Cover image for Hero's stand
Title:
Hero's stand
Author:
West, Charles.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New American Library, [2003]

©2003
Physical Description:
313 pages ; 18 cm
General Note:
"A Signet book."
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780451208224
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

Action-packed western adventure from the author of Crow Creek Crossing.
MILITIA MADNESS
Up in the Montana mountains, Canyon Creek is the perfect little town for Simon Fry and his men to hole up for the winter. The folks are friendly enough to open their homes to eight perfect strangers--and gullible enough to believe that Fry's gang is a militia sent to protect them from hostile Indians.
Jim Culver is new in town, but he knows something isn't right about Simon Fry's militia. They seem more interested in intimidating people than helping them. Anyone who questions them ends up dead or driven out. Someone has to step forward to protect the people of Canyon Creek from their new protectors.
That someone is Jim Culver. And this sleepy town is about to wake up with a bang.


Author Notes

Charles G. West is the author of Wrath of the Savage and many other Western novels. His fascination with and respect for the pioneers who braved the wild frontier of the great American West inspire him to devote his full time to writing historical fiction.


Excerpts

Excerpts

"We're with the territorial militia," Fry informed him. "We're making calls on every settler in the valley to see how many fighting men we can call on if we were to have Indian trouble." He flashed a wide smile for Cochran's benefit. "Are there more menfolk living here that we can count on in a pinch?" "Ain't nobody here but me and the missus," Cochran said. "Hell, they coulda told you that in the settlement--saved you a ride all the way down the valley." Fry's smile returned. This time it was genuine. "No trouble at all. We had to ride down here anyway, to chase the war party off." "War party? What war party?" "Why, the one that's fixin' to burn your place," Fry replied and nodded to Pitt. Without hesitating, Pitt turned the rifle that had been resting across his saddle, pointing it directly at John Cochran's forehead. The look of surprise became a permanent feature of the dead man's face as Pitt's rifle ball made a neat black hole just above Cochran's eyes. HERO'S STAND Charles G. West Table of contents Chapter 1 "D amn you, Caldwell! I told you to hold your fire till we got a little closer. Now they're scattering." Simon Fry jammed his heels into the sides of his big bay gelding, at the same time shouting orders to the rider on his right. "Pitt! Cut them two off before they get to that ravine." Jack Pitt had not waited for instructions and was already quirting his horse mercilessly as he raced to intercept the two Indian women trying to escape. Fry charged toward two young Indian men who were now on their ponies and riding straight toward the hills to the west. In spite of his annoyance with Caldwell for jumping the gun, Fry leaned forward, low on his horse's neck, a look of determination etched on his otherwise expressionless face. "Mendel!" he roared as two more of the surprised Indians scrambled to escape up the valley, one a woman leading a horse that was pulling a travois. Mendel Knox, needing no further orders, tore off after the two, whooping at the top of his lungs, a wide grin spread across his face. The surprise had been so complete that the gang of white men might have ridden almost into the Indian camp before they were discovered had it not been for Caldwell's premature shot. Even so, Simon Fry's band of outlaws was too close to give the startled Indians any chance to avoid the murderous assault. Quick as they were, the Indian ponies had no time to spring into full gallop before the white men began to cut the riders down. The narrow valley soon echoed with the sharp charter of rifles as one brave after another was riddled with lead. Wiley Johnson, following close behind Fry, searched frantically for a clear target, but Fry blocked his view of the fleeing Indians. Yanking sharply on the reins, Wiley swerved off at an angle to get clear of Fry's horse, almost trampling the body of the woman killed by Caldwell's first shot. His horse jerked away to avoid the body, and Wiley, almost thrown from the saddle, regained his balance only to find a terrified toddler in his path. The child screamed in horror as it tried to run for its life. Startled at first, Wiley reined back. But when he realized what had spooked his horse, he spurred the animal straight toward the screaming child in an attempt to trample the life from the toddler. Having a natural tendency to avoid the child, the horse balked, almost unseating Wiley for a second time. Furious at having nearly come out of the saddle again, he turned and shot the infant, then galloped away after the horses. It was all over in a matter of minutes, and the riders gathered back at the Indian campsite. Fry wasn't satisfied that the job was complete, however "There's another one around here somewhere. I counted eight, and I don't see but seven dead Injuns." "By God, you're right," Jack Pitt said. "There was eight of 'em, all right. The other'n musta crawled down that creek bank." "Check down yonder, Pitt," Fry said. "Somebody look upstream." The raiders split up to search the creek banks while Fry watched from the Indian camp. Only minutes passed before Trask yelled out, "I got him! Here he is!" No sooner had he sung out his discovery than he followed it with a sharp yelp of pain as an arrow thudded into his shoulder. The cornered Indian quickly notched another arrow but had no time to release it before Mendel put a bullet between his eyes. "Damn, Trask," Fry muttered when he rode up to the wounded man, now dismounted and sitting on the creek bank. "That was mighty damned careless." Fry sat on his horse, looking down dispassionately at the arrow protruding from Trask's shoulder. "How bad is it?" Wincing with pain, his teeth tightly clenched, Trask tried to gingerly pull his shirt away from the shaft. Each time he bumped the arrow, it caused him to suck his breath in sharply. "I don't know," he whined, "but it hurts a damn plenty." "Mighty damned careless," Fry repeated, then called back to the rest of the men, who were already rifling the bodies of the dead. "Clell, better come take a look at Trask." Clell Adams looked up and grimaced, obviously more interested in searching for something of value on the still-warm corpse before him. Being the oldest of the pack that ran with Simon Fry, it had more or less fallen upon him to do the doctoring for the gang. He had no training for this position, and he had never volunteered to tend the wounded, but he was old enough to be a daddy to Hicks and Caldwell--the two youngest--so he pretended to know what to do. With some reluctance now, he rolled the Indian's body over in case he had missed anything, then got to his feet. "Damn, Trask," Clell remarked as he stood over him. "How'd you let that happen?" "Dammit, Clell, that don't matter," Trask spat back at him. "Just git the damn thing outta my shoulder." The deepening lines on Trask's face bore evidence that the pain was becoming intense, and there was more than a bit of concern in his eyes. Finding very little of value on their victims, the other men gathered around Clell and his patient. Clell knelt down beside Trask and gave the arrow a stout tug, evoking an immediate yelp of pain from the wounded man. "She's in there pretty solid," Clell stated. Then, with a none-too-gentle touch, he rolled Trask over on his side. "Didn't come clear through, though." Alarmed by the indecisive expression on Cell's face, and frightened by the throbbing in his shoulder that seemed to increase with each beat of his heart, Trask stammered, "Wh-whad-daya gonna do? My shoulder's gittin' stiff as a board." Clell scratched his head as he considered the question. "Well, I seen a feller with an arrow in his side once back in '61--Blackfoot arrow, it was. It wouldn't come out, either. So a couple of his partners held him down while another feller drove that arrow right on through. When the head come out, they broke it off. Then they pulled the shaft out the way it come in." "Oh Lordy," Trask groaned. "Only way it would come out," Clell added. "Feller died, though. Them Blackfoot had put something on that arrowhead. Made the wound swell all up until it puffed out like a ripe gourd." "Oh Lordy, Lordy." Trask sighed and lay back against the bank, convinced that his outlaw days were coming to an end. His eyes rolled back until there was almost nothing visible but the whites. His face, as stark as a hatchet blade, blanched nearly as pale as his eyes, and he began to slowly roll his head from side to side in anticipation of the pain that was certain to come. Growing more impatient by the moment, Simon Fry stepped down from his horse and pushed a couple of curious spectators aside. After taking a closer look at the arrow, he reached out and gave it a quick tug. The force was enough to lift the slender Trask a foot off the ground, but the arrow remained firmly embedded. Dropping the screaming Trask back to the ground, he said, "Drive it through. We can't hang around here all day." "Gimme a hand here, boys," Clell said as he looked around the creek bank for a suitable rock to use as a hammer. Almost gleeful in their eagerness to participate in the procedure about to be performed--especially one that promised to greatly add to Trask's suffering--Mendel and Wiley pounced upon the unfortunate man, each taking an arm and pinning him to the ground. The abruptness with which they attacked him caused the already suffering Trask to cry out in pain. "This is gonna hurt like hellfire," Mendel promised, making no attempt to hide the wide grin on his face. "That's a fact, Trask," Wiley agreed. "We're gonna see how much sand you got now. 'Course it might be a waste of time. You never know what kinda shit that Injun rubbed on that there arrowhead." "Wiley's right," Caldwell chimed in. "I heared a feller tell about gittin' jumped by a band of Blackfoot on the Popo Agie. He said them Injuns had mixed up a terrible potion--dog shit, coyote piss, rotten meat, and I don't know what all--so even if you got the arrow out, that mess would kill you, anyway." Receiving little comfort from his comrades, Trask began a continuous low moan, his eyes rolled back like he was trying to look at the top of his head. "What the hell kinda Injuns is these, anyway?" Clell asked. "Blackfoot?" Impatient to mount up and get under way once more, Fry replied, "No, Snakes. Now get on with it." His concern at the moment was whether or not these eight dead Indians had been part of a larger band nearby. Clell nodded. Selecting a flat rock the size of a dinner plate, he bent over Trask again. "All right, hold him steady, boys." He started to administer the first blow to the arrow shaft, then paused a moment. "Maybe a couple of you other fellers better grab a'holt of his feet. I don't wanna git kicked in the head." Hicks and Caldwell each sat on a foot, and Clell was now ready to drive the arrow through. Trask screamed out in agony as the first jarring blow sent a searing pain through his body, causing his back to arch up from the sandy creek bank. He withstood three more excruciating blows from Clell's stone before he fainted dead away. Clell continued to hammer, finally splitting the wooden shaft, but the arrowhead refused to budge. Defeated, he sat back on his heels and peered at the unconscious man. "Hell, Fry, it ain't comin' out. It's up agin somethin' solid--bone, I reckon. All I'm doin' is drivin' it in deeper." "Shit!" Fry exhaled in disgust. "Well, break it off close as you can and tie a rag over it. I reckon he won't be the first son of a bitch walkin' around with an arrowhead in him." Clell shrugged, took out his knife, and went to work on the splintered arrow shaft. "What about what Caldwell said? About that shit they put all over the arrowhead?" Fry shrugged his indifference. He was already thinking that Trask would now be a liability. Jack Pitt, an amused observer to this point, spoke up. "Hell, there ain't likely anything on that arrowhead. This sure as hell weren't no war party, and I don't reckon that Injun would wanna put anything on his arrow that would spoil the meat if he was huntin'." Knowing Fry's concerns, Pitt looked at his partner and added, "He'll be all right, just stiff and sore for a while." This seemed to satisfy Fry. "All right, then. Throw some water on him, and let's round up them Injun ponies. It's best not to hang around here any longer." After Trask was revived, he was helped up on his horse by Clell and Hicks. Protesting feebly, he was roughly seated, after which Pitt informed him to hang on or fall off and be left behind. Knowing Pit was deadly serious, Trask lay on his horse's neck, his good hand wound tightly in the animal's mane. They rode toward the south end of the tiny valley, driving the Indian ponies ahead of them, hoping to find a pass that would take them through the mountains ahead. Pleased with the stroke of luck that had permitted them to encounter the small party of Indians, Fry was already appraising the newly acquired horseflesh. It couldn't have been any better: eight horses, one per man. He, of course, would claim first pick, so he looked the little herd over carefully. He smiled to himself when he reviewed his day's work--eight horses and eight dead Indians, not counting the baby. Nice and neat. *   *   * Simon Fry and Jack Pitt had been together for quite a few years: since the spring of '67, in fact, when both men had followed the rush for gold to California. They were not as fortunate as some who had gotten there earlier and skimmed fair amounts of dust from the many obscure streams that showed a hint of color. Both men had soon become disenchanted with the hard physical toil of placer mining. Being of like mind and disposition, they had begun to look for an easier way to obtain the precious flakes that drove so many to labor in the clear, rushing streams. Fry had never held a fondness for hard work, preferring to use his brain instead--a quality that had enabled him to rise to a vice presidency in a St. Louis bank. His impatience to await the time-honored rewards for long, faithful service to that institution had prompted him to take certain shortcuts to attain his financial goals. He was doing quite well for himself until the senior vice president, Jonah Henderson, had accidentally caught him in the process of diverting funds to his personal account. Faced with ruination, if not prison as well, Fry had offered to cut Henderson in as a partner. But the senior officer was an honest man and had consequently informed Fry that he was bound to report his findings to the board. Without hesitation, and with no feelings of remorse, Fry had laid Henderson out with a poker. Leaving the senior vice president lying on the floor of the bank with a fractured skull, Fry had decided it was an opportune time to join the many adventurers harking to the call of gold in the West. And like many who left the East for reasons less than noble, he had left his real name behind as well: abandoning the disgraced name of Steadman Finch to the gossips of St. Louis, he had taken on the name of Simon Fry. In Jack Pitt, Fry had found the perfect partner. Big and physically strong, Pitt was a deep-thinking man of few words. And although Pitt normally did his own thinking, he was not averse to letting Fry call the shots as long as he didn't disagree in principle. Unlike Fry, Pitt had never held an honest job, having always found it easier to take what he needed from the physically inferior. The two had established an equitable partnership from the first. Being smart enough to see that only a small percentage of honest prospectors gained the vast riches that everyone hoped for--and ruthless enough to take advantage of honest men--Fry and Pitt gave up the pan and sluice box and sought their fortunes with powder and ball. As Fry so eloquently expressed it, a pick and shovel were not the only tools with which to mine. A Winchester rifle and a Colt revolver worked just as well and raised one hell of a lot less sweat. At first, the two combed the mountain streams, seeking out isolated claims and murdering any unlucky miner who happened to cross their path. As time went on, they picked up additional partners from the riffraff who followed the gold strikes--unprincipled men like themselves, who had no qualms when it came to splitting a lone prospector's skull for a little sack of yellow dust. Their gang of cutthroats grew to eight, an optimum number according to Fry. Any more, and they might become unmanageable; yet they were enough to deal with those prospectors quick to grab their rifles. If they had been a military unit, Fry would have been captain and Pitt his lieutenant. The rest were expendable. *   *   * Mendel Knox appeared at the top of the rise, reined his horse to a stop, and waved the others on. "Looks like Mendel's found somethin'," Clell offered. "I hope to hell he's found a way to get off of this damn mountain." Fry was in a foul mood. They had spent a good part of the morning traversing a lofty mountain, looking for a way through to the western slope. Every trail seemed to dead-end into the shear side of another mountain whose slopes were a thick wall of lodgepole pines. All morning they could see what appeared to be a gap in the peaks that promised to be a valley, but they had been unsuccessful in finding a pass that might lead them to it. It had not been a productive summer for Fry's band of outlaws. When things got too hot for them in California, they had followed the late strikes in Montana territory. But they had found the claims too few and too hard to get to, not lucrative enough for their needs. The one sizable strike, at Rottenwood Creek, had looked to be prime pickings until a vigilante committee was formed, making it too risky to remain in that vicinity. So now Fry grumbled to himself as he rode up yet another rise, in need of a place to winter and with a wounded man on his hands. "What did you find, Mendel?" Pitt asked when the group caught up. "A way outta these mountains," Mendel answered, a smug grin on his face. "There's an old game trail on the other side of this ridge. It leads through a pass, and that valley we've been lookin' for is on the other side." Fry started to say something, but Mendel cut him off. "And that ain't all. There's a little settlement in that there valley." This piqued Fry's interest right away. He looked at Pitt and smiled. "This might be a good day, after all. Let's go have a look." *   *   * "Whaddaya think, Fry?" Jack Pitt prodded, leaning forward with his foot propped upon a large rock and his elbow supported on his knee. Like his partner, Pitt had been studying the little settlement far below them in the valley. It seemed peaceful enough, with log houses scattered some distance apart on both sides of a strongly flowing river. When Fry didn't answer immediately, Pitt said, "Looks ripe for the pickin' to me." Fry nodded briefly to acknowledge his partner's comments, but he still didn't answer right away. He was sizing up the homesteads that were visible, wondering how many more were hidden from view in the valley below and estimating the potential for resistance. Behind him, he could already hear comments from the others, anxious to ride down and raid the settlement. When Wiley Johnson voiced the question "What are we waitin' for?" Fry turned and answered, "We're waiting for when I say." Wiley shrugged but held his tongue. There was no doubt in anyone's mind who called the shots for the gang. To a man, they conceded that Fry was the brains behind their actions, and each knew that any challenge to that fact would be dealt with forcefully by Jack Pitt. Turning back to Pitt, Fry shared his thoughts on the matter. "I'm thinking we need a place to hole up for the winter. It's already fall. We'll be up to our asses in snow before you know it. This place looks like it might be just what the doctor ordered. It's damn sure isolated enough, and it looks like a bunch of farmers to me. If there's a rifle in every cabin down there, it wouldn't be enough to cause us any concern." Pitt saw the wisdom in Fry's thinking. Ordinarily, his philosophy was simply to attack and destroy, but with the coming cold weather, the thought of holing up in a small settlement appealed to him. And this one was so far off the main trails that they could hardly expect any chance of outside help for the settlers when the time came to pillage it. He nodded his head in approval. "Maybe they got a doctor," Trask groaned, feeling too sick and feverish to gawk at the collection of cabins in the valley. He had taken advantage of the pause to lie down against a tree, resting his wounded shoulder, which was woefully swollen and painful. "Maybe he could chop that arm off fer ya," Mendel said and laughed. Several of the others laughed with him, totally devoid of compassion for their wounded comrade. "You could keep it to use as a backscratcher." "To hell with the doctor," Wiley blustered. "Wonder if they got any women down there?" His question was answered with hoots of approval from several of the others. "Quiet, dammit!" Fry ordered. "Let's get something straight right now. There ain't gonna be no killing and raping--at least, not right away." His words were met with groans of surprise from the men, and he waited for the protests to die down before explaining his decision. "We need a good, warm place to ride out the winter. This place looks as good as any to me. But if we go charging down there, killing and burning, a lot of 'em will get away--especially those on the other side of the river. Even if we killed all of 'em, then we wouldn't have anybody to do the work for us. That's why we're going down there peaceful-like. If we play our cards right, we just might have ourselves a nice, comfortable winter. When the snows close up these passes, we can do what we want. Nobody'll be able to get out of this valley to ride for help. Maybe come spring, things in Montana will cool off enough to hit the gold claims again." "How the hell are we just gonna ride in and take over if we don't shoot a few of 'em?" Mendel asked. "What's gonna keep some of 'em from taking potshots at us?" "They're gonna welcome us like saviors," Fry replied, grinning slyly, "because we'll be coming to save them from the Injuns." He paused to see if there were any more questions. When, in spite of the many puzzled expressions, no one spoke, he went on. "Now, let's get those uniforms out of the pack and get ready to give these poor folks some protection from the Injuns." Stolen from a quartermaster's wagon, the uniforms were an odd assortment--a few garrison tunics, an officer's sword (which Fry strapped to his side), one pair of blue wool trousers that Hicks wore because he was the only one small enough to wear them, and a half-dozen campaign hats. The gang made a ragtag bunch of soldiers, but Fry thought the uniforms adequate to show at least some semblance of military bearing. When they were all outfitted and ready to ride, Fry told them how they were to answer if questioned by the folks in the settlement. "It's best if you just keep your mouth shut and let me and Pitt do the talking. But if anybody asks, we're part of the Montana militia, and we've been chasing renegade Injuns." He paused, making up his story as he went along. "And we've been ordered to winter here to protect this settlement." He hesitated once more, looking from one face to another. His eyes narrowed as he said, "Now, boys, this might be a real sweet winter with no trouble a'tall if we all mind our manners--and nobody goes off half-cocked. If we play this thing right, we might see the other side of winter fat and sassy. Whaddaya say, boys?" He was answered with nods and grunts of agreement from all the men. Clell Adams wanted to know what he was supposed to call him. "Captain Fry" was the answer. "Cap'n it is, then," Clell chuckled, "but don't expect me to do no damn salutin'." This brought a laugh from the others. "Hell," Pitt snorted, "the only time you ever bring your hand up to your face is when you've got a drink of whiskey in it." His comment brought another round of chuckling. "Or when you're a'pickin' your nose," Wiley added. "All right, then," Fry said. "Let's go down and meet the good folks in the valley. And try to act like soldiers." *   *   * Horace Spratte looked up from his work to catch sight of a party of eight riders making its way slowly down the north ridge. Canyon Creek didn't get many visitors, especially this time of year, so Horace was naturally curious. He and his wife, Effie, had found their way into the valley little more than a year before, having taken over the old Kendall place. They had started out from Council Bluffs with a party headed for Oregon, but Effie had come down with consumption, forcing them to drop out at Fort Laramie. It was late fall before Effie had been well enough to travel again, too late to continue on to Oregon. Luckily for them, they had met an old trapper and guide named Monk Grissom, who had offered to take them to Canyon Creek to wait out the winter. The Sprattes had been welcomed in the valley, and, since there was a sturdy cabin available, they had found it convenient to settle there until the spring. It had concerned them somewhat that the Kendall homestead was available because of the Indian attack that had resulted in the deaths of John Kendall and his wife. But Reverend Lindstrom had assured them that the threat of Indian trouble was greatly reduced and should not be of concern. John Kendall had been one of the original settlers to accompany Reverend Lindstrom to Canyon Creek. A tall, rawboned man, he had married a woman from the Shoshoni camp on the far side of the western ridge. They had had a son, Luke. In 1868, Chief Washakie had moved his people to a permanent reservation east of the Wind River Mountains. Not long after, the settlement had been hit with the only raid by hostile Indians it had ever experienced. John Kendall and his wife had both been slaughtered by the Ute raiding party that swept through the valley. The raiders had hit the Colefield place on their way out, killing Robert Mashburn, another of the original settlers. The boy, Luke, was away at the village of his mother's people on the reservation when his parents had been killed. When he returned to find that his parents were dead, his initial inclination had been to return to the Shoshoni village. Rufus Colefield, Robert's father-in-law, had persuaded the boy to remain in the valley and live with him and his now-widowed daughter, Katie. Luke had soon developed a strong bond with the old man and his daughter even though most folks in the valley had figured he would return to his mother's people. Since the Ute raid, there had been no more trouble with Indians. Katie Mashburn's husband, Robert, the third victim of the Indian raid, was sorely missed in the community. The widow never talked about that dreadful day when the Utes had swept down on their homestead, and Reverend Lindstrom had told Effie that it was best not to bring up the subject. Effie, from her infrequent contact with Katie, would hardly have broached such a subject, anyway. Katie was a strange, lonely woman who kept pretty much to herself. Doing a man's work on the little patch of ground she and her father farmed, Katie never seemed to have time for visiting or socializing in general with the other women of the valley. And she was the only woman in Canyon Creek who constantly wore a pistol strapped around her waist. When Horace commented on it to Monk Grissom, Monk told him that Katie had taken to wearing it after the Utes killed her husband, vowing she'd never be caught without some protection again. According to Monk, Katie be lieved that if she had been armed on that day, she could have stood at her husband's side instead of hiding in a corner of the garden. Newcomers to Canyon Creek found the young woman with the sad face almost unapproachable. She preferred to keep to herself, mixing only with her father and Luke Kendall, the half-breed boy who lived with them. When spring came, Horace and Effie had decided to settle in the valley permanently in spite of the sad history associated with the prime piece of bottomland by the river. The little settlement hadn't grown much in the last few years, a fact that troubled Reverend Lindstrom, who still envisioned a proper town there someday. Monk Grissom speculated that the lack of growth was probably a contributing factor in their friendly relations with the Shoshoni village beyond the range of mountains to the west. *   *   * Now that the strangers were closer to the valley floor, Horace could see that they were not Indians, although the horses they drove before them looked like Indian ponies. Effie, just then noticing that Horace was staring out across the river, paused to see what had captured his attention. "What is it, Horace?" she asked, shielding her eyes with her hand as she strained to identify the riders. After a moment, when her husband did not answer, she spoke again. "Are they soldiers? Some of 'em's wearing army hats." She picked up her pan, half-filled with the last of the fall peas, and walked over beside Horace. "I don't know," Horace said. "Ain't nobody I've ever seen before." For a brief moment, he considered going to the cabin to fetch his rifle but thought better of it. The men were on the other side of the river. Besides, they had never had cause to fear white visitors to their little valley. Why appear unfriendly by meeting strangers with a gun in hand? There were eight of them, anyway. He couldn't do much about it if they were hostile, so he stood watching as they crossed over the meadow and turned down the river. "Headed for the reverend's place, I reckon," Horace decided. When the riders reached a point directly across the river from where the Sprattes stood watching, the leader looked their way and gave them a brief wave of his hand. As they passed on by, the men following made no gestures but stared openly at the man and his wife. "The one in front is sure settin' in a fancy saddle," Horace commented, noticing the high cantle and pommel of Simon Fry's Spanish saddle. "One of 'em looks like he's got a bad arm," Effie remarked as the last of the riders passed from their view. Not waiting for his wife to suggest it, Horace unhitched his mule from the plow, hopped on its back, and headed downriver to cross at the ford just above the church. By the time he reached Reverend Lindstrom's place, the strangers had already found the preacher working to repair a hole in the roof of the log structure that served as the valley's place of worship. As soon as he forded the river, Horace met Whitey Branch coming from the small gathering of men in front of the church. "Soldiers," Whitey called out excitedly as Horace approached. He pulled up to talk. Ordinarily, Horace, like most folks in the valley, would have stopped and humored Whitey. The poor devil was a mite slow-witted. Some thought he had been kicked in the head by a mule when he was a boy. But Whitey had no family to attest to that, so nobody knew for sure. Sometimes a nuisance, but harmless and always friendly, he showed up at everybody's doorstep on a regular basis. Horace was intent upon hearing the news of the valley's visitors firsthand, so he didn't even slow down when he passed Whitey, tossing a "Howdy, Whitey" at his disappointed neighbor and urging his mule up the riverbank. Horace found the reverend talking to two of the men while the others turned their horses out to graze on the ample valley grass. "Here's another one of our citizens now," Reverend Lindstrom said as Horace rode up. "This here's Horace Spratte. Him and his wife live up the river a piece." He waited for Horace to slide off his mule. "Horace, this is Captain Fry of the . . ." He turned back to Fry. "What was it?" "The Montana Territorial Militia," Fry answered. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Spratte." "Seen you go by my place," Horace replied, offering his hand. Lindstrom went on. "Captain Fry tells me that he's been sent out here to give us protection from the Indians." This puzzled Horace. "Protection? We ain't had no trouble with the Injuns." "Well, you might have some before the winter's over," Fry replied. "'There's been some bad raiding north of here, and not too far north at that." This wasn't pleasant news to Horace. "Is that a fact? Who was it? Bannocks? Koutenai?" "Both of 'em," Fry quickly replied, "and Snakes, too." He glanced at Pitt beside him, and Jack nodded silent conformation. "Snakes?" Horace couldn't believe his ears. "Are you sure? We ain't had no trouble with Chief Washakie's band of Shoshonis since I've been living here." He looked at Lindstrom for conformation. The reverend nodded and said, "That's what I was telling the captain here. We ain't had no trouble with the Snakes." "Well, I guess you got some now," Fry replied, getting a mite testy at being questioned. "I know damn well that Trask over there has a Snake arrow in him, and we damned sure took care of the party that done it." He started to say more, but Jack Pitt's warning glance reminded him to hold his temper. "I reckon this bunch must have been renegades," he allowed, his tone taking on a friendly quality once more. "At any rate, we've been ordered to operate out of this valley this winter." Reverend Lindstrom was pleased that his little congregation had been selected for special attention. "It's been over fifteen years since I brought the first of these people over the divide to this valley. This is the first time anybody outside the valley has cared one way or the other what happened to us." "Well, we've been spread mighty thin," Fry responded, building on the lie. "But I reckon it's high time we got some men over here to protect you folks." Horace was busy eyeing the six soldiers now taking their ease near the corner of the church building. After a moment, he turned back to Simon Fry. "For soldiers, you boys sure ain't got much in the way of uniforms." Fry was quick to answer. "We don't put too much stock in spit and polish when we're fighting Injuns. And like I said, we're not regular army. We're volunteers in the Montana Territorial Militia." Seeing that the lack of uniforms had been noticed, he felt it the opportune moment to broach another subject, one closer to his concern. "Funds are mighty scarce for my brave men, who've left their families and homes to take care of the Injun problem so folks like you can live in peace. But the other settlements we've been quartered in have been generous in sharing food and grain with us." Lindstrom and Spratte exchanged brief glances. After a long moment, the reverend finally spoke. "I guess I speak for the folks of Canyon Creek when I say I'm sure we can provide some food and grain to help you out." Being a Christian man by faith and occupation, Lindstrom began to warm more toward the idea of sharing with these good soldiers the longer he thought about it. "Of course, we'll be glad to help," he decided. "Won't we, Horace?" "I reckon," Horace answered but not with the enthusiasm now displayed on the preacher's face. "Maybe we can talk about it during prayer meeting tomorrow night," he suggested. "We'll need a place to set up camp," Fry said. "We could use a doctor, too," Pitt put in. "We got a wounded man that needs some lookin' after." "I'm sorry. We ain't got a doctor, but I'll be glad to take a look at him--help him if I can." Lindstrom started to say something more, when he heard the sound of horses approaching from behind the church. He turned to see Rufus Colefield round the corner, followed by the half-breed boy, Luke Kendall. Rufus hopped down and, handing his reins to Luke, strode over to meet the soldiers while the boy stood back a respectable distance and listened to the men talk of supposed Shoshoni renegades. Rufus Colefield was enthusiastic about any military presence in the little valley, even if there had been no trouble from the Indians in a long time. He welcomed Fry and Pitt warmly, although his eagerness to receive them waned somewhat when the conversation returned to the topic of provisions for the eight men. He was somewhat more helpful when Fry repeated his need for a base of operations. "You could set up camp in Jed Springer's old place," Rufus suggested. "There's a cabin already built, with a good fireplace, and it ain't no more than a quarter of a mile from my place." "That's right," Lindstrom said and explained to Fry that Jed Springer, an old trapper who had settled in the valley, had been killed some time back. "Jed got liquored up one night and fell off his horse--broke his neck." "That just might do at that," Fry said and winked at Pitt. "Yes, sir, that sounds like the perfect place to set up my headquarters." Rufus beamed his pleasure at having suggested the place. "We can show you how to get there, can't we, Luke?" The boy said nothing; the only indication that he had heard Rufus was a slight nod of his head. He found the militiamen a curious lot, with the nondescript items of military clothing--a few hats, a shirt or two. He remembered the soldiers he had seen two years before, when he had lived with his mother's people for a while and journeyed to Fort Laramie for the treaty talks. Those soldiers had all been dressed in identical blue uniforms and rode in military file. Not like these men, sprawled now on the ground while their horses pulled up grass from the reverend's pasture. Luke gave the horses a longer look. He was especially interested in the fancy hand-tooled Spanish saddle on the captain's horse. The initials SF were tooled on the skirt. Luke had never seen such a fancy saddle before. Aside from the eight saddled horses and four packhorses, there were eight more that looked to be Indian ponies. While Rufus talked to the two soldiers and Reverend Lindstrom, Luke moved over toward the grazing animals. They were Shoshoni ponies--he was certain of that. One in particular, a spirited little buckskin, looked just like one that Little Otter treasured. He had heard the soldiers tell of a fight with a party of renegade Snake Raiders, but he found it hard to believe that any of Chief Washakie's band had been involved. He had been to the Shoshoni camp recently enough to know that there were no such renegades. Chief Washakie would not tolerate it. Maybe, like most white men, they didn't know one Indian from another. Luke decided that he didn't like the looks of these so-called soldiers. Though young in years, in spite of Rufus Colefield's open acceptance of the strangers, Luke Kendall relied upon his own sense of judgment. *   *   * Katie Mashburn filled the basin with water from the wooden bucket beside the back door. To bring it to a comfortable temperature, she added a bit more of the boiling water from the kettle hanging in the fireplace and tested it with her hand. Throughout the summer, she had bathed down at the river after working in the field. Today there was a definite chill in the air, so she had decided to take her bath in the cabin since her pa and Luke had ridden over to the reverend's place. Whitey Branch had passed the cabin an hour before with news that some militiamen had come to Canyon Creek. Whitey had appointed himself as the unofficial town crier of the settlement, and Katie knew that he had a tendency to exaggerate on occasion. Her pa had decided to see for himself, so he'd saddled his horse and, taking the boy with him, had gone to gawk at the soldiers. When the water felt right, Katie sat down and pulled her boots off. Laying them aside, she sat still and listened for a few minutes. There was not a sound to be heard outside the crude log house. Still she listened. There was nothing but the sound of the clock on the mantel, its constant ticking tediously counting off the moments of the day. It was a small clock to be so loud, or maybe its ticking merely seemed especially loud when contrasted with the heavy silence inside the cabin. It was a melancholy sound that seemed intent upon reminding her of the ticking away of her youth. It suddenly struck her that she could not recall a time when she had been really young--childhood, maybe--but never a young lady. But then, out here no one was a young lady, it seemed. You were either a child or an old woman, and you went from one to the other overnight. Although she perceived herself as an older woman, none but her own eyes saw her that way. In the short span of her years, she had known enough hardship and pain to age her in mind as well as in spirit. Sighing, she got up from the chair, unbuckled the wide leather belt, and laid her heavy pistol aside, making sure it was within easy reach if needed in a hurry. Ever mindful of that horrible day when they had been suddenly surprised by a Ute war party, she did not feel comfortable unless the pistol was handy. Her eyes lingered a few moments longer on the Colt revolver that Monk Grissom had acquired for her by means she was discreet enough not to question. He would only venture to say that the army had more than they needed in a large shipment of Colt's new model. Called the Peacemaker, it was a vast improvement over the single-action revolver she had worn before. She had never had occasion to use either weapon, but she had promised herself that there would be no hesitation to do so if it became necessary. Katie had long ago decided that she could count on no one but herself, although in recent months she had begun to rely on Luke. Rufus, her father, was a hardworking man but not a brave one. He had run when the Indians came that day. He couldn't help it, she had decided, and had forgiven him for it, although she knew that the poor little man had never forgiven himself for his actions on that day. What could he have done against a raiding party of that size? It would have been a foolish waste of life if he had attempted to stop them. Still, it might have made a difference if he had stood against them with her husband. Who am I to judge anyone? she asked herself. I was hiding in the corn rows. Her hand dropped to rest upon the handle of her Colt .45. Next time, it'll be different. Excerpted from Hero's Stand by Charles G. West All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.