As the river bound posse made headway through the darkened, foggy mist, Sam was calculating the odds that seemed to be against them. The ‘Wanted Man’ they were searching for had about a 2o-hour head start on them. Once they reached the cave, all he expected to possibly find was evidence of some nature that the murderer had been there. If Sam’s hunch was in fact correct, they could pick up the fugitive’s tracks, and be certain of the direction he had taken from there. If they found no evidence whatsoever, Sam had planned to call off the chase and head back towards home. With the temperature dropping the way it was, he figured they’d end up riding back to Bedlam in an ice storm. Sam wasn’t looking forward to that, and if they were to find absolutely nothing at the cave, it wouldn’t have bothered him one bit. His men were so inclined to feel the same way about it. It’s not so hard to feel courageous when you’re comfortable, and they were definitely far from that. The thrill that they’d felt at the start of the chase was now gone. Even though they’d bundled themselves up sufficiently to ward off the rain and the cold, they weren’t ready to withstand it. They were already fed up with the whole thing. On top of that, they were hungry. Then again, they wanted the bonus promised to them. They assumed they’d get it, too, whether or not they caught the murderer. Sam could tell the way they felt, but he was still determined to go at least as far as the cave. He, too, was almost hoping his hunch was wrong, but wasn’t quite ready to admit that to himself. In another five minutes they’d reach the river, and then they could take a break. They’d reached the peak of their uphill climb, and were headed down to the valley. The horses carefully stepped their way between half-hidden rocks submerged in muddied clay.
The road they were on was well traveled, with many a track going in both directions. Hunters a plenty frequented the river valley in the fall. It was known to be a fairly safe journey. Two years earlier, in 1867, the Arapaho tribes had signed a peace treaty, and surrendered away their rights. They were corralled, and then driven down to a reservation in Oklahoma. Our posse didn’t have to worry about Indian attacks, unlike in the old days. Their only worries had to do with the weather, and traversing the slippery slopes. The path that led to the cave had to be taken on foot, but Sam reassured the men that it wasn’t all that steep, nor was it dangerous under normal, dry conditions. That’s why it was a popular hangout. Two paths led to the cave’s entrance, one from above and one from below. Since they were to go in from the river side of the cliff, they’d use the one from below.
As they came upon the river, Sam was gladdened by the sight of low, and slow moving waters. It was as he expected for there’d been no rain as of late. They dismounted and led their horses to the edge for a drink. They were thirsty, but still in good shape from the ride. (Every one of these horses were part of Sam’s stock. They were well-trained 3 to 5 year olds from a fine breed, for Sam could afford the best.) He opened up his saddlebag wherein he kept the provisions, and brought out a handful of deer jerky strips. He gave each man a few pieces, whereupon they did partake of it. They were mighty hungry, and didn’t care what it was. Food was food to them right then. Sam also got out one of the loaves of flatbread from his bag, and then securely tied it back up. He walked up to each man, broke off a piece and handed it to them, before leaving himself at the last with the biggest chunk of the bunch. In silence, this fellowship of men gathered together side by side on the bank of the river, and set their gazes towards the cliffs on the other side. The wind had died down, but the cold mist was beginning to turn into freezing sprinkles. The rations were scarfed down quickly, and a canteen of water was passed back and forth between the men. With their stomachs quieted, and their thirst now quenched, Sam decided he’d better speak on out. “It’s time we get to movin’, boys. We best be saddlin’ up. Let’s go!”
Without asking any questions, or expressing any of their concerns, the men grabbed their horses and climbed aboard. Sam took the lead and led his posse across the cold, shallow waters of the river. They were all lost in thought, wondering what they were going to find once they reached the chosen destination. After they had made it safely to the other side, they headed west and followed the riverbank for the remainder of their five-mile journey. Sam kept looking for fresh tracks all along the way. There were none to be found. A half an hour later, they arrived at the place where the river bends back towards the south. Sam knew then that it was time to look for the trail they needed to take. The trail that would eventually lead them to the cliff was quickly spotted. Sam was a little surprised by how well he remembered the surrounding scenery. He looked back to the men, “Let’s try and get those lanterns started. Find some cover if you need to, but we have to get them lit. If someone were in the cave right now tending a fire, we’d have been able to see the light coming off of it from here. I doubt if there’s anyone up there. Nevertheless, let’s try to keep it quiet anyway. And one more thing, I don’t want any of you boys getting trigger happy once we get up there. I don’t want to get shot in the back. Ya hear me? Okay, then. If there’s going to be a first shot, I plan on being the one who takes it.”
The lantern’s were lit, and they were set to go. “Give me one of those things!” Sam commanded. “Now, follow me. Single file, and keep it down.” The cowboys hadn’t been talking to each other at all, so there was little need for him to say that. They left the riverbank and made way for the target. One hundred zig-zagging yards or so later, they reached the bottom of the cliff. Sam looked around on the ground once again, but still didn’t see any signs of fresh tracks. They got off their horses and tied them up to some of the smaller boulders that were laying in heaps all around them. A few of the horses were acting restless and jumpy, but the men didn’t think anything of it. A light, freezing rain continued to pelt their hats as they continued the rest of the way on foot. “Watch your step men,” Sam reminded them. “It may be slick up there, and it’s a 40 foot drop to the ground.” The trail narrowed, and gradually steepened until it reached the leveled ledge. The ledge itself was about three-fourths of the way up the face of the cliff. It was 4 to 5 feet wide, and nearly 50 yards in length. The mouth of the cave was situated in the middle of this ledge. At the far side of the shelf could be found the second path. It ran steeply on up to the top from there.
They made it up to the ledge without encountering any missteps, and with their backs against the wall began to shuffle across, one by one. Sam was still in the lead, of course, and as soon as he hit the ledge he pulled out his pistol. The men couldn’t help but to notice. If any one of those cowboys hadn’t been awake before, they sure were after Sam did that. Their hands continued to hug the wall as they shimmied on along the rock. Their pistols remained in their holsters, like Sam said. Slowly and carefully they closed in on the entrance. Sam was within 10 yards of the mouth of the cave when he caught a whiff of stale smoke creeping out of it. He stopped his men in their tracks. Another foul scent seemed to be mixed in with the smell of burning wood. But this odor was sickening, putrid, and stank horribly. All the men noticed it, and all the men squirmed up their faces. It reminded Sam of the stench put off by old, rotten eggs. “Someone or something must be in there, or they were just recently,” Sam thought. “Maybe something’s dead.” Sam put the lantern in his leading hand, and held his pistol in the other as he crept on closer still. The cowboys followed after him, more nervous now than ever. Within a foot of the opening Sam stopped and looked back at his men, signaling them to stop. Then he turned himself around and faced the wall.
The arm that held the lantern was lifted and he reached it out into the opening, just enough to shine some light in there. Nothing seemed to stir, so he took off his hat and bent over to the side to take a peek. Seeing nothing, he stuck his whole head out there to look. He saw no signs of life right away, so he turned back to his men. “It looks like the coast is clear. There doesn’t seem to be anyone in there.” Sam nonchalantly walked right on in, and the men, now relieved, followed after him. They were glad enough just to have gotten inside, out of that damn freezing rain. Sam lifted his lantern high. The ceiling stood some 4 feet above his head, and steadily dropped to about 3 feet high just another 50 foot deeper on down into the horizontal hole. Once Sam had gotten the lantern over his head, he thought he could see where that smoke had been coming from. The smell was so nauseating in there, that most of the men held a hand over their nose. They continued their slow walk into the cave with their eyes surveying their whereabouts the whole time. Suddenly Sam stopped. He was looking down at footprints in the dirt, footprints that had been made by someone in their bare feet.
Sam and his men were about to walk up to a bewildering scene beyond compare. It would form for them a picture that would forever be imprinted in their minds. It was to be a sight that would strike and pain them, all the way down to the core; all the way down to the very depths of their souls.