“We’re not going to make it like this, boys. These folks are just not able to push it any harder. Von Hausen’s party has got to be slowed up some. Walt, you and Angel stay with these folks ...”
Walt opened his mouth to protest and Smoke waved him silent. “If von Hausen caught up with them, they wouldn’t stand a chance. None of them have ever been in a gunfight. Probably a full third of them couldn’t take a human life. That’s not a short-coming on their part; they just weren’t raised out here and really don’t understand the pickle they’re in or the men they’re up against. With you two along, they stand a chance.”
“And you, Smoke?” Angel asked.
“I’m going to buy you people some time.”
“Where?” Walt asked.
“West of here at the creek. Walt, get these people out of this country and over to the trail. It’ll take you a few hours, but you’ll more than make up for it once there.”
The old gunfighter nodded his agreement. “Yeah, I been thinkin’ on that myself.”
“Rest them up and get gone. When you get to the headquarters, get with that small garrison of troops left and either make a stand or get the hell out of the park. That’s up to you folks. But get word out.”
The men shook hands. “Luck to you, boy,” Walt told Smoke. “You damn shore got a passel of bad ’uns comin’ up quick.”
“Vaya con dios,” Angel said, then walked to his horse.
Smoke stood as the men and women saddled up. Gilbert looked down at Smoke, standing in dirty, blood-splattered clothing, unshaven and in need of a hair cut. He was an awesome-looking figure of a man. “You are a very brave man, Smoke Jensen, and I speak for this entire group.”
“Yes,” Blanche said. “I know the President personally, Smoke. I shall see that you get a medal for this.”
“That’s good,” Smoke told her. “But for now, just get any civilians out of this park. If you don’t, there’s going to be a blood-bath. I’m only buying you people a few hours; so don’t waste any of it. Get out of here.”
Charles Knudson saluted him and lifted the reins. The others did the same. Two minutes later, Smoke was alone. That was the way he liked it. Alone with and a part of the high lonesome.
He knew he didn’t stand a prayer of stopping the whole group. Close as he could figure it, there was still about twenty or so coming up hard behind him. Maybe none of those he’d sent on before him would make it. But he had to try.
“Von Hausen,” he muttered to the gentle breeze blowing over the land. “I’ve hated mighty few things in my life. But I definitely hate you.”
He looked at the sky. Clear and blue and cloudless. High above him, an eagle soared on the winds, gliding gracefully toward the north. He remembered years back, after his first wife, Nicole, and their baby son had been murdered. He’d started to Idaho, to avenge them, and he’d seen an eagle, seeming to guide him. He smiled. Eagles lived a long time; might be the same one. He liked to think so.
He gathered up his reins, then paused, wondering what month it was. Summer, for sure, and Smoke was almighty weary of this hunt. With a sigh, he swung into the saddle and made his way after those who’d gone ahead of him, mixing his tracks in with theirs. Once, resting in the saddle on the crest of a hill, he could make out mounted figures, far below and behind him. They were closing in fast.
He knew he would never make the creek. Von Hausen and group were too close. He pushed on, his eyes constantly searching for a good ambush spot. He finally said to hell with it and swung down in a copse of trees on a rise that faced a meadow. The back of the hill touched a flat that offered him an escape route. He couldn’t stay here any length of time, for he couldn’t watch three sides for very long. But he might be able to empty a saddle or two and buy Walt and his bunch an hour or so.
He had handed the lead rope of his pack horse to Angel, so Smoke was traveling light. He picketed his horse and patted him on the rump.
“Stand easy, old boy. Relax. I’ll be back soon. Right now, I got some work to do.”
He got into position and checked his rifle. Full up. He levered a round into the .44-.40 just as the point man for von Hausen’s group entered the broad meadow, all bursting with new life under the warm sun.
Smoke had every intention of leaving some old life on the meadow. Forever.
The point man stopped and Smoke sighted him in through long lenses. He was still a good mile off. The scout raised his arm, and turned his head to another rider, his finger pointed toward the hill and the timber. Von Hausen rode up and joined the two outriders. He uncased his binoculars.
Smoke lowered his field glasses and hunkered down. “Come on, you crazy son of a bitch,” Smoke muttered. “Be a big brave man and ride up with your scouts. If I can knock you out of the saddle, I’ll have half the battle won.”
When Smoke again lifted his binoculars, von Hausen’s group was swinging down from their saddles to take a rest and to water their horses at the narrow little creek.
“Good enough,” he said. “Take them north, Walt. Get them clear.” Smoke took a sip of water from his canteen and chewed on a biscuit. He waited.
Someone among them smelled the ambush. Smoke knew it was going sour when the group split up into three’s and four’s and began skirting the meadow on two sides, staying well out of rifle range of the timber on the hill.
Smoke watched them for a moment, and then wormed his way back into the timber to his horse. “Not our day, fellow,” he said, swinging into the saddle. “I’m not going to push you, boy. I know you’re tired. So let’s just lope for about a mile and see what we can come up with.”
Von Hausen’s group was right on his tail and the horse seemed to know it. If he was tired, he sure didn’t act it when they hit the flats. That big Appaloosa stretched out and was flying like a young colt, his powerful legs eating up the distance.
Smoke grinned, even through the race was deadly. He loved to sit a saddle when the horse loved to run and was doing so. Enjoyed feeling the power of a horse that was doing what he loved to do. Smoke hung on as the ’paloosa scrambled up a ridge and leaped into the timber. Smoke cut left and weaved through the timber, smiling when he spotted the ravine that the north boundaries of the meadow ran into. Far in the distance, he could see riders entering the wide mouth of the ravine.
He heard a shout, but it was too faint for him to make out the words. If those coming up the ravine heard it, they did not seem to pay any attention to it.
Smoke grabbed his rifle and found adequate cover on the rim. He eased the hammer back and waited.
Paul Melham didn’t like the looks of this ravine and told those behind him so, in blunt words. He ended with, “I’m tellin’ y’all I heard a runnin’ horse.”
“Then how come none of the rest of us heard it, Paul?” Cat Brown challenged. “I’ll tell you why: ’cause there wasn’t no runnin’ horse, that’s why. If Jensen was in that timber back yonder, he wouldn’t have come this way. That ambushin’ bastard would have flanked us and picked us off. Relax, Paul. He’s miles ahead of us.”
“If you’re so damn sure of that, then you come up here and take the point.”
“Oh, hell, Paul!” Cat said. “If you’re that skittish I might as well. You got fear sweat runnin’ into your eyes. You wouldn’t be able to see a grizzly if he reared up in front of you.”
Smoke pulled the trigger and Paul was nearly knocked out of the saddle. He managed to hold on with his good right arm. His left arm dangled useless.
Smoke knew he’d shot off the mark. A fly had landed on the end of his nose just as he’d pulled the trigger. Probably shot the man-hunter in the shoulder by the way he acted.
But the ravine was void of man-hunters now, except for their horses, and Smoke wasn’t about to shoot a horse. All in the group had left their saddles and found what protection they could in the rocks. Smoke smiled and started putting rounds close to the horses’ hooves. That set the already panicked animals off and running. The last he saw of them they were running hot and hard out of the ravine.
Smoke ran back to his horse, swung into the saddle, and was gone.
Paul crawled back to Cat and Utah, pulling himself along with his good arm. He was cussing to beat sixty.
“Fall back!” Cat yelled. “Stay close to the sides and get back out of range. Somebody holler for von Hausen to get the medicine bag.” He looked at Paul’s shoulder. “You’re lucky, Paul. Bullet punched right through. I don’t think nothin’s broken.”
“When we catch up with that damn Jensen,” Paul panted, his face shiny with pain. “I swear I’ll skin him slow.”
If any of us are left alive to catch up with him, Utah thought. That sudden thought startled him, for he’d never even considered quitting this bunch. He shook it out of his head. After killin’ them soldiers, he couldn’t quit. This was a race to the end—for all of them. Them who was runnin‘, and them who was chasin’.
“It’s a painful wound, I’m sure,” Gunter said, after cleaning out Paul’s bullet-punctured shoulder. “But nothing appears to be broken and there is only the expected bleeding. Can you ride?”
“I can ride,” Paul said grimly. “I want a shot at that damn Jensen.”
No one among them, it seemed, could speak of Smoke in any other manner except ‘that damn Jensen.’
“Let’s find us a way around this ravine,” von Hausen said. “He’s probably still up there, waiting.”
“He’ll just move when we do,” Hans pointed out. “He’s got the high ground.” That damn Jensen seemed to
have the high ground.
Von Hausen looked at Hans. The spirit seemed to have gone out of the man. He cut his eyes to Andrea. She was staring at Hans with a decidedly disgusted look in her eyes. “Round up the horses. We’re riding until dusk.”
Walt pushed his group as hard as he figured they could stand it. But by dusk, when he broke it off to make camp, he had a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that they were not going to make the park headquarters.
“They are worn out,” Angel whispered to him, out of earshot of the others.
“I know. We’re not going to make it, Angel.”
“I could ride for the headquarters.”
“And do what? Bring back six soldier boys who are engineers first and soldiers last. I ain’t puttin’ them down—they got a job to do like everybody else—but they ain’t cavalry. We’ll push on tomorrow and get as close to the park entrance as we can before we have to stand and fight.”
“We’ll just pick us the best spot we can find and show von Hausen and his boys and girls that we ain’t gonna go down without one hell of a fight.”
Gilbert walked up. “The ladies are exhausted, gentlemen,” he said. He looked very tired. “And for that matter, so are the men in my party. The young surveyors seem to be holding up well.”
“Yeah,” Walt said. “We was just talkin’ about that. The horses are tired, too. We’ll push on at first light. When we find us a good spot to fort up—with water and graze and shelter—we’ll make a stand of it.”
“Might I make a suggestion?”
“We ride only a brief time tomorrow. There is a spot not too far from here that I know of—I’ve been in this park several times. It’s almost a natural fort. We spend the rest of the day digging in. And I mean that literally.”
Walt nodded his head. “That’s fine with me, Gilbert. Angel?”
“Suits me. With us in front of them and Smoke coming up behind them, we could put them in a bad spot.”
“Yes,” Gilbert said, obviously pleased that the two gunfighters approved of his plan. “That was my thinking.”
“Let’s have some coffee and get some rest,” Walt said. “We’ll see what the others have to say about this.”
Walt and his group were about four miles north of Smoke. Smoke was camped only about five miles ahead of von Hausen’s party. Neither had any way of knowing what the other was planning.
Smoke boiled his coffee in a small and beat-up coffee pot and chewed on jerky and hardtack for his supper. He was just about out of coffee. He’d have enough for in the morning, and then that was it. And when Smoke couldn’t have his coffee, he turned short-tempered.
Smoke drank his coffee and then carefully cleaned and wiped down his guns in the dying light of the small fire. He tried not to think about Walt and his group and their desperate race for the park headquarters and the tiny garrison of army engineers stationed there. He tried not to think about Sergeant Major Murphy and his patrol, lying stiffened and ravaged by animals and carrion birds in the timber by the creek, shot down in the coldest of blood by von Hausen and those who followed him.
“You’re scum, von Hausen,” Smoke muttered. “Nothing but scum.”
“I hate that damn Jensen,” von Hausen said to Marlene. “The man has ruined a perfectly good hunt.”
“He’s a savage,” Marlene said. “No class or breeding.”
John T. was walking by the tent and heard that. He shook his head and walked on, wondering how in the hell he ever let himself get tied up with such a pack of fools. He walked over to the cook tent and poured a cup of coffee, carrying it over to his bedroll, close to the fire. He sat down, his back against his saddle, and looked at Montana Jess, sitting drinking coffee next to him. The man had a strange expression on his face.