RATTLER

                                                           One  

            The gentle roll of the saddle and the hypnotic creaking of the leather had just about lulled Ben Turner to sleep when a rustling of the bushes some twenty yards downstream rousted him to full alert.  Ben’s horse, Compadre’s ears perked up and the muscles of the big sorrel’s hindquarters twitched in anticipation of danger.  Ben’s gun appeared in his hand.  He didn’t remember drawing it.

            Long hours of practice had made him a fast draw.  The W. T. carved in the handle announced that the notorious gunfighter, Wade Turner, had been the previous owner of that gun.  Although credited with twenty-two gunfights, Wade actually had only been involved in seven.

            Ben waited and watched the clump of brush.  Compadre’s nose flared and his eyes rolled back into his head.  The bush shook violently.  Ben holstered his handgun and drew his Winchester from its scabbard.  A large brown nose poked through the brush followed by the huge shaggy body of a very startled grizzly.  He growled and sniffed at Ben and the horse.  He hesitated and Ben wondered if it was going to be a Mexican standoff.  The last thing he wanted to do was shoot such a magnificent animal.  Besides, how many bullets would it take to bring a grizzly down?  The bear approached slowly.  His head appeared to be about the size of a whiskey barrel.  He sniffed the air as if trying to figure out what animal belonged to that scent.  He stopped, lifted his head and shook it from side to side.  With a final growl he ambled off toward the river.  The giant animal stopped at the water’s edge and took a drink.  Ben quickly turned his horse and continued on his way, thankful that he and the bear could part company peacefully.

                                                            ~ * ~

            The air always smells fresh and clean following a rain.  Yesterday’s soft steady drizzle brought out many pleasant smells.  The scent of pine drifted down from the mountains mixed with the fragrance of wild flowers that wafted from the meadow just this side of the river.  And a strong odor of wild onions as well.  Feeling he had traveled far enough from the bear, Ben gathered some of the larger stalks for the evening stew.  Night was fast approaching and so far Ben had failed to find a suitable place to set up camp.  One thing for sure, he still wanted to put a few more miles between him and that grizzly.

            Later, as the last of dusk was being swallowed, Ben’s attention was drawn to a light from a campfire in a stand of trees under a rock outcropping.  From a distance it looked to be a good spot for a campsite.  He made sure to make plenty of noise as he approached and yelled to the fire.

            “Hello the fire.  Can I come in?”  Ben caught a glimpse of a figure sitting cross-legged by the fire holding a cup in his right hand.

            “Sure, come on in.  No sudden moves though.  I get a mite nervous around strangers.”

            Ben entered the firelight and explained, “Smelled the coffee and couldn’t resist coming in.  I ran out of real coffee a couple of days ago.  Never did acquire a taste for mesquite coffee.  Mind if I have a cup?”

            “Help yourself.”  The man had not moved and Ben noticed his left hand was concealed under the blanket wrapped around his shoulders.  His hat was pulled down so Ben could only see the bottom half of the man’s face.  A handlebar mustache separated a small mouth from a nose that had obviously been broken several times.

                 “My name’s Ben Turner.”   

            “I’m Harley.”  The man said in a low gravelly voice.

            Ben pulled a dented coffee cup from his saddlebags and poured some of the hot liquid.  “Oh, that coffee tastes good.  Much obliged.”  A slight nod of the man’s head was Ben’s only response.

 “You’re the first person I’ve seen in over a week.  What brings you way out here?”  Silence hung in the air for a full minute.  Ben’s friendly question crossed one of the invisible boundaries the West observed.  Don’t judge a man by his past, and don’t intrude upon one’s private business.  The uncomfortable feeling Ben had when he first approached the camp intensified.

            “You a lawman or just plain nosy?”

            Ben chuckled.  “Sorry.  I’m just plain nosy.  Don’t mind me.  I was tryin’ to make small talk.”  Ben considered the campsite as he sipped his coffee.  It was well chosen.  The base of a twenty foot cliff joined the forest providing an impenetrable backdrop.  A patch of thick brambles formed a third side.  The only entry was from the front which had been cleared and the fire was placed between the camp and any approach.  Anyone entering the camp was also temporarily blinded by looking into the fire while they would be highlighted by it.  Ben saw no sign of a horse, or anything else for that matter.  No bedroll, no dishes from supper.  He was uncomfortable and regretted letting his desire for a cup of coffee over come his usual sense of caution.

            The man called Harley didn’t move except to drink his coffee.

            “Put your hands up sonny.”  The voice came from behind a large boulder off to the side of the trees.  “Move closer to the fire and unbuckle your gun belt, slowly.”  Ben edged toward the fire.  Harley had dropped the blanket revealing a gun in his hand.

            “By golly, it worked again, Harley.”

            “Shut up you old fool.  Turner, toss the gun belt into the brush and don’t make any funny moves.”

            Ben did as he was told and raised his hands.  Harley stood up and started to move closer.  Movement behind Ben let him know the second man was leaving cover of the boulder.  Ben’s mind worked to figure a way out of his dilemma.  Men like these would not simply set him free when they were done.  He decided not to wait to find out how they intended to dispose of him.  He still had a weapon.  In his right sleeve was a perfectly balanced knife.  He had practiced many hours throwing that knife.

            Harley was smiling, a very nasty smile.  Usually some warmth and softness is evident on a person’s face when they smile.  Not Harley’s.  “Take off your boots, Turner.  Folks have a tendency to keep their money in their boots.”   Cold steel blue eyes narrowed and an extra furrow on his brow almost made Ben shiver.  Death was in that smile.

            “All right.  You win.  My money is in my left boot.”  Ben did have about fifty dollars in his boot but around his waist a money belt carried almost two thousand dollars, his life savings.  He lifted his foot and pulled off the boot balancing on his right foot.  Taking his chance he tossed the boot at Harley and in the same motion released the knife into his hand.  Swinging around he shoved the knife underhanded toward the second man.  A look of total surprise filled the man’s face.  He pulled the trigger and Ben felt a tug at his shoulder, but oddly little pain.  The man dropped his gun.  Both hands grabbed the hilt of Ben’s knife now protruding from his chest.  It had been delivered with such force that he could not pull it out.  With a sigh he pitched forward.

            Ben was already diving at Harley.  His reflexes were not quite quick enough.  Harley dodged the rush and fired at close range.  The bullet slapped Ben’s head in an explosion of bright white light.  The next few minutes were lost.  Then partial consciousness allowed him to sense Harley searching his body.  Through a veil of haze and pain he tried to concentrate on a flickering light in front of him.  He realized it was the light from the campfire reflecting on Harley’s belt buckle.  It looked to be solid silver and had a carved image of a coiled rattlesnake.  It was the last thing he remembered.