Wade Carson brought his horse to a halt. Before him lay the open desert, shimmering heat waves blurring out the horizon. His canteen was half full, while the two canvas bags lay flat, and empty tied to the saddle horn. The last two water holes were dry, or he would have had enough water to cross the desert.
His home lay several miles beyond the other side of the sand covered expanse. Five years had passed since he left to go fight the war. The war that divided the nation and also his home. Wade had fought for the South, not for slavery or rights, but because of family ties. His father was the second son of a land baron. He owned a vast herd of long horn cattle and several slaves that ran his house hold. The rest of his holdings, were handled by vaquero=s tending the herd.
The war was over and with it went the vast holdings of the Carson family in Texas. The wealth had gone in support of the South’s fight against the North. It was gone long before the war ended.
The uncle now destitute was bringing up the last traces of his once prosperous empire. Five wagons carried supplies for the new home they were headed for. The men that stayed with him, now handled the teams pulling the wagons, which also carried their families. They were fewer in number, many never returning from the war. Some carried battle scars and memories of lost friends, who fell in the conflict.
Now the Carson’s were starting over. They left the ruins of their once rich plantation and were heading for the new home, staked out by Wades father. John Carson had gone ahead, using money Wade sent home to buy and claim the governments acres for homesteading. The dream was to build another empire, even bigger than the one lost in Texas.
So far the journey had been plagued by marauding Indians, and outlaw gangs of men still fighting a lost cause. Only two of their number had fallen to the arrows and rifles of the bad men. The widows stayed with the wagons, as this was their only hope and would be taken care of by the group and even remarrying.
Wade’s letters home, informed his father of his plans and of the people coming with him. He hoped the letters had reached his father, and some lodging was being prepared. If not, they would provide for themselves, and build their own dwellings. They had strong hopes and dreams, and would fight hard to see them through.
A lesser known water hole to the east, was their last hope. If that was dry, then they would need to dig. Dig a well deep enough to reach the natural water table. That would take time and Time was not on their side. The live stock needed water and couldn=t wait while they dug for water. It was the first time Wade felt that he might fail these people.
Breaking the news of the route change, Chico Vargas nodded with understanding. He=d grew up with periods of drought and knew the consequences of crossing dry lands. Today they still had all the live stock, which was essential for Their plans. The few cattle they lost were made up by the stragglers left by other settlers as they too made journeys to the famed Oregon Country. The herd was made up of a mix of breeds but primarily Long Horns.
The rout change was welcomed. With such a shortage in the water barrels, crossing the sage covered desert would be a disaster. Some cattle would make it, but Wade wasn’t willing to lose the weakest or oldest. He wanted to arrive with all they left Texas with.
The hills and deep ravines were obstacle=s that toil and labor overcame. Wade led the wagons down through the steep terrain, with the rear wheels locked in place to slow the descent. Men walking along side, were ready to throw stopping blocks in front of the wheels. To everyone=s relief the descent was controlled and all rolled into camp with no mishaps. It had been a very trying day.
Once the horses and oxen had cooled down, the children led them to the half dried pool of water that was known as Salvation springs. A watering hole, never known to go dry, and had saved many a man from dying of thirst. Today it was again providing drink to a thirsty train of travelers and live stock. It took the rest of the day for the herd to water, but there was plenty of water in the half acre pool.
The evening hours were filled with cooking smells and drifting camp fire smoke. Wade sat with Chico eating the evening meal. Tonight=s supper was biscuits and beans. Coffee washed it down, with a shot of whiskey to sweeten the drink. Most meals were tortillas wrapped around whatever animal crossed their path. Wade never question the meals, just eating what was set before him.
Chico=s eldest daughter, Carlota came to collect the tin plates. She was a beauty, long black hair, brushed and tied up in a fashionable way that so many of the young women were wearing. She turned heads whenever she walked through camp. She had the same figure as her mother, but without the middle girth that came from birthing babies. Noreen Vargas kept a scolding eye on her daughter. Always getting after Carlota for flirting with the men. A close look would reveal that mostly she saved her flirting for just one man, and that was Wade.
Walking away with the used dinner plates, Carlota gave Wade a warm smile before starting a slight swaying of hips as she carried the dinner ware to the wash bucket.
Chico nudged Wade with his elbow. AThat one has her eye on you.@ Chico noted. AOf all my daughters, she is the most stubborn. Won=t quit until she gets her way.@ It was a friendly warning that Carlota staking a claim on Wade.
AYour family is safe with me. I don=t have a place for a woman in my life.@ Wade wiped his greasy fingers on his vest, before rising to make the evening rounds of the camp. AI=ll throw my bed roll down by the cook fire, tonight.@ He was thinking to keep some distance from Chico’s wagon.
AIt will be warm, and the sky has no clouds. You should be comfortable, at least for the night.@ Chico chuckled softly to himself. He knew it was just a matter of time before Carlota cast her net and drew him in.
Wade strolled past several wagons before meeting his Uncle. William was sitting on an empty water barrel tipped on its side looking over a map. A young lady stood by holding a lamp high to give him light. Will looked up at Wade=s approach.
ABy this map, the only other water is thirty miles to the south. Course on the other side of this stretch of sage brush, there is the river.@
AYes, and we will be getting there by tomorrow night.@ He Checked to see if William was pointing to the right spot on the map. AA day or two to rest, and we start building winter quarters.@
ASome of us are too excited to wait.@ William grinned. AMight start before we get there?@
AWell, Dads got the valley surveyed and plotted on the map. All that=s left is to get there and start building.@
AGot a long day ahead of us tomorrow. I think I shall say good night.@ Wade said, taking a look at the night sky above them. ANo rain tonight, hopefully.@
AI=m sleeping under my wagon tonight, plenty of room for you too.@
AWarmer by the fire.@
AWell, you=ll be one of the first up in the morning.@ William pointed out. AThe women like to start breakfast at the crack of dawn.@
AThen I guess, I=d better turn in.@ Wade tossed his bed roll down, and sat on it, while taking off his boots and socks. ASee you in the morning.@
Wade hardly turned over during the night, the day had been long and tiring. He slept deep, throughout the night, only stirring in the early morning when someone kicked his feet. Coming awake, he saw Carlota looking down at him.
AYour in the way.@ She said with her heavy Mexican accent. ATime to get up.@
For a woman that supposedly had a thing for him, Wade thought she was a bit abrupt. No gentle nudge to wake him, just a sharp kick at his feet. She held a cast iron covered pot, normally used to bake biscuits. The way she held it looked menacing. Wade rolled out of his blankets and sat back, while she set the pot on some coals. Her sister was feeding small sticks to the fire on the other side from him. The coffee pot would soon be hanging just above the flames.
The sky was light in the east, but here in the camp it was still dark. A lantern was lit, giving the women enough light to work by. While Wade pulled on his boots and got ready to meet the day, Carlota asked him if he was sure they would reach the Flat Iron today. He nodded that they would and stood up stomping his feet to set the boots straight. The Flat Iron was the name of the ranch they were heading for.
AYes, It will be late in the day when we get there, but it will be today.@ he said, noticing her words didn=t have that honey tone she usually reserved for him. Perhaps it was because they were nearing the end of the journey and he=d done his best to ignore her. Once they were at the ranch, they probably wouldn=t be seeing much of each other, which would make life easier for him.
There had been occasions where Wade had entertained a woman, but those times were few and the women were not quite the church going type. Mostly the women came with hard drink and saloons. His time for settling down had come and gone. Carlota, as pretty as she was, couldn=t sway his made up mind.
AI want my own cabin.@ she stated flatly. AI=m not living in another woman=s house.@
AWith out a husband?@ Wade questioned. A lone woman didn=t rate a cabin to herself.
AI will take care of that. You make me my own cabin.@ She wasn=t asking, she was demanding.
The ranch came first. It had to be added onto, with plenty of housing for the new hands and their families. Settling down with a woman, would be too much of a change in Wade’s life. Two of his friends married, and were now confined to making a living. Working day to day, without anything insight except more work and worries about children and child birth. No that wasn=t for him. If Carlota was like one of those women he=d met in a dance hall, he would have tried taking her to bed. She wasn=t, and what she wanted was a husband. Wade just wasn=t ready for that.
Cutting his horse loose from the picket line, Wade threw his saddle on and made ready to ride out and check the route ahead. One of his concerns was the Paiute Indians. They had been hostile to some wagon trains, with loss of life on both sides. Lacking sufficient arms, the Indians were reluctant to come up against well armed settlers. Wades short line of wagons, were heavily armed and traveled with rifles prominently showing. Each man and sometimes women, Carried a rifle easily visible from a distance. It was hoped that seeing everyone was armed would deter an attack.
Being reluctant to attack the wagons, didn=t keep them from sneaking in at night and stealing live stock. Wade was looking for any sign that they were around. Once at the ranch, the Indians wouldn=t be a problem. They didn=t like going up against the fortifications settlers built into the cabins.
Most of the meadows and pine forest where the Indians gathered the staples that fed the tribes, had been ruined by the pioneers cattle. They grazed on the roots and grasses that provided the seeds which were pounded into a base for many of the foods they ate. The camas root a cattle favorite was also the Indian=s main staple. Once cattle grazed the meadows, the camas root was gone. It was a very sore topic between the tribes and the pioneers.
Wade couldn=t find any sign that the Indians were near. The absence of sign, relaxed him, and he was able to return to camp a little late for breakfast. Noreen Vargas had kept a plate for him, while everyone broke camp and hitched up the wagons. The mood was good, with everyone eager to get the day going.
Water barrels now filled, sloshed as the wagons rolled over the uneven ground. Once out on the flats, the wagons rolled smoothly toward the distant line of trees. The sun warmed the day, but a cool breeze coming out of the south west, was a hint of coming weather.
The wagons had swung more to the North east where the ranch lay back in the forests meadows. The sage brush covered open desert could feed a large number of cattle. All they needed was water. Since water was near in the stands of tall timber, the cattle didn=t range far, and could be counted on to return every evening to drink. Later they would fence the land, and in times to come, wire would be strung over the open desert. Of course those things would bring new problems with other ranchers wanting the open range free of the fences.
Finally reaching the source of the chimney smoke rising into the cloud gathering sky, John Carson was waiting to greet them all. He was a tall man, much like his son, beaming with a large grin as the wagons rolled to a stop. Shaking the hands of all the drivers, John pointed out the sections reserved for building their cabins. For the time being, the wagons would occupy the ground, and serve as living quarters as the cabins were constructed.
Live stock were herded into a large clearing with fencing constructed from tree to tree around the whole meadow. It was large enough for all the live stock to be corralled. Cattle, goats and even a few sheep grazed together for the time being. Later they would be moved to separate fields and meadows.
Hard work lay ahead, but for now it was a time for celebrating. A large bonfire was built in the middle of the surrounding wagons. Lanterns were hung and music was played by the different instruments brought out. Songs and laughter with a mixture of American and Mexican music filled the air. A couple jugs of whiskey made the rounds, and everyone was feeling good. Some tried dancing on the grass covered ground and didn=t care if they stumbled and fell.
Wade used the afternoon to soak in one of the ponds fed by the Sweet Water Creek. It had been a while since he=d washed his whole body at one sitting. He even had soap, made by his mother. After lathering up, he dunked his head and rinsed out of his hair. He would have done it again, but the cool breeze was now blowing harder and much colder. The storm that he figured to be coming was now here. The falling rain splashing the surface of the pond.
The party went on, under tarps and canvas spread over raised poles, forming large open tents. The bonfire continued burning, even with the rain soaking the coals around the edge. The dancing went on, and the whiskey was drunk. Wade chilled from the interrupted bath, drank some himself. Swigging down enough to give his belly a warm feeling.
Nola found her son sitting alone under one of the shelters. Taking a seat on the bench beside him, she looked him over, being obvious that she was doing so. Wade gave her a questioning look. AJust seeing if you were ready to settle down and give me some grand children.@
ANot for a while yet, Ma.@ he shook his head grinning. AI=ve got a few things I want to do first.@
AWhat are they?@ she asked softly.
AMostly to stay single.” He chuckled. “I just don=t think I=m cut out for married life.@
ANow you sound just like your father. He was like that when we met. Course he changed his mind, and he=s been a good husband.@ Nola looked around, making sure no one was within ear shot, before continuing in a much lower voice. AYou know that girl has set her heart on you.@ She paused, looking for any reaction to her words. AThere=s nothing better on the horizon, so if you’re looking for someone else. That ship sailed when we started out here.@
AI know, Ma. I=m just not ready to share a cabin with any woman.@
AShe won=t wait forever, Wade. Most of the men here are single. The women coming are married. Young girls like Carlota are few and far between. Unless of course you thinking of taking on a squaw.@
ANo, that=s not in the works.@ Then taking his mother into his confidence, he added. AI plan on doing some gold prospecting. That might take a while.@
Shaking her head, Nola sadly spoke about all the friends they had that lit out for the gold fields in California. None had struck it rich, and some they never heard from again. She pointed out that all the good claims were taken by the time the late comers got there. Wade just smiled and told her he wasn=t joining any gold rush. He had a spot that some traces of gold had been found, but not enough for anyone to stake a claim. He and a friend were going to try their luck, and see if they couldn=t get enough to buy up more land. He didn=t have expectations of striking it rich.
Seeing her son, was set on prospecting, Nola didn=t bring up the subject of Carlota again. It was enough that Wade knew she approved of Carlota, whatever happened next was up to Wade. She just hoped he would wake up before it was too late.
The down pour of rain went on through the night, the next morning it still was coming down in a drizzle. The open fires were all rained out. Only the small cook fires under the large shelters, provided any warmth. Building the cabins was put off until better weather. Too many accidents with swinging axe’s happened on rain slicked logs. Instead, the men under the shelter of tarps strung in the trees, worked some of the pine, into rough tables and chairs. Later they would smooth the rough spots out, but for now they just concentrated on making enough for everyone to have a place at a long table, made by pushing several of them together.
Until they all had their own cabin, the meals would be group affairs. Carlota miffed that Wade had ignored her attempts to interest him, made sure he could see her, ignoring him. She managed to talk to everyone around, but her eyes passed over without seeing him. He found it amusing, but there was a little tinge of regret. It all gave him the feeling that he should be off doing more important things.
With the passing of the storm, work on the cabins resumed. These first cabin walls were logs, later they would build with lumber once a mill was set up. The lumber would also be used to build corrals and better fencing where needed.
In a matter of weeks, enough tree=s were felled, and the cabins built. John Carson=s place was surrounded by a small town. Two of the seven new cabins were empty, set aside for men like Wade, as bachelor quarters.
Snow began falling before the last cabins were finished. The work shaping the pine logs into tables and chairs, moved into a empty cabin. The canvas shelters soon came down from the snow piling up on it. Most of the tent shelters were taken down, but a couple ended up buried under snow.
Meals were taken in individual cabins, with only family and a few friends at each table. Carlota was disappointed to discover Wade was not at her families table. Looking around the cabins Wade wasn=t anywhere to be found. Not wanting to be obvious that she was looking for him, she noticed that his horse was gone from the corral. By listening to the conversations of the elders, she learned that he was off hunting. They had plenty of salt, sugar and flour, but meat was lacking in the larder. They didn=t have enough Cattle or goats to spare, so it was hunt or go hungry.
Carlos Vargas slowly nudged Wade=s shoulder, to get his attention. The two men were on a windswept ridge, waiting for a deer or other suitable creature to step out in the open. Wade slowly turned his head to see what Carlos was nudging him for. A large elk was slowly moving out of the timber. They watched as it sniffed the air for the slightest whiff of a predator, including the two hunters.
They continued to wait for the Elk to move closer, as limbs and brush were hindering a shot. The wind was in their favor, so the elk didn’t smell them. Maybe if it continued across the ridge and down the slope, the swirl of ground air might carry their scent. The two hunters continued to wait for the better shot.
It was a large four point bull. One of the largest Wade had seen this side of the cascades. It was enough to feed the entire camp for a month if used right.
Wade wanted to take the shot, but Carlos was better positioned. Besides it was he who first spotted the animal. Wade nodded and Carlos took aim. Squeezing the trigger slowly, he was jolted when the hammer came down and sent the bullet flying. The shot clouded the frigid air, obscuring their vision. When the air cleared, they were surprised to see the Elk laying dead. The hunters celebrated the kill, with laughter and grins. The pressure was off now, and they could enjoy the rest of the hunt with ease.
The men dressed the animal out, leaving a large gut pile, but took the liver and heart. Wade went down and brought up the horse. They only brought the one horse, as two often made noise during a long wait. They didn’t want to take a chance of scaring the game off. Today they would use the horse to drag the carcass home. The snow was deep enough that dragging wouldn=t hurt the meat nor fill the cavity with dirt or debris.
They both were talking about how great the elk steak would taste tonight, along with gravy over potatoes. Carlos saying about how he was going to cut a steak so thick it, he would have to open his mouth twice to get piece in his mouth. Reaching for his knife to demonstrate his technique, he realized his knife was missing. He=d left it back where they had gutted the elk.
AI have to go back.@ He shook his head feeling very stupid for leaving the knife. It was too important, and had to be retrieved. AI don=t know where I left it, but maybe next to the gut pile.@
ANo I saw you stick it in the tree.@ Wade remembered. AI=ll go get it, You take the Elk on into Camp and have a steak cooking for me when I get there.@
AYou sure? I feel awful stupid for leaving it. I should be the one to go, not you.@ Carlos wasn=t very proud of himself at the moment.
AI know where it is, Won=t take long and I=ll probably catch up before you get home.@ Wade made it final and turned to back track their trail. AAnd put on a pot of real coffee. If it gets too dark I can follow the aroma home.@ he said with a laugh.
Nodding his head, that he would do just that, Carlos chuckled at the idea of him tracking home on the smell of brewing coffee. They both took pride in their ability to sniff out game. Especially bucks during the rut. They could even smell Indians, and he supposed they could smell him too. He would hurry with the fresh kill and get at least one steak cooking for his friend.
Rather than keep going along their tracks, Wade moved up on the ridge and followed it back to the gut pile. It was easier walking the ridge, where the wind blew most of the snow off. Only a frozen crust remained in the open areas. Now snow was falling straight down and the air was still. The ground soon had a couple inches, making footsteps soundless in the soft snow.
Suddenly he was there. Stepping around the last large tree he came to the knife stuck at shoulder height. He suddenly came face to face with a large black bear eating the gut pile. Wade had been so unconcern about danger, he hurried to bring the rifle up to aim.
The bear hardly saw him before it was charging. It was hungry and was defending the gut pile. It crossed the space between them so fast, Wade fired into the beast without aiming. Then the rifle was knocked out of his hands. Both Wade and the bear tumbled in the snow, with Wade rolling backwards. The Bear went for his neck but got his shoulder. His right arm now filled with pain as Wade felt the bones crunch in the bears jaws. Pulling his own knife with his left hand, Wade rolled as the bear slapped his head. Jabbing wildly he felt the knife hit hard bone. He kept striking again and again. Trying to find a vital spot that would end the struggle, before the beast killed him with another swipe of his large paw.
The bear roared, raised up, slapping Wade and sending him sliding down the snow covered slope. He still clutched the long bladed knife, when he came to rest on his knees. The bear was growling and coughing, coming to look down at where Wade was able to get to his knees, ready the next phase of the fight. He didn=t have long to wait, the bear lumbered down the short distance between them, ready to put an end to Wade. He noticed the bear moved like it was hurt. It still came at him, so it wasn=t over yet.
Wade tried to move his right arm, but only pain was the result. He would have to make his last fight left handed. The bear slipped and fell forward, sliding in the snow right to Wade=s knees. Soon as the animal was close enough, Wade flipped the knife and stabbed downward several times behind the head. It thrashed around, knocking Wade over backwards again. This time, Wade slid up against a trunk of a large tree further down the slope. He saw the animal, fall rolling over on its back, and come to a stop against a snow covered brush. It lay still with steam vapors from wounds rising in the air. The slope was covered with blood soaked snow, both Wades and the bears.
Rising to his feet, Wade moved back on top the ridge, looking for his rifle. He found it only a few feet from where most of the struggle occurred. Enduring the pains, he checked the rifle over and slowly reloaded it. He was able to fumble a cartridge out of the remains of his ripped up coat, and pushed it in the chamber.
Slowly Wade walked over to the tree where Carlos= knife was stuck in the bark. He leaned the rife against the trunk and reached up with his left hand to pull the blade free. He could feel blood dripping from his head wounds, and sat down in the snow. With a hand full of balled snow, he pressed it against his head. Trying to slow the flow if nothing else.
Looking around at the blood spattered snow, he wondered how much longer he was going to be alive. He wondered if he should try to rise and head in the direction of home, or wait where he was. Someone would come looking for him, Perhaps it was better to stay here. That way they would be sure to find him, and not have to search through snow drifts for his body.
Leaning back against the tree, Wade reached as best he could for the bandana in his pocket. He sometimes covered his face with it as protection from the wind. Now he used it to cover his wounded shoulder. He couldn=t tell if he=d placed it right, but was exhausted and let his arm fall to his lap. He was cold. The light was leaving the sky and he wondered if it was just the sun going down, or was he finally Dying.
Carlos was greeted by a very happy crowd. The elk was raised off the ground and many hands went to skinning the animal and finishing the job of processing the meat. He told them to cut a very special steak out of Wade, and have it ready for when he rode in.
After turning his horse over to the younger boys to take care of, Carlos went into his cabin to get warm. Standing by the fire place, he basked in the heat. The bone chilling cold was slow leaving the body. Noreen came in from skinning the elk to see if her husband needed anything. Seeing him standing before the fire, she quickly dipped a cup from the soup heating in the steaming kettle. Carlos took it in both hands and slowly sipped the hot broth through his cold lips.
AWade should be coming.@ he mentioned. Feeling exhausted, Carlos moved to the nearest chair. Once seated, he looked to his daughter, AHe=ll be cold too, might get out the bottle. A shot of whiskey helps warm up the inside too.@
AIs that what you want?@ Carlota smiled. AA shot of whiskey to warm you up.@
AIt would certainly help. But save it for Wade. We don=t have enough.@
AWe have enough.@ Noreen corrected her husband. ACarlota, pour a small glass for your father.@
The glass never did get poured. When Carlota reached for the bottle, Carlos was already slumped in the chair. A deep sleep closing out a very long day.
The minutes ticked by, then a hour with no sign of Wade. Carlota was aware of every second that passed. ASome thing=s wrong, @ She told her mother, while going for her winter wrap. AI=m going to find him.@
AIt=s dark, wait till morning when you can see the trail.@ Noreen told her.
ABy then, dad=s trail will be snowed in, and Wade frozen to death.@ She moved out the door, taking the lantern mother held out for her.
Riding her father’s horse, Carlota peered into the snow flurries hiding the trail left in the snow. Even now, the tracks were being covered, but there was still dents that the snow hadn=t smoothed over. She was able to back track her father even to the ridge. There the wind blew out the tracks and covered over all sign. Fear grasped her heart, thinking she might not find Wade in the swirling snow filled air. The cold was numbing her legs, finding ways to chill through her wrap.