Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Chapter III: Sheriff Charley Brown

Arising early the next morning he found the temperature in the 40's, but noting the clear sky, knew it would warm up by noon. His brief check of the jail found it empty, not surprising, as Sunday night was usually quiet. Often, on weekday mornings, he found drunks locked in the cell, incarcerated either by one of his deputies or by the city marshal. He looked in vain for the cat; she was not around, probably has had her kittens and is hiding them he reasoned.

Relocking the jail he walked through the alley to Mason's Livery. Joe, the hostler, already had the rental team harnessed and was backing them to the rig.

At that moment Mason rounded the corner of the corral. "Long trip, Charley?"

"Out to the Turtle Mountains. I've talked Ian McLaren into coming along with me. Hoped to get soldiers from Captain Collins, but his men are tied up until next week."

"Yah, I've heard them firing on the range -- carries to town when the wind's from the south. Guess they're trying to finish rifle practice so they can get the wood cutters busy."

Charley teased, "I'll take care of your animals like they're my own, George. The Indians won't get them." He smiled at the stable owner.

"I'll not worry, but since you've plenty of room for supplies behind the seat, I'll throw on a sack of oats for my beauties. You'll find hobbles in the toolbox, along with a hammer and extra horseshoe nails. Both animals are wearing light shoes so I'd appreciate it if you'd check them occasionally."

As Charley nodded, Ian appeared from the direction of the jail. Dismounting, he looked to Mason. "Can I leave my animal in your corral?"

"Sure Ian, but it'll cost you two-bits a day."

Ian glanced at Charley, "The County will stand that expense won't they? Darned if I wanted to pack my plunder and rifle over here on shank's mare."

Tossing his bedroll in the box behind the seat of the buckboard, he leaned his rifle carefully against the seat. Leading the bay into the corral he quickly stripped off the saddle and bridle then returned to their wagon. "Now what?" he asked.

"It's still early -- I haven't had breakfast. Let's eat then I'll gather my gear. We have to stop at Myrick's store for vittles." Charley shrugged, "Figure on buying enough for six days. If we need more we can either shoot it, or buy from locals."

Flies had accumulated on a piece of manure that had adhered to his boot. Grasping the buckboard dash he scraped the offending piece off on the wheel rim.

An hour later they were on their way, and Charley, who was driving, let the horses out. Their trotting rhythm was smooth, but their pace and the northwest wind brought a sharp chill. Occasional rills of dust followed up the rims of the rolling wheels, falling off lightly like sands in an hourglass.

Ian shrugged deeper into his jacket collar. "Should have brought my sheepskin coat. Didn't think it would be this cold."

"It'll warm up by noon. I brought extra blankets and a gum poncho. It's getting near to winter and we can expect a surprise any day. No frost as yet though."

"Charley, didn't you say you came from West Virginia?"

"That's right. I joined the army when I was a kid. Managed to get a brevet lieutenant's commission during the war, but they busted me back to sergeant after the fighting was over. The school along the Hudson took over all the officer positions when they cut back the army. After the war I went home, planning to get married to Jo -- Josey that is. I was nineteen at the time." He smiled grimly and shook his head. "It didn't work out. She dumped me and married a man with money. Had two kids by him. I've heard he died a couple of years ago. After she married him I went back into the army until '75, when I ran for sheriff."

"Ever get back to see your folks?"

"Not since '65, but my mother and I correspond. My father died some time ago."

"Oh!" Ian detected a certain coolness and reluctance in Charley’s conversation. Perhaps I'm being too personal. They passed numerous cabins and casually waved at people while driving through the settlement of St. Joseph, recently renamed Walhalla. Reaching a deep gorge a few miles west, they stopped briefly to eat. Ian would have liked to make a fire for coffee, but Charley objected. "We'd best not tarry. We'll be halfway there by dark if we push on."

Ian admired the smooth action of the team and Charley's knowledge of trotters. Every few minutes the horses were pulled back to a walk and when they seemed impatient, were again allowed to break into the mile-eating trot. When one horse broke into a lope, Charley patiently reined the pair in, forcing the truant horse back into a smooth gait.

By late afternoon the sky was beginning to cloud over, and in the northwest a towering cumulonimbus thunderhead was forming. Around its widespread base flashes of lightning were visible, but as yet not a sound could be heard. A few minutes later the soft muttering of thunder became apparent and a strange fresh, clean scent came with the breeze. Ian wondered if it was rain cleansing the air, or was it a subtle fragrance emitted from the combination of moisture and lightning. He realized that within a half-hour they would be subjected to a violent storm. Wildly rolling white wisps of clouds edged the massive core, indicating probable hail. Ian well remembered his last experience with such a storm; it was the day he and Susan had gone on a picnic and succumbed to their love. They had returned home bedraggled, covered with mud, chilled to the bone, and soaked through and through.

Charley turned the team from the narrow road toward a patch of trees on a sidehill. "Looks like we're going to get a soaking, but at least if it hails, the horses will get some protection under the trees."

Stopping under a large elm, they hastily tied the horses and dug out their ground sheets. When the rain came, only a few pellets of hail fell, but the heavens opened with a wild downpour that lasted a good quarter-hour. Gradually the rain ceased with only a few remaining drops falling from branches above.

Charley was optimistic. "Best we get on our way again. We can still get in another couple of hours travel. The horses are holding up well. We'll rub them down tonight, grain them, and then hobble them out to graze."

Long before dark the trotters were obviously tiring, forcing them to make camp on rolling prairie just off the trail. All evidence of the heavy downpour had disappeared, except for a small, clear pool where they watered the team. The sandy soil seemed to have sipped up every drop of moisture.

The sky gradually turned to an inky blackness after the sun dropped from sight. Lacking a moon, myriads of stars glittered in the heavens; the Milky Way was boldly outlined above. The immense solar system gave Ian a feeling of insignificance, a sense of his unimportance in this huge universe. He lay awake long after dark listening to coyotes singing from hill to hill. It seemed they would yip, yip, yip from one point, to be answered from another, often miles away. They sounded lonely, as if trying to reassure one other. He noted that even before their cooking fire died, Charley was asleep, tightly rolled in his blankets. Ian suddenly realized the ground was hard and wished he had dug a hole for his hipbone as he had seen Charley do.

After a brief breakfast they again resumed the trail west through rolling hills. In their conversation Ian endeavored to turn the topic to Marguerite, to probe Charley's obvious reluctance at marriage.

Again Charley was evasive, then finally admitted to his dalliance with a Negro slave girl when he was a boy. He had been caught by his father and severely beaten, suffering such ridicule and admonishment from both his father and mother that he finally ran away from home, enlisting in the army. Ian suddenly sensed Charley seemed melancholy and strangely reflective over the incident, he deemed it wise to change the subject. After all, he reasoned, it's none of my business.

Later in the day the subject of soldiering came up when Charley mentioned they might have a problem with the Indians. Ian managed to get him talking about some of his army experiences.

"Sometimes, when under fire, you live a lifetime in a second or minute. At other times life seems to drag on and on. Oh, there are basic ways to stay alive in combat. In fact we broke one just last night. Always move your sleeping place after dark, and don't camp near a watering hole. You'll maybe save yourself an ambush, and you'll allow wild animals access to the water. Another thing, action always beats reaction. In a bind, act first; never shoot unless you can hit, and never use a gun at night without moving after each shot. I could go on and on. Thank the Lord there's no longer much danger from Indians, still, it's wise to be cautious."

They were passing through wetlands occupied by thousands of geese resting on their migration flight to the south. Flocks slanted, banked into nearby waterholes, so many that it seemed no more room. Still they came. Ian looked up at a low passing formation and pointed, “There are a lot of possibilities for the frying pan up there.”

"On the way back we might stop for a few.”

Charley impatiently brushed a mosquito from his cheek.

Late on the second day of travel they sighted a high hill in the far distance. "That's St. Paul Butte," said Charley. "I was here two years ago. Somewhere around here we'll find the Indians, or more than likely, they'll find us. Old Jed Pitman has a cabin just behind that treeless hill over there. Best we stop and see him. He should know what's going on."

An hour later they approached a squalid looking dugout on a side hill, the lower logs seemingly half buried in the ground. Ian was disappointed. "That cabin isn't much!"

"Not for looks, but I'll bet it's warm in the winter. That's common in the hills, building into the side of a slope and digging a trench above to divert the water around the dugout."

They were nearly to the door of the cabin when a small, bent-over man appeared in the open door. "Charley Brown, is that really you?"

"Yup, it's me, Jed."

"C'mon over here and get down. Damned if I expected to see you out here -- last time must be two-three years ago."

Charley dismounted to shake Pitman's hand. “Yeah, it was a long time back. Are you set here for another winter?"

"Sure am -- got plenty of wood cut too!" He looked Ian over. "Who's this youngster with you. Lordy, he's nearly as big as you!

"This is Ian McLaren, my deputy and backup."

Ian shook the offered hand, surprised at the old man's firm grip. He could now see the reason for Pitman's bent over appearance; the man was deformed, a hump protruded far out from his right shoulder. He was also of slight stature and seemingly emaciated.

Deep in conversation Charley and Pitman walked over to a makeshift table alongside the dugout, leaving Ian to secure the team. He could overhear their conversation and listened avidly as it gradually turned to the seizure of the wagon.

"Heck yes, Charley. Those Canadian redskins told me to get out too, but I'm still here. They dasn't push me too far -- they know I'll shoot. 'Sides that, up to now I've gotten along with them. Oh, they posted some warnings on bark and scraps, saying this was all Indian land. It scared a few settlers back across the line to Canada, but they'll be back when things quiet down. Best you get more help if you want that team and wagon back. Betwix you and me, I think the goods are still with the wagon. The Indians are waiting to see if the military will show up. They're probably running a bluff. But if you don't go after it, you'll never see that load again. They'll split it up. We've got more than our share of Sioux and Chippewa around here, but they’re mostly friendly. It's those renegade Sioux from the Minnesota uprising that are the trouble makers."

"Where'll I find them?"

"Just keep heading toward the big butte. You won't have to find them, they'll find you." Jed looked up at the sky. "Too late to move now. Put your team in the corral and fork them a little hay. Stay the night, I'll make up some grub."

Ian began to unharness the team, saying, "I'll take care of the horses and rub them down.”

"We'll stay overnight, but I'll do the cooking. We've brought plenty of food along -- can even leave you some coffee beans. Bet you haven't had coffee for awhile."

Jed slapped his thigh as he laughed. "Golly! Lots of things I do without lately. Say! You married yet?"

"Nope, still single. Why ask? You still thinking of women at your age?"

Jed's eyes brightened. "That old bat, Rosie, still got her house in Pembina?"

"You planning to visit her?" Charley was amused.

"Hell no! Just wondering. Ain't much good any more -- getting too old and things don't work like they used to." Gaining his feet, he said, "Put your team away and I'll stoke up the fire for supper; be nice to have someone else do the cooking for a change."

That night the two men slept under the stars, neither man wanting to bunk in Jed's cabin. Only a few feet away, Ian could hear the rhythmic breathing of Charley that inchmealed to a gentle snore. Eyeing the constellations above, he wondered about the temper of the local Indians. Then his thoughts turned to Susan, their son, and home.

It turned cold during the night and as the pale gray dawn approached, both men awoke, aware of the frost that had formed on their blankets near their faces. Fighting the weight on his eyelids, Charley sat up to pull on his boots. With a blanket tightly wrapped around his shoulders he hesitated near a woodpile to urinate, then, glancing slowly around the yard he finally turned toward Jed's cabin.

Ian remained snugly trussed in his bedroll aware of being totally alone for the moment. Hearing a thudding sound from the house, then the clang of a stove lid, he pushed the blanket from his cheek to see a goodly amount of smoke rising from the rusty chimney. Rising from his blankets he felt the biting cold. After putting on his jacket he stooped to roll up his bedroll, securing it with a leather strap. After tossing the bundle into the back of the buckboard he entered the cabin to find Jed and Charley sitting near the stove, absorbing its warmth. Once inside, the sour odor of food scraps and rank body odor assailed his nostrils. The back wall was of raw earth cut into the hillside, the interior dark as a cavern.

Jed turned to Ian. "Finally up, son? Told you both to sleep inside last night. Knew it was going to get mighty cold by morning."

The iron stove leaked flickers of light along its top, and damper; the battered, brass coffee pot began to rock gently as the coffee began boiling.

"We'll head out soon's we eat, Ian. Might as well find those Indians and see what they're after. Jed says they plan on kicking all the white men out of these hills, but that's not going to happen.” Charley looked complacent.

Chief Little Shell"It's all the doings of that damned Little Shell. He thinks he's the big chief now," Jed said bitterly.

By the time they were ready to travel the sun was showing, gradually dispelling the morning chill. They were only a few miles from Pitman's when they became aware of several mounted Indians blocking the trail ahead. Charley pulled the team to a halt only a few feet from the renegades. At the same time he slowly moved his coat clear of his revolver.

Ian murmured softly, "Fourteen of them, mighty poor odds."

"Just sit tight, but be ready if need be. Let me do all the talking." Boldly addressing the Indians, he said, "I come for that wagon you took from the freighter. The government wants it back. Where is it?"

The Indian party was gaudily appareled; most wore full headdresses adorned with golden eagle feathers. Two wore only two or three feathers in their headband. Each carried either a coup stick, staff or firearm. Charley noted only a few rifles, most of their weapons appeared to be old trade shotguns. An impressive looking warrior carrying a coup stick decorated with feathers along its entire length moved alongside the buggy. He appeared to be their leader and spoke fair English.

"You get the hell out of here white man or we take your buggy and horses. This Indian land now."

From the other Indians came grunts that both Charley and Ian recognized as sounds of approval.

Charley looked the speaker in the eye, and then opened his coat to show his badge. "I am the law. I want that team and wagon and those government goods you took. Maybe you have many braves but I have many soldiers."

The Indian sneered and put his hand to his forehead to peer in the direction of Pitman's cabin. He made a mock show of looking to the left and right, then spit onto the floor of the buckboard, narrowly missing Charley's boot. "No soldiers. Maybe we take your horses now!"

Charley flared. "Try it and many will die. You will be the first!" His right hand moved slowly to his hip as he spoke.

Although Ian's Winchester was still pointed at the floor of the buckboard, the hammer made an audible click when he eased it back to full cock.

The Indian chief began backing his horse cautiously. "Go! Don't come back!"

"I'll be back with plenty soldiers. You'd better have the trade goods still in the wagon too!"

Ian knew Charley wasn't bluffing; the sheriff showed no fear. He could also see the Indian knew Charley meant what he said. The expression on the chief's face showed uncertainty. The looks on the faces of the other Indians showed disappointment. Their chief had lost face.

Charley cut the team around in a short turn. "Don't look back, but be ready if they start anything. If they do, we'll take a few of them with us."

At any moment Ian expected a hammer blow between the shoulders, but long seconds after the team broke into a fast trot, he couldn't resist the temptation to peek. The Indians had turned back toward the butte at a gallop. Turning to Charley, he said sarcastically, "You sure took a chance with our hides!"

Charley exploded! "All this time shot to hell by those bull-headed bastards! They weren't Chippewa either, all were Sioux -- probably the dregs of the uprising of '63." He turned to face Ian. "Sorry I brought you this far for nothing. Now I'll have to do it all over again with Kirkpatrick." After a long silence, he mused aloud, "Wonder what Anderson is doing back in Pembina -- hope he doesn't do something stupid."