Read an Excerpt
By W. Michael Gear
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1997 W. Michael Gear
All rights reserved.
Upper Missouri River, July 1825
Predawn mist, like curling wraiths, rose off the smooth surface of the Missouri River. It drifted across the murky swirls of current, over the muddy bank, and into the trees. The eastern sky glowed with the promise of a new day. Against it, cottonwood, willows, and an occasional ash created a lacery of black silhouettes. Birds trilled and warbled as the night creatures retired and those of day stirred. Dew beaded on leaves and grass, and silvered the stems and branches.
In the distant uplands beyond the river, the slopes were mantled by hip-high grass and isolated spears of juniper, while the dark veins of drainages were clotted with stands of bur oak. There coyotes yipped in final salute to the night as four riders pushed a small herd of horses westward. They quirted their mounts across the dawn-still grass as if in pursuit of the retreating night.
One by one, they would snap a quick look over their shoulders — back toward the river and the camp of sleeping White men. Long black hair whipped in the wind of their passing; fringes jerked and flicked to the movement of their horses. As they rode, they flashed smiles at each other, dark eyes glinting. It had been a perfect raid.
Stealing from White men was easy. And, unlike raids on the Blackfeet or Sioux, no stalwart warriors would come riding in pursuit. No, these White men would stay with their big, ugly canoe. Let them sleep late into the morning, for the Apsaroke had shown the Whites how brave and clever true warriors were.
* * *
Beside the west bank of the river, the keelboat Maria floated, her wood sun-bleached and pale in the faint morning light. She lay snugged close to the high bank, tied off by a painter line to a massive gray cottonwood trunk. Dew-shrouded and furled, the baggy sail hung from the spar. Oars and poles had been stowed on the big square cargo box. A trick of the lazy current toyed with the rudder, and the long tiller slipped soundlessly back and forth, as though managed by a ghostly hand.
The crew had camped in the tall grass beyond the boat. Blankets, stretched over lines strung between the cottonwoods, created crude shelters in case of rain. Fingers of hazy blue smoke rose from the ashes of last night's fires.
Men lay scattered like ten-pins, rolled in blankets, their snoring a burr on the still air. Occasionally, one would shift to peer through a slitted eye at the lightening sky, only to surrender himself again to shredding filaments of dream.
* * *
Heals Like A Willow had already risen and rolled her blankets. On silent feet she walked into the ghost gray trees, her back bent with packs. Her people were the Dukurika band — the Shoshoni Sheepeaters of the high western mountains.
As the dew-wet grass spattered her moccasins, Willow cocked her head, listening to the lilting cry of the distant coyotes.
Among her people, Coyote was the Trickster, and just after the Creation of the world he became the source of all trouble and misfortune. Not that Coyote was evil like the White man's devil; rather, his insatiable desires led him to impulsive acts. Famine, disease, death, war, incest, and all manner of ills had resulted as the compromise between impulsive Coyote, and his counterpart, the wise and logical Wolf.
Recently, too much of Willow's life had been orchestrated by Coyote. Last winter, after the death of her husband and son, she had left the Ku'chendikani band to travel home to the Dukurika. During that journey, the Pawnee warrior, Packrat, had captured her and brought her East as a slave — a gift for Packrat's father, Half Man. She'd waged a war of wills with Packrat, broken his Power, and finally won. A twist of fate had placed her with the White men, who, she had discovered, had a great deal more in common with Coyote than they did with Wolf.
She listened to the last of the coyote's morning song echoing down from the uplands. This time, she promised herself, Coyote wasn't mocking her. She was going home — back to her people, to their distant western mountains.
So silent ... too silent.
Heals Like A Willow cocked her head and listened. In the twilight of dawn, she stood like a statue, the packs dead weight on her shoulders. Not even the stamping of a horse's hoof intruded on the morning birdsong.
Placing each foot with care, she approached the camp's picket. The horses were gone. Willow carefully shrugged out of her packs and laid them quietly on the ground. She sniffed, taking in the old smells of manure and urine. The rope was still tied around one of the trees. Her fingers slid over the smooth end. Only a steel knife cut so cleanly.
There should have been a guard, but she could see no sign of the man. After a night of pacing, the grass would have been trampled. Had a guard even been posted? Trudeau would have been responsible for appointing one of the engagés to stand guard. But the day before he and Richard had fought, and Trudeau would have been in no shape to attend to his duties.
She bent down, feeling the manure: cold clear through. Brushing her hands clean on the grass, she looked up at the reddening sky and sighed. Today, with a horse, she would have started home for the Dukurika mountains.
What a fool you are, Willow. Coyote was indeed singing for you. She picked up her packs and warily retraced her way to the camp.
Lowering the packs by one of the smoldering fires, she crouched down beside a blanket-wrapped man. Despite her stealth, he was watching her through narrowed blue eyes. The dim light revealed a patchwork of cruel scars that crisscrossed his ruined face: the sign of the great white bear. His rumpled dark hair and beard were shot through with gray. He was wrapped in a dirty striped blanket that had once been red, white, and yellow. A heavy Hawken rifle lay within easy reach.
She shrugged and said, "The horses have been stolen. The rope was cut with a steel knife. The shit is cold, Travis. They have been gone a long time."
He hadn't moved. "Injuns?"
"Are White men that good at stealing horses? I didn't hear a single sound. Not the rattle of a hoof, not a snort or wicker."
"Injuns," Travis growled. "And the guard?"
"I don't think there was one. Trudeau ..."
"Hell! My fault. As bad as Dick whupped him last night in that caterwauling, I shoulda seen to it." A calculating look filled his eyes. "I'm betting on the thieving Crows. How about ye?"
"A'ni," she agreed. "Crows. They are this good. But far away, no?"
"Their country ain't that far." Travis sat up in his blankets. "Five days' hard ride west ... maybe six."
"I am sorry they did this. I was going home today." She sighed wearily. "I would have warned you, but I did not know they raided here."
"Shoulda known meself," he growled. "And no, a body don't usually find Crow this far west. They don't savvy the Rees, nor the Sioux, or Cheyenne." He paused. "If it's Crow."
"You can get more horses among the Mandans?"
The soft dawn light left his eyes like pits, but she could read disgust in the look he gave her. "Hell, gal, them's my hosses!" He kicked a leg out of the blankets to prod at Richard's blanket-bundled form. "C'mon, Dick. Injuns has stoled the hosses. Leve! Let's get at 'em."
Richard muttered sleepily, threw back his blanket, and sat up, but gasped and winced from pain. Even in the half-light, Willow could see his bruised face and swollen nose. Long brown hair hung in disarray, and a wispy beard covered his cheeks. He stretched now, and grunted as he discovered new sore muscles and aches.
She started to reach out, to touch those hurts with tender fingers, but balled her fist instead and asked Travis, "What are you going to do?"
"Go after the damned hosses," Travis growled. "Ain't no cussed Crows a gonna get this coon's hosses." He gave her a cautious study. "And, without a hoss, ye cain't run off ter them Snake lands ye been a-pining on."
She said nothing, watching him warily.
"So, Dick and me better get yer hoss back, Willow, or it'll be a tarnal long walk fer ye."
"We're doing what?" Richard asked as he stood up gingerly. He grunted and made a face as he tried to stretch. "Dear God, I hurt."
"That was a hell of a scrape ye had with old Trudeau yesterday," Travis reminded. "Tarnation! Ye damned near chewed the coon's ear off. Last I seen, Toussaint and Baptiste was hauling him down ter the river fer a dunking. He's hurt enough he fergot ter set guard on the hosses."
Richard's expression softened and he glanced away, refusing to meet their eyes. "I never thought I'd become a common brawler, Travis."
The grizzled hunter stood, back crackling as he arched it. "Yep, wal, life's full of little surprises, ain't it?"
Willow glanced surreptitiously at Richard. He was young, lanky, and possessed a wiry strength belied by his slim body. He wore a fringed hunting shirt, and a knife and possible sack hung from the belt that secured his buckskin pants. Heavy Crow moccasins covered his feet.
She knew his story. Richard came from a place far to the east, a White-man town called Boston. Richard's father had sent him west to carry money to a man in St. Louis, but on the way, Richard had been robbed. To save his life, he'd indentured himself to Dave Green's Maria — and Travis had been his guard.
In Boston, Richard had studied something called philosophy, which Willow had decided was a kind of special medicine knowledge. But since he had come to the river he had become more than a seeker after Power. He'd become a warrior and a hunter.
Richard had saved her life when Packrat would have killed her. He had looked into her eyes and seen her soul, as she'd seen his. Unlike the men of her people, he hadn't been horrified at the idea of a woman using puha or Power. It had been at that moment, when their souls touched, that she first had begun to love him.
Fool that you are, Willow. He is going back to his Boston, and his Laura. What you wish will never be. Coyote had tricked her again.
"Willow, I want ye ter keep to Baptiste and Green," Travis said as he headed for the boat. "Give Dick and me time ter get back. Then ye can run off. Promise?"
She slapped futile hands to her sides. "Yes. Promise." Anyone would feel safe around Baptiste, the strapping soot black warrior. He'd been a slave once, and, like Willow, had killed his owner. She took one last look at Richard's swollen eye and puffed-up nose.
Richard was stumbling after Hartman, groaning as he prodded bruises from last night's fight with Trudeau.
Trudeau had tried to force Willow — and Richard had taken him down for it. But then, bad blood had run between Trudeau and Richard since the first days on the river.
She whispered softly, "Good luck, Ritshard. Be very careful ... and come back safe."
Why? a voice asked in her soul. When he comes back, you will just leave. Either way, your time with him is running out ... like water trickling from a snowbank in late spring.
* * *
A square-walled tent stood in the middle of the camp. The white canvas had grayed from months of weather and grimy hands. Inside, David Green, the booshway, or expedition leader, was blinking himself awake and stretching.
He called softly, "Henri? You awake?"
The man who slept before the flap grunted, yawned, and rubbed his face. He sat up in his blankets to stare owlishly around at the sleeping camp. "Oui, bourgeois. I am awake."
Henri stood, flexing his muscles against cramps and aching joints. As patroon, he was master of the Maria, the man who steered the keelboat. Now he bent over the gray ash in the firepit, flicking the remaining coals into a pile, carefully placing twigs atop, and blowing the coals to life. As the flames crackled up, he added fuel and dug out the cook pot.
As Henri fixed breakfast, Green ducked through the flap, and walked down to check the boat. After he'd assured himself she was snug, he made his way through the waking engagés and seated himself by Henri's fire.
The patroon had filled Dave Green's tin plate with steaming catfish and grouse meat. Holding the hot plate by the rim, Dave had just lifted his first forkful of breakfast and was chewing methodically when Travis strode purposefully across the camp. The hunter carried his Hawken in his right hand, his left resting on his possibles, powder horn, and the bullet pouch tied to his belt. His graying hair flowed out over his collar from under a battered black felt hat. Travis wore a hunter's leather clothing, some of the long fringe missing. The only new apparel was the Sioux moccasins on his feet.
"Malchance aujourd'hui," Henri said as he glanced up from spooning his own breakfast onto a tin plate. Coffee boiled in a soot-blackened pot, the aroma rising in the cool morning air.
"I reckon Trudeau was too stove up to detail a hoss guard last night," Travis said as he laid his rifle against the trunk of a cottonwood and hunkered down on his haunches. "And I don't know if'n it'd done any good anyhow. I just come from the picket. Injuns stole the hosses last night."
* * *
Green stopped in mid-chew. "All of them?"
"Yep. Reckon Dick and me'll go get 'em back." From his possibles, he extracted a tin cup, and pulled his sleeve down over his hand to grab the hot coffee pot. After pouring a cup, he glanced up at Green with cold blue eyes. "Don't call us dead fer at least a month."
"A month?" Green rubbed the back of his neck and frowned. "I don't like it, Travis. A week, you hear? That's all I want you gone."
Travis sipped the hot coffee and made a sour expression. The act pulled all the scars tight across his ruined face. "No telling how far them coons —"
"That's my point, Travis." Green straddled a log and lowered himself. He pulled at his blond hair and shook his head. "I know you, Travis Hartman ... and I understand. Some Crow snuck in and lifted your horses. You think it's a matter of honor now to get them back — come hell or high water. But I'm serious. I can't afford to let you chase off all over the plains looking for horse thieves. Good Lord, by a month from now, we should be two weeks past the Mandan. I need you here, Travis."
"Now, Dave ..."
"Travis, before you go off half-cocked, think about it. We're almost to the Mandan. We need a license to trade with Indians, remember? We don't have a legal right to be here, and Atkinson and O'Fallon — along with half the American army — are somewhere upriver from us. Now, if they catch us, they'll take the boat, lock me in chains, and haul our arses right back down to —"
"Ye don't gotta remind me!" Travis gave him a hostile squint. "Dave, I'll be back when I'm back. Ye can't go a-letting these pesky Crow up and steal your hosses!"
Dave lifted an eyebrow, reading Travis's stony expression. "Please?"
With one hand, Henri twisted the ends of his thick black mustache. With the other, he absently poked a long-tined fork into the cooking pone. "The Rees, I think some of them are up ahead. It would not be good, Travis, if you are gone when we meet them."
"Reckon not," Travis relented. "But, hell, ye got Baptiste fer palavering with the Rees. That coon's worth more when it comes ter Rees than this child."
At a nod from Henri, Green handed a tin plate to the patroon. Henri heaped it with breakfast and handed it in turn to Travis. Beyond them, the engagés ate by their fires, glancing curiously at the booshway's tent and muttering among themselves. Word traveled fast. Even hardened boatmen got a mite owly knowing that Indians had sneaked through their camp and stolen horses.
"A week," Travis promised reluctantly as he piled into the food. Between chews, he added, "Dick and me, we'll be back afore ye reaches the Mandan."
"You sure you want to take that pilgrim?" Henri asked. "He will be useless! A burden to you out in the prairie."
"You're wasting your breath," Green growled around a mouthful. "Travis still figures he can make a man outa the Doodle."
"Ye'd a never figgered he'd a whupped up on old Trudeau," Travis reminded Green, a twinkle in his blue eyes.
Excerpted from Coyote Summer by W. Michael Gear. Copyright © 1997 W. Michael Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.