Wyoming holds the promise of a bright future for newlyweds Cole and Ann Bonner. Alongside Ann’s sister, her husband, and their children, the young couple have braved the long, hard road across Nebraska in hopes of building a new life for themselves on a tract of land near Crow Creek Crossing.
But their dreams of a fresh start are quickly cut short. While Cole is away in town, a gang of outlaws led by the vicious Slade Corbett raids the family homestead, leaving behind a smoking ruin and the mutilated bodies of everyone Cole holds dear.
The horror and anguish are almost too much for him to bear and they transform this once easygoing young man into a grim avenger. With cold, merciless determination, Cole vows to track down every last member of the gang and make them pay in blood.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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CROW CREEK CROSSING
CROW CREEK CROSSING
Cole Bonner stood at the top of a low ridge, looking back over a treeless sea of grass, watching the progress of the covered farm wagon a mile and a half behind him. Halfway down the ridge, Joe, his dark Morgan gelding, lingered, casually munching the short grass left by a dryer-than-normal summer. Cole watched the wagon for a few moments more before shifting his gaze back toward his horse.
One of the best trades I ever made, he thought, even though he had given up two horses in exchange for the powerful Morgan.
But Joe had proven his worth on the trek across Nebraska that had begun almost two months before, one day after Ann Sumner said I do and became Mrs. Cole Bonner. He smiled when he thought about Ann’s reaction when he had told her of the three most important decisions he had made in his entire life—the trade for Joe, the purchase of his Henry rifle, and marrying her. She demanded to know why marrying her was listed third, fully aware that he said it only to tease her, a practice he seemed to find delight in.
Ann had wondered why he had chosen to name his horse Joe, and his response had been “It’s as good a name as any, and Joe seems to like it all right.” The truth of the matter was that he couldn’t think of any clever name that would apply to the horse, so he’d settled on the first one that came to him.
Certain now that the folks in the wagon could see him atop the ridge, he waved his hat back and forth over his head, a signal he used to tell them he had found water, or a campsite if it was nearing the end of a day’s travel. From that distance, he could see John Cochran driving the wagon, his wife, Mabel, seated beside him. Ann, with John and Mabel’s three kids, was walking beside the wagon.
Cole’s gaze naturally lingered on his bride. It was a vision that never failed to remind him of what a lucky man he was. She could have had any young bachelor in Lancaster, but she’d picked him. The thought always amazed him, for he had certainly never shown any indication of having serious plans for providing for a family. He had seldom had any thoughts beyond what he might be doing the next day, which was almost always the same thing as the day before: working for Henry Blacksmith. Blacksmith owned one of the biggest cattle ranches near Lancaster, Nebraska.
Well, he thought, I reckon I’ve got a future to think about now, working for myself.
He took his time walking back down the ridge to his horse. It would still be a few minutes before the wagon caught up to him, and as he climbed up into the saddle, he continued his reverie of the solid future he now saw before him.
“I’ll be an old family man,” he announced to Joe. “Maybe have a dozen young’uns.”
He grinned mischievously when he thought of the pleasure he would have in the process. Sometimes he would admit to himself that without Ann’s influence, he probably never would have agreed to set out for Wyoming Territory to build a farm. Truth be told, Ann had never really given him any choice in the matter of what they were going to do. She had a future all planned, and he just found himself fortunate to have been picked to share it with her. He had never told her of the dream he had carried in his mind since he was a young boy. That dream was to ride beyond the flat plains of Nebraska and Wyoming and experience the Rocky Mountains for himself, to ride the high country where God rested His clouds. A simple life with Ann was worth sacrificing the dream, and he vowed that he would never mention the craving to her.
John Cochran had bought his parcel of land on Chugwater Creek, sight unseen, but he trusted the advice of his friend Walter Hodge, who claimed to be doing well in that valley. John’s plan was to grow wheat and raise cattle to sell to the military. Ann was set on going with her sister and her husband, with plans to find her and Cole’s homestead, hopefully close to theirs. When he thought about it now, Cole shook his head, realizing that he had allowed himself to be totally dominated by his new wife. But deep down, he knew he didn’t really care where he went, or what he did when he got there, as long as he was with her. He couldn’t explain what being in love was, but whatever it was, he knew for damn sure that he had a hell of a dose of it.
John had already guaranteed that he could make a first-rate farmer out of him, in spite of Cole’s protests that it might be more of a challenge than John anticipated.
“Hell, I can’t raise dust without a horse under me to kick it up,” he had joked.
He knew, however, that he could do anything another man could do, and he was anxious to show Ann that he could provide for her as well as any man. And he certainly couldn’t think of a nicer couple to team up with than Ann’s sister and John. Mabel had wholeheartedly welcomed him to the family, and her children were already calling him Uncle Cole.
It’s going to be a good thing, he told himself, and nudged Joe with his heels.
• • •
“Looks like another railroad camp on the other side of this ridge,” Cole called out to John as the wagon approached. Eight-year-old Skeeter, John and Mabel’s youngest, ran ahead of the wagon to reach his uncle first. Cole reached down and lifted the boy up to seat him behind the saddle.
“Good,” John replied. “That means there oughta be good water. I think everybody’s about ready to quit for the day. We can’t be much more’n fifty miles or so from Crow Creek Crossin’.”
John’s friend had told him that Crow Creek Crossing was the place where he should leave the railroad’s path and head due north. He had been told that the Union Pacific should reach that point possibly by the time his little party arrived. Even if the railroad hadn’t, there was already a sizable tent city growing there on the banks of Crow Creek, so he would know it to be the place he was looking for.
Cole took a moment to smile at his wife before turning Joe to lead the wagon alongside the railroad tracks past the ridge.
“Get up, Joe!” Skeeter sang out as the big horse moved in response to Cole’s gentle press of his heels. The boy’s older brother and sister ran along behind them, eager to see the night’s campsite.
As had been the case before, the railroad crews had been none too tidy in the condition they left their campsites. So Cole led his party a little farther up the stream to camp where a couple of cottonwoods stood close to the bank.
“This all right with you?” he asked the small boy hugging his back. Skeeter said that it was. When John pulled the wagon up beside him, Cole said, “This looks like as good a spot as any. Skeeter said it was all right.”
Mabel chuckled in response. “If Skeeter says it’s all right, then I guess we’ll settle right here.” She turned to her other two children. “Elliot, you and Lucy know what to do.”
They responded dutifully, having gone through the routine every night during the past two months. Cole lowered Skeeter to the ground, then dismounted. After helping John with his horses, he pulled his saddle off Joe and hobbled the Morgan to graze with them beside the stream, about fifty yards from the wagon. With help from Elliot and Lucy, Mabel and Ann soon had a fire going and supper started.
The two men walked together to check on the condition of the horses, leaving the women and children to prepare the meal.
“It’s gettin’ pretty late into August,” John said. “I sure hope to hell we can find this piece of land I bought and get us some shelter built before the bad weather hits.”
“Like you said,” Cole replied, “Crow Creek Crossin’ can’t be much more’n fifty miles from here. We oughta be able to make that in plenty of time.”
“Maybe so,” John said, “but according to the directions I got from Walter Hodge, my place on the Chugwater is thirty-five or forty miles north of Crow Creek. We’ve been makin’ good time so far. And thank the Lord we ain’t seen no sign of Injuns.”
Cole nodded. “I reckon they’ve been stayin’ away from the railroad crews and the army patrols.”
They had discussed the possibility of Indian trouble before but weren’t overly concerned about it. Troops had been sent along to protect the railroad workers, and they were trailing pretty close behind the track-laying crews.
“I’d like it better if there were some thicker stands of trees beside some of these streams,” John commented. “Make it a little harder to see our camp.”
“I know what you mean,” Cole replied, then laughed. “Hell, I thought Lancaster was short of trees. Looks like, from what we’ve seen since we left, there ain’t more’n a handful of trees between here and Wyomin’. Reckon we’ll be able to find enough timber to build a couple of houses by the time we reach Chugwater Creek?”
John cocked his head, concerned. “Walter said it ain’t all like this. I reckon we’ll see, won’t we?”
• • •
Ann stepped up to greet him with a kiss on his cheek when he walked back to the fire.
“We’ll have supper ready in a little while,” she told him, and gave his hand a little squeeze. He glanced down to meet an impish grin from ten-year-old Lucy. It seemed that every time Ann made any fond gesture toward him, it was always caught by one of the three kids, and it never failed to make him blush. Aware of his embarrassment, Ann smiled and said, “Pay her no mind. She just likes to see you squirm.”
Overhearing Ann’s comment, Mabel remembered when she and John were newlyweds. Ann wasn’t much older than Skeeter at the time, and she recalled that her sister had done her share of giggling whenever she caught the two of them stealing a kiss or an intimate embrace.
“Go fill the bucket with water, Lucy,” Mabel said.
She felt some compassion for Cole and Ann. Spending your honeymoon with a family of five on a wagon afforded little private time together. She was happy for Ann. Cole Bonner was a good man, and his adoration for her sister was written all over his face. She and John had talked about the fortunate pairing of the two young people and looked forward to working together to forge a comfortable living in the Chugwater valley. Her thoughts were interrupted then when John suddenly spoke.
“Wait, Lucy,” he ordered calmly, his voice low but cautioning. “Get in the wagon. Mabel, you and Ann get Elliot and Skeeter and get in the wagon.”
Mabel hesitated. “What is it, John?”
“Just get the kids in the wagon,” John replied firmly, his voice still calm but dead serious. She quickly obeyed his order.
“Where?” Cole asked, alert to the caution in John’s tone, his voice soft as well. He eased his Henry rifle out of the saddle scabbard and cranked a cartridge into the chamber.
“I think we’ve got some company sneakin’ up behind that mound of scrubby bushes on the other side of the stream.” With no show of haste, he reached into the wagon boot and pulled a Spencer cavalry carbine from under the seat.
Cole looked toward the mound but saw nothing. He trusted John’s word just the same and didn’t doubt for a second that there was someone threatening their camp. Assuming they were Indians, he said, “They’re probably after the horses. You stay here behind the wagon, and I’ll get over to the edge of the stream to keep them away from the horses.”
“You be careful,” John warned. It was a risky move. There was very little cover on the grassy expanse where the horses were hobbled.
“Cole, be careful,” Ann pleaded, having heard the conversation between the two men as she huddled with the children in the bed of the wagon.
“I will,” Cole replied hurriedly as he left the cover of the wagon and made his way quickly toward the three horses grazing unsuspectingly near the stream.
He dropped to one knee when he heard the thud of an arrow against the trunk of one of the large cottonwoods they had pulled the wagon under. Using the tree for cover, he scanned the mound of berry bushes John had pointed out.
After a few seconds passed, he saw what he searched for when the bushes parted enough for him to see a bow. A few moments later, another arrow embedded itself in the tree, close to the first one. It was plain to see that the raiders were intent upon keeping him from getting to the horses. He rolled over to the other side of the tree and fired three quick shots into the bushes where he had spotted the bow. Then, without waiting to see if he had hit anything, he sprang to his feet and ran for the horses, looking for someplace to use for cover when he got there. His series of rifle shots having caught their attention, all three horses held their heads up and stared at the man running toward them, but they did not attempt to bolt.
His only choice for protection from the arrows that came whistling around him as he ran was a low dirt hump, which he reached safely because of a blistering volley of shots from John that forced the Indians to hug the ground behind their mound of berry bushes. Everything was quiet for a few minutes, and then John called out, “Cole, you all right?”
Cole yelled back, “Yeah. I don’t think they’ve got anything but bows, but I’m afraid they’re gonna hit the horses. If you can keep ’em pinned down, maybe I can crawl back and take the hobbles off the horses and get ’em the hell outta range of their bows.” It seemed obvious that the horses were what the raiders were after, but if they couldn’t steal them, Cole was afraid they’d try to shoot them just to leave the party on foot.
“All right,” John shouted. “If you can bring ’em back here behind the wagon, we could guard ’em. They must not be able to shoot those arrows this far. At least there ain’t been any come close to the wagon yet. You just holler when, and I’ll lay a blanket of fire on that berry patch.”
“All right,” Cole yelled back. “I’ll tell you when.”
He immediately started pushing himself back from the hump, still hugging the ground, pulling his rifle behind him. Evidently the Indians could not see him, for he managed to slide back to the Morgan’s feet and began untying the hobbles before an arrow suddenly thudded into the ground inches from his leg.
“When!” he shouted, and John opened fire immediately. No longer concerned with any efforts to stay out of sight, Cole didn’t waste any time removing the hobbles from the other horses. He jumped on Joe’s back, grabbed the lead ropes of John’s horses, and headed back to the wagon at a gallop. He reached the wagon with no arrows fired from the berry patch, slid off his horse, and tied all three up to it.
John took his eyes off the mound for only a second to glance at Cole. “Now let’s see what they’re gonna do,” he said. “Looks like we got us a standoff.” Then he stole another glance toward the fire they had built. “I wish to hell they’da waited till after supper.”
“John, what are we gonna do?” Mabel called from within the wagon. “Are they still out there?”
“I don’t see much we can do,” her husband answered. “Just wait ’em out, I reckon. As long as we’ve got the upper hand on weapons, there ain’t much they can do without gettin’ shot. They mighta already gone, decided it not worth the risk. We can’t see a blame thing on the other side of those bushes.”
Everything John said was true, but Cole didn’t care much for hiding behind the wagon all night, not knowing if there were Indians still planning to jump them sometime during the dark hours ahead. As John said, there was a strong possibility that the raiders had conceded the contest since they were overwhelmingly outgunned. But Cole wanted to know that they were indeed gone. So he studied the lay of the land between the wagon and the low mound on the other side of the stream, planning the best route to take him safely to the rear of their position. When he was satisfied that it was to work around behind them, there was nothing left but to wait for darkness to cover him.
The wait was not long, for as soon as the sun dropped below the western horizon, it was as if someone had blown out a lantern. Within minutes, darkness enveloped the two big cottonwoods.
“Cole, I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Ann protested when he told John what he was going to do.
“Those Indians might be long gone,” Cole told her. “And if they are, there ain’t no sense in us stayin’ holed up behind this wagon. If they’re not gone, then maybe I can encourage them to leave with a few rounds from my rifle. I’d like to know how many we’re dealin’ with, anyway.” He turned to John then. “Keep a sharp eye. I’ll let you know if they’re gone so you don’t shoot me when you see me comin’ back.” He was off then, disappearing into the darkness.
Passing the campfire that was already dying out, having been left unattended since the discovery of the Indian raiders, Cole crossed the stream and made a long arc on his way to get behind the mound that had protected their attackers. With the absence of a moon, his range of vision was restricted to no more than a couple of dozen yards, so he made his way cautiously.
When he came upon a draw that led up between two ridges, he estimated that he was now directly behind the raiders’ position at the mound. He had started to close the distance between himself and the mound when he was momentarily stopped by the whinny of a horse behind him. Dropping to his knee at once, he prepared to defend himself, but there was no one there. He realized then that the Indians must have left their horses farther back up the draw.
That answers the question of whether or not they’ve gone, he thought.
He got to his feet again, knowing he had to exercise even more caution now that he was sure they still had designs on the wagon party of white people.
The top half of a full moon appeared low on the horizon as he stepped carefully toward a stand of scrubby trees between him and the bush-covered mound by the water’s edge.
When that thing gets a little higher in the sky, this whole prairie will be lit up, he thought.
It made him hurry his steps a little until he reached the stand of trees. With his rifle up in a ready position before him, he stepped between the trees, coming face-to-face with a young Cheyenne warrior intent upon working his way behind the wagon.
There was a moment’s hesitation by the two adversaries, both taken by surprise. They regained their composure and reacted almost at the same time. With no time to notch an arrow, the warrior drew his knife and launched himself to attack. Blessed with reflexes equal to, or even quicker than, his assailant’s, Cole stepped to one side, capturing the brave’s wrist in his hand to deftly throw him flat on his back.
Quick as a great cat, Cole had his rifle trained on the Indian’s chest, poised for the kill—but he failed to pull the trigger. Able to see the Cheyenne clearly now, he discovered that he was little more than a boy. It occurred to him that it was the reason he had been able to throw him to the ground so easily. Undecided then, he took a step back while still holding the rifle on the helpless boy, finding it difficult to kill one so young.
Thinking he was doomed to die, the Cheyenne boy could do nothing but lie there with eyes wide with fear as Cole brought the Henry rifle to his shoulder and aimed it directly at his head. He could not, however, bring himself to take the boy’s life. He took another step back and ordered, “Get up! Get outta here!” He motioned toward the draw where the Indian ponies were tied. “Get goin’!”
Hearing the white man’s commands, the boy’s two companions, also boys, ran toward the confrontation. Cole turned to face them and threw two quick shots near them in warning. He waved them on with his rifle.
“Get on those ponies and get outta here,” he ordered.
Their ambitious attempt to steal horses thwarted, they did as they were told, going by the white man’s motions and the tone of his voice, for they knew very little English. Finally realizing that their lives were to be spared, all three hurried up the dark draw.
Wondering how he was going to explain to John why he let them get away when he clearly had the jump on them, he turned to go back to the wagon. He had taken no more than two steps when he felt the solid blow of an arrow in his back. The impact caused him to stumble, but he quickly recovered and cranked three shots into the darkened draw. He had no way of telling if he had hit one of them or not, hearing only the tattoo of horses’ hooves on the hard floor of the draw.
Cursing himself for a softhearted fool, he tried in vain to reach for the arrow shaft in his back. It felt as if it was embedded pretty deeply, and he could feel the back of his shirt slowly becoming wet with blood, but the pain was bearable.
Maybe it ain’t too serious, he thought hopefully, as he hurried back to the wagon. “It’s me, John,” he called out when he got back to the stream. “I’m comin’ in.”
“Come on, then,” John replied. He walked a few steps from the front of the wagon to wait for him. “We heard the shootin’,” he said when Cole came up from the stream. “What happened?”
“They’re gone,” Cole said. “It was just some young boys tryin’ to steal horses.”
“Did you hit any of ’em?” John pressed, eager to hear what had happened.
“No, I don’t think so. Like I said, they were just boys.”
“Well, I hope they found out what it’ll cost ’em to come after our horses,” John allowed. “At least they didn’t cause no harm.”
“That ain’t exactly right,” Cole said, grimacing with the discomfort he was beginning to feel.” He turned then to show John the arrow embedded in his back.
“My Lord in heaven!” John exclaimed. “You got shot!”
“I got careless,” Cole admitted.
“Mabel! Ann!” John blurted. “We need some help. Cole’s been shot!”
Already climbing out of the back of the wagon, Ann almost fell the rest of the way when John yelled. Horrified when she saw the arrow shaft sticking out of Cole’s back, she ran to him. “Cole, honey,” she cried in distress, “what happened?”
“I got careless,” he repeated, thinking it fairly obvious what had happened.
Her tone became scolding then. “What are you doing walking around with that thing sticking out of you? Sit down so we can take care of you.” Wringing her hands as she watched him sit down on the ground, she looked to Mabel for help.
Having just climbed down from the wagon herself, Mabel was as stunned as her sister had been. With her children now crowding around to gape at the arrow protruding from their uncle’s back, she recovered her calm and salvaged her role of authority.
“Elliot,” she directed, “go get that fire started again. Lucy, you can get that bucket of water now.” She hesitated then to ask Cole, “You did say those Indians were gone?” When he replied that he was pretty sure they had, she continued to issue instructions. “I’ve never had to doctor anything like this before, but I know we’d best get that thing out of your back. From the way you’re moving around with it, I’d say it hasn’t hit anything critical inside you.” She turned to Ann. “Let’s see if we can get his shirt off of him.”
“Be careful, if you don’t mind,” Cole said. “I ain’t got but two good shirts. Try not to make the hole any bigger than it already is.”
“Cole, honey,” she said, her brow furrowed with concern, “how can you worry about that old shirt? You’ve been wounded!”
“We’ll save the shirt,” Mabel stated flatly. “I can’t guarantee the patient, though.” She was amazed by the casual manner in which Cole regarded his wound. “Is that arrow paining you?”
“Yeah, some,” he answered. “I’d sure like to get it outta me.”
“Well, let’s get to work,” Mabel said. “Let’s see if we can get that shirt off. Ann, why don’t you see if you can work the hole up over that arrow while I pull it over his head?”
With eyes getting bigger by the second, Skeeter crowded in to watch. “Can I touch it?” he asked Cole.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” Cole told him. “It’s a mite tender right now.”
“Get out from under me,” Mabel scolded the boy. “Stand over there by your pa.” Scrunching up his nose in protest, he nevertheless minded his mother.
With everyone out of the way, they began the work of removing the arrow from Cole’s back. As it turned out, the arrow had not had enough force to puncture any vital organs inside his body, but it did embed itself firmly in his muscular back, luckily up near the shoulder. It required some cutting with Mabel’s sharpest knife to remove the arrowhead, which left a sizable gash in his back. When the operation was completed, Mabel splashed the wound generously with some whiskey from John’s one bottle of rye. “Maybe that’ll kill whatever they mighta put on the arrowhead,” she said. That was the only time the patient winced during the entire surgery.
Fascinated by the whole procedure, Skeeter asked if he could have the arrowhead. “Why, I was gonna give that to your mama,” Cole teased. “But I reckon you can have it if she don’t want it.” The precocious youngster looked at once to his mother hopefully.
“I reckon I can do without it,” Mabel told him, laughing. Serious again, she advised Ann to try to keep the wound clean and keep an eye on it to make sure it was healing all right. “Maybe we’ll find a doctor in one of the railroad camps when we catch up with them. There’s no telling what kind of poison those savages dip their arrows in.”
• • •
The wound was slow in healing. In fact, Ann was concerned that it might be infected as Mabel had warned. Cole was less concerned, thinking that he would heal, just as he always did with any other wound. Even though it caused him some pain, he didn’t let it slow him down as they continued on, following the progress of the Union Pacific. The pain, however, was more of a discomfort than a crippling inconvenience. They saw no more of the horse thieves, Cole having been accurate in his guess that they wanted no more of the repeating rifles the white men carried. He was reluctant to tell John how he came to get shot by the Cheyenne boys, but eventually John pried the story out of him.
“You shoulda shot that one when you had him on the ground,” he said, “and any of the other two you had a shot at.”
“They were just young boys, tryin’ to impress their folks by stealin’ our horses,” Cole said in defense. “I just got careless.”
That was as much as he was willing to confess. He knew John’s feelings about Indians—that the only good one was a dead one. But Cole didn’t have it in him to shoot a helpless boy, and the one he had under his sights looked to be no more than thirteen or fourteen years old. Cole had never killed a person before, and he didn’t want to start with a killing that seemed more like murder. He hoped that John would let the incident rest.
“He’ll learn some harder ways,” John told Mabel when talking about her young brother-in-law privately. “He’s damn sure strong enough, and he don’t seem to fear nothin’. He’s just too softhearted, but that’ll change out here where somebody will run you into the ground if you don’t take a hard line.”
Mabel did not agree with her husband’s assessment. “He’s just a decent man,” she said. “He’ll do fine out here, and I know he’ll take good care of Ann. The rest will come in time.”
Catching up with the construction crews, they came to the end of the tracks some forty miles short of Crow Creek Crossing. The crew worked from sunup to dusk, and when they had finished for the day, there were plenty of opportunities for them to part with their pay. In fact, there was a temporary town of tents and board shacks in place that could be easily dismantled and carted to the next location. Since there were no women in the “town on wheels,” however—except for those tents advertising prostitutes—John and Cole deemed it unwise to camp too close, though they were keen to enjoy the feeling of protection afforded by the large crew of workers.
“I’da thought the army woulda sent a detachment of cavalry to guard the crews,” John commented, seeing no soldiers in sight.
“There’re plenty of men with guns,” Mabel said as she looked down the temporary street of saloons, shops, and bordellos with no shortage of idle loafers. “I guess the Indians aren’t anxious to pick a fight with all these armed men hanging around.”
There was a dentist in a tent next to the saloon, and Ann encouraged Cole to have him examine the wound in his back. But Cole declined, insisting that it was healing fine, although it gave him some pain.
“All right,” Ann replied, “but if that wound isn’t a whole lot better by the time we reach Crow Creek, we’re going to find a doctor.”
“Whatever you say, dearest,” Cole teased. Though he felt certain there would not be one at Crow Creek, since they would arrive there long before the railroad reached that point.
Although anxious to get on to their destination, since the summer was in its latter days, John gave in to the children’s curiosity to see the building of the railroad. He delayed their departure the next morning long enough to let them watch the grading of a new section and the laying of the rails.
While watching the work, John and Cole engaged in conversation with Stephen Manning, a foreman of one of the crews, and asked him when he expected to be at Crow Creek. Manning told them that at their present rate they would be there no sooner than two months or more, depending upon whether or not the weather continued to be in their favor.
“I was told there was already a town of sorts there,” John said, concerned now that his little party of pilgrims might not find the right place to turn toward the Chugwater Valley.
“You won’t have any trouble findin’ Crow Creek Crossin’, I would think,” Manning told him. “Accordin’ to what the surveyors tell us, there is a sizable settlement there already. I suspect we might find ourselves winterin’ in that spot before we push on into the mountains west of the crossin’.”
The foreman’s words served to ease John’s concerns, and he allowed the children a few more minutes to watch the construction. “I’m headin’ back to the wagon,” Cole told him. His thoughts were for the two women waiting in the wagon. There were too many single men around, who had been starved for female companionship, to leave a pretty young wife alone for too long. There was also the possible opportunity to spend some time with Ann without the constant chaperoning of Skeeter. “I need to see about Joe,” he offered lamely as he turned to leave.
“I’ll go with you, Uncle Cole,” Skeeter announced immediately.
Damn, Cole swore to himself, then had to laugh at the youngster’s persistence.
Elliot, mature beyond his twelve years, caught his brother by the sleeve. “You stay here with us. Uncle Cole don’t need you houndin’ his every step.”
Cole smiled broadly as he continued walking. I’ve got to remember to do something special for that boy, he thought. Now, if I could send Mabel off on some chore for a few minutes . . . The thought extended an already wide smile.
• • •
By the time they rolled into Crow Creek Crossing, they found a city in the early stages of birth. Though the places of business were still mostly housed in tents, permanent buildings of lumber were already under construction. Back on the Fourth of July, while Cole and his new family were still plodding across Nebraska, General Grenville Dodge, the Union Pacific’s superintendent of construction, had arrived with engineers, surveyors, railroad representatives, land agents, and military officers. Dodge and his crew had remained in Crow Creek Crossing for two weeks, platting a site two miles long and two miles wide. The site had been in Dodge’s mind for some time as the division point in the railroad across the vast prairie land. It was generally downhill from that point five hundred miles east to Council Bluffs, Iowa. To the west, the railroad started a serious climb up Sherman Hill and the mountains beyond. In addition, the new arrivals found that there was no longer a Crow Creek Crossing, because the name of the town had been changed to Cheyenne, an attempt to appease the raiding Cheyenne Indians that hunted up and down Crow Creek.
Since stores of general merchandise were readily available in the fledgling city, they took advantage of the opportunity to add to their stores of basic supplies before changing their course due north, following Walter Hodge’s instructions.
“Accordin’ to Walter’s directions,” John said, “we need to head straight north, and we oughta strike Lodgepole Creek after about twenty miles or so. When we get to Lodgepole, he says to turn more to the northwest, and we oughta strike Chugwater Creek after maybe fifteen miles.” He looked up from his notes and looked at Cole. “That’s about as close as he could get us to his place. Dependin’ on where we strike the Chugwater, he’ll be either upstream or down. We’ll just have to search him out from there, but he’s on that creek somewhere.”
“Maybe if we start out early in the mornin’, we could make that twenty miles to Lodgepole in a day,” Cole suggested.
“We oughta,” John agreed.
“Let me take a look at that wound,” Ann interrupted. Cole submitted to her examination, and she had to admit that it looked pretty well into healing. Only then did she approve of continuing their journey, however. “All right,” she said, “we can start in the morning.” So after restocking their supplies, they camped north of the town to wait for morning.
As they had speculated, the trip to Lodgepole was accomplished in a day’s time, and they made camp that night on the bank of that creek. A shorter day the following afternoon found them at the Chugwater. Upon striking the Chugwater, there was a noticeable air of excitement over the whole party, a sense that they were moments away from their new home.
However, there was also an uncertain feeling on the part of the adults. For the first time since leaving Lancaster, both Cole and John questioned their decision to follow Walter Hodge to Wyoming. The reason was quite simple. Setting out with a vision of fertile farmland awaiting them, they were now struck with a land that seemed almost desertlike in its appearance. Flat and arid, it looked as if it would present quite a challenge to any man who sought to farm it.
“I reckon we’d best find Walter Hodge’s farm,” John said. And that was to be a matter of sheer guesswork when it came to deciding in which direction to start their search. “I expect the thing to do is to decide this the way a scientist would,” he joked, in an effort to lighten the tentative mood that was beginning to descend upon them. He then looked in the canvas money bag he kept under the wagon seat for a twenty-dollar gold piece. “Now, it’s important to have a qualified person flip it. I reckon that would be you, Skeeter.” He handed the coin to his youngest. “Heads it’s upstream, tails it’s downstream. You ready, Skeeter?”
The precocious youngster nodded enthusiastically, feeling the importance of his appointment as the direction-determining official. With a solemn expression on his freckled face, he flipped the coin high in the air and yelled, “Heads!”
“I knew he’d say heads,” Lucy remarked impatiently. “He didn’t say call it, Skeeter. It doesn’t matter what you call.” The coin landed with tails up, however, so they set out downstream.
They continued in that direction until darkness forced them to make camp. After no sign of Walter’s farm, or any farm, the decision to be made was whether to keep going in that direction or to assume they were going the wrong way. Everyone was impatient to reach their new home, and there was a tendency to fear that they had somehow failed to follow Walter Hodge’s instructions correctly. “We might be miles and miles away from where we were supposed to strike the Chugwater,” Mabel fretted. “Are you sure that was Lodgepole Creek we camped at last night? Maybe it was some other nameless creek, and that’s the reason we’re so far from where we’re supposed to be.”
Obviously irritated by his wife’s accusations, John replied sharply, “Yes, that was Lodgepole Creek. Wasn’t it, Cole?”
“I think it was,” Cole replied.
“We did just like Walter told me to do. Hell, did you think we were gonna hit it right on the nose?”
“Well, you don’t have to get up on your high horse about it,” Mabel snapped back.
Cole couldn’t suppress a grin as he made a suggestion. “I expect we’re not too far from where we’re supposed to be. I think we just got a bad toss of the coin. We shoulda gone upstream. Skeeter tried to tell us to go upstream when he called heads. If we start out in the mornin’, we’ll get back to where we first struck the creek in a couple of hours, and we’ll have the rest of the day to find your friend’s place.”
“What if we don’t find it upstream?” Ann asked.
“We will,” Cole insisted. “But if we don’t, we’ll give Skeeter a good lickin’ for leadin’ us wrong.” He grabbed the youngster then and turned him over his knee, pretending he was going to spank him. “Like tryin’ to hold on to a greased otter,” he said when he finally let the giggling boy worm his way free. Grinning, Cole looked up to find Ann’s admiring gaze on him. He knew what she was thinking, picturing him as a father to their child, who might be coming along in seven or eight months, if she could believe the symptoms she was beginning to feel. At that moment, he felt secure in the belief that his life was on the right path, and it occurred to him that it wouldn’t hurt to say a little prayer of thanks when he had a private moment.
• • •
Cole’s prediction turned out to be accurate, for they sighted a log cabin by the creek early on the following afternoon. It could be none other than Walter Hodge’s cabin. Of that, John was certain. On the other side of the cabin, a barn stood in the early stages of completion. As they approached the cabin, a wiry man with a full mane of snow-white hair and beard came out of the barn. He paused when he caught sight of the wagon with a mounted rider beside it coming up the creek. He immediately broke out a grin and called to the house, “Frances, they’re here!” He was joined moments later by a pleasantly plump woman, drying her hands on her apron.
It was a joyous reception. Both the Cochrans and the Hodges were glad to be reunited, and the Bonners were welcomed to the party as well.
“As soon as you folks get rested up and have a little somethin’ to eat, we’ll go take a look at your land,” Walter said. “Your piece joins mine, and you’ve gotten here at a good time. I’ve just finished with the plantin’ of my winter wheat, so I’ll be able to help you get a cabin built before heavy weather sets in. Cole here looks like a stud horse, and my boy, Sammy, will be back from Crow Creek Crossin’ with a wagonload of supplies tonight. You might have even seen him when you were there and didn’t know it was Sammy. Hell, the four of us oughta be able to build a whole town before winter hits.”
“I reckon,” John said. “And Elliot’s a pretty good worker, too. I’m ready to get started. Tell you the truth, though, I ain’t especially hungry right now. I’d just as soon go on and take a look at my land. How ’bout you, Cole?”
“Suits me,” Cole replied. So the three men left the women and children to eat and visit while they rode out to view John’s land.
• • •
Although it was not the paradise that Mabel and Ann had pictured, it was decent land, they decided, land that hardworking men could make a living on, acres of pasture and land for crops next to the creek. With no delay, they began building a cabin, and by the time the Union Pacific reached the city of Cheyenne that November, they were settled in the cabin and had started work on a barn.
Cole and Ann had already picked out a site for their home, and when weather permitted, Cole prepared to go into Cheyenne to file on it. A government land office had been built in the rapidly growing town, and as soon as Cole found out about it, he was anxious to make the land legally his and Ann’s. She was already starting to show a little, and they were both anxious to have their own place.
It was the middle of December when he gave Ann a parting kiss and stepped up into the saddle. “Don’t go wandering into any of those saloons with their prostitutes,” she lectured.
“Well, I don’t know,” he teased. “I might need a little drink after that long, cold ride.”
“Is that so?” she said. “If you’re cold, you go to the diner and get a cup of coffee. That’ll warm you up better than anything you’ll find in a saloon.”
He laughed and gave her arm a little squeeze. Had she been able to see into his thoughts, she would have known that she had nothing to fear. In the few short months since they had married, she had become his whole world, and nothing interested him outside that world. She stepped away from his stirrup and softly whispered, “Hurry home.”
“I will,” he replied, then turned Joe’s head toward Cheyenne, planning to be back in two days at the most, for he had very little business in town other than registering his claim.
• • •
He arrived in Cheyenne after a long day in the saddle to find scant resemblance to the little settlement called Crow Creek Crossing. The town had swollen in population like a wound that had festered with infection. He went to the stables, where he and John had bought some extra grain for the horses back in August, to ask where the land office was, since he didn’t see it when he rode the length of the street. The proprietor told him the office was located on a side street, but that it was most likely closed for the day.
“Where did all these people come from?” Cole asked, for the street was crowded with men, many of whom were loud and boisterous.
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF CHARLES G. WEST
“Rarely has an author painted the great American West in strokes so bold, vivid, and true.”—Ralph Compton
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