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The drumming sound of galloping painted ponies was quickly diminishing. The savage Black Hawk and his merciless warriors would return only when the rain had passed. They would come to gloat over his dead body. It would be most interesting to them to see if he had withstood the torture of the deadly rawhide until death released him, or if he had taken the easy way out.
Bostin focused his eyes on the slender, taut rope that was stretched just an inch above his forehead. The evil genius of Black Hawk had fashioned a diabolical apparatus of instant death. Breaking limbs from a nearby cottonwood tree, the vengeful Cheyenne chief had mounted a single-shot .44-70 Spencer rifle at Bostin's feet. Tying it securely to the limbs, which were sunk deep in the Nebraska sod, the rifle lay in the two Y-shaped crotches, aimed directly at the tall man's head.
Threading the rope through additional crotched limbs, the Indian cocked the hammer and touched the tightly drawn rope to the trigger. All Bostin need do was lift his head one inch. Pressure on the rope would trip the trigger. Lowering his gaze toward his feet, he looked at the muzzle. It seemed to stare at him as a single menacing eye.
The prostrate man cast another glance overhead. There was rain in those dark thunderheads. Black Hawk knew it.
Holding his head still, Clay strained his muscular arms against the stakes. They would not budge. The painted Cheyennes had driven them deep into the sod.
A wave of panic washed over him, followed by a settled, cold dread. The rawhide strips which thronged his wrists and ankles would shrink when soaked by the oncoming rain and slice unmercifully into the flesh. This was plenty to dread, but the real horror lay in the two narrow rawhide cords which circled his head just above the eyebrows.
When these began to shrink, they would slowly but surely crack his skull, like bands of contracting steel. Death would hover near him in savage mockery, inviting him to lift his head and end the paroxysm of torture with a bullet.
The wagon was burning freely now, about thirty feet to his left. He dared not look. There was no need. The sickening smell of burning hair and flesh was sufficient. The rampaging Cheyennes had shot Gil and Clara Rodman and their two boys after binding Bostin to the stakes. Helplessly, he had heard the bark of the rifles, the thudding of the bodies as they slumped to the earth.
The savages had not taken time to lift their scalps. They dumped the four bodies inside, then quickly set the prairie schooner on fire.
Clay Bostin's thoughts drifted back to two days earlier, when he had come across the Rodmans' camp on the trail to Fort Laramie. Gil Rodman had purchased the general store in the fort and was brining his family from Omaha to live there.
Rodman invited him to dismount and join them for supper. When he learned that Bostin was also headed for the fort, he suggested they travel together.
Everything had been fine until two hours ago. Black Hawk and ten of his bucks rode in on them suddenly. Clay knew something was terribly wrong as the Indians' faces loomed larger. He had not seen warpaint on an Indian for nearly four years.
At first it appeared that the savages were going to allow Bostin and his friends to proceed. Bostin had relaxed his guard.
Black Hawk was visibly disturbed about something. The warpaint emphasized the fact. When Bostin inquired about it, the young hostile chief only grunted that the Cheyenne were tired of White Eyes' forked tongue and mistreatment of their people. All White Eyes must die. Seizing him suddenly, the Indians held guns on the frightened family. When Bostin was clearly no threat, they shot down the Rodmans and their young sons.
The prostrate man pondered his predicament. Why had Black Hawk not shot him down as he did the others? Was a quick death too easy for the son of an Indian agent? Black Hawk's father, Running Horse, had known Derek Bostin for many years. Their relationship had been good.
Clay had seen the young son of Running Horse on several occasions during his growing-up years. Black Hawk had always shown hostility toward white men. As he grew into manhood, he displayed a stronger will and a more fiery spirit than his aged father. When the old chief died, there was general fear throughout the territory that Black Hawk would stir up trouble.
Over three years had passed now since Black Hawk had become chief of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. Not one white man had been killed by Cheyennes since the bloody uprising which took place during the last year of Running Horse's life.
Whites in the territory had agreed that they had been hasty in their assessment of the young chief. So pleased were they with the tribe's behavior, the whites had recently named a growing and thriving town in southern Wyoming Territory after them.
Apparently the hatred for white men had smoldered deep in Black Hawk's heart, like a dormant volcano. The fire was there all the time. Something, somewhere, was done by white men very recently which triggered the eruption of that fire.
Clay Bostin cast a disconsolate glance at the black sky overhead. Any minute now the rain would come in torrents. The wind was picking up, popping in his ears with a heavy, hollow sound. It caused the flames of the burning wagon to roar.
A heavy gust swept over the prairie. Clay focused nervously on the taut rope just above his forehead. The gust of wind caused the rope to vibrate. His line of sight flicked to the hideous muzzle of the Spencer. The rope quivered along its length, the vibrations extending to the knot on the trigger.
Clay Bostin had faced death before, but never had the grim reaper held him in such a helpless position. He had faced Comanche, Blackfoot, and Cheyenne bullets and arrows from the time he was eighteen until he turned twenty-nine four years ago, when peace settled over the territory.
Bostin wore a deep scar on the left cheekbone of his handsome, angular face, a reminder of a Comanche tomahawk that had brought death to within a hair's breadth during fierce hand-to-hand combat.
As the son of Derek Bostin he fell into guiding settlers across the prairies of Kansas and Nebraska. His lifetime among Indians had made him the perfect man to lead wagons westward through Indian country.
There was within Clay Bostin a deep reverence for the wide open spaces and a spirit of adventure that this kind of life satisfied.
As he lay in the grass with the circulation ebbing in his hands and feet, he reminded himself that yesterday he had complained to Gil Rodman that things had been pretty dull. There had been no raids on the wagon trains he had led in four years. He recounted some of the bloody battles to Rodman, including the one that gave him the scar. Overhearing the conversation from inside the covered wagon, Clara Rodman had interrupted to say that she was thankful the Indians were peaceable.
While Clay's bay gelding followed the wagon on a lead rope, he explained to Gil that he had returned to Omaha, ready to lead a small wagon train to Cheyenne. A telegram was awaiting him there from General Lucius Henniger at Fort Laramie. The general wanted him to return to the fort by July first. He wanted Bostin to ride as scout for a cavalry brigade through Ute country in Colorado.
There was no way he could guide the train and make Fort Laramie by July first. Quickly, he found a replacement to lead the train. He had left Omaha riding hard for Wyoming. The day before he had come upon the Rodman camp, Bostin's horse had thrown a shoe. There was no choice now. He would have to travel slowly. Hence his quick acceptance of Rodman's invitation. Clay had wired an instant reply to General Henniger. Knowing he was coming, the general would wait.
Another gust of wind sallied the rope up and down the posed trigger of the Spencer. Clay wondered if he would hear the shot if it fired. Or would the bullet end his life too quickly?
A jagged bolt of white fire lashed angrily across the black-clouded sky. A sharp clap of thunder followed. The rain would soon come, virtually spitting death at him from above.
Suddenly, Bostin was aware of movement somewhere near. Shifting his eyes back and forth, he listened. As far as he knew, the Cheyennes had taken his and the Rodmans' horses.
Again, there was movement. A rustling sound. Straining his ears, Clay listened intently. It sounded like a small animal as the noise came closer. A jackrabbit approached inquisitively, examining this strange, unfamiliar sight in its territory. Since the man had not moved, the animal experienced no fear.
Sniffing heavily, the rabbit touched Bostin's right knee with his nose, working upward. A cold claw of fear squeezed Bostin's heart. If the rabbit touched that rope ...
Again he glanced at the threatening muzzle. The rabbit was now sniffing near his rib cage. He could shout and frighten the little furry beast away, but if the rabbit ran into the rope which hovered menacingly above his forehead, Clay Bostin was a dead man.
His heart pounded in his breast.
The rabbit paused, studying Bostin's pulsating lungs. Clay remembered that the rope remained at the level just above his head until it rounded the two sticks which protruded from the sod near the stakes that held his hands. From that point the rope angled upward through two other crotched sticks. Then it ran through two more, at sharp angles, where it brushed dangerously against the trigger. One slight bump on the rope by that rabbit ...
He was moving closer to the rope!
Bostin's eyes shot again to the rifle. The hammer, locked back in firing position, seemed to mock him.
The little beast of the prairie suddenly disappeared from view. Clay Bostin waited breathlessly. He could not hear the rabbit.
Another bolt of lightning cut the sky. The rabbit lunged in fear, bumping Clay's side. He waited as if finding solace from the threatening storm in Clay's body. Thunder boomed.
Lightning popped again, the bolt coming near the ground. The frightened animal suddenly turned in the direction of the rope and skitted away. Bostin bit hard, cording his jaw, closing his eyes. The Spencer did not fire. Looking at the rope, Clay saw that it was firm and motionless. The jack rabbit had leaped the rope and was gone.
The prostrate man heaved a sigh of relief. His body trembled. For the moment, he was still alive. As long as he was alive, there was hope. Small, maybe. Remote, maybe. But hope.
A drop of rain hit Bostin's face. His eyes shot upward. Another drop struck him in the right eye. He blinked it away. Strange, he thought. I've always loved the feel of rain in my face. Now it was signing his death warrant.
The rawhide cords that pressed his brow seemed to tighten. Just your imagination, he told himself. Two drops of rain won't shrink them.
The cold dread within him was unleashed like a flood, swarming through him like ice water. Savagely, he rebuked himself for succumbing to the rushing dread and icy fear. Self-control was absolutely necessary. Every muscle in his body screamed for release, but Clay held on until the wave of panic passed, then relaxed. He felt hot beads of sweat form on his face.
Lifting his eyes upward, he studied the sky overhead. He had felt only two raindrops. The clouds were swirling angrily. Heavy winds were driving them hard. A faint ray of hope rekindled itself in Clay Bostin's breast. Maybe ... maybe the winds would be kind to him and blow the storm away! If the rain did not come and he had a little time ...
There had to be a way out of this. Maybe tomorrow someone would come by. That was highly possible. This was the main trail between Omaha and Cheyenne. Many travelers from St. Joseph also angled northward and picked up the trail before getting this far west. There could easily be somebody coming tomorrow.
The cold dread touched him again. Black Hawk would be back.
Clay Bostin fought the intruding pessimistic thought. He must maintain the proper attitude. His survival depended on it.
If he gave up, he was doomed for sure.
The sky was growing darker now. Soon it would be night.
Lightning and thunder played intermittently across the broad expanse overhead. Still, only light drops of rain touched Bostin's face.
Time seemed to crawl.
Eventually, darkness fell. That storm has to have an edge somewhere, Clay told himself. He reasoned that every moment without a downpour was another moment closer to the end of the storm.
Suddenly, a bolt of jagged white flame split the dark sky, lighting the whole world. A sharp clap of thunder retaliated angrily. And then it came.
Torrents of it. Heavy, devilish rain. Within moments, Clay Bostin was soaked. The cords on his wrists and ankles were soaked, as were the death-dealing bands on his head. Clay eyed the shiny barrel of the Spencer as it reflected a flash of lightning.
As the rawhide on his head began to tighten, he wondered how long he would be able to stand the horrid pressure.
There was a double flash of lightning, which hung in the sky for a long moment, turning the world a pallid blue-white. Bostin looked at the rifle again.
Bucky Wiseman turned his leathered features toward the young woman. In his sixty-seven years on earth, he had never beheld eyes that were a deeper blue, nor hair so rich an auburn. Even in the gathering darkness the golden highlights of deep red flitted alluringly in her hair. Her skin was soft, and smooth as ivory. He found himself wishing he were twenty-five again. "Guess so," he said with a faint smile. "Seems we oughtta be pullin' over and battenin' down the hatches."
Rachel leaned out, looking at the ten wagons behind them. The wind was gusting, flapping the canvas covers vehemently. Coming around the rear wagon, Dale Roy appeared, trotting the big buck-skin. As he pulled alongside the lead wagon, he smiled at Rachel and said, "Bucky, let's pull over when we get to that draw up ahead!"
"Right, Mister Roy," said Bucky.
The guide wheeled the buckskin and rode toward the wagons, pausing momentarily at each one.
A bolt of lightning pierced the black sky. Bucky's team shied slightly at the unexpected flash. Thunder rolled.
As the designated spot drew closer, the sky darkened. Rachel slipped into the slicker as rain began pelting her face.
Excerpted from The Last Bullet by Morgan Hill Copyright © 2003 by ALJO PRODUCTIONS, INC.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted January 13, 2014
No text was provided for this review.