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FOR A HORSE AND A STEAK

by B.A. Rusty LaGrange

Email Rusty at balagrange@yahoo.com

 

‘When a brazen horse thief steals a High Chaparral mare, Blue and Buck track him into Apache country and become ensnared in the outlaw’s game of high-stakes survival.’

 

       The last of the West range crew arrived at dusk. Six men on tired horses and a short-bed chuck wagon pulled by a single team of shires ambled through the main gate. The disturbance from their movement turned the yard into a pall of orange dust. Sunset colors swirled in a display of last light.

 

Blue Cannon stood on the porch in stocking feet and munched on a crisp apple. He took interest in the crew's late return only because of the change of activity they brought with them. The men had been assigned out on the range for a four-day stay. Trail weary, they would be reporting their latest findings directly to his father, John Cannon, about the spring mustang count up near the mesa. Anticipation and excitement clung in the air once the tally was announced. Then came the plan for rounding up the mustangs from the distant valleys and deep, rocky canyons.

            Blue munched industriously on the apple, thinking of the adventure ahead. He was trying to spot his uncle through all the dust. Beyond his view, another commotion drew his attention from the riders. Back behind the holding corral and the bunkhouse, someone was yelling. Blue leaned on the hitching rail to crane his neck for a better look. A man on horseback raced from the back corral through the side yard past the stick-framed ramada, and headed for the main gate. Blue ran out into the yard to intercept the rider. He waved his hands to shy the black horse, and maybe slow the animal down, but the rider was bent on moving out the gate at a fast run.

Blue gawked at the man. It wasn't one of their riders, at least nobody that he recognized right away.

"Hey, fella. Whaddaya doin' with that horse?" Blue yelled. He threw his apple core at the man and found himself in the direct path the rider had chosen. He dived to the dirt and rolled out from under the pounding hooves as the rider tried to trample him. The rider broke to clear ground, the open gate, and into the wide desert, leaving a trail of thick dust in his wake.

Joe Butler ran from the corral. His brother, Sam, their foreman, and two other men came from the bunkhouse. Each of them seemed perplexed at what had just happened.

"Did you see that?" Joe yelled.

"Yah, Joe. I saw that," Sam answered with a slight grin. "That's what you call a horse thief." He sprinted over to help Blue from the ground. "You alright, son? He was aiming for you, sure as an arrow." Sam pulled Blue up by his arm and gave him the once over to be sure.

"Yeah, you're right, Sam. He was gonna mow me down. He's not one of our regulars," Blue said, slapping the dust from his clothes.

"Nope." Sam grinned. "No, boys, that's what you call a horse thief. Plain as day."

            "You just gonna stand there?" Blue sputtered. "He just stole our horse and a saddle!"

            "Hold on, now, Blue. Let's go see which way your Pa wants to handle this."

            "What else can he do? We gotta go after him!"

"It looks that way but we're a bunch of tired drovers. Our horses are plumb dragged out, and the crew that come in ain't much better." Sam placed a firm hand on Blue's shoulder and spun him around toward the house.

Entering the wide covered porch, Blue shoved the plank door open wide and called out. "Pa! We just had a thief take one of our horses and full gear in plain sight." He waited in anticipation for his father to organize a quick posse of men for the chase. No one seemed interested in taking action.

            Raising his head from a pile of papers on the dinner table, John Cannon asked in deliberation "Sam, what happened?"

            Blue pouted immediately, hands on hips, when he realized that his father wasted valuable time by asking his foreman for details rather than just coming straight out and asking him.

            "It's like what Blue said. A man lit out riding one of our mares and full outfit, heading due east. Want me to pull together some men?"

            "Did you get a good look at him?"

            "No, sir. Can't say that anybody really got a good look at him. It happened pretty fast. Except for Blue, here. He had the closest view."

Blue Cannon rolled his eyes in frustration. "Yeah, he nearly mowed me down trying to get out of here! That's all !"

"All the crews in for the night, Sam?" John remarked without interest.

"Yes, sir."

Exasperation filled Blue's entire body until he thought he would bust in fits and tirades like his Uncle Buck often did. "Pa! Ain't we going after him?" He stood overwhelmed by the inaction of his father, and the casual manner of their conversation.

            John Cannon calculated his options and let go a frustrated breath of his own. "The best thing now is to get a good description. Talk to the men then get some rest. Start first thing in the morning. I don’t have too many men to spare."

            “Yes, sir,” Sam said.

            "He could be miles from here by then! " Blue huffed.

            "He'll be pushing a tired horse by then, boy. I suggest you get some sleep tonight."

            Blue recoiled and sprung out of the house like a racehorse at the gate. He slammed the front door and scooted off to the corral.

 

            The excitement of a thief in their midst and the Spring tally left many roaming the yard, wondering who would be asked to volunteer to track him. Hours after sundown, John Cannon and Sam Butler had finished briefly questioning the men, they found only Cannon's son had actually seen the man's face.

            Sleep was not coming easy for Blue. He sat on the edge of his bed wondering why every man he knew didn't pack out after the thief. It seemed demoralizing in the least to stand by and watch it happen. By the soft light of early dawn, Blue saddled up his palomino expecting to join the men who would track the outlaw.

           

As the High Chaparral ranch came alive at the first hint of dawn, John Cannon deliberately stood behind Blue as he checked his gear. He argued the point for only a minute. As father and son, they had calculated the action they needed to do to gain their stolen horse. But each had factored in his personal reasons, and that was where they differed. 

Cannon held his voice low and steady. "Before you say anything, hear me out. I know you'd like to go and any other time I wouldn't say a thing, but this time you're tracking an outlaw, a fairly desperate man by the looks of it, not some rangy cow."

            Blue had to snicker at that comment, even though he was agitated that his father was stepping into the center ring with him again. He knew it was coming. He felt the confrontation coming for some time. "Pa, I really don't see any reason to go traipsing all over the desert in the dark for a guy that we don't really know. Yeah, he took a horse and saddle, I know. But I can't see us losing more time and men over him." He paused, expecting his father to jump in and head him off.

But there was a lull. Even his Uncle Buck seemed stymied by the lack of an argument brewing. Buck stood by the tack room waiting for the fur to fly.

"There's just one thing, Pa. I'm the only one who got a close look at him." He raised his shoulders and shrugged. "Just me. So you see, I gotta go."

            John nodded slowly. "I had a feeling that you'd say something like that. I can only spare a few men. I don't want this to go on too long. But I also don't want any drifters coming through thinking that they can have their pick of High Chaparral stock whenever they want."

            "I agree. How far do you want us to track him? Maybe Salt River if he heads north? And the border, of course, if he heads south?"

            John seemed pleased that they were in agreement. "Yes. I think that would be a good time to head back." He turned his attention to his brother Buck, who stood silent with a quizzical look etched in his open face. "You figure that sounds good?" John asked Buck. Apparently, he too, had become bemused by the ease of the conversation.

            Buck just nodded and closed his slack jaw.

            "Good," added Blue. "Then we'll get going and see you in a couple of days." Blue turned back to finishing his preparations on his mount. He tossed a quick smirk back at his uncle before he swung lightly into the saddle. Buck took his nephew's cock-eyed smile good-naturedly but still seemed stymied by the look of it.

John Cannon stood stoically as they prepared to leave. Then he stepped forward and just patted Buck on the back before making his return to the house.

"Let's see if we can salvage any work after all this," he said rather philosophically to his wife now standing by his side. Victoria clasped his arm and smiled up at him.

The few ranch hands who had also found it hard to sleep with morning on the rise, now wandered back to the bunkhouse for hot mugs of coffee. That’s where Sam was heading. Sam Butler stalled a moment in consideration. "Mr. Cannon, it might be safer to send two more men along."

            Cannon took the advice and quickly dismissed it. "No, I think under the circumstances keeping a low profile is warranted. Besides, I need the men to cover the range and finish the tally up. I expect that if we get one thief that another can't be far behind."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Cannon. I'll settle the boys down. Some are expecting to go."

"Thanks, Sam. Tell them they'll have plenty of other opportunities to hunt down rustlers."

            It wasn't long before first light stabbed against the dark mountain. Two riders set ready to go. Victoria, wrapped in a long dressing coat, had re-entered the house but now stood on the porch anticipating the men who would need some food for the trip. Coming in late to the conversation, she had expected a posse of four or five men would be going. She held two cotton flour sacks extended from her hands. "John," she called out, "be sure the men get their food and extra ammo."

He entered the soft lantern light on the porch and smiled at her. "That was very kind of you to get these ready."

"I only thought it was the least I can do for them. Who is going? Sam and Reno, perhaps Manolito?" She stood on tiptoes as if raising several inches higher would help her see through the darkness across the yard. Darkened shadows moved about; nothing seemed discernable in the pale dawn, but for the two saddle horses tied at the corral.

"Buck and Blue have volunteered."

"Oh," she hesitated. "I didn't realize that Blue would be going."

"It's alright. They'll go as far as the Salt River and come back if they don't catch up to him."

She nodded distractedly as she peered across to the corral. Blue rode toward her and reined at the hitching rail. He spotted the canvas bags filled with supplies, nodded then gave her a quick smile. "Thanks for the food, Victoria."

            She nodded demurely and then as an afterthought, stepped to his side. "I only wish you had more men to go. I wish for your safe return, Blue. Be careful."

As usual, Blue waved off her warning, "Don't worry about me, Victoria. I'll be fine." His smile was confident but his eyes registered something else not quite as defined. "Now, Uncle Buck, that's another story..." He chuckled and cast a quick look at Buck. But Buck had let the comment slide by.

"You'll see," Buck noted, "two days and we'll be back, Victoria. And with that coal mare and her saddle. Could be we may not even need the food."

Victoria suddenly bristled at his teasing as if they did not see the danger in any of it, as if she was a prattling, worrisome, old maid. Then, to only receive the doe-eyed looks from the Cannon men added to the insult, she could never quite understand it. "Oh, you Cannons are all alike! Can't I even extend a bit of gratitude and well-wishes for a safe ride without a berating comment?"

John snickered and wrapped an arm around her shoulders ushering her into the hacienda. He turned at the door. "You've got four days. No more. Then I'm sending the Army after you two."

            "Big John, you don't have to worry about all that,” Buck chuckled. “Like Blue say, if we don't find him by Salt River then we'll mosey on back home." Buck's grin was infectious. Then he sidled up to Blue, coming abreast of his horse, and slapped him on the thigh. "Right, Blue Boy?"

            "Right, Buck." Blue's smile melted as he considered the long ride and the seemingly satisfied looks of his parents entering the safety of the house. "First light," he announced. Blue dug a heel into his palomino, and then tied one more loop around the saddle horn to secure the food bag. They left through the wide gate with the trail of their dust sparkling in the early glow of morning.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

They cut trail by noon of the first day. Moving fast, the horse thief had first headed due east then veered north then skirted around the northeast side of Tucson, avoiding Ft. Lowell. The Cannons followed the thief's easy trail into the mouth of Gold Canyon. There his trail had strayed northeast until it confirmed that he aimed again south east toward the springs at Hooker's Ranch. If he got water there, he'd be difficult to follow into the Santa Catarinas. If he was a foolhardy fellow, going north without any water, he could find the hidden springs in the deep canyons with a chance of crossing an Apache or two long before he found water. If he continued east then he would ride smack into the Apache territory of Victorio or perhaps Nana. Either way it would be a long, hot, and dangerous ride.

Blue stood wide-legged on a mound of dislodged sand. The tracks, clean and easily discernable, left him in a huff. He crouched to the sand and drew his gloved hand through it as if to erase the sign. He tossed a pebble across the dry gulch ahead of him, then stood to his full height with his hands locked on his hips.

"It don't make sense. Why steal a horse if you're gonna run it into the ground?"

            "That's 'cause you ain't a thief. You don't think like one. He just wants to be gone. And I'd say he's heading for Hooker's Ranch and maybe another horse."

            "Old Man Miles ain't gonna be happy to see this fella," Blue smirked.

            "Maybe he knows him, maybe he don't. Either way, he wants water."

            "Too bad we can't warn them he's coming."

            "We could use a smoke but then the folks at Hooker's would just think it was Apaches. No need to give him that kind of grief."

            "Heh," Blue snickered, "no need in riling them up for a raid. Maybe a mirror? Cochise seems to use it for long distances. You think it'll work from here?"

            "Only if you got one."

            "Yeah, in my saddlebag." Blue shuffled over to his saddle and rifled through a small assortment of notions, baling wire, and small hand tools.

            "Just what you got in there?"

            "Never mind. If I got what I think I got we just may get that message to Hooker's." Blue pulled out a 4x4-inch piece of mirror bound in a leather pouch. He puffed two breaths on it before polishing it against his shirtsleeve. His beaming smile was full of pride as he brandished the thing toward his uncle. Just as he did the sun was blocked by a long finger of dark clouds sitting on the ridge.

            Buck snickered. "You got some sunshine in that bag?"

            "Ah, dang."

"It's gonna be some time before that cloud gives up. We better move on." Buck grinned at his nephew's bad timing, and snickered to himself again before climbing into the saddle. Buck led the way through a winding trail up canyon until they crested the first edge of the foothills. The line of low mounds before the rise of jagged rock attested to the years of erosion by wind and water. It was slow going but once past the mounds the trail veered back to the flats. On the hazy horizon, beyond a long stretch of dry, flat desert, appeared the establishment of Hooker's Station.

            The southern edge of the Santa Catarinas that they traveled rose in windswept terraces. Only at the upper levels did the stunted growth of piñon pines hold tenaciously. It held a long history of native forage popular to the bands of Apaches that migrated by the seasons. Piñon nuts and screw beans, and a variety of herbs covered the arid ground at first days of summer. It was only the women and children who could be seen just for a fleeting moment as they climbed steadily on foot into the rugged terrain and gathered as they traveled. Here too the stands of mescal agave dotted the slopes. The drive for its intoxicating beverage and the heart flesh of the uprooted plants became a sustaining supply of food just as wheat flour and milled corn fulfilled the whites need for basic cuisine.

They tended to the land as a farmer would by selecting only a certain number of plants in any one chosen area, being careful to allow another harvest come the following year. Only the upturned white hulks of the empty agaves showed the trained eye where they had traveled the previous year. Even the bands were careful not to over-forage in another's territory.

As the slope gained steady elevation, stumpy, fat, barrel cactus replaced the agave. Rocky, angular and broken faced, the canyon walls grew higher and the gullies deeper. The barrels clung to the merest of crevices for existence. The trail veered to the uppermost of the canyon before dropping back into the wide fan at the mountain's base. Ahead of them, across a flat distance of ten miles stretching across the flood plain, the individual dots of ranch buildings marked the location of Hooker's Station. Mr. Miles ran the outpost now; Hooker had retreated to Missouri during the last Apache raid on his stores.

            By the time Blue had caught up to and rode abreast of his uncle across the flats, the clouds had parted enough to give up some sun. Buck smiled. Blue just glanced heavenward and rolled his eyes. "Now we get sun. Lot of good that will do now."

 

            Hooker's Station sat in the open plain set off from every imaginable source of convenience and civilization only because the water table had chosen to stay close to the surface. An artesian spring supplied the traveler, whether he arrived on horseback or stage, faired as a prospector or cavalryman, at the most hospitable time in the otherwise waterless region, criss-crossed by shallow dry arroyos. It was here at a convergence of several flat arroyos that Hooker had planted his station.

If the truth be told, Emilio Yoas, was the actual party who found and developed the well, beginning a promising and sustaining service to the stagelines until his station was raided. Yoas was killed only a short year after establishing the sutler's post. Unger Hooker took over the following season and had held the Chiricahuas at bay for quite a few years before he too had had enough of the raids. Having never been married, he forged a solid place among the shifting sand, until he felt that life was getting a might short and he needed to get on with what was left of it. Now a man by the name of Miles kept the station well stocked and ready for the passengers or the occasional unit of soldiers. With the increase of sporadic raids, the increase of troops moving through the region had also caused more traffic for the outpost. Trails leading to Hooker's Station were deeply eroded.

 

As Buck and Blue Cannon neared the low-slung adobe buildings, Blue couldn't help notice how the structures looked like anthills, or gopher mounds. His comment only brought a chuckle from his uncle. "Well, they do," Blue said with a pout. "If you wanted a station out in the middle of nowhere, wouldn't you try to camouflage the whole place?"

            "Blue, trying to hide Hooker's Ranch would be like an elephant playing hide and seek in your bedroom. The only time you can't see it is when your eyes are shut."

            As they approached the establishment, Miles stood in the yard with a rifle held across his belly. "Traveling through?" The man did not exude the most gracious of demeanors as he stood facing the strangers.

            "Yes, sir, Mr. Miles. We’re traveling through. We're trailing a man who decided to borrow one of our horses. You didn't happen to loose a horse today?"

            "What kind of news do you have on the fella?"

            "Then he did come through here."

            "Could be."

            "Could be you know the man that stole one of our mares."

            "Bailey and Rudoso keep track of my stock. I ain't missing anything." Miles angled a look at Buck Cannon that filled with recognition. "Say, you be a Cannon, Buck Cannon, right?"

            Buck grinned.

            "It's been quite a spell since you rode through." His demeanor suddenly changed to affected kinship. "Step down and have a swill with me, boys. I could use a bit of news from out your way."

            Blue had watched his mannerisms, how he turned his gaze away when he talked, how he avoided direct answers yet seemed somewhat knowledgeable about the man they tracked. He was quickly losing interest in the man. Blue went sullen, not expecting any help from him. If he had lost a horse, he was not ready to admit to the possibility. Blue let go a sigh and turned his head away in frustration.

            Buck was dancing to a popular tune. Be friendly, chat the man up a bit, and then figure if he was talking true. Blue slipped quietly from the saddle and stretched while his uncle palavered with Miles. The conversation needed to stay on track, and in that, Buck would not let him veer.

            "Would you mind checking with your men, Mr. Miles? It just could be that if you ain't missing any, that you got one of ours in trade for one of yours." Buck was also losing favor with the man. He would play out this little bit of gamesmanship but once the game lost interest, he would not hesitate to call him on it. A thief was a thief whether he be known by name or not.

            "Buck, you seem to be a might in a hurry," Miles drawled. "For good friends should sit and talk, share some news."

            "Good friends tell what news they got, especially when the news involves a horse thief on the run."

            Miles drew a slow breath. He eyed both Buck and the silent young man before he scrubbed his graying beard distractedly. "I fired a few shots at him. ‘Course he left a better horse than he took so I wasn't in any hurry to follow him up." He grinned, exposing yellow, broken teeth. "You raising some good prime stock out there, Cannon. You must could afford the loss of a few head. You buy and sell to the army like most ranch folks. I'd be interested."

            "This ain't no buying proposition. You get a good look at him?"

            "Nope. By the time Bailey saw what happened he was just a speck."

            Now the truth was finally showing itself. Blue had let his horse water while he listened but now he jerked the reins, leading his horse away from the building and started a slow walk to the road. Dust rose and clung at his ankles.

            "You take good care of that mare and her gear. I'll send someone for her later, and we'll square this up. Fine with you?"

            Miles nodded. "Say, Buck. If I knowed the man, he wasn't one I'd seen in awhile. He took a tired bay gelding. Just changed him out from a stage team. He's pretty winded."

            Buck grinned and shook his head, reined toward the road and gave a short wave before catching up to his nephew. Blue continued walking.

            Buck rode beside him. "What's the matter, Blue Boy?"

            "Nothing."

            "That's a whole lotta nothing to be nothing."

            Blue stopped and tightened the cinch, casually being busy. "You know, I can't figure you sometimes, Uncle Buck. Pa had no interest in running down that outlaw, and now you set to jabbering with that Miles. He don't strike me as a man to deal with. No one I would trust."

            "Why that's good, Blue. You read him pretty good. You be right." He lowered his voice and checked back to be sure that Miles was out of earshot. "That Miles is a two-faced two-bit horse trader. He would no better be missing a horse of his like I would wake up one morning and be missing my foot."

            Blue had to smirk. He climbed aboard and reined his palomino toward the trail heading due north. "So why did you give him so much time of day? Why not just come out and ask him?"

            "Cause there's some men that take to talking, and some men who take to listening. I like talking, and I get a whole lot of information from a man if he talks right back."

            "So if I got on his wrong side he would a clamshelled right up --- no info, no direction."

            "Right. So, nephew of mine, what kind a man you be?"

            "A listener, I guess." He gave a little kick to his horse and moved along at a faster clip.

            "A listener, that's good."

 

Earlier, the thief had headed mostly east without much of a diverse pattern to his trail. He had seemed bent on getting away no mater how far or fast. The tracks now led from north of Hooker's to northwest and a beeline for the San Pedro River. Unusually wet season had come early to the mountains, and the run off had swelled the streams. If he traversed the San Pedro before heading into the lower foothills of the Galiuro Mountains, he would be able to see them coming across the San Pedro floodplain. The San Pedro bisected the valley with the Santa Catarinas on the west and the Galiuros far to the east. The reeds and the mosquitoes grew thick along portions of the river, perfect hiding places for the hunted, even better hiding places for the Apaches.

Blue rode a tight rein and stayed close to the trail, only a few steps behind his uncle’s mount. They kept to the west side of the river and selected a stand of ancient cottonwoods as a bearing landmark.

Buck held up his hand and reined in. It seemed time for caution; the birds stopped tittering in the undergrowth. He slipped quietly from the saddle and signaled Blue to do the same. Tracks cut at a diagonal through the sluggish algae-covered water in the reeds toward the other side. Blue crouched to study the track. "You think he's about five or six hours ahead?"

            "That's a good read, Blue. I think you be right. Trouble is, he has a dead-on-his-feet horse to contend with. Miles did imply that he may not go far. That makes him a more desperate man than he was with a fresher horse."

            Blue walked his mount along the sluggish waterline, the river widened here and the water appeared deeper. He watched the ground for more sign as he stepped. "The way he's traveling he's gonna kill that horse he just stole."

            "Might be how he lost the first one."

            "That'll be a shame." He touched the muzzle of his palomino to settle him down. Trickle of water and rustle of reeds were unnerving after hours spent on their quiet trail ride. The gurgle of deep water to shallow water across river rocks influenced him to follow its course. He scanned the glare of sun on water and wrinkled his brow, squinting and turning his head away. His horse followed close behind. He drew the reins tighter in his gloved hand as he led the horse along. "Sose you figure he was just desperate? Hit us for a horse and that's the end of it?"

            "No end of it, Blue. He's a horse thief."

            "Well, I know that. What I want to know is how far do we go to get him? North? Nevada? California?" He was being sarcastic now and rolling his eyes again.

            "If need be, at leastwise your Pa says Salt River is far enough. Like you figgered. But I ain't sure. He just seems to be running away. That’s all."

            "How far is far enough? It's just one horse." Blue's palomino skidded sideways. Blue tugged on the bridle to settle him down again. "Buck, over in the reeds. There."

The sound of buzzing grew as they both walked lightly to the rushes and crossed to a muddy island spot not far from a old stand of sycamores and cottonwoods. Blowflies blanketed a fresh carcass in the tall stocks. They rose in a swarm and darted about like a black cloud. The stray beef had provided a quick meal and the remainder lay rotting in the sun. Blue gagged on the odor and stepped back. Buck stood stoic and troubled. "Add a steer to that list, Blue Boy. We got us a rustler, too."

            Blue returned to clear air along the slow moving water. He stood transfixed, watching the sluggish current take his thoughts away. They would ride this trail to the end. Buck would see to that. He wasn't much interested in following this man to the ends of the earth, but from his uncle’s point of view, it seemed just as wrong to let him get away. And Blue knew it too. Blue mulled over the threats that it carried. Two days on the trail would be the least time expended to the thief --- and that would be that…. Or not.  Blue cringed. His uncle called from the shaded sycamore thicket near deep water as he approached. Blue turned to face him. "What now?"

            "Found some fresher tracks leading up canyon. He must of chunked the meat and fixed to eat later up trail."

            "That means we're close then." Blue stopped and studied a glint of light off metal in the highest ridge. "Buck!" As the warning left his mouth a single shot smacked his shoulder and sent him spinning from the bank into the water. Buck ducked where he stood then dived in after Blue. The water ran deceptively deeper. Buck waded up to his chest then paddled to Blue. He tugged him back toward shore out of the line of fire. Scooping an arm under Blue's neck as he maneuvered him toward the trees, Buck fought the deep current. They floundered in the murky water, close enough to take refuge among the low slung branches of the old sycamores, far enough that reaching their horses or rifles would be impossible.

A second rifle shot spewed water near Buck's arm. Buck pulled his nephew to his chest, staying low in the turbid current as the dark water swirled slowly around them. Buck steadied a free hand under the boy's chin. He slowly lapsed into unconsciousness. The bullet tore a path high across the boy’s shoulder and into the hollow near his neck. Buck glared at the wound for a moment.

Blue suddenly came to, fighting the attack, flailing at his uncle's strong arm across his chest. Buck hung on and hissed at him to quiet down.

            Secreted in the muddy bank in the shadows of the overhanging limbs, Buck placed a hand over Blue's mouth and shushed at him. Blue blinked repeatedly. "Stay quiet, Blue. You're hit. I got you, boy. I gotcha."

            Blue tried to gain his balance in the water and thrashed again before he fully realized his uncle was purposefully holding him in the sluggish stream. He quieted down but the look of anguish in his eyes returned. He sucked in air from beneath his uncle's gloved hand clamped across his mouth. Buck slowly released his grip and Blue nodded. The boy drew a hand to his throbbing shoulder and closed his eyes.

            There was a long silence before the third shot splintered the branch above Blue's head. They both ducked this time.

            "He's got us in a bad spot." He eyed his nephew's ashen face. "You got to hold on until we get to solid ground." Buck stripped the bandanna from his neck and wedged the fabric into Blue's shirt collar. Blue hissed and twisted in the water, grabbing at the wound.

            "Hey, Cannon! I figure you must be tired of chasing me." The voice came across the canyon sarcastically, almost playful.

            "Not yet," Buck countered.

            "You will be soon enough. I know I got the kid. You might as well give it up." He reloaded his rifle and levered a cartridge. The distinctive sound echoed across the narrow canyon.

            Buck Cannon listened closely to the length of silence. The return of bird song in the underbrush unnerved him. He cocked his ear toward the trees, trying to discern the movement of boots on sand over the soft gurgle of the stream.

"He's heading down to us," he whispered. "Here. Hold your pistol like you're ready for a fight." Buck pulled his wet revolver from the water. It would be useless but a bluff was as good as a bluff. He drew a bead on him as the stranger stepped out of the cool shadows and into the thicket. He watched in silence as the outlaw tore his hat from his head and spooked the horses to run upstream. Their horses bolted. Buck never did a good look at the man before he was gone.

            Hissing aloud and slapping his palm against the surface of the water, Buck spewed a few unintelligible words before he grabbed at Blue. "Blue, stay with me, boy." He locked an arm around Blue's chest and anchored him to the limb.

            They waited in the stream until the shadows darkened beneath the cottonwoods.

            Once he was sure the thief had moved on, Buck tugged his nephew to solid ground among the reeds. He pressed his hand over the bloody wound. Blue made no attempt to fight him. He took a chance emerging from the shadows but ignored the possibility of the outlaw's close presence and tended to Blue. He was conscious but not focused, not aware. "Hold on, Blue," he murmured. He cupped the nape of his nephew's neck in his large hand.

            Blue's expression grew suddenly determined. "I know that voice. He worked for us. Maybe a year ago," he huffed.

            "What? Oh, that could be. You just lay still."

            The dark shadow of a tall man spread across the surface of the water. Buck looked up and recognized the face of a man he had hired and fired the previous year. He let go a tired breath. "Been a long time, Blocking. I see you haven't changed much."

            "Nope. Still my same ornery self. A right older, maybe." He snickered and turned away. Then he stopped and turned back, riveting a look at Buck that dared him to pull the trigger of his waterlogged pistol. "Go ahead," he chided, grinning and enjoying it. "Take a chance that your barrel don't peel back in your hand. I've seen what a misfire can do. It would be a shame to have both of you laying dead in the sand."

            Buck resigned to that fact and slipped the gun back into its holster. Blue was moving slowly to their voices but not focusing well. He blinked repeatedly at the man. Buck then raised a quizzical eyebrow to him. "I ain't got the need to follow anymore, Blocking. You got your horse and the steak's on me. But I do mind a lot if we get out of here. We're pretty deep in Apache country."

            "Oh, you'll get out of here alright," Blocking said good-naturedly. "I just don't plan on letting you tell the law who I am."

            "What? You afraid of something? I bet the law knows your name real good."

            "Hemp was never my choice of necktie," he snickered. "Yours or the law's."

            "Then why go this route? Why run against the law. You could a asked for a hand. You were a good ranch worker, a good cowhand."

            "Maybe once, Buck. Next time you see me on a wanted poster, you think of Grant Blocking as a real good guy, huh?"

            Buck rose slowly to his feet. The water ran from his holster like a waterspout. "Then leave Blue and me our horses, at leastways one." It was not beneath a bit of begging to have a chance of getting his nephew back home. He glanced at Blue who stared at Blocking and now fully recalled who the man was.

            "Too risky." Blocking watched the look of recognition cross the boy's face.

            "You," Blue hissed. "You was the one that always started them fights for nothing. Always edging someone into a brawl."

            Blocking grinned. "Among other things. Funny you were one that I couldn't get to go a round with me. I measure up a man by how he defends himself, good with his hands, goods with his brains, usually." He stared back at Blue. "You never measured."

            It was a low blow and Blue turned his face away, staring at the turbid water. "A rope would suit you," he muttered. He sucked in a few ragged breaths before lying back on the damp ground.

            "Blue," his uncle growled a warning.

            "Makes no matter now," Blocking remarked casually. He stood wide-legged in dark clothing, hat propped back on his head, and seemed to be enjoying the toying as a child would relish peeling wings from a fly to see what it would do.

            "Blue said he wondered whether it was worth chasing you down for one horse and one rangy cow." Buck kept an eye on his nephew as he waited for Blocking to decide his course of action.

            "Maybe you should a listened to him, Buck," Blocking said. He balanced his rifle over his shoulder and walked away to a tethered horse beyond the cottonwoods. It was only moments when Blocking returned on horseback. He rode up to Buck, who now stood on the bank, and pressed his rifle to Buck's chest. "Take Blue's advice. Don't follow me. I figure you're gonna have enough on your hands trying to keep him alive." Blocking prodded his horse with his boot heels, and drove up the slope paralleling the river.

            Once the man was out of sight, Buck spun around and dropped to his knees at Blue's side. He placed a hand on the boy's heaving chest. Blue was struggling for air and fighting the pain. "Slow it down. You'll be fine. Just take it easy." His voice did not disguise his own anxiety. He pressed the bandanna to the wound again and hissed inches from Blue's face. "You hear me? You got to lay still. You took a bullet. Hear me?"

            It was the boy's whimper over the pain that drew Buck straight-backed and silent. He patted him tenderly on the chest and tried again. "We're in a bad way, Blue Boy. We got us some shade and some water but you took a bullet. You hear me?" He drove one palm into the moist sand beside Blue's waist, pounded it, hissing with each strike. "How I let us walk into an ambush, I'll never know."

            Blue grasped Buck's sleeve and hung on. "Uncle Buck, I know we can get out of this."

            Buck nodded. "You also know fo' sho', before we make any plans, that I got to get that bullet out, if we're gonna get out of here." He pulled his large-blade hunting knife from his belt sheath then stared at the huge blade. "I'd be doing more damage with this than the bullet." He stabbed it into the wet sand and let go a long, low sigh. Buck pulled Blue's knife from his belt sheath. His blade was longer and pointed at a narrower tip but nearly as wide at the hilt. Buck took a long look at that knife. He grasped Blue by his vest lapels and brought him into the deepening shade at the base of the cottonwood's thick trunk. The boy went pale. Buck eyed him again, staring him down, wondering if he was really aware of what would happen next. He held the knife tightly but then, drained by the thought of what he had to do, sat in the sand and hunched his shoulders.

            Blue Cannon cast an apprehensive look toward his uncle. His fight with the pain took the form of short, rapid panting. Between staring at the play of light through the trees or into his uncle's haggard face, Blue could not focus, and that alone panicked him. He blinked back tears and jutted out his chin. "Whenever you're ready, Buck."

            In all the years, the war, the life on the range, the threats of the Apaches, Buck had never been forced into cutting a bullet out of someone he knew, someone he'd seen on a daily basis; especially someone he had nearly raised. He kneeled over his nephew for the longest time until Blue's words brought him out of his moment of tortured reverie.

            "Uncle Buck? It's all right if I don't make it. I mean, either way it's a bad chance."

            "No. It ain't." His voice resonated low, suffocating in dread. "I ain't gonna let you die out here. Not for a stole horse and a steak."

Blue forced a grin but soon his eyes faded and fought to stay alert. His face was framed in the rumpled collar and open vest around his neck and a wisp of matted hair at his temple. His eyes, like pools of reflected water, made this necessary task that more daunting to his uncle. He licked his lips waiting for the pain that was sure to come.

            "Dang, Blue. I ain't good at this." He pulled the soaked bandanna from the wound. Blue flinched and panted, barely getting one breath before gasping for another. Buck picked up his wet glove from the sand and with it folded, offered it to Blue. "Bite down on this. It's gonna be hellacious bad."

            Blue bit down hard on the leather and it slowed his breathing. He did not clench it for long. At the first prod of the knife, Blue's head lolled to the side and the glove fell to the sand. Buck continued probing for the arrant slug but it had taken a change in course. No longer able to detect its path, Buck withdrew the blade point and stuffed the boy's bandanna back in the wound. Buck blotted his forehead with his sleeve as he watched Blue slowly come around. The boy attempted to roll away from the pain but Buck held him down.

            "Settle down. We can stay put for awhile. We got water and shade. If Big John sends out Sam and Pedro to track us, I figure they'll cut our trail maybe day after tomorrow. That is, if I know my brother. He don't have much patience when it comes to not knowing what's going on."

            Blue smirked. "That's for sure," he whispered. Blue's pale blue eyes locked on to his uncle's face. He tried to speak between the short breaths he drew. "Sam won't figure on tailing us."

            "What?"

            "He'll come by way of Signal Butte, right to the Salt River and cut our trail east or west." Blue flashed a disappointed look. "Trouble is, we didn't get that far north on the trail."

            Buck was radiant at Blue's clear thinking. "You be right! You're right, Blue Boy! He'll be backtracking and come right over that ridge to water. Unless he goes by way of Hooker's place then they'll tell him to follow the San Pedro. I'm sure of it."

            "I ain't sure of anything any more." Blue pulled at his uncle's sleeve.

            "Don't you fret." Buck drew away from him just long enough to pull the shirttail from his waistband and tear off a sizable amount of fabric for a bandage. He soon had Blue trussed up with a tight dressing. "And if it takes too long we can hurry them up with a signal fire." He dug inside the band lining of his hat. "Provided my matches stayed dry. We be in luck!"

            Blue settled back to the sand. He watched his uncle gather firewood along the shoreline in anticipation of a signal when the time came. He gathered up an armload of driftwood like a frenzied cotton picker. Blue plied a grin as he drifted off to sleep. He found himself waking to the crackle of a small cooking fire and its light bouncing erratically across the water. Suspended over the campfire flames, a makeshift spit leaned precariously with two splayed lizards impaled to a stick.

            "Hey, Blue. How you feeling? Dinnah is served!" he announced, overacting with a southern blueblood's affected drawl.

            Blue grinned weakly and slowly propped himself up on his good elbow. "I'm feeling pretty hungry. But I don't know about lizard." He raised his head and cocked it toward the fire. "You're taking a big chance with that fire. Every Apache for 40 miles will come looking."

            "Then they'll have to bring their own lizard. You'll see. You'll like it. When I was in the War, Blue, I had to eat frogs, crawdads, red worms the length of your arm. My troop was cut off for three days. Had no rations, no water, no relief."

            Blue eyed him suspiciously as if this story was heading for a punch line. "Naw. You expect me to believe that? I heard some of your stories," he said, openly doubting him while shaking his head slowly.

            "You do what you will. But a man gets hungry and he'll eat anything."

            "Yeah, but this is lizard: old, tough sand lizard."

            Buck yanked the sizzling carcass from the spit and pulled off a leg. He did not take time to think but tore into the scant meat with zeal.

            As he watched, Blue swallowed hard and grimaced, his imagination filling in the details. "Oh, Buck. How can you eat it?" He drew his injured arm across his chest to sit up. Buck put down his dinner to help him. He studied his nephew's haggard look then placed a hand on his forehead.

            Buck was suddenly serious and drawn. "I don't need to tell you that keeping up your strength is the only way to get you through this."

            After licking his lips, Blue flashed a lop-sided grin at his uncle. "You mind pulling me off a leg?" He took the skewer and wrinkled his nose at the fare. "Pass," he said flatly, and handed the splayed body back to Buck. Then he added, "Sam's gonna be here tomorrow."

            Buck backed away. "Suit yourself." He found a spot on the bank to gnaw at his dinner. He studied Blue at a distance, dreading how things would look in the morning, wondering if the night would find them in a more desperate situation.

            "I could use some water."

            "I could use some whiskey," Buck chided. He brought water in a hand-made fold of several sycamore leaves. "Drink up. We may be travelling tomorrow." He found his place by the fire once again.

            "But you said..."

            "I said a lot of things, Blue Boy. We got to make our way outta here. We can't put all our hopes on Sam coming by. Or Apaches showing us the way home." He leveled an exasperated look at Blue. He finished off the lizard and tossed the skewer into the stream.

            His uncle was easy to read, in most cases. Blue dropped his eyes to the fire and puzzled out his sudden gruffness and his show of short temper. "Buck? You told me stories about the wounded soldiers..."

            Buck got up, refusing to let the fire light his face.

            "...about how they would a made it if they had enough doctors in the field."

            Buck turned his back to Blue and his face to the sparkle of stars on the slow-moving water.

            "Most of the men would be alive today, you said, if the bullets had been removed sooner," he continued. He saw Buck raise his shoulders as if waiting to explain then stopping to reconsider. His broad back carried the world some days. He could see it, the way he stood; he was protecting him again. Blue began to work for air, open-mouthed, eyes filling with fear. "If this bullet don't come out soon," he blurted, "then what?" His eyes punched a hole through Buck's back. He waited for an answer. The silence between them echoed like a million dust devils whining and whistling in his ears. Blue bit his lip and waited without breathing.

            Buck used that time to sort through his feelings. He started slow, drawing in air as he needed it. "I promised a long time back that I'd get you home if we ever run into bad trouble," he said slowly. "Like now---"

            "---Buck?"

            "---I aim to keep my promise to your Pa."

            "Buck? What did those men die of?" The panic in his voice escalated.

"They call it blood poisoning," he answered flatly.

            Blue paled and went quiet.

            "How did you know?" He turned and faced the boy. "I tried getting that bullet out. I didn't get it, Blue. I...didn't get...it." Now his own lungs were burning with fire, wanting to scream with anger at the situation they'd gotten themselves into. Too many miles stretched between here and salvation. He shook his head at the watery stars.

            "I told you it's all right if I don't make it. You tried."

            "Blue, that ain't no excuse for a man dying." Buck smacked his fist into his palm and walked off into the darkness. He walked the line of trees, letting the gurgle from the watercourse drown his thoughts.

            Blue slipped down and wedged his shoulder into a rise of sand at his back until he could easily see the full vista of clear stars above. He lay still for quite awhile, listening to the pop of the fire, staring at the spectacle of bright stars, considering how far they must be. He considered how far they had traveled to find a two-bit thief and rustler. Could it all be worth the trouble? He still wasn't sure anymore. He bit his lip deeper and did not see the stars clearly, not through the film of tears.

 

Sometime in the night, Buck Cannon walked the shoreline and followed the stream up canyon. He searched the runoff gullies feeding into the sluggish river but still found no sign of their horses, only the track where Blocking had climbed out. By the looks of it, even Blocking hadn't been able to secure the extra horses. By the time Buck returned to camp, the sun had painted gold edging along the far mountain ridge of the Galiuros. The play of light on the surface of the river revealed a wider pool north of their camp.

Buck crouched at the pool and studied the water. "Hot diggity! Fish!" He urgently began his return to the camp. But in his eagerness to catch a good meal his exuberance numbed suddenly. He stood at the water's edge staring across the ripples at Blue's form in the shadows. His head swam with the audacity of going fishing, even allowing himself hope to find a fishing line in Blue's saddle pack. Then the reality crushed his enthusiasm. The saddles and packs were long gone with the thief by now. Who was he kidding? He gathered up a twig, snapped it, and tossed it into the quiet pool.

            His irritation was still on his face when Blue raised up slowly. "Any luck?"

            "Hmmm?"

            "Any luck, with the horses?"

            "No," he said distractedly.

            Blue dropped slowly to his back and drew his arms across his chest.

            "You cold? I didn't think of you getting cold. I been searching all night." He stirred the coals with his boot then busied himself with feeding their small warming fire while taking short glances at his nephew as he worked. "You know them horses could be half to ways home by now. That sorry, Rebel, he only thinks of his stomach." As he spoke he slipped his black leather vest from his shoulders and draped it over Blue's chest. He watched him closely again before he spoke. Blue had clenched his jaw, looking as though he had something to say, something that needed to be said. Buck wasn't ready for talk. He stood and stretched and wandered back to the edge of the reeds.

            "I figure we can walk out to the northwest. There's a trail Pa took us through a couple years back. Shouldn't be too hard to find."

            Buck didn't answer him right away. Why was the boy always so optimistic? There was too much of Anna Lee in him. The best parts of her. Too all fired ready to see the good in everything before he studied the bad. And being the way things were, more bad than good had come their way. He still didn't see it, or at least care to see it. That was Blue: all folks were good until they did something bad. Buck shook his head and wandered back to the smoldering fire.

            "I can't make that fire too big, not enough to warm you. How you feeling?"

            Blue sat holding his throbbing shoulder, now hunched against the trunk of the cottonwood. "I don't know. I guess there ain't much use in walking anywheres, huh."

            "Maybe sitting still is a good thing. Maybe doing some walking will get us out of a bad place. What you feel like, maybe taking a walk?"

            Blue gazed at his uncle with a twisted expression. "You seen Apache sign while you were out?"

Buck nodded curtly. The hesitancy in speaking did not reflect on the fact that he had nothing to say, far from it, but it came from an extreme urgency to be out of that place, and to keep Blue from knowing too much. He scanned the ridge, as he had all morning, watchful, close to nervousness that Blue was not accustomed to seeing.

Blue raised up again slowly, anchoring sand beneath his boot heels. Now the bird songs came like an unwelcome nuisance, a buzzing in his ears with a chaotic melody. He shook his head.

            Buck stopped and stared at him. "I feel like we been here too long. Guess walking out seems the better choice." He had made his decision, although it presented more problems than they were worth. He pried his nephew from the ground and held him steady. He stood just inches from Blue's face, and dropped his voice to a whisper.

"I got me a plan. We cross the water and head upstream for a-ways. When I say so, we double back a bit and cross again. You gonna stay in a little cove I found. Brushy, hide-away place."

            Blue shook his head; a troubled look grew before he briefly closed his eyes.

            "The best thing for you to do is trust what I say."

            "I trust you, Buck. I just don't want ..." He decided not to finish the thought.

            Buck grasped his nephew’s arm and moved him across camp to the water. They waded slowly through the turbid surface. On the other bank, Buck pressed Blue to move along the shore. Blue tucked his favored arm close to his chest as they maneuvered through the dense reeds. Past the deep pool, Buck helped the boy climb over a fallen cottonwood. They moved on another 200 yards before Buck led Blue into the river again. Here, he left his nephew standing in ankle-deep water while he doubled back on his first tracks.

Once Buck had entered the water downstream, he once again waded upstream to gain the spot where Blue stood waiting. Together they climbed the opposite bank. Buck wrapped an arm around Blue as they climbed a small rise of dry sand, a short gateway to a cove-like gully. At the rear of the gully, it narrowed to a waist-high shelf of water-carved rock and dirt. Blue was exhausted from the activity. He slipped to the ground. Buck moved with him to the ground and held his shoulders tightly, studying him again as he had by the fire.

            "This is where you are gonna stay. I don't want no man, red or white, to find you. You know," he smiled half-heartedly, "like when we go hunting and find a little fawn hiding in the bushes? He don't make no sound; he don't make no move, unless his mama tells him to?"

            Blue nodded and sat. He understood completely.

Buck turned to the water and stepped quickly down the narrow gully. He turned back but then only to stare once at the boy before disappearing into the reeds.

Blue went cold inside. He slumped in the sand, panting without gaining any relief. Only a few minutes passed before a slight movement across canyon caught his attention. He gazed at it without truly seeing it. There, a dark form among the rocks moved cautiously upward to the northern ridge. It was his uncle. Blue followed his movement until he lost him in the rugged crest. Buck was right. There was no way he could have made the climb, held out along the ridge or been able to fight hand-to-hand if the need arose. He studied the ridge, loosing focus, following along the broken line of rock until the mid-day sun forced him to close his eyes. He was left in the brush like a frightened animal. Blue rolled to his side and let the warm penetrating sun dry him.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Leaving him in the gully was probably the hardest thing his uncle had ever had to do. It was something that made Buck what he was, and Blue smiled to himself for it. It was not necessarily a comfort to know his uncle had a chance to get away, but a chance to lead any enemy away from him. Not ever seeing his uncle again would be worse than any Apache finding him dying alone in the canyon; he was sure of that. Blue dug his good shoulder into the slope and reclined. He tugged his hat down low to his eyebrows and settled in for another snooze. Before he attempted sleep, he drew his knife from his belt and jabbed the blade in the sand close to his good hand.

~~~~~~~~

 

A rider came at a steady gait holding his rifle overhead. Reno perked up from the rooftop and waved his rifle in return. "Rider comin'," he called out. The late evening sun drew glare across the wide yard of the High Chaparral.  Most men coming from the corral near the bunkhouse found themselves squinting at the stranger. The man was leading a mare with the ranch brand. Sam Butler, a cocked rifle slung in his arm, met him at the gate. "What's you're business?"

            "Returning Cannon's horse, that is, if you want her."

            Butler waved the man through, then cocked a quizzical look up toward Reno. "This is gonna be interesting," he said under his breath. He followed the man to the hitching rail and studied the mare's legs and chest closely. He could easily tell that the mare would need some recuperation before she was in her prime again.

            John Cannon met the stranger at the door. "Evening. I see you've got one of my horses."

            "Yes, sir, Mr. Cannon. Miles from Hooker Station sent me to return your mare."

            "Oh? And how did you come by her?"

            "Why, your brother come by and said for us to hold the mare until you sent someone to get her. You didn't send anyone, so Miles figured to send me over. He said he didn't want no questionable horse flesh on his property."

            "I see. Come in for some supper and a clean bed. You can get back in the morning."

            "Thank you, Mr. Cannon." The man smiled grandly, as if never being treated with civility before. Victoria, standing just inside the doorway, smiled demurely as he entered their hacienda but Cannon was close by, wishing to prod something more from the man.

            "And how long ago was this, the day he dropped off the horse?"

            "About three days, if you count me riding over here. There a problem?"

            "No, not yet. My brother and son went after a horse thief. You wouldn't happen to know who that was, since he came by your place?"

            "No, sir." He dragged his hat from his head. "I'm just the messenger. Mr. Miles told me to get the mare back to you, pronto."

            "You have traveled far," interrupted Victoria. "May I offer you a chance to wash up?"

            "Oh, no, ma'am. The grub and bed sound just fine, though."

            She smiled and disappeared into the kitchen. John Cannon gave her a slight smile,too. "So how did my brother meet up with you at Hooker's? That's quite a ride east."

            "Yes, sir."

            "I mean, when most horse thieves head south or north, not too many head into Chiricahua territory, and expect to come out in one piece."

            "No, sir."

            Cannon went quiet.

            "One of our horses got traded for yours. So you see, we didn't even miss it." Then his smile faded to nervousness. "That is, none of us was the wiser that a horse was missing. When Buck showed up, he wanted to know what the fella was riding, when he left, that is."

            "You always that careless with your stock? Seems to me that if one of mine was replaced that I'd know right off. Or does this happen all the time?" Cannon had the man back stepping.

            "Miles ain't the kind to wonder what's what as long as nothing's missing."

            "Seems he'd notice if they were replaced with sheep or burros."

            "Why, sure. That's our job, to make sure we keep what we got, make sure the Apaches don't get too close."

            "Or horse thieves?"

            Their guest stared at his feet. "Well, sir. You did get the mare back and most of the gear, I reckon. So Miles just wanted to even everything up."

            "What was he riding when you last saw him?"

            "A five-year-old bay gelding --- you mean the thief?"

            Cannon had easily flustered him, wedging the messenger into a tight corner. He stepped to the front door and called for Sam and Joe Butler. The messenger stood nervously holding his hat. "Sam," Cannon called out, "I'd like you and Joe to escort our friend back to Hooker's Station by way of Tucson. Pick up the deputy and get him to flush out a little dirty business going on at Hooker's place. Seems we have a handy little horse thief ring right in our laps. This isn't the first time I've heard of stock mysteriously showing up."

            Sam pulled his revolver to escort the man to the bunkhouse. With a hint of a grin, Sam prodded the messenger toward the lit doorway. "You hear anything on Buck and Blue?" he asked of Cannon.

            "Nothing good. Get ready to ride. We'll pay a little surprise visit to Hooker's place."

            "You planning on going, Mr. Cannon?"

            "I wouldn't miss it for the world," he answered, a wry grin grew on his otherwise somber face.

           

~~~~~~~~~~

 

A rifle shot echoing up canyon sent Blue bolt upright in the gully. He caught his breath, listening beyond the steady gurgle of the river. It was beyond mid-morning and the heat had driven rivulets of sweat down his face and chest. He was weaker, barely able to sit without leaning into the bank for support. He licked his lips, panting, waiting for that bit of information that would tell him his uncle had returned. He sat stone still, leaning his arm into the bank resting his chin, only to hear the cheery returning sounds of the birds in the cottonwoods. The silence whined in his brain until he thought it would explode.

            Blue twisted to a new sound; the travel of tumbling pebbles down an incline. He twisted again, tipping his head to catch its direction. His face rose up slowly to the horse thief standing above him. The man's rifle aimed directly at his chest.

Grant Blocking grinned and slid down the embankment to the gully floor. He prodded Blue with the rifle barrel as he glanced from ledge to ledge and down into the reed-lined pool. "Looks like I need you, boy. We got us a little Apache trouble."

            "You don't need me."

            "Oh, yes. In fact," he said wryly, glancing around for the boy's uncle, "I do need you more than you think. Seems that some of Cochise's relatives are near by. I don't expect that you know Naiche or his nephew, Tees, but I've been, let's say, 'come upon by them,' and they don't hold me in good favor. Not unless I got something to bargain with."

            Blue shook his head. "Why would you be dealing with Naiche? He moved to the reservation."

            "Naw, that ain't so. He's been running with his renegade boys. They don't like the reservation no more that's why they deal with me." Blocking snickered when the realization hit Blue's face like sun on water.

            "You," Blue hissed. The word came out bitter as Blue pulled away, hunching against the sandbank. "Naiche made a promise to Cochise," he continued, "to keep his family together, on their land. They deal direct with the agents. That's the way it works."

Blue then recalculated the true meaning of what Blocking had uttered. It was true that tension had grown between several factions of Cochise's bands and in the escalating power struggle they had only heard rumors from the Army of a separation. For the last year it must have been Blocking who had been undermining everything that the Indian Agent had established, unless the two were in on it together.

"How far does this go? Huh?" Blue pressed him. He was spent but filled more with anger and agitation. His blue eyes flashed ice cold when Blocking smiled at him. "How far are you willing to press them until they turn you into their latest prize?" Blue hissed.

            "Funny you should say that, Blue. You see, I got only one way out at the moment, I figure … and that's you." He settled his stance in the narrow slope and glanced around. "Where's your Uncle Buck, huh? He can't be too far. I got a bullet with his name on it. Where's he at?"

            Blue went sullen. Blocking swung the rifle about as if pointing it would flush out the man from the brush or the embankment. "He left you? Hah, that beats all," he said.  "I would a never thought he'd slip out on you." Blocking grabbed for the knife handle in the sand just as Blue made a failed attempt to reach for it. "You expect to do some good with this? Huh?" He slid the knife into his waistband. '"What other tricks you think you got?"

            There was not enough energy in his grip to hold the knife if he had the chance to reach it. Blue slipped down the short embankment and covered the bend of his arm over his eyes. He spoke in short phrases, breathy and spent "You don't think Naiche wants anything to with a Cannon, do you?"

            Blocking eyed him suspiciously, calculating what was coming. He poked the barrel into the boy's shoulder. Blue cried out.

            "You tell me, boy. What's been going on since I known you last year?" The man's derisive smile was now icy in return. "You working a deal with Naiche that I don't know about?"

            Blue let Blocking think on it awhile. Then he took a ragged breath. "You can take me to Naiche but you'll be in a worse fix for doing it. He still doesn't like how the Army got the bands to the reservation. He kind of figures we were the negotiators, helped to get it worked out. Only it wasn't quite what they wanted, or us. The Army has its own way of seeing things. We worked a private deal, you might say. Cochise will tell Naiche and his people to back down, but using me for saving your skin, uh, uh, it ain't gonna be." He kept shaking his head as he spoke.

            Blocking grinned and stepped up to Blue, taking a closer stance. He shoved the barrel hard against his breastbone. "You are mine, boy. Seems that even you don't know how high you measure up to them Apaches. Think about it. Me giving over Cannon's son to the renegades that burned their way to Mexico. I can come out of this pretty good."

            "It won't work, Blocking."

            "Naiche already said he'd be satisfied with something of value. That's you, kid." The outlaw, snickering and grabbing a wad of clothing at Blue’s throat, suddenly pulled him to his feet. Blue was spent, relying on Blocking to keep him on his feet; he was too weak to step carefully down the narrow path. At gunpoint, Blocking trailed the boy down to the water's edge. Once at the stream, Blocking forced him to a kneeling position while he scooped up a handful of water. The man was more desperate than he had led on. Blue saw it in his eyes, how they darted up and down canyon, ferreting out any movement as he took long draughts of water. When he decided to move on, Blue could not accommodate him any further. He slumped to one hand in the moist shoreline; it was all he could do to keep from toppling over.

            "Get up."

            Blue shrugged slightly, holding on to his shoulder, but made no move to rise. He was sullen again, short of breath and ignoring the outlaw's demands.

Blocking toed him in the ribs with his boot. "We got about three miles up canyon."

            "Three miles or thirty, I ain't going." He hung his head low and waited for the attack to come.

            The outlaw tipped him over into the reeds and laid him on his back. He slapped a hand over his mouth and drew the knife from his waistband. Only then did Blue recognize the echo of horses' hooves clipping against shale and the solid thud against sandstone in the upper rim. Several horses moved down canyon.

Blocking pressed the knife to Blue's throat as the horses came near. "Don't you move, boy," he hissed.

            In time, it was Buck Cannon, astride his old Rebel, who led a palomino through the thicket and appeared at the bow of the largest cottonwood. The cool shade refreshed him. He blotted his brow with his shirtsleeve. Buck aimed to cross the river and work upstream to the gully but Blocking had other plans. The outlaw stepped out of the rushes with Blue on his knees and his knife riding precariously close to the boy's jugular.

            Rebel jumped at the man's sudden appearance. Buck swung around with a rifle aimed and ready then stared at the second bad situation he had walked into. "What's a matter, Blocking? You lose another horse?" he growled sarcastically.

            "I want what you want, Buck. A horse, a little freedom, and a way out of these mountains."

            "Three wishes, huh. I ain't your fairy godmother. Let him go, Blocking. The only thing I can guarantee you is a death wish."

            Blocking dragged Blue to his feet. The boy, pale and sucking in air at each breath, refused to move forward. Blocking shook him like a terrier with a bone. "Time was when a man holding a gun had the right to tell the other one what to do. Times ain't changed that much. Drop the rifle, Buck, or I'll chunk him up bad like I did that steer."

            "Then what will that get you?"

            "My way outta here. I got the ace this time, Buck."

            "How you figure wiggling your way outta this?"

            "Him and Naiche." Blocking grasped Blue by the nape of the neck and pressed him forward as a shield in front of Buck Cannon. The outlaw was edgy and grinning arrogantly. He pressed the boy forward again. Blue could barely keep on his feet. "Drop the rifle, Buck," the horse thief warned.

             "You aiming to hold that boy for Naiche? Getting him to let you go through Apache land like some ghost?" Buck snickered, "It ain't gonna happen, friend. Blue must of told you that Naiche don't hold no favor with Cannons. He'd rather see us bleed. Better yet, he'd invite all his friends to see which one of us bleeds slowest."

            "Don't mess with me, Buck. I know Naiche a bit longer than you. He wants the boy or maybe both of you as much as he wants his homeland back. These Apaches, they get kind of tied to their land, see it a shame to be moved from it. It's enough to make them go crazy. Naiche would like to show Cochise just how crazy he can get. And I can give him the opportunity right here." Grant Blocking pulled Blue's head back, exposing more neck to the knife. The boy whimpered.

            "Drop the rifle. Get off that horse, Buck. I ain't gonna say it again."

            Buck slipped easily from the saddle and held his hands up slightly. "You got my horse. Now what?"

            Blocking shoved the boy into his uncle's arms. Buck hooked his arms around him. Blue slumped to the ground, and Buck did what he could to hold him up. The boy was fighting a fever. Buck cast a contemptuous look at the man he had once hired, once tipped a few beers with, and who now held no favor for life itself. Buck Cannon waged a silent war: he studied Blocking superficially before he hooked a hand under Blue's chin and studied what condition his nephew was in. What little bandage he had was now soaked through. Blue stood weak as a kitten, scared and maintaining what little reserve he had to deal with the pain. Buck was livid but he said nothing.

            "Move on over to the palomino. Get him up on it."

            Buck was slow to follow his orders.

            "Get him up. Now," Blocking growled. He picked up Buck's rifle from the short grass.

            "You do realize he's too sick to ride. Killing him ain't gonna make Naiche too happy."

            "Maybe. But killing you would make me a damn sight happier."

            Buck steadied his nephew into the saddle. With help, Blue pulled himself up slowly but immediately doubled over the saddle horn. Buck swung up behind him, securing the boy with his arm wrapped around his chest. "Take it easy, Blue. I'll get you through this."

            Satisfied with his plan up to now, the outlaw cut the lacing off his saddlebags and bound Buck's and Blue's wrists. Blocking tucked the knife away opting to pull a pistol from his waistband before climbing up on Buck's horse. "Move up the canyon. Slow."

            This time Buck obliged without delay. He was also aware that he had been watched from the high ridge ever since he rode into that part of the canyon. He had cut sign earlier but no one had challenged him as he moved through the side canyons looking for their wayward horses. Maybe the Apaches were waiting to see what Blocking was planning to do in their canyon. Perhaps they were waiting until Blocking brought them what they wanted. Or perhaps Naiche's band was not interested in them at all. If that was the case, then Blue was being held for no purpose other than to make Blocking feel he had the upper hand. That alone angered Buck. He fretted in silence.

            A moan from his nephew snapped Buck's focus on his immediate needs. Blue was lolling in the saddle, unable to stay alert. Buck reached his bound hands up to Blue's forehead. He was right. Keeping him in the saddle was the worst thing to do to him.

            As they cleared the cottonwood grove and ambled slowly up the trail to the upper terrace with the mountain's rugged crest looming beyond, Buck let out a long sigh and turned slightly, getting the man's full attention. "We been watched for some time, Blocking. Just how good a terms are you with them?"

            "Nothing you have to worry about. When we get to the village, I'll let Naiche deal with you, Cannon."

            "I don't think they plan to let us get that far."

            His words were prophetic. Two riders appeared on the trail ahead. They were young Apache bucks but that fact never came into consideration when they sat holding rifles. Buck Cannon spoke loud enough for the braves to hear. "We don't mean no harm. Just passing through."

            Grant Blocking nudged his horse up alongside the palomino. He leveled the rifle across Buck's shoulder and into the nape of Blue's neck. "I want this to go slow and easy. I do the talking."

            Buck reined up and sat silent. Even Blue straightened up with the pressure of the metal rifle barrel against his skin.  But Buck wouldn't let him have the satisfaction of holding him at gunpoint. He turned a menacing gaze to the outlaw. Blocking reconsidered while speculating that the Cannons just might have some kind of favorable pull with the likes of Naiche, and withdrew the rifle, holding it upright with the stock against his thigh.

            "Remember who's running this show," he hissed. He rode forward, coming abreast of the Cannons on the narrow trail and called out to the young bucks. But first, he smiled a full brace of teeth before he picked his words carefully. "Naiche says he wants a good prize. I have what he wants." He nudged the Cannons forward with his rifle.

            The two Apache riders turned and kicked their ponies up the incline. They were gone in a scramble of rock and dirt.

            "In my book that don't come across as a good sign," Buck slowly muttered.

            Blocking had had enough of his mouth. He raised a gloved hand to him but then reconsidered and backed off. He reined hard, raked his mount's flanks, forcing his horse to pass Buck on the trail. He took the led following the two young riders but then stopped. As the braves approached the well-traveled saddle where the trail met a divergent ridge, Blocking twisted in his seat and scanned a second tier of ridges above. "I don't mind telling you, this don't feel right."

            Buck just gave him an icy grin. "If the truth be known, you've had a rifle aimed at you since we began this little adventure up this canyon." He raised his hands above the saddle horn, showing subtly that his hands were tied. He turned his attention to his nephew, letting Blocking stew in his troubles awhile longer.

            There were others things to consider. Buck worried for his nephew. His breathing had been shallow and now after his short struggle with Blocking, his fight was weakened. Buck grasped his nephew's chin in one cupped hand and tipped his face up to him. "Blue? We got just a few miles. Hold on. Just hold on for your Uncle Buck, huh?"

            Blue said nothing.

            Buck had set his jaw and stared at Blocking's back. "I hope Naiche had a bad night and he's itching to take it out on somebody."

            Blocking ignored him. They continued riding. Just over the ridge, he spotted the two young bucks astride their horses. "You see! It was just a welcoming party. Piece of cake."

            "Hmmm," Buck groused.

            Three more shadows joined them on the ridge trail. The first Apache jumped from the rocky ledges, feet aiming like a pile driver from above, and took Blocking down into the dirt with him. Two others stood on the trail with rifles leveled. Their quick action spooked Rebel. The horse reared and sidestepped the forms on the ground. The palomino backed away and Buck tightened his rein. Blocking tore away from his attacker and scrambled back up the craggy slope at the Cannons. It was something that Buck wasn't ready for. Having lost his rifle in the attack, Blocking drew his revolver and pounced on Blue, pulling him from Buck's arms, from the saddle to the ground. They hit hard and rolled to the gully.

            Blocking had convinced himself that Blue, no matter what condition he was in, was still worth his ticket out of that canyon. Blue hit the ground and rolled with Blocking until the man secured his balance and grasped the boy around the chest with one arm. Drawing the boy to his knees in front of him, he cocked the pistol. It jabbed into Blue's cheek and the boy drew a short gasp.

            Buck froze.

The other Apaches hunched and waiting, delayed their attack and stood threatening an advance.

            "Back off, you red devils. I got one chance. You hear me?" Blocking bristled, pulling Blue with him away from the trail, away from their advance.

            Naiche now appeared above them on the trail, tall astride his horse, confident in his moves. Slowly, he rode forward and passed Buck who was still mounted but wary and nervous. Naiche eyed him as though he would deal with him later. He motioned his horse forward and stopped again to study the man he knew as Blocking. Blocking was sweating and agitated, trying to make a strong show of it. He gripped Blue across his chest, keeping him upright as a shield and stood his ground. When Naiche reined up he again studied the fear in Blocking's moves.

            "You see? I came through for you, Naiche. Go ahead. Take the kid: a present from me to you. I only ask that I get a clear path. I'm heading North. I got some other business to tend to. You understand."

Blue whimpered as the outlaw drew him upwards at the nape of the neck, suspending him at arm's length as if he was holding a string of trout. Blue pulled away and tucked his arm into his chest, but Blocking had a tight grip and shook him to settle down.

            Naiche raised his eyes to one of his young brave on the ridge, and gave him a singular nod. The brave let lose an arrow into Blocking's back. He raised up both hands and fell over towards Blue, knocking them both into the gully. The hard landing dazed the boy. He pulled away and, not sure what had happened, dragged himself out from under the dead man. Blue backed away and wedged his elbows into the dirt slope. He glanced furtively looking for the edge of the trail. Buck slipped from his seat on the palomino and slid down the short embankment. He gathered Blue up to sit with him in the dirt.

            "What happened?" he whispered. His eyes locked briefly on his uncle's.

            "You never mind that, Blue." He turned to Naiche. "He's in a bad way. We were trailing Blocking. That's all. He was a horse thief and rustler." Buck Cannon cast an honest gaze at Naiche, hoping the man would believe his story. It was a long moment before Naiche eyed the younger Cannon sitting along side the older one. Blue returned his gaze while breathing rapidly.

            Naiche made his consideration without a word. He signaled again to those on the ridge now numbering more than a dozen. Even Buck was taken off guard for a moment as their numbers had silently increased. Several Apaches riding swiftly down the narrow trail, under Naiche's directives, dismounted and pulled the Cannons to their feet. Buck was directed to his own horse Rebel, while Blue was helped into the saddle of his palomino. Buck grinned slightly. They had known all along who was in the canyon and what had transpired. If Buck had made any other attempt to reason it out with them, they would have been killed on the spot, he was sure of it. Once mounted and ready, one of Naiche's warriors passed close by. He leaned across Buck's lap and checked the security of the leather cord tying his hands.

            Now in the lead, the striking profile of Naiche was caught in a dash of light. "We are going to my village," Naiche announced in perfect English. He led the way up the canyon trail.

            Buck made sure to pull in behind his nephew's palomino and keep an eye on him. As they neared the high and rocky prominent of the ridge, a young buck jumped from the rocks and settled behind Blue sharing his saddle. He did it so fluidly that the horse only flinched and Blue didn't seem to care. The young warrior took the reins from Blue, hooking one arm around him, and moved the palomino up the trail. That one movement settled Buck's mind at ease that they were going to be treated as guests rather than enemies.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sam and Joe Butler argued the point for only a minute. They were too experienced to bring any rivalry between them. When there was a difference of opinion they worked it out before moving on, and then, their time spent on the issue at hand was brief. Being brothers had a way of settling into their arguments and showing them both a different direction. Joe tossed the stick away. He had been drawing out the map he knew in his head, but Sam wasn't hearing any of it.

            "We got time against us. Miles did say they went north. The San Pedro's got water running now. And any man on the run would be sticking close to water. I say we keep to the water and see if we cut their trail."

            "I still say, if they rode north. Three days puts them out past Signal Butte." Joe was agitated and stood fast to his theory. He chewed on his moustache, awaiting the verdict. It was John Cannon that intervened.

            "The last I heard," noted Cannon, "the Army had staked several mule packers into the Salt River Valley. They confirmed that none of the Apache Agents were living along there. But they also didn't know where they had moved." He slapped his leather gloves across his palm. "My vote's for the San Pedro. If this horse thief has any ties with these packers, he just may have other ties in the region."

            "Selling to the renegades?" Sam speculated.

            "It wouldn't be the first time."

            "No, and that would explain his first stop for a fresh horse at Hooker's before heading that far out."

            "My thought exactly," Cannon smiled eagerly. "A man purposely choosing to head into Apache country with a fresh mount is more confident to get out."

            Joe Butler stood back a step and shook his head. "Three days should put them farther north. Unless they ran into trouble."

            Cannon nodded. "You know my brother. He had good cause to end the chase at Hooker's. But, no, he had to make a point. And with Blue stringing along, no telling..." He left his thought unfinished.

            Sam slapped his brother on the shoulder as they remounted for the San Pedro. "Let's hope they did get as far as Signal Butte and decided to give it up," Sam said. His softened smile did not hide the fact that Blue and Buck were trailing a man that had more at stake than a horse theft charge.

            John Cannon slapped his reins against his horse's withers. They moved out swiftly; Sam eventually took the lead.

            Once they had reached the Upper Bend of the San Pedro, Cannon's fears were confirmed. The blowflies swarmed like black clouds of locust as they approached the carcass. Sam signaled around the remains and stood upwind. "Looks like the man is a rustler, to boot. That would have given him some distance, now that he has food. These tracks pretty much confirm that Buck and Blue are staying close."

            Farther up stream, Joe yelled out. "Found some more. And they ain't riding now." Joe looked concerned and waited until Sam was in close view of the tracks. "Pretty much what I wasn't hoping. There's been trouble here."

            Cannon joined his men and followed the heel prints to the reeds and the campfire. A dried patch of blood against the tree sent Cannon into gaunt reality.

            "Let's assume that the outlaw may have doubled back on them." Sam crouched at the campfire ring and turned the ashes over with a prod of a stick. Before he could form his next thought, three Apaches appeared from the reeds across the stream. “Easy, now.”

            Cannon slowly held out his hands in plain view and nodded his head toward the Butlers. Sam and Joe did the same thing. They let the reins of their horses go once the braves crossed the water. Each Apache held a rifle. Cannon and his men were relieved of their rifles and holsters. The trail end lay before them.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hours later they rode the same sloping trail that led into the narrow canyon that Buck and Blue had followed three days earlier. No man spoke during the ride. While under direction of their Apache trail guides, Cannon and his men moved in single file. They eventually rode under the spreading branches of the old sycamores, re-crossing the stream several times. Leading the white-eyes through thick stands of river reeds, they stayed under the shadows of the cottonwoods. Only the gurgling stream rose its voice above the rush of leaves. After a short break to water their horses, the Apaches moved them onward up a well-traveled narrow trail to the boulder-strewn ridge.

            At the end of a long day, the trail widened to reveal a village clustered among the thick trees of a hidden spring. High above the desert floor the spring had nurtured an ancient grove of hemlocks and sycamores. Here among the shadows were the seasonal brush homes of the Apaches. The village was active. As the strange white-eyes rode in, the children tossed stones at their horses until they were admonished to stop by some of the elders lingering in the out-of-the-way places. They watched with curiosity and loathing.

            Sam muttered something under his breath. Cannon was sure he said that not everyone was welcome. That comment became clear as they rode beyond the first huts and saw the upright poles planted in the center of a large ring of stones. Suspended from the poles a white man hung from his wrists. The man's shirt was ripped from his body and draped from his waist. On first look he appeared dead, but his chest rose in slow draws of air.

            "That appears to be our horse thief, Mr. Cannon," Sam said wryly.

            Cannon scanned the village for his son and brother.

            The largest wickiup set with its back deep into the canyon wall stood separate as a tribute to its leader. They were lead to within twenty feet of the hut before ordered to dismount.

            Sam and Joe stood slack-kneed and leery of what was to come. John Cannon took a step forward and waited, seemingly aware of some type of protocol that must be adhered to. He watched and waited. With his arms hung loose at his side, he began opening and closing his hand in nervous habit.

            The hut's door flap folded open. Naiche climbed out of the low opening and stood to view his white-eyes. Without a word, the next person stepped out of the hut and into the light. It was Buck. His hands were tied but he appeared no worse for wear. John visibly let go a relieved sigh. Then he looked expectantly at the door for Blue to appear. When his son did not step out, he stared at Buck, trying to read some answer in his eyes.

            Buck stood wide-legged and gazed at the ground.

            It was Naiche who broke the silence.

            "Too many lies come from too many white-eyes," he said bluntly.

            John Cannon nodded. "That is true. Some men have no honor at all. Do you know me as a white-eyes that lies to you?"

            "No. I know you as a white-eyes that tries hard against others who lie. But your wishes are like smoke. Your wishes for truth to spread among the others is like a black smoke, shadowed with lies."

            "We followed that man back there because he too was full of lies, and plans to cause trouble. We also know that Naiche avoids trouble because the Army soldiers will come every time there is trouble." Cannon watched Naiche's eyes as he listened willingly. "But we also came to bring him back to our courts, to our laws, to punish him. My brother and son did this. They tracked him to your land."

            Naiche still listened and made no comment to what Cannon confided.

            "Now it is time to go home. You have decided the thief's fate for us. My brother is with you ...and my son, is he with you?"

            Naiche stepped back and hooked a hand under Buck's leather binds. He pulled him forward and Buck moved as he was directed. "Take your brother. Go home."

            "What about my son?" John repeated, then looked at his brother, "Buck? Is he alive?"

            Buck shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, Big John. They took him. I ain't seen him for a day." Buck's voice was barely audible; he seemed numb and unaffected.

            "Buck," John hissed.

            Naiche pulled a bone-handled knife and cut through the leather ties, pushing Buck toward John. "Go home."

            "I can't go home without my son." John spoke his words clearly and uncompromisingly. "Tell me the truth that you know."

            Now that Naiche had the full attention of John Cannon, he sneered and crossed his arms. "Six men are bringing their packs through the Salt River. They are the cause of our trouble with the whites. Many of my people have died from their supplies. Many white-ranchers are afraid. The packers did this. Not Apaches. They are the black smoke, the ones that carry lies with them wherever they go."

            Cannon nodded. It was his turn to listen intently.

            Naiche continued without turning his eyes from Cannon. "I hold your son until the packers are gone, until the Army is not watching, until the black smoke rises."

            Cannon was stunned. "How... How long do you figure this will be? Days, weeks, years?"

            "Big John," Buck muttered low, "he's stalling for time. Blue's hurt bad. He just don't want the boy to die on him yet."

            "What?" John glared at Naiche once he considered what his brother had said. "I can't make any promises like that. I have no control over those men, the Army, for God's sake. I trust only who I see." He made a hand gesture toward his eyes and finished it off with a hand sign of honesty and honor toward the Apache.

            "How much honor is your son worth to you?" Naiche proposed.

            It was a bold statement. The Apache leader was wise to the underhanded dealings in his territory. He had seen promises made and broken. Promises made to his father, his people who followed. It was only time before the Army would come and set sanctions against them. He longed to return to Mexico and hunt again. He had held his renegade band together just long enough to gather rations for a long trek south. Although Blocking had interfered with his plans temporarily, he had not considered being stopped by the Army. He needed time. He let Cannon think about his question.

            Cannon nodded. "Alright. He is worth time that your people need to set things right. He is worth your word that no more raids and killings will be made here. And, he is worth the honor that you will give to me man-to-man, not holding him up for ransom, not threatening peace with me, not threatening his life for our safety. Is that understood?" Cannon's bold words set the tone for Naiche's reaction.

            The Apache slowly scanned his village and his people who were listening and not interfering. He uncrossed his arms and relaxed, then nodded. "Honor can not be threatened, John Cannon. It must be earned. I see you man-to-man. And I say that my people want to go back to Mexico. To get away from the black smoke. White traders are not honorable men. They don’t see the truth. I need one day and we will leave."

            Cannon nodded. "And my son?"

            Naiche turned and walked to the left of his hut. He signaled Cannon to follow him. John Cannon pressed a strong hand on Buck's shoulder as he passed him. “Stay right here,” he whispered. Cannon followed Naiche through a narrow line of rocks where the canyon opened to a small green glade. Two small wickiups sat close together. Naiche led Cannon to the farthest one. He crawled inside and holding the woven flap aside, beckoned Cannon to follow him.

Inside, two women tended to Cannon’s son. Blue was unaware that his father arrived. He slept deeply and seemed drained of color.

            "What happened here?" John said, keeping his voice non-accusing.

            "Your son will stay here until he is able to ride. Blocking is not yours to take. He is mine."

            Cannon glowered at the Apache’s dark eyes then turned slowly away and set his attention to his son. He cupped his hand under the boy's neck and raised his face to him. Blue was unconscious. Gently, John placed him against the cedar-scented bedding and pulled back. Too many questioned filled his mind. He wanted to get the boy home; that was paramount.

            "Naiche," he said softly, "my men need to know that everything is okay. They can return to my ranch. My brother can go with them. I will stay here until he is well." He made sure not to end his last statement with any sort of question in his voice. He studied the Apache’s non-emotional features, finding nothing in Naiche’s eyes that accepted Cannon's conditions.

            Naiche rose and climbed out the short doorway. Cannon followed to elicit an answer. When the two stood their full height and squared off, a cold chill ran through Cannon's bones. Was he going to challenge him, delay any decisions, tie him up like Blocking? He let go a frustrated breath and caught a glimpse of Buck standing in the shade of a cottonwood tree. Cannon froze and waited, eyes locked on the only man that could save them.

            "If every man had strong hearts and good words we would be hermanos -- brothers, John Cannon. Not many have hearts, even less have good words. In my heart, I know your word is good. Tell your brother that he and the others may go, only south."

            John Cannon smiled wearily and nodded once in confirmation. "Thank you, " he said softly.

            Naiche stopped when the young woman arose from the wickiup and signaled to him. She stood demurely behind him and whispered a short phrase and left. Naiche turned to Cannon. "Your son is awake."

            Cannon wasted no time climbing back into the hut. Blue's color, still pallid but improved, showed that his health was returning, but it would be awhile before he could ride. John crouched by his side. "Good to see you, boy. I hear you found the horse thief."

            Blue smiled weakly. "Yeah, Pa. But he got the upper hand. I don't think I'd of made a good bounty hunter," he said, displaying a flash of intense blue in his eyes. "Is Buck okay? Are they gonna let us go?"

            Cannon looked amused at the question from his son, as if the thought of killing them had never come to him. "Why, sure. Of course, they're gonna let us go. Naiche is an honorable man. There's been trouble up here for some time. He's just had to play out his hand a little too long. Blocking dealt him a rough hand. I'm sure you understand."

            "Bad hands, lousy hands, I understand. How's Buck?"

            Cannon grinned. "He's fine," he said with a smile." Sam, Joe, and the others will be heading out with him. Naiche has allowed them to go first."

            "Huh?"

            "I'm staying put until you're able to ride. Naiche's guarantee."

            Blue nodded somberly and closed his eyes briefly. "You know, Pa, I would a been left for dead if Buck hadn't pulled me out of the river."

            "No need to tell me now, son. I want you to rest so we can go home." John patted Blue on the chest but there was something lingering in the boy's eyes, his look, determinedly and riveting drew John closer. "What's the matter, boy?"

            "I think Buck's suffering, Pa. He won't tell you, but ever since Blocking shot me, Buck's been pretty quiet, like maybe he blames himself for me getting hurt. Pa? I don't want him to think that. I don't want him to stop and consider that I might catch a stay bullet every time he hears gunfire. It's not gonna be the same, if that's what he thinks."

            "Blue, you can't change what a man thinks by just wishing it. You, just you, have to make him change how he sees you. Besides," John grinned at his son, "what do you think I go through every time I hear you or one of the men has been injured?"

            "I hadn't thought of that."

            "Being a father is twice as hard as being a boss. You ought to know that by now." John chuckled softly and squeezed Blue's arm before he rose to leave. "I'll check on you in a bit. Take it easy. Get some sleep."

            Blue rolled away from the doorway and molded his hip into the bedding. Thoughts jumbled out of sequence until he saw things clearly: his uncle pulling him from the water and holding him safe in the shadows. With a satisfied smirk on his face, he blissfully slipped back to sleep.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Two days of confinement had changed Blue into a determined young man. He wanted to get going. His father raised his hands in exasperation and backed out of the wickiup. "Fine then. If you're so all fired to tear that wound open, you can bleed all the way back to Chaparral." Cannon gave in and left, but he didn't go far. He stood in the morning sun of their third day and basked in the clarity of the high mountain meadow. "Well, if we're going to go, you sure picked a fine day to do it," he growled.

            Blue moved slowly out the opening like a groundhog testing the wind before venturing out of his hole. He rose stiffly and looked around. The day was a gorgeous one. The glade, green, vibrant and refreshing, immediately caught his interest.

            "Pa, where's all the people? The Apaches are gone!"

            "They moved out yesterday evening, at the cool of the day. I counted eighty men, women and children. They're heading home, Blue. They're going into the southern mountains for game and to get away from us."

            "I'm sorry I didn't get to see that."

            "You didn't miss much," drawled Buck, stepping from the brush. "Just a busy moving day."

            "Buck! I thought you left days ago," Blue said, his voice cracking with excitement.

            "Oh, I left alright, but I wasn't far. I been watching the canyon. Keeping an eye on old Naiche to see that his words were honorable, you might say." He walked up to them and crossed his arms, eyeing them casually.

            "Huh? I thought he said he kept his word?" Blue looked puzzled.

            John just grinned. "It never hurts to have someone watching the dealer, heh, Buck?"

            "That's what you just might say," he said, grinning, a bit too full of himself. "Besides," he added, "I couldn't bare the thought of wondering how you was, whether you come through this alright. Could I?"

            Blue beamed then spotted the horses in the tall grass, packed and ready to go. "Say, how did you know I was fit to go today?"

            "With all that belly-aching a man in Tucson could a heard every last word and joined in the conversation. Seem fit to me. Ready to go home, Blue Boy?"

            Blue flashed a disarming grin. "Boy, am I. And I'm starving, too. I'm so hungry I could eat a ... a ..." he looked at both of them then blurted out, "an old sand lizard."

            Buck stepped closer and hooked an arm around his nephew. "Good choice, Blue. Good choice. Let's go home."

 

THE END

 

 

 

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