A mountain man takes a raft ride that he wishes he hadn't.
|Frenchy Chapeaux sat on the pile of pelts and waited for the tremors to subside. Even in the brisk pre-dawn breeze, sweat stung his eyes. Eventually his vision stopped swimming, and he focused on the bloody tomahawk hanging loosely in his right hand. He raised the gory hatchet marveling at how heavy it had become in the last few seconds. The blade was thickly slathered with Billy Bonnet’s blood. It dribbled in a viscous trickle toward his red stained hand, transfixed as the crimson stream pushed around a gobbet of flesh and hair plastered to the weapon’s slick haft. Then Billy Bonnet kicked him in the shin.
Instinctively, Frenchy leapt to his feet, raising the gory tomahawk to strike, not noticing the thick blood flicking his face and beard. His blackfoot moccasins lost grip in the deeply pooling blood, and he ywlped as he tumbled heavily to his knees on the sawn timber deck, coming face to face with the dead man.
Billy Bonnet stared at him through one lifeless eye. The other was gone, lost somewhere in the rain of blows. His broken jaw shuddered with each spasm, spewing a fresh gout of rich blood. The left arm hung by the scraps of his sleeve and Frenchy was impressed at the ease with which he had smashed through the bigger man’s bones.
The burning pain in his left side dragged him back to his senses. He hadn’t noticed at the time, but Billy had nicked him with that pig sticker he carried tucked in his boot. Tentatively, Frenchy fingered the rip in his buckskin tunic. He raised it, revealing a gash just above the waist of his rough leather breeches. It looked about four inches long, and he knew instinctively that it had been bleeding, just how much though he couldn’t tell, he was covered in blood.He pushed himself up on the pile of pelts and sat for a moment. He needed to get rid of the body and quick. Fort Stark was only two days by river, and this time of year the hunters were coming in to sell up their seasons. One might happen by at any time. That would not do.
Billy’s bedroll was still lying open on the riverbank. Frenchy grabbed Billy’s ankle and dragged the dead man’s ruined body from the raft. Billy was a big man and took some moving. Frenchy heaved for half an hour, pulling the hacked body across their campsite, ignoring the sticky dark trail he left in the short grass.When he had finally rolled the tattered remains in the bedroll, added a couple of good size rocks and tied it tightly, Frenchy stood exhausted and panting, each breath stinging his wounded side. When he had caught his breath, he dragged the leaking leather parcel back to the raft.
Now that he could no longer see Billy’s pulped face, Frenchy was finally calm enough to think. He pulled his housekeeping pouch from his kit and threaded a long needle with fingers that were no longer shaking. In his years hunting in the mountains Frenchy had stitched up many wounds, on himself as well as others. A few years earlier, a grizzly bear had torn his scalp half off with a swipe of its gigantic paw. He dispatched the massive bear with one shot from his Hawken then had sat down, and looking in a polished metal shaving mirror, stitched his scalp back on.
“Ol’ Ephraim, he try to scalp old Frenchy.” He giggled to himself as he worked the needle back and forth in his bloodied side, “But I scalped him alright”.
With a groan, he pulled the rough stitches together, closing the wound and knotted the greased twine to hold it in place. He let his tunic drop and calmly returned his sewing needle to his ‘possibles’ bag before picking up the long stripped sapling that doubled as a barge pole.
Casting a last look at the deserted campsite, Frenchy pushed the raft away from the bank. He spread his moccasin clad feet, steadying himself as the flat boat was caught in the river’s slow but determined current. The raft was close to the center of the river in less than a minute. It was still in the deep shadows cast by the trees lining the bank when Frenchy hefted his pole from the water and let the little craft drift lazily. He edged around the stacked and trussed pelts to the gruesome parcel he had created just moments earlier.
He braced himself against the cargo and gave the seeping bundle a hard shove with his feet. The wrapped body rolled once and flopped, head first over the side of the raft into the dark water. It bobbed under once, then floated for a moment before slowly sinking below the surface. “Au reviour mon ami. Bon Voyage,” called Frenchy as the last of the corpse disappeared in a bloody swirling eddy.
It was an afterthought when Frenchy picked the tomahawk up off the stack of pelts. The congealing blood was sticky on his hand. With a quick swing of his arm, he lobbed it into the water. It disappeared with a splash, spreading wispy red swirls that faded quickly in the languid stream, “You always did like Iron Belly’s old tomahawk Billy, now I give it to you as a parting gift, twice in one day.” He laughed at his own wit, and turned his back on the rapidly waning ripples.
Frenchy had drifted a few miles by the time the sun had reached its zenith. He needed to keep the raft away from the snags and sandbars close to the riverbank but controlling the little craft was much more difficult without Billy pushing on his own pole at the opposite corner. Bolts of white light flashed across his vision and hot knife blades plunged into his wounded side each time he dug the tip of the pole into the muddy bed of the river and he was soon sweating from the exertion.
Finally, as he struggled against the suction of the river floor to extricate the pole, the rough stitches in his side gave way. Yelping, he fell back against the stacked pelts, fumbling to keep hold of the long staff. He jammed the pole under one of the rough ropes securing the cargo and leaned against the stack, catching his breath in sobbing gasps. Gingerly, he lifted his blood stiffened tunic, feeling sticky wetness on his fingers. The sight of the wound made him wince. The greased twine stitches had torn through the red weakened flesh and the ragged edges of the cut swelled like blood engorged lips smiling around a sickly dark mouth. The smirking wound dribbled a clear fluid, tainted with wispy trails of blood.
Gritting his teeth, Frenchy tentatively pulled the string from the suppurating wound. By the time he had extricated the stitches; his fingers were slick with blood, and sweat coursed down his pale forehead in torrents, stinging his red rimmed eyes. He sank down against the side of the bundled cargo, getting no relief from the shade it cast on his slack face. With his feet trailing in the cool water, the filthy twine dropped from his gory hand. It floated in the swirling wake as Frenchy sat lulled by the ripples.
He was no longer alone, Billy Bonnet sat propped up next to him, one bloodshot eye staring from the wreckage of his once youthful face. “Frenchy” he cooed in a wet voice.
“No. You are not there, “Frenchy whimpered. “You are dead.”
“Oh, that I am,” murmured Billy through his shattered mouth, “and I am here, as sure as that blood and pus in your side mon ami.” Cold fingers probed at the seeping wound.
Yelping, Frenchy tried to edge away, but Billy’s cold grey fingers gripped the hunter’s blood grimed buckskins tightly, “look at me Frenchy, see your legacy.”
“No,” Frenchy protested feebly, “You aren’t real.”
“LOOK AT ME!” commanded Billy.
Icy fingers clasped Frenchy’s throat, spongy and damp even through the hunter’s thick beard. He was thankful when everything went black.
A sharp crack jerked Frenchy awake as the little raft was wrenched sideways in the water. His body pitched sideways onto the roughly hewn planks, cool water spattered his bearded face. Grimacing, he propped himself against the bundled cargo and pushed himself to his feet and looked to the side of the raft.
Something he couldn’t see had snagged one of the tie ropes and the little raft was stuck fast against the current of the river.
Bracing himself against the packaged load, Frenchy felt cold damp fingers probing his wounded side. Ignoring them, he peered over the top of the wrapped pelts.
A hand was grasping at one of the tie ropes. Sallow grey skin was tearing from the exposed bones where the rough rope chafed them, but the skeletal digits held firm.
“Oh Mon dieu,” he groaned, wishing this was a fever dream. Desperately, he looked around the narrow deck, looking for something he could use to free the small vessel. An involuntary groan escaped his chapped lips.
The tomahawk, wet from its grave in the river was tucked neatly under the cords that held the water resistant sailcloth over his Hawken Rifle. He stared dumbly at it, as if by waiting, it might disappear and free him of his nightmare.
Another timber crack issued from the straining deck timbers and the raft pitched a little more steeply. Nightmare or not, Frenchy knew he had to get free of the monstrous hand or sink with his entire load. Raising the tomahawk he leaned around the bundle, poised to strike.
For the second time that day he hacked at a human form with the slick tomahawk. Half a dozen blows smashed the ghoulish hand to pieces, leaving remnants of the dead tree limb snagged in the tie ropes. With horrified eyes, Frenchy watched the rough rope slowly began to uncoil. He had inadvertently cut it almost through.
With a crack of dry bone, the branch gave way taking the frayed rope with it. The bundled load of Beaver, Wolf and Elk pelts began to slide off the slanted raft as it struggled to right itself in the current. Ignoring the burning in his side, Frenchy tossed the cursed tomahawk aside and dove after the disappearing pack.He made one last despairing grab at the steering pole as it slid past him into the water. He managed to get a hold of it for a moment before the weight of the cargo dragged it away from him. The little raft once again caught the current and it swirled away quickly. Frenchy lay on his belly, soaked with river water and terror sweat, watching helplessly as the season’s work turn slowly in the current while it sank languidly beneath the murky surface.
When the raft wedged itself on a sand bank a few miles downriver, Frenchy still lay on the splintery deck staring back upriver, exhausted and demoralised.
The sun was not yet on the horizon when Frenchy finally sat up, aching and grimacing with every movement. Though the water barely reached the bloodied knees of his buckskins, he stumbled awkwardly to the bank, his wrapped rifle and possibles bag held over his head, well clear of the deceptively swift current.
Finally on dry land, he sat heavily by the water’s edge, head low, gasping for air, sobbing for his lost loot.Slowly though, with firm ground under him, the terror of his encounter on the river faded, replaced by the cunning that had kept him alive in the mountains so many years. Rising to his feet, Frenchy began to make camp with the few implements he had saved from the raft.
By the time that his coffee was boiling in the small tin bowl over the fire, Frenchy was well satisfied with the story of Crow Indian treachery he had invented to conceal Billy’s murder and the humiliating loss of his plunder. “Damned Crows ambushed us. Killed Billy, nearly got me too,” he practiced the words as he sat down on his bedroll, and chewed on some Pemmican, chasing it down with steaming coffee.
When he was finished, Frenchy took his Hawken and drew it gently from its cover. With practiced movements, he poured a charge of gunpowder down the long octagon barrel. He then tamped the load and a felt wad with the rifle’s iron ramrod. When that was done, he used the rod to push a small grey felt wad followed by a handful of small lead balls, a quarter inch across, down the bore. Finally, he gently eased the hammer back, just far enough to slip a fulminate cap on the exposed nipple. Gingerly he set the hammer down, careful not to let it hit the cap and fire the rifle, he may need it later, after all, there might actually be hostile Crow Indians nearby.
Crickets chirruped in the trees and tiny gnat eating bats flitted overhead as he sat on his bedroll, leaning back against the dried trunk of a fallen Pine, chewing on some more pemmican, the big Hawken across his knees. It wasn’t long before he fell into a fitful sleep.
It was fully dark when Frenchy jerked upright, wincing softly as the wound in his side distorted, opening the dark scab.
Something was not right.
Years of hunting in the mountains and plains had taught him how to read the subtle signs provided by nature.
The crickets had gone silent.
He was not alone.
Cautiously, he inched upwards, hot fingers dragging at his wound. The fire should have burned down to embers hours earlier, but it glowed as though freshly ignited.
Hunched close to the fire, was the silhouette of a man. In the heat of the fire, tiny wisps of steam rose from the damp rotted blanket wrapped around its stooped shoulders. Inching his hand to the butt of his rifle, Frenchy challenged the intruder, “You there. Who are you to invite yourself to my camp?”
There was no answer.
Frenchy was on his knees now, the Hawken in his hands and fully cocked, “Show your face, you sneaking son of a whore,”He hissed. “Or I will give you a charge of shot.”
At first the stranger remained silent. Then in a wet choking whisper came the words, “You know who I am, Reynard Chapeaux.”
The hairs on the back of Frenchy’s neck prickled. The figure slowly rose, “You gave me something today Frenchy, TWICE!” The stranger turned to face Frenchy, the decaying blanket falling away from mangled shoulders.
“Mon Dieu,” Frenchy gasped, the blood draining from his mind. “Billy?” The heavy barreled rifle wavered in his shaking hands, “But…”
He was cut off sharply by the sibilant whisper, “I will return your gift my old friend, my murderer.”
The dark figure with Billy Bonnet’s voice and battered face sprung at Frenchy with predatory agility. A howl of rage, that only Frenchy could hear issuing from his shattered mouth.
In panic, Frenchy stumbled backward over his recent backrest. As he tumbled, the heavy muzzle of the Hawken reared upwards. With a convulsive tug, he jerked the trigger. The bear killing rifle boomed, showering sparks, impotently peppering the night with quarter inch lead balls.
The flash of the burning powder was fleeting. In that eternal instant Frenchy stared with naked terror into the one remaining eye of Billy Bonnet. There was the abrupt flash of a tomahawk blade, then silent darkness.