“Ride, goddammit!” Zeke Tippett bellowed, smacking the rump of the dark prairie mustang. He watched for a few moments as Painted Wing’s pony raced off across the plain. He smiled grimly at his son, White Buffalo, flapping wildly and screaming in his cradleboard hanging from his mother’s high, big-knobbed saddle horn. Painted Wing was too busy to try to calm the boy, who was just over a year old.
Tippett turned back. The seven Cheyenne warriors were half a mile away. Tippett knew he could not outrun them, so he stopped to make a stand, sending Painted Wing and the baby on their way. Tippett figured the Cheyennes would come at him first, aiming to kill him, scalp him and steal his animals and possibles before going for the woman. He aimed to make sure they did not get past him.
Outwardly calm, Tippett tied the horse and four mules in a circle, with himself inside, protected by animal flesh. He pulled out his trade rifle and new .54-caliber Hawken. He primed both flintlocks and slid the trade gun through a loop on a pack of beaver plews.
The Cheyenne were maybe two hundred yards away when Tippett slid the Hawken up over the pack of plews. He fired. There was a flash of smoke, a slam against his shoulder, and a roar. A second later, Tippett grinned in satisfaction, for there was one riderless horse coming at him.
He set the Hawken down and grabbed the trade rifle. He yanked back the hammer and sighted. There was another roar, and a second Cheyenne fell. With practiced speed, Tippett reloaded both weapons.
When he looked up, the Cheyennes were only fifty yards away and coming fast. Half a dozen arrows thudded into packs of beaver plews. Two mules brayed in annoyance, and his big bay horse whinnied in fright behind him. Tippett jammed the Hawken’s wiping stick into the ground at his side and slid the rifle over the packs again. He fired and he saw another Cheyenne sail off his pony.
Several more arrows thumped into packs as the three remaining Cheyennes swirled around him. Tippett yanked out his belt pistol. Like the two rifles, it was a .54 caliber and devastating at close range.
Tippett fired as a Cheyenne rode swiftly in front of him. The pistol ball splattered the side of the Indian’s head, knocking the warrior sideways off his horse. The others raced northeast, leaving the last warrior where he lay. Each scooped up one of the other dead.
By then, Tippett had dropped the pistol and hurriedly reloaded the Hawken. He sighted again as the Indians raced for safety. It was a long shot, but he tried it anyway. A Cheyenne carrying a dead comrade snapped straight up, as if hit. He dropped his friend, but, hunched over his pony’s neck, kept going with the other two warriors.
“Waugh, that’s makin’ ’em come now, Zeke,” Tippett shouted. He was almost delirious with his victory. Hastily he reloaded all his weapons. He hung his pistol on his belt with the metal bracket riveted to the stock; the trade rifle went into a buckskin saddle scabbard. He kept the Hawken in hand as he untied the animals and then scalped the Cheyenne lying near him.
He checked the animals. One mule was wounded. It wasn’t too bad, but it wouldn’t help matters. He softly worked the shaft back and forth, loosening it. It had not sunk in very deep, and it was but a few moments more before he had the arrow out. He held a piece of buckskin over the gash to halt the bleeding. The flow slowed to a trickle and then stopped. Tippett tossed the bloody rag away. The mule had brayed and bucked a few times during its ordeal, but mostly it stayed calm.
While he had worked on the big gray beast, Tippett kept a worried eye on the north, praying the Cheyennes would not return with reinforcements. Tippett pulled off his beaver-felt hat with the wide brim and low, round crown and swiped the sweat off his forehead with the sleeve of his dirty, red calico shirt. Setting the hat back on, he pulled himself up onto the big bay. Settling his scrawny backside into the hard saddle, he headed slowly southward.
He met Painted Wing a mile farther on. She had pulled into a wash with grass and a trickle of water left from yesterday’s short, violent thunderstorm. Her pony grazed, while Painted Wing sat placidly breast-feeding White Buffalo. She smiled as Tippett rode in.
“Ain’t ye afraid?” he asked as he dismounted.