Showdown at Laramie Flatts
The Luke Wallace Series “Down these mean streets a man must go, who is not himself mean. Who is neither tarnished nor afraid." - Raymond Chandler
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“Yo!” shouted Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Perkins as he raised his right hand to stop the small crowd of soldiers behind him. The settling dust lingered as the men came to an abrupt halt. Perkins motioned to his second-in-command to come forward and requested his territorial map. After pinpointing their location, the Lieutenant Colonel noted something in the log book and returned it to his coat pocket.
“Sergeant Major Conrad, have Breyer and Martin returned yet?” asked Perkins
“No sir. They were to rendezvous with us at or about the Pass,” replied the young officer.
“The walls of these steep cliffs ahead would be more inviting if we had their reconnaissance.”
“Should I send a man up top to survey the area?” asked Conrad.
“He’d have to backtrack almost a mile to get up there. We’ll push on, but stay in tight ranks and keep it double time.” commanded the Colonel.
“Forward yo!” barked Conrad as he took the point and trotted in the lead.
The high jagged cliffs that surrounded Arapaho Pass funneled the forty-eight soldiers into a narrow box canyon. The only exit point to the canyon was a rising trail, which appeared to be not much wider than a pair of wagon ruts from almost a mile away. At no point in the ravine was it more than fifty or sixty yards in breadth. As treacherous as this mile was, it was the shortest distance to their destination of Laramie Flatts. As the men proceeded on, none of them had any idea of what lay in store for them in the coming minutes.
Cautiously but quickly, the troop proceeded straight towards the opening in the pass ahead of them. At about the halfway point, Perkins thought he spotted movement above. But the sun, just breaking over the top of the rocks blinded his view for a split-second. Then there was nothing. He turned his attention back to Conrad in front of him, just in time to see an arrow pierce his chest…
It was a warm spring morning. Warmest so far, thought Luke Wallace, as the sun was easing over the butte. In Laramie Flatts, winter held its frosty grip tighter and longer than most any place he had ever been. Maybe this was an omen of things to come, because times were changing.
Everyone was keyed up over the statehood issue with many people feeling Colorado would enter the Union before the end of the year. Luke felt the territory had a good chance this time, although he wasn’t sure if he was ready. In the six short months since he had been appointed sheriff, many changes in his life had occurred. But now was not the time to be reminiscing. His morning ride had lasted much too long and with the business at hand, Luke knew he must get back to town.
“Mornin’ sheriff,” said Jacob Spivey, the owner of the general store as he unlocked the door of his place of business.
“Keeping busy Jacob?” Luke asked as he rode gently past.
“About usual for this time of the month. I reckon it’ll pick up when this here territory becomes a state and people start movin’ in.”
“I reckon,” Luke said.
Luke’s buckskin stud ambled on toward the north end of town, back to the sheriff’s office. Luke knew the Third Calvary was to be riding through this morning from Fort Lyon and he wanted the information they were bringing with them. For the news they would bring could spell the end for Laramie Flatts and for the hope of statehood.
Back in the office, he poured the last cup of coffee from the pot and took a sip. As usual it was bitter and stung his tongue, but he took another swallow anyway. The sheriff moved over to the wash stand and after removing his hat, splashed some water on his face to rinse off the trail. Lifting his head, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the mirror.
“Not getting any younger,” Luke said with a hint of disgust in his voice.
Luke really had nothing to complain about. For a thirty-four year old man he had held up well, considering the miles traveled. At five feet, eleven inches and a muscular one hundred eighty pounds, there were probably few men at half his age that could keep up with him. His coal black hair and piercing blue eyes were passed down from his Scottish descendants of a generation or two back. But he wore them well. Most of Luke’s life had been a rousing adventure with many good times and fewer that were not so good. But today he was feeling, as he had of late, that life was passing him by. Another splash of cold water cleared his mind of his own troubles and returned it back to the business at hand. The third taste of coffee was enough torture and he tossed the remainder out the open front door and into the street.
After two hours of waiting Luke was getting impatient. He knew the Third had been camped only thirty-five miles away at Red Feathers Lake and should have been here by now. Sheriff Wallace was not a nervous person, but instinctively he felt something was wrong. About that time young Billy Johnson came running through the door of his office.
“Sheriff, come quick,” said Billy, “it’s a soldier and he’s been hurt!”
Luke bounded into the street and saw the Calvary man clinging to his saddle, barely able to ride. As Luke eased him off his exhausted horse, he noticed part of a Sioux arrow still in his side.
Easy there Lieutenant,” Luke said, “you’re going to be all right.”
John Chambers, the town blacksmith came running out of his shop when he noticed the commotion. “What’s goin’ on here? Well I’ll be damned and go to hell, he’s been injun shot!”
“Come on Smitty,” as Luke liked to call John, “help me get him over to doc’s place.’’
The burly blacksmith was the closest thing to a friend that the sheriff had in Laramie Flatts. Luke was the quiet type and kept to himself, but John Chambers had a good sense of humor and was outgoing. Maybe that’s what bound them together so well.
‘‘Is he going to make it doc?’’ asked Luke after a long wait. ‘‘I need to talk to him.’’
The doctor replied, ‘‘He’s lost a great deal of blood, but he will pull through. You can speak to him for a moment, but keep it brief. He needs his rest.’’
As he walked through the door, he noticed the cavalryman was pasty white and groggy. Probably from the loss of blood and in his shape it was a miracle he made it to town at all. ‘‘What is your name soldier?’’ he asked.
‘‘Private Zachary Bower, sir with the Third Calvary’’ replied the wounded man as he noticed the star on Luke’s chest.
‘What happened to the rest of your unit?” asked Luke.
‘‘As far as I know I’m the only one left sir,’’ replied Lieutenant Bower.
‘‘You are the only man left out of a fifty man patrol?’’
‘‘Yes, then you know about our patrol?’’ asked Bower weakly.
‘‘What I know is a band of fifty Calvary soldiers on a scouting mission for Sioux left from Fort Lyon two weeks ago. I was informed by a telegram from a General McCann that your troop would need supplies and new mounts and would arrive around the first week of April,’’ replied Luke.
‘‘That’s right sir, we were supposed to be here this morning, but we were ambushed.’’
‘‘About half way between here and Red Feathers Lake, near Arapaho Pass. We never saw it coming. Gunshots and arrows were coming from every direction as we traversed the pass. We never had a chance.’’
‘‘What time did all this happen?’’ asked Luke.
‘‘We broke camp at daybreak, so it must have been around eight o’clock.’’
Luke didn’t say anything, but that seemed curious to him. He had fought Sioux more than a few times and if they were going to attack it would have more likely been at night. Why would they wait until daylight? With only fifty men the Sioux didn’t need to plan an elaborate ambush in the open. Sioux usually traveled in war parties of a hundred or more. It just didn’t make sense to him.
‘‘You just take it easy Bower,’’ Luke said, ‘‘I’ll wire Fort Lyon about what happened. You can rest up here.’’
As Luke walked back to his office he knew what had to be done. When he sent the message that the scouting patrol was ambushed, many more soldiers would be coming and this time and it wouldn’t be a scouting mission. The army would be coming to kill Sioux and kill them they would.
Not knowing what exactly what he was up against, he took no chances. He opened his locked gun case and retrieved his .50 caliber Spencer carbine. His time in the mountain ranges taught him how to use this weapon well. Where a shot on an antelope meant eating or not, it tends to train one to be very accurate. He also removed the sawed-off 10 gauge Remington shot gun he had used in his close quarter skirmishes with the Sioux and Apache. On his hip, he wore a tied-down Colt .45 Army. It was acquired in a poker game, but it has served him well. He wasn’t proud of the fact that some men lay dead at the end of those guns, but he never drew down on any man that didn’t try to kill him first.
With his buckskin packed, Luke walked over to the blacksmith’s shop to deputize John in his absence.
‘‘Smitty, I have to ride to Arapaho Pass and check on this ambush. I’ll need to leave you in charge until I get back.’’
‘‘Whoa there Luke,’’ John interrupted, ‘‘them injuns took care of that whole patrol and you’re goin’ out there alone?’’
‘‘Hell Smitty, with a good bit of the men from town gone to Leadville, we’re pretty helpless here.’’
‘‘Yeah that bloomin’ silver strike down there has got everybody in the territory stirred up. But I’ll tell you one thing, you ain’t goin’ by yourself. I’m throwin’ in with you.’’ John said in a solid tone of voice.
Luke knew arguing with John Chambers was like getting into a tug-of-war with a steam locomotive and with the sun drawing nearer the horizon, he just didn’t have the time. As the two men loped out of town they gave a wave to Jacob Spivey, who Luke left to keep an eye on things and they were on their way.
The smart decision would have been to wait for daybreak but with the looming threat, that was a not an option. It wasn’t a long ride to the Pass but with only the first quarter moon illuminating the darkness, the trip seemed to take much longer. Arapaho Pass was very well named, since the Arapaho Indians had ruled this area for many years. That was, until the intervention of the white men pushed this proud tribe farther west and only the name was left now as a reminder of what once was.
As Luke rode along he was quietly thinking, which John told him he sometimes did too much of. But there was something gnawing at him and it showed.
‘‘You wanna tell me what you got on your mind?’’ John asked very inquisitively. ‘‘You’re bein’ awful quiet over there.’’
‘‘Well, some things about this attack just don’t add up.’’
‘‘Well, you’ve done some Indian fighting in your time and you know the Sioux would just as soon run you through at night as any time. So why would they wait to ambush the patrol at first light?’’
‘‘Maybe they stumbled up on the soldiers,’’ John replied.
‘‘Could be, but I’d bet this buckskin whoever hit them was waiting for them. The soldier back in town said they never saw it coming and it was over pretty quick.’’
‘‘So you think it ain’t Sioux what done it?’’
‘‘Well it’s more of a feeling than anything, but the Sioux are pretty predictable if you know their ways,’’ replied Luke.
‘‘Then who do you think done it?’’
But the lawman didn’t get a chance to give him an answer. In the faint moonlight, he saw a great deal of smoke coming from the vicinity of the Peter’s ranch, just over the rise in front of them. ‘‘Over there Smitty, let’s ride!’’
As the two galloped around the rise they saw what used to be Ned Peter’s place. All that was left of Ned’s ranch home and large barn was smoking ruins and the stone fireplace chimney. Luke dismounted and ran over to the charred remains and quickly found Ned, who lay mutilated on the ground adjacent to where the barn once stood. John turned sharply on his mount and shouted, ‘‘I’ll scout the area,’’ and then rode swiftly over the open field to the east.
Luke pulled the Sioux lance out of Ned’s chest and swore softly. He had been scalped and shot several times. Figuring Ned was trying to protect his wife, he probably fought to the bitter end. John returned in about fifteen minutes leading his horse with Jean, Ned’s wife laid over his saddle.
‘‘Where did you find her?’’
‘‘Just a few hundred yards over there near the edge of the woods.’’
Jean was partly naked and had been stabbed repeatedly. Chances were Ned directed her to take off when the raid started, but she didn’t make it to the thicket to hide. It was almost dawn by the time they had buried the Peters. After a bite or two of jerky they rode off in the direction of the numerous hoof tracks that led to the north.
“Luke, I got a question for you.’’
‘‘What is it?’’
‘‘In all your days have you ever seen so many shod mustangs? I mean, unless them reds stole’em.’’
‘‘You’re right Smitty, every track I have seen has been trimmed and shod.’’
Luke knew this was unusual because the Sioux or most any tribal Indians hardly ever got close enough to a white man’s town or stock herds to steal mounts unless they were desperate. But never did they steal in such great numbers as the two witnessed here.
‘‘It just don’t figger, does it?’’
‘‘No,’’ Luke said, ‘‘it damn sure doesn’t.’’
As they tracked the party, oddly it was back towards Red Feathers Lake. This puzzled the pair even more. If they were on the war path, why go back towards the scene of the massacre? There was nothing between the Peter’s place and the lake that they hadn’t seen.
‘‘I’da figgered they woulda headed to town and caused trouble there,’’ John said.
‘‘Let’s just be glad they didn’t my friend.’’
Just before noon, the two men arrived at Arapaho Pass. Luke had decided to leave the Indian’s trail as they turned west at Climbing Cliffs, a few miles before the Pass. He wanted to see what had become of the army’s scouting troop. When the pair arrived, what they found there was ghastly. With no place to take cover in case of an attack, it was the perfect killing field. The high bluffs on each side were ideal for just such an ambush. Men and horses were scattered about with little to no chance of fortification. Luke thought it was a miracle that Bower made it out of here alive.
The sheriff inspected the remains as John kept watch a hundred yards away or so. Neither wanted a repeat of a surprise attack. He found a Lieutenant Colonel in all the carnage. In his front pocket was a log book. This book contained the information he had been waiting for back in town. After gathering it up and taking a count of the dead for any possible survivors, they mounted up and rode on to regain the Indians trail. A burial detail would have to be sent later as he and John could not afford to lose the hot trail of the war party. With one final glance back, the two eased out of the Pass. Luke knew those men died in valor and made a vow to find the ones that did this dastardly deed.
As they rode away Luke said, ‘‘I only counted forty-seven Smitty. The other two must have been scouts.’’
‘‘Yep. If them reds spotted’em first they won’t be found and chances are they did,’’ John replied solemnly. Heading back southward, the two picked up on the trail again.
With wary eyes both men searched the mesas ahead for signs of an ambush and carefully watching the tracks. Doubling back on them would not be an option for these two savvy men. But this band of murderers did not seem worried of anyone following them and to Luke and John this was a definite advantage. After about an hour, John noticed a diversion on the tracks.
“Look over here Luke. I got eight horses headed west.”
“Yeah, over here I got six headed east,” added Luke. “We must be getting close to their camp.”
They both knew penetrating their lodge wouldn’t be easy, but it had to be attempted if they were going to find out the ...