“Arghhh,” Gideon Chase moaned as he awoke from his slumber. Pulsing beats throbbed in his head, exerting forces near the point of explosion. He shut his bloodshot blue eyes and focused on the pain in his head. After several minutes he realized the methodic aches would not be going away anytime soon. About this time he began to notice the dryness of his mouth. Not a drop of moisture remained. His tongue stuck dryly to the roof of his mouth. Licking his lips was much the same. What a morning, he thought.
Arising fully from sleep he rolled over and let the mid morning sun beam down onto his face and bare chest. His lean body soaked up the rays, cherishing the pleasant heat they provided. Too much dern whiskey, he reasoned. He was too old for drinking like that, but this far from the settlements a man can tend to get carried away. It had also been awhile since he had been able to catch up with some old comrades. William Stuffins and Hobbins Traffegen were solid men, and he appreciated their company. Gideon was wary of their new companion though, a half-breed named James Nighthand. The two never did warm up in their short acquaintance. It wasn’t his breeding that Gideon distrusted, he had known many half-breeds, it was something subtle. Something in his dark eyes that hinted toward evil.
Propping himself up Gideon began to search for some water. He was a short distance from the creek but slowly ambled that direction . Once he reached the moist bank he dropped to his knees and drank life-giving mouthfuls straight from the icy waters. Somewhat satiated he turned his aching body back towards camp; and that is when he noticed it. Something was amiss. Stuffins and Traffegen lay in blanketed heaps around the smoldering fire, but where was Nighthand? A second look told Gideon all he needed to know.
“Arrrrgh!” he growled storming back to camp. “Get up! Both of you get up! That dern no-good, stealing, rotten half breed cleaned us out during the night.” Gideon kicked at a stirring bundle on the ground. “Get up Stuffins! You brought that thief into camp, I reckon you can help me track him down.”
William Stuffins groaned from his pathetic posture on the ground “What d’ya mean that thief?” He asked, a bit of annoyance in his voice with eyes blurred from sleep. “James is always up early. Anyway he’s probably out hunting up some vittles for the camp.”
“Well I suppose that could be the answer,” Gideon shot back, “but he’d have a might better luck with only one horse than all six he’s took with him. Better luck sneaking around you sees.”
“Huh?!” Hobbins retorted . As he sat up his red checks lightly toasted by the sun seemed to glow. “Took the horses? James? Why that no account take our horses?”
“Probably figured to trade a mite for em.” Gideon reasoned, his initial anger diminishing. “I guess he headed south, away from the blackfeet and to the Crow. No Crow would ever turn down a good mount, even if he knowns it was stolen.”
“Well heck,”Stuffins remarked, pulling himself up to standing position now, ”might as well have sentenced us to the gallows! A man without horseflesh is as good as dead this close to them bug boys.”
“Now settle down Stuffins” Gideon has reclaimed a sense of calm he tried to restore to the situation. Times like this called for clear thinking. “Them Blackfeet ain’t in this country this time of year. Probably down on the flats chasing buffs. Nope, we ain’t gotta worry bout no bug boys. We will have a dern hard time staying alive if we can’t find those horses. Had quite a few possibles on that pony. Be hard to stay alive long without em.”
The trio picked up the remains of their makeshift camp. Each took a trip to the clear creek to whet their gullet before heading out. Searching the area they soon found Nighthand’s tracks leading straight out the mouth of the valley. He made no attempt to cover his tracks, probably guessing with the head start and the horses there would be no need. What he didn’t figure on, was the type of man who was trailing him. Nighthand was raised between worlds . He had a spell of the whiteman’s world, and a bit of the Indians. Although he knew some of the trappers in the mountains, he knew not their determination. These men would trail him day and night as long as they had a trail to follow.
“As well as I can figure he’s got a half day head start on us. Grab your possibles boys, we got some horseflesh to find.” With that, Gideon’s long strides carried him off down the valley in pursuit of his outfit.
After several days the trio of travelers was still hard on the trail of James Nighthand. Although the trail was easy enough to follow for the seasoned veterans, they pursued at a distance. Gideon often times led the group, but by no means was in a leadership position. In the mountains, men had learned to fend for themselves and developed an independent spirit. Each man was free to go his own direction at his own time. This particular situation called for teamwork, and Gideon was the best tracker. It was understood by all, that while Gideon Chase was in the lead, he only worked to save his own outfit.
It was high noon when they came upon a small rushing creek surrounding by towering pines. Stiff winds swayed the large boughs of the lofty sentinels. Stopping for water, Gideon examined the tracks in the muddy banks. “How old do y’spose them track are?” Hobbins asked scratching his scruffy red beard.
“Well Hobbs,” Gideon answered while thoughtfully examining the tracks “I spose he passed this a way bout, oh… three hours ago.”
“Three hours!” Stuffins lit up. “That no account horse thief will be sleeping good tonight when I send him under. No place in these mountains for a horse thief. Half breed or not.”
“I reckon that with any luck we’ll be riding tomorrow boys.” Gideon posited staring intently at the trail leading away. “Better move slow though. He ain’t likely to go quiet.”
Starting off again, they moved uphill. Nighthand had stuck to deer trails for most of the journey so the going was easy. Even with the easy travel Gideon had a nagging feeling something was wrong. The trail was just too good. Not even the slightest effort was made to conceal the passing. Wet spots in the trail, which easily identify tracks, were taken rather than going around. It’s almost as if he wants us to catch him, Gideon’s mind reasoned. Still, they pushed on in search of their stolen stock.
As they climbed the gentle slope of the mountainside Gideon could see where they were headed through breaks in the trees. Up ahead lay a pass over the mountains Gideon figured the thief would head to pass over. To his left rose a towering snow covered peak with a scree field of loose rock half way down culminating in a chaotic boulder field. To his right lay the spine of the ridge they had been paralleling for some time. As they gained elevation Gideon could see the timber thin out close to the top of the ridge. They soon came to a small clearing Gideon stopped to examine the lay of the land before him.
“No good,” he said. “I’m guessing that horse thief is a sitting up on that pass, jist waitin fer us to step out into that clearin at the bottom. We’d sure be easy pickens, what with the last quarter mile wide open. Anyways if’n a body got close, there’s no way you could climb to the top o that pass without him punching holes clear through you. He’s a smart one. Even with one rifle he could take down the lot of us.”
He continued, “If’n you want my mind fellers, I’d be for cuttin up through this spotty timber to the top of this spine off to our right. We’d be wise to head up after dark. I’m a guessing he’s got a fine view from where he’s waitin.”
“Ach! I can’t hardly stand the thought of that dern louse spendin another night with them horses,” Stuffin’s tone was serious. “What makes you think he’s up thar anyways Gideon? That flatlander ain’t got no mountain sense. Why he’s probably thinking we’re clear on the trail floundering around looking for him. He don’t know mountain folk near as well as he figures.”
“That’s whats got me worried hoss” Gideon replied. “It just seems a bit too easy. Ever since camp we jist follered the trail right easy. Never has he made a bit of work to hide the trail. I spect hes a thinkin we’ll walk right into his trap.”
“Sounds like fine reasoning to me” Hobbins spoke up. “Even a yearling could hide a trail better n that. Anyways, whats the worst could happen? We hit that pass and everything looks good, we’ll jist keep on after him and make up time the next few days.”
“I don’t know fellers.” William Stuffins eyes were hard beneath the shadow of his wide brimmed hat. “I’ve knowed that breed for a spell. Long enough to sleep heavy when camped with him at least. Never seemed like the type to do no purposeful killing. If’n I had to guess, I’d wager he rolled over that pass just afore we could see, and kept right on a going. He’s like that you know. Probably jist heading fer some injun camp to trade them horses then quit the country for a bit. He don’t seem like no killer.”
“Well Will, I won’t doubt your judgement, seemin as I jist met the man, but I don’t suppose you’d been sleepin so heavy if’n you know your horses would git lifted by the man” Gideon said. “Maybe thars more to him than you think.”
“I don’t suppose youd been sleepin so sound either, ceptin that whiskey was a mite stout!” Will retorted, a bit peeved by the comment. “I guess we all shoulda laid off the fire jug a bit. Just got caught up a bit I spose.”
“I guess we all did Will” Chase recognized his mistake. “My plan stands either way. I’m headed up the side o this here spine come dark. You fellers are welcome to come along if’n you want.”
“Heck Gideon, I’ll throw in with you” Hobbins confirmed. “Seems a safe bet against a reckless one. Sides, we can catch some rest fore the climb. That feller will be plumb tuckered out by now. He’s had to be workin to keep that string of horses cared for. What about you Will, you pitchin in?”
Hands on his hips Stuffins shook his head in frustration. “I guess a coon ought to take the smart bet here, much as I hate to. Feels too much like I’m runnin from that coyote. I’ll wait with you boys on one condition. If’n he aint up thar we travel like red devils to catch him. I hate the thought of losing another pony for sum injun chief’s daughter.”
“Agreed,” Gideon’s steely blue eyes stared at the pass, “we’ll wait here till closer to sunset, then we’ll make our move.”
Hours later, the sun dipped behind the pass west of the travelers. Dark shadows stretched across the mountainside, and a dull light lingered in the drainage. Like wisps of smoke the three companions scaled the steep ground. Moving stealthy from tree to tree, clad in their buckskins they knew they would be near impossible to see in the fading light. Drawing nearer to the top of the spine Gideon gazed up from behind a small tree. Nothing but a scree field covered the final twenty yards to the top of the spine and safety. Searching the surrounding area, Gideon realized this thin strip of loose rock lined nearly the entire spine. Examining the possibilities he weighed their options.
“Wha’d ya think Gideon?” Hobbins asked, his red face bright from exertion.
“Well, the way I have it figured, bout the only option we got is to make a bit of a dash up this here scree field. Once we clear it, we are up and over the other side.” Gideon rubbed his silver beard as he spoke.
“Seems a mite risky Gideon,” Will said “be like sitting ducks stumbling up that rock field.”
“Probably so, but I don’t see no other way. If’n I’m gonna get my horseflesh back an save my scalp, I guess it’s a chance I’ll have to take.”
The three men stared thoughtfully at the loose rock above them for several minutes. As they considered their choice darkness continued to creep over the land.
Gideon spoke up, “Well boys, its now or never I guess. I reckon we should make one big run across here, so as the first one across don’t tip him off about the others. Should be our best bet. You fellers ready?”
“Sure,” Hobbins answered “If’n that breed is up thar, I’m bettin he’ll be looking down the trail. We go quick, he might not have much of a chance. Only problem is, we’ll have to streak down upon him like cracking lightening fore he quits the country with them horses.”
“Right you are Hobbs,” Gideon replied. “Keep them rifles ready. We hit the top o’ this and we’ll charge right down on him like Satan hiself. If we get lucky the surprise will catch him off guard and he’ll hesitate. We’ll only need a short minute to be on top of him. No mercy for a horse thief fellas. You ready Will?”
“Dern you Gideon!” Will’s temper had boiled over. “I guess I ain’t got no choice at the moment.” And with that he let out a war whoop and charged head long up the scree field. Not wanting to be left behind, the other two travelers shot up the scree field.
As they climbed the small rocks gave way beneath their feet and made progress difficult. Scrambling on all fours the men desperately climbed toward the top of the spine and the safety it offered. As they neared the top a shot erupted from the still evening air. At the same moment a rock exploded near Gideon’s midsection. Fragments shot in every direction, some small shards embedding themselves into his skin. A jolt ran through his body and his adrenaline overtook him. He clawed like a madman toward the top of the ridge.
Hobbins cleared the rocks first and swung his Hawkens to his shoulder looking for his target. “I can’t see him!” He cried. At that moment Gideon hit the crest of the ridge and without a hesitation took off sprinting toward the pass. He swung his rifle off his back and into his hands without missing a beat. Longs strides carried him swiftly over the remaining ground between him and his attacker. He was running across open country now toward the lightly timbered pass ahead. If he could close the distance fast enough, he could be upon him before he had a chance to reload.
Gideon ran for all he was worth, his eyes focused intently on the pass now less than one hundred yards away. Through the dusky light he saw unclear movement up ahead. Although he could not discern the figure, he knew without a doubt he had found the thief.
The shadow darted through the trees away from him. Gideon pushed hard, his strong legs chewing up the ground in front of him. His buckskin fringes whipped haphazardly in the whistling air around him. Reaching the edge of the trees he could barely make out a shape less than twenty paces in front of him. The figure was astride a horse and was wheeling it quickly for his getaway. With too little light for shooting, Gideon tossed his rifled aside and careened headlong for the rider. Closing in he sprang up and buried his shoulder in the man’s midsection. The horses reared and whinnied in alarm, but Gideon would not let go. In the ensuing tussle he managed to drag his enemy off the horse to the ground.
Crashing hard into the pine needles, the pair tossed about on the forest floor. Gideon’s strength allowed him to roll atop the struggling man. He began to rain devastating blows down upon his foe. The sick thud of his fists against the man’s face drove Gideon to a greater level of fervor. His normally clear vision had clouded in red, and revenge was being extracted one punch at a time. Each punch found his mark and his fists moved like stinging wasps, stabbing in and out in quick succession. Anger had overtaken him and rage fueled his thoughts. This man had left you for dead. The thought broke into his mind. Gideon raised a bleeding right hand high above his head toward the dark sky and prepared to smash it down upon his enemy. Suddenly, he was jerked backwards off of the limp figure beneath him.
“Stop Gideon!” Hobbin’s voice called out through the cloud of rage in his head. “Stop it Gideon! The man is near dead. You whooped him a good one child. I can make out the horses up ahead. Looks like we got em back. Every one of em.”
Gideon’s adrenaline rush subsided as he sat on the pine needles staring fiercely at the bloody pulp of a man on the ground. His lungs breathed deep breaths as he tried to calm enough to think. Gideon looked into the bright eyes of Hobbins Traffegan. Traffegan smiled as said“Relax a bit you old coon. This cussed horsethief ain’t going nowheres for a while.”
The next day found the travelers camped at the top of the pass tending to the broken man. It was the way of the mountains. Even though enemies, they would not leave a man in his condition wasting away. Several minutes after regaining consciousness James realized his situation and turned his gaze down, buried in shame.
“If’n I was you, I don’t spose I could look at me neither” Will Stuffins chided the man. “Left us to die out thar is what you did. In these mountains a man’s as good as dead without horseflesh under him.”
They sat in silence around a crackling campfire waiting for the coffee to boil and listening to Jame’s pitiful groans. “Water” James croaked hoarsely after nearly an hour. “Please. I know I don’t deserve any, but I’m mighty thirsty.”
Gideon lifted himself from his seat and fetched his bladder. The water up this high trickled slowly from its source, but was cold and clear and tasted a like something you would have to pay for back in the states. He ambled over to the dreadful looking man. As he approached he noticed the man’s eyes were near swollen shut, and his nose had a wicked bend in it. A drizzle of dried blood clung to the corners of his mouth. Gideon squatted down and handed him the water.
“Your head hurtn bad son?”
“Sure. Feels like its gonna crack right down the middle.”
“Good” Gideon replied curtly. Staring intensely at the man he continued “You ever go stealin my stock again, and that Hawkins rifle will really make your skull feel broke.” With that he turned his back and returned to his seat by the campfire. The coffee was just finishing up and Hobbins handed him a cup with a thick freckled hand. “What’s your plans now Gideon?” he asked.
“I reckon I’ll head south till I hit the Yellowstone. Then probably swing west till I can find some good beaver.”
“What do you reckon we do with him?” Hobbins asked, gesturing toward the low moaning heap of blankets.
“Tomorrow I’m pullin out” Gideon said without hesitation. “That man will be just fine by mornin. I figure with any luck he’ll be able to walk east out of here and catch a keelboat back to the settlements. I don’t reckon he’ll last long in these mountains.”
Time passed and as night approached they bound their captive, not wanting to offer a foolhardy chance at an escape. The next morning the sun rose slowly over the eastern horizon, casting warm rays into the cold thin air. After a quick breakfast and a bit of coffee, the men each gathered their respective stock and got their outfits ready. Within the hour they each sat astride their mounts and turned to face Nighthand. The poor man had managed to pull himself into a fairly upright position, knowing his aide was about to head out.
“James,” Gideon spoke sharply “Ifn I was you, I’d head straight east into the rising sun and pray to whatever god you wish that you’ll meet a keelboat on the Missoura fore you meet a party of bloodthirsty bug boys. You had no account for leaving us high and dry like you did. Afore you leave yore gonna do one more thing for us.” Gideon’s stone blue eyes stared straight into the man as he leaned forward in his saddle. “Take off yore mocsins and bring em over to me.”
Stiffly, James obeyed the command and hobbled over with his moccasins in hand. He scowled as he handed them up to Gideon. “What’s this all about? Ain’t you got yer revenge yet?”
“Not quite yet” Gideon smirked. “Boy, John Colter outrun a village of blackfeet warriors fer three hundred miles with nothing but the clothes God give him. I spose you can manage without this here pair of mocs.” Then Gideon glared at the man and said “I spose it goes without sayin what’ll happen ifn we catch you back in these mountains. You’d do best to stay back in the settlements. After word gets out about your stealin hide, won’t nobody have a friendly campfire for you.” With that Gideon spun his horse and trotted south.
Hobbins and Will soon caught up with him. “Chase, what do you figure on stealing the man’s shoes fer? We jist spent a day patchin the man back together, then you go and steal his only shoes” Will declared.
“Well, I figure that young man will make the settlements and have quite a tale to tell. I also figure he’ll fall into a crowd you’d expect a horse thief to run with. Maybe after a long walk through prickly pear country he’ll advise those fellers to stay east of the Missouri and steal their horses.”
The three men’s hearty laughter echoed back to James just as he cut his foot open on a sharp rock. It was going to be a long way to St. Louis.
For another short story of a mountain man, check out The Battle for Bear Valley.