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 4.4 The Tracker by Anita Sanchez

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Join date : 2013-10-13

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Post4.4 The Tracker by Anita Sanchez

The Tracker
by Anita Sanchez

“Well, no doubt about it,” said Kid Curry. He looked up at his partner, Hannibal Heyes, and shook his head solemnly. “They’re both dead.”

“Both of them?” Heyes asked, raising his eyebrows. He sank down on the hot, sunbaked rock beside Kid, and wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “I told you not to be so hard on them.”

“Yep,” said Kid, with a sigh. “Dead as doornails.” He wiped his brow, too, and glanced up at the sun. “Gosh, it’s hot,” he added.

Heyes sniffed. “I can smell’em already,” he agreed.

Kid sighed again. He was stretched out on the rocks that lined the dry stream bed, trying to get as much of himself as he could under the shade of a sparse-leaved willow, but his feet stuck out into the sun. He looked down at his dusty, patched boots, raised his left foot and tugged the boot off. He stuck his finger through a gaping hole in the bottom, and shrugged. “Worn clear through,” he said. “And the other one’s just as bad. Yep, this pair of boots is dead, all right. Both of ‘em done for.”

“Well, I told you to take it easy,” Heyes took a drink from his canteen, then leaned back into the small patch of shade. “That was quite a dance last night, but you didn’t have to waltz around with every female there.”

“I’m a fair man, Heyes,” Kid said, yawning. They had been at the Picton church sociable till past midnight, and he was still sleepy. “I figured every girl deserved equal time. And if you hadn’t dragged me out of town so fast this morning, I’d have bought another pair of boots by now.”

Heyes shook his head. “I told you, that sheriff was looking at us funny all night, and I don’t think he was admiring your style on the dance floor. You can get a pair of boots in Okaton, we’ll be there by sundown.”

“You know, Heyes, you’re enough to take all the joy out of life,” Kid said severely. “You have to learn to relax and enjoy yourself now and then. When a town we’re passing through has that many pretty girls, I for one am going to take the time to appreciate them.”

“I’ll relax when there’s no wall-eyed sheriff around, looking me up and down like a...” Heyes’ voice trailed off. A few small birds were searching among the sun-bleached rocks for water, and their twittering sounded loud in the silence.

Kid looked up from an inspection of his boot sole. He took one look at his partner’s face, and his grin faded. “What?” he said in a low voice.

“I don’t know,” said Heyes slowly. He was studying the deserted road that stretched back towards the town they had left. He shaded his eyes against the noon glare, squinting into the distance, then gave his partner a glance. They both got to their feet and stood side by side, gazing at the faint puff of white dust on the horizon.

“Storm cloud,” said Kid. He looked up at the clear blue sky uneasily.

Heyes nodded, but didn’t take his eyes off the distance. “Or a dust cloud,” he said. “Wind kicked it up, maybe.”

Kid glanced at the scraggly willow, the gray leaves hanging motionless in the still, heavy air. “I don’t know,” he said. He bent to pull his boot on, then straightened and looked out at the dusty white cloud. It seemed to be a little closer. “I don’t know,” he said again. “Couldn’t be a posse, could it?”

The sun was setting as Heyes limped along the dusty track that led to the town. His head was still spinning from the fall he’d taken, and his feet hurt from the long walk. But he kept trudging. He had to keep going, no matter what; there was no time to lose.

The town of Okaton was just up ahead, dim in the evening shadows. Lamps were starting to gleam in the windows as he approached. It looked like any other small town, a cluster of shops and houses, and a saloon or two. Heyes quietly walked on the shadowed side of the street, careful not to draw any attention to himself. He was weary to the bone, and looked longingly at the warm light from the hotel windows, but he knew he didn’t have time for that. He was too far behind.

Just as he’d feared, there was an excited crowd around the sheriff’s office. As he watched, a dozen men emerged from the doorway, shouting and brandishing rifles. Heyes ducked hastily into an alley, and immediately tripped over something, crashing full length to the ground.

He got to his feet, cursing under his breath, and looked around to see what he had fallen over. It was a man, propped up against a wall, a big hat tipped over his face. “Sorry about that,” Heyes muttered, but there was no answer. A gentle snore issued from under the hat.

Heyes peered across the street from the shelter of the alley. The men had split up, some heading for the saloon, others for the general store. Three of the men were heading straight towards him. Heyes considered running, but knew they’d see him; at the last minute, he flopped down next to the sleeping figure, and pulled his own hat low over his eyes.

The three men strode down the alley; Heyes heard their spurs jingling as they walked. Then he heard the footsteps slow, and they stopped right in front of him. Heyes peeked out from under his hat, and saw a dark-faced fellow give the sleeping man next to him a vicious kick. Heyes frowned, but said nothing. He couldn’t afford to call attention to himself.

“Come on, Gates,” said one of the men. “Leave Marvin alone for once.”

“Got to clean the trash out of the alleyway,” said Gates, and gave the seated man another kick. The man made no sound. “Drunk again,” Gates said, shaking his head.

“Oh, yeah?” said Marvin, raising his hat. “Me, too.”

Gates’ two companions roared with laughter, and continued down the alley. “Give it up, Zeb,” said one over his shoulder. “Come on, we’ve got to get going.”

Gates ignored them, and gave the man a savage kick. “Hey!” said Heyes, before he could stop himself. Gates ignored him and drew back his foot again.

“Stop that,” said Heyes, scrambling to his feet.

“Mind your own business, stranger,” Gates said over his shoulder. “It’s only a drunken Indian.” Gates hauled Marvin to his feet, and drew back his fist. “I’ll teach you to answer back to a white man,” he said.

Heyes grabbed the man’s shoulder and spun him around. Marvin slumped to the ground as Heyes and the other man stared at each other, hands hovering near the handles of their revolvers.

Suddenly a shout came down the alley. “Gates, we got to get going! If you want the job, come on right now!” A man stood at the end of the alleyway, a large silver star on his vest. Heyes quickly turned away, drawing back into the shadows.

Gates gave Heyes a cold look. “I’ll settle with you later,” he said. He turned on his heel and strode off down the alley.

“Get a move on!” the sheriff called. “What the heck are you doing, anyway?”

“Oh, just cleaning up some trash,” said Gates.

“Well, never mind that now,” said the sheriff. “We’ve got to get after Curry!”

He was awakened from a dream of buffalo running by the harsh sound of someone banging on the door. The thunder of hoofs pounding the earth slowly faded into a persistent hammering, punctuated by shouts. Marvin blinked in the darkness, as the sun-lit prairie faded away.

It was indeed the sound of someone knocking at the door of his shack, and this was strange. The Okaton townsfolk never came to his door to seek him out. They were more likely to turn their heads away as he shuffled down the street, or look through him as if he were a ghost. Occasionally, a boy would chuck a rock at him.

He rolled over and closed his eyes again, and sought the dark shapes of the buffalo running through golden grass. But there it was again, that strange knocking. He blinked away the last shreds of the dream and sat up. “Stop that!” he shouted.

“Open up!” called an unfamiliar voice--a man’s voice, rough and angry.

“Go away,” he replied, holding his aching head.

“You Marvin?” the voice inquired, muffled through the rickety door. “The Indian? The tracker?”

“Nope,” he called back. “Wrong house.”

“This is the only house for half a mile in any direction,” the voice shouted. “Let me in or I’ll kick the door down!”

There seemed no profit in arguing further, and the door, flimsy as it was, had taken a while to build. Marvin heaved a sigh and rolled out of bed, stumbling over the empty whiskey bottle on the floor. He swung the door open just as the stranger aimed a tremendous kick at it, and was barely in time to jump out of the way. The man almost fell over from the force of the swing, then caught himself on the doorframe. He put a determined smile on his face, and held out his hand. Marvin ignored both.

“I’m looking for a tracker,” said the man. He was a young fellow, with dark hair and a pleasant face. Marvin peered through the darkness and recognized him as the stranger he had seen in the alleyway.

The man took off his black hat and smiled, and then looked over his shoulder as though fearing eavesdroppers, though no one else was near. He leaned forward confidentially, and lowered his voice. “I’m on the trail of a dangerous outlaw. Word is he’s headed into the badlands, and I need a man who knows the country. I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Yeah?” Marvin said with a flicker of interest. He’d spent his last nickel a week ago, and ranch work was hard to get. “Who is it?”

“Kid Curry.”

Marvin started to swing the door shut, but the stranger jammed his boot in the door. “Big game,” said Marvin, frowning. “Hard to catch. Dangerous.”

“Like I said, I’ll make it worth your while.” The man’s dark eyes scanned him, peering through the dim moonlight.

Marvin shook his head. It sounded like too much trouble. “Not interested,” he said. “Anyway, you want Zeb Gates, he’s the best tracker in these parts.”

“That’s what I hear, but he’s been hired already.”

“By who?” asked Marvin, surprised.

“The posse, from Picton. They’ve been after Curry all day, but he got ahead of them. They think he headed off into the desert.”

“Yeah, well, you need Gates,” said Marvin. “He knows the badlands.”

“They hired him, I tell you. They’re getting ready to head out after Curry. We’ve got to get moving right away.”

“So you’re a bounty hunter?” said Marvin, looking him up and down curiously. The stranger looked grim, his face unshaven and dirty, his clothes dusty from long riding.

“Yep,” said the man. “And I’m going to get to him first. We leave right now, I’ll pay you double...triple…what the posse’s paying.”

“How much?” Marvin inquired. He rubbed his face, trying to wake up.

“I got twenty dollars now...” the man began. He pulled out a handful of silver dollars and held them under Marvin’s nose. Marvin looked at his warm and comfortable bed, then back at the coins and started to shake his head. Then he looked at the man’s face, and was surprised to see desperation...and fear? “And we’ll split the bounty if we catch him,” said the stranger urgently. “I’ll give you five thousand dollars.”

Marvin raised his eyebrows. “He’s worth that much to you?”

“Oh, yes,” the man said quietly. “Worth all that. Worth more.”

Heyes paced back and forth on the ridge just outside the town of Okaton. His horse stood unmoving on the shadeless rocks, head drooping. Already the heat was beginning to make itself felt, though the morning sun was still touching the horizon. Ahead of him stretched a broad expanse of desert, flat and white, with jagged hills in the distance.

Heyes looked back over his shoulder towards the nearby houses, and sighed with relief when he saw a figure riding slowly towards him. “Finally!” he said out loud, and mounted his horse.

The rider plodded on, and Heyes nudged his horse in the ribs and jogged over to meet him. It was Marvin, riding a skinny rat-tailed mare, whose saddle was festooned with canteens; Heyes counted at least half-a-dozen.

The tracker nodded at him sleepily, as though he’d just woken up. “Where have you been?” Heyes demanded. “The posse headed out an hour ago. They’re out of sight already.”

Marvin yawned widely. “I told you, no sense rushing off into the badlands without food or water. Might as well shoot ourselves in the head and be done with it.”

Heyes snorted impatiently as he swung his horse around. He glanced at the tracker as they rode side by side. Last night he had assumed the Indian was an old man, from his bent back and lined face. But in the morning sun, his face was worn, but not ancient--he seemed not much older than Heyes himself. His skin was the color of saddle leather, and his long black hair was pulled back in a pigtail, which suited Heyes’s notion of what an Indian should look like. But he wore regular clothes, a ragged shirt and vest, and patched trousers, topped off with a high-crowned hat.

Marvin glanced idly at Heyes’ horse, and raised his eyebrows slightly. “That’s Ben Tuller’s horse,” he said. “Been for sale for a while.”

“Yeah, I bought him this morning,” said Heyes. “My horse put his foot in a prairie dog hole yesterday, and I had to shoot him.”

“While you were chasing Curry?” Marvin asked.

“That’s right. He was moving fast, but I’d almost caught up.”

Marvin glanced at Heyes again. “That’s a nasty bruise you got there,” he remarked. “Must have come down pretty hard.”

Heyes felt the side of his face gingerly, and grimaced. “Yeah,” he said.

“Only prairie-dog town around here’s about five miles outside town,” Marvin observed. “Aren’t many left, ranchers shoot’em all. You walk the rest of the way?”

“Mm,” said Heyes, anxious to change the subject. “So shouldn’t you be looking at the ground for signs or something?”

“Oh, you can find signs in all sorts of places,” said Marvin. He drew rein, and they both stopped and looked over the barren land in front of them.

The dry land stretched bare and sunbaked, the dirt cracked in spider-web patterns. Only on the distant ridges were there a few hints of green. The tracker reached down and checked to be sure each canteen was securely attached to the saddle. “Not much out there,” he said. “We’re at least two day’s ride from water. Got enough food?”

Heyes nodded impatiently. “One’s saddlebag’s full of hard tack, the other one’s full of beans.”

“Yeah, but have you got any food?” said Marvin.

Heyes laughed reluctantly. “I’ll buy you a steak when we catch up with the Kid,” he promised.

“With the reward money?” said Marvin, and showed white teeth in a broad smile. “That’ll buy a lot of steaks.”

Heyes frowned. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Where do we start?” asked Marvin, looking around idly.

Heyes ground his teeth and wondered if he should demand his twenty dollars back. “You’re supposed to tell me!” he said. “Kid Curry was seen riding out this way yesterday, but then it got dark, who knows which way he headed? You’ve got to pick up his tracks.”

Marvin sighed, and climbed off his horse. He strolled along aimlessly, glancing down at the dusty ground from time to time. Heyes dismounted too, and strode over to a broad trail that was clearly recent, leading off into the desert. “This way,” he called.

Marvin ambled over and surveyed the wide swath of hoofmarks and horse droppings. He nodded gravely. “My, you’re quite a tracker yourself,” he said. “What do you need me for?”

“Well, the posse went this way,” Heyes pointed out.

“Bunch of hound dogs chasing their tails,” said Marvin. “That possum’s up a different tree.”

“Think so?” Heyes asked.

Marvin nodded. “Curry’s too smart to start off through a draw like this, where there’s nothing but soft dirt. No, he left a few tracks here on purpose, maybe, but then he’d look for a harder surface.” He continued his rambling walk while Heyes tapped his foot.

Finally Marvin squatted down on his heels, studying the ground, and Heyes hurried over.

“Found something?” he demanded.

Marvin pointed to a solitary footprint in a tiny pocket of sand on the surface of the rock. “Well, someone went off by himself here, about twelve hours ago,” he said. “Could have been Curry.”

Heyes looked at the boot print and his eyes widened. There was the round mark of a hole in the middle of the sole. “That’s it,” he said positively. “That’s him.”

“You sure?” asked Marvin. “How do you know?”

Heyes shrugged carelessly. “Just a hunch.”

Marvin gazed at him for a minute, and nodded slowly. “Well,” he said, looking back down at the rocks. “Could be him--tall man, five feet eleven inches, one hundred’n sixty-five pounds.”

Heyes snorted. “You can’t tell all that from a couple of scuffs in the dirt!” he said. “You don’t fool me, you just read his description on the wanted poster.”

“Sure I can,” said Marvin. “And he’s got sixty-seven cents in change in his pocket, too.” He stood and looked out at the sun-bleached, dry soil, as hard as cement. “Bad lands,” he said softly, as though talking to himself. “Mako sica.”

Heyes tapped an impatient foot. “That what the Indians call it?” he asked, and Marvin nodded.

“Mako sica,” Heyes repeated, not liking the sound of the words. “What’s it mean?”

“Bad lands,” Marvin explained. “‘Course, Indians don’t go there much.” He looked up at the distant cliffs and spires of gray stone. “A man would have to be...well, he’d have to be one of two things to go off into the badlands. He’d have to be pretty desperate.” He glanced at Heyes, who looked away hastily.

“Yeah?” Heyes said. “Or what else?”

“Lost,” said Marvin, gazing at the barren hills. “He’d have to be lost.”

They mounted and set off at an even pace that seemed agonizingly slow to Heyes. Marvin led the way, bending low over the mare’s neck from time to time. Heyes could see no sign of footprints or hoofmarks, but Marvin seemed to be following a clear road. The invisible trail led across the flat plain, and began to meander through hump-backed hills and ridges.

After an hour of slow plodding, they came to a dry streambed, a narrow ravine where water had long ago flowed over tumbled gray rocks. Marvin frowned, and swung off his horse. He bent and studied the ground for a moment. “Ah, good,” he said, nodding.

“What? What?” Heyes demanded.

“When the posse was chasing Curry, think they got close enough to get some shots off?” Marvin asked.

“Yeah, why?” Heyes answered uneasily. He remembered his last, half-dazed sight of Kid riding desperately, bent low over his horse--leading the posse away from where Heyes lay sprawled in the dust, while the pursuers blazed away, close behind.

“Well, they got him,” said Marvin. “That’s good, it’ll make our job easier.”

“How do you know?” Heyes demanded, feeling a cold weight on his chest. “I don’t see any blood or anything.”

“Well, he got off here to see if he could fill his canteen, and he’s favoring his right leg. He almost fell when he got off his horse, leg must have buckled underneath him.” Marvin ran his finger over a scrape in the dirt, then stood and traced the marks with his eye. “Went over this way to look for water, limping pretty good, looking over his shoulder every few steps.”

“How on earth do you know he was looking over his shoulder?”

“See that left footmark? Deeper pressure on the outside of the foot as he turns his head to the right--he’s right-handed, yes?”

“Yeah,” Heyes admitted.

“Short, uneven steps, looking over his shoulder every few feet.” Marvin looked at the watercourse, where even Heyes could see that rocks had been pushed about. “He was looking for a seep under a rock. Looking pretty hard, too. Nothing but sand under here, though, this stream’s been dry a long time.” Marvin returned to the starting point. “Took him three tries to get back up on his horse.” He pointed to three almost invisible scratches in the dirt.

Heyes rubbed a hand over his eyes, and tried to look happy. “Well, so far, so good,” he said, in a hearty voice. “What else can you tell?”

Marvin looked up. “Well, it’s good news for us all around,” he said cheerfully. “He’s hurt, he’s running out of water, and pretty soon he’s going to start doing stupid things.”

“I thought you said Kid Curry was so smart,” Heyes said. “What makes you say he’ll start doing stupid things?”

Marvin shrugged. “He’s getting scared.”

The tracker strolled along the streambed, then began to circle in his usual aimless way, glancing up at the sky as often as he did at the ground. Heyes waited, drumming his fingers on his saddle horn. Finally he got off the horse and began to scout around for himself. He approached the spot where Marvin was ambling.

“Get out of here,” Marvin said, not looking up. “Leave your tracks someplace else.”

Heyes bristled. “You may not believe this, but I was the champeen tracker of southern Utah.”

“Mm,” Marvin grunted. Heyes wandered off, staring down at the ground intently.

Suddenly he spotted a distinct track, two curved lines facing each other a couple of inches apart: the print of a boot-heel. “Here!” he called. Marvin ignored him. “Over here, I picked up his track.”

Marvin came over and glanced at the marks. “Hmm,” he said, nodding. “Well, you’re certainly on to something.”

“It’s a track, right?”

“Well, yes, but...”

“But nothing, who else could it be?” Heyes spotted a similar mark in the dirt, about two feet away. “Come on. He’s heading in this direction.” Marvin shrugged and followed obediently as Heyes scrambled up a ridge, following the tracks. “He went this way, right?” Heyes demanded, and Marvin bent and looked closer.

“Yes, this way, but actually I’d say it’s a female.”


Marvin nodded gravely. “And a young one at that...five, six months.”

“That’s impossible,” said Heyes, staring at him.

“Oh, no, there’s a few fawns around here,” Marvin said. “Hoof prints that size, with that narrow straddle, got to be a doe.” Heyes opened his mouth to argue, but Marvin pointed to a neat pile of oval, brown pellets that were unmistakably the droppings of mule deer.

They clambered back down the ridge, and Heyes stood patiently by his horse while Marvin resumed his circling. Finally he swung himself on his mare, and they headed off towards the cliffs that rose high over the flat plain.

The steep ledges looked unclimbable from a distance, but as they drew closer, Heyes could see faint paths running up along the canyon walls. They came to a spot halfway up a ridge, where the sandy dirt turned to solid rock underfoot. Marvin got off his horse and scouted around again, but this time it seemed to take forever; he squatted down here and there, then knelt, then lay flat on the ground for a long time, so that Heyes, fuming and fidgeting in the saddle, wondered if he’d gone to sleep.

Finally Marvin got to his feet, and gave his usual shrug. “Well, couple of ways he could have gone,” he said, rubbing his chin. “Too rocky here to be sure. We’ll have to try both ways and see.”

“That’ll take time, though,” said Heyes anxiously

“Yeah, if we guess wrong.” Marvin’s dark eyes looked up at him. “Well, you’re the champeen tracker, what do you think?” He pointed down the ridge. “If we’re lucky, he went that way, downhill. Good chance to find water, but there’s no cover--good chance to get caught.”

Marvin looked up at the sun-bleached crags and ridges of rock above them. “If he was a stubborn cuss, though, he’d go to high ground--no water, but he’ll be a lot harder to find. What do you think?”

Heyes looked up at the ridge. The black silhouette of a vulture drifted by the sunlit cliffs, and he watched it in silence for a moment, rubbing his chin and pretending to consider. He didn’t want to let on what an easy question it was. “High ground, I guess,” he said after a while. He looked back up to where the vulture still soared, tilting lazily in the sun. “High ground,” he said again.

They followed a narrow path along the canyon rim. Marvin rode ahead, and Heyes could see the sparse, black pigtail bobbing between his shoulders. From time to time Heyes heard a low, droning noise, and he glanced around, wondering what it might be. It sounded like the droning of bees in a hive, but he certainly couldn’t see any sign of insects in the hot glare. “Too hot for flies, even,” he murmured, rubbing the sweat off his face with his sleeve. The droning noise continued, though, till he began to wonder if it came from the rocks themselves. Finally he realized that the sound was Marvin, singing: a lazy, low-pitched chant that went on and on, blending with the plod of the horses.

After a long while the droning stopped, and Marvin drew rein and turned in the saddle. “Good guess,” he said, with an odd glance at Heyes. “You must know how Curry thinks.”

“Sure,” said Heyes warily. “It’s the sign of a good bounty hunter, gotta know the quarry.”
Marvin pointed to the ground. “Well, he came this way, all right.”

“I don’t see anything.” Heyes fanned himself with his hat as he glanced down. The rock surface had given way to bare, sandy soil, but there was no sign of footprints or hoofmarks.

“Exactly,” said Marvin. “He swept this stretch to hide his tracks. Did a pretty good job, too. Used a willow branch. See the marks of the long, thin leaves, and the twig scratches?”

Heyes got off his horse and stared at the ground, then got to his knees. He bent over till he could smell the dusty, dry scent of the earth, and by nearly putting his nose in the dirt he could see faint parallel lines, back and forth across the path.

He climbed back on his horse, and they plodded on. Marvin rode with his head bobbing and eyes almost shut, and Heyes would have thought he was asleep, except that the droning song had broken out again. It had a contented sound, almost like the purr of a big cat, and Heyes was beginning to suspect that it was a sign they were on the right trail.

Heyes began to scan the ground intently. Kid’s branch had swept the dust into a smooth blank page, and the marks of everything that had passed since were plainly recorded. He could see the tiny tracks of a lizard, like dainty stitching on the sand, and the dots and dashes of jackrabbit tracks, the big hind feet leaving long lines next to the round forepaw tracks. Even the passing of a beetle had left a series of prints, a long row of dots like pinpricks in the dirt.

He spotted a footprint, with the familiar hole in the center of the boot sole, and looked up excitedly. “Here’s where he stopped erasing the tracks,” he called to Marvin. The tracker nodded, and pointed to a broken-off willow branch with wilted leaves, lying on the ground a few feet off the trail. Heyes eagerly followed the stumbling footprints, where Kid had limped and dragged his feet while leading the horse towards a low rock outcropping. He saw the faint scrape on the rock where Kid had used it as a stepping stool to pull himself up into the saddle. The hoofmarks of Kid’s horse led up the hill, the prints uneven and close together; the tired horse had traveled at a slow walk as the ground began to slope steeply upwards.

Marvin glanced at a hoof print. “Six hours old,” he said. “The edge is just starting to crumble. We’re gaining on him.”

They rested for a few minutes under the shade of a rocky overhang, and took a drink from their canteens. Marvin gave a satisfied nod. “Well, so far we’ve got Curry all to ourselves, no sign of that posse.” He sniffed. “Zeb Gates thinks he knows everything, but he couldn’t track a herd of cows. Claims his grandmother was Pawnee, but if you ask me, he’s pure white.”

“How about you?” Heyes asked, glancing curiously at his companion. “You a real Indian?”

“My mother was Lakota,” Marvin said. He took a long swallow from the canteen.

“That an Indian?” Heyes asked. He took a sip from his canteen; the water was warm and gritty, but it tasted like nectar.

Marvin smiled. “Kind of,” he said, shrugging.

“Don’t know much about Indians,” said Heyes. “There weren’t any around where I grew up. We just heard stories about them when we were kids.”

“Yeah?” Marvin inquired. “What kinds of stories?”

Heyes shrugged. “Oh, you know, all kinds of stories about massacres and scalpings and such.”

Marvin took another drink, then screwed the canteen top on tightly. He said nothing, and Heyes went on, “I remember there used to be big round scrapes on the prairie, and people said that they were old buffalo wallows. People said buffalo used to graze on the prairies, and the Indians used to hunt them. But the buffalo are all gone, too.”

“Never saw a buffalo?” Marvin asked him.

Heyes shook his head. “Nope. Nothing but cows where I grew up. You ever see any buffalo?”

“Some,” said Marvin. “Well, let’s get back to work.”

They followed the trail for a long time, as Marvin hummed his endless song, and the shadows moved and lengthened. The sun floated low in the hazy sky, and birds flew overhead, heading for the clusters of stunted trees on the ridge-tops and in the valleys. “Only an hour of tracking light left, when the birds start to roost,” said Marvin, glancing at the sun.

Birds twittered sleepily from a clump of scrub oaks nearby. “Well, let’s hurry, then,” Heyes said.

“I am hurrying,” said Marvin, and continued on at what seemed to Heyes a snail’s pace. Heyes fidgeted, looking over his shoulder every few minutes; he kicked his horse to a trot, then pulled him back to a walk. Still Marvin plodded on, his droning song blending with the wind that moaned around the tall rock outcrops.

Marvin looked up, tilting his head as though listening. “We’ve got company,” he said in a low voice.

Heyes strained his ears to listen, but the darkening landscape was silent. “I don’t hear a thing,” he whispered.

Marvin nodded, frowning. “No birds,” he said. “They stop calling and lie low when a predator comes by.”

Heyes glanced back over his shoulder, but saw nothing but bare rock and a few stunted cedars. He dismounted and lay on his stomach to look over the edge of the steep path. He caught a movement in the canyon below, and felt a sudden jolt of fear. In the shadows he could make out a group of riders moving along the canyon floor. “It’s them,” he said.

Marvin joined him and peered over the edge. “It’s getting too dark to track,” he said quietly. “They’ll have to camp where they are if they don’t want to lose the trail. So will we, for that matter,” he added.

Heyes watched, peering through the shadows as the group slowed and came to a halt in a ring of low, scrubby trees. There were ten or more men, each with a rifle in a saddle holster. “You say their tracker’s not much good, eh?” Heyes said thoughtfully.

Marvin snorted. “His grandmother may have been a Pawnee, but he can’t tell a rabbit track from a prairie dog.”

“So you think if they saw the tracks of a lone horse, they’d figure it was the Kid?” Heyes went on.

Marvin shrugged contemptuously. “Gates can’t tell one horse’s trail from another,” he said.

“Can you?” asked Heyes.

“Sure,” said Marvin, rolling over on his back and closing his eyes. “Horse-shoes, nail prints, stride...all different.”

“How’d you learn all this stuff, anyway?” Heyes asked curiously.

“My uncle, my mother’s brother,” said Marvin, pulling the big hat over his eyes. “He was a tracker.”

Heyes nodded, still looking down at the posse below. “What’d he track, buffalo and such?” he asked.

Marvin snorted. “Actually it isn’t too hard to track a herd of buffalo,” he said. “A thousand buffalo leave a bit of a trail. Track a mouse, now, that’s hard. Or a lizard.” He smiled reminiscently. “He could track a bird in the air.”

Heyes laughed. “Sure,” he said, and got to his feet. “Well, you wait here, I’ll be right back.”

“You’re crazy,” said Marvin, lifting the hat brim and staring up at him. “They catch you leaving a false trail, they’re liable to shoot first and ask questions later.”

“Hey, they’ll never catch on,” said Heyes, and smiled at him. “They haven’t got a real Indian tracker.”

Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, the two most successful outlaws in the history of the west. And in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone.

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4.4 The Tracker by Anita Sanchez :: Comments

Re: 4.4 The Tracker by Anita Sanchez
Post on Sat 21 Mar 2015, 2:27 pm by royannahuggins

Marvin watched as his companion cantered off down the narrow ridge at a pace too fast for safety. He shook his head, then led his horse a little further up the steep slope, to a circle of boulders that gave the illusion of shelter. He unsaddled the mare, then pulled a bottle from his saddlebag, and sat down on the ground. He took a small sip, then another, watching the stars brighten into their familiar patterns.

He sang softly to himself, the song of the tracker, rocking back and forth and chanting as he watched the darkness thicken. He sipped at the bottle as the black sky behind the cliffs began to glow gray, then silver, till finally a lop-sided moon rose slowly. He drained the bottle, then wrapped himself in a blanket, closed his eyes and sank into a dream of buffalo running through golden grass.

When Heyes got back, Marvin was snoring in his blanket, and Heyes nudged him with his foot. “Hey, wake up,” he said. “We should find a more sheltered place to sleep.” There was no reply. “Come on, let’s get moving,” said Heyes, but the tracker didn’t stir.

Heyes bent over him, frowning, then saw the glint of moonlight on glass. He picked up the empty bottle, sniffed it, then shook his head angrily and heaved it into the bushes.

He glanced around the moonlit rocks, and decided that it would be safe to rest here for an hour. He spread his blanket on the most comfortable spot he could find, then lay looking up at the moon. Yawning, he rubbed his tired eyes. “Should find a better spot…”

But he hadn’t realized just how tired he was. He’d been on the move all day yesterday, up all night, then the long trail had filled the day from sunrise to midnight. He closed heavy eyelids. “Just for a minute,” he murmured. “I’ll get up in a minute...”

Marvin was deep in his usual dream, the refuge he found every night. The buffalo were nosing through green grass that sparkled with sunflowers and fireweed. The long-legged calves, their fur as bright as copper pennies, frolicked under the watchful eyes of their mothers; on a distant ridge a great bull buffalo stood to guard the herd. Then a gunshot exploded, louder than any Marvin had ever heard, and the bull fell, dead.

Marvin sat up, heart pounding, to find that the shot had been no dream. His companion, the young bounty-hunter, was scrambling to his feet, blinking and rubbing his eyes. The moon had set and it was the gray hour before dawn, but there was no birdsong. All around them was a ring of armed men on horseback.

Heyes stared up at the man who held the smoking rifle, and wondered desperately what kind of bluff might be most likely to work. He opened his mouth to start talking, but his mind was still fogged with sleep, and he couldn’t think of a thing to say.

The stranger with the rifle wore a large star on his chest, and didn’t seem interested in conversation. “Hands up,” he ordered. “Zeb, get their guns.” Gates dismounted, giving Heyes an unpleasant smile. He went behind them, and Heyes felt the tug at his side as the gun was yanked from his holster.

“Who are you?” demanded the sheriff.

“Joshua Smith’s the name,” said Heyes, trying to look confident and relaxed. “I’m a bounty hunter.”

“Ah, a bounty hunter,” said the sheriff, raising his brows. He was a big, wide-shouldered man, clean-shaven, with pale blue eyes that looked Heyes over keenly. “And you’re after Curry, too,” he said in a tone of mild curiosity.

“That’s right.” Heyes gave him a friendly smile, as one colleague to another. “Been chasing him for weeks. He’s worth a lot of money.”

“That’s true,” said the sheriff, nodding understandingly. He took his hat off, showing white hair that made him look grandfatherly. “And you thought you’d try tracking him.”

“Hired me a tracker,” Heyes agreed, encouraged that the sheriff seemed to be believing his story. He gestured to where Marvin still sat wrapped in his blanket, his big hat pulled low over his eyes. “This is him, Marvin...” he hesitated. “Marvin. He’s a Lakota,” he added.

The sheriff didn’t look in Marvin’s direction, but pointed to where their horses stood tethered. “We followed the trail of a lone horse here. That you?”

“Yeah,” said Heyes, and smiled pleasantly. “I was scouting around. Sorry, didn’t mean to confuse you.” He looked at Gates and shook his head regretfully. “Why, I figured you could certainly tell my horse from Curry’s. I mean, horseshoes, nail prints, stride...they’re all so different. Having a little trouble with your eyes, maybe?”

“You were trying to leave a false trail,” said Gates angrily. “You went around in circles for an hour...”

“Shut up,” the sheriff interrupted. He gave Heyes a thoughtful smile. “So you’re on Curry’s trail and you want to try for the reward, you and your friend here.”

“Sure,” said Heyes. “We got every right, same as you. It’s a free country.”

“Sure,” the man said, nodding affably. “For white men it, it is.”

The sheriff swung himself off his horse and walked towards Heyes. “You got no business here, bounty hunter.” He glanced down at Marvin, still sitting hunched on the ground. “And take off your hat when a white man’s talking to you, redskin.”

He thrust the rifle forward and flipped Marvin’s broad-brimmed hat off his head. “That’s a white man’s hat, where’d you steal that? I thought Indians wore feathers.”

Marvin sat as though carved out of rock.” Stop that,” Heyes said furiously. “Leave him alone.”

“Shut up,” said the sheriff, swinging the rifle towards him. “We got on Curry’s trail long before you did, and we aren’t sharing the reward with no Indian.” He looked around and pointed at two of his followers. “Saddle up their horses, you two. Joe, Sam, you can each lead one.”

The men of the posse looked at each other uneasily. The two obeyed the sheriff and dismounted, walking reluctantly towards the horses while the others watched.

“Come on, now,” Heyes said, trying for a reasonable tone. “You can’t take our horses. All our food and water’s in those saddlebags.”

“Tough luck,” said the sheriff. “Get a move on, Sam, the sun’ll be up soon.”

“You can’t do that,” said Heyes, his voice rising a notch. He looked around at the ring of men, and one after the other, they looked away; not one met his eyes. He thought how ordinary they looked, like any townsfolk one might see behind a shop counter or driving a wagon. The two men heaved the heavy saddles up on the horses’ backs as Heyes watched, remembering what Marvin had said, that without water in the badlands, they might as well shoot themselves.

“You can’t do this,” he said again, in a steady voice. “It’s murder.”

“It’s only murder if you kill a white man,” said the sheriff.

“He’s got a point, sheriff,” said one of the men, rubbing his chin uneasily. “He’s not an Indian.”

The sheriff smiled at Heyes with cold eyes. “If you lie down with dogs,” he said, “you get fleas.”

Heyes watched them ride off down the ridge, the last two men leading the stolen horses. His mind was still blurred with fatigue. Rubbing both hands over his face, he turned and saw the tracker watching him silently.

Marvin picked up the big hat, dusted it off, and put it back on, pulling it low so that the wide brim hid his eyes. “Well,” he said, and stretched as though just getting out of a comfortable bed. “Guess we better get going. If we head down the draw, and get down the ridge into the next canyon, we just might get to water before nightfall. There’s a spring down there, or used to be, if it hasn’t gone dry.” He looked at the eastern horizon, where a bright spark of sunlight was just edging over the rocks. “I think we’ve got a good chance.”

“Lots of gullies and dead-end canyons back there, they all look alike,” Heyes said. “You won’t get lost on the way back, will you?”

Marvin snorted. “Good trackers never get lost,” he said. “They back-track, back to where they came from.”

Heyes nodded. He glanced at the downward path that led off the ridge; back to the town, and water, and a comfortable bed, and safety. Then he gazed up the steep slope ahead of them. The cliffs at the top of the ridge barred the way like a prison wall.

He drew a deep breath, and held out his hand. “I guess this is where we say goodbye.”

Marvin’s eyebrows raised high. “You’re still going after Curry?”

Heyes nodded. “I want to thank you for your help,” he said, still holding out his hand.

Marvin stared at him for a long minute, then shrugged. “Okay,” he said, and turned away. He rolled up his blanket and threw it over his shoulder, looking around at the bare ground where their horses and saddles had been.

“Well, I guess I’m all packed,” he said. “Nothing like traveling light. Let’s go.” When Heyes just stared at him, he said “We should get a move on, it’ll be getting hot soon.”

“What d’you mean, we?” demanded Heyes. “You’re coming, too?”

Marvin nodded solemnly. “I admire a man who’s as dedicated to his work as you are.”

Heyes gave him a sidelong glance. “Well, ten thousand dollars is a lot of money,” he said defensively.

“It is,” Marvin agreed. “Let’s get after it. After all, we know where Kid Curry is.”

“We do?”

“Sure.” He pointed to the faint line of tracks leading up the ridge. “He’s right at the end of this trail.”

Heat rose off the rocks in rippling waves, making the distant cliff faces dance. The walls of rock seemed to shift and move, first seeming closer, then farther away. The two men moved slowly upwards through the narrowing valley. Heyes walked bent over, scanning the ground for tracks. But the earth underfoot was rocky, and the line of hoof prints soon faded away.

Every time Heyes glanced hopefully at Marvin, he noticed that the tracker was strolling along looking upwards, not down. As the morning drew on, Marvin spent more time gazing at the sky than at the ground.

“What the heck are you doing?” Heyes finally asked. “You expect to find Kid Curry up in the clouds?”

“Like I said, you can find signs in all sorts of places,” Marvin replied absently, and continued to gaze upwards.

Heyes squinted up at the blank sky, white in the noonday glare. He saw nothing but the small, black shape of a vulture gliding high overhead. As he watched, the bird tilted wide wings and spiraled a little lower, veering off to the right. Marvin nodded slightly, and headed in the same direction. Another vulture appeared in the distance, and also began a casual circle downwards, towards a narrow ravine. Heyes felt a chill run down his back in spite of the heat.

The ground grew steeper as they headed towards the ravine. Marvin bent down, and Heyes, craning over his shoulder, spotted the familiar holed boot-print once more.

“He got off here,” said Marvin. “Has to lead the horse now.” He shook his head, wiping the sweat from his face. “This is a dead end,” he said, frowning. “At least on horseback. A man could maybe climb up over those cliffs and get down to water on the other side, but a horse would have to grow wings to get over there.”

“Maybe Kid’s going to try climbing,” Heyes suggested.

“Not with that leg,” said Marvin. He pointed to a set of scuff-marks and two clear hand-prints. Heyes stared at them for a moment before he realized Kid must have fallen and then pushed himself back up.

A little further ahead, the ravine divided into a dozen little canyons and gullies. Heyes scanned the rocky walls on either side, dotted with twisted cedar roots clawed into the steep rock. “He could have gone up any one of these gullies,” Heyes said, kicking with his heel at the hard surface underfoot that revealed no trace of prints. “It’ll take hours to check‘em all.”

The tracker got to his knees, and then lay face down. He had loosened his pigtail, and his black hair flowed over the rock. Heyes stared down at the motionless figure for a while, then paced and muttered, while Marvin lay on the ground. Heyes gritted his teeth, trying to keep from pestering the tracker with questions, till he couldn’t stand it any longer. “What are you looking for, exactly?” he asked. “There’s no chance of footprints here. What can you possibly hope to see?”

“Anything...anything out of place. A broken pine needle. A pebble kicked on its side. Anything.” Marvin inched across the baking rock on fingertips and toetips, reminding Heyes of a rattlesnake’s boneless glide.

Finally, the tracker stood up and rubbed his back. “Honestly, I’m getting too old for this,” he said. Heyes said nothing, just raised his eyebrows and waited as patiently as he could while Marvin drummed his fingers on his belt. Finally, the tracker tilted his head towards the mouth of a narrow gully. “Let’s give this one a try,” he said.

They scrambled up the steep incline, following a line of cracked and broken rocks that were the remains of a long-dried watercourse. Sure enough, only a little way further on, Marvin’s humming broke out again, and Heyes gave a tired grin as he saw prints in a drift of sand. Marvin grinned, too. “See the sharp edge on that heel-mark? Not two hours old.”

“Should I try shouting?” Heyes suggested. “He might be close enough to hear me...” He broke off as he saw Marvin give him another odd look.

The sun simmered on the back of Heyes’ neck as he walked with head low, scanning the trail. He bent lower, his back aching, trying to puzzle out the meaning of every smudge in the sand. Sweat dripped from his face into the dust. Marvin moved noiselessly ahead, using his hands as well as his feet, nose almost touching the earth.

A shadow passed over the ground, and Heyes looked up. It was the vulture again, sailing in lazy circles, his shadow falling far below him. Heyes rubbed the sweat out of his eyes, then frowned, as he spotted a glimpse of blue up ahead, among a scattered pile of rocks. He peered through the sun-glare, realizing that it was what Marvin had said they were looking for--something out of place. Then he caught his breath and began to run, towards where an arm in a blue sleeve was sticking out behind a rock, flat on the ground.

Kid had fallen in his tracks. He lay face down, unmoving in the sun. His horse stood with drooping head in a tiny patch of shade nearby. There was a bloodstained bandana wrapped around Kid’s right leg, and dried blood streaked the side of his trousers. Heyes knelt and turned him over with shaking hands.

Kid groaned, and his eyes opened slowly. “Heyes, that you?” he muttered, blinking.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Heyes said, dizzy with relief. “Take it easy.”

Then he suddenly realized what he’d said. He glanced warily up at Marvin, but the tracker just gave his usual shrug. Heyes had a feeling that he wasn’t too surprised.

“Where’d you come from?” Kid asked, frowning up at him dazedly. “You okay?”

Heyes smiled. “I’m fine.”

“That’s good,” Kid murmured, with the ghost of a smile. “When I saw your horse go down I was afraid you’d broken your neck, but I couldn’t wait around to see.” He coughed, then went on in a faint voice. “I thought I hid my trail pretty well. How’d you find me?”

“Hired a tracker,” Heyes replied. He moved so that his shadow shielded Kid’s face from the sun.

“He must have been good,” said Kid, and grimaced as he moved, trying to sit up.

“Indian tracker,” said Heyes, with a glance at Marvin. The tracker didn’t seem to have heard; he was staring off at a cluster of low shrubs by the dried stream bed. “How bad’s your leg?” asked Heyes, as he bent to inspect the wound.

“Not too bad, but it really slowed me down,” said Kid. He rubbed a hand over his face. “God, I’ve never been so thirsty. Can I have some water?”

Heyes shook his head. “Haven’t got any,” he said softly.

Kid stared at him. “But...” he began; then he met Heyes’s eyes. They looked at each other wordlessly for a long moment, then Kid nodded. “Okay,” he said, and closed his eyes.

Heyes looked down at his partner’s sunburned face and dry, cracked lips. He swallowed, feeling the burning dryness in his own throat, and tried to think what they should do next. Then he realized that he and Kid were alone in the little valley; the tracker had disappeared.

The streambed was dry, years dry; only sun-bleached sand lay between the rocks. But there was a rustling of wings in the spiky bushes, and Marvin crouched behind the skeleton of a cedar tree and watched a small gray bird on a branch just above him. The tiny creature leaned forward, glanced around warily with bright black eyes, then fluttered down behind a pile of rocks. In a moment, it rose again, and returned to its perch.

Another bird, with a pale yellow breast, sat on a log nearby. It flew downwards in the same direction as the first bird, was hidden for a minute, then fluttered back. Another bird dipped down to the same spot. Marvin rose, and the birds saw the movement and took instant flight.

In the sand near a flat rock were tiny tracks, each toe and claw-mark clearly etched. Putting his hand on the sand, he felt it cool and damp. He peered under the rock. There, held in a sandstone basin as carefully as in cupped hands, he saw his own reflection in the sparkling water.

Evening was coming; the sun was touching the cliff tops, and the birds twittered peacefully around the water hole. Kid lay on the ground, his back against a log, as Heyes finished cleaning the wound on his thigh.

“Ow!” Kid said, and moved his leg impatiently. “Honestly, you’re terrible at this.”

Heyes dabbed at the gash with a wadded-up bandana, frowning. “Still bleeding a bit. That hurt?”

“Not till you started poking it,” Kid retorted, jerking his leg away.

“No doctor can cure a patient if he can’t catch him,” said Heyes severely. “Hold still.”

“I am holding still,” said Kid. He turned his head towards Marvin, who was lying on the ground, his hat over his eyes. “How about you?” he asked. “Indians know about medicinal plants and stuff, don’t they? Don’t you have any old medicine man remedies for this sort of thing?”

Marvin raised the hat brim an inch. “Whiskey,” he said, and closed his eyes again

“Yeah,” Heyes agreed, giving Marvin a dirty look. “Too bad we don’t have any.” He shook his head worriedly, looking down at the wide gash. “We could use some to pour on this, clean it out.”

“Nah, that hurts like hell,” Marvin objected. “I meant to drink.”

He got up and ambled over to where Kid lay. “Hmm,” he said, shaking his head doubtfully. “I don’t know. Maybe we should try an old Indian remedy.”

“Like what?” Kid asked uneasily.

“Well, all the medicine men I know would just heat up a knife blade till it’s red hot, and hold it on the leg for a while.”

“You think so?” said Heyes, nodding approvingly. “Might not be a bad idea, just to be on the safe side. I don’t mind giving it a try.”

“No, thanks,” said Kid ungratefully. “Leave me alone!”

Marvin grinned broadly. “Looks okay to me,” he said, and stood watching as Heyes fashioned a bandage from bandannas and bits of shirt.

Kid Curry looked up at Marvin. “I thought Indians never smiled,” Kid said, shaking his head. “You know, you are one strange Indian.”

Marvin shrugged. “Been a long time since I been an Indian,” he said. “Long time. Don’t think I could backtrack that far.”

“Ever think about going back to it?” asked Heyes.

“Back to what?” asked Marvin, stretching out on the warm rock again and closing his eyes.

“I don’t know,” said Heyes. “Back to whatever it is that Indians do. Living in a teepee with a squaw, chasing buffalo, stuff like that.” There was a silence, as he finished knotting the bandage. Marvin was apparently asleep. “Well, ever think about it?” Heyes persisted.

Marvin shrugged. “Nah,” he said. “Never.”

Heyes sat back on his heels, watching the fresh bandage suspiciously, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped. “That’s looking better,” he said. “You won’t be able to walk for a day or two, but I think pretty soon...”

Heyes broke off as the tracker lifted his head sharply, then scrambled to his feet and stood frozen, head tilted, listening. “What?” Kid demanded. “I don’t hear any—” Marvin made a quick gesture and he stopped.

Heyes stood up and listened, too. The ravine was silent, the rocks glowing with honey color in the slanting afternoon sunlight. He closed his eyes, concentrating, listening, but heard no sound at all, except his own heart pounding in his ears. The birds had stopped their songs. The silence filled the air with a terrible warning.

Heyes opened his eyes to look desperately around the little valley, at the low rocks of the stream, too small to hide behind, and the steep, unclimbable ridges that surrounded them on three sides. They were trapped in a dead end.

Then he realized that Marvin had vanished again. “Where’d he go?” Heyes exclaimed.

“Never mind him,” said Kid, raising himself on his elbow. “Where’s my gunbelt?”

Heyes snatched up the wide leather belt. It felt oddly light, and he looked at the holster. Empty.

“The gun’s gone,” he said grimly. He heard a faint sound of hoofs approaching, many horses coming at a run.

“What! What do you mean it’s gone?” Kid groped wildly around in the rocks and gravel, scanning the ground, but the gun was nowhere to be seen. “That blasted Indian took it!” he said. “If I get my hands on him...” The noise of hoofs grew louder, echoing off the rock walls, and Kid tried awkwardly to get to his feet. “Go on!” he yelled at Heyes. “Get going, don’t wait for me.”

Heyes ignored this. He grabbed Kid’s jacket, trying to help him up, but they had run out of time. The first riders came into view, and the two partners could only wait as the posse thundered up the slope.

“Let me go,” Kid snapped, as Heyes took a tighter hold on the collar of his jacket.

“No!” Heyes whispered. “Hold still. One last thing to try.”

He kept his grip on Kid’s shoulder as the riders surrounded them, then promptly stepped forward and grinned up at the sheriff. “Where you guys been?” he inquired. “Your tracker must be having that trouble with his eyes again.”

The sheriff regarded him, unsmiling. “Well, well,” he said. “You again. So you got Kid Curry, eh?” He glanced around. “You track him down all by yourself? Where’s your tame redskin?”

Heyes made no answer. “Ran out on you when things got tough, eh?” inquired the sheriff. “Well, that’s just like an Indian.”

He looked down at Kid, who was crouched on the ground. “So this is the famous Kid Curry, I suppose. Get him on his horse, boys, and tie him good so he don’t go anywhere.”

The deputies pushed past Heyes, and jerked Kid roughly to his feet. A couple of men held him up while another bound his hands in front of him with a leather thong. Then the sheriff shoved him towards the horse, and he fell, sprawling.

Heyes took a step forward, his fists clenched, then checked himself, and looked up to see the sheriff’s eyes on him. “He’s my prisoner,” said Heyes. “My property. This is stealing.”

The sheriff snorted. “What are you going to do, turn us in? We found Kid Curry the same time as you did. I got ten witnesses to prove it. You want to argue with them?” Heyes looked at the ring of rifles aimed at him, and watched silently as the three men hauled Kid off the ground, then dragged him over to a horse and heaved him onto it. Heyes took another step forward, but Kid caught his eye and gave a tiny shake of the head.

“Take my advice, and don’t let us see you again, stranger.” The sheriff pointed his rifle at Heyes. “You’ve about wore out your welcome.”

The posse trotted down the narrow canyon. Heyes could just glimpse Kid’s head, surrounded by the gang of armed men, as they disappeared around a bend.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” said a voice at Heyes’ elbow, and he almost jumped out of his skin. Marvin stood just behind him.

“Don’t do that!” Then Heyes noticed the gun thrust into Marvin’s belt. “Give it to me,” he ordered, reaching out his hand.

Marvin took a step backwards. “It’s not yours,” he pointed out.

“It’s not yours either,” Heyes retorted.

“It is now,” said Marvin calmly. “I found it lying on the ground.”

“That’s stealing!”

Marvin grinned, but his dark eyes had no smile in them. “That’s what Indians do. Don’t you know that?”

Heyes considered making a grab for the gun, but Marvin warily backed up another step. There was no time to debate the issue; the sound of hoof beats was fading quickly. Heyes set off down the slope, but felt a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re not still going after him, are you?” Marvin demanded. “You’re the craziest white man I ever met.”

Heyes shook him off and walked on, but hadn’t gone ten steps before he became aware that the tracker was still behind him. “You coming along?” Heyes asked over his shoulder. Marvin nodded. “Why?” Heyes asked, astonished.

Marvin tilted his head, considering. “Don’t know, exactly,” he admitted. “Been a long time since I been on a hunt.” He shrugged. “Besides, I got to stick with you. Got to collect my money.”

“Money?” said Heyes absently, wondering exactly how far ahead the posse was.

“Why, yes,” said Marvin solemnly. “The five thousand dollars you promised me.”

“What?” Heyes demanded. “I never...oh, yeah. Well, sorry about that. I was desperate.” He looked over his shoulder. “Where do you think I’m gonna get that kind of money?”

“Well, maybe you could rob a bank or something,” Marvin suggested. Heyes opened his mouth to protest and Marvin laughed. “Just kidding.”

Heyes stared at him, then gave it up, and they continued at a brisk trot down the valley. The ground was covered with hoof prints and manure, the dust churned up by the passing of so many horses. “At least it’s easier to track him now,” said Marvin. “Even a white man can’t miss this trail.”

Heyes nodded. “Like a herd of buffalo.”

Marvin turned his head and Heyes saw his dark eyes gleam. “You know how you hunt buffalo?” Marvin asked. “You follow them real quiet, and get as close as you can, right up behind them...”

“Yeah?” Heyes said.

“Then you stampede them.”

They made their way quickly down the steep ridge. Heyes forced himself to hurry, but he couldn’t remember ever feeling more exhausted. He looked down at his dust-caked boots and compelled them to keep moving, one after the other, but it became harder and harder to drag himself along. He kept on doggedly, hearing Marvin’s quiet footsteps just behind him.

The slope began to level as it wound through the canyon. “They’ll be able to speed up once we get to the flat,” Heyes said, with a feeling of despair. “We’ll have a hard time keeping up.” There was no answer, and he looked over his shoulder to find that Marvin had once more disappeared.

No time to wonder where he’d vanished to. It was impossible to lose the trail of a dozen men on horseback, and Heyes kept grimly on, but he could see from the tracks that the horses were lengthening their stride. The setting sun glared in his face, and he stumbled, putting up a hand to shield his eyes, paying no attention to anything but the effort of keeping his feet moving. He rounded a bend in the rocky wall, and suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked.

Two men stood on the ridge with rifles pointed straight at his chest. He stopped in his tracks.

“You were right, Zeb,” said the sheriff, shaking his head. “There was someone following us. I just wouldn’t have believed that even a bounty hunter could be so stupid.”

Heyes could see the rest of the posse waiting a little way ahead. Kid was slumped in the saddle, head bent. The fresh bandage on his leg was stained with blood.

“Well, now, look here, sheriff,” Heyes said, trying a last bluff. “I need that reward money awful bad. Maybe you could cut me in? After all, I led you to Curry.”

Both men laughed, and Gates looked at Heyes intently, studying his face. “There’s other outlaws with a price on their heads,” he said slowly. “What’s the reason that this one’s so special?”

“Why, there’s ten thousand reasons...” Heyes began, but Gates cut him off. “I think we should just get rid of you, bounty hunter.” He raised his rifle again.

“You can’t just kill me in cold blood,” Heyes said, feeling an unpleasant chill down his spine. “I’m a lawman, you know.”

“Oh, that don’t worry me too much,” said the sheriff. “We’ll just say you were trying to help the prisoner escape.”

“Or better yet, bring the body back to town, and have a look at a few wanted posters,” said Gates. “I got a feeling we’re going to find we’re twice as wealthy as we thought.” He smiled as he aimed the rifle. “Won’t no one care if we kill an outlaw. Why, it’s just like killing an Indian.”

He squinted along the barrel, and Heyes saw the cold dark eye staring at him.

The sudden crack of a gunshot echoed off the rocks. Gates dropped the rifle and bent over, clawing at a wound in his shoulder. Heyes looked up to the ridge-top, and saw Marvin, gun in hand, leap to his feet and speed along the ridge.

The sheriff swung his rifle to his shoulder and drew a careful bead on the running figure. Heyes dived forward, crashing into the man and sending the shot flying harmlessly. Marvin turned and fired again, and a rider crashed to the ground while the horses reared and bucked. The men bunched, shouting curses and questions and contradictory orders, getting in each other’s way.

The opportunity was too good to waste. Heyes dashed over to Kid’s horse. Swinging himself up behind his partner, he shouted “Hang on!” Kid grasped the pommel with his bound hands while they raced along, as two more shots echoed from the ridge above them.

They hadn’t gone far when Kid reeled in the saddle, his face chalk-white. Heyes hastily guided the horse into a shallow gully so that they were hidden from the posse’s sight, then reined up and jumped off the horse. He was just in time to catch Kid as he slid out of the saddle, the bandage drenched with blood.

Heyes tugged at the knots that bound Kid’s hands, glancing hurriedly around the tiny valley, steep-walled and bare. “Go on, Heyes,” Kid said, through clenched teeth. “There’s nowhere to hide here! Run for it!”

“Shut up,” Heyes snapped, as the thongs came loose. The silence was gradually filled with pounding hoofs coming closer, closer.

Then more shots cracked out. “He’s up there!” shouted a voice. “I can see him! It’s that redskin!” The shouts and voices were close by. Heyes and Kid crouched down behind a boulder, holding their breath.

The sheriff rode into sight. “Get him!” he ordered, and pointed to the ridge top. Heyes looked up, and saw a figure silhouetted against the sky, running in full view, long hair streaming behind him. The wind carried the sound of a high-pitched chant.

“There he goes, boys! Get him!” another voice shouted. The figure turned and fired twice, the bullets bouncing harmlessly off the rocks.

“That’s six shots,” Kid whispered grimly. “That’s all he’s got.”

The pursuers thundered by, but no one spotted the fugitives, every man intent on the figure on the ridge top. Marvin stood for a moment in full view, then ran down the far side of the ridge. The posse raced out of sight around a bend, and their shouts grew fainter.

Distantly, Heyes could still hear the triumphant chanting, mingled with the rumble of hoofs. Then rifle shots cracked.

Kid let out the breath he had been holding. “Crazy Indian! Why the hell did he do that?”

Heyes shook his head wordlessly, gazing up at the ridge where the tracker had vanished. He waved Kid to silence, and listened, straining his ears to catch any sound.

At first a heavy silence filled the air, so blank a silence that he wondered if he’d gone deaf. Then a cautious chirp—and another. Little dust-colored birds poked tiny heads from their hiding places in bushes and behind rocks, and began to sing the all-clear. Heyes heard the wind whispering over the rocks, the rustle of withered grass, the tap of a dead leaf—all the familiar voices of the badlands sang around him.

But the song of the tracker was gone.

A full moon sailed in the cold desert sky, and lit up the shack on the edge of the sleeping town. The cracked windowpanes were dark, and the cabin was silent; it seemed as though no one had ever lived there. Heyes knocked on the door, banging with his fist.

“Shut up!” Kid hissed. “If anyone hears us we’ll be back where we started, with a posse breathing down our necks. Pick the lock, for crying out loud.”

“Well, it’s Marvin’s home, I don’t want to just barge in,” Heyes muttered, but he took a piece of wire out of his pocket and the door swung open in seconds. They peered inside. The interior of the shack was dark and empty; there was a low bed and a wooden table with one chair. Piles of empty glass bottles filled every corner. “No one home,” said Heyes, and sighed.

Kid put a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe he got away,” he said. “Could be.”

Heyes didn’t reply, just began to look around the cabin. “Well, he’s not under the bed,” Kid said. “Let’s go see if he’s in jail.”

Heyes snorted. “Jail,” he said. “Not much chance of that. No, if they caught up with him, he’s dead.” He shook his head. “I just feel like I owe him...” His voice trailed off.

“Money, you mean?” Kid asked. “How much did you promise to pay him for tracking me?”

“Oh, not much,” said Heyes.

“How much?” Kid persisted.

“Five thousand dollars,” said Heyes.

“Five thousand...” Kid gasped. “What, are you crazy?”

“Sorry,” said Heyes. “Lost my head.” He began to look around the cabin. “No, it’s not the money. I just want to be sure he’s all right.”

He wandered around the cabin, peering into every corner. “What’s that?” he exclaimed suddenly, and bent to pick up something that was perched on top of a pile of bottles.

“Looks like his hat,” said Kid, as Heyes held up the high-crowned hat triumphantly.

“It is!” Heyes said, grinning. “Looks like they missed him.” He stuck a finger through a neat bullet-hole in the crown.

“Wonder why he left it behind,” said Kid.

Heyes pursed his lips, considering. “It’s a white man’s hat,” he said. “Maybe he doesn’t want it anymore.” He saw a glint of metal on the pile of bottles, and picked up a Colt revolver.

“My gun!” Kid exclaimed. He pounced on the weapon, and examined it anxiously. “Yep, it’s mine, all in one piece.” He spun it back into his empty holster with a flourish.

“Wonder if he knew we’d come back here,” Heyes said thoughtfully. Kid leaned against the table, putting his weight on his good leg; both men were filthy and bedraggled, but Kid looked pale and drawn. “You sure you’re okay?” said Heyes.

“Will you stop asking me that?” said Kid. “I’m fine.”

“Yeah, you look it,” said Heyes. “Come on, let’s go. I want to find a town that has a doctor that won’t ask any questions.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Kid impatiently. “The only doctor I need is a blonde who can pour a whiskey, serve a steak and knows how to fill a tub with bubble bath.”

Heyes smiled. “Well, anyway,” he said. “We better get out of here. I sure never want to see that posse again.”

They closed the door and stood looking at the desert, silvered by moon-light. “Where you think he is?” Kid asked.

“I don’t know,” Heyes said softly. A coyote’s lonely howl sounded in the distance.

“He said a man would have to be one of two things to head off into the badlands,” said Heyes. “He’d have to be desperate, or he’d have to be lost.”

“I don’t get it,” said Kid. “You think he’s lost?”

Heyes shook his head, and shrugged. “Maybe not anymore.”

Thanks for the stories
Post on Wed 10 Aug 2016, 2:33 am by Nebmar
I really enjoyed this story. Your writing and topics are very touching. I just read Bleeding Kansas and ditto for that story too..
Re: 4.4 The Tracker by Anita Sanchez
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4.4 The Tracker by Anita Sanchez

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