Christmas time always sets me to thinking about Boston and the house I had grew up in. I stood in the doorway of my cabin and looked out at the snow that had already lain on the mountain. It reflected the sun and made for a bright morning. The pine trees made me think of the one my mother would have on display. She was a German and had brought the custom with her. My father, if he was home from the sea, smiled indulgently at her as Christmas approached and then went out with an axe and came back with the biggest tree he could fit in the room. My mother would clap her hands and get us to help her decorate the tree. I looked back into the cabin at the small specimen I had in the corner decorated with beads and other gee-gaws I sometimes used in trading. It made me think that it had been a long time since I written to my family – that was something I would have to rectify. I looked back out through the trees and caught sight of a lone horseman amongst the pines. I stepped back inside, loaded my Hawken and stood it up next to the door. My knife was scabbarded at my hip and tomahawk tucked in my belt. There hadn’t been any trouble recently now that the snows had halted the seemingly endless trains of wagons from the East but I wasn’t intending to lose my hair for want of a loaded gun.
The figure drew closer and halted about fifty yards from the cabin.
“Hullo the camp!” roared the rider’s voice.
“Hullo, yourself! That you Terrapin?”
The man rode closer and dismounted in front of the cabin. I slapped my thigh and smiled.
“You come a visiting?”
“In a manner, Val.”
Dan “Terrapin” Meek dropped his large frame from the saddle and damn me if it didn’t do my heart good to see his bearded face. I’d known Dan Meeks for nigh on fifteen years, not long after folks started calling him Terrapin – on account of him acquiring a taste for dog flesh and swearing it was as good as Buffalo if you cooked it right.
“There’s coffee if you’ll have it, Dan.”
“Mighty welcome. Wouldn’t mind a little Taos Lightning if you have any.”
“Of course. Get your beast in shelter then come on in.”
Dan put his horse in with mine, came into the cabin and shrugged out of his buffalo robe. I handed him a cup of coffee and left the whiskey jug on the table. He finished the coffee in one deep bite, uncorked the whiskey and took a healthy swig.
“Now, Val why in hell is there a tree in your house?”
“Custom of my mother’s people.”
“Heard of stranger,” then he took another taste before passing the jug over.
“Ain’t just here for a visit, although it’s damn good to see you.”
“Nope. Could be we got some trouble a brewin’ on the mountain.”
I would have offered Dan a seat but he had already taken one by the fire. I took the jug and sat opposite him.
“Shoshone ain’t happy.”
“Might be they’ll be looking to raise the hair on any white man they can find.”
“Now why would they be fitting to do that?”
“Two of their maidens got took and a buck saw from the distance. Swore it was a white fella who took ‘em.”
“Ain’t no white men but me and you on this mountain since the snow came down are there, Dan?”
“Bunch of pork-eating green hands who got caught by the snows.”
“ Down aways – they’ve forted up for the winter in little groups. I been taking ‘em the odd bit of meat – don’t want ‘em ending up like that bunch of fools in the Sierra Nevadas in ’46.”
I nodded, we’d all heard the stories about the wagon train that got cut off and took to eating their dead and then worse.
“And the Shoshone look like they’re gonna dig up the tomahawk on this bunch?”
Dan filled his pipe and nodded.
“Reckon we should try and help ‘em?”
Dan shrugged leaving it up to me but I knew why he had come.
“Best get my gear together.”
Dan looked up at me and smiled.
“Waaaargggh!” That greeting and show of appreciation amongst us men of the mountains that made my heart soar like a hawk above the snow topped pines.
Our ponies picked their way through the snow and the trees. We both wore buffalo robes, Dan had on a wide brimmed planter’s hat and I wore my fur cap with the eagle feathers. We were loaded for bear; in addition to my Hawken I had two pistols holstered on the horse and an old Baker Rifle I had traded from an Atsugewi brave on my way back from California the previous year. Dan was likewise heavily armed with a double barrelled shotgun in addition to his usual his long Pennsylvania rifle and Bowie knife.
The snow crunched beneath the hooves of my pony as I manouvered her down a steep decline. Dan held up a hand and I halted my mount. He turned in the saddle and then pointed to a lean to shack that lay some little distance from us; the wagon bed lay in the snow with a canvas shelter added to the front of it.
“This is the Harrisons – good peoples.”
I nodded and we rode towards the temporary home.
“Hullo, the house!” called Dan.
Nothing stirred in the canvas dwelling and we nudged our ponies closer. I slid the Hawken from beneath my warm robe and cocked back the hammer. As we drew nearer I noticed signs painted on the canvas of the shelter. Dan had seen them too and I stayed quiet as he slid out of his saddle. He took his shotgun and moved quickly across the snow, surprisingly quiet for a man of his size. I threw a quick glance at the trees around us and then climbed down to kneel in the snow with the Hawken watching for any sign of movement in the dwelling. Dan vanished inside and I could hear my breathing as well as see it in the cold December air. A few moments later Dan reappeared; his face told me a story better than if he had spoken it to me across a campfire – whatever was inside was bad.
I kept the Hawken at the ready and moved to where he stood.
Dan shook his head.
“Even the Crow ain’t got the stomach for what’s been done in there; four of ‘em killed in the worst way and the daughter’s been taken.”
I looked at the signs that had been smeared on the canvas; five pointed stars, a terrible eye, a crude goats head. I realised that they had been painted in blood. For a moment I considered seeing the atrocity that had been committed inside but in the end I did not have the heart for it. Instead I slapped my hand on Dan’s shoulder and began to check the ground for sign. It didn’t take long; there were blood drops and drag marks showing clearly, a green hand could have followed the tracks. I stepped into the shadows cast by the trees and looked down the mountain – nothing stirred nearby.
“Tracks head off down the mountain, where the woods are deeper. You want to head off after them now?”
“Think we best check in on the other families first.”
I nodded and followed Dan’s lead. We remounted and continued down the mountain – all the time eyeing the thicker copses of trees that lay to our right.
By the time we reached the next encampment it had begun to snow lightly and the flakes fell lazily like leaves blown from a tree. A figure appeared from the flap of a canvas tent; he was a tall man with dark whiskers, a top coat of rich blue and he held a long pistol in each hand.
“Who goes there?”
“And the fellow with you, Mr Meeks?”
“’Nother ol’ coon like myself – Tomahawk Val Pettigrew.”
The man strode over, a smile splitting his face. He tucked his pistols into the sash around his waist and offered me his hand.
“Captain Cornelius Grieg, late of Fort Brooke, Florida.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain.”
“How goes it, Dan?” he shouted.
“Not so well, Captain. Just come from the Harrison place.”
The Captain’s face clouded.
“Nothing wrong I hope?”
Dan dismounted and stood in close to the Captain.
“I’m sorry to have to say it but the whole family done went under.”
The Captain looked at Dan as though failing to understand.
“What Dan is saying, Captain, is that someone killed them all. Less’n the girl and she’s been dragged into the woods.”
“We must follow!”
“Now hold up” Dan raised his hands to Captain Grieg “there’s other troubles coming your way.”
The Captain shook his head.
“What could be worse than this?”
“The Shoshone are on the warpath. Think some of your folks had something to do with taking a couple of their women.”
“Maybe thirty braves” Dan looked to me for confirmation.
“Could be, somewhere between twenty and forty.”
“I fought the Seminoles in the swamps. I can raise ten or twelve fighting men. Will you stand with us?”
“That’s a big ask, Captain” Dan looked away and I knew he sorely wished to help the settlers.
“Might be it won’t come to that” I found myself saying “assume the worst and get the families together where you can best defend them – Dan’ll advise you on that.”
“And what of you Mr Pettigrew?”
I looked at Dan.
“Pocatello leading them, Dan?”
Dan nodded back to me.
“Best be I go palaver with the man then.”
“Might be he’ll try and raise your hair, Val.”
“Ain’t like they haven’t tried before.”
I saluted Dan and the Captain with the Hawken in my clenched fist.
“I swear you got the hair of the bear, Val!”
“I best hope that old bear’s looking down on me today, I need her to be watching!”
Touching my heels to the pony I lit out towards where I knew the Shoshone would be making their way towards us. As I moved away I saw a woman stood in the doorway of the Captain’s tent with a baby in her arms.
A brave with a tattooed face rode up close to me, so that our ponies were almost touching. I stared him in the eye. A pogamoggan dangled from his fist, two foot of pine wood as a handle with a heavy stone head lashed to the top. He threw a whoop at me and I threw one straight back.
I spoke Shoshone, as much as I knew. Enough to send him back down the trail to the party of thirty or so riders who were gathered below. He rode down to the man who led the party and spoke to him. They stopped and waited. I held the pony in check as I descended keeping the pace nice and slow. The leader rode out to meet me accompanied by an old man. We looked each other over; Pocatello was maybe thirty or thirty five, well built with a strong face, he rode a painted pony and carried a rifle with an intricately carved stock. He was wrapped in furs, discs of beaten silver hung from his ears shining amongst his black hair. The old man was wizened and hid beneath a huge bear skin robe, complete with head.
“You are the great chief Pocatello?”
“You flatter me. I am simply the leader of a few families.”
“The mountains already ring with your name.”
“But I do not know your name, white man.”
“I am called Tomahawk Val.”
“He who rode with the Blackfeet as a brother?”
“That is my honour.”
“And why now do you bar our path? Our fight is not with you.”
I switched to English.
“Seems to me your fight isn’t with those folks up on the mountain either.”
He seemed to understand.
“That is not for you to say. You are known throughout the mountains but I have many braves with me eager to count coup on those who stole away our two maidens.”
“You are many and I am one, that is true but know this – you’ll have to cut me down and take my hair before I let you pass. You have many braves, Pocatello, again that is true. But how many will follow you after I stain the snow with the blood of as many of your warriors as I can? You will kill me, I know this, but I have sung my death song and the great bear waits to greet me. That is my truth.”
I patted my hand across my rifles, pistols, knife and tomahawk.
“But it does not have to be like this, great chief. Give me till the sun once again colours the sky and I will bring you the ones responsible.”
Pocatello looked me over. He had thirty warriors behind him but I could see he wanted to be a bigger leader than he was. If he even lost five warriors getting past me it could take his reputation years to recover. The old man spoke from beneath his bearskin. The Shoshone was too fast for me to keep up. The chief listened without replying to the old man. When the old man finished speaking Pocatello looked to the sky.
“You have until the sky is lit once more and then we will come.”
I waited until Pocatello rode back to his braves. The old man remained.
“Bad thing on the mountain.”
“What happened is bad but it can be fixed.”
The old man smiled, showing me a mouthful of yellow tombstones.
“Don’t die up there, mountain man,” he threw me a wink and then turned his pony.
I stared at the old man as he rode away and then I turned and made my way back up the mountain. It was slow going up the snowbound trail and I was conscious of the sun slowly moving down the sky.
When I arrived back at Captain Grieg’s wagon a small knot of men had gathered; they were haggard and a couple looked half starved. They held a collection of old muskets and shotguns. Dan walked over to me.
“We got till morning else they’re gonna come on.”
Dan grunted and went to retrieve his pony. Captain Grieg strode out of his tent wearing a heavy topcoat, a sword belted at his waist and the pair of long barrelled single-shot pistols tucked into his sash.
“You have bought us some time?”
“Till day break.”
“When do we start out?”
“Who is it that’s out there, Captain Grieg?”
He looked away for a moment before answering.
“Told us his name was John Elkin joined the company late on. He said he had spent some time in Albany and was eager to make his way west. Didn’t take us long to work out he was a bad apple. Something just wasn’t right with him, always locked away in his wagon with a trunk of books. When we got caught by the snows he took his wagon off away from the others, kind of glad he did if I am honest.”
“And you think it’s him?”
The Captain nodded.
“Is he armed?”
“I insisted every wagon carry a rifle or shotgun at least. I believe he had an old Brunswick rifle.”
Dan rode up.
“Don’t sound like he’ll be hard to take does it?”
“He killed a whole family, Dan. I won’t be happy till he’s trussed up across the back of a horse.”
The Captain’s horse looked as starved as some of his men.
“You’re sure those red devils won’t attack before we return?”
I exchanged a look with Dan.
“Pocatello’s a lot things but he ain’t no liar. We have until dawn.”
We looked to the sky.
“Reckon we got two hours of light,” said Dan.
Captain Grieg barked an order about posting sentinels and then turned his horse to join us. The people of the wagon train looked sad and small as we rode away.