Authors: Rosanne Bittner
Colt felt as though his heart had just been crushed. There was no time to think about the loss, no time even to try to imagine the loneliness of being without the man who had been like a father to him for six years. It had all happened so quickly that he wondered if any of it was real.
The earth literally shook as he turned his horse back toward Bo and Sunny and the others. “Get down to that washout!” he yelled. “Those who don't fit, get under the wagons!”
Already it was difficult to hear him because of the hoofbeats. Some of the Landers men were confused. They turned their horses and rode hard. “Don't try to outride them!” Colt shouted. “You'll be killed! Get under the wagons! Under the wagons!”
His voice was lost in the terrific noise. Colt rode hard to catch up with Sunny and her father and brother, who charged down the hill and dismounted, dodging into the washout while the drivers and cooks made for the wagons. By now the noise was deafening. Colt reached the washout just in time to see Sunny bolt from its safety and run toward the wagons herself, screaming Miss Putnam's name.
“Sunny, come back!” her father screamed.
“Stay there or you're dead men!” Colt shouted to Bo and Stuart. “I'll take care of Sunny!” He galloped his horse toward Sunny, and already the buffalo were cresting the ridge. Colt reached down, grabbing Sunny up in one arm.
“Miss Putnam!” she screamed. “She's in the wagon!”
“You should have stayed in the washout!” Colt shouted as she fought him. “You can't help her now!” His horse reared and whirled, and Sunny slipped from his grasp. He quickly dismounted, and his horse ran off. Colt grabbed Sunny as the huge, shaggy beasts of the plains crashed into the wagons. One overturned, and the men crouched under it flattened themselves right next to it, the buffalo leaping over them and around them. Colt slammed Sunny to the ground between the overturned wagon and a barrel. He threw himself over her, putting his arms over her head. “Don't move!” he shouted in her ear.
He could hear her muffled scream as she cringed beneath him, while all around them the buffalo crashed and thundered past, the ground shaking as though hit by an earthquake. Dust billowed so densely that it was difficult to breathe. The fifteen minutes it took for the entire herd to stampede past them seemed more like an hour to those who huddled in terror. The other two wagons and the coach were also toppled. Finally the rumbling grew more distant, the ground more stable. The dust cloud began to settle, and Colt rose up slightly, touching Sunny's hair. “You all right?”
“I don't know,” she answered, coughing. She looked up at him, her face dirty and streaked with tears. She was shaking, and Colt drew her close. She huddled against him, taking comfort in his protective arms. Finally, reluctantly, Colt let go of her. He rested on his elbows and looked into her eyes, struggling against an overwhelming urge to taste her mouth. She reached up and touched his face.
“Don't,” he said softly, grasping her wrist. It was all he needed to say. A tear slipped down the side of her face into her ear, and he brushed it away, getting up and helping her to her feet.
“I think something cut me,” she finally said. She felt a stinging pain at her left thigh, and she looked down to see her riding skirt was torn. She opened the tear to expose a bleeding cut, quickly turning away so that Colt could not see her bare skin.
“You'd better take care of that right away. Pour some whiskey on it if you can find some,” Colt told her. “It will help prevent any infection.”
“Sunny! Sunny!” Bo Landers was running in her direction, his forehead bleeding.
“Daddy!” Sunny scrambled away from Colt and ran to her father. “You're hurt!”
“I'm all right. I started to come to you and one of the beasts barely grazed me. I was forced to stay in the washout.” The man hugged her tightly. “Thank God! I was sure you'd be killed!” He clung to her, looking over at Colt. “You saved her life.”
Colt brushed himself off and picked up his hat. Sunny could see him struggling with his emotions. “I only wish I could have saved Slim too.”
“I'm damn sorry, Colt.” Landers scanned the damage, all three wagons overturned, teams trampled, the coach destroyed. “My God,” he muttered. “What are we going to do?”
A few of his men began scrambling away from other wagons, one of them shouting that he had found Miss Putnam. “She's dead,” he told the others.
Sunny burst into tears, and Colt could feel nothing but fury, wanting to kill the men who had caused this. “Your daughter's leg is cut,” he told Landers. “You'd better tend to it, and to yourself.” He turned to the others. “The rest of you see if you can find some of the horses. Some of your friends are probably lying dead out there. We'll have to bury them and salvage what we can. Maybe we can get at least one of these wagons into working order and save enough food and supplies to get us to Fort Laramie.” He looked at Landers. “You can get more wagons and supplies there, and probably a few oxen. I'm going to go and bury Slim and then try to find my horse, if he's still alive. All of you make camp right here tonight. I'll be gone for a day or two.”
“Gone! Gone where?” Stuart asked.
Sunny wiped her tears, looking up at Colt. His eyes had changed from the softness she had seen only a moment ago to a sudden look of fury that actually frightened her. Suddenly, he reminded her of how she had pictured wild Indians on the attack might look.
“I'm going to find the bastards who caused this,” he nearly growled. “Somebody is going to
for killing Slim!”
“But you can't leave us like this,” Stuart protested. “You could get
tried to kill
!” Colt shot back. “They did this for a reason, Landers, and I'm not going to wait around for them to bushwhack us in the middle of the night. I prefer to be the
rather than the hunted. Just get your men to clean this mess up. I have a friend to bury.”
Sunny was sure she saw tears in Colt's eyes before he turned away and kicked around some of the rubble until he found a shovel. He walked off toward the ridge, and Sunny watched after him until he was out of sight, aching to comfort him. She wondered what he was going to do about the buffalo hunters. Would he be killed, or would
do the killing?
She turned to look at the destruction the buffalo had left behind, reality sinking in then. Colt had not been the only one to lose someone close to him today. She limped over to Miss Putnam's body, which a couple of the men had removed from her wrecked wagon. The woman's face was blue and purple, but Sunny saw no blood. She ignored the pain in her leg and crumbled to the woman's side, weeping.
“Do you still think a railroad can be built out here?” Stuart asked his father. “It's a harsh land, Dad, big and unforgiving. We've sure learned that the hard way. Do you understand what you're proposing?”
Landers met his son's questioning gaze. They sat across from each other at a campfire, drinking coffee salvaged from the wreckage. This was the second night following the stampede, and both men were still struggling with the trauma of their loss. Sunny had cried herself sick over the loss of Slim and Miss Putnam. Her leg was bandaged but painful, and she lay exhausted near her father and the fire now, sleeping on a feather mattress that had been pulled from one of the wagons. The two cooks had survived the stampede, and they and the eight other men who had lived had buried Miss Putnam and the four men who had lost their lives. Colt had insisted on burying Slim alone. Now he was gone, and all they could do was wait and wonder if the man was going to make it back.
Everyone had saved what they could of food and belongings. A few horses and mules from the remuda had been rounded up, but a good deal of stock had been lost. The coach and two wagons were too damaged to be of any use, and wood from one of the destroyed wagons had been used to make the fire.
“I understand, all right,” Bo answered his son. “I understand that this has all got to change, and the railroad will bring about that change. This land will by God be settled, and my railroad will lead the way! You don't give up because of things like this, Stuart. You just get mad and more determined!”
Stuart ran a hand through his hair, still badly shaken from his brush with death. “All right, Dad, build your railroad; but I think you ought to get the heck back to Chicago and take Sunny with you and let others come out here and do the footwork.” He sighed deeply. “This has gone hard on Sunny. Miss Putnam has been right by her side for years.”
“She's got me. She'll be all right.”
Yes, she's got you
, he thought.
that's all anybody needs, that you can run everyone's lives, don't you, Dad? You're Sunny's whole world. You've cut her off from everything and everyone else. What is she going to do when you're gone, especially if she finds out the truth about her mother?
“Dad, look what's happened already, and we haven't even reached Fort Laramie. Do you realize there are two mountain ranges out there to be crossed, as well as a desert? You're talking about building a railroad through eighteen hundred miles of
! I thought at first maybe it could be done, but now I don't know.”
“I'll hear no more of that kind of talk. If I say it can be done, then it can! I hear enough protesting from Vince. I thought at least
of my sons was on my side.”
Stuart closed his eyes in exasperation. “Dammit, Dad, you know I'm on your side.”
like it! What has happened here just makes me more determined, and it should do the same for you. I'm building that railroad, Stuart, and if anything happens to me, I know Sunny will carry on the dream, because she loves me and she knows how important this is. With Vince giving her trouble every step of the way, she's got to at least have
support, and so do I!”
Stuart rubbed the back of his neck. “Fine. But as soon as we reach Laramie and get resupplied, I'm going back to my wife and baby. A man can die out here in the blink of an eye, and Vi is a little young to be left a widow. And don't tell me you aren't already thinking about going on to the South Pass. You've been thinking about it ever since you asked Colt about the best way through the Rockies. Do you intend to keep submitting Sunny to these dangers?”
Bo took a cigar from his pocket, sighing deeply. “She's got more guts than you and Vince put together. Sure I'll take her with me, if she'll go.”
“You know she'll go. Has she ever said no to you? She worships the ground you walk on. She'd neverâ” Stuart hesitated when he thought he heard a grunt. He signaled his father to be quiet, and both men came alert. Since Colt had suggested the buffalo hunters might have deliberately stampeded the herd, they had all been on edge, the men taking turns keeping watch at night.
A shot startled them, and both men jumped to their feet just as the two cooks and six of Bo's remaining eight guards loomed into the firelight, herded forward by three filthy, bearded men whose body odor was noticeable even from several feet away.
“What is this!” Bo raged.
Sunny sat up, awakened by the gunfire. Her eyes widened in terror. “Daddy!”
“Stay right there, Sunny.”
“I'm sorry, Mr. Landers,” one of the guards spoke up. “I don't know how they snuck up on us like this. They shot Russell. I don't know what happened to Jimmy.”
The huge figure of a fourth intruder loomed into the firelight, sporting the biggest rifle Stuart had ever seen. “Everybody rest easy,” the man warned in a deep voice.
“What is going on?” Bo demanded. “Who the hell are you?” He stood as tall as the stranger but looked smaller because the other man was even heavier and wore a buffalo robe. Sunny wrinkled her nose at the smell of old blood.
“Names don't matter,” the apparent leader replied. He held the well-chewed stub of a cigar in his yellowing teeth. “Me and my men figured if we waited till just the right time, we'd catch you and yours off guard. Been watchin' you for quite a few days, you and the pretty little gal there.” The man rested his rifle barrel against Bo's neck. “You look like a rich old bugger. She's your daughter then, huh, Daddy?”
Bo's face reddened deeply with fury. “What the hell do you want? Money? I can pay you plenty. Just get out of here and leave us alone!”
Stuart seethed inwardly, wondering if he had survived the stampede only to be shot down in cold blood. “You're the ones who caused the stampede, aren't you?”
The man who held the rifle on Bo grinned. “Worked, didn't it? We figured you'd either all be killed, and we'd come here and loot your fancy wagons; or you'd lose enough men and be shook up enough that we'd catch you off guard, which is exactly what happened.” He glanced down at Sunny. “You might as well stay on that nice soft mattress, honey. We'll all get some good use out of it. Maybe your pa would like to watch.” He looked back at Landers. “Glad to see the little gal survived.”
Sunny jumped to her feet. She tried to run to her father, but one of the hunters grabbed her from behind. She screamed and fought him, overwhelmed with horror when he grasped at her breasts.
“Shut up,” the man growled, jerking her so tightly that she gasped for breath. “You want us to kill your pa right here and now?”
Their leader took his eyes from Bo long enough to give Sunny a good, long look. “Goddamn, you sure as hell don't look like somebody who ought to be callin' her pa Daddy. That's for little girls, and you ain't no little girl.”
“Please! Leave her alone,” Bo warned.