Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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It wasn’t easy being a half-breed in the world of the white man. Wounded Hawk pulled his coat up around him against the air that had chilled overnight. Might be winter’s knocking on fall’s door, Hawk reasoned. The half-white, half-Indian felt something more than frost in the air. He peered around the stable. Yeah, I’m right, he thought, as the owner glared at him. If Hawk weren’t a deputy US Marshal, he wouldn’t have even been allowed to board his horses here. The hotels had rejected him, each of the desk clerks holding up their hands as he entered, as if to stop him even asking before informing him “We don’t allow Injuns or breeds in here.” Their hospitality, or lack of, forced Hawk to spend the night in an empty cell at the Estes Park, City Marshal’s office.
Having delivered a prisoner to their marshal, Hawk’s duty was done, and to hell with this place. All the Indian wanted to do was get on the road and back to Golden City, and shake the dust of this town from his boots. The residents had made no effort to disguise their disgust at him. Wounded Hawk was used to the treatment, though still it stung. He had prided himself on not letting the insults affect him, but lately the words bothered him.
Leading his horse and pack mule out of the stall, Hawk headed toward the stable doors. A belligerent thought moved through his head as the untrusting eyes of the stableman continued to bore into him. Hawk settled on a kindness, pulling a silver dollar from his pocket. Resting it on his thumb, he flipped it to the man. People are uncomfortable with folks who are different than they are. The color of the skin, strange habits, or even clothing that is different from the norm causes all sorts of reactions. Give them something they can relate to, something that makes you more like them, and well, sometimes, that makes all the difference.
“Thanks. You took good care of them,” Hawk said.
The man caught the coin, opened his hand and stared at the tip that doubled what he charged for boarding the animals the two days they had been there. He looked at the Indian, and his eyes softened. Maybe this redskin ain’t sa bad after all, he reasoned.
“Been a pleasure,” the man said in an abrupt change. “That mustang paint your’n is about the best I seen fer years.”
“Well, you fed them well,” Hawk told him. “Brushed them down good. Even that cantankerous mule.”
“Well, Marshal, anytime ya’re in Estes Park, be pleased for ya to board yer critters with me,” the man said. “You might have a tad trouble finding a room for your’nself…” stopping, the stableman considered his words, “this being a resort community for the snobby rich folk, an’ all.”
“Don’t I know it, friend,” Hawk agreed, taking his leave of the man. He moseyed down the street leading the two animals, smiling to himself. He’d turned a man in fear of him into someone not sure what to think. His affability was his greatest weapon against the ingrained bigotry of the 1860’s. He wanted to say goodbye to the city marshal before he hit the trail.
“Daylight’s a burning,” Hawk muttered as the town square clock banged out a chime followed by nine bells. “Damn, late start.”
Further down the main street, Horace Ghent watched as a man unlocked the bank door. Two or three people who had been waiting, shuffled inside the building. Observing the traffic on the street, no one else appeared to be heading that way, except for a feller way off leading a horse and mule. Horace reasoned now was as good a time as any.
“Okay, boys,” Ghent said, “let’s take her to the dance. Obie, you know your place.”
The six men rode their mounts out of the alley, then dismounted in front of the bank. Obie stood and held the horses, while the five others went inside the building. Obie Meriwether looked at the women walking down the street. He smiled at each and dipped his hat, just like his momma had taught him. Standing on the mucky road, he appeared out of place, holding six horses with a hitching post right in front of him.
As Marshal Wounded Hawk grew closer, that struck him as strange, especially with the man standing right in front of the bank. Leading his horse and mule, he kept his head down, not wishing to raise suspicion, passed the bank and then stopped at the first hitching post on the next block. He tied his animals to the post and mounted the wooden sideboards. Leaning against a support for the overhanging cover, he watched the young man intently from under the wide, flat brim of his hat.
A young boy walked out of the general store near him, gnawing on a horehound candy stick. The Indian looked at the boy and wagged his finger for him to come to him. The boy hesitated. The man calling him wasn’t someone he knew, and he was an Indian dressed in buckskins. But he had a badge on his chest. How odd, the boy thought, stepping over to Hawk.
“Yes…?” the boy said, adding, “sir,” as an afterthought to respect the badge, not the man.
“Hey, kid. Go to the city marshal’s office and fetch Marshal Larkin,” Hawk said in a hushed voice. “Be right quick about it.” He handed the boy a nickel, and the lad tore off down the boarded sidewalk to the marshal’s office.
A deep bellowing gunshot barked out from inside the bank. The report preceded a man flying through the front doors of said bank by a moment so brief it is hardly worth noting. The outlaw lay on the rough boards of the sidewalk, with a gaping wound that poured blood all over himself and the wooden boards. He rolled about with his hands clutched uselessly to the wound, then they fell to his side as he stilled. He died before several higher pitched gunshots tore into the morning air from the open door of the bank, before four men ran out of the door, jumping over their fallen compadre.
Hawk swore, yanked the Remington cap-n-ball from his holster, took aim and pulled the trigger, dropping one man. The remaining men fired at him and Hawk dove behind a water trough. The bandits mounted up and rode west, spurring their animals away from the scene. Poking his head up, Hawk watched as the men fled the town.
The four riders drove their animals down the steep embankment to the southwest, into the long valley below the resort community. Twisting and turning to avoid trees and boulders they moved as fast as safety would allow them. After a few minutes, the leader slowed the group. Pacing the mounts, he continued sneaking glances back here and there. He pulled his horse to a stop, and the others followed suit. Ghent swiveled in his saddle and studied the town at the peak. He couldn’t believe no one had followed.
“Must be lily-livered cowards, boys,” he said. His hopes fell faster than they had risen as Horace saw a group of riders leave the town. In a slow and deliberate manner, the lead rider studied the ground. Their leader turned the ten riders onto the fresh trail that Ghent and his men left.
“Spoke too soon,” young Obie told him. “I think that’s the Half-Injun marshal they call Hawk.”
“Why?” one of the other men asked.
“Cause, I think it was him that took shots at us,” Obie Merriweather said.
“We can debate this later,” Ghent said, “ride hard that away,” he told them, pointing to a peak to the southwest. “Thar’s a long narrow canyon at the base of that peak. At the end of it, it breaks into a box canyon. We’ll lie in wait in there and blast them most anyplace we want. Make our way around the mountain to the valley on the other side. They won’t follow beyond where we ambush ‘um. Deputy US marshal or no, put four or five of ‘um down like rabid dogs, they’ll go home, tail tucked betwixt their legs, licking their wounds.”
“Not Hawk, he won’t,” Obie said.
“Then I’ll lay the breed low myself,” another man said.
“We’ll have time to argue who shoots who, after we get thar,” Horace Ghent told them. “Take us till noon, or not at all, if you y’all keep a jawing.” Ghent put his spurs to his animal. The group followed suit and moved on at a dangerous pace for a bit, then slowed down to save the horses. An hour later, they rode into the long narrow ravine, a few hundred yards long. The brigands moved up the sharp embankment and backtracked close to the opening, then settled in to wait.
The Yellow Stone River 1848
17 Years Earlier
“How long?” Swift Hawk pointed to deer tracks on a small dusty trail.
“Which ones?” the ten-year-old Wounded Hawk asked, then didn’t wait for the answer. He’d cover all his bases. “The ones coming toward me that are crisp, they are less than an hour old. Some of the others coming this direction are a day old and the rest, well, they’re older. The ones that are going away from me are a maybe six hours old. Well, not all of them. Most are days old, but those that have a good outline, the tracks with edges just starting to crumble are six hours old.”
“Good, my son,” Swift told him. He pointed to one set of tracks, “One day,” pointing to another, he added, “two day. Rest many day. How long for grass to straighten if horse walk over?”
“If he has a rider, hour and a half or longer, if no rider, an hour or so,” Hawk told his father, then looked downcast. “Do I really have to go back east?”
“Yes, educationing important,” Swift told him.
“It’s education, father,” he said.
“More like mother ever day,” Swift said, shaking his head. “We education you about tracks this day. You go east soon.”
“I know, son, educate…” Swift told him, smiling at his son. He tried his best, but would never be as eloquent with the language as his English wife.
The pair explored the river bank as the older Indian taught the younger how to do many things. He told him of the prejudice to expect back east. Not that Wounded Hawk hadn’t already known bigotry, for the Crow didn’t treat him much different than the whites would.
“Why do people do that?” he asked his father as they sat down on the bank.
“Hate, just because of the color of a person’s skin.”
The old man rubbed his smooth chin and contemplated that. It was a difficult question for him to answer. Swift Hawk himself didn’t understand it fully. Still, he would try to explain it to his son.
“Fear,” he said. “Not an invading kind. Not overwhelm type, but fear.”
“Fear of what?”
“I do not know. Fear of things different. Many whites and Indians have this fear. Hard to put in English word for me.” Swift Hawk dropped the attempt at English, preferring to speak in his own tongue. “White men are afraid of the difference in the way Indians live their lives. Not all, maybe, not most. But the ones who are fearful are loud. They want to think, no, to know, they are the best. The fear is, well, of being wrong. That the different thing might be as good, or even better. So, they lash out at what they fear.” Switching back to English, he added, “Indian the same. The mixing of the blood frights them even more.”
“Frightens,” the boy corrected his father.
“So like mother. Make me proud of you,” Swift told Wounded. Putting his hand on the boy’s shoulder, he squeezed, then rubbed his son’s back.
The Hawk men, father and son, sat together looking at the water as it flowed by. Swift observed a small backwash and saw fishing swimming in the water.
“Go in there and catch us lunch,” he told his son.
“Yes?” Swift Hawk asked him, turning toward the boy.
“I’m not going east,” he said, “I’m staying here with you.”
“You are going to go east to school, my son,” Swift Hawk said, turning away from his son. He gazed at the mountains, the river, or anything to avoid looking his son in the eye. While he wanted the boy to go back east and go school, then college, he also wanted him here with him. The older man knew the way of the Indian would soon be gone. The Indian knew war would come and the Indian would lose. For his son to have a future, he had to leave the tribe.
“Why?” Wounded Hawk asked, tugging on his father’s sleeve.
“Because your mother wishes it,” he said, turning to his son. “You should know by now, what Sorfina wishes, that is what is so. She is English. They are like that, you know.”
“I don’t want to go. No one back east will like me,” he said defiantly.
“Son, no one in the tribe likes you, it is part of being mixed. We have already talked about this part.”
“I am used to their dislike,” Wounded Hawk said, fighting tears.
“Stop that. It will not be worse than here. Have I ever told you why your name is Wounded?”
“No, father, you have never told me that,” the boy said. He had no idea why his name had anything to do with this.
“When you were born, your sister Susan asked us what we should call her baby brother. I said we should perhaps name you George Harrison, after your sister’s real father. But your mother Sorfina say, as she put you in my arms, that her first husband was gone, and you were not George’s boy, but my son.”
“Sophronia,” Wounded Hawk said.
“I can’t say name that way. Don’t erupt your father,” Swift said.
The boy resisted his impulse to further correct him as his father continued.
“So, again, Susan asked us, ‘Yes, but what do we name him, then?’ Your mother say, ‘Hawk, after his father. We will call him Wounded Hawk.’ The sadness in her touched me so deep inside my heart. I asked her why, and she say, ‘he is half you and half me. Half Crow, and half white. A half-breed. He will never be at home with the Crow or with whites—he is wounded,’ she say.”
The boy sat there, folded his arms and declared, “You won’t be there. Mother won’t be there. I’ll hate it and won’t learn anything.” Tears trickled from his eyes.
“You will learn. You are too good a son not to learn. And we be there at first, when we go, well, until you get used to that. And you will get used to the whites not liking you, just as you got used to Crow not being fond,” he said, then pointed to the river.
“But for now, go out there and get our dinner. This is a dispensation for us.”
“Dispensation. Your mother taught the word to me. Do you not like how it sounds? Dispensation?” Swift Hawk thumped his son on the back.
“But, what does it mean?”
“Oh, it is a wonderful word. It means,” Swift held his hand up, “a divine ordering of a worldly thing, a time set aside by The Great Spirit for just you and me. Now, go get me a big one. I’m hungry.”
Drying his eyes, the boy stood. He strode down to the backwash, waded into the water, and dropped his hands into the fridge stream. His father knew him well. He would learn both the ways of the Indian and the ways of the white man. Wounded Hawk would make both his mother and father proud of him.
“See that big one?” his father asked him. Wounded Hawk nodded. “That mine. So, catch him.”
“Yes, Father,” the young man said.
Southwest of Estes Park, Colorado Territory
Memories of the past flooded Wounded Hawk’s thoughts while following the tracks though the lush grass. His father had taught him the gift of tracking prey well. Shaking the recollections from his mind, Hawk led the men toward the fleeing bandits. As the posse approached the canyon opening, Marshal Hawk slowed the advance, holding up his hand to indicate they should stop. Marshal Silas Larkin trotted his horse up next to Hawk. The two men studied the opening.
“Good place for a bushwhack,” Silas told Hawk.
“Right…good…place,” Hawk said. “They rode in, but how far?” Hawk rubbed his hairless chin as Silas Larkin removed his hat and ran his fingers through his sparse hair. “Chilly today isn’t it?” Hawk asked his friend.
“Yeah, winter’s right around the corner.” Marshal Larkin looked up at the trees on the sides of the canyon. “Wish them aspens had lost their leaves already.”
The rest of the posse moved next to the leaders. A few clouds rolled over the sky, casting moving shadows on the countryside.
“We moving in?” one anxious man asked.
“Not jus’ yet,” Marshal Larkin told him. Leaning out, he craned his neck and spit tobacco juice out on the rough ground. “Plenty of boulders to hide behind,” Larkin said, “Plenty of places for hell to rain down on us.”
Two of the men on the far north end of the line grumbled, about what, the two leaders couldn’t hear. Hawk yelled for everyone to hold their ground a minute as he studied the trees and boulders on the slopes. At last, the two anxious moaners grew tired at the hold up, prompted their beasts and rushed headlong into the tight valley.
Gunfire erupted, dropping the two men from their horses. Two other posse men were shot from their mounts, as Wounded Hawk heard a ball whiz past his ear. With a yell at the men to move, Hawk and Larkin charged toward the valley opening. Finding cover behind the rocks, they dismounted and concealed themselves as best they could. After a few seconds, Wounded Hawk identified where the fire came from on the south grade. Using his big Sharps 50, Hawk found his mark with his first shot. A man tumbled down the hillside. Pulling the trigger guard lever down, the spent cartridge fell to the ground, before the Marshal shoved home a new round.
Likewise, Silas Larkin found where the gunfire came from on the northern slope. Using his Henry rifle, he sprayed the area, killing the concealed desperado. The man tumbled from his hiding place down a washout.
A third gunman fired from the south. He sprayed the posse with several volleys before Wounded Hawk located him, dispatching him with another blast from his long-range rifle. They heard the other bank robbers moving away on the northern slope, as they spurred their mounts, crashing through the fallen timber, rough terrain and knocking over saplings. The battle ended almost as soon as it began. Five of the posse lay dead, with two wounded. The sound of the fleeing men grew fainter the further they moved down the canyon.
“Damn, they’re going to get away,” Larkin said. He moved up the mountainside to the north, gathering up the horse of the fallen man. Draping the dead man over the saddle, Silas Larkin tied him to it. Checking the saddlebags, he found some of the loot. “At least, I got some of the money back,” Silas yelled across the valley to where Hawk retrieved the fallen on the south side.
“No money here,” he shouted.
The two men met at their own waiting horses. The posse men who weren’t injured gathered up their fallen and wounded. The group looked dejected. Hawk and Larkin led their horses back to the group.
“I gotta get these men back to town,” Larkin said.
“I’ll go after them,” Hawk told him, nodding his head in the direction the remaining bank robbers had gone.
“No, you can’t. You still have two desperados out there,” the marshal said. “I can’t spare narry a one to go with you.”
“I don’t need anyone to go with me,” Hawk replied. He walked over to the horses carrying the dead and took two canteens, returned to his mount, and climbed onto his saddle. All the time Larkin argued for him not to trail the remaining bandits.
“Where’s my damn mule?” Hawk asked, ignoring Larkin. Spying the animal, he smiled. “Mule…get yourself over here!” he shouted. The pack animal moved from some brush and trotted to Hawk. Pulling his rifle from its boot, he shucked out the empty shell and replaced it with a fresh load.
“Give me a few hours, and I can come back and help.” Larkin hadn’t given up.
“I don’t mean to offend you, Silas, but I don’t need or want your help,” Hawk said. “You won’t be able to find us. They’re heading to that long valley on the far north side of the mountain. Then they’ll be turning south once they reach the other side.”
“Wouldn’t they just go around the south side if they intended to go south?”
Smiling at the city marshal, Wounded Hawk let out chuckle, “That’s what you’d do, yeah, shortest distance. But these guys are avoiding you, hoping you’ll lose their trail.”
“I guess Tom can get these fellers back,” Larkin told him.
“Don’t need any help,” Hawk insisted, shook his head then turned southward. “Take care of your flock, Marshal Larkin. I’ll take care of the miscreants and bring the bank money back to you.” Hawk waved without turning back to the men.
He rode his horse at a steady pace, making good time without tiring the beast and pack mule too much. He had the shorter route to go, and could set a trap for the remaining two bandits by intercepting them after they turned south. After a couple of hours, he came to the foot of the mountain, and making his way around he found a good spot to wait on the two men. Tying the horse and mule out of sight inside the tree line, Hawk made his way toward a rocky outcrop overlooking the valley. He carried his big Sharps ’50 and looked to the north. Sitting between two fallen trees he put his back to one and watched the valley over the other. The air turned colder. Hawk wished he had gotten his buffalo coat out of its place in the pack saddle before he’d taken cover. His buckskins would have to suffice for now.
The cold air and location brought memories rushing to his mind. Of his friend, and a conversation they’d had one cold December night in 1863. He missed Cyrus, missed him a lot. Hawk wondered if he could make his way up to Cyrus’s grave after he got back to Golden City for a visit before the snows made it impossible.
Lieutenant Cyrus Kingston walked through the snow holding two cups of coffee in his hands. He smiled at his friend, before Hawk shot him a hard stare, chasing the smile from Cyrus’s face. He handed the coffee down to him, then spoke to him in a loud, harsh voice.
“Here’s some coffee for you, you lousy redskin heathen,” Kingston said. Hawk took the cup, cupping his hands around it to warm them.
“I don’t think anyone is buying your hateful act,” Hawk told him.
The lieutenant sat next to him and leaned his back against the fallen tree. Sipping from his own cup, he glanced over at the Indian scout as a smile crossed his lips again.
“Yeah, they are. That stocky short feller you ride with, Deadeye…”
“His name is Bain. John Henry Bain, and he hates being called Deadeye,” Hawk told him.
“Yeah, well, that Bain feller threatened to beat me if I didn’t treat you better,” Cyrus Kingston told him.
“I’ll give him a talking to, and let him in on the fact we’re friends,” Hawk said.
“I’m just happy that there’s someone else don’t hate you. Don’t make sense hating someone because they’re a half-breed,” Cyrus said. “I don’t like this play acting,” he said, and looked down at the ground. “Makes me ashamed that I treat you like a dog.”
“Bain is different. But the rest of them, they’d treat you bad if they knew you and I were friends. You don’t want to be branded an Indian lover, do you?” Wounded Hawk asked him.
“Wouldn’t bother me at all,” he said sipping his coffee again.
“I won’t do that to you,” Hawk said, staring up at the stars on the cold December night.
“Probably more folks like Dead…” Cyrus’s voice trailed off, “Bain than you realize. Have you ever seen anyone who can shoot like that man?”
“No, but I shoot pretty good,” Hawk said.
“Not like him,” he said, raising his voice, “Redskin’s is lousy shots.”
“Sometimes, you get a kick out of that.”
“Sometimes,” Cyrus told him in a hushed whisper. “Crow is the worst of them all. Well, that’s what I hear,” Kingston said loudly. The two men resisted laughing.
Bain walked by, glaring down at Kingston with the harshest look that Cyrus had ever seen. The dark blue eyes seemed to be on fire, his jaw jutted out, and his brow furrowed. He said nothing but continued to glower at Kingston for several steps before he passed on to his own spot and sat down.
“Yeah,” Wounded Hawk said, “I’ll let him in on it, tomorrow.”
The uneven terrain made for rough going. The two men had to dismount and lead the animals through the maze of trees, boulders, and sudden changes in the landscape. Eventually, they led the beasts into the long valley they’d been heading for. The floor of the basin gave the impression it was perfectly level. A small creek meandered down the middle, and even in late October, the grass was still green. The aspens were already turning colors, with leaves golden yellows, brilliant reds and dull browns. High, bare peaks surrounded them.
“Too bad about the other fellers,” Obie told Ghent. “Ya think…”
“They’s expendable, Obie,” Ghent said, “the others is always expendable. Always been just you and me, boy. We’ll head south, then move out to the gold fields on the western slope. Got a jerk-line on you boy?”
“Yes, sir, I got one in the saddle bag.”
“Here,” Horace Ghent said, handing a large handful of money to the boy. “Sorry, we lost what we lost, but still plenty here for us.”
“Won’t last long,” Obie told him.
“Never does, boy,” Horace admitted. “Women, gambling, high living and then we’re broke again. We should ride half an hour or so. Need to make sure no one’s a trailing us. Then you take that jerk-line and get us some cutthroats.”
The pair rode south next to the brook, while around them the aspen exploded in brilliant colors, lending a serenity to the countryside. Ghent kept a constant look over his shoulder, at last, satisfied, he smiled as the tension subsided. As the sky began to cloud over, he pulled the horses to a stop and moved next to a low hanging branch of an aspen tree. Reaching up, he plucked a golden leaf from the tree.
“Climb down,” Ghent said, glancing up at the sky, “turn over a fallen log and get a worm or two, throw your line in that beaver pond yonder, and get us some dinner before we get some weather, Obie boy.”
“You reckon the others surrendered?” Obie Meriwether asked him, dismounting, as a gust of wind scattered the leaves on the ground.
“Weren’t the giving up types,” Horace told him. “But it works out, we lost us some of the loot, but you and me, as always, are flush and free. Always comes down to you and me, boy. The rest can go to hell.”
The limb above Ghent’s head shattered at the same time the report from the shot reached his ears. The falling branch struck Horace Ghent’s head, knocking him to the ground. Looking up from his position, Horace saw Hawk standing there, three or four hundred yards away.
“That’s your warning!” the Indian shouted, his hand cupped to his mouth. “Give up, and we can be done with this. You don’t need to die.”
Jumping to his feet, Horace pulled his Henry from its scabbard, and removed the saddlebags from the mount. Throwing the gun to his shoulder, he sprayed shot after shot toward the man. But Hawk had chosen his vantage spot well, and dropped to the ground behind a large log. Peeking over, he watched as the two men grabbed their saddlebags, abandoned their mounts, and ran through the small river. They headed into the trees, scurrying up the mountain side. Hawk shook his head, looking above him. The top of the mountain was already shrouded in thick snow filled clouds.
“Come on boy, keep up. We get beyond this mountain, he’ll give up,” Ghent declared. “Too steep for the animals, and besides we’ll have the drop on him if’n he follows.” The two men scrambled up the steep grade. Moving at a near run, they made their way up the mountain.
“That’s Hawk, uncle. That’s that damn Indian marshal. We need to give up,” Obie said.
For twenty minutes as they climbed upward, the boy kept advocating surrender until his uncle had had enough. Ghent skittered to a stop, then grabbing the trunk of a tree for support, he turned back to his nephew. Above them, heavy clouds rolled over the mountains as the air chilled even more. Snow began to fall in big fluffy flakes around the two men.
“Beyond that mountain is freedom, boy,” Ghent told Obie. Determination filled Horace. He had to be free. Couldn’t go back to breaking rocks or working the roadbeds. Wouldn’t do that again. They took your soul in jail.
“We won’t make it, uncle Horace. That’s Deputy US Marshal Wounded Hawk. We ain’t no match for him. And look, snow’s settlin’ in here,” the boy pleaded.
Horace looked at Obie, disappointment filling his eyes. The boy would just slow him down. He didn’t want to do it, but he had to. He wasn’t going back to jail. Without another thought, he raised the rifle and fired. Obie fell dead. Dropping his saddlebag, he tumbled head over heels down the side of the mountain.
“You disappoint me,” Ghent said. “My own blood,” he shouted, “my sister’s only child a coward. See there, Obie? The angry clouds up the top of the mountain? He’ll lose us up thar.” Ghent grabbed his nephew’s satchel filled with loot, then turned up the incline, pointing his rifle at the heavy clouds that rolled over the mountain. The snowfall increased. The white flakes were thick in the air, the crystals clung to the limbs and leaves of the sparse trees. Wet, sticky snowflakes stuck to Horace’s face and clothing. Ghent took time to button up his coat, turned and smiled at his dead relative below, “Still, I’m going to miss you, son.”
Horace Ghent climbed as hard as he could. Moving up the mountain, at times he stopped, turned and fired haphazardly down the mountainside at the Indian he knew had to be pursuing him. He heard nothing but his pounding heart, as concern for his freedom swamped him. He saw nothing down the slope but the worsening snowfall as it turned from a hard fall to a blizzard. When Ghent went above the treeline, the visibility became even more difficult. The snow fell so fast and hard, he could no longer see more than a few feet in front of him. Horace now only perceived the landscape in hazy shades of white. The snow covered his ankles, then a little while after that his knees, and still he climbed onward to the summit. If he could just get beyond the top, he would be free.
Twilight covered the valley and the mountain, but nonetheless, he climbed on. The fear of capture drove him, as visibility disappeared, and the world turned white. But he refused to quit. With the money in the saddlebags and his rifle slung over his shoulder, he clambered toward the peak, and freedom. The cold buried itself deep inside him. His fingers ached, his toes burned, his cheeks blistered, but most of all, his lungs hurt. The air he breathed tore at his lungs with searing pain with every ragged breath. Stopping, he looked around, found a big rock and tossed the saddlebags up onto it. Ghent then sat with his back against the rock, trying to find some respite from the blowing snow.
“Obie, my boy, this reminds me of a storm back when I was a kid,” Horace said. “Your mom, God rest her soul, took pneumonia and nearly died. Pa lost most of the milk cows that year, which ended our farm. You know, I took you in when your ma and pa died. Made you one of my gang. Always been you and me boy. Why’d you go yeller on me?”
Pulling half frozen jerky from his pocket, he tore off a chunk and ate it. Levering his rifle, he pulled the trigger, but nothing happened. He levered it again, yanked the trigger, and again, nothing. Ghent didn’t even realize the gun wasn’t loaded, as he levered and pulled the trigger.
“Take that damn half-breed!” he shouted, his words disappearing into the howling wind.
“I think it’s warming up, son,” he said, feeling a warmth creeping through his bones. “I’ll just rest my eyes for a few minutes, get my wind again, Obie. After a minute er two, I’ll head over the top while it’s dark. I’ll give the SOB the slip, son. Freedom is just beyond the summit.”
While the snow fell fast and furious, Hawk decided to wait till morning to give chase. Bundling his buffalo coat around him, Marshal Hawk scanned the area, searching for cover. A small opening into the rock at the base of the mountain caught his eye. He was in luck. It was a cave. Not big, but big enough for him and his animals.
Once inside, Hawk built a fire, then fed and watered his horse and mule. Following that he warmed a can of beans and sat talking to his animals as he ate. For more than an hour, he told them of his father and mother, Cyrus Kingston, his life as a New York City policeman, and his time in the war.
“That’s when I got you,” he told the horse, who flicked his ears toward the voice. “Now, don’t go getting a big head, but you’re a pretty good mustang.” The mule bellowed his complaint, “Yeah, you’re not bad either, mule.” Hawk didn’t even bother getting his bedroll. He just slept with his feet near the fire.
When morning came he ate cold jerky and drank hot coffee. Knocking the snow from the opening of the small cave, Wounded Hawk moved outside and looked at the thick blanket of snow. Turning, he reentered the cave and led the horse and mule out, tied them to trees next to the stream, and uncovered the grass for them. He then got his Sharps ‘50 and headed to where the men had scurried up the side of the mountain the afternoon before.
Even through the fallen snow, he could track them. They had disturbed enough saplings, rocks, and other items for Wounded Hawk to follow the men with ease. Before long, he found the boy. The first sign had been his gloved hand poking out of the snow. He refused to leave him, pulled him free of it and carried him back down into the valley, slung over his shoulder. Hawk worried if the other man had gotten over the summit. Even if he had, the bank robber had a canteen and whatever food he had in his pockets, nothing more. Nowhere near enough supplies. The abandoned horses had returned to the clearing where his own beasts were tethered. He slung the boy over one of the saddles and secured him. Then he hitched the two horses to other trees, clearing the snow for them to eat the grass below.
Hawk looked up the mountain, now clear of the thick clouds, and again he scrambled up the grade. He climbed steadily, past the point where he’d found the boy, and kept heading upward. At midday as he crested another outcrop, he saw him sitting there. The man’s back was against the rock as he sat buried to his chest in a snow drift. If the brigand still held his rifle, it was buried. Horace Ghent sat as still as the rock he was leaning against. Wounded Hawk pushed his hat up and studied Ghent, waiting for a movement that never came.
Hawk climbed up to the man and tried to move him. Horace Ghent sat frozen to the ground and rock, his frozen eyes staring into the distance. Hawk shook his head at the man’s foolishness. He noticed a leather string sticking out of the snow on the ledge above his head. Pulling the saddlebags out as snow fell off them, he checked the loot.
“You dumb, bas…” Hawk began, then stopped. “Mustn’t speak ill of the dead, or the stupid.” He slung the saddlebags over his shoulder and turned his back on the frozen bank robber. “I’ll tell the marshal where you are, old feller. We’ll get someone up here to give you a proper burial…someday. Might be spring though,” he said, as he made his way down the mountain. Stopping one last time, he looked up toward where Ghent sat and wondered why men did such foolish things.