The trail winding down from the switchback above, widened out as it led to the flat land below. The occasional trees along the roadway spread welcomed shade from the increasing midmorning hot sun as it crept higher in the sky and advancing toward noon.
The coolness of the shade only extended what had been a pleasant ride this morning. Caleb Gant had been in the saddle since early morning, before dawn was first breaking over the eastern horizon. The cool morning air had lingered long into the morning and he had put many miles behind him before the first hint of another grueling hot day approached.
He guided his copper dun down the trail into the lush bottom land that spread out before him. Off to the right he could see rolling hills of green, carpeted with shortgrass. This was good land for grazing cattle and there were plenty of signs that cattle had been there, but there were none in sight that morning.
A slight incline fell off to the right of the road and there was a stretch of gravel, shale, small stone as it led to the bank of a wide creek that meandered slowly between hedges of green underbrush and scattered cottonwoods. The rays of the hovering sun above left the rippling waters glistening with shards of light that gleamed like diamonds floating lazily with the current.
Although Caleb was not yet suffering from thirst, he knew that whenever there was water available, he should always take advantage of it to refresh himself and his horse. After several hours on the trail, the copper dun would certainly relish the respite of a rest and the taste of fresh, cool water.
Caleb urged the dun, gingerly, off the side of the trail toward the inviting stream. The dun seemed to smell the water and picked up his pace on his own, but Caleb held him to a steady walk.
Caleb had been on the trail for several weeks, drifting from town to town. He had neither been in a hurry nor anxious to get wherever he was going, for he wasn’t even sure if there was a definite destination or not.
He was a tall man with broad shoulders and long lanky legs that draped below the dun’s belly. He had unusually small feet for a big man, that slid loosely into the stirrups. He had a craggy, long angular face and firm jaw beneath high cheek bones. His slate gray eyes usually failed to hide a happy go lucky glint of mirth, but once he was riled, those eyes could turn to deadly steel.
A wide brimmed brown hat with a low crown, though in good condition, had faded somewhat from the hot sun and the fabric was a bit worn from the elements, covered his thinning sandy hair, except for his temples that were speckled with salt and pepper strands of gray, hinting at his approaching middle age A draw string dangled from the crown of his hat, framing his face and loosely fastened beneath his jutting chin.
His gray shirt was still fairly fresh as he had put on a clean one that morning. He was a neat man and even on the trail, he bathed and shaved whenever he could, as he had early that morning. Only now, was the shirt beginning to stain with sweat beneath his armpits.
He wore brown canvas trousers and a worn black pistol belt encircled his narrow waist. A plain black handled six shooter nestled in a well-oiled holster that hung loosely and high on his hip as if it were only an accoutrement and not the mark of a gunfighter.
Although, he hated to admit it, he supposed he could be considered a gunfighter, for he had long practiced use of guns. At one time he had been a man of peace, but now that seemed so long ago, and so far away. He had once had a fine home and family in Virginia and had prospered with fields of tobacco. He had been well educated and considered a gentleman. The use of firearms was something he had no need for.
His fine home was destroyed and his family was gone. Gone were his genteel ways and anger permeated his soul. He soon found himself fighting in the Confederate army where he quickly learned the use of weapons and found himself quite skillful in the art of death and destruction.
He had risen to the rank of Captain by the time he was taken prisoner at Shiloh. He was sent to the confines of a Yankee prison in Elmira and eventually transferred out west as a galvanized Yankee, fighting Indians in the western plains.
With the ending of the war and nothing left to go back to in his home state of Virginia, he turned to the only way of life he now knew. For years he had been fighting. Guns had become his stock in trade. Death had become a way of life for him, first in the war and then against Indians. And, with the plains Indians now mostly held at bay on reservations or bound by peace treaties, new battles needed to be found.
He had learned of war brewing in Mexico. The French, under the command of Maximilian, had invaded the country and ousted the Mexican leader Juarez from power. The followers of Juarez rose up in arms and fought back against the invading forces and they began to enlist the help of men like Caleb Gant, who could no longer survive without strife and danger and became soldiers of fortune following the lure of monetary rewards that their guns could obtain.
The fighting was long, hard and bitter in this troubled land south of the Rio Grande and like many other men making their way with a gun he had joined forces with others like himself and fought on the side of the Juaristas.
An assault on the French treasury in Chihuahua had led to his capture along with his followers. He had been imprisoned in Mexico City and had managed a daring escape on his own, leaving his cohorts behind. Caleb Gant had returned to the states, an even more jaded and bitter man without acquiring the riches he had hoped for.
A warrior without war was useless. Caleb Gant turned to hiring his gun out to rich cattlemen who had found themselves embroiled in range wars. Often this meant stepping over the line where the law was concerned and often he found himself consorting with the bad element and finally becoming part of it, himself
With the years rolling away behind him, and the realization that life was slipping away with nothing to show for his existence, but a gun and a horse, Caleb finally grew weary of the drifting life and tired of battle. More and more, he disliked what he was doing and it was getting harder and harder to raise his gun toward another; a condition that could only get himself killed. Further confirmation that his life had been worthless without any meaning.
It had been two years now since Caleb put the last range war behind him. He had continued to drift, however, but managed to stay clear of towns as much as possible, while picking up useful work here and there, that did not involve the use of a gun.
He avoided trouble wherever he could, but there had been occasions when he had had to resort to his fighting skills on behalf of those who had needed his help. There had even been a time or two when he had been goaded into a skirmish because of his past reputation. The temptation to put the gun away completely had asserted itself many times, but he had been reluctant to do so. Partly, because he needed to protect himself or others and partly because he still had one unfinished task before him. That was what had brought him back to eastern New Mexico and had placed him in his recent trouble,
As Caleb drew rein, pulling the dun to a halt at the edge of the creek, the horse immediately plopped his front two legs into the sparkling water and lowered his head to drink heartily. Caleb wrapped the reins around the saddle horn, dislodged his canteen and dismounted. He stepped around the rear of the horse to come up on his right side and upstream from where the dun was watering.
He pulled the canteen’s stopper and squatted next to the stream. The water bubbled and gurgled as it flowed into the canteen’s opening and as it filled, the vessel settled beneath the surface of the water, from the added weight.
Once the canteen was sufficiently filled, Caleb lifted it from the stream, water dripping fluidly down the sides, and put the stopper back in place. He set the canteen on the ground just to the right and a little behind him. He returned to the stream, cupped his hands full of water and brought them to his lips. The water was cool and refreshing. Again and again, he drank in the liquid until he had his fill. Then while the horse was still drinking, Caleb sloshed water into his own face and rubbed the coolness o
n his cheeks and neck, letting it drip down his shirt collar.
He was still applying more liquid to his face when he felt it. The suddenness of it all brought him to a halt and he froze in place. The reflection in the water in front of him at first looked like a dark shadow, but as the ripples of disturbed water subsided, the shadow began to take shape revealing someone, dressed all in black standing behind him.
The cold steel of a rifle barrel pressed into the back of his neck. He stiffened. The dun, next to him, began to shy away.
“On your feet!” A voice whispered behind him. It was a deep whisper almost a rasp in an effort to be audible.
Caleb stood slowly, raising his hands to shoulder level and felt the rifle barrel lift from his flesh. But, he knew it would still be pointed close to him. As he stood, a hand reached out and plucked his Colt from his holster. He felt the weight lifting and he suddenly felt naked as he watched the weapon arc over the stream and splash into the deepest part of the creek, half way across to the other bank.
Cautiously and slowly, Caleb started to turn and face his captor. There was no argument. He was being allowed to make the move.
As he came around and the figure behind him came into full view, his eyes hinted an amused twinkle and a slight grin began to form on his thin lips. The figure before him was a head shorter than Caleb and was dressed totally in black. A black hood covering the face except for cut away openings for the eyes that were shaded by a broad brimmed black hat and revealing little. Black trousers tucked into high top black boots protruded from beneath a long black duster,
“A little early for Halloween, isn’t it sonny?” Caleb’s voice was low and pleasant with just a hint of southern drawl and clearly reminiscent of the cultured speech of an aristocrat. He forced a wry smile, indicating his amusement rather than fear.
“We’re swapping horses.” The whisper came again. There was no reaction to Caleb’s quip.
The bandit’s left hand reached out and untied the piggin strings that held Caleb’s saddlebags, bedroll, and trail gear behind the saddle. They fell to the ground next to the dun’s rear hoofs. The horse sidled uneasily at the sound and movement.
With another fluid sweep, the bandit’s hand slid Caleb’s rifle from the saddle boot and with a wide swinging arc flung it out into the middle of the creek to join Caleb’s pistol at the watery bottom.
Keeping the rifle pointed steady at Caleb, the bandit unwound the reins from the pommel of the dun’s saddle and pulled them back, letting the bridle bit dig into the horse’s mouth and urging him to back up. The dun neighed in protest and backed out of the water as the bandit turned him around, His hoofs stepped over the saddlebags and kicked the bedroll aside. Caleb winced at the carelessness and hoped his possessions were still intact. He still held his hands high.
“Trick or treat, is it?” Caleb jibed. He glanced at the black stallion standing nearby with right front foreleg held high off the ground and reins trailing. A deep gash, trickling blood with extensive swelling and bruising could be seen high up above the stallion’s knee.
Again the bandit ignored the quip, pulled saddlebags, from the black horse, flung them over the dun’s neck and climbed into the saddle without taking eyes off his captive, nor letting the rifle barrel drift off target.
With a strong neck rein, the bandit turned the dun and gigged him forward, while remaining half turned in the saddle with the rifle still covering Caleb Gant until far enough away to forget about him. The bandit twisted back forward in the saddle and rode off urging the dun into a gallop back toward the trail.
Caleb nodded resigned acquiescence to his predicament. He stood stock still except for gradually lowering his raised arms and hands while watching the dark figure disappear back along the trail and out of sight.
“Looks like it’s just me and you, old son,” Caleb mused eyeing the crippled black horse.
“Well, I guess I’d better get my guns.” He turned and stepped out into the creek.