It only took me an instant to realize this. But in that same moment, my pa whirled around & pulled out his small revolver.
‘No!’ cried Kepi. ‘Chance– ’
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Before he could say more, my Pa’s revolver spat out three .32 caliber balls.
The Reb Road Agent stared down at three little holes & a dark stain spreading on his pale jacket right below the heart. The shots were still echoing in the mountains around us.
‘You shot me,’ he said, and then repeated. ‘You shot me!’
He said it with a half-smile, like he could not believe it had really happened.
He kind of sat down on the ground. Then he fell back onto the carpet of pine needles & stared up at the stars. His kepi had fallen off. He had curly hair.
‘Look at them stars,’ he said. ‘So many. Sparkling like little bitty silver ingots.’ Then he spoke no more.
I looked at my pa. ‘You killed him, Pa. You killed him dead.’
In the moonlight Pa looked deathly pale. ‘He might of hurt you,’ he said, staring at the corpse. ‘He might have hurt you.’
Over by the pine tree, a movement caught our eyes.
The leather traces binding Slouch to the pine had been loosened by his pard wriggling free. Slouch would have got free, too, but his bare right foot was tangled in one of the reins I had used to tie him. His hands were still bound behind him up & the socks were still sticking out of his mouth & his eyes were bugging out, too, as he stared wildly at us.
Pa sucked in a deep breath & picked up the double-barrelled shotgun from where it lay & went over to the tree.
Before I could say or do anything, Pa blasted him at point blank range.
Slouch slammed against the tree & then slid down in a sitting position & then slumped forward, as dead as his friend.
‘Pa!’ I cried. ‘Why did you do that? We could have just left him tied up for the Law to collect. Or we could have made him show us where they have their shebang.’
‘He was about to get loose,’ said Pa. ‘Like that one.’ He pointed to Kepi with his chin. ‘Plus, after a trial they would have hung him by the neck till dead. It was a mercy I was showing him. Also, they are wanted Dead or Alive. Come on,’ he said, tossing the now empty shotgun aside. ‘Let us get those silver-laden horses out of here and find their shebang.’
I felt queasy. The champagne, which had been making me happy five minutes before, had turned sour in my gut. The high moon which had been smiling on our dance now seemed cold and distant. In its pale light I saw a gaping black wound in Slouch’s chest.
I felt like I might vomit up the jerky I had eaten a while earlier so I turned away.
Pa’s stomach was not as strong as mine. Over in the trees, he was being sick. I reckon he had not shot a man in a few years what with being behind a desk so much.
He wiped his mouth with his C.P. handkerchief & without speaking, he led the silver-laden stagecoach horses up towards the road.
I spotted the Reb Road Agents’ mounts further up in the black shadows of some pines. I untied them and chose the smaller one to ride. She was a little bay with a stringy tail. I put Kepi’s Henry Rifle in a saddle loop. I had to hike up my daffodil-yellow Merino wool dress underneath my belted sacque just so I could get my leg over her back. Thankfully, the velvet sacque covered my legs to just below the knees; it was getting real cold. I was shivery.
Taking the other Reb horse by the reins, I rode after Pa who was trudging the silver-laden stage-coach horses back up the steep mountainside. I glanced back once to see the still form of Kepi lying on his back in the dying firelight. I could not even see poor blasted Slouch. He was lost in the inky shadows.
Up by the road, I found Pa untying his big gray gelding.
He took a crude halter that the now-deceased Reb Road Agents had fixed over the head of the lead pack-horse & swung up into the saddle & set off west.
With Pa leading and me following, we had a convoy of nine horses, viz: the six stage horses, the two Reb horses & pa’s gelding. They were strung out in a line, moving between tall black pine trees on the moon-washed wagon road.
We rode in silence. In my head, I kept seeing my Pa shoot those two Reb Road Agents. They had tried to kill me, but I still felt bad they were dead.
I thought of Kepi with his bare feet & curly hair & wondering expression on his face as he looked up at the little bitty silver ingot stars.
I thought of Slouch with his eyes bugged out in terror & that black sucking wound in his chest. I wished I had not put a sock in his mouth. Maybe he could have begged Pa to give him a chance, like Kepi had.
I did not even know their real names.
That picture in my head should have turned my stomach sour but I was hungry again. Also, my legs were cold. I wished I had my soft long underwear & my buckskin trowsers & my pink flannel shirt & my blue woollen coat & my nice slouch hat that kept my ears warm. Then I thought of poor dead Kepi & Slouch & Ray & Dizzy. They were all four dead and cold by now. I reckoned I was lucky to be alive and should not be complaining, even in my head. I had been colder than this in my life. I guess living in a boarding house with a feather bed had made me soft.
We had gone barely a mile when the moon showed me a lightning-blasted pine tree on the left hand side of the road and a meadow beyond & below it.
‘Pa?’ I said. ‘See that tree and that meadow? That might be where they stashed the loot.’
‘By God, ye got good eyes,’ he said. ‘Do ye want to lead the way?’
I nudged my little bay mare forward. I could tell straightaway that she knew the path, so I gave her the reins and let her find the best footing.
‘My horse knows the way, Pa,’ I called over my shoulder. ‘I reckon that is proof we are on the right track.’
‘Good thinking,’ he said. He sent the silver-bearing stage-coach horses down the track after me & took up the rear.
From time to time the moonlight showed me a path marked by scuffed pine needles and bare earth, but mostly I gave the bay mare free rein to guide us. She led me & Pa & those six heavy-laden horses along the edge of the meadow, close to the trees. All sudden-like, she turned left and passed between two towering pines and we were in another moonlit clearing with a cave like a gaping black mouth in the steep hillside straight ahead.
I smelled an old fire & saw some empty oyster cans & bottles off to one side & a pile of firewood & maybe a latrine pit. Over to the left I heard the gurgling of a brook. I reckoned this was the camp of the Dead Road Agents & that cave was their shebang.
My little bay mare was suddenly pulled up short. The lead horse behind her had stopped. He was snorting & tossing his head & as I had roped his halter to my pommel it made me stop too.
Behind me, the other pack horses started whinnying & snorting & I could hear Pa cussing in Scottish.
I smelled something faintly rank that always makes me think of my Indian Ma on account of she used to make hair pomade out of bear fat.
Now I knew why the horses were spooked.
And why they called it Grizzly Gulch.