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Shamrock

Shamrock

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Shamrock

Lunghezza:
490 pagine
8 ore
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Nov 20, 2019
ISBN:
9780463921739
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Jeremiah Maynard, a Confederate veteran haunted by the carnage of the war and his own survival, continues to drift aimlessly westward but no matter how far he gets he can’t outdistance his memories. He is searching for purpose and a new start. He stops off in the frontier town of Shamrock, and finds himself elected Sheriff charged with maintaining the peace in a land that respects only the law out of the barrel of a gun. He faces many challenges, but to his surprise settles in and finds love and the peace he is looking for.
The story is about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress on people’s lives and what it takes to deal with it. Obviously the American Civil War was a huge source of trauma, but any catastrophic event can also result in the same. The impact of war has always been known, but we are only becoming more aware of other, less cataclysmic sources of trauma. By juxtaposing the sources, the story highlights the similarities.

Editore:
Pubblicato:
Nov 20, 2019
ISBN:
9780463921739
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

BIO: Nearing retirement, I now have more time to devote to writing (and if I don’t, I squeeze the day until there is a space/time to crawl into). Over the past 15 years, I have worked on 15 books, three of which (of the Dreamcast series) are self-published.My website, http://www.PaulTelegdi.ca gives a full account of my life and accomplishments, which I shall not repeat here.The thumbnail version: I was born in Hungary; when young immigrated to Canada with my family, attended University of Waterloo, Ontario, where I met my wife. Spent years in West Germany where my wife was studying music while I was learning German. Returning to Canada, we ended up on a farm in Ontario with pets. Long-time married, I boast of three sons with talent and personality.Presently I am office manager of my wife’s private practice of psychology. I like kayaking and windsurfing. I belong to a number of writers’ groups, and often choose writing over sleeping. eBooks are an exciting new chapter in my life and I’m looking forward to the wider exposure.My motto: Want a better life? Then write it!

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Shamrock - Paul Telegdi

SHAMROCK

Under the Big Sky

by Paul Telegdi

Dedicated to all my friends and readers who like my books and inspire me to write more

Copyright © 2018, Paul Telegdi

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever

This story is fiction in its entirety and any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.

Published by Paul Telegdi on Smashwords as Shamrock

To enjoy other books by Paul Telegdi, look for the following titles:

Dreamcast 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 (paranormal series)

The Call at 3:18 am (paranormal)

14-, 15-, 16-, 17- and 18 Stones (prehistoric series)

Seize the Day (Roman)

Strike the Red Hammer (Norman)

The Locksmith’s Dilemma (medieval)

Where Arrows Fly (medieval)

Dark Fires (medieval)

Learning Berserk (Viking)

Unlearning Berserk (Viking)

Chance Encounters (a life in progress)

On the Razor’s Edge (prison novel)

Remembering PT-927 (WWII on water)

The Lady Bug (WWII in a tank)

At the Point of a Quarrel (100 years war)

Peoples’ Spring 1848 (uprising of 1848)

Insula: Trouble with the Sky

Shamrock (a western)

Foreword

In earlier years I was a great fan of Western writers starting with Zane Grey. But over time I grew out of it. Then I became infected with the writing bug and looked for genres that I was comfortable with. Historically themed fiction was a gravity source for me and I always felt its pull. Step by step I worked through prehistory, the classical period and spent a lot of time in the medieval period. I even tackled the paranormal, the American Civil War and WWII. However I was beginning to feel that I had exhausted the genre pool and was looking around for something new. A Western, of course.

Why have I waited so long? Thinking on it, I blame Clint Eastwood for my reluctance. How can I come up with the larger-than-life characters he portrayed? He says more with his eyes that I can with my puny words. The best I can do is a common-man hero, flawed, damaged but willing to grow. Hence Shamrock, the book.

I warn you, I have no preconceived notions of what I’m about to write, I simply write without a road map. Thus it takes me time to find the story itself. Be set for a slow start but when things heat up, it boils. As flawed as this method is, it lends itself to a wonderful sense of discovery as the plot line stumbles over something novel and follows up on it. I call it organic writing, for it grows as a plant, from the germ of an idea into a complete book.

So come along with me. It’s the way I see the West in all its glory, born out of a pioneering spirit that overcomes hardships and deprivation and builds a nation.

I would also like to emphasize that the book is fiction in its entirety. You might recognize place names and even actual names of historical figures and events, but in fact they are not meant to be accurate; I simply borrowed them for the purposes of my story.

I hope you will enjoy this book. I worked hard to make it interesting and to give you a sense of what the West was like. I also hope to meet you in my other books. I wish you good reading.

Chapter 1

Sheriff Jeremiah Maynard hid in the shade of the porch overhang as he looked into the piercing sunlight. His eyes listlessly roved up and down Main Street. At this time of day nothing much moved in the heat.

He took off his hat and pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped his forehead. He could feel the grit of dust scour his skin. With a sigh, he pulled the hat down on his forehead, tilting the brim to block as much of the glare from the sky as he possibly could. He should go inside the one-room jail house to escape the harsh light, but the heat was trapped inside the four walls, making it unbearable. On the outside there was at least the chance of an errant gust to bring a bit of relief. He tilted the chair on its back legs to rest it against the clapboard wall, the weathered planks of the raised boardwalk creaking under him as he shifted his weight. He knew that if he sat here long enough everyone in town would pass him by, but not at midday in the summer. The Sheriff scratched his chin, thinking that he really ought to shave. But why? There was nothing formal that he had to do. His main job was to be seen, on duty twenty-four hours a day.

Shamrock was a small town, barely forty buildings scattered on both sides of Main Street. Perpendicular to it was Church Street, with the white-washed Presbyterian Church on the rise and the graveyard beyond. Heading the other way was Orchard Straight, which led to the Baptist Church, five more houses and beyond, the animal pens and the stable yard. Shamrock was a small town hardly worth one church let alone two. But for whatever reasons people settled here and brought their religions with them.

Surprisingly at opposing ends there were also two saloons, the Junction and the Union House. Of the two, Junction had the prestige of a better reputation as it had a crystal mirror behind the bar, a piano and eleven tables with six chairs around each. In the corner a table was reserved for gamblers. But the main draw of the establishment was the six ladies to animate customers and if you could convince them and had the money, they would accompany you upstairs.

Of course Union House also had ladies to entice a man for half the price. It served raw whiskey and sandwiches. People played cards for pennies. The bartender was George, a whale of a man, who wouldn’t tolerate any foolishness in his establishment.

The town itself wasn’t large enough to support two churches and two saloons, but come Sunday, the ranch hands, cowboys and miners from the hills flooded the town filling it with noise after a hard work week. Yes, people worked all week just to spend their earnings on Sundays. If the Sheriff was going to have any trouble, then Sunday was the day. In the morning of course was church, a quick lunch after in Miss April’s tent diner, and around mid afternoon the mood started heating up, while God fearing folks stayed at home behind closed doors.

But on a Friday noon as not much was happening, the Sheriff could relax. A mangy cat came by and meowed at him. He took his hat off and chased off the scruffy animal. Across the street a door slammed, catching the Sheriff’s attention. It was Grandpa Bailey, owner of the Shamrock Dry Goods Store. He threw a pail of water onto the ground and looked up and down the street. He noticed the Sheriff sitting in the shade and considered going over to him, but thought better of it. He was like many of the others who had come west and stopped here, deciding it was far enough from what was behind them and not wishing to test the Rockies just ahead.

The Sheriff himself was from Tennessee, the son of a successful cooper who sold his barrels up and down the Tennessee River. His mother died birthing him and his father never remarried. If he had urges, he visited the House of Pink Rose on the edge of town across the railroad track. Jeremiah had learned the trade but war came sweeping him up. For four years he had marched up and down the breadth of land, fighting the Union. When the war finally ended, he went home to find it burned down and his father dead and buried. For two years he moved from place to place, doing whatever came to hand. The brutal years of the war had robbed him of any purpose, so like many other veterans he had found himself drifting west, ending up here in Shamrock of all places.

Jeremiah squinted up the street at the Junction Hotel and Bar, owned by Old Man Silas who also owned the carpentry shop in town and had a stake in the copper mine in the nearby hills. He also had a small factory that cleaned and cured buffalo hides brought in by hunters, which were then shipped back East. There was no question that he was the richest man in town and if you needed seed money to start a business, he was the one to talk to. He was tightfisted, requiring collateral or a promise of servitude before he would shell out his money. Of course he charged interest but it was never excessive. He had three sons, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and a daughter Jenny who had the good fortune to marry well back East. Old Man Silas, as everyone called him behind his back, ran the town and a good part of the surrounding countryside. In fact, it was he who made Maynard the Sheriff.

Just a year ago, Jeremiah had stopped in Shamrock to buy supplies and have a horseshoe tightened before heading on. He had his supplies and was waiting for the smith to finish. To pass the time while he waited he walked into the Junction House and ordered a beer. Silas Harrington, the owner, regarded him from across the bar.

Where to, Mister? Silas asked.

To where the road takes me, Jeremiah replied rather gruffly. He wasn’t used to talking to strangers but the fact was that in his travelling everyone was a stranger.

The road here takes you into the mountains and the passes are still filled with snow at this time of year.

Well then, I’ll wait until the snow melts. Jeremiah shrugged his shoulders.

If you’re looking for work to tide you over, I may have something for you.

What sort of something?

The way you holster your pistol tells me you were a soldier in the War between the States. Jeremiah just nodded. If you got a rifle, I’ll hire you to track down a mountain lion that’s been raiding my sheep.

Sheep? I thought this was cattle country.

The hills are too steep for cattle but ideal for sheep. I have three flocks up there, but a damned lion is eating up my profits.

Why can’t the herders do something about it?

They need to attend to the sheep, not chase after a mountain lion.

I’m a pretty good shot and a fair tracker. I suppose I could try to hunt the beast down. What will you pay?

I’ll outfit you for a week, buy all your supplies and pay you ten Union dollars if you bring back the pelt or the ears at least.

Jeremiah could have said no, but he had no other prospects, so he accepted the offer. They shook hands over the deal.

When you’re ready, go over to the dry goods store and Bailey will give you all you need and charge it to my account. Jeremiah just nodded, finishing his beer. I can get you another if you want. It’s on the house.

I don’t drink much, Jeremiah said putting on his hat. He turned and walked out into the pale sunlight. He strode to the smithy where he found his horse, Morning, freshly shod, munching on the contents of a nose bag. Jeremiah was well pleased with his animal, a chestnut quarter horse, sturdy, well muscled and easy to handle. Sometimes all he had to do was to think of a way to go and the horse did it as if by instinct. The size also fit Jeremiah’s lanky six foot frame, just over sixteen hands high. He reached out and smoothed the short hairs on the muscular neck. With wide-open eyes Morning looked back at him as if to ask, Are you ready to go?

Where’re you off to? the smith asked, wiping perspiration from his face.

Hunting a lion, I expect. Harrington hired me.

Old Man Silas, everyone calls him that. He has his nose in everything in town. It’s hard to take a step and not stumble over him. The smith put a piece of iron in the hot coals and pumped air into the fire.

Where can I get something to eat?

If you have the money, the Junction serves decent food. The smith looked him up and down. From your belt buckle I guess you were a Confederate soldier so I won’t recommend the Union House. That’s where all the Unionists meet. The only other place is Miss April’s kitchen tent behind the Millinery shop just across the street. She’ll serve you a proper meal without bankrupting you.

There were only a few people in the tent. Miss April turned out to be someone who would have more aptly been named September, but her smile was welcoming as she led him to a table. He asked for steak and potatoes with sour pickles and bread. She yelled the order to the back and had to repeat herself.

I have a Chinaman for a cook. He does it well but he’s slow to understand. Miss April regarded him closely. You look to be a stranger as I’ve never seen you around here before. What brings you to Shamrock?

The road, Jeremiah muttered, irked by everyone probing for his business. She didn’t like his tone and seemed quite put out, so he rephrased his answer. How can I not stop in a lucky place named Shamrock? My father said we have some Irish blood in the family, so how could I not respond to the name?

She laughed. Today we call it Shamrock, but originally it was called Shamerock. Back then a travelling preacher caught his wife in someone else’s bed, and for punishment tied her to a rock with a placard around her neck calling her a whore. She nearly died of shame. Hence the name Shamerock stuck to the place like glue. However, about fifteen years back when the Presbyterians came to town and erected their church, the preacher Jonas decided that the name disgraced the town and turned it into Shamrock. So there you have it. Don’t be surprised if some of the old folks still call this place Shamerock.

Without realizing it, Jeremiah regarded Shamrock with more interest. Through his travels he had passed through many small towns without paying much attention to them. He remembered only shabby store fronts and not one kind word of exchange.

The next morning Jeremiah walked into the Dry Goods Store, smelling of liniment and saddle soap. Grandma Bailey served him and soon assembled all he needed. A tin of flour, a packet of yeast, a sack of beans, smoked bacon, salt and sugar, and ground coffee beans wrapped in waxed paper. Beside it all, Jeremiah bought some gunpowder, a strip of lead, mink oil for his boots, and pipe tobacco. He also selected three pairs of woolen socks and an undershirt. Grandma also gave him smoked fish wrapped in an old newspaper. He packed it all into his saddle bags.

Looking at Jeremiah over her glasses, she asked in a voice that didn’t expect an answer, Going somewhere?

Just into the hills to track down a mountain lion that’s been raiding the sheep.

That explains why Old Man Silas was so willing to fund you. Do you speak Mexican?

No. Why would I need to?

Because the herders are Mexicans and rarely come to town. Not one of them speaks proper English. When they need something from the store, they point and I have to write the price on paper for them to understand.

Doesn’t much matter unless the lion too only speaks Mexican, Jeremiah said, enjoying the startled look that dawned on Grandma’s face.

Well good luck to you then. It’s rough going up there. There are meadows on the hillsides, but many gullies that cut up the land like a lace bedcover. Easy to break a leg.

Thank you Ma’am for the warning. I’ll take good care.

The terrain indeed proved challenging. Jeremiah spent as much time going around dangerous cliffs in the hill slopes as getting anywhere. He would have done better to be on foot but he wasn’t going to leave Morning behind. On the second day he ran into a flock of sheep and their minders. As warned, the Mexicans spoke so little English that he had to growl and hiss and claw the air to make them understand that he was after the lion. Once they grasped that fact they were most eager to help. They fed him and let him sleep in their tent. They also showed him where the lion made the last kill.

At first it was easy to follow the blood splattered trail through the grass to where the animal lingered to finish eating its prey, leaving just the bigger bones. Afterwards the trail got confused, disappearing in a stream and the surrounding rock strewn ground. Jeremiah followed it by spotting bent grass and disturbed rocks. On rare instances he even saw a clear paw print in soft soil caught in hollows. Judging from the marks and by the sharp scent with which he marked his territory, the cat was a large male. By one tree Jeremiah got a true measure of the size, seeing marks on the bark where the lion sharpened its claws. Then the trail turned cold and Jeremiah couldn’t pick it up again though he circled the area six times.

With evening approaching Jeremiah constructed a shelter from some branches and bushes. He made fire and baked sourdough bread to go with the smoked fish. Afterwards he settled into his blanket and read the paper the fish came in, about the making of the territory of Wyoming and the progress of the Union Pacific Railroad. Of course the paper was old, dated some years back in 1866.

Lying on his back Jeremiah gazed up at the panorama of stars scattered across the blackness of the sky. The moon wasn’t up yet. He checked his .45 and Sharps and then snuggled beside them, covering them with his blanket to protect them from the expected overnight dew. As always, it was hard for him to fall asleep. His mind returned to the many battle scenes that still haunted him. To gain control, away from the horribly grisly scenes, he tried to rework his experiences. While the bullets were flying and the cannons were roaring in the din of battle, it had been hard to figure out what was really happening. The view was shrouded in gunpowder smoke and the explosion of shells. He saw through his front sight as he aimed and fired, or was led by his bayonet to meet the enemy head on. From his view there were no reasons why they won or lost a battle. Of all the battles perhaps the one at Shiloh in ’62 was the worst. The greatest losses and bloodletting in his unit. He tried to shut out the sight of carnage as his regiment charged the Hornets’ Nest, a piece of sunken road where the Yankees had dug in. The bullets were whizzing by as he ran, his heart in his throat, his mind frozen in terror. Still he ran because the others beside him also ran, dropping one by one, dead or wounded to the ground. At one point, he found himself alone with an empty rifle in his hand still a dozen steps from the enemy. When the Yankees jeered him on, he dropped and crawled back to his line with Union bullets looking for him in the waist high grass, losing his rifle in his flight. No matter, there were plenty of ownerless rifles around to choose from. He was shot twice in that encounter. The man in command, General Johnston, also died there forcing his second, General Beauregard to retreat.

How often had he relived the horror? He sat up, charged his pipe and smoked to try to compose himself. The tobacco calmed him and after emptying his pipe, he lay down again. Think of the lion. Nothing but the lion, he said over and over again to keep other thoughts out of his head. He finally fell asleep.

He woke once in the night when he heard Morning nervously nickering in the darkness. Jeremiah cocked his Sharps and scanned the near ground. The moon had risen and drenched the landscape with a silver-bluish tint. But nothing happened, and when his horse settled down, he let the cock down on his rifle and lay back down to sleep.

Jeremiah woke into the first light of the dawning day. The mountains looked golden bright in the distance to the west and the air was fresh, the view crisp. Morning was on his feet already, grazing contentedly. Jeremiah wiped the dew from his face and rose to reawaken the fire. He dipped a quarter pot of water from a brook and soon got it boiling. He threw in two spoonfuls of coffee, let it seep and poured it into a tin cup. Wrapping his hand around the warmth, he sipped the brew, feeling it wake the rest of his body. He ate the bread from last night and chewed on a hard strip of pemmican. He got up and walked a circle around the camp, looking for any signs of an intruder that had alarmed his horse. The lion, a bear perhaps, or wolves. He made another circle farther out but found nothing.

He lit his pipe and considered how to go about the hunt. Perhaps I should entice the lion to come to me. Leave a blood trail to snare the beast. More than likely that would bring all the predators in the neighborhood upon my head and I have only one good shot in my rifle and six shots in my handgun with a less certain aim.

After some consideration he settled on establishing himself at a high point that overlooked the surrounding land to try a long shot. After all, they had designated him a sharpshooter during the Franklin Battle in ’64. He had ensconced himself in a crotch high up in an elm tree and took shot after shot at the Yankee formations. By then killing had become easy, almost mechanical; he loaded, aimed and fired with no feelings to distract him. At the distance of a hundred, two hundred and even three hundred yards the enemy didn’t even look human anymore. He killed about twenty-two before he lost count. What did it matter anyway? There was an ocean of Yankees to kill.

He covered the fire with dirt, packed up and soon had Morning ready. He headed for high ground, trying to find the best overlook. The search took him into the afternoon when he found what he was looking for: a rocky hilltop with an all around view of the land. He unsaddled, hobbled his horse and let him graze on the grass nearby while he made camp. He collected firewood but held up making a fire until evening when his view shrank to nothing anyway; in daylight he didn’t want to call attention to himself with the smoke. He checked his rifle over and sat behind a rock with just his head above it, his eyes scanning the landscape. He wondered if there were any hostile Indians about. The Indian wars were just a few years back and the territory was still rife with rumors of Indian raiding.

Sitting still he soon found his mind wandering, dragging him back into the war. To fight it he forced his mind to dwell on his childhood in the backwaters of Tennessee. The place they lived in had no name, just ten houses together, of farmers mostly. There was a forest nearby which supplied his father with the wood he needed to make barrels; a huge pile of wood was always aging beside the cabin. His father Amos Maynard was an all around cooper, making barrels for dry goods such as flour or wet goods such as ale, wine, and sour cabbage. He was also a hooper who forged the iron hoops to hold the staves together. Besides barrels he made wheels, buckets, tubs, washbasins, butter churns, all the items any community needed. Amos was known for miles around, with his work much in demand.

Jeremiah had spent endless hours on a shaving horse with the draw knife, shaping wood slats into staves. By day’s end his bottom hurt and his hands cramped so much that he could hardly open them. Best he liked splitting lengths of logs into slats, that is if the wood was properly aged. With three, four wedges he could easily split out the laths they needed. Father did the fine final adjusting of the staves and locking them together with an iron hoop into the desired containers. In all likelihood Jeremiah would have made a fine cooper and hooper himself if events hadn’t interrupted his apprenticeship. It was his best friend Joshua Walker, inflamed by the feelings of the day, who signed up with the Tennessee Volunteers in the cause of the Confederacy. It was Joshua who tried to convince him that it was his sacred duty and obligation to join too. The preacher thundered from the pulpit about the many evils caused by the Northerners. Damn Yankees was the cry in those days. When he saw Clara Lashley hug and kiss Joshua for his bravery, he almost joined, but resisted. After his Uncle Ben Maynard died in an early battle, Jeremiah had felt compelled to join. Joshua died a year later defending a nameless bridge in the Cumberland Gap. All the same, Jeremiah soldiered on, shorn of Christian piety or dreams of glory. He often thought that Joshua had gotten the better end of the deal.

Staring at the landscape Jeremiah saw nothing out of place. The branches moved, pushed around by the breeze, and the grassy slopes shivered as the wind blew across them. From time to time he took off his hat and wiped the sweatband with his handkerchief. He chewed on a pinch of pemmican. After he lit his pipe and drew the sweet smoke deep into his lungs. It sharpened his senses as his eyes swept around. He spotted two deer on the north slope and later what appeared to be a dog nosing around. It made him think of Indians again, but the dog soon disappeared.

When darkness stole over the land, Jeremiah made fire and cooked himself a meal, bread with bacon this time. After eating there wasn’t much to do but stare into the fire and get lost among the dancing flames. He scooped a shallow hole in the ground for his hip and pulled the blanket over himself, the Sharps close beside him. Again the war claimed him and he refought old arguments. He didn’t care about the issue of blacks and slavery. It was the fact that the South was seeking its own sovereignty that had captured him. It was a fight between the North and South and he was definitely for the South. He knew the people he grew up with and couldn’t understand how they could choose the North. Who was right? Was victory the ultimate arbiter? What do you do if your home is attacked? But was it worth all the lives it cost on both sides? And the mountain of sorrow families across the country suffered from the losses?

Half the night passed tormenting him with such questions. In the morning he was groggy and only woke up after a second cup of bitter-strong coffee. After checking his rifle over carefully he resumed his place at the lookout and scanned the landscape. The valley floor was just opening up to the sunlight, a wispy mist collecting in hollows. A quick circle showed him nothing unusual and he settled in for another long day’s wait.

By the afternoon he started to worry that while he was here the mountain lion was raiding the flocks. Silas Harrington was not going to be pleased if he lost more stock while Jeremiah was on watch. The day passed in bored silence, his eyes often watering in the brightness of the ever present sun. As darkness forced him back to camp he started wondering if this had been the right choice after all. He decided if nothing happened by noon the next day he would search out the shepherds to see if any animals were lost and try to pick up the lion’s trail again.

He made some biscuits and finished the last of the bacon. Morning seemed happy with their inactivity and his sides bulged with all the grass he had eaten. He rolled in the sand and then settled down in the grass. Jeremiah gazed long into the embers of the fire reluctant to face the torment of his thoughts. As long as he stayed upright the memories seemed unable to attack him. Still, in time, he had to lie down to get some sleep. But this time he was determined to conjure up Kathy Longstreet to block all other thoughts. Kathy was a year younger than he, but that didn’t matter in a one room school house. She had bright eyes whose glow he always felt when she turned to him and smiled. She had the best script in the school, better even than the teacher’s. She could also sing with a purity that filled the church to the delight of the congregation. That she was always ready to play, to enjoy herself, was obvious from her laugh, free and unobstructed by inhibition. All the boys, younger and older, were in love with her and gazed at her with silent admiration and longing. In the heart of his heart, if Jeremiah thought of marriage then it was always to Kathy Longstreet. Her folks, well regarded in the community, had a 15 acre orchard and sold jams and honey in season, enough to buy everything they needed.

Jeremiah tried to recall the exact image of her face, but to his shock he couldn’t manage it. How could that be, he was still so awestruck by her. Still the face refused to congeal into a realistic image he could recognize. All he saw was a child’s face, innocent, naive, knowing little of the world. You fool, we were all young and we have changed since. She’s just a sweet memory to visit you in your loneliness. And he was lonely, and had been so for a long time. He had no dreams, no aims, could never see a home, a wife and children in his future. That too was a casualty of the war. He was here because against all odds he had somehow survived certain death and was forced to live on. But how to fill that life with meaning and direction? To ride on, he had only the vastness of the West and then the Pacific Coast. Where to ride from here?

The loud chatter of magpies woke him in the morning, their noise insistent and penetrating. Irritated he picked up a branch and threw it in their direction. A great flutter of wings followed as the birds took their squabble elsewhere. Jeremiah made breakfast and after eating, he warmed more water and shaved with his hunting knife. The blade was sharp but his skin still burned in the aftermath. He stretched himself out, feeling the hardness of the ground in his bones.

Taking his rifle he resumed his vantage point. A look around confirmed nothing out of place. Till noon, he reminded himself. Again his eyes grew tired of the glare and the sameness. He made a game of it: If this was your place where would you build your cabin? Where would you get the logs and water? The stones for a chimney? Where would you make a garden and a shelter for the animals? The pretending made it easier to pass the time. He did settle on a spot and divided it up for a cabin, barn, garden and fruit trees, a hay field and pastures for the animals. Would he grow oats or barley? As there was lots of game in the area he would never lack for meat. But what about neighbors? Shamrock was a bit too far away to go visiting often.

A movement in the grass caught his eyes and he focused on the spot trying to identify it. In the end it turned out to be a badger who took to digging holes in the ground and eating whatever he found in them. In an hour he worked himself under the trees and disappeared from view. Jeremiah was back to nothing. Near noon he stood up, beat the dust out of his pants and started packing up. He scanned the sky for weather signs when he noticed a flock of birds in the air. Crows or vultures? he tried to decide. And what were they doing there? Could it be that the lion made a kill? Or it could be leavings from wolves.

Jeremiah saddled and mounted, urging his horse forward. The spot looked to be about a mile and a half away, just behind a line of trees. The going wasn’t easy as they had to traverse a steep slope that gave Morning a bit of trouble keeping his feet. Jeremiah kicked his stirrups free ready to roll off should the horse slip and fall. At times he had to lean far back to help the horse balance. When they reached bottom Jeremiah skirted a gash of spilled rocks carved out of the soil by water runoff. His gun in front of the saddle ready to use, he tested the air finding the flow advantageous, away from what lay ahead, not toward it. He was at the line of woods, maybe three, four trees deep. He dismounted, tied Morning to a sapling and went ahead alone, careful not to make any noise.

It took time before he stood at the far edge of the woods. Looking from the shadows he saw nothing ahead but grass and bushes, but the birds were still circling overhead. As one landed and hopped toward something, instantly the grass came alive and a snarling mountain lion sprang into view. With wings flapping the bird backed away then jumped into the air and was gone. His eyes on the lion, Jeremiah raised his gun, cocked it and aimed. In the last second, as if sensing something amiss the cat backed into the shadow of a small tree where he was guarding his prey. From where Jeremiah was, he had no clear shot at the lion. Undecided he chewed on his lips in frustration. There it was, ten US silver dollars just waiting for him. And he needed that money.

He backed into the woods. Choosing a tall tree in the third row, he slung his rifle over his shoulder and cautiously started up. From branch to branch he climbed finding new hand and footholds. He was praying that no branch would break and give him away. He had to climb high to be above the other trees in front, but finally reached a spot that gave a good view of where the cat was hiding. Wedging himself into a crotch, he unslung his rifle and aimed it at the spot where he suspected the cat to be. He was looking for a beige flash of hide, but he couldn’t see anything in the shadows. His eyes started to water he was staring so hard. Did he dare to fire at a ghost of an outline, more suspected than seen? Better not, wait for a sure shot. He eased his finger off the trigger but held the gun steady on the spot.

Ten minutes went by, then fifteen, seeming endlessly long. Maybe he should risk that shot, but he held back.

It was a vulture flying low that lured the lion into the open. Jeremiah eased his breath, counting. He found his aiming point and his fingers tightened on the trigger, increasing the pull gently. With a loud bang the gun kicked back and for a moment the gunsmoke hid the view. When it cleared, Jeremiah couldn’t see the animal. Could he have missed? No, he had made countless harder shots in battle. He climbed down the tree and stood beneath it long enough to reload. Cocking the hammer, he advanced into the grass. With nerves taut, letting his feet find the way, he kept his eye where he had last seen the cat. If it was alive and wounded, and charged him, he had only one quick shot that would have to be lethal. He was almost on the spot when he saw stretched out flat the mountain lion dead on the ground, the bullet wound right where he had aimed. He nudged the carcass with his foot and found it slack and unresponsive. Still Jeremiah waited, looking for the rise and fall of the cat’s sides for any sign of breath. Nothing. Still as a dumb rock. He eased the hammer down and lowered the weapon.

Jeremiah got his horse and brought him to this side of the trees. The horse was snorting and pulled back, made nervous by the smell of blood.

It’s all right, Morning. The cat is dead, yet I have to skin him to claim the reward, Jeremiah said soothingly into the horse’s ear. Once he calmed down Jeremiah tied him to a nearby bush. He then knelt by the carcass and with his knife started skinning it. It was a messy and tedious job. Doggedly he worked at it, his hands slippery with blood, but in time he got all of the skin off. Gratefully getting up, he straightened his back and stretched. Taking the pelt he walked away. Birds descended from the sky, fighting over the remains of the lion and the lion’s kill a half eaten deer. Jeremiah left them to their feast.

Jeremiah led Morning away from the noise. He took the skin to a small depression filled with rain water and washed his hands then the lion pelt. Stretching the skin on a flat rock, he scraped the inside of the skin, getting rid of leftover gristle and flesh. Before nightfall he had the pelt more or less clean. He built a fire, and hung the skin over some branches near enough to catch the smoke. He made supper and pleased with his success, he ate. Morning was still skittish because of the smell of death, but in time he got used to it. Strangely, that night Jeremiah didn’t have the usual struggles with his memories; he fell asleep quickly and in the morning he didn’t remember his dreams. For once, since the war, he felt truly refreshed and untroubled. Looking out to the open plain further east he saw a herd of buffalo drifting north. It was a tight bunch, the dark hulks framed by the color of ripening grass. He emptied the dregs of his coffee from his cup and made ready to go.

There was a bit of problem when Jeremiah put the saddle pack holding the lion pelt on Morning. He talked to him, stroking his face until the horse calmed down. Jeremiah climbed into the saddle and they started back toward Shamrock. It wasn’t easy because many gullies and ravines blocked the way as they hunted through the maze. No wonder that cattlemen kept their herds out of this region.

Again they spent the night in the open by a bright fire, undisturbed. On noon the next day he rode into Shamrock and hitched his horse at Junction House. A little saddle sore, Jeremiah climbed down and tried straightening his legs. Unclasping his saddle bags, he threw them over his shoulder. With rifle in hand, he stepped up onto the plank walkway and pushed through the swinging half doors of the saloon. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light inside, he became aware of Silas Harrington sitting at his usual place at the end of the bar.

Ah, the warrior returns. Does he come empty handed or not? Silas said in a mildly mocking voice.

Jeremiah put his bags on the bar and gave the man a sour look. You owe me ten dollars, he said flatly. He pulled the skin from the bag and spread it out on the bar.

Silas whistled. As large a lion as I have ever seen. No wonder he was after my sheep so much. He turned the skin this way and that until he found the bullet hole. Again he whistled, A dead on shot. At what distance?

Little over fifty yards but not over sixty, Jeremiah replied.

Still a good shot, Silas said, fingering the pelt. And you cleaned it up pretty good too. I’ll have Carlyle cure it properly and I’ll hang it over my fireplace.

You can do as you wish, but you owe me ten dollars.

Silas got up from his chair

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