At the pinnacle of the ridge, Buck Horn raised a weary hand, removed his hat, and wiped his brow. Whew! Another long day's ride. He picked up his canteen and shook it. Empty. "Sorry, old fella." He patted his stallion's neck. "Looks like we'll both have to hold out until we get to the next waterhole."
The breeze blew Buck's hair into his eyes but provided no relief from the scorching heat. He twisted in his saddle and surveyed the scene behind him. Beyond the wide valley, the snow-capped Capitan Mountains rose with majestic splendor. Amid the darkening shadows, the sage still managed to turn the floor of the basin a soft purple. The sage's minty scent helped to dispel the too-familiar odors of dust and sweat and horse.
Any other time, he'd have loved nothing more than to sit here and bask in the grandeur. But not now. No time for such trivialities. He refocused his eyes on his backtrail. Sure enough, a dust cloud rose about two miles back, but smaller than the day before. Most of the posse must have given up and gone home. But not Sheriff Zeb McClaine. He never quit. Not until he got his man, one way or the other. After ten years as a lawman in Snakebite, he'd earned his reputation. The townspeople called him Old Relentless. It was easier to escape an Apache on the warpath than to shake Zeb off your trail.
Buck sighed and eased Paint into a canter. Two days on the run with scarcely any rest got old. He shifted in the saddle and rubbed his back. Despite his fatigue, he could keep up this grueling pace, but his faithful mount wouldn't make it much farther. The chestnut stallion had borne the brunt of the punishment. He ought to reach the Rio Hondo early tomorrow. Then, he'd circle back through the stream and head for a hidden valley he'd discovered last summer. If he could keep Paint moving for another day and a half, he'd hole up there, rest up awhile, and let his horse graze. Surely, with enough sleep, he could devise a plan to elude Zeb.
* * *
Buck awoke after a restless night. Had some sound awakened him? Confounded posse might have found his tracks. And have eyes on him even now. He scanned his surroundings. Nothing moved. The sun stood high in the sky, far above the canyon's walls. He should have cleared out at sunup. He whistled for Paint, gathered his bedroll, and broke camp. If only he hadn't overslept. He'd have reached his valley by noon, and they'd never have found him.
No time for breakfast. He'd have to make do with jerky while he rode. Good thing he'd filled his canteen before he bedded down.
Buck guided Paint onto an antelope trail he'd spotted the evening before. In response to a slight tug on the reins, Paint followed the track up and over the canyon's rim. A shot rang out and kicked up dust ten feet behind him. Heavy caliber. Had to be the buffalo gun carried by Shep Butler, the best tracker in New Mexico Territory. Zeb's right-hand man on a manhunt.
Too bad Buck didn't have a dog to kick. His ten-mile trek through the river hadn't fooled Old Relentless, at least not for long, even though he'd ridden out of the water onto solid rock. Nobody could track over solid rock. Yet, somehow, he and Paint still had company. Were those guys human? He sighed. No hope now to hide out in his valley and let Paint rest.
At Buck's kick, the faithful mount leaped into a gallop. Before Shep would have time to reload the single-shot Sharps, they rounded a mammoth boulder, safe for the moment. Good thing Buck hadn't bothered with breakfast. He'd have been a goner for sure. Shep, the bloodthirsty cuss, shot first and asked questions later, regardless of Zeb's orders.
Buck slowed Paint, gave him his head, and allowed the horse to pick his way down the rocky slope. But when they reached the level floor of the next canyon, they raced on.
Buck needed to put more distance between himself and the posse. He hadn't dreamed up an escape plan that made sense, except to try to stay ahead of Zeb until he reached the border in three or four days. Not his best-thought-out strategy. The overnight stop had given Paint a needed respite but hardly enough for a days-long run for the border.
How unfair that Buck had to go on the run. All his life, he'd been snakebit. He couldn't help that his mother died giving birth to him in the Buckhorn Saloon. Or that they'd named him after the disreputable joint, since nobody knew Goldie's last name. At least, Blackjack O'Leary let the other girls raise him when the good citizens of Snakebite wanted no part of him. Still didn't after all this time. So, at twenty-three, Buck still worked at the Buckhorn. Until this mess. Cursed luck. Even the rundown saloon seemed like paradise after this.
* * *
After another full day's ride, Buck reached the south slope of Blanco Pass, the landscape as barren and desolate as any place he'd ever seen. With his bandanna, he wiped sweat from his face. Both he and his horse had about reached the end of their rope. Paint's chest heaved with each breath, while Buck slumped in the saddle.
He gave Paint a gentle kick, and the valiant steed began his descent. About a third of the way down, the horse stumbled and slid sideways. Buck jerked up straight. Confound it.
In his fatigued state, he hadn't noticed the loose shale on the slope. Paint lost his footing, fell to his knees, and rolled onto one side. Buck jumped clear, but when he hit the ground, a sharp pain smacked the side of his head. Then, everything went black.
When Buck came to, night had fallen. A half-moon hovered above the ridge. He pushed himself to a seated position. Everything spun round and round. As the world slowed to a stop, the cry of an animal in pain rang out from below. He struggled to his feet, then alternately staggered and slid toward the sound. No easy feat on a forty-five-degree slope. Paint lay on one side, head tossing to and fro.
"Easy, boy, let me check you out." The stallion settled enough to let Buck approach. He ran his hands over Paint's forelegs. Both broken. Just as he expected. "Sorry, old pard, I can't risk a gunshot." With tears in his eyes, he slid his buck knife from its sheath and with one quick thrust sliced his best friend's jugular.
* * *
Noon found Buck well on his way down the mountainside. He'd left behind everything except his rifle, canteen, and his last two strips of jerky. His weariness after days on horseback paled by comparison to the fatigue of a half-day's hike in the blazing sun. He'd stopped often for rest and to quench his thirst. For all the good it did him.
He gazed behind him. No sign of the posse, but they couldn't be far behind. Long before dusk, his last hope of escape fled. Yet, he refused to give up and let them hang him for a crime he didn't commit. He'd die of exhaustion first—he licked his cracked lips—or thirst. As the sun set, he stumbled on a small spring that bubbled out of a cleft in the rock face. He drank his fill and plunged his head into the pool below. Cool and refreshing. Too exhausted even to fill his canteen, he slogged over to a nearby patch of grass and dropped to the ground. Before full dark, he lay down where he sat and passed out.
* * *
At a sharp pain in his side, Buck jerked awake. He rubbed his ribs and opened his eyes to the gray light of early morning. Beneath a battered gray Stetson, piercing blue eyes in a leathery, sunburned face stared down at him. A face he knew all too well. But the six-gun pointed between his eyes captured and held his attention.
Zeb kicked him with the pointed toe of his boot. In the same place. "Wake up, kid. You've led me a merry chase. It's a rough trip back to Snakebite. Longer, since we'll be ridin' double."
Buck sat up and glanced around. "Where's Shep?"
"Sent him home. Don't cotton to killin' a man when it ain't necessary. Besides, I didn't need a tracker no more. Since you lit out t'other day after gettin' shot at, you left a trail a blind tenderfoot could follow."
"Zeb, why not let me go? No one would know."
"Cain't do it. I always liked you, boy, but I've gotta take you back to stand trial."
"But they'll hang me for sure. And I didn't kill Blackjack."
"You'll get a chance to tell your story."
"Who'll listen to a nobody who grew up in a saloon?"
"I cain't do nothin' 'bout that." Zeb reached down to help Buck to his feet. "Come on. Let's git goin'."
* * *
Two nights later, the two sat beside a campfire. Crickets chirped. The nearby creek gurgled. A coyote howled in the distance. The scent of wood smoke filled the air. With a bright canopy of stars overhead, the night would have been restful but for the circumstances. Zeb held out a tin cup. "Coffee hits the spot. Sure you don't want some?"
Buck shook his head, eyes downcast. "I just want you to let me go. I'll leave the territory and never come back. I promise."
"Nope. I've got a duty to them that elected me."
"But you'll be helping them hang an innocent man."
"I'll do what I can, boy, but the evidence is agin' you." He glanced at the fire. "I'll have to tie you up again before I bed down. Take it easy now while I rustle up some more firewood." He stood and disappeared into the darkness.
Moments later, a telltale rattle sounded, followed by a curse and a gunshot. A moment later, Zeb returned, shaking his left hand. "Hurts like blazes. Bent over to pick up a log. Blasted rattler got me."
Buck clambered to his feet. "Come over by the fire." He took Zeb's hand and held it near the flame. Sure enough, two puncture marks dotted the back of his hand. "He got you, all right."
"Well, boy, you sure got yore wish. I cain't bring myself to shoot you in cold blood. So, I guess all you gotta do is wait around 'til I die. Then, you'll be free."
Buck stared into the fire. As Zeb said, this might be his last chance to escape the noose. But if he let Zeb die when he had the ability to help him, he'd become a murderer for real. And deserve to hang. No time to dither. Every minute counted. If he hesitated, Zeb would meet his maker.
"Sit here by the fire, so I can see what I'm doing." Buck removed his bandana and wrapped it around Zeb's wrist. Then, he picked up a small stick from the stack of firewood, tied the loose ends of the bandana around it, and twisted it tight. "Now, give me the knife on your belt."
Zeb removed the blade from its sheath and handed it to Buck, who made an X-shaped incision over the bite marks, placed his mouth over the cut, sucked as hard as he could, and spit the poison into the fire. He repeated this procedure over and over. By the time he finished, Zeb's hand had begun to swell.
Next, Buck searched Zeb's saddlebags. He took out Zeb's dirty shirt, washed it in the stream, and spread it out near the fire. "When it's dry, I'll make bandages to cover your wound. Wouldn't want it to get infected."
For four days and nights, Zeb raved with fever. His hand and forearm swelled to twice their normal size. Buck nursed him as best he could. Compresses of cool water on the injured sheriff's forehead helped keep his temperature down. Buck killed a rabbit with Zeb's Winchester, made broth, and spoon-fed his patient to get some nourishment into him.
At dawn of the fifth day, Zeb's brow had cooled to the touch. With Buck's help, he managed to sit up and spoon a small helping of beans into his own mouth. By the following morning, his color had returned.
Zeb rolled over and faced the campfire. "Buck, thank you for savin' my life."
"You'd have done the same for me."
"True, but you had good reason not to. A murderer would never have done what you did. What happened? Tell me your side of the story. You know witnesses saw you leanin' over Blackjack's body."
Buck stared into the fire. "I cleaned up the saloon after closing and left by the side door, as usual. When I started down the alley toward the street, I found Blackjack lying curled up on one side. Kneeled beside him to see if he needed help, but it was too late. Blood had soaked his clothes and pooled all around. I didn't see a knife until later when I ran past it in the alley."
"Where we found it." Zeb's head tilted to one side. "Why'd you run if you didn't do it?"
"Somebody took a shot at me. I had to vamoose or get killed. Bullets don't take the time to ask questions."
Zeb nodded. "Makes sense. I heard a gunshot before I got there." His penetrating gaze bored into Buck's eyes, the way he studied his opponents at a poker table to detect a bluff. "Do you have any evidence you didn't do it?"
"He had a stab wound in his chest. With so much blood, the killer couldn't keep from getting it all over him. I still have on what I wore the night of the murder. Do you see any bloodstains on my clothes?"
"No, but how can I be sure you didn't change?"
"No time. You saw me run down the street, jump on my horse, and hightail it out of town. Took only what I'd packed in my saddlebags. Left my spare shirt behind when I had to hoof it. You found it, didn't you? With my horse?"
"I searched your saddlebags. Found your clean shirt." Zeb rubbed his chin. "Doggone it. I reckon you're right."
"Does that mean you'll let me go?"
Zeb laid a hand on Buck's shoulder. "No, son, I've still gotta take you back. It's my duty. But I'll do whatever I can to clear you. Make sure the judge and jury understand what we just discussed. I think I can convince 'em. You'll have to trust me."
"I do trust you." Buck nodded and swallowed hard. "You've always been a straight shooter."
"Good. I need another day's rest, but bed down early. We leave at sunup."