By Bill Wallace
(This is the first chapter of a western novel I am working on that is set in Gold Rush California in 1849. Consider this an excerpt. Based on what response it gets, I will post additional chapters as I complete them.)
Amos Kuttner, late of the U.S. Army, squatted behind a thicket of young alders alongside the river and intently watched the five men moving in the clearing upstream from him.
He had spent most of the last half-hour following the men on foot, his own horse tied up nearly a mile away, waiting for them to make camp for the night just as they had the last three days. The climb had been rough, but the overgrown trail slowed the horsemen sufficiently to let Kuttner stay alongside them most of the way—and ahead of them for part of it.
They were also having trouble with the balky U.S. mule in their caravan. A veteran Army quartermaster would have probably had the powerful but headstrong animal dancing a merry step, but the riders, judging from the Spanish they spoke, were all Mexicans; they appeared to be trying to handle the critter more like the docile burros of the south.
The mule had probably been brought up pulling artillery or hauling combat materiel, Kuttner thought as he watched them struggle with the mule. With just those two leather Army satchels on his back, he probably wasn’t even aware he’s supposed to be working. That’s what comes of stealing a type of animal you’ve never used before.
He had been shadowing the five since he managed to catch up to them about 15 miles east of the San Joaquin River. Closing in on them through the tall wild oats, lupine and poppies in the flat empty plains of the valley had been a risky matter: a lone horseman trailing behind could easily be seen in the bright, hot sunshine of a California summer. Fortunately, the five men either didn’t expect to be followed or weren’t particularly worried about it.
They should have been. Around a week earlier they had staged a bold robbery in San Francisco.
Once a sleepy Mission town, San Francisco had been transformed since a workman building a saw mill on the American River for John Sutter's settlement in New Helvetia found gold in the millrace a year ago.
However, the robbers Kuttner was tailing hadn’t been after the gold that miners were taking from the rivers and streams of Alta California; the precious metal they had stolen was $15,000 in U.S. minted coin–a payroll freshly delivered to San Francisco’s Presidio to cover the wages of the U.S. Army garrison there. Ironically, despite all the gold that was being mined, actual U.S. cash was scarce in California, and the Army would have to scramble to replace the missing money.
During the robbery, the thieves also had shot three men and stolen a string of horses. The Alcalde of San Francisco was offering a $200 reward for the thieves, dead or alive. Kuttner had every intention of collecting that money. He didn't intend to waste his time trying to take them alive, either.
He had managed to close within a mile of the riders by the time they ran into the scrub oak and gray pine trees of the rolling Sierra foothills. The uneven terrain and vegetation gave Kuttner better cover and allowed him to press his pace, eventually putting him about a quarter mile back – far enough that the occasional noise his horse made would not give him away.
Eventually, he left his mount to browse sorrel on a long lead and pursued the bandits on foot. He actually caught up with them in short order; they were having a devil of a time with that mule but hadn't abandoned the animal; that led Kuttner to conclude that the stolen payroll was in those two satchels strapped to its back.
This was the closest he had been to them since then – near enough to throw a rock and hit one of the riders.
The tall man in the dark felt sombrero was giving the fellow in the leather chaps instructions of some sort, but in a voice so low that Kuttner couldn’t make out what he was saying – only that it had something to do with caballos and agua.
Two of the other men were laying out bedrolls while the third was rounding up stones for a fire ring.
The man with the dark sombrero was carrying a double-barreled shotgun with the barrel sawn off. Each man working on a bedroll had a single-shot pistol tucked into his belt and one had propped his flintlock musket against a tree a few steps away. The man gathering stones also wore a pistol in his waistband. All three handguns looked like French military percussion cap pistols – fine weapons but each limited to a single shot and probably no better than throwing stones at any real distance.
The man in the chaps had a flintlock musket in a scabbard hanging from the saddle of his horse. His only other weapon appeared to be a dagger tucked in one of his boots.
Both of the long guns appeared to be Baker smoothbores, the English-made carbines Mexican infantrymen used at Cerro Gordo and Veracruz. From what Kuttner had seen in those battles, the Bakers would probably be more dangerous to the men who pulled their triggers than to anything in front of them.
But the handguns were more problematic. If enough people fired them at the same target, chances were pretty good that at least one would hit his mark. Counting the three pistols and the shotgun, Kuttner counted a total of five ready shots among the five riders.
When the tall man finished talking, the fellow in the chaps collected the horses tethered nearby and led them to the stream.
Kuttner was thirsty himself. A short while earlier the sun had dropped behind the Coast Mountains that were barely visible through the summer haze to the west. The light in the forest was fading fast. It had been a long, dusty day spent scraping through Manzanita brush and coyote bush.
He had actually spotted the clearing under a stand of redwoods about ten minutes before the five riders got there. It was level, had water and boasted an open area in the thicket big enough for five men to make camp without bumping up against each other in their sleep. It was a perfect spot for a gang on the run to hole up for the night. He'd figured they'd stop there.
While he trailed them, he had watched the five closely, noting the way they behaved toward each other and how they traveled together. It was clear that the tall man was the jefe, the boss. Whenever he spoke to the others, they immediately sprang into action.
He figured the man in the chaps as the greenhorn – he seemed to get ordered around the most. The fellow building the fire was some sort of deputy or right-hand man to the boss. He appeared to know what to do without being told.
The other two were just warm bodies, basically worthless. They spent most of their time skylarking and joking with each other. When the riders made camp each night, those two usually flopped down and started playing cards.
In the Army, Kuttner would have called them goldbrickers. If you put them on sentry duty, they would fall asleep in a heartbeat.
To Kuttner the odds looked good: the biggest threat was the boss and his number two. They looked plenty tough and cool-headed. Killing the others would be like shooting fish in a barrel – as long as they didn’t take cover and get those pistols out of their breeches.
He stood up slowly, working the kinks out of his legs and lower back. He had left his own rifle with his horse, but he was carrying a pair of Walker .44-caliber Colts holstered one above the other on his left hip—more firepower than all five men in the clearing put together. In addition, he had two fully-loaded cylinders for the revolvers he could swap in if he ran out of ammunition. In all, he could fire 24 times, with each slug potentially a man-killer.
Courtesy of his two six guns—and it always pays to be courteous when you are dealing with .44-caliber pistols—he had them outgunned by seven ready shots.
He drew one of the pistols and cocked its hammer, using both hands to reduce the sound. Taking a deep breath and letting it out his nose slowly, he stepped out of the brush, raised the Colt at arm’s length in front of him and walked into the clearing with his shoulders back and his head high.
“Jesus Morales?” Kuttner called out in a carrying voice.
The tall man in the dark sombrero turned toward Kuttner, a frown of surprise on his face, bringing up the shotgun.
Kuttner put a Walker round through his heart at a distance of about 25 feet. In his death spasm the tall man discharged one barrel of the shotgun harmlessly into the ground.
The man building the fire ring instinctively turned sideways to Kuttner to make himself a smaller target, drawing his pistol from his waistband. Kuttner, who had cocked his Colt immediately after shooting the boss, continued to walk forward deliberately, firing and cocking quickly as he moved. The first bullet pierced the man’s right side in the middle of his ribcage and probably killed him; the second struck him in the small of the back as he spun and fell without pulling his trigger.
The two who had been sprawled on their bedrolls were both up and running toward the woods, clearly in no mood for a fight. Kuttner aimed and fired, bringing down one with a shot between the shoulders.
The other man hesitated momentarily, apparently with the thought of helping his fallen comrade. His delay gave Kuttner more time to draw a bead. When Kuttner squeezed the trigger, the man’s head erupted in a pink spray. He sank to his knees, his hat and most of the top of his skull gone, and then slowly sagged to the ground.
“Hell,” Kuttner muttered. “Aimed too damned high.”
The gunplay had barely lasted ten seconds.
The man in the leather chaps was motionless in the creek. The horses he had been watering had spooked and bolted when the gunfire began and he now half-crouched in the water, his hands at shoulder height, unsure whether to stand or stay low.
Kuttner turned toward him, raising his Walker and cocking it for the remaining shot.
“No mas,” the man in the chaps said, terror tightening his voice to a squeal. “No soy armado!”
“Apesadumbrado, amigo,” Kuttner replied quietly, squeezing the trigger.
“No estoy tomando a presos.”
(For continuation, see next chapter)