Rodney Upward’s gang hadn’t even bothered to try disguising the fact that they’d been at Weeping Widow Waterfall. By all indications, Pen Garber had ridden in first by an entirely different route, not at all the way we came, as Julia had been the one to cut his incoming trail. He’d arrived from the south and had been waiting for the others, had even slept, tying his horse off in the trees before taking up a hidden position behind an old Douglas fir deadfall.
At least that’s what it looked like. The horse’s position in the timber had been trampled down thoroughly and decorated with horse apples and Garber hadn’t even bothered to kick snow over his own scat.
The lights were bothering me a little; I turned so nobody could see and did my best to blink them away. Until my junior year in high school, back Before when our family still thought we had a chance to survive the last gasp of the blackface pandemic, my first summer hitting the rodeo circuit in a serious way, those lights had given me an advantage in the arena. It hadn’t dawned on me yet that I was able to see auras like those California psychics claimed they could do, but whatever the description of the talent, I’d realized I saw things a bit differently than most. Nobody my size was riding bulls any more, except for me; all the guys going to the National Finals were practically midgets, the tallest of them topping out at five foot four. Me at six-six? Unheard of, though back in the day, mid-twentieth century or a bit earlier, there had been big men winning money in the event. When I came along, competing with the wiry little cowboys at age seventeen and big enough the announcers started making jokes about me being the bull in the chute rather than the rider, it took a little while to shut them up.
But not long. I could see a bull’s aura start in a new direction a split second before his body made the move, just enough to allow me to react, to head where the animal was heading instead of getting caught off balance and losing out to centrifugal force.
It didn’t work every time, of course; some bulls are just too athletic, and in a match of pure power, seventeen hundred pounds beats two-fifty every single time. But I was qualifying on right at forty percent of my bulls and competing well in steer wrestling until Capriosi vilify came home to roost and the world turned inside out.
Focusing on the tiger last night, I’d felt that old edge, anticipated and countered every shift–night only made the colors brighter for me–until her wounds became too much and she was flailing at the end. She’d had a clean aura, too, sort of molten gold, except it was shot through with ragged streaks of red and black and dirty greasy green from all the pain she was in already. My bet was that she’d been a good mother, an excellent, loving mother, not merely a predator by nature. It had been both relief and grief to witess that light fading out.
And thank goodness I wasn’t one to see ghosts; having to watch her leave the body would not have been a fun trip.
Today, the lights were too much. I needed to be alone to study the sign left behind by the gang, but that wasn’t happening. I certainly couldn’t tell the rest of the posse, hey, back up the trail a quarter mile or so, would you? Your auras are blinding me here! No one in the world knew about that side of me, nor would they. So I blinked away as much as I could and then turned back to the task at hand, trying to filter out the blazing blue-green light around Dawg, shot with thin black streaks of hate that were slowly fading, thank the powers that be, now that he was no longer held slave at Fort Steel. Julia Gunderson blazed crimson, a pure red that made fresh blood look dull; there was a woman of deep and powerful passions. Fortunately, her light was so different from the others that it wasn’t hard to ignore it, or at least keep it from confusing the issue. Dawg obviously had the hots for her, and who could blame him, but if those two ever hooked up, the path would be anything but smooth…for either of them.
Tommy Gunderson’s aura made the most sense, a rich respectable milk chocolate brown–oh my, why did I have to think of that? Haven’t seen a Hershey’s bar since the Fall! Tommy was a being of pure organization. As the eldest of Russ and Ruth’s children, he’d be first in line to take over the horse ranch and hunting guide operation in due course. He’d do a bang-up job, too, but Heaven help his future wife if she left the dishes undone or dirt on the floor. OCD for sure, not that the term was widely known these days.
“Small poles cut here,” Tommy observed, interrupting my useless ruminations. “Not enough for a lodge, but maybe a travois? They’d need something to haul Jay Dotson; he wasn’t in any shape to ride forever. Except there don’t seem to be any drag marks heading out of here.”
That was curious. “Hnh. Any of those horses they stole from your place super gentle? Like you could load a live wolf on ’em and they’d just plod along, steady as you please?”
Gunderson scratched his stubble. “Maybe. Julia?”
The girl with the sword nodded. “Besse.”
“Besse. Yeah. Jake, they do have one of our older pack mares, about the most gentle and uncomplaining equine you’re ever gonna meet. What’re you thinking?”
“Hnh. Well, I’ve never seen it done, and quite frankly I can’t quite imagine making it work myself, but it just sorta come to me…if them poles are long enough, maybe they coud have lashed a carry litter that had a horse in front and your gentle Besse in back. Sort of like the old thing about putting the cart before the horse, except most of the litter would be out there in front of her. Think they could convince her to go along with that?”
“In a heartbeat,” Julia affirmed, “as long as they put old Bert in front of her. Those two have been inseparable since they were foals. But it would take a real horseman to make that happen, one who knows livestock and thinks outside of the box, both. Is this kid Upward that good?”
“Got me.” Her brother grinned ruefully. “But he’s good enough he ain’t been caught yet. So maybe?”
I still wasn’t sure. Thousands of years of horse stories out there and I’d never heard of such a thing. Horses just naturally pull, and they’ll follow readily enough, put push half a load? They could surely sling a litter between two horses side by side, but most of the trails they were traveling would have to be covered single file, so…a mystery for sure.
“Well, I’ll believe it when I see it, but we might as well get moving. It’s clear they rested here a while, their wounded man is still alive, and yet they’re highly mobile. They get any farther ahead of us and we might end up chasing them all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Or the Gulf, by the way they’re headed so far.” I checked Buck’s cinch, gave Slash the “Scout!” command, and headed out. Behind me came red-light Julia, then Dawg, and finally Tommy at the rear. The assault on my senses lessened as soon as they were all out of my line of sight. Plants, even the tall evergreens that covered these mountain slopes, had auras all right, but they mostly stayed put and didn’t flare enough to distract. The stud’s steady pink-and-gold was never a problem unless there was a mare in heat nearby, though when there was, he flamed almost as bright as curvy Julia, and Slash had politely disappeared into the timber.
Not long after midday, we came to the first major fork among the many game trails in the area. Ahead lay the open foothills and then the broad, sweeping plains where for the moment the snow looked to be less but there would be little protection from the wind if a blizzard caught us out in the open. I’d been lucky these past decades, but a distant ancestor of mine had been trapped just that way on a fine November day in what used to be North Dakota. He’d lived, had in fact walked home under his own power once the snowfall abated, but both feet were frozen and had to be cut off. That story chilled me to the bone; I did not relish the idea of going around these parts footless.
Which would of course be some different from being footloose and fancy free.
Footless. Footloose. Heh.
Still, there was nothing for it. The Demons had gone this way, their tracks clear as could be, and they’d shot a cow elk along the way, the poor fool ungulate having tragically stumbled right across their path. The gang had taken the best parts, of course, including the animal’s backstrap and one hindquarter, but they’d left the rest of it for the scavengers. Who in this case were us. For the moment, we’d take their leavings, lash meat wrapped in hide atop the pack panniers, play jackals to their lions.
“Pretty nice of them to feed us, eh?” Dawg delivered the line with a straight face, his small knife working steadily as we cut and wrapped for the trail. The gang was far enough ahead that the meat had frozen, but we didn’t have to do anything fancy until we made camp, just chop enough hide, hair, and bone to get rid of the lower legs.
“They’re just regular Santa Claus types,” Julia agreed. I was pretty sure that was the first conversation between those two. Downright romantic. I could see them in their rocking chairs forty years from now, out on the back porch watching the sun set, smiling as their grandchildren played in the yard. “Do you remember the first thing you ever said to me, honey? We were out there at the edge of the timber, chasing after that Rodney Upward bunch….” Yep, downright romantic.
Nice of them to feed us? That’s when it hit me. “Slash!”
The big wardog had been out patrolling while we worked, but not so far away he couldn’t hear my voice. It took a minute or two before he came loping into sight, his tongue lolling happily out to one side. “Come here, boy!” I picked up a lower elk leg piece and held it out toward him, but not to eat. “Test!”
At once his entire demeanor changed. He trotted forward until he was within a few yards of me, then slowed to a walk, sort of slinking almost sideways like a coyote. He stretched his nose out slowly until it was close to the hide, sniffed…and looked up at me, quizzical.
“Good boy,” I said, dropping the leg and gesturing toward the remaining hindquarter. “Test!” That would be the best meat left behind, the steaks we’d be most likely to cook first for our evening meal. Slash edged forward, ears pricked forward, sniffed–and sneezed. His ears snapped back flat along his skull. Hackles came up along his neck. He growled, low and fierce, seriously angry at the red meat.
“Stop everything!” I yelled, though there’d been no need. The others had been watching and they weren’t fools.
The meat had been poisoned.
Dawg shrugged, wiping his blade off on a bit of elk hide before returning it to its sheath. “I never did believe in Santa Claus.”
Jula was shaking her head. “Smartass,” she muttered.
That was the end of that parade. We would need to cleanse our blades thoroughly before cutting into anything else that might serve as food. All Rodney Upward leavings would now be justifiably suspect. We’d have to hunt for ourselves if we wanted fresh meat.
At the moment, the only meat I wanted was that redheaded outlaw, served up with a side of hot lead and sent straight to Hell for the Devil’s dinner.
“Mount up,” I said, the grimness in my voice obvious even to me. “We’ve got us a bad man to catch.” We moved out at a steady trot, closing the distance between us and our quarry without a doubt, but our hearts were not easy. If Upward was both canny enough and ruthless enough to stoop to poison, what else might he do? He hadn’t killed anybody at Fort 24, an amazing feat considering the size of his crime spree, but clearly that had been calculated, not a matter of the heart. We were dogging his trail now and the gloves were off. An ambush would have been easier to set up in the timber, but it wasn’t impossible out here in these rolling hills, and there were other options. A trap along the trail, disguised under the snow and designed to cripple a horse, for instance. As furious as the man had made me by stooping to the use of a woman’s weapon, i.e. poison, laming Buck–or worse–might tip me completely over the edge.
That would not be a good thing. The last time I’d lost it, thirty-seven men had died, and to this day I wanted to resurrect them so I could kill them all over again. I’d lost friends, nearly fifty pounds, and far too much of myself. It couldn’t happen again. I wouldn’t let it happen again. To that end, I fought down the rage, arm wrestled it into submission so I could focus on the outlaw trail ahead of us. I had nearly made a deadly mistake, thinking we could take advantage of that meat; only the big dog’s sensitive nose had saved us. But now…now I had to zero in on the silver lining.
We didn’t know exactly what Rodney had used to poison the elk carcass, but he didn’t know the wrath he’d unleashed upon himself by tainting the meat, either. Had the rest of the posse suddenly decided to turn tail for home, it would have made no difference; I would have gladly gone on alone until these self styled Demons were ashes to ashes, dust to dust, weather be damned, in Death I trust.