Lou Prophet reined Mean and Ugly to a halt along a dusty trail somewhere on the devil’s backside of southeastern Colorado Territory, between hell and high water though if there was a drop of the wet stuff out here, Prophet hadn’t seen it after two days of hard riding. He swabbed sweat from his sunburned forehead with a grimy shirtsleeve, and popped the cork from the mouth of his hide-wrapped canteen.
Mean gave a snort, twitched an ear, and glanced back over his right wither at his rider, the line-back dun’s wide, mud-brown right eye cast with a question.
“Sorry, pard. You had all you’re gonna get for a while,” Prophet said. “If it don’t rain soon, neither one of us is gonna be drinkin’ again until we find a spring.”
He glanced at the sky. Cobalt blue with only a few clouds hanging just above the southern horizon, somewhere over the vast New Mexico Territory. He glanced over his right shoulder, saw the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains jutting against the horizon like a badly uneven saw blade, a couple of the longest teeth touched with wax.
No clouds in that direction, either.
He was surprised that there was still snow this late in the year up there. His mouth watered as he thought of cool, gurgling streams tumbling down those verdant slopes through fragrant spruce forests and elk meadows.
The bounty hunter would rather be up there than out here on this parched plain. But he’d been summoned out here. Now he took a sip of the tepid, brackish water, returned the cork to the flask, and hung the canteen from his saddlehorn. He fished a scrap of lined notepaper out of the breast pocket of his pullover shirt, which he wore beneath a brown leather vest, and unfolded the paper that was soggy with the sweat his dried out body still managed to ooze out his pores.
In a woman’s flowing hand, in blue-black ink, it read:
On September First, please ride to the old Ramsay Creek Cavalry Outpost on Ramsay Creek in Brush County, eastern Colorado Territory. Take the Soldier Creek Trail west from Colorado Springs. A rider will meet you at the outpost with news regarding your friend, Miss Louisa Bonaventure.
The only signature was three X’s.
Prophet scowled down at the leaf, which fluttered in the hot, dry breeze, the sweat in the paper drying even as he held the note in his hand. Concern and curiosity plucked at him, causing the muscles between his shoulder blades to twitch uncomfortably.
He carefully folded the note and returned it to his pocket. He didn’t know why he was so careful with the paper, which had come from a small, lined notepad you could purchase in any mercantile. He’d already memorized what the note said. He’d recited it to himself over the three days he’d been riding through this vast country from Colorado Springs, where the note had been slipped under his hotel room door.
Still, since it alluded to Louisa, he felt proprietary toward the note—maybe because he didn’t have his partner and sometime-lover here to be proprietary to, in person.
He smiled at that. Whenever he acted proprietary to Louisa herself, he got an earful. He’d welcome that earful now, however. He was worried about the girl. Damned worried. Did someone have her? Was she dead, and was the writer of the note wanting to tell him about it?
Had she been kidnapped?
Or was someone using Louisa’s name to bait him into a trap?
“Ah, shit,” Prophet said, looking around carefully for any sign of an ambush. He looked behind him again. There was no movement along the horse trail that rose and fell and meandered and disappeared for long stretches as it dwindled off into the distance, as though swallowed by the distantly looming and majestic Pike’s Peak. The land was all shades of brown relieved only by the cream color of buttes and the deep blue of the arching sky.
No movement back there. If someone was trailing him, they were damned good at trailing. If they were that good at trailing, so that he, a veteran man-tracker himself, couldn’t detect him, then the tracker was likely a damned good bushwhacker, too.
Prophet didn’t have to remind himself to be careful, but as he touched spurs to Mean and Ugly’s ribs and started off along the trail, he did anyway.
“Go easy, hoss,” he muttered, continuing to look around. “Ole Scratch ain’t ready for you. Er...well, maybe he’s ready for you, but you ain’t ready for him. You’ll shovel his coal in good time, but you ain’t done stompin’ with your tail up on this side of the sod yet.”
Again, Mean and Ugly twitched an incredulous ear and glanced at him over his right wither. The horse blew.
“Hobble your lips, Mean.”
Mean shook his head, rattling the bit in his teeth, and continued walking down a grade and around the shoulder of one of the many hogbacks out here. As they climbed into some scrubby hills peppered with clay-colored boulders and twisted cedars and junipers, Prophet stopped the line-back dun once again.
He stared ahead, frowning.
They were almost to Ramsay Creek. The cavalry outpost would be a quarter of a mile or so ahead and to the north, on the left side of the trail. Prophet knew the outpost from having holed up there a couple of years ago. It had been abandoned even back then, and it had afforded good cover from the pack of young Kiowa he’d run into, and who’d chased him, whooping, hollering, and laughing and waving war clubs.
He hadn’t been sure if they were just funning with him, wanting to scare the shit out of the white-eyes because they were bored and simply out looking for a white-eyes to scare, or if they really meant to lift his hair. He hadn’t taken a chance on them not intending the latter, so he’d high-tailed it to the outpost along Ramsay Creek, which consisted of a half-dozen or so still-standing adobe brick, brush-roofed shacks, and snapped off a magazine of Winchester loads at the braves slithering around the surrounding rocky buttes and arroyos.
Prophet had thought that one of his slugs might have pinked one of the Kiowa. That had sobered the natives right fast, and they’d slipped quietly back, like coyotes with buckshot-peppered behinds, into the southern badlands along the Arkansas River. He’d neither seen nor heard from them again though it had been a nervous night he’d spent there at the ghostly old outpost, which some settlers in the country claimed was haunted by the ghosts of cavalry soldiers who’d been killed there during an Arapaho attack twenty-five years earlier.
Prophet could have sworn he’d spied a couple of blue-clad soldiers dancing together to the strains he heard of a loose-stringed, scratchy-sounding fiddle. He never told anybody about that, and he’d long since put it out of his mind though obviously not completely because he was remembering those two soldiers now. He could see them as though he’d seen them only the night before, and he could hear the squawks of a fiddle though it had to have merely been a trick of the wind stealing through the rocks and brush that hot summer night.
Not a fiddle. And the two soldier-ghosts had not been dancing together the way soldiers often did when no women were available.
Nope. The Kiowa had merely rattled him. He wished he could have blamed those ghost soldiers and that fiddle on too much tangleleg, but he hadn’t had so much as dipped his tongue in any who-hit-John since he’d pulled out of Julesburg two days before.
“Ah, hell,” Prophet complained as he swung down from Mean and Ugly’s back. “Why did I have to go and remember that?”
The horse looked at him through a dubious left eye.
“Remember what, you ask?” Prophet said, accustomed to having conversations with the hammerhead. “Them two soldiers. Now, why in the hell did I have to remember that? Not only do I got Louisa to worry about, but now I’m gonna be worried about them two blue-bellies showin’ up again just as soon as the sun goes down. And believe me, Mean, when the sun goes down out here, it goes all the way down. I mean, it sinks all the way down to the bottom of the dad-gum universe so’s you don’t think you’re ever gonna see it again, and that’s a bonded fact.”
Prophet was reaching under the stocky dun’s belly to unbuckle the latigo. “What I’m sayin’ is—it gets dark out here. Well, you were here. You remember.”
He slipped the bridle bit from Mean’s teeth, so the horse could forage, and held the horse’s snout steady while he said, “Mean—you an’ I never talked about this, but...did you see ‘em? Them soldiers, I mean? Did you hear that fiddle?”
The horse stretched his neck out so he could try biting off one of the bone buttons from the V-neck of Prophet’s soggy cream pullover.
“Ah, shit,” Prophet said, releasing Mean’s snout. “I don’t know why I ever try talkin’ to you. You never take nothin’ serious. If you had seen them two soldiers, or heard that fiddle, you woulda been so scared you’d have pulled your picket pin, and you’d still be runnin’ straight north. Likely be all the way to the North Pole by now!”
Prophet chuckled as he doffed his hat and carefully poured an inch of water into it from the canteen. He set the hat down in front of Mean and Ugly, and while the horse slurped up the little bit of water, Prophet lifted the lanyard of his ten-gauge, sawed-off Richards coach gun from over his head and right shoulder, and hung the shotgun from his saddlehorn. The ten-gauge cannon was savagely helpful for work in close quarters, but the bounty hunter anticipated no such work out here.
He slipped his Winchester ’73 from its scabbard, ran an appreciative hand down the barrel and walnut forestock, and pumped a cartridge into the action. By the time he’d off-cocked the hammer, the horse had finished the water and was snorting and bobbing his battle-scarred head, demanding more.
“You’ll just have to wait and hope the well at the outpost has water in it,” Prophet told him. “If not, we’ll both be chewin’ leather.”
The horse whickered, shook his head.
“Fuss all you want, pard,” Prophet said, leaving the horse’s bridle reins hanging, knowing the horse would stay with its reins until Prophet whistled for it. “Just stay put.” He glanced around, squinting one eye beneath the brim of his salt-stained, funnel-brimmed Stetson that had once been tan but was now bleached to Confederate gray, which was fitting. “Let me know if you smell Injuns on the wind.”
Prophet pulled his hat brim down low on his forehead and walked through the brush between two low buttes. To his left was a twisting, gravel streambed that was as bone-dry as the rest of this country, with a couple of bleached cows skulls, half-buried in the sand scalloped by previous floodwaters, mocking him.
Prophet made his way through the rocky buttes. The sun beat down and an occasional hot breeze scratched the creosote and Spanish bayonet branches together. That must have been what he’d heard that night.
So, if that’s what he’d heard—what had he seen?
He shrugged the niggling thoughts away, concentrating instead on the task at hand. He wanted to approach the outpost without being seen—at least, without being seen before he saw whomever had summoned him here and had learned what in hell they wanted to tell him about the blond-headed Vengeance Queen herself, Louisa Bonaventure.
He moved through the brushy hills, narrowly avoiding two rattlesnakes, hearing a hawk hunting unseen in the deep blue sky, for a good twenty minutes. Then he hunkered down behind a boulder sheathed in scrub brush and sage.
Below, in a clearing amongst the buttes, sat the scattered adobe brick shacks of the old outpost though a few weren’t so much standing as leaning, part or all of their brush roofs having fallen inside the wind- and sun-blasted walls. There were a half-dozen other logs shacks around the perimeter, but they’d long since fallen to one side, or their roofs had collapsed. In typical Army fashion, they hadn’t been built well. Probably not enough stone or straw in the mud. Only three or four of the shacks appeared to still be hospitable though likely not to much except black widows and diamondbacks.
It was eerily quiet down there.
The breeze lifted a plume of dust that tried desperately to form a devil, and failed. It bounced around a few tumbleweeds and threatened to scrape a few of the other many tumbleweeds away from the walls of the shacks, where they hunkered like frightened children.
Prophet raked a thumb down his unshaven jaw, making a scratching sound.
“I don’t like this,” he told himself aloud. “I don’t like this one damn bit.”
Then a horse whinnied. It wasn’t Mean who whinnied. It was a horse somewhere down there in the hollow but hidden back in the brush and rocks on the other side of the outpost.
Someone else was here.
Why didn’t he show himself?
Prophet was starting to like this even less. He hadn’t enjoyed the night he’d spent here several years ago, and now, like a fool, he’d come back for more.
Now, as he started down the slope toward the ruins, the breeze started sounding like the scratching of an old fiddle...