When the harsh winters of the Black Hills snuffed out his father’s life, Miles Donovan was left with no inheritance but knowledge of every trail, creek, and ridge in the Dakota territories. He put his scouting instincts to work for the US cavalry, helping them chase Sioux raiding parties across terrain where few white men dared to tread. It was in that unforgiving country that he learned to hate Tom DeFord, a savage gunman whom Miles once saw kill a Blackfoot woman in cold blood.
His scouting days behind him, Miles is cooling his heels in Deadwood when the beautiful Della Adair hires him to escort her out of town, and across the dangerous Dakota plains. When Tom DeFord comes after Della and her gold, Miles will make a stand, turning his guns against the deadliest killer the Dakota Territories have ever known.
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By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Logan Winters
All rights reserved.
I didn't like him because I knew he was a killer. He didn't like me because I knew that he was.
His name was Tom DeFord. He was a tallish man with coppery hair like wire on his arms and a lanky rug of unwashed red-orange hair on his head. He had cold blue eyes that looked right through a man, a lopsided mouth that had been sliced at the corner once upon a time and drooped on the right side. He had scarred boots and a flat-brimmed hat with a red scarf tied around it for a band. Everybody in Deadwood thought he was a fine fellow since he had the habit of setting up drinks all around whenever he came into the bar-room. It doesn't take much more than that in some places to make people like you. I didn't tell people about him murdering that Blackfoot woman because they didn't want to hear it and wouldn't have believed me anyway out of loyalty to DeFord.
But he knew that I knew. So when I did bump into him, he was apt to be somewhat defensive.
He was drunk when he told me, 'Miles, I hate your guts. I'd like to open you up, carve out your liver and feed it to my hogs.'
I do appreciate a man being straightforward with me, but I always thought that was a little beyond the boundaries. I do not know if he had any hogs or not, but I did get the idea.
You see, the way this started was, before the army and I went our separate ways by mutual agreement, I had scouted sometimes for them up around the Black Hills and down as far as the Horse Creek area near the North Platte, up the Lodgepole – all of that country. Now this came about because when my father had drifted into the Dakotas early on he believed he could make a go of it, but the land was just too raw and the winters too harsh. When he passed away I was kind of left with nothing but a knowledge of the area few whites had. That being the case, and no Indian in that part of the country being willing just then to scout for the invading blue jackets, I signed with the cavalry. It was that or nothing.
The first day ever I saw DeFord was a crystal cold morning out along the Belle Fourche, near where it forks with the Cheyenne River. There wasn't much danger of running into hostiles. Most of the Sioux had drifted northward, but it's a good idea to take a look around now and then when your scalp is at stake. There was a light dusting of new snow across the prairie. The wind had swept the crowns of the knolls bare. The army patrol and I ran across a fine herd of elk and sat our horses for awhile, just watching them nibble their way toward wherever they were going, sometimes pawing at the snow to get to the brittle grass underneath the snow.
Riding on we topped a coulee rim and I thought I heard something above the wind, a sound kind of like a screech owl. We found our way to the bottom of the coulee where a freshet snaked its way through the willow brush, working its way southward. When I heard the sound again, I knew it was rising from a human throat and I put heels to my bay pony. We wound our way across the sandy bottom until we saw a man mounted on top of a woman. She was motionless and there was a knife in his hand.
When he saw us, he staggered to his feet, wiped back his red hair and sheathed his bloody bowie. The Indian girl lay against the cold gray sand like a discarded pile of rags.
This, then, was DeFord and he walked to us in a wobbly way and told our lieutenant this story: 'Me and my friend were riding toward Fort Sully. We had a big pack of furs. They came at us as we tried to cross the coulee. Probably seven, eight of them. I don't know where Dave is. I think they took him captive. Might have killed him. I had to fight them off best I could. Packhorse had danced off and I was trying to follow it when this woman, all crazy-eyed, jumped me. Hell, Lieutenant, I didn't even know she was a woman, just that she was trying to kill me.'
He said it all with a straight face. The lieutenant squinted a lot and frowned, but he didn't argue the point. After all, as he said later, none of us had seen it.
Meanwhile I had swung down from my pony's back and was looking around. The girl looked up at me with dead, dusty eyes. I couldn't see a weapon that she might have used. I could see her skirt was hiked up pretty far. I could see that there were scratches on DeFord's face and a slash across the girl's throat. I could see that she was Blackfoot, and that made no sense. We had never had any Blackfoot trouble. Mostly they had been our allies against the larger Sioux nation and the Cheyenne as well. I could see no other horse tracks but the ones left by DeFord's buckskin pony that he had hitched in the willow breaks. I told the lieutenant what I thought. I had seen fleeing moccasin tracks and a place where the girl had gone down on her hands and knees after she had been tackled from behind. I gave my opinion without being asked.
'He waylaid her and tried to rape her. She fought back and he killed her.'
'That's a damn lie!' DeFord said. His eyes distended and raked me from out of his clawed-up face.
You never have seen such hate. At least I hope you haven't. The lieutenant frowned some more and squinted and told two of his men to bury the woman.
That was as far as it went. There never was much urge in those days to try a man for killing an Indian under any circumstances, and as the lieutenant kept saying, it was true – none of us actually had seen what had occurred. But I knew. I made my living reading sign, and I knew what had been done. The army didn't care to hear my comments, they had more important business to conduct. I made a nuisance of myself and raised a little hell in the major's office. He had me thrown out of the HQ building. It kept gnawing at me for a long time, but it was doing no one any good, least of all me, and after awhile I got angry enough to ride out without even collecting my pay. I don't remember anybody waving goodbye to me as I passed through the gates.
I hadn't expected to meet up again with DeFord in Deadwood, but here he was. While everyone was having a good laugh about my liver I had one drink and went back outside to watch the high, cold sky where only a single bulky white cloud shadowed the long plains in its slow passing.
The reason I was in Deadwood was as simple as sin. Della Adair had sent for me and I couldn't refuse her request. I had known Della for a long time, since the days when she had traveled up to the fort in her silk and lace with four or five other girls and parked her wagon outside the palisade, waiting for the soldiers' payday to roll around. Don't bother telling me what she was. I know it. There's a hundred different words for it, and none of them is very pretty. It didn't matter, in that time and place. She was a woman to be with, and we sometimes would sit around a small fire out on the prairie and just talk. Sometimes we didn't speak for long hours; that was all right too. She would sit on the ground, or a rock if one was handy, her knees drawn up, her red silk dress shimmering in the low glow of firelight, now and then smoking a thin black cigar. Sometimes her head would go to her knees as the cold wind blew and she would say things like, 'God, how did I ever come to this?' in a way that would break your heart. I never responded. What do you say to people when they're feeling that way? I don't know. Maybe a wiser man than I would.
On this evening I again met Della as arranged, and she embraced me warmly, held me at arm's length to study my face and hooked her arm through mine, leading me out of her hotel room to walk slowly out onto the dark, empty prairie. There was something serious on her mind, something she didn't want to have overheard by curious listeners. We walked on until the town was just a small collection of twinkling lights; then we stopped. Looking around for a clear patch of ground, she lowered herself to a sitting position, drawing her knees up, and after a long minute she looked up and asked, 'We are friends, aren't we, Miles?'
'Of course we are. We've known each other for some time now, haven't we?'
'Sure,' she said, lifting her eyes to the starry night while she sighed. 'But that's not what I mean. I've known a lot of the boys out here ... you know. I don't think there are many who would call themselves my friend come morning.'
'I don't know. You're pretty popular.'
'I'm in demand, you are saying. That's not what I mean at all.'
No. I guess I knew that. 'Have you a reason for asking, Della? Or is it just one if those nights when a person needs to know?'
'Oh,' she said, looking back toward me with her sad, dark eyes. 'It's some of both, I expect.'
She hesitated. 'I need to ask you a question, Miles,' Della said softly. 'Are you working?'
'Not so's you'd notice it,' I had to admit. Somewhere distantly a coyote barked and her litter of pups joined in, yipping at the night.
'I need some help. I'll pay you well.'
I waited for her to go on. She still had her legs drawn up, her knees nearly to her breast, her skirt smoothed down over them. 'What's the trouble, Della?'
'I'm selling out,' she told me. 'The saloon business has gotten old. I went into it because it's a ready source of money out here. One of the few things a woman can make a decent profit at.' I nodded my understanding. 'But I've had it, Miles. I have all the money I need to do what I came west for in the first place.'
'Like most of us, I suppose: find a little piece of land, build a house and settle down. Now I've gotten a letter from my brother Brian. He plans on coming to meet me in Steubenville – where I told him I had a little parcel of land.' She smiled faintly. 'Liar that I am.'
'So you plan to sell the saloon and move down that way,' I said, understanding.
'Yes. A crazy Scotsman named McCulloch drifted into Deadwood last month, looking for an investment opportunity. I mean to sell the Eagle's Lair to him. My brother Brian will be bringing my younger sister, Regina along with him ... I don't want either one of them to know how I made my stake.'
'So what is it you want me to help you with?' I asked Della.
'Go with me, Miles. You're a plainsman. You know what to look out for. Indians, bandits, wild creatures. I could do it alone. I am,' she said with strength, 'a woman who has been on her own for a long time, but I'd feel better having a man – a man I could trust – traveling with me.'
'I see,' I said, pondering. It didn't seem like much of a request. Steubenville was not more than a hundred miles south and the weather was holding good. Della still seemed worried, her dark eyes looking up at me, catching starlight. 'Sure, I'll take you down there.'
'It might not be as simple as it sounds,' Della said, leaning back her head as she took a deep breath. 'People know — almost everyone knows that I've decided to sell the saloon, and that I'll have a deal of gold money with me when I do leave town.'
'So you think this might turn into a shooting affair?' I asked.
She hesitated. 'I'm afraid it might,' she answered. 'You understand why I daren't go alone.'
'My first suggestion is that we find at least one other man to go with us,' I told Della. For I had already mentally agreed to help the lady out. I liked Della, and always found her to have a good heart.
Besides, no woman – or man for that matter – would travel those plains alone with a known large quantity of gold money.
'I can't think of a single man I'd trust ... except you,' Della said.
'What about Henry Coughlin?' I suggested, remembering her old bartender. Della laughed out loud.
'Henry's seventy years old! Can you see him fighting off a band of raiders?'
'He can drive a wagon, can't he?' I replied. 'With you selling out, he will likely be replaced on his job, won't he? If he agrees, he could handle the wagon, leaving me free to ride at will and keep an eye on the backtrail.'
'I hadn't thought of that,' Della said thoughtfully. 'Then Henry and I could spell each other at the reins.'
'That's right. That way, we'd be sure to roll into Steubenville in no more than four, five days. When is your brother expected ... and your sister?'
'Next week,' Della said. 'I'm cutting it close to find some property and buy it, pretend that I'm a substantial citizen. I'll need to buy some sturdier clothes,' she said, smoothing her silk skirts again, drifting off into a woman's way of thinking. Me, I was thinking about supplies, ammunition, finding a wagon and team of horses. We all have different priorities in this world. Della was thinking mainly of trying to shed her image and refashion herself for her younger sister and brother, Brian.
I was thinking more about getting her to Steubenville alive, her purse intact.
'I'll talk to Henry,' I told Della as I stood, offered her my hand and tugged her to her feet. 'If you can promise him a place to bunk once you get your little place built, he'll leap at it. A seventy-year-old man doesn't have a lot of options in this country.'
'No, you're right. I can promise him that much,' Della said, standing so near to me that I could feel the heated scent of her body. She was still a fine-looking woman, but she was not for me, had never been. I liked her too much as a friend to risk complications.
'Anything else, Della?' I asked, as we started back toward the brawling town. 'Anyone in particular I should be watching?'
She stopped, lifted her eyes once again and answered, 'Of course, Miles. The man we both are going to have to keep an eye on. Tom DeFord has been asking around. He's found out that I am going to sell the saloon and that I am to be paid in gold. I don't think he would have any compunctions about robbing me, do you?'
'No,' I answered carefully.
No, DeFord would have no compunctions at all in robbing a lady out on the lonesome prairie, nor of assaulting her. And if he was given the opportunity to kill me, he would accept that bonus quite cheerfully.
The sky was full dark when we reached Deadwood, meaning it was beginning to wake up. The streets were alive with brawling, staggering men. There was the sound of breaking glass, wild cursing and twice a gunshot sounding. We paused on the porch of the hotel where Della was staying and she looked up and down the rowdy boulevard.
'God, how did I tolerate this for so long?' she said miserably.
'There's things that have to be tolerated to survive,' I said. Me, I felt the same way about Deadwood and any of a hundred other boom-towns scattered across the Dakotas. I liked the big country, the wilderness. There were times when too much solitude can shove a man toward the very brink of madness, but all it took was a day or two, a few hours, in the company of too many men to make me wish to return to the long plains and deep lonely forests.
'Let's go on in,' Della said with a shake of her head. She turned toward the hotel entrance, then halted abruptly, gripping my arm tightly at the elbow. Her face had gone white, her eyes were wide.
'What is it, Della?'
She was a long minute answering. Her gaze was fixed on some unsettling sight I could not make out. 'They're here!' Della said in near-panic.
'Who's here? What are you talking about, Della?'
'My brother, Brian. And Regina.'
Now, studying the length of the boardwalk I saw a tall, rangy man moving with a limp, a young pretty girl on his arm walking directly toward us. I knew what she was thinking. Now they would find out what sort of reputation Della had in Deadwood. There was no way to hide her shame. Her plan had fallen apart.
I put my arm across her quaking shoulders. 'It doesn't matter, Della. If they love you, the rest of it won't matter to them at all.'
But she drew away, put both of her hands on my shoulders, and looking up with haunted eyes, said, 'You don't understand, Miles. If Brian sees Tom DeFord there is bound to be killing done!'CHAPTER 2
'Quickly,' Della said, clutching at my coat sleeve, 'let's get inside. Up to my room. I can't think straight.'
We went into the hotel lobby, crossed it to the desk where Della was given her key by the bald-headed clerk without asking, then up the carpeted steps to her second-floor room. Her hands were shaking so that she could hardly fit the key into the lock and so I opened it for her. Entering the lighted room Della rushed to the window, staring down anxiously, her fingers jabbing at her hair, her lower lips trembling slightly.
'What have I done?' she asked herself miserably. 'What have I done?'
I sat on the bed and studied her grief-stricken face for a minute. She started to sob, covered her face with a lace handkerchief and got herself under control.
'It seems we have some talking to do, Della, and quickly. How do you think Brian tracked you to Deadwood?'
'My letters, of course,' she said. 'I wrote to Brian, and to Regina.'
'So they got to Steubenville earlier than expected and decided to come here to look for you.'
'Yes,' she said heavily, turning to face me. 'So it seems.'
Excerpted from Dakota Skies by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2007 Logan Winters. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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