Read Crack in the Sky Online

Authors: Terry C. Johnston

Crack in the Sky

PRAISE FOR
THE NOVELS OF
TERRY C. JOHNSTON

DANCE ON THE WIND

“A good book … not only gives readers a wonderful story, but also provides vivid slices of history that surround the colorful characters.”

—Dee Brown, author of
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

“Packed with people, action, and emotion … makes you wish it would never end.”

—Clive Cussler

WINTER RAIN

“Terry Johnston is an authentic American treasure….
Winter Rain
[is] his strongest entry yet.”

—Loren D. Estleman, author of
Edsel

“Some of the finest depictions of Indian warfare I have ever read. Johnston’s romantic vision imbues the early West with an aching beauty that moderns can only dream of.”

—Richard S. Wheeler, author of
Two Medicine River

CRY OF THE HAWK

“This novel has the epic sweep of the frontier built into it.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Will stain the reader with grease, blood, and smoke.”

—Kirkus Reviews

THE SON OF THE PLAINS TRILOGY

“Terry Johnston is the genuine article…. His Custer trilogy is proving this significant point, just as his Indian wars and mountain man books prove it, I admire his power and invention as a writer, but I admire his love and faith in history just as much.”

—Will Henry, author of
From Where the Sun Now Stands

CARRY THE WIND, BORDERLORDS, and ONE-EYED DREAM

“Johnston’s books are action-packed…. a remarkably fine blend of arduous historical research and proficient use of language … lively, lusty, fascinating.”

—Gazette Telegraph
, Colorado Springs

“Rich and fascinating … There is a genuine flavor of the period and of the men who made it what it was.”

—The Washington Post Book World

BOOKS BY TERRY C. JOHNSTON

Cry of the Hawk
Winter Rain
Dream Catcher

Carry the Wind
BorderLords
One-Eyed Dream
Dance on the Wind

Buffalo Palace
Crack in the Sky
Ride the Moon Down
Death Rattle

S
ON OF THE
P
LAINS
N
OVELS
Long Winter Gone
Seize the Sky
Whisper of the Wolf

T
HE
P
LAINSMEN
N
OVELS
Sioux Dawn
Red Cloud’s Revenge
The Stalkers
Black Sun
Devil’s Backbone
Shadow Riders
Dying Thunder
Blood Song
Reap the Whirlwind
Trumpet on the Land
A Cold Day in Hell
Wolf Mountain Moon
Ashes of Heaven
Cries From the Earth

For all that he has
done to boost my career over the years—
for all that his friendship has come to mean
to me while we’ve ridden this wild frontier
of the publishing world together,
this tale of Titus Bass is
dedicated with deep admiration
to my editor,

T
OM
D
UPREE

Well, I knocked about
Among the mountains, hunting beaver streams,
Alone—no, not alone, for there were dreams
And memories that grew. And more and more
I knew, whatever I was hunting for,
It wasn’t beaver.

—John G. Neihardt
Song of Jed Smith

Map

1

Just like the bone-numbing scream of the enemy, the wind tormented those branches of the towering spruce overhead.

Titus Bass jolted awake, coming up even before his eyes were open.

He sat there, sweaty palm clutching his rifle, heart thundering in his ears so loudly that it drowned out near everything but that next faint, thready scream emanating from somewhere above.

The frightening cry faded into no more than a gentle sough as the gust of wind wound its way on down the canyon, sailing past their camp, farther still into the river valley fed by the numberless streams and creeks they were trapping that spring.

As his breathing slowed, Titus swiped the dew of sweat from his face with a broad hand—remembering where he was. Remembering why he was here. Then peered around at the other dark forms sprawled on the ground, all of them radiating from the ember heap of last night’s fire like the hardwood spokes on a wagon wheel. Downright eerie, quiet as death itself were those eight other men. Not one of them snoring, sputtering, or talking
in his sleep. Almost as if the eight shapeless cocoons of buffalo robes and thick wool blankets weren’t alive at all.

Only he—finding himself suddenly alone in this suddenly still wilderness. Alone with this clap of dark gathered here beneath the utter black of sky just beyond the tops of the tall pines. Alone with the remembrance of those cries and screams and death-calls from the Blackfoot warriors as the enemy charged forward, scrambling up the boulders toward the handful of American trappers who had taken refuge there in the rocks, preparing to sell their no-account lives just as dearly as any men ever would dare in that high and terrible country where the most hated band of red-skinned thieves and brigands roamed, and plundered, and murdered.

It had been that way for far longer than he had been in the mountains. And sitting right then and there in the dark, Titus Bass had no reason to doubt that the Blackfoot would still be raiding and killing long after his own bones were bleaching beneath the sun that rose every morning to burn away the mists tucked back in every wrinkle in the cloud-tall Rocky Mountains.

Rising in a slow crescendo, the cry began again above him, like a long fingernail dragged up a man’s spine. Looking up against the tarry darkness of that sky pricked only with tiny, cold dots of light, he watched the blacker branches sway and bob with the growing insistence of the wind, blotting out the stars here and there as they weaved back and forth. Groaning, whining—those branches tossed against one another, rubbing and creaking with the frightening cry that had brought him suddenly awake.

With the next swirling gust of breeze, Titus discovered he was damp, sweating beneath the robe and thick woolen blanket. After kicking both off his legs he sat listening to that noisy rustle of wind as it muscled its way through the tops of the trees overhead and hurtled on down into the valley, descending from the slopes of that granite and scree and bone-colored talus above their camp. A wind given its birth far higher in the places where the snow never departed, above him across that barren ground where even trees failed to grow. Those high and terrible places where
if a man had the grit or were fool enough, he could climb and climb and climb until he reached the very top of the tallest gray spire, there to stand and talk eye to eye with whatever fearsome god ruled from on high.

Such a feat was for other men. Not the likes of Titus Bass. The spooky nearness of that god and the sky he ruled was close enough from right here. It had been ever since he had first come to these mountains, running from all that was, racing headlong to seize all that could be.

This coming summer it would be three years since he first laid eyes on that jagged purple rip stretched across the far horizon—three years since Titus Bass had journeyed eagerly into these high places. That would make this … spring of twenty-eight.

In many ways, that was a lifetime spent out here already.

Twice now he had been spared. First with those Arapaho who’d hacked off his topknot and left him for dead. Had it not been for the young mule carrying him out of enemy country, Bass was certain his bones would be bleaching beneath the sun of uncounted days yet to come. Then a second time—only a matter of weeks ago—that Blackfoot raiding party had tightened their red noose around a last-stand where Titus and the others had prepared to sell their lives dearly. Nine men who saw no real chance of coming out on the winning side of the bad hand dealt them.

There in the dark now, Titus wondered just how many times a man might be given another chance, another go at his life. How often could a reasonable person expect to have the odds tipped in his favor? Once? Maybe. Twice? If a man were near that lucky, then Bass figured he might well be inching closer to that day when his luck had just plain run out … gone like the tiny grains of sand that slipped through the narrow neck of an hourglass, one by one by one in a tumble of seemingly insignificant moments lost to the ebb of time.

The days of a man’s life eventually reaching the end of his ledger. Come the call for him to pay the fiddler.

As he turned to glance at the heap of ash in the fire pit,
Bass heard one of the animals snuffle out there in the darkness. He strained his eyes to peer into the inky gloom. After listening intently, he finally stared at the faint, glowing embers—wondering if he should throw some more wood on, or just curl down within his bedding and try falling back to sleep.

Absently digging at an itch nagging the back of his neck, he decided he would forget the fire. This was high season for ticks, tiny troublesome creatures who on
ly
weeks ago had killed one of the men already with the fever they carried. But his fingers reassured him that this itch was no tick, not even the lice he had played host to when he had first reached these Shining Mountains—digging so often and voraciously at his hide that the trio who happened upon Titus came to call him Scratch.

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