Some men came early and returned to the far places a few days later, others just caught the tail end, and were soon left standing in a trampled meadow littered with the leftovers of a hundred camps. A few of the sociable sort, like Jake Martin and three of his friends, came early and stayed for the whole show.
Jake slept late that morning, well after daybreak, and woke up hung over. He crawled stiffly from his blankets, and spent a moment or two getting his eyes focused on the surrounding camps and forested hills. His gaze finally settled on a lone rider working his way down the slope from the north and leading two packhorses. Jake shaded his eyes and squinted. The rider was clad much the same as the rest of the men camped around the valley; buckskin shirt and trousers, fur hat, moccasins, and he had a gray blanket pulled around his shoulders. His rifle lay across the front of his saddle.
Wake up, boys! Jake shouted to his still-sleeping friends sprawled around the smoldering fire. Looks like ol Ezra Conner finally found his way here!
The other trappers shook the sleep from their heads and stared toward where Jake was pointing.
That sure looks like Ezras horse, alright, Charlie said. That pintos hard to mistake.
Ned asked, Be that him? Dont look big enough to be Ezra!
Didnt Ezra have his boy with him last spring? Where be th boy? Will asked.
Jake was the first to see the rider clearly. That aint Ezra--thats th boy!
Jake and his three friends walked out to meet the rider, and the boy reined his horse a few yards short of the group. He was about five and a half feet tall, and had the lean, hard, stringy look of skin stretched tightly over muscle and bone. His dark hair was crudely trimmed at about ear-length.
The boy stared down at them, his face without expression, his gray eyes resting on each for a moment before shifting to the next. His gaze settled on Jake, and he moved his mount a few steps closer. Howdy, Jake, he said.
Jake reached up, offering his hand, and the boy grasped it. Names Lonn, aint it?
Lonn Conner. Ezra Conner was my pa.
Had some troubles. Early winter. Up on the Red Rock. Got a knife in his belly. Went poison.
The boys fragmented speech was not unusual to Jake and the others. Like themselves before the rendezvous, it had probably been months since hed actually spoken to another human. Many took to talking to their horse--or even the rocks and trees--just to keep in practice.
Real sorry to hear that, Lonn. Curse them red devils!
The news of Ezra Conners death was no great shock to Jake. Of the dozen or so men a trapper might know and see at one rendezvous, the loss of one or two by the next was accepted as normal in those far and dangerous places.
Me an your pa go back some years, Jake said.
He talked of you some.
Well, climb down an cmon over where were camped. You can bed down with us.
Share your fire some, I reckon, but Ill spread my blankets off aways.
Jake led the boy on ahead, and the others trailed behind.
He got somethin agin us--wantin off by his self like that? Ned asked.
Seen others like that, Charlie replied. Been alone so long they cant join up with a whole bunch right off.
They aint but four of us.
Thats four too many for some.
Lonn, aint you gonna join up with us?
Be over in a bit. Jus need my own place. Aint wantin to push in.
You wouldnt be pushin in, Lonn. We all was your pas friends. Ned got his self an elk yesterday, an well be cookin up a bunch of meat come evenin. Eat supper with us an you can tell us about your pa.
Lonn studied and poked at the fire for a few moments. Ill be over, he finally said, but I aint wantin to talk much about Pa dyin. Its kinda hard for me to . . .
Aint no need, boy. We all got things that aint easy to go back to. I wont pry at you, an Ill tell the boys to leave it be. Jus get yourself settled in. Sleep some if you want. Wont nobody bother nothin--well keep watch for you.
The boy leaned and propped on one elbow. He smiled for the first time. Reckon I might do that. Been a while since I could jus lay back in the sun an nap.
Jake, as unofficial leader of the group, was stretched out on the ground sharpening his knife and tending the huge chunks of elk sizzling on an iron skewer above a slow fire. A kettle filled with rice simmered at the edge of the coals. Ned, with Wills unwelcome supervision, was worrying a pan of biscuit dough with a wooden spoon.
You need to put in more water, an more starter, or them biscuitsll turn out like rocks! Will urged. Theyll hang up in a mans insides an hell never get em through!
You dont need to eat none of em if youre scared! Ned answered, without interrupting his stirring.
The mans gonna kill us all! Will said. How you be, Lonn?
Jus fine, the boy said, smiling. He squatted on his heels near the biscuit makers and pulled a cloth bag from inside his shirt, then offered it around. Here, chew on some of this jerky. Made it myself an it aint killed me yet!
Well, if it aint killed th cub, it aint gonna hurt a ol bar like me! Will reached, took a piece of the dried meat, and bit off a chunk. Passable jerky, boy, what you make it outta?
Dont rightly remember, Lonn said, grinning. I got awful busy bout the time my mule died.
Will continued chewing. Dont matter. Et mule before, probly will again.
Wont be eatin mule tonight! Jake said. This elks about done. Get everything else hurried along, an well have us a feed!
Feel a bit guilty, not bringin nothin but my hungry, Lonn said. Got nothin left but a handful of rice, an thats half rank. Gotta wait for the bugs to float fore you boil it.
Seasonin! Will mumbled around one of his biscuits. You can fling somethin in the kettle tomorrow night.
Sure, Lonn! Jake said. I sneaked a peek at your furs while you was sleepin. Thems a fine bunch! Oughta get two an a half, three dollars a pound for em.
Sure hope youre right. Im right down to the short enda nothin on most everything.
Whiskey, rum, and other mixtures of alcohol were pleasures mostly reserved for rendezvous time--not that the trappers wanted it that way. Liquid-filled crockery jugs were simply too heavy to horse-pack into the mountains, and kegs were too fragile. Most took along some, but not much. Rendezvous was a different matter.
Jake tilted the jug, took a swallow, and almost choked. Charlie--you been lettin this jug set under somebodys mule again?
Charlie grinned through his beard. Not that I member! Hand it here iffen you dont want none!
Jake took one more swig, then passed on the jug. Aint so bad once you gets used to it, he croaked.
Charlie, Will, and Ned each had their share, then Ned handed the jug to Lonn.
Reckon Ill pass, Lonn said. Still got a belly too fulla meat.
Guess youll be headin back east soon as you sell your furs, Jake said
No, theres nothin back there. No family, no home place. Thats how I come to be here with my pa.
You cant stay out here, Lonn! Jake said.
Why not? You own it all of a sudden?
No, Lonn---course not, but youre jus a boy. You cant--
I already done it! When Pa died--I didnt tuck tail an run for some settlement! I stayed out the season. You seen the pelts I brought in. Biggest part of em is mine, not Pas. We hadnt hardly got started when he went under.
How old are you, Lonn?
Sixteen! That aint got nothin to do with it!
That aint how I remember your pa sayin.
All right---turned fifteen a couple months back. Still aint got nothin to do with it!
An youre wantin to go back out trappin? Alone?
What else is there?
Maybe you could get work at one of the forts.
I aint bein nobodys camp dog an I aint workin for no company! Im a Free Trapper! I got Pas outfit. Its mine by right. We done good the last couple of seasons, bought good. Didnt drink it all up, like some!
Theres some it takes hold of real bad, Jake said.
Thats for sure! Charlie said from the other side of the fire. Like Sam Barker. He aint drawn sober breath one since he got here, an that was a week ago. Traded off what second-rate pelts he had an all hes drawn on his credit come in jugs. Gonna have a hard year, that man is!
Aint even a happy drunk, Will put in. Gets mean an goes round seein what he can stir up.
Speakin of the devil--aint that him over there with them boys? Ned said.
Charlie rolled over and shielded his eyes from the fire. Looks like. Got them other ones with him, too. They mostly jus follow along to see what Sams gonna do.
Looks like theyre headin our way, Jake said. Aint we a lucky bunch!
You boys takin in orphans now? Sam Barker rumbled.
Thats Lonn Conner, Ezras boy. Jake said. Ol Ezra went under first part of winter. Lonn stayed the season an brung in a fine load of furs.
Barker ignored the news of Lonns father. Reckon havin that pup in camps cheaperun havin to pay some squaw for your pleasures!
Lonn bristled and sat up from his relaxed sprawl beside the fire. You hadnt ought go judgin other people by your own habits, mister.
Smart mouth whelp! I oughta take my belt to you!
Aint gonna happen, mister! the boy snarled as he uncoiled from the ground and stood facing Barker. You aint whippin me!
You think not, boy? Barkers hands moved to the buckle of his wide leather belt. Lets jus see!
The fire danced and flared, casting an uncertain light. None had seen the movement of the boys hand, but now as they looked, the firelight glinted from the keen blade of his Green River knife held loosely at his side.
Not now, not ever! Lonn continued. You try, mister, Ill kill you!
A low murmur passed around the gathered circle of Barkers companions, but no one moved to intervene.
His daddy could use a knife some, one of the men whispered. Wonder if he learned the boy any?
Hes kinda little, but I bet hes quick, another said.
Barker moved a bit to his left to get the glare of the fire out of his eyes. The boy stood apparently relaxed, his knife still gripped at his side, the blade lying back along the inside of his forearm, edge outward. Only the working of the muscles along his jaw revealed that he was no more relaxed than a coiled rattlesnake.
Barker met the boys gray eyes, and saw more than he wanted any part of. The pale, cold intensity there warned that only one of them--man or boy--would walk away from any fight.
I be waitin, Lonn said.
Barkers hands dropped to his sides. Jus said I oughta, is all! he mumbled. Howd that sound--me stickin some boy half my size?
Or getting stuck by one, one of those watching said with a chuckle.
Barker pretended not to hear, turned slowly, and shuffled off into the darkness. Lonn turned and took a step as if to follow the man.
Set down, Lonn! Jake said. Dont let the likes of Sam Barker ruffle you! Set, now!
Lonn sat, still seething at Barkers threat. Aint nobody layin hands on me! he said, a cold edge to his voice. My pa--
Let it be, Lonn! Jus let go of it! Jake urged.
This time as the jug passed, Lonn twisted it around over his elbow, tilted it, and took a long swallow of the foul whiskey. His throat felt as if hed poured down molten bullet lead, but he managed not to choke. The warm glow of the alcohol spread from his stomach, and slowly he relaxed. I reckon I shouldnt take things so personal, he finally said.
You wasnt wrong, Lonn, Jake replied. Aint any man here wouldve took Barker sayin that.
I dont mind th funnin, Jake. I know bein young I gotta put up with a lot, but him sayin he was gonna--
I know, Lonn. Here, have you another swig outa this jug an cool down some.
No, I dont take to it all that much. Seein somethin like Sam Barkers reason enough. One swallow once in a while does me jus fine.
Lonn had done well, they all agreed, especially being young and alone. The load of prime beaver pelts would bring a good price, and provide all he would need for the next year and the season of trapping. Might even have some left over to put back in case the next season didnt turn out so well, they suggested. His needs were simple; powder and ball for his rifle, sugar, salt, rice, beans, flour, tea, and coffee. It was also usual to take along some simple items for trade or gifts to the native tribes. A small mirror, a few bits of bright ribbon, and a twist of tobacco could help to establish a trapper as another man trying to earn a living in the wilderness, rather than an arrogant intruder.
Well all go along, Lonn, so them fur company traders dont cheat you. Charlie offered.
They aint gonna cheat me! I wont let that happen!
That theres what scares me, boy, Jake said. Well jus go along so they dont get tempted to try.
The trappers had little choice. Travel all the way back to the closest outpost would have taken too long, and they needed to get back to the mountains before winter set in.
Lonn presented his furs to the company buyer, and the man sorted and graded them into two piles.
All of those, the buyer indicated the largest pile, will go as prime fur, three dollars a pound. Those other dozen or so, two-fifty.
Lonn glanced at Jake, questioning the grading. Jake nodded in agreement. The company buyer weighed the furs and wrote out the receipt.
You can take this to the clerk and get what you need, he said, handing the receipt to Lonn.
Lonn scowled at the handwritten note. This is what I get for a years trappin? I want cash money!
The company buyer sighed impatiently. If you could read, boy--
I read some! Write, too!
Then you can see that you have credit with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in the amount of three hundred and fifty-two dollars.
Jake? I aint sure about this!
It works like he says, Lonn. Aint much use to hand you gold here so you can walk a hundred feet an give it back.
Ill take a jug, too. What you drink, not that rot you poison Injuns with, Lonn added.
Do these men let a boy like you drink whiskey? the clerk asked.
Lonn stiffened, but before he could reply, Charlie stepped in. A Free Trapper dont need nobodys leave to do nothin--company man!
No offense, gents. Ill get that jug and weigh out the mans order.
An keep your thumb off th scale, too! Jake said. If Lonn here has to pay for your thumb, hell be takin it with him!
The clerk eyed Lonn and the others and spoke to Jake. Is that true, what I heard about this boy taking all those pelts by himself and being out there in that--that godforsaken wilderness alone?
Sure is! Jake said.
I wont try to cheat him. I do believe he would cut off my thumb.
Charlie had been waiting for this opportunity. Two years earlier, hed caught his left index finger in a trap and lost the first two joints. He displayed the stub to the clerk. Course hed do it! I stuck my finger in his coffee once, an look what he done to me--a friend!
Ned and Will turned away, unable to maintain straight faces. Lonn managed a menacing grin, while Charlie and Jake played their parts well and glared at the clerk.
You people are barbarians! the horrified clerk said. If I survive this journey I will never come back to this uncivilized land!
Well, since youre here now, get Lonns supplies ready! Charlie said. Well be back later.
Must be the whole place knows about your trouble with Barker last night, Lonn, Charlie said.
I aint likin it much, bein the one theyre all talkin about.
We dont need to keep on, if you dont want, Jake said. That company clerk oughta have your outfit set out by now.
Rather jus go back an get it an head for my camp, if nobody cares.
Fine with us, Charlie said.
You aint fixin to up an leave so soon, are you, Lonn? Jake asked.
Done what I come for, Jake. I stay longer theres jus gonna be more trouble like last night. You and these boys are fine, but the rest of em will want to devil me-- specially after last night.
Reckon you might be right, Lonn. Theres always one wholl have to say he wouldnt walk off like Barker done.
I sure never wanted no troubles, but theres some what think they got some right tellin me how things are gonna be. Pa was like that. It was right an proper when I was little, I reckon, but I aint little no more. Aint been in a while.
A boy grows up quick out here, or he dont grow up at all. Youre at least stayin for supper, aint you?
Sure, Jake. Then Ill slip out after dark. Maybe that way there wont be none what thinks me an my outfit would be easy pickins out aways.
Hadnt thought of it that way, Lonn.
I gotta. Aint enough I gotta be careful of Injuns, I cant hardly trust no white men neither!
Maybe standin up to Barker like you done was a good thing. Least now everybodyll know you aint scared.
Lon chuckled. Scared? Jake, Im scared a bunch. Cant let that make no difference. Its the only kind of life I want--bein out there in them mountains, seein places no white man ever saw, livin all on my own, owin nothin to nobody. Out there Im free, Jake! I lived in a town fore Pa come an got me. I aint livin like that again! Theres nothin back there for me.
Where do you figure to trap this time, Lonn?
Same as last. Me an Pa had a place, an I found some others.
Aint sayin, huh?
Nope! the boy said with a quick grin.
Bunch of em! Flathead, mostly. Some Nez Percé. Ive learned a little hand-talk.
You mean theyre friendly?
Not exactly friendly--we jus dont kill each other.
Reckon thats a good thing when theres a bunch of them an only one of you.
Reckon it is, Jake!
Reckon Im near ready, Jake.
Youre bound to do this, are you, Lonn? Go back to trappin again? Charlie asked.
We been talkin, Jake said. Youre welcome to partner up with the four of us, if you want.
Sure, Lonn! You proved yourself already, with what you done last season, Will said.
Youngun like you still needs some watchin, Ned added.
An right theres why I wont do it! Yall would be tryin to take care of me, stead of doin what you oughta, an get your own selves in trouble. No--Ill go it alone. That way if I do wrong, aint none but me gotta pay for it.
Nobodyd blame you, Lonn, Jake said.
I would, Lonn said. Id best get goin. I want some miles behind me fore Im missed.
The boy turned and walked into the darkness. A short while later, the trappers heard the splash of horses crossing the creek, then nothing more.
The boy made no real camp that night and did not light a fire. By morning he was confident that no one had followed. It was not so much Sam Barker he was concerned about, but there were others, he knew, who were not above following and robbing a lone trapper somewhere along the trail.
Lonn rode carefully, quietly, for another two weeks, continuing toward the northwest. At the head of the Wind, he turned more to the west, crossed the Snake River, and headed north just beyond the prairie known as Jacksons Hole. Another week brought him through the Beaverhead range to the headwaters of the Red Rock, and to the place he called home.
The cabin was crude, even by the standards of a Free Trapper. Dug halfway into a gravely bank, it was only a few logs high. At about eight by ten feet, it was smaller than the attached shelter for his horses. The mud and stick chimney of the tiny fireplace was only a foot above the sod roof.
Ezra Conner had chosen wisely when he built the cabin on this site. It was up a narrow coulee, still on flowing water, but far enough from any route used by Indians or other trappers to avoid being found by accident.
Lonn approached cautiously, looking carefully for any sign that his home had been discovered. He was relieved to find none. His secret, he hoped, was still safe. As a lone trapper, a large part of his survival depended upon not being known.
After unloading and turning the horses to pasture in a brush-fenced meadow behind the cabin, Lonn lit a fire and set to cooking his first real meal since leaving the rendezvous. He cooked outside, and would spread his blankets there. Cabins were for winter shelter when needed, not for living in.
There was one thing more to be done this first night home. Lonn walked a short ways along the stream bank to a stone cairn, his fathers grave.
The boy knelt beside the pile of stones and picked at the litter of leaves and twigs scattered over it.
Got a good price for my beaver, Pa, he said softly. Done real good. Talked to Jake, an Charlie an Ned an Will, too. They tried to make me go back east. Told em I wouldnt. Reckon you was right about me havin a real mean temper. Near got in a fight with a man. Said he was gonna whip me like you done. Couldnt let that happen. I jus couldnt. Told him Id kill him for tryin, an I reckon he believed me cause he backed off an let me be.
The boy rose and turned to leave. He looked back toward the dark pile of stone. I sure wish youd backed off, Pa, he said, his voice cracking slightly. Damn, I wish you had!