We made it with time to spare.
Three seconds of time.
It had been a flat-out race, that last half mile, upgrade all the way. The heavily laden pack horses were stumbling and staggering by the time the last of them got their butts tucked in behind the trees, but none actually fell.
Cougar yelled, “Settle the bunch! I can slow the Crow down some!”
My time in command was over, obviously. Tam and I kept moving, fast as I’ve ever seen two men move in my life, circling the horses with the women and kids tucked into a stronghold among a number of boulders near the center of the place.
When the shootist’s rifle boomed fer the first time, I remembered all of a sudden, having seen the weapon in action when we’d done the 21 gun salute fer Believer’s passing. Cougar could indeed slow down the enemy with that shooter.
By the time we had things set up and went to find handy trees flanking his position, he’d fired five times if I had the tally right.
Dang, son,” Tam complained, “You didn’t leave none fer us?
The .45-70 Government long rifle had done its job. Downslope, the nearest Crow was still maybe a hunnert yards off, and he weren’t moving. Two of his party were, charging hard, but it was obvious they were there to retrieve their fallen comrade, and we let ’em do it. One man raised his rifle to his shoulder, figuring on giving his friend some covering fire if nothing else, but then he hesitated, lowered the weapon again, and went to help pick up the fallen warrior.
He’d realized his enemies were honorable men.
“Status report?” I asked.
“I counted twenty-three to start with. Dropped two of ’em, the one you see there and one with the first bullet out of the barrel. In between, they knew to keep zig-zagging their ponies, and mostly they weren’t where I’d figured by the time a round got to ’em. Did accidentally ventilate one pony, though it dropped behind a little hump and you can’t see it.”
Tam rubbed his chin, pondering. “Two dead be enough to discourage ’em, you think?”
“Nope.” His son shook his head. “Not this bunch. That’s old One Eye out there. I’ve tangled with that son before, and it takes some licking before he’ll back off. Most war leaders, they lose a man, they’re done fer that go-round. If nothing else, warriors quit following him, and he finds out what it’s like to be a one-man war party. But this fellow, fer whatever reason, can lose men without everybody deserting him. We’re close to whipping him, with two down, but we ain’t there yet. If I coulda jist nailed one more….”
The tale teller snorted. “You sound like old White Bear, over there on your left. Our Mr. Trask has this perfectionist thing going on. Dunno how he passed it to you, though.”
Well, there’d be a lull now, likely till dark. Dark of the moon, in fact; we’d be fighting by starlight. In the meantime, we checked over the horses, women, and kids, unloading the pack horses and offsaddling our riding mounts. There weren’t no reason to do otherwise; making any kind of run outa here was the same as sticking the barrel of a shooter in your mouth and pulling the trigger.
Indians don’t generally arm their women–which results in a lot of dead Indian women and children when the Army comes to call–but despite having one fullblood Cheyenne among us, we weren’t Indians. Laughing Brook and her daughter in law both wore well used Colts at their hips. In fact, Penny, like her husband, wore two of ’em. They’d not been packing those when we left the Cheyenne encampment, but the pistols had come out of hiding once we’d made it to Fort Hill, as I’d begun thinking of this place.
Penny was nursing Susan, which I noticed in passing before looking quickly away. I know it’s Nature, but it’s always bothered me some, seeing a woman do that. Don’t know why; it don’t trouble me none when cows or horses or any other critters do it. I knew enough not to discuss the matter, though, and there were plenty of other things to look at. There were still hours until sunset, and we three men needed to know every blade of grass, every pine needle, tree trunk, boulder, anything and everything in our redoubt and the approaches to it before night fell.
By the time the sun set, crimson and gold over the far ridges, we were about as ready as we were gonna be. We all watched that glory, Nature reveling in Her splendor, impervious to the petty squabbles going on between us mere humans. The adults, women and all, took turns patrolling jist inside the perimeter so’s no foolhardy warriors could slip up on our backside while we were enjoying the light show, but each turn only took a few minutes. The hollow was dang near circular, made me think it was…”Tam, what’s the word fer a hole in a hilltop like this, one left behind by one of them volcanoes, back in the day?”
“Caldera. That’s it. We’re sitting in a freaking volcano caldera.”
Nobody else seemed to be all that impressed, but I was downright fascinated. Now that I’d finally learned to read, I didn’t go nowhere without a book or two in my saddlebags. Seemed like I’d read something about people who’d–“Got it!”
“Got what, Dawson? By the way, soup’s on.” Laughing Brook meant that literally. Well, technicially it was stew rather than soup. While Penny was tending to her kids and the men were figuring and rigging our defenses, Tam’s wife had built up a fire, rigged a tripod, snagged a small kettle and the fixings out of them packs…and whomped up one helluva fine feast.
We ate like lumberjacks, filling our bowls and returning to our sentinel posts, watching out over the land as we chowed down.
“This caldera.” I said between swallows. Not too much chewing going on; I realized I was hungry. “We’re in good company, using a hole in a volcano fer protection from superior numbers. When old Spartacus led his slave revolt against the Roman Empire, way back all them centuries ago, he and the last of his bunch holed up in a volcano fer a while. I imagine it was a sight bigger than this one, but the same principle.”
“How’d that work out fer him?” Penny asked, having finally gotten her kids settled and finding time to fill her own bowl.
I shrugged. “If memory serves, he eventually left cover, the Romans caught him, and every one of them slave rebels got hung upside down and nailed to big wooden crosses.”
That quieted the party some, till Tam broke the silence. “Well,” he drawled, “Them Crow might be able to figure out how to rig up a few crosses, but they’re all-fired short on nails, last I heard.”
“There is that,” I admitted. “We’re losing light, but I jist got me another thought. How much rope would you estimate we still got in them packs? You know, not counting the picket line.”
Cougar knew more about our cargo than anyone else. He thought a moment and said, “Somewhere between twelve and fifteen hunnert feet. Can’t ever have too much rope.”
“That’s what I hoped you’d say. This here caldera is what, maybe ten feet deep and something like eighty, ninety feet across?”
“Give or take,” Tam said, and Cougar nodded.
“Okay, so a three hunnert foot line would go plumb around the thing, or purty close.”
There weren’t a one of us, man or woman, who was born slow between the ears. They got it in a heartbeat, even before I added, “I propose we build us a spider web and trap us some Crow flies.”
They came at us early, not more’n an hour after full dark. We’d figured they might do the smart thing, wait till the final minutes before dawn, when most men start daring to believe they’ve made it through another night and are therefore at their most vulnerable.
If they’d done that, bellied up close to the trees but waited till they could barely begin to see, we’d have had a harder time of it fer sure. They’d have seen the rope strung ankle-high everywhere with a few special lines run jist above waist height–which happens to be neck height on a man running in a half-crouch.
But these warriors were way too impatient fer that, so the killing commenced early. I heard the soft hoot of an owl coming from the far side and realized my son had spotted the first of ’em coming in.
I’d thought my own night vision was good, and it was, but Cougar had eyes like a danged–well, a danged cougar, is what. It was good to know it was time; I’d been amazing myself half to death, realizing I not only had two sons but three grandchildren as well. Hell, I weren’t even middle aged yet, not by my lights anyway, and here I was a grandaddy! And Laughing Brook a grandma! I didn’t half understand it.
Killing in the night though–that I understood. Understood it well.
From my left, that one. A Crow’s death scream, cut off before he could half git it out. White Bear had struck. The Cheyenne had named my partner well; he did fight like a bear when he had it to do. Hunts Enemy had gifted him with a buffalo lance, and he’d picked that as his weapon of choice fer the early work this night.
“We won’t be wanting to blind ourselves with muzzle flashes iffen we don’t have to,” he’d said, and I totally agreed.
A soft grunt as an enemy warrior tripped over a rope not ten feet in front of me got my attention. I remember driving my rifle butt down, missing his head the first time but shattering a shoulder on the man.
The screaming kids brought me back from the blackout.
Keeping youngsters quiet at times like this is always difficult, and the consequences are often deadly when the babies start squalling their lungs out. But we’d planned fer this, known it was more likely to happen than not, and used that knowledge to our advantage. When Grandaddy Crazy Rifle had pointed out we could use them rugrats fer bait, I’d gotten some ugly looks from the women…until I’d explained myself some, anyway.
Now gunfire lit up the night. Gunfire, and plain old firelight added to it.
“Remember the black wolf?” I’d asked my love, and she’d understood immediately. She’d built a fire in them rocks, built it up strong, then banked it down to coals…with plenty of tinder and kindling piled close at hand. She’d made a big steel pan work as the shutter had once done to shield the light from Believer’s cabin fireplace.
At first yell from the little ones, knowing whatever Crow had gotten past us men would be coming fast, she’d whipped the pan out of the way and begun flinging flammables on the coals. It was Penny who killed the first two enemy warriors who slammed into the multiple-height ropes long enough to make nice, fat targets in the suddenly rising light.
Do you have any idea how much damage five grown humans wielding seven big bore revolvers can do to a war party at close quarters? We’d been packing Texas loads until reaching this place, but every weapon now carried a cartridge under the hammer, and we used ’em all. Seven shooters, six shots each, forty-two bullets flying in among them rocks and trees.
It’s a wonder we didn’t shoot each other while we was at it.
There was a risk, after, but the torch had to be lit. Dawson volunteered to handle it, but I couldn’t jist go and leave all the dirty work to him. We left Cougar with the women, jist in case, and made the rounds. Fer a time, I held the torch while he made sure each Crow was dead, a fact we established with a fair amount of certainty by cutting off the man’s head. When we figured we were maybe halfway done, we swapped out, him holding the torch and me doing the cutting.
In the end, we tallied seventeen bodies, and one of em was old One Eye himself. Now, we figured, this bunch was well and truly whipped.
We pulled out an hour after sunup, having eaten a hearty breakfast and rigged our little village fer travel once again. Henry, the oldest boy, insisted that at three years old–or “Almost four!” as he pointed out repeatedly–he could ride his own pony. So we tested that out, though the gentle little mustang was led by Laughing Brook. Turned out the little guy was right; he didn’t fall off even once. That left baby Susan with her Mom, but it was Daddy who figured out what to do with two year old Reggie. He squared the little guy away atop one of the pack horses, his little butt cushioned by a load of blankets and other relatively soft goods. Trying to run this way wouldn’t be a real smart idea, but fer steady walking, it looked like a purty good arrangement.
I looked back once at what Dawson called Fort Hill. Them seventeen Crow heads were hanging by their hair from as many pine branches, basically ringing the entire caldera. When their people came fer their bodies, they would come in force–a hunnert warriors or more, maybe even a thousand. They would be enraged but also shocked, stunned, and most of all horrified. They had taken greater losses in large engagements with their many enemies over the years; the tales told me that. But I was willing to bet they’d never been hurt so bad by jist three men and two Demon Women who actually shot back when attacked.
Always, now, we rode with one man at point and two at the back corners. It was my turn to take point, which I done with a sense of pleasure so deep it’s plumb impossible to describe. Fer all them years, after leaving Believer and Laughing Brook at Fort Benton on that long-ago spring day, I’d been about as alone as a man could be. Fer what…seventeen years it had been like that. Then I’d met Dawson Trask, twenty-four years old at the time, recently mustered out of the United States Army and still wearing them haunted eyes from his service to the Union in the War Between the States. We’d felt a connecton from the first, and the loneliness had lessened a mite–more than a mite. Fer both of us, I had reason to believe. It meant something, knowing there was a man you could trust at your back, and that he was man enough to cover it.
Now…now I was the grandaddy patriarch of a whole durned clan, eight Souls strong, with money in the bank and a ranch to build up along the Heurfano River in Colorado Territory. I couldn’t git over the marvel of it.
“What do you think, Smokey?” I asked the grulla. “Could you have seen this coming, looking at that twelve year old kid on the run from The Banking Bastard, falling on his face unconscious from starvation, back then?”
I hadn’t ever heard this horse–or any other–talk inside my head like Wolf, the great Appaloosa stallion, had once done. Nor had I thought too much about reincarnation except to reckon it made some sense. Which was why, when Smokey got my attention this time, he done it with a bang.
“I think you’re doing okay, boss,” he said clear as a bell, “Long as you don’t go shooting any more mountains.”