On the morning of his departure, Jude had risen early. The first rays of light were coming up, and he could barely make out the series of snow-capped hills to the north and the south. Like two rows of white tents, they served as faithful sentries to the valley homestead.
Jude was the firstborn son of Gaius, a prosperous cattle rancher in the Valley of Tents. Gaius enjoyed the company of not one, but five wives who bore him a great number of children. They provided an excellent source of labor for the ranch, with Jude serving as foreman. It wasn’t until Jude’s mother died and his father took on an additional wife that Gaius insisted his oldest son leave home.
“I tried, Jude, but he’s got nothing more to say to you. Says you better be gone by the time he’s up and dressed.” Vincent’s voice was scratchy as he met Jude in the yard. Born just weeks apart, they were the closest of all the brothers. They shared a weight of authority in the family and were responsible for much of the ranch’s success. Vincent had been hopeful that their father would put aside his anger and allow Jude to stay.
“It’s not your fault,” Jude said, resting both his hands on his brother’s shoulders. “You know him. There’s no changing his mind. Besides this whole affair with Candace is all my doing, not yours.”
Barely seventeen, Candace was the youngest of their father’s wives. Gaius had acquired all of his brides through various trade agreements. With pride, he boasted in a diverse family and considered himself more noble than men who kept women as mere slaves. “Son, meet your new mother,” Gaius had joked when he brought Candace home six months earlier. She had blushed, desiring Jude rather than Gaius.
“All he needed was a good excuse,” Jude continued. “You know he already resents me for what happened with Everett. My indiscretions with Candace made it easy for him to force me out.” Their brother Everett had been missing since earlier that year. He was the only son of their father’s wife Tess, and everyone knew Gaius held Jude responsible for his disappearance.
“Jude, you and I both know Everett was my fault. I suggested it in the first place. If father knew Everett was my idea, I’d be the one leaving, not you.” Vincent gulped and kicked at the dirt. “I’ve a right mind to go in there and tell Father what really happened.”
“No, Vincent. I’m the oldest. Everett was my responsibility. Besides, I don’t belong here anymore. It’s time.” Jude hugged his brother and saddled up with nothing more than a pack and his hunting knife. “Take care of her,” he told Vincent as Candace’s silhouette appeared in her bedroom window. He raised a hand and resisted the urge to take her with him.
For the next decade Jude made his home in the wild. He journeyed up and down the Ghost River, using the extensive waterway system to familiarize himself with every port of call. Some years he worked on various trade ships. Other times he led expeditions throughout the vast regions of The Wilderness. His knack for exploring made Jude a well sought-after man.
In time Jude’s skin became dark and weathered, from the sun. His lungs were hardened by the wind, his hands calloused from navigating the rough terrain. Eventually, fifteen years passed, making his life in the plains country a distant memory.
Last year, it had come as a surprise when Jude abruptly ended his nomadic career and purchased the plot of land north of Pilgrim’s Cove. There he built a small cabin close to the river. On sleepless nights he would sit out on the porch, listening to the occasional sound of a lone wolf cry out from the shelter of the trees. It was only then that Jude considered the possibility of returning home.
It had been raining that night when Jude rode his horse down to the harbor. He and the stallion had been young and unaccustomed to one another when they first left the plains. Now they fit together like a favorite pair of boots. In time they had developed an affinity for riding under the cover of darkness, and for the past year they had made the nightly trek down to The Anchor where Jude would sit at the same table, drink the same beer, and eat the same food. He preferred to sit at his table alone.
Tonight he was preoccupied with whittling patterns into the grain of the table. Splinters of wood periodically spit up as he scraped out bits of wood here and there. His hands moved in fast, artistic movements, guiding the well-used weapon as he formed the rough outline of a tree.
“Help you?” Without looking up, Jude could feel a man approach and stand there, waiting to be acknowledged.
“Are you Jude?” Franklin asked.
“Yep,” Jude answered as he continued to carve patterns into the table with his knife.
“I heard you might be able to help me find my daughter,” Franklin said and sat down without being asked.
“Don’t know why anyone would have told you that.”
“So you’re not a field guide?” Franklin leaned in, hoping for the man to make some eye contact.
“Buddy, I understand that you’re not from around here, but I can’t help you.”
Jude finally set the knife down and glanced up at Franklin. “See, I’m trying to be polite here. I’ve told you I’m not your guy, so unless you’re buying my next drink, I suggest you find another table.” He resumed his woodwork, using the side of the blade to smooth down a rough spot.
It was getting late, and by now Franklin was feeling the sharp pangs of hunger. As Jude sat there disregarding him, a fresh surge of anger rose up. Leftovers from his dispute with Harriet, no doubt. Without thoughtful consideration, he swiftly reached out and grabbed the knife from Jude’s hands.
“Maybe I haven’t been clear enough,” Franklin said, ignoring the folly of his action. He gripped the handle of the knife as he talked. “My daughter is missing. I don’t know why or how, but she’s missing. Do you understand that? I don’t know if she’s dead or alive, and so far, you’re the only person who might be able to help me find her.”
Jude crossed his arms and leaned back on the hind legs of his chair. Something in Franklin’s voice caught his attention and kept him from punching the man for touching his knife. “I don’t know anything about kids,” Jude eventually said and yanked the knife back from Franklin.
“She’s not a kid.” Taking this as an invitation, Franklin pulled out the wrinkled photograph of Celine and slid it across the table. “She’s twenty-three. She passed through here several months ago. She disappeared from the Great Forest. I don’t know this place. I need someone to take me there, and they say you know the terrain better than anyone.”
“I’m not in the people-finding business,” Jude said without bothering to look at the photograph.
“But you know The Wilderness, right?” Franklin leaned forward, the desperation rising. In his law practice his arguments were well-thought out. He was compelling, confident. This communication, however, was frazzled, resembling the emotional pleas that he heard from his clients.
“Buddy, I’m retired. You’ll have to find someone else.”
“Money? If this is about money, that’s not a problem. Whatever it takes. I’ll pay you anything.” Franklin reached into his pocket and pulled out a bulging wallet.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Jude asked and lowered his voice. “Put that away. You go waving that around and you’re gonna find yourself with a knot on your head and an empty pocket.”
Jude’s warning was interrupted by an eruption at the gambling table next to them. One player had cleaned out the other players, signaling a dispute as to the legitimacy of the win.
“Cheat! Lying cheat!”
“Cheat? You’re the lying cheat! You’ve been cheating all night!”
Back and forth, they shouted. Two of the men jumped out of their seats, their fists raised to attack. As they readied for battle, the piercing sound of a trumpet resounded throughout the room, demanding silence. First, the trumpet began with a marching alert then gradually morphed into the gentle melody of an ancient tune, mesmerizing the crowd. By the time Boots had finished the piece, a hush had fallen over the room. His customers were paying attention.
“Sit down or get out of my bar!” Boots lowered the old brass instrument from his lips and barked his expectation at the two men who had, unawares, lowered their fists. They grunted and gurgled something but obediently sat down and managed to proceed without any more outbursts.
“What was that?” Franklin was staring at Boots, convinced that he was either crazy or a genius.
“In The Wilderness, we call that a trumpet,” Jude said sarcastically and began to pick at his fingernails with his knife. “Couple months back, there was this asshole harassing Rose. Was getting ready to give her a pound in the face. Boots had left his gun in the back office. Closest thing to him was that trumpet hanging on the wall. Worked like a charm.”
“So he doesn’t carry a gun anymore?”
“You stupid? Of course he does. Man’s not an idiot,” Jude said and snickered at Franklin’s ignorance. He held his hand out and scrutinized his fingernails. Satisfied, he tucked the knife away and signaled one of the girls to bring him a drink.
“Are you a father?” The question had come to Franklin as Boots played his trumpet song. There had been something in the music that stirred him, and this seemed like the only possible avenue that might persuade Jude to help him.
“My personal life is none of your business.” Jude spat the answer out at Franklin. “And now it’s about time you found another table.”
There was nothing more to say. Franklin had exhausted his ideas. All of his training as a lawyer and he couldn’t even convince this man to help him. Dejected, he moved to the bar where he remained for the next hour. He drank the beers he had promised himself and ate a bowl of stew that wasn’t half bad. The longer he stayed downstairs, the better the chances that Harriet had gone to bed.
“If your daughter went to the Great Forest she’d have gone down river. She would have taken the Claire Marie.” Jude was standing behind him now with his coat on. The rain had started to let up, which was his cue to head back to his cabin.
“The Claire Marie? Is that a ship?”
“It will take you south, all the way to the Crossroads.”
“Then after that? Then what do I do?”
“You survive that, you’ll be just fine,” Jude said and donned a wide-brimmed hat that cast a shadow over his face.
“Thanks a lot,” Franklin muttered.
“What’s your daughter’s name?” Jude’s voice was low now and almost caring.
“Celine.” Franklin said. “Her name is Celine.”
To be continued…
Embracing life’s wilderness through music & community