Mountain man Trace McCall has seen enough of “civilization” to be content with a simple existence living off the land. He keeps mostly to himself—except for visiting with pretty neighbor Jamie Tresh and occasionally crossing paths with the local Blackfeet tribe.
But forces beyond his control are about to put Trace’s peaceful life on the line.
Trouble starts when he decides to help some homesteaders make their way to Fort Bridger. The journey puts Trace on the wrong side of two violent men—and a group of renegade Blackfeet on a murderous mission. Then he finds out Jamie’s been abducted—possibly sold into slavery, or worse. Now it’s kill or be killed as Trace’s pursuit of the kidnappers leads him ever deeper into danger among warring Indian factions and hostile white men in the world he’d hoped to leave behind…
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The Jason Coles Series
The Trace McCall Series
Cry of the Hawk
Trace did not move as the warrior passed the crevice where he sat. The Blackfoot was no more than twenty feet below him now, and Trace could plainly see the young brave’s face, his forehead and cheeks painted black with white stripes like lightning flashes at his temples. He was armed with bow, axe, and lance. Good, Trace thought, he passed right by. But it was not to be. In no more than a few seconds, the Indian reappeared at the opening in the rock.
Startled to see Trace calmly sitting there above him, the warrior hesitated, his eyes wide and wild. He raised his lance over his head, ready to attack—fearful that the man before him might suddenly turn into a hawk and fly—but still he did not release his weapon.
Seeing his hesitation, Trace did not move. His rifle lay on the rock beside him, the barrel pointed at the warrior, his hand resting on the trigger guard. When the warrior appeared to make up his mind to act, Trace spoke. “I am not your enemy. Why do you attack me?”
Taken aback, the Blackfoot continued to stand ready to strike. After a moment’s pause, he asked, “Are you the Mountain Hawk?”
“I am a man, trying to live in peace,” Trace answered.
“You are the Mountain Hawk.” This time it was not a question. “The man who kills you takes your medicine. . . .”
Charles G. West
Table of Contents
How can this evil spirit be allowed to remain in these mountains? This was the question that bothered Two Horses. This country belonged to the Blackfeet, and no outsider had any right to be here—no matter if he was man or spirit. When Broken Wing’s crumpled body was found at the base of a cliff, Two Horses made up his mind. He would avenge his friend’s death.
No man in Little Bull’s camp was as powerful as Two Horses. He had killed eight enemies before reaching the age of twenty summers. Now he was at the age of twenty-five, and no warrior had counted as many coups as he. And no man among them hated the white man more than he. Two warriors had been killed already this summer by the white devil who had come to nest on the upper slopes; the most recent death had been that of his best friend. Two Horses clenched his fist in anger when he recalled the battered body of Broken Wing.
Knowing that he would be facing the most powerful enemy of his life, Two Horses began careful preparations for his quest. He fasted for three days, then rode into the hills to meditate and seek spiritual guidance. Satisfied that his medicine was strong, he then nourished his body to regain his strength. Next, he sought the advice of those who were respected in the village. Medicine Horse, one of the elders, talked at length about the white man the Blackfeet had given the name of Mountain Hawk. It had been his belief, when the stranger was sighted by members of a hunting party in early summer, that he was no more than a mortal white man—a trapper perhaps—who chose to live in the high country. Now he was not so sure. Little Bull himself had been with a later hunting party when he spotted the stranger, and it was Little Bull who had discovered the spiritual powers of the white man. “It is a brave quest you have chosen for yourself,” Medicine Horse said. “But you must be wary of his guile. If you kill this Mountain Hawk, you will take his power—and that would be a great thing.” Before they parted, Medicine Horse advised Two Horses to seek Little Bull’s counsel, since he was one who had witnessed Mountain Hawk’s transformation.
Little Bull was not surprised when told of the plan of Two Horses to avenge his friend’s death. Broken Wing and Two Horses had been the closest of friends since they were small boys. Like Medicine Horse, Little Bull advised Two Horses to exercise great caution in stalking the lone white man. “Shoot him if you can before he sees you. If you cannot, if you have to fight him hand to hand, you must hold on to him very tightly so he can’t turn into a hawk and escape.”
Two Horses listened carefully to his chief’s counsel. What he said was good advice—the safest thing to do would be to kill Mountain Hawk with a rifle ball from a distance. But there would be much greater honor in killing this white man with hand weapons. And Two Horses was confident that no man was a match for his own physical strength. Nevertheless, he thanked Little Bull for his words of advice. After all, the chief was one of only a few men who had witnessed the medicine of the Mountain Hawk. Although no one had seen the actual transformation as it was taking place, there was no reason to doubt it had happened. The white man was sighted on a rocky cliff above them. They immediately set out to capture him, but when they climbed up to the cliff, there was no sign that anyone had been there. Standing on the brow of the cliff, Little Bull looked up to see a hawk circling high above. Though they looked carefully around them, they could not discover any way the man could have escaped. This was sign enough for Little Bull to assume that the man they had seen was, in fact, a spirit who had turned into a hawk when he saw them approaching.
The sun was barely peeking through the tall pines that ringed the slopes to the east when Two Horses rode out of the village. His face was painted with his favored designs of jagged lightning bolts, as was his war pony. Medicine Horse stood before his lodge and nodded solemnly to the young warrior as he rode by. Two Horses, confident in his mission, returned the greeting with a single nod of his head, gently kicked his pony into a canter, and headed toward the mountains.
* * *
Trace McCall sat quietly watching the progress of the lone warrior making his way cautiously up through the boulders and random patches of bear grass. He was a powerfully built young brave, scaling the steep slope with apparent ease after leaving his pony in a grassy meadow below. As Trace watched, the warrior paused and listened, then seemed to be testing the wind, like a coyote sniffing, searching for prey. The warrior started climbing again, through the stunted pines that had been formed into twisted shapes by the strong winds that swept the higher ridges. Blackfoot, he thought, the third one this month, coming to make a name for himself.
Trace had a notion what had started it all, but he still found it puzzling that it had developed into such a big deal to the Blackfoot tribe. Some folks, Buck Ransom for one, would say Trace was crazy to make his summer camp in the middle of Blackfoot country. Trace did not discount the danger there, but he had confidence in his ability to hang on to his scalp. To further ensure his safety, he made his camps high up in the mountains, coming down only occasionally to hunt.
He was sure that he had been seen on one of his trips to the lower elevations, alerting the Blackfeet to his presence in their land. While following an elk down through a mountain meadow, he happened upon a small hunting party working their way up to the higher elevations. He was not aware of their presence until he walked out onto a rocky ledge, trying to spot the elk. He and the Indians saw each other at the same time, too late to hide, so they stood gazing at each other for several long moments before the Blackfeet sprang into action and rushed to give chase. Trace was forced to give up his elk and disappear into the rocky cliffs above. Even though his presence in their country was now known, he was still reluctant to leave these mountain heights that filled his soul with awe and reverence for the hand that made them. At this point in his young life, Trace desperately needed the pure solitude that the mountains offered. And he intended to stay until the coming winter dictated a move to warmer climes.
What he could not know was that he had been spotted at a distance several times by the sharp-eyed Blackfoot hunters. Yet when they tried to track him they could find no trail. It was as if he had taken wings and flown away. Being a highly superstitious people, they soon created a legend about the man who dwelled high up in the mountains.
Trace had no notion that he was known to the Blackfoot tribe as the Mountain Hawk. What he was aware of, however, was that there seemed to be some big medicine to be gained by the warrior who was successful in finding him and bringing back his scalp—a thought that brought his focus back to the warrior now picking his way slowly across an open area of loose shale and gravel. Trace hoped the warrior would not discover the narrow slash in the rocks where he sat watching. He had no desire to take another young warrior’s life. The first two had given him no choice. If the Blackfoot did find him, perhaps he could talk some sense into this one.
Trace did not move as the warrior passed the crevice where he sat. He was no more than twenty feet below him now, and Trace could plainly see the young brave’s face, his forehead and cheeks painted black with white stripes like lightning flashes at his temples. He was armed with bow, axe, and lance. Good, Trace thought, he passed right by. But it was not to be. In no more than a few seconds, the Indian reappeared at the opening in the rock.
Startled to see Trace calmly sitting there above him, the warrior hesitated, his eyes wide and wild. He raised his lance over his head, ready to attack—fearful that the man before him might suddenly turn into a hawk and fly off—but still he did not release it.
Seeing his hesitation, Trace did not move. His rifle lay on the rock beside him, the barrel pointed at the warrior, his hand resting on the trigger guard. When the warrior appeared to make up his mind to act, Trace spoke. “I am not your enemy. Why do you attack me?”
Taken aback, the Blackfoot stood ready to strike. After a moment’s pause, he asked, “Are you the Mountain Hawk?”
“I am a man, trying to live in peace,” Trace answered.
“You are the Mountain Hawk.” This time it was not a question. “The man who kills you takes your medicine.”
Their gazes locked, and they stared at each other for a long moment. Trace was about to try once more to reason with the warrior when the Blackfoot suddenly cast the lance. Trace’s reaction was lightning-fast, but his aim was thrown off. The Hawken barked, sending a lead ball whistling past the charging warrior’s head. In an instant, the Blackfoot was upon him, and it was all Trace could do to avoid the war axe as it crashed down, bouncing off the boulder behind his head and dropping into a crevice in the rocks. Unfazed, the Brave unsheathed a hunting knife. The battle was joined as each man strained to overpower the other. It took all of Trace’s strength to hold Two Horses’ knife hand, but gradually he forced the warrior’s arm back until he was able to shove him backward toward the narrow ledge. As the Blackfoot regained his balance and braced to charge again, Trace was able to draw his own knife and set himself to meet the assault.
Once again they clashed, slamming their bodies together like two mountain rams, struggling to wrench a hand free for a fatal thrust. Face-to-face, each man looked deep into the other’s eyes, measuring the courage there. And Two Horses, reading the stony gaze of the mountain man, suddenly experienced his first misgivings that he might have underestimated the power of his enemy. In a desperate lunge, he managed to free himself and step back, swinging wildly in an attempt to slash Trace’s ribs. Trace easily stepped to the side, at the same time coming up under Two Horses’ arm with his long Green River knife. The Blackfoot grunted as the blade of Trace’s knife sank deep under his breastplate. A look of shock and startled disbelief glazed Two Horses’ eyes as he tried to back away from the knife. Trace stepped with him, forcing the knife in as deep as it would go.
Suddenly the strength left Two Horses’ knees and he began to sag. Still, he courageously tried to strike out again with his knife. Trace easily blocked the thrust, trapping Two Horses’ wrist in his powerful grip, and held the Blackfoot until the remaining strength drained from him. Then, supporting the Indian’s body with the knife in his gut, he backed him to the ledge and with one sudden shove hurled his body down the mountainside. Tumbling over and over down the steep slope, Two Horses came to rest some fifty yards below, against a stunted pine.
“A damn waste,” Trace said. He stood there for several minutes longer, looking at the corpse lodged below him on the scrub pine. This one had gotten too close. Trace’s camp and his horses were only a quarter of a mile below, on the other side of the mountain. Perhaps it was time to move on anyway, for the cold weather would soon be here. He admired the beauty of this place, but it was difficult to decide if he would come back in the spring, since the Blackfeet had made him a legend. He had no desire to be a Blackfoot legend.
There were no further encounters with ambitious Blackfoot warriors over the next few weeks, but it was because the Indians who came in search of the Mountain Hawk did not venture near his camp. However, they still searched for him—he sighted at least one every day or two—so Trace finally decided to leave his camp high up in the ridges and head down past the Absarokas, to the Wind River Range, maybe go on down to Fort Laramie if the notion struck him. He had some plews to trade, and he could use some powder and lead for his Hawken rifle. Then, too, his supply of coffee beans had long since been depleted. Having spent four years of his life living with a band of Crow Indians, he got along just fine without flour, baking soda, sugar, and other staples that most trappers craved. But he did miss his coffee. If it was necessary, however, Trace could be content living without most civilized conveniences. With his bow and knife—along with a flint and steel—he could not only survive but prosper, using only what nature provided.
After three days of following an old hunting trail, he put the Absarokas behind him and struck the Wind River, constantly alert for signs of Indian hunting parties. This time of year there was generally a great deal of activity among the tribes. It was the end of summer, and the Sioux and Cheyenne were at war with almost every tribe in the area. A white man was smart to stay out of the way of all of them—even the Crows, whom Trace had lived with. He wasn’t quite sure what his reception might be if he paid a visit to his old village, since he had chosen to leave the Crows and throw in with the likes of trappers Buck Ransom and Frank Brown. He often thought of his boyhood friend Black Wing and his father, Buffalo Shield. The years Trace spent with them were not unhappy years, and he hoped that he was still considered a friend in Red Blanket’s village.
Following the river, he made his way in a leisurely fashion toward South Pass, stopping to hunt when he felt the need, resting the horses frequently. He crossed a wide coulee that was now dry and was about to climb the other side when his eye caught a movement on the horizon. Trace immediately pulled his Indian pony up short and strained to identify the travelers. Because of the distance between them, however, it was difficult to determine if it was a hunting party or a war party—but whichever, it was not a large group.
Turning the paint, he rode down toward the river, using the side of the coulee as cover until he reached the trees that lined the river. Then he continued on a course that would intercept the party. When he was close enough to get a better look at what manner of travelers he had discovered, he couldn’t believe his eyes. It was not an Indian party at all. It was a wagon, pulled by a team of six mules, flanked by two riders. “What in hell are they doing up this way?” he muttered. Pilgrims, he thought, and as lost as a pilgrim can get.
It made little sense to Trace for a wagon even to be trying to cross this country. They were almost to the confluence of the Wind River and the Big Horn. If they were looking for South Pass and the trail to California, they had sure as hell missed it. And if they continued in the direction they were heading, they would end up staring at a mountain they couldn’t get over.
Trace prodded the paint to a faster gait so he could intercept the wagon as it entered a treeless ravine that led from the flat down to the river bottom. After about a fifteen-minute ride, he came to the head of the ravine, where he could watch the pilgrims from above as they followed the ravine down to the river. There was no need to expose himself until he got a closer look at who it was he was about to meet. So he sat on his horse and patiently waited for the wagon to approach.
When the party finally entered the ravine and ambled slowly by below him, wagon wheels creaking in protest to the rough floor of the gully and pots and pans clanging noisily as the wagon lurched to and fro, Trace shook his head in amazement. There were two men on the seat, father and son, it appeared, with a woman and a little girl in the back. Typical, he thought. What was not typical, however, were the two riders that had flanked the wagon until it descended into the draw. As Trace watched, they fell behind, apparently conferring about something. It was the look of the two that troubled Trace. Even at that distance, he could sense something strange about them. Trace dismounted and carefully made his way to the edge of the ravine, where he crawled up behind a screen of brush. Unseen by the travelers, he could plainly hear the conversation between one of the men and the woman behind him in the wagon.
“Paul, there’s no trail here,” the wife complained, “I don’t think they know where we’re going.”
Her husband didn’t answer right away. He had constantly reassured his wife and son that the two men who had so graciously offered to guide them to Fort Bridger knew the country. But now he began to have doubts himself. Until that morning, they had followed a well-traveled trail with evidence that countless wagons had passed that way before. But when they broke camp that morning, their guides had led them in a more northerly direction, away from the beaten track—a shortcut, they assured him, that would save them a full day’s travel. They were late for their rendezvous with the main party as it was, so a day’s time saved would be welcome. But now he began to share his wife’s suspicions, especially when he looked at the mountains before them, standing like giant, impenetrable palisades. There was no sign that anyone had ever traveled this way before, and the rough terrain threatened to tear his wagon apart. Their guides had promised that the trail would become smoother a few miles ahead, but he feared he might bust a wheel before they reached better ground. The wagon was in sore need of repair as it was, and he had been anxious to reach Fort Bridger to get the work done.
Finally he answered his wife’s troubled comment. “I don’t know, Martha. Mr. Plum told me this shortcut would save us at least a day, but it don’t look to me like this trail leads anywhere. We’ll stop at the river to water the mules—I’ll talk to ’em about it then.” He lowered his voice and threw an aside to his son. “William, why don’t you ease back in the wagon, and make sure those rifles are loaded and handy? This thing is beginning to smell a little like trouble. We’d do well to be prepared for some funny business.” He glanced back to see his wife’s troubled expression, and said, “Now, there ain’t nothing to worry about. It just pays to be cautious, that’s all.”
A dozen feet above them, Trace heard every word of the conversation clearly. Now he knew why he had sensed something wrong about the two guides following along behind the wagon. The one word that had alerted him was the name Plum. For now he recognized the two baleful-looking blackhearts with the family—not by sight, because he had never come face-to-face with either of them before, but by a reputation earned by a long history of double-dealing. Plum and Crown—the two renegades were said to be raiding with a band of Blackfeet, and Trace could only wonder what business they had with this family of emigrants. Well, we’ll soon find out, he thought as he moved slowly away from the edge of the ravine and returned to his horses.
Jack Plum, vicious as a wolf, was also as wary as a fox. He did not miss young William’s quick move into the bed of the wagon. “Best watch yourself, Crown,” he warned softly. “That young pup might be up to somethin’ back there. Might be they’s gittin’ a little suspicious.”
Crown grunted contemptuously, then replied, “Won’t do ’em much good if they are, will it?” He failed to see much threat from the boy and his father. His mind was already thinking beyond the murders they were about to commit. “Remember, Plum, I fancy the girl for myself.”
“I said you could have her,” Plum shot back. While he might amuse himself with the child’s mother for a while before he killed her, Plum was more interested in the load of supplies Paul Murdock had in his wagon. Plum’s taste in women ran toward younger girls, but only Crown was sick enough to lust after children.
Paul Murdock guided his team of mules through a stand of trees near the river and hopped down from the wagon seat, his rifle in his hand. William followed close behind his father, also carrying his rifle. Riding up to the wagon, Plum and Crown exchanged cautious glances, both noticing that father and son were armed. Their caution irritated Plum, as he had planned a simple slaughter, with Murdock and his son unsuspecting victims. Now he had to try to put them at ease again.
“It’s been a little rough,” Plum said, trying his best to convey a cheerful tone, “but it’ll be like riding the streets of St. Louis after we cross the river.” He swung a leg over and dismounted. Being as obvious as he could, he walked over and propped his rifle against the wagon, then moved back beside his horse. “We’ll be eating supper at Fort Bridger tomorrow. That’d be all right, wouldn’t it, missy?” He gave Murdock’s daughter a playful wink. The little girl responded with a slight smile of embarrassment.
“Mr. Plum,” Paul Murdock said, his face a mask of serious concern, “I’m not so certain that we’re on the right trail. You say we have to cross the river here? Seems to me Fort Bridger oughta be yonder way.” He pointed toward the southwest.
Plum strained to maintain his cheerful facade. You dumb-ass farmer, it’s the right trail, all right, and it’s gonna lead you straight to hell. But to Murdock, he said, “Oh, yes, sir. It’s the right trail, all right. You’re right, Bridger is yonder way. When we cross the river, we’ll pick up a trail on the other side of them hills ahead that cuts right back toward Bridger. Be there tomorrow for supper. Ain’t that right, Crown?”
Crown’s response was a slight curling of one side of his mouth, forming a sinister grin. Unnoticed by Murdock or his son, Crown had casually moved over near the back of the wagon to a position that placed him off of young William’s right shoulder. His eyes shifted constantly from Plum to William and back, with an occasional glance at Murdock’s twelve-year-old daughter.
Murdock was not convinced. He caught his wife’s worried eye and knew that she was trying to signal her lack of confidence in Plum’s word. More than ever, he began to suspect that he had led his family into danger, and he was not sure if he could extricate them peacefully. The one thing he was convinced of, however, was that he would not follow these two wild mountain men any farther into the wilderness. “Well, Mr. Plum,” he began, “we’re much obliged to you and Mr. Crown for guiding us this far. But my wife and I have decided to turn around and go back.”
Noticing that Crown had eased himself around almost behind William’s back, Plum smiled and said, “Well, now, that don’t make no sense a’tall.” His hand came casually to rest on the butt of one of two pistols stuck in his belt.
“It damn sure makes sense to me.” The voice came from behind Crown, causing him to jump. All heads turned as one to discover Trace McCall, standing easy, his Hawken rifle cradled across his arms with the casual confidence of a mountain lion.
“Where the hell did you come from?” Crown demanded.
Trace ignored him. “Where are you bound for, mister?” he addressed Paul Murdock.
This stranger was as wild-looking as Plum and Crown, but Murdock sensed an absence of the treachery that Plum and Crown reeked of. “Fort Bridger,” he immediately volunteered.
William, realizing that Crown had gotten behind his back before the stranger startled them all, turned now toward Plum’s sinister partner, his rifle in hand. Father and son stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the two renegade mountain men. Plum, though angry as hell, was smart enough to know the odds had just shifted Murdock’s way. He held his tongue while he and Trace eyed each other like two rogue wolves. Plum didn’t like what he saw in the tall young hunter dressed in animal skins. He carried a bow as well as a rifle and gave the distinct impression that he knew how to use them.
Talking to Paul Murdock, his eyes never leaving Plum, Trace asked, “Are these two your guides?”
“We run up on them after leaving Fort Laramie. They said they were going to Fort Bridger, so they offered to travel with us and show us the way.” Murdock looked nervously at Plum while he talked. It never occurred to him to question this stranger’s authority to interrogate him.
“Bridger, huh?” Trace cast an accusing eye in Plum’s direction. “Well, mister, the company you keep is your business, but if Fort Bridger is where you’re headin’, you picked a sorry pair of guides. You’re about a half a day too far north now, and if you keep going in this direction, you ain’t ever gonna see Fort Bridger.”
Plum felt the bile rise in his throat, but he fought to keep his anger from showing on his face. Forcing a smile, he said, “Mister, you’ve took a mighty harsh tone here. Me and Crown here was just doin’ our best to help these people. We’re lookin’ for a shortcut a feller told us about.”
It was all too obvious to Trace what these two scoundrels were about. He had little patience for men who preyed on the greenhorns who ventured west in search of a new life. “Is that a fact?” Trace replied, looking Plum straight in the eye. “Well, mister, you’re either a liar or just plain stupid. A blind man oughta be able to lead a party over South Pass to Fort Bridger.” Anger flashed in Plum’s eyes, and his hand tightened on the butt of his pistol. Trace did not move, but he warned in a soft and deadly voice, “I’ve already figured you for a liar. Now if you want to prove you’re stupid, too, go ahead and pull that pistol.”
Plum’s body went rigid, his hand still gripping the handle of his pistol. One glance at Crown told him that his partner was not comfortable with the odds facing the two of them. Both Murdock and his son had raised their rifles and stood ready to fire. Plum could feel the flames of frustration and anger consuming his insides, and he knew he had lost his opportunity to capture this wagonload of plunder. Knowing he was beaten but reluctant to admit it, he continued to stand there, glaring defiantly at the tall mountain man, who returned his glare with cool, clear eyes that knew no fear. At that moment it crossed Plum’s mind that this formidable figure standing firmly before him might be the one that the foolish Blackfeet called the Mountain Hawk. The thought made Plum even more irate, but he knew he would be flirting with death if he made a move. Finally he surrendered.
“Well, mister—whoever the hell you are—them’s pretty harsh words to use on two honest fellers trying to do a good turn for these folks.” He motioned with his head for Crown to back away, then spoke to Murdock. “Mr. Murdock, I’m sorry to see you side with a total stranger when me and Crown has gone outta our way to give you folks a hand.” He removed his hand from his pistol, held both hands up in front of him, palms out, and slowly backed toward his horse. “But we’ll take our leave now with no hard feelin’s—nobody’s got hurt. We’ll just be on our way.”
Plum and Crown climbed into the saddle, both men keeping a cautious eye on the three facing them, and slowly backed their horses away from the wagon. When they were some twenty yards away, they turned and galloped off toward the north.
Paul Murdock exhaled noisily and put his rifle down. “Mister,” he said, extending his hand, “I’m sure glad you came along when you did. I’m Paul Murdock. This is my wife, Martha. Over there’s my son, William, and that skinny little towhead is Beth.”
Trace accepted Paul’s hand and shook it. “Trace McCall,” he replied and nodded to Martha Murdock. “Ma’am.” Turning back to her husband, he said, “I wouldn’t advise you to camp here. There’s still plenty of daylight left, so you’ve got plenty of time to find another spot.” Murdock didn’t reply at once. Instead, he stood with his hands on his hips, looking back the way he had come and then out toward the southwest, where he imagined Fort Bridger to be. Trace could see that the man couldn’t decide which way to start out, so he said, “Go back the way you came and pick a camping spot near the river somewhere. I’ll be along directly—I want to make sure those two polecats don’t decide to double back.” He walked back through the trees along the riverbank to retrieve his horses.
When he returned, he paused again at the wagon. Looking down at Paul Murdock, he answered the worried man’s unspoken question. “You can’t drive that wagon straight through the mountains—there’s no way over them. You’ll have to go back and pick up the trail to South Pass.” Reading the concern in Murdock’s eyes, he added, “I’ll take you to Fort Bridger when I catch up with you.”
Murdock was visibly relieved, even more so when Trace tied his packhorse behind the wagon.
“Yes, sir, Mr. McCall,” Murdock said cheerfully as Trace gave the paint a gentle kick with his heels. “How will you know where we camped?” he called out.
“I’ll find you,” Trace called back.
There had been more than a few tales told about Jack Plum and his sadistic partner, Crown. Trace figured that if half of them were true, it was enough to make a man watch his back. To be safe, he wanted to see for himself that the two renegades were not circling around to bushwhack Murdock’s family. If Trace could have had firsthand knowledge that the grisly stories he had heard about Plum’s raids with the Blackfeet were true, he might have considered executing the pair when he’d had the chance. But since he didn’t cotton to the role of executioner, he would content himself with the knowledge that Plum and Crown were no longer in the area.
He had ridden no farther than three miles when their trail led off to the west and down to the river again. Trace circled into the trees and made his way carefully along the bank until he sighted the two of them standing near the water’s edge. They appeared to be arguing.
“Dammit, I say we oughta go back and kill that son of a bitch,” Plum fumed. The more he had thought about being driven off by Trace, the more livid he’d become.
Crown, who had long ago become a devout practitioner of the art of back-shooting, was not as eager to tangle with the tall mountain man who had suddenly materialized behind them at the wagon. Crown preferred longer odds in his own favor, and this stranger looked to be extremely dangerous. To be sure, Crown would have loved to get a clear shot between the man’s shoulder blades. But somehow he got the feeling that it would be difficult to catch Trace with his back turned.
“Well?” Plum demanded when Crown made no response to his ranting. “Are we gonna let him have that wagon to hisself?”
“I reckon it’s better’n havin’ to shoot it out agin three of ’em,” Crown calmly replied. If Plum was hoping to appeal to Crown’s pride, he was wasting his time. Crown had no more pride than a coyote.
“Damn you, Crown. You ain’t worth the powder it’d take to blow you to hell. I’m goin’ back to settle with that bastard.”
Crown stared at Plum with eyes as devoid of expression as a corpse’s. He didn’t like Plum—he didn’t particularly like anyone—but Plum was in tight with the Blackfoot chief, and so it was to Crown’s benefit to partner with him. One of these days I might be lookin’ down a rifle barrel at your shoulder blades, he thought. “All right, Plum,” he said, “we’ll go back and take a look.”
Leading his horse back through the willows that lined the bank of the river, Plum heard the distinct call of a sage thrasher in the trees to his right. It registered in his brain, but he gave it no importance. Less than a minute passed before he heard an answering call, but this time it seemed to come from a position to his left. He stopped dead still. Looking back, he saw that Crown had also stopped in his tracks, listening. They had ridden on too many Blackfoot war parties to ignore such obvious signals.
“See anything?” Plum whispered.
“Not a damn thing,” Crown replied. “I think they’re on two sides of us.”
“Damn!” Plum spat as he took a few steps toward a large cottonwood. Using it as cover, he strained to see through the trees around them. “Maybe it ain’t nothin’ but birds,” he said, moments before an arrow smacked into the tree trunk beside his head. “Let’s git outta here!” he yelled and leaped upon his horse.
Crown was already in the saddle, hightailing it back toward the river. Plum galloped right on Crown’s heels. Into the shallow water they plunged, kicking their mounts violently. When they reached the far side, they didn’t hesitate for an instant but escaped into the hills. Back by the river, Trace walked over to the cottonwood and pulled his arrow out of the trunk, satisfied that he had seen the last of Plum and Crown.
* * *
“Evening, Mr. Murdock.” The voice came from out of the dark, directly behind Paul Murdock, causing him to jump, his coffee sloshing over the sides of his cup.
Gathering his wits as quickly as possible, Paul swallowed hard trying to get his heart out of his throat. “Glory be, man, you scared the life outta me!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,” Trace said. He honestly had no intention of startling the man, he just naturally moved quietly.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Paul hurriedly repeated, genuinely relieved to see the tall mountain man again.
A short time later, Trace sat by the fire and watched Martha Murdock as she prepared the dough for pan biscuits. It had been a long time since Trace had been able to watch a white woman as she worked at a cookfire, and he was fascinated by the efficient manner in which she went about making supper. It was simple fare, to be sure—biscuits, beans, and gravy made from the antelope meat Trace had provided—but to him it seemed a banquet. Making it especially satisfying for Trace was the coffee, made from roasted beans ground in a wooden coffee grinder, instead of green beans pounded between two stones, the way Trace usually made coffee.
“Here you are, Mr. McCall,” Martha sang out cheerfully as she handed Trace a plate. “I’m going to let you get started while we wait for the biscuits.”
Trace nodded and mumbled his thanks, suddenly embarrassed to be the focus of the Murdock family’s attention. Paul Murdock, especially, realized that this rangy, sandy-headed mountain man had undoubtedly saved them from losing all their earthly possessions and possibly their lives. As a result of the family’s appreciation, Trace found one or all of them constantly eyeballing his every move.
Taking a big bite of the antelope shoulder, he started to chew, then hesitated with his mouth full of meat when he suddenly remembered his manners. When Paul and William were served and had sat down beside the fire, Trace finished chewing and swallowed. “Can’t remember when last I’ve had biscuits,” he offered as conversation, eyeing the pan of them baking in the coals at the edge of the fire.
Martha stood behind him, watching the men eat. “Well, they won’t be anything like my biscuits baked in a good oven,” she replied, “but I don’t reckon they’ll kill you.”
Paul Murdock grinned at their guest, openly proud of his wife’s cooking. He reached over and gave his daughter a playful pinch on the cheek. “This’un’s gonna be as good a cook as her mama. Ain’t you, darlin’?” he said, laughing as Beth pulled away from him.
This man’s got himself a fine family, Trace thought, letting his mind fantasize about the possibility that he might someday have a family of his own.
As if reading his thoughts, Martha asked, “Do you have a family, Mr. McCall?”
“Ah, no, ma’am,” Trace replied, but his thoughts went immediately to a slip of a girl in Promise Valley. Jamie Thrash might be baking biscuits for her pa right now. He remembered the last conversation he’d had with her before he loaded his supplies on his packhorse and rode out of the valley in the early summer. Jamie had broadly hinted that he was going to have to settle down one day and end his love affair with the mountains. And she made it plain without actually spelling it out that she cared enough for him to wait until he got the mountains out of his system. It made him uncomfortable every time he thought about it. He admitted to having special feelings for Jamie, but it wasn’t the same as the way he had felt about a little Snake maiden who was somewhere with her people in the high country. Sometimes he wished he did care for Jamie enough to marry her, but the fact was, he didn’t.
He quickly put these worrisome thoughts out of his mind. “Where’d you folks come from?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Illinois,” Paul answered. “Springfield.”
Needing no further encouragement, he began an accounting of their journey up to that time, and where they planned to settle in the West. “We didn’t have anything holding us in Illinois. I was working six days a week in a sawmill for four dollars a week and trying to raise enough to feed my family on a little thirty-two-acre farm my father left me. When I heard that these two fellows in Springfield—brothers they were—Jacob and George Donner, were organizing a wagon train for California, why, me and the missus didn’t have to study on it very long. We were as ready to go as a body can be. Sold my farm to my brother, and we joined up with the Donners.”
“These brothers,” Trace asked, “they had been to California before?”
“I don’t know—I reckon—they sent us a guidebook on how to get there.” Paul turned to his son. “William, fetch me the book, son. I wanna show it to Mr. McCall.” While William hopped up into the wagon to get the book, Paul continued. “The book tells you how to get out to Fort Bridger, where this fellow Hastings is gonna lead us to California.” He paused to take the book from William, and he passed it over to Trace.
Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, by Lansford W. Hastings, Trace read across the front cover of the book before flipping through the pages. He nodded soberly as he glanced at the passages, stopping briefly to study the crude maps, trying to appear interested while marveling to himself that anyone would start out to cross the continent with nothing for a guide but a book. He glanced up at Murdock and said, “It’s getting on a mite late in the summer to be starting out to cross the mountains. That is, if you wanna get over ’em before it snows.”
Paul nodded but rushed to add, “That’s the reason I’m in a hurry to get to Fort Bridger. I’ve got to catch up to the rest of the party.”
“How’d you get behind?”
“Hard luck,” Paul replied. “We’ve had our share of trouble ever since we left Grand Island on the Platte. We had a devil of a time crossing all the swollen branches of that river. I broke a wheel on a rock under the water—patched it up as best I could, but it didn’t hold, and we had to drop out of line. I got the wheel fixed near Julesburg and we started out again, only this time, we didn’t make it to Fort Laramie before we bent an axle. They left a message for us at Laramie to catch up as fast as we could because it was already getting late in the summer.”
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I wasn't thrilled with this book. I think the Author was enjoying the though of beating a woman almost to death, only to bring her back and beat her over and over again, and at the end she was fine with it. He even got quite sadistic with it all. If you like the thought of beating a woman to death then this is the book for you!!