This novel is dedicated to those of us who
would rather watch a campfire than a
television, and who know what it is to depend
on a horse for more than just recreation.
It was a fair cool mornin’ with a heavy dew an’ some terrible thick fog. I’d just finished my necessaries an’ was walkin’ back to the house to have a bite a breakfast with Miss Harmony, little Bill, an’ Verlon, when he kindly appeared through the mist. He was riding his warhorse, that heavy white leopard Appaloosa a his, the one he’d got after the strawberry roan was kilt. He looked like a black shadow settin’ on a ghost or somethin’. I gotta admit, him just takin’ form like he done comin’ quiet up the lane through the fog, kindly brought a chill to me.
I went to meet him an’ he pulled up beside me and got down. He was wearin’ a big ol’ drover’s coat to keep the damp off, an’ a black hat with a brim near wide enough for a Mexican. His spurs give a “clink” when they hit the ground, an’ he stood there lookin’ down at me.
“You et?” I asked him.
“I ain’t,” he said, loosenin’ the cinch on that Ap.
I turned away from him then an’ started off for the stable.
After he got the saddle off, I put that Ap in the third stall an’ give him some oats in a bucket. When I turned around, Marion was standin’ there, grinnin’ at me.
“Gawdammit, Ruben,” he said, “are ya all right?”
“I believe I am,” Marion,” I tolt him. “How the hell are you?”
“I ain’t fallin’ offa my boots yet, boy. Your family doin’ good are they?”
“Settin’ down to breakfast ‘bout now,” I said. “I reckon they’s a empty chair.”
He chuckled an’ struck off toward the house. Arliss the mule showed up outa the mist an’ him an’ me follerd along.
Harmony an’ her daddy was both right glad to see Marion. He shook hands with Verlon an’ Harmony give him a hug. Little Bill didn’t remember him I guess, an’ was some scairt by his looks, Marion bein’ so tall an’ all, an’ wearin’ that flappy drover’s coat. After he hung the coat an’ gunbelt up an’ set down, Bill come out from behind his momma an’ studied on him quite a bit. Marion didn’t give no notice. A minute or two after Harmony give us our plates, Bill was standin’ between where Marion an’ me set, leanin’ on me an’ lookin’ him over right serious. Marion ignored him.
By the time we was near halfway through eatin’, Bill stepped over to him an’ patted him on the knee. Marion looked down.
“Now what do you want when you act like that, Bill?” Marion asked him.
About a minute later, Bill was settin’ on Marion’s lap munchin’ on a piece a biscuit soaked in gravy, an’ his momma was smilin’ across the table. For the next couple days, if Marion Daniels was in the house an’ Bill warn’t nappin’ or somethin’, that boy was on him like ugly on a ‘possum, jawin’ away now an’ then in somethin’ that kindly resembled English. Marion fussed over him somethin’ fierce. We warn’t related or nothin’ like that, but he was part a our family an’ all of us was the better for it.
By the time we was finished eatin’ the fog had thinned quite a bit. Marion mentioned that he wanted to drop by Arliss Hyatt’s place for a while. I needed to git over to the office an’ check in with Hank Buford. Me an Emory Nail had put a couple a rounders in the jail huts the night afore, an’ I wanted to see if they was sober enough to let go. Marion give little Bill to his grandpa, an’ we put on our gunbelts an’ left. We warn’t much even outa the yard afore I spoke up.
“This ain’t no social call, is it?” I said.
Marion shook his head. “It ain’t.”
“You got a warrant needs servin’ or somethin’ like that?” I asked him.
He shook his head agin. “This here is a favor, Ruben. It’s marshal thing, too. No doubt about it. But it’s more than that. There’s a feller I owe that once owed me. I got a telegraph from Jeff City while I was down in Springfield a little while back, tellin’ me about a telegraph that come there for me. By rights, there’s another Marshal more into the territory where I’m headin’, but I’m takin’ this one on myself. If you ain’t tied up in nothin’ I was hopin’ you’d come with me. Give ya a chance to earn yer Marshal’s pay. If you cain’t, I understand. Thought I might give Homer Poteet a try if you warn’t able to go.”
“Where ya headed?” I asked.
“Up inta Nebraska a ways,” he said, “ Ogallala for a start. I don’t know just where after that. Could be a long trail, boy.”
“Yer horse up to it?” I said.
“That midget buckskin a yours still able to walk?” he asked me.
We glared at each other for a minute, then I grinned at him. Marion smacked me on the hat brim.
On the walk to Arliss’ place, we stopped by the Sweetwater to jaw a spell. After the coffee come, Marion tilted his hat back an’ looked across the table at me.
“Back when the Injun wars was just startin’ to settle down, I was sent up to the Santee Sioux Agency on the west side of the Missouri a little south of the Niobrara River to try an’ get a speck a cooperation from the damn army for the Injun agent up that way, a feller by the name a Lightner. Useless trip. Army doan give a shit about Injuns, ‘cept to kill ‘em off or starve ‘em down. I spent a lot a effort for nothin’. I was pissed off and give up, but detoured a ways and went over to toward Sidney, Nebraska. They was word from over that way that a man of low character by the name a Luke Short was sellin’ whiskey to Injuns north a there a ways. Federal offense sellin’ liquor to Injuns, ya know. It was said that he had kilt a few a them Sioux over a year or two span, then left the area headin’ toward Ogallala. He had a reputation as pistoleer and shootist. I went over that direction lookin’ for him.
“Near fifteen miles outside a Ogallala I come across a feller that had been throwed hard when his horse fell and broke his neck. The feller was some banged up and had a shoulder that was outa joint. I put it back in for him and toted him and his saddle about ten miles to his place near the river. This ol’ boy was a Hunkpappa Sioux half-breed name a Cecil Man-Bear. I got him home all right and he made me stay on with him and his wife, a half-breed Lakota Sioux gal called Mary Close-Rabbit, and their daughter, Cold-Moon. They was right nice folks and terrible grateful for me bringin’ Man-Bear home and such. I hung out there for a week or better, I guess.
“Man-Bear told me that Cold-Moon warn’t even his true daughter. Three or four years afore, a breed that was half white and half Lakota Sioux had raped Mary Close-Rabbit and she give birth to the child. He come across ‘em when Cold-Moon was around two and they was barely gittin’ enough to eat and such, bein’ kindly cast off ‘cause a the mixed blood and all. He took ‘em in and made hisself a husband and father. I thought some a him for that, stayed my week or so, and lit out for Ogallala.
“It was early summer and Ogallala was full a cowboys bringin’ herds to the railhead. It’s a little place except in the summer. Then a couple a hotels open up, whores and gamblers show up from Omaha and such, and the place is some wild. I bet I seen eight or ten herds stationed outa town ready to be sold and shipped. Two hunnderd thousand head or better. I had to camp out on the prairie. They warn’t no place left to get a room or nothin’. My second day in town I went to a joint called the Cowboy’s Rest Saloon and found Luke Short gamblin’ with some fellers, one of ‘em bein’ Bat Masterson. I talked to Luke and he claimed to have give up his whiskey sellin’ ways and took a job a work as a scout for the Army. A colonel that was drinkin’ at the bar said he was tellin’ the truth. Rather than start up a mess with those army boys, or git in a fight with Luke Short and Bat Masterson together, I backed off and went on down to a place called the Crystal Palace to get a drink. A drunk there give me some trouble ‘cause there was somethin’ about me he didn’t like. I smacked him out and went on to the Ogallala House because I heard it said they had fine food. I had a helluva good meal. When I come out, that feller I smacked an’ three of his friends braced me on the boardwalk. Things got right serious right fast.
“I was standin’ there, tryin’ to talk them fellers down without havin’ to shoot nobody or git shot myself, when I seen Cecil Man-Bear comin’ down the way. He walked up behind them boys an’ knocked two of their heads together real quick, and throwed the other two into the street. I got a pistol to hand and the fight went out of ‘em. Cecil ain’t called Man-Bear for nothin’. Most likely he saved me from maybe takin’ a bullet or two. I went back out to his little place for another day, then headed out.
“That telegraph I got said he was in the worst trouble a his life, the army warn’t worth nothin’ to him, and would I help. I got to go, Ruben. If Cecil Man-Bear has come up agin somethin’ he cain’t handle, I figger I’m gonna need some help a my own. Can you git away?”
“When do ya wanna leave?” I asked him.
Marion grinned at me. “Ol’ Ruben,” he said.
Arliss Hyatt looked at Marion. “Lotsa red Indians up that way that ain’t the happiest bunch a fellers in the world,” he said.
We was standin’ in Arliss’ gunshop talkin’ to him over the counter. Marion had tolt him we was fixin’ to go to Ogallala.
“Injun wars is mostly over,” Marion said. “What’s left is out in the territories. Ogallala’s a summertime cowtown an’ a wide spot a spit in the trail the rest a the year, ‘cept for the railroad. Hell, I hear they’s farmers and such squattin’ in that neck a the woods nowadays.”
Arliss tapped his knuckles on the counter. “It warn’t mor’n half a dozen year or so ago them boys done for Custer and his bunch right smart,” he said. “Granted Custer warn’t no more than a puffed up glory hound, but them Sioux and some a their kin like the Cheyenne got long memories and they got a lot to remember. The two a you doan look much like no Redskins. I reckon the ones that’s left might take notice of ya.”
“The way I hear it,” Marion said, “the army has got near all of ‘em on that Great Sioux Reservation in the south chunk of the Dakota Territory.”
“Why shore they do, boy,” Arliss snorted. “And we all know that a mule won’t kick ya, a dog won’t bite ya, a gambler won’t lie to ya, and a Injun won’t never leave the reservation. That there reservation may be long way from where yer standin’, Marshal Daniels, but it’s a damn site closer to where yer goin’!”
“Feller up there saved my life, Arliss,” Marion said.
“That shore don’t mean you got to go give it up for him, nor Rube’s with it neither. Doan git me wrong. Them Injuns has got good reason to keep their back hair up the way the guvmint and the army has treated ‘em. Hell, they give ‘em the Black Hills. Then they took ‘em away to git after that gold so all them fools in Deadwood could breathe easier, and so a stage could run between there and Sidney. Helluva raw deal. I just don’t want to see none of ‘em take it out on you or the boy here. Dammit, Marion! Some a them Redskins is the best fighters on the globe. Come at ya like a shadow and take your short ribs with ‘em when they leave. You just be damn careful. I have seen what’s been left a some folks after the Crow bunch got ahold of ‘em. I reckon them Crows could learn a little from the Sioux. They shore as hell took George Custer to school.” Arliss sighed. “Yer goin’, ain’t ya?”
“I am,” Marion said.
“Well then, let me have your Colts. I’ll give ya two a mine to carry while I go over yours. Then Rube can leave me his Remingtons and I’ll go over them real good. Bring me your Winchester ’76 too, boy. I’ll put it in shape for ya.”
“Thank ya, Arliss,” I said.
“I don’t want no thanks from neither one of ya. I just want ya to come back settin’ up an’ not laid out in a box with some a your pieces missin’. I’m kinda selfish that way.”
I went by the office an’ turned them ol’ boys loose that me an’ Emory had locked up. I figgerd the headaches they had was punishment enough for drunk an’ disorderly. Hank Buford was there an’ I tolt him I was gonna be leavin’ for a spell. He wanted to know how long I might be gone an’ I didn’t know what to say to him, so I tolt him I’d be gone as long as it took an’ be back as quick as I could. When he asked where we was goin’, I tolt him at least as far as Ogallala. He never said no more about it.
We walked back to the house in the early afternoon, noticed Verlon in the barn, an’ went down that way. He was fussin’ with Marion’s Ap.
“I figgerd you two would be heading out somplace,” Verlon said. “Willie was shod a few days ago an’ he’s fine. This Ap is so big, it seemed to me I might tend to his feet. I’m puttin’ a fresh trim an’ rasp on him. Near as I can tell, he ain’t ever had shoes on.”
“He come out a the Arizona Territory I believe,” Marion tolt him. “He was a Injun horse. I don’t reckon he’s ever wore a shoe.”
“He’s in purty good shape,” Verlon went on. “Heavy horse like this can have foot trouble, but he’s carryin’ his size real good. Might have to shoe him when he gits some older so his feet doan break down. You boys gonna need a packhorse?”
I smiled. “Reckon we will. We got a ways to go an’ Arliss the mule prob’ly should stay home from this trip.”
“Take that young bay mare,” Verlon said. “She’s agreeable an’ steady. I’ll git to her next an’ make sure she’s fresh for ya. Harmony’s got some cornbread an’ beans up at the house, an’ she’s busy bakin’ up a mess a biscuits for the trail. When ya leavin? Day after tomorra?”
Marion smiled. “Who said we was leavin’ anyway?”
“Marshal,” Verlon said, “’cept for one time, you ain’t never show up here unless you got some business or other you need Ruben for. That’s fine. I ain’t takin’ no exception to the two of you doin’ what ya git paid ta do. There may come a time agin when you show up just for the hell of it, hang around for a day or two, an’ then go on your way. This ain’t that time though, is it?”
“No, it ain’t.”
“Where ya goin’?”
“Ogallala I guess.”
“You need another packhorse, you let me know,” Verlon said. “I got one or two more that would do.”
He went back to trimmin’ the Ap’s feet then. Me an’ Marion headed up to the house.
Harmony was in the kitchen knockin’ the hell outa a pile a bread dough near as big as a hound when we come in. She smiled at us through a fog a flour dust.
“Bill is down for a nap,” she said. “Beans are in the pot, and cornbread is in the warmer. I can’t stop right now.”
Me an’ Marion filled our plates an’ set at the table, watchin’ her drag that dough around.
“Ain’t godawful frail, is she?” Marion said.
After we et, Marion headed back inta town for a haircut an’ a bath. I went down to the barn, dug out my packsaddle an’ panniers, an’ commenced gittin’ things put together for the trip. I was knockin’ off dust an’ oilin’ up the leather when Harmony come up behind me an’ put her arms around my chest.
“Where are you and Marion Daniels going this time, Ruben Beeler?”
“Ogallala up in Nebraska,” I tolt her.
“That’s a long way.”
I nodded. “It’s kindly personal on Marion’s part. Fella up that way he owes a debt that’s got trouble. He’s got some kinda Injun name. Saved Marion’s life one time an’ needs help.”
“Marion Daniels is a man of honor,” Harmony said. “He can’t let that go.”
“No, he cain’t,” I said, turnin’ in her arms to face her.
“Ruben Beeler is a man of honor,” she went on. “He can’t let that kind of thing go either.”
We stood there for a spell, holdin’ on to one another and swayin’ back an’ forth a little bit, as was our way. Then Harmony give a jerk.
“My biscuits!” she said, an’ struck off for the house.
I watched her go, feelin’ kindly happy an’ sorta sad too. It warn’t the first time I’d felt like that.
The next day I got me an’ Marion a mess a chuck for the trail, not forgettin’ some brown sugar plug, peppermint sticks, a couple a cans a peaches, an’ some a them maple sweets for Willie. Arliss went over my Winchester Centennial an’ them two 1875 Remington Army revolvers that belonged to my friend Addriss Tippideaux afore he got kilt, an’ got my hardware in better than new shape. When I went in to pick my guns up, he handed me a half dozen shotgun shells.
“What’s these for?” I asked him. “I got plenty a shells for that little twelve gauge.”
“Not like these here ya don’t,” Arliss said. “I loaded these up special for ya. In them things is one less ball a double ought buckshot to make a little room for the wire.”
“The wire the rest a that shot is strung up on.”
“Dammit, Arliss,” I said. What are you talkin’ about?”
“I’m talkin’ about piano wire. There’s eight a them buckshot left in there, strung up about bout six inches apart on a length a piano wire. Now, as short as them barrels is, when you touch it off that shot will spread out real quick just like always. Only now, ‘cause them shot are all connected together, at close range anythin’ they hit they’ll take that wire along with ‘em. It’ll just go right on through like the blade of a knife.”
“Good Lord, Arliss,” I said.
“You hang onto these, boy. When you git up amongst where they could be serious trouble for you an’ Marion, you load ‘em up. They could be a help to ya.”
“These things is terrible fearsome!”
Arliss winked at me. “Rube,” he said, “where yer goin’, could be a feller might have some use for a little fearsome.”
That evenin’ we got the panniers loaded up an’ ready to go, an’ as much took care of as we could. That night, Miss Harmony slept purty tight up agin me, somthin’ that was usual for her when I was fixin’ to strike off somewhere. As was normal, it made it some difficult for me to git a lot a rest, but that was fine. I prob’ly wodden a got much sleep anyways, leavin’ kindly hangin’ over me like it always done when I was fixin’ to take to the trail.
We was all up right early in the mornin’, an’ me an’ Marion et as much as we could. After breakfast I went in an’ kissed little Bill goodby while he was sleepin’, an’ lit a lamp by his winda so he wouldn’t have to be in the dark if he happened to wake up. Marion an’ Verlon went down to the barn to saddle the horses an’ hang the packs while I said goodbye to Miss Harmony. It was a crisp mornin’ with only a little fog, an’ not yet full light when me an’ Marion took out. We was passin’ by the side a the house when I seen little Bill through the winda. He was standin’ up in his crib, pattin’ the glass an’ cryin’.
My Lord, that was hard.
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