In the first of a trailblazing new series, acclaimed western author Charles G. West introduces the legend of a man called Hawk . . .
To start their new life together, Jamie Pratt and his young bride join a westward wagon train bound for the Rocky Mountains. They get as far as Helena when their unscrupulous wagon master deserts them, leaving them as good as dead in a godforsaken, blood-scorched land. The other settlers agree to set stakes where they are, but Jamie and his bride press on toward the Bitterroot Valley, deep into Sioux territory.
THEY NEVER COME OUT THE OTHER SIDE
Jamie’s brother, Monroe, enlists the legendary scout John Hawk to find them. A hardened veteran of the range, Hawk is living off the land in a little cabin on the Boulder River when Monroe comes begging for his help. To rescue Jamie and his bride, Hawk—and his guns—will soon be back in the saddle, riding fast and fierce into deadly odds. For any other man it’s a suicide mission. For Hawk, delivering justice is what he was born to do . . .
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"Crowder, go find Hawk," Lieutenant Mathew Conner ordered. "Tell him I wanna see him."
"Yes, sir," Private Crowder responded, and hurried down the bluffs to the river where the men were watering their horses. "Seen Hawk?" Crowder asked as he passed through the small detachment of soldiers. One of them pointed upstream, so he hustled on toward a slight bend in the river. A couple dozen yards farther along he spotted him, a tall man wearing cavalry trousers and a buckskin shirt. On his head he wore a flat-crowned hat with a hawk's feather stuck in the hatband. Standing on a low hummock of grass that protruded out over the edge of the water, he was watching his horse, a big buckskin gelding, drink. "Hawk," Crowder called out. "Lieutenant Conner wants you."
Hawk figured as much when he saw Crowder hustling along the bank in his direction. "Is that so?" he responded. "Did he say what he wanted?"
Crowder shrugged indifferently. "Just said to go find you."
"All right, I'm comin'." He stepped back off the hummock and whistled softly. The buckskin in the shallow water immediately jerked his head up and left the water to follow the scout and the soldier back toward the other men. Hawk took hold of the reins and led the horse, aptly named Rascal, across a wide grassy patch where some of the cavalry horses were grazing. He left him there and proceeded on with Crowder to a small group of cottonwoods where he found Lieutenant Conner sitting in the shade, studying a map.
"Hawk, where in hell are those Indians going?" Conner asked as his scout approached.
"I thought Nestor told you where they're headed," Hawk replied, referring to Roy Nestor, the other scout assigned to the patrol.
"Nestor said they were heading back to their camp somewhere on the Yellowstone, but we damn sure lost them now." The tracks they had followed since morning seemed to indicate Nestor might be right. But they ended at this point when the Sioux had entered the river with the obvious intention of losing anyone following them. The horses needed rest, so Conner decided to halt the patrol there since there was some disagreement between his scouts as to what the hostiles' intentions were. With rations for fifteen days, Conner's detachment of fifteen troopers were in day twelve of a search for a hostile Sioux war party that had struck several farms along the Yellowstone River. That morning, they had come upon a small rancher who had just been hit by a raiding party. He told the lieutenant that the Indians had not attacked the house, but had stolen half a dozen cows. Conner's two scouts disagreed on whether or not it was the same party that had burned and killed along the river.
"Where is Nestor?" Hawk asked.
"I sent him on up the river to see if he can find where those Indians came out of the water," Conner said. "I was hoping he'd be back by now."
"Waste of time," Hawk stated impassively. "Like I told you this mornin', this ain't no war party we're trailin'. This bunch ain't no more than six or eight bucks and they stole that man's cows because they're runnin' short of food. They've got some hungry folks somewhere and that's where they're headin'. They ain't that war party we're looking for." He was repeating what he had told him earlier that morning, but Nestor had insisted that it was the war party that had killed a settler and his family three days before.
The lieutenant knew there were hard feelings between Nestor and Hawk, and he had complained to Major Brisbin when the two were assigned to his detail. The fact of the matter was, Conner thought John Hawk was by far the best scout in the entire regiment. But Nestor was so sure, adamant, in fact, that he was right about the small band they had been following all morning, so Conner gave him the benefit of the doubt. His decision to send Nestor out alone to verify his contention that they were on the trail of the Sioux raiders was greatly influenced by his desire to stop the murdering savages. It would definitely be a positive mark on his service record if he did. "All right, damn it," he confessed. "I know what you said, and I know we damn near wore the horses out trying to catch up with them." Hawk had agreed with Nestor, but on only one thing. The tracks were fresh. Nestor was so sure the war party was running up the Yellowstone that Conner had decided he might be right. Consequently, he pushed the horses hard, thinking they could overtake them. And by the time they were forced to rest the horses, they discovered that there were no more tracks to follow. "So now, you tell me where this party is that we've been following," he said to Hawk.
"Well, if it was up to me to get a bunch of soldiers off my tail, especially if I was drivin' cows, I'd go in the river and double back the other way before I came out. I expect those Indians likely watched us go flyin' past 'em while they were hidin' back there along the river somewhere. So if you really wanna track that bunch down, then we'd best head back downriver and find the place they came out of the water. Maybe we'll pick up their trail and that'll tell us where they're really headin'. And if I had to guess on where that might be, I'd say most likely up toward the Big Belt Mountains."
Conner said nothing for a couple of minutes as he stared at the somber scout. When he finally spoke again, it was with a guilty smile. "That makes sense to me. The horses should be rested by now." He turned to another soldier who was standing close by. "Corporal Johnson, get 'em mounted. We're riding out of here in fifteen minutes."
"Yes, sir," Johnson replied, and ran to obey the lieutenant's orders, yelling at the troopers to saddle up and get ready to ride.
"Are you gonna wait for Nestor to get back?" Hawk asked.
"Hell, no," Conner answered. "If he's as good a scout as he claims he is, he oughta be able to track a cavalry patrol."
"I reckon," Hawk said, although his personal opinion was that Nestor couldn't find a biscuit in a sack full of them. "I'll ride on out ahead, see if I can pick up a track. I'm bettin' on this side of the river, 'cause I'm thinkin' they've got a camp up in the Big Belts somewhere." He ambled unhurriedly to saddle his horse, then rode out, still with plenty of head start before the column formed up. He just needed enough time to scout the bluffs before the cavalry mounts added more of their tracks on top of those they had already laid down when they were heading upriver.
He held the buckskin to a comfortable lope across the open patches where hoofprints would be spotted at once. Reining Rascal back to a walk in places that looked more likely to disguise an exit from the river, he managed to stay ahead of the troopers following along behind him. He had ridden what he estimated to be about two and a half miles when he came to a place he considered perfect for the Indians' purpose. He reined his horse to a stop and dismounted in order to take a closer look. A rock-strewn stream emptied into the river, cutting a narrow gully through the bluffs, which were about six feet high at this point. The bottom of the stream was just rocky enough to prevent clear impressions of hooves. The job now was to find enough sign to prove him right. This didn't take as long as he had expected, for he found half of an unshod print at the very edge of the stream where its waters spread to join the river. One cow got a little too close to the edge, he thought. There was just that one print, but it confirmed what he suspected. They were heading north and they were still driving the cattle.
Walking up the stream, he found nothing more until he came to the tracks left by the soldiers' horses, as they had ridden upriver. He had to look closely to find more unshod prints mixed in with the soldiers' where the patrol crossed the stream. But he found what he was searching for, several clear prints of Indian ponies as well as a couple of cow tracks, running perpendicular to the soldiers', again confirming what he had figured. The Indians had entered the water at the spot where the soldiers had stopped to rest the horses. They doubled back then, reversing their line of flight to the point where he now knelt. Leaving the river, they rode up the creek, crossed the trail left by the soldiers after they passed by, and headed straight north. He got to his feet and looked out in the direction indicated by the hoofprints. In the distance, he could see the southern slopes of the Big Belt Mountains. Satisfied, he squatted on his heels and awaited the column.
In a few minutes, the patrol arrived and Hawk got up to meet them. "Here's where they left the river," he said to Conner, and pointed to the tracks crossing those of the cavalry horses. "And yonder's the way they headed." He pointed toward the distant mountains. "Shouldn't be any trouble to follow that trail."
"Right," Conner said. "You go on up ahead in case Nestor's right about that party we've been following and there's an ambush waiting for us." He grinned as if apologizing for doubting him. "I don't wanna be surprised, so keep a sharp eye."
"Always do," Hawk drawled, and stepped up into the saddle. With a gentle nudge of his heels, he started Rascal out over the low, grassy hills on a line toward the distant mountains.
As he had predicted, it was an easy trail to follow. The party of Indians must have assumed the threat of soldiers was past them now, for it appeared they saw no need to take extra precautions. Even so, it was obvious that they wasted no time in their efforts to distance themselves from the soldiers. Their trail was so obvious, in fact, that he didn't worry about losing the soldiers behind him. Still, as a matter of procedure, he would hang back occasionally to let Conner catch sight of him. As the miles added up, it looked like he was not going to catch up to them before it would be necessary to rest the horses again. And in that event, it indicated the chase would have to continue the next day, because it would be close to dark by that time. Judging by the tracks and the occasional droppings left by the ponies, the Indians managed to maintain the same lead they had gained by doubling back at the river. When he came to the lower foothills of the mountains, he crossed a healthy stream that looked to be a good campsite, so he dismounted and let Rascal drink. There was plenty of sign telling him that the party he followed had stopped there before him. There was still an hour of daylight left, but the horses were bound to be tired, so they might as well stop here where there was good water. He waited for the column to catch up.
"Figured you might wanna make camp here," Hawk greeted the lieutenant when the patrol caught up to him. "It's gonna be too dark to follow their tracks in a little while, especially if they cut up into these hills somewhere."
"I thought we were gonna have to shoot that damn buckskin of yours if we were gonna rest our horses," Conner complained. "I wish to hell we could have caught up with that bunch before dark, but I guess we'll have to take up the chase in the morning." He gave the order to dismount and told Corporal Johnson to make camp.
The horses were taken care of and cook fires started by the time Roy Nestor rode in, his horse lathered and panting. He looked to be heated up, himself. "Damn, Nestor," Johnson needled. "Where the hell have you been? We thought maybe you rode on up to Butte."
Nestor didn't bother to respond, instead he went straight to confront Lieutenant Conner. "I had to ride like hell to catch up with you. I thought you was gonna wait till I got back before you decided to ride off in some other damn direction."
Conner didn't care for the scout's tone of voice, but he didn't respond in kind. Instead, he calmly asked, "Did you find the trail you were looking for?"
Nestor sputtered for a moment before admitting, "Well, no, I didn't run up on it yet, but I was about to, only I thought I'd best report back to you to let you know." He looked around him as if searching for someone. "Then, come to find out, you'd rode off on a wild-goose chase."
"I wouldn't call it that," Conner said, still calm. "We found the place where the Indians doubled back and headed up this way."
"I expect Hawk told you they went this way," Nestor charged.
"As a matter of fact, he did find the tracks we're following," Conner said. "Now, I suggest you take care of that horse you damn near rode to death and settle yourself down for the night. You're getting to the point where I don't like your tone. A little bit more and I think I can do without your services. Do I make myself clear?"
Too angry to speak for a moment, Nestor sneered at the young lieutenant until the corporal and a couple of the men close by moved up around him. Aware then that he might be going too far, he did an about-face and walked away still fuming. While he would have liked to have told the lieutenant to go to hell, the main target for his anger was seated by a small fire, calmly enjoying a cup of coffee. Smug son of a bitch, Nestor thought. One of these days I'm liable to stomp your ass in the ground.
The object of his scorn was indifferent to Nestor's dislike. He was aware of the belligerent scout's childlike jealousy of his natural ability to read sign and track game or men. But he could never understand why there should be a competition between them. From the time when Hawk was a young boy, he had lived with a village of Crow Indians where the skills of the forest were taught naturally to the young. As a young man, he befriended a Blackfoot warrior and lived with his people for a while. As a result, he moved freely between the two tribes, even though they were enemies. As with the Indians, Hawk got along with most of the other white men he worked with — that is, with the exception of Roy Nestor. Nestor was a vile man of hot temper and questionable character. So Hawk preferred to have as little to do with him as possible. His thoughts of Nestor were interrupted then when Corporal Johnson came to join him by his fire.
"You didn't build a very big fire," Johnson teased. "Looks like you ain't expectin' company."
"If I'd known I was gonna have the honor of your presence, I'da built a bonfire," Hawk replied, drawing a chuckle from the corporal.
"I figured you scouts would take supper together for sure," Johnson went on.
"Did you just come over here to aggravate me while I'm tryin' to enjoy a cup of coffee?" Hawk japed.
Turning serious then, Johnson said, "I thought ol' Nestor was fixin' to jump on the lieutenant for a minute there. I ain't sure all the wheels are turnin' in the right direction inside that man's head." When Hawk failed to comment, Johnson asked, "How come he's got a bone in his craw about you? I never saw him act like he does around you with any of the other scouts."
"I don't have any idea," Hawk said. "So how 'bout not spoilin' my coffee talkin' about him."
"All right." Changing the subject, Johnson asked, "You think there's any chance Nestor's right about this party we're trailin'?"
"No, I don't," Hawk stated. "This bunch don't ride like a war party. You look at the tracks. They're leadin' four horses that ain't carryin' much of anything and they're still leading those cows they stole. They're tryin' to take that meat to a camp somewhere so they can butcher it and feed their folks. They're gonna have to stop and butcher the damn cows before very long. They didn't take time to do it back there, just took the whole cow, hooves, head, and all." He didn't tell him why he didn't argue with Nestor when he insisted they were following a war party intent upon running straight up the river. He would have been happy to see the Indians get away with their stolen beef while Nestor led the soldiers on a wild chase. But when Conner asked him straight away if he agreed with Nestor, Hawk had to tell him the truth. Now, if they did find these hungry Indians, he supposed Conner would have to arrest some of them for cattle rustling. He could hardly let them go unpunished, so he'd have to take them back to Fort Ellis to stand trial. Hawk regretted the part he was forced to play in it because, if the government hadn't sanctioned the killing of all the buffalo, the Indians wouldn't want the damn cattle. He couldn't bring himself to mislead the lieutenant, however, so he would do what the army hired him to do and lead Conner to the guilty party. I need to get away from this business for a while, he suddenly told himself. He had lived too long with the Indians to not see their side of things. There was a good bit of work to be done on his cabin on the Boulder River. Now would be a good time to do it. I'll get this patrol done, then that's what I'll do, he decided.
Excerpted from "Hell Hath No Fury"
Copyright © 2017 Charles G. West.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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