I pulled the Henry rifle out of its loop & dismounted & cautiously moved forward into the clearing. I did not see any bears but as I got closer to the cave that rank smell of them got stronger.
‘What’s wrong with the horses?’ called my pa from further back on the trail. ‘I almost lost control of them.’
‘They are spooked by the smell of bear!’ I yelled back.
‘Bear?’ called Pa from the edge of the clearing. ‘There are bears hereabouts?’
‘Grizzlies, I’d wager,’ I hollered, ‘Probably why they call it Grizzly Gulch.’
I cocked the Henry & I went cautiously to the cave mouth.
‘I can smell bear around here,’ I called over my shoulder, ‘but I do not think they have been here for a while. That is probably why the stage horses are spooked, but not my mare. She is used to the smell but they are not. I reckon this is their shebang all right,’ I added in a carrying voice.
‘You mean those danged Reb Road Agents set up camp outside a bear cave?’ yelled Pa, still astride his horse.
‘By the looks of things, they set up camp inside it. But I think it is safe.’
Pa dismounted & tethered the horses & came across the moonlit clearing to join me at the black mouth of the den.
‘Anybody in there?’ he asked. ‘Or anything?’
I sniffed. ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘But bears have been here. Look.’ I kicked at a dark pellet near the mouth of the cave. ‘See that turd? That is a hibernation plug.’
‘It is a turd that plugs the bears up all winter,’ I explained. ‘Like a bung on a barrel. When they come out of hibernation they pop it out of their rear ends. My Indian ma taught me that.’
Pa cussed under his breath. ‘Those dang fool idiots.’
‘Maybe they were not so foolish,’ I said. I had just spotted something inside the cave entrance on the left. Seeping moonlight showed me a box-shaped object. It was one of those iron reinforced wooden strong boxes favored by Wells Fargo & Co.
‘Most people would not look for a Wells Fargo strongbox inside a grizzly bear cave,’ I observed.
There was enough light in there to let me see that its lock was smashed to smithereens. I leaned my Henry Rifle against the damp cave wall & knelt down & opened the lid of the strong box & whistled through my teeth.
‘This box is full of gold,’ I said. ‘That must be the “booty” they were talking about.’
Pa almost knocked me over in his haste to get to the strongbox.
‘Sweet Jesus!’ he said. Then, ‘Help me drag it out of here.’
I helped him drag it out of there & into the moonlit clearing where we could see it was full of gold coins.
‘I can’t believe it,’ said Pa. ‘There must be hundreds of twenty-dollar gold pieces in here. They never said, the rascals!’
‘Who never said?’ I asked.
He looked up at me from his crouched position over the box. The silvery moonlight showed confusion on his otter face, as if he could not remember who I was. Then something shifted and he became Pa again. ‘Wells Fargo & Co,’ he said. ‘They never said it was gold they lost.’ He stood up. ‘This will make us rich.’
‘No,’ said a voice behind us. ‘It will make me rich.’
We both turned to see a man with an Army pistol in his hand.
The moonlight showed us his bushy black mustache & muttonchop sideburns & long coat & bandana around his neck.
But he was bareheaded, for I was wearing his hat.
Yes, it was Ray G. Tempest, the other Pinkerton Detective. He had not broke his neck but had survived.
Without any more warning, he cocked his Army revolver & fired.
Pa slumped to the ground.
‘Pa!’ I cried.
Then Ray turned his piece on me. Before my head knew what to do, my feet jumped me to one side and then sped me to the nearest shelter: the cave.
BANG! My hat flew off!
‘Ugh!’ I could not help crying out for I had crashed into the rear of the cave and fallen back. As I lay there on the bear-smelling dirt floor half stunned, I wondered if I had been shot. I thought not. I felt in my sacque pocket & pulled out my four-shooter. It was a pathetic weapon against a Colt’s Army, but it was about all I had.
I cocked it & was about to roll over on my stomach & shoot back when I realized that Ray had stopped firing. He was probably re-loading as he had fired five shots.
I decided to play possum & wait for him to come near to see if I was dead. I lay on my back, death-still, with my eyes half closed & my little four shooter cocked but out of sight down by my side.
This was my plan: as soon as his upside down face loomed above me, I would jerk up my arm & shoot him!
My foster ma Evangeline had made me promise never to kill a man nor exact revenge, but Ray G. Tempest had shot and killed my pa!
My heart was pounding so hard that I could not hear anything but the blood whooshing in my ears.
But he never came.
I reckon he heard me grunt & saw me fall back on the cave floor & lie still.
I reckoned he thought he had killed me.
I waited and waited.
By and by my heart stopped being so noisy and I heard sounds from outside the cave, viz: the clink of metal and horses snuffling. I reckon he was adding gold coins to the silver ingots in the mail bags on the backs of the six stage-coach horses.
After about 9 minutes of this, I heard the sound of heavy-laden horses being led back out of the clearing towards the main road.
I lay quiet in case it was a trick.
After about six more minutes I uncocked my little pistol & rolled over on my stomach & I wormed my way cautiously forward to the mouth of the dark cave.
The moon was on its way down and was almost touching the tops of the pines. But it was still high enough to show me that Ray & the horses were gone. The only thing left in the moon-washed clearing apart from the empty strongbox was my pa, lying hatless & awful still. I ran to him & looked down.
His white shirt was soaked with blood. I tore it open and found the bullet hole about half an inch below where his ribs ended.
I knelt down & I rested my head against his bare chest. The skin was still warm & I could hear his faintly beating heart. In the moonlight his face was pale as milk.
‘Pa?’ I said. ‘Pa, are you conscious?’
‘He took my hat,’ said Pa in a faint voice. ‘Ray took my new beaver-felt brown hat that you bought me.’
‘Probably because I have his,’ I said.
‘I am gut shot,’ said Pa in a whisper. ‘I am a goner.’
‘Don’t say that!’ I cried. ‘I will go and get you help.’
‘No,’ he said, lifting his head a little. ‘Don’t go. I don’t want to die alone.’
‘All right then, Pa,’ I said. ‘I will stay with you.’
He let his head sink back onto the ground & closed his eyes.
‘Please do not die,’ I said. ‘Everybody dies on me. I could not bear it if you did too.’
He did not reply.
Lying there on in the soft dirt of the clearing with his eyes closed and his face relaxed, he looked almost as young as Kepi.
My vision got blurry. I blinked & it got clearer. Suddenly something made me look to my left.
I saw two dark bushes at the edge of the clearing by the dark pines.
In the eerie moonlight they almost looked like bears.
Then one of them moved.
They were bears.