Seven of us rode hard since leaving the ranch yard early in the morning. I felt the urgency. If my father and Old Tom came across bad times, the sooner we got to them the better. By late evening, our horses dragging from the long, uphill miles, we topped out at a line cabin a half days ride to where the accident took place. The route too dangerous to be travelled in the dark by a bunch of tired cowboys.
Bagged, I stripped the saddle and blanket and rubbed down the roan I was riding. The horse nickered at a hand full of grain I swiped from a trough near the cabin. Done with the rub down, I pulled the bridal and let the roan loose into the corral with the other animals.
We talked little. The boys sat mostly off to themselves and chatted. Unfamiliar with most of the men, I stuck to myself, too tired and sore to care about being friendly. A plate of fire cooked steak and warmed beans was passed down to me. A pot of coffee brewed over the open pit.
I squatted against the trunk of a tree and savoured the food. One of the boys walked over with the pot off the fire. I held out my cup and watched the steaming black liquid ooze out of the spout. I tossed a thanks and searched for a level spot to rest my cup while I turned my attention back to the food on my plate.
The line cabin was small. Only a couple of bunks. I volunteered to sleep outside. After my stint in the army I relished the freedom of the fresh mountain air and wide open sky offered by being back home in the hills of Tennessee. A couple of the boys protested hard but I stood my ground. They appeared not to pleased with my call but I owed them little. Men who worked for my father but who I no attachment.
I moved a bedroll away from the fire to the base of a tree with wide hanging branches. A touch of cover from the wet dew I knew would fall through the night. The air was cool and quiet and very dark when my eyes next opened. What woke me, I wondered. I lay still and let my ears search the trees around. Slowly the sounds of the night filter through.
Some small critter scuttled in the underbrush, a slight breeze rubbed some branches together. A crackle of burning logs drifted up to where I lay. The fire caused very little light, the remnants burned down to some lasting coals. After a careful listen I decided to climb from the warmth of the blankets and find a tree to drain the coffee from the evening before.
Used to moving cautiously, I slipped a few trees over. Another sound caught my ears and I hesitated. Men talking. I spun my heard tracking the voices. The conversation originated from near the holding pen for the horses. But why? We had no need for guards. Did someone arrive in the wee hours and if they did again why? Was there news about my father and Old Tom. It was the only reason I could think of to bring a man or men into the perils of night travel in these hills.
Curious and with a sliver of hope, I headed away from my bed and closer to the men talking. Close enough to understand the quiet words, I wait to hear any mention of my father.
“…got to take care of things early. …Ranger…quickly.” The words piqued my interest.
The voices quieted. I strained to listen. “…make certain…. saddle…” I stepped a foot closer. An outline of men standing beside the corral grew out of the inky starless night. Another step and I made out the form of one of the men bent over searching the ground near the bottom rail of the corral.
“You boys are moving about awfully early? Have you heard something of the search?” I said. I stopped a couple yards from where the men stood. Two men swivelled in my direction when I made my presence known. A third guy was slower to stand and turn. The three faces looked out into the night to locate me from my words.
“Who’s there?” One of the men asked as the three continued staring narrow-eyed into the darkness.
“No one really.” I replied. “Heard your whispers. Figured at this time of the morning maybe something important was breaking loose.”
The man closest cocks his head. “That you Boutõn.” I recognize the voice and put a face to the man hidden by the dark. One of the fellows was Tom Clancy, the hired hand JW assigned to escort me as we rode into the mountains. “What the hell you doing sneaking around in the dark. Damn near give a man a heart attack.”
“I suppose, Tom. Didn’t mean to frighten you boys. Got up to hit the can. With all the talking I got curious. Got to thinking that news of my father or Old Tom made its way back to camp?” I left the sentence hang as a question.
“No. No such luck. Me and the boys were restless. Came out side for a cigarette. You head back to sleep. Morning will come soon enough and I imagine we’ll have a full day out of tracking your pa.”
“Yeah,” I waved into the night. “Talk to you men in a few hours.” I turned and wormed my way back toward my bedding. The three being clustered around the corral gave me less thought then the man bent and searching along the ground. Why the man’s actions bothered me, the reason failed to resolve itself before I fell back asleep.
Hours later, as I left the fire full from breakfast and warmed by the coffee, the events from the middle of the night resurfaced in my brain when I went to collect my saddle. I stopped a couple yards from the corral and glanced down at the row of saddles lined up neatly beside each other. Was this where the three men were standing, I asked myself?
A nudge jolted me back to the present. “We best be saddling up,” Clancy interrupted my thoughts as he brushed by. With out a further thought, I lifted my saddle and rested on the top rail of the fence, grabbed the rope cinched to the saddle and walked into the corral. The roan I had ridden the day before stood three legged. I whistled to get its attention then tossed a loop. Years of being away from the ranch showed. The rope fell short causing the horse to snicker and back away.
“Need a hand,” one of the other hired hands inquired, a smirk half hidden on his face.
“Naw. Obviously I need the practice,” I replied good heartedly, recoiled my rope then shook out a loop in the air while talking to the horse. My next attempt landed. Mostly. The rope skittered off the crown of the horses head and luckily fell where I needed. A gentle tug and the roan calmed. Leading the animal toward the rails, I tied it near where my saddle waited.
The sun wormed its way through the sparse tree line, battling the remaining chill left by the morning dew. A cool sweat itched under my hatband and irritated as it rubbed against my forehead. I lifted the hat and absently swiped the skin dry while wondering why Old Tom and my father would climb this high on their travels of scouting the ranch.
Where we rested, the tree line thinned and craggy outcroppings of rock replaced the tail beaten through the forest by wild animals. Stopped at a fork in the path, I rode ahead on the left hand trail checking the ground for signs of their passing. A scattering of deer tracks and the paw prints of a big cat skewed the thin layer of dirt. No tread marks from a quad and no prints of shod animals either.
From the mouth of that trail I swung the horse onto the less likely route. This path couldn’t be more than a few feet wide and the one edge fell away down to a canyon bottom lying far below. The rocks on the side of the ledge balanced precariously waiting for the littlest of reasons to roll down the side of the mountain. A splash of white marred the rock to my left about eye height. I slowed, wondering about the scar.
The scrape looked fresh compared to the withering of the surrounding formations. I ran my eyes over the rocks then down to the thin trail leading off in front of me. I scanned the ground around the horses feet. Animal tracks only…then a few feet farther ahead, gouges scraped into the layer of dirt covering the rocky path. Tire marks? The gouges tracked toward the edge the rocks.
Is this why we came this way? I shrugged. These fellows been riding this range daily. Is this where my father and Old Tom ran into trouble.
Pondering the question, I shifted to turn back. The mechanical snick of a trigger cocking from behind my back stalled my movements. The sound stirred memories from hours ago of the men standing beside the corral in the middle of the night.
Turning my torso slightly to block my actions, I flicked the leather thong securing my rifle in the scabbard and with two fingers, gingerly lifted the long gun. The weight felt off. Down a few ounces. I imagined from a lack of bullets. Both these realizations came too late to do me much good. A knowing smile played across my lips as I shook my head. Rookie mistake to ride out of camp without checking my firearm.
“You won’t do yourself any good by trying.” Clancy’s threat cut the frosty morning air. I lifted my chin. Facing the trail, I watched as sunlight streamed down in ribbons lighting small patches and ignoring others. To the side, sun shone off the far canyon wall lighting the green of the trees and the myriad of colours displayed by the towering mountain. I sucked in a deep breath of fresh air and waited.
“You going to shoot me in the back, is that the idea?” I asked waiting for Clancy to answer. Shod hooves clicked against the rocky trail as a couple horses drew closer.
“Pays us the same whichever way you meet the end. JW didn’t seem to care much how it was done. Said you picked the wrong time to return home. But tell you what. Being a sport, I’ll let you turn around. Slowly,” Clancy added. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Is this how my father and Old Tom came about their accident? Are they even alive?” I stalled.
“Don’t know. Don’t rightly care either. They may still be kicking but the smart money says they are no longer with us.”
His last words hammered at my chest and I hesitated. Then, using my knees, I worked the roan in a tight circle right out there on the cliff’s edge. My eyes tracked the terrain falling away from the chunk of rock the horses hooves stood upon. Random trees fell away from the side of the cliff. Large gaps flowed between the trunks. Some filled with debris fields of rock from recent slides. I picked out the obvious details as the horse maneuvered itself around.
When I faced Clancy and the others, I tugged on the reins. The roan chomped on the bit refusing to back any farther onto the sliver of trail.
“What you doing?” Clancy noticed my slow reversal. His rifle began to lift to his shoulder. I yanked on the reins pulling the roans head back. The horse reared, its front legs thrashing wildly. My free hand shot back to grip the butt of the rifle as I let go of the reins and rode the roans momentum back and tumbled from out of the saddle. My shoulder hit the edge of the rock outcropping. My feet lifted over my head throwing my weight farther back.
A gunshot reverberated in the close confines of the mountain peaks as I tumbled ass over tea kettle. On one turn, I thought my heart would stop. Facing my rolling body was a steep cliff dotted with rocks and trees and large runs of loose gravel. Far down was only wide pools of blackness waiting to engulf me.
Elijah Sackett climbed from his sleep and stepped out into the frosty morning. Walking by the horse trailer, he banged on the metal side.
“You boys okay in there?”
“Lets us out,” the words rattled from between chattering teeth. Elijah stopped at a vent hole head height and peered into the shadows inside.
“You two should have slept closer together. More warmth that way,” he said as he passed by for the cab of the truck.
“I got to tell you. That cabin is some comfortable. Built a nice fire. Almost didn’t need coverings,” he continued. Shaking out his coat from the back seat, he retraced his steps and stopped back beside the trailer. Raising his hand, he hammered against the metal wall adding the thumping to the prisoner’s discomfort. “You had a chance to sleep on your answers,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on up in those hills?”
“We got nothing to add. We work for the P/B Ranch. Call the ranch house, they’ll tell you.”
“I suppose they might,” Elijah agreed, leaving the trailer and stepping close to the corral. His travels stopped at a cold ring lying along the remains of an old fire. Bending low, Elijah wrapped his hand around a long metal pole and studied the business end of the branding iron in the soft morning light. “Mighty curious why you boys have a pen of cattle with with the P/B brand but in my hand I got a branding iron telling me a different story.
“We don’t know nothin’ bout that. Maybe that was from the old coot who owned this place. How should we know.”
“So you boys weren’t getting ready to reconfigure the brands of any of those penned animals?”
“No sir, Sheriff.”
“Its Ranger. Special Ranger. I chase cattle rustlers. That’s the only law I’m concerned about. If I study those penned cattle, I won’t find any with different brands? Is that correct?”
“Come on Sheri…Special Ranger. You know how roundups work. There very well could be a mixture of brands.”
“I guess I’ll see.” Elijah Sackett walked farther away from the trailer. A crowded pen of bawling cattle waited deeper in the yard. The creak of the cabin door forced Elijah to turn. The blacksmith Bronner walked out the door busy stuffing his arms into a jacket. Elijah waved the man over and waited by the corral. He watched as the cattle turned and milled in the close confines.
“Those gentlemen seem to think if there are any cattle branded other than the P/B, well, that’s how roundups work. What do you think. How many other ranchers would have cattle roaming back here?”
Before the blacksmith answered, a shot echoed out of the mountains rising at the far end of the open fields . A pause and then several more shots ringed the towering rocks.
“Doesn’t sound all that far from here?” Elijah commented to himself. “What do you make of that?” he asked when Bronner closed the gap to the corral. “Could be warning off cougars of some other varmints?”
“Trouble, the way I see it.” The blacksmith spat, turning his face toward the back of the property. “With the happenings at the ranch lately, I can’t see any good coming of that.
“How good do you know the country?” Elijah Sackett changed direction from the pen of cattle to a smaller pole corral holding the horses the pair brought along in the trailer the evening before.
“Not great, not any longer, but if this rustling has been going back over time, I’d bet we find a well marked trail that leads us right up into the hills. Probably close to where those shots were fired.”
“Saddle up the horses if you will,” Elijah called, again changing routes and weaving back toward the trailer and the men locked inside. Tapping on the side he spoke through the vented aluminum wall. “You boys still have nothing you’d like to tell me,” he asked referring to the gun shots echoing out of the mountains. When no answer returned he continued.
“Looks like I gotta be leaving. Somebody might be needing my help up yonder. Whoever is shooting up in those hills, you should pray they don’t hate the law. If I can’t return, your futures won’t look so good. You guys all locked up in this trailer with no food and water as such.”
The harsh bark of a rifle broke into Joshua’s uneasy slumber, jolting his eyelids wide open. The boom echoed off the surrounding rocks then rose to the heavens. Thoughts slowed by severe trauma revolved in a scattered pattern inside his throbbing skull. Blank eyes stared skyward. Their opening met with another rapid succession of further gunshots reverberating inside the rock walls of the canyon where he lay.
Choking back a lump clogging his throat, Joshua began to rise. Instinct more than experience warned him to seek shelter from possible danger. The arm used to raise his ragged body off the damp ground told of serious injuries, before a fresh wave of misery brought forward by badly fractured ribs and bruised and torn muscles replaced the previous protests.
Joshua bent up at the waist. His mind numbed. His memory clouded but his fight for survival strong. He tried to drag a leg underneath to help push himself upright. The effort failed. His traumatized brain wondering about his lack of mobility and with a dull realization before a sense of panic built.
Then, an unnatural snort off to the side forced Joshua to twist his injury laden body. Not many feet away, one of the visions straight out of his nightmare lay flopped on its side. The large animal’s chest and exposed insides rose and fell with rapid breaths. Bursts of air mixed with tortured sighs of agony leaked from damaged lungs and told of pain and suffering. Joshua stared at the downed horse and tried to navigate between nightmare and reality.
Flashbacks brought the snarling mouth of a beast returning to his memory. Joshua squirmed. His body recoiled while reliving the feeling of helplessness as the crazed eyes of the cat locked on him. Once again he felt the predator’s foul breath cascade over his face. Then the hooves of the horse flashed into his head. The animal’s side torn and bloody. The horse’s sharp hooves lashing out, distracting the attacking mountain lion.
A new threat broke the trance and pushed aside the slips of horror. Rolling rocks and snapping branches echoed down the narrow bottom of the canyon, the sounds travelling from somewhere not too distance. Animalistic instincts filtered into Joshua’s addled brain. The overriding feelings of survival invoked at the sudden noises. His urge to find shelter triggered by the gunshots that had brought him back to the land of the woke. The latter sounds reverberating off the solid rock lining the canyon bottom.
What did the sounds mean to him, Joshua’s numbed brain failed to comprehend, but the flashes of danger building inside seemed all too real. Adrenaline surged through crushed and battered arteries, breaking past the muck still clinging to his scrambled thoughts. The lack of movement in his legs from a previous accident, remembered, and a new plan to escape formed by the growing urgency of survival that fluttered in his mind.
The rifle shot mixed with a crush of pressure in my head as I flung myself off the back of the horse. A compilation of actions and sounds filled my senses. The whinny of the roan as it refused to back any farther onto the unstable ledge, the scared animal raising high off it’s front feet in defiance, the concussive air from the bullet passing close by and then the protective reflexes of my brain as I crashed hard to the ground.
A brief pause held me pinned to the trail before the weathered materials of the rocky ledge shook loose. My feet kicked up over my head as I somersaulted down the sharp incline. With remarkable clarity, through eyes frozen wide open in shock, an imprint of my downward spiral recorded on my conscious while a jumble of noises provided an accompanying soundtrack of scraping rocks, breaking tree branches and deep throated groans escaping from my throat as I crashed uncontrollably down the steep slide.
Instinct cemented my grip on the rifle pried free of the saddle scabbard as my horse reared. That the rifle was empty, the tingle of reality echoed inside my brain. My many years serving in the army prepared me for the unexpected. My other hand ripped the twin saddle bags from their resting place behind the saddle. A box of shells waited inside the leather pouches. Could I maintain my hold on the gun and the leather bags as I tumbled downward? Amid the shocks of unexpected contacts and the fear of falling into the unknown, I squeezed my fingers tighter.
A loud rush of breath emptied from my lungs. I smacked solidly against the trunk of a shallow rooted tree. I gulped to regain the lost air while starring back up the mountain. The open end of a rifle barrel peeked over the ledge. The dull grey metal glinting in the broken sunlight. A chunk of bark bit into my cheek seconds before the report of the gun shot echoed down the canyon. The small tree shuddered from my falling weight and dislodged. Awkwardly, my slide deeper into the canyon continued.
On the way down the side of the canyon, the thin trunk of another young sapling rose up to slow my fall. The weight of my body and the hand clutching the rifle opted for different routes around the tree. The bones in my wrist protested when I refused to release my claim on the gun. The strain halted my decent for a brief second before I gulped past the sudden excruciating pain and dragged the gun back around, allowing my fall to resume.
A quick barrage of bullets rushed down the slope and disturbed the chilled morning air while leaded projectiles exploded against the ground forcing shards of rock to scatter. The rapid impacts released angry puffs of dirt marking my fall down the canyon wall.