Morning frost still glittered on the autumn grass when I saddled my red roan gelding and rode away from the ramshackle ranch house. I took the trail south, winding through patches of broken granite boulders and gnarled aspen trees as we climbed ever upward toward the jagged skyline. Days like these, when I was alone, my heart still throbbed. The chill in the air, the bracing smell of pine and fir and mahogany on the wind, the sound of gravel snapping from the frozen mud of the trail-all of it reminded me vividly-too vividly-of the day I said good-bye to Indian Bill.
I splashed across Tower Creek, its waters bustling noisily over the rocks, its flow greatly diminished now that most of the snows were gone from the high country and nights were freezing hard so what was left couldn't melt. My horse grunted with exertion, bunching his hindquarters to propel us up the slope toward the saw-toothed ridge. We had left the timber now; on this side of the hill it was too cold and windy and the soil too poor for most trees to take hold. But far up the slope towered one lonesome old fir tree, its gray, furrowed trunk whipped and battered and bent by the wind. A lone branch curved away from the rest of the limbs as if reaching for someone in one last futile plea for help. Toward this lonely tree I pointed the nose of the roan.
A year and a half gone I had ridden out of this valley I called home, right after spring roundup. Not by choice, but because there was nothing left here for me. Things change beyond a man's control, and a smart man can see when he no longer belongs. I knew that then, and I still knew it today. I knew it when I said goodbye to my friend, Indian Bill, and sent him on to his reward. But on this day, two years since we parted, I felt myself drawn again to this place, this narrow, lonesome valley, this country known only to the elk and the deer and the wolf once fall roundup carried the cattle and range horses down to the lowlands. I had to visit my friend, to try once more to understand the ways of man.
I stopped the roan a hundred yards from the old fir, dismounted, and led him the rest of the way, my heart aching. There beneath the shelter of this tree, among the waving yellow grass, heaped a pile of stones-cold granite chunks wrenched by the elements from the ridgeline above. I had placed those stones there myself. I had put them there to cover my friend, Indian Bill.
I plunked down near the grave, tugging off my hat to wipe sweat off my forehead and cheeks before it could turn into chunks of ice. The roan stood nearby blowing, catching his breath, and each time he exhaled a great silvery gust of steam puffed into the air to be wisped away by the wind. I replaced my hat and stuffed my gloved hands inside my coat, staring out across the narrow valley and the great spired mountains beyond. This had been Indian Bill's home. It was fitting his life should end here and he should have this magnificent view of the snow-dotted peaks that towered on and on to an eternal horizon.
William BlueHorse was a half-breed Shoshone. His mother was Redbird, cousin of the great Chief Washakie. His father, Daniel Riggs, had come from northern Maine in fifty-nine. He'd come looking to escape the strife in the east, to avoid the great season of war plainly inscribed on the future annals of the land. I had heard he was an honorable man, but there were those who argued that point. They said he lost all honor when he took an Indian woman to wife.
William BlueHorse, once Billy Riggs, had grown up in the mountains. He learned young the ways of his mother's people, and his father encouraged his association with them, hoping he wouldn't learn the avarice and petty hatreds of his own people. Bill learned to live with nature, to take from it only for survival, in a spirit of kinship, and to give back at least as much as he took. At the age of twelve, he set out alone into the mountains to become a man. Before his lonely vigil ended, he had a vision, a vision of a great blue horse with lightning in its mane and eyes in which he could envision his future. He dreamed he tamed this horse and rode it throughout the land, doing good to others. Thus he earned the name BlueHorse, through his mother's people. When his father died in an avalanche two years later, he took the moniker permanently, and the name Riggs became only a reminder of the kind, loving man who fathered and raised him.
Even though William's father was a white man, to folks back then if a man was half Indian, he was all Indian. And as for Bill, on top of the fact that he had black hair, dark skin and eyes, like a Shoshone, he had chosen to live like one. So to most of the white folks thereabouts, he was just that. A Shoshone. And I remember early on they took to calling him Indian Bill. But Bill didn't mind the nickname. He was proud of his heritage. And most folks that called him that said it in a friendly way, for in spite of the few with an unquenchable hatred for any Indian, Bill was well-liked in those parts.
I remember the time Bill saved young Seth Horton from a grizzly bear. Seth was a white boy, and the whole town toasted Bill that day. Another time he rode all night to rescue the schoolmarm, Mrs. Aimee Sharp, from a blinding snow storm that had led her astray on the way home from school one afternoon. He wouldn't even take credit for that. He claimed Mrs. Sharp was intelligent enough to find her own way home and would have reached it eventually anyway.
Indian Bill was somewhat of a local celebrity. He wore his jet-black hair short-shorter than many white men, and except for his customary buckskin shirt, he dressed like a white man, too. But otherwise, he looked the part of his Indian forebears. He had high, sharp cheekbones and wide, finely formed lips and sparsely whiskered cheeks. His nose was pointed like the eagles he so admired, and his eyes were a deep, deep brown, and set back beneath arched brows. No matter how Bill dressed, he was a physically appealing presence from an early age. I remember many times watching him and seeing the women of our town turn and stare, whispering and giggling. Some of them were even brazen enough to whisper their thoughts to me, knowing I was his friend and word would probably get back to Bill eventually.
Standing six-foot-four, with broad shoulders and a broom handle-straight back, Bill had the lithe, graceful movement of a deer. He could dance with the best, the white man's way or the Shoshones', and many a heart was broken by him at church socials and barn raising parties. There were plenty of women who'd have run off with Bill, but he never found the one he wanted. He remained a bachelor until the day he died-a warm, caring man, but a loner.
Boys for miles around idolized Bill, not only for his good looks and easy manner, but because he had mastered the skills most boys only dreamed of. He could shatter a pine cone at a hundred yards three shots out of five and he could rope and ride any wild horse that was ever brought to him. On that score, Bill just didn't "break" a horse, either. Bill tamed his horses. He treated them like friends, and they grew to trust him-even to love him, if a horse feels such an emotion. His horses were more like dogs than they were horses, always kicking up their heels and champing at the bit when he came out to ride.
Anyway, Bill was quite a hero, to the ladies and to the kids. And even though I heard many a slighting comment about him from a few of the menfolk, I always figured most of it was out of pure jealousy. And that was too bad, because Indian Bill was probably the gentlest man I ever knew, and the easiest to like. A man must really have had to fight his heart not to like him. I never saw him do one spiteful thing. He was always the first to help a lady across the street, to give anything he had to help a friend-or even a stranger. But of course to Bill, everyone was a friend, even those who talked badly about him behind his back-well, most of them, anyway.
One day I had ridden into town for supplies. I tied my horse and packhorse in front of the dry goods store and walked in, and Bill was standing there. A grin flashed across his face, and he stepped to me in three long strides.
"Hi, Tom!" he beamed. He stuck out his hand and shook mine heartily. "Hey, I was just talking about you."
I laughed. "Oh yeah? What were you sayin'?"
Bill jerked a thumb toward the clerk. "We was discussing yer liking of peppermint candy. Fact is-" He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew two long sticks of it. "-I was just fixing t' head out t' yer place an' bring you this. You'll need it soon. Roundup's about coming, ain't it?"
"You didn't have to do that, Bill," I said with a smile. "But it sure is mighty kind of you. Yeah, roundup is comin' right up. I was headed over in the mornin', in fact. I just stopped in to get some supplies laid by."
Bill shoved the peppermint sticks closer with a grin. "Well, take 'em then. An' let's go make yer order." I took the candy, and he threw an arm around my shoulders and steered me over to the counter.
After I had ordered my goods and Bill and I had loaded them onto my packsaddle, he offered to buy me dinner down at the cafe, and I accepted. I hadn't had a meal besides those I cooked myself in a good three weeks, and a man can get pretty tired of his own cooking, especially if he cooks like I do. They say it's impossible, but many's the time I've tried to boil water and just burned it to a crisp.
On the way over to the cafe, I saw the Murphy brothers, Si and Dick, walking toward us, swaggering the way they always did. Si, the mustached older brother, wore a pair of woolly angora chaps and a big Colt Peacemaker strapped on his right hip. Dick wore a Montana Peak cowboy hat, gauntlets and a piebald calf hide vest.
I sighed when I saw the Murphys, having no desire to run into them today. I didn't have any particular problem with them myself, but I knew how they treated Bill. Besides, they knew Bill and I were friends, and I had started to feel a chill in the air in the last few months whenever I met them. They and Bill had some argument at the spring roundup, and the Murphys never forgave a grudge.
I caught the exact moment when Dick noticed us coming toward them, for his eyes went flat and mean, and he turned and slapped Si on the shoulder, making some remark I didn't catch at the distance. The Murphys were already between us and the cafe, and even though I could have crossed the street on pretense of other business, my stubborn streak made me walk straight ahead. I knew Bill wouldn't have walked away, anyhow.
"Hey, it's the Injun," Si sneered, thirty feet away. "What brings you inta town, Billy Boy?"
I glanced at Bill, who had set his jaw. He didn't even intend to lower himself to a response. "We're just goin' for a bite at the cafe," I replied for him. "Why don't you fellas lay off it today, all right?"
Si turned belligerent eyes on me. "Just don't you worry, buster. I was talkin' t' the Injun." He immediately turned back to Bill. "What do you need with a cafe, Billy? You got all the free beef you could want over at our place. Gets mighty dark there at night. 'Course you already know that."
Bill's rock-steady gaze met Si's. "We been all through this, Murphy. You got yer cow back, an' she didn't have my brand on 'er, did she? Step out of the way and let us by."
"Yeah, sure. Pretty easy t' shrug off, ain't it?" Dick said belligerently. "You're the one cut that cow outta the herd just hopin' we wouldn't notice."
"Come on, Dick," I retorted. "The sheriff settled all this last spring. Everyone knows Bill ain't no thief. It's others around here we oughtta be worried about."
Si turned on me challengingly. "Meanin' what?"
I sighed. "Just let us by. I've had enough of you for one day."
We all whirled at the sound of Sheriff Rawlings's voice, all except Indian Bill. He continued to stare from Si to Dick, his knees slightly bent as if ready to spring.
Sheriff Rawlings, in spite of his wintry-white hair and gnarled-oak countenance, was a tough man. We all knew it, and he seldom had trouble with the ranching population of that country. He'd never killed a man during his tenure as sheriff, that I knew of, but he'd sure put some egg-sized lumps on a few heads.
"You boys get off the walkway and let 'em pass." The sheriff had a no-nonsense way of speaking, his gruff voice full of the authority of years. "I've had about a belly full of you two."
Si stared at Sheriff Rawlings angrily, but suddenly he turned on his heel and stepped out onto the street, stalking away toward two horses tied in front of the Ranchers Saloon. Dick followed shortly, lengthening his strides to catch up.
Rawlings turned back to me and Bill, smiling wryly. "Couple of idjits." He spat into the dusty street. "Well, how are you two boys, anyway?" He shook both our hands warmly. "Gettin' ready for the big roundup, are yuh?"
I nodded. "It's about that time again, ain't it? Summer sure flew by."
Rawlings met Bill's eyes. "You taggin' along with Tom again?"
Bill smiled. "Sure. He needs all the help he can get." He cuffed me playfully on the shoulder.
"Now don't let 'im get you in any more trouble." He chuckled, winking sideways at me." "An' steer clear of them Murphy boys. They're pure poison."
Bill smiled again. "They're all talk, Sheriff. If it wasn't for you, I reckon I'd just finally take them off behind the barn an' teach 'em some manners."
The sheriff studied Bill a moment with a twinkle in his eye, then looked at me and winked. "You know, I bet he could do it, too. Prob'ly both at once. But seriously, Bill." He met his eyes again. "Just watch out. Si's lookin' for any excuse he c'n find to use that Black-eyed Susan of his. He thinks he's a bad man with a gun."
The fall roundup seemed to go by faster than any before it. Bill and I avoided the Murphy boys, and we had no trouble with them. We had a good bunch of cowboys, generally, and in spite of some of them being jealous of Bill, they all got along with him all right. He could sure tell up a story when he became inclined, and many was the night around a roaring cowboy campfire he kept us laughing one minute and on the edge of our bedrolls the next. A time or two he even brought a tear to some hardened eyes. I always admired his way of speaking. Seemed he could put you right where he wanted you and draw you in.
Before we knew it, roundup was all over, and although we enjoyed the camaraderie and reckless cow chousing, we were awful glad it was through, for the bite of an early winter hung in the air. Across the valley, of a morning, the clouds lay low and black, threatening snow. They stayed that way pretty much all day, too, and I spent a lot of time hauling firewood out of the hills, sawing it in lengths and splitting it, getting set for a rough winter. The creeks were freezing up early, too, and the horses and cattle were growing their coats out extra long.
But one day the sun broke early over the hill, and though there was a definite wintry chill upon the valley it lit my spirits tremendously. Sunlight shone bright yellow off the last of the aspen leaves that hadn't fallen yet, and a cold breeze made them sparkle like strings of gold coins.
I guess the weather got to Bill, too, because he rode up to the place in his shirtsleeves with a rifle in his scabbard. "How about going up the valley one last time with me before snow flies, Tom?" he invited. "I spotted a herd of elk that've been feeding late. Some winter meat for both of us."
After two weeks of cutting wood, I didn't even hesitate. But I chose to wear a coat, and I ribbed Bill about deciding not to. I reckon I wasn't near as hot-blooded as Bill must have been.
Bill rubbed his hands together briskly. "That's okay," he grinned. "I left my coat laying on the woodpile. I feel like taking a chance today. The cold gets my heart going."
I laughed and went about gathering my Winchester and a box of shells, then walked out to the corral to catch a horse. I only had two at the place that day, and the one I normally rode had been limping around the day before. So I chose the other one, a knot-headed bay I had to keep a close eye on all the time to keep him from getting me in trouble.
When I climbed in the saddle, that bay went to bucking right off the bat. He crow-hopped across the corral, then tried half-heartedly to lay some rail fence-that's cowboy lingo for bucking first one way, then the other, in the shape of a rail fence, just like the name says. I rode him fine, for he wasn't serious anyway. I had fun trying to stay on top of a bucking bronc, like most cowboys-us young ones, anyway. That's the only reason I never tried to break the bay of his bad habit. I'm sure Bill could have cured him, if I'd been inclined to let him. Not a one of his bucked.
Bill was laughing when I steered the bay back across to the open gate of the round corral. "Better let me take that one for a week or two, Tom. Some day he'll throw you up in the hills an' you'll be walking back home."
I just chuckled. "Heck, pard, I don't wanna take the fun out of the ride!"
We rode up the canyon, where the sunlight hadn't yet found its way. Mostly we were quiet, enjoying the ride and the pleasant company. The smells of autumn were alluring, and again and again we filled our nostrils. It wasn't singly the aspen, the pine, fir, buckbrush, or dead grass. It was all of them. All of them mixed generously into the cold, perfectly clear air of fall. We both loved it so.
The horses picked their way through the narrows, the split-rock walls of gray granite rearing up on both sides of us. The creek chuckled along the rock base at our right side, singing us a cheerful song before it would bed down under a coat of ice to await the spring.
At last, we neared Bill's elk feeding ground. To our disappointment, the bright sunlight sparkled in the frosty grass of an empty meadow criss-crossed with fresh elk tracks and droppings.
"Too clear last night," Bill guessed. "They were able t' feed all night."
I agreed. "I was afraid of that. We could always get off the horses and hunt in the trees."
Bill hadn't heard me. He was studying something in the grass. I rode closer and saw there was a muddy spot before him where no grass grew. In the center of it was the fresh track of a horse.
I glanced up at Bill. "What do you suppose? Somebody beat us up here and spooked the elk all off?"
Bill shrugged. "Could be. He was here this morning, all right. Let's follow along for a ways. See if he got something."
I was game. I was out for the ride anyway, not so much to bring home an elk. I've always said the work only begins when you put one on the ground, and I didn't savor the idea of having to walk home with an elk riding on my horse.
I followed Bill along through the grass, then into the timber. The trail led eventually up out of the trees to a bare, wind-swept ridge.
Up ahead, we heard a horse neigh from a stand of stunted aspens. Bill and I looked over at each other at the same time. "Wonder if he got somethin'," I said.
"Well, let's go see."
We started our horses forward, Bill behind me this time. Suddenly, the bay balked at something and began to sidle. I couldn't see what was spooking him, but not being able to bring him in check angered me. I gouged him with the spurs and tried to rein him back onto the path, and he broke into a buck. Only this time he meant it. He lunged and spun, then wheeled the other way, swapping ends. That time he unseated me-me, a self-proclaimed bronc peeler. Down I went, and I landed wrong on my left foot and felt something tear inside. I continued down, sprawling on my side in a pile of rocks.
I could hear the clatter of the bay's hooves as he raced back down the hill. I was hoping Bill would chase him down, but instead he leaped off his horse and ran to my side.
"Hey, pard! You all right?"
My head was spinning, but my eyes focused on his concerned face. "I reckon so, except my left ankle."
When I went to sit up, I quickly found a searing pain in my left ribs, too.
"Just sit there, Tom," Indian Bill ordered. "Sit an' breathe easy a while. I'll go catch your horse after a bit, but then we better trade off. You ain't in no shape t' ride that knothead."
I chuckled without humor. "Ah, heck. I'm a twister, Bill. I've been stove up worse'n this. You just catch 'im-I'll do the ridin'."
That time Bill just nodded, preoccupied. His horse was shifting around nervously where he had left it ground-reined. It was too well trained to run away, but it sure didn't like something in the wind. Bill looked over at me wonderingly, then stood up, walking slowly in the direction we had been riding. I heard a surprised exclamation.
I tried to turn around to see what Bill was looking at, but it hurt my ribs too badly. I turned back in the other direction and called over to him, "What's wrong, Bill?"
There was only silence.
"Bill, dang it, what'd you find?"
Again silence until I heard him approaching slowly. He came to a stop in front of me and crouched down on his heels. He looked me square in the eyes, glanced off behind me, then returned his eyes to me. "We got trouble, Tom." His voice was quiet, and there was a pallor to his face I'd never seen. "You know Ben Sharp, the school teacher's boy? He's over yonder. Dead."
I stared at Bill in shock, letting his words register on my brain. At last, my lips moved. "Dead?"
Bill nodded, looking over there again. I insisted he help me up, and I leaned on his shoulder to limp over to a pile of jumbled, hat-sized rocks. Ben Sharp lay dead on his back, staring up at the sky. There was coagulated blood down the side of his head, stiff in his hair. I turned away, half sick. Ben Sharp had been a nice young man. The worst part of it was, he had just married several months ago. He homesteaded a place on the other side of the hill from mine and brought his new wife, Mary, there to live. Now she was pregnant and a widow.
I looked at Bill gravely, unable to believe what we had stumbled upon. He just smiled sadly. "Well, at least we can take him down to town an' bury him decent. If we hadn't followed him up here, nobody might've found 'im till spring."
He looked up suddenly at the sky, and my eyes followed his. In the north, a great black mass of clouds was gathering, moving our way quickly. Bill glanced down at his shirt and smiled grimly. "North wind's on the move. An' me supposed t' be a woodsman, too. I hope that coat of mine keeps the woodpile warm."
He looked off in the direction my horse had run. "I'd better go try t' round up yer horse, Tom, an' then you c'n ride mine into town. I ain't lettin' you ride a bucker in the shape yer in. So don't even think about arguing. I gotta get goin' 'fore that storm gets any closer. It's gonna be a bad one."
Indian Bill rode off, and I sat alone with the body of Ben Sharp, contemplating the suddenness, the unfairness of death, to take a man so young and with a family building. It just didn't seem right. He had been a nice young fellow.
Nervously, I watched the storm draw nearer, and a stiff wind began to buffet the hill so I had to jam my hands deep in my coat pockets and lower my chin into the sheepskin collar. My backside quickly numbed against the granite slab on which I sat, but I couldn't move around, so I just sat there and prayed my bay hadn't run all the way back to the ranch. I hoped Bill would get back soon.
When I did see Bill coming up the ridge forty-five minutes later, it was just him atop his horse. Mine was nowhere to be seen. By now the wind was bitter cold, and my cheeks and ears had little feeling. I tied my bandana over the brim of my hat, pinning it down over my ears as I watched Bill come up the hill. He stopped in front of me and climbed down stiffly. I noticed his nose, cheeks, and chin were purple. He was not dressed for this storm.
"I couldn't find 'im. He just kept on running. Never did stop, dang knothead. I'm gonna have t' just load Ben on his horse an' let you ride mine, an' I guess I'll be doing some walking."
I glanced quickly over at Ben Sharp's body, then back at Bill. "I won't let you do that, Bill. We c'n come back for him with some help. Go fetch his horse, an' I'll ride it. We c'n just drag him into the trees for now. It's not worth you freezin' over. You didn't kill him."
Bill considered this a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess yer right. We c'n come back after the storm blows through."
He trotted off down the ridge into the stand of leafless aspens, and in a few minutes he came back out leading a big buckskin cowhorse, a nice-looking animal but kind of fidgety. "Had his reins caught," Bill said as he led him up to me. "I'll tell you what, Tom. You ride my horse, I'll ride him. He's skittish, an' I ain't gonna trust him with you hurt the way you are. I know mine won't do nothing t' hurt you."
I didn't even try to argue. It was too cold. I looked up at the sky, and the clouds were closing out the blue right over us now. A few flakes of snow spat down, but then it quit for a moment. I looked at Bill straightening the buckskin's saddle. He was shivering. I looked over at the warm-looking sheepskin-lined coat Ben Sharp wore.
"Bill, you gotta take his coat off an' wear it. Looks like it'd fit pretty good. Yer gonna freeze to death."
Bill looked at me like he hadn't quite understood what I said. We stared at each other, and then he glanced over at Ben. I guess he knew I was right, for he didn't say a word, just walked over to Ben, and stooping down, worked the coat off Ben's stiff arms. He shrugged into it, and already I could tell he felt better. He looked over at me with a warm look as if thanking me for thinking of him, and then he leaned over and took Ben under the arms, dragging him back down the ridge into the aspens.
Indian Bill helped me climb up on his horse. Then he swung onto the buckskin, and though it pranced nervously it made no move to buck. We started down the ridge with the wind whipping viciously at us. I hugged an arm to my ribs to ease the pain and sank low in my coat.
We had dropped back down the hill to the trail when I heard Bill speak my name from behind. When I turned to look, he was pointing down into the creek bottom. I followed the line made by his finger to a lone, bald-faced black cow that stood down there, back hunched against the wind.
"Can't tell whose it is," I said. "I bet it'll find its way back home tomorrow."
Bill shook his head. "Not the way this storm's shaping up. This trail could be completely snowed in by morning. Reckon we oughtta haze it in with us."
Without another word, Bill reined the buckskin off the trail and down along the creek. As he neared the cow, he stopped suddenly, and I saw him staring at its side where the brand would be. At last, he sort of shrugged to himself and began to turn her. The black cow moved away warily, but with the blizzard blowing in she wasn't in any mood to fight. When he pushed her toward the trail, she went willingly.
The cow passed me as she came onto the trail, and I stared in surprise at the double overbit earmarkings and the brand on her hip. It was the Running M brand. A Murphy cow. I looked up quickly at Bill, who had stopped beside me, and our eyes met and held.
"You actually gonna take that thing in to 'em? You know dang good an' well they wouldn't do it for you."
Indian Bill shrugged. "Who knows. They're cowboys, ain't they? Besides, I ain't doing it for them, I'm doing it for the cow. I don't think she'd last out here once this place snows in."
I watched Bill and shook my head. He was right, of course. It was the code of the range. You found a lost cow, you brought it in. No questions asked. It didn't matter whose cow it was. And Bill had put it right into perspective. It wasn't necessarily for the owners. It was for the cow. We both hated to think of her starving and freezing to death up that canyon. She might just as easily have been one of our own, and those of us who, erroneously or not, considered ourselves the intelligent species had to help out the dumb brutes we passed along our way.
We moved along the trail once more, and now and then a flurry of snow pelted down, convincing us it was the beginning of the big one. But each flurry sort of died before it could really turn into anything serious, and those big black pirate ships of cloud humped together up there above us, glowering and threatening.
Indian Bill rode in the lead now, so he could keep the black cow moving the right direction. She stuck pretty well to the trail now that she was on it. She realized she was headed home, and even though we were facing into the wind she knew shelter and feed lay ahead. That was worth some angry wind in the eyes for a while.
Then at last the snow came down, and for the next three miles it fell like there was no end to it. But down here in the canyon there was only one path to follow, and we stuck to it in the dim light without faltering. Short of going up the steep side of the canyon or down into the creek, there was no way we could take a wrong turn.
I was riding all bent over, nursing my throbbing ribs. I trusted the trail to Bill and just watched the tail of the buckskin, not wanting to look ahead and catch the wind square in my face. Suddenly, Bill's horse came to a stop, and looking up I saw the reason why. Up ahead in the trail sat two riders, hazy in the driving snow. They watched us for a couple of seconds, then rode on to meet us.
As they drew close, I recognized Si and Dick Murphy.
The Murphys drew up, one on either side of the trail. I caught them watching us suspiciously, and as the black cow passed they shot each other a wary glance.
"So." Si Murphy stared at Bill accusingly. "I was right. That's our cow yer pushin' there, Injun. You blind?"
I had ridden up beside Bill now and looked over in time to see the fire begin to build in his eyes. "You couple fools," he said angrily. "Your cow was down in the creek bed fixing t' freeze t' death. I figured I'd bring it in for you."
Si laughed and looked over at Dick, whose confused gaze suddenly disappeared with a laugh of his own. "You bring a cow in for us? You lyin' Injun!" Si's face had turned suddenly mean. "We both know good an' well you'd never do anything for us. Prob'ly figgered you had some winter meat, eh? Fact is, we missed the old girl this mornin' an' was comin' out t' look for her. We'd a turned back when the storm hit, but we seen Tom's horse come runnin' on the road an' figgered he was hurt. Now I'm sure glad we didn't turn back."
Indian Bill just watched the Murphys, his eyes full of anger at their stubbornness. I didn't say anything because I was waiting for him to.
"Take yer cow then an' go tell the Sheriff I was stealing it," said Bill evenly. "See if he believes your fool story. Why would I be out in a storm like this trying t' steal a beat up old cow like that?"
Si laughed again. "Great weather t' hide yer crimes, ain't it, Injun?" He spat into the snow that was building up on the trail. "'Sides, why would you be out in weather like this bringin' in somebody else's cows?"
Dick had ridden over closer to us, and I realized he was studying Bill's horse. Suddenly, his eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. He whipped his head toward his older brother. "Hey, Si. That's Ben Sharp's horse!"
"What the-" Si spurred his horse closer to stare at the buckskin beneath Bill. "Well, sure enough." His eyes narrowed, and I saw his hand move toward the pistol on his hip. "Where's Sharp? Where is he?"
Bill sighed. The anger was still in his eyes, but I could see he was starting to grow wary. He had seen Si's hand moving toward his belt gun, and neither of us had any weapon but Bill's Winchester, deep in its scabbard beneath my leg.
"Don't start jumpin' fences you ain't measured," I said suddenly. "We found Ben dead up on the hill. Looked like he got bucked off while he was followin' a herd of elk. Bear musta spooked the horse or somethin'. He was dead an' cold before we ever found 'im."
Si's and Dick's faces turned white, even through the snow, and they stared at each other in shock. They looked back at us, and Si spoke. "How's come you didn't bring Ben out, then? An' what're you doin' wearin' his coat?" he challenged Indian Bill.
Before we knew it he had pulled his pistol and pointed it at us. Dick looked over at him, alarmed, then looked quickly back at us. Following his brother's example, he drew a Smith and Wesson revolver from its holster and cocked it, leveling it on Bill. His eyes were wide and scared, and his mouth hung open. He kept looking back and forth nervously from us to his brother. I was afraid that pistol would go off.
"What're we gonna do, Si? Take 'em in?" By the sick look in Dick's eyes, I think he was afraid of the answer.
"Yeah, we got to," replied Si, but he didn't look at any of us as he said it. "You get down and tie the Injun up, Kincaid," he ordered me, gesturing with his pistol.
I hesitated, and Bill broke in. "His ankle's broke, an' so're his ribs. Horse threw 'im. He can't get down."
"Shut up!" Si spat, staring hatefully at Bill. "All right, you go tie 'im, Dick. Tie 'em both. I'll cover you."
Dick climbed down and did as Si ordered, tying our hands too tightly behind our backs. He was making certain we didn't break free, and my hands started to ache instantly.
When Dick had crawled back into his saddle, Si said, "Now you ride ahead an' keep that cow movin'. I'll stay back here an' watch these two."
We moved along this way for a while, and suddenly I noticed the storm had died down, and there were clear spots of light bluish green sky along the horizon. I sighed with relief for that.
We had gone only about a mile when I heard Si's voice call out behind me. "Dick, hold up."
The younger man stopped and turned his horse, looking past me to see his brother. "What now?" he queried.
"You watch these two. We're all goin' up this here hill."
The hill he had pointed out was a wind-swept, grassy slope speckled with granite boulders. Jagged rocks lined the skyline. And there, toward the top, was one gnarled Douglas fir tree with a long, bare branch that curved and twisted away from the rest of the tree. A cold feeling, colder than my skin, gripped my innards. I studied Si's face, then turned to look at Bill. He only stared up at the tree, his jaw set. He didn't even glance over at me.
"Murphy, what're you up to?" I queried, trying to sound calm. "Trail's straight ahead."
"Just shut up!" Si barked. His eyes stared at me wildly, and with his lower teeth he vigorously chewed the drooping ends of his mustache. It was obvious he had worked himself up to something he didn't want anyone talking him out of.
Si turned to Dick. "I changed my mind, Dick. I'll watch these two. You just lead us up toward that lone tree there. Now go on," he urged emphatically, cutting off any forthcoming protest.
Dick's eyes were wide now, his face pale. He looked from us to his brother. But he put spurs to his horse, leaving the black cow where it stood, and started up the steep incline. Both Bill and I just sat our saddles, unmoving, but when we heard Si cock his pistol Bill automatically prodded the buckskin up the hill, letting it follow Dick's horse.
I followed the other two, hearing Si come behind, and our horses slipped and slid in the snowy grass and rocks until we reached the tree. I guess I knew Bill and I were both about to die up here. That bare limb poking out of the other needle-covered branches of the fir told us all we needed to know.
We came to a halt at the big fir, and Si started untying the lasso from his saddle horn. Indian Bill watched him quietly, his face emotionless. "You're making a big mistake, Murphy," he said at last. His voice was a lot calmer than mine would have been. "Everything I told you is true. When you find Ben Sharp, you'll see. He ain't shot or anything. His horse threw 'im off. And fool that I am, I really was bringing that cow in t' be nice. I just didn't want her starving t' death out here. I wasn't bringing her in as a favor t' you, but it would have amounted to the same."
"Yeah, yer a sly one, Injun. Our daddy always told us the only way an Injun c'n live is by stealin', an' I reckon he was right. An' yer all a bunch o' good liars, too. But I ain't buyin' it. I ain't lettin' you go an' have you two leave the country with Ben lyin' up there somewhere's with a bullet in 'im. I ain't no fool, no sir!"
Without warning, he flung a loop, and it settled around Indian Bill's neck. Bill took a deep breath and swallowed, and he looked into my eyes. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, and I nodded back, swallowing a big lump in my throat.
Si started his horse toward the tree, jerking the rope tight around Bill's neck so he had to follow. He threw the loose end of the rope over the tree limb, then caught it and tied it securely around his saddle horn.
I stared helplessly at Si. "You two can't be so stupid you think this country will let you get away with killin' two men in cold blood. This is murder. You'll hang, too, if you do this."
"Hell I will!" Si stared at me, eyes narrowed, fingers turning white as he gripped the saddle horn. "It ain't against the law t' hang a horse thief. Not t' mention a murderer."
I knew Bill was a religious man. He always had been, more so than I. But it was plain he had given up talking to the Murphys, so I spoke up for him. "At least let him say his prayers to his Maker." My voice broke at the end. "Give 'im that, anyhow."
"The hell I will," growled Si again, and with that he kicked the buckskin horse hard in the rump, backing his own horse up to keep the lasso tight.
I stared in horror as Bill's body swung free of the buckskin. My eyes blurred, and I cried out. I begged for them to cut my friend down, but Si only laughed, a wild, crazy laugh. A laugh like he was getting away with some dirty joke at school. Dick sat staring, dumbfounded, and I knew he was sick with fear.
After a minute, Bill had stopped struggling, and I turned to look at Si. His eyes met mine, and we stared at each other for several seconds. It was Si who finally swung his eyes away.
"I reckon you prob'ly wasn't in on killin' Ben Sharp, Kincaid," he said, his voice eerily quiet, monotone.
I continued to stare at him. "Neither was he!" My voice broke again. I swung my eyes from Si to Dick and back, and then to my lifeless friend. "You better kill me, too, Murphy. You better kill me, too."
Si laughed, a heavy sound like he had to force it past his tonsils. "I ain't killin' no white man," he said, riding closer to me until our horses were side by side, facing opposite directions. I saw the blur of his hand as he started to strike out with the barrel of his revolver.
When I regained consciousness, I was all alone on the hill, except for my friend, Bill. I looked up at him from where I lay on the ground. There were tears deep inside me, but I guess they were frozen there from the cold. I just stared, watching his body swing against the stiff breeze, lit dimly by a pink light from the sinking sun in the west.
I sat up, realizing my hands had been cut loose. I stood, and in spite of the burning pain in my ankle I stumbled to where Bill hung. I stopped just short of him and gingerly extended my hand. As soon as it touched his leg, it was as if the whole scene became real, and tears filled my eyes and ran freely down my cheeks. I sobbed and held onto my friend until my soul had run dry. Then I took the knife from my pocket, went to the tree trunk, where Si had tied off the rope, and cut Bill down.
Bill fell with a thud because I couldn't get back to him quickly enough to catch him. He landed in the snow and dead yellow grass, and I slumped down beside him and stared off down the canyon.
Did I say I was alone on the hill? Well, not quite. Bill's horse was there, too. Stealing horses was a hanging offense back then, and I guess to the Murphys' twisted way of thinking it just wouldn't be right to take this one. I don't think they really wanted to kill me, anyway, or I would be swinging up there beside Bill by Dick Murphy's rope. Si had said he wouldn't kill a white man, and taking any transportation from me in this weather would surely have killed me.
I'll never be able to tell how I did it, but I'm sure that patient horse of Bill's did more than I did . Anyway, somehow I got Bill on top of it and then me, too, and we started toward town. We got there about midnight, and I went straight to Sheriff Rawlings's house. My urgent knock brought him to the door. Even though half asleep, he saw the blood plastered in my hair.
"Come in, Tom," he ordered, dragging me by the arm, then shutting the door behind me. He turned up the wick on his kerosene lantern and peered at me closely. "What happened to you?"
I looked at him bitterly. "The Murphys hung Bill!"
After the whole tale came out, the sheriff and I carried Bill's stiff body inside and laid him out on the kitchen table. Mrs. Rawlings had come in, wearing her bed robe and slippers, and she stood at one end of the table, her hands to her mouth, her eyes full of terror.
When we had laid Bill down, I guess we jarred him a little, for a white corner of paper I had not previously seen stuck out of Ben Sharp's coat pocket. Sheriff Rawlings reached over and picked it up, unfolding it. He stared at it for a long time, his lips moving silently as they made out words. At last, he lowered it and looked over at me. He held the paper out to me, and I took it from his fingers.
There were five lines scratched on the paper, made by the lead tip of a bullet, it appeared. It read like this: I'm in a bad way, my sweet Mary. My horse got spooked by a herd of elk and threw me in some rocks. I fear that I soon will be dead. If anyone finds this here message, please take it to my wife, Mary Sharp, so she'll know. And please take my horse and saddle back to her. It's all I have. The note ended with Ben Sharp's signature, made by a shaky hand.
I looked up at the sheriff and nodded slowly. I wondered if it would have made any difference if any of us had known this note existed at the time of the hanging. Si had seemed so bent on a killing. I wondered then and always will.
Well, it wasn't much of a trial. It was pretty much cut and dried. I was there four weeks later when they hanged Si Murphy at the gallows. And I was there when the prison wagon came and carted Dick off to a sentence of twenty years in the territorial prison. There was justice, but it came a long ways from bringing back Indian Bill. And believe it or not, there were those who hated me for testifying against the Murphys, for they said I had turned on my own kind. And that's why I had to leave the valley.
But now I've come back to visit a friend, and yesterday I rode by Indian Bill's shack on the creek. It's kind of lonely now, with black windows that stare out at the world like caves. The door hangs loose, with its top hinge broken, and a piece of burlap flutters there in the wind. His horses all went at the county auction, for he had no family. Somebody came by some mighty fine riding animals.
And today I sit here alone with the wind in my hair, staring out over the mountains Indian Bill called home. Well, again, I'm not alone. Remember that horse of Indian Bill's, the one I packed him back to town on? That's the red roan I'm riding now. Sheriff Rawlings let me take him a year ago and saw fit to write me out a bill of sale. So there are two who have come back to visit a friend, and with sadness in our hearts we sit and listen to the wind that moans bittersweet over the grave of Indian Bill.