Chapter OneA steady drizzle fell from the blanketing clouds, graying the Wyoming landscape and obscuring the bigness of it. The first pale shoots of the country's famed green grass poked their heads through the wet mire underfoot. But Luke McCallister paid no attention to their promise of new life as he rode over the ground, his wide shoulders hunched against the slow-falling rain.
The yellow slicker he wore kept out the wetness, but it offered little protection against the morning's damp chill, which invaded his bones and added a new element to the dully pounding hangover that made him feel much older than his thirty-eight years.
Each stride of his horse jarred his head; each creak of saddle leather and bawl of a calf resounded in his ears with the loudness of clanging cymbals, drawing involuntary winces. But his blue-gray gaze remained fixed on the dark, shiny rumps of the Black Baldie cows, all with calves sporting fresh Ten Bar brands on their hips, directly ahead of him.
Luke McCallister would have been the first to admit it was lousy weather to be moving a herd of cattle. But with the spring branding finished, the time had come to move the herd to spring pasture.
On a ranch the size of the Ten Bar, it wasn't a job to be postponed because of a little rain coming down. Fortunately for Luke it was a mindless task, one that required little in the way of concentration.
To a stranger, there was little about Luke McCallister that would have set him apart from the half dozen riders pushing the herd. He had the tall, rangy look of an ordinary cowboy, broad shouldered and narrow hipped from a lifetime in the saddle. There was a triangular shape to his face, sun-browned skin stretched taut over hard, chiseled bone. Laugh lines cut parenthetical grooves on either side of his mouth and creased the corners of his eyes, the faded gray-blue of worn Levi's.
At the moment, he looked a bit worse for wear from a little too much Wild Turkey the night before. For those who knew him, like young Ten Bar ranch hand Tobe West, that was a typical state for Luke, too common to rate any notice.
Luke was easily the last person a passerby would have guessed to be the one who held the reins to the famed Ten Bar Ranch, one of the oldest in Wyoming. Back in the glory days of the old cattle barons, the Ten Bar had laid claim to over a million acres. But time and taxes had whittled its size to a mere 350,000. But it was all prime cattle country, rugged and vast, a land of rim-rock and wide draws with native grasses growing belly deep on its tabletop buttes and sheltered basins.
Located in the sparsely populated eastern side of Wyoming, its broken terrain was part of the bridge between the towering mountains of the Rockies and the rolling sweep of the Great Plains. Cottonwood trees grew along the draws watered by the mountain snowmelts, and lodgepole pines studded the higher slopes of its boulder-strewn hills. But always there was grass, vibrantly green in the spring, tawny yellow in the summer, sun-cured brown in the fall, before the white of winter snows settled onto it.
On a clear day, it was a land of long vistas, the kind that excited the imagination and conjured up memories of the time when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had ridden over this range en route to their Hole in the Wall hideout roughly a day's ride away.
But the shrouding drizzle evoked no such scenes to stimulate the mind. All was veiled in the gray mist that melded sky and land. The cattle plodded through it, mud squishing and sucking at their cloven hooves, as they strung out in a long, black line meandering in the general direction of the distant pasture gate, pushed by the flanking riders while Tobe West and Luke McCallister brought up the rear.
Ahead on the left, the crooked shape of a bent pine tree jutted from behind a dark boulder. Luke stared at it for a long minute before the significance of the landmark registered. It was time to swing the cattle up the draw toward the gate.
He puckered his lips to whistle a shrill signal to the lead riders. But his mouth was dry as cotton, and the sound that came out was barely more than a loud hiss, loud enough to startle Tobe's horse.
"What the heck was that?" Tobe shot him a questioning look.
"Me." Luke managed a wry grin. "I was trying to signal them to make the turn."
"That's the weakest excuse for a whistle I ever heard." The sparkle of laughter was in Tobe's eyes, bright with shared amusement.
"It was kinda pathetic," Luke agreed with a smile, and thought about giving it another try but couldn't summon the energy. "I guess you'd better do it, Tobe. And while you're at it, send Mark ahead to open the gate."
Tobe nodded and pursed his lips, emitting an earsplitting whistle that jolted Luke all the way to his toes and drew an involuntary groan from him at the new hammering it set off in his head. When one of the lead riders pulled up, Tobe passed on Luke's orders with a combination of hand signals and a ringing shout.
Wincing anew, Luke muttered without rancor, "Has anybody ever told you that you've got a voice with the clang of a church bell, Tobe?"
"In weather like this, that's what a man needs," Tobe retorted, then flashed him a wicked grin. "Jarred your head a bit, did it?"
"About as bad as a sledgehammer would," Luke admitted, his temples still throbbing from the effects of it.
Up ahead, Mark Cranston, the son of a neighboring rancher hired on as temporary roundup help, reined his horse away from the herd and spurred it toward the pasture gate, out of sight beyond the next fold in the hills. Meanwhile, the riders on the right flank pressed the leaders, turning them up the draw.
Luke watched as the black line of cattle curved in the right direction, briefly prodded out of their walk into a slow jog. Luke's own horse picked up its pace, crowding the stragglers at the rear.
"Not much farther now," Tobe observed.
"Can't come soon enough for me," Luke replied, conscious of the steady drip of water rolling off his hat and the spreading chill that numbed his fingers.
"Me either." Twenty-one-year-old Tobe West snatched another glance at Luke, the man who was both his boss and his idol.
From the time he had stuck his feet in his first pair of Justin boots, Tobe had wanted to be a full-fledged cowboy, even dreamed of owning his own ranch someday, something bigger than the measly eighty acres his pa rented. Growing up, he'd always had a horse to ride, and his pa had always kept a few steer on the eighty, enough for Tobe to practice his roping and play at being a cowboy.
He was only fifteen when his pa got killed in a car wreck. They had continued to rent the old Trevor place and Tobe had kept his horse, but they hadn't run any more cattle. The closest he had come to cowboying after that had been day work at local ranches, but those jobs had rarely amounted to more than a week or two a year.
Then, three years ago, his mother had died of cancer, leaving Tobe with a younger sister to raise and no money. Jobs in Glory, Wyoming, were about as scarce as rain during a drought. He'd been washing dishes at Ima Jane's Rimrock Bar & Grill when Luke McCallister had come in one night for supper and stayed for a few drinks.
At some point Luke had said something to Tobe; two seconds later, Tobe had started pouring out all his troubles to him, bemoaning the responsibility of his little sister and the cowboy life that would never be his. Right then and there, Luke had offered him a job and a place for him and his sister to live at the Ten Bar.
Truthfully, Tobe had been half afraid that Luke had been too drunk to know what he was saying. But his fears had been groundless. He had a home and a job at the Ten Bar.
Some people thought Luke drank too much. But Tobe didn't see it that way. Besides, it wasn't like Luke got mean when he drank; he got loopy and a bit irreverent. In Tobe's book that was harmless.
"Yessiree," Tobe continued, "the cab of that pickup is gonna seem warm and dry after the wet deck of this horse. I can't crawl into it soon enough to suit me." He slapped a length of wet rope against his rain-slicked chaps to hurry along a lagging cow with her calf.
"It's a cup of steaming hot coffee I want to wrap my hands around," Luke countered, thinking of the thermos waiting for him in the truck, filled with coffee laced with a liberal amount of the hair of the dog that bit him. Or in this case, turkey.
Tobe threw him a smiling glance, striving for a man-to-man air. "Don't drink it all. As cold and damp as I feel, I could use some of that special brew of yours."
"I'll-" Luke never got the rest of his sentence out as a calf bawled in sudden panic and the middle of the herd veered wildly away from a stand of cottonwood trees growing along the draw. A split second later, Luke spotted the culprit, as a spindly-legged man in a voluminous black coat charged out of the trees, flapping his arms like a scarecrow to scatter the black cows.
"Who the heck-" Tobe sputtered.
"Take a wild guess," Luke murmured in mild annoyance, as the flankers worked to settle the herd back into line again and give the man on foot a wide berth. "That crazy old Saddlebags Smith is back again." His disgust gave way to amusement as he eyed the woolly-bearded man in the floppy hat. "You'd think after all these years of looking for that outlaw gold and coming up empty, he would give it up as a lost cause."
"Not him." The young cowboy threw an exasperated glare at the old man. "He'll die lookin' for it." Satisfied that the cattle weren't going to invade his little area under the cottonwoods, the geriatric treasure hunter sifted back beneath their branches to stand guard. "Do you suppose he thinks that gold is buried in those trees?" Tobe wondered, his interest momentarily piqued.
"Who knows?" Luke lifted his shoulders in a disinterested shrug, then idly ran a glance over the small cluster of cottonwoods. "It doesn't seem likely to me. Those trees are younger than he is."
Startled by the comment, Tobe examined the grove again, then hid his chagrin by scoffing, "Just about everything is younger than that old coot." A contemplative quality entered his expression. "When we didn't see hide nor hair of him during calving time, I thought he'd probably kicked the bucket this winter."
"I wouldn't have been surprised." But truthfully Luke hadn't given the old man much thought.
It wasn't that unusual for Saddlebags not to be seen. In fact, an actual sighting of him was rare. Sometimes a rider might come across an old camp or catch sight of a narrow shadow flitting among the rocks, but that was about it. Every once in a while-like now-somebody would come up on him.
"Where do you suppose he goes in the winter?" A frown puckered Tobe's forehead.
Such speculation would require more effort than Luke's fragile head wanted to exert. He settled for hearsay. "Tip Connors claims to have seen him in Cheyenne."
"But how would he get there?" Tobe persisted. "He doesn't have a truck, no means of transportation."
"He probably thumbed a ride."
"Maybe," the young cowboy conceded. "But I can't imagine anybody givin' that old codger a ride. He'd stink up a truck worse than last year's dirty underwear." He grimaced at the thought, then frowned again. "I never understood why you let him grub around this place. You should chase him off the Ten Bar."
Luke just smiled. "Saddlebags is harmless."
The moniker came from the two sacks, bulging with the whole of his worldly belongings, that the old man carried slung over his shoulder like a saddlebag. His rightful name, according to his identification papers, was Amos Aloysius Smith, formerly of Kansas City, Missouri. As suspicious as Smith sounded, the Amos Aloysius part had a definite ring of truth to it. It was hardly the kind of name someone would make up.
According to Ima Jane Evans, bar owner and local authority on everyone within a hundred miles, Saddlebags Smith had no family-or any criminal record, for that matter. He didn't smoke, drink, or swear. Rumor had it that he was a mute, but Ima Jane insisted he could talk if he was so inclined, although Luke couldn't recall ever hearing a single word pass from the old man's lips.
"Harmless, he may be," Tobe declared, "but he's still a nuisance, always poking around and digging holes. It used to be he'd fill them back in, but not anymore. Now he just leaves 'em for some cow to stumble into and break a leg."
"He's getting old." Luke knew the feeling. And each breath of the chill, damp air intensified it.
"Old!" Tobe snorted a laugh. "Ancient is more like it. Why, he must be eighty if he's a day."
"Probably. I know he's been roaming the Ten Bar since before I was born."
Over the years, Saddlebags Smith had become almost as big a legend as the story of the buried gold itself. No one knew anymore exactly how much had been stolen by the outlaws who had robbed a train all those years ago-and found themselves with more loot than their horses could carry. One source had put the figure at a quarter million; another had claimed a hundred thousand in gold bars. Given the penchant for exaggeration in such tales, Luke had always figured it was probably much lower.
According to legend, a posse had caught up with the bandits two days later, but the gold was never found. The one surviving outlaw had taken the secret of its hiding place with him to the gallows.
"When you get right down to it, it doesn't matter. It may be nothing but a wild-goose chase, but at least he has a reason to wake up in the morning." There was a hint of envy in his eyes when Luke glanced at the dark, narrow shape among the tree trunks.
For himself, the dawn of a new day was an empty thing that he usually poured whiskey in to cut the bitter taste. It was a bleak fact, one he didn't care to face without a bottle of Wild Turkey at hand.
"Let's get these cattle moving," he said with a rare show of ill temper. "We keep poking along like this, it'll take all day."
He jabbed his horse with a spur, sending the animal lunging toward the closest cow. Immediately the straggler broke into a trot and crowded the ones in front of it. The sudden insistence on haste created confusion. Separated from its momma, a calf planted its feet and bawled in protest, then took off like a shot when Luke reined his horse toward it.
Passing wide of the cottonwoods, the tail end of the herd began the gradual climb out of the draw. It was slick going, traveling over muddy ground chewed up by previous hooves. Of their own accord, the straggling cows with their calves spread out seeking firmer footing.
When one pair ducked back toward the draw, Luke automatically sent his horse after it, gritting his teeth against the jarring his head took. Finally turning the cow and calf, he herded them back toward the others. But the angle of climb was steeper, with sections of the slope eroded to expose dark banks of undercut soil. They began the scrambling climb up the slope, hooves digging for purchase.
Suddenly Luke felt the horse falling from beneath him as a whole chunk of ground gave way under them. Instinct alone warned him that the horse was going over backward. The remnants of a hangover dulled his reflexes, making him a split-second slow to dive off the uphill side of the saddle.
A wildly flailing hoof dealt him a glancing blow an instant before he went headfirst into the muddy bank. The softness of the sodden dirt cushioned much of the impact as he more or less skidded to a halt, the horse crashing to the ground below him.
Something clunked him in the head, knocking off his hat and coming to a rest atop an outstretched arm. He lay there for a dazed second, conscious of the cold, wet mud beneath him and the misty rain on his cheek. For a moment, Luke felt too tired and sore to move. But already his horse was clambering to its feet, giving itself a head-to-tail shake that sent the empty stirrups flopping.
The slip and slide of another set of hooves signaled the arrival of Tobe West on the scene. "Luke? Are you okay?"
Lifting his throbbing head, Luke spit the dirt from his lips. "I'm fi-" He found himself staring into the mud-caked eye sockets of a human skull.
The shock of the macabre sight drove out any lingering effects from both the fall and the hangover. With an alacrity that was laughable, Luke sprang from the skull, cursing a blue streak, his face almost as pale as the partially exposed skeleton protruding from the eroded bank.