There was little sound in Deer Canyon. Secluded high in the rocky mountains, few white men had ever run across the seemingly random cut in what was otherwise a tall mountain of granite. Stretching for nearly a mile from end to end, and nearly three-hundred yards across at the narrowest point, the canyon was sheltered from the high winds of the mountains by its thousand foot walls on three sides. There were but two ways in: one entrance was a narrow cut in the southernmost wall that was hardly wide enough to ride a mule through; The other, a treacherous goat trail down the eastern face.
The winter snows from the surrounding peaks would melt, sending waterfalls cascading down the sheer cliffs, ultimately collecting into a lake at the far north of the canyon. The lake was drained by a snaking stream which flowed through the middle of the canyon all year and spilled out through a hidden cave. The stream would resume on the other side of the mountain, flowing down until it met the mighty Missouri river after many miles of bending and winding.
This stream allowed wild grasses to grow through spring and summer, providing food for the numerous elk, deer, bear, sheep and goats to grow fat on for winter. A pair of eagles perpetually guarded the valley from a nest on the western wall, swooping down and catching rainbow trout from the lake to feed their young.
Deer Canyon was hidden from all observers on the peaks above by the glaring of the sun. The light reflecting off the opposite walls, and the green of the canyon floor would play tricks on the eyes, making the canyon appear to be just a greener patch on the mountainside.
Del Brinks stumbled up the side of the mountain. The ground was made of loose granite shards that cut through the legs of his thin pants, bloodying his shins every time he slipped. His water had run out half way up, and his tongue was getting dry after the climb. Turning around, Del glanced at his three companions following him up. Moe Phillips was next in line, the summer sun glaring off of his stolen white hat. Behind him was Frank Doors, a short man with an ugly scar on his left cheek from when he had been hit by a broken bottle in a saloon brawl. Bringing up the rear, Cal Scour led a mule laden with twenty thousand dollars of Army payroll up the mountain.
There had originally been six in the gang, but two of them were being picked clean by buzzards in the foothills of Montana. They had sneaked into a sleeping army camp one night, grabbing the chest containing the payroll from the back of a truck and stealing a mule to carry it from the livestock trailer, escaping without even disturbing the sentries. But two days later, an army patrol had caught up to them, and in the ensuing battle, two outlaws had been wounded and all the horses killed. Since the two wounded men were unable to walk, they were left behind, and when the remaining outlaws heard a flurry of shots several minutes later, they knew it wasn't a hunter shooting at a deer.
But that was three days and twenty rugged miles ago. The mule was the only one that had eaten more than wild onions in that time, and the altitude combined with lack of sound sleep had the gang tired and edgy.
"Hey Del," Frank Doors called up, "how long until we get to this 'hidden canyon?'"
Brinks had heard an old trapper talk of a hidden canyon in this area one time in a saloon. At the time, it had seemed unimportant, but now it was the objective of their climb.
"Should be just over this peak," Brinks responded coldly.
The outlaws made it to where the stream flowed out of the mountain just as night was falling. Wearily, they took the load off of the mule and turned it loose to graze while Cal Scour gathered an armful of tender mountain onions. They ate silently before rolling over one by one into a fitful sleep.
At noon the next day they walked into Deer Canyon. Each man let out a gasp of amazement as he stepped from the narrow crack in the wall, getting their first glimpse of the majestic treasure hidden within the Rocky mountains. Moe Phillips built a fire while the others set up a little shelter out of branches against the side of the canyon. Then they each attempted to catch a trout. They all succeeded, and the fish were cooked on a rock with wild onions.
The night was quiet, the only sound that of the stream rolling over rounded rocks. The outlaws were relaxed now, confident that they were hidden from any lawman or army patrol indefinitely, and they slept soundly. Suddenly, Brinks sat bolt upright, Colt in hand. Something had awakened him; a rock had slipped on another rock. Looking around, the outlaw saw nothing in the deep darkness of the mountains. Slowly, he returned the worn gun to the holster on his left hip and went back to sleep.
The sound that had awakened Brinks had come from a tired old mule. The animal was loaded with elk meat and leather sacks of salt that had been collected from the banks of a saline spring. The animal was being led by an old man.
William Bridger was one of famous mountain man Jim Bridger's sons. His mother, a Flathead Indian, had died when he was very young, and he was sent off to an eastern school to be educated. But he had returned to the mountains of his ancestry, and the simple ways of life in the mountains. Surviving with no tools of the white man, save a short steel knife, a stolen mule, and an old flintlock rifle that he kept stashed in his house, William had been forgotten by civilization for the past sixty years.
When he had entered the opening in the canyon wall, the mule had nickered. Sensing trouble, William had led the animal while keeping it quiet. He had just peeked out of the pass when the animal had slipped and kicked a rock loose. Seeing the outlaw rise in the dim glow of the fire, William had melted into the shadow of the rocks, waiting patiently until the stranger had fallen back to sleep. Only when he had resumed snoring did the old man move. He walked right through the middle of their camp, leaving the mule in the pass until he had examined the men thoroughly. When he found the gold, he scowled. He had learned to hate the greed that gold would put in men. Carefully, he took a silent handful of the coins and put them in his buckskin pocket. The he walked back and led the mule out across the canyon.
At the opposite end, William walked through a hole in the grass, which concealed his home. Long years of freezing and thawing had cracked the granite high above on the cliff, until at some point a gigantic slab of rock came crashing to the ground. This slab had fallen in such a way as to create a cave-like room behind it. With the cliff for one wall, and the large slab for the opposite wall, all Bridger had needed to do was pile round rocks from the stream on opposite ends, and he was left with a cozy cabin that was twelve feet wide and nearly forty feet long. The rock created a natural smoke stack, and some minor digging created a draft that allowed one fire in the middle of the house to heat the entire thing, even on the coldest winter nights.
Away from the house, a similar slab had been made into a barn for the mule. It was heated by a natural hot spring, which gave water to both man and beast when the lake and stream froze in October or November.
At dawn, Bridger was hidden in the bushes, watching the four strangers sleep in the cool grass. One by one they stirred, until they were all up and eating the remainder of their supper. Then they spread out, exploring the valley. On silent feet, Bridger followed the two who were heading toward his home. His bow was made of spruce and sinew, but it was deadly in his expert hands. The heads of the arrows had been cut from a glass-like rock that would occasionally appear in the hot spring, making them very hard, and sharper than most knives. They had also been dipped in a poisonous liquid that had come from a mixture of wild herbs. Bridger was prepared to defend his secret world.
The outlaws never made it to the hidden cabin, instead having their attention taken by a series of caves in the side of the cliff. These were the product of hundreds of of years of native people coming to the valley for religious ceremonies. Over the many years he had lived in the valley, William would join their ceremonies and share his home with the elders of the tribe, until he had become one of them.
Inside these caves were many shards of clay pottery, some more than a thousand years old. There were also other trinkets of Native society, such as knives and silver pendants. Many of the more valuable items had belonged to chiefs of the tribe who had died, or been killed, and had been left there as part of the burial. The outlaws sorted through some of the debris, but nothing was valuable enough to them to be worth taking. By the time they were through, the sun was painting the sky pink and orange in its final farewell of the day. They returned to the camp, still unaware of their stalker.
Back at camp, the four caught more fish and cooked them the same way as before, turning in as the last purple of sunset was fading. William again waited for them to fall asleep, then slipped in and took more gold from the chest.
William was again watching the camp at dawn. But as the sun was just peeking over the rim of the canyon, a boy of no more than twelve appeared from the pass in the wall. He noticed the strangers and disappeared into the grass just as they started to wake. Recognizing the boy as on of the elders' sons, William returned to his house to meet him.
When the boy arrived, there was already a bowl of meat stew prepared for him, and a stack of gold coins. The boy entered the cabin and greeted the man who was like one of his family. William soon learned that the rest of the tribe was but a day away, preparing for a ceremony to be held in order to bury a child that had died of sickness.
"Wandering Hawk, tell the tribe to wait until I come to them or there will be more dead. And I do not wish these strangers in my valley to harm our people. Now go. Take this gold from the white man, and use it to trade with the white man."
The boy shoved the coins in his haversack, and departed. When he had gone, William pulled a small piece of rawhide from a stack, and using a charred stick, wrote a message. When he was done, he took the rawhide and placed it on top of the chest of gold after taking another handful. He then retreated to his home until the shadows grew long.
Bridger had been sitting in his bush for only a short time when the outlaws came back. They immediately found the note, and Cal Scour read it aloud.
"It says 'I humbly request that ye leave by sundown, misters Brinks, Scour, Doors and Phillips. My people wish to use this valley for the funeral of a child and want only peace. There is another valley that is acceptable for your desire of concealment, unto which I have drawn a map. Sincerely, William Bridger.'"
"Who the hell is this William Bridger that he thinks he can tell us to leave?" Moe Phillips asked when Cal was done. Cal shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know, but he used old timey English. And he drew a passable map."
They all looked to Brinks, their leader.
"I say we ignore him. I ain't about to leave this valley for no damned Injun buryin'.
There were shouts of agreement, and the four went to sleep.
In the dark of the night, William sneaked into the camp again. This time, he crept up to each man and carved their last name into the toe of their boots with his knife. Then he took a handful of gold and left another note.
When the four awoke the next morning, Frank Doors was the first to notice the note on the chest, and the cuts in their boots.
"Hot damn!" he exclaimed. "This feller is good." Picking up the note, he read it aloud.
" 'Gentlemen, I could have easily killed you while you slept, yet I showed you great kindness in not doing so. Furthermore, I do not appreciate the disparaging comments you have made toward my people. They wish only peace and seclusion. I have again drawn a map to a sufficient vale to house you for several months. I again request you take your leave and relocate.'
"And it's signed 'W.B.' " Frank said at the end.
The others stared sullenly at the names on their toes for a while before Cal looked up.
"I vote we track this tricky bastard down and give him a good thumpin'." The others agreed, and they left with Colts in their hands, fanning across the valley to search.
When they were out of sight, William again entered their camp, this time taking the chest of gold and dragging it into the middle of the stream. There he stacked rock on top of it, the idea being that they understand that he could bury their gold without them ever knowing he was there, and they would never see it again.
Returning to the camp, Bridger tossed the onions they had gathered into the bushes and spread the ashes of the fire out, stomping the embers. Finally, he shooed the mule out into the middle of the valley. He then began his trip home. Walking to the edge of the valley, he entered a crack in the wall where the granite was being broken down by erosion in much the same way as the rock that had created his home. This hidden trail led right to his door.
After a meal of elk meat and wild herbs, William walked to his barn and gathered his mule before heading out again through the hidden trail. The mule was familiar with the narrow passage and followed his master faithfully until they were at the other end of the canyon. Here, William led the animal out through the pass and onto the sunny mountainside. There he picketed it and returned to the valley to begin taking his prey.
Bridger first found Moe Phillips who was poking around in the head high grass. Without so much as a blink, he drew his bow and shot the outlaw. Moe let out a strangled cry, clawing at the wooden shaft that protruded from his chest. Then he fell into unconsciousness. William strode forward, slung the limp body over his shoulder and carried the limp man back to the outlaw camp. Here he left Phillips with the arrow pointing skyward, and a note attached. That done, he took the Colt revolver from the bloody holster and fired a single shot into the dirt before tossing the weapon in the stream.
Nearing the other end of the valley, the other three outlaws heard the shot and returned to their camp at a run. Cal Scour got there first, and had read the note several times before the other two showed up.
"Damn this Bridger!" He exclaimed. "He done kilt Moe and run off with his gun."
"Not to mention stole our gold," Brinks added angrily. Doors was examining Phillips' body. Feeling the man's neck, he found a pulse.
"Moe's still alive," he said. The others walked over and looked at him. He was pale and his skin cold, but his chest pumped slowly and shallowly. And while the arrow had surely done damage, it was not in what was normally considered a lethal place. The three remaining outlaws were just regaining hope that their companion would survive when Phillips' eyes shot open and he let out a horrible scream.
Taken aback, Brinks, Doors and Scour all stepped back involuntarily. But as suddenly as he had awoken, Phillips slipped back into unconsciousness. Doors was feeling his brow for a fever when Moe Phillips twitched once, then died.
"Poison on the arrows," Doors remarked. The three stepped away from their dead friend and decided that their best course of action would be to go all the way to the other side of the canyon together, and see if they could find this stealthy man.
They left in single file, Brinks in front, followed by Doors, and Scour bringing up the rear. The grass was lower there, only about waist height, and their eyes scanned everything. William Bridger crawled through the brush at the base of the cliff on their right, listening to their every sound and making none of his own.
When they got to the tall grass, William crept closer, until he was but five feet away. Then he was directly behind them. Their pace had slowed in order to be able to navigate the foliage, and the noise they made was easily covering any he could make. Finally, he made his move.
One hand held Moe Phillips' handkerchief, the other his knife. With remarkable speed, he grabbed Cal Scour, sticking the handkerchief over both his mouth and nose which prevented him from both making noise and breathing. Then he dragged the man down into the grass and sliced his throat. Cal Scour died quickly and silently.
After he had wiped the knife on Scour's shirt sleeve, he took his Colt and fired a shot into the grass in the direction of the others. Then he ran off noiselessly. He tossed the Colt under a boulder and continued on ahead of the other two.
Brinks and Doors reached Scour's body within twenty seconds of the shot having been fired, and blood still flowed from the fresh wound.
"Frank, this feller is slick. One of us has to watch the back, and the other the front." Brinks whispered. Doors nodded and they stood. Brinks walked forward, breaking trail while Doors walked backward, watching behind. Neither of them knew that their adversary was already gone.
After two tense hours, the outlaws broke out of the tall grass and into the clearing that contained Bridger's home. They could not see the building because it was so well hidden in the wall of the mountain, but they saw the lake. Thirsty from their trek, they both headed for the sandy banks and the clear waters. There was only one tree on the shore of the lake, and they stopped in its shade. While Brinks knelt to drink, Doors kept watch. But he never saw the arrow.
Suddenly Brinks fell in the water, splashing a moment before clambering ashore. Where he had fallen, the water was stained red from blood. Looking down, he saw the broken shaft of an arrow poking from his thigh, and already he could feel the poison it carried flowing through his veins.
"The damned sonofa bitch shot me Frank!" he yelled, more scared than angry. Doors crept over from where he had taken cover behind a rock and examined the wound. It was clean, and had the arrow not been poisoned, Brinks would have had nothing but soreness to worry about. But looking at the way the blood was already clotting, he knew his companion was done for. Brinks saw the look in Doors' eyes and realized that he was dying. A wave of panic flashed through him, as he contemplated the thought of death. Then he resolved that he would at least get a shot at the man who was slowly killing him before he cashed in.
"Help me up, Frank."
William saw Brinks stand back up and the two outlaws begin to head his way. Carefully he worked his way up the side of the cliff until he was nearly one hundred feet up. From his vantage point he watched the two men start searching for his tracks, but he had a secret weapon. Pulling a series of stones from the hillside, he stomped on a pocket of shale and watched it cascade down into the valley. With a look of horror in his eyes, Brinks was overtaken in the landslide, smashed to oblivion by boulders. Frank Doors managed to escape, but he could now see William Bridger standing on the cliff face above him. Falling down behind a rock, he took aim with his pistol and fired.
William heard the shot ricochet off the granite wall about five feet away. Knowing that his prey was too far away to shoot a pistol with any accuracy, William picked his way down the mountain as lead tore the air around him. Finally he disappeared in the rubble of the landslide, and Doors lost his target.
Inside his house, William hung the bow on a root that poked out of the wall and retrieved his old rifle. It was the last gift he had ever received from his father. Taking up his possibles bag, the old man walked back out into the valley.
Frank Doors stayed behind his bush for several minutes before ducking back out into the grass. His heart was racing an he only had three shots left in his Colt. All the ammo on his belt had been used as he tried to shoot Bridger off of the mountain. Realizing his only chance of survival was to flee, he began running through the grass.
When he got back to the camp, Doors took a glance at Moe Phillips laying there. A thought entered his head and he holstered his gun and began rummaging through the dead man's pockets to see if he had anything valuable. Taking the only piece of gold Phillips had, Doors stood and headed for the pass in the wall. He hadn't taken three steps when a rifle barked and he was thrown to the ground. The bullet had hit his side, and the last thing he ever saw was William Bridger standing in a cloud of smoke, holding an old flintlock rifle.
As the smoke cleared, William lowered his rifle. The only thing that never changed about mankind, whatever their race, was the lust for money. This was one of the reasons for his isolation, he reflected. Leaning over, he picked up the note he had left on Phillips' body. The one that only Cal Scour had read. He had paid for his not sharing. Reading it himself one last time, Bridger tossed the rawhide in the stream and watched as the charcoal words washed away.
"I do not appreciate being cursed. Leave now or I will kill you all."
In the distance he heard a low humming, growing louder as it grew closer. Taking cover in the grass, one of the last mountain men watched a biplane fly overhead.
Several days later, a mule bearing a chest of gold wandered into an army fort. In the Chest was a rawhide square with the words "Lost Payroll. Returned by W.B." written in charcoal. Nobody would ever find the bodies of Del Brinks, Moe Phillips, Frank Doors or Cal Scour. There never would be an explanation of where a secluded band Flathead found one thousand dollars of freshly minted gold, either. Nor would anyone ever know of the hidden rock house in Deer Canyon, or the quiet old man who lived there. But one thing was certain: Deer Canyon would be silent for a long time to come.