Fistful of reefer, p.9
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       Fistful of Reefer, p.9

           David Mark Brown

  The Trail

  A shot echoed across the valley toward McCutchen’s position on the side of the hill. It came from behind him. Spinning Chester on his heels, he searched the brush for signs of his quarry. Two more shots rang out. He scanned the larger area for clues as to what was happening. Riders from the ridge lines converged on the source of gunfire until he heard shouting.

  A rancher on the ridge above him waved his arms before cupping his hands around his mouth.

  “It’s coming right for you! There in the brush. Fast as hell!”

  Chester sensed it first, whatever it was, and tensed. “Whoa, boy.” McCutchen pulled both his Colts from their holsters, deciding it better to leave his rifle sheathed. He heard only the ranchers until the brush directly in front of him exploded with commotion as a full grown jaguar barreled toward him from thirty feet away.

  He dropped the hammers on both pistols, but the animal was too fast. It reached a rock outcropping in one swift motion and leapt directly at him. Chester reared, putting himself in the path of the cat so it struck both him and McCutchen. McCutchen’s right shoulder reeled from the blow as he held his left arm steady enough to pull the trigger. He split the air with burning gunpowder, searing the beast with hot lead, but gravity had yet to be paid.

  Churning his legs, Chester toppled over. McCutchen forgot about the cat—a second to clear his legs from the stirrups or get crushed. Embracing his current momentum he found purchase with his left boot and thrust his foot downward with all his might. Arching his back, he hoped to catch enough air to avoid landing on his head.

  The opposite side of the valley, upside down, rolled in his vision until he looked straight down at the bottom. The ground sped up as he pulled his legs underneath him just in time. Striking the side of a juniper, he landed hard on hands and knees. After rolling several times further downhill, he came to a stop in a thicket of scrub oak and briar.

  Chester hit the ground on his right side, rump-first, and slid before rolling all the way over. His feet underneath him, he powered back up the hill in three quick lunges where he stood on the trail and quivered.

  McCutchen took more time getting up. The impact with the jaguar left his right shoulder on fire, and the rough landing on the jagged terrain hadn’t helped. He stood slowly. Both legs still worked. He rotated his arm, discovering about half mobility. The cat had left burning claw marks, but nothing was broken.

  The cat. McCutchen jerked to attention and scanned the brush, coming up empty. “Of all the stupid…” He scurried up the hillside to check on Chester. “Whoa, boy. Not every day we run into one of those, huh?” He reined him forward and back, checking his legs. “Alright, we’re good, boy.” The gashes in the horse’s neck would require attention to fend off infection, but they weren’t too deep. “Just a scratch.”

  As he pulled himself back into the saddle, more gunshots echoed over the ridge. He spurred Chester into a gentle lope. From the top of the ridge he saw the jaguar. Dead now, it lay bleeding out in a large clearing surrounded by a growing ring of slack-jawed ranchers. McCutchen rode down to join them.

  “You must have winged him pretty good.”

  “He drew the line here, looking for a fight. But didn’t have much fight left.”

  One of the ranchers jumped off his horse and sidled up cautiously to the 200 pound cat. After deciding the animal was completely dead, he pulled its lips back away from its teeth. “You think this here jaguar coulda done that to Gonzales’ goats?”

  “This thing ain’t El Chupacabra!” An argument broke out among them.

  McCuthen had been so distracted by the jaguar he hadn’t noticed the rest of the clearing. Something about it seemed odd. Finally he realized it was a campsite, clear as day. Remains of a fire pit, stumps pulled up as stools, and wagon tracks leading away to the north. “I’ll be damned.” He turned toward the clump of hopeless ranchers mussing up his crime scene. “Hey! Shut it down, boys. And back them horses out of the clearing.”

  Confused, the ranchers stopped their fussing. “What you seen, Ranger?”

  “You’re mucking up a campsite I need to take a closer look at.” No one budged. “Look, men. Here’s your El Chupacabra.” McCutchen pointed at the jaguar. “Damn thing nearly killed me. I’m sure it could have dragged off countless goats, even punctured their necks and let ‘em drain dry.”

  A couple of ranchers narrowed their eyes and looked like they still wanted to argue. McCutchen cut them off. “I hate to disappoint, but there ain’t no demon monster in these hills. These are regular hills, with regular monsters, and regular men. We done killed the monster, and this clearing is where the men were camped last night. So unless you want to take this argument to the next level,” he rested his hand on his holster, “I suggest you back your horses on out of here and stop churning up my evidence.”

  The rancher who had been inspecting the jaguar returned to his horse, and the rest followed suit. As far as McCutchen was concerned he’d fulfilled his commitment to the rabble. He’d taken them hunting and nobody had gotten killed. He was the only one injured. As they huddled again beside a rock outcropping to continue their argument, he turned his attention to gathering information about his prey.

  Deep wagon ruts and the extent of scorching around the fire pit revealed the clearing had been a long-term campsite. McCutchen dismounted to take a closer look. Kicking the cinders with his boot, he felt heat radiating off the coals with the back of his hand. They had left no earlier than that morning. He stood to soak in the surroundings, gathering all the details to recreate the story. He needed to know as much as possible about these people if he was going to track them. Not only what they were doing, but why.

  Several stumps sat upright around the charred pit. Most of them looked out of place. Taking a closer look at each one, only three had been there for long, the others dragged there recently to throw him off their numbers. So most likely there were just three. Three wagons, three men.

  With so many tracks, individual footprints were difficult to distinguish. He stooped to inspect one particular track, a small moccasin among boots. Maybe the rumors weren’t total horse puckey. Apparently, his fugitives included one Mexican and at least one Indian—a witch doctor no doubt.

  Suddenly anxious to find what he’d been looking for all along, he stood. Several tracks lead toward the rock outcropping where the ranchers stood arguing. He knew the dim-witted rednecks would never see past their fears and superstitions. Maybe the jaguar would be enough to satisfy them, maybe it wouldn’t. Sure as hell, they’d come up with a new boogie man by tomorrow. They lowered their voices as he jogged past them, cresting the short rise.

  “Ah hell,” he stamped his boot. The marihuana was gone, all of it.

  He walked to the edge of the field. Good God. This was the second largest patch of marihuana he’d ever seen. The largest, south of Matamoros, he’d burned personally. He shook his head. It looked to be five or six acres, freshly harvested. But how? The stalks had been crushed, pinched off, rather than sliced cleanly or hacked with a machete.

  He spotted tire tracks. Shocked he had missed the obvious, he put the pieces together. He’d seen this sort of thing before with sugarcane. They must have used a monster sickle bar to harvest in a hurry. He stood, woozy from dehydration and blood loss. The scar on the side of his head itched with the heat of the day. He lifted his hat to scratch at the old wound, the motion reminding him of his fresh ones.

  The land to the south was rugged, steep valleys until the border. No way they could make that trip with wagons. He and the ranchers had ridden from the east, more or less. That left the north and the west. One of the fugitives was definitely a Mexican, but Mexico didn’t set right in his gut. The greaser had chosen to live out here with a couple of Indians for a reason.

  He reined in his thoughts. Focus on the evidence. These guys were loners. Over the last couple of years no one had even caught a decent glance of them. Certainly not common bandits, and yet obviously not comm
on ranchers either. Rumors of goat-eating demons and witch doctors where the best thing he had to go on. They were up to something, but he had no idea what. Rule number one, always follow the tracks.

  Walking to the northern edge of the field, he followed the unique three-wheel tracks of the harvester. What were they thinking? They had taken everything with them, either making them the dumbest fugitives he’d ever tracked, or… the thought made him momentarily nervous. Sometimes bad guys are just stupid. Actually, often they were stupid. Maybe this time he would get lucky, despite his rocky start.

  The tire tracks lead north and gradually east until they met up with the tracks from the three wagons. From there everything became muddled by the herd of goats—judging by the amount of manure left behind, at least a few dozen, easily more. He wanted to follow the tracks further, but his legs ached. Cowboys weren’t cut out for walking, and he wished he’d stayed on Chester.

  The tracks headed north into the confines of a valley that continued northward. At some point they’d have to change course to avoid populated areas. McCutchen felt certain they would head west. A small band of loners with all their possessions hoping to go unnoticed would eventually have to head west, into the Davis Mountains and the Trans-Pecos wilderness.

  But they were moving way too slowly to make it. He hiked back to the campground confident he had time to take Chester to the vet in Del Rio. He couldn’t risk Chester V dying out from under him due to preventable infection, not after the years they’d shared. Inspecting the claw marks on his shoulder, already tightening with crusted blood, he decided they could both benefit from medical attention.

  As their first day on the trail dragged into late afternoon, the goats showed signs of weariness and Chancho struggled with disappointment. His harvester had run out of gas an hour earlier, forcing them to abandon it. He patted Sister Espanoza. She also seemed moody about hauling the marihuana wagon that had been pulled by El Chupacabra for the first leg of the journey.

  “At least you won’t run out of methane.” Chancho tried half-heartedly to cheer them both. On cue the horse cut loose a flappy fart. “¡Excelente!” It was a good joke and brightened their mood. His harvester had liberated a field’s worth of cáñamo from the earth before the ignorant rinche could stop them, and El Chupacabra would remain where they’d left him until he could return. If he couldn’t remain at home, taking it with him was the next best thing. Soon the rinche and the ranchers would leave them alone, and he could go back to living his quiet life.

  Minutes later Nena found a dry inlet stemming from the main wash and hidden from the rest of the valley by a forested sandbar. Both sides of the small draw were steep and rocky, creating a perfect pen for containing the goats. While Chancho helped Nena herd them from behind, Muddy pulled the chuck wagon as far into the narrow draw as he could. Taking a bucket of feed, he coaxed them further forward before spreading the feed in four clumps at the head of the inlet. With good shelter, brush for grazing and a small pool where a spring seeped from the hillside, the herd settled happily.

  As the goats ate Muddy moved among them counting each head. “Forty-two.” Throwing the bucket back into the chuck wagon, he embraced Nena, who had just finished blocking the entrance to the inlet using the other wagons. “They’re all here. So far, so good.” Dressed in warrior attire complete with crossbow, she had taken several minutes that morning to lace up leather leggings that left only her knees exposed to thorns, snakes or whatever assaults nature or man might throw at her.

  “So far.” She loosened her crossbow and laid it in the back of the chuck wagon so she could feel the fullness of Muddy’s embrace.

  “Get a wagon you two.” Chancho dropped his saddle on a patch of gravel. “But first, shouldn’t we rustle up some supper?”

  “We have a wagon.” Nena batted her eyes.

  “Is that where you’re going to sleep?” Muddy indicated Chancho’s saddle.

  “Sure. Good a spot as any to be blessed with my presence. Maybe I’ll even use a rock as a pillow and have visions of angels climbing back and forth on a ladder from heaven.”

  “Catholics are crazy.” Nena lowered the tailgate to the chuck wagon. “Besides, don’t angels have wings? Why would they need a ladder?”

  Chancho scratched his chin. “You know, that’s a good question. I’ll have to ask Jacob when I see him.”

  “Why not ask God?”

  “Or Him.” Chancho sat in the gravel and leaned back against his saddle. “Should we have a fire and some coffee?” He rubbed his hands together.

  Nena frowned and looked at Muddy, who refused to look her in the eyes. “Well,” he shuffled his feet. “The wood is dry. It won’t smoke much. We could have a fire.” He braved a look at Nena through the corner of his eye. “As long as we put it out before dark.”

  She huffed. “After tonight, no more fires. At least for a few days, until we’re sure no one is following us.”

  “Who would be following us?” Chancho stretched and put his hands behind his head. “Ranchers hunting for El Chupacabra?”

  “The rinche.” Nena hissed the words.

  “Ay, el rinche.” Chancho nodded and fell silent.

  Muddy pulled a tin kettle from the chuck wagon and shook it. “Chancho, why don’t you get us some water from the spring before the goats muddy it up. Nena and I will start the fire and work out supper.” He gave her a look that told her to cut it out. After Chancho left he turned to her, “Don’t make him moody. He’s no fun when he’s moody.” Nena rolled her eyes.

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