The shotgun blasts rent the hot, still June air. A hawk, disturbed by the noise, took to wing, flying low on the thermals from the valley floor, complaining with its eerie cry.
Allen Winthrup reined in his horse and stood in the stirrups, automatically dropping one hand to the handle of his holstered Colt revolver. The empty, broad valley spread out around him, rimmed by mountains and capped by a blue, cloudless sky. He took off his hat and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt.
The sound of the shotgun could have been an echo from a distant fire or someone shooting at a rattlesnake. He waited for additional or answering shots. There were none, so perhaps the gunfire was a signal.
“That sounded like it could have come from our ranch,” he said to his mare. He spurred her into a gallop. “Let’s get home.”
As Allen sped toward his spread, the various scenarios that could be awaiting him crowded his brain. It was possible that Paul or Chet had injured themselves in an accident or were sick. At least the lack of smoke on the horizon indicated that last summer’s fire which almost burned down their house wasn’t aflame again.
When his father died two years ago, Allen assumed the role of caretaker for his two younger brothers, although he was only fifteen at the time. After their father’s death, their uncle, Barnaby, became their guardian and executor.
Another, happier thought came to him: maybe his uncle had returned home.
As there was really little to do at the ranch but look after the cattle, Allen’s restless uncle left the place in charge of the three boys while he continued month in and month out to range over the hills and among the mountains in search of precious metal, which lay concealed beneath the surface. One day, Allen’s uncle staggered into the house with the news that he’d struck a bonanza. He refused to give more detail about its location, instead announcing his plan to travel to San Francisco to organize a company to work the claim. He set out on his trip a couple of months ago, apparently healthy, but the brothers hadn’t seen him or heard from him since. They were used to Uncle Barnaby being out of contact for weeks at a time while prospecting, but never this long.
That must be it, Allen thought. Uncle Barnaby returned from Frisco with a bang, a gunshot in celebration. Allen shook his head and broke into a rare grin. Boy, was he going to give Uncle Barnaby hell for not writing to the family while he was in Frisco.
The distinctive neigh of his horse alerted Allen that he was nearly home. He crested the last hill, and the ranch came into view. The home sat on one of the numerous branches of the winding Salmon River, a site chosen by his father many years before. The house was a rough but comfortable dwelling, with barns and other outbuildings within close walking distance. Middle brother Paul stood waiting there in front, a shotgun in his hand.
Paul was tall, well-built, and like Allen, had a tanned complexion from working on the ranch as he grew up. He shared the raven-black hair of his brothers, and it squirted on this forehead from under the brim of his hat as though trying to escape. Even after 15 years, though, Allen still couldn’t quite figure out his younger sibling. He reminded Allen of the old saying he learned during his short stint in formal schooling: “still waters run deep.” On the surface, Paul appeared calm and quiet, but Allen sensed he churned with turbulent emotions underneath.
“Hi, Allen! This way, quick!” Paul said, raising his voice.
“All right, Paul!” Allen called back as he dashed up on his faithful mare. He dismounted and gestured toward the shotgun. Paul returned a wry grin.
“Shooting this off was Chet’s idea. He wanted to signal you if you were nearby.” The smile disappeared and his brown eyes turned serious. “Allen, we’ve—”
Chet burst out of the barn, his blue shirt whipping behind him as if it had a mind of its own and his collar length hair bouncing. The fourteen year-old boy was the shortest and smallest of the three. Muscles rippled under his skin showed his surprising strength for his size. “Allen! Allen!” he shouted as he ran up. “Somebody stole our horses!”
Allen gave a low whistle and tilted back his hat, his eyes searching the ground, his hands on his hips. So much for hoping for good news. “Stolen! When? What happened?”
“We were—” Chet blurted out.
Paul turned to Chet and put one hand on his shoulder to calm him. “We just got back from the river,” he continued in his deliberate way. “We spent the morning fishing at our favorite deep hole.”
Allen nodded, shifting his lean frame from one foot to the other and back again.
“You know, the one near the roots of that clump of cottonwood trees,” Chet put in.
“We were coming back,” Paul went on in his slow, measured speech. “When Chet pointed toward the barn, and asked if I left the door unlocked. I didn’t, so I thought maybe you had come back.”
“We started for the barn,” Chet excitedly took up the story. “When we got inside, it was enough... it told everything... Jasper and Rush were gone.”
“Any idea when this happened?” Allen asked.
“There’s really no telling,” responded Paul. “We just got back from the river a few minutes ago and found the barn door broken open and both horses gone. If I remember—we went off about eight o’clock this morning, didn’t we, Chet?”
“Yes, around then.”
“It’s about noon now,” said Paul. “So the thieves had four hours to do their dirty work. They were alone and unmolested.”
Allen grunted a response, turned and walked to the barn. Paul and Chet followed. The broken lock’s brackets bent back and it held no longer than a rag. Allen looked toward his brothers for answers.
“See how the lock and hasp is busted open,” Chet pointed to the wrecked padlock.
Allen nodded and stepped into the barn, stopping just inside the door and waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light. Despite the situation, he welcomed the cool darkness of the interior.
“Thieves, as sure as fate!” Allen said, gazing around at every corner. “And they took all the extra harnesses as well.”
“As sure as fate,” repeated Chet, his black eyes flashing angrily. He waved a hand at the empty wall where the equipment was usually stored.
Allen shook his head in disgust. He paced around a little in front of it, thinking. “And no clues? Did either of you find anything?”
“No,” Paul admitted. “We haven’t had time to look.”
“Let’s search,” Allen ordered. “We need more light in here.”
Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out a waterproof box containing matches. He fished one out and struck it against a flint, lighting a kerosene lamp. He handed it to Allen. The three began searching.
“Here is a strap that isn’t part of our outfit.” Chet snatched it up, but quickly threw it back down. “But it’s only a common affair that might belong to anyone. No help to us.”
The trio continued to scour the barn.
“Well, hasn’t anybody found something yet?” Allen demanded irritably.
“Wait! Here’s a metal cross!” Chet announced as he picked it up out of a pile of dirt on the floor.
The article was in an ‘X’ shape, with a round hole drilled directly in the center. Each of the four comers contained one letter: DAFG.
“It could be made of silver, but so unpolished you can’t tell.” Paul bent over to examine the cross as it lay in his brother’s hand. “What do you make of it?”
Chet shrugged. “Nothing more than a metal cross with letters on it. I’ve never seen one like it before.”
“Is there no name on that thing?” Paul touched the cross.
Chet quickly flipped the cross over, and moved to the open door for more light. Some letters were carved in the metal crudely, as if with a knife. “S. M.,” read Chet, slowly. “I wonder who they stand for?”
“Sam somebody, I suppose.” Paul shrugged.
“Whoever they are, they must be mean enough to turn a horse thief,” Chet growled.
Allen grabbed the silver cross out of Chet’s hand. “Let me see it.”
“Hey!” protested Chet.
Allen turned the item over in his hands once. He looked like he was about to speak, but stopped short and muttered something under his breath.
“You know what that is?” Paul asked Allen. “Do you recognize it?”
“No, but Pa told me about it once,” said Allen. “It’s an old Sol Davids gang cross they wore. DAFG: Dare All For Gold! That was their old motto.”
“So it follows the horse thieves might be some left-overs from the old outfit,” noted Paul.
“Yes they are most likely of the same bad crowd, a remnant of the outlaw band from Jordan Creek. I figured they would spring up again, sooner or later,” said Allen. “The hanging of old Sol didn’t drive them out of this district as folks had hoped.”
“But what of the initials S. M.?” wondered Chet. “I never heard of any horse thief those would fit.”
“We’ll find out about that when we run the thieves down,” said Allen. “Let’s take a look around, and see if we can’t find some other clue to their identity.”
The brothers resumed their careful search.
“You say you discovered the robbery but a short while since?” Allen clarified after a few minutes.
“Not more than a quarter of an hour ago,” replied Chet.
“Either of you been up to the house?”
“I went for my gun, so we could signal you,” began Chet. “We figured if you were near enough—” he started, and then meeting his older brother’s eyes, he stopped short.
Not one of the three said a word for a moment. They all tore out of the barn, with Chet leading the way. In record time they burst through the front door of the house, and stood there, panting.
“Looks like everything is all right ... ” began Paul.
“No it is not!” yelled Chet, leaping forward. “The side window has been forced open.”
Allen glanced at it but said nothing. He continued to his sleeping room, which used to be his parents’ room, and opened the door. It was a shambles: the bedclothes on the floor; drawers pulled out of the dresser; his clothes thrown about everywhere. He began to dig through the mess, into a closet and two trunks. He let out an angry curse and slammed his fist against the wall. His brothers crowded into the doorway, looking at him anxiously.
“What’s going on?” they asked in unison.
“Everything’s gone,” said Allen in a hoarse voice.
“Gone?” gasped Chet.
“Yes,” said Allen, “all our savings for years! Seven hundred dollars, plus three bags of silver and gold! We’ve been cleaned out.”
Paul and Chet groaned.
“They must have started in your room,” Paul said, “and when they found the stash, they figured they got it all and left. It looks like they didn’t bother to search the rest of the house at all.”
“The mean, contemptible scoundrels!” Allen swore. “We must get after them somehow!”
Chet frowned. “How? We’re tied fast here. We can’t follow on foot—they knew that when they came to rob us and took the horses.”
“You are not going to sit down and suck your thumb again, are you, Chet?” Allen spat out.
“What do you mean by that remark? We can’t do anything! We must go for the sheriff!” Chet fired back.
Allen shook his head. “It would take at least a day to travel to town and bring back the law. The thieves’ trail would be cold by then, and they would be scattered to the four winds—with your horses and the money.”
“Now who’s sitting down and sucking his thumb, Allen?” Chet challenged.
“Allen’s right, Chet,” said Paul. He addressed his big brother. “What do you have in mind?”
“I’ll go after them,” decided Allen with swift determination. “I have my horse. I’ll get my rifle. I already have my pistol.”
“You are not going alone, are you?” asked Paul, concerned.
“There is no choice. There is only my mare to be had—mine.”
“That can be foolhardy, Allen,” cautioned Paul. “What could one fellow do against two or more? They would knock you over at the first opportunity.”
“I won’t give them the chance,” countered Allen grimly. “As they used to say when Pa was young, I’ll shoot first and talk afterward.”
“If you’re going, I’m going with you,” Chet asserted.
Allen shook his head. “No.”
“Two of us can ride on Lily. I don’t weigh much, certainly less than Paul,” Chet argued.
Allen shook his head again. “No, it can’t be done, Chet; not with her all tired out after her morning’s trip.”
“But Allen—” Chet started.
“I’m going alone. You are to stay here,” Allen declared.
“You can’t—” Chet tried again.
“No, Chet, that’s final. I gave you an order,” Allen commanded.
“Order? An order! Who do you think you are to give orders?” Chet bristled. “You don’t inherit your share of the ranch until you turn 18. Until then, Uncle Barnaby is our guardian.”
“In case you didn’t notice, our uncle isn’t here now, so you will do as I say!” Allen shot back. “I’m still the eldest and still in charge.”
“Just because you’re the oldest you think that gives you the right—” Chet shouted.
“That’s enough, both of you,” Paul interjected sharply, but still in his usual soft-spoken tone. The effect was as instant as dumping water on two fighting cats. Allen and Chet fell silent for a moment.
“Maybe the trail will pass by another ranch, and then I’ll call on the neighbors for help,” Allen offered after a pause. “I promise I won’t tackle the thieves on my own.”
“Can you follow their tracks?” questioned Paul.
“I think so. At least, I’ll try. They won’t get far if they leave the river, but it doesn’t seem like they’ll do that,” Allen answered.
Allen slipped into the main room of the house, went to the gun cabinet and retrieved his Winchester. He headed out the front door, Chet and Paul behind. With a curt nod towards them, Allen mounted his horse. A few minutes later he was off in the pursuit of the thieves. The dust clouds kicked up by Lily rose up in his wake like smoke from a growing fire.
Allen moved down the trail until the buildings of the ranch were far behind. He knew this way well, and it was easy to find the tracks—the new ones made by the hoofs of four horses.
“As long as they remain as fresh as they are now, it will be simple enough to follow them,” he said to Lily, patting her on the side. He urged her forward over the rough terrain in a way that displayed his affection for the animal, while also revealing his reluctance to make her work more than she could reasonably bear.
After moving through the belt of cottonwood trees, Allen reached a small stream that flowed into the river a little farther on. He looked around at his surroundings and paused to examine the signs on the wet bank.
The thieves probably came quite a distance to reach the ranch, he reasoned, so they must have needed to water their horses. That means they would most likely go back a long way before they’d settle down for the night.
“Heigh-ho!” he said aloud as he got off the ground, “I’m afraid a long and difficult search stretches before us, Lily.”
The tracks on the far side suggested that the robbers forded the brook upstream, so Allen crossed over likewise, and five minutes later reached a bit of rolling land dotted with sagebrush and other bushes. He wondered if this was where the trail would lead; perhaps to Gold Fork, a little mining town located at the base of the mountains.
“I should have no problem getting help there to find them,” the young man thought to himself. “I could get Ike Watson and Matt Prigley, who would gladly go to lend a hand, and there is no better man to take hold of this sort of thing than Ike Watson.”
For mile after mile, the horse thieves’ tracks remained simple to follow. The trail was so plain to see, the young ranchman soon realized that they had not believed they would be followed. He quickly found himself wrong, however. The tracks suddenly disappeared when he came around a rocky spur of land.
Allen halted in dismay and let out a curse. He looked to the right and the left and ahead, but to no use.
“Here’s a pretty state of things,” he complained as he gazed around. “Where could their tracks have gone? They couldn’t grow wings and fly away.”
He dismounted and walked around the edge of the stony ledge for a half-hour, squatting down, trying to spot any clues they might have left. Then on a hunch he moved forward over the bare rock, feeling pretty certain that it was the only way they could have gone. The barren, rocky way stretched ahead to gentle dirt slope at the end. Grass grew over it, and bushes dotted it here and there. Several sets of horse tracks marked its surface.
“Hurrah!” he cried, punching his fist into the air. “I see the trail again!”
He hustled back to Lily. He calculated that he had traveled around ten miles so far. His mare showed appearances of being tired, and he spoke to her more kindly than ever.
“Come on, old girl,” he said, patting her soft neck. “You can do it. We’ll get it all done, and then you can rest for a stretch.”
The faithful horse lay back her ears and appeared to understand Allen’s every word as he climbed into the saddle. She was a most knowing creature. Allen would have gone wild had she been one of the stolen horses.
“On, Lily,” he said, “we’ll return Jasper and Rush back before nightfall, or know the reason why.”
The horse took off over the plain that stretched before her for several miles, the foothills at last in sight. Beyond them were the mountains, covered with a purplish haze. The mare slowed to a walk as she struck the first upward slope. Hardly had she done so than Allen saw something on the trail ahead that made his heart jump.
A man was riding Chet’s horse.