Cleave grabbed the tin dipper from the water barrel and raised it to his lips. A trickle of coolness dribbled down his open shirt while he studied the stark horizon on his backtrail. The sagebrush flat disappeared in the distance, obscured by the heat mirages that blanketed the Alvord Desert. He was squinting to see if the dust cloud still followed. It was, and the distance had closed. Perhaps it was just another wagon full of settlers heading west like himself. Perhaps it was the sheriff of Ely, but he did not want to find out in the middle of an open desert.
A mile ahead lay some low sandhills. There, Cleave thought he might find a draw to hide in, or make a stand if need be. He still had the Sharps .50 caliber, a sawed-off 12-gauge and a skinning knife in his boot. He had always been good with a knife, perhaps too good. Cleave hung the dipper on the water barrel and picked up the short whip. Both oxen were resting in their yoke but lurched ahead when the bull whip cracked above their heads. Cleave glanced back at the trailing dust cloud and decided it was time to hurry.
"Hey up there, Blue, Shorty. Git up there," and the black whip cracked again in the still desert air.
The track was faint although wagons had used the trail in years past. It was well-marked with the remnants of campfires, discarded cans and empty bottles. Occasionally, there was a dresser or trunk some settler left behind to lighten the load. And there was one small grave. Two barrel staves had been lashed together to form a crude cross marking the lonely spot. The faint track led west towards the Cascade Mountains, hopefully to a place where Cleave was unknown.
Cleave was crossing the desert alone with just the two oxen for company. He had almost been married once, except he changed his mind when the girl's pa found the two of them in the hay loft without a stitch of clothing. That was the first time Cleave had to leave town in a hurry. He drifted from town to town after that, working at odd jobs and finally drifting into Ely. Along the way he learned how to drink, fight and gamble. He preyed on the weak, the gullible and the drunks, using his easy-going nature to get close to a man and lift his poke of gold. In Ely the pickings were easy whenever miners showed up and drank too much whiskey. But the scheme caught up with Cleave when he hit one miner in a back alley and killed the poor devil. Someone had seen the robbery and reported it to the sheriff.
Cleave wasted no time getting out of town. His horse pulled up lame and he just barely made it to a stage stop. He could not borrow or buy a horse from the stage master, but there was a pair of oxen and a small wagon. Smallpox had left the previous owners dead and buried, and the station master was glad to sell the outfit for twenty dollars in gold just to be shed of it. Cleave thought it would be a good alibi if anyone came looking for him.
"Hey up, you two. Git movin' there." Cleave was anxious to get into the security of the sandhills.
Cleave gulped hard when two riders galloped over a hill towards him. Now he was boxed in, no chance to hide or avoid a meeting. There was determination in these riders as they rode directly towards Cleave. Each wore leather chaps, dirty Stetsons, leather vests and checkered shirts. Both looked like cowboys but only the rider on the brown horse carried a rifle in a saddle scabbard. The other man—the one on the Appaloosa—carried a short, black gun across his saddle. When Cleave saw the white glint of metal on one man's chest, he knew they were lawmen looking for something. Cleave had an awful, sick feeling in his stomach and let the oxen slow their pace, and then stop. He edged closer to the side of the wagon and glanced at the seat where his own shotgun lay. He could reach it if and when the time came.
The two deputies rode up within twenty feet and stopped, never taking their eyes from Cleave-the-settler. They seemed tense and suspicious while Cleave leaned against the wagon within easy reach of his shotgun.
"Howdy. We're lookin' for some men with some stolen cattle. Seen anyone?" It was the big man on the Appaloosa who spoke. His voice betrayed the weariness of a long ride. The other deputy rode slowly around the back of the wagon, eyeing it suspiciously.
"Nah. Just me and my two ox, Blue and Shorty." Cleave was trying to watch the circling deputy and talk to the man with the shotgun across his saddle.
"Been on the trail long?" This time it was the circling deputy who spoke. Cleave half turned to face the man now sitting on his horse at the rear of the wagon. The deputy seemed to be extremely interested in the contents of the small wagon.
"Couple weeks. Come down the Snake and crossed over at Wieser."
"Where ya headin'?" asked the shotgun deputy. Cleave was getting nervous having to turn back and forth between the two men.
"Headin' for the Cascades and the Willamette Valley. Find me a farm and settle down."
"All by yourself? No family? No wagon train?" The second deputy was still asking questions but did not even look at Cleave while he stared into the wagon. He was a small man but the Colt that hung on his hip made him anyone's equal. It had been well-used judging from the well-oiled holster.
"Wife died a couple weeks ago. Buried her in Wieser." Cleave casually stretched his arm towards the shotgun on the seat of the wagon.
"Hold it right there, mister!"
Cleave never hesitated and grabbed for the 12-gauge. Whatever was bothering the deputies had boiled to a head. Cleave was lifting the gun from the seat when the first bullet hit him in the back below the ribs. Cleave gasped but continued to lift the shotgun and cock the hammers. A second bullet grazed his shoulder as he whirled towards the deputy on the Appaloosa.
When the third bullet hit Cleave in the forearm, he jerked the triggers of the 12-gauge and fired harmlessly into the air. He spun to the ground and lay sprawled in the dirt as the second deputy leaped from his horse and stood over him with his .45 pointed at Cleave. The deputy on the Appaloosa finally got his horse under control and sat there dumbly looking at the scene.
"What the hell, Jake? What was that all about?"
Jake never took his eyes off Cleave, watching the man bleed to death on the ground. "Go look in the back of the wagon."
The big deputy rode over and looked inside. His eyes grew wide when he recognized the running iron in the back of the wagon. "Well I'll be . . . You're right, Jake. Looks like we caught us a rustler. He's got to be the one who's been changing the brands."
The deputy reached into the wagon and pulled out a steel branding iron that a skilled rustler could use to change horse and cattle brands to suit himself. "Mighty nice piece of iron at that."
Cleave was listening but growing weaker as the blood seeped out of his body and into the sand. He had wondered what that peculiar black iron in the back of the wagon was, and now he finally knew.