Copyright© 2020 by Graybyrd
Patch Patterson aligned the buckhorn sights of his Winchester .30-30 carbine on the very edge of a thick-barked Ponderosa pine standing alone on a hillside several hundred feet from his field. The gunshot echoed off the Virginian Ridge mountainside and reverberated across the valley.
The tree exploded outward in a spray of bark fragments and wood splinters. The man beside the tree screamed, the side of his face and neck streaming blood. He lurched and spun around, dropping his binoculars. He ran shrieking up the steep hillside away from the old man’s field.
Serves the sneakin’ son of a bitch right, Patch mumbled to himself. He stepped from his hiding place inside the goat shed, walked to his cabin, and put the rifle back on its pegs above the kitchen door.
He’d seen the stranger last week slipping around the edges of his property, and saw him again two days ago. Each time the man stayed inside the timber just outside Patch’s hillside fence. He was there for a long time scanning Patch’s cabin, barn, and sheds through his binoculars. The man often lowered his glasses to write in a notebook.
The first time he’d seen the stranger Patch started across his field to approach the man, but he ran away along the hillside before Patch could get near him. Patch followed his tracks until he heard a car door slam. It sped away before Patch could get a look at it.
Damned peculiar, he thought.
The third time he caught the stranger watching him, Patch sprayed him with a bark shot. That’s fair warning, he figured. Decent people come to a man’s door and introduce themselves. Sneaks and thieves slip around looking to cause trouble. He’s got himself some trouble now. Ol’ Doc Jameson’s gonna have some fun diggin’ them tree splinters out of his face.
He poured a cup of black coffee and sat, sipping from the thick mug, thinking. I’d best grab a hatchet and go up to that tree and chop out that barked spot. I don’t expect the slug is stuck in there, but just in case that feller decides to call the sheriff on me, I don’t want no slug left to match my rifle. Damn fools. Years past, everybody would figure a sneak-about got what he deserved. But the law these days, there’s just no telling. Best not take a chance. I don’t need no law troubles.
Graydon parked alongside his old friend’s cabin. He started toward the porch expecting to find Patch inside but instead, he heard the sound of chopping; then he noticed several of the goat herd looking towards the hillside across the road. He turned and followed the sound.
“Hey, Patch!” he yelled out when he caught sight of the old man some distance up the hill. He hurried his climb up the steep slope.
“Hey yourself, youngster!” Patch replied, hacking another slice out of the thick bark. His gnarled, bony hands brought the hatchet down in a slashing arc, widening a broad cut in the tree’s side. Graydon saw a ragged bullet track across the face of the exposed wood. He glanced in the direction it pointed; a line of blood drops glistened on matted pine needles and stony soil up the slope. He said nothing, waiting for Patch to explain.
“Damned snooper,” Patch finally said, leaning over to rest his hatchet against the base of the huge tree. He pulled a wadded handkerchief from a grimy pocket and wiped his face. Bark fragments stuck to his crusty denim work jacket.
“I see blood by my feet and more going up the hill. Somebody ran away in a big hurry, it appears,” Graydon observed. “Are those his binoculars over there on the ground?”
“Reckon so; he was spying’ on me ... writin’ things down. First time I seen ‘im I tried to ask what he was doin’. But he ran. This was the third time I seen ‘im, spyin’ and snoopin’, so I barked ‘im.”
“And the chopping?” Graydon asked.
“Damn fool’s prob’ly runnin’ to call the sheriff, soon’s he gits his face patched up. Ain’t no point leavin’ a bullet track to point back to me.” Patch wadded up the kerchief and stuffed it back into a dirt-crusted trouser pocket.
“I’ll kick some duff over them blood spots; then we’ll go down and see if the coffee’s still fit to drink,” Patch said. “Maybe you kin keep yer ears open around town; see if you hear somethin’ about what might be bringin’ strangers snoopin’ around?”