The four of us started out early Tuesday morning, April 22 of 1941, headed north. We sloped along, not pushing, taking it easy, collecting and pushing the 'dogies at their own pace as long as they kept moving. I rode right flank until after lunch, then Curly saw to it that I got to ride trail. - Oh, here's another Truth of Life: Never ride trail if you can help it. Anyway, about two hours or so after lunch an unusually thick collection of trees and bushes rose up out of the Prairie, and as we passed by I saw that there was a lake, a good ten acres big, with lots of trees and brush growing around it. On a little wooded hummock near one bank was what looked like an old cabin. It was obviously deserted, and that night after eating enough of Jessup's food to stay alive until morning I asked Mr. Colton about it.
"That's Colton's Lake, Son. 'Course, before that it was called Lover's Lake, and before that it was Payton's Lake. And before that I don't know. Probably some Kickapoo or Potawattomie name. There's a story goes with it, if you're not all that anxious to hit the bedroll just yet."
I was interested, so he pulled out a cigar, lit up, and when I couldn't see the stars any more he started.
"As I recall, it was about 1880 or so it began. Used to be, there was a section of land out there to the west that butted up against the west shore of that there lake, and it grazed sheep. Now, you've been around cow people long enough to know that we don't hold sheepherders in real high regard. That was even more so back then. Well, the Paytons owned this spread in those days, and wanted that section too, and didn't take kindly to sheep folks bein' on it. So there was some friction, as you might expect."
He puffed a few times, probably thinking about how to tell it best. The thick, sweet smoke smelled good. Then he went on.
"Now the Paytons, they had some kids. One of them, a lad of about sixteen at the time - about your age, Carl - used to like to go out to the lake on a Friday night and fish and hunt and come back Sundays all fishfed and often bringing some meat. It was sorta his way of gettin' away, or something. The family liked it, and he liked it. He was smart, liked to read, wasn't a roughneck like most kids, and liked being alone from time to time. Anyway, he's sitting there readin' and fishin' one late spring Saturday afternoon, and he sees something way over there, on the west bank. He looks, and looks harder, and sure enough there's someone over there fishin' too. Well he figures that's OK, there's plenty of fish here for us both, even if the other guy is a sheepherder. But the fisherman gets up and goes swimmin' and washin', and suddenly this young man saw that the fisherman over there was a girl. So he let her swim and wash, and he sat there quietlike and probably watched, and when she was done and dressed again, he mosied over there and introduced himself."
"She was a little younger than him, and they both fell pretty hard in about fourteen seconds. From right then they were always there on Friday nights together, and didn't go home until Sundays. The very next week he started bringing a wagonload of lumber out there on Fridays, told his folks that if he was going to be spending weekends out there he probably ought to have a cabin or something to stay in. He and the girl built that cabin you saw. When it was finished he brought out some old furniture, and she brought out some linens and such, and they set up house on the weekends."
He was gazing into the fire now, eyes unfocused and just talking, cigar forgotten.
"You understand that the idea of a cowpuncher and a sheepherder getting together is enough to drive each of their families to murder. So they couldn't exactly just court like ordinary people. They understood this, and kept each other's secret, and fished and made love every weekend. Probably more of the latter than the former."
"It didn't take a whole lot of weekends for them to get in a family way, as you would expect. To make matters worse, the sheepherders wouldn't sell the land to the Paytons, so things got more tense. Still, they kept meeting on Friday nights until her family found out she was caught. They didn't know who done it, and she wouldn't tell, but she didn't go back to the cabin for a few months. She had a daughter in the early spring. But the young Payton boy kept going out there, every Friday, staying until Sunday, coming home. His folks saw that he was miserable, but he wouldn't talk."
"She showed up in May again, with his daughter. Back to keeping house. He was a happy son again, and started writin' things down there in his diary at the cabin. As the story goes, they vowed they'd never miss another weekend again no matter what, that they'd wait for each other there every Friday night."
"The story gets a little fuzzy here, and probably you'll figure out why. Anyway, the sheepherders all burned up real convenient-like one day in July, except for one little baby that old man Payton and his other three sons, who just happened to be in the neighborhood, managed to rescue. No one knew yet that she was the old man's granddaughter."
He glanced at me, saw that I was pondering how they happened to be there like that. He snorted, tossed his cigar into the fire, leaned back and continued.
"All this fire and rescue hooraw took place on a Friday, it turns out. She didn't show up at the cabin. He waited. His folks came looking for him Monday. He said he was waiting for someone. They told him to come home. He said just as soon as she showed up, and he chased them away. They waited a week, came back. He drove them off at gunpoint."
"At the first deep freeze they went back, long since convinced that he'd gone looney and was best left alone, but finally concerned that he might freeze. Well, he was sitting at the table, his diary opened right in front of him so's folks who found him would understand, and he'd been dead for months. Probably starved, but they never knew for sure. Most say it was a broken heart that killed him. What he'd wrote on that last diary page was the words "If you know where she is, please bring her to me." That's all, just those simple words. Last words he wrote. They had to read the diary to find out what he meant."
"They're buried out there beside the cabin together now, side by side. The Paytons raised their granddaughter, and when she died at childbirth in 1905 she was buried beside her parents there at the cabin too. Her name was Sherri Payton, and she was Miriam's mother. She never said who Miriam's dad was. The Paytons took good care of the graves, but finally they couldn't stomach what they had done and left for St. Louis after Miriam and me got hitched. They both died within a year of leaving."
He looked over at me, apparently at the end of the story. "Lover's Lake. Folks still call it that, even though it's really Colton's Lake now. Isn't it?"
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