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Western Short Story
The Hunters Story
(North Texas 1879)
Charles D. Phillips

Western Short Story

“Captain,” the Trooper said, “we got something strange up ahead.” The Trooper, a newly-minted cavalry man assigned to the forward picket detail had reined in just late enough to send up a cloud of caliche dust that floated into the faces of his officers. Captain Grantham coughed, looking to his First Sergeant and nodding. The Sergeant touched his cap. If this wasn’t a life-and-death situation, that Trooper would spend the rest of this patrol riding at the end of a hundred-man column moving forward four abreast across the dry Texas plains.

The reward for his impetuousness would be far more than his fair ration of dust.

First Sergeant Powell, riding next the Captain, turned quickly, rose up in his saddle, and said, “Trooper, you’ll report to the Captain in a proper manner.” The Trooper looked at the Sergeant, and then the Captain. He came to some semblance of attention in his saddle, executed what he hoped was a smart salute, and began again. “Captain Grantham, Sir, pickets seen a white man, sitting by a fire up top of that rise a coupla miles ahead, Sir. He’s wrapped up in a saddle blanket and wearing an ol’ campaign hat, Sir, and his fire seems to be next to a new grave, Sir, an awful big grave.”

Shaking his head slightly, the commander of the 10th Troop of the 4th Cavalry asked, “Is that man a threat to this command, Trooper?” Still slightly flustered, the Trooper saluted again, and said, “Uh, no Sir, I don’t think he’s no threat. He has hisself a couple of buffalo guns, but he seen us, and he ain’t reaching for ’em. Sergeant Tully sent Roberts on ‘round the ridge ‘hind him, Sir. He didn’t see no sign of ambush. But, he says they’s a ton of Indian sign maybe a few days old on the ridge just opposite that man, Sir, and in that valley ‘tween them ridges and prob’ly on the ridge he’s sittin’ on. They’s also patches of dried blood feeding flies in a bunch of places on them ridges and in that valley. But, Tully didn’t want to go on up to him without your say-so, Sir.”

“Trooper, tell the Corporal to have the pickets resume their duties. A detachment from the main body will approach this man. Return to your post,” said the Captain, finally returning the last of the Trooper’s many nervous salutes. The Trooper turned his lathered horse and spurred it forward to resume his position.

Captain Grantham turned to First Sergeant Powell and said, “Sergeant, I doubt we’ve anything to fear, but it might be best if you took a dozen men to investigate. I don’t want any men buried here because of some crazy buffalo hunter. Send back a rider who can make a coherent report of what you find.” Following quick commands from Powell, the first three ranks of four Troopers maneuvered into two columns of six and followed the First Sergeant forward at a brisk trot.

The report that came back from Powell’s rider was only slightly clearer than the point-rider’s. Powell’s message was, “The Captain should plan to bivouac the Troop on the hunter’s ridge, and the Captain should be ready to hear hisself a strange tale.” Grantham wondered what kind of story the Sergeant would describe as strange. Powell had ridden with Kearny in The War and Cook in The West, and then he cowboyed and prospected awhile before returning to an Army saddle. He was a man who’d seen pretty much all The West had to offer, especially in this slice of the north Texas plains.

But, missions like this, chasing a band of Comanche reservation jumpers mostly involved eating dust and chasing shadows. It was a monotonous, boring business. Usually, when the Troop came close enough to engage the marauders, the war party simply disintegrated. Each Comanche warrior rode off in a different direction and made his way individually back to the reservation. All this was pretty mundane, unless as sometimes happened, you were busy reloading your Colt with your saber stuck in the ground just in front of you and hiding every vestige of your own fear as those in your command were dying and killing. These last two weeks though, had been filled with nothing but following old tracks, losing them, finding them again and then trudging across the plains. To Grantham, an evening with this stranger seemed to offer at least the possibility of a minor, welcome diversion.

After the 10th reached the far ridge, an evening perimeter was secured and checked. Care for all the men’s mounts was assured, cook fires were started, and then the pe-rimeter was checked again. Only after those tasks were completed did the Captain, his Lieutenants, and his non-commissioned officers congregate at the buffalo hunter’s fire, where they all sipped coffee. Some smoked pipes or cigars. The early arrivals had been waiting for the Captain’s presence before pushing to hear the buffalo hunter, Jake Pardue, tell his tale.

When the Captain appeared, his Commissary Sergeant handed him a tin plate filled with beef and beans and a bubbling cup of coffee. Grantham took a seat on a camp stool directly across from the hunter. Pardue was leaning against his saddle, backed up to the mound of dirt and stones Grantham’s Trooper had described as a grave. As best the Captain could tell, if it were a grave, then Goliath had risen from the dead and come to Texas to be buried yet again. Grantham had been introduced to the hunter earlier, but this was his first chance to stop and hear what the man had to say.

Pardue was in his late 30s or early 40s. He was a bit shorter than six feet, with the slender, wiry build of a hardened plainsman. Since the arrival of the 10th, Pardue had supplemented his horse blanket and hat with a blouse from the stores in the Troop’s supply wagons. Grantham noted the worn campaign hat and that Pardue wore beaded buckskin pants tucked into soft boots. He had a saddle decorated with bits of silver, and his twin .50 caliber Sharps buffalo guns reflected the firelight with the dim luster of well cared-for weapons.

At the same time, Pardue’s hair was wildly unevenly on the sides, and he had a number of relatively shallow slashes on his chest and cheeks. Much of Pardue’s appearance indicated to Grantham that the man was a buffalo hunter who had known considerable success. But, nothing in his demeanor or his belongings hinted at why he was alone on the high Texas plains without a horse or a shirt, but with wounds on his chest and face. He was camped not far from a number of large patches of dried blood, but only his right hand, wrapped in some type of poultice, indicated the sort of wound that might’ve produced any significant amount of blood.

After the Captain seated himself on the camp stool provided by his Commissary Sergeant, he opened the conversation before dipping his spoon into the slowly cooling mass on his plate. “Mister Pardue, from what little you’ve said to my men, I understand you’ve had quite an experience out here in the last few days. I hope you won’t mind telling us about that? And, I also hope you’ll pardon my manners, but this is my first chance for an evening meal.”

“It’s me who should be begging your pardon, Captain, Pardue replied in a deep, melodious voice with an accent that Grantham could not place. “Your men’ve been awful helpful to a stranger they just come up on out here on the prairie. I can also say they’ve shown some good measure of discipline in awaiting their commanding officer’s arrival before asking what they probably consider some burning questions.” Of course,” he said with the trace of a smile, “that doesn’t go for your Sergeant Powell. Like most First Sergeants I’ve known, Powell is not endowed with anything other than the barest minimum of patience.”

Grantham nodded at the hunter and said, “It’s true. First Sergeants aren’t men of great patience, but I’ve yet to decide whether that’s a failing or a blessing. I suspect that decision depends on whether you’re giving orders to, or taking orders from, a First Sergeant. Which was it for you, Sir, when you last wore a blue blouse?” said Grantham as he took a bite of his dinner.

“Well,” said Pardue, “when I last wore a uniform my blouse was green, and toward the end of my time in uniform, I was a First Sergeant myself. So, as you might suspect, I’ve considerable sympathy for Sergeant Powell and his lack of patience. Promotions in my unit during those days were a good deal easier to come by, so I doubt your Sergeant would see me as his equal.”

Grantham and all his men paused. The spoon was only part of the way to the Captain’s mouth. Pipes and cigars were no longer puffed. Grantham looked at the hunter and said, “Did you say a green blouse, Sir? Were you one of Berdan’s Sharpshooters?”

“I joined up with one of the original Companies recruited out of Michigan that Berdan brought up. I mustered out in early ’65 at the end of my enlistment,” replied Pardue.

Every man around that fire knew of Berdan’s Sharpshooters. These men could put five rounds no farther than a total of five inches from a target’s center at 300 feet, while firing without a rest for their rifle. With a rest, all could do the same at 600 feet, and many could do the same at 900 or even 1,200 feet. The Sharpshooters usually served as widely dispersed skirmishers attached to traditional infantry units and positioned far beyond Union lines. Other times, Sharpshooters were sent forward individually with their Sharps breechloaders to serve as solitary snipers and strip Rebel forces of their scouts, their officers, their gunners, or their artillery spotters prior to a Union assault.

But, only occasionally did Sharpshooters fight as a unit at crucial positions in major battles, where they and their breechloaders laid down rapid waves of fire that cut through Rebel lines like scythes taking down dried stalks of corn. All the veterans around the campfire knew that fighting in a unit and being bolstered by the shoulder-to-shoulder presence and courage of your comrades was one thing. They also knew that fighting alone in enemy territory called for an entirely different and more intense kind of courage and confidence.

“Oh, I wouldn’t feel too bad about how the First Sergeant thinks about you,” said Grantham with his own smile. “Many times I’m not all that sure the Sergeant sees even me as his equal, but,” he said looking at Powell, “that’s a story for another time. Right now, Mr. Pardue, I think we’re really interested in hearing what in the name of God’s green Earth you’re doing out here when bands of Comanche renegades are off the reservation and combing this region just looking for easy takings, easy takings like a man traveling alone.”

The hunter leaned back against his saddle, slipped his saddle blanket across his lap, and gripped his cup of coffee in both hands. He closed his eyes for a moment, and then began his reply. “Well, mostly I’ve been out here making a fool of myself and getting into a god-awful mess for no reason other than my own pride and thoughtlessness. A week ago, I was just comin’ down from the high plains, ridin’ on the best buckskin saddle horse a man could want. I was actin’ fat and happy, heading for Buffalo Gap. The wagons, the hides, and the other hunters that I’d been out with had gone on ahead."

Pardue continued, “We were just moseyin’ along, taking our own sweet time, Paco and me. I was nursing his foreleg injury that got us left behind. It’s best not to get in the way of a bunch of buff hunters with full wagons and a terrible thirst when they’ve set their minds on moving fast toward money, women, and whiskey. But, I’s in no hurry. I knew my money’d be waiting when I got to The Gap, and I suspected there might even be at least a bit of whiskey and hot water left as well."

"Just a few hours northwest of here at that creek with the stand of mesquite, Paco and me stopped for a long night and easy mornin’ filled with the last of his oats, and the end of my coffee, bacon and biscuits. We got a late, lazy start that mornin’, but it was only a couple of days to The Gap, so I didn’t think it mattered.”

“It’d seemed a small thing to camp by that sweet water and take my time, but it turned out to be the type of mistake expected from a greenhorn, a honyoker." It wasn’t the sort of mistake expected from a man like Jake Pardue who understood that for a man alone on these plains the simplest things could mean the difference between life and death.

The buffalo hunter paused for a sip of coffee and a bit of a refill from the Commissary Sergeant, as he pulled the saddle blanket more closely to him. Every man around that fire who had any combat experience knew the hard, cold weight of those past mistakes that rise up at night to haunt your dreams. This man was one of them. He had lived through his mistakes, but he had suffered along the way.

“So,” Pardue continued, “we ran into a bunch of renegades while I was taking a shortcut between these two ridges. I expect you understand how well those years with Berdan taught me that low ground’s the killing ground. But, if I was thinkin’ at all, I was thinkin’ of my money at The Gap and nursin’ Paco’s leg. And, I know sure as anything that out here if you’re not thinkin’ then you’re diggin’ your own grave. But, course, knowin’ and doin’ are two different things.

So, I’m ridin’ the low ground like some honyoker, when a young brave came up on this very ridge. He shadowed me for a while. Lone braves are about as common as blue moon’s out here, so I started up the ridge toward him to see what he was really up to. I figured he was my blue moon, or his war party was over that next ridge waiting for him to spook me into their lap. I suspect they were thinkin’ they must’ve come up on some nervous farmer. They should’a known from my rig that I wasn’t some sodbuster. So, maybe they was just spoilin’ for a fight.

“When I started up the ridge, he came at me, yellin’ and wavin’ his spear, trying to get me to head toward his amigos. I dismounted and laid my Sharps across Paco’s saddle. Paco didn’t flinch one bit, even though this was the first time I ever had to use him for a shield and a rifle rest. The young one tryin’ to herd me toward his band took my round in his chest, and the rest of his party come whoopin’ down from that next ridge. I took out a few more hostiles ‘fore they recognized that this wasn’t gonna be some kind of easy pickin’s and galloped back over that ridge riding low on the necks of their ponies. I had some hope that I might’ve discouraged them, but I was dreamin’.

They musta parleyed for a few minutes, and then they moved back over that ridge like they’d drilled all their lives as mounted infantry. All of ‘em had dismounted. A couple of ’em had buff guns, and they kept to that ridge line and fired from cover. The others moved in small bunches from cover to cover with the groups not moving giving coverin’ fire for those moving. Hell, I’ve seen Regulars during The War do a worse job at infantry tactics than those Comanche in their war paint and buckskins. The only thing that kept me alive was that they couldn’t shoot worth a damn. Most of them were pretty young, I think, and they must’ve just traded or stolen them rifles, ‘cause their aim was purely horrible.”

The Captain interrupted at that point. “How many braves in that band when they came up on you,” he asked? “Oh, I expect there’s 25, maybe 30, of them when they first come on me. But, I took out four of &lsqulsquo;em in their first sortie, countin’ that boy they had trying to herd me.” “Were they Comanche?” asked Grantham. “Oh,” Pardue replied, “they were all Comanche, right off the rez and looking to prove that the days when this land was theirs weren’t completely over.”

Grantham looked at his comrades, “Sounds like Blue Hand and that bunch he led off the reservation just a couple of weeks ago and that we’ve been trying to track,” he said. His comment met with nods from his officers and sergeants.

“Beggin’ the Captain’s pardon,” said Sargeant Powell. To the hunter he said, “Pardue, we got you facing 20 or 25 Southern Comanch, some with rifles. And them braves was led by Blue Hand, an old warrior who learned his soldiering scoutin’ against the Apache for them Buffalo Soldiers in the 9th cavalry. So how, beggin’ the Captain’s pardon again, in the name of blazin’ Hell are you still here with your rifles and your scalp, drinkin’ this Army’s coffee and tellin’ us about this here fight. By all rights, it seems your scalp should be dryin’ on some brave’s lodge pole and them fancy rifles of yours should have feathers hanging from the barrels. You ain’t some kinda ghost now are ya, Mr. Pardue?”

The hunter paused, touched one of the healing wounds on his cheek with the pad of his thumb, shook his head a bit, and let something approximating a smile cross this face. “Well, Sergeant, I’ve always thought that ghosts had the luxury of feeling no pain and leavin’ all their earthly sins and regrets behind." “So,” he continued, “takin’ those things as the measure means I must still be pretty much alive.”

Pardue said. “I saw those young bucks comin’ at us. Me and Paco were just the other side of this ridge. I was lying down, and I took my aim. Then, like some bell rang in my head, I realized I didn’t want to gun down anybody. I’ve done more than any man’s decent share of killing in this life of mine, but I’ve always killed to protect myself or somebody else. In The War, sometimes I crept out alone and killed from cover like a back-shootin’ coward because my job was to save lives when the real attack came. Other times, I faced trouble shoulder-to-shoulder with other men. Out here on these plains and in hunters’ camp, I’ve killed men to save my life. I’ve killed buffalo like they was whiskey bottles sitting side-by-side on a rail fence, and I did it to fill my belly and my pockets. But, I’ve always killed for a purpose, not just because I knew I could. Those braves were gonna take my hair and my horse. There were just too many of them for me to come out alive. My killin’ as many bucks as I could wouldn’t save me. It wouldn’t save my pony. So, it seemed to me I was getting’ ready to do some serious killing -- just because I could. And, I decided I wasn’t gonna do it.”

“What’re you sayin’, man?” said Sergeant Powell. “What kind of damned fool would leave renegadin’ Comanch alive, when they’s his for the takin’. Those bucks wouldn’t a hesitated for a minute before roastin’ you over a fire after they cooked that precious horse of yours for supper. They was savages on the rampage, and I…”

The hunter pitched his remaining coffee on the fire where it splattered, spit, and threw up billowing smoke. Powell paused, and everyone turned to Pardue as he spoke. “First Sergeant,” he said, “you best be beggin’ my pardon. I fought the same war as you, maybe out in front of the lines where you stood with your men. I held your rank, and not because I wouldn’t do what needed to be done. I won’t be judged by you or anyone else ‘round this fire.” The hunter’s looked at the Sergeant and continued “I’ve fought for my life ever since I left my Daddy and his little church in upstate Michigan to join up in your Army. In all that time, I’ve never feared winnin’ a fight, and it’s been a long time now since I feared losin.”

Captain Grantham spoke up then, “Mr. Pardue, my apologies for my Sergeant’s interruption. No one’s questioning your courage. I just think the First Sergeant was, like most of us here, surprised, that’s all.” He gave Powell a hard look, and in his command voice, he said, “Sergeant Powell, I suggest that you reassure the Mr. Pardue that you meant no disrespect.” When no apology was forthcoming, the Captain said, “Now would be a good time to do that, First Sergeant.”

Powell paused, looked from Grantham to Pardue and said. “The Captain’s right. I’ve ridden a rough trail in Comanche country, but that still don’t make it my place to be tellin’ one of Colonel Berdan’s Sharpshooters what he should be doin’ when it comes to matters of killin’ or dyin’. Continue on for these officers and gentlemen, but I’ll be checking the perimeter. Troopers sometimes get a bit careless when they think the Captain and his officers distracted. I’d best be reminding them boys that we’re still deep in renegade country.” With that he emptied the remains of his coffee onto the ground and strode off into the encampment with both the chain of command and his own hard-earned dignity intact.

Pardue looked at Grantham and nodded. “I’d decided I’d be killin’ no more Comanch that day, but I also figgered Paco and me would go out our own way. I wasn’t gonna’ let them braves go home waving my gear and my hair, telling their squaws about their bravery. And, I certainly wasn’t gonna let’em take Paco, run him in pain ‘til his bad leg gave out, then butcher him.”

He stopped speaking for a moment, then he looked at the Captain, smiled slightly, held up his empty tin cup, and looked into it. Finally, he said, “Captain, I don’t know about you, but I always find it makes my mouth kinda dry to tell a story where I’m supposed to end up dead.”

Grantham gave a short laugh, then replied, “I would expect so, Mr. Pardue, I’d certainly expect so.” He turned to his Commissary Sergeant with his orders. “Sergeant, see if you can find us some coffee that hasn’t been cooked down to axle grease and bring me out a bottle of special rations.” With that the men around the fire relaxed again and began desultory chats among themselves as the good Sergeant hunted up some fresh coffee and a bottle of the Captain’s brandy.

The hunter was settling back against his saddle seat and again spreading the saddle blanket across his lap. When the Commissary Sergeant returned, he brought a new pot of coffee and handed the Captain his bottle of brandy. The Captain took each offered cup in turn. He put in a shot of brandy, then the Sergeant added coffee and returned the cup to its owner. The last man served was Pardue, and the Captain allowed the bottle to linger a bit longer over the hunter’s cup than over those of his men.

When each man had his cup, and some had settled back in with their tobacco, the hunter began again. ”I said that I’d decided we’d go out in a way I chose. So, the first thing I did was give my best Johnny Reb yell, the kind me and some of you fellas around this fire prob’ly still hear some nights in our sleep. I brought Paco up to the top of the ridge, then pulled him down on his side and sliced open his neck veins. I wet my fingers in the warm blood pumping down his neck and streaked my cheeks with it.” He took a sip from his cup, reached up, and ran one hand thru the hair on the side of his head and continued. “For years now, I been wearin’ my hair in two braids, kinda like Crow warriors do. Well, I used my knife to cut off my long braids and pitched them away to deny those red bastards a trophy scalp. Then, I took that ol’ green leather and horsehair knapsack we all got in The Sharpshooters, cut it to pieces, and pitched the pieces down the ridge. Finally, I had a buckskin shirt with some nice Lakota bead work. I did the same with it, and then I reached down into the pool of cooling blood beneath Paco and streaked four red fingers ‘cross my chest. I’s getting ready to die, and I’m not too sure why I was doing some of the things I did.”

“Well,” Pardue continued, I put one of my Sharps down on Paco’s withers, took up the other, stood up, and put a boot on Paco’s carcass. Then I started singing “Amazing Grace.” My Daddy was a minister up in Michigan, and I always sang in his choir. I had a solo on that song, and it always struck me as somethin’ special. My Momma, fore she died, dearly loved to hear that song. She would look at me in that choir like she was lookin’ at some angel or some miracle. Well, that was my Death Song, and you know how Comanch love themselves a warrior’s Death Song. So, they waited ‘til I finished, and they started at me from rocks maybe a coupla hundred or so yards out, screaming their own battle cries.”

He paused again and took another sip from his cup, and he noticed the First Sergeant at the back of the circle leaning against the supply wagon, just outside the firelight. He glanced at him for a moment, and then he continued. “You know, I thought I could do it. I thought I could just stand there and let’em kill me. Turned out I couldn’t. I went to one knee and started firing. A brave standing up behind a big rock got sharp rock splinters kicked up into his face. A buck pulling back on his bow had a .50 caliber bullet break his arm. Another two got shot in the leg below the knee. Well, that slowed them down some. I got nicked in a couple a places, but nothin’ serious. The one’s I leg-shot were pulled to safety by the others, and I reloaded both Sharps. These bucks were goin’ to kill me, but they were goin’ to carry the memory of this fight with ‘em for the rest of their lives.”

“Then, a yell came from the back of the ridge, and all those braves just stopped in their tracks. This one old warrior came down off the next ridge, riding his pony slow across that small valley like he owned both that land and me. He stopped just below where I was standing. He looked at me and yelled out in good English, ‘You show us no respect, Long Singer. You act like we give you no fear. You’re a warrior facing warriors, but you spank my braves with your rifles like they’re bad children? You should fight us now like you did when you first met us? Our women will cry because of that meeting, but their men died bravely. The women will marry again and know no disgrace. Now, you treat Comanche braves like children playing a game. These young men wish to become warriors. They cannot become warriors when they do not face death. You dishonor them.”

Pardue shook his head, sipped again, and noticed that everyone around the fire was waiting for him to finish, so he said, “I’d killed four of his band when they first come up on me, here he’s askin’ me why I wasn’t killin’ more of ‘em now.”

Pardue leaned farther forward toward the fire so that he could feel its heat on his face and hands. When he did, it threw bizarre shadows on the mound behind him. He continued in a low voice, “So I said to that old man, ‘Oh, I fear Comanche, both young and old. They’re great warriors. I know that today they’ll take my life. But, I’ve killed herds of men like they were grazing buffalo and killed buffalo like they were flies feasting on a piece of meat. I have killed one, then two, and then one after the other and another after that, until my rifle was too hot to load. So, you see, now I keep two rifles, so I can kill more.”

“Today, I decided that the Comanche would take my life, but that I wouldn’t die with more death on my hands. I couldn’t stand here like some piece of stone waiting for my death, so I’ve marked your braves. They’ll know that they’ve fought a warrior who’ll die as he chooses, not how you’d have him die. I leave no fine scalp for your lodge poles; I leave no beaded shirt for your back; I leave no fine horse for you to make your own. I paint myself with my pony’s blood, so that you’ll know that he was a warrior too and that he and I die today as one.”

“The old man just sat there for a minute,” then he said to me, ‘Long Singer, you think that you are stronger than my people, that you are stronger than the spirits and can choose how you die. Well, today, we show you our true strength. You will not die as you choose today. Today, you will live as we choose.” Then he turned ‘round and yelled somethin’ in Comanch. He rode right up to me, got off his pony and touched me with his quirt. He counted coup on me and on Paco’s carcass. Then, each of the other warriors came up and counted coup. Some just used their quirt. Others took a swipe at my chest or cheek and at Paco’s withers with their knives or axes. That’s how I got all these damned, itchy shallow cuts. Then, some young ‘uns brought all their ponies over the ridge. They mounted up, and they rode off.” He continued, “I just sat down next to Paco’s carcasss, and you know all I could think of at that moment was that if I was gonna stay alive how in the hell was I gonna bury Paco.” Pardue said and finished his coffee.

After he had looked for a moment into the flames before him, he turned to Grantham and made a request of the Captain. “I’d be obliged if you’d let me borrow one of your extra mounts and a bit of water and hardtack. I’ll hit The Gap in a day or so. I can get some gear, a horse of my own, and have a coupla days in a feather bed. Then, I’ll bring your mount back to Fort Griffin, along with some coin for the rations and blouse.”

The Captain picked up his bottle, handed it to the Commissary Sergeant, and poured the remains of his cup onto the fire. Before he departed for his bedroll, he said, “Mr. Pardue, the Quartermaster Sergeant will see to your needs at reveille. You can be on your way to The Gap, and we’ll head on out on the trail of the band that ambushed you. Hopefully, they’re headed back to the rez, and not to take a few scalps along with their coup. Bring back our mount, but don’t you worry about payment for anything else. The traveler who tells the best story always gets a free meal and such, even from the 4th Cavalry, good night, Mr. Pardue.”

As the men scattered, First Sergeant Powell came slowly out of the shadows and up to the hunter. He went down on one knee across the fire from the hunter and said, “You expect me to believe that load of horseshit you just fed them men about those savages? I don’t doubt there was a battle here. But, you run off didn’t you, and then come back and buried what was left of your dead partner’s in this grave. I think you’re a coward with a good story.”

Pardue’s face was still lit by the dying ambers of the fire. He turned and looked at Powell. “Oh, First Sergeant,” he said, “you need to understand that I don’t give even a tinker’s good damn whether you believe me or not. But, if you don't mind telling me, just where did I become a coward? Was it at The Wilderness? Maybe it was at Chancellorsville or Gettysburg?”

“Or, maybe it was at Abode Wells where me and other buff hunters held off Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and even Quanah Parker and his Apaches ‘til they got tired of getting killed. Or, maybe it was in all them towns out here where a cowboy might try to kill a buff hunter just because he doesn’t like the way he smells. Was that where my yellow streak started to show, Sergeant?”

“Those lines on your face and those stripes on your arm make me think you’ve prob’ly been in some tight places with all different kinds of men and been smart enough and tough enough to last.” So, unless that McClellan saddle you cavalry boys ride has beat your brains completely out, why don’t you just look into my eyes, First Sergeant, and figure out if you’re lookin’ at the sort of man who believes death is the worst thing that could happen to him?”

With that, Pardue pitched the remains of his cup into the fire. The remnants of the brandy made the flames flare. Pardue leaned closer to the brightened fire and looked directly at the man across from him. Powell stared back for a long moment, rose and looked at Pardue for a moment longer, and then he finally said, “You sleep well, Sergeant. I’ll see you get a good mount in the mornin’ to carry you and them two cannons of yours to The Gap.


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