A Fresh Start


by Badgergater



Author’s note: Many thanks to Hired Hand and her beta skills

A Fresh Start

By Badgergater

(Challenge words Halcyon, Denial, and Widowmaker)

12-1-2010

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In the spring of 1865, after four bloody years, the Civil War at last ground to a halt. Men went home, victor and vanquished alike, and tried to restart their lives.

 

------------------------

 

It was the year the war ended.

 

He had spent the final weeks of it in a Yankee prison camp in Illinois. Jess Harper’s incarceration ended when he scrawled his name on a sheet of paper, formally ending his service to the Confederacy and promising to never again take up arms against the United States of America. Signed and countersigned, he took the parole paper, folded it and stowed it carefully in his pocket, and started the long journey home, or at least to the place that was the closest thing he had to a home.

 

He knew the words on that paper by heart. “Jess Harper, having been with the approval of the proper authorities paroled, is permitted to return to his home, not to be disturbed by the United States authorities, so long as he observes his parole and the laws in force where he may reside.” It was signed by Captain Morton Rafferty, the highest-ranking surviving Confederate officer at Fort Haver, and by Captain Paul Halleck, the bluebelly officer who ran the prison with such ruthless efficiency.

 

He was only 21 years old; back east he would have been considered barely a man, but the war had aged him far beyond his years. His face was young and unlined but in their depths his eyes were as old as the hills, eyes that had seen far more death and dying than any man should be forced to witness in ten times his years.

 

He wasn’t a big man but rather compact with shoulders proportionally broad on a body that was whip-thin, gaunt near to emaciation after months of near starvation in that Yankee prison camp. The long trek, day after day trudging steadily south and west, had put none of the flesh back on his bones, though it had restored the color to his cheeks and some muscle back on his frame.

 

Like the other paroled rebels, Jess was transported south on a Mississippi River boat, a paddle-wheeled steamer that, on its return trips north, carried load after load of homeward bound Union soldiers. He was on his own once off the ship, though, walking most of the way. When he was lucky, he hitched rides on homesteader’s milk wagons, rancher’s buckboards, pioneer’s westbound Conestogas, and muleskinner’s freight wagons.

 

So few coins jangled in his pocket that he’d have starved if not for the kindness of folks he met along the way who took pity on him and offered him what they could. On a good night, he slept under a roof in a barn or a stable, wrapped in the thin blanket he carried rolled up and slung over his shoulder. Most nights, there were only the stars and the open sky overhead.  He didn’t mind. After the filth and the stench of the prison camp, the moans of the suffering and dying assaulting his ears, the clean fresh air and silence of the prairie was welcome.

 

His clothes were threadbare remnants of what had once been a uniform of grey. The soles of his boots were paper thin, allowing him to feel every rock and rut in the road he traveled. Much further and he’d be walking barefoot, he reckoned. It wouldn’t stop him; he’d get home if he had to crawl the rest of the way on his hands and knees.

 

Though the war was over, tensions still ran high all across Kansas and he’d treaded carefully there. He’d had to show his papers so many times that it became an automatic reaction.  When he met anyone, the first thing he did was reach into his pocket to pull out his papers, even before being asked, his eyes smoldering with barely suppressed resentment. But each time, they let him pass.

 

It galled at his pride the same way that accepting handouts ate away at his battered self-respect, but along the way he’d found friends, too, good people willing to help.

 

He did what needed to be done to survive.

 

A month into his slow journey, a kindly family on a windswept homestead had taken him in. He’d walked into their yard in search of water, so worn to the bone that despite his stubborn determination to push on, his body simply didn’t have the strength to go any further. His wobbly knees gave way, his worn and exhausted body failing him. The woman had nursed him for three days, asking him over and over again if he’d seen her son Rory who’d gone off to join the army but hadn’t yet made it home. Jess assured her that there were still many men on the road, and yes, it was still possible her boy would return.

 

Her husband stood in the background, shaking his head. Later, when Jess was getting ready to leave, the man had taken him aside and told him the truth: Rory had died long ago, at a great battle in a Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg.

 

After three days of rest and food, they sent Jess on his way with a small sack of supplies, all that the family could spare and probably more than they should have, but their generosity had gotten him across the last leg of his journey and into Texas.

 

The little town of Clayton was just as he remembered it, nothing more than a crossroads dry goods store with a saloon tacked on the back, surrounded by half a dozen houses as ramshackle and paintless as they’d been four years before. He didn’t bother to stop there but marched on past, surprised he even remembered the road to his aunt and uncle’s farm two miles beyond the town. After all, he’d only lived there for a few weeks, back six years ago in those first stunned days after his folks had been murdered, staying just long enough to see his sister settled. As soon as he’d been able, he’d gone off after the Bannister gang, burning with vengeance fueled by a 15-year old’s bravado. It had turned out to be a futile hunt, but there’d been nothing for him to go back to in Texas. In ’61 he’d made just one short visit to say goodbye to Francie, explaining that he’d enlisted with nearly a dozen other Panhandle-raised teenagers.

 

They’d joined up together and fought together, but they hadn’t come home together. He was the only one of them to return; the only one who’d lived to see his twenty-first birthday; the one who’d watched each of them die slowly, one by one.

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

Francie straightened, twisting her shoulders to ease the kink out of her back, and wiped away the sweat that trickled down her forehead. Using her sleeve wasn’t very ladylike, but such niceties mattered little in the hot Texas sun. She looked ahead and with a sigh realized she had only a third of the row weeded, and two more rows to go after that.

 

You’d think in this heat the weeds wouldn’t grow, but they were stubborn and persistent, nearly as stubborn and persistent as the family struggling to eke out a living in a harsh land. The garden looked poorly -- the corn leaves were wilting, drying upp in the scorching heat, but the green beans, thanks to the buckets of water she’d carried day after day, were holding up well enough. If only the hot spell would just break, if only there’d be a little rain, a little coolness, maybe they’d get a decent crop. If not, she wasn’t sure what any of them would eat come winter.

 

She bent her back and returned to her task, the blade of the hoe slicing through the dusty soil, tearing the weeds out by the roots.

 

Her mind wandered as she worked. The war had been over for nearly two months now, though the news hadn’t reached them until weeks later. To be honest, the war news had mattered little to those struggling to survive out on the frontier. The battles had been far away; their loved ones gone so long it was hard to remember what they had looked like or how they had sounded. It seemed like the war had been going on forever and would never end.

 

A thin trickle of men had come home over the past few weeks, battered survivors, hardly recognizable even to their own families. Some were damaged in body and all were damaged in spirit, like shadows of themselves, forever changed by the war’s horrors they refused to talk about.

 

Francie had heard nothing from her brother in months, but she held steadfastly to her belief that Jess was on his way. He wasn’t one to write at the best of times, and anyway, the mail was slow and sporadic.  Once she’d gotten two letters from him delivered on the same day; they’d been written and mailed months apart.

 

The only concrete news she had had of her brother was when Horace Watkins had come home. The storekeeper’s son had been a clerk for Jess’ regiment; he’d told her that he’d seen her brother’s name on a list of men gone missing and thought captured on a scouting patrol three months before.

 

As the days and weeks had passed since the surrender at Appomattox, she had refused to give up hope.

 

Jess would return.

 

She had to believe that.

 

The work was mind-numbing. Reach out and pull the dull blade through the ground, her shoulders protesting; reach and pull, reach and pull, ignoring the sweat trickling down her back as the sun beat down relentlessly from the cloudless sky. Reach and pull, the only sound the dull scraping of the blade cutting through the earth.

 

The end of the row didn’t seem to be getting any closer as the sun rose higher and the heat grew more stifling. She’d quit soon; get out of the sun and head to the house to help Aunt Jane make supper or put her little cousins down for their nap. Smarter to come back to her task in the cool of the evening.

 

Francie paused to wipe her forehead once more and, looking up, saw movement along the road.

 

It was strange to see someone afoot in this wide land of long distances.

 

Shorty, Uncle Bud’s dog, spotted the traveler about the same time she did, stirring from his spot in the shade of the cottonwoods beside the house. He stood with ears pricked, watching intently, and then, when the figure turned down the lane toward the farm, the mutt raced down the long track toward the road, barking out a furious warning.

 

At the noise, Uncle Bud stepped out from the barn where he’d been working. Francie saw him take note of their approaching visitor and then stride purposefully toward the house.  In a moment, he was back out on the porch, his long rifle in his hand, his voice stern. “Best get inside, girl,” he ordered her.

 

They didn’t get many visitors, especially not men afoot in this land of open spaces; she understaod her uncle’s wariness. Francie turned to look down the lane, raising her hand to shade her eyes against the harsh sun as Shorty reached the stranger, dancing around the man and barking wildly.

 

The walker wasn’t intimidated. Instead, he paused and knelt down, extending a hand, and the dog’s warning barks suddenly changed, losing their sharp edge.

 

As Francie watched, the stranger climbed to his feet, straightening slowly as if the simple movement required great effort, and then he resumed walking toward the house.

 

“Francie!” Uncle Bud called sharply.

 

She didn’t move and she didn’t answer. She was watching the man, something about him catching her eye. He was closer now, moving with a certain innate grace despite the heaviness of his steps. There was an unevenness to his stride, indicating he was footsore or hurt or both. He was clad in worn and ragged grey and Francie knew this was another one of the many weary and defeated veterans of the late rebellion.

 

And yet, something about him held her gaze, tugging at her memory; she could not turn away.

 

“Francie!” her uncle called again, more stridently this time.

 

She ignored him, unable to take her eyes off the stranger. There was something about that walk, even slightly off as it was.

 

He was closer now, and she gripped the handle of the forgotten weeding tool in her hand until her knuckles turned white. Her heart was suddenly thundering a wild drumbeat in her chest, hope clogging her throat. He looked like … no … she had to be wrong; the shoulders were a bit too broad and the waist too thin … it couldn’t be.

 

And yet … the dark hair was long, unruly and shaggy; the jaw line was dark with an untrimmed beard, the face so terribly thin, and yet, yet….

 

Oh, Lord.

 

She couldn’t move, afraid she was imagining him. This man couldn’t possibly be the boy who’d gone off to war four long years ago. And then, beneath the tattered forage cap, she caught sight of his eyes, rich blue like the deepest depths of a mountain lake, and the unmistakable questioning eyebrows arching above them.

 

She dropped the hoe into the dirt at her feet, staring at the apparition approaching her.

 

“Francie?” he called.

 

His voice was as she’d remembered it, rich and husky and deep, and the well-remembered sound of it broke the spell. She ran the last three strides that separated them, throwing her arms around his shoulders and sobbing his name.

 

He dropped the sack he was carrying and wrapped his arms around her, burying his face against her shoulder.

 

After a moment, they both pulled back. She wiped tears from her eyes as she held him at arm’s length, carefully looking him over. He was frighteningly thin; she’d plainly felt the sharp edges of his shoulder blades and the hollows of his collarbones when she’d embraced him, and she was sure she could count his ribs through the thin fabric of his threadbare shirt. But his eyes, oh his eyes were so deep and dark, ancient eyes in his so-young face, as if they’d seen the whole world and found it filled with nothing but ugliness. He’d had that hurt look in his eyes since that horrible night when their parents were killed, but it was more prominent now, dominating his gaze, all the joy and laughter washed out of him.

 

She reached up and cupped his face with her hands and tried to laugh through her tears, sure she could see dampness on his lashes.

 

“Jess. You’re so thin.”

 

He ducked his head and ignored her implied question, unwilling to tell her what had happened to him, instead looking over toward the house, where Uncle Bud stood watching, bewildered, his rifle still in his hand. “I wasn’t sure I’d still find you here.”

 

“I had nowhere else to go. And, and I knew this was where you’d come,” if you ever came, she added silently as she patted his shoulders.

 

He grinned his lop-sided grin and together, arm-in-arm, they walked to the house.

 

His aunt and uncle greeted him warmly enough, though he couldn’t miss his uncle’s furrowed brow.

 

The cabin was crowded now, full of children; there’d been only the one tiny baby when he’d left. Jacob had just turned five; Hugh was four; another toddler just walking was named Michael; and there was a baby still in its crib, too. Uncle Bud had changed little, but Aunt Jane had aged a lot since he’d seen her last. She looked worn by the unending workload, even with Francie’s help. He recognized the look; he’d seen it in his own mother’s eyes, the toll taken by the constant struggle to survive.

 

But that first night all worries were put aside, and the family celebrated Jess’ homecoming. Bud butchered a chicken; Jane made cornbread; and Francie picked the first of the green beans from the garden. Jess ate so much that afterwards he thought he was going to be sick.

 

After the meal, he’d asked for news of the local folk, some few he remembered, and Bud obliged, but when his uncle turned the tables and asked Jess about the last four years, he clammed up. He couldn’t talk about it, not about any of it, because he couldn’t taint the here and the now with the ugliness of the past, especially those past few months of it.

 

He didn’t ever want to think of, much less speak about, any of it ever again.

 

After the meal Jess put his blankets down on the floor beside the hearth, but he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned, finally giving up and leaving his bed to go outside, needing to be alone.

 

It was a little cooler outdoors, and he sat down on the porch steps, inhaling the familiar outdoor smells, and relishing the quiet. But he wasn’t alone for long. Within a few minutes he heard the slight creak of the opening door behind him and then the soft sound of bare feet as Francie came and sat down beside him, her shoulder touching his.

 

“Are you all right?” she asked softly, worry in her voice.

 

He nodded.

 

She reached over and put her hand on his where it rested on his knee, and he clasped it tightly. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

 

“Me, too.”

 

The silence stretched and then, finally, she asked. “It was bad, wasn’t it?”

 

He nodded, unable to speak, his hand squeezing hers even more tightly than it had been.

 

She put her other hand on his arm, appalled at how thin it was. “Whatever you had to do to survive, Jess, no one will blame you for that.”

 

He said nothing.

 

“If you want to talk about it, I’ll listen.”

 

“No!” He turned anguished eyes on her. “All I want to do is forget it, all of it.”

 

She could feel him shaking. “Jess….”

 

“I said no, Francie.”

 

She sighed, sure that burying his memories was the wrong thing to do, but equally sure that nothing she could say or do would change his mind. She could only offer her understanding. “If that’s what you want, all right. But you know, anything you need, anything I can do, I will, Jess. You’re my brother and I love you, you know that.”

 

Once more he nodded, and when he finally spoke, his voice was still shaky. “You know I won’t be stayin’.”

 

“I know,” she agreed sadly.

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

The hearty welcome lasted two days, which was about as long as he’d expected.

 

Jess spent his second day there helping with the garden; carrying bucket after bucket of water for the thirsty plants; then fixing the corral fence and patching the roof on the shed, feeling the need to earn his keep as well as keep his hands busy. He felt strange, cast adrift. For four years, he’d followed the orders of officers, and then the orders of his jailers. Now, set free, he’d set his sights on ‘home.’ And now that he was ‘home,’ he didn’t know what would happen next, because this wasn’t really home, not in any real sense. It was a way station on the road to somewhere, but where to go or what to do, he didn’t know.

 

After dinner, the women busy in the kitchen and the kids already tucked in for the night, he and Bud went out to the porch.

 

“I don’t mean to be harsh, Jess; you’re my brother’s boy and I’ll do for ya’ what I can, but times are hard. See, it’s just,” he stopped then went on. “Another mouth to feed when I ain’t hardly got enough for my ….” he stopped himself before he said the rest, but Jess had heard the unspoken words.

 

Enough for his own family.

 

A family Jess was not a part of.

 

He was the outsider.

 

 “Don’t worry. I won’t be stayin’,” Jess answered tightly. He hadn’t missed the meager portions of the meals that had been served; had noted the way Bud, and Jane too, had watched every mouthful he ate. Hungry as he was, his body needing the fuel to replenish the weight the war’s and the prison’s hardships had stripped from him, he’d held back.

 

“Jess, I ….”

 

“I understand, sir. You got the women an’ children to be lookin’ after. I kin take care of myself.” He had been doing just that since he was 15, never expecting anything more.

 

“I wish it were different, boy.” There seemed to be genuine regret in Bud’s voice.

 

Jess bristled. He wasn’t a boy; hadn’t hardly been one even before the war and surely wasn’t one now, but he knew his uncle was trying to be decent. The panhandle was harsh country; hard for a family to make enough to live on. And the war had sucked dry what little resources they’d had. “I got some folks I need to see, and then I’ll be movin’ on.”

 

Bud nodded, relieved. “You’re always welcome here, Jess.”

 

Jess understood. Welcome to visit, not to stay. “An’ Francie?”

 

“Francie’ll be fine. She’s part of the family.”

 

And he wasn’t; he was a man and expected to make his own way, and he was fine with that. He didn’t want charity and he sure as sunrise didn’t want pity; he only wanted a chance, and he knew he’d have to make his own.

 

Nothing could be as bad as the hell of war and captivity that he’d just been through.

 

Except maybe what he had yet to do; the one last task to fulfill, the final duty as the soldier he had been.

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

He washed and shaved and let Aunt Jane cut his hair. Francie washed and mended his clothes into something acceptable. He dusted off the spare pair of boots he’d left behind, and Francie had saved a couple of his old shirts from before the war. They were wearable though tight across the shoulders where his frame had filled out from the boyishness of 17 to the man of 21. He replaced his grey forage cap with the broad-brimmed dark hat and buckled on his old Navy colt in its worn holster. He’d left that here when he’d shouldered his rifle and gone off to war.

 

Lastly, Jess fetched from the pasture the horse he’d owned before the war. The mount was unremarkable. For four years Old Rocky had been hitched beside the family’s work team, earning his keep by pulling everything from buckboard to buggy to plow during Jess’ long absence. The old grey, his coat faded now almost to white, humped his back at the saddle but when Jess tapped him with his spurs, moved off willingly enough.

 

Jess rode away from the farm to carry out his final soldierly duty.

 

Nine young men from the Panhandle had gone off to war together. They’d made promises, each to the others, to do this, if the time came. And he was the only one left, the burden falling on his shoulders alone. He would fulfill the vow and be done with it, and the war, forever.

 

The first was the worst.

 

He rode into the Peterson ranch’s yard in the cool of the early evening, greeted at the door by Jerome Peterson, rifle in hand. There was a momentary flash of a smile in greeting, and then Jess saw the man’s face tighten as he suddenly understood from what he saw on Jess’ face that this visit was bad news. His face blanched, and he took a step back to steady himself.

 

“Mr. Peterson, it’s Jess Harper.”

 

“I remember, son. Step down. Supper’s almost ready. Y’all join us.”

 

Jess shook his head. “I only come to tell ya….”

 

“Best wait until we’re inside and the missus can hear,” Peterson said in a voice already laden with sadness.

 

Jess stepped up to the door, hat in his hand, and followed the rancher inside. Betsy Peterson stood stock still in front of the stove, her eyes going wide and the color draining from her face at the sight of him. She looked from her husband to Jess and back again.

 

“Ma, you remember Jess Harper.”

 

Jess nodded at her. “Ma’am.”

 

She nodded, unable to speak.

 

Best say it, he told himself, get it over with. No use dragging it out. “I come to tell you about Jorey.”

 

“He didn’t come home with you?” she asked.

 

Jess looked down at the floor. “No, ma’am, he….”

 

“Then he’ll be along soon, won’t he?” Jess could hear the desperation in her voice, the denial.

 

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry….”

 

But his words were cut off by her wail. Jerome rushed to her side, pulling her to him, looking at Jess over her shoulder. “How’d our boy die? In that damned Yankee prison camp?”

 

So they knew about that. But he couldn’t tell them the truth, and what would the lie hurt? Better they not know how ugly it had really been. No mother should hear that her son had lingered and suffered and died calling out her name. “He died, in the fight with the 7th Michigan, when they captured us.” There was a grain of truth in that tale, though a tiny one.

 

“It was quick?” Peterson knew the lie, even as he asked for it.

 

“Real sudden. He didn’t suffer none, none a’tall.”

 

The man’s eyes locked on Jess’, and they exchanged a wordless understanding.

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

And so it went at each of the homes he visited, six other mothers sobbing for their lost sons, as he told them the lies they wanted to hear, that their boys had died honorably and nobly, pain free and easy. He told the same story to all except the Jameson’s, who had moved away to no one knew where.

 

His last duty discharged, he no longer had a reason to stay, so Jess packed his few things and rode away. His aunt and uncle pledged to take care of Francie, and he had met her beau, a young man he wasn’t sure he approved of, but his sister so obviously loved that he could only see a good future for them. Francie had a good head on her shoulders; together, she and Gil Brady would be fine, he assured himself.

 

He rode through Amarillo, the town full of young men like himself, jobless and adrift, fleeing their memories of the war and tasting the bitterness of defeat and lost sacrifice. He stopped at half a dozen ranches along the way but no one was hiring, so he kept drifting, The food Francie had sent with him was nearly gone even though he’d supplemented it with game shot along the way. His tobacco was long used up and worse, he’d taken the last of his spare cartridges from his belt and put them into the Colt; soon his guns would be useless.

 

How he’d survive then, Jess didn’t know, but he would not go back to his uncle’s farm, tail tucked between his legs like a humbled pup.

 

He could only think of one place left to try.

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

Old Joe Klemmer did a doubletake when Jess rode into the Rockin’ K. Klemmer had been one of the Panhandle’s first ranchers, carving out his spread from the wild lands of the Llano Estacado, fighting off Indians and rustlers and predators. He had been a neighbor and friend of Jess’ parents. Jess had worked for him a lifetime ago, one summer before the war, a green but determined youngster. He’d learned nearly everything he knew about ranching and cattle from the old man.

 

“Jess!” Klemmer greeted him heartily and with genuine affection. The years hadn’t changed the old man much; his hair was grayer and thinner, and he carried a few more pounds on his lean frame, but he still moved with spry energy. “Jess, boy, didn’t know you was home. Step down and give that old nag a rest.”

 

Gratefully, Jess swung down off Rocky who was wore thin and showing his age from the hard trail of the past few weeks. “Thanks, Mr. Klemmer.”  Asking was hard, but he swallowed his pride. “I was wonderin’….”

 

“Oh, now, no talkin’ out here in the hot sun, young man. C’mon in, let me get you some coffee and we’ll jaw a bit,” the old man invited.

 

Jess took off his hat and followed the rancher inside the cool confines of the ranch house. The place was pretty much as he remembered it, though it did seem lower and darker with a bit more sag to the roof than he recalled.

 

Joe pointed him to a chair and Jess sat, placing his hat politely on the table as the old man grabbed the coffee pot from the stove and a pair of dented tin cups off the shelf. “What brings you back here?” he asked as he poured some of the well-steeped Arbuckles into each cup.

 

Jess came right to the point. “I need work, Mr. Klemmer.”

 

The old man set the pot down on the table and sighed. “Aw son, I was afraid you was gonna say that.” He shook his head. “Time’s is tough, boy.”

 

“I’m a good hand,” Jess was desperate enough to plead his own case.

 

“I know you are, Jess, but the war bled this country dry. I don’t have so much as two bits cash money left in my pocket, son.”

 

“I don’t need much.” He felt like he was begging.

 

“If I had a dollar in my pocket, Jess, I’d…” the old man stopped, his face suddenly showing every bit of his age. “I can’t pay the hands I’ve got. I’m hangin’ on here by the skin of my teeth.”

 

“You got cattle out there, Mr. Klemmer. I saw lots of ‘em as I rode in.”

 

“Cattle, sure. An’ even if I could get ‘em rounded up, there’s no market for ‘em and no way to get ‘em to market. Government contracts out here have flat out dried up; don’t know if they’ll ever buy from us again.”

 

Jess drained his cup and stood. “Thanks for the coffee, Mr. Klemmer. It was real good seein’ ya’ again.” He picked up his hat and turned to go.

 

“Jess, wait.”

 

He stopped, turning back to the old man, hopeful.

 

“Go on up to the old Johnson spread. Remember it?”

 

“Up along Pine Creek, right?”

 

Joe nodded. “There’s a new owner up there, some rich feller came from back East somewhere, renamed the place the Circle C. They’ve been rounding up horses an’ sellin’ ‘em to the Army.”

 

Jess was surprised. “The war’s over. Why’s the army buyin’ stock?”

 

“There’s talk the army’s gonna be buildin’ a whole string a’ forts out here, to round up the Indians, open up all this territory for folks to settle.”

 

Jess shook his head. “Sounds crazy t’me.”

 

“Maybe, but Ross Carlton has a contract.” Klemmer nearly spat the rest. “He’s a Yankee, and he’s got money, and he’s a’gonna have more.”

 

“A Yankee?” Jess wasn’t sure he was so over the war as to be willing to work for a bluebelly, but he was near desperate enough -- his bellybutton was all but touching his backbone these days.

 

Desperate men will do desperate things to survive.

 

“I know, son, but I think we’ll all end up a’workin’ for those carpetbaggers or we’ll starve, things keep on the way they are.”

 

Jess nodded. “Thanks for the tip, Mr. Klemmer.”

 

“Say I put in a good word for you, Jess. Don’t know if it’ll help, but it can’t hurt.”

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

The Circle C looked to be prosperous, unlike the other ranches he’d been seeing, and a lot more well-off than the last time Jess had been there. The house had been fixed up and added onto; the bunkhouse had a new roof; there were new corrals and sheds and a stable that looked sturdy enough to withstand a twister.

 

He hadn’t seen a single place anything like it in all his days of riding.

 

Jess rode up to the house and dismounted, telling the man who came out to greet him that he wanted to see the boss.

 

In a moment, a short, pudgy man emerged from the house. He was wearing a suit, fancy shoes, and a narrow brimmed bowler hat, looking more like an Eastern businessman than a rancher. Ross Carlton took a pull on the thick stogie he carried, breathing out a billowing cloud of smoke that made Jess itch for a cigarette. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a quirly; his tobacco pouch had been empty for weeks.

 

“I get drifters through here every day lookin’ for work,” Carlton quizzed him. “Why should I hire you?”

 

Jess tried not to be influenced by the man’s sharp, harsh northern accent and the bad memories it evoked, but he didn’t like the man much at first meeting. “Joe Klemmer said I might find work here. I worked for him before the war.” Jess did his best not to sound desperate.

 

The man’s eyes narrowed and he spared an assessing glance for the cowboy. He was young, with intense eyes and a gaunt frame, and the rancher didn’t miss the remnants of gray in his clothes. “You paroled?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Jess reached into his pocket for his papers, but Carlton waved him off.

 

“Bah, I’ve seen those.” He puffed on his cigar, filling the air with another cloud of smoke, thicker than the first. “Klemmer’s been in this country a long time. Know’s the cattle business. Knows the land.” Carlton shook his head, his face hard, his gaze boring into Jess’ eyes. “You ever work those hills north of here?”

 

“A whole summer.”

 

“Men stop here asking for work all the time. Hands are a dime a dozen.”

 

“I know, sir.” He nearly choked on the word sir, but he was running out of places to go, and he couldn’t let his pride overrule his empty belly. “I’ll work hard and I’ll work cheap.”

 

Carlton’s eyes narrowed and he nodded. “Well, it just happens to be your lucky day, boy. Just had an opening come up yesterday. Pay’s a dollar a week.  Take it or leave it.”

 

Jess gulped, feeling humiliated by the pitiful offer but he tamped down his temper and nodded. “Throw in a horse and it’s a deal. My mount’s about played out.” Even before his days in harness, Rocky had been getting long in the tooth and short on enthusiasm for ranch work and long distance rides.

 

The Yankee rancher considered, then nodded. “Take your pick from that pen of mustangs over behind the barn. Break it yourself and after three months, you can keep it.” He waved at his foreman. “Bascomb, find this cowboy some work.”

 

A bowlegged, stocky man strode up and nodded at Jess and then turned his attention to Carlton. “I could send him up to the Story Creek line-camp, boss. Been empty all summer, an’ with winter comin’ on, we could use someone up there. Stock’s likely to be driftin’ that way, lookin’ for feed.”

 

“Fine,” Carlton nodded. “And let him pick one of those mustangs.”

 

“Sure, boss.”

 

Jess tipped his hat at his new boss and leading his horse, walked alongside Bascomb down toward the barn and bunkhouse. “What’d you say your name was?” the foreman asked.

 

“Jess Harper.”

 

“Know that river country up north, do ya’?”

 

“Rode it when I was a kid. Grew up there; my folks worked shares on the old Runnin’ S.”

 

Bascomb nodded. “You can go on up to that line shack along the north boundary then. It needs some fixin’ up; storm last spring caved in about half the roof, but it’s sound enough otherwise. We’ll fix you up with a work string; use one of ‘em as a pack horse.”

 

“Mr. Carlton said I could pick out one of the mustang’s for a personal mount as part’a my pay. My old horse here ain’t got much left in ‘im.”

 

Bascomb snorted derisively. “Ya’ won’t find much better in that lot. What’s there is what’s left after we’ve picked through all the good stock. They’re a sorry bunch, but come on over after supper, Harper, and take your pick.”

 

Jess put his gear, what little he had, in the bunkhouse and joined the crew for supper. They were a rough lot, and they eyed him curiously, some with more than a bit of disdain. He didn’t miss the murmured comments about Johnny Rebs that were made in whispers just loud enough to be sure he heard them, but he curbed his temper and ignored the jibes. He needed this job too much to cause a ruckus, at least, not on his first day.

 

The food was nothing special, but it was plentiful, more than he’d seen in he couldn’t remember how long, and Jess tucked in, filling his long empty belly with beef, beans and biscuits until he couldn’t swallow another bite.

 

After the meal, he walked out to the corral, glad to be away from the cowboys who were enjoying their after dinner smokes. One of the first things he’d buy, first thing he got paid, was a pouch of tobacco, he promised himself, and he’d inhale one long, slow, deep breath at a time, savoring every bit. For now, he chewed on a toothpick as he crossed the dusty yard.

 

A couple of the hands were sitting on the corral fence, egging on another who was trying to rope out a horse from the pen of wild stock.

 

It took Jess only a moment to decide for himself that Bascomb had been right about the horses. The mustangs were a motley bunch with matted tails and ragged manes. There was a tall chestnut who didn’t look too bad but on a second glance he was mighty narrow-chested. A not-too-bad sorrel had what might be a club foot. A half a dozen non-descript grays were small and unthrifty looking. A splay-footed roan was burdened with feet the size of dinner plates. A bald-faced bay was nice enough but only pony-sized, and another sorrel was mutton-withered and slope rumped.

 

But there, hiding in the back, was a solid-built bay, not too tall, but with a big hip and sturdy legs.

 

It was the horse the cowboy was trying to rope. The bay ducked the loop and buried himself back in the middle of the herd. Smart horse, Jess thought, taking notice.

 

It took the cowboy three tries to finally sort the bay from the rest of the bunch and rope him out, and Jess saw right away why this nice horse was in with the dregs. The little bay was wild. He fought the rope, dragging the cowboy across the corral until his retreat was cut off by hitting the fence with his rump. Cornered, he reared up high, hooves flashing, trying to dodge right and then left, his eyes rolling white. Two of the other hands jumped down, laughing, and helped their friend manhandle the horse to the snubbing post.

 

They had to tie up a foot to get the blanket and saddle in place, and even then it was a battle. At last, they got the cinch pulled tight. One of the cowboys grabbed the bay’s left ear, and the first buckaroo jumped aboard.

 

They turned the horse loose.

 

The bay was a whirlwind, turning himself inside out and spinning like a Texas twister. He reared and swapped ends and came down stiff-legged on all four feet, and the cowboy sailed off into the dust, his friends guffawing.

 

The little horse withdrew to the back of the corral, head up, mane flying, snorting his defiance.

 

And his fear.

 

The mustang looked right at Jess, their eyes locking, and in that instant he understood the bay’s bravado, recognizing it as his own. The horse wasn’t mean, he was wary, unwilling to grant his trust or yield his free spirit.

 

Each of the three cowboys took their turns with the horse; each of them climbed aboard and was tossed within seconds.

 

In the midst of the rodeo, Carlton and his foreman strolled up to watch, the rancher looking nonplussed. “Bascomb, I told you that jugheaded bronc was a waste of time. And dangerous. I don’t want to see another man hurt.”

 

Bascomb was shaking his head. “The boys are just lettin’ off some steam, boss.”

 

“That widowmaker busted up two good cowboys already. The doctor said Arlo’s leg is broke so bad he won’t be able to work for months.” He looked at the cowboys with disgust. “I don’t want another invalid around here, eating at my expense while he’s too laid up to work.”

 

Ah, worried about his pocket book, not his hands. And it was the work of this gutsy little horse that was why he had a job, Jess realized.

 

“That’s the best horse in the bunch, boss. He’s just tougher than the others,” reasoned Bascomb. “He’ll be worth somethin’ when he’s broke.” He was looking in at the little bay who was standing across the corral from the men.

 

“He’s already cost me more than he’s worth. Enough’s enough, Walt,” Carlton decided. “Tomorrow, take him out and shoot him.”

 

Jess made a snap decision. He straightened up and in a voice that was low but steady, his fury at Carlton’s callousness barely controlled, he spoke up. “I’ll take him.”

 

Carlton spun around and glared at Jess in surprise. “You’ll take him?”

 

“You said I could have my pick a’ these mustangs,” Jess reminded him defensively.

 

“Find yourself somethin’ easier to tackle, Reb,” Bascomb suggested with a warning glance.

 

“I want the bay,” Jess answered stubbornly, the smoldering look in his eye mirroring that of the mustang.

 

Carlton looked into Jess’ eyes, and Jess lifted his chin and stared back. “It’s your neck, cowboy.”

 

“I reckon it is.”

 

<~~~~~~~~~~>

 

Jess trailed out of the ranch yard around noon of the next day. He’d spent the morning putting together his grub and his gear, the supplies he’d need to fix up the line shack, and picking out two ranch horses to be his working string. He saddled up the dun, used the roan as a packhorse, tied his own Rocky on behind the roan’s tail, and snubbed the bay mustang to ol’ Rock, who wasn’t about to take any guff from the little bay. Rocky didn’t have a fancy bone in his body; he was slow and stolid and probably half work horse, and the years he’d spent as just that for Uncle Bud had made him a no-nonsense worker.

 

The little bay resisted, but Rocky outpulled him, and the ungainly caravan was soon headed down the trail, Jess following the directions he’d been given to go along with the crudely drawn map folded up in his pocket.

 

He arrived at the line shack as dusk turned to full darkness. The cabin was ramshackle and badly in need of repair but the corral was sturdy. Jess put the little bay inside, hobbled the other horses to take advantage of the sparse grass along the cottonwood-lined creek. He ate the food the cook had sent along, rolled up in his blankets in the dust near the corral, and slept.

 

In the morning, he discovered how isolated he was. There was nothing in sight but a long, sweeping vista of rugged, rolling hills; there was no company but his horses.

 

And that suited him fine.

 

Alone in the hills, he began to unwind, to feel the coiled darkness the war had left inside him begin to loosen and dissipate, the dark memories of the fury of battle and the horror of the prison camp slowly receding into the past, leaving his sleep untroubled except by the howling of the coyotes.

 

He worked hard; first fixing the shack’s roof and chinking the walls to keep out the wind. He rode the fence line and turned back cattle, pushing them back south, content to hear only the sounds of the wind, his own stock, and the wild animals. He kept the ponds cleaned out, the springs running clear and free, watched for signs of predators and Indians, though he saw neither.  He cut wood for the cookstove, the hard work and plain but plentiful food restoring muscle to his lean frame. The solitude soothed him in the way the open range had always spoken to his soul and bid him welcome.

 

Every morning and every evening he worked with the bay horse, but not in the way the Circle C cowboys had. There were no ropes and no saddles; no shouts and no anger; no restraints and no fear.

 

Jess would talk to the horse every morning as he fed the animal, his voice soft and gentle, his movements slow and measured. Evenings, he’d bring his meal outside and ease under the corral’s solid bars, leaning his back against a fence post and stretching his legs out in front of him while he ate. Quiet and calm, he watched the bay, expecting nothing of the horse but to accept his presence.

 

“We’re two of a kind, horse, you and me, you know that? Neither one of us understands how to give in.” The mustang flicked an ear in Jess’ direction, listening to the smooth voice. “I ain’t a bad sort, y’know. My aim ain’t t’hurt ya none. Horses generally like me, most times.”

 

Day by day, the horse calmed until his curiosity won out, and he began moving closer and closer to the cowboy, one tentative step at a time.

 

It was the bay who made the first contact, one evening extending his soft nose until it touched the toe of Jess’ boot. His snort made the dust fly, and the cowboy laughed. The mustang, spooked, spun and ran but stopped and soon returned, curious once again.

 

Jess worked slowly, relearning the patience he’d lost in the four years he’d been caught up in the madness of war. Day by day he stayed calm and steady until the horse no longer shied away from his extended hand, until he had won the animal’s trust and could touch the sleek bay hide and finally brush it.

 

They moved on step by step, Jess reintroducing the trappings of the working horse, the halter, the blanket, the saddle and the rope, letting the bay work through his fear and accept one new thing at a time.

 

The first time Jess set the saddle pad on the broad back, the bay twitched his skin and showed his displeasure by lifting his hind legs in a buck-kick that sent it flying. But Jess didn’t give in; he retrieved the blanket and put it back in place and waited, ignoring the little horse’s pinned-back ears.

 

Next the bay was ready for the saddle, not tossed roughly onto the horse’s back but lifted and set gently into place, the cinch drawn up slowly. The horse humped his back in protest, but with Jess stroking his neck and talking softly, in a few moments the bay relaxed and didn’t fight it.

 

It was all going very well until the day Jess stepped up into the stirrup.

 

The little horse had shown he was willing to be friends with the human but the next step would show that he just wasn’t prepared to let the man ride on his back.

 

Jess had saddled the mustang, the horse quietly accepting it. Encouraged, the cowboy carefully placed his boot into the stirrup, gradually transferring more and more of his weight onto the horse’s back. He could feel the horse’s muscles tense, but there was no explosion so he continued, easing into the saddle as he talked soothingly to the mustang.

 

Jess settled down into the seat and a smile began to take shape on his face. “Easy son, good boy, that’s it.” He reached forward and stroked the horse’s neck. “Easy, fellah, easy. See, it ain’t so bad.”

 

The horse did not agree.

 

Jess felt the bay begin to tremble and suddenly seem to get shorter, sinking lower toward the ground. Then, as if he had steam-driven springs in his legs, the mustang leaped straight up into the air. Jess’ teeth snapped shut as the bay landed hard and began to pitch in earnest.

 

Jess did better than the Circle C cowboys --  he lasted four jumps before he blew a stirrup, lost his seat, and flew through the air to hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of him. He pushed himself up onto his hands and knees, lungs heaving and gasping for air like a fish out of water, and finally managed to suck in a breath and climb shakily to his feet. “That was not part of the plan, boy,” Jess muttered in a voice much calmer than he felt, shaking his head and trying to clear the cobwebs out of his brain.

 

The bay stood waiting, halfway across the corral, letting Jess walk up to him. The cowboy steadied his breathing, ignoring the ache in his shoulder that signaled the start of what was sure to be a whole collection of bruises, and once again eased aboard the bay.

 

The calm lasted a few second longer this time, but the result was the same; the mustang blew his top like an erupting volcano and after a few jumps Jess hit the ground hard.

 

Four times Jess climbed aboard the bay; four times the result was the same.

 

The fifth time, something unexpected happened. The little horse stood stock still as the cowboy settled into the saddle, his body shaking so hard Jess’ teeth rattled, but he didn’t buck.

 

He didn’t buck after that, nothing beyond a few half-hearted crow hops as if on occasion the bay needed to remind the cowboy just what he was capable of doing if he wanted to. The little horse turned out to have a natural feel for cow work, Jess discovered, along with a good turn of speed. His trot was a little choppy, but his easy lope made up for it, and once he’d decided to trust Jess, the mustang proved to be smart and willing and loyal.

 

Man and mustang became partners.

 

The halcyon days of that healing summer turned to fall, the days growing steadily shorter, the nights turning cooler and near to cold. Eighteen sixty-five was almost over; winter was on the wind, and change would surely come with it.

 

After four solitary months, one day another Circle C cowboy rode up to the line shack trailing a heavily-laden pack horse, giving Jess the message he’d known would be coming soon. “Boss wants to see you back at the ranch,” the hand said.

 

Knowing his time at the line shack was done, Jess packed up his gear and rode to the Circle C headquarters. This time there were no snide remarks or snippy asides from the cowhands as he rode in. Instead, he enjoyed the looks of astonishment when he crossed the ranch yard aboard the little bay, stepped down from the saddle, and looped the mustang’s reins around the hitch rail.

 

Still, Jess knew what to expect – the spread didn’t need near so many hands in the heart of winter, and he couldn’t imagine Carlton keeping men on when there wasn’t a solid day’s work to be done.

 

He was right.

 

Jess drew his pay, all $16 of it for four months of hard work, and a bill of sale for the little bay horse.

 

As he mounted up to leave, the foreman stopped to say farewell. “Where you off to, Harper?”  Bascomb asked.

“Don’t know,” he admitted. “Reckon this horse n’I are gonna do some travelin’. Head west, see some new country.”

 

Bascomb shook his head. “Never thought you’d tame that ol’ widowmaker.”

 

“He ain’t that. He’s just a good horse that needed a quiet hand.” And needed a better name, Jess thought as they loped out of the ranch yard, traveling west. “Traveler,” he decided. It was a name that fit.

 

They would be travelers together.

 

 

 

~~~~~~~~~~ The End ~~~~~~~~~~

 

 





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