Ambush at Cold River: An excerpt
The deer stumbled through the dry brush, scrounging for forage. The weather had been harsh of late, leaving little for beast or man. It showed in the animal’s body, its skin close to its bones. A bark of a Winchester ended the deer’s suffering; it stumbled a few feet then collapsed onto the dry grass.
Katy Calhoun lowered the rifle from her shoulder then frowned. On any other season she would have let the sickly deer pass, waiting for something more substantial. But times were hard this season. The drought had yet to break and the land suffered. Beggars can’t be choosers, the saying goes, and while Katy wasn’t near to begging she was close to taking on a less respectable profession if things continued to get worse.
She was about to scramble down the hill to claim her kill when she heard voices on the opposite side of the valley. She crouched and brought her rifle back to her shoulder. She spotted the first man creeping toward her kill, a Colt in his hand. Two more men flanked him to the right, two more to the left. A sixth man hung back, standing still with a rifle at his shoulder as he scanned the hillside. Katy crouched lower, hoping to hide from his gaze.
“Whoever you are, we appreciate you sharing this deer with us,” the man shouted.
Katy’s temper got the best of her.
“Who the hell said I was sharing?”
She moved as soon as she spoke, working her way back behind the hill.
“Well now,” the man replied. “Looks like we have a little lady to thank. If you just hold on for a minute we’ll come and thank you personally.”
Katy scanned the hillside, taking a moment to mark each man’s position.
“How about you come on out in the open and make this…”
Katy’s first shot sent the talker scurrying for cover. He second shot smashed into the forehand of the man closest to her, knocking him back into a sapling oak. Her third shot caught one of the men to her right in the gut. He clutched the wound as he fell to his knees cursing.
She was moving when the others began shooting back. Common sense would have told her to fall back behind the hill, get on her horse and ride away. But Katy was angry, and when she was angry somebody had to feel it. She was also heeding the words her parents told her long ago. Once you shoot at a person, they’re not your friend anymore. They’re your enemy, and a person is only an enemy as long as they’re alive.
Katy fired another round at the talker, keeping him behind his tree. She fell to the ground as the branches above her head were shot into splinters. Katy didn’t return fire. She waited in the prone position, her rifle sighted. The other men finally appeared creeping toward her, their sidearms drawn.
“Did we kill her,” one of them said.
“I think so,” the other answered.
“What a waste,” the third man said. “We could’ve had us some fun before we killed her.”
Katy bit her lip. She waited until they were in full view.
“Hey!” she yelled.
Katy gunned the men down before they could pull their triggers.
She checked to see if the talker was still lurking on the hill before rising to her feet walking to the three men. All three were dead; Katy fired three bullets into their heads to make sure.
“Goddamn trash,” she said.
A revolver fired and a bullet whizzed by her head. Katy fired back in reflex.
“Shit!” the talker yelled.
Katy chased the talker, running up the hill to its crest. As he reached the summit the talker shot at her again, striking the tree nearby. She flattened on the ground, her rifle aimed from the prone position as she searched for him. After a few moments she sprang to her feet, working from tree to three as she searched for him.
“Yah!” she heard him shout. Katy saw the man riding off. She tried to draw a bead on him but the trees blocked a clear shot. She slowly lowered her gun then shook her head.
“I’ll see you again,” she said. “You can count on it.”
She sauntered down the hill, stopping to go through the pockets of the men she killed. No reason to leave anything valuable with them. They wouldn’t need it. She collected twenty dollars, four watches and a flask of whiskey. She had planned to dress the deer on the spot, but that was no longer an option. The shootout may have been heard by others so her best bet was to take what she could from the deer and leave the rest to the woods. She knew a Cherokee that would pay good money for the horses and saddle, no questions asked. The rest belonged to her. She’d have to go into Felicity for supplies which she had hoped to avoid. For a brief moment she felt remorse but it quickly dissipated. Get or get got, that’s what her parents always said. Today she got.
She took out her knife, cut the flank portion from the beast then tied it in place. Katy was not a small woman, standing taller than most men and possessing a full bosom and wide hips. She kept her hair cut short in a black curly mass on her head. A solitary life made her just strong as most men as well. She would ride a few miles north before stopping to set up camp for the night. In the morning she would head for Felicity. Once again she had blood on her hands. She was sure it wouldn’t be the last.
Bass Reeves tipped back his hat as he scanned the open grass field before him. He was looking for signs to tell him he was headed in the right direction. He’d been tracking the Bowden Gang for six days, keeping a safe distance all the while. They were moving fast, which told him they knew they were being followed. He finally spotted the trail, a ragged path of broken grass the skirted the field between the grass and the forest. The trail led to a narrow path into the woods that weaved through the new growth, probably a path tread by the few buffalo that remained in the area. The signs indicated the gang had passed this way at least a week ago. Bass wasn’t making up any time. He’d have to forgo a few nights sleep if expected to catch up with them or hope they took a rest or two in the next few days. It was possible they would; they couldn’t keep up the pace that long.
At midday he stopped to rest and eat. There was no time for a fire and a meal so the chewed on strips of jerky and washed them down with the warm water in his canteen. He gave his horses a few minutes to forage then set out on the trail again. For a few minutes he lost the trail, but picked it up again on the banks of a small creek skirting the edge of a steep hill. As he stopped to fill his canteen Bass looked up to see buzzards circling overhead. At first he dismissed it, but then he decided to check it out. He mounted a fresh horse then travelled over the hill. The smell of death reached him as he crested the summit, growing stronger as he descended the opposite side. Sign was everywhere; there had been a gunfight. He came across the first body halfway down the slope. The man lay on his back, staring into the sky. It was definitely one of the Bowden boys. Bass dismounted then inspected the body. Not only had he been killed, he’d been robbed as well.
“Ain’t that a turn,” Bass said aloud, a grin lifting his voluminous mustache.
He found four more bodies close by. Each man had been robbed of valuables. There was a deer carcass nearby as well, the flank of the beast missing. Based on the bullet wounds Bass suspected the bandits had come across a hunter and expected to relieve him of his meal and probably his valuables. Apparently that hunter turned the tables on them then fled, which was he took only a portion of the deer. Bass took the folded wanted poster from his pocket then matched the faces on the poster to those of the dead men on the hill. Despite early decomposition he was able to match them. One man was missing, Tom Bowden. He was the most wanted of the three and the man with the highest bounty. Knowing Bowden he sent his minions after the hunter as he sat back to provide cover, which is why he managed to escape.
It was messy work. Bass had no way of transporting the bodies; whoever killed and robbed the gang took their horses as well. He took items from each man to confirm their deaths then searched the area for more sign. Someone traveling with five horses was sure to leave a trail and it didn’t take long to find it. Bass decided to follow the trail to see where it led. He would find the person who did this work and thank him or arrest him. He hadn’t decided which. He’d make up his mind once he caught him.
You can read the rest of the story in Bass Reeves Frontier Marshal: Volume Two