'The Trail of Laredo Dawes'

By Phineas Redux

—OOO—

Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers in the 1870's Arizona Territory, USA, are on the trail of a low-down dirty law-breaker.

Note 1:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.

Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2018 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.

—O—

At this time of year it was fairly cold at sea-level; or desert-level, in this part of the Arizona Territory; chilly up in the higher foot-hills; and, in the actual certified mountains, downright freezing: as the deep snow drifts and snowfields now to be found there clearly evinced. That it was hardly the season to be shuffling knee-deep through the snow, wondering if you were still on the trail or not, was quite apparent to the two riders and their mounts; particularly the latter, which almost certainly held the opinion that a nice warm stable with plenty of hay was preferable to the present expedition. Sally had been first, some time earlier that day and a considerable way lower down the mountain, to break silence and start complaining.

"What in Hell makes ya think Laredo came this-away, Harry?" Sally never being one to hold back when riled. "Here we are, headin' inta the dam' clouds up a great big mountain, jest 'cause ya say so. What makes you the Ol' Woman o'the dam' Mountains, alla' a'sudden?"

"Didn't I jest leave off tellin' you, an hour n'more agone?" Harry pulled her woolen muffler down to expose her mouth to the biting cold, a wash of steam issuing from her chilled lips with every word. "Those trappers we met yesterday said fer certin they passed by Laredo in person sommers up here; so this is the dam' way we're goin', an' thet's all; come on."

With this she kicked her mount into action and rode forward, leaving her companion a few yards in her rear; clouds of snow dancing in the air as the horses ploughed through the relatively shallow snowfield on the gentle rise leading higher up towards the line of white-covered pine trees. Sally, still annoyed, motioned her own mount forward, giving it a light tickle with the reins, though continuing grumbling to her partner now thrashing through the snow on her right hand.

"Harry, d'ya truly think the chances o'Laredo a'comin' this way really are good?"

"Oh, mighty probable, I guess."

"Thet ain't what I'd call a straight flush, in answer." Sally never accepted advice without a long argument; not even then, usually. "What makes yer think Laredo's the kind'a bushwhackin' cut-throat that'd climb up in'ta these here regions, surely adjacent t'Hades itself, fer pleasure alone?"

"Well, she's clearly headin' fer Sampson's Pass, meanin' ter get away over on the other side in'ta the northern forests, an' there lose hersel' complete." Harry shook her shoulders to get rid of the accumulating snow from the light ongoing fall encompassing them; pulled idly with her heavily gloved hand at her own horse's reins, pressed her wide-brimmmed hat closer to her thick dark hair, and glanced over at her loved companion. "Thet's sure as bacon an' beans, ain't it, Sal?"

"Not ter me it ain't." Sally's lack of faith continued undiminished. "This mountain range, as we both know full well, is only a young whelp compared t'others. Why, it don't run more'n twenty mile east or west from our present position; an' it don't attain a width more'n ten mile at its widest. What's t'have stopped crazy Laredo goin' round in either direction, an' thereby savin' hersel' a great deal o'trouble?"

There was a pause while the riders negotiated a deeper stretch of snow than usual. Sometimes going stirrup deep before they came out on the other side where the snow carried on only up to their mount's knees. Then Harry replied as if there had been no interruption.

"Y're not takin' inta account her set o'mind, up ahead there-away's." Harry, her tall strong form muffled in heavy fur coat and leggings like her companion, shrugged her shoulders. "She was prob'ly well aware we was on her trail three, maybe four, days ago. Whether she knows we've gotten so al'mighty close t'the ol' reprobate, I don't know. But she's dam' runnin' ter get away, that's a certin fac'. Hence her rush fer Sampson's Pass, instead o'easier trails down at ground, or sand, level. She's scared, y'see. Well, wouldn't you be, pursued relentless by the best bear hunter in the state, meanin' me; an' a ornery lowdown mean–tempered red-haired coyot', meanin' you?"

"Hell's-teeth an' Dam'nation, Harry—is I y'r friend an' partner, or is I some half-baked fool? Stop talkin' about me like that—some'un's liable t'take your dam' word at face value one o'these days—then where'll I be? "

"God, silly question; jest keep yer hoss headed forward, will ya? An' slide off t'my left a trifle, while y're at it; y're kickin' up snow in my face, leddy. Why for'd ya get ahead o'me like that, anyways?"

"Oh shucks, I am sorry." Sally affected an aggrieved tone which didn't fool her revered partner an instant. "There, is that better? An' when're ya gon'na call a halt an' let us make camp fer the evenin'?

"Not till we reach the shelter o'the pine trees, up there." Harry pointed to the line of snow-covered trees stretching across their path some half-mile further on across the slope. "That's where we'll camp; warmer, an' safer under the trees, as well y'know yersel, woman. So stop complainin', an' put some grit in'ta it, will ya?"

"Grrarggh."

—O—

Being old hands at this sort of thing the two representatives of the Law,—well, they was in hot pursuit of a nice bounty, which is more or less the same thing—made camp in remarkable time; tying their mounts under a wide-speading pine whose snow-covered branches acted as a solid roof overhead, giving relative warmth as well as protection from further falling snow. At this point the trees were growing so close together that for a wide space under the individual specimens there was a deep clear bed of pine needles sufficient to allow bed-rolls to be cosily spread. The resinous branches to be found lying all round also provided perfect fuel for the merrily blazing camp-fire. Although the meal was necessarily only of cold beef jerky and rapidly heated beans, the women contrived to eat their fill nonetheless. Then they sat on their saddles round the warm fire, out of the falling snow and light breeze, tin mugs of steaming coffee in hand, talking about their plans for the next day.

"Y'never did fill me in on exactly what this leddy, Laredo, actilly did, to rile the forces o'Law an' what passes fer Order in these here parts, an' Red Flume in per'tikler, Harry."

The strongly built tall form of the famed bear hunter shuffled a mite closer to the fire, she scratchin' her chin the while as was her wont when deep in thought.

"Waal, it goes like this here, young 'un; y'recalls thet time, some two year past, when Albert Roedekker over t'the 'Broken Seven' spread, had half his herd stolen one dark night?"

"I surely does thet, gal." Sally gurgled in her throat at the fond memory. "Ol' Roedekker swanned around Red Flume, mean as a b'ar with a sore foot, fer weeks afterwards. So, what about it?"

"Seems Laredo was behind it." Harry pursed her lips in thought. "She holin' up in thet ranch o'hers in the hills, an' congregatin' a bunch o'the deepest dyed ne'er-do-wells ever t'pison the environ's o'the county meanwhile. Nobody could ever pin the thing on her, though; so she rides free entire, as y'recall."

"So I believes was sich." Sally shook her head censoriously, swallowing another mouthful of hot coffee. "So Sheriff Donaldson final took a stand, an' threw the Statutes o'the Territory at her, did he?"

"Jest that, gal, an' nuthin' more." The bear hunter nodded in agreement. "Which acshin', entire an' mighty sociable o'itself, y'll agree, finds you an' me up here waist-deep in the dam' snow, scrabblin' after the two thousand dollar bounty he found fit t'spring on the reprobate."

"Two thousand dollars." Sally let this fine phrase roll round her tongue, obviously savourin' its flavour t'the full. "Mighty fine, mighty fine. There's lots o'things I kin' do, with a fair cut o'that thick steak. I takes it, merely in passin' an' jest t'get the tone o'the thing straight, I am getting' a fair whack o'the double-eagles, leddy?"

Harry looked into the green eyes of her revered and loved partner, who was always this way where money was concerned; she havin' a taste fer gold that'd have made Croesus himself jealous.

"Even splits, gal, even splits." Harry threw another pine twig on the fire, watchin' the sparks, nostrils quiverin' at the aromatic smell. "Cut right through the middle; one half fer me, an' what's left over fer you. So, what'd thet be in round figgers then—yeah, o'course, fourteen hundred dollars fer me, an' six hundred dollars fer you. Fair as fair could be, like I said, baby."

"Idiot."

"Oh, alright, one thousand dollars each, I suppose; but it's only because I loves yer through an' through, y'young whippersnapper."

"Thet's better, ol' gal." Sally sniggered evilly. "Can y'scramble inta yer blankets by y'self, or will y'r nurse here come an' give y'r falterin' frame a han'?"

"Young lady, when we returns t'Red Flume I shall have words, an' some acshin's, t'discuss with you, that'll settle y'r yoothful hash once an' fer all—see if I don't."

"Har-Har." Sally remained unworried by this threat. "Come on, let's bed down fer the night. One o'us, at least, needs her beauty sleep."

"Humph."

—O—

The following morning dawned fresh and clear, with a sky of the brightest blue imaginable. The Mitchell Ridge, as this small line of mountains was named, glowed white and grey in the bright morning light. White because of the snow, grey because of the underlying rock which rose to the several jagged peaks; it being well-known that the only safe passage through the centre of the range was Sampson's Pass, towards which the intrepid duo were now about to head.

There were various trails, as well as the Pass itself, giving access all the way across the range to horses and riders. No sheer cliffs which needed mountain climbing experience—unless the voyager went off the known trail in search of such excitement. Henrietta and Sally retaining a conservative outlook and sticking to the trail with grim determination; the sort of determination which the comforting thought of two thousand dollars creates in all right-thinking minds.

The snow had stopped falling, but this left vast fields of white reflective snow glinting like furnace doors, causing actual pain to the eyes of unprotected spectators. Both women as they rode up the trail were, as a result, now wearing steel-rimmed spectacles with dark lenses, giving them an eery dangerous appearance. Coupled with their heavy trousers, long thickly padded dust-jackets and wide low-brimmed hats no observer, at a distance of more than one hundred yards, would have taken the two riders for women; which suited Henrietta and Sally just fine.

They had broken camp with all the speed and expertise of old hands, both having lived this sort of life since their teenage years. After their morning ablutions, always necessarily done at speed in such a snowy landscape,—there, after all, being certain parts of the anatomy you certainly didn't want frostbitten,—they saddled up and rode on skywards in hot pursuit of their just reward—Laredo Dawes, ill-famed throughout the whole Territory of Arizona, and probably several states, too, if the truth was only known.

Once back on the trail, as much as could be surmised at any rate, Sally broke forth with requests for information again; she always being one to scout out the lie of the land whenever possible.

"Who's this here Laredo Dawes, then, in person?" Sally turned in her saddle to observe her partner as they rode their steeds through the knee-high snowfield. "What'd she do; what's her style; how dangerous is she? Why the dam' haven't we caught the bi—young lady, yet?"

Sighing deeply, Henrietta gave in.

"She's got the reputation of bein' meaner, an' some more perilous t'be around, than Calamity Jane hersel'." Warming to her subject, Henrietta carried on. "Bank robberies by the handful, over t'Kentucky n'North Carolina; some cattle-stealin' across the Mississipi; gunfights with various posse's beyond compute; an' some half dozen stand-off's with personal enemies, out in Main St. of several townships, in several counties, in several states. She's fast t'take exception, even faster on the draw, an' takes her yearly income from anythin' goin'. Been put about she's even indulged in the gentle art o'kidnappin', now an' agin. Two thousand dollars reward fer her hide seems a mighty low figure, t'me at least."

"Well, all things considered, it seems we ought'a take some slight preliminary safety measures, don't it?" If Sally was noted for anything, it was being cautious to a degree. "Don't want the high-spirited gal bushwhackin' us up here, do we?"

The riders had passed through one copse of fir trees and were presently making their slow way over a wide sloping snowfield to where another extended band of firs crossed their path, some way ahead and higher up. Henrietta reined in her mount to take stock of her well-wrapped-up consort.

"Sal, ye're one, an' no mistake."

"Hey, what fer ye're callin' me names, lover?"

"Nah, jest sayin' darlin', is all. Wouldn't want yer any other way—not at this late date, anyway."

"What was that last remark, my dear; didn't quite catch it?" Sally now frowning darkly.

"Nuthin', nuthin' at all." Henrietta veering off at a tangent, back onto her main theme for safety's sake. "Nah, she won't try anythin' up here; at least not in this area, too many open snowfields. We'd—"

Bang.

The scything whine of the bullet passed between the two riders, spooking Sally's mount into rearing and cantering off to the left in a cloud of snow particles as it tossed its legs in the deep snow; which probably accounted for—

Bang.

—the second bullet, whining like an angry bee, passing wide too.

"Jay-suus, head back fer the firs we jest left, gal,—an' make it dam' snappy."

As Henrietta watched her partner kick her steed round and start to backtrack, she wrestled her own horse into sliding some way to the right, getting in between what she thought was the direction the bullets had come from and Sally's retreating form; but no further bullets came as the two thrashing riders made it back to the shelter of the mass of fir trees they had only just left. It wasn't till they were some distance in, under the thick canopy and out of sight of the higher snowfield, that they stopped to consider their options.

"Bejesuus, she dam' well did, the b-tch." Sally, overflowing with anger and spite. "Here, jes' lem'me get my Sharps' out'ta its wrap, an' I'll settle her dam' hash, jest watch me."

The fact that Henrietta was the professional with her Sharps rifle, Sally just being an amateur by comparison with her recently acquired similar weapon, held no truck with the angry dark-haired woman; she always taking being shot at with intent as a personal insult; by persons unknown but not long for this life if she, Sally Nichols, was given half a chance.

"Hold hard, lady." Henrietta always a mite calmer under pressure. "Let's sit back an' figure out jest what's in the wind, before we take any rash action, eh?"

"Rash action?" Sally sneered savagely, her woolen muffler having fallen away lower round her neck in the excitement thus exposing her face. "I'll fill the b-tch so full'a holes ye'll need three buckets t'transport her remains back t'civilisation t'claim the reward, is all."

"Now, now, calm down; let's think this through."

"Oh, alright." Sally buckled under the warm hand laid on her shoulder as they dismounted. "But only 'cause I can't find my dam' ammo; where the dam'd I put those bloody bullets?"

Five minutes later they had brought some sort of order to their new circumstances. The horses, none the worse for the recent drama, had been placed under the over-spreading branches of a nearby fir, while the women stood in a small clearing to plan their next moves. They both had their Sharps rifles ready to hand, Sally's now fully loaded. Henrietta's example took .50 cartridges, while Sally's, of a newer model, took .45 cartridges—her's supposedly being more accurate as a result; Sally, though renowned herself as a deadshot with Smith and Wesson .38's, was yet to come anywhere close to matching her partner's accuracy with her rifle, over any range. Henrietta had frequently espoused the idea of Sally using a Winchester repeater, but her partner and long-time lover had stuck her heels in, determined to follow in the footsteps of her loved companion at all costs.

"Right, so what's the plan?" Sally still fuming with anger. "We head on up in a pincer movement, an' catch her from two sides at once? Works fer me."

"Not fer me, though." Henrietta shook her head imperiously. "Best way t'get us both shot. Nah, what we need t'do is wait it out."

"Wait? Wha'd'yer mean? We're up here, in a bloody snowfield well above the snowline." Sally showing all her renowned lack of patience. "If we wait, all it'll be for is fer our toes an' fingers, an' probably even more important parts o'us, t'catch frostbite an' fall off."

"Jest so, young 'un."

For a few seconds Sally looked as if she was going to take up the body of this argument in no uncertain manner; then she paused to, one hopes, think about it.

"Ah, I get it; we can stay warm, here under the firs. Maybe make another temporary camp, with a nice warm campfire; but she won't be able t'do that, up there." Sally had recognised the wisdom of her partner's outlook. "She'll have t'continually try'n bring the war to us, not the other way round; which she can't do, us bein' so snuggly placed where we are now. She won't have time t'make a fire an' stay warm; which means her actions is restricted. She's only got a certain amount o'time; then she'll have t'break away an' head further up into the trees an' away from us, in order to make her own camp an' get warm—otherwise she'll freeze t'death, thereby savin' us the trouble. Ha-ha, I like's the way yer thinks, darlin'; here, lem'me give ya a kiss,—mmm."

—O—

They had moved deeper under the protection of the thick stand of firs; the proposed fire had been lit and was now warming the two women nicely; and Henrietta had mused some more on their present situation.

"I don't like it, lady; there's somethin' not kosher about this here set-up."

"Really? Don't see what yer gettin' at, lover." Sally running an oily rag over her Sharps' as they sat by the fire. "Looks straight-forward t'me. Laredo sat tight till we appeared, then tried to bushwhack us strictly accordin' t'Hoyle. What's the problem?"

"She missed, is the problem, my dear." Henrietta having a habit of turning schoolmarmish when disturbed in her intellects. "She's a fair enough markswoman, I believes; but that shot was only in the region of two hundred yards; two-fifty at a push. Anyone with any experise would'a hit their target."

"An' Laredo didn't?" Sally sitting up and taking more notice as she realised where this was heading.

"Exactly."

"Which leads the casual observer to believe it weren't her in the first place, but a lesser substitute."

"Jest so, Sal."

"Well, I'll be dammed." Sally pondering over this unwelcome news. "In fact, I'll be double-dammed. The b-tch's workin' with a partner. I'll be da—"

"Heerd ya the first time, gal." Henrietta shuffled her shoulders, under her heavy fur-lined jacket. "What we needs now is a plan—a good plan, an' one that we'll be able t'work off in double-quick time, too. Neither o'us wantin' t'spend any more time waist-deep in these snowfields than's strictly necessary, I believes?"

"Too dam' right there, sister."

"OK, I got said plan, square t'rights as we speaks, lady."

"Jee-sus, that was fast."

"Can it, lassie." Henrietta at her most imperious. "Right, here it is—that plan o'yourn, that ye came out with earlier, the pincer movement, weren't half bad; in fact, we'll do jest that."

"Catch him, whoever the Hell he is, between two fires?" Sally cottoning on like the sharp lady she was. "Serve the b-st-rd right—hopes my first shot gets him square in the bol—"

"Don't get excited, gal, it'll put ya off yer aim." Henrietta ever aware of the drawbacks to anything. "The terrain slopes away, some ways over t'your left hand, dear. You slide yourself, head well down, across the snowfield there, d'ye see? When ye gets in amongst the firs coverin' the swine, ye makes yer way back in this direction. All this time I'll be takin' potshots at his supposed position, the while; jest t'keep his attention focused on me. Thataways ye'll probably be able t'get well within range an' spot his whereabouts with ease; then—"

"—then I blows his f-ckin' balls off, lover, sure as buttons." Sally giggled girlishly with glee, making her partner raise a questioning eyebrow. "I'm up fer it; let's go, lady—Time waits fer no woman, y'know; an' my trigger-finger's itchin' as we speak."

"Jeez."

—O—

The reasoning behind Henrietta staying put, bringing the unknown bushwhacker's fire on herself, was that it would take sustained fire on her part to keep the man's attention focussed on her; which meant her aim, by necessity, ought to be of the best in order to come closest, with any surety, to his hidden position. Henrietta knew she was capable of this while Sally, though no mean aim herself, would need to be much closer to her prey to be assured of accuracy with any certainty.

Henrietta's first three ranging shots with her Sharps rifle, over the two hundred and fifty yards or so of the open sloping snowfield to the distant line of firs, brought no response; but her fourth finally elicited return fire. The dull thud, and cloud of powdered snow, as a bullet hit a distant fir to her left, showed the bushwhacker had finally woken up. The crack of the hidden rifle's fire followed within half a second, but without giving any clue to its position by visible smoke.

Now Henrietta settled down to annoying the Hell out of her distant unseen attacker, giving him a rapid fire as fast as she could reload her single-shot rifle—and, through hard practice, she could do so to the point of firing off at least eight shots a minute, when pushed. Not that these would be particularly accurate, but they would come close enough to their target to keep the man occupied, which was just what she wanted.

Both parties being well undercover of the thick firs neither could see their opponent's rifle-fire, so accuracy was less than perfect; but Henrietta wasn't worried on this score, only literally aiming to keep her assailant's head down—accuracy would come when Sally had wormed her silent way close enough to pinpoint the rapscallion.

Henrietta wasn't worried about the risk of starting an avalanche with her shooting, as they were still more or less on the shallower lower slopes of the range of mountains; though certainly heading towards the high Sampson's Pass, still some distance off. Anyway, her Sharps, though a long range beauty, didn't make all that loud of a report when fired, just a short sharp crack; while the smoke discharge from the barrel dissipated quickly.

She could also tell her unseen opponent was using something other than a Sharps', for the bullets hitting the fir trunks to either side of her were doing so with much less impetus and destroying power than her Sharps' projectiles would.

"Prob'ly a Winchester—"

Bang, Bang, Bang.

Three shots, all within a second and a half, from her adversary; the bullets whining through the fir branches around her, one hitting a trunk some way to her left in a cloud of dust.

"Yep, Winchester, sure enough."

This gave her food for thought, her Sharps being a single-shot weapon; she having to load each bullet by hand. Her opponent would have probably a ten to fifteen-shot load, and be able to reload the same within a minute, giving him twenty to thirty possible shots a minute to her eight at most. Her advantage lay in two areas, her superior accuracy, and the fact her cartridges were .50, to the Winchester's .45; the difference being far larger than the mere figures might suggest—her bullets having a much greater weight and stopping power than the Winchester's.

"He kin' fire quicker, but he ain't got the range I got, not by a long way." She was musing as she reloaded a cartridge, considering where she'd put her next shot. "Must be firing well over his comfortable range, as it is; whilst I kin' shoot three, four, maybe even five times further—an' keep good accuracy whilst doin' so. At those ranges he couldn't hit a barn with a Winchester repeater, never mind it's dam' door. Ain't sure, even at this range, if I stood in full view he'd still be hard pressed t'come anywhere's close. Better not, though; Sal'd get mighty riled if'n I did somethin' pernickety like that."

—O—

Some five hundred yards to Henrietta's left Sally had made it across the wide snowfield to the spur of fir trees without incident, the unseen bushwhacker being wholly occupied by Henrietta's attentions. She had a leather satchel filled with the heavy cartridges for her Sharps hanging by her side and, in this sort of terrain, was in her element. Every now and then Henrietta let one of her shots hit a fir tree on the edge of the copse, thereby showing Sally approximately where her target lay.

"Thank God these fir trees are close growing." She moved through the thicket with practised ease, keeping low and moving quietly over the fallen branches and twigs scattered over the relatively smooth ground. "Now, where's he at? Ah-ha, another two hundred yards; maybe I better start shootin' from here?—looks like he's usin' a Winchester, an' those things ain't good fer nuthin' over a hundred yards, 'specially when yer nervous. Oh-oh, I see's him. Yeah, hunched up by the trunk o'that fir over there. Pretty near a straight shot, too. OK, here goes, ya bum,—eat lead, b-st-rd."

Taking her time Sally lined up the crouching dark shape in her ladder sight, adjusted it for distance and the dropping nature of her bullet's projectory then, pulling her rear trigger back to engage the forward trigger on a hair setting, she put her finger on the forward trigger, paused to exhale slowly, then pressed it with a smooth motion.

Her rifle cracked loudly under the trees, there was a puff of smoke, then she saw the distant target jerk upwards a foot or so, before collapsing in a heap. She waited, watching her target as she carefully reloaded another cartridge, after ejecting the earlier one by pushing her lever fully forward and back. After a minute, with no sign of movement, she rose and started making her way over to where the unmoving shape lay at the foot of the tall fir; as she did so she saw Henrietta making her own way across the open snowfield.

They reached the place where their assailant lay together, holding their rifles casually in hand as they stood over the corpse—for their bushwhacker was now certainly an extinct member of its species.

"Nice shot, Sal." Henrietta always giving praise where praise was due. "Hit the b-st-rd square in the chest. Looks like it exited on his left side, too—taking most o'his ribcage there with it,—nasty."

"But dead, dearest; that bein' the thing that matters, ye'll agree—dead as a bloody Dodo, an' no-one carin' the less, either." Sally, when riled, ever being less than charming or caring. "Recognise him, at all?"

"Nah, jest some deadbeat o'no importance." Henrietta shook her head, clasping her rifle in both hands. "Doubt if anyone'll mourn fer the useless reprobate; he had it comin'. I'm only sad there ain't any reward on him, too."

"Maybe there is, fer all we know, lover." Sally recognising the realities. "But there's no way we kin' take him back with us in the state he's in now, over the dam' desert, t'Red Flume t'claim same. He'd be well-off by the time we hit town."

"Townsfolk'd probably smell us comin' from two miles distant." Henrietta being cheerful in the face of adversity.

The women looked at each other for an appreciable time, then both collapsed with laughter, roaring with mirth like a band of coyotes as they held themselves upright by leaning against nearby fir trees.

—O—

Sampson's Pass, a day later, exhibited all the dramatic qualities inherent in such a high narrow mountain pass, as if it well knew itself the importance of its position and nature. A deep valley, with mountains on either side rising some 700 feet to their 3,000 foot peaks, it was naturally enclosed in deep shadow for almost the entirety of each day; giving its length an air of gloom and danger which was almost physical. It had a dog-leg lay-out; the mouth of the valley where the women now stood being the longest arm. From the twist in its length, some four miles distant, it bore to the left, taking on a steep downward slope before emerging onto much lower slopes on the other side of the mountain range. The snow covering the entrance trail seemed, if anything, the deepest the women had yet encountered.

"Don't look any too hot, does it, darlin'?"

They had reined in their mounts some distance from the narrow mouth of the steep-sided Pass, considering their options, and Sally was by no means impressed.

"Gloomy-lookin' place, I'll give ya that, gal." Henrietta pulled the rim of her hat further down with a gloved hand. "Don't much take t'those snow-slopes on the left-hand, there."

"Avalanches?" Sally being up for the obvious.

"Yep. See how the slopes goin up the flanks o'that there mountain is real steep, yet covered in blankets o'fresh new-laid snow?"

"Sure do." Sally gazed at the far side of the Pass, adjusting her tinted spectacles; raising her eyes slowly as she followed the rise of the mountain's slopes. "Dam steep, don't know how thet amount o' snow's hangin' in there, at all. Makes yer think a sneeze'd set it movin'."

"Probably would." Henrietta continued her examination of the area through half-closed eyes. "That whole load o' snow's mighty fresh, jest stickin' on the slopes by the skin o' it's teeth. Wouldn't take anythin' at all t'set it off. I'm beginnin' t'think headin' on in ain't sech a good idea, after all."

"What about Laredo? She must'a gone through, what, half a day before us? Think she made it?"

"Mighty difficult t'tell." Henrietta shook her head, her expression invisible behind her tightly wound woolen muffler. "She could'a; then agin, she might be lyin' as we speak thirty feet below the snow somewhere's thereaways."

"We could ride right over her, never knowin' she was underfoot, y'mean?" Sally, being gruesome because her immediate surroundings seemed almost to welcome such. "Well, my feet ain't exactly warm, anyways; but they're gettin' a mite colder with every word we utters,—jest sayin'."

The women sat their horses, gazing from side to side at the landscape and white glistening terrain around; they quite clearly being the only human life in sight; their horses quietly snorting clouds of white steam from their nostrils as they awaited their mistresses' next move.

"Ain't no sense in jest waitin' here." Sally breaking the silence at last. "The snow ain't goin' anywhere's, unless we goes on in, an' it falls on our bloody heads. It's jest past noon, as it is; things'll jest freeze on up agin towards nightfall, an' I fer one ain't goin' through that Pass in the dark, so put thet idee out'ta yer mind, dearie."

"I don't like it; not one dam' bit." Henrietta coming to life, and sharing her cogitations. "Even a gal like Laredo wouldn't be dumb enough t'risk it. Thet there Pass's a death-trap, nuthin' surer. She'd a'bin insane t'attempt it. Which means—"

"—she didn't, an' as a result is still sommers out in the open slopes an' fir stands in this here locality." Sally making the logical conclusion. "Maybe even within shootin' range as we sit's here, like silly targets at a Fairground stand. Think we better retreat t'those firs backaways, an' get under 'em t'safety? I ain't feelin' none too happy, out here in the open, gal."

It was just as they reached the tall thickset firs, riding into the gloomy shadows within the stretch of heavy-branched trees, that Henrietta made her decision.

"No."

"What, leddy?"

"I say's no, she ain't gone on through the Pass." Henrietta bringing her mount to a stand close by Sally's, the women's legs almost touching. "Any raw hand kin see clear enough it'd be a mug's game, tryin' t'make it through the Pass with all that loose snow jest awaitin' the chance t'fall on us, lit'ral from a great height."

"Where is she, then?" Sally always ready to ask the obvious. "Lyin' in wait t'bushwhack us hersel', somewhere's?"

"Nah, she'd likely take a tangent, an' head along the open slopes, tryin' t'edge round in our rear, an' so make a run back t'the lower slopes the way we came." Henrietta nodding to herself, as she thought about it. "Yeah, that's what she's gone an' done."

Sally, in her turn, studied her partner, as much as was possible considering they were both wrapped tightly in heavy clothing, dark spectacles, and thick woolen mufflers.

"Sure are tryin' hard t'convince yersel' o'sech, ain't yer?" Sally never being one to not hit the sarcastic note when offered. "Sure ye believe's yersel', lover?"

"Dam' right, sister." Then Henrietta caught her emotions in check with a grimace. "Sorry, gal, gettin' a mite spooked by these bloody snowfields, an' that dam' god-awful-lookin' Pass. Nah, it's my considered opinion Laredo's done us brown, agin. She may even not have come up here, t'these heights, at all. Probably took a backwards slant in her route immediate after leavin' that idiot bushwhacker t'slow us down. By now, right here an' now, she could already be back out on the desert sand, makin' fer the horizon an' freedom, laughin' all the way."

Sally sat her saddle, gripping her reins loosely, considering this information and probability with a deep frown, lost behind her spectacles and muffler. Then, having duly absorbed the situation, she made her considered opinion public.

"F-ck."

"Yeah, thet about covers it, darlin'."

—O—

The dirt track, joining the small township of Red Flume in the south with the larger town of Tarranget 20 miles to the north, cut across the barren open desert from horizon to horizon; the hot sun beating down with undiminished force from a bare blue sky. The women, sitting their mounts and gazing back the way they had come over the past day, were now in lighter attire; their dark spectacles put away and heavy jackets rolled up at the back of their saddles. In the distance, to their left hand, the Mitchell Ridge range soared across the whole horizon, its peaks tipping 3,000 feet in the air, looking as if it ran for hundreds of miles, instead of the measly 20 miles of its actual length. The lower slopes were grey in the sunshine, while higher up the snowline was clear to see, while the several peaks ran in a jagged line, cutting into the brilliant blue sky overhead.

"Jeez, it's bloody hot."

"Ha, better'n the frostbite, in all those delicate places ye'd rather not have same, sister." Henrietta letting her natural good nature run its course.

"Ho-ho." Sally wiped her brow again, and glanced both ways along the empty trail. "Well, here we is, back in civilisation, an' not a single human bein' t'be seen—God, it's good t'be back."

"Very funny." Henrietta sniffing haughtily. "Hey, look, ye was wrong, lady. Dust about half a mile out, Tarranget way; wagon comin' our way."

"Think they might have news o'Laredo?"" Sally wriggled her shoulders to get more comfortable. "She went thataway, ye think?"

"Must'a done; surely wouldn't a'gone back t'Red Flume, with a lynchin' party awaiting her arrival there." Henrietta taking the realistic approach. "Though she might'a passed by that wagon hours since; maybe they didn't even set eyes on her."

"Well, give 'em a minute t'reach us, an' we'll find out."

When it finally arrived alongside the waiting women the riders in the wagon were well prepared. Three men and a young woman, all armed to the teeth with rifles and revolvers. The driver, a young man with dusty yellow hair, had a revolver in his free hand, The woman sitting beside him had a Winchester repeater, aimed square at the unknown horse-women; while the two men in the open rear had a revolver and rifle, all pointedly aimed at the women.

"God, some welcomin' party." Sally made the first overtures of friendliness. "Hey, guys, we ain't robbers or sich, jest want some news o'the world in gen'ral, is all."

"Yeah," Henrietta putting in her cent's-worth. "Easy with the fire-arms, we don't mean no harm. Ker-rist, fancy there was less firearms on show at Appomattox—ye preparin' fer a battle, somewhere's, or what?"

"Name's Mackeson, Fiona Mackeson; these here's my brothers." The young lady spoke up in a low rasping voice, clearly suspicious as Hell, keeping her Winchester in an easy grip. "Who're ye, an' what for ye want's ter speak with us, out here aways?"

Henrietta was about to favour the wagon's passengers with her version of a winning smile but then, almost certainly wisely, thought better of it, remembering what Sally had said about its results on others previous to the present occasion.

"There ain't nuthin' t'fear; we're affiliated t'Sheriff Donaldson, over t'Red Flume." She gilding the facts admirably, while still staying within recognisable view of a distant sort of truth. "Out lookin' fer, er, a renegade o'Justice. Say, ye don't happen t'have set eyes on a lone rider, a young woman, this last day or so? Tall, brunette with long curled hair, shoulder-length. Kind'a sassy manner o'holdin' hersel. Blue eyes?"

Fiona paused as she kept her gaze on the women sitting their horses by the side of her wagon. She frowned, gazed at the brother beside her, then turned to take in her two siblings in the rear. Finally she turned to Henrietta and Sally once more.

"Met the lady in question round about dawn, this here mornin'." Fiona shrugged lightly under the light jacket she wore. "She stopped us, too. Seems everyone t'Red Flume's mighty particular about makin' friends with every dam person they meet, wherever. Anyways, this here specimen allowed she thought we might meet a coupl'a low-down bedraggled no-good female losers some'ers jest by this here spot. Told us ter keep our eyes open fer ye an, when met, likely the best thing'd be t'jest let fly with our rifles wholesale."

"Hah, dam' b-tch." Sally, getting mean. "Sorry, not ye, ma'am; the other leddy, dam' her black heart."

"So," Fiona continued unfazed. "otherwise, she told us, if'n ye stopped us t'ask after her—she allowin' her name was Laredo Dawes in person, whoever the dam' she might be—that she was dam' sorry her companion up ter the Mitchell Ridge had obvious failed t'live up t'his boasted expertise with a Winchester, and that, as a result ye might find her, Laredo Dawes, some'ers over t'Phoenix any time this comin' month or so—if'n ye were bully enough t'come there an' try'n find her. Then she laughed, some nasty, an' rode off. So, there it is; kin we get along now, we got people awaitin' our arrival in Red Flume, y'know?"

"Yeah, yeah." Henrietta glowered despondently, making no further effort to further the cause of sweetness and light. "Ye can git on yer ways. Thanks fer the information. G'bye."

"Be ye a'goin' ter Phoenix, then?" The wagon driver asked, as he flicked his reins.

"No, we f-ckin' ain't." Sally spittin' like a sidewinder with a headache. "Sorry, had a bad mornin; see ye all around. G'bye."

—O—

The wagon had long since disappeared over the horizon, in the direction of Red Flume; the riders had traversed the trail towards Tarranget some further mile or so, but had now come to another halt while they considered their options.

"What options?" Sally now at a low ebb, scowling dangerously. "We can't hit Phoenix, as ye well knows; us bein' persona non grata there fer the last two year, after that mishap with your Sharps, an' the local Marshal."

"I remembers well enough, without ye reminds me, thank ye very much." Henrietta's emotions pretty much on a level with her loved partner. "Jee-sus, what a business."

"Figure we kin kiss goodbye t'that dam' two thousand dollars, then." Sally sighing deeply at the thought.

"Not so fast, young 'un." Henrietta suddenly bringing her head up and facing the challenge, showing all her famed resolution in adversity. "This little farrago, I admits, hasn't quite gone our way—"

"Ha, is that how ye see's it, lover?"

"—but there'll be other chances a'comin'." Henrietta choosing to ignore her partner's ill-advised interruptions. "She may be hidin' in Phoenix as we speak, like the coward she is, but she'll have t'break cover eventual, jest in the way o'havin' ter make some kind'a livin'."

"An', when she does, we'll be awaitin' her, ye means?"

"Jest so, darlin'." Henrietta essaying a grin which, thankfully, Sally was well used to. "With my Sharps, an' yours' too in 'course, well, we'll figure some way o'bushwhackin' the dam' leddy, an' so retrieve our just reward, in more ways than one."

"Madam, I likes fine the way ye thinks." Sally grinned as she leaned over in her saddle to grip the arm of her consort and plant a dry dusty and sand-stained kiss on Henrietta'a cheek. "Sassy as all getout, full'a spunk, an' spiteful as a rattlesnake with the gripe. Harry, I loves ye more than I ever thought possible. In fact, there's a thicket o' fine upstandin' bushes an' undergrowth jest over there, off the trail some ways. What say we hitch our hoss's t'a tree out'ta sight thereaways an', y'know, get t'makin' a better acquaintance with each other—jest offerin', is all, lover."

"Ain't never heard it called that afore, darlin'." Henrietta grinned widely, at peace with the world around her for the first time in three days. "But, as ye've made the offer, I ain't the sort'a leddy'd pass sich up. After you, darlin'."

"Why, thank ye kindly, leddy." Sally sniggering with intent. "Hey, can ye get out''ta those clothes yersel'? Or ought I t'help ye, ye bein' mighty mature an' all."

"Jest wait till ye're in a state o'nature yersel', my dear, I'll show ye how mature I can really be, then."

"Oo-er. Well, make it snappy, darlin'."

"Har."

The End

—O—

To be continued in the next story in the 'Red Flume' series.

—OOO—