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Double Mountain Crossing
Chris Scott Wilson
When Morgan Clay found color, nobody could have been more surprised than he. Dogged, stubborn man that he was, he had already given up looking.
But there it was.
A wide vein of gold running through quartz, a vein that began as a pinpoint, then broadened to an inch wide, offshoots breaking away in all directions, tapering to hairline cracks. Although he was no expert prospector, even he could see the gold was almost pure. It was rich, thick, and as he smiled to himself, decidedly the most beautiful thing he had seen in the last three months.
Yet he could not believe it.
But there it was.
Morgan Clay shook his shaggy head and lifted the canteen he had been filling in Sun Creek to taste the coldest, sweetest water he could imagine. As he drank he raised his eyes and scanned the timber. It was habitual. He had seen a Sioux brave cut down once because he had been too intent, bending over the neck of his pony as he tracked a deer that he had not sensed the two white men sitting their horses ahead of him on the trail, waiting patiently for him to come within range. From that day Morgan Clay had always taken time to look around him.
When he had drunk enough, he pushed the neck of the canteen back under to allow it to fill then again peered down at the shelf of rock that formed the bed of the creek.
It was still there. He wasn’t dreaming. The water rippled over the quartz, the pattern of the gold vein shimmering and altering with the changes in the current.
“Well, Goddam,” Morgan Clay said in wonder over his shoulder to his waiting horses. “It was here all the time. I knew I was right.” His saddle horse, a lineback dun, dipped his head and shook out his mane, blowing softly through dilated nostrils. The packhorse, a sultry bay, shifted uneasily, nostrils flared at the scent of water.
The bay was only lightly loaded now, just tools and Morgan’s camping outfit. His supplies were well down, depleted by his three month prospecting trip in the high peaks. He’d panned creeks, scratched at rocks, looking for signs in every canyon, gulch and arroyo in the whole chain of mountains. All the time that feeling had been there in his heart. He knew there was gold there, somewhere, but as the weeks passed, then the months, he had become despondent, his natural optimism fading with each successive and equally fruitless day.
He had worked hard and long, his back breaking and burning under the hot sun, sheltered where he could when the storms in that “sudden” country had lashed him with needlepoints of rain or hammered him with duck egg-sized hailstones, and through it all he had nurtured hopes of a strike. For three months’ work he had absolutely nothing to show. One big fat zero. And when you weighed that in on the banker’s scales you didn’t get many dollars in return for all those endless hours. Out of pocket, eyes and muscles aching, he had folded up his meagre outfit and headed onto the downward trails. The only reason he had stopped here was he had tasted the water once before at Sun Creek and he knew it was good.
And now this.
“Goddam,” he said aloud again, reaching down into the water to caress the rock shelf with his callused hand. It was as smooth on his fingertips as a silk handkerchief. He glanced round, furtively scanning the timber as men do when they’ve found something precious. It was as though now that he had discovered it someone would sneak up and steal it away.
By nature, Morgan Clay was a cautious man, and had proved so by attaining the age of forty-five in a country where many men barely made it past their youth. He watered the horses then led them into the belt of pines, away from the lure of the rock shelf. He found a small clearing to provide grazing for the animals, then stripped off their harness and hobbled them. He built a small fire near the base of a rangy pine so the branches would dissipate the thin smoke, and as he labored he was aware of the dun and the bay greedily cropping the dewy mountain grass. He filled the coffee-pot and set it to simmer then rolled himself a smoke to aid his thinking.
He was sure he had crossed Sun Creek at that point on the mountainside before and he hadn’t spotted the shelf. Why? Reasons tumbled through his mind and then a thought occurred to him. He dug out his ten gauge shotgun from his gear and set off back to Sun Creek.
Although Morgan was a fair hand at most things, he had never been much use with a rifle. He’d always blamed it on a poke in the left eye suffered as a boy when a half broke mustang had thrown him onto the corral rails then tried to stomp him. Only a ball from his father’s gun had stopped the crazy horse, and it had stopped him good. Morgan had been covered from head to foot in the thick blood from the horse’s jugular vein. When his ma had washed the gore off, he had a black eye that lasted for weeks. Since then he had always wasted more ammunition than enough and found the switch to a scattergun more economical, even though it meant he had to pick buckshot out of his teeth when he ate fresh meat. But that was little hardship when he was certain he could hit most targets he set his one good eye on.
Back at the creek he waded through the shallow water and followed the trail east. Two hundred feet into the pines he found another crossing, this time a dry creek bed. He paused and inspected the arrangement of trees. It looked familiar. This was the place he had crossed on his way up to the high country. The creek must have changed course recently. He began to walk up the dry wash, his legs pushing up the steep incline.
He was right. Not far up the mountainside he found where the original watercourse had run in a tight bend. Either the passage of time or a heavy storm had built up a network of dead branches against which soil had collected until an effective dam had blocked the natural downward flow. Back a little from the bend, the loose soil of the banks had burst and the creek had carved a new course down the mountain.
As he stood cradling his shotgun, Morgan could see the pressure of the teeming water during the storm had scooped out the crumbly earth, suspending the soil in the strong current, and in doing so would have exposed the rock shelf. It could only have happened in the last few days otherwise the water would have washed out part of the gold.
He smiled. All he had to do now was loosen the natural dam that had formed and rebuild the creek banks where they had burst and the water would again flow along the original course. As soon as the quartz shelf drained he would be able to chip out the gold with ease.
Leaving the dam, he picked his way back down among the pines and circled his campsite, coming into the clearing from the opposite side. The lineback dun raised his head on catching his master’s scent, snickered softly, then returned to cropping the grass. Morgan patted the gelding’s rump as he passed, already sniffing the aroma of coffee.
As he drank from his tin cup, he began planning, assessing how long his depleted stores would hold out before he was forced to return to Redrock to resupply. There was flour for biscuits and some tobacco. What little coffee was left could be stretched by mixing in mesquite beans, and there was ample game roving the high country. If he could get himself a good sized deer in the bag, then there would be fresh meat for several days and the rest could be dried into jerky in the sun. That way he would be able to work at the gold vein without taking spells to hunt.
His course of action mapped out in his mind, he turned his hand to shaping biscuits over the fire, enough for a meal and some spare to pack for his hunt. Morgan took his time over the familiar task, all the more to allow the excitement surging in his veins to simmer down. It wouldn’t pay to fling caution to the wind now.
The two Kiowa ponies were tired as they tramped the deer trails of the peak country. They were far from their home that lay to the south-east, on the Llano Estacado, the Staked Plains of Texas. Prairie bred, the hardy little roan mustang and the dappled grey were used to the vast expanses of land richly carpeted with buffalo grass, not the rocky mountain trails that twisted and climbed steeply and that were hard on both men and ponies alike. The leader of the three-man party was Comes-Walking, a Kiowa brave of thirty summers, renowned among his people as an explorer for he loved to wander the country, eyeing new landscapes and the beauty of nature’s works. It was often his custom to explore after a raid before the finish of the summer weather made travel impossible, and this year after the flight from Mexico, driving a herd of stolen ponies before them, he had asked his brother Thunderhawk to care for his share of the booty while he rode to the west. Two of the boys, Short-Lance and Swift-Foot, had begged to ride with him so their eyes could be opened to the secrets of the unknown. Neither had earned a Man-name and each was eager to prove himself worthy. Reluctantly, Comes-Walking had agreed, but only after consulting the Owl Medicine Man. The reply had been favorable, the Medicine Man throwing his voice in an imitation of the quavering call to the owl puppet he wore on his wrist, then translating the Owl talk to inform the explorer the boys would truly prove themselves.
Now, one pony dead from the hard journey, and the dappled grey rapidly tiring from bearing the weight of both boys, Comes-Walking was not so sure it had been a good idea. If they were to return to the tipis of their families before the deep winter snows they would have to steal another horse, if not three. Food was short too, for he only carried an old single shot Remington rifle and had little ammunition while the boys were armed only with bows.
The problem weighed heavily on his mind as he rode into a gully, his own roan mustang still sturdily footed, although hard ridden. They had seen no other horses or men for the last ten sleeps as they ascended the long arid plain that led to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but later, among the peaks they had cut sign. Today they were following it carefully, and he knew they were steadily closing.
He was puzzled. The sign appeared to wander aimlessly from one place to another, as if the rider was searching for something. Abandoned campsites had shown there was only one rider, but he had two horses, both big sturdy animals to judge from the size of their tracks. A white man too, for the horses were shod. Besides, an Indian would never have left such clear tracks. Comes-Walking consulted the sky, noting the sun had passed through another hour, then looked down over the neck of his pony at the ground. These tracks were very fresh. He could not be far away.
The Kiowa sat quietly on the little roan, listening to the breeze that blew gently through his chest length braids. His handsome bronze face with the long roman nose was tilted slightly back, his eyes narrowed to slits against the sun. The fringes of his deerskin shirt rippled in the air current, discouraging the flies and mosquitoes. Above him, a red-backed hawk, the swiftest of its family, circled, searching out prey. You too, brother, thought Comes-Walking as he gazed out over the land. Behind him, the two boys, Short-Lance and Swift-Foot, sat their exhausted pony in silence, heads drooping with fatigue.
“It is a good day,” Comes-Walking said with feeling. “We will find him soon.” With a glance at them he nudged the roan forward with moccasined heels. The two boys nodded at his back and coaxed the grey into a walk, tracing the roan’s hoof prints across the rocky soil.
They rode for an hour before they heard it.
A dull boom echoed in the hills to their right. Immediately, they drew rein and listened to the song of the wind, both men and ponies alert now. All that could be heard in the aftermath of the gunshot was the bear claw necklace clacking softly against the hair pipe breastplate on Comes-Walking’s powerful chest.
“We have found him,” the warrior said, thin lips barely moving as he urged the roan into a canter. The weary grey responded too, and the three Kiowas headed for the dark stretch of pines above the cedar brakes, the drumming of unshod hooves dying away behind them.
Once into the timber they hauled the ponies to a stop and slid to the earth. Comes-Walking waved the boys out onto his flanks and began his scout. Silent as the flight of an eagle, he trod the forest floor, his own tracks barely discernible, so careful was his approach. Four times he signalled restraint to the now-eager boys and each time they deferred to his command. Finally he was rewarded when a gap in the pines allowed him a glimpse of his quarry.
The white man in the clearing had skinned the fallen elk and was sectioning the meat for packing into his saddlebags that lay on the ground beside him. At his back, a lineback dun stood patiently. Where was the other horse? A flicker of movement registered in the warrior’s peripheral vision and he swung round, irritably making the sign for “only one horse” to Short-Lance who was edging forward. The boy stilled and Comes-Walking turned his attention back to the scene in front of him.
The white man was old, his hair shot through with streaks of grey, but he looked tough, a seasoned hunter, well able to take care of himself. He was making a good job of butchering the carcass, wasting little. A worthy opponent, the warrior thought, and if the other horse was as fine as the lineback, it would be well worth stealing. There was a fine gun too. The Kiowa could see the polished stock next to the white man’s hand. It was one of those with two barrels that fired many balls in a big circle. A big killing gun. Comes-Walking’s eyes smiled. Two fine horses and the gun would make fine trophies to take back to their people, but he would let one of the boys take the white man’s scalp. It was not fit for a warrior to take, grey as it was.
Although Morgan Clay worked steadily at the fallen elk, he was aware the birds had not returned to the trees or resumed their song, nor the lesser animals to their scurrying in the undergrowth. He knew only too well the absence of wildlife was an ominous sign. Perhaps one of the mountain predators, a hungry cougar or a wildcat, had caught scent of the kill and was already stalking. He’d had truck with the big cats before, and although he had a healthy respect for them, he’d always come off best, so if one of the yellow eyed varmints was out after him, then let it come.
He glanced over his shoulder at the dun gelding. Its ears were up and its nostrils dilated as it sniffed the breeze. So, it wasn’t his imagination, the lineback sensed it too. Making sure the shotgun was close to hand, he continued sectioning the elk, but his attention was focused on the outer edges of his vision, scanning the pines. The dun was growing noticeably edgier, shifting weight from hoof to hoof, breathing shallowly, ears twitching. Whatever was out there in the timber must be close. Against his will, Morgan found his own breathing growing ragged.
Then he saw him.
He gave no visible indication he had seen the Indian but he was puzzled. A boy, barely fifteen by the looks, bronzed and wiry, carrying only a hardwood bow as he squatted in the timber. What was even more intriguing was the boy appeared to be a Kiowa. Morgan had run into them before, but the furthest west he had seen them had been down on the Pecos, and even that had been way off their home range. He knew the Kiowa Nation was mainly centred on the Red River and the Big Wichita, just above the Staked Plains where the great herds of buffalo roamed. Wherever there was buffalo, the Indians were sure to be close, both the Kiowas and their brothers, the Comanche.
The cause for worry was it was highly unlikely the Kiowa boy would be alone. He was too young. Morgan had heard boys were sometimes taken along on war parties to raid the Mexicans and the Texans, so that could only mean full grown braves with him. Morgan’s stomach shrivelled just a mite. Kiowa braves were as tough as hell and he had no desire to tackle a whole war party. Judging from the condition of the boy, they were probably hungry and the butchered elk would offer easy pickings. His only consolation was if they were hungry they must be poorly armed, for a man with a rifle could find plenty of game in high country to fill a growling belly. Still, a flight of Kiowa arrows could stop a man in his tracks just as surely as a bullet and Morgan had no desire to chance his arm.
But, if they were out there, why had they not attacked? Could it be the boy was a scout and he was waiting for the rest of a war party to catch up? Morgan decided to hightail it back to his campsite where he had left the bay horse, for the clearing there would make a better place for a stand. Leaving the remains of the carcass on the grass, he caught up his scattergun and saddlebags, then swung up onto the dun’s back. The skittish gelding wheeled quickly and he was gone.
The clearing was empty. Comes-Walking rose from his crouch and crossed to the elk skin. Short-Lance followed, leaving Swift-Foot to return to the fringes of the pines to collect the ponies. The warrior stooped and began to roll up the slimy elk skin, scraping the fat and blood from the hide with his knife.
“Why take that?” Short-Lance frowned, his eyes straying to the trail the white man had taken from the glade. “We cannot eat skin, and the white man has taken all the best meat.”
Comes-Walking, expressionless, thrust the skin at the boy. “Is your stomach so full of hunger your head forgets there are many holes in your moccasins? The skin of the elk may not be as strong as the rawhide of the sacred buffalo, but I do not think your feet will complain when they walk these rocky trails.”
Admonished, Short-Lance took the offered hide and hung his head in embarrassment that he should forget the basics of life.
Comes-Walking smiled. “Perhaps you think too much of counting coup on this white man who owns the big killing gun, and are too impatient to take back his scalp and hang it on the lodge pole of your father’s tipi?” The Kiowa paused and the boy looked up to see a faraway look in his elder’s eyes. “I too thought of little else when I was a boy, but you will come to realize that to be a warrior means not only having a brave heart that does not fear at the sight of the enemy, but to fight with your head too. Do you want to earn a name like He-Wouldn’t-Listen?”
Short-Lance grinned sheepishly, and from behind him Swift-Foot emerged from the timber, leading the ponies. Comes-Walking beckoned him to come over, then placed strong hands on their thin shoulders.
“Listen well, you boys. An elk is a very wise animal, cunning, and his legs are even fleeter than yours, Swift-Foot. Does it not take more than one wolf to kill one? Well, this white man has hunted one, and has shown that his cunning is even greater than that of the elk. You saw the way he skinned and butchered it? He has done this many times. He is not foolish, or green as the white men say.”
The boys nodded at their leader’s sage remarks. He looked from one to the other. “Good, you understand.” He consulted the sky. “We will attack just before dark. That way, perhaps, he will think there are more of us.”
They built a small fire in the clearing to cook what meat was left on the elk’s stripped carcass. When the meal was over, Swift-Foot scouted the trail left by the white man across the mountainside to his camp. He settled the layout in his mind, carefully noting where the lineback dun and the bay were grazing at their pickets. Back at their own camp, Short-Lance tended to the ponies and Comes-Walking cleaned his ancient single shot carbine before tamping willow bark tobacco into his pipe to smoke. When Swift-Foot returned from his scout, he stood silently in front of Comes-Walking who was sitting on the grass, his attention focused on his pipe. After a few moments, at a loss for a sage straw, the warrior plucked a long stem of dry grass from the earth then came to his feet and thrust the stem into the boy’s hair. This meant he was ready to hear Swift-Foot’s report. The boy drew out the straw and held it in his hand while he spoke, almost trembling in his excitement.
“I found the camp of the white man,” he said, pointing westward across the mountain. “A journey of fifteen arrow flights along the trail. There is only him and his two horses there.”
Comes-Walking expressed his interest. “Is the white man’s other pony as strong as the lineback?”
The youth’s eyes glittered and he smiled. “Even better. A good pony.”
The warrior considered the boy with suspicion. There was something he was holding back. “Very well,” he said. “You shall have the other pony. I will take the lineback dun.”
A grin creased Swift-Foot’s face while behind him Short-Lance frowned. Comes-Walking read the dismay written there.
“Do not worry Short-Lance. You too shall count coup. There will be enough trophies for all.” The boy smiled, reassured, then turned away to test his restrung bow. Swift-Foot, still grinning, walked back to the fire and began roasting another strip of meat.
The warrior watched him go, wary of what the boy had held back about the white man’s camp. A woman? No, it must be the other pony. He sat down again, his back with the firm support of a tall pine. As he puffed on his pipe he wondered if the two boys would earn their man-names on this trip. He well remembered the day he had earned his own, fifteen summers past. It had been the year of the great drought on the Staked Plains. The rolling purple prairie had been a washed out grey, littered with the bones of many buffaloes that glistened white in the sun, and the sky had been one black cloud of swirling buzzards. Every place a man travelled, the sore hooves of the ponies had crunched on the bleached bones.
The scattered ranches of the white men had yielded little but for the new scalps that adorned the war lances of the braves. A few horses, but the white ranchers’ stock was dying off as rapidly as the thirst crazed buffalo.
Determined not to return empty handed, Little-Bull, as Comes-Walking had then been known, had made his first exploring trip with one other brave, Grey-Wolf, for company. After a week of wandering, his pony lame and dehydrated, Grey-Wolf had sent Little-Bull to ride ahead and bring back water. One water hole after another was dry, the ground churned by the hooves of the angry buffaloes, and by the time he had returned, he found Grey-Wolf and his pony dead with the buzzards already closing in on the still bodies strewn on the parched buffalo grass.
When the water bag was again empty, in order to stay alive, Little-Bull had cut his pony’s throat to drink the thick blood, deriving enough succour to enable him to walk north, towards home. Near the Brazos river he had stolen a scrawny horse from a careless white man and crossed the Big Wichita, pushing the old horse until he had ridden it to a standstill on the north bank of the Red River. Without a bow to hunt, he butchered the horse and ate what he could, drying out the remainder of the stringy meat to use as jerky for the rest of the long walk home. In the foothills of the Wichita mountains he had been picked up by a hunting party who had given him a ride back to the council fires of the Kiowa nation.
After he had been summoned to recount his story the people listened in silence, and when he had finished the Buffalo Medicine Man had stood up and held up his hands to be heard.
“Little-Bull has made a long journey that lasted many sleeps and which led him along the hazardous trails of the flatlands. Although only a boy, he has used his brains like a man, and worn out two good horses along the rocky road. At last, he has come home to his people grown into a man who now has some idea of what life means to all of us. From this day forward we shall call him He-Who-Comes-Walking-From-The-South.”
The Kiowa warrior smiled to himself. He remembered it as if it had been yesterday. But there was to be a fight tonight. It was time to ready themselves. If all three were to ride home it must be a good attack, swift and conclusive. He knocked the ashes from his pipe, then fingered the small buckskin pouch that contained his personal medicine, offering a prayer to the Great Spirit to guide him well.
His mind attuned, Comes-Walking rose to his feet and began to strip in preparation for war.
END OF SAMPLE
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