I can't stand the stench of burning human flesh, and once you've smelled it, you never forget it. I woke that morning, the third without coffee, and somewhere below me in the valley, far behind the boulders on the other side of the stream I had camped beside, a thin trail of smoke drifted through the aspens.
Sally, the mule I rode, stood tethered nearby, both floppy ears pointed toward the jumbled rocks and alternately raising and lowering in a way I should have known meant something was wrong. But sometimes she has more sense than I do.
"Sal," I said, "if that's a campfire, they've got coffee."
I saddled up, and we crossed to the other side. Beyond the rocks, the valley opened up into a gentle wooded slope rising to the mountains looming far ahead like a giant gray wall topped with snow. We followed the rim of a gully emptying into the stream behind us, and after walking a half-mile, Sally suddenly stopped, her sides trembling and both ears thrust forward toward a noise she could hear and I could not.
"Easy, Girl," I quietly reassured her, and the smell reached my nose.
Indians, I thought, remembering the tracks of unshod ponies I had seen the day before. My scalp for a cup of coffee seemed like a bad trade. After two years of war fought mostly from Salley's back, you'd think I would have learned to pay attention to what her ears tried to tell me.
I loosened the thong around the hammer of the Colt Navy revolver alongside my thigh and pulled the matching rifle from the saddle scabbard, placing it across my lap and carefully checking the cap on every nipple. Wanting no quarrel with Indians--or white men either--I sat there for a long minute and pondered my own foolhardiness.
But no Indian, I assumed, would build a fire producing so much smoke, and the burning flesh was dead or screams of agony would have pierced the mountain stillness. Then I heard laughter and the voice of a white man. I nudged Salley.
Against her better judgement, I am sure, she started walking. We skirted a knotted mass of trees washed down the side of the mountain by the spring thaw, now only an early summer trickle, and eased toward the billowing smoke and indistinct voice. Around a turn of the gully, at the edge of a small clearing, Salley stopped of her own accord.
No more than thirty feet away, the fire blazed, a coffee-pot in the coals beside it. Two horses were tied to a bush on the other side of the opening, a bay and a beautiful black gelding with an ornate, black-and-silver saddle. Their riders stood around the fire, one younger, one older and holding a branding iron, the end glowing red in the morning shadows cast by the mountain and the aspens. An Indian, a boy of no more than fifteen with burned but still-living flesh, lay on the ground, tied hands and feet with a lariat rope. "Rocking R" the brand read in charred skin on both sides of his emaciated chest.
"Give it to him again, Lumpy," the younger man declared in apparent delight. "He'll scream this time!"
The man called Lumpy lowered the iron to the Indian's right thigh, and flesh sizzled and a thin trail of smoke rose to meet that from the fire. Not a sound escaped the boy's throat, the tensing of muscles and a grimace his only outward signs of pain.
The sickening odor reached my nostrils, flooding my mind with memories of charred bodies and men in blue and in gray, still alive but begging in God's name for death and an end to torment. And permanently etched in my mind was the face of Zeke Watly, my friend and neighbor, his gray uniform burned black and his lips pleading in my name, "Daniel, Daniel," and then smiling as I raised the pistol I still carried at my side.
I cocked the hammer of the Colt rifle and spoke: "Howdy."
Both men froze and then turned. I could see them clearly now, and Lumpy had greasy hair sticking out around the brim of a worn-out hat and wore ragged clothing like a man long past caring what others thought of his appearance. He held the branding iron awkwardly in his thick right hand, knowing that I knew he would have to drop it in order to reach for the rusty pistol tucked behind his belt.
The surprise on the younger man's face turned into a sneer. Long blond hair flowed from beneath his black felt hat with a silver band. Low at his side, the ivory grip on the polished brass frame of a Spiller & Burr revolver protruded from a holster that matched his hat and the saddle on the gelding tied to the bush. His slender fingers inched toward the shiny pistol, but the black hole in the end of the Colt rifle moved slightly. The fingers stopped.
Both men watched me in a mixture of fear and curiosity. The Indian glared up at me in pain and hatred. I towered over them, tall and lanky on the back of a giant red mule whose shoulders reached past their chins. They studied a narrow face no one had ever called handsome, not even Ruby, the wife I left back in Louisiana with her arms around a dead man.
My brown, unwashed hair reached past the collar of the tattered and faded gray jacket I wore, dark stripes on the sleeve marking the location of the sergeant's chevrons I had removed after the battle of Gettysburg. Just six months before that morning of the burning flesh, I had been Sergeant Daniel Corrington, First Louisiana Brigade.
I had just turned twenty-five but looked ten years older. The horror of seemingly endless killing had streaked my hair with white, added lines to my face, and given my eyes a permanent glare. And, on that morning, the blue Irish eyes of my ancestors looked down at the two men, knowing that one or both of them would die.
"What'd he do?" I asked.
"Butchered a Rocking R beef," the younger man replied.
"Probably hungry," I observed, motioning with my eyes toward the obviously starving Indian.
"He can eat a rattlesnake," the man snarled. "We'll show his kind what happens when they steal cattle!"
"Say, Mister," Lumpy asked as he lowered the heavy and now-cooling iron. "You're on Rocking R range. Where'd you come from?"
"Across the creek," I answered and looked at the pot in the coals. "Saw your smoke and hoped you had coffee made."
The tension left both men's faces, and they glanced from me to the barrel of the little Colt rifle not pointing at them but, they knew, just an easy swing in their direction.
"Help yourself," the younger man ordered and leisurely moved his hands from his sides and hitched both thumbs behind the silver buckle of the fancy gunbelt.
"Obliged," I said, smiling, and lowered the hammer, slid the rifle into the scabbard, and dismounted.
I had no false notions of the two men releasing the Indian without a fight, and if one managed to draw and fire before he died, I wanted Salley out of the bullet's path. Besides, at such close range, a pistol was more useful than a rifle.
Except for Zeke, possibly, and certainly his father, Uriah, I had never met my equal with a handgun. Rain or shine, we had spent hours on the back porch of the old man's homestead, firing into a dirt bank Zeke and I had piled against the picket fence. "Daniel," I can still hear the old man saying, "You've got a natural ability, but squeeze the trigger; don't jerk it!"
We would fire a thousand rounds, recover the misshapen balls, melt them down and re-mold them back into bullets, and fire them again. The knowledge gained in Uriah Watly's yard brought me and Salley through the Civil War and Zeke to the battle of the Wilderness. And now it would give life to a maimed boy and death to the cocky young man standing before me, thumbs hooked behind a silver buckle, legs spread in his best imitation of a gunfighter's stance.
Arms at my side, I walked to the fire, found their tin cup, and then leaned down and filled it with black, welcome liquid.
"When you're finished," the blond young man ordered me again, "get back on that mule and off our range."
I raised to my feet, the cup in my left hand, my right a few inches from the butt of the Colt pistol. Lumpy stuck the business end of the iron back into the fire, and I sipped coffee and walked slowly away and to the side, placing Salley safely out of harm's way.
The cup emptied, and I lowered it. The end of the branding iron again glowed red, and Lumpy raised it, his round face in a toothless grin as he prepared to step toward the Indian.
"Blondie!" I commanded the young man. "Cut the rope. Let the boy go."
Before the moment of death, it's like time stands still. The faces of men I sent to meet their God in the name of war flash through my mind. I remember them all. Their eyes held the same look of surprise. Sometimes in my dreams, I see them again.
In the silence now around the campfire, I stared into the young man's eyes and pleaded with my own for him to listen to reason and live. But Lumpy dropped the branding iron, and the thumbs moved.
The Colt seemed to leap into my hand, and flame erupted from the barrel and the pistol turned to Lumpy. The branding iron hit the ground, and he stood there in shock, his hand not having reached the weapon in his belt.
The blond young man, his hand on the butt of the Spiller & Burr, stared through unbelieving eyes at the widening crimson stain across the front of his shirt. Then he died and fell face-forward into the fire.
"Pull him out," I said as the stench of burning flesh again filled the air, almost over-powered by the fumes of singed hair.
Lumpy grabbed the dead man's feet and jerked him from the fire. The hat stayed, now mostly yellow flames. He looked from me to the body, hatred oozing from every fiber of his being and his hand seeming to agonize over the problem of the pistol in his belt versus the one pointed at his belly.
"Pitch it," I said and holstered my Colt. "Or reach for it and die."
I stood ready, fingers limp at my side. He tensed, and beads of sweat popped out on his forehead. Then a look of resignation came over him. His hand moved slowly to the pistol, and he grasped the butt between thumb and forefinger and pulled it from his belt.
"High," I said.
He threw it, and when it reached the peak of its trajectory, the Colt filled my hand again and fired. The bullet clanged against the sailing pistol, sending it spinning into the underbrush.
"You made the right choice," I truthfully told him and eased the Colt back into the holster.
"Mister," he growled, "you're good as dead." He looked down at the smouldering body. "That's the boss's only son. You gonna hang for sure."
The Indian boy still lay on the ground beside the fire. His curious eyes watched us, not understanding a word we spoke and wondering, I imagine, why one white man had shot another and was he next.
I pulled the knife from the sheath at my back and threw it at a stick of firewood near Lumpy's feet. It thudded home, vibrated like the leaves on the trees above us, and the silver and emerald handle mirrored a shimmering reflection of the nearby flames. "Cut the boy free," I ordered.
Lumpy worked the knife out of the log and walked to the boy. He misunderstood the older man's motives and struggled until the blade sliced through the rope around his ankles. Then he turned to me, his eyes wide in amazed understanding.
The knot at the boy's wrists parted, and Lumpy jumped back, knife ready. The boy stood, swaying on the burned leg, his face moving from me in wonder to Lumpy in hate.
"Go," I said and pointed to the trees.
He understood, and after a rage-filled moment of staring at Lumpy, a knife now in his hand instead of a branding iron, the boy limped away.
He could not run, I realized, and the angry cowboy would surely follow him. "Wait," I called, and the boy stopped and turned. "Horse," I said and pointed to the animals tied to the bush.
He walked to them, dragging the burned leg, and with a grimace of pain, jumped astride the gelding.
"Hey, Mister!" Lumpy exclaimed. "That's a two hundred dollar horse and a hundred dollar saddle!"
Out of the side of my mouth, I asked, "How much is yours worth?"
He made no reply. I extended my hand, and he gave me the knife, hilt first. The boy rode away without a backward glance. We watched him disappear, the sun now over the mountain and its rays reflecting from the gelding's coat in shiny black flashes through the white and gray trunks of the aspens.
"Damn," Lumpy cursed as I walked to his bay and cut the reins. The horse lunged backwards, and at full gallop and with empty stirrups flopping, chased after the gelding.
I walked to Sally, untied the saddlebags, and removed a brass-bristled brush and an oily rag. I returned to the fire, poured another cup of coffee, and dumped the grounds. Then I rinsed and filled the pot with water from a canteen, placed it into the flames, and waited for it to boil.
Lumpy, showing more anger over the loss of his horse than the death of his boss's son, stalked back and forth, profanity streaming from his mouth. "Sit down," I finally said. "And shut up!"
He did and remained quiet for a while, propped against a tree like a seething heap of rags. When the water boiled, I disassembled the pistol, plunged the barrel into the steaming liquid and inserted the brush again and again, removing all traces of black powder fouling.
The heap spoke: "Mighty particular, ain't you?"
"Yes," I replied. Then I looked over at him and added as I sipped from the tin cup, "But I'm alive . . . ain't I?"
I finished the coffee and cleaned while he fumed. "It's a wonder you ain't dead," he grumbled, "seeing how long it takes you to clean your gun."
I ignored the remark from a man with a probably useless gun, walked to the saddlebags and reloaded my pistol, rotating the cylinder so the chamber Uriah Watly had etched with a file mark would be the first to fire. "Lumpy," I then said, "take off your boots."
The cursing started again.
"Wouldn't take but half as long to clean this pistol," I remarked, "after only one shot."
He struggled out of the boots and pitched them toward me. I picked them up, and after quickly extending my arms and turning my head, dropped the stinking bundle into the flames.
I picked up the branding iron and pushed the end into the coals. Through the rising heat waves, I watched his anger turn to worry. After a few minutes of hearing nothing but the crackling fire, I raised the red-hot iron and spoke softly, "There's something I want you to know."
I waited, giving him time to worry about his fate while the eyes of us both gazed at the glowing end of the iron. "I'm sure your boss and every hand on his ranch will ride after me," I stated. "When they do, my first shot is for you, the second for him."
I dropped the iron into the fire, mounted and rode away, leaving the relieved man with those words of warning and, hopefully, the memory of marksmanship most men would consider impossible. My mind churned with the dilemma I now faced, and, behind me, he must have heard and remembered nothing because I heard him yell, "Mister! You're gonna die!"
I maneuvered Salley back along the gully, and we reached the stream we had camped beside. She stopped and drank, and I filled the two canteens tied to the saddle horn. The distant wall of mountains circled around us, broken only by a wide opening even further away, some thirty miles in the direction the stream flowed. There, I figured, the land of the Rocking R spread out across the lush grass along both banks, and its cowhands were about to load guns and saddle horses.
The valley lay as the stream ran: north to south. Salley and I had entered through a narrow break in the granite wall to the east, and I saw no need to change the direction we had headed since the day we left Uriah Watly's home in Louisiana.
I tugged on the reins and forced Salley into a trot, the rising sun at our backs but its warmth having no effect on my cold feeling of dread. At noon, the slope increased its upward angle, and aspens and granite outcroppings gave way to boulders the size of cabins, fractured from the face of the mountain by some ancient force of nature.
The air grew thinner and colder but ever higher we climbed. Salley's pace never slowed below an awkward gait almost any horse could exceed, but the muscles of her haunches bulged with power and stamina no horse could match.
The sun dropped below the peak before us, and we reached a flat area holding a puddle of melted snow. She stopped, lowered her head and drank. I dismounted and joined her, cupping my hands and sipping the ice-cold water.
I turned. The slope below and the valley now spread out before me lay dark and silent in the deepening evening. "Nothing yet, Sal," I said as I climbed back into the saddle.
But they would come, I knew. And now another problem faced us. Approaching darkness would soon force a stop to our flight, and in the morning, the rising sun would illuminate the barren slope and expose us to men still in shadows below. I could not see a break in the mountain offering the chance of a path to the other side. "It's up to you, Sal," I spoke and slacked the reins and prodded her forward.
She stepped ahead, walking slowly. Then she turned, still climbing but in the direction of the ranch somewhere below us. I almost pulled the reins, but as if she knew where she headed, the walk changed into her ungainly trot.
An hour later, she seemed to kick her way up a rock-slide, reached the top, and followed a path around a ridge jutting out like a shoulder of the mountain. Then she stopped, and the orange ball of the sun blazed in our faces.
Far below us, the emptiness of a vast desert stretched toward the misty line of a mountain range on the horizon, our position of height and distance giving the murky peaks the form of gently rolling hills. I took the reins and guided Salley, downward now, until we reached a pool of water oozing from beneath a ledge. And there we camped.
I fed her the last handful of grain from the saddlebags and rubbed her down, my hands massaging the muscles that had saved me again, my voice gentle, praising her. "It's yonder, Sal," I voiced my thoughts, my eyes toward the west and our destination. "Colorado . . . California, and, Sal, beyond that . . . the ocean."
The sun plunged into the edge of the desert, and the shadow of night began several thousand feet below us at the base of the mountain and raced upward, cloaking us in darkness. Behind us, it creeped over the yellow radiance of snow-capped peaks, and night came at last.
I spread my bedroll and lay there wrapped against the cold, a saddle for my pillow. The sky filled with stars so brilliant and close it seemed I could touch them. Somewhere down the mountain, coyotes yipped into the moonless night. Loneliness overwhelmed me like a chill no blanket can relieve, and I thought of Ruby, the only woman I ever loved.