The hunter held his horse to a slow walk. There was no reason for speed, and he was concerned that undue noise might spook his quarry. His stalk had been cautious and hidden, nothing to betray his presence. He felt assured of a kill.
Sunlight filtered through a thick stand of aspen, covering the mountainside in dappled shadow. He reined to a halt near the crest and stepped down from the saddle. With some care he tied his horse to a tree, looping the reins into a snug knot. Gunfire startled even the best of horses, and he’d learned long ago not to risk being left afoot. The mountains were rough traveling on shank’s mare.
From his saddlebags he removed a parfleche of tanned leather. Inside were strips of hardened jerky, made from elk meat. A week past, under a hot June sun, he had cured the meat until it was dark and brittle. After taking a wrinkled strip from the parfleche, he returned the leather pouch to his saddlebags. He broke off a hunk with strong teeth, allowing saliva to soften the jerky, and stood chewing without haste. He still had time to spare, and the thought of a kill always summoned his hunger. He savored the gamy taste, partial to sun-cured elk.
Afterward, he licked his fingers and wiped them dry on his buckskin shirt. He was a large man, with shaggy black hair and a thick beard flecked with gray. He wore a battered hat and trousers stuffed into moccasin boots favored by the northern tribes. Strapped around his waist was a gun belt with a holstered Colt .44 and a honed skinning knife. The buckskin shirt was stained with grease and sweat, and crisscrossed over his shoulders was a wide belt filled with rifle cartridges. He looked like a man of the wild, fully able to survive off the land.
Hunger satisfied, he was ready now for the hunt. He pulled a Sharps .50-90 from the saddle scabbard and checked to make sure the hammer was down. Then he walked uphill, leaving the horse standing hip-shot in the sunlight. From years of habit, he moved quietly through the aspens, avoiding the telltale snap of twigs and branches underfoot. At the crest, he paused, scouting ahead, still in no hurry. He scanned the terrain beyond the forward slope.
Some distance to the west, the Wind River range jutted skyward. A vast stretch in the Rocky Mountain chain, the peaks angled northwestward through Wyoming Territory. Eastward, between the taller summits and the mountainous woodlands bordered by the Wind River, lay Tenbow Valley. To the direct front, north from where the hunter paused, there was a high country meadowland. A stream snaked across the grassy swale and disappeared through a canyon bounded by steep hills. Three cows and a spring-born calf stood grazing near a bend in the stream.
The hunter moved forward. Halfway down the slope, the heavy stand of aspens splayed outward in a V-shaped formation. He again paused, scanning the wings of the open V in the timber. The natural clearing, which spread wider as it dropped off downhill, provided a broad field of fire. To the trained eye, the range from the notch in the aspens to the cows appeared to be slightly more than four hundred yards. Good shooting distance.
After a moment, the hunter walked to the edge of the treeline. He selected a shady spot beneath the canopy of an aspen and sat down. At the base of the tree, the ground was relatively flat, and he shifted his rump until he found a comfortable position. With his knees bent, he dug his heels into the earth and braced his hindquarters against the trunk of the tree. Hefting the rifle, he raised the leaf sight at the rear and set the crossbar for the proper range. He then propped his elbows on his knees, snugged the butt of the rifle into his shoulder, and sighted on the cows. Hold a tad high and it looked to be a perfect downhill shot.
Grunting to himself, he lowered the rifle, levered the trigger guard, and opened the breech. He slipped a massive shell from the cartridge belt, inserted it into the breech, and jacked the lever upward. The big Sharps was designed to hurl a slug nearly a half inch in diameter, punched onward by a formidable load of powder. The heavy octagonal barrel made it a weighty piece, but it was deadly accurate up to ranges of six hundred yards. The wallop of the broad-nosed fifty slug was guaranteed to down man or beast. One shot, one kill.
A lazy white butterfly floated past on a gentle updraft. The hunter watched it idly, reminded that he hadn’t yet checked the wind. He pulled a tuft of dry grass from the ground and tossed it overhead. The grass drifted a hair to the left and settled slowly at his feet. He made a mental note to hold a hair to the right when he sighted, and allow for the slight shift in windage. That, along with a smidgen high, would make it a clean, dead-center shot. One he’d made a hundred times or more during his years in the mountains. Today, like all those other times, would be a simple exercise of skill. Pick a spot and touch off a tack-driver.
The hunter’s every instinct was suddenly alerted. A horseman on a chestnut gelding emerged from the mouth of the canyon. Gazing down from the mountainside, the hunter studied man and mount, satisfied that he’d selected the right spot. From the old days to the present, he had spent nearly thirty years in the Wind Rivers and the Tetons. He knew every ridge and valley as though mapped in his head, and he had outguessed bear and elk and deer beyond count. Today he’d outguessed a man.
The horseman’s name was Bud Ledbetter. He owned a small outfit headquartered on the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River. He had a wife and three kids, and five cowhands who hired on during roundup and the trailing season. His was a hardscrabble operation, with a herd seldom topping a thousand head, strictly hand-to-mouth from one season to the next. He owed the banker in Tenbow everything but his soul, certainly more than his stock and his land were worth. One bad winter would put him out of the cow business.
The hunter knew all these things and more about Bud Ledbetter. For the past week he had scouted Ledbetter’s operation, observing the daily routine from a distance. He knew the rancher arose before dawn and went to bed an hour or so after supper. He knew that shortly after sunrise Ledbetter and the hands would ride out for the day’s work. Of greater importance, he knew the rancher believed in one man for one job. Watchful, he’d noted that Ledbetter seldom teamed the hands while gathering strays. The men were each assigned a section of the canyons and meadows where cows had scattered during the winter. And Ledbetter set the example, working as hard as his men. He always took a section for himself.
Ever cautious, the hunter had trailed Ledbetter for a week. Like the rancher, he believed that work well done was work that left no loose ends. No one had seen him, and no one suspected he was tracking Bud Ledbetter. For all practical purposes, he was an invisible presence, stalking unwary game. Which was what separated a hunter from the hunted. Deliberate and unhurried, watchful and patient, avoiding all risks. The outcome was what mattered, a tidy end to the job. Done right, his quarry never heard the shot.
Early that morning, while the stars were still out, he’d left his camp deep in the mountains. By dawn he was secreted in a grove of trees overlooking the ranch compound. As sunrise lighted the land, he observed Ledbetter gather the men outside the corral and tick off their assignments for the day. Then, as they rode out in different directions, he had trailed the rancher at a safe distance. Within the hour he’d known where Ledbetter was headed, a mountain meadow at the end of a forested canyon. From there it was a simple matter to circle around on the high ground, shortcut the ride. Ten minutes later he was positioned and waiting, hidden beneath the aspens.
Watchful now, he admired the way Ledbetter approached the cows. The mama cow and her calf made a spirited run for the west end of the meadow. But Ledbetter swung wide, spurring his gelding, and hazed them back along the creek. Some moments later the three cows and the calf were again bunched together. Like any good cattleman, Ledbetter never ran the fat off his cows. He pushed them instead at a fast walk, toward the mouth of the canyon. Once they were moving he reined to a halt, took out the makings, and rolled himself a cigarette. He dug a match from his shirt pocket.
The hunter shouldered his rifle. He eared back the hammer and squinted over the sights, holding high and a hair right. He took a deep breath, then exhaled, and gently squeezed the trigger. The Sharps boomed just as Ledbetter struck the match on his thumbnail. An instant later the big fifty slug whacked him in the chest, exploded his heart, and exited on a downward angle with a spray of blood. The chestnut gelding skittered sideways and Ledbetter toppled headfirst out of the saddle. He hit the ground having never heard the shot. Arms and legs akimbo, he lay facedown, unmoving.
Echoing off the mountains, the reverberation of the gunshot was like rolling thunder. The gelding and the cows, spooked by the rumbling sound, pounded across the meadow and vanished into the canyon. A long moment passed while the hunter sat staring at the rancher’s body. Finally satisfied that the hunt was ended, he rose to his feet. After ejecting the spent shell, he turned and walked off through the aspens.
On the back slope of the mountain, the hunter jammed the Sharps into its scabbard. He unhitched his horse from the tree and stepped into the saddle. As he rode off, the thought occurred that it might be days before the body was found. By then, what had happened here today would be a part of his past. For he would have begun another hunt.
And then another, until the job was done.