Chapter 1: “A Lonesome Trail”
Yondering: actualizing the yearning to adventure, to roam, to wander in an unspecific direction toward an indeterminate objective, usually over hills and out of sight
He’d tracked the killer back and forth across The Badlands of Dakota Territory for days. Though he’d never seen the man before, he had two photographs they’d made of him during his trial in the Courtroom at the McDaniels – Langrishe Theater in Deadwood.
Luck was was with him when he found the man’s campsite from the night before, hidden among a thick growth of Lodgepole Pine, on the banks of Battle Creek. He knew he was no more than a half day’s ride behind him. The earth still had warmth beneath the bed of ashes.
Thing was, the man had built a fire.
‘He’s pretty sure there’s no one tracking him, but he’s still jumpy as hell, knowing there damn well could be’ The young marshal muttered to himself.
Wick Slater had killed two men and a woman in Deadwood, in an argument over who the woman belonged to. He’d been sentenced to hang, then he’d escaped from the Deadwood jail two days before his execution was to be carried out.
Winters in Dakota Territory are known to be brutal and deadly, and this year, winter was as deadly as a mountain lion’s claws ripping into a newborn calf’s hide.
The cold wind whipped snow and ice crystals across the young lawman’s face like sharp knives slicing through his skin. His flat-crowned black hat was pulled low on his forehead. The sheepskin collar of his black canvas coat was turned up to his wide flat brim, covering his ears. The woolen scarf around his neck helped keep the snow and cold wind from whipping down the back of his neck.
This was his first assignment. He’d turned twenty-one three months ago. The only reason he was out here alone now, was because his boss was laid up with a bad case of diarrhea. It was either him or the Old Man.
Marshal Hickson had told him that there was no way he was sending the Old Man out in the dead of winter alone, to track a killer.
“This one’s yours, Jeremiah. You’re training days are over and today you start earning your pay. You come from a long line of trackers and I’ve trained you to use your fists, and to handle your rifle and revolver as well as any man. You’ll just have to trust your instinct out there and do what feels right at the time. Make caution your most trusted friend and don’t rush to judgment when you get in close. You’ll get your man sooner than later, if you keep tailing him. You’re as good a tracker as any I’ve ever known – he’ll never know you’re back there unless you slip up.”
He’d tracked the man all the way down across The Badlands, then across the rolling plains to Yankton, on The Missouri. He knew this place like the palm of his hand. He grew up here, and his Ma still lives here.
He was tempted to stop in to see her for just a few minutes, but he knew Slater had already crossed The Missouri into Nebraska. He’d tracked his horse right up to the ferry ramp. He felt the need to stay hot on his trail. He knew he had to be getting close.
... Besides that, his Ma had never wanted him to be a lawman. She was mad the day his Pa had sent him off to Watertown, and she was even madder the day Jeremiah returned for his Pa’s funeral.
With the ferry on the Nebraska side, he reasoned it would take at least an hour, or even more, for them to draw the barge back to the Dakota side. There were ice floes in the river nearly half as big as the ferry barge itself. The mules have a hard time drawing the barge across the current, even when there’s no ice.
He remembered as a kid, sitting here on the riverbank out of the wind, watching as the men set blasting charges upriver, and downriver from the ferry crossing, breaking up the jams when the ice floes slowed the current of The Missouri to a standstill.
Sitting here, with his back to the cold harsh wind, he slipped his fur lined gloves off. Holding them under his arm, he reached inside his coat and pulled the makings out of his shirt pocket. With the sides of his coat open, shedding the wind, the young deputy built a long healthy smoke. He cupped his hands around the match as he bent low, to strike it with his thumbnail. The twisted paper on the end flared, then the tobacco caught as he sucked his lungs full of the warm, aromatic smoke. He held the burning match until the flame licked at his cold fingers, before flipping it out into the snow. His feet were cold – his whole body was cold – but the will to keep going was imbedded too deep inside him to stop and warm by a fire.
Wick Slater knew damn well there was no way even the best of trackers could follow him. He’d made cross trails and switch backs all the way south through The Badlands. He knew from experience, that even the best Indian tracker in this part of the country could never pick up his trail. This wasn’t the first time the law had been after him. They had yet to catch him.
His close friend, Carly Castille had helped him escape from the jail at Deadwood. Carly had told him there was a rumor going round that Marshall Webb Hickson was laid up with a bad case of the running shits. That was a welcome relief. Webb Hickson was known as the best tracker and the baddest damn US Marshall in all of the northern territories. That only left the Old Man, who’d been a marshal for forty-five years or better ... Him, and that hawk-nosed kid, who Webb Hickson was said to be training. That kid’ll never be worth a damn as a marshal. He’s not man enough – he’s to damn tall and skinny. He wouldn’t last a damn day out here in all this cold ... Hell, that kid couldn’t track his way back home from the outhouse.
With Web Hickson laid up, Wick felt like he could make it all the way down to Omaha without even a worry. Once in Omaha, he could visit his ma and his baby sister for a few days before pushing on toward Wyoming.
That’s where he wished he was right now. Damn it all, and to hell with the bad luck he’d run into back in Deadwood.
... But there was another reason he wanted to swing by Omaha. The young school teacher in Omaha that he’d been sparking hot and heavy before her daddy run him off. He wanted to pay her another call. They were just about to get down to their belly grinding, the last time he was there, when her daddy called her in off the porch that night.
Wick was so confident he wasn’t being tailed, he stopped for a bottle at the first saloon he came to, once he was on the Nebraska side. Before he mounted and rode out, he uncorked the bottle and took a long pull on the stout corn whiskey. He coughed until he gagged, then he took another long pull to just to clear his throat, before corking the bottle, mounting and turning his horse south.
The sun had been out earlier in the day. But now, the heavy, gray clouds were building again. They were hanging so low a man could almost reach up and touch them from his horse’s back. The sky looked as if it was about to split open and dump out another snow storm any minute. The snow and ice had melted somewhat and the street was sloppy-muddy in spots. He knew the ground would freeze over again as soon as the sun went down. There would be no way in hell anyone could track him then, even if there was a full posse on his tail.
He was only a hundred and thirty miles from Omaha. He could make it in four days easy. But he needed to feed, water, and rest his horse before he set out. He’d pushed him hard through The Badlands, then rode him like the devil himself was chasing them, down across the open plains to Yankton. Both of them needed a night’s rest and a belly full of food. Riding past the livery, he almost kept going, then thought better of it, turning his horse around.
The young deputy was lost in his thoughts when the man tapped him on his shoulder as he hunkered down against the wind. His horse was standing so close, he could feel the warmth of his breath.
“Mister, if you’re waitin’ to cross over on the ferry, you can go upstream about a half a quarter. They’re ridin’ horses and drivin’ wagons and buggies across on the ice up there.”
Jeremiah felt like kicking his own ass when he heard that. He remembered folks doing that very thing in the dead of winter, back when he was a kid. And here he sat on his butt in the cold, waiting for the ferry. He knew he had to get a better grip on this first assignment or he’d never make it to the rank of marshal. He’d end up being a deputy all his life, and here he was, just starting out.
Without a word, Deputy US Marshal Jeremiah Trail swung to the back of, Outlaw – his big blaze face, black horse and took a fast ride upstream. Before he reached the crossover, he saw the horses and wagons crossing over into Nebraska.
The surefooted, long legged horse, bred by the Sioux in The Black Hills, made light work of crossing the frozen Missouri. Jeremiah rode back downstream to the small settlement on the Nebraska side, across from Yankton. There, he saw a boardinghouse with a sign hanging out front.
Musselwhite Boardinghouse Warm Beds – Hot Meals – Hotter Coffee Come On In
Jeremiah stepped to the frozen ground and threw his reins across the rail just as a young boy ran out the door of the boardinghouse. The deputy’s fingers were about frozen. He’d planned on warming his hands and getting some hot coffee in his belly before taking his horse to the livery and getting him fed, watered and settled for the night, but the boy offered an even better plan.
“Mister, for a quarter I’ll ride your horse to the livery, get his saddle off, wipe him down and get him fed and watered, then throw a blanket on him while you eat. My momma owns the livery too, and it’ll only cost you half a dollar when you ride out.”
“You’d better lead him. He’s a young one yet, and at times, he can be even worse than his name ... Outlaw,” he told the boy.
“I will and I’ll tell the hostler to watch out for him too ... Mister, you may want to plan on staying the night. A man came over with the last ferry awhile ago and said he’d just left the telegraph office across the river in Yankton, and there’s a blizzard reported to be just west of us, headed our way,” he spoke as the tall lanky stranger dropped a quarter in the palm of his wool mitten.
“Might be better if I did, and see what’s left to see in the morning,” he answered, then reached up to loosen his saddle bags and bedroll from his saddle. With his bedroll under his arm and his saddlebags thrown over the top, he pulled his Winchester Yellow Boy, from his saddle boot.
Jeremiah unpinned his badge and slipped it inside his coat pocket as he walked through the door. Webb had taught him that trick, telling him it was best to never let it be known he was a lawman while riding into a strange place. For one thing, he could learn more by listening – said talk came free and easy when there wasn’t a badge in sight.
The warmth was the first thing he noticed when he stepped into the front room, then came the smell of food cooking. The next thing he noticed was the young woman who walked out of the kitchen as he stepped over to the long table. He piled his saddlebags and bedroll on the floor, then leaned his rifle against the wall behind his chair before he sat down.
The young woman held a coffee pot and an empty mug, “Coffee?” she asked, waving the mug at him as he sat down.
“Yes, and lots of it, please,” he answered. He looked up to see her smiling face as he pulled his gloves off and laid them on the table.
“I see you brought your saddle bags and rifle in with you. Will you be staying the night?” she asked, watching the young man flex his cold, stiff fingers, then cupped them to his face to blow his breath into his hands.
“If you have a room, I’d like to stay over. The boy told me outside, that there was word of a storm moving in,” he answered, taking his hat off, turning it up on the table to drop his gloves inside it. With his left hand, he raked his calloused fingers through his wild mane of black hair, pulling it to one side.
“Yes, and that was the second report we’ve had of the blizzard moving across the plains. Word came earlier today that Valentine and Ainsworth, two towns west of here, had over two foot of snow late yesterday and more was falling.”
Before she turned to leave, he had nearly drained his mug of steaming hot coffee. As he held it up and out from his body, she filled his mug once more, then she hesitated...
“Are you from around here?” she asked.
“Grew up across the river in Yankton. Been up north of here for a few years now. First time I’ve seen this side of the river in ten years or better.”
As she lingered, he asked, “Your family own the boardinghouse?”
“Yes, Momma owns it. My little brother and I help run it.”
“The food smells good. What’s for supper?”
“Pork chops, left-over beans, skillet fried corn, fried potatoes, and cornbread with all the coffee you can drink ... for forty cents.”
“Sounds good to me. Am I the only one here?”
“Most of the boarders left earlier, as soon as news of a blizzard spread. They caught the ferry back across the river in hopes of being on the late stage down to Sioux City. We have an older man and his wife staying here, is all. I’m sure they’ll be down for supper soon...
“I’ll bring yours right out,” she told him, then turned and walked toward the kitchen. At the doorway, she stopped, looking back to see him rolling a smoke. He cupped his hands to light his cigarette, glancing up at her through the smoke. That’s what she wanted, for him to look at her.
He couldn’t help from looking. She was very pretty. At least a year to three, younger than his age.
Jeremiah Trail had never courted.
By the time he was old enough to court, his Pa was shot in the leg and Jeremiah quit school to get a job. His Pa was town marshal in Yankton for years. Hardly ever was there any trouble other than a scuffle on the riverfront or an argument over some fur prices at the trading post.
Marshal Trail had been trying to make peace in an ongoing cuss-fight between two neighbors, when one of the men pulled a pistol and shot at the other man from across his yard, for calling his wife a hussy. He missed and shot Yankton Town Marshal Jeremiah Trail through his upper left leg. The lead ball splintered the bone and he was never able to walk on that leg again. He died a year later from complications of the gunshot. Before he died, he sent young Jeremiah off to live with his best friend, US Marshal Webb Hickson up in Watertown, a hundred and fifty miles north of Yankton. He wanted his son to become a US Marshal and Webb Hickson was the one man who could make it happen.
The door flew open behind him, sending a draft of cold air gusting across the warm room. Jeremiah whirled around to see the boy enter, then quickly turn to push the to door closed against the force of the wind. The boy dusted the snow off his coat sleeves, and stomped his boots on the woven straw mat, knocking the snow off.
“It’s really coming down out there. We’ll have another foot or more by morning, on top of what we got, if it keeps this up,” the boy spoke when he saw the man looking back at him.
“You didn’t have any trouble with my horse, did you? Young as he is, he still wants to run on the wild side at times.”
“Naw, no trouble a’tall. I slipped him a lump of sugar and he took to me right off. The reason it took me so long, there was another horse stabled over there that didn’t even have his saddle and bridle off. The man was laid up drunk in the stall, so I took the saddle off his horse, wiped him down and fed him some oats and corn mixed. I hate to see a horse done that way.”
“You’ve a got good head on you for handling horses. Men respect that about other men, and horses like being treated good, just as people do. You may be young but you’ve learned horses and how to care for them.”
“Thanks, Mister,” the boy said as he turned toward the kitchen door.
The young woman brought his plate out soon after. She poured his mug full of coffee and stood to the side as she watched him eat. He wasn’t the most handsome young man she’d ever waited on, but there was something about him, other than that hawk-nose of his, which made her wish she knew what to say. Something that would make him want to talk more. She hardly ever got a chance to meet any men near her age.
She walked over to the check-in desk and took a key from the drawer. She was going to put him up on the third floor, since most of the rooms were now empty and cleaned. The top floor always had the warmest rooms in winter and her’s and Pete’s rooms were up there too, next their momma’s room. She was so glad she had her own room. She’s almost a woman now and a woman needs a room of her own.
“Here’s the key to your room, you’ll be in number six, on the third floor where Momma, Pete and I sleep. Rooms on the top floor stay warmest in winter. If you’d like a bath, Pete and I can carry your bath water up to your room now.”
“Sure, if you’ll allow me, I’ll carry some water up as I go.”
Jeremiah was mopping his plate with the crust of his cornbread when Pete came in and set two buckets of water on the bench seat near him. “Jessie said you were going to help carry water up to your room. If you’ll take these two buckets, I’ll go back and get some hot water from the kitchen,”
“You know my name?”
“Your sister called your name.”
“Oh ... She sure is pretty isn’t she? She’ll be seventeen her next birthday.”
“Yep, very pretty. Almost a woman too, huh?”
In the livery barn down the street and across the way, Wick Slater woke up cold and shivering. He was freezing and he was hungry, still he took another long pull on his bottle, before staggering out of the horse stall and over to the hostler’s quarters.
When he banged on the the wall of hostler’s room, the old man came to the door in his union-suit, and Wick asked where he could get a warm room and a hot meal.
“Musselwhite’s – up the street thataway and to the other side of the saloon,” he said, pointing toward the river, then closed the door.
Luella Musselwhite was in the kitchen making final preparations for breakfast tomorrow morning when she heard someone banging on the front door. They’d already closed up for the night, but she wasn’t about to let a person stay out in this blizzard that was still building.
She was wiping her hands on her apron as she hurried to the door. When she opened it, the wind caught the door and blew it back against her. A man stumbled into the room, knocking her backwards as he too fell to the floor. Before she could get to her feet, the man had rolled over on top of her.
He smelled heavily of whiskey, sweat and urine, and Luella gagged at his foul body odor. Trying desperately to roll him off her, she felt his cold fingers grasping the neck of her dress. Fighting at him with both hands, she pushed him backward as he ripped the front of her dress to her waist.
Rolling over on top of the woman, Wick Slater kicked over a small table loaded with stoneware coffee mugs and saucers. The noise was heard on the third floor where Jessie and Pete were pouring the last of the young man’s bath water into the tub.
Jeremiah looked toward the door, asking, “What was that?”
“That sounded like dishes breaking!” Jessie told him.
He was strapping his gun on his hip as he hurried down the stairs, following the brother and sister.
From the bottom of the stairs, young Pete Musselwhite made a dive for the man who was attacking his momma. Slater flung him backwards, just as Jeremiah yelled...
“Leave the woman alone, Slater. Stand with your hands up or I’ll shoot.”
Wick Slater rolled over on his back with his gun in his hand. He pulled the trigger just as Deputy Trail jerked his Colt from the holster. Both guns blasted the still air of the room at the same instant. Slater fell back on the floor with a hole between his eyes.
Deputy US Marshal Jeremiah Trail staggered forward, then slumped to his knees. His head hit the corner of the desk when he fell face down on the floor.
“He’s been shot!” Pete yelled. He saw the blood on the shoulder of the young man’s shirt when he fell to the floor.
Luella Musselwhite stepped over to the broom closet behind the check-in desk and pulled out a wool overcoat so she could cover her naked bosom. “Let’s get him on the table so we can see how bad he’s hurt,” she told Pete and Jessie.
Pete walked over to the dead man lying on the floor. The bullet hole between his eyes was seeping blood. He knew it would soon run off onto the floor, and he’d have to clean it up. He pulled the man’s coat out from under him and stuffed it under his head, then turned to help his momma and his sister.
He looked down at the young man’s face as they bent to pick him up. Then he looked at his momma, “Momma, I hope he’s not hurt bad, I really like him. He bragged on the way I care for horses.”
They had just gotten him stretched out on the table when the older couple came down the stairs.
“We heard gunshots ... What’s happened?” The man asked as he looked first at the dead man on the floor, then at the man lying on the eating table.
“That man’s dead. This one’s been shot and he’s bleeding from a wound above his left ear,” Luella told the man.
“Let me examine him. I was a battlefield medic during the war ... well, well ... seems the bullet just creased his scalp. He’s got a big lump on his forehead too,” the man told them as he wiped away the hair and blood from the head wound.
“His head hit the corner of the desk when he fell forward,” Pete told him.
“He’s waking up ... Now he has his eyes open,” the medic told them.
“What happened?” Jeremiah asked as he tried to sit up.
“Young man, you came close to taking a lead ball in the face. As it was, the bullet barely creased your scalp above your ear.”
“That man’s a killer from up in Deadwood. Been tracking him for most of three weeks. Now I remember seeing him with a gun in his hand. That’s when I shot and that’s all I remember...
...”I need a smoke, bad ... Pete would you run up and get my makings out of my coat pocket for me?”
“Sure, I’ll be right back.”
When Pete returned with the man’s bag of tobacco, he had his brass, Deputy US Marshal’s badge in his hand too.
“You’re a US Marshal!” Pete said as he handed Jeremiah his tobacco and his badge.
“Deputy US Marshal Jeremiah Trail, out of Watertown, up in Dakota Territory. I’ll need to send a telegraph message back up there about this incident as soon as I can.”
“You won’t be sending one soon on this day. There’s already half a foot of new snow on the ground and you can’t see across the street for the snow coming down out there,” the old medic told him.
There was no law on the Nebraska side of The Missouri, and there was no undertaker.
With the help of the older couple, the Musselwhite’s rolled the dead man up in two army blankets and pulled his body out onto the front boardwalk. He would keep until the weather broke so they could get word across the river about what had happened.
Six days later, Jeremiah and Pete watched from an upstairs window as the Yankton Ferry neared the landing on the Nebraska side of The Missouri, for the first time since the blizzard hit.
“Be sure to tell them I need this sent as soon as they return to the Dakota side,” Jeremiah told Pete, handing him his message to Marshal Webb Hickson in Watertown...
USM W Hickson Watertown DT Killed W Slater in Neb Suffered minor head wound in gunfight Now await your orders J Trail DUSM Yankton DT
Luella had already given her son, Pete a message about the dead man on the porch of the boardinghouse, for the ferry operators to notify the law and the undertaker.
A week later...
“Jeremiah, if they send you way off, do you think you’ll ever come back this way?” Jessie asked as they sat at the table drinking coffee. There was no one else around. Her momma had taken Pete upstairs to help her flip the mattresses over, on all the beds, to make them sleep better.
“I don’t know, Jessie. They’ve just now started giving me assignments without another marshal being with me. This was my first one. There’s not but a few of us left in our district and one of them’s an Old Man who Marshal Hickson don’t like to send out alone anymore. No telling where I’ll be sent next.”
“If you ever get back close to here, will you come by and see me?”
“I’d sure like to. You may meet someone else before then, though. No telling when I’ll even be back this way.”
“Right now, I don’t ever want to meet anyone.”
“If you do and he’s a good man, you don’t need to wait around. I may never make it back. Besides that, I’d just be sent out again on another assignment anyway.”
The next morning, Pete was at the ferry landing when the first ferry of the day docked.
The ferry pilot told him, “Pete, I got a telegraph message here for Deputy US Marshal Jeremiah Trail. You want to take it to him?”
“Sure, that’s why I’m here. He was expecting one any day now.”
“I didn’t mean to read it, but it’s not folded or anything. Anyway, looks like the young marshal’s about to head out to Kansas.”
“Really? Let me see that. Man, I wish I was going with him ... Boy ... I know Jessie’s not going to like this. It says here he’s supposed to report to the sheriff of Ellsworth County, Kansas down there in Ellsworth. Don’t that beat all?”
The next morning, Pete brought the tall, blaze face, black over to the boardinghouse and laid the reins over the rail. “I’m going to miss you, Outlaw. I hope one day I’ll have a horse just like you. You take care of Marshal Trail for us, we’ve come to think a lot of him.”
Outlaw nudged Pete’s coat, then nudged his hand as Pete held it out for him. He had a lump of sugar for him.
With Luella standing on the front porch, her arm around Jessie’s shoulder, they watched Pete chase after Jeremiah, as he rode south out of town on the sloppy-muddy wagon road.
Pete was shouting and crying as he called after him, “Come back to see us some day, Jeremiah! We’re going to miss you!”
Long after he could no longer see Outlaw and Jeremiah, Pete stood in the muddy street, waving ... before he finally hung his head and walked slowly back to where his momma was waiting to give him a hug.
“Wipe your feet, Hon, and come on inside out of the cold wind.”
Edited by Amigo