It was more or less in the nature of an inspection tour, really. True, I hadn’t been over the ridge behind the spring to visit the box canyon since…what, right after calving season? Early May, maybe. Somewhere around there. With an absence of that length, it would have been more than understandable to come this way jist fer the fun of it.
Except I didn’t know much about fun. Or care.
Pleasure? That’s another matter entirely. I took pleasure in many things. The company of good people, the song of the meadowlark at sunup, straddling a good bronc…the list was endless.
Anyway, this little jaunt weren’t fer fun or pleasure neither one. I needed to scout the canyon rim, take a look at the buffalo herd. Wolf Eyes said it looked to him like we were about to exceed carrying capacity, and we’d either need to kick some buffs loose before long or else find a way to use the meat without giving away the existence of the seed herd.
Plus, Scrap Hannigan wanted me to take a look at Sapphire Cave. His one-man mining efforts easily produced more good quality raw stones than we could shake a stick at, but he’d found something special.
I was more’n some interested in that.
And then there was the escapee.
Eight days ago, eight convicts had escaped from the Territorial Prison at Cañón City. As of this morning, all but one man had been recaptured. The remaining fugitive, one Albert Miller, age 44, was a very, very bad man.
We knew this because Sheriff Robert Olsen had ridden out to Flywheel this morning to let us know Miller had been spotted on JG land yesterday.
“He’s killed at least nine people that we know about,” he’d informed us, “mostly females. Prefers a knife or even his bare hands to a gun. On one girl, he used a garrote.”
Tam had asked the question we were all thinking. “How come he didn’t git the death penalty?”
“Don’t really know. He did git a bunch of life sentences tacked on end to end. Added up to 140 years. Anyway, I know you folks keep a lookout as a matter of habit, but I didn’t figure an extra heads up in this case could hurt any. Gotta git going. There’s five other ranches he could possibly hit the way he was headed. I need to touch base with all five before dark.”
None of us worried overmuch about a stray murderer wandering the county, but we didn’t take Robert’s warning lightly, either. Scrap and Wolf Eyes were already gone over the ridge when the Sheriff rode in, so I’d bring them up to date when I got to the cave. The children were on restriction, never outa sight of an adult. No less than two men would remain within shouting distance of the ranch yard at all times until the murderer was back behind bars or killed, and we’d set up an emergency code fer the dinner bell: Three quick bongs, pause, then three more.
We weren’t dumb enough to start believing our own press. Jist ’cause we’d never been truly caught off guard by an attacker didn’t mean it could never happen.
I stepped down off Joker at my favorite observation spot, tied him off to a tree limb, and reached fer the binoculars. Which was when nature called, so the glasses went back into the saddle bag fer a minute. Easier squatting behind a pine tree, taking care of business, without unnecessary opticals confusing the issue.
All right, back to my ritual scan. From this position–not the one behind the pine tree, but the one where the timber opened up a bit–you could see down the slope to the cave entrance and, eighty yards across the draw from that, Scrap’s cabin and horse corral. The gelding belonging to the young Ute, a temperamental sorrel named Malo, was there…and, largely obscured behind him, so was Hannigan’s smaller mustang.
Both were saddled and had their bridle reins tied off to a fence rail. At a guess, the men were inside Sapphire Cave at the moment, gathering up the last of today’s load of gemstones. They’d be bringing the stones down to the ranch fer Doug Franzen to categorize, heat treat, and in the case of the better rocks, facet into the sparklers that commanded top price in Philadelphia.
Wait a minute.
There. Jist inside the treeline.
A shambling figure moved into the open, heading fer the horse corral without a doubt. It looked like a small, misshapen bear to the naked eye at this distance; only the binoculars revealed it to be human.
Or at least subhuman, from what the Sheriff had told us. Albert Miller. Had to be.
Wolf Eyes, followed closely by Scrap Hannigan, crawled on all fours from the cave entrance, stood up…and spotted Miller. Both Wolf and Scrap had rifles, which they looked to be fixing to use in short order.
I thought about Tam the tall tale teller, my partner and a fellow who not only talked to horses–which we all did–but sometimes the horses talked back. Ponies never spit English at me inside my own head that I was aware of, but the tale teller’s tales suddenly give me an idea. I reared back mentally like I was fixing to throw something…and hurled my thoughts at my two friends down there, tried to slam the concept right into their skulls:
“Don’t shoot! Let Malo handle it!”
To my dying day, I’ll always believe it worked. They didn’t mind-talk back at me any more’n a horse woulda, but they didn’t gun down Miller, neither. Jist lowered their shooters and silently slipped behind a couple a handy boulders.
Settled in to watch.
See, I’d had a premonition. A hunch. An insight, if you would. Sheriff Robert Olsen had said mass murderer Albert Miller was a really, really bad man. He hadn’t said the fellow was a really, really smart man.
Any one of us three natural born, highly trained survivor types woulda felt three sets a hostile human eyes watching his every move. Maybe Miller did, too–he stopped ever few steps and peered around, suspicious-like–but he kept on making progress toward the horses.
That was it. He didn’t exactly look like no bear, come to think of it. He looked exactly like one a them artist’s pictures of a Neanderthal.
The cave men walk among us.
There’d never been any doubt which horse he’d pick. The sorrel was obviously bigger, faster, roughly speaking a thousand times more Escape Express capable than the mousy little mustang could ever hope to be. On a mount like the sorrel, Neanderthal Man could be King of the Wide Open Spaces. Them nasty, evil folks chasing the poor innocent cave dude could jist eat his dust once he was humped over a horse like that.
Besides, the mustang was scared to death, pulling back hard on the reins that held him fast to the fence rail, eyes rolling at the sight, sound, and most likely the smell of the hulking horror advancing steadily upon ’em. By contrast, the mighty red mount was calm. Flicked an ear to ward off a fly buzzing around his head, and that was about it.
Miller untied Malo’s reins. Led him out through the corral gate. Climbed awkwardly into the saddle, and thumped his heels against the animal’s ribs. Giddyup horsie!
Malo hadn’t even bit the bugger. I woulda been a bit jealous…had I not known what was coming.
The Ute, Wolf Eyes, could ride Malo anywhere, anytime. So could Tam, the one-eighth Comanche, white Blackfoot warrior known to the Piegan as Crazy Rifle.
Anybody else…not so much.
It was like the big red beast didn’t even feel them thumping heels, and maybe he really didn’t, being deep in his own world as he was. He sucked in that one big breath like he always done when he was fixing to go on the fly. Let it out.
And all Hell broke loose. Malo crouched, then sprang straight in the air like a jackrabbit with a firecracker up his a**. When he come back to Earth, the jolt drove Miller’s tailbone up somewhere between his ears. Split him like a turkey wishbone at Thanksgiving. Give his hemorrhoids hemorrhoids.
Which was, of course, simply by way of introduction. The bronc’s next move was to run jist long enough to git up a full head a steam, then leap forward, up, and to the right all at the same time. Which both slammed the badman’s right knee up against the trunk of one of the biggest Ponderosa pines on the mountain…and slammed his upper body forward against a sturdy limb at something like thirty miles an hour.
The effect was dramatic. Albert Miller’s body wrapped around that tree limb so far his nose met up with his left kneecap. At which point he was of course no longer on a horse; the red had fled.
Malo calmly trotted back near–but not into–the corral, put his head down, and went to cropping grass.
I was laughing so hard, tears were streaming outa my eyes. When I finally had to stop long enough to suck in a little wind or pass out, I could hear Wolf Eyes and Scrap Hanningan doing the same.
When we finally hauled what was left of the really, really bad man into Walsenburg in the freight wagon–he weren’t in no shape to fork a bronc–the doc that examined him in the jail figured out the fellow had a busted tailbone, something like six or eight busted ribs, one collapsed lung, busted right kneecap, and a thoroughly deflated ego.
“I’d say he won’t be up to any more prison escapes for a good long while,” the doctor told us. Not Doc Chouteau; Georges was gone up to Denver and wouldn’t be back fer a week.
I grinned. “Can we quote you on that?.”
“Surely.” The sawbones nodded, adding, “That’s my professional opinion, and I’m sticking to it.”
Naturally, we all had to stop by the Singlejack on the way outa town. You know, fill Martin Cross in on the latest doings out at Flywheel Ranch.
“You say he picked the wrong horse?” The barman cocked an eyebrow at Scrap, who’d been elected to tell this particular tale.
The one-eyed man shrugged. “Seems like. I’m not saying he coulda stepped up on Mouse, either. Not fer sure, as scared of him as my horse was. But if he had done, if he’da made it into the saddle, he’d likely have been home free. That pony flat disappears once he’s into any kinda timber; it’s really hard to spot him. Plus, we didn’t have a thing loaded in Malo’s saddlebags yet.”
“And in Mouse’s?”
“Jist enough raw sapphires to’ve set him up fer life.”
“Well,” Martin observed sagely, “it does sound like he’s set for life anyway. So to speak.”
That set the bunch of us off again, roaring and cackling like there was no tomorrow.
What? Huh. Never thought a that. You know, you’re right; that was fun. I been too hard on myself. It’s not that I don’t know much about fun. It’s jist that my idea of fun is sorta…specialized.
The early winter run from Flywheel to the Reservation, returning the three Ute Box Boys to their people and negotiating fer their replacements, had some complexity to it this year. I studied my list, hoping I hadn’t missed anything.
Ute Run 1877: Things to Remember
1. Take oversized freight wagon. Needs 6-horse team but can carry meat from four buffs. Impress Utes with size of feast.
2. Group going west: Me, Dawson, Bodeen, Wolf Eyes, 3 Box Boys.
3. Lance Point drives wagon. Wants to hire on with us like Wolf Eyes done.
4. Get Wolf’s palomino stud back from Utes. Or not; he has ideas about that.
It looked right. Still, there was something nagging at me; something didn’t feel right about it. Like I’d missed something.
Which I had, but we didn’t find that out till our third day with the Utes on the Rez. The way west had been uneventful–relatively speaking–but our stay with the Indians was about to git eventful indeed. Turned out Wolf Eyes had his wolfie eyes on a girl in the band. I never seen it coming, still thought of the young warrior as a kid in some ways, I guess.
Hell, I didn’t even know enough about Ute cusoms to be sure in my head if it was okay for a man to marry a girl from the same band or if he was fixing to violate a tribal taboo.
But he was fourteen now, a blooded and seasoned warrior, and with his solid job at Flywheel plus the ownership of the flashy palomino and the sorrel long known to the Utes as being muy malo, he counted as a rich man among his people.
What? No…I think not. I’d say that’s a tale fer another time. Tomorrow night, maybe. Right now I’m jist too worn out, need to git some rest. You’re gonna want me at my best when I tell this one.