Fresh trout was a treat Johnny Daughtry did not often enjoy.
Dick Wootton was fishing up along the South Platte when he stopped at the camp and knocked on Johnny’s door. Johnny dragged his stiff left leg off the stool, where he was darning a tear in a pair of wool trousers, opened the door, and greeted the old mountain man with a slap on the back. They sat at a table hacked from a poplar tree that once grew nearby, and Johnny poured hot coffee as black and thick as Tennessee mud. White cotton puffs of hair hung from Dick’s scalp, his hands gripped the tin cup, and his lips slurped. His buckskins smelled like sweat and mold and bisonmeat, but Johnny enjoyed the company and the conversation. As the evening waned, the two old friends told lies about the days long past at Bent’s Old Fort. Dick recounted a demented apologue that he once killed an entire herd of buffalo with his ancient muzzleloader from atop the west wall to rob the Kiowa of meat for the winter. Johnny claimed to have discovered El Dorado, but an Apache blood oath forced him to keep it a secret. They knitted yarns for hours, then Dick presented the gift of the fish.
A storm was blowing; those long winds that come between snows and blow off the mountains. As the wind whistled between the door and the jamb, swirling coffee grounds and shaking their empty cups, the old men tucked their loose shoulders closer, and their hands clutched their buckskins to their chests. Uncle Dick rose, wrapped a calico around his big bent body, and a fell of buffalo over that and headed out into the tempest. He wanted to make El Pueblo by mid-day as he had business with the Mormons. Navigating the trail at night wouldn’t be a problem. Dick and his mount knew the way blindfolded.
The fish were in an old bucket packed with chunks of river ice. Johnny split the brooks, salted them, and fried them in bacon grease he had been saving to make soap.
It was a busy day. The war brought a steady stream of militia, supply wagons, stagecoaches, and marauding bands of Confederates out of Mace’s Hole. With the camp being the only source of sweet water along the Trapper’s Trail between the fort and Russellville, Johnny’s days were filled. At 63, it was more than an old man could handle. He thought about going back East to Chicago, where he was born.
With the hour late, the rider outside caught him by surprise. His first thought was that the snow had come early, and Dick had turned around, but Johnny heard the whinny of a horse, and Dick only rode mules. He supposed he could invite his late-night visitor to share his meal then offer him a bunk. It was his business, after all.
The bora grabbed the door, and the Colorado dirt whipped his face and threw long stringy locks of thick salt hair over his back as Johnny wrapped a blanket beneath his chin and stepped into the night. The Sheffield camp knife’s silver blade was caught by the light of his lantern; it sliced deep into his kidney before he could react. The knife felt strange as it was withdrawn, pulling on his insides, and he caught his breath as the pain crawled up his skin. It plunged again into his abdomen, this time below his waistband. The assailant yanked the dirk to his belly and sawed through the rope cinch that held Johnny’s pants up – spilling his intestines to the dirt.
Johnny looked into the eyes of his murderer and expired.
James Beckwourth, black bastard son of a Virginia slaver – a writ of manumission in his breast pocket – and his Crow wife behind with the packhorse, wandered through the area after being rejected by the Cheyenne for having led Chivington to Sand Creek. They found Johnny in the snow and buried him on the ridge overlooking Fountain Valley. On New Year’s Day in 1865, the last of the mountain men gathered at his grave for a final rendezvous.
And a cold wind blew over Pikes Peak.
Scott Jessop lives in Manitou Springs, Colorado where he is a corporate video and TV commercial producer, author, poet, and spoken word performer. Jessop’s work has appeared in more than a dozen publications including the Saturday Evening Post, The Red Earth Review, Penduline Press, Jitter Press, Bewildering Stories, El Portal, and Weber-The Contemporary West.