Kept

byoshaw©

Author's foreword: Thank you for humbly allowing me to participate in this event with such a stellar cast of writers. I accepted the invitation because I have always loved the Western genre and I'm looking forward to reading some incredible stories. A big and heartfelt thank you to Randi for riding herd on this event and editing my story. Hope you enjoy.

*

The cold steel-gray horizon slowly began to lighten, bringing landscape features into view. I sat motionless, darting my eyes from point to point trying to recognize any potential dangers, my ears focusing to alert me to any foreign sounds that harbored any ill-intent to me. I continued my silent vigil, slowly turning my head to register the scene behind my back and confirm no apparent perils were approaching me.

A flash of motion alerted me, and I immediately grasped the butt of my Colt Navy revolver, ready to draw, aim and fire. A commotion was taking place on the ground approximately twenty yards away near some mesquite brush. The sight of the red-tailed hawk grasping its prey in its razor-sharp talons confirmed no immediate danger. Still, I kept my hand on my pistol as I watched the hawk wrestle with the large rattlesnake.

The rattler continued to writhe in the death grasp of the hawk, twisting and turning to escape, or to fight, to no avail as the raptor repositioned its talons, spreading its wings for balance as the snake's resistance slowly ebbed away.

The hawk looked directly at me as I studied it and gave an angry cry of warning not to interfere or approach. It needn't have bothered. I was of no mind to place myself as an arbiter between the combatants. Had circumstances been different, the snake may have bitten and coiled around the hawk and crushed the breath out of it. I wouldn't have interfered at that result either.

Nature. Cold, impartial, nature.

Since the snake was too large for the hawk to fly off with, it began piercing with its beak and ripping off portions of the snake to devour. The snake continued its death throes, though they lessened as time passed. The hawk continued to pause and study me as it slowly ate its fill. Assured I posed no immediate threat, it continued.

By now, the grey morning began to burn bright with the sunrise approaching to promise another bright azure sky on the plains. I turned and studied the wagons behind me. Soon, the occupants would stir and start their daily constitutions and routines, as would I.

Then, after all was prepared, we would start the daily quest, moving our chain of machines, beasts and humanity forward to the next watering hole ten miles westward in our journey to the gold mines of California. There, we all hoped to sate our needs and desires, just as the hawk was sating its needs. Whether we were successful depended on nature.

Cold, impartial, nature.

I had learned the harsh lessons of nature so many years ago, in the Civil War. "Come with me, Zebulon, and join the fight!" cried my cousin, Isaac. So, we left our homes and family and the hardscrabble earth where our parents struggled to seek out an existence, and went to see the elephant: a term used to describe the glory and honor of war.

There wasn't much glory or honor to Isaac's death. He died at the Battle of Pea Ridge in the middle of the night from a gutshot wound, crying for his mother. I held him as his bloody hands tried in vain to hold his entrails together. My attempt to dig his grave was interrupted by General Earl Van Dorn's orders to retreat. So, I left my cousin's corpse unburied, unattended and unmourned.

Had I been smart, I would've deserted that day, but I was barely in my teens and thought of the dishonor I would bring on my family. I had nothing vested in the war save the desire to repel an invading army off my homeland. Neither I, nor my family owned slaves. We could barely afford to buy seed corn every year.

The only thing that kept me here was the knowledge that running away would be seen as a betrayal of Isaac's sacrifice by my family and friends. I could hardly expect to go home and look for my intended, Alice Williams, to see me as anything other than as a coward, so I resolved to follow my misguided hasty decision to the conclusion.

From there, we fought at Corinth, then came the Vicksburg Campaign, and our numbers steadily dwindled as we suffered from the ineptness of General Van Dorn's leadership. The men under his command had little hope that any of us would survive, and we became reconciled that our suffering would soon be over, given the next battle or two.

That was not to be, as Fate had something else in store for us. The good General made up for his incompetence with his courting of every female that came into his view. That husbands, boyfriends, or fathers would be aggrieved by his behavior held little sway with him until he was killed by an irate husband while sneaking out a bedroom window. So notorious were Van Dorn's offenses that his assailant was never brought to trial.

From there, I made the decision to transfer to a cavalry unit, reasoning that since I was already hell-bound, it would be easier to ride than it would to walk in the infantry. I fought the rest of the war on horseback until we surrendered at Gainesville, Alabama.

I took the Oath of Allegiance and left for home. When I got there, it was all gone. Under Order Number 11, all my kin were removed from their homes and all their property and livestock confiscated. I had no idea what had happened to any of them. Word came to me that my sweetheart, Alice Williams had caught the eye of a Yankee major in an Iowa regiment and eloped with him.

I was eighteen years old, broke, homeless and destitute. All I had was my weathered uniform, a pair of Colt Navy pistols and my horse. I had wasted four years of my life fighting a war that held no advantage for me. I couldn't even think of a soul that owned a slave in our neck of the woods. Still, I would suffer the consequences along with the entire South as Reconstruction began.

I had learned many harsh lessons as to the whims of a capricious Nature during the war, and I learned them well. I realized you couldn't account for every possibility, but you could help your odds by being careful and not relying on others. Those lessons would be reinforced, and other hard lessons taught, as I rode for Texas.

I took work on cattle drives, riding sunup to sundown behind a dusty herd of longhorn steers, gulping down a bowl of beans, gnawing through a portion of concrete-hard bread, and finishing it off with a bitter cup of coffee. Sleep was four hours on a bedroll on uneven ground, pillowed by a hard leather saddle, shivering for warmth by a campfire along with the other ranch hands. Then, awakened to stand watch on the slumbering herd so they didn't stampede or be stolen by Comanches or vaqueros.

Death could come anytime; whether gored by a steer, thrown by your horse, drowned crossing a river, bitten by a rattler, poisoned by alkaline water, or ambushed by rustlers. Cholera, dysentery, malaria, pneumonia, tuberculous, rabies, smallpox, measles, or plague, all took claimed their own.

The agent of death didn't matter. You were hardened by death and inured to its effects. You stood and watch it take someone, divided the belongings of the hapless soul and went about your business.

A shallow grave and, if you had been well liked, rocks provided a small cairn to protect varmints from digging up your corpse, a makeshift cross giving no clue to identity, words fumbled over for a quick ceremony and then back to business.

The only break in the monotony was the short glimpses provided by the cow-towns. Being suddenly thrust with the temptations provided; you could fuck or drink yourself to death, or exchange words with the wrong person and be shot, or knifed, or bludgeoned to death. Even if you won such an encounter, it didn't promise you protection from a lynch mob consisting of the victim's friends and family.

Nature. Cold, impartial, nature.

I heard the footsteps approaching me. I didn't bother turning since I recognized the gait of the person. He stopped by my side as he did every morning and waited wordlessly for me to acknowledge his presence. He stared out at the hawk as it finally flew off with the remains of the snake. I looked down at him.

"Herr Russell, the wagonmeister requires your attendance," he spoke in his broken guttural German-English.

"Thank you, Willi," I replied. "Let us not keep him waiting."

We turned to go back to our semblance of civility.

"Have you and Gretchen eaten breakfast?" I asked.

"Ja, Herr Russell," he assured me.

"What about the oxen?" I asked the question as I had every morning. The answer came forth by rote.

"They all are accounted for, they have grazed and watered and are yoked to the wagons," Willi answered with pride for the accomplishment of the chore. Despite his youth and size, Willi found a technique that allowed him to do a task solo that many men had to pair up with to accomplish.

In fact, as we walked, I noticed several men struggling to get their teams aligned to their wagons. Various people hustled to be ready when the signal came to start the daily drive.

"The wagons?" I asked.

"All wheels and axles greased, all water barrels filled. All goods inventoried and accounted for." Willi promptly responded in a somber manner that he decided all adults should use when discussing business.

"Excellent work, Willi, I will give you and Gretchen a raise at the end of the drive." I replied.

I caught the whisper of a smile appear fleetingly on the child's face as he answered, "That will not be necessary, Herr Russell; we are only performing our contract," he protested.

"Nevertheless, you and Gretchen have earned a reward. When we get to California, I will sell my inventory and pay you and Gretchen double wages."

"Thank you, my Herr!" Willi gasped at the mention of his windfall.

I spied the Wagon Master, William Cutler, barking orders at some hapless family hopelessly trying pull their wagon out of the mire of the riverbank. The wheels were buried up to the axle in muck as the family physically strained to free their vessel.

"Mr. Russell, you will unhitch your oxen and assist Mr. Kohrs in freeing his wagon and accompany them as the two of you catch up with us on the drive," Cutler commanded.

I realized this for what it was. Cutler was trying to put me in my place. It would have made more sense to enlist the aid of livestock and men still unprepared to start the drive, rather than burdening me with unhitching my teams, unhitching the Kohrs' team of horses, yoke my oxen to the Kohrs' wagon, pull them free, unattached my teams, reattach the Kohrs' horses to his wagon, and finally, reattach my oxen to my wagons.

I had persisted in not acknowledging Cutler with the honorific title of Colonel during the entire drive, and now the little martinet saw an opportunity to make me pay.

Without speaking, I allowed my body language to imply my compliance with his order. I turned to walk toward my wagons and caught a glimpse of the smug satisfaction of Cutler's smile as he left to harass another unsuspecting victim of his self-importance.

I had suffered from too many needless incompetent orders during the war and the many cattle drives, and I used common sense to achieve goals rather than satisfy the thoughtless requests. Gordian knots were meant to be cut.

I hailed a nearby wagon in the process of attaching a team of mules to assist the Kohrs. Willi was drafted to walk through the camp and get volunteers to help us. I began digging out the mud-sunken wheels with a shovel and placed tree branches under the wheels to allow the wheels' purchase when we were ready.

In ten minutes, with the assisting mule team and ten volunteers pushing behind the wagon, the wheels rolled over the branches and brought the wagon safely on dry ground. A cheer rose for the successful effort and the Kohrs family went around thanking all for their help. Kohrs was so happy he had taken to shake my hands twice as he went around thanking everyone.

I stopped short Mr. Kohrs profuse third attempt to shake my hand and thank me. Still, he grasped my arm in a comradely fashion and for a moment I thought he would hug me.

"Thank you, sir, for your help," he gushed, "I'm Herman Kohrs, and you are..."

"I am Zebulon Russell, and I'm late attending to my own wagons," I replied, bluntly rebuffing his attempt to be friendly. He recoiled from my cold response.

"I'm sorry, sir, I meant no offense," he stammered. "I only wished to show my appreciation for your assistance."

I interrupted his continued abject apology. "If you wish to show your appreciation, don't camp your wagon so close to the river again. The weight of your wagon will always cause your wheels to sink, that close to water. I don't feel the inclination to help you get your wagon free every morning for the rest of the trip.

Keep your wagon away from the water. It may be an inconvenience to carry water into camp, but it beats having to get you unstuck every morning." I explained.

I could see the knowledge sink into Kohrs' eyes as he digested the lesson he learned. Whether he was intelligent enough to grasp all the other lessons that would come quickly and harshly during this trip, remained to be seen.

For example, his wagon was loaded with heavy and bulky furniture. Already his team of horses was feeling the strain of the weight, and we weren't even close to the Rockies. It was clear to me that he and his family would be stranded at some point when his horses died or pulled up lame. Whether his family survived after that depended on nature.

Cold, impartial, nature.

I turned and walked away and noticed the glare on the would-be Colonel William Cutler's face as he realized that I circumvented his intentions to punish me. I would keep an eye on him. If push came to shove I would be prepared to deal with him like I had so many others. Whether he walked away from the experience or I did depend on nature.

It always came down to nature.

I climbed into my wagon and looked across to see Willi climbing into my second wagon. He firmly gripped the reins, concentrating on the trek ahead. It took all his physical prowess and willpower for the boy to drive the team of six oxen hauling the merchandise I intended to sell to the miners at exorbitant prices and make my fortune.

Each evening, I had to literally lift him off the wagon as we set up camp. That sweaty ragamuffin boy never complained or slacked off. Well, he did protest if he thought I was showing him any favoritism. He insisted on working like a man, so, by God, I would treat him like a man.

When he was ready, he looked across and nodded at me. I took the bullwhip out of the holder beside me on the wagonseat and cracked it across the heads of the lead team of oxen on my wagon. As it lurched forward, I watched a tiny barefooted urchin kneel beside the forward wheels of Willi's wagon, pick up stones and throw them into the flanks of his oxen's team as she shouted a command in German that the oxen apparently understood. Willi's began moving as he strained to steer his teams to follow my path.

The little girl continued to trot alongside his wagon. Occasionally, she would stoop to pick up rocks in her small hand and throw them at the oxen as she assisted Willi in guiding the oxen to follow my path. Willi had to use both hands on the reins so he couldn't use the bullwhip like I could. He was dependent on his little sister, Gretchen, to help navigating the way.

Gretchen, a ball of infinite energy, would walk/trot nonstop alongside Willi for the duration of each day's segment of the drive. Her voice would pierce the sky nonstop as she shouted invectives and abuse to the oxen in her broken English.

"Move, damn lazy bastards!" She yelled while tossing a rock to the flank of the ox she wanted to direct attention to. The equanimity of the oxen to the verbal barrage continued as she bantered at them.

She would only pause to quench her thirst from a canteen slung across her shoulder. Then, she would sprint to her position alongside Willi and start with more spirited insults. If I could hear her, I knew all was well behind me.

As we continued our slow and steady pace, I would occasionally stand up in the moving wagon and peer across the horizon to assure myself there were no surprises looming in our path. I would take the field glasses I liberated from a prisoner of war in some skirmish in Mississippi and study in detail the terrain.

All it would take is dipping suddenly in a precarious rut and losing a wheel and we would be in trouble. Luckily, no perils were present as we continued crossing the Llano Estacado, the staked plains of western Texas. Before long, we would be overtaken by the wagon train powered by horses and mules, and we would steadily lag behind until at last we met them at the appointed camp rendezvous.

That was why I preferred leaving early instead of being too far behind for support if I left when Wagonmaster Cutler wanted me to leave in his parade march fashion at 8AM sharp. Just another bone of contention Cutler had with me. Before our paths separated, I was sure there would be more.

As predicted, wagons began passing us on either side, the yokels' drivers hooraying as they proceeded to pass us. I paid them no mind as I allowed myself a moment to reflect on how I had gotten to this point in my life. All due to nature.

Cold, impartial, nature.

I was riding drag on a cattle drive as we entered Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Drag riding a cattle herd is a hellish task, and one not that befitted my seniority and expertise, but the rancher's son had allowed too many steers to get lost through his incompetence, so I was paying the price as I hustled through the dusty cloudy, trail, spitting out grit to keep my mouth wet as I maneuvered the recalcitrant beasts lagging.

By the time I got settled, all my co-workers had staked claims to the whores, saloon tables, and dining tables in just that order. I stood watching with little hope that anyone of the three pursuits would have an opening soon for me. As I continued to watch, I noticed a large group of the towns-people mingling and getting increasingly agitated. It didn't look like any of our bunch caused the problem, but then, you never could tell, so I moved my back to the wall and my hand resting on the butt of my pistol.

"Hey mister, do me a favor!" The bartender motioned to me, "Take these plates across the street to the jail and give the prisoners their meals."

"Why can't you do it?" I asked.

He gave a hard grin, "We caught a couple of hombres robbing the bank today, they killed some of our citizens and we had to catch them after we got up a posse. Now, we're deciding what to do with them."

From his countenance, there was little doubt what was in store for the prisoners. I shrugged, took the plates and went across the street to the jail. I entered the bare one cell unguarded building and the two miserable men sitting on the dirt floor looked up to me.

"Got your meals here. Was I y'all, I'd hurry up and eat them," I said and handed the plates through the bars.

"Wait a minute!" One of the two stood up, reached through the bars and gripped my arm in desperation. "How would you like to have a thousand dollars? All you have to do is unlock this door."

"Friend," I replied, "I do that and I'll be swinging alongside the both of you in just a few minutes. Besides, it doesn't look like you got a thousand dollars on you. Otherwise, why did you try robbing the bank?"

He nervously licked his lips, "My name is Henry Newton Brown, I'm the Sheriff over in Caldwell, Kansas. I used to ride with Billy the Kid as a Regulator in the Lincoln County War. Billy will pay you!"

I laughed.

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