I have always loved and had a connection with the part of our country where this story takes place. It was fun to back and visit for a while in my mind and memory. By the way, I gave the young highway patrolman in the story the same name as the patrolman who gave me a speeding ticket out there in 1993. He was a nice guy. I think he’d get a kick out of it.
Colby Stackhouse crested the top of the hill and knew right away he was in trouble. The cop car was pointed right at him fifty yards away on the other side of the interstate. Colby was doing ninety-five miles an hour as he flew past. But that didn’t mean a thing. The cop hit the flashers, pulled a u-turn, bumped across the grassy median and came after him, tires burning rubber. Colby had about one second to decide if he was going to make a run for it or not. He decided to go for it.
Colby Stackhouse had been in and out of trouble ever since he was eleven when he and his best friend Wade Coggs took Wade’s dad’s old pickup for a spin north of town out County Road 22 to go swimming at the bend in Grass Creek where the local swimming hole was. Wade’s dad wasn’t happy at all, whipping the boy with a belt when he got him outside the police station a few hours later. Colby had taken off running for all he was worth only to get the same kind of beating two hours later when his old man pulled him out from under the roots of a dead cottonwood tree in a sandy gully a half mile from their house, laughing and taunting his son. “You’ll never get away from me, you little jerk.” Colby wore the bruises for over a week.
The local sheriff wasn’t happy either, since it was he, Gabe McDonald, who, following up on a tip, had to go to the swimming hole and get the boys and bring them back to town to face the consequences. “You guys are in a mess of trouble,” was all he could say, shaking his head, until he added, “What’s the matter with you two anyway? Are you nuts or crazy or both?”
They were probably both. For the next four years they were considered nothing but trouble-makers by everyone in and around the cattle ranching town of Rawlings, located on grassland plains of western North Dakota. Petty theft, shoplifting, vandalizing abandoned property, you name it, they did it. The older they got, though, and the more trouble they got into, the more their reputation grew. They liked being known as bad guys. Their parents couldn’t control them. Beatings didn’t help and as the boys grew older, they, of course, got bigger and stronger, more than able and willing to fight back. Soon, their parents just gave up on them.
Everyone in law enforcement in Cheyenne county knew about them, that was for sure. “Friggin’ juvenile delinquents,” was the most gracious term they used only to be replaced by “Friggin criminals,” by the time the boys got to be sixteen. Colby and Wade enjoyed it. They loved to consider themselves outlaws, guys on the edge of society who lived by their own rules. They shaved their hair, wore black clothing, got tattoos and commanded respect with their belligerent and hostile attitude. Yeah, they were bad guys all right, but what they didn’t like was spending time in jail, which was starting to happen more and more often. When he was sixteen and drunk out of his mind Colby stole a car and was given ninety days in the county workhouse. When he was eighteen he stole another car, again while he was drunk, and the judge put him in jail for thirteen months. And do you think Colby got time off for good behavior? Not a chance. By then he was not a person given to playing by the rules at all, even in jail and even if it meant he’d get out a few weeks early. No sir, not him. Not Colby Stackhouse, the terror of Cheyenne county.
In the end it was drugs that did him and Wade in. They started dealing meth when they were in their late teens and soon moved on to making it themselves. They rented a single-wide out on the high flatland plains in the northern part of the county and built up a pretty good business. Good, that was, until one evening their lab blew up injuring Wade and causing a fire storm that could be seen for ten miles around. The police and firefighters showed up, and an ambulance eventually took Wade to the hospital in Dickenson. The cops put Colby in jail in Rawlings. Two months later he was sentenced to the state prison in Bismarck, where he would spend the next eleven years of his life. The judge told him that now was the time to get his act together and turn his life around. “Yes, sir,” Colby said. “I’ll do my best, sir.” Trying to sound contrite. The judge, who had watched Colby’s downhill slide for the last ten years could only reply, “See that you do, young man. I’m counting on you.” However, in the judge’s deepest heart of hearts he had zero faith in the ability of this particular repeat offender to do anything to help himself.
Colby didn’t disappoint. He was thirty two when he was released from prison. He was broke and with no prospects, so what was first thing he did? Do you think he learned anything during his time spent behind bars? Did he contemplate his loss of freedom? Did he turn over the preverbal ‘new leaf’ the judge had asked him to? After all, he had eleven years to think about changing his life. Nope. None of those things. Instead, he did the only thing he was good at. He stole a car from a guy in a neighborhood near the prison. And while he was at it, robbed the owner, tied him up and left him in the garage with the door closed. He was racing west on Interstate 94 heading for Montana where he heard Wade was living when he was sighted by the highway patrol near the North Dakota/Montana boarder. Statewide law enforcement had been looking for Colby all morning since the car owner’s wife had come home and found her husband trussed up and screaming for help. Now they almost had him.
Young Farley Shiffler, a three year officer with the North Dakota Highway Patrol, was just settling in on Colby’s tail and was about to radio headquarters when his rear tire blew and he had to pull over to the side of the interstate, watching Colby and the stolen black Honda Accord disappear over the next rise. “Geez it, man,” he said under his breath which was about as close to swearing as Farley ever got. He was mad as a bucket of rattlesnakes and, again, nearly cursed his bad luck, “Shoot,” he muttered, slamming his fist on the steering wheel of his squad car. Embarrassed, he called in and reported to his superior, Captain Shane Hutchinson. “Captain, we’ve got a problem,” he said when Hutchinson came on the radio. And Farley filled him in on what had taken place. Farley’s superior didn’t hold back in dressing down his young highway patrolman, liberally using words that made Farley’s ears turn red. When he was done and starting to calm down Hutchinson told Farley to get the tire fixed and he’d send Steven Lightfoot out to met him at the next exit. “We’ve got to find this guy,” Hutchinson said. “He’s a freaky SOB.” Farley signed off, fixed his tire and drove two miles west the Beach Springs Wayside Rest, where he met up with his fellow officer, Steven Lightfoot, a veteran of twenty one years with the highway patrol.
Lightfoot walked over when the squad car pulled up. “Hey there, Farley,” Lightfoot said with a tight smile. “Rough day, huh?” It was just after nine in the morning.
“You can say that again.” Farley got out of his car and filled Lightfoot in on what had happened.
When he was done, all Lightfoot said was, “Hey, don’t beat yourself up over it, man. It could happen to anyone.”
Farley liked Lightfoot a lot. A three-quarter blood Cree whose ancestors were from Alberta, Lightfoot had taken a liking to Farley from day one on the force, taking time to show him how to be a good, conscientious patrolman. Farley was a quiet but attentive student, which probably helped. Lightfoot was a man a few words, and he and Farley could spend hours together with only a minimum of conversation between them. Farley told his wife, Emma, once that he figured if he talked too much, Lightfoot would probably just ignore him. Emma laughed and said, “Well, just shut up, then. Watch and listen and learn.” Which is what Farley did.
He was running the options of what they should do next through his mind when Lightfoot said, “I told Hutchinson we should probably call in Benson. You know how he gets. Huffing and puffing. He finally agreed. The guy is such a cheap mother, but if we can catch this Colby, it’ll make him look good.”
“Is he bringing Sugarfoot?”
“Yeah.” Lightfoot checked his watch. “Should be here in half an hour.” He paused and looked around. Let’s go sit over there in the shade.”
Farley and Lightfoot went over to a picnic table set up by a pair of beat up trashcans. The shade was provided by a covered wooden structure that was bare wood, the paint having been sand blasted off by the constant North Dakota winds.
“You know that wayside rest on the border?” Lightfoot asked, cupping a hand rolled cigarette and lighting it with a stick match, “McKenzie Unit?”
“There was a patrol car there. Larry Winston. He never saw our guy Colby.” Lightfoot looked to the west, smoking. “It’s twelve miles to the border. Our guy probably turned off somewhere between here and there.”
“I go get my map.” Farley jogged to the car, grabbed his county map and came back, spreading it on the picnic table and holding it down as best he could, silently cursing. Flippin’ wind.
Lightfoot picked up a few rocks to weigh down the map and contemplated it for a moment. “Look, here’s where we are, and here’s when Wilson is.” Farley peered over Lightfoot’s shoulder. The county map showed the area in great detail. “There’s only a couple of roads our guy could have turned off on.” Lightfoot pointed and Farley looked closely. “Two to the north and one to the south.” He looked some more, thinking. “North goes up to the Badlands, south goes out onto the prairies. All three of those roads eventually peter out.” He paused again, and snubbed out his cigarette, crushing it under his boot heel. “No matter which direction he went, that’s rough country out there. It’s a good thing Benson and Sugarfoot will be with us.”
Just then a battered pickup pulled into the parking area, dust billowing up around it. It came to a stop near where the squad cars were parked. The driver’s door opened and out stepped Benson Beaudein, who tipped his sweat stained cowboy hat and said, “Hey cousin, looks like you need some help.” He smiled, his long dark hair blowing around his face. “You figured out a plan yet, or do you want me to do it for you.”
Lightfoot laughed. “Good to see you, too. Come over here and sit down. Bring Sugarfoot. I haven’t seen that old boy in a while.”
Sugarfoot was a dark, tawny colored bloodhound, named for the white ‘foot’ on the paw of his back left leg. He had helped out in searches before and was considered better than any human being when it came to tracking. Earlier that summer he and Benson had been called in on a search and rescue mission up north in the Theodore Roosevelt Badlands. A young couple with their five year old daughter had been camping and when they awoke in the morning the child was missing. The girl’s father had immediately let the park rangers know what had happened and help had been called in. After searching throughout the morning with no results a park ranger suggested they call in Benson and Sugarfoot. When they arrived Sugarfoot was shown the little girl’s favorite doll. Then the bloodhound put his nose to the ground and headed out into the rugged, unforgiving country of the badlands. It took about two hours, but eventually they found her safe and unharmed wedged behind a boulder. Benson gave the little girl her doll and comforted her while getting her to drink some water. Then she told him she’d climbed behind the boulder trying to stay warm during the night and then when she’d awoke in the morning she’d been too scared to move. All the while she told her story she kept a tight hold on her doll. But she also kept hugging Sugarfoot who soaked up the attention, tongue lolling and eyes rolling, panting happily and clearly appreciating the little girl’s attention. Now a few months later both Lightfoot and Farley knew that with Benson with them Sugarfoot was the key to tracking down Colby .
All three of them went over the map again, Lightfoot and Farley taking occasional moments to scratch Sugarfoot and talk to him. Both the patrolmen had a fond affection for the bloodhound. Benson lived on a small ranch on the north side of Interstate 94, about ten miles from where they were now. It was entirely possible that Colby could be headed in that direction. “But I kind of doubt it,” Benson said, when they talked about it. “That’s bad country out there. Hard to get around unless you know what you’re doing. Which doesn’t sound like our guy.” He wiped a stream of sweat off his face. “Hot today,” he said and looked at the map some more. Like Lightfoot, Benson usually didn’t tend to elaborate too much.
Farley sat quietly, observing the interaction between the two cousins. Benson’s dad was Lightfoot’s mother’s brother. He had French/Canadian blood in him from a relative who was a trapper hundred and fifty years ago trading furs through the Boundary Waters canoe area on the border of Minnesota and Canada. He had on worn jeans, cowboy boots and a blue and white checked snap button shirt. On his left wrist he had on a tooled silver and turquoise bracelet. His sun worn face was lined and his teeth were a brilliant white when he smiled, which wasn’t often. Benson and Lightfoot got along well, Farley could tell. He knew that Benson had a wife, Charlotte, but they didn’t have any children. Benson and Lightfoot were nearly the same age, late forties, and they were both around five feet ten inches tall, with lean, muscular builds. Lightfoot wore his hair short. Other than that, they could be mistaken for twins.
A call came in to Lightfoot’s radio and he ran over to his squad car. He listened for a few minutes, turning serious. He signed off and came back. “Good and bad news, boys. First, the good news. A rancher called in reporting a black Honda heading south down County Road forty four. Said it almost hit one of his longhorns.”
“The Little Missouri Trail?” Farley asked.
“Yep. He’s heading for the river.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“He’s got a gun,” Lightfoot answered, frowning. “The guy he stole it from had his rifle in the trunk. Used it for deer and antelope hunting. A 30-06 with a box of twenty five shells.”
“Dang,” Farley said, to which Lightfoot smiled. He kind of got a kick out of the kid.
Benson was unfazed. He stood up and said, “Well, let’s go get him.” He scratched Sugarfoot behind the ears. “You all ready, boy?”
Sugarfoot looked up at his owner with what looked like love or at least affection in his eyes and Farley could have sworn he saw the dog blink, yes.
Farley went with Lightfoot in his squad car and Benson followed in his pickup with Sugarfoot. County Road forty four, also known as The Little Missouri River Trail was down the interstate about five miles. They were there in four minutes. They turned left and followed the road to the south, speeding by the turn off where the rancher that called in lived. The blacktop pavement eventually gave way to gravel, and then to sand, and then it just ended. They stopped and got out, looking around. The prairie stretched out ahead of them, rolling grassland and sage stretching all the way to the horizon. But it was deceiving because there were also gullies and ridges carved out by the constant, relentless action of the wind and the meager amount of rain that fell in the region. On the horizon to the west and south was Sentinel Butte, at 3,400 feet the highest point of land around. They could also see the meandering outline of cottonwood trees which showed the course of the Little Missouri River. They could see tire tracks heading off in the distance.
Lightfoot wanted to be cautious and get the lay of the land.”Let’s go on foot from here.”
Benson had brought supplies in three day packs containing food and water. They each shouldered one, taking a moment to drink. “We need to keep our fluids up,” Benson said, pouring some water into a bowl for Sugarfoot to drink. The other men nodded. The day was warming fast and the temperature was expected to reach over a hundred degrees later that afternoon.
Then they started off walking in the direction of the tire tracks figuring they were Colby’s. They were. A quarter mile ahead on the other side of a low ridge they saw the Honda, mired in sand at the bottom of a shallow depression in the land. It looked abandoned. They cautiously approached, Lightfoot and Farley with their revolvers drawn, but the car was empty. Lightfoot motioned that it was Ok for Benson to approach.
“Not the best car for out here,” Lightfoot pointed out.
Benson came up with Sugarfoot on his leash and showed him the Honda. The bloodhound sniffed around inside the car and then outside. He put his head up into the wind, sniffing some more. Then, after making a few false moves, he put his nose to the ground and headed west and south, toward the Little Missouri River, pulling Benson along, Lightfoot and Farley following close behind. The three men were all experienced when it came to being out on the plains, Farley less so than Lightfoot and Benson. He had the brief image in his mind of Sherlock Holms. The game is afoot. But he shook his head to get rid of it as he holstered his revolver. He needed to focus. He checked his watch. It read 10:47 am. It had been nearly two hours since he’d last seen Colby. He jogged to catch up to Lightfoot and Benson who were following Sugarfoot across the rolling grassland plains.
The area of North Dakota they were searching was part of the Dakota National Grasslands which comprised over a million acres in the western portion of the state. Within the boundaries were portions of state-owned and privately owned land, much of it leased by cattle ranchers for grazing. Out where they were there were no buildings or indications of any ranches. Wide open spaces was the term that came to Farley’s mind.
After about fifteen minutes of hiking they reached another rise. From there the land rolled downhill for about five miles to the Little Missouri River. Benson took out a pair of binoculars and scanned to the south and west. The rolling grasslands belied the fact that there were gullies, ravines and low ridges throughout the area. Colby could be hiding anywhere.
“If he makes it to the river, it’ll be almost impossible to find him,” Benson said, squinting into the sun. “I don’t see any movement out on the hills.”
“Let’s turn Sugarfoot loose, then,” Lightfoot said.
Benson shook his head in the negative. “I’m going to keep him on the leash. It’ll be safer than all of us running around like a herd of antelope. We’ll just take it slow and easy.” He looked through the binoculars again, thinking, he added, “We’ll get him.”
And with that they started off walking, Benson keeping a firm hand on Sugarfoot, who was staining on the lease and clearly on the trail. Lightfoot and Farley followed behind. Colby was out there somewhere. Farley hoped Benson was right. Hoped they’d get him soon. If they didn’t get him by nightfall…Well, he didn’t want to think about it. Colby had that rifle. It put a whole different spin on things.
Coby was out there, indeed, but unaware of the three men tracking him. When he’d jammed the car into the sand and gotten stuck he’d cursed his luck before getting out, yelling and kicking the front tire until his big toe started hurting. Finally he stopped and took stock of his situation. He had the rifle he’d found in the trunk when he’d made a pit stop in Dickenson. He had half a bag of Doritos and a nearly full quart bottle of coke he’d bought at a Quik Stop outside of Medora. That was about it. The prison had given him the clothes he was now wearing: a pair of running shoes, socks, blue jeans, long sleeve work shirt, white under shirt, jean jacket and a green John Deer baseball hat. While in prison he had bulked up to a muscular two hundred and twenty pounds. He was in pretty good shape. All in all not bad, he thought to himself. He looked to the west and south. God, what desolate country. He saw a line of trees that probably ran along the banks of a river out near the horizon. He rolled up his jean jacket and put it along with the chips, pop and box of rifle shells in the plastic bag from the Quik Stop. He kept six shells out of the box to load the rifle and then hung it over his right shoulder with its strap. All set. He took off toward the river at a slow jog until a few minutes later when he tripped over a partially hidden rock and fell. He ripped a hole in his jeans where his knee came up against the hard ground. Cursing to himself, he got up and collected his things, walking this time. More slowly, making his way out across the grasslands. In less than a quarter of a mile he found a gully and dropped into it. It seemed to slope toward the river in the distance. The going was slower, but he felt Ok about that. He was being safe and keeping out of sight, using the sun to direct him. He’d grown up in this country and knew as much about taking care of himself as the next person. At least that’s what he kept telling himself as the sun rose higher and higher and the day kept getting hotter and hotter.
Sugarfoot found the spot on the ground with Colby’s blood on it. The men gathered around while Benson examined it. Standing up he said, “It looks like our guy was running and fell.” Benson shook his head. “Not the smartest thing to do.”
“I don’t think our guy’s all that sharp,” Lightfoot commented, “Not the brightest bulb in the pack.” looking out over the sloping grasslands, he muttered, “Wonder where he is?”
Benson pulled up on Sugarfoot’s leash and knelt down looking the dog in its eyes. “Let’s go find him, big fella’.” Again, the dog seemed to understand perfectly what Benson was saying. He gave a quiet ‘woof’ and turned in the direction Colby was traveling, nose to the ground. “Let’s go,” Benson said, motioning for Lightfoot and Farley to follow. “He might be moving a little slower now.”
A quarter mile ahead they came to the gully that Colby had dropped into. They stopped and contemplated their next move, Lightfoot and Benson talking with their heads bent together. Farley just listened, keeping his mouth shut and paying attention. He was just fine being the third place guy on this trip. He could learn a lot from Lightfoot and Benson.
They decided that Benson and Sugarfoot would go into the gully to make sure they were on the right trail and that Colby didn’t climb out at some point. Lightfoot and Farley would follow up above along the edge. That way they could watch the land out ahead of them for any movement. Before they started off, though, they took a break and had some more water. Benson suggested they each have a granola bar from their pack. “Got to keep our energy up,” he said, ripping open the wrapper. He also pulled out a Tupperware container with dry dog food and gave Sugarfoot a handful. He gave him some more water, too. The three men sat on their heels, resting, drinking from their water bottles. Farley checked his watch. It was just about noon.
“Getting hotter and hotter,” he commented. Lightfoot and Benson nodded.
“Yeah, it is,” Lightfoot said, then was quiet looking out over the land, adjusting the brim of his hat. Man of few words. After a few minutes, he stood up. “Let’s get going.” He looked at Benson. “You ready?”
“Yep.” He gave Sugarfoot a tug on his lease. The dog stood up, ready to go. “Let’s do it.”
Benson and Sugarfoot dropped into the gully and started down it, Lightfoot and Farley following up above. It was slow going for Benson and his bloodhound. There were piles of rocks scattered along the floor that they had to step over or around. Up where Lightfoot and Farley walked the prairie continued slopping toward the river. The land was dry and mixed with sagebrush and prairie grasses that crunched under their boots. Farley noticed Little Blue Stem and Indian Grass growing among the rock and gravel. There weren’t a lot of areas of prairie left anymore in this part of the country, or anywhere else for that matter, and he was happy to see a few native grasses alive and thriving. It made him feel good, connected to the land.
None of the men complained about being out on the wide open prairie grasslands. In different ways the land was in their blood, in each of their DNA. Lightfoot and Benson tied to it through their native American roots. Farley was tied to it through his ancestors. His great great grandparents were from Germany and had settled in the 1870’s in eastern Nebraska. They were famers and were a part of the wave of immigrants that came to America and helped settle much of the west. Farley’s great grandfather had moved to North Dakota when he was a young man and had become a rancher. So had his son and so had Farley’s dad. Farley had grown up on his dad’s cattle ranch southwest of Bismarck. He and Emma owned forty acres but they didn’t run any cattle. They had a few horses that they kept for pleasure riding. He loved the land, though, and the vast spaces. It gave him a feeling of happiness he found hard to explain. A sense of connection and belonging. He knew that in their own ways Lightfoot and Benson shared that feeling too.
While they walked Farley asked Lightfoot some more about Benson.
“How long has he had Sugarfoot?”
“He got him eight or nine years ago from an animal shelter in Dickenson. Somehow Benson heard they were going to put him down so he went over there, took a liking to him and rescued him.” Lightfoot grinned at Farley. “Benson’s sort of one of those ‘Whisperer’ types you might have heard about.”
“Like that movie?”
“Sort of, but, way more than that.” Lightfoot walked along at a steady pace, watching Benson and Sugarfoot down in the gully. “Benson’s got a real connection with animals. The land, too. Almost spiritual, you might say.”
“Do they ever not find someone their looking for?” Farley asked, amazed at how much Lightfoot was talking.
He grimaced. “Yeah.” He thought for a few moments. Then said, “It’s not pretty. I think they have something like nine finds and four misses. At least that’s the way Benson refers to it as.”
“Finds and misses?” Farley thought he knew what a find was, but a ‘miss’? Didn’t quite get that.
“Usually they find who they’re looking for, you know, like that little girl earlier this year up in the Badlands.” Farley nodded, remembering. “But a few summers ago, they were called in to help out on a search in Glacier.” Farley knew of the park, located in the Rocky Mountains in the northwest corner of Montana. He’d been there once as a kid with his parents. He remembered it as spectacularly beautiful but with many areas that were rugged and forbidding. Some of the mountains reached nearly twelve thousand feet with pockets of snow on them all year long, even in the summer. Treacherous country. “Two hikers had got themselves lost off of the Going to the Sun Highway,” Lightfoot continued. “An older married couple out celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary. They’d been missing for two days when our team,” he indicated Benson and Sugarfoot, “was called in. They searched for over a day straight before finding them both dead from a fall off a trail and down a steep embankment. Exposure probably helped do them in, too.” Lightfoot turned quiet, then added, “To Benson when he can’t find somebody he thinks of it as a miss. He believes he should have been able to find the person but ended up not being able to. He missed it, his chance or opportunity or whatever,” Lightfoot said and looked over at Farley. “He’s very committed to making all of his searches finds. He and Sugarfoot both. I heard that Sugarfoot was in bad shape for over a week afterward, not eating and moping around. Eventually they both came out of it, but they take it hard, almost personally, this tracking and searching.” Lightfoot kept walking before adding, “They’re different, Benson and Sugarfoot. They’re tied to each other somehow. They both care about who they’re looking for, and they both care about each other, too. A lot.”
“Even about someone like Colby?” Farley asked.
“Yeah, even about someone like him,” Lightfoot said, “To those two it’s all the same. Someone is out there and probably needs help, so that’s what they are trying to do. Help out. Even a nut case like Colby.” Lightfoot looked around as he walked, sweat beading up on his face. “To them, Colby needs help, and that’s what keeps them going. The chance to help.”
Farley wasn’t sure if he got all of it or not, but he was glad that they had Benson and Sugarfoot with them. They’d never be able to track Colby through this land on their own. He walked along with Lightfoot who was back to being his normal quiet self again. Farley had learned at least one main thing, Benson and Sugarfoot were pretty special. Unique. And even if they were a little different, being like they were could turn out to be a huge advantage, especially out here on the plains, where the land usually worked against you.
The next few hours their search party slowly and carefully made their way toward the Little Missouri. “We’ve got to keep a lookout for this guy,” Lightfoot kept saying. “He could be out here, anywhere. I don’t like that he has that 30-06.” Farley nodded in agreement and kept his eyes constantly moving, scanning for any movement ahead of them. But all was quiet. The only things moving were the waves of heat rising off the scorched, baking prairie and the windblown dust, swirling across the land.
The gully eventually came to an end into a dry wash riverbed that followed the natural landscape to the right. Who knew how many centuries it had been there? Sugarfoot wanted to keep following and stay on the trail but Benson had other ideas. They were a few miles from the Little Missouri. He started climbing out helping Sugarfoot scramble up the steep incline.
“Let’s take a breather,” he said, reaching the top. He took his pack off and pulled out some water. Lightfoot and Farley joined him, Sugarfoot resting nearby. Farley checked his watch. It was nearly three in the afternoon. He was thirsty and drank his water thankful that Benson had thought to bring it along for them. All three men where perspiring through their shirts, sweat staining their hats. Sugarfoot drank from the bowl that Benson filled for him. Farley estimated the temperature was over one hundred degrees. He looked out across the land, out toward the river. Wind kicked up loose soil and dust devils danced across the plains. Way in the distance it looked like a golden eagle was soaring. That was the only life he saw. Colby was out there somewhere. Sugarfoot was still on the trail, but to Farley it didn’t seem like they weren’t any closer to finding him.
“Do you think we’ll ever get him?” he asked, trying not to sound discouraged.
Lightfoot nodded, “Yeah, we’ll get him.” He indicated toward Benson. “What do you think?”
“No doubt in my mind,” Benson said, looking with affection at his dog. “This old boy still has a lot of get up and go in him, don’t you, fella’?” He was reaching over to scratch Sugarfoot’s ears when all of a sudden a shot ran out. Instantly they flattened themselves on the ground as best as they could, Benson pulling Sugarfoot up close to him. Farley had his face in the dirt, the sand hot on his cheek. He was shaking with a mixture of fear and excitement. Benson said, “Let’s everyone keep calm.” Probably as much for Farley’s sake as anyone else’s .
After about a minute, Lightfoot raised his head and peered in the direction of the shot. It had come from where they figured Colby was heading. He looked at Benson, “Give me those binoculars.” After scanning the plains for a few minutes he said, “I don’t see anything.”
“What do think that was all about?” Farley asked. “Do you think he was shooting at us?”
“I don’t know.” Lightfoot said, and turned to Benson. “What do you think?”
Benson considered the question for a few seconds. They he shrugged his shoulder and said, “You’ve got me. I have no idea. None at all.” They lay flat on the ground for a few more minutes, Lightfoot scanning the countryside. Finally he declared that the coast was clear. Standing up, he said, “Let’s head down that way,” he pointed to the dry river bed. It ran in the direction where the shot came from. “Find out what the heck’s going on.”
What was going on was that Colby had a run in with a prairie rattlesnake. And he lost.
When the gully he’d been following ended, Colby decided to follow the dry, sandy riverbed as it curved to the right. Over the centuries it had cut a path through the rock and gravel so that the banks were now nearly fifteen feet high. Colby walked along the sandy river bottom feeling safe and hidden from sight. By now he figured that someone would be following him. After all, that cop had tried to chase him back on the interstate. It was only a matter of time before they’d send a search party out looking for him. Colby had no plan. Instead he followed his instincts, and his instincts told him to stay in the river bed, so that’s what he did.
He soon found that it meandered in a serpentine manner following the contour of the land, and heading, Colby guessed, toward the river. The sun baked off the dry sand turning the river bed into an oven. It felt like the temperature was at least a hundred and ten degrees, maybe higher. Colby had long since choked down the last of the chips as well as the hot coke. Not a pleasant meal by any stretch of the imagination but at least it was some nourishment. He thought briefly about being back in prison. It was weird to think that he’d been there only yesterday. At least then he had been well fed and cool in the air-conditioning. Wait a minute. Man, what am I thinking about? He chastised himself, remembering all the times he’d almost gone stir crazy with being locked up. At least out here he had the blue sky overhead and a sense of freedom. He focused his attention on the task at hand and kept moving forward, pushing on through the heat, but the going was slow. The loose sand was hard to walk in. Finally he couldn’t take it any longer. He looked up ahead for a place to rest and saw a clump of bushes clinging to the side of the bank about fifty yards away. He slogged forward heading for the protection of the bushes. In five minutes he was there, collapsing in the shade, nearly delirious from heat exhaustion.
He probably passed out, but whatever happened was nothing compared to what happened next. He awoke to a buzzing, rattling sound. What the hell, he was wondering as he rolled to his left, unfortunately surprising not only himself but a reptile common to that part of the country. A big prairie rattler about three feet long had sought respite from the heat in the same shade as Colby. Startled, he rolled off the snake and as he did so, the rattler coiled and struck him in the fleshly muscle of the back of his left arm. He screamed and rolled down the bank waving his arm making sure the snake was off. It was and had slithered into the bushes for protection. Colby could hear it. The buzzing of its rattles was loud and it was freaking him out. He hated snakes almost beyond reason. That was why he grabbed his rifle, levered a shell into the chamber and fired a shot into the bushes. It was then that the venom of the snake bite hit him. Hit him hard. He collapsed on the sand, the snake still rattling away. Colby’s shot had missed and it was that missed shot that the three men heard back at the end of the gully where the dry wash started.
After Lightfoot had used the binoculars to convince himself that it was safe to proceed they dropped down into the river bed and started following it to the right in the direction of the rifle shot. Sugarfoot was straining on his lease in way that was different from before. It was as if he driven by a sense of urgency.
After a few minutes, Benson pulled him up short. “Something’s wrong,” he said, looking from the bloodhound to the next bend in the riverbed and back again. “He’s not normally like this.” Benson paused, contemplating. “I think something’s weird is going on up there,” he indicated the direction they were heading.
“Weird, as in what way?” Lightfoot asked. He had learned over the years to trust his cousin’s hunches.
“I’m not sure.” Benson crouched down and took Sugarfoot’s head gently in his hands and looked him straight in the eye. “If you could talk, fella’, what would you say?”
Sugarfoot gave a muffled ‘woof’ and in an instant suddenly pulled away out of Benson’s hands and took off at a dead run down the riverbed, trailing his leash, sand flying out behind him.
“Damn,” Benson said, getting to his feet and glancing toward Lightfoot and Farley. “Let’s hit it, men,” he said, starting to run, “That dog is definitely on to something.”
Their pace slowed to a jog and then to a fast walk by the time they made it to the first bend. Running in the sand was impossible, the footing non-existent. They did the best they could, however, sweat streaming down their faces, their shirts soaking wet. Up ahead Sugarfoot had started to cry, a long mournful howl. He kept it up. Benson, panting, said to Lightfoot and Farley, “He only does that when he’s in some sort of distress.”
“Like what?” Lightfoot asked, barley able to breathe. The heat was getting to them all.
“The last time, he was injured. A fight with a damn coyote.”
“He was Ok, though, right?” Farley spoke up, panting and winded.
“Oh, yeah,” Benson said, “But that coyote wasn’t.” His smile was grim. “Could be something like that.”
Farley could tell Benson was worried and that worried him. He looked at Lightfoot who just motioned him onward, like, just drop it. So he did.
The howling didn’t let up, but it did tell them where Sugarfoot was. They were getting closer, and Benson forged ahead. Lightfoot and Farley struggled to keep up only occasionally thinking to look out for Colby. And his rifle.
It turned out that they didn’t have to worry about the fugitive. Benson rounded a curve in the river bed and was the first one to see him, fifty yards ahead, lying in the sand, arms outstretched, baking in the sun. Sugarfoot was by his side, like he was guarding him. “Hurry up,” Benson motioned to Farley and Lightfoot. “I see him. He’s not moving.” Benson saw his bloodhound give Colby a lick on the face. What the hell’s going on, he thought to himself, and ran forward as fast as he could. In less than a minute he was at Colby’s side.
“What’s wrong with him?” Lightfoot asked as he joined his cousin.
Benson was examining the prone body. “I can’t tell. Wait,” he suddenly noticed something near the bushes. A dead snake. Mangled. “Geez, look at that,” he pointed it out to the other two. “A rattler.”
“What the hell?” Lightfoot carefully went over and examined it. “Looks like something really tore into it.” Then he stopped and looked at the dog. “Would Sugarfoot do something like this?”
“Yeah, he would,” Benson said, nodding and looking with affection at the panting dog. “What did you do, boy? You try and save this guy?” Sugarfoot just looked from Benson back to Colby and back to Benson, who smiled, “Yeah, maybe you did. Well let’s see what we can do.” Benson took off his pack. “I’ve got a snake bite kit here,” he said to Lightfoot. “Let’s get some anti-venom in him. See if we can stabilize him.”
While Benson worked on Colby, Lightfoot took Farley aside. “You get to some high ground and call Hutchinson. See if we can get some assistance down here.” Lightfoot placed hand on Farley’s shoulder. “Better hurry. Snake bite’s a tricky thing. Some people handle it better than others.” He looked at Colby. “Poor SOB. Let’s see if we can get him to pull through this.”
Farley nodded, adrenaline starting to kick in. He hurriedly climbed out of the dry wash and was soon gone from sight, jogging as best he could toward high ground.
Benson said, “Let’s see if we can get some water in him.” The two men did all they could to help keep Colby alive, Sugarfoot by their side the whole time, nuzzling the unconscious fugitive, occasionally licking him. Benson cut some brush and used the branches to try and provide some shade. Lightfoot soaked a bandana and bathed Colby’s face with it, trying to cool him off. Benson kept patting his dog. “Take it easy there, boy, we’re doing all we can.” Sugarfoot whined and kept close to the fugitive, now fighting for his life.
When Farley got back, Colby was barely breathing, but holding his own. “They’re sending a helicopter,” Farley panted, out of breath and sliding down the slope into the dry wash. “Can it land in here?”
“No chance,” Lightfoot said. “We’ll have to get him out of here.” He checked his watch. “How long will it take before the ‘chopper arrives.”
“It’s coming from Medora. Shouldn’t take but thirty minutes.”
“Let’s hurry up, then.”
The helicopter was there in twenty five minutes. The men were waiting for it along the rim of the dry wash. They helped load Colby inside. Along with the pilot was a paramedic who would administer additional first aid to Colby on the trip to the nearest hospital a hundred miles away in Dickenson. The helicopter took off leaving behind a cloud of dust that quickly disappeared in the wind. Lightfoot, Farley, Benson and Sugarfoot watched it fade in the distance, until it was just a spec. Then it was gone. Finally, stretching and relieving some of the day’s built up tension, Lightfoot said, “Well, boys, let’s head on out of here.” And that’s what they did, back tracking across the plains, making pretty good time since they knew exactly where they were going, getting to their vehicles about an hour before sunset. As Farley told Emma later that night after he’d showered and was on his third glass of iced tea, it had been one heck of a day.
Colby beat the odds and recovered. After a few days in the hospital he was sent back to jail in Bismarck to await trial for stealing the car. “Benson was impressed that the guy recovered,” Lightfoot told Farley when he’d heard the news. “Not everyone can survive a bite like that.”
Farley nodded his head, thinking back to the chase across the plains, then asked, “How’s Sugarfoot?”
“Fine, I guess. Those two are always happy when they can save someone, even if it’s a career criminal like our pal Colby.”
Farley laughed. “Got some problems, that one, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yeah,” Lightfoot said, and then changed the subject. “Let’s keep working on those reports. Hutchinson’s waiting for them.”
And that might have been it, as far the case regarding Colby was concerned, but it wasn’t.
Six months later Lightfoot and Farley were on a call that took them out to the rancher on the Little Missouri Trail who had reported the Black Honda that had turned out to be the car stolen by Colby. This time he had called in some sort of juvenile delinquent behavior which ended up being teenagers on his property tearing around on four-wheelers scaring his cattle. After assuring the rancher that they’d take care of it, Lightfoot asked Farley if he wanted to drive out to where the chase had started, out to where Colby had gotten the stolen car stuck in the sand. Farley, said, sure, so Lightfoot had driven them out to where they could look over the prairie grasslands leading down to the Little Missouri River. He parked the car and they got out. It was a bright day in February with the temperature hovering around ten degrees. Wind had scoured the land free of snow. They looked around, taking in the desolate view, squinting in the bright sun and stomping their feet to keep them warm before getting back in the car. Lightfoot started up the engine and turned the heater on. Being out where the chase had occurred got Farley wondering.
“Do you ever hear from Benson?” he asked
“I do, occasionally. Why?”
“I was just wondering how our buddy Sugarfoot was doing.”
Lightfoot smiled. “Just fine. Benson told me that they’re just hunkered in for the winter. Sugarfoot spends most of the time sleeping by the fireplace. For a dog, I guess means he’s pretty happy.” Lightfoot rolled up a cigarette and lit it, cracking the window to let the smoke out. “Here’s a funny thing, though.”
“Benson told me that Sugarfoot has kind of taken to Colby. ”
Farley was confused. “How did Benson know that?”
“Well, you know those two.”
“Something unique between them, right?” Farley answered smiling. Benson and Sugarfoot really did seem pretty special together.
“Yeah. Well, get this. Benson has started taking Sugarfoot to Bismarck to visit Colby in prison on visiting days. They go once or twice a month. I guess Sugarfoot really likes it.” Lightfoot shook his head, smiling. “That’s quite the dog, I’ll tell you that.”
Farley nodded, thinking back to what it was like being with Benson and Sugarfoot on that burning hot day last summer tracking Colby across the plains. It was a day he’d never forget. They’d not only caught Colby but had saved his life. Couldn’t ask for a better outcome than that.
“Well, let’s get out of here,” Lightfoot said, looking to the north and west, crumbling out his cigarette and tossing it out the window into the wind, “Looks like snow is on the way.”
“Sounds good,” Farley said, sitting back while Lightfoot turned the car around to head back to the interstate.
“One other thing,” Lightfoot said, as he started off slowly, bumping along the rough gravel road, “Benson said you were welcome to come visit them at his ranch if you wanted.”
“He did? Why’s that?”
“He thought you might want to see Sugarfoot.”
Farley thought about it for a moment. “You know, I just might. I kind of miss him.”
Lightfoot smiled. “I thought you’d say that. Benson thought you might, too.”
“Next you’re going to tell me Sugarfoot thought that, also,” Farley said, grinning.
Lightfoot laughted, “Well, you just never know with that dog. You just really never know.”
And Farley felt he knew exactly what Lightfoot was taking about.
Colby Stackhouse had been sentenced to spend the next fifteen years of his life behind bars back in Bismarck. He was kept in a prison cell in the older section of the penitentiary with three other inmates, sharing two sets of bunk beds. He wouldn’t be free until he was forty seven years old. But something had happened to Colby that day when he was making his run across the grassland plains surrounding the Little Missouri River. He had almost died. That snake bite had almost done him in. If it hadn’t been for those two Indians and that young highway patrolman and the dog, he’d be gone from this world. At least that’s what he told anyone who’d listen to him.
“Man,” he’d say, “It was like I saw my life passing before my eyes. And that life wasn’t anything to be proud of.”
Most everyone would roll their eyes. Even the counselors he talked with had a tough time believing him. Colby was a lifelong criminal with a past that spoke for itself. Lying was ingrained in him. Part of his makeup.
Like one counselor said, “You never know. He might have changed, but I doubt it. I kind of think it’s in his genes. He’s just a bad guy. Not the most trustworthy human being out there.”
Which may have been right. Colby’s story is still being written. But the funny thing is, when he gets those visits from Benson and Sugarfoot, everyone sees that there is a change happening. The dog is affectionate toward Colby and Benson talks with him like he’s just a regular guy. So who knows?
From Colby’s standpoint all he’ll tell you is this, “You know, when I was out there in the sand, dying from that rattler’s bite, that dog was right there with me. I remember coming to for just a few moments, and he licked me and kind of nuzzled my face. I know it sounds weird, but I got the feeling he didn’t want me to die. Just before I passed out again, I saw him looking at me. Something about those eyes, man. They just bore into me and gave me the strength to hang in there.”
When Colby talked like that most of the inmates either walked away shaking their heads or else kind of laughed, embarrassed for him. He’d been beaten up for it a few times, too. Others gave him a hard time and wrote him off as just plain nuts. But if Benson and Sugarfoot could overhear the way he talked, they’d get it. They understood that there was something special there between them and Colby. Even if they couldn’t put their finger on it, it was worth pursuing. Benson and Sugarfoot would be coming to visit Colby for a long, long time. To them it seemed like the right thing to do. There was something there that needed finding out.
The grassland plains in the southwest part of North Dakota still roll off to the far distant horizon. The Little Missouri River still winds it path north to the larger Missouri. There are deeper truths out there that touch us through the spirit of the land and the voice of the wind. Benson and Sugarfoot understand that. Maybe, in time, Colby will too.