by WR Benton
Article Copyright By Gary Benton
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"War Paint is a blood-thirsty brutal book. It is an uniquely American part of darkness tale. It will disappoint those who seek the triumph of good over evil. Outstanding."
—James Drury, "The Virginian"
“As a (Senior) Master Sergeant in the US military, W. R. Benton became a man of action and lived the “code of the west,” which is very well reflected in his westerns and especially in his newest, WAR PAINT, an action-packed story of love, struggle, betrayal, and revenge set in the wildness of the Old West. It is a must read for anybody who loves westerns. You will not be able to put the book down.”
— Don Bendell, Author of 23 books, including the western Colt series, with over 1,500,000 books in print worldwide.
“WAR PAINT is for the western reader who wants to read something different, and for the western enthusiast who likes to know there is accuracy and authenticity in them thar pages. It's an exceptionally good read, excellent plot, beautifully drawn characters, and well sustained from start to finish.”
— Mel Hague, Author of Death on a Rope , and others, and
Recording Artist of 17 albums
“W.R. Benton understands Indians, mountain men, and the fur trade, and puts it all down in a whoppin' good read called ‘War Paint'.”
—Steven M. Ulmen, Author of Toby Ryker
"My grandfather was a rancher in Colorado, where I grew up and one of last of the rugged men who were responsible for taming the wild west. He liked Louis L' Amour. He would have loved WR Benton."
— Robert Woods, actor
"I welcome W.R. Benton to the small fraternity of writers who love the mountain men."
— Alfred Wallon, Author of “The promised land," German Western Author
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publisher, Dancing Fox Publishing, is an infringement of the copyright law. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any person or persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
This book was previously released in 2008 by Lachesis Publishing. Soon to be release by Dancing Fox Publishing.
“I grow tired of your drinking and running with your so-called friends! You should be learning the family business and planning for your future, not out each night until God knows what hour! It's time you started acting like a man!” My father all but screamed at me as we sat at the dinner table. His face was red and his hands trembled as he burst forth from his chair.
Feeling my face flush, I asked him with more than just a touch of anger, “What's wrong with my friends? All of them come from good families, some of the best in Boston.” When I glanced over at my mother, I noticed her head lowered, as usual during one of our heated debates.
Father, looking over his gold-framed glasses with narrowed eyes, gave a sneer and replied with a sharp tongue, “Drunken riffraff they are and all they'll ever be! I forbid you to have contact them any longer! This behavior of yours must stop , George – and now !”
I stood in anger, tempted to strike him, but instead I yelled in rage, “I'm not a child you can order around any longer, father! I'm a man and as a man, I'll decide how to live my life! You speak against my friends once more and I'll leave this house never to return!”
“As long as you live in my house you'll do as I say! This is not a request, George, but an order!”
“You're giving me an order? You seem to think I'll not leave, but I am leaving,” I pushed my chair under the table, “and I shall be gone within the hour.”
“You leave now and I'll see you won't get a damned penny in the future! You'll live to regret this, George!”
As I left the room I heard my mother say to my father, “Leave him alone until he has time to cool down. You're always so hard on him.”
An hour later, I'd packed my gear and pulled my rifle and powder horn from the wall. I changed into canvas trousers, a blue wool homespun shirt, and thick hunting boots. The last thing I did was place two loaded pistols in my belt, as well as a long and sharp skinning knife. As I left my room, I placed a wide-brimmed felt hat on my head.
I walked to stables and removed my best horse, saddled it, tied my gear behind the saddle, and placed my rifle in the scabbard. I mounted and rode from the barn. To this day I can still my father's angry voice as he screamed from the courtyard after me, “You're finished, George! You'll never see a penny of my money, never! You leave now, boy and I'll not leave you a damned thing! Do you hear me, George?”
I laughed and kicked my horse into a slow trot, for I'd made plans earlier in the day to meet my friends at a tavern down the road and together the four of us would have a few pints of beer. Perhaps on this very evening we could all leave and move westward – if not I'd go alone . We were young lads with few worries in the world and we wanted desperately to see some of the western lands before we had to take over our fathers' businesses . Each of us had started to plan for such a trip years before and we'd placed a few dollars aside. While most of our fathers were wealthy, they wouldn't have given us a dime to take a trip out west. My only concern now was if all of my friends could join me on such short notice or would only one or two go along. I wasn't fearful of going alone, but I felt at the time a larger group would be safer once we crossed the Mississippi River. I've since leaned the smaller the group traveling, the safer it is, because larger groups leave more tracks, are more easily seen, make more noise, and each member is less diligent.
I dismounted at the tavern, walked into the small dimly lighted room and saw all three of my friends sitting at a table in the back, drinking ale. I approached them with a smile on my face and asked, “Who wants to head west with me this night?”
All glanced up in puzzlement, but at last John grinned and replied, “I think you need to have a tankard of ale and explain why we must leave this night.”
Shortly, over my drink of pale ale, I explained what had transpired at our dinner table. As I spoke, I glanced at my friends and one by one met their gazes, as I tried to read each man's thoughts. Finally, I asked, “So, who wishes to go with me?”
Joseph lowered his deep brown eyes and replied, “I cannot go as I've just entered into the family business with father.” Then raising his head he added, “ This is so sudden, George and if I'd known before I wouldn't hesitate to leave, but if I leave now it'll hurt the business severely.”
As I turned my head to look at William I heard him say, “I'll not leave either, as I think this is all too brash and it lacks proper preparation for a safe trip. A trip of this magnitude requires careful planning.”
Then, meeting John's gaze, I knew right off he'd go with me. As I watched he broke into a big wide grin and said, “Aye, I'll leave with you tonight, George. My own father and I haven't been seeing eye-to-eye, so it's just a matter of time before I will I'll be forced to leave. So, give me some time to pack my gear, gather up some better clothing, and I'll meet you by the big oak near where the road splits west of town. It's seven now, so between eight and nine I'll be there.”
John and I quickly departed the tavern, leaving our two friends sipping ale from their tankards without as much as a goodbye. As we mounted our horses, John spoke, “Remember to be at the oak and I'll join you as quickly as I can.”
As I rode along in the darkness, I thought of our future.
What will John and I find once we move across the Mississippi River ?
I wasn't overly concerned at our being able to live off the land, as the two of us had grown up hunting and camping together, but I'd learned enough at the university to know the west could be a very dangerous place for any white man – and what of the red man? Was he the brutal savage some suggested, who usually killed any stranger who entered his lands – or a noble warrior protecting his homelands? As I said earlier, I've a good mind and I expected to learn a great deal in the near future, but exactly what I was unsure. Nevertheless, it would be a new land for me, with new experiences and learning was just part of it all. I wanted to see the vast wild lands and experience a new life.
It was near eight when I heard John approach the tree and I grinned as he called out to me from the darkened road. I was lucky John had chosen to ride with me , for he's a big man, over six feet and six inches, two hundred and fifty pounds, and often his pure size intimidates those looking for trouble. He wore his brown hair long and his beard was neatly trimmed. While he looked rough, he was as gentle as a lamb.
“Any problems?” I asked as he rode up to the tree.
“Aye, a few, for my father was glad to be rid of me, but I suspect my mother didn't want me to leave.”
“Harsh words were exchanged then?”
“Hardly any, compared to what I expected to be said.” I noticed him smile in the dim light of the moon.
I thought for a moment and then asked, “Should we spend the night here and leave in the morning or ride some tonight?”
“I think we should be off now. We can travel slowly tonight until we tire and then sleep for a few hours. I want to be on our way quickly.”
Two and half months later, we sat on our horses looking across the mighty Mississippi River at the city of Saint Louis. Since we were still on the eastern side of the river, we would have to pay to cross in a keelboat, but we had the funds to do so. I was amazed at the width of the river and the dark muddy color of its waters. John said as much from beside me as well.
As we sat watching the river a big fat bald man, wearing filthy homespun clothing walked up and stated in a deep voice, “If ya need to cross the river, I'm the man that can do the job for ya and fer only a dollar a piece.”
“Does that include our horses?” John asked as he pulled out two dollars.
The big man smiled and replied, “Sure it counts the hosses, ya jess lead 'em down to my keelboat on the river and we'll load y'all up. Ya can walk 'em right onto the boat using the big ramp I got on shore.”
John handed the man two dollars and said, “Here you go and that's for the two of us and our mounts.”
“Thank ya kindly.”
“You get much call for river crossings?” I asked as we led our horses onto the big flat-bottom boat. John's horse pranced and didn't want to board, but after a few minutes we got him loaded.
The big man grinned, revealing his broken and brown-stained teeth and replied, “I get traffic from both sides of the river, so I make a fair livin' at it.”
“From his prices he must make more than a fair living at it.” John spoke in a low whisper, as soon as the big man walked away, and then added, “And, you can tell by his smell he doesn't spend a dime on baths either.”
From the bow of the boat the big man yelled as we entered the river, “Ya boys headin' out west?”
“Yep,” I replied and wondered why he'd care, but quickly continued, “we're thinking of trapping beavers.”
“Hell fire son, ya two together ain't got the makin's of one good mountain man. However, if yer goin' to try the job, don't join no company men. Find ya some free trappers to go with. Most mountain men want nothin' to do with the Missouri Fur Company or the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, 'cause them companies control a man too much. I don't know a lot 'bout it all really, but if yer serious about this, find some free trappers in Saint Louie. They'll be all decked out in buckskins and are easy enough to spot.” The bald man spoke as he walked down the side of the boat checking some lines in the water.
Feeling insulted by the big man's words, but realizing I was new to the west, I replied in a flat voice, “We'll look them up, you can be sure of it.”
Conversation stopped for a few minutes during the crossing as we watched the brown water rush violently against the side of the boat and as we neared the center of the river, we could see huge logs rolling in the water as they passed.
“I hope this man knows what in the hell he's doing or just one of those logs will sink us,” John said as he held the reins of his horse tightly and occasionally reached over to pat its neck as he spoke in low tones to the animal.
“I heard a man back east speak of these river people and the greatest one is named ... Mike Fink, I think it was, but they all know the river well. Is your horse still skittish from boarding the boat?”
“Not as much as I am,” John replied with a low chuckle and continued, “I'll be glad to be back on land in a few minutes.”
The big bald man spoke between deep gasps of breath as he worked the ropes, “Son, if ya want to stay alive, avoid Mike Fink like the death he is, because he's purely hell with a knife, gun, or even a rock. Some men claim he's half horse and half alligator and of that I have some doubts, but I've seen him fight and they jess might be right. And, last I heard he's out west with Astor now, so ya could end up a-meetin' him out that ways. We're comin' up on the other side, so get ready to unload yer hosses.”
“We're ready and thanks for the trip,” I replied as I saw the city of Saint Louis looming closer in front of us.
“Son, no thanks is needed or did ya forget ya paid for the trip? Oh, and one mo' word of advice, there's a few cases of cholera in the city right now, so be careful where ya go.” The bow of the flat boat struck the shore.
“I'm sure all the sick folks will be in a hospital, won't they?” I was suddenly deeply concerned because cholera is a disease that usually kills and back east only the very poor wouldn't be under a doctor's care.
“Mayhap they will and then again, mayhap they won't. Okay , boys, ya can leave the boat now. Good luck and I hope ya both find what yer a-lookin' fer out west.”
As we left the boat, John said, “This place used to belong to the French, but we got it a few years back with the Louisiana Purchase. From what I remember from school, there are about twelve thousand folks living here now.”
“I know little of the town, except what you've just spoken. Let's find a livery stable and an inn. Then, come morning we'll start looking for some free trappers to join.”
“Sounds good to me, plus they can give us an idea of the supplies we'll need to go with them.”
The area where we unloaded was called Front Street and it really wasn't much except a few blocks of serrated limestone along the river. It looked to me as if a hundred men were working on the riverfront and quite a few of them were blacks. They were carrying large loads on their backs and it seemed to be a constant loading and unloading of vessels. We soon found a livery stable on A Street where we placed our horses for a week, paying in advance. I found the city easy to navigate, since most of the streets were either a number or a letter in the alphabet.
Further, down A Street we found a boarding house ran by an older woman, by the name of Nancy Clemens, who'd lost her husband in the war of 1812. Once she learned we were to leave for the shining mountains she suggested we pay by the day instead of her usual one week in advance. Not lacking funds, we still paid for a week in advance and she informed us she'd return every penny of the unused money on the day we left.
I noticed a grin spread on her face as I said, “Ma'am, we are both young men of substantial means, so any unused funds will be left to you upon our departure.”
Glancing first at John and then me she replied, “I could tell you were both gentlemen and minute I saw you. That's why I offered to allow you to pay by the day, instead of the week.”
“We thank you very much and I know we'll be comfortable here during our stay,” John spoke and then smiled.
Our room, when compared to what was available in Boston, was small; nonetheless, it was very clean. The bed had fresh linens, the floor spotless, and the furniture, while old and used, was in good repair. We brought our gear into the room and placed it in the far corner, out of the way. I pulled off my boots, placed my hat on the dresser, and lay down on the bed, stretching out.
“She runs a clean place here,” John spoke as he sat in a chair beside the bed.
“Yep, if she cooks half as good as she keeps this place clean we'll eat like kings,” I replied and then, spotting a newspaper on a small round table near the far wall, I added, “John , take a gander at that paper and see what it says about the fur trade.”
John got up and made his way to the table. Once there, he pulled out a chair, spread the paper out on top of the table, and started reading the hottest news in St. Louis. He told me the paper was filled with news of, the small town absolutely booming with business, with a lot of money made in both shipping and beaver fur, with shipping taking second place. There were some other small bits and pieces on other activities, but the biggest event right then was Astor's trip out west to trap and trade with the Indians. It all sounded so exciting, but both of us were fools because neither of us realized just how dangerous a trip like that really was.
An hour later we left the room and walked down Main Street until we found a tavern called the Blue Bird, which had a couple of men loafing out front who looked like dock workers. We entered, walked up to the bar, and were met by a huge man of maybe 350 lb with a badly soiled white cloth in his right hand.
“What'll ya have gents?” The fat man asked and as he spoke, I could see most of his lower teeth were gone, his hair was long and greasy, and his beard looked like a bird's nest.
“Two beers and some information,” I said and gave the man a grin.
“The beers I got, but I ain't sure 'bout the information. It'll depend on what ya want to know.” He poured our beers.
As I placed twenty cents on the bar top for the beers I asked, “Do you know any free trappers?”
The big ugly man laughed loudly and replied, “I know hundreds of 'em and as a matter of fact, two of 'em are sittin' at the table in the rear right now.”
John and I turned our heads and saw two men dressed in dirty buckskins , sitting quietly sipping on beers. I noticed they were both wearing moccasins, had knives, tomahawks, pistols and other items stuck in their wide belts.
“Give me two more beers, for the gentlemen at the far table,” I spoke, glanced at John and gave him a wink.
As soon as I had the beers, John and I walked slowly over the table. Neither mountain man looked up, but they obviously knew we were standing there so I said, “We're looking for some information on trapping beavers and we bought you both a beer to show we're friendly.”
One man, the bigger of the two , responded, “Son, I ain't got time to tell you stories about the mountains or Injuns. You want to know about the mountains you go and read the newspaper.”
I noticed he was about my height, maybe 180 lb , but his hands and shoulders were big. His blonde hair was long, as was his beard, and his eyes were a deep blue.
“Sir, I don't think you understand, we don't want stories, we want to go to the mountains,” John stated quickly and then gave a big goofy-looking grin.
“Did ya hear that young pup?” The smaller of the two mountain men asked and gave a loud cackle. The man was no more than maybe five feet and two inches tall, and his weight was around 130 lb. His brown hair was long, but he was cleanly shaven.
“Young coon, are you serious about this or bullshitting me?” The big man asked.
“Serious as can be, but we're new to the mountains and have much to learn,” John replied as he lowered the beers to the table.
“You don't say?” The smaller man spoke once again and giggled. I was starting to dislike him, especially since he always followed his questions with a laugh.
The bigger man spoke again. “Lay off the pup, Jeb,” and then added, “Pull up a chair, boys and let's talk.”
“Okay, Hawk, if that's the way yer stick floats,” Jeb replied without argument.
“ C'mon, tell me about this idea you got to go to the mountains with free trappers,” Hawk suggested, then gulped the rest of his first beer and pulled our beer in front of him.
We quickly gave our names and told our story to the two mountain men. As soon as John spoke the last word, I expected Jeb to give another laugh, but instead he remained quiet. A long silence followed our comments. I could tell that both mountain men were thinking the situation over and I suspected they were deciding on taking us or not.
Finally, Hawk asked, “You young coons – sure you want to do this? It's a dangerous life we live and many don't survive their first year in the mountains.”
Jeb added to the warning. “Yep, if the critters don't kill ya the Injuns will, or else some sickness or the other. Think long and hard on this, the both of ya, 'cause once in the mountains there ain't no quick way back home to momma.” Then he chuckled quietly.
“I want to go,” John spoke with serious conviction.
“As do I,” I quickly added.
“ Okay,” Hawk said, and quickly glanced at Jeb who nodded. The big mountain man continued. “We'll take you both into the mountains. But, we'll have some rules for the both of you until the green wears off.”
“What green?” John spoke with confusion in his blue eyes.
Jeb laughed along with Hawk, but it was Jeb who finally said, “All new fellers to the mountains are called greenhorns and yer consider green until ya become a mountain man. Once a real mountain man yer green has worn off, don't ya see?”
“Well,” I spoke as I raised my tankard of beer, “all I see is that I have a lot of learning to do.”
“That you do young pup, that you do, but no man ever entered the mountains knowing it all and it takes time to learn,” Hawk replied with a light laugh.
“Now, ya boys will need some gear fer the trip. Can either of ya write?” Jeb asked as he looked over the rim of his tankard.
“We're both well educated, so we can write,” I replied sharply, proud of my university education and irritated by his question.
“That's just dandy, we've just asked a couple of scholars to go into cahoots with us! Well, one of you get some ink, pen, and paper, from the bartender so we can give you a list of supplies you'll need,” Hawk said with a big crooked grin on his face.
“Ya two need money fer yer supplies? If so, we can loan ya some against yer comin' season's skin take,” Jeb asked unexpectedly.
“We've money. Like I explained, we didn't start this trip unprepared,” I replied brusquely and felt my anger quickly building up. I'd never had to borrow a dime in my life; after all, I was George Alwood the third.
Twenty minutes later the list was finished and Jeb spoke, “We'll meet ya here at sunup two days from now. Make sure ya get at least all the stuff on that list, 'cause they ain't no stores in the mountains. Once there, we live with what we have with us – do without – or we go under.”
“Go under what?” I asked, confused by the mountain man language.
“Dead, son,” Hawk spoke, only this time he didn't grin.
“Ya two greenhorns go and start gatherin' up all of them supplies right now. Make sure the packhorses ya get are in good shape, too. Which reminds me, can ya both ride?” Jeb asked.
“We both rode from Boston and we know good stock when we see it,” John replied, his cheeks turning red at the question.
“ Okay , then go and get your packhorses, but one more thing you both need to remember.” Hawk spoke seriously once more.
“What's that?” John asked and then finished his beer.
“Where we're going will make your ride from Boston look like a damned picnic.” Hawk's reply came quickly.
Standing, I looked at both of the mountain men and said, “We'll be ready and I'm sure you'll find we can do the job.”
Jeb laughed once more, gulped his beer and said, “Ya know Hawk, I think I'm gonna like this young pup.”
The place we bought the supplies was unlike any general store I'd seen before and the man had things stocked I didn't even recognize. We'd no sooner opened the door to the place than a small brass bell tinkled, announcing our arrival. A very tall, but rail-thin man of about thirty wearing wire-rimmed glasses, looked up from the ledger he was writing in and gave us a big warm smile. Unlike many smiles we'd received in Saint Louis this day, this one seemed genuine.
“How can I help you young men today?” He asked as he adjusted his glasses on his long thin nose.
“We'd like to have this list filled, if you have it all,” I replied as I handed our list of supplies to him.
The clerk looked the list over, wrote a few figures on some brown paper and then said, “Gentlemen, this list is considerable and the cost will be high. I hope you have adequate funds to cover the expense or a letter of authorization from one of the large fur companies. I'm sorry, but I don't extend credit to those who don't live in Saint Louis.”
“How much money are you talking about?” John spoke and I could see frustration in his eyes.
“Near six hundred dollars, maybe a little more or less.”
“You take cash?” John asked and then gave a big crooked grin.
“Well, yes of course.”
John pulled out six hundred dollars, grinned once more and replied, “I got the money, so you fill the list.”
As the clerk filled our order, I walked around the store looking at various things, smelling new scents and wondering what some of them were. It was obvious to me that folks heading west would need different tools and gear than a man back east, so I saw very few dresses and even less bonnets. This place is a place for mountain men and river men to come and shop, and not for womenfolk, I thought as I picked up a huge knife that was stamped with the name Green River on the blade near the handle. I took the knife to the counter and said, “Add this to the bill.”
It was over an hour before our gear was stacked before us, the clerk paid, and we started hauling it all to the boarding house. It took us four trips before the complete back wall of our room was stacked high with all kinds of things we'd need to survive just a year in the mountains. At that point, I began to wonder what I'd gotten myself into.
“You know, looking at all that gear, I think we'll need two pack horses each,” John spoke with his hands on his hips.
“Well, let's go get 'em then. Since you paid for the gear I'll get the horses, but I suspect we'll be almost out of funds by the time we finish buying all of this stuff.”
“I still got a hundred dollars left, and as you know that ain't much.”
“John, where we're going in two days your money will be completely useless,” I spoke and then laughed loudly as I slapped him on the right shoulder.
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