A stiff breeze coursed across the plains. Slate gray clouds overhead stretched from horizon to horizon, blocking any of the sun’s warming rays. As a result dull light cast itself over the tall grass prairie. For miles in all directions rolling hills undulated under the pressure of the passing wind, the whipping grasses conveying a sense of life unleashed. Meadowlarks traveled effortlessly on the brisk yet powerful wind, at times nearly out of control riding the rushing air currents. Hobbled horses on the edge of a small encampment nervously pricked their ears and alertly scanned the grassland. Like many animals, wind made the horses nervous. A big rawboned bay whinnied from the edge of the herd, manifesting the nervousness each of the thin horses felt. Though worsening weather was moving in, the group of men encamped on the open prairie had their attention fixed on other matters.
A small circle of buckskin clad men had gathered near the center of a temporary camp. Their fringed hunting shirts dancing carelessly in the breeze along with their unkempt hair. From beneath battered hats, weathered faces peered at the situation unfolding before them. Two men stood facing one another, each posturing with squared shoulders showing their resolve and defiance toward the other. Although the younger man was new to this wild land, a fire had built within him due to the strict orders of the man with gray streaked hair across from him. On the other hand the older man’s contempt for the greenhorn was obvious as it had been since the start of this journey. The space between the two men was filled with a palpable tension, their eyes stared hard into the other’s. Young and fiery eyes met the stare of old tempered eyes without flinching.
“Jist settle down thar Johnson and don’t get yer bristles up,” the cold silence was interrupted by one of the bystanders. “Booshways got the lead out here.”
“Well I don’t spose I’ll take no more orders from this man, booshway or not,” was the obstinate response from the young man.
“That’s good boy,” came the quick and forbidding response from the older man. His streaked hair tossing in the wind.“This prairie has a way of edjucatin tenderfoot like you anyhow.”
“We’ll jist see about that. I reckon I ken do jist fine. Been takin care of myself fer some time now. Don’t spose this prarie ken be much difernt from them Virginia mountains. A man with a rifle an a bit o sense ought to do a dern sight better than we’re doing now.”
“Then gather yor possibles and fetch up one o them cayuses. Put yer saddle on em an ride out. No sense dealin with a stubborn fool like you anyhow.” With that the old man had sealed the fate of the young hothead to exile in this barren land.
Unwilling to show the trepidation he was feeling, the young man named Hiram Johnson turned slowly away from the confrontation. His gaze stayed fixed on the steely eyes of his adversary until the last moment. He then turned his back on the booshway and split the onlooking crowd, taking deliberate strides toward his meager belongings. Within minutes he had secured everything in the world he called his; his possibles, a blanket, hunting knife, riding saddle, quirt, his powder horn, and a trusty Lancaster flintlock he called Abigail. Storming up to herd, he caught up the nearest available mount. It turned out to be a stubby legged white horse with a shaggy mane and wild look in its eye. As the upset man approached the small horse its eyes flared and it pulled back, its nervous nature fanned by the aura of the agitated man.
A few of Hiram’s former companions drifted near the edge of camp to watch his departure. The experienced men realized the dire straights young Hiram was heading toward. Mountain men rarely ventured out alone. Sure, maybe in two’s and three’s, but a man alone was sure enough a dead man. Too many Blackfeet in this part of the country especially. At times a full brigade of trappers could scarcely fend off their vicious attacks. Besides that, just the chores of survival would eat up nearly all the time of a solitary man. The complete lack of experience of the greenhorn would also certainly put him at a disadvantage. At least the booshway had offered him the use of a horse. It was the absolute least he could do to clear his conscience.
One of the things that drew young Hirman Johnson to these western lands was the freedom they offered. It was this urge for freedom that chafed when the booshway, Uriah Clermont, set to ordering him around. Sure he had signed up for service to the company, but he hadn’t enlisted in the army. Too many rules and orders to follow just didn’t suit him. Out here life was supposed to be free with each man standing solid on his own two feet. It wasn’t supposed to be about about menial labor. Hiram Johnson was a leader in his own mind, above simply tending the camp.
As he saddled his horse he recounted the list of wrongs Clermont had perpetrated against him thus far. Doing so only added fuel to the fire within and soon his wild temper had flared again. His inner thoughts became visible as his actions saddling the horse turned almost violent. With a sharp tug he tightened the cinch on the skittish horse, tacking out some of his frustration on the beast. Grabbing the saddle he tried to swing aboard his mount to take his glamorous exit. His haste and frustration though had been well-noticed by the naturally nervous horse. The gelding quickly sidestepped out from underneath the man as he attempted to climb aboard. This evasive maneuver only stoked the temper of the young hothead, in turn only raising the nervousness of the horse. Each time the man would try and mount, the horse would circle away and evade.
Well aware of the small crowd watching his now embarrassing departure, Hiram tried to collect himself in order to calm the horse. He spoke softly though roughly under his breath to the quivering white horse. “Settle down now you ol’ hoss.”
Like most folks of the day Hiram had grown up around horses and prided himself on being able to handle even the rankest horse out there. Now at its side he grabbed the bridle near the horse’s mouth and yanked it hard towards him. In doing so the horse could now only spin in tight circles, unable to evade the haughty man. As Hirman mounted he held tight to the bridle of the tightly spinning horse and swung into the saddle. Once mounted he released the bridle and sat tight as the horse made a short dash until it realized the now changed situation.
Hiram Johnson sat astride the nervous horse and gazed out into the dull prairie surrounding him. Nothin but grass, he thought to himself somewhat worried. He now wished he had not let his anger overtake him the past few days. Old Uriah Clermont may have been a lousy booshway, but he sure did know his way around these parts. Hiram somewhat remembered vague directions to a nearby army fort, but his dislike for Clermont had caused him to tune him out the past week or so. Not only that, but with no landmarks to follow he’d be hardpressed to find his way. These thoughts fell hard upon the young man’s psyche as he prepared to ride out.
It was at that moment his pride and anger overrode any sense of fear or humility he was feeling. Fools, he thought to himself. I ain’t no dern tenderfoot like they think. I’ll be fine on my own.
With that he turned to look over his shoulder at the small encampment one last time. A few of the men still watched on silently as Hiram took his leave, but most had gone back to their general business. Scanning the camp he saw no men he would genuinely miss. These men had never truly understood him and never let him become the leader he was meant to be. It was better this way, he imagined to himself. He gave the pony a quick kick in the ribs and turned his eyes to face his uncertain future.
“Arghhhhh!” Hiram’s temper finally erupted. He had been out from camp for three days now and was quite certain his bones would be bleached by the prairie sun. Since leaving he had failed to find any available water or game. Wind had blown incessantly since his departure, nearing gale force at the present time. Not only that but each time he would crest one of the rolling hills it only seemed to open up into country more empty and vast than from where he came. Although he wasn’t certain, he couldn’t shrug off the inkling he had actually already crossed the country he was currently in. “What kind of foresaken country is this anyhow!” he shouted to the sky, he words quickly snatched by the wind. “No food! No water! No timber!” His tirade was only fueling his anger. “An enough of the dern WIND!”
“Hmph,” he sulked to himself. How had things gone so wrong, he wondered. Hiram Johnson was a master woodsman. Hiram Johnson wasn’t a tenderfoot. Hiram Johnson could get himself out of any jam. Except it seemed at this point, the more he tried to find a way out of the jam, the more he had managed to dig his way deeper into one.
He smacked his cracked lips and peeled his dry tongue from the roof of his mouth. Having not tasted water since his departure it was fast becoming obvious this was his number one priority. In the mountains of Virginia a man was never more than a few hours walk from a stream of some sort. This desolate country surely was awful dry. Dry enough to kill a man, the cold reality sat front and center in his mind. The failing pony beneath him suffered from the same affliction. Unless they were able to quench their thirst soon the duo would not last much longer.
Pushing onward, Hiram heeled the pony in the ribs once again. The exhausted white horse slowly ambled forward struggling to stay upright on tired legs. Hiram’s momentary anger had subsided and now a sense of self-pity mixed with fear filled the void. As he sat aboard the horse, falling into the slow rhythm of its walk, he contemplated his situation. He had never been in country like this before. Hills of grass turned into only more hills of grass. Rains seldom fell from the sky. Game at times seemed plentiful, but where had it disappeared to?
He also wondered about Indians he might encounter. While sitting around the fire with his old brigade he had heard stories of how friendly and welcoming many of the tribes were. Winter months in the mountains were often passed in their lodges smoking, eating, and forming friendships. There were also tales of the hostile tribes. The Arikara, the Blackfeet, and the underhanded Crow all had a reputation with the mountain men as to be carefully watched. If he were to survive he would surely stumble upon one nation soon or later. The fear became visceral as he imagined a warrior with streaming black braids swooping down upon his with a lance. He heard stories it was a warrior’s lance like that which killed poor Jedidiah Smith. If Smith could die…realization smacked him dead in the face.
He was in over his head and he knew it. If only his anger hadn’t overtaken him. If only he had simply did his job like the booshway had requested, then he wouldn’t be in a pinch like this. Like a young boy yearning for his mother, Hiram Johnson ached for his green hills of Virginia. He longed for the sweet creek behind the house and the damp shade of an old oak. It was a sadness that filled his chest. If there had been a hole, young Hiram would have surely crawled into it.
The white horse began to ascend a steep hill ahead of them. Each step was deliberate, and the strength required seemed to be consciously summoned each time. Higher and higher they rose to the promontory point ahead. Together the duo hoped the crest would reveal something other than the emptiness they had grown so accustomed to.
Anticipation built as the marched onward and upward. Please let there be something. Anything! Hiram wished earnestly to himself. Topping the rise at first he saw only a rising cloud to the north billowing high into the heavens. Slowly though he noticed the endless hills had broken and a large flat plain opened up below. Small groups of cottonwoods dotted the landscape, their supple limbs bending deftly in the wind.
His confidence was slightly bolstered by the change in scenery. At least he hadn’t been riding in circles. Still, his parched lips quickly reminded him of the dire straights he faced. Although the trees should signal water, he failed to spot any from his perch. Then, off in the distance to the west, something caught the attention of his horse. The weary white horse perked up and with wild eyes stared intently in that direction. Hiram followed its stare, finding movement near the horizon line several miles distant. He strained forward in the saddle to gain a better look, his hand shielding what light there was. All of the sudden a burst of air blasted him from behind nearly ripping his blanket off the saddle. Hiram paid it no mind and kept his focus intently on the distant movement.
Through squinted eyes Hiram slowly watched the far off activity with anticipation. It appeared to be a small group of people encamped near the edge of a creek. “Water,” the words actually slipped from his mouth. His hope for survival was buoyed by the dual prospect of water and a fellow human. Who are those people? He wondered. Studying the scene from afar he watched, trying to determine whether the group was friend or foe. They lacked the teepees of the plains tribes he reasoned. Must be white men. The group numbers about 40 men by the looks of things. About the size of my old brigade. This though sunk into his mind. Soon the reality of the situation dawned on him. The brigade camped near the first water he had seen in three days was the same brigade that had sent him to exile.
Embarrassment initially filled up in Hiram’s body. He quickly dispatched it and reminded himself this barren prairie was not his element. If he was to die, it would not be at the hands of foolish pride. He nudged his pony in the protruding ribs and the pair ambled toward the camp. So many thoughts coursed through Hiram’s mind it was hard to make sense of it all. What would he say? Would they allow him back? Should he just turn around and prove his mettle? No, he reasoned, it was that kind of thinking that dern near got him killed in the first place. Speaking of killed, he wondered, what’ll old Clermont think o all this? He held the course toward camp not knowing the reception he would receive.
As he closed the distance to just a few hundred yards a few men in the camp noticed the approaching horseman. One man in a red flannel shirt and buckskin trousers walked toward the edge of camp and peered in his direction while leaning on his rifle. The man turned his head over his shoulder toward camp and shouted something indiscernible through the incessant wind. It was at that point most of the eyes in camp stopped whatever they were doing and stared in young Johnson’s direction. All seemed almost frozen for a second. A few blankets flapped in the breeze, blue pipe smoke rose above the several individuals, while others sat holding fresh buffalo ribs. Through the cluttered camp Hiram could see one man in particular striding toward the sentry who sent the cry through camp. It was a sturdy man with gray streaked hair falling from beneath the battered wide brimmed hat. Uriah Clermont was coming to greet him.
At this point the exhausted rider and his dog-tired horse had to simply ride out the next few minutes to see what their fortunes held. A lump was building in young Hiram’s throat as he rode up. As he approached camp no friendly greetings met him, no good natured jeering, only silence. Cold, hard, silence.
He went to speak, but the drought in his throat made speech difficult and only a coarse and cracked “Howdy,” could he whisper.
His greeting was met with only the stern stare of Uriah Clermont’s steeled eyes. The awkward moment did not sit well with the young exile. Not knowing what to do next Hiram tried to clear his throat to speak. The dryness in his throat seized him and nearly gagged him. It forced him to begin coughing somewhat uncontrollably for a brief period. Once the coughing fit was over he looked up and noticed the booshway had remained unchanged, his probing eyes examining the parched rider. Their eyes met as they had several days ago, only this time the tempered eyes of the old man met the eyes of a beaten and humiliated man. He could tell the fight had run out of that pup. Unlike several days before, this time Hiram broke his gaze and looked toward the ground in obvious deference to the weathered booshway.
“Whell pilgrim,” came the curt reply from Uriah “I reckon you done decide you’d jist walk on back in this har outfit. Come crawling back n we’d jist kinda welcom ya back all cozy like. You thought thatd shine in this crowd didja?” The old booshway’s eyes sparked amusement, as if the irony of the situation hadn’t already dawned on the young man.
“No sir,” came the hoarse reply. “I bin days with nigh a solitary drink sir. Though, if you’d allow me to drink from that ther stream yonder I’d surely be in yer debt. Ma horse been needin a drink az well. Plumb tuckered out he is.”
“Corse you ain’t had a drink flatlander,” the rebuttal was nearly out of Uriah’s mouth before Hiram had quit talking. He wasn’t scolding the young man, but there was a certain deadly seriousness in his tone. “This land ain’t got no water. Only a fool’d ride out away from hit. An yer jist dern lucky yer hare ain’t hangin from some warriors lance. Them Blackfoot bin ridin all oer this prairie.”
With nothing to say the defeated young man only continued to stare toward the ground. Like a pup that had just taken a lashing, Hiram wanted no more. Uriah hadn’t yet made up his mind on the young man. Without a doubt the fire had been taken out of him, that was obvious. What he couldn’t deal with was the aura of superiority the young man had beamed with only a few days before. No place in camp for a tenderfoot who wouldn’t keep the camp.
“Go git yersef and that cayuse a drink boy,” Uriah spoke as more of an order than an offering. “You let that horse drink till its content an you’ll kill it. Let em drink, but jist a bit fer now.”
“Thank ya sir,” Hiram replied as he once again returned the eye contact. Relief soon followed as at least he’d get some water. Hiram dismounted and walked his mount skirting camp. His sore legs barely carried him to the cool current. As he knelt down to drink in the waterlogged creekside his horse pressed in, nearly stepping on Hiram in his haste. Both man a beast drank the water down. Just a little at first, but as the moisture returned to their throats it was like a dam had burst and the water flowed in big gulps. “Ahhhhhhh,” Hiram’s satisfaction could not be contained as he pulled his dripping face from the water. It was as if life itself had been injected into his veins. Next to him the horse was noisily sucking down huge gulps of water. The pair stayed at the creek for several minutes alternately drinking their fill and giving their bodies time to accept the new nourishment.
“Hiram!” The shout came from camp. “Grab yer hoss and git har.”
Hiram turned to see Uriah standing near the edge of camp looking his direction. Somewhat refreshed, but still much humbled, Hiram obeyed the simple command. As the space closed he had a feeling Uriah had made up his mind. Just what that decision was however, was still a mystery.
“Well, I spect the prairie done taught you a thing er two pilgrim. I haint bout to let no surly pork eater come waltzin back ta this brigade. These har mountain jist ain’t real forgivin fer that type a conduct.”
Hiram’s heart sunk. He had hoped for some small token of compassion from this man. His thoughts turned toward the barren prairie, to the fresh memory of a parched throat, and to the threat of Blackfeet lurking about. He’d have to turn back he reasoned. No chance he’d make it going forward alone. With a great deal of luck he might be able to follow the water back to St. Louis. That surely was a long ways off though, and given this recent foray he didn’t like his chances.
“Thar’s jist one more thing boy.” Uriah took a few steps closer. Now he was standing face to face with the young man, gray eyes fixed onto his. What was it about his eyes that never seemed to lose intensity, Hiram wondered. “I’m needin some pots cleaned fore we break this har camp. After that, one of ma hunters is on the mend so we’s had to send the camp keepr out as well. Ifn you spose you kin muster up some vittles next time we pitch camp we might jist find room for a greenhorn like you.”
Hiram’s eyes widened slightly in shock at the turn of events. “Yes sir,” Hiram spoke up quickly. “I’d be happy to tend yer camp.”
“That’s good,” Uriah replied turning back toward camp. “Git it cleaned up an we kin break camp. Blackfoot’ll be in to steal them horses we stay har much longer. Bin a good camp though. Miller, what’d you say this here creek’s name is?”
Miller, the man in the red flannel shirt that had accompanied Uriah earlier looked surprised. “Well Uriah I don’t spose this hare crick has a name.”
“Does now.” Uriah spouted. “Lost Greenhorn Creek. Yep, I spose that name will suit it jist fine.” His eyes turned back toward Hiram once more time as if judging him for a response. If he looked closely, Hiram thought he could make out just a twinkle of humor in those hard eyes.
Hopefully you found this short story entertaining. While researching during the writing I came to realize there actually is a known account of the events that led to this painting. If you enjoyed it anyhow, you may enjoy another mountain man short story I put together titled The Battle for Bear Valley.