This Month -Pursuit, Hard Goodbyes, and Crossing the Crazy Woman
Some say he cheated death as if the Grim Reaper were a gambler to be bested over a faded deck of cards in a sawdust-floored saloon. His wanderlust lasted twenty years. His rowdy character haunted him the entire time.
Gray Wehr stood a raw-boned six feet tall with piercing green eyes framed by heavy sideburns. Wavy blond hair danced along the top of his collar, giving him a bit of a roguish look. Women considered him a dashing figure.
Now, urging his bay mare to cross a murky little stream, the reputation was as distant as the dusty Kansas town where he first fired his pistol at another man.
“Step off and walk her across,” his younger partner Trent Thaxton said. “She must not be much of a mudder.”
Gray’s bay balked again at crossing the muddy stream. “Come on, Lena; you’re fine.” He squeezed his heels against her flanks. She stepped up to the edge of the murky water flowing over blackish-green silt and mud only four feet from one bank to the other. Tossing her head and jerking at her bit, she tried to gain the advantage of a loose rein.
“Come on, Lena; get over there.”
The mare crouched back.
“No, no…you’re not going to jump. Walk across.”
Again, the bay tensed, struggled back before Gray pulled her head around and let her take a few steps from the water while he patted and scratched the side of her neck. “Come on now; nothing’s going to hurt you,” he half-whispered before turning the horse back toward the stream, where she again tightened up.
“Kick her and slap her with those reins,” Zach Joseph, the third member of the group, said. “I’m tired of watching you dillydally with her.”
“And I’m tired of listening to you,” Gray said back, nudging the mare once more toward the edge of the muddy creek. Again, she balked, shuffled before coiling back on her hindquarters.
“Well, jump the blamed thing,” Gray muttered, giving into the bay. “I’m not gonna make a fight of this,” he said, letting the reins go slack and making a kissing sound.
Without warning, the horse uncoiled. Life slowed. Every detail of the murky water passing underneath him was distinguishable. As the crown of the high bank caught his eye, Gray realized she meant not to jump only the stream; she intended to make the top.
The rain-softened dirt collapsed under her force and weight when she hit two feet below the crest. For a tick in time, the whole adventure stopped or slowed down. Lena sank chest-deep in the muddy bank, leaving Gray no time to react before throwing her head back, lurching and twisting to free herself.
Gray lost balance before squaring himself back into the saddle. Icy fear shot through him while he and the horse tumbled backward, falling ten, twelve feet to the streambed.
The distance made the fall ferocious. But the bank’s height also gave the mare time to twist herself enough for them to take the impact on the horse’s side rather than straight back, driving the saddle horn into Gray’s chest, killing him. Still, they hit with brutal force.
Their momentum sent the horse rolling over on her back with all four feet flailing. Gray feared the bay crushing him underneath her. For an instant, she caught her balance. She jerked and lunged in a frantic attempt to stand. Halfway up, the mare’s feet went out from under her, slipping across six or seven birch trees some fool used trying to construct a footbridge. The saplings rolled, shot out from under her, again sending her down hard on her side.
Gray’s stirrup twisted in the fall, pinning his foot under the animal at a severe angle. His anguished screaming blocked out all other noise as the bay tried a second time, with no greater success, to regain her feet, halfway up, down again. Hearing bones snapping like the popping of a pistol, life as an invalid flashed through his mind. What a burden he would be to his family—a useless, middle-aged cripple, no longer able to walk.
Lena lunged again, splashing mud and frigid water on her gnarled rider, wild anxiety shooting from her eyes. Nostrils flaring with each shot of hot breath, she finally made her feet, but Gray lost his seat, perhaps due to his will to stay with her. As the bay bolted to a standing position, Gray fell to the ground, his right foot wrenching in a brutal twisting motion.
Everything happened with such force, jerking him out of the stream, flipping him off his back and on his stomach, coming to a stop in the tall wet meadow grass. Hung up in the stirrup, he would never free himself before being dragged, perhaps to death, by the terrified animal.
However, the bay mare did not charge off. Instead, she stood almost statue-like until she turned her head, looking down at her fallen and broken rider.
Southeast Wyoming Near Fort Laramie 1860
Either a nasty spring cold or some allergy kept Ally Hart miserable for the better part of two weeks. She rubbed her nose raw with the constant blowing, and between the sore red nose and bloodshot eyes, she looked as bad as she felt. She spent an entire day in bed, hiding from Elijah’s relentless mothering. The seventy-year-old man had appointed himself her personal knight in shining armor after her husband Sam died several months ago. However, when he demanded she spend a second day flat on her back, she put her foot down.
Another argument took place when she insisted Elijah go to town for supplies. Her gentle friend thought it out of the question to leave her while so weak with the fever. He forced her to promise both a morning and afternoon nap before he hitched the team to the old wagon and squeaked off for food and a needed jar of salve to heal cracked lips and chapped skin.
Ally’s loneliness, after only one night alone, took her by surprise. By mid-morning, as she tinkered around the kitchen wishing for late afternoon or evening when Elijah would return, sadness overtook her, robbing her of her little energy. She poured herself the last cup of morning tea, which she preferred to coffee, and sat down at the table she and Sam purchased in Hays City.
When Sam died, and she buried him under the larger of the two oak trees growing on their place, she resolved to put flowers on his grave at least once a week. However, the sadness became too much for her. Now, she seldom went to the grave, let alone with a flower arrangement. In truth, she resented Sam for dying and leaving her here, without the means to move. The ranch had been his dream, not hers. Now she found herself angry he didn’t make better provision for her. Of course, he might have if he expected to die, instead of being gored.
That was another disagreement between Ally and Elijah. Her bull, the one that did the goring, was running around somewhere out on the range. Elijah said she needed a bull to have any hope of making a living off the cattle. Since she lacked the cash to buy another one, bringing this one back was necessary. Ally argued she did not want ever to lay eyes on the vulgar beast again. So that’s how things stood. The bull running loose, Elijah concerned, and Ally not caring.
Ally decided she sat in her self-pity long enough. She picked up the old wooden bucket she carried water in and went out the kitchen door and across what made do for a yard toward the well.
About halfway to the well, too far from the house to go back, Ally saw an Indian sitting on a pinto horse only a few yards away. She froze. However, the Indian made no move toward her. For what seemed like minutes, but really only the briefest of time, they stared at each other. Ally let her eyes dart around, both looking for any way of escape and searching for other Indians. Seeing neither, she turned to face him.
After a moment, the man squeezed his bare legs against his horse, moving slowly toward Ally. She held the bucket in front of her chest. Either for protection—or to throw up. He rode a small circle around her, stopping in front of her. He sat on his horse, looking her over as if trying to decide what he wanted to do with her. The blade at the end of that lance was going to hurt. Will it cut smooth and clean? Or, will it rip through her soft skin, tearing her wide open? How will death come? Quick? Or in suffering?
She tried to remember what Sam and Elijah told her to do if caught out when Indians showed up. Don’t show fear. Not showing fear is critical. But how, this frightened, could she not show it? “What do you want?” she said, her boldness surprising her. It occurred to her the Indian might not, in fact, probably didn’t speak English. “What do you want?” she asked again, this time afraid about fear showing in her voice.
“Water for my horse.”
Relieved by hearing him speak English, she regained some composure. “Yes. Yes, of course.” Ally pointed to the well. You’re welcome to my water.”
“Sometimes we may cross here,” he said.
He looked at her with what Ally thought was sympathy, not anger. Yet, why would an Indian extend sympathy to a white woman?
“Do not be afraid of us. Cheyenne do not make war on women whose men are dead and who now live with old men. Roman Nose,” he said, tapping on his chest.
Ally assumed he was introducing himself.
“Do not fear the Cheyenne.”
As he moved his horse away, Ally managed to stammer, her name. “I won’t be afraid. Thank you.” The stammering embarrassed her. After all, this was Roman Nose, a Cheyenne Chief, speaking clearly and calmly in English. What kind of impression was she making, stammering in her language?
Crossing the Crazy Woman
Going home was like holding a woman—something he didn’t do often enough. Graham Wehr, Gray to everyone except his mother, wouldn’t trade ten acres of the Bighorn Mountains for the entire Great Plains. For four days, he rode through nothing but dry rolling hills and bluffs. Only April, and the tall grass was turning brown from hot weather and little rain. The golden plains, for Gray’s part, the Indians could keep ’em.
Sweat stung Gray’s eyes; his mare smelled of it. Flies swarmed around them, a few of them horseflies drawing blood every time they bit. Gray only half expected to see the Platte River from the top of this new bluff. When he brought the bay up the crown of the hill, he didn’t. The ache in his knees and back deepened. “Lena,” he sighed at the sight of more endless vista, “next time I pull a stunt like this, you oughta throw me and kick me in the head.” Well past mid-afternoon, the sun cast long shadows, but the heat refused to ease up. The day, like the whole trip home, drug on long and tedious.