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Published on Thursday, March 15, 2012

Montana is Big

By Mark Hinton

 

The rider was following the river. Where the cottonwoods were thin, he weaved between the trees. Where they were thicker, he would edge slightly away from the trunks and the river but still within the long shadows the trees made in the late afternoon light. As he rode, he looked over his shoulder more often than he looked toward the river or toward the sagebrush foothills that ran along his right-hand side.

   

Sometimes he would stop and turn in his saddle and sit for awhile watching the country behind him. The big appaloosa he rode would stand quietly. In the shadows and the trees, the grey horse and the grey rider were harder and harder to see as the sun started setting behind the mountains to the west.

Even after the sun had finally set the rider and the horse kept moving. As it got darker they moved further from the river and the trees and closer to the hills. By the time the half-moon rose from behind the hills, bathing the valley and the big river in a bone-white half-light, they were gone.

The first thing the boy noticed was the trail of dust along the old mining road. Since no one had worked the mines for years, no one ever used the road above the creek. When he got to place where the old mining road hit the road to town, he saw the riders. They were about quarter of a mile above him. There were three of them, and one pack horse. The dust they kicked up as they rode down to where he was hung lazily in the still morning air. He slowed the buckboard and waited. The mules were still sleepy and so stood quietly in the warm, morning sun.

When the riders got to where the boy was waiting they stopped.

"How far to town?" one of them asked. He was a big man with a black beard and a brown Stetson. But for that, all the men were big, and all wore brown Stetsons... and all three had tied down holsters.

"Four miles that way," the boy pointed the direction the mules were pointed. The boy started to say something else but even before he could open his mouth the three riders were moving fast, the dust they kicked-up hung like a curtain in front of the two sleepy mules.

Sheriff Williams was just leaving the jail and heading home for lunch when he saw the three riders coming down the street. He knew most of the people of Broadwater County. He did not know these three men or their mounts. He reached into his vest pocket, pulled out his watch, and looked at it. Shaking his head he sat down on the bench in front of the jail. From the cool shade of the awning he watched the riders coming down the street.

They stopped in front of the jail. They did not dismount.

"You the sheriff," one of them asked.

"Sheriff Williams at your service," he answered. Still seated.

"We're Texas Rangers," the man said.

"You're a long way from Texas," Williams said standing up.

"We're tracking a fugitive."

"What did he do? Kill the governor of Texas?" Williams said over his shoulder as he opened the door to the jail and walked in. The three Texans looked at each other and got off their horses.

When the three Texas Rangers got into the jail, Williams was sitting behind his desk. He was a tall man with short legs. Sitting down he seemed taller than when he was standing.

The biggest Ranger who had been doing the talking was in the middle. He spoke again.

"He killed a man."

"One man and they send three Texas Rangers? Everything is bigger in Texas ain't it," said Williams, opening a drawer in his desk and pulling out a ledger book.

"The man was our brother," said the Ranger.

"And the State of Texas sent all three of you to bring this fugitive back for Texas justice?"

The Rangers said nothing.

"This is Montana. This ain't Texas. Even if you had a warrant, I wouldn't wipe my ass with it. This is my town and my county. I don't go in for no vengeance killin'. The sheriff over in Beaverhead County telegraphed you was comin'. Took you a few days longer than I thought. Don't figure you counted on the big Montana mountains."

Williams stood up.

"You step out of line and you will be spending your nights in one of my nice Montana-sized cells.... If'n you can write," he said turning the ledger book around on the desk. "Put your names and particulars down here. I will telegraph Helena and they can contact Texas."

After lunch Williams rode out to the Brown place. It was up Deep Creek Canyon, about 5 miles out of town. It was a little place built about a quarter of a mile above the stage road between Townsend and White Sulphur Springs. Brown ran a few head of cattle but for the most part he traded horses. That is how Brown got into trouble in Utah. He had taken horses to sell to Mormons. Cabe McCann had brought horses to sell from Texas. The Mormons had apparently liked the Montana horses better. Cabe had taken offense and gotten in a fight with Brown. In the fight, Cabe had pulled a gun... witnesses said Brown had had no choice. Cabe's brothers, the Texas Rangers, figured it differently.

Brown was saddling a pack horse when Williams rode in. He was tall and lean and wore a gray stetson. His appaloosa was already saddled. There was a Winchester hanging in a boot on the saddle. Williams stopped his horse.

"They're here."

"Donny Walters told me," Brown said. "He saw them ride in. He rode out to tell me."

"They are mean enough looking," Williams said, still sitting on his horse. "They also look pretty tired. Looks like they came over on Indian Creek road. Don't figure they counted on the mountains in Montana being so big."

"That's what I am counting on," Brown said tying the big dun to the appaloosa.

"They don't look like the kind of men who give up easily," Williams said reaching into his pocket for his watch.

"If they were," Brown said swinging up onto the appaloosa, "they would have given up a long time ago."

He turned in the saddle and looked at the sheriff.

"I am going to take them up into the Big Belts. Either they will ride out or me. If the states of Texas and Utah can't stop them, maybe the mountains can."

Williams was almost back to town, when he met the three Rangers coming out of town on the canyon road.

"He is gone," Williams said reining up.

"We will follow him" said the one who seemed to be their spokesman.

"He is going into the mountains. You boys don't seem equipped to chasing someone up there," Williams said turning his horse sideways on the narrow road. "And I will not send someone up there to rescue you. Them's real mountains. This ain't Texas."

Their spokesman glared at Williams, "What have you against Texas?"

"Texans," Williams said glaring at the speaker and his brothers.

The brother on the left began to reach for his pistol, but the spokesman grabbed his hand.

"He wants us to try something so he can put us in his jail. The longer we sit here the bigger head-start Brown has." He spurred his horse forward and around Williams's mount, the brothers followed.

Brown followed Cabin Gulch up and out of the canyon. The trail he followed was an old game trail that had once been used for awhile by miners when there was still gold at Confederate Gulch and Diamond City. Now it was a game trail again.

At the top of the ridge where the trail switchbacked up and out of the canyon, Brown stopped and looked down. His shadow spilled across the trail and out over the edge of the step drop. He saw with satisfaction that the trail he was leaving was clear and easy to read. For now he was counting on it.

He turned his face toward the peak.

"Time to take them high for awhile," he said out loud, either to himself or the big appaloosa or to the face of the peak that rose above the timber-line into the clear, climbing sky.

The three Rangers worked up the narrow switchback trail. Their little Texas horses more accustomed to plains and low places were working hard. Only the mule that they had paid too much for in Townsend seemed comfortable with the narrow trail and the steadily thinning air.

"Where the hell's he going?" One of them said looking up at toward the top of the ridge.

The other two were busy with the mule and the extra horse. They had eyes only for the soft-shouldered little trail.

When they got to the top they rested their horses and took drinks from their canteens. One of them got off his horse and walked over to where the trail met the ridge. He looked down into the narrow canyon they had climbed out of. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plug of tobacco. Cutting a big piece, he put it in is mouth and spit off the edge of the trail. He stood for a long moment looking down, then turned and walked back to his horse.

"Looks like he's headed off the trail and up this ridge," said the brother who had spoken to Williams.

"He doesn't know anything about hiding a trail," he continued turning toward his brothers. "Wouldn't last long in Comanch' country," he sneered.

They started up the broad, hog-backed ridge following the faint trail of bent grass and scuffed earth.

Brown weaved his way through the lodgepole pines skirting the face of the peaks. When he got to a little creek, he let the horses drink and filled his canteens. He turned and looked back the way he had come. The trail he was leaving was lighter, but still visible in the late-afternoon light. He turned the horses into the creek and started into the high country. Twice he led the horses into the muddy edge of the creek. Their hooves sank deep and made a thwacking, smack sound as they pulled them out of the thick, rich mud. Both times he turned the horses back into the creek where the clean, fast water quickly cleansed their hooves.

The three men were weaving between the straight-trunked trees. Twice now the mule had brushed against a trunk hard enough to break the line that held the packs. The first time they had to re-tie everything. The second time, one of the packs had broken open and spilled pans and boxes onto the ground. It had taken time to repack everything and to get the pack back on the mule. Now the mule was fidgeting with the packs. It kept turning its head back the way they had come. When it turned its head it pulled on the lead and the horse on the other end would trying kicking mule.

They stopped and rotated horses.

"God damned trees," the one brother said taking a drink from his canteen. "God damned mules."

When they got to the creek, they stopped and let the horses drink and refilled their canteens. The leader went a few hundred feet up the creek, when he saw the first place where the horses had gone into and out of the mud, he stopped for moment. Then he rode further up the creek. When he got to the second spot he turned around.

In the gloaming light he could see that his two brother were setting up camp.

"He followed the creek up," he said, stepping out of his saddle. "We'll make better time tomorrow."

One of the brothers took the horse from him and led it over to where the the other horses and mules were picketed. By the time he got the saddles and blankets off and the horses rubbed down, the fire was going.

Moving through the quickening darkness he could smell the coffee.

"Put some whiskey in that coffee... my head hurts like hell."

Brown laid on his stomach on the edge of the cliff-face. To the west and below him he could see the faint glow of firelight. He listened to the cool night air for awhile and then pulled away from the cliff and back towards his camp. The small fire he had built up against the rocks was now long out. He lay down in his bedroll, and looked up toward the stars. He counted three falling ones before he finally went to sleep.

Brown was crouched behind a boulder far above the three Rangers who were backtracking along a steep, high ridge. They had followed the faint, scratched signs of two horses onto a narrow ridge that turned and ran along the face of the peak. But the trail had turned around a blind corner and ended, and so had the ridge and any way of moving forward. They were now moving back along the ridge, fighting the horses who did not like the narrow trail and the steep drop.

From where he lay hidden, Brown aimed his Winchester at first one brother then the next and finally the next, measuring the distances. He turned his sights back to the one who was in front. He was the smallest of the Rangers and it was his Texas horse that was giving them the biggest trouble. Brown sighted on the spot where the Ranger's top button was open. His finger touched the trigger... and held there. At the last second he moved the barrel and fired.

The Ranger in front was trying to walk as much as possible on the narrow trail backwards so he could coax his horse. He was lifting his foot to take another step when the ground under his foot exploded. He spun and dropped to the ground. Even before he heard the first report, a second bullet struck the rocks just a foot in front of his face, throwing up a cloud of dust and rocks.

  

All three Rangers were on their stomachs, pistols out, scanning the ridge and rocks around them.

"He's in those rocks," called the biggest Ranger who had been in the middle but was now behind a large boulder. He was crouched and pointing with his Colt to a cliff high above them.

Another bullet glanced off the boulder and he also dropped to the ground. The sound of the shot echoed in the clear, cool air.

"Rangers!" a voice drifted down from the rocks. "I could have shot at least two of you just now. If you come any further, I will have to kill you."

"You killed our brother, you son-of-a-bitch," The big Ranger called.

A bullet hit the boulder again.

"It was a fair fight and you know it. Go back to Texas and live. You will get no more chances here."

For a few minutes the Ranger laid where they were. Looking at one another, and at the rocks above them and at the peak that rose above the rocks in high, thin air. The horses and mules were restless, especially the small Texas horse. Each man was doing his best to hold reins and keep his head down.

"Think he's still up there, Ike?" The small brother called.

The big Ranger took off his hat and lifted it up. A bullet went through the hat.

Brown crawled away from the edge of the cliff and made his way back to little stand of larches where he had left his horses. He looked up at the peak. Far above, along the cliff-face, mountain goats were moving from ledge to ledge... their white coats gleaming in the late afternoon light. In the sky to the west, storm clouds were moving over the ranges. They were gray and heavy, dragging their full bellies against the higher peaks. Mounting the appaloosa, he followed the game trail higher.

It was dark. And the three Rangers had built a small fire up against the side of a cliff. It was snowing big, heavy flakes that moved like little ghosts in and out of the dim light of the little fire that was more smoke than light.

"What the kind of country is this?" the smaller Ranger asked, moving closer to the fire. "It's July and its snowing."

"It'll stop," the big Ranger said, pulling his blanket tighter around his shoulders. "It'll just make it easier to track the son-of-a-bitch in the morning," he said. "He can't run forever."

By morning, the snow had stopped, but not before it had dropped more than 6 inches of wet, heavy snow. All night the Rangers had worked in the dark to find wood dry enough to keep their little fire going. Now far below and to the West they could see by the light of the sun that was rising behind the range they were on that snow had covered the high country over night. Where they had camped was still in twilight. The warm light on distant peaks and the green valley below just made them feel colder.

Their boots were wet and cold as they packed the mule and saddled the horses. They headed into higher country, following the narrow, twisting trail of unmarked snow.

The trail grew narrower as it went higher. Snow made the going even more treacherous at altitudes the Rangers and their Texas horses had never traveled. Cold and weariness and altitude made them clumsy.

Along a narrow hogback ridge, the little Texas horse the smaller Ranger was riding mis-stepped. Panicking, it over-compensated and started slipping. The Ranger jumped off and began sliding down the hill. The lead that connected the little horse to the mule didn't break right away. By the time the lead snapped, the mule was also on the ground and sliding. The Ranger grabbed an armful of ground brush and caught himself. The horse and the mule kept sliding... down the steep slope and out over the edge, white-eyed and kicking for all they were worth. The sound of their bodies bouncing and breaking over the rocks below echoed in the still air.

Brown watched the scene unfold below him. The two rangers jumped off their horses and worked as quickly as they could on the steep, snow-covered slope down to where their brother now lay on a flat ground next to the brush that had stopped his fall. His leg was bent at an angle, and the sound he made was as inhuman as that the horse and the mule had made as they went over the cliff.

He had watched the Rangers pass him from the rocks that hid the smaller trail that led up to the old miners cabin where he had spent the snowy night. With the snow hiding his tracks and the small trail, he had known that they would that they would pass by the rocks where he hid. He had planned to follow them and ambush them another mile up the trail, on another steep and narrow ridge.

He sighted the rifle on the two horses. But did not pull the trigger. He turned and sighted the big Ranger who was now almost to his brother.

He waited until the three brothers were together. He lifted the Winchester into the air and pulled the trigger. The three brothers stopped.

"I got you dead to rights," Brown called.

The the two healthy brothers pulled their pistols and crouched as low as they could into the snow. The smaller one with the broken leg had lost his pistol somewhere on the slope so the big Ranger handed him one of his. As he rolled over onto his belly the movement made him scream.

"I gave you a chance to go back to Texas. You didn't take it," Brown said.

"You killed our brother." The big Ranger called back. "The good book says 'an eye for an eye.'"

"It was a fair fight," Brown called, sighting in on the big Ranger.

The big Ranger was looking around, but there was not cover anywhere. Above and to his side was just steep open slope. Behind them was a drop of hundreds of feet.

"You want us to just forget what you done?" he called, turning back to the rocks where Brown was hidden.

"Not forget..." Brown said, "forgive."

The big Ranger raised his pistol and began shooting.

 

*         *        *

 

Sheriff Williams was just coming out of the jail when Brown rode up on his appaloosa trailing two small Texas ponies behind him.

"Found these horses wandering up along a ridge below Mt. Baldy," Brown said. "Figured you might know who they belong to."

"I reckon I might," Williams said looking up at Brown, who looked haggard and tired.

"Take them over to Meyer's Livery. I don't suppose anyone will come to claim them. In 90 days they will be yours."

"Wouldn't want them," Brown said, leading the small horses away.

Sheriff Williams walked across the street and over to the Western Union office.

"Sam," he said, walking through the door. "I need to send a response to that telegraph from Texas."

The telegraph operator picked up his notepad and pen.

"Go ahead, Sheriff," he said.

"Rangers missing. Presumed killed by grizzly bear, mountains, or elements. Bodies not found."

"Is that it?" The operator asked, looking up at the sheriff.

"No, add this," he said, "Montana is big. Texas is only wide."

THE END

 

Mark Hinton grew up in Montana. He is a freelance writer and owner of the blog, MontanaWriter.com. His book of poetry called "Montana Poems" is available at Amazon. The Western Online published his short story "Box Canyon" in May 2011.

 

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