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.