Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Chapter Six: Eluding Elopement

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Square One Printing:

Square One Printing specializes in wedding, graduation, and baby announcements. We also create and print business cards, letterheads, brochures and catalogues. Several different options of bindery services are available. Go to our website to use our easy “Request a Quote” on-line form or upload files to be printed: www.squareoneprinting.com. Also, look for web special giving $5.00 off your next order of 500 full color digital business cards! Call 435.753.8875 or email us at orders@sq1.biz.

Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Chapter 6: Eluding Elopement

Dustin Trampas was cheating.

Owen Ross knew this not because he played cards with his fellow cow hand for the past few seasons, though that did not hurt, but because Owen planned on cheating himself until Dustin beat him to it. Somehow, he managed not to smile. You always knew how to cheat, Dusty, but you’re terrible when it comes to figurin’ out when to cheat.

“Well, shoot. Got me again, Dusty,” Owen slapped his cards down, loud enough to make one of the other four men around them stir. The others ran out of money and ambition over the last few days of travel and turned in earlier that night.

“Your problem, Owen, is that you just don’t know when I’s bluffin’ and when I ain’t,” Dustin smiled through his dark red goatee, revealing a gap in his front two teeth.

“And your problem, Dusty, is that you don’t even know when you’s bluffin’ and when you ain’t,” Owen said, squinting his black eyes as he monitored Dustin’s shuffling through the dim lantern light.

“I sure ain’t gonna miss your smart aleck comments on the trail,” Dustin spit, then followed up, “but I will miss takin’ yer money!”

Owen took issue with that comment. “Where do you think I’m going, Dusty?”

Dustin Trampas stopped shuffling for a moment. “Shoot, Owen. What do ya think? You’re gettin’ hitched. You’s a family man now.” Dustin grinned. “Don’t worry, though, I think I’m the perfect guy not only to be yer Best Man, but to also step in as the foreman once you’ve left.”

Owen remained quiet as Dustin dealt the cards. Dustin must have sensed the tension, because he kept eyeing Owen’s dark face nervously as they placed their bets. Finally, they revealed their hands. “Well, I guess I’m just mighty lucky this trip,” Dustin crowed, “Yet another two pair!”

Owen said nothing. He simply placed down his three of a kind and took the pile of coins set before them, making sure to land a good kick into Dustin’s backside as he walked away.

After navigating past a couple of pine tree roots in the blackest part of the campground, a voice slithered through the darkness. “What do you want, Owen?” Owen saw the form of a strong, older man perched on a rock, studying Owen as closely as a hawk follows its prey.

“Just a question, Sir.” It never occurred to him that it was strange the way he and his father spoke so formally to each other. It had always been that way when they saw each other, which was rare, since Owen preferred the trail and his father, John, ran business back at the ranch.

“I was expecting this,” John Ross noted sharply. “What do you want?”

“I agreed to this wedding, Sir, because you’ve always known what you were doing, and I don’t question that,” Owen said, then paused. “But this doesn’t change my place, does it? I mean, I’m still foreman on the drive, aren’t I?”

John Owen, his black hair and tanned face melting into the night, flashed some bright teeth. “And here I wondered if you worried about the lack of romance behind the wedding.”

“No, Sir. I don’t have pretenses about that. I know that this ain’t the East, and we aren’t going to have a year long engagement and notices in the papers. Never cared for that. I know that out here, you marry who you can and when it’s practical. So if we’re basically eloping after I only met this girl for the first time three days ago, that’s all part of living in the West.” Owen’s boots scraped the dirt underneath him as he stepped forward. “But if I’d have known I was going to lose my position on the drive, then—”

“Owen,” John said, authority pounding with each syllable, “You can’t drive cattle forever. Things are changing quick around here, and I’m doing what I have to in order to keep my business … our business … on the top. That means land matters, not heads of cattle no more. And that future wife of yours is sitting on some of the most valuable land south of the Devil’s Labyrinth.”

“I never got that, Sir,” Owen replied, “It’s just a parcel of barren homesteadin’ land. 160 acres, with barely enough grazing on it for the flock a sheep she’s got. There’s not even a proper water source.”

Irritated, John retorted, “You think I became the region’s biggest cattle baron by being an idiot, Owen? Like I said, things are changing. You just thank your lucky stars the girl’s father talked her into this, ‘cause it’s her land and if she’d sat on it one more season, she’d be tellin’ us what we’d pay. She can’t sell it yet, as part of her homestead agreement, but if you marry her, why then, we’ve rescued the business and made ourselves some big money in the process.”

No, Owen thought, you’ve rescued your business and made yourself some big money in the process. “That’s fine, Sir. But what does this have to do with me not bein’ on the drive no more?”

John nonchalantly drew his hunting knife, fingering its razor sharp edge. “I need you to run the ranch now. This has opened up new opportunities for me to arrange, so you’ll need to work the business side of the cattle while I’m gone. You an’ your pretty new wife … once she learns English, that is.”

Owen straightened. “Well, Sir, I’m afraid I ain’t going to do that.” His muscles strained as dead silence filled the space between them. Owen was not scared of much, but he knew his father was dangerous.

“Son,” John said, a rarity for him to address Owen as his son, “This is why I should have sent you to the army. You’re soft. Sure, you can ride a trail well enough, but when it comes to making the hard choices, well, you’ve never been there. You’ve never had to look another person in the eye and decide that it was their life or yours, and then cut them down and watch their eyes grasping for final life.”

John buried the knife in the stump he sat on, then removed it again. “That gives you perspective. And right now, you’ve lost perspective.”

“What about the hard decision of whether to kill a helpless Indian woman and her children or not?” Owen declared, overcoming caution. He braced himself for retaliation, even brought his hand closer to the pistol hanging from his side.

John paused a moment, his knife balanced delicately in his hand. “So, you heard rumors about that, did you?” John hefted the knife up to his black eyes, inspecting its edge carefully. “Another reason you’ve lost perspective, boy. You see, when I was your age, I had no prospects. Thanks to worthless parents, I was part white and part Indian—which means I was unwelcome the world of both races. So I joined the army, agreeing to fight against enemy Indians. Other whites, well, they could afford to show compassion. That never hurt them none. But me? If I showed compassion, then I was on the Indians’ side, you see? And in the thick of battle, when you’re killing enemies, all of the sudden anyone not in uniform is an enemy, and you simply do your job as a soldier, and—”

John stopped. He spat. “I don’t owe you an explanation. All you need to know is that I earned my reputation in the world of whites, and now I am one of the wealthiest cattle owners in the West. I didn’t let my parents ruin me, and I sure as shooting won’t let you ruin me either. You’ll marry that girl, and that’s the end of it.”

Owen never had loved his father, they had not been close enough for that, but he at least respected his father’s keen, ruthless way of running business. Somehow, though, he figured he would be exempt from his father’s self-interested business practices just by being family. Clearly, that was not the case.

“Why don’t you marry her, then?” Owen remarked, speciously. “I’ve seen people out here get hitched with bigger age gaps. That ought to fix your problem and leave me out of it.”

“Can’t,” John replied. “They don’t allow no man to have two wives. They been real strict about that ever since those Mormons came out here.”

“Two wives?” Owen said, puzzled, “Mother has been dead ever since I was three years old.” He delivered the line with the lack of emotion that only years on the trail can infuse in a person.

John shook his head, slowly, in the darkness. “Nope. I lied about that.” Owen set his jaw, and John continued. “Your mom heard the same rumors you did and came to me about them. Called me a heartless beast and threatened to leave and take you with her. I told her that if I didn’t have a problem killing a woman and child before, what’s to stop me from doing it to her and you. She fled for her life. Don’t know where she is now. Maybe holed up with some monks prayin’ every day for my soul, maybe writin’ some new scripture. I don’t care.”

Owen was no saint, not by his own reckoning or by others, but this confession disgusted him. “Why are you telling me this?”

John’s eyes squinted. “So you know that the offer still stands: for you, for that Norwegian girl you’re to marry, for her father. Them dead is just another solution to my problem, since it’ll free up that land again. I can be reasonable if you help me, but I can be unreasonable otherwise.”

John watched Owen’s hand unconsciously groping towards the holster on his side. “If you heard about me killing women and children, then surely you heard about my skills with a throwing knife. Don’t make me prove both in one blow.”

Owen’s hand dropped to his side. Silence pervaded the darkness. “I marry the girl and run the ranch for one season, then I’m done with you, for good.”

John hesitated. “And when you go, you make sure you leave that land for me to manage.” Owen nodded. John watched him for a moment. “Deal. Now go lay down. By tomorrow afternoon, you’re going to be a married man. You’ll need your beauty sleep.”

Owen strode back towards the main camp, fully intent on staying a bachelor indefinitely.

Not having much to pack, he simply took his bedroll, found his horse, and loaded his gear. He was about to straddle the horse and head out towards his new life, when something made him stop. He’ll kill her if I leave, something told him. He grimaced. Not my problem.

Owen set his foot in the stirrup and was about to heft himself up when he stopped. “Shoot!” he muttered, knowing that he could not leave the girl to certain death. Must be my mother’s compassionate side flaring up in me … my mother who never died after all, he reflected. Then his face hardened. What compassion? She saved herself and left me with him.

Owen shook his head, clearing it, not accustomed to emotions and set on expelling them from his consciousness. Well, I’ll finish the job she never did. I’m leavin’, but I won’t leave that Norwegian girl behind with my father.

“Wake up,” Owen whispered. The young woman must not have been asleep, because she lifted herself up quickly from her bedroll into a sitting position. The fact that she was attractive did not temper Owen’s annoyance at having to rescue her. In fact, it made him just a bit grumpier that in spite of a rough trail, her tangled, blonde hair still shimmered in the starlight, and her eyes sparkled with awareness.

She said nothing to him, because she could not. Owen was not sure how long she had been in America, but her homestead arrangement was not more than three months old. From the moment he met her three days back, he heard her say maybe five sentences in broken English. Most of the negotiating for the marriage came through her feeble father, who knew at least a smattering more English than she did.

Because the nearest Justice of the Peace lived more than a three-day journey away, in Junction City, her father had stayed at the homestead to care for their modest flock of sheep as best he could in his condition. This left Owen without an interpreter. Still, though, he did not figure on doing much communicating anyways. “Karen, we’re leaving.” She did not move, so he tried again, “We go.” If she don’t respond, Owen thought, then I’m just taking off on my own. It’s not like I didn’t try.

Fortunately for her, she moved. “We go now?”

“Pack up quietly,” he gestured, “I’ll be back in a second.” This she did at least get an idea of, because she immediately gathered some items.

Owen sighed. He had seen Karen ride her horse on their journey towards Junction City. She was competent, but not highly skilled. Wherever she came from in Norway, he guessed that she did not do much riding. He figured he had better scout out the camp a bit before they tried to get away.

Besides himself and Karen, his father had brought five men, “wedding guests” he called them. Now Owen realized his father probably suspected some resistance to the matrimony, so he brought armed security. Surrounding the dead fire, he saw the forms of four of the men, sound asleep. The fifth, Dustin’s, was missing.

Owen went through Dustin’s things. He had left his pistol, so he could not have gone far, maybe a bathroom break. Or maybe, Owen thought, to visit John. The more he thought about this, the more sense it made. Dustin had mentioned being the next foreman pretty confidently. He must’ve arranged it already, and now he’s checking in with John after my visit. Owen almost chuckled to himself as he thoughtfully handled Dustin’s pistol. You always knew how to cheat, Dusty, but you’re terrible when it comes to figurin’ out when to cheat.

In a couple of minutes, Owen joined Karen, who held the reins to both their horses at the top of a knoll just above camp. Seconds earlier he spooked two of the men’s horses down the trail towards Junction City. The loud galloping of hooves set the whole camp in an uproar. Owen and Karen watched as Dustin scrambled into the main part of camp, yelling at the others to wake up, that Owen and the girl were getting away, and that the boss wanted them captured.

Everyone flailed around pointlessly for a few minutes until Dustin finally mounted a horse and sped down the trail. Two of the others soon joined him, and the other two searched in vain for their horses before they ran off on foot, trying to catch their compatriots.

Owen knew that John probably had not moved from his perch. He would wait for the others to report to him. It would be beyond his dignity to get involved unless absolutely necessary. Well, Pop, you’ll find out soon enough that it was absolutely necessary.

Owen motioned for Karen to mount her horse. He then did the same, and they worked their way around until they found themselves heading the opposite direction on the trail, away from Junction City and back towards Karen’s homesteading land. Owen figured that once he got her back there, then he would tell her she had better find a new place for her and her father if she wanted to stay alive. Then, he could wash his hands of the Norwegians and move on to his own new life.

In the black night they rode hard and silently for a couple of hours. This is where Owen had to demonstrate his patience, slowing or stopping while Karen negotiated some tricky terrain. Still, though, even he had to admit that they made a lot of progress in a little time, and once they put enough distance between themselves and the camp, they both started to relax.

Eventually, they found themselves moving through a nice flat area before a rise of hills, and Karen brought her horse up alongside Owen. “What happen? Where go?” Her English may have been raw, but her eyes showed the clear-thinking that went behind them.

“You go home.”

“Not to marry?” Karen asked.

Owen shook his head, “Sorry. Not to marry. Hope you’re not offended.”

She did not understand the last part, but she continued on anyway. “You … how to say … you trick others?”

Owen nodded. “They think we go to Junction City. Probably figured out soon enough that we didn’t. Might be coming after us soon. It’ll take a while for them to catch our trail out of camp, I’m thinking.” He realized that she probably did not catch most of that. “They’re dangerous,” he summed. She did not understand. “Not safe men.” This, she seemed to pick up.

“But … your father,” she replied.

Owen laughed. “My father is bad man. Wants your land.”

Karen thought about this for a while. Then she looked over to Owen, “You are good man.”

“No, no,” he protested, “I ain’t good. I’m just not as bad as my father.”

Karen ignored his objection. “Thank you.”

Owen could handle pretty much any situation out in the wilderness, but a compliment from a pretty lady went beyond his skills. He was about to stutter a response, when they rounded the bend and stepped right into someone else’s camp. Their horses immediately set off the tethered mounts standing next to the path, whose whinnies woke up the three men slumbering by a smoldering fire.

“Say … who’s there?” a rough voice cried out.

“Turn around,” Owen whispered urgently to Karen. He recognized the voice, one of his father’s ranch hands. What are they doing here? he asked himself. The only reason for them to be following hours behind is if … then Owen remembered one of John’s first statements when he went to see him: “I was expecting this.” His father must have had a group follow behind in case Owen got cold feet and managed to slip past them trying to get away.

“That you, Owen?” the voice followed up, starting to gather his senses.

“What tipped you off?” Owen spoke out, “Did you recognize the sound of my gun?” He fired a shot into the darkness and then turned and bolted, slapping Karen’s horse in the process.

Return fire followed, but it scattered aimlessly. Catching the men off guard bought Owen and Karen time, and they galloped back through the clearing they just exited. For the next half an hour of riding, Owen just made sure that Karen stayed up with him as he considered their next move.

Owen knew that the farther they moved back the way they came, the closer they would get to Dustin and his crew. The trap would then be complete and he would be holed up with his one pistol against as much as eight. Not good odds, he knew.

This meant that their only option lay in leaving the current trail. To the south, sat steep mountains and cliffs, nothing passable. To the north … well, if they went far enough, they might reach the Devil’s Labyrinth. Owen knew that if they could reach that maze of deep, dry canyons and open ravines, then he would have a chance to lose their pursuers. Owen took a glance towards the jittery steed and rider next to him. The only question is if we can get there before they catch us.

After rounding a couple more bends, he finally heard the hooves of horses coming closer behind them. Almost simultaneously, he saw some silhouettes on the ridgeline in front of them, heading straight in their direction. Now or never, he thought.

“This way!” he hissed, then grabbed the bridle of Karen’s horse and tugged it off the trail. They splashed through a small creek and up the steep bank on the other side, finding a good patch of aspen trees to act as temporary cover.

Owen monitored the shapes of the two groups progressing towards each other below them until both came within view of one another. Immediately, firing broke out from the group that Owen and Karen had most recently escaped from.

Owen heard the voice of Dustin Trampas cry out, “Stop, you idiots. It’s Dusty!”

The firing stopped. “We thought you was Owen. He had some other riders with them, and they was firing at us.”

Dustin snapped back, “He had one woman rider with him, and she didn’t have no gun. Are you telling me you let them get away?”

“Looks like they got away from you too, Dusty,” the indignant voice returned. “But they can’t be far; we just saw the two comin’ this way about fifteen minutes back.”

“He’s off the trail,” Dustin cursed. “Go back and find out where he came off.”

“In this dark? I couldn’t find half the Sioux nation tonight if they was right in front of me,” the voice returned. “Besides, I’m liable to shoot at ya agin if ya comes on me unawares like this!”

“Even you can count to two. You see two, ya fire. You see more, you hold off,” Dustin said. “You make me teach you more ‘rithmatic than that and it’ll be you countin’ the bullet wounds I given you!”

Owen knew that they would search blindly in this dark for a while, but—looking to the faint dimness behind the eastern mountain range—he knew that it would only take about an hour until they had enough light to find the obvious tracks that would lead them on the right path. That would not give him near enough time to get both the girl and himself to the Devil’s Labyrinth.

Owen glanced over at Karen. How responsible was he for keeping her safe? Seemed ridiculous to him that they would both be caught just because it was a nice thing to do to stick around with her. What if he just told her that they would split paths now and hope for the best? That did not seem unreasonable.

Owen felt better and better about that option … and then she ruined it. “You go,” she said, forcing her English out. “We not safe. You get far and be safe.”

Annoyed, Owen grumbled, “That’s plain stupid. We’re stayin’ together. Now, let’s get movin’ before they figure out where we are.”

The two set off to the north, working their way through groves of trees and over steep hills, making their way higher and higher. As the sky began to lighten, Owen could make out the outlines of the ridges that formed the beginning of the Devil’s Labyrinth. There had been no hint of pursuit from behind, and part of Owen wondered if they just might make it to the canyons before being caught.

At one point, however, Owen found himself trying to force Karen and her horse up a steep, rocky slope. With little skill from the rider and reluctance from the horse, he finally had to give up and choose a longer path around, following a brush-filled gulley that rose in a circuitous route to the top of the hill. Cursing inside, he knew he had foolishly placed himself in this position by agreeing to help the girl.

As they followed the gulley, he looked over at this woman that he barely knew and could barely communicate with. Her cheeks flushed red, matching the tinge of light coming from the east. Owen surprised himself by realizing, almost like turning the bend on a drive and discovering you are home, that this woman was simply beautiful. This did not stir any crazy emotions in him, if anything it just made him curious. He had to ask, “Did you want to marry me?”

Karen looked over to Owen, but did not immediately answer. She seemed surprised by the question. “You wanted marry to me?” She turned the question back on him.

Owen smiled. Smart girl. He shrugged. “I didn’t care. My father wanted me to marry, so I said yes.”

Karen nodded after a moment of processing. “My father said it good idea too.” She seemed thoughtful for a while, then added. “My mother sick and die many years past. Father sick now, and I care of him.” She struggled to gather her words for a moment, “but he think this marriage is good. To help me when he can be gone.”

The horses now worked their way up the steepest part of the gulley as they made the final push to the top of the hill. “But you have plans different from this?” Karen queried, moving some delinquent hairs away from her cheek.

Once again, the girl’s insight left Owen impressed. “Yeah. You could say that. I didn’t know everything my old man had in mind with the marriage. And I can’t imagine changing my life from a saddle to a desk.” He did not expect her to understand, but it felt good to say.

Owen helped guide Karen’s horse to the top of the hill, and the two let their horses rest for a moment as the sun cleared the mountains and bathed the world around them in golden light. Immediately to the north, the Devil’s Labyrinth spread out before them like a sea of swelling, sparkling granite ridges and concave canyon abysses, the shadows stark in the rising sun and lending a mystical beauty that had an entrancing power. Owen turned from the scene in front of them and gazed into Karen’s eyes, searching. “You have different plans too?”

Karen held the gaze for a minute then shyly looked away. “I had thinking about a person that … but, it is silly.”

For a few moments there, Owen had allowed himself to dip into some strange feelings, but now he checked them. He smiled at his own recklessness. “You’re in love with someone.”

“No,” she quickly replied. “But … no. I do not know. It is silly.” Now, thoroughly embarrassed, she stuttered as best she could, “It is only a man that talk to me one time, but I can not to stop remembering him.”

Strangely, Owen wondered if he would experience the same thing with this moment. One part of him pondered whether eluding this elopement had been such a good idea after all. But she’s in love with someone else, he thought, and I’m in love with the open range. He looked at her again. Still, though, there is something about her that I just can’t shake. Something that—

Scraping horse hooves broke his train of thought. “Just about made it, Owen. An hour more an’ you two mighta lost us in the Labyrinth. That was yer plan, I’m guessin’.” Dustin Trampas had just cleared the hill from the other side, his pistol at the ready, gripped threateningly in front of him. His eyes set themselves unwaveringly on Owen.

Owen spat on the ground and brought his arm up to wipe his mouth, but Dustin screamed at him. “Don’t move yer arms, Owen! I don’t want ‘em any where near yer hips!”

Owen grinned. “You always knew I was a faster draw than you, didn’t you, Dusty?”

Dustin snarled, “Well ain’t you just the snarky lark? You smile all you want for the next few minutes until the boys catch up with me. Then we’ll take you back to yer father an’ see how long you’ll be smilin’ after that.”

Owen squinted in the morning sunlight, then patted the neck of his horse before saying, “Naw. I don’t think you’ll be doing that, Dusty.” He paused. “In fact, I think we’ll still be headin’ over to the Labyrinth.” Owen casually picked up his reins.

In a frenzy, Dustin somehow managed to get his gun farther in front of him, his finger exerting pressure on the trigger. “Owen, if you think I ain’t gonna shoot you, then you’re wrong. Yer father’s specific words were to bring both of ya’s back, alive or dead. Dead’s considerable easier fer me.” Dustin’s eye twitched with intensity. “Owen, I promise you, I ain’t bluffin’.”

Owen cleaned his teeth with his tongue for a moment and then said, smiling, “Your problem, Dusty, is that you don’t even know when you’s bluffin’ and when you ain’t.”

Owen paused meaningfully, then turned his horse to the north, “Come on, Karen.”

Dustin Trampas lanced a stare of hatred towards Owen before squeezing the trigger to his revolver and bracing for the impact. None came. He tried again, then again, then again, the empty clicking of the hammer on his gun mocking each attempt. All the while, Owen and Karen sauntered towards the ridges of the Devil’s Labyrinth in front of them.

“Try following, Dusty, and you’ll see that my revolver hasn’t had its bullets removed out of carelessness of leavin’ it by my bedroll,” Owen yelled without turning to look behind.

Dustin cursed as he scrambled for more bullets in his saddlebag. The oaths increased when he found those missing as well. He turned and screamed for his crew below the hill to hurry.

After they put a couple hundred yards between themselves and Trampas, Karen felt relieved enough to speak. “Why do we not run fast? He will come with others, no?”

Owen nodded. “Yep. And he’s going to be a bit aggravated, too. But runnin’ won’t keep him from catching us, so instead, I’m going to settle in by those boulders in front of us, and hold them off while you go into the Labyrinth.” Karen did not understand this plan, and a part of Owen did not understand it either. An hour earlier it would have been the furthest option from his mind. “I stay and shoot, you run and get away,” he simplified.

“No,” she returned. “I can not.”

They pulled up behind the gray boulders flecked with white and black dots, and Owen dismounted. He found a shelf on the boulder and loaded all his bullets onto it, then checked his gun and kept an eye on the path they just came from. Satisfied, he turned to Karen. “Shoot, Lady. You just have to go. I ain’t no hero, but I do like beautiful things, and I’d hate to see something as beautiful as you get mangled up by these ruffians’ bullets.”

Karen did not understand everything that Owen said, but she caught the tone and the word “beautiful.” This seemed to only further her resolve. “How you say earlier? ‘That plain stupid. We staying together.’”

Owen could not help but smile at his own words being used against him. “Clever, but that don’t change—”

The zinging sound of a bullet ricocheting off the boulder cut him off. In the distance, a posse of horses approached. Owen took a quick shot and one of the riders cried out, grabbing his arm. The men immediately spread out to find some kind of cover and return fire.

“Look,” Owen turned to Karen, “I’m not going to let this flock of dodos kill me, but that means you have to go, now, so I can focus.” Karen only vaguely understood what he said, so he followed up with, “Leave! I’m alright.”

Karen, still mounted, hesitated. More shots rang out, this time from different angles. They both flinched. “Karen, do me a favor,” he looked up, his jet black eyes meeting her clear blue ones, “Get safe, then go find that man you once talked to.”

Karen must have seen the determination in his eyes, because she finally relented. As she grabbed the reins, Owen reached up and shared the reins with her, their hands touching briefly. “… just don’t forget me neither, if that’s alright.”

Before she could respond, he shifted to business. “Wait ‘till I say ‘go’, and then run fast as the horse will take you.” He looked at her, and she understood. Then he glanced over to the Devil’s Labyrinth. “If you stay on the ridges, you’ll eventually get lost and they’ll corner you in a dead end. Going down inside the canyons is your best shot. Find a stream and follow it. Eventually, it’ll turn into the Verde River and lead you to Junction City from the north.”

Several more shots rang out. Owen turned back and eyed the scene. Then, before Karen could finish saying, “Thank you,” he yelled at her to go, slapped her horse and then fired four consecutive shots into various locations. This forced Dustin’s men to take cover while Karen sped off towards the Devil’s Labyrinth.

After about half an hour of sporadic back and forth shooting, Dustin must have guessed that Owen was running low on ammunition, because the men were more bold in seeking new positions to flank him. There were not the eight men he had expected, but six against one were still daunting odds, even with one injured. Owen figured he could probably hold them off for another five minutes or so and wondered if he had given Karen enough time. Never thought it would be a pretty girl that’d bring me to my end, he mused, though he smiled as he did so.

Several more shots rang out followed by some yelling. They must be prepping for their final push, Owen thought. He loaded more bullets, intent of ensuring that Dustin Trampas would be a recipient of one of them before he himself went down.

Then he paused. The yelling he heard was not instructions, it was panic. He peered around the boulder and saw a few of his besiegers turned backwards, frantically groping for cover from shots biting at them from an unknown source.

Owen’s eyebrows lifted. Someone was attacking Dusty’s men from behind. If he did not think it crazy, he could have sworn that he saw a coon-skin cap bobbing up and down as it emerged from the hill behind them, charging recklessly into the gunfight.

©2012 by Marty Reeder

Once Upon a Fjord was funded, in part, through a Kickstarter campaign. This chapter has been sponsored by Square One Printing:

Square One Printing specializes in wedding, graduation, and baby announcements. We also create and print business cards, letterheads, brochures and catalogues. Several different options of bindery services are available. Go to our website to use our easy “Request a Quote” on-line form or upload files to be printed:www.squareoneprinting.com Also, look for web special giving $5.00 off your next order of 500 full color digital business cards! Call 435.753.8875 or email us at orders@sq1.biz.

Sponsor had no editorial control over the chapter content. The author maintains full responsibility for content.