The Cave

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“It’s there, in the cliff face on the east side of the river.” Townsend pointed down to a sharp bend in the river about half a mile north of their vantage point on the cliff.

Knight lowered his hat against the naked sun and followed Townsend’s finger to an overhang in the opposite cliff. There, the river had carved out a hollow in the soft yellow clay. In the stark midday shadows, he couldn’t be sure how far it penetrated the cliff. With monsoon season nearly over and the Brazos Mountains snow pack almost gone, the Chama shriveled to a trickle. The challenge would be finding a way down the cliff to the streambed.

“I see it. How do we get down there?”

“The cliff descends in another mile north.”

“Something is moving down there, just south of the cave,” Knight pointed to a dark speck trotting out from the cave’s shadow.

Townsend shielded his eyes from the sun and sat higher in the saddle, wiping sweat from his brow every few minutes.

“That there’s a cay-yote-aye, maybe a mangy wolf. Hard to tell from here, I didn’t see any sign of a...” Townsend jumped in his saddle as Knight’s Colt thundered inches from his ear.

“SON OF A BITCH! I’m gonna be deaf in that ear for a week, you...”

Ignoring Townsend, Knight calmly replaced the revolver in his holster, and rode through the blue smoke. Townsend rubbed his ringing ear and looked where Knight shot. Far below, the animal lay motionless on the riverbank.

“It had something in its mouth. I want to see it.”

“Jesus Christ,” he mumbled and spurred his horse after Knight.

As Townsend promised, the cliff soon descended to the sandy streambed. Knight stopped just short of the river and trotted back and forth, looking intently at the ground as Townsend caught up.

“Hell of a shot back there. Musta been three hundred yards. Never saw a revolver shot like...”

“What’s east of here?” Knight interrupted, pointing to a wisp of black smoke on the horizon.

“That’s Foreman McGhee’s railhead camp, maybe four miles. The line stays north of the river until it enters the mountains.” Townsend took off his hat and wiped his head with a rag. “Looks like ole’ McGhee’s making good progress all things considered.”

“Answer me this, and answer carefully.” Knight turned and directed his gaze squarely on Townsend. “Have you told anyone what Amado spoke of last night? Does anyone in town, other than you and Amado know of this place?”

Townsend shook his head. “Only the kid from the pueblo and Father Garza.”

“I ain’t worried about the boy. If what Amado told me is true, there isn’t a red skin alive who’ll come near this place.”

Knight galloped about fifty yards downstream and halted, studying the sandy bank. Warily, Townsend trailed a few yards behind. Knight suddenly wheeled about, pulled his gun and pointed it squarely at Townsend.

“The boy, did he accompany you and Amado back to the cave?”

Townsend slowly raised his hands. “Hey, I ain’t done nothing to you or any of those poor souls!”

Knight cocked the hammer. “Answer my question.”

“No, he was too afraid. Stayed upstream ‘til we came back fer him.”

“Father Garza...when did he leave you and Amado and head back to the Espanola?” Knight asked.

Townsend looked confused. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s important you answer my question, Mr. Townsend. Otherwise, it’s going to go bad for you.”

“Last night, neither of you told me what happened after you found the cave. Tell me what happened to Father Garza after you left the cave.”

Sweat poured down Townsend’s face. “He took the boy north, to the pueblo. Don’t rightly know what became of them since. I suspect Garza made his way back to San Marcos.”

“And Wellsby?”

“He went back with us, I know Amado told you as much.”

“We’ll see. Turn around and ride north ahead of me.”

“Are you gunna tell me what the hell’s going on? I ain’t done wrong by you or anyone.”

“Maybe,” Knight replied casually from behind. “There’s what you tell me and what the tracks tell me. I’ll find out soon enough who’s telling the truth.”

They rode several hundred yards north toward the distant railhead, until the terrain flattened and sand gave way to scrub and thistle. He commanded Townsend to stop, but stay on the horse. “Keep your hands were I can see them.”

Knight dismounted and walked through the scrub, once again studying the ground, Colt always pointed in Townsend’s general direction. He bent down and examined the dirt.

“Wellsby vanished, just like that?” Knight inquired.

“It ain’t no damn different than like we told you,” frustration rising in the sheriff’s tone. “We got back just before dark. Wellsby told us to keep quiet and he was gunna wire back to Colorado Springs what we found. He never met us the next morning, like he said he would. Ain’t seen him since. Amado said we should keep quiet until you showed up. That’s the truth, I swear. Hey, if we were lying, why would I bring you up here?”

Knight remounted his horse. “Because this would be a good place to dump the body of an agent of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Now, turn your horse around and ride back to the river.”

Townsend spit. “You planning on killing me?”

“Should I?”

They returned to where the cliffs enclosed both sides of the river. The horses splashed up to their hooves in the muddy water as they rounded the bend and the cave came into view.

“Dismount,” Knight ordered.

The railroad agent dismounted and cut an “X” in the sand with his boot heel next to the stream.

“Stand here. Don’t move until I see if what you and Amado told me is true. Most of what you said lines up with the tracks going in and out of this canyon. If I see tracks newer than two weeks old coming from the south, I’ll know someone lied. And if I don’t find what you described in the cave, I’ll still know someone lied.”

“We weren’t lying, Knight.”

“We’ll see. If you move off that X I’ll kill you before you mount your horse, understand? Even if my back is turned, I’ll still hear you. And if I can’t hear you, I’ll smell you. If I find what I should in there, then me and you, we’re okay.”

Townsend remained silent as he tied his horse to a piece of scrub and stood on the X.

“Ain’t you gunna take my gun?”

“If I thought you knew how to use it, I would.”

Townsend’s cheeks turned red. He jerked his hat low and crossed his arms with a huff.

Knight tied off his horse and crossed the sluggish current, barely getting his boots wet in the process. As he walked down the canyon the cliffs rose higher and the breeze abandoned him to the New Mexico sun.

Overhead, buzzards dragged their shadows over the creature lying next to the streambed. It turned out to be a mangy coyote with a mottled coat and sore-covered skin. Jutting ribs and bulging eyes spoke of a creature already dying of hunger. A human femur, partially covered with dried flesh, lay beside its head. He nudged it with his boot, revealing blood-soaked sand under its chest.

Lung shot.

Knight stepped over the coyote, not bothering to look back at Townsend, knowing he hadn’t moved.

The cave waited.

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