“The nights here defy a man to hold comfort. I made my way across the Dakotas and the Sioux Territory and through all manner of badlands. I spent time in the New Mexico Territory crushing scorpions and outdrawing seasoned gunhands. But here under this big sky with so much lush green just under the falling snow I wonder, is it here in a place of such life I’ll meet my end?”
~Amongst the papers found on Sam Plummer
The rancher saw him before he noticed his own familiars. He was broad and sat high on the saddle of a noble tobiano, beautifully painted black and white. His hat was a chestnut brown and he wore a heavy duster faded to beige. There was a revolver high on his hip and a rifle hanging at his side but his horse was laden with the gear of a cowboy, the saddle over a Navajo blanket. Soft eyes lit a strong face and when he dismounted the rancher took note of his thinning boot soles.
Mitch Keller followed the stranger into the Post Office and got right to it.
“Mitch Keller. I hold the Heaven Hills Ranch up west a ways. You uh, you look like you done some cowboyin’.”
“Not much. A little. Sam Plummer. Folks been callin’ me Strap since I was a littl’un though.”
“I reckon they have. You in town lookin’ fer work?”
“Well, no sir I’m not. I’m actually headin’ for the Columbia by way of the Salmon.”
“Son, that’s no way to head naywhere.”
“Son, I’m telling you you’re best off headed south and coming back up along the Snake River. Now you’ll cross the Salmon but don’t follow it. It cuts through the roughest most impassable land the Northwest has to offer.”
“Mister, if it’s a river it can be followed.”
“Desert rat. I knew it soon as I seen that saddle with all them triangles and diamonds on it. Y’ll think water cures everything, well it drowns too. And in the case of Salmon and Sawtooth, it crushes. It crushes you against ice and rock and frozen ground this time o’ year.”
“I can take the cold.”
“Son, this ain’t the high desert. Tell you what, stay the night. Give me an evening for me and the missus to talk sense to ya.”
“Sir I need to move on.”
Mitch lifted his shoulders like they were made of lead. “Hey, if you wanna turn down my hospitality, make a poor Christian outta me…”
“No sir. No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… I just need to be moving. Soon as I post these in fact.” he said, holding up a stack of letters.
“Why don’t you tell me an’ the wife about the big rush over dinner?”
Strap dipped his head just a bit and met the rancher’s eye. “I’d be obliged, sir.” And he held out his hand.
The rancher was as burly as his voice and his missus was pretty and soft against the rugged terrain of the ranch. She poured milk for the stranger and it made him think of coffee. He’d had neither in weeks and wondered if he might be offered some in the morning. When he found steak and potato on his plate he nearly blushed.
“Ma’am, this is just too nice. Really I’m, I’m-“
“Now, son this is cow country and it’s our own stock so there’s nothing much to be impressed about.”
“Do you do well in it sir? If it’s not rude to ask.”
“Well, not for a young man or even a man your age looking to make a life for a woman. But yes, we’ve made a good life.”
“Sir? How’d you know?”
“Because of your age. And where you’re headin’. And because you’re in such a fired rush when a man your age should know better.”
Strap laughed. “I should, but my gumption hasn’t killed me yet. And I’ve got good reason for my haste.”
“Well, I been waitin’ to hear about her.”
“Well, it’s like you suspected, I was working the Southwest, herdin’ some, but mostly trapping and hunting. Still a lotta buff down there. Eventually I found myself in New Orleans. You ever been down that way at all, sir?”
“I was down that way as a younger man. Saw a snake with blue eyes in the swamps. Put the fear a god in me. Ain’t been back since.”
Strap held a chuckle. “It happens sometimes. Most all snakes get blue eyes when they’re ready to molt. Dunnt mean it’s carryin’ venom. You musta seen a few up here like that in your time.”
“I have and molting too and this wasn’t it. Bone white and eyes like nuthin’ I ever seen.”
“Oh that happens sometimes. Rare, but beautiful. Heck, you were lucky to see it.”
“A snake’s a snake,” the missus broke in, “and I don’t like ’em blue eyed or other.”
“Well I ain’t seen none like it but then we don’t see many this high up. Too cold. Snakes are lazy and they stay away from a harsh life.”
“Lazy and sly. Don’t like ’em.” she reiterated.
“Well, who does, ma’am? Good eatin’ though.”
She shivered and took to the dishes.
The rancher led Strap into the sitting room. The kitchen had been bare and plain. Whatever charm it carried was from the simplicity of its utility or coincidence of function leading to attractive form. But the sitting room was rich wood, varnished and beautiful in the amber lantern light and the red orange wash of the fire. Over a thick oak mantle was an elk head surveying from below the high ceiling a bear rug, buffalo sofa, and two deep leather chairs. The older man sat in one of the chairs and lit a cigar. Strap took the couch and felt enough at ease to lean into its back and rest his boot upon his knee. The missus brought them whiskies and left them to sip against the cracking fire.
“So go on with your story, son.”
“It started out like a wild fire fed with a cool breeze. Nights in the casino, whiskey and wine, and piano all the time. She was a fine dancer and I don’t mind tellin’ you I couldn’t keep up. But that can’t last forever so in pretty short order we decided to settle down.”
“Settle down to what?”
“We didn’t know fer sure. But we love each other, we knew that. So we figured Chicago. I was good at getting a fair trade in my trappings and thought I might make a decent merchant. Maybe open our own mercantile, though she was apprehensive about a complex undertaking.”
“What about you? A trapper trapped isn’t normal.”
“I know it!” he laughed. “But I thought I’d try for her. When Bes and I set out I thought there was something to it. I thought I could find my way in a normal life but soon knew it would have to be another kind of normal life. I’m not cut for farming as much as trapping, hunting and the like. She wanted an ocean and that was fine with me so I said we’d make way for the Pacific through the Northwest Passage, but she wasn’t so hearty as I’d first perceived and I suppose that’s okay. She was fine on the way up by way of the Miss. but her dancin’ feet weren’t much for traveling over hard land. I fell in love with her eyes and soft hands and hair. I wouldn’t want to sully her feet with the muck of the trail so I staked out with the promise to write and send money and the price of a ticket on the rail. Once I had a stake I could meet her at the station in Sacramento and we’d coach up the coast together.
I kept my promise so far and every pelt I’ve sold has been coin for her.”
“Well, you’re better’n halfway there now. But the rest is the roughest patch you’ll find.”
“If it’s the way to bring her to me, I’ll be happy to cover that ground.”
“You’d be happier now if she’d made this trip with ya.”
“She just couldn’t come. The whole point was to make her happy so she’d work a riverboat back to New Orleans from Chicago and I’d blaze west. There’s been no letters on the way from her. I let her know where I’m headed next but the mail’s so unreliable. Especially when you’re moving. I got so lonely once I waited near a week but when nothing came I had to move on so I sent what I could and packed up.”
“So you been sending money to her in New Orleans.”
“Yeah, bought her a ticket before I left. She gave me the address then, in case the ticket agent wanted it.”
“They made her pay for her ticket?”
“Well, she said they had no jobs but somethin’ might open at the tables on the way. And she didn’t want to wait in Chicago. She loved New Orleans. So I bought her a ticket. I’m sure she could find work on the way though. She’s something.”
Mitch paused and took a drag on his cigar. He opened his mouth but held again for a moment then spoke. “I see.”
They sat there in silence for another long moment before the rancher spoke again. “Say, you said you did some cowboyin’. And I imagine you’re fair with that pistol and long gun.”
“Well, how ’bout stayin’ on just a bit. Maybe just for clear weather.”
“Every day here would be a day away from Bes.”
“Just a day then. I could use help tomorrow.”
“Well I suppose I owe you a morning’s work anyway.”
“Then it’s settled. You help me drive a bit in the morning. Maybe I can convince you to stay long enough to earn you some credit with jack the cobbler. Maybe convince you o’ some other things too.”
Strap wiggled his toes in boots and laughed.
The missus did pour coffee in the morning and Strap took it by the gulp. It was the one thing he missed about Chicago. And one of the many he missed about New Orleans. But even here, in this place he did not want to stay, he found peace in the open air and brutal vibrant land. He sipped the next cup and wondered why Mitch had asked about his guns.
On the trail up the mountain, Strap noticed the breadth of the infinite Montana sky. He was further into the blue than he’d ever been and from his mountain vantage he could see down to the ranch house and beyond. Further off he could now tell the horizon dropped off and the plain on which rested the farm and town and the very trail he’d been riding was itself thousands of feet up. He was now hundreds of feet above that flat and the thought made him dizzy. Just as he felt he might swoon, Mitch broke his stupor.
“These derned cows. Don’t know why they make their way up hill. They think they’re sheep. If I wanted to raise sheep, I’d raise ’em. Now I have to drive ’em a coupla times a month just to make sure I don’t lose half of ’em.”
“Tough without hands.”
“I couldn’t really keep a man of all year just fer the two times a month it takes to push ’em down.”
“You wanted to hire me.”
“True, but not all year. Just for a while. Honestly it’s because I wanted to-”
Mitch snapped his head up the trail. There was movement in the thicket ahead. He kicked at the flanks of his ride.
“Sunova- Heeyah!!” he hollered as he tore off. Strap followed suit, the pinto tearing into the land.
Mitch reached the thicket just ahead of Strap and his horse reared as a grimy fellow, short but broad as a buffalo, rose out of the shrubs and produced a colt. As he leveled the weapon it exploded away from his wrist with a crack.
He hollered like a cannon then wailed like wind through a stovepipe. “Sunnugun near took my hand off!”
Strap had his rifle out then. “If you don’t wanna see what this one can do to a head, don’t le’me see yours again.”
Just then another man, tall and lean if broad shouldered with the beginning of a belly, appeared from behind a tree. Strap’s revolver rose up level under the barrel of the rifle but the man’s hands were open and up so the bullets waited patiently.
“Now Mitch, call off your man.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Well now, we,” he paused to look at Strap who waited so still it frightened the man. The horse seemed to be carved from oak. The man could swear there was no breath to be seen in the cold air. “We were just taking a lay. I was thinking about making you an offer-“
“Here’s your offer, you don’t come back and I don’t kill you.”
“Oh? You’re man stayin’ around then?”
The grimy one was on his knees, wincing and bleeding.
“Longer than yours.” Strap broke in. “More to your point, I pass through here a lot. Not a wonder you haven’t seen me though. I come and go like the wind. Never no when. Why I bet I could blow right through your kitchen at dinner and be gone again before anyone would know. ‘Cept those who felt my breeze of course. But then, a breeze like me can freeze a man so his lips can’t testify to the chill.”
Strap pulled the hammer and the tall man froze.
“See there now,” said Strap. “I barely move and you numbed right up. Why don’t you move on home and don’t come back?”
The man stared for an instant, turning just before he trembled, and walked off with his underling in tow. The rancher and Strap waited and a few minutes after the miscreants disappeared into the tree line hoof beats rose up and faded away.
“We better make your count.” said Strap.
“I reckon you’re right.”
Barring what was needed for the work, no words were spoken the rest of the day. On the way back, they rode in silence. The rancher wondered was the man angry or indifferent. He turned Strap’s words over in his mind. Did he really mean it or was he just trying to scare the rustler? No. Mitch knew there was no talking the man into staying now. All he could do was send him off with feed to get his horse through rock and snow, all the water and dry goods he could carry, and his best guidance and gratitude.
Morning came with a bright sun and Strap thought it was a good omen for his travels and said so to the rancher.
“Now don’t be so sure. A white morning and still air are a sign of foul weather just away.”
“No, no. I know you’re leavin’ us an’ I’m not gonna try an’ stop ya. I know your mind’s made up an’ I understand. I’m just sayin’ if a storm does come, hunker down where you’re at. Don’t try an’ get through them mountains if you even think the weather might turn.”
“Thanks. I appreciate the advice. Everything else too.”
Mitch hesitated, trying to decide whether to apologize or not. His thought was broken by his wife pouring coffee. Strap lightened his with milk and she gave him sugar too. He closed his eyes and sipped it. It was sweet and full and perhaps because it was only the third cup of coffee he’d had in as many weeks, he swore it was as good as the strong blends of New Orleans so deftly made with light sweet cream and which set the heart ahead from just a smell.
“My offer stands of course, and I say that as more than a formality but I suppose it’s just that, now. Still, it’s there for you.” He knew better than to wait for a response and so continued with his well wishes. “Now, if you insist on going west instead of south, at least benefit from my knowledge of the land. It’s the least I can give and it might save your stubborn life. About a day’s march from here, you’ll come to a rougher area, more rock and dirt than pasture. They’ll be some larger stones around, boulders really and then a black tree been felled by lightnin’. Look to the south. You’ll see a break in the range. I know it’s due south, but it’s not far, it’s in your eyes’ sight after all. If you take that pass, once you’re through it, and the land flattens a bit head back west, but not north! Not until a day past the Salmon.”
“Once I hit the Salmon-“
“Now, boy would you just stop and le’me tell ya?”
“Sorry, go on sir.”
Mitch took a breath, feeling bad about snapping. But he owed Strap more than mitigating an awkward moment with apologetic silence.
“You can make your way pretty easy if you cross the Salmon. Make camp a day. Rest and water the horse and then cross the river. It’s little more than a crick there. Now after about a day, the land gets rough again. That’s when you head north making your way west when you can. You won’t see river again ’til you’re at the Snake.”
Strap thought on the rancher’s words a moment and nodded. “Sounds fair. Might actually save time if land’s as rough as you say.”
“Salmon’s the ‘river o’ no return’ boy. I wouldn’t lead you wrong.”
There was a heavy silence for just an instant before Strap broke it. “Well, I suppose I’ll be off then.”
“Will you have a second cup?” asked the missus, holding up the pot.
There was another pause, longer and heavier than the last as Strap weighed the option. That second cup would be wonderful. The thought alone made him suppress a smile. Still, he declined for the sake of form and expedience. After all had passed he needed to get to a home from where he could send for his blue-eyed Bes.
“Now remember, before you go into the pass, take stock. Make sure there’s clear weather ahead of ya. When those winds start pulling snow up through that pass it might as well be another mountain growing up around you.”
Strap made it to the pass and sooner than the rancher had said he would. He debated entering and looked on a still high sun and turned his cheek into the gentle air. He should be able to make it far enough in to make camp in a place with some wind shelter, maybe even a cave. Would Mitch have not mentioned a cave? He was contrary when Strap left. He wasn’t really thinking of strap making camp in the pass. No, cave or not, even off a sheer rock wall would make a finer camp than open pasture.
On the way back from town the next Sunday, the missus tapped the rancher on the shoulder. He had been lost in thought as he often was at that time. The team could be trusted to pull them home without attention and Mitch habitually took advantage of their reliability.
When he looked up he saw the noble tobiano waiting at the ranch gate. Fine in posture still, but just becoming thin, his coat matted and dulling. The rifle, bedroll, and rucksack were missing and in fact all that remained of any significance was the fine saddle, its bags, and the Navajo blanket under them. From his neck hung the feedbag, empty and chewed at its brim. She put her hand on his forearm before he dismounted.
Following him to the painted beauty she felt it staring with a wet, brown eye, wider and deeper than any horse in her husband’s stable. Mitch lifted the flap on the saddlebag and found a leather-bound journal, wrapped with a rawhide strap in which was slipped a folded paper.
“Dear Sir or Ma’am,
If you have found this, know that you are likely holding all that is left of me. With this you will also find letters addressed to my Bes and if you are a God fearing soul I pray you will make an honest effort to sell the horse and saddle, and send the proceeds along with the contents of these bags and this journal on to her.
If you know of a cattle rancher by the name of Keller, please pass on this letter.
Mitch, I want you to know that what fate I’ve met was through my own stubbornness and I’m grateful to you for all you’ve done. I write from inside the pass. You were right about the speed and danger of the storms here. I told myself if I could just make it to the Snake River that much sooner, it’d be that much sooner I’d see my Bes. I know you counseled me to patience but you never had the needs of a woman like Bes weighing on you. I just thought if I could make it to the Columbia Valley, I could give a piece of happiness. This is still new country and there’s more fish and game than a world can take. There’s work in the ports further west. There’s nothing but possibilities and I know she could be happy.
But it’s cold now.
The nights here defy a man to hold comfort. I made my way across the Dakotas and the Sioux Territory and through all manner of badlands. I spent time in the New Mexico Territory crushing scorpions and outdrawing seasoned gunhands. But here under this big sky with so much lush green just under the fallen snow I wonder, is it here in a place of such life I’ll meet my end?
As I lay here, I think of your missus’ coffee and what a fine woman she is. I wish now I had a cup of her fine coffee. Next to seeing Bes’ blue eyes one last time it’s all I could wish for. I should have taken that second cup. I should have taken everything offered I suppose.
It might have been a fool’s errand to strike out here alone but I didn’t want anyone slowing me down. I never thought it’d be what killed me. I know I’m on a trail but how is there no one else? Days now and not a soul. Rogue stares at me in the firelight. I think he’s angry. We can’t move through the pass and I’m ready to cut him loose and just climb. But that’d kill me for sure. Rogue is all I got. But that’s why I should let him go. I’ll take what doesn’t weigh him down, toss what I can’t carry and try to find a way alone and against all odds and with less than I need. I’ll send Rogue off. Rogue should have a chance.
Thank you again,