The bounty hunter was working his way down an old trail that crossed the Big Belt Mountains. A few generations ago, Blackfeet raiders had used the trail to raid Shoshone and Nez Perce hunting camps along the Missouri River headwaters. Over the years, the bounty hunter had used the all-but-forgotten route a few times to hunt raiders of a different kind.
* * *
The bounty hunter had first learned about the trail years ago trailing an old scout who had learned about it from an old Blackfoot Indian. After the Nez Perce wars were over, the old scout had taken to bank robbing to make a living. For a while, the old scout had done well hitting banks in Helena and Diamond City and Butte before disappearing into the Big Belts.
With each frustrated posse that returned, the bounty on the old scout grew until finally it seemed to one young miner that a man could make better money hunting robbers than he could panning for gold.
On the day that Cole Wells made that calculation, he sold his claim to a neighboring miner, rode to town, bought a Winchester and a pack mule, and rode toward the Big Belts. Two weeks later he rode back into Helena with the old scoutâs body tied over the back of the mule. He collected his reward of $5,000, got drunk, and never picked up a shovel or pan again.
That was years ago. The old Blackfoot trail had grown fainter. But then again, he thought, so had he. And so had Montana.
Cole Wells was a tall man, thinner than his reputation. He was not the broad-shouldered hero of the dime novel that he had heard once had been written about him. He was now just an old man, gray and grizzled and as weathered as the trail he was following. Some mornings, after sleeping on the cold ground and before his first piss and first cup of coffee, he felt every one of his 55 years.
Earlier that morning, sitting by his small campfire in the cold mountain air and remembering his first trip down this trail it had occurred to McCall for the first time that the âoldâ scout he had hunted through this country years ago was probably about the age that he was now. When that thought occurred to him he stood up quickly, put out the fire, and started packing up camp.
He was riding a big roan and trailing a small paint. He wore a tan coat and a gray and weathered Stetson the color of the dirty snow that was still clinging to the north side of rocks and trees at the higher elevations. As the trail dropped out of a deep canyon and onto a broad ridgeline he stopped.
This was the place where he had run down the old scout all those years ago. It had been early morning and the old man had been so hungover and so busy making coffee that he had not heard McCall come out of trees next to the canyon. The night before McCall had seen the old scoutâs small fire from the trail above and had worked all night to make his way down through the rock and trees to the treeline near the old manâs camp. It had been hard work, but the moon was full and the old scout had drunk enough whiskey that night that McCall could probably have just ridden right up to the the camp with a team of horses and the old man would not have known it.
The old scout had been leaning over and just pouring the first cup of the day when McCall had said, âReach high.â The old man had stood slowly and done just as he asked.
âNow turn around,â the young McCall had said.
The Old scout turned around. He was hatless and nearly bald. There was a line high across his forehead that separated his weathered face from the top of his head that had seen little weather or sun.
The old man smiled.
âYou want some coffee son?â He asked, indicating the pot at his feet.
âNot right now, old timer,â McCall said, coming forward keeping the Winchester leveled at the old scoutâs belly.
âMind if I drink mine?â the scout responded.
âRight now I just want you to stand there.â McCall replied still moving toward him.
âSon, I have to tell you right now, Iâve got no plans right now but drinking this coffee. If you want some, thereâs another cup in my saddle bag there,â and he turned his back on McCall and finished pouring the cup. He set the pot on a rock next to the fire, straighted up stiffly and turned to toward McCall again. He took a sip and said,
âYou just gonna stand there holding that rifle on me, or are you going to grab a cup?â
McCall kept the rifle on the Wells and moved toward the saddle bags.
âIâm just gonna sit down on this stump while I drink my coffee, if you donât mind,â Wells said indicating with his head a stump a few steps from where he was standing, He sat down and took another sip.
McCall moved to the saddle bags. Keeping his eyes and rifle focused on Wells, he used his foot to move it in front of him.
âSon, you must think I am one deadly hombre if you think I am going to kill you with this cup of coffee,â Wells said, taking another sip.
âI ainât your son,â McCall said, kneeling down slowly and reaching his free hand into the saddle bag and pulling out a battered tin cup.
âWell, youâre somebodyâs son,â Wells said. âAnd somebody must be proud to know that you are holding a gun on an old man who is just drinking coffee.â
McCall stood up and moved toward the fire. He stood for a moment next to fire and the coffee pot holding the rifle still leveled at Wells and the tin cup.
âHard to pour coffee holding a rifle, I suppose,â Wells said. âI could pour it for you.â
âJust sit there,â McCall said. He kneeled again and set the cup on a flat rock. He started reaching for the coffeepot.
âThat pot is mighty hot, you might want grab it with your hankerchief.â
McCall stopped. âShut up, old man.â He grabbed the pot and pulled his hand back.
âI told you,â Wells said, taking another sip.
McCall reached slowly behind him and grabbed his handkerchief, making sure the Winchester and his eyes were always on Wells.
âYouâre a careful man, arenât you,â Wells said.
âI said, shut up,â McCall barked.
Wells just shrugged and took another sip.
McCall wrapped the handkerchief around his hand and grabbed the pot. He poured the coffee and put the pot back next to the fire. He slowly put the handkerchief back into his pocket, grabbed the cup and stood up.
âThere a stump there,â Wells said indicating a stump about 12 feet from the one one Wells was sitting on. âSitting there you will be able to cover me and still drink the coffee.â
Wells moved slowly to the stump and sat down.
âTrouble with a rifle,â Wells said, âis that it is a clumsy thing. What you need to have is a sawed-off shotgun and a good pair of pistols. See, if you were holding a shotgun on me, that is easy to use one handed. And from where you are sitting, you donât need to worry much about aim. You just pull the trigger and somethingâs gonna hit me.
âNow a pistol, a good pistol mind you, would be just as handy. Now I donât know what kind of shot you are, son, nor even how many men you have killed, but even if you are a bad shot and your hand is shaky from being excited and a bit scared, you can at least throw six shots at me quite quickly. One of them is sure to him me.â He took another sip.
âYou talk a lot, donât you old man.â McCall said taking a sip.
âWhen youâre old,â Wells said, âtalk is all you got. You young bucks have young women to take up your time. You got big ideas and dreams to chase. Us oldtimers got nothing but talk and memories.â He took another sip.
âYou got the gold you took from Helena,â McCall said.
âHell, son, gold ainât nothing compared to what you got. You got your youth and time. Gold is nothing but pretty dirt you take out of the ground. But youth and time . . . they are, as the good book says, âfleeting things.ââ Wells tipped the cup up and drained the last drop.
âMind if I pour myself another cup?â he said, starting to stand up.
âJust sit there,â McCall snapped.
âAlright, son, youâre in charge. Just hate to see good coffee go to waste,â Wells said, settling down again.
âIt ainât good coffee,â McCall said.
âWell, that is probably true,â Wells shrugged, âBut under the conditions, it is the best I could do.â He looked up at the high peak just turning pink in the early morning light. âWhatâs your plan? Ride me and the gold down the trail and back to Helena where they lock me up and hang me?â
McCall shifted uneasily.
âIt wouldâve been be easier if I would have drawn on you,â Wells said still looking off at the high peak. âThen you could have shot me and thrown my body over my horse. Hell of a lot easier to pack out a dead man from these mountains than to have to escort a live one out,â He turned and looked at McCall.
âYou talk too much, old man,â McCall said draining his cup and tossing it on the ground.
âSo I have been told,â Wells said.
McCall stood up. Then sat back down again.
âIt is a hard thing to hunt men.â Wells said, looking back toward the peak. âI ought to know. I hunted them for years. Indians first. Then outlaws. Then anyone I was paid to hunt.â He took a long breath.
âI still remember the first man I killed. The first man I killed close, that is. I had killed some Indians before with a rifle in the middle of a skirmish. But that is something different. It is war and bullets are going everywhere and you are just shooting and praying. Men fall next to you and men fall in front of you.
âBut the first time you are standing eye to eye with a man and you have to kill him. That is a weighty thing,â he turned back and looked again at McCall.
âI was younger than you. He was a boy from a neighboring town. Not much older than me, I guess. We were courting the same girl. Or at least we thought we were courting the same girl. Eyes as blue as a summer sky, hair the color of . . . â He was quiet for awhile, staring at some point far away but between the fire and where he sat.
âI was out digging holes for fence posts. I had my back to the road and my shirt off and was enjoying the feeling of digging in the soft earth. He must have been going to town, maybe to see her.
âHe called to me. Told me to leave Lily alone. That she was his girl.
âI said something. I forget what. It was probably something like, âgo to hell.â Funny I donât remember . . .
âHe jumped down off the mule he was riding and started yelling. At some point he started grabbing at a pistol he had stuck in his pants. A Navy Colt . . . Funny I remember the pistol but not any of the words . . .
âNext thing I know, my pistol was was out and I fired. Hitting him in the middle of his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground.â
âEvery night of my life now, I dream of that boy. Of all the boys and men I have killed over the years. They never leave me now. No matter how much whiskey I drink.â
His eyes slowly came back into focus and he looked at McCall.
âIt is a hard thing to kill a man,â Wells said. âBut sometimes you have to do it. You will learn to live with it.â
Wells stood up quickly and started toward McCall. McCall started shooting.
The place hadnât changed much over the years. There was no fire, but the ring was still there, and part of what may have been the stump that McCall had sat on. Wellsâ stump had long ago turned to dust.
He sat for some time, staring at the old campsite and listening to something only he could hear in the high mountain air.
When the roan stamped a hoof impatiently, McCall shook his head.
âYou were right about one thing, old man. You never do forget. No matter how hard you try.â