Now on Amazon! Bekke’s Law

A two part story combined into one book… at a single book price!

Bekke’s Law is a different kind of Western. You will find yourself cheering for her as she struggles to survive in a western world pitted against her, yet in the end, she wins.

“My name is Bekke Hillstrand and in a few minutes I’m gonna’ go back inside an’ plug the last of the men I hate. My father.  I killed my first man at age seven, pushed him off a cliff as he was makin’ water. He never uttered a word, just made ‘Uh, Uh’ sounds as he went down. I never felt so good, I felt I finally had some control of my life.  It took another nine years before number two got it. Him I run over with a freight wagon up in Yavapai County Arizona an’ made it look like a tragic accident. It was hard not to cheer an’ clap as his body tumbled over and over under the wagon bed. He broke four hundred of the two hundred and six bones in his body by the time the wagon passed over him. I’ll tell you about the other four I kilt but first I need to start at the beginning so’s you don’t think I’m a murderess or vile woman. Men do what I’m doin’ all the time out here in the West an’ they simply call it justice served. So why should it be any different just ‘cause I’m a girl?”

Excerpt from Belle’s Law, page 1.

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The cabin at Muldoon Creek

 

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Laf Yellowhair finished resetting the last trap along his twenty mile trap line deep in the Idaho Rockies. Out of sixty traps set along the trap line, eighteen produced fur, not too bad a day for it being mid winter he mused. A mix of nine marten, seven mink and two small red foxes rounded out this trip. Tossing his last catch, a mink now well frozen, into the canvas sack, he readied himself to head north to where he had built a small trappers cabin two years earlier. Rising to his full six feet in height, he stretched his tired muscles before reaching for the stiff ice covered rope that was attached to the sled behind him.

The late afternoon sun produced no heat but painted the mountains with a pallet in shades of yellows and purples. Laf had been trapping this area of the Rocky Mountains for eight years now. Before that he trapped beaver since childhood back in the Sioux Nation with his half breed father, Joseph Yellowhair.

Turning north put the late afternoon sun to his left side allowing him to see without being blinded. His main fear in traveling alone in the mountains was mountain lions. A mountain lion could lay waiting in the shadows unseen until it was too late to react. He knew of some trappers that took a dog with them to warn of impending danger but Laf had no such dog. Nearing the safety of the small cabin, Laf began to relax, this was familiar ground.

Forty miles east from where his small trapper’s cabin stood was the silver mining town of Muldoon. There sat the home he and his dad had built over a period of years alongside the Muldoon Creek. Joseph Yellowhair no longer traipsed the mountains with his son hunting the fur bearing animals. Too stove up to even walk a mile, he instead put his hand to the art of tanning the pelts his son brought in. Working this way gave the two plenty of summer days to enjoy each other’s company and money in their pockets.

Stepping up to the raised wooden platform that the trapping cabin was built on, Laf stopped before the secured door. Something bothered him, something was alarming him, and suddenly his nose twitched… smoke!

Stepping off the platform he cautiously back tracked into the forest sniffing the air. He decided the smell came from quite a distance away because of its fluctuating strength in the breeze. Another ten minutes and he pegged its direction. The smoke was coming from the direction where he had heard a small group of reclusive Mormons were attempting to raise sheep in a grassy valley deep in the mountains. Laf knew even a good sized cook fire would not be strong enough to be noticed this distant therefore it must be a much larger fire. If it were just the smell of burning wood, it would not have been so disconcerting but mingled in with the wood smoke he smelled something more ominous, that of flesh. Whether animal or human he could not tell at this great of distance.

Returning to his cabin, he decided rather than to leave for Muldoon as planned in the morning, he’d scout out the valley where he believed the Mormons to be. With night falling, there was little that could be done anyway and he needed a hot meal and a good rest before heading back out into the cold.

By noon the next day and over a five hour snow shoe walk from his cabin, he finally topped the ridge overlooking the Mormon’s valley. Raising a leather bound brass telescope to his eye he scoured the valley below him. As the telescopes circle of vision reached the far end of the valley he discovered where the strong smell of smoke originated from. Tendrils of smoke driven south by the breeze came from a number of structures that once was the Mormon settlement

On his way into the burnt out settlement Laf came across hundreds of sheep, many were dead, the rest soon to be from being openly exposed to the cold. Walking inside the settlement’s perimeter, he made his way around a number of burnt out structures. No bodies were seen in the rubble, yet no living person was seen either. It was when he entered a large mostly destroyed building, possibly a common meeting house of some sort, that he discovered why. There, lying frozen dead within the structure were a large number of men and a few women. Each had been killed, scalped then left to be burnt in the building’s fire.

Deciding there was no use of his staying there any further he decided to inspect some of the smaller outbuildings that had not been set to the torch.

“Geez”, he said aloud as he left the large burnt building smelling of death, “Indians must have rounded all those Mormon folk up inside to kill ‘em all in one place but what tribe would do that?”

Making his way to an untouched structure, he looked inside the small partially open sided building. He determined it must have been a combination smith and stable. No horses or other animals were inside and all the saddle racks were empty along with any tack.

“It sure does look like some renegade Indians hit ‘em. Maybe some Shoshone or pissed off Blackfeet. Both tribes would for sure take the horses and maybe a mule or two for winter food but why the saddles and tack? Indians aren’t particular to saddles no how. This makes little sense to me.”

Being on foot limited his ability to scout much further but he wanted to see in which direction the Indians had fled by following their tracks. This would give evidence as to which tribe did the raid. If they headed north then it would be the Blackfeet heading up into the western Canadian territory where the Canadian Blackfeet still openly lived, if south then it was the Shoshone.

Instead, what Laf found confused and worried him, they were heading due east, towards Muldoon and his home!

Chapter 2
As he started back in the direction of his small cabin he stopped in his tracks. With his ears peeled listening for the sound he had just heard behind him, he cautiously worked his way back to where he had just stood. Unsure of what produced the sound, Laf lowered himself to a crouching position in order to make himself a smaller target while he listened. Two minutes, then three and he heard it again. A whimper. It was definitely human.

Pulling his revolver out, he made his way stealthily towards the sound. At fifty yards he spotted a dark form lying partially buried in the snow, a girl. No, he realized then it was two girls huddled together.

Instead of rushing headlong into a possible trap, Laf circled the still forms looking for ambushers hiding in the woods that were using the girls as bait. Seeing none, he made his way to them.

As he approached the two girls they spotted him and as one, started screaming.

“No, no, be quiet, make no noise!” He demanded. “There may still be Indians about an’ with you screaming your heads off they’ll for sure hear you and return!”

The two, dressed in the clothes they had been wearing when attending to their chores lay in the snow shaking wide eyed in fear but obediently remained quiet. The older of the two turned out to be a long haired brunette in her mid to late teens while the other was a freckle faced red haired pre adolescent youth. While their hair may have been their signature differences, there was no mistaking the similarities in their facial features. Two sets of green, fear filled eyes stared back at the handsome young man with the long golden hair.

“Who are you?” Laf asked, “What happened here?”

Seeing he’d get little information from the two sets of chattering teeth, he decided the girls needed warmth or they’d soon freeze to death. After building a smokeless fire of dry wood the girls crowded close to the source of warmth.

“We’ll spend the night here.” He told them. “ I’ll go back into your settlement before it gets dark and see what I can salvage so you can travel. There’s no way you can stay here and survive.”

An hour later, he returned from the settlement with two pairs of sheepskin boots and two heavy wool blankets. He did not tell the girls the boots were taken off the dead.

“Alright you two, we need to talk.” Looking at the older of the two he asked, “What happened here?”

The girl who called herself Liberty Ann began to speak after a moment of hesitation. “We, that is my sister Susanne and I, were cleaning the stables when the Indians came.”
“The others were in the meeting house where our Bishop was giving his daily reading from the Book. Susanne and I saw the Indians first as they came out of the woods and circled the building the others were in but we were too afraid to shout out a warning. Instead we hid by pulling some hay down from the loft above us to cover ourselves.”

“Why was it that you two were not listening to your Bishop but cleaning stables at the time?”

Liberty Ann’s face suddenly took on an angry countenance. “A fortnight ago the Bishop told my sister and I that we were both to wed old man Johnson. He is a hard man to think of marrying. He is wealthy and has influence but he is also fat and mean and has already cast two of his wives away! He charged the women for neglecting the wifely duties but everyone knew it was because my sister and I had caught his eye. He is the Bishops brother so he does what he wants and gets away with it. We refused to marry him and used the excuse that we are not yet real Mormon’s and were under no such obligation to marry anyone yet. Plus, the thought of him lying with us was disgusting. As far as why we were not with the others it is simple. Neither Susanne nor I have been baptized into the Mormon faith yet so are still considered to be Gentiles. As Gentiles, we would have no say in our marriage and would be treated as he saw fit. Gentiles are not permitted to listen to the Bishops lectures on the Book until we are baptized and become Mormons, so until then we must still attend to our regular chores. Old man Johnson added cleaning the stables as further punishment for our refusing to marry him.”

“I thought you were born into the Mormon faith, why do you call yourselves Gentiles?”

We were not born to these people. They kindly took us in when our parents drowned attempting to cross a river back in Missouri. Trying to ford a crossing, my father misjudged its depth and the wagon tipped over. There were a group of traveling Mormons in wagons paralleling the river ahead of us and saw the accident. They were able to rescue Susanne and I but mother and father were trapped under the overturned wagon and perished. The Mormon’s said God’s hand was upon us children so they took us in and cared for us. They are a good people but we grew up Baptist and at times we argued with them over the Bible.”

Chuckling, Laf replied, “I bet you did. I don’t know too much about Mormons but I do know there is plenty of contention between them and Bible believing Christians.”

Wishing to change the subject he asked, “So how did you end up here half buried in the snow?”

“Three Indians found us hiding in the hay an hour into the attack. They forced Susanne and I with them into the woods. Once away from the settlement and the other Indians they attempted to have their way with us. Some of the other Indians heard our screams and forced them to stop. They argued over us but then was told by a mean looking older Indian with no teeth that it was time to leave and so instead they left us half dressed to perish in the snow.”

“Well, we need to get you two to a safe place. I have a cabin less than fifteen miles from here but we will need to find or make some snowshoes as there are areas of deep drifting in the passes.”

Glancing up, Liberty Ann said, “Fifteen miles isn’t too far, we won’t need snowshoes.”

“Well, Fifteen miles walking a flat trail or valley bottom may not be far but fifteen miles through the mountains is like fifty in a valley such as this. No, we need to make you two some snowshoes.

Young Susanne spoke up, “If we need snowshoes there are some stored hanging up in the Sheppard’s hut. All the men have a pair when they go off hunting. I’ll show you the shed they keep them in if they didn’t burn it down.” The shed stood unmolested.

The trip into the valley had taken Laf only four hours but returning along the same route now took nine. The girls had never worn snow shoes before so tripping over them in the deep drifts was a constant event which frustrated the girls. Laf kept his calm knowing the girls had been through an emotional catastrophe and was aware not to add stress to their fragile condition. At one point ten year old Susanne sat in the drift she had fallen into and broke down crying.

Seeing they were finally less than two miles from his trappers cabin, Laf called for a rest telling the girls. “You two must have been born wearing snow shoes!” He said encouragingly, “It took me a full month before I could walk as good as you two. Trust me, even the best fall over themselves, you did just fine.”
This brought a teary smile to Susanne’s face. “Really?”

Laf figured a little white lie might actually lift the girl’s spirits so he agreed. Still, something was nagging him about what he saw back at the settlement but couldn’t put a finger on it. At present his mind was too occupied with trying to rescue the girls so he put his questions on the back burner for a later time.

When they reached the cabin, the girls quickly removed their over sized cumbersome snowshoes and sat in front of the trapper’s woodstove warming themselves. Laf busied himself with preparing a dinner of previously cooked deer and dumplings he had wrapped in oil cloth and stored frozen on the cabins roof.

After the meal, the girls fell asleep on his bed. Laf laid a buffalo hide coat on the wood floor and exhausted, fell asleep himself.

The next morning brought a heavy snow so any thought of making his way back to home and to his father was put on hold. He did not fear the Indians would beat him to Muldoon. He knew how difficult it was for a large group to travel any distance with any speed, especially in a heavy snowstorm. The girls had told him they thought there was between thirty and forty Indians, but admitted they could easily have in their state of fright misjudged that amount.

After the morning meal consisting of bacon, canned peaches and jelly spread biscuits Laf decided it was a good time to see what else the girls could remember about the attack.

“Tell me,” he asked the girls after they were settled, “were you able to catch any words those Indians spoke? It might help in figuring out what tribe they were from if you could remember any words they spoke. I’m pretty good at speaking both Shoshone and Blackfeet.”

The girls looked a bit confused then Liberty Ann spoke, “Well of course we could understand them, after all, they spoke as we do, in English.”

Laf’s jaw dropped. “English? Are you sure?”

“Why yes I’m sure, what else would they speak in?”

Hearing this stunned Laf. True, there were a few Shoshone and Blackfeet that spoke English but it was not a tongue generally known this far west. The other fact that had been nagging him was the Indians use of guns and not arrows.

“Did any of the Indians carry bows and arrows?”

The girls returned blank stares.

Liberty Ann ventured, “They had feathers in their hair and their faces that were all painted up. Most had coats like yours, you know, buffalo ones.”

“Did they have moccasins on their feet or shoes?”

Susanne quickly answered, “No, not shoes but boots. Looking at Laf’s feet she continued, “But not like your boots, their boots were smooth without fur or fringe and had heels upon them.”

“Holy cow!” He thought, “White men dressing like Indians? But why?” The idea that he had stumbled upon something very big worried him.

Chapter 3
By that evening, the snow had let up enough to give promise that they could head out come daylight. He told the girls that he needed to warn those living in Muldoon of the oncoming ‘Indians’. He also told them that they would have to assist his clearing out those traps he’d previously set on the way to this cabin. The trip to the Mormon valley and the snowstorm put him back a day or two but there was nothing he could do about that now. It rankled him to leave a baited trap set then not return in a timely manner to check on it. He had seen where animals not instantly killed had chewed off a leg to obtain their freedom. This was not only cruel to the animal it was a waste of a pelt for most animals do not survive the ordeal.

In order to haul all of the pelts and traps back to Muldoon he fashioned a second sled using the small table from the cabin and bent ash saplings to form the runners. Each girl would pull one of the sleds while he emptied and removed the traps along the way.

The first ten miles of the forty were uneventful but that changed. As they reached the halfway point of the trap line Liberty Ann screamed when the group topped a small rise in the trail. They had accidently stumbled upon the Indians.

The party of Indians was just as surprised to see the three as they were to see the large contingent of Indians.

Knowing any violent action would certainly end in their deaths, Laf held the girls close in a protective gesture. A small group of Indians still on horseback made their way to where the three stood. As they approached, Laf observed that this group was real Indians and not the phony group that had killed the Mormon’s, he relaxed and told the girls this.

It was a friendly group that greeted the three. In Shoshone they greeted Laf and in return Laf praised their horses and nodded approval at their health. Being mid winter it was not unusual for those living off the land to be skeletal in appearance, these looked well fed.

One of the older Indians dismounted and approaching Laf grabbed his arm in the form of an Indian handshake. “You are a trapper and not a Mormon?”

Knowing the Mormons and Shoshone were enemies whose violent actions against women and children went back and forth he replied in the negative. Laf also decided not to tell him the girls were from the Mormon settlement.
“I call the valley of Muldoon east of here my home. I run a trap line out to my cabin in the Ketchum mountains. I am not a Mormon, you have no need to hate me.”

“I am Chief Pocatello. We no longer have hate for the Mormons. They have agreed to pay for all of the game they took from our land and to pay for the land we agreed to let them live on. Now there are Government soldiers here to keep the treaty called Box Elder from being broken.”

“When did you sign this treaty?”

“We are returning to our home now. I put my mark on the treaty paper on the night of the full moon.”

“That was less than a month ago.” thought Laf

“Chief I need to warn you. I believe there is a group who does not want this treaty to be honorably kept. I can only think they want the Government soldiers to believe that you have broken the treaty. These two young girls are the only survivors of a Mormon settlement in the Ketchum Mountains.”

“ The people of that settlement were wiped out by white men pretending to be Shoshone Indians. If these two girls had not survived then the Government soldiers would have no reason to believe it was not you who killed them. I believe these evil men will spread the word that your tribe has broken the treaty. They will discard their look as Shoshone Indians and return to look as white men in order to tell this lie to the whites.”

The group of Indians spent considerable time conferring amongst themselves. After reaching some sort of consensus they approached Laf. “On our way to the treaty signing before the snows fell, one of our scouts saw a large group of white men heading westward on horses. The scout reported this but we elders foolishly dismissed this as men just trying to make their way out of the mountains before the heaviest snows fell. We had our thoughts on talking peace with the soldiers and Mormons. It was our mistake that we did not stop them and discover their true intentions.”
“Chief, you could not have foreseen the evil in their hearts nor the lies on their tongue. No man can see through a stone.”

“You speak wisely but my heart now lies upon the ground in sorrow for I do not know how to stop the soldiers believing we are without guilt. I ask you, who will believe two children?”

“You also speak with wisdom. These snows make for this group to travel slowly. I believe the first white settlement they will go to is Hailey. If we can get there before they do we can confront them before they can light the fire of lies. I saw their trail, it heads east. I thought at first they may be headed to Muldoon to attack the whites as Indians to stir up trouble. I see now they will not kill anymore whites as there is no need to. They only have to spread the word that the Shoshone did the killing after the treaty was signed will be enough to force you from your land.”

Again the group conferred, then. “We will trust all that you say is true. If you are wrong then we are a doomed people because we intend to stop these men before they reach the white mining town of Hailey. If there is bloodshed and if we are mistaken that these are the men who slaughtered the Mormons then we have invited our own ending. We are sure the soldiers will serve swift justice upon us for killing a group of innocent white men.”

Laf had a thought. Turning to the girls he asked, “I know it was a scary time for you but do you think you could recognize any of these men even though they were dressed and painted as Indians?”

The two girls spoke in low tones with each other then Liberty Ann spoke up. “My sister and I believe we can recognize some of them. The old Indian that stopped our being accosted has no top front teeth and part of his left nostril is missing. One of the three Indians who tried to have their way with us had a crooked leg which made him limp. The other two Indians had light blue eyes and one of them continually coughed and breathed with a loud wheeze. I don’t think I will ever forget what these men looked like, dressed as Indians or not!”

Laf turned to Chief Pocatello and winked, “We may just have the proof we need here Chief to prevent any bloodshed but we need to head out to Hailey right away if we want to have the advantage of surprise on them.”

Since Laf was not going to head home after all, Chief Pocatello summoned two of his warriors to take the sleds loaded with pelts to the Yellowhair cabin in Muldoon. They were then to stay there until Laf and the girls showed up. Laf wrote a quick note to his father telling him he’d be delayed and to let the Indians set up a camp on the banks of Muldoon Creek. He did not mention the reason for the delay nor that he would be arriving with the two girls.

With the snow reaching six feet in places, the going was slow. Still, Chief Pocatello assured Laf that the Indian bred horses they rode on could traverse the deep snows much better than those of the white men.

Liberty Ann rode behind Laf on one of the horses supplied to them by chief Pocatello. This permitted easy conversation between the two. Laf discovered that he was only four years her senior and that both secretly wished they could play the piano. While both had seen them played, neither had ever been close enough to one to even strike a key. Liberty Ann on the other hand found Laf an open and uncomplicated man. He spoke his mind freely but always with the temper of not offending those he held a different view with.

“Laf! What kind of name is that?”

“It’s short for Lafferty. Lafferty was my grandfathers name on my mothers side.”

“And Yellowhair?”

Laf chuckled, “I blame my grandfather on my father’s side for that one! I honestly can’t remember his original name. He was a trapper as well. As a young man he was given a Lakota bride in return for setting a broken leg on the Chief’s son. He and his bride had a single son, my father. He was born with yellow hair like his father before him so they simply called him Yellowhair. When I was born my mother wanted her father remembered so they named me after him. How about you? Do you have a last or family name?”

“Yes, it’s Atterberry. I was born in England but came to this country as an infant. My father had read of the Great Plains and so we left for America. He was one who loved to explore so one day he packed us all into a covered wagon he purchased in Missouri and we headed west towards the great unknown. It was on this trip that my parents lost their lives. I think you know the rest.”

Laf nodded in agreement then smiled, “Liberty Ann Atterberry, very nice. It’s too bad women are made to give up their last name when marrying. I pity the girl having to be called Yellowhair, especially if she is a brunette like you! Ha ha”

A friendly poke in his ribs was followed by, “Laugh as you may, I think a girl would be happy to have your name, no matter what color her hair is.”

Laf felt his ears turning red and heart suddenly quickened.

It took five days to reach Hailey and each day found Liberty Ann once again riding behind her favorite yellow haired trapper. By the time Hailey was in view, Liberty Ann rode with her arms snuggly around Laf’s waist, and more than a few times Laf found his hands gently entwined in hers.
Chapter 4
On a mountainside campsite overlooking the town of Hailey, Chief Pocatello, his warriors and Laf held council. Below them, the town consisted of not more than fifteen or sixteen fixed structures with the rest being plain tents or tents with wooden facades in front. That night the few lighted structures were only the saloons, they were also where most all the noise came from. Tin stove pipes belched wood smoke from tents and saloons alike giving evidence of the struggle to keep those inside warm. The temperature had now dropped well below zero and the increasing wind forced deep snow drifts to form against the buildings.

By pure fortune, a group of soldiers that the Chief recognized as having been at the signing of the treaty of Box Elders rode into town. Chief Pocatello told Laf that the lieutenant that headed up the soldiers was there and would surely remember him.

As they watched the troop head their horses to the towns stable and protected corrals, the Shoshone warriors on the mountain were busy making small temporary shelters from ash saplings covered in pine boughs.

Each Shoshone shelter was filled with anxious Indians discussing tomorrows plan the council had created to confront the faux Indians with.

Laf sent the girls inside the small tarp made tent they had been using for the past five nights to sleep in. Pine boughs laid thickly on the ground inside it let them sleep in comfort. Laf and Chief Pocatello then headed into town to see the Lieutenant.

Outside the saloon Laf stopped the Chief telling him, “Chief, the folks in this here saloon might not cotton to having an Indian in their midst so let me go inside and draw the Lieutenant out where we can talk to him.”

“Go, I will wait in the shadows and out of the wind.”

Laf pushed against the wooden door and stepped into the saloon. A few howls telling him to close the door against the wind were all the attention being paid to him.

Scouring the poorly lit room for the Lieutenant he spotted him standing at a table crowded with some of his men. Approaching the table Laf removed his hat in respect for the man’s rank and introduced himself. Realizing Laf wanted to speak to him in private the lieutenant eased Laf away from the table and curious ears.

“Now, what assistance may I offer you Mister Yellowhair?”

“I come with news that is for your ears only Sir. It comes directly from our mutual friend Chief Pocatello.”

“Ah yes, the Chief. How is he faring?”

“Please, if you step outside you may ask him for yourself.”

“He’s here? Outside?”

“Yes Sir and it is urgent we both speak to you in private and immediately.”

“Can’t it wait until morning? Its freezing out there and we just arrived. Surely it can wait!”

“Sir, by tomorrow morning there may be a street full of both dead whites and Shoshone if you don’t come outside. It is that important Sir!.”

Tapping his fingers against his holster, the Lieutenant finally looked at Laf and returning to the table placed a five dollar gold piece on it. “Corporal, buy the men a round of drinks on me, I will be back shortly.”

Once again outside, Laf led the Lieutenant to where the Chief stood out of the wind.

Seeing the Chief, the soldier greeted him with courtesy. “Chief Pocatello, it is good to see you again. Mister Yellowhair has informed me you have an urgent message for me.”

“It is good to see you once again also Lieutenant. It is not good news that I bring but news that you and your soldiers must hear.”

“Tell me this news.”

At this point with the encouragement of the Chief, Laf stepped up to explain in English in order to prevent any misinterpretation.

“A group of white men dressed and posing as Shoshone have massacred a settlement of Mormons five days travel west of here. This was done after the signing of the Box Elder treaty. It is believed they intend to ride into town having dressed again as whites to say they came across the massacre in the mountains. For some reason they do not want peace between the Shoshone and the Mormons.”

“Can you back this up with any facts.”

“We have two living witnesses to the massacre, two girls who were left for dead. They would have perished except that I arrived in time to rescue them. They told me the story of what occurred there. They are here also staying up in the hills with Chief Pocatello’s warriors. They believe they can identify the leader and a few of his men.”

“Where are these killers, here in town?”

“Not yet, but we can bet they’ll show up sometime tomorrow to start spreading the lie. If they succeed in doing so it won’t be but a week before Washington hears and believes it. They’ll have you hunting down the Chief here and all his tribe in revenge.”

Looking downward and shaking his head in disgust the Lieutenant said, “I see why you insisted on telling me this in private. It is a pure fluke that we stopped here for the night, if it weren’t for Corporal Lewis’s constant pestering to seek shelter in town, we would have ridden on past. He and a civilian surveyor have been out scouting a promising location for a new fort the Territorial Idaho Governor wants built. I felt since these two hadn’t seen a warm or dry bed for the past month that they deserve at least one night of comfort, so I relented and ordered a halt.”

“Well it sure was fortunate for everyone it seems.”

The Lieutenant nodded then told what his plan of action would be.

“Let’s see when they ride into town if those two girls can identify any of the men involved. If they can positively identify even one then I’ll have my men put the entire bunch under arrest and sent to Fort Benton for trial. By the way, I’m keeping this all under my hat until morning roll call. No need to risk a loose tongue if you know what I mean.”

“You’re right, they may have sent a few men ahead that we are unaware of. We also had a similar plan but it involved using the Shoshone as the threat. We figured to surround the group with upset Indians then leave the end result up to the group of murderers. If they pled guilty then we’d let them live but we doubted they’d plead guilty.”

“Well, we might just have the Shoshone back my men up just as a precaution anyway. Have them hide themselves close about town in case they’re needed .”

“Lieutenant, with this storm I doubt many folks will be going much further than the outhouse that early. I’ll make sure no Shoshone thinks the outhouse is a good place to hide. I’d hate to be the one with my pants half down staring into the eyes of an angry Indian!”

As the first grey streaks of dawn crossed the eastern sky, nearly one hundred Shoshone warriors had hid themselves within the town. At sunrise roll call was bugled in. The thirty odd soldiers lined the street trying not to stomp their feet in the cold. The Lieutenant loudly spoke the orders of the day.

“Men, a fortnight ago an important treaty was signed between the Mormons and the Shoshone tribe. It has brought a well needed peace to this Idaho territory. Unfortunately, there are powers that do not want this treaty to succeed. I have been informed that a large group of men have murdered a small settlement of Mormons west of here while pretending to be Shoshone Indians. Their intent is to blame the massacre on the Shoshone so Washington will have no choice but to seek revenge. Hidden about town are one hundred real Shoshone warriors bent on making sure they don’t get away with this. Our job is to confront this group and arrest them for trial after they enter town. We have good information that they are headed this way and will arrive shortly. They have made the mistake of leaving two witnesses to this massacre alive. If our witnesses can identify even one, then you are to arrest them all, is that clear?”

In unison they responded, “Yes Lieutenant!”

“Good. For now I want you to stand at ease between these two saloons until they arrive. Be prepared for action.”

Less than a half hour later the first line of men was seen making their way into town. A hundred yards behind them rode in the rest of the group.

At this time the lieutenant stepped into the snowy street to block their progress and ordered his men into the open with pistols drawn. “Dismount and identify yourselves!” he shouted.

Seeing the thirty odd solders with guns drawn the group complied. “What’s this about soldier boy?” The voice was that of an elderly man missing his front upper teeth and most of one nostril.

The lieutenant shouted back.“Stand where you are Mister, draw a gun and you will be shot dead.” Turning to a private he then ordered, “Bring out the witnesses”.

The two girls were led along the line of armed soldiers but partway to the Lieutenant something happened. Susanne screamed and Liberty Ann pointing at Corporal Lewis shouted, “That’s the one with the blue eyes, he’s one of them!” Before the two girls gained their senses to run, the Corporal grabbed for Susanne. Pointing his gun to her head he demanded two horses.

Holding her close for his own protection he searched for his cohort in crime. Seeing the surveyor he shouted, “Yancy come get them two horses, they found us out!”

It seemed an impossible rescue but in a blur of motion Laf’s skinning knife was seen twirling through the air towards the gun wielding Corporal and at the same time the surveyor bolted towards the horses.

It was like a signal for the dismounted murderers to remount and follow the surveyors lead. Unfortunately for the surveyor and for that matter the entire group of murderers, the Shoshone were excellent marksmen. Combined with the deadly lead being thrown by the Shoshone rifles, the Calvary’s pistol’s ventilated any man still alive.

As for the Corporal, he had fallen backwards spread eagle into the snow with Laf’s knife handle protruding from his forehead. Susanne had fled into the arms of her sister who threw the girl to the ground and lay atop her. Neither girl was hurt.
Chapter 5
That evening, the Lieutenant, Laf and Liberty Ann sat enjoying a meal at the only decent café in town. Susanne was in the care of a kindly woman who owned the dry goods store.

“Washington owes you a debt of gratitude. It seems after interrogating a few survivors that our newly installed Territorial Governor was behind all this. He had received orders from the President to put to rest once and for all any Indian trouble in the Idaho territory. Knowing many treaties end up being broken, he figured the best way to achieve that is to simply have no Indians to cause any trouble. I’m sure you’ll receive not only an accommodation for your involvement in exposing the corrupt Governor and these men but it also seems there are a number of wanted no goods within that group. I’ll see to it that any rewards will be sent your way.”

“My thanks Lieutenant. By the way, Liberty Ann and I were talking and without any lawman or judge within the distance of a few hundred miles, that you would be the only representative of the law here.”

Grimacing a half smile the Lieutenant answered “I guess that would be true, why?”

“We want you to marry us, that’s why!”
Two weeks later the group of three had made their way to Muldoon where the Yellowhair home sat alongside the Muldoon Creek. Stepping up to the large well built log cabins door, Laf reached for its handle.

Behind him coming from the Creek a shout stopped him. “Son, you made it back. Who are the women folk with you?”

Turning to face his father he smiled and hugged the older man. “Dad, I want you to meet your new housekeeper, this is Susanne. Susanne, this is my Dad.”

The young girl reached out her hand in a dainty handshake.

“So who’s the other one here? If this yung’n here is our housekeeper then the other must be the house cook. Yes?” Leaning closer he eyed Liberty Ann and winked seeing the simple gold band on her finger whispered, “You can cook now can’t you dear?”

“Yes Dad, she can cook but she can do so much more. She can darn my socks, sew my britches, make me shirts and even rub my sore feet!”

“Son? All I’m hearin’ is a lot of my, my, my’s and no ours. What about me?”

“I’m sorry Dad but if you want your feet rubbed you’ll have to get someone else to do it, this is Liberty Ann Atterberry Yellowhair, she’s my wife and Susanne is her younger sister. I’ll explain everything after we finish eating, we’re starved!

Shaking his head his father groaned in mock distress. “And here I was thinking that those two Shoshone by the Creek were something else! Now you tell me we’re going to have two women underfoot around the place. Well… I guess having a woman’s touch around here won’t hurt none. I never was any good at decorating or washing clothes and you sure never had much talent for that either!”

Laf chuckled saying, “I love you too Dad.”

Joseph Yellowhair smiled broadly at the two newly weds, “I was only joshin’ you kids, I saw the two of you lovebirds  holding hands way back by the bend in the creek. I may be an old coot but I still got enough eyesight left to see when two folks are in love.”

Giving Liberty Ann a big hug he told her, “Welcome to your new home daughter!” Then placing his arm across Susanne’s young shoulders he told her, “Child, lets you and me investigate the pantry while the other two rustle up some grub in the kitchen, I do believe there is a big jar of pre dinner hard candy on one of the shelves.”

 

 

 
Across the creek the two Shoshone left without saying goodbye, as was their fashion and were heard speaking in their native tongue.

“So he married her? I thought he was wiser than that”

“It goes to show my friend, one cannot judge a fish by its scales.”

“What the hell does that mean?

“I don’t know, but I once heard a white man say that about books but I have no idea what a book is so I used fish instead.”

“Whatever floats your boat I guess.”

One moment turned into two and then in resignation came the others reply, “Uh, what’s a boat?”

RETURN TO THE BAR 44 RANCH

saved return bar 44

Chapter 1

It was nearing noon when the old cowboy everybody knew simply as Henry, returned to the Bar 44 Ranch from his trip into town. Henry’s old bones took a beating riding that distance but he was too proud to admit it in front of the younger hands so he kept his mouth shut and uttered no complaints.  The ranch hands close enough to observe Henry noted his slow dismount and how he vigorously rubbed his knees after taking a quick look around to see who had observed his arrival. After a few halting steps toward the ranch house’s hitching rail, his legs appeared to regain some of their former strength.

Dang legs ain’t nothin’ but a pair of rickety ‘ol hickory sticks anymore!”  Henry thought grimly to himself.

Twirling the reigns around the hitching rail, he’d let the horse cool down before letting it water and feed back in the lean-to stable. The Pinto had been a prize horse once owned by the original owner of the ranch.  He had given the Pinto to Henry only two days before being killed in a tragic fall from his own horse four years ago. That owner, James Comstock, had hired Henry on over forty years earlier as a wrangler and all around protector of the family Comstock. Back when Henry had been hired, Indians and displaced angry Mexican vaqueros still roamed freely enough in Texas to need a good man with a rifle and a pair of six guns to keep the peace. It was now said the most dangerous thing out on the range to a cowhand were rattle snakes and prairie dog holes. At least that’s what was commonly thought… until now.

Hearing Henry’s horse trot up to the house, the foreman who was given the privilege of living inside it by the new owner, a Mister Clarence Osborne from back east in Connecticut, stepped out from the screened door and onto the porch to great him.

“I see you made it just in time for dinner Henry, step inside and grab a bite with me, won’t ya’?”

Jake Ramsey, the Foreman and long time friend of Henry, threw his arm around the elderly Henry’s shoulder’s as they passed through the doorway.  Jake was younger than Henry by a good ten years but both had been hired on at the same time. Jake worked his way up the ladder until one day being offered the position of being the ranch’s foreman.

Stepping into the cool air of the polished wood vestibule, Henry handed Jake the telegram he had been sent to retrieve. Taking it, Jakes face became grim as he saw that the paper the telegram was written on was an unusually long one. All Jake had needed to see as an answer to his query was a one line response, so this could not be good news.

Stuffing the telegram into his top shirt pocket, he told Henry, “I’ll read this latter, I don’t want to spoil a good dinner.”

After the two had eaten and jawed for a time, Henry left to return to the caring of his horse, leaving Jake alone with the telegram.

Nervous fingers reached into the pocket and pulled out the yellow paper. Putting on his reading spectacles, Jake read the telegram. He read it through three times before gathering the muster to get out of the chair and let the others know their fate.

Slowly Jake opened the screened door and stepped out onto the raised wooden porch. Grabbing up the iron dinner bells clangor, he thrust it between the triangles thick metal bars and began violently bouncing the clangor off the inside of it. It was a large triangle, meant to be heard miles off for those workers out on the closer pastures.  It did its job well, bringing in the men from far off.

The only other time Jake had rang the triangle other than to gather the men for dinners, was when it was discovered that the ranches owner, James Comstock had been killed in a riding accident. Most of the same hands making their way to the ranch house this time had been there on that day too. The ringing triangle boded ill news when rung outside of dinner.

Looking up to their foreman who stood over them on the raised porch, Jerky Dobbins, with a tilting head asked Jake what was the cause for calling the hands in.

“I’ll tell ya’ in a minute Jerky, wait till the others make it.”

When the full group of seventeen was finally huddled together, in a loud voice Jake began to speak to them.  “Boy’s, this here telegram is from the owner back east. It’s in response to my asking how much funds we were going to be allowed for this winters chuck line. I have some comments to make after I read it to ya’ so don’t go wonderin’ off.”

Jake unraveled the wrinkled yellow paper and began to read the telegram .

 “J Ramsey, Foreman Bar 44 Ranch. STOP. This is in response to your inquiry of the so called Winters Chuck Line funds. STOP. My financial advisors recommend my doing away with this outdated and unneeded expense immediately. STOP.  In the winter the Bar 44 Ranch is not to be used as a haven for laggards or dead beat vagrants of any kind. STOP. I give permission to keep only two hands hired on for the winter months. STOP. They are to be fit enough to chop wood, repair fences and maintain the herd as needed. STOP. Therefore this excludes all hands too feeble to perform any work needing attending to. STOP.

My son, daughter and I will be making our way to the Bar 44 within the next fortnight by train. STOP. We will be expecting to see the Bar 44 to be in satisfactory operating condition at that time.  C. Osborne. END”

 

Jake lowered the paper to gaze at the gathered hands standing below him. No one spoke but their grey bloodless faces spoke volumes.

Shifting uneasily on his feet Jake told them, “We have two weeks before Mister Osborne and his children arrive here. In that time we need to buckle up the place for winter.”

Slim Pettit, a hand on the ranch for nearly fourteen years finally broke the men’s silence. “Boss, I don’t understand, what’d we do wrong? I mean, I ain’t never heard of being booted oft’n a place without due cause, ‘specially just before the winter snows come. Why even if we left for places unknown today, why we still might git caught bare headed in an early storm. Where’s we to go to at this late a date? No one figured on leavin’ so no one made any plans.”

Jake’s face turned bright red as what the man said sunk in. “I honestly can’t figure it boys.” Jake stammered, “I ain’t never dealt with nothin’ like this before. You all know me, I’m a cattle man born an’ bred. Allowin’ hands to winter over at their place of employment is universal… ‘specially here in Texas!”

Another hand spoke up, “It ain’t like we’s freeloadin’ Boss! It’s true we get our grub an’ a bed but we don’t draw no pay no way. We ain’t no dead beats either, we help around the place in winter near as much as if we was drawin’ pay. We work hard throughout the warm months an’ bank on the Winter Chuck Line to keep us alive and healthy for next spring’s start up. Why without that, why would we even return to a place come spring if’n they call us vagrants and laggards soon as winter comes.”

A general growl of approval went up along with a chorus of unmentionable expletives towards the ranch’s owner.

Another angrily man shouted before turning and walking off, “If he wants us gone by golly, then we’re gone! Adios, Vamoose Amigo! To hell with him! Anybody with half a measure of pride will do as I do an’ leave pronto!”

Jake saw the tide turn from disbelief to anger to disgust. “Men”, he shouted after them, “wait up now, I’m sure once he comes here for himself he’ll see it was a darn mean thing to do and change his mind!”

Jerky Dobbins turned and walked back to where Jake stood on the porch. “Boss, we hold you in the highest regards but how can you expect us to even think of returning come spring when we was treated this way? Do you realize when Mister Osborne declared he don’t want no unhealthy folk wintering here he meant Henry! Ain’t no one else he coulda’ been speakin’ about, no one is as old or stove up in the legs here like Henry! You know as well as I Henry done saved this ranch time an’ time again in the old days by usin’ his guns. An now to think this is the thanks he gets? No Sir, I won’t put one more minute in for Osborne. I’m packin’ up an’ expecting my pay to be ready when I’m done.”

Jake dropped his head in defeat and let drop the hated yellow telegraph paper as he watched the men he held in high esteem and even loved some like brothers, wander back to the bunk house to gather up their belongings and leave.

By three that afternoon, only Jake remained save his old stove up friend Henry. Before the men left, Henry gathered them up to say his piece. He now sat alone and grim faced cleaning his guns inside the vacant bunk house.

 

Chapter 2

It was nine that evening when the downhearted Jake noticed the lamp light lighting up the bunk house windows. Intrigued to see who had not left, Jake made his way towards the light. Stepping up to the doors stoop, Jake knocked and opened the door. Lit by the dim lamplight sat Henry holding his gun.

“Why didn’t you leave with the others Henry?”

Henry shrugged his shoulders saying, “I don’t know. I guess after forty years I know nothing else but the ranch.”

Jake noticed the polished gun still be held in Henry’s hands. The realization that Henry had no future and no reason for living came crashing into Jakes mind. Squatting in front of the seated old man, Jake took both Henry’s hands along with the gun into his own. “Henry, the two of us rode a million miles side by side for the last forty years. We always had each other’s back.” Looking down at the hand clasped gun he continued, “This ain’t how it’s going to end my friend, no way. I’ll leave this place to the coyotes before I see you fill your skull with your own lead.”

Henry looked up at Jake with moist eyes. “Yep, we done had us one hell of a life together you an’ I. Why we out lived most every bandit an’ renegade didn’t we? Tarnation, we even outlived both our wives!”

“Give me your gun Henry, there’s no need to do this as long as we still have each other’s company.”

Henry looked quizzically up at Jake. “Why Jake! Was you thinkin’ I was about to put this here colt to my own head? Hell man, I just cleaned it, why would I want to fire it off?

“W-what was you goin’ to do then? I mean it sure looks like you was sittin’ here contimplatin’ ending it all.”

“Naw, just been thinkin, that’s all. Say, let me ask you something Jake. After forty years of workin’ here, how much do you think you saved up?”

“Why?”

“Just thinkin. When Osborne gets here an’ there ain’t no one to run the place, how long do you think it would be before he sells the place off?”

Jake rubbed his chin thinking. “Well, the cattle will survive even if we get a couple good snow falls. The house would freeze up but that’s no big deal. The remuda wouldn’t live out the winter though, they’s not bred to be in the wild. They’d up an’ die waiting for feed in the corral before it dawned on them to leave an’ eat grass like the cows. All in all not much harm would come to the place though.”

“Do you think Osborne would know all that?”

Jake chuckled, “No, Osborne wouldn’t. Why?”

“I’m thinkin of becoming a ranch owner, that’s what I’m thinkin’! Now, how much did you save up all these years?”

A wide smile crossed Jakes face. “Well, I got money stuffed in a few banks since I don’t trust a single one by themselves. Then there’s my inheritance from Jesse that she inherited from her Dad. When she passed, I was too broke up at the time to look into all her finances so I hired a financial company in San Antone to handle her affairs. I guess if I was pressed, I’d say she left a tidy sum to me as her husband. I’d have to telegraph the folks in San Antone to get the exact amount.”

Henry sat back looking smug. “Well, I got near fourteen thousand dollars saved up!”

“How in blazes did you save up that much?”

“I took each pay and sent three quarters of it to the bank. Do you know I made over nineteen thousand dollars in my life here an’ saved fourteen of it by bein’ frugal?”

“But I know you spent money, why when we was younger, we’d light up the town together.”

“You bet, but I only went to town on the money I didn’t spend the month before!”

Jake laughed out loud saying, “No wonder you never borrowed money like the rest! You always had a cashe of funds! Har har har.”

Getting a serious look on his face Henry returned to the subject of buying a ranch. “I’m thinkin’ Osborne cut his own throat trying to save a dime by cutting off the Chuck Line.  Now he’s lost all his help an’ when folks find out what he did, ain’t no one gonna’ work for him no how. All we need to do is sit an’ wait for him to cave in.”

“What about us? We’d be without hands too. The boys all took off to parts unknown before the hard winter sets in. We’d be in as bad a shape as he is in right now.”

Henry smiled, “Nope, the boys are set up here for the next month. Well, not here but in town.”

“What?”

“When I went to town to pick up the telegram, I peeked at it before the key operator sealed it. I did a might prayin’ right then an’ there an’ guess what?”

“What?!”

“Fast as a lightning bolt, this whole plan unfolded before me before I even hit the door! I went on over to that big old house widow Mathews died in an’ found her son. I rented it as is for the next month from him for twenty dollars. I figure it’ll hold all the men an’ since it has a big kitchen they can fend for themselves food wise with Osborne none the wiser they is there ready to back to work if asked.”

“Well I’ll be Henry! You figured out a whole plan. How did you convince the men to go into town rather than leave?”

Raising his colt he spun the gleaming cylinder with his hand. “I give ‘em no choice! Plus I advanced each one twenty five dollars out of their first pay working for us.”

That night out of the burning ashes of despair rose the phoenix of hope for the Bar 44 Ranch.

 

Chapter 3

Jake stood alone watching the rented three seat Vector coach make its way up the lane to the ranch house. Sitting by himself in the front bench seat, a scruffily dressed negro guided the horses along more by shouts than by the reins. Setting the brake, the old but spry negro jumped down to assist the three dust covered passengers. Texas dust is no respecter of persons nor cares which season it is.

Jake approached the trio and stopped short of holding his hand out to be shaken. Instead, he first tipped his hat to the lady then touched the brim for the men.

He had never seen Osborne or his son but took an immediate dislike to both the spot. The girl sat quietly and smiled shyly in return of the hat tip. Both children appeared in their late teens or early twenties.

Trying to disguise a well needed stretch, Osborne pretended to tie a shoelace instead. Finally rising to his full height, short of six feet by six inches, he nodded back to Jake asking, “I suppose you’re my Foreman, Jake Ramsey.”

“Yes, Sir. I am.”

“I dislike starting off on the wrong foot, but can you explain without sniveling, why no one was at the station to meet me?”

“Sure.”

Osborne’s eyebrows raised in question, “Sure what?

“Sure, Sir.”

“Dammit! Stop playing games here Ramsey. I’m starting to regret keeping you on here after I bought this place. If I’d known you were such a snippety upstart, I’d have kept looking.”

“I believe Sir that you hired me for my ability to bring in the bacon, not because I knuckle under when someone insults me.”

“Insult you? When have I ever insulted you?”

“Osborne, I don’t make it a habit to snivel, nor have I ever led anyone to believe I ever would. Out here if you imply a man snivels or kowtows to another, it’s an insult worthy of drawing iron to prove the opposite!”

 “Oh, Yes, I forgot you Western men are a mite touchy about your manhood.”

“I may be touchy but it ain’t about my manhood, it’s about respect. Something that you may remember before someone with an itchy trigger finger calls you on it.”

Realizing he was only digging himself a deeper hole to stand in, Osborne wisely dropped his verbal fencing and drew the conversation back to why no one had been in town to greet his arrival.

“Well, I suppose I could have ridden out to meet you but then it would have left the ranch with no one to manage it. Besides, it’s less than ten miles and we haven’t had a highway robbery here in years. You were plenty safe an’ never in any danger”

“I didn’t mean that you personally should have met us, I was referring to the hired help here. By the way, I haven’t seen another soul yet, are they all out on the range?”

“Nope, but before we end up doin’ business here in the yard, why not you and your  young ones go inside an’ freshen up a bit. You’re so full a rode dust ,you’d think a dust rag was shook on ya’. I’ll drag in your luggage to your rooms. I made up some fresh lemonade with ice knowin’ you’d be parched.”

Having quenched their thirst on the cold lemonade, the four sat in the parlor on matching dark leather hob nailed chairs and a matching sofa.

“So when I telegraphed, you got upset and fired them all on the spot?”

“No Sir. As I mentioned before, it’s about respect. By you telling the men they were laggards and vagrants for expecting to hole up here over the winter, did you really think they had any choice but to leave? We have a tradition out here in the West. In the warm months we expect every wrangler to earn his salt and then some. These are trail hardened men, not city bred lazy bones. If a man gets six hours of uninterrupted sleep it’s because he over slept. They work hard, harder than any man back where you come from. When the winter winds begin, the ranch’s they are hired at give ‘em their last pay an’ let ‘em stay free of charge till spring calving time. We call that time, The Chuck Line. It’s not a hand out, these men earned this. If we let everyone go each fall to fend for themselves, no one would ever return in the spring. That’s what going to happen here now.”

Percy Osborne had been sitting quietly but with insolent rolling eyes. Now he spoke up. “Father, it’s my opinion that Mister Ramsey here is exaggerating to cover his mistake in letting all of the men go. Why not we ride in to town tomorrow and hire all new replacement workers…including a new Foreman?”

Jake rubbed his face with his hands as if trying to wash off the stupid statement the young man had tossed his father’s way. “Sonny,” Jake said without looking at the young man, “ It’s best you keep your thoughts to yourself. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I do declare Father! Am I to sit here and be insulted for offering my opinion?”

At that moment, the daughter raised her head and holding up her hand for quiet, she calmly spoke. “Father, I believe him. He ran this ranch making a good profit for years for Mister Comstock. In fact, so well did he run it that when you heard of it being up for sale, you jumped at it bragging on how you, “skinned” the estates executor alive in the deal. We arrived here and from the start you insulted Mister Ramsey, nor was any apology offered him. He has been a grander gentleman to us than we deserve. Please Father, Ask Percy to hold his thoughts to himself until Mister Ramsey finishes what he was trying to tell us.”

Jake looked approvingly at the girl saying, “You have a wise and far seeing daughter Osborne.”

“She takes after her mother, rest her soul.”

Clarence Osborne stood up and paced the floor for a good two minutes before asking. “So the way I see it, I made a cultural and financial blunder here. A mortal sin so to speak. If I tarnished the Bar 44 so badly through my actions then what you are implying is I’m done for here. With no hands I can’t even trail drive my cattle to market. All that I could hope to recover now is the money’s made from a local herd sell off, pennies on the dollar I might add, and the ranch itself. No one wants the expense of buying a ranch just as winter arrives nor would anyone put a new herd onto pasture winter land meant for the original herd. There wouldn’t be enough grass to last the winter for them all. No, I guess I acted the fool and I admit it. I sat in my comfortable office convinced that I could come here and teach you Texans a thing or two about how to operate a successful cattle ranch.”

Jake patted Osborne’s vacant chair beside his own implying Osborne to sit back down. “Yore a fast thinking man Mister Osborne he drawled, it’s no wonder your other ventures are successful. I got to admit, I thought your pride would be the anchor around your neck but you chucked it off. There is yet another way you can recover most if not all your investment if you’re willing to listen.”

Gently sitting back down, Osborne looked over at his Foreman. “ Do tell, how’s that?”

“Don’t break up the place but sell it in one piece, Ranch, cattle water rights… everything all for one price making no profit buit breaking even. If you break up or hold off selling for any amount of time, you’ll never recover much. Heck, the place my even be filed in court as an abandoned ranch and sold at auction. If that happens you get zip for a return.”

“Can you advise me on a buyer then?”

“It depends on what you’re asking for the place. If you plan on making a profit, then no.”

“Father!” Percy broke in. “Don’t you see what he’s doing? He’s setting us up!”

Osborne’s ears turned red in anger at the boy. “Percy! Will you please be quiet? You think you know the real estate business better than your Father? Listen boy, it’s about time I shook your ego up. Do you think the position you hold in my company is because you are brilliant? I hate to tell you Percival but you’ve fouled up every job I’ve given you. It’s not that you are so damn indispensible that I don’t complain when you take off a few days to play croquette with your friends on the cape or go sailing off without a word to the family compound with your female entourage. No, it’s because as long as you’re not in your office, you can’t mess things up!”

Percy stood up grey faced, then turned and taking two at a time ran upstairs to his room. 

Osborne turned apologetically to Jake then shot a quick glance at his daughter. “I apologize to you both, he takes after his Father.”

Delilah rose then to leave but her father motioned for her to return to where she was seated on the sofa. “Please, Delilah, stay. I’m sorry but in my pride I ignored you all these years. I had been looking for Percy to show some promise but it turned out I was watching the wrong person.”

 Turning back to Jake he continued, “You asked what the bottom dollar I’d sell the place for. If you know anybody with forty thousand, I would just break even. I would shake hands on that deal.”

Jake pondered the savings amount he had along with Henry’s. Even at such a price, he was nearly ten thousand dollars short.  He knew the cattle alone would bring that or more if they could be driven to Kansas. Then add the value of the ten thousand leased acres added to the owned acreage and that amount topped thirty thousand by itself. Everything included, the place valued at over eighty thousand dollars!

 

Jake felt defeat slowly crawling up his spine. “Ten thousand short.” He thought.

“Mister Osborne, I need to tell you the whole story here. I ain’t been dishonest but like a gambler I’ve not shown my entire hand. I saw your mistake in stopping the Chuck Line. I knew what the result would be and another fella saw it too. Together we decided if nature took its course and you were forced to sell, then we could bundle our savings together and buy the place from you ourselves.”

“I call that business smart, not deceitful. How much were you and your partner going to offer me?”

“We are ten thousand short of what you need to sell for.”

“I see. Who is this partner of yours, do I know him?”

“You do, he’s the only man you’ve ever met from the ranch when you bought the place, Henry.”

Osborne’s head jerked back. “Henry? Old crippled Henry? The one I alluded to in my telegram? Oh Lord, talk about putting my foot in my mouth! When I bought the place, Henry was the executor of Comstock’s Last Will and Testament. During the signing of papers I made a rude comment on how he was dressed. Here I was in my one hundred dollar suite and there he sat with patched knees and sun damaged sombrero. When I started bragging on how successful my other businesses were, he up and ask me if I knew the any thing about cattle. Well, his question raised my hackles and yet scared me at the same time so I told him that’s what people with less brains are for.  Harrumph, it seems from the beginning, I was going down the wrong road.”

Suddenly Delilah turned to Jake and asked. “Mister Ramsey, would you consider another investor in your group in order make the forty thousand dollar sale price?”

Jake shrugged, “I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it Ma’am. I was hoping that Henry and I together would have enough money between us. Money is plenty tight this time of year an’ investors are going to be hard to come by. To be honest, I’m not sure I’d trust an outsider with part ownership of the place. They’d have no vested interest in the place other than their money.”

“What if you had someone come in who had a vested interest in making the place succeed, would you consider them?”

“If I knew a man who would be willing to put his blood, sweat and tears into the place, sure, I might consider it.”

“How about a woman?”

“A woman?”

“Yes, me.!”

Osborne shot out from his seat in dismay. “Delilah!” He shouted, “Surely you jest! Investing your money into a solid business is one thing, but the Bar 44? It’s already failing!”

Ignoring her father’s outburst she again asked, “What do you say Mister Ramsey?”

Osborne wasn’t through yet, “I insist you stop his nonsense right now young girl! Why it takes know how to run a place as complicated as this! Didn’t you see the mistake I made? Now you’re making the same one!”

“No Father, there is one big difference between you and I. If I had asked yesterday what color the ranch house is could you have told me? No? If I asked the difference between a Stallion and a gelding could you tell me? I doubt it. Six weeks ago you told Percival and I that we were coming out here to “bring the natives” up to the Eastern way of doing business. From that moment on, I’ve searched every book I could find on cattle, the operation of a ranch and in particular, Texas! I hunted down old cowboys that moved back east just to glean from their experiences and know how. You see father, I had planned all along to remain here when you and Percy returned back east. I did not know at the time the Bar 44 was in failure or I would have told you sooner. My plan was to eventually become an integral part of running the ranch, your ranch. Father, the difference between you and I, is that I tried to understand how these westerners ended up taming a land to draw a profit from it. You on the other hand failed in the first lesson of owning a business… know it, before you buy it! ”

Osborne sat heavily back in his chair. He then lifted his face skyward and began to laugh. He laughed so hard tears ran down his cheeks. “Oh my land!” He shouted,” She’s has a better head for business than me! You warned me sweetheart! When I wrote that letter to be telegraphed, you warned me it was a mean and unwise thing to do. I remember you telling me to come here and see for myself before changing anything! I should have listened!”

“Yes, you should have Father. Instead what did you do? You foolishly went to your financial advisors who had never seen a live cow in their life and then to make matters worse, you listened to Percy on how you should put the telegram into words. A fool cannot produce wisdom father and a fool is what Percy is and always will be!”

Osborne sat shaking his lowered head and from time to time chuckling to himself. Finally looking at her, he gave in.

“Alright, you win Delilah, I’ll have the papers drawn up for a three way partnership along with the sale papers and deed. We’ll set up a payment schedule payable over three years. That way you don’t exhaust all your funds in the purchase. I must ask though, how do you expect to hire men to replace those that left? If Mister Ramsey is correct, there are none to be had. The ranch is still without hands so nothing has really changed. What then?”

Jake leaned forward and chuckled, “It wasn’t me who was so far sighted as it was Henry. He got the whole group of hands housed up at a rental house in town waiting to see what the outcome is here. Trust me, if you had not gone along with the deal, they would have never come back to work for you, not after what you did to ‘em. Then all I said that would happen would have happened. We can ride into town tomorrow and see to those papers along with givin’ the news to the hands and Henry. I know there’ll be some celebrating going on after they hear.”

Meanwhile Percival had inched his way quietly onto the stair case to eaves drop on the proceedings below. After shaking hands with Jake, Osborne glanced at the upper stairwell to see his son skulking at the head of the stairs.

“Percy!” He yelled for him, “Come down here, I have some great plans for you boy!”

Percy jumped up and raced down the steps thinking his father did after all come to his senses and would put him back in charge of something important , anything to save face in front of his friends.

“Son, I had originally planned on keeping the ranch and coupling it with our own new stockyard I purchased over in Kansas. I didn’t tell the two of you this because I didn’t think there was any need at the time. Now son, I can’t handle everything on my plate as it is so I’m going to put you in a well deserved and important position in the new venture, How do you feel about moving to Kansas son and heading up a very important department for me?”

Thinking it over and envisioning himself bossing others about from a plush office, Percy readily agreed.

“Good, good. Now run back upstairs while the three of us here discuss the details of the sale.

Percival returned to his room and jumping onto the bed, he lay there staring broadly at the ceiling dreaming of being the important man others would have to look up to in Kansas.

He envisioned himself dressed in an expensive suit like his fathers and replying to invitations to social balls and of course being the recipient of private notes from desirous females.

Downstairs the three hashed out the details and when finished, all were smiling.

It was the sudden look of concern that crossed Delilah’s face that Osborne questioned. “Is there something in the deal that I forgot dear?” He asked.

“No, not really. I was just thinking on how you gave Percival another chance to cause you grief. I swear Father, if he’s in charge of your company’s new stock yard venture and he creates as much havoc there as he does everywhere, I’ll have no choice but to send our cattle to a competitor’s stock yard. My first priority is the Ranch making a profit, not Percival or the new stock yard.”

Osborne chuckled, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Percival too much. It is true that I am putting him in charge of a department but it’s not quite what you or he think.”

“Then what is it?” She asked.

“I’m putting him in charge of the Asepsis Ablution Department. There he’ll oversee a number of workers performing cattle hygienic prophylactics.”

Delilah looked perplexed. “Hygienic…proph… what?

“It’s a fancy use of the language to make a worker feel more important about their job by giving them a fancy title. Percy will be in charge of mucking my dear, mucking up cattle manure in the stock yard!”

 

The End

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.

Bekke’s Law by JW Edwards

Bekke's law

Chapter 1

I stood there  listening spellbound to the young Lady. She had run from the Diner here to that freight wagon parked by the Mexican leather fella across the road. She soon returned carrying a rifle to where I stood watchin’ it all. As she stood there jackin’ shell’s into it, she began telling me her story. Why? I have no idea except maybe she had a premonition she was about to die. Maybe she wanted someone to know she had once lived and breathed on this here celestial ball. I was a nobody, a bystander  that’s all. Maybe it was because I was a nobody that she felt compelled to spill her tale, I don’t know. She sure was pretty though, except’n she spoke kind’a funny like.

“My name is Bekke Hillstrand and in a few minutes I’m gonna’ go back inside an’ plug the last of the men I hate. My father.  I killed my first one at age seven, pushed him off a cliff as he was makin’ water. He never uttered a word, just made ‘Uh, Uh’ sounds as he went down. I never felt so good, I felt I finally had some control of my life.  It took another nine years before number two got it. Him I run over with a freight wagon up in Yavapai County Arizona an’ made it look like a tragic accident. It was hard not to cheer an’ clap as his body tumbled over and over under the wagon bed. He broke four hundred of the two hundred and six bones in his body by the time the wagon passed over him. I’ll tell you about the other four I kilt but first I need to start at the beginning so’s you don’t think I’m a murderess or vile woman. Men do what I’m doin’ all the time out here in the West an’ they simply call it justice served. So why should it be any different just ‘cause I’m a girl?”

 

One thousand souls, five thousand mix of mules, oxen and horses and almost two hundred wagons left Independence Missouri on a sultry morning in May of 1846. “Wagon’s HO!” was heard up front and the wagon train made up mostly large Conestoga style wagons turned out onto the Santa Fe Trail. It was the second to last train out of Independence that year. The last train was later known as the Donner Party but their fate lay north upon the Oregon trail.  

As the wagons forged ahead towards the Big Blue River west into Kansas, hopes were high and folks got along well with each other. Meeting and greeting was the norm at the end of each day. Light hearted Social dances and musicians that had brought along their instruments were the evening’s entertainment. Friendships were formed, help freely given and the spirit of community reigned. It all gave promise to a pleasant if not exciting adventure.

One family in particular had good reason to be hopeful, the Hillstrands. Johan and Uda Hilstrand had been farming outside the small Ohio town of Athens. As children, their families had emigrated from Sweden looking for the American promise of forging one’s own destiny. Sadly, continual disagreements with their neighbors brought misery to their home until Uda put her foot down. Either Johan move the family or she would leave on her own.  During this time, Uda’s brother in law had been trying to convince Johan that Texas was where the real future lay. A year later the two families found themselves crossing the Big Blue River in Kansas along with rest of the wagon train heading southwest to Texas.

Although the Hillstrands were a good church going family and pleasant to be acquainted with, Uda was prone to her moods. Even as a young bride in Ohio and in love, Uda began showing signs of dark moments. Johan hoped that in starting a family Uda would be lifted from these depressing moods. The birth of their first born, a son they named Sven, convinced Johan that the days of Uda’s moodiness had passed. She doted on the child and loved him as much as any mother could.

Two years later and the year they would leave for the west, a baby girl was born to the Hillstrand household. In memory of her grandmother, Uda named the child Bekke and she remained happy and free of her disturbing past moodiness.

The family of four rolled and bumped their way southwestward along with the other wagons through the tall prairie grasses bound for New Mexico and Texas.  The Hillstrand wagon followed behind that of their in-laws with Uda’s sister Hulda and her eldest son Jesper tending to the two families six cows being driven along with them. All in all, the families were the typical of the immigrant pioneers that settled the West.

One evening at supper, about a hundred or so miles northeast of Fort Smith in New Mexico, they received a visitor to their camp. Johan had seen the man hanging around different camps before  but paid little attention to him, other than an aknowledged ‘Hello’.

“Howdy good folks!” Making himself known, the visitor instead of introducing himself, made his way over to the cook fire and leaned over in order to smell the hanging cook pot of victuals.

“Ah, deer meat!” He exclaimed, Then with narrowed eyes asked, “When did you come across a deer?”

Johan was taken back at the familiarity the man displayed since he had not formally introduced himself but Johan still returned an answered in a kind way. “Friend, this is not fresh meat, we preserve our meat as we did back in the old country. You are welcome to take a plate of this stew if you wish”

“Like ‘an Injun does then Huh? I hear they pound berries into their meat before drying so’s they don’t get the scurvy. Uhuh, that might be alright for some but for my taste it has to be fresh kilt.”

 Still attempting to be neighborly, Uda came over and handed the man an empty but clean tin plate and cup saying, “There is also coffee that will be up in a minute if you wish for some.”

The man stood looking Uda over as a starved man would stare at a juicy flank of meat. “Uhuh, I’s told from other folks around here that you all hail from Sweden.  I also hear tell they grow some beautiful women there. That ain’t no lie as I’m see’in it with my own eyes.  Makes a man think he shoulda’ brought himself a blond whore to keep his own urges pleased. Haw haw“

Uda blushed and turned red and so did Johan, but not from any embarrassment but in anger. Putting his plate down Johan rose to face the thin, wiry built man. “I’m forgiving you only once for your language Mister. Seeing as we all come from different parts we all have our own ways. We Hillstrands have our ways also and those include being gracious guest and when we speak of our women it is with honor and dignity. I’d ask that you apologize to my wife for such base talk. Then afterward, if you wish, you’re still welcome to partake your supper with us.

Tossing the unfilled plate and coffee cup onto the ground beside him, the uninvited guest stood glaring at Johan with hands placed firmly on his hips. “Well la tee da!” He sneared, “A bunch of filthy do gooding firiners raisin’ their noses at a born American. Thanks, but no thanks!”

Turning to Uda the man then winked evilly telling her, “Honey, if ever you need a real man to warm your bed, you just look me up.” With that he turned on his heel and strode out chuckling to himself.

“What is wrong with that vile man?” Uda asked.

“I don’t know but don’t ever let yourself get alone with him.  I feel he’s more than just an uncouth braggart but is dangerous. The way he was looking at you upset me. I almost wish I had purchased that revolver the wagon master advised us to buy.  We will need to keep our eyes open to ones like him and maybe it would behoove us to give warning to some of the other young women you encounter.”

The next two weeks passed uneventfully. Nearing the turnoff to the Upper Road that led into Texas, Johan and Uda were relieved that no further sighting of the man had been noted.

Having traveled well past Fort Smith now, the train camped for the night along a small but clean flowing creek.  The next day the train would divide, some going on to Arizona along the Gila trail while others headed into Texas. This evening, watering the livestock was important since fresh water would be scarce for the next couple of days. The rule for watering any livestock on the trail was strictly enforced; one was to take their stock downstream to keep the water upstream clean for drinking and cooking. This ensured no water born diseases and parasites were transferred from stock to man. Water holes presented their own problems.

This evening was no different than any when camped near a stream. Johan, along with his nephew Jesper led their oxen and cows downstream for water. It was on the way back that the two heard a commotion further up the train. A woman was screaming. Immediately Johan told Jesper to keep the livestock moving back to the grassy area near the wagon and hobble the animals to prevent their wandering too far off.  As Johan ran toward the sound of the screaming woman a gunshot was heard. “Oh Lord,” He prayed, “What is going on up there?”

Out of breath, he made it to his wagon. Throwing open the rear tarp he saw it vacant inside. Thinking Uda may be assisting the screaming woman, he jumped off the rear of the wagon and ran to where a crowd was gathering. Breaking through the circle of onlookers Johan nearly fainted at what he saw lying on the ground. Uda. Her simple dress had been torn off from around her waist thus exposing her nakedness. Her face was quickly swelling with large black and blue areas. She had been beaten and raped.

Grabbing Uda around her shoulders he lifted her fetal form to his lap. Looking up to the gathering crowd he shouted. “Who did this? Who did this to my Uda!”

One man moved forward through the crowd saying excitedly, “I saw a skinny bearded man jump from the rear of your wagon and then heard a woman  screamin’ bloody murder. It was then your lady here appeared an’ fell straight out’a the wagon.  I knew right off by the looks of her that the man had been beatin’ her something fierce.  My pardon Mister, but I deemed that no woman would tear off her dress volunteer like, so I guessed right off what the man had done. Seein’ as me an’ my boy here was about to go hunt up some rabbit or prairie chicken, I had my gun along with me. I took a quick shot at the man as he run off and he jerked upright like he was hard hit but then he continued to run into them woods where the creek flows. I tried to give chase Mister, I really did but he took to his heels faster than I could. He’s hit bad though an’ won’t git far. I give him a mile or two before he bleeds out.”

It was at that moment in time that the Hillstrand family unit began to unravel.

 

Chapter 2

It was decided after the train divided, that a new wagon Master be elected for the train heading into Texas.  The new Wagon Master, a kind but firm man from Illinois named Johnston was elected. Since the train was only weeks away from their destination he ordered a rest of five days. This allowed the animals to recover, water and fatten up for the continued journey into the desert of western Texas. Johnston also worried about Uda Hillstrand and her mind. Meanwhile a party of men formed and went searching for the man who had perpetrated such vileness upon Uda. True to the shooters estimate, he was found not two miles distant, having bled out from a bullet that struck him in the neck. Already the critters of the plains had found him so it was unanimously decided that no burial would be given.

It was on the third day after the attack that Wagon Master Johnston stopped by the Hillstrand wagon to inquire of Uda’s well being.

 

“Well, to be truthful, I fear for her mind.” Johan told him, “She’s always been to prone toher  dark moods. She’s always recovered but this time she’s different, not saying a word, barely eats and has no interest in the babies. Her sister’s been caring for them when she can but she’s got her own brood to tend to. Once we get to Fort Stockton, if she’s no better, I’ll hunt up a Doctor to examine her.“

Wagon Master Johnston nodded regretfully saying, “ What happened  to her is sure a pity. A similar thing happened to my niece years back, she born a child from it then drowned it in the creek. She won’t come near no man no more cuz of it.”

“Well, whatever happens I am not leaving her. She was a good woman, a good mother to our children. If she bears a child from this then we’ll deal with it then. I just pray that it’s true that a woman who’s time it is for bleeding has a lesser chance of getting with child.”

“I ain’t no expert in woman’s particulars but let’s hope” Johnston tipped his hat and walked on.

It was outside Sonora, east of Fort Stockton that the second of two evils occurred.

Johan was half asleep on the driver’s seat. The plodding of the oxen was like a rhythmic lullaby. The babies were inside the wagon with Uda when a man came running up from the rear screaming and waving his arms violently. “Stop! Stop your wagon! Your baby fell out!”

Abruptly Johan jerked backward on the reigns. He had yanked so hard one of them snapped from the strain.   Leaping from the driver’s seat, Johan rounded the rear of the wagon fearing the worst. It was worse than he imagined. There, lying on the ground fifteen feet behind the wagon lay his infant daughter Bekke… with a long leather strap tied around her neck. She had been hung and dragged.  The man who had given shout was already using his knife to cut the infant free of its leather tourniquet.  In his rush to rid her neck of the strap, he deeply cut the child’s throat, but it was either that or the baby would continue to suffocate to death.

Wrapping a torn piece of his shirt around his child’s bleeding neck Johan glanced into the rear of the wagon. Without word he thrust Bekke into the hands of a stranger and leaped into the rear of the wagon.

“Noooooo!” came the cry from within.

By now others had assembled including his in-laws who had been driving their wagon in front of the Hillstrands and had been unaware of the commotion until now. Leaping through the driver’s seat, his brother in law discovered the reason for Johan’s scream. There lay the Hillstrands four year old son Sven. His mother had used a large knife to stab the child’s heart.

Uda sat unmoving still holding the large knife. When Johan began shaking and shouting at her, Uda’s only response was to rock back and forth as if in a rocking chair.

The infant boy Sven was buried near where the train had been halted. A crude cross was placed as his parents were Christian. Uda did not come from out of the wagon nor did she seem to understand the goings on about her. Her only response was to begin rocking when approached.

Thankfully, the neck wound of Bekke had stopped bleeding and was determined not to be a fatal  wound.  A deep raw abrasion ringed her neck from the leather strap but no other physical harm looked in evidence. The child’s hoarse crying continued through most of the night. As each hour passed Johan noticed the child’s voice growing raspier and raspier, by morning she cried as frog croaks. Whether a result from the hanging or the accidental throat wound no one could say.

Reaching Fort Stockton should have been a joyous affair, but it wasn’t.  Uda showed no signs of getting better and now Johan seemed steeped in regrets and misery for leaving his Ohio farm. He decided to let the rest of the train continue on to its final destination without he and his wife. Bekke was taken in by his sister and brother in laws. He would meet up with them later after Uda was either back to her old self or at least able to cope with the world around her once again.

“We decided to head south to Austin instead of San Antonio like we all planned.” Said his brother in law, “Well meet up down there. I’ll write to you here and give you more information once we settle in.” 

The plans were pretty basic for meeting up but no one really cared about firming up further details like exactly where in Austin they would settle. They all just figured that finding each other may be a matter of a few days search. Never in his life would he have thought that as the wagon rolled away towards Austin that it was the last he’d ever see of his in-laws.

 

Chapter 3

Uda wasted away even under a Doctor’s care. It turned she had not conceived a child, that at least was a small blessing. She refused to go out outside of the small rental house in town. She rarely spoke and when she did it was in a single word at best. A mixture of heroin and Laudanum kept her from further rash outburst.

Uda grew weary soon after rising and ended up spending the rest of her day once again sleeping or lying in bed looking at the ceiling. She was a shell, a ghost, there was no one home anymore within her. Her mind had snapped and the medicine just seemed to add to her inactivity.

When Uda finally passed it was a mixed blessing. It had been nearly six months to the day upon their arrival at Fort Stockton. The gloom that had settled over Johan was as thick as rain clouds over the Ohio Valley farm they once had. Johan would shake his head in remorse remembering when their only concern was a disagreeable neighbor. At Uda’s funeral he spoke not so much about Uda as he did about how she and he had perceived life. “Sometimes we have no idea how good we had it until the future unfolds to even a worse life. We should be grateful for what the Lord gives us and not go yearning for what others got. If Uda and I had followed this, she’d be here today as well as our children.”

He never received a letter from his in-laws nor sent one himself. He had little desire to look upon the face of his daughter for all it would do is remind him of how much he missed Uda and little Sven. Delay after delay occurred until months turned into years. By the time he did try to contact his in-laws, they were nowhere to be found in Austin, the string that connected them was snipped. He could only assume child Bekke was still with them.

Bekke was lovingly raised within her Aunt and Uncles household until she reached the age of six. The family had moved on to Abilene, some two hundred plus miles north. Word of their move was left with the Sheriff of Austin in case Johan looked for them. It was then that Uda’s sister Hulda came down with the influenza and passed. Her husband Jorn had been recently injured when a mule kicked him in the leg as he was putting on the mule team’s harness. The freighter he worked for had enough sympathy to find temporary shelter for all the children until he recovered. Jorn lay lame in bed for almost a year and even after that needed a crutch due to his crooked leg. He took his own children and returned to Ohio, leaving Bekke behind.

 Bekke had been given to a family that desired to move soon after they accepted her under their care. They promised to keep her Uncle Jorn informed as to their whereabouts but months later there still was no word where they had gone off to. Bekke’s Uncle shrugged his shoulders and figured the girl at least was under a roof and was eating so why worry when the child wasn’t his anyway.

What the Uncle never knew nor would he, was that the family that had taken Bekke in had been waylaid by robbers on their journey. A gunfight ensued and the father was killed. His surviving wife immediately sold the young girl to a man for twenty dollars who promised to take real good care of her. “I’ll treat her as my own flesh an’ blood Ma’am, even though the kid don’t talk right”.  He took her from Texas and moved into the Mogollon Rim area of Arizona where he worked as a sheep herder.

Unfortunately for the young Bekke, the man was more interested in her as a man would be to a woman than a father.  By the age of seven Bekke had had enough of his foul fondling ways and made up her mind to end his night time shenanigans.

The two had been living in a small sheep herders cabin part way up the slopes of the Rim where the pines trees grow tightly together and disguised the steep cliffs they cling to. It was then that Bekke saw her chance to settle the issue of her abuse.

As the man stepped up to an overhang which was part of the Rims bench, he looked down and whistled when he realized just how steep the cliff was he was perched on.“Wee-ooo, Ya’ll wait back there while I take a leak child…unless you all wanna’ watch ‘Ol Uncle Lester’s stove pipe in action! Haw haw!”

“Yes, let me watch and see” she responded eagerly in her hoarse voice.

Her positive response was the last thing “Ol Uncle Lester” expected and found it excited his loins. “Then come on over here and take a look see at what a prize I was blessed with.”

As she approached him from behind he began to relieve himself. The thin yellow stream disappeared into a spray of droplets part way down the steep cliff.

All it took was a small shove to dislodge him but it was no small shove she gave. Bent nearly backward from the force of her hands applied upon his backside he went over the edge in the shape of a back bent banana. All he could utter was a “Uh, Uh” as he disappeared silently over the edge.  

She waited and figured on hearing a thud or some other sound saying he had hit bottom but none came. Crawling up to the edge of the cliff on her belly she peeped over the edge and discovered the reason. For nearly two hundred feet the drop was straight down then slowly it began to curve outward nearing the bottom. She could see very faintly a small feature spread out on the slope far below. She mistook it for a small animal or even an ant until she realized the vastness of the cliff’s size and that of  the Rim.

Bekke sat there until the sun started lowering to the westward mountain tops. She knew she had just killed a man but needed to place it within her mind that there was no wrong in it. When she finally stood up to leave, she had left behind the seven year old child and walked away as a young girl very much in charge of herself.

She returned to the cabin, gathered up her belongings and what money she found hidden in the man’s belongings and left.

At age nine she was once again faced with a dilemma when the Sheriff of Payson saw her wandering through town and by her looks knew she was a vagrant and homeless child. The Sheriff handed the girl over to his sister to care for until he could locate the child’s parents. The Sheriff was taken back when he heard the hoarse voice coming from such a beautiful face when asked of her parents. “They was kilt dead” she hoarsely told him but he didn’t believe her saying, “Somewhere you got a Mama and a Pa who’s lookin’ for ya’. It’s gonna be my job to locate and return ya’ to ‘em.”

Weeks passed and every inquiring telegram returned with the same reply. Negative. Little did the Sheriff realize he was looking in the wrong State.

Her stay with the Sheriffs sister was prolonged but after a year the woman finally faced the Sheriff. “Look Howard, you either get me some funds to help raise the child proper or I’m gonna’ have to ask that you take her back. I ain’t wealthy and getting’ no younger either. She’s a little hellion of a child. Seems way too grown up for a child that young.” 

Leaning close and to a near whisper she confided, “A few days back I caught her and little Tommy Dolan playin’ Doctor…well Tommy was playin’ anyway. Little Tommy stood there with his drawers to his feet and she went an’ pointed at his peter an’ began laughing in that hoarse laugh she has!  Do you know what she then told him? She said, “You bess close up them drawers boy or than tiny noodle you gots gonna catch a cold ‘an sneeze itself right off, then how’s you gonna make love to your woman when you’s a man?!” Now I ask you Howard, what normal child talks like that?”

The Sheriffs eyebrows rose in surprise to what was just told him and replied, “Ok, OK. I’ll find a place for her somewhere. She does seem a bit too precocious even for a self learned child. Give me a few weeks an’ I promise she’ll be gone.”

A week later Bekke found herself at the front steps of the Yavapai Indian children’s home holding a small satchel of belongings. Though she was not Yavapai nor of any other Indian tribe, they accepted her right off. To not accept her might be getting themselves on the wrong side of the Sheriff.  Little known to the Sheriff however was that the children’s home was a clearing house for child field labor…and ‘other things’ as they grew older. By now Bekke spoke with a distinct rasp but somehow there was a musical chime somewhere hidden in the rasp. A number of male visitors to the home commented on how charming this made the girl.

Bekke stayed until the age of sixteen. It was at that age that the ‘other things’ forced onto the older children became evident. The cute light skinned, blond haired child with sky blue eyes was told by the overseer of the Home that her time to become a ‘lady’ was soon going to be upon her.. Bekke had actually relished the hard work she had been forced to do. She had been made a teamster hauling freight for the Homes side business. Being outdoors again was a blessing to her and the hard work gave her the self worth she had lacked earlier. She grew strong loading and unloading freight and became resilient in her ways and took no guff from any of the other children. 

When she was informed that soon she either become the nightly pleasure for ‘gentlemen callers’ or be sold off into ‘marriage’, she left… but not before she ‘accidentally’ drove a runaway freight wagon over the  overseer of the Children’s home.

Bekke traveled south towards Globe on foot. In Globe she befriended a boy named Jethro Clemens a few years her senior. He worked at the copper mine there and was making himself a good living doing so. Bekke was impressed, not with his money but with his work ethic. Truth be told, she fell head over heels for the young man. Wide of shoulders, strong chin, clear complexion and the most wonderful brown eyes she’d ever looked into. She was hooked.

 The man boy had strong feelings toward Bekke from the beginning. They had met when Bekke had entered a prosperous looking mercantile in town which had posted a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on its door. She entered and inquired about the job. She was told it was a freighters job that traveled daily between Globe and the town of Phoenix. “Well young lady,” the owner replied, “If you was a man I’d say yes right off but seein’ as you’re a little lady, you couldn’t possibly do the job.”

“Why not? Bekke asked. “I can drive a team of mules better’n any man can! I drove a wagon all over Yavapai county for the last three years! I’m more than capable.”

The owner laughingly guffawed at her claim. It was then that a handsome young man spoke up from near the shelves displaying boots. Looking at the blue eyed wonder, the young man winked at her and told the older man, “Hey Pops, why not see if she’s pullin’ your leg? Let her hitch the team if she can!”

Bekke knew what the boy was up to, it wasn’t to humiliate her by seeing her fail the test, it was to help show the man she was what she claimed to be.

“Ha ha! Sure son, we need a good chuckle, let’s go out back. I gotta get the team hitched presently see’n as I’ll most likely end up haulin’ this load to Phoenix myself.”

Bekke was led around back where the man and boy opened the doors to the carriage house revealing inside a large freight wagon and stalls housing four mules. The owner stood looking proudly at the powerful beast and turning to Bekke told her, “Let’s see you work your magic on these here four Missouri Mules sweetheart!”

Without saying a word, Bekke inspected each mule as careful as if she were to purchase them. Using her own skill, she determined which were lead and which were the wheelers, right side and left. Then she inspected the harnesses, yokes, rings, hames, collar and traces. When finished, she went over the wagons gear. Satisfied they were in good condition, she quickly had all four beast harnessed and ready to haul.

The owner and the boy stood there silently watching her. Finally the man stepped up to the mules and exclaimed, “Well I’ll be danged if you didn’t choose the right mule for the exact position they belong in. Let’s see how you can handle these four honey’s of mine.”

Bekke first backed the mules then turned the rig in a complete circle. She then lined up the wagon and backed the wagons tail gate flush to the building without bumping it.

“Sweetheart,” the man exclaimed, “if you was serious about wantin’ the job then they’s all yours to drive! C’mon back inside and let’s talk.”

“The young man walked up to Bekke and whispered to her, “I knew you could do it!” he then turned and once again winked at her as he strode away.

Bekke stepped back inside the mercantile and asked the owner, “That young man who was with us, is he your son?”

“I wish! Nope, he’s a loner now. Parents passed last year with the influenza. Best folks you’d ever meet. I kinda took a liking to him. He’s a good boy an’ see’n as he has no parents no more, I keep a close eye on him for ‘em.”

Bekke looked at the man with sympathy. I understand, My Aunt who helped raise me passed from the same.

 The owner sat Bekke down at a small table used for cutting strips of leather and asked, “It’s none of my business, maybe it is since I’m hiring you on, No matter but do you have a story I need to know about? Any crimes committed that might draw the law on you? That sort of thing.”

“None that I’m aware of. Truth be told, I ran away from the children’s home over in Yavapai County ‘cause they wanted me to start whorin’ for them.”

Stifling a gasp, he declared “Don’t tell! The Indian home up by the rim?”

“The very one. I guess they get away with it ‘cause for the most part it’s only Indian children and the Sheriff and other white folk don’t care what goes on there.”

“Dang me! Sweetheart, you got a place to stay? If’n you don’t, we can make up a bed here in the back room. It’s cool as anything possible here in the summer. Oh, by the way, my names Billy Irons, an this here is my business free an’ clear!”

“Much obliged, thank you Mister Billy Irons. My names Bekke, Bekke Hillstrand, that’s all I’ve been told of me. No one cares anything for me as I’m probably an orphan anyway. I was too young to know how I got the way I did with this scar around my neck an’ all but I was told my Daddy had a lot to do with it. I was told he was a no good and had no use for me so he sold me off. At least that’s what I was told by a sheep herder that bought me from some lady who’s husband was shot an kilt. ”

“Bought you? What do you mean bought you? Like a slave is bought?”

“I guess you could say that. He fed me but handled me too. He was an evil man an’ I was only a child.”

The owner sat staring wide eyed. “You mean by ‘handled’ he touched you?”

“Uhuh, an’ woulda been a lot more if I didn’t fight him off every time he come back to the cabin drunk.”

Irons face turned beet red. “Why if that no good ever shows his face around here, you come ‘an get me understand? He’ll rue the day he ever touched you. There’s bullets made in hell just for men like him”

“There’s no need Mister Irons”

“Why’s that child?”

“I killed him. I pushed him off’ a cliff at the Rim up north of here when he stopped to take a pi…” Sorry, I mean when he went to relieve himself.”

Billy Irons eyes widened even further, “What? You did what girl?”

“I kilt him. I ain’t sorry none about it neither.” She rasped, “ He deserved all he got. I hope every bone in his body broke as he hit bottom too!”

“Well dang my hide child! Keep that information under your hat an’ to yourself from now on. That could be a hangin’ offense… but between you an’ me, you done good alright!”

The weeks passed and Bekke learned each and every twist and turn through the mountain trail into Phoenix and back.  Folks began to know her up and down the trail. Sometimes she was asked to haul freight to some of the local general stores along the way. Billy Irons took advantage of having the only large freight wagon in the area. If a trip could be made more profitable by throwing on someone else’s freight to drop off, then all the better.

One late October day on her return trip to Globe, Bekke noticed she had been being followed for the last couple of hours. Making sure her rifle was within easy reach she continued as if unawares. The keenness of her eyesight and with the use of a small mirror she kept tabs on the lone rider behind her. Something seemed familiar about the rider, the way he sat in the saddle, straight and tall. It suddenly dawned on her who the rider was… her new friend, the young man named Jethro Clemens. 

Pulling her rig over to the side of the trail she searched and found a good hiding spot for it in a nearby small box canyon. Less than a half hour later she heard the clippity clop of Jethro’s horse. Suddenly he stopped. Looking over the top of the boulder she had hidden behind she watched as he looked down the road to where she should be. Jethro removed his hat and scratched his head. “Where the dickens’s did she go to?” She heard him say. ”She should be plain in view right now.”

Meanwhile Bekke had found a small stone the size of a birds egg. As Jethro turned away from her, she rose and threw it, hitting him on the shoulder.

“Ow! What in the heck!” At that moment Bekke showed herself and began laughing.

“Come over here Jethro, “she shouted, I got some jerky an’ water if you wish for some.”

Laughing, Jethro swung his horse off the trail and dismounting, led the horse to the small box canyon where the wagon was stashed. Bekke meanwhile had lowered the tail gate and reaching inside for her grub bag sat upon it.

“I guess I couldn’t fool you no way huh?” He asked her.  “I tried to be sneaky like an’ follow you unseen but I make a terrible Indian. When did you notice I was behind you?”

“A couple hours ago, back by the turn off leading to the Superstitions.”

As Jethro sat next to Bekke on the wagons tail gate he exclaimed, “That far back? Darn, you must be part Injun yourself!”

“Truthfully, I didn’t know it was you until just a bit ago. All I could make out was a lone rider was trying his best to stay hidden from me.“

“Yeah, I did real good huh? All I did was make a fool of myself in front of the girl I got the sweets for.”

Bekke looked sharply at him. “Did I just hear you right? You got the sweets for me?”

“Oh darn! I’m sorry, I shoulda just kept my mouth shut.  Forget I ever said that!”

“Why? I think that’s sweet of you to say that. No one ever told me they had feelings for me before. I got feelings too, I just don’t know what to do with ‘em.”

“Has a boy never loved you then?”

“None that I knowed of. Truth be told Jethro, I’m a hussy. I’ve been handled by evil men. I doubt I’ll ever be loved the way you is thinkin’ of. No man deserves a used woman like me when they can find a girl raised proper like.”

Jethro moved closer to Bekke. “Bekke, I had my share of times, both good n bad. I got to know what makes folks do things. I know you better than you think I do. You liked me right off, I could see it in your eyes when you looked my way the day we first met. Then I heard your story. Not meaning to, I overheard your tellin’ Old Bill your story.”

Saying that, Jethro gently took Bekke’s hands in his. “Bekke, see how clean your hands are? I know in the past they got dirtied up a mite an not on your own account. But you went an’ washed ‘em clean after they was dirtied. Life is like that too Bekke. We get dirty sometimes but we wash ourselves clean an’ go on. I hold nothin’ against you for what you done in the past. If you call yourself a hussy it’s only cuz you want to be one an’ I know that ain’t what you is or want to be known as. So no matter what happened in your past, you’re as clean as a newborn babe to me. Can you understand that?”

A tear rolled down Bekke’s cheek. “You make everything sound so right. Is it really?”

“Yes, it is for sure.”

With Jethro still holding her hands she leaned into his chest. “I’m glad I met you Jethro.”

He replied softly. “So am I Bekke, real glad.”

 There the two sat unspeaking for the longest time. Bekke knew the day was getting on and daylight was needed to traverse the twisting roads safely back to Globe. Looking up at Jethro she quickly kissed his cheek. Telling him, “I’ll be right back, that water I drank is beggin’ to see daylight!”

“Oh, you gotta p.., relieve yourself? OK, I’ll stay here with the wagon an’ you can head into the mesquite trees over there where I can’t see ya. Oh, take your rifle with ya, never know when a rattler will slither out.”

Grabbing the rifle, Bekke headed off to the thickest part of the mesquite cover.

It was while Bekke was busy that Jethro heard the sound of horses approaching.  A group of three hard looking men rode up to face him. “What’s this all about boy? You find an abandoned wagon here? Maybe someone left it for us to go through, Haw haw.”

Two men dismounted and threw back the canvas of the wagon. “Jackpot boys! Look at what we got here!”

Jethro regained his composure and shouted angrily, “Hey, get your hands off of that wagon Mister!”

 Without warning the mounted man pulled and raised his revolver from its holster. Just as Jethro realized what was about to happen he went for his own gun. The advantage was to the no good and he fired striking Jethro. Jethro fell to the ground and cried out loudly in pain.  Once again the man raised his revolver and began lowering its barrel towards Jethro.

 Before he could pull the trigger a second time, Bekke’s rifle bucked from its deadly duty. The top of the riders head exploded in a red mist. He slowly teetered back and forth as if unsure what to do, he then tumbled sideways off of his saddle which ended in a sickening thud in the dust. Faster than the two others could pull iron and return fire, Bekke had sent into each of the men a deadly heart piercing slug of lead. Round after round she sent forth into the expired trio of no goods until her re-cocking of the rifle produced no further live rounds.

As sudden as it started it was finished. The sound of her last shots still echoed through the distant canyons then all was silent.

“Bekke, Help me!” Jethro moaned painfully.  I’m shot in the chest somewhere’s.  Bekke ran to him and dropping the empty rifle, laid him on the ground to examine the wound.   

“Oh it hurts bad. I never been shot before Bekke, I’m sorry if I’m bein’ like a child.”

“No, hush now Jethro, let me get your shirt open. You’re bleedin’ all over the place”

With shaking hands Bekke undid Jethro’s shirt exposing a long deep bleeding gash across his chest. “No wonder it hurts so bad. It plowed a deep crease along the entire front of your chest. A straight in shot woulda’ been a lot less painful for sure!”

 

Bekke ran to the wagon and tore away a piece of cloth from one of the bolts she was to deliver. “Here, this will help with the bleeding but you’re gonna be in some mighty powerful pain. You better lay inside the wagon whiles I tie your horse to the back of it. We need you to get to a Doctor right quick Jethro.”

“Am I gonna make it? I mean am I dyin’?”

“Not yet anyway, I think we’ll be celebrating your next birthday without too much worry. You may pass out though on the ride back, it’s not a smooth one and you’ll get bumped around a lot.”

 “Bekke? You kissed me?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Thank you, that was real nice of you.”

Helping him into the wagon nearly cost him his consciousness but after a moment his eyes cleared again.

Bekke wrapped the tarp around him snuggly and for a moment rested her head on his arm. She then climbed up into the wagon and carefully placed his head between her palms. She then lowered herself to him and kissed him with a gentle but passion filled kiss. “If you pass out,” she told him, “I want the last thing you remember is this kiss.”

“Oh Bekke, I could never forget it even if I was to die.”

The way back seemed to take ages. Finally the mercantile in Globe came into view just as the sun set over the mountains. As she pulled up, Bekke screamed to Bill for help and he came out running like an old buffalo.

“What’s going on Bekke? What…Oh my God, it’s Jethro! Is he dead?”

 “Not yet, he’s been shot but I thought by the time we got here he might die of old age!”

Inspecting the dressing and wound Bill glanced up at her.

“Uhuh, says the girl with a sense of humor.  Glad you kept your cool. He seems a mite torn up but he’ll live as long as infection don’t set in.”

The two unloaded Jethro into the bed Bekke had made for herself inside the back room of the mercantile. She ran up front to the customer counter, grabbed Bills chair and retured with it. Placing it next to the bed she reached over and placed Jethro’s hand in hers. Bill Irons stared down at the sight of her holding Jethro’s hand and smiled knowingly to himself.

 

Chapter 4

Jethro’s recovery took a turn for the worse the next day when fever struck him. For three days he tossed and turned and talked out of his head. When Bekke had finally turned in to sleep, Irons took over watching him. Suddenly Jethro awoke with a start. Bill could tell the boy was still talking out of his head but the pleas for another of Bekke’s kisses was not from any fever dream, the boy was in love with Bekke. Bill Irons kept a cool cloth on the boys head and soon the young man drifted back to sleep.

On the third day of Jethro’s fever it broke. Jethro awoke shaky but hungry, a good sign. Bekke was excited and continually had to admonish Jethro for trying to leave his bed.

“C’mon Bekke, I’m fine! Why I feel better every hour.”

“Now listen Jethro, I need to get back to work drivin’ Bills freight. He’s startin to get short on supplies an’ they need to be gotten.  Plus there’s a few general stores along the way that I drop other supplies off to. I’m needed an’ I like the feeling. Besides, every time you try to crawl outa bed you start oozing blood again.”

Jethro rolled slowly onto his side and looked longingly at her, “I need you Bekke, be safe, OK?”

Bekke leaned over him and tenderly kissed him on the mouth. In her musically raspy voice she told him, “I’m glad you need me Jethro. This is hard for me to say all that’s spinnin’ in my mind but I want you to know this before I leave. I don’t know how it happened or even why but I’ve fallen in love with you.”

As she turned to leave Jethro called out to her.  “I love you too.”

The months passed and Bekke continued to drive the freight wagon for Bill Irons. Jethro recovered enough to return to work but the mine declined to take him back as work had slowed and layoffs were imminent so Irons took him on.

 “I was hoping you’d join up with me here at the mercantile long ago,” Bill told him, “but, I figured you’d think I was given’ you a hand out an’ I know you wouldn’t cotton up to that. But truth be told, I ain’t getting’ any younger and am really lookin’ forward to someday takin’ some time to go east an visit my daughter an’ grandkids back in Virginia. I’d consider it my good fortune if you’d step in my place for a spell an’ run the place while I’m gone. What d’ya say son?”

Without saying a word Jethro stuck out a man’s hand and grasped Bills in it. A quick shake and the deal was done.

 “I’ll draw up the paperwork given’ ya’ access to the bank and all rights to operate the place as you see fit. I’ll make sure it’s done all legal like so’s to avoid any trouble.”

 

In Phoenix, Bekke’s last stop was at a small leather workers shop owned by an elderly Mexican and his plump happy wife. There Bekke was to pick up some bridles, halters and leather britchens for mules and two beautiful hand tooled saddles. While waiting for the old Mexican craftsman to load the goods onto the wagon, Bekke ran across the road to a small café to grab a mid day meal. Inside, the cafe was dark and cool. No sooner had she entered than a girl named Lois who was busy waiting on tables looked up and waved to her. “Hiya’ Miss Hillstrand! I see you finally returned. What’s been keeping you away?”

Bekke found an empty table and pulling up a chair to it sat down. “Oh, too much to tell in one sitting Lois.” She raspingly laughed.

“Well Bekke, I’m all ears as soon as dinner is over, will you be around then?”

“Afraid not, I gotta get back to Globe before dark.”

While the two friends chatted gaily, an elderly looking man rose slowly from the table he had been sitting at and approached the girls on teetering legs. To any patron in the cafe, the old man appeared aged not so much from years but from the burdens of life that had taken their tolls. Where most men seem to grow old gracefully, this fella missed the stage by months.

Reaching them, the old man bowed his head in apology.  “Excuse me for interrupting the two of you.” He said.

 Looking at Bekke his moist blue eyes softened and he quietly asked, “Did I hear right that you are called Bekke Hillstrand?”

“Yes, who wants to know?”

“May I see your neck please?”

“Why?”

“Please, it’s important to me. May I see under your kerchief?”

“Suite yourself,” she chuckled, “but I’ll charge you for a second look.”

Bekke removed the red kerchief she had tied around her neck. Underneath the old scar from being hung and dragged by a leather strap was plainly in evidence.

The old man began to shake visibly. “And your voice, it changed when you received that scar?”

“Mister, I have no idea, I was only a few months old at best.”

The old man’s lips began to quiver, subtly at first but in trying to speak his lips took on a noticeable tremble. “B-Bekke?”

“Mister, I’m not sure what the problem is or what you want but please, I have only a short time to eat before I drive my freight wagon back to Globe. It get’s dark early this time of year and I don’t particularly desire to drive my team blind. What is it you want from me?”

“I want nothing, I just wanted to introduce myself, that is all.”

“Well why didn’t you say so, I’m Bekke Hillstrand and you are?”

The old man looked sheepishly down at the girl and quietly said, “Johan, Johan Hillstrand, I’m your father.”

Bekke stood as if made of stone. Suddenly she spun on her heel and made for the door. Behind her the old man cried out, “Bekke!”

Slamming the cafe diners screened door, she stomped outside where the customers could hear her raspy voice scream the word “NO!”

 Chapter 5

“So this is it Mister. End of story I guess. I promised myself if ever I ran across the dirty dog I’d kill him. It’s gonna be for a different reason than all the others I kilt dead. They all wanted somethin’ from me an’ for that they paid for it. I’ll go in an’ face him, let him know what he did to me, then I’ll punch a hole clean through his liver and watch him bleed out! It’ll for sure be cold blooded murder but justice needs to be served an’ if I’m hung for it fine, I’ve been hung once already.”

She turned to the café and I followed her inside hoping she wouldn’t do what she said she would. She seemed such a nice girl.

“OK old man, out with it. I promised myself I’d let you speak your piece before blasting you. I got too much of my life missin’ an’ out of plain ol’ curiosity I want to hear what you gotta say to me. Of course most all you tell me will be lies, but I’m keen enough to see through them. Still, I might get a few nuggets of truth and for that your still standin’ here breathin’.”

I noticed the man kind of wobble back n forth dizzy like as if he was unbelieving on what he was hearing.

“Daughter Bekke, what is wrong? This should be the happiest day of our lives, yours and mine. I don’t understand why such hate for me is within you. Please, first tell me what grieves you then I’ll answer any question you have with truth. I am old and ill of health, I have no reason to speak falsely.

“OK, first off. In truth, I know only what’s been told to me. I have no memories of you, my mother, nobody! I’ve been told bit’s an’ pieces over the years by different folks. How they knew anything about my past is beyond me but I had no choice but to add their stories together and decide for myself what occurred when I was a babe.”

I saw the girl step up face to face with the old man, then she laid into him with all her grievances.

“I’m beholding to what I come up with. I knowed we arrived safe and sound as a family off a wagon train from the East somewhere’s. I figure Missouri. Then for some unexplained reason you got it in your head that you could do better without a family draggin’ behind you all the time. So first off, I was told, you refused to seek a Doctor or any medicine when my brother fell ill with the grip. He died to your pleasure. Then later you decided I was too much a bother too an’ you ended up hangin’ me in a horse stable by my neck. You thought I was dead but I lived because I weighed so little my neck didn’t snap! When my mama found me hangin’ there gasping for life and faced you for what you did, you kilt her with arsenic pisin you got from your friend the druggist. Before it kilt her though it ad you drove her insane! Ya then left me abandoned on a strangers door stoop. From then on I been handed down from one vile no good to another with few moments of happiness in between. I was forced to be a play thing for men as a child. Now, let me hear your lie’s an’ if I can’t stand them no more I’ll drop you where you stand old man!”

I saw the old man’s tears tumbling down his horrified face as the girl laid into him. I couldn’t for the life of me understand how she could watch his pain an’ yet be so unfeelin’ but I guess when you been through what she’d been through you get a mighty hard heart. When the old man finally spoke all the ears in the café diner was wide open, not a clink of a plate was to be heard.

“M-My heart lies heavy in my chest Daughter,” He sobbed.”What you have been told are lies, all lies. Why someone would say what they did confounds me. Kill me if you wish when I am finished speaking, it will be a blessing to me. To hear what you have endured because of my naivety and dereliction will be added to my sins in hell.”

At this point the old man stopped to wipe his tears with an old kerchief he pulled from his vest pocket.

“Your mother, Uda was her name, was the love of my life. We were both emigrants to America from nearby villages in Sweden. We met one day at a church social in the small town of Athens back in Ohio. it was as they say, love at first sight. We became inseparable friends and soon lovers. Though we had more than two decades separating our ages, no one thought it improper, least of all your mother’s family. Their love for me was overwhelming. We married in the same church that we had first seen each other. Your beautiful brother Sven was soon born and he lit up our lives as the sun lights the day. In truth, your mother had suffered previously to a spell of dark moods. Upon your brothers birth though these moods fell by the wayside. We had been having problems with our neighbor so we decided with the encouragement of your Aunt and Uncle to start over and move to Texas. That is when you were born. How could we not have been the happiest family? Two beautiful children, a new future ahead of us and loving relatives to travel with.

 You were partially correct though, we left by wagon from Missouri but we were not from Missouri. Part way to our destination an evil and vile man brutally attacked and had his way with your mother while I was away tending the livestock. The man was shot and killed by a fellow traveler when he took flight. We found him a short distance away expired, we left the man unburied for the animals to feed on! What your mother went through no one can explain. I believe she lost her mind at that moment and wanted nothing more than to no longer exist. She was the one who killed your brother Sven. He was never  prone to illness but was a healthy strapping boy. Driven by her delusions, she ended his life unknowingly to me as I drove the wagon. Mercifully it was a quick death. He is buried alongside the trail where a cross marks his grave. It is still be standing, it was m-m-made of h-heavy wood and over the years I’ve revisited his little grave n-n-numerous times.”

Again tears flowed freely but this time I noticed moistness in the girl’s eyes. I also noticed the tip of the rifle barrel had drooped towards the floor a mite. Wiping his eyes clear once more, the old man cleared his throat and continued speaking.

“And you… my dream come true, my precious little Bekke. We can only assume what happened as no one saw the act. A man in the  wagon behind us saw you dumped from the rear of the wagon. A leather harness strap had been tightly twisted around your neck. You were dragged with your tiny limbs flaying about as you fought for your life. A stranger arrived in response to our yells and lifted your blue body from the earth. Using his large hunting knife he cut away the noose from around your neck. In his rush to free you though he cut deeply into your throat but not so much that your wound did not eventually heal. To all of us present, we praised God when you sucked in your breath and began crying. Such a strange cry you gave, it was as a frog croaking but it mattered little to me for you were alive. When we reached Fort Stockton your mother’s delusions worsened. A Doctor began to treat her but his experience was with the body, not the mind. In giving their support, your Aunt and Uncle promised to care for you until we all met up in Austin. I found out years later that sometime after they had left, your Aunt passed from the influenza and you were given to another family to be cared for. Your Uncle left with his children to return to Ohio but apparently never made it. No one knows whether they came to an early demise or stopped to settle elsewhere along the way. Our family in Ohio knew nothing of his return. At the time, I knew nothing of all of this and assumed y-you were s-s-still s-s-safe with family.

By now most of the folks in the café diner were in or near tears. I think at that point the pendulum swung from believin’ the girl to believin’ her Dad. I truly believed that if she had pulled the trigger then and there that the entire group of diners would’ve jumped atop her.

“When I realized you and my family were not to be found, I spent the next seventeen years traveling throughout Texas trying to find you and that is the honest to God’s truth. It is by pure coincidence that we meet here today for I had come across a story of a young girl found wandering the desert years ago by a Mormon missionary. I was on my way to Utah to find this missionary to see if it was you he had rescued when in my travels I stopped into this cafe for a meal. My joy would be complete and all of my years of prayers answered except that my precious daughter is pointing a gun at me and wishes my death. I am finished, I can add no more. If you still disbelieve me then I can only say that those who have harmed you are having the last laugh in your killing of the father who truly loves you. What can an old man say to prove he is telling the truth? Nothing. If you feel must kill me to rid yourself of the demons that have tormented you all these years, then you have my blessing to pull your trigger.”

 

It was then I saw the old man stand tall and erect as he waited for the inevitable punch of the bullet. Tears were streaming like a spring thunderstorm down his face but I knew the tears were not from any fear of his death but the from irony of finally findin’ his baby girl, only to lose her in the end. He slowly closed his eyes an’ then spoke to her one last time.

“I love you my precious Bekke…”

The girl stood misty eyed an’ unmoving for a solid minute. What was transpirin’ in her head only the Good Lord knowed. She slowly bowed her head. Closing her own eyes her tears dropped to the floor as did the rifle. Then stepping forward and putting her arms around the old man, sobbing, she hugged him.

“I love you too Dad.”

The place went bizerk in cheerin’! As she and the old man passed by me goin’ out the door to the thunder of congratulating applause, she reached out an’ gave my arm a good squeeze and whispered, “Thank you.”

I stood lookin’ out after ‘em as they headed across the road to the Mexican leather place hand in hand. If I heard correct like, I believe I heard her tellin’ the old man about a young man who had asked her to marry him. Then like two old friends they chattered their way till I could no longer make out what they was sayin’.

Well, I best be getting back home. The wife sent me out to pick up some staples an’ I’ve yet to get ‘em. It’ll be a dickens tryin’ to explain all the happenings here an’ why I was so late in getting’ on back home. I believe the easiest out is to just tell her I stopped in at the saloon and downed a few cold ones an’ lost track of time. Yup, I do believe she’d go for that. Besides, it won’t be no lie, for I sure could go for a cold one right about now!

                                                                 The End

 

 

The Black Blizzard by JW Edwards

sand storm

 

July 10th, 1893 The storm hits.

Unable to wait patiently for his horse to come to a complete halt, Barnaul Caine hurriedly dismounted and made his way at a run out of the old corral towards the cabin. The hunted rider peeked through the single pane plate glass window that served to light the desert cabins interior. Seeing no sign of life within, he shouldered the handmade plank entrance door open and stepped inside. The coolness of the cabins interior surprised him as outside, the temperature had skyrocketed past one hundred and fifteen degrees. A quick look about told him the cabin had been abandoned to the elements some years ago. Not the cleanest of places he mused, yet it would still serve to give him the needed protection he’d been   hoping to find.

Stepping back outside, he glanced at the black horizon and knew he had maybe fifteen minutes at best before the monstrous mile high dust storm stuck. He wondered what would reach him first the storm or the group of men on his tail.

The discovery of a serviceable bucket at the cabins well told him folks found this a God send of a shelter from time to time. Hauling bucket after bucket of the cool well water inside he filled an old wash tub that had been hanging on the interiors back wall. Not that he had any intention of bathing mind you, instead he knew the dust storm could last for days and he’d need clean drinkable water for his horse as well as himself during that time.

Retrieving his horse he’d simply named Horse, he brought her to stand inside the cabin. The whites of her eyes told him all he needed to know. If his horse had such a fear of the coming storm, then he better prepare for the worst. Running outside again, he found an old outbuilding that had once served as a stall and blacksmith shop. “Must have been a farrier that lived here,” he absently thought.

Seeing no tools of the trade, he figured the Farrier must have left the place voluntarily for parts unknown. He knew that years back there had been a thriving silver mine in the nearby hills and when it closed, the lone farrier must have left too.

Stepping into the stall area, he was pleasantly surprised to find a partially filled sack of oats in a small alcove used for storing tack. At one time an old bed sheet curtain had hung from nails separating the alcove from the two stalls. He reached down and grabbing the old bed sheet, rolled it up and stuffed it inside the sack along with the oats. Time was of the essence so he abandoned the search for any more usable finds and ran back into safety of the cabin.

“Well Horse,” He said as he entered the cabin, “I found you some eats at least.” Laying the burlap sack down he scooped some into the empty water bucket and let her feed. After feeding, he brushed the horse down using an old moth eaten towel he’d found. Between the feeding and brushing the mare calmed down and began accepting her unusual situation.  Barnaul then began tearing the old bed sheet he’d found into hand width strips. These he would use to plug the gaps and holes of the cabin.

He knew when the dust storm hit, the choking dust would find it’s way into the building through even the smallest unattended crack.

Wiping the years of soil from the window pane, he glanced outside at the coming storm. He figured he was down to about five minutes now. Using his knife, he quickly began stuffing the torn bed sheet strips into as many cracks and crevices as he could find. All too soon the storm would strike and still the single window needed to be covered.

At one time, a wooden shutter had been secured with bent spikes pounded into the window’s frame to hold it in place. Over the years its leather hinges had dry rotted and the unsecured shutter had fallen to the ground. Retrieving the shutter he lifted it back into place and turned the bent spikes over the shutter to once again secure it.

Unlike a winter blow or a monsoon rain, the dust storm had its own way of announcing itself. Rising as high as the eye could see the mile high wall of howling blackness bore down on the cabin and its occupants. The desert sand outside began to blow across the ground, not away from the storm but towards it. This surprised him but he had no time to ponder this phenomenon as he secured the shutter in place. Moments later, the storm stuck.

Struck might be the wrong word, punched or kicked is closer but still even those words lacked in their description.

Heading back inside, Barnaul had just made it to the door when he was violently smashed against the cabins outside wall. With the breath knocked out of him, he gasped for air as he tried to open the door outward into the storm. He finally managed to open it enough to pry his boot into the opening. He could hear Horse clomping about and whinnying in renewed panic. He needed to get inside to calm the poor beast. Wedging his shoulder into the crack he managed to pry the door open enough to squeeze his body through the opening. The storm’s pressure on the door left bruises across his chest and back but it was far better being bruised than shredded like lettuce by the sand and small rocks being blown by the storm.

Once again he made his way around the cabin trying to minimize the incoming dust with the strips of bed sheet. Without warning, the old cast iron stove’s smoke pipe suddenly exploded from the stove. The fierce wind had tried to make its way down the pipe poking its way through the roof but was forced to stop when it reached the stoves firebox door. The resulting increase in pressure lifted the pipe clean from the stove. A six inch wide tunnel of dust blasted its way down into the cabin from the section of pipe left protruding from the ceiling. Blinded by the dust, Barnaul felt for the overhead pipe as he removed his vest. Finding the pipe he stuffed the vest into the hole and using his hands crimped the edge of the pipe closed. As the pipe filled with sand from above, it effectively sealed off the pipe.

The cabin was being rocked by the blasting storm.  Creaking and groaning, the cabin seemed to have been built with the fore knowledge that these storms come time and time again. It was the roof that worried Barnaul the most but after the first hour he began to relax a might more.

There wasn’t much he could do now but tend to his horse and wait the storm out. Those tracking him would have to do the same.

    Chewing on a piece of dried beef flank, Barnaul sat back against the wall for there were no chairs or tables. Time passed slowly as the moaning wind continued its assault on the land.

Alone and nearly exhausted, he thought of his recently deceased Coleen and what his own future now held without her. He’d purchased the ranch in full that the two had planned on operating so at least that much was settled. If he survived the next few days, he’d have a chance of still making a go of the place, although without a wife it had much less purpose. He was young and knew he’d end up remarrying someday. He just wasn’t going to look for it right away, that’s all. If it happened it happened. Things occurred in a man’s life that wasn’t always pleasant, death was all too common, especially in the west. The living grieved and then they continued on, if they didn’t they joined the dead.

Finishing his scant meal, he fed some of the discovered oats to his horse again and settled in as comfortable a position as could be expected. Someone before had made a rough bed using various grasses but Barnaul took one look at the critters seeking to escape his poking around the bed with his knife that he opted to sleep on the open dirt floor instead. Throughout the night the storm raged and found numerous new crevices to enter the cabin. By morning dust piles looking like small snow drifts had formed on every shelf, nook and cranny within the cabin. Barnaul himself looked like he had been dragged through the desert for all the dust in his hair and clothing.

Making his way to the old wash tub, he removed Horse’s saddle blanket that had been covering it throughout the night.  He scooped up enough water in the pail to wash his hair and face free of the dust. Taking a damp piece of the bed sheet he blew his nose into it… Mud. At least he could breathe easier now. Reaching behind his neck, he untied the bandana and retied it over his face covering his nose and mouth to prevent breathing any further dust.  Even so, each time his teeth came together it was like chewing on grit paper. He moved over to Horse and using the damp cloth cleaned the horse’s nostrils of as much dust as he could. Horse seemed to know and held still. Turning, he saw a small broken mirror hanging on the wall told him he still looked a sight. The one time handsome face cropped in soft brown hair and complimented by green eyes and a well grown mustache now resembled that of a wild miner that had been the loser in a saloon brawl. Blood shot eyes stared back and each blink felt as if he’d rubbed them with prickly pears. It had been only three weeks since he had been forced to take to the desert but being on the run and the dust storm seemed to have added ten years to his looks.

Dirty tears involuntarily slid down his dusty cheeks as he recalled the events of three weeks ago. While the storm continued its beating on mother earth, Barnaul beat himself with his own memories.

June 12th, 1893 Three weeks earlier

The two newlyweds, Barnaul and Coleen, had just returned to their Texas home from their week long honey moon when they announced they had purchased an existing working ranch in the Arizona Territory during their time away.

The owner of the ranch had died suddenly so his wife put the place up for sale and moved back east. In the sale agreement, the ranch’s foreman and staff were kept on and the cattle were purchased for only four cents on the dollar after they were driven to market.

The thought of losing his sister Coleen forever to the tall handsome cowboy was too much for the insane Tory McClandish. That night he set fire to their modest home in crazed anger hoping both would die. Only Coleen did. She was overcome by the smoke and as hard as he tried, Barnaul could not find her in all the dense smoke to save her.

After burying the feisty red haired beauty, he was coldly invited into the McClandish home. Once inside, he was confronted by the angry red faced Ian McClandish, his son Tory and a few of the ranch’s rougher hands.

Before any words of greeting were spoken, Barnaul was manhandled to the floor where Ian McClandish pounded him severely using his brass knobbed cane.

Through swollen eyes received from the beating, Barnaul Caine looked up at his father in law. He had tried in vain to explain it was not his fault Coleen did not survive but his father in law would hear no more of it.

“Stop your lies you coward! Not two weeks after you married her, my daughter lies burnt and buried in her grave and all because you did not have the guts to save her. Don’t tell me you tried! You stood there and watched her burn, I know.  My son Tory saw the whole thing and you have the gall to try and blame her death on him, her own brother! You sniveling coward!” Ian McClandish raised his cane to strike at Barnaul once again.

Barnaul’s mind raced even as his body was about to be broken. How could he convince his father in law that what he had discovered was the truth. That his wife Coleen had an insane brother who was in love with his own sister and if he could not have her, no one would, especially his new brother in law Barnaul.

Just as McClandish brought his cane down again, Barnaul twisted to the left causing the brass headed cane to violently strike the ornate wooden inlay floor of his father in laws sitting room. Three sets of arms instantly reached out for him but Barnaul skirted away on his hands and knees.

Having cleared the three sets of grabbing of hands, Barnaul lurched to his feet and made a dash for the door. Tory McClandish, the insane love struck brother, was right behind him. As he reached the door Barnaul spun around and kicked out with all his might. The tip of his boot buried itself deeply into Tory McClandish’s unprotected crotch stopping Tory in his tracks.

As Barnaul left the porch on the fly, he heard from behind him the shouts of the other two men mingling with the cursing groans of Tory. The old man continued to spew his hatred even as Barnaul made it to his horse and rode quickly off. With the old man’s promises of killing Barnaul for the death of his daughter still ringing in his ears he headed west to the Territory of Arizona and to his ranch. Everything he planned to take with him to Arizona was in Texas but if he returned to salvage anything from his home he’d surely be found and murdered.

July 11th, 1893 The second day of the storm.

Barnaul found no sleep that night. Between the memories of the last three weeks and the demonic howling of the dust storm sleep was the last thing accomplished.

The cabin continued to shake and groan and no matter how many rags were stuffed into the cracks, the dust was still choking him. He frequently wiped Horse’s nostrils clear and eventually removed his own shirt to tie around her head covering the end of her nose. The mare continued to show signs of distress so after washing out her eyes he tied the shirt arms in such a fashion as to cover her eyes. This seemed to finally calm the creature down enough that Barnaul no longer feared being stomped on.

July 12th the storm ends

The morning of the third day brought no relief. The past few days of arid heat pushed the thermometer past one hundred inside the cabin. The roof had begun to loosen in places causing some boards to rattle loudly. As each hour passed, more dust found its way inside. Having run out of rags Barnaul was forced to stuff his only blanket between the worst of two loose roof planks. His noonday meal dinner consisted of dried meat and dust.

He wondered about the McClandish’s and how far behind him they were when the storm struck. They were only a few miles behind him when he found the cabin and not fifteen minutes later all hell broke loose. He figured they must have hunkered down somewhere nearby to wait the storm out. He’d have to be prepared for their arrival the moment the dying storm permitted travel.

Actually, it wasn’t the cabin he found first but only the corral. The cabin was pretty well hid by overgrown brush and a large mesquite tree.

It wasn’t until he entered the corral that he spotted the small building a hundred feet off. Of all the bad episodes luck he’d had, finding the cabin wasn’t one of them.

Thinking about it, in a way he actually understood Ian McClandish’s reaction to his daughters death. The cards had been stacked against him from the moment he began courting the fiery red haired Coleen. Her father had been against the two becoming intimates as Barnaul Caine was from an English heritage. It made no difference that Barnaul’s great grandfather fought side by side Daniel Morgan as a sharpshooter in 1777 during the Revolutionary War against King George’s army.  To McClandish, once English, always English and the McClandish’s were Scotts and hated anything English.

Still, Coleen persisted in trying to convince her father who eventually agreed half heartedly to the pairs marriage.

The decision to begin ranching separate from the McClandish’s drove the wedge between Barnaul and Ian McClandish deeper. Tory McClandish had his father’s ear and he plied the old man with tales of Barnaul’s spousal abuse and marital indiscretions… none of which were true. Having lost his own wife in a strangely similar house fire only a year previous, Ian McClandish could not bear a repeat performance involving his only daughter. Tory began to spread the rumor that Barnaul had argued with Missus McClandish only hours before and had left the McClandish home that night in a fury. Tory had conveniently left out the fact that Barnaul was out on the range branding cattle some thirty miles east at the time.

Poor Coleen, Barnaul thought, she was so excited about starting their new ranch. The two had purchased the prosperous spread alongside the Cottonwood Creek in the high rolling plains area east of Holbrook. Coleen would never see it now. He doubted seriously now that he would either. With a family like the McClandish’s, there was no safe place to hide. They’d spend the rest of their days on his trail until the caught up with him. Though the McClandish group amounted to only five men, they were a most hell bent group when seeking revenge. Barnaul knew his death would not be a quick or painless one when they caught up to him.

Driven into a deep despair over his recent misfortunes, Barnaul cried out to the wife who could no longer possibly hear his voice. “Oh Coleen I’m missin’ you somethin’ fierce! I wish above all else that you was here with me right now to talk to. We never even got a chance to even say goodbye to each other honey an’ now I’m about to be kilt graveyard dead too. It ain’t fair! I know your crazy brother kilt you dead just like he kilt your Ma! Now your Pa’s blamin’ me for your death and even suspects I did the same to your Ma! I cain’t prove it, but I’m sure as hell believin’ that he did in your Ma in too! Why I wasn’t even in the same county when she died. Why would I kill her, I thought she was one of the finest women I knew. Besides, she was the only one in your family besides yourself who was truly happy over our bein’ married. In truth, she was the only one I was gonna’ miss after we moved on to Arizona. Dang it Coleen, you know I’da never kilt her! Now I’m a walkin’ dead man as ever was one!”

Self pity wouldn’t solve anything and Barnaul knew it. Raising himself from off the floor he decided to feed some of the oats to his horse. Brushing her down with the palm of his hand he spoke, “Listen up Horse, when this here storm cuts out you’re gonna’ be on your own. I’ll leave this here oat sack open on the floor for ya’ till you can find some graze somewhere. When I leave it’s gonna be on foot as I’m thinkin’ that I might make a smaller target that way.

If I can get to those hills yonder, I might even stand a chance of shakin’ them off my tail. I’ll be leavin this here door open so’s you can leave an’ not be trapped inside. I hate to tell you this girl, but I’m mighty convinced that once that door opens, it’ll be the last time we ever see each other agin.”

It was a change in sound that alerted him. The wind was dying down quick. Checking his revolver to make sure he had a full cylinder, he stepped near the door.

Taking one last glace about the small cabin, he realized he was about to abandon the only thing he owned besides his horse and the clothes on his back, his blanket. Chuckling quietly, he said, “It’s a sad day when the only thing a man owns is his blanket and he’s forced to abandon even that!”

As the wind abated further, an eerie stillness settled over the land. Easing the door wide open there was no other sound now than his own breathing. No birds, no rustling of small critters, nothing. He strained his ears in fear of hearing the McClandish’s. Nothing. Stepping cautiously into the open with gun drawn, he began stepping away from the cabin.

The land had the appearance of a tan winter landscape after a blizzard. Sand drifts were piled waist deep against anything that had not moved. Some of the corral post had completely disappeared under tons of dust. The smell of the alkali soil burnt his nose when he inhaled and the unfamiliar brightness of the sun hurt his eyes. Stepping towards the corral in his trek to reach the distant hills, he continued to be on alert for the McClandish’s dreaded arrival. Reaching the corral, he realized this section of the top rail was only two feet tall, the rest remained buried below in the drifted dust. Something moved away underfoot as he stepped over the rail. Unconcerned, he tried shoving it away with his foot. It moved but would not dislodge from where it lay. Glancing down, he did a double take and let out a yelp. “What in tarnation???”

It was a skull and it was attached to something much bigger… a body.

Whatever skin remained on the skull had the appearance of glued on flaps of dry rotted leather. In horror, Barnaul realized what he had just stepped on, Ian McClandish’s sand blasted head. Still leaning against the corral post half buried in the sand stood his brass knobbed cane.

Backing away from the grizzly sight, he noticed more forms in the drift, three in all. Holstering his revolver, and using his hands for a shovel, Barnaul cleared the remains of Tory and the ranch’s Segundo Javier.  Each body had been cleaned of skin where exposed to the wind. Tory’s head lay back, his gaping mouth and hollow eye sockets were filled with the storms dust. In a futile attempt to protect his face, the Segundo’s head still wore a tattered bandana around his neck . A large mound nearby turned out to be the wind buried carcasses of five very dead horses.

A sudden fear struck him as he realized two men were still not accounted for.  Redrawing his pistol, he knelt behind the corrals low top rail in an attempt to find cover. Nothing moved.

It was then that he realized there were two more forms half buried in the dust. One was less than thirty feet from the cabin and the other lay a good two hundred feet where the trail had been.  Making his way to each form, he verified the bodies were those of the ranch hands that had been riding for McClandish.

“Well I’ll be!” he mused, “They must never have realized how close to the cabin they was. I guess the dust storm prevented ‘em from seeing more’n a foot or two in front of ‘em.”

Barnaul decided not to bury the bodies as he had no shovel and in the after storms searing heat, the bodies had already begun to stink something awful. “They ain’t deservin’ no prayers from me, I’ll just let ‘em lie where they’s at. Besides, they’s half buried anyway”

Hearing a sound behind him, Barnaul spun around ready to pull the trigger. There in the doorway stood his horse as if waiting for his return. “OK,OK, I’m comin’ Horse, I guess you and I still got some trails to ride together after all. All these folks chasin’ us gave up their ghost an’ most of their skin too!” Barnaul began to laugh, whether from his attempt at the bad joke or out of pure relief from finding himself being counted in the living again he did not know, nor did he care. His life and future had been handed back to him. It was up to him to make whatever he wished of it.

Back inside the cabin again, he dusted off the saddle and the rest of his tack. Pulling the blanket from between the roof planks, he shook it out and rolled it up behind the saddle. Tying the feed sack, he stuffed it into one of the saddle bags. He was about to lead his horse out of the cabin when something caught his eye, something shiny on the floor.

Bending over, he gently picked up the object and cradled it in the palm of his hand. It was a locket, the very locket that Coleen wore every day since her mother’s death. Inside rested a small painting of her mother. Barnaul’s hand began to shake. The locket had been buried with Coleen! She was telling him she had been with him all along.

July 18th 1893 Home

He caught sight of his ranch while still some miles out. By the time he arrived at the gate a small party had assembled to greet him.

A tall glass of water of a man rode forward. He may have looked a bit on the thin and wimpy side but Barnaul saw the rippling wire tight muscles move under his long sleeved shirt and knew the man was no push over. Tipping his broad brimmed slouch hat, the thin cowboy rode forward to greet his new boss. “I’m Chet, the foreman here, I take it you’re Barnaul Caine? We saw you comin’ from some distance off. Excuse me for saying this Sir but you look a sight!”

Barnaul returned the gesture of friendship by extending his hand. Chuckling, he told him, “Trust me Chet, It’s worse than it looks.”

A quizzical look came over Chet’s face as he glanced past Barnaul and into the distance. “Uh, is the Misses lagging behind, ‘cause I don’t see her nor any wagons yet?”

Barnaul sat quiet for a moment then spoke up and explained the reason for Coleen’s absence and why he looked so tattered.  “It’s a long story that can be best told in full over a hot meal and a few gallons of coffee. Am I too late for dinner?”

Barely finished speaking, Barnaul heard the dinner bell being rung. “Well’” he said to himself smiling, “I guess I timed that one right.”

The group turned and rode on to the mess building where the dinner bell was being beaten like the place was on fire. As they got closer to where the mess, Barnaul gulped when he saw who was ringing the bell. A girl with fiery red hair wearing a calico dress and yelling at the top of her lungs stood calling the men to dinner.

Barnaul blinked at seeing the girl. His first thought was that it was his Coleen but as he got closer he saw there were plenty of subtle differences. Turning to Chet he asked, “Who is that?”

“You mean Sheila? She’s the ranch cook. She used to cook for the owners too, she’ll probably end up cooking yours meals also. She’s a wonder in the kitchen but let me warn you right now, she’s got as much spunk and spit in her as a She Badger with pups!” Laughing heartily, Chet continued on. “None of the hands cross her path for fear of losing their lives!”

“Is she married?”

Chet caught the look in Barnaul’s eyes and chuckled, “Ha! I’d give a hundred dollars to the man that’d attempt to tame that one! No Sir, She’s awful purty to look at but ya’ll soon learn discretion is the better part of valor!”

As they passed in front of the girl, Barnaul removed his hat and nodded smiling at the red haired girl. In return, Sheila angled her head and looked shyly up at her new boss. A faint smile worked its way past her defenses and a spark of wonder formed in her eyes.

Chet had not been made foreman because he was an unobservant fellow. He caught the message the two had just encrypted in their smiles to each other and chuckling to himself said, “Oh Lord, here we go, the She Badger just met her mate!”

Watching the group ride towards the mess, Sheila’s let go of the clapper rope silencing the bell. There she leaned against the porch roofs pillar and with pounding heart exhaled heavily. Breaking into a smile she thought to herself, “There rides my future man!”

JW Edwards 02/21/2013

Wild fire on the Brazos!

Chapter 1

Texas long horn trail boss Dusty Plains, sat rabbit still in the saddle sniffing the air. The herd was only sixty miles east of Austin where they had moved out of four days earlier. His brain continued to flip through long ago scent memories like a clerk searching for a certain file among the thousands stored in a cabinet. Suddenly the file was found and pulled.

“Wild fire!” He shouted, South west of here!”

Spurring the Mare, he galloped forward trying to catch up to the lumbering chuck wagon miles ahead of the herd. It was the job of the Grease belly or camp cook to forage ahead of the herd in order to have each meal hot and waiting for the riders. The cook also spotted the trail ahead for Indians, rustlers and any problem that the trail boss should be aware of.

Reigning up alongside the chuck wagon’s driver, Dusty pointed and shouted over to him.  “Biscuit!  Point them cattle eastward to the Brazos River! We gotta’ get’m on the other side of the river, there’s a wildfire about a day’s ride behind us!”

“Hell boss!” Biscuit shouted back. “It’s gonna be cuttin’ it close fer sure. I figure the Brazos is a good ten miles off yet and we got less than four hours of daylight left. It’ll be a late meal and a cold one at that!”

“Just get across and put up some coffee pots, we’ll survive!”

Dusty turned the mare away from the wagon and galloped back to the herd. Reaching the lead or point riders, Dusty explained the situation to them. Immediately, they began to wheel the herd eastward toward the Brazos and safety.

From there he stopped down the line of trail riders, telling each group to keep the herd in a tight line. Stopping at the flank riders, he informed them the herd was turning and told one of the riders to split off and tell the remuda riders what’s going on while he’d let the tail end or drag riders know. Dusty kept his drive functioning like a well oiled machine. Having smelled water ahead and the transient waves of smoke from behind, the cattle quickened their pace and arrived at the river ahead of schedule.

The herd was driven across the Brazos River without incident as the depth was still shallow this time of year. A month from now the river would be a killer. High water not only drowned cattle and riders but brought out the snakes, something every cowboy feared.

Standing on the bank looking westward toward a growing darkness that was not from the setting sun, Dusty thanked the Good Lord for having given him a good nose.

“We’d be a hog on a spit if you hadn’t got us turned just then boss.” The voice behind him was that of his best friend and lead point man, Bob Fisher. “If you look up north a bit, you can see some smoke now, that’s right where we woulda been spending the night. I’m puzzled boss as to how you knew where the fire was at, we couldn’t even see the smoke at that time.”

“I smelled juniper and persimmon in the smoke. Both grow mainly to the southern plains but it was the burning pecan trees that settled it for me.”

“It’s dang fortunate you got the nose if you ask me.”

Throughout the night the night riders sang songs and circled the herd to keep them calm. The continued smell of smoke made the herd jittery and trail boss Dusty Plains feared if the smoke drifting up from the southwest got any thicker the herd would bolt. If they did bolt, he hoped they’d head north in the direction the wanted to travel and not due east.

Dusty doubled up on the crooning night riders and the result was a herd staying put. The chuck wagon had left before dawn to set up ten miles further up the trail for the noon meal. With little sleep under their belts, the riders slowly got the cattle moving again.

By noon, the heard was within sight of the wagon again. Gallons of Hot coffee, Cowboy beans with bacon and sour dough biscuits rounded out the meal. The drag riders showed up last as was about normal and a bucket of water was put out for them to wash the dust from their eyes. Each drag rider looked as if a dust storm had spun itself around them. In many ways it had.

The point riders were the most experienced cowboys and therefore had the best job. It was the point rider that turned the herd to the desired direction and being in the front had little problem with dust.  The flank riders behind them got some dust as they were spaced further back along the herd but it was the poor drag rider that got the worst of it. Having to trail behind the herd pushing lagers and catching strays, they were exposed to every particle of dust kicked up by the thousands of hooves in front of them. With their bandana’s over their nose and mouths to keep out as much dust as was possible, they looked more like a band of bank robbers than honest forty dollar a month cowpokes.

Dusty once again scanned the skies and sat smelling the air. Some of the cowboys stopped and stared intently at Dusty. The riders sitting fireside waited in anticipation for the word from their trail boss. In silence, they drank their after meal coffee waiting.  Finally Dusty turned to them and spoke.

“head ‘em up boys, that fires crossed the river somewhere south of us. This breeze is gonna’ bring it right up our butts! “

Again the well oiled machine had the herd moving. By now the rest of the riders and for sure the herd could smell the increase in smoke.

“ Biscuit, take the chuck wagon with all our belongings and set the wagon in the middle of the river at a wide point up ahead. It’s only a couple feet deep from here to Waco. Soak and wrap a wet blanket over each mules head. That’ll stop some of the smoke smell and that way they can’t see the fire as it passes ‘em. Whatever you do, don’t  leave the river!”

Riding back to the herd, Dusty continued yelling over the rumble of the herd at the point riders, “Push ‘em harder! Let’s try and put some miles between us and the fire. We may have to zig zag across the river more than a few times to keep that blaze from roasting our hides so be ready to turn ‘em across the river if and when  I say so!”

“You got it boss!” The point rider from the opposite side of Bob Fisher yelled. “We’ll follow your lead! That there smokes getting thicker by the mile!”

It was true. As fast as they drove the herd it seemed the smoke was getting thicker and thicker. Now everyone, not just those riding drag, had their bandana’s on. The cattle started their belly aching bawls and began a panicky run north.

By trailing the east bank of the Brazos, fresh water and grass for the cattle was no problem. Dusty wanted to stay as close to the river for as long as he could. If by chance the wildfire roared north ward up the east bank, they could cross the cattle over to the west side and vice versa.

He wondered how the small ranches and homesteads they had passed were fairing. Were they going to be burned out?  His thoughts drifted to Fayetteville thirty miles outside Austin where his wife’s grave was. He wondered if his old ranch had escaped the blaze or whether it, like any ranch caught in a wild fire, no longer existed. “Well, at least it can’t do no harm to Doris’s resting place, that’s for sure.”

Looking southward, the riders could plainly see the red glow spreading across the horizon now. As Dusty headed over to where the horse remuda was, he signaled Tom Beavers, who was in charge of the remuda, to meet  him. As he passed an older experienced flank rider, the rider asked worriedly if Dusty thought the herd should be headed north east to the high rocky ground where the brush and trees were thinned out.

“I would if it weren’t so far away but that bare high ground is still a good fifteen miles off. Some of the faster herd might make it but the cows with calves wouldn’t, they’re too slow.  It’s all the drag riders can do right now to keep ‘em paced with the herd.  Let’s stick to the river for now and hope the fire turns or burns itself out.”

“What about the remuda then? They’s fast”

Dusty contemplated a second then acknowledged the man that the remuda in fact could make the trip in time and rode off.

Chapter 2

Reaching the horse remuda, Tom rode up to Dusty and pulled down his bandana and yelled. “What’s up Dusty?”

Shouting over the din of the moving bawling cattle Dusty told Tom, “I need you and Ned to get the remuda up to the high ground there to the north east where they’ll be safe. The horses can make it within a couple of hours, easily outrunning the fire. I’d hate to lose forty good horses for no good reason. Take them over that saddle on the rise and head ‘em over the other side of it. I’m thinking the fire will burn till it reaches the base of the rise then starve itself out for lack of fuel! The rest of us will try and dodge the fire as best as we can by keeping the river between it and us!”

Tom tipped his hat in acknowledgement and raced over to Ned. Within a minute they had the horse remuda  racing  across the grassy plain to the bare ground fifteen miles to the north east.

Dusty breathed a little easier seeing the remuda heading safely away. He wished dearly that the cattle could move as fast.

They kept the herd minus the remuda now, heading northward along the eastern bank of the Brazos River as fast as the scared cattle herd would go. Smelling fire and knowing water was nearby, the reaction of the cattle was to continually head for the safety of the water. Dusty knew that if the fire came racing up both banks at the same time without the riders to keep them in control, the cattle could panic, and leave the water. They would then try to outrun the fire on land. Cattle were simple creatures, all they wanted in life was to have good grass and water, they didn’t do a lot of hard thinking. It was up to the riders to do the thinking for them because without the riders, the herd was going to be the main course at the world’s largest Ox roast.

Within another hour flames could plainly be seen on both sides of the Brazos five miles to the south.

“Charlie! I’m gonna’ divide the herd.  Grab a couple of the drag riders and separate the lead cattle and fastest cattle then head ‘em as quick as you can behind the remuda. I’ll stay here with the slower beeves. If you all whip the crap outa them they’ll pace out almost as fast as the remuda. I think you can just make it before the fire crawls up your butts! Do it, NOW!”

Charlie quickly grabbed a couple of the drag riders and started separating the faster animals in the herd. Normally the slowest were further towards the end of the line, those they just left alone. The flank riders assisted in the separation and within a few minutes a third of the herd was hoofing it’s way double timed behind the remuda. With two thirds of the herd still left behind, Dusty gathered the other riders for a quick pow wow.

“I sent the fastest of the herd on ahead behind the remuda. They should be alright! It lookin’ like we ain’t gonna’ be able to zig zag ‘em alongside the river after all. The fires racin’ up both sides about equal now. I want the rest of you to gather the remaining head and get’m maybe six to ten wide in the middle of the river. Keep ‘em away from the banks!  I know it’s going to be hard and we’ll lose some, but not doing anything will cost us near two thousand head.  Use your guns and lariats to keep ‘em in the river. That fires going to sound like a locomotive engine when it passes. Do whatever you think is right to keep ‘em in the river, even if you gotta shoot a few leaders trying to make a run for it.”

A chorus of agreements by the riders followed. “Alright then, let’s get them cattle into the river. I want you all ridin’ up and down  alongside the banks forcing  the cattle back into the water if they go to leave it, now move it!”

Moving the cattle into the river was fairly easy as their instinct told them being in the water was safe. Only two things now could make them leave the water. Panic was one, the other was snakes.

Dusty yelled over to a young Mexican vaquero riding flank. “Carlos! If you see snakes in the water, use that machete you got tied to your saddle on ‘em. Cut ‘em down so’s they don’t get to the cattle.” Then to all the other riders he yelled, “Pull iron and blast any snake you see entering the water from the bank. If you got a scatter gun in your saddle holster, pull it and use it! “

No sooner had he given the order when a cow went bawling and started hopping like a bucking bronco in the shallow water. Coming at the terrified animal were three deadly water moccasins not ten feet away. Immediately guns started spitting lead. To the cows good fortune, none made it to the panicked beast alive.  “Calm that cow down!” A rider shouted and ropes were thrown onto the terrified cow from opposite sides. Once finding itself movement restricted, it surrendered itself to the power of the ropes.

Dusty rode up. “Good job boys! Keep a sharp eye along the banks, there’s sure to be more comin’ once the fire chases them out of their holes. Let’s get these cattle moved to the middle of the river, no more than ten wide.”

If the fire and snakes weren’t bad enough, a gust of wind blew Dusty’s Stetson from off his head. Carlos galloped down steam, leaned over and grabbed it. On his return, Carlos noticed Dusty standing in the stirrups looking to the south. Turning, Carlos followed Dusty’s gaze to the south.

“Dios mio!”  Forgetting his English he yelled out in Spanish and pointed at the horizon, “Senior Dusty, una tormenta de polvo, el infierno!”

“What? Carlos, speak so I understand you dammitt!”

“I am sorry Senior Dusty, look, it is a dust storm straight from hell!”

Behind the angry orange flames and now mixing itself with the grey fire smoke was truly a beast from hell.

Looking heaven ward, Dusty threw both arms skyward. “Really? Wasn’t snakes an fire enough Lord?”

Taking into account all the unearthly going on’s, Dusty yelled to the others as they rode up and down in the shallow water keeping the herd in mid river. Every now and then a few shots were fired, sometimes to scare a cow back into the herd and sometimes to kill another snake. “Got another”, someone yelled, but Dusty had no time to congratulate whoever had made the shot.

“They’ll point upriver once the storm hits. They’ll wanna’ put their butts into the wind. That’s good! The cows won’t see the flames now until they are alongside ‘em! If we’re lucky, when they see the flames  the fire should keep ‘em scared away from the banks.”

Within minutes the hurricane force dust storm slammed into the herd. Horses reared and some of their frightened riders went down. Terrified of more water borne snakes, the thrown riders remounted in the blink of an eye.

The river began to churn with white capped waves heading upstream completely washing over the bawling cattle. Standing in the belly deep water, fighting wind and water, the cows did not see the fire as it tore up the river banks being pushed by seventy mile an hour winds.

Dusty hoped the remuda and the thousand head of cattle he had sent out earlier had made it to the rise.

If Dusty were a bird he could have looked down upon the lee side of the rise and seen the cows and remuda grazing calmly while the riders rode in a half circle oblivious to the oncoming fire and dust storm on the other side. When it did hit, the riders looked skyward seeing only the darkness of the dust storm in the sky. Where they had ended up was in a valley protected on three sides by an eroded cliff. This large natural amphitheater allowed the storm to pass harmlessly overhead.  The riders sat pointing upward wondering what was happening but were unwilling to cross over the ridge to investigate. Shrugging their shoulders and hoping the best for the rest of the herd, they went back to riding their own herd.

Chapter 3

Meanwhile, back at the river miles away, Dusty and the others were doing all they could just to stay in their saddles. The riders had all donned their dusters and pulling the collars up high, the hurt caused by the fires intense heat and the scouring sand was kept to a minimum. The cattle and horses had no such protection. With their rears facing the onslaught, it was a good thing that horses and cattle have no need to sit down.The chuck wagon soon had its canvas covering torn loose from the wooden bows stretching it over the wagon. It landed in the river and was soon lost to sight. Now exposed, Biscuit tucked himself down into the foot well of the driver’s seat and hid.

It had been a half hour since the storm had hit them. The wind driven dust had not abated in the least but Dusty noticed the fire, having consumed all the dry grass and trees along the river bank was no longer a threat. Black smoking earth replaced the tall grasses behind the fire wall.

While most fires would have driven hundreds of snakes into the safety of the water, the wind pushing this fire was causing such tall waves that the snakes were thrown bodily back onto the shore. Dusty would have marveled at this stroke of fortune, and would afterward, but for right now he sat white knuckled trying his best to keep his death grip on the saddle horn as the wind and dust did their best to unseat him.

Miles ahead upriver, the fire continued to race along the Brazos banks leaving a mile wide swath on the eastern side. To the west, the fire was much wider but would soon reach a sharp bend in the Brazos stopping the raging fire in its tracks.

Without warning, the wind began to suddenly abate. The head winds that were traveling at hurricane speed had passed now being replaced by a wind half its speed to that of a common dust storm.

Dusty lifted his head and turning it sideways into the wind, tried glimpsing downstream. What he saw was a blackened landscape that diffused itself into the mile high dust cloud. Understanding now came to him. If it were not for the savage blowing of the earlier wind, the slow moving fire would have taken hours rather than minutes to pass them by. While cursing the millions of needle pricks the blowing sand brought about on exposed skin, that very wind in a very strange way was their savior.

Still too soon to fully face into the wind, Dusty tucked his chin back onto his chest and thanked God for protecting the men and the herd.

Without the fierce wind, the river began to settle back down. Any snakes attempting to find their way into the water though were met by the still smoldering earth and retreated back into their bank side holes.

When the worst had passed, Dusty yelled for the riders to clear the river of cattle. Even with dust still swirling about, the snakes would soon venture back into the water.

With yips and howls the cowboys drove the cattle back onto the burnt landscape. Once again the thin line of cattle were making their way north.

Dusty rode over to each rider asking if any were hurt and in need of  any medical attention. Most shrugged off their minor burns and were just happy to have survived.  Fisher commented that from here on in the trail should be a cake walk seeing as to how “We been through wind, water and fire all in one day!”

Looking northeastward, through the abating dust storm , Dusty could now see the ridge where the remuda and cattle were ordered to be taken to. Taking a small spyglass from his saddlebag, Dusty scanned the ridge for any sign of man or beast. None were seen.

“I don’t see anybody this side of the ridge, let’s heads the herd to the back side of it by circling around the south eastern point. They’re probably holed up on the lee side of the ridge”

Within four hours the slow moving herd rounded the southern tip of the ridge. Dusty was pleased that only a few cattle had been lost and a couple of those had been put down by the riders themselves trying to keep the other cows from following any leader ashore.

By now the dust storm was a gritty memory. No one questioned the single day long dust storm but Carlos gave the storm the name ‘Tormenta Dios miragro’ or loosely translated, ‘The torment of Gods miracle’.

The riders quietly had driven the tired cattle over the scorched earth up to the foothills of the ridge. Once rounding the southern point, green grass once again greeted the hungry cattle. Picking up their pace, the cattle soon joined their grazing relatives within the protection of the valley’s amphitheatre carved into the mountain side.

Dusty stopped and took in the sight. “Well I’ll be doggoned. They’s all safe an’ sound!”

Biscuit and the chuck wagon, being faster than the herd, had already set itself up and had  two, two gallon coffee pots heating over a fire.  One of the flank riders rode up dragging the wagons canvas tarp behind him. “Brought you a present Biscuit”. Then dismounting, he untied the canvas from his rope and headed over to the boiling coffee pots where everyone had gathered.

“what’s sayin’ boss?” Charlie called over to Dusty. “

Dusty untying his Stetson told him, “I tell you this much. this has been one heck of a day! Snakes, fire, dust storm… I don’t know about you boys but to my way of thinking, any one of those things coulda’ put an end to any one of us.”

To a man, a word of Amen was sounded.

Dusty continued talking, “Let’s take another day to get some grass into the herd and give our own bones a well deserved rest. I don’t know about you fella’s but my old bones is beat an’ my muscles is worn to a frazzle.”

Once again a round of ‘amens’ was heard.

Two days later found the herd heading out to the north towards Waco. Once in Waco the herd caught the Chisholm trail and headed onto Wichita Kansas. During the drive into Kansas, Dusty thought things deep and hard and made the decision that this was to be the last cattle drive he’d head up. When he talked over his decision with his friend Fisher, he was surprised that Fisher didn’t fight him on it.

“Heck boss, I was thinking along the same lines myself. The rail road’s gonna’ be the way to transport large herds of cattle pretty soon. Where’s that gonna’ leave us then? I’d rather go out while I can still make a choice to be a cowboy or not to be a cowboy. I ain’t no cow poke boss, I can’t see myself proddin’ cows onto rail cars with sticks from a loading platform. No Sir, I might just follow your lead and find somethin’ else to do for a livin’. You have any idea what you’ll be doin’ and where?”

“I’ve been thinking of a small town near Denver Colorado called Castle Rock. I saved up some for the day I decided to quit. My knees ain’t what they used to be, maybe I’ll buy myself a mercantile or dry goods store.”

“You? A dry goods store? Ha! That’ll be the day, more like a bordello if you ask me!”

“Naw, no whorehouse. I been seein’ things a bit different since that day on the Brazos.  I ain’t gonna’ turn into no Preacher or anything but I’m thinkin’ I should clean up my act a bit. The good book talks about becoming a new man. Who knows, maybe I’m gonna’ try an’ teach this ol’ dog some new tricks.”

“Well boss, whatever you decide, I’m behind you on it. I might even look you up someday…see how you’re farin’ an’ all.”

Dusty reached out and he and Fisher shook hands over their friendship. “You look me up Fisher!”

“I will boss. That’s a promise.”

It would be a promise kept.

To read another story featuring Dusty and Fisher, click on the story called “Homer’s magic bullet”.  JW