Stick a fork in this one, it’s DONE!!!
Well, except for reads and editing… And a cover…
One last snippet from the western novella. As always, comments and recommendations appreciated!
Winter in camp was drudgery, broken only by the routine of hunting for meat. Danny, Ramirez, and Viktor did most of the hunting, going further and further afield to find deer and, once, a stray buffalo. Danny found a single steer one day, without a brand. It took him all day to haze it back to camp, but he didn’t have to hunt for the next two weeks after that.
Sergeant Lewin found out Danny could cipher, and put him to work helping maintain the camp’s supplies, which allowed Danny to occasionally get to Taylorsville.
One day, he rode in, list in his vest pocket, and a letter with a voucher to mail to Captain Lyon to deduct eighty dollars from the paymaster. It had been spitting snow all morning, and Danny made for the café. Stepping inside, he waved to Hazel and found a seat at the end of an empty bench. She brought a cup of coffee over and said, “Merry Christmas, Danny. Surprised to see you in here.”
He chuckled. “Christmas? Damn, I didn’t realize it. Merry Christmas, Mizz Hazel.” He pulled out Lewin’s list and waved it at her. “Looking for supplies. Have any wagons made it up here this week? Looking for flour, salt, molasses, and some other sundries.”
She nodded. “Three wagons came in day ‘fore yesterday. The store should be pretty full up. You want something to eat? I got turkey and trimmin’s, if’n you want.”
“Yes, please. I’m tired of eating Ramirez’s cooking. He…spices things up a little too much.”
“You didn’t say anything to him?” She asked with a smile.
Danny laughed. “He’s touchy enough already! I don’t want to get shot for insulting his food!”
“Comin’ right up. You know where the coffee pot is.”
He walked to the counter, grabbed a cup, and poured the black, hot coffee in, holding his hand around the cup to warm up. Danny sipped as he walked back to the bench, slipped in, and reviewed the list as he waited for the food. A couple of minutes later, Hazel deposited a steaming plate in front of him and added, “Sweet tater pie, if you have room.”
“Yes, ma’am. Always room for pie!” He shoved the list back in his vest and dug in as she brought the pie and refilled his coffee. Twenty minutes later, he sat back with a groan, Ate too much, but damn, that was good! I need to find out how she cooks turkeys. That one tasted a helluva lot better than ours ever does.
He walked over to the counter and lay a dollar on it. “Thankee, ma’am. Do you know if the store is open?”
Helen laughed. “Knowing old man Gebhard, he’s open and counting his money. If he ain’t, go round the back and bang on the door. He lives back there with Bessie.”
Danny smiled as he buttoned his coat. “I will, thanks.”
He led Blue down to the store and tied him there. “Not much longer, boy. Then we’ll get back to camp.” Blue neighed at him and shook his head. Danny laughed. “You callin’ me a liar, Blue?”
He heard a laugh and looked around to see Mr. Gebhard standing in the door. “Ach, you talk vit your hoss?”
“Yes, sir. And sometimes he talks back. Usually by either biting me, or kicking me, or bucking me off.” Danny smiled and added, “I have the supply list for the camp, if you’re open. I know it’s Christmas—”
Gebhard interrupted, “You make time to come. I vill open. But you no have vagon?”
“If you have the supplies, I can go get it, but we weren’t going to hitch it up unless there was a reason.”
“Goot, I have supplies. You give me list, go get vagon. I have ready by the time you return.”
Danny handed it over, saying, “I hope you can read Lewin’s chicken scratch. I’ll be back with the wagon as soon as I can.”
Gebhard laughed. “I figure out. You get vagon.” He stepped back in and closed the door, leaving Danny standing beside Blue. He sighed, mounted, and headed back to camp. A half hour later, he and Sergeant Lewin, along with Ramirez and Viktor on horseback, rode around to the back of the store. Gebhard was good to his word, and had the back doors open, the supplies stacked on the loading dock. Victor and Gebhard chatted in German while they loaded the wagon as Lewin checked off the items. Once the loading was completed, Lewin gave Gebhard a script for payment, and they drove the wagon back to camp as the snow started to fall.
Once back in camp, they helped unload the wagon into the supply tent, and Danny asked Victor, “Do you know Gebhard?”
Victor laughed. “He is mine uncle…once remove. He came from Head of Elm because he likes his beer.” Shaking his head, Victor continued, “Dey no allow beer ober there. Crazy. He did not want to compete with…Salt Creek, so he come down here.”
Ramirez commented, “Salt Creek is only busy during drives. Rest of the year, not so much, and cowboys always cause trouble. Last stop before Indian country.” Glancing at Danny, he asked, “Didn’t you go there if you’ve been over the trail?”
“No, we drove east from Fort Wichita and crossed just south of the Res, and met the herd on the flats a day north of the river.”
Ramirez grunted. “Uh, short drive, tired cows after the river. And tired cowboys. I hate that river crossing.”
By late March, five rangers had decided they didn’t want to be rangers anymore, and had left camp, taking Captain Carlson’s company down to twenty-three persons when they started the patrol cycle back up. Lieutenant Donovan had Danny and Ramirez out as scouts once again, and they rode longer patrols, going as far afield as the confluence of the north and south forks of the Wichita River. Twice they had tracked Indians back toward the territory, but couldn’t catch up to them either time, riding back into camp tired, disgusted, and hungry, since they usually ran out of food and didn’t have time to hunt.
Logan called Danny aside after another fruitless patrol in late April and said, “Captain and Lieutenant Donovan are watchin’ you. I think they’re gonna offer you corporal, since we’re so short o’ men. You think you could run a patrol on your own?”
Danny stopped currying Blue and just looked at Logan. “What?”
“You think you could run a patrol on your own?”
“I…sure, if I had to. But…”
Logan snorted. “Danny, you may be young, but you know how to track, you’re a damn good shot. The other men see you picking up things like helping Lewin and not complaining. You effectively led that raid where we got those injuns up on the Red last year. Your approach kept us from getting people…well, you got hurt, but we didn’t lose anybody, and recovered those horses.”
Danny looked around in confusion. “I’m…if I have to, can I pick who goes with me?”
“We’ll see.” Logan walked off, leaving Danny standing there until Blue nickered, and he resumed currying him without thinking about it.
May and June were frustrating, a few tracks, two homesteads burned, but the Indians were long gone before they ever got there. A trickle of new men had shown up, and the company was slowly getting back up to strength as the hot weather rolled in. Danny, Allen, Ramirez, and Victor had started sleeping outside to escape the heat, only going in the tent if it was raining, which wasn’t often.
Hunting was becoming a full day evolution, sometimes two days to find meat for the camp, and Danny was taking longer and longer shots on everything, including turkeys. Captain Carlson had made a deal with somebody, and they were getting a cow a week now, so there wasn’t as much pressure on him to hunt. Ramirez was teaching him how to braid a riata, and trying to teach him how to throw it, sometimes with hilarious results, like the time he inadvertently lassoed Logan when he released a little late. Logan had been…less than complimentary, to put it mildly, especially since it was done in front of Lieutenant Donovan and the rest of the squad.
In mid-July, Logan caught Danny early in the morning. “Boyle, the captain wants you to go out with Sergeant Roche. They are two people short, and we’re supposed to get three new rangers sometime this week.”
“What will I be doing?”
“I told him you’re my scout and hunter, but I don’t know where he will slot you.” Logan kicked at the dirt for a moment, then added, “I…would like your impression of his squad.”
Danny stopped and turned to him. “What?” Mustering up his courage, he said, “Is there something…wrong? I mean, we seem to get more inj…Indians than they do, and I know we’re getting more action.”
Logan spat off to the side. “Well, somebody said something to the lieutenant, and that got to the captain…”
Blowing out a breath, Danny replied, “I don’t like being a tattletale. And I only know two guys in that squad, Erickson and Zelenko, cause they’ve hunted with me a time or two.”
“Understood, but they need another man, and you’re the best I can offer. The lieutenant is out with third squad, so it’s gonna be somebody from my squad. No choice, Boyle.”
Danny grimaced. “Yes, Sergeant. When are they leaving?”
Three days later, Danny was biting his lip to keep from saying anything. They had covered less ground since they left than Logan’s squad did in a day and a half. Leaving late in the morning, halting early in campsites they had obviously used before. Danny had been relegated to riding in the column, ignored by Roche for the most part.
Zelenko had gotten him out on a hunt that morning, and Danny asked, “Are y’all always this…careful?”
Zelenko had wrinkled his lips and said, “Pretty much. Sarge don’t move fast, and we always foller the same trails when we search.” Danny shook his head, and Zelenko asked, “When you hunt, you hunt ahead or back?”
“Always back trail, usually at least a mile back from where we are on any trail. And I always try to hunt upwind.”
“I think we’ll prolly have ta go at least that far. We was huntin’ this area for…four months now.”
Danny winced. “Damn. Every patrol?”
“Ever one. Same for ever stop. Same camp, everthing.”
Danny wet his finger and tested the air, then pointed off to the west. “Wind is from there, let’s go see if we can find something.”
Two hours later, Zelenko finally got a big doe, and Danny popped a turkey that jumped up with Zelenko’s shot. By the time they got back to camp, it was almost dark, and Roche was waiting. “Where the hell you two been? Sleeping? It’s gonna be full dark afore anything gets cooked! Since you two been screwin’ off, you get to cook, too.” He stomped off to where he had made a bed with some freshly cut cedar bows, and sat glaring at them as they quickly dressed the doe and turkey, and got them broiling over the fire.
Danny had to pull some salt out of his saddlebag to give the meat a little taste and ended up dropping part of the turkey breast in the fire when the forked stick he was using caught fire and burned through. He was digging it out of the fire when Roche stomped over and snarled, “That’s your supper right there, Boyle.” He took the other half breast and went back to his little bower, flopped down and ate in silence as the rest of the squad ambled over to get some of the venison.
The next morning, Danny was told to ride up and let the scouts know it was time for a break. He’d just caught up with them when Erickson pulled up short, then dismounted, looking at something. He dismounted and walked up just as Zelenko said, “Those are fresh.” He turned to Danny. “What do you think?”
Danny walked down the back trail, off to the side, then back. Squatting, he fingered the tracks. “I make it eight ponies, probably no more than three hours old. They’re not ridin’ fast. Raiding party?” He shrugged as he looked up the trail. “Gonna be tight to follow them. Have to go single file.”
Erickson and Zelenko looked at each other and Zelenko said, “We’ll tell Roche, but he ain’t gonna let us foller them. Bet he’s gonna say we go the long way.”
Erickson grimaced and nodded. “Prolly. Or, ain’t no place to camp. Dammit.” He got up disgusted, threw a clod of dirt down, and walked back to his horse. “Y’all stay here, I’ll go get him.”
Roche rode up a few minutes later, didn’t even bother dismounting, and leaned over. He glanced at the tracks and said, “Nah, those are old tracks. And that trail winds back to connect with this one. We’ll stay on the trail and check to see if’n they come out where I think they will. Ten-minute break.” He glared at Danny. “Next time, you come back and get me. That’s your job, not the scouts!” He jerked his horse around and rode back down the trail, out of sight.
“What the hell?”
Zelenko shook his head. “He don’t like you, Danny. Not at all.”
“Hell, I ain’t ever done anything to him! I don’t know why he’s got his knickers in a twist.”
“Waller…is some kinda kin to him. That might be it.”
Dropping his head, Danny sighed. “Figures. Well, I just hope nothing happens the rest of the patrol, ‘cause I’d probably get blamed.”
Zelenko laughed. “Better you’n me. Only reason he likes me is I can hunt and I’m a good shot.”
Six days later, they rode back into camp without ever sighting anymore tracks, much to Danny’s disgust. He waved to Zelenko as he rode back to the corral, stripped Blue’s gear off, and curried him. Carrying his saddle and gear, he stumped toward his billet when Logan caught up to him, taking the saddle. “Well?”
Danny rolled his tongue around and said quietly, “That was the…one, one set of fresh tracks, and we never even followed them. Fixed camps, early stops, late starts, same exact trail for the umpteenth time, apparently.”
“Shit. I was afraid of that,” Logan whispered.
“I…don’t want to go out with them again, Sergeant. Ain’t the men’s fault. They…want to do the job. It’s just…”
Logan bit his lip. “Alright. I’ll figger somethin’ out.”
(C) 2021 JL Curtis All Rights Reserved