Story by Brandon Barrows
Illustration by Bradley K. McDevitt
Somewhere in the darkened valley behind me, the pounding of horses’ hooves sounded. Though I had maybe an hour’s lead, I imagined I could almost hear them closing in – the big-boned steel-gray and the Morgan with fire in its eyes. I knew those horses were some of the finest in Colorado and their riders some of the worst men. I also knew that my own bay was on her last legs and that she’d be finished before I could put any real distance between me and my pursuers.
I spurred my poor mount eastward, towards where the sun would rise over Mount Elbert in a few hours. If I made it there, keeping ahead of the hammering death at my rear, I’d have a chance at keeping my neck the length God had intended. I didn’t much blame the miners of Oro Gulch for wanting to string me up; from what they knew, it was perfectly warranted. But they didn’t know what I did, and it was my neck, so I wasn’t going to give it up without a fight. I kicked the last ounce of strength into my wobbly mount and turned my face towards the summit.
— ♦♦♦ —
Five months earlier, the High House, situated atop Mount Elbert in what passed for the town up there, took the last of my cash. In Wyoming, where’d I’d come from, I’d done something stupid, blown my top, and lost a good job through my own bad decisions. Lost my good name, too. I took to drinking and soon every dime I got my hands on went down my throat. Riding the chow-line kept me from starving, but the longer you’re on the chow-line, the harder it is to find real work. On top of that, nobody wanted a boozehound for a full-time hand, either. It was a cycle I didn’t know how to break, so I headed south, hoping a change of scenery would bring a change of fortune.
I found different luck, all right, but it went from bad to worse.
I hadn’t been in Colorado but a few days when I met Ken Hightower, the sharp-eyed, hollow-souled gambler who runs the High House. Met him, and in trying to win myself a stake for a shot at a new life, lost to him what little cash I had, along with my horse – at the value of fifteen lousy dollars. He probably would have taken the boots off my feet, too, if old Walt Foxe hadn’t dragged me from the card table.
“Let’s go, boy. You’re comin’ with me. You stick around here any longer, that slick’ll grind you under his heels ‘til there ain’t nothin’ left,” Walt had said.
I’d jerked my arm away from his grasp, looked the old man over. He was small, grizzled, with a dirty-white beard half-way down his chest, so full and frizzy it practically hid his face. Hid all except his eyes, little black twinkles among all that white.
“What do you care what happens to me?” I’d asked.
Old Walt clucked his tongue and said, “I got a boy your age, back home.”
I was defiant. “So, what? I ain’t your son.”
“Well, you’re somebody’s son and that’s good enough for me. Now c’mon. You ain’t no ‘puncher without a horse, but maybe I can make a miner of you. Come along with me and we’ll see.” As if the matter was settled, he stuck out his hand, and added, “I’m Walt Foxe. Pleased to meetcha.”
“Mark Jacobs,” I said as he pumped my arm, thinking the old coot would be good for a meal or two, anyway.
But he was far better than that.
It was clear from the start that Walt Foxe was sincere in wanting to help me. He was a good man. The best I ever met, really, and I thank God I got the chance to know him. He took me into his home, taught me everything he knew about gold-digging. Helped dry me out, too. I felt good for the first time in a long time. I felt like I had value again. Mining was hard work, but a good life. We kept busy and our efforts were rewarded.
Walt had struck good pay-ground with his claim down in Oro Gulch, the valley west of Mount Elbert. The vein was so rich he didn’t really need my help, but I worked as hard as I ever had in my life trying to repay his kindness. In just a few short months, we pulled nearly forty-thousand dollars in nuggets and coarse dust out of the earth. Twenty-thousand for each of us, Walt said. I tried to refuse, but Walt wouldn’t hear of it. “We’re partners,” he declared and would speak of it no more.
Life was hard, but after a time I couldn’t imagine it any other way, nor would I want to. I was happy, and Walt seemed happy, too. He was positively over the moon, though, the day he received a letter from his son, Al, saying that he was striking across the Overland Trail by wagon, and bringing Walt’s daughter, Beth, along with him, too. She planned, the letter said, to cook and clean for old Walt, keeping his cabin homey, while the vein held out. Once the claim was dry, father and daughter could join the younger Foxe up in Oregon. The family would be reunited and could work the land, build a life, together as they had back home in Ohio.
It seemed a good plan and I was happy for my friend. Walt himself practically walked on air. He spent ten days talking of nothing but his children and his plans for the future. He was riding so high, it seemed like nothing at all could bring him down to earth.
Until tonight, when lead came screaming through the gulch.
We’d had our supper and were sitting by the fire-pit, sipping coffee and swapping stories. Walt chattered endlessly of his children’s early days, a smile on his lips and that old twinkle in his eyes. I felt the pain across my ribs before I heard the crack of the pistol. Fire hotter than the cook-flame scoured my side as I dove for cover behind the corner of the cabin. Three more shots shattered the stillness of the night. I dragged the Colt Dragoon from my holster, whipped off all six rounds blindly, and waited. No more shots came. All was still again. It was as if none of it had ever happened. Except that when I crept out from cover, Walt Foxe was dead. My partner was gone.
Pain seized my chest, far worse than the burning in my ribs. Then voices sounded in the distance, growing closer by the moment. Walt’s cabin wasn’t near Oro Gulch’s main camp. Most of the miners who worked the area lived in tents or shaky lean-tos thrown up in haste, expecting to make their fortunes quickly and leave. But Walt was more experienced and, knowing it was rarely that easy, had built his sturdy cabin right on his claim, prepared to stay as long as it took. Shots at the cabin could very likely be heard in the main camp, but there was no way a crowd could get here that quickly unless someone had gathered them beforehand.
My mind worked at a lightning pace and pieces fell into place. Walt was a friendly man who tried to get along with everyone, but there are those who hate that kind worse than any other. One such was Ed Turin, a raw-boned giant of a man who’d come from San Francisco intending to get rich quick. He’d been in Oro Gulch before I joined Walt, but in all that time, I doubted he’d earned more than a few hundred dollars. And whatever he pulled out of the ground seemed instantly to go to women and whiskey. That and a pair of the finest horses I’d ever seen: a gray stallion so big it was damned near monstrous, which Turin himself rode, and a Morgan horse that always seemed ready to take on the world. The Morgan Turin allowed his chief crony, Dan Ellis, to ride.
For all of Turin’s flash, though, it was plain that he envied Walt. He made no bones about letting everyone know how little he thought of “the crazy old coot and his stray pup” at every opportunity. The folks in Oro Gulch had every right to envy; Walt’s was the best claim in the area. But that was the luck of the draw. Only Turin seemed truly bitter about it. Was he bitter enough to murder, though?
The voices grew louder and suddenly, clear as a bell, I heard, “Told old Walt to be wary o’ that drunken ‘puncher kid!”
Anger replaced the pain in my chest. It was all too clear now; Turin was that bitter and that underhanded. It was his voice I had heard, and I was sure that it was his bullets in my friend. I thought I knew, too, what he’d tell the other miners: that the broken-down cowpuncher Walt Foxe had taken in out of the goodness of his heart had killed that fine old man for his gold. So, what if I was injured myself? They’d simply say that the scrape across my ribs meant nothing, that I must have wounded myself as a cover story. And if Walt’s gold disappeared in all the hubbub, it must surely have been that the Jacobs kid already hid it somewhere. Rage flared, but it was tempered with sense. I couldn’t shoot my way out of this and I had only moments in which to work. I cleared out Walt’s gold cache, hidden beneath the floor of the cabin, saddled the horse that pulled his wagon and galloped off into the hills, only minutes ahead of a noose.
— ♦♦♦ —
The bay crumpled between my knees, but I knew it was coming and managed to leap clear of the saddle. Beneath the moon’s dim light, reflected off the rocks of the foothills, that poor faithful animal gave a last heave and died. “Thank you, old girl,” I whispered as I stripped the bridle and saddle, adding, “and I’m sorry.” I freed the saddlebags with my knife, then heaved almost seventy pounds of gold over my shoulders and continued up the narrow path that wound towards the top of the mountain.
The High House Hotel sat just back from the rim of the mountain, alongside the emigrant’s trail that was an offshoot of the famous Overland Trail. It was safely on the outskirts of Eagle’s Roost, meaning a little noise and bustle wouldn’t disturb anybody in the town, but still in a place where no traveler could miss it. And there was plenty of noise and bustle most nights, being the only place around to drink or gamble away whatever the men down in Oro Gulch pulled from the ground. But it was also a working hotel, and if I could reach it, I was sure I could buy a fresh mount. With a strong, well-rested horse beneath me, I had a fighting chance of making it to the other side of the mountain and away from my pursuers. What I’d do then, I didn’t know, but saving my neck took priority.
I heaved on, legs braced against the pitch of the trail and the weight on my shoulders, gouged side screaming in protest. Before long, lights glimmered through the pines. A few more steps and I could see the hitching rail that ran the length of the split-log hotel. My heart fell into my stomach when I saw that the hitching rail was empty. There wasn’t a single horse anywhere in sight. It was my bad luck that the High House was having a night of poor business.
I climbed onto the hotel’s porch and swept open the paneled doors, sidling in shoulder-first to accommodate the width of the saddlebags. Dim as it was, the light of the place’s smoking oil lamps was harsh to my eyes and as I made my way across the nearly-deserted room. A bald-headed, aproned bartender stood behind the unvarnished, knotty-pine bar, rubbing a rag across a shot-glass in a half-hearted way. At a table in the corner of the room, a sleepy-eyed lounger sat before a game of solitaire he didn’t seem too much interested in. Standing at the bar, on the far end from where I’d entered the room, was Ken Hightower himself, hawk-faced and sharp-eyed. A raw-nugget ring on his finger winked in the lamp-light as he lifted a glass to his lips.
I dumped the heavy bags to the floor, then crossed the few feet to Hightower, who’d turned his gaze my way but hadn’t said a word. “Hightower, I need a horse.”
The other man looked me over, hard eyes appraising me. I hadn’t set foot in the High House since the night Walt Foxe had dragged me out and I wasn’t sure he remembered me.
“I can pay,” I added, figuring money was the only thing that would move a man like him. “Don’t worry about that.”
“We don’t hire horses to your kind, welsher,” the gambler said, turning pointedly away. He motioned to the bartender to refill his glass.
So, he did remember me, and I guessed he considered me to have run out when Walt rescued me that night. I didn’t care. “I came to buy a horse,” I said, wanting to scream my urgency, but keeping my tone in check. “Those bags,” I nudged the nearest with the toe of my boot, “are filled with gold. Name your price. I’ll pay it.”
Some cold, calculating light danced through Hightower’s eyes. I knew I’d made a mistake. Hightower did know who I was, and I was now sure that he’d heard as much about Walt’s and my success as Turin had. I feared that I’d run from one killer directly into the arms of another.
The sounds of fresh commotion distracted the both of us, as the clattering of hooves pounding along the trail, driving hard toward the inn, reached our ears. Hightower’s head turned towards the door as my hand fell to the six-gun riding my thigh. I’d taken the long way out of Oro Gulch to confuse my trail and give myself some distance and time. I knew that Turin and his posse would find the trail before long, but it seemed incredible that they could have gained so much ground in coming up over the rim. Still, the mad clatter outside seemed to say otherwise, and the frenzied pace of the rider promised trouble one way or another.
Outside, the horse quieted beside the hitching rail and the sound of boots on the shale walkway to the porch rang loud in my ears. Forgetting the bags of gold on the floor, I drew the gun from my holster and backed myself into the nearest corner, weapon held towards the entryway. Hightower’s gaze turned my way again, but his face showed nothing. The bartender reached for Hightower’s glass, replaced it with a fresh shot of whiskey. In the corner, the lounger collected his cards and began shuffling for a new game. I felt like a madman, the only one in the room worried about what might be coming through that doorway.
The door flew open and a figure lurched through, slamming it closed behind them. My Colt followed the form and then lowered as tiny boots, a short, fringed riding skirt and the slenderness of the figure, all registered in my mind. It wasn’t Turin or his stooges who had stormed into the High House, but a woman.
Her eyes scanned the room but seemed not to notice anyone or thing but Hightower. She went straight to the hotel owner, small feet stamping hollowly on the wooden floor. “Mr. Hightower? You run an evil little place here!” She blew the words at the man,and were she not a woman, I think she would have spat them. “Who do you think you are, taking a man and filling him with whiskey just so you can empty his pockets when he’s half-senseless and altogether helpless? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
Hightower’s lips crooked into something that might have been either a sneer or a smile. For this man, there might not have been any difference. “It’s a free country, miss,” he said. He took a sip of whiskey. Then: “We don’t force anybody to drink and we don’t force them to play cards. Who’s saying I do? Your husband? Your papa?”
The girl sneered right back at the gambler. “You know very well who it was. My brother was just in here not two hours ago and by the looks of things,” she swept a hand to indicate the almost-empty room, “you haven’t had enough custom to make you forget the kind of haul you took off him.”
Hightower laughed. “Oh, you’re the greenhorn’s sister, are you?”
She nodded. “That’s right and I’ve come to get my brother’s money back. We’ve been on the trail for so long he’d forgotten the taste of whiskey and got carried away. It’s not right to take advantage of a man in that state.”
The gambler said quietly, “We play for keeps, miss.”
While I watched and listened to their exchange, my thoughts were on the animal that the girl had hitched outside. The girl and I each had our problems, but she held the solution to mine. I hated to do it, to leave the girl on her own, but the horse she’d ridden in on seemed like the only means of saving my neck.
I holstered my Colt and inched across the floor, back to my saddlebags. The girl continued harping at Hightower and he continued trying to pretend it didn’t bother him. The man behind the bar pretended to be busy with his bottles. The lounger shuffled cards. Nobody paid any attention to me.
Then I heard the crack, loud in the confined space. My head spun to see Hightower, stepping back under the impact of the girl’s blow. Again, she lashed out and again her palm struck, reddening the other side of the gambler’s face this time. An ugly look passed across his face and then his fist lashed out, catching the girl in the mouth with his knuckles.
With a cry, the girl went backwardbackwards, landing on her bottom on the sawdust-strewn floorboards, but was moving again immediately, scrambling to her feet with the quickness of a cat. Blood dripped down her chin from smashed lips and hatred flared in her eyes as Hightower stepped forward, arm cocked back to strike again.
Anger stirred my blood and I moved to put a stop to the ruckus, forgetting all about my own troubles. No matter what else was happening, I wouldn’t stand still while a man beat on a woman.
Hightower wasn’t without allies, though, and the lounger in the corner saw what I intended. A snub-nosed pistol appeared in his hand and filled the room with a crash of sound. A small, smoking crater appeared in the floor just in front of my feet. “Keep out of it, mister,” he warned. “Next one goes in you.”
Without thought or hesitation, my own gun filled my hand and spit an ounce of lead in his direction. The lounger’s face registered surprise, his eyes wide, then grew colorless as he toppled forward, scattering his cards.
Then I was shoving the girl aside, reaching for Hightower. The bartender tossed a scattergun towards his boss’s outstretched hands, but my fist struck first. Weighted by the pistol, and coming all the way from my knees, the blow lifted Hightower up onto the toes of his boots. A fast left slammed against his upturned face and as he fell, a slash of the Colt across the top of his head put him down for the count.
I whirled, gun still in hand, towards the bartender. “Mister, I ain’t a fightin’ man,” he whimpered. I stared him down for a moment, then nodded and holstered my gun.
The girl stood to one side, face buried in her palms. Whether it was the blows she’d taken from Hightower or the death of the gambler’s lackey, the nerve had been stolen right out of her. No more a brash young woman looking to right a wrong, but rather a scared girl, trying to muffle the sobs that shook her slim body.
With the present trouble settled, thoughts of my own predicament returned. I regretted what had happened, regretted taking the life of a man whose name I didn’t even know, but still wondered if maybe this was for the best. If I’d not been here when the girl arrived, things would have worked out a lot worse for her. That and I was now certain that I could have her horse.
My hand found its way to the young woman’s shoulder. Quietly, I said, “Let me take you out of here, miss.”
She nodded, silent except for the continued crying. I turned her towards the door, but she paused, returned to Hightower, then dropped to one knee, reached into his waistcoat and pulled from it a thick wallet. From the wallet, she carefully counted out an even hundred dollars in greenbacks, then replaced the balance of the bills in the fold and laid it on the bar next to the wide-eyed bartender. “I’m no thief. I’m just taking back what he took from my brother,” she said. “Please make sure your boss gets that back.”
The bartender looked from the girl towards me. “You’ll do that,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
Outside, a tall, mottled-gray mare was hitched to the rail. I helped the girl up into the saddle, lashed my bags in place, then swung up behind her, taking the reins in hand. From somewhere not too very far off, the metallic sound of shod hooves on rock drifted in on the crisp, clear air of a high elevation night. Turin and his boys would be only a few more minutes in reaching the top of the rim, I was sure.
I tugged on the reins and the horse beneath me practically surged forward. It was fresh and nearly unused, raring to cut loose and show me what it could do. The three of us raced east towards the rising sun.
— ♦♦♦ —
We put a mile between ourselves and the High House and still there was no sign of pursuit, but it would be coming. Turin could follow my trail easily enough and Ken Hightower had every reason to want a posse to catch up with me. Not a word had passed between me and the girl while we rode, but I could sense that she’d realized I had a reason to run besides what I’d done to help her.
Finally breaking the silence between us, she asked, “Who’s after you?”
“The men who killed my partner.”
I felt her body stiffen against mine. “Tell me about it, mister.”
I told her – about coming down from Wyoming; about the generous stranger who’d aided me to no benefit of his own; about the way he’d been shot down in front of his own home. I finished my story with how I’d come to be in the High House when she arrived. As I did, a bitterness crept into my voice. I was glad the girl, nestled in the saddle before me, couldn’t see my face.
The horse’s strong, steady hooves ate up more distance and for a while, the girl said nothing. Then, as if finished sorting through all I’d told her, she said, “I’m sorry for your friend, mister.”
“Jacobs,” I told her. “My name’s Mark Jacobs.”
“Mine’s Beth Foxe.”
A hard coldness pulled at my belly.
“My brother’s Al, and we’re camped near the pass, where the Overland Trail drops down through the saddle. I’d like you to stay the night with us if you will. What’s left of it, anyway. I know my brother will want to talk to you after what you’ve done for us.”
“I’ll… want to talk to him, too,” I said, wondering exactly what I would say.
— ♦♦♦ —
A pale, grey false dawn showed in the east as the warm glow of a fire peeked through the low-slung branches of a cluster of young fir trees. I slowed the horse to a walk and we entered the circle of light thrown by the campfire. It painted the white canvas sheeting of a Conestoga wagon a flickering orange and etched the big, spoked wheels in stark relief. In front of those wheels squatted a figure who stared into the fire as if it held secrets only he could discern.
“Al,” Beth called, alighting from the horse.
The other’s head shot up and when he recognized his sister, the young man stood. “Beth! You came back okay?”
“Yes, and I got your money, too,” she said sharply. The girl’s eyes blazed in the firelight and bored holes in the man’s until he dropped his gaze. “You have Mr. Jacobs to thank, though. I did something foolish and wouldn’t have managed without him.”
Al Foxe approached where I still sat in the saddle. His movements were a little slow, a little jerky; perhaps he was still hazy from the whiskey he’d taken at the High House. He looked up at me, nodded and said, “Thanks, mister.”
“Don’t thank me just yet,” I answered, that very moment making a decision.
I slid from the saddle, lifted the gold-heavy bags from the gray’s broad back, and hefted them towards the rear of the Foxes’ wagon. Dropping the bags onto the floor of the wagon’s rear gate, I glimpsed in the firelight a plow, sacks of seeds, scattered home goods and, leaning against a support strut, a rifle.
I turned from the wagon and looked full into the confused face of Beth Foxe. It was the first really good look I’d gotten at her. She was a very pleasant-looking girl and I regretted having to give her news that would upset those fine features. Even now, worry was crawling across her face. “Mr. Jacobs, what do you mean? What are you doing with your—“
“Half of what’s in those bags,” I jutted a chin towards the wagon, “belongs to you and your brother, Miss Foxe. Walt would be happy knowing it got to you.”
Tears welled up in the girl’s face and her hands flew to her mouth. Through her fingers she whispered, “He was the man you told me about? He was—“
“He was my partner and the very best friend I ever had.”
Al Foxe looked confused. He put a protective arm around his sister. “I don’t understand. You know dad?”
I wanted to tell him everything and vowed I would if I was able, but right then, there was no time. The clamor of hooves on the trail drifted in on the still, early-morning air. Beth’s eyes went wide, and she realized what I already had.
I took the mare’s reins and slipped them into the girl’s hands. “Beth, get the horse into the trees and hobble it. Stay outta sight.” Even in the uncertain light, the wet redness of her eyes was plain, but she was sensible enough to put grief aside for the moment. She nodded and led the horse off into the trees.
I turned my attention towards Al Foxe. He might still be liquor-hazy, but the situation was breaking in on him. “He’s dead, ain’t he? Dad, I mean.”
“Yes.” There was no need to say anything else.
Foxe’s hands clenched and unclenched at his sides. “These fellas comin’ the ones who did it? Or is this some private fight of yours?”
“Both,” I said flatly. “They shot Walt in front of his cabin last night. They’re after the gold and they want me because I’m the one they’ll hang for the shooting.”
Foxe moved towards the wagon, climbed up inside and reappeared a second later, the long rifle I’d seen grasped tightly in both hands. “Make yourself scarce, then, Jacobs. I’ll deal with them.”
I shook my head. “Stay right up in there and let me handle the gunwork. Don’t interfere unless they make you.”
“I owe it to your dad.”
Foxe’s eyes locked on mine for an instant, then he nodded. He shifted around, lay down full-length on the floor of the wagon, and took aim with the rifle at the opening between the trees. “If you need me, I got you covered.”
“Thanks, Al,” I said, then moved to the fire and hunkered down on my haunches to wait. The sound of horses drew very near. In the trees nearby, the gray called shrilly at the other, rapidly approaching horses.
I didn’t wait long. Within a minute, a pair of riders burst into the area of the fire-light. I stirred the coals with a stick, pretending I hadn’t even noticed them. Ed Turin gave his huge, steel-gray horse a savage curbing, making it thrash and dance its agitation. Dan Ellis’s fiery Morgan crept up close to the steel-gray’s hindquarters.
“Hey, mister, you seen a horse go past?” Turin called across the fire.
I lifted my head and caught the startled look on Turin’s face. Only shock kept him from slapping for the heavy Colt Army he wore at his hip.
I drew the Dragoon from my own holster and casually pointed it in Turin’s direction. “Come on down from there, Ed,” I invited. “There won’t be any lynching tonight and we both know why.”
“Watch out!” Dan Ellis warned. “He’s gotta have a backup gun in the trees there somewhere or he wouldn’t be so damned calm.”
Turin chuckled, low in his throat. “He’s alone, Dan. Probably murdered the fellow who owns this rig so he can use it as cover to get out of the country.” Turin seemed dedicated to his story that it was me who had killed poor Walt.
“The hell you say!” Ellis cried nervously. “He won’t leave ‘til he gets even for us dry-gulchin’ old man Foxe!”
Cursing his stooge savagely, his face a mask of rage, Turnin kicked the silvered rowels at his heels into the flanks of his horse and charged towards me, counting on the fear a horseman can instill in a man afoot. His hand streaked towards the butt of his pistol.
The gigantic horse rose up on its hind legs as I scrambled out of harm’s way. In that very same instant, the boom of Al Foxe’s rifle sounded over my head and I saw terror race across the whites of the horse’s eyes. I knew, without even seeing where the shot had struck, that Foxe had missed Turin and had instead killed that magnificent animal. Silently, I both thanked and cursed him – for his aid and for his lousy aim, respectively.
My own gun flew up as Dan Ellis threw two quick shots towards the wagon then danced his horse backward, out of the circle of the little camp and back towards the cover of the trees. My barrel swung across the top of the fire and roared. Ellis threw up his arms, then dropped from the saddle, falling somewhere among the trees. His horse shrieked in fear and raced off into the still-dim light of the dawning day.
Ellis was out of the picture for the moment, but Turin was still a threat. His horse had fallen and pinned his legs, but Turin wasn’t yet done. Gun in hand, he alternated rapid shots between the Conestoga and my general direction. His shots were wild but still deadly. I tried to place my own lead carefully but hesitated too long and took a bullet in the hip. Dropping me painfully to the ground, I decided maybe Turin had the right idea after all and fired off three quick shots in his direction. At least one found its target: Turin jerked to the side and howled in pain. He struggled a moment then lay back flat and stopped moving entirely.
I picked myself up, feeling gingerly of my wound. The round hadn’t gone into the meat of my hip, it seemed, just grazed it. Thinking maybe my luck wasn’t so bad after all, I hobbled as quickly as I could in Turin’s direction, pistol held before me, ready to fire in an instant. There was no need for caution, though: Turin would never again pose a danger to anyone.
A thrashing beneath the trees told me someone was returning, either Beth or Dan Ellis. I whirled and lifted my weapon, then lowered it again when I saw it was the girl. Her face was flushed, and she sounded breathless as she said, “The one in the trees is dead.”
I nodded and moved towards the wagon, knowing what I’d find before I even looked. Al Foxe had fired off one single shot at the intruders to his camp and gotten half a dozen in return. I could see the redness staining the holed white canvas before I saw Al and when I slid my fingers across his wrist, looking for a pulse, I wasn’t surprised to find none. Al Foxe was dead.
I heard, rather than saw, the swish of Beth’s short, divided riding skirt as she rapidly approached and then she was in my arms, pushing herself against me in her fear and excitement and sorrow.
“Mark! They’re all dead!” she cried, the words coming from somewhere against my chest. “Papa and Al and even those awful men, too.”
“I know,” I said, lifting the girl bodily and placing her on the raised fore-section of the wagon, where she could sit. Tears were running down her cheeks, reflecting the growing light of the new day. I hated to see them, but they were necessary. In one night, she’d lost more than some people ever must begin with. She’d have to find her way through that to some sort of strength if she was going to carry on with the rest of her life.
I moved about the little camp, packing up what the Foxes had left out, then found the pair of draft-mules corralled on the other side of the wagon and hitched them up. When I was done, I saw that Beth had covered her brother’s body with a blanket and fastened the gray horse’s tackle to the tie-rein at the rear of the wagon. She was already sitting in the high seat at the wagon’s front when I joined her.
“Where to, Mark?” she asked. Her fingers snapped the reins and the mules began their lumbering pace up the rocky path.
“When we reach the fork, we go north,” I told her. “All the way to Oregon.”
“What about dad?”
I shook my head sadly. “We’ll have to make a side-trip.” Beth had heard Dan Ellis’s confession and would, I knew, swear to it, clearing my name with the folks of Oro Gulch. Even so, without Walt Foxe, it would never again be home. One last trip there was all I’d be able to stand. “We’ll find a good burying place for both Walt and Al,” I promised.
Her head fell against my shoulder and the sobs began again, shaking her whole body. My arms went around her, and I held her tight. The sensation of her warmth gradually stilled the anger and restlessness in my soul and something else began to take shape. We had both lost a great deal in the last few hours, all over some glittery yellow stuff that an old man and a reformed drunk had pulled out of the rocky earth. What I held in my arms, though, was infinitely more valuable than that gold. I could only hope that our future looked as bright.
— ♦♦♦ —
Imagine you’re a guy who helps cops nab people who want to hire a killer and the latest “project” is a man who is antsy to get rid of his wife. Not complicated right? Now, imagine that you’ve just found out it’s your ex-wife (who you are still in love with). What to do? What to do?