Editor's Note: This is the first in a four-part fiction story taken from the Middlinville Chronicles by Ron Flewelling, to be published on consecutive Fridays.
And so they trickled in, some looking for new homes and new starts, some for fortune, some for adventure and some, like Doon Lawton, for peace.
Doon Lawton originated out of Pennsylvania from a family with a military heritage that stretched way back to the old country. For several generations, the Lawton men had followed the banging drum and fought in countless wars on nearly every continent.
Doon was a rather bookish fellow who had deep interests in geology and the engineering field. However, when his turn came, he did not let the family down. He attended the military academy at West Point and upon graduation, accepted a commission with a cavalry regiment stationed out in the western territories.
Doon served with distinction during several skirmishes with hostile Indian forces and when the drums of war began beating to the south, his regiment was ordered to fight in the Mexican War.
Placed under the command of Winfield Scott, Doon and his comrades-in-arms stormed ashore at Vera Cruz and engaged in several bloody battles. Doon fought fearlessly, leading his men with patriotic, saber-waving abandon.
A man can forget his scruples in the acrid smoke of the battlefield, and in a killing time, it is often hard to overcome the bloodlust.
In the aftermath following the bloody Battle of Chapultipec, Doon stood staring in horror at the terribly mutilated bodies of the Mexican cadet defenders, many of them little more than boys. His stomach roiling, Doon Lawton turned away, knowing he would never be the same, knowing he would never get the smell of blood out of his nose...or his mind.
As soon as it was possible, Doon Lawton, captain in the 6th Dragoons, resigned his commission. His family was aghast at the way he had thrown away his career and it was made clear to him that he was disenfranchised and no longer welcome at home.
Doon felt like he could no longer rest. Everytime he thought he was free, vivid memories of gunfire and shattered bodies would haunt his dreams.
So Doon wandered aimlessly, a very sad man, throughout the sparsely settled territories. He would approach a settlement only long enough to replenish his supplies and then the wilderness would swallow him again.
But Time can heal most wounds, even those finding sanctuary in the deepest recesses of the mind, and eventually, Doon's travels brought him to the Ford. With barely a look to either side, he rode through the growing settlement until he'd reached the rocky bluffs directly to the west of the small town. There he dismounted, and for hours, sat watching the clouds roll over the horizon and the people moving around in the village below.
As the afternoon's shadows began to lengthen, Doon began to explore his surroundings until he happened to come upon a copse of oak trees. For several long minutes, he stood staring at the largest tree, a towering, shady bower with spreading branches and cool green leaves. The trunk was knotted and gnarled as if it had faced every adversity known to nature and had emerged battered but triumphant.
Doon slowly unwrapped a package he had carried all those miles of his pilgrimage. It was a cavalry saber. Hefting it in his hands and balancing it expertly, he paused just long enough to say a small prayer under his breath, then plunged the sword deep in the tree.
Without a backward glance, Doon turned and walked away to fetch his bed roll.
That night, he slept a sound, dreamless sleep, his first in many, many months and the next morning, began building himself a cottage of stone. By mid-morning, Doon had worked up a sweat, and removing his tunic, returned to his labors, whistling an aimless tune.
Doon Lawton had found peace at last.
For many years afterwards, the oak tree with the rusting saber was a conversational topic at the Ford. No one knew why it was there and there was no end of theories or stories, but only Doon knew the truth of the tale, and every once in a while, he would visit the tree and trace a finger over the Latin inscription still legible through the rust.
"Fortune Favors The Brave" it said.
Sometimes it did indeed take a special kind of bravery just to put one's personal demons to rest.
For Doon Lawton, it was a time of healing. He spent the days reading his books and studying rocks, renewing his half-forgotten hobby of geology. He rarely mixed with the settlement folk, preferring his own company and the privacy and quiet solitude of his rocky abode.
He remained somewhat of an enigma to the people at the Ford. They would see him as he took long walks along the River or prowled the bluffs. He seemed harmless though, and nobody pried into his business when, on an odd occasion, he would come into Pierson's store for supplies. For the most part, they just referred to him as "the Solitary living in that rock house up on the bluffs."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
How long Doon would have remained apart from the mainstream of life at the Ford is any body's guess. However, the road of his destiny was about to intersect with the paths traveled by a good ol' boy and one mean-assed bear.
The good old boy was a young man by the name of Burnham Sykes who, in his younger days, showed such a preference for it's tangy taste, that he was nicknamed "Buttermilk" and Buttermilk he remained all the days of his life.
Buttermilk Sykes was a happy-go-lucky individual with no visible means of support. Ichabod Crane-ish in appearance, it was not uncommon to see an odd elbow or knee sticking out of his tattered clothing.
It is said that every man marches to the beat of a different drum. If that is true then Buttermilk's drummer must have worked for a carnival because Buttermilk Sykes felt that the main purpose of life was to have fun, and have fun he did.
Nobody ever knew where he came from. He just showed up one day with his few belongings tied in a bundle at the end of a stick. He knocked together a lean-to of sorts down on the flats near the River and moved in.
Buttermilk had nary a care in the world and he'd never heard of the fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper." He just knew what he believed in and what he believed in, like I said, was having fun.
He would work at odd jobs to eke out enough money to get by, but when the fish were biting, no amount of money or bribery could prevent him from heading full-tilt towards the River with his fishing pole.
He always had time to tell a story or to stop and listen to a bird sing. Work was fine if you needed a little scratch to buy some corn meal or a bottle of Peck's Best, but lazing in a meadow or on a hill top somewhere watching the clouds roll by…now that was living.
It's a known fact that there is a little of the happy-go-lucky raggedy man in all of us, even the most ambitious of men, so even if most of the people at the Ford disapproved of the way Buttermilk sauntered through his halcyon days, he was still well liked and not a little envied for his carefree lifestyle.
Little did he know, though, that his wastrel days were about to come to an end.
The Gods of Destiny have many instruments and the vessel chosen this time happened to be in the form of an 800 pound Grizzly Bear.
Now it is said that the baddest, maddest, meanest most contrary animal on God's green earth is Mr. Ursus Horriblus, better known in layman's terms as the grizzly bear. If that is true, then this particular bear must have been the template from which the others were made.
Granted, the territory around the Ford was a bit south and east of the stomping grounds of that whole species of bear, but then again, this bear did not exactly fit any mold.
He was born in the Montana Territory where he was prematurely weaned when he bit off two of his mother's teats while nursing. Even a mother's love will only go so far, so this young bear got his butt kicked out of the warm hollow log into the cold, cruel world.
For a time, the young bear had to make do with a diet of grubs, berries and an occasional unwary chipmunk he could manage to snag. As he grew older, he learned how to shag fish out of a stream and how to take a kill away from another animal who possessed less of a determination of purpose than his.
He grew up cadgy and he grew up smart. But mainly, he just grew up mean.
When he was two years old or so, the bear made his first contact with the human race. One day, while prowling through an exceptionally well-laden plum thicket, the bear smelled an interesting scent emanating out of some tangled bushes. It smelled like a jack rabbit that had been dead for a week, the bear's all-time favorite snack.
While sniffling and snuffling, the bear came exactly three inches from ending the story before the legend got started.
Just as the bear was getting real interested, there came an ear-splitting metallic crack! and his nose was enveloped in a sheet of white pain. The bear let out a squall of outrage and threw himself backwards shaking his massive head. Drollops of blood were flung around the plum thicket from the young grizzley's shredded nose.
The cause of the bear's agony was lying there in plain sight, a shiny, deadly, sinister bear trap, placed in the plum thicket by some enterprising trapper. Luckily, the trap's hair trigger had sprung just a micro-second prematurely so, instead of crushing the young bear's skull, it had cut a painful groove in his nose with one of the sharp teeth.
When the bear spotted the object of his agony, he went totally berserk and pounded the trap until it was pulverized into a pile of scrap metal strewn about the thicket.
The bear soon discovered that smashing an inanimate object was a poor outlet for his frustrations, so in anger and rage and with a smarting pobiscus, he began to backtrack the trail of the trapper.
A few miles away, there stood a Crow Indian village, and in this village resided a young brave by the name of Hunts Plenty. Last fall, Hunts Plenty had traded for the bear trap at a trading post over on the Yellowstone River and now sat in his tepee dreaming of the fine gifts and gew-gaws he would trade in exchange for all the thick, prime bear pelts he planned on harvesting.
As everyone knows, that in the natural order of things, it is man who tracks and hunts the creatures of the wilds, and not the other way around. With this in mind, you can well imagine the confusion in the village when one young very teed-off grizzly bear came piling into the camp.
The young bear plowed through the village, methodically smashing every lodge, tepee, and meat rack within reach. Braves, squaws and children ran for their lives and leading the crowd was Hunts Plenty who suddenly decided to return to the more peaceful pursuit of beaver trapping.
When the bear's rage had finally abated somewhat, nothing was left standing in one piece in the entire village. He gave a snort and spit out a piece of breechcloth. As a final gesture of disdain, he paused long enough to urinate on the glowing embers of the tribal camp fire. He then lumbered away, back to the thickets.
A chapter was written that day in Crow legend. It was about a demon bear as tall as a mountain and with a voice as loud as thunder. It's eyes glowed with the demonic fury of blazing novas and its fangs created lightning when they struck.
For years afterwards, Crow mothers would frighten their unruly children with tales of the Devil Bear, easily recognized by the jagged scar on his nose. They called him "Onawa-pisgah" - Old Notch-Nose.