Michael Spradlin: Blood Riders

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Michael Spradlin Blood Riders
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    Blood Riders
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    Ужасы и Мистика / на английском языке
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Michael P. Spradlin

Blood Riders

Chapter One

Eastern Wyoming Territory

August 1876

It wasn’t right, that’s all Captain Jonas Hollister could tell. Three hundred yards away, two wagons were overturned and smoldering with arrow-riddled bodies strewn about. Not far away from a still smoking campfire, a horse lay dead in the dust. He couldn’t tell if the dead people had been shot or scalped from this distance, but something was wrong.

The dead horse.

Lakota raiders would go to any lengths to avoid killing a horse. An animal they could use.

And there were no birds.

Buzzards should be everywhere, but there wasn’t a one in sight.

It was just before dawn and in the low light the camp looked like it had been attacked a while ago. Jonas Hollister returned the small spyglass to his saddlebag and raised himself up in his stirrups to stretch.

He and his eleven troopers had been riding patrol for nearly forty-eight hours with little rest.

Three days ago a young girl had wandered into Camp Sturgis, not far from Deadwood in the western South Dakota Territory. She was delirious and nearly dead.

She had cried and screamed and wailed nonsense, until she finally fell into a deep, fitful sleep in which, the regimental surgeon told the colonel, she had fretted over “blood devils.”

The colonel had sent Hollister into Deadwood to look into it. He’d learned a party of settlers had left Deadwood heading west toward Devil’s Tower, over in Wyoming Territory, a few days before the girl had stumbled into the fort. Some of the town folks remembered a young girl, about nine or ten years old, who had been with them. Maybe it was this girl, maybe it wasn’t. No one could say for sure. No one remembered their exact destination. Deadwood was booming after all; wagons and people were moving in and out all the time. So the colonel told Hollister to pick a sergeant and take a platoon and check it out. And it seemed they’d found what they were looking for.

“Cap’n?” Hollister heard Sergeant Lemaire ask him. Lemaire had silently ridden his horse right up next to him without his noticing. The man moved like a ghost, one of the reasons Hollister had wanted him in his company.

“Sergeant?” Hollister replied.

“Shouldn’t we see to them, sir?” Lemaire asked.

“Yes, Sergeant, I suppose we should.”

“Is there something wrong, Cap’n?” Lemaire swiveled in the saddle to look at Hollister.

“Can’t say for sure, Sergeant. But yes, something feels wrong,” Hollister replied. He drew his Colt from his holster, snapped open the cylinder and checked the load.

“Sir?” the sergeant asked, his voice indicating concern over Captain Hollister’s mood. “Your orders, sir?”

Hollister let out a long, slow breath and stared down at the ruined camp. His heart was pounding. In truth, every instinct was telling him to turn his horse and ride like hell for Camp Sturgis without looking back.

“Tell the men to advance carbines. You ride with me toward the center of the camp. Tell Corporal Rogg to take the left with four men and, have Private… what’s the new kid’s name… Hawkins?”

“Harker, sir. Private Harker,” Lemaire answered.

“Harker. He’s green, but seems steady. Have him take the other four and approach the camp from the right.”

“Begging the Cap’n’s pardon, sir. But…”

“I know, Sergeant, something isn’t right down there. Tell the men to stay sharp. Order them to wait until you and I start forward before moving out.”

“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Lemaire deftly turned his horse and gave the command quickly, efficiently, and with zero wasted effort. Just like always.

It was getting lighter. Yellow and red had started to fill the dark eastern sky as the wind picked up. Hollister didn’t usually believe in what his mother had always referred to as “blasphemous nonsense,” but for just an instant he thought the wind carried whispers: a quiet moaning, like a lost soul crying out for mercy. Hollister shuddered, worried that he was losing his mind.

He heard the squeak of leather as the platoon spurred their horses, moving along the ridge and into position. He checked his load again, rolling the cylinder along the blue sleeve of his cavalry blouse, and snapped it shut.

“Ready, sir,” the sergeant reported. He didn’t wait for the captain, but spurred his horse and trotted gently down the slope toward the camp. Lemaire knew Hollister was no shavetail. If he said be careful, then careful Lemaire would be.

The prairie grass was burned off to knee height in the late, dry summer. If it had been spring, when the rains came, the grass would have been ten to twelve feet tall and an entire company of soldiers could have ridden past this camp a dozen times and never even noticed it, if not for the smoke.

No one made a sound as the men approached the camp. Hollister hadn’t spotted any movement, but he knew the Lakota wouldn’t leave anyone alive. How the girl had managed to escape was a mystery. Perhaps she’d been able to hide somehow. But whatever happened here, it was clear the girl had witnessed it. And what she’d seen had been two counties past horrible.

Lemaire and Hollister reined up at the edge of the camp, not far from one of the overturned wagons, when Hollister spotted another thing that bothered him. The two wagons had been tipped over, and a few articles of clothing scattered about, but most of the supplies and tools were still lashed to the sides of them. A Lakota raiding party would have torn through everything, looking for food, whiskey, ammunition, and anything of value. Something must have spooked them. But what? And one of the two was burned but not completely-it was just smoldering. It was almost like someone wanted them to be spotted. And the one wagon remaining upright? Jonas couldn’t get a handle on it. Nothing added up.

He looked closely at the two arrows protruding from the nearest body, a woman who lay sprawled facedown in the dirt about ten yards away. Even in the dim light of predawn he recognized the markings on the shaft: definitely Lakota arrows. The woman had been shot in the lower back and in the leg. From where he stood, he still couldn’t tell if she’d been scalped, but the arrows hadn’t killed her, unless she had bled to death from the wounds.

Every instinct in Hollister’s mind and body was telling him to pull back. To run. The wind howled louder and in his imagination he thought it called out a warning to him. He stepped slowly and gently toward the woman, kneeling when he reached her side. She wasn’t breathing and there was a dark red stain where her face lay buried in the grass and dirt.

“She’s dead,” he said to Lemaire.

“Yasser,” the sergeant replied. “Looks like all of them are, sir.”

“If this is Lakota work, it could be Fool’s Elk and his bunch. Instruct the men to surround the camp, and tell them to keep a sharp eye out. Wouldn’t be the first time he’s tried to ambush a rescue party. You and I will check the victims.”

“Yasser!” Lemaire shouted out orders. Hollister studied the bodies. It would be sunrise in a few minutes, and the thought of sunlight made Hollister feel safer for a reason he couldn’t identify. He stood, making his way toward the center of the camp. Another body lay near the fire. This one was a young man, maybe in his late teens or early twenties. He wore wool pants and a white poplin shirt with black suspenders. Like the woman, he was facedown. A single arrow protruded from his back. Again, most of the shaft remained sticking out of his body. It had not gone in deep enough to kill him, and there were no signs of gunshot wounds. But he had the same dark red stain, seeping into the grass and dirt near his face. And he still had his hair.

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