ONLY THE STRONG David Thompson
Dedicated to Judy, Joshua, and Shane.
They were seven rattlers on horse back.
They came out of the east, and the dawn, wending along the belt of green that fringed the Platte River. In the lead rode a hawk-faced man in buckskins, a fine Kentucky rifle in the crook of his arm. His eyes were as hard as flint. He missed nothing, this man. Not the deer that bounded off at their approach, not the buzzard that circled high in the sky, not the lowly sparrows that flitted and chirped in the undergrowth.
The man was a hunter by nature. As a boy he’d hunted everything that breathed. Rabbits, coons, squirrels, deer, boars, bear—all fell to his swift trigger finger. Now, as a man, he hunted a different kind of game. His quarry didn’t have four legs; his quarry had two. He was a hunter of men. But only a certain type of men. Men—and women—with black skin.
He hunted runaway slaves.
Wesley was his name. That was all he went by. He always wore buckskins. He always had his rifle with him and a knife on his hip. Born and bred in the backwoods, he was a product of the forest.
Wesley was good at what he did. Never, in the eight years he had been a slave hunter, had a slave escaped him. Until recently he worked for a man called Catfish. But now Catfish was dead and Wesley had struck off on his own, as much for the money the slaves would bring as for revenge; the slaves he was after were to blame for Catfish’s death.
Behind Wesley came six others, the last leading pack horses. Some wore homespun and some wore store-bought clothes. They all bristled with weapons. Each was an armory and needed to be, given where they were and where they were headed.
It was the middle of the morning when Wesley came to a clearing and drew rein. In the center were the charred remains of a campfire. Dismounting, Wesley sank onto a knee and ran his fingers through the blackened bits of wood and ash. “We’re a week behind, maybe less.”
“Damn!” declared a man-mountain whose bushy tangle of a beard covered his entire chest. “I was hopin’ we’d have gained by now.”
“Patience, Trumbo,” Wesley said to his friend and partner. “We must be patient.”
A third man, the youngest, a bundle of nerves in a floppy black hat, gray shirt and brown pants, swore. “Patience, hell. I figured on catching them by now. At the rate we’re going, we’ll be lucky to do it before they reach the Rockies.”
“Here or there, it’s all the same,” Wesley said. “You need to work on your patience, too, Cranston.”
Cranston frowned. The day was hot and the heat did not help his temper. “The last thing I need is someone telling me what I need.”
Wesley stood and turned, and when he stopped turning his Kentucky rifle was pointed at the younger man’s head. “I’m tired of your carping.”
“No. You listen. Learn to curb that tongue of yours, or you can head on back.”
Cranston blinked and gestured. “By my lonesome? Are you addlepated? We’re hundreds of miles from the Mississippi, in the middle of the prairie, for God’s sake.”
“Kit Carson could make it back. Daniel Boone could make it. I could make it.”
“You were born in the woods. You’re at home in these wilds.” Cranston gazed with distaste about them. “Trees and grass, grass and trees, that’s all we’ve seen for days. Give me a city or town.”
The next rider, short of stature and broad with muscle, grunted in agreement. “You have your talents, Wesley, and we have ours. It’s why you hired us.”
“I hired you and your friends, Olan, because you kill for money. But don’t make the mistake of thinking Trumbo or I won’t do our own killing when there’s some to be done.”
“You hired us for our lack of scruples? I’m shocked.” Olan grinned as he said it.
Wesley allowed himself a rare smile. “I asked around. They say you will kill anyone, anytime, with no qualms. Best of all, they say that when you take a job, you see it through.”
“We’ve never disappointed anyone yet.”
The last man, the one leading their pack horses, was at least twenty years older than the rest. He wore greasy buckskins. He had overheard, and he called out, “What about me, slave hunter? Trumbo, there, is your pard. Olan and Cranston and Bromley and Kleist blow out wicks. But why did you hire me?”
“You, Harrod?” Wesley stepped to his mount. “I hired you because you have something the rest don’t.”
“What would that be?”
“Experience. You know the prairie and the mountains.”
“That I do,” Harrod agreed with a bob of his salt-and-pepper chin. “I got the itch back when beaver plews fetched good money.”
Wesley went to respond, but just then the brush rustled and out stepped several Indians. Instantly, he trained his Kentucky on them. Everyone else, with the exception of Harrod, jerked their rifles to their shoulders.
“Don’t shoot!” the old frontiersman yelled. “They’re harmless. They’re only Otoes.”
There were two men and a woman. The men wore leggings but no shirts. Their black hair was cropped short at the front and on the sides, but they had long braids at the back. All had high cheekbones and low foreheads. The men were armed with bows but had not notched arrows to the strings.
The woman stayed back, her face shyly averted. A doeskin dress fell to below her knees.
“They’re friendly, you say?” Wesley asked.
“None friendlier, unless it’s the Shoshones,” Harrod answered. “They farm some, they hunt some, they leave whites be.”
Olan was admiring the woman. “It’s been weeks since I had me a female.”
“They’re friendly, I say,” Harrod repeated.
“I can be right friendly, too.”
One of the warriors went up to Wesley and smiled. His hands flowed in expressive movements.
“That there is sign language,” Harrod said. “Nearly all the tribes use it to talk.”
“What is he saying?”
“His name is High-backed Wolf. He greets his white brothers and asks if we have coffee to spare.”
“White brother, am I?” Wesley said, and raising his Kentucky, he shot High-backed Wolf in the face.
For a few seconds the other two Otoes were frozen with shock. Then the other warrior snatched at his quiver, but he had just started to draw an arrow out when several rifles thundered at once and he was jolted backward by the impact of multiple slugs.
The woman put the back of her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide with terror, and wheeled to flee. She only managed a couple of steps before Olan brought his horse up next to her and brought the stock of his rifle crashing down.
“God in heaven!” Harrod exclaimed. “What the hell did you do that for? I told you they were friendly.”
Wesley stared at the blood oozing from the hole below High-backed Wolf’s right eye. “Get this straight, old man. I’m not anyone’s brother unless they’re white.” Leaning his Kentucky against his leg, Wesley uncapped his powder horn. “I can’t abide the lower races.”
“The red race. The black race. The yellow race. You name it.” Wesley poured powder into his palm. “Why do you think I do what I do?”
“I figured it was for the money. Or maybe you were one of those who likes the thrill of the hunt.”
“There’s that. But the main reason I became a slave hunter is because I can’t stand blacks. I can’t stand how they look. I can’t stand how they talk. I can’t stand their stink. If it were up to me, I’d wipe out every damn darkie.”