We arrived back at the Rhubarb War Creek campsite around midmorning, me still riding the rough-gaited roan, Julia on a slightly taller appaloosa, three heavily ladedn pack horses behind us. Both saddle mounts were trained to stand rock steady if the reins were dropped, a performance parameter that made them worth their weight in gold. The Demons had been hauling so many useful stolen goods that we were far better equipped for a long haul than when we’d first left Fort 24 as a group of four.
I’d hesitated to commandeer worldly goods that truly belonged to citizens in the high mountain valley, but Grunt had persuaded me to take advantage of the bounty. “Consider it government issue,” he’d said. “I’ll talk to the Council when we get back, see about raiding the coffers to reimburse the original owners for everything, right down to the horse you’re riding. You’ve already done more for us than most men accomplish in a lifetime of service. Besides, if we left you ill equipped to take care of Julia, the whole pack of Gundersons would stomp me and Tommy both into mush.”
What could I say to that? We took the stuff. My honey showed me how to throw a diamond hitch, a trick I’d ssomehow managed to avoid learning until today, and we were good to go.
The only item of any value left on the ground at Rhubarb War Creek was a saddle we hadn’t taken with us the day before.
Julia recognized it immediately. “I know the style,” she said, unbuckling the saddle bags to inspect the contents while I stood overwatch, cradling the lever action shoot gun Upward had dropped during our gunfight. “Definitely stolen from the saddlery before he torched the place. Too bad we don’t have a spare pony to tote this; it’s a good piece of work.”
She was right about that. I hadn’t known one saddle from another until she started educating me, but it didn’t take a master craftsman to spot simple beauty and balance. When Rodney did a midnight requisition, he stole the good stuff. “Could we maybe lash it down on top of one of the pack horse loads? It’ be a crime to leave it behind.”
“Huh.” She paused in her work, lifting the fingers of one hand to her lips in thought. I loved that mannerism of hers. Turned me on every time. “Yeah, why not? Trail End Charlie’s got the lightest load. Let me just finish looking through these saddle bags–well, now, what have we here?”
“This was the saddle Rodney rode. Has to be. There are twenty, forty…sixty-seven more rounds for the rifle you’re carrying.”
“That’s awesome.” Jake had wanted me to take his Ruger .308, but no way. He couldn’t move well enough for a close quarters fight, but he could sure enough reach out and touch an enemy at a distance with that Gunsite Scout. I’d settle for the shooter Rodney had stolen from the Marshal’s office, sending back word that I considered it a loaner, to be returned whenever I could make that happen. It fired a somewhat underpowered .30 caliber round but did it reliably. Fairly accurately, too, as long as the range between shooter and target didn’t exceed 150 yards by too much. It beat the shoot gun I’d been issued from the Fort 24 armory, for sure.
So I’d ended up carrying the rifle that had shot the big man in the rear, but we’d only found 31 rounds for it yesterday. Now, with the discovery of 67 more, I’d have access to a total of 98 cartridges, just one less than the 99 Grunt had for the Ruger. Freaky. The Universe was back in balance.
Following the wounded man’s trail, my woman took the lead. Could be a glimpse of our future right there. Hah. Let’s not think that way. I did love me a strong female, but as attractive as the view from behind was, she’d mostly follow.
If I ever learned to track and hunt the way she did automatically.
The looming storm still hadn’t hit. The sky had turned clear and cold, somewhere subzero, still and silent. A day behind him or not, even I could have followed the path of Upward’s escape horse as it galloped through ankle deep snow. But I’d have been doing just that, following the tracks.
Julia was reading them.
With her attention focused on the snow covered ground like that, it was left up to me to make sure nobody got a free shot at us. My head was on a swivel, scanning, scanning, scanning. The urge to quiz the tracker was strong. I resisted; she needed to be able to concentrate without distraction.
Besides, she’d tell me when she spotted anything of importance.
Following a cold trail. Heh. That took on a whole new meaning on a day like today. It was colder now than it had been at dawn, looking to settle into one of those super-frigid times when your spit would freeze into mini-icicles before it hit the ground, and don’t even think about taking a leak. That was the legend, anyway. Snow crackled under the horses hooves, a sure sign that winter was here in earnest. Winter scarves covered the lower portions of our faces; breathing through the wool tasted of stale sheep but beat frosted lungs. Even then, exhalations radiated soft clouds of steam into the air despite the screening fabric and every horse’s breath puffed away like the magical steam engines depicted in one of the teacher’s books at Fort Steel. Our feet were double-socked inside our boots and still threatened frostbite; both of us flexed our toes continually in the stirrups, trying to keep the blood flowing.
There were a couple of silver linings. There was no wind–had there been, we’d have had to hole up, build a fire, and wait it out–and the slow shower of tiny ice crystals condensing in the atmosphere added sparkle to the day. Visually, the scene was fantastic.
Fortunately, the animals were all accustomed to surviving harsh winters with nothing more to protect them than their hides and long winter hair. They plodded on willingly enough, their eyelashes frosted but otherwise seeming no worse for wear. As long as we kept to a slow walk. Running a saddle mount in this weather would be a sure way to find oneself afoot.
As expected, Rodney’s trail led around the south end of the little lake, skirting the shoreline.
On the east side of the lake, Julia called a halt. I eased my roan up alongside her spotted-rump gelding, raising an inquiring brow, but she asked her question first.
“If he was heading for Steel, shouldn’t he have taken the north fork here?”
I didn’t answer immediately. Took my time, studying the terrain for a long moment. If a traveler had passed the lake on the north side, following the well defined trail there, he’d have come to this spot where we now sat our horses, thinking. That same trail appeared to continue straight east, easier to follow, the route gently winding among low hills before meandering out into what Grunt called the Pancake Flats. They weren’t truly that flat; an occasional slow stream crossed their expanse, generally trending from north to south, and there were occasional breaks in the ground, cracks caused by the earthquakes that had rent the land near the end of humanity’s Fall…but they still deserved the appellation. A better term might have been Lumpy Pancake Flats With Cracks, but that’s a mouthful.
The northern fork trail was more subtle. Harder to spot with the naked eye, especially under more than a foot of snow as it was now. Frankly, if you didn’t know what you were looking for, it didn’t look like a trail at all. A man running scared with a bullet in his shoulder, fearing the immediate pursuit of a vengeful posse…yeah, he could have missed that easily. The map showed the fork clearly, but did he even have a map with him? Not likely. We’d found one yesterday at the campsite, grease stained and falling apart at the folds. Highly improbable the Demons would have had an extra copy with them.
“Yep,” I said, reaching down with one mittened hand to pat my horse’s neck. The rough-riding roan and I had bonded over time. “He should have.” Horse hide mitten, but Roan didn’t need to know that. Horse hide outer with sheepskin lining and a wrist thong to keep from losing it in case it had to be removed so I could shoot.
We met each other’s eyes, communicating in an instant what it would have taken a whole lot of wasteful words to convey. “Your call, boss.” She called me boss sometimes now, a not so subtle acknowledgement of our relationship on this blood trail. I liked it.
There was no decision to make. “We have to follow the tracks.”
Julia said nothing, just loosened the reins and eased the appaloosa back into motion. Not that there was anything to say. I recognized this place, having come west on the same trail with Grunt, Jesse, and the other former slaves no more than…three months ago? Not even quite that. Felt like a lifetime. A dozen lifetimes.
This south fork of the trail, however, led off into the unknown. When it was time to get back onto the Fort Steel route, we should be able to simply grab any creek at random and follow it northward until it intersected the trail we needed. But would I recognize that trail when we crossed it? This spot was easy, using an entire lake as a landmark. But there were dozens of small streams we’d crossed with the Trader, not all of them memorable by a long shot.
Still, we had a job to do.
Around midafternoon, we found where Rodney Upward had stopped the previous night to sleep. Or pass out. Or simply avoid stumbling around in the dark. Whatever. The snow was tamped down where he’d tucked himself into one of the small earth-cracks, leaving his horse–stolen from the Gunderson herd–to graze and rest as best she could, her hoof pattern making it obvious to my tracker mate that Rodney had managed to rig hobbles for her. She hadn’t strayed far from her wounded rider. “She likes humans, that one,” Julia explained. “She always has. Not a great judge of character, but loyal as all get-out. Plus, there are predators out here, even in this frozen prairie. Coyotes for sure; most of the wolf packs have better sense. She wouldn’t have wanted to be alone.”
“He left a fair bit of blood here.” I’d dropped into the mini-crevasse and was rummaging around, trying to see what I could see. Which wasn’t much, what with sun glare on the snow and deep shadow in the crack. “Hey, what’s this?” I managed to pick up the small object with both clumsy-mittened hands. Standing erect, the crack in the ground only came up to my waist. “I do believe–yes. Yes, it is. Look here, honey.”
“Huh.” Even with the lower half of her face covered, Julia looked impressed.
I couldn’t blame her. Upward had somehow managed to get my bullet out of his own shoulder. Which explained the extra blood but also brought up another concern. At close range like that, my shot should have punched that hunk of lead right through his bony shoulder and then some. How weak was the powder load in the revolver I was packing?
“He didn’t have a fire.”
“Michael, he had to be freezing all night, even in his blankets. There’s no sign of a campfire and no available fuel within a mile of this place. Yes, getting the lead out was remarkable, but after a no-fire cold night with a serious injury and then the severe temperature drop today…I think we’re going to find him frozen dead before sunset.”
“All right.” I climbed back out of the hole and into the saddle. “Let’s get moving, then, before we turn into ice statues our own selves. But I’m taking lead now. If he has enough left in him to make a final stand, letting my wife take the first bullet is not in the cards.”
She didn’t argue, just reached over to untie the lead pack horse’s rope from the ring on the back of my saddle. When she had it secured to her own rig, I headed out, half an eye on the trail before us and everything else on high alert for danger, hoping to see him before he saw us.
Our first clue was the sound, the yip-snarling cries of a coyote pack in full argument mode over dinner. It’s way similar to their kill-the-prey sound; either one will chill a listener to the bone. Our horses laid their ears back, not liking it at all, but they were well schooled and kept on going, their body language making their feelings clear. You better keep us safe from that bunch, buddy. We don’t like hungry coyote packs.
Neither did I.
Over a low rise, maybe two hundred yards on the downslope side, we could see them circling, darting, yipping, snapping at each other, some growling territorially over the meat on the ground, others slinking submissively, backing away from the group sideways and then slinking back in. Largest pack I’d ever even heard of, thirty or more. And they weren’t afraid of us. It had been generations since any of them had learned to fear the rifle.
But they were about to get a refresher course.
Resisting the impulse to boot Roan forward into a run, charging the varmints, I kept him moving forward at the same sedate pace, slowly closing the distance. 150 yards. The lever action shoot gun came out of its scabbard. 125 yards. Onward steadily, a few of the prairie wolves beginning to take notice now but none of them running. Yet.
100 yards. Stop my horse. Turn him broadside to the pack so the muzzle blast wouldn’t be booming right above Roan’s ears. Remove mitten. Raise rifle to shoulder. Find the trigger, ear hammer back, squeeze.
I’d bunch-shot, aiming at the high center of the pack. Lucky shot; the bullet slammed through one of the bigger animals, dead center through the chest, dropping him instantly and permanently. Heart shot. I might just let Julia assume I’d meant to do that.
The rest scattered in a hurry, hightailing it for parts unknown, ears laid back flat on their heads. Coyotes are extremely intelligent canines; they didn’t need a second lesson. In fact, it’d be highly unlikely any human would ever get another clear shot at any member of this bunch. A couple of generations of pups later, they might get ignorant again, but that’s the way of the world for all of us, including humans.
There wasn’t much left of the outlaw leader; they’d been at the carcass for a while. I kept watch from horseback while Julia dismounted and inspected the remains, not a hint of hesitation or revulsion in her demeanor. Reckon growing up as a Gunderson, hunting and guiding for a living, had toughened her up considerably.
Or more than considerably. I had to blink a couple times when she pulled out her belt knife and relieved the dead man’s head of its red-haired scalp. She saw the look on my face and shrugged. “Proof he’s dead. Plus, Red Horse might like to have it.”
“You know,” I grinned, forcing my initial reaction back down out of sight, “he probably would. Marshal Bledsoe would kind of admire it, too, if he wasn’t representing law and order in such a civilized community.”
“No sign of our mare. Do we try to find her?”
Good question. I glanced around, checking the sun’s position. Maybe an hour left till sunset. It would get dark mighty fast after that, and colder, too. Ahead of us, maybe a mile or so, that looked like a tree line, or at least a line of brush.
“Her tracks go on the same way. Most likely, she got to that stream bed over yonder. Let’s at least follow her that far. If she goes north, that’s the way we’ll be heading anyway. Unless we backtrack all the way to the lake, and I don’t fancy that. If she turns south, we’ll have to think it over.” We’d need to find a campsite soon, preferably with an available supply of firewood. The middle pack horse was carrying enough sticks to get use warmed up in an emergency, but using those was a last resort.
“All right, babe.” She stuffed the frozen scalp into a small carry bag, tucked it into her left hand saddle bag, and mounted up. “Makes sense to me. We’ll make a tracker of you yet.”
“How many civilians do you think would have been able to read that brush line, let alone think the way a horse thinks?”
We moved on, the pack horses snorting nervously at the carnage on the ground as they passed. Most likely, the coyote pack would be back as soon as we were out of sight, maybe no farther away than the creek ahead. They’d finish cleaning up, leaving nothing of either Rodney Upward or the coyote I’d shot except a few bits of clothing, some bones, maybe a bit of hide. A coyote would eat anything. And it would be a noisy feast; Wiley was enthusiastic about his meat. Secretly, I was hoping and praying the missing Gunderson mare had turned up-creek and kept on going for a while. It wouldn’t be all that enjoyable, hearing them go to it, poking my guilt.
Guilt about having to gun down the coyote for merely doing its job, that is. I didn’t feel a damned thing for the renegade human, one way or the other.