Settler's Law, novel by D.H. Eraldi

I hope you enjoy reading the first chapters of SETTLER'S LAW.

D.H. Eraldi

Settler's Law
D.H. Eraldi

Prologue

Winter, 1869

He expected to hang with Whitey and the others, but old Judge Carlyle just could not bring himself to condemn a thirteen year old boy. They made him watch, though. He’d seen the whole thing. He sat in the sod walled store room used as a jail, and watched Whitey and Jed and the Tejano eat beans for their last supper.

The boy’s plate sat untouched, the men’s murmuring spilling around him unheard. At dawn he walked with them to the gallows steps, the silence so total that when Whitey turned to him and spoke it was like thunder from the flat clouds.

“You go home, Sett. Fix up that little cabin. Go back to your people. Tell ’em you’re sorry.” Then Whitey climbed up to end his life dangling against the brightening sky.

 

Spring, 1883

He lay on his belly in the shadows of the pines, and watched down on the homestead. The rocky ledge crumbled away to a grassy slope, and then stretched mildly toward the cabin with its rail corral and feeble garden patch. There was a woman kneeling in the garden, her back to him as he squinted from his hiding place.

It was so familiar, even with the new barn where he remembered a shed. This was foolish, hiding up here when he wanted to jump up on the fine bay mare behind him, and gallop into that spring fed meadow with a whoop to announce his arrival, like when he was a kid rounding up the team for his father. But he was no kid now.

He squirmed forward on his elbows, pine needles working their way through his shirt and into the front of his pants. He did not flinch, intent on watching the woman in the garden. Was it her? A bonnet covered her head, and the voluminous skirts spread in the dark tilled soil, concealing her shape as she planted this year’s vegetables. The sun had moved from one tree top to another. Still he waited.

The fine bay mare snorted softly from her picket. Sett scrambled backwards from the edge and rolled over to check on her. She was a prize. Tall and elegant, out of place wearing his old beat up saddle and the bedroll and saddlebags hanging off the side. Sett won her in a poker game, barely able to contain the surprise as he gazed down on a handful of spades, and bet a month’s wages. The foreman had placed the filly’s papers on the table, and Sett laid down his cards. He asked for a bill of sale, and went out to the corral to see his new horse.

One look, and Sett was saddling up the rough colt he had ridden in on and tossing a catch loop over the sleek brown neck of the tall filly. In his hurry to get out of the little town, he paused at the mercantile and spent some of the winnings on a rifle and a long coat, then he disappeared into the back country and began the rambling journey north.

But the good horse did not make him any more welcome at the farms and towns he passed. More than once Sett had been accused of stealing the horse, mostly by men who learned his name. It bothered him, but he guessed it was to be expected. A man with his history riding a fine big horse, and traveling hard.

“Hooo, mare,” Sett crooned to settle the horse below him in the trees. She gazed at him with huge dark eyes, mare-ish ears swiveled to catch the familiar voice. Sett wondered if she understood his thoughts, they were in such close company. The poker game had been a stroke of great luck, he reflected, and he did not consider himself particularly lucky. In fact his life seemed much the opposite. Winning big was perhaps a good sign. He considered this as he crawled back to his look-out over the homestead. Even with the newer barn, it was modest. The log house, bare front and single window, looked as he remembered it. The garden was in the same plot between the barn with its abundant manure supply and the spring. One hundred sixty acres, not really enough to ranch and not the country to farm. Still, it was his family’s, or had been. A lot of thought went into coming back here, fourteen years' worth of thought. Now he hid above his home and watched a woman in the garden.

The door to the cabin swung open and a figure stepped out. Female, obviously, and young. Sett calculated the years. He studied her as she walked across the worn grass yard to the spring and bent to fill a bucket. As if resigned, her shoulders drooped and her head bobbed with every step. Sett strained to catch a glimpse of her face she trudged to join the other woman in the tilled earth.

Elizabeth had looked like him, and like younger brother Ben, all three with their mother’s deep hazel eyes and square jaw, all three with their father’s golden hair and tall build. But Elizabeth had been hardly more than a toddler when he had last seen her.

Neither woman looked up. They seemed oblivious to the mountains behind them, unaware of the red fox sneaking along the meadow behind the cabin, and clearly unconcerned that someone could be watching.
Sett could never remember being that unwary in the yard. There must still be the occasional Indian and horse thief, along with the more common dangers of chicken-thief coyotes and bears. Things must be more civilized around here nowadays.

He pushed back from the rock and uncoiled himself to full height. Brushing dust off, he unbuttoned his trousers to shake out the needles. He tried to wipe off the grime and stains from his trip, finally going to the roll on his saddle and extracting a clean version of the Henley shirt he wore. The better shirt in one hand, Sett rubbed his face with the other. When had he last shaved? Two, three days? Maybe he should look for a spot downstream to bathe. Hell, he wasn’t going courting. Maybe they wouldn’t even speak to him. Maybe they had forgotten.

But he knew that wasn’t true. He’d gotten two letters when he was still in prison. His family knew he was there and so they must know what he’d done. He hadn’t written back. He had used the two separate sheets of paper to roll cigarettes with tobacco smuggled in by his cell mate. He sat very quiet when he smoked the scrap on which his father had scrawled, “Ben died last night of the cholera. Your mother is well”. Sett thought on that a long time. His mother was well. As well as could be with her eldest in prison and her other son newly dead. But the second letter was worse, and written in a strange feminine hand:

We wanted you to know that Father died last week. Mother could not bring herself to write. He died quietly considering. We have hired a man to help with the ranch. Mother wants to stay. She speaks of you often and prays for you.

Your sister, Elizabeth

So his mother was waiting for him. Had she any idea how long a wait that would be? He carefully tore the letter into little squares to share with Pablo. Four more years. Four more years of sneaking smokes and listening for the guard. Four more years of thin gruel and cold stone walls leaching moisture in the winter. Four lifetime years.
Sett yanked the shirt over his head so suddenly that the mare snorted and backed away. He grabbed up his hat from its resting place in the branches of a choke-cherry and waved it up to his head. When stepping over to the startled mare, though, he automatically slowed and quieted. “Hooo, mare” he breathed as he girthed her up and swung up onto her high back. At least he was arriving home on a good horse.

The mare walked light as deer through the pine forest and down the slope. Sett was not consciously quiet, but when he rode out of the forest’s darkness into the sunlight by the spring, the women in the garden still had not looked up. They were absorbed in dropping three tiny beans into each mound and carefully pouring water from the bucket into the trench. Sett slowed the horse even more, letting her snatch a bite of the meadow grass. Something was not right. His eyes wandered to the barn.

The buckboard was gone. He could see where it was usually parked by the shorter brown grass. No team in the corral. The man must be gone. He couldn’t imagine riding right into the yard unnoticed if a man were here.
Sett scanned the yard without turning his head. He’d been wrong before. The cabin was changed. There was a lean-to room added on behind. As Sett watched, the door was slowly pulled closed. He heard the click of a droplatch in the still mountain air. No one recognized him. He’d have to introduce himself, if he were not shot first.
He let the mare drift to a stop behind the women. They were talking in hushed tones, conspiring. Sett licked his dry lips and tried to summon his voice.

The horse did it for him. Her snort caused the women to stiffen, and the younger one turned to gaze at him. She parted her full mouth but held the scream. Sett never took his eyes off the kneeling figure before him.
“Mama?” His voice was a whisper. The woman turned, and Sett stared into the round blue eyes and heavy boned face of a stranger.

Ria knew he was coming before he’d cleared the forest. Ravens flew up from the nesting trees and the young cow elk who slept in the grove sauntered out--here, at midday. Something was coming down the hill, not a very threatening something, but not a familiar something either. She left off gathering kindling, called her dog to her and began to slide quietly back to the cabin, keeping it between herself and the hay meadow. She could not see Ma’am and Carolyn working in the garden on the other side. Probably nattering away on their plans to escape this homestead in the wilds, when it was she who should be seeking escape.

The stocky blue dog trailed right at her feet, practically stepping into the folded grass of her soft footprints. The dog paused, and raised her pointy muzzle to sample the air. The low growl was hushed by a look. They both heard slow hoofbeats, almost wandering through the grass. A riderless horse? Ria moved again, crouching in the tall growth along the back of the lean-to. Careful to keep one hand on Coy, she peered around the corner.

A man. A strange man on a fine horse.

There were no sounds in the house, no hello from the garden, no surprised greeting. Only a silent man riding into the yard, and Ma’am and Carolyn preoccupied with counting seed beans.

The door into the lean-to opened just off the side, but the man appeared to be concentrating on the women in the garden. She slipped in now before he got any closer.

Dumb white women. She brushed under the blanket hanging over the doorway and carefully pulled the rifle from the corner by the sewing cabinet. Dumb as sheep. Come all the way out here dragging a china cupboard. Still, she would catch hell if they lived through whatever this became, and found a ding in the prize furniture. She glanced over at the dog, lying ears pricked and worried. Then she looked out the window.

The man must have said something. Both women had turned and Carolyn was staring at him with the beginning of panic on her face. The man sat motionless, tightness in his shoulders. Ria put the gun up on the windowsill, and waited.

Carolyn’s face was turning pale, and Ria had the fleeting memory of her fainting when Augie had killed the hog. Ria had never seen anyone faint like that, white hankie raised to cover her face as the pale skin turned even whiter and the trembling knees folded. Ria had laughed, straightening up from the butchering with hog blood on her hands and the skinning knife, but Ma’am and Augie had rushed to Carolyn’s side. The laughter had earned her a beating. Now she did not smile at Carolyn’s paleness.

This dirty blonde man on the obviously stolen horse, he looked like he could rob someone. Maybe kill them. But the rifle was in the scabbard and the hands folded on the saddle horn. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and shook his head as if stunned.

Suddenly he leaned over the mare’s neck.

“Where are they? Where are the people who used to be here?”

The intensity of the movement drew Ria’s eye. The rifle muzzle that had been hovering in the man’s general direction now locked on to him as she sighted. It would be good if he scared the dumb women away, but she would not let him harm them. Augie would not like that. She held her bead just under the buttons of the Henley, but the man did not reach for the rifle or move towards his belt. His eyes scanned the yard, across the tilled earth of the garden, past the outhouse by the edge of the forest, and stopped on the cabin window with the muzzle resting on the sill.

Finally, a use for the curtains Ma’am had insisted on hanging over the window hole in the log wall.
Ria held her breath. The man looked back at the women. He sat very quiet for a long time, the only sound being Carolyn’s attempts to control her sobs. Ria held him in the rifle sights. He was no fool. He knew she was there.
She admired his control, how slowly he shifted his weight to the left and swung his leg over the broad rump of the horse, how he touched the ground as if a bird were landing, how he turned his back directly to her as he entered the dark plot of the garden. He reached up and removed the soiled hat.
“I’m sorry to frighten you, ma’am,” he said as he took the woman’s arm to help her up, “but this is my home.”

Sett wondered when the person in the cabin would make an appearance. He expected shouts, or bullets, but not a sound came from the rifleman with the advantage. The woman was brushing off her skirt with fingers spread and the younger one was finally catching her breath between little chokes. There was sure enough to ask, but under rifle sights, it seemed best to play polite.

“What do you mean, this is your home?” Constance Johnson drew herself up to her shoulder-back stance. Her voice pinched out her nose and Sett could recognize nothing of his mother in her. Where was her man, in the cabin? She did not even glance towards it.

“I mean, I grew up here. This is my family’s homestead.” Sett kept his back to the gunman. At least this wasn’t a hasty man with the trigger. The longer they stood here without shots, the better, Sett figured. He wasn’t the type to shoot someone in the back.

“I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just wanted to surprise my… people. I thought you were them.” Sett swung a low headed glance toward the cabin. “Do you know anything about them? Name’s Foster. I’m Sett Foster.” The woman did not appear to recognize his name. Maybe the reputation had not gotten here faster than he had.
“I never heard of your people. Of course, Carolyn and I are new here, so we are not well versed in the history. My husband could tell you more. He took this place four years ago. It was abandoned.”

“Is your husband here?” Sett tried to smile, or at least look unthreatening.

“Pa went to Verdy. He’ll be back any minute!” The daughter looked pointedly down the wagon tracks. Her mother clenched her already tight jaw.

“Carolyn, hush,” she commanded.

“He’ll be back any minute now,” the girl repeated, “any minute.”

Dithering little piece, Sett thought.

“So who’s holding the rifle on me from the cabin?” Sett asked quietly. He turned and stared right at the single window.

 

Ria froze as the stranger turned to look at her. She could only hear snatches of what was said, but she didn’t miss Carolyn’s fluttering hands or Ma’am’s stiff back. Carolyn’s eyes followed the man’s gaze to the window.
“Mama, it’s the injun girl,” she whispered. The man glanced at her.

Ria took new grip on the rifle stock and again held bead on the space below his shirt buttons. He took her for scared. Now he knew she was a woman and he took her for scared! If he was threatening, if he touched Ma’am or Carolyn… but he just watched the window even though he could not possible see more than a shadow, his dark eyes seeking her out. Ria focused on the spot on his chest and tried to avoid his eyes. She was not a swooner, not like Carolyn, who had just betrayed her.

Damn them, damn these two women who had dropped into her life against her will. It would be easier to let this smooth thief have them, to kill them or whatever it was he wanted, and use the diversion to be on her way. She could head north, to the land of her grandfather. Her mother was the daughter of a medicine chief, it was said. But where were these people, and how to get to them? She had no idea. This cabin was her home now, and these women were no happier here than she, of this she was sure. They were only here because of Augie; Mr. Johnson she was supposed to call him since his white wife and daughter had come west. Silly women, so busy counting beans and hatching plans instead of listening and watching that a stranger had ridden up behind them. But she could not abandon them now. She would not.

Ria dropped her shoulder to ease the building ache. The man still faced her in the garden, his long coat pulled back around his hands on his hips. There were no pistols. His rifle was in the saddle scabbard on the bay mare cropping grass outside the garden fence. She let herself look at his face, the deep eyed face that needed a shave. What was it he’d said when he rode up behind the women in the garden? Mama?

 

The cabin door swung open. Sett showed no surprise, no motion to express his reaction to the small dark figure. She was not much more than a girl, dressed in a odd mixture of blue calico and beaded leather. It had been a long time since he had seen a native woman in leggins but the memory was vivid: Old Talking Crow, his sons with their families behind him, standing in this very yard. Sett’s father, joking and strong and meeting their eyes. Moses Foster had been the earliest of the settlers, and friend of all the neighbors on the plain, including the Blackfeet.
Talking Crow’s women dressed like this, but this girl was not all Indian. Her long braids were dark brown, not black, and her skin was almost creamy. Her eyes, though, were the color of chocolate. Startling as her appearance was to him, it was the dog at her side that held the man’s attention. As Sett started toward them, the merle dog rose and braced her front legs. The bitch’s lips curled a bit and an inaudible growl tipped her head. The girl’s eyes showed no fear. The rifle was carried in the crook of her arm, ready. The dog told him when to stop, and he was closer than he expected to be, all given. He tried to smile, sorry again that he had skipped the bath. Sett suddenly missed his father. What would he do with this fierce little woman defending her home?

“I’m sorry to have startled you,” he began.

“No, not startled,” She looked him in the eyes. So calm and different than the two blonde women in the garden, she seemed totally in control of herself, her dog, and even of him. “We know you were coming before they did”. She nodded her head toward the nervous women.

“Your dog didn’t bark.”

“She does not bark, except in play.”

“And you?” Sett shifted his weight and rested his hand on his hip. It drew her eyes to the knife sheath on his belt. Suddenly she felt that he was quite well armed, even with his rifle in the saddle scabbard forty feet away.
“What do you want? You snuck in here quiet.” Now it was his turn to notice a shift in grip on the long rifle. She asked a good question. What was he doing here? Sett paused and checked back on the two women in the vegetable garden. The young one was casting quick looks down the wagon tracks, the older one watching him with a curious face. “And why call her Mama? You don’t look like her son”.

“I’m not. I was raised here, this is my family’s homestead.” Sett shook his head. “At least it was. I’ve been gone a long time. I wanted to surprise my family.”

“Not sure of your welcome?” She tilted her head back to squint at him.

“No, not quite.” Growing up in prison had not prepared him for this. She reminded him of the badger in the hay meadow, protective, dangerous. And attractive. As a boy he had laid in the grass and watched the sow around her burrow, admiring her pelt and scheming to trap her the next winter. But that next winter had found him in the Tenderfoot holding Whitey’s horses while Whitey shot the stage driver. The last time he was here there was a badger in the hay meadow; now there was a badger in the doorway of his home.

Sett finally smiled. After all the months of traveling, all the nights of worry and speculation, after the shock of the strange-faced woman in the garden--here was someone familiar.

 

Chapter 2

The barroom of the Silver Slipper glowed with an amber light, and August Johnson smiled with satisfaction just to be standing in the doorway. It had been nearly a year since he had last visited civilization, excepting when he had come in to pick up Connie and Carolyn, and then a journey to the Silver Slipper had been out of the question. He surveyed the room. His barn was bigger. The saloon was squeezed into a narrow two story building between the livery and the hotel, each appearing to hold the other up in the brisk winds that swept across the pass. Mining towns grew where the ore was, and this one had the great luck of being on the stage line and later, a stop on the railroad, giving it a life beyond the boom of ’63. Augie scratched absentmindedly under his ribs as he looked for red-haired Maggie. It would be a disappointment if she had moved on, but the bar appeared well stocked and a thin man with a handlebar mustache was watching him intently from behind it. Augie stepped in to the golden light and rested his elbows at the near end of the bar.

“Whiskey,” he ordered and the thin fellow quickly complied. Augie downed the whiskey, then turned to continue the search for Maggie. Ah, there was the cascading red hair, way in the back at the card table. She was perched next to a hatted man, overlooking his hand with her back to Augie. August Johnson was in no hurry. He was here for the night, and he intended to get the most out of his brief time in town.

By leaving the homestead at sunup and driving the empty wagon steadily all day, he had reached Verdy just before dark. The mules were cranky, but at least he was not camping out on the prairie. With the mules and their nasty tempers in the livery corral, he could be sure of getting his money’s worth of the communal feed. He’d load the wagon tomorrow morning and leave by midday, still arriving home in three days and having a night to enjoy the delights of Verdy, Montana.

Augie’s idea of delights had been few and far between these past years. The owlhoot trail he’d traveled had not led to the promised good life in the frontier. It was a wild country out here, and at first the idea that he would not see a single soul, white or Injun or nigger, for months at a time had bothered him a great deal. Still, he had to stay and look. It was his best chance to strike it rich.

It was the loneliness of the place that had prompted him to buy the breed girl, and to send a message to his abandoned wife in Kentucky, but right at the moment he could not think of a better cure for the Montana homestead blues than another shot of whiskey and a turn at Maggie of the Silver Slipper.

Augie crooked a beefy finger at the barkeep, who came scuttling up with the bottle.

“I’ll take this with me,” he said as his hand enveloped the neck of the bottle and he made his way to an empty table where he could catch Maggie’s eye.

Maggie avoided his gaze. She had seen him in the doorway, recognizing him from the year before as the filthy mule-skinner he was, even though he claimed to have a ranch in the Cottonwood Mountains. She studiously watched the card game going on in front of her. This Muldoon she was courting had at least bathed and shaved upon his arrival in town, and was betting like his money belt was heavy. Maggie snuggled a little closer to the man in the black hat, letting her breast graze his hand as he held the cards up for her inspection. Looked like he would have more coins to share in a few moments.

Augie watched the card players lay down their hands, shake their heads and frown as the winner swept the pot into his corner.

“Ah, Muldoon, I shoulda knowed better than to sit to poker with you,” one of them complained as he rose from the chair. Muldoon flashed what passed for a smile on his grey face, the skin around his mouth twitching and the eyebrows cocking upward.

Augie froze with his glass raised halfway to his lips. He stared at the man. It couldn’t be, he thought, but it was. Hardly recognizable in the clean white shirt and black dandy vest, derby tapped down on the brownish hair, Captain R. J. Muldoon, formerly of the Bluegrass Rebels, and more recently the object of an arrest warrant for robbery, conspiracy and murder. Augie was shocked to meet him here, here of all places. Somehow Muldoon had escaped the vigilantes. Of course Augie himself had survived, so why should he be surprised that his old captain, a far more clever man than himself, could still be roaming around after that wild raiding. What was it, four, five years ago?
Augie brought the glass the rest of the way to his mouth and swallowed. So here was Cap’n Muldoon, his old partner on the owlhoot, the reason Augie was in this god forsaken wilderness in the first place, and sitting with red haired Maggie, no less. Augie poured one more drink from the bottle, downed it and rose before it could take effect. He stepped over to the card table and stood with long arms hanging down, saying nothing until Muldoon finally looked up at him.

“Evening, Cap’n, Maggie.” Augie nodded to each.

Muldoon peered up at the burly man. He could smell him even in this shit-hole bar, a sour smell of fresh mule sweat and stale human. He leaned back to reveal the handle of the revolver. The man in front of him was not surprised. Muldoon squinted at the bland face: a little close between the eyes, straight nose, homemade haircut.
Maggie edged away. She did not like Augie Johnson, found him to be more work than the coin was worth. Muldoon might take care of him for her.

But Muldoon made no move for a long time, then he motioned to the empty chair.
“Johnson. Sit down.” He turned to Maggie. “Bring us another bottle, dear, would you?” As Maggie went to the bar, Augie sat heavily in the chair opposite Muldoon.

“Fancy seeing you here. What brings you to Verdy?” Muldoon took out a tobacco pouch and began to roll a cigarette. Augie watched the slender fingers manipulate the fine paper. Muldoon always took care of his hands, there were no calluses or small injuries.

“Came in for supplies, Cap’n. I got me a homestead over in the Cottonwood Mountains.” Augie waited for a reaction, pouring himself another drink from the new bottle.

“The Cottonwoods, you say,” Muldoon tipped his head as if appreciating the news. “No need to call me Captain; I am just a private businessman now.” He lit the cigarette and slid the makings across the table to Augie. “Just where about is your farm?”

“On Cairn Creek, the old Foster place. It’s a ranch. I got sheep.”

“No offense, now, Johnson. I suppose you are also doing some, shall we call it, prospecting? Any luck?”

Augie glared at the man across from him. Muldoon was twirling his glass slowly in one hand, never sloshing the liquid, seldom taking a sip. This Muldoon, what an aggravating asshole he was. Augie had been assigned to Muldoon’s personal staff, a job that consisted mostly of pitching the Captain’s tent and packing his personal effects. He had to admire the man though. When it came to the business of killing, and preserving his hide at the same time, there was none better than RJ Muldoon. Too bad his post-war plan for big riches had not worked out. Augie would already be living the good life in California, instead of searching the Foster homestead. Ah, but without Muldoon, Augie would not even have known to look. He finished his whiskey and Muldoon quickly poured him another glass.

“No luck, no luck yet.” Augie leaned closer. “Them mountains are a big place.” Augie tried to sort out where Maggie was hiding. The flickering lights were swimming and he did not want to miss out on his civilized entertainment by passing out first.

Muldoon watched him reel a little in his chair. “Well, Johnson, it was clever of you to think of homesteading that place. Not a bad little ranch. How long you been out there?” Muldoon noticed the drunk man perk up at the praise.

“’Bout three, four years. I circled back after we split up. I’m all respectable, now, brought my wife and daughter out.” Augie tried to smile but it faded down to a grimace. “Honestly, Cap’n, I’d like to finish with this prospectin’ and get on to somewhere warm. I’d just like to know where it was. Don’t think you could help me, do ya? For an old pard?”

Muldoon smiled to himself. Same old Johnson, strong in the body and weak between the ears. Same old gullible, drunk Johnson. He beckoned to Maggie at the bar.

“One thing, old friend, before I sign on to help you with this treasure hunt, has the boy shown up?”
“The boy?” Augie echoed blearily.

“Yes, the Foster boy. You know, the boy stage robber, the one with Whitey Kennady?”

Augie shook his head. “Ain’t seen no boy. Ain’t seen nobody. It’s lonely as hell out there. Why, had to go buy me a squaw…” Muldoon interrupted to address Maggie.

“Take my old partner here upstairs. Seems he’s been lonely lately.” Maggie started to refuse. Augie Johnson was now not only dirty, but very drunk. She looked Muldoon in the eyes, saw what was there, and helped Augie out of the chair.

~~~

Ria walked through the late afternoon sunshine, making her way along the splashing edges of the trace where the spring ran down to meet the main creek. She carried a dinner pail of leftover beans and biscuits, a reason for traipsing down the canyon. She followed a fishing trail, and made unconscious note of the dark shadows of the trout in the dappled pools, but she was not thinking about fishing right now.

The stranger said he would camp down at the old summer grounds, the hunting camp in the crook of the stream above the beaver ponds. She knew the place. She should not have been surprised. He had lived here longer than she had.

Once her defensiveness had dropped, she had found herself standing shyly on the porch-step while Ma’am and Carolyn inched closer to hear what the tall man said. Not that they could answer his questions. They knew nothing about the clearing with its large fire ring and tent frames, They were just glad when he left the yard, even though Carolyn’s insistence that Augie would be back soon only meant that the man on the big horse would return the next day.

Ria skipped across the stones of the crossing, her dog wading through the water and pausing to lap up a drink. Ria waited for her, impatient to continue down to the clearing. She wanted to look at the man again, to decide if he could be trusted enough to talk to, to ask questions.

Then she had to really think. How to word the questions? She seldom said anything to Augie, and she had worked to understand his few terse orders. Talking in the white man’s tongue was difficult, not like talking to LaBlanc in the lodge along the Missouri.

Sett Foster had called it the old Blackfeet camp, and she wondered if he knew the people who had camped there. Her curiosity drew her down the canyon, that chance that the stranger would know where her mother’s people were, that he could tell her. She thought again about asking the question, and the stranger’s own words echoed in her head. Where are they? Where are the people who used to be here?

Sett Foster had offered no explanations as to why he did not know where his family was, but Ria knew. She had been on Foster Creek long enough to hear the stories. Ma’am and Carolyn should know them too, but they seldom took the time to listen, so intent on returning to civilization were they. Ria had lived in this cabin for three years. She knew things about the Foster homestead, some that Sett Foster didn’t.

He should know, although she could not decide why she owed him this.

From through the aspens she could hear splashes and whooshes and shouts, not like a battle, but more of a playful sound. Ria stepped cautiously to the edge of the clearing. The outlaw Sett Foster was taking a bath.

He stood in the center of the beaver pond, its mountain waters swirling around his thighs. He was truly tall, she realized. She watched him scrub sand into the rag-mop light hair and bend over to submerge his head to rinse it out. Ria choked down a laugh. He did not look so dangerous now with his head under water and his white ass in the air. His clothes were on the bank, drying in the sun. Quite a tidy stagecoach robber he was.

She began to wonder if he were trying to drown himself when he stood up and gasped for breath. Coy began to growl and from the picket in the shade the big horse pricked her ears and snorted. Sett finished shaking the water out of his eyes and looked up at her in the trees.

“I thought you would come later,” he said wryly. He reached up to strip the water from his hair. An outdoorsman, his face and arms tanned deep brown, the rest of his lean body pale. Ria gazed with open curiosity. Naked children were no rarity, but she had seen few naked men.

Augie managed to live most his life without removing his baggy union suit. He always pointed out to her its conveniently placed flaps and buttons. Not at all the same as this thoroughbred man bathing in the stream. She stared solemnly as he waded toward her. He used his hands to strip the clinging water before taking the nearly dry breeches from the willows. He pulled them on, hopping on one foot then the other to do it. He sat in the grass and tied on his moccasins. They were not well made, she noted. She could do better. His boots with the jingly spurs were sitting neatly by the saddlebags. Sett finally stood and placed his worn hat on his wet head and turned to face her.

“Now that I am in shape to have visitors, come on in.” He gestured toward the fire pit and pole shelter. There was a frying pan and a battered coffee tin next to the fire. A cleaned string of trout waited in the ripples of the creek. Ria remembered the pail of biscuits and beans she was holding. It seemed a poor excuse now, but she walked down the bank into the camp with Coy at her side.

She held out the pail. Sett started to reach for it but the little dog bared her teeth and looked up at him with half closed eyes.

“Better set it over there.” He leaned back and reached for his belt and knife hanging in the trees. The girl was still armed. “You get a lot of practice sneaking up on people.”

“So do you,” Ria put the dinner pail down and turned to face him. She stared at him silently, watching him buckle on the belt. Clean, his hair was a warm gold, and his face looked younger even with its growth of stubble. It was a nice face, a face that could smile. She tried to choose some words.

“This camp. The people that were here?”

She spoke with a soft accent, the words rolling familiar in a voice too deep for her years. Sett narrowed his eyes. “What about them?”

“They were Blackfeet?”

“The people who made this camp? Yes.” Now he was curious. It was not the line of questioning he expected.
“Maybe they were my people. Where are they?”

“It was a long time ago. The last time I saw them, they were heading north, over the pass. Maybe on the reservation. Maybe in Canada.” The girl’s face fell, disappointment darkening the fine features. Sett waited.

“I know who you are,” she said suddenly.

“Really?”

“Did you escape from jail?”

“No, my time was up.” Sett settled against the log placed as a seat for the fire.

“Did you steal that horse?” She tipped her dark head towards the mare.

“Nope, won her in a poker game.” The breed girl widened her eyes skeptically. “A fair game, too, just my lucky night.”

Sett examined the contents of the pail. “These biscuits any good?”

“I made them. Why did you come back here?”

“I didn’t ask if you made ’em, I asked if they’re good.” Sett brought his eyes up to meet hers and she saw the spark of anger. His body was relaxed, legs folded, shoulders level, but that had been deceiving.

As if reading her thoughts, he reached to the back of his belt and extracted a short knife from the sheath. He sliced one of the biscuits in half. “I’ve answered all your questions honestly. Why don’t you do the same for me. Sit down. Help yourself.” Sett motioned at the log. Ria sat at the end and Coy lay at her feet.

“I came here to find my family, as I said before.” Sett talked around a mouthful of biscuit, “You think you know who I am? Who exactly am I? I don’t even know. If you know all so much why don’t you fill me in.”

Ria drew a deep breath. She wished she had not come here to his camp. The sun was low over the hills and frogs were beginning to sing from the marshy banks. She wanted to leave. How quickly the tall outlaw with his polite ways had gone from naked silliness in the beaver pond to unnerving presence. She would have to be more careful.
“I must go. Ma’am will look for me,” Ria started to get up. Sett motioned back to the log with the knife.

“Sit,” he said as if he were talking to the dog. “Why did you come down here? It wasn’t to bring me these dry old biscuits. I traveled a long way to get here, only to find my family is gone and my house full of frilly city women and an uppity half-breed. I answered your questions. You answer mine. You said you knew who I was, so who am I?”

“You robbed the stage,” she finally blurted, “you killed that man.”

“Does everyone think that?”

Ria’s cheeks reddened. She nodded.

He rose to his feet, and paced a slow circle around the firepit, one palm rubbing his jaw. He had still not shaved, his plans disrupted by this tiny girl. He could get better information out of his horse.

Sett watched her as he paced. Her dark eyes followed him back and forth, quiet and without fear. There was something there, a familiarity of expression that sat comfortably in his memory. As she perched cross legged on the log, her hands folded into her lap, he thought he saw someone else.

“I wasn’t there when Whitey shot that driver. I heard the shots, but I was up the canyon holding the horses.” Now Sett paused in front of her, towering over her. “Now, answer my question. Where are my people?”
Ria looked away. She had come here to tell him this, but how to say it? The silence stretched too long. Sett Foster leaned down to stare into her eyes, and the sudden movement brought Coy onto her feet with a growl. Ria opened her mouth, wishing words would form without her conscious effort. “There are graves on the hillside.”
“I know that.” The man stepped back, wary.

“There are five graves.” She held up her small hand, fingers spread.
Sett did not move for many breaths, then he turned and resumed his semi-circuit around the fire.
Ria watched as the man made another pass in front of her, the toe of his moccasin rubbing a dimple in the earth as he pivoted and turned in the same spot. She waited for him to say something, to stop and recognize her, but as the sun disappeared behind the pines on the ridge, she shifted uncomfortably. He did not appear to notice; his footfalls as rhythmic as time ticking. Finally she stood, and when he did not even glance her way, she slipped out of the camp, the dog following quietly at her heels.

She broke into a run as soon as she reached the trees, the sound startling Sett out of his reverie. Dusk surrounded him, the fire sputtered to coals, and the mare was watching him, waiting patiently for her dinner. He went over to the saddle bags and pulled out a sack of oats. It was nearly empty, and he poured it all on the ground for the mare. As she chewed contentedly, Sett rested his back against the smooth bark of an aspen and rolled what the girl had told him around in his mind.

Five graves, two of course his father’s and brother’s. Three more. Sett leaned his head on his arms and swallowed against the thickness in his throat. His mother and his sister dead? Some unknown hired man too. Darkness advanced through the aspen grove and the creek bubbled cheerily. From here in the trees, Sett could see his camp in the clearing, the same clearing where he had peered at Whitey and Jed and the Tejano on a night as calm as this one nearly fifteen years ago. A long time, now forever. The years in the cold cell, the days of hard riding and nights of speculation and practiced apologies, the loneliness that he had chosen while waiting to return somehow to that previous life, all were dashed away. There were strangers in his house. There were five graves on the pretty wildflowered knoll.

~~~

Carolyn was sitting on Ria’s bed examining Ria’s latest beading project. She hardly moved when Ria slid panting through the door.

“You were gone a long time,” she said mildly. “Did it go well with Mr. Foster?”

“We talked,” Ria took the leather garment from her hands and folded it into the sewing basket.

“Oh, I’m sure you found out all about the man who says he lived here. Does he want the ranch?” Carolyn paused to check on the snores issuing from her mother’s pallet in the main room. “Mother says he does. Mother says maybe Poppa will try to fight him. She says it was a lie that he’s looking for his family.”

“No lie, his family is in the graveyard.”

“What graveyard?” Carolyn hardly ever ventured beyond the garden plot and the outhouse. Ria shook her head and tried to wave the blonde girl off her bed.

Carolyn ignored her. “Does he know you come with the house?”

Ria’s face flushed and she spoke through gritted teeth. “Go. Go.”

Carolyn stood slowly and gave a little half bow.

“Maybe that’s why you went out to his camp? To tell him.” She ducked beneath the blanket that covered the doorway into the main cabin.

Ria pulled off her moccasins and her dress. She burrowed under the blankets as Coy jumped onto the foot of the bed. But she lay with her brown eyes wide open. She came with the house. That was how Augie had explained her to his newly arrived wife and daughter. They thought she was a servant, a slave, and Augie would not correct them.

Ria remembered that day too clearly. Augie had told her he was going to the train to collect the wife from Kentucky. He had explained that the new wife was called Ma’am, and his name would be Sir, from now on. Ria had accepted that as she did all of Augie’s orders. While he was gone, she cleaned and cooked, wanting to be a good example for the new wife, and wanting to be clear that her house was well managed.

A second wife could be a great help. Her own mother had been the second wife of the trapper LaBlanc, and Ria was ready to welcome the company of another woman to the wilderness homestead. On the day Augie was to return she dressed in her best leggins and poncho. She had burned sweetgrass in the cabin and wrapped her braids with otter fur. When she heard the wagon approaching she waited inside the cabin, as first wife should. But Augie had shouted for her to come out and unload the wagon. Ma’am had sailed in the door and stopped stock-still at the sight of her.

“What is this!” the large pale woman had demanded, pointing a finger at Ria. Then Augie had explained that this was Ria and she, uh, came with the house. Ria had carried load after load of boxes from the wagon and helped Augie carry the glass fronted china cupboard into the cabin. She could feel her face burning to this day.

Neither of these white women understood that this was her house, that she had been the only wife here for three years. Ria was more than prepared to share Augie, but she could not give up her authority as first wife. She was so alone. Augie sided with Ma’am and Carolyn, changing the rules as he saw fit. For all these years Ria had lived at this homestead, run the house, prepared for winter, gathered and hunted and moved with the rhythms of the mountains, and now a woman from some place called Kentucky, a woman who was so unaware that she let a stranger ride into the yard without knowing he was coming, this woman gave her orders and she was supposed to obey. Ria lay in the blackness of the lean-to room and cried without making a sound.

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SETTLER'S LAW is available as a Kindle eBook at Amazon

SETTLER'S LAW (Berkley Westerns, January 1999) ISBN 0-425-16676-7 (Print)

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copyright 2010 D.H. Eraldi.