Read Savage cry Online

Authors: Charles G. West

Savage cry

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Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

SAVAGE CRY

 

ASignetBook / published by arrangement with the author

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2002byCharles West

This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

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The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address ishttp://www.penguinputnam.com

 

ISBN:978-1-1012-0962-2

 

ASIGNETBOOK®

SignetBooks first published by The Signet Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

SIGNETand the “S” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

 

Electronic edition: June, 2003

FOR RONDA

Chapter 1

People change. This was not a thought that often occupied Martha Vinings’s mind at this particular time in the day. But it was a thought that had certainly come back to haunt her time and again since her marriage to Robert Vinings. Being of practical mind, she did not waste time lamenting the fact that the Robert who had wooed her so fervently and sincerely in Virginia—with promises of undying love and devotion—could become the dispassionate plodder who, pragmatic in his devotion to his mining claim, had seemingly lost all traces of the desire he had at first expressed. Maybe he was not to be blamed. The work was hard, and there were few pleasures offered in the rugged, unforgiving land that taunted and teased the many hopeful souls who sought to find their fortunes in her streams and washes. Few were the fortunate ones who struck it rich. For the majority, it was an endless succession of grueling toil over a ten-foot sluice box that offered little more than a pinch of the precious metal.

She straightened up to give her aching back a few moments’ rest. As often happened, she caught the watchful eye of Robert’s brother Charley, gazing intently in her direction. The faint trace of a smile turned up one side of his mouth, forming anexpression that suggested thoughts inappropriate for a brother-in-law. Martha looked quickly away. She glanced across the sluice box at her husband, who never seemed to take notice of his brother’s lecherous glances in her direction.

She thought now of the glowing enthusiasm Robert had possessed for the grand adventure he had planned for their honeymoon. At the time, anxious to escape the turmoil of the crowded farmhouse of her father—and the difficult times after the Union army had laid most farms in the county to waste—she joyfully accepted Robert’s proposal of marriage. He had seemed so sure of himself, and of his plan to create a new life in the West, that she finally bought into his enthusiasm—in spite of her father’s misgivings.

It had been a heartrending experience to leave her mother and father, perhaps never to see them again. But she knew that it would be easier for her father to have one less mouth to feed during the hardships that were to come. Her three younger brothers would be more useful than she would in helping her father make a new start. She would miss them all terribly, especially her brother Clay, who had been away from the family since joining the Army of Northern Virginia in December of 1862 at Fredericksburg. Clay, older by a year, was her favorite. They had seen Clay only once since he marched off to war—and that was a week before the last battle of Fredericksburg when the Yankee forces captured Marye’s Heights and took possession of the town. She had prayed every night for his safe return, but there had been no word from him, even after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. When after a year there was still no word, her father assumed he was dead. But Martha could never bring herself to accept that fact—not Clay, not the one person in the family who always looked after her and never teasedher. He always had time to listen to her fears as well as her dreams. No, Clay was a special person—too special to be killed by a Yankee bullet. She would not think of him as dead, preferring to keep a picture of his handsome, suntanned face tucked away in the recesses of her mind. He was just away temporarily.

It had seemed like such a romantic adventure when Robert told her of his dream: to make the long trek across the country, and gather up their share of the fortunes rumored to line every stream in the new land. They would fill their wagon with gold, then buy a farm in the Oregon territory. How wonderful it had all sounded then, to leave the pain and the shame of the tragic war behind; she and her husband creating a new life for themselves in the land of golden promise. At times she wondered if she had been more in love with the adventure than with Robert. There had been no mention that Charley was to accompany them. But, she supposed, as hard as the work had proven to be, it might have been almost impossible without Charley’s help.

I guess lecherous looks won’t hurt me,she told herself. Looking across the long wooden trough they called a Long-Tom, she stole a glance at her husband, working steadily to feed the sluice with the rocky soil of the streambank. And for a brief moment, she wished he would occasionally look at her the same way Charley did. It might make her life a little more bearable if there was still at least a faint spark of the passion he had professed when he had proposed to her.

Maybe Charley might decide to move on to the Montana gold fields—he had hinted that he might—since it was already obvious that their little claim would not yield the fortune they had hoped for. But she knew Robert would discourage any notionCharley might have of leaving. To properly work a Long-Tom required three or four men along the sides to keep the soil washing down toward the riddle. It was hard work for two men. For her part, Martha stood with her hoe and shovel, working the rocky dirt back and forth in the iron riddle as it dropped into the riffle box beyond. Robert’s dream of riches threatened to break the backs of all three of them. It would be impossible to work his claim without Charley’s help.

“Sun’s gittin’ low,” Robert suddenly announced, breaking a silence that had filled most of the afternoon.

Charley paused to rest on his shovel, his lewd grin in place once again as he watched Martha prop the hoe against a large boulder behind her. Robert’s simple statement was her signal to go back to the cabin and prepare supper while he and Charley worked on until almost dark.

“You’re gonna have to go hunting pretty soon,” Martha said as she rinsed her hands in the rushing water. “We don’t have but a little of the salt pork left.”

“I know,” Robert replied. He straightened up and stretched his back, reaching his arms high up over his head. “I just hate to quit working now that we’re starting to see a little color.” He glanced at Charley then reluctantly admitted, “I reckon we’ve got to eat, though.”

“I could use a day off,” Charley said. “My dad-blamed back is killin’ me.”

“I reckon it wouldn’t hurt to take half a day off,” Robert reluctantly conceded. “Me and you could light out early in the morning, maybe find us a deer, and have him dressed down before noon.”

Charley laughed. “I swear, brother, you sure are one to work a man to death.”

“You got to git it while the gittin’s good,” Robert returned. “I don’t intend to linger in this country no longer than I have to, what with the Injuns and such.”

Charley grunted contemptuously. “Shoot, we ain’t seen the first sign of Injuns anywhere near this valley.”

“If we’re lucky, we won’t,” Robert said. “Come on, let’s empty that riffle box.”

 

Martha made her way through the large rocks skirting the stream and started up the hill toward the cabin. As she climbed the steep slope, she was careful to hold her skirt tightly around her ankles, knowing that Charley was watching closely for any glimpse of leg. Why, she wondered, did Robert never instruct his younger brother to mind his manners when it came to her. Maybe it escaped his notice—maybe he just didn’t care—she was too tired to worry over it now.

At the foot of the slope, Charley leaned on his shovel handle, watching his sister-in-law until she disappeared from view. Reluctantly turning his attention once again to his work, he glanced up to find his brother watching him intently. Not at all ashamed to be caught ogling his brother’s wife, Charley just shook his head and grinned.

“Come on and help me empty these rocks,” Robert said, hoping to avoid talking about what he knew was on Charley’s mind. It didn’t work.

“Hell, brother, it ain’t hurtin’ nothin’ to look,” Charley said. “Besides, the way she walks up that hill, wrigglin’ her little behind, she’s wantin’ you to look at her.”

Robert paused, shaking his head slowly, weary of his younger brother’s undisguised lust for his wife. “No such a thing,” he finally said. “She don’t wriggle her behind, and you know it. Martha never has thoughts like that. She’s the most decent woman I’veever known.” He fixed Charley with a stern scowl. “I ought to give you a good whuppin’ for saying such a thing.”

Charley’s grin was immediately replaced by a pouty frown. “I reckon you know that would be the hardest day’s work you ever tried to do.” The frown faded after only a second, replaced by the almost constant grin. “Dammit, Robert, I’ve got needs same as you—hell, more’n you, I reckon. Martha’s a healthy young woman. She’s got needs, too—and you ain’t doing her no good.”

“Damn you, Charley, you better watch your mouth!”

Charley brushed the warning aside. The time when he feared his older brother had long since passed. “Hell, Robert, don’t you think I can hear everything that goes on behind that blanket? You ain’t givin’ her nothin’ a’tall. It’s a damn waste is what it is, and that’s a fact.”

Calmed by a weariness deep within, Robert didn’t say anything for a few moments. When he spoke, his words were slow and measured. “Charley, I know what you got on your mind, and it’s a sin. I don’t wanna hear no more talk about it.”

“A sin?” Charley exploded. “There ain’t no sins out here in this country! I’ll tell you what’s a sin: It’s a sin to waste a good woman when she ain’t being seen to proper. Besides, it’s all in the family.” He turned to pleading. “Dammit, Robert, I’m your brother. It’d be different if there was any other women around here. If it was the other way around, I’d do it for you. Hell, look at them Mormons we saw back at Fort Laramie. They’ve got the right idea about it—and it ain’t a sin to them.”

Robert desperately wished that the problem didn’t exist, that it would just go away. But there wasCharley, standing before him, looking at him like a starving calf. He had no desire to share his wife with any man, even his brother. The very thought of it made him queasy inside. What Charley said was true, there had been no real passion between him and his wife for some time now. But that didn’t change things. She was still his wife. Knowing Martha as he did, he knew she would be appalled by the suggestion—even if he gave it his blessing.

“You could ask her,” Charley prodded. “She might want to.”

“Hell no,” Robert quickly responded. “I didn’t sayIwas willing. Besides, Martha don’t hold to sinning.”

Charley began to plead again. “I’m just asking to be with her once in a while. I wouldn’t expect it all the time, just once in a while to keep from going crazy out here. You know I respect the fact that she’s your wife. It’d be different if we was back in Virginia. Things are different out here.” He paused while he watched his brother intensely, searching for some sign of weakening. “Ask her, Robert. Just see what she says about it. Will you?”

Bone-tired and brain-weary, Robert wasn’t sure whether he should kill his brother for suggesting such a thing or talk to his wife as Charley pleaded.If I was half the man I should be, I’d kill him for lusting after my wife.Finally beaten down by Charley’s persistence, and knowing that he desperately needed his brother’s help working the claim, he said that he might talk to Martha about it—but warned that Martha’s say would be the final word on the matter.

 

Peering into the iron pot to make sure no uninvited pests had found their way into the beans while they were soaking, Martha set it over the fire and stirred up the coals. All the cooking was done in the stonefireplace Robert and Charley had built. She often wished she could have brought a stove to cook on, but they had to pack everything they owned on three mules, and there was no room for a stove.

“Damn!” she muttered to herself, as she brushed a couple of small white worms from the slab of salt pork she was about to slice. She regularly found worms in the pork, and weevils in the flour, but it still disgusted her. During moments such as these, she tried to discipline herself not to think of her home in Virginia, the home she had been so anxious to escape. Her tiny corner, partitioned off from her four brothers by a blanket, seemed luxurious to her now. She paused for a moment, staring at the slab of salt pork, her mind’s eye recalling a time that now seemed long ago. She pictured a serious young man in Confederate gray, home on convalescent leave while his wound healed.

Robert had wooed her relentlessly, and she now admitted to herself that she had allowed her emotions to be fueled by romantic thoughts of a gallant young soldier, wounded in battle. She longed so for the passion that would sweep her heart away, that she willed him to be the prince of her dreams. She was in love with love itself. Suddenly she focused on the cold impersonal slab of meat in her hand and the intruding little white worm that wiggled rudely before her eyes. Here was her reality. Her reverie shattered like her romantic schoolgirl dreams, and she flicked the offending worm from the pork and brought her mind back to the mundane business of preparing supper. It was childish fantasy to think dreams came true. There was nothing to do but make the best of what life offered. Maybe things would change.

 

The evening meal was eaten in almost total silence. There seemed to be a heavy air hanging over themthat Martha could not help but notice. It was as if the two men had been in an argument, yet there was no apparent sign of animosity between them. She decided that the cause was most likely simple fatigue. “You two are awfully quiet tonight,” she finally commented, not really interested in the cause.

“I reckon,” Robert replied, never looking up from his plate.

After supper was finished, Martha cleared away the dirty plates while Robert pushed his stool back, stood up, and went to fetch his pipe. Charley remained seated at the rough little table for a few minutes longer, watching Martha as she washed their plates. She could feel his eyes on her back as she swished the tin plates around in the bucket of dishwater. She was relieved to hear him rise and announce that he was going to walk down to the stream to get some fresh air. Charley gave a meaningful glance to Robert as he walked out the door.

Unable to make up his mind whether or not to relate his discussion with Charley, Robert stood by the rough stone fireplace, thoughtfully filling his pipe. He tamped the tobacco down carefully, delaying the ultimate decision as long as possible. All the while, his eyes never left his wife as she finished cleaning up after the meal. He stepped forward when she picked up the wooden bucket and started toward the door. “Here,” he said, “let me empty that for you.”

“Thank you,” she said, letting him take it from her, mildly surprised that he seemed anxious to help her. It was unusual that he even noticed what she was doing.

After throwing the dirty water out, Robert set the empty bucket by the door, and said, “Just leave it there. In a little bit, I’ll walk down to the stream and fill it for you.”

“Why, thank you,” she said again, amazed by hisstrange attitude this evening. He had not shown such consideration for her since leaving Virginia. And now he was standing around awkwardly, as if working up the nerve to tell her something. Could it be, she wondered, that he might be entertaining romantic thoughts? It had been a long time since they had made love. Was it just a coincidence that Charley decided to leave them alone in the cabin? She unconsciously smoothed her hair back. Turning to face him, she looked into his eyes, waiting for him to speak.

“Uh, Martha . . .” he stammered, groping for the proper way to approach the subject.

“Yes, Robert,” she replied expectantly, still marveling at her husband’s shyness and puzzled by his obvious reluctance to speak his mind.Has it been so long that he’s become too bashful to express his desires?It struck her that she was pleased by the change in his manner. In the past, he had not squandered any thought toward her pleasure, being wholly occupied with his own needs. If he had changed, then she welcomed it. His next statement caused her to question the very foundation of their marriage.

“I guess it’s been kinda hard on Charley, living out in this wilderness with the two of us—him having no woman of his own. That can be awful grinding on a man.” He hesitated, but since he had gone this far, he was determined to spit it out. “Well, what I’m trying to say . . . what Charley’s trying to say . . . is that it would ease his troubles if he could spend some time with you.”

Puzzled by his statement, Martha shook her head in confusion. “Spend some time with me?” she echoed. “Why would he . . . ?” She didn’t finish the question because it suddenly dawned on her what her husband was proposing. She gasped. “Robert! What are you saying?” she cried, scarcely believing her ears.

“I know it don’t sound right. It ain’t me that’s wantin’ it. Charley just wanted to know what you thought of it.” Bewildered at this point, Robert shook his head as if trying to clear it of confusing thoughts. “I don’t know . . . Things are just different out here.”

Her initial shock having given way to cool anger, Martha fixed an accusing eye upon her husband. “You want me to play the whore for your little brother?” she demanded, her tone heavy with the contempt she now felt for both of the brothers. She waited for him to answer. When he did not, she looked away in disgust, no longer wishing to gaze upon him. “Well, things are not different out here as far as I’m concerned. You’ll have to kill me first. You can tell your little brother to keep his dirty thoughts to himself from now on.” She looked back at Robert, the flame of anger flashing in her eyes. “And while you’re at it, you can tell him to keep his eyes to himself, too. I’m tired of catching him gaping at me every time I turn around. You both disgust me.”

 

It was not necessary for Charley to ask Robert about the success of his proposition to Martha. When the younger brother returned from “taking the night air,” the frigid atmosphere inside the cabin more than conveyed the message. Both Robert and Martha pointedly avoided his eye as he drew a stool up to the fireplace and sat down. “The nights are gettin’ a mite cooler already,” he offered, seeking to break the heavy air that filled the cabin. His comment was met with a stony silence. The three of them sat without speaking for several moments more until Martha, still without a word, left the two brothers before the fireplace and retired behind the blanketed partition.

“We’ll go huntin’ in the morning. Bring us in some fresh meat,” Robert called after her. When she haddisappeared behind the blanket that formed their bedroom, he glanced at Charley. Frowning, he shook his head—a silent signal that Charley had already surmised.

Disappointed, but far from discouraged, Charley just nodded in reply.She might not be willing right now,he thought,but we’ll see when the right opportunity comes along.In his mind, he was already planning that opportunity. If he were to beg off tomorrow, and stay here while Robert went off hunting, she might not feel so high and mighty. Living right there in the tiny cabin with his brother and his wife, he knew whether or not Robert was taking care of Martha’s special needs—and he was well aware of the lack of intimacy between them. Martha was ripe for the taking. Charley liked his chances.

“You know, brother,” Charley broke the silence, laying the groundwork for his plan. “I’m feeling kinda poorly. I don’t know what it is, but my insides are aching. I think I better turn in.” For added effect, he uttered a slight groan as he went over to his straw pallet in the corner of the cabin. “I hope I’ll feel better in the mornin’.”

Robert did not respond. Instead, he simply stared at his brother for a long moment before returning his gaze to the glowing coals in the stone fireplace, hating himself for what he had proposed.Bad business,he thought,this whole crazy thing with Charley.He wished that he had possessed the courage to undertake this venture into the Black Hills without Charley. The work was too hard for one man alone. He needed Charley’s help. That was a fact, but hidden deep inside his soul he knew he needed Charley more to help allay his fear of this untamed territory. Now Martha was all het up about his unnatural proposal, and she would no doubt be mad at him for several days. Hehad known ahead of time how Martha would respond to such an idea. He shouldn’t have asked, but Charley was so damned persistent.Well, what’s done is done. Maybe she’ll get over it.“Reckon I’ll go to bed myself,” he muttered. “I’m tired.”

 

It was a good hour before daylight when Robert roused himself from his blankets. He took one look at his sleeping wife, rolled up in her blankets with her back to him, before he went to the fireplace to stir up the dying coals. When he had coaxed the glowing embers into a fresh flame, he added some wood from the stack by the fireplace and stood watching it for a few moments to make sure it caught. Satisfied, he glanced over in the corner where his brother was still deep in slumber. “Charley,” he called softly. When there was no response, he walked over and nudged him with his toe. “Charley,” he repeated, this time a good bit louder.

“What is it?” a muffled voice finally answered from under his blanket.

“Get up. We’ve got to get movin’ if we’re gonna get us a deer this mornin’. I’m thinkin’ we’ll more’n likely run up on one on the other side of the ridge where they’ve been eatin’ in those berry bushes.” When Charley failed to move, Robert gave him a little harder nudge with his toe. “Come on, Charley. It’ll be daylight before long. I wanna be back here before noon.” He lowered his voice again. “We’ll let Martha sleep a while longer.” Recalling his wife’s anger from the night before, he decided it best not to disturb her. Maybe when they returned to the cabin with a fresh carcass of venison, she would forget about the unholy proposition that had sent her to her pallet early, showing him her back all night.

With a show of great effort, Charley finallyresponded to his brother’s cajoling. Raising up on one elbow, he looked up at Robert with a painful expression. “I’m a’feared you’re gonna have to go without me. I’m feelin’ poorly this morning. I’d best stay here and try to get over it.”

On the other side of the blanket that divided the interior of the tiny cabin, her eyes wide open, Martha lay still and listened. She could guess what brother Charley’s ailment was, and she was determined that there would be no cure for it in this cabin. She was spared the trouble of setting the young man straight because her husband also had a fair notion of the cause of his brother’s illness.

“You might as well haul your lazy bones outta them blankets,” Robert commanded. “I ain’t going without you. Besides, you can be sick up on that ridge. You’re goin’ with me.”

“Damn, Robert, you don’t need me to go hold your hand. I’m not foolin’. I’m sick. I need to stay here and look after things.”

Robert was not to be denied. There was no doubt in his mind what Charley was up to. And while he probably would not have opposed it the night before, if Martha had been willing, he now resented his brother’s designs on his wife—and he was thoroughly ashamed of his lack of backbone for considering it. He was determined now, and in a low voice close to Charley’s ear, he told him in no uncertain terms, “I know what you’ve got on your mind, and I’m tellin’ you it ain’t gonna happen.” With that, he jerked the blanket back and growled, “Now get your pants on—we’re goin’ huntin’.” The woman on the other side of the blanket relaxed.

Martha pretended to be asleep until she could no longer hear Robert and Charley saddling the horses in the corral. She continued to lay still long after thesound of the horses’ slow plodding hooves had faded into the early echoes of the new day. Certain she was alone, she then got up and dressed. After a brief look at the fire to make sure it needed no attention, she picked up the wooden bucket and walked down to the creek.

The morning air was brisk as the first long golden fingers of sunlight touched the tips of the pines. There would not be many more days before she would have to fill the bucket at night for her breakfast water. The thought was not a pleasant one. She had hoped they would be gone from this isolated valley before the first signs of winter came calling. She could not bear the thought of another winter spent with her somber husband and his leering brother. She harbored a genuine fear that, if they didn’t get out of the valley before the winter snows closed them in, the long monotonous days and nights might lead to trouble between the two brothers—and she might be caught in the middle.

A sudden wave of melancholia swept over her as she kneeled beside the water, watching her bucket fill. Virginia seemed so long ago and so far away. Was it possible that no more than a year and a half had passed since they had set out from the lush hills of Virginia after bidding her tearful parents good-bye? How cheerful and attentive Robert had been during those first few weeks. How soon the hardships of the trail and the ruggedness of the lofty mountains had tempered him, revealing a side of him that Martha did not know. “Well, missy,” she said as she lifted the bucket from the water, “you’ve changed as well, and this won’t be the only mistake you make in your life.” She took a few steps up the bank before stopping to add, “But it might be the biggest one.”

Making her way back up the hill, she stopped to enjoy the first warm rays of the sun upon her face,pausing a moment to listen to the flutelike voice of a meadowlark beyond the trees to her left. Moments later, it was answered by another on the far side of a low line of boulders on her right. She realized that it had been a long time since she had even noticed the singing of the birds. When Robert and Charley were first building the cabin—when she had first seen the savage beauty of this rugged mountain country—she would often pick the tiny blue-and-yellow wildflowers that grew beside the stream. She had marveled at the crystal clearness of the bubbling stream as it hurried down through the rocks to join the creek that bisected the narrow valley, teeming with all description of wildlife—from the tiny water ouzel that dived into the rushing stream, picking food from the rocky bottom, to the occasional glimpse of an elk crossing over to the meadow on the opposite side of the ridge, the little valley could seem a virtual paradise.

Thinking of these things, Martha was sad that she had lost her appreciation for the wondrous canvas that mother nature had painted. The daily toil of trying to extract their fortune from the rocky soil had dulled her senses—and now this latest, boldest, problem with her brother-in-law.I mustn’t lose sight of the beautiful things in life, else I’ll soon be nothing more than a bitter old woman.Then, farther up the hill, she heard the clear notes of the meadowlark’s song again. It seemed to be following her progress as she carried the bucket of water toward the cabin. At first charmed by the throaty call, she smiled. Seconds later her smile suddenly froze. A slight movement in the pine boughs to her left caused her heart to pound in her chest, and she sensed that she was being watched.

Don’t panic,she warned herself.It’s probably just a raccoon or a porcupine.It occurred to her then that Charley might have sneaked back to the cabin, andthe thought angered her. She hurried her step, determined not to show any sign of fear. If it were Charley, she was confident she could deal with that impudent scoundrel. She would set him straight, no doubt about it. Moments later, she would have been glad to discover Charley skulking after her. What she saw almost caused her to scream.

Glancing to her right, she was suddenly terrified to see several moving figures among the boulders, paralleling her path up the hill. Her heart, pounding away at her chest moments before, was now threatening to burst from her breast. A rustle of boughs caused her to jerk her head back to the left, and she heard her breath escape sharply, for there, no longer hidden in the thick pine forest, three Indian warriors filed through the trees, pacing her.