Chapter 3

The non-arrival of the stage coach in Medicine Bow had, as Elizabeth feared, led to great concern from all those waiting to meet the passengers. Emmet Ryker, Stacey and the Virginian immediately set out to search for the missing stage but darkness fell before they were able to pick up any tracks, and they were forced to make camp for the night.

Trampas and Elizabeth made what shelter they could under the fir trees. Warmed by the fire Trampas had lit, and exhausted by the climb up the mountain, Elizabeth soon fell asleep. Trampas, however, enjoyed no such relief. The gnawing pain in his head prevented him from getting any rest. Instead, worried that they might be visited by a hungry mountain lion or wolf, he kept his hand firmly gripped on his gun throughout that long, dark night.

At first light, the searchers broke camp and continued retracing the stage coach's route. It wasn't until they arrived at Jacob's Crossing that they discovered the reason they had been having such difficulty in finding any tracks. There the Virginian saw clearly how the stage coach had taken the route towards Dead Man's Canyon.

"But why did they go that way?" asked Ryker.

"When we find them, we can ask them," said the Virginian drily and jumped onto Joe D to follow Stacey who was already riding into the Canyon.

"Well," said Ryker slowly. "At least we know someone survived."

The three of them were standing by the wrecked stage coach looking at the two recently dug graves.

Stacey, who had said nothing since they had left Jacob's Crossing, suddenly knelt down and thrust his hands onto one of the graves, digging his fingers into the crumbling soil.

"No, Stacey, don't," said the Virginian, as he pulled him away from the grave.

"I need to know. I need to know who it is. It could be Liz." He turned to face the Virginian. "It could be Trampas."

"We'll find out. In a little while." He put his arm around his young friend's shoulder. "But that isn't the way."

Ryker had moved ahead and was studying the ground. "There are two sets of tracks. One goes this way around the cliffs. The other towards the desert."

At that, all three looked out across the vast expanse of sand, desperately searching for any sign of the passengers who had chosen such a dangerous route.

"What's that?" suddenly asked Stacey. "There's something out there – something in red."

Fearful of what they might find, the men galloped their horses across the barren wasteland.

Mrs Heath was beyond their help but her husband, hearing their arrival, begged for water, and Ryker helped him to drink a little from his canteen.

"I told them we'd make it. I told them," he whispered hoarsely.

"Where are the others?" asked Ryker. "What happened to them?"

"They went across the mountains. They wouldn't come with us. They said it was too dangerous." He gave a strange laugh. "They were afraid. But I was right."

"Who?" demanded Stacey. "Who went across the mountains?"

Mr Heath stared up at him but didn't seem to understand. He had heard the voice but couldn't see the questioner. He could only see the sun, which had burned into his body and his soul during that long walk across the desert. And then there was only darkness.

Late in the afternoon, Trampas and Elizabeth had stopped for a rest beside a stream. Elizabeth had just washed her face and hands, trying to get rid of the dust and the dirt that had accumulated during the day's walk, when she suddenly saw Trampas standing in front of her, with his gun aimed straight at her.

"Trampas, what is it?"

"Stay right there. Don't move."

As she stood there, not understanding the fierceness in his voice, she noticed that the cut on his head had opened up and fresh blood was dripping from the wound.

"Trampas, are you all right? What's wrong?"

When he didn't immediately answer, Elizabeth was frightened. He was looking right at her but it was as if he couldn't see her. She didn't know what to do – except to move slowly towards him.

"I said stay still!" he shouted angrily.

"Trampas! Don't!" she cried but the sound of the gunshot silenced her and she fell to the ground.

"Up here! This way," the Virginian shouted, and the three men rushed towards the sound of the shot.

They found Trampas cradling Elizabeth in his arms. There was blood on her face.

"Liz!" cried Stacey. "Liz!"

At the sound of her brother's voice, Elizabeth opened her eyes. She looked hesitantly at Trampas, but then caught sight of the dead mountain lion lying just behind him.

"Trampas, I didn't realize…"

Trampas shook his head. "I told you to keep still. Why don't females ever do what they're told?"

The three men laughed.

"Now, Trampas," said the Virginian, "It may be a long way back to Shiloh but you know we really haven't enough time to answer that question!"

Trampas smiled. "I guess you're right. After all, I told Mr Grainger, it's just a short ride home."