“They went in empty,” the old horseman said. “They came back full.”

There was only one bridge across the river this high in the headwaters country and Sam Jones had watched two neighbors lead 12 pack horses cross into the Weminuche Wilderness on the other side.

He knew by the animals’ lighter step that the panniers were empty on the way in. He watched the neighbors return a day later, horses’ hoofs heavier on the steel-trussed, wood-topped bridge.

Version 2

Box hitches, he noted, rather than the more elegant, old-fashioned diamond. For the horses’ sake, he hoped there was no more than 80 or so pounds in each box, and a little more on top, bulging under canvas tarps. But there was no telling what the horses carried. It was more familiar to see packers not carrying forest visitors doing the reverse: Heading in with full panniers for thru-hikers, fishermen and hunters and coming back empty after stocking their camps.

Sam was getting El Cielo ready for seasonal guests. He started bringing saddle horses up from Alamosa in the late spring and drank coffee in the main house kitchen between chores, waiting for mountain trails to clear. He could see the slot of the river canyon and the small bridge that was part of El Cielo’s inholding. Any hiker or packer, including his neighbors, paid him — or his employer, Jake Flynn — a fee to cross. The river was narrow at this point but had cut deep into rock where the mountain parks narrowed. There were only two ranches this high up.

“They were loaded to the gills on the way back,” Sam said. “Never did talk to them, other than to take the toll for the bridge.”

The guest ranch had been grandfathered into the national forest, like the even more isolated and decaying place upstream. These days, the neighbors’ only visible income stream was running occasional string of llamas for eco-hikers. The first visitors after snowmelt this year churned up clouds of dust with Range Rovers and Escalades on the dirt road in. Sam hadn’t seen the neighbors’ horses out of pasture for a long time, before this trip across the river.

“Old Elliot Beatty still lives up there,” he said. “Real quiet. He has some kids around but lately there’s been some foreigners, too, always driving fast in fancy SUVs. I winched out one of them out of the ditch on the side of the road one day. I’m guessin’ he was Russian. Talked like they do in the movies.”

Sam glanced at Jake Flynn over the rim of his coffee cup.

But he had captured the younger man’s attention from the get-go.

Before it it occurred to him that maybe they should report the strange sighting to someone they knew in law enforcement, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Chris Roybal, the sentences were rolling around in the would-be writer’s mind.

“They went in empty. They came back full.”

(Fiction — 457 words).

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