An Unexpected Ally
RETURNING TO THE PLAIN ON HORSEBACK in the uncompromising light of day, Hunter discovered the carcasses of the dead already stripped down to bone and hair. It was amazing what Mother Nature could do in just three days. Here and there, a few scattered bones were all that remained of the tough marauders, a fitting end without headstone or remembrance to commemorate their ill-spent days.
Retracing his three-day-old trail, he guided his mount north, this time entering the canyon where the horse tracks led. Once inside, he dismounted, leading his mare in on foot. The walls were steep and the canyon long and narrow with a slice of sky above. He figured the animals would be fairly easy to catch and brought along a rawhide lariat and some treats to assist him. Cautiously moving deeper into the rift, he scanned the high walls and surrounding rocks and brush, keenly aware of his vulnerability. Seeking fresh tracks, he saw only where the horses had casually moved about, alternately grazing and drinking from the shallow creek that tumbled through the rocky bottom.
On either side, near-vertical sandstone walls in countless shades of red, yellow, and orange, rose eight-hundred feet into the cloudless blue. The canyon itself was about three miles long and shaped like an hourglass. A thousand yards across at the widest point, it narrowed to a few hundred about halfway along, and then widened back out for another mile and a half or so. The ground was covered in sand and gravel, and dotted with gray-green bunches of sagebrush, with thin tufts of grass flanking the creek. Scattered here and there along the bottom, sharp, solitary boulders dotted the broken floor, offerings from the towering cliffs above. A few solitary cedars and junipers, with intermittent glades of willow, aspen and poplar, traced the watercourse.
Hunter spotted a game trail leading up and across a red-washed canyon wall, offering a better look at the lay of the land. He tied his mustang to a shrub and scrambled up, as the trail switched back and forth across the side, angling for the top at a fairly steep grade. About halfway along, he gained enough altitude to see all the way to the back.
Pausing beside a skewed limestone slab, he looked out over the shadowed canyon floor hundreds of feet below. As he surmised, the horses were bunched together toward the back through the narrows. Scanning with his binoculars, he spotted half-a-dozen or so, grazing a couple hundred yards upstream. He located two or three more in a clump of cottonwoods a short distance beyond the rest. From here, they looked to be doing fine but would no doubt appreciate being relieved of those annoying saddles and bridles.
He headed down and soon rode his horse out into a small clearing in plain sight of seven of the animals. They were all heads up and wild-eyed, flaring nostrils testing the wind. Their ears cocked forward as he approached, snapping back and forth like miniature radar dishes as he drew near. Speaking softly, he slid easily from his horse and walked calmly towards them, offering a handful of something from his saddlebags as he went. While the nervous animals bunched up and tried to decide whether to run or stay, a blaze-faced mare snorted as she caught a whiff of wild oats and honey, whinnying with interest. She took a few cautious steps towards Hunter, while the rest of the herd held back and looked on, not yet convinced.
He offered her a bit of the grain, which she nosed right into and immediately settled down, allowing him to right her saddle, which had slipped badly to one side. With soothing words, he loosened her cinch and removed the saddle and bridle completely, patting her gently with gloved hands. He rubbed her damp, matted fur back and forth in long clawing motions as she crunched the grain and leaned into his hands, occasionally swishing her long tangled tail, obviously appreciating the back rub.
Producing a well-used currycomb from his pocket, Hunter brushed down the grateful animal and recalled Elise saying she thought she recognized a couple of her lost horses among the bandits’ mounts. As he groomed the grateful animal, he was pretty sure that this was one of the beauties she’d referred to. Witnessing the mare’s relief, a couple of others nosed in looking for grain, and Hunter removed their saddles and bridles, rubbing them down as well. Before long, they were all taking an overdue roll in the dust, relieved to be free from their constricting tack. Afterwards, he led them to the stream to drink before tying them close to a small clump of willows in the shade. He left them there, looking sleepy and content, and went off to find the rest of the bunch.
He collected a total of five more when he came upon the corpse. Hunter was stilled by the macabre scene. A man had been stripped naked and staked out over a fire pit. Most of the skin on his arms and legs was missing. Hunter went instantly into combat mode, loading his crossbow and quickly scanning the area. He found nothing but a few faint tracks, the ground here being mostly rock with little topsoil covering the granite substrate. Careful examination of the body revealed that the victim was strung up alive and skinned while a tightly focused fire toasted his sexual organs to a blackened crisp. Sometime later his face and scalp were removed, perhaps as a trophy, or maybe the killer was simply signing his work; it was impossible to know.
Hunter was unsettled. He hadn’t seen anything like it since Africa, where ritual killings involving witchcraft and torture were commonplace among warring tribes. There, such mayhem was practiced not only to terrify and destroy an enemy, but to capture his soul, thus preventing him from entering the afterlife. But who here would commit such barbarism and why? Hunter shook his head. Whoever did this had effectively eliminated one of his enemies, but created an entirely new set of problems. With four bandits still at large, it seemed that someone else was hunting them, and he needed to find out who that was and fast. Troubled that he’d failed to distinguish the killer’s tracks, he scanned the shadowed canyon walls, half-expecting a bullet to come crashing into his unprotected flesh. Driven to quickly unravel this newest of mysteries, he melted into the sagebrush at the base of the cliff and vanished…
Copyright 2017 by John Phillip Backus all rights reserved.