The trail wound past fallen boulders, deeper into tight clumps of trees flourishing at the edge of the canyon. Elijah spotted the occasional glimpse of outcroppings of rock through breaks in the stands of timber. The rock face opposite where he rode rising high into the air.
Miles into their ride they came upon a tangle of felled trees laced among the trunks of living trees. The blacksmith signalled for a halt.
“Looks like these poles got some use out of them,” Charles Bronner rubbed a hand along a worn section of rail while peering into a clearing. The earth beyond beaten and stomped by numerous sharp hooves. “A pretty smooth operation I’d say. Push a few head of cattle down off the upper range, hide them here out of sight until you can arrange a trailer to haul them. From here, back down the way we came and off they go. Little work for a nice payday. Works fine until you get caught.” Bonner added, his fingers tugging at a strip of dried bark still attached to the rail fence.
Elijah Sackett rode up beside the blacksmith. Peeling off his hat, he ran an arm over his hair as he gave the area a quick once over. Where the two men sat, an acre or so of cleared ground crawled away from the skinned rails tucked among the trees forming the corral. The border of the clearing trimmed by trees and underbrush clustered defining the edges.
Glancing about, Elijah studied the tree line then slowly turned his horse and looked over the small meadow. The patch of churned soil crept across the little space ending at the bank of a river rumbling by not many yards from the corral. On the far side of the water, a wall of rock climbed skyward. The canyon topping out several hundred yards above. A rocky trail at the top still awash in sunlight.
The men rode from the clearing. The pair let their horses pick the way over the trail trampled by repeated use, the route winding deeper following the canyon bottom. The trail ran parallel to the winding river. Elijah glanced skyward as they rode. The hours passed below with snatches of blue showing above the tree tops of the midday sky. Shadows under the leafed and needled foliage grew longer with the march of time and the moving sun.
At one point the trail and river converged. The bare path of earth churned by the repeated pound of sharp hooves from cattle made an abrupt turn and led into the water. At this point, the canyon widened and with it the river expanded. From a fast, turbulent run, the water depth shrank and the current slowed to a crawl.
Elijah eyed the crossing before nudging his horse forward. The splash of the horses feet broke the watery surface, disturbing the sounds of the forest. Elijah focused on the darker outline of trees laying back on the opposite side.
The bark of a rifle surprised the pair as they climbed the small muddy bank from the flow of the river.
Elijah switched his horse’s rump with the ends of the reins trailing from his hand. The quick sting scaring the horse into a fast run. “Grab cover in the trees,” Elijah shouted.
Breathing deeply, he stopped behind a thick cluster of pines and he slipped his rifle from the scabbard. Strained eyes watched along the open river for signs of movement. Echoes of gunfire slowly reverberated out of existence leaving the forest once again silent.
“How far way?” Elijah threw out the question.
“Can’t be too much further,” Bronner replied.
“I agree,” Elijah nodded. “We better travel careful. Whoever is shooting may mistake us for the wrong side.”
The pair rode slowly onward in the direction of the gunshots. “If we stick to the trees we should remain out of sight.” Elijah scanned the waning sun. “Gonna be dark soon. Things could get interesting with us being this close. I think we should change tactics.”
With my mind occupied by the troubling thought of using the river to escape, I swung my hand to removed branches and leaves clinging to my father’s clothes. Brushing the debris away, the skin on the back of my hand rubbed against a clump of objects twisted in one of his pockets. With careful fingers I felt the area. Luck grinned at me from somewhere beyond. I slipped my hand into the front pocket and returned with a handful of shells.
Stopping everything, I fumbled in my haste to load the few bullets. Whispered talking and the distant crush of boots breaking twigs caught my attention. JW or most likely some his men began to close in on us. When the last bullet dropped in the chamber, I shifted the lever and and lifted the barrel, sighting along the direction I heard the voices.
“Call your men off,” I shouted a warning then loosed a couple shots. The busting of branches and loud curse words told of excited panic as JW’s men retreated. No doubt, the men were surprised by my having ammunition. “I won’t warn you again. Next shot is to the head of anyone stupid enough to give me reason.”
“You had your chance,” JW’s voice, angry with rage, tore from the woods.
“What you gonna do when it gets dark. Can’t have too much ammo left and I’m sure you don’t have food. It’ll get cold, you’ll get hungry. Let me know what you decide. I can wait. We’ll talk later, I got a warm coffee waiting by the fire.” An evil laugh accompanied his parting words.
I let him talk with out answering back. The cold, the lack of food I could survive without. My thoughts dropped to the prone form of my father. Slight rises in his chest told me he was still among the living. But, how much longer could he last in this condition.
I stared at the trees in the growing darkness. Carrying the extra weight of my father through the trees would be impossible. In the last rays of daylight, I glanced once more at the river. The only obvious way for us to escape and the time to do it was now while the men chasing us sat around a fire and waited.
I cut a sling for the rifle form my coat and flung it around my back. Then I brushed the remaining dirt from my father and bent to lift him.
“You men up the hill. Be easy with those rifles of your’s.” Called a voice from somewhere behind me. I hesitated and waited to see what played out. Whoever belonged to the voice, were they friend or foe. The friend part was slim. The voice had an almost familiar ring to it but after all these years I couldn’t imagine who would know or concern themselves that I was here or in trouble.
“Bronner, is that you. What the hell you doing all the way out here?” The reply yelled down from the group of ranch hands.
“Ya. Its me, JW. Got yourself into some kind off shit, did you.”
“Don’t know what your talking about. Why don’t you come up here we’ll discuss what you think is happening. We got a big pot of coffee boiling.”
“JW Barton. This here is Special Ranger Elijah Sackett. I’m here with a Mr. Bronner, long time employee of the P/B ranch. You and your men put down your guns so we can talk.”
“Can’t do that Special Ranger Sackett. This is private land and we’ve got some rustlers cornered. Best you leave things be and go about your business elsewhere.”
I listened to the shouted conversation, holding quiet from my position until I decided what to do. Could this actually be a lawman or did JW send men behind me and contrived this little show to draw me into the open.
I struggled to place the first voice. The more the men talked the more I began to believe that long time family friend, Charles Bronner, was one of the recent arrivals. Problem was during my long absence, things around the ranch had changed. Apparently, not much for the good from where I stood. Which side did the blacksmith ride for these days. And who in the hell was this Sheriff and why was he suddenly here. The answers would mean life and death if I was mistaken.
I heard mumbling from the men behind me. Suddenly the strange voice called above the sighing of wind filled trees.
“Joshua Boutõn. William Lee Boutõn. Can either of you hear my words?”
The forest fell silent. I hesitated, unwilling to give my hiding spot away. The new arrivals were much closer then JW and his men. Before I decided to answer, a rifle shot travelled down the canyon. The bullet aimed away from where I stood.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I heard the curse words muttered from the settling darkness.
“JW Barton. You tell those men of your’s to hold still their rifles. The penalty for firing upon a member of the law is a very serious crime. If you decide to push your decision, there’ll be nowhere for you or those men to hide. So, I’ll give you to the count of five to rethink your answer and lead your men out into the open. Hands high in the air, guns left behind.”
“Sheriff, or whatever you are. In Tennessee, interfering in a man’s private business is a shooting offence. Leave now or be damned.” JW shouted from his perch. “I’m in the right hunting those rustlers and I don’t appreciate your interference.”
“Sheriff works well enough and I’ll consider myself warned then,” Came the strange voice.
Night fell with the tense silence. The option of retreating to the river disappeared. Only death awaited us if I attempted to float my father out in the darkness. I huddled close over his body. The rifle cradled in my arm waiting for someone to come at us.
Down canyon from where I waited, the late comers built a fire. The smell of smoke lingered in the air every now and then when the wind died. Through the tangle of leaves and trunks I caught the odd flicker of small flames while they licked upwards at the darkness. The tree branches that screened us from sight acted the same for my sight out. Other then the odd flicker of light cast by the fire, the rest of the world stayed hidden as the dark consumed the blue sky of earlier. Even the stars ducked behind a low layer of clouds that floated in with the night and blanketed the sky.
My thoughts wavered from hope to doubt. Unfamiliar with the sheriff and not certain to trust Bronner, I stayed quiet and hidden. With the appearance of these last two only a short while ago, Barton and his crew fell silent. Were they now sneaking down from their perch to surround me or…I huddled lower into my coat. The tip of the rifle eager to sight on trouble.
The waft of coffee drifted over to the hole where I sat. Soon, food broiled over a campfire and sent my stomach complaining. My thoughts drifted. Then a moan emanated from my father, pulling my mind back to the present. A fevered heat radiated from his body. I grab my handkerchief and peered through the dark in the direction of the river. Should I dare, I wondered.
I waited in indecision. The ravaging fever increased the horror of his troubled moans. The awful sounds carried into the night on a chorus of wind and rubbing tree branches. How much longer could he hang on. My mind paced, searched for an avenue of escape, chafed against the walls of my skull at being caught in a trap like this. The short of the matter was, if I didn’t do something quick, my father would be dead and probably I along side him.
The answer sat me up straight with a jolt. Blinders told me that the safest way out meant risking the ire of the river. A voice in my head told me to change tactics. Something totally unorthodox that no one would expect such a move. Something trained into me from years with the army. The men waiting up the canyon had horses, possibly some medical supplies. Time to change the rules in this dangerous dance and shift the fight back up the canyon at them.
I gathered loose leaves and handfuls of grass and fallen twigs that laid cluttered about the tree well and covered my father best I could. The small effort hopeful to warm him against the ravages of chills driven by the fever. Then I emptied the barrel of the rifle counting the bullets. I’d found only a small amount of ammo in my father’s pocket, now minus the ones I wasted in slowing JW and his men from advancing.
The count wasn’t encouraging. Any more bullets spent would have to be done so wisely. I cursed about the few remaining bullets, quickly reloaded the gun, mentally marking the small count of ammo and storing the number in the back of my brain. The need to cross off each bullet shot to avoid a repeat of the empty click of the hammer and give my self away again.
I backed out of the hole under the tree roots and matched my steps to the louder howls of wind blowing through the trees. I hunched tight into my jacket, the temperature falling, skirted the fire lit by the Sheriff and Charles Bronner and studied the shadows up canyon for tell tale signs of JW’s fire. Swaying branches revealed fire-fly snippets of flames from the the pair of new comers behind, maybe a hundred or so yards away.
I moved slowly away from them, each placement of my feet made with caution. One false step and the surprise part of my advantage disappeared. I listened for voices from both the neighbouring party. Boots shuffled near the screened fire and gave away their position. Moving farther away from the Sheriff and Bronner, I climbed up the canyon, my focus shifting from the pair of men behind to the group waiting out front.
From that mornings ride, I was aware of the men I’d ridden up with. JW Barton was not among us. How many extra men did he bring with his arrival if any. With me out of the picture, replaced by JW, the minimum was seven the max…even seven saddle hardened cowboys would be more than I could expect to beat but with no other options, I continued from tree trunk to tree trunk, closing in on fate. Fifty some yards out, voices drifted on the breeze. I doubted the men from the ranch would post a guard. With them carrying the much larger number of bodies in this fight, I prayed arrogance laid heavy on them and with that maybe carelessness.
Still, I chose my path with caution, fighting against a nagging feeling screaming for me to move faster incase those men tired of this game and wanted to bring a sudden end to tonight’s activities. Perhaps I fixated too hard on this last thought because the hand that tapped my shoulder brought me to sudden attention in a hurry.
Frozen rigid, a warm, cigarette tainted breath whispered words meant for my ears only.
“Seeings your heading straight for the lion’s den, I thought a little help might be warranted,” the quiet Texas drawl spoke.
“Don’t turn quickly and make undo noise,” the voice added, “I’m here to help. I saw you leave the tree roots after you covered that man. Is that Joshua Boutõn? Are you his son? The one that blacksmith Bronner calls William?”
I nodded without turning, not trusting my voice. My heart raced at an incredible pace. I breathed deeply then muttered a soft “yes.” to both.
“You’re not bad in these trees, but take my advice and slow down bit as you approach their fire. Those boys’ll hear you easy once you get close enough. Give away any surprise.” The voice paused. “You give me a few minutes head start and I’ll meet you around back. See if we can’t catch those gentlemen watching the fire. Give them all night blindness.”
“Yeah. Sure,” I agreed. A footstep told me the Sheriff was about to leave.
“How you fixed for ammo Sheriff?” I asked. “Im down to my last few bullets and if things get hot I won’t last long.” I added starring ahead into the darkness. My words spoken as I turned to where the man stood.
“Take this,” I felt the grip of a revolver touch my fingers. Its packing a load. I don’t have much extra other than whats in the guns.”
“Thanks. This’ll help,” I said. The swish of a branch told me the lawman had left. In my head I counted off 180 seconds the slow way, then fixed a route opposite to the Sheriff’s and began moving.
The occasional loud word and broken bits of laughter camouflaged my movements toward the fire JW and his boys clustered around. Wedges of open ground lit by burning logs leapt into view as I scuttled closer. I kept one ear strained to pick up the Sheriff’s movements. The man walked among the trees as silent as I’d ever seen. I knew he was out here but failed to spot him.
Each couple steps ended with a furtive glance into the clearing. Careful to not stare at the open flames, I cast about, placing the ranch hands. A belch drew a round of laughter then one of the men stood and dusting off his jeans spat into the fire.“Enough of this roughing it shit. Let’s head down and finish this off.”
I followed the man’s gaze. JW, the ranch foreman sat opposite. His head turned away from the flames. “In good time,” I heard JW reply. “Let those new fellas settle in for the night. Catch them all in the midst of some dreams. Make our life easier.”
“It’s well after midnight. How long are we going to wait? We sit here any longer and I’ll have to unroll my pack and grab some sleep myself.” Another of the hands spoke up. A horse stomped and nickered from out of the darkness driving a wedge into their conversation.
“Steve, instead of griping, go check on the horses. That’ll give you something to do, keep you awake. Ole Josh probably stole your idea and fell asleep already.” JW snickered. “Wake him and make damn sure there aren’t any cougars prowling about the horses looking for an easy meal.”
The man named Steve gathered his hat and a rifle leaning against a tree, then stomped off into the darkness. His path on the far side of the fire from where I waited. I kept an eye on the men around the fire. I took caution to avoid looking directly into the flames and wrecking my night vision, all the while wondering what happened to that Texas Sheriff.
In a few minutes, an answer came when another of the horses blew air from its nostrils and stomped. The sudden sound brought the idling men to attention. JW lifted from where he sat and looked into the darkness at the direction as the man he called Steve wondered off.
“This ain’t good,” I heard him mumble before he yelled after his men. The big ranch foreman paced in tight circle close to the hungry flames of the fire. His mumbling grew louder. Annoyance tightened around his words. Barking from the fire, “Steve, Josh. What the hell you two doing?” he called into the night.
I stepped a careless foot closer. The flames reached only yards from the large tree where I stopped. A twig broke near by. The other side of the tree sheltered from my view. My breath froze in my lungs. Peering up and around I caught the outline of a dark barrel moving against an even darker forest.
Instincts made me swing my arm upward to deflect the coming shot. A brief spurt of flame lit the dark. Then a thunderous clap roared into the night. My ears stung and I felt a flash of heat warm the sleeve of my jacket pressed tight to the barrel. My arm already outstretched, I reversed motion and clubbed downward. The boney part of my elbow led the charge. A tingle of nerves ran the length of my arm when the joint smacked flesh. Bone crushed under the impact.
A whispered grunt told of my success. The man from the blind side of the tree dropped to the ground. In the seconds that followed, I swung my rifle back on the others.
The time waiting for the Sheriff ended. The men gathered by the fire recovered from surprise and reacted. Side stepping the large tree, I pointed the barrel in the general direction of the group.
“You boys best put down your guns,” I said. “Time this game came to an end. JW,” I settled my attention briefly on the ranch boss, “you throw your guns down and take a seat. The rest of you better hurry and copy him. “I shouted. “Anyone who thinks their brave enough gets to play catch with the lead from this rifle.”
JW starred at me and then risked a look around at his men. Seven others stood with him. Their hands all clutched and hesitating. “You can’t take us all, boy. Best you put you’re gun down.” The words spit from the big man’s mouth. “Don’t let him bluff you.” The ranch foreman spoke to his men. “He’s gotta be low on ammo. Maybe he’ll wing me, but he can’t take us all.”
Behind the ranch foreman, mostly hidden by his large body, a flash of movement blurred. One of the hands tried for a rifle. The clap of exploding gunpowder and the smacking of angry lead ended the conversation. The ranch hand clutched his shoulder, sagging to the ground. Curses wracked with pain poured from the man’s throat.
“The way I see it, my bullets along with the boys, well, that aught to be enough to corral you bunch of coyotes,” the drawl of Texas Sheriff’s words rang from the tree line on the opposite side of the fire. “Now, you all do what he says and chuck those irons you’re packin. At this distance, the two of us won’t miss too many of you.”
A week had passed. Bronner rode along when I drove to the hospital to retrieve my father. Pulling back into the yard, Elijah Sackett stood in the doorway of the ranch house. The sun shaded from his eyes by his raised hand. I slowed the truck, letting it roll the final inches toward the sidewalk.
Bronner jumped from the cab and began lifting my father from the back seat where he rode. Sackett walked the length of the wooden sidewalk pushing my father’s wheel chair. The big lawman smiled when he caught sight of my father’s face.
“Good to see you about,” Sackett said while steadying the chair. “You come out of it fair enough,” he continued. “I mean, I seen uglier men. Well, not by much but don’t let that fret you none.” He broke into a loud laugh.
“Honestly, ugly must run in the family then, I suppose,” my father looked up from his chair. A twinkle lifted the edge of his lips. “You looked in the mirror lately.”
I stood back and watched the two long lost cousins banter about. The week my father spent recuperating, Elijah and I did some searching. Turns out that he and dad were cousins. My great grandma and Elijah’s grandfather were brother and sister. Some old family dispute split the siblings decades ago and sent his dad moving west to start a new life.
I’d heard some talk of the Sackett name over the years but mostly the name was forgotten around our house. A few tall tales of the founding members emerged every now and again from when they settled this country centuries ago but honestly, very little mention of them over the last few decades. I, for one, was grateful the name surfaced once again.
Elijah Sackett loosed a quick second thought back toward the trailer and the cattle rustlers concealed inside before turning and slapping the thigh of his horse. The big black mare shook its head and bolted forward toward the distant mountains rising up at the far end of the meadow.
Hours passed as the two raced their horses down a beaten trail of crushed grass and churned earth crossing the open meadow. The swell of the nearby mountains loomed ever closer and stands of pine trees and leafed hardwoods signalled the change of landscape that rimmed the edge of the grassy plain. Thick stands of trees and stunted shrubs crowded the view at the bottom of the mountains as the men drew closer. Soon a crush of vegetation flowed upward with the gentle slopes of the Cumberlands .
At the edge of the meadow, the men slowed, allowing the horses a reprieve from the rushed journey. The mouth of a trail showed well while the pair approached the line of trees, but close up, the route blended well with the dense landscape adding precious time. Elijah’s sense of direction faded with the lack of sunshine once the pair emerged deeper into the forest.
He nodded to the blacksmith once the trail of crushed grass was agin located. “You know this country a hell of a lot better then I do,” he said, pulling back on his horse’s reins allowing the blacksmith to pass.
“Been a while since I rode in from this direction,” Bronner admitted. “but if some of Joshua’s boys are stealing cattle, this trail should lead back to where those gunshots sounded. Cowboys and cows are creatures of habit after all and with little fear of exposure, it stands to reason they would stick to the same route.”
With a start, a stream of sunlight slipped between closed eyelids, stirring me awake. I blinked my vision clear and drew shallow breaths. Only my eyes moved as senses returned My body lay crumpled against the trunk of a thick evergreen. My back on the ground, my feet higher, the heels of my boots resting on the bark higher on the tree.
With conciousness came the snatches of memory of what recently happened. Reports from across my body run the length of my nerves and touched off sensors in my brain. Pain radiated from every square inch of flesh if such a thing was possible.
As I remain tightly balled, I stared up at the sun. At first only because I struggled to remember how I came to be where I am and then…the sun was much higher in the sky then it should have been. Why would that bother…a shiver ran through me. How long had I been laying here? The walls of the canyon where I fell were steep but I realized that somewhere, and probably not to far ahead, surely a trail must lead down from the top.
The men from the ranch. Had they reached the bottom yet? I listened but only heard the thudding of my heartbeat as it filled my ears. A groan sounded as I rolled to the side and brushed my feet off the tree trunk. Another louder sound of pain followed into the air. The noise matching the pain flowing over me as I moved.
On my stomach, I pushed up with trembling arms and lifted myself to my knees. Again I paused to listen. Birds chirped and somewhere a lot farther below in the flat of the canyon, the sound of rushing water. One more effort upward and I stumbled to my feet, stopping to lean against the tree for support.
To my side I spotted the butt of my rifle. The barrel stuffed several inches into the layer of soil blanketing the side of the hill. I look around searching for my saddle bags. No such luck. I slow my search. The rifle won’t do me much good with out ammo. I tilt my eyes back up the wall of rock and trees lining the canyon wall and consider the effort and time wasted if I was to expand my search.
My body hurt and my head ached. I quickly dismissed the thought of climbing back up. I’d take the gun anyway. As a crutch or club if need be. I pushed off the tree and stumbled over, snatching the rifle from the dirt and carried it over to a large boulder near by.
That little effort reminded of the trauma I sustained to my head. I moved in a daze. Pulling a couple deep breaths past my lips, I scanned the wooded area. Birds that were earlier interrupted by my fall returned to perches high up in the branches and sang into the warming sunlight.
I allowed a few seconds to clear my thoughts then pumped the lever on the rifle. I remember thinking that the chamber was empty but I double checked to ensure the fact before I spun the barrel toward my face for a closer look. Dirt sprouted from the end. A clump of mud ground deep into the metal opening.
Searching the bottoms of nearby trees I stole a branch, stiff and agile enough to work the plug of earth clean from the barrel. With that deed completed, I stood and looked first one way and then the opposite. Finally I let my eyes follow the contour of the side hill and then followed the contour of the wall down.
Far below laid the canyon floor. A careful man could move along using the trees and fallen boulders for support and avoid slipping deeper into the rock strewn crevice. A shake of my head cleared more cob webs. If I am careful, I tell myself and paused to plot my next move.
Having recently rode the upper trail, I thought back along the route that led away from the ranch house, thinking of trails we passed that led down into the canyon. I recalled none so I pointed myself back in that direction reasoning that the ranch hands would come from the other way.
My first few steps weren’t graceful but soon I fell into a sort of rhythm carefully placing each footstep. On numerous occasions the leather soles of my boots slid on the soft soil and rocky incline. Every so many yards I pulled up and listen to the distinct sounds of the forest. While I filled my lungs, I strained my ears to catch warning sounds of riding horsemen.
The sun climbed higher in the sky. Noon swam over the canyon walls, the sun directly overhead shining down where I walked. The light beating back the long shadows of the surrounding trees. In searching my route, I walked upon fresh gouges ripped into the soil several yards ahead.
A couple quick steps brought me close to the torn earth. Looking back up the mountain side, a trail of broken branches and skinned trees marked a trail down. I studied the trees and the ground then focused my attention following the slide of destruction downward.
Not far below the sunlight gleamed off a piece of metal. My breath caught as I thought of my father. Is this where he met his end. Shifting the rifle, I stabbed the butt into the ground to aid my slide lower. My free hand gripping and releasing tree limbs and clumps of grass as I avoided the battlefield of obstacles strewn in my path.
Sweat soaked my shirt and neck by the time I arrived close to the twisted metal. The custom design of the quad left no doubt who’s it was. Clinging to a handle bar jammed in the air I pivoted slowly. My eyes scrutinizing every inch of ground exposed to me.
On the down side of the flipped machine, the scene that greeted formed an obscure reality. A mountain lion lay stomped into the earth. The reason for the cats demise I couldn’t guess. Something caved in the big cat’s body. The ground underfoot sat exposed, clumps of grass and roots plowed under and fresh soil flung around. Nearby rocks showed rusted splotches of dried blood.
From there, I caught the movement of a piece of cloth waving in the light breeze. The coloured material poking from below a copse of trees and tangled boulders. My heart rose into my throat. My father and Old Tom both rode out the other day and if one found trouble, the other must have too. Adrenaline spiked and masked the pain wracking my body. It also replaced caution sending me clambering downward, paying less then proper attention to the steep canyon wall.
The last few yards I lost my footing. Feet first I slid, the muscles in my arm protested when when I snagged a passing sapling to slow my slide. I stopped just short of the mangled body with its arms and legs bent at awful directions. The mass of the body splayed upward of a head resting at an odd angle. The beating of my heart never slowed. Even with the briefest of look I had little trouble recognizing Old Tom.
I cursed and let a few tears well in my eyes before testing my outstretched arm. I pulled myself to my knees and bent over Tom’s body. The ever present stained hat that resided on his head had been lost in the fall. Tangled strands of Tom’s grey hair lay matted across his face. Lifeless brown eyes stared heaven ward and blood dried in his thick beard. Streaks of dried blood coloured his clothing. The stains on his pants and shirt dried to a crusty brown.
I waited hunched over wanting to do something but knowing better. I pondered how best to move his body. The slope of loose dirt and strewn boulders and my weakened condition dictated the answer. I left Old Tom where he lay. Blankets sprouted from under the overturned machine. Jerking them loose, I passed them over Tom’s body then rolled rocks of varying weights around to secure the cloth best I could.
Sweat broke over the brim of my forehead leading to a chill when a breeze of fresh air slipped across the mountain side. I studied my work then muttered a heartfelt promise to return soon and show the man the proper respect he deserved. A short prayer rolled past my lips before I moved.
A few more seconds of grieving over the loss of our old family friend then I began to study the ground in hopes of any clue that could lead to my fathers location. One man wouldn’t be far from the other, I reasoned. My mind turned to the supplies that scattered from the quad’s tumble down the rock wall. What else remained in the quad?
Stumbling closer. I leaned over the upright side and dug with my hands to sort through the tossed contents. My fingers brushed over a box of bullets. Luck smiled with me. The rifle I carried and the bullets in the quad matched. Most guns in the main house of the ranch were of similar calibers. A coil of rope sat bunched a few inches from the ammo. Propped against the side of the quad, I slid a handful of bullets into the rifle prepared for the men if they rode after me.
Finished, I lifted the rope and stuffed the remainder of the box of bullets in my coat pocket. The rope I looped over my head catching it under my arm. I stood, breathed away the pain from being bent over then turned back to scanning the dirt and rocks and trees for any sigh pointing to where my father may have passed.
I moved sideways on the rocky slope. Every step plotted. Every inch both down and forward, studied. The growing darkness at the bottom of the trees told me the sun had moved further west. The daylight becoming obscured by the passing time and lengthening shadows. At one point I pulled up to rest. In the back of my mind I kept thinking maybe I missed the signs I searched for. Another half mile, I told myself. If I found nothing by then I would backtrack. Tom and my father where riding together. I found the quad and Old Tom. My father wasn’t able to ride a horse. So where was he?
Frustration made me jittery, still I forced myself to rest. I would be no help if I pressed on accumulating further injury. A dry chuckle left my throat. Who am I kidding. My mind traveled to the dark places I tried to avoid. Flashes of Old Tom lying broken and twisted, and dead, a short distance behind haunted my visions. How much hope should I hold that my father didn’t meet a similar fate.
I pushed off my resting spot and bent low, allowing my eyes to sort through the clutter of rocks and branches and wind piled dirt for tracks or marks or…anything to drag the thoughts of another death far from my mind. One catastrophe at a time I….a splash of white among the bottom of a tree, bark torn loose, shined from down the slope and to my right. The mark caught my attention.
I pressed the butt of the rifle into the dirt like a third leg and wound a path around several loose boulders. The soil at the base of the tree suffered deep ruts…a good size boulder with rough edges sat near the tree. I bent low and touched a dark spot on the ground with my fingers. The soil felt tacky. I narrowed my eyes and studied the tips. Coarse, dark hairs mixed with blood clinging to my fingers.
I scooted down past the rock. My sight focused. I followed the ruts upward toward the exposed tree trunk. Something of great size had to have dislodged the boulder and pushed it into the tree. I tried to picture my father falling down the side of the canyon and crashing into the rock. I marvelled at the amount of blood. The hopes I held of finding my father grew slimmer. The path of clues slipped my view disappearing from the down hill slope. So from here where should I go?
I moved around stopping with my back pointing up hill and my eyes searching down. Scores of trees and rocks littered the slope. Then slowly, here and there I picked out little tell tale signs recorded in the earth. A broken branch, fresh hollows vacated by moved boulders, blades of grass crushed or wrenched free. The path led down so I followed. Slowly at first because of the steep angle and treacherous footing and then even slower as I resorted to sliding on my backside.
My luck ran out at the edge of a precarious cliff. Clinging to an overhanging tree, I snuck a look over the edge. The bottom remained some distance down. Most of it a slide of loose rocks and gravel. Far below I spotted the occasional glimmering of rushing water through the leaves of a thick stand of of mountain pine. Large panting breaths left my lungs while I crouched beside the tree and scouted for a way down.
Skirting to the side, I located a group of trees clustered together at the cliffs edge. Below, craggy chunks of rock protruded. I cut a chunk of rope and tied the rifle to my back before tying off the end of the long remaining coil and tossed it over the edge. A pray whispered across my lips as I swung a foot over the rocky edge and scrambled for footing.
Tugging tight on the rope, I inched lower. Here and there loose rocks slipped under my feet. The muscles in my arms ached and threatened to seize. Hand over hand I let out rope while my feet tapped against the cliff digging for hold. The ground came as a blessing. I sagged from exhaustion. My arms hung limp while my blood burned, circulating in my veins brining relief.
A brief reprieve and I stood and looked across a slight barren slope to the rim of trees separating me from the river. Deep gouges in the loose gravel drew me toward a spot in the tree line. Branches, broken and limp, showed a path torn through the nearby edge of the forest.
I limped toward the opening. The devastation was great. Whatever crashed down into this area had to be much larger than a man. Keeping an eye on the broken and twisted branches I stepped into the bush. A few steps led to an opening.
A horse lay on its sides. The flank of the animal turned skyward, the flesh ripped wide open. The sight of the horse and blood got me to thinking. I studied the horse’s hooves. Stained a rust colour. Blood. The big cat’s last opponent, I presumed by claw marks ripped into the horse’s side. But other injuries to the horse presented an anomaly. Chunks of flesh ripped from the large animal’s hide ragged and long.
The wounds to the horse were more than an angry cat could do. The large object that moved the trees and boulders leaving a blood trail. My thoughts travelled back up the slope to the sharp rocks on the mountain side. The blood and I’m certain if I’d studied the rocks closer, more evidence of horse hair. How and why this animal lived through its slide down the side of a mountain, giving some of its last breaths fight and kill the mountain lion, impressed me. And still, that’s not where it ended. The horse survived and continued over the last bit of cliff only to die in this spot. Why. The courage showed by the wounded horse in putting up such a fight, that stumped me. As if it lived long enough to protect….
I stared down at the ground nearby. Tangled amongst the small clearing, the earth showed fresher marks where the dirt and leaves and needles were disrupted. I studied the ground and walked closer. Bending low I picked out clumps of soil formed by drops of dried blood. Away from where the horse lay, the flecks of brown spattered over a bed of rocks ringing a hollow worn into the loose soil. The space too small for the horse.
Back on my feet, everything under foot got a closer inspection. The signs pointing toward the bottoms of a cluster of trees. Lower branches void of pine needles knocked free by something passing though. My heart leaped into my throat. The tight opening led to the bottom of the trees, the passage masked by long branches crowded close to the ground. The forest around the cluster hidden in shadow.
From somewhere close, the rumble of rushing water rose. The river, hidden from sight by the trees, added to the sounds of the forest. With my breath held in my chest, I listened to the forest breath. The chirps of birds and whistling of the wind, the rubbing of branches and chirping of squirrels all to be expected.
The groan I heard next, wasn’t.
The trail beaten into the earth by repeated herds of cattle, turned south. The sun slanted above the rising pine and smattering of hardwood trees. Elijah tugged the brim of his hat lower. Caution from years of chasing rustlers slowed his approach into the tree line. He motioned for Bronner to stop and hooked a leg over the saddle horn.
Readjusting his hat, he peered deep into the shaded forest. “What do you figure we should expect once we enter?” He asked.
Charles Bronner pulled the reins of his horse and sidled up along Sackett’s horse. “Not much. Where we sit leads to the bottom end of the canyon. Couple miles should bring us to the wall of rock. Been here since the earth rubbed up against itself way back when the area formed.” The blacksmith said, “divides the upper range land from these lower meadows. Only a couple ways for riders up above to come down, from what I recall.”
“Those shots from earlier. Any ideas?”
“Tough to tell. We were miles away and several hours have passed.”
“Yeah.” Elijah agreed. “Well, ride easy. Could be we’re on someone’s radar and they’re lying in wait.”
The two men walked their horses the remaining miles until the trail crossed into the thicker tree line. Shade and shadows cast across the way. Overturned dirt mixed with dead tree limbs and scattered boulders.
Elijah Sackett released a chest of pent up breath when the pair crossed into the darker regions of the forest. The trail of flattened earth the pair followed threaded a line through stands of pine and cotton woods mixed among Beech and Walnut trees. The tall thick trunks of the mature tees shared the rocky soil with new shoots and flourishing saplings. All of the forest growth fighting for the nurturing rays of sunlight.
The heat of the day subsided once inside the stands of trees with shade provided by the green canopy overhead. Elijah reached for the canteen slung off the side of the saddle when the bark of a rifle stopped his hand in mid motion. He turned his head. His ears tracking the sound, narrowing a direction.
A second explosion echoed down the canyon walls toward him. Elijah shard a look with the blacksmith. Bonner’s face furrowed in concentration. He nodded toward Elijah then pointed ahead where he figured the rifle shot came from.
“Up the canyon. Not too far, I think.” Was all he said before nudging his boots into the sides of his horse. The animal shifted into a tot.
I dropped to my knees beside the warren of underbrush where the sound emanated. The sole of a boot showed. The leather mostly hidden by dry grass and rotting leaves. “Dad,” I called quietly. The wind in the trees choked off any answer. “Dad,” I called again. Worst case scenarios suddenly filled my thoughts.
“Joshua Boutõn,” I yelled into the low hanging branches, my voice raised well above the loud swaying of leafed limbs and the close by rumbling water.
My heart raced in the few seconds I waited for a reply. Unwilling to wait any longer, I shoved my rifle ahead and bent lower to burrow under the low hanging limbs to get a look at the body at the end of the leather boot.
A scream of rushing air heated by the near miss of a passing bullet sliced over my back. My sudden movement saved my life. Immediately the roar of exploding gunpowder echoed off the canyon walls. Awkwardly, I tossed myself into the bowled space scooped at the bottom of the tree. The mass of my weight stopped short by a collision with the body already occupying the space.
The shaded light couldn’t hide the haggard pallor pulled tight over my father’s face. Unconscious or dead, he lay eyes upward. The urgency of my situation left no time to ponder. A gaping hole showed on the far side of the tree well. Instincts drove my fingers to clamp on my father’s shirt collar and drag his body along as I wormed straight for the break in the trees. The tangle of roots I left behind provided little in the way of safety.
Balls of exposed roots and fallen trees separated the tree line from the shoulders of the raging river heard rushing unseen yards from where I emerged. I grunted, tugging on my fathers shirt, pulling the weight of his body from the burrow. My intentions set on a large downed spruce and the shelter offered by its thick dirt filled roots. The large tree lay across a stretch of gravel deposited by the river during some long ago flood. From the relative safety of the uprooted ball of dirt, the layers of gravel left clear sight lines back toward the heavier bush and with luck, the far side of the tree, close to the edge of the swift current of flowing water meant another means of escape.
Sweating and grunting I tucked my father low into the hole left by the fallen tree then as quickly turned my attention to the clump of bush we’d left. My rifle waiting for the slightest sign of those cowards that collected pay checks from the family ranch. The day marched onward. Streams of sunlight passed over the tops of the trees and sprinkled the shore near the water.
The moan from my father tore my concentration from the tree line. A cursory looked at his beaten face hinted of dehydration. Taking a risk, I untied the hanky around my neck and risked a quick few steps to the water. Soaking the cloth, I returned. I squeezed a string of droplets passed his cracked lips then lifted, glanced back toward the trees once more before slipping to the water and soaking the handkerchief again.
The second time, after wringing out the water, I placed the cool rag on my father’s face to ease the purplish welts swelling his skin. My divided attention nearly cost me. A misplaced footstep on a dry branch reminded me of the threat looming feet away. The rifle jumped in my hands as I loosed a bullet in the general direction of the sound.
The gunshot echoed loud through the river valley sending a flock of small birds skyward. I dropped to one knee, patting the wet cloth over the cuts and bruises covering father’s skin. A niggling in my head told me to stop what I was doing and check the bush. I began to poke my head above the dirt and roots then twice as quick ducked back down. The outline of a man, rifle raised, protruded from the bush. His bullet busted chunks of dirt loose. The angry release of clumped mud scattered, showering down over me.
Shifting to the side, I nosed my rifle forward and blindly fired at the spot I pictured seeing the man. Then as a caution I scattered a few more shots into the edge of the trees looking to frighten any advancing parties. A fusillade of lead showered from the trees in reply. The impacts tearing chunks of dirt and drying roots into pieces. I crouched low covering my father.
The afternoon wore on in this manner. The stock of bullets I carried in my pockets ran low. Down to a hand full of ammo, I decided to let the men come at me offering more of a target. In between, I picked handfuls of pebbles and from cover, tossed them at the trees. My hopes were to trick the men into wasting their bullets.
“Are we down to tricks now, Boutõn?” A raspy voice, that of Sarah’s ranch boss JW Barton, called after one such incidence. “Out of bullets already or are you simply trying to trick us?” Laughter followed the words.
“Bring your men in the open and find out,” I replied.
“Yeah, Maybe in a bit. Suppers cooking. All this shooting is making us hungry. Hey. How about you? Hungry? Why don’t you come join us?” Another bout of laughter ended the sentence. My stomach growled in response. Breakfast was a long time and several miles ago.
Shadows lengthened as the sun swung west on its ride toward night. Shifts in the wind brought the occasional smell of the cooking fire down to where I waited. The smell of food caused my stomach to voice its protest. In random stints, I snuck to the edge of the river and dunked my handkerchief. The water the only help I could offer at the time.
Gunshots signalled the end of the ranch hand’s meal. The chunks of lead mostly smothered when they contacted the thick mud caught in the root ball we hid behind.
“Dark will be with us soon. You won’t be able to see us surround you. You’re not scared of the dark are you? Do yourself a favour and toss your weapons. Save us all inconvenience.” JW pleaded.
“Come grab my guns now if you’re looking to save time,” I hollered back. My resolve fleeting with the sinking of the sun. I switched my thinking to escape. He was right. In the dark I’d be completely helpless. Our only chance was to leave….but where. The river would be the best but it rolled by too swift. The two of us would be lost and even if we did ride it down, in my father’s condition, could he survive? I pondered the situation. Dark couldn’t be less then an hour out. Already the trunks of trees farther down the valley began disappearing with the lowering sun.
JW and his men tried one more rush while the sky was light. A rolling rock grinding over another stone tipped me off. I snaked my head around the clump of dirt. Several men were crowing through the stalks of wood. I ripped a bullet at the first before moving my sight and beaded on the next. On my third attempt, the click of the hammer on an empty chamber rang loud in the evening air.
My heart sank. I knew my pockets were empty. Did the sound carry. That was my first thought. Did JW and his cronies hear the sound of defeat. I didn’t wait long for my answer.
“Maybe we don’t have to wait much longer,” JW’s voice boomed from the tree line. “Seems to me like a boy like you would keep a loaded gun in times like this. Am I to reason that your out of ammunition? Toss out your rifle and we'll end this easy.”
I crouched low into the ball of dirt clumped over the roots of the overturned tree. Using the empty rifle for support, I eyed the river and my chances of dragging my father along for a ride with the current. A shiver worked its way down my spine while I contemplated the prospect.
Seven of us rode hard since leaving the ranch yard early in the morning. I felt the urgency. If my father and Old Tom came across bad times, the sooner we got to them the better. By late evening, our horses dragging from the long, uphill miles, we topped out at a line cabin a half days ride to where the accident took place. The route too dangerous to be travelled in the dark by a bunch of tired cowboys.
Bagged, I stripped the saddle and blanket and rubbed down the roan I was riding. The horse nickered at a hand full of grain I swiped from a trough near the cabin. Done with the rub down, I pulled the bridal and let the roan loose into the corral with the other animals.
We talked little. The boys sat mostly off to themselves and chatted. Unfamiliar with most of the men, I stuck to myself, too tired and sore to care about being friendly. A plate of fire cooked steak and warmed beans was passed down to me. A pot of coffee brewed over the open pit.
I squatted against the trunk of a tree and savoured the food. One of the boys walked over with the pot off the fire. I held out my cup and watched the steaming black liquid ooze out of the spout. I tossed a thanks and searched for a level spot to rest my cup while I turned my attention back to the food on my plate.
The line cabin was small. Only a couple of bunks. I volunteered to sleep outside. After my stint in the army I relished the freedom of the fresh mountain air and wide open sky offered by being back home in the hills of Tennessee. A couple of the boys protested hard but I stood my ground. They appeared not to pleased with my call but I owed them little. Men who worked for my father but who I no attachment.
I moved a bedroll away from the fire to the base of a tree with wide hanging branches. A touch of cover from the wet dew I knew would fall through the night. The air was cool and quiet and very dark when my eyes next opened. What woke me, I wondered. I lay still and let my ears search the trees around. Slowly the sounds of the night filter through.
Some small critter scuttled in the underbrush, a slight breeze rubbed some branches together. A crackle of burning logs drifted up to where I lay. The fire caused very little light, the remnants burned down to some lasting coals. After a careful listen I decided to climb from the warmth of the blankets and find a tree to drain the coffee from the evening before.
Used to moving cautiously, I slipped a few trees over. Another sound caught my ears and I hesitated. Men talking. I spun my heard tracking the voices. The conversation originated from near the holding pen for the horses. But why? We had no need for guards. Did someone arrive in the wee hours and if they did again why? Was there news about my father and Old Tom. It was the only reason I could think of to bring a man or men into the perils of night travel in these hills.
Curious and with a sliver of hope, I headed away from my bed and closer to the men talking. Close enough to understand the quiet words, I wait to hear any mention of my father.
“…got to take care of things early. …Ranger…quickly.” The words piqued my interest.
The voices quieted. I strained to listen. “…make certain…. saddle…” I stepped a foot closer. An outline of men standing beside the corral grew out of the inky starless night. Another step and I made out the form of one of the men bent over searching the ground near the bottom rail of the corral.
“You boys are moving about awfully early? Have you heard something of the search?” I said. I stopped a couple yards from where the men stood. Two men swivelled in my direction when I made my presence known. A third guy was slower to stand and turn. The three faces looked out into the night to locate me from my words.
“Who’s there?” One of the men asked as the three continued staring narrow-eyed into the darkness.
“No one really.” I replied. “Heard your whispers. Figured at this time of the morning maybe something important was breaking loose.”
The man closest cocks his head. “That you Boutõn.” I recognize the voice and put a face to the man hidden by the dark. One of the fellows was Tom Clancy, the hired hand JW assigned to escort me as we rode into the mountains. “What the hell you doing sneaking around in the dark. Damn near give a man a heart attack.”
“I suppose, Tom. Didn’t mean to frighten you boys. Got up to hit the can. With all the talking I got curious. Got to thinking that news of my father or Old Tom made its way back to camp?” I left the sentence hang as a question.
“No. No such luck. Me and the boys were restless. Came out side for a cigarette. You head back to sleep. Morning will come soon enough and I imagine we’ll have a full day out of tracking your pa.”
“Yeah,” I waved into the night. “Talk to you men in a few hours.” I turned and wormed my way back toward my bedding. The three being clustered around the corral gave me less thought then the man bent and searching along the ground. Why the man’s actions bothered me, the reason failed to resolve itself before I fell back asleep.
Hours later, as I left the fire full from breakfast and warmed by the coffee, the events from the middle of the night resurfaced in my brain when I went to collect my saddle. I stopped a couple yards from the corral and glanced down at the row of saddles lined up neatly beside each other. Was this where the three men were standing, I asked myself?
A nudge jolted me back to the present. “We best be saddling up,” Clancy interrupted my thoughts as he brushed by. With out a further thought, I lifted my saddle and rested on the top rail of the fence, grabbed the rope cinched to the saddle and walked into the corral. The roan I had ridden the day before stood three legged. I whistled to get its attention then tossed a loop. Years of being away from the ranch showed. The rope fell short causing the horse to snicker and back away.
“Need a hand,” one of the other hired hands inquired, a smirk half hidden on his face.
“Naw. Obviously I need the practice,” I replied good heartedly, recoiled my rope then shook out a loop in the air while talking to the horse. My next attempt landed. Mostly. The rope skittered off the crown of the horses head and luckily fell where I needed. A gentle tug and the roan calmed. Leading the animal toward the rails, I tied it near where my saddle waited.
The sun wormed its way through the sparse tree line, battling the remaining chill left by the morning dew. A cool sweat itched under my hatband and irritated as it rubbed against my forehead. I lifted the hat and absently swiped the skin dry while wondering why Old Tom and my father would climb this high on their travels of scouting the ranch.
Where we rested, the tree line thinned and craggy outcroppings of rock replaced the tail beaten through the forest by wild animals. Stopped at a fork in the path, I rode ahead on the left hand trail checking the ground for signs of their passing. A scattering of deer tracks and the paw prints of a big cat skewed the thin layer of dirt. No tread marks from a quad and no prints of shod animals either.
From the mouth of that trail I swung the horse onto the less likely route. This path couldn’t be more than a few feet wide and the one edge fell away down to a canyon bottom lying far below. The rocks on the side of the ledge balanced precariously waiting for the littlest of reasons to roll down the side of the mountain. A splash of white marred the rock to my left about eye height. I slowed, wondering about the scar.
The scrape looked fresh compared to the withering of the surrounding formations. I ran my eyes over the rocks then down to the thin trail leading off in front of me. I scanned the ground around the horses feet. Animal tracks only…then a few feet farther ahead, gouges scraped into the layer of dirt covering the rocky path. Tire marks? The gouges tracked toward the edge the rocks.
Is this why we came this way? I shrugged. These fellows been riding this range daily. Is this where my father and Old Tom ran into trouble.
Pondering the question, I shifted to turn back. The mechanical snick of a trigger cocking from behind my back stalled my movements. The sound stirred memories from hours ago of the men standing beside the corral in the middle of the night.
Turning my torso slightly to block my actions, I flicked the leather thong securing my rifle in the scabbard and with two fingers, gingerly lifted the long gun. The weight felt off. Down a few ounces. I imagined from a lack of bullets. Both these realizations came too late to do me much good. A knowing smile played across my lips as I shook my head. Rookie mistake to ride out of camp without checking my firearm.
“You won’t do yourself any good by trying.” Clancy’s threat cut the frosty morning air. I lifted my chin. Facing the trail, I watched as sunlight streamed down in ribbons lighting small patches and ignoring others. To the side, sun shone off the far canyon wall lighting the green of the trees and the myriad of colours displayed by the towering mountain. I sucked in a deep breath of fresh air and waited.
“You going to shoot me in the back, is that the idea?” I asked waiting for Clancy to answer. Shod hooves clicked against the rocky trail as a couple horses drew closer.
“Pays us the same whichever way you meet the end. JW didn’t seem to care much how it was done. Said you picked the wrong time to return home. But tell you what. Being a sport, I’ll let you turn around. Slowly,” Clancy added. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Is this how my father and Old Tom came about their accident? Are they even alive?” I stalled.
“Don’t know. Don’t rightly care either. They may still be kicking but the smart money says they are no longer with us.”
His last words hammered at my chest and I hesitated. Then, using my knees, I worked the roan in a tight circle right out there on the cliff’s edge. My eyes tracked the terrain falling away from the chunk of rock the horses hooves stood upon. Random trees fell away from the side of the cliff. Large gaps flowed between the trunks. Some filled with debris fields of rock from recent slides. I picked out the obvious details as the horse maneuvered itself around.
When I faced Clancy and the others, I tugged on the reins. The roan chomped on the bit refusing to back any farther onto the sliver of trail.
“What you doing?” Clancy noticed my slow reversal. His rifle began to lift to his shoulder. I yanked on the reins pulling the roans head back. The horse reared, its front legs thrashing wildly. My free hand shot back to grip the butt of the rifle as I let go of the reins and rode the roans momentum back and tumbled from out of the saddle. My shoulder hit the edge of the rock outcropping. My feet lifted over my head throwing my weight farther back.
A gunshot reverberated in the close confines of the mountain peaks as I tumbled ass over tea kettle. On one turn, I thought my heart would stop. Facing my rolling body was a steep cliff dotted with rocks and trees and large runs of loose gravel. Far down was only wide pools of blackness waiting to engulf me.
Elijah Sackett climbed from his sleep and stepped out into the frosty morning. Walking by the horse trailer, he banged on the metal side.
“You boys okay in there?”
“Lets us out,” the words rattled from between chattering teeth. Elijah stopped at a vent hole head height and peered into the shadows inside.
“You two should have slept closer together. More warmth that way,” he said as he passed by for the cab of the truck.
“I got to tell you. That cabin is some comfortable. Built a nice fire. Almost didn’t need coverings,” he continued. Shaking out his coat from the back seat, he retraced his steps and stopped back beside the trailer. Raising his hand, he hammered against the metal wall adding the thumping to the prisoner’s discomfort. “You had a chance to sleep on your answers,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on up in those hills?”
“We got nothing to add. We work for the P/B Ranch. Call the ranch house, they’ll tell you.”
“I suppose they might,” Elijah agreed, leaving the trailer and stepping close to the corral. His travels stopped at a cold ring lying along the remains of an old fire. Bending low, Elijah wrapped his hand around a long metal pole and studied the business end of the branding iron in the soft morning light. “Mighty curious why you boys have a pen of cattle with with the P/B brand but in my hand I got a branding iron telling me a different story.
“We don’t know nothin’ bout that. Maybe that was from the old coot who owned this place. How should we know.”
“So you boys weren’t getting ready to reconfigure the brands of any of those penned animals?”
“No sir, Sheriff.”
“Its Ranger. Special Ranger. I chase cattle rustlers. That’s the only law I’m concerned about. If I study those penned cattle, I won’t find any with different brands? Is that correct?”
“Come on Sheri…Special Ranger. You know how roundups work. There very well could be a mixture of brands.”
“I guess I’ll see.” Elijah Sackett walked farther away from the trailer. A crowded pen of bawling cattle waited deeper in the yard. The creak of the cabin door forced Elijah to turn. The blacksmith Bronner walked out the door busy stuffing his arms into a jacket. Elijah waved the man over and waited by the corral. He watched as the cattle turned and milled in the close confines.
“Those gentlemen seem to think if there are any cattle branded other than the P/B, well, that’s how roundups work. What do you think. How many other ranchers would have cattle roaming back here?”
Before the blacksmith answered, a shot echoed out of the mountains rising at the far end of the open fields . A pause and then several more shots ringed the towering rocks.
“Doesn’t sound all that far from here?” Elijah commented to himself. “What do you make of that?” he asked when Bronner closed the gap to the corral. “Could be warning off cougars of some other varmints?”
“Trouble, the way I see it.” The blacksmith spat, turning his face toward the back of the property. “With the happenings at the ranch lately, I can’t see any good coming of that.
“How good do you know the country?” Elijah Sackett changed direction from the pen of cattle to a smaller pole corral holding the horses the pair brought along in the trailer the evening before.
“Not great, not any longer, but if this rustling has been going back over time, I’d bet we find a well marked trail that leads us right up into the hills. Probably close to where those shots were fired.”
“Saddle up the horses if you will,” Elijah called, again changing routes and weaving back toward the trailer and the men locked inside. Tapping on the side he spoke through the vented aluminum wall. “You boys still have nothing you’d like to tell me,” he asked referring to the gun shots echoing out of the mountains. When no answer returned he continued.
“Looks like I gotta be leaving. Somebody might be needing my help up yonder. Whoever is shooting up in those hills, you should pray they don’t hate the law. If I can’t return, your futures won’t look so good. You guys all locked up in this trailer with no food and water as such.”
The harsh bark of a rifle broke into Joshua’s uneasy slumber, jolting his eyelids wide open. The boom echoed off the surrounding rocks then rose to the heavens. Thoughts slowed by severe trauma revolved in a scattered pattern inside his throbbing skull. Blank eyes stared skyward. Their opening met with another rapid succession of further gunshots reverberating inside the rock walls of the canyon where he lay.
Choking back a lump clogging his throat, Joshua began to rise. Instinct more than experience warned him to seek shelter from possible danger. The arm used to raise his ragged body off the damp ground told of serious injuries, before a fresh wave of misery brought forward by badly fractured ribs and bruised and torn muscles replaced the previous protests.
Joshua bent up at the waist. His mind numbed. His memory clouded but his fight for survival strong. He tried to drag a leg underneath to help push himself upright. The effort failed. His traumatized brain wondering about his lack of mobility and with a dull realization before a sense of panic built.
Then, an unnatural snort off to the side forced Joshua to twist his injury laden body. Not many feet away, one of the visions straight out of his nightmare lay flopped on its side. The large animal’s chest and exposed insides rose and fell with rapid breaths. Bursts of air mixed with tortured sighs of agony leaked from damaged lungs and told of pain and suffering. Joshua stared at the downed horse and tried to navigate between nightmare and reality.
Flashbacks brought the snarling mouth of a beast returning to his memory. Joshua squirmed. His body recoiled while reliving the feeling of helplessness as the crazed eyes of the cat locked on him. Once again he felt the predator’s foul breath cascade over his face. Then the hooves of the horse flashed into his head. The animal’s side torn and bloody. The horse’s sharp hooves lashing out, distracting the attacking mountain lion.
A new threat broke the trance and pushed aside the slips of horror. Rolling rocks and snapping branches echoed down the narrow bottom of the canyon, the sounds travelling from somewhere not too distance. Animalistic instincts filtered into Joshua’s addled brain. The overriding feelings of survival invoked at the sudden noises. His urge to find shelter triggered by the gunshots that had brought him back to the land of the woke. The latter sounds reverberating off the solid rock lining the canyon bottom.
What did the sounds mean to him, Joshua’s numbed brain failed to comprehend, but the flashes of danger building inside seemed all too real. Adrenaline surged through crushed and battered arteries, breaking past the muck still clinging to his scrambled thoughts. The lack of movement in his legs from a previous accident, remembered, and a new plan to escape formed by the growing urgency of survival that fluttered in his mind.
The rifle shot mixed with a crush of pressure in my head as I flung myself off the back of the horse. A compilation of actions and sounds filled my senses. The whinny of the roan as it refused to back any farther onto the unstable ledge, the scared animal raising high off it’s front feet in defiance, the concussive air from the bullet passing close by and then the protective reflexes of my brain as I crashed hard to the ground.
A brief pause held me pinned to the trail before the weathered materials of the rocky ledge shook loose. My feet kicked up over my head as I somersaulted down the sharp incline. With remarkable clarity, through eyes frozen wide open in shock, an imprint of my downward spiral recorded on my conscious while a jumble of noises provided an accompanying soundtrack of scraping rocks, breaking tree branches and deep throated groans escaping from my throat as I crashed uncontrollably down the steep slide.
Instinct cemented my grip on the rifle pried free of the saddle scabbard as my horse reared. That the rifle was empty, the tingle of reality echoed inside my brain. My many years serving in the army prepared me for the unexpected. My other hand ripped the twin saddle bags from their resting place behind the saddle. A box of shells waited inside the leather pouches. Could I maintain my hold on the gun and the leather bags as I tumbled downward? Amid the shocks of unexpected contacts and the fear of falling into the unknown, I squeezed my fingers tighter.
A loud rush of breath emptied from my lungs. I smacked solidly against the trunk of a shallow rooted tree. I gulped to regain the lost air while starring back up the mountain. The open end of a rifle barrel peeked over the ledge. The dull grey metal glinting in the broken sunlight. A chunk of bark bit into my cheek seconds before the report of the gun shot echoed down the canyon. The small tree shuddered from my falling weight and dislodged. Awkwardly, my slide deeper into the canyon continued.
On the way down the side of the canyon, the thin trunk of another young sapling rose up to slow my fall. The weight of my body and the hand clutching the rifle opted for different routes around the tree. The bones in my wrist protested when I refused to release my claim on the gun. The strain halted my decent for a brief second before I gulped past the sudden excruciating pain and dragged the gun back around, allowing my fall to resume.
A quick barrage of bullets rushed down the slope and disturbed the chilled morning air while leaded projectiles exploded against the ground forcing shards of rock to scatter. The rapid impacts released angry puffs of dirt marking my fall down the canyon wall.
Elijah flung open the door on the truck. The handle hot from the beating sunlight. About to lift his body inside out of the heat, he paused. The open door set a small white piece of paper fluttering on the drivers seat. Calmly, he swiped the paper in one motion then continued the motion of swinging onto the cloth seat.
Stalling, Elijah lifted his hat and ran a sleeve across his forehead. Turning with the motion, his eyes traveled across the yard, stopping at the open shop doors he’d noticed on his arrival. The man he’d seen earlier turned away when Elijah’s gaze crossed over the doors. The man showed his back as he bent back over his work.
Elijah replaced his hat, switched the ignition on, then placed the transmission into reverse. A tight u- turn pointed the truck back down the road leading away from the ranch yard. Elijah slipped the selector into drive, stole a further glance at the open shop and the blacksmith working inside, then pressed the gas. The tires kicking wisps of dust floating up from the driveway.
The gate lay open when he reached the end of the path. Once on the public side of the gate, he held his foot tight to the brake pedal and lifted the torn piece of paper still clutched in his fingers.
‘Meet me at Arloe’s pub in an couple of hours if you’re here for what I think’ the note read. Lines scratched onto the paper showed a route to follow. Elijah studied the paper. What did the person leaving the note think he’d show up at the ranch for? Curious, Elijah glanced at the time displayed on the dash, shrugged, then lined his truck to match the direction of the thin line drawn on the scrap of paper.
The supper hour was looming close and he’d have to eat somewhere. Arloe’s pub would be as good as anywhere else and closer than the last town he’d driven through.
The steak and gravy tasted like home, Elijah confirmed as he sopped up the last traces of tasty brown liquid with a chunk of fresh sourdough bread.
“You a Sheriff or something?” The voice called from across the table. Elijah made a final sweep with the sourdough collecting the last droplets of liquid and lifted the bread to his mouth for the final bite. His eyes rose from the plate. Soot and oil soaked jeans, a button down shirt no cleaner than the pants and a face the shade of leather worn tight over a wrinkled face peered down at him from under a drooping hat. The cursory look told Elijah all he needed about the man asking the question.
“You the man from the ranch? The one who left the note?”
“Maybe. What type of law are you?”
“Special Ranger from Texas,” Elijah spoke past a wrist wiping the remnants of supper from his moustache. His other hand busy motioning to a chair, inviting the newcomer to sit. “A Ranger with the TSCRA.”
The stranger nodded, “Cattle Ranger, are you?”
Elijah pushed back his chair, raising. His hand extended toward the stranger. “And you are?”
“Charles Bronner. Rancher, blacksmith, sometimes employee of Joshua Boutõn down at the P/B Ranch.”
“Have a chair,” Elijah motioned back to the empty chairs as he settled back into his. “What makes you feel we need to meet?”
“First let me ask you. You here on personal time or professional?”
“Some of both perhaps. More on the business side. Why?”
“Figured as much. What do you know about old Joshua and the P/B?”
“Not much. What should I know?” Elijah continued the vague question game. “How long you known Joshua and his operation?” The lawman in Elijah tired of the strangers questions and changed tactics.
“Since we were kids. My old man worked for his family. The two of us went to school together. Us two and Old Tom Wiggins kid, Archie.” When Elijah passed at the name, Bronner explained. “Old Tom, he’s been around as long as the hills it seems. He remains on the ranch working for the P/B brand.”
“Okay,” Elijah let his lack of interest slip.
“You know that Joshua remarried a few years back?”
“Read something about that. Saw the missus. The old boy didn’t suffer when he married her fore sure.”
Charles Bronner bounced his head in agreement at the Rangers words.
“She is a pretty sight no doubt.”
“But,” Elijah cut in, “I feel a but coming.”
“Things have changed around the ranch since the two married. All the old hands were driven to quit or were run off. I don’t think Joshua paid close attention. Once the accident with the horse left him paralyzed. Well…he sort of withdrew and let his new wife run things. She goes out and hires this strong arm to run rough shod over everyone…”
“The place looks prosperous, so why the concern. You’re still employed?”
“Yeah,” the blacksmith agreed. “Joshua, he wouldn’t stand for me or Old Tom being railroaded. We got to stay.”
“So what can I help you with. I don’t do counselling of anything like that.” Elijah leaned forward in his seat and lifted his glass of whiskey, his fingers absently touching the pack of smokes filling his breast pocket before letting his hand drop to the table. The need for a smoke seemed less urgent than the strangers words.
“Just a little background is the only reason I got to tell you this. Something out of shape is happening lately. Joshua ventured out into the back lands. Mumbled something about cattle being stolen. Said a ranger, maybe that was you, called and said some of his brands were found out west in Texas. So’s I put two and two together when I saw your truck pull into the yard today. What did Missus Boutõn have to say?”
“Said her husband went for a trip into the mountains. Nothing more.”
“What about the cattle you’re inquiring about?”
“Nothing. Said she wasn’t aware of any sales or thefts recently but would check and let me know.”
“Humpph”…the blacksmith acknowledged the woman’s explanation. Bronner raised his arm and shouted the waitress down. “A bud and whatever this man is drinking,” he said and stared back across the table at Elijah.
“You got anything concrete against the lady or you just don’t like her?”
“No, really don’t care for her or that useless brother of hers. In fact something stinks with the whole bunch of new men riding for the brand.”
Elijah’s ears perked at the mention of her brother. “She got a brother? Can you describe him?”
“Sure. Tall, kinda scrawny guy. Light coloured hair, clean shaven, eyes like a weasel. Always looking out of the top of them like he’s scared to meet anyones direct gaze.”
“You seen him around lately?” Elijah asked.
“Yeah. The other morning when I showed up at the ranch, noticed him step outside for a cigarette. Surprised you didn’t talk to him on the inside.”
Elijah shook his head. The reflection in the toaster. Makes sense. Sarah Boutõn’s brother. The probability of her knowing about the missing cattle grew in possibilities.
“What else can you tell me,” Elijah said evading the fact of the brother hiding from sight inside the house. The reflection of the man matched Elijah’s recollection of the missing member of the branding crew the Rangers took down a couple nights earlier. The plot thickened. Not ready to release any undue information, Elijah switched to pointed questions.
“You said Joshua trekked into the back country to check on his herds? It is his ranch, all the way back to the mountains from what I understand,
“Elijah threw his hands apart to emphasize his words, “the habit of riding into the hills? Seems like something a rancher would do on occasion.”
“Yes, well…no, not since his accident. Tossed from a horse, a couple years back. His favourite horse. Still don’t make sense…” Bronner looked away lost in the memory. “Anyway, broke bones in his back, been stuck in a chair ever since. Haven’t known him to seem the least bit interested in the ranch much after that. Rarely saw him outside. Hid in the house. Let his wife take care of the business. Her hiring all new staff, running off the boys that been with the P/B since before she showed. So, no, him deciding to head into the back country doesn’t fit. Smells of trouble.”
“I’ve got a few minutes. Tell me a story. I’ll pay for the drinks,” Elijah assured his guest.
“The other morning Joshua stopped by the barn for a chat. Told me he heard rumours that maybe P/B cattle were crossing state lines.” Stopped when the waitress set the drinks on the table. The blacksmith tasted his beer then dove into his story. “Said he didn’t recall any sales. He looked edgy. Kept glancing back at the house. I followed his eyes one time. Someone stood near a window, hid off to the side. Couldn’t tell exactly who watched us, only caught a brief glimpse of movement.
Next thing, ole JW walks from the front door and makes his way over to us. JW’s Sarah’s hire.” Bronner clarified. “When the man arrived, Joshua clamped up but kept glaring up at the man. Once we were alone again, Joshua said him and Old Tom were going riding back up into the hills to check on things. Mumbled something under his breath about being a damn fool, then told me the two would be gone for a few days. Said he wanted me to know incase…” The blacksmith sipped from his beer and wiped the moisture from his lips. “Left it at that. Just in case…”
Elijah rested his weight against the back of the wooden chair and eyed the blacksmith as the man altered between the goings on at the ranch and the draining of the glass clutched in his soot blackened hand.
“Good story as any, but Boutõn owns the ranch and if he wants to ride his range…” Elijah shrugged. “Ain’t no crime. You left the note for me to meet you. Not certain what you expect me to do.”
“Well, this morning, before you arrived, Joshua’s boy was hurried away from the ranch and into the mountains. A small crew rode out with him. The boy stopped by to say hello. Said a rider came in late last night. Brought bad news. Found out his old man came across some bad luck and he was heading out to help look for the two older men.” Bronner drained the last of his beer waiting the lawman’s answer. “They hustled the boy out early. Did the missus know you were coming around today?”
“Possible. I left a message the other day announcing my intentions of driving down for a visit.” Elijah smiled past the remaining liquid in his glass. “Mighty slim reasoning for me to intrude. I could go back to the house and ask permission to ride into the hills, I suppose, but, I can’t just go roaming the back country with out any viable reason.”
“What will you tell them. All you’ve got is hear say. No, you can’t do that, you’ll give them all the advantage they’d need to hide things,” the blacksmith noted.
“I’ll spot the next round. You have until then to come up with a more convincing theory. Otherwise I don’t know how else I can help you?”
Elijah Sackett slowed the truck. The weight of the horse trailer nudged the pick-up from behind causing the vehicle to jerk as it came to a stop.
“Over there.” Charles Bronner pointed.
Elijah lifted his hat and scratched his head. “You sure we can get this rig down that trail?” He peered out the windshield. A patch of young saplings and knee high grass combined to mask the outlines of a little used trail. The path obscured further by shadows stretching out over the meadows.
The waning sun lost its brilliance as it sunk lower behind the trees lining the route the pair turned onto several miles back of the secondary road. Elijah caressed the pedal gently allowing the truck and horse trailer l to roll carefully over the ruts pressed deep in the trial Bronner navigated.
Elijah worked the long combination of truck and trailer into a tight turn. The front of the truck pushing against close growing willows. Grass covered the remnants of an old road. The truck thumping and scraping along the soft soil. At one point, Elijah slid the transmission into park and stepped from the cab. Bending in front of the truck, he ran his hand over the severely grooved trail.
“Something big has been passing through this way. Look how deep these ruts are cut and…” he rose off his knees and stepped further using his fingers as a guide. “These tracks are from treads a lot bigger than any half ton. Tractor trailer unit maybe. Who did you say owned this land?”
“Some old coot, name of Benson. Died probably 15, 20 years ago. Didn’t have any kin that I know off. Joshua and I used to come hunting down this away. Only reason I know about it. Joshua’s pa and the old coot got along so we had permission to hunt. This land backs onto the fringes of the P/B land as it drains out of the high country.”
Elijah remained squatting. “Well, someone’s been using this road. Those tracks aren’t more than a week or two old.”
He stood, brushed the dirt from his knee and returned to the cab of the idling truck. “We might be advised to advance with caution.”
Lights bounced on the trail. Clive Pearson had only stepped from the shack to relieve himself when he noticed the engine of a truck and then the splash of lights as it neared the clearing. Quickly zippering his pants, he ran for the house.
“Someone’s driving down the trail,” He hollered into the partially open door.
Jed Mitchel stood quickly from his chair. “Not supposed to be anyone else coming tonight. Take this” Jed tossed a rifle at Clive. He continued barking orders although only the two were currently at the cabin. “Get into the bush and wait for my signal.” He instructed.
Jed watched Clive’s back disappear into the night. The sounds of footsteps crunched into the dead underbrush lying at the edge of the trees. Pushing the door shut, Jed slid his hand over the light switch. The interior of the small line cabin fell into darkness. From behind a tattered curtain, Jed watched the hint of light from the road thicken and brighten the trees leading to the opening of grass surrounding the cabin.
His finger tightened on the trigger of his rifle when he failed to recognize the new ford truck pulling the trailer. Breathing radically, he clung to his merger hiding spot as the unit swung around and the headlights flashed across the inside of the small cabin. The truck stopped, the driver’s door hidden from his view by the bulk of the horse trailer pulled behind.
Jed left his lookout and eased the knob on the door. Aware of the aged hinges, he inched the door open. The lights of the truck lit up the stock pens to the side of the doorway. Jed judged the weight of his boot, slowly lowering it onto the wooden step leading down to the yard, his hands busy cocking the rifle. The comforting sound of a .38 shell nestling in front of the hammer brought a nervous courage to his words.
“Who’s there,” he barked down to the owner of the truck. The closing of the door told of the newcomer standing outside. Jed traced the movements of the driver. Soon the bulk of a man crept into the light cast by the trucks beam. Jed squinted into the night. The figure walked around the grill of the truck. A hand tossed in the air greeted Jed.
“Jed. That you,” a voice called. Still stymied by the lack of light, Jed walked closer. The use of his name ceased his tension. “It’s me. Charles. Charles Bronner. What you doing up all the way up here?” The voice asked.
“It’s okay, Jed.” Clive called from the edge of the trees. “It’s only Bronner. The blacksmith. What the hell are you doing out here tonight, Charlie?” Clive switched his attention to the blacksmith.” And then. “Hey. You buy a new truck. You had that old blue dodge the last time I seen you down at the ranch. And what’s with the trailer? You picking up?”
Clive left the shadows of the trees and walked over to the trailer. A horse whinnied. “Hell, you already got a load.”
“What’s going on.” Jed lifted the barrel of his rifle and pointed at the trailer. “Why you pulling a trailer of horses out here. What’s JW got planned that he can’t call hisself?”
“Wants me to ride up into the hills tomorrow and check on things.” Bronner lied.
“Check on what things. You talking about the crippled owner and the old man riding with him. Heard they took a long slide down the side of some canyon back yonder. JW wants us to go check. What about all these cattle we got penned. We’ve only got a little time to alter those brands before the next pick up…”
“Clive. Shut you’re darn mouth, you talk too much.” Jed’s words cut the chattering ranch hand off. “Why are you here, Charles? I mean you specially? You’re pretty close to that Joshua feller. Can’t see JW sending you. Somethings not adding up,” Jed swung the barrel of his rifle to cover the blacksmith. The cab of the truck still impeded a proper shot.
Caught up in the blacksmiths arrival, Jed was slow to notice footfalls closing behind him. The metal cocking of a gun lit a shiver that ran the length of his spine.
“Lower the hammer and drop the rifle,” a quiet voice spoke loud enough for him to hear. “Tell your friend by the trees to do the same.”
The beast with the fiery eyes returned in the darkness of night. It stared down from its perch. The beasts hot breath flooding across his face. Fear of the unknown tore from his throat in screams that echoed into the shroud of darkness. Terror raked the walls of his skull until the beasts hold gave way to stabs of unbearable pain before the pool of unconsciousness granted him a form of relief.
Joshua’s eyelids fluttered open then quickly closed. A sigh climbed his throat and whispered past his lips as Addy’s gentle fingers brushed against his cheek. The comfort of his longtime companion and mother of his children, let her breath warm his soul against the ravaging chills knifing through his bones. Then as quickly as it subsided, the blanket of darkness returned and cut short the presence of Addy’s visit. Back to the afterlife she fled.
A cold sweat soaked Joshua’s body. Dampness brought a round of chills that seeped back into his conscious. Fragments of light pried at the edge of his eyelids but they refused to open. Sounds that were once easily recognized failed to penetrate the bubble of delirium settled over his injured brain. Something wet and warm nuzzled his arm. Before his brain relayed the message, darkness called him back.
A warm breeze scuttled the hair on his face. Movement to the side awoke basic instincts. His head turned to follow the sound. Gulping down a white wave of pain, Joshua felt the dryness of his eyes as his eyelids scraped open. “Addy,” a hoarse voice scratched its way from his lungs and up a parched throat.
A mirage of hope danced in front of his blurred vision. Another movement. No reply came as images swirled beyond the limits of his vision, now clouded in a pink mist. Joshua relaxed back into the earth. The darkness settled back over blotting all the pain and thoughts.
Clicking teeth and low guttural snarl forced him awake the next time. Even through the pink mist of sight, survival instincts forced his instincts to function. The hot breath and rancid smell of the mountain lion sparked all of Joshua’s senses. An arm swung to protect his face. A new type of pain bit down, clamping the arm, breaking the skin. The jaws of the big cat squeezed and tore. Joshua swung his other arm into the sinewy fur of the animal. The punches weak and few.
The big cat snarled through clenched teeth, jerking its head side to side. Joshua tried one last feeble attempt. Along with panic came the grim realization. The cat had little to worry about from this pray. As this last thought cleared Joshua’s mind, the cat’s jaws sprang open, the ravaged arm fell down to his side.
A gnarled hiss sprang from the lion’s mouth followed quickly by a blood curdling squeal. Into Joshua’s sight, a swiftly moving object sent the cat flying into the air. Confused, Joshua tracked the animal’s final steps as it swaggered then collapsed. Ignoring the pain induced from movement, he leaned on his side. The silhouette of a much larger animal moved, its presence filtering past the mist covering his eyes. Cogs in the back of his head ticked back to life. The colour of the animal was lost on him but the shape projected a memory that should have been familiar.
When he next woke, the warm rays of sunshine flitted across his face. The mist over his eyes eased to dots dancing in the light. His vision fluctuated but objects became recognizable. A tempered snort of air caught his drifting attention. “SHIT,” pain pushed the exclamation from Joshua’s swollen throat as he turned toward the sound. The large animal from his nightmare, a horse, stood head down over a pile of fur covered remains.
The horse raised its head up and down, nostrils at the end of its long head flared as the horse snorted and stomped a warning. The front hooves repeatedly punching into a crushed pile of blondish fur pinned the ground. “I think it’s dead,” Joshua croaked, “that cat won’t be bothering anyone ever again.” Words a touch more then a hoarse whisper climbed from Joshua’s throat. “You can relax, boy.” He spoke calmly so as not to spook the agitated horse.
From behind the screen of mist filming his eyes, Joshua studied the horse. Blood dripped from a long gash in its hind flank. The animal’s ears perked at the sound of his voice, its eyes glassy from the hiked adrenaline brought on by the cat’s spilled blood.
Blinking his lids to clear the mist and refocus his sight, Joshua lay motionless, soothing the animal, letting the horse dictate when it was past the blood lust of the fight with the mountain lion.
The sun crawled across the sky. Somewhere around noon the heat of the sun’s rays left Joshua in shadow. Eyes peering from a battered face risked a painfully craned neck to climb the walls of the canyon leading up from the small clearing where he and the horse rested.
A growling stomach woke him later in the day. The knowing in his gut added to the list of pain squeezing his body. Dizzy, choking back against a rise of vomit, Joshua fought off the sick feeling and lifted his head looking down the length of his body. The grey quad sat across his lower body, just past his stomach. The machine tipped on its side.
Raising higher on an elbow, he studied the situation. The heavy machine pinned his legs holding him ground to the spot. Working himself higher, he weakly pushed on the toppled bike. His motions useless. Out of strength and tired, Joshua lay back on the ground, his eyes roaming over the tree tops and blue sky above as he worked over his problem. The sighing of the horse broke his concentration.
“Over here, boy,” he called. The horse remained behind and out of his view. “Come here, horse,” he tried once again. A third call brought the slow step of hooves in his direction. When the horse stood over head, Joshua studied the animal. A return of his senses explained the animals presence. Old Tom’s horse, Red. So where was Old Tom, he wondered?
Joshua shook off the question. The need to free his legs seemed a more important task at the moment. Clicking his tongue he drew the animal still closer. A strap of the reins fell over his body. Joshua clamped a hand tight and using the horse as a anchor pulled himself into a sitting position. Holding tight to the strap, he used his free hand and rubbed the horses neck and face to calm the animal.
Twisting his head he ran an eye over the the back to the saddle. Tom’s rope sat secured to the back of the saddle, tied tight with a smaller leather string. Joshua flung his weight forward while stretching his hand. The rope swung but to far away for his grasp. Exhausted, he fell against the leather reins to catch his breath. Pinned, he was unable to shift.
Clucking his tongue he soothed the horse while applying a downward pressure. The horse resisted at first, then the years of training Tom put into the horse, surfaced. The animal lowered its head then it bent its front legs as it settled beside Joshua. The rope swung closer. His hand shot forward and clutched the rope. His fingers holding tight around the roughly woven material for dear life.
With a burst of strength, Joshua ripped the rope free of the saddle. He wound the horses reins around one wrist while unloosing the coiled rope. Shaking out a noose, he passed it over the horses head and let the animal stand.
“Okay, boy,” he talked calmly. “All I need you to do is walk around this damn machine and pull me up, you got that.”
Joshua eased out length of rope and shucked the horse away. Pulling tight on the rope he guided the animal to a spot straight down from him but on the far side of the toppled quad. “Back up.” He commanded the horse. Old Tom’s Red stared back. Its nostrils began to flare. The animal tossed its head sideways to be free.
Joshua tugged hard on the rope for control. Soothing the horse, he rested while the animal calmed. When he felt the horse relax, he tried again. A quick snap of the rope moved the horse back. The retreating animal reared its head and tugged. Joshua rode the horse’s momentum and lifted his body until his hands touched the fallen quad laying across his legs.
Looping a length of rope around a handle bar, he kept the rest of the rope tight. “Okay Red,” he instructed. “Take it slow and back away.” His hand whipped the rope in his hand toward the animal. The horse tightened against the machine and grunted. Joshua snapped the rope a second time.
Air shot from Red’s nostrils. The horse slipped backing up then dug its hooves into the soft soil and stretched the rope. The machine started to lift. Not prepared to act fast, Joshua got caught up as the quad lifted. His grip on the rope held fast. When the quad landed on its tires the horse tossed it head against the resistance.
“Whoa, boy,” Joshua called. He leaned into the handlebars of the quad to hold himself from falling back to the ground. His plan never accounted for him to be stranded up on his legs. Legs that for years refused to support his weight. Clawing desperately, he shuffled until his ass was propped over the seat. More shifting, he turned and with one hand jammed his useless legs against a tree root protruding from the ground to hold himself upright.
Loud breaths rasped across his dry, swollen throat. Joshua unloosed the rope from the handlebars and with patience tugged and coaxed the horse back around to his side. Blood stained the rope as he slid the rope through his palms. Joshua stopped puling the rope and rubbed his fingers. The food fresh and sticky.
With the rope held in one hand, he used the other to search the legs of his pants. A flow stemmed below the thigh on his right side. The sensation blocked by his paralyzed lower body. Going back to securing the horse, he pulled the animal close and patted it on the neck, “Good boy,” he soothed as he rubbed the horse’s neck.
“We can’t stay here, boy. What if other cats are roaming the trees looking for a free meal?” He lucidly pondered seconds before collapsing back to the ground.
The afternoon sun beat down through the windshield, heating the cab of Elijah’s pick-up. A long day of driving and then a map with inked in directions provided by the owner of the gas station South of Crossville helped with the location of the P/B ranch.
Elijah reached for the styrofoam cup of coffee bought bought at the local gas station. A sip of the strong brew left a bad taste in his mouth but after the long hours on the road, the sludge did its job. No way he would fall asleep with the toxic liquid sending shoots of acid up from his gut.
Long shadows preceded the cab of his truck when he finally turned into the driveway. Decorative iron gates blocked his path. A faded metal call box sat high on a post accessible from the driver’s window. Elijah wormed the truck close, placed the engine into park, then stretched his hand and held a finger on the only button visible. The fingers of his right hand tapping an absent tune on the top of the steering wheel.
Minutes passed. A bead of sweat crawled from under the brim of his hat. Elijah wrote the moisture off to the heat. At his age, why would he be nervous to meet a possible long forgotten cousin. The call box remained silent. The tune playing under the fingers of his right hand fell into a quick, repetitive rhythm.
Stretching his left arm, he held his thumb on the button. This time he left it for an added couple seconds thinking that he needed to help send the electronic signal up the long driveway to the house.
“Hello,” A tinny voice called from the small speaker.
“Special Ranger Elijah Sackett from the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association, “he announced. “How do you do. I am here for business purposes.” He replied to the metal box.
The scraping of moving metal parts answered his query. Elijah slipped a cigarette out of his pocket and thumbed his lighter. Maybe the beads of sweat had a little to do with being nervous, he admitted, lifting his hat and using the cuff of his sleeve to dry his forehead.
Elijah watched the blond woman climb the front steps to meet his vehicle. Joshua has a daughter, the thought leaped to the front of his mind, then as quickly, he remembered reading about Joshua Boutõn remarrying after the death of his first wife, Adeline. Could this attractive, young lady be the current missus Boutõn…the latter thought stuck as the woman lifted her hand to shade her eyes against the bright sunlight while moving closer to his truck.
Elijah waved from behind the safety of the windshield, worked open the door, then tilting his hat, greeted the blond woman.
“How you do ma’am,” the words crawled from his lips in a lazy Texas drawl. “You needn’t trouble yourself by rushing outside to greet me on such a warm day.”
“Oh, no problem at all Mr.?” The blond woman held out her hand.
“Special Ranger Sackett, ma’am. Elijah Sackett. Glad to meet your acquaintance,” He gently grasped the smaller hand, giving it a curtesy shake.
“Sarah Boutõn,” the woman replied. “You can drop the ma’am part.”
“Will do,” Elijah grinned at her words. “Is Joshua around,” Elijah remained undecided if the woman standing before him was indeed a daughter or the new Mrs. Boutõn.
“My husband isn’t around at the present,” the young lady satisfied one part of his inquiry. “He’s out riding the back country. Has been for the last few days. I’ll have him call you once he returns. If that is all, we’re pretty busy around here.” With a stern face, Sarah dismissed the Ranger and turned for the steps leading back up into the house.
Caught off balance, Elijah stared after the retreating blond woman. “Yes ma’am. But the questions I’ve got. Maybe you can help me answer a few of them? It’s been a long day. Might you have a coffee or at least a glass of water.”
Sarah spun on her heals. Pent up air pushed through her nostrils. The features on her face relaxed. “Yes. How very rude of me. By all means,” she motioned toward the front door, “come on in.”
Elijah took a slow look around before following. Across the grass covered yard, the doors to a shop stood open. A man worked inside the open doors. The cry of steel being forged rang from the shop. As Elijah’s eyes crossed the opening, the man straightened, set down the tools in his hands then proceeded to wipe his hands as he gazed back out of the building.
“This way, Sheriff,” Sarah’s voice called down the stairs.
“Special Agent. I’m by no means a Sheriff.” He corrected and with long steps gained the first step and closed the gap to the front door.
“Are you from Tennessee?” Sarah asked, her back to the Elijah as she busied herself filling a glass of water. Returning to the table, she set the glass in front of the Ranger. “Sorry about the lack of coffee but we’re very busy these days,” she hinted speed along the visit.
“Yes. Of course,” Elijah gripped the glass and downed most of the water. “Than you.” He muttered around the sleeve cuff wiping his lips dry.
“Certainly, ma’am.” Elijah took in the beauty of Sarah’s face. Years of practice in noticing the small details told him volumes on the lady Joshua Boutõn had taken for a wife. Pretty and young. This Boutõn was one lucky feller, Elijah admitted admiring the sleek shape of Sarah profile that lead up to the long blond hair and very pleasing face. Shifting his thoughts back to his job, he continued. “Have you been shipping cattle recently?”
Sarah tipped her face away and hesitated. “Possibly. Always stock to move in an operation like this. Why?”
“How tight of a count do you folks keep of your herd. Your ranch is spread over a heck of a lot of land from what I’ve read. Can you account for the number of cattle you currently have?”
“What exactly do you think is wrong?” Sarah asked.
Elijah cleared his throat. “Evidence of your brand was discovered all the way down into Texas. If you sold recently, probably nothing wrong, but then I think someone might be liberating your stock. I’ve found brands altered from the P/B. Have you noticed anything strange lately. People who don’t belong or vehicles that seem to be out of sorts. Anything to make you suspicious?”
Sarah left the table and walked away to look out a window. Her words bounced off the glass. “I have heard of no trouble. Our ranch hands would surely report any discrepancy in the herds, so no…nothing I can think of. A few cows go missing all the time. Coyotes, cougars and the like.” She spun and looked over at Elijah. “And maybe Joshua had some of the stock shipped, I’d have to ask him when he returns. It is his ranch. He doesn’t always keep me up to date on his transactions.”
“All right. And no idea when your husband will be home. Should I make plans to to stick close. Do you believe he’ll be coming home within the next few days?”
“I wouldn’t trouble yourself. I am certain that if our cattle have been going missing, I would have heard. I will insist Joshua call you once he returns. Until then there is no need for you to hang around.”
“Yes ma’am,” Elijah picked his hat off the floor and tilted it toward Sarah as he set it back on his head. “I will take that under advisement.”
Standing, he replaced the chair tight to the table and carried his cup toward the sink. A reflection in the polished chrome of a toaster sitting on the counter caught his attention. The reflection fired a memory in his brain. The frontal features of a man’s face captured in the polished metal of the appliance. The man hiding behind a doorway behind where Elijah had recently sat.
With barely a missed beat, he set the cup down into the sink, nodded his head in Sarah’s direction one last time and ambled toward the front door. “You have a great day ma’am,” he called as the door swung shut behind him. His mind racing to recall the features reflected in the toaster and where he’d seen the man before? Years on the job kept his memory sharp. A name would soon follow for the reflection of the man seemed familiar.
Morning rose quiet. Stray rays of sunlight seeped through cracks in the blind covering the lone bedroom window. I dressed, made the bed, an old habit born from years of repetition, then I left the room and padded down the hallway. My socked feet silent on the hardwood floor. The murmur of words leaked toward me.
Stepping from the hallway, I paused. Sarah stood with her back toward me. The phone receiver clutched close to her ear. Unaware that I stood there, she turned, exposing her face. One of her small hands viciously tussled her brown, shoulder length hair. Her distorted features stole my breath.
Whoever was on the other end of the line must have been the bearer of mighty harsh news, her face twisted in anger and drained of blood. Sarah stood with her lips pressed tight together, the pale blue of her eyes carried a hint of black, a pair of warning beacons laid against the fair skin of her face.
Unsure whether to proceed or leave her alone, I cleared my throat to introduce my presence. “Are you okay?” I asked.
A flash of anger flitted across her eyes before she realized I had spoken. Turning away she composed herself then spun back in my direction. Swatting stray hair from her face, she replaced the phone and faked a smile while distancing herself from the object of her discomfort.
“Yes, yes I’m fine. You just startled me. With Josh…with your father gone, I’m not used to others in the house. I apologize, I forgot you were here.”
She shifted toward the dining table. “Come, sit down. I’ll set the coffee to brewing.”
I moved toward the table while she busied herself with making a pot of coffee. “Do you mind if I wonder the ranch. It’s been years and I’d kind of like to reacquaint myself. Must be some saddle broke stock nearby, I presume.”
“Oh, definitely. I can get JW, uhm, James Wesley, to show you around, introduce you to the hands.”
“I probably know most of them or at least, I did. It has been a while. Most of the guys were with father since us boys were young lads.”
Sarah fell quiet. She pulled out a pair of mugs from the cupboard, tilted the pot of coffee and spoke while pouring.
“Things have changed since you’re been here last, William. Most of the old hands have moved on. Didn’t like taking orders from a woman, even with your fathers blessings. Now the boys riding for me, on the range and handling the irons, are loyal and not above a woman’s word.”
I stared at her back. “So no one is around from before?”
“Uh,” Sarah turned with hot cups of coffee in both hands, “No. Old Tom Wiggins is still around. Your father was very adamant about Tom’s employ. Until they pack him off here boots first, I believe is how he put it, and the blacksmith, Charles Bronner, still sees to our needs although he’s part-time these days. Doesn’t live in the bunk house any longer. Bought himself a small spread twenty minutes away, over near Clarksville.
A knock on the door interrupted her summary. Sarah stepped quicker toward the table. Hot liquid spilled over the edge of the cups as they contacted the table. Without a word, she rushed to the front room.
“Hello,” I heard her say.
“Morning, Sarah,” a deep, hoarse voice replied. The closing of the door signalled Sarah’s return to the kitchen. A slight flush coloured her cheeks. The gentleman she led into the room filled the doorway to the kitchen. He must have stood a good three or four inches above my six foot three and out weighed my 220 pounds by a good many more. A full beard masked the man’s jaw and surrounded his mouth. The skin showing under the brim of his hat tanned a deep, burnt red and crows feet wrinkled the skin tight around his eyes.
“William, this is our manager, James Wesley Barton. James, William…” I think she stalled searching for my middle name before forgoing the effort, “Boutõn, Elijah’s middle boy. William will be with us for a time. He was recently released from the army.”
She turned back to address me, “Mr. Barton manages the day to day operations. Deals with the hired hands among other stuff. I am sure he’ll be happy to set you up with a horse and show you the lay of the land.”
The big man stepped past Sarah, hand outstretched. “JW, that’s what the boys call me,” he explained as his hand squeezed mine. Raw power flowed through the large man’s grip. A gleam played in his eyes as he studied my face. “Don’t believe we’ve had the opportunity to meet. Don’t recall seeing you about since I hired on.”
“No. Haven’t been home for quite some time. Stationed overseas. Spent my down time roaming Europe.” I said.
“So you decided to come back and play cowboy?”
“Is that what you and your men call it these days. I grew up riding and roping. Long before it was in fashion.” I spat back.
“Understood,” JW quickly back pedalled. A smile climbed back on his face. “Whatever you need, you don’t hesitate call for me.”
Sarah poured a third cup of coffee and the conversation centred around the operations of the ranch and touch lightly on my father’s accident and the part of the business he retreated to. The loss of his legs kept him off of the range for the most part. I caught nervous glances from Sarah in JW’s direction. The glimpses were quick and maybe I read too much into them. Hell, the two worked together daily, why would they need to resort to cryptic exchanges.
I shook off my hyper suspicious mind pushing the thoughts away. A second cup in and JW shuffled his phone from his pocket and typed a text. A few minutes passed when a second knock sounded at the front door.
“That should be Stewart. I messaged him to walk over. I’ll get him to escort you to the stable. Got a couple of dandy horses waiting for you. You pick what you want and Stewart will set your gear up. Can’t see much of the place on foot.” The big man grinned at his words. The gleam returning to his eyes.
Sarah waited until the three men finished their conversation and JW walked back to the table and reclaimed his cup. He stood and sauntered over to the coffee pot for a refill.
“I’ll have more too,” she held her cup forward.
“Sure. Of course. Where are my manners,” JW carried the pot and topped her cup.
“So. What do want me to do with him. Show him a good time until he gets bored and packs it in.”
Sarah looked up into the big man’s face. The kitchen sat silent while she chewed her lower lip. Her mind busy. Her face drained of colour with the recollection of the message from earlier that morning.
“We might not have time,” she went on to explain the message left for Joshua by the Special Ranger from Texas. In the message, the Ranger spoke of travelling to the P/B ranch the next day.
“If he keeps his word, he should arrive here tomorrow. Why,” she complained. “Why, all of a sudden the whole country has to show up on my doorstep.” Sarah went back to chewing her lip. Blood tasted on her tongue before she spoke again.
“What happened in the mountains. Are Joshua and Tom going to be a problem? What have you heard?”
“Rory got a shot at them. Figures he might have hit one, wasn’t sure. The pair slipped from sight.”
“They disappeared?” The question twisted Sarah’s mouth in confusion.
“No. Hell no,” JW furrowed his brow, “Rory caught sight of them when they were about to cross onto a narrow ledge, high up on the side of a rock wall. From his vantage point, he figures at best he tagged one of the men, if not, then his shot must have spooked old Tom’s horse. Rory says it looked like the two may have went over the edge. He was a ways away so he can’t be positive but best kind of scenario if he’s right. I told him to take some boys and find out for certain.”
“Damn. We can’t leave this to chance,” Sarah’s fist bounced off the table top again. “We need to know and we need to know now. Those bodies will need to disappear into a crevice or canyon where no one can find them.” Sarah chewed harder on her bleeding lip.
A short, derisive laugh clawed its way from her chest. “And now his damn son shows up. What the hell are the odds? Clean this up before the boy rides out and gets suspicious.”
“All ready on that. I left a message for Rory and his boys to proceed. Don’t know how long it’ll take them to locate the ledge the exact ledge and carry out a search of the canyon floor for the bodies. A lot of those drops are dangerous for both men and horses. If the two are dead, why not let the son find them. Accidents happen in those hills.”
Sarah sat straight up. The chewing of her lip stopped. “We’ll have to deal with him then. What if he gets suspicious, starts to look over the herds, browses the books. What then?
Silence flooded the kitchen. The two starred into their cups, lost in thoughts of the morning's news. Sarah slapped the table upsetting the coffee in the cups. “What if we tell William his dad is laid up at one of the line cabins. Draw him into the hills?” She said. Her features lightened as she thought further of the bold idea. “Stage a similar trap like you did for Joshua and Tom? So another person succumbs to the dangers of the high trails? Easy to explain. After all, it’s dangerous up there. Especially if one is not so familiar with the area.”
JW studied her face. Slowly the gleam in his eyes returned and a smile curved his lips. “Kill two birds with one stone. Yeah, why not. If both father and son meet their maker, you’ll only have the two remaining sons to deal with and the ranch will be yours. From a bad situation to salvation. Who’s going to mess with a grief stricken widow.”
A rushed knock erupted at the front door while were sitting down for supper. Sarah began to stand when JW stopped her and dabbing his mouth with a napkin, shoved his chair back and left the dining room. I looked over at Sarah while she turned from watching JW leave and looked over at me. Shrugging her shoulders, she picked her fork off the table and resumed eating.
The creak of the front door opening then JW’s booming voice called a hello to the new guest. A quieter voice spoke quickly. Muffled, excited words drifted across the span of the front entrance to where we sat. Two men talked, the words too low to understand.
I only bent back over my plate before the stomp of JW’s boots sounded down the hallway. A second set of footsteps followed. JW stepped into the dining room, a young, smaller cowhand stood close behind the big ranch foreman.
“Sarah,” he motioned with his head for her to join him.
“Whatever it is, you can say it in front of William,” she replied curtly setting her cutlery on opposite sides of her plate before turning her focus back to the two men standing.
JW cleared his throat. “Are you certain.”
“Yes,” she remained seated. Her neck twisted as she looked up at the big man.
JW nudged the smaller man. “You go ahead Lefty. Tell the boss what you told me.”
“Ma’am,” the cowhand removed his hat. “I got bad news.” The cowhand’s fingers fidgeted with the brim of the cowboy hat.
“Spill it,” Sarah implored. “For god’s sake we don’t have all night.”
“Ah, yes. Yes ma’am. Some of the boys riding in from the line cabins…well, they come across a horrible accident. Seems that,” the cowhand’s Adams apple bobbed as he swallowed. “Think they came across a spot where your husband and Old Tom ran into trouble. Looks like the two might have slipped off the edge of a rocky trail high in the back country.”
When I looked over at Sarah, the colour drained from her face. She sat very still absorbing the news.
“How certain are they and why did they come back? Why didn’t they stay to help incase Joshua and Tom were injured?” she asked through clenched teeth. The cowhand swallowed again. The hat in his hand shook with anxiety. The nervous man looked to his boss for help.
JW spoke on cue. “The spot where they might have gone over. The boys say its hard to access. A few stayed to search, two men came back for supplies and extra help.”
I tossed in bed. The thought of sleeping in a warm comfortable bed out of reach of the elements sat heavy on my chest. My father could be fighting for his life while I dreamed. The need to wait until sunrise I understood. Traipsing into the mountains, even when one was familiar with the landscape was still a bad idea. One wrong turn, one missed marker could put one or all of the search party on a path of danger.
As I lay awake, strange noises rose up through the house. A short burst of loud voices caught me as I submitted to sleep. The sounds enough to grab my attention and shake off the drowsiness. Doors slammed and voices argued until the words fell to whispers.
Who, I wondered, was arguing with Sarah, her voice I recognized easily enough. JW, I was certain left the house hours earlier. Did he return with some urgent news or. No. The brief flurry of words spoken by the second voice I heard lacked the deep undertones of JW. Somebody new arrived at the house in the middle of the night.
I thought of leaving bed and finding Sarah. I lay quiet in bed, my eyes closed while listening intently for any rise of Sarah’s voice that bespoke of trouble. A firm knock on the door was the next thing I recalled.
“We’re heading out shortly,” JW called. I grabbed my phone. The LED numbers read 4:00 a.m. Sleep must have claimed me after all.
Daylight was still an hour away by the time the lot of us saddled up and left the ranch yard. JW stayed behind but assigned several of the hands to ride out. Five men made the trip with me. A cool wind swirled off the mountains as we let our horses pick a way in the early dawn toward the high, rocky back country.
The light in the kitchen burned bright against the morning darkness. Sarah cradled a cup of steaming coffee between her hands. The night had turned out to be long. Sleep, a luxury her overworked mind rejected. JW stood off to the side nursing his own coffee. At the table, her brother Noah sat bent over, half asleep leaning on his arms like a pillow. The surprise of finding him knocking on the door in the wee hours, almost more than Sarah found the patience for with all that was going wrong in her life.
“Those cattle rangers out of Texas. Noah says they rounded up his crew two nights ago. Said he was out of sight when the raid broke. Hasn’t stopped running until he arrived here this morning. His crew, along with the cattle, are all gone,” Sarah spit out the words with contempt as she explained her brother’s appearance to JW.
“When it rains…” James Wesley muttered as he stared into his cup. Shaking his head he turned to Sarah’s brother. “Were those Sheriffs able to identify you? Were you followed?” He asked.
“I..no. I don’t think they saw me. I was hanging in this barn where we parked the truck. When the bastards surrounded the corrals and my men, I high tailed into the bush. I didn’t lead straight here if that’s what you’re wondering?” Noah lifted his head off his crossed arms and stared up at the big man standing beside his sister.
“I spent the last couple of days driving and back tracking here and there to throw off their trail. It would be impossible for them to trace me to this ranch.”
JW raised an eyebrow. “They got a bead on your operation. Don’t sell them short.” Glancing down at Sarah, “We can hide Noah in the barracks, keep him out of sight until we know the law ain’t gonna come down on us. Give em a few days, even a week and we can move him. The idea of him being found here with us, along with the other problems we’re having…” JW glared back at the younger brother. “We can’t afford more mistakes.”
Sarah nodded. Her mind still reeled. “There’s still the Ranger who called for Joshua. Said he’d be showing up today. Do you think…”
“Naw.” JW stopped her short. “The Ranger’s message came well before the law would have any idea about him,” JW hooked a thumb in Noah’s direction. “But we still got to be cautious. Read that Ranger careful when you talk to him. See what you can learn from him and then send him on his way. We’ve got too many extra players to deal with already.”
JW walked away muttering, “How many more problems are going to show up here for Christ’s sake.”
A sound of rustling clothing brought Joshua awake. He lay with his eyes open and his mind attentive. The dawn lay faint in the east. A small fire chewed at the last remains of nighttime.
“I damn near thought you for dead,” Old Tom’s voice called across the campsite. Using an arm for leverage, Joshua tilted his upper body toward the voice.
“Tough to sleep with a bull like you crashing around in the bushes.”
“I try my best,” a smile underlined the words. “Coffee’s brewing. I’ll warm some grub before we set out. How you doing?”
“Good enough,” Joshua replied. His hands found the rope Tom attached to limb higher in the tree he slept under. Hand over hand, Joshua pulled himself up and with a bit of strain dragged the wheel chair closer. “Give me a few minutes and I’ll join you.” He said as he rolled away behind a clump of low growing shrubs.
The sun lightened the sky behind the men. The turn in the trail skirted a wall of rock. Joshua waited while Tom rode ahead checking the rock ledge for width and obstacles that hindered the advance of the four-wheeled bike.
“Gets a might skinny for a few hundred yards before widening.” Old Tom said upon his return, “Should be fine though.” The cowhands gnarled fingers busy loosening the lid on his canteen.
“Fair enough. Is there a way down on the other side that you can see?”
“Yeah. Looks possible. The tree line reaches up just ahead. Places ole Red can climb down,” Tom patted the thigh of his horse. “Don’t think your machine will make it, though. But once we’re past, I’ll search further ahead. Either that or we backtrack. The trail looked a lot bike friendlier a few miles back.”
Joshua turned his head in thought, his fingers busy scratching the tangle of unruly hair left from the nights sleep. “Take too much time to turn and find a way down behind. I’d like to get down to that valley and check those cattle we saw herded into that canyon. From this distance, I can’t say fore sure that I recognize them two men on horse back, but pretty balsy for a couple strangers to ride my range and move cattle.”
“Well then I suppose we get this over with. Stick close,” Tom squeezed his horse along side Joshua’s quad, ready to lead back onto the narrow rock shelf.
A blur scattered rock chips loose near Tom’s horse. From the edge of his sight, a loud boom echoed followed the chipping of the rock, causing Joshua to flinch. Then in slow motion, from the side of his sight, he caught Tom’s horse rear in fright startled by the unexpected noise and the spraying rock chips.
Joshua threw his arm up for protection as Tom and the horse swayed into his machine. Joshua’s heart skipped a beat when the weight of horse and rider nudged the Four-wheel quad near the lip of the rock shelf. In a matter of heart beats, he watched in horror as Tom, pinned in the saddle, reigned back on the horse. The old cowhands effort wasted as both the man and horse tumbled past the front of the quad and over the steep incline.
Before the wind returned to Joshua’s lungs, the front tire of the quad slipped past the edge of the stone ledge. The machine quivered, then a second tire skidded past the lip. Blood drained from Joshua’s face. The word “shit” roared from his lips when the centre of balance tipped out of his favour. With arms clenched around the machine’s handlebars he closed his eyes and muttered a prayer as the machine began tumbling downward.
I waited as the dust from my ride drifted down the road. Beating my hat against my uniform I swatted the dust away before turning and looking towards the long driveway. A newer pair of wrought iron gates blocked the way in. I tilted my head upwards. A dusty, faded sign broadcast the land behind the fence belonged to the P/B ranch.
A smile lifted the ends of my lips. Absence made my heart grow fonder. All sorts of wonderful feelings flowed into my body. I had definitely been gone for too long.
The flag on the mail box stood at attention so I walked over and pulled a handful of letters out. Tucking them into my pocket, I climbed the top rail and landed on the family side of the fence. Double rows of trees lined the long gravel drive. Leaves coloured a dull green quaked in a weak breeze. The wind blew from behind my back, the tips of the leaves in the trees pointing the way up the long driveway.
I took one last glance at the iron gates then turned back around. My eyes tracing the gravel path to the edge of the stand of trees. A feeling of reluctance held me briefly in its grasp before a surge of energy moved my feet and started me toward the house and a father I’d been too long in seeing.
Sarah stood at the open door, mouth open. The knock on the door was a surprise all itself, the ranch being secluded and all, but the person on the step, why would someone from the army drive all this way. Sarah tilted her head upward. The man at the door towered above her five and a quarter feet in height.
“H..hi,” she stuttered.
“Mam,” the uniformed young man bowed his head in greeting.
“Can I help you…”
“Sorry to show up all unannounced. My tour ended and I…well, I thought it’d be nice to see my father. Been a lot of years.”
“You’re…” Sarah searched for the memory of Joshua’s boy’s names. Liam was still in California. Joshua talked to him only days ago and what was the older one….
“Sorry again, mam,” the soldier stuck out his hand. “Right rude of me to not introduce myself. I was away in Europe when you married…you are Sarah, right? Married to Joshua Boutõn, aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes I am and you must be William,” Sarah exhaled the breath caught in her chest. The name suddenly seeping into her thoughts.
“Again,” the soldier’s hand remained outstretched, “please to make your acquaintance.”
“So you’ve been issued your release papers. That must be exiting,” Sarah glanced across the table at the younger man. The resemblance to her husband, now that her initial shock passed and she studied the younger man’s face, was undeniable.
The boy’s hair was shorter, but framed the same sturdy facial features, likewise brownish green eyes as her husband’s and an arrow straight nose resting above thin lines of lips outlining the mouth. Unlike his father’s beard, the freshly shaved face ended at a strong square jaw.
As the younger man moved and spoke, she noticed other shared qualities from the tilt of their heads to the way they talked down to simple gestures leaving no doubt the two were related.
Sarah stared a second longer at the younger Boutõn then stood and walked to the counter. The brewing coffee pot gurgled its last drops of water. Her mind raced with questions of karma and bad timing. Why now, would William decide to show up on the doorstep.
Filling the cups, her thoughts raced. Make nice over coffee and then send him on his way.
“You missed your father by a couple days. Cabin fever I believe he complained about. He decided to leave the house and ride into the back country,” she blurted all in one breath. “He’s been feeling out of sorts these past days. Figured a trip into the mountains with old Tom might boost his spirits.”
Sarah let her gaze drop to the table. A dainty finger brushed at a phantom teardrop at the side of her face.
“Times have been hard…on him…on us…” Her head remained bent downward portraying the awful weight set upon her from living with a proud man now bound by a wheelchair. Slowly she stirred her coffee. The silence extended.
“It must be hard,” William sympathized.
“Some days more than others,” she replied. Her face lifted to meet his. Tears dotted the corner of her eyes.
“I understand. Father could be…” William shrugged leaving the words unspoken.
Sarah lifted a hand and swiping the back across her tear stained cheeks, the muscles at the edge of her lips raised in a sad smile. With her other hand she fanned her face shooing away the bad memories. Her voice switched to a cheerier, I’ll be alright tone.
“Anyways. It’s good to finally meet you. Your father has told me so much about your exploits. He was very proud.” Sarah stood, the conversation over. Her footsteps pointing toward the front door in a hinting fashion.
“Where are you staying? Do you have a phone number? I’ll have him call the minute he gets back? He’ll be so happy to see you.”
I looked up at my father’s wife then down at the half empty coffee sitting on the table in front of me.
“I haven’t had a chance to find lodgings yet.” Suddenly I felt short of words. I naturally expected to be welcomed. The staying part a foregone conclusion. Now, my father not home, I hesitated. I had no other plan. I cleared my throat and sipped some coffee looking for the courage to ask this stranger for the chance to stay under this roof. Her roof.
I set the cup down thoughtfully and raised my face. Our eyes met. “I…hoped to stay here while I got my bearings, but I understand. With father gone and all.”
“Oh, yes. Certainly. What was I thinking,” father’s wife walked the few steps back and stood leaning with a hand on the back of the chair.
“Sorry. Where are my manners,” she apologized.
I watched her face. The surprise from minutes earlier disappeared. In its place. I don’t know. Her features narrowed. Was that in humility or…
“Your room hasn’t changed. Will that work for you?”
“Perfectly,” I answered still puzzled by the change in her expression. Was I missing something. Did I arrive at a difficult time? Step into the middle of some family problems?
“I won’t be a burden and I think I can still ride with the best of them. I’m not afraid to work for my stay. Knew this ranch pretty well once upon a time. I am certain I can be of help if you’d like, at least until father comes home.”
“Yes. That will be fine. We’ll find something to keep you occupied.” She smiled an absent smile. Her eyes looked far off like my presence added to her burden.
“I can find hotel room.” I cut into her thoughts. “I don’t want to add to your troubles.”
“No, no. Everything is well. Welcome home,” she looked up at me. Her features softened. “You remember where your room is?” She said pointing down the hall.
“Yes mam,” I replied and picked up my duffle bag.
Joshua chose the trail leading up from the line cabin. Small sprouts of trees littered the little used path. The powerful engine of the quad found little resistance beating down the obstacles as the pair forged upward. The morning chill lingered. The elevation slow to warm in the morning sun.
“Any reason you choose this path?” Old Tom asked when the two stopped on the crest of a rise. “Sentimental for the view?”
“Tom, you trust me don’t you?”
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I.”
“I got a call the other day. A few head of our cattle were discovered burnt in the back of cattle liner in Eastern Texas. How often have we sold cattle down that way?”
“Oh. I don’t know. Been a lot of years. The auction houses here have been keeping our business…and I don’t recall any recent sales.” Tom still worked the toothpick, rolling it in his teeth.
“My thoughts exactly,” Joshua confessed. “The few times I ventured out into the meadows, somethings been troubling me. Tough to keep my counts right from my short travels and but, I tell you, honestly I’ve noticed fewer of the younger stuff.” He stopped and let his words settle.
“I didn’t want to trouble Sarah with my crazy believes. Probably just some bouts of my wild imagination….but now that Ranger calls. That got me thinking harder. What if? You yourself said all our old hires are gone. Young, new crowd watching over our cattle these days, so I suppose anything is possible.”
A noise sounded in the bushes not far behind. Tom slipped the rifle from its scabbard and squinting through the daylight, searching the bushes. “Could be a lion,” he muttered. His focus tight on the shadows at the bottoms of the trees. “Best we watch our backs. A lot of them big cats roaming these hills.”
“When was the last time you ventured up into these hills?” Joshua posted the question. The next evening of the trip found them stopped for the night. Their camp set up while the sun still peeked above the towering outcrops of rock. The trail proved harder to traverse then expected.
Their route altered between worn trails to accommodate the four-wheel bike. The new trail led up a switch back circling the outer face of a mountain. A couple days in and the pair camped a quarter day’s ride short of their next destination, a line cabin sunken deep into the mountains.
A small, careful fire burnt yards from a line of trees, the campsite resting on a ledge high above a lush mountain meadow. The grass and forest below skirted by the rising rock walls of a canyon a few acres in width.
The setting sun began its dip behind the mountain peaks to the west.
Sitting with the wheels of his chair locked tight, the chair kept safely back of a rocky edge, Joshua sipped the fresh coffee Tom passed. Stray rays of sunlight highlighted sections of the canyon floor down below. Raising the cup to sip the hot liquid, he stopped mid action. A sparkle of light reflected from far down the slope among row of trees lining a narrow meadow. Leaning forward, Joshua strained his eyes peering down into the gathering shadows.
A rider on a horse appeared from the edge of the woods, the man and horse followed closely by several head of cattle. Younger, smaller stock Joshua figured from the few details he picked out from over the distance. The herd below multiplied as more cattle continued to walk from the under the cover of the trees. Then a second rider showed near the end. Splashes of movement showed the man whipping a lariat to hurry a few stragglers bringing up the rear of the herd.
Puzzled, Joshua called Tom over and the men watched in silence. The riders below aided the cattle down what now appeared to be a trail beaten into the grasses at the edge of the trees. Looking ahead of the group, Joshua let his eyes roam over the meadow. The trail, faint from the distance, snaked across the grass and led to the far end of the canyon.
In the waning light, Joshua studied the edge of the far bush. Fallen trees, or perhaps carefully placed logs, formed a corral.
“Grab my binoculars off the bike, would you mind, Tom?” He asked. The light of day fading with each second.
The crunch of Tom’s boots told of the man’s return breaking Joshua free of his watch far below. Taking the glasses, Joshua pressed the rubber tight to his eyes and went back to studying the end of the canyon. The makings of a crudely constructed corral swam into focus. Fallen logs strategically interspersed with the standing trunks of living trees created a pen to hold the newly arrived livestock. Not far from the corral, the spread remains of an old fire pit that spoke of many uses.
Joshua turned his chair away from the edge. In his haste, a wheel of the chair collided with a boulder. The force nudging the rock off the ledge. The sound echoing against the rock walls surrounding the canyon. Joshua looked down after the sound then instinctively looked over toward the riders in the meadow. The last fragments of light showed the two men on horseback glancing up toward the ledge.
Joshua held their stare, although at the distance, how much the two men could see was debatable.
“When did we ever use this canyon to pen cattle, Tom?” He asked.
“Don’t think we ever did. Not that I recall. The trails in and out are tough riding and we’ve much better grazing not far from here.”
“Figure we’ll be able to find a way down and have us a look tomorrow.”
“Pretty certain. It a long way back if you want to go down now. Otherwise, we can ride straight ahead. There used to be a sort of path down into the canyon. Should accommodate your iron horse,” the old ranch hand pointed at Joshua’s four-wheeled machine.
In the cover of darkness, a rider plucked a satellite phone from the saddle bag.
“That you boys up the hill watching us?”
“No. But I have a fair idea who that could be.”
“Don’t need strangers spying on us. This place ain’t a secret if everybody knows about it.” The words more of a challenge then a request.
“It’ll be taken care of from this end. You boys pen them cattle and settle for the night. We can meet up in the morning.”
The final hours of my service arrived. The past couple days stateside rolled past in a blur. I rose early and out of habit, dressed in my field outfit. The sun was still minutes from breaking the hold of the night when I left my quarters and hoofed it down to the mess hall.
“William,” Colonel Davidson’s voice caught me at the door. “One final assault on the old stomach,” he joked.
“Wouldn’t feel right without the regular gastronomical pains,” I tossed back.
“Fill your plate and join me, won’t you?” The Colonel asked.
“What are your plans going forward?” Colonel Davidson asked once we were seated across from each other.
“Not sure. Head home and see my father. Been a lot of years since I’ve seen or even talked to him for that matter. Maybe hang around the ranch, help out for a bit if they need me.” I paused and thought of the image the words portrayed in my mind. The whole family gathered around when I returned. A real hallmark moment. Then the bubble burst and I added.
“My dad remarried. I’ve never met his new wife so I guess it might be time to get acquainted.” I shrugged. Even with the enviable count down to the end to life in the army, I never took the time to dwell on what I’d do once my enlistment ended. A kinda, which ever way the wind blows type attitude.
“A man needs his dad,” the colonel interrupted by musing. “Mine passed several years ago. Count yourself lucky.”
A picture of my dad’s face crept into my thoughts. He’d be much older then the last time we met person to person and a lot more fragile, I presume. Liam told of dad getting tossed from a horse. Said dad was wheelchair bound these days. That would be enough to drive the old guy crazy.
The lack of mobility had to feel like a prison to a man always on the go. My memories of my dad were filled with a younger me trailing him around. Dad busy working the ranch, branding cattle, breaking horses. How did a man so full of vigour survive life locked in a chair. Suddenly I realized how much I missed my father. Missed everyone.
“It will be good to see him,” I answered honestly.
Dust rose from the onslaught of air released by the breaks of the semi tractor. The last couple days I shuttled between Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia to a base in Nashville. From there, the army had a bus driving south to Chattanooga. A more round about route then I required but the price of the ticket was right. I climbed aboard and watched the county side roll past the window.
The bus arrived mid morning, stopping on the outskirts. I climbed free and looked up the highway. The sun beat down from a sky hazy with the heat. Several tractor-trailers idled in the gravelled lot. The diner I faced looked inviting.
Tossing my back pack over my shoulder, I stepped up to the door. A wave of cool air rushed past me as I side stepped a customer on his way out the door. A quick glance around and I moved deeper into the restaurant. A stool by the counter stood open.
“Coffee,” I called to the waitress. The next leg of the journey skirted mostly north toward Crossville, the county seat of the Cumberlands. My journey stopped a few miles east and south at the foothills of the mountain range and the family ranch.
“Any of you gentlemen travelling north,” I asked after sampling the steaming black liquid the waitress set down in front of me. A couple of the truckers glanced in my direction before an old timer from the back piped up.
“Where you headed, boy?”
“This side of Crossville. Got some family up that way.” I replied, lifting the cup for a second sip of coffee.
“I’m heading past. Taking the 27. Got a stop in Crossville and then running all the way up to Knoxville.” The trucker answered.
“Can you abide with a passenger?”
I watched the man’s eyes run the length of my army uniform. “Going home for a visit?”
“No. Timed out. Served my country for 20 years. Thought it was time to move on.”
The old guy locked eyes. A slight nod of his head showed respect for my uniform. “Glad to do it, son.” He replied.
Elijah studied the captured rustlers. Six men. The body count wasn’t tight. He looked from the group of men and scanned the darkened shadows blurring the edges of the bush and buildings. Walking over to the man referred to as Reggie, the driver of the car Elijah earlier observed with the missing rustler, he stared down into the smaller man’s face.
Reggie jutted his jaw up at the lawman. A look of defiance set on the man’s features. Elijah stood damn near a foot taller and surely outweighed the scrawny rustler by at least a hundred pounds.
“Where’d your buddy get to?” Elijah held eye contact with the smaller man. The glare radiating off Reggie’s face failed to have the threatening effect the much smaller man obviously hoped for. Elijah nudged Reggie with his foot. “I haven’t got all night. You boys are in a passel of trouble enough. Make it easy on yourself. This is still Texas and you never can tell when a lynching party might break out.”
Reggie gulped a deep breath. He broke eye contact and looked down at his shuffling feet. “You best keep your mouth shut,” another of the rustlers warned. Reggie turned a worried eye to his rustler companions. His eyes stopping on the man shot in the bush while trying to escape.
“I don’t know,” he stammered. “He usually just waited by the barn. He calls the shots. He never gets his hands dirty.”
“What’s his name?”
“Smith. Bill Smith.” Reggie coughed out.
“Well that’s original,” Elijah retorted. “You sure it wasn’t John Doe?”
“That’s the name he went by,” Reggie whined. “I got no other name nor do I care. The man paid good and kept us busy on a regular basis.”
"Want us to go check the woods again, Elijah,” Oswald called. “Me and Jim. We’ll get some lights and shake out his trail.”
“I don’t think you should bother. There’s a gravel road on the other side of those trees,” Elijah pointed behind the barn. “If he got to the road, and I presume he did, he’ll be near impossible to track. You can take a car and find the road. Drive back and forth slowly. Maybe this guy will be stupid enough to show himself.”
Elijah shuffled a cigarette out of his pocket and thought while lighting the tobacco. “The trail in the bush we might as well wait until light to find. Then we can get an impression of his boot tracks. Maybe come in handy down the road.” He puffed until the tobacco glowed red. “Sam, you and Perkins cuff these boys together. When the sun comes up I want to see what kind of brands these cattle are carrying.
Noah Filcher left the gravel and angled for the bush lining the ditch. Hidden behind a small clump of scrub he bent with his hands on his knees and gulped much needed oxygen into his heaving lungs. “Son-of-a-bitch,” he muttered between gulps. Almost afraid to chance a look, he peeked from behind the thin stalks of trees back in the direction he ran expecting to see car lights bust out of the dark night.
Bent over, he allowed a little self pity to leak into his panicked brain. The increase of cattle rustling was after all his idea and now one driver crashed and burned with a load and his iron crew was about to be hauled away in the grasp of the law. Damn. He needed the money bad and suddenly the last two transports went sideways.
His shredded thoughts turned to his older sister. She would be shooting mad once he reported tonight’s loss. She warned him about the escalation of the stolen cattle. Sarah would certainly chew him a new one. And could he blame her. She had spent years setting up this operation. She wooed and married that old widowed rancher, the accident with the horse went as planned, leaving her to run the ranch and then replacing the old guy’s workers with men loyal to their cause.
Shit. It was almost too easy. He shook his head as he thought about the trail leading up to tonight’s bust. Small amounts of P/B cattle were separated from the huge herds and driven through a canyon away from the ranch and held at an old deserted farm yard that lay forgotten about. These cattle along with strays from other outfits that lost themselves in the thick bushes and gullies of the Cumberlands, well, enough to fill trailers on a regular basis and more than pay the bills. It all seemed so easy.
Greed. That’s what it was, he finally admitted. He grew accustomed to the lights and trappings of all the money the cattle brought. And debts. Huge gambling debts. The promises of pain if the payments failed. Maybe he should come clean to Sarah. She’d understand. At least he’d be able to explain the sudden need to move more cattle for sale.
Elijah pushed off from the fence pole his back rested against. The coming of daylight brought a new perspective to the deserted ranch in the middle of nowhere. Rubbing the back of his hand across his tired eyes, Elijah struck another cigarette. A puff of smoke drifted with the morning breeze. The suspects left minutes ago in the back of two SUV,s along with their escorts. The only men remaining were the original team of the TSCRA Special Rangers.
“What have we got here, Jim?” Elijah wondered closer to the penned cattle.
“A mixture of brands. Mostly a P/B. A couple of others, but only one or two in number.”
“You had a good look over all of them?” Elijah questioned.
“The lights still a little scarce but the brands are plain enough to see. Why?”
“This is the second truckload of stolen cattle I’ve come across bearing mainly that brand. Like someone is mostly concentrating their efforts to steal the P/B blind.”
“Takes all kinds. You know that Elijah,” Oswald joined the conversation.
“How many years we been doing this. Maybe the P/B has a change of ownership or something as such.”
“Yeah. Maybe. But I don’t think so. Take some pictures and send them to me, will you?”
“Sure thing. What you going to do.”
“Track down the owners of the P/B. See if the ranch changed or is in the process of changing hands or as you so eloquently put it, something else?”
Pulling onto the highway, Elijah talked to the truck’s hands free service calling the number he saved into his phone’s memory from a previous call. The phone rang on for several seconds before a female voice announced that Joshua and Sarah Boutõn of the P/B Ranch were unavailable.
Elijah looked at the LED numbers on the truck’s dash. Quarter to six in the morning. Should be the same time in the Cumberlands where Joshua’s P/B Ranch was located. He shrugged. Maybe ranchers in Tennessee didn’t find the need to rise so early in the morning.
“Hey Joshua. Elijah Sackett here. We talked a few weeks past. Found another truckload of cattle and most of the stock is carrying your brand. Like to get your side of the story. Something don’t feel right.
You know, been thinking of taking a drive down your way anyhow. I got a full schedule today but tomorrow I think I’ll head in that direction. If I get a good start should be there mid to late afternoon. You might catch me on the way over. Call me back if this causes a problem otherwise take care and I’ll see you soon.”
Elijah ended the call, his mind raced ahead with planning the trip two states east. Shoving his cowboy hat back off his forehead, a slight smile climbed his face as he stuck a cigarette between his lips. Be all right to meet the guy. Maybe even a long lost cousin. Why not have the state pay for his visit. It was for business after all.
Sweat leaked from under the band of his hat. One hand tight on the wheel, Joshua lifted the hat by the brim and swiped his sleeve across his forehead cutting off the salty drops before they crept into his eyes.
“Hotter than a bride left standing at the alter,” he shouted over the drone of the quad to Old Tom Wiggins when the two stopped atop a rise. Joshua’s heart gained a beat when the image of the lush green valley splayed out into view below the hill. The caps of the mountains behind threw long shadows across the far end of the meadow darkening the trees at the bottom of the next climb.
“That’s a mighty pretty sight,” he commented. Hi attention focused down the hill toward the huge swarm of cattle feasting on the long grass. “How many head you figure laying before us?” He asked the old ranch hand.
“Long guess, could be a few hundred, no more I don’t think.” Tom answered. “Of the ones we can see, that is. Those trees at the end in the shadows are no doubt housing a good number.”
“I agree,” Joshua said, the smile of rediscovering the beauty of the valley slipped from his face. “How are things away from the ranch house these days, Tom? We don’t really talk like we used to. Too busy I guess.” Joshua cringed at the feeble excuse. The loss of the use of his legs left a funk that ate away at his desire to associate with anyone.
The feeling grew worse over time as he spun deeper into the abyss. Sarah acted as a go between from him and the workers. Unfortunately, the more she enabled his internalization, the more he regressed.
The call the other day caused a flicker in his brain and spurred something long forgotten, thus the impromptu trek into the Cumberlands and a chance to see how the P/B Ranch faired without his control.
“Well. Things have changed over the years but who am I to complain. An old guy like me still able to straddle a horse and have someone pay. Can’t expect much else.”
“Things changed for the good or bad?”
“It’s really not my place to say. Most of the old hands have quit. The new ones aren’t as personable but they show up and work.” Old Tom confessed, keeping the worst of his thoughts wrapped up close to his chest. How did he know what this trip would produce. He hadn’t seen Joshua for more than a few minutes at a time over the last so many years and now all of a sudden this unexpected trip. How much of friends did they remain or was Joshua’s young wife busy behind the scenes. Too old to bother looking for another job, Tom decided to remain passive.
“Things are good for an old guy like me,” Old Tom continued. “Look around. The mountains, blue sky and green pastures full of healthy beef. Don’t need more than that to be happy.”
“I’m glad you feel that way Tom, but you wouldn’t hesitate to tell me other wise if you felt things around the ranch were…maybe not operating like they should?”
Tom Wiggins narrowed his eyes as he looked down at his boss. What kind of game is he playing, Tom wondered. “I’d tell you Joshua. We been friends a long time. Wouldn’t feel right to lie to you.” The old ranch hand studied his friend’s face before lifting his eyes back to the surrounding scenery.
“Line cabins waiting at the edge of the trees. Be getting late by the time we arrive. Might as well spend the evening. Get a good start in the morning.” Old Tom happily changed the subject.
A small group of new hires greeted the two as they rambled close to the line cabin. A pit set a few yards from the house contained the beginnings of a fire. Tom tied the reins for his horse around a pole of the corral then walked over to the quad. In the back he lifted and unfolded the wheelchair, setting close to the driver’s side of the quad. A grunt left the old ranch hand’s lips as he helped lift his friends paralyzed body from the bike’s seat and then lowered it into the chair. Tom pushed the chair away from the quad and rolled it close to the fire.
“You okay here for now?” He asked, “Give me a few minutes to unsaddle and wipe down my horse and I’ll be back.”
“Yeah. I’ll be fine.” Joshua replied. His gaze hovering between the three younger men gathered around the small camp fire.
“How you boys doing?” He started the conversation. The front of the line cabin sat back of his view. The opening door caught his attention as a fourth man stepped into the doorway. The man held a cell phone to his ear. The distance too far to hear the conversation. Joshua met the man’s gaze before the fourth man ducked back into the cabin and disappeared from sight.
“Hows the food around here?” Joshua let a smile light his face while addressing the three riders gathered by the fire. “I’m starved. Seems like I haven’t eaten for days,” he joked.
“Foods good enough,” one of the young riders replied. “Specially tonight,” the man stood. “You are certainly lucky, it's my turn to cook.”
“How about you two,” Joshua swung the conversation over to the two other men parked beside the fire. “How you guys makin out. The cattle are fat and happy.” He said referring to the herd he passed on the way to the cabin. “Seems you boys are doing a bang up job.”
“Thanks,” the two mumbled in unison.
“Not much younger stock around?” Joshua stated.
“Probably into the trees. You know how those calves can be. Always playin’ around.” Came the answer.
“Yeah. No doubt. Well, what’s for supper. Did I tell you boys how hungry I am?”
Joshua took one last look toward the cabin before shifting the quad into gear and rolling onto a trail leading back of the line cabin. The morning dew glistened off the black roll cage, forming rivulets and running in small streams down the bars. Joshua shook with the morning chill scrunching his shoulders deeper into his coat.
“Be a good push today to reach the next cabin. Some of the trail won’t be so hospitable to your machine,” Old Tom warned, his mouth busy worrying a toothpick. “You still want to do this?” The ranch hand asked.
“Yes,” came the single worded reply. “Time to get back in the saddle,” Joshua allowed a small smile, “Metaphorically speaking.” He pointed to the leather seat of the bike.
“The route gets rough from here on in.” Tom stated.
“I seem to remember that. Can we make it. I mean, driving this thing, can I make it?”
Old Tom swished the toothpick around a bit before gazing from the quad to the trail leading higher into the mountains.
“Sure. Why and the hell not. We’re old, not useless.” He added.
“That’s the spirit old friend,” Joshua nodded and pressed the throttle. The machined whined into the still morning. Behind, crowded along the door and window of the cabin, the three younger ranch hands looked on at their departing guests.
“We got our work cut out for us,” the fourth man said, his fingers busy punching in a set of numbers on his phone.
I checked the calendar for the millionth time. 3 days left in my tour and then homeward bound. The twenty years of service end the day after I arrive back in the states. I glanced around my quarters at the few items I possessed. A duffle bag and small chest containing extra uniforms and a couple personal items.
Tilting forward in my chair I bent low and undid the clasps on the chest, lifting the lid. A picture of mom stared back. Locking eyes with the picture, I felt a tinge of sadness. She’d passed away while I was stationed in Afghanistan more than a dozen years earlier.
A cancerous tumour missed by the doctors left her bedridden and suffering something awful in her final days. An impromptu leave for compassion allowed me to be home for her funeral, the last time I’d spoken to dad. The occasional letter from brother Liam kept me in the loop as far as family gossip was involved.
I remember trying a call after dads accident. His new wife intercepted the calls, making excuses why he couldn’t talk. According to Liam, dad was thrown from a horse. The horse spooked while riding in the back country. Old Tom found dad and carried him back to the house. The doctor’s gave him little chance of survival. Fortunately the old coot is too damn stubborn to agree with the doctors.
Surviving a severe concussion and ravaging by the elements, Dad limped through but not without consequences. A collision with a rocky ledge ruptured his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. According to Liam, Sarah, dad’s new wife, took over managing the ranch and as far as he can tell, they seem to be prospering fine.
Liam doesn’t get by there much either. He always felt a pull from the left coast. Moved there shortly after mom passed. Works as a deputy sheriff down in Bakersfield. Found a gal he was partial to. An actress or something of the nature, Liam said. Told me he got married but the partnership only worked out briefly. Guess she wasn’t the type woman who stayed with just one man.
Older brother Ethan moved several states west, too and best I know had a successful law business in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Neither of the brothers phone much, nor do I, but the occasional letter passed between us three keeps us as informed as we want to be.
Our father, although a fair man, worked hard and spoke little. I guess his communication skills sorta rubbed of on Liam, Ethan and myself.
“Captain Boutõn?” A call followed a knock on the door.
“Enter,” I closed the lid of the chest and looked toward the door. A young private stood framed in the door way. A crisp salute executed before he talked.
“I am to drive you to the airport, Captain.” The young man said.
“Sure. Give me a hand,” I replied pointing to the chest resting on the floor. Straightening, I grabbed one last image of my room then followed the private outside to the waiting car. A stay over in Germany and then the final leg back to the states. Memories of my time served rushed by like the lines on the highway. 20 years serving my country.
From the young man at the recruiting office to boot camp, a double stint in Middle East and an invite to train with the Rangers. The training intense, the missions worse. A few friends I made along the way fell short of returning. Their faces I’d remember.
My final promotion brought me in from the field as a liaison for Middle Eastern missions. The outpost in Saudi Arabia the last I hoped to see while in uniform. The time passed quickly but now that it was done, I’m glad.
The car stopped about the time of my reminiscing. A States bound flight waited on the runway. I stepped into the scorching sun and looked up at the great skin of the big old airbus. The four rotary engines starting a slow rotation, building up power.
“Thanks for the ride, Private.” I called back into the car, pulling the small trunk from the back seat.
“Wait, I’ll give you a hand with your luggage” the private called back.
“No need.” I waved him away. “Make it home safe where your tour is up,” I left the parting words and walked toward the metal staircase leading up to the open plane door.
Joshua waited until Sarah set her purse and packages on the table before he spoke. “I’ll be heading into the mountain come morning time.”
“That would be foolish,” Sarah searched the room for his voice. “In your state. How would you manage. I don’t have time to drop everything and follow after you.”
“Old Tom said he’d be happy to go. Hell, its been years since the two of us set off for an adventure into those hills.”
“Tom’s gonna play wet nurse for you. I doubt it.” Sarah grabbed a chair from the breakfast bar and drug it over, plopping it down in front of Joshua’s wheelchair. He studied her face as she settled into the seat.
“What brought this up all of a sudden?”
“Boredom, I think,” Joshua glanced away from Sarah's face as he lied. Why didn’t he tell her the truth. Something held him back, something that had been growing over the last while. The realization that his life had come to this caused him to hesitate. Why, he wondered. was it some small tell about their relationship or just an over active mind locked in a body that refused to function properly. So, he asked himself again. Her fault or resentment on his part from being tied to this damn wheel chair. The answer failed to materialize. The truth then...nothing that jumped up and screamed of any disloyalty but still…
“Once upon a time I knew every creek and bluff out there, memorized every cow and calf,” he said, his head turned toward the large picture window, his eyes and voice already miles up into the climbing mountains. “I’ll be fine. I had the bike retrofitted. You remember. I can maneuver it and I know the old trails back into the hills. The ones to avoid and the others that will allow me access. Tom can help me in and out. Who knows, might not be so bad.”
Sarah moved to the edge of her seat. Her head inches from his face. She placed a hand gently on his covered knee. “I don’t like the idea. Let me think about it. If it still means that much in a few days, I’ll set aside some time and the two of us can make the trip.”
“You’re busy. This ranch is a lot to run.” He placed his hand over hers. “I’ll be fine.” He searched her eyes. “I’ve had Rosy pack provisions. Tom’ll stop by before dawn. He can help me get the bike squared away.”
“Joshua, I really don’t think this is a great idea. Too many things can go wrong. My lord, If something were to happen to Tom, how will you get back. And even Tom, my god, how old is he. Will he even be able to be there when you really need help?” She leaned away. “No. I forbid you from putting yourself in such a potentially dangerous situation.”
Joshua’s temper rose. He returned his gaze toward the blue skies over the mountain peaks. “I am flattered by your concern, but really, I’ll be leaving in the morning,” he said through clenched teeth. “I will have my cell if you need to check in. If anything urgent were to come up, you can contact me. Time I took a more official role in the running of this ranch.” He shrugged, “Good time as any to check on the cattle. I believe you’ve got them herded back up into the high meadows, correct?”
“Yes,” the answer shot from Sarah’s mouth, a huff of air exhaled from her nose in protest. “I will notify the men and have them keep an eye out for you two. We’ve got hands spread between the line cabins. Don’t need them thinking that you two are rustlers or something of the like.”
The sun lifted above the peaks of the distance mountains bringing early morning light to the new day. Sarah watched Old Tom strap Joshua into the drivers seat of the modified four-wheel bike before he stepped a foot into the stirrup of his horse. Sarah waved, let the pair travel to the far side of the yard and then returned to the ranch house.
The last annoying brrring of the house phone died off as she closed the screen door. Taking a step toward the kitchen, she noticed the red light flashing indicating a waiting message.
“Mr. Boutõn, Joshua, this is Special Ranger Elijah Sackett. I called the other day about your cattle. The few head that perished in the back of the cattle liner. Do you remember? Supposed you’d reply by now, anyway, I’ve got more information. Seems that truck might have been stolen so I figured that maybe the cattle were too. You get a chance, call me back and let me know about your cattle situation…”
Sarah held the phone receiver in her hand. The colour draining from her face. So this is what got Joshua all fired up about trekking back into the mountains. She replaced the plastic hand piece and fell into the nearest chair. Why did the old fool have to get himself involved, she wondered.
Elijah stabbed at the phone’s disconnect button with a tinge of regret. Pissed at the fact he’d resorted to leaving a message in place of calling back another time and talking to the owner of the P/B Ranch out of Tennessee. Probably better this way, he reasoned. Otherwise he’d get distracted by something during the day and forget to make the call at all.
Could be the truck carrying the cattle was run out of Tennessee by one of the other ranch’s identified by the marked hides of the burned cattle. Elijah made a mental note to sit on the phone and try to connect with the other owners once he returned to his office.
He had only moments earlier hung up on a call from County Sheriff Bob Johnson about the mysterious truck. Johnson’s call came through with Elijah driving back from the southern part of the state on another matter. That’s when Elijah figured he’d talk to the owner of the P/B. What the hell, the two could even be long lost cousins, he mused. Might develop a need to drive a few states east and meet the old boy.
The sudden crackle of the police radio mounted beneath the truck’s dash interrupted his thoughts.
“Keep an eye open, Elijah. Reports of our boy and his cargo were spotted turning off of the highway. Told it’s heading in your general direction.”
Elijah lifted his eyes and stared out at the night sky through the passenger window. Unbroken, cloudy darkness absorbed his gaze. Focusing into the inky black, his hand fished for the plastic handle of the radio’s mike.
“I read you, Oswald. Stay well back. No use in spooking these guys.” He replied. Replacing the mike, he watched the far off beams of headlights bounce in the distance. The truck in question crawled along when it turned onto the gravelled secondary road. Elijah straightened in his seat, shuffling to find some form of comfort. The seat of the truck had been his home since well before dusk and after the long day, the padding failed to satisfy his needs.
Noting the dim reflection of the headlights, Elijah judged the distance, switched the truck’s ignition key forward, lowered the side window, then just as quickly removed the keys sending the cab back into a silent darkness. Fishing in his pocket, he lifted a pack of Marlboro’s. Pinched a cigarette out of the flimsy package, shielded the flame of the lighter with the palms of his hands and touched the tobacco to the flame. A long drawn breath seared his lungs with the drawn in smoke.
Turning his face to the open window, he let the pent up smoke slide from his throat and past his lips into the warm night air. Elijah repeated the process. The warming comfort of the cigarette eased the tension of nerves that started to build at the base of his skull. An old and familiar ritual brought on by the promise of an adrenaline spike associated with the more dangerous side of this line of work. Guns and criminals.
The last whiffs of cigarette smoke were all that lingered by the time the searching headlights of the tractor trailer duo turned the final curve into the deserted drive leading to the ranch below. Elijah pulled a scratched pair of night optic glasses from their case and waited with them on his lap as the truck maneuvered around the yard and then backed up tight to the cattle chute butted tight to the corral.
“Oswald. I’ve got the boys in sight. Ready the others, then you and Perkins leave your posts and roll in slowly. I don’t want any lights and maybe walk the last couple hundred yards to keep the noise down. We don’t want to give our positions away until the branding irons come out. I’d like to catch these thieving bastards red handed if possible.”
Clayton Beals squinted into the side mirror marking the corral posts. Satisfied with the line of the truck, he eased off the clutch and rolled the tractor-trailer slowly back. Yards from contact, Reggie walked into his view. Arms held wide indicating the distance left, Reggie brought his outstretched hands closer decreasing the span guiding Clayton to the last few crucial feet.
A wave of Reggie’s hands brought the task to a close. Clayton set the trailer park breaks, left the big rig in low gear, then switched the key off. The large engine rumbled a final time then fell quiet. Only a short, sharp release of air from the breaking system interrupted the night.
Clayton put his hand on the door handle then hesitated. Something about tonight felt off. From behind the windshield he scanned the edge of the tree line surrounding the deserted ranch house. Nothing moved. Still hesitating, Clayton shook away the odd feeling, putting his rattled nerves to the long hours of driving. Since the fiery crash that killed
Barney a few days earlier, he felt like the world was closing in on him.
Why, he failed to nail down a reason. Everything remained the same. Barney’s accident was what it was, long hours, little sleep and a guilty conscious. Although Clayton attributed Barney’s demise more to the long hours and all the night driving, the sort of cargo he and Barney hauled wasn’t something you broadcast by moving freely through the day light hours.
A shiver ran the length of his spine. Shaking away the nerves, he opened the door and climbed to the ground. From behind the corral, four other men walked from an old barn toward the trailer of cargo. Reggie stood to the side. A flick of a lighter flared the end of a propane torch in his right hand, a branding iron in his left. Speaking over his shoulder he addressed the men walking from the barn.
“Open those trailer doors. Let’s start this rodeo,” Reggie’s high pitched voice commanded. With practiced ease the men climbed the chute and drew open the trailer doors. Spooked cattle swung around skittish. The one closest to the doors stepped a hoof on the wooden planked brigade leading to the open corral below. A slap of a cowboy hat hurried the cow. One after the other, the cattle unloaded themselves , bawling and mooing, into the rail and post pen.
One of the crew from the barn moved about the penned cattle separating a two year old and sending it down a narrow run. When the young cow’s head passed through a metal barrier, a second man slammed the gate closed trapping the animal. Reggie edged closer with the now heated iron. A new scorched mark covered the old brand. The squeeze chute opened allowing the bellowing cow to pass before a second animal was herded into the same position.
Clayton shuffled his pack of smokes free of his shirt pocket and snuck a single stick out. Leaning back against the truck’s fender, he raised the cigarette to his lips then went in search of his lighter. Out of the front pants pocket his hand began to lift when the ranch yard erupted in lights and shouted commands. Clayton first instinct was to reach for the gun strapped to his side but the queer feeling in his gut convinced him otherwise. The lighter from his pants pocket fell to the ground as he shot his hands high in the air.
Elijah walked from the tree line. The spotlight held high in front, his pistol clutched in his right hand. From his position he tracked two of the seven men he knew to be on the premises. Earlier in the evening, at the start of his stakeout, he observed a crew cabbed pickup containing four men pull up and park behind the barn. Later on, a second truck arrived with two more men. Now, with the arrival of the semi driver, he had seven men to account for.
“I’ve got two men here,” he called out to the Oswald and the other five agents. His gun waving Clayton to join Reggie near the corral.
“Three in the corral,” the radio buzzed.
“I got a runner.” Came a shout from the far end of the barn.
“Don’t let him get away, Jim.” Elijah encouraged from his spot out front.
“You two get close to your friends,” he instructed the men under his gun.
A few minutes passed with bouts of silence broken by crashing bush and yelled threats. The echoes of a gunshot brought the foot chase to an end.
“Coming back out,” Jim Lonjivin called to his fellow rangers.
Yards from where the foot chase ended, a seventh man ducked low behind a thick trunked aspen. He slowed his breath and peered into the darkness to find the voices. Once located he moved away and deeper into the bush. Each footstep set down with caution. The commotion fell behind. The hollering and bright lights faded. One last footstep reached the edge of the forest and pressed into the tall grass lining the ditch.
Throwing caution away, Noah Pilcher scrambled to the gravel of the road and ran. Panic filled his breathing. Bursting lungs ached as he ran head long in the dark.