Settler's Chase

I hope you enjoy reading the first chapters of SETTLER'S CHASE.

D.H. Eraldi

Settler's Chase
D.H. Eraldi

 

Prologue

Late September, 1886

Wreckage scattered along the slope, broken wheels and flapping canvas leaning haphazardly against boulders and tree stumps in the steep avalanche slide. The woman peered down the canyon wall. She leaned as far over her spotted pony’s shoulder as she dared, and then sat back to glance down the narrow wagon trail.

The back trail was clear, no sign yet of the soldiers, but she knew they were coming, were in fact not far behind. She listened carefully for the sounds of hooves, jingling spurs, or rattling scabbards. The only sound was the wind in the trees and the distant rush of the river far below. Her knee bumped the empty cradleboard still swinging from the tall horn of her saddle. Her husband had chided her for carrying it along, but she could not yet put it away. Now he stopped beside her, leaning over his own horse’s shoulder to examine the spoils below.

The white man’s stagecoach had tumbled off the narrow trail, one of the large wheels catching on the soft edge of the roadway. The ruptured belly of the coach lay like a bloated carcass on the rocky ledge of the canyon wall. Below that, the team of horses, still attached to the single tree and front wheels, were piled legs-akimbo at the bottom of the ravine.

It was tempting—there were useful goods down there—but there was little time. The man jerked his head and began to turn to follow the others. She started to rein the spotted pony to follow, but a sound stopped her. A thin, reedy cry.

“A bird,” the man said.

“No,” the woman answered.

She got down and handed the jaw-line rein to him. “Don’t let Spots bite you.” He nodded, never glancing at the spotted pony, who was already laying back her large ears and baring her teeth. Then the woman hefted her body over the edge of the roadway and carefully made her way down to where the wreckage of the Overland Stage rested on the rocky promontory at the headwaters of the Tenderfoot.


Chapter 1

Late October, 1886

Sett Foster could not imagine a sweeter sight, and he barely restrained an appreciatory whistle. Below him, scattered like gemstones across the high mountain pasture, a small herd of mustangs grazed, their bodies sleek and fat from the summer feed. The foals raced through the golden fall grass, the mares no longer trailing them worriedly as they had earlier in the spring when the babies were very young. At the outskirts of the herd, a group of older colts lingered, being chased away by the tall red stallion if they ventured too close to either mares or young ones. Sett was pleased to see that even the stallion was in fine fettle, a few new scars but still fat and holding his own. Sett allowed himself a low chuckle. The saddle horse had adjusted to life in the wild easily, and now there was this fine group of stock for Sett to profit from. After he captured, gentled, and trained them, they would bring good money from the cavalry officers.

Sett ducked back down in the rocks and fished the monocular from his pocket, carefully extending the brass tube and wiping the dust from the lens. Through the magnifying scope, he examined the three geldings at the perimeter of the herd. They were the first results of his plan, born three years before and briefly corralled as two-year-olds, but otherwise as wild as they came. All were first-rate animals, strong-boned like their mustang mothers and athletic like their race-bred sire. The officers would be fighting to bid on them.

Sett collapsed the monocular and returned it to his pocket. Everything was in place: the box canyon trap that he had built over the course of several years, the ropes and long poles he’d stashed above the narrow entrance to the canyon, the habit in this dry time of the year for the lead mare to bring the herd in to drink every evening at the little spring in the back of the canyon. It had all worked out. The horses would go in to water, Sett would slip down and lash the poles in place to make a solid gate, and the horses would be contained. He would rope the three geldings and turn the rest loose again. In a couple of weeks, he would be returning home to his wife Ria at their cabin with a string of nice horses to sell. All he had to do was wait until the horses went to their evening water.

A pair of blue jays were squawking in the tree over his head, and the still afternoon air was undisturbed by breeze, a rare warm day so late in the season. Sett brushed an exploring ant off his neck, scratched his beard, and pulled his hat down over his face to doze until the herd came in. He let his mind wander. He would make a good profit –perhaps he would buy some iron pipe and put in a spring box at the cabin. Perhaps he could get something for Ria. She seldom asked for anything for herself.

The shadow of the pines was stretching long across the hillside when a snort roused Sett from his rest. The sound was repeated, an alarm from the head mare in the trees below. Sett pulled himself up to peer over the shielding rocks. His first thought was that his big saddle mare had gotten loose, then that somehow the wild ones had smelled him in his hiding place; either one would foil his carefully planned capture. The horses were still moving toward the watering hole, but the lead mare kept pausing to look out over the gray slope and let out that loud expulsion of air that warned of something discomforting. Sett followed her gaze and slowly reached for his monocular.

To the north, at the edge of the trees, was another horse moving after the herd. It was hard to see in the shadows of the late day, but something about the new horse was strange, and certainly the wild ones below agreed. Once he had focused the small telescope, Sett made out a spotted horse and the reason for the spookiness of the herd. The horse was wearing a saddle of some sort, with a flapping blanket hanging off of the right side. The horse moved cautiously along, its head tilted oddly to one side. As far as the wild horses were concerned, the new horse was a frightening thing, but to the lone horse the herd looked like a comforting presence. The saddled horse made its way slowly toward the mustangs.

Sett could see his plans falling to pieces like leaves blowing from the autumn trees. If the strange horse spooked the bunch, they would abandon their evening water for some place more open, but for the life of him Sett could not think of anything he could do about it. Showing himself in any form would be every bit as disastrous. All Sett could do was sit and watch, as the oddly moving animal approached the others.

As it came closer, Sett could see that the horse was sidling away from a rein that dragged in the dirt. Closer now, the horse stopped and looked anxiously at the group of mustangs, nickering softly as if calling in hopes of finding a friend. The chestnut stallion swaggered away from the herd to examine this interloper.

The rest of the herd was not so sure. The saddled horse was like having a monster in their midst, and the mares nipped the inquisitive foals nearer to them. The stallion was now up to the new horse, muzzle to muzzle, exchanging the breath of their species. Satisfied that this was indeed another prospect for his harem, the chestnut elevated himself into a high-stepping trot and circled the spotted horse, biting at her flank and sending her toward the reluctant herd. Sett held his breath. The scary animal had the rest of the mustangs milling in the trees. Sett would not be at all surprised if the lead mare bolted away onto the open prairie. The stallion, after all, had been a saddle horse, was used to seeing equipment of all sorts on other horses, and so was nowhere as concerned by the spotted mare’s appearance as the wild-born were. All Sett could do was hope that the mares accepted her and would decide to continue into the trap for a drink.

The head mare, an old scarred black  with a handsome foal at her side, came forward and bared her teeth. The spotted pony drew back, timid and submissive to the older mare’s display. Not a threat, the old black decided, and she turned away from the cause of all the commotion and headed up the narrow trail between the trees toward the spring.

Sett had not realized that he was holding his breath. The sight of the black mare turning up the canyon made him force himself to let his air out slowly, then to take a deep quieting breath. The rest of the herd turned to follow the leader, and the stallion urged his slow-moving new prize to follow behind. As the new mare came closer, Sett could see that the bridle was a crude jaw-line , the one long rein trailing ten feet along the ground, the odd-looking saddle made from carved forks of wood with a hide for a seat. Part of this hide had slid to the right, the flapping edges that had so frightened the wild horses. An Indian pony, a little scrubby spotted horse with a stand-up mane, ewe neck, and knobby knees. Not worth much, in Sett’s opinion. He’d capture it with the geldings and sell it for whatever it might bring as a packhorse, as he certainly didn’t need any progeny from such a poor specimen. The stallion herded the sorry-looking mare right under Sett’s hiding place, and he took the risk of actually poking his head above the brush to get a good look.

Sett sucked in his breath again and held it. There, bobbing along the shoulder of the sad Indian pony, was a cradleboard, a tiny wizened face peeking out of the tight lacings. A Blackfeet cradleboard, like the one Ria had started to build and decorate when she was pregnant with the first baby. As if crabbing sideways to protect the baby, rather than to avoid the dragging rein, the little Indian pony still carried her passenger.


Chapter 2

Ria had tried to ignore the dull ache in her back. From the moment the pale fall dawn had awakened her, through rekindling the small cookstove and setting the pot of water on to heat, she determinedly ignored the weight that hung along the back of her slim hips. With Sett away, she bypassed making coffee, choosing some mild tea instead, but still her stomach jumped and twisted in spite of her outwardly steady appearance.

Coy knew something was wrong. The dog padded around the cabin on Ria’s heels, peering up at her as she dressed in her odd assortment of Blackfeet leggings and man’s wool shirt over a cotton undershirt. It was a practical layering of functional attire, without a thought to appearance. She pulled her dark hair back into a loose braid, then gathered the few dishes from her evening meal. With Sett off checking his mustang traps, Ria had not bothered to cook full meals, grazing instead on handfuls of plums or some pine nuts. Now she told herself that the nagging discomfort in her belly was nothing more than the fruit, and she grabbed up the bucket and headed out the door of the cabin.

The sky was bright, clouds teasing the horizon over the Cottonwoods, the light spilling out across a landscape she had grown to love, a view as distant as the imagination. She paused a moment, the empty bucket dangling by her side, to watch the landscape and to wonder exactly where in those great folds of mountains Sett Foster might be.

He had pointed out the range, the rolling golden slopes to the east, where his horses roamed; not actually his horses, but she thought of them as such. A wild herd with the lead stallion turned in by Sett himself, to improve on the durable mustang mares. Sett had described his trap—the unscalable walls of a box canyon, with the gushing spring to draw in the wild ones this late in the season. He’d been excited. There were some nice young horses ready to be captured, broke, and sold. Finally his plan would begin to pay off.

He’d invited her along on this trip, but Ria made up an excuse about finishing the pemmican for winter, and if Sett recognized a lack of enthusiasm for a trip, he paid no mind to it. Ria swung the bucket aimlessly, lost in thought as she gazed into the early morning.

If he did not notice, that was good. She had not wanted him to think about it.

Now a stitch in her side brought her back to herself, the self that was trying so hard to pretend that there was nothing wrong, nothing different. Ria placed her palm across her stomach and started again toward the fanning branches of the mountain stream, insistent that if she ignored this cramping it would go away.
At the edge of the stream, she placed one small foot securely on the stepping stone that Sett had rolled near the bank. With one leg braced on the rock and the other on the worn grass tufts of the bank, she could swing the bucket into the deeper water of the creek and scoop up a bucketful without any gravel. In the spring, the rushing water could nearly pull her from her stance, or the stone would be icy and slick, but here in the late fall the water wandered along at a softer pace, still deep and clear but nowhere near the snowmelt rush of earlier in the year. Ria let the bucket sink into the pool, filling without disturbing the bottom. But when she straightened to pull it from the water, the ache she had been ignoring zipped up her side, and she doubled over, dropping the bucket back into the pool with a splash.

No, she insisted to herself. This wasn’t happening. This couldn’t be happening. Not again.

Trying to catch her breath between muscles spasms, she dragged the bucket through the water and retreated to the stiff marsh grass on the bank of the stream. Coy came over to lick at her face, but she could not pause to greet the dog. She kneeled down on the earth and clutched her belly, folding in half over her knees in an effort to stop the spasms, but each brief rest was filled with the terrible ache, an ebb and flow that was now familiar and impossible to ignore. Tears trickled down the woman’s freckled cheeks, tears not caused by pain, but by the recognition of it. She was going to lose this baby, yet another baby.

She was grateful that Sett was not here to see this, for she had not told him about this child. She could not, not after so many disappointments. The first time she had told him, he had stared at her uncomprehendingly as if the idea that he might be a father had never entered his mind. But then a boyish grin had lit his face, and he had scooped her up into a bear hug that left her struggling for breath and stretching to get her toes on the ground. The second time he had been happy too, but by the third pregnancy, his joy was mixed with concern and he had given her a warm hug and started insisting on bringing in the heavy water bucket in the morning. After that she did not tell him, could not stand to bring sorrow upon him too. With this child, this one who had stayed the longest, she had only dreamed of finally telling him, consoling herself with his imagined delight.

And so when he had suggested the horse-hunting trip, she’d known she’d been successful in keeping her secret, for he would not have left her had he known. How he had not was beyond her. She had been walking around with a silly half smile on her face for weeks, catching herself holding her hand to her abdomen and humming, gathering the best and softest hides into her sewing basket.

But it was not to be, and maybe would never be; the thought that she would be doomed to spending the rest of her life losing babies brought on fresh sobs. How could she repeat this? How could she live if this were the fate handed her? Ria rocked back and forth on her knees in the stiff grass, arms folded over a body that rejected that which she wanted most, and wondered why this one thing—the only thing that she had ever wanted for herself—was denied.

She could smell her blood even before she felt the stickiness on her legs. It brought her back to her world, that world in which she was alone and in the wilds. She could sit here and cry, and the coyotes or wolves would smell her and come in to finish her off. She could put up no resistance, simply huddle in the grass until her existence was complete. Perhaps that would be better than living forever in this hell.

Then Coy sneaked a quick tongue across her cheek, the concern of Ria’s oldest friend breaking into her bleak sorrow. If coyotes came, Coy would be killed defending her. Ria pushed herself up and crawled to the shallow water to retrieve the abandoned bucket. She would have to heat some water and wash up. The absorbent flannels were in the cabin.

Hot tears streaked down her clammy skin as she hauled the half-filled bucket onto the bank. With each movement, the fluids that had been her child ebbed from her body. Not a child, not anymore. Ria thanked the powers that she had decided to wait until Sett’s return to tell him the news.

Now there would be no news.



SETTLER'S CHASE is available at bookstores everywhere, or order at Amazon.

SETTLER'S CHASE (Berkley, 2010) ISBN 978-0-16676-5

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copyright 2010 D.H. Eraldi.