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.