Well, you have probably guessed that those bears did not eat me after all. You can tell by the fact that I am writing this bit in plain English – not squiggly worm-writing – and also because I am writing it in a new Ledger Book. A lot happened which I will try to recount here, even though it is painful to do so.
After Pa died, I did something I cannot remember doing in my whole life.
I was crying for my pa.
But once I started crying, I could not stop. I cried for Ma Evangeline & Pa Emmet, for my dead Indian Ma & for Dizzy the stagecoach driver.
I even cried for those two Reb Road Agents, especially the curly-haired one who had looked up at the stars.
I confess I also cried for myself as I would soon be eaten by bears.
Dawn was lightening the sky.
By and by, all that crying tuckered me out. I curled up on the dirt floor of the cave near the body of my poor dead pa. While I was down there I realized that part of the ground was too flat & hard.
I pushed myself up on one elbow & squinted down with swollen eyes. I thought I saw wood. I brushed at the earth.
Then I brushed a tad more.
There was wood under there.
A crate was buried with a little dirt sprinkled over it.
It was treasure.
But not gold.
Inside the crate was a bag of coffee, a bag of sugar, a wooden spoon & another tin coffee pot. When I opened the lid I saw a big lump of fresh honeycomb. There was also a half-full bottle of whiskey.
I swallowed hard.
If I had found that box of honey & coffee & whiskey earlier, could I have saved my pa’s life?
I dipped my finger in the liquid honey around the comb & licked it off.
That honey was about the best thing I have ever tasted.
It was like the honey Jonathan ate while fighting the Philistines near Michmash in 1 Samuel chapter 14. I dipped in my finger again & sucked off the honey & ‘mine eyes were enlightened’.
Suddenly, I realized why the bears had been a-prowling and a-growling all night long.
They were not hungry for me: a poor skinny 12-year-old half-Sioux Misfit.
They had a hankering for that honey!
Bears have real good noses. They must have got a whiff of it even though it was closed up in a tin coffee pot & boxed up in a crate & sprinkled with earth.
That is why the Dead Reb Road Agents buried the honey and not the gold. Bears will do almost anything to get at honey, but they are not bothered about gold.
I tested my theory by tossing that sticky lump of honeycomb as far out into the clearing as I could. Sure enough, I saw those two bears come out of the trees and lumber after it. I licked the rest of the honey off my throwing hand while I watched them circle it for a spell, with gruntings & growlings & roarings. Then one of them finally grabbed it in his jaws and vamoosed towards Carson City with the other one in hot pursuit.
I was safe for the moment.
But my discovery had been too late for Pa.
I looked down at his body.
I reckoned it was my duty to bury him, lest the bear who did not get the honeycomb return for a consolation snack of carrion.
There was a spade over by the oyster cans & empty bottles, near the pit those Dead Reb Road Agents used as a latrine.
I went to the latrine & while I was there I used it. Then I got the shovel & came back & dug a hole. In the forest around me, woodpeckers had started tapping & some chickadees were conversing & the early morning sunbeams were slanting through pine boughs. It was a frosty morning but digging warmed me up so much that I took off my velvet sacque. When I finished I got cold so I put it on again.
I went back to the cave and looked down at Pa’s body.
‘I am sorry I let you down, Pa,’ I said. ‘I will try to be a good detective. If you are looking down from heaven, I will make you proud of me.’
I drug his stiff & spiritless corpse out of the cave until it was lying next to the grave. I was about to roll him into his last resting place when it occurred to me that he might have some personal effects on his body. Such objects might help me remember him when I was older. I patted him down.
In the right hand pocket of his trowsers, I found his Smith & Wesson No. 2 & also his wife’s handkerchief with CP embroidered on the corner.
In the left-hand pocket of his trowsers were some paper dollars, some Lucifers, a pouch of Lucy Hinton & his Lion-face Meerschaum pipe. I took out the pipe and looked at it. The lion’s chalky face, which had looked fierce before, now appeared stricken by grief.
I thought, ‘I will have to take all these things to Chicago and give them to his grown up sons who are my half-brothers.’
Then I found the Letters.
That was when I realized I had made the biggest mistake of my life.
Two grizzly bears were shambling across the moonlit clearing.
They were heading for me and my dying pa.
When I saw them. My hair lifted up like a porcupine’s quills & my heart started pounding like a war drum & all the juices in my body were screaming ‘RUN!’
As everybody knows, the surest way of getting a bear to chase you is to skedaddle. Nobody can outrun a bear, especially when wearing girly-girl button-up boots. Also, I could not abandon my dying pa to their hungry jaws.
I took a deep breath & mustered up my courage & stood up slowly.
When the bears saw me rise, they stopped & stood up, too. That scared the bejeezus out of me. I had never been this close to a bear that was not a tame bear.
My Indian ma once told me that if I should ever find myself face to face with a bear, not to run nor look him in the eye, but to sing him a special Lakota bear song. This tells the bear three things:
No. 1 – Where you are.
No. 2 – That you are not afraid.
No. 3 – That you are not a threat.
I used to know the Bear Song, but I am not as good at remembering things I hear as I am at remembering things I see. Also, I had not sung the Bear Song a long time. It had flown plumb out of my head.
So I sang the only song I could think of.
It was the song whose lyrics had once helped me find a poor fugitive girl named Martha.
It was the song that played day and night in Virginia City.
You might say it was the state anthem of Nevada Territory.
‘De Camptown ladies sing dis song,’ I began. My voice kind of cracked so I cleared my throat, ‘Doo-dah! doo-dah!’
At that, both bears slumped back down onto all fours. The smaller one tested the air with his nose. The bigger one turned his head a little, like maybe he wanted to hear better.
‘P.K.?’ came my pa’s feeble voice from the ground. ‘Why are you singing?’
I did not want him to worry, so I told a lie. ‘I thought a song might cheer you.’
I sang a little louder. ‘De Camptown race-track five miles long, Oh, doo-dah day!’
‘So kind…’ murmured my pa. But I did not pay him any mind. I was thinking about how to vanquish those grizzlies.
My pa and I both had pistols, but their .32 caliber balls would have no more effect than a mosquito bite against a couple of grizzlies. (My friend Stonewall killed a grizzly in December and he said it took thirteen .44 caliber rifle balls to bring him down. And that was not even a full grown bear.)
‘I come down dah wid my hat caved in, Doo-dah! doo-dah!’
I had Kepi’s big Remington New Model Army Six-shooter stuck in my belt. But it only had a single .44 caliber ball as he had not reloaded.
‘I go back home wid a pocket full of tin,’ I sang. ‘Oh, doo-dah day!’
The Henry Rifle I had taken from the Reb Road Agents also takes .44 caliber balls. But it was about ten paces behind me, in the cave.
‘Gwine to run all night! Gwine to run all day!’ I sang. (But I was thinking, ‘No, no, no. I must not run!’)
The bears started to move towards me again.
There was only one thing to do. I pulled out the Remington & cocked it & fired its last remaining ball into the air.
‘P.K.?’ came my pa’s feeble voice. ‘Why are you shooting?’
‘To attract help,’ I lied.
But my real reason for firing was to frighten off the bears.
And it worked! The bears had vamoosed.
My knees were so shaky that I had to sit down for a spell.
Sitting by pa, I could see his face looked deathly white in the moonlight. I feared he was dying.
‘Do you want me to pray with you, Pa?’ I asked.
‘Yes!’ he whimpered. ‘Pray that God will forgive me my sins.’
‘Heavenly Father,’ I prayed. ‘Please forgive my pa for all his sins. And please may he not die. Amen.’
‘Will you forgive me too?’ he said in his feeble voice.
‘I ain’t got nothing to forgive you for.’
He kind of groaned.
I said, ‘Can you tolerate me dragging you back into that cave?’
‘I reckon.’ His voice was barely a whisper.
I got hold of his ankles and dragged him towards the dark mouth of the cave, going as slow as I dared so I would not hurt him.
My reasoning was this: if we were in a cave those bears could not perform a ‘flanking manoeuver’ & come up on us from behind.
Pa groaned again, so I finished off the song to distract him from the pain.
‘I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag, Somebody bet on de bay.’
Once I had got Pa safely inside the cave, I grabbed the Henry Rifle that was leaning against the opening. That made me feel better until the moonlight showed me the little brass follower underneath the barrel. It was right up near the stock of the rifle, which meant there was only 1 bullet left in the magazine.
Dang those Reb Road Agents! They had not reloaded. Everybody knows you should reload once you have fired.
My pa was trying to say something so I brought my ear to his mouth.
‘Whiskey,’ he murmured. ‘Is there any whiskey for the pain?’
‘I will look, Pa,’ I said.
I leaned the rifle back against the wall of the cave.
Before I searched for whiskey, I needed to find more cartridges for the Henry or balls for the Remington. And before I searched for more ammunition, I needed to make a fire. Fire would light the cave. Also, bears do not like fires. It might keep them at bay when they returned.
For I was sure they would return.
I went and got some firewood from the stack near the cave.
Using a Lucifer match from my medicine bag, I quickly kindled a fire just outside the mouth of the cave.
When the fire was going good, I breathed a sigh of relief. It would make a useful barrier between us and the bears.
Also, it lit up the inside of the cave. Its flickering light showed me two rolled up blankets in a low, dark niche of the cave. There were also some other things, viz: two greasy decks of cards, a cribbage board, a Ledger Book, a box of Lucifers, two pencils & a small Bible.
Joy! There was a box of .44 caliber balls for a Remington revolver!
Despair! There was no powder. Too late, I remember Slouch had worn a powder horn on his belt. Now all his big Remington pistol was good for was clubbing those bears.
Nor did I find any cartridges for the Henry Rifle.
However, in another niche I found 1 frying pan & 1 coffee pot & 2 tin mugs. There was water in the coffee pot but no ground coffee nor any other provisions to fry in the frying pan.
‘P.K.?’ asked Pa. ‘Did you find anything to drink?’
‘No whiskey, Pa,’ I said. ‘But I did find a little water.’
‘Yes, please,’ he murmured.
I poured water from the coffee pot into one of those tin mugs & knelt by Pa & helped him drink. Then I eased his head down one of the rolled up blankets and covered him with the other. He winced and kind of groaned.
‘Does it hurt, Pa?’
‘Yeah. It hurts real bad,’ he said in a voice so faint I could barely hear him. Then he said, ‘P.K.?’
His lips moved. I brought my ear real close. He was saying something about his murdering pard, Tempest. Then he said something that might have been ‘Blizzard’s a coming.’
‘Don’t worry, pa,’ I said. ‘There ain’t no blizzard coming and you will see the sun once more.’
But he shook his head no & the firelight showed me tears dribbling from the corners of his wide-open eyes.
Then I quoted Malachi chapter 4 verse 3 over him, viz: The sun of righteousness will arise with healing in his wings, and after that I said a prayer of my own devising. His eyes were now closed and he slept.
I took the Ledger book out from under the cribbage board. When I opened it, I found it was a Wells Fargo & Co. Ledger Book, with only a few pages full of legitimate numbers. The Dead Reb Road Agents had filled the next few pages with scoring for their cribbage games. I saw for the first time that their names were Johnny and Jimmy.
Most of the other pages were blank, so I took that as a Sign from God that I should write an account of how I came to be here.
I sat down Indian fashion & started writing this account.
That was about four hours ago. I have been using the Squiggly Worm shorthand that I learned last November in Carson City. I have used up two and a half pencils and am now on the last page of the book.
The moon sank behind the trees a couple of hours ago and all I have is the light of this little fire, but I am almost out of wood & although the bears have stopped growling I can still smell them so I know they are lurking nearby.
Like I said before: all I have for protection against them is this small fire and ––
I just had to shoot the last bullet from my Henry Rifle in the air to frighten off those bears.
They will probably get me at dawn but it does not matter.
Nothing matters any more.
Pa is dead.
I pulled the Henry rifle out of its loop & dismounted & cautiously moved forward into the clearing. I did not see any bears but as I got closer to the cave that rank smell of them got stronger.
‘What’s wrong with the horses?’ called my pa from further back on the trail. ‘I almost lost control of them.’
‘They are spooked by the smell of bear!’ I yelled back.
‘Bear?’ called Pa from the edge of the clearing. ‘There are bears hereabouts?’
‘Grizzlies, I’d wager,’ I hollered, ‘Probably why they call it Grizzly Gulch.’
I cocked the Henry & I went cautiously to the cave mouth.
‘I can smell bear around here,’ I called over my shoulder, ‘but I do not think they have been here for a while. That is probably why the stage horses are spooked, but not my mare. She is used to the smell but they are not. I reckon this is their shebang all right,’ I added in a carrying voice.
‘You mean those danged Reb Road Agents set up camp outside a bear cave?’ yelled Pa, still astride his horse.
‘By the looks of things, they set up camp inside it. But I think it is safe.’
Pa dismounted & tethered the horses & came across the moonlit clearing to join me at the black mouth of the den.
‘Anybody in there?’ he asked. ‘Or anything?’
I sniffed. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘But bears have been here. Look.’ I kicked at a dark pellet near the mouth of the cave. ‘See that turd? That is a hibernation plug.’
‘It is a turd that plugs the bears up all winter,’ I explained. ‘Like a bung on a barrel. When they come out of hibernation they pop it out of their rear ends. My Indian ma taught me that.’
Pa cussed under his breath. ‘Those dang fool idiots.’
‘Maybe they were not so foolish,’ I said. I had just spotted something inside the cave entrance on the left. Seeping moonlight showed me a box-shaped object. It was one of those iron reinforced wooden strong boxes favored by Wells Fargo & Co.
‘Most people would not look for a Wells Fargo strongbox inside a grizzly bear cave,’ I observed.
There was enough light in there to let me see that its lock was smashed to smithereens. I leaned my Henry Rifle against the damp cave wall & knelt down & opened the lid of the strong box & whistled through my teeth.
‘This box is full of gold,’ I said. ‘That must be the “booty” they were talking about.’
Pa almost knocked me over in his haste to get to the strongbox.
‘Sweet Jesus!’ he said. Then, ‘Help me drag it out of here.’
I helped him drag it out of there & into the moonlit clearing where we could see it was full of gold coins.
‘I can’t believe it,’ said Pa. ‘There must be hundreds of twenty-dollar gold pieces in here. They never said, the rascals!’
‘Who never said?’ I asked.
He looked up at me from his crouched position over the box. The silvery moonlight showed confusion on his otter face, as if he could not remember who I was. Then something shifted and he became Pa again. ‘Wells Fargo & Co,’ he said. ‘They never said it was gold they lost.’ He stood up. ‘This will make us rich.’
‘No,’ said a voice behind us. ‘It will make me rich.’
We both turned to see a man with an Army pistol in his hand.
The moonlight showed us his bushy black mustache & muttonchop sideburns & long coat & bandana around his neck.
But he was bareheaded, for I was wearing his hat.
Yes, it was Ray G. Tempest, the other Pinkerton Detective. He had not broke his neck but had survived.
Without any more warning, he cocked his Army revolver & fired.
Pa slumped to the ground.
‘Pa!’ I cried.
Then Ray turned his piece on me. Before my head knew what to do, my feet jumped me to one side and then sped me to the nearest shelter: the cave.
BANG! My hat flew off!
‘Ugh!’ I could not help crying out for I had crashed into the rear of the cave and fallen back. As I lay there on the bear-smelling dirt floor half stunned, I wondered if I had been shot. I thought not. I felt in my sacque pocket & pulled out my four-shooter. It was a pathetic weapon against a Colt’s Army, but it was about all I had.
I cocked it & was about to roll over on my stomach & shoot back when I realized that Ray had stopped firing. He was probably re-loading as he had fired five shots.
I decided to play possum & wait for him to come near to see if I was dead. I lay on my back, death-still, with my eyes half closed & my little four shooter cocked but out of sight down by my side.
This was my plan: as soon as his upside down face loomed above me, I would jerk up my arm & shoot him!
My foster ma Evangeline had made me promise never to kill a man nor exact revenge, but Ray G. Tempest had shot and killed my pa!
My heart was pounding so hard that I could not hear anything but the blood whooshing in my ears.
But he never came.
I reckon he heard me grunt & saw me fall back on the cave floor & lie still.
I reckoned he thought he had killed me.
I waited and waited.
By and by my heart stopped being so noisy and I heard sounds from outside the cave, viz: the clink of metal and horses snuffling. I reckon he was adding gold coins to the silver ingots in the mail bags on the backs of the six stage-coach horses.
After about 9 minutes of this, I heard the sound of heavy-laden horses being led back out of the clearing towards the main road.
I lay quiet in case it was a trick.
After about six more minutes I uncocked my little pistol & rolled over on my stomach & I wormed my way cautiously forward to the mouth of the dark cave.
The moon was on its way down and was almost touching the tops of the pines. But it was still high enough to show me that Ray & the horses were gone. The only thing left in the moon-washed clearing apart from the empty strongbox was my pa, lying hatless & awful still. I ran to him & looked down.
His white shirt was soaked with blood. I tore it open and found the bullet hole about half an inch below where his ribs ended.
I knelt down & I rested my head against his bare chest. The skin was still warm & I could hear his faintly beating heart. In the moonlight his face was pale as milk.
‘Pa?’ I said. ‘Pa, are you conscious?’
‘He took my hat,’ said Pa in a faint voice. ‘Ray took my new beaver-felt brown hat that you bought me.’
‘Probably because I have his,’ I said.
‘I am gut shot,’ said Pa in a whisper. ‘I am a goner.’
‘Don’t say that!’ I cried. ‘I will go and get you help.’
‘No,’ he said, lifting his head a little. ‘Don’t go. I don’t want to die alone.’
‘All right then, Pa,’ I said. ‘I will stay with you.’
He let his head sink back onto the ground & closed his eyes.
‘Please do not die,’ I said. ‘Everybody dies on me. I could not bear it if you did too.’
He did not reply.
Lying there on in the soft dirt of the clearing with his eyes closed and his face relaxed, he looked almost as young as Kepi.
My vision got blurry. I blinked & it got clearer. Suddenly something made me look to my left.
I saw two dark bushes at the edge of the clearing by the dark pines.
In the eerie moonlight they almost looked like bears.
Then one of them moved.
They were bears.
Too late, I realized I had not tied Kepi’s hands. That was my mistake. Somehow he must have wormed his way out from under the leather reins wrapping him to the tree & then undone the belt around his ankles. He had also taken his socks out of his mouth.
It only took me an instant to realize this. But in that same moment, my pa whirled around & pulled out his small revolver.
‘No!’ cried Kepi. ‘Chance– ’
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Before he could say more, my Pa’s revolver spat out three .32 caliber balls.
The Reb Road Agent stared down at three little holes & a dark stain spreading on his pale jacket right below the heart. The shots were still echoing in the mountains around us.
‘You shot me,’ he said, and then repeated. ‘You shot me!’
He said it with a half-smile, like he could not believe it had really happened.
He kind of sat down on the ground. Then he fell back onto the carpet of pine needles & stared up at the stars. His kepi had fallen off. He had curly hair.
‘Look at them stars,’ he said. ‘So many. Sparkling like little bitty silver ingots.’ Then he spoke no more.
I looked at my pa. ‘You killed him, Pa. You killed him dead.’
In the moonlight Pa looked deathly pale. ‘He might of hurt you,’ he said, staring at the corpse. ‘He might have hurt you.’
Over by the pine tree, a movement caught our eyes.
The leather traces binding Slouch to the pine had been loosened by his pard wriggling free. Slouch would have got free, too, but his bare right foot was tangled in one of the reins I had used to tie him. His hands were still bound behind him up & the socks were still sticking out of his mouth & his eyes were bugging out, too, as he stared wildly at us.
Pa sucked in a deep breath & picked up the double-barrelled shotgun from where it lay & went over to the tree.
Before I could say or do anything, Pa blasted him at point blank range.
Slouch slammed against the tree & then slid down in a sitting position & then slumped forward, as dead as his friend.
‘Pa!’ I cried. ‘Why did you do that? We could have just left him tied up for the Law to collect. Or we could have made him show us where they have their shebang.’
‘He was about to get loose,’ said Pa. ‘Like that one.’ He pointed to Kepi with his chin. ‘Plus, after a trial they would have hung him by the neck till dead. It was a mercy I was showing him. Also, they are wanted Dead or Alive. Come on,’ he said, tossing the now empty shotgun aside. ‘Let us get those silver-laden horses out of here and find their shebang.’
I felt queasy. The champagne, which had been making me happy five minutes before, had turned sour in my gut. The high moon which had been smiling on our dance now seemed cold and distant. In its pale light I saw a gaping black wound in Slouch’s chest.
I felt like I might vomit up the jerky I had eaten a while earlier so I turned away.
Pa’s stomach was not as strong as mine. Over in the trees, he was being sick. I reckon he had not shot a man in a few years what with being behind a desk so much.
He wiped his mouth with his C.P. handkerchief & without speaking, he led the silver-laden stagecoach horses up towards the road.
I spotted the Reb Road Agents’ mounts further up in the black shadows of some pines. I untied them and chose the smaller one to ride. She was a little bay with a stringy tail. I put Kepi’s Henry Rifle in a saddle loop. I had to hike up my daffodil-yellow Merino wool dress underneath my belted sacque just so I could get my leg over her back. Thankfully, the velvet sacque covered my legs to just below the knees; it was getting real cold. I was shivery.
Taking the other Reb horse by the reins, I rode after Pa who was trudging the silver-laden stage-coach horses back up the steep mountainside. I glanced back once to see the still form of Kepi lying on his back in the dying firelight. I could not even see poor blasted Slouch. He was lost in the inky shadows.
Up by the road, I found Pa untying his big gray gelding.
He took a crude halter that the now-deceased Reb Road Agents had fixed over the head of the lead pack-horse & swung up into the saddle & set off west.
With Pa leading and me following, we had a convoy of nine horses, viz: the six stage horses, the two Reb horses & pa’s gelding. They were strung out in a line, moving between tall black pine trees on the moon-washed wagon road.
We rode in silence. In my head, I kept seeing my Pa shoot those two Reb Road Agents. They had tried to kill me, but I still felt bad they were dead.
I thought of Kepi with his bare feet & curly hair & wondering expression on his face as he looked up at the little bitty silver ingot stars.
I thought of Slouch with his eyes bugged out in terror & that black sucking wound in his chest. I wished I had not put a sock in his mouth. Maybe he could have begged Pa to give him a chance, like Kepi had.
I did not even know their real names.
That picture in my head should have turned my stomach sour but I was hungry again. Also, my legs were cold. I wished I had my soft long underwear & my buckskin trowsers & my pink flannel shirt & my blue woollen coat & my nice slouch hat that kept my ears warm. Then I thought of poor dead Kepi & Slouch & Ray & Dizzy. They were all four dead and cold by now. I reckoned I was lucky to be alive and should not be complaining, even in my head. I had been colder than this in my life. I guess living in a boarding house with a feather bed had made me soft.
We had gone barely a mile when the moon showed me a lightning-blasted pine tree on the left hand side of the road and a meadow beyond & below it.
‘Pa?’ I said. ‘See that tree and that meadow? That might be where they stashed the loot.’
‘By God, ye got good eyes,’ he said. ‘Do ye want to lead the way?’
I nudged my little bay mare forward. I could tell straightaway that she knew the path, so I gave her the reins and let her find the best footing.
‘My horse knows the way, Pa,’ I called over my shoulder. ‘I reckon that is proof we are on the right track.’
‘Good thinking,’ he said. He sent the silver-bearing stage-coach horses down the track after me & took up the rear.
From time to time the moonlight showed me a path marked by scuffed pine needles and bare earth, but mostly I gave the bay mare free rein to guide us. She led me & Pa & those six heavy-laden horses along the edge of the meadow, close to the trees. All sudden-like, she turned left and passed between two towering pines and we were in another moonlit clearing with a cave like a gaping black mouth in the steep hillside straight ahead.
I smelled an old fire & saw some empty oyster cans & bottles off to one side & a pile of firewood & maybe a latrine pit. Over to the left I heard the gurgling of a brook. I reckoned this was the camp of the Dead Road Agents & that cave was their shebang.
My little bay mare was suddenly pulled up short. The lead horse behind her had stopped. He was snorting & tossing his head & as I had roped his halter to my pommel it made me stop too.
Behind me, the other pack horses started whinnying & snorting & I could hear Pa cussing in Scottish.
I smelled something faintly rank that always makes me think of my Indian Ma on account of she used to make hair pomade out of bear fat.
Now I knew why the horses were spooked.
And why they called it Grizzly Gulch.