The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Three thousand, one hundred, and forty-nine dollars. That’s what his share of the gold was worth. It didn’t make him a tycoon by any means, but it was a fortune to Boone, and gave him certainty he would finally have land of his own—whether in Larkspur or somewhere else. He had Wes and Lee to thank for it, God rest their souls, and he wouldn’t ever forget that… or them.
He’d never been trusting of banks in the past, but was filled with new confidence to learn the one in Red Bluff had many branches throughout the territory, including one in the very town he was heading to. All he had to do was provide his account number and answer a couple of set questions to access his money once he got there. They assured him it seldom took more than a day to verify the information by telegraph.
Having put all but fifty dollars in gold coins into his account, he walked out the door with a smile on his face and a ten dollar single eagle for supplies in his top pocket. Stashed in his britches pocket were two twenty dollar double eagles he would hide in the toe of each boot once he was out of sight of the town.
Stocking up took no time at all for a man who wanted to travel as light as possible. He only needed enough to get him through the next four or five weeks, and was used to hunting and foraging for much of his food.
Cloudy thinking. That’s what Coy had said before he left, and Boone figured he’d meant for both of them. Now, being apart with no worries for Will, they’d have plenty of time to sort through the past years. He would no longer be confusing his best friend with his presence, and Coy wouldn’t be tugging at his heart every minute. The question of whether he was doing the right thing, though, didn’t much matter now. He was doing it… he’d chosen his path… and supposed Coy, by not coming with him, had chosen his. He prayed his only true friend would forgive him one day.
The fact was, he’d never known the feeling of having a home of his own… a real home he felt safe in. His life began in a dance hall, born on the very bed his mother made her living on, and his earliest memories were of sleeping wherever he could find enough room to lay down safely. His ma’s room was most always occupied with one drunken man or another, even during the day, and he for sure wasn’t welcome there. Meals were never planned, so he helped himself in the kitchen when there was food, and sometimes went hungry if he couldn’t find something to chew on. As he got older, his chores had grown to include some cooking, and he ate better after that.
Many a night he’d taken his blanket outside and crawled under the floor of the always noisy dance hall—which was really just a kinder way of saying whorehouse, because most of the dancing was done laying down—just so he could feel safe from leering, glassy-eyed men who would sometimes grab at him. He’d hated the whole bunch of them, which was why it’d confused him to no end when those unwanted thoughts began to sneak in. He’d spent a long time paying them no mind, but that ended when he met Coy.
He hadn’t known it was possible to feel so strong for a person. Not even his ma, God bless her, had brought the kind of love out of him Coy did. He always knew she wasn’t the best kind of mother, but he believed she’d loved him in her way, enough to give him life and keep him.
He’d seen with his own eyes what the other women had done in the same situation—he’d been charged with heating the water for many a hot bath, and had been forced to listen to the screams behind closed doors… ones that often lasted throughout the night. It still made him shudder, and he would always be thankful his ma hadn’t done that to him.
Still, it was hard to love a mother who drank too much and put you second… and forgot about you most days. No, he’d felt real love for the first time after only knowing Coy a couple of months—he remembered the warmth it had given him when he realized what it was he was feeling—and now, after five years of sharing a deep friendship, he was riding away from it… and the man himself.
Coy had been right, and now he could admit it. That kiss, followed by the punch, had set him on this trail. The lowness of that time had stuck with him, and every time he looked at his friend after that night, he remembered the hit deep down in his gut, and even worse… in his heart.
Will’s presence had kept him around, but no doubt to it, Coy was right about the changing of things… that Boone himself had changed. Still, one thing had never wavered, and riding out of camp with all his possessions packed carefully on Blue was one of the hardest things he’d done in his whole miserable life.
Coy, after giving him a short hug, had muttered, “God keep you safe,” before turning away so quick no words would come up past the deep sorrow in Boone’s gut.
Feeling as poorly as a man can feel, Boone stood frozen as he watched him stride off towards Mouse. A minute later he’d mounted her bareback and headed upriver. He’d waited for Coy to look back, but he never did… not once… not even to wave goodbye.
There’d been nothing left to do but leave. The whole ride to town, he’d wanted to go back and tell Coy how sorry he was and again ask him to change his mind and come with him, but knew what his answer would be. He’d made the man feel unwanted just because he couldn’t love Boone back, and that selfishness had most assuredly ended a friendship he’d been plumb fortunate to have. Like most things lately, he’d done it all wrong.
The Sheriff expressed surprise he was striking out on his own when he stopped by about the reward money. Filling the doorway of his office with his bulk, he took in the sight of a loaded up Blue before his eyes focused on Boone. “Well… appears you’d be going somewhere? Where might you be headed, young fella?”
Standing uncomfortably on the boardwalk, Boone told him what he’d learned about Larkspur, all while the man stared holes through him.
When he finished speaking, his words were met with silence until the big man stepped past him and spat. “I reckon I’m glad to hear you’re doing something different with your life, but you’re telling me you’re leaving that boy back there on the river all by his lonesome?”
“Yes, sir. He… Coy chose not to come with me,” he stammered out, feeling powerful guilty under the sheriff’s measuring of him.
“Why not? He didn’t strike me as having the fever?”
“No… that’s not it.”
“What is it then? Thought you two were… glued together?”
Boone’s eyebrows rose at the sheriff’s words. “He’s… my best friend, for sure, but I can’t really say. Coy… he’s… well… he’s not much into farming… like I am.”
“You can’t say, eh? Well, that’s a damn shame… not so sure that boy will do good on his own.”
Again, the man’s words surprised him. “Coy’s been through a lot, but he’s strong as they come.” Somehow the man had voiced his worst fear, but he had to have faith in the man Coy was.
“Suppose you know him better than I do,” the sheriff said, his disappointment hard to miss.
Why would he be disappointed? Like the strike of a match, Boone had the sudden gut feeling Sherriff Willard might be made like him. Could he be right?
As far as Boone knew, he was a long-time bachelor. That, by itself, didn’t mean nothing, he supposed. But he had no doubt Wes and Lee had told their friend more than they should have about him… and Dan… Dan had once said in a bitter moment that any fool could see what he felt for Coy. Had the sheriff seen it? And if he had, why else would he care they were taking different paths?
Maybe he owed the man some sort of explanation after how helpful he’d been, but the fact was, he had no idea how to explain the thing between him and Coy, even if he’d wanted to. The silence had become awkward, and Boone realized the sheriff was waiting for him to speak. “Ah… I do know Coy better than anyone, and he’ll make out just fine.”
“If you say so,” the sheriff said, looking unconvinced. “So is there a reason for this visit?”
“What?” A confused Boone asked. His mind was on Coy, fearing the sheriff’s concern for Coy was justified. “Oh… ah… I wanted to stop by and thank you before I set out… looking to get a good day of traveling in.” He held out his hand and the man shook it. “Thanks for all your help… with everything.”
The man nodded, still frowning. “Good fortune to you, Dixon. You sure you ain’t forgetting something important?”
“Ah… no sir. I’m ready as I can be.” He didn’t fool himself. The sheriff’s question had nothing to do with supplies, and once again Boone wondered why he cared so much.
As he mounted up, the big lawman, having leant against the wall outside his office with one knee pulled up, took another shot at him. “Too bad Lee’s little mare is being split up from that mule after sharing each other’s company so long.”
Boone, finding it hard to meet the man’s steady gaze, mumbled his response. “They’re just going to have to get used to being separated, is all.”
“Suppose they are. Still, it’s a damn shame.”
Lord, the man wasn’t quitting. Finally remembering his main reason for stopping by, he was thankful to change the lean of the conversation. “I was wondering… could you give Coy that reward money when he comes to town?”
“Is he coming to town?”
“I suspect so. He’s talking of moving on soon.”
The sheriff nodded, and Boone saw a hint of a smile. “He is, is he? I’ll see he gets what’s coming to him, one way or another.”
Boone found the wording strange, but thanked him again as he reined Daisy out onto the street with Blue in tow. He pushed them into a trot, in a hurry to get away from the man who saw too much, and was for certain judging him a fool.
Boone took a deep breath as he reached the end of town. He doubted he would ever see Red Bluff again, and he should be happy about that… he’d never much liked it… but his conversation with the sheriff had rattled him.
Even a man who wasn’t any real part of his life made it clear he thought Boone was making a mistake. “You sure you ain’t forgetting something important?” Again, he pondered Sheriff Willard’s reasons for caring. Boone had always had a gut feeling about others who were made like him. All it took sometimes was a split second look in a fellow’s eyes, and he knew. He didn’t know why that was, but he’d been proved right too many times not to trust it.
With the sheriff it was different, but still, Boone sensed something—maybe it was in the way he used his words—and that feeling had just hit him in the gut the same way it did with the men who’d showed interest. He didn’t know if he was right, and it made no matter, but he had learned to trust those instincts.
Leaving Coy behind made it hard to be excited for his future. With feelings mixed and brain churning, he reined Daisy to the right and set out for Larkspur. Eventually, he stopped craning his neck to look backwards.
At one point he halted long enough to transfer the gold coins to his boots for safer keeping. The extra room in the pointed toes came in handy for just such a thing, and a bit of the dried moss from his fire kit kept them comfortably in place. Remounting, he rode alongside the railway line for most of the day. He’d expected to run across the occasional rider, but other than a far off view of passengers on the train itself, he never saw a soul before turning north and heading for a river he couldn’t see, but knew was there.
It might take him five or six days to reach it, according to what he remembered of that conversation in the mercantile. After crossing it, he’d be riding for weeks through foothills, heading northeast and winding around and between a couple of what served as mountains in these parts. Eventually, he’d meet the same winding river and ford it again. It was supposed to be rough country at times, especially as the elevation rose, but once he hit the promised lush green, he was certain it would all be worth it. He’d never traveled through heavily forested wilderness before, but looked forward to the change.
He brought his first day’s journey to a halt just before sunset, in a flat area of low, mixed brush only a hundred feet from a small, slow-moving stream not much wider than a trough. In another month it would likely be dry as a bone, but for now it provided good clean water.
Tying the animals to some of the taller brush, he scouted the area, taking his rifle with him just in case he needed something more powerful than his revolver. Big cats tended to roam wherever there was good cover, and this area had some of that… and game.
After seeing an abundance of rabbit tracks, he set a couple of snares, and not long after his fire was built, he caught a nice, big one. It takes less than a minute to pull the skin off a rabbit when a body had as much practice as Boone did, and it was cleaned and in the pot shortly after. While it was cooking, he took care of Blue and Daisy, removing their saddles and hobbling them. He could tell they were a bit tuckered by the way they hung their heads.
Daisy could be counted on to stay close, but while Blue had been more or less steady that day, he was also unpredictable, having bolted a couple of times on the trail. He definitely had a fear for snakes, and any kind of rustling would set him off. He seemed content to graze after he’d had a good drink from the stream, but Boone kept a wary eye on him. Tired as he might be, if the mule decided to go, hobbles barely slowed him down.
Enjoying a full belly, with night having settled in, he gave both animals a more thorough check, picking out feet and feeling for any heat in their joints. They were fit as fiddles, and he gave them both a rubdown with handfuls of dry grass before climbing into his bedroll. The sky was full of stars from horizon to horizon, and he soon fell asleep with Coy’s face floating among them.
It was the same apparition he woke up to every morning, along with a feeling of loneliness. He hoped the ache would lessen, but this was their first separation since meeting on a windswept prairie alongside fifteen hundred head of rank and restless cattle. To wake and not see Coy within feet of him, or at least hear him moving about, just plain didn’t feel right. As excited as he was for what lay ahead, he sorely missed what lay behind.
Each new day was pretty much a repeat of the day before, except for the menu changing. Snake provided dinner once—turned out Blue didn’t like close-up gunshots either—as did rabbits, ducks, fast moving prairie chickens, and slower grouse. For the most part, the gently rising terrain was easy going, although still dusty in the open areas… until he reached the river fittingly known as Big Snake. It wasn’t named so for any reptile. The man in the mercantile had said it was for the winding it did as it came down from a distant mountain range, looking more like a snake than a snake did.
Fording was easy, it being full on summer. Boone suspected it would be perilous during the spring rainy season. He noticed the difference in elevation as soon as he got to the other side of the wide and calm water. The bank, about twenty feet from the water, was higher… high enough Blue balked at getting his lazy ass up a crumbling and narrow game trail. He carried on like there was danger ahead, but Boone coaxed him up eventually, with a few muttered oaths to shoot him dead if he didn’t get a move on.
From there, he turned east again, and one week turned into two, during which Boone continued to climb. He still hadn’t come across another person since leaving Red Bluff, and it was wearing on him. He did see a few deserted shacks and outbuildings, though, and an old, broken down wagon half buried in the dirt. Occasionally, he got a strong feeling he was being watched.
Could be he was… Indians were scattered everywhere he’d ever been, and you often only caught a glimpse of them, if that, unless they came to town for trade. They knew how to stay concealed when they wanted to be. He stayed alert, but wasn’t worried much… the ones he’d met face to face had been honorable and friendly.
There were still Indian wars farther out west, but it was different around here. He was no expert, but the few Indians still left in these parts weren’t warlike, and mostly kept to themselves, and he figured for that reason, they weren’t being rounded up or hunted down like animals the way they were in some parts.
It could also have to do with the fact not many settlers wanted the land hereabouts. No, they all coveted a piece of the rich, sprawling grasslands he’d heard so much of. That, though, wasn’t what Boone was looking for.
Well into his journey, after a sweltering day of travel, he was forging a path through dark woods and feeling a mite trail worn. The air was heavy, and Boone wondered if he might be in for some rain. There’d been dark sky to the north when he’d entered this gloomy section.
Thoughts of Coy came and went as he daydreamed—something he’d been doing a lot of on his lonely journey—when Daisy suddenly perked up beneath him. She went from a walk to a trot all on her own, with Blue doing the same without being asked, and he figured the suddenly gusting wind coming through the trees was the reason.
Soon, though, he realized it could be from a familiar noise… that of rushing water. He let Daisy pick her speed, and before long the sound increased… it was close, and if the directions he’d gotten were right, it could well be the section of Snake River he was looking for… leastwise his hopes rose that it was.
A few minutes later, with the wind continuing to pick up, he emerged from a dense stretch of mixed woodland amid some very tall pines to find himself on a thin strip of grassy bank. He had his answer. Snake River!
Filled with excitement, he dismounted quickly and walked to the edge. His wish to cross and set up camp on the other side was wrangled from him once he saw he was a good thirty feet or more above the water line. He was on a damn cliff!
It made him nervous to look down, truth be told. The rounded bend was narrow, with the water moving plenty fast, and he took a step back. His eyes searched for a way down, but soon accepted he’d have to find a calmer, shallower place upriver to ford, which meant breaking a trail through the thick woods to the north.
It was disappointing, but he didn’t have any time to dwell on it because daylight was quickly fading, and he felt the first few droplets of rain. They were big ones, and he looked up to see a solid mass of black clouds moving his way. Whatever was happening, was happening fast, and he hurried to unpack the tent from an agitated Blue, thankful Coy had talked him into bringing it along.
Scrambling, he found some downed wood strong enough to serve as tent supports and went to work setting it up and tying it down. Pretty hard to do when the canvas was flapping loud enough to resemble the rumbling thunder that had come out of nowhere and was getting closer by the minute. He managed, though, and finally got it steadied.
A fire and warm meal was out of the question, unless this storm was over soon, so he went about tending to Daisy and Blue. A scalp-tingling lightning strike across the river had him jumping in unison with the animals. Gauging their building panic, he hurried to string a rope between two trees to serve as a picket line, and then tied each lead rope to it. Daisy might have been fine in hobbles, but the damned mule was quivering like a wet hound, and would kick out with each new thunderclap.
He’d let the pair graze enough during the day’s journey, and they’d had a long drink a while back, so he said a prayer to the lord above and retreated to the tent as pitch black fell fast around him. The wind was now eerily groaning through the trees, making them squeak and creak.
Hours later, the thunder and lightning still surrounded him, as if trapped and held, either by God or the devil, and unable to move off. The rain fell in sheets and buckets, and each time Boone left the tent to check on the animals, his boots sunk further into the soaked ground. It was like walking in deep pig slop, and where Blue and Daisy fussed, the earth was churned up worse than hogs would do. More than a few times, he heard trees cracking nearby, and said another prayer that a widow-maker wouldn’t fall on him… or the animals.
He’d been in lots of storms, but nothing came close to this. Having trees overhead was a new and terrifying experience. If Boone had known it was going to be this bad, or last this long, he’d have backtracked a mile or two and found some safer, more open ground. No choice now but to wait it out.
Chewing on hardtack, he huddled in the tent, listening to the sounds of hell bearing down on him while fretting over the water now seeping up from the saturated ground. He did his best to keep the bottom of his saddle dry, but his bedroll was a lost cause, and he finally gave up, hoping for a sunny enough day tomorrow to dry his gear out.
For now, all he could do was pray, and he did—one of Coy’s favorite Psalms. “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” He found himself repeating it every few minutes.
The wind had gone from a howl to a roar, the deafening sound filling him with dread. He heard a ripping sound at his back, and in less than a heartbeat the tent disappeared around him, suddenly left flapping on one rope, and he knew he was in real peril. He made a frantic reach for the rope, grabbing it in one hand, but it was like holding onto a frightened mustang, and it tugged him face forward onto oozing mud before the entire tent flew from his grasp.
His shelter was gone, and he couldn’t even see the animals from where he was. He couldn’t see anything but water amid lightning flashes, but he felt his way along the ground in their direction, in terror for his life as he was buffeted by the strongest winds he’d ever known. If this was an example of a typical mountain storm, he wanted no part of it. Surely, it would be over soon?
Lightning struck again, lighting the darkness around him for the time it lasted, and just when he could see the frantic horse and mule, there was a loud crack that vibrated the earth. Within seconds, a huge tree came out of nowhere, falling directly in his path with a terrifying thud. Branches slapped and scraped his face, and one of them slammed down on his right arm, shoving him flat to the earth. For a few seconds, he thought he was trapped, and he was near as panicked as Blue and Daisy were, struggling to get out from the tree’s grip. Panting heavily, he dug with his free hand, and was rewarded for his efforts when the mushy earth finally gave way enough to free his arm. It hurt like the dickens when he yanked it back, but it still sort of worked.
Sitting on the ground with his head down, he repeated his prayer while he held onto a big branch and gauged the pain in his shoulder. Common sense was telling him to stay put until the storm calmed, but, judging by the ferocity of the weather, it was clear that was wishful thinking. If he lost the animals, he reckoned he was good as dead anyway.
Summoning what courage he could, he worked his way around the fallen tree after realizing he couldn’t get over it with a shoulder that didn’t move right. One wrong move and he could slip and spear himself on broken branches. Sheer determination got him close enough he could see the animals. He could make out the picket line too, and it was still holding, but had slid down to about belly height. He needed to fix it, and the only way to do so was to tie Daisy and Blue somewhere else and restring the line in another spot. The task seemed crazy, given the poor visibility and the conditions, but had to be done.
His initial thought of freeing them to fend for themselves was quickly thrown away. They were all in a dangerous situation, with plenty of places for a panicked animal to pitch off the river bank or break a leg in sloppy muck and uneven ground. They needed each other in order to get through this and continue their journey.
As he reached Daisy the wind slowed noticeably, and the rain, while still pouring down his back, wasn’t blowing into his face as hard. It gave him hope this would soon be at an end. He got close to her flattened ear and talked soothingly until she calmed enough he could get the knot undone and lead her away. His goal was to tie her to a tree farther into the woods—he had no choice—and after stumbling a few feet into the tree line, he found one strong enough to hold her that he could get the lead rope around. His presence had her acting more sensible-like, and he was thankful for the kind of horse she was as he worked in the dark.
Blue, on the other hand, was pitching forward and flying backwards when Boone covered the short but harrowing distance back to the picket line. The damn mule had somehow managed to get one of his legs over the rope, which only added to his panic. Unfortunately, the storm increased in strength just as he reached him, the rain pelting him worse than he could ever remember.
His efforts to settle the mule did no good at all. Boone was tired, cold, frustrated, and scared—he didn’t like the lightning being so close either—and was sorely tempted to leave Blue to his own fate, but then remembered Wes and his love for the cantankerous beast.
The least he could do was try to get him untangled from the line between his front legs, so he worked with one bad arm to untie him while doing his best to stay clear of those sharp-as-knives hooves that were stamping the ground and darting out continuously.
It took some hair-raising moments, but with the help of Blue rearing up at the right time, he succeeded in getting him free, and even managed to lead him a few steps in Daisy’s direction, thanks to her constant whinnying.
Just his luck, though, another nearby lightning strike had the mule rearing again. As soon as his feet came back down to earth, Blue bolted in reverse, taking Boone along with him. Fighting with all his strength to hold on, he dug his heels into the ground best he could, but Blue’s momentum was too much and he slid alongside the fallen tree, across muck that had no traction.
They were fast nearing the edge of the bank, leaving Boone no choice but to let go before catastrophe struck. Just as he was about to, the frightened animal halted his movement. Planting his feet wide, he stood quivering and blowing, his frightened snorts erupting into the air.
A leery Boone took the opportunity to get closer, talking the whole time in a calming voice, despite his own instinct to get clear. He suspected Blue knew exactly where he stood—they had to be within feet of the bank, and even through the storm, Boone could hear the added roar of rushing water. He was ready to let go at any moment, but tried clucking to him, feeling relief when the frightened, unpredictable animal chose to trust him.
The mule took one step, and then two, giving Boone some confidence he would get out of this with all of them still alive. There wasn’t a third step, though, because the ground suddenly gave out beneath them, and they, and the bank itself, dropped downward into the black, churning water. Boone didn’t know if the screech he heard was from Blue, the storm, or himself.
Double chapter as promised. How are you feeling after this one?