That made three of us that had no idea of what was ahead. Cicero talked of a discussion he had in a saloon one time with a rider from Wyoming. The rider said there were more dead ends in these mountains than there were good trail and even the deer get lost now and then. Shorts looked around like there was something lost before he said, “I did hear of a park in this area where the outlaws met to swap stock going north with those going south.”
“Why would they do that,” I asked.
“Easy reason. If you stole horses in the north, it’d be hard to sell them in the north. Same with cows. By making the swap, you end up with critters that no one’s gonna know the brands on and you can forge bills of sale much easier.”
“So, where is this park?”
“Beats me. I just heard of it, but this collection of mountains and such look like what that rider described to me. Said they weren’t too happy to see strangers in this area either.”
“Well, then. Let’s announce our arrival and see what happens.” I said as it pulled out my Winchester and headed for a small herd of elk a mile or more away. “Find a camp site and smoke it up. I’ll be right back.”
The young doe was easy to skin due to the winter fat she was working on. The three of us cut off some nice chunks of meat and began roasting over the fire which was now almost smokeless except for the fat drippings sputtering as they hit the hot coals. The night closed in around us.
Morning brought company.
“Hello the fire,” came out of the trees.
“Come on in. Hands in sight,” Shorts hollered while Cicero and I found holes we had spotted the night before.
The man came in riding a real fine horse that had not been ridden too far or for very long. He passed by my hole by not more than ten feet. “I got some biscuits in my bags. If you got the bacon, we got a meal.” He looked around.
“Where’s the other two?” he asked.
“What other two?” Shorts looked up. “I got coffee and nothing more. Even the coffee is puny, second pot with the same grounds. Lite and set.”
The man swung down on the off side of his horse from me and Shorts, but right into the full sight of Cicero. Then I saw the rest of them coming in from behind Cicero.
I stepped out. “Tell your friends to keep their hands away from their guns or they will die.”
“Who’s gonna kill them?” he asked as he turned to see me.
The two other riders moved in close to Cicero and right on past him. If I hadn’t known where he was, I could not have been able to see him.
“Me.” I turned out into plain sight for all to see. Pointing at the two riders, “Get off your horses and lead them in here.”
“What’s your problem?” asked the first man.
I let him think on it as the two men got off their horses. One of them made the horse move so him getting off would be hidden from me. His boot hit the ground and Cicero stuck his gun in the man’s back, “Walk to the fire.” He looked at the other rider who was some startled. Cicero was only five feet from him.
The first man was tall and lean. His clothes were well worn but neat. The gun on his left hip was worn, but ready. The tie down had been slipped off. He just stood there looking at me.
He said, “You’re trespassing on private property.”
“Didn’t see no signs,” Shorts said from his spot on the ground near the fire.
“You must have missed them. I am the owner of this ranch. I am Bordeau.”
Cicero said, “Bordeau, ain’t that some sissy wine folks back east drink?”
Bordeau drew his gun as he brought it to bear on Cicero. I put a round in his gun hand taking his pinky off as it pushed the Colt out of his hand.
He cussed shaking his hand flinging blood all over spooking the horses they had ridden in on. “Mister Bordeau, I reckon we got off on a bad start. My name is Daniel. This is Cicero and the man with the bum leg is Shorts. Cicero is long on knowledge and Shorts is short on patience. I would recommend that you and your men come into the fire while Cicero takes your horses to the line. At the fire you can enjoy some of our weak coffee and pleasant conversation.”
“I will kill you, whoever you are.”
“Not with that gun or hand you aren’t. Sit down and shut up.” I was getting madder.
Cicero relieved the other two of their weapons, including a big knife from each, led the horses to the line, and returned to camp from different direction, nodding to me as he leaned on a tree.
“Now then, Mr. Bordeau, we are looking for a young lady, our boss. She is being deprived of her freedom and her ranch by a fat man that owns the Lazy E ranch. I believe his name might be Everson. Have you seen or heard of such a person or such persons trespassing on your ranch?”
He just stared at me.
I put a round between his toes. “Now, I took off your pinky and sent your gun to the scrap yard. I don’t want you to doubt that I missed your toes on purpose. Did you see or hear of such people in the last few days?” I jacked the hammer back for emphasis.
“He’s lying, boss. I can tell by his eyes.” Shorts swung his six gun to point in Bordeau’s direction. “Bet I can take an eye out without hurting him too bad. Might just smart for a while, but he’ll never forget the day he met us.”
“No.” I walked to the other two men. One was a fidgety and a saloon gal in church. “You. Have you seen or heard of any such folks around here lately?”
He flinched when the gun barrel just naturally pointed at his face. I lowered it to his fat belly.
He got to dancing like he had to find a tree.
Cicero stuck his gun in the man’s ear. “Well?”
“Well?” Cicero pushed on the gun a bit and almost made the man lose his balance.
The second man caught him and pushed him away. “Get away from me. Answer the question. You do know the answer, don’t you? It’s simple, yes or no.”
Bordeau started to say something. I said, “You had your chance. Shut up.”
“Everson was through here two days ago. Swapped out horses and headed north. I saw no woman or girl. He had three men with him, but swapped out 13 horses.”
“Thank you. Cicero let him go. Give him back his gun and knife. He will need it to survive until he gets where he’s going.”
“Where am I going?”
“Anyplace you want, but I would suggest someplace far from here. I hear Texas is nice this time of year.” I gave him my toughest look which I’m sure didn’t come near to matching Bordeau’s.
The third man said, “Can I ride with him. He and I been pards for two years now and only got in with this crowd cuz it looked easier than playing with cows and no one wanted us over the winter. I liked Texas and I ain’t got no posters on me down there.”
“Go. Cicero, give them both back their gear and watch them carefully. I turned back to the leader of the trio. “Mr. Bordeau, whatever am I gonna do with you?”
“You better kill me or I will kill soon’s I can.”
“That just is not the proper respect for your captor. Tell ya what, I’ll leave ya here with you six gun and all the ammo you want. You can walk back to the hole you crawled out of and know that if I see you again looking my way, you will die. Now go sit under that big fir over there and get some sleep.” I walked to his horse and stroked the neck and mane. “I do like your horse. Maybe I’ll just swap you for him.”
“You ain’t got anything I want.” He was getting real grouchy.
“You ain’t gonna kill me, kid. You ain’t got the guts.”
“Let me see you again after today and you will find out the hard way. Without your pinky, you are gonna have to learn gun slinging all over again. And, I gather you are a hired gun.”
He sat quiet.
“Who’s your boss.”
“I am the boss.”
“No wonder them two wanted out. No man wants to work for a boss that can be beat by a kid. Them boys were looking for someone to take care of them.” I stopped and looked around like I was thinking. “Get over under the fir; I’m sick of playing with you. Now get!”
He started to swing the right hand and I dropped him with my gun barrel planted across his skull. I grabbed his feet and drug him over to the spot under the fir. I sat him astraddle the trunk and tied both feet together, and then did the same with his hands. He was truly loving that tree. Bark was bristly. He wouldn’t like that at all.
Shorts was roasting elk when I got done. Cicero walked back to the fire at the same time I did. “Boss, what now?”
“We keep tracking. We are now sure that the trail is still the right one. They are headed for Wyoming. Whether they get there or not we don’t know. We don’t know a destination, we only know the direction.” I looked to Shorts, “You up to this, partner?”
“Just try to leave me behind.”
We finished what we wanted of the elk. I partially cut the ropes holding Bordeau, laid his gun next to him (didn’t work anyhow), walked to Solomon and got him ready for the ride. We killed the fire and away we went. I decided it wasn’t going to do us any good to try to sneak up on them and get the drop. So, we’d have to follow and take our chances on an ambush. But, we’d make much better time and close the gap quicker.
The trail laid before us like the stairs to Heaven that Jacob saw. Only this time there were no angels on the trail. That was a truth for sure.
Due north we traveled. Finding a campsite with an hour after we took to the trail with small boot prints around the fire gave us hope. No sign of blood or bloody bandages. There was one place where someone slept that was more than ten feet from all the others. I checked it out very carefully. Back up under a scrubby plant was the Rafter B brand scratch in the dirt and partially covered with a leaf. We were on the right trail for sure. Cicero said the fire was cold and he figured they were two days ahead of us.
I said, “How’d you figure that?”
“That’s what the man said when you questioned him.”
“Well now, aren’t you the smart one.”
“Yes I am.” He turned to climb aboard his horse, turned, “I’ll bet they’re headed for that pass and are probably moving up the trail to it right now.”
“I am not going to argue with you. You’re too smart for me.”
Shorts yelled, “Let’s ride. I can’t take much more of you two clowns. I gotta find the circus you come outta and give you back.” He was smiling.
I gave him a phony smile back and swung into the saddle we were at the bottom of the main climb by sundown. Like most trails to passes and saddles in this part of the world, there was a stream running not far from the trail. The sun was already behind the mountains to the west and the temperature was dropping. We built a fire well sheltered from the breeze and the trail, pulled out the last pieces of elk, and set to roasting. We ate it more hot than cooked so we could curl up in our blankets. Shorts took the first watch. He said his leg was hurting some and he wanted to get good and tired. I changed the dressing and saw there was no sign of infection or such. He was happy at that news.
Sleep came easy.
Cicero woke me up way too soon.
A hot bed of coals allowed me to stay warm as I listened to the last of the night.
Soon as I could see fifty feet, I woke up the other two, saddled the horses, and let them graze a bit before everybody was ready to mount up. Knowing the trail was gonna be steep and rocky, we checked the shoes all twelve feet and found nothing to trouble us.
When the sun’s rays hit us we were two miles up the trail and coming close to a false pass. The real pass showed behind the one we were approaching. “Cicero, you wanna check out that false pass and make sure there is no one waiting for us?”
He rode on ahead and just as he got to within range of the pass he turned off the trail. He got off his horse and tied it in a spot anyone up top couldn’t see. Then he went deeper into the trees to circle around their flanks if there was anyone up there. A good half hour later he was standing in the false pass waving us up.
I picked up his horse on the way.
Shorts was hurting pretty bad as we approached Cicero. I asked, “You gonna make it, friend?”
“Just try to leave me behind. I’ll be riding when you quit.”
Never underestimate the power of a man’s pride on something like this. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself he could make it. I responded, “That convinces me,” and meant it.
I handed Cicero the reins to his horse. He said, “There was a man here. He’s behind the rocks over there.” When he pointed I saw the knife cut on his arm. “That bad?”
“Nah. He just nicked me as he fell. I got him from behind and as he fell he spun. Dead on his feet, he got me with a touch.”
I checked it out. It was a bit more than a touch, but should be nothing to worry about. Now I was riding with two men that were limited in their abilities due to the outlaws. I wasn’t going to have much chance to do any talking to Everson or any of his gang. That after noon, late, we crossed the pass after I checked it out. No one was waiting to give us a well-earned reception. We rode through without feeling any disappointment concerning the reception not coming off.
The downhill side didn’t offer any good campsites. We curled up on the trail. Cisco took the first watch and I got the last again. My eyes opened to a well-lit world. Shorts was leaning against a rock wrapped in his blanket snoring up a storm. Speaking of storms, black clouds were rolling over the mountain ridge to the west.
I yelled, “Let’s get out of here. This is no place to be in a storm.”
Shorts jumped to his feet before he thought. Fortunately, he didn’t put full weight on that bad leg. “What?”
Cicero said, “That doesn’t look good. I hate mountain storms. We have a ways to go to get below the tree line and under cover. You got a slicker, Daniel?”
“No. Shorts, you got a slicker?” I asked.
“No. Our blankets will have to do.”
The wind hit us hard enough that the horses staggered. We kicked them to go faster. Solomon wanted to run, but the shale and gravel wouldn’t allow that. He’d end up with a broken leg and I’d have to shoot him if he ran. The first marbles of hail hit us as we ducked into the first clump of trees.
Cicero, in the lead, yelled, “Keep going. There’s a better place down a ways.” He threw his blanket over his hat and most of his body.
Shorts and I did the same. It was hard to keep the blanket in place with the wind blowing as hard as it was, but without it the hail would be very painful. Solomon didn’t like it at all and tried to get to Cicero in a hurry. I held him back.
The first crack of lightening hit the first clump of trees just as we entered Cicero’s choice of hidey holes. The first clump of trees burst into flames. If we had been there, we would have died.
“Thanks, Cicero,” yelled Shorts.
I help him off his horse and, with three blankets, set up a shelter that would keep most of the hail and the rain that followed off us and the horses. The horses were all spooked and hard to keep close under the shelter. Even Solomon in all his wisdom wanted to run with the wind. To do so would have been his death. The lightening might still take us away from this world. I had no fear of that, matter of fact, on some days it seemed like a good idea. God was in control, not me.
We waited. I tried to imagine what it would have been like if that lightening had hit us in camp just below the top. It wasn’t a pretty mental picture at all. Fried cowboys and preacher did not sound too appetizing or productive.
As I stood there trying to hold the blanket shelter together by sheer willpower I go to thinking, which in the past has been sparse and not too productive. What had I gotten myself and Tor into? It had killed Tor. Yeah, I knew he could have walked away from my stupid ideas, but he wasn’t that kind of man. How many times had Diane been with me and how many times had I let her get taken away? This prayer stuff was shaky at best. God wasn’t my servant and He wasn’t going to jump every time I said, ‘hey, God.’ His plan was best, that I knew in my head and heart, but sometimes I questioned. Was that okay? Was I allowed to question God?
“What about the killing? Was that okay if I was protecting someone or even just me? Should I be doing what I am doing? Is this what God wants me to do or is this what I want to do because Diane is pretty and in trouble?”