Thursday, June 30, 2011

Episode 6 of The Yearlings. Where are Janet's Son and Husband?


When she had the strips of bannock dough wrapped around sticks and propped over the fire, she began to slice slabs of meat from the venison haunch hanging from a limb on the edge of camp. As she was doing this, Squeak rose and went to the pack from which he drew another bottle of the dark, Hudson's Bay Trade Rum. Rolley continued to sip on his, but Squeak took the top quarter of his fresh bottle in one long drink.
When the meal was finished roasting, Janet said nothing but took one of the bannock-wrapped sticks, another holding a slice of meat, and moved away from the fire. She hunkered down across the fire from Rolley and Squeak.
"I take it we can all dig in?" Rolley said, carefully leaning his bottle against the log before rising and moving to the fire. Before he could get a portion of the meal for himself, Gabe took his portion and returned to where he had been standing, back from the fire and to Janet's right.
Squeak refused to move even after Rolley returned to his seat with his meal. He continued to sulk and pull at the rum bottle, now only half full.
As she ate, Janet took an unguarded moment to remove two of the rifle shells from her coat pocket, holding them in the palm of her hand with her thumb. Her meal finished, Janet returned to the fire, took up one of the cups sitting there and rinsed it out with some of the thick coffee. As she sat the pot back near the bed of coals she allowed the two shells to drop from her hand into the fire.
Rising, Janet moved over to stand near her rifle but facing Squeak. "Are you going to drink all of that, or can I have a cup of it?" she asked with a smile.
Behind her, Gabe turned and stepped into the trees toward the horses.
Looking up at her, Squeak smiled back then passed her the bottle.
With the cup in her right hand and bottle in her left, Janet began to pour rum. When the first shell exploded she dropped the cup and grabbed the barrel of her rifle. Swinging the rifle up and behind she spun with her entire body.
The first explosion had thrown small coals on Rolley. When the second cartridge went off he jumped back and right into Janet's rifle. The top edge of the stock struck his skull just under the brim of his hat.
Janet noted that Gabe was no longer in the clearing as she turned back and brought the bottle down on the top of Squeak's head.
Dropping down behind the log she began to feed shells into the rifle. Her frantic fingers were having difficulty holding the cartridges. The normally easy task of loading the Winchester had suddenly become difficult. When she had the first one inserted she levered it into the breech before filling the magazine.
A quick glance showed that she had done serious damage to Rolley. He lay near the fire, his sleeve beginning to smolder, but did not move. Squeak, on the other hand was only stunned, rocking back and forth on his knees, moaning and holding his head.
With the muzzle of the cocked weapon still pointing toward Squeak, she continued loading. She found that her chest was heaving and she couldn't get her breath. The pounding in her ears was not stampeding cattle but the sound of her own heartbeat.
Gabe called from behind the screen of trees. "You have done well, Janet. I suggest you take Rolley's horse. It is the better of the three, and his rigging is much better than Squeak's. From the way you hit him I doubt he will need the animal anytime soon. Besides, it was he who shot your horse."
Squeak flopped over on his side, still moaning and talking to himself.
"The pack horse is broken down" Gabe continued, "and anyway, it would be best if you left as soon as possible. For myself I will now mount and ride away. I ask that you not shoot me in the back."
Janet stayed down behind the log, her breath now coming in short hard gasps, and the rifle muzzle still in the general direction of Squeak. Occasionally she glanced behind her to see if Rolley's smoldering sleeve had burst into flame, and to ensure that Gabe was not coming up behind her. To her right and behind Squeek she heard a horse break through the brush. She only watched as Gabe rode around the camp on the far side of the draw.
When the sound of the hoof beats satisfied her that Gabe was really leaving, she stood and stepped over to Squeak. Resting the rifle muzzle behind his ear she reached down and removed a small pistol from his pocket and put it in her own. His rifle she took up and threw into the brush on the opposite side of the clearing to avoid frightening the unfamiliar horses. Stepping back and over Rolley, she grasped the collar of his coat and dragged him away from the fire. She considered rolling him over to get at his Colt but worried that he might come to. She thought a lot more of just getting out of there
Janet was not long in leaving the draw. She ignored the too-long stirrup leathers and swung into Rolley's saddle. The steers were hungry and more than ready to return to where they knew there would be hay. Once Janet had rode in behind them they took off at a trot down the trail, some of them running through the camp and over the two rustlers. She hesitated only long enough to retrieve the bridle from the cold body of Ben before swinging back in the saddle and pushing on down the hill.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Episode 5. Can Janet save herself? Can she save the yearlings?

Janet almost smiled. Perhaps there was a way.
The fire was still burning, though down to a few coals when they rode up to the rustler’s camp. Gabe picked her up by the waist, leaned over and set her on the ground. "I'll see to the horses," he said.
Rolley and Squeak dismounted and handed him their reins. Gabe rode off into the brush.
"Why, you must be real hungry, Ma'am," Squeak said. "We was just about to make up some bannock an' we got some deer left that Gabe shot. You just set over there on that log an' I'll whip it up." He was all nervous gestures and toothless grin.
Inwardly, Janet shuddered over the filth of the man, but she smiled back and said, "That would be very nice."
"Squeak, go an' sit down an' shut up," Rolley said gruffly. "You're makin' a fool o' yerself. This little filly's gonna be our cook from now on."
Sulking, Squeak dropped down onto the opposite end of the log from where Rolley stood.
From behind the brush where he was tying the horses, Gabe called, "Is it wise to have a stranger cook your food until you know something about that person?"
As he leaned her rifle against a log, Rolley stared at Janet, his eyes on fire. "Yeah, it is. I know all I need to know about this little lady." He reached down and untied a canvas wrapped bundle laying at the edge of the clearing and removed a bottle. "Except her name. What's yer name, little lady?" He pulled the cork from the bottle and took a long pull from the neck.
"Janet," she responded then stopped and thought about the Slash K brand on the steers. "Janet Lawrence," she continued, reverting to her maiden name. She looked up to see Gabe emerge from the brush behind Rolley. The nod he directed toward her seemed to confirm that she had done the right thing. Did that mean he knew she was from the ranch they had raided?
"Well, that's good, Jan honey," Rolley said, taking a seat on the log next to where he had leaned Janet's rifle. "We got us a grub-stake back up the draw here." He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. "Spect yuh can hear 'em bawlin' and carryin' on."
"They're raising a fuss because they are becoming hungry," Gabe commented as he dropped to his haunches beside the fire. "We should be moving them away from here today and to a market." He poured himself a cup of coffee from the thick brew that had been simmering by the fire all morning then rose and stood off to one side of the camp.
Rolley shrugged as he finished another sip of rum. "No hurry. They can't get out of here without goin' by us. 'Sides, we need to spend some time today changin' that Slash K to a Rafter B." He leered at Janet. "Couldn't ask fer better company."
As she worked around the fire preparing a breakfast, Janet considered the appearance of each of her captors in hopes that it would supply some indication of their weaknesses and the treatment she could expect from each of them.
Squeak, for instance, did not demonstrate by his appearance that he cared about anything. On his feet he wore mukluks which appeared to be stuffed with something to improve warmth. Over these he had tied an outer layer of thicker leather to extend the life of his footwear, but it was all a soggy mess. His pants, also wet past the knees, were of homespun wool, perhaps made for a child since they were too short for Squeak despite his size. One leg had been torn and repaired with a long loop stitch of string. He wore no shirt, displaying the dirty red of his long underwear under an old and poorly patched wool coat that may have started life as military wear. One pocket of this coat hung low from what Janet thought might be a small pistol. On his head he wore a beaver fur cap with the ear lugs tied over the top. His greasy brown-and-gray hair hung to his shoulders.
"Yuh see, little lady, there's a war gettin' under way over t' Europe," Rolley explained. "Ain't no better way fer a fella to make his self a killin' than a good war." He giggled at his own wit, took a good pull from the bottle and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Rolley was much better dressed but equally as dirty as Squeak. He wore well-oiled and well-used, flat-heeled, lace-up miner's boots. His trousers were of homespun wool, but of more recent make than Squeak's and protected by heavy leather chaps. His coat was of sheepskin, the matted and greasy wool turned in against a dark blue shield-style cotton shirt, and his hat was a dented and torn derby. It appeared that he sometimes shaved all but his upper lip, but had not done so for at least a week. Blonde hair just covering his ears may well have been hacked off with a knife. A holster was slung round his hips and held a pistol which appeared similar to her husbands .44-40 Colt. His boots, holster and pistol showed evidence of special care not evident in the rest of his appearance.
"Spread a few dollars 'round in the right places," Rolley continued, "an' a man can come out of a war with a mighty fine nest egg." He gestured over his shoulder toward the sound of the steers. "Them critters back there is the beginnin' of a kingdom. Pretty little thing like you plays her cards right, yuh might be a part o' that kingdom."
Gabe wore a dented and stained, but still serviceable Stetson over collar length black hair which may have been washed in the past few days. He was usually clean–shaven, but appeared to have avoided his razor for the past day or two. His plaid wool shirt was still relatively clean and covered by a Hudson's Bay blanket coat that showed signs of bunkhouse repair of some talent. His boots were of the high-heeled riders variety, well cared for but in need of replacement. What she had first thought were fringed buckskin leggings proved instead to be pants. Behind his belt she could see the handle of a pistol that appeared to be of the same size as Rolley's Colt but of a different make.
Janet's inventory of her camp-mates supplied little comfort. Only Gabe appeared to care about himself or life, and he had made it obvious that he would or could do little to help. However he had expressed some sympathy for her position. Would he interfere on behalf of his riding partners?
As she worked around the fire, Janet passed several times within reach of her rifle. As he sipped from the bottle and blathered on, Rolley watched her movements and grinned. Finally, after one of her passes, he placed the bottle down, lifted the rifle and levered the chamber open. Upon inspecting it he cursed, closed the bolt and set the weapon down again. It was only then that Janet realized she had not loaded the weapon. The cartridges she had taken from the house still rested in her coat pocket.
From the corner of her eye Janet saw Rolley leering at her again. "Yessiree, I can see where this empire buildin' could be a right comfor'ble experience," he observed.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Fourth Episode in Janet's search for The Yearlings and survival.

Chapter 2

Something pulled at Janet and she came awake with a start. A stiff, dead branch caught her hat as she moved, knocking it from her head.
"Well Billy-be-damn if it ain't a woman," a strange, but at the same time familiar voice said.
Janet looked up to see a scrawny little man with bulging eyes and a scraggly beard grinning toothlessly at her as he held up the spruce branches. Behind him she could see that a new day had arrived and, looking into her den stood a square, better-dressed but equally dirty man holding her rifle. It was their pulling the rifle from her arms that had awakened her.
The second man turned his gaze off to the side and spit tobacco juice. "Better come have a look at this, Gabe." He turned back to smile at Janet as a third man rode his horse over and leaned down to look at her. This third man's clothes were also dirty, but it appeared he had both shaved and washed in the not too distant past.
The second man gestured with Janet's rifle. "Might as well come on out o' there, little lady. Reckon you'll find it a sight more comfor'ble over t' camp."
Janet rolled out from under the spruce on her knees but quickly stood and replaced her hat.
"What cha figure we should do, Rolley?" the thin man asked.
"Squeak, you ask too many dumb questions. You he'p the little lady back to camp. Gabe an' I'll foller yuh."
"This horse will ride double," Gabe said. "It will be better if she rides with me." Without waiting for a response he reached down and grabbed Janet's upper arms.
She was almost in the saddle before she thought to resist. Before she could do very much, however, Gabe grabbed her wrists and imprisoned them in his right hand.
"It is better to ride with me than walk with them," he said softly.
Janet stopped and looked around into his face. He did not smirk, nor was there the fire of lust in his eyes as she had seen in Rolley's gaze. She looked to the faces of the two men still standing by the tree and settled down.
Gabe slid back over the cantle allowing her to sit in the saddle, then urged his horse along the side of the hill, angling south, back toward the draw where Ben had been shot. While the other two men caught their horses and mounted, they gained several yards on them.
Gabe glanced over his shoulder, and then said, "Ma'am, you are in much trouble. I would not bother a lady, but they are not the same. Squeak is stupid, but not a killer. Rolley is a very bad man. He will shoot me – and perhaps you – with very little reason."
Janet looked over her shoulder at him. "Are you not one of them?"
Gabe nodded. "I am a cow thief. I have done many things to live. I do not murder. Or bother women."
"I am glad to hear you have such high morals," Janet said sarcastically.
"You do not show much gratitude."
"So far you've given me a ride," Janet noted. "I haven't seen you refuse to take your turn with me yet."
"That is true," was all Gabe was able to manage before the others came within earshot.
They stopped talking, but the other two, not realizing how well their voices carried continued.
"Whatcha figure she's doin’ here, Rolley," Squeak asked in his whiney voice.
"You sure are some dumb, Squeak," Rolley responded. "Ain't no woman's gonna foller a bunch a cows. I 'spect she's runnin' from sumpin’. Pro'ly lookin' fer a good man to look after her."
"Well, I could look after her. She could ride with us."
There was a short pause, then Rolley spit and said, "Shut the hell up."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Episode 3 in Janet's cold, lonely night in the foothill looking for cattle.

At the barn she put a bridle on Ben. He was fifteen years old, a horse Mat had raised, trained, and brought with him from his father's D-bar-K. He was the easiest to handle of the four horses Janet had available to her – an important consideration, since she did not have a saddle. At fifteen hundred pounds he was also the smallest of the four and the easiest for a twenty-year-old, one-hundred-and-twenty-pound woman to mount and sit on.
As she turned to leave the barn, Janet thought about how unpredictable the spring weather could be and grabbed a saddle blanket - an old wool blanket folded into a square - and put it on Ben. She certainly didn't need anything to improve the comfort of Ben's wide back, but if the weather should turn, the blanket might help to keep her warm until she could make it home.
At the house she told her mother that she would be gone looking for the steers. Her mother was flabbergasted.
"You can't leave us here by ourselves!"
Janet sighed. "I won't be gone long, Mother. There's nothing out there for them to eat yet, so I'm sure they won't go far."
"Well, if there is nothing for them to eat, leave them alone and they will come home. It's just irresponsible to leave a little baby - your baby - and an old woman by themselves in this wilderness."
"We need every one of those steers, Mother. They mean money to pay off our loan. You have been spoiling my baby quite well with me on the place. I'm sure you can continue just as well by yourself for a few hours." Janet reached behind the door and picked up the Winchester. From the shelf above it she took a box of shells and dumped a few in her hand which she dropped in the pocket of her father's old coat.
"Well! That certainly doesn't sound like gratitude! And why do you need to take that awful gun."
"Because it would not be very bright to go off by myself in this country without one. And you certainly won't use it." Janet leaned down and kissed her son. "Try not to take Grandma too seriously, Mark." She stood and turned to the door. "Bye, you two."
As she followed the trail of the yearlings, Janet thought once more about leaving their pasture that morning. She was sure she had closed the gate, but perhaps she was remembering one of the many other mornings when she had done exactly the same job. If she had not put so much of her attention into recreating the earlier events, or in condemning herself for her stupidity, she may have paid closer attention to the trail.
When she had been on the trail for more than an hour, she began to look closer at the tracks. The steers were still moving in a bunch, but should have been wandering, some of them heading back to the ranch where they had been receiving regular feed through the winter.
It was then that she saw the tracks of a horse. And then more. At least two, and possibly three or four horses. The steers were not wandering because they were being driven. They had not gone through a gate she had left open. They had been stolen.
She brought Ben to an abrupt halt and looked around. She was already well up into the hills and the sun had disappeared. As she thought about how she should proceed she buttoned her coat. For her to follow and return wandering steers was one thing. To follow rustlers was something else again, and not something she believed she could handle.
There was no reason for the rustlers to go west and north as they had been traveling. They would want to sell the animals, and there was nothing in the direction they were traveling except higher and higher mountains. Therefore, they would have to turn north toward the Yellowhead Trail and the new railroad, or perhaps turn back east and toward one of the larger settlements.
Janet decided to follow a little longer and find out which direction they would turn. Matt would be home from his trap line soon and perhaps he could discover where the animals had been sold if Janet could tell him the best places to look. They needed those steers. She urged Ben forward, but now they traveled much slower.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

And so here is episode 2 of Janet's attempt to find The Yearlings.

She decided it would be best to wait for daylight. The temperature was close to freezing, but her long coat and blanket should keep her warm enough to survive. The slight southwest wind still blew and the sky was overcast so perhaps the temperature would not drop too much during the night. Spring had been a long drawn-out affair, though pleasant and not too cold, and it was long past time for warmer weather.
She saw a large dark shape uphill to her right and approached it. It was a big spruce, its branches sweeping the snow. She crawled under and next to the trunk. The needles under the tree were dry, and the tree itself protected her from the wind.
Returning to the snow she took some in her mouth, sucking on it while she washed her face and hands. Removing the bandana from around her ears she used it to dry her self, then crawled back into her haven. She leaned the rifle against a limb close to hand, wrapped herself in the blanket, and leaned back against the trunk.
She worried about the rustlers, as anyone should worry about people who would shoot someone from ambush. But she worried also about her mother and son, Mark, waiting at the ranch house for her return. Neither of them knew that rustlers were involved, but they knew it was dangerous for anyone alone in the mountains, particularly during questionable weather conditions. Mark was only three and needed his mother around, and Janet's mother was not comfortable in anything but a city.
Margaret Lawrence had been raised in New Westminster. Her husband, Janet's father, had been Area Supervisor for the Transcontinental Railroad, and later the Canadian Pacific Railway. Margaret had been used to social events, shopping when she felt like it, and being in a financial position to feel like it often.
Janet, on the other hand, had found the life boring. When her father was transferred to Calgary, she could not have been happier.
At the age of sixteen, Janet was forced by her mother to go to one of Calgary's social gatherings. Not only did Janet not like such events, but she knew she would have to listen to her mother complain about how it was not "up to proper standards" and would "never be tolerated on the coast." But her mother insisted that she was now a young woman and it was time for her to make her place in social circles.
It was at that social that she met her knight in shining armor. It did not matter that his armor was a pair of freshly washed work jeans and an old suit jacket, or that his helmet was a wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat - not new but freshly brushed. It also didn't matter that none of his horses were white chargers. She had seen her dream and its name was Mathew Kingsley.
Matt and Janet had been married almost a year when her father died. On their small ranch northwest of Red Deer they didn't get the news in time to make the funeral, but they did go down to Calgary.
Learning that Janet was pregnant, Margaret insisted on returning to the ranch to help with the birth. Actually, it was the only course open for her since she could not afford to live in the city. During his life she had lived to the fullest extent of her husband’s income. Now that he was gone she could not afford even the essentials, and would rather run and hide than allow her friends to see her predicament.
Matt was pleased to accept his mother-in-law's offer. He had helped in the delivery of countless calves and foals, but was more than concerned about the arrival of his own offspring. True, Janet could spend a few weeks at neighbors twelve miles east, but what if something unexpected should happen?
Janet was not pleased with the arrangement. She had reluctantly followed her mother's directions for life in the past, did not want to hear any more of them, and certainly wouldn't follow them again. She also knew that with no place to go, her mother would be with them for far longer than it would take to have the child.
Mark was now three, and Margaret was still part of the Slash K.
"Janet, dear, I don't know why you insist on wearing men's clothing. It will give Markus an improper perception of how things should be." It was one of Margaret's favorite topics. She sat in the rocking chair doing needlepoint while Mark spun a small top on the floor.
"Because it's impractical to feed cattle in a dress, particularly in the winter time," Janet responded calmly and with little thought as she ate her soup. She had responded the same way to the same subject a thousand times.
"Well, I don't see why your husband isn't here to feed those filthy animals. That is a man's job, after all. Besides, Markus needs his father."
Janet sighed. "Matt isn't here because we are trying to make a life for ourselves. He's trapping."
"I still don't understand why he can't trap closer to home," Margaret continued with her usual line.
"Because someone else had this area already and we can't afford to buy it. Besides, Matt would still have to go up in the mountains and he wouldn't be home much anyway." Janet stopped a spoonful of soup half way to her mouth. Why did she continue to repeat the same things over and over? Her mother had been there the autumn Matt first rode away and for every trapping season since.
"If you need money, why not sell some of those beasts out there," Margaret advised. Janet was sorry she had paused, giving her mother an opening. "I mean, if you can't make any money from them, why have them?"
"We borrowed money to buy them and we have to pay that off before we can make any money from them," Janet responded, her anger rising. "You see, Mother, unlike some people, Matt and I pay our debts. And we don't spend money we don't have." She dropped her spoon in the bowl and stood.
Going to the door she sat on the bench and donned her mukluks. Now, in addition to frustration, she also felt guilty for having made such a remark to her mother.
"Janet, you've not finished your lunch," Margaret noticed, with more than a little disapproval.
"I have two more cows that still haven't calved," Janet responded. "I'll finish later." At the same time she thought, "Why do I feel guilty? I can't even insult her!"
"I would have thought it was warm enough for them to look after themselves," Margaret noted. "Your lunch will be cold. Besides, I would think a mother would want to spend more time with her son than with a group of cows."
"That was what I planned when I came in," Janet said. "And it's a herd of cows, not a group." She pointed across the room at her son who appeared to be paying no attention to the usual prattling of the two women. "And that is Mark. Not Markus, just Mark." Actually the boy's name was Markham - after his paternal grandfather - but that was another argument Janet didn't want to start with her mother.
Intent on the spinning top, his back to his grandmother, Mark almost allowed a smile to slip out.
One of the cows had already dropped its calf and the other was about to. Before going in for lunch, Janet had put fresh straw in what she called her 'baby pen', so she only needed to gently herd the cow and new calf into it.
The second cow stood with its back arched, tail raised, and a far-away look in her eyes. Janet expected it would not be too much longer, but was slightly fearful of expecting too much. From sixty cows she had sixty-one calves - two sets of twins - with nothing more serious than some frostbite to two sets of young ears. Things had gone especially well so far and she didn't want to jinx anything on this last calf.
After several minutes the cow relieved herself. She looked around at Janet then walked over near the horse corral, lay down and began to chew her cud. Margaret would have been impressed by the string of verbal abuse her daughter aimed at the cow – but not favorably.
Janet had no desire to return to the house, and another argument with her mother, so she decided to take a turn around the small pasture holding the twenty yearling steers. Perhaps by the time she had checked the fence the tardy cow would be ready to begin a birthing.
The small pasture was empty! The wire gate lay flat beside the trail of hoof prints in the mud. For different reasons Janet and her husband shared a dream of future independence. It was a dream she could see and touch every day in the small herd of steers. Now the dream – and the herd – had evaporated.
Immediately, Janet blamed herself. She had brought a wagonload of hay to them that morning on the still frozen ground and must have left the gate open when she left. As she hurried back to the buildings, she tried to remember the events surrounding her leaving the yearling pasture and going through the gate.