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Do or Die-Ralph Compton.

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      DEADLY MISTAKE

      Tony glanced past Charley and stiffened. Suddenly bending at the waist, he whispered, “Let me do the talking. Whatever happens, it is not to involve you.”

      Before Charley could ask what Tony meant, three men walked up to their table—burly, broad-shouldered men wearing suits and polished shoes, one with a diamond stickpin in his tie.

      “Well, well, well.” Stickpin’s voice was like two rocks grating together. “All evening I’ve been trying to figure out how in hell I lost my roll. Then who should I see across the room at the most expensive restaurant in Denver? The water boy I always buy water from.” He leaned on the edge of the table and glared at Tony. “You made the worst mistake of your life picking my pocket. I’ve beat people to a pulp for a lot less.” His smile was ripe with menace. “So where do you want it? Here or outside?”

      

      THE IMMORTAL COWBOY

      This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.

      True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.

      In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?

      It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.

      It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.

      —Ralph Compton

      Prologue

      Wind River Reservation

      Wyoming Territory

      Five riders came out of the night to the ridge above the old man’s lodge and reined in. They wore dark hats and dark slickers and were next to invisible. Their leader rose in the stirrups to study the valley they had traveled so far to reach, and when he gestured, they descended in single file until they emerged from the pines. Then they spread out and moved toward a gurgling stream.

      On the far side stood the lodge. It was old, like its owner. Mat-ta-vish had lived more winters than most Shoshones and liked the old ways better than the white ways many of his people had adopted. He refused to wear white clothes. He refused to own white cooking utensils. Under no circumstances would he allow a white blanket to soil his lodge or his person.

      Some of the younger Shoshones thought Mat-ta-vish was stubborn and silly. They pointed out that white-made pots and pans were easy to clean and lasted a long time. White-made knives were of fine steel and held a sharp edge even after hard use. And it was a lot easier to buy or trade for a white blanket or white clothes than to make them. But to Mat-ta-vish, the fact they were white meant all the difference. He wanted nothing to do with the despoilers of the world he had once known. He wanted nothing to do with those who treated his people like cattle, to be herded up and penned in as the whites saw fit.

      This particular night Mat-ta-vish had turned in early, as was his habit. Although grey of hair, his senses were keen, and when his dog growled, Mat-ta-vish threw off his heavy buffalo blanket and sat up. “What did you hear?” he quietly asked. He had not named the dog. He never named an animal he might need to eat.

      The mongrel stood and stared at the hide that covered the lodge opening. The hackles on its neck rose, and it bared its teeth.

      “Is it a mountain lion? Or another bear?” Mat-ta-vish talked to his dog all the time. The dog was the only companion he had. His devoted wife had died ten winters ago, and his sons and daughters rarely came to visit.

      Rising, Mat-ta-vish took down his ash bow and quiver of arrows. His oldest son, Gro-wot, had once tried giving him a rifle even though Gro-wot knew how he felt about whites, but Mat-ta-vish had refused to accept it. “Let us go see.”

      A brisk wind stirred nearby cottonwoods. Other than the rustle of leaves, Mat-ta-vish heard nothing to account for his dog’s unease. He made a circuit of his lodge, an arrow nocked to the sinew string of his bow, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. “Dogs that bark at the wind do not live as long as dogs that do not,” he remarked.

      As if to prove him wrong, the mongrel suddenly snarled and streaked off into the cottonwoods.

      Mat-ta-vish walked halfway to the cottonwoods and stopped. It would not be wise to venture into the trees if a grizzly were on the prowl. While the giant bears were far fewer than they had been in the days of his youth, it was not uncommon for one to pass through his valley. Usually they left him alone, although during the last Blood Moon he had lost a fine mare. Gro-wot said he had brought it on himself by living apart from the rest of the Shoshones, and maybe that was true.

      The mongrel began barking. It had spotted whatever was out there.

      As Mat-ta-vish raised his bow, he heard the underbrush crackle with the passage of something large. Hooves thudded, and a darkling shape swept toward him. He sighted down the arrow, but before he could let it fly, another rider came at him from the right.

      Mat-ta-vish turned. The second rider was closer and posed the more immediate threat. He loosed his shaft. Mat-ta-vish was a skilled bowman, and the arrow should have caught the rider in the chest. But the man swung onto the side of his horse and clung there like a Sioux warrior. It was no Sioux, though. Mat-ta-vish glimpsed a hat and a long coat such as whites wore. He snatched another arrow from his quiver and was nocking it to the string when he realized a third night rider was bearing down on him from behind. The next moment he was struck a heavy blow to the back and flung to the earth with bone-jarring impact. He lost his grip on the bow.

      Dazed, Mat-ta-vish started to push to his feet. There was a swish, and pain lanced his head. The trees and the stars swapped places. His cheek smacked the earth. He made it to his knees just as a pair of thick arms encircled him from behind like bands of metal.

      “I’ve got the old redskin!” his captor bellowed in his ear in the white man’s tongue.

      Mat-ta-vish struggled, but whoever held him was as big and strong as a bull buffalo. He tried to reach the bone-handled knife at his hip, but a second white materialized from nowhere and yanked it from its sheath.

      “You won’t be needin’ that pigsticker, Injun.”

      Long ago Mat-ta-vish had learned that when dealing with belligerent whites, it was best not to feed their craving for violence. He wondered if these were drunken cowboys out to amuse themselves at his expense and decided they weren’t since he did not smell liquor on their breath.

      Just then a four-legged form shot out of the vegetation to his rescue. The dog snarled, its fangs white in the starlight, and bounded toward the bull holding Mat-ta-vish. “No!” he shouted in Shoshone, but the dog did

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