Leap of Faith
Frailty, thy name is woman. ~ (William Shakespeare)
It was Breck what thought of it.
"No owlhoot's goin' to harm a poor helpless girl-kid on her way home from visitin' her brother." He looked at me a might skeptical. "Lucy, d'you think you c'd look helpless? If'n you really tried, I mean?"
I snorted genteelly and shifted the Greener to my other hip.
Cal Langdon was fretting. "They's plenty hombres around here wouldn't stick at holdin' up a female."
"Well, if they does catch her, I reckon she'll persuade 'em to let her go," Breck said.
Cal and my brother Breck was partners in the mine, y'see, and they finally struck a vein and had a lot of ore needed to be took to the assay office. Trouble was, badmen in those parts was thick as fleas on a blue-tick hound right then, and all sorts of hard-cases was bushwhacking miners on the off chance they had valuable samples on them. And then taking over their claims at gunpoint.
So they had to get the ore out without letting on what they was doing. I'd rode up from the Crossing with a mule-load of supplies a few days previous, and it seemed to me that Breck, for once in his bone-headed life, had come up with a pretty good idea.
His partner didn't think so and he objected on the grounds that it was too dangerous. Which was surprising seeing's how it was my own blood kin made the suggestion. But male critters are funny that way, 'specially after they just spent three months in the mountains with nothin' to look at but rattlers, rocks, and each other.
Us Pritchards has a name in our neck of the woods for foaling big, good-looking young'uns. I ain't a patch on my oldest sister Nan or even my next oldest sister Dolly, but there's fellows back home would be glad to run uphill after me. I don't want folks to think I'm careless with my affections, only a girl gets to where she can read the signs and I concluded that it was high time I left the neighborhood of one Cal Langdon before he got notional. Cal's all right but he ain't but six foot tall or so and I've always cottoned to men I can look up to.
After I helped Breck sew the best of the samples into a money belt, I went back down in the mine and stripped to my stays and tied it around me. Once I was decent again you couldn't hardly tell the belt was there - or at least a man'd have to get real fresh before he found it. Breck put some tailings in my saddlebags, iron pyrites and low-grade ore, to fool any sidewinder who might stop me.
I started for home at sunup. I had Breck's old dog Buster, a fast horse and the Greener, so I calculated my chances was as good as anybody's. Also I knowed the hill paths and was planning on using them.
After a while a couple of cowpokes rode by. Polite enough and all, touched their hats and even said good morning, but I didn't dally to pass the time of day. One of them had his pistol tied worrisome low on his leg and I decided to put some real estate between us. I didn't want no professionals on my back trail.
I had jogged my horse on a ways further when I come upon a man on a dun mustang blocking the road. He wore a cowhide vest and a mean expression, and I didn't waste time on idle conversation. I had him covered before he could slap leather.
He cussed at me when he saw that. "Missy, you drop that scattergun an' fork over your saddlebags or you'll be sorry!"
"You ain't in no position to be makin' demands," I answered him, bold as brass.
"You don't know who you're foolin' with," he sneered.
"No, and this ol' fowling piece of mine don't care. Now less'n you want me to tickle your liver with a load of double-aught buck, you make yourself scarce." I jiggled the Greener, which is a habit of mine when I'm nervous.
I heard horses behind me and danged if it wasn't them two cowpokes.
"You do like she says, mister," the one with the hardware suggested. The way he angled away from me so's both of us had a clear shot at man in the cowhide vest caused me to suspicion that he'd done this once or twice before.
Mr. Cowhide Vest wasn't happy but he seen I had some powerful arguments on my side.
"You ain't heard the last o' me," he hollered at us, but he turned his bronc and rode off.
"Nice popgun you got there." It was the gunhawk-looking fellow what spoke.
"It was left me by my Uncle Odom." I laid the Greener acrost the crook of my elbow where it wasn't pointing at nobody but I could still bring it to bear if I had to.
"Funny inheritance, for a girl," the other one said. He seemed more of a peaceable kind, pleasant and smiling.
"Oh, Uncle Odom ain't dead, he's just spendin' some time down Yuma way on account of havin' a fool for a lawyer."
They looked at each other.
"Ma'am, it's none of our business, but I'd sure like to know what that jasper wanted," the peaceable one asked.
It was chancy, but I decided I was going to trust them, partly at least. "I'm packin' a saddlebag full of gold ore samples from my brother's mine out so's they can get assayed."
"All by yourself?"
"We figgered I had the best chance. An' I ain't alone, exactly." I patted the Greener. "I'm awful obliged to you gents for stoppin' by. But I got to get goin' if I want to be home 'fore sundown."
"Whoa, now. Hold on just a minute." He sounded worried for some reason. "What if he comes back?"
"I'll have to shoot him, I reckon."
He seemed to want to talk this over until the gunhawk pointed out that there was four men comin' up the trail towards us at a dead gallop, and one of them was Mister Cowhide Vest, and maybe we'd better mosey.
Those owlhoots started blasting away when they saw us so we put spurs to our horses and moved out pronto. When we come to a fork I headed left and my two new friends followed me straight up a rise. I pulled up at the top and they did too when they saw the drop off in front of us. It was a narrow canyon, steep and sheer, and they must've wondered what I was up to.
I got down, looped the reins around the saddle horn, and slapped my horse on the rump to send him off. The gunhawk was a sensible sort and he done the same. I was beginning to lose patience so I hauled the other one down and pushed him over to the edge.
"Jump," I said. I pointed to the line of brush on the other side of the gap and a few yards below us. "There's a ledge there, 'bout six foot wide. You aim for the bushes an' you'll be fine."
It appeared to me that he might be one of the arguing kind so I took him by the elbow and flang him over. I was ready to do the same with the gunhawk only he allowed as how he wanted to try it under his own steam. After he made it acrost I slung the Greener over my shoulder and jumped.
It was that danged belt full of ore almost done it for me - I hadn't quite took enough of a running leap and my hands hit the ledge and begun to slip. The two strangers grabbed my wrists and pulled me up. I called Buster and he whimpered a little but made the jump easy, four legs being more suited for that sort of thing than two. We hunkered down in the bushes and watched as the outlaws rode right on by.
The ledge meandered around the cliff face to where a path ran down to the bottom of the canyon, but before I could herd us in that direction the talky man stopped me.
"Is there something else you want to tell us?" he asked, and he give my middle a sort of a pat. I thought about slapping him one but didn't seem polite, not after him being shot at on my account. So I admitted that there was low-grade samples in the saddlebags and real ones in the money belt.
"Ahhh…how much ore are you carrying, anyway?"
"Only 'bout thirty or forty pounds. We need to get movin' - there's a waterhole just up the canyon a ways an' them horses is prob'ly waitin' for us there."
He must've been winded from the jump, 'cos he made a funny sound through his nose before he started after me.
The canyon widened out after about half a mile into a open place with the waterhole at the end of it, which is where I figured the horses would head to and I was right. Problem was, the owlhoots was there too, three of them at any rate, and when they spotted us they unlimbered their artillery and gave us a warm welcome. We ducked down behind some boulders and listened to rounds spang off the canyon walls.
"Now what?" The talky man sounded a tad cross.
"You keep 'em pinned down while me and Buster jump 'em from behind," I said.
"Just a minute - "
He was making me tired. "Mister, I been runnin' these hills since I was knee-high to a grasshopper. You get their attention an' don't worry 'bout me!"
I've met men like him before, they have to jaw about everything, so I took off and left him there.
There was plenty of cover, and me and Buster made it around back of them hardcases without being seen. I turned Buster loose and crawled up behind the closest one and like Samson done to the Philistines, I smote him hip and thigh. Or in the belly, actually.
About the time I got done pacifying my man with the Greener, I heard somebody let out a yell over by the cottonwoods where Buster had found him. It might've ended right there but the third hombre was rudely inclined and he had just throwed down on me when a bullet parted his hand from his hogleg. It was a right pretty piece of shooting from the gunhawk, and I couldn't have done it better my own self.
The desperado begun dancing up and down holding on to his fingers and raising all kinds of Cain so I busted him over the head to calm him down some. The other varmint was laying acrost the path and not moving, Buster having chawed him in the vitals.
"Wrassle a cat in patches," I said, solemn-like, and grabbed the yahoo's feet and drug him out of the way.
The strangers come running up and the talky one looked at me funny.
"It's Dago or Irish or some such lingo," I told him. "I learnt it when a neighbor got planted by this traveling priest - I always thought it sounded like a real elegant way to say somebody's been beefed."
"Oh," he said. "Requiescat in paces."
Well, now, that was how his stick floated - he was a preacher! Had to be. I did wonder about him trailing around the mountains in the company of a straight-up, no-foolin' pistolero, but maybe he was doing some kind of missionary work. I reckoned I'd better clean up my talk a bit and watch my dog-gones and dad-gums. I didn't want to shock him none.
We caught up the horses and I brung us back to the main trail.
"You know this country pretty well," the preacher said, kind of peevish, and me and the gunhawk rolled our eyes at each other behind his back.
"I wonder where our friend in the fancy vest is." It bothered me. He had to be hiding out someplace waiting to ambush us.
We met coming around a pile of rocks and I don't know which of us was more surprised. He must've heard the shooting and thought his gang had took care of us instead of t'other way around. His face got real ugly when he saw me still up on my hind paws, and I shifted quick in the saddle to where I could cover him.
"Mister, you're beginnin' to rile me - you touch that gun an' I'll put a harp in your hand," I warned, and his reply was downright insulting to a damsel of tender years. I was about to introduce the butt of my Greener to his front teeth when the preacher spoke up.
"You watch your language or I'll knock you clean out from under your hat," he said. Which I thought was real gentlemanly of him.
"Friend," the gunhawk added, "Turn that horse around and ride on. It'd be the healthy thing to do."
Mister Cowhide Vest moved fast but the other man moved faster. I never seen anything like it - that owlhoot's hand was still six inches from his hip when a shot rang out and his holster went sailing off into the brush. I looked sideways and there was a curl of smoke coming from the barrel of the gunhawk's Colt and a tight little smile on his face.
Mister Cowhide Vest thought it over for about as long as it takes a duck to swallow a June bug and then he pulled his freight.
I didn't have no more trouble, but them two stuck with me until we got to where the trail sloped down to the road into the Crossing. "There's home," I said. That little cluster of cabins off in the distance looked mighty good right then.
The preacher put his hand on my bridle-reins and I stopped, and he stopped.
"It occurs to me," he remarked to the gunhawk, "that you are kind of unnecessary right now." His pard grinned and kept going and the two of us sat there looking at each other.
My ma always says you can't trust brown-eyed men, and three of her husbands had brown eyes, so she ought to know. But it still took me by surprise, what with him being a man of the cloth and all. He swooped down on my lips like they was a cool spring and him five days in the desert, and all of a sudden he had more hands than a room full of clocks.
He done all right, too, 'specially for somebody as ain't s'posed to have a lot of practice at that sort of thing.
It was a friendly little tussle and it didn't last near long enough, on account of him having to get back on the trail. I made it home before dark, and I sure was glad to hand the ore belt over to Dolly's husband for safe-keeping. Then I had me some supper and went to bed and slept like a baby for ten hours straight.
After breakfast I walked down to the store at the Crossing. There was a deputy sheriff from Prescott flirting with Dolly, and he brung some new reward posters to tack up outside. I started reading the first poster and something about it got me thinking. Then I read the second poster and it got me thinking some more.
"It says these fellows is wanted in Wyoming," my sister said. "That's a mighty long ways away."
"They were spotted up in the Four Corners country earlier this month," he told her, puffing out his chest and trying to make himself look important. "Me an' the sheriff figger they're on the high lope an' headed for Mexico."
He hopped into the saddle. "You see hide or hair of 'em, you get word to us, quick. They're about the worst desperadoes you ladies'll ever run acrost."
I kept my mouth shut. I'm noways inclined to make some lazy law-dog's job easier and besides, I ain't the sort of girl to peach on a gent what has done me a good turn.
But shoot - I might've knowed he wasn't no preacher.
Respectfully dedicated to Robert E. Howard.