The El Dorado range rose from the dense forest of Ponderosas and Douglas firs like the jaws of an antediluvian beast. The snowcapped summits slashed the clouds that dared to drift overhead and a wind that chilled to the bone rushed down from their lofty heights. It was an intimidating display by Mother Nature, but it wasn’t about to stop Sean from seeking out Pierre.
“You sure we gotta go up there today?” Joseph said from behind him, his voice muffled by his wool scarf.
Sean glanced over his shoulder. His deputy shivered despite the heavy wool coat and pants he’d changed into back at the office. “We’ve wasted enough time in town.”
Joseph rubbed his hands together to keep them warm. “We should get a posse of men to go up there.”
“No, that many men and horses would draw too much attention,” Sean said, nudging his grey and white Palomino mare with his heels.
“See how the mule’s tracks are deeper? It’s weighed down by the corpses,” Sean said, studying the tracks made by a single horse and a mule. “Lucas was right about the mule, too.”
Joseph glanced behind over his shoulder and reached for his Colt.
Sean raised an eyebrow. “What’re you doing?”
“Swear we be followed…”
“Don’t let your imagination get the best of you,” Sean said, glancing behind them. “Now c’mon…”
The trek up the mountain proved to be an arduous journey. By the time they reach the broad valley icicles hung from the muzzles of the horses and their breath billowed like steam from a locomotive.
“What you doin?” Joseph said when Sean brought his horse to a halt.
“Don’t you smell that wood smoke blowing this way?” Sean said, pulling a field glass out of a coat pocket.
Joseph wiped his broad nose with the back of his hand. “My nose is so frozen… it be… all I can do… to breathe.”
An ice-covered creek wound its way through the valley and brush grew along its rocky banks. A few massive boulders sat on the valley floor like sentinels, and at first Sean dismissed the snow-covered log cabin as one of them. But the billowing smoke from the chimney betrayed its true nature. Behind the house was a small barn and a split rail corral that held a mule and a brown and white horse.
Sean lowered the field glass. “I reckon that’s Pierre’s homestead, and it looks like someone’s up there.”
“His wife and boy?” Joseph said, taking the field glass.
“I reckon it might just be them, but we can’t take no chances.”
“How we do this?”
“You’ll make your way up there while using the brush along the creek for cover,” Sean said. “Get up on one of them boulders and keep me covered while I ride up to Pierre’s front door.”
“You think he’s just gonna answer the door and be all peaceful?”
“If I thought that I would’ve left you at home. Use that field glass and if you see any trouble shoot to kill.”
“What if he gets the drop on you?”
Sean glared at him.
Joseph slipped off his chestnut gelding and grabbed his Henry rifle. “Okay, okay…”
A trodden path in the snow led from the cabin’s front door to the barn and corral. A dog’s massive paw prints crisscrossed the path. The last thing he wanted to deal with was trying to outrun a dog in the snow. From the other side of the door came a man’s muffled voice. Was it Pierre? Who was he speaking to? His family? Was he aware of Sean and Joseph’s presence? Was he discussing strategy of how to deal with them? There was no way to know for sure since there were no other voices and the shuttered windows prevented him from seeing inside.
Sean knocked on the door. “This is Sheriff Callahan, I want to have a word with you, Pierre Dubois.”
The house grew silent.
When he knocked again a ferocious barking erupted from inside the house. Sean’s heart hammered and the prickling sensation of fear crept up his spine like a spider. The door swung open and Sean dashed for cover behind a tree stump a few yards away.
Sean peered over the stump. A coal black dog stood in the open doorway. The massive beast had square head and slobber dripped from its yellow teeth. A towering man with an unkempt beard that reached his belt buck stood behind the dog. He wore a mangy bearskin coat and a buckskin outfit. Clutched in his hands was a double barreled shot gun. When he stepped out onto the porch his coat swept back and revealed a Colt Dragoon and a Bowie knife holstered on his hip.
Sean ducked behind the stump. “This is Sheriff Callahan, call off your dog and drop your weapons, Pierre. We got you-”
A shotgun blast cut his words off. The shot hit the side of the stump spraying bark and snow. Joseph’s rifle cracked like thunder. His shots struck the doorway, missing Pierre by mere inches.
The dog howled. Sean drew one of his Remingtons and cocked the hammer. The dog barreled toward him like a runaway locomotive. Sean leaned out and fired at it a few times but missed with each shot. Sean held his breath to steady his aim. The dog leapt at him. Sean squeezed the trigger. His shot went wide. The dog slammed into Sean and drove him into the snow. The blow knocked the air out of Sean and he lost his grip on his gun.
The dog lunged for his throat. Sean flung his arm over his neck. Its teeth tore through his coat sleeve and dug into his arm. Agony flood Sean’s senses. The dog shook its head side to side while maintaining its hold on his arm. Its teeth ripped into his arm like a saw. Sean reached out with his free hand and gouged the dog’s right eye. The dog squealed and let go of his arm. It staggered backwards and snarled. Sean drew his other Remington and squeezed the trigger. The dog’s blood splattered s the snow. It fell onto its side and did not get back up. The snow beneath it turned scarlet.
Pierre was nowhere to be seen. Had he escaped? Tracking him through the dense forest and deep snow would be difficult especially since Pierre knew this land better than any man.
Someone ran through the snow. A surge of relief washed over Sean’s mind when he saw it was Joseph. “Where’d Pierre go?”
“He slipped back inside and shut the door,” Joseph said. “Maybe he’s tryin’ to head out the back?”
“Go on around that end and I’ll take the other side,” Sean said, grabbing his other Remington out of the snow. “We’ll try to cut him off.”
“What about his wife and kid?”
“What about them? If they gotta gun, shoot them. If they’re not armed but they get in your way, put a rifle butt in their face. Pierre’s not getting away.”
Sean crept around the corner of the cabin and his heart skip a beat. Half-buried in the snow was a dirty shovel and pick ax. Were they used to dig up the graves? Why else would they be out here in the snow? Most likely the strong winds had swept some of the snow away. These were the tools used to commit the crime. Where were the corpses? Were they under the snow, too?
The roar of gunshots filled the air. Sean poked his head around the corner. Pierre had Joseph pinned down behind a chicken coop. The barrage of gunfire kept Joseph from returning fire. Pierre kept his back to Sean. Some fool once said only a coward shoots a man in the back, but Sean didn’t have time to contemplate morality. A soldier acted, or he died, fighting for the Union had proved that to him. Being sheriff was not any different. Sean stepped around the corner and fired.
Pierre howled when the bullet tore through his thigh. He clutched his leg before falling face first into the snow. Joseph rushed over and aimed his Henry rifle at Pierre’s head.
“I hope you don’t do something you regret,” Sean said, planting a boot on Pierre’s back, “like rolling over and trying to shoot me with that Dragoon.”
Pierre raised his head and said in a rumbling voice. “Non-non… monsieur… you got me… oh-okay?”
“Go on, Joseph, get his weapons and put your shackles on him. If he tries anything I’ll plug him in the head.”
“Que?” Pierre said.
“Speak English,” Sean said while Joseph shackled Pierre and took his weapons.
“Wuh-why you do this?”
“You didn’t really expect to get away with snatching those corpses and killing Leroy, did you?”
Pierre’s eyes grew wide. “Non! Non! Je suis… I am no robber of graves! I no kill. I stay here with my family…”
“Are they in the house?”
“Oui… Yes, they are inside… they mean you no harm. We were just about to have dinner…”
“Stay out here with him,” Sean said, glancing at Joseph. “I’m going to check out the house.”
“Could be a trap,” Joseph said.
The cracking of branches filled the air. Sean spun in the direction of the noise. A boy dressed in an over-sized wool coat and pants took cover behind a Ponderosa pine.
“Stop right there!” Sean said, aiming his revolver at the boy.
“Puh-lease, Sheriff” Lucas said as he stepped out from behind the tree with his hands held high. “D-don’t shoot me!”
Sean lowered his gun. “Boy, what did I tell you about sneaking around?”
“S-sorry sheriff…” Lucas said, hanging his head.
“I done told you someone was followin’ us!” Joseph said.
“What’re you doing up here, son?” Sean said.
“I wanted to help you catch him!” Lucas said, glaring at Pierre.
“This ain’t no place for a boy!” Joseph said, shaking his head.
“He’s right, you could’ve gotten yourself killed, or lost up here.”
“You gonna shoot ’em?” Lucas said. “Bury him in the snow?”
Sean frowned. “That’s not how we do things.”
Lucas’ eyes narrowed. “That’s what he deserves!”
“Brat! I should have shooted you last night!” Pierre said, glaring at Lucas.
Sean ground his boot heel into Pierre’s back. “Now why would you go and do a thing like that?”
Pierre howled. “He steal from my barn. I almost shooted him last night. My wife say ‘he just boy’. I let him go. ”
“This boy and another witness saw you in the cemetery last night,” Sean said, peering down at him. “But you expect me to believe you were here with your family? Tell me where the corpses are and I’ll make things easier on you.”
“I-I was here I swear I-”
“Your lying be as bad as your English.” Joseph said.
Pierre spit at him. “You nigg-”
Joesph kicked him in the gut. “You lucky my folks raised me Christian, else I’d shoot you like a dog!”
Sean put a firm hand on Joesph’s shoulder. “I need you to keep calm and guard him while I search the house. Then. we’re going to take him back to town and lock him up. Let Judge Stone deal with him in the morning. Nothing else, got me?”
“I got you, but what about him?” Joseph said, glancing at Lucas.
“Get your butt over there,” Sean said, pointing toward a snow-covered stack of wood. “And don’t you move until I tell you to. You’re coming back with us.”
“I ain’t leavin’ without my kin!” Lucas said, darting toward the cabin.
Sean ran after him, but the deep snow tripped him up and he fell. Lucas slipped into the house while Sean struggled to get back on his feet.
Joseph frowned. “What in the blazes does that boy think he doin’?”
“I don’t know. Stay here and keep watch on Pierre,” Sean said, marching toward the house. “I’ll deal with whoever’s left inside and bring Lucas back. If I’m not back in ten minutes or you hear a ruckus, get yourself and Pierre back to town right quick.”
Joseph frowned. “Watch yourself…”