MIKE AND ME
Well, Son, let me tell you a little story. It should help you to understand how I came to be here. And, for that matter, how you, yourself, came to be right here. It started out just over twelve years ago with me, footloose and fancy free, working my way Westward, more or less on a whim. I had heard this was nice country.
With saddlebags loaded with grub for the trail and a cartridge belt loaded with bullets for trouble, I sat astride a horse too long wintered. Mike and me had laid up for the hard months of Winter at a settlement back down on the plains. To try riding through these mountains with more and more snow falling and drifting and the temperatures often dropping well below zero would have been foolhardy. And, Mike and me were no fools.
The past Summer, I had teamed up with a fellow who needed a worker as well as some working capital and we had managed to make a mine he had found pay off for us. Once the first snows had fallen, we worked it out for me to sell him my share and I had lit out of there headed North and West.
On the trail, when you come across another rider, most people stop and talk. They tell you where the next water is, the next settlement or a good pass through the mountains or some hazard ahead. Or, sometimes they don’t talk. Depends on what their mood is and what they know about you. Some would shoot as soon as they caught sight of another fellow if the color of his shirt matched a description of one they had been told carried money. The code at those times wasn’t what some people back East thought it was. It was more a code of such that, if you wanted to keep living, you had to be wary of everyone else and keep to your own business.
Mike and me had been through some scrapes in our time. An arrow scar on my left thigh was proof of one little scrape we got into a couple of Summers before. Riding along across the prairie, minding our own business, a bunch of Indians had popped up out of a draw and started shooting arrows at us. Well, Mike can run, so looking at how many of them there were, I encouraged him to do just that. We veered away from them and I used the spurs as a little additional encouragement.
A glance back told me they were gaining ground and, right about that time, a lucky arrow slashed through my thigh. Also through the apron between my leg and Mike’s hide. It was soon plain he thought he’d been bee stung. Mike found high gear and nearly slipped out from under me in his new haste to be elsewhere. After those Indians had fallen back and gave us up as not worth the bother, I pulled Mike in under some stunted trees, ready to drop from the saddle so we could both take a breather. Not so easy as I’d expected. That arrow first had to be pulled a ways through my thigh to get it free of where it was stuck in the leather. Only then did I drop to the ground. The arrow head had to be snapped off and that’s no easy feat. Anyway, we managed. I doctored up the leg and plugged the holes on both sides and salved the holes. Then, I put some salve on Mike where the tip had gouged his hide. We rested there through that day and night.
Anyway, that gives you some idea of the sort of thing we’d been through together. Both scarred, but both wiser, we were a great team these days. Or, we would be once we leaned up some. The Winter had been lazy for me and Mike had more than his share of corn and rest. A little fat and sassy now, we would both soon be trail-tough again.
I had met another guy who was resting up at Cheyenne, where I had wintered. With me heading West, he planned to return to Connecticut. I had never seen Oregon, but had heard good things and that was my intended destination, eventually. This man had been there, homesteaded an acreage and built a small house. But, as it turned out, his wife and children had not gone West with him. His in-laws owned an established business there and she had felt it best to stay where she and the kids were safe while he went ahead to set things up for them. A hardship that he had born, even though not what he had hoped for. Her health was fragile, though, and with kids to also worry about, he had been talked into leaving her temporarily behind. Letters back and forth had finally lined them up to be ready to head west with him when he got there to collect them.
Then, unexpected by all, her father had been killed when falling off a horse. This had left the family alone to handle the thriving business. Her letters pleaded that she couldn't now leave her mother with such problems. It had been decided that he would give up all the work he had accomplished in Oregon the last couple of years and return to the East to take over running the family business. That meant, if he lucked out and found a buyer, the place in Oregon was for sale. This was the story he had told me over a beer and corn nuts at the Longhorn saloon.
Not knowing for myself just what he had out there, I couldn’t justify paying out a lot just on his word. But, we finally came to an agreement and I now carried the title to that land in my saddle bags along with directions on how to find it. Unless I had been hoodwinked, I expected to have a home of my own at the end of this trail. Sometimes, you have to have some trust in others and his story sounded like the truth. The title looked like it might be real. But then, I had never before seen a property title for land in Oregon. I was taking a big chance with part of the funds I had set aside from my mining venture.
In those days, it wasn’t only Indians a person worried about when out away from settlements. For most purposes, a lawless part of the country still, it wasn’t unusual to run up against dyed-in-the-wool outlaws. After the war, many of them had gone back home only to be soon run out of town by local sheriffs because of their deeds. Such undesirables drifted into the open country to the West where they were offered more freedom to rob and kill without being caught.
This left folks like me watching their backs between both hostile Indians and those whites who meant them harm. ‘Whites’ meant not just men. Several robberies by gangs had been reported to include women along with the bunches. From those victims of train robberies who had survived, the stories about the women robbers would stand your hair on end. Vicious, mean, with little respect for life, they were the most feared. They pistol whipped passengers even while being voluntarily handed all their valuables. Like I say, just plain mean. Not the sort I wanted to tangle with on the trail.
When a rider approached, it was seldom that anything about their appearance gave away their intent. No uniform to set them off as robbers, no masks. Once you were within gunshot range of a stranger, if your own pistol wasn’t already in your hand, you were a fool. Possibly a dead fool. A quick draw was for novels. Few counted on drawing fast after threat was evident, rather prepared themselves and judged the situation step by step as conditions developed.
Although I ran into several other riders along my way, that was to be expected. We rode a trail used by many. To date, none had threatened Mike and me. A brief stop to compare news, sometimes coffee shared over a campfire, but so far I’d come across none who had ill intent. Just like me, they were going from somewhere to somewhere else and didn’t want any problems along their way.
I considered myself lucky. Mike and me had rolled out that morning at the crack of dawn, fixed a scant breakfast and I had him saddled up and headed out as the sun first peeked over the horizon. Word along the way had kept us to the proper trail as well as the one that had, so far, offered the safest passage. Word was quick to spread, even way out there, if bandits were in the area. Anyone with honest intentions only wanted to put in a days ride, manage a safe camp for the night and be on their way again.
The custom was, when approaching another rider or a wagon train, a rider would hold the reins in one hand and well away from his body while the other hand was held up and empty palm out, facing the approaching travelers. That was meant to set folks at ease and show that no gun was held, not ill intent meant.
I hadn’t come across all that many wagon trains, but at the same time, I hadn’t run across any lone wagons on the trail. A lone wagon, hauling all a family’s possessions, was felt to be too susceptible, since it was plain they would have something worth stealing. On the contrary, a lone rider was common. Only those with something worth stealing rode grouped together. Lone riders were accepted as carrying nothing of value, so not worth the effort for a bandit. Generally the case, but not always true.
There were those like myself who rode alone, yet had cash enough in their saddlebags to make a robbery well worth while. The bandit needed to know this, though, if he or his gang were to be bothered. That meant, a closed mouth and a lone rider could be expected to pass more safely along the trail.
This one day, after we had crested a pass and started down the opposite side, old Mike was feeling frisky and had broken out in a trot. It was a nice day and the trail through the trees was shaded in places. Eagles drifted on the currents above and a brown bear or squirrel was seen now and then off through the trees. With nobody in sight and a gentle slope downward ahead of us, I decided to let Mike get it out of his system. I preferred a brisk walk where I could see well enough around me to be sure what was out there. But, this little trot would eat up a lot of trail while he felt like it, so I gave him his head.
My mistake. I caught a glimpse of the rope before my chest struck it, but not with enough notice for me to slow or dodge the trap. I was snapped right out of the saddle and dropped to the ground on my behind right behind Mike before I could even reach to my holster. The landing took my breath and, before I could recover, I looked up to find myself surrounded by the legs of several horses. Not fearing the horses, that didn’t hold true, however, with their riders. One look confirmed that these were bandits. It appeared they hoped to just rob me and leave me there, since they all wore a kerchief over their faces. If they intended killing me, they wouldn’t worry that I might recognize them. Well, that was a little comforting.
Looking around and past the fence of legs, I saw no sign of Mike. My saddlebags contained my cash. The property title was in them, too. Just about everything I had in this world was up for grabs and this group was about to wipe me out. That is, if they brought Mike back and checked my bags.
A rope dropped over me and was cinched to hold my arms to my sides. Once I was helpless, one rider dropped from his saddle and shoved me facedown in the pine needles. I could feel hands going through all my pockets. First, my shirt, then my pants and, last he checked my jacket pockets. Coming away, as I knew he would, with nothing but a pocketknife and the makins for smokes, he kicked me sharply in the ribs.
“You can’t be traveling without cash for food. Where’s your money?” he demanded.
Then, one of the others remarked that my horse had run off and maybe my saddlebags had something in them. Another claimed there was no chance of catching my horse. “He done took off like a scalded hog when this feller came off him. Probably in the next county by now. If he’s carrying nothing, lets just string him up and get out of here. Quit wasting our time.”
They talked awhile amongst themselves, then came back to where I lay. The lasso I was tied with was replaced by a scrap of worn rope and my feet were tied together with my bandana. They dumped me up against a tree, back from the trail a ways and, before I could even ask for mercy, the gang rode off up the trail.
While I sat there trussed up, I thought back on how they got me. A rope tied between trees and across the trail right at chest level. Clever. All that planning, but they didn’t seem all that dedicated to doing anyone harm. Just wanted easy money. Well, harm might not be what they planned, but they had sure left me in a fix. Hands tied behind me, feet tied together, I wasn’t going to get free very easy. Then I thought about Mike. They said he had taken off and, no doubt he had. That was the way we had practiced it. Alone with your horse and counting on him sometimes for your life, there’s lots of chance to train him and practice even if you hoped none of what he learned would ever be needed. I could only hope he came back now that the others were gone.
Soon, a whinny back in the trees somewhere behind me told me Mike had learned his lessons well. No chance this was some other horse, since I’d know his whinny anywhere. I scuffled around so that I was away from the tree I had been leaning on and leaned forward hoping I’d be able to raise my hands to Mike. If he saw my hands tied, he had been trained to chew at the rope until my hands were free. That had always been a game, but this was no game. I hoped he remembered what to do.
A whistle and I heard hooves snapping twigs as Mike came to where I lay. I lifted my hands and hoped he would get busy. Behind me as they were, I wasn’t sure what he was doing until, to my relief, I felt him gnawing at the rope. My pal, my friend, my horse had my hands free soon and I reached around and removed the bandana that held my feet together. Standing quickly left me some unsteady for a bit, but when I steadied up, the first thing I did was check my saddlebags. For all I knew, they might have caught up with Mike before he had returned for me. But, no, he had managed to avoid them and my saddlebags still held all my belongings. My lucky day.
No more trotting. After I was back in the saddle, I held Mike to a fast walk. No more traps and tricks for me. For the rest of that day, my eyes were looking everywhere from the ground in front to the trees overhead and the closer areas in front where trees could hold another tightly stretched rope. Camp that night found me tired and ready for the blanket. But, so glad to be able to make camp and taste some beans and coffee. I picketed Mike near the camp site and well away from where any trail travelers might be passing.
You might think, after that experience, I would latch up with a group for safety. But, no, I was still convinced I was better off alone. Too many distractions when you get with others and I still felt I was better off seeing to my own safety and riding alone.
The truth was that, even though I had that little run-in and even though I watched my back every hour I was on the trail, the rest of it went pretty well. Even without a sheriff to hold folks in check, I found most to be honest. They, like me, just wanted to reach the end of their trail in one piece.
I had been on the trail well over three weeks and was just now approaching only the third wagon train I had seen on my way. Some way back I had started veering more to the South and out onto flatter country. Talking with some of the teamsters that night at the fire, I found that they were breaking up their own group the next day. Some intended homesteading right along the way while in Eastern Oregon and the rest were headed now more on a westerly course. I decided to stay with that bunch for a day or two.
Before noon the next day, some distant clouds shifted and we saw an impressive mountain covered with snow in the far distance. There was a pass along the south side of that mountain, I was told, and that’s where they were pointed. Checking my own map again, I could see that the map drawn for me when I bought my new land showed that I would be going that way, too. Following his map had been one of those instances of faith for me. Until now, I had no way of knowing if he had ever even been this far West. The land title showed where my purchase was located and the map showed me how to get there. But, faith was all I had at the start. After following it this far, I now began to believe I might actually be the owner of a farm somewhere farther along this trail.
A small party of Indians approached us just before sundown along the base of that white mountain. Hands held open and palm forward, they approached cautiously. Those of us at the front returned their greeting and, once we drew together, we found these Indians spoke passable English. It seemed their tribe lived only a few miles farther along on the outskirts of a settlement of white people. They were farmers and fishermen and survived mostly along the banks of a river where their tribe had lived long before settlers came to the land.
Normally, I would have chosen to drift on into the settlement where white folks lived. But, this group of Indians were friendly and their hospitality really couldn’t be refused. When they offered to let us overnight at their village, the wagon train group declined with thanks and went on to the settlement.
Me? It seemed only polite to take them up on their invite, so I said goodbye to the others and tagged along with the Indians. Besides, I was curious to see how they lived and might not get a chance like that again soon.
When we rode into their village, I found they didn’t have tents, but had built solid looking huts of mud and sticks. Pretty nice. Neat and clean, too. Glancing around, a little uneasy, I saw nothing but smiling, friendly faces, so I relaxed a little.
They offered me a spot to pitch my camp and told me to let my horse into the corral with their own horses. Some children came running and grabbed Mike’s reins from me to lead him into the corral, but Mike wasn’t sure about them at all. To the best of my knowledge, he had never before been around little kids. I soothed him finally and, off they went. I carried my saddle and bags over to where I had dumped my bedroll and went about making camp. When I looked off through some trees to see about finding sticks to start a campfire, one of their men indicated that I was invited to share supper with them. Well, that was fine. I didn’t need the heat of a campfire. I’d see what they ate as well as how they lived.
During the meal, while we were all sitting cross-legged near their fire, I caught one young girl keep looking at me. Another look on my part and I could see she was really pretty. Not dressed all up fancy, mind you, just naturally a pretty girl. Probably in her teens. In fact, I noticed that she didn’t look like she might be pure Indian.
That could be somewhat touchy to mention, so I kept my silence and we just sort of smiled at one another off and on through the meal. Wiping my chin and fingers, I stood up and intended going back to my bedroll. But, one of the Indian women caught my sleeve and pulled me aside. Plainly, there was something she wanted to tell me in private.
You can probably imagine my surprise when she asked me if I was interested in the girl. Well, I wondered, in what way would I dare admit an interest? I nodded, but went on to tell the woman that I was headed on West to start a farm. What followed was not only a surprise, but a miracle, as it turned out. It seemed she had been with a settler several years before. Lived with him awhile, but then he had died. Her own people didn’t think much of her coming back to live among them. Even less because she had brought along her child by the settler. The child had grown into the pretty young lady who I had been noticing.
She said her daughter seemed to have taken a liking to me and would I want to take her along when I left? Me, take along this girl? She would want to go? Or, for that matter, I was surprised to find that it was approved by her mother. Because the girl was only half Indian, she hoped to get her away from the village so she could have a better life. If it pleased me, she, the mother, would also go along. A couple of horses could be available for them and she assured me they wouldn’t take enough possessions to slow my progress.
Well, I was too taken aback to readily respond. Feeling I might somehow be being tricked, I told her I would talk to her more about it in the morning. This was something I had never even dreamed about. But, as I lay there in my blanket that night, I realized that I really was taken with the girl. She seemed to truly be interested in me, too. It could be a lot worse. Where I was going, I sure wasn’t likely to find any women who weren’t already attached.
By morning, my decision had been made. When I left their village, the girl and her mother went with me.
Once down, nearly off the Western slopes of that big white mountain, I found the land I had bought. The house turned out to be far nicer than I had been lead to expect. In time, I was able to buy two adjacent homesteads when their owners failed in farming them. And, today, what land we have belongs to you, me and your mother. Her mother died shortly after you were born. And, you remember Mike. Mike died when you were eight, just from natural old age. We had our history together, so his going was like losing a close friend.
Of course, as you know, the original place is now the house the hired hands live in. I built us this bigger house when you were about three.
Now, Son, does that help you understand your background a little better? I hope it does. Your mother couldn’t have made me any happier or been a better wife if she had been born and educated back East instead of in an Indian village at the base of Mount Hood.
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