Last Camp

 

 

 

"Nurse, think you could give us an hour without bringing a damn pill or something?  I've got something to tell my son and it's gonna take a bit. Sure would appreciate it. 

 

Charlie, you can grab the nice chair in the corner your Mom uses on my bad nights. And get us a couple of beers from the cooler...Doc said I could have one now and again on account it's not my liver that’s wore out. 

 

Now, I want to tell you about something what happened more than fifty years ago when I was close on your age. 

* * *

 

It was well after your Aunt Mary had gone off to the bright lights in Reno and then got married–she never did much fancy this scrub desert. But your Grandpa was still going strong and was counting on me to take over and truth to tell I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. But this is gonna be about about a very special lady in my life back then.

 

She arrived here in August forty-nine and her name was Umeko...it's Japanese...means plum blossom child she told me. And this is not a nice story...for she was shamed come the very next year. What the hell, say it like it was. She was raped and two years later was murdered.

 

Wish to hell I didn’t have to start like that. But it’s what happened. You could probably look it up in some old newspapers around here but you sure as hell won’t find most of what I’m going to tell you.

 

Umeko was our new grade school teacher, hired on price. Jordan Wells folk didn’t much believe in spending money on educating us mostly ranch hands. So the town had fixed up an old house trailer right next the school so's they could include lodging in their pay offer. And I suspect on account they worried that there could be some grumbling about bringing a Jap to town...the war was not that long over.

 

No question it could have been easier to get a job back in Chicago where she was born but she’d come West to get away from what being Japanese in the war did to her dad. He’d been a policeman and a good one, almost made lieutenant, but then came the war and that ended that. But after the war, he wasn't one to sit around. Started investing and real quick ended up with more money than he’d ever of made as a cop.

* * *

 

First time I met Umeko was end of September before the cool weather set in. I'd cut up some old rails and hauled them over to the school that in those days had a wood stove. Went early on a Friday evening because I was intending to go into town after to have a beer or three. So I just knocked on her trailer door to let her know about the wood but will admit was a bit curious too. Had heard the new teacher was a looker.

 

She opened the screen door, stepped out, and smiled hello. 

 

Now being twenty-four and only son of the biggest ranch around, I wasn’t exactly a stranger to good looking women. But I just stood there, probably had my mouth open...like a damn school kid on his first day.

 

Finally she broke the silence and thanked me for the wood. Later on, I remember her teasing me about about my stammering as to maybe sometime she’d like to go out for a coffee or something. That is if she wasn’t busy but if she was, that was OK too because teaching was hard work. And maybe she was tired...

 

But she looked straight at me, smiled the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen, and said she’d love to. From that minute on, Charlie, I was a done dog. 

 

Umeko was tall for a Japanese gal, almost five-nine. Coal black hair, amber skin. She was so goddamn beautiful! Had a direct way of looking at you. Not like she knew what you were thinking, but just always expecting to hear the truth. The school kids never could lie to her.

 

Dad told me once, get yourself a woman who refuses to walk behind you. Well, I’d damn well found her. Spent every day with her I could. Taught her to ride and hunt. Took to it like she was born to it and she was at the ranch least once a week for dinner. Even got Cookie to doing some Japanese stuff.

 

Dad, he'd  started to hint as to how a particular gal would make a fine rancher’s wife. Lost my temper one day and told him I was a damn sight more convinced than he was and was trying hard as I could. But Umeko wouldn’t give in. Said decisions like that shouldn’t be rushed and insisted we wait ‘til the summer holidays.

* * *

 

It was late May when one night a town boy Jack Hustone and a little weasel named Bert Mallon got liquored up and decided to pay the new schoolmarm a visit. Now some said later, what could you expect of Jack with his mother dying at childbirth. His old man had ignored him most of the time and spoiled him rotten the rest.

 

Me, I never bought it. Jack was just an ornery bastard, born mean. Setting fire to cats when he was a kid, and worse. When older, shamed a little waitress who was afraid to tell on him. But everybody knew. Bert was probably just as bad but not as smart and a coward to boot.

 

No one ever found out what went on that night in Umeko’s trailer. But next morning she went straight to the sheriff’s office and he took her straight to Doc Jamieson. An hour later the sheriff arrested Jack and Bert still sleeping it off. Like I said, no one ever heard exactly what happened. But Dad did tell me years later that Doc got a little tight one night and said what they’d done to her, he’d of knotted the noose himself.

 

Me, I was almost crazy. Like shouting the first time I saw her after...why in the hell didn’t she come to the ranch and let Dad and I handle it. And her telling me quiet that I already knew the answer to that. Like always, she was right. Thinking back, it was really her that got us through it.

 

Anyhow, old Judge Mattle, he allowed as how the boys were not quite twenty-one. And nobody could know for sure exactly what was what. And Jack’s dad had been Mayor and helped get the judge elected three years earlier. So the old bastard, he gave Jack but two years and Bert one.  

 

Umeko left Jordan Springs two weeks after the trial. And up to the hour she got on that train, I was at her to stay and to marry me. Even Dad who never stuck his nose in my personal business, he let down that one time and went to see her. And I knew it wasn’t just because his boy was hurting so bad. But her answer stayed the same...it’ll take time. 

 

* * *

Bert was back in a year from the stony lonesome. Hadn’t changed much and got a job doing dishes to keep him in booze. But a month later one night down at Roy’s saloon, he’d had too much by far. Started in about what he and Jack were gonna do to that little Jap bitch who’d turned them in. Said she’d swore never to tell and besides she’d been asking for it, and what the hell could you expect from a damned Jap anyhow. 

 

One thing about Bert, no one could ever accuse him of being smart but must admit I was surprised at who did what when I heard of it. Hank Dunegan who was one moose of a hand out of the old Double Star south of town had a reputation for being a bit slow. But it's said that on that particular night he picked up Bert from the bar stool with one hand and stared at him long and hard. And then fist-drove him right through Roy’s front window.

 

Word was Roy just looked up and said, ‘Windows on me, Hank’.  Bert had urgent business the very next day. Out of town...for good.

 

That was about late December just before Christmas. A few weeks into January, Umeko was back. I’d known she was coming...we'd talked on the phone most every week for a year. And finally she said she was ready to come home...and that's exactly how she put it...asked me to find her a place. 

 

I argued long and hard to stay with us, least till we knew where Jack was going after he got out. It was no use. Said it was okay and maybe even smart to be afraid at times but running was something else. So I finally had no choice but to give in. Found her a decent little ranch house just out of town like she wanted. Said she'd had enough of town folk. 

 

She’d not changed towards me though maybe a little quieter. There was no way I could change her mind about staying alone but she did promise it would be just for a while. And  tried to quit me worrying because of the friend her Dad had given her...a thirty-eight. And now she also had got a dog...a noisy little mutt. 

 

Just like before, we were together as much time as I could spare. And what was nicer, the town started to warm up to her...she’d go in about once a week for groceries. I think people kinda felt some guilty for not raising more hell at the sentence Jack got. And out here as you know, folks often just plain admire guts.

 

Was told straight up by a couple good friends that a good many were rooting for me and her to get hitched. And she finally agreed that we'd marry come October. Hard to say who was happier me or Dad. Or come to think of it Cookie...she just thought the world of her.

 

* * *

 

Late July it was when Jack stepped off the bus. Out two months early. Surprised the hell out of everyone...nobody'd  expected him to come back, least of all me. And he'd picked up the tough guy look, a bit like that movie fellow. Remember in that motorcycle picture? With the black leather jackets and the sun glasses? About gangs or something...

 

Yeah, you're right, I do get mixed up a bit these days.

 

Anyhow, Jack rented a shack a ways out on Sunshine Road maybe close on twenty miles away. Suspect he got the feeling folk in town weren't gonna take him back to heart any time soon. Then bought a beat-up pickup and got his horse and trailer back from his Dad who’d been keeping them.

 

Will say one thing about Jack. He was bad straight through but always good with horses...the only damn thing he’d never beat up on. Liked to ride hard and had even done a few rodeos before getting sent up...damned shame he didn't get kicked in the head when he was at it. But rumor was he was planning to go on the circuit again.

* * *

 

Came the week after Labor Day. Dad and I’d been out on the range for five days taking the herd up to the big east pasture like we did most years back then. So we called Cookie middle of the week from a diner to check in. 

 

She answered real quiet-like and said Sheriff wanted to see us. When I asked what for, she kinda broke down and said it’s about Umeko and get your goddamn asses home. Now Cookie never swore! So we borrowed a car from Bill Downey who lived near the diner and left Wayne in charge of the crew. We got back to town and the Sheriff's office late morning.

 

Sheriff told us that just the day before, the mailman had gone out to Umeko's to deliver a parcel. He'd found the door unlocked so went in and found the dog shot. Umeko was gone but her car was still in back. Doc figured the dog had been dead some three days which meant maybe Saturday since I’d been with her late Friday night. 

Naturally first place they looked was Jack’s. He was gone and his truck and horse too so it had all the signs of a kidnapping. Sheriff had called the State Police and FBI right off and wanted posters had already gone up. Umeko’s father was on his way down from Chicago.

 

Sheriff wanted to give us the story personal-like, but he admitted another reason too. He'd heard Ray Fedder had a horse missing and then got to speculating...whether just possibly Jack might of taken Umeko by horse. Give him more time alone with her and maybe had hid his truck some place handy to get out after.

 

We asked Sheriff why in the hell hadn’t he got helicopters up and looking right off.  Said he’d tried first thing that very morning but the Feds were in charge and they were sure Jack took off with her in the truck Saturday or latest Sunday. And he allowed it was unlikely Jack would've risked any other way.

 

But to rest easier maybe we could just look around a bit at Umeko's?  Said to let him know right off if we found anything. First thing Dad said was go get Jake... Jake was part Sioux. If anyone could pick up a trail, it was him.  Yeah, Jake, he's long gone too.

* * *

 

First off we had to guess most likely direction. Jake thought maybe north through the badlands towards Whittlay. Not much chance of being seen in that rough country and there's a few old mining roads for to hide a truck. So we started to look around a mile or two north from Umeko’s. And Jake had guessed right...we found one fairly fresh trail inside of three hours showing one horse ahead of another.

 

Jack hadn’t been too careful, probably figured no one would ever think he’d do it this way. Me, I thought then about going back for more help but just couldn’t abide wasting more time than had been done already. And no question I wasn't thinking all that straight...pushed on hard as we could and covered maybe eight miles which was damn good for that country.

 

Couldn’t risk riding after dark so bedded down...don’t think I closed my eyes that first night. Next morning we came on to where they had spent the first night...still was two sets of tracks and footprints. And on Thursday evening we finally got to that abandoned salt road, you know, the one goes west out of Whittlay. Their trail continued on across the road.

 

So I rode into town to call Dad and get some help to come up. But before I could ask, he gave me the bad news. Just that same day a fellow at Whittlay had called the sheriff.  Said his son pumped gas at a station outside of town and might of seen Jack.

 

The boy remembered a pick-up pulling in just before closing. Guy just said, ‘Fill it’...and he’d particular remembered 'cause the driver wore sun glasses though it was near dark. He was in a hurry too and drove off without waiting for change. Nobody was with him. 

 

Neither of us had to say it. Finding Umeko alive now was damned unlikely. So I told Dad what we’d found and of course he wanted to call the sheriff right off. But now something was driving me to see to the end of this myself...Jack might have dumped her body not too much farther on, considering he'd already lit out from the filling station.

 

And the Sheriff would be at Whittlay next day anyhow to check out the boy’s story. We could fill him in then. Dad finally agreed to keep his mouth shut but said I could damn well explain myself if he was asked. 

* * *

 

Next morning we were off at sun-up. Just a bit up from the road we came on Ray Fedder's horse that had been left near water. Like I said, Jack was always good to horses. We tethered him to pick up on the way back and saw now there were three tracks. Two going north, one coming back. 

 

It was slower going into the foothills.  Bit later on we saw buzzards circling up ahead and knowing there’d been only one track going back south, we weren’t surprised to come on a dead horse. It was Jack’s with a broken leg. He'd pushed too hard that last day.

 

A few hundred yards on, we found their camp and ashes...dead cold naturally. And as we walked our horses down to a creek nearby for water, there was Umeko’s shirt tangled in some brush. It’d been her last day, too.

*  *  *

 

We searched until dark for where he might’ve left her. About midnight one ripper of a storm came through and poured buckets for most an hour...soaked through both of us. But nothing seemed to much matter right then, knowing for certain she was gone. It was like I was dead inside.

 

Next morning we searched some again but no luck and the rain had washed out most signs anyhow, so decided to leave by noon so’s to get out before dark. And we knew the law would be back to hunt some more for Umeko's body. I wasn’t worried now about not calling the sheriff earlier about the tracks. What the hell difference would it of made.

 

But just before we left, Jake said he’d like to take a quick look over the next ridge where he  might try for mule deer the next month. I was surprised but thinking about it later, maybe he just wanted to leave me alone for a little at where Umeko had been her last day. Do know the Sioux did put big stock in a spirit finding peace.

 

Told him go ahead and I’d wait. And maybe I went a bit crazy again, thinking of her and Jack and how he must have made her suffer. But someone up there was listening because when I kicked the campfire ashes, there it was. A silver butterfly clip she'd often use in her long hair. It sat me down.  It took me to remembering things.

 

To summer nights out late at the river and Umeko walking towards me. Wet silver in the moonlight and her black mane almost to her waist. And her smile, always her smile...

 

I was still sitting there when Jake came up behind and said quiet-like, "Will, you’d better come".  So I followed him maybe a quarter mile and then up a little gully. And there was a body half uncovered from the rain the night before. Face down and hands cuffed behind the back. Wrists were rubbed raw and a single hole back of the head.

 

We turned it over. It was Jack.

 

* * *

 

Always did like that old Ian Tyson song about cowboys don’t cry. And will admit this cowboy sure as hell almost did, now knowing Umeko was alive. And then come the slow realization what she'd done and why her way. Because she knew I'd be where she was at no matter what...and with her feelings for me and for Dad and for the ranch, she would not let that happen.

 

Jake and I sat quiet for probably most an hour. And he must have read my mind 'cause he finally smiled, ‘Do believe the sheriff’s gonna be disappointed when we come back empty handed’. I could only just nod. But we had no shovel and I was worried the body might still come to light some day. Especially since they'd be looking for Umeko's body the next day.

 

Jake said go back and take her shirt. Tell them I stayed over to search some more. And don't worry, time they get here, Jack will be disappeared. I guess Jake still knew a few old Sioux tricks. I don't speculate on it too much.

 

I still managed to ride out before full dark and got Ray’s horse on the way. And like I’d figured, the sheriff had come up to Whittlay and was at the hotel. I explained about the tracks and the camp and gave him Umeko’s shirt but told him we couldn’t find her body—that was true enough. Said Jake was still looking. But I didn’t give him her butterfly.

 

Next morning they took a crew and searched for two days. Good exercise for them...heard tell Jake had been a big help. Told them where he'd looked already. Late the following month a a prospector came on Jack’s truck off an old mine road north some miles east. And I recall wondering when I heard it, how Umeko knew what Jack had planned and where to find his truck so’s she could put down a false trail at the filling station.

 

Then I thought of her two years before at the trial, and I knew. From the minute they brought Jack in, I swear she never took her eyes off of him. Her dad was there too and he never said much either. They just sat quiet watching. Jack would have talked. And talked some more...

 

Maybe she'd even hinted she'd let him go eventually. But at the end Jack must have finally cottoned onto what he'd stirred up when he did her wrong. She was a woman never confused about what was right and since he’d tried again, she made damn sure it would be his last time. With anyone.

 

* * *

 

Later near Christmas that same year, I called her father and asked could I go up to see him. He was kind enough but wondered why...told him I wasn't sure why but it was important to me. Finally he said OK so I drove up to Chicago, still hoping there might be some way to be with her. But a rich daddy could probably help her disappear a lot easier than for us. Also wonder to this day how someone had managed to give her a quiet ride out of State.

 

Anyhow, I couldn't say a damn thing to her dad unless he gave me some hint he knew. But he never allowed but one thing...that he missed her. So I finally had to quit fighting the decision she’d made for both of us and came home too stay. Yeah, your Mom being from here knew all about Umeko, and a good bit later we married. They've been good years too...

 

But like I said first off, I'd like for you to do one thing for me. In that old saddlebag on the wall in the stock office, Umeko's butterfly is still there. And there's a letter came about a year ago from some woman who wrote to say her friend a Japanese lady had recently passed.

 

Inside the letter was a second folded note in that perfect schoolmarm writing: For My Cowboy. It just said she had lived a good life...with memories of a moonlit river.  

 

So I'm asking, son, when my time comes, could you just slide those in with me before they close the lid?  Because some things need be left buried.  Like Jack".

 

* * *