This is a story about a FANTASY written for consenting adults. If you're not both of those, don't read it. Characters in a FANTASY don't get sick or die unless I want them to. You don't live in a FANTASY so be safe. The fictional characters in my stories are trained and experienced in acts of FANTASY - don't try to do what they do - someone could get hurt.
If you think you know somebody who resembles any of the characters here, congratulations, but you're wrong - any similarity between the characters in this story and any real person is purely coincidental, since all of these characters are figments of my dirty little imagination.
This is my story, not yours. Don't sell it or put it on a pay site. You can keep it and/or give it away with all of this information intact, but if you make money off of it without my permission, you're breaking the law and pissing me off.
The Muggyon Rim country was bleak and grey as the north wind scoured the landscape. There was a single, vaguely bright spot in the featureless grey of the winter sky that marked where the sun hid, but little light filtered through to brighten the stark landscape. To his right, Alex could catch glimpses of the old highway as it wound its way over the rim and north toward Show Low. To the west was a huge expanse of young pines intermingled with the dead and rotting corpses of the old growth trees that had burned to make room for the new growth. Judging by the sizes of the new trees, that fire must have occurred some years before the Sickness. Down below, the Tonto basin was as desolate as it must have been before white men came, bringing their houses and their irrigation. Here and there, Alex could see the crumbling remains of a house surrounded by the grey skeletons of the trees its owner had planted, nurturing them with water piped in from far away.
Nowadays, if you wanted water, you had to pump it out of the ground, or go where it was. Alex figured that was the way things were meant to be. Folks before the Sickness had changed the rules for a little while, but in the end, Nature went back to doing things the way she'd always done. Already, the crumbling remains of the civilization that men had built were being turned to dust and gravel by the relentless grinding of wind, rain and searing heat. Where there was water, the plants were tearing down the old buildings even faster. Something deep inside Alex felt satisfaction at that thought and he leaned over and stroked the buckskin's powerful neck.
"Don't make no difference, do it, boy," he told the horse softly. "We humans think we're almighty clever, but ol' Nature, she just bides her time. She ain't in no hurry, cause she knows that in the end, it's all gonna be hers again."
The buckskin snorted and tossed his head as if in agreement, the cold wind catching the long hair of his mane and whipping it about.
Much as he hated to leave the shelter offered by the scattered pines, Alex nudged the buckskin with his heels as he slacked up on the reins and touched them to the right side of Buck's neck.
"I reckon we'd better mosey on along, Buck," Alex told his mount, "I can smell the snow acomin' same as you, and I reckon we oughta get down a might lower if we don't want to get snowed in."
Buck knew where the trail down from the rim was, and didn't need any more guidance than to be pointed in the right direction. Placing his hooves carefully, the stallion stepped lightly as he carried them down the switchbacks of the barely visible trail.
As he rode, Alex reflected on the differences between the written names of things and the way folks pronounced them. Pops had insisted he learn to read and write and to understand counting and numbers, but it sure was puzzle sometimes. Even today, folks, when they wrote at all, copied the spelling Alex had seen on signs all over the countryside. 'Mogollon'. Now, the way Pops taught him, that ought to be pronounced 'Mo-go-lon' or, the way folks from down below the Fence would say it, 'Mo-go-yown'. Everybody that lived on or in the shadow of the Rim, however, pronounced it, 'Muggyon'.
Buck didn't give his rider time to solve the puzzle. His head came up sharply and his ears stood up straight, pointing down the trail like a man would aim a telescope. Suddenly, a shot rang out, and Alex slid his Winchester from its boot under his right leg, every sense alert. He stroked the buckskin's neck and muttered calming words to him as they both scanned the trail ahead with every available sense.
Alex urged the horse forward slowly, but he hadn't gone more than a few steps when the 'boom' of a shotgun halted them again. There were at least two guns in play somewhere, not too far ahead, and Alex eased Buck forward, keeping just the slightest tension on the reins as he nudged him with his heels.
Buck knew about gunfire, and he knew that caution was in order whenever it was nearby. He stepped lightly, nervously ahead. In the distance, Alex's ears caught the sound of hoofbeats that sounded like they were headed rapidly downhill, a pretty reckless endeavor unless the rider was damn sure of his trail. Easing around a bend in the trail, Alex saw a dark lump lying in the dust of the trail next to a ground-hitched horse.
The horse lifted her head and whinnied at Buck, then, satisfied that the two of them meant her no harm, went back to cropping the meager tufts of grass alongside the trail.
Alex dismounted a couple of hundred feet away, taking his time about scanning the slopes above and below the strange horse, while staying out of most lines of fire that covered the portion of the trail on which the shapeless form lay. He had a pretty good idea what that thing on the trail was, and if he was right, he'd do no one any good if he rode into an ambush.
Taking a pair of moccasins from his saddlebag, Alex removed his boots and slipped the moccasins on his feet. He tied his boots to his saddle and started uphill from where he was, moving silently through the brush and pine needles. At the top of the ridge, he turned parallel to the trail below and soon found himself looking down on the waiting horse.
From this angle, it was pretty clear that the bundle on the ground was, indeed, a human body. Moving further along the ridge, he came to the spot where the ambusher must have waited. The matted needles on the ground behind a big pine had been scuffed and disturbed by someone who stood and waited for some time. A spent 5.52mm shell lay on the ground a little distance away, ejected, no doubt, from the gun that killed the person below. Alex pocketed the shell out of habit, and scoured the surroundings for clues.
The watcher's horse had been tied further back, out of sight from the trail. From the tracks, that must have been the one he heard hightailing it downhill. There were, however human shoe prints in the dirt and vegetation leading downhill toward the trail. Following carefully, so as not to overlay any sign with his own tracks, Alex found the place where the ambusher had suddenly jumped or been thrown aside, and had then rolled downhill a few yards, before scrambling back to the top in an almighty hurry.
Torn leaves on a nearby bush gave Alex a clue as to why the sudden jump and reversal of direction.
"Birdshot," he muttered under his breath. "Somebody was a huntin' out here with a shotgun and musta persuaded this feller that he didn't want to go down to that there body after all. Musta got a couple of pellets into 'im, too, from the look of them blood droplets yonder."
Sighting from the location of the ambusher's jump, through the bush that got clipped by the shotgun blast, Alex was able to find the place further along the top of the ridge from which the bird hunter had presented his argument against the bushwhacker going to pay his respects to the body below.
Climbing back to the top, he went cautiously to the spot he had picked out from below. This one was much better in the wild, and left little sign, but Alex was able to piece out a shadow of a trail that showed he had slipped up on the bushwhacker and taken a shot, but apparently stayed out of sight 'til the killer had hightailed it out of there. There was a faint set of prints that led down to the body. Presumably the hunter had come down to check on the victim after the killer made his escape. In the dust of the trail, he found where someone wearing moccasins similar to his had walked over to the body, knelt on the trail, then disappeared, probably about the time the other horse noticed Buck coming down the trail.
Now here was a puzzle. Should he go after the ambusher or the bird hunter? He might be able to catch the shooter if he hurried, but if he missed him, the bird hunter might be able to tell him who he was looking for. Might even have seen the shooting, and had certainly seen the shooter.
The weather made up his mind for him. Flakes of snow started settling on the trail and the surrounding vegetation, and if Alex was any judge, this was going to be a bad one on top of the Rim. Down below, he might still be able to pick up the killer's trail. He quickly went through the dead man's pockets, finding only a letter in a sealed envelope. On the outside of the envelope, written in a neat hand, was: Merrilee Dunstan, Flagstaff.
Alex tucked the envelope inside his shirt for safekeeping and quickly hoisted the body across the saddle of the waiting horse, tying it in place with a short length of the rope that hung from the saddle.
.... There is more of this story ...