A Novel by
H. R. SHRACK
All Rights Reserved
Copyright 1995 by H. R. Shrack
Thanks to my family, Linda, Jason, and Clay, for their bearing with me and being patient while I edited and rewrote many times.
Thanks to Mrs. Julia
Townsend, journalism and English teacher at
Big thanks to the following for their encouragement over the years of writing and their expectations of reading the final product: Lisa, Debbie, Connie, Tammy, and Kevin (wherever you may be!).
And to those of my “folks”, family and friends,
and the Class of 1970,
“You condemned me as a human being. You spat on me and rejected me when I returned to my country. You’re lucky I had tired of fighting. My culture you condemned to the point that I did not consider it a viable alternative anymore. My chosen lifestyle you damned. Now I can’t find a place to call my home.”
PART I: THE REASON
Jennifer Smith was a tomboy. With a splash of freckles, daring blue eyes, and strawberry blonde hair pulled back into a bouncing ponytail, she wore jeans and a t-shirt, and a backward ball cap. Carrying a powerful pump BB gun, she kept a wad of gum stuck in her jaw attracting most people to her pre-teen excitement. She was a vibrant twelve-year-old with a devilish grin and light-hearted, thrill-seeking eyes.
But she was a child to make a proud mother frustrated. Gwen Smith had her hands full with Jenny, it was true, and especially trying to make it alone since her husband had abandoned them without a reliable income. As a trucker, Roland felt that he led a far more exciting life than providing for a family he rarely saw. He had found a truck-stop floozy who he could see more often and shacked up with her in an apartment out near the interstate.
Back here, five miles off a state highway on a county-maintained gravel road, Gwen felt cut off from society and most of what she called life. She felt fortunate enough that this old homestead with its well-maintained cabin, nestled in a little cottonwood canyon, had good enough land to produce food to feed them and support a few cows, an obliging bull, and a cow with twin calves born the past spring. If both lived, one would be sold for pure profit, either a buffer for bad times or for some extras, and the other would be next year's meat.
They had food stored in their freezer, no thanks to that worthless husband who never came around anymore. She kept a small garden, growing what they could use, and sold the rest to neighbors who were kind enough to buy from them. Good Christian neighbors tend to watch out for each other, she thought. It seemed like fate was smiling on them again since they have gotten used to being without a daddy and a husband.
If only they would leave them alone. They were a local cult, a strange religious sect. The followers seemed to think they could lord it over anyone in the county. Apparently most of the local residents cower to these idiots who do as they please.
what has happened to all those poor women and girls who has disappeared over
the recent years? Gwen was sure
something was rotten somewhere. A rural
area like this usually didn't have all the crime that seemed to be occurring in
this vicinity. It felt more and more
But he was no longer around. That worried Gwen. Less for herself because she was beyond her days of youth and beauty than for her Jennifer who was entering her blooming time of puberty. It seemed that the females who were disappearing were most often early or pre-teens who were dismissed as runaways, for the police weren't doing much about finding them. And, strangely enough, there were never any bodies found after massive manhunts. Suspicious circumstances to Gwen.
Jennifer had started to attract a little male attention, but none of the local boys appealed to her. They were too forward for her taste. She was still concentrating her interests on her pets and being off on her own in the mountainous terrain.
Gwen even pitied the boy who treated Jenny like a girl, talked about "sissy stuff", or asked her for a date. She was stronger than most of the males in her fifth grade class, and likely tougher. Since her dad disappeared without a word, not even a friendly "good-bye", the precocious twelve-year-old began to notice sexual harassment in the form of inequality generated by males.
Her dad had broken her heart.
Roland had been her hero while he had been on the road, bringing her occasional gifts or surprises. He had also been her hero while he had been in various truck stops, flirting with waitresses who would go back to his cab-over sleeper.
Now Gwen was nearly at her wit's end. Jenny was constantly getting into fights at school, but was so at ease at home. She seemed happiest when she was off alone in the rock-strewn environment that surrounded their home.
If she could have afforded it, Gwen would have taken her daughter to a town where they could have a better life. But jobs were scarce and Gwen had never done anything but waitressing in her life, besides being a mother and a wife. She could just picture herself becoming one of those girls in another cheating trucker's life. It had only been a few months since Roland had taken off, and her savings were nearly at an all-time low.
As a mother who had been raised in a conservative church, Gwen was familiar with many of the moral doctrines of that religion. She'd been forced to attend services as long as she could remember and she swore that she would never make her children do the same. So far, so good. She had to admit that many of those basic beliefs were the foundation of her own faith, but she did not follow them well.
When she'd married Roland, they'd moved out to this remote ranch. Initially pleased, Gwen was had become used to not going to church. She had been so happy and in love, she thought he and his love were all that she needed. Rollie had been raised a Baptist and his religion never really got a hold of him either.
Then the other day, two well-dressed gentlemen came by in a four-door sedan to discuss her inactivity and failure to give money, a necessity by the local cult leaders. When Jennifer had come through the room, looking for more BBs for her accurate little gun, both men stopped to watch the young girl whose budding body had caught their eyes.
Gwen noticed the sudden change in their demeanor, too.
"Your daughter?" one asked, not taking his eyes off the girl who could possibly mother a child, he thought.
"Yes," Gwen answered cautiously, suspicious and wondering where the conversation was going to lead. "And my husband's." She thought that adding that last piece of information would deter any possible aggression.
"Yes, Roland's his name, I believe," he responded, "the one who left you a few months ago. Isn't that right?" His eyes searched hers like a father would a lying daughter's.
She was crestfallen, her plan shot full of holes, and she nodded her head sadly because of her defeated bluff.
"We know all about him, Mrs. Smith," the man continued. "And you two as well. That's why our leaders asked us to stop by. We were hoping you'd become more active in the church now. The Prophet would surely appreciate the gift of your daughter, Mrs. Smith. There are so many babies' souls waiting to be born, you understand."
"Yeah,” she replied sarcastically, “I know." "But I believe a person should choose their mate from love and bring those precious little souls to earth in a marriage relationship as they wish."
The Prophet's representatives frowned in concert at the woman's rendering of their dogma.
"The Prophet doesn't look well upon an individual's variations of the holy scriptures. After all, he is closer to God than any of us, isn't he?" He seemed to wait for an answer with his smug look. "He talks to Him daily and hears His answers. Prophet Young is our link to God, you see."
Smoldering inside, Gwen was ready to blow up at any second, but she figured it would do no good to fly off the handle now. Her limit had been reached when the first elder had finished speaking. Now this idiot had spoken more nonsense.
"You know better than we do when your daughter has reached puberty. His holiness prefers to start fathering as soon as a female can conceive," he informed her sincerely, thinking she knew of the perverted practices considered "normal" by the patriarch. After a breath, he continued, "...so that as many souls as can be born unto one mother can start as early as possible." His hand motions begged her to understand.
Oh, she understood, all right, Gwen thought to herself as she stepped over to the open kitchen door, all smiles and nods as she reached behind the door for a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun she had reserved for Roland and other such varmints. She brought the gun to bear on the two men and their eyes widened in abject fear at first.
On further observation, they reverted to a jeering attitude of disbelief, telling her that they did not believe she would pull the trigger.
Through the floor. Easy to repair, but making her point. Then she re-leveled the weapon at the disgusting duo.
No longer scoffing, they were moving toward the door, one urinating as he walked and the bigger one moved cautiously, not wanting the nervous woman to get upset any further.
"Now, Mrs. Smith, you don't really want to do that," the larger, more stern man said.
"Oh, believe, me, I really want to," she replied most convincingly. Her visage soured even more. "Just give me a reason." She motioned to the door. "Now, leave. And don't ever come back. I will shoot either of you on sight."
The urinater looked at her maliciously, nodded and turned, and then left. The big one exited without any hesitation or another word.
Sure is funny how a shotgun can persuade a man to obey.
Jennifer was one girl who truly loved the outdoors. It was her first passion, after her mother, but she would say that she loved all her pets even more. Taught by her father, she had no problem hunting, killing, and dressing small game, jackrabbits, muskrats, waterfowl, or spruce hens to augment their monotonous beef and vegetable diet. She could sit patiently for hours near a stream or on a small promontory. Often she'd think about what she wanted to be, where she would rather live, why her dad left them, important things like those.
And she would watch. Watch for prey or animals that needed help. Watch over her house and her mom.
She'd seen those men the other day, which’s why she went to the house to reload. Just in case her mom needed her.
Sometimes her thoughts made her sad, like today, when Jennifer was wondering why those men had bothered her mom. But most of the time she was carefree, content to help her mom and be in the mountains. Happy just to have a loving mother and a house to live in.
But she dearly cherished her freedom in the outdoors, often wondering if she could live in a prison or work at an indoor job. What would be the difference? She decided that she could not.
The slender little redhead wanted to be a veterinarian. Although she ate meat, Jenny was kind to orphaned or injured animals. A little too old for dolls, she preferred stuffed animals, caring for them as their doctor.
Soon, she happened on a coyote with a badly mangled leg, probably from a trapper's snare or a fight. She hoped it had been a fight, for she didn't want to see anyone trapping in her "backyard". Jenny was careful, cautious of a wild animal that could possibly be rabid, or hurt and scared.
Approaching the small wild canine with her guard up, she spoke softly, "Are you hurt, puppy? Don't worry, baby, Jenny can look at you. Don't fear, little coyote!" She neared the snarling animal which could not back up through sagebrush. She then poured some water into her hand from her canteen and slurped it with exaggerated sucking sounds. Continuing her gentle talk, Jennifer offered the coyote her hand and it licked her hand cautiously, lapping the water in her palm. She dared to stroke the fur softly, and then the coyote whined and lay in front of her in a classic pose of submission, seeming to ask for help. She examined the wounds closely, and determined that a young, inexperienced golden eagle had attacked the young coyote.
Jenny pulled some salve from her belt pouch and applied it to the wounds. Suddenly, the little coyote became startled and ran off, scared of something, or someone approaching.
Turning to see why, the girl glimpsed a large man who grabbed her arms, pinning them uselessly to her sides. Kicking furiously, she tried to get out of the crushing grip of her strong attacker who exerted even more pressure. Jennifer thought she was going to pass out, so she decided to fake it.
Caught off-guard, the tanned man must have thought that he'd hurt her, so he lay her gently on the ground. In fact, he started giving her first aid for fainting, placing her head between her knees when she suddenly tried her best to kick him and run. Only grazing his groin, she was caught by the man's long reach.
As a twelve-year-old, Jennifer fought valiantly, despite the man's superior strength. He soon forced her to sit and tied her hands. "That is quite enough, young lady," he commanded. His bronzed features made him quite easy to look at, she admitted, sort of a surfer type. He was lean and filled out his camouflaged fatigues like a weight lifter. She judged him to be about thirty. He seemed amiable in his demeanor, and she hoped she could talk him into letting her go.
He looked into her face and said, "Cooperate and God will richly bless you."
"I doubt it. He gave me you," she sneered.
"Funny. The Prophet will be pleased with you, despite your disrespectful tongue," he added.
Then the dawn of understanding visibly crossed her features. After those men had left the other day, her mom had discussed their intentions for her. She'd cautioned Jenny about such a thing happening to her. And now she'd been careless.
Maybe she could get away later, she hoped. There was always later. And there was always hope, she'd learned that lesson.
Now she was beginning to wonder.
"Have you reached puberty yet?" the man demanded boldly.
"None of your business, mister," she snapped, rolling and scrambling as fast as she could to try to get away. But to no avail. She just wasn't fast enough.
Clamping his hand on her ankle, the huge man stopped her abruptly. Helpless in his iron-like grasp, she felt his hand on her budding breasts. Squirming, she started to cry tears of futility as the powerful man forced his hand into her jeans to further verify her readiness for the Prophet.
Then her cries turned to sobs of despair.
He had found what he had come to determine, for she was truly at the gateway of womanhood, making her a fine one for the Prophet, he thought, as he tied her limbs and carried her to his vehicle only about a mile from the site of the abduction.
Tiring quickly from yelling, Gwen missed Jenny's company at suppertime. It hadn't been the first time her daughter had been out late, but it wasn't normal for her to do so this soon after a warning. As much as she hated to do it, she would have to ground the girl again. No forays into the mountains for a week, Gwen had decided.
By bedtime, Gwen was truly worried, for Jenny had never been out this long, without prior notice. Preparing to drive the long, slow road out to the highway patrol office nearly twenty miles away, Gwen wrote a note for her daughter just in case Jennifer happened to return before she came back.
Tearfully, Gwen drove the rough road to the highway, and after reporting the disappearance, returned to an empty house with only an empty promise that the law officers would check it out. If it'd been one of their own children, she reasoned jealously, they'd have started immediately.
Falling onto her bed, Gwen cried for the first time since Rollie had left her with a child and little income.
The next day, the police came as they promised, landing their helicopter in a nearby meadow, and went through their customary, though futile, routine. However, Gwen was not convinced that they were doing all that they could to find her daughter. Call it a gut feeling.
Within two days the search was cancelled and Jennifer was considered a runaway or kidnapped. Or dead.
Gwen was devastated.
And totally alone.
"What are you doing on my land?" bellowed a voice like a buffalo bull.
The six exhausted backpackers looked up to see the origin of the sound, a fierce-looking man in full, golden but greasy buckskins, leveled large caliber firearms in each hand, a large knife and a sharp tomahawk hanging at his side. He had no backpacking gear as they were carrying. He looked as if he just stepped out of the nineteenth century, ready for a bloody confrontation with any intruders.
"I, Kay-hoo-nay-wah of the Shoshones, forbid you whites from crossing our sacred hunting grounds, just as your leaders have forbidden my people to go as they please."
"We did not know we were trespassing. The map doesn't say that we are on any land but federal land," one brave hiker offered sheepishly.
The backpacker had thought that he had better tread lightly here. If this huge, Indian-looking wild man was to become violent, they had nothing, no weapons or abilities, to resist the heavily-armed giant who emphasized his point with his gun pointed into the intruder's face.
"You lie! Since all whites lie, I cannot accept that! Leave! Keep moving, for if you stop before the creek crosses the trail, I will see that your bones whiten in the sun. Now, leave," the wild-looking brute demanded.
The sextet cowered and turned. He sounded like he meant every word. Nonetheless, like most people from a civilized society, they protested. Such barbarism could not be happening to them in the twentieth century. Certainly, if anything detrimental occurred here, the crazy man would be captured and brought to justice, would he not?
"That's over five miles from here! We're hungry and tired, and there's no known campsites after this spot till the creek!" the leader moaned. His exhausted body screamed its own silent, painful objections along with his whining mouth.
The buckskinner chambered a 30-30 round with one hand, re-leveling the weapon on the leader. "Budget your time wisely, white boy."
The backpackers needed no more motivation. Each made his or her own decision. They re-shouldered their loads and went back on the trail again.
big Indian-mountain man chuckled inwardly as the backpackers shouldered their
loads and shuffled tired legs down the trail.
He smiled as the brightly colored bouncing packs floated away. "Those colors really don't belong in
wild country. Ugly designer colors
His name was not Kay-hoo-nay-whatever, nor was he Shoshone. Despite his beard, which showed his crossbreeding, he was all-Indian, bred, born, and raised. The big man pulled this joke on city people who pretended to be "communing with nature in the backcountry". His poor victims were usually only more tired and blistered from their inconvenience. None dared challenge him. They never knew whether to believe such an outburst or not. However, he looked like the real article.
not the real article, at least not an authentic mountain man or Indian from the
previous century. He had emerged fully
clothed in fringed, brain-tanned buckskins from the sweet-aired Teton high
country via the headwaters of the
sinewy hand wrapped around a scarred and scratched
He returned to a wind-felled aspen where he had stashed his own pack. An obvious connection to the twentieth century, it was a brown Cordura backpack riding easily on his broad shoulders despite its apparent bulk. Although frayed and showing oddly stitched repairs, some with sinew, others with leather, it carried simple but necessary tools and items which made survival in the wild easier. The pack also held some jerked meat, handy for such a nomad as he.
Quickly and quietly, he negotiated the trail like an animal, hardly looking where he planted his feet, his eyes scanning the trail and horizon ahead for intruders or danger.
bandana hugged his head, an eagle feather angling downward toward his
shoulder. It was not his desire to look
more like an Indian, which he was, but an attempt to break from
One foolish but gutsy bunny-hugger type was appalled at the mountain man's arrogance about the eagle feather as well as certain fur pieces on his buckskins. The zealot reached vainly for the feather but nursed a very sore shoulder once the big man had kindly popped it back into its socket.
Naturally, these meetings were rare.
But for how long, he wondered. He
wanted to enter
His cascading reddish-black beard appeared grizzled as the silver-tipped bear's fur. Actually, what early gray there was grew from underneath, next to the neck, framing darker whiskers. His appearance reminded one of the fur trappers of the early 1800s. This particular man had legendary roots in that historical beaver-trapping era.
His body stood lodge-pole straight. Stealthy movements betrayed a background of cunning more inherited than learned. Predatory eyes were ever moving, discerning. They calculated and studied movements far or near and his brain instantly determined which ones told of danger or food.
While hiking with a Boy Scout troop, the man's gait had attained a full three feet, a mile-eating habit established early in his development. He had learned how longer steps saved strength over longer distances and once a rhythm was established, he noticed that it seemed to prolong even his own boundless stamina.
To watch him move would be only to see, but not hear, a silent movie. That may seem impossible for a man who topped six foot, six inches, carrying two hundred and seventy pounds. Anyone who has observed a bear knows this is a very possible feat. Huge brownies are noted for their prowess while carrying enormous weight, enabling them to silently approached their prey.
The mountain man moved as though determined, goal-set. On occasion he would encounter backpackers who had a genuine curiosity, if he ever stopped long enough to even grant them an audience at all. In that one way he truly was a king, lording his size over others. It just made sense, for few would, or could, challenge him.
former mentor of his lived near
mountain man had learned that lesson the hard way in
mountain man's nameless face was one of his culture's greatest
attractions. Surely the possibility that
one could have made thousands of dollars, a literal fortune in that period of
the early 1800s, was another big draw for many men to go west. William Ashley had started the push after
If he traveled at night, the problem of obtaining a bit of information and moving through a town would be considerably lessened. He would have to stick to the darkest of shadows in order to be successful.
The mountain man had noticed that the fireman had asked polite questions about his outfit and gear. He expected the strange meeting would be reported to the police, but that could not be helped. Equipped now with the required knowledge, the buckskinner set his sights on the eastern horizon.
Fifteen minutes later, passing a neon-lit watering hole, he encountered what he feared most. Nearly knocked down as the door burst open, the giant was bowled by a couple drunken urban cowboys. This kind looked like their boots had never seen a pile of horse dung in their lives.
The men smelled like they had, however.
Realizing they had encountered something or somebody large, the two had found semi-equilibrium. Before the mountain man could steal away, they blocked the huge mountaineer from passing by unnoticed. The Abbott-and-Costello pair in Stetsons saw the fringed frame that stood as a wall before them. He was trying to make his way around them without incident.
But it was too late for that.
"Hey, chief, watch who're runnin’ inta!" said the intoxicated chubby half as he walked back to his lanky partner's side.
"Yeah," slurred his rail-post friend. "Yuh heard
Chubby moved toward his friend. "Skip! Skip!" yelled the Costello in jeans, kneeled near the prone Abbott. Then he arose and turned, fists flying.
"Rotten, no good, mutha-...." His voice ceased within the confines of his throat by a massive hand. The bear-trap grip caused eyes to bulge from their sockets. They saw an un-funny, determined face that related this nonsense was to cease.
Letting him go, the mountain man quickly walked away just as the not-so-amusing team started yelling bloody murder. Had they pressed the issue further, it would have been.
Hiding twice from approaching police cars, the big stranger was caught in the lights of a third. It had turned the corner, catching him after he had chosen to cross the street. He hurried out of the searching beams while the siren squealed and the roof lights lit. As he hid, he could hear the cop call for back-up.
Beginning his search immediately, the fearless officer used his belt radio. The dark residential area made eyes follow where a flashlight points.
Then he was blind-sided. As he regained his footing, the saw the buckskin freight train who bowled him over. He pulled his service revolver without a second notion.
It was the mistake that was his immediate downfall because he had wasted precious time he needed to defend himself. In those seconds, the policeman received unconsciousness and a broken jaw that would require many weeks of milkshakes to mend. He would also need an ammonia capsule to wake up.
With the approach of the back-up car, the fringed giant was able to slip away. He found a running car, warming while the owner was arguing with his spouse. The fugitive backed the sedan without lights from the house, the running couple in the rearview mirror.
Dumb move, he thought, but the car would hasten his getaway from the insanity and ease his search for his old friend. It felt good to see the city's lights and skyline shrink behind him. He began to relax a bit as false dawn appeared.
Heading south, the mountain man checked a gas station and a roadside diner to verify his route with those who might know his friend. Following a gravel road, the buckskinner pulled up to an idling forest service truck. He rolled up slowly and smiled at the officer.
"Morning, sir," he said amiably.
"Howdy!" was the reply. Uncertainty permeated the face. "What can I do for you?" A hand edged closer to his sidearm.
"Are you familiar with a mountain man feller called Tom Weaver? He keeps to himself and lives hereabouts," the big man requested.
"Sure am. Friend of his?" the officer queried.
"Somewhat," said the big man, right hand on his pistol, too, angled for a cross draw. "He let me stay with him a few years back and we got along. Taught me skills with buckskin and rawhide."
Suspicious, the warden, ranger, or whatever he was, told him the directions, about ten miles away, higher in the mountains. Parting without incident, the officer turned around and scribbled the license number.
Noticing the move, the bearded man knew he had to ditch the car sooner than anticipated. By the time the vehicle might be found or reported, he would be gone.
Deteriorated, though, the road had become a washboard. It could tear a rusty bucket like this apart. Negotiating the treacherous switchback that snaked up the mountainside, the driver enjoyed the morning sun on the high plains. Soon he would leave the car and camouflage it, but now, he drove on, lost in a mountain man's world of thought...
Milksops! All of them! They dared to challenge me, a lord of the mountains? I'm a by-Jove mountainee man and I'll take on any ten of you niggers! Waugh! Not a decent scalp in the bunch!
Smiling, he sighed, wanting a different era. He longed for the days when fur trappers and Indians had controlled this remote area. He felt the longing in his bones, in his blood, for the lifestyle he sought. It was ingrained, maybe passed down from his famous ancestor, Jeremiah Johnson.
Alas, he drove on in relative silence, amid the rumble of rubber, nearing heavy timber.
Officer Sam Waterton was pre-occupied. One could say he had become obsessed. His mind was locked on this "Indian" because of what he had done to his partner.
Amazed how fast and efficient his attacker had been, the broken-jawed cop suspected the man had been trained to destroy or incapacitate his opponent before he had the opportunity to react. He had the strange feeling that the fugitive was an ex-serviceman, possibly an ex-Green Beret.
But the buckskinner had slipped away, swallowed by the night. Sam was certain that he would surface again somewhere. Sometime. Somewhere.
Daydreaming of the capture, Sam saw national headlines on a cop show. He might have to bring in the Teton County Sheriff's office to help. Maybe even the FBI.
Questions ricocheted through his mind. Where did such a man come from? What was he doing here? And why now? His mind reeled as questions piled, left unanswered. For now. He vowed that they would be answered.
Sam researched how the mountain men were technologically a step ahead of the natives. What impressed him were their abilities to survive the harshest of conditions in the mountain environment. If this individual turned out to be an Indian, he had to be considered one who had the twentieth century abilities and knowledge. Sam decided to treat this fugitive as he appeared: a strong and ruthless killer capable of Indian stealth and guerrilla warfare.
Hiding the sedan with limbs of leafy birch and fir in a deep ditch, the fugitive grabbed his pack and threw it on his back as though its weight was negligible. Breathing great draughts of the pine-scented air, he then shook his shoulder-length black mane. The wilderness empowered him, stimulated him. It invoked him to be the best at living with the land.
An irrepressible draw, the mountains stirred him. They beckoned. He had felt the longing in his soul for years, like John Muir. His mother's people, the Blackfeet, were a good reason for that feeling. His grandfather had given him the knowledge few Blackfeet cared about, living in the old ways.
Holding a legend as truth, the Pikuni (Piegan) people, poor relatives of the great Blackfoot confederation, regarded a particular ancestor, Waving Grass, as the wife of the famous mountain man, Jeremiah Johnson. That relationship bore a son of the legendary Killer of the Crows, Dahpiek Absaroka. This modern representative, Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle, was the great-grandson of the man who was also known as Liver-Eatin' Johnson because he had reportedly consumed the livers of his enemies.
His mother had given him his name and he received a bit of ribbing throughout his life. But she wanted the boy to know both cultures, hence, the name. His father was a white man who had left the young girl when she was heavy with child.
Educated during the turbulent sixties, he went to Vietnam via the 101st Airborne squad in the early seventies. That had prepared him for life in the white man's world in contrast to the reservation. Upon his return from Southeast Asia, Sergeant Eagle he became fed up with his taste of the rat race of city life and the sad rejection as a veteran.
Rebellious, he grew his unusually reddish-black beard, a significant Johnson trait, and his black hair, and tried to return to the reservation. There he fasted, took sweats, and prepared himself for an extended stay in the wilderness, possibly forsaking a modern lifestyle forever.
Jerry, a nickname he had accepted to blend better with the white culture, was his preferred name. In the military, his friends called him, "Blade", if they were bragging on his ability with a Kabar, a bayonet, or any knife he happened to choose. Nobody called him "Chief" or "Injun" except for his closest pals. And then, only in jest. It was not because he was not friendly, but rather, not easily ridiculed about his heritage or name, both of which he was proud.
Jerry felt more at ease in the army because he was more socially even with everybody else. But after his discharge, he became just another "drunken Indian" or a Vietnam vet who lived off the government.
Usually speaking in low tones, inaudible to some, he did so in respect he had learned for his elders. The military reinforced the brief but sufficient answers that he used. He reasoned, why waste words? Say it right the first time and leave no doubt as to your intentions.
Taller than his legendary ancestor, Jerry stood six-foot-six, but carried two hundred seventy pounds of sinewy muscle. He was rather formidable to behold, but his prowess in a fight was something terrible to watch, let alone receive.
Four obstinate Marines found that out the hard way when they picked on him in a Saigon bar. The huge Blackfoot had picked up one of his adversaries and thrown him into the other three. By the time any of them gained their feet and pulled their knives, Jerry had knocked two of them out with his ham-like fists. The others wisely saw their errors and helped their comrades to leave.
Vietnam had honed his killing and survival skills to a keen edge few have matched. Once, after setting up an ambush for some NVA, Jerry carefully moved his position, a habit that had saved his life. A traitor from his own team had thrust a sharpened stake into his prior post. He extracted that it had been an apparent payback for the Marine altercation in Saigon. Standing on the neck of the attempted murderer, he dispatched the man by slitting his throat, and left the body as the North Vietnamese Army overran the position. One attempt on his life would not become a second if he could help it.
While trying to live in Great Falls, Jerry took time to seek the wisdom from a mountain man, Tom Weaver. Although a good teacher, the man was a victim of his own demons and hatred for the twentieth century. He valued the older man's expertise in creating buckskin and other leather products, but the hermit had a venom that paralleled no other person he had met.
Wanting to prove he was able to live alone in the wilderness through the winter, the Blackfoot sought the hermit who had originally scoffed the idea. Now Jerry had succeeded for two seasons.
He traveled quickly over the remaining miles, even though they were mostly uphill. Eating when hungry, the well-muscled half-breed was able to harvest meat and plants to replenish his jerky and dried herbs. A rabbit here, a grouse there, thistle stems here, fresh watercress there, along with cattail and a few spring beauties thrown in for a good stew.
His favorite wild food had to be any wild game cooked over hardwood coals washed down with mint and pine needle tea. He preferred sage hen or grouse to rabbit or hare, but would eat coyote, bobcat, or even muskrat or beaver, all delicious in their own right. A snake or lizard had fed him when nothing else presented itself. The mountains were full of game.
Living here was easy, but one had to know the animals and plants, their habitats and characteristics. But not just anyone could live in them for a winter. It took special knowledge and training, the kind that only came from old Indians and trappers.
Money allowed variety to his diet or to buy anything he needed. Selling hides enabled him to do this. Hide dealers always knew other hide dealers and they told him the going rates for any fur-bearers. He had even tried a national rendezvous to trade or sell for the things he preferred that were made to last through rough use and abuse. Hudson Bay wool blankets were usually better than their counterparts. Hand-made tools were usually the same.
Traveling with such gear made for a heavier pack than with the modern lightweight stuff that was designed to endure short expeditions. Jerry planned to be out for a much longer time frame, so the gear would have to stand up to the test of enduring the rigors of the environment.
Sure, that Gore-tex stuff was pretty neat, but how close could you get to a fire before it started to melt? Jerry had something against wearing anything that could become a fire-engulfed cocoon.
Whatever the weight, he did not care, because he was a strong man. A very strong man. And he knew he would need most of what he carried in the near future if he was going to be followed.
And he was certain he would be.
Sam Waterton woke up with a doozie of a headache. His late night Duke western might have been a mistake despite how much he enjoyed it. He'd pay for it today, for sure, but he'd rise above it. Popping some pain relievers, he hurriedly dressed and left for work.
"Why is it there are always doughnuts around a confounded police station?" Sam thought to himself. He was hungry but he did not want something sweet again today. A two-dozen box stared at him from the entryway table. "It isn't any wonder many cops end up with a spare tire around their middles," he muttered.
Taking three and a cup of black coffee, he plodded to his desk. Sam ate as he read the report the forestry man had given the state patrol. An APB on the late model sedan that had been stolen from a Jackson residential area had been seen in the high country. This could be worth checking out further, he thought as he dialed the fish and game office.
A sugary voice answered, "Fish and Game."
"Officer Boggs, please," said Sam.
"One moment, please, I'll connect you," replied the nasal voice.
Sam heard the pops and hums as the radio was transmitted to Bogg's vehicle.
"Go ahead, sir," she came back.
"Officer Boggs? Sam Waterton, Jackson police," he said with no pause, a ploy used to exact assertiveness. "I heard you saw a stolen vehicle up in the high country. Was the driver heavily bearded, long-haired, dressed in buckskin?"
"Certainly was, officer, but I knew nothing about a stolen vehicle. I only reported it because there was no mountain man rendezvous in the area and it might be a vehicle someone might want to check out," the radio voice of Boggs said. "A big, heavily muscled gent, too. Is he wanted?"
"You got that right, Boggs; assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest," Waterton informed him. "Sounds like he's added auto theft to his list now. I appreciate your report, and, say, you wouldn't happen to know what direction he was heading?" Sam was fishing for anything he could get.
"As a matter of fact, he was asking about a local here in the mountains. Tom Weaver's place is near the park. Want me to check him out?" asked the Boggs.
"Wouldn't hurt, Boggs, but for Heaven's sake, be careful. Don't try to take him yourself, just see if he's there, then let us know. I'd appreciate any help on this," Sam replied sincerely. "This guy's a real powerhouse and doesn't seem afraid of anyone. Maybe we should wait for the state boys' SWAT team?" He hated the possibility of a civilian getting hurt in police business. He took that seriously.
"Not a problem, really. I know Tom and I'll just look around a bit. He's surely used to that by now," Boggs answered.
"Well, o.k. Grateful for the help. Just let us know, and we'll take care of it from there," Sam said, and then hung up.
Something troubled Sam after the conversation. The name Weaver bothered him and he didn't know why, so he ran it through the computer. Seems the hermit was a decorated army medic in Vietnam. Other than that, nothing special appeared but a couple game violations that never amounted to much, no convictions. But, it still drew on his gut that something was wrong with Weaver, something he couldn't put his finger on.
He hoped he was wrong. Two mountain men, if they were anything like their historical counterparts, would be mighty rough characters for anyone to handle. But the giant would be taken care of, he promised himself. That fugitive would make a mistake sometime, and Sam would be there to close the case.
Jerry made his way over the pass and paused to take a short breather. He was facing south now, and the sun was making its upward arc.
The area of the Rocky Mountains was the country he loved. He breathed deeply the clean alpine air, catching a faint odor of wood smoke that drifted on the updrafts of the morning. Aspen was burning somewhere nearby. It must be coming from the valley that lay below.
Jerry wagered that it had to be from Weaver's place. If the directions from the forestry feller had been accurate, then the old mountain man's spread was at the end of a washed-out lane, barely wide enough for one vehicle.
Once a mining claim, it became a hunting camp near the turn of the century. The mine was played out, but still open. Tom had bought the claim for a bawdy song and a sacrilegious prayer from the family of an elderly prospector who had stopped mining to take up guiding hunters. His will demanded it be sold to someone who would promise, in writing, to use the property as it was. No modern improvements were allowed to the existing buildings. They must remain log-constructed.
Johnson looked forward to seeing Tom's place, but nearing timberline, he made a camp in a protected thicket. He slept hard for a few hours. The events of the past day were nerve-wracking for a man who usually led a tranquil life. Little wonder he was a bit tuckered. Towns made him uneasy, on edge. He realized he tended toward violence in such situations, but some people just tend to pull out the worst in a feller.
The day, which had dawned rather slowly as the peaks blocked the earliest red-orange and magenta fingers of light, was now filled with warm, golden rays when he woke up. Sure beats traveling ten miles in a smoky car. It had stunk of tobacco, garbage for the lungs, he had always figured. A boyish wrinkling of his nose was the visual opinion he gave to one of his pet peeves.
Jerry had grown up with smokers. His mother, uncle, and others had smoked for years, but he never had even tried it. He never wanted to. As he recalled, Grandfather had smoked, too. Not for pleasure, but for ceremony.
More like his grandfather, Jerry was big enough to back it up, not succumbing to peer pressure, considering it "manly". He had thought it was just plain stupid.
Memories of drug pushers in 'Nam and their persistence at his trying pot came to mind. "Over their dead bodies" had been his motto. Funny thing was, he could back up his motto. One pothead had gone as far as exhaling smoke in Jerry's face, only to be unable to inhale again with a vise-like grip on the culprit's throat.
"Stay out of my face, punk! You ever try that again, you'll never be able to draw your next breath. Am I getting through to you?" he recalled saying. Normally that was enough from Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle.
Breakfast this morning consisted of pine needle tea, rich in vitamin C, and a large piece of jerky. Five or six traps would hopefully produce something more substantial for the evening's meal. The morning passed lazily, for Jerry was in no hurry.
He made extra tea to wash down his body in order to mask his human odor. Memories of Grandfather's teachings always returned at times like these. "Sweat, bathe, and mask." had been his advice. It did work, for before he put on his clothing again, a mule deer even wandered into camp, leaving double time when danger was finally sensed, rather than smelled. Skins now re-smoked, they would resist shrinkage and insects, and fight his human odor better now.
Almost to timberline, he was able to see for-almost-ever, better than any artificial high ever concocted. Jerry was still in his prime, nearing thirty-two, strong and healthy. Well-adapted and trained in the outdoors, he loved all it had to offer.
Johnson's senses seemed keener in the pure alpine air and, closing his eyes, he could hear the remote ringing of an ax biting into the heart of dead wood. Cupping his ears to locate the direction in which he should go, he turned his nose to the sound.
A faint fragrance wafted to his nostrils, betraying the unmistakable aroma of biscuits mixed with aspen. Burned another batch, huh, Tom? Jerry grinned about his memories of the burned biscuits he'd experienced while staying with the old hermit. The man's usual fit followed, turning the surrounding air blue with curses.
Leaving a cache of gear, he blended his camp into the forest again. Except for an odd lump in a tree, the site was clean. Committing the area to memory like his ancestors, he lined up the cache tree with a smaller peak and the pass. This enabled him to know it when he would return, from any direction. Turning away, Jerry knew he could find it and that it was secure until then. Carrying only his sidearm, knife, and a fanny pack, he could travel over terrain rapidly.
A figure was cutting firewood as the younger mountain man approached. Saw or ax, it didn't matter, Tom was stronger for it, and that is what appealed to him. Live strong and free was his adage, his life a prime example of mountain man culture and ideals.
Jerry checked the wind, the available cover, and the stalking distance. Correctly analyzing the situation like one of his ancestors, the big half-Indian had a short stalk from behind Tom's current position.
Fifteen minutes into the stalk, yet ten yards away from his quarry, Jerry sensed something was not quite right. Suddenly he realized that Tom's ax swing was not taking quite the bite of wood it had earlier. But he failed to realize it in time. When he checked his footing, a common stalking mistake, even for an expert, he heard the ax cut the air and bury its head deeply into the tree next to him.
"Pilgrim! Yuh ain't got no need 'round t'hyar! Who the hell invited yuh, anyway?" Tom hollered, trying to identify the interloper through the shadows with aging eyesight.
Tom ambled unafraid toward the tree to retrieve the ax embedded to half its head. He was a very strong man, plainly put. It came with living the lifestyle. Even though he was between ten to fifteen years Jerry's senior, Tom commanded respect by his sheer presence. This was not the kind of man another would bad-mouth to his face and expect to come away unpunished.
He recognized Jerry once he had stepped closer. "Yuh look sum'at famil-yar, pilgrim." He studied Jerry for a brief moment and his buckskins with hawk-like eyes.
Tom topped five-ten, maybe five-eleven, but easily weighed two hundred solid pounds. He was barrel-chested, muscles corded, steely. Jerry had seen the man take the pull-up position and pull his whole torso over the bar in one fluid Olympic move. Probably still could, if that ax head was any indication.
"Reckon I should, ol' son," Jerry replied, "I'm the one you said could not live in this country through the winter. Well, let me tell you, Tom, I'm here to tell you otherwise. I've been living like you see me for the last two years in the High Lonesome. I've actually become the hivernant you said I could never be."
"Arrogance of youth!" the old hermit exclaimed, with a hint of a smile. "Yuh brought the damned law down 'round me, boy, is what yuh done. I fin'ly git me a good relationship with this-here game feller, an' now I'm a-thinking' it could be jeopardized by your shenanigans. Why'd yuh steal a car, cub?" The older man retrieved his axe.
Tom seemed furious, or at least pretended to be. He'd get over it, Jerry hoped. Calling him "cub" was the key to Tom's affection and hospitality.
"Relying on local resources to get a job done, is all," Jerry said. "It hadn't been my first choice of things to do, you see, but it was either that or be arrested." Tom turned away, visibly disgusted. "Hey, I walked 'way from Glacier country and the Swans to get here. I'm camped up on the slope there. Never meant to get you involved in any way, Tom. I'm sorry, but I'm surprised they got to you this soon."
"Dumb ijit, yuh prob'ly tol' somebody you wuz a-heading this way, huh?" Tom asked, and didn't wait for the answer. "Ranger wuz h'yar before mornin' chores wuz done. Asked m'sef where I'd be a-coming from had I to stalk my own camp. I wuz picking up a piece of wood when I saw your movement, so I wuz jus' patient. Wuzn't fer sure who yuh wuz, tho'." Putting down the ax, Tom motioned to the cabin.
"Come on down, cub, an' we'll jaw a spell. Catch up on the time we bin apart." The older man took to the trail with a slightly bowlegged gait, a result of years in the saddle of mountain ponies he bred and raised.
"Done well on yer skins, cub, er, uh, Jerry, ain't it?" he asked, trying to place the younger man's name over the few years. "Not a hundred percent, but serviceable, I kin tell." Ever the perfectionist, and the critic. If a job isn't worth doing right, it isn't worth doing at all was Tom's attitude.
"Pants were done long ago. Shirt was done under survival conditions before the first winter, one a road kill, the other deer I shot that season. Jerked the meat, cached most. Made it right well, I did. Good grub, warm clothes, even a bear pelt for a blanket."
Jerry watched Tom for a reaction, any reaction. Old scalawag had the poker face of a tree and there were other similarities as well. Hard bark being one of them.
Tom nodded and turned to the bigger but younger man. "You'll need to stay away from here for the most part, cub. Fer shor the law'll be back here a-figgerin' two peas in a pod like us will run together sooner or later. And I ain't a-runnin' quite like I use-ta!" He then proceeded along the trail after being serious with Jerry.
"I could use yer arms, legs, and back, though; lots o' work to be done."
Lots of work. With Tom, there was always plenty of work to be done. Fetching water, chopping wood, tanning hides, hunting and foraging for food, heck, just living up in the High Lonesome took a lot of work. It was the way of life in the mountains. And Tom had taken to it all, even adopting the broken vernacular the mountain men once used.
"Like I said, Tom, I'll be close by, but all I'd like is a base to work from, if you're willing to tolerate me," Jerry reiterated. "Pay me what you think I'm worth. A good meal will suit me just fine."
"I kin tolerate jus' 'bout anyone that works as good as I know you kin!" Tom shot back with a bit more of a smile. It tickled him to have help, Jerry knew, even this early in the year. The more hides he had prepared, the more purchasing power he'd have for bartering.
It was also Tom's way of apologizing, by inviting someone to stay. Otherwise, he would have given Jerry a brush-off, and probably at the point of a gun.
Johnson-Eagle also knew what Tom demanded of hide work. Perfection, plain and simple. One hundred percent tanned and nothing less. Deer, elk, or moose hides, and often, furbearers like bears, were scraped so that the membrane was totally gone from the flesh side. This allowed the brains or a solution of brains and water to penetrate the skin. If the hair and grain, the outer layer of the skin, are removed, the brain material saturates the hide faster.
Scraped and tanned, the hide receives a close inspection for imperfections, which are then re-scraped. Remaining grain and membrane, the inner skin can easily be scratched off with a knife blade or a rough rock. Stiff spots of the hide mean that an improper graining procedure left too much of that layer which holds the hair. After this added scrutiny, Tom's hides would return for more brains. This "rebraining" gives the hide a true, one hundred percent tan. Tom would never allow anything less.
Certainly usable buckskins can be made from less-than-perfect hides. Native sources of buckskin often had many imperfections from pieces of membrane or grain left on the hide, because of crude tools. Old methods of brain tanning meant rubbing a whole brain over a scraped hide and working it in by hand. This usually left nothing for a second chance.
Drying a hide to become soft and pliable was a toilsome task. Pulling it back and forth over a rope or rawhide thong kept friction heat in it and roughed up the hide to the consistency of soft, heavy flannel. Indian women used to stretch hides in the sun, pulling the hide in opposite directions, till it dried. They would even chew spots in the hides that resisted becoming soft. Often it would hang to absorb heat from a fire, then the pulling would resume till the hide was fully dried, ready to be sewn into clothing.
Smoking the hide, which gives the hide its ability to resist water and insect damage, was the next step. It also discouraged animals from eating the skins. Different woods supply a variety of colors, including earth-tone brown and gray, muted gold and yellow, or dark red.
Tom enjoyed each and every step of the tanning process and he would often scrape hides all day, spend another working with brains, and maybe another stretching the hides. Other times he would just do one or two hides in one day, start to finish, depending how fast he needed them or what kind of project he was working on.
Being blessed with time, he could afford to take one day at a time. It really didn't matter to him. Like Indians and mountain men of the past, he had no need for hurrying.
Each step used different muscles, and a man would definitely get a workout whatever step he was performing. Old Tom's fingers and hands were intensely strong from his laborious lifestyle. Shaking hands with him could be compared to placing one's hand in a bear-trap.
For Tom, however, there was another advantage to doing this kind of work. Because so many throughout the nation enjoyed wearing buckskins to modern rendezvous, and Tom's were the best to be had, he could barter a set of skins for well-made cabinets, tools, weapons, or whatever he needed from other craftsmen.
Once Jerry tried on his first set of buckskins, he was won over immediately. Nothing else felt as good next to the skin. Nothing else felt so fine, protected a body from the wind, and looked so rugged on a man. He never took to authentic period-styles, though. Cutting his own to fit like a loose pair of old blue jeans, he added fringe the whole length of both outside leg seams.
His shirt was a two-skin pullover that had fringe under the arms and along the bottom edge for wicking away water. A belt was cinched around his middle over the shirt that ended about mid-thigh. It held the sheathe that housed his large Bowie as well as a small pouch for carrying possibles, the necessities of survival.
While working, Tom broke his customary silence to comment on Jerry's outfit again. "Seems yur 'skins flow well on yuh, pup," he offered generously. He stopped to jaw a bit, resting his arms on his work. "Gotta admit, I never expected to see yuh agin in these parts. Nope, never agin." He repeated the last phrase almost silently to assure himself, no doubt, kind of like he was surprised, but nonetheless pleased.
Jerry remembered Tom's advice of how he couldn't trust many folks over the age of twelve. They were too ingrained into society with an "irretrievable mind", were the words he had used.
"Reckon yo're 'bout the only one I ever knowed what done it to prove me wrong. An' that ain't been too often, neither." He turned toward the younger man and said with an animated face, "That IS what yuh done, ain't it?"
Jerry looked blankly at Tom, and said, "You got it." His statement was one made of years of determination to just prove how wrong Tom had been in reading Jerry's spirit. He had gone through two years of living outside with the hopes that one day he would be able to say that to Tom's face. To prove himself to someone he respected. And be acknowledged for it.
But the older man went back to his work, a small smile appearing on his lips. Tom worked hard, and Jerry knew to stop and jaw for long periods was a sign of weakness.
Dog-gone him, thought Jerry, he never will change. Same mentality of those who believe that those with the most toys wins. Most toys, most money, most anything won't do anyone any good, thought the huge mountain man. Can't take it with you, he reasoned. God's own Son proved that long ago, making materialistic gains worthless in the long haul! Waugh!
Certainly Jerry had made the right choice, hadn't he? Hadn't he gone forward to be saved those many years past, obeying his mother and what he had thought was God's urging? Following his conscience, he even joined the army because he felt it was right, not resisting the draft.
Learning to kill, he had figured he had to learn that well in order to stay alive, especially to survive a war like Vietnam. Of that he was sure he was right. War is war, kill or be killed. Righteous killing had even been justified many times in the Bible to punish the disobedient and the ungodly. And he knew that Jesus even told his own disciples to travel armed, to be prepared for the dangers of the era.
As a born-again believer, he struggled now with the taking of lives, unless backed into a corner or threatened with harm. Through his convictions, Jerry believed that to lay down his life for friends or his beliefs was now the way he should act. If he was being persecuted by someone who did not know he was a Christian, possibly being robbed, he would protect himself fiercely, killing his attacker, if he had to. Shooting to wound was a fool's way, for in precious seconds, a wounded man can kill you.
That may not have been the example Jesus gave the world by dying on the cross, totally innocent of the crimes He was accused of, but it was the conviction Jerry concluded he would live by. And sometimes that bothered him, because the Scriptures also say that he who lives by the sword will die by the sword.
Jerry had even gone as far as researching the short life of Jedediah Strong Smith, the famous mountain man and pathfinder. An incredible frontiersman who was revered by his peers as having the "ha'r of th' b'ar" in him, Smith had reportedly been a steadfast Christian throughout his career as a beaver trapper and explorer, only to succumb to a Comanche war party's arrows in his early thirties.
Although he was a professed follower of Christ, Smith continued his dangerous lifestyle even after many battles with Indians. A ferocious grizzly attack had even left him horribly scarred. Smith calmly instructed his men to sew him up as his scalp and ear hung by threads of skin.
Having chosen a similar lifestyle, Jerry was concerned that, having been a warrior, and having adopted his own convictions, he wondered if he was to die early like the famous mountain man.
As he worked an elk hide, he reckoned he would just have to wait and see. Especially since all that had transpired, he was reasonably sure he would find out soon.
The mountain man moved deliberately. Each step was as if calculated, well-placed. Quiet, stealthy. He could blend with his surroundings and flow with them as well. He understood nature and cooperated with its challenges and its misgivings. At times he was cold, others, hot, but neither bothered him. He just did what he had to do in order to survive. Years had graciously allowed him to practice many of the old ways for hours per day, weeks on end, and sometimes for months at a time.
Imagine a human being doing something, anything, for hours per day, every day of the week, for weeks and months at a time. By any stretch of the definition, that person would become an expert, plain and simple.
The old ways, tracking, stalking, bow-and-drill fire making, bone and stone tools, hide work, trapping, foraging, emergency and permanent shelters, primitive weapons, Jerry learned them all well. He knew the best woods for heating, cooking, flavoring, and smoking, the ones that gave the best light and no smoke.
His tracking and stalking skills enabled him to take meat seemingly at will. He had lain next to a heavily traveled pack trail without one person detecting him as they had passed. That seems impossible to one who considers himself an "outdoorsman", but the fact is that most people do not truly "see".
A man who had been a product of twentieth century technology, economics, sociology, and thought, and had become a throw-back to an era of time that required man to live in harmony with nature instead of battling it as people do now. Some would believe that he was a danger to society merely because he shunned it.
It is, rather, a dangerous concept when someone is singled out just for being different. In his mind the law had no right to stop him for no other apparent reason than how he was dressed. Calling him a suspicious character was no reason to detain him for determining who he is. He could not and would not tolerate that.
Modern society would not allow one such as he to live as he wanted within society, so he chose to live outside it, condemning some of their laws. It was sad that idiot politicians back East legislated the West to fit their overpopulated ideals! How remarkable the dolts in the West were blindly following them! It would be tremendously easy to support the secession of the west of the Mississippi, or the Rockies. They could send their best after him and he would make fools of their methods..., and their ignorance. Let them use their high falootin' electronics or whatever they had, Jerry would not be thrown in a cage for mere politics.
Having been imprisoned once in the war, there were three dead Cong guards that lay as testimony to his vow to remain free. So, yes, he would kill, if he had to, in order to live free and survive as he wished.
Many years later, a situation occurred in the Bitterroot High country when a group of motorcyclists tried to run him down on a trail and hold him prisoner on a backcountry path that traversed a pass. A well-planned avalanche did not cover them, but it certainly killed a few. Lies the gang told trickled to the media and authorities. The law had tried to look for him, but he was a comfortable fifty miles away by then.
Time. It was the real key to many things in the wilderness. Harvesting plenty of wood for winter required enough time. It was the factor in seeking adequate shelter in a storm. But now, time was all he needed to jerk some meat and dry some fish. And the wild fugitive required some rest. Some evenings he helped Tom stretch hides or tan. This work kept his muscles busy and strong. Tom enjoyed having another strong person around to pull hides.
Jerry finally was able to grab the wooden bar and pull himself up in one movement just like Tom had shown him. He had never mastered the move till he had seen Tom do it once more. His body was lean and hard from living outdoors and eating mostly fresh meat. It was little wonder that Indians and mountain men were noted for legendary strength, because of their primitive lifestyle and their diet.
"I taught 'cha well, pilgrim!" Tom strongly voiced. It seemed to shake the cabin's timbers. He nodded his head as though agreeing with himself. Ambling over in his bear-like gait, he jumped to grab the bar. His movements were a bit more stressed, but he cleared it nonetheless.
"This ol' hoss still has it, I reckon," he smiled broadly, his gaze shifting to the younger, larger mountain man that stood before him, searching for approval, and he received a nod, acknowledging the older man's prowess.
"Be leavin' soon, ol' son," Jerry spoke as he picked up a hide to work. "The law will probably be back here at any time, I figure." He commenced to stretching the hide that had hung over a rafter to dry a bit.
"Reckon so," replied the old hermit. "Didn't think I wanted you here in the first place, cub, but you kinda grow on this chile."
"Reckon you do, too, ol' friend," Jerry admitted. "But I won't be treed like a 'coon, and I don't see doin' time for their stupid, mindless society. I'm sure I'd rather die." He paused, then added, "And I'm sure you would, too, ya contrary old fart."
"Does it set well with that 'Jesus loves you' program you were raised with?" Tom mocked, sneering.
"Not totally, I guess, but life is life, and freedom is freedom. I reckon I'm just not cut out to 'suffer' in captivity, like the apostle Paul." He paused again, then, ready to open up further, went on, "Physical freedom may just be self-oriented, but I am a free entity, mind, body, and soul. Can't live no other way, I figure.
"I truly admire those, Tom, who can sincerely lay down their lives like Jesus did, and I probably could, too, if persecuted for my beliefs, but that has no bearing in this situation. Defending one's life is necessary to live this lifestyle, as you well know. You're a good example of that."
"Reckon I am, pup, but I shorly have mellowed some over the last ten years. Don't want no trouble, no sirree! I care for this spread for some feller back East and roam the High Lonesome as I wish, when I wish, not having to say 'sir' to no man. He comes out once or twice a year, and plans to retire here sometime."
He stopped for a second, thinking. "I'll move on after that," Tom said, laying the hide he was working on the table. Looking directly into Jerry's eyes he continued, "I don't have much to show for my life, boy, but how I live it."
A look came over him that Jerry read as a shred of regret, and possibly a misty-eyed sense of remorse for how he had lived his life. But old Tom would never have agreed that he felt that way. Too set in his ways.
And it struck Jerry odd how the old man never took to woman folk. By no means was he a limp-wrist candidate, but he had said that a woman was the worst kind of saddle to put on a man. Now he may feeling different, but he would never admit to it publicly.
Too much pride. The downfall of civilizations.
And men. My, how the blocks do fall!
"Well, ol' son," Jerry began, "I don't see where ya done wrong by yourself, none. We may disagree on spiritual things and such, but I sure do admire your style." He looked around and continued, "You done all right. I hope I can do as well some day." He put a final buff on the hide he was working, and set it aside to be roughed up some on the rope a bit later.
The young man figured the time was just about right to tell the old man he was moving on. "Be a-headin' out come morning, ol' coon," Jerry said, turning for the door.
It was getting late, and he wanted to get a good night's rest. "See ya when I see ya, Tom."
"Watch yur topknot, boy. Lord knows a-plenty out there will be a-wantin' it," Tom replied from his sitting position. He never looked up, and never missed a stroke on the hide he was finishing.
As the door latched, the old man raised his head, his eyes moist and a lump in his throat. He chuckled to himself before he went back to work, then mumbled, "Yuh proved me wrong, pup. Yuh proved me wrong. Good luck to yuh."
The cool night air refreshed Jerry's lungs. Ice would be forming on the lakes tonight. Not unusual for this high up. His gait adopted a fox walk, a stalking attitude. Tom had said that someone had been watching him from down the lane recently. Jerry could only assume that they were staking him out. Or could they have been game officers watching Tom. Who knows?
The mountain man shifted his eyes, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Going up the mountain in a cautiously, he loped when he was relatively certain that nobody was following him.
Everything seemed relative at times, he thought as he moved through the trees. What he was sure of, really, was that nobody with his level of abilities had followed him up the mountain. He would have detected anyone else.
Stars winked their peacefulness to him. A gentle breeze carried the scent of sage and juniper, fir, and the burning wood from Tom's cabin. The hot cabin had made him sweat and just now he started to cool as he approached his campsite.
A full moon had risen, lighting his way adequately from one clump of trees to the other.
Motion in the trees made him halt. He stopped breathing to listen, cupping his hands behind his ears to focus them on a shadowy shape. It could be a bear or a prowling lawman. With his situation, the latter was what he prepared for.
Pulling his sidearm, Jerry stepped forward into the clearing with a challenge, "Identify yourself, pilgrim!"
That was when a throaty roar came from the intruder. A large black bear was ready to meet the human's foolish challenge.
Great, Jerry thought, he didn't need this. He saw the bear more plainly now as it entered the clearing, probably a large, old boar sniffing around for the man’s cache.
But now the bruin had the choice of fresh meat. It charged. Jerry introduced it to the power of the .44 magnum. The large boar recoiled at its sting, biting at the pain. But it advanced cautiously now, furious about the pain. The bear's jaws snapped with contempt.
Jerry carefully placed his next shot in the bear's shoulder, shattering the socket. The next bullet was placed into the bear's eye, or so he thought. The massive black suddenly stood to its full height, half its face skinned by the force of the blast at close range. The visage of the bear was horrible to behold. Its fury was fully directed toward the resistant man, gaping maw aimed at the man's head.
The man vaulted forward into the bear's deadly embrace and forced the gun under the bear's chin, firing in desperation. He felt it was his only chance to survive this encounter. The bear shuddered from the bullet that entered its brain, but it still tried to hug in desperation. Strength draining, the bear had no more strength to stand and fight. Large forepaws dropping, its head sagged, unable to raise it again. Then its body fell hard forwards, and never again moved.
Jerry stood motionless in shock. He was uncertain whether to shout in triumph, or cry for his brush with the Grim Reaper. His body relaxed now that the bear was dead. Then he lowered himself to the ground, his knees too weak to hold him up, and sat.
Fear is a funny thing. Fear in the face of a known enemy is very real, but Jerry was not afraid of any man he had ever met in battle. Reactions to fear vary with the individual, and with the incident. But he never even imagined a black bear of this size would be challenging him here and now. It had left him more than a mite shaken.
Regaining composure and strength, amazingly unhurt, he climbed the tree that held his cache. He built a small fire and cooked a hunk of the bear meat, an ironic twist on the predator that became the prey. He prepared to sleep well after the fight, belly full.
But he did not feel like sleeping. Adrenalin still coursed through him like a mini-freight train, and it was diminishing slowly. He set about the task of packing his gear and dismantled some tools he had made. Stones were hurled and handles burned. Bones were buried or thrown in various directions.
Finally the fire was put out and covered with soil and debris. No sign of man would remain when he was finished, but the bear would. This would deter ordinary trackers, thinking that where a bear had been, man would not. Hopefully, carrion eaters would disguise the carcass from being recognized as man-killed.
A cold and cloudless night, the moon shone full and bright. Jerry could see almost as easily as if it had been day, so he decided to leave. Once off the slope, then he would sleep.
Head for the Bitterroots again, he pondered, away from the Front Range of the Rockies. Too many confounded people here in Jackson Hole and the Tetons. He needed to get back to the wild country.
As was his habit, he hiked just below the rim so his form could not be silhouetted by the sky. He followed goat trails for miles until he could descend safely to timberline without traveling over treacherous scree or around tough boulder fields. His luck held as the trail gently angled downward into a thick stand of lodge poles that stretched up the slope.
Next morning he would follow the cut that widened into a valley laying below him. But for now, he would cold camp, without a fire. He could probably sleep in a squat next to a small flame, prepared to leave at a moment's notice. That, however, would be reserved for when it became a necessity. A good night's sleep was first priority.
Johnson slept well. He had slept well most of his life. In Vietnam he had learned to sleep for only a couple hours at a time, conditioning himself to awaken when the noises were not quite right. The only problem he ever had was a nightmare from that retched war. Encounters with bears, on the other hand, tend to take the starch out of a man.
Dried fish would have been a good breakfast, but he got on the trail immediately. A piece of deer jerky would satisfy him this morning. Scanning the ridge he had been traversing the night before, the mountain dweller detected a line of movement. Four, no, five, were on his trail. Who they were, he could only imagine.
Whoever they were, picking up his trail on the rocks in the dim light of the morning, they had to be good. Just wait till they get to his overnight camp, Jerry thought. He had not taken the time to cover his tracks there. That mistake would not be made again.
Jerry set up a couple of false trails, walking down the trail and stepping back exactly in his tracks. Then he climbed down a nearby vertical wall to the streambed below. He left no other tracks. Crossing the creek and climbing the opposite wall to a wide crack would conceal his movements as he headed away from his pursuers into the forest.
To have gained so many miles, they must have started early. The trail would become easy after awhile. When they encounter this little trick, he will have put more miles between them by the time they figure it out. Maybe too many for them to catch up.
They may even pull in dogs to track him. He was surprised that they hadn't done so to begin with. No matter. He had tricks up his sleeve that he had yet to use. He grinned. And besides, dead dogs can't smell anything and he hadn't eaten dog in quite a spell. They are quite tasty, he remembered.
Jerry had been generally going north. It was time to confuse them even further. Seeing a sizable valley before him, he changed direction, heading back up the mountain to the east. Changing direction like that would keep them from determining a possible destination and cutting him off. They couldn't drop anyone ahead of him.
Hearing a spotter plane overhead, he kept hidden till it was too far away to see him, even with binoculars. The Blackfoot continued up the small valley until it became just a large cut and the trees were no longer lining the upper ridges.
Climbing the north side of the cut with care, Jerry came down to timberline and continued north for about a mile. The tall pines were dog-hair thick. Once in the wooden maze, he could set traps midst the blow-downs. He would become essentially invisible to air traffic as well.
Lodge poles were mixed with scrubby fir, cottonwoods, and groves of close aspen. The deadfalls did make for very rough going. Johnson laid an easier trail and then set trip snares similar to the ones used by the Viet Cong. Chest-high deadfalls forced a man to squat or bend to go beneath the log. On the other side would be a surprise, a sapling strung back with sharpened stakes lashed half its length. Certainly a discouraging item for man or dog.
Heading down the mountain, Jerry snacked on jerky. He plotted his next course of frustration for the poor souls who chose to follow this skillfully cunning man. As he thought, he noticed the variety of trails animals had made and decided that he had the time to lay a few false trails.
One man, several trails, and he had run down them all. This should hold them for a bit. God have pity on his pursuers, because he would have none.
While they were confused as to which path he had taken, he could make up time by running on the southerly direction path. By the time they figured out which one he actually was on, he would have put more distance between them and him for a safer buffer.
After several miles, he stopped at a snow melt rivulet that descended from the higher elevations. He drank deeply. Leaving tracks on the other side of the stream, he then backtracked and climbed a convenient aspen that was stout enough to hold him. Nearing the top of the tree, he swung away from the trail so that the tree would set him down safely, gently, yards away from the trail. Jerry stole the idea from the poem, "A Swinger of Birches", by Robert Frost. Now he would head north again. Hopefully this little trick would leave the posse with a dead end for a short while, causing them to believe that he had started walking through the stream. It just may be the one that would get them to call out the dogs. That was inevitable, Jerry figured.
But for now, he had placed five miles between his pursuers and himself. Certain they would be calling it a day very soon, he watched the sun set as he chose a campsite.
Another night passed without his seeing or hearing anyone. It was assumable that some of his tricks had slowed them considerably. Some maybe permanently.
Fortunate so far, he wondered now just how long that luck would hold. Johnson was so used to making his own luck, and he figured that would have to be so for quite some time to come. No mistakes could be tolerated.
Now, if only he knew more about who was behind him.
Sam Waterton was waking to his day, readying himself for his assignment with the sheriff's office to find the mountain man fugitive.
One of the few chosen to be on the team, he had been through SWAT training that possibly would help in this situation. Sam was itching to get started. Dressed in black fatigues, he carried his favorite sidearm, a Colt .45 automatic.
Waterton kept an arsenal in his home that would have strained a relationship. They were his investment, his hobby. From black powder rifles and pistols to a variety of handguns and hunting rifles, Sam enjoyed them all. He rounded out his collection with a couple automatics and two shotguns, one pump with a folding stock and a semi-automatic street-sweeper. One never knows what the future may hold.
Guns occupied many of his hours away from the force, and he was a good shot with most of them. A self-taught gunsmith, Sam had added to his collection over the years via gun shows and newspaper ads. As far as he knew, Jill had left him because of his intense involvement with cold blue steel.
The morning had the nip of fall. Goosebumps formed down his arms, but he felt fine. He carried himself well because he kept himself in good shape, jogging regularly. A cop has to, he figured, for it could mean the difference between life and death. Daily calisthenics made him feel the best he has felt since his wife left.
Sam had never been what most people would have called a true ladies' man. His cheeks looked as though they were pinched permanently to make normal lips constantly pursed. A slender nose separated intense, blue eyes that most likely would have collided without the fleshy divider. Bushy eyebrows matched his crew cut red hair and made his brow seem Neanderthal. His visage was normally serious, but easily flashed a smile for a greeting.
Today, however, Sam was in a bad mood, his spirit down for what had happened to his fellow officer in Jackson. He kicked the fender of his rusty Ford pick-up, and chips flew in a cloud of dust. It reliably came to life and Sam drove off toward the meeting point for the posse.
He hated to be the fugitive today if he was the one to capture him. In the mood he was in, Sam knew he would be less likely to be other than professional. As he drove, he listened to a local country station, and once the mountains surrounded him, he slid in a Hank Williams tape.
Waterton had been on manhunts before, but not as the leader. Lost children were the norm, even runaways, and a couple of escaped cons he had hunted to an eventual capture. He knew his job well, but he knew his limitations. He was no tracker. Man hunting has its inherent risks and rules, and he respected them.
This hunt, however, was going to be different, possibly more dangerous, since the man they were looking for was unknown in his abilities and background. If the man had broken the jaw of Sam's fellow officer with one blow, the fugitive was extremely strong.
Sam pulled his pick-up on the narrow road that led to Tom Weaver's place. A wide spot allowed the team members' vehicles to park parallel. They were congregating near a deadfall at the side of the road.
The five included Jimmy Riggs from the sheriff's office, young Dan Pratt from fish and game, Bob Smith, a dog handler who could get dogs on a moment's notice, and John "Tall Bear" Calder, a local sharpshooter and tracker from the Crow reservation.
Introducing himself, Sam informed them of the job and how he wanted to pursue the fugitive. He had worked with Riggs and Smith before. Pratt just recently was placed in the region as a state game officer, and he appeared itching to go.
Calder, on the other hand, looked disinterested and ill-prepared. Sam questioned him.
"Calder, you ready for staying out as long as it takes to get our man?" grilled Waterton. His no-nonsense attitude was obvious in his face and tone, and he expected an immediate answer.
"Well, Mr. Po-lice-man, if you can keep up with my tracking, you'll find out, won't you?" Calder shot back. Then he stood up, ready for anything the cop thought he could dish out.
"Are you aware that you will follow my orders explicitly?"
"Yeah, up to the point I am sure you don't know what you are doing, white man," the Crow replied flippantly. "Thing is, I'm out front tracking. If I get tired or the trail peters out, I rest. You have no say in that. If it's night, we will camp. I control the tracking, not you. Without me, you go nowhere. Do you comprendo that, Mr. Po-lice-man? I can't track at night."
"You can, I've heard, but you're saying that you won't. Our mission is to determine where he is headed, catch up to him, if possible, and take him in.
"If we can call in a spotter plane or other men to cut him off, we should be able to surround and catch him. Anyhow, that is the plan. Any questions?" Waterton shot a quick glance at each member. "If not, let's move out. I have a search warrant for the old miner's place, so we'll stop there first." Sam reached for his well-stocked backpack and shouldered it.
Traveling uphill, the posse arrived at the hermit's cabin about fifty minutes later. The area search and questioning only took about twenty minutes. Calder quietly sat cross-legged outside.
Noticing the apathy in the Indian, Sam asked, "Is there a conflict of interests here, Calder, seeing how you and the fugitive are both Indians?"
"My job is to track and detain, and shoot if I have to. Nothing more. Besides, he isn't here and we're wasting time," Calder said.
"How do you know that?" Sam inquired curiously.
"Heap big moccasin tracks," Tall Bear started sarcastically. Waterton's eyes rolled. Then the Crow continued seriously, "larger than Weaver's there, are heading towards the high country. They are the freshest tracks of that size.
"If you continue to question my abilities, Mr. Po-lice-man, I'll let you find this clown on your own."
"Never mind," Waterton said, visibly disgustedly. He realized his hands were tied and he needed the tracker. Best not to tick him off. "I'll consult you first from now on for an assessment of the area, but I also expect your input if something useful to our mission."
"Makes sense to me," Calder added. "First thing you've said or done that has."
"I'm sure you'd have done much better, huh?"
"It's for damn sure we ain't after this old man. Yeah, we're wasting time."
Sam glared at the Crow momentarily then said, "Lead out, then."
John Calder nodded and said, "Fine, but let me tell you one thing, Waterton. Blackfeet have been the traditional enemies of the Crow for generations, so there is no reason you have to doubt I'll do my job. I am probably the best tracker in the state, maybe the whole West."
"Fine. We'll be able to see how good, won't we?" Waterton retaliated through thin lips.
Calder led the group away from the old man's cabin. Waterton followed behind him, trailed by Pratt, Smith, and Riggs, who was watching carefully as he pulled up the rear, just in case the hermit tried anything.
The black bear's carcass was easy to find, but the Crow went on to discover less obvious remnants of the campfire and pieces of handmade tools; information about the fugitive's exceptional abilities. Anyone who could dispatch a bear was worth grim consideration. An obvious scuffle had taken place, telling Calder to beware of the one they were following. He learned that the Blackfoot was adept at concealing camps well, for none of the other posse members could tell that a camp had even existed there.
Pieces of a bow and drill fire-making apparatus were stashed behind a tree in some tall grass. Anyone able to use the ancient ways could live in the wild indefinitely. Calder was learning more about his quarry with each piece of information he discovered. Now he knew this job was going to be tougher than he had originally thought, especially if the Blackfoot was traveling high and light.
He soon would find out how tough.
Calder dutifully informed Sam of what he found and just how difficult a task they had before them. Finding all the incoming and outgoing trails took a bit more time. A half-hour transpired before the tracker could determine the true path. He figured it had to be correct because it was a deeper and better-defined track, the fugitive shouldering a load as he left.
The previous night had been windy, dropping pinecones and fresh, greener needles had fallen into the older tracks un-crushed. The freshest tracks had the crushed ones. The Crow estimated the man had left about dawn.
Moving at a slow walk, they allowed Calder to track at his own pace. It was an easy track. That was the reason he was wary. It was too simple. Child's play. What gives? Why the carelessness?
Gaining some ground, Calder felt more comfortable, assured the man was not aware of anyone trailing him. Other posse members agreed this was a breeze and they should be home within a couple days. The game trail continued over rocky terrain but the confident tracker felt sure that the spoor continued easily where the soil began again. He was reassured when the trail began just where he expected it to appear.
As they hiked, Calder imagined a possible destination for the Blackfoot. Yellowstone country? Still too well-populated. Absarokas? A great wilderness area, but quite easily surrounded. The Selway-Bitterroot? Now, that just might be. But then, so could Canada, for that matter. Lost Trail Pass could be a likely access route toward both. If he was a betting man, he would bet he was right.
It would be best to wait, however. The big Indian could be laying a heck of a false trail northward. It just did not make any sense to Calder that a man who lived in the wilderness would leave a track to be so easily followed. Sun setting on a fiery horizon, he pondered that possibility when he announced that it was time to make camp.
Sam objected since there was still daylight to track, but Calder convinced him that the fugitive had not been moving very fast, apparently not aware of someone on his trail. While helping to make camp, Sam agreed it was wise to rest well while they could. They might need it.
Voicing agreement, the other posse members were happy to make camp. Smith had dragged a bit coming into camp where a fire was being made, collapsed in mock faint, and whined, "I can't remember when I've ever been so danged tired!"
"If you're right about that Injun moving slow, I'd hate to see him speed things up," Deputy Riggs injected in Calder's direction.
"Just remember, he's a tall man capable of as much as a mile per hour faster than any of us on flat ground," Calder said to all. "If he decides to pick up the pace, we may need dogs and aircraft sooner rather than later."
"We may need them anyway," Sam put in. "One day is shot and we all would like to get this thing over and done with."
Nods followed the deputy's statement, small talk ensued as meals were prepared and bedrolls were laid out. Sam was secretly thankful Calder had insisted on making camp as his lanky form lay on his sleeping bag and pulled out a piece of jerky. He sniffed at the pine-scented air that moved up the slopes as the group reminisced about camping as a kid.
Morning came as though Sam had just closed his eyes seconds before. He always hated feeling as if he hadn't slept at all. Watching Calder in a squat beside a small fire, the lawman noticed the brisk air. Fall was definitely here in the high country. His eyes really widened when he exposed his body to the cold air. After dressing, he put his gear away. The Crow watched his every move. Dismissing the Crow's scrutiny, he walked to the bushes to relieve himself.
Returning, Waterton heard the groans of the others as Calder nudged each to wake up. Soon they were on the trail. Those who missed eating breakfast learned to carry food that requires little or no cooking. And those who were slow risers acquired new habits quickly or they would have been left behind, cut out of any pay for their efforts.
Ascending slowly onto rocky slopes, the trail faded into dangerous scree. Calder kept a good pace by watching for recently overturned rocks or an accidental slip on scree where rock scrapes rock. Once started, a scree slip can escalate to a terrible fall, a potentially deadly mistake. The trick on scree was to keep moving.
Had Calder known, he would have looked straight down the slope, for that was where the resting Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle sighted the posse for the first time. But it would be a few hours of negotiating the dangerous rock and the descent to timberline before they would find the overnight camp of the experienced mountain man.
Calder checked many side trails, one an obvious small game run, another morning walk for relief from nature's call. A third went further west down the slope, but then so did a fourth, slightly south of it.
Turning to Waterton, Calder said, "I'm not sure yet, but I got a feeling our boy knows we're behind him. I gotta check a couple trails here, so sit tight." Calder turned and disappeared.
Sam spoke after him, "We'll be here." Where else would they go? What else could they do? Without tracking skills, they had to wait for Calder.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later Calder returned, a look of puzzlement on his face. "Now I'm positive he's seen us. Call in a spotter plane, Waterton, 'cause if I can't find his track, we might as well go back. Keep everyone here, too, to prevent them from destroying sign. I'm going to retrace the two trails I found."
Sam had Riggs radio for a plane as Calder walked over to the trail that petered out. The tall Crow, a prime example of a pure Absaroka bloodline, examined tracks with new interest, more scrutiny. He lay his cheek next to the ground, rotating his head to pick up any patterns left on the earth that he could not detect from a normal perspective.
What Calder discovered was that the tracks of the westward trail were deeper than they had been before. He concluded that the mountain man had stepped back exactly in his own tracks, laying a false trail, for there were no other tracks beyond their end. The push-offs, small indicators of direction to a tracker, proved he was right.
The second trail only went about a hundred yards, and it vanished, too. Finding little sideways push-offs, the tracker soon discovered a fresher set of tracks where the fugitive landed nearly five feet away.
Calder tracked to where he could tell the man had looked up to see them up the slope. It, too, faded to nothing. Familiar now with the trick, he found the hidden trail that led down the mountain.
To a craggy cliff.
Downward, Calder thought, shaking his head in despair. He hurried back to the waiting posse.
"Gentlemen," he announced, "follow me."
Obeying, possibly expecting a tidbit of ancient Indian wisdom, they soon were at the bluff. Rappelling down the fifty-foot cliff, Calder yelled, "If I call back up, prepare to do some rappelling." Groans and whines answered him. "Smith, you better call in your dogs. We lost about an hour here and I don't intend to lose anymore if I can help it." Calder's pride not withstanding, he realized this case would challenge all of his abilities. The dogs would give him an edge, then he could even track faster.
Little did he know what the Blackfoot had in store for him. For, if he had known, he would have turned back now.
Taking a chance that the old timer was hiding the bigger man, the five men stopped to see the old mountain man before they headed after the fugitive. Including representatives of the sheriff's office and the fish and game department, a sharpshooter, and a willing tracker, the quintet was led by Sam Waterton of the Jackson Police Department. They carried handset radios, a 30-30, a couple M-16s, a couple of side arms, and a shotgun, among all their personal gear.
Sam never found any dirt on the old Tom. The old man had checked out all right, but Sam wanted the man's cabin searched anyway. They flashed the warrant at the hermit and looked around the property. Against Tom's wishes, of course. In case they decided to tear the place apart while they were looking around, Tom had a surprise for them if they did anything stupid. And he felt he would be doing Jerry a favor if he took a few of these guys out.
Tom admitted that their man had been there, but that he had left the night before, heading back to his camp, wherever that was. That was true, because Tom did not care to know. And he was sure that his friend would not have told him for that very reason. He had not known that the law was after the boy until it had shown up looking for him.
What Tom didn't know, he couldn't tell. He had no reason to lie, and he didn't owe anything to anybody. Not to the police. Not even to Jerry.
The young snot had put him in a tough position if the law had shown up when the kid was here. Tom was glad that Jerry had left when he did. Felt like the boy knew exactly what he was doing, and Tom truly hoped he could pull it off. It would be interesting to see if the younger mountain man had learned anything from this old hoss. For the boy's well being, he surely hoped so.
Throughout Tom's life as a mountain man, a buckskinner who had learned the art of brain tanning from the Indians and from employing simple trial-and-error, his search for a solitary lifestyle had been interrupted many times. Once by Uncle Sam for a two-year stint in the army medical corp. Another when an ex-army buddy sought him and ripped him off. Still another when that girl thought he would be a good meal ticket.
Certainly, Tom had thought, that this tall kid with the muscular build would have been capable of being quite the partner. His spirit was like his own despite the fact that he held the belief that Christianity was the only way to get to Heaven.
Valhalla was more his style. The Vikings were true warriors, Tom imagined. So were the Lakota. They were the reason he had adopted the name of Mato Ushte, Lame Bear. He just did not get around as easy as he used to. Hobbling with a bear-like gait, he preferred riding one of his mountain-bred stallions to walking.
Jerry had taken to hide work like he had been born to it, like a Blackfoot woman. When told the procedure once, he had it down. His first hides were well-done, serviceable skins. The big kid made an admirable pair of britches from just two mule deer hides and a usable breechclout. Two more skins he used for a war shirt, but with little beading. Those two items would last a very long time in the wild mountain country.
Back then they had ridden the High Lonesome and made meat together. Becoming used to each other's company, they even shared sign language to facilitate their hunting, making it more productive as the mountain men and Indians of yesteryear.
Life had been good to the two mountain men until one day's talk ran to abilities and wintering. Tom had maintained that a man was not a true hivernant without wintering alone. After that the kid became withdrawn and silent, even moody. Tom couldn't figure him out.
Then one day the kid had just disappeared without a word. The conversation had strained their relationship, apparently. It had been impossible to track the kid, since he had taken off the very day the heavy snows had descended that year on the area. That's a fine how-do-you-do, he had thought. Take in a feller, feed him, teach him, and he ups and leaves on a man! Well, at least he did not steal anything when he left.
Now, five years later, the kid shows up with a tale of wintering the Swan country. And he has the law on his tail to boot.
Weren't his doing, Tom thought to himself, because he had told the boy to stay out of trouble, one of the keys on keeping this type of lifestyle free from intrusion by nosy law-dogs. Whatever happens, Tom wished the kid well. Were they not cut from the same bolt of cloth? Weren't they by-God mountainee men? Waugh!
They had made meat, pulled hides, and had some shining times together.
They surely had.
Despite the warm days, it was approaching the time when snow frosted the peaks. Shimmering fireweed, crimson blueberry bushes, fragrant sage, and the golden leaves flooded the landscape with their wash of colors, preparing for winter's icy blast. A contrast to man, they take off their colorful duds to greet the coming season in the nude, whereas humankind puts on more clothing to protect from the imminent colder times.
Dancing a primeval jig, the flora succumbed to the wind's music to appease the snow spirit natives called the White Warrior. Shaking their limbs and jiggling their stems, they also pleased the six-foot-six mountain of a man who watched intently. He joined them in their reveille, waking to a coming norther. Goosebumps flooded over him, but he loved the caress of this natural lover. Thoughts turning carnally backward, his imagination followed the morning's fire's smoke as it intercoursed with the wind.
His mind was filled with memories of past relationships, each special in her own talented way. How he wished he could have found the one who had all the good qualities, and a desire to get lost with him. But, it was never meant to be if he was being hunted like an animal constantly.
His last girlfriend, a leggy blonde named Cindy, was a fitness freak tied to a job as a director for an exercise club. And she loved her status and her materialistic acquisitions.
Her idea of leaving the city was to backpack now and then. He had left her a letter explaining his ties to the earth and all it has to offer in the way of freedom. He also had to admit that his love for the wilderness outweighed his desire for female company. If someone special had the his desires as he, they might hit it off.
Tina had been just that type of woman for a long time. She accompanied him on many forays into the Bitterroots. Having learned brain-tanning, Tina was even willing to leave her job. Her long, black hair and tanned complexion gave her a truly authentic Indian look when she wore her buckskin dress, fringed and beaded. But, Tina had been more in love with another than with Jerry. She married a man who moved her away to Hawaii without so much as a warning, a "good-bye", or "get lost". He occasionally heard from her when she got lonesome for the mountains. Or tired of the good life. He was not quite sure which.
Tough, he thought, she made the wrong choice. He would have taken her back in an instant, for she had been the best example of every dream girl he could have ever thought up in any daydream. Now she was with child. Too bad she was married.
Forcing himself back to reality, he plunged his head into a nearby brook. Its frigidness invigorated him. It made him feel more alive, more free, now that he realized he wasn't tied down.
Well, he felt fortunate not having to worry about a woman on this trip. He only had to take care of himself.
Leaving the stream, he put his buckskin shirt back on, and dismantled his camp. Under a rapidly clouding sky, Jerry got on the trail.
Ronald Tipton Boggs, "Tip" to his friends, thought it would be to his advantage to try to catch this criminal before the posse did.
The posse had accepted the other Fish and Game man, but he was much younger than Tip. Twenty-four years in the state's service had become boring for the last few years. Routine tasks irritated him and he wanted to show his superiors just one more of his abilities. A feather in his cap could possibly promote him, garnering him a healthy increase for retirement in the next year or so.
At least, so he hoped.
Tip knew the country well within his jurisdiction. The land surrounding the eccentric hermit's place was the hunting area of his youth, back when the cabin housed a gold miner. He had locked away the nooks and crannies of each arroyo, valley, ditch, and hole in his mind those so many years ago. Despite not hunting for a few years, Tip could search with relative competence, even without a dog. He had a few days off coming to him and he decided to coincide them with his week-end.
Having studied tracking and participated in manhunts and search-and-rescues, Tip was well-prepared for what he was about to do. Where would he go if he had wanted his own freedom? That answer came easy since the largest unbroken wilderness in the United States, barring Alaska, lay ahead in the Selway-Bitterroot area. If he were a mountain man, that is where he'd go.
But, Tipton Boggs was certain of one thing. The mountain man was headed north. From all the radio chatter he could map the buckskin wearer's progress. Tip had to admire this throw-back to a hundred years ago. His assessment of what info the sheriff's office had and some of what he learned from old Tom added up to a fellow with the potential of doing what the Apache, Chato, had done to his pursuers in the last century.
Possibly the fugitive was kin more to the old Jeremiah Johnson than just his name. One couldn't be certain, really, since the namesake of the famous mountain man, once a marshal of Red Lodge, Montana, had lost all ties to the Blackfoot reservation. His parents had long been dead, and trying to get information out of any reservation Indian was rather difficult, Tip knew.
His course of action was to find him, head him off, stop him altogether, even talk to him, if it was possible. It would take nearly all of his knowledge and physical abilities to match or best the larger man. Tip was a six-footer and neared a hundred and ninety-five pounds. Recent years saw him doing more and more desk work, while the younger officers went out into the field.
Younger fish and game wardens took to the field easily, and some would stay out for longer stretches of time in order to nab poachers. Tip loved the work, but he was closer to sixty years old now than to thirty, and his wife understandably preferred his presence in the evenings.
This was different. Here was a challenge that could possibly help his future, if he succeeded. This man wasn't a mere poacher like his usual adversary.
Tip's love for the wilderness was truly the reason for all he did on the job. His hunting, fishing, and duty in the outdoors were his priorities, second only to his wife. She surely deserved a good retirement with him after the years of devotion he had put into his job at her expense.
The kids were all out on their own. Bobby was doing well in the Marines. Jan became a secretary, and then married a good man, and they have a fine family with two little ones. And Steve, their baby boy, is into construction in Seattle, and became a job foreman recently. Tip was proud of them all. Not much left in his life, he thought, other than retiring happily.
This had to be the last field outing. The younger guys were taught nearly all he could teach them. They had become quite good, having become cautious, efficient, and fair. Sure, he would tell his wife a little white lie as to where he was going. And he would go alone, tracking at his own speed without the impatience or the inexperience of youth, or their active enthusiasm pulling at him, wearing his old body down.
Boggs packed a light haversack, no sense kidding himself. Just enough to get along...jerky, rice, a can of stew, some coffee, a bedroll, and extra clothing. And his 30-30. He kept matches and a lighter in his pack along with a spoon, a cup, and a small set of binoculars.
When he left early the next morning, he felt good and strong, ready to meet the challenge. The trip would be a two or three hour drive on mountain logging roads. His four-by-four pick-up would get him to the trailhead that a guide used for horse packing into the high country for hunting Dall sheep.
Tip figured to place himself ahead of the fugitive or cut his trail ahead of the small posse. A man raised in the mountains could have attained a ten to fifty mile lead on the small team that followed him. Not knowing the mountain man's true location was a problem, but Tip would do his best.
Hiking up a gentle slope, the warden noticed that it was rapidly becoming more difficult, scree angling upward to a sheer face. The game trails were so small, they were hard to trace across the uncertain rocky surface. The only large one angled back downward into the trees, and it was the only one that could have been safely crossed by man.
Close scrutiny revealed a track he could tell was from a moccasin, similar to those he had seen around reservations. So, the mountain man was in front of him. It was the only track he had found carelessly left by the fugitive in the immediate area. Pebbles pushed down here, grass stems and blades recovering there.
This guy is good. Damn good. It had taken all of Tip's skill to find the trail of the fugitive. The mountain man was using larger rocks to avoid areas that would hold a track. Long stretches came where Tip could find absolutely no tracks to make the going easy.
But luck was Tip's constant companion. He found a track just when he truly needed one to verify his trail. If nothing else, a push-down or overturned pebble was all he required to keep him going.
Tricks were not something Tip was familiar with. Game rarely covered their tracks. An occasional smart bear could make one think so, but they were not perfect. This had to be the most difficult trail he had ever taken. It was enough to cause him many delays, determining what was man-caused. And delays were costly. Boggs could not afford to be kept guessing for very long. This big guy was gaining ground away from him.
He needed to make his own luck in order to gain the upper hand in this situation. If Johnson was heading north, it just stood to reason that he could do so, too. Cut ahead of the delays. Find a prominent high point, a tree, maybe, and glass around. It would take time, but it could prove beneficial in the long term. Intersect the fugitive. Stop him from further progress. That made good sense, and it was a chance he had to take. If only the lay of the land would cooperate.
Tip ambled up the mountain to hike the base of the scree slopes. Some cuts would be tough, but then, so was parts of life. After about five miles, Tip stopped on a rounded knob that protruded a couple hundred feet above the trees. Glassing produced nothing.
Pushing on further, He realized that he was approaching evening with no idea where he would camp. His next stop had better be for that purpose. Before sunset, Tip found a nice clearing with his binoculars.
Pulling his glasses away from his face, the warden detected movement near the timberline nearly two hundred yards north of the campsite he had chosen. He adjusted the glasses and....
There he was! A buckskin-covered figure was boulder-hopping.
Tip's heart thundered into his brain as it jumped into his throat. He checked his weapon, assuring he had not forgotten to load it, and reacquainted himself with the safety. His hands were suddenly slippery.
Should he shoot first and ask questions later? Of course not. He couldn't justify it from any standpoint, professionally or morally.
Funny how thoughts of his family flooded his mind. Good times on the job, that sort of thing. The uncertainty he had was based on the extent of the mountain man's desperateness. Would he be the one to shoot first?
No time to think on the campsite now. Boggs watched the man a bit longer, then....
Whoa, there! He suddenly stopped. Tip wondered whether the fugitive was ready to make camp, probably knowing he was well-ahead of the posse, which was nowhere close.
The warden thought of a hot fire, warm food, and a good night's rest, but apprehending this jasper would not wait now that he was so near. As he watched the man, Tip saw those comforts become reality for the man on the run.
Tip was a patient man. He had learned to wait for the deer to come to him. And the poachers. As the fire died down, Tip decided it was time to pay the bigger man a visit. He could move quietly through the trees, and proceeded to do so now.
By the time he approached within fifty feet of the fugitive's camp, all Tip could see was the glow of the fire's embers on the white bark of the closest aspens. Boggs could take his time and be as quiet as he knew how to be. He'd have to be to get the drop on this child of nature.
Keeping his eyes on the long form near the fire, he stepped softly toward a thick tree nearest the fire. He trained his 30-30 on the prostrate lump, and then felt the terror of cold steel on his temple.
A strong bass voice whispered as cold as the barrel Tip felt on his temple.
"Drop the gun...or die. Those 're your options, pilgrim."
Boggs wisely did as he was told, letting the Marlin fall from his hands. He just couldn't figure out how the man knew.
"What gave me away?" the warden asked.
"Setting sun off your field-glasses, ranger. I oughtta drop you where you stand," Jerry speculated. He quickly checked the man for other weapons.
"But you're not?" Boggs asked. Somehow he sensed mercy. "Why?"
"Not yet, anyway. It's an option I can choose anytime," Jerry assured the older man.
Boggs was uneasily certain of that fact. He'd done his best against this massive bear of a man, and he lost handily, without a shot fired.
Watching the mountain man rapidly stoke dim embers to bright flames, Tip noticed the big man's moves were purposeful, efficient. Water was put on to boil, then the buckskinner turned squarely toward the warden.
"Now, ranger, how did you find me when the posse is so far behind?"
"Figured you for heading north. Figure someone else will, too, eventually. Tried to cut your trail and had a bit of trouble with that, let me tell you, but I tracked you for awhile until I thought it best to climb in order to glass the timberline, and, bingo, there you were, boulder hopping to beat the band. I wouldn't have been able to catch up by tracking you. I was losing ground too fast. I'm too dad-blamed rusty."
"Rusty or not, ranger, you did what I thought could not be done. You nearly caught me napping, almost literally," Jerry admitted. "You're better than you let on, or I've been terribly careless." He punctuated his statement by breaking a stout branch, displaying his obvious anger, and strength.
Boggs was assessing his chances against this guy. The man had awesome power as well as apparent skill. He was hopelessly outclassed, plain and simple. Outweighed, out-powered, and out-skilled. Yep, outclassed all the way.
"Maybe a little bit of both, Jeremiah," the warden said, allowing his knowledge to surface. "You often let your guard down and left a trail that a novice would have been able to pick up." He lied a little bit, but he secretly felt a kind of kinship to the fugitive now, hoping he could be careful enough to escape.
"Have we met before?"
"We met on the road, but other than that, no," Tip replied, shaking his head. "Old Tom told the sheriff very little, nothing to incriminate himself. Or you. I just picked up radio chatter, cross-talk from the sheriff's posse to their base station in Jackson."
"What's your stake in this?" the mountain man truly wanted to know. "A gent like yourself can't seriously think I'm worth all that much." Jerry was rather amazed.
Relieved to hear the bigger man was conversing rather than cursing, Boggs answered, "Only to me." He nodded his head to affirm his statement. "Only to me."
A bit uncomfortable, he shifted his seat. "If I'd only been successful, I gambled to get a raise before I retired." Tip raised his head and looked Jerry in the eye. "Frankly, I'm tired, sore, and hungry. Could I possibly get myself something to eat?"
The mountain man stood and went through the warden's bag, then threw it to Boggs. "Help yourself, ranger. You look like you could stand some nourishment," he taunted. Jerry watched the older man intently. "What's your name?"
"Boggs. Tipton Boggs." Tip pulled out a can of stew and some jerky and looked up at the fugitive. "Tip is what my friends call me." He motioned around him with a sweeping arc of his hand. "Used to hunt, trap, and fish these mountains as a kid. Reckon I know this area about as good as anybody." Stating to heat his stew, he shoved a piece of dried beef into his mouth and chewed.
Johnson dropped a handful of his own jerky in rolling water and stirred. Turning his attention to the 30-30 on the ground, he picked it up and shucked it clean of ammo. He set the weapon next to his bedding.
"How far back do you think they are? Twenty miles?" He popped a piece of the swollen meat in his mouth and chewed heartily. He ran no risk asking questions and he felt this warden actually was somewhat on his side. Could get some helpful information.
"Before I came up the mountain, they were at least ten miles behind you. They were having a tough time trailing you. You left them a couple traps, I hear." He watched the fugitive's face for any emotion, even a chuckle. Nothing.
By tomorrow they might be even further behind unless they get lucky, like me," Boggs speculated, pouring a quick couple of spoonfuls of stew in his eager mouth. Slurping it down, Tip continued as the fugitive fished another piece of meat from his pot. "Before too long, though, they'll send someone ahead like I tried to do. Prob'ly figure you're heading for the Selway. Ain't likely to have my sweet disposition, neither."
"Can't believe they'd be so worked up for just a car. Heck, it's in some brush on the other side of the peaks from Tom's place."
"Law's the law, boy. Besides, you can't ever expect to stop now since you broke that cop's jaw," Tip explained, then spooned another mouthful of stew in his face.
"Broke his jaw? I hardly hit him! What is the matter with these city-fied nine-to-fivers?" Jerry nearly shouted. He sat down heavily, visibly disgusted. His next few bites were in a sulking silence, and he looked away from the camp.
Boggs placed his stew can into the fire to clean it. Later, he would retrieve it, crush it, and pack it out. If he was alive to do so.
Jerry's jerky was gone. It hadn't been much, but he had the habit of just satisfying his immediate hunger when in a fix like this. He preferred to keep a bit of hunger ever present to keep him more alert for the enemy.
Worked for him.
Washing down his jerky with the broth, his anger permeated the air of the camp. Breathing heavier, his actions became more noisy. He knew they wouldn't give up easily. The ranger had hit the nail on the head and Johnson was rightly pissed off.
"One thing's for sure, Boggs, no more mistakes for this child," Jerry insisted. "I will not go to jail, if I can help it. My freedom means too much to me, even at the expense of a stupid cop's jaw."
He walked away a few yards and his thoughts drifted back to the war when he was imprisoned by the Viet Cong for a couple of days. He had escaped and killed four of his captors, beheading one with one great stroke of his knife.
"No, Boggs, whatever you can do to stop it, please try, because I truly don't want their blood on my hands. And, believe me, if they don't stop, that's what'll happen."
Tip threw out his bedroll and reclined with a sigh. "For your sake, boy, I hope not. You've got a spirit I ain't seen in a long time, at least, not since ol' Tom, anyways. You stay free and in the mountains, you'll receive a lot of local sympathy and support, if my guess is correct.
Changing the subject, Tip asked, "Do you remember that guy in Idaho who killed those two game wardens?"
"Yeah. As I recall he was defending himself."
"The locals thought so, but the jury saw it differently because he had used a .22 to shoot those fellas in the back of the head like animals. He still was put away for it."
"Yeah, and he was hunted down like one, too," Jerry added.
"You can't expect any less, kid," Boggs advised, "because assaulting an officer of the law is darn near unforgivable in our culture." Tip knew he was addressing a man with the mindset from another era, another culture over a century old.
Looking at the older man Jerry saw the understanding in his eyes. The mountain man lay back on his bed, vigilant. Head propped up, he was alert to where Boggs was and what he was doing.
"You're going to need all the luck in the world to keep them from getting you, ya know," Tip continued.
"I'm used to making my own luck, ranger," Jerry informed him.
"I'm certain a man in your profession has to from time to time, for sure," Tip agreed. "But, tell me one thing, son," he hesitated, formulating the words in his mind, "why didn't you kill me on sight?"
Silence. Then carefully enunciated words came. "Let's just say,...it was...," Jerry said. Then he paused a bit longer, "...a bit of mountain honor, Boggs. Respect for your abilities, and an honor for your heart that seems to echo mine. Having the gumption you have makes me believe you have what the mountain men used to call the 'hair of the bear' in you!" Johnson paused a second to let the compliment sink in. Then he said, "Now, shut up, Boggs, and go to sleep."
Tip knew what the mountain man was trying to say. He knew what one code of the mountain men was, do your best, give it your all, and don't let any man stand in your way. Tip had done his best against the man but lost.
This mountain man was a man of the wilderness, it was true. And it was not going to be any normal man who was going to get the drop on him, or pick up his trail.
Tip knew that he was safe now. He knew deep down inside that this man honored his word. Despite whatever this guy had done, Tip knew that the fugitive was an honorable man. Laying his head back, he understood what the man was going to do. The warden was sure he would sleep soundly.
Tip Boggs had been bone-tired. Rising slowly, he looked around to find himself alone. Not surprised, he thought. Hope the boy makes it now. He has the stuff the old mountain men were made of. He had courage and strength, and an attitude that said, "Leave me alone or you'll wish you had."
Tip tidied the camp, a good habit for an outdoorsman. Come to think of it, possibly to help the kid some.
John Calder, the Crow, descended the short wall easily. The tracks were invisible until he examined the soil with a "side-heading" technique. Dips left by moccasins went into the creek that created a deep crack in the rock. It had only been a trickle of a creek to jump over in the higher elevations, but now it had to be forded.
When Calder crossed it, he found where the fugitive had climbed the opposite wall of the little creek's canyon to a cut that loomed twenty or thirty feet overhead. Calder's black mane dragged sand onto his neck and he wiped the back of his neck with his palm. This jasper knew his business, all right. He was making it hard as he could to whittle down the posse.
Good thing we called in the dogs. This could get very old very fast. But dogs can't track up and down cliff faces. Maybe the spotter plane can spot a buckskin-clad man adept at concealing a trail, and possibly himself. Sure it can, you dumb Injun. He shook his head, contemplating what was needed to catch this man. And if he ever could be caught.
Well, sure! After all, he was only a man, wasn't he?
The tracker climbed the wall carefully and examined the narrow crack. Some seed beads had been loosened by the climb and had fallen into the lower recesses of the crack. Now Calder was positive.
Calling up to the posse, he urged them to choose whether to follow him or go up the mountain to jump over the creek and then descend on the side he was on now. They chose the latter.
Calder continued his tracking, and soon heard the spotter plane dipping and weaving as it checked the side of the mountain, continuing up beyond timberline in patterned flight.
"He's probably farther north or hiding very well here close," he muttered to himself, seeing the plane move farther away now. He sipped a little water now that sweat was pouring from the climb.
Suddenly the trail stopped at a pretty creek valley, shallower and wider than the previous one.
Scanning, Calder discovered tracks heading toward the peaks again. Hang me for a fool! He's either trying to find a ford or throw us off the trail again. Tall Bear heard voices and turned to see the posse approaching a half mile behind him. Sound carries well up here, he reminded himself. The posse must have found easier going. Calder had left an obvious route with trail markers. Leaving another cairn, he changed direction again.
North, south, east, west, north, east, south, north. Damn it! This Blackfoot was becoming a royal pain in this Crow's hiney! Most people take the easiest path. Not this jasper. Normal fugitives are more predictable that this one who obviously had been well-trained by his people.
Tracks led him above timberline and he followed them out of the valley which now had been reduced to a large cut. Here he left another small pile of stones. If he builds a few more, he could go into the construction trade as a stone fence builder. Few scuffs and overturned stones were left by the moccasins that now led the frustrated Calder down the slope again.
Along the way, he passed the posse on the other rim. Of course, they were going the other direction, following every twist the fugitive had put in the trail.
He continued in silence because their best route lay as he had traveled. Getting their attention would only delay them further. Delays they did not need.
Farther down the mountain, the thicker the lodge poles became. The forest was on a west-facing slope, with thick verdant, low-growing shrubs and bushes covering the floor with a tangle of growth that would slow the posse.
Deadfalls became maddening.
A horizontal gleam crossed the trail ahead, catching Calder's eye. Drawing closer, he found a snare that would have held him aloft until the posse came by to let him down. If they ever were to show up at all. That would have been difficult to live down, Calder decided.
Dismantling the trap, Tall Bear realized he would have to be more attentive else, he might not be so lucky a second time. The tracker did not want to blunder into any surprise that might lie in store, and he was relatively certain there were more ahead.
Carefully picking his way, the Crow tore up two more traps, eating precious time while the fugitive gained even more time and distance. Crossing a firebreak, he cocked his ear to hear the sound of hounds coming up the clearing that had been cut through the trees up the mountainside.
Not locating the mountain man's trail again, Calder backed out of the jungle-like growth. He waited as the dogs and the handler, a son of Bob Smith, approached. Three bloodhounds and a couple of shepherds became excited to find another human being. They sniffed and jumped, agitated about the Indian.
Young Jimmy Smith was dressed like he had been pulled out of school. A big-boned kid, he was muscular like his dad. He talked to the dogs mostly as though they were still pets.
Calder looked at the kid and nodded. "Ready?"
"I reckon I should wait for Dad, but he'll get over it. Let's go!" Jimmy said excitedly.
Calder told the boy to hold the dogs till he could come up with a sure track to give the hounds something to go on. The tracker explained how he had discovered the traps on the trail.
Jimmy nodded that he understood. Loose bloodhounds could blunder headlong into whatever lay ahead with possible lethal consequences. His dad would not want him to hesitate, though. He knew the job the dogs had to do.
Finding where the mountain man entered the forest again, Calder could let the dogs pick up the scent, then follow along side them at a jog. This will go much faster now, John thought. Jimmy held the bloodhounds at point and the heeled the shepherds. As line of sight hunters, the shepherds were able to catch a scent on the air or see their prey before the bloodhounds.
Deadfalls occasionally contained hastily-made snares or spiked traps easily detected when watched for. But one double-trunk dead pine hid a vertical branch that surprised the lead dog with a rush of the limb's downward arc, catching the canine through the skull with a couple attached sharp sticks.
"Jack!" Jimmy screamed as he saw the stakes kill his dog swiftly. "Jack! Jack!" he cried over and over and he stroked the lifeless ear. A tear rolled down the big boy's cheek. "He and Jill should have a litter soon," he told the Indian standing next to him. His brothers and sisters would be devastated.
Calder put his hand on the boy's shoulder.
"We have to leave him, Jimmy," he said. He regretted the boy's loss, but they had to go. "Your dad will take care of him."
"Let's go," Jimmy said with resolve, dropping the limp leash and summoning the courage to leave his old friend behind.
The Crow had to change his tactics. He did not want the boy to get hurt. It's no longer a game. This is deadly serious. Traps like this clown is leaving are getting harder to see.
Soon they discovered where Johnson knelt to drink from snowmelt. Then Calder noticed that the trail vanished. Again. He searched in the ever-widening circle a tracker usually uses to find a lost trail, but was coming up short.
Sitting down, the Crow pondered the possibilities, tricks he knew that could be used. Could it be that he was up against a man who was his superior at leaving no trail?
The last tracks he had seen were stranger than any the fugitive had left up till now. He saw push-offs that indicated a jump, but to where? He looked around but found no tracks that indicated where the mountain man could have landed within jumping distance. John had to admit he was stumped. The trail disappeared as though the man had vanished into thin air.
The dogs had tracked the trail to the same conclusion, to the same last tracks. However, Jimmy let them nose around a bit while the Crow was thinking. They soon let out a bellowing chorus of vocals that told the humans where they picked up the trail, nearly ten yards away.
Calder scrutinized the ground and found deep moccasins tracks that appeared to be a landing, from seemingly thin air. Returning to the tree he had sat against, the tracker now saw abrasions on the tree where the fugitive had climbed. He could see how Johnson had used the upper branches to let him swing to the ground safely to earth further than any human can broad jump.
The bloodhounds appeared to smile their superiority back at the tracker. Let's see you top that, human, they seemed to say to him.
Of all the options that had been available to the mountain man, it was one Calder had not considered. More time lost and more time gained by the fugitive. It looked as though he could not afford even a minor mistake. The stream initially appeared like it could have been the best alternative, John thought, but in this case, it was not. Thankfully, he had the dogs to fall back on.
Now the true trail paralleled the game path that paralleled the stream. Two obvious paths and the man takes a third. Well done, Blackfoot. The thick mat of vegetation covered the tracks, but was visibly disturbed and easier to follow now. One was a trade off for the other.
Soon a second set of tracks followed, or joined, the mountain man's larger set of prints. The Crow ignored the second trail since he could very easily be another lawman. But, what if it was a friend of the Blackfoot? Certainly a possibility worth considering.
As night fell, the tracker and youthful handler made camp and were joined by the posse just as the sun bowed its orange head below the horizon. Exhausted, they were ready to hit the sack as soon as they had eaten. Calder briefed Waterton and each searched for a bedding area.
Morning broke late. Clouds in the east and the mountain range were making it darker than usual. The Crow couldn't sleep late with a hot trail to follow. This day was no exception. The rest of the posse was sleeping hard, except for the dogs.
John had used an old trick to be sure he would wake up, drinking enough water to kick in the call of nature after a long enough time to sleep. He was eager to meet the challenge that lay ahead of him head-on.
Would he fight this man? Or sympathize with him? Join him? Thoughts ricocheted around his brain. They ranged from obedience to the law to being an outlaw, which he would become if he helped a fellow Native American to thwart the white man's dominance.
Nearly every Indian has fantasized what his life would have been like if the People had crushed the onslaught of the white culture on their own. Calder thought of his opportunity to join this Blackfoot in his fight to be free, something Calder truly had no problem identifying with. He did not think that he could live in a cage either. Why should another Indian be any different?
His respect for the talented fugitive multiplied at every step and he had learned new tricks about tracking.
Leaving a trail marker, Calder continued the hunt. He broke off a piece of jerky, and popped it into his mouth.
Jeremiah Johnson's kin awoke after a brief catnap. Coals were barely visible, smoke still curling to the wind's commands. The ranger slept hard, snoring occasionally.
Envying him, Jerry only slept well when the Vietnam nightmare would stay away. Camps without fires, dozing in a squat, ready for anything the NVA or Cong could dream of. He had to be that alert in order to survive in the jungles of Southwest Asia. Cobras, tigers, elephants, as well as two-legged critters were certain threats. Jerry had to kill so he could live and return home.
The stench of death was almost everywhere in Southeast Asia. The sudden whiff of a nearby carcass was sometimes enough to wake him from a sound sleep. Unexpected puma screams or loon cries could do the same.
The nightmare was of a little girl with a satchel charge strapped to her body. It haunted his mind daily. She had reluctantly been pushed out in front of an earthen wall and forced to walk toward the Americans who were dug into their positions. The G.I.s had stopped firing and waited to pull her out of the line of fire, but noticed the small pack of dynamite too late to save them from its detonation.
In horror, Jerry had watched the scene from his sniper's post. While his buddies looked on, a Marine held out his arms to pull her to safety. The little girl's body flew apart in indescribable pieces with the explosion, taking the lives of the two Americans and injuring many others.
A tear fell unchecked from his cheek as the memory saddened him one more time. He hated the despicable evil men did to save themselves or to get money.
All he wanted was to be left alone.
Alone to walk and enjoy God's great creation. Alone to live in the high country. Nobody had the right to deny him that.
Two drunks tried to attack him and all he did was defend himself. Some busybody calls the police and he is now a fugitive.
It was wrong. Just plain wrong. Why stay to be charged for protecting himself?
Sure, he stole a car...to get out of there!
Did he go too far? Maybe by their laws. But, they would pay a terrible price for their need to have him under their control. If they did not give it up or he could not thwart their attempts, they would suffer like those prison guards.
His anger was building and he momentarily remembered a time he could not control his emotions in encounters with anti-war protesters after his return. It was then he had made his choice to leave society. It was better to leave and not kill than to stay and kill. He had chosen wisely. And he was determined nobody was going to stand in his way to be free.
Picking up his gear, the mountain man quietly left. Today he would confuse his pursuers further or delay them some more. He saw another boulder field which gradually increased in size, both the field and the boulders within it. Looking as though the mountain had fallen down a long time ago, the field invited Jerry as an old friend would for comfort.
Memories of Grandfather's teachings flooded his mind, giving him the assurance a boulder field gave the prey. Believing in the old cultural and religious ways, Grandfather had called him Little Eagle in respect to his family's name. The kindly old man fascinated him for hours with traditions, legends, and histories. His teaching was gentle, but firm, and always generated true interest and enthusiasm in the young Blackfoot who thirsted for ancient knowledge.
Tracking became Jerry's youthful passion. His love for his mother's father became apparent to all on the reservation. In accordance to many tribes' customs, boys were often taught by grandfathers or uncles rather than their fathers. Many of the skills became second nature to Jeremiah and he was heavily favored by the tribe to carry on in a medicine man's capacity when he was suddenly drafted.
Entering the boulder field in a couple large hops, Jerry scanned all directions for his best route. His choice was to remain behind the screen the trees provided as far as the boulders would allow him to go, then he'd go as far in a ninety degree direction away from the trees as he could, and then another turn on the far end of the field. Completing a "U", Jerry would leave the house-sized rocks, climbing down the trunk of a tree, hopefully to throw off his pursuers even more.
Shifting from its an uphill direction, the air currents brought the familiar scent of rain, probably from an unseen front on the other side of the peaks. Rain would be welcome, for it would carry away much of his scent, and wipe out the traces of tracks he left behind.
Unfortunately, the colder air that came over the ridge would also carry his scent to any dogs below him. The ranger had been sure that the posse was far behind him. Quite a few miles behind.
Had he lied? Probably. Still, he would take all the proper precautions he needed to ensure his escape. Eventually finding a way off the boulders, he never noticed he had lost a few beads in the process.
Jerry climbed the tricky slope slowly. Because his body responded to his every wish, Jerry was certain to attain the top. Getting over the ridge would thwart the dogs and the weaker posse members. Iron muscles tensed for the sure-footed moves he had to perform. Heavy sinews pulled him and his pack up the slope with the grace of a climber on a rope.
A small ledge gave him a moment's rest. Turning, he surveyed the panoramic beauty that lay below. The boulder field now appeared as mere pebbles next to the forest floor.
It would be a bad time for a plane or helicopter, he thought. Letting that subside, his mind settled when he reasoned that the pilot would still be asleep at this hour. Hadn't had his Post Toasties, orange juice, and network news fix yet.
Television. The idiot box. It was one of Jerry's pet peeves. In his opinion, it had reduced humanity to another level of worthlessness. Some considered him to be worthless because of what he had done in the war.
Yes, he had killed. He had to in order to survive and return to the world. War required it. No matter how it is called. A police action? Just a polite term to reason why we were never to win. Just a tool for big government and its business partners to make money and test new weapons.
Attempts on his life since then had demanded it.
His desire for freedom may depend on it.
Touching the far west peaks, the sun's warmth penetrated his buckskin shirt. His eyes scrutinized his back trail until an ant-like speck moved. Without binoculars, he could only assume it was one of two people, the foolish old ranger or the posse's talented tracker.
The ranger would never get through the boulder field. The tracker, however, would be worth watching. If it was the tracker, then the ranger was either wrong or he had lied.
Or the tracker was better than he had first thought.
What seemed to be a very long time, Jerry observed the mysterious one make his way to the timberline's edge. Coming to the boulder field, the figure stopped and appeared baffled.
Suddenly the ant-man turned to travel up the slope toward Jerry, skirting the field altogether! If the man found any trail at all, he would be finding it much faster the way he had chosen.
It was time to move, even if risked being seen. Going over the ridge would keep the posse at bay for a very long time.
More movement caught Jerry's eye, the dogs, their handler, and the posse were about a quarter mile behind the leaders. They surely had made up some time somehow.
Jerry carefully executed the next few yards and went around a promontory to hide.
Oncoming storm clouds would be help him in his escape. Ozone permeated the pre-storm air as the outlaw watched the Lilliputian figures mill about. They had found where he had been and something he had dropped.
Jerry inventoried his gear and saw where the beads had been. The buckskin looked as new as the day he had sewn the beads to the leather. Another mistake.
Then he saw the experienced tracker scan the slope, shading his eyes to see despite the sun's efforts to hide the mountain man. Jerry figured that they would be calling an air search before long. He had to get off that ridge before the storm blasted him off.
What would the tracker do now? Would he risk the climb? If he would, Jerry would turn his misfortune to his advantage easily. Without dogs, the tracker would lose the edge. There was just no way to get the canines up that treacherous slope.
In vain, the posse looked among the rocks for the fugitive. The tracker exhausted his leads, and then settled on the slope as his only alternative. To Jerry's chagrin.
No trail for the dogs, the handlers left the area. Not offering much help, the posse did likewise. That left the tracker to do the dirty work, while they likely drove to the other side of the mountain.
Then the tracker started up the slope.
Slowly creeping to the ridge, the mountain man looked over the top. There was a ledge! He could leap over the ridge and land on it.
Gauging the tracker's movements, Johnson watched the man cautiously inch upward. When the tracker was looking down, Jerry made his move over the top.
His foot missed the bulge in the rock and his extreme bulk was starting to fall like a bomb. Heart pounding its urgency, his ham-like hand grabbed instinctively at the only thing he could use to break a nasty fall. The rock seemed to cut like a razor as he pulled up to grab with his other hand.
Pulling his knee up to step down on the small outcropping, Jerry stopped to catch his breath, hopefully forcing his heart back down where it belonged. Looking down momentarily, he placed his other foot on another ledge and proceeded to carefully pick his descent.
Scurrying down the other side, Jerry angled northeast. Eventually reaching a gentler grade, the going became less torture on his calloused, though moccasined, feet. Now he could walk at a more normal pace. Reaching timberline, he was certain to find better cover than on the exposed face.
The tracker would soon be over the ridge. Jerry was a bit surprised that he wasn't by now. Thinking about ascending again, Jerry would have left the tracker no way to tell where the trail was without dogs or a helpful track.
Another plan was to wait till the tracker had descended the slope and ambush him, thereby stopping the threat for good. Good plan.
Rain fell lightly. It grew in intensity as the clouds bunched up against the range. Becoming a deluge, it obscured the peaks with a thickening soup. Bowling alley crescendos increased as the clouds tossed violently. Nature would end the pursuit, he hoped.
Activity caught his eye when the tracker ominously appeared from the rain-cloaked uncertainty as though a starry sorcerer pulled up a magic veil.
The mountain man smiled at his good fortune. The tracker came closer and closer through the downpour, unaware that he was nearing his quarry. The fugitive edged back up the slope in a large cut that concealed his movements for a long while. He had to chance that the posse would have gone home. Surely they would not have stayed in the boulder field or on the mountainside in this weather. They were more used to warm houses and vehicles.
Once over the ridge, he would move south. Sure no posse would be following him, he would be safe. These folks think he was heading north, which he was, and he would just change direction later.
Then a new idea formed. He could check out the various mountain ranges in Utah or Arizona.
Nearing the ridge after the long second climb, Jerry felt a bullet nearly part his hair forever. Ducking, he searched rapidly as another shot rang out, smacking into a rock at his feet. Down below he saw a shot flash through the storm's darkness. That made up his mind to move faster.
Smart. Here I am on an exposed piece of real estate with a man shooting at me. You dumb Injun.
Another shot landed closer and he rolled away, landing his gaze on a cut nearly ten feet away. It led to a smoother high pass, perfect for him to crest the ridge. But he calculated that he would have only one chance. The rain had soaked his buckskins through, making them much heavier. His extra gear was now too much of a hindrance. He would have to move faster.
Stuffing a small pouch with ammo and jerky, Jerry put a canteen on his belt and, after the next shot, he'd be ready to move. His pockets held fire-making material, some cordage, and a pocket knife. The large Bowie at his side, along with his .44 and his rifle, were about his only companions now.
The pack and sleeping roll would stay behind. He had survived on less. The mountain man would soon learn how merciless the high country truly could be if he made even the slightest mistake now.
Shouldering his 30-30, the fugitive sighted, hesitated, then fired several times, blanketing the tracker's vicinity with hot lead. It was the diversion he needed to make the cut safely. Jerry ran for it.
The rain slackened and Calder took the opportunity to move further up the slope. Good thing. There was a lot of lead raining on his last position. The Crow tracker assumed his quarry had been hurt and had to fire out of desperation. He stepped out and received a rapid report from another location. He had assumed wrong.
Jerry had placed a few more shots behind him after he had gone over the little pass. He had noticed that it had caught the tracker off-guard. Reckon the man would not make that mistake a second time. Must have thought he had injured me.
Moving quickly, Johnson slung his rifle over his head as he hastened down the west face. He nearly missed a small ledge again that meant the difference between safety and a thousand foot drop. That tiny ledge widened to a gentler goat path down through scrub oak and stunted pine that made for some rough-going.
Scanning the forest below, he picked his way down the face, eventually making the timberline near the boulder field. Searching for evidence of the posse, he was relatively certain they were long gone. Probably went to the eastern side.
If the clouds cleared off, a plane would be up here sooner than he would like. Jerry checked the sky once more, resting assured the cloud cover hid no patches of blue. Seeing some, he figured that, with the rain still coming down in torrents, he'd be safe from posse or plane.
For the time being, however, the tracker on his nearly non-existent trail was his only threat.
A plan to go south would be futile if the tracker was to correctly assess his direction. The best plan was to kill him in ambush. Then he would be free again. It was the tracker who was his enemy, his challenge and obstruction to being free of this whole mess.
If the tracker was a traditional enemy, say, a Lakota, or possibly an Absaroka, Jerry would honor this most worthy opponent in a traditional way. The fact remains that whoever this tracker was, Jerry's respect for the man's abilities would be great. If the man was white, his respect would even be greater yet! Waugh!
Hoka hey! It is a good day to die, eh, Grandfather? How about you, brother?
Jerry squatted silently to wait in the curtain of the brush. He recalled the old ranger who had caught up with him earlier. He had been arrogantly careless then.
That was then. This is now.
All his skills had been tested by this tracker and he was still being followed. Waiting patiently, Jerry had hoped the tracker would have given up.
He did not really want to kill him.
Was that a real possibility? Not likely. Would he in the same circumstances? No. Not for a minute.
Blue sky winked near the ridge. The storm had nearly run its course.
The mountain man crawled into nearby trees and stood behind a large pine. Dense brush concealed him well, along with the trunk of the tree. His long wait nearly at an end, Johnson saw the tracker as he searched intently. There was a time when he could not see the pursuer descend through the scrubby flora, but now the man was visible, hidden only by the brush that hid the mountain man himself.
As the individual drew closer, the fugitive studied his movements-how he walked, how he studied the landscape, how he tracked. Then, as the tracker became available for closer scrutiny, Jerry burned the man's face and mannerisms into his memory.
This tracker was meticulous, good at deciding what was important to note. He had obviously been trained in the old ways. It would be a shame to have to kill him.
Slowly the Crow neared the Blackfoot giant's ambush. Jerry noted the man's long black hair, his jeans and T-shirt, and a pair of lug-soled boots. He looked like most reservation Natives, but had been trained more like himself.
Stopping to scan the timberline, the Crow even sniffed the air, a tool only those trained in the old ways would have even thought to use.
Fortunately for the Blackfoot fugitive, the wind was in his favor. The wind was still helping him. I feel I owe the wind a favor, he thought. It even helped to cover the noise he might have made if he made any when he made his move for the man before him.
Suddenly, the Crow stopped.
Maybe Jerry made a noise he had not noticed. Then again, maybe not.
The tracker proceeded on his course, unknowingly closing on his doom. He stopped again, obviously feeling uneasy about something. Studying the horizon and the low-lying vegetation proved fruitless, so the Crow stepped bravely onward. Danger was within scant feet of his position.
Stopping to think, Calder felt taxed to the limit of his skills. He also felt a pang of hopelessness, a sense of beating a dead horse. He knew he was close, but the fugitive was always getting away. And those condemnable traps kept him on edge.
The red-skinned brother did not mean anything to him personally. It was a job. So why did he feel like he was doing something against his people? Native Americans had to stick together in order to survive as a race, he reasoned. That was why the tribes often pow-wowed together.
John's real enemy was time. He had hoped Crazy Horse would have returned by now. Or Wovoka. The great leaders of the red man's cause. Lead the red man to power again. Having supported his brothers at Wounded Knee in 1973, Calder had done his part. A member of the American Indian Movement, a Native activist organization, he demonstrated at his campus for their rights. What he wanted was to release the whites' hold on their minds and land.
Expectation was in every step. Any step could hold death. This was ridiculous. Each step into the dense underbrush, scrub oak, fir and pine, was pure frustration and disappointment. He felt so far from his goal now. Calder's discernment of sign was crucial. One slip up could mean he could die instantly.
Should he call his spirit mentor? He certainly needed help to find this devil in buckskins. Frustration was slowly conquering him.
Calder had never given up before. Previous pursuits were quick, easy apprehensions of the stupid, the ignorant, or the drunk, whites or assimilated brothers. But, this was different.
It was like....
A sledgehammer slammed into his head, nearly knocking him into unconsciousness. It sent him off-balance onto his left foot.
Instinctively pulling his knife, rather than his gun, saved his life. A massive blade was pressed against his jugular, ready to deal death at any resistance. Had he gone for his gun, he would probably been killed immediately. The Crow wisely dropped his blade.
Maybe he could talk his way out of this. Usually he was on the giving end of this type of encounter.
Not this time.
"What now?" asked Calder, unable to talk well with the sharp steel slicing his skin each time his Adam's apple bobbed. He was also unable to see his attacker's face. In a grip like an Iron Maiden, any attempt to turn his head was encountered with increased pressure of the razor-sharp Bowie.
Bad move. This guy ain't playing around at all.
"That would depend entirely on you, tracker," the words came, low and terse. "Do exactly as I say and you will live to see the next hour. Vary one hair from my instructions, and I'll see to it your hair adorns my buckskins forever." Cocking his rifle with his free hand, Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle came into the Crow's view, and sheathed his knife with a flashy roll of his hand.
A trickle of crimson traced its way down the tracker's neck.
Here stood a man, Calder observed. No, make that a huge man, fists like hams, clothed head-to-toe in brain-tanned buckskin. One hand held a 30-30 like it was a mere toy. He assessed the man as being a calm, rational, and very adept individual. A very impressive picture.
Would this man-monster kill him? John couldn't really know for certain, but the risk wasn't worth finding out the hard way.
"Sit, Crow," the mountain man demanded, correctly identifying his traditional enemy.
The tracker slowly complied, not wanting to make any sudden move that could be taken the wrong way. Somehow he believed that the man who stood before him would do exactly as he said.
"You're good, Crow, very good. No enemy has ever found me. It makes sense that only a Native brother would find me after all I'd done to keep from getting caught," the mountain man told Calder. He took a seat opposite the tracker. "I threw my best at you and you just kept on me like a stud on a ready mare."
The comparison made Calder smile. He looked down at the dirt, grinning.
"You're different from reservation types I've run into," Jerry said. "Who taught you?"
The question sounded genuine, not demanding or as though he was belittling him, but a true curiosity. John looked up again, still smiling. He liked the man immediately. The fugitive was the kind of man one looked at and knew in an instant that he was trustworthy. It was a gut instinct one had known deep in his soul.
"My grandfather," Calder replied. "He taught me nearly everything my mother and the white man's schools could not."
"The old ways are skills most have forsaken and forgotten for making the Almighty Dollar," the mountain man added.
"My grandfather taught me the old ways, too. My mother's father was one of the Old Ones. He told me that he never made peace with the whites. Spent most of his time in the mountains alone and later handed down his knowledge to me," Johnson shared. He noticed that the Crow was a kindred spirit, probably a friend in another situation.
Now what do I do with you? Jerry was not talking aloud, only asking himself how to deal with this new development. Raised the same way, the traditional enemies had totally different goals.
"But that, Crow, is not the problem at hand, is it?" Jerry looked hard at the tracker. "All I want is to be left alone, live my life, die, and answer to my God. That's it. I've been attacked by drunken idiots, and environmental nuts and religious fanatics who think they have a better way of life or the only way of life.
"Twentieth century advocates feel technology is the only answer for the problems we face or the happiness we seek. Not for me." The mountain man sighed and dropped his head.
But not his guard.
Calder's jaw dropped. "I didn't believe anyone lived with the same views I have," he said.
The two looked at each other with more understanding than either ever had from anyone else. John broke the awkward silence, "You don't suppose we could lead the white man on a wild goose chase, eh, 'brother'?"
"If we could trust each other, and I sense we can, maybe. Let me think on it a bit." Jerry left the Crow standing, wondering.
He knew the tracker would not run if he sensed an opportunity to live out his life the way he wished. Especially if the he held the weapons. It just made good sense, Jerry reasoned in his brain, looking at the Crow who was also thinking, his back to a tree.
It appeared that parallel lives had somehow ironically intersected. Jerry had to make an important, life-changing decision at this unusual crossroad.
Turning back to the tracker, Jerry asked, "Start at the beginning. Who are you?" He took a seat and the story flowed like his very own. They went well into the night until each had told his history.
Calder monitored radio transmissions which betrayed that the posse had stopped for the night. Making their own camp, they were reasonably certain that the posse had not quit, but would resume as soon as they could, concentrating their search on the east slope. Tall Bear stopped responding to the posse's inquiries and shut the radio off.
Talking well into the night, the duo figured that in order to make fools out of the law community, they would plan a bogus heist or kidnapping or some other form of inconvenience to get another manhunt started. With this new alliance, the officers wouldn't be able to find anyone who could track them. They soon would give the government the country a problem they had never encountered in this century.
Not to this degree.
Two renegade Indians on the warpath. Two very pissed off natives who knew the old ways with some new ways added in to keep the hunters on their trail guessing over and over again.
Months later, Calder, the Absaroka tracker, and Johnson, the half-Blackfoot Army sniper-turned-mountain man, were enjoying life in the wilderness. They were ready to start a little mischief or aggravate any law enforcement agency who stepped on their freedom-loving lifestyle.
After the manhunt died, the duo backtracked to retrieve Johnson's gear. Jerry watched his new partner, but John gave the bigger man no reason to doubt his loyalty.
Jerry and John shared their knowledge as they hiked the Wyoming Range southward. Temporarily they agreed to head to the High Uintahs or maybe go further south. Possibly the Henrys. Maybe the Uncompaghres. Nah, too many backpackers. Who knows? Somewhere in the remote mountains for sure.
The combination of two aboriginal minds, nurtured by decades of white oppression, spawned an idea to tempt fate even further. Months of planning around campfires and on the trails would hopefully cause a furor of frustration for the lawmakers that would eventually be felt all the way to the White House.
Calder had not had the breaks that his mountain man counterpart had in the cross-cultural challenge of their lives. He had been raised on a reservation in a very poor family. John had run afoul of the law when he had been in a city. On secluded reservation land, his abilities, both inherited and acquired, shined. He was the pride of his grandfather who had great hopes of rearing his rebellious grandson to receive his legacy as the tribe's shaman.
Tracking jobs usually netted Tall Bear enough money to allow him to stay in the mountains for longer periods of time till he could totally survive on his own. Later, money only bought ammunition, which was supplemented with furs harvested with snares.
His name, Tall Bear, had been bestowed upon him by his grandfather, more for his strength rather than his size. His sinews were nearly as strong as corded steel, grandfather would brag. His lean torso was hardened by years of rigorous mountain living, self-disciplined denial during fasts, vision quests, and training.
A revelation came while eating a Canada goose they had startled and shot that afternoon. The devilish idea was introduced by the Crow tracker one evening after a week on the trail without the pressure of the posse.
"Whoa," Calder muttered, almost to himself as he chewed the tasty meat. Pieces fell as his jaw slackened, mid-thought, shocked he had come up with such a good idea.
"Whoa what?" Johnson responded, taking another hunk of the breast with his Bowie, trying to discern whether the Crow was in pain or something.
"When was the last time anyone successfully robbed a train?" John asked, looking at his new-found friend, a half-eaten drumstick in his fist.
"Oh," smacked the mountain man, swallowing his present mouthful, "early 1900's sometime, I think." Johnson bit off another chunk, punctuating his statement.
"Why do ya think that was?"
"Ah," the big Blackfoot drawled, chewing, "most likely because security was increased. The telegraph made it tough to be on the run." He bit again. "Besides," he said, the words muffled by meat, "the faster trains became, the harder it was to catch them with a horse."
Calder continued, "But think about two skilled in the old ways, do you think we could get away with it if we tried it?"
Johnson pondered a second, then countered, "But why? What is there worth stealing?"
"Probably nothing," the Tall Bear grinned, "but that isn't the idea, now, is it? We'd make the idiots trying to catch us into blundering fools."
Jerry finished chewing and spoke up. "I like the way you think, John. You're a devious man. That says a lot for your character," the bigger man said.
"Seriously, I've always preferred a life with adventure, but something that serious needs a lot of planning. Do you realize that the technology now would have helicopters, night scopes, and scores of automatic weapon-wielding, trigger-happy dolts who are in a hurry to get home to Betty, Junior, Muffy, Spot, and Boots.
"To make fools of them puts your face on every cop station's wall coast-to-coast, and prob'ly on one of those new true-life cop shows on the boob tube. Then Bubba and all his beer-swigging buddies keep their hunting sights open for you when they're up here blasting horses, trees, cows, and beer cans."
"I think it is still possible," insisted Calder, excited now, convinced he was onto something. "Making fools of them and leading them on a wild goose chase would be a real hoot!"
"I agree, but we may want to do it differently, say, change the idea to malicious mischief so the public would put their support behind us, not against us," Johnson suggested.
"No stealing?" John questioned with a pout. "How can we accomplish that idea then?"
"Stop the train, inconvenience the passengers, tie up the engineers, thumb your nose up at them, and leave," Johnson explained simply. "No theft, and nobody gets hurt," he said, pausing, and then continued, "but lots of pissed off people clamoring for 'justice' or something like it."
The Crow smiled. "Better pissed off than pissed on, I've been told," he said. "I like the way you think, Jerry. You're devious. That says a lot for your character."
"For a fact," he laughed out loud. "For a fact."
"I don't know about you," Calder added, "but I'm rather tired of a society that tells me I can't live in the old ways. Can't wear the hides I want without some bunny-hugging faggot trying to put you down for it. Can't go where I want without some bigot stepping in front of me. Heck, I can't live in my own culture without being labeled a welfare cheat or another drunken Indian."
"Been there, done that, and got the crappy little badge to prove it," the Blackfoot giant nodded.
"It's funny," Calder said, " and I don't mean nothing personal by this, but you just don't fit this reservation Injun's idea of a reservation Injun!"
Johnson stopped smiling and looked at the little Crow hard. Calder could have sworn that the mountain man was about to carve him up for wolf bait.
"Yeah, well," the big man spoke slowly, "I am being a pretty opened-minded feller about it, ain't I?" He glanced up at the Crow for his reaction, and with a silly grin said, "for a half-breed like myself. Ha!" He laughed at his own social humor, finally setting his partner at ease.
Calder joined in when he realized that it was a joke on them both, really, despite its stinging reality. They both knew the pain they had each experienced growing up in a bi-cultural society.
"Mom had encouraged me to break out of the mold of the average reservation Indian," said Johnson. "Reckon that's one of the reasons I joined the Army back in the war.
"I felt comfortable in either world and felt like that was the key to a successful life. Not total assimilation, you see, but sort of the best of both worlds and living with it.
"The mountain man culture seemed a good lifestyle to emulate when I came back to the World. No nonsense, take nothing from nobody, ask nothing from nobody, work hard, and live my life the way I want. But that doesn't seem possible. Nobody wants to leave anyone else alone, do they?" Johnson took a long breath.
Calder shook his head in agreement, surprised at so many words out of the otherwise quiet man.
"This country's government wants to pit blacks against the whites, poor against the rich, powerful against those who aren't. It ain't right, I'm telling ya," Jerry continued on his soapbox. Agitated, he stood up to walk around.
"Cops have to know who you are and you better have some sort of identification authorized by the state, huh?" He looked at Calder as if expecting an answer. "Bull! They have NO reason, NO justification, NO excuse! The civilized have to lord it over those of us who choose to be otherwise!
"Not if I can help it. Back in the "Hole" I had to set two drunks straight before you were set on my trail."
"Those 'fine' citizens were part of the reason we had to take after you," said the Absaroka tracker, imitating a tipsy person. "But, hey, didn't you steal a car, too?"
"Yeah. That was a mistake, for sure," Johnson concurred. "But it was the easiest way to get out of the situation I was in. Must have been the proverbial straw, you know."
"Must've," replied the smaller man, pulling back his long hair. "The cop you laid out must've been the second straw, huh?" He cast a sideways glance at the mountain man for his reaction to his knowing so much.
"Must've," Johnson dead-panned, then laughed.
"I'll say. That cop's buddy seems to have a personal vendetta against you."
"Yeah," said Jerry, "and it could be my downfall if I'm not careful." He looked down absent-mindedly, drawing in the dirt. His thoughts were drifting. His mood became pessimistic and irritable, and he left the brightness of the firelight without a further word.
His Crow partner knew better than to go after him. Men like those went off to figure things out on their own or to pray. He suspected a little of both for the mountain man. Whatever works, he figured.
Calder contemplated the future if they chose to carry out their plan. Was he ready to face the consequences? He felt he was. Incarceration seemed better than his previous life back on the "res". It was the lack of freedom, not seeing the mountains and the sky, that bothered him.
To the best of his ability, he'd prevent that. But he'd never killed a man to do so. Johnson, on the other hand, had done so just to stay alive. Would he do so in America in order to stay free? Calder pondered that as he prepared the fire for the night and laid out his bedroll, a combination of Hudson Bay blankets and a waterproof ground cloth.
Reclining, John noticed the shadowy form arrive as he had left, noiselessly. He was amazed how a man of such mass could do that so well. When he stopped to think about it a second, he reasoned that if a grizzly could, why couldn't a man? Certainly Grandfather had taught him the old ways, but this Blackfoot descendent was downright spooky about it.
Some of John's friends were talented trackers and stalkers. But Johnson seems to be akin to a phantom. In the past weeks, Calder would note where his new partner would disappear only to be startled when the big mountain man stepped out from behind him.
A weaker man would have become jittery inside a week. Calder learned to live with it, though, accepting him as a superior stalker who had taken the teachings to heart, having learned to move like a Chiracauhua scout.
Tall Bear watched as Johnson checked the fire. He had to look since he could not hear the man till he lay on his bedding.
Before dawn, Calder stirred in the coolness of the high mountain morning. The mountain man's bed was empty. John scanned the ridges and the horizon. A swift movement was caught out of the corner of his eye.
Jerry was coming straight for him at a lope.
As the big Blackfoot neared, Jerry's visage appeared grave. "Pack up, Kimo Sabe," he started, "a four wheel drive convoy is heading this way about a couple miles or so down the other side of that ridge behind me."
His words were not even labored or paced from the exertion. When he stopped, he looked straight at the Crow. "And guess where that jeep trail leads."
Enduring a torturous pace, the four-by-fours gave the two hivernants ample time to pack their gear and become one with their surroundings. Calder inserted himself in a rock formation while his too-large counterpart disappeared in a fir thicket.
They hadn't hidden but a couple of minutes when the trucks and jeeps rumbled up the trail. Possibly heading for a hunting camp, they suddenly stopped in a cloud of dust not fifty yards from the duo's hiding places. All the vehicles were shut off when they came to a complete halt, probably so they could carry on a deeper conversation, or, in this case an argument. Some exited their vehicles, when an animated discussion erupted.
"I'll tell you," one man shouted, "I know I smelled smoke!"
"Who cares?" asked one of the drivers, a chubby city man. "Let's get to camp. We've got ten more miles or so to go yet."
"I care!" the other man demanded. "Nobody else is supposed to be up here! This is my old man's land and I've gotta right to shoot any trespassers on sight!"
More words were exchanged at lower tones, but they re-entered their vehicles and were on their way, never noticing the two men who, if caught, would have paid a very dear price. At least, so the angry man had thought.
The key words were, of course, if caught.
Jeremiah Johnson Eagle and John Tall Bear Calder emerged and approached each other.
"That was too close for comfort," Johnson commented. "It's too early in the day to kill anybody." The thing was, he was serious. "Wouldn't agree with my digestion."
Calder chuckled and grinned, trying to break Jerry's mood. "It's over, let's hit the other side of that ridge," he said, motioning with his eyes, "and forget about it." He stepped away to lead off.
Johnson looked at the sky. "Hoka hey," he said, "is what the Lakota say." He followed along behind, his gait soon catching the smaller man.
Tall Bear glanced around the sky and looked up at the taller man now beside him. Then he agreed, "Yes, my friend, it is a good day to die."
Their southward trek was filled with talk of their pending adventure. They crossed the jeep trail several times as it descended into the little valley ahead. Keeping parallel to the mountain road, they hiked deeper into the valley, soon seeing the very same vehicles they had seen.
Tents dotted the flats and a small cabin was centered with a dining fly attached. A rushing creek flowed through the little valley camp, widening where the road crossed it. A group of a dozen men milled around, still performing finishing touches setting up their hunting camp. They looked like ants doing the mindless jobs it takes to survive.
Made sense to these two. Most white men pursue many things in a mindless fog, even survival.
The throwbacks to another era entered that small glen with the decision that if the hunters wanted to put up a fight, they'd sure as the devil get one.
Just like the mountain men of yesteryear, both men had checked all their weapons, loosening knives, unhooking gun tie-downs, and chambering rounds in their rifles. They had reached the outer perimeter of tents before they were discovered.
" 'Lo there!" shouted one of the friendlier hunters. Eyes searched for the source of the man's attention, finally locating the pair that had infiltrated without announcement.
"Howdy!" Calder replied. Both watched the men carefully for any suspicious movements.
Johnson dwarfed every man by at least three inches. His predatory eyes made most of the hunters shy away, except the friendly greeter and the loud-mouthed leader who had shouted the threat on the higher plateau.
The greeter introduced himself as Greg. A public relations director for a Cheyenne firm, he had a genuine interest and cordiality. He introduced the group.
The two wilderness dwellers took particular note of hands, smooth or rough, visible or hidden, open or clenched, empty or filled.
Two individuals were especially worth a second look. An athletic gent called Bob seemed irked that Johnson was now the biggest man there. And the loud-mouth, named Fred, a spoiled rancher's kid who seemed to think the world owed him something.
"You realize you're trespassing?" grilled Fred, placing a hand on his hip near his pistol.
"You realize we're just passing through?" Calder shot back in the same tone. The hand movement had not escaped his eyes.
"People playing 'Indians' should remember who owns the land, governs the land, and enforces the law of the land," Fred said vehemently. His gun hand fidgeted at wanting to go for the pistol, but he thought better of it. These two looked very capable with their weapons, he was thinking.
"Oh, I've been reminded of that nearly every cursed day of my life, chubby," John commented.
The Blackfoot spoke for the first time, calmly but succinctly. "People with that attitude have died thinking they were right from the beginning of the genocidal concept that was instigated, and perpetuated, by the federal government since its inception. So tell me, boy, are you ready to die for what you believe is right?"
Fred struggled with his sidearm, but he never came close to having a chance. An iron hand clamped onto his arm, preventing the gun from clearing the holster, and a fist smashed his nose into a flattened, bloody mass of fleshy pulp in a flash, knocking him unconscious.
Johnson vocalized the observation for everyone, "Guess so."
Tall Bear turned to the other men and said, "We didn't come here to make trouble. Like we said, we're just passing through. Is that really too much to ask?"
Greg stepped forward. "Please overlook Fred there," he politely requested. "He's never reacted any other way in his life. If this incident doesn't do it, I doubt if he'll ever change." He extended his hand at the end of his statement. "No harm done?"
"Besides," another hunter added with a gleam in his eye, "this is the quietest Fred's been since we've started." He generated a few laughs, along with a few of the others who nodded in agreement.
"Better get along before Fred comes to," Greg suggested. "He'll be meaner than a wounded bear if he sees you still here."
Calder thanked Greg and the others for their understanding and turned to leave. Jerry shook hands, too, but stopped and turned, saying, "Greg, you might convince Fred there he hasn't even begun to see 'mean' yet, if you get my drift."
Greg nodded that he knew exactly what the mountain man meant. Bob glared one more time and then went about his business as Jerry backed away.
Snowflakes began their swirling dance in the air as Greg watched the two Indians head westward. He wished he would have had more time to visit with these men who seemed to have immersed themselves into the previous century. They probably would have told some interesting stories around the campfire.
Then Fred started moaning and belly-aching.
Snow only dropped a couple inches in the course of the day and the sky cleared that night. Out of sight of the hunters, the two had turned south. There was no need to give them an easy chance by heading the same direction they were seen leaving the hunting camp.
Days passed and the pair crossed several roads without incident. Calder decided that he needed to check out a southwestern Wyoming town while his buckskin-clad companero remained in camp. Knowing the big man like he did, John figured Jerry would have gotten into more trouble the way he was dressed.
"I'm going into Evanston for some food and to learn more about our target," John announced.
"Well, don't take all day," Jerry groused, irked that it had to be done if they were ever to learn more about the train schedule. Not minding wild food, he still welcomed a change in diet. "And if you get a chance, stand downwind of anybody you talk to."
"You sayin' I stink?" John quizzed his partner rather angrily, mouth ajar. Being the only humans either had seen or talked with for the last couple months had made both somewhat ornery.
"A rose by any other fragrance would be a road apple," the bigger man threw back. "You know as well as I that these buckskins absorb and cover human odor better than other clothing. Why haven't you made some of your own?"
"Never really learned women's work," the Crow sneered, referring to the common Plains Indian concept that such labor was normally left for female hands.
"Well, then, it's high time you come down offa that high horse of yours and learn, brother. That way, if you needed to go into a town, you'd have a clean set of white man's clothes to wear in his world," Jerry suggested.
John lifted an arm and whiffed the source of his offense. "I guess I could stand to take a bath, huh?" he conceded with a chortle.
"Rubbing some sage over you would help," Jerry added. "But the bush might die and take the rest of the prairie with it. Ha-ha!"
Evanston's Amtrak station had some helpful information. John pocketed a free timetable of the runs. Asking outright, he learned what communications there were on the train and where they were located. Buying eggs and bacon, he added a survey map, cinnamon jaw-breakers, an ax, and some .22 ammunition, the only bullets they had used on any game since the posse broke up.
Rejoining Jerry, he cooked omelets with wild onions and bacon. Lazing in the sun, they discussed spending several days inspecting the railroad, following it, and checking train frequency and punctuality.
One fine morning they topped the crest of a hill. Upon discovery, the grade on the other side would slow a train to a pace it could stop rapidly, if necessary. And these two would make certain that it was necessary.
Monitoring the train for a few days, they discovered two went west and three went east. Express runs seemed to utilize the dark of night while the slower trains would run during the day, possibly to let passengers see scenery.
Having planned to blockade the train, they hoped the engineer could safely bring the train to a safe stop. One would tie up the engine crew and the other would disable the communications. Anything else they did would be entirely at their whim, be it a token theft, or whatever else they could come up with to cause mischief.
Chopping down a large dead pine, the pair limbed it so it could easily be levered into position over both rails, making sure the branches that remained would anchor the trunk into the ground. Then they waited until they heard the eastbound, and hid.
Having seen the obstruction, the train slowed and stopped within twenty feet of it.
Jerry rushed the engine and caught an engineer and his assistant off-guard. He indicated for them to get down.
"Do as you're told and you won't get hurt," Jerry promised, .44 steady in his massive paw, which made the big gun look like a smaller caliber. After tying the two together, he checked the other engines just to be sure there was nobody else to worry about.
The Crow tracker assaulted the baggage car which held the outside communications and tied the man so he could not signal for help.
Meeting outside to enter another car, John Tall Bear Calder, painted menacingly as a Crow warrior, and Jeremiah Johnson Eagle, who was quite menacing enough in his six-foot, six-inch buckskinned splendor.
Their entrance did not go unnoticed. A waiter challenged them, for what it was worth, but the metallic clicks of the firearm hammers being pulled back into firing positions were his answer. They shoved him into a broom closet with an oath of extreme bodily harm if he disobeyed.
Not hearing a sound from him, the two assumed that he must have believed them.
The remainder of the shocked kitchen staff were herded before them into the dining car. The two Indians in command motioned them to the other side of the car, eliciting glares and gasps from some of the passengers.
"Ladies and gentlemen," shouted the fiercely-painted Crow, "we have stopped the train and ask that you cooperate with our requests."
Pausing for effect, he let the reality of the situation set in for some of the passengers. "I assure you no one will get hurt if you obey us. We are, however, deadly serious if you choose not to."
He looked deadly serious.
Also, the engineer is a little tied up at the moment," the Crow continued, getting Jerry to roll his eyes at the little joke.
"And communications are at a standstill."
Karen looked out the window at the rain as it fell hard on her bleak world. It increased her sense of loneliness since Rob died six months ago.
Marriage had been wonderful. Their new life had been full of promise and love right up to his death. She could no longer stay where they had lived nor could she remain in San Francisco. Too many memories of Rob. Everything filled her mind with the wonderful memories of her life with him, and the painful ones that were too great for her to bear if she remained.
Leaving behind some items for charity, Karen packed only the items she would need for a long trip, storing what she left behind.
A trip to the East coast. A change of surroundings. A new city. A new life. Maybe New York. Maybe Boston. Maybe....
Who knows? Who cares? To keep herself from self-pity, she had to leave and find a new life somewhere else.
Amtrak offered Karen the opportunity to see the beauty and size of America. It was a chance to think, clear her mind of the life she was leaving and anticipate the new life that lay before her.
A terrible car wreck had taken her young husband's life. He had been returning to their home, a little condo in Monterey, when a drunk went left of center.
Her waist-length blonde hair swung behind her with a habitual fling of her head as she stood. A statuesque five-foot-ten, Karen had been a physical education major at U.C.L.A. Rob had enjoyed her height, too. At six-foot-three and very good-looking, he had been a joy to look up to.
Nearly a hundred and fifty pounds, her smooth features hid her twenty-five-year-old weight and strength. Never satisfied with her body, Karen compared it with this celebrity or that model.
Basketball had been her ticket to a college education. Swimming had been a sport in which she had been very competitive. The breast stroke had been her strongest entry. Of course, she thought, with these balloons holding me afloat, she had an edge. Rob had enjoyed her intimacies, she mused, and she had reveled in his joy. At least he had loved her for who she was, not just her body.
Why, God? Why now? Why?
A tear splashed as another thought of her departed spouse tortured her mind. Succumbing to the moment, she had one last good cry. She hoped. Washing, Karen put on a new face in time for the cab.
As the sedan wound its way through San Franciscan traffic, she silently pined for the power of the Corvette she had sold to make this trip. It had been Rob's favorite toy, but he had taken her car that day. She had enjoyed their yuppie lifestyle despite having been raised as a farm girl in the Midwest. Maybe it had been because of the big city move that she had learned to appreciate a few of the finer things.
A small farming community in eastern Nebraska yielded few opportunities to a college girl. Maybe teaching. Possibly volunteer work. Or a waitress. Yeah, right. Having majored in accounting, she had worked the last few years for a small firm in Monterey.
But she longed for the openness of the prairie now that she had nothing to keep her on the West Coast. Too, the mountains had always attracted her. She enjoyed the city, but her real love was the outdoors.
Confusion drifted over her like a cloud of moisture ready to rain. Rob had made those decisions for her. For, wherever he was, she wanted to be.
Pulling suddenly to the curb at the Amtrak station, the quiet driver, who had stolen his sideways glances at the rapt young widow, quickly opened her door. He set her luggage on the sidewalk. Giving him a customary tip, Karen turned and hailed one of the nearby porters who eagerly wanted to wait on paying customers, especially pretty ones.
The bustle of the Amtrak station surprised her. It amazed her that so many people used trains in this day of jets, cars, and buses. Odors of all kinds of people waiting for the next train mingled with the fresh sea breezes that entered the outer doors. Sweat, perfume, tobacco smoke, food, and other less describable and desirable smells filled the station. It created an obvious anxiety for her. Wrinkling up her nose was her reaction to the offensive air, and she began to wonder if the whole trip would be as bad as this moment.
Taking her seat, the leggy blonde curled up with her novel, The Way West, by A.B. Guthrie. It had been recommended years ago by an English professor who knew her interests, and later suggested by her husband who had read it in high school and had given it a good review.
Stretching out her legs, Karen occasionally lay her head back. She thought about how it would have been to have pioneered in those bygone days. The trials, the land, and the hard lifestyle intrigued her. It would have been challenging, but still attractive. She had hoped Rob would have shown more interest in her passion for the outdoors. It was just one of those things they did not agree on, and amiably so.
Karen recalled a backpacking trip during the summer between her first and second year at college. The Sierras had beckoned her and two girlfriends to their heights. It had been a chance to brave the elements, enjoy comfortable fires, and smell the sweetness of the clean, crisp alpine air.
Seeing the mountains would be enough to kindle the desire in Karen to chuck everything for an extended trip. It would certainly be a bigger challenge being alone, and maybe a bit foolish this day and age. That trip had not been threatening when they had encountered groups of males. It had actually been fun and exciting to meet new people.
Planning about going alone was fun, but it did not assure her of her confidence in herself to actually do it. One bad encounter could be forever detrimental to her health. The idea, however, still appealed to her and she toyed with it in her mind for awhile. Such a trip, possibly through an outfitter or a travel agent, would be safer, but definitely less exciting. One usually saw less in bigger groups. Less wildlife, less spiritual renewal, less everything.
Karen's parents had died years earlier than Rob. A terrible accident on a snowy road had ended their lives during the holidays when she was home during her second year at U.C.L.A. Her dad had been a corporate vice president who worked out of his home in the later years, and was usually on the road for the insurance firm he represented. She finished college on the fund he had set up for her, and her inheritance was her dowry when she married. She did not truly worry about money anymore. Wise investments had multiplied her assets since marrying. And, Rob's life insurance alone had left her quite wealthy.
Sooner or later, Karen would get over her husband's death. Her personality and her emotional walls were strong, due to inconsiderate boyfriends since her parents' passing.
Robert Fisher had swept Karen off her feet as a rebound from a bad relationship. He had been patient, considerate, and careful with her heart. She respected him and loved him dearly for it.
Rob had mentioned how he had waited a long time to ask her out while she had been involved with that "insensitive idiot." Their first date was on a Saturday at a local burger joint before a football game. From that one date she learned how Rob had received a scholarship from an L.A. business. He was working on a degree in business management, corporate analysis his special focus.
They saw each other often after that. In other terms, they were virtually, often physically, inseparable. Karen turned down all other offers for dates. She did not want to see anyone else. She wanted Rob.
She went out of her way to please him with her manner of dress, his favorite colors, styles, even fabrics. Learning to appeal to his stomach, she would prepare special dishes when she could.
A truly wonderful year for her, she went home with Rob to meet his folks, and, they became more intimate. She had made up her mind to share herself, devoting more of herself to him, hopefully giving him the message how much she loved him and letting him know she was willing to be his wife. It had been a moment of passion that few couples ever forget.
Shortly after returning to classes, Rob gave Karen a ring, engaging them for a future ceremony. They moved in together, and they both were content and secure with their relationship.
Karen held the book in one hand and looked out the window in a dreamy haze. She smiled with her thoughts, and pictured them easily because it was dark as pitch out the window.
Occasionally she could see rock, boulders, and walls of stone that had been carved by dynamite. The Sierras! Their ruggedness just put her in a better mood as she returned to her book.
Reading clicked away many miles through Nevada and western Utah. Hunger finally beckoned her to the dining car. She was famished and could shovel the fuel in when her body required it. Calories had never been her enemy. During basketball season she tried to keep her weight down. At least her sprints had been faster.
Starting with juice and toast, she welcomed the plate of eggs and home fries. Pausing to view the sun coming over the Rockies, Karen smiled, relishing its warmth. Shutting her eyes, she basked momentarily as though receiving its power, regenerating her.
A San Francisco paper lay handy, discarded by a previous customer. She scanned its pages thoughtlessly until a small story printed in the national section caught her eye.
The bold-face print first grabbed her attention: Mountain Man Fugitive. The one-paragraph article was just a mind-tickler, explaining how the manhunt originated in Jackson, Wyoming, and was unsuccessfully halted after the search team's tracker disappeared, as well as the fugitive, a half-breed Blackfoot who had been in the Special Forces, and had possibly been ancestrally linked to the legendary mountain man, Jeremiah Johnson.
Karen was intrigued to the point of fascination. Re-reading the story, she imagined an Old West posse chasing down a buckskin-clad renegade through treacherous high country where the outlaw had a secret hideout.
What an adventure that would have been! She could frolic in some exciting experience that was reasonably safe. Something to break her life's rut and give her a reason to wake up in the morning. Often lately, she felt this way. Not suicidal, but at a loss for finding a sense of purpose.
Some enterprising reporter could spend some time on this case gathering facts and have a book to sell for his or her effort. Maybe even herself. She had often fancied herself as a writer. Not a gifted one, but someone able to put her ideas down on paper.
Returning to her berth, the pretty woman reclined, content with her meal, and dozed. She needed sleep that would not come earlier because of her excitement about the trip and thoughts of Rob had dominated her thinking.
Her dreams intertwined surreal thoughts of the big city, a wagon train, a faceless mountain man, the grandeur of the high country, and a mounted posse. Karen slept hard and deep till the train came to a strange stop.
Still dressed, she quickly got up and checked her face. Running a brush through her hair a few times, she left to investigate the disturbing halt to her rest.
Karen noticed it was about noon, shadows being quite short. Wondering what time it truly was, she pondered what sights lay ahead and what she had missed. Then she entered the dining car.
Looking ahead, her jaw dropped at the sight she beheld.
Upon the opening of the car's door, sympathy appeared on the faces of the occupants for the hapless soul who entered. The pretty blonde's face visibly altered from her thoughts of food to one of utter awe as her eyes landed on the giant in buckskins He certainly had a commanding presence with his air of having everything under control.
Then she saw the fiercely-painted Crow warrior, the weapons, and the serious looks of the other passengers.
"Am I interrupting?" Karen asked. She looked around once more and answered her own question. "Boy, did I step into it!"
A seated gentleman kindly offered, "Here, miss, have a seat." Attempting to rise, he abruptly reversed his motion when the thunder of a .44 slug shattered a nearby glass on a table. It produce a myriad of screams.
"Quiet! Don't move," the big mountain man commanded. "I assure you, I aimed for that glass." He had never actually sighted down the barrel, so they had to assume that he was telling the truth.
"Sweet-cheeks," the painted warrior addressed the newcomer, "come here." He motioned to a seat near him.
She hesitated, but obeyed.
"You good people may have wondered why we're here," he continued. "The government has held its thumb on my people long enough. We're here to inconvenience all you so-called citizens of the United States, not to hurt anyone, but to show the government it is time to see who the real fools are."
"Excuse me," Karen said fearlessly. Something told her these guys were on the level, but something bothered her. All eyes were now on her. "But why would anyone respond to a train that has been 'inconvenienced'?"
The bigger man responded first. "Understandably, your logic makes sense, pretty lady. But the pride of Amtrak, and especially the pride of the law enforcement community, cannot allow us to get away with this.
"Once the FBI gets wind of this, and they will, they'll probably take it from the locals, and then we will be able to make our point. But first, they will give chase, which means they will have to get off their dead butts to do so. And, let me tell ya, we'll lead them on the worst wild goose chase they've ever seen."
"Aren't you the same person the Jackson police are looking for?" Karen asked, now recalling the article she had read. She looked straight at the big man, demanding an answer by her gaze.
Jerry let a small smile escape. "The same." His face suddenly reflected the grimness of his purpose, and he continued, "But that would never have happened if two drunks hadn't picked a fight with me."
"What two drunks?" Karen asked curiously. "The article in the paper never mentioned anything about any drunks. It did mention the cop who had his jaw broken by you, and something about a stolen car."
"Makes perfect sense to me that the media would not report the whole truth concerning anyone who looked like an Indian," Johnson said. His anger was rising, but he kept it in check. "Something is terribly wrong with a media that only reports what they want or what they are told. The police are set on me mainly because I happen to dress differently.
"I had no identification and no desire to stay in someone's jail while they tried to figure out who I am. I chose to leave, and I did, at the expense of a couple of people's pain, sorry to say." He paused, visibly disgusted with the way things are in reality in today's culture, then went on, "Now I'm a fugitive who has shaken them off my trail once. And I'll do so again."
Looking deep into her ice blue eyes for the first time, he saw a bit of understanding and compassion for his plight. Those eyes reminded him of high country spring-fed pools. Somehow he knew she believed him. She seemed truly sympathetic. He'd see.
Longing to let him know her true sympathies, she looked at him. She held a true heart for the natives of America who had been wronged ever since the whites showed up on this country's shores. Her sincerity was genuine.
"Ever since Columbus arrived, natives have been oppressed in one way or another up to, and including, the present. Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca made great in-roads for the Native Americans and their plight with a lawsuit considering their rights. And," she sighed, "unfortunately, the prevailing sentiment sided with the military's concept of genocide. But, tell me, please, what do you hope to gain from your actions here?"
Calder interrupted, keeping his eyes on the crowd, "You are an eloquent person with an obvious knowledge of Native issues."
"I should," she replied, bravely stepping closer without his protest, "I studied many cultures and their current problems before I came further West to deal in public relations."
"And what did you end up doing, may I ask?" John queried sarcastically with a sneer, knowing many college graduates rarely attained their chosen profession.
"Oh, I got into P.R., all right," she admitted, "but for a corporation, not on the consumer level that would have even come close to dealing with any native groups.
"But that's not the issue here, is it?" she asked him brusquely.
Johnson let another small smile play at the corners of his mouth. He realized this lady had a fire inside her that he admired. No back-up in this woman. One could even say that she literally "shot from the lip".
"Maybe we're just tired of this country's way of dealing with the 'Indian problem'," he informed her angrily. "We're tired of being considered second-class citizens. We're tired of being chased by idiots just because we are who we are. We're tired of being talked down...."
Karen cut in, "I find it hard to believe anyone talks down to either one of you." She smiled slyly as she whisked her stray blonde hairs from her face, and fluffed it habitually.
"That's beside the point, lady. I don't take much off most people, if that's what you mean." He didn't let her reply but continued the list of transgressions he'd started. "We're tired of the laws working for the white man, and for his way of life. We've decided to live the way we want, and will resist any attempt to force us to live otherwise."
"I reiterate, 'What do you hope to gain?'" she asked, hands on her hips, defying either man to give her a good answer. She swept her hand widely, indicating the other passengers. "They will likely get hurt, and you will definitely be blamed, hunted, and probably killed. What will that accomplish?" Her voice then increased in its intensity, nearly shouting, "Nothing!"
It was getting more difficult by the minute to tell who was in charge here. The eloquent woman was influential with her words and tactfully forceful as well.
"We're better than that, lady," Calder bragged. "That lummox over there is likely the best there is in the whole country at escape and evasion I've ever met. And," John smirked as he told of himself, "I'm probably one of the top three trackers in the West." He paused a second to let that sink in a bit, and then said, "In other words, woman, we can take care of ourselves. So don't you fret your little yuppie mind about us."
Karen looked at him blankly, surprised at the barrage that classified her the way racists would. She reasoned that these men were frustrated and not objective in their thinking at the moment. She offered an alternative.
"The plan would work better if you took a hostage."
The other passengers could not believe what they had just heard. Many protests were issued from them.
Karen lifted her hands to calm them and continued her idea, "It would give them a reason to give chase, and they would be less likely to be trigger-happy."
The crowd started yelping again.
"Quiet!" shouted Johnson who raised his gun hand, effectively quieting the passengers. "You don't mean to suggest yourself, do you?" he asked, expecting a negative reply.
"And why not?" she shot back indignantly.
"You'd slow us down, for one thing," Calder injected flatly with a sense of irritation.
"I have done the hundred in nine-point-five seconds, and ran the mile in about four and three quarter minutes, a record most runners only wish they could attain. My only real handicap may be the thin air. I just came from San Francisco," she informed them.
Her pause was met with the silence of thought. She could not believe the delay in their thinking. "Get real, boys. I'm single, have no family, and I doubt anyone else in this room can boast my athletic abilities or achievements." Looking around, they confirmed her claim.
She made her way toward the door. "I'll just get a few of my things stuffed into my pack, and I'll be ready shortly." She was out of the room before either man could take exception with her plan. They were stunned that one woman could take command of them so readily, and of the situation that they had initiated.
Were they possibly out of their element? Jerry mulled the question over in his mind.
Calder looked at Johnson, and Johnson looked back at him in total amazement, shaking his head. They had been manipulated by the woman's wit and charm, by her looks, and by her way of taking control. Hadn't it always been that way, though? Men have always been cleverly outwitted by women since time began, in ways that they never realized until later, if ever.
Each now wondered silently what they had gotten themselves into.
John sided up to Jerry and whispered, "She's right, ya know."
"Yeah, but I'm not sure we want a federal charge of kidnapping hanging over us," the mountain man replied, keeping an eye on the others.
"You can't kidnap the willing," John objected, assuring the big man, "and we're not going to get caught, remember?"
"But SHE will be with us. That long hair will be a hindrance. And she'll need them women's toilet 'thingies', know what I mean?" Jerry protested in exasperation. The two were comical to the knowing onlooker, but those that were surrounding them were in dire fear for their lives.
Meanwhile, a restroom break was allowed for the prisoners, covered by John. When the tall blonde returned with her hair up out of the way, wearing sturdy shoes, and an ample backpack on her shoulders, she blew apart most of Johnson's previous protests.
A new attitude fell over the namesake of Jeremiah Johnson. His mind was changing, he learned. She had a magic quite similar to Cindy, but also an ability more akin to Tina. This lady quite possibly could become the combination he might never be able to resist if he got to know her better. And that really did concern him now that he had committed himself to this.
"O.k., Tall Bear," he muttered, "she goes."
"Over here, sister," Calder directed, using his pistol as a pointer. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank-you for your undivided attention. Just for the record, let the railroad people know that train robberies could become a reality. We'll be going now. The Eagle and the Tall Bear are beholdin' to ya for your hospitality."
"Tall Bear!" Jerry called out, nearing the door.
Calder's statement had left the patrons somewhat confused, but he knew the reports would relay the information he was confirming: Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle and John Tall Bear Calder were responsible for this offense to the white man's law.
Temperatures dropping rapidly, the skies were a Coke bottle gray-green, heavy with moisture. Wind coming out of the north, the trio exited the dining car, running for the rocks that would give them cover just in case anyone in the railcar turned out to be armed, initiative high on his personality list.
Johnson almost wished there had been someone who had put up a fight. He was keyed up, adrenaline pumping through him like a runaway train.
Calder was also excited, feeling the need to let off some steam by running. A pace like that would wear out dog handlers long before the dogs.
They had figured it would take a couple hours or more to get the police to the site of the transgression and launch a manhunt.
Karen Fisher was actually enjoying the high plains. The wind brought fragrances of sage, sweetgrass, and farms. And the coming precipitation. A freak snowfall danced in the kicking currents. If their luck held, it would snow only locally.
Within about three hours, aircraft were aloft. But the snow had become heavier, making visibility worse, forcing them to leave the skies. This night would give the trio a fire if the snow kept coming.
And it did.
A gully gave them shelter from the wind and enough sage and willow to generate heat and cook some food. They retired to their beds since they were all exhausted from the escape.
Johnson and Calder had retrieved their personal gear. Their "hostage" was apparently well-equipped with her own sleeping bag and the things she considered necessities. At least she didn't complain or fuss. Not about the accelerated pace they had maintained since leaving the tracks. Respect for her grew with each minute's passing.
"Hey lady, how are you called?" Calder asked curiously. The Crow was filling the empty minutes before bed as the wind howled above the gully.
"My friends call me, Karen," she said without malice. "And, yes, I was a yuppie back in the big city. My husband died recently in a car wreck and I'm footloose and fancy free, in a sense. This trip was taking me to a new life." She held her hands to the small but warm flames.
Johnson looked at the woman. He wondered out loud, "Are you up to what's about to happen?" He let her mind chew on that statement a second. Then he continued, "Being chased, and all that? It's going to get rough, changing directions a lot of times, running long distances, sleeping little, and eating when we can." He thought he might have hit on something on which she might have objected.
"You lead the way, big guy, and we'll see. I'm no marathon runner, but college wasn't so long ago. Running and sleep deprivation is no new thing to me. And I'm sure I could stand to lose some weight. I can go without eating longer than most," she explained.
Johnson nodded. Her attitude was certainly acceptable. Her abilities would surface as they went. She seemed sturdy, at least, from the escape they had run from the tracks.
She definitely was shapely, he thought to himself. What was the word he was looking for? Voluptuous. Yes, that's it. She was the kind of woman most men dreamed about when they were lonely.
Calder must have been thinking along the same lines. He vocalized his thoughts tactfully. "What makes you think you can trust either of us?" he asked bravely.
"Easy," she answered without hesitation. "I have been trained in public relations and I have evaluated people rapidly on the job, often on first impressions. Both of you are sincere and principled men about your cause. I figure you to be either Absaroka or Shoshone, if I know any tribes well. They each treated their women with respect, for the most part. Maybe even Nez Perce." She spoke the correct French enunciation of the last tribe, impressing the two men once again with her knowledge and sensitivity.
Even though she was only batting .500, both men's jaws sagged in awe. "You're half-right, Karen," Johnson nodded, "but I'm of Blackfoot descent." He watched her eyes closely as he spoke. "He's Crow."
"Like I said," she reinforced firmly, "you're both men of principles, hence, I trust you. You're not career criminals, neither of you. You're just out to make a statement, probably because you were both reared in homes that stressed the old ways."
Her insight was uncannily accurate. She somehow knew she held one or both of these modern warriors mesmerized by her incredible appraisals. And by her beauty, if she could still read men correctly.
"Right again, Karen," Calder said. "Anything else you care to figure out about us while we're on the subject?" His sarcasm did not go unnoticed.
"I guess I do come across as a know-it-all sometimes. But I have always enjoyed assessing people, justifying what I've learned," she admitted. "If I've offended either of you, I apologize. I only wanted to see how well I did at the 'guessing game'." She looked at both men across the small star-shaped fire for adverse reactions.
Calder spoke his mind first. "Well, I guess we could have had a worse hostage." He smiled, then became serious again. He continued, "But, if we have to split up, you could be left behind. If that happens, build a large fire, and someone will find you. Understand?"
She nodded, smiling at what seemed to be an atmosphere of acceptance by the men.
"I'm turning in, people," John informed them, turning in his bedding. "Nobody will come out in this weather."
The bearded mountain man spoke gently, with genuine concern. "You comfortable enough?"
"We'll find out," Karen answered. "Wake me when you're ready to move on." She rolled in her bag and all Johnson could see was that blonde hair that must have insulated the top of her head right well.
Still in the squat he felt most comfortable when he was around a fire, he was alone with his thoughts. At last. One of the weather. One of the future. And one of Karen. Hopefully, he'd be able to find out about how each of them turned out.
She had wowed him, bowled him over. And it took a lot to impress him anymore. She gave him a new perspective to gauge women from. A new standard.
But for now, he coveted his time alone. Nowadays it was more precious than ever.
The memo of the Amtrak incident was in Sam Waterton's IN basket. He read it with relish. Gotcha, he thought. I knew you'd surface somewhere. Putting in a call to Uintah County, Sam connected with a Sheriff Fontenelle who already had men in the field.
"What's your interest in this case, Waterton?" the sheriff asked, sounding a bit perturbed at being interrupted, probably from his doughnuts and coffee, Sam thought.
"Had a run-in with a big buckskin feller a few months ago. We organized a posse led by a Crow tracker, a good man who disappeared during the manhunt. We thought he was dead, killed by the big fugitive we were after. But it doesn't look like it now. Sounds more like he joined forces with the mountain man."
Fontenelle said, "The FBI came in on this one, due to Amtrak and the kidnapping." He breathed loudly, and Waterton bet the sheriff was a heavy man. "But, I can't, for the life of me," he continued, "figure out why the young lady, a Karen Fisher, I believe, volunteered to be a hostage. Some witnesses claimed it was to draw the law on them intentionally. Can you imagine that?"
"Sounds wild, all right," Sam admitted.
"Don't worry, Waterton," the sheriff added, "we're on the trail. They headed south. We'll pick them up soon."
"I was sorta hoping to lend a hand," Sam finally put in. "The big guy, Johnson, broke my partner's jaw."
"That's too bad," the sheriff replied with feigned sincerity. "He'll answer to all the charges when we bring him in." Fontenelle breathed heavily again. "Those FBI fellas don't mess around, ya know."
"Well, if Waco was an example of federal competence, no, thank-you," Sam said frankly. "You don't know what that pair is capable of, sheriff. Why, they...."
"They'll probably be in custody by the time this conversation is over, Waterton. Let us take care of it down here, o.k.?" the sheriff interrupted. "Sorry, but I've gotta run. Been nice talkin' with ya. 'Bye."
Bitter, Sam slammed the receiver down. Thinking about the case for a minute, he wondered on the point of stopping an Amtrak train without the intent of robbing it or even kidnapping someone. And why in the heck would someone volunteer to be a hostage? Especially a woman? Nothing is making a damn bit of sense about this case.
Sam guessed he would have to wait until the FBI brought them in to find out anything, especially with the lack of cooperation given by as worthless a sheriff as Fontenelle. That kind of professional courtesy disgusted Sam. Made being a law man frustrating as the devil. Courts won't let a cop do his job the way it needs to be done. Law offices don't seem to coordinate efforts consistently anymore.
Federal agencies are usually know-it-alls that rush head-long into a situation, not caring whether locals can handle a situation more effectively or not. They often turn out to be the proverbial bull in the China shop. And if not a bull, then maybe a tank. Or a helicopter. Or a jet fighter.
Brain-dead idiots, Sam chuckled to himself. Whatever it takes to get the job done, they'll use it.
Agent Brown sipped his coffee gingerly. Still too hot, he thought, setting the cup back down. William Brown had a stuffed folder before him, information on the mountain man who had eluded the Wyoming officials recently and held up an Amtrak train near Evanston. The records were declassified military documents and Bill read them with usual interest.
An interesting name, Brown thought. Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle, a man who had been raised on a Blackfoot reservation. Honorably discharged in 1973 after three years in Vietnam. Special forces training. Bronze and Silver Stars. Kill team sniper. Rated expert shot with every weapon he handled.
Great. Wonderful. Damn!
Brown had been in Nam in the '60's as one of the few black officers in the field. Entering a college ROTC program, Bill had been successful enough to come back alive and apply his years to a government service job. The FBI. Funny thing was, he loved the job. His wife, Jeannie, didn't. But, convinced that Bill liked it, she could live with it since they were living well.
Most of the time it was eight-to-five hours, some overtime when something like this came up. It was interesting work with decent co-workers, good retirement, excellent vacation.
His family backed him. That was important. He had seen agents come and go who had severe family problems or a tendency to be crooked. Bill felt fortunate.
Now an interesting case comes along, about which he has had a bit more than a few fears. Little or no physical evidence. Plenty of witnesses. A "volunteer" hostage. A couple Native Americans out "playing Indian", so it seemed. A veteran who seems to have lost his marbles. Bill actually doubted that. Call it intuition.
Just a few oddities. Some cases had them. This one had its share.
But none of his previous ones had a freaking Rambo to deal with. Bill threw down the case file in disgust. He didn't need this crap.
Not a black man he knew wanted to spend his nights in the wilderness. Having hated Vietnam, he had camped enough then to have become "one" with nature for life. That was enough of that. To top it off, there were snakes, tigers, punji stakes, booby-traps, tunnels full of VC. Fun stuff.
Camping wasn't his thing, and this case was sizing up to demand plenty of it. Rattlesnakes, bears, mountain lions, a mildly-talented sniper. And maybe booby-traps.
Oh, goodie. Fun stuff he hadn’t heard of since Nam.
And he was sure this clown lived in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains because he could. And liked it. He probably ate ants and grasshoppers, and grass and trees.
How well-armed were they? Witnesses only saw handguns and knives. Nobody lived in the wilderness without a long gun of some kind.
And who exactly was this Calder cat? One Rambo was bad enough. What if this other guy was just as good? He had been raised on a reservation, too.
Bill started having doubts about being a black agent in the West again. But it hadn't always been like this. It hadn't been bad at all, really. At least it wasn't the South, he thought gratefully. He wasn't seeing any way around calling out some other agents in SWAT gear and securing a couple aircraft for the manhunt.
Who is this guy, anyway? A fugitive like him makes an agent leery of doing what it took to get the job done. Overkill would bring disfavor by the bureau and the public, and too little would not get the job done. But then, this was Bill Brown's job and his responsibility. If he was going at it wrong, he was sure to hear about from higher up. And, after all, some mistakes can be corrected.
A couple phone calls later, Bill found a BLM plane to back up their lone helicopter. A small snow squall was supposed to let up by morning and they could try to find the fugitives by air. That sheriff in Uintah County wasted his time sending someone out in that stuff. Grandstander. Could have gotten them killed.
Clearing considerably, the next morning still had some clouds about. There was a higher ceiling and the visibility had improved notably. Unlimited below five thousand feet. Good, thought Brown, let's get this show over with.
Fortunately for Bill, he had coordinated with the locals. They now had an excellent tracker. His own people couldn't track a pimple on their own rears. Inter-linking communications, the locals and Feds could now be allied.
Hopefully, it would be enough. In the back of Bill Brown's mind, he was skeptical.
He had every reason to be.
Snow became a minor nuisance to the fugitives. In fact, it had actually become a blessing, covering their tracks to their campsite. That certainly would perturb any trackers. The new morning promised a partly sunny day. The winds were warming, too, and snow was evaporating rapidly.
Without the benefit of a morning fire, the trio headed south. The woman relished the adventure, picking up on the men's camp habits, know-how, and savvy. On the trail, they shared reasons for their many choices. Stay below a rim or hillcrest so as not to be silhouetted on a horizon. Enter a stand of trees rather than skirting it helped to hide movement.
A jackrabbit scurried from under a sagebrush, but Johnson killed it with the most amazing throw of his knife. He had used it as a club, throwing it horizontally, and knocked the rabbit senseless, severing a front leg in the process. He had field-dressed it in less than a minute. Calder foraged some wild onions near a stand of cottonwoods and found some cow parsnips near a creek. Stew would be the fare tonight.
They picked up the pace by putting Johnson in the front and letting him lead with his longer strides. The wind calmed after the clouds diminished, allowing the sun to played hide-and-seek.
About mid-day, they heard a chopper approach as they entered a small grove of aspen. Its crisscross pattern led them to be convinced that it was meant for them. However, it disappeared just about as quickly as it had appeared, not noticing them.
Altering their direction to the southeast, the trio hoped to keep anyone who might be trailing from circling around in front of them. Trotting at times, they successfully put thirty miles behind them. On broken high plains, they felt they were doing quite well.
Calder's survey map had indicated the probable cut where their last camp had been. And the last stand of trees where the creek flowed was approximately that distance from the cut.
"This thing actually came in handy," Calder said with mock astonishment. "I never relied on one before, but I thought it might be worthwhile on this leg of the journey."
"We used them a lot in the army," Johnson said. "They're not wholly accurate, but can reasonably give you something to go on."
"They're quite valuable to backpackers," Karen vouched. "I could not have gotten back to a trail without one in serious wilderness."
"So you've been in the 'wild' before?" questioned the Crow sarcastically, somewhat doubtful.
"The Sierras," she replied, sounding a little short. They were a respectable range in anybody's book.
"Well," replied John, "we'll pitch it or make a fire with it once we're back in the mountains. One must be so ecologically correct these days, don't 'cha know." He mimicked a Britisher sipping on an imaginary teacup.
It was a real sight for Karen to behold, a Crow warrior with an up-raised pinkie. It tickled her visibly.
"I don't know about you guys, but I'll sleep well tonight," the young woman moaned, rubbing her calves. She checked her feet. "Good thing these boots are trail-wise. No blisters, but my feet still hurt."
Johnson turned toward her and advised, "Put your feet in the creek for awhile and the swelling will most likely go down."
"Yeah, and it washes the stink downstream," Calder teased, turning away so she could not see his smirk.
Giving him a dirty look, she still obeyed. Squealing, she put her feet in the frigid cascade. Must have been snowmelt from the High Uintahs.
Calder prepared a fire in a small pit so the flames would not be visible, just in case the law liked to fly at night. The stew was done in about an hour, spiced with some watercress Karen had found near the creek. She was slowly proving her worth.
After the satisfying meal, they were engulfed by darkness. They had only heard one plane, too far off to be a bother this night.
They slept soundly, except for Johnson, who heard the sniffing of a coyote near the camp and sent it scurrying off with a well-placed rock. Then he slept well.
The sheriff's posse was directed by the FBI helicopter to a line of tracks that very morning between the fugitives' two camps. It was, at least, a better start for them after the previous day's unsuccessful attempt.
After an exhausting flight yesterday, the chopper took a new direction with vigor. Brown was optimistic about success, and hopeful that today would produce some results. Lately, the long days were a mental drain on him.
All the agents had all been frustrated. Smart-ass mountain men and Indians knew exactly what they were doing to set out before the on-coming snow. Lesson number one learned, Brown accounted to himself.
Finding the tracks in that drainage ditch had been amazing luck. Setting down near there, Brown could see where three people had set off for the southeast from the cut, on top of some of the left-over snow. The tracks were obvious despite some melting by the weather.
Enthusiasm rekindled, the air posse made a beeline southeast regardless of the possibility of a potential direction change by the trio. The fugitives had to make a mistake sooner or later.
In twenty minutes the chopper bore down on three scurrying figures. The effort on the craft's loudspeaker to have them surrender, was met with heavy thirty caliber answers. Some of the shots were well-placed, damaging the engine and tail rotor. Putting the chopper down on the snowy sagebrush plain, the pilot safely landed the craft beyond the fugitives' range of fire. A bit of luck, thankfully. Gathering their gear quickly, the occupants of the helicopter evacuated pronto, an explosion soon destroying the wounded bird.
They sent a quick message of their plight to Salt Lake City.
The fleeing trio grabbed their own supplies. Changing their direction out of sight of the chopper crew, they also switched tactics. Entering the thick alders of the Uintah foothills, they expected a sure pursuit. They changed direction often. Johnson left good sign at some of the changes so the chasers would become over-confident, careless.
The first trap would be a small trip-up snare, a warning. A second was designed to injure, a stout sapling that could break a leg or an ankle. Any fool deciding to follow after those warnings would encounter a deadly bow-and-arrow device that could kill or maim one of their pursuers. The mountain man hoped they would take the hint at the first one.
Most likely they wouldn't.
Brown and his companions survived the crash no worse for wear, but the helicopter needed professional help. The pilot stayed with the craft and the other three found the fugitives' camp in no time.
And their trail.
"Yes!" Brown exclaimed quietly. A minor victory, he assured himself. Don't get too rambunctious and lose your objective. These aren't badly-equipped VC and we aren't a division of fresh troops.
"Gung-ho and ready to go!" one agent shouted out loud, a big smile across his face.
"Keep your senses sharp, McCreedy," Brown admonished the younger man. "You're not Superman."
"Yes, sir!" came the sharp reply, laden with sarcasm.
Brown was serious. These guys seemed to think this was going to be a cakewalk. They weren't going to take this lightly if he could help it.
He put McCreedy on point, hoping it would settle the young man down some. Jones took the next position, off to McCreedy's right and slightly behind him a few yards. Brown pulled up the rear, basically to keep his eye on the other two.
Now, where the heck could the sheriff's men be? They didn't have time to waste. The fugitives were just ahead, and others were nowhere to be seen.
It didn't really matter, Brown reasoned, they had to push onward. He would just have to update the others by radio, if he could ever reach them.
Catching McCreedy's eye, Bill re-emphasized his caution. "This Johnson is no slouch. Keep your eyes open." He knew the answer before it even came.
Actually, McCreedy had gained a new respect for the quarry who had shot them down, but he was still anxious to get going. This hemming and hawing around was a waste of time and he wanted to get on the trail. He would keep his eyes open, alert. He was no novice at this game. Finding the snare, he actually impressed Brown. Ten yards down the trail, however, was a different story.
Brown was nursing McCreedy's broken pride and immobilizing his smashed ankle. "Set up your camp," he advised, "and your fire will mark you for rescue. I'll radio that you're being left behind."
As the two were leaving, Brown saw the smoke pour from the injured man's fire. Sage makes a good, smoky fire, he noted and logged that info away in his mind.
Jones voiced his leeriness at moving on. "Why can't we wait for the others to catch up and help us? Their tracker could do the dirty work out front."
His reasoning was sound. Brown thought about it a second, but had to make his subordinate realize that they could not be upstaged by a county posse. They had no time to lose with the fugitives so close at hand. A federal agency had to rely on their own resources in most cases, and this one would not be any different. They had to try.
Frustrated, Brown took point. Literally. He had just taken to the trail when the line he tripped, feeling like another small snare, zipped rapidly from out of sight. The arrow narrowly missed his vitals, but, in severe pain, the FBI man didn't know that for certain.
Bill Brown now knew that he was defeated, outclassed, and lucky to be alive. He was resigning himself to possibly running a field HQ, at best.
Jones had stopped the bleeding, midst accusing glances at his superior. But he did not taunt Brown. This could have happened to anybody, he decided fairly. Setting up a small camp, Jones made them both comfortable, then called anyone who would listen.
They needed dogs. And night scopes could be used. Anything! They needed help.
Bill had gotten through to Salt Lake City, alerting the offices to the problems they were experiencing in the field up here in Wyoming, almost into Utah. The Uintah County sheriff's office was now out of it, having gone home unsuccessful. So was Wyoming's state police. It was now the FBI's problem.
Brown was medivac'd with McCreedy. Jones and the pilot, agent Don Simms, enlisted the aid of the tracker from the sheriff's posse, and requested a local dog handler to meet them. They met near Elizabeth Mountain, accessible by four wheel drive. Bloodhounds would raise the confidence of the two agents and the new replacements when they picked up the fugitives' trail.
During the down time, while the pursuers were being reinforced and Salt Lake was making manpower adjustments, the two-man, one-woman team had put fifteen more miles behind them with plenty of tricks and traps to discourage, maim, or kill.
One blow down obstacle would become a lethal deadfall for a dog, breaking its back. It would be shot and left behind. The dogs began to circle near a creek, but the trail-wise handler caught the trick and found where the culprits had pole-vaulted across the creek, a fifteen foot deviation from a normal track.
Now eastbound, the fugitives and their volunteer prisoner were making some sense. The High Uintahs are a formidable barrier.
And a great place to hide.
Officer Sam Waterton was perturbed. Actually, he was pissed off. He wanted revenge so badly, he seethed. Focusing on the mountain man who incapacitated his partner, he worked himself into a rage. He had to do something about it before he blew a gasket. Due some vacation, Sam had accrued over three weeks, and, boy, was he ready to use it. He'd try to catch those fugitives himself. Wouldn't that look good on his record?
He felt up for it. Even had a good idea about where to look. His partner would appreciate it, but probably wouldn't go for Sam's taking vacation to do it.
Oh, well. In a day he would be on his way, and his determination and confidence told him that this felon would pay, one way or another.
Johnson knew that a small fire was temporarily safe. He had back-tracked five miles to a promontory that enabled him to see nearly forever on his back trail. They were back there and the aircraft were not even searching within sight. Too far north. When one did appear, it hovered near the federal posse. The airplane had gone back north. Probably gave up.
A hot meal would start the day in a fine way for them all. Jerry had three trout he had caught by hand, belly down next to a stream's outer bank on a turn where the water undercut the earth. A school had been scared into hiding by the mountain man, and he selected the largest three for their breakfast. Once gutted, they cooked rapidly on the smokeless, hardwood coals.
Calder skewered one and checked the meat. Satisfied, he bit into the tasty flesh. He appeared pleased.
Karen spoke, "That smells wonderful."
John talked with his mouth full. "And tastes even better."
"Grab one, girl," Johnson said, pulling a small fork out of a pack, "it should be ready." He smiled apprehensively like a first class chef awaiting praise for his creation.
She smiled back until the hot flesh encountered her own. "Ow!" she exclaimed, gingerly bouncing the fish from one hand to the other. "That's hot!"
"Just came off the fire," the mountain man dead-panned. "Things cooked over an open flame have a way of doing that." His face broke into a hammy grin.
"O.k., big guy," she replied, nodding. "I can give as well as receive, you know." She began eating the fish now that the high country air had cooled it some. Taking a nibble, she said, "Of course, where I'm from, the jokes tend to center around the indoors. But I'll see what I can do for you boys."
His eyes rolled up to watch hers and his smirk surfaced despite his mouthful of trout.
Calder spoke up with his mouth full of his breakfast, "Guess we'll head east till we can get over one of the passes and head over to the Ute Reservation south of the Uintah Mountains." He continued smacking his lips, swallowing, and thinking about the plan he had just mentioned.
"Not a bad idea, Tall Bear," Johnson said after thinking through a swallow of his own, putting his bones in the nearby creek. "Makes sense to enlist other native brothers to help cover our tracks, if possible. Sorta like a buffalo herd trampling out our tracks in the old days."
The Crow finished his fish, washed his hands in the water, and used the grass to wipe off. Karen followed their example, figuring that it was to leave the camp as clean as possible without leaving tell-tale odors.
They loaded up, packed up, and headed out, mountain man in the lead, then the woman, and the tracker pulling up the rear. Sticking to the trees, they easily avoided air searches. Switching leads, Johnson became responsible for leaving any of his hindering devices on the trail to deter any who would follow. And they were sure someone would.
Changing directions so often, the fugitives totally confused the FBI, keeping them from being able to drop anyone in front of them to cut them off. The feds had dropped a few teams ahead of their quarry once, thinking they had the fugitives surrounded, boxed-in good. Finding out the criminals had backtracked, by the time they had discovered the trick, the pursuers had destroyed the spoor for any of the trackers. Picking up the trail again had proved to become a puzzling task. Dogs were needed to find the trail again, costing the FBI many hours.
Not knowing where the trio was heading, the FBI trackers went east, south, west, backtracked, went north, east, south, backtracked, west, south, ad nauseum. Some of the feds concluded that the Indians and their hostage would ultimately be going south over the range that lay ahead. But where that would be was totally unguessable, and frankly illogical to many of them. They had thought it wiser to expect the fugitives to have continued east toward Vernal.
If the passes were found to be blocked, the outlaws could use the treacherous peaks. And there was simply not enough manpower to stretch over the entire Uintah Range.
One thing was certain. The agents who were near the spot where the helicopter crashed were not able to continue. Johnson had spied on them, backtracking and finding them confused by tracks and fearing his traps. Those problems had slowed the posse considerably.
Now was the time for another reminder or two.
The mountain man did not take time for elaborate traps like arrows or pits. One, with many short, sharp sticks on a sapling probably took him only a half hour to build with a monofilament fishing line and set in a very dense thicket of small willows and stunted firs. If it did not effectively injure a member of the pursuers, it would definitely wake them up from being inattentive.
Rejoining the others, Jerry led them southward steadily, angling now toward the slopes just below timberline, staying away from easy sighting from the air. Fortunately for them, the snow had receded to well above that point on the mountain during the warmer days, depositing melt in runnels from the lofty peaks.
The High Uintahs are beautiful to behold on the approach the threesome ascended. And impressive. The only east-west range of the Rockies. Cavalry troops used to criss-cross them nearly all year until the passes closed solid with the deep snows that were common in the lower foothills.
Only God knew how often the mountain men and Indians had crossed them. South of the range had been controlled by the Ute, the north by the Shoshone and Blackfeet, and occasional roving war parties of the Crow, Kiowa, Sioux, Ute, and Cheyenne. Trapper cabin ruins from the beaver fur trade era dot the mountains to this very day.
Calder held his mini-binoculars for the longest time, scanning the horizon for a quick way over the barrier. He checked the massive, jutting mountains that once were violent volcanoes, gazing at the ridges and mini-canyons for human activity. From the promontory where he now stood, he could see the meadow below where Fort Supply's ruins were decaying.
Once on the eastern slope of Gilbert Peak, they circled southward and upward to the pass, cautiously leaving the tree line behind them. Determined to get over the pass and back down to timberline on the south face as quickly as possible, they ate jerky stored in their packs.
Calder had scrutinized the area with his glasses before they set out, and Johnson had scouted ahead. Now they went on together. An airplane flew up the pass about mid-day, but there had been plenty of cover from boulders, rocky crags, and outcroppings. Johnson had shielded Karen in case her yuppie colors gave them away.
Before going below the pass, which had nobody defending it, Johnson remained and tried to figure out where the posse might be. They had not been at this pass, but then, what he called a pass would not likely be called one by anyone who was not a mountain man or an Indian.
Several columns of smoke thousands of feet below dotted the higher plains and foothills, telling them that there were hunting parties and a few backpackers out this time of the year. He and the Crow had chosen the most opportune time to pull this off. The myriad of camps, and there were dozens, would be confusing to the pursuers, if there were any left now.
However, there was a single camp that was well-within the area off-limits to hunting on the north slope. It was that one smoke trail that told Johnson the posse, at least the bulk of them, were many harmless miles behind them. White men, fools that they are, could always be counted on to have a large fire, far larger than he needed, to give away his position.
Rising from his vantage point, the large man decided there was no true threat behind them anymore. Beginning his descent, he tracked the others who had gone ahead, getting down the mountain as fast as they could to the protection of the trees. They were sitting ducks out on this open rock face.
Climbing down the sunny southern slope, no telltale smoke was any closer than the limit of the primitive area that would be closed to the hunters, but Johnson knew somebody smart could be somewhere ahead. He had been negligent when the old ranger had found him, but he could not afford the luxury of any mistakes. Not now.
Hunters were sure to be on the alert for the fugitives, adding to their problems. But the big Blackfoot half-breed knew that many would be mixing alcohol with bullets, a dangerous combination that was a formula for disaster, just as it had been for his ancestors. The white men had to varnish nearly all his dealings in the wilderness and with Indians with fermented beverages. Or fermenting corpses.
Death and destruction has been the legacy of the white man's passing throughout European, African, Asian, or American history. Colonialization was a sham, and still is. But whites don't hold exclusive rights to those problems, though. Each race has had its bones to rattle, or keep hidden, as the situation required.
Catching up to his new partners, Jerry related his observations. They refrained from a fire until they, too, were out of the primitive area of the Uintah Mountains.
Taking notice of the beauty of the high country the following morning, Karen remarked on the vistas and the air that was so sweet and clean, it seemed to hurt lungs that were used to big city smog. Despite some muscular soreness, she felt invigorated, and so alive.
Bringing up the rear, Johnson spoke, "It's the lifestyle Tall Bear and I have chosen, pretty lady, and we refuse to turn away from it for any reason. We'll winter together as the mountain men and Indians once did, and if we have to build lean-tos and burn blow-downs, eat venison, birds, or fish, then, so be it."
"Wouldn't you be bored?" she asked, genuinely curious, now walking beside him. "What would you do to stay busy?"
"Survival itself is a chore, and an interesting one, to be sure, Karen," he said. "It is a challenge just to stay alive in the wilderness. Fetching the water you need daily, enjoying nature, staying warm and comfortable, hunting food, learning new things, making tools to make life easier, they all take much time. But who cares? We're time-rich!"
Johnson watched her pretty face for a reaction to his statement. Then he continued, "Clothing requires mending, and gear, too. Life, as some of the native people say, takes care of itself, determining what needs to be done on a day-to-day basis."
The beautiful young woman had only heard of such life in books and, as she walked beside him, she could see the passion he held for the life he lived. She wondered if there was any room in it for a woman. Karen longed for a relationship that was simpler than the one she had with Rob. She knew that the lifestyle the huge man spoke of required much from a woman, especially a lady familiar only with the accouterments of living in the twentieth century. She had much to learn, she figured, if she ever chose this kind of life.
As they walked together, Jerry could see how the woman listened eagerly, seeming to yearn for the information he had to share.
Her curiosity could no longer be contained, "Forgive me, Jeremiah, but have you ever tried to settle down with a woman in this lifestyle before?"
Not angry with the question, he saw that her face shone with sincerity. He related honestly how a couple of attempts had failed because the two women had to return to civilization. "Shrivelization" or "syphilisation" seemed to be more accurate terms, whichever applied best at the moment.
She understood where he was coming from with his concepts, which would be considered eccentric, at the very least, in any other culture.
Calder could see that the two's relationship was growing. He understood, at least from his friend's point of view because, man, she was a knock-out. But on top of that, he felt that, somehow, they "fit" together. You know, like some couples seem destined to be together.
It didn't seem fair, but still, he understood. Jerry was about the closest thing he'd ever seen to an Adonis. Not that he himself was not a good-looking man, he reasoned, but he was a full-blooded Crow. So, maybe it was a racial thing. Maybe it not. Heck with it.
John saw how Karen watched the mountain man while he was talking with her. She seemed preoccupied, her mind not totally on their conversation. He knew she was falling in love with the mountain man.
He had even caught the big man sneaking side glances at the pretty one. Jerry was more subtle, though. His skills at nature observation, tracking, and just mere wilderness awareness were second to none. So, if the mountain man wanted to furtively observe the woman, he was fully adept for it. Despite Johnson's increased abilities, Calder detected a longing in the big man's heart that he had never seen before, even when Jerry had told him of his most serious past relationships.
The beautiful young woman from San Francisco had an aura different from most suburban dwellers. It could have stemmed from her Midwestern roots, Jerry surmised, but he figured people developed their attitudes and basic personalities by their mid-teens. Subtle changes could chisel a human's make-up over a lifetime, but a person tends to stay the same all his life unless a traumatic experience alters it drastically. Born-again Christians were a good example of that, especially after a selfish lifestyle.
All the mountain man knew at this point was, despite her attractive wrappings, this woman held a magnetic pull unlike any he had ever known on his huge carcass. Beyond puppy love.
Beyond lust. And that was amazing.
As a man unfamiliar with "ladies of society", as he figured Karen to be, Johnson was somewhat stand-offish, afraid to be too forward, fearing rejection. If he made the wrong move or said the wrong thing, he feared he would drive her away.
What did he care? He was a man of the wild! A child of nature without the need.... Who was he trying to kid? He longed for the soft touch of a woman, and for her company. One who would seriously take to his preferred lifestyle.
Being near Karen was very difficult for him, but he would take all of her attention while she was willing to give it. And he would enjoy it immensely.
He posed a question to help mold his opinion about her. "What motivates you in life, Karen?"
Karen looked blankly away, lost in thought for what seemed to be an eternity. Partly indecision, partly sadness, but mainly because she felt it wise to think hard before she answered him. Tears welled up and she kept them from falling. She was, after all, through with crying, she thought. She was ready for a new life. She was ready to get rid of the past and make a new life. A fresh start.
"What motivated me in the past is not what motivates me now," she finally replied, under control. "The train trip was taking me away from an old life that initially started with my husband, and I'd just as soon leave it behind." It seemed difficult for her to convey what she was trying to say, but one look in his eyes, and Karen saw understanding and, maybe, sympathy, as a big weathered paw gently encompassed hers.
She let it remain.
"It was a life filled with materialism, reliance on things, not on myself or on other people other than my husband, like I was raised," she soon added, placing her hand in his. He gave it an assuring press.
"Then," her face brightened when she paused, "I met two fellas out to make a statement about an oppressed culture. I saw in one the desire to live a simpler life, to ask nothing from nobody but to be left alone." She was looking up into his sun-darkened face, both smiling, knowing there was something very special growing between them.
"I thought it was also wise," she continued, "to step in before someone foolishly challenged you back there. I saw the opportunity of a new and different life only after we were on the trail, seeing how much I truly enjoyed it.
"I actually thought I was going to be taken back by the FBI, and you guys would be jailed. But both of you are so skilled in the outdoors, I somehow knew that they would never catch up," she said.
"You took a serious risk diving into an unknown situation with two strangers, you know," Jerry admonished her.
She stood, dropping his hand after a loving squeeze. "Oh, I don't know about that," she flaunted confidently, skipping away, batting her deep blue eyes. "I'm a grown girl who is quite able to take care of myself!" Her challenge defied him with both eyes and body language, mocking a boxer's stance as he stood, dwarfing her by nearly a foot, and almost a hundred pounds.
Calder grinned. "This oughtta be good, Jerry, especially if she kicks your stupid mountain-bred butt." He punctuated his statement with a loud guffaw.
"Humph!" Johnson answered back, circling his playful opponent like a professional wrestler. His pride gushed like a new oil well.
"This'll only take a sec-!" The mountain man had carelessly gotten too close to Karen, who had executed a totally unexpected move.
She had taken advantage of his last step forward, and her speed and competence were blinding. A classic judo move laid the seasoned warrior on his back.
He lay there motionless too long from what seemed to be a harmless throw. Karen stepped beside the motionless man, along with John, calling out his name, "Jerry. Jerry!" She turned to Calder, pleading, "What did I do? I didn't mean...!"
As she saw Calder shrug, feigning ignorance, a massive leg moved like the strike of an unseen rattler, sweeping both her legs, letting her land safely on top of him like a gym floor mat.
And there are some similarities.
"You!" Karen exclaimed, pummeling him with ineffective punches, raining harmless blows until he finally caught each wrist in his ham-like hands, rendering them useless.
Hair tousled provocatively, her face softened, as did her resistance, disappearing like a feather on high country winds. Karen's eyes begged that this was the moment for intimacy, but she assessed that he was fumbling like a child as to what he should do next. So, taking the lead, she lowered her head, leaving no doubt in his mind what message she was trying to convey.
Johnson had been around women enough, wise enough, he thought, to realize this woman was letting him know her intentions. There would be no more uncertainty between them. Taking the hint, his one hand intertwined with her hair as he pulled her head down. His other arm around her waist, he pulled her lips onto his for one of those soul-searching kisses usually reserved for a bedroom.
Calder looked on in mock-astonishment and in a louder voice said, "Looks like it's time to take a LONG walk." The couple never acknowledged him as he proceeded to amble off, skipping and smiling like a silly schoolboy, half-singing, "Karen and Jerry, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g," fading away as he went over a nearby rise.
The Ute reservation reminded Calder and Johnson of their experiences growing up on similar plots of worthless land. Same third world conditions. Same looks of despair on the faces, some affected by alcohol.
They, on the other hand, hardly went unnoticed.
Typical of some reservation-dwellers, Tall Bear Calder had ebony hair down to his breechcloth, branding him as a rebel to the assimilation policies of the American government. Breechcloths, or breechclouts, were symbols of the old ways, not just for the sake of pow-wows.
Add to that a ghost shirt or war shirt, especially one handed down for generations, and other accouterments of the culture, then a man or a woman would become the holiest of their tribe because of their abilities to do the old ways and recite the stories.
Even to this day, a person, usually a young boy, would attract the attention of the elders to receive their accumulated knowledge. The person would be extracted from the mainstream of the tribe, often secluded at a high mountain retreat or a remote desert site, and then raised in the old ways exclusively, without the tainting of the white man's culture.
Depending on the tribe and their commitment to keeping the old ways alive, this method usually was successful. Some were raised like Jeremiah Johnson Eagle, by his grandfather in a remote site. Others like John Tall Bear Calder were reared by his grandfather on the reservation because he had the interest.
With a visage that told onlookers to tread carefully, the half-white giant in buckskins looked like he stepped off a western movie set, but with modern weapons. A large Bowie, a double-action .44, and a trapper-length Winchester 30-30 can say things that some words could never explain.
Karen Sue Fisher was the rose between two thorns, as it were. Looking out of place, she was flanked by the two men, well-protected. Had her long blonde hair been black, she would not have been given a second thought, other than the fact that she filled out her clothes like a high-fashion model rather than a reservation resident.
Children squealed and played, pointing and giggling on that sun-drenched day that was warming the southern face of the Uintah Mountains. Others gathered in pairs and small groups as the odd trio strolled through unchallenged.
Finally, a youth and an older man, possibly a chief or shaman, approached. "The spirits said you would come," the toothless, craggy face emitted. Addressing both men, his mouth moved little, but the words were easily understood. "My vision told me you would come from the north and stay only a short while." He did not smile till all the words had passed his lips, then he continued, "Come, let us smoke and sweat together, brothers, and discuss the road you have chosen to follow."
They were welcomed into the bosom of the Utes. All but Karen. As an outsider, she was ignored by the females. At least they had not tried to stone her as some cultures had once treated outsiders. She thought that was a great plus.
Vision quests, sweats, and much talk filled the days for the men, sharing their motives and intentions. It seemed the Utes embraced both men totally. Once it was known that Karen was Johnson's woman, one young lady, Sara "Running Flower" Thomas, warmed up to her, helping her to get along during her stay.
Sara remarked to the newcomer, "You will be required to take a purifying sweat if all of you are to succeed at your endeavor. Are you in your period?"
Karen understood the reason behind the question, and was not resentful. Menstruating women were often not allowed in sacred ceremonies or sweat lodges.
"No," she replied, "but it will be soon, and I'll need to learn what is available in the wilderness if I continue to live away from twentieth century solutions to a woman's age-old problem."
"Let's take a walk, Karen," Sara suggested. "My people have a few traditional ways you may like to try." They left to continue their girl talk and Karen learned how dry, twisted grasses could be used to create a makeshift "belt" of sorts. Sweetgrass was preferred for its wonderful fragrance, of course, but a precious commodity for ceremonies and a choice smudge for an insect repellent. Absorbent mosses could be dried and used, but they were often uncomfortable. She pondered the possibilities and variations she could work on.
The women did help the stranger to prepare for her first sweat lodge experience, cautioning her to silence during the ceremony, and to follow their lead.
The women entered the lodge in a traditional manner, from left to right, never crossing the sacred channel of life, the center line established by the pit for the stones in the center of the lodge to the mound outside, made of the earth from the hole.
Stones were passed through the flap and laid in the sacred center of the lodge. The medicine man finally entered and conducted the entire ceremony in the Ute tongue. Darkness was nearly complete when the flap was lowered. Totally naked, Karen felt rather uneasy in this inner sanctum of the natives' spiritual beliefs. The coolness of the lodge that had caused her skin to goose-pimple soon changed when the shaman poured the special tea-laden fluid over hot rocks that now glowed red, softly illuminating the interior.
Karen's thought how wonderful a shelter it was, snug and warm. A bit of fear washed over her as to what was to come. The hissing steam unleashed the hidden power of the herbs into the lodge. The environment suddenly became oppressive, heavy with the super-heated humidity that seemed to magically suck on each pore. Her perspiration soon became so profuse, she thought she was about to pass out. But when she held her head near her knees, to breathe the cooler air, she seemed to regain more consciousness.
How awful it would have been to fall head-first into those red-hot stones! That would have been a real drag.
After about ten minutes, the village medicine man added another gourd of water to raise the heat level, allowing the herbs to tug on the stubborn poisons inside her.
Between twenty to thirty minutes into the sweat, the old man opened the flap, allowing the occupants to exit into waiting robes or towels held by friends or relatives. He smiled particularly wide for the momentary peek he was afforded at the white woman's well-formed body. Too white for his tastes, he observed.
Sara spoke for the first time since the sweat, finally breaking their silence, "Step over to the stream, Karen, and let it embrace your whole body." Sara's face showed sincerity, so Karen obeyed, despite the illogical insanity that she thought it would be, to step into the freezing runoff.
Entering a pool that had been prepared for such a purpose, the blonde woman was surprised at how good the water felt, despite its coldness. Immersing herself fully, she soon realized the truth of the feeling that she had never before experienced.
It was wonderful. She sat with Sara for a few minutes with a smile of understanding and contentment.
Then, about to leave with towels wrapped about each, the two women were approached by a young girl who spoke her purpose, "Sara, a man is here looking for the blonde one and the two men."
"Thank-you, Lily," Sara said. Turning to her guest, she said, "Come with me, Karen, we must get dressed and see what is going on."
Sam Waterton was standing with a few citizens of the reservation, showing a picture of the two fugitives around in hopes they had seen them pass through the area. Nearly every head was denying knowledge, and then walking away.
Karen watched as Sara approached the man, obviously a lawman from his manner. His purpose, his identification, and the displaying of the pictures were reiterated for any who came near. He repeated the process for Sara. Her hesitation was minimal, but Sara seemed to pacify him before she returned.
"He's a police officer from Jackson, Wyoming. He has no jurisdiction here," she told Karen. "He's not even sure if you're involved. I doubt if he knows you are here."
Karen mulled it over for a minute, contemplating whether she should try to convince him to back off since no harm had been done and she had gone willingly as a hostage. It seemed logical to her. At least, it was worth a try.
As she walked toward the thin man, contrary to the advice given her by Sara, Karen preened a bit. Meanwhile, she thought how Jackson, Wyoming, had no business over something that occurred elsewhere, but she discounted that as being important now about the time the man turned around to greet her.
"Hello," she said as sweetly as she could. "Is there any way I can help you?" Never a good liar, she hoped she was not being transparent. Even as a child, if she had fibbed, she was usually found guilty by her parents. Karen had worked on the mannerisms that had usually given her away, rolling her eyes, wringing her hands, and fidgeting with her feet. To her frustration, Rob had somehow learned her subtle quirks early.
Sam went through his speech until he realized, with some fearful apprehension, that this lady was indeed who he was looking for. Chalk it up to a lawman's sixth sense, but he suspected she was Karen Sue Fisher.
Aware of his mistrust immediately, she confirmed, "Yes, I am the one who left the train with the two men you are looking for."
He thought about the statement momentarily, then, looking around cautiously, for he knew those two men could be anywhere around, he spoke slowly, "If you tell me where they are, it could go well for you." He said that with a calculated chance that she might give him some information if she thought she was considered a fugitive, too.
"'Well' for me?" she shot back, incredulous. "I didn't do anything but to leave as a voluntary hostage, to defuse a dangerous situation back at the train. Is that against the law now?" Disgusted, she folded her arms.
"No, missy, it sure ain't, if that truly was what happened," he answered her. "But the theory that's surfaced says you could have been in cahoots with those two yay-hoos to prevent bullets from flying," he drawled back.
"That is totally absurd," she replied to the bizarre accusation. Fuming, she now realized what Jerry had tried to tell her about certain law enforcement officials. He had even warned about this particular man.
"Do I take it that you refuse to cooperate with me?" he questioned, his hand slowly moving toward his jacket, preparing himself for any resistance.
"I won't even justify your stupid point of view with an answer," Karen said indignantly. "You're out of your jurisdiction here, bud." She turned in her disgust and started to walk away.
Sam pulled his revolver. "Hold it right there, lady, I'm arresting you for suspicion of conspiracy." Out came his cuffs.
"What?" she said, not believing what was happening. She could not comprehend this. "You can't do this!" she shouted. She stood still in a state of shock as the slender vigilante put the cuffs on her.
Continuing to look around, as did Karen, Sam tried to find Jerry or John, or anyone else who might interfere. The only ones around were the women and children who looked on helplessly. All the men were out hunting, except for the very old or the very young. Karen was alone in this.
Astounding the Ute hunters, the mountain man's movements were as rapidly disappearing shadows, silent. So impressed were the Utes, they decided to call Johnson, Ghost Stalker, for they truly believed he was blessed by the Spirit-That-Moves-Through-All-Things, able to sneak up on the spirits that prowled this world. Jackson agreed.
Two mule deer were harvested for their efforts. The hides would be the only thing the two newcomers would keep, to make a shirt for Karen. The Utes needed the meat and would also utilize other parts for glue and cordage. The antlers were used as handles for homemade knives. Waste was not tolerated.
Driving back to the housing area was enjoyable discussing the differences in the three tribal cultures. Both Calder and Johnson fit well with these men. Many raised on a reservation shared like goals and desires, equal frustrations and problems, and similar surroundings and conditions.
Shortly arriving at their destination, the Utes took the carcasses away to be prepared and divided among the families in need.
Sara led a group of women and children to greet the returning hunters, Karen noticeably absent. They related the story to the hunters about what the officer had done, taking Karen away against her will.
Calder looked at his friend who visibly changed from a joyful, successful hunter to a serious, determined warrior. Not a big change for the huge Blackfoot breed.
"By chance, did the man say where he was heading?" Johnson asked.
"No, Jerry, he didn't," Sara replied sympathetically, then added, "I'm sorry, but he had a gun."
Her explanation was sufficient. Jerry wasn't blaming anyone on the reservation. They had been oppressed by the government and its form of law for so long that they hardly knew when to resist or when not to.
One of the younger hunters turned to Jerry, "I will help you, Ghost Stalker. I will take you to town and see if they're at the motel."
"I'll go along with you," Sara added, "since I know what his vehicle looks like."
"Those sound like very good ideas. I appreciate that." Johnson said gratefully, turning toward Calder.
"No need to ask, my friend," John offered. "I'm in this for the long haul, you know. That man's scalp belongs on someone's lodge pole, huh? Hoka-hey, brother!"
War cries emitted from the throats of the men as though they were a raiding party out of the past.
"Let's get going then," Johnson said, leading the men as if he were the undisputed leader of the Utes all his life. It probably felt natural to be in that position despite never meeting these people before.
A couple dozen men climbed into a several vehicles, and took off for Neola. The trip to town was laced with "what-ifs" and "how-about". Ghost Stalker and Tall Bear stayed with Sara, who pointed out the cop's truck at the motel.
"I could go to the door, Jerry," Calder offered.
"And do what?" Jerry countered. "You're wanted, too, and he'll arrest you just like he did Karen. Forget it."
The Crow nodded. After all, the mountain man made perfect sense.
"The best thing," Johnson said, "would be to get him to come to the reservation, but he might be expecting that as a trap. He has succeeded by bringing us here to him because he knows he has something we want."
Others agreed. They all seemed to believe they were in a dilemma without a viable solution.
The brave young hunter offered to tell the policeman that the fugitives were seen back at the reservation, but Johnson nixed that. He decided there could not be much risk involved to any innocent party, like the braves who had come along, but if they backed him up in a firefight, fine. Right now, he was calling the shots, and it was his responsibility.
Then Calder had an idea. "How about a siege of some sort?"
Nodding heads seemed to agree that he might be onto something. Johnson even thought that Tall Bear had a point. Even overseas, Johnson would follow an enemy sniper to his camp and wait till he would venture back into the jungle to have the opportunity to kill him. Sieges can work if the one who lays the siege had the edge. Plenty of food and water, comfort, shelter, and other necessities were required to hold out over the besieged until they gave up or came out fighting.
Waterton would have to leave the room sooner or later unless he had laid in supplies for such an occasion, which Johnson doubted. After a moment's thought, Johnson agreed to the idea, and they started their plans.
Sara and Calder walked around the motel nonchalantly to find available rear exits. Then they checked how long Waterton planned to stay.
Placing one man to watch the rear window, Johnson decided to wait for the moment when Waterton would leave the room, most likely without Karen, and then he'd make his move.
Fortunately, that was not long, for Waterton secured the door and headed for a small grocery within the next fifteen minutes. He was obviously going after food.
When the rail-thin man was out of sight, the massive mountain man simply kicked the motel room's door in, retrieved his pretty friend, and slipped off her handcuffs with a small piece of wire. They escaped amidst a few shouts from the hotel clerk, and to the protests of a returning Sam Waterton, astonished at seeing the fleeing fugitives.
And he certainly appeared to be hot about the situation, jumping frantically and throwing his purchases about. He was a comical sight as the sedan disappeared. Waterton ran to his vehicle and soon gave chase.
Arriving at the reservation, Johnson quickly prepared for the rogue cop. Setting up an ambush, Johnson was ready to stop the man the very second he entered the area.
Backing the mountain man's choice, the Utes were forbidden by Johnson to become involved any further. In addition, the Indian Police only knew what they were told. The Utes were ready to see what was about to transpire, and some took refuge. Others took advantage points to watch the imminent drama.
Roaring at a high rate of speed, the pick-up neared Johnson's position behind two large boulders from which he could stand behind to shoot. Severely bouncing with the bumps in the gravel road, the truck made a bad target. Jerry wondered if he could shoot accurately enough to blow out one of the front tires.
Sighting carefully at a likely spot where the front tire would likely be soon, the half-breed Blackfoot led the muzzle with the fast approaching vehicle, and squeezed the Winchester's trigger. The result made the truck buck violently while its occupant struggled for command. The rapid deflation of the left front tire made control impossible on the bumpy surface, causing the pick-up to flip end-for-end, then over for three complete revolutions before coming to a rest up-side-down.
Waterton had seen the muzzle's flash too late to respond to the potentially fatal situation. Whether the shooter had been aiming at him or the truck, a bullet may kill him even if it did not hit him. He fought the thrashing machine for domination to successfully keep the vehicle under his command.
But it was not to be.
After the truck came to a rest, Waterton assessed his injuries. Mostly cuts and bruises, thanks to the use of shoulder and seat belts, and slid out of the broken rear window, covered by the truck's bed and its shadows.
Firing two quick shots at the origin of the muzzle's flash, he then waited. The rifle must have been thrown out as the vehicle did its wild dance.
Fortunately, out of habit, Johnson had moved. The policeman was a good shot. The mountain man made sure he tucked that fact away.
The skinny lawman remained close to the truck, a sufficient barrier to 30-30 rounds. But he seemed to be firing nervously, Johnson thought. By his count, he figured Waterton had only four left in the cylinder if he kept his hammer on a full chamber, three if he didn't. A good cop always kept an easy loader readily available to drop six more in a fight.
Jerry moved in the cover of the boulders closer to the front of the pick-up. Watching closely, he tried to detect any movement on the right side of the vehicle where the right rear tire gave protection. Gambling on his excellent judgment in a fight, nurtured by countless hours of experience in the Southeast Asian jungles, Jerry relied on his superior stealth to stalk the man.
More a phantom than a mere man, he closed in upon the resting bulk of steel, glass, and rubber. And, as he drew nearer, smells of a hot engine, oil, overflowing coolant, and the sting of catalytic converter, reached his nose. The ticking of the cooling metal mixed with the soft sound of heavy breathing. Johnson had located his quarry.
Had his prey seen him? He doubted that, since no shots had been fired since he moved.
Sudden movement put his senses on alert. He saw a foot on the other side of the pick-up. The nervous breathing changed somehow to tittering, possibly from blind, unknowing fear.
Or maybe hysterical insanity.
Sam's foot twitched uncontrollably. It was a symptom he had possessed all of his life. His courage was unquestionable in a normal police situation when he usually had the upper hand.
But this was not normal. Not for Officer Sam Waterton. A well-trained adversary was out there, and he had never been faced with that kind of man in his career. Drunks were normal. Irate husbands or partiers were commonplace. An occasional criminal escapee even challenged him from time to time. Yes, this was definitely different, Sam thought.
This trip was to be a policeman's hunch that proved to be correct. And he had captured the bait he needed to catch the dude! Boy, had he even surprised himself! He could gain some esteem in the eyes of his department, especially his partner who was still suffering from a broken jaw.
Lucky to have gotten this far, Sam had messed up. He had been careless.
Just where had he gone wrong? What did he do to deserve to make such monumental mistakes in his life? His marriage? His career?
On the verge of nervous tears, Waterton stopped to clear his head, forcing himself to think. And, in doing so, stopped his mindless respiration. It was that very moment when he regained control of his cop's sixth sense, which kicked his brain into the danger mode. Scrambling to stand, but out of line of those boulders, Sam sent gravel flying, holding his weapon aloft.
Johnson heard the cop's scramble, but could not get around the truck fast enough to draw a bead on the man who was now running around a boulder just scant yards from the road. He fired at the boulder for effect anyway. Laying down a blanketing fire pattern, it told the cop he had ammo to spare. Then he ran, firing, padding silently to the other end of the very same chunk of rock.
Sam sent a couple shots back at the vehicle where he knew the shots had originated. Little did he realize, though, it was those shots that covered what little noise Johnson had made rounding the boulder to approach him.
Waterton did not derive the full impact of his mistake until the huge form darkened the cranny he occupied. He had kindled the wrath of a man who had stalked and killed prey with his bare hands. Someone wary of the various weapons such victims had to protect themselves-hooves, antlers, teeth, guns, knives, and even satchel charges or grenades. Now he would become this man's intended prey.
The massive buckskinned form clamped onto his gun-wrist with the force of a hammer blow, knocking his gun several feet away. A vise of flesh and bone grasped the inner thigh of the cop, painfully squeezing the muscles as the human derrick hoisted him over its superstructure, hurling him aside with the ease of throwing a pillow. The tower of sinew had retained the skinny man's wrist, however, which cracked audibly and now flopped the hand uselessly from the arm.
Waterton screamed. How could he protect himself now? He had mustered all the courage of his whole being for this, and he had failed. Miserably.
Sensing the approach of the mountain man, he pleaded weakly, "P-Please, stop. I have no more will to resist."
The stammered speech halted the merciless assault from Johnson. He spoke calmly, "Hear me and heed me, little man. Leave here and never return, because I will not be here. Do you understand me?"
Waterton did not hesitate when he gave his sheepish reply, "Yes, I understand."
"Because, if I ever hear of you or the FBI exacting retribution on these innocent people for this incident, I will hunt you all down like the dogs you are, and nobody will ever know what became of you. Ever," Johnson breathed. "I think you know I can do what I say," he added.
"Yes, I am fully aware of your abilities," the terrified cop said dejectedly, head hung low. He had gained more than just a little respect for the big man. "I trailed you back in Wyoming without even sighting you once. I can guarantee you won't hear anymore from me, but I can't really say about the FBI. They pretty much do as they please."
"Ain't that the truth?" Johnson responded. He knew that they only dropped a case if there were no leads, or the suspect was dead. That would be just fine with him. This clown would relate the threat to the feds. It was up to them whether he carried it out or not. He had made fools of them before, and would again, if need be.
If they ever even found him again.
Jerry returned the man's weapons without ammunition. Sam's animosity toward his enemy left. Giving Waterton first aid, he and the Utes helped the pathetic man get to a bus for Wyoming. The Ghost Stalker had even learned that Waterton really wasn't a bad guy, just a man who was a little misguided by vigilante justice.
Waterton had learned that the mountain man and the Crow had joined forces, and that Karen had volunteered to be a hostage. They had not, however, divulged the information that she had joined their cause.
Gathering their packs and possessions, the trio packed a station wagon on the reservation and said their good-byes to all their new friends, except Sara, who could not be found. She soon running up to the crowd with a backpack and gear for a long trip.
"I just couldn't say, 'good-bye' to Karen," Sara explained out of breath, smiling at the trio. Then, siding up to the Crow warrior, she whispered, "And if you don't mind, I don't really want to say 'good-bye' to you, either."
Johnson nodded as Karen winked back with a little giggle.
Thinking that he had missed a vital part of the conversation, Calder seemed puzzled. "What?" Oblivious, he became aware that he was the brunt of a joke.
As he drove from the reservation, the young Ute hunter, John Littledeer, began to chat about a wonderful place he uses as a spiritual retreat in the mountains. It was wild country, occasionally trampled by an occasional hunter or a daring backpacker, for there were no maintained trails there. Less than sixty miles away, the Patmos Range would provide his four new friends a home for the coming winter, free from interlopers, unless some hunters accidentally discovered them.
Word would be sent to his brothers on the Hill Creek extension of the reservation about the fine people who were left to roam the obscure little range for eternity.
John Littledeer would also tell them of the wonders of a great warrior, a buckskinned giant of the Blackfoot they had wisely named Ghost Stalker who preferred to live in the old ways, and the tales of the man's prowess at war, stalking, and hunting. And of his unusual relationship to one of the mightiest enemies of the Crow people, Jeremiah Johnson, Dahpiek Absaroka, the Crow Killer.
PART III: THE HUNTER
Surviving a high country winter takes grit and determination, not to mention a bit of knowledge gathered through years of tracking, hunting, stalking, harvesting wild edibles, and working with natural materials like wood, bone, stone, and hide. Today, late in the twentieth century, one person would be considered remarkably successful, and foolish, at such an endeavor. Two such individuals, similar to the mountain men and Indians of the Old West, could make it happen. Add two more people, and the odds of surviving the harsh conditions of the mountain environment becomes even greater, especially during the winter of 1983-84 in the obscure Patmos Range of Utah.
Prior to the heavy snows, Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle and John Tall Bear Calder, along with Karen Fisher and Sara "Running Flower" Thomas, had built a snug cabin at the nine thousand foot level in a beautiful hidden glade of aspen situated on a gentle slope. It stretched for about a mile and was approximately a half mile at its widest point. Anyone who would have seen the pretty little basin would have thought it to be a dead-end, inaccessible and worthless for any man.
One game trail leading into it was wide enough to accept a broad-bottomed grizzly. But the trick was that anyone would have to walk up a tiny stream to gain entrance to the twisting path that led to the picturesque valley.
The only way beyond the furthest end was via a goat trail that scaled dizzying heights, going over the ridge-like pass at its lowest point, nearly fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor. Johnson, the huge Blackfoot mountain man who had made fools of the FBI the previous fall, had checked out the narrow trail before the onslaught of snow which made it too treacherous, susceptible to avalanche. He learned it was only an option available during the summer.
Taking only enough game to carry them through the winter, the foursome found an easy harvest of a couple mule deer, a fat black bear, several antelope, and one female elk, which gave them the protein and fat they would require. Hides would be saved for the new clothing they would need and bones would be selected for tools and utensils.
They played euchre, a card game mountain men used to play through their winters. The quartet hunted for rabbits and spruce hens. And they repaired their gear. Endless hours of the long cold season were passed with fireside stories, hiking on snowshoes made from lithe willows interwoven and tied on with leather thongs, euchre tournaments, poker marathons, and star gazing.
Jerry felt responsible for the whole party and imparted much of his knowledge during the dormant times. John shared his experience, too, and they both taught the women the skills they would eventually need to survive in the wilderness. Karen and Sara learned about finding their way, knots, survival techniques, shooting, and how to use the various tools that the men had made for making life easier.
Amiable competitions existed between the couples, and they had fire-building races just about any place and at any time, which Jerry usually won. Emergency shelters, rapidly constructed, were used from time to time by anyone who got caught out in inclement weather. Traps, snares, fish traps or baskets were all fair objects for an impromptu race.
Once, after a successful hunt, they challenged each other to a field-dressing competition, including gutting and skinning. It was discouraging to all how Jerry stood thirty seconds later with his bird in his hand, minus feet and head.
"Simply disgusting!" exclaimed Karen, her hands all bloody from struggling with her rabbit.
"Me, too," Sara chimed, understanding that the insult was really meant for the men.
"We'll work on your techniques through the summer, ladies," Jerry promised, or threatened. They were not quite certain which. "You never know when you'll need to pick up your game and move before you have the chance to cook it. Field dressing rapidly may allow you to keep your attention on something else, say, a bear moving up the slope toward your position. The gut pile may just be enough to satisfy it, or delay it so you can escape with your prize. It could occupy dogs that are on your trail, too. One never knows what can save your bacon out here." His teachings were usually from personal experience, so they paid heed to his wild wisdom.
Mountain men used to seek the friendship of certain tribes for the female charms that they offered. This group found that they, too, had similar desires before the onset of spring found them wanting more than the small shelter's four walls. The two couples usually rotated the carnal use of the cabin's privacy, taking long walks or staying in one of the emergency shelters overnight.
Beauty was brought by spring, too. High country flowers literally exploded onto a colorful alpine canvas. Indian paintbrush, bluebells, black-eyed Susans, and spring beauties were a sample for show.
Fireweed heralded the onslaught of summer, deliciously filling bellies with long-desired greens, vitamins, and nutrients from the earth. The melting snow uncovered cattails and cow parsnips, long-dead above ground, but easier to harvest. Wild onions added spice to their dishes. Rose-hips, hanging on through the winter months, became visible with the melting white stuff, and made tart, fruity drinks.
Calder, Tall Bear to the Crow on the reservation where he was raised, was so called because of his amazing strength for his size. His grandfather had actually thought the young man was able to stalk and hunt like a big bruin, able to turn the hunter into the hunted. He was responsible to teach the women most of their skills.
Johnson, also known as the Ghost Stalker, helped them all perfect those skills. He had been so named by the Ute because they could watch him move silently across before them, approaching a bull elk like a cougar. His skills truly bordered on spiritual.
The two females believed that these men could not only read their tracks, but also their habits, and even their minds in some instances. They agreed that they had no real privacy, that their lives were open books to men who could read more about a person than normal men.
Gaining the principles for survival and the rudiments of skills, the women were responsible to practice them. "Dirt time" is what it takes to be a tracker; experience, the key to any skill.
Sara soaked up the information on edible plants. Added to her herbal background, she became the group's nurse and the authority on high country cuisine and recipes. She had successfully turned boring meat menus into more delicious meals.
Karen, the Caucasian ex-yuppie of the four, brought with her a past that taught her a variety of stitches she could apply to the materials they now used. Once familiar with buckskin, fur, and pliable inner cedar bark, she created clothing for the high country climates. She also became the team's first choice for surgeon, closing deep cuts or ragged gouges with rapid efficiency.
The quartet worked as a cohesive unit in many ways. Johnson's experience in the military brought him safely back home. He applied the teamwork concept to their lives. They built bows and arrows, each practicing at regular intervals to become proficient at the silent killing art. Even Karen, with no cultural link to such abilities, had a natural physical ability which enabled her to put an arrow where she aimed it.
Practicing not only archery, they also threw tomahawks and knives. Accurately spinning a rabbit-stick, they learned to use the limb effectively to take small game without exhausting bullets or arrows. Jerry had been the teacher for the weapons, for he had spent countless hours at the skills throughout his youth, coming in handy many times during many excursions into the jungles of Vietnam. In fact, his nickname to some of his buddies had become "Blade" because of his prowess with such weapons.
Truth be told, because of his size, Jerry didn't need a knife for most encounters, but he preferred them to guns in close-quarters combat. His explosive fighting style was lethal to many, disabling to others. Four Marines found that out the hard way when they picked on him in a Saigon bar. The huge Blackfoot picked up one of his adversaries and threw him into the other three. By the time any of them gained their feet, pulling knives, Jerry had knocked two of them unconscious with his ham-like fists. The other two wisely saw the error of their ways, and left the bar.
Johnson also taught the trio a few basic tactics and hand signals which would allow them to move about silently. Crossfire techniques, scouting, nature observation, detecting booby-traps, and other similar defense concepts were imparted to the others. Johnson knew self-defense was necessary for the preservation of their freedom, property, and, quite possibly, their very lives. Anyone who's not willing to defend himself stands to lose all he has to a superior force, provided no contingency plan is in place for escape. America did not attain military superiority by having an apathetic attitude toward defense of the homeland.
Jerry recommended good personal fitness habits as a benefit to both the team and the individual. His abilities and background made him the logical one to figure defense strategies on possible cabin attacks and their unique lifestyle. They studied common self-defense moves based on what he knew were usual attack methods by those who had been in the military.
Karen's ability to adapt and superb physical condition allowed her to quickly learn and become very proficient. It had helped that she had prior judo training while in college. The big man had found that out the hard way when he toyed with the idea of throwing her in a high country lake during the trio's flight from the FBI in the Uintah Mountains. She had laid him out on his back because she had taken him by surprise.
Convinced that they would need supplies soon, Jerry toyed with the idea of packing out some of the furs he had to sell or trade. He knew that the furs, without the proper tags or seals, would be nearly worthless, and possibly a source of trouble with the law. But that would be someone else's problem, not his.
Johnson knew that most laws had to be established for the m(asses) to ensure a common standard of behavior control for all who choose to live in a structured society peaceably. Those who do not choose to live within that society are automatically branded as outlaws. They have no choice. They must break some laws to live the way they want. Nonconformity breeds contempt. Look at our revolutionary forefathers. Sooner or later their eventual interaction with others will gain the attention of those who intend to enforce conformity, applying the law of the land. The "outlaws" will somehow be forced to live the exact same way as the rest of society, or they will be jailed or forced to live at a poverty level. So, in reality, nobody has the right in America to live freely in the manner that he or she chooses.
Jerry smiled at the thought that went through his brain. They could try, he reckoned. He was determined that he would live his chosen lifestyle, one way or the other. He knew, with almost a certainty, that he could never explain it to anyone who lived in normal American society.
Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death." That pretty well covers it, Jerry thought. But one thing he could not know for sure was how much trouble he would encounter in his attempt. That concerned him because now there were others he now had to consider.
As well as other things.
Weighed roughly a hundred pounds, the bundle of furs consisted of mink, beaver, muskrat, coyote, and bobcat. Jerry packed them tightly. Pressing his knee on the bundle and pulling the rawhide thongs tautly around the load, he tied them securely on his pack frame. He prepared for a two week trip, if necessary, but he really felt he would only be gone about ten days. A sympathetic trapper had offered to buy any furs Jerry trapped.
It was going to be hard to leave after the long winter the four had spent together. They had been almost constant companions for nearly seven months. Good people. Good times. More like family than anyone Jerry had known in his recent past. Too good to be true. Hating good-byes, he knew there was going to be no getting around it, no matter how he felt.
Once the nearly tearful occasion was behind him, he set out, invigorated, encouraged by the job he was to perform. He breathed the high country air in deeply as he ambled down the mountain, a bounce in new moccasins that negotiated the wet, rocky path.
Feeling responsible for someone, Jerry now had a source of inspiration for his goals. Somewhat euphoric, he knew he was content about his new friends, new home, new life, and about being on the trail again.
They had discussed the things that they all wanted on their "wish list" that Jerry carried with him. Sara was longing for some real socks to wear inside her moccasins. Karen wanted tuna or some fresh citrus fruit. John hoped he could get some more ammo, for, like Jerry, he believed they would eventually need it to seriously protect themselves. A couple boxes of 30-30 rounds and a brick of .22s should be enough. Coming from a generation trained on M-16s, M-60s, and a variety of pistols and grenade launchers, he had been raised around guns on the reservation.
In Vietnam, ammunition had a way of disappearing rapidly in a firefight or fired through a weapon left on the fully automatic setting. Fortunately, Johnson had attained expert on any weapon he had picked up, becoming a sniper during his tour in 'Nam. He had learned to conserve ammunition, and, like the mountain men of old, made every shot count. "One shot, one kill" was the usual adage. But Johnson took it a step farther, often making it "no shot, one kill". His documented kills were one hundred percent. The undocumented ones were still dead.
The war was a bone of contention in his heart. He had felt he had to be good at what he did in order to survive the mindless confrontation. He returned with the same frustration that most GIs experienced when they were jeered, taunted, and booed nearly anywhere they went in their own country. He also came back with the nightmare of the senseless death of a little child, the only thing that had prevented him from sleeping well since his return.
It was then he chose to seek the high country, learn more of the old ways than he ever learned from Grandfather. He had sought the expertise of a self-styled mountain man, Tom Weaver, a perfectionist in the art of brain tanning buckskin. Johnson had lived out in the wilderness for two years, proving to himself, and ultimately to Tom, that he could survive in the Rockies through winter. His success was reported to the old man last fall before he was chased into the High Uintahs by the FBI. Seems they have a small problem with anyone who stops an eastbound Amtrak and leaves with one of the passengers.
Reaching the Ute Reservation located on the southern slopes of the Uintahs, Johnson was found by a renegade Wyoming policeman who had tried to bring in the huge descendant of the legendary mountain man, Jeremiah Johnson. A shoot-out and a mismatch of a fight caused the eventual submission by the lesser man to the six-foot, six-inch, two hundred seventy pound giant.
And now, nearly euphoric, almost skipping down the trail, carefree. Digesting the information left in the tracks of the local fauna, the mountain man noted when a deer had returned. And where a cougar had followed, probably hungry for itself and some newborns. She was heavy in her tracks, probably nearly a hundred pounds. Various birds had landed in the trail and filled their crops with sand or pebble fragments, leaving their distinctive tracks, feathers, and dung.
Johnson was nearing the narrow opening that led out of the pretty little valley where they had lived through the previous fall and winter seasons. It had been a recommendation from one of the Utes who had kindly dropped them off in the remote Utah wilderness.
Fortunately, the valley had received the sun's melting power, due to its southern exposure, otherwise it would still be hip-deep with snow as in the protected areas under the trees. He was certainly pleased to see the small pass open, the creek flowing freely, although heavily. Bracing himself, he entered the cold water, the only way through the narrow cut in the wall.
But as he carefully placed his foot on a rock to leave the water, looking down, Johnson saw something that made the hair on his neck stand and his back muscles quiver.
Boot tracks, fresh ones that had not filled yet with water, riveted Johnson's eyes, holding them captive as though he was engrossed in an adventurous novel. Combat boots, standard issue by the sole's design, could only mean one thing: imminent danger, peril for their lives and lifestyle. Spoor led to the timber, paralleling the trail, an easy thing to do, since it constantly went upward to the meadow that widened, narrowing again at the small falls that came over the high ridge on the goat trail.
The only reason that he had not seen the man, or had not been seen himself, could only have been because the man had stopped somewhere to rest, hidden in the trees, in the shadows and cover they offered. The track told Jerry the man was about six foot, two hundred to two hundred twenty pounds, carrying extra gear, and somewhat weary from his climb, probably all done just that morning from the trail head far below.
Caching his pack, Johnson kept his Winchester, and checked his Bowie and sidearm by instinct. To have seen his face, one would have noticed that his visage had changed radically from the upturned smile to a deadly serious, even angry, look. Calculating his plan, he reminded himself to keep his head and remain mindful of his charges. Hugging the western wall of the little hollow, the mountain man took full advantage of the aspen and fir as a shield, assuring himself he would return to the cabin well-ahead of the intruder.
So he hoped. So he prayed.
Carefully scanning ahead and watching the skyline, the half-Blackfoot ex-Ranger returned to the mode that gained him the name, Ghost Stalker, by the Utes who had witnessed his abilities at stalking game better than anyone they had ever seen. Once in the stalk, he became silent as the wind, stealthy as a panther, and deadly as a mother grizzly. He had adopted a fox-walk, developed by his ancestors, a crouch he could stay in, if need be, for an hour or more.
The game-trail he was now on led toward the back of the cabin. He approached cautiously, not seeing any movement outside the structure. And now he was concerned. Of the trio, at least one, maybe two, would have been outside to enjoy the spring day. Suddenly, Sara and Karen exited the low doorway wearing handcuffs and disheartened faces. The mountain man's face fell. He was too late.
Taking a prone position, Johnson aimed his 30-30 at the door just as excited voices emitted from the interior, an argument erupting. He aimed carefully now, reverting back to a time when pulling the trigger was what he was paid to do. Whoever it was had answers to give, Jerry thought, so he was going to make sure he'd take the jasper alive. Calder came out next, also wearing the awkward metal bracelets, blood trickling from his mouth, and disheveled from being roughed up. Johnson's stubborn friend had put up a fight, but wasn't a skilled fighter. Right behind his friend came a tall, well-built man dressed in swat-team fatigues with a modified shotgun strapped over his shoulder. Stopping momentarily just outside the door, the man in black checked the two women who sat on a nearby log.
Jerry's bullet cut the strap holding the shotgun, which fell away, lightly creasing the intruder's shoulder.
Tall Bear quickly took advantage of the opportunity and laid the intruder out with a kick to his groin as Johnson approached the group. Rolling around hacking and sputtering, the man rolled, hands clasped over his privates, wondering if he would ever be able to enjoy sex again. When he had stopped his uncontrolled thrashing, the newcomer looked cross-eyed at the 30-30's muzzle that tickled the tip of his nose.
"Who are you, pilgrim?" demanded the buckskin-clad giant.
The man on the ground didn't reply, apparently thinking he was stronger at this mind game than his inquisitor. He received a tap on the skull from the same rifle barrel.
Johnson spoke again, "I know I have your attention now, boy, and believe me, you will tell me all I wish to know before this is over. So save yourself the trouble and answer me. Now."
"Kiss my a...," the man started, cut off by a quick sinewy hand to his throat, stifling the curse.
The huge mountain man, never before seen this upset by his friends, exploded in a fury of blinding action. Lifting the man bodily over his head, Johnson simply threw the man about ten yards as if he had been a rag doll. The fatigue-dressed fellow rolled skillfully with the toss, coming up ready to fight.
"Fighting me was the wrong choice, hillbilly," he predicted confidently, taking a self-defense stance. "I'm a black belt in hapkido and tai-kwon-do," he boasted, advancing on the larger man.
No slouch at fighting, Johnson was not a professional, either. One thing he did know, that it was wise not to let your opponent know in what disciplines you had been trained. Johnson's thoughts streaked back to his ranger training when an instructor was starting to teach self-defense, and, chose the large half-breed as an example, a common tactic of drill leaders to show superiority and thwart aggression by any subordinates. Pick the biggest guy in the outfit, deck him, make him look ineffective, and usually there would be no problems from anyone else. He had been thrown by his sergeant, but he had executed an unexpected back-kick, breaking the instructor's jaw. Charges were never filed, but the young recruit was never singled out again.
Presently, the advancing young man, who couldn't be over twenty-five, served a reverse kick toward the Blackfoot's head. The seasoned veteran parried the man's foot with his left arm, grabbed the black field pants with his left hand and lifted, upsetting the man onto his back with an outpouring of air that rushed from his lungs. The mountain man fiercely swung his ham-like right fist deeply into the prostrate man's solar plexus, causing him to pass out.
Disarming the intruder of his automatic pistol, Jerry searched freely throughout the pockets for the man's handcuff key. He quickly freed his companions and put one set on the defeated man's wrists, behind his back. The big man also used the other two sets of cuffs on the man's ankles, then hoisted the man over his shoulder to leave. Turning to his friends, he said, "I don't expect you to be a part of what I am about to do, and I don't even expect you to agree with me. But I don't want you to interfere with what I'm gonna do, either. John, I would prefer you to stay here in case this idiot is not alone."
"Sure, Jerry," Tall Bear responded.
The mountain man expected protests over the issue, but he figured they were in total agreement that they would do anything to get away alive. They knew whatever the big man had planned was to help keep this from ever happening again. To obtain information from a very stubborn man may involve methods Jerry most likely learned overseas during the war. And, nobody wanted to witness that.
Little did they know.
Disappearing into the forest with the man draped across his shoulder like a sack of feed, the Ghost Stalker became a warrior again, heart, mind, body, and soul. About three hundred yards into the trees near the stream, he dangled the intruder by the handcuffs on his ankles up-side-down from a strong branch. Johnson bet it hurt quite a bit, but he really didn't care too much, truth be told.
Gathering a bit of tinder and some kindling, he built a small fire a couple yards away from the silent man who was left in the bat-position. The mountain man prepared two more small fire lays, one directly below the man's head, the other at the base of the "V" made by his legs.
Soon the man came to, grunting from the great strain placed upon his ankles. He screamed, "Get me down, you idiot! My feet are going to be totally useless to walk on when I get down!" His vain attempts to free himself only increased his pain, so he allowed himself to settle down and hang. Then he noticed the fire.
"What do you mean 'when'?" Jerry asked. "Don't you mean 'if'?"
Sensing his predicament, the intruder figured out the imminent danger to his person. His eyes widened with recognition of the fire preparation below his head, then from the realization of what could transpire. However, his arrogance would not let him believe that such a thing could ever happen to him in this present day and age. By this time, he could no longer feel his feet.
"Let me down and I'll tell you what you want to know," the younger man pleaded, attempting a ploy.
"I doubt it," the bigger man countered. "Tell me who you are, who you work for, and why you're here."
"You won't burn me," the cocky man theorized. "You wouldn't get your answers." He thought he had the mountain man out-guessed.
Johnson set a couple of smoking coals on the tinder the intruder had not noticed was laying on his vulnerable crotch. Smoke spiraling, and heat emanated immediately. Expected pain and horrible disfigurement soon caused staccato screams to expel from fear-filled lungs. "Stop! Oh, God, please stop! I'll tell it all!" the gasping man yelled finally, words understandable only after his screams subsided.
Prior to flames, the buckskin giant doused the coals with water before serious harm occurred.
"That's pretty cold-hearted, mister," sniffled the captive.
"Just answer the questions, boy, and I'll let you go." Johnson spoke truthfully, toying with his Bowie, an alternative source of talk-inducing terror, slicing long slivers off a hardwood limb in long, effortless strokes.
"N-Name's Rafferty," the man sputtered, the wetness causing him to shiver in the high country air. "F-From Los Angeles. Work f-for my d-dad," he stammered, half from fear, half from the chill. "He owns a b-bounty hunting firm and gave me the opportunity to g-get out of town for a little while to s-serve an arrest w-warrant." He stopped talking, but the shivering continued.
"Who hired you?" demanded Johnson.
"Y-You said you'd let me go if I answered th-those questions," he reminded.
"I ain't done, boy," the big man replied, watching the man, then turned away, acting disinterested. "When I'm done, I'll let you know. Until then, you hang."
"O.k., o.k. S-Some guy in a suit, real b-business like," the pathetic voice squeaked. "Came in one d-day, and said it was w-worth so much to him for it to be d-done."
Jerry thought the FBI was getting desperate, and getting off rather light. He hoisted the man up and turned the cuff key, and let the man drop to the ground. The blood and sensation immediately rushed into the man's feet, causing new needles of pain. The man moaned now with more dignity.
"Now, if I ever see you up here in these parts again, you die. No 'ifs', 'ands', or 'buts'. Comprende?" Johnson looked hard at the writhing form's face.
"Yes, sir," came the weak reply, the black-clad man cautiously looking around. And, surprised to find himself alone, he had not even heard a leaf rustle or the heaviness of a footfall. The mountain man was gone.
He would have thought that it was all a dream had he not felt his crotch and found the burn holes and dampness. Rubbing his ankles to help circulation, they began to respond to his commands once again. Then he got his butt out of there.
Johnson, on the other hand, watched from his perch in a large pine, and made sure the man left. The kid had obviously been inexperienced, by the veteran's expert standards. Even if the boy had done his work well in the city, he was drastically outclassed here. Had anyone done their homework at all, nobody would have sent one such as he against anyone such as the Ghost Stalker. Anyone smart, that is.
Jerry suddenly remembered one question he should have asked, "How did this guy find them?" The FBI obviously didn't know where they were or how to get the correct information, natives being normally stand-offish from whites like they are, and the bounty hunter sure didn't know until now. One of the Utes must have told the boy where to find them during some drunken stupor, he concluded.
He worried, too, that the feds gave the job to a bounty hunter at all. Those clowns don't abide by the codes of the other types of public law offices, such as the police or FBI. They aren't necessarily bound by the restrictive laws that hinder most officers from doing their duty. Nor are they required to go by any rules.
Jerry chuckled to himself with the thought that, well, neither did he.
The meeting was held the first thing the day young Bob Rafferty arrived at the office, in order to brief his father, "Big Jim", and his co-workers, Jesse Franks and Teri Swenson, both great help to the father-and-son business. Along the Pacific Coast, and even in Arizona, Big Jim Rafferty was nearly legendary in the law community for apprehending particularly dangerous and elusive criminals.
Six-foot-three, He was now a little overweight at two hundred and sixty pounds. The well-trained Marine vet started his bounty hunting shortly after leaving a police force for being a mite too aggressive against the perpetrators. Raised on the streets of Hollywood, he grew up quite mean as gang muscle, and the draft sidetracked him into honest work, by comparison. Once he returned to the world from overseas, he never returned to the streets, except in a cop's uniform, and his tactics were a little too heavy-handed for a prosecutor's office. One could say that he enjoyed ridding the streets of certain vermin.
Marrying during his police days, Big Jim's sweet little wife left him when he was fired from the force, and his relationship with his son was chiefly hit-and-miss from then on until the boy chose to live with his dad after graduating high school. Jim had put his son into certain self-defense schools and coached him in the business, and the boy responded favorably. Bob had become a great asset from time-to-time, even though he had a tendency to being cruel, just like his father, and had a sordid taste for women.
"I feel lucky to be alive, people," he started. "This mountain man, Johnson, is just that, a mountain. He probably stands six foot, six inches, and weighs over two-fifty." He glanced around for reactions, then continued, "He's strong as an ox, believe me. My skills in the martial arts meant nothing to him, and, quite frankly, seemed ineffective on the man." He paused for another second, turning to his father/boss. "I'd bet he was in 'Nam, Dad," he told Big Jim.
"If he was, Bobby, we'll find out," Big Jim replied from the other side of the table. "I'll wager that guy who gave us this job was a fed. This whole thing stinks of the feds, it really does. I believe we were suckered in on another FBI case." He was referring to a past client's situation which ended up crossing many federal lines before it was all over.
"Teri, get the colonel on the line, he still owes me, and see if he can get me anything on this character, Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle. Man, what a moniker he's got!"
"Yeah, and he's a big one, too, Dad, let me tell you," Bob repeated as he watched the shapely rear-end of Teri leave the room, his head shaking in amazed emphasis.
"'The bigger they ...'," his father started to idiomize, but he stopped short. Realizing that the mountain man had done as he wished with his boy, a well-trained martial artist, he figured the fugitive had to be good, which meant that they had badly under-estimated their subject. "How many of them were there?"
"There were three others, Dad, a couple of females-- one, a dad-blamed Injun, the other, a real fox of a blonde, and an Injun guy," the younger Rafferty said. "They weren't no real trouble for me, but," he stopped to swallow, "that Johnson cat, well, he was a whole 'nother ballgame!"
"Sounds as though we might have to leave Teri in charge for a few days, Jesse, and take you along on this next one. I could end up losing money if I'm not too careful," Big Jim speculated. "Shoulda held out for fifty grand for this job."
Jesse nodded his agreement, and secret joy. The newest member of the team, he helped with the increased foot work required for the job since the workload had grown. Having taken a few business and law courses at a local community college, Jesse was interested in bounty hunting, and he longed to get out of the office.
But this case made him apprehensive. The two Raffertys were well-built men who were trained for this kind of work, whereas Jesse, a five-foot-five, small-boned individual, was very unimposing to observe. The most training he had was on the shooting range, when Big Jim arranged to take him. Problem was, Jesse wasn't very good. Only recently had he started a self-defense class prior to this incident, paid by Rafferty.
Returning with a few faxes in her fist, Teri started showing them around. "That was just too easy, Jim," she grinned. "The colonel said this guy was some sort of Ranger sniper in the war, and was rated the best of all who had served over there."
"Oh, great," Bob muttered, "another pissed-off Rambo."
"That's not all, fellas," she added. "The colonel confided that the FBI had made the same inquiries on this guy back about eight months ago."
"Hey," Jesse interjected, "maybe that's why that fed told us to try the Ute Reservation, where Johnson was last seen by that Jackson cop. The FBI probably couldn't get any information out of the Indians, and they ran out of leads."
"Yeah," Bob bragged, "it was easy to get one of them drunk and question him about where to find the mountain man. He went off jabbering some crap about a guy they called 'Ghost Stalker', and after awhile, I finally realized the drunk meant Johnson. Soon, he just let it out where their cabin might be on a specific mountain."
Big Jim turned suddenly to Teri and ordered, "Get us tickets on a flight to Salt Lake City, and," turning to the men, "guys, get packed. If we're lucky we'll be on the mountain tomorrow!"
Sara served John a hearty elk stew to help him regain his strength from the gun-whipping he took from the bounty hunter. Turning to Jerry, Sara, also called Running Flower by the Utes, voiced her displeasure at the uncertainty of their future now that someone, obviously one of her people, had divulged their secret location. "I feel like we're waiting to be attacked again," she said dejectedly.
"You're right, of course," the mountain man conceded. "Our mistake was to have so many know where we are. I'd wager the whole reservation knows where this little valley is. And, if not the valley, then certainly the mountain itself kinda sticks out like a sore thumb." His reasoning let Sara feel better about her tribe's being the reason they were found. Nobody would accuse her for this situation and nobody would hold it against her.
Karen, the athletic blonde who volunteered to be a hostage for John and Jerry back in Wyoming on an Amtrak train, offered her thoughts, "Why can't we move elsewhere, telling no one where we're going?"
"Doesn't matter," John signified in a depressing tone, chewing a piece of elk, "because, sooner or later, a plane will spot smoke from the cabin, report the location, and we'd be back to square one."
Jerry was dishing up a portion of stew in a bowl made from seasoned aspen when he spoke without addressing anyone in particular. "You're right, to a point. It doesn't really matter where one goes in this country. Somebody somewhere will eventually find a group like us unless special care is taken to hide and to keep our whereabouts concealed and secured." A wooden spoon was used to shovel in the stew, a combination of elk, watercress, cow parsnip, wild onions, and crushed shepherd's purse and mustard seeds. Its wild, spicy aroma nearly caused the cabin's occupants to drool.
"I thought we've done such a good job here; I really don't want to leave," Sara lamented, thinking of the life they'd built together.
"Neither do I, lover," John mumbled through swollen lips, "but it's quite obvious that we're at the mercy of time. Besides, it cannot be long now till that bounty hunter returns with more help."
"I agree," Jerry butted in, jawing a piece of gristle. After swallowing, he continued, "And I have an idea where to go, if we all agree to it."
They ate somberly, talking unhappily about leaving, but relishing each other's company. It was maddening that they could not seem to escape the crowds that seemed to encroach uninvited into their lives. Such intrusion threatens their lifestyle, chosen solely for its increased freedom, and they wished to be left alone to live out their lives as they wished. Nobody had the right to deny them that.
The government of the United States just cannot stand to not have a line on every soul that walks within its borders. Income tax forms, driver's licenses, social security numbers, state identification cards, fingerprint files, gun registrations, et cetera, ad nauseum, are just a start of what the United States government has in mind for each and every one of its citizens. It wants people to soon be tracked by chips buried under the skin and to be working for credits of some kind, instead of money, so that nobody will be able to buy even food without the proper identification provided by our "loving" Big Brother who wants so much to "take care" of us. That kind of care we could live better without.
Johnson spoke long and often of his ideals with his new friends. He strongly resisted forced change and preferred to live according to the law of the mountains, as well as the law of many of the natives. Live free and one should expect to be hassled by the Man, who should, in return, expect to be repelled with like force.
"Why, a man can't even camp on federal land legally without a permit and registering first," he'd say. Jerry had been cited once for trespassing on government land by a paper-pushing, chair-dusting idiot, who got out of the office and into the field for the sake of statistics.
A ranger of some sort (Johnson never paid attention to the various badges or points of origin, whether federal, state, fish and game, park, or whatever) encountered the mountain man in the high country of Montana, somewhere near the border of Glacier National Park. Jerry had his a well-established camp and game roasting on a spit.
"Welcome, pilgrim," Jerry started amiably to the stranger who looked serious. Or had a bad case of gas. "Have a seat." His 30-30 was handy, as were his pistol and nine-inch Bowie. Something always was.
"Thanks," came the curt reply from the un-armed officer, "but, no thanks. Been here long?"
Johnson ignored the question, offering the man some food, a bit of Indian or mountain man hospitality.
"Care to eat a bite?" he asked. He pulled the massive, heavy-bladed knife with a blinding speed that made the stranger jump. Jerry pretended not to see the reaction, fighting an urge to laugh, and proceeded to slice a piece of meat off the waterfowl cooking over alder coals.
"No, thanks, mister," the ranger answered, "but we need to address the reason why you're here."
"Are you truly ignorant or just plain stupid?" quizzed the big man, nibbling the dripping meat from bare hands, eyes glaring at the officer. "Camping is not a hard thing to grasp in your mind, is it? Or is there a law against that now?"
"As a matter of fact, mister," the man began, hesitating a second for fear the truth may produce a violent reaction from this mountain of a man, and him without weapon one, "this drainage is part of a protected watershed, an ecosystem that must be kept clear of everyone."
"All watersheds are important," Johnson said flatly. It riled him to think one was considered to be more important than another. Certainly a white man's concept.
"Yes, but this particular one is patrolled to keep anyone from doing anything detrimental to this one area for fear of any contamination," he explained proudly.
"I do believe that you are educated far beyond your intelligence." Jerry watched for the man's reaction, then continued. "And just who is it who is so darn finicky that they try to keep anyone from even walking on it?" the buckskinner demanded, expecting the usual lame answer.
"The U.S. Government. To be exact, the Bureau of Land Management."
"The U.S. Government can go straight to Hades."
"And you, sir, are trespassing on restricted land," the officer finally informed him, getting to his main point.
"I'm a U.S. citizen, born and raised, documented and fingerprinted, pissed on and kissed off," the menacing mountain man declared slowly and concisely, "and I have been going where I dang well please so far."
"I need to see some identification," the smaller man demanded with an air of practiced authority.
"Already know who I am."
"Then what's your name?"
"That ain't none of your damn business."
The frustrated ranger wrote furiously in his little black folder that looked somewhat similar to a cop's ticket book, and then finally ripped out a copy of the citation, giving it to the perpetrator that stood before him, dwarfing him by nearly a foot in height and roughly a hundred pounds. "You're to appear before the local magistrate in Darby in two weeks."
The half-breed accepted the ticket, tore it promptly in half, and threw it in the fire. "You gotta find me first, pilgrim." Then he took another bite of the tasty waterfowl.
"I just did," the ranger smart-mouthed, then he grinned.
"Question is, boy," the mountain man drawled with his mouth half-full, apparently unconcerned of reprisal, "are you gonna be able to leave here under your own power?" His eyelids were slits as he looked at the official.
The ranger did not have any more witty remarks. He was suddenly unsure of his next word or move, wondering if this huge man would allow him to leave at all. He had no weapons at his disposal and the buckskin wearer had at least three that he could see. And probably a couple he could not. He was now truly afraid for his life.
They scrutinized each other for another dramatic second. The big man spoke, "It's your move, nigger."
"Nigger?" the shocked ranger asked.
"Yes, a nigger," answered the powerful mountain man, "a government nigger, a 'yes' man, a red-tape and paper-pushing idiot who can't think for himself. Everything's cut-and-dried with your kind. Niggers like you have to have a structured set of rules to live by because you're so dog-gone ignorant that you can't think for yourselves or make judgments anymore in your world without consulting anyone else first. You have been so duped and brought up by a system that has taken away your ability to think intelligently, logically, or quickly, you have to have everything in black or white in order to wipe your own behind.
"Get out of here while you still can, mister, before I change my mind," Johnson added after a short breath, with more of an edge. He had not talked so much in many months. Then he continued, "Because, even though you'll probably tell the local authorities about our little encounter, and even though you might return to try to find me, you won't find a trace of my camp, or of me.
"And if you ever approach me again, nigger," he particularly emphasized the last word, "I will make an exception to my own ethics and will carry your scalp forever on my belt. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
The ranger drew back at the gruesome threat. Nobody talked like that in this day and age. And he stood staring, immobile, digesting the warning that was just issued, barely able to speak after the comprehension penetrated his puppet-like brain.
"Y-Yeah! Yes!" he spoke sheepishly, angry inside, but wise enough to realize he had no alternative. None safe, that is. The mountain man held all the cards and he was clearly the dealer in this casino. Somehow the paper-pusher believed that the man could do exactly as he said he would, and he was sure that that was the part which bothered him the most. He had never met a man quite like this before and, had he not seen the man's cook-fire, he most likely wouldn't have known that he was even here.
Humbled, the bureaucrat backed off slowly, not wanting to make any move that could be remotely mistaken for aggression, for he had a family who didn't know where he was. Nor did his co-workers at that very moment. Once a comfortable distance from the mountain man's camp, he turned and walked away. Shaking his head in disbelief, he wondered, had he turned around, if the mountain man would have been gone and it all would have merely been a dream.
A real bad dream.
Many miles away, a few hours later, and many feet higher on a rocky outcropping, Johnson watched as a helicopter did its dance across the sky over the area where the ranger and he had their unfortunate confrontation. He cogitated on the fact that if they were going to make stupid laws, they could try to enforce them at their own risk and expense, and waste their own time trying to find him. Not his.
Easily a couple hours and six miles away from them, he turned, unconcerned, and walked away, totally unafraid, behind the protection of a ridge which led into thick trees.
The four continued to eat in relative silence, each thinking on what Johnson recommended about leaving, and conversing little on a few possible alternatives, if there were any viable ones at all.
Big Jim Rafferty, his son, Bob, and his office man, Jesse, picked up their backpacks and duffels capable of hauling their various weapons, and larger, longer rifle cases modified to carry heavily-optioned AR-15s with M-79 grenade launchers, infra-red scopes, and silencers. One square case housed a sophisticated night vision helmet originally designed for the military. The bounty hunter thought it might come in handy on this trip, hopefully, for a quicker apprehension of the suspects, if they needed to move at night. They then headed for the exit.
The trio located a truck rental, rented three ATVs and a trailer, bought spare cans and fuel, stocked up on food, and threw their gear in the pick-up's bed, taking off for the remote area south of the Uintahs where Bob last found the fugitive.
Jesse would carry the twelve gauge automatic shotgun. Anyone without gun experience could usually hit something with that weapon. They all carried 9mm side arms.
Big Jim had his usual array of hideouts, a .25 auto in a holster above his bloused boots, a .380 under his shoulder, and twin daggers in a belt sheathe at the small of his back.
Once the men had arrived at their staging area at the end of the logging road, they set up camp for that night and planned their assault as a military operation. It seemed smart to make the trip during the day since they really did not know the area very well, and one wrong turn could cause them miss the hidden entrance altogether.
Originally, Bob had taken about four days to find the hideout of the four outlaws, but once he knew which trail led to the split in the mountain where the creek flowed out of the remote little valley, he could go from the road to the secret entrance in only a day. The trails were not developed, originally used by Indians and wildlife. With motorized transportation, they figured it would take only a few hours.
Bob offered an insightful precaution, "It would probably be wise to park quite a distance from the cabin, most likely at the entrance of the valley."
"Makes sense, son," Big Jim replied. "They just might be more alert than they were the first time."
"Will this be our base camp?" Jesse asked, ignorant of Rafferty's mode of operation.
"We could, but we need to move to higher ground, setting up camp before we move on for the final stage of our operation. I'm relying pretty well on what Bob told us, so we hope his assessment was accurate," Rafferty said, checking the fuel in the ATVs. "I realize this is your first time in a wilderness setting, Jesse, but there really isn't anything to be afraid of, especially as well-armed as we are. The most dangerous aspect of this job will be apprehending Johnson himself."
He punctuated the last word with a thick stream of tobacco juice. It was a bad habit, he knew, but he just enjoyed it too much to quit. And he didn't care anymore. He didn't care who disliked it and he didn't care what it did to him, if anything at all, he wondered from time to time.
He really enjoyed many of the practices and habits that he had picked up during the service. He had been a Marine in the Vietnam War, and while there, he killed many of the enemy in a variety of deadly skirmishes. He had been a good shot, and now he remained quite skillful through good optics and laser sighting, despite his eye problems. He had learned to smoke and drink coffee, but he had stopped smoking for fear of lung cancer, and had taken up dipping snuff, which he thoroughly savored.
Big Jim had learned some fighting tactics with a knife and had prided himself at being rather skillful with a blade. In his younger days, however, he was a little more hot-headed and more likely to pull a knife, typically a switchblade. During the military he learned to use a fixed blade.
One particular knife fight would come around once in a while to haunt him because, the object of his wrath, a huge Airborne Ranger, had not used a single weapon, and had handily defeated him and three other Marines in a Saigon bar over a tiff one of his buddies had with the soldier. That guy had cleaned their clocks, the only fight Big Jim Rafferty had ever lost, alone or with others. It hurt his Marine pride, grating on him for a very long time, and still did, occasionally.
His mind drifted over the memory of their finding the big man's outfit and sending someone out to get even. Later, they had learned that the man they had sent just disappeared, listed as missing in action. They never found the big Ranger after that. His outfit had been shipped out to parts unknown, accessible only by top secret clearances and special orders.
Next morning, sun still behind the ten thousand foot mountain, the Los Angeles-based bounty hunting team rose to meet the task that lay ahead of them. "Let's get on the trail, boys," the veteran announced, starting an ATV. "Lead the way, Bobby!" he shouted over the engines.
The younger Rafferty obeyed, and Jim directed Jesse to follow his boy so the experienced bounty man could pull up the rear, rolling their way to uncertain destiny which lay at the end of the trail.
Packed to go, the fugitive foursome were itching to get on the trail with the tremendous loads they had to carry. Jerked venison and new tools were the bulk of the weight, as well as some old clothes that were still serviceable. Each wore full buckskins now, smoked in willow, sage, and aspen, for lack of better woods, like cherry or rotten cottonwood. All were enjoying the soft comfort and warmth they offered in the high country environment, and the protection they gave against bothersome insects and the biting mountain winds.
One useful map, a remnant left over from the Amtrak incident in Wyoming, was all they had. It had shown the lower portion of Wyoming and the whole state of Utah. The map would be somewhat helpful to decide where to cross major rivers. They figured it would be about a hundred and thirty miles to the Henry Mountains, the last discovered mountain range in the United States by John Wesley Powell. The mountains had always been there, naturally, and the Indians knew where they were, but no one ever had thought to ask them.
Karen and Sara expressed sorrow at leaving this cabin that they had made into a cozy home. "I'll miss this place a lot," Karen sighed, looking wistfully at the structure.
"I will, too," Sara said. "Great friendships have been forged here, haven't they?"
"Lasting ones, too, I'd say," John added, resting his arm on his rifle muzzle, looking at the cabin with them.
Exiting the cabin, Jerry carried a perfect eagle feather and, approaching Karen, tied it on a hank of her waist-long blonde hair with a rawhide lace, the feather dangling freely. "If we pass a church along the way, I'd like to give our relationship a little more formal commitment," he announced, turning red as he tied the string, "if you'll have me, that is." He'd spoken in a whispered rush of words, sighing slightly. Then he held his breath in baited limbo waiting for her answer as his strong hand rested on her shoulder.
She smiled her wonderfully sweet smile, looking up into his bronzed face, so serious, yet so hopeful. Her nostrils flared in favor of his smoky fragrance and, streaming onto tanned cheeks, tears moistened blue eyes that danced with joy, betrayed by her upturned lips. "That would be wonderful, Jerry," she replied, hugging his neck firmly and lightly kissing his cheek. Karen was beaming, she knew, and she felt as though she could float wherever they had to go now.
Sara smiled as Karen told her the news, and hugged her. They stepped away from the cabin, falling back for a little "hen talk".
The men led them away from the cabin after each shouldered packs that carried their precious possessions.
Less than an easy mile down the wet trail, the only channel for the surrounding snow that drained from the valley, Jerry pulled them up short when he saw the dense brush of the forest part, the muzzle of a weapon appearing. It was less than thirty yards away, and the quartet was caught in the open, not able to jump for cover. "You're surrounded, Johnson, give yourself up, and nobody will get hurt," the voice barked. "Look around, if you don't believe me."
You can bet Jerry did just that, to his despair. Two other weapons were trained on the small group, one from the man he had encountered and shamed less than one week prior, and another, an automatic shotgun from another angle, in a classic, triangular crossfire. No time or place for heroics, Johnson analyzed.
The younger Rafferty walked up to the big mountain man and swiftly rifle-butted him in the mid-section, doubling over the Ghost Stalker painfully. He stripped the man of his weapons, throwing them far to the side of the trail. "Gonna kill me, huh?" the familiar bounty hunter said taunted. "Looks to me like you'll be doing nothing of the sort. You just got lucky last time, didn't-cha, hillbilly? And a little sloppy this time, huh? Hah!"
He continued his contemptuous tirade, "You're nothing special, hot-shot." Bob then punctuated the last word with another rifle-butt, this time glancing down Jerry's head onto his shoulder, nearly breaking his collar bone. It almost put the massive half-breed to the ground. Almost.
Big Jim allowed Bob's anger and retribution, apparently just due, from what the boy had reported Johnson had done to him. "Let him up, son, he needs to walk out of here on his own power. Unless, of course, you want him to ride double with you."
"The only one I'll let do that is that 'looker' over there, Pop," Bob said with an evil leer at the shapely blonde.
"Stop it, Bob!" Big Jim said forcefully. "You know I don't cotton to none o' that. This is a professional operation. The law don't want prisoners abused. So just cool it!"
Jerry saw the leer and he knew the perverseness behind those evil young eyes. Good thing the boss had stopped the younger man during the rifle butt. Who knows what could have taken place otherwise? But for now, his hands were tied about the matter, and soon, he was certain they would be it, literally.
Besides that, there were three guns surrounding him. Bad odds.
But he had seen worse, and he had overcome worse than that.
Jerry's mind meandered. Once there were three NVA soldiers with their AK-47s guarding a few prisoners while the rest of their comrades gathered other Americans and South Vietnamese that were left to die by choppers that had abandoned them under extremely heavy fire. On that occasion, he had slipped his hands from his bonds and overpowered the nearest guard, using the smaller man's weapon on his own men. Johnson had led the other prisoners to escape before the rest of the enemy could return. He had turned a tragedy into a victory through his heroic efforts. A silver star resulted.
Keeping an eye on Bob, Jerry checked out the one holding the automatic shotgun. If the mountain man figured correctly, this man had never shot anyone in his life. He just didn't look the type. Rather green around the gills. Didn't seem too aware of much going on around him, except what lay in front of his nose. Looked nervous, to boot. If there was a weak link in this trio of men, he was certain to be it.
The bigger man, however, looked every bit the veteran, and vaguely familiar to boot, but Jerry couldn't place the husky man's face, now half-covered with a short beard. Despite the warning the large bounty hunter had issued to the son, the kid did bear some watching.
"Hey, Dad," Bob called, "why not have the girls ride with us? That way, there would be fewer to watch on the trail down the mountain."
"Not a bad idea, Bob," Big Jim said, his boy beaming at the notion. "But, if they're kept together, they can't run anywhere, so forget it."
That burst Bobby's bubble, Jerry thought.
"It's going to be a lot longer trip down than it was coming up since they'll have to walk in front of us, so don't get rambunctious, son. We'll probably have to make camp tonight." The man turned towards Calder. "Now, just who are you?"
"John WHAT?" the leader demanded gruffly.
"Calder," Tall Bear replied, indifferent. He decided to give as little information as necessary, but only if asked. He didn't think he would fair as well as his big friend under the same abuse received from a rifle.
"Well, John Calder," Big Jim said, hesitating, "you get to take point, just in case there's any traps on the trail we don't know about. See, we didn't take the trail here, figuring it would have been protected somehow with a guard of some kind, human or otherwise. And keep in mind the best way for the ATVs. Make the right choices, John Calder."
The Crow looked blankly at the bounty hunter with his "dumb Injun" look. He'd mastered that years ago back on the reservation when the law came looking. John figured if you act ignorant, less is expected of you. And they might just think you're not as smart as you really are.
"Aren't you going to tie them up?" Bob asked with a rather incredible look over his face.
"No, Bob, they're carrying backpacks, which slow them down, and they'll need their hands free to keep their balance. You just do your job and keep your eye on them."
The young bounty hunter stubbornly took his assigned place. "Girls," he announced, turning to face them. They looked up. "you follow John."
Turning slightly to the man who looked out of place, he said, "Jess, you go next." He finally motioned with his optioned AR-15 at the Ghost Stalker. "And you, Johnson, will follow them all. I'll be right behind you," he cautioned.
"Hey, Rafferty, why in the world did you come all the way out from L.A. when there are plenty of locals who would have done the job for free?" Johnson speculated out loud, trying a delay tactic, hoping he could think of something to help them all, and maybe learn something the bounty hunters were foolish enough to divulge.
"That's an easy one, big guy, 'cause, you see, I was hired to do this. And since I used to live in Utah many years ago, well, I was the logical choice. My folks live south of here a ways and-," he was reminiscing a tiny bit till he realized his blunder. "Besides, I don't see it as any of your business."
"Oh, really? Well, then, hey, 'Daddy'," Johnson mocked, getting the bounty hunter's full attention with the normally term of affection, and everyone else turned, too. "I'll tell you this once, and once only. You or any of your boys harm either of those women, and you'll answer to me, personally. Do I make myself clear, 'Daddy'?" He paused as though expecting an answer, but he continued suddenly, grimly. "Not the FBI. Not the cops. Not any attorneys. Me. And there won't be a place you can hide."
"Don't threaten me, Johnson," Big Jim informed the mountain man. "They'll be perfectly fine, don't you worry about that." He looked longer at Johnson, knowing now that he recognized the face behind the beard, but not able to put his finger on where or why. Well, he figured, it just could be the wanted bulletins or the newspaper articles circulated after the train incident, those he had browsed before the trip.
"I come from these parts, like I said before," he mentioned off-hand, aware what he was saying now, making small talk to pass the time. As he stepped, he continued to ramble, "Daddy practically owns a county of the most beautiful land you ever seen down in canyon country. The Henry Mountains are down there, too." He then paused just a second as if seeing it off in the distance, "and they are a pretty range. The last ever to be discovered in the whole United States."
The bounty man was reminiscent, but his weapon was on the mountain man. "But Daddy was too busy with his work, as some fathers tend to be sometimes. Living there was like living in a zoo. Dad believes in a big family."
Losing his yesterday look, Big Jim turned deadly serious. "And I don't." He motioned with his gun. "Get going."
Meanwhile, Tall Bear was thinking hard on their situation. Anything he could possibly think of would likely endanger the women and Johnson, seeing how these clowns would probably shoot first and ask questions later. Not only that, but these weapons were probably fully automatic and would cut him down too quickly. It worried him to think that anything he would try could possibly kill them all. He hoped Johnson was working on a plan. On the contrary, he was certain the Blackfoot was.
Karen hiked along, down, defeated. She had never been in a situation like this. Her second chance at a new life, a new husband, may be nipped in the bud simply because somebody thought she helped two men escape back in Wyoming. She could be incarcerated for a very long time.
But for now, what could she do to help their current predicament? She thought as she walked, but nothing came to mind, and she continued to walk, depressed.
Spring growth of an aspen brushed Sara's cheek as she kept pace with the tall blonde. Her superb sense of smell confirmed spring had surely arrived. She smiled because in her heart, she was amazingly optimistic and she didn't even know why. Especially now. She and her friends were in a fix like never before and somehow she felt sure everything would be fine.
If Bob had been attracted to her rather than to Karen, she would have tried to make him jealous. However, she pondered how she could effectively work her female charm as she negotiated the tricky trail that had been channeled by erosion. It was one of the various feeders that made the cascading creek which exited the once secret valley. Sara questioned now how secret it had truly been to her people. In ancient times, only the Utes knew of this special place.
Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle, however, was thinking at a rapid pace. Ideas ricocheted around his gray matter as he rejected one thought right after the other. He discarded the rash and the unwise. Risks may just be necessary, but not foolish ones. Parts of various plans could work together, but not alone. Combining the finest ones may be the answer he was seeking, but the best thing he could do right now was to wait until dark.
Or until the man-hunters made a mistake. Any mistake. Something he was not sure he could count on. But he watched and waited. He was good at waiting. Better than most.
Darkness was one ally he would gladly wait for. One advantage he would count on was that his friends knew the area and the bounty men did not.
A few hours had passed when Johnson lagged back, trying to delay Big Jim, making him fall farther behind the front group. He also wanted to speak to the man privately. Once adjacent to the four wheeler's front tires, he spoke, "Good spot for camp over the next rise." He had to raise his voice to be heard over the two cycle engine. "Good water, too."
Visibly tired from the ordeal and the fresh high altitude, Big Jim welcomed the information. But he had the presence of mind to be cautious, wary of any trick.
"I'll go check it out," Jim said. His posterior becoming numb from the slow pace, he was ready to call it a day. Jim spoke to his subordinates, and drove off to investigate the mountain man's claim.
Watching his father drive off, Bob ambled toward the mountain man. "Sit down," he indicated with his weapon. Reluctantly, Jerry began to squat. Then the young punk lifted his leg to push Jerry back roughly on his rear, trying to punctuate his next statement. "I said, 'sit'!"
But the bounty hunter's leg no longer worked according to his brain's wishes.
Expecting the boy to do something foolish, the mountain man only feigned to squat. On the contrary, he actually tensed up in anticipation for such a foolish move by the predictable young man. Springing like a cougar, Johnson lifted the offending foot high enough to unbalance Bob momentarily, but enough. Rolling, avoiding the shot, Johnson snapped the knee backward, grossly dislocating the kneecap and ripping tendons. Excruciating agony caused the unsteady man to scream, and he could no longer coordinate both his balance and the use of his weapon, so it was dropped.
Young Mr. Rafferty still had the presence of mind to go for his sidearm, but his massive opponent had already clamped vise-like fingers on the man's right hand, crushing the digits into a useless mass of flesh and bone. Before Bob's mind could react with self-defense instincts, Johnson rapidly positioned himself on the man's bad side, away from the other man, Jesse. Using the bounty hunter's son as a shield, the fugitive swiftly pulled the sidearm, firing two quick rounds into the young man's body, killing him instantly.
The shock of the fury of movement made all who observed gape in horror. Turning toward Jesse, Johnson rendered the inexperienced man's gun hand ineffective with one expert shot.
Knowing the elder Rafferty would have heard the shots and would most likely be on his way back, Jerry told his friends to hide in the cover of the trees and meet back at the cabin if they were separated.
Not with the program, the girls were in a semi-state of shock from the shooting. John nearly had to drag them away. "C'mon, ladies, we're still not out of this, not by a long shot. Let's go!" he encouraged them. They eventually made it to cover while Johnson held the gun on Jesse, who was now shaking.
Disarming the man, the mountain man stuck the sidearm in his belt, shouldered the shotgun, and leveled the converted AR-15 in time to fire for effect at the area near the elder Rafferty who was just coming over the rise.
Rafferty wisely retreated, circling his ATV back over the rise. For effect.
Johnson made Jesse give up his handcuff key. Once free, he dropped his pack and kindly pulled the trembling man aside into the cover of the trees to tend the wound.
The sensitive young fellow looked wide-eyed at the body of the young Rafferty, whose eyes were also wide in death and started retching in the nearby shrubs. After he regained his composure, Jesse's attention once again turned toward the mountain man.
"Get down the mountain and to a hospital, boy," he advised the novice, whose eyes were still fixed in an apparent stare. "You could lose more blood if it isn't tended better." The mountain man stopped the man once more and offered, "And get out of this profession, pilgrim. Your heart just ain't in it." He helped Jesse mount the ATV and saw him off.
Jesse engaged the gears of the four wheeler and left as quickly as he could, struggling with the steering. He recalled the bullet plowing into his hand, breaking bones and mangling flesh. Never had he felt such pain, not even since he was a kid when he had smashed a thumb that had to have been drilled and drained to relieve the thundering pressure. It was now becoming intolerable, causing tears. He wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his bad arm. He wondered if he could ever get down the mountain in his present shape.
Furtively, Ghost Stalker surveyed the area, watching for Rafferty. Or anyone else. He entered a stalking mode and searched the trail for the bounty hunter's return tracks. But, no evidence appeared. Satisfied, Johnson returned to pick up his pack and to find his three friends.
Retreating to the cabin, the nearest thing they had to a fortress to defend, surroundings familiar as their own bodies. Short of Johnson wandering around hunting the remaining bounty man, this was their best choice for defense. And, it would be rather unfortunate if Rafferty showed up and Jerry was not around to lead or advise them.
Descending the trail slowly, Jesse crested the ridge, his arm in a sling rigged by the mountain man. He passed unknowingly within yards of Big Jim's position. The bounty man hoped Jesse would wait at the truck as planned. He was positive his office man would. He was such a good boy, trustworthy and faithful.
Jesse continued down the trail as fast as his messed up appendage would allow. Without a lot of trouble, he found the truck by nightfall. The injured man parked the ATV, leaving the key in it for anyone who happened along. Recovering the hidden truck keys from under an ample rock, Jesse fired up the vehicle.
The pain was bad. And getting worse. He didn't think he could survive very long without medical attention. Big Jim would understand, he hoped. Jesse would come back later to pick the bounty hunter up. That is, if he survived one-on-one with that monstrous Johnson.
Jesse shrugged his shoulders, slipped the transmission into drive, and just got the hell out of there.
Big Jim pulled the four wheeler back over the high ridge's crest shortly after Jesse had passed. His eyes landed on Bob's lifeless body lying in what seemed to be a dark pool. All he could hope for was that his son was alive. That's all that mattered.
It would be certain suicide to go down there since Johnson was now armed. The bounty man pulled into the trees for cover, shut off the ATV, waiting, watching...and worrying. After a short while, he tried to scout around. Satisfied, he soon approached the motionless body of his son when dusk arrived to aid him with cover.
Cold and stiff in death, Jim's pride and joy, the only good thing from his marriage, was gone. Bobby had been taken away from him by a ruthless wanted man who would eventually pay for what he had done, the bounty man vowed.
Rafferty's poison and hate escaped in tears. He cried for Bobby, his own lonely lifestyle, and for his future without someone to love him. The great wracking sobs stopped when he was totally drained emotionally. Rolling out his sleeping bag, Big Jim gently placed his son's remains inside so that the carcass would not attract any more flies to the gore.
Camp was cold for the fugitives that night, well-off the trail, but near enough to the cabin to watch both it and the paths. "Rafferty won't be the kind to give up too easily, now that his son is gone," Johnson forecasted, figuring what would probably be the most obvious result. "He's probably out there right now, stalking us."
"I sure hope that kid, Jesse, is all right," Karen said sympathetically, sorry she had somehow been involved in his injuries.
"Don't worry about him," Jerry said, somewhat miffed. "He chose his profession, now he can live with it."
"Where's your compassion?" pleaded Karen.
"Compassion? Compassion be hanged!" the mountain man said vehemently. "These fools would think nothing of throwing you in jail when you've done nothing to deserve it. Woman," he finally turned toward the pretty blonde, "your freedom is at stake here, not their comfort.
"Rafferty is on his way here at this very moment. Do you think he's going to pull his shots now? No, not on your life; not even once, except, maybe for you ladies." Then his visage soured. "But I wouldn't even bet on that. Not now.
"I killed his kid and he's sure going to try to kill me. What does he have to lose if you happen to die, too?"
There was no answer.
"Exactly," Jerry continued, "nothing. I'm going to keep watch so you all can try to get some sleep. Tall Bear, could you spell me later?" The Crow nodded.
He left without another word to Karen, purposely letting her chew on what he had said. Maybe she'd mull over her priorities. If she decided to pull out of the marriage plans now, he wouldn't be surprised. It was understandable, after all that had happened. He figured that this new development probably put him in a different light from a female's point of view. He knew he was too old to change his mind how he handled a situation like this. She had to learn that she was the one who would have to adapt to live this way.
Jerry had already made his choice, his path in life. Anyone who wanted to share it with him had to make a conscious effort to make the necessary changes to live with that choice. Don't try to change him, he thought, change yourself to live his lifestyle or move on down the road.
He wasn't here on this earth to pass on the way to live outdoors to just anyone so that they could use him as a teacher and move on. Maybe his future would hold the opportunity for him to be a teacher of others, but not now, not while on the run. Jerry preferred to teach only those who chose to be with him. And to live according to the rules and laws of the mountains. Period.
Of course, she was free to leave at any time, if that was the way her stick floated. He would never stand in her way. But he would be hanged if it would ever happen this way again. If she chooses to get out, take off, fine, he stops sharing his knowledge right then and there. No two ways about it. Same for John or Sara.
Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle will live in the mountains for the rest of his life. And he will live free. Or die.
Johnson stayed on watch while the others tried to sleep. He knew the bounty hunter would likely be stalking them. That could take all night, he ponder. Maybe he was worrying about nothing, but he would stay on watch just in case and Tall Bear could take over till morning.
Rafferty pulled out a special box that had been secured on the rear of his ATV. Pulling out an expensive set of night vision glasses, he adjusted and donned them. Checking the ammo clips of his weapons, Jim headed out, parallel to the trail to pass any traps.
If he survived this hunt, Big Jim vowed to bury his son properly. Then he'd look for the FBI clown who started this mess. Exhausted, and emotionally spent, he sat down, back to a tree. Off the trail and concealed by brush, he felt secure to gain the rest he so desperately needed and fell into a hard sleep for about an hour.
Dark remnants of the night streaked away from the sky like shadowy demons in fear of the light of God. Swirled with magenta and crimson sky, tangerine hues of the morning were the signs of a wind that could bring in just about any nasty weather to liven things up here in the mountains. A mid-spring snowstorm, a gully-whumper of a rain, or just ungodly winds could be down upon them in the next twenty-four hour period.
It was by those red streaks in the sky when Tall Bear knew Johnson would want to be wakened. The crisp morning air, already below freezing, would drive the sleepy desires from a body once shed of its nightly cocoon.
Once awake, the others received large shards of jerky from Johnson for breakfast. They would eat better once they had returned to the cabin where they had left excess food.
It didn't take long to get back to their home. Johnson scouted the perimeter before they crossed the meadow and entered the cabin. They dropped their full packs with a sigh, more from being home than from the relief. Plenty of work lay ahead for the quartet, preparing for the arrival of a desperate man who would go to unknown lengths to capture or even kill every one of them.
Camouflage and surprise were their greatest allies now. John took on the crucial necessity of painting the women and covering them with small, leafy branchlets. Sara looked similar to a rough fir, standing still or lying down. And Karen was made up to resemble a large leaf-covered mound of mud. Both would be difficult to find in daylight, sitting or lying still in a meadow or in the trees. But, they would stay near the cabin in case Rafferty would gain the upper hand. Once night arrived, they might want to strip off the cumbersome camouflage to run faster.
"I was getting to the point where a mud facial would be beneficial," the pretty blonde remarked, addressing the Crow, "but this is a little more than I bargained for, m'sieur." Her demeanor was that of a bashful maiden receiving her first male attention.
"My par-lore is for-ev-air open to ze bee-yoo-ti-fool weemin of ze high con-tree," John hammed, bowing deeply.
Giggling like school kids, the women turned their attention on John. His make-up was more along the lines of traditional Crow war paint, a blackened face with white accents, becoming a sort of surreal skull.
Jerry returned to the doorway with the bright spring flora of the mountains tied around him. He seemed to smell better, too, the trio observed, a problem mountain men struggled with at times. When he laid in the meadow, he virtually disappeared. "All I have to say is," Jerry said, pausing to turn, "you'll need to get comfortable and stay still. I can't stress that enough."
They knew that, for crying out loud. Ghost Stalker had drilled that into them, especially when hunting one day for food. One of the girls moved, causing a deer to take flight. They went hungry that night, a painful lesson learned, and one not soon forgotten.
"If Rafferty is smart, he'll hold off till the night hides his movements. Or he could be here at any moment. I'll go out and plant a few traps for the boy, just in case he becomes careless. A trap could save our lives. I'll also start a few smoldering fires that will be set to burn for most of the day, so ignore them. If you do happen to see the bounty man, shoot first. We'll ask him what, who, and why later," the mountain man instructed.
"Why can't we just hold him; retain him till you arrive?" Karen inquired, her eyes searching his for any compassionate answer.
"For one reason," Jerry answered directly without a pause, "I guarantee he won't give up or be caught napping, and, if he just happens to get captured, you can be sure he will do everything in his power to escape and capture each of us, or kill us. No, Karen, don't even think you can out-maneuver a man like him. He has been a successful bounty hunter for a long time, probably since returning from the war, and he appears to me to be quite good at it."
She simply nodded, and hung her head in resignation that, in all likelihood, Jerry was probably right. He had been right nearly a hundred percent of the time up to this point, and she felt like she would be best advised to follow his instructions implicitly.
However, she wasn't sure if she could pull the trigger on another human being. That could be a definite problem. She'd struggled with that concept ever since being with Jerry. All she could do now was to resolve to do her absolute best to stay alive and help her friends to do the same.
The mountain man stopped for a second, lost with his thoughts, struggling with the words that stuck in his throat. "We may not see each other until this is all over," he began, "and there is a very real chance that one or more of us may not see each other again, ever." Johnson nearly choked on the thought, but managed to look each of them in the eye when he continued, "And I want you to know I love each one of you." He then hung his head, turned, and was gone before any of his friends could reply their own heart-felt feelings.
That next instant he lived up to his Ute name, Ghost Stalker, more akin to the wind and the shadows than to a mere man. Jerry became a different person in his stalking mode. To most men he became nearly invisible. Where he passed there would usually be no tracks. He knew how to make tracks go nowhere and how to use the spirit trail of his ancestors. Incorporating his abilities and beliefs prior to his conversion to Christianity conflicted with the deadly spirit that now touched his soul. Christ was the only one who came to save the world, and Jerry accepted that. It was just so much harder to separate the reality of his past from the mortal spirituality of the present.
Fortunately, he felt comfortable about defending himself to the death, but in this case, he felt justified about being on the offensive. War demands many tactics. Offense, defense, guerrilla, and even holing up, if need be. Jerry had experienced war, and he hoped he never had to see it again. But, defending his freedom and friends was very close to that, he believed.
Johnson began to set snares and build small campfires to confuse his adversary. Somehow, he felt that this guy would not be a pushover, not like the FBI had been, and he had a sick feeling in the pit of his inner being that it could be the fight of his life. Jerry found a defensible position and dug himself in under some brush. The cabin was visible in the distance, and he had a good field of vision of the open meadow, making for a good killing radius. He lay there quietly, patiently.
And he watched.
Rafferty slept fitfully. The death of his son plagued him, nagged him, and he felt his objectivity could suffer as a result. He had lost friends in the war, but that never affected him like losing a son. The job that lie ahead would not allow him to make any mistakes. No emotional, foolish moves or decisions would get him through this. Only calm, rational thought and wise judgment would let him survive, even if he had to kill somebody, preferably the mountain man, to bring this thing to a halt. That would give him the most satisfaction and a sense of justice.
Today he would scout, carrying light, caching his gear and the majority of his weapons, retaining a hidden backup and his 9mm with two spare clips for hunting the quartet. But first, and foremost, Johnson would be his preferred quarry, his primary prey.
Entering a stand of trees, Big Jim's eyes darted as he stepped slowly, carefully. All he had now to go by was the information Bob had shared at the briefing after returning empty-handed from his initial assignment. The lay of the land, the trail through the immense stands of forest and the bowl-like meadow, was foreign to him. He was more familiar to Vietnam and domestic urban jungles. Then, after seeing the huge man who had defeated his well-trained boy, he now understood what Bob had tried to tell him. This was not a simple bail-jumper they were after. They had vastly underestimated their subject, a dangerous thing to do in their profession.
It still bothered Jim that the mountain man looked familiar. It bothered him a bunch. When he had laid eyes on him, he thought he had seen the face of someone he had known in 'Nam, but he couldn't come up with any of his friends or acquaintances who resembled this jasper. And it annoyed him. But, for now, he had to let his other senses work besides his eyes and ears.
Wood smoke suddenly met his nostrils when he snapped his brain on to be aware of what was going on around him. He approached the coals of an abandoned campfire. Strange, he thought. What purpose did it serve if not to cook or to warm? The answer eluded him.
Suddenly, tripping a snare that was set near the opening of the trail, Big Jim dropped down and backed off. It barely missed his hand in the process. It could have severed his hand. Close. Too close. A stinging burn from the delicate but strong sinew line would remain on his cheek, a reminder of his clumsiness.
As he pushed himself into the kneeling position, he was hit as if a small truck had rolled over him. The odor of smoky buckskin made him realize who his attacker was. A rush of air had been forced from his lungs as he was knocked aside. Rolling expertly with the attack, he came up without the trusted 9mm in his fist. Where had the mountain man come from? Why had he not heard him? And where was his 9mm?
The questions came, but were left hanging without answers, for he was sure he was about to fight for his life.
Though somewhat addled by the ambush, Rafferty shook off the shock and reached behind him for the only spare pistol he had almost left behind. His .38 snub-nose was thankfully still strapped there in the small of his back, and he quickly thumbed the snap that held the gun in place.
Again Johnson knocked him for a loop before the weapon completely filled his hand, and the gun went flying into the darkness. Without a weapon, he now faced his adversary.
A flying reverse kick from the big Indian was easily sidestepped. But Big Jim felt the wind of it, realizing that, had it connected, he would have surely been hurt. The bounty man backed up cautiously, aware where the brush and trail and trees were. And he made doggone sure he had room to move when the next flying kick came his way. Rafferty executed a leg sweep to counter the bigger man's landing and set the mountain dweller on his butt, causing the fugitive to lose his own sidearm.
Johnson recovered from the blow rapidly and stood.
Before the bounty hunter could capitalize on his fortune, his enemy rolled and jumped up to his feet. As he made his move forward, Big Jim possessed the flash of recognition that gave birth to knowledge.
That precious second was wasted, lost in time's effortless way of passing, for he could have pulled the ankle knife he had forgotten. Standing there in a state of memory-shock, the bounty man made the mistake of going for the weapon in the next second, which was a second too late.
The mountain man attacked, twirled, grabbed the bounty man in a headlock, and punched Rafferty's nose and ear in hard, rapid blows, causing his head to finally snap backwards, jarring more than just brains and mucous. Blood trickled out of two orifices now.
Jim's head jostled the past memory loose as the few punches caused him to recall the Indian Ranger he and his Marine buddies had picked on back in an outdoor Vietnamese bar. "Long way from Saigon, eh, Indian?" Rafferty observed, shaking his head to rid the dizziness that threatened to wash over him.
Jerry paused momentarily and looked hard at the man, but saw no resemblance to the young, muscular Marine who had accosted him so long ago. "If you were one of those Marines, then you remember the outcome," the army sniper reminded Rafferty, brushing flowers and grass from his collar and sleeves.
"Yeah, I 'member," slurred the bounty man, wiping a myriad of fluids flowing from his swollen nose, a sign brain damage might have occurred. "I still have a scar from that fight. But now I'm the best at what I do...and you're goin' down." He charged the big man, feinted to one side, and whipped around with unexpected speed and agility, catching Jerry off-guard. The move laid two well-placed fists up along side the Blackfoot's head, and he staggered from the force of the great blow.
It jarred Johnson to the reality of the moment, the realization that he could not afford too many of those kind of mistakes. This guy could hit! Jerry knew now he couldn't waste his efforts in a give and take of blows. He might lose.
While daydreaming, his shoulder was sliced by the ex-Marine's knife. Wincing, Jerry pulled away from his enemy's attack, filling his hand with his huge Bowie he took back from the hunter's dead son. Blood appeared now at the neat cut through the buckskin shirt. Senses were startled to a new awareness by the edge of cold steel and the introduction of a potential of imminent doom, Jerry joined the battle anew.
Thrusting and parrying, the two warriors danced to their own internal music of death. One was a battle song born from one's desire for true freedom and the other was originating from an abiding faith in the law of the land.
Johnson's appreciation grew of Rafferty's ability and adeptness in the use of the blade. Suddenly another deadly blade flashed wildly from nowhere and the Blackfoot half-breed noticed the bounty hunter's new optimism.
Eyes wide, Rafferty's mouth twisted into a hideous grin, possibly from madness, but the mountain man stubbornly stood his ground, wary of the new knife that created an atmosphere the Indian truly respected. And feared.
Jerry knew he was in trouble. Loss of blood had weakened him some and his skill wasn't making any headway against the bounty hunter. Desperate, he knew that he had to perform a miracle if he was to become victorious. The next instant found the mountain man pressing the attack in a vigorous, enthusiastic last-ditch assault, summing up all his reserve strength, wading into the twin-bladed enemy in a flurry of movement.
The mountain man's renewed aggressiveness astonished Rafferty. Even wounded, Johnson apparently had might to spare, or so it seemed. The bounty hunter was found it more difficult to avoid the bigger man's formidable Bowie, which gave him a superior reach advantage.
Using two knives and concentrating on the mountain man's knife and fist, Rafferty became confused, losing track of one limb for one extra microsecond.
His opponent's wrist now in his free hand, Jerry concentrated with his Bowie, pressed forward and intensified leverage on one of Big Jim's knives which, when contacted with a nearby trunk, snapped off at the hilt.
Rafferty's eyes widened in dread as he became aware of the other man's regaining the edge, especially if his strength remained at its present level. Dropping the useless weapon, Jim grabbed the knife-hand of the mountain man and they continued their intense struggle. But it seemed to the bounty man that the buckskinner should weaken soon.
If that were actually true, then Big Jim felt he could somehow break off the fight, get back to his camp to rest, and come back with his night goggles and M-16. The opportunity came when he placed his foot behind his opponent's leg and gave the mountain man a hard shove.
The buckskinner lost his balance as his head swam from losing too much blood and he fell backward, momentarily stunned and disoriented, unknown to his enemy.
"Sorry, Johnson," Rafferty said, backing away, hoping his adversary would not follow, "but I will be back to finish this later." Cautiously placing the remaining dagger in its hidden sheathe, he turned and ran...as fast as he could into the thickness of the forest.
John ventured out from his hiding place when he heard the faint grunting sounds of a scuffle. He went to see if he could lend a hand. He was sure the big man did not need his help, but he would check anyway.
Approaching through the trees, the Crow could see the sparring men, but the numerous blow-downs separating him from the fight scene were maddening. By the time he was able to successfully clear the thicket, John neared the pair just as the bounty hunter was running away. Arriving at his friend's side, Tall Bear helped Jerry up. Seeing the bloody shoulder, the Crow put his friend's arm around his own shoulder, and aided the rapidly weakening man.
"C-Couldn't stop the bleeding," Johnson stammered as he fumbled to place one foot in front of the other, his true state of health surfacing.
"Never mind that," John reassured. "We'll get you back to the cabin so you can rest, Kimo Sabe. I'm sure Karen and Sara will mother you to death. Save your strength."
Reaching the clearing, John yelled for the girls to come running. They appeared quickly, despite being in total camouflage, and balked at what they saw, a horribly bloody and weakened Johnson. Sara went immediately for her pack of herbal medicines while Karen got some hot water ready to wash the wounds of her man as he sat, happy for a chance to recharge his batteries.
The mountain man's shoulder was covered with the wet, sticky fluid, down his chest, back, and arm. Once out of his medicine shirt, his wound was washed with a clean rag that had been boiled. Sara applied ground shepherd's purse to staunch the flow of the blood, then covered it with bruised plantain leaves as an infection fighter, bound by strips of buckskin.
As Jerry relaxed, he felt like his strength was beginning to come back into him even though he knew it would be awhile before he would be a hundred percent again. "We can't let our guard down now," he warned. "I'm sure we haven't seen the last of him yet."
"You got that right," John added. "He seemed to be retreating to rest." He sat near Jerry. "You looked like you were about to put the hurt on him, though."
"I thought so, too, till he tripped me. I was too weak to prevent that, I reckon."
"Not a lot of talking going on as I remember," John put in.
"Well, I'm sure we were sorta concentrating on what we were doing," the mountain man said sourly.
John caught the irked attitude of the statement and said with a smirk, "Sounded more like two grizzlies humping each other."
The room erupted with laughter, a welcome diversion from the seriousness of the moment, not ecstatic with the feeling he'd just lost a fight.
Karen walked over and placed a hand on his good shoulder, giving it a loving squeeze.
Johnson looked up into her eyes, seeing both a genuine concern and an understanding of his damaged ego. He noticed how he loved looking into her eyes for long periods. Their beauty was natural, but her love for him made them shine.
"Hopefully, Rafferty will stumble into one of my traps tonight," Jerry said hopefully, trying to turn their minds back to the grave situation at hand.
"That would be the easy way, huh?" Sara assessed as she put her herbs away.
"Chances aren't too great that'll succeed if he doesn't stick to the trails," John theorized.
"Yeah, and odds are he won't," Johnson spat, disgusted. "He's an ex-Marine who seems to know what he's doing."
Preparing a meal for them from the left-behind provisions to save the food in their packs, Karen asked, "What can we do to help this along? Anything?"
"I strongly suspect Rafferty has an ace up his sleeve of some kind," Jerry imagined, thinking out loud.
"What could it be?" John inquired.
"Oh, just about anything. Night vision, explosives, you name it. He just seems to me to be the type of guy who comes prepared for the worst, hating to lose even a little," he explained. Reflecting a second, he added, "And he has already lost more than he'd planned." Johnson paused then continued with his conjecture. "Probably divorced, he has very little left to lose but his own life."
No explanation of that statement was necessary. Being a part of the baby-boomer generation, each knew that the majority of Americans had seen enough television to be brainwashed to believe that the Almighty Dollar and Self were the only things most people live for. Both were the detriments that had resulted in the present divorce statistics.
This quartet, however, knew the real truth, especially after living the past winter with each other. They all knew the simple joys of living, loving, surviving, and wanting better, satisfying lives.
Fighting liberalism, tyranny, and wrong values took guts, determination, and a willingness to stand up for moral rightness. Even if it means knocking pompous leaders off their seemingly unshakable pedestals or taking the bullies of the world out of the equation. Abraham Lincoln wisely advocated revolution if the government was not abiding by its original precepts. Freedom demands a price. It always has. Sadly, it usually takes the dearest blood. Rafferty learned that the hard way.
There is no perfect world, these primitive ones have learned, but they were striving for the best world they could think of in order to live in beautiful, but challenging, high country.
What is life without challenges? Defending this lifestyle may require moving. Or disposing of those who stood to try to prevent them to live it.
Making fools of the feds and defeating bounty hunters was just the tip of their freedom-preserving iceberg. Because, living secretly in the mountains would mean a nearly constant vigil for arrogant environmentalists or fish-and-game officials who would report them or even try to stop them.
Soon the bounty hunter would be coming after them, most likely under the cover of night. Jerry needed his rest and the others needed to get their minds ready for the inevitable battle. While the trio kept watch, the mountain man slept peacefully.
John remained concealed in the trees with the patience of his ancestors, while the two women kept their vigil within the cabin as darkness entombed them.
"Jerry wanted us to wake him if nothing happened by nightfall," Sara reminded her friend. Her nose flared sentimentally as she thought of the cabin that had been her home. The odors of smoke, pine, and hides would be sorely missed. It was like all these things were in a person's blood, a part of them.
Standing, Karen stepped over to the bed, a strong log-framed item constructed for longevity. Brain-tanned leather, sewn in a patchwork bag, was stuffed full of thistle, fireweed, and cattail down, waterfowl feathers, and leaves of juniper, mint, and sage. It was a truly unique but fragrant mattress that lay on a rawhide mesh.
Gently nudging her man, Karen quickly aroused the big man from his slumber. Usually able to wake up on his own, Jerry's body screamed for calm and recovery.
"You should still be sleeping," Karen admonished him, Sara nodding her agreement without turning her head from the window.
"But if I can possibly end this quickly, I need to be out there, meeting him on my terms, not his. I'm a guerrilla fighter, Karen. I take the fight to the enemy," Jerry explained with a soft strain, his strength not in his voice.
Swiveling his legs around and placing his feet on the cabin floor, he splashed cold water on his face from a suspended deer's paunch, his mind became more alert. Rising, Johnson donned his smoky and greasy buckskin shirt that had been brushed to softness again by the ladies. The bullet hole had also been sewn shut. All that remained was the bloodstain, reminding him of his close brush with death.
Seeing Karen's long blonde hair shining across the cabin through the darkness, Jerry approached her in customary stealth. Her tanned face was the dark divider of the golden tresses that shone in the uncertain inkiness. From behind, he wrapped her in his arms. Her hair smelled of sage, which she regularly brushed through it. How he had grown to love this lady!
He felt that familiar stirring in his loins despite the pain and weakness. Hmm, he thought, still able. If I live through this, we'll find a truly remote mountain and build again. No mistakes this time. They would plan ahead and be careful who they befriended.
Karen lay her head back on his chest. "M-m-m," she breathed as he kissed her head. "I love you."
"And I love you," he whispered in her ear.
She turned and softly pleaded, "Please be careful. I need you to return to me."
"You know I will," he said confidently. "I have more to live for than I've ever had before." He gently cupped her fine, smooth chin, and kissed her tenderly. He then slipped away through the creaking portal into dark oblivion.
It was as though he had just walked out of her life, she thought, and she cried softly. Karen was afraid of what she might lose before the vows could even be spoken. Knowing how life could be lost in mere seconds, she had left San Francisco to escape the sudden death of her husband, Rob.
Finding love again was an unexpected miracle. Also, it had been a true gift to trade the life of a yuppie for one much simpler. The suburbanite surely amazed the two Indians, after they had stopped that Amtrak train to give the law community cause to chase them. But now she had to be strong for her man as he tried to do what he did best, protecting them all.
Jeremiah walked like an Indian. Not like a white. He had been trained early in his life to walk as his ancestors, rolling the outside of the foot inward, not heel to toe with his toes splayed outward like whites, but with the big toe aimed straight ahead. While in the military, it was rather difficult for him to march, digging his heel in to match cadence. He had to concentrate hard to march, but he persevered. Once in Vietnam, he readily reverted back to his natural native gait. It was this ancient manner of walking that eventually earned him the honorable title of Ghost Stalker from the Utes.
Silently, he traversed the area he had earlier prepared with traps, snares, and other such surprises. He observed the Crow, still in position. Good man, and he had turned out to be a great, loyal friend. Fortunate thing, too, for John had nearly caught Jerry back in Wyoming in the manhunt for which Calder had been the tracker. Jerry clucked like a mating spruce hen, getting Tall Bear's attention, and gave him an all clear signal.
Minutes after the mountain man had moved away, John uttered his alarmed squirrel's cry. Jerry noted something, or someone, was approaching through the dense trees and underbrush. He moved as an apparition, using the trees as shields. He could see the glowing coals of the numerous fires he had set earlier that day. They were conspicuously spaced along the trail and in the surrounding open areas.
The big man watched the shadows and silhouettes, and the horizon with a way of looking, a way of seeing all that focused on what seemed out of place. His eyes were especially trained to find his target as a sniper during the war. Now he needed to call upon every bit of his ability in order to survive and save his friends.
Then he saw the movement again. The shadow moved, too far away to identify for certain, but the silhouette was certainly Rafferty's. Jerry chose a rather large aspen to hide behind, and watched as the robust ex-Marine neared the Crow's position.
The mountain man strained to watch in silent dread as he heard the crack of John's skull by an accurate blow from the bounty hunter. Johnson silently prayed that John was not dead. All he knew was that his friend was not moving. But Jerry kept his composure. He had a job to do.
What the mountain man suspected might occur had probably transpired. Rafferty must be in the possession of a set of night vision goggles, enabling him to get the drop on the mountain dwellers. That had to be why the bounty man had taken John out so quickly and efficiently.
Jerry knew he had to move. He had to stay on the move in order to save his comrades from further distress and misery. When he had earned the name of Ghost Stalker, he hadn't even employed his spiritual tracking abilities. But now would be the time to employ them. He would become one with the wind, able to move with it and blend with its voice. And as he did, he began stalking the hunter, not the man, who, as an animal, could eventually sense the danger of his closeness, especially if Rafferty's enhanced sight detects his proximity.
Would he, could he, be invisible to the man who hunted him? Could he be victorious over technology? One could only hope since ancient methods seemed to be at a grave disadvantage.
Fortunately, Rafferty went for the cabin, apparently believing he had dispatched a lone sentry. Stepping cautiously, the sole aggressor's next movement was the turning of his head, and Jerry thought it appeared more like a robot's head than a man's. Then the bounty hunter noticed something and knelt to investigate, but rose again apparently satisfied.
Jerry thought he had left one of his special fires burning at that specific point, but from his perspective, he was not entirely certain. Then the inky form moved onward toward the dark frame of the cabin, totally unaware all the while that the real danger lurked somewhere behind him in the form of a massive, two hundred seventy pound predator...Ghost Stalker.
Half Blackfoot. A decorated ex-sniper. And all-serious about eliminating this present obstacle to his freedom.
The cumbersome head gear was actually bothering Big Jim the longer he wore it. And these cussed trail snares and traps were often harder to make out with the goggles in place, their greenish hue making it difficult to distinguish a tripwire from grass. A distinct disadvantage, but he reasoned, how would he fair without them? Not as well, he was sure.
It didn't matter, for he tripped across a secondary line that was but a couple steps beyond the last. And, reacting by twisting and falling, he narrowly escaped the downward arc of the stout sapling with a variety of long, pointed stakes.
Lost in thought, Johnson was trying not to think of the reasons for the fight or of his quarry. But he succumbed to a spiritual worry, wondering if God was on his side. Jerry thought he was right in this situation...suddenly his prey moved to escape a trap. Good, Jerry decided, at least it would put some fear back into the bounty hunter.
Of course, Jerry answered his own query, God was on the side of right, just as he was taught. "Righteous are you, O Lord, and your laws are right.", Psalm 119:137. He still remembered after all these long years.
But now, how about now? He lay vigilant and still, having simultaneously gone prone with the bounty hunter's last move, watching and wondering. He hadn't served God as he knew he should since his conversion as a young fellow living with his mother. He was fairly certain he hadn't pleased Him with his life and for that Johnson was truly concerned. But, no matter what the Lord's will was, he would use all that he had within him to be victorious, even his grandfather's passed-down teachings. He would strive to be victorious, hopefully with God's blessing.
Karen had paid particular notice to the black form's movement and knew instinctively that it was not her man. She would have never seen Jerry, or heard him, if he so desired. Hoping to save her man any further pain, she took careful aim and fired with a reserved apprehension, having never shot a man, but the bounty man moved at the precise moment of her sighting down the barrel.
Was the man psychic as well as a potential threat to their beloved lifestyle?
Rafferty felt the stinging burn of the bullet's crease near his left ear. Must have been Johnson. A darn good shot in the dark, he analyzed on the run.
The hunter melted into the horizon line, and Jerry lost sight of him after Karen fired her shot. And he stayed down. Rafferty would be scanning all around him, because Johnson knew that was what he would do.
The shot had definitely come from the cabin. Would he just wait out the others? Lay a siege till the morning? Big Jim asked himself numerous questions to calm his heart, still somewhat shaken from the bullet's near-miss with his noggin. A step or shift of weight the other way, and he would have been dead.
Now he was positive the mountain man was the shooter. Only an army sniper could shoot like that, he told himself. And who would have thought this jasper would have been the very same guy who had beaten him and three of his Marine buddies back in Saigon? Man, but that guy could fight!
Seemed, though, that the man he tangled with recently did not have it like he used to. Rafferty knew how a survival instinct kicked in during war, bringing many soldiers back whole. And, he reasoned, because he was a well-trained policeman and an experienced bounty hunter, respected by many departments and peers alike, he was certain he was truly the one with the edge here. The goggles helped him see movement of the shooter who was in the window, and he had gratefully moved in the nick of time.
Johnson crawled steadily. He inched and crept quietly through the grass and shrubbery of the forest. He had to chance making it to the bounty hunter before he tried to force himself into the cabin. Silently slithering onward, Jerry set his mind to the task.
Until the distinctive sound of a timber rattler stopped him cold.
Wonderful. Johnson had to evade a man with night vision goggles and now a heat-sensitive pit-viper that thought its territory was being invaded. What was the reason for the snake to be out this late at this altitude anyway? Damn snake. Didn't it realize it was a cold-blooded creature? Obviously not.
It had been a rather warm day for spring, so Jerry figured the snake had found a rock that retained plenty of warmth from the day's sun. Why it had to be in his chosen path was beyond Johnson's grasp of basic comprehension of fate and happenstance. This was not something he was prepared for.
The mountain man mouthed, "I don't need this crap at all."
He paused momentarily, for his mountain survival sense took over and he rolled rapidly to his right to escape the snake's striking distance, only a fraction of its total length. Jerry rolled freely to safety down a little rise, out of the line of sight of the bounty hunter. The snake retreated to its hole, an old badger den.
Big Jim heard the rattler's warning, but spinning his turret-like head to find it proved fruitless, as nothing was visible to him in range. He fired a short burst in the general direction to thwart anyone who might occupy that area, but he saw no reason to investigate further. His goal was the mountain man he was certain was hiding in the cabin, probably too weak to be out on the prowl.
Johnson was glad he had moved when he did, else he would have sprouted a few new holes, none of them the least bit useful to flesh and bone.
Rafferty stepped gingerly, knowing deadly snares and traps possibly awaited him. That was why he purposely stayed off the game trails. What he still couldn't figure out was why he found so many small fires burning all over the area. They were not cooking fires, nor were they for light, for none were aflame, only coals. And they definitely didn't mark trails or be a clue to where the traps were. All he could possibly hope for was that the mystery had nothing to do with him. But he was not so sure of that. And it bothered him. Big Jim could not dismiss them as insignificant.
Jerry made his way past the Crow, stopping only to check if his friend was still alive. Out cold, Tall Bear was still breathing and his pulse was strong. He would have one heck of a headache when he woke up.
Continuing his course on the bounty hunter's left, Jerry risked being shot by Rafferty, or even Karen, when he sprang suddenly out of the thicket, running for the rear of the cabin. The mountain man scampered away from Rafferty who suddenly sprayed the area wildly with .223 rounds, some being tracers, thankfully moments too late and rounds laid too far apart.
Karen answered the M-16's report with three well-placed 30-30 rounds at the visible muzzle blast, forcing the bounty hunter to take immediate cover or die in the rain of lead the blonde was dealing. Meanwhile, Jerry finally sidled up to the back window for fear of like response from Sara, and whispered her Ute name.
Startled, the Ute woman heard the familiar voice and answered, "Yes, Ghost Stalker." She didn't know the reason Jerry called out her Ute name, so she responded in like manner.
"Hold your fire unless you're sure it's not me. I'm going to be moving around back here."
"Don't worry, Ghost Stalker, I usually don't even see you, let alone hear you. You have nothing to fear from me. I am one of the People who has learned the white man's lifestyle so well I don't notice what I truly should," she confessed her present level of assimilation.
Karen overheard Sara's parley with Johnson, and gave special attention to her man's most immediate needs. She increased her vigilance as she slid additional rounds into her weapon. One thing the ladies had learned was to reload at the first opportunity. If she had anything to do or say about it, she would viciously protect him despite her gentler outlook on the human race.
Rafferty reached the front corner of the cabin despite the hail of bullets that followed him. He periscoped his head up from his cover. Nobody around. They must have relied only on the one sentry, as he had hoped. Still plenty of cover, but he was afraid to stand up. Too close to the cabin. That dude was mean with that rifle.
Big Jim had to belly around to see what he could, making his route away from the line of sight of that deadly window, around to the front corner of the structure. There was no window on the side, so he stood up, confident he could do so with impunity, and stretched himself a bit. Now the bounty hunter felt he could afford the luxury to stop and think. He speculated how lucky he could have been if they hadn't covered the rear or if he could get on the roof and wait for one of them to make a mistake.
Silently, Jerry passed the window which was in the near-center of the rear wall of the cabin and closed on the corner which was being approached simultaneously by the large bounty man.
Who would get there first? Or would they arrive at the same moment? Neither knew that the other's proximity was so imminent. Who would be stealthier? Even more important, who would prevail?
Twisting his headed 180 degrees, side-to-side, Big Jim Rafferty side-stepped, sliding his back along the logs of the wall, making certain nobody followed him or appeared suddenly in front of him. That mountain man could be anywhere, ready to brain him, but Jim was relatively sure his enemy was nowhere nearby. Unless he was at that window.
Not worried much about the injured man, Jim still respected the man's abilities, size, and tenacity, despite his having been weakened by the loss of blood. Having lost to the Indian on the streets of Saigon, Rafferty believed the present was a different story. Now the tables were turned in his favor. Although older now, he was in good shape and uninjured. Johnson was weakened, hurting, and older, too. He didn't look any older than Jim, really, but the file told him that the mountain man was his senior by five years. That should count for something, shouldn't it? Rafferty thought that it should.
The mountain man quietly made the corner where the logs interlocked. The night was growing blacker, he noticed, its fingers of gray light only visible now in the sky which let the even blacker forms of the trees and cabin silhouette against it. He dared to pop his head past the edge of the building in time to see the recognizable form of a hesitant bounty hunter who, as luck would have it, had the back of his head to him during that very minute shard of time.
Jerry wondered if the bounty hunter was scared to come any farther. From his angle near the base of the cabin's sill log, he could see the man standing and resting momentarily. The mountain man could not risk his being seen, especially with his foe's advantage of wearing the night vision goggles. If he could only draw Rafferty closer to the corner where a set of simmering coals waited, Johnson had a plan that just might turn the odds in his favor.
He needed to catch the man's attention somehow; cause him to come on a little farther so that he would be committed to his course. It was a slim possibility, but a pebble just might do the trick.
When Rafferty swung his robot head around to the left, his goggles easily picked up the glowing embers of one of those odd fires ahead, about three feet off the corner. For a brief fraction of a second, he could have sworn that he had seen a slight motion or movement at the dark corner. A branch, a leaf, or...? He knows he heard something, too. The hunter kept his eyes glued on the corner, for he was certain he had seen something, possibly an animal, but he was taking absolutely no chances.
Johnson had managed to move enough flora to catch the attention of a herd of Raffertys.
What was that, the bounty hunter wondered, catching movement with only peripheral vision.
A diversion? Or was it Johnson? Had the mountain man become so careless? Big Jim's very life teetered on the decision he was about to make.
Jerry dug his hand into his pocket, pulling out a good handful of a granulated mixture he had stashed for this very occasion.
Rafferty decided to investigate, feeling confident that he was able to handle whatever was about to transpire. He had the night vision. He had superior firepower. He was in good physical shape.
Morally, he was in the right.
Aiming his handful of surprise at the dwindling fire, the mountain man let go of the sugar, mixed with the silky strands of dried thistle down, able to flare up on contact with a mere spark.
Big Jim thought how grateful he was that none of the fires were flaming, for such a bright light would be as painfully blinding as the sun on unprotected eyes.
That very moment of prophetic thought seemed to be frozen in time for the man from Los Angeles. A swift movement of a whitish cloud, hopefully just dust in the wind, made him pause in wonder.
But there was no wind.
By the time it took for that fact to register in Rafferty's brain, the very next second found him in a terrifying flurry of motion as he scrambled to take off the very piece of equipment on which he had relied so heavily to aid him on this hunt.
The flame flared explosively. Wispy strands of thistle down were carried high by the flash, catching fire that extended the flames even higher.
With the howl of a banshee, he clawed at the technological wonder because the dust that had been thrown past the cabin corner was skillfully aimed for the fire, causing it to explode and flare into super-nova flames in contrast to the glowing coals only seconds before.
Jerry's skillful throw had been calculated beautifully. He rushed around the corner of the cabin as the bounty man fumbled with the headgear that now blinded him rather than assisted him in his current quest.
Rafferty heard the faint brushing sound of an oncoming body and tried to counter the expected contact with a defensive move of the M-16 in his right hand.
But he failed.
Slamming hard into the hunter, the buckskin bull caught him off-guard and unbalanced, forcing him to the ground. Surprisingly, Big Jim Rafferty kept his wind, knowing he had to locate Johnson's injured shoulder fast. It was his only chance to overtake the heavier man. Thankfully, he held onto his weapon.
But bright flame-formed demons danced their wicked impressions on the black matte of night, burned into his brain. He felt a rush of terror as the mountain man held him down.
Freeing his gun arm, he swung the semi-automatic downward in a vicious arc at his attacker.
Jerry anticipated the move and rolled clear, a hair's breadth away from being crowned. The force of the ineffective blow was parried away from the body as Rafferty did half a jumping jack on his back, hoping to connect steel with flesh or bone.
The Blackfoot could smell the city dweller as well as estimate the bounty man's location. Upwind, Rafferty was unmistakable. His odor was a distinctive mix of wintergreen tobacco, stale cologne, two-cycle exhaust, and unwashed sweat.
Johnson had swiftly rolled beyond the flailing bounty man's reach and scrambled around to let his good arm's elbow knife downward onto the bounty hunter's head, uniting with the forehead.
Somewhat affected by the bone-jarring jolt, Big Jim gained his footing as the mountain man attained his own, pressing the attack.
Jerry had to stay close and keep the ex-Marine busy so he could somehow try to disarm him.
Unfortunately, the bounty man freed his left hand and grabbed the black mane of hair, yanking Johnson's head up and executing a head-butt that connected with the mountain man's nose and lips, tapping a new well of blood.
Ghost Stalker had to risk letting go of the weapon-wielding arm to save him further pain and blood-loss. He simply could not afford to lose any more blood. When Jerry fell back, feigning being stunned from Rafferty's blow, he executed a flurry of kicks that lay the bounty hunter on his back.
And Rafferty lost his trusted firearm.
Incapacitating kicks were a Johnson family trademark. His ancestor and namesake, Jeremiah Johnson, had been noted for using mighty kicks to rapidly debilitate or unnerve an enemy sufficiently to dispatch him, often faster than might have been done otherwise. Several of his foes had been killed or knocked out with a single, well-placed kick. The Crow Killer had been so feared that it was only the unwary stranger who treaded too near the successful Indian killer. The Blackfeet and the Crow respected him as a fearless and awesome enemy, and many frontiersmen and pilgrims wisely gave the man known as Liver-Eatin' Johnson a wide berth.
Jerry felt that he could reach the weapon first, having seen the weapon's form cartwheel through the night sky. But he heard the rapid approach of a fleshy freight train as the chubby man, breathing heavier now, seemed intent on killing his opponent rather than taking him alive.
And why shouldn't he? After all, hadn't Johnson killed his son?
The mountain man braced himself for the imminent collision, protecting his bum shoulder.
Big Jim let a couple of quick karate kicks fly, surprising the bigger man who dodged and ducked them. He knocked the bigger man back but not down. This could be tougher than he had anticipated.
"I could just shoot you, you know," Jerry lied, trying to put some apprehension, some alarm, into his adversary.
Then why don't you, Rafferty asked himself. You don't have a gun anymore. Probably lost it somewhere. Keep talking, you fool. I'll find you and your messed up shoulder, and you will wish you never met me. And each second you delay, I can see more clearly. Just keep up the stupid talk, nature boy.
But Johnson was leading the bounty man on. Using psychological warfare, he made Rafferty's mind whirl in a fog of thoughts and questions. Did he have his gun or didn't he? Would he shoot or wouldn't he?
Then he rushed Rafferty, hoping his superior size and weight would bring down his enemy. And the wilderness dweller made the hunter fold and collapse.
But Big Jim was not ready to give up. Not just yet. He groped for the tender shoulder wound of the mountain man, who frantically grabbed for the other man's hands before they could render excruciating agony. Rafferty thwarted the buckskinner's efforts and joyfully squeezed the fugitive's wound.
Johnson gave out a roar of pain when the ex-Marine found his traumatized left deltoid. The familiar roar, more often heard in a playful vein, brought the two females cautiously but quickly out of the cabin.
Conscious of the women, Jerry yelled that they would find John over in the brush at the trailhead on the outer perimeter of the meadow. He also wanted them away from the conflict where Rafferty could grab one of them and use her as a shield or a hostage.
Big Jim's sight had almost recovered, but there were a few spots when he tried to see straight ahead. If he looked indirectly, or off-center, at his opponent, only then could he see the hulking silhouette of the mountain man. He figured now was the time to make his move.
Inching his way forward through the night, he felt his way with his feet, trying to find his lost weapon.
Hearing the sweeping, searching, rustling sounds of his enemy's feet, the Blackfoot knew Rafferty was trying to find his gun. He stepped towards the sounds, encountering the man with a sudden bump a little sooner than he had expected.
The bounty man's fist shot out, pegging the wounded shoulder once more.
Grimacing, Jerry winced but did not cry out, which would have given Rafferty knowledge where to land his next blow. Instead, Johnson backed up, wound up, and sprang a swinging leg around, aimed for the head of his persecutor, and successfully laid the bounty man out.
Stunned, Rafferty recovered and attacked like an enraged bull.
Side-stepping, Johnson swiftly brought his leg up, cracking his attacker across the face as he passed. The momentum of the blow straightened the bounty hunter, who reacted with a flurry of fists, jabbing and pounding the mountain man with a number of hard consecutive hits.
Ghost Stalker staggered backward as Big Jim pressed his assault. The bounty hunter was relentless with his driving onslaught and Johnson felt the man's rage in his blows.
But Jerry had been attacked by others in darker conditions and had prevailed. He gave Rafferty an upper cut that connected the man's jaw with a force far greater than that which had broken a cop's jaw back in Jackson, and the man only stumbled a few steps in reverse. Then Jerry stepped forward and punched forward, half-kneeling, sending his fist into Rafferty's solar plexus, doubling him in half.
Big Jim knew he could not turn and run. Where would he go? The area was unfamiliar to him. He had to fight. And he somehow knew he was losing, just like their original encounter back in that Saigon alley. He had to get the upper hand before the women returned with the man he had put out of commission earlier. Jim had to defeat the mountain man soon, but his stomach knotted up terribly now as he was knocked down, landing hard on top of a sturdy branch upon which he let his hand rest. If his enemy came closer, he would then have a weapon.
Karen and Sara groped gently in the dark near the trailhead and found their unconscious friend was thankfully still with the living. They assessed the head wound, found that it had clotted well, and prayed that it was the only wound. A nearby snowmelt pool provided cool stimulation, soothing the Crow's forehead, neck, and face. Stimulated by the water's coolness, he came to slowly, softly groaning from the sharp pains pounding in his head.
Fearing a concussion, Sara directed her patient to lie still. John asked about Jerry and the women filled him in on the events that had transpired since he was knocked out before the fray. They were all momentarily silenced as they overheard the sounds of the scuffle in the far-off blackness. Meanwhile, Sara and Karen comforted the suffering tracker, but they could not soothe his concern for his injured friend who battled their foe.
Jeremiah didn't want to kill the bounty hunter but he couldn't think of a reason to let him live. To let the man live would mean a man out there somewhere would some day want revenge. If Rafferty was left alive, he could tell lies about the death of his son, fabricating a great story that could bring every FBI agent, policeman, and game hunter in the surrounding country down upon the wanted mountain man and his friends.
And others would surely come. Others who would hunt them like this one had. And others could possibly succeed where this one had failed.
Johnson knew what his decision had to be. Not because he wanted to, but because he had to. If his foe had the upper hand, he would surely kill the mountain man, Jerry knew. It would be self-defense, because as far as he knew, Rafferty was trying to kill him. But, who would believe a fugitive?
He knew he had to be victorious. Others needed his protection. The half-breed had to muster the instincts he had nurtured in Southeast Asia and remove this threat to life and freedom.
Johnson moved in on the bounty hunter.
Sensing the approach of the big man, Big Jim steeled himself to spring when the time was right. Swinging the wooden weapon with sharp protrusions where other limbs were once located, he yelled in one great breath, focusing his entire power on the stroke.
Ghost Stalker sensed and heard the coming threat, the whirring noise of the various rough, exposed edges, the whoosh of the air before its mass, and the grunting exertion of the overweight ex-Marine who roared the coming attack. Flattening, Jerry kissed the ground and rolled away unharmed. He did, however, feel the air currents off the branch's passing. Fortunately, it didn't connect with his person.
Rising, Johnson pulled his massive Bowie.
Shifting it to his right hand, he re-entered the fight with a new fervor, thrusting and slicing before him with deadly intent. The very nature of his stance and the reason to pull a knife for fighting carried his memory back nearly fifteen years to a war setting, where the circumstances of death were a necessity to survive. One movement met with resistance and a grunt. Rafferty felt the stinging bite of steel and renewed his concentration of swings to his taller adversary's head.
A glancing impact jarred the big Blackfoot's attention back to his present dilemma. Ducking, Jerry forced his hip into his opponent as the heavy bounty man swung a savage but ineffective blow for a hopeful end that never materialized for the ex-Marine. However, the blow boomeranged when the bounty hunter swung the dangerously sharp limb back for a swift back- swing.
Trained and experienced in close knife-fighting, Johnson expertly side-stepped the expected backslash and countered with an extended jab and up-thrust. It was a move he had trained for extensively with a well-placed knife blade that easily entered Big Jim's vitals, ripping organs with its massive blade as the mountain man pulled it powerfully upward. The knife lodged finally in the left ventricle of the once-successful professional hunter of bounties who now lay dying from a fatal wound through which blood emptied rapidly.
Rafferty felt no pain, not like he thought he would when severely wounded or at death. Moving one hand onto the knife's handle, his mouth opened without a sound, blood gagging him as it spilled out of his face. Trying to rise, the bounty hunter's working hand dropped and he looked down to see the life-draining flood that once coursed through his arteries.
Then Big Jim's knees buckled.
Jerry looked down into the dying man's eyes as their light faded, and he let the bounty man fall off his blade, letting it slide out along the sternum. Wiping it off on his buckskins, the mountain man sheathed it.
Staggering from weariness, Johnson mustered the strength to head towards his friends who were huddled in the darkness near the trailhead. Wary of his own traps and snares, the victor called out, "Karen! Sara!"
The one he called his Pretty Lady carefully approached him in the inky cloak of the night and took him in her arms, her familiar sage fragrance as welcome to his senses as anything else he had ever felt. She led him to where John lay and they all carried the Crow to the cabin where all could rest comfortably, taking advantage of both the light and warmth from the fireplace.
John and Jerry were treated with willow bark tea and plantain poultices. The men drifted into unconsciousness born from exhaustion.
Karen lay next to Jerry and covered them both with blankets. Then she, too, was soon in slumber.
Sara kept her vigil over John and tended the fire for a long while before she succumbed to the nods, fatigue claiming her before the sun's rays entered the cabin's one easterly opening.
Mornings may be a new, fresh beginning for those who view it as such. Others might think it is the dawn of more serious, escalating problems.
Not to Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle. He knew the future could hold nothing but a promising and encouraging outlook. He was a man who had learned from his mistakes on this adventure, and he relished the opportunity to employ new ideas and theories.
Jerry and the women buried the bodies as soon as they could muster the strength. Starting to give off the stink of decay, they would attract scavengers. The younger Rafferty could no longer be recognized. Letting them be devoured by the carrion eaters would have been fine in 1883, but not 1984 when technology has the ability to identify, analyze, and convict on so little.
John was ready to leave in two days. All were eager to leave this incredibly beautiful place that was no longer safe.
Jerry just wanted off the mountain. It was heavy on his heart to consider that death helped to start new life or possibly even sustained it. But that was the way of the wilderness. He accepted that. And he was certain John did, too. He only hoped that the women accepted it more readily now.
It was a safe bet that Karen may have never been around such violent deaths. Her family had been killed in an auto accident, but, except for identification, bodies are usually never viewed by a relative in today's society until made up, embalmed, and in a casket.
She had noticed that this had been entirely different. Death becomes part of life in the wild, as when one must take an animal for meat.
Or protects himself from those who would take freedom away.
There is always new life somewhere in mountain wilderness. John Muir and Bob Marshall found it. Grandfather knew it well, for Indians worshipped it.
If Karen discovered it, they might make it.
The Watcher slyly moved about the Henry mountains with his eyes keenly aware of the proximity of the men and their females, who frequented his favorite waterholes and feeding areas. He was one who kept his family safely away from these others who seemed to be almost anywhere at any time he wanted to be in the same place. And he just couldn't understand why these newcomers were always around, looking at the ground, climbing the rocks, watching and waiting for him and his family to show up and then scurry about as if to dare and try to capture him.
Were they hungry? Were they trying to kill him?
Fearing for his life and the lives of his companions, the Watcher somehow felt that he didn't have anything to fear from these individuals.
The men often carried no weapons other than what they wore on their hips and they never pulled them in a threatening manner. Men with fire sticks usually used them. They had done so many times in the past on his family.
Noticing that these men liked to work with wood, the Watcher investigated their handiwork when they were gone. Thick aspen rails were set with dove-tail notches at least seven feet high into heavy fir posts that reduced the opening of the narrow, dead-end canyon.
How he had come to hate that place! He vowed to never get caught in such a trap, so he rarely entered that attractive meadow unless he just happened to find himself near it on his daily patrols.
Often running for miles, he roamed his domain, looking for new sources of food and water. His hair would whip the back of his neck as he ran, making him feel wonderfully free. The Watcher would occasionally leave his family on a high plateau that had excellent feed and water while he hunted and explored.
From the high country of the Henrys, he could see the myriad of canyons and plateaus that lay all over the canyon floor, his first home. Frivolous forays into that monstrous maze were a danger because less food and water were found there and predators could easily trap and kill one of his brood in one of the dead-ends. That was why he preferred the wide open spaces of the lofty grass-filled meadows of the Henrys during the summer and the snowless months.
Once, when he was making one of his daily runs, the Watcher saw something that stopped him short. He was trotting down a trail on a tricky precipice when he saw one of the men enjoying a bath in a creek that lay below a waterfall. As he spied upon the man, he saw a naked woman, the one with the long, blonde hair, step out of the scrub oak and willows to enter knee-deep water. She shrieked at its coldness, but remained and joined in a lasting embrace with her man.
Suddenly separating, the man looked up to see the spy standing there and pointed him out to the woman. They stared at each other till the onlooker shook his head and laughed.
Then he turned and ran.
Their mysterious customs always seemed to intrigue him. He tried to spy on them without their knowing, which was normally a difficult thing to do when the men were around. He had better luck when it was just the women, because both men seemed to know when he was nearby and he couldn't figure out how they did that.
Many times he'd watch from the trees as one of the couples would play in the meadows, running and laughing in their soft, lyrical way, holding each other in close embraces, muzzle to muzzle. It amazed him that they would do that even while rolling on the ground, one on top of the other. It didn't seem to make a difference which one was on top, either. That just didn't make sense to him.
But then, they were quite strange.
They certainly appeared to love each other, though. The different sexes were devoted to only one mate, he'd noted, like wolves or geese. He liked his way better, having several wives, the pride of his life, to be rich in his ability to provide for them and his offspring.
Remembering back to the time when he first discovered them, he recalled how he had scared them all that quiet night when he slowly, quietly, approached their dwindling campfire. They didn't have that odd tree building then; they were sleeping on the ground. The Watcher often wondered, why would anyone want to shut out the world?
All of a sudden, the biggest one rolled over with weapon in hand, rising with a shout. It startled him so that he jumped and ran away while the four stared in awe and excitement. He recalled how surprised and curious he'd been, too.
The Watcher had many memories of people who had come and gone, staying only for a few days or weeks. Backpackers, hunters, even killers of his band had all seen him and his loved ones.
Fond recollections of exciting scents from these people had brought him to venture near this particular quartet many times. The Watcher found that he strangely liked being around them, but he couldn't bring his family closer until he was certain that his trust would never be betrayed. Lately, he'd had gone as far as to allow them to feed him the sweet alpine grasses from their hands and to scratch his nose gently while they spoke soft, soothing sounds, lulling him into a quick confidence.
Then the day arrived when he saw the men out alone and the magnificent stallion had the unfortunate occurrence to have his entire family with him. Wisely, the watcher decided not to heed the men's song-like calls.
In the past, other men had hunted his mother, his father, and his aunts and uncles, to be killed or captured and trucked away, never to be seen again. But he had been too smart for the men. That had been a terrible time for him, a young two-year-old who had to leave his home for another place. Gathering friends along the way, others like himself, he hoped to live unfettered by the confines of a society that wanted his kind enslaved.
To his way of thinking, these men could very well be just like the others, only seeming gentler in their approach. Wary, he had exercised utmost caution. He was truly scared of them but, at the same time, he felt an unexplainable draw toward them.
When he came down from his normal lookout perch one gentle rainy day, his curiosity got the better of him and he went to the forbidden box canyon, thinking that those men had better things to do than to be out here in the rain. His usual concern became horribly real to him when, passing daringly through the man-made opening, he heard the sounds of wood rails sliding behind him, cutting off any escape.
The Watcher's fury was unleashed at the hindrance to his freedom, kicking and fighting at its strong resistance. Great chunks and chips of the aspen logs gave way to his mighty hooves, but the fifteen-hand stud couldn't make them submit to his wild will.
Calming some, he finally noticed that the two men's faces appeared over the top rail. In a fierce rage, he reared and attacked, causing the pair to back off the strong prison's rails that would surely be destroyed had he kept up his violent barrage of kicks.
Soon the two females showed their attractive faces over the top rail, but this time he didn't react as he had before. He couldn't reason why, only that they didn't seem to mean him any harm.
The larger of the men spoke to the women, "You two seem to have a calming effect on him. Do you think you could break him to be ridden?"
"I've never trained an animal in my life," the blonde said flatly, "and I'm frankly not too thrilled at the prospect, having seen what's left of these aspen rails."
"And I have only seen it done by the men on the reservation," the raven-haired one confessed. Then she voiced a question, "Why don't you guys do it?"
"We just think he'd respond better to one of you, is all," Johnson explained, looking at Calder for confirmation.
"Yeah," John started, catching onto Jerry's line of reasoning, "he was noticeably calmer around you two than with us. It just makes sense, ya know?"
"I guess so," Karen responded, seeing their point of view. Then she realized the advantages of having a horse in this wild country and asked the men, "Just how would we go about breaking him to ride?"
John, raised on the Crow reservation, jumped in, "My uncle was the best horse tamer in the whole territory. People would come from other states to buy the mustangs he broke. He would start out by staying near the animal, even camping by the corral, wherever the horse was, and talking to it all the time in soft tones, as if talking to his woman during a courtship. He hasn't talked to his own wife that way since then, you see, but...." He initiated the rolling of a couple sets of female eyes at that remark.
Then he continued, "...anyway, once he could approach the horse, he let it smell him, ready in case it tried to bite him. Then he rubs the muzzle, gently blowing in its nostrils, and runs his hand over the coat, checking for possible sores, especially where a rider sits." Calder demonstrated the approximate movement and location on the animal as he explained the process.
"Once he's satisfied, he then tries to place a rope made with a soft, braided material over the muzzle for greater control, and once that is on, he leads the horse around, sometimes walking around the animal to see if it likes to kick or not."
John wondered if they were getting bored, but their intense interest told him they were really getting into the subject. Smiling, he felt pretty good about being the teacher and he was busting with pride.
"The next step can tell you whether the horse is starting to truly trust the trainer, when you try to put some gentle weight on his back. Some horses buck like crazy, others just a little. Then there are those that trust you totally and never give an indication," then his face changed drastically, falling, when he added, "till you get on." He stopped, waiting for a reaction from either of the two females.
Sara bit, "Then what?"
"Then the horse will try to separate your head from your neck, your arm from its socket, and your backside from theirs."
Karen just nodded, her twisted mouth the indicator that this was best left to a complete idiot. That's when she turned toward Jerry, blinked that blank look on her face that told him he was the great, big strong man who could do it. At least, she hoped.
Somewhat ignorant of manipulative behavior, he gave in. Seeing that look of what he thought was a lack of grasping what he was trying to say, he melted. Or was it just a gender-based wisdom? Johnson wasn't quite sure what it was he saw in those eyes.
Okay, he knew he was going to be the one who would do it right from the start. It was the kind of feeling a man got in his gut that told him, when he fell in love with a woman, he'd do the things that she couldn't do. He'd be the guinea pig, the laboratory rat, the fool, if anyone was keeping track or writing a book. And he hoped nobody was.
Jerry tamed the wild horse band leader that spring, but not without a few bruises. He and Karen rode the wild pinto stallion together, happy with the mobility and the luck at being able to have this wonderful animal.
Karen put her arms around his waist and held him close, enjoying the fragrance of his smoky buckskins and the alpine air in her nose. She felt wonderful, better than she had in years passed, and she felt like she could go on like this forever. Sharing, loving, and living...free.
John and Sara were also able to capture and gentle one of the horses, a mare from the harem of the spotted leader and they, too, reveled in their relationship to both the animal and each other.
The four were happily enjoying their lives. But deep down inside each mind, there lurked a question of how long that would last. Not because of their feelings for one another, but because someone somewhere, sometime would eventually find them, report them, and try to stop them from living as they wished.
The operative word here is try.
Hunting is a necessity for most wilderness dwellers who like to eat. That is just the plain and simple truth about the lifestyle. For the strength that only protein can give, an animal had to be killed and the meat had to be harvested in order to survive. Fat, too, was a requirement to ward off the chill of high country nights and winds. That was why one or two fall black bears would be needed to carry the mountain man and his friends through the coming winter. They would be able to store the fat in either the intestines or the stomach.
Although half-white, Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle was dark as his friend, John Calder, a full-blooded reservation Crow who had been raised in many of the old ways like his Blackfoot compadre. The high country wind and sun tanned him darkly. He'd never experienced severe sunburn.
The mountain man signaled his friend who was on a nearby slope. A bear was walking below his position, unseen by the Crow known as Tall Bear.
Time and the wind were on their side for they were extremely skilled stalkers and trackers. So skilled was Johnson that the Utes called him, Ghost Stalker, a name of honor bestowed upon him after not hearing him pass near them on a successful game hunt.
Together, he and the Crow had left the FBI red-faced north of the High Uintahs in Utah where they were hunted the summer of 1983 for an Amtrak holdup that turned out to be quite a strange story of a volunteer kidnapping.
Tall Bear was quite adept at the primitive skill, having learned at an early age. He perpetuated his craft by hunting deer, the wariest of animals, and tracking criminals over the years, which is how he met Johnson. He'd tracked the mountain man back in Wyoming, up in Jackson Hole country, where they teamed up rather than let the white man turn them against each other.
Jerry had seen in John confusion about who he was. Like himself, John had wanted a different life than what white society offered. And ever since, their partnership grew into a solid friendship. Now they were closer than blood brothers.
Presently, Calder stalked the two-year-old bruin and took it with one well-placed arrow from his home-made bow. They hunted now like an alpha and beta wolf pair, a very deadly combination in the wild. They scanned the horizon and smelled the wind for the tell-tale scent of game: dust in the air, fresh dung, or the distinctive odors of certain species.
Within sight of each other, they communicated with hand signals. Out of sight, they used animal calls. Evening calls of crows indicated water. Informative sounds of an owl with prey let the other know game was within sight or obtained. Yipping barks of the coyote told of a successful hunt. The honking of a goose indicated danger. The howl of the wolf, extinct in this area, gave away their position to each other.
It was the honking goose Jerry heard as he negotiated his way toward his friend's kill. The buckskinned hunter stopped and peered over a large boulder to see two armed men who heading almost straight for him about a hundred yards distant.
Johnson yelled downwind from behind the large rock, hoping to give his friend the chance to flank the men while he kept them busy, if their intentions were less than honorable. "That's about far enough, boys!" he bellowed, causing the startled men to look to his left, scanning the land for the origin of the voice. He made himself partially visible, stepping half-way from behind the boulder, his Winchester 30-30 trapper model cocked and ready for any shenanigans. Meanwhile, the Crow silently cut off the two's rear escape route.
Approaching, the hunters' mouths fell open almost simultaneously, showing not only their surprise at the giant mountain man, but also their amazement that a solitary hunter would arrogantly challenge a greater number.
"And just who the hell are you?" one of the hunters in an orange vest demanded as they closed confidently on the big man, their weapons ready.
"Another hunter, pilgrim, kinda like yourself," Jerry stated simply. "You two interrupted my stalk on a buck." He lied to see their reaction. Normally, polite hunters would apologize for disturbing another's shot.
But not these yay-hoos.
The older, larger man in an orange vest spoke his mind. "You're not even supposed to be up here, boy," he arrogantly informed the Johnson.
"Last I checked, this is government land, and now you are telling me that you are the self-imposed caretakers?" Jerry stated without expression.
The men drew closer, and at about twenty-five yards, Jerry leveled his rifle. "Now that's 'bout far enough, gents," Jerry menaced.
"As a matter of fact, boy," the mouthy one continued, "we do belong here. This county belongs to the Prophet and you're trespassing."
"The 'What'?" Johnson asked with an animated, screwed-up face, a mixture of true wonder and disbelief. His knowledge of Biblical history was rather extensive, and there had been no prophets since John wrote the book of Revelation. At least, none that passed Biblical standards of being a true prophet.
His aim never wavered, something both men seemed to note with much disappointment.
"The Prophet," he repeated impatiently, as if Jerry was stupid for not knowing, especially if he lived nearby, "is our guide to God and what he says goes as gospel law here."
"Sometimes ignorance is truly bliss," the mountain man replied sarcastically. "Last I heard, the USGS maps still consider this Federal land, which means, for you who don't know any better, that the United States refutes your claim, or the Prophet's claim, whichever the case may be."
"I'll give you fair warning, boy," the prodder continued, "move on or you will be removed." He lifted his weapon to threaten Johnson, but it was shot out of his hand by John.
"I don't think so," John said, ejecting and chambering another round as he stepped from behind a stand of aspen, his weapon aimed at the other man.
The intruders understandably lost their motivation to try any further to take the upper hand on the situation. A mountain man was certainly one thing, and now an Indian, especially one who could shoot as well as this one, added another dimension to the dilemma. As they carefully backed off, they vowed to return with others, the law if necessary, to remove them.
"If the law breaks the law, then there is no law!" Jerry bellowed so the men were sure to hear. "You'll find your threat a very difficult task to carry out, pilgrim!" Johnson backed away, disappearing like a buckskin ghost.
The men turned back only to look at empty space, for Ghost Stalker had truly vanished, as if he had been an ancient apparition or a dream.
A very bad dream.
They hoped that when they returned, someone else would take the lead and face these nightmares in buckskin. Neither of them wanted to do that again if they could avoid it. But they were sure they'd have to report these two fools to the Prophet. Probably just two Salt Lake yuppies out playing "Indian" for the week-end or something.
Now they had to convince others and persuade them of the odd truth about what had transpired. Sometimes ignorance wasn't bliss. The two orange vested hunters would eventually find out that this was one of those times, for had these two known who they were dealing with, they would have apologized profusely for their transgression and their ignorance. Not necessarily in that order.
John followed the men for a couple miles to make sure they kept going. They never even stopped to reconsider their decision. Wise choice.
Soon dressed and quartered, the bear was easily carried by two men. Jerry shouldered the two hindquarters. After all, he could. At six foot, six inches, and two hundred and seventy pounds of corded muscle, he could do this kind of work longer than most men.
Arriving at the cabin, their second in as many years, the men were greeted by the women, Karen and Sara, both happy on the safe return of their men. Telling the ladies about the odd confrontation they'd had, their resulting concern was grim, considering their past with bounty hunters finding them once before.
Their concern was justified, for the bounty hunters were abusive and were trying to arrest them all for the incident concerning the Amtrak train in Wyoming over a year ago. Jerry was instrumental in stopping them, injuring one whose heart was not in his work and killing the remaining two. The hunters had been paid professionals who had been contracted by an unknown FBI agent to do the government's dirty work.
Now a similar problem was rearing its ugly head. Bounty hunters were one thing, and maybe even the law, but some crazy cult leader? Bad thing about cults was that the brain-dead idiots that followed them were usually willing to become martyrs much too eagerly, zealously doing their leader's bidding.
A tear falling in frustration, Karen expressed her feelings, and she was none too happy about it. "Is somebody always going try to uproot us, fight us, be against us?" she pleaded. Hanging her head, her long blonde hair hid her lovely, model-like face, tired of the running and of what she perceived to be persecution.
"Probably," Jerry answered honestly. "Since we're considered fugitives, the law will certainly have an eye open for any of us. Other than that, I can't rightly say, pretty one. But one thing is for sure," he said, pausing for effect, "and that is: our freedom is definitely worth preserving, isn't it?" He allowed that question to sink into her mind before he continued. "And isn't a way of life worth defending? Because, if it isn't, then it's time for you to re-evaluate the reason why you're even here."
Karen raised her head to look up into his intense gray eyes. Tears of fear and frustration streamed down her face, for her prior yuppie lifestyle hadn't prepared her for the constant barrage of threats against her freedom or her life. "Do you question my love for you?" Her emotions were on edge.
"That's not the question, Karen," he replied, wrapping her in arms the size of most men's thighs. He knew she was angry and it was not a time to talk down to her. She now needed loving support, reassurance, and the understanding that everything was going to be just fine.
"Oh, Jerry, I'm just so confused right now," Karen admitted, her chin on his barrel chest. "It's just so scary to have to defend your life at every turn. It's a big difference from being buffered from problems in a big city like San Francisco." Closing her eyes momentarily, she took a deep breath and sighed, dropping her head again.
Her thoughts carried her back to the time in a not so distant past when she was living a vastly unrelated lifestyle, one of marriage, employment, and a home, and the security they all gave to a woman. She had been so certain of what she wanted out of life, because it was what she had attained. Karen had been extremely happy. But, it's rather surprising how the death of a spouse can set the stage for a new life.
Wiping her tears away, she sat on a nearby rock in the warm sunlight. Unmarried, unemployed, and uncertain about her future, she wondered what would happen to her now. She was still new to this life and she wasn't used to its harshness. Or its people. She supposed that evil was everywhere, not just in the big cities, and she reasoned that some people just had to deal with it.
However, Jerry did make her feel safe. But not secure in the way a twentieth century woman is accustomed to feeling. She wondered if it had to do with not knowing him as well as she had known Rob before they were married. On the other hand, she had never felt this safe with her husband. Rob just hadn't been a "protector". The security he had offered came from financial worth and possessions that made her feel, well, content.
Well, these considerations would just have to wait, for the time being. There was meat to jerk, so Karen decided to sleep on her thoughts. The four attacked the carcass with a new zeal, boning and cutting the meat in quarter-inch thick strips for drying.
Plates of thick, juicy steaks were prepared for the night's repast, and they all ate huge portions, garnished with wild onions and fresh, crisp thistle stalks. Sparkling cold spring water satisfied thirsts, although pine needle tea and diverse other herbals were a welcome variety for drinks. In season, berries provided wonderful juices, such as blackberry, blueberry, chokecherry, and wild plums. Sometimes, apples or pears from an abandoned homestead were a delightful change. Once, late in the previous fall, they found some very ripe apples that were almost vinegary, so they mashed the large crop till they had a sweet juice that had a nip to it, a tinge of cider that was almost a natural wine.
That night, Jerry and Karen slept outside, discussing intimate concerns and their future until both sets of eyes were heavy. Their small talk lulled each other into drowsiness, helped by full stomachs, Jerry the last to a blissful slumber.
Subsequent days seemed to repeat the last, only without the odd interruption to the men's hunt. John and Jerry had skillfully taken a young mail antelope. They would have preferred an older female with possibly more fat, but this one would yield some lean, tender dishes. Besides, game was getting scarcer. One often ate what one could catch.
Jerry's fear of having to move again soon was also because the game was not as prolific as it should be to sustain them for a longer period. Certainly he didn't have any concerns about two rude hunters, but one just never knew about such things. The one man had threatened them seriously, and that did bother the mountain man some.
But, he'd handled worse problems. Much worse.
But suddenly something nagged him, pulling him toward the cabin like he'd never felt before. Something was wrong. Ignoring the feeling, Johnson shrugged it off for more pressing concerns.
It disturbed Jerry that he was not getting any younger. He was hankering a bit now for things like a wife and kid. Someone to share his life, fulfill it, leave a legacy behind, as it were. He would never have admitted it a couple years ago, but then he never had known a woman quite like Karen.
Aah, phooey, I got other things to do now, he reasoned. Game needs to be butchered.
Gutting the animal, the men, being ones who were raised in the Old Ways, saved the intestines for sausage and the stomach and bladder for water bags. They skinned the bruin and wrapped the meat and brains in the hide. At a brisk pace they trotted for the cabin, hidden in a remote stretch of the unusually obscure Henry Range of southern Utah.
Being strong mountain-dwellers, they loved the honest toil, the effort it took merely to survive. And, they loved being able to wander in air so clean it almost hurt lungs used to smog.
Occasionally, foot races were run to see if one could out-run or out-wit his companion. Normally, John would win. His smaller size was a great advantage for better speed and maneuvering. But Jerry was the usual winner in a flatland, side-by-side competition. His superior power was hard to beat.
Approaching the field where their log dwelling was located among dense pines, each detected a horrible premonition, that sick feeling that something was grossly wrong. Looking at each other for a brief second before going full tilt for the cabin, they approached with usual caution. They noticed no life or sounds of the women's usual chatter or daily routines from the cabin's interior.
Unknown but oddly familiar tracks were all around, for some of the prints that saturated the area were those of the same hunters who had confronted them the previous day. Other men, however, had accompanied them this time, and they had used four-wheeled ATVs. Dread overtook them when they saw Karen's moccasin prints disappear with the other tracks, except for the ominous tire tread trail.
Certain now that nobody, and no bodies, were left outside, they neared the cabin's opening and called out for their loved ones for the silent verification they did not long to hear.
No answers came back. Total silence, except the chirping of the birds and the whistle of a marmot on the nearby slope, met their ears.
Laying aside their loads, they carefully checked the ajar door in case of a trap. Jerry detected the coppery scent of blood, mingled with the smoke of the dying fire. Just inside the door, Sara lay in a lake of her own life's fluid, the result of a knife across her throat.
Although he tried, Jerry failed to stop the Crow from seeing the carnage. The Blackfoot feared the man would take off in a blind rage on the simple trail that would lead him to find the killers of his woman.
Instead, John Calder surprisingly sat by his dead lover and prayed for her spirit to walk with their ancestors.
His massive friend listened intently, respectfully, for he did not believe the same way; he professed to be a Christian. Not just a generic "American" which would imply a basic Christian consciousness, but a true, professed believer in Jesus Christ as the risen Son of God and the ideals He taught. Jerry was not ashamed of that. What embarrassed him was his inability to live his life more akin to Christ's.
Calder began to prepare Sara's body for burial, wrapping her in a blanket. A large bonfire was built and he sent his sweet Running Flower on her spirit journey, watching the flames and the smoke for what seemed like endless hours, though only minutes, when so much had to be done. A suspended burial would have eventually been found and a grave could be dug up.
Karen was gone, too. Jerry didn't know if she was alive or gone under. He knew now what he had to do. Soon.
But, instead, he watched his friend. Sure, his heart ached for his missing sweetheart, but he wanted, no, he needed to show his love and respect for his friend and the Ute woman.
John then helped Jerry make preparations to leave. They each understood those needs without discussion.
Still, despite his calm exterior and amazing disciplined behavior, Tall Bear seethed. His anger simmered as he spoke words with control and great determination, his visage, the embodiment of savage Absaroka fury, ready for the path of war.
Though barely audible to any but another mountain dweller, the words came.
Jerry nodded. He understood. Actually, he understood fully. He wasn't going to argue or dissuade his friend, for he saw it as futile, a fruitless venture.
And he agreed. God knew he hated to kill, but sometimes the situation demanded it.
Mountain people took care of their own pests; stomped their own snakes. Always did. Always will. Whoever the perpetrators were, they were condemned, with no last minute reprieve from a liberal, bleeding heart governor.
And these two were just the men to do the job that needed done.
One man on a vengeance trail, the other trying to recover his loved one. No matter the excuse or intent, death was the inevitable conclusion. The only way it could end.
The tracks could no longer wait. They knew their mission now. John still took the time to sit and carefully paint his face for the inevitable battle.
The four wheeler trail was a breeze to track. The culprits were apparently unafraid of followers or reprisal. The path of the killers led the two trackers only twenty miles from their cabin to a run-down ranch, which looked more like a small compound, a small amount of concertina wire combined with the traditional barbed wire around its perimeter. A minor nuisance, the wire was easily breached with only minor cuts resulting.
Once inside, they found tracks combined with new ones, which were scrutinized by the two mountain dwellers.
But Karen's were not found among them.
Since night was nearly upon them, the descendants of warriors past drank water and ate jerky calmly under the cloak of darkness while watching the activity in the yard of the ranch under two large mercury lights. Then they began to prowl about the shadows of the out-buildings which were not guarded as they had expected.
Each Indian hunter carried his preferred firearm and a blade. They had left their canteens and small packs cached outside the fence so they could have less restrictions for more freedom of movement.
Of course, they wore their buckskins, but truth was, they needed little else. Each man could survive with just the clothes on his back as well as hunt and trap with few resources.
But now they were prepared for a more sinister task. John steeled himself for what was about to take place, for never before had he been in such a life-or-death struggle. Jerry, on the other hand, blackened his face and his mind as he had in Vietnam for an assassination.
And they prayed, together this time.
Set to search and destroy, and, if it was truly necessary, they were ready for death. Their own, if it came down to it. They'd decided that they weren't coming home empty-handed, unless Karen were to be killed, then fighting to the death might be a moot point.
Ghost Stalker and the Tall Bear were on the warpath.
On the whole, Jerry was quite optimistic. He should be. Most people weren't ready to fight his kind of war. His tactics, though not totally Indian, were entirely guerrilla in scope. On his own terms, he loved to take the fight to the enemy.
And if anyone could have seen either man in those full buckskins and darkly painted faces, especially a man of Jeremiah Johnson-Eagle's stature, they would be held in abject awe at his size, his audacity, and then his ferocity, if it was ever displayed.
On those remote occasions, their adversaries often became indignant, vocally proclaiming their disbelief that he would do anything to them. Why, the law, the government, will protect them! They had rights!
From Ghost Stalker's viewpoint, they indeed had rights. The right to remain silent.
Jerry mused back over his memory on an incident that occurred in a town they passed through on their way to their new home. A group of teens had dared to taunt him on his choice of clothing. Jerry calmly walked over and, with one arm, lifted the largest off his feet by one foot, and muttered, "It's not as funny as you once thought, now is it, punk?" Naturally, the kid yelled bloody murder, bringing several adults on the run, one of which was the boy's father.
Why is it that the bullies of the world scream the loudest when properly disciplined?
"Who the devil do you think you are? Put my boy down!" a man demanded of the giant in buckskins. Being the dutiful citizen that he is, and not wanting to attract any more attention, Johnson complied.
The boy landed roughly on his head.
The Blackfoot, however, just turned and walked away.
The demanding man, a local store-owner, tried to get in the mountain man's face, or, rather, his chest, and rail, hollering about this and that, nothing Jerry was particularly interested in, really. Well, he just didn't want to get into a fracas where the law had a reason to take after him again. And if he ignored the man long enough, the storeowner would surely return to whatever was more important than what he was presently doing, Jerry supposed.
That moment was not long in coming, for the stubby-legged proprietor could not keep up with the quartet without running. And besides, his friends were not interested in risking themselves over such a brat against such a monster as could lift a teenage boy with one arm. It just made perfect sense.
But now his attention was on an open barnyard and a couple of dogs that played in the center of the circled end of the dirt driveway.
Carefully going to the rear of the lit-up house, John saw its occupants moving around, unaware of the potential danger lurking outside. Jerry, on the other hand, got the attention of the larger dog with repeated sounds of a hurt rabbit. repeated to hold the canine's interest.
The other dog, meanwhile, heard unfamiliar sounds and commotion at the rear of the house and ran to investigate. The Crow had lured it to a silent doggie death.
Pouncing on the larger dog, the mountain man killed it rapidly, but not without a cry of pain coming from the animal's throat. That shortened yip of distress didn't go unnoticed and brought a man to the porch from the building.
"King? Here, King! Here, boy!" He stopped to listen, then yelled, "King! King! Where are you, boy! C'mon, boy, c'mere!"
During all the hollering, John took the opportunity of the diversion to silently enter a rear opening. The man on the porch re-entered the screen door, giving up on the dog, but couldn't take another step for fear of his life.
A wildly-painted Crow warrior had a Winchester leveled on the dog-caller's chest. Momentarily hesitating, the man looked for a weapon, but thought better of it. It was at that moment Jerry used his huge Bowie to cut the phone line at the side of the nicely styled, log-constructed ranch house.
"What was that?" the man asked, trying to get the fierce Indian to be distracted or worried. But, to no avail, it was an ineffective ruse.
Then the mountain man entered the door behind King's owner who Johnson recognized as one of the hunters that had threatened them the other day. Jerry quickly placed his Bowie's deadly edge to the man's throat as he heard footsteps come down the stairs and the hall to where they were.
"Honey, I thought you tol-"
The woman's message broke mid-sentence when she looked up from her walk startled and saw the huge Blackfoot with a knife to her husband's throat. John had side-stepped into a darkened doorway and came out behind the elderly-looking middle-aged woman.
"Sit down, woman," Jerry ordered with a no nonsense look on his face.
She obeyed, looking back at the frightening face of Calder who she sensed.
"Move over and sit with your woman, mister," the buckskinned giant demanded, his Bowie in the small of the man's back as the impetus to convince him to comply.
The man scowled hatefully. If he could have done anything, he would have, but he hadn't heard or seen anything in time to react. And he was simply outclassed. He was certainly no fool to resist these two.
Jerry could tell John was itching to kill them, but information was more important. Killing could always be done later. It was time to be patient.
Then Jerry spoke again, "The four wheeler tracks led straight back to your place, mister. Now where's the blonde-haired woman you and your friends kidnapped?" His face showed no emotion despite his desire to possibly kill, too.
"If I told you, they'd kill me," the man replied honestly, now showing true fear. He was an older man, maybe fifty-five or sixty years of age, and his wife looked over at her husband with questions in her eyes, confused, possibly shocked at the accusation.
"Bud, what in Heav-" she started.
"Shut-up, Emma," he snapped. "You know the Prophet's laws come first."
"Yes, but, I never thought...," she dropped her head in shameful disbelief that her man had been involved in the evil man's plans, schemes she secretly detested, even hated with all her heart.
"Nothing happened that the Prophet didn't authorize," the old man told her with a hint of justification in his voice.
"Murder was authorized by him?" John spat vehemently. He walked over and got down into the face of the stubborn fool and placed his knife at the man's middle-aged gut. "Then, an eye for an eye seems about right to me!" He sliced the man's shirt open as deftly as he would whittle a strip of wood off a stick. Blood from a small cut appeared.
"Oh, please! Bud!" the terrified woman clutched her man's arm. "For God's sake, please cooperate. We can move if we have to and make a new start elsewhere." She pleaded in vain.
"No, Emma," he shot back, "they'll find us. I retired from a church-sponsored company. Do you think they will go on sending us checks? Not on your life. We're stuck here, old girl."
"All right, you two, that's quite enough," Jerry scolded, wanting an answer. "We need that information... now! Who killed the Indian girl?"
The old man's defiance was from fear, Johnson felt. Bud clearly wanted another way out, but it seemed death may be his only alternative than living in fear of the inescapable retribution to come for snitching on his brethren.
Jerry tried to reason with the man. "Mister, which is more logical? To die for certain here and now? Because, Lord knows, this upset Crow wants your guts to hang out to dry, and that's a fact. Or," he paused for hopeful effect, "take your chances elsewhere? It's your choice, really." The mountain man had been rather nonchalant about it, trying to get his point across that killing the old man was not his first choice, but it was definitely part of the deal if he refused to divulge what they wanted to know. All he wanted was the information.
Any way that he could get it.
Killing someone would be at the end of a long, painful process to get what he needed. He'd done it before.
The rancher wisely spilled his version of the story. He and a couple men, and his hunting partner, went up to find the cabin. There had been a fight and Karen had severely wounded his buddy with a bow and arrow. Sadly, though, Sara had been shot, and, after it was all over, one of the other men simply walked up to the suffering woman and cut her throat, fearing anymore shots would be heard.
His friend had been seriously disabled by the wound he had received in the battle and was recovering at his home on the other side of the Prophet's ranch. The other two men had forced Karen to go with them at gunpoint.
John was breathing heavily. His hatred for these whites was already at a feverish level, but he knew he had to keep his cool for a little while longer.
"Where's this 'Prophet'?" demanded the Crow in a low, but audible tone.
"He resides on a big spread east o' here," the older man named Bud said. "And it's a big 'un, because o' all them kids an' women an' hands that live there."
"Oh, mebbe a hunnerd miles or so by road."
"How 'bout by foot?" the mountain man wondered out loud.
"Ah, only about thirty or thirty-five miles cross country, I'd say," he turned to his wife. "Wouldn't you agree, Emma?" His new optimism about staying alive increased by the second even though he had no real idea what the next minute held for them. He just had that feeling in his gut that everything was going to be fine.
His wife must have sensed his outlook, for she smiled back lovingly at her man's wisdom. "Yes, land's sakes, it's a good horseback trip, Bud." She laid her hand on his leg, probably sharing a favored old memory.
Jerry knew they could run there overnight if they had to. He told the old couple, "Forget about calling anyone, too; your phone line's been cut. That may even be to your advantage, folks. And," he added, as if an afterthought, "don't even try to have us followed. You won't find anything to go on, I assure you."
Turning away silently, he went through the front door and disappeared into the shadows of the night. The Crow had slyly left sometime during the beneficial conversation.
Jerry stepped back into the light of the front porch and spoke one more time. "You may have someone try, but they'll only encounter pure, mean frustration like nobody's ever seen before. I guarantee it."
He momentarily paused.
Like a night-spirit, Ghost Stalker turned and left.
The couple had moved to the door to try to watch this strange anachronism walk away. But they stood in abject amazement, awed that the buckskinned giant had truly disappeared like a whisper in the wind.
Then they hugged each other closely, the woman crying softly, possibly from her fear, but more likely from sheer joy and relief.
The revengers kept to the hard ground, erasing any tracks left by their moccasins. And they left their calling cards, traps and snares that could kill or maim dogs or pursuers.
By daylight, an aircraft arrived to search the canyons and plateaus, meadows and mountainsides, but to no avail. Dogs, handlers, and other so-called "trackers" were on the scent, and before they had reached the border of the Prophet's so-called ranch, the handlers had called it quits after losing two dogs to fatal traps.
The first dog had to be shot, its back had been broken. The second dog looked more like a pincush