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Authors: Charles G. West

Crow Creek Crossing

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CROW CREEK CROSSING

“Mister, you ain't got the brains God gave a prairie dog. Either that or you figure you've lived long enough.” When Cole still made no sign of moving, Black Hat nodded toward a wide-shouldered brute of a man. “If you don't get your sorry ass outta that chair right now, ol' Skinner there is gonna break your back for you.”

Cole glanced at the grinning half-wit, who appeared eager to do the job, and knew that he had little choice. It was obvious that he was likely to take a licking if he didn't act quickly and decisively. “That would be a mistake,” he warned, and in one swift move, grabbed for the Henry rifle propped against the chair, cranking a cartridge into the chamber as he brought it up to level on Black Hat. He had no desire to kill anyone, but he had no intention of taking a whipping.

His quick response caught them by surprise, but there was no concern evident in any of the faces staring at him. “Well, ain't you the feisty one?” Black Hat said. “You fixin' to have a gunfight against six of us? That don't seem too smart to me.”

“I expect that's so,” Cole replied. “But I don't figure to have a gunfight with all of you, so I'm settin' my sights on just one. I reckon that will be you, Mr. Bigmouth, and I'm damn sure I'm gonna get
you.”

CROW CREEK CROSSING

Charles G. West

A SIGNET BOOK

SIGNET

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia | New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Copyright © Charles G. West, 2014

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA

ISBN 978-0-698-14461-3

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

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.

Version_1

Contents

Title page

Copyright page

Dedication

 

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

 

Excerpt from
TRIAL AT FORT KEOGH

For
Ronda

Chapter 1

Cole Bonner stood at the top of a low ridge, looking back over a treeless sea of grass, watching the progress of the covered farm wagon a mile and a half behind him. Halfway down the ridge, Joe, his dark Morgan gelding, lingered, casually munching the short grass left by a dryer-than-normal summer. Cole watched the wagon for a few moments more before shifting his gaze back toward his horse.

One of the best trades I ever made,
he thought, even though he had given up two horses in exchange for the powerful Morgan.

But Joe had proven his worth on the trek across Nebraska that had begun almost two months before, one day after Ann Sumner said
I do
and became Mrs. Cole Bonner. He smiled when he thought about Ann's reaction when he had told her of the three most important decisions he had made in his entire life—the trade for Joe, the purchase of his Henry rifle, and marrying her. She demanded to know why marrying
her was listed third, fully aware that he said it only to tease her, a practice he seemed to find delight in.

Ann had wondered why he had chosen to name his horse Joe, and his response had been “It's as good a name as any, and Joe seems to like it all right.” The truth of the matter was that he couldn't think of any clever name that would apply to the horse, so he'd settled on the first one that came to him.

Certain now that the folks in the wagon could see him atop the ridge, he waved his hat back and forth over his head, a signal he used to tell them he had found water, or a campsite if it was nearing the end of a day's travel. From that distance, he could see John Cochran driving the wagon, his wife, Mabel, seated beside him. Ann, with John and Mabel's three kids, was walking beside the wagon.

Cole's gaze naturally lingered on his bride. It was a vision that never failed to remind him of what a lucky man he was. She could have had any young bachelor in Lancaster, but she'd picked him. The thought always amazed him, for he had certainly never shown any indication of having serious plans for providing for a family. He had seldom had any thoughts beyond what he might be doing the next day, which was almost always the same thing as the day before: working for Henry Blacksmith. Blacksmith owned one of the biggest cattle ranches near Lancaster, Nebraska.

Well,
he thought,
I reckon I've got a future to think about now, working for myself.

He took his time walking back down the ridge to his horse. It would still be a few minutes before the wagon caught up to him, and as he climbed up into
the saddle, he continued his reverie of the solid future he now saw before him.

“I'll be an old family man,” he announced to Joe. “Maybe have a dozen young'uns.”

He grinned mischievously when he thought of the pleasure he would have in the process. Sometimes he would admit to himself that without Ann's influence, he probably never would have agreed to set out for Wyoming Territory to build a farm. Truth be told, Ann had never really given him any choice in the matter of what they were going to do. She had a future all planned, and he just found himself fortunate to have been picked to share it with her. He had never told her of the dream he had carried in his mind since he was a young boy. That dream was to ride beyond the flat plains of Nebraska and Wyoming and experience the Rocky Mountains for himself, to ride the high country where God rested His clouds. A simple life with Ann was worth sacrificing the dream, and he vowed that he would never mention the craving to her.

John Cochran had bought his parcel of land on Chugwater Creek, sight unseen, but he trusted the advice of his friend Walter Hodge, who claimed to be doing well in that valley. John's plan was to grow wheat and raise cattle to sell to the military. Ann was set on going with her sister and her husband, with plans to find her and Cole's homestead, hopefully close to theirs. When he thought about it now, Cole shook his head, realizing that he had allowed himself to be totally dominated by his new wife. But deep down, he knew he didn't really care where he went, or what he did when he got there, as long as he was with her. He couldn't explain what being in love was,
but whatever it was, he knew for damn sure that he had a hell of a dose of it.

John had already guaranteed that he could make a first-rate farmer out of him, in spite of Cole's protests that it might be more of a challenge than John anticipated.

“Hell, I can't raise dust without a horse under me to kick it up,” he had joked.

He knew, however, that he could do anything another man could do, and he was anxious to show Ann that he could provide for her as well as any man. And he certainly couldn't think of a nicer couple to team up with than Ann's sister and John. Mabel had wholeheartedly welcomed him to the family, and her children were already calling him Uncle Cole.

It's going to be a good thing, he told himself, and nudged Joe with his heels.

•   •   •

“Looks like another railroad camp on the other side of this ridge,” Cole called out to John as the wagon approached. Eight-year-old Skeeter, John and Mabel's youngest, ran ahead of the wagon to reach his uncle first. Cole reached down and lifted the boy up to seat him behind the saddle.

“Good,” John replied. “That means there oughta be good water. I think everybody's about ready to quit for the day. We can't be much more'n fifty miles or so from Crow Creek Crossin'.”

John's friend had told him that Crow Creek Crossing was the place where he should leave the railroad's path and head due north. He had been told that the Union Pacific should reach that point possibly by the time his little party arrived. Even if the railroad hadn't, there was already a sizable tent city growing
there on the banks of Crow Creek, so he would know it to be the place he was looking for.

Cole took a moment to smile at his wife before turning Joe to lead the wagon alongside the railroad tracks past the ridge.

“Get up, Joe!” Skeeter sang out as the big horse moved in response to Cole's gentle press of his heels. The boy's older brother and sister ran along behind them, eager to see the night's campsite.

As had been the case before, the railroad crews had been none too tidy in the condition they left their campsites. So Cole led his party a little farther up the stream to camp where a couple of cottonwoods stood close to the bank.

“This all right with you?” he asked the small boy hugging his back. Skeeter said that it was. When John pulled the wagon up beside him, Cole said, “This looks like as good a spot as any. Skeeter said it was all right.”

Mabel chuckled in response. “If Skeeter says it's all right, then I guess we'll settle right here.” She turned to her other two children. “Elliot, you and Lucy know what to do.”

They responded dutifully, having gone through the routine every night during the past two months. Cole lowered Skeeter to the ground, then dismounted. After helping John with his horses, he pulled his saddle off Joe and hobbled the Morgan to graze with them beside the stream, about fifty yards from the wagon. With help from Elliot and Lucy, Mabel and Ann soon had a fire going and supper started.

The two men walked together to check on the condition of the horses, leaving the women and children to prepare the meal.

“It's gettin' pretty late into August,” John said. “I sure hope to hell we can find this piece of land I bought and get us some shelter built before the bad weather hits.”

“Like you said,” Cole replied, “Crow Creek Crossin' can't be much more'n fifty miles from here. We oughta be able to make that in plenty of time.”

“Maybe so,” John said, “but according to the directions I got from Walter Hodge, my place on the Chugwater is thirty-five or forty miles north of Crow Creek. We've been makin' good time so far. And thank the Lord we ain't seen no sign of Injuns.”

Cole nodded. “I reckon they've been stayin' away from the railroad crews and the army patrols.”

They had discussed the possibility of Indian trouble before but weren't overly concerned about it. Troops had been sent along to protect the railroad workers, and they were trailing pretty close behind the track-laying crews.

“I'd like it better if there were some thicker stands of trees beside some of these streams,” John commented. “Make it a little harder to see our camp.”

“I know what you mean,” Cole replied, then laughed. “Hell, I thought Lancaster was short of trees. Looks like, from what we've seen since we left, there ain't more'n a handful of trees between here and Wyomin'. Reckon we'll be able to find enough timber to build a couple of houses by the time we reach Chugwater Creek?”

John cocked his head, concerned. “Walter said it ain't all like this. I reckon we'll see, won't we?”

“I reckon.”

•   •   •

Ann stepped up to greet him with a kiss on his cheek when he walked back to the fire.

“We'll have supper ready in a little while,” she told him, and gave his hand a little squeeze. He glanced down to meet an impish grin from ten-year-old Lucy. It seemed that every time Ann made any fond gesture toward him, it was always caught by one of the three kids, and it never failed to make him blush. Aware of his embarrassment, Ann smiled and said, “Pay her no mind. She just likes to see you squirm.”

Overhearing Ann's comment, Mabel remembered when she and John were newlyweds. Ann wasn't much older than Skeeter at the time, and she recalled that her sister had done her share of giggling whenever she caught the two of them stealing a kiss or an intimate embrace.

“Go fill the bucket with water, Lucy,” Mabel said.

She felt some compassion for Cole and Ann. Spending your honeymoon with a family of five on a wagon afforded little private time together. She was happy for Ann. Cole Bonner was a good man, and his adoration for her sister was written all over his face. She and John had talked about the fortunate pairing of the two young people and looked forward to working together to forge a comfortable living in the Chugwater valley. Her thoughts were interrupted then when John suddenly spoke.

“Wait, Lucy,” he ordered calmly, his voice low but cautioning. “Get in the wagon. Mabel, you and Ann get Elliot and Skeeter and get in the wagon.”

Mabel hesitated. “What is it, John?”

“Just get the kids in the wagon,” John replied firmly, his voice still calm but dead serious. She quickly obeyed his order.

“Where?” Cole asked, alert to the caution in John's tone, his voice soft as well. He eased his Henry rifle out of the saddle scabbard and cranked a cartridge into the chamber.

“I think we've got some company sneakin' up behind that mound of scrubby bushes on the other side of the stream.” With no show of haste, he reached into the wagon boot and pulled a Spencer cavalry carbine from under the seat.

Cole looked toward the mound but saw nothing. He trusted John's word just the same and didn't doubt for a second that there was someone threatening their camp. Assuming they were Indians, he said, “They're probably after the horses. You stay here behind the wagon, and I'll get over to the edge of the stream to keep them away from the horses.”

“You be careful,” John warned. It was a risky move. There was very little cover on the grassy expanse where the horses were hobbled.

“Cole, be careful,” Ann pleaded, having heard the conversation between the two men as she huddled with the children in the bed of the wagon.

“I will,” Cole replied hurriedly as he left the cover of the wagon and made his way quickly toward the three horses grazing unsuspectingly near the stream.

He dropped to one knee when he heard the thud of an arrow against the trunk of one of the large cottonwoods they had pulled the wagon under. Using the tree for cover, he scanned the mound of berry bushes John had pointed out.

After a few seconds passed, he saw what he searched for when the bushes parted enough for him to see a bow. A few moments later, another arrow
embedded itself in the tree, close to the first one. It was plain to see that the raiders were intent upon keeping him from getting to the horses. He rolled over to the other side of the tree and fired three quick shots into the bushes where he had spotted the bow. Then, without waiting to see if he had hit anything, he sprang to his feet and ran for the horses, looking for someplace to use for cover when he got there. His series of rifle shots having caught their attention, all three horses held their heads up and stared at the man running toward them, but they did not attempt to bolt.

His only choice for protection from the arrows that came whistling around him as he ran was a low dirt hump, which he reached safely because of a blistering volley of shots from John that forced the Indians to hug the ground behind their mound of berry bushes. Everything was quiet for a few minutes, and then John called out, “Cole, you all right?”

Cole yelled back, “Yeah. I don't think they've got anything but bows, but I'm afraid they're gonna hit the horses. If you can keep 'em pinned down, maybe I can crawl back and take the hobbles off the horses and get 'em the hell outta range of their bows.” It seemed obvious that the horses were what the raiders were after, but if they couldn't steal them, Cole was afraid they'd try to shoot them just to leave the party on foot.

“All right,” John shouted. “If you can bring 'em back here behind the wagon, we could guard 'em. They must not be able to shoot those arrows this far. At least there ain't been any come close to the wagon
yet. You just holler when, and I'll lay a blanket of fire on that berry patch.”

“All right,” Cole yelled back. “I'll tell you when.”

He immediately started pushing himself back from the hump, still hugging the ground, pulling his rifle behind him. Evidently the Indians could not see him, for he managed to slide back to the Morgan's feet and began untying the hobbles before an arrow suddenly thudded into the ground inches from his leg.

BOOK: Crow Creek Crossing
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