Trial At Fort Keogh (Thorndike Large Print Western)

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9781410480040: Trial At Fort Keogh (Thorndike Large Print Western)
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Clint Cooper, the easy-going foreman of the Double-V-Bar Ranch, expects little more than the satisfaction of a hard day's work. When Sioux raiders descend on Yellowstone Valley, it's no surprise when he joins with soldiers from Fort Keogh to protect his folk and his livelihood. But not everyone is singing his praises. Crooked lawmen from the nearby town of Miles City have an agenda of their own, and Clint stands in the way. They want him out of commission ― for good.

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About the Author:

Charles G. West lives in Ocala, Florida. 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 novels.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

PLAYING THE FOOL

SIGNET

Chapter 1

Clint Cooper squatted on his heels and picked up a piece of charred bone, which he used to poke around in the remains of a slaughtered steer. His close inspection wasn’t really necessary, because it was obviously not the work of wolves or coyotes. Those predators did not usually build a fire to cook the meat. This was the second carcass he had found in the last few days, and moccasin prints around the kill told him that it was done by a small party of Indians.

The question in his mind was whether or not it was the same raiding party that hit a small ranch eight miles east of the Double-V-Bar Ranch two days before. Leonard Sample, his wife, and two sons were killed in the raid, their mutilated bodies found by their neighbor to the east of them. It was the first attack by an Indian war party in quite some time, at least since the construction of Fort Keogh. Every rancher on the south side of the Yellowstone suffered the loss of a cow now and then from small parties of Indians around this time of year when game was difficult to come by. Usually it was of no real concern as long as it wasn’t allowed to get out of control. But the savage attack on the Sample Ranch was enough to cause serious worry throughout the territory.

The signs he was reading now turned up no small footprints, which indicated that the slaughter wasn’t done by a party with women and children, as the first killing had been. This killing was recent—recent enough for him to be able to possibly track down the guilty parties. Clint’s boss, Randolph Valentine, was not likely to miss one or two stolen cows from his herd of over fifteen hundred, so Clint had been inclined to overlook the first steer slaughtered by a party of hungry Indians. But two in a week’s time was cause for concern, especially after the murder of the Sample family.

At first, Clint frowned when he thought about tracking down what he had imagined to be a small group of starving Indians, still resisting the government’s orders to return to the reservation. But the winters were hard in Montana Territory. A good many of the trail-hardened longhorns from Texas were lost each year to natural predators, and it was part of Clint’s responsibilities as Randolph Valentine’s top hand to see that the number lost was held to a minimum.

Before these two incidents, the raiding of the herds had really not been bad, mostly because the army had built a fort on the south bank of the Yellowstone at the confluence of that river with the Tongue. Originally known as the Tongue River Barracks, Fort Keogh was only about five miles from the Double-V-Bar. Its purpose was to protect settlers from hostile Sioux raiding parties, remnants of Sitting Bull’s and Crazy Horse’s warriors who had escaped after the massacre at Little Big Horn.

The Texas longhorn cattle were a hardy lot and better suited than other breeds to fatten up on Montana grass over the winter before being shipped to the Chicago slaughterhouses in the spring. One thing was for sure—they were a lot easier to kill than the pronghorn antelope native to the area, especially when the hunter had nothing more than a bow.

I reckon I’d go after a cow, too, if the situation was turned around, he thought, and I was the one needing food.

He got to his feet when Ben Hawkins and Jody Hale appeared at the top of the ravine and came slowly down to join him. “Found another’n, didja?” Ben called out.

“Yep,” Clint answered. “If I was to guess, I’d say they left here no more’n four or five hours ago, and I don’t think this one was killed by the same bunch that killed that last one. Take a look.”

Ben dismounted, dropped his reins to the ground, and walked over beside Clint. He squatted on his heels, as Clint had, and stirred the ashes of the small fire. “I expect you’re right,” he said. “Four or five hours ago, not long after daybreak.” He grunted with the effort to stand up again, not being as agile as the younger man. “I reckon you’re wantin’ to try to track ’em.”

“I expect we oughta,” Clint replied. “I’m thinkin’ this might be that war party that struck the Sample place. Even if they ain’t, Mr. Valentine said he didn’t intend to feed every starvin’ Indian in the territory.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully as he turned the matter over in his mind. “I’d kinda hoped, when we found that other one a few days ago, that they were just gonna kill one and move on through our range. But I reckon this is a different bunch and they’re figurin’ on stayin’ awhile.”

“Looks that way,” Ben agreed. He crossed the small stream on the other side of the burned-out fire to take a look at the tracks, stepping from stone to stone to keep his boots dry. After a few moments inspecting the mixture of hoofprints and moccasin tracks, he expressed what Clint had already surmised. “’Pears to me they didn’t just go after this one cow. Hell, they cut out half a dozen cows and drove ’em down here to the stream. There’s cow tracks and horse tracks, and the horses weren’t shod, so they was Injuns, all right.”

“And they drove ’em down that side of the stream toward the river,” Clint finished for him. “I figure it’s that Sioux raidin’ party, ’cause I couldn’t find any small footprints that would mean there were women and children with ’em. I reckon they butchered this one, then just decided to take a few cattle with ’em for their food supply.”

“Looks that way,” Ben said again, and took another look around the edge of the water for tracks. He was thinking that if there were kids, they’d have been playing around the water. “Might be a small bunch passin’ through on their way up to Canada to join up with what’s left of ol’ Sittin’ Bull’s people.”

“How many you think?” Clint asked.

“I figure five, maybe six,” Ben replied.

“That’s about what I make it,” Clint said.

It was not surprising that they agreed, since Ben Hawkins had taught Clint practically everything he knew about reading tracks. Clint was still in his teens when he left Wyoming Territory and made his way down to Texas, looking for work with one of the big ranches. With no ties to any part of the country, he was prone to wander until he found someplace that suited him. He signed on with Will Marston to drive a herd up from Texas to Ogallala. That was when he met Ben Hawkins. Ben recognized the honest, hardworking decency in the otherwise carefree young man, and unofficially took him under his wing.

It occurred to Ben that young Clint never mentioned family or home, so one day he had asked him about his home, and if there was someone there who might want to hear where he was.

“Nope,” Clint answered.

Although it took some digging, Ben was finally able to learn that Clint had no idea what had happened to his mother. One day she was gone, and his father told him that she had died of pneumonia. He was about two at the time, as far as he could guess. He stayed with his father until an argument over a prostitute in a saloon turned into a gunfight and left Clint an orphan. Now at twenty, the years having softened his memories, he knew that his father’s name was Clayton Cooper, and that was all he cared to know about his past. He couldn’t recall his mother’s name, and doubted that he ever knew it. He also had an odd, C-shaped scar on his neck but had no recollection as to how he got it.

After several years, when a natural partnership developed between them, the two friends decided to help drive a herd of Texas cattle on up to Montana for Randolph Valentine. Valentine was quick to see the potential in young Clint Cooper, and offered him a permanent job. He offered Ben a job, too, but Ben was smart enough to know that that was probably because the two were partners, and that he’d have to hire both of them to get the one he wanted. As it had turned out, however, Valentine came to appreciate the experience and the work ethic of the older partner as well. He soon came to realize that he had made a better deal than he had at first thought.

In a couple of years’ time, young Clint Cooper proved to be a man capable of running the day-to-day operations of the ranch. And Valentine was aware of the steel-like strength beneath the carefree attitude he most often displayed. At any rate, Clint was physically big enough to handle objections to any orders he might issue to the crew that worked Valentine’s ranch. That capability was seldom necessary, though, since Clint’s orders always came in the form of suggestions, and he always seemed willing to take his share of the dirty chores. Valentine had never officially announced that Clint was foreman of his crew, but all the men knew it to be the case. It had not surprised Ben that Valentine had come to look at the young ramrod almost as a son. This was especially true in light of the fact that Randolph and Valerie Valentine had only one offspring, a daughter named Hope, who was a year younger than Clint.

“Well, I reckon we’d best go see if we can recover our stolen cattle,” Clint said. He looked up at Jody Hale, who was still seated on his horse. “Jody, ride on back and tell Charley and the rest of the boys to keep moving the cattle back off that flat. I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move ’em in closer to the ranch. Me and Ben are gonna go see if we can catch up with these Indians, and maybe get our cattle back.”

Jody, the fourteen-year-old nephew of Charley Clark, nodded in reply and promptly turned his horse to ride back up the ravine.

Ben looked back over his shoulder to watch the boy ride away. “You reckon he’ll remember what you told him by the time he gets back to the herd?” he joked.

Clint laughed. “Yeah, Jody’s all right. He’s just got his mind on other things most of the time—not much different from any of us at fourteen.” He stepped up into the saddle then, but paused for a moment. “I didn’t ask you if you wanted to stick your neck out to go after a bunch of Indian warriors.”

Ben waited to answer until he crossed back over the stream and stepped up on his horse. “No, you didn’t, did you?” he mocked. “But then you never do. Hell, I gotta go with you anyway, to make sure you don’t get yourself inta somethin’ you can’t get out of.”

He gave his horse a kick and splashed across the stream to lead out along the opposite bank, leaving his grinning partner no choice but to follow.

*   *   *

It was late in the afternoon by the time they caught up with the party of Sioux raiders. From the top of a ridge a quarter of a mile from the banks of the Yellowstone, Clint and Ben scanned the band of cottonwoods that crowded the low bluffs, trying to spot the rustlers. A thin ribbon of smoke wafting up from the trees had warned them that the Indians had stopped to make an early camp, probably preferring to deal with the hassle of crossing the cattle in the morning.

“I ’spose they ain’t too good at drivin’ cattle,” Ben speculated. “And gettin’ late in the day, they’re afraid they’ll lose some of ’em in the river. They’re hid in them trees somewhere, but I can’t see ’em.”

“Me, neither,” Clint said, “but they’ve gotta be around that fire. I would like to see exactly how many we’ve gotta account for before we go walkin’ in there blind.”

“I’m still thinkin’ six of ’em,” Ben said. All the horses’ hoofprints appeared to be indicatin’ half a dozen and all of ’em carrying a load. “I’d like to know what kinda weapons they’re totin’.”

“Maybe six,” Clint allowed. “But maybe just five and one of those horses is a packhorse loaded down with the meat offa that steer we found back there. We’ll just have to wait till it gets a little darker, then work in a little closer.”

It was a wait of a little more than an hour before the sun disappeared and deep shadows spread across the river valley to darken the narrow expanse of flat prairie approaching the trees. With their Winchester rifles loaded and ready, they walked down the ridge, leading their horses. At the edge of the cottonwoods, they tied the horses, then continued on foot, moving carefully through the trees until they spotted the fire flickering through the trees some fifty yards away. Exercising even more caution now, they worked their way in closer until they were only twenty-five or thirty yards away from the fire.

“There’s our cows,” Ben whispered, and pointed to half a dozen steers gathered together below the bluffs near the water. Beyond them, the Indians’ ponies grazed on the brown stubble of grass covering the slope down to the bluffs.

Clint nodded, then brought his attention back to the campfire and the sleeping bodies around it. He counted four warriors, bundled in their blankets and lying like spokes of a wheel, with the fire as the hub. He had missed his guess that the party consisted of five warriors, but so had Ben, who figured there were six.

At least, they don’t appear to be concerned about being attacked, he thought.

“Looks too easy, don’t it?” Ben whispered. “Two apiece.”

“Yeah,” Clint replied. “Reckon there’s a lookout hidin’ somewhere?”

“If there is, he ain’t stayin’ close to the rest of ’em. I reckon we’ll find out when we start shootin’.”

Clint couldn’t help harboring a small bit of reluctance to simply start firing at the sleeping bodies, but it was a good bet that they were the hostiles who had murdered the Sample family.

“Might be a good idea to split up and get a little space between us,” he suggested, “in case they come outta those blankets shootin’.”

“Good idea,” Ben said. “Ain’t no use us standin’ in the same spot and givin’ ’em one target for both of us. I’ll work over toward the horses.”

“All right,” Clint said. “I’ll wait for you to get where you want and take the first shot. That’ll be my signal to open up on ’em.”

Clint knelt down and trained his ’73 model Winchester on the sleeping forms while Ben moved off into the darkness. Set to wait for Ben’s first shot, Clint was surprised when it came within seconds of his departure, only to realize a split second later, when he saw the muzzle flash, that the shot had come from behind Ben.

Without taking time to think, Clint turned and pumped three shots at the spot where he had seen the flash. Unable to see a target, he quickly turned back in time to see the other four hostiles scrambling out of their blankets. Cranking out two more rounds, he was able to knock one of the warriors down before they all disappeared into the trees.

“Damn!” Clint cursed, and dived behind a sizable tree for cover when a couple of answering shots snapped through the bushes near him. “Ben! You all right?” There was no answer. “Damn,” he swore again, and started running in the direction Ben had taken, dodging trees and bushes in the darkness.

Off to his left, he spotted three figures running toward the horses, but he was forced to jump behind a tree to keep from being run over by a frantic cow that had been frightened by the gunshots. When he stepped back out from behind the tree, the three he had seen had already reached their ponies. With little time to get off a shot, he drew a bead on the one closest to him and pulled the trigger. He was startled to hear another rifle shot at almost the same instant and ...

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9780451468505: Trial at Fort Keogh

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ISBN 10:  0451468503 ISBN 13:  9780451468505
Publisher: Berkley, 2014
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