Authors: Bill Yenne
HE TOWN DOWNSTREAM FROM THE
Bladen Cole reached the Missouri, was hardly a town at all. It was merely a little no-name collection of shacks that had grown up around a place on the river where cattle could be loaded aboard steamers or barges for shipment to buyers downstream. This time of year, when the river was low, it was barely that.
Naturally, as in any cow town in Montana, or in the West as a whole for that matter, civic life was centered on the watering hole. Cole limped into this place, a combination saloon and general store, noticeably favoring his left leg, and ordered a whiskey.
“None of my business, but it's a little early in the day for whiskey, ain't it,” the proprietor said as he poured a generous shot and scooped up the coin that Cole tossed on the bar. As was often the case in very small towns where the saloon doubled as a general store, the owner was more used to selling salt pork or horseshoe nails when the sun was this high in the sky.
There was another man in the place, noticeable by his especially large hat, which was tall in the crown. He was examining the wares in the general store part of the place and seemed to pay Cole no mind.
“Medicinal,” Cole said sheepishly, nodding to his leg. “Part of the problem with camping for the night where others have camped.”
“Cut my foot on a piece of broken glass when I was answering the call of nature.”
,” the man said, commiserating.
“Yep, two nights ago. Ain't feeling much better. I fear it'll be infected.”
“If you been stepping where your horse been answering the call of nature, it shore 'nuff
“Do you know where a man might find some doctoring around here?”
“Which way you headed?”
“Nearest place would be Fort Benton.”
“Thank you greatly,” Cole said, holding out his shot glass for a refill.
“Must be something goin' on,” the man said as he took Cole's coin. “There was another fella by here yesterday who was stove up with an infection. Nasty goddamn thing on his wrist. Also headed up to Benton. Around here that counts as an epidemic.”
“Not Benton,” interjected the man with the large hat. “They was headed
“Well, then I guess the doctor will have time for me when I get there,” Cole said, finishing his drink and turning to leave. “Much obliged, good day to y'all.”
When he had limped back out to his horse, and the second man had thought him sufficiently removed from earshot, he began berating the shopkeeper.
“Damn you, man. They told us not to tell nobody which way they went.”
“That fellow was no lawman,” the shopkeeper said, referring to Cole. “I could figure that out, and so could you. Besides, he wasn't askin', I was tellin'.”
“They told us not to tell
Hoping that the disagreement would not go beyond verbal, Cole mounted up and rode out of town.
His feigned limp had allowed him to open the door into talk of a man who was injured, and now he knew that he was gaining on the Porter boys. He had started out more than two days behind them and had halved their lead.
As the faint sound of the argument died away, the only sounds were the songs of the meadowlarks in the tall grass. Except for the trail Cole was riding, the vast landscape surrounding the Missouri River in the valley below was as devoid of the hand of humanity as it had been when Lewis and Clark had been the first white men to pass through these parts more than seven decades before.
Their journals of their westward trek on the river recorded no sign of another person for the weeks they took to cross most of the vast expanse of what became Montana Territory. The Piegan, Gros Ventre, and Blackfeet hunters, who no doubt noticed them from the high bluffs above the river, discreetly chose not to make their presence known. When the white men returned, traveling eastward, it had been a different story, but even after the passage of more than seven decades, this stretch of the Missouri, flanked by cottonwoods and aspen in their yellow autumn raiment, had not changed.
Downstream at Fort Benton, it was a different story. William Clark had been dead for less than a decade when this town was born as a bustling riverboat port serving the fur trade. Through the years since, it had grown in importance as gold was discovered and as cattle ranching proliferated. The most navigable inland port on the Missouri, it was served routinely by steamboats heading downstream to the Mississippi at St. Louis, the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, and thence to the whole outside world.
With hyperbole based lightly upon fact, its boosters called their port city “the Chicago of the West.” With hyperbole more closely rooted in reality, Fort Benton's detractors, complaining of gunslingers and river pirates, called its main street “the bloodiest block in the West.”
Fort Benton was a place where four men on the run could lose themselves, and where a man with a wrist infected by a bullet wound could seek medical attention without the embarrassment of intrusive queries. So too could a man with a limp, who feared an infection of his own.
As had been the case in Diamond City, and as in the recent no-name cow town, the window into the soul of Fort Benton was the pair of swinging doors that led to the saloon. The only question when there were so many was
Cole bypassed the places on the main streetâespecially the one from which a fistfight had spilled across the boardwalk and into the streetâand picked a smallish tavern on a side street that seemed more likely to cater to locals.
Once again, he affected a limp, and once again he explained his need for whiskey as “medicinal.”
“You oughta get that looked at,” the bartender offered in the way of advice.
“Reckon I oughta,” Cole said in a tone that lacked conviction. There was no sense in his betraying
much eagerness to find a doctor who catered to strangers with suspicious injuriesâespecially not when he was tasting good whiskey. And the whiskey
good. The closer a man was to the port to which the whiskey had been shipped, the lower the percentage of native water that was likely to have been added to “extend” it.
“Looks like winter's comin' on,” Cole said, changing the subject.
“Saw some snow in the air the other night,” agreed the bartender, who drifted away to deal with some other patrons.
When he returned to Cole, the bounty hunter grimaced a little and asked for another shot.
“If I was to want to have this looked at,” he said as his shot was poured, “where would I find a doc to do the lookin'?”
“Hear of Doc Ashby?”
“I'm not from around here.”
“Second street over. He takes a lot of folks just passing through.”
“Much obliged,” Cole said, laying a couple of coins on the bar.
Doc Ashby's shingle hung above the door that led to the second floor of a red brick commercial building. The bartender hadn't actually said how many doctors practiced in Fort Benton, but Bladen Cole figured himself to be on the right track when the first one to come to the man's mind took patients who were “just passing through.”
There was no sign saying
, and the door was unlocked. Cole took this to be a good indication. A little bell tingled happily as the door opened, and he began climbing the steep and creaky staircase. At the top of the stairs, standing behind a desk, was an older man in wire-frame glasses wearing a vest over a white shirt that was a little dirty in the cuffs.
“I'm Dr. Ashby,” he said, extending his hand. “Can I help you?”
“Well, Doc, I'm actually trying to catch up with some friends of mine.”
“HowÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
“Well, one of 'em had an injury on his hand, and I figure he'd be looking for a doctor such as yourself to patch him up.”
“That so?” Ashby said, his friendly demeanor enveloped by a tone of suspicion. “I believe that your friend is my patientÂ .Â .Â . but he's not really your friendÂ .Â .Â . is he?”
“You a lawman?”
“A man who collects rewards for collecting people,” Ashby commented, sniping at Cole.
“A man who enforces legally executed warrants,” Cole said with more impatience than defensiveness. “Two men were gunned down in cold blood in the parlor of one of their homesÂ .Â .Â . and then the wife of one of the menÂ .Â .Â . and then the sheriff of Gallatin City, and finally a fourth man. I'm on the trail of men who've left a string of at least five bodies across this territoryÂ .Â .Â . I'm out to bring killers back to answer for those crimes.”
“I'm afraid you will not be taking this man anywhere,” the doctor said.
“Because within the next hour or so, he'll be going home to the Lord.”
“That bad. If they'd gotten him to me a day or so earlier, I might have taken off an arm and saved a life, but it's too late. The infection's spreadÂ .Â .Â . all the way to his heart.”
“Can I see him?” Cole asked.
“Nothing wrong with thatÂ .Â .Â . I suppose.” The doctor shrugged, nodding to a door on the wall opposite the head of the stairs. “Go ahead.”
Inside, a man lay on a bed, his head on a pillow soaked in sweat. His boots and shirt had been removed. There was a fresh bandage on his wrist, but his arm and shoulder were deeply inflamed.
His eyes flickered open and rolled to look in Cole's direction, but otherwise he remained motionless.
“Which one of the Porter boys are you?” Cole asked.
“Ain't no Porter,” he whispered at last. “Name's WallerÂ .Â .Â . Milton Waller. If you're here to arrest me, you're too late. Sheriff done killed me already. He's a good shot. Thought he just nicked meÂ .Â .Â . but he done killed me.”
“Why'd you kill those people?” Cole asked. “Why'd you go after Blaine?”
“Got paidÂ .Â .Â . paid good.”
An attempt at an ironic chuckle was interrupted by a cough, followed by a choking sound.
“The railroadÂ .Â .Â . land deal,” the man explained between sputters. “They have to dieÂ .Â .Â . four partnersÂ .Â .Â . only one can survive.”
“Who paid you?” Cole asked.
“Got paid to kill 'emÂ .Â .Â . half up front,” Waller continued, skating to the edge of deathbed delirium. “Had to get out of town without the restÂ .Â .Â . damn that Enoch PorterÂ .Â .Â . he shot that womanÂ .Â .Â . then it all fell apartÂ .Â .Â . running out of timeÂ .Â .Â . had to get out of town quick.”
“Who paid you?” Cole repeated.
“All fell apartÂ .Â .Â .” Waller said. “He shot the womanÂ .Â .Â . we're all scaredÂ .Â .Â . have to runÂ .Â .Â .”
With that, Milton Waller ran out of time. His eyes went blank, his body flinched and relaxed.
Cole looked at Ashby, who nodded. Waller had gone home.
OLE HAD A STRANGE APPREHENSION THAT HE
was congratulating a killer when he scrawled out a message to Isham Ransdell at the Fort Benton post office. He enclosed a copy of the death certificate and confirmed the death in his accompanying note. He wrote nothing, however, about Waller's last words, nothing about “only one can survive,” because it had been Ransdell, conveniently absent from the shooting, who was the
who had walked away
Cole had long been pondering the words of Gideon Porter as related by Mrs. Stocker that the women were not
to be hurt. From this, he had concluded that the killings were not a matter of an angry madman settling a score, but part of a deliberately conceived
, leaving only the question of
it had been. In his deathbed declaration, Waller's words had filled in this missing piece.
For Bladen Cole, justice, when applied to the Porter boys, was no longer a matter of “dead or alive.” Justice could only be served by bringing the remaining outlaws back
to point their fingers at Isham Ransdell.
The bounty hunter had hoped to continue his pursuit the morning after the demise of Milton Waller, but the time expended in getting two copies of the death certificateâone for himself and one to mail to Isham Ransdellâhad cost most of the day. It had taken all morning and several trips back and forth to the county clerk's office to get copies of Waller's death certificate and to get them signed by both Doc Ashby and the coroner. He then had to chase down a notary whose office hours began only when he had slept off his night before.
Cole decided to sleep one more night between sheets in the fleabag hotel and bought his dinner at a little shack of a cafe near the levee. He decided to buy his whiskey at the saloon nearest his hotel, a typical Fort Benton dive, where trappers from the distant corners of the Plains and boatmen from the Missouri were being united with their first whiskey in months. The piano player was banging out some familiar Virginia marches, and it made Cole a little nostalgic.
He met a woman who craved companionship in a commercial, rather than nostalgic, sort of way, and he talked with her until he discovered that she had no information about the Porter boys. She too lost interest and drifted on to another prospect when she discovered that the only thing he was buying that night was drinks.
She had told him her name, but he forgot it right away. She too reminded him of Sally Lovelace in that way that most painted ladies now reminded him of Sally Lovelace. This one also had Sally's habit of making intense eye contact and telling him that she knew what he was thinking.
This night in this saloon reminded him of another night long ago in that other bar down in Silver City, where prospectors came down out of the Mogollon Mountains with too much gold dust and not enough sense.
The Cole brothers, William and Bladen, had been drinking far too long for their own good that nightâhe would grant that as a factâbut young men barely into their twenties cannot be told such a thing at the time.
So too had been another pair of young men barely into their twenties. As often happens in circumstances such as prevailed that night, neither pair of young men walked away, as they should have, from a quarrel that had ensued.
Perhaps if Bladen had tugged at Will's sleeve and insisted that they let the two men go, it never would have happened, but he had not, and it did.
It happened so fast, and in such a fog, that Bladen never really knew which man drew his gun first, but Bladen knew he was the
. When the dust had settled, two men lay dead, and one was Will. The fourth man, the cowardly one with the narrow face of a rodent, had vanished into the night.
Through all the ensuing years, in saloons like this one in Fort Benton, Cole had found himself scanning the patrons who swirled in the kerosene glow, searching the room for the rat-faced man who took his brother's life.
Through all the ensuing years, he had yet to see that ugly face again.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
SHBY HAD CONFIRMED WHAT
City had said that she had overheard. The Porter boys were headed across the Marias River into Blackfeet country. In Montana around this time, you could more or less dance all around the law with impunity, but
more or less. The only place you could
outrun the law was where there was
law. It was commonly stated that there was “no law north of the Marias.”
The cold wind blowing from the Arctic across the Canadian prairies stung his face as Cole rode the undulating landscape of apparently endless flatness alternated with broad gullies cut by streams and filled with golden aspen.
It was, in the eyes of an outsider, a trackless wilderness unpunctuated with landmarks, like the open ocean. To those who had been here for generations, each of the monotonous series of hills and gullies was as unique as a city street marked by a unique street sign.
The Blackfeet, called SiksikÃ¡wa in their own tongue, had inhabited this distant corner of the Plains for centuries. For the most part, the white man had yet to build up the momentum to exploit this place. Aside from a few distantly separated trading posts, there were no people living north of the Mariasâin a vast region larger than Cole's native Virginiaâwhose grandparents had not been born here.
Late in the afternoon, Cole noticed a cluster of scavenging birds circling and squawking, and he detoured slightly to investigate. They were not the remains of three men ambushed by Blackfeet, but the bloody and scattered bits of something else that had recently been living. The pieces were so far dispersed that it took Cole a few minutes to ascertain that these remains were, or had been, a bull elk.
The big animal appeared to have been blown apart by a stick of dynamite, though in fact it had been attacked, killed, and partially consumed by a grizzly. A lump rose in Cole's throat as he realized that this slaughter had occurred within the past hour. The meat was fresh, the blood still runny.
The roan began acting nervously, jerking and snorting like a person who had come under the spell of an evil sorcerer. Cole had had barely a moment to understand why his horse was spooked, when he saw the reason in the corner of his eye.
The bear arose with a crash and a snort from a thicket of willows. From a crouching position, it unlimbered itself to a standing posture and bellowed ominously. The grizzly is an enormous creature, taller than a man standing in his stirrups while on his horse.
Cole felt the blood drain from his face as the roan reared.
The signature terror of the remote corners of the West, the grizzly was a creature so fierce that all others avoided itâwhen they could. The Indians approached it with a mixture of reverence and trepidation. White men avoided it because it could not be killed. As many a man had learned the hard way, its skull was so thick and the muscle mass of its body so dense that only a lucky shot, a one-in-a-hundred shot, could bring one down.
For the first time in years, Cole found himself frozen in fear. The first reaction of a person to a grizzly, that being to run like hell, was often fatal. As clumsy as they seemed while lumbering about, grizzlies could outrun a man, even a man on a horse.
He pulled his Winchester from its scabbard and began backing his horse, figuring that his
was to get away slowly before the bear decided to drop back down to four legs and charge him.
The Winchester represented his
For a short while, it worked. The bear watched the mounted rider as though bewildered by the jerky backward motion.
At last, the grizzly decided that despite an apparent backward movement, this intruder represented an interloper at his supper table.
With an angry snarl, the beast charged.
The roan bucked, and Cole felt himself losing his balance.
In the process of trying not to lose his rifle, Cole lost his reins.
For a moment, he felt himself sliding sideways from a galloping horse.
In the next instant, he was colliding awkwardly with the ground.
The Winchester, on which he had lost his grip, dropped about six feet away.
The sound of the bear galloping toward him was like thunder.
He literally threw himself toward the gun.
Grabbing the rifle in mid-tumble, Cole fired without aiming.
The bullet struck the bear with little more annoyance than a horse fly caused attacking a person. Cole might as well have poked him in the shoulder with a stick.
However, the sound of the shot, something this bear had never heard, and the smell of the gunsmoke, something this bear had never smelled, provided a momentary pause.
It is curious to contemplate the sorts of things that go through a man's mind when he is about to die. They say that your whole life flashes before you, but what do “they” know?
Bladen Cole thought about that Sunday in the Congregational Church in Bowling Green when he was about twelve, when he had thought about the effectiveness of prayer for the first time. The preacher's remarks had lost him in the bobbing sea of his own daydreams, and he had wondered whether prayers went answered. He guessed that most did not, but he wanted to believe that some
In that split second before the moment in which he expected his own violent and painful death, Bladen Cole prayed.
He also squeezed the trigger again, and saw the lead tear into the cheek of an angry bear whose rapid progress toward him was not slackened.
He could smell the disgusting stench of the grizzly's breath as he fired the
last shot possible
before ten angry, raging claws reached him and ripped him apart as they had the elk.
The slug impacted the bear's left eye, cleaving straight into his brain.
The inside surface of the back of the bear's skull, being too thick to be penetrated by the bullet, caused it to ricochet, then ricochet again. Each time that the bullet zigged or zagged in the soft tissue of the brain, it tore a separate path and ripped away another swath of the bear's consciousness.
Cole rolled to the side as the bear reached him.
He felt the pain of the bear's leg falling on his, but he barely avoided having the full weight of the animal's thousand pounds crush him.
He imagined that he was being mauled, and he struggled to get away, but the frightening gyrations were merely the bear's death throes. By the time that he had at last gotten out from beneath the enormous mass, the grizzly had twitched its last.
Cole gasped to catch breath, inhaling the rankness of the sweaty monster, but was overjoyed just to be breathing at all.