In-Laws and Outlaws

HashknifePosse

Chapter 1

Laying aside the month old Arizona newspaper, Texas rancher Slim Jim Rutherford looked across the breakfast table at his wife and shaking his head told her, “Well, I see your three brothers have been at it again. The paper here lays blame on the recent violent rustling jobs up near Holbrook up in Arizona on a small off shoot gang from the Hashknife group. That’s the group your brothers rode for.

Lifting the newspaper up once again to a reading position he continued speaking,” It says here, Known for their rough and tumble ways, the Arizona based Aztec Cattle company, commonly called the Hashknife Cattle Company (due to their unique cattle brand shaped like a cooks hashknife), is being blamed once again for a series of recent cattle rustlings in Navajo County Arizona by local ranchers. Aztec owner, Edward Kinsley, denies the charge saying it was not their men and is laying the blame on a small group of men who had earlier instigated much lawlessness on the surrounding ranches in the area. Mr. Kinsley stated that the group, led by a trio of brothers, were forcefully driven off the Aztec land a year earlier. The brothers, being named Jedediah, Ezekiel and Crete Britchen  and their small gang of followers (all ex Hashknife employees) are believed to be holed up somewhere  in or around the Navajo and Yavapai Counties  and have reportedly been seen as far south as the Superstition Mountains.  The United States Marshal Service is forming a posse to hunt the rustlers down as well as to keep an eye on the Aztec Cattle operation. Numerous complaints from small ranchers contending that the Aztec group is involved in rustling and rebranding of their stolen cattle has forced the Marshal service to act.”

Sally Rutherford pensively looked up at her husband exhaled quietly replying. “Just so long as they stay out of Texas. The last thing we need is them showing up here!”

 

Twenty two years earlier the Britchen family loaded up their belongings in a Conestoga wagon and left Missouri in search of greener pastures out west. Their trail ended up in Southern Utah where the parents of the children met up with a group of Mormon settlers from Ohio and converted to Mormonism. It turned out the parents conversion was not so much from the heart but what could be gained by joining such a group. The parents took immediate advantage of their new friends and neighbors. The three brothers and their lone sister Sally were raised in the strict Mormon ways in public but inside the home was another matter. It was a home where everything was for show. 

Jed and Zeke, as the brothers were commonly called, were rambunctious kids who tested the boundaries of their Mormon upbringing but they paled in comparison to their youngest brother Crete. By age fourteen, Crete cursed while speaking, was fond of smoking and was suspected of breaking into his neighbor’s house and coveting his neighbors goods… and their daughter.

Most times, Crete could be the sweetest of boys to his siblings, yet his siblings were becoming increasingly afraid for their own safety, especially during his many ‘mood spells’.

Crete’s wild mood swings had no rhyme or reason to their occurrence.

In the middle of a laugh he could become dark and sulky or was once heard laughing hysterically during a funeral. His parents believed him ‘tetched in the head’ and prayed for the day he would be old enough to leave home.

 When Sally, the youngest of the four and only girl, came to the marrying age of fourteen, her father announced that she would be marrying their fifty eight year old Bishop, a severely overweight man prone to sweating and loud wet mucus spewing coughing spells. Sally would be his fourth wife, yet unfortunately not the youngest of them.

No amount of begging by the four children would change her father’s decision. In return for his daughter, the Bishop promised him a large parcel of tall grass pasture in central Utah he owned. Not surprisingly, this also would keep Sally out of touch with her family.  The two men were like two  peas in a pod. Both used each other to gain what they wanted, both abused their authority upon those under them and both were using their Faith to achieve a secret comfortable living not available to everyone else. 

Sally’s brothers were for lynching the Bishop in secret but realized his detestable son Abaddon, would then most likely claim their young sister for himself through inheritance. The four children decided enough was enough and having no other alternative slipped out of Utah under cover and headed south into the Arizona territory.

In the three years that followed, Jed and Zeke became hard working Hashknife Cowboys for the infamous Aztec Cattle Company out of Holbrook. Crete on the other hand hung around town and rarely worked yet always seemed to have plenty of cash on hand. When his two brothers discovered that he had been suspected by the law of robbing miners and other loners, they decided to hide him within the safety of the Hashknife group where no one there asked questions.  The corrupted ways of the Hashknife cowboys on the Aztec Ranch suited Crete well and even the two brothers began to fall into the easy life style that rustling offered.

Meanwhile, Sally had taken a job on the Aztec Ranch as a cook’s helper. Kept apart from the realities of how the Aztec Ranch worked, she was blissfully unaware of her sibling’s wrongdoings. Her monthly pay was minimal but the Ranch offered her secure housing arraignments, meals and even a few dollars a month for personal needs. It was there that she met ‘Slim Jim’ Rutherford.

 Most all the hands liked and got along well with Slim Jim.  The tall, wide shouldered, sun darkened cowboy of few words and soft voice was not to be underestimated though. More than one drunken galoot found himself waking up black eyed and rib sore after a fisticuffs altercation with him.  Chided only in fun for his carrying a Bible within his possible satchel, he lived by the golden rule but never demanded others to believe as he did.

 It was true though that if asked a question of a Biblical nature, he happily complied by giving simple answers and left the questioner to make their own minds up. This brought him great respect even amongst the hardest of men… all except for one, Crete Britchen.

 Slim Jim Rutherford worked as a­­­ horse breaking cowboy for the Aztec Ranch which kept him far from the Hashknife crowd.  Breaking horses for the Ranch’s remuda was his main job but roping and branding always took precedence before a drive. Like Jim, most hands working for the Aztec Ranch were honest and hard working men. It was only the Hashknife group within the ranch that participated in the shady but all too common acts of cattle rustling. This physical separation of the two groups should have been enough to keep Slim Jim unknown to Crete but it wasn’t.

Hearing rumors being spread concerning his sister and Slim Jim, her new beau, Crete rode up to the ranch house to see the man for himself. After dismounting his exhausted horse, he left it hitched in the hot Arizona sun to fend for itself. Slim Jim Rutherford was everything that Crete wasn’t, such as being Kind, thoughtful, slow to speak, handsome and willing to put in a hard day’s work. These were traits that drove Crete to distraction and Slim had them all. At first greeting, Slim Jim stuck out his hand in a friendly way only to have it left hanging in the air. Crete, seeing the outstretched hand, spat on the ground in front of Slim and turned away saying. “I’d rather see my sister dead than tied with the likes of you.”

Jed and Zeke tried unsuccessfully for months to convince Crete that Slim Jim was the right man for Sally and if he didn’t like him, then he should at least leave the two alone. He didn’t.

Crete went out of his way to convince his fellow Hashknife hands that the Devil, if he existed at all, had a special place prepared for him in Hell. Openly mocking God and his Word, Crete in short order began to evolve from being just underhanded and distrustful to being downright evil. Taking some well heeded advice from Jed and Zeke, Slim Jim Rutherford eloped with Sally one night and headed into Texas and away from Crete to safety. They settled just north of Amarillo outside the cow town of Wheeler alongside the banks of the Canadian River. Only the oldest brother Jed knew of the couple’s whereabouts.

Shortly after their sister and Jim took flight into Texas, the two remaining brothers found that controlling Crete’s actions was becoming a losing proposition. His anger seemed continuous and took no provoking. He began telling his brother’s that he despised them and harbored a deep hatred for everyone except for his own mother. For reasons unknown, he held the belief that she alone was without fault and it were only she alone that he trusted. He believed that she visited him in his night dreams to comfort and give him guidance and advice. In truth, when her children fled Utah, she dismissed Crete as no longer living and was glad to be rid of him.

 

 

 

Chapter 2

After reaching the safety of Texas, Jim and Sally Rutherford discovered a land flooded with abandoned cattle from the war. Not being bred Texan’s, they were permitted by the Federal Army overseeing the law in Texas, to gather a herd and drive them out of State. This was something denied true Texans as part of the Federal Government’s nine year post war Reconstruction Act. The hated Reconstruction act was in fact enacted as punishment for those Southern States including Texas for siding against the North during the war. However, to the general public it was presented as a humane act of repatriation. Northern politicians and their friends took little time in capitalizing on the manacles placed on the South and bled the Southern States dry for their own financial gain. Millions of fertile acres, plantations, homes and factories suddenly found themselves under new ownership under this act. These carpetbaggers, as they were called, had little interest in the freed slaves lives other than to gather them together under a new and even crueler form of slavery called sharecropping.  

With signed papers from the Army allowing the Rutherford’s to gather and drive what cattle they could find out of Texas to market, Slim Jim gathered a group of out of work Texas cowboys as his chosen employees. Hiring these Texans rankled the Army Commander but he was legally unable to stop it. In response though, certain restrictions were placed on the Texas cowboys. Unable to carry guns, permanently leave Texas and required to sign papers of loyalty to the Federal Government, the out of work cowboys went ahead and threw themselves fully into their job which made Slim Jim proud of each and every one. The cow hands took to liking Slim Jim and treated their first and only female trail cook, Sally, as they would their own kin. Within three years the Rutherford Ranch, called the Bar None Zero, was in the black and a little one was expecting to grace the Ranch’s presence before winter’s end.

 

After reading the news article to Sally, Jim set the newspaper aside and reached over to clasp his pregnant wife’s hands across the breakfast table. “Don’t worry none dear, your brother Jed’s been keeping us secretly informed of matters and I’m sure he’d let us know if they were to head our way. And look outside. We got over forty hands working for us, you think they’d sit still while your brothers wrecked havoc here? Why I pity the man who’d go up against this group of Texans!”

Smiling at the thought, Sally squeezed Slim Jim’s hand three times quickly. It was their way of saying, “I love you”. The answer came back to her in four quick squeezes, “I love you too!”

A bulky form suddenly filled the kitchen doorway. The two looked up seeing Biscuit, the camp cook that replaced Sally on cattle drives. “Folks?” With hat in hand he asked, “Are you needin’ anything else? If not, I’m gonna clean up here an head on into town.  I got some purchases to make an’ my hair an’ beard could use a trimmin’.”

Jim looked up at the grizzled character blocking the doorway as he stood rubbing his beard as if it were growing longer as he spoke.  Smiling slyly Jim asked, “Why Biscuit, I believe it was just last Saturday that you got trimmed up! I’ve never known you to get a haircut more’n twice a year. This doesn’t have anything to do with widow Johnston does it?”

Turning red faced, Biscuit harrumphed loudly then with false bravado replied, “Well… maybe it does an’ maybe it don’t! None a your business any hoo. Besides, the widow Johnston wouldn’t take kindly to hear the two of you flappin’ your jaws about her love life, hurrumph!”

Chuckling, Jim replied, “Give her our regards.

Suddenly Sally stood up at the table, “Oh, Biscuit, I’ve just been reminded, I have something for you. Here, let me get it.”

Looking in question at Jim, Biscuit shrugged asking. “Wonder what she got fer me?”

Sally quickly returned with a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. Handing the package to Biscuit she exclaimed, “I mistakenly ordered two of these from Humbolts Emporium. Jim has plenty and I couldn’t figure a finer time or a more deserving person to give it to.”

Unwrapping the string tied package, Biscuit unrolled it into the palm of his hand. “Why I’ll be! A bottle of hair tonic! Bay Rum no less! Why thankee deeply. It’s been years since I had some a this. Dang barber in town don’t use it, instead he splashes on that terrible smelling Hoyt’s trash. Smells like a French Mad’am if you git my point. Why back in the day, I can remember when lookin’ good meant a smidgeon of wagon wheel grease combed into your hair an’ some Mum tonic rubbed around your pits!  Why it put off takin’ a bath for a month or more! Still, I am quite particular to Bay Rum though, it shore will come in handy this afternoon!”

After Biscuit had cleaned up the breakfast mess and rode on into town, Jim pulled Sally aside as they walked outside onto the porch. “Hair tonic? Bay Rum? Sally, Bay Rum is an aftershave, sure it smells good but it’s really meant to keep any infection starting from shaving cuts. Biscuit has a beard, he never shaves!”

Sally stopped and chuckled saying, “If I went and bought him a man’s parfume so he’d smell good for widow Johnston, do you really believe he’d splash it on before visiting her? Not on your life. Much to womanly smelling, but a hair tonic is another thing all together. A man can smell like Bay Rum and still be a man. Who cares if he wears it on his head or in his beard? At least Biscuit won’t smell like baked beans and coffee grounds!”

“Good point dear, good point.”

 

 

The weeks passed uneventfully and a few spring crocus were starting to poke their heads above the melting snow.  In March, Sally gave birth to a chubby baby boy whom they named after Slim Jim’s father Joseph. Widow Johnston accepted Biscuits proposal of marriage and they asked Jim and Sally if the two of them could be taken on as the ranch cooks. Biscuit said he’d continue on as the trail or wagon cook and Belinda, his wife could replace Sally in her own kitchen. They reasoned doing so would free up Sally to tend to her child. It was agreed upon that shortly after their marriage, Biscuit and Belinda would take up permanent residence upstairs in the unoccupied portion of the house. A rear stairway leading from the upstairs hall down to the kitchen was installed so Belinda could start her four am day without disturbing the child. Nothing further had been heard from Jed regarding her sibling’s whereabouts so the fear of them showing up in Texas was put on the slow burner.

The Bar None Zero ranch became a beehive of activity just days after the baby Joseph was born. The activity wasn’t due so much from his birth but rather the time of the year. It was time to start getting a herd together for the drive to the Kansas City stockyards. Forty cowhands at first sight seems to be a large number of hands until they get broken into groups and sent in different directions gathering cattle. Some men headed south into the rocky desert while others headed east and west. The idea being that each group would gather as many unbranded cattle as could be found, brand them with the Bar None Zero brand and then drive them up to Amarillo to the tall grassy plains where the Bar None Zero sat. Once at the Bar None Zero, the herd would be divided into breeding stock and those that were going to market. Breeding stock included new born calves and their mama’s. Calves slowed down a drive and many never made it to market due to dehydration, lack of grass or predators. It just wasn’t worth the effort or expense loss so calves would have to wait until a later drive or used as breeding stock. Young bulls needed to be castrated before rejoining the herd. Even then it took some time for their natural sex drives to settle down so working with them was a chancy affair at best. Many a horse and rider were gored or trampled as a result of these amorous passions so cowboys had to be extra alert to his surroundings.

By the middle of April a decent sized herd had been gathered for the drive. The Bar None Zero now had a total stock of over five thousand head. It was decided that 2,400 of these were going to market. If the herd loss could be kept to below four hundred, it would put the Rutherford’s so well into the black that folks might even consider them pretty well off. 

The night before the drive was to start, Slim Jim kissed Sally goodbye and rode out to where the hands kept watch over the herd. Approaching one of the night riders, Slim hallowed him using a sing song voice to prevent the herd from catching a fright and starting a stampede. Newly gathered herds were the most skittish as no leader had yet come forward. It might be days on the trail before a natural leader showed itself and took charge of the herd and controlled their direction and moodiness.

 

The lone cowboy nodded his head towards Slim Jim and quietly replied, “Evenin’ Boss.”

Sidling up next to the man called Frank, Slim waited for the cowboy to continue.

“Been quiet for the most part.” Frank said, “ A few were buttin’ heads but that was during daylight. We’re keeping the herd moving in a slow circle until the moon comes up. Once they can see again and see there ain’t no predators about they’ll calm down even more. How’s the miss’s and baby doing?”

“Both are fine, thanks for asking’. By the way,  is Biscuit’s chuck wagon nearby, I could use some coffee.”

“He’s about a mile and a half east of here by Old Woman’s Creek boss. Because of the noise his pots an’ pans make gettin’ banged around while cooking, he decided to set up camp far enough away to keep the cattle from ’catchin’ a fright. You can’t miss the sight of his cook fire or for that matter, just lift your nose an’ you’ll smell his coffee.”

Chuckling lightly, Slim quietly said after taking a long inhaled breath through his nose, “By golly, you’re right, I do smell coffee!  It’s going to be a long night and even longer day tomorrow. Unless you got a couple toothpicks to prop open my eyes with, I’m gonna go and get me a mug of that eye opener. See you’ later Frank.”

Biscuit was busy cleaning up from the last shift of cowboys to eat their dinner. Two, 2 gallon coffee pots hung over the cook fire. Slim dismounted, secured his mare to the wagon’s wheel and strode over to the fire.

Pointing to the hanging pots he asked, “Which ones ready?”

“The one on the right has some left in it, the left ones almost done. If I were you, I’d give it a few and get a mug of the fresh stuff.”

“Thanks, I’ll wait then. It’s got egg shells in it?”

Biscuit stopped his washing of a large pot and stood facing Slim with hands on his hips. “How long have I been cookin’ fer ya’ an’ how many times you gonna ask me that?  ‘Course they got egg shell in’em! An’ until you start buyin’ me some a them Arbuckle beans, they always will.”

“Your wife said even with Arbuckles, the coffee’s better with shell in them. I’m not arguing, just repeating what Belinda told me.”

“Well, that’s ‘cause back at the house she feeds you that girly coffee.”

“Girly coffee? You mean because she adds a bit of sugar and cream to it, it’s now girly coffee?”

Hiding a twinkle in his eye, he replied. “Sure! Men don’t drink coffee with cream an’ sugar in it! Why next she’ll be servin’ ya’ll them Englishy crumpets and those sconey things!”

 Grabbing the coffee pot tilter hanging over the fire, Slim poured himself a large tin mug of the brew. “Well God forbid you ever eat anything more than beans and biscuits!” He laughed.

“What’s wrong with my biscuits? You sure are startin’ this drive off wearin’ the wrong pair a boots if you’re gonna now complain about my biscuits! And, you know I make the best beans in all a Texas.”

To himself Jim quietly mumbled while shaking his head, “It’s like talking to a fence post for all the good it does.”

“What’s that you say?”

“Nothing, just thinking out loud, that’s all.”

“Well, while you’re settin’ there with your mind all noisey like, let me tell you where tomorrow night’s rendezvous is. Since we’ve done this trail a bunch times before, you might remember that little box canyon about 10 miles east of here? Well, I figure with the cattle well fed and watered, it should be no problem getting’ the herd that far, besides, it’s pretty flat land from here to there. I’ll set up camp in front of the canyon that way you can keep the remuda corralled inside it.”

“Great, leave a full pot for the night riders when you turn in.”

“I always do, don’t I boss?”

It took Biscuit less than four hours to make the next day’s rendezvous location and set up camp for the evening meal. After unhitching the team, as required in order for the riders to know where they were, Biscuit lifted the wagon tongue to point at the North star. The camp cook had to keep ahead of the drive by using a leap frog motion. This meant it was he who determined the distance the herd traveled and its route each day. Of course it was the trail boss who really set the parameters but it was left up to the trail cook to determine the exact location of each evenings stopping point. Ahead of the cook rode the scout. It was his job to find water holes, fresh grass and any obstacles the herd might run into. The information he found was then passed onto the cook and the trail boss.  Behind the chuck wagon rode the trail boss, point rider or both. The point rider rode at the head of the herd and micro managed the drives direction that the trail boss decided upon. The steering of the herd was the job of the swing riders who were placed near the front of the herd on each side. Behind the swing riders were the Flank. They kept the herd bunched when needed or rode the length up and down to keep cattle from straying. The worst job and normally left up to green horns was the drag rider. Drag riders followed the herd from behind. They kept the herd pushed forward, they also ate the most dust. Graduating to the flak position a drag rider was then considered a working cowboy.

 

 The remuda or horse herd (of Spanish origin meaning change of horses), was kept away from the piercing horns of the cattle by being positioned off to one side. These cowboys in charge of the remuda were called Wranglers. Their job was to make sure the horses stayed healthy, well watered and fed. Any horse or mule doctoring needed being done was left up to the remuda boss.

It was on the third day that shortly after setting up for the evening camp, a rider hailed from a safe distance to warn the camp of his approach. As normal, Biscuit was alone at the time but knew the herd was not for off. This meant the trail boss, or point rider was probably with the range of gunfire. Biscuit hailed back and shouted, “Dismount and git yourself some coffee friend!”

The rider turned out to be Captain Oswald sent by Commander Wilcox, the Army commander and Federal overseer out of Fort Worth.

The lone Captain dismounted then turned south to whistle loudly. Within a minute, six other riders could be made out in the oncoming darkness. “Can my men get a mug also? We’re pretty worn out but worse, my man inadvertently left behind the sack of Arbuckles at the Fort”

“Why shore Cap’n, There’s a bunch a clean mugs in that hinged crate over there. Are ya’ passin’ through or need I ride out an’ get the trail boss?”

“If he’s nearby, it can wait. We’ll make camp here with you all tonight anyway. We’re about done in with today’s heat and all.”

Biscuit nodded, “Yep, it shore is a hot one for just bein’ spring, had to be in the high eighties. Why I remember once back in… oh maybe around late Seventy something, it got so hot my biscuit flour cooked itself in the sack and there was no need for a coffee fire neither! I just threw some grounds in the coffee pot an’ walked away. The men’s mugs never cooled off, we had hot coffee the whole night!”

Knowing a tale when he heard one, Captain Oswald just chuckled.

 

Chapter 3

One of the soldiers who had been relaxing in a lounging manner with his coffee, suddenly sat upright shouting.“I think I hear them comin Cap! Yep, here they come.”

Within an hour the herd had been circled and calmed, the remuda roped off and the hands that were not on duty were gathered around eating a hot meal of beans and beef.

Upon seeing the Captain, Slim Jim introduced himself. After a short time of small talk the Captain got to the point. “Seeing that you all hired Texans for this drive, I’ll be needing to see the men’s paperwork before you leave Texas.”

It rankled Slim to see his men treated this way, them being as American anybody else but he decided to let it ride and yelled for his men to get their permission papers out. Each man handed the Captain his paperwork of allegiance.

“The captain took them and carefully inspected each one. “Well,” He finally said, “Everything looks in good order. Your men can return to whatever they were doing, sorry for the inconvenience but I’m only doing following orders.”

“Sure, no hard feelings Captain.”

The experience left a sour taste in each mans throat though. The Captain, feeling the mood of the Texans and himself getting uncomfortable, ordered his men to set up that night’s camp on a small bluff away from the cowboys camp.

Later, he returned. “Mister Rutherford? May I speak to you in private?”

Slim Jim tossed the last of his coffee away and stood up saying, “Sure, take a walk with me. I enjoy the night sounds other than cattle bellowing in my ears.”

The two walked past the small bluff where Jim could see the soldiers tents had been set up. The white peaked tops stood reflecting the rising moonlight. A lone coyote began singing and soon others joined in his chorus. Night birds could be heard fluttering in and out of the cactus tops and brush. It truly was a magnificent night and Captain Oswald said so.

“It sure is a beautiful country, Texas. I’m from Louisiana myself. My folks were raised in the bayou swamps and that’s where they raised me. They were French Creole from back in the early days of the Country. They sent me away to boarding school and then to military school in Virginia. I’m a true Southerner Mister Rutherford and it pains me to see my neighbor Texans treated as they are. I sincerely apologize for forcing your men to prove their American loyalty. Davey Crockett and Jim Bowie must be turning in their graves over this mess”

“Yeah, I’m originally from the Arizona Territory myself,” Jim said, “I worked most my life on ranches up near the Rim just south of the canyon. It was a blessing I hailed from another State than Texas, it gave my wife and I a chance to seek our fortune here where Texans couldn’t. I felt bad seeing some of the best cow punchers I’ve ever seen having to take any job offered. Cattle is what most all of them know. They’re not used to even walking on foot some of them. They grew up sitting on a horse. That’s why when I saw a way around the law, I hired them straight off. I know it mightily peeved the Commander but he was bound by the law to let me have my Texans.”

“You mentioned you are married, you still that way?”

“Oh yes, and happy about it too. We eloped when the two of us was working for the Hash…er a cattle ranch up near Holbrook back then.”

“Holbrook you say? I heard some news from over that way. I was within earshot of my Commander and a U.S, Marshal when I overheard some talk about Holbrook They were talking about a group of no goods having left the Holbrook area and might be headed into Texas. It seems this group is led by three brothers and one of them is over the cliff crazy like. I heard that the crazy one murdered a few folks over nothing! It seems they were just minding their own business and for no reason the man guns them down in cold blood. The men weren’t even together, just walking the same boardwalk. Then as he left town he put fire to the new Methodist Church being built there and then shot the knees off its Pastor as he ran out to fight the blaze.”

During this time Slims stomach dropped to the ground. It could only be Crete and Sally’s brothers!

“Did they say anything more, like where they were headed to when they left Holbrook.”

“Not really, I heard they only returned to Holbrook to tie on a drinking binge. The Marshal said his men have tracked them all over the Territory and New Mexico and were only hours behind them when cleared out of Holbrook. One things for sure. They won’t find a safe place anywhere in the Arizona Territory or New Mexico for all the killing they’ve done in both places. I’m figuring that’s why the Marshal went and paid a visit to the Commander, he must figure they’re headed for the safety of Texas since they’re not wanted here yet.”

Now Jim’s stomach really churned. If the trio should make their way anywhere near Amarillo, then they’ll be sure to come upon the Bar None Zero Ranch and Sally.

“Now that I’ve spilled the beans about this group of rustlers, this is the real reason I was sent to check your men’s paperwork. We wouldn’t want them escaping the law under the cover of assumed names. I doubt you’ll run across them but if you hear anything of value along the way on your drive, would you send a message regarding such information to Commander Wilcox at Fort Worth?”

“Absolutely.”

“I am taking my men up to the border. When you get there we’ll meet up and I’ll escort you across and out of Texas. We won’t be there when you return of course so that means it’ll be up to you to sign the men in at Fort Worth upon your return.”

Slim absently replied, “Of course.”

The two casually walked back to the bluff where they parted ways. In the morning, the soldiers packed up and continued on their way without further conversation with the cowboys.

Slim Jim Rutherford was in a quandary. By law, he had to be with his Texans the entire trip, going there and back to insure their return. On the other hand, he needed to get back to the ranch as fast as possible and warn Sally and the others of the possible approach of the three brothers. If he were to leave and the Texan’s were stopped, then they would face jail time along with himself, for not being in their presence when they re-crossed the border upon their return.

Pulling a trail map from one of the many compartments within the Chuck Wagon, Jim unfolded the map and taking a ruler, tried to determine how many miles it was to the Oklahoma Territory border. The border lay between six and eight miles ahead, almost a full day away. Still, if he were to see the men over the border he could possibly sneak back into Texas unseen and speedily ride his way back to his ranch. After he returned, he could fortify his place, make plans or even get Sally away from there before Crete and his brothers showed up. Nodding to himself he knew that was the way it had to be but first he needed to take Biscuit and the point rider into his confidence.

 

Chapter 4

Biscuit sat there stunned.”Boss, you sure lead an interesting life, yes you do! How is it I figured the two of you to be just a pair of easy going married folk that never saw nothin’ more exciting than a dust devil or two? Why them brothers of hers is three of the biggest outlaws alive!”

The point rider Jason shrugged and said. Whatever you want us to do we’ll do Boss. I see no problem in getting to Kansas City or even back again without you. On the other hand, I know we’ll be required to stop in at Fort Worth and see the Commander to show we’re all accounted for. That’s the only problem that I can see. Maybe you can get on down to Fort Worth in time to meet up with us…if everything goes well back at the ranch. Besides, Texas is a big Territory, I bet your in-laws never even get close to you or up to Amarillo.”

“I wish that were true but the fact is the oldest brother Jed knows where we live. I’ve trusted him over the years and until now there’s been no reason to fear that he spilled the beans as to Sally and my whereabouts to his siblings. That changed I guess when the Marshal Service started hunting them down for murder. I’m figuring they’ll want to use my ranch to hole up at. Damn it!”

Biscuit rose up brushing his pant legs saying, “Come what may, I still got forty odd hands to feed tonight, I need to be goin or the men will go hungry. Jason, you too, let’s get movin’, there ain’t nothin’ more we can do sitting’ here blabbin’ about it!”

Jim also rose, “Biscuits right, start the drive. I’ll just have to do what I think I can get away with. I’ll decide something before we reach the Oklahoma border later today.”

Saying that, the men parted ways to start the days drive.

 

 

 “Borders just ahead Boss” Shouted Jason, “I can see the soldiers too.”

It took nearly three hours for the cattle and men to cross the border. There was no creek or sign to notify a soul they had just crossed the border. Instead, a soldier sat staring into a sextant as if he were onboard a ship. Earlier that day, the scout and chuck wagon had made the crossing. They were now a few miles ahead and pointed towards the east. From this point they would head east across the Western and Chisholm trails which headed north to the rail yards in Dodge City and Wichita. The last and final trail would be the Shawnee. At that point they would turn onto this trail and head north to the stock yards in Kansas City. The Bar None Zero would have to drive their cattle without the benefit of the rail road because of their sheer volume. Having over 3,400 head sent by rail meant many more deaths than the Rutherford’s could afford to lose. While rail was faster, it also meant losing control of your entire herd. It was up to others to feed, water and make sure no one rustled your stock. This skepticism was well founded. There was more than one herd that arrived at the yards having a different owner than the one that shipped them.

Once safely across and out of sight of the Captain and his men, Jim rode parallel to the border and re-crossed it five miles from where the Captain remained camped. If Jim was lucky, the troops would wait a day or two to rest up before heading back south to Fort Worth. This would give him ample time to skirt their line of sight and make his way back to Amarillo.

A Bar None Zero ranch hand out gathering strays saw Jim driving his horse hard as he headed towards the ranch gate. With foam flying from its mouth, the sweat drenched flanks glistened in the afternoon sun as if they were mirrored. Racing after his Boss, the man on a fresh mount still could not catch up to Jim. It wasn’t until Jim had stopped and dismounted at the ranch house before the hand caught up to him.

“Boss! What’s goin’ on? What’re you doin’ back here? Where’s the herd?”

“Too many questions right now, just hang here a bit until I come out. Take care of my mount, no water yet, she’s too hot, just walk her and give her a good rub down first, then water but only a small amount at first.”

“Sure Boss, I know what to do, she’s in good hands.”

With that, Jim took two steps at a time as he made his way up the porch. Just then Sally appeared holding the baby in the doorway. “Jim! What’s wrong?”

Over a cup of coffee and some pie Jim explained all he had heard from captain Oswald. Sally outwardly looked calm but Jim noted she had lost all the color in her face. She waited until Jim had finished then spoke.

“Jim, you have no choice, Crete will kill the two of us if you don’t kill him first.”

“But Sally, he’s your brother!”

Crete made his bed, now he must lie in it. You can’t call the law, they’d discover you have left the Texans and would arrest you and them. For their sake and ours, please, do what you know you need to do.”

“What about Jedediah and Ezekiel, am I to kill them too?” Jim asked, hoping she’d say no.

“That will have to wait to be seen, that’s all I can say. It mortifies me to ask you to do this but I’ve run this scenario through my mind many times over the last couple of years. We have a family now, many men depend on their wages from us. We have too many responsibilities to let my insane brother take all that away. If Jed and Zeke didn’t do anything to stop him by now, they won’t after they arrive here either. I believe all of my brothers have gone to the bad. If the law were to catch up to them, they’d all hang for their crimes. Is it a sin then to act in a like manner? I believe not.”

That evening Jim gathered the remaining hands and explained the situation. “We have no idea if there are others that ride with them. For all we know it could be just the three or it might be thirty, we have no idea. What we need to do is to plan for the worst and hope for the best. There are seven of us here not counting Sally and the baby. What edge we have is that they have no idea we know they are coming.

Looking at the gathered group Slim Jim told them. “Keep your side arms handy loaded and worn at all times. You men who have saddle rifles make sure they’re in their holsters if you have to ride off anywhere. I know this will test your morality a might but this is a life or death situation, shoot first and ask questions later. Just because these men are Sally’s brothers doesn’t mean a hoot. They’re wanted for murdering innocent folk and if they make it here to the ranch, your lives won’t be worth a plug nickel. No matter what, don’t let ‘em start talking to you, crazy men can make a heap of sense and they’re capable of talking the skin off a snake.”

The group nodded heads as one. They had lived on the range long enough to accept that sometimes there was no other way and killing must be done. This part of Texas had no Law, other than the Army out of Fort Worth and they held little concern for local problems unless directed by their superiors back in Washington.

“I want two men to go with me. I figure if they come to Texas it won’t be through the desert but along the Canadian. Two of us will scout along the Canadian, if we run into them, the third person high tails it back here for reinforcements.  Phil? Why don’t you take Erney here and saddle us up the horses? Make sure you hang a holster for a long gun on your saddle too. We’ll head out in a half hour.”

In a short time Phil and Erney sat on horseback ready to leave. Slim Jim exited the house in front of Sally who was carrying the baby. With his horse held between the other two riders, Slim mounted after kissing Sally. Without further word, they rode off west towards Tascosa and the Canadian.

 

Chapter 5         

Crete woke up with a stiff neck. Grumbling as he twisted his neck to and fro he wandered behind a large group of boulders to relieve himself. It had been a long ride through New Mexico but by noon the small group of hardened men should make it to the border of Texas.

 When he returned to the camp, the others were awake and getting a morning meal started. Six men were left following the three brothers making the group nine in all. Crete wanted to get rid of a few of them from the group. He told Jed and Zeke that their mother had visited him and told him that three of them would end up betraying them.

“Which three?” asked Zeke.

 Neither Jed nor Zeke believed their mother spoke in Crete’s dreams to him and that any vision was fabricated within his own mind. “Besides,” Jed told Zeke under his breath, “Ma ain’t dead yet and although we know Mormons believe in an afterlife, we also was taught there weren’t no such thing as ghost. Crete’s vision’s is from bein’ teched in the head, nothin’ more.”

With a cutting side glance, Crete stopped to look at his two siblings asking them, “Why do you want to know? You gonna warn ‘em or something? I’ll tell you which three!”

Walking away from the cook fire, he removed his pistol from its holster, spun the cylinder to make sure he was fully loaded and turned around. Facing the group of breakfast occupied men, he raised his pistol and calmly began pulling the trigger. Crete may have been insane but his craziness had no affect on his crack shot abilities. Within seconds three innocent men tumbled to the earth.

“What the hell are you doing?” Zeke shouted at him as he ran to disarm his brother. Out of the corner of his eye, Crete judged the closing distance of his brother, then turned and fired point blank into his head.

Watching Zeke’s body collapse and fall forward into the camps fire, the last of the three followers in stunned disbelief threw up their hands in surrender.

Jed stood speechless half expecting Crete’s gun to turn his way.

Holstering his weapon, Crete spoke to the remaining group members. “Naw, the rest of you’s is alright. Put your hands down, ya’ look stupid sittin’ there like bunch a school children! Unless Mama tells me different, them three I shot is the ones that was going to turn us over to the law.”

One hardened man slowly rose. “That is my cousin you just plugged! Weren’t no way he woulda’ turned on us. Your Mama ain’t said shit you idiot! You’re just plain crazy and I’m cuttin’ my ties with you all here and now.”

Calmly, Crete shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “Alright,” then lighting fast pulled his iron and fired the last remaining two bullets into the man’s chest.

With six pulls of the trigger, five men lay dead, one his brother and three loyal followers.

 

“If’n anybody else is upset enough to pull iron on me, remember, I also carry this.” Removing a small caliber pistol from a hidden holster from behind his back, he brandished the small but deadly weapon in front of the men. As he waved the gun about, his face took on the evil expression that Jed was so used to seeing. Crete began to breath hard and saliva began to leak from his mouth like a panting dog.

Turning to face Jed, a large glob of foamy slobber dripped out from Crete’s mouth onto his vest. Using his sleeve, Crete ineffectively wiped the foamy saliva from his face. “I told ya’ll that I hated each ‘an every one of you! Remember brother, Sally and you ain’t immune to my hate neither! After we get to Texas and find where her an’ that bastard Slim Jim is holed up at, I’m gonna deal with ‘em like Mama told me to!”

“And ruin our only means avoiding the law? We ain’t wanted in Texas for no crime. If you kill them, it won’t be but a short time before them Texas Rangers are on our tail. They’re like she badgers, they never give up once they got your scent.”

“I don’t give no hoot about any Texas Rangers, they ain’t no where’s near as smart as I am! Have we been caught up with yet? No! You know why? Because Mama watches over me, that’s why!”

“Is Mama dead that she speaks to you Crete? Last we heard she ‘an Paw were doin’ their Mormon thing and was alive an’ well.”

“Mama ain’t never gonna die Jed, she leaves her soul come night and lays down next to me. She tells me all the secrets you and others been hidin’ from me, she knows everything. She told me Zeke needed to die but never said when. It just happened that it was his time. Mama keeps some stuff to herself.”

Zeke was your brother, her son. Do you really believe she wanted him dead? Why would she want that?”

Crete snarled, “Because she only loved me, that’s why!”

At that instant, Jed knew his brother meant to kill him as he did Zeke, without remorse.

 

The four men made their way into Texas from New Mexico using the Canadian River as their guide just as Jim thought they would. Crete, now heading up the gang unopposed, decided to shy away from the larger town of Tascosa and instead opted to make camp just outside the tiny burg of Cheyenne alongside the Canadian River. Without him knowing it , this placed him only twenty miles from the Bar None Zero Ranch. That night under the cover of a sliver moon night, the two remaining gang members slid out unseen into the surrounding desert.

A grey streak on the Eastern skyline announced the coming dawn. It was then that the already high strung and paranoid Crete discovered the missing men.

“They’s gone!” He yelled to his still sleeping brother. “We gotta get outa’ here, I know they’ll tattle on our whereabouts fer sure! Listen… is that horses I hear? Yes? No?”

Jed, alert now, stood up to listen. “Naw, there ain’t no horses.”

“Are you sure?” A look that changed from near panic to suspicion came over Crete. “Maybe there is horses comin’! Maybe you told those two to high tail outa’ here. Maybe you an’ them are in cahoots with each other an’ I’m bein’ left holdin’ the bag while you all set me up for capture. While you all escape”

Suddenly Jed looked past where Crete stood and pointed. “Look, their horses are still tied to the highline between them two trees! That means they left on foot.”

Searching where the men’s bedrolls had been, they saw the two large canteens the group had were missing, along with the only rifle the group had.

The sudden change in the situation seemed to sober Crete up somewhat. “Well, for sure, the two couldn’t have gone far, most likely they either made their way into Cheyenne but more likely they are on their way to Tascosa. We should take the horses and circle around south of Tascosa then enter town from the east. They’ll most likely be keeping a lookout expecting us to come in from the west.”

Crete looked skyward at the rising sun and blew heavily through parsed lips. “Mind you Jed, this don’t mean we’s done with what was started between us brother. One of us is going to die, Mama told me that but she didn’t say which one of us. I’m makin’ sure I’m the one who walks away.”

 

Chapter 6

Slim, along with riders Phil and Erney sat in their saddle overlooking the Canadian river outside of the town of Tascosa. The town wasn’t much as large towns went. Unlike the crowded mountain towns or large cities, the buildings had plenty of empty space between them. Few good sized trees existed as most were cut down for building lumber. What trees existed were misshapen or stunted. In contrast to the bland town, the valley the town lay in was a cattleman’s dream having tall grass, good water and plenty of both. As desirable as the land was to others, it held little interest for Jim. He knew that if the brothers came by the Canadian River, they would most likely stop here. He regretted ever trusting Jed, the eldest of Sally’s brothers with the information of the Bar None Zero’s location. In all the time that the two had sent secret letters to each other there was never any indication of Jed having gone truly to the bad. On the other hand, Jim and Sally had gained precious information on Crete. By letter, they had watched him deteriorate into lunacy. It was through these letters that especially Sally, had determined that her brother was dangerously insane to the point it was either him or them that would die. She, unlike Crete’s belief, knew it was going to be he that died.

Three groups of men were converging onto the small town at the same time, each using a different route. Entering the town from the west on foot, the two fleeing members of Crete’s gang headed straight for the saloon located in the center of the town. Figuring if Crete was on their tail, he’d start at one end and work his way to the other. If they kept a good eye out, they’d spot him and have time to either ambush him or take cover until in frustration, he left to search elsewhere.

Crete and Jed entered town from the East and true to the ex gang members thinking, started searching from one end and heading to the other. What the two men hiding in the saloon didn’t realize was that while they were correct in pre guessing Crete’s method of search, they didn’t realize the brothers has come in from the opposite end. They realized their mistake when the salons bat wing doors opened and in stepped Crete.

Meanwhile, Crete wasn’t doing so well himself, not that he was aware of this of course. As Crete and Jed circled their approach into town the two made a fatal mistake, that of riding for a short distance along the peak of the Canadians embankment. The two brothers on horseback, along with the two empty saddled horses behind them, stuck out in the slanting late afternoon sun like cut out silhouettes against the backdrop of the flat grassy landscape.

“That’s them!” Whispered Slim. “No mistake, I’d recognize Crete anywhere. He rides all lazy like, and slumped down in the saddle. Let’s pull up just a bit more and ride behind ‘em. The last thing either is going to suspect is us tailing them. We’ll observe where they go and what they’re up to before we make our move. Phil, hold up a might on runnin’ for help. It appears that they’re alone. Those two bare nags behind them must have belonged to a couple of their gang. I bet ten to one the rest took to their heels when they realized their boss was a crazy man!”

It would have been comical if it weren’t so serious. As Crete and Jed stepped into the saloon, just behind them with hats lowered over their eyes, strode in the real man Crete wanted dead, Slim Jim Rutherford, the hated husband of his Sister Sally.

The sound of the batwing doors opening caused the two ex gang members to turn in unison. The one sitting furthest from the door, dropped his beer mug and went for his gun.

The first sight Slim saw on entering the salon behind Crete and Jed was a man standing at the bar raising his iron towards the door they had just come through. Slim yelled “Duck!” Hoping Phil and Erney wouldn’t take the time to size up the reason for his warning, Slim dove to the floor to protect himself and behind him he heard the twin thumps of his two as they too kissed the floor. The single shot that the man at the bar got off caught Jed in the upper leg. Screaming in agony from a shattered thigh bone, Jed fell like a rag doll. With his bleeding brother rolling around screaming, Crete dove to the right. This once again left Slim and his two hands exposed to deadly gun fire. Crete rolled once and in a single motion, stood up and pulled his pistol.  In three rapid shots, Crete expertly blew the shooter clean off his stool.

Unfortunately for Crete, the second ex gang member was now pouring deadly slugs in his direction. Crazed and stumbling forward as if demon possessed, his gun hotly spit lead and fire. Crete’s left ear disappeared from his head then his hat, along with a bloody portion of his scalp. Still, Crete’s aim remained deadly accurate during the smoky barrage and eventually the shooter, bleeding out from multiple holes, rolled backwards off his stool dead.  Making his way jerkily to where the two ex gang members lay, Crete stood tottering over the two like a drunk.  Other than the screaming of Jed, there was no other sound in the saloon.

Fatally shot more than once, Crete fell heavily to his knees. The empty pistol dropped to the floor as Crete’s arms and torso began jerking as if controlled by strings. A loud inhale was heard then his last words gurgled through his blood frothed lips. “Ma ma?”   The sound of Crete’s face smacking itself on the wooden floor ended his fate more solidly than any judges gavel.

In a state of disbelief, the crowd remained silent in the gun smoke filled room. 

 

Slowly, Slim turned to look behind him. Lifting his head cautiously, he asked his men, “You two hit?”

“Nope, not me!” came the reply from Phil as he ended flapping his hands over his body looking for wounds.

 “Me neither Boss, but I need to buy some new under drawers, I believe I’ve gone and filled mine up!”

Suddenly the salon came to life. This was the most excitement this dusty cow town had seen in ages. With whoops and hollers and mouthing gun shots, the patrons began loudly reenacting what they had just witnessed.  No one hurried to drag the bodies outside nor tend to the now unconscious Jed. The bar tender did walk around to the front of the bar to where the two dead gang members were sprawled out on the floor and began going through their pockets. Looking up at the cowboys gazing down at him in repulsed disbelief, he told them, “They owe me for their beers yet!”

Slim made his way over to where Jed silently lay bleeding out from his shattered leg. “Get a Doctor!” He yelled.

A gruff voice behind him made him turn, “Right here Mister, I’m the Doc.”

Looking down at Sally’s brother he asked, “Can you save him? His legs half blowed off!”

“Maybe, but there ain’t no savin’ that leg, it’s a goner fer sure.”

“Do what you can for him, he’s kin.”

Digging into his pocket Slim pulled out a small roll of money. Here’s forty dollars, I’ll come back for him in a few weeks. If that legs to come off, try and get a wooden one on him. There should be more than enough there for everything but if not, I’ll make good on any further debt when I come back.”

“What do you want I should do if he dies?”

“Bury him well and keep what’s left of the money for your services.”

 

Chapter 7

Making his way back to the Oklahoma and Texas border, Slim camped a few miles beyond the bare grassy plain on the Oklahoma side. There he waited for his drive cowboys to return from the trail drive. Luckily, no sign of Captain Oswald or his men were seen. If all went well, he would re-cross the border with his men and with them head to Fort Worth to verify to Commander Wilcox that all the Texans had returned.

Since he had sent Phil and Erney back to the Bar None Zero to tell Sally all that went down, he camped alone.

Back at the Ranch, Sally cried over the deaths of her brothers but knowing their demise was inevitable she didn’t cry for long.

 She asked Phil and Erney if they would return to Tascosa within the next two weeks with a wagon and retrieve her remaining crippled brother Jed, if in fact he had survived.

 If in fact he had survived, the Rutherford’s would be faced with another problem. Fellow ranchers and cattle buyers would then associate Jed with the Hashknife cattle company and the alleged rustling they were being blamed with. Any missing cattle in the area would be blamed on the Bar None Zero Ranch. Just the mere suspicion could destroy all that Slim and Sally had worked so hard for.

 

Three weeks had passed when Slim noticed dark forms moving slowly in his direction from the North east. Knowing this was the same direction that he expected his men to come from his mood lightened at the thought of seeing them and knowing the cattle had made it safely to market. Disappointment did not raise its head as he recognized Biscuit’s chuck wagon. Breaking camp he rode out excitedly to meet them.

Once again united with his men, Slim crossed back into Texas where they headed to Fort Worth. During their ride, the men heard all that had gone on and each night around the campfire that story was all the topic.

Heading south, the group crossed over the Canadian and Red River and when the reached the Brazos they headed Southeast towards Fort Worth. The money made in the large sale would give each man his wage plus a bonus equal to his wages for risking the venture out of Texas. Slim also told them that to prevent his men from being skinned by gamblers, saloon keepers and whores, he had Sally set up each mans bonus in an account at the bank in town. Every bonus a man relieved from now on would be placed within this account which could not be accessed for one full year from the date of its opening. Each man would receive a small ledger book from the bank showing each deposit. Since none of the men had ever had a savings, it was a novelty to them. Some bragged that on the day the money was made available, they’d head into town and experience the biggest blow out ever seen. Most of the men though said they’d like to save up even more for new Mexican made saddles and such.

Fort Worth lay between the Brazos and Trinity rivers just west of the town Dallas. It was an easy trip and uneventful in nature. The four hundred mile trip took twenty one days to complete as the group could only go as fast as Biscuits chuck wagon. The men were festive in nature and had little desire to immediately rush back to start gathering up the next herd. During this time, Slim Jim Rutherford grew to know his men and in return, they him. 

 

A disgruntled, red haired sentry with a scruffy beard stood obediently outside Commander Wilcox’s door. Looking through narrowed eyes at the dusty trail weary man in front of him the sentry crossed his arms on his chest and loudly asked, “Who might you be and state what business you might be having with the Commander!

Slim held his tongue and tried to remain polite. “My name is Jim Rutherford, I just drove a herd of cattle out of Texas to Kansas City using born Texans to do it with. Commander Wilcox ordered me and my Texans to report back just soon as we returned. I’m here to report our return.”

The guard lifted his nose skyward in obvious distain at the thought of Texans making an honest living. Pointing to a row of hard wooden benches placed against the wall the soldier in an obviously Eastern accent sneered, “The Commander is a busy man, he’s all booked up for the next few days. You and your men better get used to ridin’ those benches over there. I’ll add your name to the list of those wanting an audience with the Commander. If for any reason you leave, I’ll remove your name and you’ll be placed at the end of the line again.”

Slim looked around and seeing no one in wait asked, Where are all the others? I don’t see a line anywhere.”

The soldier leaned forward. “There ain’t gotta be one, I make up the line and I say you wait until I’m damn well ready to show you in to see the Commander! If you give me any lip, I’ll add another day’s wait every time you piss me off!”

Slim became red faced and stood with clenched fist going nose to nose with the guard. Just as he was about to speak through his clenched teeth, the door swung violently open and there it stood the Commander whose face was redder than Slims.

“Soldier!” He shouted at the man, “ Did I just hear you right?”

“Yes Sir! Er… no Sir, I mean this man is wasting your time Sir! I’m only trying to keep order here Sir!”

“Order my ass! I bet if I waited a bit longer, I would’ve heard you play this man for a bribe to see me! Am I right Corporal?”

“I can’t rightly say Sir, I’m sorry Sir!”

“Don’t apologize to me Mister, apologize to the man you tried to skunk!”

The sudden change in the man would have been almost humorous if Slim wasn’t so mad at him.

“My deepest apologies Sir, The Commander is not as busy as I thought, he’ll see you now.”

Pointing to the frosted glass door the Commander told the guard, “In the future, you may want to remember  that I can hear every sound made out in this hallway through this thin door soldier, including every word you speak and every bribe you try to make!”

Without accepting the man’s apology, Slim then entered the room behind the Commander.

The Commander showed Slim Jim to a seat and shaking his head said, “I swear, the men they assigned to my post out here are the dregs. At the end of the War, the commanding brass gave out all the good post to the ass kissers and those well connected. Those of us who took the job seriously, like me, ended up in no man’s land babysitting a bunch of misfit lazy men whose only skill is looking for the easiest way out of work.” Settling into his own chair, the Commander looked up pleasantly at Slim asking, “ Now, what can I do for you and your men Sir?”

“As I told your guard Commander, I legally took a group of born Texans across the border and as agreed to, I am here to sign them each back into the State as the Law requires me to.”

“Ah… you’re the one. Captain Oswald sent word that you’d be in to see me. Welcome back.”

“Thank you Sir, I have all the men’s paperwork here.”

Taking the forty some sheets of signed releases from Slim, the Commander laid them on his desk and asked. “Are all the men here? Did you lose any? I mean did any die on the trail?”

“No Sir, not a one. I’ve never seen a group of men as determined to do a job well done as these were.”

“Texans, they sure are a different breed alright. I’ll take your word all is in order. I’ll sign these and absolve the men of any further need to wait to get back home. They’re free to go whenever they want, as you are. Welcome back.”

Stepping back into the outer hall, the reprimanded guard looked away as Slim closed the door behind him. Not wanting to get himself or any of his men in trouble his mind raced as a way to even the score with the obnoxious guard. Knowing any spoken threat or physical action against the man could be considered reason for his arrest, Slim sauntered up and stood closely next to the man. Not knowing what Slims intentions were, the Guard stood silently waiting for Slim to make his move. Suddenly, a loud, wet sounding blast of foul smelling bean fueled pent up intestinal flatulence was expelled. After waiting a few seconds for the foul aroma to escape his britches, Slim calmly walked away. As he and the men walked down the hall towards the main doorway snickering, slim heard loud hearty laughter coming from the Commanders office.

 

Chapter 8

Hugging Slim tightly, Sally had met him as he and the rest of the cowboys rode into the yard. Before he could speak though, Sally pulled him away from the men. “Slim, when Phil and Erney came back with the story of my brothers, I asked them to fetch Jed if he still lived and return with him back here. It may have been a mistake but he’s the only family I have left. He’s not doing well.” She turned and faced the house.

“Jed spends all his time in that wheeled chair contraption staring out the window. He barely eats and refuses to exercise or be fitted for a wooden leg.  He asked me to send you to him when you returned, he’s in the parlor.”

Tired as he was from the long dusty ride, Slim denied himself the few private moments with Sally that he had hoped for. Instead, he slapped off the dust as best he could using his hat and stepped into the house. The coolness of the place surprised and pleased him. After being sun blazed for so long any shade was welcome. The smell of an upcoming noonday meal made its way from out of the kitchen. It was good to be home.

Stepping into the dimly lit parlor, Slim saw Jed in his wheeled chair in front of the window. A Navajo colored blanket covered his lower half. Slim assumed this was because Jed did not want folks to see his stump. Walking quietly up to Jed, Slim spoke.

“Morning Jed, mind if I sit down myself? It’s been a long ride and I’m near done in.” Settling himself heavily into one of the overstuffed chairs, Slim looked the man over sitting next to him. “I see you survived, minus a leg but you survived. I’m not going to pretend I’m pleased to see you here but Sally says you wanted to talk.”

Jed turned his unshaven face away from the window and turned his chair to face Slim. Jed’s demeanor had changed from that of an older wiser brother to that of a broken man. Sad, bloodshot eyes stared back at Slim.

“My coming here wasn’t my idea. Sally insisted and with a missing leg there wasn’t much I could do but be dragged back here by your men.”

Exhaling heavily that almost sounded like a sob, Jed lifted his head saying. “I know what my presence here will do to your operation. For harboring a member of the Hashknife group, even an ex one, you’ll be blamed for every missing cow within a hundred miles. When word gets out what happened up in Tascosa the folks around here will want to finish the job by dangling me from the nearest tree.”

“No one’s gonna’ hang nobody one my spread.”

“It’d be best if they did. No one’s gonna honor your business deals once they find out our relationship. You’re kin and in Texas that means you’re just as guilty as I am. No, I didn’t want to come here. I wanted Sally to be free from her brothers and the bad name we made for ourselves, by whatever means. You gotta send me away, fast, before folks find out just who I am and that I’m here. It’s the only way Slim, the only way.”

I can’t, like you said, like it or not, you’re kin.”

“Slim, I’ve already said my piece to Sally, I’m sorry for not bein’ the brother she needed. To you, I just ask for your forgiveness. I want nothin’ else.”

“If Sally forgave you then who am I to hold a grudge? We’ll think of something. ”

Slim started for the front hall then turned. “I’ll think of something Jed, I’m not sure how to clean up this mess yet but I’m sure there’s a way.”

From inside the parlor Slim heard a soft reply, “There is Slim, there is.”

Thinking Jed had come to grips with the situation and that he’d let Slim and Sally do the thinking, Slim walked out onto the porch where Sally awaited him.

“What did he say?”

“Well, not a lot really. He apologized and felt deeply about not being the kind of brother you deserved but to tell the truth, he seemed more worried about our future with him staying here than even I was. I know it’ll be a rough sell to folks but I can’t just hand him over to any old mob to get hung. He might not be a wanted man in Texas but that won’t stop folks from feeling as they do or even acting on those feelings.”

As they stepped off of the porch and made their way toward the men, Sally placed her arm around Slims waist and drew close to him. “I’m afraid I made a mistake Slim, maybe it would have been best to let nature take its course up in Tascosa and leave him be. No one would have then found out we were related.”

It was the familiar but gut wrenching sound of a single gunshot that caused the two to turn on their heels and face the house.

The men stood motionless, as if glued in place. Suddenly finding his legs, Slim tore into the house on a dead run. Sliding to a halt at the parlors entranceway, Slim saw the blood splattered window and the slumped form of Jed in his wheeled chair.

From behind him, he heard Sally stifle a cry. Turning to look at his wife, he saw her standing at the entranceway with her fist crammed into her mouth as if trying to hold back a scream.

 Wheeler Texas up near Amarillo is not known for its hills but a small rise was found less than a mile from the house to cradle the grave of Jedediah Britchen. It was a better send off than what his two brothers received, for sure.

Slim held Sally close as the rest of the men stood silent. Only a short prayer was offered but before Sally turned from the mound that held her brother she said to it, “In your own way you tried to be the big brother I deserved. You accomplished that. Thank you for your final act. It saved our ranch. You can rest in peace brother.

That day a new iron was added to the familiar Bar None Zero brand. The Resting J.

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The Salt River Posse shoot out

Chapter 1  

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.”

Chapter 2

   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.”

Chapter 3

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.

 

Chapter 4

   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!”