Many a River

Elmer Kelton

Forge Books

Chapter One


North Texas, 1855

Jeffrey Barfield wondered how much farther Papa would continue to travel before he found a settle-down place that suited him. The family had left Arkansas by wagon two months ago and slowly picked their way across the eastern part of Texas, looking for land Papa would consider to be just right. Mama had seen a dozen sites she would be happy with, but Papa invariably said, "There's bound to be better a little farther west."

Eight-going-on-nine, Jeffrey was beginning to fear the family would still be wandering when he celebrated his next birthday. They had passed through Fort Worth, then moved on westward, stopping hopefully here a day, there a day, and going on. Now they had camped on a pleasant, clear-running creek miles beyond Weatherford. Papa walked in a slow circle, kicking up soil with his boot, then reaching down with calloused farmer hands to scoop up a bit of it. He sniffed at it and let it slowly spill out between his fingers.

Watching from afar, Jeffrey said, "Reckon this is it, Mama? Reckon he'll decide this is the place?"

Mama touched his shoulder gently. She looked tired. "I don't know, son. I've wished so many times . . ." She turned toward her campfire. "You'd better fetch me a little more dry wood."

Jeffrey heard a boyish shout and glanced about for his younger brother. Todd was romping with a brown dog that had accompanied the family as the wagon bumped its way through Arkansas. With a fleeting impatience, Jeffrey shouted, "Hush up, Todd. You'll run off any game that's within hearin' of you."

Todd quieted down for a minute or two but quickly forgot Jeffrey's admonition. He began playing fetch-the-stick with the dog. Jeffrey shrugged. Remaining quiet seemed too much to ask of an energetic five-year-old boy.

He gathered a few small branches from dead brush and broke them across his knee, carrying them back to the .re. Papa had strayed three hundred yards from the wagon. Mama raised her hand to her slat bonnet to shade her eyes from the noonday sun. She said, "Better go fetch him, son. Dinner'll be ready when you-all get back."

"Yes, ma'am. Papa loses all track of time."

He met Todd walking in from his game. Not seeing the dog, he asked, "Where's Brownie?"

"He got tired of chasin' a stick. He took off after a rabbit."

"You better get back to the wagon and wash your face and hands. It'll soon be time to eat."

Todd quickened his pace. He liked to play, but eating pleased him even more.

Jeffrey gave Papa the message. Papa sounded disappointed. "All right, I'm done here. Soon as we've finished eatin' dinner, we'll break camp and move on."

Jeffrey tried not to frown. Mama always said Papa knew best, even when she didn't believe it herself. "This isn't the place?"

"Maybe a little farther on."

They had not seen a soul since they left Weatherford. Jeffrey asked, "Ain't we gotten out pretty far past everybody else?"

"That's the way I like it. We get first pick."

At the wagon, Papa broke the news that they were moving on. Mama took it without comment, but Todd protested, "Brownie ain't come back. We can't just leave him."

Papa said, "If he don't find his way to us, we'll have to go without him."

Todd puckered up. Papa said sternly, "You're too big to start cryin'."

Todd said, "I don't ever cry."

Jeffrey saw the hurt in his brother's eyes. He said, "I'll go hunt for him. He may not have sense enough to follow us."

Papa warned, "Don't waste much time. We'll be startin' pretty soon."

The noonday sun bore heavily on Jeffrey's thin shoulders and sent sweat trickling down his freckled face. He never cussed in front of Papa or Mama, but he was a mile or more from them now. He stated his opinion of the wayward dog in terms he had heard his father use in addressing a team of mules. Papa often relied on profanity for its ability to relieve stress.

"You can stay out here and starve to death for all I care," Jeffrey shouted at the absent animal.

Well, no big loss. Brownie rarely played with him, preferring to rip around with Todd. Jeffrey turned and started back, his feet dragging, his steps shorter than when he had begun. He had not gone far before he heard the dog barking off to his left. He saw a moving cloud of dust and heard the drumming of hooves. Someone was pushing a band of horses in a slow lope. As wind shifted the dust, he counted a dozen or more riders.

He froze in midstride. They were Indians, and they were riding headlong toward the wagon camp.

The shock gave Jeffrey fresh strength. He broke into a run, shouting a warning. His was a boy's voice, high-pitched find too weak to carry far. Remembering terrible tales he had heard about Indian raids, he began crying. He heard a shot and recognized the sound of the rifle. Papa was serving notice that he intended to defend himself and his family.

Several Indians left the horse herd and circled the wagon. Papa's rifle fired once more, then a shotgun blasted. That would be Mama, pitching in. Jeffrey was close enough now to see Papa go down and to hear Mama scream before a warrior crushed her head with a club.

He realized that the Indians could see him if they looked in his direction. He dropped to his stomach and hid himself in the tall grass. Instinct cried out for him to rush to the wagon and try to help, but fear paralyzed him. An inner voice told him it was already too late, that he would only get himself killed.

He heard Todd cry out as an Indian lifted him onto his horse. The boy futilely beat the warrior with his fists. The man swung the hard handle of a rawhide quirt and struck Todd a sharp blow to the side of his head. Todd went limp. Jeffrey then lost sight of his brother and the Indian in the stirring of dust as warriors circled the wagon. He heard them shouting in celebration while they looted it of blankets and foodstuffs. They gathered up the mule team Papa had staked on grass near camp and tried to set fire to the wagon. They succeeded only in burning much of the canvas cover before wind snuffed out the blaze. They rode away, adding the mules to their band of loose horses.

Jeffrey lay on the ground for several minutes, trembling, fearing that some Indians might lag behind and see him. Finally, choking with fear, he forced himself to his feet and trudged to the wagon. He knew what he would surely find, but he denied it to himself. Mama and Papa must somehow have survived. They had to.

But they had not. Mama lay twisted on the ground, eyes open but not seeing. Her head was bloody, her scalp torn away. Wind tugged at her long skirt. Papa lay across a hot cast-iron dutch oven that sat atop live coals. His clothing smoldered, and Jeffrey smelled burning flesh. Papa too had been scalped.

Todd was not there.

Jeffrey dragged his father away from the heat and used his bare hands to beat out the slow flames that had burned holes in shirt and trousers. He dropped to his knees and let the tears flow. Body quaking, he shouted out in grief and fear and rage.

He lost all sense of time, crying until he was exhausted. Eventually he forced himself to his feet and began to look around, to take stock of the situation into which he had so suddenly been thrust. Mama and Papa were dead. Todd was gone, probably dead too, or he would be when the Indians grew tired of him. Of what use could a five-year-old boy be to them?

Flies had already found his parents' wounds. Mama had been wearing an apron. Jeffrey spread it to cover her head. He found Papa's fallen hat and laid it across his father's still face.

He knew there was no need to look for the rifle or the shotgun. The Indians would have taken those as prizes of the raid. He thought of the dog. It had barked at the horses, probably alerting the Indians to the wagon camp even before they saw it. Jeffrey ventured out, calling again for Brownie.

He found the dog a hundred yards away, dead, with two large wounds in its side. A third wound still had part of an arrow shaft in it. Evidently the Indians had tried to retrieve their arrows but had broken one off.

"Damn you, Brownie," Jeffrey said, "you had it comin' to you."

He realized then that his own life had been spared because the dog had wandered off. Otherwise he would have been in camp when the Indians struck. He moderated his tone. "I hope you caught your rabbit."

The family milk cow had been staked near the wagon. She lay dead, a hind leg cut off and carried away. It had been one of Jeffrey's chores to milk her twice a day. She was mean about kicking, so he did not mourn her.

Jeffrey could not bear to see Mama and Papa lying there on the ground. They needed to be buried. He found the shovel where it was supposed to be, strapped to the side of the wagon. The Indians had seen no need for it. He was practiced in use of the shovel. He had dug fire pits and unearthed old stumps to serve as firewood for his mother as they had moved west from Arkansas. He chose a piece of ground above the creek's high-water mark and began to dig a hole wide enough that he could bury Papa and Mama side by side, the way they had been as far back as he could remember.

The grave was waist deep when he heard horses. Fear fell over him again like a smothering blanket. He dropped to his stomach in the hole, certain more Indians were coming. He heard the horses stop at the camp. As men raised their voices in excitement, he recognized familiar words. These riders were not Indians. Climbing out of the hole, he waved his hat over his head, afraid the men might ride on without seeing him. He began running, stumbling toward the wagon, trying to shout but not finding his voice.

A couple of men raised rifles, startled by the boy's unexpected appearance. They lowered them quickly. One rider moved out to meet him, dismounting and kneeling, anxiously studying Jeffrey at his own eye level. The man was two hundred pounds of muscle and bone. His bearing indicated that he was the kind who would automatically take charge without waiting for someone else. Touching a huge hand to Jeffrey's shoulder, he demanded, "Anybody here besides you?"

"No, sir," Jeffrey managed, his voice breaking. "The Indians didn't see me." Guilt burned deeply as he admitted, "I hid."

"A good thing you did. I suppose that's your mother and father we found back yonder?"

Jeffrey sobbed once, then forced a measure of control. "Yes, sir. And they carried off my little brother." He felt a moment of hope. "Maybe you can catch them and make them give Todd back."

The big man's heavy eyebrows came together in a dark frown. "We're tryin' to catch them, but I doubt it'll do your brother any good. The minute we close with them, they generally kill any prisoners. Best we can hope for is to make them bleed for what they've done. And maybe we can get back the horses they stole on this raid."

Hope collapsed as quickly as it had risen. "You can't save Todd?"

"I'm sorry to put it to you so strong, but if they haven't already killed him, they will."

Jeffrey lost control and wept again. In a kindly voice the bearded man said, "You've got to face it like a man. He's gone, like your mama and daddy are gone."

The other men gathered around, some voicing sympathy, others demanding angrily that they keep riding. They had raiders to catch and kill. The bearded man said, "Adam, how about you and Matthew Temple stayin' here with this boy? The rest of us will see if we can get us some Indians."

Jeffrey said, "I want to go with you. I want to find my brother."

"You'd best put aside any notion of seein' your brother again. It'd just lead to fresh disappointment. You've got hurt enough already."

The grim-faced group of fifteen or so volunteers set off in a long trot, following the plain trail beaten out by the warriors and their stolen horses and mules. Jeffrey turned to the two men left behind. Matthew Temple had a ragged beard that once had been black but now was spotted with gray. He looked like most of the farmers Jeffrey had known back home, men used to hard work. His hips were broad but his stomach flat. He said, "Fletcher's probably right to leave us, Adam. My horse is about worn out, and yours looks little better."

Adam was younger, his beard short and brown, covering much of a face dark and weathered. He said, "I'd just like to be there for the fight. I lost two horses to them damned Comanches."

"We don't know for sure they're Comanches."

"I don't see that it makes any difference. They're Indians, and they'll all kill you if they get the chance. Like they done this boy's folks, and some others back yonder."

Matthew took a wrinkled handkerchief from a hip pocket and wiped the tears from Jeffrey's dusty face. "Son, we can't just leave your mama and daddy layin' there. We'd best be gettin' them under."

Jeffrey pointed to the higher ground. "I'd done started diggin' before you-all came."

"How were you goin' to get them all the way up there?"

"I'm pretty strong."

Matthew's expression showed he was dubious. "How old are you?"

"Eight, and some past."

"About the age my boy Henry was." With a sad look in his eyes, Matthew shook his head. "You're too young to shoulder a man's load. You ought to be playin' schoolboy games and learnin' to read and cipher. But sometimes the Lord in his wisdom throws a thunderbolt at us. Are you a God-fearin' lad?"

"My folks are churchgoin' people. My grandpa used to preach."

"Looks like we'll have to send you back to him. Where's he live?"

"He don't, not since last summer. Mama and Papa are all the kin I got, and Todd." The tears burned again. He fought them back. "I ain't even got them anymore."

Matthew's voice was soft. "Well, you've got friends. Between me and Adam, and all them other fellers, we'll do what we can. The rest is up to the good Lord."

The two men took turns digging while Jeffrey stood and watched, numb. Matthew wiped a sweaty forehead and leaned on the shovel. He asked, "How come you-all to travel this far west by yourselves? Didn't anybody tell your daddy the Indians still think they own this part of the country?"

"We stopped in a place called Weatherford. Somebody said it had been a while since there'd been any trouble. Papa had a notion that by comin' out farther than most other folks, he'd have his choice of places. He wanted to start us a good farm."

"I wish he'd asked me. The farther west you go, the less it rains and the poorer the land is for the plow."

Adam took over the shovel. He argued, "Ain't nothin' wrong with the land. Once it's settled up with farms and towns, we'll get more rain. There's an old sayin' that rain follows the plow."

Matthew snorted. "That old sayin' has sent many a broke farmer draggin' back to his wife's family."

When the two decided the hole was deep enough, Matthew said, "Son, you stay here. Me and Adam will bring your folks up."

They carried Jeffrey's parents to the site one at a time. They had bundled Mama in a hand-sewn quilt the Indians had left undisturbed in the bottom of a trunk. Papa was wrapped in the singed remnant of the wagon sheet. The two men lowered them into the grave. Matthew said, "We've faced them east so they'll be lookin' into the sunrise on resurrection mornin'. You'll see them again on that glad day."

Jeffrey would much rather have seen them now, the way they had been this morning, Papa full of hope about the land they would find, Mama just fretting about getting dinner fixed. The land had been Papa's concern. Making a home had been Mama's. "As long as we can have a decent place to raise these boys, I'm happy," she had said.

A bleak thought brought Jeffrey almost back to tears. This lonely grave was all the land they were ever going to have.

Adam said, "Matthew, you're the preacher. Hadn't you ought to say some words?"

Matthew considered for a moment. "If I had my Bible I could do it proper, but I believe the Lord pays more attention to what's in the heart than what's in the words." He bowed his head. "These are two poor pilgrims, Lord, lookin' for your mercy. I don't know why you took them before their rightful time. I don't know why you chose to let this good land be plagued with savages, no more than why you give us arthritis and chilblains, but I suppose we'll understand it all someday. In the meantime I hope you'll fix it so we can deliver your word to these heathens from the muzzle of a rifle. Amen."

He turned to Jeffrey. "Why don't you go back down to the wagon and sit while Adam and me fill the grave?"

Jeffrey did not want to watch dirt shoveled over Mama and Papa. He wandered disconsolately down the gentle grade, wondering if maybe they ought to bury the dog, too.

As for the cow, the two men skinned her out, Matthew saying there was no need in letting good meat go to waste. Later he sat on the ground, whittling letters into the wagon's end gate. "I'm fixin' a head board, such as it is. What were your folks' names, son?"

"Barfield. Papa's Bible name was Alexander. Everybody just called him Alex."

"I'll make it Alex. Alexander is too long for the board. And your mama?"

"Cynthia. I don't know how to spell it."

"I don't either. I'll just carve a C."

Jeffrey wondered if anyone would ever see it anyway. To him, this had suddenly become a bleak and lonely land, unlikely ever to attract many people. He could not understand why his father had thought he would find a good place around here to begin a farm and a new life. All this land had brought was death.

He wished they had never left Arkansas, where the grass seemed always green, the trees tall and shady, the corn growing higher than his head. But the farm had belonged to someone else. Papa was just working it on shares. After falling out with the owner, Papa had little of his own except the wagon and team, the milk cow, a moldboard plow, and a set of hand tools in whose use he was proficient. Texas had advertised cheap land and promised to allow many years for the payout.

Jeffrey saw nothing cheap about it. It had cost his family all there was.

He realized he was hungry. The Indians had carried away or destroyed most of the food. They had taken off a sack of sugar but had emptied a barrel of flour onto the ground. They had also spilled a bag of coffee beans. Jeffrey scooped these up by hand, shaking out as much sand as he could. Matthew carried them to the creek to wash them. Jeffrey tried to salvage some of the flour, but it contained too much dirt. The two men fried strips of beef and boiled a can of coffee.

At dusk, Matthew stared in the direction the Indians and their pursuers had gone. "Don't look like the boys'll be back tonight. Son, you can have my saddle blanket to lay on. You'd better get some sleep."

A little of the afternoon's fear still lingered. Jeffrey said, "What if more Indians come?"

"Ain't likely. Anyway, me and Adam will take turns standin' watch. We'll need to keep the fire goin' so the boys can find their way here."

Jeffrey thought it might help Indians find their way, too. He slept fitfully, reliving the terror over and over. He grabbed at the forlorn hope that when he awakened he would find it had just been a bad dream. Daylight brought no such gratification. He quickly saw that the rest of the men had not returned

during the night.

Matthew claimed not to be concerned. He said, "They likely had to chase them red devils further than they expected. I bet you they'll be back today." But Jeffrey saw concern in his eyes.

The Indians had not disturbed the harness, which Papa had hung on the wagon. Adam inventoried all that was still useful after the raiders had finished. "I don't find a choppin' ax," he said. "Found a hammer and a box of nails, though. The Indians ain't fixin' to build any houses. And the plow's still there. They sure don't aim to do any farmin'."

Matthew told Jeffrey, "I've seen many a boy makin' his own way and not much older than you. At least you can start with a wagon and a good set of tools. Even a plow. You could set in to farmin' right here where you're at if you had another two or three years of size and muscle on you. Your daddy would probably like that."

Jeffrey gritted his teeth. "If I had another two or three years on me, I'd get a gun and go to killin' Indians."

"Right now you'd best just think about livin'. You can't make it by yourself, not for a while yet. We've got to find you somebody to stay with till you're big enough to stand alone."

Jeffrey's initial response was rejection. "Ain't nobody can take the place of Mama and Papa."

"I know. But you'll have to let them make their own

place till you're ready to quit the nest and fly on your own." The two men sat sipping coffee and talking about people who might be prospective guardians. Adam said, "There's Old Man Spears. His son up and went to California. The old man hasn't got any help."

"No," Matthew countered, "he'd work this boy down to a nub. That's what made his son leave. The old man drove him till he was tired to the bone."

"There's the widow Nelson."

"She never did grieve enough to suit me, and she's got too many callers now. Some of them come after dark. Wouldn't be a fit influence."

"But she's a good cook."

Matthew raised an eyebrow. "How do you know?"

Adam hesitated. "A feller told me."

Matthew smiled.

Adam said, "What about you? You and Sarah have got a nice little farm. It'd be a good place for a boy."

Matthew seemed surprised at the thought. He considered, then said, "I'd do it in a minute, but I don't know how Sarah would take it."

Jeffrey wearied of their conversation and walked up to visit the graves. He studied the headboard Matthew had carved and thought it was mighty little to show for two lives. His throat was so tight that he could barely swallow, but he did not cry again. He rubbed his sleeve across his eyes, which seemed to have gotten a little sand in them. Turning, he saw a rising of dust like he had seen when the Indians came yesterday, except from the opposite direction. His heart leaped, and he set off running down the slope so fast he almost fell. "Indians!" he shouted. "They're comin' back!"

Matthew and Adam fetched their rifles, but they did not seem as concerned as Jeffrey thought they should be. Matthew squinted. "It's the boys, thank the Lord. Looks like they got back a bunch of horses."

Adam said, "I hope they got mine. I paid forty dollars for one of them."

"Where did you ever get forty dollars?"

"I still owe twenty."

There seemed to be as many riders as when they had left here yesterday in the wake of the Indians. One was bent over in the saddle. Jeffrey had never seen a wounded man, but he sensed that this one was hurt. One pants leg was stained by blood. The big fellow who was their leader rode up to the wagon while most of the others brought the loose horses to a stop. Jeffrey thought there might be more horses now than yesterday.

Matthew walked out to meet the black-bearded one. "Looks like you found your Indians, Fletcher."

"They got careless. Didn't even post a guard. We hit their camp at first light."

"I hope you reformed a bunch of them."

"Four or five. They scattered like quail. We think we got back most of the horses they took in the raid. Some extras besides. Got one man wounded, is all."

Jeffrey asked anxiously, "Did you see my brother?"

Fletcher dismounted, knelt before Jeffrey, and gripped his arms. Grimly he looked him in the eye. "This'll be hard, son, but you've got to know. We found a boy on the trail. They'd killed him."

Jeffrey swayed, trying hard not to cry.

Fletcher said, "We've brought him back to be buried beside your folks."

Jeffrey said, "I want to see him."

Fletcher shook his head. "No, you don't. You'll want to remember him the way he was, not the way they left him."

While three men watched the horses to keep them from straying, the rest gathered around the wagon. They made short work of what remained of the milk cow, frying the meat in one of Mama's dutch ovens. They were so hungry that most ate it half raw. Matthew and Adam went back up the slope and set in to digging a grave beside the one where Papa and Mama lay. A small body was bundled in a blanket Jeffrey recognized as having been taken by the Indians. He burned to open it and see his brother, but he took Fletcher's advice to heart. He would always remember how Papa and Mama had looked after the Indians were done with them. He did not want to remember Todd that way.

His brother had often been a bother with his childish play, but he had also been an eager student when Jeffrey sought to teach him serious stuff like mumblety-peg and knocking over a rabbit with a stone. One winter evening Todd had moved too near the fireplace and had fallen against the grate. Jeffrey had pulled him back and ripped off the smoldering shirt. The red-hot iron grate had left a permanent scar on the inside of Todd's left arm, just below the elbow.

Papa's mules had been recovered along with the horses. Fletcher told Jeffrey, "We'll need for our wounded man to ride in the wagon. We'll hitch up the mules and take you and him back to Weatherford."

Jeffrey felt anxious. "What'll you do with me when we get there?"

"We'll find somebody to take you in. It won't be like charity A boy with a wagon and team has got somethin' to offer."

Jeffrey turned his head and looked back as they pulled away from the family's last campsite. He kept watching the stark grave marker until it was lost in the dust that followed the wagon. He felt guilty that he had survived while the others had not. Maybe there was something he could have done. . . .

Never in his short life had he been alone before. Though he had all these sympathetic strangers nearby for company, he felt alone and desolate.

Copyright © 2008 by Elmer Kelton
Published in April 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.