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The baby stirred between them.
She eventually fussed enough to bring Bass fully awake, suddenly, sweating beneath the blankets.
Without opening her eyes, the child's mother groggily drew the infant against her breast and suckled the babe back to sleep.
Titus kicked the heavy wool horse blanket off his legs, hearing one of the horses nicker. Not sure which one of the four it was, the trapper sat up quiet as coal cotton, letting the blanket slip from his bare arms as he dragged the rifle from between his knees.
Somewhere close, out there in the dark, he heard the low, warning rumble past the old dog's throat. Bass hissed--immediately silencing Zeke.
Several moments slipped by before he heard another sound from the animals. But for the quiet breathing of mother and the ngg-ngg suckling of their daughter, the summer night lay all but silent around their camp at the base of a low ridge.
Straining to see the unseeable, Bass glanced overhead to search for the moon in that wide canopy stretching across the treetops. Moonset already come and gone. Nothing left but some puny starshine. As he blinked a third time, his groggy brain finally remembered that his vision wasn't what it had been. For weeks now that milky cloud covering his left eye was forcing his right to work all the harder.
Then his nose suddenly captured something new on the night wind. A smell musky and feral--an odor not all that familiar, just foreign enough that he strained his recollections to put a finger on it.
Then off to the side of camp his ears heard the padding of the dog's big feet as Zeke moved stealthily through the stands of aspen that nearly surrounded this tiny pocket in the foothills he had found for them late yesterday afternoon.
And from farther in the darkness came another low, menacing growl--
Titus practically jumped out of his skin when she touched him, laying her fingers against his bare arm. He turned to peer back, swallowing hard, that lone eye finding Waits-by-the-Water in what dim light seeped over them there beneath the big square of oiled Russian sheeting he had lashed between the trees should the summer sky decide to rain on them through the night.
He could hear Zeke moving again, not near so quietly this time, angling farther out from camp.
Bass laid a lone finger against her lips, hoping it would tell her enough. Waits nodded slightly and kissed the finger just before he pulled it away and rocked forward onto his knees, slowly standing. Smelling. Listening.
Sure enough, the old dog was in motion, growling off to his right--not where he had heard Zeke a moment before. Yonder, toward the horses at the edge of the gently sloping meadow.
Had someone, red or white, stumbled upon them camped here? he wondered as he took a first barefooted step, then listened some more. Snake country, this was--them Shoshone--though Crow were known to plunge this far south, Arapaho push in too. Had some hunting party found their tracks and followed them here against the bluff?
Every night of their journey north from Taos, Bass had damn well exercised caution. They would stop late of the lengthening afternoons and water their horses, then let them graze a bit while he gathered wood for a small fire he always built directly beneath the wide overhang of some branches to disperse the smoke. Waits nursed the baby, and when her tummy was full, Bass's Crow wife passed the child to him. If his daughterwas awake after her supper, the trapper cuddled the babe across his arm or bounced her gently in his lap while Waits cooked their supper. But most evenings the tiny one fell asleep as the warm milk filled her tummy.
So the man sat quietly with the child sleeping against him, watching his wife kneel at the fire, listening to the twilight advancing upon them, his nostrils taking in the feral innocence of this land carried on every breeze. With all the scars, the slashes of knife, those pucker holes from bullets and iron-tipped arrows too, with the frequent visits of pain on his old joints and the dim sight left him in that one eye . . . even with all those infirmities, this trapper, fondly named Scratch, nonetheless believed Dame Fortune had embraced him more times than she had shunned him.
Every morning for the past twenty-five days they loaded up their two packhorses and the new mule he had come to call Samantha, dividing up what furs Josiah Paddock had refused to take for himself, what necessaries of coffee, sugar, powder, lead, and foofaraw he figured the three of them would need, what with leaving Taos behind for the high country once more. By the reckoning of most, he hadn't taken much. A few beaver plews to trade with Sublette at the coming rendezvous on Ham's Fork where he would buy a few girlews and geegaws to pack off to Rotten Belly up in Absaroka, Crow country--when Bass returned Waits-by-the-Water to the land of her people for the coming winter.
Josiah. Each time he thought on the one who had been his young partner, thought too on that ex-slave, Esau, they had stumbled across out in Pawnee country, on the others he had left behind in the Mexican settlements . . . it brought a hard lump to Scratch's throat.
For those first few days after bidding them that difficult farewell, Titus would look down their backtrail, fully expecting to find one or more of them hurrying to catch up, to again try convincing him to remain where it was safe, maybe even to announce that they were throwing in with him once more. After some two weeks he had eventually put aside such notions, realizing he and Josiah had truly had their time together as the best of friends, realizing too that their time lay in the past.
Time now for a man to ride into the rest of his tomorrows with his family.
One of the ponies snorted in that language he recognized as nervousness edging into fear. Whoever it was no longer was staying downwind of the critters.
Kneeling, Bass swept up one of the pistols from where he'd laid them when he'd settled down to sleep. After stuffing it into the belt that held up his leggings and breechclout, Scratch scooped up a second pistol and poked it beneath the belt with the first.
Gazing down at the look of apprehension on the woman's face, he whispered in Crow, "Our daughter needs a name."
He stood before Waits could utter a reply and pushed into the dark.
The babe needed a name. For weeks now his wife said it was for the girl's father to decide. Never before could he remember being given so grave a task--this naming of another. A responsibility so important not only to the Crow people, but to him as well. The proper name would set a tone for her life, put the child's feet on a certain path as no other name could. Now that his daughter was almost a month old, he suddenly realized he could no longer put this matter aside, dealing each day with other affairs, his mind grown all the more wary and watchful now that there were these two women to think of, to care for, to protect.
More than his own hide to look after, there were others counting on him.
No one was going to slink on in and drive off their horses--
Suddenly Zeke emitted more than a low rumble. Now it became an ominous growl.
One of the ponies began to snort, another whinnying of a sudden. And he could hear their hooves slam the earth.
Where was that goddamned dog? Zeke was bound to get himself hurt or killed mixing with them what had come to steal their horses. In his gut it felt good, real good, to know that he wasn't going into this alone. The dog was there with him. Bass quickened his pace.
As that strong, feral odor struck him full in the face, Scratch stepped close enough to the far side of the meadow to see their shadows rearing. The struggling ponies were frightened, crying out, straining at the end of their picket pins right where he had tied them to graze their fill until morning.
He stopped, half crouching, searching the dark for the intruders, those horse thieves come to run off with his stock--
A dim yellow-gray blur burst from the tree line. His teeth bared, Zeke pounced, colliding noisily with one of the thieves just beyond the ponies.
There had to be more, Scratch knew--his finger itchy along the trigger. With Zeke's roar the thieves had to expect the owner of the horses to be coming.
But as Bass looked left and right, he couldn't spot any others. Perhaps only one had stolen in alone.
Then in the midst of that growling and snapping Scratch suddenly realized the dog hadn't pounced on a horse thief at all. It was another four-legged. A predator. A goddamned wolf.