This winding ledge on the canyon wall seemed like a good notion, at the time. The canyon kept twisting and turning, keeping my hoss ol' Brown and me outta sight of them after us, long as we kept moving. But now the ledge was beginning to narrow something fierce, with the river a hundred feet below and the top of that there rocky cliff at least a thousand feet above, and no way to reach either the river, way down there, or the top, way up yonder. In the hot and distant sky, way above us, some vultures circled.
You know what circling buzzards mean.
Tired? I felt like I was a hoss rode hard and put away wet! But if Brown and me didn't keep going, I'd be put away dead! I shoulda known not to take a free drink from that sheriff.
* * *
It was awful early to be in a saloon, but I just got a hundred bucks reward from the sheriff for bringing in another 'wanted' -- I mean, hell, that's the way I make my living! Ain't enough lawmen out here in the West, so's they put up rewards to bring in outlaws, sometimes paid in real gold, and maybe much as a thousand and sometimes it says 'Dead or Alive' and I'm fast with a gun, so...
Well anyway, Sheriff McIntyre, which I'd dealt with before, he pays me in paper money steada gold, but it'll spend real good. Then he pats me on the back and says, "Buck, let's go to the saloon and lemme buy you a drink, okay?"
Well, that outlaw and me had just spent the night in the desert (him tied up real good while I slept, of course) and after a breakfast of salted white meat, corn pones and coffee, we rode into town. That cash gave me a welcome cheering up, but hey -- a drink to celebrate sounded real good.
"Sure thing, sheriff," I said, sticking the bills into my pocket. "Let's go!"
Well, the long and short of it is, in that dim bar sitting at a table, the sheriff said, "Buck, you're a good citizen. I mean, you risk your life bringing in these coyotes, so you gotta be good. Well, I needs me a good man for something important."
Dunno if it was the drink or the 'good citizen' line, but I found myself nodding and listening as he went on. "Got a wire this morning about something important. We's expecting the railroad to reach us real soon. Railroad going through my town will bring in lots of people and lots of money, so it'll be a good thing. But seems the railroad ain't got enough hands to lay the tracks down, thanks to a big drought out their way, and they wanna hire locals what needs money like cowpokes, drifters, farmers and all. They be sending a stage with a big chest of gold to pay people."
Batting a fly away, I nodded. "Makes sense," I told him. Fast as a rattler, I added, "But I ain't gonna swing no sledge hammer!" I emptied my glass of hootch and slammed it down on the table to emphasize.
Well, Sheriff McIntyre just laughed like I'd told a good one. "Ain't no way, Buck! No, what I'm needing is something more important. Y'see, I just yesterday found out the Colton gang is hanging around. You know the Colton gang, don't you?"
I snorted. "Who don't? They got a rough reputation, ripping off banks, stealing cattle, and all that." Seeing his point, I added, "You think they found out about the stage?"
The sheriff pushed back his Stetson and nodded, real serious. "Ain't nothing else around worth money for them, not now." He ordered another round of drinks and went on, "That gold would really draw them in." He took the drinks from the barkeep, handed me one, and downed his all in one gulp. "Ain't no way I could stop 'em, Buck."
"Hey, there ain't enough gold in Texas to send me after the Coltons!"
"Ain't what I want, Buck. Y'see, I done known Ole Man Colton since we was kids. He got shot up awhile back, and settled down up at the far end of Cactus Canyon. He ain't no good citizen like you," he said, leaning forward, "but he's smart enough to know that there gold is only a drop in the bucket compared to what'll be in our county once the rail comes through! I want you to get him and bring him to town, so's I can get him to talk some sense into his younguns."
Taking a sip of my drink, I peered at him. "What kinda reward for me if I bring him in?"
McIntyre gave me a pained look, like he'd found a roach at the bottom of his glass. "Now, Buck," he said, "that's where the 'good citizen' thing comes in." He took my glass and took a sip from it. "I'm sure the mayor can come up with something for you in return, but he's outta town right now, and there ain't no time to waste." He handed my drink back to me. "It's real important. The future of our town is at stake, Buck!
I killed my drink and stared at him. Guess it was the whiskey, because I don't usually work for promises, but I found myself nodding. "So all I gotta do is go to the canyon and bring Ole Man Colton back?"
+ + +
Naturally it wasn't that easy. Rode Brown out of town, heading for Cactus Canyon, and first thing I did was come through a cleft in some rocks and ran right into the Coltons! I must've been making too much noise, because they was waiting for me, Colts in their hands.
Well, I'm the smartest maverick around, but I had sense enough to stop Brown and raise my hands.
"Buck Wilson!" one of them said, with a grin what made him look like a rattlesnake, "Don't tell me you're out after ree-wards on us."
Calm as I could, I shook my head. "You oughta know better than that," I said. "If I was trying to sneak up on you, ain't no way you'd've heard me coming."
He spat out some chewing tobacco and eyed me. Then he said, "Makes sense, I reckon. So," he added, "what're you up to?"
I finally recognized him; Chet Colton, one of the older Colton boys. "Just minding my own business, Chet," I said, smooth as honey. "Okay if I get on with it?"
Biting another chew off his plug of tobacco, Chet gave me the eagle's eye and said, at last, "You've got a reputation as a honorable man, Buck. Promise you ain't gonna try nothing, and you can ride along with us. Don't wanna have you going back and letting anybody know where we are, so can't let you go."
Now a weasel might probably be smarter than me, but I knew there was only one answer to that. "Let's go," I said.
But my honor wasn't enough to let me sleep without being tied up. I had an answer to that, too, if everone else would just go to sleep and let me do it.
I was aggravated that a poker game got started, fueled by an uncorked bottle, but they finally tossed in their cards and crawled into their blankets. I gave them another ten minutes, then got carefully to my hobbled feet and made my way over to Brown. He was a real smart hoss and I had taught him this trick long ago. I backed up to him and held my tied hands to his mouth. He woke up, sniffed, then quietly did his duty. When my hands were free, I untied my feet and quietly got on Brown's back. Sure, I was losing my blanket, but I could always buy another.
Brown slipped quietly away, and I didn't speed him up until we were far enough away that the hoofbeats wouldn't alert anyone.
Hey! I promised not to try anything; I didn't try, I succeeded.
I knew the mouth of Cactus Canyon wasn't too far away, and I also knew Chet would have the entire gang after me once he found out I'd escaped so I needed to get there fast as I could.
It was daybreak when I started up the ledge I'd found. Now, Sheriff McIntyre hadn't said nothing about where the old man lived, just up the canyon, and the ledge went that way. The ledge on the other side looked too narrow. Plus, there wasn't no way Brown could swim up that swift river.
Well, there was a time or two that the wind brought sounds of hoofbeats echoing in the canyon and I had no doubt it was the Coltons, so we went as quick up that ledge as we could, until now. Brown was sure-footed, but I could see he couldn't make it much further, so I got off to hike up to the next bend so's I could see if it was any better.
Worse, there was the blast of a rifle and a bullet hit about five feet away. A quick glance across the canyon showed me riders on hosses. Dammit, that narrow ledge over there had widened out as it went along. I had chosen the wrong side.
I went on around the canyon bend, but the riders only had to move a little further to have another shot -- and my ledge was ending at a slit in the canyon wall, a narrow slot that didn't have room for Brown to the through.
Well, Brown was nimble and he could turn around and go back, but I didn't have no chance of making it on him, so I went into the dusty slit. Bats shot out of it.
I hate bats!
But I hate getting shot even more, so I made my way inside. Had to squeeze in sideways, scaring another flock of bats. I knew they was more scared of me than me of them, but that didn't make me feel one bit better.
The dark cave widened out and, more important, I could feel a breeze coming from behind me, meaning there was an opening higher up.
Seemed like it took an hour struggling my way up but, eventually, there was sunlight ahead of me. I stuck my head up, real cautious. The sound of the river gurgling its way from its cave echoed distantly below. There was maybe forty or fifty feet of stone rising up, but there was a wide ledge at the bottom of it that ran to the other side, connecting this end of the canyon. It would take climbing a bunch of rocks to get to the ledge, and I hoped them hombres following on the other side weren't there, or at least wasn't watching as I made my way out. Stood up, looked across, and saw a sod cabin sitting on the ledge, its back up against the rock wall. A cabin with eight or ten cowpokes standing around, the whole Colton bunch. Right now none of them was looking my way, so I started struggling up the rocky slope.
Then a shot rang out and the bullet stirred up dust above my head.
"Hey!" I shouted. "I got a message for Ole Man Colton!"
Another shot clipped the rocks, but then there was a shotgun blast. Looking over that way, I could see the elder Colton standing in the door with a smoking shotgun and he was facing his boys. I could barely hear him saying, "Let's see what he has to say."
I reached the top and saw where I could walk around and get to the cabin. "I says he can tell us the message from there!" I heard a furious Chet Colton say.
"He just one man," Ole Man Colton said back. "Let's wait."
When I walked up to the sod cabin, I got my first look at the old man. Like McIntyre told me, he was all shot up. His left arm was kinda shriveled and there was a peg leg below his left knee. His left eye was white, like one of them cattyracts. His shotgun was leaning against the cabin door as he looked at me. "So what's your message? Who's it from?"
"Sheriff McIntyre," I said.
He turned to Chet and said. "Don't want no messages from lawmen," he told Chet. "Shoot him."
As the revolver clicked, I shouted, "It's about money!"
Ole Man Colton put his hand on Chet's pistol. "Money?" he said. "Now, that's interesting. Tell me 'bout it."
I tumbled out what the sheriff had said, and could see the interest in that one eye. Then he chuckled. "Damn right!" he said. "Chet, don't worry 'bout that gold. When the railroad comes through, there gonna be lots more than that."
I was congratulating myself for having made it, when things took a bad turn. There was a big explosion down toward the canyon mouth, and we could see lots of dust spewing up in the air. Then Sheriff McIntyre's voice sounded from the top of that rock wall as he came out from behind a boulder. He had a rifle in his hand, aimed our way.
"You Coltons can give up now," he shouted. "T'other end of the canyon is blasted shut. I got a posse with me, and there's no way you can get out."
In spite of my shock, I found myself hoping Brown had got out before the dynamite went off. While thinking that, I was diving back the way I had come, tumbling on my shoulder, then coming up with my Colt blasting at Chet.
I missed, dammit, because he was already slipping into the sod cabin, the others with him. Ole Man Colton was slower getting through his door, but I couldn't shoot an unarmed man. Even as I thought 'unarmed', his right hand snaked out and grabbed the shotgun.
Where could I go? Gunshots would be blasting out any time, and here I was on this empty ledge. "Thanks a bunch, Sheriff!" I shouted in anger. Then I spotted a slight bend in the rock wall and plunged for it, but not quick enough to avoid some buckshot in my thigh.
From behind the boulder where McIntyre had been standing, he boomed out, "Might as well give up, Colton! We can toss some dynamite down. That sod hut will protect you from bullets, but not dynamite."
There was no response, not even some angry lead blasted at me or him. I suddenly remembered two things: The cabin backed up to that rock wall, and the cave I had just come through.
"Sheriff!" I yelled. "I bet there's a cave behind that cabin!"
"Damn!" he said. "Hadn't thought of that. Podners, spread out and watch them rocks for Coltons coming out!" Then he added to me, "Buck, I'm gonna toss you a stick of dynamite. Blast that cabin so's they can't come back that way." So saying, he threw a stick of dynamite to me.
Checking to see the hosses was tethered far enough away, I lit the dynamite and tossed it to the near wall of the cabin. Made quite a mess.
- - - Later, at the Sheriff's office, I told him, "I was real mad, Sheriff. You used me as crow-bait. If Brown hadn't made it clear, I wouldn't even be here talking, peaceful-like."
The sheriff topped off my glass with a bottle he had taken from a cabinet. "Real sorry 'bout that, Buck, but the Coltons done caused a bunch of trouble all around." He grinned. "Chet tried to shoot his way out and got hisself kilt, but Ole Man Colton's a smart old geezer and come out with his hands high." He took a sip of his own drink, then added, "You'll get paid, Buck. They's lots of reward money for that Colton bunch. Now, I done promised to share the reward with the posse, but told 'em that, way things turned out, I figgered you should get half of it. Being as how nobody got hurt, they agreed."