They were late arriving, and the last of the sunlight spread red-gold across the summits of the western mountains. A fresh, damp smell lifted up off the river, a promise of a blessing as evening came to the desert. A breeze stirred among the willow branches along the banks. The finger-shaped leaves caught the light of the sun and tossed it, red-gold-green, into the soft evening air.
Along the top ridges the cinnamon mountains turned the color of candied apples, and grew amethyst shadows on their lower slopes. The Colorado flexed and muttered on its journey from the mountains to the sea.
Sam Morgan looked around. Again he found the desert strange and alluring. He said to himself, What the hell am I doing here?
“On the adventure,” said Hannibal. Sam’s friend had an irritating habit of reading his thoughts.
Village leaders were riding out to meet them. It would be impolite to go closer to the village before courtesies were exchanged. Impolite even though these were the Mojave villages, where the fur brigade had spent a couple of weeks last autumn and knew the Indians were friendly. So Sam, Hannibal, and Captain Jedediah Smith sat their mounts in this place. Sam cursed. He squirmed in the saddle, itchy from his own sweat after the long ride. His pet coyote, Coy, sat in the shade of a creosote bush and panted.
“There’s a sorry piece of the adventure.”
Sam turned his head. A few paces into the brush three Mojave boys had built a small fire and were torturing horny toads.
The biggest boy reached into a hide bag, plucked out a toad, flat and ugly and the size of a palm. The creature had daggerlike spikes all around its head, and it was fighting its captor.
The boy laughed and threw the toad onto the fire.
The toad skittered out of the fire like a stone hopping across water.
The smallest boy snatched the toad up and held it close to his nose. The toad sprouted blood from its eyes—Sam had seen this trick before. The boy jumped and threw the toad into the air.
Another boy snatched the creature on the fly and tossed it onto the fire.
The small boy wiped blood off his nose and grinned.
The toad came lickety-split out of the flames and slithered under another boy’s knee. The boy grabbed the toad coming out the back side.
Coy squealed, like a plea for mercy.
A picture floated into Sam’s mind—damnedest thing, he couldn’t imagine why. He saw his infant daughter suckling at the breast of Sam’s . . .
He shook his head to make the picture go away. But it stayed right where it was.
The biggest boy took the toad from the younger one and dropped it into the flames.
This time it first blew itself up big, and then, amazingly, never moved again.
Sam started to rein his horse toward the boys. Hannibal put his hand out—no. Sam stopped. “What made them like that?” whispered Sam.
“A bad one leading good ones,” said Hannibal.
Sam’s eyes asked for help. Sometimes Hannibal knew things. Some of the men called him Mage, short for magician.
“Let’s go,” said Jedediah.
Sam handed Paladin’s reins to the magician and fell in behind Captain Smith on foot. About fifty yards off several leaders of the tribe waited to meet the trappers, and beyond them on the willow flat Sam could see the brush huts and crop fields of the village.
Safety, he thought.
Sam took a last glance at the boys. They were still mesmerized by toads and fire. Life goes topsy-turvy into death.
He forced himself to turn and study the Mojave leaders. There was Red Shirt, front and foremost, smiling broadly, wearing the garment that gave him his name. As far as Sam knew, it was the only shirt among the Mojaves, and worn only on state occasions. The Mojave men wore only loincloths, and the women only short skirts of bark.
Sam was not glad to see Red Shirt, not after he stole Gideon’s wife a year ago. But it was Sam’s job as segundo to stay with Diah, see how he handled things, learn what to do. Diah wanted Sam to be a brigade leader soon. Also, Sam had a knack for communicating with Indians, in sign language or even gestures and grunts.
Alongside Red Shirt was Francisco, the Mojave who had been to the Spanish settlements near the ocean and knew some Spanish. Behind these two stood three other leaders.
“Buenas tardes,” said Francisco. “Bienvenido, Capitán! Bienvenido, White Hair!”
Sam’s hair had been straw-colored, almost white for all of his twenty-two and a half years. He said, “Gracias. ¿Como esta ustedes?”
Francisco extended his hand to Sam and then to the captain, showing that he remembered this white-man nicety. When they shook, Red Shirt grinned broadly. His entire face was elaborately tattooed with dots in vertical lines. When he grinned, the lines queered their way into strange curves. Sam didn’t know if the dots were supposed to make a picture or pattern, but he knew the effect when the mouth curled the lines—it gave Sam the willies.
Francisco had a simpler tattoo.
Neither Sam nor Francisco spoke fluent Spanish, so they now resorted to gestures and single words to settle the rest. Sam laboriously asked permission for the brigade to trade and to rest its horses. Francisco translated into Mojave. Red Shirt said the people of the village were glad to give their hospitality to its friends, the men who hunted the beaver.
Now Red Shirt spoke what was probably his only word of Spanish. “Bienvenido,” he said, grinning. The grin made his tattoos squirm like snakes.
Captain Smith waved to the rest of the brigade to come forward.
“¿Bienvenido? Welcome to what?” said Sam in English.
“Maior risus, acrior ensis,” said Hannibal. The Mage liked to say things in Latin.
“What does that mean?” asked Sam.
“The bigger the smile, the sharper the knife.”
The twenty-one trappers and two Indian women set up camp hastily on an open spot by the river they used for a campground last year. Just upstream of them was the circle of brush huts, several hundred of them, that made up the village. All around them were the vegetable fields of the Mojaves. The Indians planted close to the river, and rises in the Colorado irrigated the crops.
Last autumn, when they arrived in much poorer condition, the brigade stayed two weeks with the Mojaves to rest their horses and put some meat back on their ribs. On the men’s ribs too—they traded for corn, beans, melons, pumpkins, everything the Mojaves had to eat. Then the trappers had known them as the Amuchabas. Now they thought of them as the Mojaves, the name for them in the Spanish settlements, and the name of the desert that faced all who would travel on to California, as this brigade intended to do.
The captain walked off to trade for corn, beans, and some of the bread the Mojaves made from the honey locust bean.
The other trappers rigged the camp. They unpacked and unsaddled the horses, led them to the river for water, and then penned them in a rope corral. They set up, laid out bedrolls, and put their possibles in the tents.
“Want to put a guard on the horses?” Hannibal asked Sam.
“Only at night.” These Indians could be trusted. Sam and Hannibal, however, kept their personal mounts, Paladin and Ellie, staked by their tent.
Exhausted, as he seemed to be the whole trip, Sam propped himself against a cottonwood and napped. Coy curled up against his thigh.
“Garden sass!” said Hannibal, shaking Sam awake.
Sam got up and stepped to the low fire. Everyone gathered around and boiled and roasted the vegetables.
“Never thought I’d get tired of meat,” Silas Gobel said, chomping down on an ear of corn. Though the Indians ground their corn dry, the trappers liked to boil it and then grouse that it didn’t taste as good as sweet corn.
“That dried meat is dry,” said Polette Labross. Everyone called him Polly. They’d had nothing else to eat from the Salt Lake all the way down through the redrock country to the banks of the Colorado River, dried meat and not enough water.
“Even my pecker is dry,” said Gobel. He gave a sly smile. “But not for long around here.”
“Sailors on the loose in port!” said Bos’n Brown.
Last year the Mojave women were as eager as the vagabond trappers. Sam thought, I won’t be partaking.
“Bitterness bites the man who puts it on his tongue,” said Hannibal.
Sam shot him a glance. Reading my thoughts again. Are they scrawled across my face like words?
He looked around the fire. Friends all, and he was damned glad to have them. When you rode the mountains and plains and deserts, your friends saved your life, and you saved theirs.
Coy looked at the boiled corn, boiled beans, and bread. He whapped his tail on the ground. He whined.
“He wants a blood sacrifice,” said Hannibal.
Sam had gotten an education from following Hannibal’s sayings. Maybe some day he’d get Hannibal to teach him to read and write. He fished in his possible sack and tossed Coy a little dried meat.
These five men gathered to eat and sleep together every evening, for no particular reason other than they liked each other. Sam was a Pennsylvania backwoodsman; Gobel, a king-sized blacksmith; Bos’n, a man who’d spent his life at sea; Polly, a grizzled mulatto; Hannibal, a man of mixed blood, white and Delaware Indian.
Trappers were always a jumble of races. Sam liked that. Among the Frenchies and their Indian wives you might hear French, Iroquois, Cree, Shoshone, and English oddly mixed in one or two sentences.
Captain Smith was odd himself. On the one hand he was a book-learned Yankee who carried a Bible and nearly wore it out with reading. On the other hand, most of the trappers thought he was the smartest, toughest man in the West. No leader was more respected. He’d been Sam’s first brigade captain, and their bond was strong.
Sam thought the most intriguing man of the lot was Hannibal McKye. Since his father was a classics professor at Dartmouth College and his mother a Delaware, Hannibal grew up speaking two languages. He learned to read not only animal tracks but Greek and Latin. He could discuss Greek philosophy, Caesar’s wars, and Shoshone beadwork. To top it all off, he worked in the circus and learned their horse tricks. It was partly his wizardry with horses that made the men call him the Mage.
Sam and Hannibal had crossed trails from time to time on the plains and in the mountains, but they’d never traveled together until now. Hannibal wanted to see California. Sam had a reason to go back, a reason that was very good and very bad.
“I need sleep,” said Sam. He walked to the river, filled his hat with water, and took it to Paladin. The mare looked strong for this stage in the trip. She was a fine-looking Indian pony, white with a black cap around the ears, a black blaze on the chest, and black mane and tail. The Crows called this kind of pony a medicine hat.
When she’d lapped the crown of the hat dry, he led her out of the rope corral and staked and hobbled her on some good grass near his bedroll. Since she was specially trained, he kept her close every night.
He lay down on his blankets, looked at the stars, and then let his eyes blur. His bones sagged into the ground. Coy lay beside Sam’s head, as always.
Maybe it’s just the trip, he thought. Maybe a few days’ rest . . .
This journey had been so much easier than last year’s. Both times they left rendezvous in mid July. Last year they got to the Mojave villages in early November, this year in mid August. The difference was knowing the route and where they could find water. When they got here last year, half the horses were dead and the men were gaunt. This year the horses were gaunt but alive and the men were fine.
Except Sam. He thought about tomorrow’s task, which he didn’t look forward to. Then he let himself picture the reason he was going back to California.
Esperanza, my daughter.
The woman looked up from weeding the pumpkins.
As Sam approached, a quirk twisted her face. No, she wasn’t glad to see him.
“I’m glad to see you,” he said, walking forward.
Francisco tagged along. It was like Sam had two pets, Coy and the Mojave interpreter.
“What you want, Sam?” she said with a gleam in her eyes.
So she was turning it into a flirtation. Spark was no one’s idea of a romantic figure. She looked a bride’s well-used older sister. Her face was a little mashed, her bare breasts were narrow and pointy, and she now sported the Mojave look—a tattooed chin. Five parallel lines curved from her mouth to under her jawbone, with some sideways squiggles. The Shoshone woman had declared herself Mojave.
“Just to say hello.” He squatted. So did Francisco and Coy, and after a moment Spark. She had decent English from her three months with the brigade last summer and fall.
He broke a slab of dried meat into three pieces length-wise, gave one each to Spark and Francisco, and ate. Meat of any kind was a treat for the Mojaves.
“Thought you might want news of Gideon.”
She gave a flirty wiggle of her eyebrows.
He was tickled, thinking, It’s not going to work, lady.
They looked at each other, munching, waiting. He decided to change the subject to her new man.
“How is Red Shirt?”
“He is good man. Big man.” Sam wondered how many wives he had. With the Mojaves’ fields of crops, at least Spark wouldn’t go hungry.
Sam nodded to himself. Out with it. “You broke Gideon’s heart.”
“I am woman. Put man’s moccasins outside lodge when I want.”
Sam stared at her, thinking, You barely let his moccasins inside.
She’d been a slave in the Ute camp at Utah Lake when they found her. Jedediah bought her, and as the brigade journeyed south, she and Gideon fell in love. Or so everyone thought, and Gideon thought. They’d shared a lodge for a couple of weeks—married, in the fashion of the country.
Then, when the brigade started west across the Mojave Desert, she slipped off and joined Red Shirt’s family.
First Gideon had nearly lost his life. Did lose his leg. And then the one-legged man lost his new wife. He dived into despair.
“He’s doing well now,” Sam said.
She concentrated on the meat, which took a lot of chewing.
“He became an artist in California.” He realized she wouldn’t know what “artist” meant, and probably didn’t care either. “He makes very beautiful earrings and necklaces from gold and silver and turquoise and shells.” That should impress her.
She looked at him proudly. “I make baby.”
She didn’t have a child on a blanket or a cradle on her back. Then Sam realized. The stiff bark of Mojave women’s skirts always stuck out behind, a little comically. Spark’s also stuck out in front. Her belly was bulging.
The name came like a pang. Esperanza . . .
Sam tried to remember. Was Spark with Gideon’s child, or Red Shirt’s? Did it matter?
She looked at him with huge satisfaction.
“You broke his heart,” he said.
She waited a moment and said, “Thank you for the meat. Now I weed the pumpkins.” She got up and walked away.
Sam and Francisco ambled back toward the trapper campground.
Francisco said in Spanish, “See Captain Smith?”
Sam thought Francisco just wanted to cadge a present of some kind, but he had something else in mind. He sipped his hot coffee, grimaced, and said, “¿No dulce?”
Sam answered that the party had no sugar.
Between small sips of hot coffee Francisco slowly informed them that this past winter a band of Mexicans (Spaniards, he called them) and Americans had come from Nuevo Mexico down the Gila River and up the Colorado to these very villages.
Sam and Jedediah looked at each other. They had been first into this country, but not by much. Trapping brigades were heading west out of Taos and Santa Fe, they knew that, but they didn’t know any had come this far.
“Find out if they crossed to California,” Diah told Sam.
After more sips of coffee, Sam told the captain no.
“That’s a relief.” Jedediah wanted the California beaver country for his own company, Smith, Jackson & Sublette.
“Francisco says the trapping outfit took beaver from the Colorado and didn’t want to pay for it. They quarreled and split up here. Some of them went up the Colorado River. He doesn’t know where the others went.”
Now Diah indulged one of his real passions. He got out the notebook where he wrote his journal and his maps. In the sand he drew the Colorado as it came down from the north to these villages. He got Francisco to draw it farther south, to the mouth of the Gila. The Yuma Indians lived around the mouth of the Gila, Francisco said, and Jedediah made a note. Then the interpreter drew the Gila coming in from the east, and where the Salt River flowed into it. But he didn’t know where either river headed up. He said the Colorado emptied into the ocean several sleeps below the mouth of the Gila.
Jedediah copied the information from the map in the sand into his notebook and closed it with a smile.
That night the men were boiling for a dance.
On the long trip south from rendezvous Sam had found a new musical partner—Polly Labross was a peach of a fiddler. A black man from Montreal and once a voyageur, Polly knew French-Canadian songs. Sam had learned to pipe the melodies on his tin whistle, and had even learned some lyrics in French.
The trappers moved up to some flat ground near the huts. When Polly started tuning the fiddle, Mojave women gathered to watch. Polly scraped out a verse of “Ah, Si Mon Moine Voulait Danser,” and a dozen women crept close.
Sam played a second verse and chorus while Polly double-stopped harmony. Polly looked like a sly old dog, his hair mottled gray and his beard black, with a shape that seemed almost Chinese. His soft eyes hinted at a wisdom that embraced thousands of secrets he wouldn’t tell.
“Let’s go,” hollered Bos’n Brown. He grabbed Gobel’s arm and set out jigging. Gobel was Goliath, Bos’n a small and lithe David. Bos’n was a sassy fellow, quick with a quip. Now he took the woman’s role—he hopped, he bounced, he swung his bottom like a girl’s, he even jumped into the air. Gobel swung him ’round. They had a big time.
The Mojave women, remembering last year’s affair, started dancing in place. The dance style of the fur men was nothing like their own, but they liked it.
Sam sang in a light, clear voice over Polly:
If my old top were a dancing man
A cap to fit I would give him then
Dance old top, dance in
Oh, you don’t care for dancing
Oh, you don’t care for my mill la, la
Oh, you won’t hear how my mill runs on
As Polly explained it to Sam, it was a tease. The dancers were asking a monk to join them. In every verse they tempted him with something different, a cap, a gown . . .
If my old top were a dancing man
A gown of serge I would give him then
In the next verse they tempted him with a Psalter, then a rosary, and so on, but the monk never danced, and they hooted at him.
No one gave a damn about this story, but the tune was lively.
Now Bos’n spun away from Gobel and held out his hand to one of the women. She grabbed hold, and around the circle they went, the woman . . .
It was Spark! She followed clumsily but eagerly.
Well, Sam reminded himself, he’d told Bos’n that she danced with several men last year, and went to the bushes with at least one, Red Shirt.
Polly jumped faster into the tune, and Sam took a break.
Other Mojave women joined in, and several men. Among them—surprise! Last year two teenagers had tried to steal Paladin, Skinny and Stout, Sam called them in his mind. He had gotten her back only by chasing them halfway across the river, and one nearly drowned under a cottonwood log beached on a sand bar. But Skinny and Stout were dancing now, and apparently having a good time.
A pretty woman held out her hand to Sam, smiling. She was smiling, and she said something in her language, probably asking him to dance.
He couldn’t help looking lingeringly at her breasts. “No,” he said.
She said whatever it was again, and reached out and fingered his hair. Women always seemed to like Sam’s white hair.
“No,” said Sam again, and took her hand away. He wished he wanted to touch a woman, hold a woman, lie down with a woman.
She turned to the next man without a hint of regret. It was Robiseau, one of the French-Canadians, and he whirled away with her. Sam thought of Robiseau as Merry One Tooth, for the number of dentures he had in the upper front, which he showed off in a perpetual lunatic grin.
When Merry One Tooth danced off, his wife glared after him. Then Red Shirt came up and motioned to her, and she danced off with the chief. Robiseau winked at her.
At least half the trappers now were bouncing along, and both trapper wives were dancing with Mojave men.
Polly changed the tune to a sea shanty, a slow capstan song that would give all the men a chance to ease the women close:
When Ham and Shem and Japhet, they walked the capstan ’round,
Upon the strangest vessel that was ever outward bound,
The music of their voices from wave to welkin rang,
As they sang the first sea shanty that sailors ever sang.
“Don’t you want to dance?” said Hannibal.
“Think I’ll turn in,” said Sam. Away from temptation, he thought, and with my memories.
As Hannibal disappeared into the darkness, Sam wondered if his friend wanted a woman. Probably so. Even magicians liked sex.
He stretched out on his blankets, reached to where he knew Coy would be, and scratched the coyote’s head. In the dark, when he couldn’t see, the smell and sound of the river were stronger. He remembered the brute force of its current—pound and splash, spin and suck. Its whirlpools pulled him to its bottom and to sleep.
Sam looked at his arms, which were all scratched up. Sweat was running into the scratches—the August sun felt like coals in a woodstove. He frowned across at Hannibal, who grinned. Hannibal’s arms were probably worse than Sam’s.
They were standing ankle deep in the river cutting more cane for the two rafts. It took a lot of float power to carry twenty-three people and their cargo across the swift, turbulent Colorado. This gear included barrels for water, blacksmith tools, tomahawks, traps, kegs of gunpowder, and much more. There were the trade goods for Indians. And the trappers bore their own gear. A typical man had a rifle, a butcher knife, two horns for powder, a blanket, an extra pair of moccasins, and a pouch containing a bar of lead, a tool for making the lead into balls, a patch knife, a fire-striker, char cloth, and so on, altogether another ten percent of his body weight.
Sam and Hannibal shouldered the last loads of cane on both shoulders and labored upstream along the bank. When they got to where the other men were binding the cane into the rafts, they dumped their loads and sagged onto the ground.
Coy mewled. He often seemed to pity men doing hard labor.
The Mojaves were gathered around to see the trappers off. Red Shirt was there, Francisco, Skinny and Stout, Spark, seemingly most of the village, hundreds of men, women, and children. Partly, Sam supposed, they wanted to see how the trappers built a cane raft. With trappers working and calling to each other and Mojaves talking, everything was hubbub.
“Captain,” called Sam. Smith looked around. Whenever Sam addressed Diah in an official way, he called him by title. “Hannibal and me, we’ll swim over with the horses.”
“You?” Jedediah asked at large, “Who’s a strong swimmer?”
“Me!” said Hannibal and Virgin at once.
Tom Virgin was old, Sam guessed probably in his forties, but he was tough and strong. Sam liked him.
“Hannibal, Virgin, ride the river with the horses.”
“Captain, I’m sticking with Paladin.”
Smith looked at Sam and knew his segundo wouldn’t be denied. “All right, three of you. Sam, hang on to that horse.”
“Let’s go,” said Hannibal. All thirty-some-odd mounts, including Paladin and Ellie, were rope-corralled a hundred paces downstream.
“Hold on,” said Diah. He was looking across the river. “You feel sure of hitting that sand bar?”
“It’ll work,” said Sam.
The trappers would set out in the rafts and pole across. The current would bear them downstream. Remembering last year, Jedediah and Sam figured they would float about as much down the river to the bar as across it. They allowed a good margin for error.
Now the first raft was loaded—eight trappers plus the captain and half their gear.
Sam, Hannibal, and Virgin started downstream to run the horses into the river. Coy tagged along.
“Wait!” said Sam. He ran to the raft that was still on the bank and lashed the rifle his father had left him, The Celt, to the bundle of rifles there. Most of the men had wrapped their rifles in canvas and tied them to this second raft. This rifle was important to Sam. It was the only memento he had of his father, Lew Morgan.
“Me too,” Hannibal and Virgin said together. A man swimming the Colorado didn’t want something as heavy as a rifle in his hands. Hannibal roped both rifles in.
Off the three hurried down to the river.
“Push off!” cried Jedediah.
Coy barked once in the direction of the raft and scooted after Sam and Hannibal.
The trappers on the raft shoved hard against the bank with their long poles, and the raft surged into the river. The current grabbed them hard. The raft spun in a full circle, making some of the men fall down. Everyone laughed. A big wave lifted the raft, and it dropped down the back side with a belly-sucking lurch. Men made whoopsy noises.
At that moment all the Mojave men yelled fiercely and attacked the ten men left on the bank.
The first blows whisked through the air. Two men got pin-cushioned, others were wounded here and there.
Spears were hurled. Polly Labross went down with a shaft through his chest, blood gouting from his mouth onto his gray beard.
Warriors rushed in and struck with spears and knives.
Silas Gobel was slashed by at least two knives but roared, picked a man up, and threw him at the other treacherous warriors.
Mojaves ran into nearby brush and came out brandishing war clubs.
Several trappers got off shots with their pistols—the rifles were lashed to the beached raft—but the Mojaves swarmed on them.
Jedediah and eight other men watched in horror from the river. It was like seeing ants rush onto a dying mouse.
The current yanked them relentlessly downstream. “Pole, damn it!” yelled Jedediah. He set an example.
The trappers had been gaping at the attack. Now they stuck their poles deep into the water, found the bottom, and shoved.
Two men pushed upstream.
“We can’t go against the current,” shouted Jedediah. “Pole for the other side!”
They did, hard.
From a hundred paces downstream Sam, Hannibal, and Virgin, armed with only their pistols and butcher knives, sprinted back to their comrades. Coy ran ahead of them, growling and yowling. Sam saw Bos’n Brown fall, and two Mojaves pounced on him. Robiseau staggered out of the melee, his back sprouting arrows.
Before they were halfway back, a score of armed Mojaves ran toward Sam, Hannibal, and Virgin.
Coy turned and dashed the other way.
Sam fired, and a man dropped.
Suddenly everything was chaos.
A capricious wind whipped up a dust devil. Sand and smoke swirled around the trappers.
Warriors ran into the dark pall, screaming and swinging war clubs.
Virgin went down, his skull bloodied.
“Run!” yelled Hannibal.
Sam and Hannibal sprinted toward the horses, a dozen Mojaves after them.
Sam thought, I’m dead.
He ran like hell and caught Hannibal and got half a step on him. Coy fell in with them.
Suddenly, out of the brush downstream, the horses stampeded. Three or four Mojaves ran behind, driving them.
Salvation! thought Sam.
He put his fingers to his mouth and gave a loud, piercing whistle, rising low to high.
Hannibal did the same, looping from high to low and back twice.
Paladin and Ellie cut out of the herd and ran toward Sam and Hannibal.
Thank God! Sam’s mind screamed.
The herd followed Paladin and Ellie. “Hallelujah!” shouted Sam.
When Paladin got close, Sam grabbed her mane and swung up bareback. Hannibal did the same on Ellie.
Sam saw Virgin staggering toward the river alone, holding his bleeding head in both hands. Coy ran toward the old man, then pivoted and came fast after Sam.
An arrow caught Paladin. She fell, and Sam pitched over her head.
Hooves rat-a-tat-tatted all around him. Dust and horse manure flew everywhere. Coy poised himself and yipped furiously at the horses pounding by.
A sharp edge slashed Sam’s hip.
He whirled and swung his fist.
The Mojave jumped back, cocking his spear. It was Stout, who had the face of a snake.
Sam grabbed his butcher knife and thrust forward.
Stout slammed his spear into Sam’s wrist.
The butcher knife went flying.
Stout grinned in triumph.
Sam grabbed his empty pistol and threw it at Stout’s head.
Stout ducked and the pistol sailed by. Stout laughed.
Yes, you bastard, I’m disarmed.
Sam fingered his trick belt buckle. Coy barked furiously at Stout.
Sam smiled. “Right. Hey,” he told Stout out loud in English, “look what I’m doing.” He jerked at the buckle, and his breechcloth dropped.
Stout’s eyes darkened at the insult. He bounded forward. Coy launched himself at the warrior’s groin. Somehow Stout thrust the spear.
The point nipped his ribs.
When Sam came full circle, he crowded inside the spear point. His belt buckle had turned into a steel blade in his hand, and he drove it into Stout’s belly.
He jerked it out, looked at the blood, picked up his breechcloth, and wiped the blade.
Stout sat down hard and loose.
Sam looked with satisfaction at his glassy eyes.
Coy gave a last bark and snipped at Stout’s face.
“Thanks, Gideon,” he said.
His friend had smithed him a dagger with a belt buckle as a handle. Sam slid the blade back into his belt, deep, fastened the buckle, and put his breechcloth back on.
He walked over and picked up his pistol. Since The Celt was lost, the pistol was essential. He looked around. The herd had run off toward the hills, and the Mojaves were chasing them. Thirty horses, he thought. A huge triumph for them.
Where was Hannibal? Sam didn’t know. If he could, Hannibal would have led the herd into the river. Where was Paladin? With the herd. Injured.
All right, no Mojave was close. A grove of cottonwoods marked the bank. Sam loped toward the water, Coy bounding alongside. He hit the top of the bank in stride and made a long, flat dive.
The river was a turmoil. Waves slapped him in the face. They rolled him over. Suck holes grabbed at his legs.
He flailed at the water with his arms, he kicked at it with his feet. He fought the goddamn water. He battered it. He punished it. The river laughed and tossed him up and caught him. It jerked him under and let him up.
Sam whacked at the river with arms and legs.
Long minutes later, minutes he couldn’t remember, a mewling woke him up. Coy, he realized. Consciousness picked at his brain.
A hand touched him. He opened his eyes. Hannibal. They were on the far bank.
“I’m checking your wounds.”
He prodded at the gash in Sam’s hip and the slice along his ribs.
“You’ll be fine.”
“Dead. Let’s get up to the others.”
Hannibal pulled Sam to his feet. “The ass cut Ellie’s throat. I cut his.”
They stumbled upstream, splashing in the shallows, feet sinking into the sand bars. Pictures invaded Sam’s mind, images of the handsome stallion lying on the sand, neck pumping out blood. Then he thought of Paladin and wondered how her hindquarter was. His blood prickled.
Around a couple of bends stood Captain Smith and eight other men. Diah was looking across the river with his field glass. The trappers looked at each other with the bright knowledge of mortality in their eyes.
Diah lowered his field glass. Sam could hardly hear his words. “They’re all dead.” Sam looked across the river. Hundreds of Mojaves milled around. From this distance he could make out no one in particular. He pictured Red Shirt’s face, Francisco’s face, Spark’s. What in hell . . .
“Why?” said Diah.
No one answered. These Indians were friendly last autumn. Why?
They looked at each other, mute and afraid.
Now the captain’s voice of command came back. “Let’s get out of here.”
Copyright © 2006 by Win Blevins