Word Count: 5500
“What the heck are you doin’, Clive? Your gonna break a leg doin’ som’ thing that stupid.”
“Don’t be so cynical, Jack. You should try it.”
“No thanks. I got more since than to stand on little pieces of wood and scoot through the snow.” Marshal Jack Craddock sat his palomino horse and watched his friend as the Canadian Mountie continued to flounder through the snow. “You sure won’t catch many outlaws that way. And where’d you get them silly things anyway?”
The younger man stopped, looked up at the Montana lawman, and rested on the ski poles while waiting for his breathing to slow. Finally he answered. “Their skis, Jack. I got them from the Scandinavian family that have that small farm north of Spruce Canyon. Kullstrom makes them. He says everyone in his country uses them all the time. Men, women, and children. He says they have been using them for several hundred years. That they can travel on skis a lot faster than on horses in the snow.”
“Well, he must a meant in more snow than this half a foot or so that you’re tryin’ it in.” The Marshal motioned around them at the fresh glistening snow that had fallen in the early hours of the morning just as the sun was coming up. Now the sun gave the countryside the appearance of a new and wonderful world. Both men took a moment to take a deep breath and gaze around them, almost in awe of the beauty, although neither of them would admit it. Birds were singing, and a squirrel chattered at them from a nearby tree. Sparking white snow, dark green evergreens, rich brown earth, sprinkled with pine needles. The air was cool and invigorating. The palomino stomped a hoof, snorted, arching his neck and pulling on the reins. He was tired of standing in one spot. “Easy, boy.” Craddock petted the animal’s neck. “You seen any sign of any deer or elk. I told Willie I’d take him hunting. Thought I’d scout around some first.”
“I saw some elk tracks over by the Kullstrum farm yesterday when I picked up my skis, and they had boiled deer meat for dinner. Do you really think you should be taking Willie hunting?”
“Boy his age should get a chance to go hunting. He asked, and his uncle said it was all right.”
“Then you’re teaching him to shoot?”
“Uh huh.” Jack nodded, and shifted in his saddle. “Better I do it and make sure he knows how to do it right, so he don’t shot himself or someone else.”
“I guess your right about that. Too many people never have proper instruction on how to use a weapon. Then someone gets hurt accidentally.”
“Yeah. You want to go with us? Some elk steaks would be good. I’m sure Dom could make use of some fresh meat at the saloon.”
Clive considered the offer. If he gave an elk roast to Marie, surely she would invite him to dine with her. He wasn’t thinking of the chance for a good meal as much as a chance to spend an evening with the pretty doctor. “Sure, why not. First thing tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah. ‘Bout sunup would be good.” He smiled when the Mountie frowned at the thought of being out so early. “That’s ‘bout the best time to go huntin’.” He let his restless horse have some rein and it started walking. “Oh, and Clive.” He looked back. “Might be best if your ride your horse, instead of using them – them – funny – snowshoes.” He snickered as he rode off, while Clive shook his head in disgust at his friends teasing and tried to ignore him.
A dusting of snowflakes drifted down to rest on the still sleeping, half-Canadian, half American town of Bordertown. It was still dark when the riders left the livery stable. The two men yawning and grumbling silently to themselves at having agreed to go hunting this early, but Willie Haden was awake and eager with anticipation. All wore heavy, warm shirts, pants, and coats with slickers over them so they wouldn’t get cold in the in the disagreeable weather. Not for the first time Willie’s hand went to the polished wood stock of the Winchester rifle that the Marshall had handed to him the day before. They had gone out target shooting, then had spent part of the evening cleaning the rifles they had used.
Unnoticed by the Marshal, the Mountie, or the Willie, three men watched as they saddled their horses and rode out of town. “Now, ain’t that a pretty sight. A sleeping town with no lawmen. We’ll just mossy on down and keep an eye on things till everyone wakes up. Especially that bank.”
As the hunters rode the dark sky began to lighten so that what had been just black shapes could be distinguished as trees, boulders, and an occasional house. The snow swirled harder around them, as the clouds dropped lower, and a new layer of snow began to cover what hadn’t melted the day before. Jack Craddock wondered if he had been right in choosing this day for the trip, as he led the way toward Spruce Canyon. Minutes later the sun broke over the eastern horizon and began the slow process of burning off the clouds. Clive Bennett decided it might not be as nice a day as yesterday had been, but he didn’t think they were in for any real bad weather either.
Soon after entering the wide canyon they sighted some tracks. They pulled up but were disappointed to see the round, one-toed shaped tracks of horses. “Three riders on shod horses, going south. Made real early this morning. New snow is starting to fill in the tracks. See that, Willie?” Jack didn’t say it but wondered why three men were moving about that early in the day. He supposed it could just be a rancher or farmer out checking livestock.
“Yeah,” said Willie a bit disappointed.
“Come on, Willie. We’ll find some deer or elk. Lots of time yet.” He touched his heels to the flanks of his horse and pulled on the lead rope of the packhorse that followed him.
Several minutes later they found more tracks. “Are they elk?” asked Willie, dismounting from his brown and white pinto mare to take a closer look.
Jack and Clive, also, dismounted. “You tell me,” said the Marshal. “You sure they’re not cow? What’s the difference?”
Willie knelt down by the tracks. “They’re smaller than cow, and the toes are more pointed. But they’re not as small as deer. That makes them elk. Right?”
“Uh hah. How fresh?”
After a moments hesitation Willie answered. “They were made this morning. Like the horse tracks we saw before. There’s some new snow in the tracks, but not a lot. Maybe four or five animals.”
“There’s a small meadow with a creek just out of sight on down this road. Might be a good place to find them grazing,” said Clive. They remounted and followed the tracks. At one point the Mountie leaned from his saddle for a better look at the ground. “More tracks. Deer with one good sized buck.”
Willie and Jack looked where he pointed. The tracks were similar to the elk but a lot smaller. The snow had quit and it was good light now. Jack saw a gray shape move silently through a nearby cluster of pine and aspen trees. Then another one. He reined in, drew his rifle from its scabbard beneath his leg and dismounted, tying his horse, and the packhorse to a tree. Quickly and quietly Clive and Willie did the same.
As the hunters eased through the trees they saw several other shapes moving on before them. Once Jack stopped still for several long moments when one deer stopped. It was looking and listening for signs of the danger that it apparently could since behind it. When it went on so did the hunters. A hundred yards on through the trees a clearing appeared. The deer were spread out pawing snow from the grass and drinking from the small stream. One doe stood looking back into the trees, a large fawn, probably born last spring, stood near her. The hunters held back until she, too, dropped her head to eat.
Jack motioned Willie up beside him, keeping a large tree between them and the deer. Willie could just make out the few words Jack softly whispered. “A buck. To the right. See it?”
Willie stared, seeing several does, and their big fawns. Then another deer moved out into the meadow. His steps were slow and regal as if he knew he was a king. A large set of antlers adorned his head. He seemed to know there were intruders to his domain, even if he couldn’t quite tell were they were.
“Brace yourself against the tree and take your shot,” Jack said under his breath to Willie. He knew they probably wouldn’t get a better chance. He hoped he had taught the boy well. To himself he thought through the sequence; cock the rifle, look down the sights, take a deep breath, let it out, and pull the trigger. He waited, the seconds dragging. Shoot, Willie, he silently urged the boy. He glanced from Willie to the deer and back. The buck was getting nervous, and so was Willie. He saw the boy’s arms tremble. His face was white. With cold or excitement, or was it fear; Jack wasn’t sure. “Cock it, and shoot,” he whispered. Slowly Willie thumbed back the hammer, the snapping sound loud in the silence of the woods.
At the sound the buck snorted, then stomped a front hoof, as did one of the does.
“Now, Willie!” but even as Jack uttered the words, ever so softly, he knew it was too late. He spared a glance at the boy, who was shaking like a leaf.
“I – I can’t,” stuttered Willie forgetting to whisper, and at his words the deer were gone. The buck jumped into the air twice as if he had springs in his legs. Then they disappeared into the trees, and brush on the far side of the meadow. It was as if they had never been there.
Marie Dumont took of her apron and pulled a light cotton jacket over her dress. “Sally,” she called to her friend and employee who was stacking men’s shirts on a table. “I will be back soon. I want to be at the bank when Wendell opens. I didn’t get this deposit made yesterday.”
Sally answered without even looking up from what she was doing. “I’ll take care of things here, Marie.”
The storekeeper, who was also Bordertown’s doctor, picked up the cloth bag full of money and walked to the bank. Wendell MacWherter was just unlocking the door as she got there. “Good morning, Marie.”
As she started to reply she felt a hard object jab her in her back, and a gruff voice spoke in her ear. “Lady, your gonna help me rob this here bank. You just step on inside, and you tell that feller to do what I say if’in you and him want to keep livin’.”
The banker had heard what was said. To tongue-tied at the thought of danger to Marie and himself he just stepped back so they could enter the bank.
Marie’s big blue eyes got wider at the thought of what was happening. She tried to remain calm as she walked into the bank. “Wendell, I think we had better do as this gentleman says.” The robber snickered at her words.
Another man followed them thrusting a burlap bag at the banker. “Fill this with ever’thin’ you got. And you – woman – give me what you got.” He pulled her deposit bag out of her hands. Wendell had stuffed a stack of bills from a drawer into the bag. “Don’t forget that there safe.” Reluctantly Wendell did as he was told then handed the bag to the robber.
The holdup man who had his gun pointed at Marie grabbed her arm and pushed her out the door in front of them. Seeing no one observing them yet, he shoved Marie aside and leaped on his horse, as did his partner. A third man, who had been watching the street for them, tersely asked. “You get it? Let’s get out a here.”
The banker had recovered, and ran to the door yelling. “Bank robbers. They’re getting away.” Several people at the saloon across the street had noticed the commotion and were staring. “Stop,” shouted Zac Denny waving the broom he had been sweeping the saloon and boardwalk with. A rancher who had come to town for supplies also noticed. He pulled his pistol and fired a shot that came closer to MacWherter and Marie than the robbers, as it took out a chunk of the doorframe to the bank. Marie screamed and the banker ducked back inside. The two robbers jumped onto their horses, as the man who had spoken to Marie, fired a shot at the rancher. Desperate to keep anyone else from shooting at them and without really thinking about it one robber reached out jerking Marie toward him, off of the boardwalk, and then face down across the front of his saddle. With a wild yell they rode out of town.
Jack placed one hand on Willie’s shoulder and with his other hand took the rifle from the upset and embarrassed boy, and eased the hammer back down. Then handed it back. “It’s all right, Willie. Take it easy.” Willie didn’t want to take the gun back but didn’t know how to avoid it.
Clive, who had watched from a few feet behind Willie and Jack, moved up beside them. He could sympathize with the young would-be hunter. He remembered his first hunting trip. It had ended basically the same way. Both men knew Willie was very upset because he had failed to shoot the deer. “Take it easy, Willie. No need to be upset. Most people have trouble killing.”
“I – I’m sorry,” whispered Willie. “I – I just couldn’t shoot him.”
Jack was quick to comfort the boy. “No harm done. And sorry for what, Will. There’s no shame in not being able to kill. Lots of people consider it a good thing, and I guess it should be.” Jack looked around him unsure of what to do or say now. Should he have Willie try to track the deer and then try to shoot it again? No. No, it was too soon for that. Maybe they should just call it a day and head back to Bordertown. But then he doubted the deer had gone that far. They hadn’t been that scared. And he had practically promised Dom, and Marie, and Sally some venison. “I think I’ll follow that buck for a bit. See if he settles down, and maybe I can get another shot at him. Willie, why don’t you take a few minutes and go get the horses. Follow us at a slow pace so there’s no chance of spooking them again.” He figured that would give Willie time to settle down.
Clive agreed with the Marshal. Some wild game meat would be a welcome change for the town’s folk. Sending Willie for the horses would let the boy regain his composure. “I’ll circle north and see if I can get ahead of them.”
“Good idea, Clive,” said Jack over his shoulder, as he crossed the clearing and disappeared into the brush on the trail of the big buck deer.
Kicking at clumps of snow, grass, and weeds, Willie trudged back toward where they had left the horses tied. How could he have been so – so – so much like – a – well like an eastern greenhorn? Maybe he had been born in the east but he had been raised here in the west. Raised right here in Bordertown, and he hadn’t even been able to kill a deer. He kicked another snow-covered bunch of weeds. He was so embarrassed. Right there in front of not only Marshal Craddock, but Corporal Bennett, too. He brushed snow off of a log and sat down on it. In his head he went over everything he had done wrong. He had frozen, got buck fever, and couldn’t pull the trigger. He hadn’t done anything right. He sat there for a long time wondering if he would ever be able to shoot a deer or anything else again. How could he have done such a stupid thing? He had hunted and killed rabbits, and squirrels. Why couldn’t he shoot a deer? Was it just because it was bigger? That was dumb. He realized he was still holding the Winchester rifle. As he looked at it in disgust, he wondered why the Marshall hadn’t taken it back. Then he decided that the Marshall hadn’t wanted to be carrying two rifles while he was hunting the deer that he, Willie, hadn’t killed. He realized he was getting cold sitting on the log, and wondered how long he had sat there; at least an hour or more. He had better get on back to the horses and follow Jack, and Clive. Of course, if they had managed to sneak up on the deer again he was sure he would have heard the shot, so he guessed there was no rush. They wouldn’t need the horses until then.
He took off at a fast walk that soon slowed to almost a crawl. He wasn’t anxious to get to the horses and follow the Marshal. As he neared the spot where they had left their mounts he gradually realized he was hearing the fast walk of several horses, and then the harsh voice of a man.
“Keep still, I said. Woman, you keep fightin’ me and I’m gonna pistol whip you.”
“Let me go. I can not help you get away,” said a woman with a French accent. “Let me go. It will take me a long time to walk back to town. You will be long gone before I can ever tell anyone.”
Willie’s head came up. Marie! Who had Marie, and why did she want to get away from them. He slipped behind a large evergreen tree to watch.
“She’s right Hennings. She’s only gonna slow us down. She has already. We should be long gone from here, and not still lollygaggin’ this close to that little two-bit town. Take her the rest of the day to get back. And so far we ain’t seen on sign of a posse. We know them lawmen were gone.”
“Hell, no. I want this woman. She’s goin’ with us. She ain’t gonna slow us down. Like I said, she don’t behave, she’ll get to sleep in my arms for a while, as well as havin’ a good headache when she wakes up. Might be fun at that.” The man pulled Marie tighter against him from where she rode on the horse in front of him. She squirmed but stilled when he drew his gun and showed it to her. He laughed at the fear he felt in her stiff body at his threat to hit her with the weapon.
Marie shook from fright at what the men were going to do to her as well as cold. Not planning to be outside very long she had only worn a light jacket over her dress when she had gone to the bank. She wondered if she dared to ask for one of the blankets tied on the back of the robbers’ saddles so she could wrap it around her.
Willie shuddered at the thought of the man hurting Dr. Dumont. What was she doing with them he wondered, and how could he help her.
“Quiet! There’s horses tied over there. Hennings. Clunney. Do you see anyone.” Hissed the third man.
Willie tried to melt into the tree. He hoped they wouldn’t see him. He knew he had to get back to the Marshal or the Corporal.
The outlaws had halted their horses and strained their eyes searching the area for sign of who ever had left their mounts here. Marie felt a flicker of hope when she recognized Jack’s palomino, Clive’s bay, and Willie’s pinto mare. She remembered that they had said they were going hunting today. She noticed that the pinto wasn’t paying attention to them but to something beyond them. The mare was looking at where Willie was hiding. She whickered softly.
Willie tried to ignore his horse, hoping she would decide he wasn’t going to her, and quite fussing. If the men didn’t see him behind the tree maybe they would ride on and he could go for help. He moved slightly.
“Over there! Behind the tree. See him Powell.” Clunney pointed at Willie’s hiding place. “Don’t let him get away!”
Hennings, gun still in hand, pointed at the tree where a bit of Willie’s arm in its heavy, brown coat sleeve showed. Marie screeched an oath in French, while trying to push Hennings hand upward. Hennings pulled the trigger anyway, and the bullet struck the pine, throwing bark in all directions, one piece scratching Willie’s face.
“Run, Willie!” screamed Marie, recognizing the boy. Willie ran, still clutching the rifle. He ran faster when Hennings fired another shot. Now he thought he knew how the deer had felt.
Jack had followed the deer without really paying attention to what he was doing. Mostly he had been thinking about Willie and how he was going to convince the boy that it wasn’t a bad thing that he hadn’t been able to kill the deer. He looked around for more of the deer tracks. Disgusted with himself he realized he had lost the deer’s trail. He turned and went a different direction and over a small ridge. Maybe they had gone this way. He was starting to get cold and tired. He decided he would go a bit farther and if he didn’t find any sign of the deer he would head back. A moment later he thought he saw the long legs of a hoofed animal moving through a thicket of brush and birch nearby. He waited a moment, frozen in mid-stride, as he watched. The animal’s head suddenly appeared over the scrub oak it was hiding in. “An elk,” Jack thought. It was a nice sized elk with several others near by. He watched for several seconds waiting for the animal to move into a better position for him to take his shot. They didn’t seem to realize he was there. Craddock raised his rifle and sighted in on the unsuspicious bull elk that fed with three cow elk in a tiny meadow near the spruce trees where he hid. He might have lost the deer, but he wasn’t about to pass up the elk that now stood in front of him. Following his own advice to Willie he braced himself against a tree, then gently pulled back the hammer. The elk’s head came up at the sound, but before it could do more than have a vague thought about where the danger might be, Jack squeezed the trigger.
Almost as an after thought to the sound of his rifle, he heard a distant gunshot. He wondered if Clive had found the deer. But it had sounded more like a pistol than a rifle. Clive would have used his rifle to shoot a deer, not his pistol. Again he heard a shot. He was sure it was the quick, sharp sound of a pistol, and came from the direction where Willie and the horses were. He stared at the dead elk, knowing he needed to start gutting the animal. Knowing he would need the pack horse soon anyway, for hauling the meat he turned back to find his friends Hopefully Willie wouldn’t be to far off with the animals. But his lawman’s gut instinct kept worrying at the sound of the gunshots. Something was wrong. He started back, walking rapidly in the fresh snow, while looking for any signs of trouble.
Soon he was back at the place where they had seen the deer and so was Clive. “What’s going on? I heard a rifle shot and then two pistol shots from back where we left the horse.”
“I killed an elk ‘bout a quarter mile back that way. I heard the pistol shots and came back to see what was going on here. If you or I didn’t fire a pistol and Willie only has a rifle we best be gettin’ back there.” Almost before he had finished speaking Jack and Clive were moving. They had only gone a few feet when Willie burst through the trees. He sagged against a tree gasping for breath. “What happened?” demanded Jack.
Clive started questioning him. “Are you hurt? Was someone shooting at you? Did you see them?”
“M – M- Marie,” stammered the boy. “Some men have Marie, and – and she wanted them to turn her loose – but they wouldn’t. And they saw me – and started shooting.”
“Where?” asked Jack.
“How many?” asked Clive.
Willie pointed back the way he had come and could only say “Three,” before they heard the sound of horses coming at a fast pace. There was no time for any kind of a plan. Jack grabbed Willie’s arm and pulled him with them as he and Clive darted into a jumble of fallen logs. “Stay down,” Jack hissed at the boy as he shoved him to the ground. Instead of doing as he was told Willie peaked up over the log he was hiding behind, as did both the Marshal and the Mountie.
The beat of horse’s hooves drew nearer and then the animals plunged out of the trees and into sight. As if on cue the two lawmen fired their rifles, the bullets throwing up snow and dirt in front of the riders. They didn’t want to shoot anyone if they didn’t have to, nor did they want to take a chance on hurting an innocent hostage, if Marie was with them.
“Pull up!” yelled the Marshal.
“Halt! Drop your weapons,” commanded the Corporal.
The outlaws did pull up their mounts, but didn’t drop their weapons. Instead they shot back, not aiming at the ground, but at the two lawmen and the boy. Willie ducked back down and for several seconds the bullets flew. Thankful the riders had spread out, Jack and Clive were concentrating on only two of the men, avoiding shooting at the one who held Marie in front of him like a shield. Clunney was hit in his chest, dropped his gun, and slid off his horse. Powell’s horse decided to show his displeasure at the commotion and began bucking; throwing his rider who hit the ground hard enough to stun him.
Realizing she had help, Marie half turned in the saddle and began fighting with Hennings, pounding him with her small fists, and at the same time kicking at anything in reach of her feet, either the robber or his horse. The horse, not liking what was going on was dancing in a circle, then it got hold of the bit, and dropped his head to give a few crowhops. All of this caused Hennings to cuss and shout at Marie, the horse, and who ever was shooting at him and his partners. He had lost his grip on the reins, and then on Marie. Seeing her chance Marie made an awkward leap off the horse, landing in a ludicrous heap on the ground.
Instantly Clive was at her side, helping her up and rushing her over behind the fallen logs with Willie. Jack run at the spooked horse, who practically threw the bank robber into his arms. The Marshal jerked the pistol out of Hennings hand. “You’re under arrest. Give it up. Now!”
Hennings didn’t answer, except for slugging Craddock in the mouth with a hard left. Jack countered with a fist to Hennings belly, then another. Hennings crumpled to the ground, gagging. Jack flipped him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. “I said you’re under arrest,” he said as he as he wiped at the blood trickling from his mouth. He picked up several pistols that lay near the outlaws.
“Marie, are you all right,” asked Willie. He ran to her side and started to help her up.
A very shaken and bruised Marie could only nod her head.
Clive was kneeling beside her by then. “Give her a minute, Willie.” Very concerned he asked, “Are you sure? What can I do? No broken bones. Did those men hurt you?” Gingerly he ran his hands down her arms, checking for injuries. He realized he might have been getting to personal with her and pulled back, a bit disconcerted and unsure of how to help her.
Still unsteady the Doctor was thankful for the Mountie’s strong arm around her. Gradually Marie’s breathing slowed, and she was finally able to answer. “I think I am only bruised. That horse was taller than I thought. But thank you, Clive, for your concern” She clung to his arm longer than she needed too. Maybe now she had found a way to get Clive’s attention. Or Jack’s.
Jack, too, knelt beside his friend. He almost pushed the Mountie aside, his big hand gripping her shoulder gently, then his arm going around her shoulders and pulling her to him for an all too brief moment. Then he released her. “You feel like telling me what you were doing with them fellers, Marie.”
“Marshal Craddock!” Willie yelled when he saw the man who had been thrown from his horse pull out a gun he had hid in his boot. The boy still held the Winchester rifle that he had failed to shoot the deer with. Instead of firing it at the outlaw, he threw it as hard as he could. The rifle struck Clunney causing him to drop the gun.
“Good throw, Willie,” praised Jack as Clive added the last gun to the pile the Marshal had collected, and put his handcuffs on Powell’s wrists. Still stunned by Willie’s rifle, the outlaw didn’t resist.
“Now, Marie, you were saying?” prompted Clive, who had pulled a bedroll from where it was tied to a saddle on one of the outlaws horses and wrapped it around Marie.
Still shaken but beginning to calm down Marie looked first at Jack then at Clive. “I was robbing the bank.” She smiled at the shocked expressions on their faces.
Willie had picked up his rifle and a burlap bag that he handed to the Corporal.
“And I think I will return the money now,” Marie finished explaining, causing Jack, Clive and Willie to burst out laughing with her.
“And I,” stated Jack, “have an elk waiting for me.” He grinned at the puzzled expression on Marie’s face. “So let’s get Marie and these hombre’s back to town, Clive. Then I’ll come back and take care of that there elk. Will you help me butcher it, Willie?”
“Sure thing, Marshall.” The boy gazed up in admiration at his friend, his embarrassment over not killing the deer forgotten for the time being.
Jack roughly helped the bank robbers onto their horses, while Clive helped Marie onto Willie’s mare, so she could ride with him. He hoped that Willie wasn’t to upset over not killing the deer. The Marshal wondered when he had killed his first deer. It had certainly been a long time ago. Maybe it would have been better if he never had. And what had caused him to be a lawman? To be a man who had to sometimes kill other men. Who or what was it that had influenced him to be on the side of the law instead of against it as these men had been? What was it that happened in a man’s life that caused him to be the way he was? Was it one major event, or was it a string of smaller happening that he never remembered later on when he had a chance to think back about it? Could today’s circumstances have a big effect on Willie? He looked at the boy that he cared for as much as he might have if he had ever had a son of his own. He had a sudden deep abiding hope that Willie would never have to live with a gun at his side as he, Clive, and the outlaws did.
He untied the reins of his palomino and mounted. “Come on. Let’s get back. Ain’t to warm out here.”