The gusting wind blowing out of the black night whipped the tail of the horseman's mount, almost staggering the animal with each icy blast. Theodor Belk sat hunched on the horse, his body giving slightly to the wind as he stared longingly at the small town that lay below the rocky ridge. Yellow light from the windows reflected on the cold, white drifts of snow.
Another gust jerked impatiently at the man's coat and fluttered the brim of his snow-encrusted hat. The horse blewsoftly and shifted his back to the wind and the stinging sleet.
"Ho, shuh. Easy boy," Theo coaxed to the frosty ear that swung his direction. The sorrel vented a sigh as if in reply and sniffed futilely for the warm stable he knew lay below.
Theo Belk was tired. He was well bundled in a worn army greatcoat. His soogan provided protection from the ever-curious wind and snow that worried the loose wraps of his clothing. Ice rimmed the bandana that pulled the brim of the battered felt hat down over his ears.
"There she is boy. Down there in that house with the pretty red shutters. She married a no-account storekeeper. That's what they told us over to Radersburg." He emphasized the last with a stream of brown tobacco juice that stained the crusted snow.
"Said she wanted to marry a man that would stay at home. Said she couldn't marry a man who had shot someone. Wanted a name in the community, and a family, and ... Ah, hell!"
"Let's make tracks, horse." Theo flicked the reins and prodded the sorrel into the wind and blowing snow, away from the beckoning lights of the town below. His body felt empty, while his emotions churned. He felt the desire to go down there and shoot that damn storekeeper but he knew the townsfolk would hang him.
The thought of how warm and soft her body had been crept in around the edges of his consciousness. He remembered the feeling evoked by her delicate hands and the soft look of her eyes.
It had been the first time in his life that he had allowed himself to get close to another human being. Prior to Liz, Theo had never known there was a deep emptiness in the tough shell of his body. Now she was gone and Theo felt the void--deep, lonely, and bottomless. He had been vulnerable and it scared him.
Snorting at his thoughts he rationalized, "Yep, she done got herself a name now and a nice tame storekeeper to boot. Nothalf-bad for a line girl from Sylvia's Place." A grim smile played crookedly about his lips and cracked the ice that rimmed his mustache and beard.
The sorrel picked its way carefully down the deeply drifted slope, feeling for purchase among the dark shapes of rock that thrust through the dimly lit snow. Finding better footing in the drainage, the sorrel stepped out, making better time and glad to be moving in the biting wind. The clouds were breaking to the west and soon a thousand stars watched them pass through the cold empty night. They entered the breaks of the river and ghosted between the shapes of cottonwoods that thrust black branches to the dark sky.
Theo pulled up and sniffed the wind, watching the sorrel's reactions. The red horse had better senses than he, and any warning would be relayed by the animal first. Seeing no sign of worry on the sorrel's part, Theo nudged the mount into his camp.
The small fire he had left hours ago was down to a deep bed of coals that shimmered in red waves with the shifting wind. Two packhorses whinnied their greetings as the man swung coldly from the saddle and cared for his horse with stiff fingers. Theo blanketed the animal and made sure of the picket pin before throwing a few more branches onto the dying fire.
"I guess I'm a fool for going up there," he muttered. "You'd think even a damned idiot would learn after a while."
Theo batted snow from his hat and coat before stooping to brush it from his bedroll. He placed the bedroll feet first toward the fire and, pulling off his icy soogan, crawled between the blankets.
"Reckon there's times a warm house and a lard eatin' job wouldn't be half-bad," he growled. "Women! Hell's full of women!" His eyes grew heavy as his body warmed in the blankets.
The next morning he started south. By afternoon he'dpicked up the rutted trace of the Bozeman Trail. Leaving the Yellowstone, it skirted the defiant slopes of the Pryor Mountains and the Big Horns. The days were cold, stark, and clear, marred only by the incessant wind. Then the sky clouded and the snow fell in fine flakes while the wind rushed wraiths of snow across the frozen drifts. Four days after his departure from the Yellowstone, the sun came out and the wind ceased. That night, cloud cover gone, the temperature dropped.
The only excitement on the long trip came in the form of a sleeping Sioux village nestled in the breaks of the Tongue River. The man slowly wended his way through the foothills, giving the conical lodges a wide berth. The red brethren were still angry about the white man's roads and forts.
Working his way south, Theo stopped at Piney Creek and stared thoughtfully at the few charred timbers that protruded like blackened limbs above the crusted snow. Here lay the gutted remains of Fort Phil Kearny. The Sioux, after driving the hated white army from their lands, had set fire to the structure. The Bloody Bozeman had been closed at an awful expense of red and white lives.
"Carrington was a fool," he mused aloud. "Damn stupid to put a fort here in the first place, and damn stupid to break the treaty in the second."
The sorrel swiveled an ear to listen. Theo spoke periodically to the horse. They had traveled together for years, covering the empty, windswept steppes of what would become Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado--sole companions in the quiet land.
"The army taught them how to march in straight lines," Theo continued. "Taught them how to fill out forms, build buildings, dig ditches. Taught them how to fight, too. Taught them how to fight armies of their own people. But they never taught them damn martinets how to live with the wind, thesnow, the rain, and the heat. They sure never taught them how to fight the Sioux. Book soldiers!"
Working his jaws under his frozen beard, he squinted, looking around at the high, rolling grass-and sage-covered ridges blanketed in the white mantle of winter. The Big Horns rose to the west, stolid, silent guardians of the lonely graves of fallen soldiers.
From the time John Jacobs and John Bozeman first staked the trail in 1863 until Red Cloud drove the army away in 1868, war had been the constant companion of the Bozeman traveler. The land had been granted to the Sioux in the Treaty of 1851. Until gold was found in Montana, no one had a need to cross these last barren hunting grounds.
The wind picked up as Theo headed the sorrel and his pack animals south down the drifted trail. The sorrel took the lead, the packhorses following, the first led by a strap, the next tail hitched.
The second day after leaving Phil Kearny, the slopes of the Pumpkin Buttes rose in the east above the gently rolling grasslands. Theo scowled at the sandstone-capped prominences, aware that Sioux scouts haunted the excellent points of vantage.
Crossing ice-choked Crazy Woman Creek, Theo made camp in the breaks. The low sagebrush fire provided little comfort for the weary man. While the wind whimpered, the horses pawed the crusted snow in search of last year's grasses.
Morning brought low clouds and wisps of snow. Theo growled as he threw the frost-encrusted saddle onto the sorrel. He fumbled with the cinch with frozen fingers. The air warmed and the snow began falling in fluffy white flakes. Taking to the trail, he led the horses down the frozen Bozeman.
Theo was a tall man, wide through the shoulders. His hair was black and hung thickly from his head, falling over the collarof his coat. His beard was long now, unkempt from the lack of attention necessitated by winter. His eyes were blue and cold--cold as the land he surveyed. Framed by deeply etched crow's-feet, his face was lined to belie his age. The weathered skin was blackened from the bite of sun and wind and from squinting out over glaring deserts and snowfields.
As the morning progressed, the trail grew dim from the accumulating snow. The horses began to labor as the ceaseless wind sculpted drifts. Theo hunched in the saddle, twisting his head to maintain some protection for his face in the lee of his hat.
He crossed Ninemile Creek and wound up the breaks, following the trail more by feel than from the vanished visual evidence. By late afternoon they reached the crossing of the Powder River. Theo pulled the sorrel off the trail to flounder up to the burned buildings that marked the wind-blasted site of what had been Fort Reno. Burned rubble looked down from the steep bluff to the river.
This post, too, had been abandoned by the military. Originally called Camp Conner, it had been rebuilt and renamed by Colonel Carrington as a post to protect the Bozeman road. While the fort had not received the beating Fort Phil Kearny had, life had been bloody here, too.
Red Cloud had seen the white man coming, building his road through the last pristine hunting ground of the Sioux Nation. He had been angered by the perfidy of the devious whites who had broken their word and regarded the Treaty of Fort Laramie as so much paper--the words, those of old women.
They had built their road and called in the weak Sioux beggars that cadged handouts from the soldiers along the Medicine Road or Oregon Trail. They made a new treaty with the wreckage of Sioux manhood and called it binding on all the great chiefs and their warriors.
That had been in 1866. By 1868, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse had enforced the treaty of 1851 and the fight over the Bozeman road was over.
A cocky captain named Fetterman had said with pride that with eighty soldiers he could ride through the middle of the Sioux Nation. He finally got his chance; he made all of seven miles.
Men froze in the snow. They died of thirst in the hot sun. They died of dysentery from the water. They died of Sioux bullets and arrows. But beyond the wailings in Sioux villages, beyond the words the chaplain called out over mutilated bodies in mass graves, the government found that war on the Bozeman cost too much money for the depleted treasury to bear. The Bozeman road was closed. Peace with the Sioux and Cheyenne was made; the whites left.
Theo shook his head at the thought and looked over the few standing timbers, blackened by Cheyenne fires as Phil Kearny had been. Then with cold eating through his clothes, he stepped out of the saddle. Ice and snow cracked from his soogan as his numb feet hit the ground.
Stamping, Theo kicked his way to a looted dugout and entered. In the dim light he could see dry wood stacked in a corner. Slapping circulation into his stiff hands, he put together a small fire and warmed his fingers before forcing himself to take care of the horses. Rubbing them down as best he could, he hauled his packs into the shelter and prepared a stew of pemmican and jerky. Satisfied with a warm supper, he rolled out his blankets, checked the horses one last time, and crawled in, falling into an immediate deep sleep.
With sleep came terror. It was the same haunting dream. He saw again--as countless times before--the shining waters of the Blacks Fork River. The Uinta Mountains rose cool, blue-green, and inviting to the south while the gray-and-white-banded spires of the Church Buttes shot up above the terracesof the river. The sky was crystal blue with occasional white clouds.
He was a boy of eight. While he played, his father was busy rearranging the wagon to make the crossing of the ford easier.
Theo let himself pretend to stalk some wily Indian through the low dunes capped with prickly greasewood. He carried a stick that served his young imagination as a rifle. A cottontail rabbit shied and ran for its hole--Theo in hot pursuit.
The rabbit made its burrow and Theo, with the magic little boys invest in their toys, turned the rifle into a shovel and began to dig the cottontail out for supper. The sand made digging easy and before long he had scooped out the hole to the point where he could squirm in to scrape out the wet, cool sand. It was then that he heard the staccato of shots.
A final shot was fired--then there was silence. In panic, he wiggled out of the hole and ran blindly for his parents. His mind pictured howling, screaming Indians besieging the wagon. He stumbled and fell, sliding on the deflated, cobble-covered hardpan between the dunes. His nose was bleeding and he was crying. Rushing up the last dune, he stopped in terror.
The wagon stood there, the horses snorting and stamping in their traces. The body of his father lay face down in the soft white dust of the trail. His old blue shirt was stained crimson in the bright, morning sun.
A big man jumped from the back of the wagon, dragging Theo's mother with him. She struggled to her feet, crying, and the man slapped her down again. Cowed, she whimpered on the ground. Three other men walked from behind the wagon and jeered. The men stood and laughed at her before turning back to their looting. All, that is, except for the big man who stood grinning at Theo's mother, leering. She pleaded, her voice panicky with fear.
He laughed and reached down, grabbing the loose fabric of her dress. Cotton ripped loudly. Theo heard his motherscream. Then she screamed again as the big man lowered himself onto her.
As Theo watched he whined lowly to himself, unable to accept the horrid thing he saw, comprehending but refusing to understand. His security was being destroyed. His father was dead and his mother was being forced. Theo was old enough to know rape.
"Louis," one of the men called as he jumped from the back of the wagon. "Sacré, Louis Gasceaux. Women, zey be zee death of you yet, non? Hurry, someone may come! Let us go quickly!" The rest of the men were removing sacks of goods from the wagon and unhitching the team. Louis stood, buttoning his pants.
"The hell with you, Sabot," Louis cursed. "She's almost done in anyway. Still, she has now known true pleasure. Louis Gasceaux is good, non, cheri?"
Theo's mother whimpered while Louis took three steps toward his companions then absently pulled a pistol, turned, and almost as an afterthought, blew the woman's jaw off.
The boy lay on the low dune, frozen with terror. His sobbing breath was choked in his throat. Spasms of fear began jerking his limbs. He felt the warm rush as his bladder let go, fouling his legs and pants.
The men walked their horses to the wagon and began strapping the loot onto packsaddles. Sabot had turned from this chore and walked to Theo's father. He casually stripped the body and--with his knife--mutilated it beyond recognition. Theo watched muttering incoherently to himself, his teeth clattering fear while tears streaked his dirty face.
Sabot then moved to his mother. She shuddered and cried as the knife slid around the top of her skull. Sabot pulled the scalp loose and cooed as he stroked the bright, blond hair. He laughed and kicked her hard in the side. She gurgled through her bloody, frothing, broken mouth, clutching spasmodically atthe dusty ground. Then Sabot used the knife again on her still living flesh, slicing deftly until the whimpers ceased and the blood ceased to spurt from the dismembered limbs.
Theo willed his muscles to work and crawled away from the hideous shrieks rending the still, clear air. Below the dune crest he got hesitantly to his feet, mumbling with terror. He sprinted back the way he had come. Though by chance, he passed the rabbit hole he had dug at so earnestly. Gasping in shock, he pulled himself into the hole, mindless of the stinging of the greasewood, and tugged one of the bushes down on top of himself. In the darkness, he shivered and vomited from horror ... .
With a start, Theo Belk awoke in the dark shelter of a frozen dugout. Sweat was pouring down the sides of his face. He almost cried as he pulled and jerked the blankets away from his body before stumbling out into the snow.
Shaking, he drew in deep breaths of the cold air. The sorrel stood, back to the wind, watching him with wide eyes and pricked ears. The horse whickered softly and took a step toward him before stopping, unsure. Theo waded through the drifts to the sorrel and with a cry buried his head in the animal's neck.
The next morning the sun was shining over a rolling sea of blazing white. Theo ate the last of his pemmican and jerky. He led the horses to the wide floodplain of the Powder River and kicked aside the snow so the animals could feed on the rich bottom grass. Stamping his feet to keep warm, he watched the change in colors as the sun shimmered pink on the Pumpkin Buttes to the east.
Tightening the cinches, he swung into the saddle and checked his rifle. The action on the worn Springfield was crusted with frost. Theo broke it open and extracted the cartridge. Inspection showed no ice in the chamber or bore. He reinserted the brass and worked the hammer and trigger. If game showed,Theo would eat. Reining the horse, he proceeded south, following the whiter patch of snow that indicated the trail.
He was moody, as always, after the dream. It seemed so clear and vivid, just as it had happened that day so long ago. Theo felt empty, drained. No matter how hard he tried to forget, no matter how he tried to push the memories of that horrible day into the back of his mind, the dark hours would come to haunt him when he was deep in sleep and defenseless against the ghosts. The horror lived in him, eating away at the edges of his consciousness, frustrating his desire for peace, and devouring his nerves. The memory drove him now as it always had, to beat death as he had done that day at the Blacks Fork.
It drove him to seek and to hunt. From that horrifying day, his life had been geared to one goal: find and kill Louis Gasceaux! He had hunted for years and over thousands of miles. Now, the trail had gone cold in Montana. The only thing that had ever warmed his lonely life had turned cold in Montana, too. Liz had left him for another man. He had been betrayed by the love he had wasted, betrayed by time lost in his hunt for Louis Gasceaux.
There had been other periods of slight warmth. They had been ephemeral and somehow hollow. Ever since that day on the Blacks Fork, Theo Belk had been alone, haunted, at war with the world that was his reality and the hell that was his memory.
Liz. The name left a bittersweet feeling in Theo's breast. Theo had been hot on Gasceaux's trail when he met her. In Liz's arms he had forgotten for a while. The dream had not come.
"It was a trick the demons played on me." His voice was a gruff snort as the sorrel swiveled an ear his direction. It was a lesson he had not learned before. Now, no matter what sort of temptation would be offered in the future, he would not stray from his course. He could track Gasceaux down only by perseverance, dedication, and strength.
Liz had worked at Sylvia's, but that was of little concern to Theo Belk. Most women in the rugged little frontier communities were line girls. He had fallen in love. For the first time in his life it appeared that someone cared for him. He had begun to trust her. It shook him a little; trust had been a mistake.
She was blond, tall, and handsomely built. Some of her mannerisms reminded him of his mother. He felt a pang in his chest as he remembered running his fingers through the wealth of golden hair that cascaded from her head. He remembered the soft talk as they lay in bed, spent from their lovemaking.
"And I killed that bastard who took you away from me!" he growled. Toddy Blake had been dapper, intelligent, and witty. He had been smooth, bringing Liz flowers and small gifts. Theo had watched her attentions begin to shift. Then one night he had the dream again.
The next day, Toddy Blake bled his life away on Sylvia's packed-dirt floor. Theo left on the run to avoid a vigilante hangman's noose but he remembered the fear, revulsion, and pain in Liz's eyes. Toddy Blake had been lowered into the frozen, rocky ground, and she'd married the storekeeper while Theo ran for the Bitteroots.
"That's where we met that old Blackfoot, horse," Theo whispered, his eyes darting around the bleak land. "Said ol' Louis lamed 'im with a bullet. Said it whar Louis who stole his hosses an' left him for dead. Said his medicine saw it and come an' told him while he was a waitin' ta die." He repeated it over and over like Shasty, his Ute foster mother, had taught him, making it truer in his mind.
"That ol' Injun had med'cine," Theo whispered. "He saw the demons a followin' me. Don't ne'er mistrust a man's medicine. He was gimp'd with rheumatism, horse. His eyes was blinded with them white spots, but he seen true. His medicine tol' him Louis done it an' headed south!" He nodded soberly.
And Theo followed, trusting in the word of the Blackfootand to the prompting of the devils that lived in his mind. Fort Fetterman lay to the south, and beyond that, Fort Laramie--the only place a man with Gasceaux's wants and desires could head in this cold empty land. At Fort Laramie, Gasceaux would find warmth and companionship, and maybe he would find Theo Belk, too.
Louis Gasceaux waved a mittened hand at the figure trudging his way through the drifted snow. The man's tired steps indicated he'd walked a long way, a pair of well-oiled saddlebags swinging on his shoulders. He wore an army coat and the chevrons of sergeant stood out on the sleeves.
"Sergeant Huffman! You made it, my friend," Louis called, his grin cracking his white-frosted beard.
"Whew!" Huffman puffed a long, frozen breath. "I should have stole a horse." He walked up to Louis and slapped his hands together to restore circulation. He looked back down the frozen bank of the North Platte, eyes nervous.
"It might have been noticed." Louis reached for the saddlebags and worried the buckles open. "It's all here?" He raised a black, bushy eyebrow as he studied the contents.
"Seven thousand," Huffman said with a happy smile. "You were right about how easy it would be. That's payroll for a lot of men. We'd better get a move on."
"Relax, my friend." Louis laughed in his deep baritone. "They will not miss it. I have learned a lot in my life, sergeant. I jumped ship in Galveston and worked the waterfront. When that got too hot, I moved to the mainland. I learned to hate Texans. They had no money, only women, kids, pigs, and corn." Louis laughed again. "Texans do not like their women molested."
Huffman tilted his head, appraising Louis with new eyes. "What happened?"
"They chased me into the swamps." Louis grimaced. "Texansshoot very well and I did not like running shits, cottonmouths, and alligators, but I made it to New Orleans alive."
Louis smiled at the memories. It had been a good life, he'd taken up his old occupation of garroting drunks. "I did well there."
"So why'd you leave?" Huffman asked, skeptical.
"I ran into another Texan!" Louis snorted. "I had to run with a ball in my back! I stowed aboard a riverboat and had to work it upriver." He shrugged. "I remembered then how much I hated work. Saint Louis was where I got off." He and Huffman had begun to walk upstream, past a long reach of bare willows.
"So how did you get to the West, Louis?" Huffman asked, trying to keep from shivering in the cold, winter air. Night was falling with the temperature.
"Saint Louis was right for me. There were many Americans leaving for Oregon. Many were wealthy." He looked at Huffman and smiled wickedly. "Many had beautiful wives. I went with them."
"I don't understand." Huffman seemed suddenly uneasy after the mention of the women.
Louis seemed to ignore him. "There was a storekeeper I traveled with at first. It didn't take much to sow the seeds of discord in his wagon train. Then, at Fort Laramie, that very post we have just fled, I met Sabot, an old trapper. Together we went west with the wagon. He taught me many things."
Louis waved an arm ahead of them. "Out there is an open, empty land. Many things can happen out there. Wagons are lost. There are many Indians. The storekeeper died. His money disappeared. His wife got to know my pleasure before she, too, passed from this world."
Huffman had stopped dead in his tracks, his face shocked. "You killed them? After traveling all that way with them you murdered the man and raped his woman?"
Louis acted shocked. "But of course! Where is the differencebetween that and what you have just done to your comrades in arms? You have taken their back pay!"
"Yep," Huffman said hesitantly. "Reckon we're partners from here on out."
"Ah, but I agree," Louis's voice soothed. "But what is a woman here and there? Does it make a difference, when they will die anyway?"
"Guess not," Huffman muttered. "How long you rob wagons?"
"Five years. Long enough to amass enough money to go back east and buy a plantation." Louis watched his frosted breath rise in the evening breeze, the snowfields were turning blue with the night.
"Have any regrets?" Huffman asked, looking sideways at Louis.
"Two." He barked a short laugh. "The last wagon bothered me. It was owned by a man named Belk. His wife was very beautiful." He smiled as he remembered her golden hair and how she had been tight with fear as he entered her. "I left a loose end; I did not find the child."
"Child?" Huffman asked, darting him a look.
Louis tried to shrug it off. "Many things happened to the little brats on the trail. They are bit by rattlesnakes. They die of coughs. Some drown. Others fall off and the wheels roll over them. Who knows? He was not with the wagon."
"And the other regret?" Huffman asked, his face pinched from thought.
"The war," Louis said easily. "I once owned a magnificent plantation in the Carolinas. Mine was a life of leisure. Sherman burned everything to the ground. Now I am here to rebuild. I shall have a life like that again." Louis worked his left hand into the big pocket of his buffalo coat.
Huffman came to a decision. "I guess we'll do all right, Louis. I ain't a saint either."
"Very good, partner." Louis smiled. "The horses are up ahead. Let's shake on it one more time. For the future, eh, my friend?" He reached out his right hand.
Huffman grinned happily. "For the future!"
Louis grabbed the hand and shook as his left snaked out. The Smith & Wesson's roar was muffled against the coat. Huffman's body jerked under the impact; his eyes widened in his surprised face.
"Why?" Huffman whispered in disbelief as he pitched forward. Louis kicked away the hand that pawed for a holstered pistol.
"Seven thousand dollars split in half is thirty-five hundred." Louis pulled a knife from his belt. "Your life is worth considerably less to me. The army will be looking for you, sergeant. They will not look for me."
Dropping to one knee, Louis slit the man's throat. He heard the soft footfalls of horses and looked up to see Sabot leading the animals up. The old trapper spit into the snow before he carved Huffman's scalp loose.
"You were veree quiet, mon ami." Sabot grinned in the darkness, spitting again.
Louis nodded with satisfaction. Old skills died hard. He pulled himself onto his horse and tied the saddlebags in place. The army owed him at least that much.
Dolly Moore stepped over an ice-covered puddle, thankful that the streets of Denver were frozen hard. When warm, the foul mud--reeking of urine, waste, decay, and manure--squished through the holes in her worn boots. She pulled her shawl tightly about her, shivering as her frosty breath rose around the tips of her bright red-blond hair where it stuck out from her bonnet.
Mr. Adams had been nice--even if he didn't like dealingwith a woman! He'd taken a loss for her though, knowing the worth of his wagon, unable to make a profit on a pretty young woman in need. She'd seen it in his eyes, but she was desperate. Another month, and Denver would kill her father. That or she'd have to go to work and that, too, would literally kill the old man. It would be but one more reflection on Henry Moore and his ineptness in this new land.
Wagons were plentiful in Denver just then and Adams was shrewd. Dolly smiled proudly. Well, so was she! All those years watching Paw care for the gear had paid off. She'd looked the wagon over with a critical eye to see the bed was solid, the frame uncracked and sturdy, the axles strong and sound as were the true wheels. The tongue didn't look like it would take much more and the traces were worn, but with limited finances a woman couldn't have everything.
"And Adams gave in in the end," she whispered to herself, feeling her stomach fall. "Damn, Paw. It's the only way!"
They had to get out of Denver--out of Colorado--and away to the East where the climate, and the work, and the men ceased to take such a toll on her aging father.
"Oh, Paw!" she whispered under breath, fearing the meeting to come. Why had he let himself get suckered into that tarnal poker game? He'd been picked clean and fleeced! These weren't men. They were wolves, animals, predators like the coyotes they'd seen crossing the plains.
Predators that preyed on everything! She dropped her eyes as a tall man smiled and tipped his hat. Women were rare in Denver. Oh, Market Street was full of cribs and bordellos, but real women were few and far between. She stopped to look at herself in the window of a clothing store. The imperfect reflection showed a tall redheaded woman with a full figure. Her eyes were serious, her nose delicate and straight. Her face was well formed, capable of gracing the cover of Godey's. Only now there was a haunted worry there. What if Paw died? Well, there wasmarriage or some labor or ... She swallowed and forced herself on again, knowing the wagon purchase was going to hurt her father even more. He'd see it as yet another of his failures.
She stepped up on the rickety boardwalk and found their rooming house, such as it was, hesitating as she stared up the well-worn steps that led to their tiny room. Well, no longer would they pay such atrocious rent! Biting her lip, she started up, feeling the stairs shaking under her feet.
The rattly doorknob was like ice in her fingers, and the hallway only a little warmer. She kept away from the rough-cut lumber that would snag and snare even the worst of her clothes and drew a deep breath at their door. With dread, she entered.
"Hello, Paw!" she called, looking nervously to the dim back of the small room and feeling the chill in the unheated air. The lumber was unevenly cut, the boards blackened with soot from the small smoky stove that refused to draw well. A crumbling of gray ashes had accumulated around the stove legs, barely visible in the dim light. The ash box needed to be emptied, too.
"Where you been?" Henry Moore asked, looking up from the magazine he was reading. His eyes had that uncharacteristic dullness she'd become so used to. His gray-white hair hung collar length, untrimmed now despite her attempts. His beard bristled long and white and hid the tightness she knew had grown about his lips. The slump in his posture had only become pronounced since they had come to Colorado last fall. In that time, Henry Moore had lost most everything down to his respect. Now that, too, was ebbing like their finances.
His lanky body was stretched on the fragile cot he maintained while she had the bed behind the blanket divider in the small room.
"I swear, Paw!" she scolded. "You'll freeze to death in here!" She turned to stoke up the stove and saw the empty wood box.
He hesitated and she could see the anguish as he bit his lip, looking at her sideways, chewing his gray mustache. His face was thinner now, the lines deeper. Once again, she noted that Henry Moore looked old and her heart went out to him. "Well, run down and get some ..." Her voice faded away and she cocked her head. "What's that?"
Henry's eyes shifted away from her face, looking at the clapboard wall. "It's a rifle, girl."
She stifled the cry. Rifle? Seeing the upset in his face she swallowed her protest and asked, "Well, why didn't you get some wood for the stove?" Rifle? What for? Confusion began to lead to anger.
"Well, now, girl, don't you go a gittin' all het up, now, hear?" Henry shook his head, sitting up and gesturing with the magazine in his gnarled old hand. "Ya see, I read me this article in the Harper's magazine! Did you know that--"
"Paw!" She turned to face him, hands twisting nervously. "I bought a wagon, Paw. Used fifty dollars I kept back a couple of weeks ago when you got fired from that mine up in Central City." She drew a deep breath, seeing the way his mouth turned down at the corners and the lines on his forehead went deeper.
She plunged ahead. "Colorado's killin' you, Paw! When them gamblers fleeced you of all but that last bit of money, I made up my mind! Now, you always said I was headstrong, but--"
His nod was so slight she almost missed it. "Good!"
Her mouth went open. That was the last thing she'd thought he would say. Her voice was drowned by her confusion. "Good? Why I ... I mean I thought you'd be ... Oh, Paw, I love you! I just want to get you away from this awful place to somewhere where you can use your skills. I want to get us to someplace where men don't kill each other all the time. I want us to go back home, or maybe to Missouri, or Iowa, where you can put a freight outfit together again. I--"
"I know, girl." His eyes shone and he sniffed slightly. "You know, you look more and more like your Maw every day, bless her soul."
She bit her lip. "Then you're not mad at me?"
He laughed softly, chiding, "Shouldn't hide money, Dolly. Money is a man's bizness. Women shouldn't be--"
She let a smile dimple her cheeks. "I don't play poker, Paw!" She shook her head and shivered, changing the subject at the hurt look on his face. "What's the rifle for?"
His eyes brightened again. "Your future, girl! That's why I'm glad you bought the wagon. You see, I been reading. There's a fortune to be made. Buffalo hides, girl! Yes sirree! Three dollars and fifty cents a hide! So I bought this here rifle and a hunert rounds of .44 bullets. One shot a buffalo and that's a sizable return on the outlay! Why, we'll be rolling in greenbacks afore fall!"
"How much, Paw?" she asked, settling down on the little stool. Her heart sank. They were out of wood; she'd spent the last dime on the wagon and team. They had to pray she and her father could keep the harness spliced until they were east again.
"Fifteen dollars and thirty-five cents!" Henry smiled. "I tell you girl, it was a steal! This here's a Henry lever action! Get me in the middle of a bunch of buffalo and--"
"What are we gonna do to stay warm and eat in the meantime?" she asked, feeling a sudden tightness about her heart. Denver was an expensive place to live.
He had stopped, his mouth still partway open. "Oh, something will come along, girl. Trust your Paw, now." He gave her the warm smile that had always reassured her as a young girl. Now it was a hollow mockery.
"Oh, Paw," she sighed, feeling the cold creeping in around her dress. The dim room seemed even darker. As she looked, she could see his expression falling again and she felt like crying.His eyes lowered and he worked his mouth, knowing he'd failed her again.
"I love you, Paw," she whispered walking over to him, putting her arms around his thin shoulders, and feeling him tremble as he fought to still the tears of frustration.
"I'm trying, Dolly girl. I'm trying so hard." His voice was heavy, shaky as he fought for control. "It's just that nothing seems to go right for an old man no more!"
"I know, Paw. We'll make out. We always do." God, how she wished she could believe that.
Copyright © 1988 by W. Michael Gear