He squatted on the rim of a vast canyon somewhere northeast of Ft. Bowie in the White Mountain Range. That was a big range and New Mexico Territory was a big country. He was headed for Fort Bayard. Once before he had been here with Mandez, a White Mountain Apache who spoke mostly Spanish. He should have followed the Gila River. Somewhere he had lost the trail. The uneasiness in his stomach had little to do with hunger. It would get cold in the mountains tonight and he dared not build a fire. Three times he had seen something ghosting through the forest. Had it been an Apache, surely he would have pounced on his lost prey by now. Once he thought it might be a wolf, but they didn’t stalk men – especially men with a rifle. Perhaps it was a lone Apache waiting on the moment he ceased to be vigil.
He stared out across seemingly endless ranges of mountains. He was certain his view was to the southwest, but how far north had he come? If he continued east and didn’t run into an Apache hunting party, eventually he’d see something he recognized. If not, he’d wind up in the Mogollon Range. Bear Mountain was the landmark he was looking for. South of there miners were pouring into the area – something about the discovery of silver in the area where the old Apache encampment had been. San Vicente de la Ciénega, they called the area back in 1865 when he and Mandez had passed through. That was near five years ago, though, and rumor was that one of those farmers was making plans for a town to be called Silver City. East of that lay Ft Bayard. They’d be finished with it by now. He’d been a scout and courier for the Union army since the war between the states ended. It had its bad points, but unlike trapping, it was a steady income. He was going to need that when he got married.
He stood and stretched his back. To his right, a limb snapped sharply in the still air. He swung his rifle around and put his back to a tree. A shadow moved. Or was it his imagination. A small white patch of snow reminded him of the night to come.
“Barclay, you’d best keep moving,” he spoke to himself in a low tone. He was a good target sitting here like that. He looked ahead, away from the spot as if he had decided nothing was there. From the corner of his eye he saw movement again. He took two steps and squatted, aiming his rifle in the area. But there was nothing to shoot. He frowned. Even the patch of snow was gone. Maybe it hadn’t been snow. But what, then? He studied the surrounding area but saw nothing. Again he stood.
“You’re starting to see ghosts now.” An eerie feeling crawled up his back, raising the hair on the back of his neck. Ghosts had never been a part of his thoughts before. And a ghost didn’t snap twigs. So what was out there? If it were an Apache, he’d be sprouting arrows by now. Maybe it was best to hole up and build a fire.
It took some searching, but he finally found a place below an overhanging rock that was screened by trees. A man would have to be mighty close to see a fire, and the fire would scare off wild animals. Maybe it was a black bear. He’d heard stories of them stalking men. The idea sent another cold chill up his spine. He’d better keep to the open where he could. That way he could get off several shots before it reached him. He gathered wood and some pine needles and started a fire. It was dark by the time he finished, so the smoke wouldn’t be visible either. He checked the rifle and lay down with his back to the rock. More wood for the fire lay within reach. It would be a cold and restless night, but he’d known worse.
He dosed and woke to add wood to the fire. Several times he heard something, but it could have been the wind or birds in the trees. By morning he woke tired and restless. He cooked some food to eat and carry with him. No telling how far he might travel before he could stop at a place like this again. He ate and packed his things. Burying the embers and brushing his tracks free of the area with a dry spruce limb, he set out again.
Reaching the top of the mountain, he paused to rest and orient himself. Below lay the mountains and valleys of the Gila. The sacred hot springs of Ojo Caliente lay somewhere to the northeast. It was a place frequented by the Mimbres Apache and their leader, Victorio. Barclay had traded with the man one time. The black piercing eyes searched his soul and left him with a desire to be somewhere else when he lost his temper. Still, he had been tolerant of the white man up to this point.
He began his descent of the mountain on a southeastern course. He wasn’t too far off the old Indian trail. By noon he found the trail and was on his way. He’d lost nearly a day. He could have taken the stage to Lordsburg, but he decided to visit a friend at his cabin yesterday morning.
So absorbed was he in his thoughts that he nearly missed the track. He turned around to examine it. A large cat, and it wasn’t that old, either. He checked his gun. Was that what had been stalking him? He shook his head. It was ahead of him. He paused and lifted the rifle to a ready position. Or was it? A Puma could be crafty when on the hunt – crafty and patient. High country was a good place to run into a puma or a bear, not to mention mule deer. He hadn’t seen much deer sign, probably due to the dry conditions. They’d probably be down in the valleys about this time of the year. That left him looking like easy prey. But deer didn’t shoot back. He was careful to avoid bluffs and high places where a puma might try an ambush. The further he made it down the mountain, the better the chances were that the cat would lose interest. Of course, anything that moved interested a cat.
Evening found him near the bottom of the range of mountains. He had seen a few deer and even some turkey. Surely they would distract the cat at this point. More likely, he was still in the mountains. From here on, he would be traveling much in the open, so he would be more vulnerable to an attack by an Apache hunting party. He shrugged. It was usually one danger or another when he traveled.
He made a dry camp and ate some of the biscuits before climbing a tree for the night. The trees were small, but they provided some amount of shelter. Wedging his boots into branches, he propped his body against the tree trunk and dozed. Once he thought he heard something pass under the tree, but by the time he looked, it was gone. Maybe it was only a dream.
In the morning he dropped to the ground. He should be in the mining camp by evening. He studied the ground around the tree for tracks. When he saw the track, his heart skipped a beat and then galloped. The cat was still following him. But why? He walked cautiously, avoiding the trees and watching for signs of the cat. It would be hard to see in the tawny crisp grass. Ahead was a pass. Water seeped into a spring, and where water was, animals gathered – all kinds.
He walked cautiously; taking care to avoid the scrub trees where the cat might hide in wait. The day was getting warm already, so the cat would probably be resting – more than likely in or under a tree.
As he walked through a valley of hip-high grass, he heard footsteps. He stopped and the grass moved about a hundred yards behind him, as though something were walking through it. He wiped clammy palms on his pants and took a deep breath. Walking near the trees might have been a better idea. At least he could have seen it coming. His slow progress through the grass must be tantalizing to the cat. Or maybe it wasn’t a cat. He walked backwards for a little while, watching the grass. Nothing moved. He wiped his brow with his shirt. This was silly. He cold back right up to the cat. He turned and walked toward the pass. The grass gradually thinned out as he climbed the hill toward the springs. Rock outcroppings became more frequent. He paused once to rest and watched his back-trail. Nothing moved, which was unusual in itself. There should be birds and all kinds of wildlife. That queasy feeling began in his stomach. Maybe it wasn't the cat that was following him.
He climbed higher and higher without incident until he reached the spring. There he waited, watching for a while before he finally lowered his gun and scooped some of the cool water in his hands. The metallic taste tempted him to drink again. He glanced around before taking a drink again. Nothing. The surface of the water was smooth, mirroring the clouds drifting by and the bluff nearby. He reached down for more water and then froze in motion. Reflected in the water was a cat standing on the bluff – a white cat. He carefully leaned back and grasped his rifle, watching the cat in the reflection all the while. Lifting the rifle, he cocked the gun and threw it to his shoulder, taking aim at the cat – or where the cat was. He glanced around nervously. A white puma? Had it been an illusion?
“Gato Blanka,” a voice spoke behind him.
He whirled to face the mounted Apache. Those black eyes revealed nothing. He sat his horse confidently watching the place where the cat had been.
“You saw the cat?”
“Many times I see ghost cat. He follow white man – protect people of the warm springs.” Victorio glanced down at him. “I see you before. Many moons ago.”
Barclay nodded. “I traded you that red blanket.”
Victorio grunted. “Good blanket. You still have knife of deer horn?”
Barclay grinned and patted the sheath belted on his side. “Never without it.”
“Good trade.” He turned his horse and quickly vanished into the landscape. It had been a short conversation, but the message was clear. Don’t kill the cat. He’d like it to go down that way – if the cat would cooperate. What if the cat attacked and he killed it? Would the Apache take revenge. The thought made little hairs stand up on the back of his neck. He’d as soon take his chances with the cat.
He traveled the rest of the day without a sign of the great white cat. Victorio’s words haunted his thoughts. Was it truly a ghost cat? He shook his head. He was getting soft in the head. Sometimes animals were born white. But that didn’t explain why the cat had been following him, or why he disappeared after the visit with Victorio. Maybe it was something he would never know. One thing he did know was that he never wanted to wander that far north again in those mountains. Bring on all the bears and pumas they had, but that white cat was nothing less than eerie.
He reached the mining camp that night, but said nothing about the white cat. There would surely be a hunting party out to find it. Someone would get hurt – one way or another. From that day forward, he felt a strange bond with Victorio. Later, after he married and moved to a ranch in Texas, Victorio declared war and rode a bloody trail in that area, yet the white cat was never mentioned.