Aura Lee, with her faithful, furry companion Little Bear by her side, was hanging laundry on the clothesline behind the cabin when she heard Dog, who had been lazing on the front porch up till now, go into her raging cat act. This could mean only one thing… intruder. Little Bear, more brave than smart, dashed around the corner of the cabin, fearlessly growling and barking at whatever got her and Dog riled up. Slipping the colt from her belt, the one she always carried with her when she left the protection of her cozy cabin, Aura Lee moved swiftly to the corner of the building and carefully peered around the logs. From this vantage point, she still couldn’t see the entire front yard, but she could hear a voice trying to calm Little Bear and Dog down. By the fierce sound coming from the two protectors, whoever this person was, wasn’t making much progress.
Aura Lee was never one to be bashful or afraid of facing danger, so taking the bull by the horns, with a gun in hand she stepped into the open to confront the stranger in her yard, but to her surprise, there were three sets of startled eyes staring back at her. One set, blue as an alpine lake, belonged to the cutest baby she had ever seen, and the other two pairs obviously belonged to the baby’s parents.
Quickly Aura Lee called the feisty little cat off, and Little Bear to her side, at the same time she tried to apologize to the young couple and their beautiful baby. Realizing she hadn’t holstered her colt yet, she dropped it back into the leather-like a professional, in one smooth, swift movement. Even after holstering her gun and making her apologies, Aura Lee saw the woman was still a little wary and couldn’t figure out why until she followed the man’s gaze to the porch. It was at that moment Dog made a hasty or maybe a noble retreat.
Aura Lee had to stifle a laugh as she turned back to face the bewildered young family.
“That’s only Dog. She thinks she’s a guard cat. She’s Shadow Spirit’s pal and has kind of adopted us, now she thinks she’s part of the family. To tell you the truth, we’ve grown really fond of her.”
The young family still looked a little skeptical, but the tenseness had left their faces, and a warm smile formed on the lady’s lips. After introducing themselves, they explained their meeting up with Dusty and how that had come about. They even got a chuckle out of it when they told about Dusty’s sudden, flying dismount from his horse.
“Wait, a minute! Aura Lee said as they stopped laughing, “Dusty doesn’t own a horse.”
“Well he does now, it’s a big pinto palomino, and believe me he’s quite a handful, he’ll be a good one, that is, if your husband can ever catch him,” Mac said with a chuckle. “When he shucked Dusty off, he lit out like his tail was on fire and the way he was moving, he’s probably still running.”
“I guess that means Dusty won’t be home for dinner,” Aura Lee said with a frown.
“I bet you guys are starved, come on in, I have a big pot of moose stew on the stove and it’ll only take a minute to put a pan of biscuits in the oven, the coffee is hot and you’re more than welcome to make yourselves at home.”
Everyone was on their second helping of Aura Lee’s tasty moose stew and enjoying each other’s company around the table when the sound of horse hooves outside sent Little Bear into a barking tizzy. When Aura Lee opened the door, the little fur-ball shot headlong between her legs and through the door, not knowing or even caring what might be in the yard. In her mind, she was “the” guard dog, and she wasn’t about to take her job lightly. Little Bear hardly noticed Shadow Spirit make her charging leap from the porch. What she did notice, however, was the big animal Dusty was sitting astride it. The horse reared and danced a little at her incessant barking, but Dusty, thankfully, had him under control and swung down to the ground telling Little Bear, in his usual manner with animals, she was a good guard dog and then told her she was going to have to make friends with the strange giant he had brought home. Dusty reached down and gave the little dog a loving pat and then tied the horse to the porch rail.
“Where in the world did you get that beautiful horse?” Aura Lee exclaimed.
She started to move toward it, but the pinto laid his ears back, bringing her to an abrupt stop.
“Easy,” Dusty said, protectively restraining Aura Lee by the arm. “He isn’t to use ta people just yet; he’s still a little particular about who touches him.”
“Well, we’ll just see about that.” She shook loose of Dusty’s hand and slowly approached, cooing softly and holding her hand out to the pinto. Of course, being curious, but leery, he allowed Aura Lee to get closer. All the while Dusty was holding his breath knowing Aura Lee’s stubbornness, he knew he knew it would be useless to try to stop her.
“Stop, wait a minute,” Dusty pleaded as an idea came to mind.
“Here, this should help”, he reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a sugar cube.
The pinto had seen the exchange between Dusty and Aura Lee and was a fast learner. He already knew what Dusty kept in his pocket, so when Aura Lee approached this time his ears were forward, but he was still a little skittish and leery of this new human with a soft voice.
When she reached out to the stallion, he jerked back to the full extent of the reins holding him to the porch, and again she noticed how really beautiful he was. His golden coat with splotches of white seemed to dance in the noonday sun.
“Here now, you just settle down!” Aura Lee scolded.
“You may be fooling everyone else with this act but the look in your eyes tells me something altogether different, it’ll be a cold day in July when you can convince me you’re all that tuff, so come on now, take this sugar and let’s be friends.”
She just stood there with the sugar cube in her outstretched hand, waiting for the horse to make up its mind. It was up to him, he would either take the cube and be friends or he wouldn’t, it was just that simple.
The horse’s eyes shifted from Aura Lee to the sugar cube several times before he shook his head in defiance one last time, snorted, then eased forward, gingerly reaching for and taking the morsel of sugar.
This time when Aura Lee’s arm came up, he allowed her to rub the white blaze that streaked down between his eyes like a lightning bolt. In an instant Aura Lee knew in her heart, a new friend had been made.
Dusty, seeing the interaction between the two, breathed a deep sigh of relief and went to the well for a bucket of water to slack the pinto’s thirst. Then he headed inside to do something about his own thirst and gnawing hunger.
“That was quite a show your wife gave us”, Mac said.
Everyone else had eaten earlier, but while Dusty ate they all sat around the table talking. Martha caught Aura Lee up on the latest news from down below, and Dusty talked with Mac. He offered to help as much as he could, to get them set up before the winter set in. He even told his new friend he would be glad to share what he had learned about surviving in the Great Land. Dusty warned him, however, every day was a learning experience, and those that didn’t take heed to those lessons sometimes paid the ultimate price for their arrogance, foolishly losing their lives, all because of stupidity.
Dusty told Mac of a small valley not far from their place and said he would be glad to show it to him, but first he would have to build a corral and some type of shelter for his horse. Mac was more than happy to volunteer his help, and of course Dusty wasn’t about to turn down an extra set of hands.
A new bond was being formed that would last a lifetime.
When Dusty had his fill of moose stew, the men went outside and got started on the project.
Little did Mac know he was about to get his first Alaska lesson Dusty had mentioned during lunch.
Getting saws, axes, rawhide striping, and other tools Dusty thought they would need for the building of a corral; they loaded everything into a homemade wagon and started across the clearing that surrounded the cabin.
Dusty had been watching Mac out of the corner of his eye and noticed a puzzled look on his face. This caused him to wonder if the man knew anything about building a corral, so he decided to ask him a few questions about his building experiences. “Ya have any hosses back where ya come from?”
“Sure we do, plenty of them,” the young man answered, not knowing why Dusty would ask such a foolish question, didn’t everyone owned at least one horse?
“Ever built a corral before?” Dusty went on.
“Why all the questions, didn’t you believe me when I told you I was a farmer? I’ve built corrals, barns, houses, and even dug a well or two … and did a fair job of it … if I might say so myself!” He added indignantly.
“Now don’t get yer dander up. I’m only askin’ cuss of the curious look on yer face. It was like you hadn’t seen a saw or an ax before, that’s why I was askin’, I wasn’t tryin’ ta get ya all riled up.”
All the while the heated conversation was going on they walked, pulling the small wagon behind them toward the place where Dusty envisioned a corral. It was just south of the cabin, in the center of a patch of birch trees. There was somewhat of a natural clearing in the middle, and a year-round spring ran through it. The place was close to the cabin but not too close as to bother Aura Lee when he was working with the pinto later in the summer. If he had time, he intended to build a barn next to the corral, knowing it would be a necessity during the long-frozen winters.
“Well, if you must know what I’m thinking,” Mac said with a little indignation in his voice. “I was wondering if you knew anything about building a corral.” With hesitation and doubt in his voice, he continued. “Whoever built a corral without digging postholes? You didn’t bring a post-hole digger or even a shovel, so how do you plan to go about it?”
“Son,” Dusty chuckled, “here in Alaska you’ll find some of the ways you did things back home doesn’t work so well up here. For instance, digging fence postholes can’t be done this time a year. Ya see, even though the air is warmed up some, the ground, just a few inches below the surface, is still frozen. You’d be here all day chippin’ out the ice just ta dig one hole. What we’re gonna do is cut down enough trees fer the rails and use this here rawhide,” he held it up, “ta lash them ta the birch trees surrounding part of this here clearing, making it like a natural corral.”
“I’ll be, that’s a good idea,” Mac said sheepishly. “I see what you mean; I do have a lot to learn about getting along up here. Thanks for taken the time and having the patience to teach me.”
“When we’re through here, we’ll build a water trough out of some floor planks I had leftover from building the cabin. A little tar in the joints and she’ll be watertight and as good as any of them new-fangled things you buy at the general store.”
By late afternoon the two men had made short work of the new corral and water trough and it was almost ready for its new resident. After filling the trough with fresh water brought up from the creek… one bucket at a time, they headed back to get the horse they had left tied to the porch next to the rain barrel.
Rounding the corner of the cabin, the men got quite a surprise. The pinto was standing untied, dozing in the shade, and Little Bear was fast asleep, partially lying on the trailing reins at the big horse’s feet.
“I guess I’m not the only one ta make a new friend today,” Dusty said as he slapped Mac on the back. “Let’s get that critter in ta the corral and then find out what all those good smells are comin’ from the cabin.”
The meal that night was fit for a king, a bear roast seasoned to perfection, string beans Aura Lee had put up last fall, flavored with bacon and wild onions. She had roasted potatoes and had her freshly baked bread to go along with it. Of course, for dessert, Aura Lee had baked Dusty’s favorite, dried apple pie and, as usual, plenty of hot coffee to wash it all down with.
After supper, the men took their coffee and went into the living room as the women giggled and talked in the kitchen while finishing their evening chores.
Sitting by the warm crackling fire, burning on the hearth of the great stone fireplace, the men made their plans for the next day. Dusty decided they would go into town at first light and pick up the bay mare he had bought the same time he had purchased the pinto. They would be able to get to the small valley he had told Mac about much faster on horseback than walking. This would also give him some extra time so he could check up on an old friend who lived up that way.
Dusty was telling Mac a little more about the valley he wanted to show him and how he had come across it when Martha and Aura Lee came into the living room to join their husbands.
Jada Rose, being carried in her mother’s arms, also let her presence be known by being very verbal in her demands. Martha said she was causing such a ruckus because she was hungry and then excused herself and slipped out of the room to feed her.
Aura Lee retrieved the quilt she was working on and made herself comfortable in the rocker Dusty had built for her out of small lodge poles and bent alder. She always enjoyed listening to Dusty talk, even when he was just making a plan, like tonight. He had a way about him that made it sound like he was telling a story instead of mapping out a hard day’s work and no matter what it was about, he almost always said it with a sense of humor. When the men started talking about the horses again, Aura Lee interrupted their conversation. “You know sooner or later you’re going to have to name that horse as well as the other one. You can’t just keep calling him the pinto.”
“You’re right,” Dusty said with a knowing smile, “I suppose you already have one in mind fer him?” He chuckled, knowing the answer before he had asked it.
“Suppose I do smarty pants and it’s a good one too! Remember when I was making friends with him and I had said that I thought his beautiful coat looked like it was dancing sunlight? Well, how about Sundancer? It’s a beautiful name, I think it fits him perfectly and I’m sure he’ll like it and, and . . .”
“Okay, Okay,” Dusty said with a laugh. “You pleaded your case real well, Sundancer it is!”
“What about the other horse, you’re not going to leave her nameless, are you?”
“Of course not sweetheart, but we’ll have ta wait till ya see her ta give her a right proper name, seein’s how yer so good at pickin’ ‘em.”
Mac could see how much fun Dusty and Aura Lee had with each other and hoped he and Martha could always be that much in love.
After the name debate, Martha came back from feeding Jada Rose and started a conversation with Aura Lee, and the men returned to theirs as the women started making plans of their own.
For a while, Dusty and Mac kept the conversation light and spoke of the future the men had planned for their families, but at some point, it eventually turned to the problem at hand and what had been on Dusty’s mind all day.
“Well now, how about tellin’ me a little about yer trip up here?” Dusty ask.
Dusty had his suspicions but wanted to hear what Mac had to say about the shifty characters he and his wife had traveled with on the L.J. Perry.
When Mac had finished his tales of the rudeness, some passengers had been subjected to, Dusty had a mad on that was barely under control. The information wasn’t surprising; it just confirmed what he thought he already knew. It did make him wonder all the more when this gang would be putting whatever they were planning to do into action.
The fire had burned low when the two couples called it a night…
It was lucky for the newcomers’ Johnny had decided to stay on the Utopia so he could keep a better watch on her; he too had a bad feeling about some of his latest passengers. While the ladies made a comfortable sleeping pallet on the floor near the fireplace where Johnny had had his, Dusty and Mac stepped out onto the porch into the crisp Alaska night to enjoy God’s magnificent display of stars and to allow Shadow Spirit and Little Bear to run about and do their nightly duties.
“I never cease ta be amazed when I look up inta the Heavens and see the Lord’s handy work,” Dusty said almost reverently. “How there can be such beauty and wonder and at the same time so much cruelty and dishonesty in the world, it just befuddles my mind?”
Being a rhetorical question not requiring an answer, there was a long silence that followed, giving each man a chance to be alone with his own thoughts. In the distance, a lone wolf called out, and another answered. This brought a smile to Dusty’s lips and at the same time made him think of Shadow Spirit. He called to her and like her implied; she seemed to just appear out of the shadows with Little Bear close behind. He gave them both a good ear rubbing and a pat on the head before saying, “let’s get ourselves inside, tomorrow’s gonna come early and we’ll be a leavein’ at first light.”
Dusty’s troubled mind didn’t allow him to fall asleep immediately. Instead, he tossed and turned for hours trying to come up with a solution for the town’s problems. Not until the hour swept past midnight did sleep finally overtake him.
Sometime before daybreak, in the wee hours of the morning, he awoke and sat straight up in bed. He wasn’t sure what had woken him, but there was sweat on his brow and his heart was racing like a runaway horse. The only sounds were that of normal breathing of one in deep sleep. Dusty turned to look at Aura Lee sleeping peacefully beside him. He wondered how someone so beautiful could have fallen in love with a good for nothing like him, he still hadn’t figured it out, but he was sure thankful that she had.
He reached over and lightly touched her cheek and then eased himself out of bed.
After getting dressed quietly, Dusty slipped down the stairs and into the kitchen. It was hard trying not to make noise while getting the fire started in the cook-stove for a pot of coffee.
Dusty realized he had failed miserably at it when Mac stumbled into the kitchen sleepy-eyed and ask with confusion in his voice; “Hey, I thought we weren’t leaving until first light? It’s still the middle of the night!”
“I know,” Dusty said in a whisper, trying his best not to wake up Martha or the baby. “Somethin’ woke me up, so I decided ta get a jump on the day.”
Dusty didn’t tell him about the cold sweat or the rapid heartbeat. Only Aura Lee knew of his recurring nightmares, and he wanted to keep it that way. The one he had last night was a doozy, and the strangest part was it didn’t have anything to do with his war experiences.
“It was probably Martha getting up to feed Jada Rose,” Mac said apologetically. “She still doesn’t sleep through the night and is pretty demanding about her needs. I’ll tell Martha to try and be a little quieter, but Jada Rose … well, that might be a different story.”
Both men stifled a laugh, trying hard not to wake up anyone else.
“What say we get an earlier start than we’d planned? We’ll head into town that is after we get a cup or two of this hot coffee in us so’s we can walk upright.” Dusty suggested with a quiet voice and a twinkle in his eye.
In a short time, the smell of fresh brewing coffee was permeating the kitchen.
As it boiled on the cook stove, Dusty took down two mugs hanging from pegs that were pounded into the side one of the ceiling logs. He poured the strong hot liquid, then tested his cup with a satisfactory, “ahhh” and handed the other steaming cup to Mac, who had been sitting at the table with a smile on his face, watching Dusty go through this morning ritual.
“It seems to me you really like your morning coffee,” Mac said, trying to keep a straight face and sound as sincere as possible.
“Yep, I’m not a drinkin’ man and I don’t take ta smoke or chew either, so coffee’s my only bad habit, yes-sir-ree, I do love my strong, hot coffee… I surely do!”
Mac, still trying to keep a straight face after taking a sip of the strong coffee, said, “Shucks Dusty, this coffees’ got some stayin’ power … We ought to be able to chew it all the way to town!”
At first, Mac wasn’t too sure how Dusty was going to take having fun poked at him, because when Dusty turned and looked at him he wasn’t smiling. He walked over to the table with a straight face, pulled out the wicked-looking knife, he always carried, scaring the daylights out of Mac, and slammed it down in front of him saying, “Here! You can cut it with this!” Then they both started shaking with uncontrollable laughter. It was right then Mac realized Dusty had quite a sense of humor, not only could he take it; he did a fair job of handing it out too.
When the men had finished their second cup of coffee they went out to the corral and saddled up Sundancer.
With Shadow Spirit taking the lead with leaps of joy and energy, they headed down the trail for town, walking and talking with Sundancer on a lead rope, trailing close behind.
The day had started with fun and laughter, two good friends poking fun at each other. It was the start of a perfect day. Little did they know what lay in store for them would be just the opposite… By no means would it be perfect or laugh.
 In the 1800s, the noon meal was called dinner. Today, in some parts of the country, dinner still means the noon meal, but that, just like so many other things probably or should I say sadly, isn’t politically correct. The evening meal was and still is called supper. (I hope)
This is a term used for canning vegetables to preserve them for later consumption.
To Be Continue…
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