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Damn, if this dead mule didn't smell like a month-old grizzly-gutted badger!
Titus Bass swiped the back of his black, powder-grimed hand under his nose and snorted with that first faint hint of a stench strong enough to make his eyes water. Without lingering, he spilled enough grains of the fine four-F priming powder into the pan, then carefully raised his head over the dead mule's still-warm rib cage.
The sonsabitches were gathering off to the left, over there by big Shad Sweete's side of the ring. Really more of a crude oval the two dozen of them had quickly formed around this collection of ancient tree stumps when they started dropping every last one of their saddle stock and pack animals with a lead ball in the brain.
"Dun' shoot till you're sure!" Henry Fraeb was bellowing again.
He'd repeated it over and over so many times it was beginning to nettle the gray-haired Bass. "We ain't none of us lop-eared pilgrims, Frapp!" he growled back at the trapping brigade leader.
The man they called Ol' Frapp twisted round on that one leg he was kneeling on, spitting a ball out of his gopher-stuffed cheek into his sweaty palm. "Gottammit! Don't you tink I know ebbery wund of you niggurs?"
"We'll make 'em come, Frapp!" Elias Kersey shouted from the east side of their horse-and-mule breastworks, shoving a sprig of long, dusty-blond hair out of his eyes.
"Don't you worry none 'bout us!" another man growled down Bass's right.
"Here they come again!" arose the alarm.
Titus twisted, rolling on his hip so he could peer behind him at the far side of the narrow oval, where some of the defenders hunkered behind a stump here or there. Then his eyes slowly climbed over the heads of those other beaver trappers as they all sat entranced, every eye fixed on the half-a-thousand. Sure was a pretty sight the way those horsemen had been forming themselves up over yonder after every charge, gathering upon that wide breast of bottom ground where the warriors knew they were just out of range of the white man's long-barreled flinters.
About as savvy as Blackfoot, Bass ruminated as he watched the naked riders start to spill out in two directions, like a mountain torrent tumbling past a huge boulder plopped squarely in the middle of a creek. Foaming and roiling, building up force as it was hurtled into that narrow space between the boulder and the grassy banks itself, huge drops and narrow sheets of mist rising from the torrent into shafts of shimmering sunlight--
"Shoot when you're sure!" Jake Corn reminded them, the expression on his dark face gone cloudy.
"One nigger at a time!" Reuben Purcell cried out as the hoofbeats threatened to drown out every other sound in this river valley. "One red nigger at a time, my Mamma Purcell allays said!"
Sure as spit, these Indians had grown smart about the white man's guns, maybe hankering to have a white-man gun for their own.
From the hairstyle, the way they made themselves up, Bass figured them to be Sioux. He knowed Sioux. A bunch of them had jumped him and Sweete, Waits-by-the-Water, and the young'uns too, couple summers back when they were returning down the Vermillion, making for Fort Davy Crockett on the Green. In that scrap Titus had been close enough to see the smeared, dust-furred colors of their paint, close enough to smell the old grease on their braids and forehead roaches. Not till then--no, he'd never seen a Sioux before.
But he and Shad had hacked their way out of that war party and made a desperate run for the fort.
If that didn't mean things was changing in the mountains, nothing else did. Why--to think of Sioux on this side of the divide. Damn, if that hoss didn't take the circle--
Titus picked one out. Made a fist of his left hand and rested the bottom of the fullstock flintlock on it as he nestled his cheekbone down in place and dragged the hammer back to full cock.
Down the barrel now that rider somehow didn't look to be Sioux. Most of them on this end of their grand, fronted charge didn't appear to be similar to the warriors who had jumped him and Shad two years back. He guessed Cheyenne.
The way they started to stream past, peeling away like the layers of a wild onion Waits gathered in the damps of the river bottoms, he'd have to lead the son of a bitch a little. The warrior took the outside of the procession, screaming and shaking his bow after each arrow he fired.
Titus held a half breath on that bare, glistening chest--finding no showy hair-pipe breast ornament suspended from that horseman's neck. Instead, the warrior had circled several places on his flesh with bright red vermillion paint. Likely his white, puckered, hanging scars, directly above each nipple where he'd strung himself up to a sundance tree. And a couple more, long ones though, down low along his ribs. Wounds from battle he proudly exhibited for all to see. Let his enemies know he was invincible.
Bass held a little longer, then raised the front blade of his sights to the Indian's head and eased off to the right a good yard. What with the way the whole bunch was tearing toward the white men's corral at an angle, there was still a drop in the slope--
He was surprised when the gun roared, feeling the familiar slam of the Derringer's iron butt plate against the pocket of his right shoulder.
What with the muzzle smoke hanging close in the still, summer air, Bass was unable to see if his shot went home. But as the parade of screaming horsemen thundered past his side of the breastworks, he did notice that a handful of ponies raced by without riders. One of those animals had likely carried the big fella with the painted scars.
Farther back in the stream, other horsemen were slowing now, reining this way and that to avoid a horse that had plunged headlong and flipped, pitching its rider into the air. Some of the warriors slowed even more; two-by-two they leaned off their ponies to scoop up a wounded or dead comrade, dragging his limp body back across the coarse, sun-seared grass that crackled and snapped, hooves clawing at the powdery dust that rose in tiny puffs with each hoofbeat, the dead man's legs flying and flopping over every clump of sage, feet crazily bouncing, wildly sailing against the pale, summer-burnt-blue sky.
Few of their arrows made it all the way to the breastworks they had formed out of those sixty or more animals. The half-a-thousand clearly figured to make this a fight of bravery runs while the waterless white men slowly ran out of powder and lead.
At first some of the trappers had hesitated dropping all the horses and mules. They bunched their nervous animals together, tying them off nose-to-nose, two-by-two. But with those first frantic, wholesale charges, the Sioux and Cheyenne managed to hit enough of the animals in the outer ring that the saddle horses and pack mules grew unmanageable, threatening to drag off the few men who were struggling to hold on to them. Arrows quivered from withers and ribs, from bellies and flanks.
Then the first lead balls whistled in among Fraeb's men. Damn if those red bastards didn't have some smoothbore trade guns, fusils, old muskets--English to be sure. Maybe even some captured rifles too--taken off the body of a free man killed here or there in the mountains. One less free trapper to fret himself over the death of the beaver trade.
Arrows were one thing, but those smoothbore fusils were a matter altogether different. While such weapons didn't have the range of the trappers' rifles, the muskets could nonetheless hurl enough lead through their remuda that those Indians could start whittling the white men down.
There were a half dozen horses and mules thrashing and squealing on the ground already by the time the St. Louis-born German growled his thick, guttural command.
"Drob de hurses!" Fraeb shouted. "Drob dem, ebbery one!"
Many of those two dozen mountain men grumbled as they shoved and shouldered the frightened animals apart in a flurry. But every one of them did what they knew needed doing. Down the big brutes started to fall in a spray of phlegm and piss as the muzzles of pistols were pressed against ears and the triggers pulled. A stinking mess of hot horse urine splashing everyone for yards around, bowels spewing the fragrant, steamy dung from that good grass the horses pastured on two days back.
In those first moments of sheer deafening terror, Bass even smelled the recognizable, telltale odor of gut. Glancing over his shoulder, he had watched as the long coil of purple-white intestine snaked out of the bullet hole in that mule's belly so that the animal itself and other horses tromped and tromped and tromped in nervous fear and pain, yanking every last foot of gut out of the dying pack animal's belly.
He had quickly poured some powder into the pan of his belt pistol, lunged over a horse already thrashing its way into eternity, and skidded to a halt beside the very mule that had been his companion ever since that momentous birthday in Taos.
Stuffing his left hand under the horsehair halter, his fingers went white as he jerked back on the mule's head, shouting in what he hoped would be a familiar voice, a calming voice. As a horse went down behind Titus, one of its slashing hooves clipped the trapper across the back of his calf and he crumpled to his knees. Gritting his teeth with the pain as he struggled back onto his feet, Bass yanked on the mule's halter again and shouted as he pressed the muzzle of the short-barreled .54 just in front of the mare's ear.
"Steady, girl," he whimpered now. Tears streaming. Some of anger. Some of regret too. Lots of regret. Then pulled the trigger.
He had gripped the halter as she pitched onto her forelegs, her back legs kicking some, struggling to rise, until she rolled onto her side. Nestled now in the shadow of her body lay that dirty, grass-crusted rumple of her gut.
Titus knelt quickly at the head, staring a moment at the eyes that would quickly glaze, watching the last flexing of the wide, gummy nostrils as the head slowly relaxed, easing away from him.
"Good-bye, girl," he whispered, the words sour on his tongue.