An eagle screamed as it circled high, a speck in the hazy blue above the Wyoming Territorial Prison in Laramie. Below, the gates swung open just enough to allow a lone man riding a sorrel to pass through. Thin the horse was, but proud, lifting his feet lightly, arching his neck so his chin nearly touched his chest. His golden tail swished at the tenacious flies clinging to the newly seared prison brand on his left hip. Then he broke into a smooth jog. It was early that summer morning, but already dust rose in little puffs, marking the trail, as the rider made his way to the top of the nearest ridge.
There, he reined the sorrel to a stop, watching the eagle float gently upward, taking advantage of the air currents, drifting, soaring, almost joyfully. The sun played on the man’s thin, hard face as the eagle’s shadow passed. The dark brows that rose where they met gave a perpetual watchful, cautious look, but deeply shadowed blue eyes conflicted with this impression. They could be as cold and hard as steel or laugh with boyish mischief even when his lips did not. And during the five years he spent in a grim hellhole they called a cell, no one ever saw even the merest hint of a smile.
Those endless years changed him. Broken or bitter were the alternatives, but Jess Hazzard’s spirit was incapable of being broken by those he hated. He was a wild, free thing they caged and abused, but never broke.
A trim man, with a rider’s lean hips and wiry build, he sat watching the eagle for long minutes before his eyes drifted instinctively to his back trail, narrowing ever so slightly as they caught the prison in the distance. Quickly turning his gaze from the buildings, as if somehow the mere sight could draw him back, he looked out over the hills of dry grass and sage toward the vacant, hazy horizon to the west.
An overpowering feeling shot through him. He wanted – he needed – to be as far away as possible from this place and from people. He longed to spur the sorrel into a run, but he knew the old horse had to be spared such foolishness if he would make it down the long, difficult trail ahead of them.
The gelding under him shook his head and pawed the ground impatiently, wanting to move on. With a tremble inside, Hazzard raised the reins, letting the horse break into a gentle lope.
Four hours later, he had lost the feeling of near panic; that somehow they would run him down and drag him back to the prison. The muffled, rhythmic beat of the sorrel’s hooves as he moved along had a soothing effect.
Stopping to rest the horse by a small, rocky stream, Hazzard began to take inventory of his situation. He had a horse that could not take much hard work or rough traveling. Horse! He thought bitterly of the powerful, fast moving bay they took from him when he was jailed, and the two hundred dollars he had in his wallet. In exchange, when he was released, they gave him this tired, old horse and an empty wallet. They left him a saddle bum.
He had no food, coffee, or salt. He owned one shirt, worn and threadbare, a pair of pants in not much better shape, and stained and worn dark shotgun chaps. His hand fell to rest on his old Frontier Colt. Absently, he slipped it out fluidly and spun the cylinder. Only five cartridges. And his Model ’73 Winchester was empty. He had his belt knife but no axe. A saddle blanket but no bedroll. A good rope, saddle, bridle and hackamore, a canteen, a pair of spurs, and a worn, black, alkali- and sweat-stained hat. He dug into the mildewed, jumbled bundle in his warbag. Mice had nested in one corner, eaten all but a small crescent of soap, and urinated on and rusted his razor. There was a small tin with fishing line, matches, and a few hooks. He tossed the bundle down in disgust. Five years was a long time.
He was in no shape to travel far, even living off the land, but there was no choice.
His eyes lifted to the northwest, thinking of the miles he wanted to put behind him. Maybe Idaho or Canada? But before he went far he needed to pick up a few dollars and get better outfitted. The very thought galled him. He had absolutely no wish to mix with people right then, not for any reason. He needed solitude to heal the wound in his soul, but he had to find some sort of temporary work before he moved on much further. He did not need much, only to replace the basic gear he lacked. Maybe he could stand a few weeks’ work somewhere. Maybe.
As he followed a well-traveled wagon road west, he could not know that ahead of him by two days, a traveling drummer, who had the Devil’s own gift of gossip, spread far and wide the news of his release.
By mid-day, Hazzard began passing smaller ranches. One after another, he passed, hesitating, then riding on until the sight of a small bunch of mustangs milling around in a corral, freshly branded and snorty, made him turn through a ranch gate. They were fresh-caught and still had knotted manes and rolling eyes. His gaze lingered on the animals. Maybe he wouldn’t have to mix with folks much if he could land a job working those broncs. Hazzard never was a sociable man, even at his best, but just then, riding up to that house was the hardest thing he ever did.
A big red hound came bawling out from under the porch, announcing his arrival. Soon after, an old man, face seamed, wrinkled, and weather-beaten brown, walked out of the dark interior of the house, shading his eyes and squinting against the harsh glare of the noonday sun.
“Can I help you, Mister?”
“I was just wonderin’ if you might be needing any help…maybe with that bunch?” He nodded toward the horses in the corral, now stopped, as one, alertly facing them.
“Well now, ain’t that fine! Just yesterday, I was tellin’ Annie I had to git into town an’ round me up a bronc stomper. Pete up and quit on me two days ago.” The old man was studying the sorrel as most ranch men are prone to do. When his eyes sharpened, Hazzard knew he saw the prison brand. “I’m sorry Mister, I don’t need no help now. You see…” he stammered, edging warily toward the door.
Something like a sigh went through Hazzard, an old feeling. “Yeah, I guess I do.” He swung his horse around and again started west. He wondered at how gossip of his release traveled faster than he had, and how much farther from Laramie and the prison it had spread.
The road was rutted and dusty. After two more hours of travel, a fine powder had settled on Hazzard’s clothes and face. There must be water somewhere close, but after riding through several arroyos and rock-strewn creek beds, all were dry. At best, he found a fat toad, resting in the sparse shade of a curled up piece of dried mud, in a hole where a spring had been. He had done without water before, but the old gelding was beginning to drag his feet from weariness and thirst.
When Hazzard finally saw a stagecoach stopped at a small relay station ahead, he was not only thinking about a job, but more urgently, water. The place was not much to look at. The paint peeled off years ago, leaving a dull grey of weathered wood. In places the corrals were tied together with rope and rawhide. But there was a pump and full watering trough.
A tall man with a heavy black beard carried water and feed to a tired team in a nearby corral. He glanced at Hazzard.
“Mind if I water my horse?” Hazzard asked, stepping down.
“Naw. Help yourself,” he muttered, continuing on with his chores.
Closer, another man, red-faced and bald, was puffing from exertion as he hurriedly threw harness on a fresh team. Leaving the sorrel tied and drinking from the trough, Hazzard walked up to the red-faced hostler.
“Can I give you a hand?”
“Shore ‘nough. God, it’s hot!” He shrugged toward the last set of harness on the rail. “If you want, you kin throw that on that bugger of a bay over there. Watch ‘im, though. He’s ornery as they come!”
Watching the hostler nervously flit here and there, poking the horses with hames and slapping harness on them, Hazzard could see where any horse could get “ornery” in a hurry.
Five minutes later, with the fresh team hitched, the stagecoach rocked out of the yard in a roll of dust, scattering multicolored chickens in its wake.
“Well, that does her ’till tomorrow mornin’. Come on up to the house. The wimmin oughta have some grub left fer us. You look like you could use a meal an’a cupa coffee,” the bald holster wiped the sweat off his red face with a much-used bandana.
Hazzard nodded his thanks, walking back to the sorrel. He loosened the cinch and patted the old horse. Then, leaving him to nibble on sun-bleached hay in the manger, he quickly rinsed the road dust from his face and hands, wondering if others could smell the prison stench on him like he could. Cupping his hands under the trickle from the pump, he drank gratefully the first fresh, cold water in many years. Quickly rinsing out his canteen, he also filled that. You never knew when you might desperately need water, or when you may need to leave a place fast.
Walking toward the house, he ran his fingers through his thick black hair, pushing it into some semblance of order. He somewhat self-consciously entered the kitchen. This would be the first time in five years he sat at a table to eat, and the first time in five years he saw a woman.
The meal was nothing fancy, just some warmed up fried potatoes, cold ham, and thick slices of bread with plenty of fresh butter and jam. But right then, it tasted better than the expensive meal he once ate in a fancy Denver hotel with elegant marble on the front.
A matronly woman in a clean apron, evidently the wife of the red faced hostler, kept slipping the platters to Hazzard, even when he politely refused. Their daughter, a pretty, blushing blond girl about eighteen, kept his coffee cup full.
“Are you sure you can’t eat another piece of pie?” she asked for the third time.
“No ma’am. There’s just no more room.”
“Alright. Ned, Della and I are going out to the garden. We’ve got to get water to that corn or it’ll be dried out by evening. I’ll leave the coffee pot here for you men.”
“Della, tell Art to come on in for something to eat. I’ll be out there as soon as I go check the chickens. I surely do wish Art would come when I call him!” She took off her apron and went out the door.
“Art’s my brother,” the hostler said. “He stops here once in a while, but he’s sure no help. Never can tell when he’ll up and leave on us.”
“You wouldn’t be needin’ a little extra help around the place, would you?” Hazzard asked cautiously.
“Well…yes an’ no,” he began with hesitation. “Yeah, I could use the help, but I jest can’t have a ‘breed on the place…’specially no ex-con. Manager’s real fussy about things like that, an’ he’d have my hide. Me, I don’t care. Could sure use you.” There was no viciousness in his voice, but the words still cut.
“I better be riding on, then.” Hazzard pushed back the chair and stood. “Thank your wife for the meal.”
Hazzard tightened the old sorrel’s cinch and swung wearily into the saddle. Damn! Why does it always have to be so hard?
For the remainder of the day, he kept the sorrel to a slow but steady jog westward, unconsciously trying to leave those who knew of him far behind, and perhaps running from himself.
The elevation grew higher and trees began to dot the hills. Even the air seemed cooler as the sun began setting. Finally, bone weary, he dismounted in some tall cottonwoods next to a small spring-fed waterhole. The sorrel trembled and stood somewhat spraddle-legged.
“What’s the matter fella? Legs a little sore, eh?” Hazzard felt down the tendons in his front legs, feeling some heat in them. “Sorry boy. I guess neither one of us has been on the trail lately.”
He unsaddled the old horse and walked him down to the water’s edge. After leading him in, he gently rubbed the soreness from them until nearly dusk. It was mindless work, but it allowed Hazzard time to begin absorbing the small things around him, things that seemed insignificant enough, things he missed all those years in that dark cell, like the smell of horse sweat, the far-away song of a coyote, moonlight on the water, and the whisper of a slight breeze in the trees overhead.
He sighed and straightened up, taking time to rinse the saddle marks from the sorrel’s back. Then he led him through the trees, picketing him to graze in the lush grass. Listening to the gelding hungrily eating the grass, he lay down at the base of a big cottonwood. Looking up into infinity, the stars were so much brighter and bigger than he remembered. And there were so many of them! Today was the first time in five years he saw a tree, and somehow, the impact of this grandfather cottonwood was strong as he felt its rough bark against his cheek.
Never again will they lock me up! A bitter swell of anger surged through him as he rose to his feet and stalked off toward the water, unable to rid himself of the hatred. He could still smell the stench of the prison about him, clinging, vile, and haunting. His right hand instinctively dropped to the worn, sweat-stained walnut butt of his .44. He drew it with blinding speed. I will never go back! Never! Jamming it into the holster, he forcibly turned from his thoughts, and reached for the last bit of soap in his warbag.
At the icy water’s edge, he stripped off his clothes and waded in, carrying his clothes with him. He scrubbed his hair, face, and body, then his clothes until the soap was gone and his body shook uncontrollably from the cold. It felt good to be clean, really clean again.
He lit a small, smokeless fire, hung his clothes close, and sat naked before it, enjoying the comforting, familiar warmth.
Then he thought back to his small cell, and those rats. Day or night, they scurried back and forth along the stone walls. If he didn’t leave some bit of meager food out for them, he might wake up with one or two of them chewing on his foot, instead. Those damned rats, squeaking, as they fought in their holes, punctuated by the coughs of other prisoners off in the dark.
Tonight, his “pets” were far away, thank God, and the air was clear and sweet, not putrefied by the smell of twenty men crowded into one small, filthy cell block, meant to house ten. Hazzard was glad he was in solitary most of the time. He preferred his own company. But he heard the fights erupt nearby because one man would persistently urinate in the corner, making the stale air even more rank and unbearable.
The foul, rotten stink of that prison seemed as if it would never leave him, even as he sat naked before his fire, absorbing the fragrance of the sage tips he placed on the coals, trying to purify his soul from the smell and abuse which seemed engraved upon him forever.
Again his thoughts drifted back, unbidden. If a man did anything to annoy his guards, and sometimes it was damned little, perhaps they wouldn’t haul away the slop bucket for a week. Or maybe they’d “forget” his ration of water in the sweltering heat of summer.
Then there was Blueson, the night guard. He was built like a bull, and, like a bull, could suddenly turn insanely vicious on a prisoner with his fists and lead-tipped quirt. Hazzard heard men talking in the exercise yard outside his window. Two men were killed in a week by beatings Blueson gave them. One was a simple-minded farm boy who Hazzard befriended. Twice Hazzard felt the sting of his lashes. Only twice. He had no scars on his body from that whip. But he carried them, nevertheless, in his heart. These things he would never forget, nor would they leave him in peace, even this night.
Unconsciously, he drew the sage smoke to his body, deeply inhaling its fragrance. He was hungry, but by the time he set a rabbit snare and caught one – he sure couldn’t waste a bullet – it didn’t seem worth the trouble. He had a very good meal that day, and it would last him for a while. Why he even had pie! A cup of coffee would taste good, but he didn’t have any. The gauntness about him told of the years of poor, scant meals, but the taste of freedom was worth more than just food.
As his clothes were still damp, he sighed, banked the small fire, and lay back against the base of the cottonwood. The grass was soft and the night warm. Realizing how tired he was, he stretched and yawned, finally feeling a kind of contentment. He fell asleep listening to the night birds cry as they winged their way after insects. It began as a peaceful rest, but a haunting ghost invaded his dreams – hate. Ever since he could remember, he was distrusted, feared, and hated, one growing from the other. It all came back in a flood as he fell into a deep sleep. Sweat beaded on his taut face. Suddenly, there was a snap in the brush and Hazzard bolted upright. Instinctively, his hand found his .44. Even in his half-sleep, it was out and cocked, every nerve alert and waiting.
The sorrel snorted gently from his grazing near the willows and looked a question at Hazzard. He’d only stepped on a small branch while grazing.
Easing the hammer back on his Colt, Hazzard sighed, holstered it, and looking back up at the bright stars, sighed. If only he could know the simple peace the old horse enjoyed as he grazed in the velvet night!
When he awoke, the sky showed grey streaks of dawn over the rolling sage hills to the west. Maybe things would be better today. Maybe he would be far enough away from Laramie and the prison.
Morning dawned clear, dry, and bright, telling of the heat soon to follow as the sun slid higher into the cloudless sky. Stiffly, Hazzard stretched and rose, out of habit checking his horse as he shook out his now-dry clothes and dressed.
He rode on for the better part of the day, moving slowly to spare his horse, always headed northwest, across the dry, rolling sage hills. He saw a few cattle, scattered here and there, a large herd of mule deer and three pronghorns, but no small game. Maybe, if nothing else showed up, he could snag a couple of trout out of the North Platte, still many miles away.
The trail he followed was a heavily rutted stage road, leading through the parched grass past widely scattered ranches and a few cow camps. Nothing very promising.
An hour before sundown, a neat, well-built ranch, nestled in a narrow grassy valley, sheltered by high ridges, made him draw rein and study it. There was stock in the corrals and the hills were dotted with fat white faced cattle, grazing peacefully. The house, built of lumber, was painted white and sat on a small hill. It had curtains hung neatly in the windows and a low picket fence around a flower bed. Maybe…
He touched the sorrel’s sides with his spurs and rode toward the house. Two girls, in their early teens, wearing plain gingham dresses and bare feet were walking toward the house. One carried a basket of eggs and the other a pail of frothy fresh milk.
Hazzard stopped in the yard to wait for them, tipping the brim of his worn hat with his fingertips as they neared.
“Girls. Is your father here?”
“You damn bet I am! And if you want to stay in one piece, turn around with your right hand in the clear!” A cold, harsh voice growled from the porch of the house behind him. “Linda, Nancy, get in the house. Now!”
As the girls hurried to obey, Hazzard carefully reined the sorrel around to face their father, his hands held lightly on the reins. He faced a tough-looking man of sixty, with a steel-gray mustache and eyes to match. In his hands, he cradled a twelve-gauge shotgun, with both hammers fully cocked.
“Easy, Mister. I’m just lookin’ for work,” Hazzard said quietly.
“You keep your ass in that saddle and your right hand high when you ride out. Do you think I’d let a half-breed ex-con with your rep work here when I have a wife and three girls? Now git!”
Two weeks’ riding brought Hazzard northwest, past the huge gray belly of Independence Rock on the Sweetwater, and across the barren dry hills just south of Lander. He traveled more than two hundred miles on four trout and a piece of back strap he stole from a grizzly guarding a freshly killed mule deer. The old sorrel hadn’t liked that one bit, but Hazzard hadn’t eaten for two days, and was nearly desperate for a good meal – desperate enough to bluff off a thousand pound bear that was in a killing mood.
Hazzard paused at the top of a long hill to let the sorrel blow, glancing up to the noonday sun. A good rain would sure lay down the trail dust, but there was no sign of a rain cloud, or any cloud, for that matter. The trail forked here, going southwest toward South Pass and northwest toward Fort Washakie. His mind and memories traveled both trails. South was Idaho, Utah, and California, maybe. North, through the Togwotee Pass, Colter’s Hell – Yellowstone, they called it now – and Jackson’s Hole, where more than once he camped with the outlaws and rustlers who used the out-of-the-way area.
While he rested the sorrel, he quietly slipped his Colt out of its holster, turning it in his hand. His speed with the worn Frontier earned him enough respect to go there and not be bothered, but even the idle thought sickened him. He felt like a wounded old bear, just wanting to go somewhere and be alone until something within him mended.
Almost angrily, he settled the .44 back into the holster and again looked in both directions, as if looking for some sign. He guessed it really didn’t matter anyway and let the horse have his head. Without hesitation, the sorrel jogged forward to the fork, then swung northwest. The choice was made.
Four days later, deep into the afternoon, Hazzard rode into the Tripp Ranch yard. This was a big spread, with four barns, a ten acre tight network of corrals and pens, a big, sprawling house with a porch all across the front and a bunkhouse near the biggest barn. Perhaps big enough that one trail-worn, half-starved man could get lost in long enough to earn a trail stake. Maybe his luck finally changed. He was far from Laramie now.
Hazzard was directed to the owner, Matt Tripp, near a pen where several hands were treating a bawling cow with screw worm. Over the lowing of cattle and shouting of men, they shook hands, and Hazzard was hired.
Behind them, three ranch hands stood watching. “Jeesus Kerist!” exclaimed the oldest in the trio, “That’s Jess Hazzard the Boss just hired! I seen him meet Ed Nevvins in Bozeman a few years back. Nevvins was hell on wheels with a gun, but Hazzard cut him down just like that!”
“I thought they had him locked up,” the other older man mused thoughtfully. “Something about a woman.”
“Don’t know, but that’s him, alright. No mistakin’ him. A little older and thinner, but the eyes…them cold icy eyes…yeh, it’s Jess Hazzard, all right!”
In awe the youngest, a boy of nineteen peered through an unkempt shock of brown hair. “Jess Hazzard! Here? You sure? He looks like a trail bum to me.”
“Don’t even think about it, Jerry,” the old hand said sharply. “That ‘breed has the quickest gun I’ve ever seen…and I seen ’em all in my time. Don’t mess with him, kid. Them others you took was nothin’, d’you hear. Nothin’ compared to him!”
“Aw, hell,” replied the boy with sarcasm. “He’s a old man. Must be forty or more. He sure ain’t much.”
“Jerry!” called Mr. Tripp from beside Hazzard, “Come here, son, and show our new hand the bunkhouse and where to stable his horse.”
Hazzard glanced to the boy across the yard from him. He would have been a handsome boy but for his eyes. There was something hard about them that did not fit the youthfulness of his face. And there was a smirky quality about his mouth that boded trouble. The boy worried Hazzard. Not many men wore a gun belt, holster hung low, tied down, much the same way his own Colt was carried. The boy obviously considered himself a gunslinger. The only difference was the newness of the gun and holster the boy wore, compared to the worn smoothness of his. A bad sign.
He led the sorrel, walking next to the boy. Hazzard didn’t miss the looks of the other hands behind them, still watching. The boy was close-mouthed and tight as he walked, but when he finally spoke, the pieces fit, with the blood-chilling finality of the click of a hammered-back gun.
“Jess Hazzard, eh? I heard stories about you an’ I expected more. They said you were fast…chain lightening.” The boy spoke in a taunting voice, the echo of the ghosts Hazzard had heard so many times before.
“That was a long time ago,” Hazzard replied quietly. He continued walking toward the barn, but he knew what was coming and suddenly wished he was still on that long, dusty trail, alone.
“Well, I’ll tell you what I think,” Jerry continued, savagely eager. “I think that reputation of yours came from a lot of saloons and drunk cowhands!”
Hazzard stopped and turned to the boy with no anger in his eyes. “Back off boy,” he said quietly, suddenly weary. This happened so many times before.
“Old man, I don’t back off from any man! What’s the matter? Prison take the starch outa your backbone?” The boy stepped away meaningfully, his hand above his holster. “Tell you what, I’m gonna count to five and draw. An’ unless you ain’t got the guts for it, you’d better take hold of that gun. Not many men around here would put up with a ‘breed that rapes a woman like you did in Cheyenne! ONE!”
“Let it go boy, it’s not worth it.” Hazzard’s gravelly voice was just above a whisper.
The men from the bunkhouse, barn and corrals stepped out to see what was happening, milling about uneasily.
“Jerry! Let him alone! He’s gonna kill you! Matt! For God’s sake, go get his pa!”
There was the sound of running feet and muttering from the gathered hands.
“Stay outa this Clint” the boy exclaimed angrily. “I can handle this myself! THREE”
“Are you sure you’re ready to die?” Hazzard asked quietly. “Just let it go.”
“FOUR!” Tension mounted in the boy’s voice that you could cut with a knife.
Hazzard dropped the reins of the sorrel and stepped away from him. In a heartbeat, Hazzard wasn’t just another trail bum, a worn old man, but straightened to face him with the deadly calm of a rattler before he strikes. Calm and sure. Sweat suddenly beaded on Jerry’s forehead and lip. He could feel it trickle down his back, under his shirt as his count faltered.
As the boy’s clutching hand touched his gun butt, Hazzard’s .44 blurred and was leveled at his chest, hammer back. His eyes were cold as ice and the boy paled as he stared death in the face. His hand fell limp and the barnyard was silent, waiting.
“The next time you try something like that, you might not be so lucky,” Hazzard said bitterly, swinging back up onto the sorrel. “You grow up before you strap that gun back on, boy.”
He slipped his pistol back into the holster and spun the horse around, touching his spurs to its sides. He left the deadly pale boy bent over and retching, his body shaking uncontrollably. A roar of laughter burst out in the yard as the boy’s father and the old hand gathered next to Jerry.
Jerry looked up at the rider, fading into the distance, and his eyes hardened as he wiped a hand over his mouth. “I’ll kill that bastard. I’ll kill him! No matter what it takes!”
“You didn’t do so good today, Jerry,” the old hand gently reminded him.
Jerry’s voice rose from a whisper to a shriek, “I’LL KILL HIM!”
Hazzard rode until the land turned to red rock and barren hills, and the moon rose after dark, as if to ease the hurt. He drifted aimlessly northward, listening to the night sounds close around him. With the instincts of a wild animal, he often checked his back trail, expecting pursuit, but none came. Finally, some sense of soothing came into his still-tense body and his mind ceased racing.
To his left, in the dark, he knew rose the east slopes of the mighty Wind River Mountains, rugged, steep and wild. Out there and somewhere close by were hundreds of square miles of rough, empty country, broken by rivers, canyons and rushing streams.
~ ~ ~
When he awoke the next morning, he heard the brawling rocky little stream beside him, tumbling on toward the Wind River. The sky showed the pink glow of dawn, but was clouding over. Maybe it would rain later.
Saddling the sorrel, he glanced about, knowing he wouldn’t stop again soon at a ranch or town. Somehow he would get by with what he had. Further up in the mountains, fish and game were plentiful, as were edible wild plants. Maybe he could fix up a camp and just stay put for a while. Living off the land was a part of him and much better than dealing with people. Hazzard mounted stiffly and turned his shirt collar up against a wind that blew an icy fog before it.
He rode on for half the day, through miles of twisting trail and towering rock cliffs and spires, making wide detours around the small town of Lawson and Fort Washakie. He also rode past any signs of habitation. There would be no more looking for work, no more hate and rejection. He had enough.
The old gelding was tired and the going was slow, but Hazzard was going nowhere, so it really didn’t matter. The grey clouds above grew denser, angrier, as they slowly climbed in elevation, but still didn’t rain. The air was calm and even the magpies and jays ceased their fussing. The only sounds were the muffled beat of the sorrel’s dragging feet and the occasional ring of Hazzard’s spurs.
Then, shattering the silence behind him and to the east, came the crack of a rifle, followed by the sharp, echoing report of a pistol. Again the rifle barked and all was silent.
With his heart pounding in his chest, Hazzard reined in the sorrel and listened. It sounds like someone rode into trouble. Maybe it’s a hunter. But the pistol shot? No, something’s wrong. He hesitated, then spun the horse around in the trail and touched his spurs to the sorrel’s sides.
He rode fast, but with extreme caution, for there was no telling what he was riding into. As he rounded a pile of boulders, he spotted the prone form of a man, sprawled, face down in the dirt ahead. He yanked the sorrel to a stop as he slid his empty Winchester from the scabbard out of habit, and searched the hills around. To the south was a rider up on the ridge. The big black he rode reared high, fighting a heavy hand on the reins. The rider pulled up a rifle and snapped off a shot at Hazzard, then yanked the black around to plunge out of sight in a mad run. He was too far to make out features and too fast to get off a shot. There was only the sound of fading hoof beats, joined by other horses in the distance.
Hazzard paused, holding the excited sorrel to a standstill and sliding the Winchester into the scabbard as he listened to the now faraway hoof beats. Something fierce within tore at him. You’ve been in enough trouble in this life. Get the hell out of here, before you get into something else! He glanced down to the man in front of the sorrel’s feet. He lay very still, a pool of blood welling into the sand beneath his head. Maybe he’s still alive. Maybe he needs help to stay that way. No, his heart screamed, desperate to avoid more grief.
He reined the horse away savagely, his jaw working convulsively with the struggle within him. The sorrel took but a few steps when Hazzard stopped him, swiftly stepping out of the saddle, again scanning the rocks and sage, listening hard for any sound. Then he dropped the reins and knelt beside the unconscious man.
He was big, clearing six feet three, having the arms and build of a blacksmith. His tawny hair and common plaid shirt reminded Hazzard of the Swede lumberjacks and tie hacks back east.
His breathing was steady and strong. Ripping off a piece of the man’s shirt tail, Hazzard daubed the blood away from the wound. It was a deep slash, running about four inches along his head, just beneath the hairline. Once the bleeding stopped, there should be no great damage.
Hazzard ripped lengths of bandage from the man’s undershirt, rolled one into a thick pad, then fastened it over the wound with the other. He watched for a few minutes to see that the blood did not soak through the bandage. Then, after leading the sorrel close, he bent to lift the limp, unconscious man, who outweighed him by a hundred pounds. It took three tries but, summoning all his strength, he finally shoved him across the saddle.
Slowly, carefully, he led the horse back up the draw a little ways, taking time to brush out his tracks and sift sand over them. With the wind that was blowing, in a few minutes there would be no sign of his passing to all but the experienced tracker.
At a brush-choked spring, nestled in a group of large boulders, well hidden from any rider, he made camp. He was not sure who he was helping. The man had no wallet, no papers. Was he an outlaw? A marshal? Or just a cowhand who had been robbed? Hazzard had no idea. But no one deserved to lie bleeding to death or to die from shock.
It was getting dark and because they were now at a higher elevation, the damp, foggy wind began cutting like a knife. Soon it would rain. Hazzard was glad, because he knew it would further conceal their camp, but he also knew he and the man would suffer from the cold. After unsaddling the tired sorrel, he staked him nearby to graze, knowing he would give warning of any approaching riders, no matter how stealthy their approach.
A cold mist began to drift in, closing the valley with a bone-chilling swirl of fog. After covering the injured man with his saddle blanket, Hazzard sat down in the sparse shelter of a boulder to wait for the night to pass. It would be unsafe to build even a small fire. Not only could someone searching for them possibly see the blaze, but the smell of smoke carries far in moist, clean air.
The wet night became colder, and Hazzard tried to huddle closer to himself, wishing for a dry bed and a cup of boiling coffee. Coffee would sure taste good now, as would a nice thick venison steak! Maybe I can get somewhere soon, where I can put up a good camp, make a bow and arrows, and at least get a deer. Then I’ll have fresh meat and be able to smoke some jerky too. His mouth watered uncontrollably. Seldom in his whole life had he been this hungry. He really had to stop doing this to himself, he thought ruefully.
He got up, tucked the blanket closer around the injured man, and again sat down to wait for morning. As miserable as he was, he felt like he would never sleep, but finally exhaustion overcame him and when next he opened his eyes, it was to the sun filtering through the misty morning haze.
A heavy dew dripped off the rocks and brush, giving the sound of rain, but there had been none and the day offered warmth. Hazzard still shivered uncontrollably. He stood, studying the hills around him, searching, listening, and watching his horse. Nothing was out of place. He built a small, sheltered fire with wood he gathered last night and shoved under a rock ledge to keep dry. The warmth from the fire, reflected off the rock wall, quickly warmed the little camp.
Pulling off his wet shirt, Hazzard propped it close to the fire with some small sage branches and held his hands out to the fire’s warmth. Immersed in weary thought, he watched the steam begin to rise from the shirt. He got up and turned his back to the fire, vaguely wondering what the day would bring. Glancing toward the injured man, he saw the blankets rise and fall normally, and was glad. Again, he turned toward the fire’s warmth and dozed.
The snap of a dry branch brought Hazzard awake and instantly alert. But everything was as it should be. The old sorrel had only stepped on a clump of dead sage. Hazzard glanced watchfully around the hills. He knew he was in no shape for a gun battle, with only five shells in his .44 and an empty Winchester.
After slipping on his warm, dry shirt, now fragrant with sage smoke, Hazzard again looked down on the injured man who seemed to be resting comfortably, then went to the sorrel. He pulled the picket rope loose and vaulted on the horse’s wet back, guiding him with the rope halter.
It was a hard climb to the top of the rock-strewn ridge above them where the rider on the black had briefly appeared yesterday. Slipping off the sorrel, Hazzard quickly read the story of the man on the black horse. Two men, both mounted, had ridden to the ridge from the southwest. One dismounted and smoked two cigarettes, waiting, while the other rider held both horses. The smoker was not a big man. His boots were about the size of Hazzard’s, but much less worn. Here, near the big rock, he knelt down and fired two shots with a rifle, a .44-40. The other man shot once with a .45 pistol. The brass glittered in the dew. The smoker reloaded, as did the other man. Then both men rode down the slope, toward the injured man.
The rest of the story, Hazzard had pieced together last night. The smoker briefly knelt by the injured man and then took his horse. The other man led the smoker’s horse up the slope and the smoker, probably hearing Hazzard’s approach, charged up the slope after him on the stolen black.
Hazzard remounted and turned to the brink of the ridge. From here, he could see at one sweeping glance a view empty of riders for miles. He could see the closeness of the mountain slopes, green with pines and fir, and remembered the country just west, through Union Pass. It was good country, quiet country. What wouldn’t he give to be enough at peace with himself to stay somewhere, to ride around a piece of land and call it his own.
Then he scoffed at himself. Me? A homesteader? A rancher? Some things are just not meant to be. He touched his heels to the sorrel and started carefully down the rocky slope toward the camp. He jogged the sorrel back slowly, but after climbing the slope, the old horse snorted and pulled at the halter rope, wanting to go. He was glad to see the horse was rested and fresh.
As Hazzard tied the sorrel back on his picket, he saw the wounded man stir slightly, disturbing the blanket. The morning was still damp and cool, so he straightened it and threw a few pieces of wood on the small fire. The flames licked hungrily at the pitchy branches, sending warmth through the small camp but making little smoke.
Maybe this man was on the wrong side of the law, but whoever shot him, left him to die in the trail, and stole his horse wasn’t much of a man.
Absently, he slipped his .44 from his holster. His eyes were shadowed soberly as he fingered the trigger and felt the smoothness of the walnut grips in his hand. How much he would give to never use it against another man. Being a gunman was a hell of a lonely way to live, and die.
He holstered the Frontier and reached over to check the bandage covering the man’s wound. At that movement, the man’s eyes flickered and opened. A look of confusion and pain crossed his face as he struggled to sit up.
“You’d better not try that for awhile yet. You lost a lot of blood back there.” Hazzard laid a restraining hand on his shoulder.
The injured man groaned slightly and pressed a hand to his head, feeling the bandage. “Yeah, I see what you mean. How bad is it?”
“You’ll live. Could have been a lot worse.”
“I was ridin’ home from Lawson.” He reached into his hip pocket. “Empty! Kind of figured that. I had $500 from a bunch of horses I sold at the fort. I rode into that draw and somebody started shooting.” He paused, remembering. “My horse! A big black gelding? ”
“They got him, too. I saw someone ridin’ a black up on the ridge when I came up. He took a shot at me, then was gone.” Hazzard could see the stolen horse bothered the man much more than losing the money. “Good horse?”
“Yeah. If I ever find out who got him…” He winced as he sat up.
“I guess you’re lucky he wasn’t a better shot,” Hazzard said quietly.
“You’re right. I owe you a lot of thanks,” he said, feeling the dried blood on his hair and shirt. “Looks like I’d have bled to death if you hadn’t ridden up.” He offered his hand, big and powerful. There was a smile in his green eyes. “Name’s ‘Seen’ Thursten.” He caught the questioning look in Hazzard’s expression and grinned. “Yeah, I know. It’s spelled S-E-A-N, but Ma got the name from a book she liked and didn’t know it was Shawn, so for years they called me ‘Seen’ so the name stuck.” He chuckled a bit. “I have a ranch west of here, over on the Upper Green, about twenty-some miles.”
Hazzard returned the grip, feeling a sort-of connection. Maybe it was only the open honesty in the handshake, or Sean’s easy ways. “Hazzard. Jess Hazzard.”
If Sean recognized the name, he gave no indication. He unsteadily got to his feet, swaying dizzily. With a hand, Hazzard reached to balance him. “Easy.”
“I think I’ll feel better if I walk around a little. Where was that bastard shooting from?”
“Up there, on the ridge, in those rocks,” Hazzard gestured.
“Show me the spot?”
“You feel like goin’ up? It’s a rough climb, and that’s quite a gouge in your head.”
“Not really…but he meant to kill me. I want to see his tracks.”
Hazzard led the way back up the draw to the spot he found Sean, marked grimly by a rust-colored blood stain and tracks. Sean glanced at the spot, then up to the top of the ridge.
“He was up there, with another man, along those rocks by the dead pine.”
Hazzard led the way through the rocks and brush to a point halfway up the slope, where he stopped and waited for Sean to catch up. He was pale and out of breath but game and determined. He nodded and Hazzard continued the climb, trying to pick the easiest route to the top.
He showed Sean where the riders came up and the one dismounted. In the dirt were two distinct boot prints where the smoker waited. Sean knelt on one knee to study them. They were made by a man quite a bit lighter and with a smaller foot than himself. A man about Hazzard’s size.
It seemed as though Hazzard could read his thoughts, for he carefully stepped down next to the clearest track. Then he withdrew his foot and looked at Sean. Sean did not need to look down to know there was a difference in the tracks and regretted letting doubt enter his mind. He caught the flash of anger in Hazzard’s eyes as it was replaced by bitterness, or was it sadness? It was like he was expecting to be doubted.
“I better go saddle the horse,” Hazzard said quietly and turned back down the slope. “Stay here and I’ll bring him up.”
There was little to breaking camp, just putting out the fire and saddling up the sorrel. Hazzard returned on the horse and dismounted beside Sean to let the horse catch his wind. He wished the horse did not carry the prison brand, so big and plain. As the sorrel turned, it was in painfully plain sight.
Hazzard saw Sean’s eyes rest briefly on the brand, as men do in the west, but there was no change in his expression. No suspicion, fear or loathing. And he wondered at this man he helped.
“You feel up to ridin’?” Hazzard asked.
“Yeah, I guess so. But that horse won’t be able to stand us riding double for the ride across the mountains, to home. It’s a hard climb all the way up. We can cut maybe eight miles off, by taking the old elk trail instead of the pass, but it’s still too much for him, double.”
“I know. We’ll try somethin’ different.”
Sean watched with curiosity as Hazzard reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a leather bundle. Sitting on a boulder, he pulled off his boots and, in their place, slipped on a pair of calf-high Apache moccasins. Hazzard was thankful the mice shredded his spare clothes but left the moccasins untouched.
“Now we’ll see how soft I got,” he said, placing his boots carefully in the open saddlebag and buckling it closed. Then he stripped to the waist, rolled his shirt up, and shoved it into the top of his warbag.
“You lead the way. They’re your mountains. Mount up,” he said, tightening the cinch. “We’ll try a jog once we hit the trail, till the climb gets bad.”
Sean heard of the Indians doing this – one on a horse, the other alongside, on foot, keeping pace – and he never really believed it could be done for any distance. But watching Hazzard’s fluid pace and even breathing, he wondered if he had been wrong.
At first Sean’s head throbbed unmercifully with the jolt of each hoof beat, but as he rode, it slackened some and he began to watch Hazzard with much interest. He was always right alongside, only occasionally grabbing the stirrup when the going got rough or the trail too steep, never seeming out of breath. Sweat glistened on his bare back and shoulders. But he ran on, seemingly tireless.
It was past noon when they paused to rest at a small, clear stream. They were in the pines now, and the fresh air had a woodsy smell to it. They were far above the sage and red rock.
“How’s the head doing?” Hazzard asked, as he unsaddled the sorrel to rest him.
“Kinda feels like I have two heads, but it’s a hell of a lot better than being dead!” He grinned. “I get the feeling you’ve done this before. We came a lot of miles, mostly up.”
Hazzard was kneeling at the edge of the stream, splashing the icy water over his head and sweaty shoulders.
“Was a time I could go fifty miles across the desert without stopping. I guess I got rusty, though.” There was no brag in his voice. It was more like he was ashamed to have run only fifteen miles. For a moment, with his wet, black hair and the dusky color of his sweaty shoulders, he looked like an Indian, wild and free.
He drew a deep breath and sighed, grateful for the rest. Looking down their back trail, he saw, for the first time, how steep their ascent had been. The foothills spread out far below them, lost in the blue haze of the distance. Only rock, mountain tops and eagles were above them. The trail they followed was narrow, curving, and faint, but it was a good trail, packed well by years of deer and elk winding their way through the mountains. Pretty country, and quiet.
He glanced back to the old sorrel, who was starting to wander off the trail, following the lush grass on the bank of the rocky stream.
“Whoa, Sorrel!” he called to the horse, who stopped stock-still in his tracks, ears swiveling. Turning to Sean, Hazzard explained, “He might not be the best horse now, but someone, somewhere, spent a lot of time training him. He sure knows what whoa means!”
Hazzard rinsed out his mouth with the icy water, but drank only a few sips. Drinking too much cold water after a long run would cause painful cramps. He stood and caught up the sorrel, running his hand lightly down the gelding’s neck.
“He’s cooled down, if you’re up to travelin’,” he said, swinging the saddle blanket and saddle onto the horse’s back. Hazzard felt sharp, gnawing hunger pangs. A cup of coffee would be good right now, too!
As he jogged along next to the sorrel, he felt strange, but could not figure out why. Maybe it was because he was light-headed from lack of food. Or maybe it was the thin air. He felt like the barrier he built around himself was crumbling. The wall between him and any other person, his shell of self-preservation, was slipping away. Why? How? This man’s a total stranger.
He suddenly realized he felt younger, cleaner, as if he was starting a new life.
It was almost dark when they came to a hill overlooking a broad valley. Directly below them, in a small grove of tall pines, was a log cabin and outbuildings. There were two corrals behind the barn with several horses grazing lazily in the dusky light. Far out in the valley, a herd of elk mingled with a small herd of red cattle.
“Well, this is home,” Sean said, with a touch of pride in his voice.
“You’ve got a place here some men’d give their souls for,” Hazzard replied, barely audible. He watched the elk raise their heads and trot off the meadow into the trees at the sight of them.
“It’s been a lot of work, and I never run out of things that need doing. But it’s good country. Kind of remote, but good country. Let’s go on down and get something to eat. I’m starved.”
Hazzard felt his stomach tighten with hunger pains. You have no idea. No idea.
Later that evening, after they finished a hefty dinner, complete with steak, potatoes, and homemade bread, a cold wind began to gust down out of the mountains. Sean lit a small fire in the stone fireplace that dominated the far wall of the cabin. There was a clap of thunder, echoing in the valley and shaking the very ground. The two men sat down in front of the fire, soaking up its warmth as they enjoyed a second cup of coffee.
“How that bushwhacker knew I had anything worth taking, or even that I would be going back that way, is beyond me,” Sean said. “But not only did I lose my best horse and saddle, and my best rifle, but now I have to catch and break another bunch of horses to make up for the money I lost. That money was supposed to buy supplies and feed. Without it, I’ll have a real tight winter.” Sean shook his head at the prospect. Then he looked up at Hazzard with an idea in his eyes. “Say, you wouldn’t be interested in a few months’ work, would you? Don’t know how I can get all the work done alone that needs done now.”
“I’ll help you all I can. Shouldn’t be too much of a job to run in a small bunch and get ’em broke. But I don’t know how long I can stay. Somebody’ll find out an’ there’ll be trouble. There always is.” Hazzard looked down into his coffee, hoping Sean wouldn’t ask why. A confusing swirl of emotions roared through him. Here he was, in almost desperate need of work, offered a job working horses in a country he liked, by a man he could almost trust, yet he was deeply uncertain about staying.
“Jess, tell me one thing. Are you on the run?” Sean asked simply.
“No. Not the way you mean it, anyway,” Hazzard answered quietly. “Trouble just follows me, like a hound from Hell.”
Sean rose, satisfied, throwing his grounds into the fire. “I can’t pay much, and I’ll probably work us both to death,” he warned lightly, wondering if this dark, quiet man ever smiled.
“I’m not worried about the pay. Like as not, I won’t be stayin’ long, anyway.”
“You might be surprised. These mountains have their own sort of magic. They put a spell on a man, if he lets them.” Sean banked the fire for the night. “I still remember the first time I came up to this valley with my wife.”
“Wife?” Hazzard was taken by surprise. There was no woman’s touch evident in the cabin.
“She was killed over three years back. A raid by a bunch of renegade Blackfeet.” A touch of pain reflected in his face at the memory. “We were just finishing the cabin.”
“I’m sorry.” Hazzard watched the big man stare into the fire. His sorrow was genuine, for he knew all too well the hurt that could come from something seemingly long past. “Sean, you’ve got to know. My father was a Chiricahua Apache. I was raised Apache. So if you’d rather I left, especially with your wife an’ all, I’d understand.” Even as he spoke, Hazzard cursed himself. Why? Why do I always push everyone away some way or another? Here’s a man I could like, who could be a friend, and I’m twisting a knife in him. He knew it but could not stop. Better he finds out now than later, when it will be harder for both of us.
“Jess,” Sean answered quietly. “You’re not one of those Blackfeet. Around here, a man’s judged by what he is, not by gossip and bloodlines. I’ve seen enough to say you’re welcome to stay here as long as you want.”
The rain fell peacefully on the roof. As a drop found its way down the chimney and landed with a hiss, Sean stood. “Well, let’s turn in. If this rain quits, we’ll take a look around for a bunch of horses tomorrow and let you get the lay of the land. My son’s with a neighbor. You can use his room. We kinda have been using the other room for harness repairs and junk. Looks like a rat’s nest in there right now. We’ll have to clean it out. If you get cold, there’s an extra blanket on the chair at the foot of the bed.”
Later, Hazzard stretched out on the bed, savoring the luxury of the evening. A full meal, and a good one at that, eaten in peace. Coffee, a roof over my head in the rain, and a real bed with a patchwork quilt and even a pillow! A man could get spoiled. It was a long way from last night, when he huddled, shivering, with an empty belly and no prospects of a life.
He looked around, seeing shiny stones, special bird feathers, a crudely built little boat, and all the things a small boy picks up and treasures. Somehow it all brought a peace to him, as if there was something in the world besides hatred and killing.
Morning came quickly and Hazzard was up with the first streaks of dawn, feeling a strange excitement. The rain stopped sometime during the night, leaving the grass wet as a mist of fog drifted through the clearing and wandered up into the pines.
The horses all nickered from their stalls as he turned the latch on the barn door. Limping slightly with the stiffness of over-stretched leg muscles from his long run the day before, he watered the old sorrel. He watched the clear water in the trough ripple slightly beneath the gelding’s velvet lips. It was these little things he missed most in prison, the things that made life worth living, especially when a man had nothing.
“Well fella,” Hazzard said, stroking the gelding’s smooth neck, “maybe one of these days you can retire and loaf around in knee deep pasture.” There was a gentle wistfulness in Hazzard’s voice. “Like that, eh?”
He heard steps approaching, and the latch opened on the barn door. Sean walked in, his hair wet and freshly combed away from the dark, ugly scab on his head. Today he wore no bandage and the wound looked nasty but healing.
“Morning. Looks like I overslept a bit,” Sean said with a guilty smile.
“Mornin’. You needed it. Most men’d be laid up a couple weeks with that.” Hazzard nodded at the wound.
“I’d better ride over and get Scotty this morning. I leave him over to Old Ernie’s place when I have to be away. If you want, you can ride up the valley and look things over a little. There’s a lake several miles up the trail and an abandoned homestead. Only the barn left, but you can’t miss it. We’ll meet you up there. Then, maybe we can look around for horses.”
An hour later, they were mounting their horses. For a time, they rode together, eastward, with Sean doing most of the talking. Then, at a fork in the trail, he turned north and Hazzard, south, up the valley toward the mountains.
Beneath him, the old sorrel jogged contentedly, not even spooking at the sight of a cow moose and her long-legged calf crashing off into the willows at a small creek. There was abundant game sign. Fresh tracks of moose, elk, and deer showed this would always be a good hunting area. At the river, the water was muddy with the tracks of a small herd of mustangs crossing a shallow ford.
Hazzard studied the tracks for a few minutes while the sorrel drank his fill. Then he looked about him. The grass here was good and there was water enough to take care of a lot of stock, even in a dry year. It was warming up well, as the sun rose higher in the sky, lending a steamy atmosphere to the trail. The rain from last night’s storm had almost soaked in, but in spots, puddles still lay on the trail. It would be a pleasant day.
In an hour, he came to a rise, heavily timbered with pine and fir. As he rode over the ridge, he was surprised by a large, emerald-clear lake before him. Straight across, a huge, square topped mountain peak jutted upward, seemingly rising from the depths of the lake. It was guarded on both sides by many miles of the mighty Wind River Mountains’ vast wilderness.
He rode on down to the clearing at the lakeshore, seeing a large log barn, grown to grass and weeds, a sad evidence of a life that had once been. Only a few burnt logs remained of what had been a small cabin.
He rode past the barn to the edge of the rocky shore, where the crystal clear water washed the smooth stones. He saw many fish in the lake, including large trout cruising the depths. It was paradise for someone who loved trout as much as he did! The wind shook the pines high above, sending fat drops of rainwater down on them. The sorrel shook his head to rid himself of the irritation. Then he suddenly pricked his ears, staring to the west.
Instinctively, Hazzard slipped the thong from his .44, loosening it in the holster. He looked where the horse’s ears pointed, every nerve taut. It could be a wild bunch, but they would surely catch his scent in that direction. Sean and his boy? Too soon. A bear?
At first he couldn’t hear or see anything but the whispering pines, but he knew there was a horse out there and close. Too close. Then he heard the faint sound of many shod horses and the creak of wet saddle leather.
He realized he was in the open, reined the sorrel toward the other side of the river, and put his spurs to his sides. Usually when that many men rode together, that far from anywhere, it meant trouble, and he had already had his fill.
Hazzard crossed the river at a run and was almost to the draw on the other side when he saw them. He counted about twelve men in slickers, riding into the clearing. A chill swept over him as he turned the sorrel, stopping to face them across the river. Three hundred yards separated them. Damn! Only five shells!
The old horse sensed the tension, snorted and half-reared, trying to turn and run. But Hazzard held him in firmly. Maybe…maybe, they aren’t…
“There he is! Get him!” a voice shouted. The call was repeated and they came thundering after him, as a pack of hounds bays a wolf. A shot cracked through the still air. And another.
“There’s who?” Hazzard muttered, unbelieving, as he jerked the old horse into the brush choked draw. Why the hell are they after me? He spurred the horse into a desperate run. Maybe if I can reach the pines.
The brush was thick. Branches whipped his face and ripped at his shirt. Closing behind him, he heard the riders crashing as they hit the brush. The sorrel stumbled and went to his knees in the tangled branches. But he managed to stagger to his feet, throwing himself onward, giving all his old heart had to give. Another shot burned past Hazzard’s head. Too close! He pulled his .44 from his holster and turned and quickly fired two shots at the nearest riders. His horse was running too hard in the brush for accurate shooting, but he was gratified to see the riders pull back a little. He holstered his gun and leaned forward against the horse’s neck, knowing the old horse could never hope to outdistance those behind him. Turning to fight would be suicide, with only three shells left in his Colt. Maybe I can reach the rocks ahead.
Something like a giant fist smashed into his back, driving the breath from him. Then he heard the sharp report of a rifle. He tried to urge the horse faster, but couldn’t bear the pain. It was all he could do to cling to the plunging horse. Swaying low, weakening by the second, the laboring horse gave a burst of speed, sensing his rider’s need. Hazzard did not have the strength to urge him on. His right hand fell from the saddle, his fingertips reaching for his Colt. But he was unable to feel it.
“He’s done!” voices cried excitedly.
Suddenly, a low branch caught Hazzard in the head and everything exploded black as he fell from the plunging horse, face down and bleeding in the mud.
As Sean rode into Ernie’s yard, he gave a shrill whistle. He looked around the still yard, and then saw a blond little boy with mischief in his blue eyes peep out from the open door of the barn loft.
“Pa! How come you’re back already? What happened to your head? Where’s Satan?”
“Ran into a little trouble, Son. Somebody took a couple of pot shots at me. They got Satan and the money from the horses.”
“They stole Satan?” the boy asked, unbelieving.
“Afraid so. What are you doin’ up there?” Sean rode closer.
“Watchin’,” the boy answered mysteriously.
“Watching what, Scotty?”
“They might come back.”
“Who?” Sean threw a leg over the saddle horn with a smile. This might take some time.
“Them men that had that ‘damn breed’ caught.”
“Scotty,” Sean scolded. “You stop talking like that.”
“Well, that’s what they said! That damn half-breed,” the boy protested. “He was all bloody, an’ tied up, an’ looked dead. But a posse don’t hang a dead guy, do they? Boy he had a skinny ol’ horse!”
“You makin’ all this up? You know what I told you about tellin’ stories, Scotty.”
“This is really, honest! Honest, Pa!”
“Then you tell me more. Who were the men?”
“Men from town. A posse. They said he robbed an’ killed people.”
“When were they through here?”
“Just now! Uncle Ernie told me to clean the harness while he caught a hurt cow, an’ they rode right through the yard.” The boy paused for a breath. “They caught him up by the lake. An’ they sure sounded mad!”
A shadow of chilling uneasiness touched Sean. Could it be Jess Hazzard?
“What did the man they had look like,” Sean asked.
“I dunno. He was so muddy it was hard to see. I didn’t want to look. There was lots of blood, Pa!” Fear showed in his eyes as he tried to remember more. “He was ridin’ a skinny old sorrel horse.”
They must have Hazzard! But he said he wasn’t on the run and he believed him.
“Scotty, I’m going to find out more about this. I think there’s been some kind of mistake. You stay right where you are and you tell Ernie. Understand?”
“All right, Pa.”
Sean wheeled his horse around and picked up the trail. It wasn’t hard to find with more than a dozen shod horses traveling east in the mud.
When the dull blackness began to fade, Hazzard opened his eyes and tried to straighten up in the saddle. A silent gasp of agony came as a stabbing pain ran through his back and chest, taking his breath, making his fingers tighten on the sorrel’s mane.
Through his blurred vision, he could see the rumps of horses ahead and the backs of riders. Leaning heavily on the sorrel’s neck, he saw his hands were tied to the saddle. As he looked down, he noticed a sticky mat of clotted blood on the horse’s shoulder and the saddle. He could hear blood trickling from his chest steadily, splashing down onto the horse. His head spun and he felt like he would be sick. So damn weak. They shot me and it’s bad, seeing how much blood I’m losing. He forced his hands back to the holster at his hip, just reaching it. His hands trembled with the effort. At least he would not die alone. But the Colt was gone, the holster terribly naked and empty.
Then a Voice spoke loudly behind him, bringing him back from near-unconsciousness.
“I say we should string up the dirty bastard right here and now! Take him on into town an’ some lawyer might get him off with a few years, like before. Let’s see him pay. Now!”
Several others took up the cry and before long, the fever was hot, and the roar of voices, loud.
Hazzard became aware the sorrel was standing still and he struggled to focus his blurred vision. Ahead, one man was throwing his rope over a branch of a big cottonwood.
So this is how it ends. A vaguely-familiar voice was saying something behind him. None too gently, they tossed a loop over his head and jerked it tight, tying it off to the tree’s trunk. Drawn upright by the rope, Hazzard almost passed out from agony.
The Voice was urging, behind him. Hazzard caught some of the words – bank and Thursten. But he could not make any sense out of what was being said. He knew it would be soon. Part of him begged for death’s softness and the end to his torture. But a small part of his soul stubbornly demanded that he fight as long as he was able, any way he could, to cling to life. Damn the Voice! Who here hated him this much?
“Whoa fella,” Hazzard whispered to the sorrel, his words gravelly with pain.
The Voice yelled and the sorrel half-reared in confusion, nearly throwing Hazzard.
“I’ll move that damn horse!” shouted the Voice. “Give me that quirt, Tad!”
There was some talk behind and Hazzard waited for the jerk of death. The old horse couldn’t stand much longer for him.
Another voice was speaking and Hazzard struggled to hear.
“You heard me! The first man that so much as breathes is going to die. Tad! Hold that sorrel! What the hell is this all about?” the new voice demanded harshly.
Where did I hear that voice before? Hazzard fought for breath against the rope’s strangling grip.
“Yesterday, he robbed the bank in town and killed two men an’ we thought he’d killed you. Jerry, here saw you down on the trail, thought you were dead. Came to get help!”
“Not good enough. Yesterday, he chased off the bushwhacker who shot me and stole my horse and my money, and spent the night nursing me so I didn’t bleed to death. I saw the tracks and it wasn’t him. And he sure didn’t have time to ride to town and rob the bank!” He motioned with his rifle. “Now loosen that rope. Right now!” There was an icy chill in Sean’s voice that Hazzard had not heard before.
The mob’s fever cooled abruptly, leaving the Voice alone, still clamoring for a hanging.
“Now we’re sorry, Sean, but how’s we to know? Just figured it was the ‘breed anyway. Jerry said he saw him ride around town like he was plannin’ something. An’ everyone here knows his reputation.”
Hazzard felt the rope go slack and felt himself slipping from the saddle. Numbly, he fought to stay on the horse, but his strength had poured out with his blood. He was unconscious before he reached the ground.