They traveled nearly thirty-five miles the first day before Vin found a campsite beside a narrow river in a small sheltered canyon nestled in the foothills. As soon as the sun set, the autumn air cooled even more and a breeze from the snow-tipped mountains blew across them. They huddled around a campfire as Josiah stirred a mixture of canned and foraged food in a skillet, including a couple rabbits Buck and JD had shot in a contest to see who was quicker. The contest had been declared a draw by Ezra.
"Smells mighty good," Nathan commented, his hands buried in his jacket pockets.
"Yeah, what is it?" JD asked in between chattering teeth.
"I call it the last supper," Josiah replied with a wink.
"How appropriate," Ezra said dryly. Vin noticed that hed pulled his buckskin jacket over his fancy coat.
Buck tossed a blanket at the youngest member of the group. "Wrap up in this afore you catch your death and we gotta nursemaid you," he groused.
JD scowled at him, but didnt throw the blanket back; instead, he pulled it tight around his shoulders. "Who was it who came down with the trots a couple months ago and acted like he was on his deathbed?"
Buck aimed a forefinger at JD. "I knew a fellah that died cause he couldnt keep anything inside of him."
"Dont worry, Buck, youre so full of it that that aint ever gonna happen to you," JD shot back.
Vin bit back a grin. JD had learned to hold his own pretty well against Buck who ceaselessly teased the younger man, about everything from his hat to his bad jokes.
"I believe your apprentice has learned his lessons well, Buck," Ezra said, and sneezed once, then a second time.
"God bless you," Josiah said.
Ezra arched an eyebrow. "I highly doubt it, but thank you nevertheless."
Vin looked up to see Chris enter the camp, his black duster drawn around him to hold the chill at bay. "See anything?"
Chris shook his head. "Nothing, but it felt good to stretch my legs some."
"We keep to this pace, we should get to Tascosa in good time," Vin commented.
"We gotta be careful we dont wear out the horses," Chris said. "We got to take the pass through these mountains, then on the other side weve got a stretch of desert."
"And its going to be damn cold going through the mountains this time of year."
"Colder than this?" Nathan asked.
Vin nodded. "The pass is at about ten thousand feet, and it starts gettin snow in late August."
"So its got over a month of snow up there already?" JD asked, his eyes wide.
"Probably a foot or more. Sure hope you boys brought your woollies," Vin teased.
Ezra sat up straight against the log he leaned against. "And if we did not have the foresight to acquire such raiments, what is one to do?"
"One would have to freeze his ass off," Chris put in, a rare twinkle in his eyes.
Buck, sitting beside Ezra, guffawed and elbowed him in the side which earned him a pointed glare. The others chuckled as Vin studied Chris itd been a long time since Chris appeared so relaxed. Not that Chris didnt get a good gibe in now and again, but his whole attitude seemed more content than it had been in awhile, and Vin understood why. Hed had the same uneasiness in Four Corners like pacing back and forth in a cage without getting anywhere.
Even though the evening was cold, Vin felt more comfortable than the nights hed spent in his room at the boardinghouse. Being outside under a canopy of stars with no walls around him reminded him of the time he lived with the Indians those had been good days until the army had come to herd them on to a reservation. After having lived in a town for nearly six months, Vin understood how the Indians had felt when theyd been stuck on a small parcel of land after having the entire country at their disposal.
He shook aside his dismal thoughts. His life with the Indians was in the past, like so many other things. What mattered now were the six men surrounding him who believed in him enough to travel nearly five hundred miles to help clear his name. The fact that hed do the same for them didnt matter hed been a loner most of his life, and it felt strange to have these men stand by his side and risk their lives for him.
"You figure we should set out guards tonight?" Chris asked him quietly as he puffed on a cheroot.
Vin thought a moment, then nodded. "Probably wouldnt be a bad idea. Ill take first watch."
"Dont feel obligated to take moren an hour," Chris said in a low voice. "Everyones here cause they want to be."
Vin shouldnt have been surprised that Chris wouldve been thinking along the same lines as he was. He gave him a sheepish smile. "I aint used to dependin on others."
"Its a two way road, Vin." Chris glanced at Buck who was talking to Ezra. "Sometimes we forget that."
Josiah filled plates with his last supper which looked more like son-of-a-bitch stew, but nobody complained. It was hot and filled them up. Afterwards, JD and Ezra cleaned up the dishes in the cold , swift-running stream with a minimum of complaining. By the time they finished, a full moon had risen and the coyotes had started their lonesome howling. The men donned extra clothing, and slipped into their bedrolls while Vin took a position on a rock about ten yards from the fire. He kept his eyes averted from the fires light, and he could pick out individual trees and bushes surrounding them. As long as they didnt start moving, Vin ignored them.
Twenty minutes later, snores from the camp told Vin the others had fallen asleep. Although he was pleased theyd joined him, Vin enjoyed the peace and solitude of the night. There was something about a sky full of stars and a full moon smiling down on him that made him glad to be away from civilization.
Hed almost forgotten what it was like to be away from people and their constant chatter. Even when they werent talking, Vin could hear their footsteps, their laughter, the rustle of clothing as they walked. There was never any escape from it in a town. Here there was only the occasional coyotes howl, the sweep of an owls wings as it swooped down on its prey, and the crackle of dry leaves under a squirrel or rabbits foot.
Suddenly a scream broke the nights stillness and Vin came to his feet, his heart pounding against his ribs. At first he thought something had happened to one of the others, but a quick glance told Vin they were all right except for their sleep-dazed alarm. He tried to pierce the darkness, scanning the shadows for any sign of what the ungodly sound had been. He spotted two red glowing eyes staring at him from the blackness and his blood ran cold. As if hypnotized, he couldnt pull his gaze away from the unnatural sight. Then they were gone, like a spirit in the night.
Icy fingers of dread wrapped around Vin and gooseflesh arose on his arms; he felt as if someone had just tramped across his grave.
"Jesus, God Almighty, what was that?" Buck demanded, looking around with wide eyes.
"Sounded like a woman bein killed," JD said, his voice somewhat shaky.
"Or the devil taking another soul," Josiah added softly.
Chris was standing, his revolver balanced in his hand. "It was a mountain lion," he stated.
Although Chris tone was steady, Vin noticed his anxious gaze darting about.
"I take it that was not the household variety kitty cat," Ezra said, his face somewhat pale. He was the least accustomed to natures ways and Vin could tell he had been badly spooked by the bloodcurdling sound.
"You take it right," Vin said as he continued a visual search of the woods. "He wasnt moren twenty feet from me."
"You sure?" Chris asked with a frown.
Vin nodded, and moved toward the others. After his eerie encounter with the mountain cat, he instinctively sought human companionship. "I could see his eyes. Game must be scarce up in the mountain that its comin this close to people."
"You figger its still out there?" JD asked in a low voice, his eyes round as saucers as they jumped from shadow to shadow.
"Even if it is, it wont come any closer with so many of us," Chris said firmly.
Buck crept up behind JD and meowed loudly in his ear. JD jumped nearly a foot in the air, then whirled on Buck and punched him in the chest. "Geezus, Buck, you do that again and Ill shoot you!"
Buck only laughed, which further incensed JD.
"Thats enough," Chris broke in before their antics escalated any further. "Two guards at a time. Ill sit up with Vin, then well wake Ezra and Nathan in a couple hours, then Josiah and Buck, and Ill take a second watch with JD." He looked around at the still somewhat uneasy expressions. "That cat aint gonna stick around here with so many of us around. Go on back to sleep."
Vin gripped his sawed-off carbine in his hands, then consciously loosened his stranglehold on the weapon. He doubted any of them would get much sleep anymore tonight.
As the others warily slipped back into their bedrolls, Chris strapped his gunbelt around his hips, and tugged on his duster and broad-brimmed hat. He joined Vin at the perimeter of the camp and they took positions on two nearby rocks.
"I dont like it, Chris," Vin said in a low voice, more troubled than he liked to admit. He recalled the conversation hed had with Chris in Purgatorys saloon when theyd been hunting Cletus Fowler, the man whod murdered Chris wife and son. "You told me about that cat that you were trackin when you were ranchin, and how it turned the tables on you."
"But we aint trackin this one," Chris stated. "He probably just got a little nervous when he ran into our camp." He blew a stream of smoke from a freshly lit cheroot, and kept his vigilant gaze roaming the darkness.
"I dont know." Vin said, not convinced. "When I was livin with the Indians, there was this grizzly that killed a woman, and ripped up a couple others pretty bad. The People said that a riled spirit had gone into that grizzly and they had to send the spirit back where it come from."
"Howd they do that?"
"The shaman held this ceremony lasted two days and a night."
"The bear disappeared, never to be seen again," Vin replied softly.
"I guess Josiah is about as close to a shaman as we have," Chris said, the barest hint of a smile in his eyes.
Vin scowled. "It aint funny, Chris. I seen some pretty strange things when I lived with them."
Chris sobered instantly. "I didnt mean anything, Vin, but I think the cat just came down from the mountain cause he got hungry and we happened to be in his regular path."
Vin took a deep breath, knowing Chris was more than likely right. But even acknowledging that didnt make the hair at the back of his neck settle down. He trusted his instincts, and his instincts told him something wasnt right somehow the balance had been thrown off out here in this wilderness.
"We can take a look around at first light," Chris said, sensing Vins unease. "Find out where it went."
Vin nodded, his sour gut only marginally appeased by the older mans suggestion. He tried to set aside his doubts, and concentrate on keeping guard, but he couldnt shake the feeling that it wasnt over yet.
The first slant of daylight found Vin poking around in the underbrush for signs of their night intruder. JD watched as Vin hunkered down amongst the spiny brush and touched a paw track in a patch of soft dirt not covered by fallen leaves.
"Damn big cat," Vin commented dryly.
Chris, who was taking his second watch with JD, leaned over to get a closer look. "Biggern the one that was killin my stock."
JD stared down at the print and his palms grew moist. Hed never known a wild animal to be so bold. "He was this close to us?" JD asked, embarrassed that his voice sounded higher pitched than normal.
Vin nodded grimly. "Looks like he didnt just leave right away either."
"What do you mean?" Chris asked.
"Look at the tracks. He walked all around the camp, then finally left," Vin explained, pointing to the circular route of the faint prints.
A chill that had nothing to do with the morning air touched JD and the fact that both of the older, more experienced men looked jumpy didnt help his own nerves.
"That aint natural," Chris reiterated Vins words from last night.
A black and white magpie landed on a branch above them and scolded them loudly, startling each of the three men. JD reflexively drew his revolver and dropped into a firing stance. Belatedly realizing what had made the sound, JD sheepishly slipped the weapon back in its holster.
"Remind me not to sneak up on you," Vin said, droll humor coating his voice. He had nearly done the same thing as JD, but had caught himself at the last moment. Damn, he was starting to act like a mouse in a room full of cats, then chided himself for the fit likening.
"The best thing to do is head on out just like we planned," Chris said. "Theres no reason for it to follow us."
Vin met Chris eyes, and he could see that he wasnt as certain as hed been last night. He probably said it more for JDs benefit than theirs Chris sometimes acted as much like a mother hen as Buck.
The three men returned to camp where the others had risen and were shaving as water bubbled cheerfully in a couple tin coffeepots over the fire. The scene appeared so normal, Vin almost lost the sinister unease that had dogged him since the god-awful scream last night. He moved off to take care of some personal business, then returned, carrying an armload of dry branches for the fire. He leaned against a rock, hooked his fingers in his belt, and divided his attention between the men and their coral-tinged surroundings.
Buck and JD were trying to share a small triangular mirror to shave, and by the looks of their nicked faces, neither one was succeeding. A few feet from them, Ezra brushed his red jacket and Vin wondered how long the fancy coat would remain clean hed give it until mid-morning. Josiah had again taken the task of making their meal, and he was adding some oats to a pot of boiling water. Vins stomach growled, reminding him that supper had been a long time ago. Nathan was going through his saddlebags as if inventorying his supplies.
Nathan caught his gaze and shrugged, reading Vins puzzled expression. "You never know when well need this stuff."
So the mountain cat had gotten to Nathan, too. It was just that he could do something to ease his worry.
Chris came to stand by Vin. "Will we make it over the pass today?" he asked.
"Should," Vin replied. "Unless something comes up."
"You expecting anything in particular?"
Vin smiled and squinted up at Chris. "Hope not."
The ex-shootist didnt smile in return, but sent his narrow gaze to the unbroken land around them. There probably wasnt another human being save the seven of them in a twenty mile radius; of course, it mightve been easier dealing with a two-legged varmint than an animal gone loco.
A couple hours later, theyd put about five miles between themselves and their campsite. The men, whod been unusually quiet and tense in the saddle since theyd ridden out, now relaxed and tossed occasional comments about.
Ezra was beginning to regret wearing his red jacket, not that it wasnt warm enough since it was made of the finest wool available. No, hed underestimated the amount of dust on the switchbacks leading to the pass. Moreso, he found himself in the unfortunate rear position behind six horses that had no compulsion whatsoever about sending dust pluming around him to settle on his person. He looked ahead to see Vin had taken the lead with Chris following close behind on the narrow trail. If Ezra managed to move up to the front of the column, hed have less spiraling dirt to contend with. When they stopped to give their horses a rest, he would casually lead his animal up to a more auspicious position. Not that he would usurp Chris or Vins rank in the single line, but he could manage to have fewer ill-mannered beasts of course, meaning the horses, not the men who rode them ahead of him.
He heaved a long-suffering sigh and looked over the edge of the narrow trail that sloped steeply downward. A few trees and rocks, along with some patches of white snow, studded the descent, but there was little that would stop a person once they started falling. With a shiver of foreboding, he looked away from the rim and sent his gaze forward.
Abruptly, he noticed the rear quarters of Nathans horse getting closer and he reined in, startled to see everyone had stopped. He frowned, wondering why Vin had halted the group. The tracker had turned in his saddle, and was looking back down the trail where theyd come and saying something to Chris. Ezra couldnt see their expressions so he didnt know if something was bothering them or if Vin had just decided to take a rest and let the horses blow.
"Ezra!" Vin suddenly shouted as he gestured wildly. "Look out!"
Puzzled, Ezra glanced around, then upward to a massive rock beside the trail. A blur of tan hurtled down toward him and its weight knocked him off his horse. Rolling and smashing into brush and rocks, Ezra could smell the fetid breath of something feral and hot. In some corner of his mind, he recognized the furred body that tumbled down the incline with him the mountain cat had followed them.
He struggled to push the animals muzzle away, to keep it from tearing his throat out, even as he tried to slow his descent. Suddenly he rammed into something hard and immovable, and Ezras breath was knocked from his lungs. The cat laid its ears back, and snarled down at him. Ezra stared up at yellow-stained teeth that appeared long and dangerous. He struggled to breathe as his chest burned with red hot fire, and tried to release his sleeve gun. The cat roared and shifted, and the derringer popped out. Without aiming, Ezra squeezed the trigger and the animals howl of rage and pain gave him momentary satisfaction. The cougar didnt relinquish its prey, though, and he growled, opening its jaws to administer the fatal bite.
"Scare him away from Ezra," Vin hollered as he fought to control his mount and slip his Henry rifle from its scabbard at the same time.
Down the row, he saw Buck had his horse under control and was bringing his carbine to his shoulder. Chris, too, had raised his weapon.
The men fired down at the cat, careful not to aim too close lest they hit Ezra by mistake. They were rewarded by the creatures swift retreat, but their companion lay silent and unmoving nearly a hundred yards down the embankment.
"We gotta get down to him before he bleeds to death," Nathan shouted, dismounting cautiously on the narrow shelf.
"If hes not already gone to the hereafter," Josiah said, his voice strained.
"Ill go down," Buck volunteered as he bounded out of the saddle of his gray and unlooped his lasso. He removed his hat and hung it from the saddlehorn by its chinstrap. "I need a few of you to hold the rope."
Ground-tying their horses, Josiah, Chris, and Nathan quickly joined him. Josiah took one end of the rope and tied it around his waist to act the anchor, instead of taking a chance on using one of the horses and having it grow frightened on the precarious switchback.
Vin hurried over to the huddled group and leaned over the trails ledge, then put his telescope to his eye to try to determine the extent of Ezras wounds. His stomach muscles clenched at the sight of Ezras once-white shirt now soaked with scarlet blood.
"Hes in a bad way," Vin managed to say in a steady voice.
Buck dallied the rope around his waist and placed a booted foot at the edge. "Once I reach him, Ill probably have to carry him so youll be pullin us both up together."
Chris nodded. "Well do it. Go."
The men watched anxiously as Buck moved downward with too much haste.
"Slow down," Chris hollered. "Or you aint goin do him or yourself any good."
Buck didnt reply, but Vin noticed he did as Chris said, and for that Vin was grateful. Too often Buck played the wild card; this time however, because Ezras life lay in the balance, he would play it safe.
Vin stood near the edge, watching Bucks progress and searching the terrain for any sign of the crazed cat. Hed never known an animal to act so recklessly, to attack a person who wasnt even alone. Even the cat Chris had hunted hadnt attacked him, but had killed his packhorse instead. Man was the only animal who did something as foolhardy as attacking a person, and he was usually desperate when he did.
Vin shouldve heeded his gut feeling. Guilt weighed heavy on his shoulders he was the tracker, the person whod learned the ways of the hunter, and was the most knowledgeable about animals and their habits. If he had listened to his instincts, Ezra wouldnt have been attacked. Vin shouldve taken the rear position where he could keep an eye on everyone, as well as watch their back trail. Instead, hed ridden ahead and Ezra was lying down there, maybe dying. Or, the thought brought a sickness to his gut, already dead.
JD joined him, his complexion milky and his gaze hopping about nervously. "Howd you know it was back there?"
Vin remained silent for a moment, then replied. "I felt it."
"I just knew," Vin stated, unable to completely stifle the impatience produced by his own blunder. How did he explain something he didnt even understand?
JD stared at him like hed grown a second head.
"Im down," Bucks faint voice rose up to them. "And hes clawed up real bad."
Vin looked through the telescope again to see Buck examining Ezras bloody chest carefully.
"Can you move him?" Chris called down. "Or should we send Nathan down?"
"Itd be best to get him up there," Buck returned.
They could see Buck remove his coat and after a few minutes, he managed to make a large sling with the jacket where he could rest Ezras limp form close to his chest and have one hand free to help him climb.
"Thats right, Buck," Chris said in a low voice as he stared down the hill. "Just like we done in Alamosa."
"Start pulling us up real slow-like," Buck hollered.
Vin and JD added their hands to the rope and the five men carefully, but steadily drew Buck and their injured companion up the hill. By the time they neared the top, Bucks face was slicked in sweat and Ezras blood had stained the front of Bucks shirt.
JD and Nathan took hold of Bucks arms to help him up the rest of the way. Once he was on flat ground, Vin and Chris gingerly lifted Ezra out of the fashioned sling. JD hovered close to Buck who breathed heavily from the long climb.
"You okay?" JD asked, his voice sounding young and anxious.
The gravity of the situation had sobered all of them, even the normally unflappable Buck.
"Ill be okay, kid," Buck said in between gasps. "Its Ezra I aint so sure about."
Ezra wasnt a big man, but he seemed even smaller in Chris and Vins arms. His pasty complexion and shallow breathing frightened Vin, but he bit back his fear. If Ezra died, his death would be on his conscience Ezra had come with them to help clear his name.
"There aint enough room on this trail to work on him. We got to get him someplace where I can boil some water and get him cleaned up good, then sew up them pieces of skin," Nathan said.
"The trail opens onto a plateau about a half mile ahead," Vin said.
Nathan nodded. "Thatll have to do."
"Chris, lets get him on my horse, then Ill ride with him and make sure he dont fall off," Vin suggested.
Chris nodded tersely, and Vin saw the anguish in his green eyes nearly hidden by the shadow of his wide hat brim. Folks who didnt know the former gunslinger thought he was a harsh, unfeeling man. Vin knew otherwise; Chris cared deeply for his friends and would walk through hell for them. Maybe that was why he inspired so much loyalty from the six men who knew him best.
Go to part 3