Bruce picked his way down the stony river bank and splashed out across the shallows. McCann let herself relax a little as the horse gained a footing on the far side. She followed the rutted wagon track that wound up through the scrub pine towards a range of bald hills, the last patches of winter snow on their summits lost in the failing light. This was a hard country, full of rough gullies and broken trails. Here you were more likely to get yourself killed by nature than a bullet. Diamond back rattlers, big mountain cats and grizzlies all called this place home; so did McCann.
She rode on through the gathering dusk. It was long past the time when God fearing folks would have pitched up for the night. McCann wasn’t afraid of God. When her time came she would face him down just like she would any other man and if it turned out there was no room for her in his mansions of glory, then so be it. The other place didn’t scare her either; she seen the devil before.
Right now, her place in eternity didn’t bother her half as much as the riders who were trailing her. She put their number at three or maybe four. Riding hard, but still a good ways back. She hadn’t been completely sure that they were there at all, not until one of their horses gave them up, whinnying when it missed a footing on the rocky ground. Could be they were just headed to Salt Creek, like she was. After all, there was no law against riding at night. You had a hard time finding any sort of law in these parts, especially after dark. McCann thought of the sheriff’s warning. Shaw’s brother being on her back trail seemed a sight more likely than some honest traveler at this hour. Whoever it was, she wasn’t about to let them ride up on her.
McCann pulled on the reins and gently put her heels to Bruce’s flank, encouraging him up the steep hillside and into the pines. The trees crowded around her and seemed to suck all the sounds from the night, the thick carpet of needles underfoot deadening the fall of Bruce’s hooves as the horse weaved through the knotty trunks. The ground leveled out some thirty yards back in the trees before climbing up again. She turned along the ledge and rode parallel to the trail. When it felt like she had gone far enough, she dismounted and drew her shotgun.
“Don’t go wandering off nowhere,” she told the horse.
Bruce gave her a look that said he’s consider it, but wasn’t making no promises and started cropping from a patch of green shoots poking out of the needles. McCann began circling back towards the trail. The night was clear and there was a good sized moon on the rise, but its pale light didn’t penetrate the thick, syrupy darkness under the pines. McCann moved as fast as she dare, just another shadow in a world already full of them. She slithered down the hillside back to the trail, one hand on her shotgun and the other out to control her descent. She found a crooked pine that leaned out over the path just beyond a sweeping bend; there was plenty of brush sprouting around its trunk, which made for some good cover. She hunkered down and waited, her breath fogging in front of her face as the night air took on a chill.
McCann didn’t know exactly how long she had been waiting, but it was long enough for the cold to leach into her bones. She was beginning to doubt what she heard, maybe there were no riders following. Could be the hills had been playing tricks on her, bouncing sounds around from a whole other direction. Pine flats was better than five miles distant and sometimes on a still night like this you could hear the train whistle like you were stood beside it. The moon cast its eerie light on the deserted trail. McCann propped her shotgun up against the tree and began skinning up the trunk to get a look around the bend.
She climbed along a thick branch out over the trail, straining her eyes for the slightest movement. Suddenly hoof beats drummed on the hard dirt, the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once. McCann scrambled to get down from the tree; her boots slipped on the mossy bark and she was left swinging by her arms above the trail. A black shape came around the bend. Curb chains and stirrups dully reflecting the waxing moon. She dropped to the ground, and dived into the brush at the side of the trail. Moments later the horse thundered by.
“What the fu…Whoa there!” The rider said hauling on his reins.
Two more riders appeared, one leading a pack horse with baggage strapped to it, both were reining in and slowing from a gallop. McCann hid her face in her duster. She heard the beasts blowing as they passed her and smelt the pungent stench of shit and saddle sweat that came from hard riding.
“Jesus, what’s got you all balled up, Charlie?”
“I saw something back there, by that crooked pine.” Charlie said pulling his horse around and drawing his long gun from its scabbard.
“Probably just a deer or somethin’,” Clay said coming to a halt with Panoson just behind him.
“It weren’t no deer , it was a man. Charlie said and swung his leg over the saddle horn, slipping to the ground.
“You been drinking Regan’s scamper juice again? There ain’t nothing out here but trees,” Panoson said.
McCann peeked out from under her coat. The three men were a few yards off up the trail; their pack horse was stood much closer. The baggage it carried was a hog tied Wade Pollock. He looked like he was already buzzard bait, but the blood dripping from his head could still be proof of life rather than gravity.
“I know what I saw, Swede.”
“C’mon Charlie, we’re only a mile from that old copper camp, let’s go up there and get a fire going,” Panoson said feeling the cold and wishing he was in Regan’s back room with that Mexican gal, Angelique; she knew how to warm a man up.
“You take that shit-bird sheriff up there and me and Clay’ll be along presently,” Charlie said.
Panoson rolled his eyes at Clay, before doing as he was told and trotting on up the trail. Clay just shrugged and fished out a tobacco pouch, tipping the dry makings into a wrap made from the pages of a New Testament. He didn’t know how to read, but he knew bible pages smoked up better than any other book.
“C’mon Clay, let’s you and me take a look-see,” Charlie said.
Clay reluctantly pushed the home spun cigarette behind his ear and wondered why the hell he had let Charlie talk him out of a night of whoring and in to this damn fool escapade.
McCann lay still, not daring to move. With her shotgun out of reach she needed to keep surprise firmly on her side. She listened to the jingle bobs on the men’s spurs chinking; each footstep bringing them closer. Death was stalking these hills tonight, the reaper moving silently through the wooded gullies. McCann didn’t fret; he was here for somebody else.
Charlie had stopped just short of McCann. “Well, Looky here,” he said.
Dropping to one knee and leaning on his Winchester, he picked up a hand gun from the edge of the trail. It was shorter than any he’d seen before and the hammer looked kind of funny to him, like it had been pared down.
“What do you make of that?” he asked passing it to Clay.
“Don’t rightly know. I ain’t never seen a Sam Colt looking like this one.”
McCann swore under her breath. She didn’t need to feel her holster to know that it would be empty, although she did just the same. A greased holster gave you an edge in a quick draw, but not so much when climbing trees.
“See, I told you, somebody’s out here.”
Clay, now more inclined to agree, stuffed McCann’s colt in his waistband and drew his Griswold.
“There,” Charlie said pointing at what looked like an old crumpled wagon tarp lying in the brush.
“That’s nothing but trash,” Clay said walking over and poking it with his foot.
A flash of steel blurred in the moonlight and something warm filled Clay’s boot. He looked down to find the cowhide on his right boot sliced open from shin to ankle. The fine, soft leather was no match for McCann’s skinning knife, which had cut deep enough to score Clay’s shinbone. It took a moment for the pain to telegraph itself to his head. When it did, Clay howled like a banshee.
“Watch who you’s calling trash, mister,” McCann said springing to her feet and taking off up the hill.
Branches whipped and clawed at her face as she ran, opening up old wounds like a lover’s feud. Charlie fired after her, his shots echoing through the canyon and kicking up the pine needles at her heels. The angle of the hill grew steeper and she had to climb on all fours clutching at roots, dragging herself up the slope and deeper into the safety of the trees.
“Dammit Clay, it’s her, get shooting,” Charlie said reloading his own piece.
Clay couldn’t care less. He dropped his Griswold and started scrabbling at his leg. Black powder flared and the horse-pistol went off half-cocked, turning the stock of Charlie’s Winchester to kindling. Now it was Charlie’s turn to holler.
“You son-of-a-bitch, Billings,” he said, hopping around, shaking his hand and spraying droplets of blood from the dime-sized hole in his palm.
Swede Panoson rode up like a parade, gun in one hand, pulling the pack horse along with the other; he held his own reins in his teeth.
“She went off up the hill,” Charlie said pointing after McCann with his wounded hand.
Panoson could see the moon shining through the hole in it. He looked from Charlie to Clay, who had managed to get his boot off and was holding the two halves of his leg together with bloody hands. Panoson thought he would probably live, although he might never walk straight again.
“Well, what are you waitin’ fer? Get after her, Swede.”
Panoson stared up into the inky trees that crowded the steep hillside above him. Their trunks so close together a man could barely squeeze between them in places. He pushed his hat back with a calloused finger. “To hell with that, Charlie.”
McCann lay breathless on a bed of pine needles. She wiped a hand across her scarred forehead, dragging grit and needles over the puckered valleys of skin. The hand came away wet with sweat and more than a little blood from injuries both old and new. She felt neither. The press of cold air filled her lungs as she gulped it down and waited for the pounding in her head to subside. The men were cussing her from below. Calling her a bitch and a whore, telling her she was going to get what was coming to her; saying how they were all going to take turns, after they had prettied her up some with a knotted plow line. McCann had heard it all before, big talk from men who howled at the moon like a pack of mangy coyotes. She smiled as the one with the sliced up foot wailed when they tried to get him on his horse. Moments later she heard them clear out up the trace. She would give it a while longer before she fetched Bruce and rode back down to get her shotgun. Then she’d give them something to howl about.
Wade Pollock felt the sun on the other side of his eyelids and knew that somehow he had made it through to morning. He tested the ropes that bound him hand and foot, twisting his wrists behind his back. There had been no magical loosening of his bindings while he slept. If getting beaten unconscious by Charlie Shaw could be counted as sleeping. He knew the whaling had been to make up for Charlie and his boys coming a poor second to McCann. While that cheered him some, it didn’t make it hurt any less. He opened an eye; one was all he could manage, the other had been swollen closed. The three men were lounging around a camp fire a few yards off. Two were still snoring loudly, the other, Clay Billings, was awake, but too busy with his flayed leg to notice the sheriff had temporarily rejoined the living. Wade felt around in the dirt behind him and came up with a small shard of rock. It would likely take a month of Sunday’s to cut through the ties with it, but having nothing better to do he started sawing at the rope.