TELL HADLEY had stopped smoking some years ago. There were rumors about that it made folks sick, could even kill them. It had almost killed him.
One time he’d just about stumbled in on a hornet’s nest of killers because the habit had dulled his sense of smell. He had the scars to prove it.
When a man rode the range alone, he needed all his senses sharp to take in his surroundings. Sometimes it was more sight, sometimes smell. Taste could keep a man from drinking tainted water or eating poisonous fruit. So he’d learned his lesson the hard way and quit smoking while he was healing up from that encounter.
Right now he needed his sense of smell the most. Darkness had fallen while he was still riding up the steep, winding trail, robbing him of sight, so he had to rely on the instincts of his buckskin. She was a half-wild mustang with plenty of speed and bottom that nobody could ride but him. Tough, trail-savvy, and a fighter, she’d carried him over a lot of territory. She knew how to pick her way along a dim trail even in the dark, and a horse could follow a scent trail as well as a dog.
He could hear nothing but the hum of insects and the soft thud of her hooves in the dirt. He could see nothing but the black shapes of jagged rocks and the stars white in the sky above. But he could smell something on the air.
“Softly now, Malena,” Tell whispered to the horse.
She twitched an ear at him and kept moving forward. She could smell it too.
Burning wood. A fire meant coffee, food, and water. Maybe grass for the horse.
A fire could also mean sudden death.
He had to admire whoever was up there. From no vantage point had he been able to spot the telltale orange gleam of the fire. Before the sun went down there had been no trail of smoke written in the sky. The rider had been right smart in choosing his way. If not for Malena and the occasional fresh chip on a rock, he would have lost the trail hours ago.
The rider was pretty determined not to be followed. That could mean a lot of things. Tell had no false modesty. He knew he was a good tracker, one of the best. A Navajo scout had once told him anyone could read sign on the ground provided they kept their eyes open. A good tracker learned to follow the trail of the mind. Once a man learned how his quarry thought, he could follow where there was no trail.
That was what Tell had done. The visible trail had given out five miles back. The rider he was chasing had taken to the water, doubling back in a small stream instead of coming out the other side. It had cost him two hours of patient searching through thick brush beside the overgrown stream, but he had finally found where the rider and horse had emerged.
An impatient man would have given up. A less observant man would not have noticed white dust where an iron shoe had chipped a water-rounded stone.
The hunted had walked his horse over a dry streambed full of pebbles and stones to make his trail harder to follow.
The hunter had expected that level of trail-savvy and searched for it. What he had not expected to find was the drop of dried blood.
There had been plenty of blood where he first picked up the trail, but there had also been a number of dead bodies strewn about to account for it. He had not suspected that his prey had also been wounded.
That gave Tell something to think about while he let Malena mosey her way up the trail. A cornered wolf will fight. A wounded wolf when cornered will fight to the death. He would have to take care.
THE pocketful of fire he’d made was so small that very little heat reflected off the rocks to warm him. Noel had moved the coffeepot to the side so the coffee wouldn’t boil. He made a face as he sipped the black brew. He preferred it with sugar and milk, but when he’d set out earlier today he had only expected to be away from town for a few hours.
Of course he carried a small supply of coffee and beef jerky with him out of habit. Not much, but it would keep him alive until he returned.
If he returned.
Noel figured he had about an hour before the hunter behind him caught up. The man was good. His horse was better. Earlier in the day, much earlier, he’d caught a flicker of movement in the bushes and stopped to figure out what it was. Hoping it was just a deer or some other wild animal, he knew not to stare directly at it. It was much easier to catch movement from the corner of your eye.
The man had been looking down, studying the ground. If he’d happened to look up at that moment he would have seen Noel. His horse did. It had its head up, staring at Smokey. Noel had nudged the gray gelding with his heels, and they disappeared into the trees like the smoke his horse was named after.
If the hunter ever caught up with him, Noel knew he was as good as dead. He hadn’t been out west long, and there was a lot he wasn’t savvy to yet. Thanks to Jack, he knew enough about riding and tracking to make out on a regular day, but this was not a regular day.
With a bullet in him, he had even less of a chance.
Smokey could have carried him all the way back to Euclid, the town he’d started out from, but Noel needed a break. He decided to make it as difficult as possible for the man hunting him, and when his energy ran out, make a stand and die like a man.
Everyone had to die sometime. The only thing that gnawed at him was that he would have failed to get justice for Jack.
The whole situation made him angry. In a country where the law was stretched thin, a man had to take justice into his own hands at times. That was what he’d tried to do, and he’d failed.
Noel pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders and took another sip of coffee. His gun was lying on a rock near his left hand. When the hunter got closer, he would put down the tin cup warming his fingers and pick up the gun.
“Sorry, Jack, I failed you,” he whispered to the night sky.