The Snowblind Moon

Cooke, John Byrne

Published by Simon & Schuster, 1985
ISBN 10: 0671450891 / ISBN 13: 9780671450892
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Synopsis: On a remote cattle ranch in a peaceful Wyoming valley, in the hushed villages of beleaguered Indian tribes, among the government troops advancing through the bitter winter landscape, the time of the Snowblind Moon heralds the beginning of an apocalyptic clash between the Indians and the whites.

And caught up in the tragedy are the men and women of the West, passionately committed to peace, seemingly helpless to prevent tragedy: Chris Hardeman, former army scout haunted by his part in an Indian massacre; Lisa Putnam, young, independent owner of a ranch; Bat Putman, legendary mountain man; Johnny Smoker, a white boy, raised by the Cheyenne; Amanda Spencer, a circus performer who falls in love with Johnny; and Sun Horse, a Sioux chieftan struggling to reconcile peace with freedom and dignity.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.: CHAPTER ONE
 
 
In a sheltered upland valley, circled by ridges and accessible in winter only through a cut in the hills where the river flowed between a low cliff on one side and a wagon track cut into a steep hillside on the other, the smell of woodsmoke hung in the air. Up against the wooded foothills at the north end of the valley the wagon road ended among the buildings of a small settlement dominated by a two-story log building that for more than twenty years had been the largest private dwelling and public house between the Black Hills to the east and South Pass far to the west, at the foot of the. Wind River Mountains. Behind the building stood a large barn, a chicken coop and a pigpen, and a scattering of sheds and outbuildings. Closer to the creek, standing against the woods, was a tipi of northern plains design, painted in the style of the Sioux. From the peak of the tipi and from two rear chimneys of the main building, smoke drifted away to disperse in the winds that occasionally gusted a plume of snow from the long front porch of the big house.
In the snow-covered meadow below the settlement a tall black man and a teenaged boy tossed hay from a large sled drawn by two draft horses. Strung out. behind the sled were fifty or sixty mixed-breed cattle browsing on the hay, a few horses and mules among them. The two men pitched the hay in even fines on either side of the sled, careful to spread it out so the less aggressive feeders in the bunch would have room to get enough.
"That's about the last of it," said Julius Ingram. Butch nodded. Julius said the same thing every morning. Every morning they loaded the big sled with hay and hauled it to the bawling cattle in the meadow and every morning when the hay was almost gone Julius would say "That's about the last of it," and Hutch would nod, saying nothing.
At first he hadn't said much because he'd never worked for a nigger boss before. Not for a lady boss either, for that matter, although he was used to both of them now, to his own surprise.
"Whoa." Julius spoke no louder than if he were talking to Hutch, and the two Belgians stopped in the traces. The short hair that curled beneath the flat brim of the Negro's hat was gray. His mahogany skin lay smooth over every bone and muscle in his face; the effortless movements of his broad shoulders as he cleaned the last of the hay off the sled suggested reserves of strength untapped by the morning's work. He wore a new corduroy coat and wool pants that had once been light blue but were now so faded and stained and patched that they could not be said to have any distinct color.
At seventeen, Hutch had attained nearly his full height and still he was a good head shorter than Julius. Unlike the tall black man, who appeared lean despite his strength, Hutch's form was stocky and heavily muscled, his movements short and economical. He took off his wool knit cap and stuffed it in a pocket of his ok) blanket-fined canvas jacket, enjoying the feeling as his scalp cooled in the wind. The thaw that had lasted for nearly two weeks was over and done with but the day was tolerable even so, nothing like the bitter cold days of midwinter. The snow that had been falling, since before dawn was thinning now, and for the first time that morning he could see across the creek and the broad expanse of willow marsh to the far side of the valley. He breathed in deeply arid noticed, not for the first time, how the smell of smoke from the stoves in the main house stayed in the air on a day like this when the clouds were low.
"When the chimney smoke's on the rise, you'll see clear skies," his mother, had told him. "When the smoke hangs low, it's bound to snow." But the rhyme hadn't explained how low-hanging smoke in the hot Kansas summertime back home had foretold the coming of black thunderheads and sudden violent wind squalls and crackling lightning that you could see walking all around you on the endless plains. Hutch wondered if it was the same here in the mountains in the summer.
He had come upon the little mountain park with the first snow in autumn, getting plenty anxious about where he was going to spend his first winter away from home, looking for some cattle spread that didn't already have all the winter hands it needed. All the outfits along the Front Range in Colorado said they couldn't use another hand and if they could they'd hire on some man who had worked for them before; or^ man anyway, not some runaway kid from Kansas so green he wouldn't catch light in the midst of a prairie fire. So Hutch kept heading north and west, toward the new ranges opening up in the Wyoming Territory, hoping he wouldn't have to go all the way to Montana to find work. But in Wyoming the story was the same--Sorry, boy, you best try farther on, up Virginia City way, mebbe, but stay west of the Big Horns if'n you reckon to hang on to your hair. He never would have come on the Putnam place at all if he hadn't gone wrong at the fork, mistaking the Putnam Cutoff for the old Oregon road. Not long before he rode into the valley and saw the big house he had realized he was lost, and heading deeper into Sioux country. The farther west he had come on his travels the more talk he had heard about new trouble with the Sioux, and he had been considerably relieved to see a white man's outfit and a welcoming face at the door, even if that face had been the dark visage of Julius Ingram. Hutch hadn't felt too particular about a man's color just then, so long as it wasn't red and decorated with war paint.
Miss Putnam had taken him on, wanting to know only if he was willing to work hard. "Yes, ma'am," he had said. "Everyone calls me Lisa," she said, but it went against Hutch's upbringing to call a white woman twice his age by her first name, so he settled for Miss Lisa and after a while she had settled for that too.
She had asked him another question that first day. It had seemed a strange one to Hutch and for a moment he had wondered if it were a condition of his employment--she asked if he could play the guitar or banjo. When he said he played the banjo little she had fetched an old banjo from the attic. It was in good repair, only in need of tuning. He began to play a little tune his uncle had taught him and he didn't even notice when the tall darky named Julius reached up and took a fiddle off the wall. Before he knew it the fiddle had joined in as pretty as you please and for the first time Hutch suspected he had found not just a place to spend the winter, but a place where he might be happy into the bargain.. It seemed a considerable deal, and more than he had hoped for.
The music appeared to mean a lot to Miss, Lisa and the others. Hutch found that Julius knew a few hundred tunes of his own, white man's songs from the southern mountains as well as Negro dance tunes. Hutch and Julius traded songs, and with their music they had warmed the kitchen in the Big House on many an evening while winter got down to business outside. It was only later that Hutch was told the banjo he played had belonged to Lisa's father, who had died back in the fall.
That there was a painful gap in the ranks here had been as obvious to Hutch from the start as the empty chair at the head of the table and the fresh grave on the knoll behind the main house. It was too early for the people here to talk much of Jedediah Putnam, but Hutch gathered that a man was gone whose kind passed this way all too rarely. In bits and pieces Hutch had learned more about the former mountain man from the almost mythical company of Jim Bridger and Kit Carson,. Joe Meek and Jedediah Smith, until Jed Putnam had assumed in Hutch's imagination the stature of a giant, almost a living presence, or perhaps more a sort of benevolent ghost, still protecting and presiding over Putnam's Park.
"Zeke!" Julius's voice was sharp. The lead horse had been slacking in his harness, letting his partner, Zeus, do the work. Now Zeke leaned into the collar and the sled jerked forward. The two Belgians were half of a team of four. The two pairs served alternate duty, and the full team was used every few days, for breaking new trails. The feed lines were moved regularly so the manure the cattle produced in winter would be spread across the hay meadows by spring and just need a pass with a tooth harrow to break it up so the grass would grow under the dried-up pies. During the recent thaw, all four horses had been used often, and even so there had been days when feeding took all morning, what with getting the sled unstuck three or four times.
Hutch liked the daily ride back up the valley to the barn after the hard, sustained work of loading the rack from one hay crib or another and feeding the cattle. On the cutting cold days, of which there had been-many, he and Julius sat on the sled with their backs against the plank front, sheltered from the wind. On warmer days like today, Hutch stood the middle of the rack and looked at the' hills and the valley bottom and the settlement so perfectly situated at the head of the park. Keeping his balance against the uncertain motion of the sled was a game he played with himself, adding to his enjoyment. Today he had a his reaction to Zeke's lunge perfectly, and he smiled. The work here was hard, as Miss Lisa had said it would be, but Hutch didn't mind hard work. He had quickly learned that Julius was a fair man, and worked half again as hard as Hutch could on his best day. At home, Hutch had been the strongest in the family, his father included, but he couldn't stay ahead of Julius. Before long, Hutch had stopped thinking of Julius as a nigger.
He was beginning to feel at home here, even if it wasn't much of an outfit. The beef herd was small, and the Cattle were some kind of Longhorn-Shorthorn cross that Jed Putnam had been experimenting with, not the familiar Texas Longhorns Hutch had known in Kansas. The Texas cattle didn't require any such coddling as winter feeding. Just turn 'em loose and they'd fend for themselves all right. A Longhorn thrived on neglect. He would grow fat on range a lizard would shun for lack of cover. He would walk all day without water and gain weight on the trail. Or so the Texas drovers claimed. But he took four years to grow to market weight.
The notion that this was a fault had come as a surprise to Hutch when Julius first pointed it out Hutch had seen the first huge herds of Longhorns driven past his pa's place when he was just eight, and as he stood there goggle-eyed and drop-jawed he had decided in that moment that as soon as he was old enough he would become one of the youths folks were already calling "cow-boys." Without giving it much thought, he had accepted the commonly held idea that the Longhorn was the very paragon of bovine development. But it was strange how a new notion could make an old one seem to fade, where once it had shone so brightly. When he thought about it, it made good sense that a steer that gained weight faster than a Longhorn was a better deal from a stockman's point of view, and Hutch had begun to look with new interest at Jed Putnam's mixed-breed cattle and to ask questions about them. He had been surprised to learn that steers he had taken for three-year-olds were not yet two.
Old man Putnam had only been running cattle for a handful of years, Julius said. After the fur trade gave out he had been a wagon guide for a time, leading emigrants to Oregon and California, and then in the fifties he had turned to road ranching, which was to say he ran a kind of a cross between a trading post and a hotel, the way Hutch understood it. He had pioneered the Putnam Cutoff and built his outfit here in what came to be called Putnam's Park, providing a place where the westbound emigrants could restock with supplies and rest their weary draft animals. Hutch thought it odd that Putnam had picked a place so out of the way up here in the Big Horns. He had seen other road ranches on his travels, pretty tumbledown affairs, most of them, and most were abandoned now, but at least they were right there on the road where a person didn't have to take a detour just to find them. Of course, there weren't so many wagons on the old trails now anyway, what with the railroad. By the look of things, old Jed had turned to raising cattle in the nick of time.
To Hutch, the days of road ranching and prairie schooners on the western trails and the even more remote years of the mountain men and the beaver trade were only slightly more real than the fairy tales his mother had read to him. By the time he saddled his mule and lit out on his own, the settlement of the western territories was no longer in question, and the struggles and deeds that had achieved that certainty were known to Hutch only in the broadest outlines as part of the folklore of the times. Like any sensible youngster, his eyes were firmly fixed on what lay ahead, not on the pest. What had drawn him west in his own turn were the new tales of the growing boom in beef cattle that now reached beyond the Kansas trailheads up into the northern plains, where there were opportunities born every minute for a young man who wasn't afraid of hard work. When the snow melted he would move on to the kind of big spread he dreamed of, where he could become top hand by the time he was twenty-five and raise as much hell as he liked in town on Saturday night, once they built a town close enough so he could get to it. Miss, Lisa and Julius talked of building up the herd in Putnam's Park, but this would never be the kind of place Hutch saw in his mind's eye. He'd have his pick of any ranch on the north plains when his reputation was made, and someday maybe even marry the boss's daughter. It unsettled him somewhat that on this place here the boss's daughter was the boss, and she was as old as his own mother, who was thirty-four and already had five children of which he was the eldest. Lisa Putnam had none, and no husband either, if it came to that, which Hutch thought was strange considering that she wasn't half bad-looking for an older woman, but that was her business. It was enough that her place was a good place to winter, a place where Hutch could learn the rudiments of cow-boying without making a fool of himself in front of a lot of other boys his own age. Come spring he'd move on, but for now he was content. He still didn't say much, but it was no longer because he felt like a stranger. A lot of talk just wasn't in his nature.
Once they reached the yard the horses knew the Way without guidance and they picked up the pace, anticipating their daily ration of oats. The sled skimmed along, the rack creaking and the pitchforks wagging back and forth like drunken lookouts, held upright by the iron ring Harry Wo had bolted to the frame of the rack, their butts resting in an old bucket nailed in place below the ring.
"Whoa." Julius stopped the team beside the corral fence. As he moved around the Belgians, unbuckling the harness from their steaming flanks, he enjoyed the practiced ease in Hutch's movements and his familiarity with the complicated tack. Even that morning back in December when they had gone off to feed the cattle for the first time, it had been obvious that the boy knew horses. He could get milk from a cow too; right from the start he had taken to helping Harry with the milking before breakfast. But it was plain when Lisa signed him on that young Hutch didn't know straight up about beef cattle. He was learning, though. Julius guessed that the boy was from a farm back in Kansas. He spoke of Kansas now and again, but he hadn't offered die story of his short fife and a man didn't ask that kind of question without some kind of invitation. Julius appreciated that aspect of frontier custom more than most, although he had nothing in his past to hide. It was just that he was used to his freedom now and guarded the right to keep his p...

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Title: The Snowblind Moon
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: 1985
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Used: Good

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