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Frontier Feud

Max Brand

  Table of Contents








































  Copyright © 1934 by The Frank A. Munsey Company.

  Copyright © 1935 by The Macaulay Company.

  Copyright renewed 1962, 1963 by Jane F. Easton, Judith Faust and John Frederick Faust.


  To Bill Tenney, strength was more than virtue, and Bill Tenney was strong. He had never ridden at a buffalo hunt; he had never shot at an antelope; he had never faced war-like Indians. Hence he could not be called a good plainsman; but he carried as sure a rifle as ever was brought out of Kentucky, and in a rough-and-tumble he was perfectly at home, particularly when knives came out.

  He looked like a timber wolf; lean in the hips, heavy and somewhat bent in the shoulders, big-headed, and with a long, narrow muzzle. Behind his thin lips one could almost count the teeth, and his hollow cheeks made it hard to imagine the overlaid and intertangled masses of strength which were beneath his clothes. His nature, also, was very like that of a wolf. He was a skulker who bided his time; but when he struck, the blow was remembered.

  He was an idler and a prowling thief, with twenty pounds of stolen gold dust and little nuggets in his money belt. The weight of it, pressing on his abdomen, assured him quietly and constantly that he was a man of mark. The trouble was that he had been marked by others, when he purloined that gold from the little trading post down the Tulmac River, and since he knew these plainsmen were very patient on the trail, he was afraid that the pursuit might follow him, even up here to Fort Marston, at the head of steamboat navigation on the Tulmac.

  Tenney’s original intention was to fade out into the great plains. Had he done so, he would have entered obscurity and safety at once. But even a wolf may be dangerously curious, and it was curiosity that involved Bill Tenney in all the danger that followed.

  The whole town was equally curious, for that matter; and from the fort, all the soldiers except a few sentinels had come down to the dock. The military stood somewhat apart, with Major Arthur Marston looming above them on a dancing black horse. The major knew how to set himself off in his best uniform, and whenever his horse stopped dancing it could be secretly encouraged with a spur-prick in the tenderness of the flank. Apart from the soldiery, the rest of the crowd offered a picture more strange and mixed than one could have found in an Oriental bazaar. There were the ordinary townsmen—saloon keepers, professional gamblers, and shop owners; there were trappers and traders in deerskin; there were at least a score of Indians, most of them muffled in blankets, and nearly all of them highly decorated with paint, in honor of the day. For they, like the rest—like Bill Tenney—were expecting the arrival of the good ship Minnie P. Larsen, with the man known as Red Hawk, and his White Horse, on board it. That father of Red Hawk, Wind Walker—he who had been the bane of so many of the Cheyennes—would also be on the steamboat.

  * * * *

  For a week, the Minnie P. Larsen had been sticking her nose into mudbanks, not far down the stream; and horsemen had brought to the fort long before this day full news of her cargo and passengers. The tidings had gone out over the plains, and that was why the Indians were there. If the Minnie P. Larsen had taken a few more days, the redmen, at least, would have been present by hundreds, to await her arrival. For the White Horse was one of those half legendary figures that had been talked about, during the last few years, at every trading post and every campfire.

  With the story of the famous white stallion there was linked the tale of Rusty Sabin, the red-haired white man who, as a boy, had been carried off and raised among the Cheyennes until, under the tribal name of Red Hawk, he had trailed and literally walked down the White Horse. The story of Red Hawk did not end there, but went on to a far stranger climax in which, as the champion of the Cheyennes, he had taken the war trail against the great enemy of the tribe. That enemy was Marshall Sabin, but Red Hawk’s plans were frustrated when he discovered, as they struggled together, that they were father and son.

  It was not such an entirely strange tale. All the elements of it had appeared many times before on the plains, but never had they been gathered together so compactly. And that was why a brief, deep shout of excitement broke from the crowd when the twin smokestacks of the Minnie P. Larsen appeared from behind the bend, streaming a double cloud of black.

  She stemmed the current rapidly, until she reached the narrows just below the dock at Fort Marston. Here the compacted waters went at her with a rush, and threw high furrows off her bows.

  This slowing of the approach gave the crowd a chance to pick out on the low forward deck of the river boat the shining figure of the White Horse, which had been brought from its quarters in anticipation of landing. When he saw that form of brightness, Bill Tenney jumped up from the stump on which he had been sitting and stared, his wolfish head thrust out before him. A young fellow beside him could hardly keep from dancing, so great was his excitement; but Bill Tenney was silent and motionless, because of the very intensity of his emotion.

  Something like a voice rose up in him, and he fixed his soul with a determination to have that horse for his own. Once that beauty was his, he might laugh at all dangers of pursuit. He would be as free on the surface of the earth as a hawk is free to be the pirate of the air.

  The youngster beside him was saying, “That’s Red Hawk—that’s Rusty Sabin. That’s the medicine man of the Cheyennes, all right. The red-head with the long hair blowing. That one at the head of the White Horse. Look there! You can see his hand on the mane of the White Horse.”

  Not a very big or imposing figure, that of Rusty Sabin, beside the magnificence of the horse. Bill Tenney’s nostrils quivered as he looked. If Tenney was a wolf, yonder man was little better than a coyote. The battle, felt Tenney, was already more than half won, and his great hand was already reaching for the bridle.

  The chatter of the youth beside him drew his attention to the other particulars of the picture. About the White Horse, besides Red Hawk, there were four other figures. The huge man—that must be Rusty’s father, the scourge of the Cheyennes. Yes, and now two crop-headed Indians close to Tenney began to talk rapidly, stretching out their arms and pointing.

  “Those are Pawnees,” said Tenney’s companion of the moment. “Doggone glad they are to see Marshall Sabin. He’s the man whom the Cheyennes call Wind Walker.—A mighty lot of Cheyenne hair the Pawnees have raised, with Wind Walker to lead ’em.—But look at them Cheyennes, yonder—them with the long hair. They’re happy, too.”

  “Seems like I’ve heard the Cheyenne hunting grounds are a long sight north of here,” said Tenney.

  “Yeah. But around here the Cheyennes are friends of these Comanches. They’re always visitin’ back and forth. Them are Cheyennes, all right. You could pretty ni
gh pick ’em out by the size of ’em. Nothin’ bigger grows on the plains, except the Osages. And they’re all legs.”

  “If them are Cheyennes,” said Bill Tenney, “what’s that one sayin’? The one that’s blowin’ puffs of smoke to the ground and the sky, and is now holdin’ out his pipe in front of him.”

  “I dunno much of the Cheyenne gabble,” said the other. “Wait a minute! I can make out a bit.—That Injun is askin’ Sweet Medicine—which is the name of the boss Great Spirit of the Cheyennes—to bring Red Hawk safe and sound out of the medicine boat of the white men, and lead him back to the tribe. This here Red Hawk—this here Rusty Sabin—he’s a big medicine man among the Cheyennes, you know.”

  “Medicine man? How come?” asked Tenney.

  He was eager to pick up every crumb of information. He could not tell what would and what would not be useful later in the stealing of that White Horse, upon which his heart was fixed.

  “I dunno,” said the excited youngster. “But the Cheyennes figger that Sweet Medicine will make the wind blow and the rain fall however Red Hawk asks him to.”

  “Who are the other three, standin’ together, near the two Sabins?” asked Tenney.

  “That must be the Lester family. The news is that Rusty is bringin’ the Lesters south with him, here, because old man Lester ain’t so strong in the lungs. That must be him; the skinny lookin’ hombre. That’s old lady Lester, hangin’ onto him. And that’s the girl. I reckon that’s Rusty’s girl.—Yeah, you can see she’s a kind of beauty, by the way she holds her head.—Look at a lucky hombre like Rusty Sabin, that’s got the finest hoss and the prettiest gal on the whole plains!”

  “Married?” said Tenney.

  “Not as I know of.”

  “What a gent has he can always lose,” said Tenney, through his teeth.

  In so speaking, he was a prophet.

  As the steamer came slowly closer, against the pressure of the swift yellow run of the water, a number of men put off from the bank in canoes, to paddle as far as the edge of the slack water, inshore, and so gain a near view of the steamer and its passengers.

  Bill Tenney had no canoe of his own, but he promptly borrowed the first one at hand. Bill Tenney had never been one to see any harm in “borrowing.”

  When he reached the edge of the shallow slack water, he could see the people crowded on the forward deck almost as clearly as though he were aboard the ship. Turning the canoe, it was easy for him to keep pace with the laboring steamer. He could see the huddled groups of emigrants from the East, now staring with frightened eyes at Fort Marston, which to them was the portal of the great and naked West. No doubt they were already wishing themselves back on their rocky New England farms. But these and the traders and plainsmen, who could be distinguished by their clothes, were nothing to Bill Tenney. His entire attention was fixed upon the splendor of the White Horse.

  While the great mustang had run wild, he had been the king of the prairies. White men with companies of chosen horses, and whole tribes of Indians, had chased this famous stallion. But Rusty Sabin, single-handed, and on foot, had worn down the giant.

  Bill Tenney looked again, with a more savage attention, at the owner. He saw a man scarcely in his middle twenties, his red hair blown by the wind, his face lean and brown, not even handsome. In a word, the fellow was hardly above middle height, and though he was strongly made about the shoulders, the rest of him was decidedly slender. Small men, to be sure, have done many great things, even in the West, where measures are large; but Rusty Sabin had by no means the look of the hero and the conqueror. His expression was gentle, almost dreaming.

  Bill Tenney’s thin upper lip lifted in a sneer of contempt. No matter what Rusty Sabin’s reputation—no matter what the legends about this Red Hawk of the Cheyennes—Bill Tenney was prepared to swear that the repute had been falsely gained. He was sure it must have been won by good fortune and easy chance.

  As for Rusty Sabin’s father—ah, that was quite another matter! That long-haired giant looked the full part of what he had proved himself to be, a king among men.

  Bill Tenney had just reached this conclusion when trouble struck the Minnie P. Larsen and threw the first trick of the game into Tenney’s hands.


  There was a snag in the swiftest part of the current. It was just large enough to reach the surface of the stream, and its presence was made known by the water that sprang into the air from the face of it, as though from the prow of a boat. The pilot of the Minnie P. Larsen, therefore, swung the head of the steamboat away from this danger. All should have gone well, except that the head of the boat was pushed over a little too far, and instantly the force of the current did the rest. It caught hold of the nose of the Minnie P. Larsen and swung it with a sudden thrust. The ship trembled, heeled enough to bring a yell from the crowd on deck, and then came broadside on against a hidden sand bar.

  Bill Tenney could hear the groaning of the timbers. He saw the river boat heel far over, until almost the entire width of the deck was visible. The top layers of a big pile of cases spilled over the rail into the waters. People fell and skidded, yelling. But Bill Tenney’s eyes were for the White Horse alone. He saw the stallion flung staggering, regain its footing with catlike speed; and to avoid crashing headlong into the railing, the horse leaped right over the side of the boat and into the boil and sweep of the swiftest current.

  Then, out of the wild outcry on the ship, Tenney heard one mastering voice of agony. He saw Rusty Sabin dive over the side after his horse. They were lost, horse and man, and Tenney knew it.

  The people on the Minnie P. Larsen knew the same thing, and acted on it; for when Rusty’s father tried to lunge after his son, Tenney saw several men fling themselves on the giant and hold him back. He was lost under a twisting heap of humanity, still struggling.

  What about those expert canoemen along the shore? What would they do? Well, they knew too perfectly the force of that current and the numbers of sharp-toothed snags that would shear like knives through the paper-thin birch bark. They kept to the edge of the slack, shouting to one another, paddling hard to see the disaster, but not to intervene in it.

  Then, Tenney saw the head of the White Horse break above the surface of the churning water, far down the stream. It was as bright as a piece of wet satin. He saw the red flare of the nostrils; and with bewilderment, with a mighty leaping of his heart, he noted that the ears were pricked forward!

  No fear was in the great horse. Heading upstream, fighting with all his might, he was striving valiantly to work to the edge of the current and gain the slack. Perhaps courage came to him from the sight of his master, who appeared for a moment above the surface near by. But the swift, rolling water would soon have them both under. They were gone, all at once, and the White Horse, the animal that might have given wings to Tenney’s savage ambitions, would surely be battered—stifled—drowned.

  There was as much evil in Tenney, already born or darkly breeding, as one could expect to find in a man; but there was a strain of courage in him, also, like the flash of steel in thick night. He drew in his breath with a groan, flashed the blade of his paddle, and shot his canoe right out into the tumult of the stream.

  What did he think to do, that thief in fact; that murderer in the making? Well, there was no room in him for thought, but only for emotion. By that paddle-stroke he had thrust himself out of the audience and onto the stage of a tragedy, and a certain greatness of heart in him matched the danger of the moment and its bigness. The river had three lives in its grasp, and he alone could save himself and the others by skill and strength and lucky chance.

  Certainly in Tenney’s mind there was little heed for the man; it was for the White Horse that he drove the canoe, kneeling in the bottom, amidships, while the little craft staggered and pitched. He steadied it with speed, as he put his might into the long handle of the paddle.

  He gained rapidly, of course. Man and horse were blotted out before him, then they appeared a
gain. The horse was not far away. The man was a little closer. And then Tenney saw, out of the blindness of desire that filled him, that he had no means of effecting a rescue. He had flung himself madly into the conflict, like a man who is incapable of swimming but who goes to the rescue of a drowning soul. For how could he reach a hand to the horse and still manage the canoe?

  A snag, like the pointed nose of a shark, lifted out of the water just before him. He veered past that point, which would have spitted his canoe like a spear. And now, he saw that Rusty Sabin, his hair floating dark red on the water, had reached the stallion and was holding to it by the mane. The only effect was to cause the pair to whirl slowly and to shift farther out toward the center of the river.

  There are things to be dreaded more than death. The loss of that which is dear to us is far more terrible. Vaguely, Bill Tenney realized this as he shot the canoe onward, still making his endeavor after he had lost the hope of making the rescue. But if he were to die, it was somehow better to die there near the man and the horse. Men talk of hell for the wicked; but the White Horse and Rusty Sabin, brave, gentle, merciful—might they not draw after them one companion into a brighter afterlife of hope?

  That, too, was in Tenney’s brain; but more than all else, the blind persistence of his first impulse—to do something, somehow.

  He was coming down too fast. In another instant he would be beside them. So he backed water strongly, and the riffle that followed threw a heavy wave into the boat.

  The desperately set face of Rusty Sabin showed above the water. As the canoe swirled in the stream, Sabin’s hand gripped its rear; his other hand gripped the mane of the stallion. And suddenly Bill Tenney found that he was indeed linked to the pair. An indivisible trio, they would now live or die together.

  All that can be said is that he was not afraid. As he felt the pull of the weight behind him, he could understand that behind the gentle, dreaming look of the fellow he had marked on the deck of the ship there was that mysterious power which had enabled him to become great in the eyes of both red men and white. He was a white Indian, into which the strength of the two races had been breathed.