October 27, 1877:
In the fading light of evening, a grove of cottonwood beckoned the solitary rider to come into its shelter. At the smallest bit of pressure on its left side by the rider’s knee, the chestnut gelding angled off the oft-traveled path and plodded toward the not-too-distant trees.
Reining in and dismounting before he was completely beneath the cottonwoods’ branches, the man ground picketed his mount and began to scout around. The remains of a small campfire were found almost immediately, but weren’t what he hoped, or cared, to find. It took him a few minutes to find what he was looking for — the shoe-prints of a man on foot. He knelt down and, removing a glove, gently traced the indenture with his finger. He gave a grunt of satisfaction, certain that he was still on the right trail. Based on the carelessness of the man’s camp remains, he was in no hurry to reach his destination. By pushing his horse a little harder tomorrow, he guessed he would catch up to the man by afternoon of the next day. Putting his tongue against his teeth, the man made a soft clicking sound, and his horse made its way to his side.
“Ah reckon we might as well camp here,” the man told his horse. “If it was good enough fer the feller we’re follerin’, ah reckon it’s good enough fer us.”
Jonah Hex was a hard and violent man, yet he knew much of his life depended on having a well-kept horse. First he removed his saddlebags and tossed them on the ground, then he undid the belly cinch and removed the saddle. After placing it on the ground, he returned to remove the saddle blanket, then grabbed a handful of dry grass and began to rub down his mount. Once he finished, as the animal began to pull tufts of grass from the ground and eat, Jonah returned to the saddlebags and unbuckled a flap. As he did so, the horse’s ears twitched at the sound, and its head came up; it watched as he removed a small burlap sack. Opening the sack, the man reached in and pulled out a handful of dried corn. After receiving its treat, the chestnut allowed itself to be led to a spot where Jonah would picket it near a stream that ran along the back edge of the grove, and where it could drink at its own leisure.
Once his horse was taken care of, Jonah decided to expand his search a little farther outward before all of the light was gone. When he returned several minutes later, all he had to show for his efforts was a bundle of sticks to build a fire.
“Ain’t much out there,” he said to his horse, “‘cept the remains of deer that wasn’t as fast as some lobo.”
Jonah cleared away what few leaves had fallen where the previous camper had built his fire, and soon had one of his own going. Once he was certain it would sustain itself for a bit, the man moved to his saddlebags and dug out a small coffee pot and a bag of Arbuckles’. Going a few feet upstream from where his chestnut was drinking, Jonah dipped the pot into the stream, then started back to the fire. Sitting it on a flat rock beside the flames, handle facing away from them, he opened the coffee and dropped a handful in the pot. As he waited for the coffee to heat, he returned to his saddlebags and pulled out a can of beans. Opening them, he then placed the can on the rock beside the coffee pot.
With dinner underway, he set about arranging his camp. Placing his saddle and saddlebags against a nearby cottonwood, one that would put his back to the stream, with the fire between him and the path, he took the saddle blanket and tossed it on the ground nearby. Once his bed was made, he reached into the pocket of his Confederate jacket and removed a folded piece of paper. Unfolding it, he looked down at the face of the man he was following. A few minutes passed as he stared at the face of his prey before he finally spoke.
“Durned if ah know why we’re chasin’ this feller,” he said to his horse. “Aside from his description, and the amount of the reward, there ain’t nothin’ here about what he’s done. He don’t appear to be much of a feller, anyway — kinda bookish, if yuh ask me.”
A snort from his horse was the only reply he received.
“Well, whatever he done, it was enough for thet stranger ta offer me ten thousand dollars to bring him back.”
Jonah looked at the poster a little longer. “It don’t even mention whether he is wanted dead or alive, and I don’t recollect if the stranger made mention of it, either.” He began to refold the poster. “We’ll try fer alive, but I won’t be too upset if we have ta bring him back tied across a saddle.”
Using his thick leather riding gloves, the bounty hunter moved the can of beans and the coffee pot away from the fire. Taking a tin cup from his bags, Jonah poured himself a cup of Arbuckles’ and then set the pot near the fire to keep it warm. Twenty minutes later, he had rinsed both his cup and the empty bean can in the stream and buried the can in the dirt just outside of camp.
“No sense lurin’ some coyote or that lobo into camp when there’s nothin’ here ta offer him but lead.”
Jonah gathered more wood for the fire, enough to keep it going most of the night, before wrapping himself up in the saddle blanket and stretching out on the cold ground. Using his saddle as a pillow, he positioned himself so that when he woke up in the middle of the night to tend the fire, he wouldn’t be looking directly into it. He had been able to claim a large number of his bounties because they were momentarily blinded by their own campfires. He drifted off to sleep knowing that his horse would be alert to the sounds of the night, and if anyone or anything wandered too close, its nervousness would wake him in time to prepare a welcome.
October 28, 1877:
It was closing in on one A.M. when Jonah awoke. It wasn’t the cold October night that stirred him from his slumber, but rather the warmth of a bright burning campfire. Although he made no sudden moves to alert whoever, or whatever, was in his camp that he was awake, he sensed that it was a fact already known. It took him just a second to locate the the outline of a figure on the opposite side of the fire. From what he could tell, the intruder was a bit bigger than himself, although he was squatted down on his heels. The man shifted, just slightly, and Jonah caught a glimpse of long, black hair.
Ah, durn, Jonah thought, there’s no such thing as just one Injun.
“Don’t mind me, Hex,” the figure said, standing. “I was just helping myself to a cup of coffee.”
Jonah relaxed and tossed his blanket back; he slid his Colt .44 Dragoons back into their holsters. “Gol’dangit, Ke-Woh,” the man said as he climbed to his feet. “I could have put enough lead into yuh ta make a cannonball.”
The Indian smiled and took another sip of coffee. “If it makes you feel better thinking that,” he said with a hint of a smile, “go right on.”
Jonah turned his attention to his horse. “And you, yuh mangy cayuse. I figgered yuh would have warned me if anybody came sneakin’ around. Ah could have lost muh scalp.”
“It’s not hard for my people to come and go as they please,” the Indian said, slipping his free hand into a pouch on his belt. “Especially if we go prepared.” Pulling his hand from the pouch, he opened it to reveal two small cubes of sugar.
“I should’a known,” Jonah said.
“And as for you losing your scalp,” the Indian said, “even though there are those who believe it would hold powerful medicine, you’re more important with your hair where it is.”
Jonah reached into his saddlebags and retrieved the tin cup he had used for coffee earlier. After pouring himself a cup, he settled back against his saddle and looked at the newcomer.
Although the man across from him had the outward appearance of a Kiowa Indian, he was as white as Jonah. Called Ke-Woh-No-Tay, or “He Who Is Less Than Human,” by the ones who raised him, he was also known throughout the west as Scalphunter. Jonah suspected that buried somewhere in the man’s past was an American name as well.
“So, whut in tarnation are yuh doin’ here?” Jonah asked.
Scalphunter took another sip of coffee. “I’ve been following you for the past two days; you really should keep an eye on your back trail.”
“Why foller me?”
“Because I was told you would be needing help on this hunt,” the man said.
Jonah wasn’t happy, but he knew his anger wasn’t directed at the man across from him. They had ridden the trail together on occasion, and he knew how helpful Scalphunter could be. “Ah don’t know why thet feller thought I’d need help,” he said, “but ah reckon you’ll make fer passable company ’til we git where were going.”
“I’ll try,” Scalphunter replied, finishing his coffee.
Knowing that they were wasting time that would better be spent with their eyes closed, Jonah returned to his saddle blanket and lay down. “How’s yer back trail?”
“Emptier than yours,” Scalphunter replied, and stretched out on the ground with his back to the fire.
Jonah awoke to the aroma of coffee and something else — rabbit.
Scalphunter glanced over at his traveling companion. “It’s almost daylight,” he said. “I was starting to think you were going to sleep in.”
“How could anyone sleep with them smells ta tickle their nose?” Jonah asked.
“Before you go making any quick movements,” Scalphunter said, without looking up from the rabbit, “you might want to do something about that rattlesnake that’s sharing your blanket.”
Jonah’s good eye widened as he glanced down and saw the creature curled up on the blanket between his feet. “A little help would be appreciated ’bout now.”
“Don’t move,” Scalphunter said.
Before Jonah even had a chance to think about moving, his companion’s right arm shot out and tomahawk sprouted, as if by magic, in the rattler’s head, splitting it in two.
“Tarnations!” Jonah roared, jumping to his feet.
“Breakfast is ready,” was Scalphunter’s only response.
The two men had already put half a dozen miles behind them by the time the sun had started to appear over the horizon. Every so often, Jonah would pause just long enough to dismount and check the trail. From the shape of the imprints, he knew that the man he was pursuing was still in no hurry to get where he was going.
“We’re not more than a day behind thet feller,” Jonah said, the last time he remounted.
Scalphunter nodded, but he wasn’t looking at his friend. When the bounty hunter turned his head to see what had captured the man’s attention, a large cloud of dust was rising up in the distance.
“Perhaps someone in that cattle drive has seen the man we hunt,” Ke-Woh-No-Tay suggested.
“Sounds good ta me,” Jonah agreed.
The two men put the spurs to their mounts, and an hour later were approaching the cattle drive. As they drew near, their arrival did not go unnoticed.
“Riders coming in,” a dust-covered teenager hollered over the slow rumble of plodding cattle.
Two more riders broke from the herd, pausing only long enough to give the boy instructions.
“Find the boss,” one of the men said. “Let him know company’s coming.”
“Tell him me and Luke are keeping our eyes on them until he gets here,” the other said.
As the boy turned his horse toward the rear of the herd, Luke raised his hand and adjusted his hat. Wiping the dust from around his mouth with the back of his glove, he whispered, “I hope you ain’t got no money on your head, Billy.”
“Why’s that?” Billy asked.
“‘Cause if my old eyes are telling me the truth,” Luke said, grinning, “one of them fellers riding in is wearing Confederate gray and is as ugly as sin in a mud-hole.”
“Sweet Almighty,” Billy swore. “I’m as pure as a newborn in Sunday School, but if that surely is Jonah Hex riding in — manners had best be minded.”
“I reckon they know we’re comin’,” Jonah told his traveling companion.
Scalphunter merely nodded. Like Jonah, he was watching the two cowboys watch them. When two more riders joined their observers, Scalphunter spoke. “It looks like they are ready for us.”