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War at Bent's Fort

Bent strolled though the small passageway between the placita and the powder magazine. He stopped in front of Pugh, and dropped something in Pugh's lap, barely missing Pugh's fourth bowl of atole.

Pugh looked up in surprise, then down at the bloody scalps in his lap. "What da hell id dis here?" he asked.

Bent ignored the question. He pulled out his pocket watch. "You got a quarter hour to get your stinkin' ass out of here," he said, biting back the rage. "You'll find what's left of Crump and Carpis back there." Bent pointed. "You want to bury them, cart 'em out with you. You don't, we'll toss 'em out with the trash and manure."

"Whadda hell is dis all about? You kilt two a my best men." Pugh looked aggrieved.

Bent shrugged. "They shouldn't try takin' liberties that're best reserved for a husband."

"What?" Pugh asked, eyes widening in surprise and wonder. "That bean-eatin' bitch?" Bent's look was answer enough. "Hell, she's a fuckin' Mexican is all. Jesus, it ain't like she's a white woman or sumpin like 'at."

"She's a woman," Bent said in clipped tones. "That's enough for scum like you to understand. But more than that, she was under my protection. This is my goddamn fort, and I make the goddamn rules." He looked at his watch again. "You got twelve minutes left."

Bent turned, took three steps and then spun back. "And if you mess with our furs you'll be takin' back to Saint Louis, I'll have your puny little balls decoratin' my lodge."

"Shit," Pugh breathed. "You cain't do shit to us." He suddenly felt unsure of himself, though, as hard-faced, well-armed men suddenly appeared around the fort.

"I've got a heap of friends in Missouri, and in Mexico, and damn near wherever scum like you'll end up. I get word you've messed with my property, and you'll pay hard. You got eleven minutes."

Bent went back into the dining room, all his pleasure at the pudding dish he had been eating gone. He sat in the same spot. Charlotte came out of the kitchen and filled his mug with fresh coffee.

"Thank you, Mistah Bent," Charlotte said as she finished pouring.

"For what?" Bent asked, a little surprised.

"Fo' standin' up to them bad men like you jus' done. Ain't too many men's gonna go against another'n for the sake of a woman who ain't white folk."

Bent shrugged and smiled wanly. "I only done what was right," he said softly.

"Dat you did, Mistah Bent. We be obliged, though, me'n Inez. You wants anything else right now?"

"No, thank you, Charlotte."

Bent had set his pocket watch on the table when he sat down. He looked at it frequently. It seemed that since he was watching it too closely and because he wanted the time to get past, that the second hand took an hour or so to make each small circuit.

Finally, though, it was time. Watch in hand, Bent walked outside. Pugh's men and fort workers were just about done. One of Pugh's men had spotted Bent and fear grew between his legs and in his stomach. He called softly to Pugh and jerked his head in Bent's direction.

"To hell wid 'im," Pugh said, hoping the others couldn't hear his fear.

"Shit. You saw what he did to Bufe an' Jethro. Damn, done 'em both in wit' a knife. I ain't ever seed nobody was as good wid a knife as Bufe."

Pugh's fear was beginning to get the better of him. "Jus' shut that flappin' goddamn hole in your face and get them ropes tied down, dammit. I wanna get outta this fuckin' hole."

Skunk Waller--who was quite aptly nicknamed--shut up and hurried to get done.

Just as Bent called out, "Time's out, boys," Pugh, standing next to the lead wagon, cracked his whip, and the entourage was on its way. As soon as Pugh and his small caravan were gone, Bent called for Seth Walsh. "Pick yourself four men, good ones, saddle up and trail those bastards."

Walsh nodded. "How far?"

"All the way to Independence, if it seems needed. I want to make sure our furs--all of 'em--get there."

Walsh grinned. "Should we take them boys down?" He asked.

"Only if they try something foolish."

Walsh nodded again.

Before he could leave, Bent said. "First, though, send me a couple of the Mexican kids."

A few minutes later, two boys marched stiffly up to where Bent was sitting in the dining room. They had their hats in their hands. "You wanted to see us, Señor Bent?" one asked.

"Sí, Miguel." Bent smiled at the boys, both of whom were twelve. "Arturo, I want you to go over by the powder magazine. See if the bodies of those two bastards are still there. If they are, gather up a few of your compadres and drag the bodies over by the heap of manure. Then tell ol' Crutsinger to haul 'em off soon's he can."

Arturo nodded solemnly, knowing he had been chosen for important work by the jefe.

Bent placed a silver dollar on the table, and pushed it across toward Arturo. The boy's eyes bugged, and his heart pounded. It seems, he thought, that he is giving me that money! "For your troubles," Bent said, leaving the dollar right in front of Arturo.

The boy swept it up, still not believing his good fortune. After all, this was what the hunters were paid for a day's work. "Gracias, Señor Bent," he said fervently. "Muchos, muchos gracias." He ran outside, clutching the dollar tightly in a sweaty palm.

"And I have a chore for you, too, Miguel," Bent said after a sip of coffee. "Go saddle that mouse-colored mule of mine. You tell Old Juan it's on my say-so. Then you ride out to where the vaqueros have the herd. You know where that is?"

"Sí," Miguel said proudly.

"Bueno. You ride on out there, and tell Pedro to get his ass back here pronto. You stay there and take his place."

Miguel's blood was racing through his veins. He, little Miguel Perez, was about to be allowed to watch the horses. For so long he had dreamed of such a thing. Now it was really going to happen. He was sure that if he showed the jefe that he could do the job, maybe he would get it permanently. He tried to bring his focus back to what Bent was saying, hoping he had not missed anything important.

He hadn't. Bent simply had asked, "You think you could do that, boy?"

"Sí," Miguel answered, still overwhelmed by all this. In such a state was he that he could not figure out what he wanted to say to Bent. His mind was still on the opportunity being given him, and his eyes were on the two--two!--silver dollars Bent was pushing toward him.

Miguel picked up the money, thinking he was dreaming to have such riches in his small brown hand. He mumbled his thanks, and started for the door.