GUNSMOKE TRAIL

 

 

From the 1969 High Chaparral Annual

 

 

 

Big John Cannon was riding a side trail from San Pedro back to the High Chaparral. His thoughts, as he loped along, were largely on his family. About this time his beautiful wife Victoria would be presiding over the table, and the evening meal would be served up.

Then, suddenly, he sniffed at the clear night air. Only right now it wasn’t quite so clear. Smoke seemed to be eddying down the trail towards him – coming in puffs, like gunsmoke, though he had heard no guns being triggered.

The stalwart rancher was puzzled. The smoke had a curious aroma, a little like wood-smoke --- yet somehow different. He could not make it out.

He urged his faithful mount forward, intent on investigating. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the eddying smoke-pall ceased. In another minute the air was clear again.

Yet there must be a cause, reflected Big John. He rode on, fast now, but the smoke seemed to have vanished completely.

The trail swept into a long bend between high twin boulders of reddish rock. And as he entered the curve Big John heard the distant sound of hoofs. A faint sound, far in the distance, but he knew it must be made by several riders.

He urged the horse into a gallop, out of the bend. The trail flowed straight for almost a mile --- and it was utterly empty!

He reined in, listening acutely. Nothing. The riders had disappeared as mysteriously as the strange smoke-pall.

The rancher judged that they must have left the trail for softer ground, which would blanket their hoof-beats. But he had no way of knowing at what point they had left. Well, he had eyes --- and highly trained ones at that.

Nevertheless, it took up several minutes before he espied the point at which the unknown horsemen must have veered off the trail. Now he could make out their tracks. He guessed they must have been four in number. For a moment he debated whether to follow --- but he had no reason to suspect anything sinister, and, anyway, he knew dinner would be waiting.

With a shrug, he rode on for the High Chaparral.

Welcome lights gleamed from the windows of the fine old ranch-house. He handed his horse to one of the cowboys, with instructions for it to be fed and watered, and went into the dining-room.

Victoria looked up with an expression of surprise on her oval face.

“Why, John,” she cried, “where’s Billy Blue?”

“Eh?” He stared uncomprehendingly.

Victoria tucked a slim arm in his and said: “One of the cowboys said that someone who was passing by gave a message from you…”

Big John stiffened. “I sent no message, my dear.” He said.

“But… but this passer-by left a message which said you’d like Blue to ride out and meet you and…” Her troubled eyes looked up at her husband.

Big John detached himself from her. Buck came in. Instantly he realised that there was something wrong. His leathery face tightened.

“What’s troubling you, John?” he asked keenly.

The rancher explained. “I don’t like the look of this, Buck,” he finished.

“Me, neither,” his brother said. “It looks like some mean attempt to decoy Blue outa the ranch and…”

“And what?” cried Victoria.

“I don’t know, but…”

Victoria clutched at her husband. “If someone has tricked Blue out of the ranch on a false message, it…it could be a kidnap bid, couldn’t it?”

Big John’s jaw squared resolutely. “We’ll find out,” he rapped. “Come on, Buck, we’ll round up the boys and…”

He broke off as a chorus of shouts came from down near the corral. They raced out. One of the cowboys was lying on the ground with his comrades crowding round his prone figure.

Big John strode into their midst. Dusty Rhodes, one of the top riders, said: “Some hombre rode past here a few minutes ago. We didn’t see him, but we sure heard him. I came out to speak to Ben --- and found him out cold --- this was pinned to his shirt.”

He thrust out a piece of grubby paper. On it, scrawled in capital letters, was a message. It read ---

If yuh want ter see yore son again, leave ten thousand dollars at Sentinel Pine at midnight. Come alone, and don’t try no tricks or the kid gets it. Gracias, senor.

The grubby note was addressed to Senor Cannon with the added inscription: Personal --- very personal, haw-haw!

Big John’s face was tight. “It’s a snatch all right, Buck,” he said gravely. He turned to Dusty. “I guess you don’t know which way this lone rider went?”

“Sorry, Mr. Cannon, but we never seen him. Ben did though --- and he’s coming round.”

The cowboy was stirring. He opened his eyes, blinked with the pain and touched the back of his head.

Buck said: “There must’ve been two of them, then. One to make Ben start turning and another, in the rear, to hurl something at him. This, I guess.” He reached down and picked up a heavy slat of wood. There was a little blood on it.

“Get Ben into the bunkhouse, see to his injury and then and then one of you men ride into town for the doc,” ordered Big John. “The rest of you had better come with me and Buck.”

Even as he spoke, the rancher was out on the trail, surveying it shrewdly. There were two sets of tracks --- one leading back towards San Pedro, the other going in the opposite direction.

“They must’ve split up as a ruse to baffle us,” he rapped. “But it’s my guess they’ll meet up somewheres. You three men take the route to town and the rest of us will follow the other.”

“Okay, Mr. Cannon.”

Big John swung himself into the saddle. “And remember --- don’t act till you get a signal from Buck or myself,” he said.

They rode into the scented night. From the veranda of the ranch house, Victoria watched anxiously.

 

 

 

It was almost eleven at night. Big John, Buck and the rest were back at the High Chaparral. Never had the mighty rancher looked more desperate, almost sick with worry for the young son he loved.

They had followed the separate trails. The trails had indeed linked up, just as Big John had guessed they would. But they had met on a hard, rocky plateau twelve miles from San Pedro --- a flat, gleaming expanse of rock which gave no hint of the way the kidnap gang had gone.

Given time, they could find that way. At some point the gang had to leave the rocky terrain, and their tracks must show. But there wasn’t any time left. The ransom had to be left at midnight --- or else!

Big John rarely kept more than two thousand dollars at the ranch, but only that day he had drawn an additional sum, partly to pay the cowpunchers their monthly wages and partly to settle necessary bills. Someone must have known that --- someone who had spied on him in the bank. He struggled with his memory, but nothing surfaced. He guessed that the spy must have looked through a window --- it could be done all right, he knew.

Well, he would have to pay the ransom. There was no way out. Yet even as he made the forced decision, he realised that payment would not save Blue. Kidnappers always killed their victims…

Buck said: “If you take that dough, it’ll not set Blue Boy free.”

“That I know,” answered Big John, in a strained voice. “But I have to do it. I have to go there --- alone. Maybe I’ll be able to find a way to outwit this evil bunch.”

“We’ll ride with you, John…”

The rancher shook his head. “That’d be like signing Blue Boy’s death warrant. I have to go alone. I’ll try to get in touch with you --- later.”

The icy chill of fear gripped Victoria. But she was brave as well as beautiful, and said nothing. Only the trembling of her lip told her husband of the agony she was feeling on his behalf.

Big John counted out the money, put it in a gunny-sack and slung the sack from the pommel of his saddle. Then, without a backward glance, he rode silently into the dark night.

He rode fast, his mind cold and implacable. Somehow he must find a way out of this dire peril which menaced Billy Blue. He tried to formulate a plan, but he knew it was no use. He would have to improvise one --- find some on-the-spot way to beat the bandits at their foul game.

Sentinel Pine soared like a thin pillar against the skyline. He urged his mount up the final slope. The tall, Lone pine rose from a thick clump of lesser trees and dense brushwoods. A narrow trail plunged downwards from it.

Big John Cannon dismounted. He placed the sackful of dollars at the base of the pine. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howled eerily.

There was no other sound. Even the very air seemed stilled, as if in macabre expectation.

Then from somewhere below where he stood, he heard it…the crackling sound of booted feet snapping stray twigs on the narrow trail. They were coming for the ransom money!

Big John slid behind a cluster of trees. His hand rested on his gun. He knew he’d be out numbered --- but there was no faster gun in the territory than Big John Cannon’s! Maybe he’d outgun them. He had to try, anyway --- there was no other course now.

He stood, utterly without movement, like a stone man, not even breathing. The thudding footsteps ceased. Silence again, like an engulfing emptiness.

Now he had to breathe. He inhaled air through his nostrils --- and as he did so, he savoured a strange aromatic smell. At the same instant, puffs of smoke eddied towards him. The puffs swelled and swelled, rolling in big, inflated clouds. He could no longer even see… and the enveloping smoke was suffocating him!

Blinded, and almost suffocating, Big John nevertheless realised one other thing --- the evil bunch would not come within gun-range until they thought he was unconscious.

As the thought came to him, he understood that he had but one more chance. Maybe no more than a slim chance, but still a chance.

With a deliberately loud, choking cry, he thudded heavily to the ground.

Dimly a muffled voice sounded. “The beeg senor is out… okay, so we grab the ransom money and move, pronto !”

“Surest thing you know, Garcia,” another voice cackled. “I gotta hand it to yuh --- that old smokescreen worked swell.”

Footsteps trod heavily. Big John could still see nothing. His lungs felt as if they were bursting. He tried to get back on his feet, but couldn’t.

The first voice said gloatingly: “Wood smoke with a leetle chemical and my wind machine to blow it in --- and then out. Vairy good, eh, senors … okay, I gotta de dough… now for Mesa Creek, and to finish off…”

The rest of the sentence was lost on Big John Cannon. The seething fumes had done their evil work.

 

 

 

Mesa Creek was on the southernmost tip of the territory, only miles from the State line.

It was a long ride from the scene of the smoke ambush, but Garcia Gomez had enjoyed every moment of it. He prided himself on the cunning with which he had staged not only the kidnap but the collection of the ransom money.

Gomez was a bandit well known south of the border. In fact, he had made things so hot for himself in old Mexico that he had prudently decided to seek new fields for looting.

Undercover inquiries in and around San Pedro had made him aware of Big John Cannon’s wealth --- and the fact that he had a young son to whom he was devoted.

And there was no difficulty in watching the withdrawal of the money from the bank!

It was, Garcia considered, the perfect set-up!

Everything had gone exactly as he had planned --- from the phoney message to the kidnapping, from the smoking-out of Big John Cannon to the lifting of the loot.

There was one more thing to be done --- and the villainous Mexican did not shrink from the task, for he dare not let Blue live to report on the men who had kidnapped him!

They reached remote Mesa Creek. One member of the bunch had stayed behind to guard the youthful captive. Not that Blue, brave and defiant though he was, could do anything. He was bound hand and foot to a stake, Indian fashion. They hadn’t troubled to blindfold him…why bother, when the prisoner was due to receive a .45 slug right between the eyes?

Garcia Gomez dropped lithely from his high Mexican saddle. He was grinning triumphantly. “Your father, the beeg senor, brings the ransom money,” he mouthed. “Just as I ordered him to. Haw, haw…the great Senor Cannon jumping to obey the orders of the much greater Garcia Gomez, eh?”

The words were meant to sting Blue. Instead they gave him hope. He knew his father was never the man to knuckle under. If he had taken the ransom to a prearranged venue, then he must have a reason.

Gomez noticed the brief expression on Blue’s face. “So you are not afraid --- why?” The triumphant grin had now become an evil grimace.

Stoutly, young Blue said: “My father must have discovered a way to beat you, Gomez!”

“Shut up, young senor !” As he snarled the words, the bandit struck Blue sideways across the face.

“Only a skunk would hit a helpless man,” rapped Blue.

“I said to shut up!” grated the Mexican. His hand struck again and yet again. Then he laughed brutally.

“Now you watch me share out the Cannon cash, eh? The biggest share to the great Gomez, naturally --- the rest to my good amigos. Then we hit the trail south of the border, arriving thees time with much money to spend to spend… but first I deal with you!”

“Give it to him now, Garcia,” jeered one of the gang.

“No, later...I wish heem to see his stupid father’s money going into our pockets,” chuckled the Mexican. He began counting with gusto.

Big John Cannon came round. The smoke had all gone. Now he was gratefully breathing clean, sweet night air in great gulps. He looked at his watch. It was no more than seven minutes since the gang rode off with the ransom money.

Instantly, he was alert. He swung himself into the saddle and began riding. No time to go back to the ranch. He had heard the voices. One he had identified as Garcia Gomez --- the name had been uttered and it was a name known to Big John.

Reports of the bandit’s depredations had reached him in the past. Better still, though --- he knew where they were heading. Mesa Creek was a long ride --- but he knew more than one short cut, and ought to reach the hideout soon after the gang.

He went at a cracking pace back down the trail. He was nearing the fork which would put him on the right route for Mesa Creek when a flurry of pounding hoofs smote his ears.

Automatically, his hand sped to his holster. But he never drew the weapon. For rounding the bend came Buck and a posse of riders.

They reined in and Buck cried: “I hung back like you said --- but after a while I had to act !”

“The way it’s turned out, I’m real glad you did, Buck,” replied Big John. He explained rapidly what had happened. The others did not waste time in asking questions.

“Okay --- let’s go!” chanted Buck, his leathery features were set in a grim expression.

They rode in silence. When they neared Mesa Creek, the big rancher uttered a low command. Instantly, all came to a halt.

“We must take these varmints by surprise,” said Big John. “From here on, I think it’s best to proceed on foot. Right?”

The riders nodded in unison. Silently, like flitting shadows, they moved through the brushwood. They breasted a steep rise, fanned out and lay flat, peering down.

Below them men were grouped around the camp fire, firmly convinced they were beyond all pursuit. Big John’s mouth shut in a harsh line when he saw his son trussed to a stake. But his iron self-discipline restrained him from any precipitate move which could easily have betrayed them.

Buck uttered the smallest sound, and seemed about to let fly with his six-gun --- but Big John’s heavy hand gripped his arm.

“Not yet, Buck…” he breathed. He turned to the others, uttering imperative commands in a low voice. Grins greeted him.

Then suddenly, every fibre of his being tingled. Garcia Gomez walked to within half a dozen paces of Blue Boy --- and aimed his revolver.

In the clear night air, his gloating tones were easily audible. “I’m giving it to you, kid --- right now !”

His finger curled on the trigger.

A single shot rang out. The gun slammed straight out of the Mexican’s grip. He screeched in panic, lunging sideways and then looking back. Big John’s gun was still smoking…

In the same instant, a giant ball of tinder-fry brushwood erupted in a mass of flames, sparks and dense smoke… and pelted headlong down the short slope full tilt into the outlaw gang!

They fired wildly into the growing pall of smoke… but Big John and his intrepid aides weren’t behind it! They had fanned out on either side in a wide arc.

Craaaaack…whee…ping…BAM !

It was sureshot firing by a group of experts. Every slug tore the outlaws’ weapons right out of their hands. They turned to flee in craven terror…but now the rancher and his men were on them with work-hardened fists flailing like windmills.

Big John’s mighty fist lifted Garcia Gomez completely off his feet. Then, as he came down, the rancher delivered an uppercut which could be heard in San Pedro, as Blue afterwards declared.

“You thought you’d steal my money and murder my son by a lowdown trick, but it didn’t work out the way you planned,” snorted Big John,

But Garcia Gomez didn’t hear him. He was lying flat on his back looking at the Western stars and not seeing them!

Big John slashed his son free.

Blue looked at the beaten bunch, then at the still smoking mass of brushwood.

“Just before you rode in, Gomez bragged of his gunsmoke trail,” said Blue Boy. “But I guess yours was the super-smoke trail, Pa!”

 

 

THE END

 

Taken from the 1969 High Chaparral annual. Published in Great Britain by World Distributors. Published and bound by Jarrold & Sons Ltd, England.

 

 

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