Horse crippled. He looks 360 round the horizon. Nowhere to go he can't be tracked. Tips his hat back. Scratches at the two-day beard. Sighs.
Might jes as well chew that chaw I was savin. What the hell. What else?
Thinks: If this is it, guess I might regret a few things. That whore I never took upstairs at Sadie's. Still owe Brad sixty dollars. Caint do much bout that now.
Damn, this is good chaw. Ever git outta this, never gonna chew nuthin else. Life's too short for bad chaw. Damn! Never got to see California . . . What the hell.
He steps back into the shack. For the third time he unloads and reloads his rifle and his colt. For the third time, counts the reloads, mutters to himself: left pockets rifle, right pockets colt. Looks around the shack again, taking stock: table, chair, empty shelf, water bucket, shovel. One door, one busted window. Shakes his head. Spits again.
How did he let himself get into this trap? He had a good lead. Cut across this open range.
Two more hours, I'd a been in the canyons, I'd a lost em. Dammit, got cocky. Didn't think two steps ahead. Not thinkin what could go wrong, an that's when they always do.
Horse pulled up lame. Two hours became five. Here he was at this shack. Sandy soil for miles every direction. His grandma could follow the track. He'd still be miles from the canyons when they caught up. In the open, no cover, easily surrounded. No way was he letting them take him back! Public trial? No chance it'd be fair. Then a public hanging.
No thank you. Die out here first.
He'd already expended all his repertoire of cusses, first on the horse, then himself. Now he was stuck here, outta luck.
Earlier that morning, after the shootout, several times he'd circled back, waited on his back trail, fired shots over their heads, sending them scrambling, slowing them down. Wishes he had those bullets back now. Seven riders. Woulda been tough pickin em off. Too many to stand an fight. Besides, he had no stomach for more killing. Not less he had to. What a mess. They'd be going slow, at least, maybe three hours before they caught up.
Dried up waterhole. Abandoned pony express relay station, no more than a shack. His horse, no fool, rests in the shade the east wall of the shack gives from the afternoon sun. From under the overhang of what passes for a porch, he surveys the horizon again. Nothing to see, just rocks, bare sand, here and there some patches of grass, some mesquite. One big bush about fifty yards out. Nothing to do but wait.
Damn. I aint ready to die.
Not here an not out there tryin to reach the canyons on foot. Goddammit! Must be sumthin! Think!
He takes inventory again: The shack, his guns, saddlebags.
Something. Anything. Gotta be sumthin . . .
His eyes, still studying the land, keep coming back to that big mesquite bush fifty yards out. Then it all falls into place and he sees it clearly, his chance:
hole in floor
trails leadin away
brush away tracks
Jes maybe. Better'n doin nuthin! Got maybe three hours. Better git started.
He walks back into the shack, picks up the shovel. Walks out to that big mesquite bush, starts chopping at its roots. A loud buzzing sound.
Whoa. Rattler. He lifts up the lowest branches with the shovel. Yep. There she is. A big un. Hey sweetheart! Yer gonna help me out!
Putting down the shovel, he walks back to where his horse stands patiently in the shadows. Opening a saddlebag, he pulls out a shirt. Knots bottom and sleeves. Back at the bush, he pins the snake down with the shovel handle, grasps it behind its head. Lifts it up, lowers it into the open shirt neck. With the snake inside, he carries his makeshift bag by the shirtneck back to the shack, hangs it on a hook on the back of the door. He watches for a minute. The squirming bulge eventually calms down.
Back to the bush. He cuts the roots, digs it up, puts it aside.
Tall as a man, jes as wide. Yep. Might work. Sandy soil, easy to dig. Carefully he piles the dirt, one side of the hole.
Damn, that sun is hot!
Finally, deep enough, long enough, wide enough. He squats down in the hole.
Tight, but not so's a man caint deal with it.
From here, he'll be looking at the shack and a little either side, including the false trails he figures to make.
Gotta keep movin.
In the shack, he finds a warped floorboard, one end sticking up above the floor. Using the shovel as a crowbar, he pries it up, takes it outside. Old dry wood, it'll splinter some, break easy. Using the side of the shovel as an ax, he breaks the board into four sections. At the hole, he wedges them either side, enough space between to settle into, shovels dirt between them and the outside of the hole. More boards needed for back and over the hole. Back in the shack, he considers. More floorboards? Way it is now, a man could squeeze through, go under the floor. No reason to pull up another. Walking to the back, he swings the shovel hard against the wall boards. A few more swings, boards start coming loose. He drops the shovel, kicks at the loose boards. One, another, a third falls out. He picks up the shovel, steps through the opening. stands over the three boards, measuring them by eye. Two, long as a man, one a bit longer. OK. Three from the long board for the back, two each from the other two for over head. Put em in place, shovel dirt back in behind and over.
A little later, he regards his handiwork. On hands and knees, backs in, sits. From here, got the shack, fifty feet either side in his sights. He drags the bush over, covers the hole. Walks around it. OK. He frowns at the pile of leftover dirt. Different look than the ground around the hole. Back to the shack for the bucket. Each bucketful down the hole in the floor until he's done. Last bucketful, he takes the shovel with him. On his knees, he reaches through the opening in the floorboards, pushes the dirt back in under the floor, out of sight. Next he throws the bucket and shovel back under. Now, some confusion. First the table. Flipped and dragged, it almost covers the hole. Next he pulls down the shelf, uses it to cover most of the busted window. Like someone holed up inside would do.
Now, outside. Got all those tracks back an forth. From behind his saddle, he unties, takes down, unrolls his trail blanket. Starting at the hole, he makes his way backwards to the shack, working the blanket like a big broom, obliterating the footprints. Satisfied, he shakes it out, rolls, ties it again back of the saddle.
Sorry, fella. He swings up into the saddle. Gotta put you t' work.
Round the shack again and again, spiraling outward, ten yards past the hideyhole, then back, forth, in, out, every direction. Hoofprints everywhere.
Now some false trails. He looks at the sun in the west, calculates. Maybe another hour. Goes inside for rifle and canteen. Could be he figured wrong. Never know. Might need them. Could be they arrive sooner. He slides the rifle back in its scabbard, slings the canteen over the saddle horn. He strikes out to one side of the shack. Staying line of sight with the big mesquite bush, he moves away. Several hundred yards out, he dismounts. Drops reins.
Good boy. Don't move now.
Another hundred yards, walking. There's a piece of luck. A gully, hard pan, difficult to track a man on. He walks down into it, then another twenty paces. Far enough. Walking backwards now, in between the prints made walking out, he uses his hands to brush away his backward steps, back to the horse. He carefully steps into the two footprints he made getting down. Saddled again, he pats the horse.
Yer a good fella. Jes a little more.
Making a wide turn, he comes back in behind the shack, until the horse's hoofprints merge with the others around the shack. Out again, other side of the shack, he does the same, going wide the other way, to come back in the same trail behind the shack.
He knows his horse is in bad shape. Lameness worse. Suffering from the sun, the heat. He lifts its head, pours some precious water from his canteen into its mouth.
OK, fella. Almost done.
He unties and unrolls the blanket, flips it up onto the low roof, one corner over the edge. Something else for them to puzzle over. What else? He dismounts at the porch, leaving no footprints on the ground. Inside, his eyes light on the chair. He chuckles.
What the hell. Might as well have some fun. Holding the chair, he hops on one leg from the porch, sets it down facing the porch, hops back on the other leg. That'll have em scratchin their heads.
Now my new sweetheart.
Inside, he unhooks the shirt, holding it at arm's length by the shirt collar. Gingerly he remounts as the bag's contents begin to stir. He feels his horse tense up as the buzzing starts.
Easy, boy, easy. Don't you spook on me now.
He waits until the rattling stops.
Spiraling out from the shack, they come to the hole on the fifth time around. Just at the entrance, still holding the shirt bag away to the side, he swings down. This time, he doesn't drop the reins, leaving them on the saddle horn. He unslings the canteen, lays it down. He unsheathes the rifle, leans it against the bush. Still holding the shirtbag out away, he rests its weight for a moment on the ground. Gently with his free hand, he pulls the horse's head over against his own.
Y'done all a man could ask. Gotta apologize, all that cussin. Not yer fault.
Moving back, he reaches over, slaps its rump.
Now git some rest!
The horse limps away to the shaded east side of the shack.
He moves the bush, enough to crawl in backwards, shirt bag still at arm's length, rifle in other hand. In the hole, he sets the rifle down, reaches out, brings in the canteen. He smoothes over the footprints at the entrance with one hand, the other still occupied with the shirt holding the snake. He pulls the bush over his hideout, shrugs the snake out of the shirt. It wriggles into the shade of the bush, coils up just past the entrance. He pulls the shirt in, unknots, folds it, rests the rifle on it, just inside.
OK. Let em come.
It's hard going, getting out his chaw. Damn! Mighty confined in here. Wish I'd a thought to put it in my shirt pocket. Not that back pocket where he'd stuck it. Finally he digs it out. Almost broke a sweat. He settles into it, working up some juice, spits carefully left at the boards.
Lotsa ifs. If they don't figure it out. If they come in, don't find him, leave. If he can hide out until nightfall, new moon, just stars, might maybe make it to the canyons unseen. They'll leave his lame horse behind. Slow em down. He hopes coming back they'll take it with them. Just so's they don't shoot im.
Twenty minutes, a half hour. Horses somewhere behind him to the left, on his trail, as expected. A man calls out to the shack. Sounds long off, long range, even for a rifle. He hears hooves. Sounds like a single horse making a wide circle. Smart. He sees horse and rider left side of the shack, far off. Yep. Rider's yellin. They hit the false trail. He hears more horses, sees them ride over, still giving the shack a wide berth. Excited voices, then four ride off down the trail. Three stay behind and dismount, watching the shack. He looks over to where his horse stands in the shadows. They aint seen you yet, pal.
After a few minutes, he sees the four returning, but from behind the shack. Damn! Sure didn't take em long! Guess the foot trail didn't fool em. Least ways, horsetracks everywhere now. Shortly, all ride out of sight behind the house. Maybe now they're looking at the trail leading back in. Minutes pass. They reappear the other side. Coming across the other trail out, only two ride off, this time returning quickly. He's disappointed. Hoped for more. Not a good sign.
Now they approach closer and stop. Still a tough shot, even with a good rifle. They dismount and gather, keeping the horses between them and the shack. Voices too far to make out what they're saying.
One approaches the shack from behind the cover of his horse. The rest stay back. Horse and man stop seventy-five yards out. Safe from anyone in the shack, but not from here. He turns his head, carefully spits. Could pick him off. But then what?
The man shouts: "We know you're in there. You got nowhere to go. Tough luck, the horse."
Damn! They knew his horse was lame. Saw right through the false trails. He shakes his head, turns, spits again. Gotta be a tracker!
"Come out now, an we won't shoot. No way to fight yer way outta here. You aint got a chance. Standin trial's better'n gettin shot down like a dog."
Silence. Then, "Suit yerself. We ain't gonna wait for dark, so's you can sneak on outta there."
The man turns, yells to the others, "Come on, boys, like we planned."
Addressing the shack again, the man yells, "Start shootin, don't care you shoot one a us or not, you aint gonna die easy!"
He watches the others saddle up, spreading out to encircle the shack. Three move out of sight behind him. The ones he can still see begin coming in, walking their horses, using them for cover. The same distance out as the first, they all stop. He knows the three he can't see must be doing the same. "Last chance!" the first man yells. A short wait. Then, "OK, boys!"
He marks their weapons, their outfits, the four he can see. That first un now, givin orders. Town-dressed, but nuthin fancy. Maybe sheriff. Left an right, coupla cowpokes. All three, rifles over saddles, pointed at the shack. The other on the left, town clothes, pistol. Lookin mighty antsy. Comes to a shootout, he's last.
They start angling in left to right. He hears a horse coming up from the left behind him. He sees the last two, left and right now. Two more cowboys, two more rifles. Whoa! He looks again at the one on the right, half-hidden behind his pinto. Halfbreed! Gotta be the tracker! Maybe a Paiute?
Just to his left, the last horse and man move into view in front of him, so close he catches his breath. Short. Pudgy. Suit pants, fancy shirt soaked with sweat. No cowboy. Card dealer or piano player, more like it. Face white as his shirt. Barely able to reach over the saddle seat with his pistol, hand shaking so hard. Only a few feet away . . .
A poke with the rifle barrel, thinking better of it soon as he does it. The rattler, still coiled up under the bush outside the entrance, shakes its rattles. The horse spooks. The man fires wildly at the bush, but the shots go wide. Suddenly shots from all sides at the shack, some going high, zipping past shooters on the other side. More shots. Yelling. More. Finally: "Goddamit! Cease fire!" From the fellow who was maybe the sheriff. Silence. "Anyone shot? No? Can someone tell me what damn fool shot first? I know it didn't come from in there!"
"Me, sheriff. Snake! Sorry!" From the fellow directly in front of him now, still struggling to rein in his jumpy horse.
"Goddamit, Charles! Everybody reload! Don't shoot 'less you see that sonovabitch. Fer godsake, don't shoot each other!"
Shakes his head. Fool thing to do. Stupid. Coulda been found out. Lucky that tinhorn caint shoot straight. Took an awful chance. Coulda just got the drop on the fool, took his horse an took off. Let em chase me to the canyons! Mighta made it.
He marks how the Paiute was the only one who didn't panic, didn't shoot.
Smart injun. Don't waste a bullet. Gotta worry bout you.
All he can do now is sit and watch. Seems like forever, but they finally get to the shack, send the Paiute inside. He comes out, shakes his head. Two stand outside while the others go in. They'll be checking under the floorboards, probably have the Paiute crawl below looking for him. Outside again, and one is pointing at the blanket, pulling it down. They're walking all around. Good! Muddy the waters! But that damn Paiute picks out his footprints, following them out to the chair and back. Gesturing to the sheriff. Now hopping out to the chair on one foot, hopping back on the other. More gestures. All of them standing around now. Have to chuckle at that.
He considers his chances. Shoot the Paiute first, maybe the sheriff an a cowboy next, fore they take cover. Shoot
any that go fer the horses. Then shoot the horses, 'cept one 'sides his own. Ferget the tinhorn and other town fella
an their pistols. Leaves jes one, two others t' worry bout. Sundown comin soon, odds're good I git outta this.
He considers it. Considers the killing he'd have to do. Lord knows I don't like killin. Not hosses. Not people.
One thing killin when you got no choice. Reckon this time I still got a choice.
No, he'd sit tight. Bide his time. Wait. Hope for the best.
The sheriff is gesturing, pointing to different men. They saddle up, except the Paiute. Guess he's gonna look around some more. The six others ride off in pairs spiraling out from the shack, looking for sign. How long before they return? The Indian walks his pinto over to join the other horse in the shade. Watching the Paiute, he nods approvingly, turns his head and spits again. A good horse, that pinto. More than he had hoped for.
Rifle in hand, the Paiute walks around the shack for several minutes, studying the ground. He steps up on the porch, then inside. After a few minutes, he comes out, walks out to the chair, sits, rifle across his lap, facing the shack.
Good. Others maybe a good mile away now.
The Paiute stands, slowly turns, cataloguing every detail in the landscape. He stops turning. Stares at the mesquite bush, maybe figures it out. Too late. Even from fifty yards, he hears the hammer click. Just the slightest movement in the bush, but now he sees the glint of the rifle barrel protruding from the bottom branches, pointing straight at him.
"Move a goddam inch an yer dead. Y' hear me?" A nod. No fear in his face or frame, but the Paiute remains motionless. "Do what I say an maybe I don't shoot you an ride off on yer horse right now. Drop the rifle." He does. "Turn around." He does. "Now get up on that chair." He does. "Stay like that. Do sumthin I don't like, I shoot you dead. Nod yer head, so I know you got all that!" He does. "OK, then."
One eye on the Indian, he pokes the rifle barrel at the snake. It rattles.
He pokes again. Reluctantly it uncoils, moving away from the shelter of the
bush. He crawls out, canteen and shirt in left hand, rifle butt tucked under his right arm, hand cradling the trigger guard. He stands. Stretches. Takes a deep breath. Turns his head and spits. Shifts the rifle, tucks it under his left arm, takes out his colt.
"I'm comin over. You stay up there. OK? Nod." He does.
He keeps a bead on the Paiute all the while it takes to get the dropped rifle. Has him take the chair out another fifty feet from the shack, far from any cover, and stand on it again facing away. He checks out the saddle on the pinto. It'll do. In short order, he has his own saddle bags on the pinto, his rifle scabbard tied down alongside the Indian's, both rifles sheathed, the blanket that had been lying in the dirt, now shaken out, rolled and tied behind the saddle.
Before swinging up, he warns the Paiute: "This hoss gives me any trouble, I won't think twice bout shootin you, so don't try nuthin. OK? Nod." The Paiute has remained motionless and silent the entire time. He nods again.
Saddled, he walks the Paiute a mile out toward the canyons, following on the pinto. Finally he tells him to stop. The Paiute stops, waits. He takes the horse wide around and then turns to face the Indian, who remains motionless. He leans down. "I don't aim t' shoot you. An not jes cuz they'd hear it. I seen you before. Got yer own place outside of town. Nice little valley. Be obliged fer the loan of yer hoss an rifle. Ain't no thief. Jes mean to borrow em fer a while. Now that hoss back there at the shack, he's a good hoss. Jes needs care an rest. You take care of him, fix im up. I'll be back, an we'll trade. You'll git yers back. Saddle, rifle too. I find y'ain't got my hoss no more, spect I'll keep yourn. You keep quiet now. Start hollerin so's they come ridin back in fore I git clear, fer sure I will come back an shoot you. Don't want that. Won't do it less'n I have to. We clear on this?" The Paiute nods. "Wal, alright then. When yer friends come back, tell 'em how I coulda shot you dead, or tied you up an put a knife to you. Coulda shot any of you back there or back on the trail. Got nuthin against you. Nuthin against them. You tell em to go home. Track me, by god, I'll kill you soon as spit. Tell 'em they follow, I kill whoever's ridin point. An if they still wanna follow, I kill the next. OK? You tell 'em. Nod yes." The Paiute nods.
He straightens up, and moves off at a trot, looking back now and then over his shoulder. The Paiute never moves. Finally, he goes over a rise, and looking back a last time, no longer sees the Indian.
He clucks, almost spurs the pinto, thinks better of it. Paiute had no spurs. He clucks again, leaning forward, pressing in with his knees. The pinto breaks into a gallop. He puts a few more miles between him and the shack, then slows to a trot again. He calculates two hours or less to the canyons, another hour into them before he can safely rest.
Glad it worked out. Enough killing that morning. No choice. But it still weighs on him hard. Weeks or months before he gets his head round what he'd done that morning. He tells himself again: No choice.
The next few days, he circles back at intervals, watches his backtrail. No one. He heads west.
Next year, come back, git my hoss. Nobody lookin fer me by then. Fer now, gotta put some miles between me an trouble. Maybe I'll git t' see California after all.