Western Short Story
Despite the horses’ best efforts to push it from daylight ‘til dark, when I finally delivered John Allard’s body back to Timber Springs, he was beyond “ripe”. The rattlesnake venom had accelerated his deterioration considerably. Needless to say, Enrique the Basque blacksmith/undertaker was not too pleased to receive him for final preparations. The local banking company Allard worked for was reserved, but grateful to be rid of such a malefactor and gave me a modest, though unheralded, payoff for bringing him in.
Sheriff Walt Martin was of course saddened to hear about the death of his good friend Marshall Jim Hadsell, but was uplifted by the news that the Cates gang had found the only kind of justice they deserved for killing him.
“May the buzzards take their own sweet time,” he said grinning.
Walt telegraphed the Homestake Mine in Deadwood and they sent an armed detail to pick up the stolen currency and gold dust. The extra two bags of hard money were determined to have come from the wagon-train robbery of an Army payroll, perpetrated by Big Nose George and his gang several years ago on the Deadwood stage route. For recovering their valuable property, both the Homestake and the Army, gave me a generous reward, most of which I sent to Jim’s family. The rest I used to buy a new horse and Whitman saddle.
Of course, I could never replace my ol’ paint pony Gary Owen, but found at the races in Cheyenne, a genuinely sound, coal-black, three year old gelding that was a Cavalry mount/mustang cross. I got a good price for the two horses I had, so didn’t have to break the bank getting him. He stood about 15 hands and looked like he could run to hell and back and give the devil his due. Though he already had a name, I christened him Blackjack.
Having rested up as best I could with Sally and Lola in Timber Springs before moving on to Cheyenne, I set out from there toward the Snowy Range and Sierra Madre to the south and west of Laramie, hoping to spend some time alone in the high country before the onset of winter.
It was late September 1881 and frost was already forming in the mornings. The higher I went the frostier it became, but the days were exceptionally warm and by early October we were having what the old timers called “Indian Summer”.
A far cry from the racetrack, Blackjack was solid and sleek from negotiating the steep terrain and feeding on rich mountain grasses. There were no mosquitos up here and only the occasional horsefly to torment him. He was loving it.
I was too. My leg wound had healed without complications and with plenty of money in my pocket, I was finally beginning to think there were good times ahead for a change, but they come hard and painful out here for most folks and I should have known better than to think it might be any different for us.
As I was saddling up the following morning, I caught sight of a mounted warrior about two-hundred fifty yards downstream looking me over from a promontory above the creek, which ran below us. Using my field glasses he appeared to be a Ute, likely a renegade.
[Two years earlier about this time of year, Major Thornburgh’s relief column from Ft. Steele thwarted an ambush and ended up besieged in their circled wagons on the Milk Creek crossing east of White River Agency. He was killed the first day of the fighting, along with an old friend of mine from the 5th Cavalry, First Sgt. John Dolan. Capt. Dodge arrived Oct. 2nd with a company of the 9th Cavalry, black troopers known as buffalo soldiers, but were unable to rescue them, becoming part of the siege themselves. Several messengers got away the first night, but the Utes shot all the horses and mules preventing any withdrawal. General Merritt followed on Oct. 5th with a large combined force and broke the standoff, pushing the Utes back to the Agency where they remained under direct military control.]
Having had the feeling of being shadowed recently, I signaled to the lone warrior with a small mirror indicating I wanted to par-lee, knowing very well where you find one Indian, you will usually find more. He flashed me back and not too long thereafter, a party of five Utes came out of the trees on the other side of the park from me. I observed they were all well armed, three with Springfield carbines, and two holding Winchester repeaters. The one who presented to be their leader, also had a brace of old Colt cap ‘n ball pistols tucked in his sash. Despite the Army having confiscated most Ute weapons, I knew that renegades had ways of finding less than scrupulous traders or soldiers to do business with for guns, cartridges and especially whiskey.
Since the Ute language was very similar to Shoshone, I was confident I could converse, albeit very elementary communication, having learned some Shoshone and Ute from the scouts in Crook’s column during the Powder River Campaign. Many Indians spoke a little English nowadays as well, so between that and universal sign language, I felt we could exchange rudimentary conversation.
Surprisingly, the leader said his Ute name was Nicaagat (the one with a ring in his ear) but his soldier name was Captain Jack, whom I recognized as being a sub-chief named in the previous uprising. I knew from the newspaper accounts he had bragged about killing Thornburgh and could speak pretty good English.
“Utes hunt deer,” he declared. What you do?”
I’m just passin’ through,” I indicated, signing too.
“You look like pony soldier”, he said, pointing at my saddle. Jack scout for General Crook. Fight Sioux and Cheyenne.”
“I was a soldier for Crook once too, but not anymore. I’m a bounty hunter nowadays.”
“You manhunter looking for Utes?” he asked. Jack not run away. Bluecoat general let us go hunt.”
“No, that’s the Army’s business, not mine,” I said. I’m just enjoying a trip through the mountains.”
“You ride good horse,” he said, gesturing toward Blackjack. Want race Jack?”
[The Utes were avid pony racers, which had brought them into conflict with the late Nathan Meeker, agent at the White River Agency. Because the horse held a valuable economic and spiritual place in their culture, when Meeker plowed under their racetrack, it precipitated an incident that led to his death.]
If Jack deemed me worthy of a challenge, good common sense said I should probably not turn him down. Besides, I was anxious to see what Blackjack could really do.
“Alright,” I grinned, I’ll race you across the park. If I win, you let me go on my way. If you win, I’ll help you get a deer.”
“Captain Jack hope you know how to hunt,” he taunted.
Jack’s mount was of sturdy conformation, about 13-14 hands with evidence of Appaloosa blood, but not full blooded. He rode with no saddle, indicating they were probably camped nearby, where they had stashed the customary accoutrement for a hunting party.
I left Blackjack fully saddled with saddle bags, bedroll, canteen and rifle scabbard attached as well. I figured if he was going to have to outrun Indians or hard cases, he had better be as fully loaded as my rifle. When we had both horses jockeyed into position, one of the warriors let go a round in the air from his Trapdoor Springfield and the race was on.
Jack’s pony was fast off the start, but Blackjack knew the drill too and it took a minimum of spurring to get him out front where he stayed for the whole ride. It was about 200 yards to the other side of the park and he stretched the lead to 1 ½ lengths by the time we crossed out of it. I reigned him up short as we entered the trees and wheeled him back on Jack, whom I could see was reluctantly acknowledging his substantial defeat by the angry scowl on his face.
“Your horse not win. My horse pick up rock,” Jack whined, dismounting and lifting a front leg.
“Nope, we won fair and square!” I quipped, as he began to jabber in fast Ute-speak with the other four warriors, but as far as I could gather, they told him the same thing I did.
With that I smiled big, saluted Jack off the brim of my hat and trotted away. For the next couple of days, I kept a wary camp and looked over my shoulder a lot, but as it finally shook out, Captain Jack was a man of his word.
[Little did I know that the Utes had been removed from White River to Ft. Duchesne, Utah Territory, but Jack, who was part Apache, did not stay with them, slipping away instead to roam his old hunting grounds. He would later be killed in an attempted apprehension on the Wind River Shoshone Reservation, where he had been living for some time without incident. After resisting arrest by shooting a Sargent, he holed up in his tee-pee, which was inexplicably bombarded with a small field artillery gun and blown to smithereens. All they could find of Jack was some brain matter and a piece of his liver stuck to a nearby tree.]
On the West side of the Snowys I dropped into the North Platte Valley. While downing a long overdue shot of whiskey at the Post Office in Warm Springs, which was also the saloon, store, bath-house and a few other things, I saw a man wanted poster offering $200 reward, dead or alive, for another of my ex-customers: Jody Wolfe. He was wanted on a fugitive warrant out of Rawlins, Wyoming Territory, which is where I had turned him over to authorities about a year ago. At that time he was guilty of rustling and selling mavericks, but Rawlins’ badge bearing bunch, were known to just look the other way and whistle, due to some of their high ranking citizens being involved.
“A lowlife like Wolfe would be up to his old tricks again,” I thought. “Time he was dealt with once and for all.”
“Mind if I take this?” I asked the postmaster/barkeep, pointing at the poster.
“You a bounty hunter?” he asked.
“That I am,” I said. Name’s Billy and I know this cattle rustler. I turned him over last year. Been any rustlin’ goin’ on hereabouts?”
“Hell, all these big spreads steal each other’s calves!” he laughed. Soon as an unbranded calf’s big enough to quit followin’ its branded mother, it’s fair game for anybody with a hidey-hole and a hot iron. Mavericks pay good money.”
“Yeah, but he usually steals for himself and sells ‘em off quick and plain.”
“If he was doin’ that, he’d have to be real careful here. Homesteaders and small startup outfits would be the safest place to deal ‘em out unbranded,” he replied thoughtfully. If he’s ‘in the willows’, he’d be better off over the mountain on the Little Snake. There’s lotsa room to hide and folks, includin’ the law, are more forgivin’ most of the time.”
“I was headin’ that way next,” I said, “but first I need to soak in your mineral springs and sleep in a real bed for a change. Where can I put up my horse?”
“Livery stable is across the street. You can room next door.”
After sipping a few more drinks, I stepped into the street and noticed that nearly every building in town was undersized and built out of logs.
“Somebody could do well to open a sawmill around here,” I mused.
“C’mon Blackjack! I got a feelin’ we’re both gonna need our rest.”
© WFS 2018