I didn’t stop for breakfast, just took a leak and started getting the gear back on the horses. There was no sense of Alfredo Thomas’s location hitting my awareness this morning, neither distance nor direction, and that made me nervous. Any idiot who came close to my overnight campsite would be able to tell something big had bedded down here–at least until the next snowfall they’d be able to tell–but hanging around with the sun coming up seemed a really good way to play sitting duck.
Besides, I needed to drop over the rise, find Nelson Springs, and scout out the best way to drop down from there into Rattler Gulch. Jack Hill might have managed to lose his way coming up the slope, but going down into the drainage was a lead pipe cinch.
Rattler might or might not end up being my back door exit from the area after this mission was over, but failing to check it would be stupid beyond belief.
Near the top, in an open area of the slope that had obviously been hit by wildfire at some time in the past, a pair of huge ravens peered down at our passage. Deciding we weren’t all that interesting, they eventually left their perch, shattering the predawn quiet with their raucous croaks and the audible beat of their wings.
At a guess, they were discussing something important, such as where to find food for the day. In the wild, that’s what you do: Find something to eat, avoid being eaten, and it’s all good.
Pepper’s head turned, ears forward, and I caught a glimpse of fur as a bobcat slipped deeper into the shadows on the far side of the burn.
Just over the rise, the big spotted horse stopped short, whuffing his breath in alarm, nostrils flared.
“Easy, Pep.” My voice stayed low, a bare murmer–human voices carry farther in still mountain air than you’d ever believe. I stepped down, not alarmed as the horse was but pulling the Winchester from its boot and keeping a firm grip on the reins all the same.
It was the smell that had gotten his attention, of course, not the tracks. There was barely any breeze at all, but it must have been enough for the horse to pick up the scent of the wolf pack.
Coming straight up the grade, they’d been, not following any trail at all but making their own, breaking trail through the snow, aiming straight for the ridge top. What breeze there was wafted gently down from that ridge, flowing roughly west to east, bringing the wolf news to Pepper’s sensitive nostrils.
Not a large pack; I could only make out prints from three individuals, two of them pretty much average in size for today’s reintroduced (and somewhat genetically modified) timber wolf. On the other hand, the third set was huge. I’d only known two animals who could put down tracks of that size, and Sissy had killed one of them before it could kill me.
I followed their trail with my eyes until it disappeared in the timber. “Molly,” I whispered under my breath. Then I stepped to Pepper’s other side and shoved the rifle back into its scabbard. Despite my horse’s understandable alarm, there would be no confrontation. Not with this pack.
Just two following her. Her own offspring, most likely. She’d told me few would follow her into the deep wilderness, and she’d been right.
Molly was nearly always right.
This wasn’t nearly as remote as the deeper parts of the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Perhaps she’d been pushed out of there by larger, older packs. Government websites admitted that more than 600 wolves now roamed free in Montana, mostly in this western end of the state. The competition between packs for hunting territories must be fierce, especially with the elk and deer herds dwindling every time a hungry wolf made a kill.
Or maybe she was here because of me. We had a history, this wolf and I, and she was headed over toward Alfredo Thomas’s last intuited whereabouts.
Raven, she’d called me in the dream. Raven, and we’d just seen a pair of the big ebony birds.
Pepper was not impressed with my reading of the omens. The tall gelding was no mystic; even after I remounted, he kept turning his head, rolling his eyes and laying his ears back as he checked our backtrail for any sign of the evil wolf demons.
Nugget, as usual, remained oblivious, carrying his packs in good cheer, without a care in the world. If a wolf chewed into him, he’d no doubt yell ouch, but I’ve never known a less excitable equine. The pale palomino was born for this kind of work.
It wasn’t that far along the game trail to Nelson Springs. The shed Jack described was still there, or more likely a somewhat newer replacement version, but it had a stout Master padlock securing the door. We stayed well up in the treeline while I glassed it with the binoculars.
Only then did I remember that I’d packed my night vision monocle. Last night, when the dark had felt so fearsome, I could easily have used that to prove that stumps were stumps and not bears, that a buck snorting nearby was of the deer family and not some hitherto unidentified species of mountain troll preparing to feast on two light colored horses and one black cowboy.
How could I have forgotten that? Sure, it had been buried kind of deep in the pack, but….
Glassing the Nelson Springs area, studying the terrain–and for that matter, studying the shed as well–I thought about that. To that extent, fumbling around in the dark without utilizing a key piece of helpful technology…I had not truly been on my game yesterday. Not really.
I couldn’t afford to tackle a man as dangerous as Alfredo Thomas unless I was 100%. I’d need to be ready when we came face to face, no mistakes, no missed steps.
Was I ready now? I didn’t know. In fact, could not know.
Someone had been to Nelson Springs on a snowmobile; the tread marks were clear as day. Not recently, though. This area hadn’t had any snow for a while, or the machine’s trail would have been covered, but at a guess…a week ago, maybe.
Well. Snowmobiles weren’t exactly stealth fighters. I’d hear one of those coming in plenty of time to take cover.
Time to get the horses a long drink of water.
Pepper and Nugget both agreed; they drank deeply. Nothing like they’d do on a ninety degree summer day, of course, but enough. As for me, I had plenty of purified water in the packs, two gallons total, which would hopefully be more than enough to see this hunt through to the end.
I certainly didn’t care to risk a fire for the purpose of melting snow or boiling a batch of water from the spring.
There was a window in the shed, to the left of the door. I took a look, checked out the inside. Bare wood, nothing more. There had been some kind of notice on the door, but only the nails and a few tattered scraps of paper remained.
Probably a government notice, Stay Out or Die Hard, something like that. Not that I knew. Or cared.
We were in the open for no more than ten minutes, after which a quick foray into the downslope treeline made our exit route obvious, if it came to that. There was a swale there, plenty of timber for cover but also plenty of space between trees, room enough to move the horses at good speed down into Rattler Gulch. A few hundred yards of this would put us on the old road if that still existed; if not, we’d still be pointed in the right direction.
All right, then; time to head west.
Just then, however, a rifle cracked–and not that far off, either. A meat shot; I heard the bullet hit flesh.
The horses and I froze. Neither of them was a stranger to gunfire; I wouldn’t have taken a mount that would spook if I had to trigger a weapon from the saddle. I didn’t even think about diving for the ground. The round had been close, but not that close; we were better off figuring out where the rifleman was positioned before…there.
Voices drifted through the trees, and the sharp ears of both horses were pricked toward the sound.
Wolf hunters? Not likely; fools chatting like this, even after hitting their target, would not likely have gotten close enough to a wolf to count.
Poachers, then, but city types. Fools from Missoula, or maybe Butte or Anaconda, who never gave a thought to much of anything other than downing an animal. That a game warden or, worse luck them, a pissed off black man like me, might be in the area, listening.
Now I did dismount, slowly, carefully, silently. Tied the horses off to a couple of saplings. Took the .22 Marlin 60 autoloader from the lower scabbard, not the heavy, scoped .25-06, and ghosted through the trees, pausing behind each available tree trunk to reconnoiter.
Alfredo Thomas wouldn’t have heard them, not if he was still over in Mulkey Gulch somewhere, but that didn’t matter. If they were hungry and hunting meat out of season, that didn’t matter, either.
What did matter was, they’d spooked me, and I figured they were going to have to pay a price for spiking my adrenaline.
They were maybe three football fields away from where I’d left the horses, if you could build football fields on steep, timbered Rocky Mountain slopes. I found a great bit of shooting cover, above their position and roughly 80 yards from point to point.
Two men, in summer camouflage that looked like it had come straight from the U.S. Army. Their kill was a medium sized doe. One guy had already cut off the head and was gutting the carcass while his buddy kept up a running diarrhea mouth commentary.
I couldn’t catch the full monologue, but snatches came through clearly. “…win the bet…Granite County hicks…dumb mother–”
What came after “…dumb mother–“, I’ll never know, ’cause I opened up with the Marlin. The tube feeder was usually loaded with 15 rounds of hollow point .22 long rifle ammo, but for this jaunt, I’d crammed the full 18 down its throat…and I let those two have every one.
At 100 yards–and this was some less–I can drive tacks with the Model 60. It’s got an after market Williams military style peep sight on it which gives a most excellent sight picture.
The first round kicked snow up between the talker and the guy with the gutting knife. I think they froze in shock for just a split second, but I couldn’t be sure; I was too busy placing the second round, smacking the stock of the talker’s rifle as it hung in one hand.
From there on, it was all assholes and elbows as they churned their way downslope, occasionally tripping and falling in the snow but scrambling right back up and moving on out without the slightest hesitation.
Then they were gone, crashing down into Rattler Gulch where they must have left their vehicle. I could still hear them for a while after that, sound dwindling into the distance.
Nothing loath, I trudged on back to the horses, reloaded the .22, and shoved it into its boot. Since I was not about to leave the deer carcass totally wasted, that got wrapped in my spare tarp, then lashed atop the packs Nugget was already carrying. The little gelding huffed a bit at that, but not too much, and mostly at the blood smell. He’d carried heavier loads before.
The gutting had been nearly finished, so the entrails were left for the scavengers to find, along with the head.
Then I turned Pepper back up toward Top O’ the Deep, and we began climbing through the trees once again.
Treemin Jackson, Claim Jumper and Meat Thief Extraordinnaire.
Yeah, if a game warden nailed me with this carcass in tow, I’d be talking to the judge in short order. But I felt really good for the first time since leaving home, I’d salvaged the deer’s heart and liver from the gut pile, and–most important of all–the seed of an idea had begun to sprout in my fertile mind.
The ravens found the entrails before we were out of sight of the kill spot, and that made me feel even better.
It took most of the day to fight our way along the ridges of Top O’ the Deep to find the right spot. The simple way would have been to drop down Tie Gulch, loop over to the bottom of Dry Mulkey, and head on up through that and the higher portion known as Walker Gulch. Near the top of Walker, there’s a narrow rock cut, the kind of place a hunting cougar ought to just love for lounging around, seeing what sorts of lunch might be dumb enough to pass beneath its perch.
Not saying that the big cats did that, but if they didn’t, they should have.
However, my plan, which had now fully blossomed, required that no recent tracks showed in either Dry Mulkey or Walker. No shod horse tracks, anyway.
So we had to loop around through the high country, with me wondering from time to time if maybe I’d done went and got myself lost after all.
Somewhere in midafternoon, with a huge sense of relief, I found the rock cut from the far side and knew I had my bearings.
Well. There was plenty of work to get done before dark. I’d never heard of anybody calling prey the way I intended to try it, but the trap had to be set first–wait a sec. What–?
The binoculars showed…yeah. That was…interesting. No one, and in fact no thing larger than a small bird, had walked in or through the cut for quite some time, but the way the snow looked right there, at the high end, right in the middle of the trail….
Okay. I could use that.
When everything was set in that area, the animals and I retreated to the gentle, broad meadow area that sits between the drop south into Walker Gulch on the one side and an equally steep drop north into Packer Gulch on the other. It looked mighty peaceful, as the mountains always do between bouts of violence. A sizeable porcupine waddled past, seeking another pine to desecrate; Pepper and Nugget and I watched it go with a fair degree of interest.
This time, while there was still light enough to disguise the flames, I built a small fire from dry deadfall wood, not even minding the bit of fragrant smoke that wafted skyward. Turning slices of deer liver spitted on a stick, shish kebab style, I began the luring process. My consciousness relaxed as if I hadn’t a care in the world, questing outward, sending waves of good will toward one particular outlaw known as Alfredo Thomas, picturing the awesome dinner I was about to have, inviting my friend to partake.
Okay, so I got carried away. While I was at it, I included thoughts and images of a small buried chest of treasure, gold and silver and hundred dollar bills, that I’d stumbled upon, right on this high side of the Walker Gulch cut. The idea came from a story Jack Hill told about a man who’d lost his billfold on the trail in Walker Gulch some 60 years ago or so. A rancher and his son had, at some later date, come riding up the trail and found the billfold. Mailed a letter to the owner, who lived back east somewhere. Got told thanks, send the billfold and ID, please keep the cash.
There really has been stray wealth found in Walker Gulch. If once, why not again?
Most of all, I pictured the trail up through Dry Mulkey, into Walker Gulch, into and through the rock cut.
Would this work? Could I call another man into a trap the same way a coyote hunter uses the call of a rabbit in distress to lure a coyote to his death?
Maybe, maybe not, but it was worth a try. I didn’t figure I’d dare sleep; Thomas probably wouldn’t move until daylight if he moved at all, but….
Few hunters, be they hunters of men or of entirely different prey, would ever think to try such a technique. But then, few hunters in this day and age recognize the spiritual truth that permeates every breath of every life on the planet, including the life of a rock or a pine tree.
I was taking a huge gamble in one respect. If Alfredo the bandido did what I’d done, hit the Top O’ the Deep and came skulking in from the high side, I could be caught with my pants down. But I was counting on the fact that he’d not grown up a mountain man; he’d only listened to a man in prison before tackling the wilderness. I’d been slipping around in mountain country all by my lonesome since age eleven, and it was scary enough for me.
Turned out I was right about that, and I was even right about the imaginative technique being able to draw the man to me.
What I was wrong about was the idea that he’d wait till morning to move.
I was half asleep, dozing at my post, when I heard the crunch of his boots on the trail. It was near midnight, with enough moon to see by, barely.
He must have started walking within minutes after I began projecting, I realized, and my world changed forever. What most people thought possible, what they thought real, wasn’t even a patch on the fabric.
He was coming on fairly steadily, taking a half dozen steps, then stopping to listen before moving on.
I barely breathed. Made my mind go still, definitely “not aware” of Thomas’s dark, stocky presence. I’d once, in the Idaho mountains of my youth, remained undetected while a large black bear passed within a few feet of my position. This was like that, only more intense.
The bear had stunk, though, and so did Alfredo Thomas. I had to give him that, and I was glad I could smell him because it meant I was downwind and he shouldn’t be able to smell me.
One step before he entered the rock cut, he stopped, checking it out. Such a place is a place of fear for any man attuned to danger, and Alfredo was definitely attuned. The vision I’d sent him promised fresh cooked venison and earthly riches just beyond that narrow passage, but the lust for good things warred with his innate sense of self preservation.
The cut cried ambush in loud, unequivocal terms.
I should have set my trap a bit farther down the Gulch, but it was too late now.
The wary figure held a firearm in both hands, apparently unfazed by the cold. It looked like a shotgun, no doubt a 12 gauge loaded with double ought buckshot. One blast of that at close range would rip a hole through me the size of my own fist, which was no doubt what he had in mind.
At length, he heard the horses making their night sounds on the other side of the cut, and that made his decision for him. His tormentor, little old me, must be sleeping stupidly after gorging on deer liver and gloating over my newfound treasure chest. The sounds that should have warned him encouraged him instead…and he took that last, fateful step.
My razor-honed Buck knife sliced through the restraining rope. The snare loop whipped up out of the snow, closing about his lead ankle, yanking him unceremoniously off his feet and into the air.
He didn’t make a sound, or maybe he did but I couldn’t hear it because I was yelling inside my own head, “I got him!”
Except I didn’t. In the barely adequate moonlight, it took my fevered brain nearly a tenth of a second to register. Thomas had lost the shotgun, all right, but being hung upside down with his head swinging six feet above the ground didn’t slow him down one damn bit. I’d known he was packing 200 pounds of stone muscle on his five-six frame, but I hadn’t known he was anywhere near as flexible and athletic as he was.
I’d started toward him but hadn’t begun to close the twenty feet between us before he’d curled up over his own leg, slashing at the snare rope with a knife that had jumped magically into his fist.
That’s the way it seemed, anyway. No matter how many times I replayed it later in my eidetic memory, that’s the way it seemed.
He twisted on the way down, landing in a crouch but on his feet like a cat…and now I was suddenly facing a born knife fighter with a blade in his hand, a block of speed and power and pure rage. At six-three with an unusually long wingspan, I probably had five or six inches of reach on him–but there my advantages ended.
I couldn’t even turn and run. As I’d learned during my football days in high school, not all black men have wheels.
But believe me, if I’d thought running was an option, I’d have been out of there in a flash. Color me gone.
I was between him and the shotgun. That was good…but I didn’t dare go for it. In the very act of reaching down for the weapon, I’d give him enough time to close the distance between us, and we both knew it.
My Walther .22 was snugged in the small of my back like always, but under a heavy winter coat. The only good thing pistol-wise was the apparent fact that he didn’t dare try for whatever short guns he was carrying, either.
There was that.
I don’t know how long we stood like that, motionless as two statues, both of us crouched in combat stance, blades held low, each recognizing his death in the other. I do know it took a while for me to realize that I must seem as dangerous to him as he did to me. I was, after all, six foot three in my stocking feet, and no shrinking violet in the strength department, either, having worked heavy steel as a welder from the time I was 17 years of age. Both of us wore parkas with the hoods up, casting our faces in even deeper shadow than would have otherwise been the case. I had hung him up by one heel, albeit for a matter of seconds.
An owl hooted into the silence between us, a silence otherwise punctured only by our harsh breathing.
Eternity hung in the balance.