A cowboy on horseback is silhouetted by the moon.

A Hard Path

By David W. Stoner

TABLE OF CONTENTS

From a ragged outcrop high above the wide river valley, Than Fareheart watched the smoke from the campfire curl above the line of trees. The open campfire told him that the three men were unconcerned about discovery and this worked to his advantage. He looked toward the outline of rugged peaks, pink and orange in the last glow of sunlight. That was where they were headed.

Standing up, stomping the blood back into his feet, he climbed up through a narrow gap to a copse of pinon and juniper to where his horse was hobbled. In a small clearing inside the copse, he gathered kindling for a fire. The warmth of a campfire would keep him company during the harsh night. After the fire was blazing, he poured water from his canteen into the coffee pot, scooped in ground coffee, and hung the pot from a tripod over the fire.

After the coffee came to a boil, he poured himself a cup and sat back against a pinon pine, thinking about the three men down below, the three men that he was chasing. In the darkness, sitting around the warmth of their campfire, they would put the day behind them, but Fareheart knew that what lay ahead for them was a hard path.

Fareheart thought about how everyone’s life was a story, each story unique to that person, and each story awaiting an ending. It seemed strange to him that he would play a significant role in the stories of the three outlaws since they were unaware of his existence. What seemed even stranger to him was that more likely than not, he would write the endings to their stories. And his story? Who would write its ending?

The sparks from the campfire twisted up and blended in with the stars that went on forever. Fareheart wondered how it was possible to go on forever? Each man lived his life and then was gone. But stars? He wished he knew more about stars.

And those men below. What did he know about them? Not much. What he did know was that it was never easy to kill another man. Knowing little about the men below wouldn’t make it any easier if it came to that. Had any of the men he’d killed deserved to be killed? Maybe that was a matter better decided by God. But it hadn’t been God who pulled the trigger. And just as he didn’t know the men down below, other than from a poster on a wall, he didn’t know God. God never spoke to him, so how was he to know what God wanted? Maybe he wasn’t listening carefully enough? Or maybe God had no reason to speak to him?

When God decided to speak to him, he would listen, and if he needed to change, he would change. Until then, he had to listen to his own thoughts, as scattered as they seemed to be.

Taking another drink of coffee, he looked to the ridge to the east, the rising moon casting its long shadow across the top of the mesa. He listened for the rustle of grass and knew Rascal was grazing close-by. Throwing out the remains of his cup, Fareheart pushed himself away from the tree and walked toward the pad of hoofbeats, feeling a need to check on Rascal, more out of a desire for companionship than concern for Rascal. Away from the fire, the stars seemed more abundant, and Fareheart stopped to gaze into the maze of night.

Rascal nuzzled in close and Fareheart took comfort in the warmth and sweet grass smell of his breath.

“Whoa, boy,” he said, reaching over to scratch Rascal under the long line of his jaw. “You don’t need to knock me down.”

Reminding himself that he needed to eat something, although he wasn’t hungry, he looked up one last time into the endlessness of the night before he returned to the fire. Tomorrow would be a long day. The outlaws rode hard and he had to ride hard to stay up with them. They didn’t know about him, he was sure of that, but as with all outlaws, they knew it was only a matter of time before someone picked up their trail. Fareheart had been chased once, so he knew what it was like to be hunted. Whatever occupied their minds didn’t matter, the men below were driven by the fires in their bellies. When a man chooses to break the law, that is his mind at work, but when he feels something behind him that threatens to take away his freedom, he will fight until his last breath. That is his gut at work.

From an arroyo, three Ute warriors, who had been following these men for two days, were close enough to smell the smoke from Than Fareheart’s campfire and the aroma of his boiled coffee. As they listened to the frolicking of his horse, they whispered among themselves. Even though this man posed no threat to them, their band of Utes had been pushed to the edge of their lands, to the blue mountains and the craggy canyons to the west. How far were they willing to be pushed? One day they would have to make a stand, and perhaps this man, and the men who he was following, might give them a clearer understanding of how they lived and what they wanted.

Moving quietly back to their horses, the warriors threw themselves up and rode back toward their small camp on the opposite edge of the mesa. At first light, they would continue their journey, but now they would sleep.

Staring into the glow of the campfire, Than Fareheart thought about the men below. Why do men do what they do? Were these men pushed beyond what they were willing to tolerate? A man turns to crime when he has no other choice. And murder? Was this simply a consequence of the choices they had made? Their rampage had started months ago with the holdup of a mining payroll. Then came a stagecoach, followed by a couple of banks. They had become bolder and bolder as they moved from payroll robberies to banks. The risks were higher but so were the rewards. But banks don’t tolerate being robbed. Nor do the people who trust banks to hold their money. When people lose their money, they put pressure on the bank to get their money back, and the banks put pressure on lawmen to catch the men who stole the money. As an added incentive, banks offer rewards for the capture of these men.

The stars seemed to go on forever, and Fareheart asked himself, What did the edge of the sky look like? But this was nonsense. He had a long day ahead of him and he needed sleep. Thinking about the edge of the sky only kept him awake. Putting his tin cup and plate aside, he rolled over in his bedroll, hoping to sleep. For a long time now, he hadn’t been able to sleep. Why was this, he asked himself?

After killing the first man, his sleep had been disrupted for a year. And then came another. Even though killing this man seemed unavoidable at the time, he could have walked away. Or, better yet, he could have avoided the whole thing. Killing can always be avoided. And now, finding himself on the trail of these men, he might have to kill again.

The men below slept. And the Utes wrapped in their blankets slept and dreamed of worlds far away. Black Cloud dreamed of a lake so vast that he couldn’t see the other shore. And White Wolf dreamed of trees that touched the stars. Little Mole dreamed that with his eyes painted black he rode without fear into battle against his enemies. Than Fareheart didn’t sleep.

Before first light, Fareheart’s campfire was blazing and his coffee boiling. Turning his back to the fire, Fareheart gazed at the horizon where the sun was slowly turning the thin line of clouds from purple to orange. Turning back, he poured himself a cup of coffee, set the steaming cup of coffee on a nearby rock, and went after Rascal. After brushing him, Fareheart threw up the blanket and saddle, reached underneath for the cinch, and slipped the latigo through the cinch ring, pulling it snug. Picking up his cup, he stepped over to the fire, the hot coffee burning his tongue. The three men below were already miles ahead.

From a hogback a quarter of a mile away, two of the Ute warriors watched Fareheart. The other one had stayed below with the horses. When he’d finished his coffee, they watched Fareheart throw out the dregs and pack the cup and coffee pot in his saddlebags. He stamped out the fire and led his horse out of the copse, tightened the cinch, threw his leg over the saddle, and rode back along the edge of the mesa to the narrow trail that led down to the river valley. As Fareheart rode past, the Utes crept back toward their horses. They would wait until he was off the mesa before they followed.

The sun was behind him as he started down the steep, rocky trail, and his horse’s warm breath formed clouds of steam in the cold morning air. In the shadow of the mesa, Fareheart pulled up the collar of his coat as he looked down at the sunlight slowly spreading across the wide river valley.

When half an hour later he’d arrived at the outlaws’ campsite, he dismounted to feel the embers, which told him that he was a couple of hours behind them. When they stopped to make camp tonight, however, he would be right behind them.

Watching from the top of the mesa, the Ute warriors saw Fareheart stop at the campsite. When he was once again underway, the Ute warriors started down the precipitous trail that they had traveled down so many times before. As the sun moved higher in the sky, the warriors turned their faces to the sun.

Fareheart had eased his horse to a small rise above the river and spurred him into a high trot. Away from the willows and tall brush along the river, Fareheart could make better time. With the sun now warming his back, he pulled up, stepped out of the saddle, removed his coat, and tied it onto the back of the saddle. Before stepping back into the stirrup, he looked up at the sheer face of the mesa, realizing that he’d already come a long way. This was harsh country, he thought, hot and dusty and unforgiving, miles and miles of badlands.

Up ahead, the three outlaws traveled in silence. They had been hardened by this hard land and saw no reason for chitchat. The one thing that occupied their thoughts was the desire to reach the mountains. If they could get there, they had a chance. Otherwise, they had no chance. Between them and the mountains lay a hundred miles of wasteland. There was no point in reminding each other of this fact.

The Ute warriors followed, riding easily through the country they were so familiar with, wondering why these men had come? What were they after? But they knew in their hearts that they were here to stay. And more would follow. From now on, their lives would be different.

Up ahead, Fareheart thought about his life. There had to be a better way to live. Chasing outlaws. What a dreary existence. But life was that way. Unrelenting and hard.

Outlaws thought differently than other people. They took for the sake of taking and convinced themselves that it was their right to do so. Even when they understood the laws, they chose to disregard them. Laws didn’t apply to them. Fareheart struggled to understand this total disregard for other people’s property. On the other hand, ownership might be a false belief. Who had the right to say what belonged to whom? This notion of ownership caused problems. Yet, since ownership had been established by law, could it ever be right for someone to take something that didn’t belong to him?

Tired of the silence, Sam looked over at the other two. “We won’t be bothered in the mountains. And before winter hits, we’ll move down to the canyons to the south. It’s big country with lots of places to hide.”

The youngest one, Gabe, looked over at Sam. “What about supplies?”

“Supplies? We have everything we need. There’s plenty of wild game and fresh streams.”

“Coffee? What about that? And whiskey?” Bord asked.

“You won’t need whiskey,” Sam said. “And there’s a trading post on the San Juan. We can get coffee there.”

No more needed to be said and they rode on in silence. And Fareheart followed.

With the sun bearing down on them, Sam pulled up. “We’ll rest here.” Neither Gabe nor Bord complained as they stepped down from their saddles and led their horses to a copse of willows by the river. In the shade of the willows along the river, the three outlaws removed their bedrolls and stretched out on the ground.

A safe distance behind the outlaws, Fareheart also chose to get out of the brutal sunlight. And behind him, at the first sign that Fareheart had stopped, the Ute warriors retreated into a narrow crevice in the wall of the mesa. In silence, they watched Fareheart lead his horse into the shade of a small copse of cottonwoods and remove the canteen from his saddle. Weary and tired, Fareheart slid down against the trunk of a cottonwood.

As the sun moved across the sky, the severe sunlight pierced the copse of willows. The outlaws began to stir. The sun had a fierce bite, but they had stopped long enough and needed to push on toward the high mountains where it was cooler. Fareheart waited. The Ute warriors waited.

After giving the outlaws a good start, Fareheart secured his canteen onto the saddle horn, tightened the cinch, and led his horse down to the river. As he knelt close to the river’s edge, all at once a strange sensation overcame him. There was someone else nearby. His instincts were strong and never led him astray. Slowly he lifted his head and looked over his shoulder. No one was there. But he felt a presence. Slowly he stood up and walked back to his horse, sliding his rifle out of the scabbard. Could the outlaws have circled back? No, he was sure they were unaware of him.

The Ute warriors, having left their horses in the crevice in the steep wall of the mesa, had moved noiselessly to the trees along the river, downstream from Fareheart. They crouched without a breath and watched Fareheart slide his rifle out of the scabbard that was tied to his saddle. Without a word to one another, they moved farther downstream. This one has powers, they thought to themselves. Although they could overpower him now, it was best to wait. They were seeking knowledge, not vengeance.

Even though he believed that he was putting himself in danger, Fareheart led his horse out of the copse of trees toward the rise above the river. If someone was there, it was better to bring him out into the open. Remaining hidden in the copse of trees exposed him to ambush. Fareheart was not a man to sidestep trouble, so if there was going to be trouble, let it come now.

With a keen eye, he surveyed his surroundings. Nothing stirred, nothing was out of place. But suddenly it occurred to him. Where were the birds? They had squawked and made such a ruckus when he’d first entered the copse but were quiet now. There had to be someone there, he was sure of it. Sliding his rifle into the scabbard, he threw his leg over the saddle and spurred his horse. In a flurry, Rascal took off, leaving a trail of dust behind.

The Ute warriors looked at one another in stunned silence. They ran from the copse back to the crevice where they had left their horses. This one was crazy. Without delay, they were mounted and galloping after Fareheart. Up ahead, still sensing danger, Fareheart pulled up, jumped from the saddle, jerked his rifle out of the scabbard, and led Rascal down into a narrow arroyo. “Easy boy, easy,” he whispered.

Peering over the edge of the arroyo, he had a clear view of the trail. If someone was behind him, he was ready. Once they could no longer see dust, the Ute warriors knew that the strange one had taken cover. Pulling up, Black Cloud pointed toward the mesa and galloped in that direction with White Wolf and Little Mole following close behind.

Fareheart waited, breathing slowly. Nothing came. His instincts had never failed him before, but could he have jumped to the wrong conclusion? He waited. Until finally, when his curiosity got the better of him, he said out loud, “If someone was there, and they want to harm me, there’s little I can do about it. If it’s going to come, it will come.”

Fareheart slid away from the edge of the arroyo and turned over onto his back to stare up into the immense sky above. Rascal pawed the ground and Fareheart laughed. “We’re getting a little jumpy, aren’t we? Maybe it is time to find another way to make a living.”

Fareheart got up, slid the rifle back into the scabbard, and led Rascal out of the arroyo. Once he was back on the trail, Fareheart threw his leg over the saddle and moved off in the direction of the outlaws. Realizing that they were far ahead of him now, and hoping to close some ground before dark, Fareheart kicked Rascal into a high trot. By tomorrow, the outlaws would be in the mountains, where it would be almost impossible to track them. Even if he had to ride through the night, he needed to overtake them before they reached the mountains.

With the trail of dust, Black Cloud knew the strange one was on the move again. Without a word, he threw himself onto his horse and rode in the direction of the mountains, followed closely by White Wolf and Little Mole. Unlike Fareheart, they knew the mountains and would have little trouble tracking these white men there.

As darkness came over the valley, Fareheart was close behind the three outlaws. When he was a quarter of a mile away, he smelled the smoke from their campfire and pulled up, stepping down from the saddle. He led his horse to a thick copse of willows along the river, where he loosened the cinch, hobbled Rascal, and slipped the bridle off his head. Using the smoke from their campfire as his guide, he knew he could wait until it was pitch black before he moved in.

Once Fareheart pulled up, the Ute warriors, far enough behind to escape discovery, took cover in the thicket along a turbulent stretch of the river that dampened their presence. Black Cloud motioned to Little Mole, who, crawling on his belly, moved closer to Fareheart. He was close enough that he could see Fareheart, with his pistol resting in his lap, leaning against a tree. His horse grazed close-by. Up ahead of Fareheart, Little Mole could see the glow of the outlaw’s campfire reflected in the leaves of a tangle of cottonwoods. As Little Mole watched, Fareheart stood up and walked to his horse. As the horse raised its head, the tall man scratched under his jaw and whispered something into its ear. When Little Mole saw the tall man moving in the direction of the outlaws’ campfire, he moved quickly back to where Black Cloud and White Wolf waited.

Black Cloud, upon hearing Little Mole’s report, didn’t hesitate. Leaving their horses behind, they followed Fareheart, wanting to discover what was behind the tall man’s actions.

Moving with caution, Fareheart was close enough to overhear what the outlaws were saying. Their loud and boisterous manner made it easier for Fareheart to get into position. Unaware of his presence, the outlaws relaxed around the campfire. Looking around for something to throw, Fareheart picked up a stick and tossed it toward the campfire. Scrambling to their feet and stumbling backward, the outlaws jerked their pistols from their holsters, searching the darkness, trying to see what moved beyond the shadows that wavered in the glow from the fire.

When Fareheart yelled, “You’re done for,” the outlaws fired wildly into the darkness. Foreseeing this onslaught of gunfire, Fareheart was tucked in safely behind a thick cottonwood tree.

“Drop your guns and you’ll live,” Fareheart said. “Otherwise, it’s over.”

After they had emptied their pistols into the darkness, the three outlaws scrambled away from the campfire. Although he wasn’t a ruthless killer, Fareheart knew he didn’t have much time to react before the men had escaped into the darkness. Picking out the one he believed to be the leader, Fareheart shot him in the chest. Sam went down. In a panic, Bord rushed to his side, fumbling to reload his pistol. Out of the corner of his eye, Bord saw Gabe running toward the horses and he yelled for him to stop.

Turning around just in time to see Bord get hit in the chest, Gabe yelled into the darkness, “Don’t shoot. I’m laying down my pistol,” and eased back into the light of the campfire. Unsure if either of the outlaws he’d hit were dead, Fareheart waited a minute before stepping out from behind the tree and moving toward the campfire. His pistol on the ground, the young outlaw raised his arms in the air.

“What d’ya want, mister?” the young outlaw asked. “We’ve got money. Is it money you want?”

Fareheart remained silent as he moved over to where the two outlaws lay on the ground. Keeping his pistol pointed at the young outlaw, with that sickness like a malignant worm boring its way into the pit of his stomach that left a foul taste in his mouth, he made sure the two men were dead. Money? No, it wasn’t money he wanted. What was it then?

Hidden in the trees, Black Cloud looked over at White Wolf and Little Mole. Motioning with his head, they receded back along the river. When they were out of earshot, he said, “This tall one seems to be angry. What inspires his wrath?”

“It is strange behavior,” White Wolf said. “Is it their way?”

“It must be,” Black Cloud said. “There is nothing more we can do here. These men have violent ways. I don’t see how they are a threat to us, only to themselves. Still, I am plagued by uncertainty. With so many of them coming, we can’t remain invisible forever.”

White Wolf thought about what Black Cloud said. Is remaining hidden the only way to protect ourselves? “Why don’t we act?” White Wolf asked.

“To what purpose?” Black Cloud said. “These men are already stirred up. No, it is best to leave the hornet’s nest alone.”

When they got back to their horses, the Ute warriors rode out from the tangle of trees. The moon was up and they easily found the trail along which they would travel back to their people. Fareheart also would travel back. Alone? Or would he take the boy? And to what fate? This way of the outlaw was a hard path to travel. A hard path.

TEXT © David W. Stoner

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