The chronicle of Wolf Riker, who was more often called the Range Wolf, began long before we came across each other. Actually, he came across
and cared little, or not at all, if I lived or died.
The Range Wolf had infinitely more important things on his wefted mind than the life or death of a piece of human flotsam. After decades of bruised fists, smoking guns, and iron will against insuperable odds, he was on a perilous venture that meant ultimate fortune or ruinous failureâand death.
But this wolf did not run with the pack. He ran the pack. A predator who sometimes devoured even those who were fated to follow himâas was I.
The saga of the Range Wolf, as far as I later was able to weave it together, might well have had its beginnings when two young brothers rode west to Texas. It was after Sam Houston had avenged the Alamo and defeated General Santa Anna at San Jacinto, declared the vast territory of Texas a Republic, then led the movement for Texas to become the 28th state of the United States of America in 1845.
Two brothers, Dirk and Wolf Riker, united by blood, but thereafter divided by ambition, conceit, caprice, glossâand yes, greed.
Destiny, fate, or chance, made a fist and gripped one of the two brothers, Wolf Riker, and meâChristopher Guthrie.
It was a different world, and I was a different man, part-time writer, critic, and full-time dilettanteâand Wolf Riker was a hell-beast I came to know and fear like nothing on heaven or earth. His command, his mood, his every whim, was the law, without mercyâand there was no higher court of appeal.
At that time Wolf Riker was at the peak of his physical power, a dark Viking with broad shoulders and deep chest, dressed in devil's black from head to heelâthick raven hair, sapphire eyes of fire and ice, and a scar that ran across the left side of his forehead into his hairline and more than likely into his brain.
He was the master of his domain, and at that time, the most valuable asset of that domain was moveable. A herd of more than seven thousand Texas cattleâbut only if he could move them to Kansas. In Texas that herd was worth less than a dollar a headâin Kansas, more than twenty times that muchâover $140,000.
But Kansas was nearly a thousand miles away with floods, fever, Kiowas, Comanches, border raiders, and a brazen brother in between.
The odds against him were unyielding.
So was Wolf Riker.
What led up to my first sight of himâand what followed?
I have set down, through the course of that bleak passage, the men, women, and events as best I can remember.
But a man I can never forget is the one they called the Range Wolf.
I never fancied myself as an officer and a gentlemanâonly as a gentleman. Maybe that's why I, as did many other gentlemen of the North, bought myself out of serving in the army.
The fact is, I didn't buy myself out; my father, Douglas Wendell Guthrie, Esquire, did. He had graduated from Harvard Law. It was his wish that I do the same. So I did. It was his wish that I, his only progeny, go to work in his firm. So I did. It was his wish that I did not go into the army. So I did not.
I was not a very good lawyer. I was not a very good anything.
But my father was a very good everything.
Douglas Wendell Guthrie was a formidable force. No one ever called him Doug, not his mother or father, even when he was an infant. Not the children at school, not the students at Harvard. Not his two law partners, Oliver Talbot and Galen Flexner, of Guthrie, Talbot and Flexner. Of course they were not equal partners. No one was Douglas Guthrie's equal. No, no one ever called him Doug, not even my mother whom I don't remember. She died while giving birth.
What did I call him? A lot of things. But not to his face. To his face, I called him “father.”
Dutifully, I went to the law office every workday. But I didn't work. I dabbled. Poetry. Short stories. Even plays. I thought of myself as a budding Edgar Allan Poeâsans drink or dope. My father overlooked my frivolity, hoping that someday I would changeâand become more like Douglas Wendell Guthrie. But in his heart he knew that no one could be quite like him. Especially me.
Somehow I managed to idle my way through the dreary days, stay awake and seemingly attentive during conference room conferences. The one thing I was rather good at was entertaining clients, especially richâvery richâclients and most especially young, attractive female clients, who sought advice on how to spend the earnings from inherited trust funds. Lunches, carriage rides, theatres, suppersâI provided good company and occasionally even good adviceâgood enough so that other young, attractive female in-heritresses sought the services of Guthrie, Talbot and Flexnerâand particularly of Christopher Guthrie.
All in all it was a comfortable, if rather confined, circle of existence, and I paid hardly any attention to matters outside that circle, not even bothering to vote when someone named Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States representing something called the Republican Party.
Abraham Lincoln stood for a strong Union and was against slaveryâand most of the country stood with Lincoln. A swelling rumble of discontent erupted into gunfire at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861âConfederate gunfire, aimed at the heart of the Union, and no longer could anyone, even those within my cloistered circle, fail to be affected by current events.
That's when my father paid handsomely for another fellow to don a Union uniform in my place. At the time, as usual, I did nothing to contradict or counteract my father's action. This, by the way, was not an uncommon procedure among those in a position to pay for a substitute soldier of the North.
But as time went by and the clash of resounding arms brought forth a clash of conscience, even I was compelled to no longer stand idle.
When I announced to my father my intention to enlist, there was another clash. There was a white man, a fellow Harvard graduate friend of mine, Robert Gould Shaw, who was forming a negro brigade, the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, but with white officers. It was my intention to be one of those white officers.
It was my father's intention to disinherit me if I so did.
But I did so anyway.
Howsomever, after my enlistment I found that instead of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry, I had been arbitrarily transferred to Washington and the War Department's Bureau of Military Justice and Corps of Judge Advocates.
I knew damn well this was the result of my father's less than subtle influence, and I also knew that there was not a damn thing I could do about it.
So, once again, I became a lawyerâthis time for the U.S. Armyâand a damn poor lawyer, who, for the duration of hostilities, never heard the sound of gunfireâand never won a case. Well,
may be a slight exaggeration. But for the most part if I was assigned as counsel for the defense, the prosecution won. If I represented the prosecution, the defense was acquitted. Half the time even I couldn't decide whether my clients were guilty or innocent, so how could I expect the court to decide?
But I am sure that due to my courtroom skills, or rather, lack thereof, the scales of justice often were tipped awry.
In spite of my litigious record, or maybe because of it, the army saw fit to promote me from the rank of lieutenant to captain. Later, someone told me that the army had an officer quota to meet.
Toward the very end of hostilities I was dealt a blow, a blow that stunned me as I had never been stunned beforeâand affected me more than I could have ever imagined.
I received word that Douglas Wendell Guthrie had died of a massive heart attack while delivering a summation to a jury. And, of course, even in death, my father won the case.
After the funeralâand being mustered out of the armyâat the reading of his will, I learned that he had not written me out of the will, but left everything to me, including a trust fund involving more than I could spend in several lifetimes.
The law firm of Guthrie, Talbot and Flexner would go on being the firm of Guthrie, Talbot and Flexner, but without Douglas Wendell Guthrieâor Christopher Guthrie.
Along with the former slaves, I was free.
But free to do what?
To be idle?
But bone idle?
I pursued my literary aspirations.
And to my, and others, surprise, quite successfully. I published a slim volume of romantic poetry, several short stories, and even a humorous novel entitled
The Conquering Coward
A friend of mine, Charles Furseth, who was a dramatic critic for Horace Greeley's newspaper, the
New York Tribune
, fell ill (drunk) one evening and asked me to write a review of the play called
Forever and a Night
. I obligedâand to my surprise it was received approvingly by Mr. Greeley himself, and to my further surprise, Mr. Furseth told Mr. Greeley that I had written itâand to my ultimate surprise, Mr. Greeley offered me a part-time position reviewing other theatrical offerings.
I accepted and made quite a name for myself in my critical endeavorsâfor a time. In fact, my reviews often were discussed for a longer period of time than the reviewed plays ran.
But there came a time several months later when Mr. Greeley and I, after one particular review, for reasons of my own, parted company, and I found myself a part of the swelling human tideâactually a mere ripple in that tideâmoving West.
For nearly two centuries America's rivers had carried life blood to the continent's heartland.
The great mass of earth between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had been conquered by pilgrims, pioneers, settlers, and speculators, by way of water first and then by land.
Villages, towns, and cities sprang up primarily along the navigable rivers, and later, the Erie Canal linked the eastern seaboard to the entire Midwest.
The nearby land was developedâhomesteads farmed and formed into communities in a crooked land chain that reached out toward America's Manifest Destiny. That crooked land chain was then linked by stagecoach, wagon train, and finally by railroad.
Even as I traveled West, two great railroad companies, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, were forging ahead, one from the East, the other from the West, to meet somewhere in between and unite the country by rails of steel and engines of steam.
But until that happened, I had to be one of those wayfarers who traversed the continent via the Erie Canal, then the Mississippi to Baton Rouge.
From Baton Rouge it had been my intention to board a stagecoach to Houston, transfer to a series of other stagecoaches and span the continent until the continent ended at the “Athens of the United States”âa city christened San Francisco.
But intention is one thing, fate is another. And the fate of Christopher Guthrie, and several others, took a strange twistâa twist that entailed a tortuous deviation and led to someone called the Range Wolf.
Up to that time I had begun a journalâlong since lostâthat was to chronicle the glories and romance of the westward movementâsomething I knew nothing about. What a fool I was, but probably no more a fool than countless others who had the same naive notions.
An uncertain number of those hardy fools are buried along the way. Those who survived helped in forging the future of a great nation. In truth, I fall into neither category; nevertheless, it was my lot to become at least a small part of a quantum conflict that could happen only in the American West.
Until I reached Baton Rouge, I carried with me, among other things, an essential wardrobe, five hundred dollars in currency, my mother's diamond ring on a thin gold chain around my neckâa ring my father left me in his willâand a deck of playing cards, at which I had become quite adept between losing litigations in the service of the Union.
The scars from the Battle of Baton Rouge, won by Union Commander Thomas W. Cahill and lost by Confederate Major General John C. Breckenridge in August of 1862, were a long way from healing. That might take yearsâlifetimesâforever.
I stayed at the Grand Palace Hotel, which was neither grand nor palatial, but in Baton Rouge it was considered the city's first-class resort. In New York it probably would have been located somewhere in the Bowery.
However, the accommodations, including the food and beverages, were tolerable, and there was an area designated as the card room where citizens and travelers might while away the time in a friendly game of poker.
Having made an entry in my journal, taken a tub bath, donned a starched shirt, sliced my way through a satisfactory steak, seasoned with a local McIlhenny pepper sauce called Tabasco, and downed a double bourbon, I joined a clean-cut quintet of card players.
For an hour or so the game was pleasant enoughâneither winning nor losing enough to matterâuntil one hand came down to a portly gentleman named Gaylord Brisbane and me.
I was looking at three deuces, a king, and a six.
I bet a hundred dollars.
Brisbane saw the hundred dollars and raised two hundred.
I saw the raise, discarded the six, and took one card.
I didn't know it, but Brisbane held three aces, a six, and a seven. He discarded the two numbers and drew two cards.
I looked at my draw cards and saw what I wanted to see. But so did Brisbane when he looked at his hand.
I bet my remaining three hundred.
There was a pause. A long pause.
“See it,” said Brisbane. “And raise another three hundred.”
I removed the gold chain and diamond ring from under my shirt and placed it on the table in front of me.
“Table stakes,” said Brisbane.
“The ring is on the table,” I said.
“I'm not a pawn shop,” Brisbane said with a smile.
“I'll redeem that ring for three hundred, or three thousand, dollars at any time,” I countered.
“How do I know you're good for it?” he said, and smirked.
“Here's how.” I pulled a bankbook from my vest pocket, opened it to the balance page, and placed it on the table.
The balance showed 40,450 dollars and 68 cents.
“I'll have the money telegraphed in the morning. Is that good enough?”
“Good enough,” he smirked again, and turned up his hand. Three acesâand two queens that he had drawn. Full house, aces up.
I spread out the four deuces and collected the pot and my diamond ring.
I returned the original $500 to my breast wallet, placed it back in my inside coat pocket, folded the currency from the winning wager, placed the wad in my left trouser pocket, then rose.
Another thing I didn't know at the time was that there were several people in the vicinity who were interested in my activity.
I repaired to the bar area, stood at the counter and ordered another double bourbon. As the bartender complied, a rather attractive young lady with rather too much applied makeup approached.
“I saw the game,” she nodded. “Congratulations.”
“Would you care to buy me a drink?”
I didn't care to create a scene by refusing, so I motioned to the bartender.
“I'll have what the gentleman is having,” she smiled, then added, “What is the gentleman's name?”
“Guthrie,” I said. “Christopher Guthrie.”
“Name fit for a duke.” She sipped her bourbon. “I'm Francine DuBois; I take it you're new in town. Would you like me to . . . show you around?”
I hadn't had much experience with saloon girls and didn't know whether she worked for the hotel or for herself. But I had heard stories about big winners in card games. The upstairs rooms, the ladies in waiting, the drinks called Mickey Finns, and waking up with a turbulent head and empty pockets. Francine DuBois, if that was her name, was attractive, but not that attractive.
“I said, would you like me . . .”
“Look, Miss DuBois, please don't take offense, but . . .”
“Oh, oh, I think I know what's coming . . . and what's not.”
“I'm sorry . . .”
“So am I. The night is young and I have to move on, but I took a fancy to you, I really did, so listen to me. Thanks for the drink, and I'm sorry we met like this. You take care of that poke you won . . . and so long, pilgrim.”