From the high rocks, he watched the riders moving up the hill. When they got to the long sage-brushed gully that ran toward the north, they followed his feint for a few hundred yards then they stopped. He could not see them, but he could see the dust their mounts made. It hung like a cloud in the high, still air. When the dust cloud stopped moving he knew they had stopped.
* * *
He looked up at the sun, it was directly over his head. He scooted back off the rocks where he had been lying, put his brown Stetson back on, and started downhill toward a little creek that ran through a small meadow at the the bottom of the canyon.
At the edge of the meadow, a tall dun and a grey appaloosa were tied loosely enough to the aspens that they could nibble on the lush grass that grew along the edge of the the small meadow. He walked quickly toward the appaloosa. After checking the two small packs on its back, he led the reluctant appaloosa over to the dun.
There were six riders. Originally there had been nine. Two had had mounts come up lame and had headed back. The third had just turned back this morning. Four days was a long time away from your new wife.
* * *
The six riders were working their way back out of the gully.
"I told you he's heading into the Big Belts," the man in the front called over his shoulder. He was a big man with a grey stetson and a big grey horse.
"He'll run out of trail and options soon, " a tall man riding a blue roan called from the back of the line.
"God damn drifter," the big man said, "Only a fool would try and head up there."
The trail out of the little meadow followed the creek. As he rode, he never looked over his shoulder, he only looked to his right and left. Sometimes he would stop where a game trail met the trail he was following. Once he got off the dun and walked about 100 yards up a wider trail. He stood for a while looking up at the faint line that weaved up through the lodgepole pines towards a gap in the rocks above. He stood for awhile, then shook his head and went back to the horses.
* * *
He got back on the the dun and headed farther up the narrowing canyon.
When the riders got to the little meadow, they stopped to rest and water the horses. The sun was close to the top of the ridgeline in the west. Already the western slopes of the narrow canyon were in shadow and even though it was July, the air was cool.
* * *
"He was here recently, but it was a few hours ago, Mr. Kane." The speaker was a young-looking cowboy with a blue shirt and a small black mustache.
"I followed his tracks up there," he said pointing to the rocks above. "From up there he could have watched us the whole way up."
He took off his hat. His hair was wet. His face streaked with dust.
"Anyone been up this canyon before," The big man asked turning away from the cowboy.
"Hell, Mr. Kane, I did not even know this canyon was here," said a tall middle-aged man who was slumped against a rock, his long legs spread out in front of him in the short grass, a canteen sitting in his lap.
"What I want to know is, if we make camp now or see if we can find another place further up?"
Kane stood for awhile looking at the men slumped on the ground.
"God damned, drifter." he said. "Let's make camp."
He was leading the horses along a narrow trail that switch-backed up and away from the creek and the canyon bottom. The canyon was all in shadows now, but when he came out of the trees at the top of the ridge, he was in sunlight. The horses slowed in the warming light, but he hurried them over the top of the ridge and into the shadows on the other side.
* * *
The trail dropped over the ridge into a narrow park that ran like a wide road toward the sunlit peak that towered above everything . He climbed back onto the dun and followed the park up toward the peak. They didn't stop until they were in the trees again.
He made a small camp without a fire up against some rocks in a little clearing. For a long time he lay in his bedroll smoking, listening to the impatient rustling of the horses, and looking at the stars.
The trail out of the canyon was steep. The men got off their mounts and led them up the switchbacks. The horses did not like the narrow, twisting trail or the loose rocks that skittered down the steep hill in small avalanches. Neither did the men.
* * *
At the top of the ridge they all rested.
"How the hell could some drifter find this trail?" a small man with a brown Stetson sitting on a rock asked. "Only an Indian or a mountain man could have found that trail."
"What are you saying, Johnson?" Kane said standing up and facing the questioner.
"I'm saying, Mr. Kane, that no down-on-his-luck drifter could have just 'found' this trail. This man knows this country . . . "
The others were looking at the Kane who was glaring at Johnson.
" . . . and I am thinking that if this man knows this country this well, he might have spent some time up here. And if he spent much time up here and he ain't an Indian or a mountain man he could only be one man."
Kane started moving toward Johnson who was standing up.
"Say what you're saying, Johnson."
"I'm saying this ain't no drifter we're chasing. This is Thad Stewart. I heard he might be out of Deer Lodge."
Kane stopped moving.
"What if it is?" he said.
"I'm saying if it is Thad Stewart, I want no part of this," Johnson said standing up. "This is between you two." He started moving back toward the horses.
"You're a coward, Johnson," Kane said.
Johnson stopped, but did not turn around. "Maybe I am," he said. "But I will be a live one." He turned toward where the other four men were sitting and watching. "Anyone want to come with me?" he asked.
Two riders stood up and started following Johnson toward the horses.
"You're all cowards," Kane said taking off his hat. His hair was thinning and his scalp pale in the high, bright light.
One of the men following Johnson turned.
"You killed his father, not us."
"It was a fair fight," Kane said putting his hat back on. "You saying it wasn't."
"That one might have been. This would not be," he said turning toward the horses.
From the edge of the big meadow, Stewart watched the remaining three riders moving through the long park below. He had sat in the high rocks and watched as the men had argued and as three had left.
* * *
He scooted off the rocks and went back to his horses. The little appaloosa was dozing in the sun. He scratched behind one of its ears and leaned down and whispered something to it. Then he got back onto the dun and started along the old trail that wound through the lodgepole pines.
The trail went up through the band of trees and ended in a small meadow bordered on three sides by the steep edges of the snowcapped peak that towered above. He rode across the meadow into the small stand of larches that stood on the other side, next to a small pool of snowmelt that spilled into a mountain stream.
He dismounted and took the saddle off the dun and the packs off the little appaloosa. He pulled some grass and wiped them both down and led them over to the pool so they could drink. When they were done drinking he led them back to the edge of the meadow and hobbled them so they could eat. Then he went back to the saddles and packs and picked up a Winchester and walked to the pool.
When he got the the pool he leaned, the Winchester up against a small tree, took off his hat, kneeled down, and put his head into the ice cold water. He held it there a moment and then stood up, letting the water run off his face and head.
He stood for a long time looking up at the peak. He held his hat in his hands in front of him and his dark wet hair shimmered in the high light.
When he heard the sound of horses reaching the opposite edge of the meadow, he put his hat back on and turned around, his hands already reaching for the Winchester.
The three riders were just coming out of the trees. Kane was in the middle, with a rider on each side. They had pistols drawn and were moving slowly through the trees.
Stewart raised the Winchester to his shoulder.
"That's far enough, Kane." he called. His voice echoing against the sunlit rocks.
The riders stopped their mounts and lowered their pistols.
"It's three against one, Stewart," Kane called back.
"Better odds than nine against one," Stewart replied lowering the rifle to hip level.
"That's my horse," Kane said, pointing toward the big dun. "That makes you a horse thief."
"It came from my father's ranch," Stewart said, raising the Winchester again toward his shoulder. "Which you stole from him. That makes you a liar, a cheat, and a murderer."
"It was a fair fight," Kane roared back.
"So is this one, now." Stewart said, smiling. "If you want me, or the horse, come and get us."
"What's you plan, Stewart," Kane said relaxing in the saddle. "Take back your father's ranch one horse at a time? The ranch is legally mine. The horse is legally mine. You got no rights to any of it."
Stewarts smile grew tighter, "Legal don't mean right. Never has, never will. Just because you're rich enough to buy politicians and judges, don't mean you are right."
Kane sat up straight in his saddle.
"You two can go now. I have no quarrel with you. If you stay, I will kill you too," Stewart called.
The rider on the left began to turn his horse back toward the trees, but the rider on the other side of Kane started to raise his Colt.
Before he could even level the Colt, two quick shots rang out. The rider fell out of his saddle, and so did Kane, who tipped over backwards onto the ground but did not move.
The rider who was leaving stopped moving. His back was toward Stewart. He looked back over his shoulder. "You going to shoot me, too?"
Stewart lowered the gun back toward his hip.
"No, you are the witness."
"Witness to what," the rider replied.
"Rich men die the same as poor men. They just get better tombstones." Stewart said, letting the Winchester's barrel drop towards the ground.