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Reining away from Troost’s Livery, Titus Bass gave the jug-headed Indian pony urgent taps of his heels, pointing it down the muddy, rutted ruin of Second Street.
Puddles of rain glittered as the sun continued its leisurely rise, the surface of each tiny pool left behind by last night’s rain reflecting rose light like broken panes of glass scattered here and there among the heaps of wheel-cut ruts and piles of dung gone cold. Shadows still cloaked nearly all of St. Louis, save for the tallest rooftops gently steaming as they warmed.
Instead of heading directly north, he hurried south out of town, downriver some four miles until he reached the shady glen far from the clutter of settlement and folk. Far from the clatter of man’s comings and goings. Someplace far from being underfoot. After all this time Titus was again gratified at the utter peace he sensed there as he halted, dismounted, and tied the two animals off to one of the trees ringing the glade. Plodding quietly in his thick-soled boots across the grassy carpet grown lush already this early spring, he had no trouble locating the mound. Stopping a few feet away, he took it in, finding many of the wildflowers he had transplanted nearly a year before budding once again with renewed life here above the old trapper’s resting place.
Down in this grove the shadows lingered long of a morning. And the damp mist clung in among the trees, wispy among the climbing ivy and grape. Eventually, Titus inched forward, stopping at the foot of the grave.
“Isaac. It’s me: Titus,” he said barely above a whisper, the way a man might first address someone he found sleeping. “I come … come here to tell you my fare-thees, Isaac. I’m bound away—for where the two of us was counting on going together. Out yondering to them prerras and far mountains you told me of again and again.”
Then he realized and suddenly snatched the floppy felt hat from his head, dropping his eyes as if in apology for his discourteous oversight.
“Wish you was going along,” Bass continued. “Probably asking yourself why I ain’t gone already, ain’cha? So let me tell you that you being here—dead and buried—that’s the onliest reason I ain’t gone afore now. There I was, planning all the time on tagging ’long with you … then you go and get yourself kill’t. That was—hell, it felt just like one of them old brood mares I was shoeing for Troost gone and kicked me right in the gut.”
He dropped the hat onto the foot of the grave there among the profusion of newly emerging wildflowers and slowly went to his knees. Placing one palm flat on the grave, Titus continued.
“Took me some time to get over your dying, Isaac Washburn. Pained me like few other things ever pained me afore in my life. I was counting on something so hard—then you go and act the idjit and you’re gone … gone along with my dreams of ever getting to them Shining Mountains you seen with your own eyes.”
He felt that first sting of tears burn, and swiped at his eyes with a single cold finger as a ray of sun burst through the canopy overhead, the first to streak into the glade.
“Took me a long time to get over the loss of you and my dreams both, Isaac. Didn’t get over it till I up and figgered out I could damn well go on my own. I didn’t need you like I figured I did. Got me a fine gun of my own now. The rest of our plunder and truck tied up in them bundles over yonder on them horses. And I’m riding your pony my own self. Taking it back to the prerra where I figure it belongs.”
Slowly he dragged a sleeve of his blanket coat beneath his dribbling nose and sighed.
“At first I hated what you done to both of us, Isaac. For killing yourself and killing my dream of going to them far mountains by way of the Platte with you. Nursed on that hate for too damn long—so long that I didn’t ever come back here to speak at you … not since I buried you in this pretty place. I’m glad to see you ain’t kill’t the flowers I planted over you, you sour-assed son of a bitch.”
Then he gradually rose to his feet, sweeping up his hat and snugging it down upon his thick; curly brown hair, glancing at the single shaft of sunlight streaming into the glade, slowly marching across the nodding grass toward the grave.
“Best be going now, Gut. Wanted to come to tell you I was on my way out yonder. Don’t know if I’d ever get back this way. And … and I come to tell you I owe you more’n I’d ever be able to pay you. So”—and he swallowed hard, tasting the ball of sentiment at the back of his throat—“so I figure the only way I’ll ever come close to repaying you for what good you done me … is to go on out yonder and live the way your kind was meant to live. The way I callate I was meant to live out my days too.”
Swiping the palm of his hand across his whole face, smearing tears and his blubbering nose, Titus bent quickly and patted the top of the grave mound with a hand, then straightened.
“I’ll fare well, Isaac Washburn,” he whispered, barely above a harsh croak. “Thanks to you, I’ll fare well.”
Hurrying back to the horses, he untied them quickly and vaulted onto the pony’s back, glanced once at the shaft of sunlight just then touching the old trapper’s resting place, the wildflowers grown luminescent with that first blush of dawn’s light.
Tapping the pony’s ribs, he moved out once more. North this time. Back four miles to St. Louis. By the time he reached town and Second Street once more, the day was birthing to the east across the mighty river.
Titus Bass hadn’t felt this new in more years than he cared to remember.
While he owned far less than his pap had owned at thirty-one, far less than his grandpap before him, at this moment Titus now possessed more than he had ever claimed before in his life. Not much in the way of prize stock: not this hand-me-down Indian pony he was riding, nor Hysham Troost’s gift of an old dun mare to use as a packhorse. And there sure as hell wasn’t all that much strapped in two modest blanket-wrapped bundles lashed on the back of the mare as he was taking his leave of this place. Yet in that moment as the sun rose at his shoulder, Titus Bass realized he was a wealthy man nonetheless.
Most men would simply never be this free.
Second Street ended at the far edge of town where the muddy, rutted road northwest to St. Charles began. The sun had climbed above the tops of the leafing trees by the time he left the last huts and shanties behind. No more did the air reek of offal and refuse pitched carelessly into the streets. No more did his nose discern the tang of woodsmoke on the damp dew of the morning. It lay behind him now. So much lay behind him now.
While the rest of his ever-living life was spreading itself before him.
Turning in the saddle to watch the last of the hovels disappear behind him, Titus gazed at the smoke columns rising from hundreds of chimneys and stacks above the thick green canopy. Then he took a deep breath. And a second, his eyes half closing as it sank into his lungs. No morning had ever tasted sweeter.
That early spring morn, in the year of 1825, Titus Bass was barely thirty-one. Not a youngster by any means. He’d been broke to harness more than once. Time and again in his life he had come to know the value of hard work. And, too, Titus realized he was near twice the age of a few of those fellows who had been hiring out to the fur companies pushing their keels up the muddy Missouri River lo these past four-odd years. While he might be green at what he’d set his course to do, he sure as the devil wasn’t wet behind the ears.
By damn, those years under his belt ought to count for something besides mere seasoning. Why, a hiring man would be hard-pressed to find any new hand more eager to pit himself against those prairies and plains, those high and terrible places that now lay before Titus Bass.
Where the well-traveled road twisted itself up the long, gradual slope and emerged from the oak and elm, Bass reined up and turned about to gaze back at the riverside town. Stone estates hid behind high walls where the French protected themselves from the lower classes. Those long rows of warehouses along Wharf Street, tiny shops of all descriptions pressed elbow to elbow along Main. And on the outskirts lay the smoke-blackened shanties where the whiskey and rum was poured, where the women of all hue and size plied their ancient trade.
Excerpt From: Terry C. Johnston. “Buffalo Palace.” iBooks.