Between Kansas City and Montana Territory were a thousand ways to die-and a few bold men who would never turn back.
Miners dug for fortunes. Soldiers died on open plains. And a few brave men drove the wooden freight wagons into the wild land. Now, master Western novelist Ralph Compton tells the real story of the touch-as-leather men who carried supplies, guns and gold into the untamed frontier.
Dutch Siringo rose from modest beginnings and proved his skill with a team of horses and a gun. Betrayed by a woman, hunted by a desperate man, Dutch led a group of hard-fighting teamsters where no other shippers would go-through the heart of the Sioux territory, into the teeth of winder along the murderous Bozeman Trail. Now, between Fort Kearny and the mining camps in the Bitterroot Mountains, Dutch and his teamsters faced Montana blizzards, hungry wolves and the kind of enemies you have to bury to outrun.
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998.
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee in 1998.
Read an Excerpt
People of the Owl
A Novel of Prehistoric North America
By Kathleen O'Neal Gear, W. Michael Gear
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2003 Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
All rights reserved.
Dark clouds slipped soundlessly across the sky as night fell. The faintest glow could be made out in the periodic breaks between the flooded trees. The lead canoe sailed silently forward, driven by the fatigued strokes of two young men. Unease reflected in the youths' dark eyes. Behind them brown water rippled in the expanding V of their wake. It licked at the trunks of bitter pecan and water oak, then lapped against pioneer stands of sweetgum, hackberry, and ash that rose above the backswamp.
In the dusky shadows, three more slim vessels followed, the occupants silently paddling their craft. On occasion they glanced warily about at the hanging beards of moss, at the silvered webs spun by hand-sized yellow spiders, and at the clinging mass of vines. Occasionally a copperhead draped from a water-crested branch.
"White Bird, are you sure you know where you are going?" a young paddler called from the second boat. He spoke in the language of the river—a Trade pidgin that had grown over generations.
"I know these backswamps as surely as you know the twists and turns of your forests back home, Hazel Fire. Trust me." White Bird blinked his eyes where he sat in the rear of the lead canoe, his back pressed hard against the matting that cushioned the concave stern. He had hoped to be home by nightfall. Ahead of him, Yellow Spider's paddle moved mechanically, his arms as tired and loose-jointed as White Bird's own.
"I don't blame them for being nervous." Yellow Spider scratched at a chigger bite on his calf. "It is a frightening thing, being cast loose in so much water, never knowing which way you are going. Remember how we felt in their country?"
Twelve long moons had passed since they had struck north, following the winding course of the Father Water, keeping to the backwaters, avoiding the river's current as they battled their way upstream. By the fall equinox they had landed their canoe in the far northern country of the Wolf People.
Trade was old, but it was mostly conducted between peoples, or by solitary Traders in canoes who traveled the rivers. The key was the river system that linked the huge continental interior. Copper from the great northern lakes, special chert from Flint Ridge in the northeast, soapstone from the eastern mountains, and hematite from the northwest were but a few of the exotic Trade items prized by the Sun People. But goods moved slowly and in a trickle. The farther a person traveled from the source, the more valuable the Trade was. The farther a Trader traveled, the less likely he would have the items he started with. The Power of Trade was that items be Traded at each stop.
White Bird and Yellow Spider had tried a different tack. They had carefully avoided the River Peoples, often traveling by night, on their journey northward. Upon their arrival, with their Trade intact, they elected to spend the winter. That meant freezing and shivering in the Wolf People's thatch-sided huts while snow twirled out of the cold gray skies, and frigid winds moaned through the naked trees. In that time they had traded judiciously, offering their beautifully dyed textiles, their basswood rope and cordage, small sections of alligator hide, and necklaces made of the beast's teeth and claws. They had pitched in with the hunting, packing firewood, and generally making themselves useful. Both had struggled to learn as much of the language as they could. As honored guests, each had been provided with a young woman, and by the time of their departure, their wives had begun to swell with children.
"These women," the chief had told them, "they do not wish to go south and live with strangers. Their families, clans, and people are here. They will be here when you come back."
Their Trade had been wildly successful. So much so that the piles of goods stacked in their small hut would have overflowed their single canoe. In the end it had taken all of White Bird's guile, the promise of immense wealth, and the gift of half of his profits, to talk three additional canoes into accompanying them south.
With the breaking of the river ice, White Bird, Yellow Spider, and the Wolf Traders had loaded their canoes and slipped them into the frigid current. The descent of the river had taken but two moons, a third the time needed to paddle upstream. Nor had the journey been as dangerous, their travel time through potentially hostile country being shorter, their numbers larger and more threatening to potential raiders.
As they neared the end of the long voyage, their narrow craft were stacked gunwale high with fabric sacks that contained the winter's Trade: chipped stone blanks, copper beads, thin sections of ground slate, polished greenstone celts, and adzes. In addition they had large winter hides from buffalo, elk, and a highly prized hide from the great silver bear. Smaller prime hides came from beaver, northern bobcat, mink, and marten. One hide, traded from the far north, came from something called a carcajou—an animal they had never seen—but the fur was black, lustrous, and soft. Other pouches contained herbs and medicinal plants: wild licorice for sore throats; alum root for diarrhea; gayfeather for heart and urinary problems; puccoon for wounds, menstrual problems, and to stay awake; mint for tea, the relief of gas, and stomach problems; yucca root for joint soreness and a laxative; and coneflower for toothaches.
But in White Bird's mind the most important thing he carried was the fabric sack of goosefoot seeds that rested between his feet. That was the journey's greatest prize. And for that, he would gamble everything. What would the People do for a man who offered them the future?
"I thought we would be there by now," Yellow Spider muttered, banking his paddle long enough to roll his muscular shoulders.
"The cut across from the crevasse is longer than you remember." White Bird smiled. "Besides, if you will recall, we were fresh and excited when we left here last spring."
"And the backswamp is deeper," Yellow Spider added. "Look at this." He gestured at the high water ringing the trees. "Fishing must be more difficult this spring with such deep water. People will be adding on to their nets. We should have gone northwest for ironstone. Given the depth of the water and the size of the nets needed to fish these currents, net sinkers will be in demand."
"We did fine." White Bird tapped the sack of goosefoot seed with his foot. "Besides, had we gone northwest, the mountain people wouldn't have provided their women. Not like those Wolf People." He paused thoughtfully as he stroked with his paddle. "I, for one, will miss Lark. She kept the robes more than warm."
As Yellow Spider picked up his paddle, White Bird rested his across the gunwales and rolled his weary shoulders. Fatigue ran from his fingers, up his arms, and into the middle of his back. His belly had run empty long ago, as though nothing but hunger lay behind the corded muscles. An image of Lark flashed in his head. He remembered the sparkle in her eyes that first night when she had crawled into his bed. If he closed his eyes, he could almost feel her hands tracing the swell of his chest and the ripple of muscle that led down past his navel. Her gasp of delight as she reached down to grip his manhood lingered in his ears.
"Yes," he whispered into the stillness of the swamp, "I shall miss you, Lark." In his nineteen turning of seasons he had never had a full-time woman before. The notion that she had been waiting every time he returned to their cozy home had grown on him. She was a strange one, true, raised as she was by a different people with different gods and peculiar beliefs, but she had been pretty, devoted to him, and always there. Rot take it, a man could get used to living like that.
"I wouldn't worry," Yellow Spider said smugly as he ducked a clump of hanging moss. "Your mother probably has a whole string of women lined up for you. Not only are you worthy—as our return will prove—but you're in line to replace your uncle." He hesitated tactfully. "If you haven't already."
"Uncle Cloud Heron will be fine. Owl help me if he isn't."
Yellow Spider laughed. "Oh, stop it. You'll be a better Speaker for the clan than anyone I know. You have a way about you, White Bird. A calm assurance that no one else has. People can't help but like you. Look at how we did up north. Look at the return we got. How are you going to explain that you gave half of your Trade to these barbarians?"
"Watch your tongue." White Bird shot a quick look back over his shoulder. "You never know if any of them have been learning our language. Lark and Robin were learning it quickly enough."
"I was just thinking how much I miss that Robin." Yellow Spider sighed. "Somehow I think the clan is going to marry me off quick as a snap. Who knows whom they'll pick for me." He paused. "Unlike you. Or are you sorry that Lark isn't in your canoe instead of me?"
"Come on, Cousin. Think! Lark and Robin belong up there. That's where their families are. They'd be strangers here, cast loose without kin of any kind. And, you're right. The clan will have you married to at least one other woman, perhaps two, within the turning of seasons."
Yellow Spider lowered his voice. "Do you think Spring Cypress is a woman yet?"
White Bird shrugged. "If she is, she may be married already." Did his voice cloak the sudden sense of worry? She'd begun her fourteenth summer when he and Yellow Spider had left for the north. But for a late menstruation, she'd have been married—most girls were by that age.
"I talked to Spring Cypress before I left. It was a risk we had to take. Even if she passed her moon, her uncle, Speaker Clay Fat, could have been persuaded to wait."
"Or not, as the case may be."
"Are you always so gloomy?"
"No, I'm just connected to this world. You, my cousin, live in another. Take those seeds you're so enamored of. Goosefoot is goosefoot. We have our own. Why invest in someone else's?"
"Because these seeds are twice as big as ours."
"If they'll even grow here." Yellow Spider smashed a mosquito that managed to penetrate the grease he'd smeared on his skin. "The dirt's different."
"Shows what you know. And the seasons are different. It doesn't get as cold here. Maybe those seeds are just like ours and ... and it's the cold that makes them get that big?"
Yellow Spider nodded in the shadowy half-light that penetrated the canopy of trees and filtered through the hanging moss and vines. "To be sure, Cousin. I've trusted you this far, and look where it has gotten me. I am coming home with the most successful Trading venture ever. Not just a canoeful of goods, but four! We own the world, Cousin!"
White Bird smiled into the increasing darkness. They did indeed own the world. No matter that the Wolf Traders considered half of their canoes' contents to be theirs, the fact was, it would all end up being spread among the clans. The credit would be his. People would listen to him. His influence would maintain his clan's position, and if anything, add to Owl Clan's prestige. The seeds at his feet were the next step in changing the people, making them greater than they had ever been.
Suffused with the glow of success, he barely heard the whisper of wings in the darkness as an owl circled above, charting their progress.CHAPTER 2
Jaguar Hide had come to his name from the spotted yellow hide he continually wore. He had been but a spare youth, running for his life, when he'd fled to the south. In a leaky canoe he had traveled along the coast, avoiding the grease-smeared tribesmen who lurked in the salt marshes. After being plagued by mosquitoes and salt-cracked skin for several moons he had found safety in the tropical forests. There, attached to a small band of tribesmen—refugees like himself—he had lived for four long turning of seasons, learning their various languages and living hand to mouth.
The day he had tracked the great spotted cat had changed his Power, changed his life. That morning he'd followed the cat's tracks, seeing where the pugs pressed so delicately into the mud. The forest had swallowed him as though to digest him in a universe of green. Water had dripped from the palmetto and mahogany.
He and the jaguar had seen each other at the same moment. In that instant of locked eyes, he had seen his death—and refused to meet it. As he extended his arm to cast, the jaguar leaped. The dart nocked in his atlatl might have been an extension of his Dream Soul so straight did it fly. He was still staring into those hard yellow eyes as the fletched dart drove half of its length into the great cat.
The animal's flying impact sent him rolling across the forest litter, but the cat's attention had centered on the stinging length of wood protruding from the base of its throat. The first swipe of its paws had snapped the shaft. Thereafter, the frantic clawing did nothing more than tear the splintered shaft sideways in the wound. Great gouts of blood pumped with each of the cat's heartbeats.
When the jaguar finally flopped onto its side in the trail, their gazes remained joined. The cat's strength drained with each bloody exhalation. To the end, the claws extended and retracted, as though in the cat's brain, it was rending the man's flesh. He watched the pupils enlarge as the cat's raspy breathing slowed. He was still staring, partially panicked by fear, when the animal's Dream Soul was exhaled through those blood-caked nostrils and, having nowhere else to go, entered his own body.
Later that night, in a rain-drenched camp, he had squatted under a palmetto lean-to and eaten the cat's meat. He could remember the blue haze of rain-slashed smoke. He could still smell it, and taste the sweet meat in his mouth. Jaguar's Power had penetrated his heart and wound its way around his souls.
The frightened youth he had been was eaten that night—consumed by the jaguar's Power. The next morning he had stridden forth a different man, and begun the long journey north, alternately canoeing and portaging the sandbars that blocked the salt marshes. He had returned to his people, and with the Power of the jaguar in his blood, he had destroyed his old enemies, taken five wives, and closed his fingers around his people until they all fit within his callused grasp.
That had been tens of seasons ago. No longer young, he looked up at the soot-stained roof of the cramped house he now crouched in. Spiderwebs, like bits of moss, wavered in the heat waves rising from the low-banked fire. Before him on a cane mat lay his nephew, young Bowfin, wounded and dying as evil spirits ate his guts out. The boy's sister, Anhinga, crouched beside him, and the mother, Jaguar Hide's sister, Yellow Dye, balanced on her feet, her chin on her knees as she sobbed softy.
In his mind's eye, Jaguar Hide could see himself: Gray hair had been pulled into a tight bun on the back of his head and pinned with a stingray spine. His old jaguar hide, once so bright yellow, now lay hairless over his shoulder, the smeared skin tattered in places, shiny from wear in others. The turning of seasons had treated the hide no better than they had him.
A fabric loincloth sported the design of a spotted cat on the front and rear flaps where they hung from the waist thong. His brown skin, weathered from sun, cold, and storm, was puckered here and there with scars. It had lost its supple elasticity and turned flaky, grainy with age and loose on his wiry muscles. He still had his bones, big and blocky, a frame that had once given him a rare strength among men. The muscles, however, had faded with the turning of seasons until now he was but a gnarly shadow of himself.
He knotted his bony fist; if he were young again, he would show them. He would pay them back for this.
"Elder?" the young man on the mat croaked. Dried blood mottled his sweat-shiny skin. He raised a trembling hand. Jaguar Hide took it in his own, feeling how cold it was, how weak. He forced himself to ignore the rising stench that came from the wound and curled around his head.
"Save your breath, Bowfin. You need to regain your strength, then we will go back and teach that filth a thing or two about invading our territory."
Excerpted from People of the Owl by Kathleen O'Neal Gear, W. Michael Gear. Copyright © 2003 Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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