Thomas Brash is trying to escape but knows he never will. Pursuing him is the memory of the family he lost to cholera. Perhaps he believes that traveling alone in a wild, dangerous land will end all his memories; there is no doubt he wishes to be alone. Whatever his intentions the appearance of Frank Clement and the circumstances of that meeting upset those plans. Brash views Clement as an uneducated child who requires fatherly protection and guidance. Clement views Brash as a tenderfoot and can not understand how anyone who knows so little could live so long. These two loners are joined by others and they all become partners. Having achieved relative sanctuary and surrounded by civilization their wilderness past comes back to haunt them.
The climb was much steeper and longer than he had anticipated, but he did finally approach the top of the hill. Before he crested the ridge however, he heard a murmur that he thought might be human voices.
His mount stopped when he dropped the reins. He stepped back beside the animal and drew a Colt revolving shotgun from the scabbard that hung down from the cantle. With the scatter gun in his hands he continued up the slope, cautiously scanning the country as he moved forward. He knew that he might meet full blood Indians who would not be as friendly as the Métis’ he had camped with. The Assiniboine, Cree and Blackfoot all claimed these Cypress Hills as their own. None of them looked kindly on those who might trespass, but those who met the Blackfoot seldom complained about poor treatment. If they did object it was only to their captors just before they died.
The voices grew more distinguishable as he advanced, though he could still not understand any words.
A shot rang out so close that Brash dropped to his knees thinking for an instant that it had been aimed at him. A scream was cut short by the sound of a blow. Tom dropped to his stomach and crawled to the top of the ridge where he could look into the hollow beyond.
A lake lay before him, perhaps the very one he sought, one arm of it disappearing off to the left. Directly below him on the shore of that lake were the remains of a camp that had been destroyed. A small teepee lay torn and scattered through the remains of a cooking fire and utensils. The body of an Indian man lay tied to the remains of a travois frame, a hole near the center of his bare chest, and blood staining the earth beneath him. Another form from which Brash thought he could hear moans – and guessed was a woman by what he could see of her dress – lay near the bound corpse. The camp was bordered by the lake and the hill, and by thick stands of aspen and willow which gave way near the water to wide strips of cracked and drying mud.
Two men also stood in the clearing. Each of them wore full, dark brown beards and buckskins, the clothing showing as much grease and almost as dark as the face hair. One wore a battered felt hat, his leggings tucked into high topped riding boots. The other wore a fur cap, the ear lugs tied together on top, his feet in moccasins which extended to just below his knee. The one with the felt hat held a rifle in his left hand, and a coil of rope in his right. Fur Hat had just finished loading his rifle and was removing the ramrod.
“Well, I reckon we isn’t gonna have any more fun with the Injun,” Felt Hat commented.
Fur Hat cursed. “Wasn’t much fun in ‘im, Seth. Got more out o’ watchin’ his chest blow up.”
Seth poked the moaning bundle with the toe of his mule-ear adorned boots. “Well, mayhap Mrs. Injun’ll be more entertainin’.”
“Nope!” a new voice announced.
Both men spun to see a slight figure step from the trees. From his perch high above, Brash saw a boy of perhaps fifteen in cloths that were little more than rags. He wore no hat and his hair was a long, snarled mess. A piece of rope was tied around his waist to hold his pants up, but just under it was a gun belt. The right side of his too-large coat was hooked behind the butt of a large holstered revolver. In his hands he held a rifle, thumb on the hammer and finger on the trigger.
“What’s yer prob’em, boy?” Seth asked.
The boy nodded at the moaning bundle. “No more hittin’,” he announced.
Fur Hat grinned. “Well, she ain’t no use then, is she?” He cocked his rifle and swung the muzzle.
The boy cocked his rifle and swung it toward Fur Hat.
“Look out, Hank,” Seth called.
Before Brash could even realize that what he had thought was a rope was actually a bull whip, Seth flicked it toward the boy. The very end of the braided rawhide snapped around the barrel of the boy’s rifle. Seth jerked and the rifle landed in the dirt.
Hank laughed. Seth grinned and brought the whip back, swinging it over his head for another strike at the boy. A shot rang out and the whip flew from his hand.
The boy stood with a smoking pistol in his hands.
Brash knew his eyes had been on Seth and the whip, but the appearance of the weapon was a shock. Apparently it was also a shock for Seth and Hank. Seth was doubled over holding his ringing right hand between his legs, eyes large and round, and fixed on the smoking muzzle. Hank’s eyes were similarly fixed, his thumb still holding the hammer of his rifle at half cock.
“Hammer down,” the boy instructed.
Hank gently released the hammer.
Seth took his hand from between his thighs and shook it violently. “He ain’t fast enough to shoot us both,” he concluded. He still held his rifle in his left hand.
On the ridge above, Brash realized that at least twenty feet separated Seth and Hank. Even for someone as fast and accurate as the boy appeared to be it would be difficult to stop both men before he was himself hit by someone’s return fire. Brash also suspected that there was a great deal of luck involved in the shot that took the whip from Seth’s hand.
“You first,” the boy announced, his revolver pointed at Seth.
Hank smiled. “Then you second,” he said swinging the muzzle around toward the boy.
“I believe you may be second.” Brash did not know what made him call out. One of the things that had forced him from his home was well meaning people who, after the death of his family, constantly demanded that he communicate with them, and here he was getting involved with people he didn’t even know. What he had just witnessed, however, was brutal, and the boy needed help. He shoved the muzzle of his shotgun over the hill and into view.
In the clearing, Hank had stopped the swing of his rifle. Seth had started to raise his own weapon and the weight of it against his left wrist was starting to make his arm tremble.
“Put ‘em down,” the boy said.
Seth and Hank leaned over and carefully placed their weapons on the ground.
“Short guns an’ knives,” the boy said.
Two large Bowie knives, a Colt, and a Smith and Wesson revolver hit the ground.
The boy pointed with his chin. “Over by the Injun,” he commanded.
Both men walked backward until they stood near the corpse.
Still holding his pistol, the boy retrieved the weapons. The knives he left on the ground. One pistol he put in his own holster, the other behind his rope belt. The rifles he picked up with one finger looped through their trigger guards. His eyes never leaving the two men he returned to the edge of the clearing, leaning the rifles against a tree.
The pistol at his waist was a Smith and Wesson. He broke it open, dumped the cartridges on the ground, and then threw it to land near the knives. “Stand,” he ordered, then exchanged his own weapon for the one that had been in his holster. It too was a Colt, so he used the tool from his gun belt to pull the caps from the nipples, then threw the weapon to land by the Smith.
Still facing Hank and Seth so he could keep an eye on them while he worked, the boy turned to work on the rifles. The first was a Springfield .58, muzzle loader so he simply pointed it over the lake, cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger. Throwing the empty weapon to land near the pistols and knives, he raised the other rifle. It was a Spencer similar to his own so he opened the loading tube in the stock and dumped the rim fire cartridges on the ground, then worked the action to eject the one in the chamber. He threw the Spencer to land by the Springfield.
With his chin the boy indicated the pile of weapons, then the horses. “Mount up,” he advised. The heel of his hand rested on his holstered Colt.
Hank and Seth looked at each other then slowly and carefully picked up their rifles.
As he picked up the Smith and Wesson, Seth eyed the cartridges that lay on the ground at the boy’s feet. “Them car’ ridges is hard t’ get,” he complained.
“Rough,” the boy replied
Keeping an eye on the boy the two men moved quickly toward their horses. In turn the boy didn’t fall too far behind them, watching to ensure they took only their own mounts and pack horse.
On the ridge above, Tom Brash rose and returned to his own animals. With reins in hand he led his mount over the hill and down into the campsite, the pack animals following readily.
Having just watched the two men ride away the boy returned to the camp site, but did not acknowledge Brash’s existence. Instead he went to the Indian woman and rolled her over on her back. Her left eye flew open and her arm came up over her face.
The boy squeezed her shoulder gently. “Won’t hurt yuh,” the boy said.
Tom could see a bad cut on the right side of her forehead that was already causing that eye to swell and close. The left side of her mouth and left cheek were also swollen and discolored.
“I have some medical supplies,” Brash announced.
The boy looked up at him and nodded.
Tom removed his bandanna and held it out to the boy. “Perhaps you could take this to the lake and get it wet? We will need to wash her off before we bandage her.”
The boy nodded again, took the bandanna and rose. Tom turned to his horses to retrieve bandages.
As he reached into the pack about where he knew his medical supplies to be, a scream came from behind him that made the horse jump. He turned to see the woman sitting up and looking at the dead man, her hands over her mouth. The boy was running back from the shore.
The woman jerked sideways and fell over the body of the man just before Brash heard the sound of a shot. Both he and the boy looked to Seth and Hank, who were in the relatively open area along the lake perhaps two hundred yards away. Hank held his Springfield over the limb of a tree, smoke still rising from the barrel. In the silence following the shot they could hear the two men laugh.
D.M. McGowan has been a cowboy, forest firefighter, heavy equipment operator, farmhand, gardener, road musician and businessman. He lives with his wife, Karen, and children and grand children in Northern British Columbia, where he works as a commercial driver.