|South Pass, Wyoming|
East looking west towards Pacific Springs
CULLEN AND BRAHAM topped Pacific Butte at South Pass in the late afternoon. They looked out over the expansive valley filled with sand dunes and bluffs that formed a gate through the Rocky Mountains. Cullen whistled, letting his shoulders slacken a little under his red stripped shirt. “Do you know what the Shoshone say about the pass?”
Braham tipped back his hat and gazed out over the Continental Divide toward Oregon Territory. “Probably something about God running out of mountains.”
Cullen nodded as he glanced to the north where the snow-topped Wind River Range loomed, then looked southeast toward the sage-covered Antelope Hills that bordered the valley on the side. To the right was the Sweetwater River. To the west, the Pacific Creek. “We’re looking at the land of promise.”
Braham laughed. “Some promise. Looks rather bleak to me.”
Cullen had crossed through the pass twice before and had a camping site for the wagon train in mind. It would be the perfect place to either propose to Kit and marry her, or propose and become a thief in the night. The longer he thought about his alternate plan, the sourer it turned. No, he wouldn’t hold her against her will. Should she want to leave, he’d tell her he loved her and let her go. But it would be another loss from which he’d never recover.
Braham pointed ahead. “Look at that. What do you think it is?”
Cullen looked through his binoculars. The hairs on the back of his neck bristled. He handed the glasses to Braham. “Buffalo. Must be hundreds. If they get spooked, they could run right through the wagon train.”
“I thought there were only small bands around here.”
“I did too.”
“Somebody forgot to tell the damn buffalo.”
CULLEN AND BRAHAM rode into the valley and met up the wagon train.
“Look-see who blew in with the tumbleweeds,” Henry said. “Glad to have you boys back. See anything?”
Cullen eyed the train, spread three wagons abreast, then nodded to the west. “Hundreds of buffalo a couple of miles north of here. We need to tighten our line and stay south while we cross the pass.”
Henry turned to Braham. “You get the Preston boys. They’re salty riders. Y’all watch those critters. Anything spooks ‘em, make sure they’re heading west, not east.”
“Those boys got guts enough for all of us,” Braham said. “We’ll stay between the wagons and the herd. Pass the word to keep the noise down.”
“If they get spooked, it’ll be easier to scratch you ear with your elbow than stop ‘em,” Henry said.
Thunder rolled through the valley. The horses picked their ears and sidestepped.
Henry grimaced. “Clear day. Can’t be thunder.”
Cullen clamped his cigar between his teeth. “Not thunder. Stampede. Not enough time to move the wagons.”
“Give me your bring-‘em-close glasses,” Henry said. “Want to see what we’re dealing with.” He focused the binoculars at the dust cloud. “Damn.” He lowered the glasses and pointed them offhandedly at Braham. “Get those boys to help you. If y’all can’t turn them, I’ll damn well put windows in those skulls and make a breastwork of carcasses.”
Henry tossed Cullen the binoculars, spurred his horse into a lope, and yelled over his shoulder. “Come on. Get the women and children into the wagons. Tell the men to load their rifles. If the boys can’t turn them, we’ll shoot the ones in the middle and hope they’ll pass on either side. If not, they’ll run right through us. I’ll ride the far outside of the wagons. You ride inside.”
Cullen had heard of men facing down stampedes, heard of the fear, and its crippling panic. He hoped to God he wouldn’t fail the people who depended on him. He checked his holstered .44 Colt revolver, then wiped his palms dry on his trousers.
He and Henry trotted down parallel lines. “Pack the wagons together and form a shield wall,” Cullen yelled. When he saw Adam, he stopped. “Get everybody inside the wagon, then load your rifle and stand ready.”
Cullen drew his carbine. As he rode back down the line, he shouted, “Make every shot count.”
The ground groaned and heaved beneath the crazed animals. Pots and pans swinging from hooks inside the wagons clanged like cymbals.
Cullen dismounted in the center of the front line. He noticed a slender backside, then wisps of blond hair tucked under a hat. He yanked the woman up by the back of her collar and pulled a strange-looking rifle from her hands.
“Holy hell, Kit. What are you doing? Get in the wagon with Sarah and the children.”
“Give me my rifle.” She grabbed the weapon and depressed the bolt release. The bolt sprang forward, chambering a round. “I’ve got thirty bullets in the magazine and five magazines in my bag. If I hit what I’m aiming at, I can down those critters pretty fast. Faster than you.”
His body tensed with the red rage of fear.
“You need my rifle. You need me. People I love are in these wagons, and I’ll shoot every bullet I have before I let one of them get hurt.”
He didn’t have time to fight with her while buffalos waged war on them. “Show me how to use the gun. Then get out of my way.”
She shook her head. “I’ll reload for you, but I’m not leaving.”
He shouldered the weapon and aimed. “What’s the range?”
“Two hundred yards.”
“As fast as you can fire.”
“When this is over we have some talking to do.”
“Then let’s shoot some buffalo.”
He pointed to the magazine box under the rifle’s barrel. “You have five of these?”
“I’ll refill them as you empty them.”
He looked through the scope and placed the crosshairs on a target. If the weapon performed to Kit’s expectation, he could damn well shoot a third of the herd before anyone else got off a second shot. “Where’s your handgun?”
“It’s only accurate to twenty-five feet. Not much good here.”
“Keep it close.”
“If the buffalo get that close, we won’t be here.”
“It’ll be too late to run.”
“We’re not running. The brooch will take us out of here if those buffalo get close enough we can smell their breath.”
“They won’t get that close.”
But they sure as hell were getting closer, packed in a dense mass and running toward the wagons in a panic. At any moment, Kit expected the pulverized ground to open into fissures and gobble up everything in one dry, dusty gulp.
As she slipped a clip into her pistol, and racked the slide, she heard the oxen and mules struggling against their hobbles to flee from the roll of thunder and choking dust.
Cullen looked up from his own weapon and turned to her. “You sure about this rifle?”
“Look—ride the line and tell the men to hold their fire until the herd gets within range. Make sure they understand we’re shooting the buffalo in the center. ”
She squeezed his arm. His muscles tensed, and his face creased with concern. “Come straight back.”
Kit rode the line and shouted instructions to the men. By the time she returned to Cullen, he was firing into the herd. An empty magazine and a pile of shells had collected at his feet. Dead buffalo littered the pass.
“Start reloading.” Sweat poured off his brow and ran into hard, focused eyes.
She placed a round between the empty magazine’s feed lips and followed with another, and another, loading bullets as fast as her clammy fingers could shove them into place. A bullet dropped, but she didn’t pick it up. Another dropped.
Concentrate, damn it.
Why hadn’t Frances’ journal mentioned the stampede? Oh. Below the entry mentioning the Murray’s missing baby were three words buffalo scared me. Frances did write about it, and there was one other identifiable word farther down on the page—miracle.
The chamber clicked. Empty. Cullen yelled with a chilly demand. “Need another—”
She had a replacement mag ready before he ejected the used one. With surgical precision, he pushed the magazine up into the well and slapped upwards on the bottom to seat it. He aimed and let go a round of bullets, killing dozens of buffalo.
He paused, surveying the scene before him. He’d fired more than three hundred rounds. A layer of dust covered him. The muscles in his arm, visible beneath his sweat-soaked shirt, rippled under the strain of shooter fatigue.
“Fire your pistol. The herd’s splitting.” His commanding voice was barely a ripple over the roar.
She planted her feet shoulder-width apart and extended her left arm, its elbow slightly bent and the weapon at shoulder level. Gripping the shaking gun hand with her other hand, she fired. The gun discharged and something inside of Kit snapped. She found herself lost in the taste of blood and the fog of memories—of fear and anger.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Over and over and over.
Somewhere in the madness, Cullen yelled, “Cease firing.”
Her eyes cut a glance to the empty shell box at her side. Fear rose up her spine, caught on the calluses of her mended bones and threatened to re-break each one. “We’re out of bullets.” She didn’t recognize the cold steel tone in her voice.
He grasped her pistol and wiggled it from her frozen grip. “You don’t need more.”
“What if they come back?”
He lifted her chin with his finger and turned her face toward where the herd had been. She blinked and the blurriness cleared. A pile of carcasses stood twenty yards from the wagons.
Slowly, she slid to the ground, her clothes damp with sweat, her pulse racing more erratically than before. Reality broke through, and she emerged from the swamps of her festering soul, shivering. Words came slowly. “I wasn’t shooting the buffalo.”
He pulled her into his arms. His body shook against hers. “I know. It’s over now. You shot them all.”
AS SOON AS the dust settled, Cullen and Henry formed work crews to skin as many of the buffalo as possible. Henry sent riders to wagon trains trailing behind them to let folks know what happened and invited others to take what they needed.
Kit put her guns away and picked up every spent shell. She tried to diffuse the questions, saying the gun had been an experimental weapon belonging to her husband, and that she and Cullen were relieved it didn’t explode in their faces.
Just as things were quieting down, Braham’s galloping horse came to a sudden stop only a few feet from where she and Cullen were standing, stirring up the dust again.
Braham pointed off into the distance. “See those circling buzzards?”
Cullen raised a dirt-covered eyebrow. “Did you check it out?”
“Yep. Better get your horse. You too, Kit.”