Norris could feel it. Whether the chilled morning air sharpened or dulled the sensation of being watched was debatable. But there was no debating he felt it. Crouched by the ashes of last night’s fire, he picked the stub of a cigar from his teeth and ground the ashes against the nearest convenient rock. While the one hand scraped the ashen remains of the paper, the other slid under the flap of the nearby saddlebag. From the leather pouch he drew a well-used belt. Glancing between the rising hills under the horizon and the belt he counted off the cartridges he had left. Counting the six in the pistol and eight in the rifle he had a grand total of twenty-five rounds. Not much if he got back into trouble.
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He threw off his wool blanket and slowly stood up to stretch and take care of some early-morning business. First he tossed his wool duster over a convenient scrub-tree limb and buckled the gunbelt around his waist. If there was in fact somebody watching, he wanted the Colt Army and its lead contents to be a surprise. He reclaimed the duster and pulled it back on, painfully aware that the cold air had done away with whatever warmth the thick wool had retained. If nothing else, his feet were still remotely warm. He’d tried sleeping without boots—once. Never again.
Worse, this wasn’t just a dry cold. This was its evil twin; mercury holding above freezing and the air fairly well saturated. Fortunately—if there was a fortunate side this—the southern part of the New Mexico territory was rarely humid for long. He imagined the weather might burn off as early as eight o’clock. A second glance at the thinly clouded sky amended that guess back an hour or so to about noon. As for now, his pocketwatch proclaimed the time as six forty-seven and his ungloved hands proclaimed the temperature to be cold. To counter the latter, he extracted a pair of thin leather gloves from the saddlebag, then set to boiling water for a cup of coffee.
While he waited for the tiny fire to suitably heat the tin cupful of half-frozen stream water, Norris took his field-glasses from the bag and swept them across the visible terrain out front in a long, slow arc. He paused to watch a particularly well-built deer as grazed through the rough scrub that dotted the hills before finishing the sweep and spotting nothing. He checked again and put the glasses away. Before leaving he’d check again, just to make sure he was alone for the time being.
Seeing the walking venison reminded Norris that he hadn’t eaten since early yesterday. Rumbling, his stomach could vouch for the fact. Well, he could deal with that. Returning to the saddlebag he withdrew a small slab of dried, salted beef. He hacked a corner off and set the piece in his teeth. Two or three minutes from now it could be considered edible. Tasted like shoe leather, but it was better than eating sagebrush. Or starving. Norris went hungry quite a bit, though he hadn’t managed to starve just yet. And he was none too keen on giving it a try.
After a short eternity, miniscule bubbles appeared, clinging to the sides of the cup. Norris tapped it with a finger and watched the silver orbs scurry up to the surface. No sooner had they vanished than fresh ones sprung up to take their place. About time, he thought, already back in the saddlebag and searching for the paper wrapped filled with coffee. He was going to eat something resembling breakfast, by God, and if anybody was watching him they’d have to wait until he finished. If somehow they didn’t have the patience, he had no qualms about killing somebody before he finished his salted beef and coffee.
That made him think, and thinking encouraged him to check again for any sundry foodstuffs he might have missed. He’d have liked to have a bit of hardtack along even though you needed iron teeth to eat the stuff. Of course, it wasn’t so bad after a little while in frying bacon grease. Naturally, you needed bacon as a source of bacon grease and he was fresh out of both. Before long—maybe two or three days—his U.S. Government-stamped Army Corps of Engineers-approved map said he’d run into another town. He could deal with the short supplies then. As for now, he was stuck with dried meat and water.
Norris dumped the grounds into the cup and went back to where he’d been sleeping. Grabbing the thick wool blanket, he gave it a couple of good whacks against the stunted scrub tree to try and shake some of the debris off. When it was fairly clean, he folded the blanket and rolled it to fit the straps on the back of his saddle. The saddle blankets, which had been between him and the dirt, he shook out and hung over the scrub tree to air out.
His horse, alternately known as either ‘Horse’ or in some cases, ‘Boy,’ was perhaps fifty feet from the campsite and trying to find some of the local plant life that was worth eating. At least he hadn’t chewed the hobbles off, Norris reflected. The animal had done that once, eaten through the leather restraints about his front legs and gone for a stroll in the desert. He’d come back…eventually. Feeling his owner’s ever-suspicious gaze, Horse raised his head and stared back. There was a brief staring match between them. But, just as quickly losing interest, Horse dropped his head to the nearest plant and went back to work.
By now the coffee looked to be worth drinking. Norris picked the cup up by the rim and took a sip, scowling almost before he’d swallowed the stuff. ‘Coffee’ wasn’t the term. Flavored water might be more appropriate. Dirt-flavored water was even closer to the truth. Had it not been warm he would’ve tossed it without a second thought. But in spite of the taste, it did have some heating qualities that kept him from doing so. He drained the cup in short order and when finished considered the contents at the bottom. Among them were the actual coffee grains, what he assumed to be river mud, and a small pebble he didn’t remember collecting.
Well, if the water for the coffee was a quarter mud, things weren’t looking well for the rest of the water in the canteen. The source—a stream he’d crossed not two days before—hadn’t looked murky. Apparently he hadn’t looked quite hard enough. Out of idle curiosity he untied the canteen from his saddle and tasted the water. He’d been chewing dust the past few days, so he guessed he hadn’t really noticed the taste then, but he could sure taste it now. He resisted the short-lived urge to dump what remained of the tainted water in the canteen, instead setting it aside.
He tossed the sediment and put everything back in the saddlebag. Halfway through, he had the strangest sensation of being watched, this time stronger than the last. Glancing up, he saw nothing out of the ordinary. By now he was becoming more than a little concerned. Being followed was nothing special. Lots of men with slower hands and duller minds had on occasion trailed him, always for the same reason. This was a little different. For one thing, he’d usually spotted the tag-along by now. Whoever this was, they had talent.
“Horse,” he called.
Another thing he’d discovered was that if he himself couldn’t spot the problem, Horse couldn’t either. But the animal could hear and in some situations good ears were better than good eyes. There wasn’t any wind so scenting the intruder didn’t seem likely. The effort failed, as Horse didn’t hold much interest in listening. Still worth a shot, though.
Rather than lugging his gear to the gelding, Norris figured it’d be easier to get the mount and then retrieve the gear. On his way he pushed his overcoat back enough to allow him quick access to the Colt should it be needed. That wasn’t going to do much to the pursuers if they had a rifle, but if they were settled in and hidden with a rifle he was out of luck anyway. He walked through the knee-high scrub, distantly wondering if there were any snakes in here. He found none and reached Horse without incident.
“Hey, boy,” he rubbed Horse’s muzzle to distract the animal while he was changing out the primitive halter with a bridle. The horse failed to react until the bit came into play. Clearly, Norris’ mount wasn’t quite as enthusiastic about this new proceeding and tried to both back away and turn at the same time. Norris had counted on the dodge and accordingly left the hobbles on for the occasion. Several argumentative minutes later the rider had bested the horse and both returned to the campsite.
Norris tied the reigns to the scrub tree before starting on the well-practiced morning ritual of refitting his horse. It was more a less a reaction now; something he seldom thought about, if ever. First went the blanket. Easy enough. The trick now was to throw the saddle on before what was happening occurred to the horse. If by chance or practice the animal was familiar with the routine, it would try almost anything to confound the effort. On the positive side, Norris knew what to expect and how to counter.
Today was nothing special and Horse—apparently too bored to put up much of a fight—did little more than swat at flies while threw on the saddle and tightened the cinches. After that came the minor tugs of the bedroll being fixed and the light slap of the saddlebags.
Norris waited a moment in case the horse had been holding air and used the opportunity to take a last look at his campsite. Finding nothing that could be considered useful, he turned to the saddle. Sure enough, the cinches hung slack under the animal’s ribcage. With the exception of a few tamed mustangs, every horse he’d ever ridden had pulled the same trick. Or tried to, anyway. He tightened the straps accordingly and rubbed Horse’s neck. He’d give him credit for the effort.
So with that, Norris stepped into the stirrup and tossed his leg over. From here he had a slightly better view. And even taking what had to be his hundredth survey of the nearby hills he still couldn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. Maybe he was getting paranoid. Getting paranoid? Hell, he’d been born paranoid. And assuming maybe he hadn’t, bounty hunting would have done it to him in the long run. He shifted in the saddle and scanned the other horizon, over which the sun was hanging behind silver-gray clouds. Nothing there either.
Well, if that was to change…he dropped his hand to the butt of the short-barreled coach gun, carried in a leather boot. The shotgun was always there, upright and loaded within easy reach should he need anything heavier than the Colt. Unlike most of the other drifters in the territories, he had almost completely given up rifles. Most engagements in his line of work tended to take place within arms’ length. Besides, he’d seen rifle bullets breeze through men like they were made of butter and, in spite of the fact, fail to put them down. Shotguns were infinitely less forgiving. Those were his favorite.
He pulled the reins and wheeled Horse in a tight circle.
Nobody watching or chasing for the moment. For the moment. His eyes registered nothing and his mind staunchly refused to accept the fact. Horse snorted, sending a thin cloud of condensation into the clear morning air. The noise brought the rider back to the present.
“Yeah I know, boy,” Norris rubbed the animal’s neck a second time. “See if we can’t make Placer today by dark tonight.”
The horse shook his head and sidestepped uneasily. Norris knew his horse, and he knew the horse was scarcely more comfortable here than the rider. Almost as an afterthought he tapped the stock of the coach gun, not so much for luck as to satisfy the last tic mark in a series of habits. Last on the list, even, meaning he had no further business here. Putting the sun off their right flank—roughly northwest, so he figured—he touched his spurs to Horse.
Maybe over the next hill.
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