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Bearpaw: An Old West Tale - 20. Chapter 20 No Guarantees

Chasing a dream.

No Guarantees

 

 

Jubal couldn’t remember feeling more lost, not knowing whether he be coming or going. He was also plumb wore out from thinking and trying to corral his thoughts. Dinah was walking slow back to the farm in the heat of the afternoon, and that be fine with him.

The creak of the wagon and the sway of the seat springs lulled his mind a mite, and that’s what he sorely needed. After he left Lucas and Reid, he’d done something stupid, and had a bunch more people—different ones than earlier, church folk in their clean Sunday-looking clothes—gathering round and asking him questions quick as gunfire about what took place out at the farm.

Apparently, the stories were running faster than them wildings what took off at a gallop, with the Sabbath being the best chance to learn all the gossip of the past week—and these folks wanted all the details.

He never should have stopped a second time at the mercantile for sugar and salt, and he wouldn’t have if he’d known what waited inside. He surely could have ignored his hankering for sweetened coffee, but he’d stuttered and stammered through some of what they wanted to hear, all while downplaying the danger of his role. He wanted to see these folks the same way Lucas did, and he tried. He truly did.

They’d already found out plenty, like him cauterizing Lucas’s wound front and back with the fire poker, and even about him swimming the crick underwater to get his gun. According to one young fella what appeared to like hearing his own voice, Jubal had supposedly tore apart the back of the cabin on the crick with his bare hands. And then he’d apparently come out through the door with guns blazing, shooting Ronnie Prescott dead in a hard-fought gun fight and taking a bullet for his trouble. A bullet? Couldn’t the boy see he wasn’t shot?

Jubal set him to rights on such foolishness, but cottoned on right quick he preferred to believe the wilder story, appearing disappointed at the truth. So many wide-eyed folks hung on every word spoken, and looked to Jubal for more.

They’d heard about the ‘fancy’ new cabin as well, and there were plenty of questions about the size of it and what the roof be made of. He was surprised they knew about the windows what had been shot out of the log house, as well as the upstairs one he’d squeezed through.

One fine-dressed man—looking all shiny—even asked if that was where he slept at night. Jubal suspected right off he knew what the fellow really be interested in and what he might be suggesting sly-like, so he turned away after saying he slept in the old cabin, it being just fine for a man what was just a cowboy used to sleeping outside on dirt.

Knowing the danger of saying too much from experience, and having gotten hisself caught in traps in the past, he drew the line at answering questions about where he came from and what he was doing at Lucas’s farm in the first place. One asked if he’d been a friend of Lucas’s afore he came to Bearpaw—and whether he’d be settling there or moving on. What did all that matter to them folks anyway? None of it be their business, and he had to fight not to get his hackles raised.

It weren’t that they were impolite—excepting for the one who wanted to know where he slept at night—but their eager curiosity and familiarity weren’t welcomed a’tall. Those questions had set his teeth on edge and he’d practically run out the store to get away after giving short answers. As far as where he be settling, how could he answer what he didn’t know hisself?

Some followed him outside, though, and that made him feel cornered. Were they just being friendly, or was there already talk? Was it his fear that kept him squirming like he be sitting bare-assed on a rock the sun made hot enough to cook an egg on? He couldn’t get away fast enough, and tipped his hat as a way of saying he had business elsewhere. He climbed into the buckboard, and Dinah obliged him by stepping into a lope soon as he asked.

The experience left him worse than unsettled, and to beat all, he’d upset the first friend he’d had in a long time. It was surprising how well he knew the man already, and he’d cottoned on to his sudden hurt right off. He had no inkling why he hadn’t told him he had back all what was stole. Lucas was right it be a big deal, and he surely deserved hearing such. Did he just forget… did it just slip his mind… or did he already have it in his mind to run now that Lucas was on the mend? Why was it so hard to know what he should do?

One thing for sure, Lucas shouldn’t have found it out from Reid, nor should Reid have told him he’d refused his coins because of… his upset over Lucas. What did that say about him and his feelings? The sheriff was a good man, but had there been some purpose behind what he’d revealed?

No! Jubal had been here before… making mountains from anthills, and he should be better than that. Reid was a man conversing with his friend, and that’s all it be. He would have rightly thought Lucas had been told everything. Jubal sighed, feeling like he was still in that bog with Kema, not knowing whether to turn back or go forward.

Possibilities, Lucas had said, and he be right. Jubal did have all them choices back. He could continue on to Larkspur and do a better job of hiding the fact he was a man who desired men. No one ever need know such a truth so long as he kept to his own business. That had always been his plan… until he met Lucas Rush on that south road.

Keeping to hisself had turned out to be impossible in Bearpaw because he carried a full love for the man and be right terrible at concealing such. It was the thing he’d feared the most, but if’n he was being truthful, he’d grown some love for Bearpaw too.

There was a wildness to the land what spoke to his very soul. There weren’t miles and miles of grassland—which he appreciated—and there be something different with about every step, from hills and valleys and varied stands of trees, to creeks and rivers and springs, and rich ground what grew thick grass and healthy crops. Game trails be everywhere, and folks would never starve with meat and fish so plentiful. And most important, there was room here for a man to take a breath when he needed to.

It had a sawmill, regular supply wagons when the road be passable, and about anything else needed for building a good life, but could he live in such a god-fearing town full of church folk? So much control they had that there weren’t even a saloon in the town!

Feeling a mite calmer than when he drove away from the mercantile, he could see now them folks surely had been friendly, leastwise most of them were, and no doubt the things what had happened to him and Lucas were the most exciting to take place thereabouts for a long while… maybe even ever. He didn’t want such attention, but supposed he could understand it.

The threat of an entire gang of murdering thieves be gone, all three killed by him and his friend, and that was something them folks wanted to speak about, to him and each other. He sighed again, accepting he didn’t want to run away.

There’d surely be god-fearing folks in Larkspur too, or anyplace else he might choose to settle in, and if’n Lucas hadn’t been shot, he wouldn’t have had reason to go to town more than once a month most likely. He needed to keep in mind too, something else would soon happen to move attention from him and Lucas. Their story would be an old one in no time, God willing.

He’d been alone too long, and having Lucas as a friend was something he didn’t want to let go of, not if he could help it. The man might have figured out his secret—or he might not—but if’n it weren’t something he be comfortable with, he could up and tell him so. He didn’t expect anything from the man a’tall, and he would tell him so if it came to it, not that Jubal planned on admitting anything.

Relieved to pull into the laneway, he took in a bushel of air through his nose. On this land, a man could relax, despite that presence of Ronnie Prescott for one bloody half-hour. This place smelled the same, looked the same, and felt no different than it did before that godawful day. It didn’t hold onto them bad memories now that Lucas would be returning, because that would be a damn shame. He smiled at not needing to duck under that broken branch as he guided Dinah out into the sun.

After taking care of the big horse, and then unloading and storing the food in the larder and the oats in the barn, he headed to the upper pen, curious and hopeful he’d see the wildings. He moved slow and quiet, but saw nothing as he approached.

There weren’t no horses anywhere, and even worse, the piles of oats were mostly untouched, ‘cepting by birds or squirrels what scattered them some. The herd be gone, sure and certain, probably on to new grass somewhere, and Jubal felt a powerful disappointment. He sat on the ground, feeling low and thinking on how this changed all their plans. He was back in that bog once more, trying to figure the best way out.

Feeling sorry for hisself would do nothing, though, so he got up and walked to the ridge. The view was a comfort every time he took in the north country, but there was no sign today of what he really looked for.

He stood for a spell, letting the breeze cool him. He’d been a loner much of his life, ‘cepting for the time of Vincent, and he’d accepted it, telling hisself he was meant for such. Right now, though, he gave mind to the loneliness what was at his core, and he didn’t like it one bit.

Deep down, he’d imagined a life with Lucas, even thinking sometimes they might be made the same, but wishing weren’t the same as being, so who did those thoughts fool? The man liked him—he cared for him and weren’t afraid to show it—he knew that, but it be a lot different from loving him. That was a thing he couldn’t expect from Lucas, but it be too late for him.

He loved the man full as anyone could, as deep as he’d loved Vincent, and while it surprised him with its quickness, he couldn’t deny it, not to hisself. But he surely could to Lucas if it meant keeping their friendship, and he would do it without balking.

Walking east into the thick stand of spruce trees, he kept an eye out for grouse, knowing he was in one of their favored spots. Took but five minutes of being quiet to spot one perched on a low branch, still as could be with its plumage blending in, but its shape making for a good target. With one sure shot to the head, Jubal had hisself the start for a good supper.

He put together a stew with some root vegetables from the garden, adding a dose of salt, and then went back to weed while it cooked over the fire. Completing the task, he stood back and stretched out the kinks. This be the best thing about farming, seeing how so much food came from a little care and hard work. A plentiful and healthy harvest ensured life till the next year, and though never a sure thing because of rain and the like, Lucas be well set for whatever this coming winter brought.

Looking east to where the barn stood, he imagined the new addition in his head, and what it would mean for the man. He calculated the lumber needed for beams, rafters, and walls against what was on hand. It was the one big job left since they probably wouldn’t be needing new paddocks for wildings. Lucas wanted a well one day, but with the crick so close and springs that never quit, it wasn’t a need for this year.

Rubbing dirt from his hands, he walked over to check on his supper. This land had a hold on him, but it didn’t belong to him, and that needing remembering. Any planning needed to be left to the man who owned Gold Rush Farm.

 

The next morning, he woke early. It was still dark, but he sensed the sun be close to rising. His next thoughts were of Lucas and how his night had been. He wondered if the man wanted his company today. He expected he did, and it be unfair to think otherwise, but Reid would surely sit with him if Jubal stayed away. Those two men had a close friendship for sure. Sighing as the sun’s early glow made its appearance through the window of the stick-built cabin, he rose from the mattress. It be time for chores and he wasn’t going to waste any daylight.

He had a familiar routine now, with no need for thought as he planned out some of his day. Saddling up after the disappointment of seeing the wild herd hadn’t returned, he rode north past the crick. Though it was no problem to get across, a solid bridge wide enough for the wagon would surely make Lucas’s life easier. Materials for such a bridge were plentiful and near. Shaking his head, he clucked his mare into a trot, appreciating the smooth ride she gave. Here he was planning another man’s land again.

When he got to the ridge, he stopped, searching the big view for any sign of horses. He could see patches of grazed grass, and some dark lumps what might be their droppings, but nothing living caught his eye. Game trails were plentiful down the gentle slope, so he chose one, letting his eager mare pick the way. Determined, he was going to do his best to find out where their herd went.

It felt good to be exploring the surroundings on horseback, and he be truly relaxed the farther he rode into these new woods. Took him almost no time to reach the river at an easy walk. It didn’t look to be deep, and there was no drop off along the edge. He urged his mount forward, and she walked in willingly. There weren’t no balk to her, something he appreciated, and he remembered Lucas saying the same about Dinah.

He didn’t appreciate when she stopped in the middle and started pawing at the water, though, a sure sign she wanted to roll. He clucked and nudged at the same time, and she continued on, but Jubal laughed at her efforts. His soaked legs proved she was enjoying this too.

The other side of the river had some marshy areas, so he stayed on the shore as he headed north, expecting the horses wouldn’t be south where the sawmill be, what with the noise coming from it the day long. A mile upriver he noticed hoof prints, a bunch of them, crossing his path. The herd must have come over at this spot and continued east. He felt some satisfaction in finally seeing the direction they headed. He might never find them, but had to try, sorely wanting to hold onto that dream he shared with Lucas. The man would be pleased if he could bring any news of the herd to him, he had no doubt for it.

Six or seven good miles he rode through forest and meadows without catching any glimpse, all the while climbing higher. It worried him a bunch when he saw wolf tracks… fresh ones. Hard to say how many there were, but they be relentless when pursuing a meal, and they were smart too. Folks might call them coyotes in these parts, but either way, their pawprints were big ones, and they be right on top of the ones made by his herd.

His worst fear came true when the hoofprints spread out in different directions. On a hunch, and smelling a bit of odor in the clear air, he followed a single set off the main trail and into a stand of trees. On the other side, he came upon the fresh, half-eaten carcass of that big ole paint mare with the close-set eyes. He saw the still-wet spot where she’d laid to give birth—likely thinking she was safely hidden—and the upsetting remains of a newborn foal. Them blasted wolves had caught up at the worst possible time for that young’un, and for the mother.

There was just a bit of hide and a part of the skull left of the wee one that he could see, and it sickened him. That should have been their foal, protected from such a fate as this. He would bet the mare fought hard as she could—mother horses were fierce as demons—but a horse be at its most vulnerable when birthing and separated from the rest. Hell, she might even have been attacked while she was down, an easy target for killing. He dismounted and searched the ground, trying to count how many wolf tracks there be, and found more of the foal's bones scattered nearby.

He was squatting down close to the carcass—his head bent down in mourning for a foal who likely only lived long enough to draw a few breaths—when his mare let out a warning squeal. Spinning quickly out of his crouch, he saw her kick out and connect with the shoulder of a big black-and-grey wolf moving low on her other side. The beast yelped at the impact before its side met the ground.

It’d been about to attack him, he was certain of it, but she’d sent it off balance, and Jubal ended its life with a well-placed bullet just as the animal regained its footing, its front end splayed and facing him. The mare snorted, blowing hard, but stood her ground with her eyes wide, the whites of them showing. She knew this weren’t no dog.

He moved close, touching her neck as he spoke, and she slowly calmed, impressing him with her brains and her trust in him. “You sure are a pistol, ain’t you,” he said soothingly. “Might have saved me some tooth marks or worse. Reckon I was right to keep you, and I think I got the right name for you now,” he continued as he stayed aware, not really expecting any wolves would stick around after the gunshot.

It surprised him, the aggressiveness of the animal, but he knew from experience they could be protective of their kills. Despite its size, it looked to be a young one, possibly a very hungry one what had to wait his turn at the feast. The others moving off likely made him brave enough to claim a turn, seeing Jubal as a weak rival with his size reduced from squatting down. It had learned about bullets the hard way.

Keeping his gun drawn, he looked close into the surrounding brush. He expected they were a distance off, maybe watching him, and he’d like nothing better than to kill another. Nothing messed with his and Lucas’s herd.

He respected an animal’s right to eat, but wolves couldn’t tell the difference between wild horses and a man’s mount, and Lucas and the other farmers didn’t need those around what had a taste for horsemeat. He stared at all the death, understanding the worth of the thick, healthy pelt, but he didn’t have the stomach for skinning it, not today. He’d leave it as a warning to the pack.

Sighing, and feeling he’d been stolen from again, he mounted his mare. “Come on, Pistol, we ain’t done yet.” She responded with a light touch of his heel, and the fact she was settled down pleased him mightily. Weren’t no silliness in her, and she proved to be one he could count on, same as he could with Kema.

Returning to tracking, he saw sign the herd be moving fast, even when going up and down hills. They were surely spooked and traveling hard, and he worried for them young foals. There be plenty of rocks on some of the tricky trails what could twist and break a young pastern or cannon bone.

The sun was getting lower when he spotted a wolf up ahead, its back to him and head turned slightly. Wasn’t often you could sneak up on one, and if’n he moved any closer it would surely spot him. Had been a long day for sure, with nothing more than some jerky to chew on. The wind was blowing in his favor, and it was strong enough the wolf hadn’t heard their approach. The narrow silhouette against the sky meant he had to thread the needle with his shot, but he had confidence in his aim.

The distance for a revolver, though, was something different. His horses needed protecting, and he had no doubt this one was waiting its chance to move in for a kill, likely waiting for a signal from others in the pack. He touched his mare’s shoulder before aiming a hair high, breathing out slow as he pulled the trigger. His target hopped and then dropped, its body as still as Jubal’s gun hand.

Approaching with caution, he could soon tell there was no life left in them eyes. He heard the far-off thunder of hooves and pushed Pistol into a lope for the few yards to the ridgetop in hopes of seeing his horses. Yep, they had taken off after his gunshot, and it surely was a welcome sight as he got a wide view of a fair-sized valley they be moving through. Near as he could tell, all but the paint were still together, ‘cepting the stallion. No sign of him anywhere, which had him wondering. That grey lead-mare was at the front, though, where he would expect her to be.

They were smart enough to stay bunched as they ran, and he was encouraged to see they headed south now, not further east. There be an open plain a few miles ahead, big enough they should be able to keep predators at bay and give them foals a breather. He just hoped that stallion was on guard somewhere. Might be he got separated and chased away.

Staying on the ridge, he watched as they disappeared behind a line of trees, only to appear again shortly after. “Look at that, Pistol. Ain’t that a pretty sight,” he said softly. “See that colt down there, the one near the rear? That fella might make you a good sweetheart one day, if’n I can ever get a rope on him.”

Jubal had done all he could, reducing the wolfpack by two. He prayed it would take some pressure off so the remaining pregnant mares could do their birthing in peace—what happened to the paint mare and her foal still had his stomach churning. He accepted it was all he could hope for as he reined his horse around. As much as he’d like to keep on their tail, he’d never get close with them being so spooked. It was time to get home, and he’d be lucky if he made it afore dark.

Pistol balked for the first time, taking a small side step, not wanting to step too close to this new dead wolf, but with a little urging, she did his bidding. He stared down at it. This one was a female, a mite smaller than the other with her lips curled in a snarl.

With teeth like that, no wonder the much bigger horses could be taken down by just a few of the beasts. He was never one to waste an animal’s death, but like the other one, he had no interest in skinning it. Made him feel guilty, though, so he ended up doing the job anyway. It pleased him to see she hadn’t been nursing any pups.

His mare stood quietly as he and his knife did the grisly work. Never enjoyed such, but respect for life was a part of him… and wasting a death was just plumb wrong. Hands covered in blood, he was done in ten minutes and had the whole pelt in one piece. Rolling it up around its brain-filled skull, he tied it to his saddle. He’d have need of them brains later for tanning the hide.

Pistol took one step, and then planted her feet, nostrils flaring at the smell of wolf being on top of her. “Good girl,” he said, soothing her with his voice. Mounting and urging her forward down the incline, he began the long ride back. There be another wolf yet to skin on the way, a bigger one this time, and daylight was fast running out.

Finding the herd be a good thing for his peace of mind, but he couldn’t help wonder what the killed foal might have looked like. Judging by the others, it would have been a looker. Sighing, he paid attention to the difficult trail. There weren’t never no guarantees in this life, not for anything or anyone.

     

 

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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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