Ambush at Crippled Horse Pass
The Long Road Home
Location: Crippled Horse Pass, North of Jackson, Wyoming
Timeline: July 1875
Jess held them over in Jackson for an extra night to let their horses rest while he and Quentin replenished their supplies. He was also able to purchase a couple of slightly newer maps than Sherman had had. After studying them, he decided to head west to Eagle Rock in the territory of Idaho and hit the Montana Trail north there. Although the route through Crippled Horse Pass was rougher, it was not as treacherous as trying to cross the Tetons or the Gros Ventre range. Mindful of how worried the Shermans would be, Jess also sent a telegraph home, advising them of the new route. Preoccupied with his other errands, he failed to notice the telegrapher hand a copy of the message to a rough looking man and receive several gold coins in return. He felt confident that the change in direction would throw off anyone laying in wait between Jackson and Butte.
On the third morning, feeling rested and restored, they saddled their horses and headed out of town. They still had some mountainous terrain to cross, including making their way through the treacherous pass and down to the fairly level ground on the far side. Jess had another reason for heading toward Eagle Rock. There was a rough railroad spur that ran to Butte. It would be rough going but would get them into Montana ahead of schedule. Butte to Missoula was a short hop if they had the railroad finished. Even if they didn't, it was a fairly short ride compared to the distance they'd come already. Jess calculated a two-day trek to Eagle Rock from Jackson if the weather held.
Storms drove them to take shelter for several hours just short of making Crippled Horse Pass and hitting the trail out of the Tetons into Idaho. Jess found them a shallow cave that barely allowed room for them and the two horses. The warmth engendered by having to crowd into the confined space was welcome as the temperature dropped significantly with the rain and the wind.
It was late the next morning when they crested a rise that spread out into a small plateau. Jess reined Lakota to a stop and pointed to where the trail dropped down from the plateau, rose steeply on the other side, and disappeared between the towering cliffs. "That's Crippled Horse Pass. It's called that for a reason. We'll need to take it slow and easy. The stage lines have long since been routed around it and go through a lower and wider pass. Folks say that's the route the rail will eventually take from Jackson to Eagle Rock. Right now, Eagle Rock is a fairly booming town with all the rail workers there. If there's no freight line running north, we can still pick up the Montana Trail and follow the Snake River. It's been awhile since I scouted this area for the wagon trains, but I don't think it's changed much."
Cantrell looked up at the pass, then back over his shoulder. "I'm just glad we're doing this in July...I bet it can get a might chilly up here." He waved an arm forward. "After you, Pathfinder."
"Pathfinder? Should I add that to the other names my grandmother's clan gave me?" Jess asked affably. In the days since riding out from the Sherman Ranch in Laramie, he'd gotten comfortable with the slightly older man. Maybe it was the elusive family connection that had made the bonds of friendship form so easy for him or maybe it was just the other things they had in common along with non-grating differences. Neither man was given to idle chatter. Still, they had talked enough to no longer be strangers. Most of the conversations were about Chance, Regina, and what Quentin knew about their children. Another thing Jess had come to admire about Quentin was that while it was apparent that he was not accustomed to such long journeys on horseback and roughing it in the wild, beyond a few jokes about being saddle sore for life and the meals Jess provided, he had not complained. In that regard, Jess had come to feel rather protective, determined to ease the journey where he could which was another reason he wanted to head for Eagle Rock and check for rail passage north.
Jess rose to stand in his stirrups and scanned their immediate area. A cold chill crept up his spine, and it was not caused by the chill high country air. "There's a spring about ten yards that way," he gestured to his right. "It's probably a wet weather stream, but we should fill our canteens and let the horses drink before we start that climb." He also wanted a few moments on higher ground with his binoculars.
Quentin nodded. "Water sounds good about now." He turned Paladin and ambled along in the wake of Jess, feeling the soft swaying of the horse as it negotiated the tricky terrain, making Cantrell shift in the saddle with each stride of his mount. "You are right...this ground is terrible."
After filling their canteens with the trickling water of the stream and letting their horses drink and graze for a few minutes, Jess mounted up again. Jess let Lakota pick his path back to the trail, such as it was. He turned the horse's head toward the pass and set him moving at a slow trot. By the time the horses started the ascent to the cut through the cliffs, Jess felt a familiar itch between his shoulder blades. They had encountered no trouble along the road this far, but he couldn't shake the feeling of being watched. He hadn't ridden this route to Eagle Rock in quite awhile, but he seemed to recall there not being another way out of the pass once you rode in. There was cover in the form of rock falls, and a few narrow defiles, but if someone had gotten to the high ground, they'd have the advantage. Of course, Jess just might be feeling like an old lady because this territory wasn't familiar to him.
Trouble started within a few yards of entering the pass. Jess couldn't say afterward if it had been the flash of metal in the sunlight, a faint sound, or even the half-seen muzzle flash of a rifle that sent him diving from the saddle and yelling for Quentin to take cover. Instinct took over, and Jess managed to drag his rifle with him as he slapped Lakota's flanks, sending the big paint trotting into a narrow defile opposite the direction of the gunshots. Jess peeked out from the boulder he was sheltering behind, rifle ready, as he looked for Quentin.
Cantrell heard the shot and caught the motion of Jess diving from his saddle. The action was not that of a man who had caught a bullet, so Cantrell knew Jess was okay for the moment. His hand flashed down and pulled his Schofield as he spurred Paladin to keep him moving. He had seen the puff of smoke from the shot, and he blasted a few rounds in the direction of the fire. A second puff and Cantrell felt the bullet blast through space he had been a moment ago. The close pass of the bullet made his skin draw up in reflex. Cantrell kicked his feet from the stirrups and dove from the saddle, landing hard on the ground and crawling for the closest cover.
Jess watched Paladin trot into the defile after Lakota. Given the choice of going off on his own and following another of his kind that he knew, the gelding chose the latter. Except in situations where the animals were in a total panic, they would seek familiarity. It would take more than gunshots to panic a horse that Jess had trained. Using the boulders for cover and skidding along the loose shale that covered the slope, Jess made his way to Cantrell, dropping down beside him.
"I count three shooters, Quentin, but there could be more. No way to know from here," Jess put his back to the tallest of the rocks and quickly reloaded his rifle.
Cantrell nodded as he pulled the two spent shells from his revolver and replaced them. "Three's enough. Let's see if we can figure out just how many there are...I'll send some lead their way, and you see if you can see how many shoot back." Cantrell watched as Jess shifted over then gave a quick nod when set. Cantrell took a deep breath and then rolled partly upright. He thumbed the hammer back steadily, shooting his revolver empty in the direction of their opponents before dropping back down to reload. "So how many?" He yelled over the return fire.
Jess muttered under his breath as he counted the shots, trying to distinguish between the sound of the weapons. The overlap in the fire made it difficult to distinguish, but the differences in length of fire and rapidity made it easier. "Three, two carbines, and maybe a handgun." Jess rolled and started to take a shot. The high whine of a bullet whizzed past his head, and he dropped back down, "Make that four, a rifle."
Cantrell stayed flat and moved to the side, he found a gap between some rocks and aimed his revolver, firing once, then again. A loud yelp followed by cursing erupted after the second shot as Cantrell rolled back to reload. "Didn't kill that one but he's not happy..." Cantrell looked over at Jess. "...we can't stay here. They can flank us."
"That defile that our horses went into, might be a dead-end, but also might mean more cover and they'd have to come in from this end after us," Jess nodded toward the narrow cleft that lay a few feet from them. He crouched closer as their attackers opened fire again. This time Jess rolled to a kneeling position and returned fire, smiling grimly as someone cried out and the thump of something soft hitting the rocks could be heard. Whether dead or not, that particular man would be unlikely to cause them more grief anytime soon. That should leave two.
Cantrell reached and tugged out the hidden Colt and held one in each hand. He cocked both and looked over at Jess. "You're closer. I'll get their attention, and you run for the opening, then you cover me while I go..." Cantrell took several quick breaths then rolled up on his knees behind the small hill, the Schofield in his right hand and the Colt in his left firing alternately as he tossed rounds at the smoke puffs...
Jess would have liked to argue the point, but delaying would only endanger Quentin further. As soon as the first shot rang out from Cantrell's gun, he made a dash for the defile. At the entrance, he spun around and dropped to a kneeling position, bringing his Winchester up and firing rapidly.
Cantrell heard Jess scrambling as he steadily emptied both revolvers. He heard one hammer fall on an empty chamber, and he heard Jess begin shooting. Quentin turned, legs churning as he covered the distance between the small hill and the opening to the defile. Cantrell heard and felt the close passage of rounds in front and behind him. Suddenly, he stumbled and went down, rolling to a stop just inside the defile. He could not remember tripping over anything as he started to sit up. When he bent his right arm to help push him upright, a sudden stab of pain caused Cantrell to hiss through clenched teeth. He winced and looked over, seeing red all over his upper arm and sleeve.
The sounds of rocks sliding under the weight of booted feet told Jess that the plan was working. The remaining two shooters were tracking them into the defile. It was time to retreat. Besides, he needed to reload his rifle. Turning, he slipped silently into the narrow opening. He had gone only a few steps when he saw Quentin sitting on the ground. The red stains on his upper right arm told Jess all he needed to know. He kneeled and grabbed the other man's guns, putting them back into their holsters for him. "We'll have to take care of this later, they're coming." He set his shoulder under the older man and rose to his feet. "There's cover up ahead."
Jess guided them to another outcropping of rock and settled Quentin behind it, safe from being easily spotted. A glance told him that both horses were grazing on patches of grass a few yards further on, both animals seemed totally unconcerned by the noise of the gunshots. Jess lay his rifle next to Quentin and emptied cartridges out of his pocket, "Reload it if you can."
Giving Quentin's uninjured shoulder a gentle squeeze, Jess slipped out from behind the boulders, carefully picking his way. He moved almost silently, skills learned from time spent with his grandmother's Blackfoot tribe and from scouting for the army and wagon trains. It was a useful ability, he thought, as he took cover behind a tall rock. The man coming toward him was not bothering to disguise his progress. Maybe he thought there was only one of them left, that Jess had run after Quentin went down. Deciding to bolster that perception, Jess leaned down and snagged a fist-sized rock from the ground by his feet. Heaving with all his might, he threw it as far into the defile as he could, listening with satisfaction as it hit something, bounced off, and rolled along with the sound of small pebbles falling in its wake. From where he was, it sounded just like someone had dislodged some rocks with their feet.
A man passed Jess's position. He was big, heavy-set, and considerably taller than Jess. He was also alone. Either his companion was guarding the entrance to the defile, or they had injured him in the shootout. It didn't matter. Jess needed to find out if they had been sent by the same person that had hired the gunfighters that attacked the Sherman Ranch. He slowly eased his gun from its holster, waited for the man to get a few more feet down the defile, but not quite to Quentin's hiding spot, then launched himself at the unwary back. Jess brought the butt of the gun's grip down against the man's head in a glancing blow. As he hoped, it stunned him but didn't render him unconscious. Unfortunately, he still had some fight left in him, and he got a couple of good hits in, one to Jess's ribs and another blow landed on his stomach.
Jess danced away, then closed, swinging with the power of his whole body behind the blow. He caught the man on the temple with the inside of his closed fist and followed it with a backhanded blow. He did not let up, sometimes using both fists clenched together like a club.
Finally, the big man dropped and lay still. Jess stood over him, panting, then grabbed him by his shirt front, lifted him partially off the rocky ground and literally shook him like a dog with a bone. "Enough, mister," the man gasped through bloodied lips. One eye was blackened and closing.
"Who hired you?" Jess snarled, his deep voice barely more than a growl.
"No one...no one. I swear!" The man said, keeping his eyes on the furious man standing over him while he used one hand to try to grope for the gun he'd dropped.
Jess moved, fast as a striking snake, and brutally stomped the man's hand, hearing the bones crunch. "Why were you following us? What are you after?"
"No more," the man begged, "please. Some man was mouthing off at the saloon in Jackson. He said two men would be coming through Jackson, that they were special couriers for Wells Fargo, moving about ten grand. Both dark, one riding a piebald, the other on a buckskin." His voice had taken on a whining tone, but his eye, the one not swollen shut, glinted malevolently.
A sound drew Jess's attention back toward the entrance to the defile. A furtive movement passed between two boulders and then rose up nearby, holding a rifle as his eyes fell on the two men. He brought the cocked rifle to his shoulder right as a dark circle appeared above his right eye followed, a split second later, by the crack of the rifle. The impact snapped his head back, and he wavered a moment before he fell from sight with a thump and the clatter of the dropped rifle. Quentin was laying prone on a low rock to Jess's rear. He let the rifle relax onto the rock with a wince. "Damn...that hurt."
Jess whipped around to see Quentin stretched out on a flat-topped boulder. Making his way back to Quentin, he smiled slightly, "Thanks for that. Let me get our friend over there on his way then I'll see to your arm." Leaning down, he gently helped the other man to his feet and picked up the rifle. He nodded toward the downed man, "I'll get you settled then send him on his way."
Sparing only a brief glance for the man Quentin had killed, Jess walked back to the one survivor. Leaning down, he caught the man by the front of his shirt and dragged him to his feet. "You head back to Jackson and make sure everyone knows what happened, especially the sheriff 'cause I'll be making a report in Eagle Rock. Make sure they know we're nothing more than two travelers riding the trail together, nothing more, nothing less." The big man gave Jess a venomous look, but that was the extent of his rebellion. He staggered back down the defile, not even bothering to search for his gun.
Jess picked up his hat that had come off during the fight and walked to where the horses stood quietly. Lakota pushed at him, searching for the bits of dried apple that he normally carried as treats. He pushed the horse's head away and untied his saddle bags. Carrying them back to where Quentin sat, his back resting against a boulder, Jess dropped them and dropped down next to Cantrell. He unfastened one of the bags and pulled out a small, neat pouch. From it, he took a tiny pair of scissors, a jaw of dark gold colored salve, some clean strips of cloth, and another small jar of a clear liquid.
Picking up the scissors, Jess used them to cut the sleeve away. He shook his head, "It's not as bad as it could've been." He poured a little of the liquid on the scissors, then used a strip of the clean cloth to wipe them with. He folded another strip and soaked it in the liquid, "Alcohol," he explained. "I need to clean it, and it's going to burn like the devil. Tell me about Charleston," he ended with a quiet command.
Cantrell let out some bitten off curses as the liquid hit the wound. "Charleston?...uh...well...it's beautiful. Old...most of the buildings there are over a century old. I don't know how it looks now. After the firing on Sumter, the city went nuts. Proud of having fired the first shots...totally assured of our victory over the Yankees..." Cantrell jumped as Jess began to probe at the wound. "...then came the blockade, and the rationing. Looking at the Navy ships sitting out there beyond the harbor...slowly being strangled and not being able to do anything about it." Cantrell winced and shifted a bit. "When I came back after the war it didn't look like I remembered when I left."
Jess made a sympathetic noise, then said apologetically, "Sorry. Really deep graze. Likely needs stitches, but I'm none too handy with a needle and catgut. Maybe we can find a doc in Eagle Rock." He looked at Cantrell, "Nothing was quite the same after the war. Sorry about your home though." He finished cleaning the wound, ladled some of the salve onto a strip of cloth and wrapped it securely around Quentin's arm. "The salve is a mixture of garlic paste and honey. Marianne says it helps stave off infection, but that's a deep graze."
When he'd done as much as he could, Jess helped Quentin to his feet. "Let's look for a better camping spot. Might be some water on ahead. I'll bring the horses." Cantrell led off, and Jess gathered up his supplies and repacked his saddlebags. Grabbing the reins of, Jess led the horses deeper into the defile.
*credit to Clint for the information on how to count the number of shooters based on how they are firing.