The Salt River Posse shoot out

Chapter 1  

Tom Hicks watched the grazing cattle from the small rise that overlooked the Tri H  ranch.  From where he sat on top of the blue roan’s saddle, everything looked tranquil but Tom knew looks were deceiving.

Two thousand plus head of cattle freely meandered along the Salt River’s north side in search of fresh graze. The dust kicked up by their plodding could be seen for miles from the surrounding mountain ranges.

The Tri H ranch had been carved out of the eastern end Salt River Valley.  To the west, the sleepy town of Phoenix lay basking in the Sonora desert’s heat. Competition for good graze was stiff among the valley’s ranches and that sometimes led to harsh words blackened and eyes. But, never was a gun drawn between ranches.  All that could abruptly change when sixteen hundred cattle mysteriously disappeared from the valley’s ranches in one swipe.

In the distance a lone rider made his way to where Tom’s lookout camp lay snuggled in the valley’s eastern Superstition Mountain range.

Tom had spotted the rider early on and after confirming by spyglass that the rider was his brother Larry, he relaxed. This was a new twist to ranching. Never before had a need for posted guards been necessary.  While it was true that ranch hands on horseback had always kept watch over the herd, it was unusual to keep a loaded rifle across your saddle. Some hands had never worn a gun while most had only shot at mountain lions or other calf attacking predators. The thought of having to kill a man put the hands at ill ease. After all, shooting at a man also meant the man might be shooting back.

Tom watched as his brother Larry made his way through the desert brush towards him. When Larry made it to hailing distance, Top eased his horse forward to meet him.

Larry tipped his hat in greeting and asked, “What’s the word bro?”

“Haven’t seen a thing outside a lone coyote. What’s the word from the others?”

“I put Chet up in the Estrella’s to the southwest and Billy’s stashed himself north in the White Tanks. We got the valley pretty much in view except to the northwest but the Rocking J’s got that and the passes further west covered.  I spoke with the Mormon widow who owns the land on the other side of the Salt but she denies seeing anybody either.  She’s sure a weird bird. I barely had time to say goodbye before she slammed the door in my face.“

Tom looked questioningly at his brother. The three brothers had busted butt getting the Tri H  up and running. To have it all taken away by some unknown rustler gang put heat under both their collars. Tom was the eldest of the three boys their West Virginian parents had raised. None were given birth by the only mother they knew. It was when Chet, who was the youngest and still an infant, that a house fire took the boys birth parents and an older sister.

At the time of the fire, the small town of Concord Church was being invaded by construction workers building the rural branch of State Normal University out of Beckley. The house fire had suspicious origins but a quick investigation by the Mercer County Sheriff exonerated a man previously suspected of having made lewd advances on the daughter. The newspapers focused their suspicions on the integrity of the hired workers until the man later was found dead. The Sheriff was visibly shaken when told of his pervert cousin’s death by bludgeoning. The funeral ceremony was held with a closed coffin that few people attended.

The three young brothers were taken in by a local Minister and his wife.  The boys grew to be fine young men but none wanted to follow in their elderly adopted father’s footsteps. Instead they spent most of their days hunting and trapping in the steep Blue Ridge Mountains. Although five years spread the three brothers apart from each other, they all had such similar features that many folks believed they were triplets. Blond hair, hazel green eyes and a strong wiry build was the typical look of the southern mountain folks of West Virginia.

One by one, as they reached the age, each left the confines of the small town recently renamed Athens and found themselves being drawn by the call to move west. Shortly after their mothers death by natural causes, Tom was the first of the brothers to buy land alongside the Salt River in the Arizona territory and move out.

Within the year, the two younger brothers followed following the death of their aged father from the fever. By purchasing and combining their separated holdings the Tri H  ranch in the Arizona Territory was born. As the Tri H grew the need for a good on Ranch Foreman was obvious but no one had ever filled the bill. They came and they went but for the most part running the ranch from the saddle was always left up to Larry and Tom.

Looking at his brother in the bright Arizona sun Tom spoke, “Lar, I just can’t figure how a stranger who doesn’t know a dang thing about the area could waltz in here, round up and drive out sixteen hundred head from the different ranches and get away with it.”

Larry lifted a canteen to his dry lips and took a long pull. “That’s for sure. My guess is that whoever done it has been livin’ here for quite a spell. They knew when the rainy season would begin and end. My thinking is that the rustling was timed so each ranch was hit at a different day under the cover of rain. That’s also why no prints were ever found. Hell, you can’t drive five cattle let alone over a thousand without leavin’ tracks unless they’s washed out by the rains.”

“Yeah, I’m in agreement with that. Tell me this Lar, where could the cattle eventually end up at? Texas? Mexico? Somewhere still in Arizona?”

“I suppose they could have ended up anywhere except California or Utah. One has a deadly desert that no cattle could cross and the other has a gigantic canyon in front of it. My bet is they was headed south into Mexico. No one gives a crap about brands down that way and they already caught and hung two Mexicans for rustling this year outside of Tucson.”

Tom thought about it for a bit then as said, “If they headed straight to Mexico, they’d have had to pass by Rustlers Roost Mountain. I’m not sure even the Haney gang there would put up with a bunch of Mexicans passing through with stolen cattle. We all know the Haney’s use that mountain to hide out at after grabbin’ up a few cows at a time to sell to the eateries in Phoenix, but they’s small time. They’re not much different from the mountain folk back in West Virginia. They know how much they can get away with before folks get too pissed of at ‘em and do something about it. No, I’m thinkin’ if they were Mexicans, they’d head toward Texas then head south into Mexico through the passes following the San Pedro River. My guess is, they’d skirt the stockyards in Bisbee by catching the Sonora River west of Mescal then drive the herd to Agua Zarka in Mexico. I hear there are some mighty big ranches down that way. Some of them are in the millions of acres.”

“Then what’re you sayin’ Tom? That we are wasting our time posting guards throughout the valley?”

“I hate to say this Lar but I think our cattle are on their way to a Mexican dinner table and the rustlers ain’t nowhere near here anymore.”

Larry sat there nodding his head.  “You know what Tom? Ya’ have to admit, nobody knows the weather here better than the Mexicans. They’ve been here for hundreds of years an’ the weather down there ain’t much different than it is here. Mexicans would know how to time it just right so no tracks would be left.”

“Do me a favor Larry, take my place up here for a spell, will you? I’m gonna’ head over to the Rocking J and chew this new thinkin’ over with their Segundo, Ray Plaques.”

“Why Ray and not the owner?

“Mr Miles might be a nice guy but he’s from England. He runs a good operation but you’d never see him wear a gun, that’s why he hired Plaques as his Segundo. Plaques word is the law around the Rocking J territory and he sure ain’t no naive foreigner like Miles is. Rays a good man in a rotten job.”

Chapter 2

   Ray Plaques stood on the small porch of his private cabin the Rocking J owner provided him. He watched as Toms blue roan made its way past the cow pens to head his way.

Tom reigned up to the cabin, dismounted and loosened the roan’s saddle cinch. Taking off his wide brimmed Stetson hat, he beat the dust off of himself with it.

“Afternoon Tom!” Ray grunted, “ C’mon inside, let’s get out’a the sun.”

“Sounds good to me Ray, got anything besides water to drink?”

“Hell, you know I don’t drink Tom. I got some fresh squeezed lemonade inside though.”

Putting his hand on Toms back, Ray guided Tom indoors and out of the sun.

Putting his empty lemonade cup down Tom continued speaking, “So that’s it in a nutshell Ray, I think we ought to get us a legal posse and head down Mexico way. Those cattle have a long way to travel and a mess load of difficult passes to get through before they reach the safety of Mexico.  I think we can meet up with the herd before they get to the border.”

On the table’s top in the small kitchen, Ray spun his own empty cup in circles using his finger.

“Damn,” He said, ” Here I had the wild hope they was driving the cows to Colorado or even Wyoming territory. If they were, we could leave it up to the authorities there to round ‘em up. Now that you laid it all out though, I think you’re right. I guess I was just hoping to stay out of it but even in those territories it would have been hard to rebrand those cows without looking suspicious because of all the different brands the ranches use. I guess I better strap on a gun again.”

“So do you think the Rocking J and the rest that lost cattle will back a posse?”

“I know I will but you gotta ask the others but I’m pretty sure the double C and the Z Bar none most likely would. Each of ‘em lost over three hundred head apiece. It’s a good thing that Mormon widow south of here sold off her herd or I’m sure they’d be gone too.

“What’s the story with the Mormon Widow. All I know is her husband and kid died in some sort of mining accident on their land a few months back.”

Ray removed his hat and ran his fingers through his sweat dampened hair saying, “Darned if I know what’s goin’ on over there. I had heard from the Mormon fella that used to be in their pay that the family had some major confrontations with the Church’s Leaders up in Utah. He was under the impression that the family was told to leave the fold so they ended up down here. Other than that, the fella said everything was goin’ well until the mine accident. The widow told him she was sellin’ off the herd and couldn’t afford him no more so he came here lookin’ for work. I couldn’t use him at the time so he went his way. Don’t ask me how she makes her bills now without no men folk around.”

“Maybe they had some saved up when she sold off her herd. I mean it couldn’t be much, she only had a hundred o0r so head. My brother Larry told me he stopped by her place the other day and asked if she saw any rustlers.”

“What’d she tell him?”

“She told him no. No excuses or explanations were given. Then she closed the door on him.”

“I don’t doubt it, they was a strange group. I once ran into the Mister once at the General store here in Buckeye. You’d a thought I was a going to rob him the way he acted. Just as soon as he was finished loading his wagon he beat the hell outa’ there like the Devil was after him.”

“Well, she’s the least of our worries right now. With your permission I’m gonna’ speak to the other ranch owners and tell ‘em you’re on board with forming a posse with us.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll get a few of our hands that are good with a gun to tag along, just in case things get ugly.”

“My brother Larry and I will be going and while we ain’t no fast draws, there ain’t much that we can’t hit when the trigger’s pulled.”

“I heard you West Virginia mountain boys was as quiet as Indians and twice as deadly.”

“Well, it’s true that us mountain bred folk don’t take kindly to trespassers or thieves. You ever try and hunt a turkey? Shoot, you even exhale loudly and they disappear like smoke in the wind. As far as strangers go, Folks that go traipsing over other peoples land without a holler to the owner first will be spendin’ that afternoon pluckin’ buckshot from outa’ his behind.”

Chapter 3

That night found Tom tired and hungry as he rode up to the Tri H Ranch house. Stopping to unsaddle and wipe his horse down before taking care of his own needs, Tom finally found himself at the table gulping down hot coffee and a bowl of beef stew.

“So far everyone I talked to is willing to add their own riders to the posse,” Tom told his brothers.  Looking over the top of his cup, he continued speaking. “Larry, I think Chet should stay behind since Chet is the best at figures and office duties. Me an’ you are replaceable if something bad was to happen to us but if Chet here got shot up, the ranch wouldn’t last a year without his book keeping.” Then with a sly smile at his brother, he added, “ Besides, we’re better shots.”

Chet nodded in agreement, not because by any means he was afraid to go but he understood better than anyone that a ranch without a good book keeper doesn’t last long. It’s the book keeper that does the wheeling and dealing and has to balance the cost of the operation versus the price the time of sale.

“What about the law?” Chet asked, “Are you going to get the U.S Marshal involved?”

Tom answered, “I already did that. We’re all legal like. On my way back from Goodyear I stopped down in Phoenix and got an order from the Marshal. That’s what took me so long getting back here. Oh, by the way, Territorial Judge McCarthy was in town and signed it too so we’re double covered. That way nobody can say we’re a vigilante posse taking the law into our own hands. I got deputized by the Marshal an’ he even gave me a badge.” Pulling  the shiny star shaped badge from his pocket, he laid it on the table.

Getting up, he placed the empty plate and cup in a wash bucket. When their cook came back in the morning, he’d clean up the mess. As he headed upstairs he stopped at the bottom step.

“Before I forget to tell ya’, on the way back here from the judge, I had a chance to stop over at the Mormon widows place.”

“She slam the door in your face? Larry said she did that to him.”

“No. She wasn’t even there.”

“You sure she just wasn’t hiding from ya?”

“I’m sure. After I gave the door a good banging, I checked the door and found it was unlocked.”

“So, I take it you entered? What’d ya’ find?”

“Not much. The stove was cold. Maybe she went to town.”

“Near dark? That don’t make sense.” Chet followed Tom upstairs and turned into his own room. “Well, I’m headin’ off to bed, I got better things to think about than some old crazy Mormon widow. Besides, I need my beauty sleep if you and Larry are leaving me here all alone to do the real work.”

“Well, one thing is for sure Chet, you definitely need to catch up on your beauty sleep!”

   From the six ranches that were hit by the rustlers, seventeen men were rounded up for the posse. Three pack horses joined the group and two extra riding horses. Knowing the rustlers had a good week’s head start, possibly even two, on the posse rode as hard as the desert terrain permitted. The best they could muster that day was twenty miles. The Arizona desert is no place to see how fast a horse can go.

Larry who had left earlier had been riding far ahead as the posse’s scout. On day two he returned to the others at a gallop.

It was at the crossing of the Rio San Pedro River south of Phoenix that he had caught sight of the cattle trail. While the rain had washed the cattle’s tracks clear on the desert floor, nothing could hide the damage all those hooves did to the steep river bank.

“You was right Tom, they’re on their way to Mexico! They must’ve turned east once they passed near  Tempe then crossed the Rio San Pedro at Florence. Their trail runs east along the southern side of the River.”

Tom agreed, “Figured as much, now all we gotta’ do is get ahead of ‘em somehow.”

One of the Z Bar None’s hands they called Donut spoke up. “I know a way to get ahead of ‘em. I was raised in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. I know every pass and old Indian trail there is from there to Mexico. Even if the herd can make ten miles a day, they still gotta stay by water. That means they’ll be huggin’ the San Pedro till they get to Fairbank. There’s a split in the river there that heads west, just a small creek but still it’s enough water for the herd. There’s no need for ‘em to go anywhere near Water Tank 17 or Bisbee. They can cut through the pass by McLaughlin Peak with no one the wiser. They’ll have to drive the cattle through the pass an’ be without water for a day, maybe even two till they get to the Santa Cruz River at Calabasas. From there it’s a straight shot south to Agua Zarka in Mexico.”

Tom thought about it then told the group. “I’m gonna put Donut here in lead. My brother Larry got us this far but at this point, I believe Donut’s our best chance of getting’ ahead of ‘em.”

Tom turned to Larry and asked, “You ain’t holdin’ any hard feelings given up lead scout are you?”

“Shoot no! I’m plumb happy Donut spoke up. I’m not real familiar with the territory this far south no how.” Taking the spyglass’s leather case he had attached to his saddle horn, Larry handed it over to Donut, telling him, “Here, you might need this.”

Tom nodded and told Donut, “Use that glass. If you spot the herd or run into trouble you high tail it right back to us. Don’t be a dead hero on account of some cows. Now where do we go from here?”

Donut pointed to the south west. “Our best bet is to head that a way till we reach Picacho lake then turn south and make our way through the pass at Red Rock. From there we can catch the Santa Cruz. We’ll be cutting more than a week off our travels if we take that way. There ain’t no water from Lake Picacho to the Santa Cruz so we’ll need to water up good at the lake.”

Tom nodded in a way that told Donut to head on out.

 

Chapter 4

   The seventeen riders rode wearily through the heat of Arizona’s Undulating Plain. Temperatures exceeded one hundred and five degrees. The riders unpacked their bedrolls and laid them over the rumps of the horses to protect them as best as they could from the desert sun. As they made their way to Picacho Lake, concern was expressed at how fast they were going through the reserve canteens of water.

Donut returned with the news that Picacho Lake lay only seven miles ahead. Still, it took three more hours to reach its shores. Two miles from the lake, the horses lifted their noses into the air smelling the fresh water. Though half done in, they found renewed strength and immediately picked up their pace.

The sight of the small lake brought the men to delirious shouts of joy.  Reaching the shore, they drove their horses directly into the shallow water. The men clumsily dismounted and fell bodily into the lake thanking their maker for the cool water of the desert oasis.

“We’ll make camp here for the night.” Tom told them. “Donut, take a couple extra canteens and once your horse is cooled and rested, head on out again. Find a spot to make camp for the night up ahead.  At first light, break camp and continue on, we’ll follow your trail.The rest of you water and rest up while Biscuit here cooks us up some grub.”

Biscuit began to unpack the trail supplies while a friendly hand from the Rocking J helped out by getting a fire going. After everyone had eaten, a bucket of lake water was brought up for washing the dishes and pots. A two gallon pot of fresh coffee was hung over the fire to keep it heated. Two riders were chosen to stand watch. Each would take a half night. No one had any real fear of being attacked but when you’re after rustlers, it was better to think ahead than walk back on foot.

The morning sun burst across the lake as if it had been lit on fire. Each cowboy rubbed the sleep from his eyes and made his way stumbling to the coffee pot.

Damn, I slept like I was sleepin’ on rocks!” One man exclaimed. Another turned, looked at the cowboy and told him, “You were ya’ idjut! Look where ya’ laid your bedroll. Ain’t nothing but gravel!”

Looking over at where he had spent the night, the cowboy grinned, “Huh, don’t that beat all! No wonder I ain’t slept none. Kind of gives a new meaning to the word ‘bedrock’.”

Travel was easier but just as hot and waterless as the previous day. By evening though they had made it to the small cluster of shacks called Rillito. They camped outside the town but stopped in town to water their horses and refill the canteens. Hey purchased a load of hay and a sack of oats and carried them back to the camp for the horses. Once again, two sentries were chosen to split the night watch.

The next night found them just west of the town of Tucson. Before making camp they crossed over the Santa Cruz River. They and the river  were now headed due south toward Calabasas and Mexico.

It was hoped that they were far enough ahead of the herd that they could set up an ambush just east of Calabasas. It was there they expected the herd would be trailed though the Santa Rita Pass. As long as everything went well, the posse should arrive in time. The rustled herd of cattle needed water and graze so they had to be trailed along the much longer route that wound its way eastward almost to the rowdy town of Tombstone. From there they had to head south then west to Calabasas through the long narrow Santa Rita pass. It was at the western end of this ten mile long pass that Donut had told them was the surest place to set up an ambush.

It was when the posse passed Mt. Baldy on the Santa Rita Mountains that things began to look bad. They were only five miles north of Calabasas when Donut came charging back on his panting horse.

“Tom!” Donut yelled as he reigned up hard. “We got trouble ahead. The herd will be comin’ through the Santa Rita Pass tomorrow by noon but them rustlers set up a system of guards along both sides of the western end of the pass. The best place for us to lay in wait for ‘em is now occupied by men up in the cliffs with rifles. I think they figured like we did that it was the best place to ambush ‘em at.”

Tom looked grimly up at Donut. “Could ya’ count how many men? Did ya see the herd to verify it’s even them?”

‘‘Maybe five in all but in them hills it might as well be a hunert. They’s dug in good. I could see the dust bein’ kicked up by a large herd. It can only be them. Who else would be drivin’ a herd of cattle to no where?”

In frustration Tom threw down his hat and kicked it into the air, “Dang! If we can’t get ‘em in the pass, then we might as well just play a squeeze box and waltz ‘em on into Mexico!”

Donut spat the dust out of his mouth from the ride, “Yup, once they’s in the open, we can’t both round up the herd and deal with the rustlers at the same time. They’ll just pick us off like they’s at a turkey shoot. We gotta figure how to keep ‘em all in the pass. One man shooting a pistol at the far eastern end of the pass will keep the cows from escaping back the way they come and all the commotion we’ll be making on the western end, ain’t no way the cattle will head into the open plains of Calabasas on their own”

Larry stepped up to Tom telling him. “There’s only one way we can do this. You and I are the only ones here that is mountain savvy. We have only till dawn to take ‘em out. We’ll take Donut with us since he saw where they was hiding there about. Once we spot ‘em all with his help, Donut can come on back here and bring two more with him. By morning there will still be five men up in the cliffs with rifles but it’s gonna’ be us, not them.”

“It’s the way I see it too.”

Tom turned to the group and laid out the plan for them. When everyone knew his job, Donut and the two brothers disappeared into the pass by the light of the setting sun.

Taking the spyglass with them, they reached the spot Donut had viewed the hidden men from. Two had hidden themselves in the rocky outcroppings along the southern side while the other three had snuggled themselves along the north side. Each man had spaced themselves a good fifty feet from each other for better shooting coverage. That decision was a blessing for Tom and his group. If they were spaced too close together, taking them out would be difficult without their friends hearing the rucus.

Each of the three took turns using the spyglass. When it was determined by each that in fact there were only five men, Donut was sent back to gather up the other two and return with them.

Tom stealthily climbed the cliff face on the south side while Larry did the same on the north. By midnight each brother was only yards from their first man.

Tom had climbed above and to the west of his man. He could see a rifle propped up against the cliff wall while the shooter sat sitting hidden on a jagged ledge. The only access to the shooter was from directly overhead. Tom would have to jump from above and kill him the moment he landed on top of him. With his partner only fifty feet away, he’d have to be Indian silent. He was. Tom removed the long bladed knife from the small of the man’s neck just under the back of his skull. Tom had hoped that just his original intention of surrounding the men would give them pause and seeing the futility of it all would instead give themselves up. But not this group, they were hardened men.

Larry had an easier time dispatching his first man. The man had fallen asleep.

Tom had only one more man to deal with while Larry still had two. It was then that it began to rain. While it made the going slick, the flashes of far away lighting gave enough light to easily see how to get close to their next man.

Tom again climbed above his man but found it too far above the man lying in wait to safely jump down upon him as he did the first. He decided to back track and attack him from below. By  2 am the rain was being driven sideways and the thunder was echoing deafeningly off the walls within the pass.

Larry decided to let nature cover his attack. He was now only ten feet from the second man hidden in the cliff. Still, he knew that a pistol fired at seventy odd feet had a real risk of either missing or just maiming the man so he returned to his first kill and returned with the man’s rifle.  A rifle at seventy feet was child’s play. He’d leave the man ten feet from him alone while he took aim at the more distant one. Once he took the shot, he’d then drop his barrel to the closer man.

A lightning bolt suddenly seared it’s way into the pass causing the cliff walls to shudder. At that moment across the pass, Tom heard the unmistakable sound of the rifle blasting the man into eternity. Without waiting, he also took advantage of the thunder and rose up in front of the man trying to stare across the pass where he had heard the gunshot come from. The man’s eyes widened as if seeing a ghost as the open bore of Toms barrel appeared inches from his face. It didn’t matter that there was any thunder to cover the shot. The only one who could have heard it was on the other side of the pass and dying quickly from Larry’s second shot.

By 4am the storm had passed and the two brothers had safely returned to the mouth of the pass at the western end. There they found Donut and the two chosen shooters anxiously waiting for them.

When the brothers crept into view, the men showed their relief. “Wooeee!” Donut exclaimed loudly, “Boy am I glad it’s you two that showed up an’ not them other fella’s!”

Larry patted Donut on the back and said, “Naw, they ain’t gonna show up nowhere but in hell! We lucked out an had us a storm hit just when we needed it. Heck, it even washed the cliffs off of blood.”

Tom pointed to the passes south side, “Donut, you and another man from the posse will take the place of those two on this side. You other two men go with Larry, he’ll show you where to hunker down at. When the herd arrives, they’ll be expecting a signal of some sort so gather up them dead folks coat an’ hat and put ‘em on. When you see Larry come out an’ wave his rifle, you all do the same. Just don’t make yourself too visible to ‘em. Keep in the shadows. I’m sure they got pards that would recognize you ain’t them if they get a good eyeball on ya’. We ain’t got much time for talkin’ here so here’s the plan quick like. Wait until the flank riders is equal to ya’ then knock ‘em from their saddles. When the lead riders turn around and come back, hit em hard. Donut? Was the rest of the posse comin’ up behind you?”

“Sure are, In fact I see ‘em now.”

“Good, I’ll tell them what they need to do. Larry, you and your boys get up in the cliffs now and get in position. Donut, see that rustlers body  hanging over that ledge up the cliff? Hide it and set yourself in his place. From there you can see the other dead fella. Have whoever I send up to you to hide that one too and make sure he knows what I told you all.”

After the others had left, Tom walked westward to the mouth of the pass where he met up with the rest of the posse.

“The pass is clear of shooters. Our men are taking their place. Who’s a good shot with a rifle here?” One man raised his hand.

“OK, you get up on the south side of the cliff. Donut will meet up with ya’ and fill you in on what you need to know. The rest of you hide yourselves about a hundred yards from each other along the length of the pass behind the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. Two of you are to stay here and hide the horses. If the cattle bust on through, use your pistols to make enough noise to drive ‘em back into the pass. We don’t want any cattle to get past you or we’ll never get ‘em back once they is free to run. I’m heading up the pass as far as I can to get behind the riders and herd. Someone’s got to make sure the herd doesn’t turn around and head back east when the shooting starts. I need one man with me that’s good with a pistol.”

Tom turned to a young rider that wore his pistol low in the way an experienced shootist would. Pointing at the kid, he yanked his head toward the eastern end of the pass. “Kid, come with me.”

The sun was straight up when the first rider showed. As he trotted forward he continuously turned his head from side to side looking up the cliff walls.

When the scout made it to where Larry was hiding in the upper cliffs shadows, Larry moved forward enough to show himself but not enough to be well lit up by the sun. He raised his rifle in salute then stepped back into the shadows. As the rider looked from his right to his left, the other posse members imitated Larry’s actions. The scout sat unmoving for a moment, then satisfied that the pass was secure, clicked his horse forward.

A minute later the lead riders and first cows appeared behind him. The riders were Mexicans.

Tom and the young gun he had chosen to go with him had earlier during the night made their way east up the pass. They had traveled on foot about a quarter of a mile before finding decent cover in the fallen rocks. They eyed the lead riders and cattle as they bpassed beyond them. Tom could see the tail of the herd approaching with three drag riders following behind them.

The herd stretched nearly the entire quarter mile that the spread out posse given them. As the lead cow neared the exit of the pass, at the other end the last cows and drag riders passed the rocks hiding Tom and the young gun. It was now or never.

From the western end of the pass a quarter mile away, Tom heard the sound of a single gunshot ricocheting off the passes walls. The drag riders immediately pulled iron and two quickly dismounted while the third galloped ahead to where the shot had come from. Looking for cover, the unfortunate drag riders chose the best place within the fallen rocks to hold off an attack. The two ran headlong into the raised Colt pistols of Tom and the young gun.

Staying within the shadows and safety of the rocks, Tom shouted his demand at the two as they ran towards him. “Drop those pistols!”

Instead of dropping the guns, the two split up from each other and began firing into the shadows. The shorter of the two drag riders nearly made it to safety after emptying the pistol’s cylinder on the run. The young low holstered kid stepped out in front of his hiding spot and put three quick shots into the drag riders chest. The drag rider was blown airborne and backwards from the three 45 caliber slugs that punched through flesh and bone.

“Damn you all!” Came the curse of the second drag rider. Stopping in his tracks, he ran back towards where his fallen pard lay bleeding out. Seeing the young gun still exposed, he raised his own pistol and fired repeatedly at the kid. Whether or not any of his slugs found their mark he never knew. When the man raised his gun towards the young man, Tom emptied his six shooter into him. Each of the dying mans shots were deadly but the rocks that the slugs plowed into, didn’t seem to care.

From the other end of the pass, a rapid mix of pistol and rifle gunshots could be heard. Wanting to throw himself into the fray, Tom cautioned himself to stay put in case the cattle turned and stampeded back towards the direction they had came from. Tom looked over at the kid who like himself, stood reloading his empty gun. The kid saw the questioning look in Toms eyes and shouted over the din of the cattle and echoing gunfire. “I’m alright!” He yelled. Tom nodded back quickly in acknowledgement.

Meanwhile, the rest of the posse were in the heat of a free for all gunfight. Riding alongside of the cattle, the flank riders had been able to dismount and find quick cover in the boulders. None had been hit upon dismounting but one never made it to the rocks. It was nine against thirteen but soon became seven then four against thirteen. The posse had the advantage because they had taken plenty of time to dig themselves safely into the shadows and rocks.

The rifles placed up high in the rocks had taken a devastating toll on the rustlers. Those posse members below kept the rustlers from returning much fire by laying down a layer of withering gunfire into the rocks. The sound of ricocheting slugs off the rocks sounded like a swarm of bees taking flight.

Finally, with only two men returning gun fire they rustlers called it quits and threw out their guns. Stepping out from the rocks with their hands held high they stood quietly as they their hands were bound behind them.

With the end of the gunshots, the cattle began to settle down so Tom began walking westward down the pass to where the main gunfight was held. Heading his way was Donut, who had climbed down from his post in the cliff and Ray Plaques, the Segundo from the Rocking J Ranch. Ray had just finished instructing a fellow cowboy from the Rocking J to seek out any cattle that had been hit and was suffering beyond help. He was telling them to put the cows out of their misery when he saw Donut approaching him.

“Dang” Cried Donut as the two turned and began making their way to Tom, “All this shootin’ got’s me all riled up! Lookit my hands is a shakin’ like an old Granpaw!”

Ray shook his head in wonder, “It’s been a while since I’ve seen this much lead flying. I’m amazed none of us is planting daisy’s.”

“That’s ‘cause most all the lead was comin’ from our side!” Pointing to Tom and the Kid, Donut continued talking, “I see them two held their own too.”

“Anybody on our side hit?” Tom asked.

Ray shook his head, “Nope, not even a scratch as far as I know. I see you two had your own hands full. We got two left alive to hang back there. They’re tied up but when we questioned them they refused to do any talking.”

Tom told the two posse members, “Let’s gather up their dead and get these cattle headed back east in the pass. We’re gonna’ have to retrace the trail they was led here on. Once we get back to the Salt River, we’ll divide ‘em up by brand and get ‘em back to the ranch’s they belong to.”

A shout from the young gun got the attention of the three as they stood talking.

“Tom, get on over here and take a look see!” The young man shouted.

When the three approached the kid, he said, “Remember on the way down here we was all wondering how the rustlers could up and steal sixteen hundred head with no one seeing anything? Well, if you look down on that dead one layin’ there I think you’ll see our answer.”

Tom and the others walked over to the shorter of the dead rustlers. Looking down at the chest shot figure he exclaimed loudly.

“Well I’ll be damned! It’s the Mormon Widow!”

“Look over here, you recognize that man?”

Tom and the others stepped over to where the body of the other rustler lay. It was the man who tried to return to his fallen pard and was shot to death by Tom.

Ray spoke up. “Well I’ll be! It’s her husband. I bet their kid’s back there layin’ dead or is one that’s tied up. They faked their death to throw off any suspicion of their rustling. I bet that was the reason their church leaders disowned ‘em! They found out what they really was. Just a plain ‘ol pack a thieves!”

Tom told the others, “There was three riding drag. One of ‘em took to heels and headed up thev pass when the shooting started. I’d recognize him so lets get up that way and see if we can find him. Donut, will you and the Kid here keep the cows from wandering? We’ll be herding them up and heading ‘em out in a little bit. Donut, you take lead again but I don’t see a need for you to be more than a mile ahead. Just keep the herd pointed along their own trail.”

As Tom and Ray headed back down the pass, Tom suddenly stopped and stuck his hand out to Ray. “I owe you my thanks Ray. I know you was hired on as a hired gun Segundo by Mr. Miles. If ever you want to unbuckle your guns holster and take on the thankless life of a Ranch Foreman, I’d take it as an honor if you’d stop by the Tri H first. You’d find yourself welcome with us any time.”

Ray stood quietly searching for any doubt of insincerity in Toms face. Finding none he replied. “Every man who lives by the gun, pulls the trigger one last time. I’m thinking this was mine.” Still grasping Toms hand in a firm handshake he added, “If being your Foreman means I get a private cabin, I’ll be stopping by.”

Tom started chuckling and replied, ” Ray, you’re pushin’ it… but I think we  can find it in the budget to get you one built!”

“And and feather bed with silk blankets?”

“You? A feather bed? Not on your life my friend, not on your life!”

Advertisements

Taking a chance on hope

2011 photo by JW Edwards ‘Cabin near Tazewell VA.’

Chapter 1

Chance Hooper slowly limped his way through the neglected pasture toward the old log cabin he had grown up in.

The limp, a souvenir gift he received at Gettysburg when a Northerner’s ball plowed into his leg, was all he had to show for the two and a half years of fighting for the South… that and a head full of memories, some good, most bad. The war ended but his leg could have cared less. It healed no faster when it was announced the war was over. Still, it was better than being dead like his twin brother Micah.

The twins had joined the Confederate army together believing at the time that the war would be a few rowdy skirmishes at best. Afterward it was assumed, the politicians would resolve the issue with both the North and the South having to give and take on the issues until a deal was made. Sadly it took many thousands of lives to resolve the differences that the politicians could not settle peaceably over a table.

Up ahead on a small rise at the end of the field sat the log home Chance, Micah and his father had built years before the war. Chance and Micah were just boys then but in the 1850’s, a man was judged by other criteria than just his age. Each log was cut, shaved and carefully notched by hand. A small wood fired steam sawmill in one of the open sided sheds had cut the logs into planks to be made into floorboards, window frames and doors. The single stone fireplace at one time supplied the only source of fire for cooking and keeping the winters cold out. Years Later, a steel chimney pipe poked its way through the side of the house and upward past the roof. Inside, the pipe attached itself to a new cast iron cook stove in the large kitchen.

Continuing his walk forward, the peak of the cabins roof slowly exposed itself. The closer he got, the more the cabin exposed itself. Finally fully presented, Chance saw for the first time the full extent of the damage done to his home resulting from his abstinence during the war years.

Stepping up onto the front door stoop, Chance pushed against the weathered door. It swung in on noisy hinges revealing a surprisingly empty house. Making his way slowly throughout, he realized the house had been methodically stripped of all its furnishings. Not a knick knack, pot or curtain remained. Where once the cook stove had stood in the large kitchen now only a gaping stove pipe hole in the wall remained.  Anger was not the first emotion he felt, hopelessness was. Anger came afterward. Stomping from the house he headed directly to where he was sure he’d find the answer to his question of who stole his parent’s and his property. Double checking the Navy Colt pistol he wore on his hip, he made his way painfully to the road that wound its way through the countryside connecting each farm to its neighbor, he limped to the home of his closest neighbor, that of Bo Spivey.

Pounding on the front door, Chance yelled out, “Spivey! Come on out here, I wanna’ talk to you, you piece a thieving crap!”

The upper window jerked open under protest and a bearded pocked face looked out. “You stop your bangin’ Chance Hooper, I got my sisters babies nappin’ inside. Besides, I ain’t got nothin’ a your’s so get your sorry ass offa’ my property!”

Chance refused to lower his voice and hearing Spivey mention his missing property fed his anger even more.

“I been gone all these years and the first thing you tell me is you ain’t got nothing that belongs to me?  That’s a might tellin’ ain’t it Bo? Get down here or I’ll burst down your door and drag your toothless ass outside and kick it raw into the next county! I ain’t playing Bo, get down here or I’m coming in!”

“OK, hold on a minute, an you just stay right there!”

Less than a minute later the door cracked open a few inches and Spivey’s pock marked face peeked through the crack and shouted. “What’s this all about Hooper, I ain’t done nothing wrong. Besides I heard you all got shot an’ died with your brother Micah!”

“Well you heard wrong. We got shot but I sure ain’t dead! Where’s all my stuff now Spivey? There ain’t nobody around here that would have entered my house while I was gone except for your rotted ass!”

“I ain’t took nothin’, now go away!”

Stepping over to the side of the house, Chance looked up at the metal stove pipe haphazardly exiting the side of the house. Pointing to it he yelled, “That there pipe is the pipe from my stove! You got my cook stove inside Spivey? You got your fat assed shit coated undergarments inside my Mama’s missing chest a drawers too?”

“I ain’t took noth..”

Before Bo Spivey could finish his sentence, Chance angrily ran up onto the porch and kicked the door open with his good leg. Spivey was unprepared and the door slammed into the side of his head nearly taking off his right ear.

Grabbing his head, Spivey screamed, “Aiieee! Ma’ ear!”

Spivey fell backwards into the house on the floor while trying to mash his dangling ear back onto his head using his palm of his hand. “Oh my God!”. Spivey cried, “ Damn your soul Hooper, look what you did to my ear!”

Chance paid no attention to the crying man but stepped inside and walked past Spivey as he continued to thrash about on the floor screaming.

Glancing about, he saw many of his parent’s belongings placed about on shelves and even his grandmothers China tea set lay carelessly in an open crate on the floor.

Walking into the kitchen his eyes rested on the wood burning cook stove he and his father had given to his mother on her fortieth birthday.

Seeing his mothers once spotless stove now covered with rancid grease and old food splatters, Chance’s stomach churned. He stomped past Spivey and looking backwards at him shouted.

“I’m getting the Sheriff Spivey, you robbed my place while I went off to war. That’s a hanging offense in this county!”

Chance limped out of the house slamming the door loudly behind him. Partway down the porch walkway, the front door was thrown open and Bo Spivey appeared from in the doorway with an old flintlock rifle that had been hanging over the fireplace mantle.

Turning to face the noise, Chance recognized the Kentucky long rifle as the one his grandfather had given to him years ago before he had passed. Seeing Spivey lift the rifle to his shoulder, he watched in horror as Spivey’s finger began to pull on the trigger.

What Spivey did not know was that the rifle’s barrel had been severely damaged decades before. Chance had been sternly warned that it was never to be charged and fired for the barrel would never hold. It didn’t.

The warning had just begun to leave Chances mouth when Spivey pulled the trigger. A loud boom and a massive white cloud tinged at its edges with a wet red mist exploded where Spivey’s head was just moments before.

Spivey’s headless body stood teetering slightly from side to side, then fell backwards into the room. Chance had seen many men die in battle but it was a scene he never accustomed himself to. Spivey’s death was no different. His bare feet lay at the entrance to the door quivering as if trying to re awaken the headless body. Soon though, the feet gave up trying and came to a stop.

Chance could not believe what he had just witnessed. Not realizing the gun was a relic and never having meant to be used again, Spivey had foolishly loaded it and hung it over his mantle for emergencies.

There was no helping Spivey at this point, he was dead through and through. Chance stood staring at Spivey’s feet when his eyes caught a flicker of light from within the doorway. Shaking himself out of shock, he focused on the flicker of light, it suddenly dawned on Chance that something within the house had been started on fire by the exploding gun.

Running inside the home past Spivey’s body, Chance headed upstairs taking two steps at a time, His leg throbbed terribly but Spivey had said there were babies sleeping and they needed saving.

Throwing open first one door then the other produced no sleeping babies.

“You lying son a bitch! You never had any babies up here.”

It was then Chance realized his only route of escape by using the stairs was now in flames.  Opening a window he let himself out onto the porch roof where he jumped painfully onto the ground. Turning to face the doorway again, he saw the flames beginning to consume Spivey’s clothes.

Backing away, he watched in silence as the home quickly became engulfed in the hungry flames. Sadly he realized that all his and his stolen parent’s belongings inside were being destroyed. The intense flames removed all hope in salvaging anything. All he had now were the clothes on his back, his gun and whatever monies he had saved up in his money belt.

Feeling utterly exhausted from the recent events, Chance found a nearby tree stump to sit down on. He watched somberly as within minutes, the flames consumed the Spivey home in its entirety. In one final pyrotechnic display, the burning frame leaned forward and collapsed in a massive explosion of sparks.

His mind wandered back to the day the two wide eyed brothers went marching so naively off to war. Friends and neighbors waved and cheered as the towns young stepped in time through town smartly adorned in their freshly pressed uniforms. Gettysburg ended any soldier’s hoorah bravado.  Twenty eight thousand Southern souls left their bodies in that battle. Chance knew the North lost almost as much. When you came from a town of three hundred, twenty eight thousand was incomprehensible.

Taken to a makeshift hospital outside Gettysburg for his leg wound, Chance was told his brother had been killed trying to pull his wounded superior to safety. Both the wounded Captain and his brother had been found afterward with multiple killing wounds. In recognition for his brother’s bravery, Chance was permitted to have Micah’s body interned back home in the family cemetery rather than in one of the mass graves many soldiers would call their last place of rest. A walking wounded soldier from the same town as the brothers hailed from, volunteered to travel back with Micah’s body to make sure he was given a Christian burial.

Chance thought, “At least Ma and Pa didn’t have to deal with Micah’s death.”

The parents had already passed ahead of Micah. Shortly after the brothers marched off to war, they were informed by their Commanding officer that their parents had passed away from a local cholera outbreak. His grieving brother was granted leave time to see them laid to rest properly. Chance grieved but thanked God that being busy learning to be a soldier kept his mind from dwelling too much on it.

Resting on the stump, Chance sat watching the house morph into a large pile of glowing coals. He knew there would be no evidence of Spivey’s remains. With his parent’s belongings gone along with Spivey’s in the fire, Chance felt no great rush to inform the Sheriff of what had happened. For all anyone would know, Spivey simply died in a house fire. In fact, no one was even aware yet the Chance had returned home. Spivey’s death was no fault of his and to tell the story as it happened seemed unnecessary. He decided to just let the Sheriff know that he had discovered the Spivey home burnt down with no sign of Bo Spivey being seen.

  Chapter 2

A females voice behind him made him jump.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to startle you. My names Mary Jane Ashley, I live up yonder up the hill from this place.”

Chance quickly stood up and brushed off the seat of his pants. “I was just sitting here. My name is Chance Hooper. I was raised up the road a bit ways. I guess I should explain what happened here.”

“No, There ain’t no need. I saw and heard most everything. You passed nearby me on your way over here. I was over in the elderberry bushes with my pail pickin’ berries when you came by. I didn’t know you so I stayed hid. My Mama told me never to go near here alone but I wanted them berries growin’ alongside the road for a pie. My Mama had an earlier run in with Bo Spivey some time back. I think that’s what did her in.”

“Did her in?”

“ About two months after we moved here from Tazewell, Mama come home one day shakin and I seen she’d been crying. She had some bruising on her face an’ her prime apron was missin’ but she wouldn’t tell me what had happened. We’d just rented the old Haney place up yonder atop that hill over there. She told me she was headin’ to our nearby neighbors to properly introduce herself to ‘em and try an’ sell some of our eggs. Mama would not tell me but I figured it all out. When I said I was going down here to kill him, she begged me to leave things be.”

“What about your Pa? Didn’t he do anything?”

“Pa went off to fight in the war an’ we ain’t never heard back from him. I don’t think he died, just ran off, that’s all. It didn’t grieve Mama much seein’ as all they ever did was fight anyway. Pa wanted a baby boy an’ when I was born he blamed my Ma. They never had no more kids but me.”

“How did you Mama pass?”

“She just died, that’s all. After her meet up with Spivey, she just sat around a lot. She lost all interest in things. Most times, I’d have to scold her even into eatin’. Then one day she just never woke up.”

“So now it’s just you? How do you live being all alone?”

The thin but pretty blond haired girl with sky blue eyes looked shyly downward at her bare feet. “I get along. I hunt and we had us a good garden goin’ from earlier on. I got a coop with some chickens an’ when I gather a basket full of eggs, I go to town an’ sell them. What about you? I saw what happened here, served Bo Spivey right! I’m glad he’s dead.”

“Do you mind if I sit back down? I know it’s impolite to sit in the presence of a woman but my leg is aching something fierce from jumping off the porch roof.”

“For sure! Sit down, I’ll set next to you.”

Before he could answer, she sat down cross legged in front and facing the stump. She motioned for him to sit down.

Chance lowered himself back onto the stump and looking down at her he could not help to notice the blond girls bare knees and legs. A sudden jolt, not unlike a shock one gets off a wool rug while in stockings struck his lions. Embarrassed, he quickly averted his eyes.

Mary Jane Ashley sat staring up at him smiling unaware of what had just occurred. “How did you hurt your leg?”

Chance explained his army service, the death of his twin brother and how he was wounded. He told her the Surgeon wanted to take off the leg but there were so many limbs he had to cut off from other wounded that when Chance begged him not to, the Surgeon just patched it and told him to leave.

“I bled halfway from Gettysburg to here. It’s healing but it’ll be some time yet before I’m back to being whole.”

They spent the entire afternoon talking. Both felt completely at ease sharing the most intimate secrets with each other. It was as if they had known each other for ages.

At one point, Chance drew back his long brown hair from out of his green eyes and smiled down at the girl staring up at him.  “I know this sounds a mite forward Mary Jane, but seein’ your face smiling so pretty and all, I realize there’s more than just sadness in the world. It gives me hope”

Mary Jane beamed wide eyed up at him. “That’s the sweetest thing I ever been told!”

“I think you’re beautiful!”

Shocked at his own forwardness, Chance quickly changed the subject saying, “I suppose it’ll be getting dark before too long. I should be heading home to see if there’s a place to lay my head tonight without the raccoons and snakes investigating me while I sleep. It’s been a heap of time since I spoke to a female, especially one so kind as you. I’ve enjoyed your company immensely and I want to ask if I could stop by your place tomorrow and visit you. I will try to find some fresh meat first though, that is, if you say it’s fine for me to visit you.”

Mary Jane’s face lit up. “I would like that very much Chance but I must ask you, have you eaten anything yet today? We been sittin’ here talkin’ for hours. If you’re hungry I can pick us some vegetables from the garden and make us some soup. Your leg will not heal well unless you eat. Come, let me cook you a meal.”

Saying that, she reached out her hand for him to grab onto after she stood up. “You can lean on me if you are still too sore.” At the touch of her hand he again felt the electric shock he had experienced earlier. Walking side by side back to her place, he put his arm over her shoulder for support as they slowly made their way uphill.

After an hour they neared her house, Mary Jane regretted that their walk would soon end and so would the warm feeling of his arm around her shoulders. She leaned into him closer and slipped her arm around his waist. “Chance? Why did your Mama and Dad name you that?”

He looked down at the girl tucked so comfortably under his arm and answered. “My brother’s name was Micah. My Mom said it meant to be “Like God” or Godly like… something along those lines. When she named me I wasn’t doing so well. I wouldn’t suckle at first and I acted like I didn’t want to even taste it.  So she spoke and said, ‘C’mon my little fellow, just try it once, if you never take a chance, you’ll never know how good it is for you’.”

“You must have eventually taken to it, you look mighty healthy to me…other than that leg of yours.”

Chuckling, he answered, “Yeah, I guess you could say I took the chance!”

 Chapter 3 

When the two reached her place, neither felt like letting the other go. Mary Jane dropped her head and quietly said, “I guess I better let you walk up the step by yourself now.”

Reluctantly they parted and Chance followed her into the small log home where they sat down at a rickety wooden table with peeling paint. It was far smaller than his own place but it had the wonderful smell of herbs and drying flowers. He commented on it.

“I like flowers a lot.” She said, “They are so pretty. I think of my Mom when I smell them. She would gather up bunches every day while out walking and place them on the table in a jar. She did that even when I was a child. She’d say that even when you ain’t got nothing, you can always have flowers. It was one thing my Daddy and her never argued about. I think secretly, he enjoyed them too.”

The look on Mary Jane’s face gave Chance the impression that she was a million miles away and in a different time of her life. He let her stay that way until she blinked then looked at him with searching eyes.

“Chance, I’ll make us up some soup right quick, but may I ask what your plans are? I mean are you going to try and salvage your parents place and stay there or are you thinking of moving on?”

“To tell the truth, after Spivey’s house burnt down, I figured there was no reason for me to stay around any longer. The farm is over grown and all the equipment we owned looks like it was took and sold off. I’m sure Spivey and his friends were the culprits. They even managed somehow to remove the steam engine that powered our sawmill. How they did that I’ll never figure out since it was so heavy.  No, there’s nothing left for me here.”

Looking into Mary Jane’s eyes he continued talking. “Until you stepped out of those elderberry bushes, I was figuring on having left here by now. I had the intention of heading west. A friend of mine in the infantry unit I was in told me if ever I was to get out to Wyoming territory that I’d be more than welcome there. We talked of setting up cattle ranches near each other. I know it was just a dream to keep our minds off the war, but somehow that dream kept me sane. I think I’d like to try that though.”

Mary Jane reached over and put her hand in his. A tear rolled down her cheek and with quivering lips she asked, “It sounds wonderful. If you go, would you take me with you? Please?”

Without saying anything, Chance gathered her onto his lap and held her close to him. Tears ran freely down her face and dripped onto Chances shirt. He could feel the hot drops splashing on his chest and knew for certain that he had fallen in love. Slipping is fingers under her chin, he lifted her head to his face and kissed the tears running down her cheek.

“Mary Jane, before today, I hade no hope I’d never know the type of love my parents held for each other. I was too young when I left for the war to seriously court a girl. Before I had a chance to really grow up I saw things in battle that made my world look dark and terrible. I was alive but I had no hope. You’ve changed that. I want nothing more than for you to come with me. But I need to ask you this, “Could you ever love me? The way a wife loves her husband?”

“Chance, that’s the only reason I want to come with you. On our way back to the house, when we were holding onto each other, I didn’t want you to ever leave… not after I just found you. I have nothing here. My Mom’s grave on a rented property? Do you know I buried her myself up on the hill? I marked it with a stone and dug here grave so deep so no plow will ever disturb her rest. No one knew us, we never even met the owner of this place. My Mom set it up with the help of a friend of a friend. They weren’t even sure the person even really owned it! My Mom figured if the day came and someone told us to get out, then we would without any complaint. We only paid two dollars to rent the place an’ they never came back an’ asked for rent ever again. I could leave here this minute without regrets. But if you leave here and decide I ain’t goin’ with you then my heart will close itself off and break in silence ‘cause I’m in love with you.

“Would Wyoming be a place you could be happy at? I know nothing of it but what was told to me. He said it’s got fields so big you could ride horse back for days without coming to the other side. It’s got forest and cold clean rivers and a sky so big that it makes you feel small.”

“It sounds like heaven to me and who would not be happy in heaven. Will you do like your Mama asked when you wouldn’t suckle? Will you take me and give us two a chance?”

“My Mama sure named me right. Yes, let’s take that chance. Will you marry me Mary Jane Ashley?”

Upon making their way into town, Chance told the Sheriff of his finding the Spivey house recently burnt down.  The Sheriff didn’t seem too concerned and he never asked about the whereabouts of Bo Spivey. Instead the Sheriffs only comment was, “Good riddance!” Chance figured Spivey had made no friends and wouldn’t be missed.

Afterward, Chance and Mary Jane stopped at the judges office to take their vows.

Mary Jane Ashley became Mary Jane Hooper and Chance became the husband to the thin but wonderful smiling barefoot girl he met during her berry picking.

They stayed in her small cabin throughout that fall and that winter. When the spring crocuses poked their heads up through the melting Virginia snow, Mary Jane became satisfied that Chances leg was well enough healed to finally travel. A roundness to her tummy foretold that there would be three, not two new emigrants entering Wyoming territory. If it were a boy, he would be named Micah, if a girl… then Hope.

Listen to the Magpies and you will hear…

Chapter 1  

It was the persistent chattering of the Magpies that warned Jute that he wasn’t alone. All his Montana bred life, Jute had dealt with the obnoxious birds. Considered a nuisance by rancher and sod buster alike, this was the first time he was thankful for their presence.

In Red Lodge Montana, just north over the Wyoming border, each winter had brought flocks of Magpies to invade the freshly harvested fields. When the fields were gleaned of any left behind seed, the hungry birds soon began to eyeball the chicken yards, pig pens or any other place food might be. In spring, before most of the yapping magpies departed to places unknown, they raided the eggs in any bird nest or coop. From centuries of following the buffalo herds, even newborn calves felt the piercing thrust of their beaks. Mostly it was for the tasty ticks but every so often it turned into a wild feeding frenzy that left the newborn’s blind or hides so badly riddled with holes that putting the poor beast down was the only humane thing to do.

While despised, a fella’ had to hand it to the birds for their high intelligence. They learned quickly and somehow spread the word as to who, what and where it was safe. Similar to the way a squirrel will chatter to sounding a warning, a flock of magpies will put whatever warning a squirrel came up with to shame. Standing nervously on fence post, tree tops, limbs and the roofs of barns and houses, an incredible warning network sometimes a mile in length was in play. When one bird took to panicked flight, the entire network sounded warning and took to flight.  While thirty or forty birds may not sound like a lot, when the sky suddenly filled with these fleeing avian noise makers it was wise to take notice… and Jute did just that.

Two days earlier, three trail weary mountain men on horseback arrived at the home of the Grundvig farm and cattle ranch. They reined up but it was only the elder of the three that dismounted. A tall wiry blond haired man having a great bow mustache answered the knock on his door. After making a brief introduction, the oldest of the three turned to the two on horseback and waved for them to join him.  The two wearily dismounted and stepped stiffly up the porch steps.

Having emigrated from Sweden nine years earlier, the Grundvigs were still accustomed to treating strangers as they would have in the old country so they invited the trail weary three indoors to partake in a cool drink and rest a spell in the large log cabin’s great room. The interior of the cabin showed evidence both of a woman’s touch and that of a skilled carpenter. Each log was scraped clean of bark and chinked tightly to keep out the weather.

The younger two were of darker skin and hair than the older grey haired mountain man and they respectfully removed their hats as they made their way into the home.

Once inside, the three stood wide eyed taking in the beautiful handmade furnishings. Jute noticed the three mens repetitive wide eyed glances at the three new Golden Boy rifles hanging above the big stone fireplace. The younger men fidgeted with their hats and not speaking while waiting for the owners wife to enter the room with the cool glasses of the reconstituted powdered lemonade.

The time of refreshments passed quietly and after downing the sour drinks in just a few thirsty gulps, the elder mountain man calling himself Trap, introduced himself and the two men with him to the Grundvig family in a friendly manner.

“Begging all your pardon, my two boys here, Carl and Deloy ain’t been inside a strangers home for some years now, they’s a bit unaccustomed to bein’ indoors and it kind of gets them antsy.  I guess spending half your life outdoors does that to a person. We trap for the Hudson Bay Company headquartered back East at York Factory…that’s in Hudson Bay Canada. I suppose that makes us Canadians bein’ from there.  The last twenty years there’s been such a demand for beaver pelts back East that the beaver is bein’ wiped out. We had to keep moving our traps further and further west in order to find enough beaver to make a livin’.  Some thirty odd years ago, I started up in eastern Ontario just north of Lake Huron and there was plenty back then. There’s naturally not much beaver west of here unless we head back up north into the Northwest Territories but I’m getting too old for those northern winters. The boy’s Mother was Ojibway Indian so they fare better in the cold than I do. That’s where they get their color from, their Mama.”

Trap stopped speaking and a sadness entered his aged eyes.

“Ten years back, I decided to take the boys with me that fall to teach ‘em all about trappin’. We left her behind in a snug and well supplied cabin we had built in Manitoba. In the late winter when we returned, she was gone missing. Like myself, she was getting’ on in age so I figured sometime during the early part of winter when the ice is still thin, she musta’ plunged through while fishin’ an’ didn’t have the strength to pull herself out. That spring when the lake thawed, the boys an’ I looked up an’ down the lake banks for sign until one day Carl here found her fur mitten washed ashore. After her death, I took the boys full time trappin’ with me. It’s been ages since they saw the inside of a cabin or had any real social contact.”

Sven sat quietly listening then asked, “What made you stop here? It does not sound like you are the type to need to be around talkative people a lot.”

“I don’t but I saw your spread here as we passed by and hoped we could buy a mule if you have one for sale.”

Sven replied “We have both donkeys and mules to sell. Cattle too but I see you have no need for them. My names Sven, the boy here is my son Jute and this is my wife Rika. You are more than welcome to clean yourselves up and sleep in the hayloft if you wish. It is clean and warm with fresh hay for your horses.”

Rika looked kindly at her husband and quietly cleared her throat causing Sven to look at her as she tugged slightly at her long blond hair.

“Rika wants you to know she has a pair of sharp scissors if you’d like a haircut and I own a good Swedish steel razor if you want to shave. I know myself how difficult it is when you are on the trail to tend to those things.”

“That’s mighty kind of you Sven. It’s been quite a spell since we bathed with soap and had a proper haircut. Trappin’ puts us in the water everyday but I ain’t never met no beaver yet that took the time out to put a mixing bowl over my head an’ cut my locks with scissors! Ha ha! We’ll take you up on your kind offer. First though, how much are you asking for a donkey? ”

“Well, I am not asking for much money for a donkey and to be honest, we have little use for them since Jute’s been training the mules to plow and the horses to ride and pull Rika’s carriage. How about you telling me what you are able and willing to pay, is that fair?”

“More than fair Sven, we won’t cheat you, fair is fair.”

That evening after dinner, the three went out to the barn yard near the well, soaped up and rinsed themselves off with buckets of cold well water. When dried off, they sat patiently each wrapped in a blanket on a milking stool while Mrs Grundvig transformed them into human beings with a razor and scissors. The two boys joked and made fun of each other’s clean looks and became even more slap happy as their father went under the speedy blur of Rika’s scissors. It took twenty years off of Traps appearance.

Rika finished and stood back looking at her work.“I see Mister Trap, that you are not such an old gubbe after all!”

“Gubbe?”

She reached out and gave his hair a friendly yank, “It means, Old wind bag in Swedish”.

The two boys fell over laughing.

At four in the morning the men entered the house to the smell of eggs, bacon and buckwheat flap jacks. They had slept soundly in the hay while under the protection of a roof over their head. By late dawn the three had packed their new donkey with fresh provisions also purchased from the Grundvigs. As it neared the time to take their leave, Trap turned around and faced Sven. “Uh, listen Sven, I can’t leave here without tellin’ ya’ the truth, it’s a warning I suppose. You and your family have been fine folks to us. If we left here not sayin’ anything an’ somethin’ was to happened to ya’, it’d weigh heavy on me.”

Sven looked confused. “What kind of warning are you speaking of? There are no Indians here other than the Blackfeet and we get along well with them ever since Rika saved the son of a Chief when we first arrived here. From that time on they have brought us meat and took the time to teach us the ways to survive. We have no fear of them.”

“It’s not Indians I’m talkin’ about Sven. We ain’t been able to eyeball exactly who it is yet but they’ve been doggin’ our trail since we entered Montana. I fear it’s a group of trappers like us but French. All I really know is that whoever they is they ain’t the friendly type. ”

Sven asked, “Have they harmed you then?”

“No, not directly. They been keepin’ their distance but one night they pulled all our traps and cut up into pieces the beavers caught in ‘em. We never found the traps and we’re hopin’ they might still be at the bottom of the pond. We’re on our way back there to look for ‘em now. Another time they cleaned us out of all our grub while we was away from camp and just a week ago they run off with Old Geezer our donkey in the middle of the day. That time we lost our extra tent and a case of trade knives and hatchets for the Indians. We’re trappers, not fighters so we been tryin’ to stay outa’ their way. ‘cause we were plenty outnumbered.”

“Being trappers we got to pack light. We only got one gun between us and that’s an old seventy two cap an’ ball rifle I bought years back in case of bears and the need for fresh meat. If them that’s doggin’ our trail knew that’s all we carried, I’m sure they’d a made a move on us before this.”

Jute spoke up, “Is that why you and your sons were studying our rifles over the mantle? At first I thought you might be thinking of taking them…but I apologize, that was before we got to know you.”

“That’s understandable, I take no offense. Them rifles look like they could piss off a Grizzly for sure but I’d never think of takin’ something that don’t belong to me. If I were you though, I’d keep ‘em loaded an’ close at hand until you’re sure there ain’t nobody around that would bother ya’.

“Thank you, we’ll take your advice. Are you all going to be safe going back to search for your traps with those men still out there?”

“That’s a matter to be seen. We ain’t got much choice, do we? Without our traps we might as well be on a picnic. That pond ain’t too far from here, you may know of it. It’s just a two days ride south between Red Lodge Creek and the Big Rosebud River, in that swampy area that’s been made by all them beaver dams. Once we get our traps and fur cache, we’ll be passing through here again. We’ll stop and let you know how things turned out.”

“Please do that, and yes, I am familiar with the swamp area. I take Jute into the Bear Tooth Mountains there to hunt game. He’s an excellent hunter, much better than myself. When we first came here and Rika saved the chiefs son, the Blackfeet took to Jute right off. They schooled him in ways I was not able to. He can track and hunt as well as any of them. Rika gets nervous when we go off to hunt but I tell Rika not to worry about us. The worst that will happen is upon our return she will have to let out my clothes  from Jute’s good cooking!”

Sven knew Western folk, especially mountain men, liked to keep their personal problems to themselves but curiosity got the better of him.

“Excuse my being forward, but seeing as you have only one rifle and you will be making your way through here on your return, please, would you honor me with a favor?”

“Sure, if I’m able to?”

“I’m sure you are able. We want you to take one of the Golden Boy rifles along with you and four boxes of cartridges. Upon your return, you may give it back. If you do not return, then I will know you at least were better armed and went down fighting. Ja?”

Trap stood there holding the new Golden Boy rifle that Jute had brought out from the house. Carl and Deloy were handed two boxes each.

”These are the cartridges, fifty to a box put some of them in your pockets” Jute instructed. “That way, no matter who grabs the rifle, there’s a ready supply of ammunition.”

“Sounds like your boy knows his stuff Sven, he’ll do all right,”

“ I told you, he learned from the best. Hopping Crow, the Chief’s son Rika saved, is his best friend. There kind of a friendly rivalry between them. Hopping Crow’s Uncle, Two Knives, was the one who took Jute under his wing as his teacher.”

“I sure want to thank you for the loan of the rifle Sven. We’ll each take some target shot on it after we’re out of hearing range. That way you won’t go thinkin’ we’s under attack.”

Trap looked tired as he mounted his horse and said to no one in particular, “I sure will be glad when I can quit this business. It sure ain’t what it used to be, that’s for sure.”

Sven walked over to where Trap sat mounted.

“Trap, from what you’ve told us, it sounds like being a trapper may not have the longest of futures. What will your two boys do if the beaver are all trapped out?”

Trap looked at his two strapping sons, both dark featured and handsome in their own right, especially after a shave and hair cut. He sat there for a moment in thought before answering.

“I want my boys here to settle down an’ marry someday. You’re right, the fur trade is dyin’ out quick. I’ve been following the beaver halfway across the country in order to make enough money for a future for my boys. I figured if I save up enough, then someday we can get a spread, something like you folks all have here an’ maybe be lucky enough down the road to get me a passel of  gran’kids to go fishun’ with.”

Sven smiled and shook Traps hand. “You are welcome back here anytime my friends. This is a good valley to settle in. We can teach you what you need to start your farm and ranch. Winters can be hard but if you prepare for it, it is not too bad. It would be a pleasure to have good people like you as neighbors”

“Someday you might just look up an’ see a familiar group of sod busters movin’ into the valley here. Until that day comes though, take care Sven, and keep a clear eye out for the next week or so around here.”

With those words sounding pleasantly in their ears, the three mountain men sporting freshly cut hair and shaved faces, took to the trail that led towards the valley that held numerous lakes and ponds… and presumably their traps.

 

Chapter 2

   That evening after dinner found Sven and Jute cleaning and oiling the two remaining Golden Boy’s.

“We’ll put one by the front door and one by the rear.” Jute told his parents. When we go outside, take one with you. Before taking care of the animals in the barn, stop and eye the woods and fields from the upper windows. Stay within the shadows to prevent being seen by anyone. Be sure to listen to the animals, they will warn you if they smell or hear anyone approaching. If you hear them give a warning, take a hammer and beat the anvil three times loudly with it. That way those of us in the house will know also but those approaching will only assume someone is pounding a horseshoe in the barn. After hitting the anvil three times, go and hide in the upper loft with the rifle and keep alert.”

Rika asked him, “What if they come from the prairie and not the woods. Whoever is in the barn will not know of there approach.”

“If they come from that direction, they will not be able to see the rear of the house, only the front or at best, including one side. Close the kitchen shutters and yell loudly as if calling the pig, ‘Here pig, pig, pig!’ This will alert anyone inside the barn or an outbuilding of impending trouble from the front of the house.”

“Jute,” Sven said with a smile, “When you see Two Knives, give him my thanks. He has trained you well son. I never would have been able to think of all that.”

“Don’t ever think I learned any less from you Dad. The Blackfeet never taught me anything about cattle, farming or all of the thousands of little things I could have only learned from you.”

Sven answered with a smile, “All the same, I am glad you paid attention then to both of us. What do we do right now?”

“We have a farm and ranch to run. I don’t think we will have a problem until they study us and our movements. Whenever possible stop and look around without being too obvious about it, but let’s keep on working like nothing has changed.”

A week passed and Jute wondered how the three trappers had fared. They might be back on their way if they found the traps, reset them and harvested their catch. As trained by Two Knives, Jute did not let his guard down while waiting, nor would he let his parents relax. If these men were capable to outwit seasoned mountain men then they would know most people become careless after a few days of peace. Of course they may have skirted around the ranch and picked up the trappers trail further west…but in his heart he doubted it.

He had been thinking long and hard on those dogging the trio. Why would they? Trap and his sons had no prior run ins with anyone. No killings, no fights, no upset husbands. It could only be about money. Trap had never mentioned a bank and yet year after year he sold his valuable pelts.

Trap had paid his father in British gold sovereigns. That had to be it. He said the fur trade was collapsing fast, who would be most affected by that? There was only one group as back woods savvy as the trio of trappers. Other trappers…specifically French fur trappers!

Chapter 3

Over breakfast the next morning Jute decided it was time to tell his parents.

“Mother, Dad? I think I’ve figured out who’s after our trapper friends. I thought it out and the only group it could be are French trappers looking to rob them. Ask yourself this. How would the French trappers know when and how many furs the trio sold? It’s because they all worked for the same Hudson Bay Company as Trap and his sons. Who else is capable of stealing a donkey from under their noses, or stealing their food? Only Indian trained men, that’s who. French fur trappers are known to live among the Indian camps, many marry their women as did Trap.”

Sven thought about it and agreed. Jute further explained to them that the out of work French trappers were opportunist preying on the secluded ranchers and farmers. Knowing a farm ranch such as the Grundvigs had would contain many valuables that could be sold to other settlers for top dollar, they could not pass it up without trying their best to get their hands on them.

“If there are even five or six in the group, we’re in trouble but able to still take them on. If there are more than that, we need a miracle. I think they are waiting to show up here just in case our friends warned us about them. They’ll figure that by now we’ve returned to our normal routine and have let down our guard. It’s been long enough, If I were them I’d try for tonight.”

The next couple of hours were spent quietly securing the house for an attack. Sven dragged a steel watering trough into the great room and many buckets later, had it filled with water. “In case of a fire” he said. Rika placed a box of fifty cartridges at every window and door. She removed the pistol kept on her side of the bed, made sure it was fully loaded and slipped it into her apron pocket.

Sven closed the upper shutters but left one on each side of the house unlatched and ready to peer out of. The largest window in the great room had no shutter so a trip to the barn was needed for wooden planks. While inside the barn he opened all the stall doors and unlatched and cracked open the barn doors. This way, in case the French Trappers set fire to the barn, the animals could freely escape. He then set out extra feed and filled the interior trough with water. The animals would now be able to survive in case of a few days siege occurred.

By noon, all was secure and ready for an attack. There was only one thing left for Jute to do. In order to be an effective fighter, he needed to be away from the house, and be outside.

It was the persistent chattering of the Magpies that warned Jute he wasn’t alone…

Chapter 4

Making his way around the far side of the corral, he watched as the furthest magpie took to the air. Armed with one of the Golden Boys rifles, he ran bent over into the woods.

From that position he saw one after another magpie take to squawking flight. He wondered if the French trappers knew of the magpies. Quite possibly not he mused, the magpie was considered a western bird. Watching the magpies circle and land elsewhere, he knew exactly where the group was located.

The group was slowly making their way to the eastern side of the house behind the barn. He thought of slipping into the barn and taking a stand there but again his training told him that was a foolish move.

Instead, he decided to stay put in order get a good count on their numbers as they passed quietly nearby. When they had passed and gathered behind the barn for nightfall to come, Jutes stomach churned. Jute had counted twenty two men!

“Our friends must be carrying a fortune” he thought to himself. “If their money was worth splitting it between twenty odd trappers, they must have thousands of dollars in gold on them. On the other hand, Trap did say they had saved enough to buy a farm or ranch outright.”

Jute could not remember any large satchel being carried so either it was in the horses saddle bags or hidden somewhere and the French were unaware of it. “I bet that’s why they stole the food and donkey.” He thought, “They first thought the food was the money satchel and later thought the donkey was carrying the money”.

Jute came to the conclusion that the money was definitely the reason the three trappers were being hunted.

The slanting yellow sun cast long shadows over the landscape. The shadows were Jutes friend. Moving to the west, he knew the trappers would have the sun directly in their eyes. It was time for Jute to start the dance so he tossed out his calling card.

Seeing a lone figure slipping away from behind the barn, he watched as the man stood urinating in the bushes. He pressed his rifle against his shoulder and slowly sighting it, he adjusted it upwards for the bullets drop at such a distance then pulled the trigger.

The figure stood for a moment. Then it tumbled face forward into the bushes.

There was nothing he could do about the sound but being in front of the sun, he was invisible to the trappers as they fled into the nearby dark woods. Their cover blown, their sneak attack turned into a free for all. Gunshots were heard and each time Jute saw a muzzle flash, he returned a bullet at the spot. Screams of the injured mixed with the sounds of gunfire. Because many of the trappers had fled into the ill lit woods they began shooting in each other’s direction in confusion.

Being one of many trying to hide or return fire in the long dark shadowed woods was not the safest of places to be. Bullets twanged off of tree trunks, men shot at any movement seen and new howls of pain could be heard over the curses and gunfire. While every now and then a bullet zipped its way into the darkening woods where Jute hid, they were still so ill aimed that Jute held little fear he would be hit.

Instead, Jute smiled and continued to unload his deadly lead into the tree line.

 

Chapter 5

Evening turned into night and the gunfire turned silent. Since Jute had specifically told his parents not to join the attack from inside the house unless the house was broken into, there were no shots were fired. The group was still unsure of its occupancy or firepower so they decided to wait until dawns light to attack.

On the other hand, Jute was now in his Blackfeet trained environment. The night’s darkness belonged to him.

Jean Bernard Leblanc, the leader of the French trappers, sat sullenly near the barn in the woods complaining that someone’s clumsiness must have given them away. No campfire was lit so that meant no hot food.  Leblanc and most all the other trappers were used to living off the land though. A cold meal or none at all, made little difference to them. They were in for the gold and whatever else they could steal along the way. Right now that meant robbing and killing the Grundvig family.

Jute left his woods and casually made his way to the barn. No moon meant no light, just the way Jute wanted it.

Making his way around the barn he smelled the man guarding his position before he saw him. Jute stopped and listened to the guard breathing heavily. Judging by the sound alone, Jute could tell the man was quite fat. The method of disposal would have to be quick. A large man can still put up a fight even when his throat is cut. To knife his heart would work better but in the dark on such a large man, missing the heart would be easy. Jute pondered the situation and decided to maim and not kill the man would serve his purpose even better. He had been taught there where two sure ways to destroy your enemy. One was by using force and the other was by using fear. So fear it was.

From the direction of the barn, the fat guard heard the sound of footsteps casually approaching his post. It was too early to be relieved of his duty yet but on the other hand it was most likely just one of his fellows with a bite of food or drink.

Turning to face the approaching footsteps, he was surprised when he felt a sharp stinging pain sweep over his scalp. Thinking one of his fellow trappers had yanked hard on his hair as a joke, he cursed and slapped his hand onto the top of his head. What he felt stunned him. Instead of a filthy growth of matted hair, his hand found a warm, wet and slippery skull. He had been scalped alive.

The peaceful night air was torn with a horrible blood curling scream.

Men came running with freshly lit lamps only to start screaming themselves when they saw the portly scalped man they called LePaunt or the Smelly one.

LePaunt  continued to roll on the ground screaming and grabbing at his bleeding skull. Finally, in an act of mercy a gunshot rang out and LePaunt lay quivering, not quite dead.    Someone yelled in French “Shoot him again! He is still shaking! I cannot stand to look at him shaking!” Another shot rang out and LePaunt eye was blown from its socket but LaPaunt continued to shake. Again the man cried, “Aieee! Poor lePaunt he still lives!” Three more shots in quick succession ended lePaunts shaking legs.

No sooner had order been somewhat restored when another scream rent the night. This time the man was found running in circles missing his nose and lips. The gaping hole in his face bled freely down his jacket as he ran in circles screaming. It was a nightmare to those watching by the light of the small lamp. The man did not even look human. Instead, with the help of the dark and shadows cast by the lamps, the man resembled a live screaming skull.

Knowing there was no help for the man, Jean Leblanc ordered him shot.

No one slept that night. Talk of the horrors and who could have perpetrated them consumed the conversation. One fellow, a skinny toothless man with bad breath told everyone that the Blackfeet in Montana were known shape shifters. That upon a whim they can change into any form of animal they desire.

Trying to make light of the situation, another piped up that his wife was a shape shifter because every time he wanted to poke her she turned into a bear! The others laughed nervously but soon the memory of the gruesome episodes returned to frighten the men.

Dawn came none too soon for the French trappers. Each gave a silent sigh of relief to see they had made it through the night alive. Well, most anyway. Three more men were found dead. One lay as if asleep between two men that had been fully awake the entire night. His throat had been cut so deeply his head lolled back and forth as if unattached. Another sat with a small bottle of whiskey still in his hands. No outward sign of death was noted but he had no eyes. The last was found naked hanging from a tree in the woods with missing eyes, ears, nose and tongue. A small hole over his heart gave evidence that at least he had died quickly.

What the French did not know was that while Jute was a very good tracker and could even scalp a man if needed, Jute was not a cruel person , quite unlike the Blackfeet, who had helped him throughout the night.

Moments before Jute acted on Lepaunt, a pinching touch on his arm told him his friend Hopping Crow had unexpectedly arrived. It was Hopping Crows idea to scalp the man and to add to their fun, the other hunters that had come with Hopping Crow joined in by dispatching a few more.

After the killings, Jute motioned for his Blackfeet friends to join him inside the house. Once safely inside, he explained the situation to them and his parents.

Hopping Crow in turn explained their timely arrival.

Hopping Crow said that they had actually been on the way over to the Grundvigs place to invite Jute on a hunt when the party noticed the same sudden explosion of the magpies as Jute did. Thinking a predator beast may be in the field, they crept cautiously forward until they saw what had made the commotion. The Blackfeet had a few skirmishes with other French trappers years ago and seeing this group sneaking up on the Grundvig home, they knew the trappers were up to no good. When night fell they observed Jute walking casually toward the barn so they followed silently behind him.

“I did not hear you behind me.”

“You are not Blackfeet” was Hopping Crows reply.

“When you touched me in the way a Blackfeet does, I knew then it was you.”

“A white man would have jumped, you trained well under Two knives.”

Jute then said, “We have three trapper friends who should be returning here soon. Take care that if they come that you do not attack them by accident. They are good men and want only to live in peace.”

“How will we know them?”

Jute thought for a moment then replied. “By their hair! My mother just cut their hair. Look!”

Jute ran into the kitchen and taking up the mixing bowl returned with it on top of his head. That drew giggles and laughter from the Blackfeet.

“This bowl was used to cut their hair. They have no hair from the bowls rim down and around to their neck.” Jute pointed to the bottom edge of the bowl surrounding his head. “The French trappers have long unruly hair tied in knots behind their heads or just hanging down like a mangy horse tail. Our friends have also recently bathed. They will smell different than the French which smell of rotting meat.”

Hopping Crow turned and explained all this to the five other Blackfeet hunters in the room. Nods of comprehension followed.

“We will not attack your friends if they come. Let us now talk of a way to rid the forest and fields of these Frenchmen.”

Chapter 6

Morning’s dawn broke not a moment too soon for the terrified French trappers. After a quick head count and discovering the mutilated naked hung trapper, they quietly gathered their wits about them to plan for their next onslaught on the Grundvig homestead.

Jean LeBlanc spoke. “We will divide into four groups of five. Two groups will attack the house from north, two from the south. The first of the two will attack on my word and the second will attack ten minutes later.

“I sent a man into the barn early this morning, it is empty except for some animals. How many people are in the house and who these people are, I have no idea. Last night they attacked us to put fear into each of you. That means they are outnumbered but have an Indian’s cruelty so be cautious. By attacking from two sides at once though, they will have to divide their forces. When our men tire and run low on ammunition, the next group will take over for them. Inside, the house will become so full of gun powder smoke that it will make their eyes sting and water. This will make it difficult to aim their guns and that means they will expose themselves for longer periods of time at their windows. They foolishly shuttered all of their windows so the smoke will not be removed by a breeze flowing through the house. When we kill them all, we will gather their belongings and divide them fairly between us. The horses will be added to our own remuda. And the mules killed for their meat.”

At eight O’Clock in the morning, LeBlanc gave the word to attack.

A few things then happened all at once. First, at hearing the opening shots, one after another, every shutter was thrown open on the house and then gunfire erupted. The plan to us the gun smoke to their advantages had failed.

Secondly, the two separate groups of five men each rounded the corners of the home only to run head first into the onslaught of fire coming from the Blackfeet hiding there.

Thirdly was the sound of three horses at a hell bent gallop heading their way from the west.

LeBlanc was taken by surprise. It was too much for him to absorb and make adjustments in his attack. He stood there open mouthed watching as his men turn one after another into wriggling painfully bullet ridden contortionist.

With a terrible lack of judgment, he ordered the second group to attack.

By now withering fire was coming from the homes windows, both sides of the yard from the Blackfeet and now from the three men on horseback from behind.

The French trappers turned robbers never had a chance. The Blackfeet took scalps from the screaming living as well as the dead. The shutters once again closed and the men on horseback arrived, dismounted and ran to where jute could be seen standing over a begging Frenchman in the yard.

“I knew it!” Trap shouted, “I felt in my bones they was going to attack you all! We was settin’ the last of the traps when all of a sudden somethin’ told me to get up on our horses an’ hightail it back here. Everything we owned was left a settin’ right where we dropped it!”

“It’s good that you came. And I’m sorry you left your belongings behind.” Sven said stepping out of the back door of the cabin.  “Your timely arrival was enough to cause this man here on his knees to make a terrible mistake in his confusion. His men paid dearly for it.”

Hopping Crow’s hunters had finished their grizzly task of making sure the attacking trappers entered the next world in a humiliating fashion then joined Sven, Jute and their funny haired friends.

Meanwhile, Jean Bernard LeBlanc knelt in the grass crying. Hopping Crow walked over and looking down at the man sniffed. “He shit pants!” and returned to the assembled group in disgust.

After introductions went around, and hands were shook, the bodies of the dead were gathered up for a proper burial. Being a fellow trapper, Trap asked this to be done rather than just dragging them into the woods for the animals to feed on.  He figured that at one time or another in their lives, they might have been good men that had just gone bad. LeBlanc still lay in the grassy yard begging for his life when a single Indian stepped up to him and shot him through the head then quickly scalped him. All turned at the sound of the single gunshot but said nothing until Hopping Crow spoke up. “He needed to die, his friends were lonely and besides, he smells bad.”

The Indians just shrugged making no judgment and later helped to drag the dead men into the common holes in the woods that had been dug for them. Four to a grave and an upright stick to mark the graves was all the evidence they received declaring they had ever walked on this celestial ball.

After the chore of burying the dead was finished, Hopping Crow walked over to Jute and said, “We will go and hunt now. I will tell my Uncle Two Knives of your bravery here. He will be proud!” After saying that, Hopping Crow and his fellow Blackfeet turned and silently walked back in the direction they had originally come from.

Trap rubbed his chin in wonder saying to Jute, “ You was right young fella, them Blackfeet friends you got sure is folks worth bein’ friends with.”

Meanwhile Sven had entered the home and returned with Rika in tow. She had glimpsed the carnage earlier from the lone kitchen window and had thought better of taking a second look, especially during the scalping. She did not approve but understood the cultural difference between the two groups. It was with some trepidation in Jutes earlier tutelage with the Blackfeet that she feared he may become too much of a Blackfeet. Seeing how he handled this situation gave her the confidence he knew where to draw the line.

Sven approached Trap and asked, “What are your plans Trap? Do you plan on going back for your traps and gear? If you do or do not, you and your sons may stay here with us this coming winter if you wish.”

“Last night the boys and I talked it out and decided to leave our gear where it lays. Trapping’s pretty much over with anyhow. The beaver population will take decades to recover before it would pay to start trappin’ again. No, were done for.”

“What will you do instead?” Jute asked.

“Well, I need to talk to your Daddy here about that.” Looking at Sven Trap asked, “You mentioned something about land still available. You think there’s enough land for the two of us to do farmin’ and some ranchin in the same valley?”

The smile on Sven’s face said it all. “There is more than enough my friend. I will even go to the land office with you to file your land claim. But Trap, I must tell you that no bank will loan you money for land out this far from a town. Unfortunately, you will have to save enough up to pay in full.”

“Shoot, that’s what I had intended anyhow! I ain’t never gonna’ be beholdin’ to no fancy pants banker. No siree!”

Sven smiled but a look of doubt clouded his eyes. “Trap, even way out here starting a ranch or farm is not cheap. I come from a well to do family back in Sweden and it still cost me all I had to come to America and put my roots down here. I know you had mentioned once that you have been saving your money but my friend, unless your horse is carrying gold bars on it, I do not see how you could possibly purchase such a large spread as you need. I do not mean to pry into your finances Trap, but just how much money do you have to buy land with?”

“Well… I never really counted it out. I’m not real good at numbers Sven. Suppose I bring it here and you count if for us and tell us how much we got?”

“I would do that for you Trap but where is your money at if you do not keep it in a bank? “

“We buried it!”

“You did what?”

“We buried it right after our donkey was stole by the Frenchies. They almost had it by Gum! That’s what Ol’ Geezer was for, to carry all our gold coins.”

“Deloy here had a dream that someone sneaked up and stole our money. So the next day we all felt it was a sign to hide our coin. Good thing to because that next day Old Geezer was took. Speaking of Old Geezer, we need to round up them Frenchies horses and Old Geezer now that they is all dead.”

Two days later, Geezer arrived along with the three trappers on their horses. Tied to Geezers pack saddle were two large wooden crates, one on each side. After dismounting and stretching the two boys Carl and Deloy, unpacked the crates and pried open the tops for all to see inside.

Trap spoke up in anticipation. “C’mon Sven, let’s see how much we got here. Will you and Rika count it out for us?”

Sven and Rika each took a case to count and when finally finished counting all the coins, they worked their figures on paper then sat back on the haunches and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Trap asked.

“Trap,” Sven replied laughing, “We’ll make that trip to the land office just as soon as you wish. By our count, you and your sons have saved enough over the years to not only buy your land but if you wished, ours as well !”

Trap looked around confused, “Now why would I want to buy your land?”

Everyone laughed.

Chapter 7

For years the two brothers and their families successfully plowed the land and tended their cattle on the ranch their father had purchased for them. As often as they could, they would get together with their neighbors Jute and his wife and their children for picnics and social visits to the growing town of  Red Lodge Montana. At one time their parents were celebrated as early Montana pioneers but to each son they always remained just Mom or Dad until the day came that they too in their old age joined their parents in eternal rest. Their children grew, married and life continued moving forward until the two family’s histories were lost in the blur of time.

For over a century now, Trap Hamblin, Sven and Rika Grundvig, lay resting in obscurity but at peace in the rich Montana soil on the property they had worked so hard to tame. Their children and grandchildren sleep near to them knowing their seed continues on elsewhere.

Perched nervously on the highest tree limbs, steel fence post, aluminum sheeted barn roofs and on top of two forgotten families faded grave stones resting in a common graveyard sit the magpies. They are the descendents of those very same magpies that had warned Jute and the Blackfeet of impending danger.  Today they continue to play out their never ending role as nature’s opportune scavengers yet ever vigilant guards.  Like Jute, have you ever stopped to pay attention to what they might be telling you?

Doin’ what’s right even when it’s wrong

Chapter 1  

Outlaw Bo Brooks was feeling the heat of being chased down by Texas Ranger Dusty Austin and now to boot, he had trapped himself inside a box canyon.

The twenty five year old Texas Ranger tracking Brooks was known by both Lawmen and hombres as the best tracker and most dogged pursuer of no goods as could be found north of the Mexican border. Sometimes, like now, it was necessary to go beyond the State line in his pursuit.

Clean shaven with short cropped brown hair and startling blue eyes, Ranger Austin had been every girls heart throb. He could have been one to easily play the field but it was never the case. At fourteen he met the new neighbor’s daughter, twelve year old Lisa, and fell hard and forever in love.

He could never rightly say what attracted him to her. She was at twelve, a wondered eyed somewhat a bony girl with long blond unkempt curls whose knocked knees and clumsy adolescent walk wouldn’t draw boy’s second looks even if she were sixteen. But danged if Dusty Austin was going to let her get away from him. He found the stupidest reasons to traverse over to the Triple T Ranch abutting his father’s own in order to catch a glimpse of the girl hanging fresh laundry or playing in the creek. One time it was to warn of an angry mountain lion he swore he saw prowling nearby, another he said he thought his dog wondered over there.

Lisa seemed to take all his nonsense activity in stride by paying him no more mind than she would a warty toad. Still, Dusty would not give up trying to attract her attention. He daydreamed of saving her from Indians, taking a few arrows in the process then her comforting him afterward.

By sixteen Dusty’s efforts started to pay off. Maybe it was her entering woman hood or maybe he was just plain old wearing her down but whatever the case she began to notice the handsome boy who was goggled eyed over her. At eighteen, Dusty asked her father for her hand. Both families knew of the boys comical attempts at wooing Lisa’s love over the years and permission was freely given. A year later Dusty was taken off the most eligible bachelors list.

He and Lisa settled onto a small starter spread that their Dads had cut out from their own sprawling ranches. The spread included the small stream where years earlier Dusty had hid in the bushes watching her play in the clear water. The small two room cabin was enough until a family was started. Lisa by now had cast off only a minor amount of the clumsy adolescent child. She was still prone to trip over her own feet or stumbled down the front porch stairs in her haste to greet her true love as he returned home exhausted from a hard day’s work on his fathers ranch.

Then one day a visitor would change Dusty’s work habit. A newly formed, government backed group of Lawmen called Texas Rangers had been formed to control any Lawless folk wanted for riding the Owl hoot trail. Ranger Aubrey Smith was passing through but had been convinced by Dusty and Lisa to rest up a few days before heading out again. Since visitors were rare, Lisa and Dusty took this opportunity to pry as much information about the big cities, their people and his role as a Texas Ranger as they could from their visitor. Dusty became enchanted with the idea of traveling the country side hunting down wanted hombres.

On the second day over dinner, Dusty asked, “So what does a guy need to know to get a Rangers job?”

“Well, that depends. Are you any good at handling a gun or tracking or willing to stay away from home for weeks on end with pay being inconsistent? Those are just a few things that you need to ask yourself. If you can answer yes to those, then maybe I can be of help. We just got a new post in Loving County. That’s only twenty or so miles from Pecos here. That’s where I’m being assigned. I have to be there in three days.”

Lisa saw the sparkle come to Dusty’s eyes and reached across the table and gave Dusty hand a squeeze. “Heck,” Dusty replied, “I’m near the best tracker in All Texas, and the same Indian that taught me tracking taught me to shoot and live off the land too!”

“You was taught by an Indian? What’s his name? I might know of him if he ever tracked for the law.”

“Limping Bear. He near raised me when my mother passed when I was a kid. I don’t think he ever worked for the army or law. He was working for my Dad back then breakin’ horses. He took a liking to me an’ me to him. Shoot, I followed him everywhere he went. My Dad was too busy for the most part to raise me so he kind of handed me off to Limping Bear. All I learned was…”

“Limping Bear!” The Ranger shouted. “Limping Bear is my Fathers half brother!”

“That makes us almost related” Dusty laughed.

After a good chuckle, Ranger Aubrey asked, “So whatever became of Limping Bear, is he still around”?

“Naw, I wish he was. He got bit by a rattler while in my Dads corral. Why the horses didn’t see it and make a fuss we’ll never know. It got him high up in the thigh, the Doc said right in an artery. The poison traveled quick and him bein’ old and all, he didn’t make it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I only met him a few times but he was an imposing character for sure. I grew up south of here outside of Strobel in Brewster County. He’d stop by to visit now and then.”

“Sure, I remember the times he left to visit family there. They was one of the few times he wouldn’t let me tag along. Small world really. Here you an’ I meet up years later knowing the same man but still bein’ worlds apart.”

“So, might the job of being a Ranger interest you at all Dusty?”

“Do I have to live on the post or can I still live and work out of here?”

“Most men are single but you only have to report to the post for orders and after you capture someone in order to fill out the paperwork. I can’t see a problem, you’re only twenty miles away.  When I leave here you wanna ride up there with me?”

 

Chapter 2

That answer was given four years ago when Dusty was sworn into the Texas Rangers. As was Aubrey, he was stationed out of the Loving County post in Mentone. Being from the general territory was a plus as knowing which County you were in was important to a Ranger. Some County Sheriffs were more friendly than others towards the Rangers. Some were downright in your face antagonistic.

In the short time he’d been a ranger, Dusty, Now called Ranger Austin, had racked up an impressive capture count. Where others found little to no trail or evidence, Ranger Austin saw a man’s passage as clear as he’d painted the ground with his feet.

An overturned pebble, a smudge in the dirt for no reason, a bent shoot of grass, the twig on the ground showing evidence of being stepped on, even the birds and lizards cried out the trail he should follow.

He got so well known that a few no goods actually turned themselves in once they found out he was on their tail.

It was the man he now tailed that held his interest. Bank robber, Bo Brooks.

Brooks was an enigma. He was known as one of the friendliest, give the shirt off his back young men folks had ever met. Why he robbed the Santa Lucia Bank over in Pecos County was anybody’s guess. To top it all off, he left word where the others who included themselves in the heist were camped out. He alone was the sole man left to capture and Ranger Austin was hot on his trail. Unfortunately, that trail now led across the New Mexico border. Still, he was the Law and the States overlooked infringements like this for the common good.

It was at the Rio Panasco River near the small town of Roswell and nearly eighty five miles northwest of his post in Loving that he finally cornered Brooks in a box canyon.

Brooks knew he had made a serious mistake. Reaching the end of the canyon proved his worries were well founded. High unclimbable cliffs on three sides of the canyon prevented his escape.

Seeing Brooks make it to the far end of the canyon, Ranger Austin pulled up short at the box canyons entrance. He’d make camp here, knowing Brooks only way out was past him. His confidence grew as he saw smoke from Brooks cook fire. Brooks was wise enough not to panic and foolishly try to scale the steep cliffs. If it meant a standoff, then being well fed was important.

Soon two cook fires were seen spiraling gently skyward from each end of the canyon.

 

Chapter 3

Morning sunlight broke over the canyon’s eastern rim. The reddish brown rock of the western cliffs suddenly lit up like they were on fire. Ranger Austin was a patient man. He knew Brooks had only a little water left and none was visible inside the box canyon. Waiting for the sun to light up the entire canyon, he decided on a late breakfast of bacon and biscuits. Eating this way, only two meals would need to be cooked for the day.

Brooks had no such concerns. A tendril of fresh smoke drifted skyward from his rekindled cook fire. Seeing the smoke, Ranger Austin decided on trying to make contact with Brooks rather than just jump into a hell to all shoot out.

The box canyon was less than a quarter mile wide and not much longer than that. Instead of a nice flat bottom, it rose and fell with strewn boulders and house high dirt mounds. While it was a great place for youngsters playing hide and seek, it didn’t offer enough protection to allow Brooks to sneak past the Ranger. Some small scrub trees and brush made line of sight difficult but a man’s voice could still be heard if one yelled loud enough. So that’s the tact Ranger Austin decided on.

Climbing one of the dirt mounds close to his own camp, Ranger Austin cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled.

“Brooks! You hear me Brooks?”

“Yeah, I can hear ya!” Brooks shouted back.

“C’mon Brooks, there ain’t no ways outa this here box canyon. Do yourself and me a favor and toss down your weapons an’ give up!”

“I been thinkin’ along them lines Ranger, I just find it hard to voluntarily put a noose around my neck. Let me think some more on it a bit. Maybe we’ll see eye to eye, maybe we won’t. I ain’t decided yet.”

“I tell you what. By tomorrow morning you had better have decided or I’m comin’ after ya’!”

“Fair enough!” Brooks yelled back. This time tomorrow I’ll let ya’ know!”

The sun rose higher in the sky and Ranger Austin finally decided on some breakfast. Stirring the cook fire’s coals into life, he added some fuel and set his coffee pot and fry skillet with bacon on top of it.

Shortly, Brookes voice was once again heard. “Hey, Ranger! You cookin’ up bacon over there? Damn you man, that ain’t fair, all I got is some measly Jerky on my side!”

Austin started chuckling then yelled back, “See? That’s the difference between us! I got me a nice woman who makes sure her man is well taken care of when he’s on the trail! Plus I don’t rob no banks!”

“If you was in my shoes, you mighta’ done the same! Hell man, the smell a that bacon’s doin’ a better job killin’ me more’n  any noose would. You don’t think you could spare a bite for a poor outlaw?”

“Give yourself up and I’ll fry up another pound with your name on it!”

“I knew there’d be a catch! Ha ha.”

While the bantering went back and forth, just outside the entrance to the box canyon another nose sniffed the air determining the direction of the mouth watering smell of the frying bacon.

It was the grunt behind him that caused Ranger Austin to look behind him. There, standing on it’s hind legs staring directly at Austin was a full grown, four hundred pound Black bear.

Realizing his rifle was still stuck inside it’s saddle holster, Ranger Austin reached for the colt pistol strapped to his hip.

The bear charged with a loud roar. Before Ranger Austin could fully aim the gun the bear was on top of him.  Austin was knocked backwards over the fire losing his pistol. It crossed his mind that a face full of steaming coffee could halt the bear but it was only a thought because his eyes were watching the coffee pot go tumbling over and over spilling it’s hot liquid out as it somersaulted away.

Lying on his back he felt himself pulled violently backward towards the ruined fire. Pain shot through his leg as the bear bit deeply into it. A blood curling scream left the young Ranger’s lips as the bear began to toss it’s head back and forth trying to tear off the leg.

In the distance, a yell was heard back but by now Ranger Dusty Austin was losing consciousness as the bear continued to yank and twist at the leg. Suddenly, as if it had tired of the leg pulling game, the bear let go and wandered over to the bacon that had been spilled onto the ground.  Sitting on its haunches, the bear began to gabble down the hot fried bacon. No sooner had it finished when the bear once again stood up looking. Running towards the bear was Brooks waving his hand gun and yelling.

As Bo neared the bear, he fired the small 38 caliber pistol into the bear. Instead of dying, it seemed the tiny bullets just pissed it off. Slapping the air as if bee’s were stinging it, the bear backed off. Two more times Bo fired the small gun. This time the bear’s rear end caught the lead and in a roar it high tailed it out the entrance of the canyon bellowing in pain.

Seeing the Rangers 45 caliber laying on the ground, Bo quickly picked it up and shoved it into his pants.

Making his way over to the unconscious Ranger, Bo bent down to look at the young man’s leg. What he saw made him cringe.

“Hey, Ranger, you with me?” Tapping the Ranger on the face, Bo tried to revive him back into  consciousness.

“Well, you sure got yourself into a pickle here Ranger, that leg is really torn up. I’ll do what I can but I ain’t no Doctor.”

With that, Bo searched the man’s saddle bags and found a small bottle of whiskey and a tin of horse salve. Cleaning the deep wound as best as he could, he applied the horse salve to it and wrapped the leg in part of the Rangers torn off pant leg.

The day passed and no real improvement was seen in the Ranger’s condition so Bo went on back to his camp at the other end of the canyon to gather up his own horse and belongings. Upon his return he noted the Ranger had shifted his position a bit and it was then he heard him moan. Running up to the Ranger, he heard the young man asking for water.

Tilting the Rangers head back, Bo began pouring water into his mouth. After the Ranger had drunk nearly half a canteen of water, Bo pulled it aside. “I’m sure with all the blood you lost you’re as thirsty as a bear…er whatever, but you gotta’ take it a little at a time or you’ll just puke it all back up.”

Ranger Austin tilted his head sideways in order to look over at Brooks.

“My leg,” He asked, “how bad is it?”

“I ain’t no Doctor but I’d say it’s about as bad as can be without it fallen’ off. I cleaned it the best I could with your whiskey and plopped a bunch a your horse salve on it but you need to get to a Doc right away.”

“Hell, you know we ain’t nowhere near a town Brooks. If infection sets in I’m a gonner. How much did I bleed before you applied the salve?”

“Shoot Ranger, you bled out like a stuck pig. It took a bit of time before I got the bleeding slowed down. I had heard if you press real hard on a bad wound that sometimes that stops the bleedin’. I guess it worked but I’m afraid if you start movin’ around, it’ll start bleedin’ all over again.”

“You did good Brooks, The free bleeding may have cleaned out the wound good enough to prevent infection. The whisky and salve will help the surface wound but deep inside is what worries me.”

“Sounds like you know about these things, you a Doctor besides a Ranger?”

“No, just raised by an Indian that’s all. Tell you what Brooks, can we call a truce here? I need some herbs gathered and I gotta trust ya’”

“ Sure, besides I got your gun an’ you ain’t in no condition to arrest me . What kind of herbs you talkin’ about Ranger?”

“Mesquite tree. Carve of some bark until you hit the gum inside. Carve out a good handful of ngum then take a few of the smaller live twigs along with some fresh bark and bring it all here.”

Within a half hour Brooks returned with an armload of mesquite branches and bark. “I got the gum, it’s in my pocket. Here’s the branches. You doin’ OK pard?”

It was the first time that Bo acknowledged the Ranger as more than just a Lawman. Dusty took this in but was in too much pain to answer right off. When he did, it was to instruct Bo in preparing a poultice and tea.

When the gum had been squeezed hard enough a clear liquid came forth from it. “Save that juice, it’s what keeps infections down. You’ll mix it with some of the crushed leaves and pack it inside my wounds. Then make a tea using the small twigs, a bit of bark and some leaves. If I pass out again, just keep on doing what I told you,OK?”

“Sure, thing. By the way Ranger, what’s your first name? Seein’ as we got a truce goin’ on here, the least we can do is call each other by our Christian names.”

With a painful chuckle ranger Austin lowered himself to that of an ordinary citizen and replied, “Dusty, Dusty Austin. I know you go by Bo, is that short for Beau?”

“Yeah, my Momma named me after my grandfather, her father Union General Beau Brooks.”

“Well ain’t that somethin’? General Brooks Grandson is a bank robber, who’d a thunk? Your grand daddy must be rollin’ over in his grave about now.”

During this time Bo had made up the poultice and had filled the spilled coffee pot partway with water, placed it over the kicked apart but still hot coals  and added the leaves, twigs and bark. He then walked over to where Dusty lay.

“Lay still now Dusty, this poultice is gonna hurt when I put it inside the wound. Too bad we ain’t got no more whiskey, I used it up cleaning your wound, you could use some right now.”

“ I’ll do fine, just put a thick twig in my mouth to bite down on.”

Bo placed a thumb sized twig in Dusty’s mouth and undressed the wound.  Fresh blood continued to leak out of the wound but the river was now just a trickle.  Bo slowly parted the wound where the bears teeth had dug deepest. The wound immediately pooled with blood and Bo let it drip freely into the dirt. He then took the thick poultice and began stuffing it into the deepest part of the wound.

It took a second or two but then Dusty arched his back and screamed through the stick in his mouth. Suddenly the stick was bit completely through and then thankfully Dusty passed out.  With Dusty unconscious, Bo was able to complete the poultice without Dusty screaming. Satisfied the wound could hold no more, he then re wrapped the leg and made Dusty as comfortable as possible.

He brought Dusty a cup of the mesquite tea when he woke up. “Here, drink this up. It’s the tea you asked me to make up for ya’. You fainted when I started packin’ your wound and that made it easier to finish the job.”

“I owe you Bo, thank you for being so Christian about all this.” Bo lifted the cup to Dusty’s lips and let him drink.

“I have nothin’ agin ya’ Dusty, you was just doin’ your job. Heck the only reason why I asked for extra time before I turned myself in was ‘cause I wanted to see the night sky as a free man one more time before bein’ hung. I did what I needed to do knowin’ there was a price to be paid.”

Dusty turned his head to look at Bo who was again sitting on the ground next to him. “I can’t figure you out Bo. You seem to be a genuine fella. Everybody thinks you’re the best, but then you go and rob a bank and yet you turn in the rest of the gang. It makes no sense Bo, why’d you do it?”

“For my Ma. She needed the money. Last year my Grandpa, the General, died. He was the hero of the small town we all lived in so when he died the town held a big funeral dirge for him. Some state and Federal politicians showed up vowing a granite monument was in order to honor him. Well they went ahead and ordered the work started on a grand mausoleum with promises that the Government would pay for it. Well, three months later the mausoleum was finished and the folks was lookin’ to be paid for their work. We contacted the Politicians who ordered the work done but they disavowed they had promised anything. My Mom was in a dither.

The workers were threatening to go to court and force the sale of our farm so they could recover their wages. We didn’t blame them none, we blamed the rascal politicians who didn’t uphold their promise to pay. We sure didn’t have the money but I told Ma that I’d think of something.”

“So you figured robbing a bank would solve your problem?”

“Well, yes and no. My cousin found out the bank in Santa Lucia over in Pecos County was owned by the same politician that ordered the mausoleum to be built. So while I was planning on how to rob it, I ran into a group of no goods with the same idea. After talkin’ it over with ‘em, I joined up figurin’ I’d get my share then take off and pay for the mausoleum. What I found out though was they was plannin’ on killin’ me and taking my share. So I set it up that they’d get caught and I’d get away. It almost worked too. As soon as I fled, I stopped over in the next town and had a bank draft made in place of the stolen money. It was a small town and word hadn’t got to them yet about the bank in Santa Lucia bein’ robbed.”

“So where’s the money now?”

“Gone. I left that town and rode till I found a town that had regular post service. From there I sent the draft to my Ma and she cashed it an’ paid for the mausoleum. The workers and stone company got paid and all seemed like it went fine until a customer in the Santa Lucia bank came forward and said they knew who the lone escaped bank robber was. It turned out the retired school Marm I had years earlier recognized me. Seems she moved back to Santa Lucia with her brother after retiring from the school in my home town.”

“ That’s a pile of bad luck alright, I almost wished you’d gotten away with it. I don’t cotton to politicians but I’m still a Ranger and I took an oath to do my duty.”

“Like I said, you got a job to do, I don’t put no blame on you.”

“Well maybe if I say something in court about you saving me they’d be more lenient on you.”

“Fat chance at that Dusty, this is the grand pooba of politicians were talking about in that county. He got total control there. Word has it that I should only get jail except he had it upped to death by hanging. No, I’m a dead man my friend but at least  Grandpa Brooks is layin’ in peace now and my Ma gets to keep the farm. But I do appreciate the kind offer of your words in court.”

That night a low fever started and his wound began to throb heavily with each heart beat. By morning he was delirious with fever. Bo kept his vigil and kept supplying Dusty with water even though it meant none for himself now.  He remembered crossing a small creek about an hours ride back but was afraid to leave Dusty alone. Coyotes, buzzards or even the return of the bear would mean his death, so Bo stayed with him.

By the second night after he relapsed, Bo knew he had to leave the next morning and get more water. There was only a cupful remaining.

Bo looked to the night sky. The stars were so bright he could have read a novel by them. It was then that he felt overwhelmed by the tragedy of what had transpired against the beauty of the night sky. Raising his head to the heavens he asked, “Lord, how can it be that when I look upward, I see beauty and when I look downward I see misery. You know I ain’t nothing, but this here man dyin’ is somethin’ that this country needs. I promise you this Lord, if you let this good man live, I’ll be happy and I’ll even shake your hand after I’m hung.”

Morning found Bo sleeping with his arm tucked under his head like a pillow. He lay there snoring until a voice woke him.

“Hey, bank robber Bo! We got any bacon still stashed in my saddle bags?”

Bo jumped up grinning wildly. “Well tan my hide, he did it!”

“Did what, who did it? Dusty weakly asked.”

“While you was dyin’ I prayed. I ain’t no man of God but I guess he understood my tellin’ him you was needed in this country to keep folks safe an’ all. Good men are hard to come by an need to be kept around.” Bo looked down at Dusty and smiled, “Now that you’re awake I can travel back to that creek we passed an’ refill our canteens. I used it all to slack your thirst during the last couple of days when you was delirious with fever.”

“What about your canteen, surely you have some water left, don’t you?”

Naw, I gave it all to you, you needed it more’n me.”

“Well, I know of one good man that God needs saving and his last name is Brooks!”

Chapter 4

A week later, Dusty was able to sit in the saddle. His wounds were healing nicely and Bo continued to nurse him back to health. Dusty needed to resupply his food and return home to continue his convalescence. He told Bo that it was time they move on.

“Bo, we need to talk. There ain’t no way I can turn a man in to hang when it’s the wrong thing to do. I know I took an oath to uphold the Law but the Law don’t know what I know and the judge won’t give a damn either. Justice will be what that politician says it is. Right or wrong. I want you to do something. You ain’t wanted here in New Mexico. I got a good friend Ted Richards that moved to a town along the Rio Grande called Hillsboro, it’s up in Sierra County. You go on up there. Just tell him I sent you, he’ll take good care of you. When I’m better, I’ll ride over to your Moms place and explain where you’re at. If she wants to sell the place and join you there, I’ll help her do it. If not then at least she’ll know your safe and making an honest living for yourself here. It’s the best I can do, take it Bo, you’re a good man and good men are hard to come by!”

“What about you Dusty? What’ll you tell your captain? You’ll just get into trouble.”

“It’ll be some time before I’m back in the saddle for the Rangers. Maybe my leg will never be the same and I’ll have to call it quits anyway. Besides, I ain’t breaking any law letting you go. We aren’t in Texas and I really have no jurisdiction here anyway. When I do report back, I’ll explain what all happened here and it tell ‘em I decided that under the circumstances of being severely injured, I couldn’t bring you in. That ain’t no lie either. I’m so weak a five year old kid could kick my ass about now.”

The two saddled up and Bo moved his horse up against Dusty’s to say goodbye.

Pulling Dustys pistol from his pants, Bo handed it over to him.“Here, this belongs to you. If you ever get up to Hillsboro, be sure to stop and look me up. I can’t say I’m all broke up that I ain’t returning to Texas but I am wishin’ I didn’t have to say adios to you my friend. If there was ever a man I’d call my friend, it’s you.”

The two shook hands and no more words were spoken, none were needed. Bo turned his horse westward and rode to his new life.

Dusty knew they’d be crossing paths again, after all, Lisa was going into her sixth month now and he’d want to show off his baby to someone besides his Paw. “Heck,” He mused, “maybe they’ll be needing a Sheriff up that a way!”

Homer’s magic bullet

 

Chapter 1

In the darkened room on the second floor of the Argosy Hotel, a nervous hand slowly parted the window curtains to get a clear view of the street below. The night shadows hid those seekers who might be a danger to him. The only movement he saw was a late night mule drawn cartage wagon that rumbled by.  Down the street, oil lamps lit the walkway and entrance to the Half Dollar Saloon. Inside a skinny old man wearing a well worn bowler derby plinked away at the piano trying his best to remember a tune nobody else recognized. It was a slow night, even a few of the whores had given up and went upstairs to their rooms alone for a chance to get some early shut eye. For all intensive purposes, the town had fallen asleep. Stepping closer, the tall gaunt man pressed his hawk like face sideways to the window pane so he could see further up and down the dark empty street. Seeing no movement he backed away and closed the curtain and for the first time in months he felt safe.

Homer Goldstein, the man in the second floor hotel room, was a scared and wanted man. For the last three months he’d been tailed, had his mail opened and had his home broken into numerous times. Homer really wasn’t the object of attention so much as what he had invented was.

It was the bullet that passed close to his head one night as he sat relaxing in the parlor that settled things for him. Finally conceding that his home, his town and his neighbors and his synagogue had to be left behind if he were to survive, he quickly packed a few belongings and fled his beloved Tennessee home.

Heading west by rail, he eventually ended up in the mountain town of Castle Rock about fifty miles south of Denver Colorado. The small town lay in the shadow of its namesake, a tall butte that claimed the skyline called Castle Rock. Juniper and Ponderosa pine climbed the mountain sides in the distance while a few shade giving oaks and Tulip trees sprinkled themselves around the town.

Homer took a room at the modestly priced Argosy hotel where he unpacked his belongings then headed over to the bank. For a small fee, many banks rented space within their vaults. It was his invention stored securely in its wooden case that was placed within the vault for safe keeping that morning.

For the last fourteen years Homer had worked as a gunsmith. It was the only job he had ever held. Actually, it was the only job he had ever wanted.

His father, a watchmaker in Memphis, encouraged the young Homer to follow his desires even though he secretly had hoped the boy would follow in his footsteps. Homer started out as an apprentice at the Tennessee Bean Rifle works where he quickly rose in rank within the company. Six years later, Homer stood holding the cherished Master Gunsmith Certificate he had worked so hard to get.

Homer had no wife to share his joy with, nor did he want one. He had no close friends either. He cared little for the world outside the shop window. Politics, the cost of pork bellies and the price of a bushel of corn held no interest for him. Only his guns mattered. To Homer it wasn’t machining, it was art.

Lying down on the Argosy’s soft feather bed in his room, Homer wished he’d never sent the letter to the war department asking them to consider his revolutionary designed rifle. His mistake was his naivety and blind trust in Government officials.

Upon receiving the letter, Wilfred Moneymaker, the head of the war department, passed it down the line until it fell on the desk of James Parker, an egotistical ladder climber whose father had gotten him the job.  Parker immediately saw how he could use the letter to his advantage.

In a private meeting with the company that the war department was presently purchasing their arms from, Parker told the owner of Eastern Valley Arms of Goldstein’s invention. It was not so much the rifle itself that interested them, it was the cartridge that went into the inventive gun.

“Without the chemical makeup of the propellent within the cartridge, all you are showing us Mr. Parker, is a multi caliber cartridge. I can list a boat load of arms makers working along those same lines even as we speak, us included. The easy part is the damn gun itself, but we’ve hit a wall on the cartridge. According to this spec sheet, this Goldstein fella’ seems to have figured it out.”

The speaker was Amos Silver, the owner and president of the Eastern Valley Arms company. Reaching into his vest pocket, Silver pulled out a pair of reading spectacles and once again looked over the letter.

“The ballistic performance out does anything thing on the market today. Our newest cartridge has a maximum chamber pressure rating of 23,000 psi. Goldman’s is 45,000 psi. That’s twice the power of our best cartridge. Hell, that much power would blow any of today’s rifles to sky high! Look at the velocity of the thing, 1,100 feet per second. Ours? 450 feet per second.  What he invented gentleman was a hand held cannon, not a rifle.”

“I knew this would interest you Sir,” Parker groveled, “I’m sure I can convince this Goldstein person to give us the chemical makeup of the cartridge’s propellent. After all, he’s just a small time rube gunsmith located in Tennessee and I have the power of the Department of War behind me.”

“I don’t want the War Department to get its hands on the makeup Parker, the idiots there would give it to every Tom, Dick and Harry that makes ammo for them. No, we want it for ourselves Parker. Use whatever means you wish, but we get the formula!”

“If I get it to you, what’s in it for me?”

“Oh don’t you worry son, you’ll have a fat purse for your efforts, as long as this isn’t all some ruse you schemed up.”

“No Sir, no ruse, this is for real. I took the letter to our own gun works people and they confirmed it was possible. Even the steel specifications used in the chamber and barrel seemed accurate”

Lighting a large Cuban cigar, Amos Silver then pointed it at Parker, “Son, you get the makeup of that cartridge and you can quit that lousy low pay Government job, of course if you don’t…” Silver let then let the freshly lit cigar fall to the floor and twisted it under foot. “You get my drift son?”

To Parker’s frustration, the face to face meeting with Goldstein went badly. Homer refused to give away any more information on his invention and withdrew his offer. He had a bad feeling about the young man with greedy eyes and wanted nothing more to do with him.

It was shortly after that meeting that Goldman realized he was being spied upon.

 

Chapter 2

Rising early, Homer went downstairs for breakfast in the Argosy’s dining room. It was a comfortable and surprisingly elegant room. The windows had long velvet curtains from ceiling to floor at each window and the floor was carpeted complimenting the imported wall paper. White linen table cloths dressed each table and real silverware was at each place setting. For the price, Homer felt he had made a very wise decision on choosing the Argosy hotel.

Homer sat politely as a tall skinny waitress taking breakfast orders took his order. In watching her, he found a strange stirring within him. Perhaps, he mused, he should be so bold as to introduce himself to her. As he watched the waitress in a state of  enchantment take his order, a young man dressed in typical cowboy attire and wearing a colt 45 on his hip sat down at the table next to him. It was Homers first encounter with a real cowboy and he was fascinated. Turning to the cowboy, the waitress glanced back at Homer and gave him a perky smile. There couldn’t have been a bigger contrast between the East and the West. Never before had a woman shown him any interest and on top of that, just the idea of wearing a six shooter openly thrilled him.

After the waitress finished taking their orders, Homer turned to the cowboy. “Excuse me Sir,” Homer excitingly asked, “I see you are wearing the new model P Colt 45 Peacemaker, have you had a chance to shoot it much?”

The cowboy turned and stared at Homer for a moment before answering, “A few times, snakes and such. Shoots nice”

“Please, excuse me if I seem forward, I’m newly arrived from Tennessee and have an interest in fine firearms.”

“Well friend, it ain’t for sale if that’s what you want to know, took me a year’s pay drivin’’ cattle to buy it.”

“Oh no, you misunderstand Sir, I’m not interested in buying it from you, you see I am a Master Gunsmith recently arrived. I design and build rifles but have done a few revolvers too. it’s just that I admire fine arms.”

“Oh, that’s it then.” Reaching down, the cowboy removed the Colt from its holster and after emptying the cylinder of its five bullets, he handed it to Homer. “Not that I don’t trust you, but I’d hate to be robbed with my own gun!”

Taking the gun handed to him, Homer began looking at the Colt with expert eyes. “I truly meant nothing more than to ask what you thought of the Colt. It was for my personal interest only. The machining is of an excellent quality. Did you have it custom engraved?”

“Yup,  they come plain but the man I bought it from is also an engraver so he did the designs on it.”

“It’s beautiful Mr..? Oh, I’m sorry, let me introduce myself.”  Handing the revolver back to the cowboy grip first, Homer spoke, “My name is Homer Goldstein, and yours is?,”

“Jesse James…” Seeing the shocked look plastering itself on Homers face, the cowboy chuckled, ” Nah, just joshin’ ya’ friend! Robert Fisher my name, folks just call me Fisher though.” Looking closely at Homer the cowboy asked, ” You a Jew or something Goldstein?”

Looking downward in disappointment Homer replied “Why yes I am. How did you guess?”

“I dunno, maybe the name, maybe the nose and thick glasses gave it away.”

“Does my being a Jew bother you? I know it did back in Tennessee. Most folks shy’d away from us Jews unless they wanted something ”

“Nope, don’t matter to me in the least. You meet all kinds on the trail and ya’ learn to trust them to watch your back. I rode with Mexicans, Negro’s, Swede’s even a number of Irishman.  Never rode with a Jew before, not that I know of anyway.”

His smile returning, Homer replied, “I guess us Jews don’t make very good cowboys, at least I never heard of one. In fact, I never met a real cowboy either.”

“Well there ya’ go, now ya’ met one. So Homer, why’d you leave… what was it, Tennessee you said? What brings you all the way out here?”

“My life. I have some bad people wanting something from me. They tried to kill me back home so I fled out West and ended up here. If they don’t chase me out here I might open my own gun works, I don’t know much about running a business but I’m very skilled at the smithing of firearms.”

“ You picked a good town Homer, nobody but miners and such come out this way. I’m here visiting my old boss. He retired from the cattle drives and settled down here after getting stove up from a Comanche arrow through his knee. I told him after I finished my last drive I’d head out this way to see how he was getting’ on, an see if he needed any help.” He started chuckling, “ I needn’t a worried though. First saloon I stopped into here was wearin’ a new sign over the door declairin’ “Under new ownership, Proprietor Dusty Plains“, that’s my bosses name. He’s doin’ just fine. Maybe my old boss could help you in opening up your place if you decide, seems he knew more about runnin’ a business than I gave him credit for. ”

“I’m sure I’d be delighted to meet his acquaintance.”

“Hopefully your trouble didn’t follow you out here, Colorado’s a good place to start over at.”

Breakfast arrived just then and as was the custom in public dining, all speaking came to a halt.

Afterward, and not wanting to become a nuisance, Homer excused himself telling Fisher he enjoyed the conversation and started to head back towards his room.

“Hey, Goldstein, wait up a second!” The voice was Fishers.

“Just out of curiosity, mind tellin’ me what room you was in upstairs?”

A moment of paranoia made his heart skip a beat but not wanting to sound rude since the cowboy seemed friendly, Homer answered, “Well, I’m staying in room 204, but why do you ask?”

More to himself than to Homer, the young cowboy mumbled, “Huh, just as I figured.”

“Figured what and why?”

Nodding his head in the direction of the stairs Fisher told him, “I saw a man leanin’ his ear against that door. I figured he was tryin’ to listen in. He wasn’t dressed like no burglar I’ve ever seen , and at the time it wasn’t none of my business  so I walked on. It was when you said something about being followed that it got me to wondering what that fella’ was doin’. Maybe it is just coincidence but maybe it ain’t.” Stepping back he appraised the tall slender man up and down. “You ain’t armed are you?”

“No, as funny as it seems I never carry a gun, even though I make them for a living.”

“Listen Goldstein, you seem like a nice fella but a bit of a green horn to how we do things here out West. Tell you what, let me open that door of yours in case that no good got himself inside while we was eatin’”

Relief showed on Homers face, “Oh, if you would I’d be so grateful. I have no friends here and I do honestly feel quite vulnerable.”

Together they took the stairs to the second floor rooms. Stopping in front of Homers room, Fisher whispered for Homer to stay aside of the door and not to enter until Fisher told him it was safe.

Taking the key from Homer, Fisher silently turned the lock and pushed the door slowly open after drawing his gun. Making no noise, Fisher turned to Homer and put the guns barrel to his lips as a warning not to speak.

Quietly swinging the door open, Fisher spotted a figure inside the room facing away from the door. A well dressed man stood bent over Homers open suitcase going through it.

“You all best have real good reason for stickin’ your paws in my friend’s baggage friend!”

The sound of Fishers icy voice took the young well dressed man by surprise. Turning quickly, he attempted to pull a small revolver from his coat pocket.

Robert Fisher, who moments before had only fired his new Colt Peacemaker at snakes and critters, fired a single well aimed hip shot into the forehead of the burglar.

Homer heard the shot and fearing for Fishers safety, ran into the room only to turn right around and vomit by the door.

“Yeah, it’s a mess alright. Can’t blame ya’ for losin’ your breakfast… bein’ from the East an all.”

“Oh my God,” Homer gagged, “his head stuffing is blown all over my room!”

“Sorry about that, maybe I shoulda’ stopped an laid a blanket down before I shot him.”

“I’m sorry, you risked your life and here I am worrying about my laundry.”

“Any idea who he is?”

“No, none. I’ve never seen him before but his clothes are the same style as most men wear in the larger Eastern cities.”

The well dressed corpse lay face up and partially across the bed. Fisher took his time going through all the man’s pockets. When he was satisfied with his search, he placed all the found items atop the dresser bureau. Using his fingers, Fisher poked through the belongings.

An uncashed bank draft for $500 dollars from Eastern Valley Arms in Connecticut drew Fishers interest.

“Looks like a fella’ named Amos Silver signed this draft. Does either name make any sense to you?”

“Yes, I know of both. Eastern Valley Arms is a military arms maker owned by Amos Silver out of New Haven Connecticut. They are known to have multiple long term contracts with the War Department. Some think they rig the bids to favor Eastern Valley but nothings ever been proven.  I don’t understand why he would be involved with my situation, it was that Parker fellow  from the War Department in Washington that I had the problem with.”

“The way it looks to me Homer, is This Parker fella’ may be in cahoots with this Silver person in trying to get at whatever it was that was in your letter.”

Slumping his shoulders in defeat, Homer shook his head exclaiming, “Then I’m not safe after all. If what you said is true then they’re not going to give up until they get what they want.”

“Kinda’ looks that way friend. I think I’ll stick close to you for a bit yet if you don’t mind. There may be more than just this fella’, usually is. Since they didn’t know where your trail would end, I’d say they rode on the same train as you.  All they had to do was wait and watch. When you got off, so did they.”

A clamoring of hard sloe shoes running up the stairs, ended their conversation.

An angry front desk clerk appeared in the doorway. Looking towards Homer, he demanded, “What’s going on here Mr. Goldstein, I heard… Oh my God! Did you shoot that man?”

Before Homer could answer, Fisher spoke up, “Naw, I did. Earlier I spotted this man with his ear to the door. When Mr. Goldstein and I finished our breakfast we come up here an’ discovered him burglarizing Mr. Goldstein’s room.” Pointing to the small handgun lying on the floor Fisher continued.  “When I surprised him, he tried takin’ a shot at me but I got the draw on him.”

A young man dressed as a bell hop had followed behind and spoke from the doorway. “Mr. Peebles? Should I send for the Sheriff?”

Answering the young man without turning to look his way, Peebles directed him. “Yes, and gather some cleaning supplies and get Mr. Jones, he should be at his mortuary. I want this body gone and gore cleaned up as fast as possible.”

Looking disgusted at the mess of blood and brains, clerk Peebles sternly told Homer, “I’m afraid we’ll have to charge you for cleaning up this mess and replacing the ruined wall paper Mr. Goldstein.”

Turning to Fisher, the clerk looked with distain on the cowboy, “The Sheriff will want to hold a hearing on this shooting as soon as possible. I wouldn’t leave town, whoever you are!”

Catching the acid in his comment, Fisher replied, “I ain’t goin’ anywhere. Although I’m thinkin’ when the folks stayin’ at this hotel find out their rooms ain’t safe, they’ll be high tailin’ it outa here for the place across the street.  In fact, seeing how there’ll be a rush on rooms, tell the Sheriff he can find me over there in my new room.”

The clerk looked horror stricken at the thought of all his customers fleeing his hotel for the one across the street and quickly began to back track his mouth.  “ Please, we sincerely value all our guest. I deeply apologize if I spoke rudely just now. This terrible incident must have caused you much distress, I know it did me. Let me make it up to you by giving you both a week’s stay here at the Argosy’s  expense. I’ll have a new room for you right away Mr. Goldstein.  There is no need to speak of this to our other guest, is there now?”

Replying for both of them, Fisher shuffled his feet then spoke up. “Well, if that includes meals, livery care, bath and haircuts, we might find it in us to keep shut about it. What about the Sheriff though, he’ll have it all over town after he hears what we have to say at the hearing.”

With wheels spinning inside his head, the clerk gasped, “Oh my yes, you’re right! I must catch him before he gets up here. I’m on the hearing committee so I’ll just tell him it was a private argument and you had to shoot the man in self defense…yes, that’s what I’ll tell him. Good day to you both, I need to run.”

After the clerk took to the stairs two at a time, Fisher turned to Homer. “Well, we got free room and board for a week, that’s somethin’ good that come out of this wouldn’t you say?”

“Indeed! I do feel the need for a free trim, bath and shave Mr. Fisher, would you care to join me?”

Chapter 3

An hour later found the two men each soaking in high backed copper bathing tubs. Homer and Fisher found themselves alone after the Negro bath house house boy had filled the tubs with hot water.

“So Homer, if you don’t mind me askin’, what in tarnation is it that Eastern Valley Arms wants so badly from you that they’d chase you all the way out here?”

“I guess if anyone has the right to know, it’s you. On my account, you’ve gotten yourself neck deep in my troubles. I apologize and thank you at the same time. Tomorrow I want you to go over to the bank with me. I want to show you what the fuss is all about. In fact, if you’d stay with me until I can figure a way out of all this, I’d gladly hire you to act as my guardian.”

“Kind of like your private Segundo huh?”

“If I think that means what I think it does, yes”

As the two stepped into the bank the next day, they were greeted by the owner. “Ah, Mr. Goldstein, I’m so glad you have stopped in! Earlier today, there were three men who stopped in asking if anyone fitting your description had stopped in. I lied, I told them I was unaware of anyone like that. They seemed a bit on the rough side, is everything alright?”

“Yes, all is fine and thank you for being discreet regarding my presence here.” Turning to Fisher, Homer introduced him as his private security person.

“I wish to enter your vault if I may. I need to inspect my property within it.”

“Of course Mr. Goldstein, please follow me.”

Opening the large rented drawer within the vault, Homer removed the wooden case he had carried all the way from Tennessee. Fisher stepped closer in order to see what the inside held once Homer opened it. Unlatching the two locks, Homer lifted the lid.

Fisher let out a slow whistle.

“That is one beautiful rifle my friend, but what’s so different about it that makes them folks so determined to get their hands on it?”

“This.” Homer opened a smaller box and removed one of the multi sized cartridges and handed it to Fisher.

“What in tarnation is this thing? A bullet?”

“Yes, that’s exactly what it is. The rifle is designed to fire it. If you notice, the actual bullet is a small 25 caliber projectile mounted within a modified turned down sharps style .50-90 brass cartridge.”

“Whew! I bet she’s got some punch, but ain’t other folks workin’ on similar bullets? I heard they was.

“Yes they are. The difference is this. Every cartridge made today, no matter how many grains it holds, has inside it the same explosive, black powder. This is not black powder but a chemical formula involving powdered metals, extremely reactive oxidizers and other additives that I can’t disclose. It almost triples the power of a sharps and with the smaller projectile will travel over one mile with total calculable accuracy. In fact I have tested it to over one and a half miles and it maintained a killing force.”

Fisher took one long last look and handed the cartridge back to Homer. “God, no wonder them folks want this so bad. It’d put every other gun maker out of business!”

“Yes it would!”

The new voice behind them was so unexpected they both jumped.

Before they could react to the voice, three men with guns drawn stepped forward. “I’ll take that box you have there Mr. Goldstein. I’m sorry I have to do it this way Goldstein but you left me no choice. ” Homers heart sank. It was Parker.

The tough looking no good standing next to Parker spoke up and pointed to the ceiling with the barrel of his revolver. “Put your hands up Goldstein, you too cowboy.”

“Lonny,” said Parker,” get Goldstein out of here. I got a score to settle with this rube cowboy here. He’s the one who killed Troy in the Argosy. ”

“Sure thing Parker, I’ll be waiting for you and Chuck at Old woman Creek”.  Lonny then led Goldstein out the banks rear door where he had their horses waiting. Forcing Homer to saddle up, Lonny tied his hands to the saddle horn and mounted himself behind Homer.  As they galloped away, the two fleeing riders heard the gunshots. Homer knew his newly found friend had just been killed.

Chapter 4

Fisher, Parker and Chuck heard the pounding of hooves as Lonny and Goldstein galloped off. It was then that Fisher made his move. Even he was surprised at the speed at which his Colt Peacemaker left the holster. The two had let Lonny’s leaving distract them ever so slightly. Before they could return their barrels onto Fisher, his Colt was rapid firing its deadly lead.

Fisher aimed first at the hard case standing to Parkers left. His gun was aimed closer to Fisher than was Parkers. The Peacemaker lived up to all that it was known for. Two quick shots plowed into Chucks gut. Before Parker could pull back his hammer the Colt Peacemaker exploded once again. This bullet hit the side of Parkers own gun. Knocking the barrel aside, the lead bullet continued traveling. It entered Parker just above the wrist. Once inside his arm it drilled it way through the arm until it explosively exited from the elbow.

Parkers look of shock matched that of his hired gun Chuck. For safety, Fisher always left the chamber empty under the hammer empty. With only two rounds left in the six shooter, Fisher returned the Peacemaker back to Chuck.

Chuck, doubling over from the two gut shots, leaned forward and saw himself staring down the 45’s barrel. The last thing he saw was the flame. The next thing he saw was God.

Parker let out a terrible scream as the bullet left his arm. The pistol fell to the floor but not before Fishers last bullet had already left the barrel. Parker, always one to dress well and hair meticulously groomed, would have felt chagrined at finding out that his funeral had to be a closed casket affair.

Holstering the Peacemaker and grabbing the precious case, Fisher jumped over the body of the hard case known as Chuck and ran into the banks teller area. There he spotted the bank owner lying on the floor unconscious. A teller lay sprawled out near him. Whether dead or alive, Fisher had no time to find out.

Once out the rear door, he mounted up on Parkers horse… either stolen or rented. It was now Fishers.

The horse jolted forward as if electrified. Running at a full gallop, Fisher knew Lonny had a good lead on him. Knowing a hand gun was near useless in a chase on horseback, Fisher began unpacking the rifle from its case on the run.

Within ten minutes Fisher reached the plains just east of the South Platte River where he spotted Lonny and Homer racing away in the distance.

“Damn! I got to stop them before they get to that rise up ahead.”

Once the two crested the rise, Lonny could stop on the other side and set up an ambush. The chase was beginning to seem like an effort in futility.

It was do or die Fisher decided. He then did something that screamed insanity, he stopped and dismounted.

Finding a large stone about a foot high, Fisher laid down prone behind it. Taking a cartridge from the flat ammo case, Fisher loaded the chamber and shot the bolt home. Resting the rifle barrel atop the rock to steady it, Fisher looked down the sight trying to sight in on the riders ahead. Since Homer had mentioned that he had fired it at a distance of over a mile, Fisher was counting on that it was still sighted in at that distance.

Slowing his breathing he found his target. He considered the distance and lifted the barrel. It was all a guessing game. He felt a slight breeze coming from the Platte River so he moved the barrel to the left. Even after pulling the trigger, it would take the projectile over five seconds to reach his target. All these thoughts spun in Fishers head as he compensated his aim for the variables.

All this took time and with panic rising, he saw Lonny’s horse start the climb up the fifty foot high slope.

Just as he was pulling the trigger, the thought entered his thinking that since this bullet had three times the punch of a normal bullet, it just may travel completely through Lonny killing Homer. As he pulled the trigger, in response to this fear he pulled the barrel up. It wasn’t much, just a micro amount but Fishers heart sank knowing the shot would now travel over their heads.

It was at that moment that Lonny’s horse made it to the crest. Then Lonny did something unusual. He stopped on top of the crest and turned around facing Fishers direction. In horror, Fisher saw that now Homer sat in the direct path of the bullet. Five seconds turned into hours.  At last he saw Lonny lift his firearm skyward in a wave to ridicule the stopped Fisher. Lonny had assumed that Fisher had given up.

As Lonny raised his firearm he opened his mouth and yelled a curse at the dismounted rider over a mile away. Laughing he leaned forward causing Homer to bend forward. It was in the middle of his second set of curses that Homer heard the most unusual sound above and behind him. It was the bullet traveling faster than any bullet previously made . It tore open the air like an exploding lightning bolt.  The sound the near white hot projectile had been making suddenly ended in a burst of sound similar to an exploding pumpkin.

Lonny had nothing to say about it seeing as the projectile had entered his mouth mid curse and disintegrated the entire back of his head. Lonny didn’t slowly roll off his horse, instead it looked as if he was yanked violently backwards out of the saddle.

Turning to see what was happening, Homer watched as Lonny landed ten feet behind his horse. With his thick lenses, Homer could not see well enough to view Fisher clearly but he knew by the sound of the bullet that not only was it his invented cartridge that had been fired and killed Lonny but it could only have been fired by Fisher. Somehow, Fisher had made it out alive after all!

Feeling a world of trouble being lifted off his shoulders, Homer headed down the slope at an easy gait to meet up with the only friend he had ever made. Smiling widely as Fisher came into view, Homer watched Fisher jumping up and down and laughing as he waved his hat around his head.  Homers grin widened to the point that it hurt his face.

Riding back to town side by side, the two talked of Homers next move. ” Tanks to you, I am able to open my own place now that I’m sure its safe. How would you feel about me asking you to stay and help me set it up and run it?”

“I ain’t got much else goin’ on, the railroad and barb wire’s putting a real pinch on cattle drives.” Turning to Homer he reached over and gave him his hand. “Sure Homer, I’d be honored. By the way, does job that include any pay by chance?”

Gripping his friends hand he gave it a firm shake, “A man can’t work for free Fisher, let’s head over to the Argosy for dinner and we’ll hammer out the details.”

Slowly, a wispy smile crossed over Homers face as the memory of the tall skinny waitress smiling over at him at the Argosy entered his thoughts.

“Yes Sir Fisher, I do believe we have a future here, a real nice one too!”