How the West Was Won
The sun was not an hour high when Linus Rawlings came up the trail of the Ute war party. The high walls of the narrowing valley of the Rio Grande barred all escape, and Linus knew he was in trouble.
A man of infinite patience, he was patient now, sitting line-backed buckskin in the dappling shadow of the aspens. Behind him trailed three pack horses carrying his winter's catch of furs, while before him the mountain slope lay bright with the first shy green of spring.
Nothing moved along that slope, nor in the valley below. Linus , never one to accept the appearance of things in Indian country, remained where he was. Methodically, his eyes searched the slope. It had been a long time since Linus Rawlings had sky-lined himself on the top of a ridge or slept beside a campfire. When in Indian country you never took a risk, whether you suspected an enemy to be near or not.
Now Linus searched out the probable line of travel of the war party and studied it with care, but he could see no movement, nothing. But he recalled what Kit Carson had told him many years before: When you see Indians, be careful. When you do not see them, be twice as careful.
Below him and to the right was another, somewhat larger clump of aspens . He gauged its height and his own position. To reach it he need be visible for no more than a minute.
A slight breeze moved behind him dancing the aspen leaves, he moved with its movement, keeping the first clump of aspens behind him. He paused again when he had rounded the second clump, then started down the slope on the opposite angle to that he had been using.
A short distance ahead the narrow valley narrowed still more; then it widened out until it finally opened upon the plains. Using infinite care and holding well to the side of the valley, he worked his way along the bottom of the valley, following the river and keeping close to the trees or under them.
When he reached the place where the Utes had crossed, he drew up and allowed his horses to drink, and when they had drunk their fill he dismounted and drank himself. He was rising from the ground when he heard the first shot.
The second shot barked hoarsely, followed by three more shots fired in rapid succession, one of them overlapping a previous shot.
Stepping into the saddle, he crossed the stream and pushed on, keeping in the shadow of the trees. When he approached a rise in the ground where the stream dipped through a cut, he left the stream and mounted the rise until his eyes could look over the top.
Before him lay a grassy meadow of some three hundred acres or more. On his left the waters of the stream pooled--perhaps behind a beaver dam. Beyond the meadow the stream again crossed the valley to flow through the narrows along the opposite side.
A puff of blue smoke hung above the dew-silvered grass, and some fifty yards this side of that smoke a horse was down in the grass, threshing out its life in bitter, protesting kicks.
At first Linus saw nothing else. The morning held still, as if waiting. The Indian pony gave one last despairing kick and died. And then an Indian moved. Linus immediately saw two others, their presence revealed by his sudden focused attention. All were facing down the meadow, their backs toward him.
Obviously the war party had ridden into an ambush. Rising in his stirrups, he looked beyond the dead horse, and from the vantage point of the knoll he could see them clearly. . . five trappers lying in a buffalo wallow. Undoubtedly their horses were hidden in the trees where the stream again crossed the meadow, with a man or two on guard.
Searching the terrain before him, he picked out several other Indians. The others in the party must be hidden somewhere among the trees along the stream.
Birds chirped and twittered in the brush nearby, and Linus relied on them for a warning if an Indian started to move in his direction. And then he saw what he had half suspected. Two Indians were creeping through the grass toward the buffalo wallow.
Lifting his rifle, he estimated the distance. The target was poor, the range too great. He was hesitating whether to chance a warning shot when someone fired from the trees where he believed the horses were hidden.
One of the Utes screamed hoarsely and leaped to his feet. Two buffalo guns boomed from the hollow and the Indian was slammed back to the grass. The other Ute did not move, and three searching shots sent into the grass near him drew no response from him.
The position of the trappers was well chosen. Yet if the stalemate continued until dark, the excellent position would be worthless, for the superior numbers of the Indians could close in quickly.
For some time Linus had realized that his own position was increasingly perilous. Other Indians might come to rendezvous with these, or some Ute might move back far enough to discover him. But a sudden attack by him now , from an expected quarter, might work in his favor. At that moment, when the Utes were likely to be confused and uncertain, Linus chose to act.
Lifting his rifle, he settled his sights on the spine of the nearest Indian. He took a deep breath, let it out easily, then squeezed off his shot. The gun boomed in the narrow valley, and the Indian stiffened sharply, then rolled over, face to the sky. Instantly Linus fired again, then swinging his rifle far left, he squeezed off the third shot, each booming report slamming into the echo of the one before it.
Linus slapped his heels into the ribs of his buckskin and fled across the meadow, whooping and yelling. He counted on the sudden attack, which he had tried to make appear as coming from several men, to surprise the Utes into giving him a running start.
Astonished by the attack, the Utes fled for the brush, and as Linus dashed by the buffalo wallow, he saw the trappers on their feet, firing at the retreating Indians. Drawing up among the trees, Linus saw a lean, powerful man with slightly stooped shoulders drop from a tree.
"Waal, Linus," The man said as he came toward him with a broad grin, "you showed up when the squeeze was tight. Where you come from?"
"Over on the Green."
The other trappers had come in, and they began to mount up. Their pack horses were heavily loaded.
Williams swung his leg over the saddle. "We're followin' the Rio Grande down to Taos."
Linus moved alongside him. "I'm for the East. Down the Platte and the Missouri, then up the Ohio. I've taken urge to see the ocean water."
"Fancy girls, more'n likely."
"Sure enough. It's a coon's age since I've seen a woman all frilled out an' fussed up. And I aim to."
"You step light back east," Williams warned, "or you'll lose your hair. More devilment back east than in all these mountains.
Linus traveled with the trappers for two days. The wind blew cold when he parted from them, but the flush of green was on the hills and the trees were leafing out.
Linus Rawlings rode with care. After all, this was Ute country and next to the Blackfeet no tribe was more trouble to the white man, and beyond the Utes were the Arapahone.