The sun was getting ready to set in Dead Snake Canyon, peacefully putting an end to what had been a miserable day for the two thieves who’d been using the canyon as a temporary hide-out. Merrick glared at his partner, Linder, tired of Linder’s constant babbling. “I told you to shut up about it,” he said. He doesn’t know where you are, so quit talking like a fool and shut-the-hell up. He’s not coming for you.”
Linder glanced over at him quickly before scouring the canyon again. “You don’t know where he is,” he answered. “He could be anywhere in this damn canyon and you know it.” Linder glanced around him again, his eyes darting from side-to-side. “I’ll just feel better once we’re out of here.” He dismounted from the horse that he’d recently stolen and renamed Blanca, because of her stunning white color, and tethered her reins to a tall, weathered stump that was close to the canyon wall. He stood there with this back to the rocks and continued to scan the vista for any sign of movement.
“The only thing you need to worry about is the rattlers,” said Merrick.
‘“Yeah, and that’s another thing,” Linder exclaimed. “He’s gonna see the trail of all the dead ones that you killed ridin’ into this hell-hole and know exactly where we are.”
“Oh, for the love of God,” Merrick said again. “Shut up.”
Merrick tethered his stallion, Moonie, a little farther away from where Linder had tethered his mare and pulled out his canteen from the saddle bag and said, “We should just bed down here for the night and start again at sun-up.”
“What?” Linder exclaimed. “We can make it out of here before dark,” he said. “We’re sittin’ ducks here.”
Merrick threw him a look that could kill, and Linder thought about keeping his mouth shut, but it was too much.
“Easy for you,” Linder said, feeling the hair on the back of his neck suddenly prickle-up. “You don’t have a bounty on your head. Ain’t nobody gonna tramp all the way back here for you.”
Merrick stared at him for a moment before saying, “Maybe you should have thought about that before you killed that miner and stole his horse and that bag of dust. They hang men like you in Montana,” he said. “And from the size of that bounty, you sure lit a fire under the wrong bunch.” Merrick laughed at the look of terror that crossed Linder’s face. Merrick continued. “I heard they’ve been tearing it up lately, too. No crime too small and no neck too big for the rope. You’d just better pray they give you a good drop,” he said laughing.
Linder looked like he was going to throw up. “Well, you better hope they don’t go mistaking you for me then,” he told Merrick. “You are ridin’ with me,” he told him. “Hell, there might be a bounty on your head by now for all we know.”
Merrick scowled at him and then chose his words carefully. “Like I told you, nobody knows we’re here.”
Linder scowled back at him. “Yeah — that’s what you keep sayin’.”
Merrick took another drink from his canteen before putting it back in the saddle bag and pulling out a piece of jerky. He looked over at Linder and asked if he wanted some, but Linder shook his head. “Suit yourself,” Merrick told him before tearing into it, adding, “I hope that bag of dust and this horse are worth all this.”
Linder shook his head. “I don’t think about it.”
Merrick laughed. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Thinking isn’t one of your finest abilities.”
Linder muttered something under his breath, but Merrick chose to ignore it. Instead, he
scanned the canyon from one side to the other. No movement that he could see — no dust kicking up. Just had to keep an eye out for the rattlers. He walked over to his saddle and pulled off his rifle, a worn 1860 Henry that had been his right arm for awhile now. The brass was dull now, but the beauty of the rifle was still apparent, and as deadly a weapon in Merrick’s hands as he’d ever had the pleasure of owning. Whoever said thievin’ didn’t pay was a fool.
He walked with the Henry along the canyon wall where the horses were tethered to run the brush for snakes, and then stopped dead in his tracks when the unmistakable rattle rang out. He could make him out about 20 yards away — good sized one, too. He motioned for Linder to come and take the horses back away from the wall, and once Linder had their reins strong in his hands on the other side, Merrick cocked the Henry and aimed at the snake, hitting it with the first shot. Horses reared with the shot, but Linder had control, and was quickly able to calm them. Merrick walked over to the rattler, picked up a rock and smashed the snake’s head. He slid the Henry under the snake to pitch it up and away and yelled over to Linder to bring back the horses.
“You couldn’t have just slammed it in the head to begin with?” Linder demanded. “Now they know exactly where we are.” He tethered the horses to a couple of tree trunks and took his own rifle that was hanging off a strap from his saddle. “Idiot!” he exclaimed, glaring at Merrick.
“I used to think my sister was the most irritating creature on earth,” Merrick said, walking over to Linder. “But you got her beat by a mile,” he said. “That high, whiny voice of yours has gotten on my last nerve and I’m not gonna tell you again to shut up.”
“I’ll shut up,” Linder told him, “when we’re out of this canyon and I can see what’s comin.” He looked up to the top of the rocks directly in front of him. “Somebody could get the drop on us here,” he said. “It’s almost like you want them to find me.”
“Now why would I want that kind of trouble?” Merrick demanded. “Why?”
Linder managed to keep his mouth shut this time. He walked over to the canyon wall, sat down with his back against it, his rifle clutched securely in his hands while keeping watch for anything that moved. He knew Merrick would give him up in a heartbeat — the bastard. The absolute bastard. Linder was agitated. At first light, he’d be up and out toward Virginia City whether Merrick was with him or not. It was a good plan — leave Merrick here — didn’t trust the SOB anyway.
He noticed a couple of buzzards circling out in the distance. Always hated them. Never liked anything that picked over another’s bones. Then again, maybe there was some good in getting rid of what’s dead and useless. He laughed at himself. That was almost poetic.
He looked over at Merrick. He was lying on his back on his blanket roll, his Henry at his side, with his arms crossed over his chest and his legs crossed at the ankles. His Stetson was pulled over the front of his eyes and he looked like he was asleep. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but he was certainly wasn’t on the look-out. Couldn’t exactly stand guard when he was laid out like that. He scoffed. Typical. The sun was starting to set, and a very light breeze began to blow through the canyon. Any other time, any other two men and the beauty of the canyon would have been noticed — admired — talked about — written about. But not today — not these men.
Linder needed to piss.
He scanned up and down the canyon as best he could with the remaining light and satisfied that there wasn’t any movement or dust being thrown up, he lay down his rifle along the canyon wall and quickly walked to the other side of the canyon to relieve himself.
Merrick sat up. He couldn’t believe his luck. He couldn’t have planned this any better. He grabbed his rifle, aimed at Linder, and had two bullets in his back before Linder had even unbuttoned his pants. The shots rang out across the canyon and Linder fell face forward into the rocks. Merrick walked over to him, took his right foot, and rolled him over with this boot. He was good and dead. He heard hooves rising through the canyon and, right on time, Greason was right where he said he’d be.
Merrick stood over Linder’s body and yelled out when Greason was close enough to hear him.
“You’re right on time,” he said, “I just shot him.”
Greason rode up to them, dismounted from his dapple-gray Indian pony, and walked over to them. He could see the dark pool of blood seeping out from under Linder’s body. Merrick looked over at Greason. There was just enough light left to make him out. He wasn’t wearing a hat and his hair was true to his name — long and greasy. He was wearing dungarees that looked like they were about to fall off him, and he had a god-awful smell.
“What the hell, Greason?” Merrick said with disgust. “You run into a skunk?”
Greason snarled at him. “Eat Shit, Merrick. I haven’t had time to clean up seeming as how I’ve been running all over this damned place doing your business.”
“Alright,” Merrick said, “let’s just get his body over against the canyon wall and we can throw some rocks over it.”
“Why not just leave him here like this?” Greason asked.
“Because they’re bound to come looking for him, or for me, and I need to slow them down and give us enough time to get on the other side of the Rockies.”
“Where’s the gold?” Greason asked, “and his rifle?”
“Gold’s in his saddle bag on the white horse and his rifle’s over against the canyon wall on the other side of Moonie.”
“So, Greason asked, walking over to the other side of the canyon, “did he suspect anything?”
“No, jumpy as hell though.”
“Never saw it comin’, huh?” Greason asked, bending down to pick up Linder’s rifle.
“Nope,” Merrick answered, “stupid son-of-a-bitch.”
Greason double checked to make sure the gun was loaded and said, “why don’t you grab that dust out of his bag before it’s too dark,” he said, “I don’t like the idea of it sitting there all night.”
Merrick walked over to Linder’s saddle bag, put his Henry in his left hand, and reached out for saddle bag with his right. As soon as Merrick was occupied going through the bag, Greason cocked Linder’s rifle, walked a few steps behind the white horse and shot Merrick at close range in the chest. The shot rang out, and the same time, the horse reared, and Merrick fell back. Linder’s white horse, Blanca, came down right on top of him.
“Did he see it comin’?” Greason said a loud, with a deep snarl in his voice. “Nope,” he answered himself. “stupid-son-of-a-bitch.”
Greason then acted quickly, laying down the rife and grabbing the reins to steady the horse; and at the same time, kicking the Henry away from Merrick’s body. He went through Linder’s saddle bag, found the gold, a couple of coins, some beef jerky, and his canteen. He slapped the horse on her flank, and she tore off away from him. He hated to ditch good horse flesh, but it would raise too much suspicion. They were out looking for Linder and Merrick and the white horse that Linder had stolen. Best to ride Merrick’s stallion and tether his own pony back behind.
The sun had by now completely disappeared inside the canyon, but Greason knew the canyon like the back of his hand and there was enough moonlight to guide him through what had to be done. He took a rope out of his own saddle bag and tethered his pony to Merrick’s horse.
“Sammy Boy,” he said while tethering him up to the stallion. “We got us a new member of the family,” he told him with a smile. “Meet Champ.”
Greason put the gold and the rest of Linder’s stuff in Merrick’s saddle bag, rolled up Merrick’s blanket and attached it to Sammy Boy’s saddle. He grabbed Linder’s rifle and Merrick’s Henry, and tied them up under Champ’s saddle. He looked around and once he was satisfied that he had everything, he mounted Champ and slowly headed out, carefully side-stepping a dead rattler with a smashed-in head. Poor son-of-a-bitch,” he said, grinning like a fool. “Poor son-of-a-bitch.”