The Beans Are Good, But …
C.J. searched the faces of his hosts: Ridge and Shorty. “What’s going on? Am I welcome here or not?”
Shorty folded his tall body into a chair. “You’re welcome so long as yer not the third man we’re lookin’ for,” he drawled.
“I’m bettin’ you’re him, too,” Ridge said, jumping into the convesation. “Ain’t too many stray fellers out here. Just us ridin’ for the Webster brand or rustlers.” He rubbed his tongue over his teeth behind puckered lips like he’d tasted something good. “And you ain’t ridin’ for the brand.”
Nerves Getting Stretched
C.J. kept his hands visible on the tabletop and pressed hard enough to keep them from shaking. “Why’re you lookin’ for this guy?”
Shorty put his elbows on the table, clasped his hands, and leaned over. “Three of our hands didn’t check in, so we went lookin’. Found their bodies.”
The natural lilt and pleasing tone of Shorty’s voice didn’t apply to his ice-blue eyes. His stare settled on C.J. with the hypnotizing glare of a rattler. C.J. tried to keep from choking on the half-chewed beans as he stammered, “Well, if you found all three—”
“Only two of ‘em was ours,” Ridge broke in again. “One was a stranger. They’d been shot, and yet three sets of hoof prints left the place.”
We’ll Find Him
Shorty resumed the story. “We got a Navajo tracker can follow a hawk through the air. He sent us in this direction while he took a little time ‘cause his horse lamed up.”
How he’d fare, C.J. didn’t know, but it would end soon if he lost control. He took a deep breath, trying to hide the action by wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Keep talking, that would buy time, and perhaps relax these fellows into turning their backs on him.
“If your tracker’s horse is lame,” C.J. said, “why didn’t he get on another? I counted five mounts when I came in.”
Shorty pulled his shoulders back and sat straight. “Wasn’t a spare horse at that time. Wouldn’t you know that two of the fellers we was trackin’ was in this very house? Hungover sick, they was. One of ’em used to ride with us but turned colors. Him and the other fellow are out in the trees.”
“They’re out there now?” C.J. tried to keep his voice regular, but he felt panic rising. What if they identified him? What if they already had?
“Yep,” Ridge said, getting back in the talk. “Been swinging for ’bout a week, but still recognizable if you wanna look at ’em.”
Shorty half-smiled at C.J. “Thought you might sweat on that news.”
Innocent But Different
“He may not have to,” a new voice said from the door. I watched him coming from the west, him and his squaw.”
Shorty looked over his shoulder. “He’s got a squaw?”
“Yeah. Dropped her off over the hill.” The newcomer smirked. “Guess he don’t want us to think he’s Indian-friendly.”
“I thought you was out in bushes the other way,” Ridge said.
“Got that place kinda used up. I circled around fer better grounds and spotted ’em.”
“Geez, Matt. You gotta get them squirts under control, or you’re gonna ruin the whole country fer grazin’.”
Shorty turned back toward C.J. and dipped his head toward the arrival.
“Matt, Ridge, me, and the two fellers stretching rope out yonder rode the five horses you saw. There’s still one feller gone, and his horse’s prints look an awful lot like your mare’s.”
Sounds like Shorty expects to give C.J. a necktie party. What do you think? Leave a comment now.
The folks in Bath, North Carolina believe a thing or two about hoof prints. Check out their short, unique story here.
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