Tom walked into the den and poured himself a tumbler of Scotch whiskey.
“I’m gettin’ a little headache. Maybe a sip or two of The Glenlevit will belay the pain. Would you care for a snort?”
“No thank you. I surely won’t get any work done then,” Grant said.
“Suit yourself but this here is the finest Scotch Whiskey a man can illegally import.”
Tom picked up his glass and walked to the door.
“Let’s go sit on the porch. There’s a breeze in the shade and I haven’t been out in a week.”
Tom sat in a wicker swing while Grant sat in a chair with his notebook.
“Let me see now…where was we?”
“You had been detached to the Bozeman Trail and taken your discharge I believe.”
“Oh yeah, my discharge. Well sir, I kissed my soldier suits good-bye and I was gonna be a free man again. I had fulfilled all of my obligations to God and country and I was headin’ off to find little sister. We was somewhere down around what is now the town of Sheridan, in Wyoming, on the Bozeman Trail when my hitch with the army was up. I decided to head north. I had heard that they was buildin’ a town called Bozeman just a couple hundred miles north from where we were.
Now you might just find this interesting. The army unit I was with had stopped for a few days to camp close and give comfort to a wagon train that was in the process of turnin’ back because of the Injun troubles.
I figured to spend a day or two socializin’ with the settlers and maybe do a little tradin’. I got to talkin’ to the wagon train scout who introduced himself as Gabe. He’d decided he’d seen enough of that country behind him and he was gonna ride on ahead in the hopes of seein’ somethin’ new. Seems as some big money men with an interest in mining was gonna pay him top dollar for findin’ gold diggin’ grounds and he’d only taken the wagon train job because it was headed the way he travelin’. Told me he was fixin’ to head up through a range of mountains to the north to see could he find any likely lookin’ spots for the findin’ of that yellow metal that is the root of so much insanity.
Even though he was an older fella, we kind’a hit it off, bein’ of the same profession and all. He was real impressed with me speakin’ Injun, specially Blackfoot. In fact he had a few stories about his own encounters with the Blackfoot. Claimed he got on well with them though. So we decided to ride together a spell. I guess each of us was figurin’ it would be nice to have someone who could shoot the middle in case we crossed paths with some hostiles.
That train he’d been guidin’ had a back trail you could’a followed in the dark and my soldier suits had ‘em a new nanny so me and this fella named Bridger took off to see what we could see.”
“Was that theeee Bridger?” Grant asked, furrowing his brow.
“The one and only Bridger. In fact, that range of mountains he was headed for is now called the Bridger Range on the maps, if you look. But you’ve got to remember that back then his name wasn’t no where near as well known as now. He was just a scout and hunter like a hundred others at the time, although a damned successful one at that. He was one helluva business man and he’d made a good livin’ at his fort sellin’ necessities to the pilgrims on the Oregon Trail. But he liked the free life of scoutin’ and huntin’ and I guess if that’s in a fella, there just ain’t no gettin’ it out.
Well sir, Bridger and me took off north and the second day we saw some Injun sign that had us sittin’ tall in the saddle and keepin’ our eyes peeled. I had, of course, heard of Bridger, but as I said, he liked to be called Gabe, and it was a comfort to me to have a man like him to watch my back. He was damned good at his business and he could read sign like you’d read words in a newspaper. He did have one problem though, his eyes was goin’ dim and he couldn’t see nothin’ too far off. Said that was a bother to him and he was glad I was along as well to see the distant ridges. I heard later on that it was just a few years after we met that he got so blind that he had to quit the mountains and let relatives care for him. Damned if that didn’t break my heart. Reckon that’d kilt me if’n I was at the mercy of relatives.
So anyway, me’n Bridger is ridin’ along and about the third day we come upon a camp with a couple of covered wagons. As if that white canvas on them wagons wasn’t advertisement enough, they had smoke billowin’ to be seen for miles.
Bridger figured it’d be best if’n we was to take a wide detour around those folks and avoid whatever trouble they was lookin’ to bring upon themselves. However, bein’ young and foolish, I said to him that it was only Christian to warn whoever it was. After all, they was sendin’ smoke signals to the Crow and the Sioux which, if they was to be read, would be a quick ticket to the tomahawk barber shop.
Not only that, but it was late in the day and gettin’ on to time for us to make a camp. I was kind’a hopin’ they might have someone cookin’, who was better at it than me or Gabe.
We skirted around the camp and hid our horses. I finally walked close on foot and sure enough it was just a bunch of cheechakos, women and all, with wagons and several head of oxen. Without announcin’ my presence, I went back to the horses and got Bridger. We rode on in big as you please figurin’ to do those greenhorns a favor.
When we was still a ways out I hollered ‘hello in the camp’ and at about that same time a musket ball cut a gouge outta my left side right through my belt and shirt. Damned nearly took my knife right off’n my belt. It took out a chunk right here where the fat is.”
Tom grasped the fatty flesh above his waist.
“Of course, in them days I didn’t have a lot of fat, and I can still feel the burnin’ of it to this day. Hurt like fifteen kinds of hell, and that’s for sure. Bridger had spun his horse and was makin’ tracks and my cayuse, not wantin’ to be left behind, had near about put me afoot tryin’ to follow. I reckon you know what that feels like?”
Tom laughed as Grant looked up from his notebook.
“Yes…I remember it well,” Grant smiled.
“When we was outta range ol’ Bridger pulled his pony to a halt and said, ‘Now that was one helluva scoutin’ job you done back there. Lucky you ain’t got us kilt.’ I was too embarrassed to even try to justify my lack’a discernment to Bridger, but I was shore as well mad enough to hanker a bit of get-even on the sumbitch what had shot me. Ol’ Bridger gets the idea that he’ll take the horses and ride a wide circle around that camp out in the open. Figures that will draw their attention and they’ll have to reckon they’d kilt one of us. While he was ridin’, I spent the rest of the daylight puttin’ the sneak on that camp.
I could smell the cookin’ and my stomach was grumblin’ loud enough that I figured they could have heard it in that camp. Come dark, they settled in, leavin’ one to stand guard while the others laid down for some sleep. The one guardin’ was sittin’ there silhouetted in the campfire like a fool and I was gonna get close and put a pistol ball in son of a bitch but I just had that feelin’ creepin’ up my back that it wouldn’t be a right thing to do. Least wise not till I figured out why they’d shot me. So I watched a bit and pretty quick the guard, who was wrapped in a blanket against the night chill, walked over to where they’d made their latrine and squatted.
I couldn’t have asked for nothin’ better. I had a leather thong in my possibles bag and I got me an idea. I pulled out that leather strip, which was about two feet long. I figured if I could get up on that guard while he was preoccupied I could choke him unconscious without makin’ a sound and without doin’ the poor bastard too much permanent damage neither. I was always a soft hearted humanitarian like that you know.”
Tom flashed a big smile.
“Well sir, I put the sneak on that guard and my plan went perfect. I applied my garrote with the deftness of a conquistador. Now I was expectin’ the possibility that the guard was gonna shit all over everything, considerin’ the circumstance, but what happened next nearly scared the shit outta me.
When I dropped the loop and jerked the ends of that garrote, the guard let out a shriek that went down my spine like shatterin’ glass. Now I had figured this was some fella fixin’ to empty his bowels and that is what I was prepared to deal with. But it wasn’t no fella at all. It was a female takin’ a piss…and she’d put her elbows on her knees and was holdin’ her fists up to her chin when she squatted down with that blanket wrapped around her. When my loop tightened, it wasn’t no where near her neck. It was around the backs of her hands and she was able to get plenty of air. She was screamin’ and hollerin’ and writhin’ around. Then I heard other women’s voices and more screamin’ and hollerin’ and it wasn’t but a minute and I’m lookin’ down the barrel of a musket for the second time that day.
I wasn’t about to let go of the only thing between me’n tarnation so I grabbed both ends of that strap in one hand to hold her in place in front of me and drew that forty-four, which I’d plum forgot to give back to the Army when I’d departed. Damned if me and musket man didn’t have us a Mexican standoff.
I was pointin’ my Colt over that woman’s shoulder and peekin’ around her head just enough to see that the bead of that fifty eight was right in the middle of my forehead. For a long moment it was so quiet you could’a heard a hummin’ bird fart. I was wonderin’ what to do next when that silence was broken by a thunderous click as someone cocked a pistol behind me and off to my left. I was just about to make amends with my maker for all my misdeeds, when I heard Bridger’s voice sayin’, ‘Either let that gun roar or you’ll die with her loaded.’
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