Pinion nuts tasted sweet, jackrabbits tasted bland, and the local ground squirrels were too confounded small to eat. Sam was learning. High on the brink of a white-grey limestone rim rock, the youngster sat watching the skyline shimmer into chill brilliant forever. Cresting the rim behind Sam and dotted far below, pinion pines stood whispering in loose, green crowds. They were just rounded, brushy conifers seldom more than thirty or forty feet high, yet their rich perfume sweetened the breeze, and egg-sized cones yielded handfuls of small, brown nuts. A magpie swept past in a bright black and white flash, plummeting into the embrace of a gnarled cedar, which clung to the fissured stone. Further along the rim, three ravens swung in lazy circles above breathless space, croaking amongst themselves. The wild things and Sam McLachlan seemed the only citizens of this remote country. Long miles to the south lay homesteads, ranches, and the town of Eagle Bend, the gentler comforts of civilized living. Yet there is where searchers would look, for a fleeing boy with bloody hands. Better to bide a while here, to remember the old skills of camp and trail, and shape them to this hard, new land.
With careful hands, the youngster used a sharp rock to scrape a hole in a crumbling ledge. That done, a small, slightly-smelly bundle of hide and bones were dropped in, the dirt scraped back, and a rock placed on top. Just as carefully, Sam swept the loose earth smooth, and sprinkled bits of gravel and brush to disguise traces of the disturbance. Whatever the youth ate, the leavings had to be hidden. Soft animal innards could be tossed off a ledge, for the ravens and magpies to consume, but a peeled hide and cooked bones would be like a red flag, for any human hunter.
After another long moment, devoted to watching a chipmunk dismantle a pine cone, Sam shifted the weight of the makeshift knapsack, really just a blanket roll tied around the few oddments carried. Then the youth backed slowly off the ledge, carefully brushing out tracks, scattering bits of refuse to hide any marks. Once back on top, the deep pine needles and crumbling limestone held little or no sign, and the fugitive moved on swiftly.
A narrow game trail soon appeared, which traversed thinly down the face of the jagged rim. The small, cloven tracks of deer led the way, and the youngster pondered the option of eventually downing one, and smoking the meat for later use. The Remington could be trusted for that, if one were careful and clever enough to get close. Yet that would have to wait for poor weather, when the chances of anyone being out to smell wood smoke would be lessened. For now, Indian summer held a smiling face, and while Sam did not feast, neither did the exile starve. Anyhow, a little pinching in the belly kept a body's wits keen.
The spring below was scarcely more than a seep, just a green stripe along a twisting crevice of stone, with a hatful of water pooled at the bottom. It was too small to sink the canteen into, but Sam crouched to patiently dip handfuls of water from the spring, pouring the cool liquid into the canteen's mouth. Nothing but time, here. Then Sam turned upward again, along another dim trail of white limestone, back to the rim rock's top.
Sam watched the lavender-blue shadows of evening fill the arroyos below, watched the ravens sweep away to roost, and the little night hawks appear on booming wings. Once there had been someone who shared such silence, once there had been friendly faces - but Sam slammed the door on those thoughts, on the heavy pang of emptiness they brought. All that was dead, dead as Lew Yarbrough himself. Abruptly the youth stood, shouldered the blanket roll-knapsack on its rough string, and long strides merged the slender form into whispering pines.
+ + + + + + +
Four cotton pickin' days. Vin Tanner sat back on his heels and shook his head. He had not quite believed the kid would be this cagy. Equal parts woodcraft and just plain creative thinking, he reflected. Only the little things gave up any sign of the youngster. The sharp edge of a scraped shoe edge, on a narrow stone trail that otherwise held no track. A dusting of ashes, which someone had carried away to scatter, with only one, marble-sized black coal to catch Vin's attention. Part of a hand print in the soft mud of a spring, as if someone had slipped and caught themselves. And here before him, he'd stumbled across a small scorch mark. A tiny fire had been here, all coals now removed and the ash scattered, yet the stone still held the scent of a recent burn.
Trouble was, Tanner was only finding where the boy had been, not where he was. No fixed camp, no favorite water, not even the same path twice. Yet all sign, scarce as it was, followed along this rim rock. A miles-long, hundred-foot wall of knobbed and broken limestone, that split this rugged country high from low. A ragged, pine-crowned escarpment where water would be found, and small game for hunting. This seemed a fact the fugitive had learned and relied upon. Perhaps there was a pattern to be found, after all.
Nodding slightly to himself, Vin picked up the invisible gauntlet. No tougher search than for a man, no keener chase, no deadlier prey. A slow smile lit his face, a look of serene and complete contentment. Here was a part of himself he never thought to put into words, a facet that others would likely never understand. This was his game. This is where he felt his heart beat and his pulse run close to the skin. Where he felt so absolutely and exquisitely alive. Each shadow, each step, each thought held meaning, and every nerve and sinew stretched to capture it. No, it was not the catch or the kill, or seldom even anger; it was simply the sharp, thumping challenge of the hunt.
Sure, this was only a scrawny teenaged kid, but an uncommon cagy one, at that. Tanner liked Sam, admired his spirit and grit. Right now, he was becoming impressed with the boy's cunning. If the truth were told, it pleased him that Sam now employed the sort of savvy Vin had suspected he possessed, all along. However, Vin also had a whole lot of respect for what a man's sense of self-preservation could drive him to. Never forget, Tanner, that kid just spread a man all over a saloon floor. All right, Sammy-boy, let's see what you got.
+ + + + + + +
Peeled snake. Now, that was about the damnedest-looking thing a body could ever lay eyes on, pallid and shiny and slithery. Yet Sam had caught it, killed it, and it had some pretty fair size to it. Eight buttons on a stub tail, maybe twenty inches in length, but the snake had lived well and lay fat and heavy in its denuded state. Sam closed the door to thought, while threading the slippery form onto a sharp stick, and laid it carefully in the small heap of coals. Dinner was dinner.
Nor did it taste bad. Had practically no taste at all, somewhere between boiled chicken in taste and fish in texture. Best not to think on what it was, however. Once again, the youth carefully gathered leavings, scooped dying coals onto a scrap of wood to carry away, and scattered sand and pine needles artfully over the little fire site. With an artist's touch, signs of that stop were slowly erased.
Water lay in a stone basin, beneath a great, jutting brow of limestone and the gnarled knees of an ancient cedar. The fractured rim dribbled forth the treasure of its hidden depths in a small, musical trickle. Tracks abounded, the pointed marks of deer, the tiny, hand-like prints of small rodents, the twin exclamation points of jackrabbits. Sam stepped carefully on the smooth rock, avoiding black, rich mud. This time the canteen sank with a friendly gurgle, and water pulled its weight to quick heaviness. Sam then bent to drink from cupped hands, and sat a moment, savoring the sweetness of damp earth, the warmth of autumn sunshine. Nights were getting frosty, and the frail stems of nearby grasses now bent yellowed and brittle.
Then Sam's heart stopped. Started again. Thumped in slow, heavy dread, as the youngster reached to the cool, hard butt of the Remington. Damn you, Sam McLachlan! Damned, blind fool . . . Slowly the youngster rose, as if the object of that alarm could strike back. Or as if the maker of that object would appear in thunder and catastrophe from thin air.
A horse's track. A shod horse, which had stopped there for just a moment, not to drink, but rather as if the rider merely noted the water and then left. Why? Because he did not need water? Because he already knew where other water was? Because he was scouting, searching for all the water holes a fugitive might need -?
Sam snatched for control of panicked thoughts, drew back into stunted willows and sweet grass and shadow. The rider could be no one, could be a cowhand searching for strays missed during roundup, could be a hunter looking for winter meat. Yet Sam dare not take that chance, and ghosted away like the deer and up, onto the rim rock again.
+ + + + + + +
Inez had long ago learned to gauge human nature on sight, without allowing her final evaluation to show. Yet the portly, florid-faced man now fronting her bar required a bit more effort than usual, to maintain her professional friendliness.
"Well, surely you can tell me where he lives, then? Really, my dear, there is no need for such coquettishness. My business with Mr. Larabee is most urgent, I assure you."
Anyone who said 'my dear' in such condescending tones, let alone in such an obnoxious, nasal Southern accent, instantly lost ten points in Inez's personal score book. With effort, she maintained her bright smile.
"Senor, please, I cannot give personal addresses. As I said, he will be in later, I'm sure."
She shot a brief glance at the three men lounging at the saloon door. They were tall, dour, bearded fellows in homespun and low-crowned slouch hats, who had followed this man inside, and now waited like a brace of underfed hounds.
"Miss, I am a man of business. Make no mistake about that. Now, if this will help -." The man began rummaging in his coat pocket, drawing a long leather wallet from it.
"Unless you are buying drinks for the house, senor, I am not interested. Now excuse me, but I have other customers."
With a swirl of skirts and a smoking glare, Inez wheeled away, and left the man standing with both mouth and wallet foolishly open. A dapper figure arose from a rear table and casually strolled to the bar.
"Good day, sir," drawled Ezra Standish. "Perhaps I may be of assistance . . . ?"
"Ah, at last, a fellow countryman." The man stuffed his wallet away and put on a broad, politician's smile. "Indeed, sir, I am in need of anyone who speaks good sense. I am here on business, looking for one Mr. Chris Larabee."
Only those who knew Ezra well would note the shuttered look that dropped into place, behind his polished courtesy. Tennessee or Kentucky, Ezra guessed by the man's twanging accent, with an educated polish that Sam McLachlan's speech patterns lacked. However, countryman or not, the gambler felt no rush of comradely warmth. Those three, bearded backwoodsmen at the door did not appear the sort of attendants a true gentleman employed.
"Yes, Mr. Larabee . . . ah . . . One moment." Out came the wallet again, and stubby fingers drew forth a creased yellow paper. "Mr. Larabee sent me a telegram recently, informing me of the demise of my cousin, Lewis Yarbrough."
"Your cousin?" Surprised that someone would actually travel all the way out here, Ezra nonetheless schooled his face to polite sympathy. "My condolences, sir. A most regrettable business, I must say."
"Yes, yes, indeed. Now, I understand you have the, ah . . . guilty party in custody?"
"Yes, well . . . " The gambler ducked his head and ran a thumb along his lower lip. "Well, you see, we had an escape, a few nights ago. Someone is searching, as we speak, however, and -."
"Escape!" The man's face burst into color so abruptly, for a split second Ezra thought of a boiler explosion. The three human hounds alerted with sharp, hungry eyes. "Escape? That little cat escaped? My God, what kind of law enforcement does this hell hole have? Who are the sorry sons of bitches who let this happen?"
The sting of that accusation lashed almost as deep, as the memory of mashed potatoes and gravy slammed into the front of an expensive vest and shirt. Ezra's tone went cold and metallic as his expression.
"Sir, I assure you, the exceedingly rare event of a jailbreak is, at this very moment, being rectified. We have the matter thoroughly in hand."
"In hand?" The man's considerable chins swelled like a tom turkey's wattles. "This is what you call in hand? Sary Ann Yarbrough was my ward until her marriage, and is still in fact an underage minor. With the death - no, the murder, of my cousin - she is again my responsibility, and I will see justice done! If she is not recaptured in very short order, we -." He made a sharp gesture towards his three gaunt henchmen. "Will take steps to assure her recapture. Our family demands justice. Now, am I understood, sir?"
He was not. As a matter of fact, this bulging toad made no slightest sense in the world.
"Your . . . ward? Sir, of whom do we speak? And who are you?"
"I am John Frame, sir. The man who Mr. Larabee, whom I am most desirous of seeing, by the way, contacted in the matter of Lew Yarbrough's murder."
"And Sary Yarbrough is . . .?" Ezra rolled a hand in an encouraging gesture.
"My ward, damn you, sir! Sary Ann Yarbrough, Sary Ann McLachlan, Sam McLachlan, whatever name she uses nowadays. Lewis Yarbrough's wife!"
In all his memory, Ezra could not recall when a straight face had been so enormously difficult to sustain. Yet by sheer act of will, he did it. Or fervently hoped he did.
His drawl deepened as he said carefully, "Sir, I will remind you that you are a stranger here. No matter your personal stake in these matters, this town meanwhile expects your cooperation, and your complete non-interference. Now, if you will bide a moment, sir, I will go and see if Mr. Larabee may be found."
Ezra held a measured pace long enough to get outside, long enough to get well out of view of the saloon windows. Then the town was treated to the remarkable spectacle of elegant Ezra Standish, pelting at full-speed down the main street.
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