Sizemore found following the deer track through the thicket harder than it had seemed when Kuttner was riding point. The brush slowed his mount to little more than a walk and the second lieutenant was forced to bat low branches out of his face with Kuttner’s pistol. The gun seemed heavier than any sidearm he had used in military academy, which wasn’t surprising since his experience with pistols was limited to a cap and ball model: most of his firearms training had been with a flintlock carbine and the Mississippi rifle, the Army’s two standard weapons.
He ended up switching the big gun from his right to his left as he made his way through the wood because holding it at port arms for long in either hand wearied his shoulders and made his forearm numb.
He had been annoyed when Riley ordered him to accompany Kuttner to San Francisco, feeling the general was getting rid of him temporarily by sending him on a goose chase. He felt that Kuttner had been right in suggesting that a squad of pony soldiers would be a more secure way of sending the stolen gold back to the Presidio. Now that he and Kuttner were being tracked by strangers, his conviction was even stronger; Kuttner’s speculation notwithstanding, for all they knew, those horsemen behind them might be robbers who had somehow found out about the gold they were transporting.
“Damn it,” he muttered to himself. “This scheme of sending two men to do the job of six is going to end up getting both men killed and putting the gold back in the hands of outlaws in the bargain!”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth he realized that he was supposed to keep his noise to a minimum and fell silent; his horse was making enough racket as it was.
He had been pushing through the wood for only a few minutes when he heard the sound of a shot far behind him, followed seconds later by another. The reports sounded like rifle fire and he hoped that it was Kuttner who was doing the shooting and not the strangers pursuing them. He spurred his horse, worrying about the fourth horseman that Kuttner said had split off from the others. He supposed that the missing man might have taken a route closer to the crest, where the big pine trees tended to keep down the undergrowth and he could circle back around in ambush. If that was so, he figured that the fourth rider might be someplace ahead of him, lying in wait.
Sizemore swallowed nervously and urged his mount on.
Only a few minutes more had passed when he heard another series of shots to his rear. Unless his pursuers were shooting at each other, he thought to himself, at least Kuttner hadn’t been killed in the initial fusillade of bullets!
Sizemore continued to push on through the brush, growing edgier with every step his horse took. He guessed that he had travelled at least a mile or more when the brush began to clear out and he found himself moving through a stand of fir trees that allowed him to pick up his pace. He still had seen no sign of the fourth rider, though he realized that his pony could be following another horse’s tracks without his knowledge. It began to occur to him that little of what he had learned at West Point had prepared him for the wilderness of California’s coastal mountains. He would happily have traded several weeks of studying historical battle tactics for a few days of training in woodcraft and tracking.
It had been getting darker for some time and the gloom of the forest intensified Sizemore’s jumpiness. He had begun to imagine leering gunmen behind every tree he approached, so when one did emerge from behind a stand of fir only twenty feet in front of him, the split second it took him to realize that the figure in the brush was not a phantom was long enough for the man to drop to one knee and get off a shot that drilled the second lieutenant’s mount in the middle of its breast.
The bullet apparently passed directly through the animal’s heart, killing it instantly, because the horse crumpled to its right side with barely a sound, pinning Sizemore’s leg underneath. As Sizemore struggled to pull himself free, the gunman circled his fallen mount and cocked the hammer on his pistol. Belatedly, the second lieutenant realized that the real threat was the man in front of him raising his gun, not the dead horse on top of his leg. Kuttner’s big colt was still in his left hand and as Sizemore cocked the weapon with his right, his assailant fired his own pistol.
The bullet struck the second lieutenant in the right shoulder with the force of a mule’s kick, knocking him flat on the ground. The pain was agonizing and Sizemore groaned, close to swooning, as the fourth rider stepped closer. The second lieutenant opened his eyes to see the gunman, almost on top of him, cock his pistol for the killing shot.
Sizemore swung the Colt up toward his assailant’s face and pulled the trigger in desperation. The roar of the pistol was deafening and to Sizemore’s surprise, a black hole nearly a half inch wide appeared in the middle of the gunman’s forehead . Sizemore wasn’t the only one who was surprised; his assailant’s face registered open-mouthed astonishment for a split second, just before he sagged to the ground silently like a marionette with its strings severed, his eyes frozen in a stare of disbelief.
Grunting with effort, Sizemore struggled to free his leg. Fortunately, the ground where the animal had fallen was covered with a heavy coat of fir needles and cones and the mat had helped cushion the fall so the horse’s bulk hadn’t broken the second lieutenant’s leg. After a few moments’ effort, Sizemore had managed to pull himself free of his dead mount; shivering with cold as blood pumped from his shoulder, he managed to drag himself to a nearby fir tree he could lean back against.
He pulled his John Russell knife out of his pocket, worked the blade open with his teeth and his left hand, and then used it to cut the sleeve of his woolen shirt off his useless right arm. With some difficulty he cut a strip from the sleeve. He wadded the remaining material and used the strip to fasten it against the bullet wound in his shoulder, tightening the binding by twisting it with a stick he found on the ground nearby.
His entire shoulder was aflame with pain and he figured the bullet must have shattered his shoulder blade or collarbone. There wasn’t much he could do about that. He knew that the man who had shot him must have a horse tethered someplace nearby, but he felt too weak and dizzy to get up, so looking for the animal was out of the question. He would have to rest a while first. Maybe in a little bit he would feel well enough to find the animal.
He wondered about Kuttner. Had he survived his encounter with the other outlaws or had he, too, been shot? Even someone who seemed as lucky as Kuttner couldn’t cheat death forever. If one of the other riders had killed him, his killer might be coming after Sizemore next.
He shivered and hefted Kuttner’s Colt. It might be the only thing standing between him and an early grave.
Sizemore looked at the dead outlaw on the ground near his horse with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion. The man he had killed might have been as much as ten years older than he was and the expression on his face as he died had made him appear shocked at how easily his life had been taken.
Since he had joined the Army, Sizemore had often wondered what it would feel like to kill a man. The only dead people he had ever seen before this had been an invalid aunt who had been staying with his parents when she passed on and the five bandits at the undertaker’s office back in Monterey.
He was surprised to find that he didn’t feel much at all. As he slipped into shock, he shivered with cold but didn’t have the energy to get the bed roll off the saddle on his dead horse. I just need to rest a bit, then I can sort things out, he thought, his head clouded with pain. A little rest will do me good.
A few seconds later he passed out.
Kuttner was making good progress through the chemise and Manzanita when he heard the sound of a shot some distance ahead, followed quickly by another. He stopped for a moment, straining to listen. In a few seconds, he was rewarded by the sound of another blast—one that sounded like one of his own Colt pistols. As the forest once again fell silent, he spurred his horse forward, fearing the worst for his traveling companion’s safety.
It took him about ten minutes to find the break in the underbrush and he could see Sizemore’s track on the forest floor when he reached easier going in the woody area on the shoulder of the ridge. Sizemore had been traveling at a pretty good pace in the open area between the trees, judging by the hoof prints that had turned up moist earth under the dried fir needles and cones. The trace would have been harder to see if the weather hadn’t been unnaturally dry, but Kuttner had to follow it quickly because night was already falling in the forest and soon he would be unable to make out the marks made by Sizemore’s mount.
His pistol at the ready, Kuttner urged his horse forward at the trot, watching the trail at the same time he scanned for danger ahead. Sizemore’s track was solo, so whoever was responsible for the other shots apparently came on him from his front rather than his rear. It was clear that what he had feared had happened: the missing rider had followed a faster trail farther from the ocean than Kuttner had selected and had managed to circle around to wait for the second lieutenant.
The woods were in nearly complete darkness when he spotted the dark mass of Sizemore’s horse on its side near a stand of firs about fifty feet away. He dismounted and moved forward quietly, his Colt cocked for action. Peering into the gloom, he saw a human form sprawled on the ground a few yards from the horse.
“Oh, shit!” Kuttner said fearing the body was that of Sizemore.
But when he got closer, he could see by the duster he was wearing that the fallen man was the missing rider. The outlaw, who was still holding a cocked revolver in his hand, had taken a shot in the forehead that had knocked off his hat. He was quite dead.
Nearby he heard a groan that made his drop to one knee and raise his Colt. Although it was nearly completely dark, he spotted another body propped up against the trunk of a fir tree. Crouching, he made his way to the figure.
“Thank God!” he said with relief when he realized that the other man was the second lieutenant.
Kuttner gathered some dead wood and dry twigs from the forest floor and built a small fire that he got burning by quickly using some of his rifle powder and a Lucifer from the store he kept inside a bottle in his ammunition kit. He examined Sizemore’s wound under the light from the blaze with a frown.
“Well, son,” he told the unconscious officer, “You have lost a hell of a lot of blood, which isn’t good. On the plus side, you managed a pretty damn fine field dressing for that bullet hole in your wing and I think you can thank it for saving your life. It managed to stop up the hole enough to keep you from bleeding to death before I got here.”
He swaddled the wounded man with the blanket from Sizemore’s bedroll and tossed more wood onto the fire to help keep the second lieutenant warm while he dragged the outlaw’s body away from the clearing, hunted down the dead man’s tethered horse and brought the animal back to his makeshift campsite.
Through a stroke of good fortune, the dead horseman had some beans in his gear and some ground chicory that would stand in place of coffee. Kuttner salvaged the tack from Sizemore’s dead horse by torch light and then found a little creek a few hundred yards away where he could water the horses and fill his and Sizemore’s canteens. When he returned, he found the second lieutenant had regained consciousness but was racked with pain.
“Take it easy, son,” he said, giving Sizemore some water. “I’ve got some water heating for dinner and a hot drink. We’ll see if we can get you to Santa Cruz tomorrow. Hopefully somebody there will be savvy enough to get that gunshot cleaned up and dressed so we can take you to San José for some real medical care.”
Sizemore shivered, still feeling chilled by his loss of blood. “I’m glad to see you again, Amos,” he said. “I wasn’t sure whether you made it or not. When I woke up, I didn’t know where in hell I was. I killed that fellow, didn’t I? It sort of seems like I dreamed it.”
Kuttner smiled. He’d noticed that Sizemore called him by his given name instead of his military rank. That seemed right to Kuttner: Sizemore had showed courage and cool in killing an outlaw who had already seriously wounded him; He had earned the right to call the lawman by his first name and Kuttner intended to respond in kind.
“It wasn’t any dream, John,” he said. “You put a bullet right through his skull. That’s pretty fair shooting for somebody who already had an ounce of lead in his own shoulder. You showed great presence of mind, son. Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
Sizemore grinned wearily despite his pain. “Skill my ass,” he said gruffly. “That son-of-a-bitch was almost right on top of me when I pulled the trigger. I can’t even remember if I had my eyes open or not. It would have been pretty hard to miss him at less than six feet.”
Kuttner gave him more water. “Well, whether you were looking or not, you hit what you were shooting at, and that’s all that counts,” he said. “Besides, you finally got your wish.”
Sizemore frowned. “What wish was that?” he asked.
Kuttner grinned. “You’re finally off the back of a horse,” he said. “Unfortunately, it took a bullet in your shoulder to get you there.”
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