REVENGE CAN TURN A BOY INTO A MAN...AND PUT A MAN SIX FEET UNDER
At just fourteen, Jim Tracey found himself without a friend in the world, running from the Indian war party that had killed his father. But he was saved by a pair of grizzled old fur trappers, and he learned to fend for himself and live off the land.
When Jim finally returns home to St. Louis, he finds that there was more to his father's murder than he'd thought. Though the Indians did the killing, someone else did the planning--someone too close for comfort. Now young Jim must untangle a thick web of lies, and when the dirty dealings come to light he will come face-to-face with a murderer. But if he tastes the vengeance owed him, it won't be as the boy everyone knew as Jim--it will be as a man named Trace McCall...
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Young Jim Tracey loved to hunt. Maybe it was because he seemed to have a knack for it. Though only fourteen on this sunny day in the late spring of 1835, he had already proven himself as a marksman. From the age of ten, he had supplemented the family’s dinner table with squirrels and rabbits—most of them shot clean through the head with the rifle his daddy had given him. Because of his skill with the old flintlock, it was easy for Jim to persuade his father to let him take a mule up the mountain to see if he could sneak up on a deer.
John Tracey was proud of his son’s natural talent as a marksman. Although he took credit for teaching the youngster how to shoot, starting his instruction at an early age, still he knew that young Jim’s ability was God-given. It was good for the boy to go off in the woods to hunt. They had been working long hours at the sluice box ever since the winter broke, with not a lot of gold dust to show for it. Besides, they could always use some fresh meat.
John straightened up and, resting his shovel against a haystack-size boulder, arched his back in an effort to ease his aching muscles. He stood there a few moments, watching a young half-breed working with a shovel on the other side of the sluice. Henry Brown Bear was perhaps a year older than his own son, Jim. It was hard to say. John could only guess, and Henry wasn’t even sure himself how old he was. He was a good worker, though, and John never regretted bringing him along. When he thought about it, John figured it was best for the boy as well. He had been hanging around the trading post on the Platte, and probably would have turned into another loafer Injun if he had remained there. He was also good company for Jim. The two of them would sit by the fire at night and see who could tell the biggest lies. It made John smile when he pictured his son. I wish Julia could see how he’s growing into a man. The thought of his wife caused a sharp pang of melancholy to wrinkle his weary brow. Maybe we won’t stay another year, like I said before. We’ve got a little dust—not enough to buy a farm, but maybe we’ll just take what we’ve got and head back home.
“Henry, let’s call it a day. You’ve been working pretty hard. Jim ain’t the only one deserves a day off.”
Henry Brown Bear rested his shovel and straightened up. He gave John a wide, warm smile. John had never seen the half-breed boy in anything but a pleasant humor and he was always willing to work. John knew that Henry had to be tired, but the boy would have smiled just as warmly if he had told him they were going to work on through the night.
In the next instant, Henry’s smile seemed to freeze on his face and his eyes grew wide, staring right through John. He clenched his teeth hard, and he looked as if about to speak, but he made no sound. Instead, he pitched forward, falling facedown in the clear mountain stream. John watched, amazed, thinking at first that the young half-breed was again acting like a clown. He was about to laugh at the boy’s antics when he saw the arrow shaft protruding from his back.
Unable to move for a moment, frozen by the sight of a life just taken before him, John Tracey stared in disbelief. It took the snap of an arrow as the shaft splintered on the boulder beside him to shock his muscles into action. He broke from the stream and ran toward the cabin for his rifle. It was too late. He had barely reached the far bank when he felt the impact of the heavy rifle ball between his shoulder blades, driving him to the ground. At the same instant, the boom of the large-bore buffalo gun rolled over his head like a wave of summer thunder. He struggled to get to his feet, but his limbs seemed unwilling to support him. The pounding of his heart hammered in his ears as if that vital organ was going to crash through his rib cage. It was so loud that the sounds of fiendish war cries right behind him seemed way off in the distance, though he knew they were probably scalping poor Henry only a few yards away. John managed to gain his feet, but his chest felt heavy, like a huge stone had been lodged behind his breastbone. He staggered uncontrollably, struggling to escape the hands he could now feel grabbing and clutching at his clothes. It was the last sensation John Tracey felt in this world before a war axe was buried in his neck.
On a low bluff some fifty yards away, overlooking the clear, rippling stream, a gruff-looking bear of a man stood. His buffalo gun in one hand, he watched the scene without emotion—even with some amusement—as his Blackfoot allies celebrated the kill. After a little while, he picked up his horse’s reins and led it down to the scene of mutilation that was now under way. Once the scalps were taken, the bodies were left to rot as the savages busied themselves with ransacking the cabin. He himself had no interest in the spoils of the massacre. Only on second thought did he ask, “Find any little sacks of yellow dust?”
Lame Fox, a solidly built warrior with a long scar across his back, answered, “No.” The big white man shrugged his shoulders, not really expecting any. Lame Fox spoke again. “There is another man.” He pointed to the edge of the clearing, where some tools were left near the back of the cabin. “See, tracks say three men here.”
This interested the bearlike white man, but not enough to cause him concern. He had looked carefully at the two bodies—a man and a boy. He was satisfied. “It ’pears the other one went off up that way on a horse,” he said. Lame Fox nodded agreement. “Well, suit yourself on that one. We got the ones that matter.”
Always interested in acquiring another horse, Lame Fox called his warriors together. He sent four of them to trail the mule Jim had ridden up the mountain. He, along with the others, would return to their village in triumph with the big white man once they had finished here.
* * *
After having left his father and Henry, who were still shoveling gravel into the sluice box, Jim decided to hunt for bigger game than the deer he had set out for. He pushed on through the timberline, up above the trees to the high meadows in search of an elk. The thought of bringing back one of the majestic animals made him swell with imagined pride. He’d show Henry what a mighty hunter he was. But after several hours of searching, he was disappointed to find no sign of elk, or anything else that would make meat for the camp. He decided to call it quits when he heard the powerful report of a large-bore rifle reverberating up through the canyons. That wasn’t Pa’s rifle!
What could it mean? There was only that one shot, but it sounded as if it had come from the valley below, maybe even from the cabin. He prodded the mule, pushing him down the mountain as quickly as he could in an effort to get back to the camp. The mule, having the better judgment of the two, resisted Jim’s urging and would go no faster than he deemed prudent. “Damn you,” Jim admonished, “can’t you do no better than this?” But the mule would not cooperate. So they made their way across the ridges and down into the forest belt at a steady but slow pace, with Jim flailing his arms and kicking the mule’s rib cage. The mule simply ignored his antics.
Once they descended the steep slope and were near the base of the firs, the mule relented and picked up the pace to a speed that was too fast to dodge and dart through the crowded pines safely, but Jim was anxious to close the remaining mile to the cabin. At that pace over the rough terrain, an accident was bound to happen. The mule saw the gulch that suddenly appeared before them and tried to swerve to the side, but it was too late. Jim went flying out of the saddle, landing on the near side of the gulch, rolling toward its lip when he hit the ground. He wound up in a tangled ball of juniper at the gully’s bottom. The mule slid on his front legs before rolling down the side of another ridge, almost bowling over four startled Blackfoot warriors. One of them reacted quickly enough to grab the frightened animal’s reins and bring it to a halt.
Although young Jim was not aware of it yet, the spill had saved his life. Too stunned to move, he lay there wrapped in a cocoon of juniper and berry bushes. He was afraid to move for a few moments, unsure if he had broken any bones. In fact, it amazed him that he did not feel more than slight pain. Lying flat on his back, looking up at the sky from the bottom of the deep gulch, he decided it was time to test his limbs to make sure everything was still sound. Before he could move, however, he was frozen by the sound of voices above him. A moment later, he saw them pass along the rim of the gulch. Injuns! Their faces were painted for war, and they were already leading his mule away.
His heart was pounding so rapidly, and so loud, that he feared they might hear it from above. All they had to do to discover him was to glance down into the gulch. He could do nothing but stare, unblinking, at the rim of the narrow gully as they slowly walked their horses past. There were four of them. The shot he had heard must have been fired by them. Maybe, he thought, they shot once at the cabin, and then his father and Henry scared them away. With nothing better to hope for, he decided that was it; his father had chased them away. Holding on to that slim hope, he waited, fearing to breathe, until the four disappeared over the ridge.
He had been lucky. They had not thought to look down at him. However, he had lost his mule, along with his rifle.But I got my hair, he thought, and quickly tore his way out of the brambles, forgetting his earlier concern for broken bones. His foremost thought now was to get back to his father.
Making his way as quickly as possible down the lower side of the steep slope above the stream, constantly scanning the terrain ahead of him, Jim was keenly aware of the deafening silence of the pines surrounding him. Every hundred yards or so he stopped to listen, straining to hear any sounds that might alert him to the presence of Indians, hoping that the four who had passed him back up the mountainside were all there were—and not part of a larger war party. His heart was pumping hard, whether from the physical exertion of his haste, or from the thought of finding something dreadfully wrong at the cabin, he could not say.
He struck the stream a hundred yards above the cabin. Cautious now, he slowed his pace and carefully made his way downstream, stepping from rock to rock, pausing often to listen and study the way before him. He smelled smoke—too much smoke for a cookfire. He could feel his heartbeat pounding in his head now, and a cold feeling of dread sent shivers over his body. A few more paces down the stream, and he caught a glimpse of the cabin through the trees. The little bit he could see through the foliage showed nothing amiss. But, glancing up at the treetops, he saw a thin stream of smoky haze drifting overhead. Until then he had heard no sound above the noisy ripple of the stream. Now voices came to him on the wind and he froze in his tracks. It was Indian talk! Not loud screeching or war whoops, but just normal conversation between several Indians. Henry was half Crow. Maybe he was talking with them. That had to be it, for there was neither shooting nor shouting—they were probably Indians looking for food or gifts. Still, he would be cautious.
He left the stream and circled around in order to come up on their campsite from above, on the opposite side of the water. Crawling behind a huge boulder, he slowly raised his head until he could see the clearing and the cabin beyond. What he saw seared an image in his mind that would never completely fade from his memory. Below him, not fifty feet away, the body of the half-breed boy lay still in the shallow water. He knew it was Henry only by the clothes he wore, for his head had been smashed in with a large rock, and strips of flesh had been sliced from his arms and shoulders.
Captivated by the horror before him, he was helpless to move. His eyes wide with fright, he looked beyond the corpse of his friend toward the group of twelve or more savages milling around the tiny clearing. Their horses were grazing on the grass behind the cabin, his father’s horse and mules among them. A few of the Indians were making a halfhearted attempt to set fire to the cabin. The back room and a patch on the roof were burning, but the main cabin resisted their attempts. While Jim watched, horrified, they tired of the effort and rejoined their brothers. There was still no sign of his father. As he searched the clearing with his eyes, hoping that his father had managed to escape, he discovered his body.
They had pulled his father’s corpse over to a tree and left it in a sitting position, held up by more than a dozen arrows pinning his chest to the trunk. Jim almost cried out. He had to force himself to remain still. His father’s scalp had been taken and his head and face were awash in blood. Like Henry, he was identifiable only by the clothes he wore, so brutal was the mutilation he had suffered at the hands of his murderers.
Jim slid down behind the rock, too shocked by the sight to even cry. Dazed, he did not move for several minutes as his brain fought to right itself. After a while, he recovered his senses enough to realize that he could not remain there long without being discovered. He forced himself back up to take another look, totally at a loss as to what he should do. There was no thought of helping his father—it was much too late for that. He wanted to run, but a strong feeling that he should at least take care of his father’s body kept him at the boulder. Again, he eased his head above the top of the boulder until he could see the clearing. The actions of several of the warriors gave him cause for more immediate concern. They were scouting around the clearing, pointing at tracks and looking toward the stream. Jim had heard tales of the Indians’ ability to track enemies, and his spine went numb when he thought that maybe they were now setting out to find him. There was no more indecision on his part. He decided the best thing for him to do was to run as fast and as far as he could.
* * *
Buck Ransom made his way slowly and cautiously through the thick patch of willows that screened the creek bank below the beaver dam. His moccasined feet trod silently through the sparse brush that managed to compete with the willows for the earth’s nourishment. Glancing about frequently, a matter of long habit in his chosen occupation, he still managed to focus his main attention on the sandy bank at the water’s edge and on the bait stick that was still standing where he had set it. The float was missing. There was no sign of it in the water near the dam, where he would normally expect to find it if the critter had run with it. Gone too was the notch-stick, evidently pulled up and no doubt floating downstream somewhere.
Kneeling on one knee, he remained absolutely still for a long time, listening and watching before leaving the cover of the willows. Buck was cautious by nature, but he was especially alert in Blackfoot country. The country around Pierre’s Hole was smack-dab in the middle of Shoshone and Bannock territory, but Blackfoot war parties frequently raided in the area. And Blackfeet weren’t too hospitable toward white trappers. Jim Bridger had counseled against Buck and his partner, Frank Brown, going to South Pass alone. There were beaver galore in the hundreds of streams that etched the Wind River and Sweetwater Mountains, he had said. But it was too dangerous for two free trappers to go it alone, even old hands like Buck and Frank. Buck wouldn’t presume to know better than Bridger—Old Gabe was very seldom wrong when it came to trapping and fighting Injuns. But when Bridger had decided to sell out to the American Fur Company the year before, the two old friends had made up their minds they could do better as free trappers. And they figured that though they had kept their hair for more than a few years in these mountains working with a brigade of trappers, it might be a sight easier for just the two of them to keep out of sight from the Blackfeet and the Gros Ventres.
Up to now, they had had considerable good fortune. It was still early spring, and they already had cached several packs of beaver plews. But now there was something mighty curious going on, and Buck aimed to find out what—or who—was robbing his traps. When he felt certain that no one was around, he left the cover of the willows and went down to the water’s edge.
Just as before, he found the trap lying on the bank near the dam, the string and float still attached—but no beaver.Dammit to hell, he cursed silently and searched the ground for prints or any sign that might give him a clue as to who or what was the thief. He was certain it wasn’t the Blackfeet. If they had found his traps, they’d be waiting to ambush him. And if it was a critter, it’d have to be a pretty smart one to take the beaver out of the trap instead of gnawing off everything but a foot.
“Well, we’ll see about this,” he muttered under his breath, determined to get to the bottom of it if it took all day. He began a careful study of the creek bank downstream. He had already discounted the possibility of a scavenger being the culprit. It had to be a two-legged thief. The puzzling part was, if it was another trapper—one of those thieving bastards from the American Fur Company, maybe—he couldn’t figure on getting away with stealing one pelt a day for very long before he caught a rifle ball in his backside. And if it was food he was after, why in hell would he rob beaver traps when the mountains around him were teeming with deer and elk? Buck was determined to find out.
What made the whole thing even more puzzling was the fact that this one particular trap was the only one raided—but it had been raided three days in a row. He continued to search downstream for sign that would tell him where the thief had left the creek, for he was certain the culprit had entered the water some ways down in an effort to hide his tracks. Crossing over, he searched the opposite bank up to the dam, then back downstream again. It took some time, but he finally found a print of a naked foot beside a rotting cottonwood log about thirty yards downstream from the beaver dam.
“Well, now, that is curious for certain,” he mumbled and pushed his foxskin cap back so he could scratch his head and puzzle over the footprint. It was a small print, smaller than a grown man’s. No boot, no moccasin—just a bare foot. Buck traced the outline with his finger. The way the forward part of the print was deeply embedded, while the heel was only lightly sunk in the wet sand, indicated to Buck that the thief was almost tiptoeing—like his feet were tender. It took only a few seconds for Buck to confirm that the thief had put his boots back on while sitting on the log and then proceeded to leave a plain trail through the trees toward the hills to the west. Why didn’t ya just paint up a big sign that said, “I’m goin’ thisaway?”
From the size of the prints, Buck didn’t deem it necessary to wait for Frank to help him go after the thief. Besides, Frank was working his own traps in a stream on the far side of a high ridge that divided the little valley. From the clues he had turned up, Buck already guessed that he was tracking a rank greenhorn. No experienced woodsman would leave a trail through the grass like the one he was now following. And most trappers wouldn’t take their boots off and walk barefooted up the rocky bottom of a creek like that.
He paused a moment before following the tracks across an open meadow between the cottonwoods and the base of the hills. Ever mindful of the possibility of an ambush—the trail was so damned obvious that he had to consider that—he studied the belt of fir and pine that ringed the lower hill. If I get my ass shot off by a damn greenhorn, Frank’ll tell every living soul at the rendezvous. After a few minutes’ consideration, he continued, figuring the thief was too inexperienced to set up an ambush.
After a twenty-minute climb up through the pines Buck was wondering if he should have left his horse back on the far side of the creek. His breath became slightly labored as the route steepened, and he was about to scold himself for running a fool’s errand when he smelled the smoke of a campfire. Moving more cautiously now, he pushed on. Soon he could see a trail of blue smoke drifting up from a narrow ravine about twenty-five yards in front of him. Might as well send up smoke signals to ever’ Injun in the territory while you’re at it.
Down on his hands and knees, Buck crawled up to the edge of the ravine and positioned himself behind a log. Raising his head slowly, he peered over the log. The scene that met his eyes was just as he suspected. There was a small fire burning brightly in a cramped space between two boulders. Green limbs, only half burned, were the culprits that produced the blue smoke that he had seen some ways back. On the ground not far from the fire were the remains of the missing beavers. Buck shook his head in disgust when he saw the mess the thief had made of butchering the animals. But there was no sign of the thief. That was the last thought that flickered through Buck’s mind before the back of his head exploded and everything went black.
When Buck opened his eyes some minutes later, he at first thought he was drowning, as water from his own canteen was poured over his face. The instant his eyes flickered open, the torrent of water stopped, but the next sensation he was aware of was a pounding ache in the back of his head. It felt as if someone had hung a heavy rock from his skull. As his senses gradually returned, he realized that he had been coldcocked, taken completely by surprise. His first impulse was to reach for his rifle, only to find it gone.
“This what you’re looking for?”
Still flat on his back, Buck jerked his head to the side, whence the voice had come. He found himself staring into the business end of his own rifle. Sliding his gaze up the long barrel toward the stock, he locked eyeballs with a pair of deep-blue eyes that returned a no-nonsense message to the shocked trapper. Unable to say anything for a moment, Buck stared at his captor, who had taken a step closer, still holding the rifle on him. Finally he sputtered, “Well, I reckon it is. What the hell are you aiming to do with that rifle?”
“I don’t know,” the boy answered frankly, “I reckon that depends.”
“Well, if you ain’t aiming to shoot me, how ’bout gittin’ that dang barrel outta my face. That there rifle’s got a touchy trigger.” By that time, the world had stopped spinning around Buck, so he struggled up to a sitting position. The boy backed away a step to give him room to sit up, but he still held the rifle on him. No longer fearing his immediate death, Buck mostly felt irritation, and beyond that, embarrassment. His captor was no more than a lanky, skinny boy dressed in brown homespun, with an unruly shock of sandy hair hanging over his forehead. “What in tarnation did you bushwhack me for?”
The boy shrugged, almost apologetically. “Hell, I thought you was an Injun.” Then the sternness returned to his face. “You ought not be sneaking up on people like that.” He feigned a threatening motion with the rifle. “I still ain’t sure but what you ain’t a durn Injun.”
“Well, I ain’t,” Buck replied, gingerly feeling the back of his head, almost expecting to find it cracked. When he found nothing but the beginnings of a large bump, he pulled himself up to sit on the log he had fallen across. Mortified and grumpy, he pushed the offending gun barrel aside and commanded, “Put the damn rifle down.” He closed his eyes briefly and rubbed the back of his skull. “What did you hit me with, anyway?”
The boy, still holding the rifle but no longer pointing it at Buck, answered with a glance at a large pine limb lying near the log.
“Damn. It’s a wonderment you didn’t kill me.”
Buck just sat there looking at the boy and rubbing his sore head for a few moments until he suddenly remembered what the whole encounter was about. “What the hell was you doing raiding my traps? Don’t you know you could get shot for stealing a man’s traps?”
“I was hungry,” the boy replied unemotionally.
“Hungry?” Buck grunted. “This country’s so full of deer you have to be careful you don’t git run over by one. You didn’t have to spoil a prime beaver plew, stealing outta my traps.”
“I didn’t have no gun to shoot a deer.” He hesitated. “’Til now.”
Buck’s eyebrows flicked up. “Now, hold on a minute, boy. Don’t go gittin’ no ideas ’bout that rifle.”
The boy raised the rifle barrel again as he fixed Buck with a wary eye. “Mister, I don’t know who you are. All I know is you come sneaking up on me like an Injun.”
Buck studied the young man for a long moment. Young and skinny as he was, he presented a determined front, and Buck decided he would use that rifle if given a reason. But he also saw something else in the deep-blue eyes, something that told him there was no evil residing there. “I reckon you got reason to be cautious at that,” Buck said, the gruffness gone from his tone. “But I wasn’t sneaking up on you. It don’t pay to run around in this country, announcing to ever’body that you’re a’coming. If I’da been of a mind to sneak up on you, you’da never had a chance to bushwhack me.”
The boy was undecided. This rough-looking, grizzled old mountain man with a face full of silver whiskers was probably up to no ill intent. As he maintained, he was merely looking for the cause of his missing beaver. The boy couldn’t blame him for that. But what if he misread the man’s eyes? Having recently witnessed a savage assault in this wild mountain country, he was not willing to risk his young neck again. The question was what to do now. Give up the man’s rifle—and his own advantage as well? While he was making up his mind, he still trained the rifle on Buck.
Buck, weary of the game by then, asked, “Are you gonna give me my rifle or not?”
“I don’t know,” the boy answered honestly.
“Don’t fret, Buck. I ain’t gonna’ let this young’un shoot’cha. I ain’t got the patience to break in a new partner.”
Buck and the boy were both startled by the voice behind them. The boy, seeing Buck’s broad grin, turned to discover the formidable figure of Frank Brown standing on the brow of the ravine, his rifle looking square at him. The boy didn’t drop Buck’s rifle right away, but looked from one of the men to the other, still deciding what his next move should be.
“Go on and drop it, boy,” Buck said. “We don’t mean you no harm.”
The boy hesitated only a moment more before carefully laying the weapon down, propping it against the log Buck was seated on. Then he stepped away while watching intently as Frank moved down the side of the ravine. Buck, realizing the situation had been defused, didn’t bother to pick up his rifle. He got to his feet and waited for his partner to make his way down to them.
No one said anything for a few minutes until Frank got to the bottom of the ravine. Wearing a big smile, Frank glanced at Buck briefly before turning his gaze to the young stranger who had held his partner at bay with his own rifle. The grin broadened. Buck didn’t make any comment. He knew Frank was going to have his fun with this one, and Frank didn’t disappoint him.
“Well, damn, partner,” he began, trying to hold a serious expression on his face. “What kinda beaver is this’un? I ain’t ever seen one this young before. Ain’t got much fur on ’im, has he?”
Buck was too mortified even to attempt to explain how he had gotten in the fix he had been in, so he didn’t bother to respond to Frank’s wisecracks. He knew he had it coming, so he just sat back down on the log and took it, waiting for Frank to get his fill of it. The boy, for his part, was unsure what his fate was to be at the hands of the two trappers. He thought about making a break for the woods, but decided he wouldn’t get far before Frank’s rifle ball would catch him.
Frank cast an appraising eye on the rather somber young pup in brown homespun and tattered boots. He was amused to notice the obvious stiffening of the young man’s backbone under the scrutinizing gaze. “Well, Buck, what in the big blue-eyed world have you got here?” Turning to the boy, he said, “I’d sure be tickled to hear how you come to be out here in the middle of Blackfoot country. S’pose you tell us.” He lowered his rifle and waited for the boy’s reply.
The boy stood, feet wide apart, trying to maintain an air of defiance, determined that he would show no fear to the two buckskin-clad mountain men. He had made up his mind that he wouldn’t tell them anything. But when Frank laid his weapon aside, and neither man showed any hostile indications, he decided it was in his best interest to be civil. It might be wise if he could join up with the two of them—at least they seemed to know where they were, which was more than he could say for himself. Finally he spoke.
“I was just aiming to get away from the Injuns.”
Frank waited for further explanation, but saw that it was not forthcoming, so he prodded. “You must not have wanted to get away from ’em too much, burning that green wood there. You’re smoking up the whole Rocky Mountains.” While he said it, he started kicking dirt over the boy’s fire.
“I was fixin’ to tell him that,” Buck inserted, still rubbing his sore head.
The boy merely shrugged his shoulders. Frank glanced around at the scattered remains of the beavers. “It’s a wonder the buzzards ain’t led a war party to you.” Suddenly annoyed, he snapped, “What the hell were you raiding our traps for anyway?”
“I was hungry.”
“That’s all I got out of him,” Buck said, slightly amused that Frank was getting a taste of the boy’s reticence to expound.
Fixing the boy with a stern eye, Frank muttered, “Three prime beaver plews—wasted.” He shook his head, exasperated. “I wish to hell somebody had learned you how to properly skin a beaver.” Then he jerked his head back and locked an accusing eye on the young man. “Boy, where’s your folks? What in hell are you doing out here?”
“I told you,” the boy fired back. “Running away from the dang Injuns—and I ain’t got no folks, leastways I ain’t now.”
Frank softened a bit at that. “Injuns kill your folks, boy?”
“They killed my pa.”
“When?” Buck inquired.
“About three or four days ago.”
“Where?” Frank asked.
The boy shook his head. “I don’t know.” He pointed behind him. “Back yonder in the hills somewhere. I don’t know. I’ve been running, just trying to get away.”
“Blackfeet,” Buck said.
“Of course they was Blackfeet,” Frank snapped, “Who else would they be?” With an involuntary reflex, both men looked around them at the very mention of the word, as if to be sure there were none close by. Turning back to the boy, Frank said, “I still don’t know what in thunder you and your pa were doing in this part of the country. It’s too far off the main trail. What was you doing, prospecting?” The boy nodded yes. “Didn’t find much, I’d bet.”
“Didn’t find any,” the boy quickly replied. There was a modest amount, enough to grubstake a man for a year, maybe. There was certainly no fortune to show for almost a year’s backbreaking work. He saw no reason to let on to these two strangers that there was a little pouch of dust hidden in a pile of rocks near the rough cabin that had been home to him for ten months.
Frank studied the boy’s face for a long moment, much the same as he would have studied a horse to evaluate its worth. He decided he saw some spunk in the lad. “Well, that there’s a familiar song a lot of folks from back East are singing. I’m sorry your pap was kilt, but I reckon that’s just part of living out here. What about your ma? The Injuns get her too?”
The boy shook his head. “My ma’s back home in St. Louis.” He paused to think about it a moment. “I reckon I’d best get back East to take her the news about Pa.” As he said it, he couldn’t help but recall the last days in St. Louis before he and his father struck out for the gold they were sure was waiting for them in the mountains to the west. His mother was dead set against it from the beginning, but his father had made up his mind. There was no way he could see any hope of owning his own farm unless he found the gold he was convinced he would find in the Rockies. The rumors were rampant. It seemed that every day, some bearded and shaggy dreamer staggered in from the far country telling wondrous tales of gold strikes in the busy streams that sliced through the rocky divides. The fact that these drifters were ragged and penniless did little to discourage his father’s faith in the truthfulness of their tales. He was certain that with his ability to work hard, it would take no more than a year—two at the most—to amass a sum equal to ten years’ pay from Blunt Brothers Freight Company.
His mother had pleaded with his father to forget about his dreams of owning a farm. She was content to make the most of it there in St. Louis. True, they lived in a tiny house, not much more than a hovel, really, but they had food to eat and he and their elder son, Cameron, had steady jobs at the freight company. But his father was adamant in his decision. No matter how he tried, however, he was unable to make his wife see that there was no future for him or Cameron as long as they worked for meager wages. She pleaded, but there was no changing his mind. So in the summer of 1834, he said good-bye, promising that he would give it no more than two years and then he’d return, no matter what his fortune. He took young Jim with him, leaving Cameron to support his mother until their return. Between his two sons, Jim was the logical choice to make the trek west. He was a born outdoorsman, and folks often commented that Jim had his father’s blood in him.
John Tracey was a tall, powerfully built man, and Jim looked to be the spitting image of him. Cameron, on the other hand, seemed to take after his mother’s side of the family. Handsome and gentle-natured like his mother, Cameron seemed destined to find his life’s work in accounting or clerical work of some kind. Though the two boys were directly opposite in nature, there was a strong affection between them.
There was never any real decision to be made when John Tracey contemplated which son should accompany him in the wild country beyond the Missouri. Jim was eager to go. He had just turned thirteen that spring, but he was strong for his age and unafraid of hard work, and he was already dreaming of the far mountains.
Young James McCall Tracey thought about these things as he stood facing the two grizzled trappers—and the image of his mother, a handsome woman, flashed through his mind. He could still picture her standing in front of their tiny house—Cameron by her side—watching tearfully as he and his father turned their mules toward the dusty road. He would have to go back as soon as possible to take them the awful news. So that all was not lost, however, he decided that it was important to recover the small pouch of dust hidden back at the cabin. It was small compensation for the loss of a husband and father, but by rights his mother certainly should have it.
“I gotta go back and take care of my Pa,” the boy stated.
“What fer?” Buck wondered. “I thought you said he was kilt.”
“He was. But I need to go back and bury him. I can’t leave him for the buzzards.” He wasn’t sure he could easily find his way back. He had fled, running as fast as he could, much of the time at night. But maybe with the help of these two mountain men, he could retrace his steps. He could give his father a decent burial and recover the pouch. His mother would need that gold.
Frank snorted. “I reckon you took leave of your senses, running around in these woods by yourself. I’m thinkin’ we’ve most likely spent more time in this hollow than we should have. With all the sign you left, I’d say it ain’t gonna be long before we have company.”
“I’m thinkin’ the same thing, partner.” Buck got to his feet and picked up his rifle. “I ain’t even finished checking my traps.”
The boy looked from one of them to the other, trying to decide what to do. “Well, I gotta go back and take care of Pa.”
Frank slung his rifle on his back and motioned to Buck to lead out. “You better come along with us, boy.” He paused. “’Course you can go your own way. Ever’ man’s free to go his own way out here. But, from what I’ve seen, I don’t think you’ll make it too far on yer own. So suit yourself. Only, do it quick, ’cause we’re gettin’ the hell outta here.”
Jim was young, but he wasn’t dumb. It didn’t take but a second for him to make up his mind. His scalp was a good deal safer with these two ol’ grizzlies. “I reckon I’ll be obliged to go with you, but I’ve still got to get back there to take care of my Pa somehow.”
Frank was not without compassion and understanding for the boy’s concern for his father’s body. “First thing is to make sure we ain’t run up on by no damn Blackfoot war party. We’ll see which way the sun sets the next couple of days. Then, if things is quiet, maybe we’ll go back and find your Pa—at least, what’s left of him.”
The boy’s education in survival began almost immediately, as Buck showed him how to cover his tracks as they traveled back across the hills to the creek where the traps had been set. Jim marveled at the way the two men made their way through the trees and along the open ridges. Though both of them were large and bulky in their loose-fitting hide shirts, they seemed to glide through the brush with a fluid motion, constantly scanning the forest around them, eyes darting from tree to tree, boulder to boulder, alert to all sounds and smells. It was obvious to him that Buck and Frank were fully at home in the mountains. And it was equally obvious that he was not. He knew from that moment that he wanted to become as harmonious with the country as they were. But it would not happen right away.
During the first couple of days he was with them, he was constantly made aware of his ignorance of the forest and his greenhorn clumsiness—whether he was causing a minor landslide with a misstep on a rocky slope or breaking limbs while pushing through a willow thicket. They lived in constant danger of Indian attack. This was Shoshone country and, while the Shoshones had been somewhat tolerant in the past, they were beginning to feel the intrusion of too many trappers. It had been a mite safer when the two men had worked for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, but it was a damn dangerous situation for two free trappers. Keeping their scalps depended upon trapping the streams without the Indians knowing they were there.
To earn his way, Jim helped them work their traps. Buck showed him how to set a trap at the bottom of a beaver slide, set the notch-stick, angle the bait stick over the trap, and daub a little castor on it to attract the beaver. He also helped with the cooking and keeping the camp orderly, while Buck undertook to improve his skinning and butchering skills.
“I don’t never want to see you waste a critter like you wasted them three beaver,” Buck said. He showed him how to skin a beaver so that the plew was undamaged. He also showed him how to make better use of the carcass. “If you’re of a mind to eat a beaver, the meat’s all right, cuttin’ off strips like you done. But you throwed away the best part.” He then demonstrated how to boil the beaver’s tail in a pot of water until the skin was soft enough to slit with a knife and peel. Then he took what was left and buried it in the ashes of the fire to bake. When it was done, he watched with amused satisfaction as Jim sampled it. “See what you could have been eatin’?” he said.
“I didn’t have no pot,” the boy stated dryly.
“Reckon not,” Buck said, scratching his head. “Next time you run off from Injuns, carry a pot with you.”
* * *
On the evening of the second day, after the horses were seen to and Frank had made a wide circle around their camp to be sure there was no sign of any Indians close by, they settled down by the fire. The boy listened silently as the two trappers discussed their season to date.
“I don’t know what you’re a’thinkin’, partner, but I figure I’ve ’bout trapped out that creek I’m workin’,” Buck said.
Frank nodded solemnly and resituated the wad of tobacco in his jaw to give him some room to talk. “Yeah, I reckon we’re ’bout done here. I’m thinkin’ maybe we ought to work our way back over to the Sweetwater, maybe Wind River.”
Buck nodded his approval, then added, “Maybe so.”
Frank spit in the fire and waited for the tobacco juice to sizzle. Then he cocked an eye at Jim. “You still set on going back to see to your pa?” When Jim nodded that he was, Frank went on, “I reckon it’s safe enough to go find your cabin now. I don’t think that bunch that kilt your daddy would hang around there very long.” He scratched his chin whiskers thoughtfully. “How many did you say there was?”
“I saw about a dozen at the cabin,” Jim replied. “And there was four more up on the ridge.”
“Sixteen—twenty at the most,” Buck said.
“I wonder what they were doing up here. That don’t sound like no big war party.” He looked at Jim again. “Were they wearing paint?”
The boy thought for a second before replying. “Yessir, they were.”
“War party,” Frank said. “What I can’t figure, though, is who were they after? There ain’t no village anywhere around here for them to be raiding. You reckon they come up here just to get his pa?” This last he directed at Buck.
“Don’t hardly seem likely,” Buck replied. He glanced at Jim. “More’n likely it was just bad luck you folks was camping where you was.”
Nothing was said for another few minutes while Frank sat there thinking about it. Unable to come up with a reason for a war party to be in this part of the mountains, he decided to let it go. “Injuns don’t need no reason to make up a war party. Anyway, if you’re still of a mind to go bury your pa, we’ll start out in the morning.” He shifted his gaze toward his partner. “That all right with you, Buck?”
“Hell, why not?”
* * *
After all their traps and plews were loaded onto three of their packhorses, Frank arranged the rest of their possibles on the other one, leaving room for Jim to ride in front of the load. They set out for the narrow ravine where Buck had found the boy. A quick look around told them that Jim’s camp had not been discovered, for there were no prints other than theirs from three days before. Satisfied that they were not about to encounter hostiles at any second, Frank and Buck decided it was safe to try to pick up Jim’s trail, old as it was, and find the cabin. The boy helped some. He remembered some landmarks from his flight, enough to indicate a general direction. With that to help them, Buck and Frank soon headed across a grassy flat at the base of a steep hill. The boy remembered the place and pointed to a large boulder jutting out of the face of the hill. He had stopped there to rest and regain his breath. They continued on in this fashion for the better part of the day—Jim remembering some point of reference, and the two trappers scouting until they found his tracks. By the end of the second day on the move, they made camp in country that was familiar to the boy. He had hunted this part of the mountains, so he knew that the cabin was only three or four hours away.
Before the sun was directly overhead the next day, they stood on the bank of the stream across from the partially burnt cabin. Jim started toward it at once, but Frank grabbed his mount’s bridle and held him back.
“Let’s just take a little look here. We ain’t in no hurry.” He and Buck sat there looking over the clearing and the slope behind the cabin for several minutes.
Jim, impatient to get his father’s body in the ground, pressed the two old grizzlies to act. “Come on, there ain’t nobody there.”
They didn’t move. “Boy, one of the first lessons you need to learn if you’re thinkin’ on keepin’ your scalp in this country, is not to get in too big a hurry. Injuns’ stock-in-trade is lookin’ like they ain’t there.” He continued to sit motionless for a few minutes more. Jim noticed that he was watching the horses closely. When the horses showed no signs of sensing others in the vicinity, Frank nudged his mount forward and entered the water. Buck followed, motioning for the boy to trail behind.
Passing around the sluice box, Frank’s horse shied away from the first body, still lying half in the water. Frank calmed the animal, holding him steady while he dismounted to take a look. The body was badly decomposed already. He glanced up at Buck, who was still in the saddle. “It’s a pretty piece of work, all right.” As Jim urged his packhorse up the shallow bank, Frank called out to him. “Boy, are you shore you wanna see this? Me and Buck can take care of your pa for you.”
Jim hopped down from the packhorse. “I’ve done seen ’em once already. I reckon I’m man enough to take care of my pa.” It was brave talk, and strictly for their benefit. Inside, Jim could feel his innards twisting in knots as he forced himself to approach the body of his father, still propped against the tree. He was not prepared for the ghastly sight and had to turn his head away at first, stifling the convulsions that threatened to overcome his stomach. Fighting to calm his emotions, he looked again on the shattered form that had been his father. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help you, Pa,” he whispered, knowing that it was a useless apology. His presence would have hardly mattered in the results of the savage attack.
He was not aware of Buck standing behind him until he felt the old mountain man’s huge hand on his shoulder. “It’s a mighty hard lesson to learn, boy. Let’s git him in the ground and be gone from this place.”
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