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It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.
Me, I was pushing a tall twelve by then and could cuss 'most as good as Pap, and we both done some cussin' then.
Bagley, the one Pap helped down to Ash Hollow that time, he got mighty red around the ears, but he kept his wagon rollin'.
Most folks, those days, were mighty helpful, but this outfit sort of set their way by the captain. He was Big Jack McGarry.
When the wheel busted, somebody called out and we swung back. Big Jack had no liking for Pap because Pap never took nothing off him, and because Pap had the first look-in with Mary Tatum, which Big Jack couldn't abide.
He swung that fine black horse of his back and he set there looking at us. We had turned to and were getting that wheel off, fixing to get it repaired if we could.
"Sorry, Tyler. You know what I said. This is Indian country. Goin' through here, we keep rollin' no matter what. We'll wait a spell at the springs, though. You can catch us there."
Then he turned his horse and rode off, and nobody else in the wagons said by word or look that they even seen us setting there.
Pap, he didn't waste no more time. He looked after them, his face kind of drawn down and gray like, and then he turned to me and he said, "Son, I don't mind for myself. It's you I'm thinkin' of. But maybe it'll be all right. You take that there gun, and you set up high and watch sharp."
So that was the way it was, and Pap aworking to fix that wheel so we could go on. He was a good man at such things, and he had built many a wagon in his day, and had done some fine cabinetwork, too.
He worked steady and I kept my eyes open, but there was mighty little to see. It was a long rolling grass plain wherever a body looked. Here and there was draws, but I couldn't see into them. The wind stirred that tall grass, bending it over in long rolls, the way the sea must look, and it was green-gray and then silver in the changing light and wind. Overhead the sky was wide and pale blue, with just a few lazy clouds adrifting.
We had us a good Conestoga wagon and six head of cattle, good big oxen, to haul it. We had two horses and two saddles, and inside the wagon was Pap's tools, our grub, bedding, and a few odds and ends like Ma's picture, which Pap kept by him, no matter what.
Pap had swapped for a couple of Joslyn breech-loading carbines before we left Kansas, and we each had us a handgun, Shawk & McLanahan six-shooters, caliber .36, and good guns, too.
Like McGarry said, this was Indian country. Not two weeks ago the Indians had hit a wagon train, smaller than ours, killing four men and a woman. They hit it again a few miles west, and they killed two more men.
Ours was a big train, well armed and all, but Big Jack, I seen the look in his eyes when he sat there watching Pap aworking. He was just figuring to himself that he wouldn't have to worry any more about Pap, and by the time the wagons got to Californy he'd be married up with Mary Tatum. Her and all that silver her old man carried in the big box under his wagon.
When it was almost dark, Pap called to me. "Son, come on down. You ride your horse, scout around a little. If the wagons get to stop at the springs, we'll catch 'em."
But cattle don't make no speed with a heavy wagon. Their feet spread wide on turf and they pull better, day in, day out, than any mule or horse, but they can't be called fast.
Night came, and we set a course by the stars, and we rolled on west all through the night. When the first gray light was in the sky, we saw the gleam on the water. Least, I saw it. Pap, he was still too far back.
I seen the water where the pool was, and the cottonwood leaves, but no white wagon covers, no horses, and no breakfast fires acooking.
When the wagon came up I saw Pap looking and looking like he couldn't believe it, and I seen his Adam's apple swallow, and I said, "Pap, they've gone on. They left us."
"Yes," he said. "I reckon that's so."
We both knew we had to stop. Cattle can stand so much, and these had a tough night and day behind them. "We'll water up, son," Pap said. "Then we'll pull into a draw and rest a while."
So that was how it was, only when we got to the springs we saw the wagons had not stopped there. Big Jack McGarry had taken no chances. He pulled them right on by, and nobody to know he'd promised to wait for us there. Nobody but him and us.
We watered up and then we pulled out. Maybe three miles farther on we found a draw with some brush and we pulled into it for a rest. Pap unyoked the oxen and let them eat buffalo grass. He taken his Joslyn up on the ridge and bellied down in the grass.
Me, I went to sleep under the wagon, and maybe I'd been asleep an hour when I felt someone nudge me, and it was Pap.
"Here they come, boy. You get on your horse and take out." He was down on one knee near me. "Maybe if you hold to low ground you can make it safe."
"I ain't agoin' without you."
"Son, you go now. One can make it. Two can't. You take Old Blue. He's the fastest."
"You come with me."
"No, this here is all we got, boy. I'll stay by it. Maybe they'll take what sugar we got, and go."
"I'll stay, too."
"No!" Pap rarely spoke hard to me after Ma died, but he spoke sharp and stern now, and it wasn't in me to dispute him. So I loosed the reins and swung into the saddle.
Pap passed me up a sackful of cartridges and such, then caught my arm. There were tears in his eyes. "Luck, boy. Luck. Remember your ma."
Then he slapped Old Blue on the rump and Old Blue went off up the draw. Me, I was in no mind to leave him, so when we rounded a little bend I put Blue up the bank and circled back.
I heard a rifle shot and saw dust kick near the wagon, then a whole volley of shots. Along with the rest I heard the sharp hard sound of Pap's Joslyn carbine.
Tying Blue among some brush in a low place, I grabbed my Joslyn and went back, keeping low down.
Maybe a dozen Indians were out there, and Pap's one shot had counted, for I saw a free horse running off. As I looked the Indians began to circle, and Pap fired again. An Indian grabbed at his horse's mane and almost slipped off.
The sun was out and it was hot. I could smell the hot, dusty grass and feel the sun on my back, and my hands were sweaty, but I waited.
Boy though I was, and Pap no Indian fighter, I knew what I had to do. Night after night I'd sat by the fire and heard talk of Indian fights and such-like from the mountain men we met, and a couple of others who had been over this trail before us. I soaked it up, and I knew there was a time for waiting and a time for shooting.
Pap was doing right good. He downed a horse and the Indians pulled off and away. I lay quiet, having a good view of the whole shindig, me being no more than a hundred and fifty yards off.
Sudden-like, I saw the grass move. They were crawling up now. Did Pap see them?
No, he couldn't see them from where he lay, but he had guessed that was what they would do, for I saw him worm out from behind the wheel where he'd been shooting and ease off into some rocks not far from the wagon. They were coming on and right soon I could see four of the Indians.
Pap waited. I give him that. He was no Indian fighter, just a good wheelwright and cabinetmaker, but he was smart. Suddenly he came up with his carbine and fired quick. I saw an Indian jerk back with a busted shoulder. Then two of them ran forward. Pap fired and missed, and fired again and hit.
And then I heard a whisper in the grass and saw four Indians walking their horses careful behind him. Behind him and right below me. They weren't thirty yards off from me, at point-blank range.
This here was what I'd waited for. My mouth so dry I couldn't spit or swallow, I ups with my Joslyn. I took steady aim the way I'd been taught, drew a deep breath and let it out easy, and then I squeezed her off. The rifle jumped in my hands, and that first Indian let out a grunt and went off his horse and into the grass. I'd shot him right through the skull.
Pap turned quick, fired once, then swung back as I shot again.
My second shot took an Indian right through the spine, and the other two went to hellin' away from there.
My shooting had caught them flat-footed, as the fellow says. They'd figured the man at the wagon was the only one, and now I'd killed me two Indians, and all in less than a minute.
Another shot, and I turned quick.
Two Indians had rushed Pap and now they were fighting with him. At the same moment the two I'd run off circled back. I shot and missed, too excited, and then I saw Pap go down and saw a knife rise and fall, and I knew it was too late to do anything for Pap.
I hustled for Old Blue, jumped into the saddle, and rode out of there.
But I didn't head for no settlement, or try to catch up with the train. That wagon was ours, and the stuff in it was ours. I circled around, walked my horse a couple of miles in a creek, then brought him out of the water onto rock and cut back over the hills.
It was full dark when I got back there. All was quiet. There was no fire, nothing.
I studied about it some, then decided those Indians would never figure on me to come back, and once they'd taken what they wanted from the wagon, they'd not stay around. So I went down, taking it easy. Finally, when Old Blue began to get nervous, I tied him to a bush and went on alone.
When I got close I could smell the burned wood. The wagon had been set on fire, but it was still there.
I crawled up closer, and I found Pap. He'd been shot through, then stabbed. And they'd scalped him.
Using a match, I hunted through the wagon. They'd looted it, throwing stuff around, taking most of what they could use. I knew where Pap had kept the forty dollars in gold he had, and with my knife point I dug it out of a crack in the wood Pap had puttied over.
They'd set fire to the wagon, all right, but only the cover had burned. The hoops were some charred, and the sideboards, but most of the stuff was intact. Pap's tool chest had been busted open, and most of the sharp tools were gone. The chisels and like that.
There was a few cents change in Pap's pocket, and I took it. He'd be wanting me to have it.
Then I got the shovel and dug out a grave for him on the hill, and there I toted his body and buried him, crying all the time like a durned girl-baby. Me, who bragged it up that I never shed no tears.
On the grave I piled some rocks and on a piece of board I burned out Pap's name with a hot iron. Then I rustled around amongst what was left to see what I could find.
There was little enough, but I found Ma's picture. Miracle was, it hadn't burned. But it was stuck down in the Bible and only the edges of the leaves had charred a mite, and the cover. I put Ma's picture in my pocket and went back to Old Blue.
The cattle were gone. They'd drove them off and somewhere now they were eating real big.
Eating . . . eating too much and maybe sleeping. Eating too much and in their own country, and they wouldn't be keeping a guard, maybe.
The nearest water was where they would head for, and the nearest water was the springs. I got up on Old Blue and started walking him back.
Maybe I was just a fool kid, but those Indians had killed Pap and stolen our cattle. I was going to get me an Indian.
One more, anyway.
The night smelled good. There were a million stars in the sky, looked like, and I could feel the soft wind over the grass. And on that wind I smelled smoke; wood smoke, with some smell of buffalo chips, too.
Old Blue seemed to know what I was about. He walked real light and easy on the grass, his ears pricked up. He could smell the smoke, and from the uneasy feel of him between my knees, I knew he could smell Indian.
After a while I got down and tied Old Blue. Then I crept along, all bent over, and got up close.
They had a fire that was almost dead, and I could see their horses off to one side. They were all asleep, expecting nothing. I could see four oxen still standing, so they had only eaten two, or most of two.
Take white men a week to eat an ox, but not Indians. They gorged themselves one day, starved the next; that was the way of it. Well, one or more had eaten all he was ever going to.
First off I crawled around to where their ponies were. Working up close through the grass, I got up and walked casual-like among them. Maybe because of that, maybe because I was just a boy, they didn't fret much until I had my hand on a tie rope. Then one of them blew loud through his nostrils.
And when he done that, I slashed the picket ropes with my pocket knife, first one, then another.
Then I yelled and two of the horses done what I'd hoped. They ran full tilt into that Indian camp. I held my fire until I saw Indians scrambling up, and then I shot.
From the Paperback edition.