a reflex action from years of army routine. Had he given it any thought, he might have realized that it didn’t make any difference now what condition the room was in. He didn’t have to care anymore. He picked up a small shaving mirror he had forgotten to take from the washstand. As he did, he caught a glimpse of his image, and it caused him to pause and examine the face in the glass. He almost did not recognize the man he saw. The eyes looked tired, etched at the corners with tiny wrinkles from long hot days in the saddle. Already a scattering of gray was infiltrating his mustache, a little premature for a man of thirty. The reflection he saw was a hell of a lot different from the fresh-faced lieutenant who rode out on the train to Fort Riley eleven years before. Duty on the western frontier aged a man. He had to wonder how much of that aging had taken place during the last few months while awaiting court-martial.
Sid had done as much as he possibly could have in representing him. Maybe Tom should have told him the whole story, he couldn’t say. It probably would not have made much difference in the outcome of the trial. On the other hand, maybe it would have. But Tom somehow felt it best to keep it to himself. There were only three men on the western frontier who knew the secret he had carried—himself, Squint Peterson, and Little Wolf—a secret he had been careful to keep from Custer, that Little Wolf’s real name was Robert Allred. He was Tom’s brother. Tom had only known it himself for a little over a year when Squint Peterson put two and two together and discovered the twist of fate that had placed the two brothers on opposite sides in the bloody struggle for possession of the plains. That was the reason Tom had not told Sid why he acted the way he had that evening on the Yellowstone. The army would view it as an invalid defense. Duty first, there would be no debate. In the final analysis, it was his decision alone, and renegade or not, enemy though he was, Little Wolf was his brother by birth and Tom could not let the man hang. His brother was raised from childhood as a Cheyenne warrior. Tom could not accept the fact that Little Wolf was wrong in choosing to fight for the people who took him in and raised him.
He gazed at the face in the mirror for a moment longer before turning and leaving his small quarters. Outside, he stepped up on Billy and pointed him toward the main gate. With a gentle pressure of his heels, he urged the horse into a canter and said farewell to the army and his career as a professional soldier.
Winter was hard that year, the hardest Tom ever remembered, and not entirely due to the weather. It was cold enough. It always was in Montana territory. It was more that he was orphaned from the military. Before, he was always assured of a warm home base where it was someone else’s responsibility to provide food and housing. Now, for the first time since he joined the army, Tom was on his own, alone in the vast winter wilderness of Montana. Looking back a few months, he was not sure now why he had chosen to go north and west when he left Fort Lincoln. At the time, he felt a strong desire to lose himself completely from all civilization. He had not the slightest notion as to how he could make a living. All he knew was the army. He couldn’t farm, even if he had a desire to, which he didn’t. He didn’t have enough money to buy stock, even if he had a notion to run cattle. There were cattle ranches in Montana. A few brave souls had even pushed herds up from Texas in search of the lush prairies, willing to take on the Indians and the cruel winters. Tom had no experience with cattle. All that was left for him were trapping and panning for gold. Of the two, he figured he knew the least about panning for gold. True, he wasn’t much on trapping either, but at least he had learned a little about it from Squint Peterson during the long winter months at Fort Lincoln, when cabin fever would drive the army scout out of the fort for a few days’ respite. Tom had accompanied Squint on more than one occasion, whenever the duty roster permitted. It had proven to be valuable experience, for he had learned how to build a camp in the snow and how to stay alive in the brutal winters of the plains. He would need this knowledge now because it was the wrong time of year for a man to strike out alone across the Dakota/Montana territory, what with winter just getting its second wind. But he felt the need to be on the move. Still, he disliked the idea of aimless wandering, so he told himself he was headed toward Oregon, the hoped-for destination of hundreds of other displaced souls. Once there, he could see to the business of making a new beginning for himself. But for now, it was enough to simply be on the move.
He had managed to save a little money from his army pay over the years and, although it didn’t add up to a sizable stake, at least it was enough to provide a start. After buying his basic supplies and ammunition, he had enough left to purchase a dozen #4 beaver traps and a few #2 mink traps. He figured he might as well give trapping a try. He had nothing better to do. There was considerable risk for one white man alone in what was still Indian territory—the weather wasn’t the only threat to a man’s life. Nonetheless, he figured he should be able to survive if he kept his wits about him and was careful about where he made his camps. The main Indian threat had been squashed near the end of the summer with the defeat of the Sioux at the Tongue River and Wagon Box. The survivors, those who had not been forced to return to the reservation, were mainly scattered. Sitting Bull and Dull Knife and several others were reported to have fled to Canada. The rest, the wild ones, were most probably holed up in winter camps. Even so, he was careful to live by the rule Squint had instilled in his mind. The key to surviving in hostile country is to make sure you see them a long time before they see you. Twice he had caught sign of Indian hunting parties, although he did not actually see any hostiles. The only Indians he had encountered since he left Fort Lincoln were a small band of half-starved Arapahos who had decided to give it up and go to the reservation. The party consisted of one man, his wife, and his wife’s two sisters. Tom traded the man his army pistol for a buffalo robe. He threw in a little beef jerky from his precious supply. Gazing at the hollow, hungry eyes of the women, he wished he could give them more, but he had none to spare as it was. The buffalo robe would go a long way in helping him survive the winter cold. He wouldn’t miss the pistol. A pistol was of very little value to a man in the wild unless he was involved in close combat with an enemy. Otherwise, it was no good at any range over thirty or forty yards. He wondered how long the Arapaho brave would be able to hang on to the pistol. He was sure to be thoroughly searched for weapons when he reported to the reservation. Other than that one party of Arapahos, Tom had been virtually alone in this wilderness.
After a while, he got used to being alone. He couldn’t say that he actually enjoyed it, but at least he didn’t seem to mind it. For the most part, he disciplined his mind to avoid thinking about his past life and the events that led to his forced exile. He tried to always focus on only a few basic things crucial to his survival; to stay warm, to stay out of sight, and to find food for himself and his horse. The latter was the most difficult, but he found that there was food for one man if he hunted constantly. Occasionally he was lucky enough to find an elk, driven down from the high country, but mostly his diet consisted of varmints and the beaver he caught in his traps. Down in the lower basins, near the rivers, Billy could usually scratch around for forage, although it would become more and more difficult as the winter progressed. Billy’s welfare was of primary concern to him. A man’s horse might mean the difference between living and dying. For that reason, a good deal of his time was spent digging in the snow to find grass and roots for Billy and peeling the bark off green tree limbs and the tender willow wisps—anything he thought might give his horse nourishment. The nights were getting steadily colder, causing him to question the wisdom of moving from camp to camp. Already, he often found his breakfast water frozen solid if he allowed his campfire to die down during the night. At night he slept with Billy’s bridle inside his buffalo robe to keep from placing a frozen bit in his horse’s mouth the next morning.
As the winter lengthened, it became increasingly difficult to stay on the move. Soon the snows came one on top of the other, causing him to wonder if he would be able to survive if he didn’t build a more permanent camp. The last several days had been spent by a winding stream that had provided him with half a dozen prime beaver plews, but the campsite was no good. The surrounding plains offered little protection from the winter blizzards he knew would be coming. He looked out across the rolling hills toward the high country and decided the best chance for him and his horse was to find a camp somewhere under the lee side of a hill. As if to remind him not to tarry in his decision, a cold breeze danced across his face, warning him to find shelter.
Billy seemed to sense the urgency in their journey as he struggled through snow up to his broad chest. At times, Tom had to hold his feet up sideways to keep the stirrups from dragging in the snow. But Billy was stout and had plenty of heart and he never faltered. Twice darkness forced them to make trail camp in open country before they reached the shelter of the foothills but, finally, they reached a steep hill covered with trees. On the far side, Tom discovered a rock formation that formed a small cliff that slanted back into the hill, creating a slight depression. He knew at once that this was the place they would wait out the winter.
The next two days were spent digging out some of the frozen ground under the rocks until he had fashioned half a cave where he and Billy could get out of the wind and weather. When he had completed his work, he had a shelter closed on three sides with a fire pit at the back. He next set about finding firewood under the snow to stockpile. He was no longer concerned about concealing his presence in the territory. His concern now was surviving the winter. He wasn’t worried about roving bands of hostiles. Any Indian with a lick of sense was already holed up for the winter, and if a rare hunting party stumbled upon his camp, he would deal with it the best way he could. He decided he’d rather die with an arrow in him than freeze to death.
The days that followed were spent almost entirely at work to winter-proof his camp, his every thought centered on keeping himself and his horse alive until spring. After he had done all he could to make the dugout secure against the weather, he hunted for anything he could eat. It didn’t matter what it was as long as it had meat on it, or roots he could boil in melted snow. The meat he was able to procure was cut up and stored outside his camp in the snow. More than one night was ended with a prayer of thanks to Andy Coulter for his Winchester. It fired as true as any rifle he had ever shot, and when cartridges were precious, accuracy was doubly important. Small game seemed plentiful in the mountains beyond the hill he had chosen for his camp, and most of this he managed to catch without wasting bullets. Squint Peterson had shown him how to rig a snare to catch rabbits, and he soon became adept at it. But he needed more than rabbits to make it through the winter. A stroke of luck probably contributed to his survival more than anything else.
It was late in the afternoon and he was making his way back down the mountain after a disappointing day of hunting. He didn’t like returning to camp empty-handed. He needed to store all the meat he could, feeling the urgency more and more as each day brought colder and colder weather. Something in his bones was telling him that storms were coming and coming soon. The sky had a slate gray cast to it, and there was fresh wind from the north blowing steady all day. As nightfall approached, the wind began to pick up in intensity. He didn’t like the look of it. He didn’t have nearly enough food stored to last him, and he was going back to his camp empty-handed. Already the snow was deep on the mountains and it was slow going, even downhill. Coming to a small stream that had not yet frozen solid, he braced himself to jump across it, a feat made more difficult because of the makeshift snowshoes he had fashioned. He misjudged the distance by a fraction, causing him to slip and ram his foot through the limbs of his snowshoe, resulting in a headfirst tumble down the mountain, ending some eighty or ninety feet later against a tree stump.
“Jesus Christ!” he exclaimed as he lay prone in the snow. “I’d be in a helluva fix if I broke my neck now, wouldn’t I?” He lay there for a moment longer to make certain nothing was broken. Then he reached for his rifle and checked to make certain he hadn’t plugged the barrel when he took his tumble. Satisfied that it was all right, he brushed the snow away from the lever and hammer. When he turned again to look down below him, his heart almost stopped. There, not fifty feet away, a great black bear stood watching him, evidently confused by this strange-looking animal that had just landed before him, arms and legs flailing as it tumbled wildly to a stop against the stump.
Tom was lucky that day that his chaotic descent down the mountain served to confuse the great beast, and lucky that he was able to react quicker than the bear. In a fraction of a second, Tom raised his rifle and fired from a sitting position. The bullet made a thud as it entered the animal’s skull immediately below the right eye. The bear recoiled backward in surprise. Tom readied himself for the animal’s charge, getting up to kneel on one knee, his rifle ready for the next shot. But, instead of charging, the beast turned to run. Tom’s second and third shots were no more than two or three inches apart, right behind the bear’s shoulder. The bear roared once, then tried to run, but it seemed to have lost its sense of balance and began to stagger drunkenly from side to side for about twenty feet before crumpling to the ground in a heap.
Tom could feel his heart racing from the shock of the sudden encounter. His very fingertips tingled with the rush of adrenaline that had been triggered by the expectation of mortal combat with the huge beast. When he realized the bear was dead, his panic was replaced by a great feeling of joy. The killing of the bear meant survival for him. He would now have not only the meat, but the fur and fat as well. He quickly collected himself, and after making sure the animal was indeed finished, he made his way down the mountain, wasting no time to get his horse and get back to his kill before wolves or coyotes found it. It would be impossible for him to drag the bear with him, even downhill. He would need Billy’s strength for that job. As he trudged along toward his camp, his progress impeded by the one broken snowshoe, he couldn’t help but wonder at his good fortune. It was almost as if providence, or whatever power, had sent the bear to him because it was way past time for the beast to be in hibernation. What, he wondered, was the bear doing wandering around after others of his kind were already sleeping, waiting for spring? It gave him a sense of faith, as if it was a sign that he was meant to survive this winter.
Darkness had settled over the hills by the time he dragged the bear’s carcass down out of the mountains. The beast was huge, and it was a hard pull for the horse, but once again Billy was up to the task. He left a wide trail straight to his camp under the rocks, but Tom was not concerned. His intuition proved to be accurate, for he awoke the next morning to find a fresh blanket of snow over the land, covering any tracks left the night before under a foot of snow. It was to be two full months before he would be able to leave his little valley again.
* * *
One morning, it was finally over. Tom was awakened late in the morning by the sound of dripping water from the rocks above his camp. The snow was melting. Still, it would be several weeks before he could leave the safety of his dugout for good. These last few weeks were the worst of the severe winter months. He was almost desperate to get on the move again. He looked at his horse, rooting in the melting snow outside the dugout, searching for anything green. “Billy,” he said softly, “you’re looking a little peaked, but we’ll be on our way before long and, if we ever find any civilized place again, I swear I’ll get you a barrel of oats.” He walked over to the horse and offered him a handful of green bark he had peeled from a willow switch. Billy accepted it gratefully. He watched the horse for a moment as Billy ground the bark and looked at him expectantly, wanting more. “That’s all I got right now. Sorry, son.” He looked back over his shoulder at the hole in the hillside that had served as his home for over three months. “Damned if I haven’t had my fill of wintering alone in this wilderness. If I can help it, I’ll not spend another winter like I did this one.” He was fully aware that he was fortunate to be alive.
* * *
He caught sign of the settlement long before he was to see the canvas huts and rough shacks scattered along the banks of the wide stream that served as the lifeblood for the handful of souls gathered there. It was not difficult to tell he was approaching some form of civilization, for the signs he found were permanent scars upon the land. Trees had been felled, no doubt to be used for lumber, and no Indian he had ever encountered chopped down trees for any purpose other than to use them as lodge poles. The deep ruts left by a wagon were still evident, even after having been under a blanket of snow until the recent melt.
The thought of seeing another human being was enough to lift his spirits and liven his step. He had traveled three days since bidding his winter camp farewell. At least half of the journey was on foot. Billy looked so bony he didn’t have the heart to burden him with his weight. As it was, the half-starved horse had to pull a travois loaded with the plews Tom had managed to trap. This was another reason Tom was relieved to find signs of a settlement. He was more than a little concerned about the trail he was leaving, a trail that a blind Indian could follow. He would have to get himself a packhorse at the first opportunity if he was to keep his hair in this country.
Nightfall found him still making his way toward a low line of hills that he had guided on for the better part of the afternoon. It was his guess that the settlement he was near had to be in that direction. From the wagon tracks he found, it was apparent that the woodcutters had come from there. To confirm his guess, deepening darkness revealed several small flickers of light that he knew had to be cook fires. He resisted the impulse to push on through the night to reach the town. He thought it better to approach the settlement in the morning, after he had the opportunity to scout it a bit before blissfully riding in. There were all kinds of savages in this territory, not all of them Indians.
* * *
The settlement looked pretty much like a dozen others Tom had seen in the years he had spent on the frontier. An odd gathering of tents shacks, some that were half tent and half shack, were assembled along the banks of a broad rocky stream that seemed to meander drunkenly through the low line of hills, rushing first in one direction and then almost reversing its flow as it veered sharply around an outcropping of boulders and raced off in another direction. The tents and shacks were scattered haphazardly along the stream as if some giant hand had simply rolled them like dice and they just happened to land right-side up. It was pretty rough for a town, but it didn’t matter to Tom. It was a settlement and there were people there and he was more than ready to see and talk to someone after the long winter alone.
He rode in on the north end of the stream after having skirted the town from the south. It looked all right to him, a typical diggings with a rickety sluice box here and there in front of a weather-worn shack. As he urged Billy into the icy water at a shallow crossing that led to the main part of the settlement, he noticed a wide board nailed to a tree that served as a sign. The letters had been burned into the wood and proclaimed that this settlement had a name. It read
IF YOU DON’T GIVE NO TROUBLE—YOU WONT GET NO TROUBLE
Fair enough, Tom thought. He nudged Billy with his heels, and they crossed the stream, headed toward the largest structure in Ruby’s Choice.
Looking around him, he thought at first he might have been mistaken when he had assumed the town was indeed settled. There was no living soul in sight. He stepped down from the saddle onto the wagon tracks that served as the main street and stood gazing first north and then south. No one was in sight. Then he reminded himself that he had seen campfires the night before. There had to be people here. He turned to look at the rough building before him. There, beside the door, was a sign that proclaimed the structure was CLAY’S STORE. Tom guessed the lettering was done by the same hand that made the sign on the tree at the edge of town. There was no hitching rail, so he dropped the reins on the ground, knowing Billy wouldn’t go anywhere as long as the reins were down. He was about to step up on the small porch when he was startled by a voice behind him.
“That there top step is busted. Mind you don’t break your neck on it.”
He turned to face a slightly built man of perhaps middle age, standing by his travois. He was holding a kettle in his hand. The man smiled at Tom as he casually glanced over the pack of skins on the travois.
“I reckon you’ll be looking to trade some of them skins for whiskey and flour and tabacky.” He rubbed his bald head as he looked Tom up and down. “That’s about all you mountain men want, whiskey, flour, and tabacky.”
Tom smiled. “Well, I guess I like a drink about as well as the next man. But I had more in mind trading for some coffee and some beans, if you have any, and some flour and salt…and some grain for my horse…maybe some meat that ain’t wild.”
The little bald man looked Tom over more carefully, noticing the faded army trousers and the cavalry boots. “You ain’t been trappin long, have you?” He studied Tom’s face carefully. After a moment, he evidently decided that this stranger meant him no harm. “You look like you could use a good cup of coffee right now. Come on in. I was about to make some when you come up.”
“Mister, that sure is to my liking,” Tom said, accepting the invitation. It had been more than a month since his supply of coffee beans had run out, and the thought of a fresh brewed pot of black coffee was enough to make his mouth water. He followed the little man into the store and watched while he settled the kettle over an iron grill on one side of a huge stone fireplace. Like so many stores in the isolated settlements away from the army’s forts, Clay’s Store served as general store as well as a saloon. Neither man spoke until the kettle was taken care of and the little man stood back to watch it boil.
“Where’s all the people?” Tom wondered aloud. “From the looks of all the tents, I figured to find some folks about.”
The little man looked at him, a gleam of amusement in his eye. “Why, hellfire, they’re most likely asleep in their beds, I reckon. It’s just past sunup you know.”
Tom considered this. “I guess it is a little early. I had no notion of the time.”
The little man reached into a sack and withdrew a fistful of coffee beans and proceeded to grind them in a small, well-worn coffee mill. Then he poured them into the boiling water and pulled the kettle away from the flames to let the coffee brew. He watched it for a moment longer before turning back to Tom.
“My names’s Jubal Clay. This here’s my store.” He extended his arm.
“Tom Allred,” Tom replied, taking the outstretched hand.
“Well, Mr. Allred, what brings you to Ruby’s Choice?”
Tom settled himself on a ladder-back chair on one side of the huge fireplace and held his palms out to catch the warmth of the flames. “Well, like you said, I’d like to trade some furs for some supplies. I’ve been up in the hills all winter and I need some things.” He noticed the statement caused Jubal Clay to raise his eyebrows ever so slightly. He was quick to add, “Oh, I’ve got a little bit of money. The furs ain’t all I’ve got to pay with.”
“How long you been out of the army?”
“Since September,” Tom replied. The question did not surprise him since he was wearing army trousers and boots.
“How’d you happen to come to Ruby’s Choice? If it’s for the gold, I’m afraid you’re a bit too late. There’s still some folks finding a little color now and then, but the big stuff is panned out.” He wrapped a rag around the handle to keep from burning his hand and withdrew the kettle from the fireplace. With his free hand, he picked up a cup from the hearth and peered into it. As a precaution, he blew in the cup to make sure it wasn’t full of dust. Then he filled it with the steaming hot liquid and offered it to Tom. “Most of the folks have turned to trapping, them that are still here.”
Tom sipped from the cup before answering. The coffee was strong and scalding hot, but it was good. “I’m really not heading anywhere in particular. I just stumbled on your little town.” He paused to sip again.
Jubal Clay studied his visitor intently. “I reckon you could use a hot meal some too, couldn’t you?”
“I sure could,” Tom responded immediately. Then a thought occurred to him. “First, I reckon I better find out how much this is gonna cost me.” Gold mining towns were notorious for their high prices. The more remote they were, the higher the prices. And not many settlements were more remote than Ruby’s Choice.
“Hell, man, I’m offering you some breakfast, one neighbor to another. I ain’t looking to charge you nuthin’ for that. Now later on, when we get to bargaining for them pelts you got, then you better watch your backside, ’cause trading is how I make my living.”
Tom flushed, embarrassed. “I apologize, Mr. Clay, and I thank you for your hospitality.”
“T’ain’t nuthin’.” Jubal laughed at his guest’s embarrassment. “Ruby’ll be down in a minute, and she’ll fix us some breakfast.”
This sparked Tom’s interest. “Ruby? Your wife? Is she the one the town’s named for?”
“Ruby’s my daughter. My missus died three year ago last month—pneumonia. I drove two wagons out here five year ago. I drove one of ’em, my wife drove the other. Sold my dry goods store in Minnesota and headed west to get my share of the gold. Figured on settling in the Black Hills. Trouble was the dang Injuns was murdering every white man they could find there, so we kept north and west to Montana. I bet we tried a hundred little cricks and gullies, looking for some color before we found this place. There was a little color showing here, but I couldn’t decide to stay or move on. Well, the missus was getting awful damn tired of traveling, and she wanted to set down someplace permanent. I still weren’t shore this was the place to set up, couldn’t make up my mind. Ruby was twelve year old then. Finally, I let her choose. “Honey,” I said, “you choose. Do we go or stay?” She said, “We stay.” So we did, and that’s why the town is named Ruby’s Choice.”
“It’s a silly name for a town, too.”
The voice came from behind him. Tom turned to see a young girl climbing down from the loft of the building. Her skirt was pulled up almost to her waist to prevent her tripping on the steps, revealing long underwear that disappeared into the tops of her boots. Tom quickly turned his glance away to avoid embarrassment to the lady. It was wasted on the young girl. She seemed in no hurry to shake her skirt back down, standing squarely in front of Tom as she smoothed out a few of the many wrinkles in her dress. According to what her father had told him minutes earlier, she would be about seventeen years of age. She looked older, due no doubt to the hard way of life for all women in this part of the world. She studied him for a brief moment then commented, “Mister, you look like you wintered hard. I reckon you’re half starved, too. Well, I reckon I can throw in a couple more eggs.” There was a genuine hint of irritation in her tone.
Tom wasn’t especially pleased by her attitude. He knew he looked pretty scruffy, but he didn’t come looking for a handout. He couldn’t help but bristle a bit. “Well, ma’am, I don’t want to put you out. I can pay for my breakfast.”
Jubal Clay laughed. “Ruby didn’t mean to insult you, young feller.”
The girl looked into Tom’s face for a moment longer, her expression stern as if she was trying to make up her mind. Finally she flashed a wide smile. “I’m sorry. I’m sure you can pay for your breakfast. I didn’t mean to get you all riled up.” She extended her arm and said, “I’m Ruby Clay and we’d be glad to have you eat with us, no charge.”
Tom, embarrassed now that he had allowed himself to rankle over a young girl’s remark, took her hand and briefly shook it. “Tom Allred. Thank you for the invitation, and you were right the first time. I am about half starved.”
He took a longer look at her then. She was pretty in a plain sort of way, at least for Montana territory. She wasn’t exactly St. Louis pretty, maybe not even Kansas City pretty. But, on this spring morning, north and west of the Black Hills, he could not help but notice the depth of her cold blue eyes and the fullness of her lips. Her hair was the color of a new hemp rope, somewhere between the gold of grain in the field and the bark of a cinnamon tree. It struck him that she looked clean, freshly scrubbed almost, a realization that reminded him of his own appearance.
“I guess I need a bath and a shave about as bad as I need something to eat.”
“We can heat you up some water. You want to eat first or after?” She paused to hear his answer.
He rubbed his beard, feeling the growth he had allowed to accumulate. It was tempting to eat first, but he decided it would be better to wait. “Maybe I better clean up first. Maybe you and your pa could stand me a little better. First though, I reckon I ought to feed my horse. I’d like to buy a ration of oats if I can.”
“Suit youself.” She pointed to a wooden bucket in the corner of the room. “There’s the bucket. You can start carrying water up from the crick. The tub’s in the storeroom. Show him, Pa.”
He turned and followed Jubal Clay out the door. As he walked out, he asked, “Were you teasing about having some eggs? Have you really got some chickens?”
Clay answered. “Shore have. And I bet you can’t find another one around here for a hundred miles.” He pointed Tom toward the creek. “You git the water. I’ll feed your horse for you.”
* * *
It had been a while. Tom was accustomed to taking baths regularly and shaving every day, a routine instilled by his many years in the military, but it was a routine that had been abandoned over the past winter for practical reasons. He might have frozen to death if he had tried to take a bath. Now, as he lay back and soaked in the large wooden tub, he felt as if he were losing an outer layer of skin. The water, crystal clear when he carried it up from the stream, was now a dingy gray, and his skin felt itchy from scrubbing it with the harsh lye soap. Realizing that his bathwater was rapidly cooling, he decided he had better get his razor and strap and get rid of the whiskers, else he was going to have to shave in cold water. When he was done shaving, he threw the clothes he had been wearing into the tub and scrubbed them a little as well. When he was finished and dressed in a clean pair of trousers and his other shirt, he called out to Jubal Clay to help him carry the tub out to be emptied. For the first time in three months, he felt clean.
“Well, howdy, stranger.” Ruby Clay paused, a large iron skillet in her hand, taking a long look at their freshly-scrubbed guest. She made no attempt to mask her surprise at the transformation. She stood staring for a moment longer before resuming her breakfast preparations.
Tom was embarrassed, a fact that was somewhat masked by the flush already present as a result of the harsh soap. Jubal Clay was amused, a twinkle in his eye as he watched his daughter’s reaction when discovering there had been a rather nice-looking young man under the dirt and whiskers and buffalo robe that first walked into the store.
It was the best breakfast Tom could remember ever having. He wasn’t sure whether it was due to Ruby’s skill with a frying pan or simply because he had been living off little more than thin strips of wild meat for so long. He could have eaten a couple more eggs had they been offered, but he was too polite to ask for them. There was plenty of fried corn mush and baking powder biscuits to fill in the empty spots, however, and Ruby kept the coffee coming. Jubal, who had eaten earlier while Tom was taking his bath, sat back and watched his guest consume the plate of food before him. He seemed pleased by the enthusiasm shown for his daughter’s cooking. When Tom had finished, Ruby stood over him for a moment while she inspected the empty plate.
“Well, it must not a’been too bad. The plate don’t even need washing.”
Tom laughed. “It was wonderful,” he said, “the best breakfast I’ve ever had.”
“Is that so?” she answered matter-of-factly, unimpressed by his attempt at flattery. “Well, I don’t reckon it’ll kill you anyway. It ain’t killed Pa yet.” She continued to stare at him as if trying to make up her mind about him.
“I sure do appreciate it,” he said. Tom was uncomfortable with the young girl’s attitude. She was no more than seventeen, yet she acted as if she was much older than that and treated him as if he was the one who was seventeen. He returned her stare, and their eyes were locked for a few long moments before she finally broke off and took his plate away. Damn, he thought, if I had a horse that looked at me like that, I wouldn’t turn my back on him for fear he might take a chunk out of my backside. He glanced at Jubal, and the little man flashed a warm smile toward him.
“Don’t let Ruby spook you. She’s been bossing me around since she was fourteen. Matter of fact, she runs this whole town.” His grin expanded to almost touch his ears. “’Sides, I figure she kinda likes you. If she didn’t, damned if she’da scrambled up them eggs for you. She don’t do that for just anybody. Eggs is precious.”
Tom only grunted in reply. If she kinda liked him, she sure had a funny way of showing it. Besides, he wasn’t sure he cared to have her like him. She was too bossy to suit him. He’d just as soon she liked somebody else. His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of two of the town’s citizens.
“Morning, Red. Morning, Otis,” Jubal greeted the two as they came in the door.
“Morning, Jubal. Morning, Ruby,” they returned, almost in unison. One of them, a tall, thin man with a shaggy red beard asked, “Bar open yet? It’s most ’bout eight o’clock.” He looked expectantly at the storekeeper, glancing every few seconds at the stranger sitting at the kitchen table.
“Yeah, I reckon,” Jubal replied. “It’s close enough to eight.” He got up from the table and walked over to the other end of the store, where a short bar had been built against the far wall. Taking a jar out from under the counter, he poured two glasses half full and set them in front of the two men. He started to return the jar, but paused long enough to look in Tom’s direction. “You want one?”
“No thanks,” Tom replied. “It’s a little too early in the day for me.” He glanced toward the girl working in the kitchen and caught her watching him intently. She quickly turned back to her work when she met his eye.
“This here’s Red Tinsley and Otis Watson,” Jubal said. “They got a little claim ’bout a hundred yards down the crick from here. They’re just two more of the folks gettin’ rich outta that crick.”