HIS NAME WAS DANIEL PROVOST, AND IT WAS THE time of the Texas Republic. Once, years ago, he had heard Sam Houston’s Twin Sister cannons at San Jacinto, and from sanctuary beyond the rain-flooded bayous he had watched smoke rise over the battlefield. He had been a boy then, too young to fight. Now the 1840’s were well along and he was a man, but no adventure was left. Modern times and civilization seemed to have stilled it forever. His world was restricted to the narrow confines of Hopeful Valley along the Colorado River in what was considered western Texas, and it was seen mostly over the narrow-pinched rump of a lazy brown mule.
The man riding the bay horse and leading three packmules was the first stranger Daniel had seen in three months. Daniel leaned to pull against the leather reins looped around the back of his neck and let the heavy wooden plow ease over as he watched the horseman slowly work his way down the gentle hill toward the field. The man wore buckskin and an old Mexican sombrero that had seen too many rains, and too much sun. Daniel watched in silent curiosity as the man reined up at the end of the plowed rows and raised his hand in peace.
The man’s longrifle lay across his lap, but Daniel saw no threat in it. The face looked friendly enough, what he could see of it through a considerable growth of brown whiskers.
“Stand there, Hezekiah,” Daniel needlessly admonished the mule; any time Hez was given a chance to halt, he wouldn’t lift a foot until he had to. Daniel slipped out of the reins and trudged across the rows, studying the man. “How do. Anything I can do for you?”
The man looked around, and Daniel sensed he was searching for sign of a rifle. Daniel had none. The man said, “I come in peace, brother, as any good and honorable man.” A benign smile shone through the whiskers, and Daniel could see this was a young man, thirty possibly, maybe even less. “Name’s Milo Seldom. Is that water you got in yonder jug, or somethin’ stronger?”
“Water,” said Daniel, and fetched the canvas-wrapped jug from where it hung in the benevolent shade of a huge and ancient live oak.
“Sure am obliged,” said Seldom, and tipped the jug off his shoulder in the style of a man drinking whisky. He took several long draws, then wiped his sleeve across his mouth and handed back the jug. “Mighty good water. Many a place I been, folks’ll offer you hard liquor first off; glad to see that you-all here have got a bent toward religion.”
Daniel shrugged. “Ain’t religion, exactly. Whisky and hot sun and hard work don’t mix too good. My name’s Daniel Provost. You come a long ways?”
“A long ways. Still got a fair piece to go.” He pointed his chin. “Seen a cabin as I topped the hill. You got a wife there, and family?”
“Ain’t married. I live with my folks.”
“Seen a deer back yonder a mile or so. If I was to go fetch it in, reckon the woman of the house might see fit to share vittles with a lonesome, hungry stranger?”
“You don’t need to bring nothin’ to be welcome at the Provost house.” But Daniel reckoned it wouldn’t hurt any; the menfolks had been too busy with the planting to fetch fresh meat.
“I always like to bring more than I take away,” the stranger said. “Leaves folks thinkin’ good of ol’ Milo Seldom. If you’d kindly see after my packmules a bit, I’d go see after that there deer.”
Daniel took the lead rope and led the mules to the tree where he had kept the water jug. Knowing mules, he didn’t put the jug back where it had been. Hezekiah moved his head interestedly, looking at the packmules and watching Seldom ride away on his bay horse. But he showed no inclination to move his feet; he never did until he was forced to.
Daniel studied the bulging packs and tried to make out the vague aroma that came from them. It was somehow familiar, but mixed with the strong mule-sweat it was too evasive to identify. Curiosity nagged at him, and when the stranger was out of sight, Daniel went so far as to put a hand on the rope that held one canvas bundle. But he changed his mind; a man didn’t poke where he had no business. He walked back to Hez and put him and the plow into service again, his mind on the stranger rather than on the job. He sensed that Seldom had come from far-off places, and maybe was headed for far-off places Daniel hadn’t even heard of, let alone seen.
Daniel had no fear of work, and the plow-handle fit his hands, but he had often thought it would be good, just once before he settled finally into harness and took up wife and land of his own, to go out and see what lay beyond the hills that rimmed this valley; to see the lands from which the few travelers came; perhaps even to see the mysterious western country from which the Comanches used to materialize wraithlike to strike suddenly and kill and burn and fade away again.
He sensed that Milo Seldom had been to these places—some of them, anyway—and that his hands were not made for the plow. Briefly he envied the man as he had envied a couple of men in Hopeful Valley who had been in the thick of the battle with Sam Houston. They never talked about it much; they talked much easier about crops and horses and cattle and the like. Maybe that was the way of it for most men—one big adventure and they were ready to settle down for a quiet, steady life of hard work. Trouble was, Daniel hadn’t had his adventure yet. He sensed that Milo Seldom was a man given entirely to the kind of experience Daniel hungered after.
Before long he heard the crack of the long rifle. There was no second shot, which did not surprise Daniel; he suspected those keen gray eyes needed but one chance to look down the barrel and over the sights. By the time the stranger came back, the deer properly gutted and draped behind his saddle, Daniel had finished to the end of a row. The sun was still an hour high, but on such an occasion as having a stranger call, he doubted that anybody could fault him for calling it a day. He unhitched Hezekiah from the plow, climbed up onto his bare back and rode to the tree where the packmules were tied.
The stranger sat idly pitching up a flattened chunk of lead and catching it in his hand. It was the ball which he had used to kill the deer. Lead was not to be wasted, and a hunter usually made every effort to retrieve it and melt it to be poured for another day, another deer.
Daniel said, “You just shot once.”
“Poverty makes a man a good shot. Takes coin for powder and lead, and precious little coin ever crosses my palm. But it’s a-fixin’ to, my friend.”
“What do you mean?” Daniel knew it wasn’t any of his business, but the stranger had opened the subject.
“Them packs there, they’re goin’ to open the door. I’m goin’ to find out if gettin’ rich spoils a man’s shootin’ eye.”
“You need any help?” Daniel joked.
The stranger took him seriously. “Matter of fact, I just might, was the right man to come along.”
Daniel stopped smiling. “You didn’t say whichaway you was headed.”
Seldom eyed him a moment in silence. “Was headed for your house to find out if your kind mother would like some fresh venison.”
Daniel took that as a sign that the subject was closed, and he didn’t press it. But as he rode he glanced back at those big packs, jouncing along on the quick-footed Mexican mules. He noted the easy, almost slouchy way Seldom rode, as if he had been hatched in a horse barn. But if his riding was slouchy, his gray eyes were searching.
“Ain’t nothin’ here you got to watch out for,” Daniel told him. “Last Indian trouble we had was several years ago. Just a little bunch huntin’ for horses, mostly.”
“Them Indians ain’t dissolved off of the face of the earth, friend Provost. Just because there’s more settlement now than there used to be don’t mean they won’t show up again; more settlement means more horses. Indian, he always has a powerful want for more horses.”
“I’ll bet you’ve fought Indians.”
“Ain’t we all? Fought Mexicans, fought outlaws, fought bears and cougars. Fought sin, too. Life’s an eternal struggle for the right thinkin’ and the true believer.”
“You sound like a preacher.”
“I ain’t, but now and again when I find somebody in need of the Word, I carry it to them the way it’s been carried to me. Figure I owe it to folks to pass on the blessin’s I’ve received. You strike me as bein’ a good true Christian, Mister Provost.”
“Name’s Daniel,” Daniel reminded him. “I’ve read the Book. Never done no hard studyin’ on it, though.”
“Man don’t have to study it; it’s all around him—in the blue sky, in the green hills full of game, in the runnin’ streams and the rivers full of fish. The Lord’s work is all around us plainer than words in a book. Ain’t everybody can read a book, but anybody can see the Lord’s good work.”
That led Daniel to wonder if Seldom could even read; lots of people couldn’t. There wasn’t a great call for reading in this country anyway; long as a man could do a few ciphers and plow a straight furrow and sight down a barrel, they would have to get up awful early to starve him to death. It was often said that Texas was overrun with lawyers and bookish people; what it needed was men who knew how to build something and bring in food and fiber. The educated folk were considered like scavengers who took secondhand what someone else’s labor had wrought.
Daniel observed, “The Indian is part of God’s work too, I guess.”
Seldom grunted. “Put here to test us. The good Lord gave us the gun to shoot him with.”
Daniel nodded. “I reckon.”
Seldom studied Daniel’s brown mule and the tangle of harness. “You don’t carry a gun to the field with you?”
“Last three-four years ain’t been no need. The only feathers we ever see any more are on wild turkeys.”
Seldom gave him a look that plainly said he doubted a farmer was apt to be much of a shot anyway. Daniel took this as a challenge. He said, “You mind if I try a shot with that old longrifle of yours?”
Seldom stared at him in doubt. “Ol’ Betsy’s a shade contrary.” It was fashion for Texans to name their rifles after the one David Crockett had carried into the Alamo. “Keep in mind that she bears a hair to the left.” He poured powder into the pan and handed the rifle to Daniel as Daniel slid off the mule. Daniel picked a dead limb on a lightningstruck live oak fifty yards away and dropped to one knee. The pan flashed, the rifle shoved hard against his shoulder, and the limb splintered and fell.
Seldom’s eyes flickered in surprise. “You ain’t always been a farmer.”
Daniel had, but he let the statement stand.
The Provost home was a big double log cabin. Aaron and Rebecca Provost had taken literally the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. Daniel was the eldest of a considerable brood, old enough now to take up his own land if ever he could raise the money it took to put in a claim.
Aaron Provost watched with interest by the open door of the long log barn. He stood six feet tall and more, shoulders broad, tough hands the size of a cured ham. He could lift a wagon while someone fitted a wheel, or he could throw a bull yearling to its side and hold it down by sheer muscle and weight. He could have broken a man’s neck with one blow of a huge fist if he were so inclined, but Daniel had never seen his father strike a man in anger. Provost was a friendly bear.
Aaron’s eyes were boldly curious as he watched Milo Seldom, but he addressed himself to his son. “In early, ain’t you, Daniel?”
“Brought a visitor for supper, Papa.”
“So I see.” Milo Seldom winced a little at the crush of Aaron Provost’s hand; the big farmer didn’t realize his own strength. “Name’s Aaron Provost. You make yourself at home here, friend.”
Seldom rubbed his throbbing hand. “Much obliged, Mister Provost. Brung meat for the table. Don’t like to be a cost to nobody.”
“A visitor’s always a gain around here, not a cost. Daniel’ ll see after your stock, and I’ll take you up to the house to meet Rebecca. She’ll be tickled that there’s somebody come.”
Daniel asked Seldom, “Any special way I ought to handle them packs?” He hoped this would prompt Seldom to tell what was in them.
“Just throw them over the fence is all right. Nothin’ there that can bust or leak out.”
Aaron swung the deer carcass over his shoulder as if it had been a rabbit. He started walking toward the house with Seldom, but turned. “Daniel, you’ll want to wash up and slick your hair before you come in. Lizbeth’s here.”
Daniel looked at the dusty patched clothes he wore and wished there were some way for him to change. But he owned only two pairs of britches and three homespun shirts. Lizbeth Wills was used to seeing men come in from the fields; her father and brothers were farmers like the Provosts. And if she and Daniel married, this was the way she would see him the rest of her life. She had just as well get accustomed to it.
Normally the thought of Lizbeth being here would crowd everything else from his mind. It did something to him he never quite understood to put his arm around her when nobody was looking, and to feel the quick, shy response as she leaned to him. Sometimes she put something sweetsmelling on her neck—he never did know what it was—and it got him to breathing hard and thinking things he would be ashamed to tell her about. He was not naive; he knew exactly what this sort of thing eventually led to, though he had never so far let himself go beyond a furtive pinch or two where he had no business. Lizbeth always slapped his hand gently to let him know he shouldn’t, but never stingingly enough to make him retreat altogether. She let him know without saying so that once the proper ceremonies had been attended to, he would be welcome.
The stranger was heavier on his mind now, however, than Lizbeth. Tomorrow Milo Seldom would ride out with hardly a backward glance, while Lizbeth would be here forever.
As he struggled to lift the heavy packs from the mules and hang them on the fence, he heard the girl’s voice. “How do, Daniel.”
Lizbeth Wills was tiny; he could almost reach around her waist with his two hands. This had caused Rebecca Provost to worry aloud that she might not be strong enough to attend to all of a woman’s work, though Daniel had noticed that the Mexican women of the Hernandez place upriver were small and seemed to have an unbounded capacity for labor. Daniel had never fancied the chunky or the big rawboned type of girls anyway; there were a few of them in the valley if his preference had run in that direction. Tiny or not, Lizbeth could cause him about all the excitement he was able to restrain.
Daniel glanced toward the house, saw nobody looking and gave her a quick promissory kiss. She touched him with both hands, then pulled back, remembering herself. “Supper’ ll be ready directly,” she said. “Your mama is fryin’ up venison from the deer the stranger brought in. I already helped with the bread.” She was forever reminding him she could cook.
“What did you think of him, Lizbeth?”
“Not very fat, but he’ll make passable venison.”
“I don’t mean the deer. I mean Milo Seldom.”
She shrugged. “Never paid much attention to him. He’s another rollin’ stone without no moss on him. I like to see a little moss.”
“Don’t he make you itch to know the places he’s been to, the things he’s seen?”
“Why? I’m not interested in goin’ anyplace. I like it here.”
“Sure, this place is all right, but—” He broke off, knowing he couldn’t explain it to her. It was a woman’s nature to be a nest-builder, to cling to what she knew. She couldn’t know the way a man’s eyes lifted to the horizons sometimes, the way a man’s nature strained to shake the bonds and cross over the unknown hills. He said, “I’ll go with you in a minute, soon’s I get through here. Will you wait?”
“You know I’ll always wait.”
The children were noisy but the venison was good, and Rebecca Provost had fixed fresh bread from wheat Aaron Provost had carried way over east to the flour mill. Milo Seldom wolfed food as if he hadn’t eaten in a week, and perhaps he hadn’t. A drifting man usually carried coffee and salt and little else, depending upon game for whatever sustenance he got. But even venison cooked on a spit over an open fire could become tiresome after a while. A woman’s touch was probably a treat indeed. Daniel noticed that Seldom gave Lizbeth much of his attention. Not that he tried to talk with her much; but simply that his eyes seemed always to stray back to her. Daniel supposed this ought to bother him, but somehow it didn’t. It seemed confirmation of his own good judgment in latching onto Lizbeth himself.
Later, when supper was done and Aaron and Daniel and Seldom repaired outside to the brush arbor to cool themselves in the spring breeze, Seldom pointed his chin toward the door. “Mighty comely little girl, that one in yonder. She spoke for?”
Daniel shrugged. “Sort of.”
“Smart of you, friend Daniel. A man needs a good woman if he’s got him a place and go’ to stay put.”
“Ain’t got me a place of my own. Maybe someday, if I can raise the money.”
Daniel’s twelve-year-old brother Lod came out and flopped down on the ground to stare at the bewhiskered Milo Seldom in flagrant and unapologetic curiosity. Seldom commented that he looked nearly a grown man and won Lod’s friendship for life. Then Seldom looked toward the cabin again. “Always wished for a little woman like that myself, only I’m always on the move, and a man can’t ask a woman to follow along after him like a pet dog. Indian woman, maybe, or even a Mexican, but white women ain’t made thataway. Sort of brings me up close and reminds me of my shortcomin’s when I see a woman like yours. You’re lucky.”
Am I? Daniel asked himself. “Must be somethin’ to get to come and go when and where you please, to stay where you want to, move on when the notion strikes you, to see new country all the time.”
“The restless foot. I’ve always had it; been both a blessin’ and a curse to me. A blessin’ when I see somebody who’s worked himself into the ground on one little place for years and got no more to show for it than I have. A curse when I see a pretty little woman and know I can’t ever have one like her, just an occasional night or so of sinful pleasure in one of the settlements, bought the way a man buys a bar of lead or a little parcel of powder. But I can’t change my ways; they’re settled too deep in me even if I wanted to get shed of them. Be content that you ain’t got my rovin’ nature, friend.”
How do I know I haven’t? Daniel asked himself. I’ve never tried.
Aaron Provost got out his old pipe and the leather pouch in which he carried his tobacco. Seldom blinked as if he had just thought of something. “Where’d you get the tobacco, Mister Provost?”
“San Felipe. Was down there on some land business with the guv’ment. Like to smoke?”
Seldom pushed to his feet. “Put it back in the pouch. I bet I got somethin’ you’ll like better.” He strode to the barn. In a few minutes he was back, carrying a huge handful of leaf tobacco. “Try that. Bet you ain’t had the like of this in years. Fine burley, prime stuff if prime was ever growed.”
Aaron Provost smelled of it, and his mustache lifted in a broad smile. “I swum, lad, you are most certainly right.” Eagerly he shredded tobacco for his pipe, lighted it and drew on it, eyes closed in pleasure. “Land o’ Goshen, how this takes me back.”
Daniel knew now the aroma he had smelled. “You mean that’s what you got in them packs, is tobacco?”
“Not just tobacco, friend. Pure gold. I’m on my way down to Mexico to sell it. Them Mexicans will near give you gold ounce for ounce in trade for that kind of prime tobacco.”
“I hear they got a mighty stiff tariff on it.”
“Tariffs is for them that don’t know the Mexican ways.”
Daniel frowned. “You fixin’ to smuggle it in?” He remembered an old rascal named Noonan who used to neighbor them here and who had told of smuggling tobacco into Mexico long before the big war with Santa Anna.
“Ain’t nothin’ sinful about a little smugglin’. Border lines is a thing of man, and contrary to all the laws of God and nature.”
Aaron Provost’s eyes were open again, and he was close to a frown. “There’s talk we may be movin’ toward another war with Mexico. You reckon a man ought to be goin’ down there under them circumstances, sellin’ stuff to people who may be fightin’ us again one day?”
“I fought in the last war, Mister Provost, and if it comes to that, I’ll fight in the next one. But maybe there don’t need to be no war if people understand one another, and what’s a better way to learn that than by trade? I say set up trade with a man and you don’t have to war with him.”
“Depends on how you trade,” the farmer said.
Seldom shrugged. “Better tradin’ than fightin’.”
Daniel remembered what Seldom had said about standing on the threshold of wealth. Even granting that tobacco was worth a lot in Mexico, he couldn’t see much wealth in three packs of burley. He said as much.
“The tobacco,” Seldom responded, “is just the startin’ place. It’s to give me money enough that I can go where the real riches are.”
Little Lod asked, “And where is that?”
Aaron Provost admonished his son, “Another man’s business is best left alone.”
Milo Seldom studied the boy a while. “No harm done, Mister Provost. I see no reason I shouldn’t tell you; there’s no harm you good folks would do me. You remember Jim Bowie?”
“Him that died in the Alamo?” Aaron Provost looked over at Seldom. “He’ll always be remembered in this part of the country.”
“You ever heard about his lost silver mine?”
Daniel’s backside began to prickle. “There was always talk that he found an old Spanish mine. Nobody ever knew where, or even if there was truth in it.”
“He found it,” Seldom said with confidence. “Way to the west, out in the middle of that Comanche and Lipan Apache country. Wasn’t far from where the Spaniards built their fort on the San Saba and left it a long time ago. He found it, then he lost it. With what I get out of this tobacco, I’m goin’ to go find it again.”
Aaron Provost said soberly, “You’ll find your grave, is all. There’s Indians out yonder in that western country, thicker’n hair on a buffalo hide.”
“But there’s silver, too, and I’ll have my share of that. Then the world will stop and tip its hat to Milo Seldom.”
Daniel suspected nobody ever paid much attention to Seldom, and that probably rankled him. Come to think of it, he told himself, outside of family and a few friends there ain’t nobody heard of Daniel Provost.
The women had come out into the cool and heard the last part. Rebecca Provost, a gaunt and patient woman, nodded knowingly, for she had heard many a dream spoken in words but had seen few lived out in deed. Lizbeth Wills listened with mouth open. She hadn’t been around half as long as Rebecca.
Aaron Provost puffed contentedly on his pipe, enjoying the richness of the tobacco. “Every man to his own brand of religion I always say, and seekin’ after riches is a religion to some. But the silver I want is right here on my own ground, in reach of my plow. It comes up fresh with every plantin’ when the Lord sees fit to send the rain and withhold the pestilence.”
Seldom replied, “And a good life it is too, brother, for them as has the gift to live it. But the Lord turned me another way, and who am I to deny Him?” He pushed to his feet. “I’ll see after my stock before I roll out my beddin’. I’ll want to rise early and be off in the cool of the mornin’.”
Rebecca said, “Not without a good breakfast to give you strength.”
“I wouldn’t think of it, good lady. Cookin’ such as yours is a blessin’ that comes rare to a man of my nature.” He bowed and walked to the barn.
“Strange man,” Lizbeth said, watching with eyes showing awe. “Scares me a little.”
“Nothin’ strange about him,” said Aaron, drawing on his pipe. “We seen a many like him back in Tennessee, and there’s aplenty of them in Texas—backwoodsmen, men of restless foot, akin to the wild creatures that migrate with the seasons. There ain’t no mystery to them; they’re just men that ain’t ever found their way.”
“Idlers,” said Rebecca. “Likeable, some of them, but idlers and misfits. They raise no crops, build no cabins. They move across the country like Indians. They contribute nothin’ and leave no sign.”
Aaron disagreed. “They contribute. They’re the first ones into every new land. They’re the ones that test the mettle of it and learn its ways. They open it up for the farmers and the others that set down roots. God made all kinds of men, and for every kind there’s a reason.”
Daniel’s brow furrowed. “You reckon he does know how to find Jim Bowie’s mine?”
Aaron shook his head. “A dream, that’s all. But he knows how to hunt for it, and to some men the hunt is more important than the findin’.”