No good deed goes unpunished…
Clint Cooper, the easy-going foreman of the Double-V-Bar Ranch, expects little in return for his labor other than the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. So when Sioux raiders descend on Yellowstone Valley, threatening not only the livestock, but also the locals, it’s no surprise when Clint goes above and beyond to protect his folk and his livelihood—joining with soldiers from neighboring Fort Keogh to hunt the Sioux down.
But while most people are impressed with Clint’s tracking skills and gunwork, not everyone is singing his praises. The crooked lawmen from the nearby town of Miles City have an agenda of their own, and Clint stands in the way. They want him out of commission—for good. As they try to turn the army and townspeople against him, Clint may find himself fighting against the very men whose lives he just saved….
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.60(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Charles G. West lives in Ocala, Florida. His fascination with and respect for the pioneers who braved the wild frontier of the great American West inspire him to devote his full time to writing historical novels.
Read an Excerpt
PLAYING THE FOOL
Clint Cooper squatted on his heels and picked up a piece of charred bone, which he used to poke around in the remains of a slaughtered steer. His close inspection wasn’t really necessary, because it was obviously not the work of wolves or coyotes. Those predators did not usually build a fire to cook the meat. This was the second carcass he had found in the last few days, and moccasin prints around the kill told him that it was done by a small party of Indians.
The question in his mind was whether or not it was the same raiding party that hit a small ranch eight miles east of the Double-V-Bar Ranch two days before. Leonard Sample, his wife, and two sons were killed in the raid, their mutilated bodies found by their neighbor to the east of them. It was the first attack by an Indian war party in quite some time, at least since the construction of Fort Keogh. Every rancher on the south side of the Yellowstone suffered the loss of a cow now and then from small parties of Indians around this time of year when game was difficult to come by. Usually it was of no real concern as long as it wasn’t allowed to get out of control. But the savage attack on the Sample Ranch was enough to cause serious worry throughout the territory.
The signs he was reading now turned up no small footprints, which indicated that the slaughter wasn’t done by a party with women and children, as the first killing had been. This killing was recent—recent enough for him to be able to possibly track down the guilty parties. Clint’s boss, Randolph Valentine, was not likely to miss one or two stolen cows from his herd of over fifteen hundred, so Clint had been inclined to overlook the first steer slaughtered by a party of hungry Indians. But two in a week’s time was cause for concern, especially after the murder of the Sample family.
At first, Clint frowned when he thought about tracking down what he had imagined to be a small group of starving Indians, still resisting the government’s orders to return to the reservation. But the winters were hard in Montana Territory. A good many of the trail-hardened longhorns from Texas were lost each year to natural predators, and it was part of Clint’s responsibilities as Randolph Valentine’s top hand to see that the number lost was held to a minimum.
Before these two incidents, the raiding of the herds had really not been bad, mostly because the army had built a fort on the south bank of the Yellowstone at the confluence of that river with the Tongue. Originally known as the Tongue River Barracks, Fort Keogh was only about five miles from the Double-V-Bar. Its purpose was to protect settlers from hostile Sioux raiding parties, remnants of Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s warriors who had escaped after the massacre at Little Big Horn.
The Texas longhorn cattle were a hardy lot and better suited than other breeds to fatten up on Montana grass over the winter before being shipped to the Chicago slaughterhouses in the spring. One thing was for sure—they were a lot easier to kill than the pronghorn antelope native to the area, especially when the hunter had nothing more than a bow.
I reckon I’d go after a cow, too, if the situation was turned around, he thought, and I was the one needing food.
He got to his feet when Ben Hawkins and Jody Hale appeared at the top of the ravine and came slowly down to join him. “Found another’n, didja?” Ben called out.
“Yep,” Clint answered. “If I was to guess, I’d say they left here no more’n four or five hours ago, and I don’t think this one was killed by the same bunch that killed that last one. Take a look.”
Ben dismounted, dropped his reins to the ground, and walked over beside Clint. He squatted on his heels, as Clint had, and stirred the ashes of the small fire. “I expect you’re right,” he said. “Four or five hours ago, not long after daybreak.” He grunted with the effort to stand up again, not being as agile as the younger man. “I reckon you’re wantin’ to try to track ’em.”
“I expect we oughta,” Clint replied. “I’m thinkin’ this might be that war party that struck the Sample place. Even if they ain’t, Mr. Valentine said he didn’t intend to feed every starvin’ Indian in the territory.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully as he turned the matter over in his mind. “I’d kinda hoped, when we found that other one a few days ago, that they were just gonna kill one and move on through our range. But I reckon this is a different bunch and they’re figurin’ on stayin’ awhile.”
“Looks that way,” Ben agreed. He crossed the small stream on the other side of the burned-out fire to take a look at the tracks, stepping from stone to stone to keep his boots dry. After a few moments inspecting the mixture of hoofprints and moccasin tracks, he expressed what Clint had already surmised. “’Pears to me they didn’t just go after this one cow. Hell, they cut out half a dozen cows and drove ’em down here to the stream. There’s cow tracks and horse tracks, and the horses weren’t shod, so they was Injuns, all right.”
“And they drove ’em down that side of the stream toward the river,” Clint finished for him. “I figure it’s that Sioux raidin’ party, ’cause I couldn’t find any small footprints that would mean there were women and children with ’em. I reckon they butchered this one, then just decided to take a few cattle with ’em for their food supply.”
“Looks that way,” Ben said again, and took another look around the edge of the water for tracks. He was thinking that if there were kids, they’d have been playing around the water. “Might be a small bunch passin’ through on their way up to Canada to join up with what’s left of ol’ Sittin’ Bull’s people.”
“How many you think?” Clint asked.
“I figure five, maybe six,” Ben replied.
“That’s about what I make it,” Clint said.
It was not surprising that they agreed, since Ben Hawkins had taught Clint practically everything he knew about reading tracks. Clint was still in his teens when he left Wyoming Territory and made his way down to Texas, looking for work with one of the big ranches. With no ties to any part of the country, he was prone to wander until he found someplace that suited him. He signed on with Will Marston to drive a herd up from Texas to Ogallala. That was when he met Ben Hawkins. Ben recognized the honest, hardworking decency in the otherwise carefree young man, and unofficially took him under his wing.
It occurred to Ben that young Clint never mentioned family or home, so one day he had asked him about his home, and if there was someone there who might want to hear where he was.
“Nope,” Clint answered.
Although it took some digging, Ben was finally able to learn that Clint had no idea what had happened to his mother. One day she was gone, and his father told him that she had died of pneumonia. He was about two at the time, as far as he could guess. He stayed with his father until an argument over a prostitute in a saloon turned into a gunfight and left Clint an orphan. Now at twenty, the years having softened his memories, he knew that his father’s name was Clayton Cooper, and that was all he cared to know about his past. He couldn’t recall his mother’s name, and doubted that he ever knew it. He also had an odd, C-shaped scar on his neck but had no recollection as to how he got it.
After several years, when a natural partnership developed between them, the two friends decided to help drive a herd of Texas cattle on up to Montana for Randolph Valentine. Valentine was quick to see the potential in young Clint Cooper, and offered him a permanent job. He offered Ben a job, too, but Ben was smart enough to know that that was probably because the two were partners, and that he’d have to hire both of them to get the one he wanted. As it had turned out, however, Valentine came to appreciate the experience and the work ethic of the older partner as well. He soon came to realize that he had made a better deal than he had at first thought.
In a couple of years’ time, young Clint Cooper proved to be a man capable of running the day-to-day operations of the ranch. And Valentine was aware of the steel-like strength beneath the carefree attitude he most often displayed. At any rate, Clint was physically big enough to handle objections to any orders he might issue to the crew that worked Valentine’s ranch. That capability was seldom necessary, though, since Clint’s orders always came in the form of suggestions, and he always seemed willing to take his share of the dirty chores. Valentine had never officially announced that Clint was foreman of his crew, but all the men knew it to be the case. It had not surprised Ben that Valentine had come to look at the young ramrod almost as a son. This was especially true in light of the fact that Randolph and Valerie Valentine had only one offspring, a daughter named Hope, who was a year younger than Clint.
“Well, I reckon we’d best go see if we can recover our stolen cattle,” Clint said. He looked up at Jody Hale, who was still seated on his horse. “Jody, ride on back and tell Charley and the rest of the boys to keep moving the cattle back off that flat. I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move ’em in closer to the ranch. Me and Ben are gonna go see if we can catch up with these Indians, and maybe get our cattle back.”
Jody, the fourteen-year-old nephew of Charley Clark, nodded in reply and promptly turned his horse to ride back up the ravine.
Ben looked back over his shoulder to watch the boy ride away. “You reckon he’ll remember what you told him by the time he gets back to the herd?” he joked.
Clint laughed. “Yeah, Jody’s all right. He’s just got his mind on other things most of the time—not much different from any of us at fourteen.” He stepped up into the saddle then, but paused for a moment. “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to stick your neck out to go after a bunch of Indian warriors.”
Ben waited to answer until he crossed back over the stream and stepped up on his horse. “No, you didn’t, did you?” he mocked. “But then you never do. Hell, I gotta go with you anyway, to make sure you don’t get yourself inta somethin’ you can’t get out of.”
He gave his horse a kick and splashed across the stream to lead out along the opposite bank, leaving his grinning partner no choice but to follow.
* * *
It was late in the afternoon by the time they caught up with the party of Sioux raiders. From the top of a ridge a quarter of a mile from the banks of the Yellowstone, Clint and Ben scanned the band of cottonwoods that crowded the low bluffs, trying to spot the rustlers. A thin ribbon of smoke wafting up from the trees had warned them that the Indians had stopped to make an early camp, probably preferring to deal with the hassle of crossing the cattle in the morning.
“I ’spose they ain’t too good at drivin’ cattle,” Ben speculated. “And gettin’ late in the day, they’re afraid they’ll lose some of ’em in the river. They’re hid in them trees somewhere, but I can’t see ’em.”
“Me, neither,” Clint said, “but they’ve gotta be around that fire. I would like to see exactly how many we’ve gotta account for before we go walkin’ in there blind.”
“I’m still thinkin’ six of ’em,” Ben said. All the horses’ hoofprints appeared to be indicatin’ half a dozen and all of ’em carrying a load. “I’d like to know what kinda weapons they’re totin’.”
“Maybe six,” Clint allowed. “But maybe just five and one of those horses is a packhorse loaded down with the meat offa that steer we found back there. We’ll just have to wait till it gets a little darker, then work in a little closer.”
It was a wait of a little more than an hour before the sun disappeared and deep shadows spread across the river valley to darken the narrow expanse of flat prairie approaching the trees. With their Winchester rifles loaded and ready, they walked down the ridge, leading their horses. At the edge of the cottonwoods, they tied the horses, then continued on foot, moving carefully through the trees until they spotted the fire flickering through the trees some fifty yards away. Exercising even more caution now, they worked their way in closer until they were only twenty-five or thirty yards away from the fire.
“There’s our cows,” Ben whispered, and pointed to half a dozen steers gathered together below the bluffs near the water. Beyond them, the Indians’ ponies grazed on the brown stubble of grass covering the slope down to the bluffs.
Clint nodded, then brought his attention back to the campfire and the sleeping bodies around it. He counted four warriors, bundled in their blankets and lying like spokes of a wheel, with the fire as the hub. He had missed his guess that the party consisted of five warriors, but so had Ben, who figured there were six.
At least, they don’t appear to be concerned about being attacked, he thought.
“Looks too easy, don’t it?” Ben whispered. “Two apiece.”
“Yeah,” Clint replied. “Reckon there’s a lookout hidin’ somewhere?”
“If there is, he ain’t stayin’ close to the rest of ’em. I reckon we’ll find out when we start shootin’.”
Clint couldn’t help harboring a small bit of reluctance to simply start firing at the sleeping bodies, but it was a good bet that they were the hostiles who had murdered the Sample family.
“Might be a good idea to split up and get a little space between us,” he suggested, “in case they come outta those blankets shootin’.”
“Good idea,” Ben said. “Ain’t no use us standin’ in the same spot and givin’ ’em one target for both of us. I’ll work over toward the horses.”
“All right,” Clint said. “I’ll wait for you to get where you want and take the first shot. That’ll be my signal to open up on ’em.”
Clint knelt down and trained his ’73 model Winchester on the sleeping forms while Ben moved off into the darkness. Set to wait for Ben’s first shot, Clint was surprised when it came within seconds of his departure, only to realize a split second later, when he saw the muzzle flash, that the shot had come from behind Ben.
Without taking time to think, Clint turned and pumped three shots at the spot where he had seen the flash. Unable to see a target, he quickly turned back in time to see the other four hostiles scrambling out of their blankets. Cranking out two more rounds, he was able to knock one of the warriors down before they all disappeared into the trees.
“Damn!” Clint cursed, and dived behind a sizable tree for cover when a couple of answering shots snapped through the bushes near him. “Ben! You all right?” There was no answer. “Damn,” he swore again, and started running in the direction Ben had taken, dodging trees and bushes in the darkness.
Off to his left, he spotted three figures running toward the horses, but he was forced to jump behind a tree to keep from being run over by a frantic cow that had been frightened by the gunshots. When he stepped back out from behind the tree, the three he had seen had already reached their ponies. With little time to get off a shot, he drew a bead on the one closest to him and pulled the trigger. He was startled to hear another rifle shot at almost the same instant and saw one of the targets fall.
“The other two are runnin’!” Ben called out from a bank of brambles no more than thirty feet ahead of Clint. He struggled to free himself from the clutches of the berry bushes as Clint ran by him in pursuit of the two escaping hostiles.
Dodging another stampeding cow, Clint arrived at the slope where the Indian ponies had been left for the night. He was a few seconds too late to get off another clear shot, but he took the shot anyway, knowing there was little chance he would hit either of the hostiles as they galloped out of sight along the bluffs. He chambered another round but didn’t fire again as Ben came huffing and puffing up behind him.
“Didja hit anything?” Ben blurted excitedly.
“No, they got away,” Clint said, and eased the hammer down on his rifle, still staring into the darkness where he had last seen the fleeing Indians. He turned back to Ben then. “I thought you’d got shot back there when I yelled and you didn’t answer.”
“I couldn’t,” Ben replied. “That son of a bitch woulda shot at me again. You musta hit him when you throwed those shots at him. I wish to hell I’da knowed you got him. I wouldn’ta jumped in them damn berry bushes. They like to tore me up tryin’ to get out of ’em.”
“You lost your hat,” Clint said.
“Well, I reckon so,” Ben replied indignantly. “I’da lost more’n that if that bastard had aimed a hair lower.”
“We’d better check on the ones we shot,” Clint said. “It looks like those last two are long gone.”
They found a hostile lying on the slope down by the river bluffs, still alive, although mortally wounded. Noticing the two wounds, Ben jokingly complained, “You shoulda told me you was aimin’ at that one and I’da aimed at one of the other two.”
The wounded warrior appeared to be unconscious at first, but he suddenly began to chant his death song, his voice strained and hoarse from the pain. Ben let him rasp out a few minutes of it before he silenced him with a round from his Colt handgun. “I reckon he sang enough to get him ready to meet Man Above,” he said.
The next order of business was to find the one who had taken the first shot at Ben. It appeared that Clint had hit him with a lucky shot, because no more shots had come from the trees, but they didn’t know that for sure. Both men were aware of the possibility that he could even then be getting in a position to fire at them again.
With that thought in mind, Ben said, “We’d better get the hell outta this clearin’.” Clint quickly agreed and they went back into the trees, where they split up to approach the spot from which the first muzzle flashes were seen. They closed in on it, ready to fire if suddenly confronted, until Ben called out, “Over here! I found him.” He waited for Clint beside a body lying at the base of a large cottonwood. He had apparently been killed instantly by a shot to the chest.
“Well, that was a pretty good shot, considerin’ I couldn’t see what I was shootin’ at,” Clint said.
“I don’t know,” Ben japed. “I counted three shots, so you missed him twice.”
They then went back to the campfire, where they found the third body lying in the same spot where he had dropped when Clint shot him as he scrambled out of his blanket.
* * *
There was not enough light to see by, so they decided they might as well camp there for the night. Thinking it unwise, however, to take advantage of the fire already built, they chose a spot farther along the bluffs. They left the bodies where they were, planning to look them over in the morning. They each spent the night alternating watches while the other man tried to sleep, and guarded against the possibility of an avenging attack by the two survivors.
With dawn’s light, they were able to confirm that the Indians they had killed were guilty of the Sample family’s murders. A long-haired blond scalp was evidence enough for that. But there was also a Henry rifle with the initials LS carved into the stock. In addition, they found several items of clothing and tools obviously belonging to the family. It was enough to assuage the consciences of both men that they had not randomly murdered innocent men. Ben found his hat close to the bank of bushes where he had taken refuge. It had two neat holes near the top of the crown where the bullet passed through.
“Damn,” he complained, “I just bought that hat four years ago in Ogallala. It ain’t even broke in good.” Looking to make the best of a bad situation, he took an eagle feather that had been braided into the locks of the Indian who had put the holes in his hat. He inserted the feather through the two holes, held it up to look at the effect, then said, “I kinda like that. Maybe I’ve got his big medicine now.”
“Big Chief Hawkins,” Clint grunted sarcastically. “I expect we’d best round those cows up and head ’em back with the others. Charley and the boys probably wonder if the Indians got us.” They had already discussed the possibility of trying to track the two surviving warriors but decided it would most likely be a waste of time and effort.
“How ’bout after we eat some breakfast?” Ben asked, reminding Clint that they had not eaten since noon the day before. “There’s a load of fresh meat here already butchered that we might as well cook up. We can take the rest of it back to the boys when we drive the cows in. Cold as it is, it’ll still be a while before it turns bad.”
“That sounds good to me,” Clint said. “I’ve got a little bit of coffee in my saddlebag that I didn’t use yesterday.”
He was short on supplies because he had planned to ride back to the ranch the previous night, before they had found the slaughtered steer. Other than the usual meeting with Randolph Valentine every Monday, Clint didn’t usually check in with his boss. But now there was the matter of reporting the fight with the Sioux raiders. Clint supposed that the army should be notified and they would most likely send out a patrol to try to run down the two hostiles who got away. He decided he’d better go straight back to the ranch to talk to Valentine and let Ben drive the six head of cattle they found back to join the herd.
“What about those Injun ponies?” Ben asked. There were only two. They assumed that the missing horses had probably galloped off after the two Indians.
“We’ll load that beef on the one that was totin’ it,” Clint said. “I’ll take the bridle offa that other one and let him decide what he wants to do. Most likely he’ll follow that one totin’ the meat.”
* * *
It was a little before noon when Clint rode up to the barn, dismounted, and pulled his saddle off Sam. He led the horse into the corral before taking the bridle off and letting him go free. Hank Haley walked out of the barn to greet him.
“Heard about your little set-to with them Sioux murderers,” Hank said. “Heard you and Ben went after ’em.”
“Is that so?” Clint replied, a little surprised. He had expected to get back to the ranch before any of the crew riding night herd.
“Yeah, Charley sent Jody on in to tell Mr. Valentine,” Hank explained. “Did you catch up with ’em?”
“Yep, we caught ’em,” Clint said, “but a couple of ’em got away.”
“Mr. Valentine said to tell you to come straight up to the house as soon as you showed up.”
“I’m on my way,” Clint said, “soon as I take care of my saddle.” He picked up the saddle, grabbed his bridle and saddle blanket with his free hand, and headed toward the tack room.
“I coulda took that for you,” Hank volunteered, though Clint was already entering the barn. “Mr. Valentine said as soon as you got back,” he reminded him.
“I won’t be but a minute,” Clint said. “I’ll tell the boss you told me.”
He continued on to the tack room. For some reason Clint could never understand, Hank, a simple soul, seemed to always think he was on the verge of being fired. He apparently never realized that, if it became necessary, Clint would most likely be the one doing the firing. If he had to guess, he would say that Hank was insecure because of his age, and the fact that he was used more around the ranch instead of working the cattle with the rest of the crew.
As far as Clint was concerned, Hank served a useful purpose. He was a helping short of a full portion of brains, and more than a little gullible, but he did his job in a willing and cheerful manner. And as long as Clint was satisfied with Hank’s work, Valentine wouldn’t bother to question it.
Leaving the barn, Clint headed for the kitchen door at the back of the sprawling ranch house with its wide porch that wrapped around three sides of the structure. Ben always referred to it as “the royal palace.” Clint had to admit it was a bit overdone, since it housed only three people: the boss; his daughter, Hope; and a Crow cook and housekeeper named Rena. Valerie Valentine, Randolph’s wife, had died the winter before last when a fever took her.
Princess Hope, as Ben referred to Valentine’s daughter when she wasn’t present, was the lady of the house now. Ben’s title for her was not mean-spirited, for he genuinely liked the young lady. In truth, Hope was highly regarded by all the hands of the Double-V-Bar. The fact that she was also easy on the eyes gave her the look of a real princess. She was held in high regard, however, primarily because she didn’t act like a princess.
At any rate, she was the apple of her father’s eye and his most precious possession. Clint was not immune to the young lady’s charms, and he caught himself thinking thoughts of fantasy from time to time. But he quickly stifled them, reminding himself of his station in her life. There had been occasions when he was almost convinced that she might have special feelings for him, in spite of the fact that she had entertained a young second lieutenant, recently transferred to Fort Keogh, almost every Sunday over the last four months. Thinking of it was enough to cause Clint to frown. Hope mischievously refused to give any hints of the seriousness of her interest in the young officer. Consequently Clint remained a respectful friend of his boss’s daughter. She happened to be in the kitchen when he knocked on the door.
“Hello, Clint,” Hope greeted him when she opened the door. “We heard about the trouble you and Ben were in last night. Thank goodness you both are all right.” She paused to be sure. “You didn’t get hurt, did you?”
“No, ma’am,” Clint replied playfully. “You know I’m not gonna take a chance on gettin’ myself shot. I let Ben take all the chances.” He gave her a broad smile. “Ben’s all right, but his hat got shot, two holes right through the crown.”
Hope laughed with him, knowing him well enough to feel assured that he was the one more likely to take chances. “Well, I’m glad that’s all. Would you like a cup of coffee? Dinner’s not quite ready yet. Rena and I are still fixing it. But there’s a pot of coffee on the stove.”
“Ah, no, thanks,” Clint replied, although the suggestion of a fresh cup of coffee sounded good to him. “Hank told me your daddy wanted to see me as soon as I got in, so I reckon I’d best see about that before I do anything else.”
“Is that you, Clint?” Valentine called from the parlor. Not waiting for an answer, he strode into the kitchen. A big man, Randolph Valentine seemed to fill any room he walked into. “Tell me what happened. Did you and Ben catch up with those Indians? Charley sent Jody in to tell us you went after them. Here, let’s sit down at the table here.” He motioned Clint over to the kitchen table. “Rena, how ’bout pouring us a cup of coffee?” He looked back at Clint. “Maybe you need something stronger after last night.”
“No, sir,” Clint said when he finally got the chance. “Coffee will be just fine.” He pulled a chair back and sat down.
Hope didn’t wait for Rena. She got a couple of cups from the cupboard and filled them from the pot on the stove. She winked at Clint when she placed the cup before him. “I offered him a cup, but he said he didn’t want it,” she told her father.
“That was five minutes ago,” Clint said, accustomed to her teasing. “I’d enjoy one now.”
Serious again, he told Valentine what had happened the night before, the exchange of gunfire with the Sioux hostiles, and the evidence he and Ben had found indicating that the raiding party was the same one that had attacked the Sample place.
“That was a damn shame,” Valentine said, referring to the Sample massacre, “and damn poor luck.” Leonard Sample had only recently settled on the strip of land by the river, having moved his family from Kansas. They were not close neighbors, but Valentine had fully intended to make an effort to ride over to meet them. “Damn poor luck,” he repeated, then brought his thoughts back to the incident of the previous night. “How many were in the party you caught up with last night?”
“There were five,” Clint said. “We killed three of ’em. The other two got away.”
“It’s been a good while since we’ve had any sign of Indian trouble,” Valentine said. “But that’s been two cows now, slaughtered about a week apart. I’m just wondering if we’ve got a bunch of renegade Indians set on raiding along the Yellowstone again.”
“I’m pretty sure the first cow was killed by a small party of hungry Indians, but I don’t think they were part of the ones that hit the Sample place,” Clint reminded him.
Valentine paused and nodded thoughtfully, then continued. “I want you to ride on over to Fort Keogh and tell the army what happened. I’m sure they’ll wanna find out if we’ve got anything to worry about.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll head out right away,” Clint said.
“You can wait till you get some dinner,” Hope interjected. “It isn’t that far to the fort.”
“Yes, of course,” her father said. “You can eat with us. I’m sure the women are fixing enough for all of us. Ain’t that right, Rena?” The impassive Crow woman made no response beyond a slight nod.
It was not the first time Clint had been invited to eat at the ranch house, but he felt a little out of place at the boss’s table. “Thank you just the same, but I expect Milt’s cooked up dinner in the bunkhouse, so I’d best eat with the rest of the boys. I’ll ride over to the fort soon as I’ve finished. Should be back by dark.”
“Suit yourself,” Hope said, still teasing, “if you’re saying Milt Futch is a better cook than Rena and I.”
“I’m not sayin’ anything of the sort,” Clint responded in kind. “I know Rena’s a first-rate cook, but I don’t know how much of the cookin’ you did. So I don’t know if I oughta risk it. I’ll just go eat with the rest of the crew.”
“Let the man alone, Hope,” Valentine said. “He can eat where he wants to.” Turning to Clint, he added, “Let me know if the army is going to do anything about those Indians.”
“Yes, sir, just as soon as I get back” Clint said as he got up from the table. “Thank you for the coffee,” he told Hope as he went out the door. She answered him with a smile.
She closed the door behind him and turned back to her father. “Are you ready to eat, Papa?”
“I reckon so,” he replied.
“Rena’s dishing you up a plate. I’ll get you some more coffee.”
She worried about her father. Although a powerful man, seemingly still in the prime of life despite his years, she knew that he suffered privately over the loss of her mother, his Valerie. It had been two years since her mother was taken from them, and her father still could not let her go. She knew that he talked to her mother when he was in his room, usually late at night when he thought everyone else was asleep. Hope sometimes left her bed and tiptoed to her father’s door to listen. He spoke as if her mother were there with him, talking about problems with the cattle, or telling her about something she or Rena had done that pleased him. Hope knew that Rena had heard him as well, and she was sure the sullen Crow woman did not doubt that he actually was in contact with his late wife.
It used to worry Hope more than it now did. She had feared her father was losing his mind, but in all the time since her mother’s death, he had never shown any other symptoms of irrational behavior. So Hope decided to just accept that minor idiosyncrasy as a trait her father possessed that set him apart from ordinary men.
If he did happen to start losing his grip on reality in his later years, she felt secure in the knowledge that he had Clint to rely on. Clint was special, and she thanked the good Lord that he and Ben had crossed their path. His carefree attitude could be deceiving, but he was dead serious when the situation called for it. She knew that whatever trouble might come their way, she could count on Clint to take care of it and always act in her father’s best interest.
She knew that her father considered Clint as the son that maybe she was supposed to have been. She never begrudged him that position, because she also knew that she was the apple of her father’s eye. In fact, she held Clint very close to her heart, mainly because of his devotion to her father. Her thoughts were interrupted then by her father’s voice. “What are you concentrating so hard on?” he asked. “If you stand there holding that coffeepot much longer, it’s gonna be too cold to drink.”
“Sorry,” she replied. “My mind was just wandering.”
She filled his cup and returned the pot to the stove, where Rena stood watching her. The silent Crow woman nodded solemnly as if she could read Hope’s thoughts.
You always act like you can tell what everybody’s thinking, Hope thought, but I know it’s just a damn act.
Clint guided the bay gelding past the crude structures that still remained on the original site of the cantonment, as it was called at the time they were built. Valentine had told him that General Nelson Miles didn’t build the fort on the original site. He was a colonel at that time, and he decided to pick a new site one mile west of the original one to accommodate his plans.
Still, there were some enlisted men’s families living in the old log huts he was passing now, who were awaiting construction of quarters at the site of newly named Fort Keogh. It was easy to imagine the hardships of living in the rough dwellings. They were constructed by digging trenches where the walls were to be. Then they cut logs, stood them on end in the trenches to make the walls, and filled the cracks between the logs with mud. The roofs were also logs with mud chinking. They made for a miserable dwelling, and in Clint’s opinion, they were some sorry-looking homes. But the method was necessary because at the time of their construction there were plenty of logs, but a shortage of tools to fashion lumber. The huts sharply contrasted with the frame buildings of the new Fort Keogh.
It was around four o’clock in the afternoon when he rode up to the diamond-shaped parade ground. The bugler had just sounded Recall, which signaled the end of the evening mounted drill, and the troopers of a company of cavalry were headed toward the stables. Clint pulled up before the nearest trooper.
“Afternoon,” he said. “Can you tell me where the commanding officer’s headquarters is?” The soldier pointed him toward a building directly across the parade ground. “Much obliged,” Clint said, and proceeded toward it. He dismounted and looped the bay’s reins around a corner post.
Inside, he was met by a sergeant seated at a desk. Behind the sergeant, Clint saw two open offices, one of them empty, and an officer seated behind a desk in the other one. “Can I help you, sir?” the sergeant asked.
“I’m from the Double-V-Bar. My boss, Mr. Randolph Valentine, sent me over to tell you soldiers that we ran up on those Sioux hostiles that raided Leonard Sample’s place. He figured you’d wanna know.”
“I reckon we sure would,” the sergeant said. “I’ll let you tell the captain about it.” He got up from his desk and stepped to the office door. “Fellow out here with some information about that Injun raid on those settlers back up the river.”
The officer got up from his desk and came out to talk to Clint. “I’m Captain Rodgers,” he said. “You say you know something about that raid?” Clint told him about the fight he and Ben had had with the Indians. “How do you know they were the same hostiles that murdered the Sample family?” Rodgers asked. Clint told him about the evidence they found that tied them to the massacre. The captain was more than interested. “A fifteen-man patrol was sent out to that farm as soon as word reached Fort Keogh, but they weren’t able to pick up the hostiles’ trail.”
Clint didn’t comment, but he was thinking that it shouldn’t have taken much of a scout to pick up the trail of a war party, even one of that size. It couldn’t be blamed on snow covering the tracks, because there had been no snow beyond a few flurries since then.
Rodgers paused to give Clint’s report some thought before he decided what he should do. General Miles was not on the post at the present time. Neither was his second-in-command, Major Kinsey, so Rodgers was the officer in charge. After a moment, he told himself what Miles would do, and made his decision. “If I send a patrol out with you, can you take them to the spot where you had that fight?” he asked Clint.
“Yes, sir,” Clint replied, “I can take you there if you want me to.”
“If my memory serves me,” Rodgers said, stroking his chin thoughtfully, “the Sample Farm was about a three-hour ride from here. How far would you say the place is where you had the fight with the hostiles?”
“Maybe an hour’s ride short of that,” Clint said.
“There’s not much sense in trying to assemble a patrol to send out this evening, so we might as well wait till morning. You say there are only two of the hostiles that got away?” Clint nodded his affirmation. Rodgers continued. “No need to send a full scouting party out for two hostiles.” That comment was meant more for himself, for he was wondering if it was wise to dispatch a large detail without his superior’s approval. His decision made, he told Clint that a detail would leave Fort Keogh in the morning.
“Right,” Clint said, and turned to leave, thinking his job was done.
Rodgers stopped him. “You are planning to lead the patrol to the place where the hostiles were killed, right?”
“Right,” Clint confirmed.
“Well, then, you’re probably gonna need a place to bunk tonight.” He looked at a large clock on the wall. “Mess call will be sounding in about an hour. I’ll send a man with you to get you something to eat. Then he can show you where you can find an empty bunk.”
Clint hesitated and considered the suggestion. He hadn’t planned on staying overnight at the army post when the ranch was only a little more than five miles away. “If it’s all the same to you, Captain, I’ll go on back to the Double-V-Bar, and I’ll meet your men there in the mornin’.” When Rodgers looked uncertain, Clint said, “It’s on the way, so I might as well join up with your men there.”
Rodgers frowned while he thought about that for a moment, but he couldn’t think of any reason to object. “Well, we sure know where the Double-V-Bar is, so I guess that would be all right.” Certain then, he said, “Good, they’ll meet you there in the morning.” He paused for a moment while he thought about it, then said, “The patrol will be under the command of Lieutenant Justin Landry.”
Clint almost cringed. “Much obliged,” he said, and took his leave.
Justin Landry, he thought. Well, he sure as hell ought to know the way. He’s been there often enough. He formed a picture in his mind of Hope, all girlish and coy when the lieutenant showed up. It was a picture that always bothered him.
When Clint was gone, Rodgers told the sergeant to send a man over to the bachelor officers’ quarters to find Lieutenant Landry and tell him to report to the captain. “It’ll give him a chance to get a little more experience in the field. I don’t expect there’s much of a chance to catch up with two Sioux warriors after this amount of time, so there’s not much danger to worry about.”
Lieutenant Landry had recently been assigned to the Second after a temporary assignment at Fort Lincoln, having graduated from West Point with the class of seventy-six. Rodgers felt it a good opportunity to add to Landry’s experience with little risk of danger to him or the men he sent with him.
* * *
Leaving the headquarters building, Clint paused to consider if he should take a few minutes to have a quick drink before starting back to the ranch. It didn’t take more than a second to decide that he was justified in doing so, since it had been some time since he had last imbibed—and Ernie’s place was just outside the post.
Why, hell, he told himself, it would be downright unneighborly if I was this close and didn’t stop by to say hello.
Ernie Thigpen had built his saloon soon after the army started construction of Fort Keogh. He built it as close to the fort as the army would allow—a distance of two miles, as ordered by General Miles, who was a colonel at the time. That wasn’t a great distance for a man needing a drink of whiskey, so most of his business came from the soldiers stationed at the fort.
He was not the first to open a saloon close to the fort. A man named Mat Carroll had set up some barrels under a tarp and started selling whiskey as soon as the fort began construction. But Colonel Miles had grown tired of having his guardhouse filled with drunken soldiers, so he ordered Carroll and anybody else selling whiskey off the military reservation. Ernie built a substantial structure as close to the fort as the military allowed and, so far, had not run afoul of General Miles’ patience. Even so, he often complained that it might have been better in the long run if he had been located closer in to the rising town of Miles City. At the time, the new town was little more than a few tents and a hut or two. Now it was developing into a sizable settlement. He was busying himself behind the bar when Clint walked in. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he exclaimed. “Clint Cooper, I ain’t seen you in a while. I thought you’d forgot about us, and was doin’ your drinkin’ in Miles City.”
“Hello, Ernie,” Clint responded. “I’m a workin’ man—ain’t had time to do much drinkin’.” He turned then to give a smile to the grinning woman approaching him from the back of the room. “You know I stop in to see you and Darcy every chance I get. I just don’t get that many chances.”
“Hello, stranger,” Darcy Suggs greeted him cordially, her greeting genuine, unlike the manufactured one she employed for the rutty soldiers from the fort. She moved up close beside him at the bar.
“Howdy, Darcy,” Clint returned. “You’re just as pretty as I remembered you.”
“You’re so full of horse shit,” Darcy said, laughing. She knew that she still looked pretty good considering the long road she had traveled, but she did not deceive herself into thinking the bloom of youth was still there. She liked Clint Cooper. He always treated her like the lady she never was. “Are you gonna stay awhile and visit a little?” she asked hopefully as Ernie filled a shot glass and slid it over to Clint.
“Not this time,” Clint said. “I have to get right back to the ranch. Mr. Valentine’s waitin’ to hear what I found out.” He told them briefly why he had come to the fort. “So I just took the time for one quick drink and a howdy, and then I’m on my way.”
“That’s right sorry news about the Injuns,” Ernie said. “That feller that got killed, Sample, he was in here one time. Seemed like a right nice man—hate to hear I lost another customer.”
“You still thinkin’ about movin’ your saloon to Miles City?” Clint asked him while Darcy stood beside him, her hand resting on his arm.
“No, I reckon not,” Ernie said. “I don’t wanna move there anymore, what with the changes and everything.”
“What changes?” Clint asked.
“Ha,” Ernie snorted. “You must not a’ been in town for a while. The sheriff . . .”
When mention of the sheriff did not register on Clint’s face as he expected, Ernie expounded. “They got a sheriff now, feller name of Simon Yeager. Sorta appointed hisself sheriff is what I hear. And he made his brother his deputy. His brother’s name is Mace, and they’re pretty much runnin’ the town. The town ain’t never had a sheriff before, so there weren’t nobody to stand in their way.”
Excerpted from "Trial at Fort Keogh"
Copyright © 2014 Charles G. West.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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