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Recently voted All-Time Best Western Author by the Western Writers of America, Elmer Kelton is a six-time winner of the Spur Award and a four-time winner of The Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Here, Kelton again brings to life the wild, lonesome country of post-Civil War Texas. Reprint.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
About the Author
Elmer Kelton (1926-2009) was the award-winning author of more than forty novels, including The Time It Never Rained, Other Men’s Horses, Texas Standoff and Hard Trail to Follow. He grew up on a ranch near Crane, Texas, and earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. His first novel, Hot Iron, was published in 1956. Among his awards have been seven Spurs from Western Writers of America and four Western Heritage awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. His novel The Good Old Boys was made into a television film starring Tommy Lee Jones. In addition to his novels, Kelton worked as an agricultural journalist for 42 years, and served in the infantry in World War II. He died in 2009.
Read an Excerpt
CLOUD ALMOST RODE UPON THE INDIANS' GRAZING horse herd before he realized it.
The summer sun had been bearing down upon him for hours now, sapping his energy, stealing from him the vigilance that he normally never lost while riding across these fringes of Comanche country. In this unrelenting heat it was easy to drowse in the saddle, to let one's mind roam the thousand miles and more to the smoky battlefields of Virginia.
There, even now, angry cannons thundered and men died in the blast of shellfire.
But here, in these rolling hills that marked the western edge of the Texas cross timbers, it was still and quiet ... so very quiet.
He saw the horses and yanked hard on the hair reins, pulling his sorrel back into the green cover of post-oak brush. Suddenly wide awake, he whipped his rifle out ofits beaded deerskin scabbard. He stepped down quickly to the summer-dried grass and held his hand on the sorrel's nose to keep it from nickering. Cloud's heart hammered, his breath came short.
Gradually he eased and got his lost breath back. Those Indians must have been as heat-sleepy as he was. They hadn't seen him.
That was just a shade too close to heaven! he thought.
He was a medium-tall man, crowding thirty. He was broad of shoulder, strong of back. Three days' growth of beard was beginning to blacken a face already browned by sun and wind. His large hands were leather-tough, for they had known the plow. Yet his legs showed a trace of a bow, too, because he had ridden a horse ever since he had been old enough to lace his fingers into a mane and hang on. He wore a sweat-streaked cotton shirt, buttoned at the loose-fitting collar to keep the sun from baking his breastbone. He carried a Colt revolver high on his right hip and a seven-pound bowie knife on his left, encased in a scabbard made from the hide of a buffalo's tail, the bushy black switch still hanging as a tassel.
Through the screen of brush, Cloud studied the loose-held horse herd and the Indians who slacked in the shade of scattered trees around it. Comanches, mostly squaws. He could see only one man, on the near edge of the herd. The warrior slouched on a bay horse that showed the marks of a collar and a white man's brand on the hip. He hadn't spotted Cloud because he was giving his attention to a slender young squaw who sat as close to him as her black-maned dun would get. The warrior was laughing and talking with the woman while he rolled a fresh-made arrow shaft between his teeth, taking the sap out of it.
These were horses a stray band of Comanche raiders had been picking up in the Texas settlements, Cloud reasoned. Now the wily thieves were working their way northto the safety of those trackless stretches of open grass on the Staked Plains, where they would lose themselves like a whirlwind that suddenly lifts and disappears into air, in a solitude so vast that white men drew back in dread.
Counting in fives with tiny moves of his big hand, Cloud estimated that there were eighty or ninety horses. Many a farmer and cowman had been left afoot to walk and curse. More than likely, a few had lost their scalps as well as their horses. To the Comanche warrior stealing down from his stronghold on the high plains, warfare was a game to be played and enjoyedan end in itself. To steal a Tejano's horses brought material wealth and a considerable measure of honor. To count coup on the hated Tejano and bring back his scalp greatly increased the honor and raised the warrior's status in the eyes of the tribe.
Cloud could still see only the one buck, and he wondered where the rest were. He counted six women, young squaws who remained physically able to make the long forays with their men, to do the menial chores and hold the horses and glory in the fighting manhood of their warriors. That there were six women didn't mean there were only six men, however. Many of the bucks never brought women on these trips. They didn't have to, for a Comanche warrior fortunate enough to have a woman with him thought little of lending her to a needful friend.
The other men must be off somewhere trying to gather up more horses, Cloud reasoned. They must feel sure of themselves, leaving only one man with these squaws to watch the ones they already had. Either they had whipped back their pursuit or they considered it too far behind to worry about.
High time to h'ist my tail and get out of here, he thought. Only, which way had I ought to run? Wrongguess and I'll butt heads with Lord knows how many Comanches.
He was no stranger to Indian warfare. He'd had his scraps, and a deep scar on one shoulder to show for it. But he saw no sense in riding headlong into a one-sided battle where overwhelming weight of numbers was sure to grind him down.
There was a time to fight and a time to ride away. Without question, this was a time to ride.
He heard the heavy roar of a rifle from somewhere over the next hill, and he jerked involuntarily. The blast was followed by the staccato rattle of smaller guns. The horses lifted their heads, their ears pricking up in the direction of the gunfire. The buck and the squaws turned too, listening. The buck shook his head confidently to the young woman beside him. Telling her, Cloud judged, that it wouldn't take long.
Cloud eased back afoot until he could no longer see the horses, and until he hoped the Indians could not see him. At least now he knew where the rest of the band was. Good chance to get away.
But he was held by the sound of battle. Somebody across yonder was putting up a good fight.
The trouble with being a reasonable man was that reason all the time wanted to argue with a man's emotions. Reason told Cloud to mount up and spur out of there while he could. But emotion made him wonder and worry about whoever the Comanches had bottled up. How much chance did those people have?
Cloud skirted through the post oak, circled the horse herd and made his way up the off side of a hill, the rifle across his lap. Staying within brush cover, he climbed until he could look out across a clearing at the farmhouse below. It was pretty much the usual Texas frontier farmer's log cabin. Actually, it was almost two cabins, its two roomsbuilt under one roof but separated by a narrow, open "dog run." Each room was buttressed by a heavy rock chimney. Man with a family, Cloud figured. And most of them shooting.
Defending fire racketed from three placesfrom each section of the cabin and from a heavy post-oak corral. The settler must have had a little warning, time enough to get his horses into the corral and shut the gate. To get them, the Indians were first going to have to kill him. Even then, they would be under close fire from the cabin. Heavy smoke rose from the man's position in the corral and drifted slowly away in the hot breeze.
They sometimes said of Texas gunpowder that if the bullet didn't kill the enemy, the smoke would choke him to death.
He's in a good spot long's his powder holds out, Cloud thought. But there's four or five horses in that corral, and them Comanches can almost taste 'em.
He tried to rough-count the attacking Indians, but it was hard to spot them all. Some had found good cover in the tall grass. Others lay behind downed trees that the settler hadn't yet put into his fences. Ten or twelve, Cloud judged. A few were firing rifles. Most used bows. He could see the straight, quick flight of arrows, although at the distance he could not hear them strike the cabin or the timber that made up the corral.
He saw an Indian sprint toward the house, then jerk in midstride, pitching headlong to the ground. That angered the others.
They're determined now, he thought. They'll Stay till they've got the job done.
He might be able to hit one or two of them from here with the long reach of his rifle, but he wasn't likely to change the situation much. They would dispatch a few warriors to take care of him while the rest went on afterthe people in the cabin. No use in a man selling out that cheap.
He thought then of the horse herd.
There was this about Comanches: they liked to fight, but they didn't care for suicide. If they saw they couldn't win, they usually pulled back. Cowardice was one thing, good judgment was another. Badly as they wanted those few horses in the corral, they probably would leave in a hurry if they thought they were in danger of losing the others they'd already taken, he reasoned. His one rifle wouldn't do a lot of good here, but it could cut a big swath out at that horse herd.
"Just hang on down there, folks," he muttered, backing away carefully. "The dance ain't over yet."
In the saddle again, he circled back the way he had come. Using the brush to hide him, he made his way to the place from which he had first seen the horse herd. He stepped to the ground, taking his stake rope loose from the saddlehorn and working to the end of it, tying it about his waist with a slipknot. The other end was looped around the horse's nose beneath the bridle.
Dropping to one knee, he steadied the rifle against the trunk of a post oak tree and drew a careful bead on the lone buck. He started to squeeze the trigger but hesitated, hating to. The thought of back-shooting sent a cold chill through him. But he knew the Indians didn't fight by rules.
His sorrel chose that moment to stamp flies. The buck turned, bringing up a big old rifle. Cloud felt the man's eyes touch him, and he fired.
The little squaw screamed as the man pitched forward on the horse's neck and slid to the ground. The horses nearest the shot shied into the rest of the band, creating a shock ripple like a stone dropped in water. Cloud drew his six-gun and fired once from where he was, then moveda little, staying in the brush. He aimed over the heads of the squaws on the far side and fired again. Now the horses were on the move away from Cloud. In panic, the squaws began pulling back. Waving their hands excitedly, they screamed at one another and hurried northward. Cloud fired a third time with the pistol.
He knew they thought they had been found by a group of angry Tejanos. He sent another shot plowing into the ground near them, to keep them running.
The horses were running now too, in a southerly direction. Cloud stopped to reload the rifle and put fresh charges in the pistol. That done, he coiled the stake rope and stepped onto the sorrel, the rifle slung over the saddlehorn, the pistol in his hand. He spurred in after the horses, firing occasionally, hollering, keeping them on the run.
Ahead lay the heavy post oak timber. Get these horses scattered in there and it would take hours for the Comanches to round them up.
A few of the horses split off to one side. Cloud elected to let them go, lest he allow the others to slow up and fall back into the hands of the Indians. He pulled up a moment to listen. The gunfire over the hill had stopped. Hearing the noise up here, the warriors probably had pulled back from the house and would be on their way here as fast as they could move. Cloud spurred up, yelling and firing the pistol, pushing his horses into a dead run that the Comanches couldn't stop.
He made it. Looking back as he rode into the brush, he saw that the few horses he had lost were slowing down. But the bulk of the horse herd broke into the heavy timber just moments before the Indians bobbed up over the hill. Under cover, Cloud stepped down again with the heavy rifle in his right hand, the stake rope in his left. Again he looped the free end of the rope around his hips. Hedropped his reins and trotted to the end of the rope.
Held close by the reins, a horse might shy at the roar of a rifle and jerk away, leaving its owner afoot. But when the shooter stood off at the end of the stake rope, a horse with any training usually took it with comparative calm. Should the horse begin to run and drag him, Cloud could yank the slipknot and free himself. But that was unlikely, for he had taught the sorrel to stand with the nose hitch.
Dropping to one knee and leveling the rifle barrel over a limb, Cloud aimed at the Indian in the lead. He saw the dust puff in front of the man's horse. The Indian jerked the rein so hard that the horse stumbled and almost went down.
Cloud moved twenty or thirty paces and took a long shot with the pistol. He didn't expect to hit anything at the range, but he could raise dust. The Indians hauled up and milled uncertainly. They plainly thought there were several Texans in the brush. He fired again with the pistol and took advantage of the moment to pour a small measure of gunpowder out of his powder horn into his palm. He followed this with a poured-lead bullet and a thin buckskin scrap for a bullet patch. He rammed it down tight, hardly taking his eyes off the Indians.
For a moment it seemed they were going to come on down his way. He leveled the rifle again, drew a careful bead and squeezed. A horse went down, thrashing.
That was enough. One of the Comanches reached down and pulled the unseated Indian up behind him. Then the whole pack put the heels to their mounts and began to run. They picked up the few horses Cloud had lost, but they were giving up the others.
Cloud loaded the rifle again before he moved, and put fresh charges in the pistol. It looked clear now, but a man never could tell. That was likely to be a mighty mad bunch of Comanches. Losing a battle at that house yonder,losing their stolen horses. Now they would have to sneak back into camp like a bunch of squaws.
Cloud coiled the stake rope as he moved toward his horse. He tucked the coils under his belt, where he could yank them out into use if there came a sudden need for the rope again. He eased into the saddle, still watching warily the dip in the hills where he had seen the Comanches disappear. The only thing a man could know for sure about Comanches was that they were likely to do what he didn't expect. Since he didn't expect them to come back, it was a good idea to watch.
Staying in the brush as long as he could, he angled across toward the cabin he had seen. Good chance the Indianssome of them, anywaywere hanging back to see how many Texans were in that timber. An Indian might not be able to read, but he could blamed well count.
Two hundred yards from the cabin the timber had all been cut away. Besides giving the settler material for his house and fences, this also afforded him a clear view of anyone approaching. It cut down the chance of surprise. But the farmer had left some of the tree trunks where they had fallen, and these had given the Indians some protection from rifle fire. Cloud would bet it wouldn't take the man long to drag these up into a pile.
Moving into the clearing, he could feel the rifles trained on him, even though he couldn't see them. Two dogs set up an awful racket. "Hello the house!" Cloud called, keeping his hands up in clear sight and making no quick moves. Nobody answered him at first, but he saw a slight movement at a glassless window. Then a man stepped out from inside the corral.
Cloud's sorrel snorted and shied away from a dead Indian the others had been in too big a hurry to pick up. Cloud stopped twenty paces from the corral. The two menstared at each other. Cloud finally opened the conversation with, "Howdy."
The black-bearded man who stood there was in his late fortiesfifty, maybe, for streaks of gray glistened in the sun. He had the broad, strong body of a blacksmith, the homespun clothes of the pioneer. He studied Cloud, the rifle still high and ready in his hands. Distrust lingered in his brown eyes. White renegades were not unheard of in this country. Now and again there was talk of such men riding with the Indians, turning against their own kind. For all this man knew, Cloud could be one.
"Howdy," the man finally said, evidently satisfied with Cloud's looks. "You one of the bunch that was doin' the shootin' across the hill yonder?"
"I was the bunch."
Incredulous, the man lowered the rifle and stood with his mouth open. "You mean to tell me you're by yourself?"
"It ain't the way I'd rather've had it," Cloud replied, getting down.
The settler grunted an oath and shook his head. "Luck. Just puredee luck. But give me luck and you can keep your money." He stepped forward, hand outstretched. "Name's Lige Moseley. Elijah, you know, like in the Bible." The man began to grin, the tension leaving him.
Cloud grinned too. "Sam Houston Cloud. I don't reckon the Bible had much to do with my name, though."
"You must be a sure-enough born Texican to be named after old General Sam."
"My folks always thought a heap of the general."
"Then I reckon you live up to your name. He always was a scrappy old booger."
Moseley turned toward the cabin. Cloud dropped his reins over a post and moved along beside him, looking over this ruddy-faced, bewhiskered settler. Steady as arock, Moseley showed no sign he had ever been scared.
"Indian-fightin' don't seem like it bothers you none," Cloud commented.
"Fit 'em ever since I was a button. Started back in Tennessee, fit 'em all the way west. Reckon I'll fight 'em clean to the Pacific Ocean."
"You mean you expect to keep on movin' west?"
"What other direction is there for a man to go? Got to move now and again, git to a fresh, unspoiled country. Man sits in one place too long, he just naturally goes stale. Are you a movin' man?"
"Have been, kind of. Ever I find me a place that suits me just right, though, I'll probably light and stay there."
They reached the cabin. Moseley spoke through the open window. "Everybody make out all right?"
"All right," came a woman's voice. Moseley moved on to the other side, beyond the dog run. A boy of thirteen or fourteen stepped out with a rifle in his hand.
"How about you boys?" Moseley asked. The boy, whittled from the same oakwood as his father, stared with open curiosity at Cloud. He said, "We done fine." He frowned then. "Now that we got 'em on the run, Pa, don't you think we ought to chase after them and give them a real proper chastisement?"
The old man proudly laid his big hand on the boy's shoulder. "I reckon if they want to fight some more, they'll come back."
To Cloud, Moseley said, "Raise 'em right, they don't panic at the sight of a few Indians. I've taught 'em this is a white man's land. The Lord meant it for crops and cattle, not for painted heathens and the buffalo. The Lord'll see to it that the Christian man comes out all right, long as he keeps his faith."
He motioned with his rifle. "Downed a couple of them out yonder. We better make sure they're dead. Don't want'em sneakin' up here cuttin' our throats while our backs are turned."
Cloud said, "I saw one of them as I rode up. He was dead."
Moseley grunted. "Other one's over thisaway, then. Want to go with me?"
Pistol in his hand, Cloud walked along beside Moseley, carefully watching the grass.
"Tall grass, it give them redskins a little of an edge on us," Moseley said. "It was hard to see them. I'd've burned all this off, only I been afraid I'd burn the house down too."
They found the Indian lying on his back, his chest still heaving up and down. He had dragged himself partially under the dead foliage of a downed tree, trying to find shade from the blistering sun. His open eyes were glazed. Fresh blood made tiny bubbles on his lips. Cloud could see a gaping hole in the Comanche's belly.
"Done for," he said quietly. It seemed proper to speak quietly in the presence of a dying man, whether he was Comanche or not.
The old frontiersman nodded. "No easy death, either. It'd be God's mercy to go ahead and put him out of his misery."
"I reckon it would," Cloud agreed. "He's yours."
Moseley raised his rifle and held it a moment. There was no sign the Indian was even aware of what was happening. Moseley raked his tongue over dry lips. The old man slowly lowered the rifle.
"I can't do it. How about you takin' care of him for me, Cloud?"
Cloud was silent a moment, his hand cold-sweaty on the grip of the six-shooter. "I can't either. I can shoot at a man when he's shootin' at me. But one like this ..."
Moseley shook his head. "He can't bother us none, theshape he's in. So I reckon now it's just between him and the Lord. He ortn't to've been here, that's all."
The two turned and started back toward the cabin. Moseley said, "I'll have to set the boys to diggin'. Job like that can't wait very long in this kind of hot weather."
"There's another one over the hill," Cloud said. "But I expect the Comanches carried him off. They generally do, they get the chance."
The Moseley boys were out poking around now for Indian souvenirs. They picked up the dying Indian's bow and arrows and the bull-hide shield that lay where the man had fallen. They held it up and looked through the bullet hole in it.
Moseley stared at Cloud with unabashed curiosity. "Been tryin' to figure you out. Most fellers that's been through here lately has been yellow bellies headin' west, tryin' to git out of havin' to go fight the Yankees. You don't look like that stripe to me."
"Well," said Cloud, "I'm not on the run."
"What are you doin'?"
"I'm huntin' for Captain Barcroft's company of the Texas Mounted Rifles. I'm supposed to join it."
"One of them new Ranger outfits, eh? Out to help save the home folks from the Indians while the rest of the boys go whip them Yanks?"
"Not Rangers, exactly. State troops, more like. But you got the job rightpatrol the frontier, keep John throwed back."
"John" was a frontier nickname for the Indianany Indian.
Moseley grinned. "Well, looks to me like you've done started to work. If that Barcroft asks you for any references, just tell him to come and see me."
The cabin door opened in front of them. A woman stepped back out of the way. "Go ahead in, Cloud," saidMoseley. Moseley's wife stood in the middle of the plain room, staring at him. She was a gaunt, wide-hipped woman in her early forties, shoulders bent by a hard-lived life of work and strain, face dried by sun and wind. But there was a strong set to her jaw, a sturdy determination in her eyes. Moseley might be a strong man, but he would be no stronger than this woman he had married, thought Cloud.
It took this kind of woman to stand beside a man and keep pushing west, to hold ungiving against a harsh daily existence in a raw land, to stand firm in the face of the savage red tide. She wasn't much for looks maybe, but looks didn't count for much in this country.
"How do," she said. "I heered what you told Lige. You really come by yourself, mister?"
"Yes'm." He had his hat in his hands.
"Well, that's really somethin'. Really somethin'."
Cloud heard a knocking and looked around him for the source of it. Mrs. Moseley said, "Like to've forgot about the youngsters. Would you kindly he'p me move this chest, Mister Cloud?"
The three of them scooted a battered oak chest out across the packed-dirt floor. Beneath it appeared a wooden trapdoor. Moseley grasped an iron ring and swung the squeaky door up. "You-all can come out now. One at a time, don't be a-steppin' on one another's fingers."
One by one, children of various sizes began to appear from the depths of the hole. Cloud reached down and helped each one make his way out. The kids were dirt-smeared from rubbing against the sides of the narrow tunnel. Each of them eyed Cloud warily. They weren't used to strangers.
One of the boys, who looked to be about five, complained, "Why don't you let us stay down there, Mama? It's cooler than up here."
"That's just for the needful times. Snoopy redskins see you-all playin' around the escape hole outside, they'd know what it was. It wouldn't do none of you any good then. Git on outside now, and brush that dirt off of you."
Last up was a girl of seventeen or so, carrying a two-year-old boy in her arms. The girl glanced quickly at Cloud with pretty hazel eyes, then handed the baby to her mother. "It was scared," she said. "Had a hard time a-keepin' it from cryin'. I was a-feered them Indians might hear it and find the hole."
Mrs. Moseley took her baby and rocked it in her arms. The harshness in her face faded to a mother's gentleness. "There now," she soothed the child, holding its cheek to hers. "Everything's all right now. Nothin's goin' to hurt our baby, nothin' atall."
With Cloud's help, the girl finished the climb out, watching Cloud timidly. Self-consciously she began to brush the dirt from her clothes.
"Outside, Samantha," Mrs. Moseley said. "We don't want none of that dirt in the house."
Cloud couldn't help wondering how it would ever be noticed, the floor being of dirt anyway. But that was woman's business, and none of his.
Moseley showed Cloud the escape tunnel. "For the kids," he said, "case the Indians ever swamp us. Comes out in a little clump of brush yonder. Gives the kids a chance to git away. We cover it with that big chest, so the Indians'll never even know it's there."
A chill worked up Cloud's back. Anytime Lige Moseley and his wife put the kids down that hole and moved the chest back over the trapdoor, they were committing themselves to fight to the death.
"Just such a tunnel as that one saved my life when I was a button in Tennessee," said Moseley. "Pa and my uncle, they put Mama and us kids into the tunnel and shutthe door behind us. Indians killed them and set fire to the cabin, but they never knew about us. It ever comes to that, my kids're goin' to have the same chance."
Cloud looked at the Moseleys and wondered what it all led to. It wasn't just Moseley, for there were others like him, all up and down the western line of the Texas settlements. This was the kind of life Moseley and a great many others had lived since boyhood, treading on the thin edge of disaster. They didn't follow the frontier, they led it. They were the "movin' kind," always on the go, always looking west. Most men who moved west talked of a better life ahead, and Moseley probably talked that way too, when a man sat him down and started him putting his dreams into words. But it wasn't really the better life that motivated Moseley. It was the search itself that gave him his satisfaction.
What would Moseley's kind do when there was no longer a frontier? Cloud wondered. They were a breed apart, a breed for which civilization had little place once it had benefited from their sacrifice.
Moseley looked out the open window at the distant hill. "We sure gave John a whippin'. He won't forget us."
Cloud frowned. "He won't, and that's a fact. They'll remember this place like a thorn in their foot. You watch, some of the young bucks are liable to be back one day, tryin' to even the score up."
"Let 'em," said Moseley. "We'll be rested and ready."
Mrs. Moseley found out Cloud hadn't eaten anything all day but a little bit of broiled bacon and some dry, hard biscuits he carried in the "wallet" slung across the back of his saddle. She said, "Samantha and me, we'll fix you up somethin'. We're a mite short on flour, but you're goin' to have some fresh bread anyhow. We got coffee ifyou can drink it without sugar. And there's enough venison to finish fillin' you up."
Cloud protested at their cooking up all the flour when there were so many young ones around, but they did it anyway. Almost every time Cloud glanced in the direction of the girl Samantha, he found her covertly watching him. Her shy gaze would quickly cut away.
He felt sorry for her, a little. She was a nice-looking girl. Chances were her mother had looked like this, once. The girl could be pretty, perhaps, if she lived in a settlement where she could have good clothes and shoes and perhaps some bright ribbon for her blonde hair. It was her hair that caught Cloud's eye. Tied at the back of her head, it hung far down below her shoulders. It looked silky and soft, and he found himself wanting to reach out and touch it. If the girl had any vanity, living far out here away from other people, it must have been her hair. Cloud could tell that it had been brushed a lot.
He said to Moseley, "Your kids miss a good many things, not livin' near a settlement."
Moseley shook his head. "They miss feamin' a heap of devilment. Ma, she teaches 'em to read and write, and they get all the schoolin' they need, just a-readin' from the old Bible." Moseley reached up onto a shelf and took down a huge and heavy old family Bible. He set it down on the table in front of Cloud and opened the cover. "Got all the kids' names in here and the dates they was born. Two that died, they're in here, too. We had to bury them where they wasno markers or nothin'. The only thing in God's world to show they was ever born is this here page in the old Bible."
He paused, his mind running back into memory. Then he asked, "Are you an educated man, Cloud?"
Cloud shook his head. "Not much. Never had time for schoolin', or a place to go, either. I can read easy enough;my mother taught me that. And I know figures."
"That's a-plenty. Too much learnin' is just a handicap to a man out in this countryputs him to yearnin' after things he can't have. Just know how to read, and know enough figures so them settlement sharpers can't skin you out of nothin'. No, sir, my kids don't git the chance to fool around the settlements there. Settlements, they got all kinds of wickedness and sinthings a young girl like Samantha don't need to know nothin' about. Someday there'll be a young man come alongman like I was a long time agoand he'll marry her. She'll learn what else there is that she ought to know."
He frowned then. "You married, Cloud?"
Cloud fidgeted. "No, sir."
Moseley eased again, an obvious thought playing behind his brown eyes. "You ought to have you a woman, you know. Woman's a heap of comfort to a manhelps take the load off of his back."
"Someday, maybe, when I'm settled down. A man's got no business marryin' as long as he's ridin' around over the country chasin' Indians. He needs to be able to provide her a home."
"A town woman, sure. But you take a girl that's been raised up away from the settlementsone that ain't a-goin' to throw a screamin' fit at the sight of a featherone that don't mind pushin' a plow and choppin' the wood when her man's got to be goneshe'd be a good wife for a man like you, Cloud. A good woman's the makin' of a man."
He paused, watching Cloud for any sign that the message was taking hold. "You know, my girl Samantha's that kind."
"Yep, I expect she is," Cloud said nervously, wishing the subject would change.
Moseley's oldest son, Luke, pushed through the door, rifle in his hand. Cloud noticed that most of the kids had biblical names. "Riders comin', Pa."
Moseley sat up straight, looking at his own rifle in the corner. "Indians?"
"No, sir, whites. Rangers or Minute Men or some such, I think."
Cloud and Moseley walked out the door and stood waiting. There were twenty or twenty-five men in the bunch. They rode tired horses, and the riders' shoulders sagged with weariness. But most of them held rifles or shotguns balanced across their saddles, ready for instant action.
Riding out in front was a dark-skinned man Cloud took to be a Mexican. Almost even with him came a tall, lean, somber-looking rider who quickly caught Cloud's eye. Instinctively he knew this was the leader. His bearing showed it without any questions asked. Cloud remembered what the colonel had told him when he had handed him his orders.
"Aaron Barcroft is the captain. You'll know him when you see him, for there's not another that looks quite like him. He's a tall, nervous whip of a man, with black eyes that bore through you like an auger. You'll think he's the grimmest man you ever saw, and he probably is; he's had some grim things happen to him. He'll drive you till you hate him, but you'll always respect him, for he drives himself harder than any man."
Captain Barcroft rode up to within four or five paces and stopped. He took one long, unhurried glance about the place and seemed to miss nothing.
"I see you've had trouble," he said. "Anybody hurt?"
Moseley said, "Nobody but Indians."
Barcroft said, "We've trailed that band since yesterday.They had a sizeable bunch of stolen horses with them. Now we find those horsesmost of them, anywayscattered out in that brush. What happened?"
Moseley explained in colorful detail what Cloud had done, adding a little fiction for good measure.
Barcroft's black eyes dwelt heavily on Cloud. Unaccountably, there was annoyance in them. "Who are you?" Barcroft demanded.
Cloud told him. He handed Barcroft the letter the colonel had given him. "I been huntin' you, Captain. I'm supposed to join your company."
Barcroft didn't take time to read the letter. He shoved it in his pocket. His voice had a sting to it. "I'm not sure why you're here, Cloud. From what you did, I gather you might be one of those who joins the Rifles looking for glory and adventure. Well, you'll get little glory here. Or maybe you've come to the frontier to get out of going against the Yankees. If you have, you'll find a steel knife and a stone arrowhead can kill you just as dead as a Yankee cannonball. Might even be slower and more painful.
"I'll warn you right now, this is no place for the lame or the lazy. If you go with this outfit, you'll ride sometimes till you're so weary you can't see. Then you'll get off and fight and climb back up to ride some more. You'll go on short rations and tighten your belt and suck on a pebble because you had no water. You won't enjoy it. No one does."
Angering, Cloud said, "I've fought Indians before, and I ain't huntin' no glory! What I did here today I did because it looked like the only thing."
Barcroft said gruffly, "It might have been better if you hadn't. Those Indians didn't know how close we were. If they'd stayed here a while longer, we would have caught up with them. We could have wiped them out. As it was, you ran them off. They'll be hard to catch now."
Lige Moseley's face flushed red. He shoved into the exchange. "Sure, you might've caught them. But it might've been a shade late for me and my family. Besides, between us we dropped three of them, and Cloud scattered their horses. What the hell else you want?"
Barcroft eyed him coldly. "I didn't ask you, but now that you've spoken out, I'll tell you something. You're a fool even to be here. You're miles from any kind of help. Your very presence is a temptation to any stray band of braves that passes through."
"It's a free country. I can settle where I want to."
With bitterness Barcroft said, "And endanger that family of yours? No man's got a right to do that. You load up and move back to where it's safer."
Moseley said, "I been stopped a few times, Captain, but I ain't never been pushed back. I don't start now. Not for the Comanches and not for you!"
Moseley's family had stepped out and stood lined up behind him now. Barcroft looked at them. Particularly he looked at Mrs. Moseley and at the little girls. Cloud thought he could see pain in the captain's eyes.
Barcroft shrugged. "I can't force you, Moseley. I would, if I had the right. If you don't move back, you're a fool. Too many men have gone off to war. Too many families have pulled back to safer ground. Don't you know those who stay will be a better target than they've ever been before? You're staying because of pride, and pride can be a good thing in its place. But look at your womenfolks, your kids, and ask yourself which you value the mostyour pride or their lives."
Moseley said, "You got a family, Captain?"
Barcroft was slow in answering. His voice dropped a little. "No ... no family."
"Then how can you tell me what's best for mine?"
Barcroft said, "I know, Moseley. Believe me, I know too well."
He pulled his horse back. "Come on, Cloud, if you're joining up with us. We'll catch fresh horses out of that timber and go on after the Indians."
Cloud said, "Right, sir." He started to salute, but he didn't know for sure how proper it would be. He'd never been in a military outfit before. He let the salute drop, and Barcroft didn't seem to notice.
Cloud paused a moment to shake Moseley's hand. "Take care of yourself, Lige. And maybe you ought to think over what the captain said. Sure, he's an educated feller, but it sounds to me like he makes sense."
"I ain't movin'," Moseley spoke calmly. "Anytime you're ridin' through, you'll find us here. Be sure you stop; we'll be tickled to see you." He glanced back at his daughter. "And don't forget what I told you about a man needin' a good woman."
"I won't forget," Cloud promised. He swung into his saddle and found Captain Barcroft already leading out. Cloud fell in at the rear of the company and looked back once, waving his hand.
The girl Samantha waved back.
Copyright © 1960 by Elmer Kelton
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Exciting read, Kelton takes you back again to the old wast era, you feel the thurst, taste the dirt and dust and know the indians are behind you coming fast.