The Critter (by Stardust)

Summary:
Category:  Bordertown
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  13,400


The four cowhands walked their horses slowly along the trail. One rode holding his head and another groaned softly every few minutes. The other two sat stiffly erect, trying not to let the movement of the horses jar their heads. Their typical cowboy clothing was torn and dirty, with numerous buttons undone. They smelled of whiskey, beer, and sweat with a slight mix of cheep cologne or maybe perfume worn by a salon woman. It was easy to tell they had experienced a wild night on the town recently. They pulled their hats lower to shield their bloodshot eyes from the bright light of the midday sun only to find the pressure of the hats increased the throbbing of their heads so that they loosened the headgear again.

“Oh – o – o – ,” moaned one cowboy.

“H – ush up, Charlie,” whispered another cowboy. “ ‘Tween your cryin’ an’ this heat, and the sun, my head’s getting worse ‘stead a better.”

“Worst hangover I ever did have,” complained the third cowboy. “You done puked on yerself a’gen, Billy. You smell worse’n a dog done rolled in a cow pie.”

Billy turned his head slowly to where he could look at his friends. “It ain’t me that smells so bad, Pete. ‘Must be smellin’ yer self.” Billy’s bay horse began to prance and sidestep. “Oh – o, —- don’t do that, hoss.” Billy leaned over to the left as the bay went right and almost fell off. It was a struggle but he managed to pull himself back up onto the horse.

The other horses decided to copy the Billy’s bay and began to act up, snorting and trying to turn back.

“What’s wrong with ‘em?” asked Charlie.

“Look! Over there!”

“I see it, but what is it!”

“I ain’t sure.”

Charlie’s sorrel horse wasn’t going to stand still with the critter coming at them. It half reared and crowhopped, while Pete’s bay began bucking. Unable to hang on with the hangovers they had Charlie and Pete fell to the ground. Charlie groped for his gun as he tried to get to his feet.

“Get out a the way, Pete, so I ken shoot it!” yelled Charlie. He fired a wild shot over Pete’s head at the large, dark creature standing in the trees. On his feet now, Charlie tried to steady the gun with both hands so he could fire again.

The creature had been upright. Now it dropped to all four feet and let out a strange, strangled cry. Then it stood up again. The whimpering cry turned into a roar. More of a sound of pain and fear than anger. Then it was gone.

“Where’d it go?” Pete looked wildly around as he turned in a circle, gun held tightly in his fist, ready to shot at the first thing that moved.

“I don’t see it no more,” yelled Billy. “Hey, Charlie, you see it?”

The three men stood, weapons drawn, their backs to each other, looking in all directions. Pete took a step and bumped into Charlie. Charlie jumped, and in his nervousness he pulled the trigger of his pistol. The bullet plowed a geyser of dirt between Billy’s feet.

“Watch where yer’re shootin’,” shouted Billy. “Ya almost shot off my foot.”

“Put your guns away, you fools. ‘For you shoot yerselves,” commanded Pete. “That there critter is long gone.” Feeling like a fool, and knowing they all looked like idiots, he put his gun in its holster.

Charlie made three tries before he was able to stab his gun back into his holster. “I hit it. I know I hit it,” he said excitedly.

All three had moved to where the animal had been standing when they saw it. “Oh, lordy, it stinks.” Pete held his nose. “Only a bear smells that bad.”

“Looky at the size of them tracks. That there bear must weigh at least three hundred pounds. They sure are strange lookin’ tracks, ain’t they? Look ‘most human ‘cept fer bein’ so big.”

“Bear tracks always do look like people tracks, ‘most ways, anyway,” agreed Billy. ”Look there. That there is the critter’s blood. I guess ya did shot it, Charlie.”

“I told ya so. I knew I hit it.”

The three cowboys followed the tracks and blood spots for a hundred yards when they disappeared over a large mound of boulders and fallen trees. They took the time to look around them. “Could be hidin’ ‘most anywhere in all that there mess a rock and logs. Could come out wantin’ to fight. It bein’ a wounded an all,” said Charlie. He took a step back.

I ain’t goin’ after no wounded bear,” said Pete. “I didn’t shoot it. I ain’t that stupid.”

“White man very stupid,” said a low voice.

The three cowboys whirled around to see a very old Indian sitting on an equally old sorrel and white paint horse. The horse switched its tail at a fly that buzzed by.

“You, white man, you shot the man-beast. That is bad. Very bad,” said the Indian. He shook his head slowly from side to side. His long silver hair swung gently in an imitation of the paint horse’s tail. The horse dropped its head and nibbled at a clump of grass, while the old man stared at the cowboys as he picked at the ravels on the ancient blanket that was between him and the back of the horse. Two small baskets hung on a leather strap that was sung over the withers of the horse. They held an array of herbs and plants that only Indians seemed to have a use for.

“Man-beast?” questioned Pete.

“Man-beast,” agreed the Indian. “Some white men call it Bigfoot, or Sasquatch. Very bad thing, what you do. Should never harm man-beast.”

The cowboys watched bewildered as the old Indian lifted his reins and the old paint horse walked slowly away.

“Ah, hell, I must still be drunk,” said Billy. “Or this is all a bad dream.”

“Well, I ain’t drunk, but I’m gonna be soon. There’s a couple more bottles in my saddlebags. That is if ‘in I can catch my horse.” Pete started after his bay.

Billy took a moment longer to stare after the departing Indian, then followed after his friends to help catch the horses. What kind of critter had they seen?

*****

Marshal Jack Craddock’s big blaze faced palomino plodded slowly along the narrow trail. His head was down and he barely lifted his hooves, causing only small puffs of dust to rise at each step. The horse was tired. He had come far that day and now that his rider wasn’t pushing him he was going to take it easy, loafing in the hot noonday heat. Craddock sat slack in the saddle, head down, chin on his chest, eyes closed, his body rocking slightly in motion with the palomino. Both rider and horse were covered in trail dust, making the shuttle colors of Craddock’s clothes, hat, boots, saddle and even skin indistinguishable. The man dozed as the horse continued on. Deep in the back of his mind he knew it could be dangerous not to keep a better watch on his surroundings but he was bone tired and his body had been crying out for rest. Now that he was getting fairly close to Bordertown he had decided to relax and take it a little easier, especially in this heat. He would trust to the horse. He knew the animal would warn him of anything unusual.

There didn’t seem to be a breath of air. Nothing seemed to stir, except the horse. Tree branches hung limply, as if they contained no moisture at all Dust from the passing horse rose then drifted slowly down to farther coat the shrubs, and trees growing along the trail. No birds sang. Even the insects were quiet.

Normally it wasn’t this hot in the fall. Not here in the northern part of Montana. It was only a few miles to the Canadian border. Fall was usually cool, with a bit of rain, but not this year. The few scrub oak trees that were trying to turn their autumn colors were only finding a dull, faded brown. Scatterings of wild asters were still showing a bit of purple blossom. Here and there were a wilted ragweed, or a struggling daisy struggled to survive. Even the spruce and pine trees seemed droopy. It seemed that for once the north country really could use a good, refreshing rain.

The trail was barely wide enough for the horse. As it was he occasionally had to push against an overhanging tree branch. At first unnoticed by his rider his head came up slightly and his ears pricked forward. He took a couple of steps to the right, bumping Craddock’s leg against a tree trunk. Instantly the Marshal became alert, tightening his hold on the reins, as his horse began to prance nervously and sidle away from an extremely thick clump of brush.

“Whoa, now, fella. Take it easy. What’s got you spooked?” Jack spoke softly to the gelding and petted it gently along its neck, trying to calm it. “What’s out there, huh?” The Marshal had glanced quickly around. He could see nothing out of the ordinary that might upset the horse, but he had learned a long time ago to trust the instincts of his mount. Something was out there. He let the animal move into a trot and turned it off the trail into the trees. Craddock didn’t stop, but swung the horse so that they were moving back the way they had come.

He saw nothing, but now his own sixth since was awake. He pulled up, using a large pine tree for cover and waited, trying to see deeper into the dark, still forest. He knew he was being watched. He could feel the hair standing up on the back of his neck. He could feel unseen eyes watching him. He eased his Colt 45 from his holster, thumb on the hammer, ready to cock it. Kicking the palomino into a run he jumped it across the trail and started back down the other side. Again staying off of the open trail and in the thick cover of the trees. Slowing to a walk, he kept on, looking all around, but seeing nothing that looked wrong.

Craddock spoke to the horse. “Well, boy, were we imaginin’ things?” He slid his gun back into its holster. He still felt ill at ease. Still felt as if he was being watched. Cutting back toward the trail he didn’t notice the dead tree branch over his head. He bumped it just hard enough to knock his hat off. “Damn,” he muttered. Dismounting, he picked up the old brown Stetson and saw movement out of the corner of his eye. It was just a dark blur. The horse snorted and half reared. By the time Craddock had regained control, there was nothing in sight. He eased over to where he thought he had seen the movement. Nothing. Tying his mount to a nearby bush, he began checking for tracks. The pine needles were thick under the trees. Although the ground looked slightly disturbed there were no distinct marks. He couldn’t tell which direction his subject had gone or exactly what it had been. Horse, wild animal or man. His palomino was still restless, trying to pull away from where it was tied. Craddock returned to it and remounted. As he did he caught a whiff of a strange, foul odor. Shrugging, he decided it had been a wild animal. A wolf or a lion, or more likely a bear considering the smell and size of what he had barely seen. A wild animal would account for the actions of the palomino.

I’m tired and my horse is tired, he thought. We been spooked by nothin’ more than a bear. Best to get on back to Bordertown. He rode on down the trail, and as he was coming to a small meadow, he did see something. A woman was riding slowly along and Craddock could catch the sound of a lovely voice singing in French. Jack forgot how tired he was as he grinned broadly at the sight of Bordertown’s lady doctor, Marie Dumont. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a rotten day after all.

*****

Corporal Clive Bennett paced back and forth between his desk and the open front door of his office. He stood a moment and looked out the door at the main street of Bordertown. Bordertown. He had hated it when he first had come here. It was so different to Toronto, where he had grown up. He had fought his transfer to Bordertown, and then had tried so hard to get a transfer elsewhere, but when it finally came he had turned it down. By then the little country town had captured him. The town and especially the town’s lady doctor.

Now he was watching for her, but all he saw was the normal daytime life of the town. A group of small boys played stickball behind the stable. He saw Willie Haden with them. Several women had stopped on the boardwalk to catch up on the local gossip while doing their shopping. Two elderly men played checkers in front of Liam’s barbershop. Sally Duffield was arranging fall vegetables in a display in front of the general store. There were pumpkins, squash, turnips, ears of corn and wreaths of garlic and onions. She paused to wave at someone the Corporal couldn’t see, possibly the man she had been seeing, Dominic Bartino, the bartender at Zack Denny’s Saloon. The traffic was light on the street, with only a small scattering of horses and wagons, since many people were trying to stay in out of the unseasonable heat.

He wished the heat would break and they would get some rain. It was needed badly. Plus the heat always caused an outbreak of arguments and fistfights among the residents of the small town and the surrounding countryside. Like the one in the saloon last night between a bunch of cowboys. Clive had broken it up and arrested several cowhands that he had turned loose early that morning. He could have certainly used Craddock’s help but the Marshal was off delivering a prisoner to Fort Benton, and probably wouldn’t be back for another day or so. But he should have already been back, thought Bennett. Craddock should have been able to get to the Fort and back in this length of time. Bennett was sure the Marshal was taking his time so he could get out of helping the Mountie take care of the town. Especially at this time of year, when he knew there was always more trouble.

It was almost Halloween.

There had been some broken windows as well as eggs thrown at some of the people in town who weren’t thought of to highly, as well as some of the town officials, including himself. He suspected several of the older boys in the town of over turning some of the outhouses. They had even turned over one with old Mrs. Sanders in it. As the dreaded day came nearer, there would be more and more malicious tricks pulled by children as well as some of the adults.

He hoped that Willie and Lucy weren’t involved in any of the really bad stuff. He remembered last year how Craddock had helped Willie rig a bucket of water to fall on his head when he came out of his quarters one morning. At the sight of the soaking wet Mountie, they had laughed uproariously, and even Marie had thought it was funny.

Clive thought back over the argument he had with Marie earlier. He had planned to ride out to the Edwards farm with Marie this morning. Maude Edwards was having problems with her pregnancy but had refused to come and stay in town until the baby was born. Stubborn woman, he thought. Just before they were to leave a cowhand had ridden up to inform him that Henry Jordan wanted Marshal Craddock to come out to his ranch. Someone had been throwing rocks at his house and scaring the heck out of the horses at night. Jordan wasn’t the kind to take any Halloween tricks lightly, and wanted the Marshal to find out who was doing it and get it stopped.

Jordan’s ranch was in Montana so it was Craddock’s jurisdiction, but Craddock wasn’t here, so Clive decided to talk to the rancher, and see if he could calm the man down. It was probably some of his own cowhands having some fun with their bad-tempered boss.

After asking Marie to stay, and knowing full well she wouldn’t, Clive had ridden out to the Jordan Ranch. Of course he had found nothing at the Jordan ranch to indicate who or what it might have been causing all the fuss.

Asking Marie to wait until he could go with her to the Edward’s farm had resulted in his argument with the lady doctor. Or rather he had argued while Marie had listened, then informed him she would do her job while he did his, or rather while he did Craddock’s job. No ifs, ands, or buts, and she didn’t want to hear anything else about it. When he had returned the stableman Archie Stanton had told him Marie had left minutes after he had. Stubborn woman.

With a last glance up and down the main street of the Bordertown Bennett strode back to his desk. He was undecided what to do. He picked up a book and replaced it. If I go after her, he thought, she’ll be madder yet. But I really feel like I should go. He paced back to the door.

“Mornin’, Corporal,” said Dom, as he suddenly appeared in the door. “Think this hot spell will ever break?”

“I’m sure it will eventually, Dom. It’s just a matter of time.”

“I can’t remember it ever being this hot in October, can you, Corporal? It seems hotter today than yesterday.”

Bennett pulled at the collar of his checked shirt. He had forgone wearing the red Mountie jacket. It was just too hot. He rolled up the sleeves of the shirt. “It certainly is,” he agreed with the bartender. To himself he thought, and it’s not just the weather, either. Where was Marie? What was taking her so long?

*****

Marie continued to sing as she rode along. She was still thinking of the young woman and the baby she had just left. The delivery had been short but a hard one for the new mother and her first child, but both were doing fine. Delivering babies is the best part of my work, she thought. Most of her time was spent setting broken bones, removing bullets, sewing up cuts, and tending to other various scrapes, bruises, bloody noses and black eyes. Anything that cowboys, miners, and loggers managed to come up with. She decided that they tried to find new and unusual ways to injure themselves and have to come to her for doctoring. Some people didn’t want to be doctored by a woman, but it seemed that the men of Bordertown delighted in it.

Her thoughts on her work, Marie let out a small shriek of surprise, pulling up her appaloosa mare when a horse and rider suddenly appeared at her side.

“Howdy, Marie.”

“Oh – Jack! You surprised me.”

“You best be glad I ain’t no criminal or outlaw out to do you harm, Marie. You sure weren’t payin’ no attention to what’s goin’ on around you,” Craddock scolded her. I can’t really fuss at her, he thought. I was ridin’ half asleep a while ago, myself.

“Yes,” said a thoughtful Marie. “I’m sure you are right, Jack, but I was thinking of Maude Edwards and her new baby.”

“That what you’re doin’ out here. She finally had it, huh? Any problems?”

“She had a hard time, but not as bad as I had expected. Maude is small and only sixteen and it was a big baby boy. But both are doing fine.”

“That’s good. Maybe now you’ll quite traipsin’ out here all by your lonesome so often. It could get down right dangerous. Why didn’t Clive or someone come with you?” He didn’t really want the Mountie out riding with the doctor but better him with her, than her being by herself. If he couldn’t do it.

Marie frowned at the Marshal as they urged their horses on down the trail for town. “Do not start on that subject, Marshal Craddock. I have already discussed it with Clive today and do not care to do it with you, also.”

“Discussed what?” He could hear the hidden anger in her voice.

“I will tell you as I did Clive. Many times it is better for me to go to my patents instead of them coming to me. I cannot always wait for you, or Clive, or someone to go with me. The chances of actually running into some ‘criminals or outlaws’ is very rare, I am sure.” She waved her hand slightly as if dismissing someone. “I do not want to hear anymore about it.”

“Now wait just a minute—–.”

“Shut up, Jack, or I will not let you ride with me.”

Craddock raised his right eyebrow and smiled at her. “Yes, Ma’am,” he agreed. He knew when he had lost a battle of words with Marie. I’ll talk to Bennett about this first chance I get, he thought. Right now I’ll just keep my mouth shut so’s I can ride along with her and make sure she’s all right.

They rode in silence for several minutes with the sun beating down on them. Marie knew Jack had given in to easily. She was sure he would have more to say. She attempted to change his thoughts to something besides her riding alone. “Did you get your prisoner to the Marshal at Fort Benton? How was the big city?”

“Big city!” he snorted at the thought. “Too big and too far away from Bordertown. I was glad to get there and leave.”

“This heat certainly has everyone’s nerves on edge. You seem to handle it a little better than most people are.”

“Well, it seemed nice at first. After all the rain there usually is here. It’s been a lot more like what I was used to in Texas and other places I been. But now even I’m beginnin’ to miss the rain a little.”

“Umm. Is there dust like this in Texas?”

“Worse, in most parts. There everyone gets used to the heat and dust the way people here are used to rain, fog, and mud.”

“I thought I saw some lightning to the north earlier.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Craddock took off his hat and wiped the sweat out with a bandana he had stuffed in his hip pocket. “Just heat lightnin’ most likely. Doubt if we’ll get any rain today.” He looked up at the blue sky. “Not a sign of a cloud.”

Marie smiled. She knew she hadn’t heard the last about riding alone but for now Jack seemed content to recant dry spells, droughts, and sandstorms he remembered or had heard of from someone else.

“I remember one time when —–,” Craddock’s story was forgotten as two riders came into sight on the trail ahead. As the horses closed the distance between them, the two cowboys called out a slurred greeting. “We-ll, now. Hel-lo, there.”

“Howdy,” said the Marshal warily. He wasn’t in the mood to have to deal with a couple of troublesome drunks.

“Gentlemen,” said Marie. She, too, had realized the two men were quite drunk.

“Say, mister,” said one rider, “you best watch out. We see’d one a them man-beast things a ways back yonder.”

“Naw, I keep tellin’ ya it was a bear,” said the other cowboy.

Craddock gave a half laugh and relaxed slightly. “What you boys been drinkin’ anyway. Home made moonshine?”

A man-beast?” questioned Marie.

“Yeah, that’s what the old Injin called it. Man-beast, Bigfoot, Sasquatch.”

“All right, fellas. We’ve all heard the Bigfoot stories. You boys head on to wherever you’re headed, and me and Dr. Dumont will do the same.” Craddock nudged his horse against Marie’s, starting to ride around the pair.

“Hold it, Mister,” came a voice from behind them. “Put your hands up. You too, lady.” The two riders quickly pulled their guns and pointed them at Jack and Marie.

Looking behind him and seeing another cowboy, on foot, pointing a gun at himself and Marie, Craddock sighed in frustration at letting the man get behind him, then he raised his left hand shoulder high, while he continued to hold his reins in his right hand. Damn, he thought. He knew he should have been watching better instead of trying to impress Marie. “You sure you want to do this?” he asked. The palomino had turned sideways in the trail and knowing he would respond to the slightest pressure the Marshal used his knees and heels to keep the horse slowly moving against Marie’s mare.

“Jack?” whispered Marie, a catch in her voice.

“It’s all right, Marie.”

“A Marshal! Pete, what did you go and stop a Marshal fer?” Billy, who had been the one on foot behind Craddock had just seen his badge and recognized him.

“That’s right, son. You sure you ain’t doin’ somethin’ you might regret later on?” Craddock tried to get control of the situation, but continued to ease the horses farther from the half-drunk cowboys.

“Keep them hosses still,” commanded Pete. “What we gonna do now, Billy? Him bein’ a Marshal and all.”

“It don’t matter who they are,” said Charlie to his friends. To Craddock he said, “We just want your horses. Or at least just one of ‘em. We lost one a ours when the bear spooked ‘em. We’ll just take your’n and leave the lady hers.”

Marie realized the Marshal was keeping himself between her and the would-be horse thieves. She knew, as did Jack, that these men probably wouldn’t be doing this if they hadn’t been drinking. She spoke up. “This is not the proper way to get a horse. Do you realize that if you steal the Marshal’s horse, you could be hung?”

“Hush, Marie,” hissed Craddock, he had dropped his reins around his saddlehorn and was inching his right hand toward his gun.

“Don’t reach fer that there gun, Marshal,” warned Pete. “Billy, get his gun.”

Billy took a couple of steps toward the Marshal and Marie to do as Pete had said, but he wasn’t looking where he was putting his feet. There was several dried up pinecones in the road. He stumbled over one of them.

No way I’m gonna let some drunks get my gun or my horse, thought the Marshal. When Billy stumbled Craddock saw his chance and kicked his horse hard. The startled palomino jumped straight at Billy, knocking him to the ground.

“Ride! Marie!” Craddock pulled his mount around and slapped the rump of the doctors’ horse. Pulling his gun, Jack put two quick shots into the ground between Pete and Charlie’s horses. It didn’t take much to upset the two horses that were still spooked from their experience with the ‘bear’. They both started bucking.

“Get goin’!” yelled Craddock at Marie as he fired a couple more shots into the ground near Billy and the bucking broncos. He really didn’t want to have to kill these men, if he didn’t have to. He wheeled his palomino and headed after Marie who had spurred her horse into a gallop through a gap in the trees. As the Marshal and doctor disappeared into the forest, Charlie emptied his gun toward where he had seen them last.

“You’re just wastin’ your ammunition. Again,” yelled Pete. He sat on the ground where his horse had thrown him. He picked up his hat and then threw it on the ground in disgust. “Well, let’s go catch them hosses. Again.”

Billy looked at Charlie and Pete sitting on the ground. “A Marshal! You just had to pick a Marshal.”

*****

The appaloosa and the palomino raced through the trees and brush, their riders dodging and ducking most of the tree branches, but being whipped and scratched by some of the smaller ones. “Pull up, Marie.” Craddock called out to his friend and gradually the horses slowed. “Doubt if they’ll follow. At least not ‘til they catch their horses.”

Marie stopped her horse and glared at the Marshal. “Why did you not arrest them?” She pronounced each word slowly and with anger.

Craddock could see that Marie was upset but that just made him mad at her. Ungrateful woman, he thought as he reloaded his gun. “I wanted to get you safe first, Marie. There was three of them and only one of me.”

“Two of us,” she quickly corrected him. “You and I. Do I not count for anything? Not just you, but the two of us.” Her voice had risen slightly.

“Yeah, you do count,” said Jack, ducking his head, knowing he had said his words wrong. He tried again. “That’s why I wanted to get you safe. I really don’t want you getting hurt.”

Jack’s words emphasized the fact that Marie was becoming acutely aware of a sharp stinging pain in the calf of her right leg. Her sock and boot felt wet and sticky. Marie was perfectly able to dress as the cultured, French lady but was also able to consider the weather, the country and her pioneer spirit and change her style of clothing accordingly. That morning she had not worn a dress, petticoats, and long stockings. Sticking to all lightweight cotton material, do to the heat, she had a white shirt, and a navy blue divided riding skirt over a lightweight camisole and bloomers, finishing with a small pair of men’ socks and boots. Thankfully she hadn’t lost her small felt hat in the wild ride. Still sitting on her horse she pulled up the edge of her skirt and examined her leg. Just below her knee was a rip in the top of her sock and blood was pouring out of it. She hissed through her teeth as she pushed down the sock revealing the gash in her leg.

“What’s wrong?” asked Jack pulling his horse around so he could see what Marie was doing. He sucked in his breath at the sight of the bright red blood running down Marie’s lithe, trim leg, to puddle in her boot. “Marie! You get hit? Why didn’t you say so? Here.” He handed her the kerchief he had stuffed into his pocket earlier.

Marie reached for her medical bag hanging off of her saddlehorn. “Thank you, but I have bandages in here. It is not that bad. It only grazed my leg.” She was trying to reassure herself as well as the Marshal, as she folded a square of gauze bandage then tied it securely in place.

“You sure you’re all right, Marie?” asked Jack.

“Yes, it will be fine until we can get back to Bordertown where I can clean and bandage it properly.” Marie looked around at the surrounding forest. Suddenly she felt confused and unsure. Bushes, tall ferns, and fallen trees hid the ground. The sky that she could see through the interwoven canopy of dusky green trees was now covered by dark clouds making it even darker in the thick, heavy forest. She looked in consternation to her friend. “We are off the main trail, are we not? Which way do we go? Which way is Bordertown?”

Craddock reached out and caught her hand. “Yeah, we did come off the road a ways. Maybe a couple of miles.” He looked around trying to get his bearings. “We’ll take a different way back to town. I ain’t too anxious to meet up with them boys again if we can avoid them.” He glanced around again and then led off at a walk. “This way.” I hope, he muttered under his breath low enough that Marie couldn’t hear. He wasn’t really lost, just a little unsure of his directions. He grabbed his hat as a sudden gust of wind nearly blew it off. The clouds grew darker as they rode on.

*****

Clive Bennett walked back to the door and reached for his gray hat, slamming it onto his head as he went out, shutting the door behind him. He had come to a decision. He was going after Marie. No. He stopped in mid-stride and refused to reach for the reins of his bay horse tied to the rail in front of his office. Instead he changed directions. It was only a little after noon. No need to worry yet. He would go have a bite to eat at Zack Denny’s Salon. Then if she wasn’t back he would go after her.

Why didn’t anything ever go as it should? He had always wanted everything to be neat, precise and orderly, but it never was. He was stuck in this little one-horse town. Stuck in this go-no-where position as a Mountie. Stuck here sharing an office with a U.S. Marshal. All because he cared so much for Marie Dumont. Did he dare to admit that it was more than just caring for her as a friend? Did he dare to admit that he was in love with her?

And where was Craddock. He considered his friend for a moment. Yes, he had to admit that they were friend. But why? Jack could make him mad faster than anyone he could think of. He was never where he was supposed to be, and his half of the office was always cluttered to the point that nothing could be found in it.

Craddock was sloppy, unshaven, unethical, and could be cruel and brutal at times. But the Marshal was also dauntless, cool under fire, and could always be counted on to back up a friend.

Clive knew he would have never survived this frontier post if it hadn’t been for the Texan who had wandered north and somehow became a U.S. Deputy Marshal for the Territory of Montana. The Mountie knew that the Marshal should be back any time or might yet be a few days. And that he was more than able to take care of himself if he did run into trouble. Clive figured that if the truth be known Jack was probably fishing in some halfway cool spot he had found. Jack should have been back by now, but he wouldn’t start worrying about him yet.

But he found himself still worrying about Marie. She should be back anytime, also. They were both always telling him he worried too much. He paused a moment before entering the saloon. He couldn’t decide who was more stubborn, Craddock, or Marie.

“Afternoon, Corporal,” said Zack Denny as Bennett walked up to the bar. “What can I get for you?” he asked as he dried a beer mug and set it on a shelf.

“Just a cup of coffee and whatever you’ve got that’s easy to fix.”

“Got some cold roast and bread. Well, not to cold. But it’s still fairly fresh. I’m havin’ trouble with food spoilin’ and all the beer’s warm. Nobody wants hot food.”

“A sandwich will be fine, Zack.”

Zack was gone a few minutes, then returned to set a plate before the Mountie with a thick sandwich on it. He poured a cup of coffee for both of them. “Looks like Bordertown might have to find another Marshal if Craddock don’t show up again soon, don’t it?” joked the saloon owner.

Bennett agreed but wasn’t going to let Zack know. “Uh huh, but it hasn’t been that long, and Jack will return the favor the next time I have to go to Fort McCloud.”

“I suppose so. I was thinkin’ ‘bout them three cowboys that pulled out this mornin’. They were still drinkin’ and lookin’ fer trouble. One of them bought a couple more bottles of whiskey right before they left. ”

“Maybe they’ll sober up and drift on.”

“Now if it was to rain. No one causes trouble when it rains. Or, at least, not as much.” Zack turned back to washing and drying the beer and whiskey glasses.

A few minutes later the Mountie walked out of the saloon to find the hot, sunny day was now windy and cloudy with a few drops of rain already spitting into the dust of the dry main street of the small town.

*****

The horses pushed steadily on and so did the wind. The first red, brown, and yellow leaves of fall whirled and swirled as the wind pulled them from the trees and threw them into the air. Many flitted and spun along the ground, playing around the legs of the horses. When they could fight their way free of the wind the fallen leaves would come to rest wherever they could. On the ground, in the bushes and shrubs, in amongst the rocks and boulders, and nesting in clumps of ferns. First it was only breezy, and then it quickly changed to strong gusts. The wind whispered through the trees. It moaned and whistled. Then it became a constant, force, then a savage gale. Now it screamed and howled, and Craddock could barely hear Marie when she called out to him.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“I said,” she yelled. “I think it may decide to rain and break this heat spell.”

At that instant the gloomy woodland was lit for a flashing second, followed by the crashing boom of thunder. Marie’s mare neighed shrilly. Her steady hand o the reins and Craddock’s quick grab to her bridle kept the horse from bolting. Jack’s palomino danced nervously. Neither horse wanted to be out in a lightning storm any more than Jack or Marie.

The sky was now so dark that it seemed like sunset instead of the sunny afternoon it had been so recently. As fierce as the wind had been it was now worse, and with it came the first big, fat, drops of rain. One struck Marie in the face and she swiped absently at it.

“We need the rain but a nice soft shower would have been preferable to a storm,” commented Marie.

Craddock reached behind his saddle and untied the well warn, yellow slicker he always carried, regardless of the weather. He handed it to Marie. “You sure ain’t wrong there, Marie. Put this on. It looks like we’re in fer a good hard drenchin’.”

“But you will get soaked,” she protested.

“Won’t be the first time.” He looked around and seemed deep in thought for a moment. “Look, – ah, – Marie. We can head on for town, which is ‘bout ten miles or so. Or there’s a old shack ‘bout a mile from here, where we can wait this out.”

Marie thought a moment. She should have been back to town by now. Clive would be wondering where she was. She should check on things at the store. Sally might need help, and she might have patients to see. She looked at the Marshal. He was waiting for her answer. “I think – -,” she started.

The Marshal was getting that itchy feeling again. He wanted to get moving, whichever way Marie decided on. “Make up your mind, Marie? Town or the cabin?” he broke in. The raindrops became closer together, spitting on them. The horses shook their heads restlessly, rattling their bridle bits. “It ain’t much but that shack’s relatively dry.”

“I think –,” she began again, and then hesitated. “Shall we find this cabin?”

“This way.” Craddock led out quickly. He wanted to get out of the area.

“Jack! What’s that?” Marie pointed off to the side where the trees and brush were thickest.

Craddock looked where Marie indicated. “Where?” Vaguely he could see a black form through the rain and blowing tree branches. Almost as soon as he saw it, it was gone, and he was unable to determine exactly what it had been, or where it had gone.

“Did you see it? What was it?” Marie asked again. She was suddenly very scared.

“I ain’t real sure. Might a been a bear. Standin’ on its hind legs. They do that sometimes.

I seen a bear earlier today.” Jack placed his hand on her shoulder to reassure her. What was that thing, he wondered? It really didn’t look like any bear he had ever seen. He was frightened to, but he didn’t want her to know he was.

“Come on. Let’s find that shack and light a fire. I think that might be best for now.” They kicked the horses to a fast trot as the rain pummeled them harder.

*****

Fatigued, exhausted and aching Marie nearly fell when she dismounted from her mare. She grabbed the stirrup leather for support just as Craddock’s arms came around her to keep her from falling. The sudden movement caused a tiny, but very cold, stream of rain water to pour down the back of her hat, to her neck, and down under the slicker Jack had given her. It trickled under her shirt, down her spine, and formed a puddle at her waist, caught there by her belt. It caused chills to spread throughout her body.

“You all right?”

She had been able to ignore the pain from the bullet wound up till now, but the throbbing was becoming intense. “My leg is stiff and hurts like hell.” She didn’t even realize she had used the cuss word. Mentally she told her stomach to settle down. She didn’t want to throw up in front of her friend.

Craddock laughed, “Now you know how it feels.” He hated that she had been hurt, wishing it had been himself instead. He pulled her tight to him for a second in a big hug while she took a few deep breaths. “Can you walk, or do you need my help?”

She nodded. “I can walk.”

“Then go on in. I’ll put the horses in the lean-to on the side.” He handed her the large medical bag.

“This does not look like much more than a lean-to,” she stammered.

“Told you it weren’t much.” The Marshal led the horses around the corner of the shack.

Hesitantly Marie reached for the door latch and pushed it open. She couldn’t see very far into the dark room. Taking a deep breath she limped through the doorway. She had only gone about five feet when an unearthly, ear-piercing shriek filled the air. Marie had always been proud of the fact she could keep calm and composed under the most trying of conditions but this was more than she could handle, and she added her own screams to that of whatever revolting creature might be in the cabin with her.

Afterwards Jack could never remember returning to the cabin door, just hearing the screams and holding Marie, gun in hand, looking for what ever it was, so he could shoot it.

Marie shook from head to toe, her face buried in the Marshal’s shoulder, her arms tightly wrapped around his waist, heart beating so fast and loud, she was sure he could hear it. Or maybe it was his heart she was hearing that was beating so loudly.

“Tommy!” exclaimed Craddock, and then dropped his arm to let his gun hang at his side. He had seen what had started the commotion by its horrible screeching. “Marie, it’s all right. It’s just Tommy.” The creature continued to growl, hiss and spit but now Marie recognized the sound of a very scared cat. She peeked at the animal, identifying it as a very large, yellow striped tomcat. He was standing on the remains of an old table, back arched, hair standing on end to try and make himself larger.

“Whoa now, Tommy. Settle down, partner.” Jack tried to calm the frightened cat, then the scared woman. “Marie, I really don’t mind holdin’ you like this ‘cept if’n you keep squeezin’ me this way, you’re gonna have to doctor some broken ribs.”

Marie eased her grip slightly at the joking tone in Jack’s voice. “Oh. I am sorry –.” She looked up at him sheepishly, as she realized just how tight she had been holding on to him. Her face turned pink with embarrassment and she looked away so he wouldn’t see.

Jack grinned at her sensing her unease and embarrassment while he explained about Tommy, the cat. “This was John Burke’s place. Did you know him? He was an old mountain man. I found him up here dead ‘bout a year or so ago. Don’t know what he died from, ‘less it was just old age. He didn’t leave much ‘sides this cabin and Tommy, there. I tried to get him to follow me to town once but he wouldn’t do it. Guess he’s able to take care of hisself here. He must catch enough mice to survive.”

“Yes, I would guess so. Plus he could scare someone to death with that noise if he had to. He certainly tried to with me.” Marie had released the Marshal and was looking at the cat. “What do we do with him?” The cat was large, even for a domestic animal. He had numerous battle scars including a torn ear, and looked to be blind in one eye. As Jack approached closer to him he hissed loudly, jumped off the table and slowly stalked across the floor and through a slightly open door leading to the lean-to where the horses were. It seemed as if he maybe recognized Jack from his infrequent visits to the cabin and knew he wasn’t in any danger now.

“I think if we leave him alone, he will leave us alone.” Searching through his pockets for a match then picking up a coal-oil lamp sitting on the floor near the fireplace, Jack struck a match and held it to the wick.

“Does someone still live here?” asked Marie, as she looked around the small room. Besides the three-legged table, the lamp and the fireplace there was a woodbox and a wooden crate with some things in it. It wasn’t much, but the rain that had become a violent storm made it look nice and cozy.

The woodbox was full and it didn’t take long to get a fire roaring in the small stone fireplace. Its heat soon enveloped the room while the storm raged outside. Occasionally lightning flashed and thunder rumbled and the rain soaked into the parched earth, dripping in rivulets off each leaf, pine needle and twig. Nothing was spared, as the drought was broken.

Jack had seen to the horses and brought in his bedroll and saddlebags. He put on coffee to boil in his old, dented coffee pot. Just the rich odor of the coffee made everything seem better, as the tried, wet man and woman tried to relax. Even Tommy had returned to a corner of the cabin. The strangers and warm fire preferable to the storm outside.

Jack got up from where he had been sitting in front of the fire trying to dry out. He had removed his shirt and boots but had refused to take off his pants and longjohn underwear, and wrapped up in a blanket while they dried, much to Marie’s amusement. Thanks to the Marshal’s slicker she had stayed fairly dry. Searching through the wooden crate Jack pulled out several tins of food. “You hungry?” he asked, as he used his knife to open a can.

Now that food was mentioned, Marie’s stomach began to growl and tighten with hunger. “Yes, I guess I am.” Then came another more urgent need. She didn’t know what to do or say about it. This man had been her friend for several years but talking of this kind of personal need had never risen between them. The idea of having to go out in the rain to relieve herself didn’t sound enjoyable. She shivered at the thought, but what other choice did she have. Now she understood Jacks’ embarrassment about taking off his clothes to dry, even with a blanket to wrap up in.

“Jack. I – – – I – – -.”

“What?” He was busy setting the cans of beans close to the fire to heat, and rescuing an old plate and some spoons from the box. When she didn’t say anything he looked up at her. “What’s the matter, Marie?”

Her words tumbled out in a rush. “As you men always say when you think there are no women around, I have to – to – to take a – a – leak -,” she ended in a squeaky whisper.

He turned away so she wouldn’t see the smile he couldn’t hold in. She had been through a lot today and he didn’t want to embarrass her farther. “You can go out in the lean-to. The horses won’t mind. And it ain’t rainin’ in there. Not bad, anyway.”

Marie knew Jack was trying not to laugh at her discomfort and maybe because she knew, she couldn’t help but laugh at him and herself. When she did, then he laughed out loud with her, and gave her that shy grin and twinkling of his brown eyes the she loved so much.

“Here,” he said as he handed her the lamp.

Momentarily forgetting the wound in her leg, she groaned as she put her weight on it to get up. She took the lamp, and then limped out past the cat into the dark of the lean-to. She didn’t see the frown appear on Jack’s face.

Hope she’s all right, he thought. He reached for a large pan on the table. “I’ll put some water on to heat so’s you can doctor that scratch on yer leg,” he called to her through the board wall.

*****

Sitting in front of the small stone fireplace, Marie removed her boot, makeshift bandage, and blood-soaked sock. She dipped a clean rag into the pan of warm water and gingerly cleaned the bullet wound on her leg. It really wasn’t all that bad but was becoming very stiff and painful. Her stomach did a flip-flop, and her face twisted in a grimace as she worked. She groaned slightly as the wound flamed anew at being cleaned.

“Here, let me help.” Jack was at her side, taking the rag. He tried to be gentle as he finished cleaning her leg, dabbed some iodine on it and wrapped a new bandage around her leg. His face was expressionless but Marie noticed the slight shake of his hands as he worked. “Better?” he asked as he sat back and watched her put things back in her medical bag. He was trying not to let his emotions show. He was trying his best to be the hard, tough, lawman everyone thought him to be, while inside his feelings were jumping like a buckin’ bronc as he thought of what it had been like to hold Marie’s small leg and take care of the injury. Emotions that he always tried to keep bottled up, to hide, to forget. He was a man and she was a woman and he cared very much for her, but knew she was still trying to let time heal the memory of her late husband. And of course there was the Mountie. Jack knew Clive had feelings for Marie that were just as strong as his own.

Sensing the sudden tension between herself and the lawman, and pushing away the need to feel his strong arms around her, she stuttered slightly as she spoke. “You do not have to say ‘I told you so’. I agree with you completely this time.”

Jack’s forehead wrinkled in puzzlement as he tried to figure out what she meant. Was she a witch now to read his thoughts or was it one of those times when she was thinking in French, speaking in English and he couldn’t make hide nor hair of what she was getting at. “What do you mean?”

“You always say you hurt worse after a wound is doctored than before. This time I agree. Now I know what you have always been talking about.”

Again she had a glimpse of twinkling eyes as he quickly got up and poured two steaming cups of black coffee. “You’re right it does and I will say ‘I told you so’, because I have. But some hot coffee and some food and a little rest will make it all better.”

The rain continued to hammer down on the small cabin as the lawman and lady doctor shared the beans and then a can of peaches in silence. Small leaks began to find their way through the old roof that was made up of both shingles and sod. The back of the shack had been built against the side of a hill to help provide warmth in the cold mountain winters. It wasn’t a true dugout, as logs made up three sides, but the roof had been sodded over at one time. Now it wanted to leak as the rain soaked into the sod.

Tommy, the cat, jumped and hissed in surprise as drops of water suddenly landed on his head, causing Jack and Marie to laugh at his antics. They could tell that the helping of beans they gave him really hadn’t been to his liking, but a small handful of jerky disappeared in a hurry.

Jack checked on the horses, finding them slightly wet but safe and on his return found Marie seated on the floor, leaning against her saddle and dozing by the fire. He wanted to stroke the long blond hair that had come loose and now hung down her back and curled around her face. Instead he tucked a blanket around her, then drew another around his own shoulders. He removed his gunbelt but kept it close to his side. He pulled the Colt 45 from its holster and carefully wiped off all sign of moisture with a rag. He finished by removing the cartridges and replacing them with fresh ones that had hopefully not been exposed to so much of the rain. As he worked he contemplated their situation and wondered how long the downpour would last. He knew Clive would be worrying about them. He always did. Well everyone would just have to make the best of it. If he had been alone he might have gone on to Bordertown but he wasn’t about to drag Marie back out into the storm. He leaned against the rough board wall and slept.

Tommy crept closer and closer, edging nearer to the fire and the people. He eased onto a corner of Marie’s blanket and began purring as the heat soaked into him. He washed one white foot. Soon the cat slept, too.

*****

The sudden drought-ending rainstorm moved across the mountains and valleys, streams and woodlands, drenching everything in its path, including the small community of Bordertown, driving the residents into their homes and business. Corporal Bennett sat at his desk and tried to concentrate on the paperwork he was trying to do. A fire crackled in the potbellied stove, and a pot of tea simmered on it. A single lamp on the Mountie’s desk threw strange shadows around the office that was split in half by a red painted line that marked the two countries, and shared by the two lawmen.

Bennett tapped a pencil on the edge of the desk as he watched lightning flashes try to chase the shadows. His mind raced with thoughts of the town’s doctor, Marie Dumont. Should he be concerned that she hadn’t returned yet? No, the logical part of his mind told him. Surely she had stayed at the Edwards farm or some other homestead. But what if she had been caught out in the storm, the worried part of his brain demanded to know. Logically he considered what she would do. She knew how to find shelter or if really lost how to give her horse its head, so it could come home. He was sure it wouldn’t be the first time she had been out in the rain.

He paced the floor. It would do her good to get wet, he thought. Maybe it would teach her not to ride out alone. Finally he made up his mind. He buckled on his gunbelt, flung on a long, black slicker, followed by his hat. He grabbed his rifle and was reaching for his saddlebags when the door to the office burst open.

“Where’s Craddock? Isn’t he back yet?” demanded Zack Denney.

“What’s wrong, now?” asked the Corporal even as he heard the rain-deadened sound of gunfire. “What’s going on?”

“Corporal, there’s a fight at the saloon. It started as a fist fight, but now I hear shootin’. They’re shootin’ up my saloon. Come on.” The Mountie was out the door, running for the saloon before Zack had finished speaking. He hoped it was just some men letting off steam as they did shoot up the saloon, and not shooting each other.

*****

The Marshal and Marie Dumont were on their feet before they were fully aware that the thunderstorm had moved on and the new noise was the door to the shack being severely shaken and rattled. “What’s happening?” gasped Marie.

“Who’s out there?” yelled Craddock at the door’s unseen assailant. He didn’t get an answer except for a harder onslaught of banging on the wooden door and cabin walls. Both the lawman and the doctor worried if the warn leather hinges on the barred boor would hold. Both were doubly glad that they had put the heavy wooden bar across the door before they had gone to sleep.

“Whoever you are, you best sing out or I’ll start shootin’,” shouted the Marshal. Over the din they could now hear an ominous growling interspaced by a strange yowling sound. “Somehow, Marie, I don’t think that’s another housecat,” said Jack.

Marie stood behind Jack and clutched her arms around herself. “No, I do not think it is a cat,” she agreed. She looked around for a weapon and picked up a piece of firewood. “Nor do I think it is human.” Faintly Marie was aware that Tommy was pressed tightly against her legs, his fur on end, back arched, he stood on his toes and growled back at the unknown enemy. Now he was depending on his new friends to help him.

Over the din Craddock heard the frightened neighing of their horses. Even as he reached the side door leading to the lean-to where the horses were, he knew he was too late. The horses, more scared of the intruder than the night and storm, had broken loose. They had knocked down one wall of the flimsy shelter and were gone into the dark. As the Marshal stared after them something blacker than the night moved into his vision at the edge of the pile of fallen poles that had been the wall of the horse shelter.

It was taller than Jack’s six feet and a whole lot bigger and heavier. What the hell was it, he wondered. He fired a quick shot, seeing splinters fly near the creature’s head, and it dropped to all fours as Jack ducked back inside the shack. He nearly jumped back outside when Marie grabbed his arm.

“Did you see anything? Did you shoot it? Is it dead? What did you shoot?”

“Grizzly!” He had thought it was a grizzly. He even hoped it was. But it sure had been a strange looking bear. “No, I didn’t hit it. Or I don’ think I did. Most likely the same bear we saw earlier. It did scare off the horses, though.”

“Oh, no. Are we stuck here?”

“Yeah. I guess we are for now, at least. Don’t worry, Marie. If‘n it breaks in, I’ll shoot it for you.” He was trying to make a joke out of their danger.

Marie realized what he was trying to do. “Now, Jack, why should I worry when I know you will protect me. Just as you have already done so tonight. Have you not already protected me from inebriated cowboys and thunderstorms while we have been on our big adventure?” She tried to laugh at this even more frightening situation, but it came out more as a panicky titter.

“Sure I did, Marie. I did a real good job of it, too. I’ll always be here to protect you,” said Jack sarcastically. “First you got shot and then we got stuck here in the storm and now a crazy bear is out there. And the horses ran off. Yeah. I’m doin’ a really terrific job of protectin’ you.”

Marie realized Jack was upset with himself for letting them get into such a fix. She tried to reassure him. “Maybe you scared it off.”

Another loud bellowing roar was heard from the attacker and it began hitting the walls and the door again. The door creaked and groaned under the strain. One board cracked but the heavy crossbar held. Jack picked up a long peace of firewood and used it to help secure the door. The animal lunged and hit the door another hard blow, but it continued to hold. As Jack started to examine the one small, boarded over window one of the boards on it flew off and a large black paw came through slapping across the Marshal’s back. With a sickening sound of ripping cloth, his shirt were shredded. He rolled to the floor, throwing two shots through the hole made by the broken board.

Then all was still and quiet.

“Are you hurt?” asked Marie in a loud whisper. She tried to see what damage the Marshal had other than a torn shirt.

He pushed her away from the window towards the back of the shack. “Don’t think I’m bleedin’, Marie. Just bruised.” They both knew he had been very lucky. He tried to repair the window, but without much success.

Marie pulled her blanket tightly about her and stood near the fire as Jack added more wood to it. He built up a roaring fire that eased some of their fright, as both knew most wild animals were afraid of fire. Tommy came out from his hiding spot behind the box of supplies and began to wash his fur, as he tried to pretend nothing had happened.

They stood and listened to the quiet of the night but could hear nothing unusual. In fact, it seemed as if it was to quiet. After the rain they should have been hearing crickets, and maybe an owl, or a coyote. Tommy began his low voiced growling just as Marie and Jack became aware of soft thuds from the roof as if someone, or something, was up there walking around. As they looked up wandering what to do a trickle of dirt came down near the lean-to door.

“It is on the roof,” stated Marie.

“Yep. It sure is. Must a climbed that hill back a here and come onto the roof that way. It’s heavy sod. It should hold.” He wanted desperately to believe it would.

They followed the progress of the beast with their eyes on the ceiling of the shack. The soft thudding was interrupted with an occasional hard thumping as if the animal were jumping up and down and there were some snuffling and woofing sounds,

“Remember them drunken cowhands said something ‘bout seein’ a Sasquatch?” whispered Jack to Marie.

“You do not think there really are such things, do you, Jack?”

Jack shook his head. “I can’t say for sure. I ain’t never see’d one. But what if them boys shot at a big bear and injured it? I do know a wounded bear can be mighty mean and will go after ‘bout anyone or anything that gets in its way.”

The Marshal picked up his Winchester rifle and jacked a shell into the chamber. ‘Keep this handy,” he said as he gave the rifle to Marie. He and Clive Bennett had made sure that Marie, and any other woman that cared to lean, knew the proper way to use a pistol or a rifle. He knew Marie wasn’t afraid to use a gun, if and when it was necessary.

The lawman pulled another pistol out of his saddlebags. He loaded it and slid it behind his belt next to the Colt already in his holster. He wanted to be prepared for whatever was to come.

An exhausted Marie sank to the floor near the fire and massaged her injured leg. “I think I know a little how that bear feels. I would not mind a little revenge against those men.”

“Yeah, me, too. If I get a chance, I’ll arrest them yet.”

There was no more noise from on the roof. There was only the peaceful chirping of a cricket. An owl hooted softly from a distant tree. The ragged tomcat was again crouched by Marie, his one green eye glowing in the flickering of the firelight. Slowly she reached out a hand and lightly petted the cat. It flinched, but then began purring. Its eyes closed with the pleasure of the human contact. Maybe it remembered being petted in the long distant past.

Speaking softly, Marie talked to the cat. “So, you are not as wild as you would have me think, are you? I think you do like to be petted.” She was tired. So very tired. So much had happened during the day and now during the night. She jerked back awake realizing she had been dozing.

Jack spoke from near by. “Get some sleep, Marie. I’ll keep watch.”

“Wake me in a few hours, Jack. So that I can do my share of the watching. You need some rest, also.”

“Sure, Marie. I’ll wake you in a bit,” said Craddock, knowing full well he wouldn’t. And knowing that there was no way he would go to sleep even if she did waken again. He wouldn’t sleep until they were safe at home in Bordertown.

A coyote howled in the distance, and unheard by the man and woman, another animal cried softly, as if in pain, as it wondered through the forest in search of its home.

*****

From the ridge the old Indian and his old paint horse watched the three, wet bedraggled cowhands. Two walked and one rode a bay horse. They had managed to find a tight thicket against a rock ledge to wait out the storm of the previous night. Now they were even wetter from walking through the rain drenched foliage of the forest. Nothing was dry.

The sky was still a deep, dark gray, and everything seemed vaguely unreal as a heavy fog swirled and played in and out among the trees. The three men stopped and stared as a rider emerged out of the mist. He led two riderless horses. A palomino and an appaloosa.

“Another lawman,” muttered Pete as he spotted the red coat of the Mountie under the man’s rain slicker.

“Morning,” Bennett greeted the men, his hand on his pistol as he watched the men before him. “Loose your horses?”

“Yep,” answered Charlie sullenly. “Between the storm an’ a bear, we ain’t had nothin’ but bad luck.”

Always trying to see the bright side, Billy said, “Not til now, anyways. Mountie, you got them extra horses. Could we borrow them to go find ours with, Mountie?”

“Sorry, but you can’t borrow them.” Bennett had no qualms at telling the men they couldn’t have the loan of the horses. He had ridden out before first light with a hunch that something was wrong. He was sure of it when he found Jack and Marie’s horses together grazing in a meadow a few miles from town. “Have you seen anyone else? Say a man and a woman. Also on foot? These are their horses.”

“Nope, can’t say as we have,” said Pete, his hand drifting slowly toward his gun. He wanted the horses, but then he realized that the Corporal’s pistol was already out of its holster, even if not pointed directly at him. He gave up the notion of trying to take the horses from the Mountie. He didn’t want them bad enough to die for them.

”I think you men had better move on your way,” suggested Bennett. He watched until the men were out of sight. Turning to ride on he was surprised to see an ancient Indian watching him. As the Mountie waited respectfully for the old man to speak, he admired the intricate beadwork decorating the soft deerskin shirt, a single eagle feather dangled from his white hair. Bennett was sure this was a much-respected shaman that he had heard of but never met. The Indian’s only weapons consisted of a bow and a few arrows, plus a good Bowie knife in a sheath on his belt. The pinto pony also had an eagle feather in his mane, a yellow handprint on his right shoulder and a red zigzag streak on his left flank. He had been a war pony at one time.

The Indian pointed to the east with his chin. “The man and woman you seek are that way. They took shelter at white man Burke’s home.”

“I know of Burke and his cabin,” said Bennett. It was one of the places he had planned to check if he had not found Craddock or Marie along the road.

The Indian continued, “They are safe now, but will have need of their horses.” As he turned the pinto pony and rode off Bennett thought he heard the shaman say something about having to go on a journey to find the man-beast and help it find a new home. As he watched the shaman and the old horse disappeared through the trees into the fog. He wondered if they had been real or a figment of his imagination.

*****

Clive Bennett had not been surprised to find Marie’s and Craddock’s horses together that morning. He had had a feeling that they might have joined up together sometime the day before. But he was worried about them, even though the Indian shaman had said that they were safe now. What did ‘safe now’ mean? Had they been in danger earlier? Danger from what? From the storm. From the Indian or the three men he had just seen, whom he knew had been drunk and ready to hunt trouble when they had left town yesterday morning. What danger?

He urged the horses to a trot and headed for the old Burke cabin. He, too, along with Craddock and a few other mountain men and occasional cowmen or loggers used the homestead as a stopover for a cup of coffee, a night’s shelter, or a few hours of fishing in the nearby creek. Most that stayed there, contributed to the supply box and woodpile when they could.

Bennett marveled at the small valley again as he rode to the edge and scanned the area for sign of his friends. The storm had washed away the dust and dirt of the summer months. The sun had burned off the early morning fog and now everything glistened with renewed life. The sprigs of grass were emerald green and a few wild flowers added small dots of color to the beauty surrounding the cabin. The shack was set back at the edge of the lush meadow. There were several large oaks for shade trees and a wind brake of lodgepole pines to the north. The Mountie spotted two does and their fawns looking for fallen apples in a grove of apple trees Burke had planted a long time ago. As he watched one deer threw up her head, snorted and stomped a front hoof, then they were all gone in a flash. Turning to see what had startled them, Bennett saw Craddock stalking toward him.

“Thought you was gonna set there all day, Mountie,” the Marshal said as Clive rode to meet him.

“Good morning, Jack,” he called cheerfully.

“Huh,” snorted Craddock as he took the reins of his palomino from the Mountie and began checking him over. He found no sign of any injuries after the wild run the horse had made in its flight from the cabin the night before. Nor was there anything wrong with the appaloosa.

“Forget to tie up your horses last night, Jack?” joked Bennett as they went to the cabin. He was sure that the Marshal would never have not tied up the horses and that something strange had happened for them to have been loose.

“Don’t start on me, Mountie.”

Marie dashed from the shack at the sight of the Corporal. “Clive,” she cried out joyfully. “You have come to rescue us.”

“I was sure you needed to be rescued, Marie. So I came as quickly as I could.” Clive dismounted and hugged the doctor, while she flung her arms around his neck and kissed him lightly on the cheek.

Oh, hell, thought Craddock as he tied the horses and walked back across the meadow toward the creek. How come Bennett gets a kiss when I’m the one who fought off drunks, and grizzlies, and found shelter in a storm? But he smiled to himself as he remembered how Marie had snuggled up to him in the early hours of the morning and slept on his shoulder. He’d be sure to leave out that part when he told Bennett what had happened or maybe he would tell him just to see how mad he’d get.

Marie tried to explain everything to Clive at one time. “We were attached by a mad bear, and some cowboys tried to steal our horses and Jack knew of this cabin so we could get out of the storm.”

“Well, at least your givin’ me a little credit, anyway,” muttered Craddock to himself as he squatted down to look at something on the ground beside the merrily, rushing stream.

“Slow down, Marie. I’m certainly glad to find you and Craddock are all right.” He hoped to get a better story later from the Marshal as Marie continued to chatter excitedly about their adventures.

“Bennett, come here and look at this.” Both Clive and Marie looked to where Jack waited, recognizing the urgency in his rough, commanding tone. When they reached him he nodded to something on the ground. “Ever see any tracks like that?”

The Mountie knelt down beside the large footprint in the mud and examined it for a long moment. “No. I can’t say that I have. Have you, Jack?”

“Nope. Can’t say that I have.’

“For what it may be worth, neither have I,” added Marie. “Is it the track of the bear that attached us?” The single distinguishable print was very large and almost human like. The two men and Marie continued to look at it for several long minutes

“Might be bear,” said Craddock, “but it’s different to any I’ve ever seen. There’s some regular grizzly tracks on down stream a ways.” The three of them walked along beside the creek for a minute then stopped to examine the other tracks that the Marshal had found early that morning. After a bit they returned to where they had seen the unusual tracks.

“Is it possible the bear has a deformed foot that would make a track like that?” quarried the Mountie of himself as well as his friends.

But Marie was having other thoughts. “Those men said they had seen a man-beast or Sasquatch.”

Bennett laughed. “Those are just campfire stories, Marie, like fairy tales or Halloween ghost stories.” He paused a moment. “But the Indian said something about a Sasquatch, too.”

“What Indian?” asked Craddock?

“The one that told me where you where. An old shaman, I think. He was mumbling something about going on a journey to find a man-beast when he rode off.”

The lawman and the woman examined the tracks some more but could not find an answer. Craddock and Bennett agreed they had better come back the next day and hunt down the injured bear, if it was a bear, before it attached someone else.

Returning to the cabin they saddled Craddock’s and Marie’s horses, and packed up the bedroll and saddlebags. “Why are you limping, Marie?” asked the Corporal as Marie was getting her things together. He had noticed it before but had hesitated to ask.

“Those men who tried to steal our horses. They shot at us and one of the bullets grazed my leg. It is not very bad,” explained Marie without even thinking what Clive’s reaction would be.

“Craddock? How could you let this happen?” demanded the Mountie.

“Now don’t go getting’ in an uproar, Clive.”

“How could you let Marie get hurt? Didn’t you try to stop them? Marie, are you sure you’re all right. You should sit down.”

“Clive, I said I am fine, and I am. Do not go making such a big to do about it.”

“Couldn’t you have looked after her a little better, Marshal? You are supposed to be a lawman, aren’t you, Jack? It’s a wonder she wasn’t killed.” Clive’s voice was getting louder as he berated the Marshal.

“Well, you’re the one let her ride off from Bordertown by herself,” bellowed Craddock. “Why did you do that Clive? Huh? Why did you let her leave town to wander across the countryside by herself? You should a been with her.”

“Stop it. Both of you,” commanded Marie, putting a hand on an arm of each man. “Please. I do not want the two of you fighting. I am fine. Jack did a very good job of protecting me. And Clive did the right thing by letting me go by myself. He had a job to do in town and I had to go to see about Maude Edwards and her baby. Everyone did what they were supposed to do.” Jack and Clive continued to glare at each other then both men began to relax. Both knew they were being a little overly protective of Marie as they both cared for her so much. “I want you to be my friends, not my – my – chaperones. Now can we go home?”

As Marie mounted her mare she saw the large cat sitting in the door of the cabin. “Would you like to come with us, Tommy?” she asked.

“He’s not much of a town cat,” said Jack. “He’ll manage out here all by himself just fine.” But to his surprise Tommy marched up beside Marie’s horse, then jumped up in front of her onto the saddle where he clung gingerly.

“Well, maybe, he as decided to try city life for a while,” said Marie. She put a hand on the cat to steady him as they rode.

“Bennett, you said you saw them three troublemakers this morning?”

“Yes, they were taking turns walking and riding on one horse. They were headed for Bordertown. Probably to get more horses.”

“Well, they just might get to spend some time in my jail after all,” said the Marshal as they rode for home.

*****

From the cover of the trees the Indian shaman watched the white men and the woman. He pondered the dreams he had been having. Dreams of the man-beast or Sasquatch. He had never actually seen one, only knew of it through the stories of his tribe. But he knew he wanted to see it. He wanted to get to know it. He knew he had to look for it. He wanted to prove to himself if the stories were true or not.

He turned his horse and rode along the creek, coming to the strange track by the stream. He would follow and see where the track led.

From deep in the woods, the wondering eyes of a wild animal watched the people and then it turned to disappear. In its own wild way, it knew it needed to roam deeper and farther into the forest away from where there were so many people. It would find a better place to live where people never came. Where it would be safe.

At least for a while.

***The End***

Return to Stardust’s homepage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.