[NOTE: This is part two of a four part short story. Please refer to the main page for the other three.]
It was early November now and as Black Jack topped out on a mesa just below the steep trail leading into a pass through the mountains, which he had only once before traversed, he noted a sharp chill in the air. He searched his memory for that first trip through this pass and then reviewed what he could remember of each bend in trail ahead. The prairie grasses and scrub brush on top of the mesa was little cover and he knew that someone hiding on one of the ridgelines either side of the narrow pass would be able to see him coming for a half mile at least.
His pace had been bringing him along at a swift trot up until now, but he suddenly reined in his horse and stopped, unmoving in the saddle. He couldn’t approach the pass straight on. It would be reckless to announce his chase in such a way and foolhardy to walk straight into such a perfect ambush, particularly when at least one of their number was a crack shot with a rifle.
The pass was still out of view as a slight crest obscured it on the otherwise flat mesa. He made up his mind to head south instead and pick up a very narrow trail of which he had been told by a Ute friend of his. The description which had been given said that it was not much more than a game trail and hard to find, but Black Jack knew it was his only chance he had of making it past the first obstacle in his pursuit. Even a poor shooter would not need two bullets to kill him from the hidden crags overlooking the pass onto the main trail. Beyond that, Black Jack remembered a very long bend in the main pass which took that trail several miles to the north before swinging around again to the west. If Collins could find the small path, it was likely to prove a shortcut and he would pick up the main trail further up the pass to the west.
Turning his horse to the south he skirted the edge of the mesa’s rim, trying simultaneously not to come within sight of the pass or silhouette himself from anyone looking up from below. If he remembered right, there would be a slight cliff – no more than twenty feet – around the far side of the mesa where it met the south side of the mountain.
His mind began turning over what he knew of the five men who had escaped with George Butler all those years ago. He couldn’t imagine anyone else having enough of a problem with him that they would resort to the evil of killing an unarmed woman. And, to be honest, Butler’s gang had included several of the worst kind of brutal men. The big man with the harsh left hook wouldn’t need anyone else if the original five were with him.
Ted Jenkins and Jaime Garza were the worst of the five. Black Jack recalled that they were never without each other and had been friends even before riding with Butler. While he had been chasing the gang in Mexico he had ridden into a small town several days after the gang and found a few of the buildings still burning. The villagers had told him about how Jenkins and Garza had become incensed by not being given another round at the cantina fast enough for their liking. They had beaten the poor bartender almost to death and then helped themselves to all of the bottles of tequila. After drinking as much as they wanted they used the rest of the alcohol to start fires which quickly spread through town and left the village in smoldering heaps for weeks afterward. Black Jack, needing a rest, had stayed for a few days and helped the people rebuild. He had needed to calm down slightly from the relentless pace he had been keeping and the people of the small town seemed deserving of an extra hand. While there he had heard more stories about Jenkins and Garza’s short fuses and penchant for very personal, close-in fighting.
Randy Aston, Brent Snyder and Ezra “Roast” Coffee were the three other men who rounded out the Butler crew. Aston was well-known with a rifle in all of the Rangers literature. He was wanted for a suspected long-range killing near San Angelo only four years before Collins began his hunt. Snyder had been a good cowhand from all reports, but after he bent his morals to become a cattle rustle, his conscience seemed to become more pliable. He was good with both a rope and a gun. But Roast was the man he was most concerned with presently. Coffee was an older man and not particularly good with a gun, but his knowledge of the trail was superb. His mother was Comanche and she had taken him to live with his tribe when he was a small boy. When he grew up he became a scout for the cavalry in the western theatres of the Civil War and later Indian wars. His knowledge of the prairie, mountains and desert were virtually unrivalled and would be a difficult edge for Black Jack to overcome.
After several hours of riding, Collins finally came to the short cliff on the south side of the mountain. He rode along it for a short way before finding a narrow place for his horse to pick its way down, then he urged his Buckskin toward the gap between two steep rock falls where he had been told the alternate path was. It took him almost an hour to find the trail. He even had to backtrack after missing it the first time he passed.
By this time the sun was nearly down and, surrounded as he was by the steep mountainsides, the darkness was almost complete. He found a small cleft between a granite boulder and a small pine which had some small, still-green grasses in it, then unsaddled and picketed his horse. He grabbed his blanket and curled up underneath the tree. His grief and hunt had both exhausted him and, in spite of the swirling thoughts of revenge and pain, he passed into a dreamless sleep.
A slight pinkish hue was filtering into the narrow gorge when Black Jack awoke. Before getting up from his bed in the fallen pine needles, he listened carefully for any sounds which didn’t belong, then slowly got to his feet and peered around the small, sheltered valley. It was quiet and undisturbed and his horse stood contentedly munching on grass – uninterrupted by any intrusion on their solitude. Collins walked over to his pack, removed a horse brush and began to rub down the animal. A soft snort was given by the horse in gratitude and he went back to cropping grasses.
Though Black Jack was anxious to catch the murderers he was hunting, he also knew that rest and care were also necessary to his success. He would have to swallow the guilt, pain and anger that urged him on so recklessly in order to summon the patience he knew that he needed. Actions like brushing his horse were things that could help slow the gears in his mind, allowing him to think more clearly and deeply about his situation. On top of this forced patience was the knowledge that if he was careful and swift, there was no reason why he would not connect with the path of his quarry on the other side of the mountain range well before Butler’s gang arrived. The odds of this increased considerably by giving his horse ample time to graze and rest before heading up the steep path.
During the leisurely rub down of his horse, the sun, obscured but evident, came fully over the horizon. Black Jack saddled, mounted and clicked his horse forward. The Buckskin took quickly and happily to the small path and Collins let him have his head. Black Jack’s eyes roved up, across and back along the trail, trees, boulders, ridges and brush ahead, fully taking in every detail. After his eyes, ears and nose had settled into the normal rhythm and rhyme of the trail and his surroundings, his mind began to wander. Though he had never taken this path before, his imagination filled in the specifics as his mind soared up the trail ahead of him as if carried by a bird. He imagined topping out on the mountain and beginning the careful, switchback descent on the other side. And then he thought about setting a trap on the main trail from the pass Butler had entered. Sucked into his daydream, Black Jack thought about having his rifle in his hands and sighting down its barrel to George Butler’s head as it came into view in the narrow gorge.
As his mind was about to pull the trigger, something else pushed through the hazy premonitions. A snapping branch in the trees above the trail wrenched his mind back from his vengeance. He reined the horse in, grabbed his Winchester and slid out of the saddle, leaving the reins trailing. The horse seemed to understand that quiet and stillness was in order and remained motionless as Black Jack crawled into the bushes on the downhill side of the path. He didn’t immediately begin making a beeline to the place where the branch had broken, instead choosing to circle about twenty yards to the west before he began picking his way through the rocks, pine and spruce uphill. As he climbed, he continually scanned the space to his right – from which the noise had come. After climbing above the spot, he began silently winding his way back down toward it, wary of everything. Just before he arrived at the place which he had bullseyed, he stopped. Looking down amongst the scattered pebble and pine straw was an indentation. It had to have been made by a man’s foot. It was too deep and defined to have been made by anything other than a boot and had to be very recent. Collins knew that the man who made it must be relatively close by and listened even more intently.
Black Jack’s already heightened senses prickled to an electric overload. He dropped silently into a crouch and began crawling for cover under a bush nearby. The print he had just seen had been heading uphill in the direction of the mountain crest. Collins thought carefully as he inched his way wide of the area trying to increase his view of the slope to his north. Could it be that Butler knew about this other path? No … no, that was very unlikely. But Roast could know about it. It was a frightening thought. If Roast was nearby alone, it was rather unlikely that Collins would be able to find him – he was an expert at melting into the scenery. On the other hand, Black Jack knew too that Coffee probably wouldn’t have been clumsy enough to either break a tree branch or leave a print. Perhaps Coffee had told Butler and he had dispatched someone else to watch this path?
Nothing stirred or made any sound apart from the gentle breeze whistling through the pines. The wind was heading uphill and Collins knew that his smell could easily tip off the man who had made the tracks, no matter how careful he was about being seen or heard. This thought made him very uncomfortable, but it seemed like he had very little control over the situation. If the man who left the print was an enemy – and he couldn’t imagine anyone else being up here during this time of the year – he had all of the advantages: Black Jack had been seen first, was probably out-manned and was traveling uphill.
But Collins knew that he couldn’t just sit for too much longer. He watched the area keenly for another twenty minutes, moving only slightly from side to side in order to view as much space through the undergrowth as he could. Finally, he began crawling back to his horse. The Buckskin hadn’t moved except to step over a few feet and crop some of the grasses growing beside the trail. He gave a quiet whinny of greeting as Black Jack stepped into the saddle. Black Jack didn’t replace the Winchester in its scabbard however; it remained in his hands, ready for action.
Collins and his horse stepped off of the trail from time to time, looking for routes that paralleled the small trail, attempting to stay hidden amongst the trees and brush. This decreased his speed but may throw a kink into the plans of anyone trying to ambush him.
Three hours had passed since he had discovered the footprint and he hadn’t heard or seen anything during that time. Staying alert had begun to tire him and he knew that he needed to find a place that was mildly defensible in order to rest; indeed sleep, if possible. He pressed on however, intent on cresting the ridge before settling down for the night. He came to the top of the trail only moments later and began his descent while searching for a place to sleep.
As the sun slid below the horizon on Black Jack’s left hand it illuminated a small fissure in the granite, half-obscured by a lone Bristlecone. He swung down warily from his saddle and led his horse into the small hollow. Picketing the horse in the large area at the back of the cleft, he removed his saddle and then gave the horse a drink of water. Black Jack carefully gave the horse another brushing and even spared a small amount of his own water to clean the nostrils of his horse. Collins then wrapped a blanket over his own shoulders and began cleaning his guns and checking their load once more – always two of them ready for action. He then sat down with his back to the granite wall, tuned his ears for sound and slowly drifted off into a restless sleep. This time the exhaustion didn’t lead to a dreamless, uninterrupted slumber. Instead his mind echoed with the imagined cries of his love as she was murdered in cold blood. This time his mind took jaunts into the haunted portions of his memory which had been temporarily assuaged by the nearness and love of his beautiful wife and he remembered all over again the victims of men like Butler. A fire seemed to rise within him even as he slept … even as he reminded himself that he was just sleeping. But the anger seemed righteous to his subconscious and he allowed it to rise into a hatred unchecked. Unrestrained by any reason or morality, his mind kept flicking back to the look on his wife’s dead face and he awoke sweating profusely in spite of the cold and breathing rapidly amidst his seething wrath. I MUST KILL GEORGE BUTLER! His mind repeated the thought over and over as he worked consciously to bring his breathing back under control.
It was many sleepless minutes later that he heard a sound. It was small – only a slight rustle that was out of place with the normal whistling and creaking of pine boughs in the wind. It stood out only because it seemed to be the grind of a pebble on embedded rock. The horse heard it too and had lifted his head to look in the direction of the small entrance to his enclave, nostrils flaring slightly while searching for a scent. Black Jack gripped the pistol in his hand more tightly and his eyes strayed to the place eighteen inches away where his rifle lay propped against the wall.
He remained as motionless as possible as the tension in his body continued to rise. Several minutes passed without sound. The horse went back to his calm slumber and the tension seemed to ease slightly. Black Jack knew instinctively that the sound wasn’t imagined and it wasn’t natural, so he stayed alert. As he sat with his back against the wall another, more natural sound that had been missing up until now, began to rise. It began rather abruptly as a distant peel of thunder came echoing up the canyon from the main trail below him, then slowly and steadily a small rustle of gray noise grew in intensity as cold rain began streaming into the gorge from the north. It took another half hour to make its way up the slope to his bivouac. It was not welcome as far as Collins was concerned as its gentle patter could drown out further sounds of … What is that!?!
At that moment a large shape reared up out of the dark, framed in the opening to his small cleft, and leapt at him. Black Jack saw a glint in a sudden flash of lightning that could only come from a knife slicing its way determinedly through the rain toward him. He was lucky to have been on edge and awake as the first swing of the knife at an unprepared Collins would have certainly finished him. As it was, he only had a moment to shift his weight forward, grab wildly at the knife hand of his attacker and kick up from his sitting position against the wall. In doing this he lost a grip on his gun and felt it slip from his fingers and clatter to the granite beneath him.
His attacker threw a vicious haymaker with his free left hand that connected solidly with the side of Black Jack’s head. Stars burst in his eyes as he blacked out for a split second, during which he lost his grip on his attacker’s knife hand. Suddenly free, the knife hand swept down and sliced a long gash in Collins’ side. Blood flowed freely from the cut and Collins felt instantly weaker, but adrenaline responded by pumping anew and he seized the knife hand of his attacker once more before simultaneously stepping in close to him and bringing a crushing right jab to his attacker’s rib. The man doubled up, wind knocked out of him. As the attacker bent over from the power of the punch, Collins spotted over his shoulder a second man lining up a shotgun on Black Jack’s now unobscured face. A flash of lightning came out of nowhere, illuminating for a moment the grim face of Jaime Garza as he pulled the trigger. Collins instantly pushed the first attacker into a rough standing position and dropped behind him just as Garza’s blast came. The first attacker went suddenly stiff and then weak-kneed before crumpling over in a heap.
Collins had felt small, white-hot bits of shot hit his left shoulder where it had not been covered by the body of the first man and the pain finally made it to his brain. But, in his desire for survival, that nanosecond of painful recognition was thrown aside as Black Jack dove for the rifle lying against the wall near where he had slept so fitfully a few moments ago. The second report of the shotgun echoed in the narrow walls of the cleft as shot rebounded off the stone just beyond him. Black Jack knew he only had one shot with his rifle if he was to escape this alive. His right hand closed around the stock, and he swung the long barrel into his left. Raising the barrel slightly he shot from his off-balance, prone position directly into the looming body of Garza as the man stepped menacingly in to finish the job. The rifle’s report seemed to catch the killer off-guard and it took a split second for recognition to show on his face. Garza looked down at his chest and saw the blood slowly seeping out and staining his shirt. A look of pure hatred replaced the incredulity and he attempted to raise the shotgun anew. He never got it level though, and when he pulled the trigger the shot flew harmlessly into the wet pine straw at his feet.
Black Jack carefully got to his feet as the rain fell in torrents and checked that Garza was dead; which he was. He then walked carefully over to the first man, kicked him roughly over and looked into the wide open, but unseeing eyes of Ted Jenkins. It was appropriate that the two men had died at the same time. They had perpetrated so many crimes together that their luck was bound to run out at one fell swoop. And it was ironic to Black Jack that one had met his demise at the hand of the other.
It was only then, after making sure the threat was gone, that the adrenaline ceased flowing and the pain from his wounds all of sudden replaced it in sharp waves. He looked down at his side and saw the worst of the damage. Jenkins had cut a four inch gash from just under and behind his right armpit down to where his gunbelt had stopped it. He had been lucky that it wasn’t deeper. It was relatively superficial, affecting only skin and muscle, but he had lost a lot of blood and the pain was quite bad. He cleaned the wound the best he could with some whiskey, then began addressing the less painful places where the shotgun blast had hit him. It was all on his left shoulder that the shot had done its damage. Three pieces had stuck in his shoulder while at least a dozen others had burned grooves across the top of it. He did some minor surgery on himself, pulling out the stuck bits and then wrapped a piece of his now tattered shirt around it as a bandage. In his pack he grabbed a new shirt and some healing balm he always carried with him from his time hunting men down in Mexico. He spread a generous portion on his gash before wrapping a small bandage of linen he kept in his pack around his midsection. He put on his clean shirt and stowed everything else back in his pack. Collins then did a hasty search of the two dead men’s bodies, removing their food, ammo and weapons and stashing them in a pack on the patient Buckskin.
By this time the sun was just glancing over the horizon and bathing the mountains in an obscured, gray glow. The rain decreased to a gentle mist at this point and hung in the new morning’s light, surrounded by bits of newly-forming ice, like crystal prisms of an enormous chandelier. Collins lifted himself wearily into the saddle and urged his horse back toward the trail. He knew that he needed to get away from this spot quickly. One or more of the Butler gang could be nearby and would want to investigate the sound of shots heard during the night. He also was interested in finding where Garza and Jenkins had stashed their horses. The supplies they had would definitely come in handy. Not to mention the extra mounts in these harsh, rapidly-wintering conditions.
It only took a short time to pick up the tracks of the two would-be killers and then backtrack to their horses. They stood in a small clearing, picketed with as much grass as one was likely to find up in the mountains at this time of year, happily munching and seemingly oblivious to the circumstances which led to the new master who now saddled and packed them before leading them behind his own horse.
Black Jack Collins now rode swiftly down the trail, less concerned with wearing out his horse as he was able to switch between the three and keep all of them fresh. It only took him three hours to get down from the ridge on which he had slept. Looking around him, he saw that he was now in the valley pass through which the main trail cut. The mountain north of him was slightly higher than the southern and seemed much more inhospitable. There was an almost sheer rock face for at least a half-mile both up and down the trail.
The sound of falling and rushing water was slightly more pronounced as he cantered west along the trail and here or there a small stream came gushing over the echoing granite on his right, or trickling down the now-muddy slope on his left. They collected into a gulley on the north side of the trail and flowed west toward the exit of the pass many miles away. Pine and spruce bent and swayed on each side of the pass as it funneled the breeze into a steady gust.
He urged his horses on quickly, wanting to get as far ahead of the Butler gang as he could. A plan was developing in his mind but it would require the perfect terrain. His eyes swept the slopes in front of him. Nothing stirred apart from the wind.
As he continued down the path, obsessively checking his backtrail, the temperature started to fall as precipitously as the sheer rock wall on his right. He had to find a warm place to hole up and wait for the remainder of the Butler gang. The fact that he had killed Garza and Jenkins had seemed to whet his appetite for further revenge. Only four, including the reptile that was George Butler, remained. They deserved what Garza and Jenkins had got.
Only moments later, Black Jack saw that for which he had been searching: a small escarpment south of the trail, nearly obscured by two large trees which clung to the cliff beneath it. Collins dismounted and led the three horses up the side of the mountain on the west side of the cliff, zig-zagging against the steep sides and winding his way through the thick trees. The horses, glad to be out of the wind on the path, seemed heartened by their new direction and followed eagerly.
When Black Jack arrived at the place, it proved to be even better than anticipated. Behind the perch, four massive Bristlecones grew so close together as to form a small, sheltered hollow. Collins picketed the horses within it, removed his rifle, along with all of the blankets he had available after throwing one over each horse and then stepped out onto the perch. From here he could see two hundred yards down both sides of the main path and was sheltered by the cover of a large boulder on the east side of the perch and the two trees which he had noted before.
With only an hour until nightfall, Collins decided to hole up and remain still. He could rest while his quarry would be traveling. After all, since he was alone, he needed more time than they did to rest. He would have to catch his sleep in bits. Five minutes here, fifteen there; waking only to look around and make sure he was still alone.
He settled into a tight notch between one of the trees and a mound of pine straw, covered himself with a blanket and began sighting down his barrel at all of the features of his surroundings. He carefully took in everything – distances between points, the outlines of bushes and clumps of grass, which trees bent in which ways – knowing that the difference between life and death and, more importantly, success or failure in his errand of justice, was noticing anything in the future which didn’t belong.