It wasnt as if he hadnt been warned. He got it straight with no beating around the mesquite.
"Mister," I said, "if you aint any slicker with that pistol than you were with that bottom deal, youd better not have at it."
Trouble was, he wouldnt be content with one mistake, he had to make two; so he had at it, and they buried him out west of town where men were buried who die by the gun.
And me, William Tell Sackett, who came to Uvalde a stranger and alone, I found myself a talked-about man.
We Sacketts had begun carrying rifles as soon as we stood tall enough to keep both ends off the ground. When I was shy of nine I fetched my first cougar . . . caught him getting at our pigs. At thirteen I nicked the scalp of a Higgins who was drawing a bead on Pa . . . we had us a fighting feud going with the Higginses.
Pa used to say a gun was a responsibility, not a toy, and if he ever caught any of us playing fancy with a gun hed have our hide off with a bullwhip. None of us ever lost any hide.
A gun was to be used for hunting, or when a man had a difficulty, but only a tenderfoot fired a gun unless there was need. At hunting time Pa doled out the catridges and of an evening he would check our game, and for every catridge hed given us we had to show game or a mighty good reason for missing. Pa wasnt one to waste a bullet. He had trapped the western land with Kit Carson and Old Bill Williams, and knew the value of ammunition.
General Grant never counted catridges on me, but he was a man who noticed. One time he stopped close by when I was keeping three Rebel guns out of action, picking off gunners like a possum picking hazelnuts, and he stood by, a-watching.
"Sackett," he said finally, "how does it happen that a boy from Tennessee is fighting for the Union?"
"Well, sir," I said, "my country is a thing to love, and I set store by being an American. My great-grandpa was one of Dearborns riflemen at the second battle of Saratoga, and Grandpa sailed the seas with Decatur and Bainbridge.
"Grandpa was one of the boatmen who went in under the guns of the Barbary pirates to burn the Philadelphia. My folks built blood into the foundations of this country and I dont aim to see them torn down for no reason whatsoever."
Another Rebel was fixing to load that cannon, so I drew a bead on him, and the man who followed him in the chow line could move up one place.
"Come fighting time, General," I said, therell always be a Sackett ready to bear arms for his country, although we are peaceful folks, unless riled."
And that was still true, but when they buried that gambling man out west of Uvalde it marked me as a bad man.
In those days what they called a "bad man" was one who was a bad man to have trouble with, and a lot of mighty good men where known as bad men. The name was one I hadnt hankered for, but Wes Bigelow left me no choice.
Nevertheless, I had got a reputation in Uvalde, and this seemed a good time to become a wandering man. Only I was fed up with drifting ever since the war, and wanted a place to light.
Outside of town I fell in with a cow outfit. North from Texas we rode, driving a herd to Montana grass, with never a thought of anything but grief while riding the Bozeman Trail.
North of the Crazy Woman three men rode into camp hunting beef to buy. The boss was not selling but they stayed on, and when my name was mentioned one of them looked atme.
"Are you the Sackett who killed Bigelow?"
"He wasnt much good with a bottom deal."
"Nor with a gun, I guess."
"He was advised."
"Unless youre fit to handle his two brothers, youd best not ride into Montana. They come up by Steamboat and theyre waiting for you."
I wasnt planning on staying around," I said, "but if they find me before I leave, theyre welcome."
"Somebody was wondering if you were kin to Tyrel Sackett, the Mora gunfighter."
Tyrel Sackett is my brother, but this is the first Ive heard of him gunfighting. Only, if he was put to it, he could."
"He cleaned up Mora. Hes talked about in the same breath with Hickok and Hardin."
"Hes a hand with any kind of shooting iron. Back to home he used to outshoot me sometimes."
"Sometimes I outshot Tyrel ... but I was older than him, and had done more shooting."
We drove out cattle to Gallatin Valley and scattered them on Montana grass, and Nelson Storey, whose cattle they were, rode out to camp with the mail. There was a letter for me, the first one I ever got.
All through wartime I watched folks getting letters and writing them, and it was a hard them, a-yearning to have mail and receiving none. Got so when mail call came around that I used to walk away and talk with the cook. He had lost his family to a war party of Kiowas, out Texas way.
This letter that Storey brought me from town looked mighty fine, and I turned it in my hands several times, sizing it up and wishing it could speak out. Printing I could read, but writing was all which-ways and I could make nothing of it.
Mr. Storey, he stopped by, and noticed. "Maybe I can help you," he suggested.
Shame was upon me. Here I was a grown man and couldnt read enough to get the sense out of a letter. My eyes could make sense of a Cheyenne or Comanche war trail, but reading was something I couldnt handle.
Mr. Storey, he read that letter to me. Orrin and Tyrel each had them a ranch, and Ma was living at Mora in New Mexico. Tyrel was married to the daughter of a Don, one of those rich Spanish men, and Orrin was in politics and walking a wide path.
All I had was a wore-out saddle, four pistols, a Winchester carbine, and the clothes I stood up in. Yes, and I had me a knife, an Arkansas toothpick, good for hand-fighting or butchering meat.
"Your brothers seem to have done well," Mr. Story said. "I would learn to read, if I were you, Tell. Youre a good man, and you could go far."
So I went horse-hunting and wound up making a dicker with an Indian. He had two appaloosa horses and he dearly wanted a .36-calibre pistol I had, so we settled down to outwait each other. Every boy in Tennessee grows up horse-trading or watching horse trades, and no Red Indian was going to outswap me.
He was a long, tall Indian with a long, sad face and he had eyes like an old wore-out houn dog, and I could only talk swap with him when I didnt look him in the eye. Something about that Indian made me want to give him everything I had. However, he had a thirst on and I had me a jug of fighting whiskey.
So I stalled and fixed grub and talked horse and talked hunting and avoided the subject. Upshot of it was, I swapped the .36 pistol, twenty catridges, an old blanket, and that jug of whiskey for those two horses.
Only when I took another look at the pack horse I wasnt sure who had the better of the swap.
That letter from home stirred me to moving that way. Theres folks who dont hold with women folks smoking, but I was honing to see Ma, to smell her old pipe a-going, and to hear the creak of that old rocker that always spelled home to me. When we boys were growing up that creak was the sound of comfort to us. It meant home, and it meant Ma, and it meant understanding ... and time to time it meant a belt with a strap.
Somehow, Ma always contrived to put a bait of grub on the table, despite drouth that often lay upon the hills, or the poor soil of our side-hill farm. And if we came home bear-scratched or with a bullet under our skins, it was Ma who touched up the scratches or probed for the bullet.
So I lit a shuck for New Mexico, and the folks.
It is a far piece from Montana to New Mexico astride of a horse, but I put together a skimpy outfit and headed west for Virginia City and Alder Gulch. A day or two I worked there, and then pulled out for Jacksons Hole and the Teton Mountains.
It came over me I wanted to hear Orrin singing the old songs, the songs our people brought from Wales, or the songs we had from others like us traveling from Ireland, Scotland and England. Many happy thoughts of my boyhood time were memories of singing around the fire at home. Orrin was always the leader in that, a handsome, singing man, the best liked of us all. We held no envy, being proud to call him brother.
When I started for New Mexico for the last thing I was hunting was gold or trouble, and usually they come as a pair. Gold is a hard-found thing, and when a man finds it hes bound to fetch trouble a-keeping it.
Seems like a man finds gold only when he aint hunting it. He picks up a rock to throw at something and that rock turns out to be mostly gold, or he trips over a ledge and finds himself sitting astride the Mother Lode.
This whole shooting match of a thing started because I was a curious man. There I was, dusting my tail down a south-going trail with no troubles. A time or two I cut Indian sign, but I fought shy of them.
Back in my army days I heard folks tell of what a bad time the Indians were getting, and some of them, like the Cherokee, who settled down to farming and business, did get a raw deal; but most Indians would ride a hundred miles any time to find a good fight, or a chance to steal horses or take a scalp.
When the war ended I joined up to fight the Sioux and Cheyenne in Dakota after the Little Crow massacre in Minnesota. The Sioux had moved off to the west so we chased them, and a couple of times we caught them . . . or they caught us. Down Texas way Id had trouble with the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapahoe, and even the Apache, so I had respect for Indians.
Theres no grander thing than to ride wild country with time on your hands, so I walked my horses down the backbone of the Rockies, through the Tetons and south to South Pass and on to Browns Hole.
Nothing warned me of trouble to come.
Thinking of Orrins mellow Welsh voice a-singing, I came fresh to hear my own voice,so I took a swallow from my canteen and tipping my head back, I gave out with song.
I didnt get far. A man who plans to sing while hes riding had better reach an understanding with his horse. He should have him a good voice, or a horse with no ear for music.
When my voice lifted in song I felt that cayuse bunch his muscles, so I broke off short.
That appaloosa and me had investigated the capabilities of each other the first couple of times I got up in the saddle, and I proved to him that I could ride. That horse knew a thing of two about bucking and pitching, and I had no notion of proving myself again on that rocky mountainside.
And then we came upon the ghost of a trail.