Johnny Horton - Whispering Pines






The Last Survivor

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"No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'."
Captain Bill McDonald - Texas Ranger

Chapter One

The sun had just disappeared under the horizon when a knock came to the door of the whitewashed, two-story home two miles south of Freedom, Wyoming, situated at the mouth of Deer Creek canyon. Charles Albrectsen opened the door to find one of his neighbors standing there, hat in hand.

“Evening, Charles. I hate to call this late, but I fear the man in the back of my wagon just can’t wait. I was wondering if you’d allow Sister Maren to see if she can help this poor creature.”

“Who is he, Nils?”

“That I can’t say, as I have no idea. I was pushing some dry cows down out of the South Fork of Tincup Creek when I saw a horse and mule grazing on the grass in the bottom…”

“Nils, let’s get him inside, and then you can tell me how you found him,” Charles Albrectsen said, now peering into the back of Nilsson Stohl’s wagon at what appeared to him to be a mangled mess of meat, bone and hair.

Inside the big two-story home, Albrectsen turned to the left just after the foyer, entering a small room that looked like it might have belonged in a doctor’s office. A moment later, the two men had the stranger lying on the hard table in the center of the room. Albrectsen then stepped to the doorway and called out, “Maren! I need you in here, and bring Marta, Ingrid and Sophia with you, please. You’ll need plenty of hot water and bandages.”

Stepping back to stand beside the table, Albrectsen lit a lamp and held it over the mangled body, staring at what was left of the man. Looking across to Stohl, he said, “Now then, you were telling me how and where you found him.”

“Yes, Charles, as I said, I was up on Tincup Creek, approaching where the South Fork feeds in when I saw his horse and mule grazing in the bottom. The leadrope to the mule was still dallied to the saddle, and even though the horse was a bit skittish, I was able to catch him up right away. There was blood on the saddle, dry and crusted, so I thought that there might be a chance the rider was nearby. When I couldn’t find anyone up the canyon anywhere, I rode back and made my way up the South Fork. I was just about ready to turn back when I heard a groan. Up on the side of the canyon, in the edge of a thicket, I saw them, and almost missed seeing them.”

“Why are you saying ‘they’? Was there another man?”

“Oh, no sir. It was a bear. Dead and lying across this man’s lower body, pinning him to the ground. That bear, from the looks of things, tore into the man just as he was getting ready to set up his camp. When I finally pulled his body out, I swore no man could have lived that kind of carnage, but he was still breathing, and bleeding. I rigged up a rough travois on the mule, got him loaded and pulled him to my place. There, I had Albert help me get him into the wagon, and brought him here as fast as I dared.”

“I see. Were his animals branded? And did you look through his pockets… Well, I don’t know how anyone would try to look to find his pockets, as bad is he’s torn up. Did you look in his saddlebags?”

“Didn’t take the time, considering how badly he’s been injured,” Stohl responded, stepping back to get out of the way of three of the four women. Following Albrectsen back outside, he continued when they were out of earshot of anyone else. “I’ll put his horse and mule up at my place until we know if he’s going to make it. The mule is a sorrel mule with an Army brand, and the horse is a lineback dun with what I believe to be a Texas brand. I say that because I seem to remember seeing that brand back, or one like it, in Cheyenne as we traveled through on our way to Salt Lake City. And he rides a Texas rig saddle. I don’t know if you noticed, but I believe his clothing is what’s left of a Confederate uniform, except for that wide-brimmed hat. And his saddlebags carry the Confederate States symbol. The war has been over for seventeen years now, so why would a man who looks too young to have served be carrying such things, or wearing an old uniform like that?”

“I suppose that will be a question for him, if he lives. Did you bring his saddlebags with you? I’d like to see if he has anything inside them that might be used to identify him.”

“No, Charles, I didn’t. But I’ll certainly bring them in tomorrow. Right after we finish our chores, that is. I’ll bring Marie, Johanna and Albert along. I know Marie would love to visit, and Albert loves to come play with Hans. That is if you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all, Nils. Hans isn’t here, but having Marie and the baby come visit will keep the women out of my hair for a time, at least while you’re here. Having more than one wife does have some advantages, but getting a word in edgewise isn’t one of them.”

Nils Stohl almost laughed, but held his tongue as he wasn’t sure whether Charles Albrectsen was serious or not, and the last thing he wanted to do right at the moment was to offend the Bishop of his ward. He and his two wives had only moved to the east side of Freedom the year before, but after losing his first wife, Hannah, during the previous winter he no longer feared being arrested on the Idaho side, and as a result was able to graze his cattle on both sides of the Wyoming/Idaho line.

While he agreed that having more than one wife had its advantages, he also agreed that they could be a real handful. Thus, he had no intention of taking another woman anytime soon—if ever again. Marie, his second wife, was just a year younger than Hannah had been, and now that Marie was the only woman in his household, he was able to concentrate on expanding his holdings and still have time to spend with his son, Albert, and his new daughter, Johanna.

“Well, Charles, I should be going, as I need to help Albert finish the chores, if he and Marie haven’t already finished them. But I’ll be here tomorrow. I think I’ll bring his horse, mule and all the tack as well as his guns for you to look over. Fine animals, both of them, and his assortment of guns and ammunition is extensive, as is all of his gear.”

“Fine, Nils. I’ll see you in the morning. I suppose I’d better check on the condition of our guest, see if the women need anything from me,” Albrectsen said, turning and then walking toward his porch.

Standing in his foyer, listening to Stohl’s wagon as it left his yard, he waited for several minutes before taking a deep breath and stepping into their treatment room. While the treatment room was usually used as a midwife’s room, more than a few times it had been used to treat any number of maladies—from broken arms to snakebite to cow kicks, but rarely from injuries caused by a bear.

As he stepped into the room, he was surprised at the fact the man was still alive, considering the depth of the injuries. Both claw and tooth marks covered his torso and neck, and his arms and legs. Yet the man still lived, as evidenced by his raspy breathing and occasional groan.

“Charles, this man’s back is covered with scars. It looks like he’s been whipped, probably with a bullwhip. But his current injuries are not just those of a bear. He’s also been shot. He’s so weak I hate to try to remove the bullets now, but they’ll need to come out soon or he’ll develop an infection. And he’s so weak that if I try to remove them now, he’ll surely die,” Maren Albrectsen said.

“I understand, Maren. Can you sew up any more of his claw marks, and see how he is in the morning? I’d think getting all of his bleeding stopped would be the first concern, maybe see if we can bring him around before you have to start digging for bullets.”

“Yes, Marta and I will stay with it until we have his wounds treated as best we can, and Sophia will stay with him for the first several hours this evening. Ingrid wasn’t able to handle the sight of an injured man just yet, so she declined to come help, but the rest of us will take turns watching him through the night, and reassess him in the morning after we’ve eaten.”

“Very well, then. Oh, Nils will be coming back in the morning, bringing his wife and family, so please make sure to have some fresh desserts ready for them. And maybe you can enlist Marie to help with the quilting bee next month,” Albrectsen suggested. “I need sleep, ladies, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”

“That’s fine, Charles. We won’t disturb you unless there is a good reason. We’ll have our hands full enough caring for this man tonight,” his youngest wife, Sophia, said with just a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

Albrectsen didn’t sleep too well, getting up every two hours to check on his wives, but using the excuse that he was checking on the patient. Not that the man was in any shape to become friendly with any of his wives, nor was he anything to look at, sliced up, wounded and swollen the way he was. His long, ragged beard and uncut, dirty hair just add to his wretched look even more. Still, there is something about him that… The fact that Albrectsen’s wives were all considerably younger than he was, and the presence of any man overnight in his home became a cause for concern.

Forty-five-year-old Maren was Albrectsen’s second wife, a widow he married to have a woman to raise his son, Hans, after his first wife, Karen, had passed away. Forty-one-year-old Marta had also been a widow, the wife of his youngest brother, Peder, who had been killed in an attack by the Bannock in their first year in the the Salt River Valley. Albrectsen and his three brothers had settled in what was now called Star Valley, after Apostles Moses Thatcher and Brigham Young, Jr. had declared it suitable for colonization.

It was Thatcher who renamed the valley “Star Valley” in 1879, “Because it is the star of all valleys.” Few people had stayed to create new lives there until the Mormon migration to the valley started in 1878, as polygamous members of the LDS Church felt safer there after the passage of the Poland Act in 1874. His surviving two brothers had pulled out in 1880, declaring it too remote, each having only one wife and desiring to be closer to Salt Lake City.

A similar story followed Albrectsen’s taking of his next wife, thirty-four-year-old Ingrid, whose husband and entire family had been killed in Idaho by Paiutes two years earlier. She struggled for a good many months over her loss, and only started to come around when befriended by Maren and Marta. Still, it took three months for her to accept Charles Albrectsen’s proposal before she quietly took up residence in his home.

And then there was nineteen-year-old Sophia, who had first married at seventeen, the fifth wife of an eighty-year-old man who died in their third month of marriage. The oldest of the widows, Emmanuel Hougaard’s first wife, Anna, had not liked Sophia from the start, and forced her to leave within a month of Hougaard’s passing. Penniless and alone, she accepted the proposal of Albrectsen based on his reputation for kindness, and wealth, as much as the eagerness of his three wives to accept another into their fold.

With Charles now in his sixties, she began to fear she would never be blessed with children, something she hadn’t even thought of when she agreed to marry him. But now, after a year of marriage to a man who was healthy as a horse, on top of living in such a remote valley, she began to feel depressed, often crying herself to sleep at night. Albrectsen had yet to enter her room, let alone lie with her, so there would be no chance of children, and her virginity remained intact.

“Sophia, did you not hear me?” Albrectsen said softly, standing in the doorway of the treatment room.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Charles. I’m just so tired that I fear I might have been dozing. What did you say?”

“You were sleeping with both eyes open? Don’t you mean you were daydreaming?” Charles chuckled. “I asked if the other women were up, and also how our guest is doing this morning.”

“Yes, I suppose. Once the milking was finished, Maren and Ingrid started preparing some food for us, while Marta went out to feed the chickens and gather eggs for breakfast. She should be in the kitchen by now. As to this man, I seriously doubted he would still be alive this morning, but he is, and getting stronger if his breathing is any indication. But I’ll let Maren make that determination when she comes to relieve me.”

“Very well, then. I’ll check with Maren, and return to see if there is any change once the Stohl’s arrive.”

Sophia looked away for a second, and when she turned back to the doorway, Albrectsen was gone. She could, however, hear his greeting Maren, Ingrid and Marta as he entered the kitchen. But after that, all she could hear were mumbled voices.

Half an hour later, Maren brought a pan of hot water and Albrectsen’s very seldom used straight razor, soap and a leather strop. “Good morning again, Sophia. There is food in the kitchen for you. And, after you eat, if you would be so kind as to bring another pan of hot water and some fresh bandages, I’d like some help in redressing his wounds.”

“Yes, of course, Maren,” Sophia said, standing, and then looking back to the patient as she walked toward the door.

“No need to hurry, little one, as I fear this shaving will take some time. I’d like to cut his hair as well, but I’m afraid that will require a lot of help. But I do want to try to make him presentable before Marie arrives. I’m sorry. You must be starving, and I’m keeping you here as I prattle on,” Maren said with a wave of her hand.

Sophia had no more than finished her breakfast than she heard the rattle of Stohl’s wagon come into the yard. Scurrying around the kitchen, she soon had a bucket of hot water ready to go, and scrounged around until she found an armload of clean cloths suitable for bandaging. Carrying them all into the treatment room, she was surprised at the stranger’s good looks, now that his beard was gone. Also surprising was that there didn’t seem to be any really serious cuts or bite marks on his face, only a few small scars.

Sophia had just positioned the bucket where Maren could easily reach it when she heard Marta’s voice in the foyer. “Marie, so good to see you again. Good morning, Nilsson, and little Albert, my how you have grown this summer. Oh, and look at that beautiful baby. Please, come on in. Charles is outside somewhere, but I know he was expecting you so I’m sure he’ll be in momentarily. Follow me into the dining room and I’ll bring some buttermilk out for you. Albert, would you like a glass of milk?”

“Actually, Marta, we were wondering how the injured man is doing. Could we see him first?” Nils Stohl asked.

“Yes, yes, of course. He’s still unconscious, which is probably the best thing for him right now. Albert, you can find your way to the dining room, and Ingrid will get you a glass of milk and some cookies while your parents take a look at our visitor.”

“No, but he is due back this week. He has been visiting his uncles down in Salt Lake City, but he should be on the next coach, provided they make it through without breaking down again.” Stepping to the doorway of the treatment room, she then announced their guests. “Maren, Sophia, the Stohl’s are here. Do you mind if they come in?”

“Please, come on in. Sophia, would you mind waiting in the dining room with Albert, so that we have a little room to move around in here?” Maren asked.

Without saying a word, Sophia gave Marie a hug, and then slipped out to find Albert already perched in a chair in the dining room, waiting on his milk and cookies. A few minutes later, Ingrid came in with a plate of sorghum cookies, a glass of milk, and several cups and saucers. “Sophia, be a dear and set the table for us while I bring in the buttermilk, will you? And I’d better bring in cream and sugar as well. Seems to me I remember that these Stohl men have sweet tooths,” she said, tousling Albert’s full head of blonde hair.


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