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.”