This story is included in the book BROTHERS OF THE MOUNTAIN: Heart of the Frontier.
At the edge of town was an old, weather-beaten sign that had the name Fog Valley carved into it. Riding in were two men appearing leather-tough. The lead rider wore full buckskin attire and a wide-brimmed hat, and the other man, a bit more bulky in the shoulders and chest, sported a canvas shirt and buckskin trousers. Strapped to the top of two trailing packhorses were hefty packs of made beaver pelts, four packs in all, folded and pressed. It was still a day’s ride to the port of the Missouri River where the men intended to exchange those pelts for cash and then purchase and restock their necessary provisions.
Henry McCarty and his younger brother, Lucas, pulled rein in front of a building that had the name Freemont Saloon painted onto it in big white letters. They caught the attention of a few passersby as they slid from their saddles and stepped to the muddy street below. Some merely glanced while others gawked at the two men who resembled a couple of dirty, beat-up drifters. But they were not that at all; they were trappers, mountain men, free to roam as they please, making use of the land and all of its offerings. This life, the one of a frontiersman, was not a means to an easy living. It took a special breed of man to go into the untamed wilderness and try to survive by his God-given ability, and Henry and Lucas McCarty were indeed this type of man.
Lucas glanced up to the sky and saw a blanket of dark clouds hovering. A whipping wind blew, signifying a chance of more storms and rain to come. He tethered his painted horse to the hitching rail and Henry did the same with his buckskin mount.
“Sure is nice to see livin, breathin folk again,” said Lucas as he stood stretching his back and arms. From the pommel of his saddle, he grabbed his pistol and tucked it behind his leather belt.
“Don’t excite me much,” said Henry, the older brother by three years. “Wouldn’t hurt my feelings none if’n we just rode on past this town.”
“Hell, big brother,” said Lucas. “Let’s live a little. We’ve been up in those mountains a good while now. Let’s go in and have a drink or two. Only seems right we howl at the moon every once in a while.”
Henry scanned the atmosphere of the town. “Maybe, but this place reeks of trouble.”
“Why’s that?” said Lucas.
“Don’t know. Most towns just do.”
A wide grin stretched the face of the younger McCarty brother. “Then we’ll fit right in.”
Not long after, a large man with a black hat and a white beard spoke to the brothers as they stepped up to the muddy boardwalk.
“Greetings, men. Welcome to Fog Valley where the women are lovely and the hospitality is aplenty.”
“Thanks, mister,” said Lucas.
“The name’s Sebastian. Sebastian Riley. I run the mercantile store just down the street.” He stuck out his hand and Lucas shook it.
“Glad to know you,” said Lucas. “Me and my brother here are on our way to the river port to cash in this season’s harvest. Just stopped off for a rest and a drink.”
The man named Sebastian stroked his white, bearded chin. Eyeing the stack of beaver pelts, he said, “Looks to me you and your brother did a mite good for yourselves up in those mountains. Say, let me save you a day’s ride. I’ll purchase every plew on those animals, just as sure as I’m standing here. Dollar a piece? What do you say?”
Henry and Lucas knew the man’s intentions, but they were wise to his tactics. They knew the game: buy at bottom dollar and sell at top market value, which they would get at the river port sometime tomorrow, the same top market value that Sebastian Riley would get if he purchased the pelts himself.
“No, thanks,” said Henry. “They’re not for sale.”
The brothers stepped away and Sebastian cleared his throat and said, “Two dollars a pelt, then. You won’t get a better deal—not even at the river’s port. I wouldn’t try to deceive you. This is the best deal you’ll find anywhere.”
Henry gave a cordial nod. “I think we’ll take our chances. Lucas, let’s have that drink.”
“You bet, Henry.”
“Well, if you men change your mind, I’ll be around,” said Sebastian.
Inside the Freemont Saloon, men sat scattered. Some played cards and drank; some sat with saloon girls on their laps and drank; and some sat by themselves and drank. Liquor was not in short supply, even for this establishment, which was well off the beaten path.
A thin, balding gent stood behind the bar looking over his wire-rimmed glasses to the specimens walking in his direction.
“Afternoon, fellas,” said the man.
“Afternoon,” said Lucas.
“What can I get ya?”
“And how about you?”
“I’ll have the same,” said Henry.
“You got it. Two rums coming up.”
In front of each brother, the bald man sat a glass and generously filled them both. “You two just passing through?”
“Yeah,” said Lucas. “Heading to the port. Plan on being there by tomorrow.”
“Thought you might be,” said the man. With a rag, he wiped a splattering of rum from the counter. “The name’s Lyle. Lyle Freemont. I own this place.”
“Glad to meet ya,” said Lucas. Henry nodded and said the same.
“Many trappers stop here on their way to the port. Seems to be the perfect place to recuperate, I suppose.”
“First time for us comin this way,” said Lucas. “We usually do all our business at the rendezvous, but the markup on everything is beginnin to be more than me and my brother here can afford. We figured the further east we go, the better the deal we’ll get.”
“Makes sense to me. You fellas company men?” asked Lyle.
“No, sir. We’re free trappers,” Lucas said proudly.
Henry turned his attention from the conversation. He drank from his glass and occupied himself by looking the place over, studying it, getting a feel for it and the other patrons.
Across the saloon, through the jumbled mess of people, Henry watched as Sebastian Riley walked through the doors and over into a corner where he joined a small group of men at a table. Sebastian scooted up to the table and then gave a friendly nod in Henry’s direction. The mountain man returned the gesture and then brought his focus back to his brother and the saloon owner.
It was then a piercing scream silenced most of the activity within the saloon. Henry watched as a woman ran from one of the back rooms while being chased by a man holding a knife.
“Get back here, you bitch!” yelled the man.
“Go to hell!” said the woman. She was scantily clad in a thin dress, with blood seeping from her shoulder. She ran to where the brothers stood, and Lyle produced a flintlock pistol from behind the counter.
“You leave her be, Wade,” he said, pulling back the hammer.
“You stay out of this, Lyle,” said the man named Wade, still brandishing the knife. “She’s got my money.”
“It’s my money, you cheap son of a bitch!” said the woman.
“I’ll cut your damn throat!” said Wade coming toward the woman, who was now hiding behind the McCarty brothers.
Henry sat his glass on the bar. “You best stop right there.” Lucas also stepped forward to brace the man.
“This doesn’t concern you,” said Wade. “She stole my damn money! What kind of place you runnin’ here, Lyle? You teach all your whores to steal like this?”
“I didn’t steal anything,” said the woman.
“Then what’s he talking about?” said Lyle.
“He didn’t want to pay me because he’s too drunk to get his little pecker working, that’s all.”
“You trying to get out of paying?” asked Lyle.
“I’m not paying a woman who don’t know how to please a man. I ain’t doing it!” Again, Wade lunged at the girl.
As fast as a painter cat, Henry’s arm swooped downward and knocked the blade from Wade’s hand where it landed point down, sticking into the planked floor. Henry then reared back and struck the disgruntled patron with a hard fist, knuckles connecting squarely across his kisser. Wade grabbed his mouth and instinctively went for the pistol tucked behind his belt.
“I wouldn’t do it,” said Lucas, who also had pulled his flintlock and thumbed back the hammer. “It’d be in your best interest not to go for that gun.”
Sizing up his predicament, Wade eased his hand away from his pistol.
“Go on. Get out of here, Wade,” said Lyle. “Go cool off a while. We’ll sort this out later.”
With blood trickling from his mouth, Wade bent down and pulled his knife from the floor.
“You best do that, Lyle,” he said, “or you’ll soon be with one less whore. I can promise you that.” He took a step in the direction of the door but stopped to spit a glob of blood on the floor. He spun and pointed his knife at Henry and Lucas. “I’ll be seeing you two again.” He walked out the door and disappeared out of sight.
“Glad that asshole’s gone,” said the woman as she straightened her dress and smoothed the wrinkles with a few swipes of her hand. “Who’s ready for a drink?”
From the bosom of her dress, she pulled a handkerchief that was bundled and tied with a piece of rawhide, and tossed it on the counter in front of Lyle. The coins inside clinked.
“You might want to check your shoulder, ma’am,” said Lucas.
“It’s only a little scratch. I’ve been cut a whole lot worse. Pour these boys and me a drink, Lyle. They deserve it—since they sort of saved me and all—especially this handsome devil here.” She moved in closer to Henry, showing a keen interest in the rugged mountain man with the dark, shoulder-length hair and high cheekbones.
“No, thanks,” he said. “We’ll be on our way now, Lucas.”
The two stepped from the counter and the woman said, “I’m buying you a drink. Don’t be an asshole. It’s rude to turn down a drink when someone is offering.”
Henry turned around slowly. “I said no, thanks.”
The woman, with hair piled up into a bun, whose complexion favored that of an old piece of creek rock, and whose oddly shaped physique was comparable to a man’s, was persistent with her offer. She grabbed the mountain man by his arm.
“Please,” she started again, using a calm voice. “Will you have a drink with me—the both of you?”
Lucas had entered this town ready for a change of pace. He shrugged mildly, and turned back to Lyle who had already poured the glasses of rum and had them sitting on the counter.
The woman grabbed her glass and took a hard look to the left and then to the right, to the two men she stood between, to the two men who had been forced in the middle of a business deal that was on the brink of turning deadly. She finished her rum and set the glass back on the counter.
“The name’s Ruth,” she said. She noticed Henry still had not touched his glass. “You mind?” Before he answered, she grabbed his glass and tossed it back as forcefully as she had done her own only moments before. “We get all kinds in this town, that’s for sure,” she said as she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Some come for business opportunities, like Lyle and me. People like Wade come to swindle and con. Others are just curious, just passing through, maybe looking for a good time. Maybe that’s you boys?”
Henry had seen and heard enough. Like most towns, this one was not for him. He stepped from the counter. “Time to get goin,” he said to his brother.
“Relax, Henry. Let’s have a drink,” said Lucas. “I hate to seem ungrateful. Besides, we ain’t got nowhere to be. And I’m tired.” He reached for his glass and downed it.
Henry again glanced around the saloon, and thought, I know plenty of places I’d rather be. But he could not argue with his brother. He too was tired. All the long hours of riding had taken their toll. He sighed and reluctantly stepped back up to the bar to join his brother and Ruth.
“That’s more like it,” she said. “Pour another, Lyle. I think our friend here is finally ready to drink with us.” Then she said, “Though, I wouldn’t get too comfortable just yet. See that man over there in the corner? The one with the white beard staring in our direction? The one with the redhead on his lap?” Both Henry and Lucas turned. “That’s Sebastian Riley—Wade’s cousin.”
“Yeah, we met earlier,” said Lucas. “He seems all right enough.”
Ruth said, “Oh, he might seem all right. But he ain’t. He’s sly, that one. A lot smarter than his cousin too, that’s for sure. I reckon he’ll come at you when you least expect it. Just be ready. As far as Wade Farley goes, that son of a bitch has one hell of a fight coming to him. He used to be all right, that Wade—a good paying customer. But the better friends we became, the more he thought he didn’t have to pay me, and the more we’d argue and the more we’d fight. Then he started hitting me around. Tonight wasn’t the first time he’d ever pulled a knife on me, but it was the first time he actually used it. Damn son of a bitch. I keep my gun in the table drawer beside my bed for predicaments like this one. But he knew where it was and I couldn’t get to it. Like I said, that son of a bitch has got a good one coming from me, that’s for sure. Next time I see him it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
Henry sat his glass on the counter and again said, “We need to be goin, Lucas. We’ll make camp on the trail. Ruth, I believe I’ve done seen all I want of this town.”
“Don’t blame you, really,” she said.
Henry headed toward the door.
“I’m right behind you,” said Lucas.
Before he was able to leave, Ruth cozied up to him. “Care for another drink?” She hooked her arm into his.
He was already feeling the effects of the first two. He hesitated, and said, “No, better not. I really need to—”
“Set ‘em up, Lyle!” Ruth interrupted.
Lyle uncorked the bottle once again and poured into the glasses. But it was then Henry charged back through the door, his face fixed with rage.
“Little brother,” he said. “We’ve got a problem—a big one. Our pelts are gone. Every damn one of ‘em.”
At first, Lucas was not sure he heard his brother correctly. He knew what was at stake. Any man who came west and spent any amount of time in the high lonesome knew the struggle it could be to survive. Trappers’ livelihoods were based on their seasonal earnings from the harvested pelts, which at top value brought three dollars apiece.
“Thanks for the drinks, Ruth,” said Lucas.
“Now just where are you two going?” she said, pawing on Lucas’s shoulder, still in pursuit of one McCarty brother or the other. “You don’t even know who took those pelts.”
“I got a damn good idea,” said Henry. “And he ain’t far. Let’s go, Lucas.”
“Thanks again,” said Lucas.
“Hold on,” said Ruth. She followed the brothers to the door. “I’m going with you.”
Lucas said, “This ain’t no trip for a lady.”
Ruth scoffed. “Darlin’, I’m far from being a lady. Besides, Wade took something of mine too.”
“What’s that,” said Lucas.
“My damn pride. He’s hit me and now cut me for the last time.” She paused. “And besides, I’m the one who got you two into this mess. I know where Wade’s cabin is. He’s probably on his way there right now. Let me help.”
Henry still felt she would only be in the way, and he knew they had to leave immediately.
“We appreciate the gesture,” said Henry, “but me and Lucas would fare better by—”
“I’m going and that’s that,” she stated. “Let’s hit the damn trail!”
“Suit yourself,” said Henry. “But we have to leave now.”
“I’ll get my stuff,” said Ruth, smiling triumphantly.
With a sneer on his face and the redhead on his lap, Sebastian watched the three pursuers exit the Freemont Saloon.
Not long after, Ruth had her necessaries gathered and she and the McCarty brothers were heading out of town. The rain fell again and the thunder rumbled through the valley.
She had changed from her dress into a pair of men’s trousers, leather boots, canvas shirt, looking more the rugged type.
Riding along, Lucas could not help but stare.
Ruth, noticing Lucas’s intrigue, said, “You never saw a woman in men’s trousers before?” She then spat to the ground.
“It ain’t that,” said Lucas. “You just look…different, that’s all.”
“Sometimes a person has to don many faces if they expect to survive for very long out here.”
Lucas did not say any more. He found truth in the remark. People had to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances of the unpredictable western frontier. It was a matter of life or death.
They rode a bit longer through the valley, and Ruth pulled rein and gestured with a nod.
“Past that knoll over there, where those hills are, that’s where Wade’s cabin is.”
“Good,” said Henry. He looked around and noticed the rain had stopped. “We’ll wait here a bit and then we’ll pay a visit to Mr. Wade.”
Irritated, Wade entered the front door of his cabin, holding a handkerchief over his mouth. He pulled the door closed violently and the only picture hanging on the wall fell to the ground.
“What’s wrong?” said Wade’s younger brother who sat on a chair at a small table in the middle of the cabin. “You mad at me again?”
Wade stomped around the cabin in no particular direction, and stopped at the window to see if he was still being followed. The more he thought about the incident that transpired at the Freemont Saloon, the more pissed he became.
“Damn it, Ben. Why in the hell would I be mad at you? Quit asking dumbass questions for once in your life.”
“I’m sorry, Wade,” said Ben who carved on a piece of pine which was taking the shape of a flintlock pistol. He stood to go look out the window. “You gonna take me fishing now the rain has stopped? You said you was going to take me fishing. Remember?”
Wade could not keep his thoughts from returning to what had happened in the saloon.
“I should’ve just shot that bastard,” he said, thinking aloud. “And I should’ve cut that bitch’s throat.” He spun and threw his handkerchief against the wall and said, “No, goddamit. I ain’t taking you fishing. So quit asking.”
“Okay, Wade,” said Ben. “You don’t have to take me fishing if you don’t wanna. I’m sorry on account of I keep asking you. I’ll quit asking. It won’t happen again.”
Ben rattled on. He talked about the mouse he had caught earlier in the day and named it Squeaks. He then told Wade about the roof leaking. On and on he went, speaking about the day’s events. Finally, big brother Wade could take no more. He marched over to Ben and, without hesitating, slapped his face, much like how his daddy used to slap his.
“That’s enough, Ben! Quit your damn blabbering. That’s all you do…talk, talk, talk. You never do any listening. Why don’t you shut your mouth for once, you damn half-wit.”
Ben grabbed the side of his face. But he didn’t cry, although he wanted to. The slap stung and he heard a ringing in his right ear. He was used to Wade’s outbursts and often times physical abuse. Crying had been the norm a few years back, but not anymore. He held it in and did not give Wade the slightest pleasure of seeing him shed a single tear. Ben also wanted to retaliate. He was sure he could fight back now. Even at fourteen, he was not much smaller than Wade. He knew he could take him, although for now he did not have the courage to try. Ben balled his fist and his body trembled.
Wade noticed and said, “What’s wrong, boy? You want to hit me? You ready to be a man? Then go ahead…hit me. Let’s see if you got it in you. Go ahead.”
Ben stood, nearly eye-to-eye with his older brother, and considered taking Wade up on his challenge. However, he dropped his hand from his face, clenched his teeth, and sank back into his seat.
“That’s what I thought,” said Wade. “You’re still just a boy, probably missing his momma’s teat right about now.”
Ben held back his aggression. He fought off the urge to curse his brother, the urge to knock him on his ass, which had been pinned up inside for many years now, since his momma had died on the way to the western frontier several years ago. He grabbed his knife and whittled on his piece of wood. He took the abuse once again.
Wade paced around the room and then stopped again and gazed nervously out the window. He thought about riding out, but knew it would do no good. He knew they were coming—the three of them. Earlier, he had doubled back to see if he was being followed, and he was. He would have to stand his ground and fight this time, or try to reason with them, or else devise a viable plan of escape. But time was running out.
A virtually smokeless fire made from a few buffalo chips burned low to the ground, almost impossible to see by anyone from a good distance away. The three sipped from cups of coffee and contemplated their next move. Lucas stood on one side of the small flame, smothering a piece of pan bread with honey that he had gathered from a comb a few days ago. It was not every day that he had this luxury and the few stings that he’d received were well worth the taste of the sweet goodness.
Henry squatted on the other side and Ruth sank next to him, scooting closer.
“Don’t you two ever get lonely up in those mountains?” she asked. She had moved in on Henry close enough to hook her arm into his.
“Not really,” he said. “Me and Lucas keep each other company for the most part I suppose. It’s right peaceful up there not havin to deal with the damn bustle that town folk deal with on a daily basis. Kinda like what we’re dealin with now. If we’d just kept ridin we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
“You wouldn’t have met me either,” said Ruth. She sipped from her cup again and laid her head on Henry’s shoulder. “And besides, town ain’t so bad. There’s always something to do. But I wasn’t talking about that kind of loneliness.”
Henry nearly choked on his coffee when he realized Ruth’s intended meaning. The idea of a warm woman to cozy up to at night did cross his mind from time to time. And, on a few occasions, he had appeased that notion, usually with a young Indian maiden he had encountered at a rendezvous, or at one of the Indian villages he and his brother frequented, but never with a woman such as Ruth, a saloon woman, a whore.
Lucas watched with delight as the conversation unfolded. A childish grin crept to his face as he waited for Henry’s response.
He said, “I guess I do get that hankerin from time to time, but right now just ain’t it.” He swallowed nervously then flung his coffee grounds into the fire. He gently broke free of Ruth’s grasp and walked to the packhorse to put away his cup.
“So what do you know about Wade?” asked Lucas, switching back to the matter at hand.
“It’s just him and his younger brother, Ben, living in the cabin. He’s a little on the simple-minded side, that Ben. He doesn’t get out much either. I also know this ain’t the first time Wade has swiped a passel of hides from trappers like you and your brother—at least most of the evidence leads back to him anyway.”
“I figured as much,” said Lucas. “Once a thief, always a thief.”
Ruth continued. “There’ve been many who were just passing through on their way to the river port that’s had their belongings come up missing. And whenever they come up missing, Wade seems to disappear for a couple days too, and then comes back to Lyle’s with a pocket full of money. Thing is, no one has ever actually caught him with the hides. That’s how he always gets away with it.”
The more Henry listened, the angrier he became. He said, “It’s about time we got those skins back, Lucas.”
The younger brother disposed of his grounds in the fire as well.
“Sure thing. I’m ready whenever you are.”
By now, the moon was full and lit up the sky and the grassy knoll that led to Wade’s cabin. The plan was simple: they would ride in, present their proposition to Wade, and take back what was rightfully theirs. If he didn’t comply, there would be hell to pay.
Riding in, they saw a burning lamp through a window.
“Looks like somebody’s home,” whispered Henry.
The brothers devised a plan, and Lucas ground staked his horse and eased into position. He walked along the edge of a tree line that ran just on the outskirts of the property, and closed in on the cabin. Henry could make out his brother’s shadowy figure and waited until he got himself into position.
With ghost-like maneuvering, Lucas crept easily to one of the windows of the cabin and saw a young boy sitting in a chair at a small table in the middle of the room, carving on a piece of wood. Lucas continued to study the place, but never laid eyes on the thieving culprit, Wade Farley. Then, he heard the boy say, “You think we can go fishing tomorrow? I really want to go fishing, Wade.” The boy spoke to an unlit corner of the cabin that Lucas was not able to see from where he stood outside the window. “I know I ain’t supposed to ask no more, but I wanna go, Wade. How come you don’t take me no more?”
Lucas ducked a little more out of sight when Wade came into view and walked up to the boy. He swigged from a bottle of rum.
“Damn it, boy,” said Wade. “Haven’t we been through all this shit before? We ain’t going fishing.” Lucas watched Wade grab the boy by the hair, tilt his head back, and forcefully pour the bottle of rum down his throat. “Here, drink some of this. Maybe this will make that simple-minded brain of yours forget about fishing.”
The boy choked and spat out the rum and tried to fight off his older brother, but was at a disadvantage sitting in his chair.
“Ain’t that good stuff, boy?” said Wade through a self-satisfied grin.
Lucas had seen enough. He signaled to Henry by mimicking the call of a whippoorwill using a cupped hand over his mouth. Henry, wielding twin flintlocks, heard the signal and yelled up to the cabin.
“Wade Farely! Get your ass out here, you thievin son of a bitch!”
They waited a few moments, but no answer came from the cabin.
“Maybe he’s not in there,” said Ruth.
“He’s in there,” said Henry. Then, “If you don’t hand over those pelts we’ll burn your goddamn place to the ground. That’s a promise.”
When it seemed Wade was not going to answer, the front door of the cabin gently cracked open.
“I don’t have your damn skins,” said Wade. “I ain’t never had them. Ride on out of here and leave me be.”
“Come on out, Wade,” said Ruth. “I’ve been itching to blow your damn head off all evening.”
“Ruth? Honey, is that you out there?” said Wade.
“Don’t you honey me. You’ve hit me for the last time, Wade—or anyone else for that matter!”
Wade said, “Aah hell, Ruth, you still bitter about our little episode from this afternoon? I done but forgot all about that. Ben, go over there and sit down. This don’t concern you. I don’t have your skins, so just ride on out and we’ll forget this ever happened. And, Ruth, I sure am sorry about cutting you this afternoon.” He opened the door a little more, enough to expose part of his face and she fired her pistol. The lead ball plunged into the wooden door, just missing its target.
“You goddamn whore!” he yelled.
“I’ve come to kill ya, Wade,” said Ruth. “I’ll wait here all night if I have to.”
Henry and Ruth waited out in the darkness and Lucas held his position at the side of the cabin. Henry did not want to burn down the cabin, especially knowing the boy was inside. But he knew it would be a good way to get Wade’s attention. Again, the door of the cabin cracked open.
Wade said, “All right, I’m coming out to talk this over. But tell that damn woman not to shoot no more.”
“She won’t,” said Henry. “And it might be in your best interest to leave all your firearms behind.”
“Sure. No problem,” said Wade. “I’m coming out now. Don’t shoot.”
The cabin door swung open and the doorway was empty; only the flickering lamp on the small table could be seen. Then a clumped silhouette of two figures emerged. One was of Wade Farley who held a flintlock to the head of the other shadowy figure, little brother Ben, who was too scared to run or fight.
“Let the boy go, Wade. This doesn’t have anything to do with him,” said Henry.
“Hell, I know that,” said Wade. “But he’s my ticket out of here. Just keep walking, Ben. Just keep walking.”
“I don’t like this, Wade,” said Ben, who was now in tears. “I don’t like this at all. Please, let me go. I promise I won’t ever ask to go fishing again.”
Seeing the flash of Ruth’s gun moments ago, Wade now had a general idea where his adversaries were. He held Ben, backing around the corner of the cabin, using him as a shield.
Then he said, “Here, take the half-wit. He ain’t nothing but a damn burden to me anyway.” He shoved the boy away and commenced to make his getaway around the cabin where his horse was tethered. Except, he did not count on running into Lucas McCarty, who stepped out of the shadows and leveled the man with a hard, balled fist to the side of the head. Wade went down, going out cold, immediately dropping his pistol.
A little while later, Wade came to when he heard the sound of Henry’s voice.
“Wake up, you son of a bitch,” he said. “It’s time you learned your lesson. It was bound to happen sooner or later.” Wade grimaced and the side of his head throbbed. Henry tightened the cinches at Wade’s wrists and ankles. “You gotta pay for what you’ve done.”
Wade’s vision came into focus, and when he looked down, he could not believe what he saw. His trousers had been stripped; he was as naked as the day he was born. His legs were tied securely to two trees, spread wide, straddling a massive anthill with its occupants busily at work.
Wade tugged and pulled at his constraints.
“I wouldn’t move around too much,” said Lucas. “You’ll only stir ‘em up that much more.”
“Where I come from,” Henry started again, “there are three things that we don’t tolerate. One is a liar, two is a thief.”
Keeping his pistol aimed at Wade’s head, Lucas chimed in and said, “And the third is beatin on women and children.”
“Looks like you’ve pretty much covered ‘em all, doesn’t it,” said Henry. He then spoke to Lucas. “You still have that jar of honey, little brother?”
“Sure do.” He retrieved the honey from the packhorse, and then said to Ruth, “I believe I’ll let you do the honors. You’re more than deservin.”
Wade tried to break free once more, but the leather bindings were strapped tight. And in his attempt, the ants become more agitated.
“What the hell you going to do with that!” yelled Wade. He saw Ben sitting on the back of Ruth’s horse. “Don’t let them do this to me, Ben. Don’t let them do it. I’ll take you fishing—anything you want. Please, don’t let them do this to me!
Ben did not acknowledge. He shifted in the saddle and averted his attention down into the valley, staring off into the distance, immune to his brother’s pleas.
“Just relax,” Ruth said. She picked up a stick and stood over the naked man. “I told you boys he had a small pecker. Look at that little thing. Those ants are going to have a time with you.” She dipped the stick and pulled out a glob of honey and it streamed to the ground, landing between his legs. She dipped the stick twice more until a distinguished trail of honey led up to Wade’s exposed genitals. She dumped the rest, spreading it thickly.
Wade pulled and tugged again at his restraints. “You people are damn crazy! This is blamed torture—that’s what this is.” He looked to Lucas. “Just go ahead and shoot me. What are you waiting for?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he said.
Wade continued his plea for mercy. “Please. I beg you. Don’t leave me like this. I don’t have your skins, but I know where they are. Sebastian. Sebastian Riley has your skins. Please. Just let me go!”
“Don’t you worry none,” said Henry. “We planned on payin ol’ Sebastian a visit too—just as soon as we’re done here.”
About that time, they spotted a rider coming up the moonlit valley with a packhorse trailing behind. As he approached, it became clear who it was and what was on the back of the trailing horse.
Both brothers pulled their flintlocks.
Riding in, Sebastian Riley said, “No need to bear arms, gentlemen. I come with peaceful intent, and to return these plews to their rightful owners.”
“See, I told you he had ‘em,” Wade barked again. “Kill ‘em. Kill ‘em now.”
“Just exactly how did you come by these pelts?” asked Lucas.
“I found them,” said Sebastian.
“You best start doin a lot more explainin’ than that, or you’re liable to end up on the ground beside Wade there,” said Henry.
“I’d be glad to elaborate,” said Sebastian. “They were sitting on the back step of my store. Found them there this evening when I went back to do some last minute paperwork. Knew exactly who they belonged to and knew exactly how they ended up there.” He continued. “Wade’s been bringing me skins for about a year now. I buy them from him and then I take them to the port to make a little profit for myself. Me and Wade, we’ve never got into the particulars of where he gets his pelts. I just pay him and he goes on about his business. But I knew he didn’t buy those pelts. I knew that because you two were so damn persistent not to sell them. Anyway, here you go.” Sebastian looked to the ground at Wade. “Looks like you got what’s coming to you, cousin Wade.”
“Go to hell!” Wade tugged and yanked again at his bindings.
“Sure do appreciate your honesty, Sebastian,” said Lucas.
“I suspect you boys would’ve done the same for me,” he said.
Ruth swung into her saddle with Ben. “Guess I was wrong about you, Sebastian. You seem to be an all right fella.” Then she said, “Not sure what I’m going do with Benny boy here. I reckon he can come back with me to Lyle’s until we find a place for him to stay.”
Sebastian said, “He can stay with me. I got a spare room in the back of my store. He can stay there if he wants. He’ll have to work for his keep, of course. What do you say, Ben?”
The boy fashioned a smile that could be seen all the way from Fog Valley.
“Yes, sir, cousin Sebastian. I’d like that a lot.”
“Good. It’s settled then.”
Ruth said to Henry, “If you ever come to Fog Valley again, you be sure to stop in and see me at Lyle’s, okay.”
Henry chuckled slightly, and said, “That’s sure nice of you to say, but the port at the Missouri will be the last town I step in for a good while. Done got my feel of people, enough to last me a long time.”
They all smiled and laughed.
After the good-byes were spoken, Ruth, Sebastian, and Ben headed back to Fog Valley, and the McCarty brothers, with pelts in tow, turned their horses east, in the direction of the port of the Missouri River. Wade, still begging as they all rode away, lay on the ground with his honey-lathered testicles, remaining at the mercy of the mound of stirring fire ants.
Less than a quarter mile down the trail, a blood-curdling yell echoed through the valley, followed by a half-dozen more.
Lucas grinned and said, “I suppose them fire ants found what they was lookin for.”
“I’d say you’re right, little brother. I’d say you’re right indeed.”