“Listen, did you hear that? That was a shot! Someone’s coming up our back trail,” Pete said with more fear in his voice than he wanted Red and Frank to hear.
“Maybe one of us aught ta go back and see who it is,” Red said, looking right at Pete.
Just then Frank jerked his horse around and faced the woods with his back to his two partners.
“What is it?” Pete asked in a shaky voice, now unable to conceal his fear.
“I don’t know. I thought I saw someone or somethin’ runnin’ through the woods over there,” Frank pointing into the deep woods that surrounded them.
“I caught it out of the corner of my eye, but by the time I turned ta look … It, or whatever it was, disappeared.”
“You two are a couple of cowards,” Red growled. “There ain’t nothin’ in them woods that should scare a full-grown man unless he’s yeller…, but there is someone sniffin’ our back trail, been foller us ever since we left town.… Which one of you’d like goin’ back ta have a look?”
Frank and Pete looked at each other, neither one much wanting to wander around the wood by themselves, but to save face, with more bravado than was necessary Pete said, “I’ll go ifin it’ll make ya happy and stop yer jaws a flappin’!”
Pete didn’t see Red’s hand drop to his Colt, tied low on his hip, or notice the contempt in his shifty eyes. Red was a very dangerous man.
Red was the genuine article, mean through and through. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks where you either got tough… or dead. He didn’t like the two he was riding with; they were yellow through and through and he knew it, but there was little he could do about … that is, for right now.
Red let his hand relax.
“You’d better be watchin’ that mouth of yer’s,” he said in a cold, calculating voice that got Pete’s attention. “No one talk’s ta me like that, next time . . .”
He froze in mid-sentence. He was looking past Pete and had seen a flash of tan, but then it disappeared. It happened so fast. At first, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him until he noticed the brush still moving unnaturally. It was in the same place where he had seen a fleeting glimpse of something just moments before.
“Maybe ya did see something” Red recanted, “but whatever it was, it’s gone now, so get on down the back trail and find out who’s sneakin’ around.”
This time Pete didn’t argue. He had seen the cold dead look in Red’s eyes, just a few moments before, when he had back talked the man’s orders. Something inside his head told him he had come very close to the end of the trail.
Without another word, Pete turned his horse and headed back in the direction they had come.
A ways down the back trail, Pete stepped out of the saddle when he heard voices off in the distance. Carefully, he tied his horse to a nearby limb and moved ahead cautiously toward the sound.
Soon, without being detected, he had managed to slip to within the hearing range of the three people standing in the middle of the trail talking. He recognized Dusty immediately, and the man and woman he was talking to were vaguely familiar too. He was listening to their conversation and playing with the idea of finishing off Dusty, and then he noticed a big white wolf. Something had got the animal’s attention just over Dusty’s shoulder in the deep woods.
As the outlaw watched in fear that the wolf would sense his presence, it started to move away from him in the opposite direction… but then it abruptly stopped, as if by command.
Suddenly a sick feeling came over him as he realized the precarious position he had put himself in. By sheer luck, the slight breeze blowing was coming toward him, but if it shifted, his scent would be reversed and blowing toward the wolf-dog, if that happened he didn’t stand a chance, that vicious animal would be all over him, tearing him from limb to limb. All thoughts of back shooting Dusty vanished as a shudder of fear went through Pete.
Now, almost to the point of panic, he could barely keep his fear under control. He tried to ease himself backward; it was then that lady luck smiled on him in the blessed form of a baby cutting loose in a tizzy fit that saved his bacon.
It was so loud a herd of moose could have stomped through the woods and no one would have noticed. He knew it would shroud any noise he might make. As relief flooded his body, he made his hasty retreat.
Pete hadn’t gone completely unnoticed as he had thought. Unbeknownst to him, a pair of eyes had been watching his every move and when he escaped under the cover of the baby’s crying, the big Indian followed at a safe distance.
Walker didn’t have much of a problem keeping up with Pete, even after he reclaimed his horse it wasn’t a problem because the animal had to stay to the winding trail and Walker could travel, fleet-footed, through the woods in practically a straight line.
In a short while, Pete caught up to his two cohorts and filled them in on what he had seen, and of course, he exaggerated his narrow escape.
Walker listened with amusement and wondered if the two men knew what a coward their partner really was.
After the brief conversation, the men moved out and Walker followed at a safe distance.
It wasn’t far up the trail before they came to a split. One way the trail leads to an old abandon trapper’s cabin and the other way, the right fork, headed into the high country.
Walker had been following along in the deeper woods to the right of the trail and was caught flat-footed when the men took the trail heading away from the old cabin. He was sure the men would head for it, and it was a surprise when they started up the other trail.
The men had gone only about a hundred yards when they began to argue. From his vantage point, Walker couldn’t hear the argument, but Pete was adamant about something and then without a warning he spun his horse around and headed in the direction of Sunrise, the less than agreeable Red and Frank reluctantly did the same even though they were obviously not happy with the turn of events. The two men were still sore from the lumps they had taken earlier at the Grub Tent and didn’t want to explain to anyone in Sunrise what had happened.
Pete had argued he needed to tell the boss what he had overheard on the trail, and he figured he could get back on Blackjack’s good side if he told him about the conversation between Dusty and the stranger.
When Walker realized the three men were riding back to Sunrise, he circled around to get ahead of them and found a vantage point to watch from so he could see where the men would go once they got to town.
The Indian barely got himself situated before the three came into view and rode down the main street. They stopped in front of one of the many saloons, talked between themselves for a few moments, and then split up, Red and Frank went one way and Pete made a beeline for the Sluice Box Saloon. When all three had disappeared, Walker thought about shifting his position but realizing he probably couldn’t find a better observation point so he just made himself comfortable and waited, but for what he was expecting, he wasn’t sure.
The Indian watched as Frank and Red had stopped in front of the claims office, doing what? He had no idea. They had been in there for about fifteen minutes when Walker luckily looked back toward the Sluice Box and saw Pete slipping out of the alley at the end of the street. The outlaw made his way to his horse just as the two men were leaving the claims office and spotted him. Walker found it curious, Pete coming from the alley rather than through the front doors of the saloon. It was obvious he didn’t want Frank or Red to see him leaving this way. Why?… The more Walker thought about it the stranger it seemed… this was getting very interesting, something wasn’t right!
The other two outlaws mounted up and headed out of town headed in the same direction, and it wasn’t long before the trio met up and started back the way they had come.
Walkers’ interest was piqued, so he decided to still follow them at a safe distance. There was more going on than meets the eye and he knew his friend Dusty would want to know anything he could find out.
He glanced down the main street one more time and for an instant; he had a feeling something else wasn’t right, but what was it? He couldn’t put his finger on it. Right then he didn’t have time to ponder it because the outlaws had closed the distance to his hiding place to less than a hundred yards.
When they had passed out of sight he loped off on a parallel route, staying just far enough behind them to not to be seen. The fleeting thoughts of something being amiss temporarily moved to the back of his mind.
The Indian followed the men for over an hour before they turned off the main trail and headed into the mountains. Walker knew the only thing up the way they were heading was an old deserted mine. One of the Russians, over twenty years ago, had worked with little success. He also knew there was only one way in and out; it was over a trail sided by sheer walls of granite towering at least a hundred feet in the air. The mine itself was in a small, rock-strewn canyon at the end of the trail and could easily be defended against an army by a lone rifleman, as long as his food and ammo held out. Even water wasn’t a problem, because a small crystal-clear spring bubbled out of the ground less than twenty feet from the mine entrance. What puzzled the Indian was why these men, obviously not prospectors, were going up to this long ago abandoned mine when there were other places much more accessible to stay.
Walker watched from a distance as the men disappeared into the narrow walled part of the trail. For the time being, he would lose sight of them until they cleared the trail between the granite walls because the walls acted as an echo chamber, the slightest noise was magnified a hundred times as it bounced back and forth in the narrow passage, alerting anyone traveling through that section of trail they were not alone. It would take the three at least twenty minutes or more to move through that part of the trail, so Walker found himself a spot where he could see but not be seen by anyone who might happen along the trail while he waited, for what he thought to be a sufficient amount of time before he took up the chase.
Walker took this time to weigh the events he had seen so far. None of it made much sense, but he had a feeling the answer was there in front of him, he just didn’t see it. Running all of it through his mind again, he remembered the strange feeling something was wrong when he had looked down the main street of Sunrise, but this too wouldn’t jell. Why couldn’t he put it together?
He was sitting there deep in thought, chewing on a piece of moose jerky he had pulled from his possible-bag when he heard a horse’s hooves striking on stone.
The Indian knew he was out of sight, but he still hunkered down as an unshaven man rode into view. The horse he rode looked used up and was on his last leg. It was obvious he hadn’t been cared for with a gentle hand. The man wasn’t faring much better. Not only was he unshaven, but he was also filthy dirty and was one of the meanest looking men Walker had ever laid eyes on. This gent, like the other three he was following, had a Colt tied low on his hip. The nonchalant way he was riding told Walker two things; one he knew where he was going and two, he felt safe, like he was sure no one was following him.
Now Walker would have to wait even longer until this unknown man cleared the walled portion of the trail.
The time passed slowly and after a reasonable amount of it had gone by Walker rose cautiously to his feet, at the same time listening intently, straining his ears for any sound out of the ordinary. He stood there listening until he was sure he was alone. He didn’t need any surprises, and he knew help wasn’t anywhere close if he needed it.
Finally satisfied he was alone, careful not to make a sound, he started into the narrow passage. Fortunately, the soles of his mukluks made no audible sound as he tiptoed along the twisting trail. He stopped now and then to listen for any telltale signs of danger, Walker knew if someone was coming from either direction while he was on this portion of the trail he would more than likely be captured or worse… killed.
The sun was high in the cloudless sky, but it gave very little direct light on the high walled trail, but Walker moved as swiftly as possible through the narrow canyon and in no time merged from the confines of the narrow trail into a grove of poplar trees. Even though this part of the trail was still narrow, the towering walls on either side had melted away to form even a larger canyon.
After getting this far and not wanting to be discovered, the big Indian moved silently off the trail into the thick poplar forest, it had been a long time since he had ventured into this canyon but if his memory served him correctly the mine was just a short distance ahead.
After slipping another five hundred yards through the trees he started hearing the voices of men talking in distance, he couldn’t make out what they were saying, but if he could get closer, maybe he could solve the nagging questions in his mind, about what exactly was going on.
Walker realized the trees he was moving through were thinning out and didn’t offer much protection; if someone was to look in his direction, he’d be spotted. Walker decided to take advantage of a boulder-strewn area that had been created by a slide from a bygone day; this give would give him the cover he needed. He could, with little risk, slip across a small clearing and be safe among the rocks before anyone spotted him.
Stealthily he moved between the boulders until the mine, and the men were in sight and easy to hear.
Walker couldn’t believe what he saw. To his amazement, a bunkhouse and corral had been built, but that wasn’t the big surprise, not by any stretch of the imagination. It was the men … the number of men. Walker was so shocked, he counted twice to be sure, but both times the numbers came out the same. Nineteen men and none of them looked like a miner. He was still trying to figure out what he was looking at and who these hard cases were when he felt, more than heard movement behind him, before he could turn a sharp pain jolted his head, and sagging to his knees, he felt himself slipping into a dark abyss. The last thing his mind registered was a familiar voice . . .
To Be Continued…
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