The snake hissed and struck. I poked at it’s head with the stick again. It coiled, tail rattling, head bobbing back and forth from side to side.
Bored with this activity, I threw the stick at it, dumped my coffee on the embers of the fire, and climbed to my feet. I hauled my heavy saddle off the ground and ambled over to where my horse was picketed. He was jittery and spooked from the snake being in such close proximity, as I tightened the girth. He was not used to me, had belonged to Joe Brown until recently, my last horse had the misfortune of catching a stray 44-40 round between the eyes two days ago. Joe Brown had been the intended target, the second one had hit him in the ribs. It took him six hours to bleed out, by then they had gotten away. I buried him that night.
I mounted the animal, and set off northeast, in the direction their trail had taken. We had been following them for two weeks. The two of them had stuck up the stage for the fourth time in six months, and the sheriff had finally decided enough was enough. So he offered a reward, two hundred dollars a head, dead or alive. We had set out, four of us, me, Joe Brown, Daniel Potter, and Harry French, (known as ‘Frenchie’). Dan Potter had lost his nerve the second day and turned back. Joe and I had been quite the gun hands back in our younger days, Joe had been able to shoot the eye out of a buzzard in flight 200 yards away with his Sharps Carbine, even when he’d been drinking. Frenchie was sort of our protegie, he followed one or the other of us around like a little yellow mutt. he was maybe seventeen or eighteen, worked for Joe splitting lumber. We had gone into the logging business after law and order took away our original vocation, (sending poor lost souls to their eternal rest), and Joe had married.
Frenchie had been killed the second day. Dan lost his nerve because of Frenchie dying. We had caught them up around sunset that day, on a low ridge in the open country just shy of the hills, rolling open grassy land. We spotted the smoke from their fire two miles off. Came at them from upwind after circling around to the left, took us damn near until nightfall. Dan and Frenchie were all for going in head on guns blazing, didn’t know jack squat about how to go about it. I sent Dan around to the right, belly crawling through the grass, same for Frenchie, just sent him around to the left. Joe and I rode straight up. They heard us before they saw us coming. The taller one went for his ‘yellow boy’ Winchester. I called out, “We got the drop on you, don’t shoot and come peaceable.” Frenchie jumped up about then, I guess they must have thought he was going to shoot, because the other one grabbed a pistol off the ground. Frenchie pulled the trigger first, but he was carrying an old Walker Colt, the cap popped, the gun didn’t fire. They fired once, he dropped over backwards like a sack of corn, his gun went off with a loud report that echoed across the hills, white cloud of smoke. Damn percussion guns aren’t reliable.
They were gone by the time we got close enough to do anything. Dan was sitting, next to Frenchie, shaking like a leaf in January. His knees were pulled up to his chest. Frenchie was sprawled on his back, from what I could see in the dim light there was a large dark stain that reflected the last rays of the sunset, pooling on the ground beneath his head. Vacant look in his eyes, ragged hole in his neck, must have gone straight through his spine to make him drop like that. We buried him the dark for fear they would be lurking nearby and shoot at us if we made a light. Dan went home.
As for Joe and I, in the morning we determined for sure that they had headed up into the hills, to the northeast, wooded country, lots of rocks, hills, streams and such.
Over the next two weeks we had caught glimpses of them in the distance. They were always to far away to shoot at. They seemed to think they weren’t being followed. they were careful, but not too careful. They weren’t careless enough though that we expected it to be a trap.
But we were wrong.
It had happened two days ago like I said before. We were just breaking camp, I was saddling my horse, Joe walked past with his saddle, on his way to his horse, when there was a loud snap, and my horse dropped like a rock. Damn near fell on me. I fell to the ground trying to avoid being crushed, crawled to my hands and knees, and Joe was on one knee, his right hand was clutching his right side just under his armpit, red blood was dripping off his fingertips and spreading across his wool shirt. He fumbled with his gun, trying to pull it out of the holster on his right hip with his left hand.
I crawled to where my shotgun was laying, about ten feet away next to my saddle bags. I picked it up and scanned the brow of the hill we were camped along.
Joe fired. Once. Twice. Three more times. I could smell the sulfur from the powder as the smoke floated by me. Couldn’t see what he was shooting at. A loud snap near my ear, could hear it whine as it bounced off a boulder down the hill. I could see him now, he was crouched like an ape, running up the side of the hill. I fired both barrels, knowing it was useless, saw the leaves and dirt thirty feet beneath him jump, then he was gone, over the hill.
I dragged Joe in next to the carcass of the horse. I spent the next twelve hours lying stationary between the horse and a large rock. Joe died about three in the afternoon. Never said a word after they shot him. Buried him at nightfall.
So now two days later, as I rode along the topside of a narrow ravine, I scanned the tree lines for any sign of movement. I would be ready this time.
About noon, I stopped to water the horse. I climbed down, checked my saddlebags, and the girth, and stood up. They were sitting on horse back on the other side of the stream, not thirty feet away. The ‘yellow boy’ was pointed at my chest. I knew I didn’t have a prayer of hitting them both with my pistol with six shots; they would hit me before I could reload it.
The tall one said, “Looks like yer gonna get the same thing the last two did. If’n yer weren’t sich stubburn jackasses ya wouldn’t hev to die now.”
The gloating saved me, at least for the moment. I jerked my horses head around by the mane, so the animal was between me and the muzzles of their guns, simultaneously pulling the shotgun out of its scabbard on my saddle.
The horse shuddered as their bullets hit him repeatedly in the side. He lunged forward, slipped on the bank, and fell in a foam of water and blood.
I fired one barrel at the tall one, and the second barrel at the other fellow. My knee twisted and I fell on my face.
I pulled my pistol out, rolled onto my side and aimed it across the stream. ‘Yellow boy’s’ horse had caught the brunt of my buckshot right in the face, and he was trying to extricate himself from the stirrups of the fallen beast as it flailed violently and then was still. The other robber was lying facedown in the dirt with his horse standing next to him.
‘Yellow boy’ was on his feet now. I fired all six chambers into him. He crumpled.
I never bothered collecting that reward.