Authors: Charles G. West
WRATH OF THE SAVAGE
“Why don't you just back off, soldier? We just came in here for a drink before we're on our way. We aren't looking for any trouble.”
“Well, you've already stepped in it, sonny,” the corporal shot back. “And the only way you're gonna get out of it is to get on your knees and crawl out that door.”
Coldiron thought as a grin spread under his heavy whiskers.
Bret don't like to be called sonny
“What the hell are you grinnin' at, old man?” the corporal asked as he moved down the bar to face them, his two companions walking close behind.
“You'll see,” Coldiron said, still grinning.
Bret, fully irritated now, glanced at the bartender and asked, “How much for that full bottle of whiskey?”
“Twelve dollars,” Hank replied quickly, having seen the roll of bills earlier when Bret paid for the drinks.
“I'll take it,” Bret said, and grabbed the bottle by the neck. If the last-minute transaction puzzled the corporal, he didn't show it, for he took a square stance confronting the two strangers. Bret took one deliberate step forward, bringing the full bottle of whiskey sharply up against the side of the corporal's head to land with a sickening thud. The surprised soldier's knees buckled under him and he dropped to the floor.
WRATH OF THE SAVAGE
Charles G. West
A SIGNET BOOK
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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Copyright Â© Charles G. West, 2014
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REGISTERED TRADEMARKâMARCA REGISTRADA
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.
Second Lieutenant Bret Hollister swallowed the last of his coffee and got to his feet. He took a few seconds to stretch his long, lean body before walking unhurriedly over to the water's edge, where he knelt down to rinse out his cup. When he stood up again, he glanced over to catch the question in Sergeant Johnny Duncan's expression. Knowing what the sergeant was silently asking, Hollister said, “Let's get 'em mounted, Sergeant. We need to find this fellow before nightfall.”
“Yes, sir,” Duncan answered, anticipating the order and turning to address the troopers who were taking their ease beside the stream. “All right, boys, you heard the lieutenant. Mount up.”
He stood there, holding his horse's reins, and watched while the eight-man detail reluctantly climbed back into the saddle. When the last of the green recruits were mounted, Duncan climbed aboard and looked to the lieutenant to give the order to march.
A sore-assed bunch of recruits,
he thought, although not without a modicum of sympathy for their discomfort. Not one of the eight men had ever ridden a horse before being assigned to the Second Cavalry just three months before. Duncan knew that the reason they had been assigned to this detail today was primarily because of their greenness. He also knew that the reason he had caught the assignment was that Captain Greer felt confident he could nursemaid the raw troopers, and maybe the lieutenant in charge of the patrol as well.
Bret Hollister might make a good officer one day, Duncan speculated, depending upon whether or not he stayed alive long enough to wear off some of the polish associated with all new lieutenants coming out of West Point. He had only been with the regiment a year and a half, right out of the academy, and as far as Duncan knew, hadn't distinguished himself one way or the other. This rescue detail would be the first time the sergeant would report directly to Hollister, so in all fairness he supposed he should give the young officer a chance to prove himself.
Hollister had been posted to Fort Ellis in time to participate in the three-prong campaign to run Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse to ground. That campaign resulted in the annihilation of General George Custer's Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. By the time the four hundred troopers from Fort Ellis made the two-hundred-mile march to the Little Big Horn, they were too late to reinforce General Custer. So the only combat experience Lieutenant Bret Hollister had was in the burying of slaughtered troopers of the Seventh and relief of the survivors under Major Marcus Reno. It was hardly enough to test the steel in the young officer.
Duncan's thoughts were interrupted briefly by the order to march, but his mind soon drifted back to his dissatisfaction at being assigned to nursemaid a green patrol, commanded by a green officer. It was especially irritating when the rest of the regiment was preparing to move out to intercept a band of Nez Perce intent upon escaping the reservation. He didn't like being left behind by his company and regiment, the men he had soldiered with for more than two years.
“Damn it,” he muttered, “orders are orders.”
“Did you say something, Sergeant?” Bret asked, reining his horse back a bit.
“Ah, no, sir,” Duncan replied. “I was just talkin' to myself.”
Bret smiled. “Better be careful. Talking to yourself might be a sign of battle fatigue.”
“Yes, sir,” Duncan said.
Don't know what the hell you'd know about battle fatigue,
he thought. Then he reprimanded himself for his attitude.
Best forget about my bad luck and think about why this patrol was ordered out
The admonishment made him feel a little guilty, for the patrol was an important one. Reports of two separate raids on homesteaders along the Yellowstone River by renegade Sioux and Cheyenne had come in to the post just hours before the regiment was prepared to march to intercept the Nez Perce. From the report of the young man who had ridden to Fort Ellis with the news of the attack, both families were massacred. Duncan figured the Indians had too great a head start for there to be any reasonable chance of overtaking them. He supposed the real purpose of the patrol was to show some response from the army, even with only an undersized patrol of eight privates, one sergeant, and one officer.
Because of the nature of the mission, and the need to travel light, the men had been ordered to leave all personal items and clothing behind at Fort Ellis. Each man was issued four days' rations and told to take only one blanket, one rubber ground cloth, one hundred rounds of ammunition, no cooking utensils except one tin cup, and four days' horse feed. Those marching orders told the sergeant that they were expected to return to base as soon as they confirmed that the hostiles were no longer in the area.
Duncan had persuaded Captain Greer to let them seek out Nate Coldiron to help track the Indians responsible for the raids, just in case the trail was hotter than the young man reported. One day of their rations would already be gone in the time it would take to find Coldiron, but it couldn't hurt to have the old trapper along. He was a hell of a hunter, and Duncan thought the patrol might be out longer than four days in spite of their orders. If that was the case, he was confident that they wouldn't go without food.
Coldiron, a cantankerous old trapper and former army scout, had a cabin on the east side of the Gallatin River at a point where a wide stream emptied into it. Duncan had been to the cabin once before when Coldiron had agreed to lead a scouting mission a year earlier. Duncan knew he could find it again, so he led the small patrol west from Bozeman to intercept the Gallatin River, the point from which they were now departing. As best he could determine, the stream that flowed by Coldiron's cabin was about twelve miles south, so the patrol set out to follow the river.
The farther south they traveled, the rougher the country became as they approached the rugged mountains that hovered over the narrow river. Along the way, they passed many streams that fed down into the river, all looking enough alike to make it difficult to identify one particular one, especially after a year's time. “Are you sure you'll recognize the stream we're looking for?” Bret felt compelled to ask Duncan. “It's not easy to tell one of these from all the others.”
“Oh, I'll know it when I see it,” Duncan assured him. “We ain't gone far enough to strike it yet.”
It was toward the later part of the afternoon when they finally reached what Duncan referred to as Coldiron Creek. “This is it,” he proclaimed, and pointed toward the top of the mountain. “It goes straight up that mountain. Coldiron's cabin is about half a mile up.”
Bret could see why Duncan had been so confident in his ability to identify the proper stream. It emptied into the Gallatin between two big rocks. He followed the winding stream up the slope with his eyes until it disappeared into the thick foliage of the tall trees. Above the tree line the steep mountain peaks stood defiantly discouraging the casual climber. “It looks pretty rough. Maybe we'd better dismount and lead the horses up there.”
“It looks rough,” Duncan replied, “but there's a game trail followin' the stream up the hill, and we can ride it if we take it slow. It's just hard to see it from here. I'll lead the way.”
He didn't wait for the lieutenant's order, but started up through a thick stand of fir trees that bordered the river. Bret fell in behind him with eight unenthusiastic troopers following him, complaining about the occasional branches that slapped at their faces.
“Quit your bellyachin' and keep up,” Duncan called back over his shoulder, admonishing his men.
As Duncan had said, they soon struck a game trail that circled around from the north side of the mountain and started up the slope beside the stream. Bret couldn't help thinking how far removed he was from the cavalry combat training he'd been drilled in at the academy. There had been very little time spent on the basics of Indian fighting. He was convinced that it was certainly a worthwhile patrol. But what were the odds of tracking a war party of Indian raiders that had a two-day head start? Not very high in his estimation. Then he reminded himself not to question orders. He didn't want to start complaining like the privates following him. His thoughts were interrupted then by the sound of a rifle cocking, and a booming voice. “Somethin' I can help you soldier boys with?” The question was followed almost immediately by an exclamation. “Well, damn meâSergeant Johnny Duncan! I thought you was dead.”
“Not by a long shot,” Duncan replied. “Where the hell are you?”
“I'm right here,” Nathaniel Coldiron replied, stepping out from between two boulders on the other side of the stream.
Bret Hollister would never forget his first sight of the old scout. From behind the boulder, a man more closely resembling a grizzly bear pushed through a thicket of berry bushes and crossed the stream, oblivious of the water. Clad entirely in animal skins, he wore no hat. His long gray hair, tied in a single braid, hung down his back almost to his belt. A full beard, more gray than black, covered the bottom half of his broad faceâso thick that, until he opened his mouth to speak, there appeared to be no hole there at all.
“What you doin' up here, Duncan?” he asked as he eased the hammer down on his rifleâa Henry that looked unusually small in his oversized paw.
“Lookin' for you,” Duncan answered.
“What fer?” Coldiron asked, all the while casting a critical eye on the officer and enlisted men behind the sergeant.
“Got a little job for you,” Duncan said. “That is, if you ain't got too old to do some trackin'.”
Coldiron snorted scornfully. “If you thought I was, I don't reckon you'da drug your tired old ass up here lookin' fer me.” He nodded toward Bret then. “Who you brung with you?”
Standing patiently by while the two old acquaintances greeted each other, Bret spoke up before Duncan could answer. “I'm Lieutenant Hollister. We came looking for you in hopes you might be able to track an Indian war party that massacred two white families over on the Yellowstone near Benson's Landing.”
Coldiron nodded thoughtfully, openly distrustful of most army officers and all officers as young and green as this one appeared to be. “I heared about that raid,” he said after a pause. “Two families got burned out. That was two nights ago. And you're lookin' to track 'em?”
“We're looking to try,” Bret replied. “Those are my orders.”
“Orders is orders. Ain't that right, Duncan?” He glanced at the sergeant and laughed as if he had made a joke. “That's a mighty cold trail you're lookin' to follow.”
Bret began to lose his patience with the seemingly sarcastic brute. “That's the only trail there is. If you don't think you can help us, then I expect we'd best not waste any more of your time.”
Coldiron chuckled and winked at Duncan. “Don't get your fur up, sonny. I didn't say I wouldn't help. I'll go over there with you and take a look aroundâsee what's what.”
“Fine,” Bret replied. “That's all we're asking, but let's get one thing straight from the start. My name is Bret Hollister. I'll answer to Lieutenant, Hollister, or Bret, but don't ever call me sonny again. Is that understood?”
Coldiron jerked his head back, surprised by the young officer's spunk. It was only for a moment, however, before he chuckled heartily. “All right,
, that's understood.”
Also amused by the lieutenant's defiant attitude, Duncan said, “I reckon we'd best get started as soon as possibleâcold as that trail is, and it's a pretty long ride if we have to go back the way we came.” He looked up, trying to find the sun through the treetops. “It ain't gonna be long before dark in these mountains.”
“I expect you're right about that,” Coldiron said. “Ain't no use to start out till mornin', anyway. We ain't goin' back the way you came up the Gallatin. We'll cut across through the mountains, and if we try to make it in the dark, we're liable to break a leg or somethin'. Besides, I got things to take care of before I can go. I gotta check my traps for certain.” He turned to start up the slope. “You boys follow me and I'll carve off some deer haunch to cook for supper, unless you druther have that salt pork and hardtack the army gave you.” His remark stirred a quiet murmur of anticipation among the eight troopers as they followed up through the steep path to Coldiron's cabin.
Afraid the horses might stumble as the path steepened even more, Bret had the men dismount and lead them the last fifty yards to the small clearing where the cabin sat, backed up against the slope. Coldiron had obviously built his small abode using logs from the trees he had cleared. Bret wondered if he had had help in the construction, but from the look of the man, he seemed capable of doing the job by himself. A short distance beyond the cabin was a sizable meadow where the huge man's two horses were grazing. Sergeant Duncan and the men took the horses there to graze overnight while Bret volunteered to help their host build a fire. “Them Injuns take anybody alive?” Coldiron asked when Bret brought an armload of wood from a pile near the cabin.
“Not according to the report by the thirteen-year-old boy who rode to Fort Ellis,” Bret answered. “They killed everybody and set fire to the homes.”
“Like I said,” Coldiron replied, “I heard about the raid. I didn't hear about nobody bein' took alive, either.”
“That's what I was told,” Bret repeated.
“That kinda surprises me,” Coldiron said. “Sometimes they'll carry off a young woman.”
“The Sioux and Cheyenne have been known to take women hostages plenty of times before,” Johnny Duncan commented as he walked up, having overheard the last remarks. “I don't see why these Sioux would be any different.”
“Blackfoot,” Coldiron said. “They was Blackfoot. They ain't Sioux or Cheyenne. They most likely were movin' too fast to bother with captives.”