The cold rain drilling into his face was distraction enough without being stared at.
Pete knew this stretch of the Bozeman trail was ripe for an ambush. Tumbled boulders, sudden furrows in the ground, and the odd copse of trees made for excellent cover from anyone traveling the trail.
That was why he strove to catch every nuance of what was going on around him. With the rain’s constant patter it would be difficult, but not impossible, to spot an attack before it happened. He rode point, as he often did, his Indian trained eyes picking out details that others would likely miss. A few paces behind him the strange woman—girl, really—rode her black gelding with the ease of someone who had spent a lifetime in the saddle. From beneath the brim of her sodden hat he could feel her eyes watching him.
“Does she have to do that?”
“What?” Eaton looked up, a knot of chewing tobacco in his cheek. “What you going on about now, redskin?”
“Your ‘apprentice,’” Pete said, jutting his head toward her. “Does she have to stare at me the whole damn trip?”
Eaton cackled, his rugged voice carrying over the gentle rain.
“She does that.” Eaton composed himself. “Here’s the thing, Injun; She’s trying to figger you out.”
“I think she’s probably staring at my scar.” Pete rubbed his thumb over the hard ridge of discolored tissue on his right cheek.
“Your scar?” Eaton engaged in another bout of chortling, his belly shaking. “That little scratch your tribe burned into your face on account of being a--”
“I know the story,” snapped Pete. “I was there.”
Pete gritted his teeth and turned his attention back to the trail. His mount was having a bit of difficulty maneuvering in the mud. He dismounted and led the horse by the reigns, eyes alert for anything.
He almost groaned when Rose kicked her horse into a brief cantor and caught up to him.
“I don’t know the story,” she said in her crisp, clipped speech.
“Yeah? Well, that’s too bad cause I’m not telling it.”
Pete cursed when the wind picked up and blew off his hat. Snatching it up from the mud, he slapped it back on his head and turned a baleful eye on Rose.
“Cause it’s none of your damn business,” he growled. “Now shut up so I can hear myself think. This is a great spot for an ambush.”
The girl grew silent, and he returned his attention to the road ahead. Pete’s heart started thumping in his chest. It had been subtle but he was sure he’d seen movement beyond the rain’s shadow.
Pete held up his hand with as much nonchalance as he could muster. He drew a short bladed dagger from a sheath on his boot and used it to clean imaginary stones from his horse’s hoof.
Rose just stared blankly, but Eaton must have guessed what was up, because he rode up beside Pete and stared down at him somberly.
“The trail winds between two steep hills up ahead,” Pete said. “Don’t look!”
“You think this is my first rodeo, injun?”
“I was talking to your ‘apprentice’.”
“Why you got to say it like that?” Eaton laughed, but his eyes remained hard. He was doing his part, trying to keep the ambush party up ahead from realizing they’d been made. “Injuns, you figger?”
“I doubt it. The tribes left in the territory mostly avoid trouble these days. Without the War to keep them busy, the government has all the time in the world to chase down ‘savages.’”
“Why are you angry?” Rose asked.
“I’m not angry.”
“Yes you are.”
“Eaton, tell her to shut up or I swear to God my first bullet is going right through--”
The retort his Pete’s ear at the same time that Eaton groaned in pain and grabbed his arm just above the elbow. His dark green coat was growing darker, and his fat hairy fingers bore crimson stains.
“Get some cover!” Pete howled. He ducked behind his horse and drew his pistol, the familiar weight reassuring in his palm. Eaton jumped out of his saddle and found his own equine cover.
The girl just sat there in the saddle, stupidly watching the proceedings.
“Get down, girl!” shouted Eaton. “We’re under attack!”
Rose moved like a bolt of lighting, rolling off the back of her saddle and landing in a crouch with both pistols drawn. Pete squinted ahead into the rainstorm, and found he could just make out a figure lying supine atop the left hilltop. Too far away to hit with revolvers.
“Eaton!” he shouted as another shot rang out. A geyser of muddy water spurted up from the trail a few feet ahead of them. “You got a damn rifle in your saddle bag?”
“Yeah, but I can’t hit shit with it since I lost my damn eye!” Eaton flipped open his saddle bag and pulled out a cloth-wrapped longish bundle. He tossed it to Pete, who caught it one handed. With his teeth he pulled the drawstring loose, and the hide dropped away to reveal a Colt army issue rifle.
“There a round chambered?”
“What do you think?”
Pete glanced over at Rose, who was squinting intently up at the figure on the hill.
“Rose!” he said. She did not respond. “Rose. ROSE!”
Her green eyes snapped in his direction.
“Lay down some cover fire!”
“Shoot that guy!” he pointed at the sniper on the hill.
“He’s too far away to hit.”
“I know, but he’ll be too worried about being shot at to notice me lining him up in my sights!”
“Do it, girl!” roared Eaton as a bullet sliced through the air and startled his horse. With his good arm, he managed to grab the reigns.
Rose stood up and fired both her guns, thumbs snapping back the hammers faster than the eye could follow. The sniper shifted, bringing his weapon to bear on the red haired young woman.
It was all the distraction Pete needed. He stood up, took a shallow breath and held it. He lined up the man’s chest in his iron sights and squeezed the trigger. The rifle jumped against his shoulder and a puff of smoke heralded a muffled scream from the hilltop.
“Yeah! You got ’em!” howled Eaton. He had one of his ham fists tightly gripping the reigns of his spooked mount, while his other was cradled at his side. The red stain on his shoulder had gotten much larger.
“It’s not over!” Pete got back behind cover. “No way was that rifleman working alone!”
Above the rainfall, Pete could make out the sound of hoof beats. The muddy terrain made for a wet slapping sound as no less than four horsemen barreled in their direction.
“We’re outnumbered!” Pete put his foot in the stirrup and prepared to mount when the first shot rang out. “Time to rabbit!”
“What about rabbits?” Rose asked. Even with death bearing down on them, she didn’t change her strange tone.
“We gotta run, girl!” Eaton struggled with his horse, narrowly avoiding its crushing hooves.
“But there’s only four of them.”
“Fine, stay here and die!” Pete swung up into the saddle, then fired a few rounds uprange. He didn’t hit anything and didn’t expect to, but he hoped it would give their attackers pause.
If anything, his attack only spurred them on to greater speed. They were coming into focus through the rain now, hard-eyed men on big roan stallions. Firing from their saddles, they were no more accurate than Pete had been, but quickly they would be upon the little party.
“What in the hell...” Pete muttered when Rose stepped into the muddy road and flipped off her hat. Her red locks were plastered to her head by the moisture, making her figure appear almost skeletal.
Four shots rang out. Three men fell out of their saddles, while one grabbed the side of his face and hollered like to wake the dead. One more retort cracked across the rainy landscape, and the man joined his fellows wide-eyed in the mud.
Their horses kept galloping. Pete kicked his horse into action. “Get out of the way, Rose, or you’ll be trampled!”
The girl stood there, staring at the charging beasts. Pete swore and spurred his horse toward her. With one hand he snatched her by the collar and half carried, half dragged her off the road just before the stampede reached them.
Eaton wasn’t so lucky. His horse reared up on its hind legs and pulled him off of his feet. He sprawled face down in the mud. Too late, Pete shouted a warning as the first horse rumbled past. One hoof ended up right in the small of his back, and Eaton arched awkwardly as he was crushed beneath the horse’s weight.
“Eaton...” Pete said in a whisper. The man was writhing in the mud, his bearded mouth forming inarticulate wails chock full of pain.
“God damnit!” said Eaton when Pete rolled him over in the mud. “God damn legs aren’t working. Can’t even feel them!”
“We’ll get you to a sawbones,” said Pete. “Rose and I can cut a litter--”
“Bullshit.” Eaton howled when Pete tried to straighten out his twisted legs.
“Thought you couldn’t feel ’em?” Pete said optimistically.
“It ain’t my legs, you injun bastard, it’s my back!” Eaton coughed up foamy blood. Rose crouched next to them in the mud, her green eyes wide with shock. She definitely wasn’t daydreaming now. “I done seen guys trampled during a cavalry charge in the war. If your spine gets broke, that’s the end of you.”
“Eaton,” Pete chuckled “c’mon, you’re not a doctor. You’ll be fine once we get you--”
“I’ll be fine once you act like a man and finish me off.” Eaton glanced over at his pistol, half buried in the mud. “I’ll do it myself if you give me my damn gun.”
“No!” Pete growled. “We can save you! Maybe you can walk again with a crutch or a stick.”
“Peyote Pete,” Eaton said with a pain tinged smile “I do believe you actually mean what you say. Pete’s a strange sort, but he’s salt o’ the Earth. That’s what they say about ya, injun, if I’m lying may the devil roast my balls.” Eaton cackled, which brought on a frothy coughing fit. “I been riding away from the Reaper ever since the first shot got fired at the Mason Dixon line. High time he caught up with me.”
Eaton’s blue eyes searched for and found Rose.
“Girl,” he said “you know what to do. Just like we discussed.”
“Right.” Rose smoothly drew her left side pistol and before Pete could even gasp put a round right between Eaton’s eyes.