Read an Excerpt
By Kelton, Elmer
Forge Books Copyright © 2001 Kelton, Elmer
All right reserved.
The jarring strike of the clock in the towering cupola drew Frank Claymore's unwilling eyes to the two-story courthouse. It was a Texas-plains impression of some forbidding Old World castle in which monstrous crimes had been wrought upon the innocent. Claymore had opposed the construction of this gray-stone insult, just one of many fights lost as the years stole his strength and diminished his influence. His taxes, reluctantly paid, had gone far toward building that courthouse. Now he was being tried in it, and the wolves were at his gate.
A deputy sheriff slouched at one corner of the hotel's front porch, trying to be inconspicuous as he watched Frank Claymore with nervous, weasel eyes.
There ain't no job too low for somebody who don't want to work, Claymore thought darkly.
Muttering, he moved toward a bench, attacking the floor with his cane at every step. It was hard to come to a tolerance for this kind of attention. For a time now, until just lately, it had seemed that hardly anyone except Homer Whitcomb and the hired hands paid attention to him. Older people didn't count for much anymore. He muttered a bit louder, taking crude comfort from mule-skinner language that had always been therapeutic.
Homer was at his elbow. "You say somethin', Frank?" He took Claymore's arm and tried to help him toward the bench. "You just set yourself down. Be a spell yetbefore court takes up again. Yonder comes the prosecutin' attorney to dinner, him and that whole pack."
Claymore jerked his arm free of Homer Whitcomb's solicitous hands. "I can set myself, thank you." Instantly he regretted his irritability, but he knew he would react no differently the next time. Long years of struggle had etched a belligerent independence into his grain, as time had conditioned the gentle Homer Whitcomb to overlook such provocations and permit them to leave no track. It had long galled Claymore that Homer showed no evidence of rheumatism, of stiffened joints that ached in protest over every quick move. Homer's hair remained indecently dark, though he was by two years the older. But, then, he had never been run over by a herd of cattle, had never carried a flint arrowhead amongst his vitals.
Homer had what Claymore regarded as a hound-dog face, loose skinned and wonderfully pliable, falling easier into smile than frown, seeming usually to harbor some private joke that he savored like old wine. To Claymore, a man who bore so little worry on his shoulders was shirking his responsibilities.
Claymore pushed aside a newspaper he found lying in the way, then settled himself upon the center of the bench so no one could share it with him. He glanced about with his eyes fierce in challenge of anyone who might have the temerity to try.
Homer asked, "Anything I can bring you, Frank?"
"I just had dinner. What the hell could I want?"
Homer seated himself in a nearby chair, showing no reaction. He was more than a working partner; he was a friend from far back down the long years. Like Frank Claymore, he had always done as he damn well pleased, and it had never pleased him to acknowledge the unpleasant.
Claymore studied the business-suited men passing through the gate of the white picket fence that surround the court-house square, picking their way among the tied horses, the wagons and buggies. His vision was still sharp when he looked into the distance. He could see the special prosecuting attorney and his own lawyer walking side by side, conversing pleasantly, apparently the best of friends.
Claymore muttered again. When a man worked for you and accepted your pay, your enemies ought to be his enemies.
He did not understand lawyers. He did not understand anybody who spent his days sheltered beneath a roof, dealing in intangibles such as law or accounts receivable rather than something solid and real like cattle and horses. It was incomprehensible that two men could wrangle for hours in a courtroom and then shut off hostility at the moment of adjournment, like blowing out a lamp. He supposed his Anderson Avery was a good man, as lawyers went. At least he cost enough. But Claymore was not comfortable leaving his future in the hands of a man who had fought all his battles in the comfort of a courtroom, where the only blood he ever saw was in an opponent's eyes.
Anderson Avery mounted the hotel steps and asked politely if Claymore had enjoyed his dinner. Claymore only grunted. Special prosecuting attorney. Elihu Mallard looked past the old rancher, fastening his attention upon the screen door and passing through as quickly as he could.
Afraid of me, Claymore thought with satisfaction. Outside of the courtroom he ain't got the guts to look me in the eye.
Inside the hotel lobby Mallard declared, loudly enough for Claymore to hear, "Sheriff, than man out there is on trial for his life. Why do you not have him in custody?"
The sheriff's voice was touchy. "I got Willis keepin' an eye on him. Anyway, he ain't fixin' to run off. I don't believe that old man ever ran from anything."
Homer Whitcomb nursed a secret smile that often irritated Claymore almost to violence. For the twentieth time he made reference to the prosecutor's name. "Malard. Good handle for such a funny-lookin' duck."
To Homer, anyone outside the cattle-and-horse fraternity was peculiar.
Claymor grumped, "I've looked at better men over the sights of a rifle." The banked coals of courtroom anger stirred to a glow. "I wish it was still just the Indians. They faced you. These days you don't know who the enemy is half the time. They fight you with a pen instead of a gun."
He picked up the newspaper but could read only the Dallas masthead. He passed it to Homer. "You can still read without glasses. What does it say about me?"
"You don't want to hear all them lies."
Claymore demanded, "Read it!"
Reluctantly Homer folded the paper and held it almost at arm's length. He read slowly, stumbling now and again over an unfamiliar word as the article reviewed its version of Frank Claymore's spotted life. Claymore winced in pain when it touched upon the outlaw career of Billy Valentine. He interrupted Homer with an angry outburst. "Damn them, Homer! Damn them! Why can't they let Buily and all them other poor people just rest in peach?"
Homer shook his head and started to put the paper aside. Claymore motioned for him to continue reading. At length Homer came to a section that described Claymore as a greedy, evil old man, a despot of the range, a usurper of the children's grass. Homer looked up, reading the word again. "What's usurper mean?"
Claymore sighed. "I remember the stories they printed about me a long time ago. Said I was forgin' trails in the wilderness. Said I was turnin' them into highways and openin' the plains for civilization. I'm the same man. Old now, is all, instead of young. I was a hero then, Now I'm a greedy old despot. Where's the difference, Homer? I ain't changed."
Homer shook his head. "The world has changed."
Sheriff Ed Phelps walked out onto the porch, picking his teeth. He nodded civilly at Claymore but held his distance. Crowding forty, beginning to pack the first signs of tallow beneath his belt, he looked like a cattleman. Claymore felt more comfortable with him than the lawyers.
The deputy Willis motioned excitedly for the sheriff's attention. "Ed, I wisht you'd looky yonder. There's two Indians settin' under that big chinaberry tree."
Clay more said, "They're friends of mine."
The sheriff's eyebrow arched. "I thought you was an old Indian fighter."
Claymore frowned. "Used to be. Not anymore."
The deputy asked worriedly, "You want me to run them off, Ed"
Testily Claymore repeated. "They're friends of mine."
The sheriff pondered the two figures squatted in the tree's generous shade. "They look harmless to me."
Claymore saw a smile in Hormer's eyes. Harmless, he thought. Hell of a lot these people know. They just ain't old enough to remember.
Homer dropped the newspaper to the gray-painted gallery floor and stared wistfully off into the distance toward the open range, where the new spring grass was rising. Claymore hunched on the bench. He took out his watch, refusing to acknowledge the big clock in that hated cupola. He held the cane between his bony knees, tapping its tip against the toes of his foot-pinching black boots. Drowsiness came over him, for the trial had robbed him of his nap. He stared at the dreary courthouse, dreading his return to it. Gradually the dark stones seemed to dissolve before his half-closed eyes, and the town yielded to the open prairie. The years fell away from his weary shoulders, and in his mind he was again upon the Clear Fork of the Brazos River, where he had ridden so long ago with Homer and with others who were no but a fading memory...
* * *
Down from the rock-crested long hills into the broad valley of the Clear Fork the three horsemen had moved since dawn in a chill autumn mist, searching at first for their cattle, then watching in vain for a landmark to tell them where they were. The hills were brooding dark ghosts dimly seen through a blue-gray curtain drawn down by the season's first raw norther.
The sudden confrontation startled the Comanche hunting party as much as it surprised Frank Claymore and the two men who rode beside him. The riders reined up, stunned, facing each other across fifty yards of wet, brown-cured grass. Horses on both sides sensed the tension and danced nervously, wanting to run.
"My God!" declared George Valentine. "We're dead!"
Frank Claymore, barely the summer past twenty-two, felt as if the ground were opening up to engulf him. Shivering, he summoned the foresight to slip off the soft deerskin case that protected his long rifle from morning dampness. The Indians quickly spread out, widening their line. Frank had no idea whether this was a defensive move or preparation for a charge. He had never seen a hostile this near before. Ten-no, eleven. He looked expectantly at George Valentine for guidance. George, by a full three years his elder, captained the local flop-eared militia. But George trembled and offered no counsel.
Homer Whitcomb always had something to say whether it helped or not. "Them's Indians."
George asked plaintively, "What we goin' to do, Frank?"
Frank's first surge of fear made room for a little of annoyance. He was the youngest of the three. Why do they always look to me? He said, "You're the captain. You tell us."
But George Valentine gaped in shuddering silence at the Indians waving their weapons in challenge. He was ready to break and run.
Frank said, "Let's stand our ground." He tried to put more steel into his voice than he felt. "If we run they'll overtake us and kill us one by one."
George tugged on his reins. "We've got to try." His voice was unnaturally high-pitched. "Maybe our horses are faster."
Frank knew George's panic was about to infect Homer. He felt it himself. It would probably be fatal to them all. He reached deep for nerve. "We can't outrun them, not all of us. Let's get down slow. Show them we'll fight."
Homer Whitcomb dismounted first. He sighted his rifle across the saddle, the reins wrapped around his wrist. If firing started, Homer might not have the horse; the horse might have Homer. In the long run, Frank thought gravel, it probably would not matter.
He remained in the saddle, rifle leveled toward the Comanches, until George was down. Then Frank eased slowly to the ground, though an inner voice shrilled at him to hurry. The Indians shouted. Frank watched them with a mixture of dread and morbid fascination. He fought down an insistent fear, wondering which warrior carried the leadership. The Indians flung away the blankets they had worn against the chill. Frank saw no paint on their faces. He was vaguely disappointed, for their plainness did not live up to his expectations. But he saw color enough in the buffalo-hide shields they raised in taunting gestures and in the feathers and animal tails ornamenting the edges. He saw no firearms. All the warriors brandished bows. That was no firearms. All the warriors brandished much faster than the could fire and reload cap and ball.
George's voice was still strained. "One shot, then they'll be on us before we can reload. We'll have to bluff them."
Frank flared but did not speak the thought. If you know so damned much, why didn't you speak up before?
Homer Whitcomb was never too frightened to talk. "The one on the black horse acts like the leader...the one with the red shield that looks like blood spilled all over it."
Shortly that warrior rode out alone toward the three white men. Frank tensed, expecting the rush.
Rachal! he thought in dismay. Rachal may never know what happened to me.
The Comanche gestured with the crimson shield on his left arm and the bow in his right hand. His eyes fastened on Frank.
Homer said, "I believe he wants you to fight him."
The morning cold bit through Frank's soggy deerskin shirt. "I don't believe I want to do that." He looked at George, but George had nothing to offer.
Damn it, he thought, why should they always assume I am smarter, or stranger, or braver? But he recognized the dependency in the faces of George and Homer. Where he pointed, they would follow. If he panicked, so would they.
He studied the Indian and began as methodical a calculation as he could muster against a smothering fear. Frank was a good shot. Fatherless since ten, he had been sent into the woods by older brothers to fetch home meat while they tended crops. Far back east of here, on the Colorado River, Frank's rifle had often stood between the Claymores and hunger, for the land had been reluctant in its yield.
The Indian had only a bow, and arrows in a buckskin quiver on his shoulder.
It was not Frank's custom to call for help, not even from God. Prayer did not cross his mind. He said tightly, "Next time I may let you hunt cows by yourselves!"
Struggling against an instinct to cut and run, he left his brown horse and walked slowly into the middle ground where the challenging Indian waited. He had considered going mounted but reasoned that he could hold the long rifle steadier if he were on the ground. The Indian motioned for him to move closer. Twenty paces was as far as Frank would go. he held his breath while the Indian walked his horse toward him, shouting, gesturing with the feather-rimmed red shield. Frank could plainly see the dark round face. It struck him that the Comanche was no older than he. Perhaps his comrades had thrust this responsibility upon him as Frank's had done. Frank looked into the black eyes and thought he saw fear behind the bluster. Or perhaps he saw a mirroring of his own.
From a sheath at his waist the taunting warrior flourished a long, crude knife. Frank guessed he was being challenged to a duel with the steel, but the prospect of a knife chilled him. He held the rifle steady, pointing at a tiny rawhide bag hanging from the Indian's neck. At this close range he could not miss. But he knew the other Indians would kill him.
The warrior sheathed the knife, then whooped and drummed his heels into the black horse's ribs. While Frank stared in surprise, the Indian swung the bow and rapped him smartly across the shoulder. Shouting his triumph, the young man whipped his horse around and raced back to his brothers. In started reflex Frank came near shooting him. His legs threatened to crumple.
Death had brushed him like a raven's wing.
Frank backed toward the other cow hunters, his rifle still pointed at the warriors shouting approval for the young man's bravery. The pulse drummed at Frank's temples. He did not want to turn and let the others see his face washed colorless.
To his surprise, the Comanches pulled away, waving shields, yelping in victory. Frank held the rifle high as they dismounted to pick up their blankets. As quickly as they had appeared, they were enveloped in the chilling mist, leaving a deep silence.
His legs were wet from the tall grass, and his crudely pegged boots felt as if he had poured water into them. Homer Whitcomb gave up a long sigh and forced a nervous smile that endured but a moment. George Valentine stood immobile, his eyes downcast as fright gave way to shame.
Shivering, Frank looked from one to the other. His resentment ebbed. The two had done the best they could, considering their individual abilities. He had extended himself beyond what he had thought were his own limitations. He wished he could control his queasy stomach.
George blurted, "I was't goin' to run. If you say I was fixin' to run, I'll tell them you lie."
Frank felt warmth rising to his face. "I don't figure to tell anybody anything."
But he knew Homer would.
Frank swung into his saddle. "They may change their minds and have another try at us," he said as evenly as he could. "I think we've branded claves enough for one trip."
It was George's prerogative to make that judgment, but Frank assumed the lead and began to ride. Homer spurred quickly to catch up. George held back, nursing a wound that would not bleed. The camp people had elected him militia leader for reasons Frank had never understood. Perhaps it was because he looked more dashing than he was. Perhaps, and Frank thought this not most likely it was because George owned more cattle than almost anybody. Frank had long thought they should have elected the strongest and smartest man in camp. They should have elected Sam Ballinger.
He was not certain of directions in the mist, but he hoped he was riding toward the Clear Fork. He thought George might have a better feeling for the way and correct him, but George did not speak. The distant trees, the long he hills were but brooding phantoms. Frank's unspoken doubt did not leave him until he led the riders down the sloping bank of the Brazos tributary.
As they watered the horses Homer declared, "You've got the instinct, Frank. Me and George couldn't've found it."
Frank glanced at George, who kept his face turned away. Frank shrugged, glad he had trusted himself. He had no intention of letting the others know of his doubts. After a time he recognized a lightning-struck tree, its ruptured black trunk resembling a bird with a broken wing dipped into the water. Up the bank a little way lay the dark pile of ashes and charred logs that remained of Sam Ballinger's cabin.
Through the mist he perceived a movement. Quickly he raise the rifle from the pommel of his saddle. His mouth was dry.
A familiar voice called through the gray curtain, "Who's that out yonder"
Frank recovered enough to answer, "It's us, Sam."
The tall, gaunt frame of Sam Ballinger materialized cautiously out of the mist. Sam rode the biggest horse in Davis camp, a long-legged bay that could stand like a block of stone when a grown bull hit the end of a rope. Man and horse seemed carved one for the other.
Sam Ballinger had gray in his heavy sideburns and steel in his eyes. But he showed a kindly smile. "Been folks losin' sleep over you boys. You been gone three days."
The Indians were miles behind them George was recovering some of his nerve. Though years younger than Sam, he asserted his authority. "What're you doin' out here by yourself? You know my orders against people leavin' camp alone."
Sam gave him a long silent stare without the smile. He turned to Frank. "See any of my cows?"
Homer, eager for Sam's approval, beat Frank to the answer. "We branded two calves for you. Heifer calves, they was."
Sam nodded his satisfaction . Heifer calves would build a herd. Bull calves were only to sell, and these days nobody was buying. "Thanks, Homer. I branded one for you and Frank this mornin'."
Like a son gingerly trying to advise his father, Frank said, "You oughtn't to ride out alone, Sam."
Sam did not yield an inch. 'I can take care of myself." He had held out longer than any other farmer on the Clear Fork before finally taking his family to the settlement to fort up with the others at a place they had named Fort Davis. He had not gone until virtually forced at gunpoint by the Texas Confederate Rangers, who patrolled a long picket line north and south at frontier's edge. As soon as the Ballingers were gone, Indians had torched their cabin and the few possessions they had left behind. They had done the same to the small bachelor shack of pickets and sod that Frank had shared with Homer. Frank had accepted it as the fortunes of war, but Sam Ballinger had regarded it as a personal affront.
Sam looked up the slope at the ruins of his cabin and cursed, half under his breath. "I swear, Frank, I'll come back out here the soonest I'm able. I'll build me a house they'll never burn."
Frank nodded, wondering when that might ever be. Far to the east, war blistered Virginia and Georgia and sister states of the Old South. Here on the outermost fringe of Northwest Texas settlement, an older war continued. It had been fought in a hundred skirmishes across plains and hills that as yet had no names except those given by white. cowmen or farmers, or by the Indians. They were Buzzard Peak and Walnut Creek and Blackjack Thicket. The Indian names were lost as white settlement stubbornly pushed the horse tribes northward and west, away from the deer and buffalo grounds won by right of conquest over other red men who had preceded them in these wide, grassy valleys, these raw-edged hills where the rough cedar and oak region known as the Cross Timbers yielded to the southeastern fringe of rolling plains.
Protected to some degree by military outposts such as Belknap and Cooper and Phantom Hill, audacious farmers and cattle owners had pushed into these game-rich grazing lands during the final years before the nation had come unraveled. Suddenly federal troops were gone. Many of the young Texas men volunteered or were conscripted for Confederate service, leaving a thinly guarded frontier more vulnerable than ever before. The western line of settlement had fallen under siege to Comanche and Kiowa, fracturing here and there and yonder as family after family abandoned the land to the constant probing, as men fell in sudden onslaught on field or road, as women and children died in isolated cabins taken by surprise. The settlers who did not choose to abandon the country fell back to redoubts such as Davis, which they called a fort though it was not. It had no military status, no soldiers except a rough-hewn and usually ineffective militia of its own residents, men who by and large had lost no Indians and did not wish to find any.
Few people on the Clear Fork knew or would have cared that a real fort of the same name existed two hundred miles farther west, in the dry mountains beyond the salty Pecos River. They simply banded together on a small plain above the river's east bank and named their rough settlement after the beleaguered president of the Confederacy. That the war back east was going badly they had only an inkling, for their isolation was severe, their own problems crushing enough.
When they needed to tend their drifted cattle or work their distant fields, men usually rode out in groups they hoped were large enough to discourage any Indians they might chance upon. Belatedly the Texas government had elected not to conscript additional young men from the frontier, for their guns were needed at home. The Confederacy had no troops to spare, so the settlers were left largely to defend themselves, augmented by a small and scattered force of state Rangers. Each man was considered a member of the militia and expected to give his share of time to its service. For some it was little more than a convenient alternative to the Confederate Army.
A fact seldom spoken aloud, for one could never be sure of another's conscience, was that many men were on the frontier because they had opposed secession and still held loyal to the Union. In the home guard, this far from that other war, a man was unlikely ever to fire upon the old flat. If he was lucky, he might not have to fire upon an Indian.
Frank Claymore never had.
As they neared the post the men who had followed began pressing ahead of Frank. His resentment gone, he could look upon Homer and George dispassionately. At man had to be taken as he was, not as another might wish him to be. He had known Homer all his life. The Claymore and Whitcomb families had neighbored in Tennessee and had made the long wagon trek west together when Texas was yet an independent republic. They had settled on adjoining farms near Columbus when peg-legged Judge Willie Williamson was still conducing court there beneath a giant old live oak tree. Some of Frank's earliest recollections were of following Homer barefoot down to the Colorado River to watch him catch fish with a cane pole and homespun cotton string, of falling in and of Homer dragging him out upon the sandy bank to cough up muddy water .Homer had taught him about hunting, and they had often carried rifles longer than they were tall, seeking out squirrels in the river-bottom timber. Eventually student had become teacher, and Homer had become the follower.
Both had older brothers, so Frank and Homer had always known they stood no chance of inheriting this family farms; they would have to make their own way. In their teen years the boys cleared stumps and broke out new land for a farmer who, like most early Texans, had no more than a passing acquaintance with cash money. He paid them in old cows whose worn-down teeth had left them near worthless. Both Frank's parents had died by then. With kindly coaching from Homer's father, James, who had nothing to give the boys except counsel and affection, Frank and Homer pampered the cows and saved the calves, branding the C Bar W for Claymore & Whitcomb, trading bull calves for heifers, shaping a little herd. Inevitably the home country became overstocked and Frank's brothers declared his cattle a burden. Carrying little with them except the reluctant blessings of James and Nancy Whitcomb, the two young men drove their small fortune westward from water to water, subsisting upon other people's grass while they worked their slow way toward the frontier and free range. In the process they had happened upon George Valentine, whose older brother had hounded him off of the family farm after their father's death. In leaving, George had gathered what he considered his due, a sizable share of the cows carrying his father's brand, and drove hard to outdistance any angry pursuit. He had felt safer throwing his cattle in with the smaller bunch of Frank and Homer. The angry brother never came. Frank had since decided that most problems never materialize if a man holds himself always ready.
They had come at last to the Clear Fork, far up toward the headwaters of the Brazos. Frank had said this was far enough. he had liked the narrow, whispering river, the grass-blanketed valleys where buffalo might sometimes still be taken when fresh meat was needed. He had liked the ragged hills that seemed to stretch row upon row as far as he could see. Here, in the beginning, the land belonged to the first to squat upon it. There would be time enough later for legalities, for wrangling over titles, for the enrichment of lawyers and judges and the dispossession of those whose rifles and plows had opened the way. It was there for the taking, and Frank had chosen to take it.
That men of darker hue and Stone Age culture regarded it as their own by ancient birthright, confirmed in battle against fierce and persistent enemies, he had never considered. So far as he was concerned, he was the first man to set his feet upon the ground where he turned loose his cattle, where he had chosen to raise the picket cabin. That Homer shared it did not diminish his perception that it was his own.
George shared it only a little while. Because he was the older and owned more cattle, he had assumed an authority Frank had been unwilling to acknowledge. In due time George had put up his own cabin, salvaging what was left of a fragile friendship.
Frank chafed for that big war farther east to be over and done so he could get on with the business at hand. He wanted to reclaim permanently what belonged to him instead of riding out there like a thief in the company of an armed escort, then returning to the crowded and gloomy settlement miles from the place he wanted to be.
Thirty families lived in Davis on a flat patch of ground roughly a hundred yards square. One side was bucket-carrying distance from the river's flood-carved bank. An old stone house stood in one corner, a solid nucleus for the settlement. The other buildings were temporary, mostly of pickets. Cedar and post-oak trunks had been set upright in trenches and rawhide bound for the walls, the roofs made of poles covered by earth. The crude construction stood more for utility than for art, more for expediency than for permanence. For people wished or expected to remain here for long.
Frank saw a homespun Confederate flag waving atop a pole raised in the middle of the fort. The flag aroused him to no patriotic emotion. He frowned at the partially finished picket wall supposed to surround and protect the place. Earth man had been allotted a specified footage to build, but many had not found time or motivation. Frank and Homer and George had done theirs early. Sam Ballinger had done more than his share because he had a family who needed security. Some bright morning, Frank thought darkly, a Comanche force may show up at the fringe of timber, and a bunch of laggard settlers will finish their fence right smartly.
As the riders approached camp, Homer was telling Sam for the third time about their encounter with the Indians. He told about George wanting to run, as Frank had known he would. Face reddening, George spurred his horse and entered camp a couple of lengths ahead of the others.
Sam said, "Homer, there ain't no use you shamin' him so."
George was still in the lead as the horsemen circled a stockaded corner and rode into the square from the river side, where no fence had been built. Homer laughed. "Slow down, George. She's probably run off with some freighter." "Sam Ballinger turned on him sternly. "Never speak ill of a lady, Homer. Not even in jest."
Homer was taken aback. "She ain't no lady. She's just a girl."
Sam yield nothing. "She'll be a lady. Respect her."
George moved his horse into a long trot across the traffic-packed quadrangle toward a small picket house where the Wakefield family lived. A stubborn will held Frank back. He would not have people thinking he was running after any woman, even Rachal. If George's unabashed eagerness won her favor, so be it. He held his brown horse to a walk, his dignity uncompromised.
It was just as well, for a flutter of movement drew his gaze to a picket corral beyond a far corner of the quadrangle. A girl stood in an open gate, a wooden milk bucket in her hand. She waved her bonnet. Even at the distance Frank knew the gesture was for him, not for George. She began running, heedlessly splashing milk from the bucket, depriving her younger brothers and sisters of their supper. Frank forced down an urge to spur his horse. He swung from the saddle and waited for her to come to him.
George Valentine veered across to meet her, but she gave him only a glance and a word. She might have thrown her arms around Frank had she not become aware of people watching. She stopped short. Her face flushed as she looked up at Sam Ballinger, watching her somberly. Sam was preacher-strict with his own daughters.
She controlled her smile. "I...we was commencin' to worry, Frank." He wanted to reach out for her, but Sam Ballinger's towering presence inhibited him. Sam's son, about four, ran from the Ballinger family's picket house shouting, "Daddy!" Sam stepped down and grabbed him, moving so swiftly that he startled his big horse and had to grab the reins. Sam hugged the boy. His daughters waited by the ax-hewn door, their welcome restrained by hard-earned lessons in decorum.
George Valentine sat on his horse, face betraying his disappointment as he watched Frank and Rachal. Ill at ease, Frank was glad he had not reached for the girl. That would have made a spectacle for people to gossip about. Because so little news arrived from outside, everything done, said or imagined there was repeated and enlarged and changed with every telling. Truth had no more chance than an unlucky buffalo that wandered too near this meat-hungry outpost. Frank would wait until darkness hid him and Rachal from prying eyes. It would not, of course, hide them from gossip.
"Tonight," he told her quietly, hoping the word would not carry to George or Homer. But of course they would know. A cow could not cough in this place without everybody knowing.
"Tonight." She smiled, turning away with a flare of homespun skirt. He glanced at George, wondering if George could read his mind. But George's attention was on Rachal as she walked away.
Frank wondered sometimes about Rachal's judgment. George was the older and half a head taller. Frank considered George by some odds the handsomer, though he could only guess what a woman's standards might be. He watched Rachal until she was gone into the small mud-chinked house, carrying what was left of the milk. Turning to lead his horse toward the corrals, he noticed two strangers walking toward George.
Frank slipped the saddle from the brown horse and picked up a badly worn brush somebody had left under the shed. Tough half its bristles were gone, he rubbed it where the saddle had been. The horse stood still, enjoying the treatment. Homer said, "Here comes George with two strangers. You reckon he's sore about me tellin' Sam?"
"You don't have to tell everybody."
"Now, Frank, you know I ain't no gossip."
George stopped in the corral gate, two tall men beside him. One was forty or older, his hair and short beard graying. The other was younger, possibly thirty or less. His eyes had an intensity that cut through Frank like a blade. An empty right sleeve was neatly folded and pinned above the point where his elbow should be. Frank guessed he was a soldier sent home with the scars of that other war.
George said, "Frank Claymore, this is Captain Zachary of the state troops, and Lieutenant Alex McKellar. They're on scout with their company."
Zachary, the older of the two, shook hands in a free and friendly manner. McKellar seemed to harbor reservations, but he extended his left hand. Frank was self-conscious and awkward, wondering which of his own hands to use.
George said, "I have told them about the Indians."
Zachary nodded. "Since Mr. Valentine heads the militia, I have asked him to go with us in the morning to see if we can pick up their trail. He was kind enough to volunteer your services also, Claymore."
Galled, Frank glanced toward the Wakefield house and knew why George did not want him here in his own absence. He saw Homer grin at his discomfort. "Homer'll be glad to go with us too," he said dryly.
Homer's eyes narrowed in resignation. "Sure thing, Captain."
Captain Zachary smiled, but McKellar did not look as if he had smiled in years. Frank was uncomfortably conscious of the younger officer's eyes measuring him, probably finding fault with his lack of eagerness.
The tall captain pointed with his chin to a rising of camp smoke beyond the compound. "We'll see you at first light."
McKellar kept stride with him as they left, seeming more to march than to walk.
George said, "The captain's lookin' for recruits."
Frank knew what he was driving at. "I'm surprised you didn't volunteer me for that too."
"It crossed my mind." George glanced toward the Wakefield house, then walked off toward his own.
* * *
Tiny ribbons of lightning played through the night sky, so far to the north that Frank could hear no thunder as he walked toward the Wakefields' picket cabin. The wind was cold and damp, and he had changed his buckskin shirt for one of rough cotton and a woolen coat. Both were so old that the elbows were patched and the cuffs frayed out. Marks of poverty were no disgrace on the frontier. The longer the war continued, the more common they became.
He heard the laughter of Rachal's younger brothers and sisters as he stopped at the door. He could not pick her voice from the lot. He waited for a lull in the noise, then rapped his knuckles solidly against the rough cedar door. Rachal appeared dark against the flickering candlelight. "Frank?" she asked, trying to be sure of him in the darkness.
He stopped closer to the light. "Wondered if you'd want to walk with me a little? If it's all right with your daddy, of course."
"Daddy's away on a cow hunt. But Mama's here. Come on in."
Frank had never known how to figure Rachal's mother, old before her time, her frowning silence speaking of pent-up bitterness years in building. She had little use for most people in the settlement and even less for Frank Claymore. Anger always showed when she turned her eyes to him, as if she knew very well what Frank and Rachal did when they got away into the darkness by themselves. She probably had done the same herself when she was young, he thought defensively, if she ever had been young. He found it difficult to imagine her enjoying it as much as Rachal. He could not picture her ever having been different than the mean-spirited, used-up shell she was today. Frank reasoned that Mrs. Wakefield saw in him and in all other men here the reflection of her own husband, who had used her like a brood mare and brought her to this rough poverty.
Making an effort toward peace, he removed his hat. She looked away without acknowledgement, sharply telling the children to be still and stop stirring dust from the earthen floor.
Rachal threw an old woolen shawl over her shoulders and picked up a bundle from a bed. "It's all right with Mama."
"We won't leave the camp, Mrs. Wakefield," Frank said. "I wouldn't take her where there's any danger."
The woman did not look at him. Crossly she said, "There's worse dangers here in camp than any to be found outside."
Frank was relieved to be out of the tension-charged shack and back into the cool night air. Outside, the closing door put the couple in darkness. Rachel threw her arms around Frank and pressed eagerly against him. Her lips were warm and hungry. They were forced, in a minute, to pull apart for breath. Fire rushed to his face.
She whispered, "I thought you'd never come."
"It was a long time for me, too."
Arms around each other's waists, they walked across the quadrangle. He let her lead him toward the cow pen, toward a dark shed that would shelter them from prying eyes. The only resistance he offered was to point out, "If anybody sees us, they'll talk." "They'll talk even if we don't do anything. Show me the locket, Frank."
He reached into his pocket and brought out a small silver-looking oval she had given him. She said, "I've been afraid you might lose it."
In terms of monetary value it would be little loss, for it was but a cheap trinket. But its sentimental value was beyond price. He touched a clasp, and the cover opened to a tiny, crudely painted portrait done by an itinerant artist who would better have served the world as a carpenter or a stonemason. It looked vaguely like Rachal; imagination filled in where artistry had been lacking. "I won't lose it," he said. "I look at your picture twenty times a day."
The cow-pen gate was a series of three bars. She slid the top one aside, then turned as if to ask him to move the others. He did, closing them behind him. She hurried ahead with the bundle and waited beneath the shed, where the raw north wind did not reach her. She threw her arms around him and kissed him again, hungrier than before. He sensed that she was still leading him, that soon she would lead him beyond any stopping.
They had been shy and slow and awkward about it the first time, weeks ago. Now there was no shyness, no waiting, but a breathless rush by both of them, an eager searching of hands, half-words whispered, a frenzied pressing together, then a long, warm, silent holding, one against the other.
She asked, "You love me, Frank?"
"Can't you tell without me sayin' it all the time?"
She shrugged. "You might do this with any girl."
"I never have. And I never would."
"You used to talk about marryin' You ain't said nothin' this time.'
"I've already promised you-first chance we get."
"Preacher Smith is over at For Belknap. Captain Zachary's company brought the word. He'll be here tomorrow or next day. We can get him to marry us; then it won't matter what people say." She pulled away, straightening her dress. From a feed through she picked up the little bundle she had brought from the house.
"Look what I made for you." She let it roll out, holding the edges so it would not fall. "A shirt, Frank. I spun the cotton myself. You can't tell in the dark, but it's nice and white. Just right for a weddin' shirt tomorrow."
"I wouldn't be here tomorrow." He explained that he had been ordered to ride out with Zachary's company.
She reached with a minute's stunned silence. "But the preacher mightn't stay long. Might be gone before you get back."
"Then we'll have to wait awhile longer."
She began to cry. He tried to put his arms around her, but she turned away from him, as if it had been his fault.
He said, "Preacher'll come around again. Another month, maybe two...we can wait."
"I can't," she said, sobbing. "I mean, I had my heart set on us marryin' now. In this awful place, who knows what might happen in another month or two? I want you now, Frank." She turned suddenly and threw herself against him. Bewildered, he held her, feeling her shoulders shudder. A dozen wild possibilities ran through his mind. He considered taking her tonight to Belknap, but the notion was discarded as quickly as it came. Indians might kill them both.
She whispered, "Can't you tell the captain you won't go till after the preacher gets here?"
Tempted, he knew he had to refuse. "Orders. They'd throw me in jail, and we couldn't get married a-tall. Might even make me go east to where the big fightin' is."
"Oh, Frank," she cried, "I have a terrible feelin'. If we don't get married now we never will."
He held her gently, love coming over him like a warm, smothering blanket. He never wanted to let her go. "I promise you, we'll get married soon's the chance comes. Till then you just got to have faith."
She ran sobbing to the gate, threw the first rail aside and climbed over. She ran back toward the Wakefield cabin. He stared after her in confusion wanting to run to her but not knowing what he would say if he caught her.
Something white lay at his feet. He folded the new shirt carefully and tucked it under his arm. At a distance he saw the glow of cookfires in Zachary's camp. A helpless anger welled up at the thought of being hostage to the authority of others.
Why did you have to come today? Why couldn't you have waited?
* * *
Frank slept poorly, for Rachal kept coming to him in his mind, the consuming fire of her loving moments, the anguish in her face as she had run from him. Early in the morning he got up feeling irritable enough to take offense if it was offered from any quarter, even by Homer. He pulled on the deerskins, still damp and cold from yesterday, and knew this was going to be an unfriendly day. He put on his boots, stamping to drive his feet all the way into the rough, wet leather. He grunted, hoping to stir Homer. As was his custom, he walked outside to get some feeling for the day's weather. He saw only darkness where the morning star should be. Lightning still flickered in the north. The stockman in him was glad at the prospect of rain; the reluctant soldier did not relish riding in it. He saw movement in Zachary's camp and knew the rifle company was up, seeing to breakfast.
He shouted back into the cabin, "If you want time to eat, you'd better stir yourself. They won't take kindly to waitin'."
The lightning was nearer than when he had gone to bed. Once the earth trembled to distant thunder. He fixed a hasty breakfast of deer ham over a fire Homer had kindled in the small stone fireplace. Leaving, he picked up the woolen coat he had used for a pillow. Threadbare and roughly patched, it would feel good on this trip.
He saw the shirt Rachal had made. He rubbed his fingers over the fabric woven by her own hands, and he touched it reverently to his face. Carefully he spread it out across his bed so it would not wrinkle. One day soon he would wear it.
The captain's men were saddling when Frank and Homer rode to the encampment. Zachary greeted them civilly but invested no time, for he was seeing to it that everybody was ready. A small black boy of twelve or fourteen years brought the captain his pistol belt. It was not unusual for a slave-owning officer to keep a servant with him in the field. "Tobe, is everything packed?"
"Yes, sir, Captain. Got it all tied on the mule."
Lieutenant McKellar seemed everywhere at once, crisply upbraiding the laggards, silencing any protest with his rigid bearing. Frank would wager that he had been the first man packed, the first man a-horseback. McKellar did not allow his lost arm to be a handicap.
George Valentine rode in and reported to Zachary. Then he nodded at Frank. "No hard feelin's, I hope."
There were, but Frank saw no advantage in airing them. He had always liked George Valentine despite his shortcomings, despite the attention he gave to Rachal. As scarce as friends were on this broad frontier, a man couldn't be throwing them away. "No hard feelin's."
When the company was formed McKellar rode in front of it, silently counting. He reined around to face the captain and saluted, not a custom in the state troops. "All present and accounted for, sir." The left-handed salute seemed not a bit awkward.
Zachary's return salute was too casual for regular army. "Claymore, think you can find where you lost your Indians?"
Frank looked eastward, where day's first light put an edge on the trees and brought their shape up out of darkness. Today he should at least be able to see landmarks. "I'll try."
Zachary nodded. "Then plow ahead."
The expression told Frank the captain was a farmer at heart, not a soldier. Turning, he loose-counted about twenty men besides himself, Homer and George-better than a match for yesterday's Indians. Unlike the camp militia, they carried their rifles as if the weapons were a natural part of them. Most had probably been farmers, but they had made themselves into something else. They possessed a quiet purpose, a will.
Zachary seemed to know his thoughts. "These men are the pick of a good crop, Claymore. The rest I sent home." His jaw hardened. "Or buried."
Frank sensed a challenge offered. He saw no reason to respond; his connection with this company would be temporary. He touched spurs gently to the brown horse and set a course upriver to Sam Ballinger's place. He glanced northward from time to time, trying to gauge the weather, the distant rain. The damp chill worked through his woolen coat and leather shirt. He hunched his shoulders, though it did no good.
Zachary frowned at the ruins of Sam's cabin but make no comment. He had probably seen a hundred places like this. Frank told him about Sam and his vow to come back.
Zachary said, "A commendable spirit, if not good judgment. There is a time to fight, and a time to preserve one's assets." He dismounted to rest his horse. His men followed his example without an order. Most walked to the river and drank their fill. Frank was not thirsty.
Zachary said, "It is a good policy to water out anytime you can. You never know when the next opportunity may arise."
Frank glanced at Homer and George. The three led their horses to the river and drank.
The rest period gave Frank a chance to study the men in good daylight. They were mostly young, prime material for the Confederate Army had they not chosen frontier service. An exception who aroused his curiosity was a spare, gray-whiskered man in grease-blackened buckskins, an ancient Mexican-style hat sagging around his face as if it was too old and fatigued to hold itself up. Frank would not have voiced his judgment, but he thought this venerable gentleman deserved a comfortable rocking chair. He had no business here.
The old man's frame seemed in a state of collapse, in keeping with the brim of his hat, but his pale gray eyes were never still. They caught Frank's and gave him a sense of guilt for staring. "How old you think I be, sonny?"
Frank's face warmed. "I don't know."
The old eyes seemed to laugh. "I never did know myself. As far back as I can remember, I been full-growed."
"I didn't mean you no offense."
"None taken. People been callin' me old for thirty years. But I'll still be a-horseback when most of them are layin' on the ground beggin' for a rest." The gray eyes fastened like claws to Frank's face. He extended his hand. "Name's Beaver Red."
The strength of his grip astonished Frank. He tried to give back as firmly as was given and saw approval in the time-punished face. "Frank Claymore."
"I knowed yours. Heard it this mornin' early."
Frank hesitated to inquire into a man's personal business but decided to do it anyway. "How'd you come by a name like Beaver Red?"
"Trapped beaver once, out in the Rocky Mountains. Taken furs to Santy Fee and Taos. And my hair used to was red, way back yonder." It still was, amid the gray.
Frank's interest quickened. Santa Fe and Taos were names he had heard, mysterious places far west beyond two or three hundred miles of unknown Indian country. He had never talked to anyone who had actually been there.
He wanted to ask questions, but Captain Zachary swung onto his horse. Lieutenant McKellar glanced at Frank. The order was unstated but clear. Frank mounted the brown, found yesterday's tracks and took his direction.
George rode up once and pointed northward. "Seems to me like we ought to go yonderway."
Frank realized with a start that George had not even discerned he was following yesterday's trail. He wondered sometimes how George would ever make it on his own; he had no feeling for directions. Frank pointed to the tracks. George betrayed his surprise and dropped back.
There were those to whom the land spoke in silent voice. As far back as he could remember, Frank had always heard. Somehow, George never had.
Homer never asked questions. He simply followed, comfortable in his faith.
Once Frank lost the tracks in the tall, wet grass. Quietly Beaver Red moved to the front and helped him search. The old man took but a minute, then pointed to a fragment of track Frank had missed. He dropped back, not asserting himself further.
The heavy clouds allowed only faintest notion of the sun, but Frank knew it was late afternoon when he came suddenly upon the mass of horse tracks. He felt a prickling where his backside fit against the saddle. This was the place, he thought, or close to it. He reined up, looking for a landmark. He had nothing to go on but instinct.
Homer rode out across a broad opening and turned. "Right here is where we was, Frank. I remember that dead tree. Yonder is where you and that Red Shield faced one another."
A chill played up Frank's back.
The captain said, "Good work, Claymore. Now, who left the field first, you or the Indians?"
"They did. Sort of faded into the mist, yonderway." He pointed northward.
Zachary turned in the saddle. "Beaver..."
Beaver was already there. Without questions he started riding a broad arc, studying the ground. He circled his hand over his head, then dropped it to point north.
The wind turned colder as the little company rode directly into it. Frank pulled his woolen coat tighter, wishing he had done a better job of patching. The wind sought out the holes and worried through to the skin. Homer and George wore no wool, only thin deerskin jackets covering rough cotton shirts. He could have told them this would be a cold ride, but they should have thought for themselves.
The heaviest clouds lay eastward. Frank guessed it was probably raining at Davis camp, the kind of cold, steady rain that so often rolled down across the vastness of the open plains and fell upon the settlements ahead of winter's first hard freezes, as the Indians sometimes fell upon them in their last search for horses and glory and blood before retreating to whatever distant lands they used for winter camping grounds.
Rain began slowly, a light mist at first, increasing steadily until it was a driving, lashing force, washing out the tracks Beaver Red had followed. The old man turned to the captain with a shrug of lean shoulder. "Sorry, Thomas. I expect they've got a medicine man in league with the weather spirits."
That was the first time Frank had heard anyone address Zachary other than as Captain. He supposed age offered privileges denied even to rank.
"It's time to look for camp anyway," Zachary replied. "Do you know of any sheltered places around here?" The question seemed directed at both Frank and Beaver Red. Frank waited for the man to reply, then said, "I've hunted cattle up here. There used to be a stone cabin."
"Lead the way."
Frank followed his instinct and tried to appear confident. After a while a cabin's dark shape materialized through the rain. His relief turned to disappointment. The stone walls stood, but only charred and broken logs were left of the roof.
The captain took the letdown in stride. "The Indians are thorough. They allow us no comfort."
There was no comfort, not even dry wood for fires. The men contented themselves with cold bread and a little meat carried over from their breakfast. They shared with Frank and Homer and George. Coffee was a sometime luxury since the early days of the war, and if any man carried some with him he had no opportunity to boil it. Frank heard no complaint; he sensed these men were used to being deprived. The cabin walls seemed to mock them with comfort promised, then denied. The only virtue of the camp was that the stone corral was undamaged, and the horses could be penned for the night.
The men huddled in silent against the walls for their little protection from a driving rain. Frank wrapped his saddle blanket around his shoulders and let the cold water run off, making a rivulet past the skinned toes of his old boots and losing itself in the greater muddy mass running down the sloped away form the cabin ruins. Zachary saw to his men, then looked down upon Frank and his two companions.
"I am sorry to have brought you to this."
Frank shrugged, bringing cold water down his neck. He glanced at George and lied. "We come because we wanted to."
Lieutenant McKellar stood in the rain, staring down at Frank with a look near belligerence. "Or perhaps you came because you had rather do this than serve your true duty?"
Frank looked up in surprise. "Sir?"
"You appear able-bodied. You could very well be back east defending your country against the northern invaders."
Frank dropped his chin, guarding against a betrayal of his thoughts. "I got no stake in that war back yonder."
The captain said, "Leave him be, Alex. This is no place for politics."
"Any place is a place for patriotism." McKellar strode away, his body stiff, ungiving to the rain.
The captain said quietly, "He gave an arm. He cannot see why some of us are not eager to give at least as much."
Frank's eyes narrowed. It occurred to him that the captain himself might be here because his devotion to the Confederacy was less than wholehearted. It was not a thing for a man to ask, or even to talk about. Men had been hanged for no more than suspicion about their loyalty.
Gravely the captain said, "I gave a son. And I gave a wife. She was so weakened by grief that she succumbed to the first fever epidemic that came along. That is more than I owe."
The rain abated before daylight, but the damage was done. Wet, cold, miserable, the tired little company arose to a breakfast the same as evening's supper except even smaller. Captain Zachary rode forward with Beaver Red, searching for any remnant of tracks. The droop of Zachary's shoulders said he expected to find nothing. They rode northward awhile. The company followed, spread out loosely the men hunched in fatigue.
Frank missed George and looked around. He saw him trailing, talking to Lieutenant McKellar.
Well into the morning Zachary signaled for a halt and dismounted to rest the horses. The dejected set of his shoulders remained. McKellar rode forward to confer with him. In a few minutes the captain motioned to Frank. Glancing at Homer, Frank touched spurs to the brown horse. Homer followed; he always did.
The captain said, "As you have probably guessed, Claymore, we have lost all sign of your Indians. I have chosen to give up the pursuit."
Frank nodded. He could have told them that at daylight.
Zachary said, "As you have probably already seen for yourself, this unit is short of men. The lieutenant has been conferring with your militia officer. He says Mr. Valentine has volunteered your services to us for thirty days."
Frank made a cry of protest and turned in the saddle, looking back angrily. George had shown the good judgment to remain behind with the rest of the company. "I got stock to see after, sir."
McKellar said sternly, "It is in the law that any man exempted from regular military service can be pressed into special duty by the militia for up to thirty days, Claymore. If you had rather, we could see that you are sent to Virginia in short order."
That damned George, Frank thought. "I got personal business, Captain."
Zachary nodded. "So does every man in my company, sir."
Frank clenched his fist; he was trapped.
Homer spoke up. "Am I volunteered too, Captain?"
The captain glanced at McKellar. "If you want to be."
Frank said, "You better stay back and look after our cattle."
Homer shook his head. "Since George volunteered us, let George see after our cows."
The captain beckoned to George. He told him Frank and Homer were staying. "These men are concerned about their livestock. I feel confident you will see after their interests while they are gone."
George nodded, smiling a little as he looked at Frank. But Frank did not smile. When the captain and McKellar and Beaver Red rode back toward the waiting company, Frank remained. He managed to hold down most of his anger. "You'll tell Rachal why I didn't come back?"
George said, "I'll explain to her."
"And, George, I don't believe I need to tell you..." He could not put it into words, but he felt confident George followed his meaning. "I've always tried to be your friend, George, but damned if you don't make it hard." He put the brown horse into a walk, moving toward the company. Homer followed him, leaving George sitting by himself.
Somewhere to the east, thunder rolled.
Copyright Elmer Kelton 1984, 1990
Excerpted from Stand Proud by Kelton, Elmer Copyright © 2001 by Kelton, Elmer. Excerpted by permission.
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