A horrific scream reverberated through the night air. The unexpected cry halted an entire troop of bone-weary cavalry soldiers in their tracks.
Lieutenant Winslow Brighton reined his chestnut Morgan tight.
"Shhhh, Blaze," he whispered as he reached forward and cupped his fingers over the horse's nostrils for silence. The animal stood alert, awaiting its master's next command.
"What the hell was that, sir?" the man on his right whispered.
"I don't know, Sergeant Major. Whatever it was, it can't be good."
Lieutenant Brighton looked ahead across the moonlit landscape in the direction where the unnerving sound had emanated. The hair on the back of his neck still prickled from the eerie call. The tortured scream was unnerving beyond anything he had ever heard.
He attempted to pinpoint the source of the cry. The moonlight displayed unrealistic shadows across the low, rolling desert hills of northern Nevada territory. Scrub juniper and sagebrush took on low images of danger. A tumbleweed brushed by, in an abrupt gust of wind from the rear, bumping Blaze's fetlock and causing the animal to sidestep nervously.
"Easy, Blaze." Damned Washoe Zephyr. Never knew when a gust would blow.
The pungent, fresh-ground-pepper smell of the sagebrush, after a brief summer shower, tingled the nostrils of man and beast. God, he hated this job of scouring out pockets of renegade Paiutes! He never knew when a rampaging Indian might leap from the underbrush to ambush them.
Isn't it enough that the entire population of an incoming wagon train was slaughtered earlier in the day? What were the savages up to now?
Seeing no evidence of the enemy nearby, the lieutenant looked at the stars searching for clouds that might block the moon. The stars are the one redeeming quality of this country. On those rare occasions when he had leisure time to study them, he felt as if they were so close he could nearly touch them. Tonight, they served only as a guide. In the middle of the desert, under a full moon, with those bright stars giving him his bearings, Winslow Brighton braced his legs against his horse's sides. His tall, slim body stiffened in the stirrups, hoisting himself higher off his saddle, he strained to see farther in the pale light. He held his breath, listening for any noise, watching for any movement.
The clumps of irregular sagebrush could easily hide an unfriendly Indian. The distorted shadows the moonlight cast from the brush didn't help matters.
Did savages surround the entire detachment? Maybe the scream was a diversion.
Lieutenant Winslow Brighton was not a conventional officer. He would not send a man on a dangerous mission that he would not attempt himself. He knew it was regulation to stay and command the troop. And, although he had attended Officers Training School and understood the rules well, he preferred to take his own risks and leave someone else behind in temporary command.
He settled back into his saddle, leaned sideways and whispered to the sergeant major next to him, "Ride back, quietly, and tell the men to stay here. I'll take Jackson and scout up ahead."
Jackson was a large, muscular man who had proven himself to be unbeatable in previous battles. Lieutenant Brighton knew he could depend on him to think on his feet and, although he made a big target, he was agile and wily. Just the type of man he wanted at his side in a pinch.
"You man the troops and wait until one of us returns. If we're not back by sunup, send someone for reinforcements."
"Maybe it was a big cat, sir," the sergeant major said. "Heard tell they scream like a woman in pain."
"Yeah," the handsome, dark-haired, blue-eyed lieutenant answered with a catch in his voice. They could only hope it was a wild animal. Too vividly he remembered the silent wagon train they had inspected a half-day's ride back in the Forty Mile Desert.
"Chances are better it was someone that the Indians took with them from that wagon train we inspected."
The sergeant major turned to pass his superior's orders along. The lieutenant watched him hesitate at each group of two men in the line behind them. While he waited, he studied his reasons for being in what he was beginning to believe was godforsaken country.
He had joined the California militia when he was a very young man. Stationed near his hometown along the Mexican border, he had been able to return to finer things at home occasionally. But he was bored. When the opportunity arose for him to transfer to the silver country, the Washoe area, the adventure was too much for him to resist.
He knew a good many of the other men who joined up were nothing more than Indian hating zealots. When he was appointed his own command, he handpicked his men closest to him, rejecting the inhumane, and retaining the good ones. Anyone who didn't measure up soon slid through the cracks to another unit, or those that survived and disobeyed orders deserted or were court marshaled. Either way, he would not tolerate inhumanity toward the natives. He did his job, but he did it with honor.
His regiment was charged with protecting the Pony Express, the Overland Stage and the travelers along the Overland Trail from renegade Indians--Indians irate at the intrusion of the white settlers on their homeland. Many natives watched and went hungry as the pinion trees that bore nuts for their winter supplies were destroyed to provide timbering in the white man's holes in the ground--the mines of Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City.
Tired of starving, and having their women attacked by miners, warring young men struck back, creating their own justice. They hoped beyond hope to drive the settlers from their land.