by Kerby Jackson
Lloyd Brackett had been trailing Joe Skookum for five days through a beautiful, yet wild and dangerous country that skirted the rushing white waters of the Rogue River. Far below him, from where he rode on the tree lined canyon rim, he could see the river boiling several hundred beneath him. As it raced on toward the town of Ellensburg and emptied into the Pacific some seventy miles away, that water ran as fast and as wild as its name sounded and had swallowed up many a white man and many an Indian over the eons who had taken a single, but fatal mis step on the jagged rocks upon which he now rode. Even if the distant fall did not kill a man, the river most surely would and even if the Rogue failed, this wild forest would certainly finish a man off.
The only other thing that was absolutely certain, Brackett knew, was that Joe Skookum was somewhere here in this wild land and that the star pinned to his flannel shirt made it his sworn duty to hunt him down. Joe could be a dangerous sort of man. He was half Takelma Indian, one of the last of his kind and had sure as hell lived up to one meaning of his surname. Back in the day, before they had been mostly run out of this valley and sent on the long, hard march to the Grande Rhonde Valley Reservation, local Indians had often used that word "skookum" to indicate a good, strong man. But it was also a name given to some sort of evil spirit that they all worried about meeting and the latter certainly described Joe Skookum well when he was drinking, for the man had committed a list of public offenses that ran the gamut from spitting on the sidewalks all the way up to assaulting a local preacher with a picket he had torn from the church fence.
Joe had always been a salty sort of character, but now he had gone much too far, for he had shot down two men in cold blood and had even dug his way out of what Lloyd Brackett had thought was a secure jail and had high tailed it up the canyon despite wearing an Oregon Boot on one foot. The boot was a terrible sort of contraption that consisted of a stirrup that slipped under the sole of a man's foot and was attached to a heavy weighted ring that was locked around the ankle and the thing weighed enough to slow any man who wore it down to a stagger instead of a normal walk. The reputation of this thing was known far and wide and it was said that no man had ever escaped wearing an Oregon Boot. But Joe Skookum had done just that and despite the fact that he was probably still wearing the damn thing, he had led Lloyd Brackett into some of the roughest country on God's green earth and had managed to stay far ahead of him judging from what little sign he was leaving behind.
If the word got out and Joe Skookum managed to get away, Brackett would surely be the laughing stock of every lawman between here and Kansas. That idea did not bother him so much, but the thought that it might confirm the fact that he was getting old, did get under his skin. The pity of it all was that Joe was a likable sort of fella when he laid off the whiskey and otherwise tended to be hard working and upstanding. He'd spent many a night in the drunk tank, and Lloyd had to admit, that when the alcohol wore off, he kind of liked Joe Skookum and sometimes they played cards together until the wee hours.
Lloyd and this old horse that he was riding had been the law in this valley for years and they were both definitely feeling the wear and tear from it of late. Old Judge, a large chestnut with a white blaze and boots, was still sure footed and dependable, but the old horse no longer seemed to see very well, while his rider, now sixty five years old, tended to feel every bump on the trail in his bones. He had even taken to having slipped an extra blanket beneath his trail worn saddle. It cushioned his backside enough to absorb some of the shock and even made Lloyd appear a bit taller in the saddle, which was a good thing, for he was pretty sure that he'd shrunk a bit in height these last few years. However, that extra padding didn't do a damn thing for his eyes and ears, both of which were failing, and for a man who needed sharp senses and quick reflexes, it was a disturbing development.
Brackett had always been fast with a gun and he could shoot out the eye of a bird in flight when he was a younger man. While he was still fast, he knew that he wasn't quite as quick as he had once been, for that big .45 Colt he had always carried seemed to have gained a bit of weight. Lloyd liked to think that maybe they were just loading the cartridges a little heavier these days and that accounted for the difference, but he knew that wasn't true. He'd even thought about maybe trading the old gun in for one of those new fangled lighter models, but he didn't want sacrifice the fire power, nor did he think that those newer models looked quite right. As for shooting out the eyes of birds, that too had changed, but he was still a bit of a shootist and provided he could see something and it didn't move too fast, he could still hit it. Still, if it came down to it, he kind of wondered how quick he'd be compared to a younger man like Joe Skookum in a stand up fight on even ground.
Even though Lloyd's eyes and ears might have been failing, one thing that had not ebbed was his sense of smell. As he came to the top of a rise in the canyon wall and looked out over where the canyon opened up wide and the green of Doug Firs ran clear to the horizon until they met with a line of blue green peaks, Lloyd could smell a faint, but distinct smell of wood smoke on the gentle breeze. He didn't think that Joe would be fool enough to light a fire, but he had ran him hard for five days and the man still had that contraption on his ankle, so maybe he had forced him to risk a camp fire. On the other hand, maybe Joe Skookum thought that Lloyd was an old man who could no longer cut it and was waiting somewhere out there for him to catch him up so they could have it out. This area was so isolated that if Joe was true to his Takelma roots and crept up on him at night to slit his throat with that big skinning knife he carried, Lloyd reckoned that it would be years before anyone would find his bones, if they ever found his remains at all. Apart from some sturdy folks, most of which were the Metis offspring of old trappers and their brides of assorted Indian tribes, who lived near the big bend in the river at Illahe, damn few people ever came out this way. It was still a wild place disturbed only with the constant roar of the Rogue, and Lloyd figured that it would probably always be that way for it took some hard souls to manage in this land.
He squinted out over the dense forest and canyon below him looking for a sign of the smoke that he was smelling, gradually surveying the half circle of the expanse before him. It was then that another smell came to him, a bit sweet, but like burnt sugar. He took in a deep breath to try to place the smell and soon did.
It was Camas, he decided, their onion like bulbs roasting in the coals of a fire somewhere nearby. Lloyd had tried them once at Digger Haines' place and they had reminded him of the Sweet Potatoes that he had eaten as a boy. He had quite liked them, but only Indians and old woodsmen like Digger Haines ate the stuff for most said it was "Injun food" and therefore, not fit for consumption by god fearing folks. Joe Skookum was not exactly what you could call a god fearing man and Brackett was certain that the renegade Metis was nearby.
Lloyd withdrew his Winchester from the boot and stood up in his stirrups to take a better look at his surroundings. And it was then that a sort funny feeling swept through his gut and Lloyd dove off the back of Old Judge just in time to hear a bullet sing past him and the sound of single gunshot echoing up and down the canyon. He immediately took cover behind a large tree that had been knocked over during some storm in ages past. The bark had been stripped off by the weather and the log was already heavy with rot on one side, but was big enough to shield his body. Another shot rang out from somewhere in the canyon below and smashed through the tree limbs above him, the wicked sound putting the rider less Judge into a bolt.
"Joe?" Brackett called out to the shooter below, not knowing if the man would answer or it.
"Yeah?" a voice said from far below.
"This is Lloyd Brackett."
"Whaddya want?" Joe Skookum shouted back.
"You know damn well what I want, Joe Skookum! You just step out where I can see you and toss that gun so we can go back to town."
"Like hell, I will! I ain't goin' back to that town. You just let me walk out of here."
"Can't do it, Joe," Brackett told him and he levered a round into the Winchester.
"Don't make me come down there," Brackett told him.
Another round plowed into the tree just behind Brackett, sending fragments of bark to the pine needled forest floor. Lloyd looked at the damage to the tree.
"Ain't you a bit too old for this sort of thing, Lloyd?"
Judging by the sound of his voice and the angle of the shot that hit the tree, Brackett knew that the man was somewhere to the right of him and probably holed up somewhere amongst the rocks along the canyon wall.
"I hadn't planned to retire yet, if that's what you mean."
"You must have Meyers with you, then, don't you?"
Joe Meyers was Brackett's deputy, and a good one, but he had sent Joe to run a prisoner over to Jackson County and he preferred to not involve townspeople in a posse.
"No, it's just you and me, kid. Tell you what, if you give up and come out, I'll say you put up a hell of a fight and nobody will know you surrendered."
The man didn't answer, as if he was mulling that idea over.
"I'd know," he finally said and he let go of two more shots, the second one coming dangerously close and thunking into the rotting log just in front of Brackett. Immediately he hunkered down and swore at the closeness of the shot. Had the man been using a rifle, it might have ran through and hit Brackett, it was so close.
Joe Skookum laughed out loud.
"That one almost get you, Lloyd?"
"Almost," Brackett told him. "That a .31 you're using?"
"Yep. I figure if a Baby Dragoon was good enough for Ferd Patterson, it's good enough for Joe Skookum, don't you think?"
"Not for this it isn't, Joe," Brackett spat and he popped up from behind the log and let go of a shot from the Winchester and heard the round ricochet amongst the rocks on the other side of the canyon a few hundred feet away. Lloyd shucked his hat, leaving it atop the log and ran for the cover of a large rock.
Joe Skookum let loose of a long line of oaths and Brackett knew he had come close.
"You tryin' to kill me, Lloyd? Hell, I ain't done nothin' to you!"
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