After topping the small rise, a rider’s hunch turned me in the saddle. A faint wisp of rising dust, far behind me, could be only one thing. They were coming, not fast, but steady.
It had been almost a year since I’d been hired on at James Maxwell’s T-Bar ranch outside Pecos, Texas. He’d asked me to stick around as foreman, following a successful cattle drive north to Abilene.
But I was destined to drift—go further west to see the coast. Folks talked of a vast sea with long white beaches. Someone had named it for being calm and easy. Called it the Pacific. Well, I’d straddled my legs over Smoke—he was an ornery but reliable roan I’d been riding after my dun stepped in a gopher hole and went lame on that cattle drive—and I lit a shuck for California.
Two, maybe three of ‘em were tracking me now. So I decided to be checkin’ my back trail regular. By the looks of them dust clouds, they were spurring their horses harder and gaining on me. Dangerous men, the old timer had declared. Cruel and hate-filled men, driven by selfish greed.
The sun had been a blazing inferno that day, but as night fell, the air thinned and was quickly cooling. Where the roan had taken me, I found little for cover. Some patches of scrub brush and the outcropping of boulders lay scattered across the rambling hill that eroded onto the endless plains to my left.
A few hours earlier I had come upon the dying man. Now I rode burdened with the task of carrying some nuggets of his gold and some coins he said were for expenses. After all, he couldn’t take it with him to that spirit in the sky.
More gold ore was to be found, he’d assured me. A lot more! About a day’s ride from where I found him before he was cut down like a dog, outside of some town up ahead. He’d called it Prescott.
Jake was his name. And some of his blood, sweat, and hard labor was hanging in the saddlebags across my horse. He had entrusted his wealth to me, a stranger—a half breed who’d happened his way in his last moments. There was a last wish.
Sure, he knew I could’ve run off with his nuggets and then cleaned out his mine. But I had been asked by a dying man to deliver the gold to his daughter. She was, he’d confessed, indentured as a washer women over a debt he had outstanding with the bank for grub-staking him on a failed mining venture. He’d borrowed a thousand dollars on the promise of a return on his investment. For the gold rush of California had extended its greedy fingers into the hills of Arizona Territory.
Some fella calling himself Ashland Baxter with a lot of influence in the nearby town of Prescott had bought up the note, eager to acquire a mine claim of Jake’s and then muscle him into paying off the note by holding his daughter for a price, a ransom.
Ashland Baxter had demanded the note be paid soon or Jake’s sixteen-year old daughter Melissa would have to work off the debt as a good-time girl down on a place they called Whiskey Row where Mr. Baxter was profiting on a number of low-down drinking establishments. Melissa’s fate was common for a woman of the frontier west left with no means to support herself.
Prescott, Jake told me, was a small mining town, southwest of the Painted Desert. I knew not the place but had the moral burden to ride there. For old Jake had staked his life and labors on freeing his daughter—lovely and innocent … if it wasn’t too late.
Jake’s undisclosed mine had yet to be filed as a claim and he’d feared it would fall into the hands of evil men who operated above the law; men with no shame for running the town into the ground.
A taste of autumn was in the air when I found Jake—a two-day ride west of Santa Fe. Nearby his horse lay dead.
My first thought when I happened upon Jake? He’d not been shot by Indians, for they would have avoided killing any horse. Had Indians frightened away Jake’s killers? It was likely, on account of the gold nuggets still there in the saddlebag under the dead horse.
I found no bullet wound on the animal. Jake had run his horse to death … from the hills northeast of Prescott to the edge of the desert. A day-long ride, in two or three hours! It was any man’s guess, until he stirred, gazing up at me all glassy-eyed.
“They come outta nowhere,” Jake told me in sagging gasps. “Done had me dead to rights … but I … I nailed ‘em … two good shots! The first one through the heart! My … second one … it busted the other fella’s arm …. Trust me, he … ain’t gonna …”
“Take it easy, old timer. You lost a sight of blood.”
“Don’t yuh pay me no mind, lad.” Jake spat blood then went on, knowing his sand was running out. “Figured I slowed ‘em a mite,” he coughed. “But them varmints … they plugged me … two shots, right into me back. I taken out … for the edge of the desert … done kilt me horse doing it. The old boy … he finally collapsed right-cher under me.”
I pulled off Jake’s boots. They were scuffed and worn, showing the endless work he’d been doing at the mine. Then I rolled a blanket under his head. He was looking more comfortable now. His eyes went glassy as he became delirious. He’d lost a sight of blood and was mumbling nonsense now. I sat with old Jake, waiting’ and thinking I’d be burying him right quick and be on my way.
I was sittin’ there silent, waiting. His breathing got regular and I thought he was sleeping. Suddenly Jake stirred again, his eyes looking straight into mine. From my canteen I dribbled water into his mouth. Finally he began to speak again, this time with more clarity.
“Reckon them boys backed off after I popped lead into two of ‘em. But you take it from me; they’ll be a follering ya, son, sure as the buzzards will circle me yonder.”
Jake, he rested hisself a bit then commenced to describing to me that claim he’d been working.
“There’s a lot more gold in there, I tell yuh. Struck me a nice vein, young fella. Amongst some Injun writing … mebbe seventy-five paces in. Don’t let ’em git it!”
He paused, his eyes distant, then gazed up at me like he was thinkin’ things through right careful. Coughing up more blood, he raised up on one elbow and drew a shaky finger across the sand: Directions to a canyon. Told of a cave, near Lynx Creek, some ten miles north out of Prescott.
“Don’t be fussin’ no more with me. I’m neigh but an old coot!” he gasped. “Just git me sweet Melissa free from them varmints over yonder in Prescott. Yuh hear? Now you … you take them nuggets … take ‘em and … ride … boy! I tell ya … git up and—”
I buried Jake in the shadows of a narrow ridge, and pulled the saddlebags with his personal effects, a couple of Golden Eagles, and mebbe a hundred dollars in nuggets from beneath his dead horse and slung ‘em over Smoke.
So, here I am carrying a dead man’s gold. I collected my bearings and set out in a southwest direction for Prescott. I’d travel slowly and take time to think through this thing, for I had much to do in the fulfillment of Jake’s request. His loan. His daughter.
Taking up where he’d left off would bring me to danger, for Jake was cut down like a dog for little more than a cowboy’s wages on a two-month cattle drive. Was there no value to a man’s life?
Now, I had me a duty to fulfill. Hadn’t planned on such. I was headed west for California. Always wanted to see San Francisco. Folks out west said sailin’ ships arrive in there from China and Japan and other far-away lands—goin’ and comin’ all the time. Figured someday I could take a job on one of them ships … if ‘n I ever get to Frisco.
Now I reckon helpin’ another man is a good thing. And when there’s a lady in need on the other end, in the throes of danger, well it makes a feller think about his moral obligations.
On the other hand, fending off a passel of ornery gunmen riding after your scalp is a matter to consider.
I cut off that trail in search of better cover. My first job was livin’. To see another sunrise. Then I’d set out to find Jake’s mine, take what I can out of it, load up and free his daughter from the bonds of …
Seemed simple enough.
Sure, a feller could cut out with a dead man’s gold and live high for a spell.
But that ain’t who I am. My Irish-born pa done taught me the ways of a decent man. Nor did I set store with Anglo folks lookin’ upon me as a no-account half-breed. My Cherokee roots were deep and we stuck true to our word.
I rode into a depression where my field of vision was keen, yet I was nowhere visible to approaching riders. The gray sky had turned dark and I set up a rough camp and rustled up some dry mesquite that would burn with no smoke. Jake’s saddlebags had some jerked beef and a spot of coffee and bread. I ate and listened to the sounds of the night. A coyote yapped from a ridge yonder, which told me nobody was creepin’ about.
Before daybreak I rolled up my bed and warmed last night’s coffee. I was in the saddle no more than an hour when I heard the pounding of hooves behind me. My Winchester slid out of its scabbard and I drew up under a lone pine tree beneath a rocky ridge.
“We know you’s in there, old man. Come out and show yourself. And that gold, hand it over … if you know what’s good fer ya.”
Under them pines I sat my horse, still and silent. I could see them past the boughs. My rifle was cocked and ready. I leveled it on the bigger one who’d done the talking. Calmly I nudged the roan out into the open.
I was lookin’ not fifteen yards at the men who’d obviously killed Jake. I wasn’t hunting trouble … but I had no tolerance for their type and the cruel ideals that came with ‘em. I ain’t never killed a man before, but I’d wounded a-plenty so as they’d think real hard b’fore huntin’ trouble again with the Llano Kid.
The three bandits were facing the other direction, peerin’ into a patch of scrub bushes where they figured Jake was holed up. Had I been a coyote of sorts, I’d a shot any one of ‘em down … right through the back!
“Lookin’ for someone?” I hollered easy-like.
Ya should’ve seen ‘em whirl! Quicker than a toilet-stop in rattlesnake country, hearin’ my voice come out of nowhere. That rankled!
Sure enough, it wasn’t me they were expectin’. Some of the hardest faces can be most amusing. Yet the fear of death was never too far from me, and I figured this was no time to be showin’ it.
“Who the hell are you?!” the big one demanded.
“They call me the Kid, the Llano Kid.”
He gave me an ugly sneer but thought better of making a move when he seen the black muzzle of my ole Winchester leveled on him.
“Well, Llano Kid, looks like we’re at a stalemate … on account of there be three of us and just one of you.”
Now, I didn’t cotton much to them odds. Not a-tall! Seeing as they was three, and maybe I could take one or two with me in a sudden shoot-out. Being too young to leave my bones out here in the middle of nowhere, I did me some quick figgering.
Sometimes a good bluff don’t hurt when a feller is lookin’ to buy time. So I answered ‘em real easy-like: “Well, mebbe I am alone … and mebbe I ain’t. Do your own bid—”
My words were cut off by a sudden shrill in the cool morning air, followed by an eerie twang. The big fella talkin’ had turned his horse just enough to be out of the way as one of his compadres fall dead to the ground—an arrow sticking through his neck.
Cursing bitterly, the two remaining gunmen wheeled their horses and fought for higher ground.
Me? I sat my horse, watching them disappear over that ridge.
I suddenly recognized the warrior’s call and laid the Winchester across my thigh. Two braves trotted their ponies into a clearing. Apaches of another clan, one of which I was unfamiliar. I waited at the ready. Did they have similar intentions for me?
Keeping their distance, one jumped down to recover his arrow. When he stood up he glanced at me. Then took up the reins of the outlaw’s horse.
Breathing again, I watched them lead off down the hillside. With some help from them warriors, I had avoided another killing. How long would it last out here in this wild country? How long could any man drifting the frontier keep his nose clean, where law was established with none but a loaded pistol or well-oiled rifle?