WILLING TO FIGHT
Like many a veteran of the Civil War, Cap Mackenna went west to the Rockies to build a new life. But that new life is changed forever the day he comes across an abandoned infant, whom he takes in and cares for until the baby's Cheyenne mother appears at his door. Alone and terrified, all the woman wants is to find the baby's father. Cap helps her locate him at the U.S. Cavalry encampment, but Colonel Tom Sully stands defiantly between the father and his family. When the desperate man deserts to be with his wife and child, Sully sends a detail after him and suddenly Cap finds himself caught in a deadly pursuit—ready to risk all for what he knows is right.
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Distant thunder and a flash of lightning in the night sky made Cap McKenna think of rain, but, when he stepped out of his cabin, the red-orange glow on the horizon made him remember all of that dry grass out there. From this distance the prairie fire looked harmless, as pretty as a length of yarn on black velvet. Cap watched it, caught by the fascination of the sight, until a breeze hit his face. With that night wind came the smell of smoke and the sounds of stamping hoofs from his barn. Penned horses with the scent of fire in their nostrils were wild, crazed creatures bent on one purpose escape.
Cap turned and hurried into his dirt-floored cabin. At his bunk he pulled on his trousers and boots. Shouldering into suspenders as he cleared the door, he jogged across the yard past the pole corral and through to the barn. With a glance to the east, he saw yellow-tipped flames sweeping across the broad expanse of plain. As dry as this season had been, that fire might jump Trapper Creek, and then he'd have trouble.
Cap was a man alone, and there was only one thing to do. He had to turn out the restless horses before they panicked, busting up the stalls and themselves.
Throwing open the wide double doors, he moved swiftly down the darkened runway. By feel, he opened each stall. In the end stall he slipped a halter over the head of his saddle horse, a big, range-wise buckskin gelding. Freed, the other horses charged into the runway. Bucking and rearing in their fear and mighty confusion, twenty-four, wild-eyed critters wheeled, galloping for starlight as though wolves nipped at their heels.
Cap inhaled the hay and manure dust churned up by the hoofs, and coughed. He figured the horses would run from the fire and head for timber on the ridge half a mile behind his cabin. In the shelter of pines there they would mill around, bunching in the dark. By daybreak the plugs would be hungry and thirsty, and he could drive them back to the corral. So he hoped. But if the fire could not be stopped....
The notion of losing his barn was one he did not want to ponder. The structure was new, built of squared, hand-hewn timbers and roofed with heavy pine shakes, a barn big enough and solid enough to last a man a lifetime.
Cap led his buckskin out of the barn past the corral and tied him behind the cabin. Even with the bitter odor of smoke thick in the air now, the saddle horse was peaceful and did not fight the lead rope. After a pat on the neck and a parting word, Cap grabbed his shovel and headed for the fire.
Trapper Creek reflected dim starlight like a silvery serpent in a bed of sand. Cap leaped over the creek and climbed the opposite bank. For the past three seasons he had homesteaded this land; he'd seen the creek dwindle to a small stream in the heat of midsummer. But this year it had almost dried up, gathering here and there in deep pools.
A thick cloud of smoke hit him. Coughing again, he turned his back to the fire. He dropped the shovel and retreated to the creek. Jumping down to the trickle of water, he yanked the bandanna handkerchief out of his hip pocket and plunged it in. Then he wrung it out and tied it around his neck. Pulling the wet fabric over his mouth, he climbed the bank, picked up his shovel, and began the battle.
Cap hacked away at weeds and tufts of buffalo grass and blue grama, and dug out deep-rooted sagebrush along the bank of the creek. When his bandanna dried out, he jumped down to the water's edge and submerged it again, then returned to the smoky fire.
He became aware of the breeze again. Night clouds swept overhead. Cap straightened from his work as the wind gusted around him. Enveloped in smoke, his eyes burned. The crackle of the flames grew louder.
Driven by the breeze, the fire charged out of the smoke like Jubal Early's army out of the fog. Cap backed away. He knew now one man with a shovel could not cut a line long enough or wide enough to turn this prairie fire away. If flames jumped the creek, they would burn all the way to his cabin and barn. Sure as hell.
Thunder boomed. The breeze abruptly stopped. In the eerie stillness of the storm's alchemy, smoke-filled air grew heavy. The last of the starlight disappeared as though a curtain had been drawn. He backed away from the fire glow moving toward him. Then droplets of cool water hit his face. Cap glanced skyward. Yanking the bandanna from his mouth and nose, he drew a deep breath. Instead of acrid smoke, a rain smell filled the air. Still the thunder rumbled like cannon fire. Suddenly the clouds loosed rain by the buckets. Cap turned his face skyward and let out a whoop. One minute the battle had been lost, and the next he stood drenched with a sooty bandanna around his neck, fat raindrops striking his beard-stubbled jaw.
Excerpted from Dark Embers at Dawn by Stephen Overholser. Copyright © 1998 by Stephen Overholser. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.