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.