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Authors: Jon Sharpe

Tags: #Fiction, #Westerns, #General

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BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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The next morning, even before the dull yellow sun edged over the eastern horizon, Fargo and Buckshot tacked their mounts and headed due south, tracking their quarry across the vast stretch of southern Wyoming known as the Great Divide Basin.

The imposing Wind River Range of the Rockies saw-toothed the sky behind them, and smaller ranges encircled them. Much of the basin was a broad expanse of sage and greasewood bushes—and a bushwhacker’s paradise. In places the sagebrush was tall enough to conceal a standing man.

Years of scouting dangerous country had taught both men a hair-trigger alertness that was as habitual as breathing. So far, tracking the trio of attackers proved easier than rolling off a log. They had taken no pains to obscure their trail, and the hoof depressions in the lush grass—overlapping often, the sign of a gallop—proved their greatest concern was fast escape, not concealment.

“As long as we can see all three sets of those tracks,” Fargo remarked about an hour after they rode out from the work camp, “we don’t have to worry about being dry-gulched.”

“Ahuh,” Buckshot agreed. “Seen any featherheads yet?”

“Nope. But you know how it is with Bronze John—we’ll see him only when he wants us to. This is their range and they don’t miss a damn thing. They’re out there watching us.”

The two men rode for several more miles in silence, each man alone with his thoughts. Then Buckshot abruptly spoke up.

“You know what, Skye? Eastern capital is the goddamn enemy of the westering man. Them sons-a-bitches back in
Washington City is powwowing with them railroad barons right now, cuttin’ the West up like it was a pie baked just for them. This telegraph me and you is helping to string through—it ain’t for the common man. It’s just making things easier for the damn railroads when they finally come through.”

“’Fraid so,” Fargo agreed. “But Big Ed ain’t in their hip pocket. He raised the money for this line himself after Western Union put it up for bid. And I think he
mean for it to help the common man.”

“Nothing cheapjack about him,” Buckshot acknowledged. “Him and Charlie both are straight grain clear through. Some of these big nabobs, why, hell! They want to rise so high that when they shit they don’t miss nobody. Big Ed ain’t like that.”

Fargo agreed, but the westering fever was far bigger than one good man’s intentions. It took at least five months for a wagon train to get from Missouri to Oregon, with one in ten pilgrims dying along the way. But at the moment, the “Wild West” was of no interest to most of them—it was just Zebulon Pike’s Great American Desert that must be crossed to reach the supposed paradise of California or Oregon.

But that Western capital Buckshot had just cussed out was already at work, and Fargo knew it wouldn’t be long until the Great Plains and Intermountain West peopled up, too—hell, the killers were obviously already here. The buffalo, the free-range Indians, and finally the drifters like him and Buckshot would be hemmed in on all sides.

“Might’s well face it, old son,” he remarked. “Men like me and you will likely end up our lives—if we don’t die of lead colic first—holed up in Death Valley or the Jornada del Muerto. Surviving on rattlesnake and cactus juice.”

Buckshot loosed a brown streamer into the grass. “Ain’t it the drizzlin’ shits? Soft-handed town bastards driving us out of our own country.”

The trail of the attackers was still plain, still pointing due south straight as a plumb line. But Fargo briefly jogged west to avoid a level range pockmarked by prairie dog towns. A horse with a snapped ankle was the last thing they needed.

“Where in Sam Hill are these cockroaches headed?”
Buckshot wondered aloud. “Mayhap they got a camp on Bitter Creek. I been down that way tracking Injins—good water, good graze, and you can see anybody coming at you for miles.”

“I hope not,” Fargo replied. “Unless we sneak in at night, they’d shoot us to doll stuffings before we got across that tableland.”

“Bad medicine,” Buckshot agreed. He gnawed off a corner of his plug and parked it in his cheek as soon as he had it juicing proper.

“Chaw?” he asked Fargo, offering the tobacco.

Fargo waved it off. “Can’t abide the taste.”

“You damn weak sister. You gotta learn to chew the suption out of it, is all.”

Buckshot loosed another brown streamer that just missed Fargo’s boot.

“You get that
on me,” Fargo warned, “and you’ll be wearing your ass for a hat.”

Buckshot hooted. “Won’tcha listen to pretty teeth? The pup is barkin’ like a full-growed dog.”

The terrain gradually altered and soon the riders were crossing meadows where sunflowers grew shoulder high and blue-winged teals darted about like spring-drunk butterflies. The horses, never pushed beyond a trot, still had plenty of bottom. Fargo had lashed a goat gut filled with water to the Ovaro, and now the two riders reined in to water the mounts from their hats.

“Sheep clouds making up,” Fargo remarked as they hit leather and gigged their horses forward again. “Rain’s likely in an hour or two.”

“I wunner when them Injins will show,” Buckshot said, slewing around in his saddle to study their back trail.

“If it’s Cheyennes,” Fargo reminded him, “they’ll likely show up on our flanks or out front of us. They don’t track their enemies—they pace ’em and guess where they’re headed.”

Both men gnawed on buffalo jerky and cold biscuits in the saddle. When he finished eating, Fargo poked a skinny black Mexican cigar into his teeth and scratched a phosphor to life with his thumbnail. He leaned forward into the flame,
fighting the wind for a light. The wind won and he cursed mildly, sticking the cigar back into his possibles bag—he was damned if he’d use up another precious match.

A few more uneventful miles and the terrain changed again, rising slightly as the grass thinned to sandy patches. Scattered rock spines dotted the land, and Fargo realized that was potentially dangerous news.

“Trouble,” he announced, lake blue eyes slanted toward the ground. “They’ve pulled an Indian trick on us and split off in three directions.”

Buckshot eyed the nearest rock spine, rubbing his chin. “And in good ambush country, too. One a them shit-heels could be layin’ back to pop us over.”

“Nothing else for it,” Fargo decided. “I’d wager all three of them are headed to the same place, so it won’t matter which trail we follow. Let’s stick with the middle one.”

“Hey diddle diddle and up the middle,” Buckshot agreed. “That’s how me, Kit, and Uncle Dick attacked and drove them Mexer freebooters out of Taos. Scattered ’em like ninepins. Them pepper guts ran like a river when the snow melts.”

“Way I heard it,” Fargo said, “you were drunk as a fiddler’s bitch and wallowing with a whore during that battle.”

Buckshot sent him a dirty look and then expelled a sigh. “You’re a hard man to bullshit, Skye. Well, I’ll take a hoor over a shooting scrape every time.”

Both men, realizing their increased danger with the trip split up, scoured their surroundings with an eye to likely snipers’ nests. Fargo’s earlier prediction came true when a sudden thunderstorm boiled up. Gray sheets of wind-driven rain pelted them, destroying visibility and forcing them to shelter under a traprock shelf. The rain lasted nearly an hour and left patches of mud as thick and sloppy as gumbo, slowing them down. But both men were among the best trackers in the West and they held the trail.

However, it was a rough piece of work. Splitting up was only the beginning of their enemy’s precautions. The rider they were following also rode for several hundred yards through a small creek, making it difficult for his trackers to
pick up the spot where he emerged. And once he even rode into a chewed up buffalo run, obscuring his tracks.

“I’m thinking maybe you were right yesterday, Buckshot,” Fargo speculated out loud. “This jasper went to a lot of trouble to hide his trail. That tells me these three ain’t just on the prod—they’ve got themselves a hideout and they’re bound and determined to keep anybody from finding it.”

The two men doggedly persisted, leaning low from the saddle and often forced to dismount to study the bend of the grass or an overturned stone. The afternoon heated up and biting flies plagued men and horses mercilessly.

“Shit-oh-dear,” Fargo breathed softly when he and Buckshot rounded a long rock abutment. “Stay frosty, old son. Straight ahead and keep up the strut. Looks like we got company, and they don’t appear too happy to see us.”

Strung out in a line just ahead of them, impassive faces blank as gray slate, sat six Northern Cheyenne braves astride their mustangs, weapons pointed at the paleface intruders.

*   *   *

Fargo had expected an eventual encounter with one of the tribes, but had not envisioned riding cold into a trap like this. In his experience the Northern Cheyenne were not cold-blooded murderers, even of white men. Deeply religious in their fashion, the taking of a human life was not a casual act.

Then again, braves who had painted and danced, propitiating Maiyun the Great Supernatural, had a freer hand to take an enemy’s life.

And every one of these braves wore his red, yellow, and black war paint.

“Katy Christ,” Buckshot muttered, “I thought your stallion was trained to hate the Indian smell.”

Buckshot meant the smell of the bear grease that Cheyenne braves smeared liberally into their long black hair.

“He is,” Fargo replied quietly as they walked their mounts closer. “But we’re upwind, you knothead.”

“These red sons are painted, Fargo. How’s ’bout I swing Patsy Plumb up and jerk both triggers? This smoke wagon can blow three of those bucks off their ponies. You’re quicker
than eyesight with that thumb-buster of yours—you can send the other three under faster than a finger snap.”

“At least pre
you got more brains than a rabbit. We leave six Cheyenne braves murdered and we’ll touch off a vengeance war that’ll guarandamntee Indian haircuts for Big Ed and his crew.
pull down on them unless we can’t wangle out of this.”

Fargo raised one hand high in sign talk for peace. Both men drew rein about ten feet in front of the line of grim-faced braves. The two men kept any feelings from showing in their faces—a white man’s habit despised by most Plains warriors as unmanly.

The brave who first spoke had the most eagle-tail feathers dangling from his coup stick, making him the natural choice for leader.

“Mah-ish-ta-shee-da,” he said in a tone laced with contempt—the Cheyenne word for white men. Fargo knew enough of their language to know it meant “yellow eyes”—the first white men the Cheyenne had ever seen were fur trappers suffering from severe jaundice.

Fargo thumped his own chest with his fist, a symbol of defiance—a reaction more likely to engender respect among these proud and defiant warriors.

“Wasichu,” he said proudly, the Lakota Sioux word for white men and a language the Cheyenne knew well for the Sioux were their battle cousins.

Fargo noticed that all six braves avoided making direct eye contact with the white men, fearing they might steal their souls. He made a quick survey of the weapons now trained on him and Buckshot. One Cheyenne had a badly used .33 caliber breechloader, a standard trade rifle. Its cracked stock had been wrapped tightly with buckskin. Another held a cap-and-ball Colt’s Dragoon pistol, a “knockdown gun” whose huge, conical slug often killed even with a hit to the arm or leg.

The other four brandished Osage-wood bows, arrows nocked, and light but deadly spears tipped with flaked-flint points.

“Why are you here, hair face?” the leader demanded in the Lakota tongue.

Fargo had long ago learned the universal sign language used by Plains Indians as a lingua franca between tribes. He replied using signs for Lakota or Cheyenne words he didn’t know.

“The paleface believes the land belongs to him. Like the red man, I believe we all belong to the land. I belong to this place. It has always been my home.”

The brave seemed momentarily impressed by this unexpected answer. But he had to save face with the others, so he shook his head adamantly. “From Great Waters to place where sun rises, white man’s home. From Great Waters to place where sun sets, red man’s home.”

Fargo hooked a thumb toward Buckshot. “Look at him. He mounts his horse from the Indian side. You can see he is no hair face. He is Choctaw and his tribe is from east of Great Waters.”

“You speak in a wolf bark! Where are these tribes now? Planting corn like women in the place where your white leader Sharp Knife sent them. No horses, no weapons. They are prisoners. And you plan to send us there and make women of our men.”

The brave with the Colt’s Dragoon thumbed his hammer from half to full cock. “I will kill the beef-eaters now!”

“Fargo,” Buckshot said quietly but urgently, “our tits are in the wringer, boy. I’m swingin’ Patsy up—you best jerk your short iron.”

Before Fargo could reply, the leader raised his hand to stop the hothead. Then he addressed himself to Fargo.

“It is true that you look different than the Mah-ish-ta-shee-da who travel in the great bone shakers. You and your friend have not cut your stallions and broken their spirit. You wear buckskins. You know a little of our tongue. Your faces are not those of women who show their feelings. Perhaps you do belong to this place, and the Cheyenne Way does not permit us to kill you.”

The immediate danger of violent action had passed for the moment, but Fargo knew they had avoided a stampede only to be caught in a flood. When Plains warriors spared a white man’s life, they exacted tribute for crossing Indian ranges safely. Despite their obvious admiration for the Ovaro
and Buckshot’s rare grulla, the warriors knew it was beyond the pale to demand a man’s horse in this country.

But the way they had been covetously admiring Fargo’s Henry and Buckshot’s double-ten, it was clear what was coming.

“You may go in peace,” the brave continued, “but you will leave your thunder sticks with us. And that fine knife in your…”

He did not know the word for boot so he pointed at the Arkansas toothpick in Fargo’s boot sheath. Fargo shook his head.

BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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