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The First in the Lane Collier Series
Randy D. Smith
The First in the Lane Collier Series
Randy D. Smith
His gelding struggled to maintain its footing as he climbed the steep bank of the Arkansas River. Once the dun made it safely to the valley floor Collier cut his eyes north toward Pawnee Rock. The sandstone monolith loomed over the broad plain like a sixty-foot red sentinel. From the rocks crest a man on horseback could see ten miles of Santa Fe Trail and the buffalo grass river valley in either direction. He had used the rock before. Part of his job as chief cavalry scout was as a lookout along the trail between Fort Larned, thirty miles to the west and Fort Zarah, thirty miles to the east.
Lane Collier was a tall man in his mid thirties. He had a short black beard framing even features and dark brown eyes. He wore a dark blue shirt, buckskin pants and knee high black riding boots. He was a fluid rider, easy in the saddle, a light touch on the reins. He leaned forward in his saddle and patted his horse on the neck. He was impressed with the effortless way the gelding moved. He had been out of the fort for three full days and had covered more than seventy miles. The horse was carrying him as easily as it had the first day and he was lucky to be riding such a good animal. Lieutenant Bohanin was unhappy with many mounts issued his troopers and would have requisitioned it if he had known. As the gelding climbed the steep slope toward the top of the rock, Collier adjusted his muzzle loading Plains rifle resting across the pommel of his saddle.
As the dun stepped to the top of the rock, Collier stared absently at the floor beneath the gelding's hooves. The sound of the riders caught his attention and he reined up. Five Cheyenne warriors were sixty yards away making their way up the opposite slope. Collier wheeled the gelding around and spurred for the river, the warriors breaking into pursuit.
Collier cursed himself as he struck out across the valley. He had been daydreaming in the saddle and it could cost him his life. His only hope was to make for the river to either make a stand or attempt to lose them. He doubted that his gelding, after days on the trail, was fresh enough to outrun them.
He heard the blast of a rifle shot from behind and felt a rush of air as a ball just missed his ear. He wondered how many had rifles. It wasn't more than seven hundred yards to the banks. If he could make some cover maybe he could hold them off if they weren't too well armed. The lack of any quick follow-up shots gave him some hope. One rifle against one was more to his liking than one against five. He leaned low in the saddle to make as small a target as possible. A second shot struck the gelding in the spine above the tail. As the gelding's back legs gave out Collier stepped to the ground drawing his rifle. The horse went down on its side and Collier knelt behind it. He drew a bead on the lead Cheyenne. He set the back trigger of the heavy Plains rifle and took his time aiming. He had to make his one shot count. The .54 bucked as he touched the front hair trigger and the lead Cheyenne rolled off the back of his pony. He drew his .44 Colt revolver as the warriors split on either side. Four were left and only one had a rifle. Collier aimed at the riflemans horse. As an arrow buried itself in the ground at Collier's feet, he fired and watched the pony fall. The rider slammed into the ground and staggered to his feet, favoring his shoulder, looking for his rifle. Collier fired his pistol again and missed.
The Indian was torn between running for cover and finding his gun. He dropped to the ground out of Collier' s line of sight. The remaining men dropped behind the banks of the Arkansas.
Collier crawled to the away side of his horse and reloaded his rifle. He rammed the patch and ball home, and placed a fresh percussion cap on the nipple before drawing his Colt. He was on the side of the dying gelding's feet and couldn't take the chance of getting kicked. He put the muzzle of the revolver behind the dun's ear and pulled the trigger. He went to work reloading the three empty chambers of his revolver. He cut his eyes from the bank of the river to his pistol and back. Once the revolver was loaded, he settled down for the wait drawing close to the gelding's body and placing his rifle within easy reach.
Collier thought that he saw movement along the bank. He drew a bead on what he thought to be an Indian but there wasnt time for a shot. He placed the rifle across the belly of his horse and fished an extra loaded cylinder for his Colt from his saddle bag. He took a drink from his canteen and waited for the Cheyenne to make a move. As the morning sun rose in the sky, flies and gnats hovered about his face and he wished for a breeze to scatter them.
He was in a stalemate and he could do little to get away. Even if the Cheyenne wanted to leave, they wouldn't without the body of their friend and Collier was between them and it. The gelding wasn't much but it was the only cover he had. He could only wait for their next move.
An arrow flew from behind the bank of the river into a high arch and buried itself in the grass twenty feet in front of Collier's position. Collier smiled as he realized that the Indians were trying to find his range. Those arching shots were something that he couldn't do with his rifle. Another arrow fell to earth about ten feet from him.
"Someone must think they're pretty good," Collier mumbled.
A third arrow lodged into the gelding's hip. "Someone is pretty good."
He looked hard for a head to show itself. Someone had to be watching where the arrows were landing. A subtle movement along the bank betrayed the Cheyenne. Collier could barely make out his form as the brave's head slowly rose above the river bank. As a fourth arrow struck the gelding, Collier's rifle roared. He couldn't tell clearly but he felt that he might have hit him. If not, the Indian would be more careful poking his head above cover. If he had hit his target, Collier figured that only two healthy Cheyenne were left.
Collier waited for night fall. In the waning light of sunset he could see movement but wasn't really sure. As shadows lengthened and light dimmed, it became almost impossible to see clearly at that distance. His head ached from the strain. As night fell, he slipped his saddle from his gelding and slung his canteen. When it was dark, he crawled toward the river, pushing his saddle and rifle ahead of him. Several times he stopped and waited behind the saddle listening. When he reached the bank, he hesitated at the edge. Other than the river sounds, he could hear nothing. He dropped over the edge and waited for several minutes crouched against the bank.
When he was certain there was no one about, he rose to his feet and lifted his saddle over his shoulder. After a mile or so he relaxed. "Maybe they wanted out of this fight as bad as I did," he thought. He hoisted the heavy saddle to his shoulder and walked into the night. It was at least twenty-five miles to Fort Larned. If he kept a steady pace, he could be there by dawn.
The activities of an active frontier post surrounded the sandstone buildings of Fort Larned situated on one of the most important trails in the West. Nine new buildings surrounded an open square. Their fresh new appearance contrasted greatly with the motley assortment of sod buildings and dugouts that surrounded them. The Pawnee River surrounded the post on three sides with the south end open to the prairie and the Santa Fe Trail. The hospital, a rough adobe structure, stood on the north side of the east loop of the river. A bit farther to the east were the corrals and some makeshift barns. No walls were surrounding the post. Instead it took on more of an appearance of a well-ordered village situated around a public square.
A troop of infantry drilled in the square. The soldiers wore simple uncomfortable uniforms of Civil War vintage. Wagons of a recently arrived supply caravan were lined up near the commissary building at the south end of the square. To the southeast stood an odd octagonal stone building called the blockhouse that functioned as a guardhouse. Beyond that were six circled wagons with stock grazing nearby.
A tall, handsome woman of twenty years was doing her washing just east of the blockhouse. She could draw fresh, clean water from the blockhouse well rather than from the muddy river water. A line was strung between two wagons in the circle and wash was drying in the sun and wind. She worked the clothing on a scrub board with an easy strength that came from her size and build. Her dark brown hair was formed into a tight bun at the back. Her neck and face were tan from working outdoors.
When she saw the man on the far bank of the dry loop, she wondered just how long he had been standing there. She thought it odd that a man would be carrying his saddle, especially since he had just passed the corrals. As the stranger started down the slope of the bank, she wondered if it wouldn't be a good idea to make her way back toward the wagons. He was dressed in a broad brimmed black hat, dark blue shirt, buckskin pants and high black boots. He was a handsome man with a trim beard standing more than six feet in height. He carried a beautiful muzzle loading Plains rifle and wore a Colt revolver. From his easy manner, she decided that he probably wasn't a threat.
He approached the well and smiled. "Looks like you found yourself a job."
She smiled and wiped a soapy hand across her forehead. "I didn't have to look very hard. You lose your horse?"
He acted surprised by the abruptness of her comment. "Yeah, I sure did."
"Quite a way back?" she asked.
"About thirty miles, I reckon." He shuffled from one foot to the other as though he was uncomfortable speaking to women.
"You need those spurs for a walk?"
He looked at his feet and chuckled. "I've worn them so much that I never thought about that ma'am. I guess they do look a little odd."
"No, sir, they don't. I guess I just have a strange sense of humor."
He smiled broadly. "Ma'am, your humor is just fine." He set down his rifle and saddle, and put forward his hand. "My name is Lane Collier."
She wiped soap off her hand on her apron and extended it. "I'm Nell Baker. It's nice to meet you."
Their handshake and greeting were formal, yet the touch of it felt good. They appreciated each other's manner.
"You need something?" A harsh voice came from a man standing near the entrance to the blockhouse. A dark unshaven man and a small brown hat glared at them.
Nell Baker looked up and answered uneasily. "Nathan, this man just walked in from-"
"You need something, mister?" Nathan asked.
Collier noticed that she was looking at the ground as if the cold edge of the man's voice had forced her into submission. His eyes narrowed. "Yeah, I need something."
She didnt look up. "This is my husband, Mr. Collier . . . Nathan Baker."
"Its nice to meet you ma'am. I need to be on my way."
. She nervously wiped her hands in her apron. "I enjoyed meeting you, sir," she answered quietly.
Collier picked up his saddle and rifle, and passed within a foot of Nathan Baker. The muscles in Baker's jaw tightened as he passed.
"None of my business," Collier thought. "None of my business. She seems awful nice to end up with that asshole, but its none of my business." He walked past the blockhouse and into the square.
A short, stocky sergeant was standing in the shade of the commissary building just out of Collier's sight. "You need a bigger horse, Collier. That one's so small, I can't even see it!"
Collier looked down at the dirt and shook his head in mock consternation. "Roberts, I just knew that you would have to say something."
Sergeant Chunk Roberts walked to Collier, bent over, and looked under Collier's crotch. "Why you haven't got no horse down there, do ya? Could it be that the great pathfinder has joined the infantry?"
"I tried," Collier smiled. "They refused me. Said I was too intelligent."
Roberts roughly slapped Collier on the back. "How'd you find your way back to the post without your horse to lead ya?"
"I did like you foot soldier. I just started walking in circles until I fell in the river and stumbled over the fort climbing out."
Roberts laughed and joined Collier. "Thats the army way, boy! It sure is!"
"Cheyenne hit me, Chunk."
Roberts lowered his voice. "I wondered. Was it young bucks on the prod, or a full-scale raiding party?"
"Bucks, I reckon. They were wearing paint and I don't know what they were up to other than raising a little hell."
Roberts shook his head. "I wonder. Things just ain't right. I guess we'll have to hear what Kidd thinks. The major received a report that it isn't just Cheyenne but Arapaho, Kiowa and Comanche as well. We're right in the middle if thats true."
"Yeah, I know." Collier looked north at the barracks.
"Hey! McClausky told me that your rifle's in."
Collier gathered his thoughts. "Its about time. If the money I paid for that gun was in the bank, I'd have gotten rich off the interest."
The men walked on. There remained an uncomfortable silence between them. Finally Roberts spoke. "The captain found out about the fight. He's pretty hot."
"Let him be hot. I've had it with that asshole, Holling. He's shot off his mouth for the last time."
"I'd watch out for Holling. He's never without that knife and he's good."
"He ever pulls that blade on me and he'll eat it."
They stepped to the frame officers' building and waited for recognition. Collier placed his saddle and rifle on the porch. Within moments, they were summoned.
Captain Joe Davis sat behind writing table. "What happened?"
"I got caught with my pants down by five Cheyenne at Pawnee Rock. They killed my gelding. I got one, maybe two of them. I walked in last night. Other than that the trail seemed clear."
"No sign of any other hostiles?"
Davis nodded and leaned back in his chair. "Collier, I don't want any more fights with any enlisted personnel. I've heard about you and Corporal Holling. It must not happen again."
"Well, sir, I don't hardly know what you might or might not have heard."
Davis blustered. "You know what happened, mister! You don't need to know what I heard! I want it to end!"
Collier nodded. " I would suppose that would be up to the corporal, sir."
"I want it to end." Davis sat for a moment, seemingly trying not to lose his temper. "I want you to scout for those six wagons going to Fort Dodge. Bohanin's not back from patrol and I'm sending Sergeant Roberts and a troop of infantry as escort. If we have a full-scale outbreak, that troop will need plenty of warning."
"I wouldn't think that six wagons would be worth the effort, Captain. Why dont you wait for a larger group and put them together?"
"There's some important supplies for Fort Dodge on one of them and because of it, the wagons have priority."
"Yes, sir. Priority. When do we leave?"
"First light in the morning. I want your people there and back in six days."
Collier started out of the room.
"Bohanin's late," Davis added. "We're undermanned. If this outbreak is as serious as some say it is; we are not nearly strong enough. Don't take any chances."
Collier nodded but thought to himself that if Davis was so concerned about taking chances, maybe they shouldn't go at all. He joined Roberts waiting on the front porch.
"What do you think?" Roberts asked.
"I think you boys are in for a seventy-mile walk."
"Lets go see that new rifle. I think I'm going to need it." He turned toward McClausky's store southwest of the fort.
The door was open to McClausky's store. The ramshackle frame building barely twenty feet wide by twenty feet long was crammed with supplies. It was one of the few places that a soldier stationed at Fort Larned could get any kind of break from the daily routine of soldiering. McClausky, a three-hundred pounder with a bushy beard and a thick crop of black coarse hair, was the kind of man who always knew a good story, always had a good deal, and always needed watching. Chewing tobacco, booze, cool beer, clothing, canned food, tack, guns, reading material, and a good place to hide was always available at McClausky's. About the only thing the man didn't supply were female favors and several camp laundresses, who lived in dugouts along the river, filled that bill.
When Collier and Roberts entered the doorway, McClausky drew the boxed rifle from a cluttered corner and placed it on the counter.
"Need a couple of beers," Chunk Roberts said without taking his eyes off the rifle. "So this is what you were saving for." He leaned over and read the engraving along the top of the barrel of the rifle. "Remington No. 1 Sporting Rifle, caliber .50-70."
"Yep, this is my buffalo gun." Collier carefully placed his Plains rifle on the counter just below the Remington. He compared the lines of the cap lock to the center-fire. Both rifles at first glance looked new, but, on closer inspection, one could spot the tiny nicks in the wood of the Plains rifle.
McClausky placed a new Winchester on the counter above the Remington. "For about the same money I can put you in this fine '66' Winchester .44 rimfire. If you throw in the Plains rifle, I'll call it even."
Collier picked up the Remington and held it before him. "I want to stay alive out there and kill buffalo. You sell that Winchester to one of those teamsters who don't know any better."
"I've got the other stuff that you ordered but the cartridge belt cost me ten cents more than I figured. You'll have to make up the difference."
"No. You made the deal. I paid in advance. I waited six months while you used my money. I'll have the belt and cartridges just as agreed on."
"Lord, McClausky! You never quit trying, do ya?" Roberts said as he shook his head in disgust.
McClausky placed the beers on the counter next to the Plains rifle.
"It's all a man can do to keep this place open, carrying you soldier boys on credit for months at a time, never knowing from one day to the next if I can make ends meet."
"Oh, Lord spare me this speech again!" Roberts said while taking the beers and placing them on the one table in the center of the building before taking a seat in one of the chairs.
Collier handed the Remington to Roberts then returned to the counter to pick up his Plains rifle, two boxes of .50-70 cartridges, and a leather cartridge belt. "Where's my free beer?"
"You got em, Collier. Two on the house. Now, what will you take for the Gemmer?" McClausky said motioning toward the Plains rifle.
"It isn't for sale. If I never fire it again, I won't part with it. Besides you'd just sell it to some Injun so he could use it on me." Collier smiled at the remark. It told McClausky that he was joking. Under the right circumstances a remark like that could cause serious trouble. Collier would never make it in front of strangers.
McClausky smiled and looked at the floor. "I'll give you twelve dollars for it."
"No. I won't part with it." Collier touched the Plains rifle and thought of the fight the day before. "Too many memories."
Roberts was feeling the heft of the Remington and discussing the Venire sights with Collier when Nathan Baker and two other men entered the store. A tall, thin, graying man named John Neill stepped to the counter past Baker and requested that his list of supplies be filled. McClausky took the list and started gathering products from the shelves and placing them on the counter. Baker leaned against the counter staring at Roberts and Collier. Collier was so involved with the rifle that he did not notice.
"Can I help you, mister?" Roberts asked.
Baker leaned back against the bar. "I was just wondering if this is what soldiers do."
"I'm afraid I don't follow."
Baker smirked. "Oh, you know. Sit on your ass drinking beer, talking big. Making a lot of noise and doing little else."
Roberts eyes drifted to Bakers gun. A large, heavy framed LeMat revolver hung in a cross draw holster. There was no hammer loop to restrain the weapon. It didn't look like a gun fighter outfit but it did look handy.
Baker waited against the bar for a response. The third man, a grizzled teamster named Charley Pitts, spoke. "Nate, this really isn't a good idea. Why don't we wait outside?"
Baker's dark eyes never left Roberts and Collier. "Oh, I don't think that we have much to worry about."
"Look, mister, I don't want any trouble."
"Come on," Pitts said. "We don't need this."
Baker smiled coldly. "Why not? I don't see anything in here worth much."
John Neill spoke like a man familiar with giving orders. "That's enough."
Baker smiled. "Enough of what? I was just making an observation about soldier boys."
Roberts looked at Baker wondering what was happening. Getting dogged for no apparent reason seemed insane. Collier placed the Remington rifle on the table and shifted his weight forward. "I don't think that this business is meant for you, Chunk. Is it, mister?" He unsnapped the flap on his cross draw holster with his left hand.
"What's that for?" Baker said. "I was just passing the time of day. What's your problem?"
Collier's eyes grew narrow and mean. "You're my problem, asshole."
Baker turned to Neill and Pitts. "Look at this! I can't believe this!"
Bakers tactics disgusted Collier. "Can't believe what? There ain't no woman in here to run."
Baker whined. "Man, I don't know what you are talking about."
Chunk Roberts watched nervously.
"Baker, I told you to wait outside," Neill said. "We don't need any trouble with the army."
Baker turned his hands palms up as he whined, "You mean a man just walks into a place and gets bulldogged by the army and we have to take it?"
Roberts spoke softly. "Lane, you're already in deep over Holling. I don't know what is going on but this fellow ain't worth it."
Colliers eyes never left Baker and Pitts as they left the store. He turned his chair to face the doorway and sat back down.
"Your order's ready," McClausky said.
"How much?" Neill asked.
"Twenty-eight, fifty," McClausky said. Neill paid and left the building with his parcels without comment.
Roberts waited for a few uncomfortable seconds before he spoke. "What the hell?"
Collier looked at the floor. "There are assholes in general and assholes by choice." He took his mug to the bar for a refill. "Hes one by choice."
Roberts leaned back in his chair and threw his arms wide. "Well, that explains it all! Thanks, Collier! Your eloquence is overwhelming."
Collier allowed himself a small smile. "You want another beer?"
"Sure. Especially if you're buying."
The two men drank their beers slowly and with only casual remarks about the rifle for another twenty minutes before a green trooper burst through the doorway.
"Sgt. Roberts! You and Mr. Collier are ordered to Captain Davis' quarters immediately."
"What now?" Roberts asked.
"Something about a complaint."
Roberts cut his eyes toward Collier. "You don't think?"
Collier stood, picked up his rifles and goods and went for the door. "I told you, Chunk. An asshole by choice."
Both of the barracks at the north end of the square were full of activity starting around 4:30 when the kitchen opened. Each barrack had a kitchen attached to the middle running north from the main building. Sunrise was a time of quiet conversation before the routine of the day began. Twenty-two infantrymen of Company C, 3rd US Infantry, were assembling on the porch of the west barrack under "light marching orders." The order meant that the men were not to be burdened with their usual fifty pound backpacks. Each man would carry the minimal gear, that is, blanket, haversack, canteen, tin cup and rifle. The ten pound .58 caliber Model 1863 Springfield muskets were of Civil War vintage and although muzzle loaders, they had an effective killing range of nearly five hundred yards. In open country, Indians rarely took on the infantry unless numbers were greatly in their favor because of the range and killing power of the rifled muskets. The men were wearing new issue felt campaign hats rather than the Kepi caps of Civil War vintage. The hats were much more highly thought of than the caps as being cooler and more comfortable in hot weather. Infantrymen such as these were the backbone of Santa Fe Trail escort duty. The escort run to Fort Dodge, seventy miles to the southwest, was not considered too bad, especially since most of the trip would be made riding in the back of escort wagons that were being assembled in the square.
Corporal Niles Holling, Raymond Bates and Lucifer Crandall were among these men. Holling was a man of average build and light brown hair. A Civil War veteran with little education, he was in many ways, a typical infantryman of the 1860's. He was in the army because he liked it. When he wasn't drinking, he was considered a competent soldier. A man of little imagination, the drudgery of infantry life still beat the Pennsylvania coal mines that he had escaped when he left home to go to war. Although personally a courageous man, he was also a man capable of great cruelty and was generally considered a bully. It had been his bullying tactics while off duty at McClausky's that had caused his run-in with Collier several days before. Holling resented Collier. Collier, a civilian scout, enjoyed many privileges that the common soldier did not. It had come to a head with Holling trying to bulldog Collier out of a drink. Before it was over, Holling found himself flat on his back on the ground in front of McClausky's with still another reason to resent Collier. Bates and Crandall were men of similar backgrounds and talents. They were friends because the rigid social order of military life forced them to be. Looked down upon by officers and resented by many troopers of lower rank, they held their troop together. Although a problem for the sergeants in some ways, they were essential in carrying out the orders and duties of a frontier post.
Collier's saddled horse, tied to a barracks post, did not escape their attention as they formed ranks in front of the building. Neither did the new Remington rifle hanging from the saddle. The expensive rifle was out of reach for these men who earned sixteen dollars a month and who were constantly in debt to McClausky since paydays were few and far between.
"Look at that, Crandall. What do you think that thing cost Collier?" Holling asked, barely able to hide his envy.
"I don't know. It's more than we can afford."
Crandall's dull witted reply only made Holling more envious.
"Check out the trail to Sand Point and come on back. I'd like to make it there by sundown tomorrow," Roberts told Collier as they left the barracks.
Collier walked past Holling without comment or recognition. Roberts stopped. "Holling, check out those recruits and make sure that they have everything."
"Right, Sergeant." Holling said as he turned toward the men but continued to eye Collier.
Collier swung into the saddle and reined up the dark bay. "You should make the Arkansas by this evening. I'll meet you there." His eyes cut to Holling and met the corporal's look of resentment. "We gonna have trouble, or what?"
Holling answered bitterly, "We're gonna have trouble. I ain't forgetting that sucker punch."
Collier held up the bay and leaned forward in the saddle. "Holling, that weren't no sucker punch. Any time you need another lesson, you just let me know."
Holling smiled. "Oh, I will, mister. Real soon."
As Collier rode by the officers' housing on the west side of the square, he saw Captain Davis standing at the board walk in front of his house. Collier gave Davis a leisurely salute which was returned in a similar fashion. The sun was just beginning to break the horizon as he rode past the commissary and saw the freight wagons waiting on the trail for their escort. Nell Baker sitting in the third wagon from the front. John Neill was sitting in the front wagon keeping the six mules easy as he waited for the army escort wagons. A double barreled shotgun poked down butt first into the wagon box.
"Are they about ready?" Neill asked.
"Yes, sir. They are loading up in the wagons now." Collier answered.
"You going on ahead?" Neill asked in a friendly manner.
"I'm going to check things out. I'll see you this evening at camp." He put the bay into a gallop. It pitched a couple of times then settled down and moved off toward the southwest.
Nell Baker did not miss Collier's exit from the post. She had been watching for the soldiers and was surprised to see Collier ride out from behind the commissary. She noticed how easily he sat in the saddle and moved with his horse. She smiled as she thought of this contrast to his awkwardness at the blockhouse when they first met.
Nathan Baker, working with his team on the ground, noticed her smile. "What you smiling about?"
She didn't answer but rather turned her eyes downward into the wagon box and her feet.
Baker looked over his shoulder from the team that he was lining out and saw Collier riding away. He glared at the woman and said harshly, "I should have guessed. You'll stay away from him if you know what's good for you."
"I was just enjoying the morning, Nathan," she said.
He stepped up into the wagon seat beside her and squeezed her arm until she squirmed from the pain. "And, I said you had best stay away from him. Do you understand?"
She replied in an emotionless tone that he had come to expect from her. A tone that went far beyond the way she spoke to him. "I understand." She had been married to Nathan for only two years but the coldness she felt toward him, soured their every moment together. She had been pregnant once, but his abuse had caused her to lose the child. There would be no more. In her mind and body, she had closed the man out.
The Company C escort wagons rolled out of the square and started southwest toward the Arkansas River, twenty-five miles away. John Neill started his team in behind the troop wagons. As Nathan Baker started his team, Nell noticed that she could barely make out Collier as he dropped below the horizon.
The Kansas dawn broke golden and still as the teamsters and infantrymen started on the journey to Fort Dodge.
A lone Cheyenne brave hid along the banks of the Pawnee River. He counted the wagons and the men. He made mental notes of the condition of each of the wagons and the firepower of the entire group. Once they had passed, he quietly made his way back along the river to the west away from the fort. Once he was clear, he put his pony into a gallop.
His scout to the Arkansas was uneventful. A few antelope, early in the morning, and mule deer moving along the river, had been the only living things he had seen. He had reached Sand Point in the early afternoon and stopped to rest the bay before starting back. It was a perfect place to try out the new rifle. He had tied the rifle to his saddle horn with a leather thong. He drew the rifle from the grazing bay and looked south across the Arkansas for a likely target. The Remington was not so muzzle heavy as the Plains rifle and it was a much more streamlined weapon. He thumbed back the hammer and the breech block then inserted a long .50-70 cartridge into the chamber. He drew down on a clump of sand love grass and yucca growing on the edge of one of the bluffs on the far shore of the river. He guessed the distance to be about one hundred and fifty yards. He adjusted the Vernier sight, sat down on the sandy bank and took careful aim. His first shot was short but dead on. He adjusted the sights to elevate a bit more and placed a second round in the rifle. With his second shot, he watched a section of yucca fall as the bullet cut through it. He was pleased with the rifle's accuracy but surprised at its recoil. The advantage of the new rifle was obvious, especially to a man who spent so much of his time on the trail alone. It definitely shot harder than the muzzle loader but he could reload it so much faster.
He fired a third round and smiled as another section fell from the yucca. He returned to his mount admiring his new rifle. He tightened the cinch of his saddle and hung the rifle from the saddle horn. As he gathered up the reins and swung into the saddle, he noticed a flash of light reflected from the hill opposite the river. Collier suspected that he was being watched. He eased himself down from the bay carefully keeping the horse between himself and the hill. He worked his mount toward a struggling willow growing along the banks of the sand bar. As he moved, a second flash from the hilltop caught his attention. "They've got a rifle on us, pony," Collier said grimly. "Let's see how bold they are."
He cut his eyes along both sides of the river to see if he was being flanked.. He fished out his spyglass from his saddle bag and scanned the hill. Whatever had caused the flash was gone. "They know that I saw them," he said quietly. "Might as well check things out."
According to the Medicine Lodge treaty, the area south of the Arkansas was Indian territory and the river was commonly called the "Dead Line" by whites. Indian movement south of the river could be expected but Collier needed to get the feel of what was going on. He remounted his horse and forded the river. The river was wide and the gelding had to swim for several yards through the deepest channel. As he started up the south bank, Collier pulled his Colt and worked up the sand hill warily. He found sign where two Indians had watched him from the hill top. At the base of the hill were pony tracks leading south. He scanned the thousands of hills before him. The rolling sand and grass was a maze for most men and few rode into them alone. He had very little to gain and everything to lose by following any further. He decided to report to Roberts and let him make the decisions. He turned the horse north to the river and recrossed.
Four hundred and fifty Cheyenne warriors quietly waited in a draw on the other side of the ridge. The war chief, Elk Heart, listened to his scout's report. The scout felt that he had been seen but he did not believe that the blue shirt knew of the main band waiting in the hills. Elk Heart pondered on the report then made his decision. Probably the scout did not know the existence of his men. The wagons would come and they would strike on the morrow. If not, they would find them and make other plans. His men were not to follow the blue shirt. They knew where he was and where he would probably be. That was enough for the moment.
* * * *
Collier's report to Roberts that evening was not what Roberts wanted to hear. Collier felt that there were hostiles about but he had no clear evidence of large numbers. Roberts knew that Collier was seldom wrong. Roberts decided to go on to Sand Point. He ordered one of his corporals to be on guard duty with each shift. He turned his attention to seeing that Collier was fed. A plate of beans with a pitiful amount of pork fat thrown in greeted Collier for his evening meal. As he ate, he noticed the Baker camp on the opposite side of the circled wagons. He did not see the woman but was aware of her presence.
John Neill joined them at the camp fire. He seemed eager to make conversation.
"What do you know about those two?" Collier asked pointing to the Baker camp.
"Storekeeper from Missouri. Wants to open a store in Santa Fe. Keeps to himself. Doesn't like anyone talking to his wife."
"Yeah, I could tell. What do you know about her?" Collier asked.
"Seems nice enough. I really don't know. Baker keeps her close to him. Doesn't tolerate much contact."
Roberts remembered the confrontation between Baker and Collier. "What's it to you?".
Collier placed his plate on the ground. "Just curious."
"About them or about her? Listen, boy, married women are nothing but trouble, no matter how attractive they might be. It's women like that one that'll really get you in trouble."
Collier smiled and kicked the dirt with the heel of his boot. "Don't worry, Mother. I don't need more than one guy wanting to slit my throat at a time. Holling is enough."
Roberts eyes narrowed. "Mother, huh? Well, smart guy, I'll remember that when you're in the guard house."
Collier rose to his feet. "You're right, Chunk. It really wasn't fair of me to call you, Mother." He grinned and started walking away. "Grandma fits you better."
Where are you going now?"
"To check the pickets, and pay my respects to Mrs. Baker."
Roberts looked at Neill and shook his head. "Can you believe this guy? I think he thrives on it."
Collier walked up to the Baker camp as though he had been invited with a broad smile on his face. "Good evening, Mrs. Baker. I hope things went well for you today."
Baker came to his feet, his fists clenched, his knees locked. "What do you want?"
Collier looked the woman in the eyes. "I just wanted to pay my respects to the lady and see if everything had gone well today."
"Thats my affair. Not yours."
He kept his attention aimed at Nell. "I was wondering if you were alright, ma'am."
Nell smiled. "I'm fine, Mr. Collier. Things went very well today, thank you."
"That's good, ma'am. If any problem develops, feel free to let me know. I'll be only too glad to help."
"Thank you, sir. You are most gracious."
Collier turned to Baker. His eyes narrowed. "Any problem at all, ma'am. Any problem at all."
Baker was silent. He would wait until Collier was gone. Then he would show her. He would show her so this sort of thing never happened again.
"I'll see you again, Mrs. Baker. Good evening." He tipped his hat and walked on into the darkness. He chuckled as he thought of Baker's anger. As he checked his horse, he thought of her. He knew that his attraction to the woman wasn't smart but she seemed too fine a woman to be treated like property. He shrugged and turned toward camp.
Three men were silhouetted between him and the light of camp. He recognized them as Holling, Bates and Crandall.
"Collier, it's time you and me finished things." Holling said as a Bowie knife gleamed in his right hand."
Crandall drifted to the right away from Holling while Bates stepped to the left. Holling, in the center, came a step toward Collier. His knife flashed in his hand. "I figure it's time somebody whittles you down to size."
"With three of you trying, I don't see it as too big a problem," Collier said as he backed away from them. His foot struck something on the ground. The distinctive clink of the chain link in the center against the wood told him that someone had dropped a single tree from a team harness. He picked up the single tree and held it in both hands.
Holling stopped. He didn't like the idea of the single tree in Collier's hands. He was hoping for a knife fight, not a free-for-all brawl that was more Collier's style of fighting. He was planning on cutting up Collier a little but the single tree insured that everyone would probably get hurt.
"If you're going to whittle, get to it,." Collier said.
Holling hesitated as he tried to figure a way past the single tree. Crandall rushed at Collier from the side and met a single tree across his forehead. Holling plunged the knife at Collier's back. Collier caught Holling's arm on the back swing and the knife went flying. Bates rushed before Collier could recover and they went to the ground with Bates on top. Bates drew back his fist and Collier landed blow to his ribs with the single tree. He rolled off Collier gasping for breath. Collier came to his feet and gave him a blow to the back of the neck. Bates collasped to the ground unconscious.
Holling felt for his knife in the darkness. "Damn you! You have the devil's own luck!"
Collier threw down the single tree, took hold of Holling's shirt and gave him a crashing blow to the face with his fist. Blood flew from Holling's mouth and nose as he fell back into the ground. As he started back to his feet, Collier stuck again splitting a cut above Holling's left eye. Holling's face was covered with blood as he lay in the dirt.
John Neill and the Bakers rushed in. Nell gasped as she recognized Collier standing over the three unconscious soldiers. By the time Roberts arrived, Holling was climbing to his feet.
"What the hell! Corporal Holling, do you have an explanation?" Roberts shouted.
"We....We stumbled in the dark coming up from the river, Sergeant."
"Good God! Holling! How stupid do you think I am? Any fool could come up with a better story than that!"
Holling sat in the dirt, a thoroughly defeated man.
Roberts turned to Collier.
"You need to do something about those clumsy troopers of yours, Sergeant," Collier smiled.
"That cuts it!" Roberts roared. " Before this is over, I'll see all four of you in the guard house!"
"I saw Collier standing over these men when we arrived. I believe that he assaulted these three in the dark," Baker said.
"You saying you saw the fight?" Roberts snapped.
"Well.....no.....I was saying....."
"I'll tell you what! You take care of your business, Baker, and I'll take care of army business!
What do ya think?"
Baker stepped away as soldiers arrived and gathered what was left of Bates and Crandall.
"Consider yourself under arrest," Roberts said to Holling. "And you, Collier.....come with me!"
Collier and Roberts walked back to camp, leaving Neill and the Bakers alone.
Baker turned to Neill. "Well, isn't this a damned fine mess? We get an escort to keep the Injuns from killing us and watch them try to kill each other."
Neill looked into the darkness and shook his head. "We have to remember the kind of men that we are dealing with. These are fighting men with violent ways."
Baker turned toward his wagon. "Make excuses for them, Neill. I intend to complain to their superiors once we get to Fort Dodge."
Nell Baker remained silent as she listened. She found herself dwelling on what a mysterious man Collier was. How could a man who seemed so awkward and boyish at the river, be so violent? He had shown her nothing but kindness, and yet, she knew that he had purposely baited her husband in camp. In many ways, she had never been attracted to anyone as she was to Collier, yet he was a dangerous man. Was he any different than her husband?
"Are you coming?" Baker's voice was harsh.
"What? Oh, yes, I'm coming."
"Whats your problem?"
"Nothing." As she made her way back to camp, she saw Collier by the campfire across from her wagon. He was just sitting, staring at the fire. It seemed odd how in control he seemed.
Their eyes met. Collier smiled with an innocent expression that unnerved her. She couldn't imagine what he was smiling about. He had just finished almost killing three men. She realized that she was smiling back. She wondered if she shouldn't be outraged by his actions. Nathan's cruelty so unacceptable and yet she was attracted to a man like Collier. She turned away and went to her wagon.
Baker came to her after a while and crawled into bed. She turned away and stared into the blackness that was her wagon, her thoughts, and her life. She laid awake for several hours thinking of Collier, her marriage, her circumstances and the child that she so desperately wanted but would not allow Nathan Baker to father.
END OF SAMPLE
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