Tom Hicks watched the grazing cattle from the small rise that overlooked the Tri H ranch. From where he sat on top of the blue roan’s saddle, everything looked tranquil but Tom knew looks were deceiving.
Two thousand plus head of cattle freely meandered along the Salt River’s north side in search of fresh graze. The dust kicked up by their plodding could be seen for miles from the surrounding mountain ranges.
The Tri H ranch had been carved out of the eastern end Salt River Valley. To the west, the sleepy town of Phoenix lay basking in the Sonora desert’s heat. Competition for good graze was stiff among the valley’s ranches and that sometimes led to harsh words blackened and eyes. But, never was a gun drawn between ranches. All that could abruptly change when sixteen hundred cattle mysteriously disappeared from the valley’s ranches in one swipe.
In the distance a lone rider made his way to where Tom’s lookout camp lay snuggled in the valley’s eastern Superstition Mountain range.
Tom had spotted the rider early on and after confirming by spyglass that the rider was his brother Larry, he relaxed. This was a new twist to ranching. Never before had a need for posted guards been necessary. While it was true that ranch hands on horseback had always kept watch over the herd, it was unusual to keep a loaded rifle across your saddle. Some hands had never worn a gun while most had only shot at mountain lions or other calf attacking predators. The thought of having to kill a man put the hands at ill ease. After all, shooting at a man also meant the man might be shooting back.
Tom watched as his brother Larry made his way through the desert brush towards him. When Larry made it to hailing distance, Top eased his horse forward to meet him.
Larry tipped his hat in greeting and asked, “What’s the word bro?”
“Haven’t seen a thing outside a lone coyote. What’s the word from the others?”
“I put Chet up in the Estrella’s to the southwest and Billy’s stashed himself north in the White Tanks. We got the valley pretty much in view except to the northwest but the Rocking J’s got that and the passes further west covered. I spoke with the Mormon widow who owns the land on the other side of the Salt but she denies seeing anybody either. She’s sure a weird bird. I barely had time to say goodbye before she slammed the door in my face.“
Tom looked questioningly at his brother. The three brothers had busted butt getting the Tri H up and running. To have it all taken away by some unknown rustler gang put heat under both their collars. Tom was the eldest of the three boys their West Virginian parents had raised. None were given birth by the only mother they knew. It was when Chet, who was the youngest and still an infant, that a house fire took the boys birth parents and an older sister.
At the time of the fire, the small town of Concord Church was being invaded by construction workers building the rural branch of State Normal University out of Beckley. The house fire had suspicious origins but a quick investigation by the Mercer County Sheriff exonerated a man previously suspected of having made lewd advances on the daughter. The newspapers focused their suspicions on the integrity of the hired workers until the man later was found dead. The Sheriff was visibly shaken when told of his pervert cousin’s death by bludgeoning. The funeral ceremony was held with a closed coffin that few people attended.
The three young brothers were taken in by a local Minister and his wife. The boys grew to be fine young men but none wanted to follow in their elderly adopted father’s footsteps. Instead they spent most of their days hunting and trapping in the steep Blue Ridge Mountains. Although five years spread the three brothers apart from each other, they all had such similar features that many folks believed they were triplets. Blond hair, hazel green eyes and a strong wiry build was the typical look of the southern mountain folks of West Virginia.
One by one, as they reached the age, each left the confines of the small town recently renamed Athens and found themselves being drawn by the call to move west. Shortly after their mothers death by natural causes, Tom was the first of the brothers to buy land alongside the Salt River in the Arizona territory and move out.
Within the year, the two younger brothers followed following the death of their aged father from the fever. By purchasing and combining their separated holdings the Tri H ranch in the Arizona Territory was born. As the Tri H grew the need for a good on Ranch Foreman was obvious but no one had ever filled the bill. They came and they went but for the most part running the ranch from the saddle was always left up to Larry and Tom.
Looking at his brother in the bright Arizona sun Tom spoke, “Lar, I just can’t figure how a stranger who doesn’t know a dang thing about the area could waltz in here, round up and drive out sixteen hundred head from the different ranches and get away with it.”
Larry lifted a canteen to his dry lips and took a long pull. “That’s for sure. My guess is that whoever done it has been livin’ here for quite a spell. They knew when the rainy season would begin and end. My thinking is that the rustling was timed so each ranch was hit at a different day under the cover of rain. That’s also why no prints were ever found. Hell, you can’t drive five cattle let alone over a thousand without leavin’ tracks unless they’s washed out by the rains.”
“Yeah, I’m in agreement with that. Tell me this Lar, where could the cattle eventually end up at? Texas? Mexico? Somewhere still in Arizona?”
“I suppose they could have ended up anywhere except California or Utah. One has a deadly desert that no cattle could cross and the other has a gigantic canyon in front of it. My bet is they was headed south into Mexico. No one gives a crap about brands down that way and they already caught and hung two Mexicans for rustling this year outside of Tucson.”
Tom thought about it for a bit then as said, “If they headed straight to Mexico, they’d have had to pass by Rustlers Roost Mountain. I’m not sure even the Haney gang there would put up with a bunch of Mexicans passing through with stolen cattle. We all know the Haney’s use that mountain to hide out at after grabbin’ up a few cows at a time to sell to the eateries in Phoenix, but they’s small time. They’re not much different from the mountain folk back in West Virginia. They know how much they can get away with before folks get too pissed of at ‘em and do something about it. No, I’m thinkin’ if they were Mexicans, they’d head toward Texas then head south into Mexico through the passes following the San Pedro River. My guess is, they’d skirt the stockyards in Bisbee by catching the Sonora River west of Mescal then drive the herd to Agua Zarka in Mexico. I hear there are some mighty big ranches down that way. Some of them are in the millions of acres.”
“Then what’re you sayin’ Tom? That we are wasting our time posting guards throughout the valley?”
“I hate to say this Lar but I think our cattle are on their way to a Mexican dinner table and the rustlers ain’t nowhere near here anymore.”
Larry sat there nodding his head. “You know what Tom? Ya’ have to admit, nobody knows the weather here better than the Mexicans. They’ve been here for hundreds of years an’ the weather down there ain’t much different than it is here. Mexicans would know how to time it just right so no tracks would be left.”
“Do me a favor Larry, take my place up here for a spell, will you? I’m gonna’ head over to the Rocking J and chew this new thinkin’ over with their Segundo, Ray Plaques.”
“Why Ray and not the owner?
“Mr Miles might be a nice guy but he’s from England. He runs a good operation but you’d never see him wear a gun, that’s why he hired Plaques as his Segundo. Plaques word is the law around the Rocking J territory and he sure ain’t no naive foreigner like Miles is. Rays a good man in a rotten job.”
Ray Plaques stood on the small porch of his private cabin the Rocking J owner provided him. He watched as Toms blue roan made its way past the cow pens to head his way.
Tom reigned up to the cabin, dismounted and loosened the roan’s saddle cinch. Taking off his wide brimmed Stetson hat, he beat the dust off of himself with it.
“Afternoon Tom!” Ray grunted, “ C’mon inside, let’s get out’a the sun.”
“Sounds good to me Ray, got anything besides water to drink?”
“Hell, you know I don’t drink Tom. I got some fresh squeezed lemonade inside though.”
Putting his hand on Toms back, Ray guided Tom indoors and out of the sun.
Putting his empty lemonade cup down Tom continued speaking, “So that’s it in a nutshell Ray, I think we ought to get us a legal posse and head down Mexico way. Those cattle have a long way to travel and a mess load of difficult passes to get through before they reach the safety of Mexico. I think we can meet up with the herd before they get to the border.”
On the table’s top in the small kitchen, Ray spun his own empty cup in circles using his finger.
“Damn,” He said, ” Here I had the wild hope they was driving the cows to Colorado or even Wyoming territory. If they were, we could leave it up to the authorities there to round ‘em up. Now that you laid it all out though, I think you’re right. I guess I was just hoping to stay out of it but even in those territories it would have been hard to rebrand those cows without looking suspicious because of all the different brands the ranches use. I guess I better strap on a gun again.”
“So do you think the Rocking J and the rest that lost cattle will back a posse?”
“I know I will but you gotta ask the others but I’m pretty sure the double C and the Z Bar none most likely would. Each of ‘em lost over three hundred head apiece. It’s a good thing that Mormon widow south of here sold off her herd or I’m sure they’d be gone too.
“What’s the story with the Mormon Widow. All I know is her husband and kid died in some sort of mining accident on their land a few months back.”
Ray removed his hat and ran his fingers through his sweat dampened hair saying, “Darned if I know what’s goin’ on over there. I had heard from the Mormon fella that used to be in their pay that the family had some major confrontations with the Church’s Leaders up in Utah. He was under the impression that the family was told to leave the fold so they ended up down here. Other than that, the fella said everything was goin’ well until the mine accident. The widow told him she was sellin’ off the herd and couldn’t afford him no more so he came here lookin’ for work. I couldn’t use him at the time so he went his way. Don’t ask me how she makes her bills now without no men folk around.”
“Maybe they had some saved up when she sold off her herd. I mean it couldn’t be much, she only had a hundred o0r so head. My brother Larry told me he stopped by her place the other day and asked if she saw any rustlers.”
“What’d she tell him?”
“She told him no. No excuses or explanations were given. Then she closed the door on him.”
“I don’t doubt it, they was a strange group. I once ran into the Mister once at the General store here in Buckeye. You’d a thought I was a going to rob him the way he acted. Just as soon as he was finished loading his wagon he beat the hell outa’ there like the Devil was after him.”
“Well, she’s the least of our worries right now. With your permission I’m gonna’ speak to the other ranch owners and tell ‘em you’re on board with forming a posse with us.”
“Sounds good to me. I’ll get a few of our hands that are good with a gun to tag along, just in case things get ugly.”
“My brother Larry and I will be going and while we ain’t no fast draws, there ain’t much that we can’t hit when the trigger’s pulled.”
“I heard you West Virginia mountain boys was as quiet as Indians and twice as deadly.”
“Well, it’s true that us mountain bred folk don’t take kindly to trespassers or thieves. You ever try and hunt a turkey? Shoot, you even exhale loudly and they disappear like smoke in the wind. As far as strangers go, Folks that go traipsing over other peoples land without a holler to the owner first will be spendin’ that afternoon pluckin’ buckshot from outa’ his behind.”
That night found Tom tired and hungry as he rode up to the Tri H Ranch house. Stopping to unsaddle and wipe his horse down before taking care of his own needs, Tom finally found himself at the table gulping down hot coffee and a bowl of beef stew.
“So far everyone I talked to is willing to add their own riders to the posse,” Tom told his brothers. Looking over the top of his cup, he continued speaking. “Larry, I think Chet should stay behind since Chet is the best at figures and office duties. Me an’ you are replaceable if something bad was to happen to us but if Chet here got shot up, the ranch wouldn’t last a year without his book keeping.” Then with a sly smile at his brother, he added, “ Besides, we’re better shots.”
Chet nodded in agreement, not because by any means he was afraid to go but he understood better than anyone that a ranch without a good book keeper doesn’t last long. It’s the book keeper that does the wheeling and dealing and has to balance the cost of the operation versus the price the time of sale.
“What about the law?” Chet asked, “Are you going to get the U.S Marshal involved?”
Tom answered, “I already did that. We’re all legal like. On my way back from Goodyear I stopped down in Phoenix and got an order from the Marshal. That’s what took me so long getting back here. Oh, by the way, Territorial Judge McCarthy was in town and signed it too so we’re double covered. That way nobody can say we’re a vigilante posse taking the law into our own hands. I got deputized by the Marshal an’ he even gave me a badge.” Pulling the shiny star shaped badge from his pocket, he laid it on the table.
Getting up, he placed the empty plate and cup in a wash bucket. When their cook came back in the morning, he’d clean up the mess. As he headed upstairs he stopped at the bottom step.
“Before I forget to tell ya’, on the way back here from the judge, I had a chance to stop over at the Mormon widows place.”
“She slam the door in your face? Larry said she did that to him.”
“No. She wasn’t even there.”
“You sure she just wasn’t hiding from ya?”
“I’m sure. After I gave the door a good banging, I checked the door and found it was unlocked.”
“So, I take it you entered? What’d ya’ find?”
“Not much. The stove was cold. Maybe she went to town.”
“Near dark? That don’t make sense.” Chet followed Tom upstairs and turned into his own room. “Well, I’m headin’ off to bed, I got better things to think about than some old crazy Mormon widow. Besides, I need my beauty sleep if you and Larry are leaving me here all alone to do the real work.”
“Well, one thing is for sure Chet, you definitely need to catch up on your beauty sleep!”
From the six ranches that were hit by the rustlers, seventeen men were rounded up for the posse. Three pack horses joined the group and two extra riding horses. Knowing the rustlers had a good week’s head start, possibly even two, on the posse rode as hard as the desert terrain permitted. The best they could muster that day was twenty miles. The Arizona desert is no place to see how fast a horse can go.
Larry who had left earlier had been riding far ahead as the posse’s scout. On day two he returned to the others at a gallop.
It was at the crossing of the Rio San Pedro River south of Phoenix that he had caught sight of the cattle trail. While the rain had washed the cattle’s tracks clear on the desert floor, nothing could hide the damage all those hooves did to the steep river bank.
“You was right Tom, they’re on their way to Mexico! They must’ve turned east once they passed near Tempe then crossed the Rio San Pedro at Florence. Their trail runs east along the southern side of the River.”
Tom agreed, “Figured as much, now all we gotta’ do is get ahead of ‘em somehow.”
One of the Z Bar None’s hands they called Donut spoke up. “I know a way to get ahead of ‘em. I was raised in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. I know every pass and old Indian trail there is from there to Mexico. Even if the herd can make ten miles a day, they still gotta stay by water. That means they’ll be huggin’ the San Pedro till they get to Fairbank. There’s a split in the river there that heads west, just a small creek but still it’s enough water for the herd. There’s no need for ‘em to go anywhere near Water Tank 17 or Bisbee. They can cut through the pass by McLaughlin Peak with no one the wiser. They’ll have to drive the cattle through the pass an’ be without water for a day, maybe even two till they get to the Santa Cruz River at Calabasas. From there it’s a straight shot south to Agua Zarka in Mexico.”
Tom thought about it then told the group. “I’m gonna put Donut here in lead. My brother Larry got us this far but at this point, I believe Donut’s our best chance of getting’ ahead of ‘em.”
Tom turned to Larry and asked, “You ain’t holdin’ any hard feelings given up lead scout are you?”
“Shoot no! I’m plumb happy Donut spoke up. I’m not real familiar with the territory this far south no how.” Taking the spyglass’s leather case he had attached to his saddle horn, Larry handed it over to Donut, telling him, “Here, you might need this.”
Tom nodded and told Donut, “Use that glass. If you spot the herd or run into trouble you high tail it right back to us. Don’t be a dead hero on account of some cows. Now where do we go from here?”
Donut pointed to the south west. “Our best bet is to head that a way till we reach Picacho lake then turn south and make our way through the pass at Red Rock. From there we can catch the Santa Cruz. We’ll be cutting more than a week off our travels if we take that way. There ain’t no water from Lake Picacho to the Santa Cruz so we’ll need to water up good at the lake.”
Tom nodded in a way that told Donut to head on out.
The seventeen riders rode wearily through the heat of Arizona’s Undulating Plain. Temperatures exceeded one hundred and five degrees. The riders unpacked their bedrolls and laid them over the rumps of the horses to protect them as best as they could from the desert sun. As they made their way to Picacho Lake, concern was expressed at how fast they were going through the reserve canteens of water.
Donut returned with the news that Picacho Lake lay only seven miles ahead. Still, it took three more hours to reach its shores. Two miles from the lake, the horses lifted their noses into the air smelling the fresh water. Though half done in, they found renewed strength and immediately picked up their pace.
The sight of the small lake brought the men to delirious shouts of joy. Reaching the shore, they drove their horses directly into the shallow water. The men clumsily dismounted and fell bodily into the lake thanking their maker for the cool water of the desert oasis.
“We’ll make camp here for the night.” Tom told them. “Donut, take a couple extra canteens and once your horse is cooled and rested, head on out again. Find a spot to make camp for the night up ahead. At first light, break camp and continue on, we’ll follow your trail.The rest of you water and rest up while Biscuit here cooks us up some grub.”
Biscuit began to unpack the trail supplies while a friendly hand from the Rocking J helped out by getting a fire going. After everyone had eaten, a bucket of lake water was brought up for washing the dishes and pots. A two gallon pot of fresh coffee was hung over the fire to keep it heated. Two riders were chosen to stand watch. Each would take a half night. No one had any real fear of being attacked but when you’re after rustlers, it was better to think ahead than walk back on foot.
The morning sun burst across the lake as if it had been lit on fire. Each cowboy rubbed the sleep from his eyes and made his way stumbling to the coffee pot.
Damn, I slept like I was sleepin’ on rocks!” One man exclaimed. Another turned, looked at the cowboy and told him, “You were ya’ idjut! Look where ya’ laid your bedroll. Ain’t nothing but gravel!”
Looking over at where he had spent the night, the cowboy grinned, “Huh, don’t that beat all! No wonder I ain’t slept none. Kind of gives a new meaning to the word ‘bedrock’.”
Travel was easier but just as hot and waterless as the previous day. By evening though they had made it to the small cluster of shacks called Rillito. They camped outside the town but stopped in town to water their horses and refill the canteens. Hey purchased a load of hay and a sack of oats and carried them back to the camp for the horses. Once again, two sentries were chosen to split the night watch.
The next night found them just west of the town of Tucson. Before making camp they crossed over the Santa Cruz River. They and the river were now headed due south toward Calabasas and Mexico.
It was hoped that they were far enough ahead of the herd that they could set up an ambush just east of Calabasas. It was there they expected the herd would be trailed though the Santa Rita Pass. As long as everything went well, the posse should arrive in time. The rustled herd of cattle needed water and graze so they had to be trailed along the much longer route that wound its way eastward almost to the rowdy town of Tombstone. From there they had to head south then west to Calabasas through the long narrow Santa Rita pass. It was at the western end of this ten mile long pass that Donut had told them was the surest place to set up an ambush.
It was when the posse passed Mt. Baldy on the Santa Rita Mountains that things began to look bad. They were only five miles north of Calabasas when Donut came charging back on his panting horse.
“Tom!” Donut yelled as he reigned up hard. “We got trouble ahead. The herd will be comin’ through the Santa Rita Pass tomorrow by noon but them rustlers set up a system of guards along both sides of the western end of the pass. The best place for us to lay in wait for ‘em is now occupied by men up in the cliffs with rifles. I think they figured like we did that it was the best place to ambush ‘em at.”
Tom looked grimly up at Donut. “Could ya’ count how many men? Did ya see the herd to verify it’s even them?”
‘‘Maybe five in all but in them hills it might as well be a hunert. They’s dug in good. I could see the dust bein’ kicked up by a large herd. It can only be them. Who else would be drivin’ a herd of cattle to no where?”
In frustration Tom threw down his hat and kicked it into the air, “Dang! If we can’t get ‘em in the pass, then we might as well just play a squeeze box and waltz ‘em on into Mexico!”
Donut spat the dust out of his mouth from the ride, “Yup, once they’s in the open, we can’t both round up the herd and deal with the rustlers at the same time. They’ll just pick us off like they’s at a turkey shoot. We gotta figure how to keep ‘em all in the pass. One man shooting a pistol at the far eastern end of the pass will keep the cows from escaping back the way they come and all the commotion we’ll be making on the western end, ain’t no way the cattle will head into the open plains of Calabasas on their own”
Larry stepped up to Tom telling him. “There’s only one way we can do this. You and I are the only ones here that is mountain savvy. We have only till dawn to take ‘em out. We’ll take Donut with us since he saw where they was hiding there about. Once we spot ‘em all with his help, Donut can come on back here and bring two more with him. By morning there will still be five men up in the cliffs with rifles but it’s gonna’ be us, not them.”
“It’s the way I see it too.”
Tom turned to the group and laid out the plan for them. When everyone knew his job, Donut and the two brothers disappeared into the pass by the light of the setting sun.
Taking the spyglass with them, they reached the spot Donut had viewed the hidden men from. Two had hidden themselves in the rocky outcroppings along the southern side while the other three had snuggled themselves along the north side. Each man had spaced themselves a good fifty feet from each other for better shooting coverage. That decision was a blessing for Tom and his group. If they were spaced too close together, taking them out would be difficult without their friends hearing the rucus.
Each of the three took turns using the spyglass. When it was determined by each that in fact there were only five men, Donut was sent back to gather up the other two and return with them.
Tom stealthily climbed the cliff face on the south side while Larry did the same on the north. By midnight each brother was only yards from their first man.
Tom had climbed above and to the west of his man. He could see a rifle propped up against the cliff wall while the shooter sat sitting hidden on a jagged ledge. The only access to the shooter was from directly overhead. Tom would have to jump from above and kill him the moment he landed on top of him. With his partner only fifty feet away, he’d have to be Indian silent. He was. Tom removed the long bladed knife from the small of the man’s neck just under the back of his skull. Tom had hoped that just his original intention of surrounding the men would give them pause and seeing the futility of it all would instead give themselves up. But not this group, they were hardened men.
Larry had an easier time dispatching his first man. The man had fallen asleep.
Tom had only one more man to deal with while Larry still had two. It was then that it began to rain. While it made the going slick, the flashes of far away lighting gave enough light to easily see how to get close to their next man.
Tom again climbed above his man but found it too far above the man lying in wait to safely jump down upon him as he did the first. He decided to back track and attack him from below. By 2 am the rain was being driven sideways and the thunder was echoing deafeningly off the walls within the pass.
Larry decided to let nature cover his attack. He was now only ten feet from the second man hidden in the cliff. Still, he knew that a pistol fired at seventy odd feet had a real risk of either missing or just maiming the man so he returned to his first kill and returned with the man’s rifle. A rifle at seventy feet was child’s play. He’d leave the man ten feet from him alone while he took aim at the more distant one. Once he took the shot, he’d then drop his barrel to the closer man.
A lightning bolt suddenly seared it’s way into the pass causing the cliff walls to shudder. At that moment across the pass, Tom heard the unmistakable sound of the rifle blasting the man into eternity. Without waiting, he also took advantage of the thunder and rose up in front of the man trying to stare across the pass where he had heard the gunshot come from. The man’s eyes widened as if seeing a ghost as the open bore of Toms barrel appeared inches from his face. It didn’t matter that there was any thunder to cover the shot. The only one who could have heard it was on the other side of the pass and dying quickly from Larry’s second shot.
By 4am the storm had passed and the two brothers had safely returned to the mouth of the pass at the western end. There they found Donut and the two chosen shooters anxiously waiting for them.
When the brothers crept into view, the men showed their relief. “Wooeee!” Donut exclaimed loudly, “Boy am I glad it’s you two that showed up an’ not them other fella’s!”
Larry patted Donut on the back and said, “Naw, they ain’t gonna show up nowhere but in hell! We lucked out an had us a storm hit just when we needed it. Heck, it even washed the cliffs off of blood.”
Tom pointed to the passes south side, “Donut, you and another man from the posse will take the place of those two on this side. You other two men go with Larry, he’ll show you where to hunker down at. When the herd arrives, they’ll be expecting a signal of some sort so gather up them dead folks coat an’ hat and put ‘em on. When you see Larry come out an’ wave his rifle, you all do the same. Just don’t make yourself too visible to ‘em. Keep in the shadows. I’m sure they got pards that would recognize you ain’t them if they get a good eyeball on ya’. We ain’t got much time for talkin’ here so here’s the plan quick like. Wait until the flank riders is equal to ya’ then knock ‘em from their saddles. When the lead riders turn around and come back, hit em hard. Donut? Was the rest of the posse comin’ up behind you?”
“Sure are, In fact I see ‘em now.”
“Good, I’ll tell them what they need to do. Larry, you and your boys get up in the cliffs now and get in position. Donut, see that rustlers body hanging over that ledge up the cliff? Hide it and set yourself in his place. From there you can see the other dead fella. Have whoever I send up to you to hide that one too and make sure he knows what I told you all.”
After the others had left, Tom walked westward to the mouth of the pass where he met up with the rest of the posse.
“The pass is clear of shooters. Our men are taking their place. Who’s a good shot with a rifle here?” One man raised his hand.
“OK, you get up on the south side of the cliff. Donut will meet up with ya’ and fill you in on what you need to know. The rest of you hide yourselves about a hundred yards from each other along the length of the pass behind the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. Two of you are to stay here and hide the horses. If the cattle bust on through, use your pistols to make enough noise to drive ‘em back into the pass. We don’t want any cattle to get past you or we’ll never get ‘em back once they is free to run. I’m heading up the pass as far as I can to get behind the riders and herd. Someone’s got to make sure the herd doesn’t turn around and head back east when the shooting starts. I need one man with me that’s good with a pistol.”
Tom turned to a young rider that wore his pistol low in the way an experienced shootist would. Pointing at the kid, he yanked his head toward the eastern end of the pass. “Kid, come with me.”
The sun was straight up when the first rider showed. As he trotted forward he continuously turned his head from side to side looking up the cliff walls.
When the scout made it to where Larry was hiding in the upper cliffs shadows, Larry moved forward enough to show himself but not enough to be well lit up by the sun. He raised his rifle in salute then stepped back into the shadows. As the rider looked from his right to his left, the other posse members imitated Larry’s actions. The scout sat unmoving for a moment, then satisfied that the pass was secure, clicked his horse forward.
A minute later the lead riders and first cows appeared behind him. The riders were Mexicans.
Tom and the young gun he had chosen to go with him had earlier during the night made their way east up the pass. They had traveled on foot about a quarter of a mile before finding decent cover in the fallen rocks. They eyed the lead riders and cattle as they bpassed beyond them. Tom could see the tail of the herd approaching with three drag riders following behind them.
The herd stretched nearly the entire quarter mile that the spread out posse given them. As the lead cow neared the exit of the pass, at the other end the last cows and drag riders passed the rocks hiding Tom and the young gun. It was now or never.
From the western end of the pass a quarter mile away, Tom heard the sound of a single gunshot ricocheting off the passes walls. The drag riders immediately pulled iron and two quickly dismounted while the third galloped ahead to where the shot had come from. Looking for cover, the unfortunate drag riders chose the best place within the fallen rocks to hold off an attack. The two ran headlong into the raised Colt pistols of Tom and the young gun.
Staying within the shadows and safety of the rocks, Tom shouted his demand at the two as they ran towards him. “Drop those pistols!”
Instead of dropping the guns, the two split up from each other and began firing into the shadows. The shorter of the two drag riders nearly made it to safety after emptying the pistol’s cylinder on the run. The young low holstered kid stepped out in front of his hiding spot and put three quick shots into the drag riders chest. The drag rider was blown airborne and backwards from the three 45 caliber slugs that punched through flesh and bone.
“Damn you all!” Came the curse of the second drag rider. Stopping in his tracks, he ran back towards where his fallen pard lay bleeding out. Seeing the young gun still exposed, he raised his own pistol and fired repeatedly at the kid. Whether or not any of his slugs found their mark he never knew. When the man raised his gun towards the young man, Tom emptied his six shooter into him. Each of the dying mans shots were deadly but the rocks that the slugs plowed into, didn’t seem to care.
From the other end of the pass, a rapid mix of pistol and rifle gunshots could be heard. Wanting to throw himself into the fray, Tom cautioned himself to stay put in case the cattle turned and stampeded back towards the direction they had came from. Tom looked over at the kid who like himself, stood reloading his empty gun. The kid saw the questioning look in Toms eyes and shouted over the din of the cattle and echoing gunfire. “I’m alright!” He yelled. Tom nodded back quickly in acknowledgement.
Meanwhile, the rest of the posse were in the heat of a free for all gunfight. Riding alongside of the cattle, the flank riders had been able to dismount and find quick cover in the boulders. None had been hit upon dismounting but one never made it to the rocks. It was nine against thirteen but soon became seven then four against thirteen. The posse had the advantage because they had taken plenty of time to dig themselves safely into the shadows and rocks.
The rifles placed up high in the rocks had taken a devastating toll on the rustlers. Those posse members below kept the rustlers from returning much fire by laying down a layer of withering gunfire into the rocks. The sound of ricocheting slugs off the rocks sounded like a swarm of bees taking flight.
Finally, with only two men returning gun fire they rustlers called it quits and threw out their guns. Stepping out from the rocks with their hands held high they stood quietly as they their hands were bound behind them.
With the end of the gunshots, the cattle began to settle down so Tom began walking westward down the pass to where the main gunfight was held. Heading his way was Donut, who had climbed down from his post in the cliff and Ray Plaques, the Segundo from the Rocking J Ranch. Ray had just finished instructing a fellow cowboy from the Rocking J to seek out any cattle that had been hit and was suffering beyond help. He was telling them to put the cows out of their misery when he saw Donut approaching him.
“Dang” Cried Donut as the two turned and began making their way to Tom, “All this shootin’ got’s me all riled up! Lookit my hands is a shakin’ like an old Granpaw!”
Ray shook his head in wonder, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen this much lead flying. I’m amazed none of us is planting daisy’s.”
“That’s ‘cause most all the lead was comin’ from our side!” Pointing to Tom and the Kid, Donut continued talking, “I see them two held their own too.”
“Anybody on our side hit?” Tom asked.
Ray shook his head, “Nope, not even a scratch as far as I know. I see you two had your own hands full. We got two left alive to hang back there. They’re tied up but when we questioned them they refused to do any talking.”
Tom told the two posse members, “Let’s gather up their dead and get these cattle headed back east in the pass. We’re gonna’ have to retrace the trail they was led here on. Once we get back to the Salt River, we’ll divide ‘em up by brand and get ‘em back to the ranch’s they belong to.”
A shout from the young gun got the attention of the three as they stood talking.
“Tom, get on over here and take a look see!” The young man shouted.
When the three approached the kid, he said, “Remember on the way down here we was all wondering how the rustlers could up and steal sixteen hundred head with no one seeing anything? Well, if you look down on that dead one layin’ there I think you’ll see our answer.”
Tom and the others walked over to the shorter of the dead rustlers. Looking down at the chest shot figure he exclaimed loudly.
“Well I’ll be damned! It’s the Mormon Widow!”
“Look over here, you recognize that man?”
Tom and the others stepped over to where the body of the other rustler lay. It was the man who tried to return to his fallen pard and was shot to death by Tom.
Ray spoke up. “Well I’ll be! It’s her husband. I bet their kid’s back there layin’ dead or is one that’s tied up. They faked their death to throw off any suspicion of their rustling. I bet that was the reason their church leaders disowned ‘em! They found out what they really was. Just a plain ‘ol pack a thieves!”
Tom told the others, “There was three riding drag. One of ‘em took to heels and headed up thev pass when the shooting started. I’d recognize him so lets get up that way and see if we can find him. Donut, will you and the Kid here keep the cows from wandering? We’ll be herding them up and heading ‘em out in a little bit. Donut, you take lead again but I don’t see a need for you to be more than a mile ahead. Just keep the herd pointed along their own trail.”
As Tom and Ray headed back down the pass, Tom suddenly stopped and stuck his hand out to Ray. “I owe you my thanks Ray. I know you was hired on as a hired gun Segundo by Mr. Miles. If ever you want to unbuckle your guns holster and take on the thankless life of a Ranch Foreman, I’d take it as an honor if you’d stop by the Tri H first. You’d find yourself welcome with us any time.”
Ray stood quietly searching for any doubt of insincerity in Toms face. Finding none he replied. “Every man who lives by the gun, pulls the trigger one last time. I’m thinking this was mine.” Still grasping Toms hand in a firm handshake he added, “If being your Foreman means I get a private cabin, I’ll be stopping by.”
Tom started chuckling and replied, ” Ray, you’re pushin’ it… but I think we can find it in the budget to get you one built!”
“And and feather bed with silk blankets?”
“You? A feather bed? Not on your life my friend, not on your life!”