A hot wind swept across the open land, coasting over the slight inclines, dipping into shallow depressions. The dry grasses rustled in the breeze as the leaves on the stout bushes rattled against the dry branches. The animals who called this land home had long ago retired to the cool comfort of their burrows leaving the blazing sun the only witness to the breeze’s efforts at redecoration.
Three horses plodded patiently, saving what energy they could in order to continue carrying their familiar burdens through this unfamiliar and unfriendly land.
An air of timelessness hung heavily over the land as three wilted forms made their way along a path only one of them could see.
For hours the three had ridden in silence. Had it not been for the oppressive dry heat, the one in the lead might have tried to make light of the opportunity by declaring a miracle had occurred. But, for the same reason the normally verbose man rode silently, the other man’s sense of humor remained still.
Finally holding up a hand to call a halt to their progress, the two forms who had been following pulled up next to the first, knowing instinctively they had been halted in order to share some of their dwindling water supply with their mounts.
As the men took sparing sips and allowed their horses a greater portion, the chestnut-haired man inquired of their longhaired guide, “How much longer to you propose to lead us through this American imitation of Dante’s Inferno.”
Piercing green eyes rose at the question, locking on the figure of the man who had assured them that, were they game to follow it, this shortcut would cut almost a day off their journey. The blond had hesitated at the proposal, but knew the sooner they returned to their home with their burden, the sooner all would be safe. Now, half-a day’s ride into the supposed shortcut, he too had found himself questioning the wisdom of the decision.
The third man in the group scratched the cheek of his sometimes-cantankerous mount and smiled. He had wondered how long it would take for one of the other two men to complain. When he had offered this alternative path, he had known the difficulties they would face and the dangers, but given the burden they were guarding and the towns they would have passed through following the other route, he had thought this the safer alternative.
Turning to look at the horizon and then upward to check the position of the sun, he smiled slightly at his colleagues and asked, “What’s wrong? Tired of the fresh air already?”
His lips pinching together slightly at the question, the first man responded, “I assure you, Mr. Tanner, I am as game as the next man when it comes to the so-called joys of riding in the open range. However, I am also aware that we have been traveling a large portion of the day and have yet to see event the faintest trace of civilization. Were it not for your past record of reliability, I would at this point be questioning the veracity of your claim that this is indeed a shortcut.”
Vin glanced at the ground before allowing his eyes to check on the face of his other friend. He saw Chris wore a small smile at Ezra’s outburst, but also read the concern in Larabee’s eyes. With a sigh, Vin scanned the area around him, relocating the marker he’d used. Then, turning to Ezra, he pointed to a spot a little ways off. “Y’ see that depression right there?”
Ezra’s brows furrowed as the followed the path of the Tracker’s finger, wondering what any of this had to do with their ride through this inhospitable land.
Seeing Ezra looking in the proper direction, he asked, “You see that little rise in the ground just this side of that depression?”
Ezra squinted his eyes trying to make out the shape. Soon his eyes widened as he realized what Vin was pointing out. Not losing sight of the newly discovered landmark, Ezra nodded.
“That there’s what’s left of the foundation of a house.” He smiled slightly as Ezra’s head whipped around, the emerald eyes wide with surprise. “You need to know how to read the land, Ez,” Vin explained.
Chris had paid attention as the Tracker explained the sign to Ezra. The truth was, Chris hadn’t noticed the old, mostly buried foundation either. He was duly impressed by Vin’s eyesight.
“That’s very intriguing, Mr. Tanner,” Ezra said, trying to hide how impressed he was by his friend’s knowledge. “But what do the remains of some long-forgotten people have to do with our status as future buzzard bait?”
Vin chuckled softly. “Ez,” he began, knowing the nickname would irk his friend, “people in general are pack animals. They like to be close to other people. If there’s a house out here, there must be a town nearby.”
Looking into the sky blue eyes with a mixture of hope and doubt, Ezra waited for some further explanation.
“We’re about four hours from Dry Gulch,” Vin supplied, knowing they needed to get moving again. “From Dry Gulch it’s a hard day’s ride back home.”
Ezra sighed in relief, seeing hope at the end of the journey. “Then by all means, Mr. Tanner,” he ordered, “lead the way!”
Vin chuckled softly and glanced over toward Chris who still wore a small smile on his face. The Tracker read the relief in his friend’s eyes as well as the unspoken request to get to town as soon as possible. Nodding slightly to Larabee, Vin mounted his horse and set out at a steady walk.