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Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Cold Trail

By Jerry D. White

 

The iron gray mare stood head down pulling at tufts of short prairie grass. Andrew Jackson Childers sat quietly in the saddle studying the hoof tracks on the hard-pack ground. Jack had cut Ken's Moffits trail less than an hour earlier and was being careful not to lose it again. Two days earlier he lost the tracks in a summer storm that had swept out of the southwest. The storm, lasting less than an hour, had little rain but the hot wind coming before kicked up a lot of dust and covered the gelding's tracks as if they had never been. After the storm Jack spent two days of slow, deliberate effort before finding fresh traces of Moffet's trail. An hour ago Jack worried that Ken could have turned south, heading into Mexico, but that was an hour ago and now Jack knew his quarry was still headed west. The tracks stood out like the face of the man who tried to back-shoot him Sunday night.

That was six days back.

Jack was sitting in the dining room of Clayton's boarding house when the Walter brothers stepped through the over-sized double doors that opened onto First Street. Both men were rough, lean, and raw-boned. Their eyes fell on Jack and, without a word, their hands dropped to their guns. Jack, his feet solid on the floor, stood abruptly, the large, round table bouncing on its side before him. His gun was out and the hammer falling before the table stopped rolling. His first shot took Laredo under the chin, spinning Laredo's body and gun hand so that the bullet aimed at Jack's stomach hit the wall six feet from where Jack stood. Jack's second shot caught Jim in the chest dead center, folding Jim's legs under him before his gun could come level. Jim went down, his gun pounding slugs into the wooden floor as he died.

"Behind you!" came the yell from 'Ma' Clayton.

She had heard the table hit the floor and stepped through the kitchen door the instant before the roar of the first gunshot sounded.

At her yell Jack dove in a twisting fall, his gun coming around toward the man behind him. Ken Moffet fired once. Pain shot through Jack's head, blinding lights lancing across his eyes. Jack's gun kicked once as he rolled behind the overturned table and then the darkness closed around him.

   

Jack came to with 'Ma' and old man Jordan working on the gash along the left side of his head.

"One more inch to the right boy, that was all it would've took."

"Where are they?"

"Two are dead and that third one took off out the back."

"Why didn't he finish me?"

"Lost his gun. Your shot hit his gun hand," Jordan said. "That's when he took off; guess he didn't want to chance your putting a bullet between his eyes."

Jack's vision was clearing but each time he moved his head the room twisted around him and the darkness returned. It was a good six hours before he could stand on his feet for more than a few minutes at a stretch. He was ten hours behind Ken Moffet before he was able to saddle his horse and ride.

Six days ago.

Six days of hard riding closing the distance between him and one of the Moffets. Today the tracks weren't fresh but they weren't more than two days old.

Long shadows stretched across the Llano Estacado. The undersides of the clouds to the west were blazing red-orange as the sun dropped low toward the horizon.

"Going to have to find a spot to bed down soon old girl," Jack said to the mare.

In less than an hour the darkness would close in and there would be no hope of following the tracks until daybreak.

In his canteen were a few mouth full's of water and the big gray needed water and rest.

His head throbbed under the dirty bandage, reminding him that he to needed rest.

Three hundred yards off to his left there was some mesquite bunched together. In this country a batch of mesquite was a sign of water and with the rain two days ago there should be some little water in a gully or a pan nearby.

Riding among the mesquite and ironwood he found the shallow pool. It was a place where the sandstone had been worn down by wind and water forming a natural pan. The pool, now almost dry,was shaded by low brush and a few taller mesquite trees. A day or two more of the sun and hot wind and this water would be gone.

The water was brackish and had the bite of alkaline, but it was drinkable. Jack filled his canteen and splashed his face with the warm water. Then, while the gray drank, Jack took out his field glasses and, standing on a bit of high ground a dozen yards from the pool, scanned the prairie to the west.

Dark purple shadows filled the base of the hills far to the west and soon the falling darkness would limit his vision to only the few yards around him. A few miles to the southwest Jack saw turkey vultures circling.

Something was dead or dying over there and Moffet's trail lead off in that direction.

Easing his horse through the brush in the fading light Jack rode to where the turkey vultures continued to circle. Those carrion eaters had dropped closer to the ground since he first saw them. A sudden shift in the night breeze and he could smell the stink of death.

Topping a low rise he looked down into darkness and, as his eyes adjusted, he could see a deep arroyo opening before him. At this point a steep drop of fifteen or twenty feet ended in a thicket of cottonwood and willows. In the gloom near the bottom of the arroyo Jack picked out the shape of a horse laying on its side, unmoving, and the form of a man, his body half hidden by the horse.

Dismounting and drawing his gun Jack carefully worked his way down to steep slope until he was standing next to the fallen rider. He could see the faint rise and fall of the man's chest and a trickle of blood coming from the corner of the half-open mouth.

Ken Moffet wasn't dead, yet.

Hurrying back to his horse Jack led the animal down the slope and stood once again over the broken man. Untying the canteen from his saddle and pulling a clean bandana from his saddle bag Jack dropped to his knees next to the man. Damping the rag he touched it to Ken's face. Dark brown eyes flickered open, staring up, focusing on the face of the man he had tried to kill. Jack took the wet rag and, holding it above the cracked lips, squeezed a few drops into Ken's mouth.

"Well, looks like my old hoss done you outta killin' me Andrew."

Ken's words were faint but Jack heard them as if they had been a clap of thunder. Jack dumped some more water on the bandana and gently wiped the dust and blood away from Ken's face. He had been shocked at the words and, until that moment, had not thought about what he was going to do when he caught up with this man. Killin' a man in a fight was one thing but tracking a man down just to kill was something that Jack had only done once and that was in the burning heat of a vengeful rage.

"I was ridin' hard when I got to the arroyo Andrew. Took the fastest way down. Guess I didn't see that cottonwood stump jus' over the edge." A fit of coughing took Ken at that and new, bright red blood spilled from the side of his mouth and onto the ground.

Jack looked at the dead gelding and saw that its belly, from the left forequarter to the rear haunch, was ripped open, its insides strung out across ten feet of ground. The animal had died hard and when it went down Ken was under it.

"Got my fool foot hung in the stirrup and 'fore I could get free he was rollin' on me. He tried to git up a few times but kep' fallin' back. I think he must have broke a leg in that fall. Took him a bit to die. He was a good horse. Never cause me a bit of trouble. My fault I guess."

At this the coughing hit again and the pain was clear in his face.

"You think you can get me out from underneath. I'd like to get away from the smell for a bit."

Jack found a few solid branches in the bottom of the arroyo, and after some work he had them slid under the body of the animal enough so he could pull Ken free without hurting him much.

It took an hour of careful work but now Ken was stretched out on a bedroll up wind from the dead gelding. Jack had cleared the stones and dead branches from the damp sand and put down a carpet of leaves before he spread the bedroll. It wasn't much but it was better than the bare ground.

"Thanks Andrew. I been laying there for 'most of two days. Just laying here watching those turkey vultures circle around when I wasn't passed out. If I hadn't lost my gun back in town I might have put an end to myself. Can't feel my legs, not since that horse rolled on me."

"Ken, I got a fire going and I got some coffee on. You think you want a sip?"

"That would be good. A sip of coffee would be real good."

Later in the night Ken woke with more coughing. Jack was watching him and thinking. When the coughing letup Jack wet the bandana again and wiped the blood from Ken's mouth and chin.

"Jack, how's Eliza? Is she mak'in it better yet?"

"She's doing well. Still has some bad nights but Ma and James are tak'in care of her."

"I'm sorry about what the boys did to her."

"I'm sorry too."

"They were my nephews, Andrew. Blood kin. We had to come for you after what you done to them."

"I know. That's why I left home. Didn't want James mixed up in it."

Ken's eyes closed and sleep or unconsciousness took him. Jack hoped it was sleep.

Jack sat by the fire throughout the night his eyes never leaving Ken's face.

In the darkness just before sunup a shudder passed across Ken's body and he lay still.

Jack carried him out of the arroyo and dug a deep grave on a small rise looking west across the Staked Plains. He covered the grave with rocks to keep the coyotes away. It was almost nightfall before he finished.

Jack stood next to the grave in the fading light. After a long while he recited the words that he had learned but not understood when his mother had read them. Nor had he understood them during the passing years when he had read them again.

"To loss and what may follow! Weep I cannot, But my heart bleeds; and most accursed am I to be by oath enjoin'd to this. Farewell!"

Mounting the gray he now understood their meaning.

He rode west.

Away from the grave.

Away from his home.

THE END

 

Jerry White grew up in Oklahoma around real cowboys and is a retired Senior Systems Engineer who is once again living in Oklahoma. Jerry has enjoyed western stories by the greats - Zane Gray, Max Brand, Elmore Leonard, Louis L'Amour - and has always wanted to write adventure stories about the old west and now has time try his hand at story telling.

 

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