Walker didn’t have long to wait. The three gunslingers, two of them virtually being dragged by their collars, came out of the Grub Tent, mounted their shabby-unkempt horses, and headed through town taking the trail leading to Sunrise.
The Indian knew all the trails and shortcuts that existed, so it took very little effort to get ahead of the three men. Walker trotted down an unnoticed trail used only by wild game and the local natives. In no time he was well ahead of his quarry. Walker found an outcrop of rocks that offered enough concealment to watch the trail without being seen. He knew he would hear them way before they came into view, so he made himself comfortable and settled down to wait. He started to reach into his possible-bag and froze. In his peripheral vision, he saw the brush off to his left move ever so slightly, like a soft breeze had touched it. The only trouble with that thought. There wasn’t any breeze… none. He realized someone or something was sneaking toward him through the underbrush.
Carefully, Walker reversed the direction of his rifle and stood up, trying to make the movement look as natural as possible. For a moment, all was still. The Indian knew his eyes hadn’t deceived him, something was there watching him, who or what it was, was the only question. Usually, Walker was a patient man, but time wasn’t on his side this time. Any moment the three men he was trailing would ride into view and they would catch him in the open. Walker had to confront this unexpected danger and had to do it now.
“Well, pard’, it looks to me like we have us an old fashion standoff. I figure you’re either friend or enemy, so why don’t you just stand up and show yourself and we’ll figure that part out?” Walker was speaking softly with the hope the person hiding in the alder brush, just a few feet away, was the only one that could hear him.
The brush moved and the big Indian braced himself; to his surprise out sprung Shadow Spirit, tail wagging, with a look on her face of pure innocence, as if nothing was wrong.
“What are you doing? For a wolf you ain’t too sneaky, you scared the daylights out of me rattling around in the brush like that!”
The wolf-dog and Indian had been friends a long time and Walker believed Shadow Spirit understood every word he said. Of course, he didn’t expect an answer, not verbally anyway.
Shadow Spirit moved next to Walker and took his shirt cuff in her mouth and tried to pull her friend down the trail toward the three Walker had been trailing.
“Whoa! … Easy girl,” Walker whispered, “we’re waiting on three yahoos to find out what they’re up to.”
But Shadow Spirit wasn’t giving up; she kept pulling until Walker jerked his arm free. “Okay, okay,” he relented. “Maybe you know something I don’t, we’ll head in the direction you want and see what’s so all-fired important.”
Shadow Spirit took the lead, running a few yards ahead and then stopping to wait for Walker to catch up before moving further down the trail.
They hadn’t traveled far when Walker started wondering why they hadn’t run into the men he was following. He knew this trail and knew there weren’t any other trails branching off, so where could they be? Knowing this caused an alarm to go off in his mind, causing his steps to quicken as he tried to keep pace with Shadow Spirit.
By now Shadow Spirit was on full alert with her senses heightened, charging up the trail at full tilt. Obviously, she had given up waiting on her Indian friend. Feeling an unsettling urgency, she veered off the trail, taking a shortcut through the woods. This gave her the ability to cut a lot of the twists and turns out of the winding trail. Traveling in a straight line through the woods saved a lot of time, and before long she heard voices. One voice she immediately recognized, the other was that of a stranger, and the instant they came into view she saw the danger and sprung forward with lighting speed to defend her master.
It all happened so fast, the stranger holding the rifle on Dusty didn’t have time to react. As Shadow Spirit attacked, she hit the man in the middle of his chest with her full body weight and teeth snapping. He went down with a startled cry of pain; the rifle he was holding on Dusty hit the ground and discharged. A woman came charging out from behind a cottonwood holding a spruce limb like a club and swung it at Dusty, barely missing his head. The weight and momentum of the club took her over backward, and she landed in a pile of petticoats on the ground. If the situation hadn’t been so volatile it would have been funny, but having a gun pointed at you isn’t a laughing matter. Calling Shadow Spirit off, Dusty said, “I thought we left you at home this morning?” He said to his four-legged protector as he extended his hand to the man lying on the ground. He reached with the other hand into his vest pocket and produced his badge.
In all the excitement Dusty had all but forgotten about the woman. That is, until a blood-curdling scream came from behind him. Remembering the near-miss from the woman just a few moments before, Dusty whirled around and ducked at the same time. To Dusty’s surprise, the lady was moving away from him, stumbling back toward the cottonwood she had been hiding behind, screaming something about a baby and that vicious wolf. The man, ignoring Dusty, charged after his wife, calling with panic in his voice, “Jada Rose!”
Dusty wasn’t too sure what was going on until the woman stepped out on the trail with a crying baby bundled up in her arms. This was what he had heard the instant before he found himself flying through the air. His ears weren’t deceiving him… he did hear a baby crying.
“Well now, I’ll be. If he ain’t a cute little shaver, what’s his name?”
Dusty knew he’d said something wrong the moment the words had left his mouth because the woman looked at him with fire in her eyes and an unmistakable tone in her voice as she lit into him with both barrels.
“If you had any brains, and were capable of using them, you could see this is a sweet little girl!”
“Beg yer pardon ma’am, she sure is pretty. What’s her name?” Dusty asked, trying to make amends.
“Not that it’s any of your business, her name is Jada Rose.”
“Martha,” the man said, stepping in to apologize to the Marshal. “My wife and I thought you were one of those thugs on the boat. They threatened us and said they would take whatever they wanted and would do it when they wanted, so we thought the time had come and we weren’t going to give in without a fight. We sure are sorry and we wouldn’t want you to think we were thieves or something… This is my wife Martha and I’m Jay, Jay McGregor, but everyone calls me Mac.”
Dusty took a liking to this polite young man immediately and understood why he had taken the action he had. He judged Mac was a man that didn’t scare easily and would protect his family at all cost. Dusty found himself hoping the family would settle close by. Mac would be a good man to have on his side when this bunch of cutthroats he was worried about went into action. Dusty could tell Mac could handle himself. He was a big guy, over six feet tall, and he had an air about him that said; “don’t mess with me.” When he spoke of protecting his family, hardness came to his dark brown eyes that caused Dusty to have an involuntary shutter. He shook the man’s hand and noted it was a good solid grip and could tell when the man apologized, he was genuinely sorry for the misunderstanding. Mac said they were looking for land to farm and of course he was also hoping to find gold and strike it rich too. They didn’t have much in the way of tools and supplies, and Dusty knew they would have to be very lucky to just survive, let alone find gold and scratch out a living.
While the introductions were going on, it remained unnoticed by everyone except Shadow Spirit, Walker had slipped upon them and was listening with interest to the exchange that was taking place. It was no surprise to him when Dusty invited the young couple to spend a few days at his place and volunteered to help get them settled. Walker had expected nothing less from Dusty, and he wasn’t disappointed.
Since Dusty didn’t need his help, Walker started to slip away and when Shadow Spirit turned to follow him, Walker simply held up his hand, waist-high, and the great wolf-dog turned and went to Dusty’s side.
Dusty told his new friends they’d have to backtrack through town and gave them directions to his cabin, assuring the young couple it would be easy to find. He told them how excited Aura Lee would get and how thrilling it would be for her to have houseguests, especially another woman for her to talk to. At first, Mac tried to put up an argument, but Dusty wasn’t having any of it. He could see the look of relief on Martha’s face when he had made the offer and knew it greatly relieved her. Dusty told them he would be along shortly after he rounded up his horse and finished what he was doing before their encounter.
He watched the family make their way back down the trail and then nonchalantly turned around and gazed about as if trying to decide which way to head, but if the truth be known, Dusty was never nonchalant about anything, and this time wasn’t any different.
Not much got by Dusty’s ever-vigilant keen eyes. Even though no one else had noticed Shadow Spirit’s attention go to full alert, Dusty had, and when he casually followed the direction her ears were pointing, he caught the slight movement of a bush just off the trail. He didn’t want to alarm Mac or his wife so he kept on with the conversation, but he knew they weren’t alone, he knew someone was watching and listening to everything that was said.
Dusty reached into his possible bag and pulled out a piece of moose jerky, broke it apart, and tossed the bigger half to Shadow Spirit saying to her, “I guess that pinto is gonna need a little work,” he chuckled. “I don’t much like walkin’ when I could be ridin.” All the while Dusty was talking to the wolf-dog he subtly moved his eyes about, taking in the surrounding brush, looking for any sign of telltale movement. After convincing himself whoever was there had long gone, he patted his faithful companion on the head and said, “Let’s go find that fool hoss ‘afore he gets his self into something he can’t get out of.”
Dusty stood there a moment and then walked straight to the spot where he had seen the movement a short time before. Looking down, it was reassuring to know his eyes hadn’t deceived him. He saw there in the soft ground the footprints of one he recognized, the mukluk tracks of his native friend, Walker. Knowing the eyes he had felt watching him earlier were those of his friend gave him a sense of well-being, even though he knew others were about that would just as soon put him under with a quick shot in the back.
“No wonder you didn’t raise a ruckus when you looked over here, you knew who was here all along, sure do wish you’d learn ta talk, it would sure make my life a whole lot easier.” Dusty chuckled to himself and moved out onto the trail.
In no time at all, he and Shadow Spirit were hot on the trail of his runaway horse.
Less than a quarter-mile up the trail Dusty saw where the pinto had stopped abruptly. The ground was torn up as if something had spooked the animal badly. The tracks had suddenly stopped, changed direction, and were now heading off into the trail-less brush.
It was rumored that Dusty could tell what an animal was thinking just by reading his tracks, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on with this horse; it scared him senseless and running blind, but what the horse was running from… now that was the question and Dusty hadn’t a clue.
The big pinto’s trail was easy to follow through the broken alder brush, he wound around small ravines, crossed a stream, and when at last the trail finally broke into a clearing Dusty decided to stop and catch his breath. He hadn’t been sitting on a large, downed cottonwood long when Shadow Spirit, lying near him, sprung to her feet and growled deep in her chest. It was an all too familiar growl and Dusty knew exactly what it meant…danger was close at hand.
Looking in the direction of Shadow Spirit’s attention, Dusty saw the movement she was growling at, but unlike her, he knew what he was looking at posed no real danger.
“Easy girl, it’s nothin’ ta get worked up about, it’s only that fool hoss we’ve been thrashin’ around the woods fer the past hour alookin’ fer. Ya just sit yer self-down and I’ll try n’ catch that hoss before ya spook him into runnin’ again.”
Dusty moved slowly toward the wild-eyed pinto. He could tell it wouldn’t take much to put the animal into a headlong, brush crashing panic again.
While speaking soothingly Dusty had moved to within a few yards of the trembling horse, when it shied and dashed for the center of the clearing, ending any hope of a fast solution to his problem. Dusty stood there watching the nervous pinto for a few minutes, letting the animal calm its nerves. He could see a head-on approach wasn’t going to work and decided on a different tactic. If it worked, his problem was solved, if it didn’t, well… he and Shadow Spirit would be in for a long day. Moving back to Shadow Spirit, who had obeyed Dusty and was still lying on the ground where he had left her, he picked up his possible-bag and rifled through it. Finding what he wanted, he slung the bag over his shoulder, picked up his rifle, and on his command he and Shadow Spirit headed back in the direction they had come. At the edge of the clearing, before stepping into the woods, Dusty turned and spoke to the puzzled horse.
“Now as I see it, ya got two choices; one ya stay out here and get ate by a bear or starve ta death, or two, ya foller me and Shadow Spirit back ta town ta a nice warm stall and all the grain ya can eat, it’s up ta you, I’m through a chasin’ ya all over the countryside, I got better things ta do!”
With that said Dusty turned, and with Shadow Spirit at his heels, started into the woods picking his own trail this time rather than following the zigzagging one the pinto had made in his head-long rush to nowhere. Dusty’s way would be a much shorter distance back to town, and probably a whole lot easier.
Dusty followed a small stream for a short time before finding a little-used game trail heading in the same direction of town. He picked up his pace. He was getting hungry, and the town promised a bite to eat. A while later when he stopped to rest he could hear a noise behind him. He knew it was the pinto following at a discreet distance behind them, so far, so good, his plan was working well. The actual proof would come when he got closer to town, there the sounds and smells could spook the pinto, and then he’d be off and running again.
As time wore on Dusty occasionally looked over his shoulder and noticed the horse was closing the distance between them. With this bit of encouragement, he decided to make a slight change to his plan. Dusty started looking for just the right place to play out what he had planned. It wasn’t long before he spotted the perfect stump jutting up alongside the trail. Figuring this would do the trick, he stopped and made himself comfortable sitting cross-legged on top of it. Then he gave Shadow Spirit the hand signal to drop where she was.
All this happened so abruptly the pinto didn’t have time to stop his forward movement before he had closed to within ten feet of Dusty. Still, even though Dusty knew he could probably move fast enough to catch up the loose reins, he didn’t move … that wasn’t his plan.
If someone would have been a witness to the events that followed and he was to repeat what he had seen, he would probably be called a liar, but the fact of the matter is it really happened.
Dusty sat on the stump a good twenty minutes, looking deep into the intelligent eyes of the big stallion. Dusty didn’t make any move to reach out to him. All the while he talked to the pinto as if the animal understood every word he was saying. At first, the horse snorted and tossed his head, his front hooves pawing the ground nervously, but after a few minutes, he stood still and started listening intently.
“Now ya see” Dusty was saying. “If ya settle down, we could be great friends, ya seem ta be right smart, and I know ya’d fit right in.” While Dusty continued to talk, he slipped his fingers into his vest pocket and pulled out the lump of sugar he had put there after digging it out of his pack back at the clearing. He offered it to the pinto, wondering if the horse would remember. The horse’s ears twitched ever so slightly, and with that little bit of movement, Dusty knew he had him. “I see ya remember about these little sweet lumps of sugar,” and a smile came on his face too as he too remembered how very gentle the big animal had taken the sugar cube from his outstretched hand back at the stable.
The pinto didn’t back away after taking the sugar cube from Dusty this time either. The look of fear was gone from his eyes. Dusty reached up and stroked the neck of the great horse, and then he moved to check the cinch to make sure it was tight and hadn’t slipped. Still talking to the horse, Dusty took hold of the saddle-horn and swung up into the saddle. As soon as his backside hit the saddle, he was ready for whatever was going to happen, but to his surprise, the stallion just sidestepped a little and then stood still.
“Well now, that’s better,” Dusty said with a big smile, “we’ve been foolin’ around out here long enough, we got lots of work ta do, let’s get ta it!” With a loud “EEEHAA!,” the pinto, Dusty, and Shadow Spirit shot down the trail at breakneck speed and covered an unbelievable amount of ground in a remarkably short period of time.
When the outskirts of town came into view Dusty slowed the reluctant pinto to a walk. It had been quite an exhilarating ride and Dusty felt like the animal could run forever and would have probably raced straight through town. But Dusty would never want to endanger anyone’s life by recklessly charging up the main street like a runaway train.
Tying up in front of the Grub Tent, Dusty slipped the pinto a sugar cube and then stepped up on the wooden walk that fronted the Grub Tent and went inside.
“COFFEE?” V. O shouted from the kitchen as Dusty came through the door and headed for his favorite table.
“Sure, and how about one or two of those  sinkers yer so proud of, they’d go mighty fine with that coffee?”
When V. O. brought Dusty’s order he dropped into the empty chair across from him. In a hushed tone, so only Dusty could hear, he asked. “Did you find out anything? You did trail those three… didn’t you?”
It surprised Dusty, even though he shouldn’t have been. Knowing V. O. was a former lawman it was only a simple deduction to assume Dusty would try to follow them and learn as much as he could about the three troublemakers.
- O. listened as Dusty explained why he hadn’t learned anything new about the men. The ornery old law dog got a big belly laugh, visualizing Dusty sailing through the air when the pinto exploded. The Marshal finished off the story by saying he thought the new family he had run into on the trail were more than just gold seekers; he said he was as sure as he could be about anything that they were here to stay. After the laugh at Dusty’s expense and the good news about the new family, V.O.’s demeanor changed, becoming very serious when he asked, “Do you have any idea what this gang is after? They sure are trying hard to look like they’re not together, but if you ask me, with them all showing up here, even though on different boats and steppin’ wide of each other it’s just too obvious to be a coincidence.”
“Yer right about that” Dusty said grimly, “but ta answer yer question, I’m thinkin’ gold. They gotta be after gold. The only problem with that theory is no one around here has found enough gold ta make it worth their while, gangs as big as this one would need a pretty substantial payoff to keep everyone happy.”
The two friends sat there in silence, each with their own thoughts on the pending situation they both knew would soon come to ahead.
While deep in thought, Dusty didn’t see Blackjack enter the Grub Tent, not until he heard his loud, obnoxious voice that is.
“Who owns that paint tied up at the rail outside?” He demanded in a loud voice. “I’ll pay the owner five hundred gold for him… Who’s it belong to?”
The tent went dead silent. The only sound was a tiny shrew scurrying under the lunch counter for a crumb of bread a miner had brushed to the floor after finishing his breakfast.
“He’s mine!” Dusty answered in a harsh, unfriendly voice none of his friends had ever heard him use before when answering someone’s question.
Dusty pushed back his chair and stood to face the sinister-looking man. And you could feel the tension growing between them.
“He’s not fer sale, not at any price, and especially not to you!” The finality in Dusty’s tone didn’t leave any room for doubt at what he meant by “especially not to you,” and for a moment everyone in the Grub Tent thought lead was about to fly.
Blackjack’s hand hovered above his six-gun, tensed for a moment, and then dropped to his side when he noticed for the first time that Dusty’s Winchester was casually pointed in his direction. How this had escaped him before was a mystery, but it could have been a fatal error on his part because Dusty’s blue eyes had turned as cold as glacier ice and looking into them gave Blackjack an involuntary shudder. . .
 “Sinkers,” in the Old West was the common name for donuts.
To Be Continued…