I rid up ol' Clark's Fork o' the Yellowstone that spring of '83, an' looked around. T'warn't the first time I was thar and I hoped it wouldn't be the last. But a coon my age has to think it likely he'll face the Reaper some day, what with injins and varmints 'round most every corner.
The reason I come, so I told m'self, was t'look over the fairest place on God's green earth for at least one more time. Sunlight Basin hadn't changed much since the last time I was there a-workin' for Morgan back in '80. But Sunlight Basin warn't whar I was goin'. The Southfork of the Stinkin'water was.
Morgan hisself was a okay cowboy if you liked the breed. He'd drove cows into Three Forks buffler country some years afore, and I hitched up one winter I was hungry. Seems like he'd had some injin trouble, Morgan had, and was lookin' for somebody could help. Since I was long on time and short on backstrap, I allowed as I might be the Angel Gabriel a-sent to deliver old Morgan from the devil's hand.
Bein' beset by devils he called Bannocks, old Morgan jumped at m'offer and we hit a right smart agreement--if I could keep injins from his cows and his topknot, Morgan would supply all my worldly wants.
Now many a run-down ol' mountain stomper ain't a-lookin' for nothin' more, so I signed on with a holler and a handshake and grubstaked out o' Morgan's camp for three winters afore he tooked my advice and moved to the forks of the Stinkin'water whar I knowed the grass was stirrup-deep and the water fit for drinkin' if you boiled it first.
Life couldn't a-been better for this ol' rascal. Then Morgan turned out to be a pot-likker and sold his outfit to a pansy-bottomed eastern pilgrim what I'd heered existed, but never knowed the kind. Bein' as me'n Pansy Bottom didn't hit it off real loud, I got to thinkin' about other places I been. So I just up and rode away.
I ate buffler hump in the Bearpaws, elk rib in the Crazies, dog meat in Paiute tipis, and dog salmon on the Lochsa. I looked most of it over purty good; up by the big blue lake o' the Kalispels and down into Salt Lake country, what used to be a fine place to winter 'til it got filled up with God-rotted Mormons. I was over to whar the Yellowstone dumps into the big river and I was down to Henry's Fork o' the Snake. It was up in the Bitterroot country in Montana when I got to thinkin' about the purtiest place God ever made, and I figgered three years without eyeballin' the Stinkin'water was longer than long enough.
I first hit the Stinkin'water back in the winter o' '40. I was a green-eared young'un of twenty-one, fresh from a North Caroliny dog patch, and Richard was a plumb keen mountain wizard with the know-how of a timber lobo a-hind him. For all my green-as-grass and for all his wild-place smarts, Richard was one o' the swellest gents I never did meet. He had the patience of a wild critter and spoke so soft a man had to lean close to listen in on gab th'owed his way. He moved like a cat and was plumb keen with any kind o' weapon come to hand. Most of all, howsomever, Richard just never made mistakes and he was some punkin' for a young'un to learn from.
Other fellers called him Dick, but I never did. Way that come to pass was plumb fancy. Him and me, we'd been out for a couple o' days when I asked him his name. He says "Dick."
"Dick," I says. "I never afore heered o' no mountain man name o' Dick."
"Fine," says he. "Just call me Richard."
So Richard it was. That quiet, slender feller teached me more in the years him and me watched each other's backsides than I picked up all the rest o' my life--leastways up to now. I learned about beaver and injins and mountains and rivers and prairies and deserts. I seen buffler by the thousands and tiny pink flowers what looked like a fancy woman's slipper. Richard teached me how to read moccasin tracks to tell what grade o' injins and what t'look for to find water in dry country if a man's throat turned parched and his ears fixed to shrivel. He teached me how t'read the lay o' the land, and how t'have eyes in the back o' my head, same as t'front. And he showed me all the places he figgered was plumb best on God's green earth.
Jackson Hole was purty; no arguin' that. So was the Big Hole east o' the Bitterroot Divide, as was his favorite, the Medicine River country west o' Fort Benton. But of all the places he showed me, I liked the Big Horn Basin best, and the Southfork o' the Stinkin'water best o' that.
* * *
Pansy Bottom was still there, I could see, layin' as I was up on the timbered hill east o' the forks o' the Stinkin'water. Spirit Mountain the injins called it, but the white man, in his infernal wisdom, hung Cedar Mountain on it. Ain't no wonder a smart coon learns to like injins better.
Well, if Pansy Bottom was still there--and I could see him out in a little round corral with his fancy stud horse--then Snake Eyes was there too, else Pansy Bottom woulda been run plumb outen the Stinkin'water by now.
Howsomever, I didn't come t'see Pansy Bottom, nor his snake-eyed honcho. All I wanted was t'take a look at the Southfork, maybe clear up t'the Thorofare country. Afore I did, though, I needed a fret o' t'baccy and coffee, and maybe a bean or two from ol' What-his-name's store at Marquardt Town down below.
So I snapped my eyepiece shut and picked m'self off the ground. Then I runned a hand down m'buckskins t'knock off a little dust and twigs; no use t'look plumb tacky when you hit your first jerktown in two months.
On the way down through the juniper brush to m'hoss, a whirrin' clatter come from off to m'right. He was gray-diamond and cross-hatched, all coiled and a-shakin' his tail in the center like a Mexican gourd dancer. He was maybe three feet long and 'bout that far off, near as I could tell. "Yep," I says to him. "Ol' Snake Eyes down below has the same kinda look you got, and I'll bet he's twice the danger."
* * *
The sign over the door read: A. JUDSON - GENERAL MERC. Then I recollected the squinch-eyed little runt what runned the place. I reckoned him and me is about the same growth. But I'm screwed down 'cause o' injins and growly bears and goin' without buffler hump and fat ribs for too long to a stretch, while `A. JUDSON' is small in build 'cause he's small in ever' other way, too.
A. JUDSON was a-talkin' to a feller I didn't know when I shoved open the front door and swaggled in. Old A. JUDSON looked at me and curled his lips into a sneer--just like he allus did.
Well, I knowed right whar t'baccy and coffee and beans was, and I figgered I could take a tad o' sneerin' for a short dab, then be shut o' the place, and shut o' the smell o' `A. JUDSON - GENERAL MERC'.
But the first thing I heered after the door slammed shut ahind me made me calc'late to check out the price o' shirts and pants and all kinds o' foofaraw whilst I listened on....
"You mean he stepped right in against a drawed gun of Levi Bunting's?"
Snake Eyes! I thought.
"I know. It's hard to believe." A. JUDSON beginned.
"And you mean he took away Bunting's gun and broke his arm to boot?" the feller I didn't know asked in disbelief.
Snake Eyes? I asked m'self and I wandered closer t'look on the washtubs, rub boards, brooms, and mops.
"I couldn't hardly believe my own eyes either!" said A. JUDSON.
"What kind of by-Jesus whopper is this nester, anyway?" asked the feller I didn't know.
Are they talkin' 'bout the same Snake Eyes I know? I wondered.
"What was it he said again?" asked the feller I didn't know.
"Well," beginned A. JUDSON, "he just walked up to Burroughs' table ..."
Pansy Bottom! I thought.
"... where Bunting ..."
Yep, that's sure as hell the Snake Eyes I know.
"... Morgan and me were sitting. And he done it as big and bold as if he had a squad of Sheridan's cavalry behind him. Then he flat told Burroughs he was homesteading Blood Canyon."
Takes guts, I thought.
"And everybody just sat there?" asked the feller I didn't know.
"Everybody was stunned for a minute," said A. JUDSON. "Then Bunting jerked up and started for the stranger. It was Burroughs that stopped him that time, probably because his lady friend is in the country and he don't want no trouble right now. Then that crazy homesteader bastard just wheels and walks out of the saloon."
I was sortin' stovepipes along the west wall 'cause I needed a little time t'waller over ever'thing I heered into proper order.
"But, then, he came right back in?" asked the feller I didn't know.
Whoopee! I thought.
"Came in with a gun on his belt and a smile on his lips," said A. JUDSON. "Didn't use either of 'em, though, 'cause the smile stayed on when he took Levi's gun away and broke his arm."
"Whoopee!" I let slip out loud.
"And the sonofabitch was still smiling," said A. JUDSON, "when he turned back to Burroughs and told him his mind hadn't changed a bit--that he'd already taken up a homestead at Blood Canyon and figured to live there until he was ready--on his own--to leave."
The feller I didn't know just hung his head and shook it in wonderment. D'rectly he raised up and asked, "What is it that Burroughs and Bunting will do now?"
I snorted at that whilst pokin' around amongst the picks and shovels and stuff. Hell's bells, there ain't but one thing Pansy Bottom and Snake Eyes can do, and that's t'get after that gutsy feller and th'ow him off. "And he'll be plumb lucky if that's all they do!" I ended up out loud.
Both feller I didn't know and A. JUDSON turned to look at me. Then A. JUDSON says to the feller I didn't know, "Burroughs was well soaked last night when he left Morgan's place, and Bunting has a broken arm. I don't know what they'll do, but I don't expect it'll be today that it happens. However long it takes, though, I can't imagine them letting anybody stay up the Southfork very long."
"Especially with what he did to Bunting," feller I didn't know said as he pulled off his hat and runned fingers thru hair sparse as mine.
"I doubt the man is still in the country," A. JUDSON said as he turned to look at me. "Dammit, old man! You've pawed over everything in the store. Do you want something or don't you?"
"Cain't seem t'find t'baccy, coffee, nor beans," I mumbled. "Don'tcha carry none o' that stuff?"