If there’d been a more beautiful midwinter day ever, I was surely too young to remember it. The sun had come up in a cloudless sky, bringing with it just enough warmth to feel toasty without heating things up to the point of melting into slush.
On the flats, sun glare off the snow could blind a man, but not here in the timbered canyons and draws.
Here, there were signs of rejoicing all around. Magpies flitted from tree to tree almost as if they had nothing better to do than watch the crazy human working like a dog, down there on the ground. A family of rabbits played around a small brush thicket, seemingly confident they could lose themselves in the undergrowth quickly enough if a predator made its appearance. From the open cabin window, Bluebird’s song–not a Shoshone tune, but her English version of My Darling Clementine–floated out to keep time with the rhythmic strokes of the bucksaw.
Cut up just one more log into blocks, I figured, and we’d have enough to heat our little squatter’s abode for a good ten days. When that was done, maybe I’d strap on my snowshoes, take a hike up over the north ridge, jist to be doing it. See what was on the other side.
Or so I thought.
Jefferson Cole Panghorn hove in sight. Not an unusual occurrence; we enjoyed each other’s company, and he had plenty of time on his hands. Like me, Cole had gotten himself temporarily trapped here at Yampa, Colorado, gripped in the depths of a high country winter that wasn’t about to let anybody out on horseback for a while yet. A builder by trade, he figured to meander on up into Montana come spring, hire out his services
He had the city of Helena in mind. Said he’d heard on good authority that at least 50 millionaires lived in that place. Figured he could talk at least one of ’em into having him build something extravagant.
Besides, word was the railroad magnate, Charles Arthur Broadwater, would be opening something he was calling the Hotel Broadwater and Natatorium west of town this year. The Natatorium would include the world’s first indoor swimming pool. My friend simply had to see that.
What for, I hadn’t the slightest. People with money pouring outa their pores do git some strange ideas.
Cole, I realized suddenly, was not alone. The woman following his tracks was tiny, so minute a figure that she’d been completely invisible till they made that last turn in the trail. Since there weren’t but a handful of females in Yampa this winter, and only one that size that I’d seen to date, it must be Beverly–what was her last name? Danged if I knew.
But I knew she was loser showman Donny McDorgan’s live-in. Brown-haired, but with a temper more suited to a redhead, a viper’s tongue and quicker’n a rattler’s strike with it, too. What was she doing huffing and puffing her way out here on snowshoes, struggling fiercely to keep up with the long-legged Panghorn?
This could not be good.
“Henry!” Cole began his usual cheerful greeting. “I–”
“Henry Tamson, you sumbitch, you jist got my man kilt!
Beverly had made it inside yelling range now, coming hard, spitting fire. I was right. This was not good.
There didn’t seem much point in trying to respond to that opening, but I had a pretty fair idea I was done woodcutting fer the day. Bluebird’s song from inside the cabin had fallen silent, I noticed, as had every birdcall in the woods.
It didn’t take her long to finish the trek. She ended up so close to me that one of her snowshoe tips landed on top of my bear-greased hightop moccasin. Smarted some, but I held my peace.
“Well?” She demanded. Ain’t you gonna ask me what the Hell I’m talkin’ ’bout?” This girl was full of rage; no doubt about that. I’ve heard it said some females look beautiful when they’re mad.
This wasn’t one of ’em.
“Figure you’ll tell me when you’re ready,” I replied quietly, looking down into the glaring face. I’ve seen men who carry Death in their eyes at certain times. My friend Dawson Trask, Sadie’s Dad, is one such. This wasn’t that. This was…madness, maybe? I’d never had the opportunity to face a madwoman up close and personal before. Struck me as the kind of person who might slice a man up with a carving knife one day and forget she’d done it the next.
I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I didn’t feel like making no sudden moves, neither.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. “You got that right. You know what you did last Saturday night? When you jumped up in that wagon and told your tall tale about being kidnapped when you were nine? Do you?”
“Not really, other than cap off the festivities,” I admitted.
“Festivities.” She mulled that over for a second or two. “Festivities. Yeah, I guess an a**hole like you would see it that way. Shall I give it to him straight? Yeppers, do believe I shall.”
Her focus had gone inward for just a bit there. Talking to herself? Or to some…other…being inside her head?
I’d have to think about that later. At the moment, she was laying it out for me.
“Tamson, men like you never understand a real artistic Soul like my Donny. You never do. It jist ain’t in you any more’n it’s in a wolf to understand what a sheep goes through when it’s being turned into lunch. He put himself into that Saturday night tale telling, his entire self. And then you come along, tell your stupid hick fairy tale about whacking a bad guy’s leg off with an axe when your were jist a little kid. You ruined the whole thing.”
“Wait a minute.” I had no idea what she was getting at. “How did my tale telling ruin anything?”
She stared at me like I was the dumbest box of rocks on the planet. “These ignorant yokels liked your story, Henry Tamson. They’re saying they want more. And they don’t want Donny McDorgan involved.”
Oh. Well, I could understand that. If tale telling talent were gunpowder, McDorgan wouldn’t have enough to power a mouse fart.
“So, what?” I asked, not–to my everlasting shame–with any sign of sympathy. “Donny got his feelings hurt?”
When I said that, right there when I said that, I realized I’d stepped in it. That little woman’s expression went cold, still, and I knew that if she had a weapon at hand, I was a dead man. Not that I quite understood what was so horrible yet.
But I was about to find out.
Slowly, the killing instinct leached out of her eyes. She seemed to deflate where she stood, shrinking into herself, almost shriveling till I wondered if I could catch her if she fell. But she didn’t fall. Instead, she told me what was so horrible, told me in a voice devoid of all emotion, a voice chilling in its deadness.
Donny McDorgan had concluded there was no future for him in the little snowbound community of Yampa, Colorado.
Donny McDorgan had subsequently decided the good people of the city of Denver–who had not yet seen him perform–were almost certain to receive him with open arms, accolades for his powerful renditions of Shakespeare, and entreaties to occupy their finest theatre stages forever.
Donny McDorgan, city slicker extraordinnaire, a man who might not even be able to get his own fire started with flint and steel, had left for Denver that very morning. Right at first light. On foot.
While Beverly was still asleep. He’d left a note on the table.
And he’d gone alone.
The rescue party consisted of the two Shoshones, Cole Panghorn, and me. Nobody else in town cared a whit if some fool tenderfoot wanted to hike himself to a frozen death in the middle of a Colorado winter jist ’cause his professional sensibilities had been insulted.
Mostly, the attitude in the community was good riddance to bad rubbish.
I wasn’t all that certain I cared that much myself, but staying out of reach of little Beverly seemed a right healthy notion at the moment. Wise Owl could track as well as I could, and we weren’t about to leave Bluebird home alone after dark.
So there it was.
By midafternoon, the Shoshone warrior’s weather sense was giving him bad news. “Not a storm,” he told us, “but cold tonight. Wicked cold.”
Also by midafternoon, we’d discovered something more’ n a bit puzzling. Following McDorgan’s snowshoe tracks was simple enough, but McDorgan himself…that was another story. He’d told his panicked mate he was heading to Denver, which would have meant first trekking back east toward–and then up and over–the snow-choked Rabbit Ears Pass. And sure enough, he started out that way.
Then, two miles out, he’d hooked left. Abandoned the trail entirely, struck out upslope through the timber.
What the–? Had he spotted a game animal, maybe, figured to take a bit of time to hunt meat?
We slogged on. Sometimes the man meandered. Speeded up, pushing out in long strides, but then again he’d slow down, barely putting one foot ahead of the other. Was he lost, completely disoriented after leaving the trail toward the Pass?
Despite his sputtering sort of progress, however, he did have three hours’ lead on us. When darkness fell, and the temperature with it, we were still some distance behind him. None of us said a word, jist looked at each other in the gathering gloom, and started making camp.
Wise Owl had appointed himself fire maker, but just as he got ready to pull flint and steel from his belt pouch, we saw it. We all saw it.
Firelight pricking the darkness.
“Could be a mile or more,” Cole opined.
“Easily.” We all nodded, but we all knew we weren’t going to wait. Without another word, we redid our packs and started toward the beacon.
“Hello the camp!”
McDorgan at least had the good grace to be properly startled. He’d built himself a right serviceable leanto, built the fire in front of it, then settled in to brew coffee and heat a small pot of beans. When he heard me yell, the man didn’t hesitate. He dove sideways, rolling in the snow till he was tucked under a bush and mostly out of the firelight.
“Now that,” I spoke admiringly, “was by far the best performance I seen outa you yet, Donny!”
“The same! Plus Panghorn and the Shoshones.”
We could hear him chuckling ruefully in the darkness. “Well, come on in. I promise not to ventilate anybody fer scaring the crap outa me.”
By the time we’d finished the second pot of coffee and Cole had finished explaining how tiny Beverly had raked me over the coals, Donny McDorgan was shaking his head and looking plumb ashamed.
“I’m sorry, Henry.” One side of his mouth quirked up as he explained. Made him look somehow both amused and apologetic. “My wandering route today was nothing but me enjoying my freedom, but I really didn’t think the Beverly part of it through. Shoulda known she’d go after you.”
“Well, see, it’s like this. I know I ain’t no great shakes as a tale teller. Oh, sure, sometimes I do a bit of it–badly, as you saw. Even keep the audience happy if there’s enough rotgut to go around. In Yampa, I plumb did not take into consideration the fact that people are hoarding their alcohol a bit right now, not wanting to run out before spring thaw. And I also did not realize that everybody I’d lined up to tell a story was as bad as me or worse.
“I knew I’d lost ’em. But at the end, when you came flying up over that wagon wheel like some kind of avenging angel and really showed us how it’s done, you got the whole bunch of ’em back. You’re what, eighteen? And I’m thirty-nine next month. But I learned from you, kid.
Cole was bursting with curiosity. “You mean to say, your feelings weren’t hurt at all? That you lied to your woman?”
“Uh. Yeah. About that. Bev ain’t exactly my woman. Oh, we been shacking up these past months in Yampa right enough. But you need to understand about Beverly Christiana Holdenred. She’s batsh*t crazy.”
“Really?” I deadpanned. “Hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah. Well. Bev is also, um…intensely carnal, I guess you could say.”
“Uh-huh. She says she’s 45 years old, and since lying ain’t usually what she does, that’s probably about right. Near as I can tell, she’s had a hard, hard life. A lot of men have rode her hard and put her up wet. Including her father when she was little, if you know what I mean.”
“Anyway, that hard life of hers has made her…mercurial? Yeah. Mercurial. She’ll be up one second and down the next.
“Now, we met last summer. She was jist walking down the trail out in the middle of nowhere. I never could git the whole story of how she come to be there. Suspect she herself doesn’t remember. But I had a wagon and a team then. Took her on board, fed her, and that night she crawled inside my blankets with me. I been caretaking her since–till today.”
“So, you’d had all you could take?” Cole put in, his tone gentle enough I figured he understood all of this a whole lot better than I did. What girl’s Dad would–? That would be like Dawson, with Sadie–. No. That was one place I could not, would not go. Not even in my imaginary head.
Donny McDorgan nodded, a sadness in his eyes the likes of which I’d never seen in a grown man. “Reached my limit. Had to git out, git away from her. I’d like to’ve been stronger. But Cole, I jist didn’t have it in me. I’m used up.”
That much, I thought I could understand. But…”Donny, I don’t guess I can blame a man fer cutting and running. Done it once myself already, and as you said, I ain’t but eighteen. And obviously, you ain’t no tenderfoot, neither. You’ll do jist fine on your journey north to wherever.
“But how about us? When we git back to Yampa, what’re we gonna tell Beverly? She’s gonna be wanting some answers, and I gotta say, I ain’t much in the mood to lie on behalf of your sorry hide.”
“It is a pretty sorry hide at that,” he admitted, “but you can tell her anything you want. I only spun that yarn about having my sensitive feelings destroyed so’s maybe I could escape the woman without her thinking it was her that drove me away. If you can figure a way to present things that don’t lay that on her, I’d be highly appreciative.
“In any case, she’ll have me shoved to the back burner of her mind by the time you git back. See, that girl can’t stand living alone, especially after dark. She’s got the night terrors. So what she’ll do, what she’s probably done already, is pick out another man, climb his leg, and go to his blankets. It’s what she does.”
“Damn, man,” Wise Owl put in–his English having gotten close to fluent already–“you make her sound like a whore.”
“Nope. Not that.” The sadness was there again, flooding McDorgan’s eyes. “She’s jist a scared, lonely woman.”
My darling Henry,
Last night was the toughest night of my life. For some reason, I kept feeling this sadness washing over me, pressing me down so hard I could barely breathe. It felt like if I went to sleep, it might press the life right out of me, and I’d never wake up.
Then when I did fall asleep, it was nothing but nightmares. Indian women–Cheyenne, I think, your grandmother’s people–wailing their grief and cutting off fingers to mark the loss of warriors fallen in battle against the whites. The hopelessness among the Blackfeet as they died by the thousands under the scourge of smallpox delivered to them in deliberately infected trade blankets. Exhaustion, privation, and death on the Trail of Tears.
Beloved, I feel I did almost die during the night. I was never more relieved to see the sun come up.
At first, I didn’t think I could ever speak to anyone about it, ever, but after breakfast, Laughing Brook caught me out.
“Come, child,” your grandmother said. “Walk with me.”
Once we were away from the others, she said simply, “You need to share it. The burden is too heavy for one woman alone.”
And I started crying. Talking and crying. Crying and talking.
We hiked slowly, all the way up to the spring, where we seated ourselves on split log benches facing each other. She took my hands in hers and told me,
“Sadie, I too have felt this sadness. Unlike you, I have many years of learning to deal with such things, to know where they come from, and why, and what to do about it. When I was a little girl, a slave among the Blackfeet, I had to learn these skills or die from the sadness.”
She paused then, gathering her thoughts, and I was jolted clean out of my misery. I knew her history, but only the surface of it. Never once had I thought about how it must have been for her back then.
“This time,” she went on after a moment, “the sadness comes from Henry. I recognize his stamp on it.”
“Yes!” I stared at her. “It is Henry!”
“Was,” she corrected. “It was Henry. He has had the experience, and now he has found his way to deal with it. As you must do. You must find your way to deal with this thing so that it does not destroy you.”
“That doesn’t sound…easy.”
“The worthwhile things never are. But remember this, little one. You should rejoice that your Henry has learned this thing, whatever it is, however hard the lesson. Those who do so become great people. Those who don’t…become evil. Or they are simply crushed.
“Our Henry is destined to become one of the great ones.”
There was more, honey, but that’s the gist of it. I asked to be excused from my chores just now so I could get this written down while it was fresh in my mind.
Love and–today, I think, just love,
Your MRS (Medicine Rifle Sadie)