Authors: Brett Cogburn
Odell saw the Comanches riding toward him at about the same time Crow did. Just seconds before, the horse had seemed worn out, but now he fairly pranced along the ground, pushing against the bit. It was plain he sensed the coming fight or flight.
There were four Comanches spread out in a long line and trotting right at Odell. He knew nothing of Indian fighting, but he tried to calm himself and remember the advice that a seemingly endless number of Texans had given him. Common sense told him that he stood little chance against such long odds, and from what he'd heard his flintlock rifle was going to be little help in a horseback fight out in the open. The Indians were too close and his horse too used up to turn and outrun them. He spied the brush-choked gully just behind and to the left of the Comanches and decided to make for it if he should survive the charge.
A wild, shrill shout went up from one of the Comanches, and it was answered all down their line. Odell took a spare bullet from his pouch and put it in his mouth for a quick reload. He cocked the hammer on his rifle and kicked his horse forward at a run just as the Comanches did the same. He charged forward with his teeth gritted and the wind folding the broad brim of his hat back against the crown.
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Copyright Â© 2013 by Brett Cogburn.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-61056-5
Berkley mass-market edition / September 2013
Cover illustration by Robert Hunt.
Cover design by Diana Kolsky.
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Interior text design by Laura K. Corless.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
This book is dedicated to
the members of the U.S. Armed Forcesâ
patriots present and pastâsacrificing dearly
and serving their country in harm's way.
Hats off to you, and thanks.
dell Spurling knew he ought to shoot the Indian. It was an easy shot from where he lay in a bois d'arc thicket, but he hesitated. Three years on the frontier was more than enough time to instill in most folks the axiom that the only good Indian was a dead one, but sometimes it seemed that Odell wasn't ever going to make a proper Texan. He quietly wallowed himself a more comfortable spot for his belly and readjusted the double-barreled Bishop rifle against his shoulder. He looked out over the rotten log he lay behind and gave careful study to the young warrior watering his horse at a gravel shoal fifty yards down the creek.
The Indian had come up the creek bed, traveling quietly and leading his horse. That in itself seemed suspicious, but Odell wasn't even sure what kind of redskin he was looking at. Any number of the old frontiersmen in the area could have told you what tribe the young brave belonged to at a glance. However, Odell was new to Texas, and it was safe to say that the country was chock-full of more kinds of Indians than you could shake a stick atâTonks, Kronks, Cherokees, Wacos, Wichitas, Caddos, Apaches, Kiowas, and others too numerous to name. His neighbors claimed that there would be no doubt about it when he saw one of the dreaded Comanche, but the young brave watering his horse didn't seem especially threatening to the casual glance.
Odell was just seventeen, and the Indian he was looking at couldn't have been much older. No war paint decorated his smooth face, and by his trappings he seemed quite the dandy. The top of his forehead was painted red at the parting of his black hair, and a single, brown feather dangled from one of his double braids. A veritable stack of copper rings encircled each of his upper arms, and long, silver earrings dangled almost to each shoulder. A bison-tooth necklace and red-wool breechcloth completed his dapper getup.
The French trade musket he held in one hand looked oversized against his slight frame. But while small in stature, the native's brown hide popped with lean, hard muscle beneath a liberal coating of bear grease, like ropes stretched taut underneath wet burlap. Odell was a very big young man, but the little Indian seemed to have muscles where there weren't even supposed to be muscles.
The Indian squatted down beside his drinking horse and cast a wary look around the brush before scooping up a handful of water. His eyes passed right over Odell, but the young frontiersman was sure that he was well hidden. He might not know much about Texas, but he did know the woodlands. Half of his life had already been spent hunting and running traps in the mountains of Georgia, and the timber along the creek bottom provided him with terrain to his liking. Anybody who could sneak up within spitting distance of a whitetail deer, or shoot the head off a gray squirrel in the top of the tallest tree, ought to have nothing to fear from a lone Indian boy.
Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed about Odell's head, and some other kind of crawly thing was working its way up his britches leg, stopping periodically to sting the hell out of him. He willed himself to be still and weather the insect assault on his tender flesh. He was a hunter by nature, and was enjoying the excitement he felt over seeing his first, honest-to-goodness plains warrior in the wild.
The Indian continued drinking one handful at a time, as if afraid to set his musket aside. The little bay gelding he was leading had drunk his fill and pulled against the rein of his war bridle in an attempt to pick at some water grass growing along the edge of the creek. Odell was quite shocked to see that the horse was saddled, considering that he had always been told that Indian men rode bareback. A buffalo-hide shield hung from the wooden horn of a Mexican saddle on the off side of the horse, and a long, hoop-iron-tipped lance was tucked under the stirrup leather. A water bag and a beaded set of saddlebags were tied behind the cantle.
When the brave had quenched his thirst, he shifted his weight over onto one leg and grimaced for a moment before farting loudly. His horse spooked and pulled hard against his rope, jerking the young Indian onto his back and dragging him several feet along the rocky bank. He just managed to hold on to his mount and roll over onto his belly. The horse stopped spraddle-legged and crouched low in the front end, his eyes wild and little ears pointed forward. The gelding blew loudly out his flared nostrils as his master eased to his feet and worked his way up the rope. A soothing hand along the horse's neck quieted him somewhat, but the white showing in the horse's eyes and the high carriage of his head showed that he was still looking for the booger that had made such a noise.
Ignoring the stirrup, the brave leapt astride the frightened horse with one fluid swing of his leg. He gathered his horsehair rein and smiled down at his mount and rubbed his neck again just ahead of the withers. With a mischievous look spreading across his face, he shifted in the saddle, lifted his left knee a little, and farted once more. The sound reverberated against the seat of the saddle, amplifying the crackling baritone to monstrous proportions.
If the horse had been scared before, he was positively beside himself then. Something was about to eat him, and he scrambled wildly on the creek stones beneath his feet. He crow-hopped twice to throw whatever thing had snuck onto his back, and then bolted off in a dead run. The little warrior laughed aloud and had no trouble pulling the horse back down.
Odell couldn't help but laugh himself, and the brave's head whirled around at the sound. His eyes locked in on the clump of brush that concealed his observer. The trade musket was up to his shoulder in an instant. He sat his stomping, crazed horse and searched the thicket carefully.
Odell tucked his cheek tight against the stock of his rifle and squinted down its long barrel. He found the blade of the front sight, and the Indian's chest danced around before it. He normally couldn't miss at such close range, but his calm seemed to have left him in an instant. He had the hammer cocked for theÂ .60-caliber right barrel, and a load of number six shot in the left shotgun barrel if that big round ball didn't do the trick. The little chunks of charcoal that were the brave's eyes focused in on Odell's hiding spot, and Odell wasn't at all sure that he was well enough armed. For the first time, the handful of scalps dangling from the bottom of the brave's shield registered in his brain for what they were. The Indian didn't look like a boy to him anymore.
Despite his study, the Indian couldn't make out Odell's form in the thicket. However, he did recognize the black, double eyes of the Bishop rifle peering at him over a log for what they were. He thumped his heels into his horse's belly and clattered down the edge of the shallow stream in a dead run. He cast one last look over his shoulder before he darted off into the timber a hundred yards down the creek.
Odell watched him go with more than a little relief. The wild look on the Indian's face just before leaving gave Odell a little notion of just what his elders had been preaching about around the fireplace at night. His size had always made him confident where physical danger was concerned, but for a moment he wondered if he had taken that Indian far too lightly. Something told him that had he not had the advantage of cover, his scalp too might have been hanging on that shield before sundown. And another little voice was yelling loudly in his ear that the stout warrior was undoubtedly a Comanche.
He considered the fact that the Comanche had entered the brush on his side of the creek. There was a good chance that the warrior was right then circling his position, either to lay in ambush or to sneak up on him from behind. While the farthest thing from an Indian fighter, common sense told him to move somewhere else, and to do it in a hurry.
As quietly as he could, he rose to his feet, and stooped to avoid the thorns on the low-hanging limbs above him. His backwoods upbringing served him well, and he slipped quietly through the tangle of brush until he reached a cow trail paralleling the creek. He turned down it in the opposite direction of the Comanche, and his long legs churned in a ground-eating run. After several hundred yards, he ducked off the trail and headed away from the creek. He then moved more cautiously, never taking more than a couple of steps at a time before stopping to look and listen.
The belt of thicket and timber along the creek bottom was at no point more than a quarter of a mile wide. A half-mile stretch of prairie lay between it and a low ridge of cedar and rock, just beyond which was home. He crouched at the edge of the timber and peered out through a clump of sumac bushes at the open expanse separating him from the next cover. He was once again well concealed, and nobody could cross the prairie to his front without him seeing them first or come up behind him in the brush without his hearing them.
He wished more than ever that he still had a horse, and remembering how he had lost his just reminded him how much he had to learn about the new country he was calling home. A week earlier, he had forgotten to hobble his horse, or to at least make sure he was securely tied, while going afoot to where his hounds had an old boar coon treed. He had to go home and tell his cranky grandfather that the horse the old man had given him had wandered off. There were a lot of miles between neighbors on the frontier, but the news traveled amazingly fast that he was a kid tenderfoot who couldn't even keep track of his own mount. Seasoned pioneers had clucked their tongues and shaken their heads at the latest folly of Pappy Spurling's overgrown grandson.
The old man was already mad enough at him for losing a valuable mount, and now Odell was going to be either chased home by a Comanche or late for supper because of one. Either way, it seemed like Odell's standing in his household and community was about to suffer more damage. Texas just seemed bound and determined to embarrass him.
The smart thing would have been to lay low until nightfall and then cross the prairie to home, but there were other matters to be weighed. He valued his scalp as much as the next man, but the wild call of a young man's hormones ruled out any chance of rational behavior. He was sure Red Wing would be finishing up her evening's chores before too long and going out to sit on the porch to stare at the stars. If he didn't get there first, he'd have to play second fiddle to that damned Prussian lover boy. He tugged impatiently at the floppy brim of his stained and ill-shaped felt hat and considered risking the open. Odell couldn't help it if he was wildly in love.
He conjured up an image of Red Wing's pretty face and weighed that against the risk of being killed. It was not even a fair contest, and he took one last look around him before lunging out into the open. While he might not outrun a Comanche pony, he figured he could hold the Indian at bay with his rifle if it came to that. He was fifty yards out on the prairie before it came to his mind that the Comanche might get him with a lucky shot from that smoothbore before he even had a chance to fight. His back felt twice as wide as normal.
Now Odell was a big, long-legged rascalâsix foot three in his socked feet, when he had any socksâand he put those bullfrog limbs to proper use and fairly flew over that patch of Texas sod. He was halfway across the prairie before he realized he was running scared. His breath was already coming in ragged gasps, and his heartbeat throbbed in his ears. Ashamed at letting fear overcome him for a moment, he slowed to a walk. He kept a careful watch behind him while telling himself that a skilled marksman on foot had the advantage over a mounted attacker. Common sense didn't provide the calm and comfort he had hoped for. He stumbled more than once, because he couldn't pay attention to where he was going for looking over his shoulder for Indians. The cedar ridge looked impossibly far away.