Taza Rico urged the plodding mule up the steep switchback trail that led to the top of the Mogollon Rim. Emerging on a flat sheet of rock he rode a few yards away from the Rim edge, stepped down and loosened the saddle. The sturdy grey jackass wheezed and blew, seemingly realizing his day's labor was completed.
* * *
Rico cradled his rifle over his arm, and walked back toward the precipice of the Rim. Knowing that the silhouette of a man could be seen against the clear sky from the valley below, he knelt and crawled to the edge and peered into the dark green valley below. The narrow ribbon of the path he had ridden twisted between rock outcroppings, scrub pines and chaparral that somehow clung to the steep sides of the trail. In spots, the footing became treacherous with loose fallen stones and occasional washouts that narrowed the route to two feet or less.
Seeing no rider or rising dust Taza smiled.
"Climbin' that Rim trail is a mule's job," he said. "Too steep . . . too dangerous . . . not fit for a man on horseback. Ol' Sergeant Torre will have to ride ten miles east to the gradual slopes or else give up and go back to Fort Apache."
Leading the mule, Rico walked straight north until he came to the rutty path local ranchers named General Crook's Trail. A half-mile down the road he found the crude cabin used occasionally by Crook or his troopers. The one room log structure sat tucked in an opening between two tall pines. He continued about a mile beyond the cabin and stopped in a stand of oak trees. After securing the mule, he took three strips of jerky and the whiskey bottle from the saddle bags. Sitting cross-legged on a bed of leaves he ate and relaxed with swigs from the bottle. He would bed down here, hidden, but where he could climb a tree to get a glimpse of the cabin.
If things went as planned Johana would meet him tomorrow night.
As the bugle sounded wake-up-call Sergeant Chet Torre and Scout Max Hand were already in the saddle and beginning to slowly follow the tracks of Taza Rico.
* * *
"You should have thrown him into the guard house when he first came here yesterday," said Max.
"He always comes snooping around Fort Apache. His Pa used to bring him around here when he was only ten or so," said the Sergeant, "Just 'cause Rico has a reputation as a sneaky thief don't hold up with Old Wolf General Crook.
"Yeah, but then he robbed Paymaster Roth and knifed him," said Max.
"He only got a small cut on his hand when Rico made a grab for the money in the cash box. Roth was a fool to risk his life for a lousy three hundred . . . And Rico? He never stole anything at Fort Apache before."
"Maybe so, but now we gotta chase him down," said Max.
"You just do your job and track him, and I'll do mine if'n we catch him," said Torre.
They rode on for several more miles before Max pulled up. He pointed ahead to a thick clump of Junipers. "Something moved in there."
They entered the grove with pistols drawn.
"There's his horse," said Max.
The small roan was staked down and casually looked up at the two men before she resumed grazing.
Chet frowned. "That Breed is one smart outlaw. He had a relay horse hidden in here."
Max dismounted and went to one knee. "That's what I thought at first, but tweren't no horse. By the size of these prints I believe he mounted a mule." He stood and pointed to the north. "He's headed toward the Rim."
Max led Rico's horse and the two troopers followed the tracks that headed straight toward the Mogollon Rim,
Max was quiet, deep in thought. "What makes a man like Taza Rico? Where did he lose any sense of right and wrong? If'n you ask me he's on the road to become a second Cassadore."
"Rico knows right from wrong, and he's no Cassadore," said Chet. "Cassadore is a renegade Navaho and a flat-out killer. Don't care to tangle with him. But Rico? He's just a kid mad at the world."
"What's stuck in his craw?"
"Well, his Pa was an Irish trooper at Fort Whipple. He died from the flu there four or five years ago. His mother an Apache. As a Breed, he was not welcome in either society. The Navaho accept him only because he's a good shot and brings them deer and elk meat. That'll be where he is headed because they'll hide him. We better catch him before he gets there. He probably took the mule to scale one of those Indian foot paths that run up to the top of the Rim."
The outlaw's tracks led to the base of a steep trail that hugged the side of a sheer cliff. A narrow cut wound up the sharp rise in a zig-zag fashion.
Torre's tracking friend studied the scary pathway and shook his head. "Looks like we turn back, or go ten miles around toward the Show Low settlement. There's easier trails to the top of the Mogollon Rim over that way.
Max looked up to the top of the mile high Rim, "Horses will slip and spook and might throw you on a trail like that. Mules are sure-footed, ain't fearful. Rico may have . . . and I say . . . may have . . . made it to the top ridin' a mule."
Chet thought for a moment. "We can't take the time to go around. I'm going to try this trail on foot."
"It's gonna take you a full day or more to get to the top . . . that is if you don't fall and get yourself killed."
"Thanks for the encouragement," said Chet. As he dismounted he added, "You take the horses and go around. When I get to the top I'll try to pick up his tracks. He'll probably head west along General Crook's trail. Meet me at Crook's cabin. Go as fast as you can. Change off between the three horses to keep 'em fresh."
"You ain't gonna start now are you? It'll be too dark to see where you're stepin'."
Chet nodded, "You go on ahead now. I'll camp here and head out at first light."
Max leaned out of the saddle and grabbed the reins of Chet's horse. "I'll hurry," he yelled as he galloped away from the setting sun. A tireless tracker, Max could ride for days with little rest.
Rico stayed hidden until mid-afternoon before he saddled the mule. He walked him slowly toward the General Crook cabin. At short intervals, he stopped and stood quietly, listening and watching for any sudden flapping wings of disturbed birds or clanking of an approaching army patrol.
* * *
About thirty paces from the cabin he slipped behind a large rock that jutted out into his path. Dismounting, he muffled the mule with his left hand, and again, listened for any unusual sound. He waited.
Suddenly the mule's ears perked up and Rico knew a rider was approaching. He peaked around the boulder and broke into a smile when he glimpsed a pinto pony emerging from the pines.
Johana wore a leather riding skirt and a pale blue blouse that was held in place at her waist by a shiny silver Concho belt. A bright red scarf held the Navaho beauty's raven hair away from her face. Smiling chocolate-brown eyes greeted him.
The pony stopped abruptly and Rico walked quickly toward her. Johana swung from the saddle and rushed to his embrace.
"My beautiful Johana. I knew you'd be here before sunset. We rest tonight and then we go to California," he said. "I have over three hundred dollars."
Johana leaned wearily on Rico's arm. He felt her stiffen. "You didn't change your mind did you?" he asked.
"No," she whispered. "But I am not alone. Old Chief Manuelito knows you went for white man's money and suspected we might run off so he sent Cassadore with me."
"Cassadore? No! That cold-blooded butcher hates me." Quietly he continued. "I thought Manuelito considered me an adopted Navaho."
"That wise old Chief seems to read minds. Cassadore is watching us from back there in the pines. He'll kill us both if we try to run away."
Rico's shoulders sagged and he spoke in a low determined tone. "I'm not going back," he said. Then he slowly removed his hat and shook his head. "I am not Apache. I am not white man, and now, not Navaho. I only have you."
Johana frowned, "What will we do? Cassadore is wild and dangerous."
Rico nodded. "I know. The Territory has a price on him . . . alive or dead."
The couple turned and watched Cassadore ride silently out of the pines. The huge lone eagle feather he was known to wear, stuck straight up from his beaded head-band and gave him a look of evil grandeur. He stopped, threw one leg over his horse's neck and slid from the saddle. The tall bronze-skinned man who never smiled, fixed his black-eyed stare on Rico. "Have you got money?" he asked.
Rico pulled the greenbacks from his leather vest pocket.
Cassadore snatched the money and stuffed it into the pouch tied around his waist. "We take this to Manuelito.
"Hmph" he grunted, then looked at the rifle lashed to Rico's saddle horn. "Keep your rifle loaded," he said. "Blue Coats ride here . . . near the Rim."
"They're after me too. I stabbed a soldier when I took the money," said Rico
Cassadore pointed north and looked at the couple without apparent emotion. "We ride away from this cabin. Then we camp." He turned and rode to the edge of the tall pines, his rifle, ever-ready, in his right hand.
Taza Rico helped Johana onto the Pinto, then quietly pondered the situation as he mounted the mule. "Sergeant Torre is at least two days behind me. He had to ride around to the slopes near Show Low."
Cassadore glanced back at the couple. Half hidden in the trees he waited.
Rico mounted and rode close to Johana. "I might have to kill him," he whispered.
Johana read his tight face and did not reply.
The trio headed north.
Chet Torre slowly trudged up the Rim trail used by Rico. On the switchback turns he hugged the canyon wall staying as far as possible away from the edge. After an occasional peak downward, he muttered, "Torre, yer a damn fool." Lengthening shadows and ebbing heat told him the sun would set in an hour or two.
* * *
As he approached the top, he grabbed the trunk of a small bush with his left hand to pull himself up a sharp incline. The root gave way. Almost losing his rifle, he slid downward on his stomach, until his boots hit a sharp rock. The sudden stop sent a lightening stab of pain into his left ankle. He righted himself and climbed upward again, finally hobbling to the top of the Mogollon Rim.
He gasped for breath in the thin mountain air as he sat on the flat rock near the edge. Painfully, he removed his left boot. The ankle was moveable but swelling. He stood, and using his rifle as a crutch hobbled to a short stump. Looking to his left he could see the setting sun casting streaks of golden light between the trees. The soft whisper of a slight breeze whistling through the pines was the only sound.
"I gotta get to Crook's cabin," he thought. "I know Max. He'll ride hard . . . probably be there before sun up if the moon stays bright. I doubt if he will be earlier. If I'm not there he'll think I never made it to the top."
Using his yellow bandana, he wrapped a tight bandage around the injured ankle, then tied the boot to his belt. He figured the cabin would be about a half mile north. Painfully he shuffled forward.
Chet had been to the cabin twice before leading patrols. Crook's Trail ran parallel to the edge of the Rim, perhaps a half mile from it. He limped due north knowing he would cross the road that led to the cabin.
The first glimpse of the small log structure sent a sigh of relief to the pain-wracked Sergeant. He stumbled toward the front step. About ten yards from the porch he leaned against a pine to rest. Looking at the ground before him he saw the tracks. He couldn't be certain, but they appeared to him to be the tracks of Rico's mule. He made a mental note of the spot.
Sitting on the rough planked porch, he used his shirt sleeve to wipe the burning sweat from his eyes. Looking toward the east and seeing a full moon rising prompted a smile. "Good clear light," he thought. "Max may be here early."
The one room cabin held a table, two chairs and an army cot. Chet hopped his way to the cot and reclined. Despite the throbbing in his ankle, exhaustion overtook him and he soon drifted into fitful sleep.
Cassadore led Rico and Johana north at a slow pace. He continually changed his position; at times riding with the couple, sometimes disappearing into the pines, but always within eyesight of Rico. A mile from the cabin, he reined in and dismounted near a small stream. "We camp here," he said.
* * *
Rico desperately wanted to take Johana and flee, but that would be foolish and probably fatal. Obedient to the command, he dismounted and helped Johana lay out bed blankets near the trunk of a fallen pine. Cassadore watched the couple for a minute then sat on the downed pine only a few feet away.
Rico went to unsaddle the mule, thinking that he may be able to quietly untie his long gun from the saddle horn.
Cassadore casually repositioned his rifle across his lap. "No!" he commanded. "Leave mounts saddled. And no fire; Blue Coats may be about." Then he rose and walked a few yards to the side and hid himself in the shadowy forest.
Rico glanced at Johana who slowly shook her head. "Come Taza, lay down beside me. We need sleep."
"What was that?" Chet heard rapid soft footsteps. Then more similar noises.
* * *
He drew his forty-four Army-issue Colt, ignored the pain in his ankle and crawled to a small rear window. Rising slowly, he peeked out. The footsteps multiplied and became louder. Then he saw them. A herd of ten or twelve female Elk came thundering through the woods within ten feet of the cabin.
"Damn fool," he scolded himself. "Now I'm spooked by Elk."
Now fully awake, he sat on the edge of the cot and drew a cigar from his coat pocket. He lit the stogie and drew in the sweet aroma of tobacco to relax.
The rumbling of hooves occurred again. Listening carefully he drew the Colt and pointed it at the front door. He chose to sit and not raise himself off the cot for another painful crawl to the window.
"Chet . . . Chet are you here?"
The Sergeant grinned as the door opened. "I'm here . . . I'm here . . . with one good leg." He pointed at his foot. "Slid a bit and landed wrong; but I can ride."
"You sure?" Max asked.
"Let's go, the night is bright."
Chet pointed to the area where he had noticed the hoof prints. Max quickly confirmed that they were on the right trail. "Those are definitely marks from Rico's mule and they are fresh."
The high mountain moon helped Max follow the tracks. He walked slowly and silently occasionally kneeling to read the sign. Chet rode, but used only the right stirrup. The pain eased slightly if he took pressure off his injured ankle by letting his leg hang along the side of the saddle.
After nearly a mile, Max raised his right hand and stopped. A few paces ahead he pointed at unusual shadows on the ground next to a fallen pine. Chet watched him closely as Max nodded toward the shadows. Both men drew pistols.
"Rico! Stand and raise your hands," shouted Chet.
"Crack!" The sound of a rifle shot came from the darkness. Startled, Chet's mount reared and lacking the stability of one stirrup he fell to the ground. Max lay next to him bleeding from a wound in his right shoulder.
Chet rolled to a sitting position and saw Rico standing near his mule. A woman stood beside him. He had seen no flash from a gunshot. Rico's rifle was tied to the mule's saddle. Where did the shot come from?
In less than a minute he had the answer. A tall man left the shadows of the brush and rapidly advanced toward the two fallen troopers. Framed in the full yellow moon Chet saw the man's head adorned by a long lone eagle feather. Cassadore!
Lying on his back, Chet swung his pistol to his right, but a long-legged moccasin kicked his arm and the Army Colt went flying.
Cassadore sneered and cursed with hate. With deliberate determination, he aimed his rifle point blank at Chet's forehead. "Prepare to die, Blue Coat!"
The roar of another rifle pierced the night air. With a jerk, Cassadore's head snapped forward and his eyes went large. A bloody hole appeared on his forehead, and he fell to the ground
Chet crawled toward his gun and rolled to a sitting position. He turned toward Rico.
"Wait!" came a shout. "I won't shoot . . . Johana and I will go back with you."
Chet rose and limped to his friend. Max forced a smile "Looks like the bullet went clean through."
Rico walked to Cassadore. "He's dead." Then he yanked the money from the pouch and handed it to Chet.
Seeing the battle complete, Johana ran to Max and used her scarf to wrap his wound.
Chet nodded toward Johana. "What is she doing here?"
Rico grinned sheepishly. "We planned to run off to California. That's why I stole that money." Then he shook his head and frowned. "I don't know what to do now. I have no money. I can't go to the Navaho. The Apache won't have me and I'm wanted at Fort Apache."
A wide grin broke across the Sergeant's weathered face. "You can still go to California. You just earned a two-thousand-dollar reward for killing Cassadore. Max needs to get mended and we will ride with you to Fort Whipple. I'll make certain you get the money.