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.