The Industrialist Rancher

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Chapter 1

The morning sun worked its way across the room until it landed squarely on the body lying contorted on the bed. Two flies played tag in the sunlight then landing momentarily on the body’s nose.

Suddenly the body snorted and a hand swept the air in front of the unshaven face trying to chase away the buzzing irritants. One bleary eye cracked open and immediately squinted shut in pain. A few more snorts and a long sonorous clearing of his dry throat brought open the other eye. With both eyes staring unfocused into the hotel room, the hung over cowboy began his attempt to sit up.

“Oh God, if I ever drink again let me get plugged with lead before I wake. “ With great effort, the young man with a pounding headache finally made it into a sitting position on the edge of the soft horsetail mattress. Placing a hand on the bed he felt its rich softness with the likes that he’d never experienced in a bed before. Looking around, his gaze caught site of the silk window drapes and imported woven floor rug. “Dang, How’d I end up in a place like this?” Reaching out to the bedpost, he removed the pants hanging over the post and checked his money belt. Relieved, he found it still contained twenty two of the forty dollars out of his monthly pay. Satisfied at the remaining amount, he rose and stumbled towards the water bowl  atop the ornate French vanity.  As he Splashed water on his face he noticed someone had placed a straight razor set up next to the bowl, probably the hotel. Taking advantage of the situation, he shaved and washed his hair afterward in the bowl. Opening the window he shoved aside the ornate drapes and tossed out the bowl of fouled water onto the street below and commenced  dressing himself.  Thankfully,  he began to feel halfway human by the time he slid his pants back on.

A light knock on the rooms door startled him. A rush of panic momentarily gripped him as he suddenly realized someone had to pay for this room and it sure couldn’t be him, not on his earnings!

Swallowing hard, he regained his composure and boldly faced the door “Yeah? Who’s there?”

In an unusually deep voice he heard, “It’s the Sheriff! I’m haulin’ ya’ in fer abandonment mister!”

“Wha??? Abandonment?” Suddenly he realized the so called Sheriff’s voice while deep in tone was way too feminine to be a man and then he heard giggling from the other side of the door. Reaching for the door, he slid the latch aside and partway opened the door on its chain. Poking one eye through the crack, he spied on the visitor. At first he looked straight out and saw nothing but when he lowered his sights a bit more he took in the small feminine figure smiling broadly up at him.

“Uh… may I help you Ma’am?”

The deep voice was replaced with that of a young woman with a slight Eastern accent.“Ma’am? Is that what you’re going to end up calling me Jethro?” She chuckled.

Scratching his head in confusion he replied, “I, uh… shoot Ma’am, I’m at a disadvantage here see’n as you know my name an’ all and I don’t recall yours. Heck, in all honesty, I don’t believe we’ve ever even met.”

A dark and serious look crossed the pretty young blond girls face but then she quickly recovered her happy go lucky smile and replied. “Alright Jethro, I know you had quite a spell of drinking and funning last night so I won’t hold it against you for being a bit woozy this morning but pretending you don’t know me and that we were married last night is something altogether different. You know perfectly well what you did, after all you jumped at the chance! Now, finish getting dressed, we have to go back over to the courthouse to pick up our marriage certificate. ”

“Wha??? Marriage certificate? Ma’am I’m gonna’ be mite beyond woozy if I just heard you right that we was married last night!”

This time the serious look returned to her face but did not leave. “Jethro, please don’t tell me you’ve got regrets and want out. I asked you twice and your friends asked you even more than that if this is what you wanted to do before Judge Pendergrass married us.  You vowed up and down I’d stolen your heart at first glance and would have it no other way than for us to be married. For reasons I had explained yesterday, I needed to be married right away… for legal purposes. After we were married, your friends carted you back off to the Gold Eagle to celebrate. They said they’d drop you back off at my hotel room within an hour. Well, I waited for hours in our room here for your return. When you did, it was past two o’clock in the morning and I might add, with the help of your trail friends.  They carried you in dead drunk and plopped you in our bed and stumbled out guffawing. Seeing you were dead to the world, I undressed you and set up your morning toilet on the vanity. You were so sprawled out on the bed that there was no room for me to climb in next to you. I ended up sleeping on the divan until dawn.  I gave up trying to wake you so I went downstairs by myself. I was down getting breakfast when you must have woke up.

Suddenly Jethro became suspicious that a joke being played on him.

“Well, well, well. I bet the rest of the fellers are knee slappin’ watching me squirm. They all know I’m not the marryin’ kind a guy and are usin’ my drunk last night to play a trick on me. By the way, if we was really married, where’s the proof of it?

The slender well dressed girl slid her left hand forward from her shawl and wiggled her fingers at him. A thin gold band adorned her marriage finger. “Yes, married… and signed papers from Judge Pendergrass   attesting to it are waiting down at the courthouse for us to pick up. By the time we were actually married, it was too late in the day and the clerk went on home.”

With a heavy sigh, the girl sat gently on the soft bed and asked. “ You do remember getting married last night don’t you Jethro?”

It was time to put an end to the confusion. Hurt her he may but he still had inkling it was all a joke being played on him by his pards.

“To be honest, no.”

Tears welled in her eyes and a lone tear made its way down her smooth cheek. “I feared as much. Please, finish dressing and come with me to the court house. There I’m sure the judge will confirm everything I’ve said and more.”

“Good morning Miss Van de Bunt, Oh, excuse me, I mean Mrs.  Avery. I’ve got to get used to that from now on.” Judge Pendergrass said sticking his hand out to congratulate the young Jethro Avery.  “I take it you’ll be wanting your certificate this morning. The clerk brought it in just a few minutes ago. I signed it but it but the ink may be a bit wet yet.”

Gently retrieving the document he blew on his signature one final time.  He handed the paper to Jethro telling the couple, “There, she’s dry as a bone now.”

The girl reached out and carefully held it against her breast after reading it and said, “Thank you Judge. But there seems to be some confusion and I need your assistance on this matter. ”

“Why sure. What seems to be the problem?”

By now Jethro had given up all hope that in fact a joke was being played on him. He also realized that the paper his wife now held was solid and legal. Everyone in the State of Texas knew Judge Pendergrass had a minimal sense of humor and would definitely not use his official title to promote a prank. He’d had too many men hung for their ill deeds to have a sense of humor anymore.

“ I will cut right to the chase your Honor. My husband has no recollection of yesterday as he now claims he must have been drunk.”

“Drunk?” Looking now at Jethro through narrowed eyes, the judge exclaimed in disbelief, ”Drunk? Yesterday you both swore you had no drink in either of you when I married you. Why it’s not legal for me to marry a couple if they have been over imbibing in spirits. Knowing so and still joining the two of you together would have been a serious crime and I’m not in the habit of committing crimes. Please, explain why you think he was drunk Mrs. Avery.”

“Well, he came in last night very drunk, that much I know. He seemed alright when we married but as the time wore on he did act a mite strange. I just assumed it was nerves. Now he says he has no memory of even meeting me. Why the way he’s acting, I bet if I asked him now, he wouldn’t even know my name!”

“I don’t, sorry Ma’am.”

“It’s Alessandra Van de Bundt . My family and friends call me Alessa. Now I’m not so sure what you should call me!”

To prevent any further outburst, the judge waved the couple into a set of vacant chairs as he lowered himself into a large cushioned leather high back chair on rollers. “Son, you’ve a problem on your hands. A big problem. Did you lie to me about drinking yesterday when you asked me to marry the two of you?”

“No Sir, not willingly. I’m not in the habit of lying, especially to a Judge your Honor”

“Then why are you saying you were too drunk to remember getting married?”

“I never said nothing about getting drunk, she did. I don’t know what happened yesterday, I can’t remember a thing, cept getting my tooth pulled early on in the morning.”

“Well a tooth sure won’t wipe out a memory, what’s the last thing you do remember?”

Scrunching his brows together he ran a hand across his forehead. “I seem to recall walking to the diner up the road for a bite to eat after leavin’ the Barber where he pulled my tooth. I had been weeks on the trail and hadn’t had a chewy meal in ages ‘cause of my toothache. All I’d had for weeks was what Biscuit, our camp cook could pound or grind up soft enough for me to swallow whole like.”

Judge Pendergrass’s eyebrows  suddenly arched skyward. “Jenny?” He called out to a young woman outside of his office filing papers.  “Will you run over to Max  Leadlow’s barber shop and ask him to come over here right away please?”

The three sat quietly waiting. Jethro began to ask question but the Judge hushed him quiet.

“Just wait, I have a suspicion about something”

Within a few minutes, Max, the barber and Dentist knocked on the office doors frame. “You wanted to see me your Honor?”

“Yes, Thank you for coming so quickly Max, I hope this isn’t an inopportune time for you to leave your business but I need to ask you a few questions about yesterday morning.”

The Barber glanced at Jethro then at Alessa and back to the Judge. “No your honor, I’m not real busy, I only got Jim Stevens snoring in the chair as is usual when he comes in for a haircut ‘n shave, that’s all. Am I in some sort of trouble here your Honor?”

The judge harrumphed and placed both hands on his large belly. “No, not in the least Max. Did Jethro here come to you yesterday to get a tooth pulled?”

“Yes your Honor, and it was a time yankin’ it too. We in the profession call it an impacted tooth, ones that all pussy and swollen. It takes a skilled Dentist to pull ‘em too.”

“Was he in a lot of pain?”

“Yes Sir! Especially when I first began yankin’ on it.”

“Did you give him anything for the pain? Liquor and such?”

“No, not liquor your Honor but I did give him laudanum to ease the pain when he first come in and then a second healthy dose when he left.”

“That was all you gave him then, laudanum?”

“Well, when he first arrived he was so jittery I feared I wouldn’t be able to pull it so I gave him some tincture of heroin to calm his nerves before I give him the laudanum.”

Judge Pendergrass leaned back in his chair and nodded knowingly. “I understand, That will be all Max, you can get on back to your shop now. Thank you for your time.”

Max started for the door then turned asking, “You still on for this afternoon for your haircut Judge?”

“Yes, I’ll be by around two.”

With that the barber left leaving the couple to sit silently waiting for the Judge to speak.

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, the two of you are legally married. There’s nothing in the law about marrying under the influence of either laudanum or heroin as both are a legal medicine.”

“Is that why he can’t remember yesterday your Honor? Because of the two drugs?”

“That would be my guess. I had a similar situation years ago when I had my own tooth pulled. My wife, bless her departed soul, said she found me out back planting the garden when I got back home.”

“What’s so bad about that your Honor?” She asked.

“It was February.”

Chapter 2

Slowly the couple made their way from the Court house and headed for the diner for lunch. The earlier mention of food reminded Jethro that he was still ravenous. “So Alessa,” He calmly asked, “you mind fillin’ me in on all the details on how I ended up agreeing to marryin’ you? Back there  in the hotel room you said something about having to be legally married, what did you mean by that? ”

“ I guess if you didn’t  even remember my name then you most likely wouldn’t remember why you agreed to marry me either. Maybe I should just start at the same place I did yesterday when you approached me.”

“That would be a good place to start, at the beginning.”

“You won’t like it.”

“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. I must’a liked it yesterday since I agreed to marry you.”

“Yes, but you were drugged.”

“I see your point. But, go ahead, what’s done is done…for now anyway.”

They made their way inside the diner and sat down. Much to the chagrin of Jethro, his mouth was still too tender to chew the steak he ordered. Instead, he had to satisfy himself with the sides of peas and mashed potatoes. Still, he managed to down three helpings of apple pie for dessert.

Alessa continued her story during the meal.  “MY father is Jules Van de Bunt, he and the rest of my family live back east in New York City. He’s a very wealthy man.”

“Never heard of him, but then out here in Texas we don’t care much about things back east.”

“I can see why. Anyway, I have always been considered a bit too rough around the edges for the social scene back East. I even wore men’s pants once when we went on a family outing in the Adirondack Mountains one summer. I thought my cousin Clarice was going to faint! Afterward, she kept her distance.  I have always been enthralled by stories of the West and wanted to see places like Texas for myself. Twice I snuck off by train but each time the  Pinkerton men my father had hired found and returned me. My father was livid and would have disowned me if it weren’t for my grandfather.  You see, it was my grandfather who filled my head as a child with his tales of the West. When my grandfather arrived from Europe, he traveled to the west and discovered first silver then copper ore in what is now Arizona. He later married and moved to the East where he raised his two sons. My father and Uncle both attended colleges back East and with the money loaned to them by my grandfather, they started very successful businesses.”

“What sorta’ business?”

“My father built a shipyard in Connecticut.”

“Whewww! He must be rollin’ in dough but that still doesn’t answer the question of why you had to marry.”

“There was a situation at a charity ball given by my family. A young wealthy gentleman from a very politically connected family made it known that he desired to marry me. It was during the ball and he had been drinking heavily when he stood atop a table and announced to the world his desires. He then jumped down and tried to kiss me in front of the entire gathering. I was horrified and without thinking punched him square in the nose! It seems he and my father had planned our marriage all out.  You see Jethro, in a family like mine, a woman has little say in her marriage. She is to marry not for love but to keep money, property and power secured within a small circle of families. “

“That sounds like slavery!”

“In a way it is. My mother was one of those women. Father knew she loved another but kept a blind eye towards her indiscretions with the man. As long as it was discreet, no one seemed to care. It was my grandfather who bemoaned all this. He bore a heavy guilt for having raised his family in such a manner. I was his only salvation. It was he who gave me the money run off, it was he who wanted me to marry a western man, a rancher or even a cowboy rather than a socialite from back East. It was his dream that I would break the mold and be the matriarch of a Western family.”

“So far I understand all this, I mean as a Texan I understand. What part won’t I like?”

“My reason for having to marry I guess.”

“What reason is that? You said you wanted to marry for love…Oh, I think I see. There ain’t  no way you could have truly fallen in love with me enough to ask me to marry you in the few moments we knew each other yesterday, was there?”

“That’s the part I said you won’t like, and neither do I. You see, I ran away a third and final time. It was the day after my grandfather’s funeral. I took what money I had squirreled away and left during the night.  My grandfather had also secretly put some in an account for me that my parents were unaware of. This time I did not take a train directly to the West. I circumvented the route by heading to Chicago, then to Missouri. I figured the Pinkerton’s would first look for me along the route I took the first two times. I joined a minister and his family in Missouri and traveled by wagon to western Kansas then down into Texas. I thought I had lost them but recently I found out that a couple of Pinkerton men had been seen in Amarillo asking questions about me a couple of weeks ago.”

“Why Amarillo’s just a week’s ride from Sweet Water here! Why they could be just a couple days away by now!”

“ I know, that’s the reason I needed to marry. If I were married, there would be nothing my father could do to force me to return to New York. If it weren’t for Mr. Belleview at the bank I would never have known of the Pinkerton’s progress. He owns the bank up in Amarillo too and it was him who heard the men asking about me when he was there.  ”

“I hear them Pinkerton men is one hard outfit. More badger than man! No wonder you were scared of ‘em!”

‘That’s why I looked for a Texan, a real Texan. Brave, strong, willing to stand up for his woman or die doing it…well, I really wouldn’t want my husband  to die I guess. But you get the idea don’t you?”

“Sure, I guess. But if you were lookin’ for all that in a man what made you think I’d fit the bill?”

“ Because, the first moment I saw you confidently swaggering down the street I knew you were the one.”

“Uh, Miss Alessa, I wasn’t confidently swaggerin’ if you recall, I was cross eyed drugged!”

Alessa began to chuckle, “Oh, I know that now, but yesterday I thought you were the bravest man I’d ever met. Why I heard you tell your  friends that there wasn’t a man alive who could out draw you, out fight you or out rope you! “

“Well, That was mostly just Texas cowboy braggin’  but in truth I am a pretty darn good shot an’ not many can outdraw me. I guess if it came to it even though I quake at the thought of bein’ married, I’d stand up an’ take a bullet for my wife…that would be you I reckon.”

“See? I was right after all. You really are my Texas cowboy!”

Chapter 3

That night the two returned to their room.

“OK, so I understand why you needed to get married an’ all but why pick a man who has all but twenty dollars to his name? I mean there ain’t no way I had a savings of any sort. In fact, when you knocked on the door this morning I feared it was the hotel manager wanting his money. I was ready to plow out’a the window head first! Now I gotta’ conjure up some sorta’ steady income for us.”

“Let’s just deal with the Pinkerton men first, then we’ll figure out what to do after that.  I’m sorry I got you into this mess. I was just panic stricken when I heard they were so close to finding me. I knew it was only a matter of days before they’d end up here. I had no one to protect me. If you find you really can’t stand being married, I’m willing to let you go your own way once my father forgets about me.”

“I may not be the marrying type but since I am I ain’t gonna’ shirk my duties as a husband. No, I ain’t gonna’ b;lame it on drugs either. I musta’ been aware enough to decide it was the right thing to do…and I feel it was. I’m just glad you ain’t hard on the eyes! Haw haw!”

“She reached out and gently squeezed his arm saying, “Well if it’s any consolation, I think you’re the handsomest cowboy around, drugged or no.” Then, dropping her hand she placed both hands on her hips and asked, “ My last question for you tonight is where do you want me to sleep?”

“I been thinkin’ about that. I know we’re married and all and sleepin’ together is what married folks are privileged to do with each other but I feel kind’a awkward like about doin’ it. I mean we ain’t had time to spark or nothin’ if you get my meanin’.”

“Then let’s not rush it. I know eventually you’ll want a woman, all men do at one time or another. I’d rather you not look for it outside the home. So when you feel the burn, please tell me and I’ll make love to you as a good wife would.”

“Fair enough.” Pointing to the bed he said chuckling, “Until we get kicked out’a here or I’m plugged by the Pinkertons, you sleep in the bed, after all, you’re paying the bill here so you got special privileges! “

Jethro made his bed upon the divine and lay awake pondering his future. How strange it all seemed to look over at the sleeping girl and realize she was his wife. She was far more beautiful than any girl he’d ever been with but there was more to her than just her beauty. He found her laugh addicting. The same smile that she had plastered on her face when they first met at the door came frequently and with ease. Now that he had a moment to think about it, he remembered how it felt when she squeezed his arm. “Huh,” he thought, “Maybe I’m fallin’ for her after all.”

It was five days later in the dark of night when two strangers riding silently in a buggy made their way into town.  Wearing bowler hats and black suits, the two looked like a pair of twin bankers. If it were not for the .45 caliber colts hanging low on their hips, they would have looked like any other businessmen. Both wore large mustache’s which was the style and both had a Pinkerton badge pinned to their vest.

The only life still awake was at Gertrude’s Saloon at the far end of town.  It was known as a rough and tumble sort of place who’s soiled doves plied watered down whiskey down the throats of the low life patrons  before dragging them upstairs and relieving them of their last fifty cents.

It was here that the Pinkerton men stopped at.  Inside was foul. Upon entering, the smell of unwashed bodies, vomit, cigarette smoke and cheap liquor assailed the nose.  It was nearly three in the morning and the whores were still hustling their wares. Seeing the two well dressed gentlemen enter, they made a desperate beeline to them.

“Well hello my scrumptious darlings!” An elderly woman of some girth, much of it protruding from her stained top, was nearest and quickly approached the two men in hopes of a last stand before calling it a night.  “Can I interest either or both of you in spending an hour with me in heaven?”

The taller of the two stopped as they made their way to the bar. Turning to look at the poor excuse of even a used up soiled dove he sneered. “Lady, spending an hour between your layers of blubber would be hell, not heaven. Now get away from me before I catch what foulness is ailing you.”

She was about to make a snide reply when she saw the eyes of the man narrow and the look of pure hate transform his once pleasant looks into a snarl. Frightened, she turned and quickly made her way up to her room and called it a night.

The bar tender, an ornery red faced powerfully built Irishman stood staring hard at the two as they approached the bar. What’d ya’ scare me whore off for? Ye just cost me fifty cents I have you to know.”

“Sorry about that, Here’s a dollar for your troubles.”

“Well now, amends are made gentlemen, what can I be doin’ for ya’”

The shorter of the two now spoke up, “Were looking for a girl going by the name Alessandra. Some call her Alessa others Miss Van de Bunt, whatever name she goes by were from the Pinkerton’s and have been hired to find her. Have you seen or heard of her?”

“Sure, I never spoke to in me person but everyone knows Miss Van de Bunt. She’s the sweetest lookin’ lass that graced this town.”

“Can you tell me where she’s staying?”

Suspicious that the men might cause the young girl to come to harm, he asked them, “And whatever for would a couple Pinkerton men be doing searching for such an innocent lass as Miss Van de Bunt?”

The men glanced at each other. They had two choices, either physically attempt to draw what information they wanted from the man or lie. Seeing the girth and obvious muscles tensing in the bartenders arms convinced them they would have a bad time of it if they tried to get physical.

“We’re only trying to find her to deliver a message from her family” They lied. “Her father has passed away and she’s come into a large inheritance and she needs to return home as soon as possible to claim it.”

“Oh, well that’s different then!” Turning to the few patrons left awake he bellowed,  “Does anyone know where Miss van de Bunt is stayin’ at?  These gentlemen need her to come home right away to claim a large inheritance!”

A skinny man with a mouthful of missing teeth spoke up.“ She’s at the Chinaberry Hotel, second floor facing the street on the right.”

The taller of the two Pinkerton’s asked, “How do you know this?”

“’Cause I clean the chamber pots at the Chinaberry and at the Morrison hotel, that’s how!”

The tall Pinkerton flipped a silver coin toward the skinny chamber pot cleaner and walked out.

“That was easy!” he said.

By Four thirty the door had been silently jimmied and the two Pinkerton’s silently stepped inside the hotel room. Once inside they let their eyes become accustomed to the dark before moving any further. It was then that they saw a man sleeping on the divine and the girl curled up in the bed. No one had been awake downstairs to note their arrival or their passage upstairs. It was the touch of a cold, hard pistol barrel to each of their heads that awakened the couple.

“Don’t either of you make a move or make a sound.”

The taller of the Pinkerton’s turned his pistol around backwards and brought  the butt smashing down on Jethro’s head.

Alessa began to cry out but the shorter Pinkerton halted her before she could raise an alarm. “Uh, Uh Miss Van de Bunt.” He said quietly.”  No noise or I’ll do the same to you!”

“You can’t do this!” She snarled, “I’m a married woman now and that is my husband!”

“Tell it to the mountain lady. We’re paid to bring you back to your Daddy… just like the other times.

Before she could cry out in protest, the two had bound and gagged her. Silently carrying her downstairs they made their way outside to the buggy and quickly rode off.

Chapter 4

For the second time in less than a week Jethro awoke in the same hotel room with a splitting headache. This time though the bump on his head said his headache was from a blow and not a bottle of cheap whiskey.

Sliding off the divine onto the floor, he sat there until his aching head and nauseous stomach calmed down a bit more. Suddenly, as if remembering something important he quickly looked over at the empty bed. It was then that he remembered the last words before the blow was given.

Wobbling, he stood up and made his way to the door. It was left open.

“Oh my God, they got her!”

Needing to clear his head for thought, he made his way over to the water pitcher and poured the cool contents over his head.  Grabbing a towel, he dried himself off and took a quick inventory of his belongings. Nothing seemed to be missing and his gun still hung from the bedpost where he had placed it the night before. Kneeling down, he saw Alessa’s purse still tucked safely beneath the bed.  Opening it, he removed a large roll of money she had placed inside of it and returned it to its hiding spot.

Taking two steps at a time, he rushed down the steps to the hotel desk.

“Excuse me,” He asked the clerk,” Has there been any sign of Miss Van de Bunt er..my wife this morning?”

The answer came back, “No.”

He left but not before paying a month’s advance rent on the room. It cost more than two months of his wages but considering the roll of money his wife was carrying and the importance of finding her, it mattered little.

Stepping out into the harsh Texas sun Jethro squinted in pain. His head still ached but he had to put the pain aside and keep a clear head. His first thought was which direction had the pair gone after kidnapping Alessa. They would waste little time so he assumed it would be by rail car. The closest passenger depot was  the T&P line in Abilene,  nearly fifty miles east.  The kidnappers could make that in two days easy.

Taking his horse from the stable, he headed off towards Abilene at a gallop. It was a good thing he’d been able to rest up and get some weight back on his horse after the last drive. She was antsy and ready to charge ahead.  By that night he figured the Kidnappers were within sight somewhere so he decided to put his faith in his scouting skills. Making his way up onto a small mount he scanned the darkness for a campfire. He hoped to see only one but in fact he saw three.  Somehow he had to rule two of them out. Talking to himself he went through what he knew of the people traveling through the wild and the men that had Alessa. They were city men, not used to roughing it. Travelers and cowboys were used to the Texas wilderness sounds and night spooks like coyote and such.

 “I bet two to one that the last campfire to go out is the one I want. If I see the campfire brighten when the coyotes start singing, then I’ll know for sure”

True to form, around eleven O’clock, the coyotes started their yipping and howls. To the unfamiliar ear, they sounded like possessed demons rather than an earthly animal. Watching the three campfires only one brightened. “There they are, scared of the coyotes!”

Saddling his horse, he let the rising moon be the light he needed to travel by. He figured the group was five to six miles distant. Not much of a travel in the daytime but precarious at night. A missed gopher hole, a crack between rocks to slip into, anything could lame up his horse if he wasn’t careful. It was the longest five miles he’d ever traveled. He stopped his mount a half mile away for fear the men’s horses pulling the cart would whinny or make a noise that his own mount would respond to.  Unpacking his fully loaded Yellow Boy rifle he slowly made his way eastward towards the campfire through the brush and cactus plants. When he was within a hundred yards, he started to crawl on his belly for fear the campfire light would reflect off of him and give him away. Silently parting the brush with gloved hands, he peered not directly at the campfire but off to its sides. He didn’t want to risk becoming night blinded if for some reason the campfire would unexpectedly flare up. And just then it did.

Fortunately, his precaution prevented his eyes from losing their night vision. At the same time he was able to use his peripheral vision and observe the two men gathering up more firewood. He was now close enough to hear them speaking to one another.

“Stupid! Why didn’t we just put the man in the hotel out of his misery when we had the chance? We could have then taken our time getting out of town and wouldn’t be traipsing around in the desert with those damn things howling at us!”

“Ah keep quiet, it’s only coyotes!”

“Easy enough for you to say, how do you know they aren’t Indians? Answer me that big man!”

‘Geez, you get testy when you’re scared.” Pointing to their captive, he continued railing his partner. “Even she looks more at ease than you. How you ever become a Pinkerton is beyond me!”

“I became one same as you big brother! We joined together after killing the Chief of police in Cambridge for the Irish Four Corners gang, or did you forget?”

“No, I never forgot and neither will our boss. He does jobs for the gang. That’s why we were hired. When he found out that we had methodically tortured the man without so much as blinking an eye, he said he had a use for men like us. Of course if we had turned down his offer, we’d have been swinging from a rope for murder.”

“Still, I hate things that live in the dark, like them damn coyotes! They should all be killed and done away with if you ask me.”

The older and taller brother stepped up to the campfire.  “I wonder if she’s telling the truth, that the fella in her room really was her husband? Naw, couldn’t be, he’s just some dirt bag cowboy she most likely hired as a body guard.”

“Well, she is wearing a ring and a cheap one at that. You’d think if she bought a ring to give us a ruse, she’d have bought an expensive one. Naw, he ain’t her husband. She’s lying.”

Jethro had asked Alessa how she got the ring and when she told him it belonged to his trail pard Lester and that he won it in a game of Five Card Monty the day earlier. At the time he laughed but had no memory of it because of the drugs.  She was there though as were the rest of his friends. Jethro had come fresh from the barber and met up with his pards in the street outside the diner for lunch. It was then that they saw the young girl in tears sitting on the bench in front of the diner. After hearing her story, Jethro had jumped up claiming he loved her deeply and needed to buy her a ring. Lester produced the ring from his pocket and handed it to Jethro telling him he better not look a gifted horse in the mouth and that he had better waste no time getting a Judge or preacher to marry them. It should have dawned on everyone that Jethro was not himself but then they figured love was a strange thing and it’s better left unquestioned.

Of course Alessa was able to clearly hear the two Pinkerton’s conversation. She found herself getting angry and upset when they described Jethro is such derogatory terms.

“You two wait until my husband gets on your trail, you’ll be sorry!”

“Missy,” The younger brother said to her, “your husband is nothing compared to us trained Pinkerton men. Why we are trained by the best in every aspect of police work. Even if your so called husband showed up with a bunch of cowpokes for a posse, why he and his fellows wouldn’t last five minutes against us. “

“You are so wrong you make me laugh!”

“Oh, excuse me but just what was that lump of sleeping trash in your room, your body guard? Haw, Haw haw!”

“No, he’s not my body guard he’s more cunning and dangerous than that, he’s a born and bred Texan!”

The younger brother, the short one, walked rapidly towards Alessa. Wanting to do her harm to shut her up, he pulled back his foot to kick her as hard as he could as she lay helplessly tied up on the ground.

To his older brother’s dismay, his younger brother, rather than following through with his kick, stopped and stood stock still. All three had heard a sound similar to that of  a mourning dove taking flight. In mid kick, he turned his head slowly away from the girl and took a step sideways. Then another step but this time it turned into a stumble. He collapsed onto all fours in front of the girl. To his brother’s horror, a pulsating red stream was squirting from his brother’s neck. It was when he collapsed face forward in a dead heap that Jethro’s long knife was first clearly seen protruding from it.

“My God!” he screamed in shock. Turning to face his unknown enemy the brother reached for his gun. “I’ll kill you son of a bitch!” he yelled but still had no target at which to shoot. It was at that moment that a coyote bounded from its hiding spot in the brush. In the dark the Pinkerton man could not see what or who disturbed the brush so he began firing indiscriminately towards the sound. By this time Jethro had crawled to within twenty feet from the campfires ring of light and was nowhere near where the bullets were aimed. A night bird was slightly winged and flew off screeching in anger at being disturbed so rudely. Unloading his gun proved to be a mistake for the lone Pinkerton. Having an older pistol that had to have its cylinder removed to be re loaded, the Pinkerton realized now how vulnerable he was.

“Alright you out there, I give up ya’ hear?” Now let’s make a deal. I’ll let the girl go if you and her walk away from here and let me be.”

A sharp rifle report was the answer. The Pinkerton’s derby flew backward off his head displaying a fresh round vent hole in it.

“No!  Stop that, we can make a deal you and I. When I get back to New York, I’ll tell her father that she died or something so he won’t go looking for her anymore, alright?”

Another shot rang out in answer and one of his shoes suddenly lost its heel.

“Yeow! Please mister, let me go. Here, I’ll even untie the girl, how’s that?”

Pulling a knife from out of his pants pocket, he jumped back when a third rifle crack made it disappear.

Tucking his bleeding hand inside his vest he looked toward where the shot had come from.“What’s wrong with you, I said I gave up! Now let me be and I’ll leave the girl here for you.”

A strong voice answered from somewhere in the brush outside of the fire rings light. “And then what? You’ll only go back to New York, gather up more of your cohorts and come back to re hunt us down. No Sir, this ends here in Texas!”

“It won’t end I tell you!” The Pinkerton yelled back, ”He’s on his way to meet us in Abilene.”

“How’d he know to meet you there?”

“We sent a telegram from Amarillo to him saying that we had evidence she was holed up in Sweet Water and it would only be a matter of a few days and she’d be in our custody. He wired back to meet him in Abilene with the girl.”

With his rifle raised hip high, Jethro stepped into the light of the fire saying, “Untie my wife then lie on your belly with your hands behind your back.”

As the Pinkerton proceeded with his chore of freeing Alessa he talked. “That was my brother you killed. I knew someday our number would be pulled. I guess if he had to die anywhere this place is about as good as any. I tell you what cowboy. If you’re really setting me free, I’m calling it quits.

 Between my brother here and I we have quite a stash built up in the bank. I think I’d like to retire alongside a fishing lake in upstate New York. Yes Sir, that’s what I’m going to do.  I’m gonna get me a skiff and fish!”

Waiting for the Pinkerton to complete his task, Jethro made his way next to his wife.  Kneeling down next to her he asked, “Are you alright honey? Did they hurt you?”

Making her way up to a sitting position she looked up wide eyed at her hero . “No, no I’m alright.”

Finding his hands in the dim firelight she grabbed them tightly and pressed the up to her face. After a moment in which he felt wet tears on his hands, she again looked up smiling broadly saying, “I’m so proud of you Dear, you really are my cowboy!”

After burying the Pinkerton’s brother in the Texas desert, the three found the rail line’s tracks crossing the desert and made their way on horseback to Abilene, which didn’t take but a half a day.  Alessa rode behind Jethro in the saddle which thrilled her as she was able to lean her head against her husband hero’s back. Every now and then Jethro felt her arms tighten around him in a hug. Each time he felt it, his heart fluttered and skipped a beat.  Eventually he found a single hand and held it against him until they reached Abilene.

They had abandoned the buggy in favor of making the Pinkerton ride bareback.  The other horse followed the others being afraid to be left behind. Within a short time, the Pinkerton’s wool pants rubbing against the damp horsehide began to act as grit paper on his tender backside. Jethro smiled as he watched the man try and control his painful facial expressions in his pretense of normalcy.

Reaching the passenger depot in Abilene, the three dismounted. The Pinkerton’s raw backside forced him to ask for help in getting down. Once standing, the man waddled over to Alessa telling her. “Ma’am, I offer my sincere apologies to you. All these years I’ve done jobs for your father I never took into account the harm and hurt I’ve caused others, especially you. The ride here gave me time to reflect on things. If you’ll forgive me for all I’ve put you through then I’ll know a man really can have a second chance to make things right. I only wish I had learned that before my brother was killed.”

Alessa looked the man squarely in the eyes and replied, “I know you were following orders from my father, orders one does not defy without severe consequences. I’m living proof of that. If you truly intend to change, then I forgive you.”

Jethro put his arm around his wife adding, “I’m sorry too for your brother but he has to hold his own actions to blame. Why he ever thought kicking on a woman, especially here in Texas was something he would end up not paying for is beyond reason. We aren’t the East. Women are a bit scarce out this way and a woman, any woman, is to be treated with the same respect we give our Mama’s and our wives. Your brother unknowingly signed his own death warrant.”

The Pinkerton nodded in agreement then looking at the three horses said. “Do what you want with the horses, our original plan was to abandon along with the buggy here at the depot anyway. I’d shake your hand but I expect you wouldn’t take it, not that I blame you any. I’ll be going now. I truly hope things work out for the two of you.”

“Wait!” Jethro extended his hand and in surprise gripped the Pinkerton’s gunshot injured hand. “A man does a lot of things in life that he ain’t proud of. You asked for forgiveness. The other half a that is being forgiven.”

Turning once again to face Alessa the Pinkerton told her, “I was mistaken Ma’am, your husband is no dirt bag cowboy. In all my days I’ve yet to see a man as big as him.”

The two watched the Pinkerton man enter the depot to purchase a ticket and exit their lives. Jethro turned to Alessa and stated, “You know something? We never knew them two Pinkerton’s names.”

Alessa looked up lovingly up to her husband’s face and replied. “Oh, that’s not true. I know them, I have for years but I think it’s best they stay anonymous to you. I heard as a young girl if you kill a man and don’t know his name, his ghost can’t haunt you in your dreams.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“From, the man who just left us.”

Chapter 5

On the second day of waiting, the train carrying her father arrived at three in the afternoon. Jethro knew immediately by the entourage around him that this must be Alessa’s father.

Four Negro porters carried his and the others in his group’s belongings off the train and piled them onto the depot’s trunk cart. The man looked every bit a wealthy Easterner to Jethro. Tall but overweight, a white pointed beard, a fat cigar jutting from the side of his mouth, giving orders  while pointing with his silver tipped walking cane. Jethro had an instant dislike for the man.

The entourage started walking towards a waiting line of buggies that would transport them to the hotel. It was then that Alessa’s father glanced up and realized the girl standing nearby staring at him was his daughter. He quickly looked for the Pinkerton men that he had hired but instead only saw only a lone, trail dusted cowboy wearing worn chaps, tall heeled boots, a large sombrero type Stetson hat and sporting a low hung Colt .45 around his hips.

Alessa stepped up before her father could react. “Father? I want you to meet my husband Jethro Avery.  Jethro? This is my father  Auburn Van de Bunt.”

The two men stared at each other. Jethro in disgust, her father in disbelief.

“Husband? I heard nothing about you being married!”

Sticking out her wedding banded hand, Alessa smiled, “Just because those men were Pinkerton’s doesn’t mean they know everything. You wasted a trip out here if you think you can take me back to New York father.”

“Where are the investigators I hired?”

“You mean the two thugs you’ve had time and time again chase me down? Well, one is by now a dried up shell in a shallow grave west of here in the desert with a slit throat from my husband’s knife and his brother came to his senses and is out buying a fishing pole somewhere back East.”

The entourage, made up of yes men and parasites, gasped at the daughter’s crude description of the Pinkerton’s death. Her father’s eyes narrowed and a smugness began forming on his lips. “And besides a ring, which by the way looks as if it were purchased from a Roebucks catalog, what proof do you have that this filthy cowboy is actually your husband.”

“Be careful with your words father, the last man who called my husband a filthy cowboy paid dearly for those words.”

Pulling out a folded piece of paper, she held it tightly in front of her father to view.  The couple watched as her father’s eyes slowly scrolled down as he read the sheet of parchment paper. They both knew when his eyes reached the name of the Judge at the bottom.

“Damn!” Her father exclaimed loudly, “This is signed by a Judge named Pendergrass. Is this the same Judge Pendergrass that turned down the Supreme Court bench and left Washington  for Texas?”

“The very one.”

Two of the entourage were lawyers from her father’s shipbuilding firm. When they heard the Judges name, they both sighed, lowered  and shook their heads. Her father hoping to hear even a sliver of hope in nullifying the marriage looked to the Lawyers.

The boldest one, a large well fed man in his late fifties spoke up first. “I’m sorry sir, I’m a Maritime Attorney and not familiar with contract law outside of ship building. But, seeing that Judge Pendergrass performed the marriage and signed the marriage certificate, I would venture to say this wedding is iron clad in nature. I’ve never known the Judge to leave a loop hole open when he puts his signature on something. Maybe my esteemed fellow attorney here from a different Firm could give you a better insight. As I said, my specialty is in Maritime law. If it were up to me though, I would offer the cowboy a tidy sum of say… fifty thousand dollars to divorce your daughter. It’s a common practice in New York and should work here in this backwards State.  Money speaks Sir.”

Jethro’s head reeled. In his life he would never see fifty thousand dollars nor would he now. “Forget it Mr. lawyer. Tell him to keep his money, I’m keeping my wife!”

The look on the other Attorneys face offered no better hope.  He was younger and not so confident in his conviction. In a subdued voice he cleared his throat then addressed the situation.

 “Ahem, Yes Mr. Van de Bunt, I am quite familiar in domestic and contract law so I believe I am able to offer my services to all parties if I may speak freely.”

“What do you mean by all parties?” Then realizing he could be spending the next hour listening to the thin balding Attorney bloviate on a single definition of all Parties, he forged ahead, “Alright, speak already dammed it!

“As you are aware Sir, Your father left a tidy sum in his Last Will and Testament to his granddaughter Alessandra who is now standing here amongst us. There were two stipulations in his last Will and Testament for her to be eligible to receive this large sum. First was that she was to at least attain the age of twenty one and second that she be married. I believe your only hope in stalling this dispersion of funds lies in her age. I believe she is still only twenty years old. We can send a wire to the Firm that employees me and they could file an order of Stay and have the Last Will and Testament stalled indefinitely in court through appeals and what not.  During which time my employer could gather a legal team together and dissect this marriage certificate against all laws both New York State and Texas to see if a loop hole can be found to nullify the marriage. To your fortune, she was not married in a church where we would have to go up against a church hierarchy to obtain an annulment. A civil marriage is much easier to annul.”

“Well, well, well! It seems we have hope of keeping the family fortune within the family after all. Go ahead, immediately wire your office and file suite with the Clerk of Courts and begin the process.”

The lawyer left to send the emergency wire to the Judge after copying down all pertinent information on the wedding certificate.

Jethro knew he’d never voluntarily give up his wife for any amount of money or through News York legal wrangling.  He had discovered he truly did fall in love with her. She too had come to the same conclusion and was adamant in keeping Jethro as her husband.

In a shorter time than assumed it would take, the young Attorney returned from the telegrapher’s office.

“Uh, Sir? We have a problem.”

“Good grief! Now what?”

“The Clerk of Courts office is closed.”

“What? Impossible!” Her father cried pulling out his pocket watch, “It’s only 3:15 and it’s open until 5 o’clock!”

Alessa’s father was fuming now. “What do you mean by standing here like an insolent mule! Get back and send that telegram before it’s too late. We still have an hour and forty five minutes yet to file.”

The distressed Attorney spoke up again. “Sir, your watch is set for Texas time, I saw you reset it on the train when the Steward came and announced our arrival into this State. Back in New York it’s 5:15pm. The Clerk of Courts office closes promptly at 5pm. It closed fifteen minutes ago.”

Turning to Alessa the Attorney asked, “Ma’am, exactly what date is your date of birth?

Without thinking she replied, “July 15, 1886. Why do you ask?”

Her father suddenly looked as if he had received an electric shock. Quickly looking once more at his pocket time piece he blurted out, it’s July 13th, we have a full day after today before she’s twenty one! She’s not twenty none until the 15th of this month and it’s only the 13th now!”

The Attorney made no move to the telegrapher’s office; instead he stood staring down at his feet.

“Now what’s the problem?” Her father fumed

“Even if I send a telegram this instant to my office and they draw up the stay, your daughter will still be twenty one before we get the stay is filed with the Courts.”

“How is that possible? We have a full day tomorrow to file the paperwork with the Court. Tell me why they won’t accept the paperwork until after she’s twenty one which by the way, is two days away yet?

“Because Sir, today is Friday and the Clerk of Courts office will not reopen until Monday the 16th. There is no exceptions in the matter. Even the President of the United States must bow to the rules of the Court.”

Suddenly the big man visibly paled and looked weak in the knees. Seeing a bench nearby he heavily sat down on it and lowering his head between his knees groaned.

The Attorney then turned to Alessa offering his hand, “Congratulations on your inheritance and marriage Ma’am. If you should ever need an Attorney, I am always available.”

Alessa thought for a moment then asked him. “Sir, do you work exclusively for my father?”

“I am assuming that the firm I work for will be terminating my employment with them for failing to procure not only your inheritance for their client but when they find that I congratulated you, I’m sure they will ask that I clean out my office.”

“You mentioned my inheritance in terms that is was a tidy sum. Tell me, would I have enough of an inheritance for my husband and I to start a cattle operation here in Texas? “

“More than enough Ma’am, more than enough.”

“Great, then it’s settled. Would you be willing to come back with us to Sweet Water and help us to set this all up legal like? It may take a while, maybe years even.”

Smiling shyly, the Attorney  spoke, “I have always wanted a horse Ma’am, since I was a child. If you permit me one and have one of your cowboys teach me to ride it, I believe yes, I can return with you to Sweet Water if these requirements are met.”

Sticking out her hand, Alessa said, “Done!”

Alessa then stepped over to where her father gloomily sat. Sitting beside him, she took one of his large hands into her own.  “Father? I’m sorry. I didn’t want it to happen this way. I was foolish and it was a matter of fortune that the man I married to circumvent your scheme ended up being the true love of my life. He’s a good man father, one your own father would be proud to call family. Is money that important to you that you would force misery upon your own blood in order to hold onto something as fleeting as money? Could you even spend what you have in the lifetime you have left? No! When yo lie upon your death bed will it be your financial councilors holding your hand or will it be family. The choice is yours father. As for me, I am not returning to live in New York but am starting my own life here in Texas with a wonderful man who could care less about the monetary worth of a man. He judges a man by a different scale than one of financial wealth. That’s the type of man I have always wanted father, it’s the type of man I always wished you were. “

Slowly Alessa rose and putting her arm around Jethro’s waist she leaned into him asking him if they could go now.

Chapter 6

Within six months the ranch was in operation. With the amazing help of Andrew, the young Attorney and their hired hands, the couple carved out a ranch in the Texas wilderness. Keeping her promise, Alessa had hired a man to teach Andrew the Attorney to ride, and ride he did. No longer did he dress for the office. Wearing cut jeans boots and a western hat, he became the heart throb to many young girls in town.

It was in late April when in the distance an automobile was seen making its way up the long dusty road towards the ranch. With steaming radiator the large touring automobile braked to a screeching halt in front of the house.  Doors opened and a group of men were expelled from its interior. One of them, a large man dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a fancy Spanish embroidered shirt stepped out and placing a new Stetson upon his head spun in a slow circle taking in the view of the ranch.

It was the cook who heard the commotion outside first and running to the window see what was making that awful hissing and chugging noise, she yelled for her Mistress to come quickly.

Taking one look at the group of men through the front porches screened door, she chuckled and clapped her hands and flew out onto the porch.

“Well, well, well, what do we have here?” She shouted laughingly. “I love the hat!”

“ When in Rome do as the Roman’s do! Hello daughter!”

Riding in from the herd Jethro dismounted near the front porch and tied his mount to the rail. Seeing Alessa already hugging her father beside the automobile, he walked over to them.  Seeing his son in law approaching, he stuck out his hand toward Jethro while his daughter still remained clinging to him.

“Howdy Dad, welcome to the Double A!  We got your letter; it sure is great seeing you here.”

“The pleasure is all mine son!”

“How was he trip? I can’t believe you all rode in this thing all the way from New York. Here, let me call a couple hands to help with your luggage.”

Jethro walked out towards the coral and whistled a shrill ear piercing whistle which drew the attention of several hands. “Hey! Get on over here an’ give a hand!” He shouted to them. One of the Hands turned out to be their Attorney Andrew.

Seeing who had arrived by automobile, Andrew held back until he and Jethro were alone.

“Uh, are you sure he should see me? I mean the last time we were together was at the depot and I fear it might upset him seeing me here. I mean after all, it was I who crushed him with the bad news and then I go off and get hired on by you folks. I know I did nothing wrong, it’s just that we didn’t part on the best of terms.”

Jethro placed his hand on Andrews shoulder telling him, “When we received his letter, he specifically asked that you be here. He mentioned something about tossing some business your way. What he meant by that, I have no idea. He never did say why he was coming just that he was.”

What Jethro held back was that in his father in laws long hand written letter was not only an apology to the young couple but all the thoughts that he had pondered on over the months after leaving Texas. In it, he explained how he was raised and where he had gone wrong in raising ho9s own family. After he returned to New York with the words of his daughter still ringing in his head, he began to see his friends in a different light, shallow and concerned only with their financial gain. He wrote that he decided to step back from his ship building industry, even to entertain the idea of selling it.

The two men lagged behind the other hands letting them gather the luggage and cart it into the house. The others that had made the drive with her father were invited inside for refreshments. Finally it was just her father, Jethro, Alessa and Andrew standing outside by the automobile.

Alessa commented again on her fathers attire. “Dad, you look wonderful in Western gear, it suits you well. It gives you an aura of ruggedness that a suit can never give.”

He chuckled, “You should have seen my friends in there when I stopped to buy these duds. They thought I had lost my mind!  By the way, I sold off all of my company stock, I no longer own it.”

“Dad, why did you do that? You loved building ships.”

“That’s the point dear, I loved building them. I haven’t seen the shipyard in two years, did you know that? I was too busy running the day to day operations. I missed the smell of the riveters forge, the sound of them being hammered into the plates. To be honest, I missed having fun!”

Alessa moved up to face her father, placing her hands on his chest she asked him, “What will you do now? Surely you’re not the type to sit in a rocking chair reminiscing on the past. I know you better than that.”

Jethro jokingly told his wife, “Well, we could always use him on the ranch, good hands are always hard to find!”

All four chuckled at the thought.

“Honestly though” Her father said, “That’s not for from why I came out here. You see after I sold off the company, they held a big going away celebration in my honor. At the dinner portion of the celebration the place served the most delicious steak I had ever eaten. Tender, juicy, perfectly marbled. I asked the Chef how come these steaks were so different from all the others. Do you know what he told me? He told me these steaks come from a special breed of cow called and Angus cow and that they are raised in the country of Argentina.  Well that got my brain churning. Knowing you raise cattle and all. I began to research this breed and have come up with an idea and a proposal for all of you. Yes, Andrew, you fit in the scheme of things too. “

“I do? How”

“I’ll explain. First off though, I want to do this for enjoyment, I’m not interested in making money off of it. Oh, I want the operation to be able to support itself but as far as wealth goes, Alessa said it best when she asked me how much wealth do I really need.  I want an operation raising these cattle, but not here in Texas but in Argentina where the grass is lush and different from here. The climate too suits these cattle better than the climate here. To what I understand though starting a ranch down there is difficult. The local ranchers guard the sale of breeding stock tightly in order to eliminate competition and keep prices high.  I went ahead and purchased twenty thousand acres of prime grazing land. I let it out that I intended to use it as an investment and sell off smaller portions to make money, kind of what a land speculator does. What I realy intend to do, with all your help, is to third party purchase some of the breeding stock and a couple of bulls and ship them here to your ranch. I want a solid thriving herd built up that I can ship by sea down to Argentina when the time is right. I’m not interested in how the cattle taste being raised here, I’m not selling any off. I know once the herd is moved back to Argentina their calves will be no different than if their parents had always been from there. “

Jethro smiled knowingly and said, “So what you’re asking us to do is raise a separate herd from our own, never mixing the breeds and when the herd is ready, ship the whole bunch on down to your land there. ”

“Exactly! I don’t want to give a heads up to anyone down in Argentina as I don’t want any monkey business preventing my operation from taking off. I’m hiring Spanish and Argentine cowboys and once my herd is in place on my land there’s not much anybody can say or do against it. I’ve already hired a ranch foreman to start the ball quietly rolling down there and he’s aware he’s to keep everything hush hush.”

Andrew asked, “Sir what would my role be in all this if you have a Foreman and all?”

I need a legal eagle watching over my enterprise down there, one that I respect and trust even if you did piss me off . Oh don’t get me wrong I was mighty sore at you back there in Abilene when you sided with my daughter, but in the end because you showed the grit to do what was right in the eyes of man and God, I respected you for it. I can see how you used your skills to get this ranch on its feet too. One thing I know is that my daughter has little patience with figures and legal issues. I figured she had you handling all these. Jethro, I’m not casting a disparaging word against you but knowing now what makes up a good cowboy, I’m sure you used Andrew to set up your accountant and will be instrumental in your sales when the time comes to drive them to market, am I right?”

Jethro laughed openly, “You hit the nail on the head Sir. I can rope any cow, shoot a rustler square in the behind at a thousand feet and drive cattle as straight as an arrow, but please don’t ask me to haggle prices with a buyer!, No Sir! That’s Andrew’s job!”

Jules Van de Bundt smiled at the young group in front of him. “I’ll only keep him down there long enough to get started, a month or two at best.” Looking at the three sets of approving faces he said, ” So it’s settled then, You’ll do this with me?”

Alessa answered for them all. “Dad, all four of us would be thrilled to be part of this exciting new venture, of course we will!”

With a wide smile of satisfaction plastering his face, Alessa’s father leaned against the automobile. Then suddenly he looked around in confusion. “Did you say the four of you? There’s only three as far as I can see. Who’s the fourth?”

Alessa placed both hands gently against her stomach. “Here’s number four grandpa!”

The Black Blizzard by JW Edwards

sand storm

 

July 10th, 1893 The storm hits.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 12th, 1893 Three weeks earlier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 12th the storm ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 18th 1893 Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is she married?”

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

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

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

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

JW Edwards 02/21/2013

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!”

The Caltrop ranch

Chapter 1  

Raeford Cobbler was going into the cattle business, just as soon as he finished dinner.

Born into a family of (what else) cobblers, Raeford tried his best to follow in the family tradition but by the age of twenty he couldn’t take it anymore. One evening around the dinner table it all came to a head when his aging father declared his intent to turn the business over to his son.

“Why that’s wonderful,” Raeford’s mother beamed, “he’s such a smart boy.” Looking across the table at her other son, her smile turned into a sour pout,” Who would be better than Raeford to carry on? Bradford?”

Bradford was Raeford’s twin brother. The two brothers couldn’t have been more different. Raeford was of thin build, had blond hair and his blue eyes needed spectacles to see any distance. Everyone in town knew of his high intelligence for book learning. There were few subjects that Raeford was not an expert at. Most all of it learned after work hours in his room as he read book after book by lamp light.

On the other hand, Bradford stood a whole head taller, had brown hair and perfect brown eyes. Bradford was built as big and strong as a brick made Kansas outhouse. His large hands dwarfed his father’s tiny leather tools making him appear almost clumsy. He really should have had his own tools custom made years ago but everyone figured Raeford would be the one to inherit the business so why bother spending the money on Bradford. Besides, it wasn’t like either brother really needed cobblers tools anyway. The cobbler shop had grown into a successful upscale woman’s bootery and had six European immigrant cobblers on staff. Under these immigrant cobblers, the brothers had fulfilled their apprenticeship but never took it seriously. Neither spent much time within the confines of the working portion of the shop. Instead, Raeford spent most of his time within the office helping the accountant while Bradford spent his taking extended camping trips in the wilderness hunting wild game.

“What’s wrong with Bradford taking over?” Raeford asked. “He’s as good at running the ‘Village Cobbler’ as I am and he can hire more staff to do the books instead of me doing them.”

Missus Cobbler looked appalled and throwing her nose into the air snipped, “Why there is no way Bradford could fill your father’s shoes!”

Being cobblers and hearing the term “fill your fathers shoes’’ started both brothers giggling. Though they were different as night was to day, they were still twin brothers and had a special bond. That wasn’t to say they agreed on everything, in fact about the only thing that they wholeheartedly agreed on was neither wanted anything to do with their fathers business.

Mister Cobbler had sat quietly watching the goings on at the table after announcing his decision.

“Henry, tell your two sons your decision is final and that I won’t hear any more of it!”

Mrs Cobbler rose abruptly from her chair and stomped off into the sitting room where she sat dabbing her eyes with a kerchief she carried at all times in her laced sleeve cuff.

From behind the French doors that divided the two rooms, the three men could hear Mrs Cobbler bemoaning her lot in life.   As usual, no matter what went on, it always ended up being all about Mrs Cobbler and her lot in life.

Coming from a wealthy Boston family, Mrs Cobbler was raised expecting the world to cow tow to her every whim. When she was of marrying age, her father was delighted to rid his home of her rants and pouts by immediately giving Henry permission to marry her… on one condition.

“And what condition is that Sir?” Henry had asked him.

“That you take her as far away from here as possible!”

Her father transplanted the two west to Kansas City. Before their arrival in Kansas, he had purchased a large hilltop brick home as a wedding present for the two using his own staff to make all the purchase and relocating arraignments. As an added incentive, he also purchased a well known Cobbler shop located in the better part of town and gave Henry the deed. In private, he told Henry that they were permitted to visit Boston only once every two years and to limit their stay to no longer than a month.

In short order Henry understood her father’s reasoning but unlike her father, Henry seemed to have little spine when it came to their marriage.

Mister Cobbler finally felt the awkwardness of his not speaking up and cleared his throat saying, “Now boys, you know you shouldn’t upset your mother. Her life raising you boys has not been an easy one. She has bent over backwards making sure you don’t end up in the gutter.”

Bradford spoke up, “Dad, I meant no disrespect to Mom but ‘her keeping us out of the gutter’? Really? How did she do that? By hiring the Nannies we had? By hiring private tutors?”

Leaning forward in his chair Bradford continued by unloading years of pent up frustration. “You built the business Dad! All our life we’ve watched you perform every and any job that was needed to be done. There were times I found you asleep at the treadle machine because of the long hours you worked. You’re fortunate you didn’t sew your hands shut! “

“It was no bother, your mother stood by me the entire time.”

“Stood by you? Maybe in your mind, but she sure spent enough hours entertaining her friends with garden parties and such while you burnt the midnight oil in the shop.”

“You Bradford are one to talk!” Henry raised his voice. ”All I see is you calling on your friends to go off gallivanting into the wilds. Did I teach you to neglect your work like that?”

“No Dad, Mom did!”

A shout from Raeford stilled the room, “Enough! Will the two of you just settle down? Nothing will be settled by yelling at each other.”

Turning to his father Raeford lowered his voice and quietly spoke. “Father, the issue is who is to run the shop so you can retire, correct?”

“I suppose that correct”.

“The problem is that neither Bradford nor myself want to take over. Admit it Dad, each time we have gone back east to visit gramps, has the business ever suffered from our being gone? No, it kept going just fine.”

“But son, we had been gone for only a month at a time, retirement is much different. Retirement is long term. Who would run the place if not you.”

“Our accountant Mr. Snelling, that’s who.”

“Snelling? Why he is an… an accountant! Besides, when his wife gave birth he was forced to miss work for two days. How could I put my trust into someone who would dismiss his duties so casually?”

“Maybe you’re right Dad.” Raeford continued speaking with false indignation. “ After all, someone who would so casually dismiss his job duties over the birth of his son might even want a vacation if he was to end up running the place. Heaven forbid!”

Mr. Cobbler sat staring at Raeford and sheepishly spoke, “I just meant…”

Realizing how foolish his argument sounded, Henry looked apologetically at his two sons. “I never asked you what you two may have wanted to do with yourselves, did I? I just assumed like myself, you would follow in your father’s footsteps.”

Each noticed the deafening quiet now within the sitting room.

“If I were to place Snelling in that position, what would the two of you do? I could not bear to see my children working here under someone else.”

As one, both brothers spoke, “We want to go out west!”

From within the sitting room a sudden howl erupted. “No, no, no…”

Henry looked irritably at the French doors then turned back to his sons, “What would you do and where out west are you speaking of.”

Raeford spoke, “What’s one of the biggest money makers here in Kansas City Dad?”

Henry thought for a moment then answered. “The slaughter houses. Are you thinking of opening a slaughter house?”

“No, the west has little use for slaughter houses at this time but we are thinking cattle Dad. We want to be suppliers.”

“By suppliers, you do mean purchasing agents aren’t you? Surely you are not thinking of becoming cattle ranchers?”

Bradford now spoke up. “Raeford’s been pounding the books on this Dad. He’s convinced the Herford breed is the way to go. The Herford meat is tenderer and pound for head, more profitable than the Longhorn breed we are eating today. Yes Dad, we’ve thought it out the last couple of years and want to be cattle ranchers.”

Again from the sitting came an anguished cry, “What will all of my friends say? Cattle ranchers of all things…Nooooo!”

Henry stood up and walked to the other side of the table where his sons sat. Putting a hand on each of the boys shoulder soberly told them. “I have been selfish. All these years I’ve been thinking I would use the two of you to gain my freedom from the business. I became blind to the talent I had already working for me.  You are right, Snelling would be perfect.”

The howl from the other room had settled into a long tearful bawling.

“Don’t worry about your mother. I actually know to deal with her better than most think I do. Getting your way is not always found in being head strong but in understanding what makes another person tick. Watch and see.”

Smiling, Henry raised his voice knowing his wife could easily hear him. “Well sons, I suppose if I put Snelling in charge I’ll have little to do here anymore in the way of work. I could spend my golden years reading the classics”

Placing his finger upon his chin as if thinking, he continued saying loudly. “Although… I suppose with all the free time I’ll have on my hands, maybe it’s about time your mother and I take an extended tour of Europe…England, France and maybe even Italy.”

All three noticed the immediate halt to the bawling in the next room. Without warning, the French doors were thrown open and out stepped a beaming Missus Cobbler. With her kerchief she wiped away the last alligator tear from her eyes and asked hopefully. “Europe? Really? Oh Henry! I must make arraignments. Oh my, what to pack? I need new dresses, these will never do in Europe… and shoes. I must have the shop make me plenty of new shoes!”

Without further comment, the brothers watched in amusement as their mother hiked up her dress and scurried up the stairs to her room. From the top landing, she called down, “Henry, call the trunk maker, we need more travel trunks!”

Looking like the cat that just ate the mouse, Henry chuckled, “As I said boys, I’ll handle your mother, you just worry about how to get your ranch up and running. I figure you wouldn’t mind if I could include myself in this proposition? Not that I have any desire to even see a live cow but seeing as how the two of you make up a pretty formidable pair, I would like to invest in your operation, that is if you would allow me to… say one third?”

Chapter 2

The large lettered black and white sign attached to the side of the rail depot said it all, Cheyenne.

It had taken many months of preparation to get to this point. Once the decision had been made, the hard work began. Where to settle, how much land to buy, gathering the needed hands to not only build the ranch itself but also finding the tradesmen willing to travel into the frontier to build the structures. It was a costly venture but with the cash from their father’s investment and that of their Boston Grandfather’s inheritance left to them, they had enough to make it a go.

The brothers stepped off the train onto the stations new low wooden platform. It was an addition to the station that announced Cheyenne was growing. Back in Kansas the entire station would have been used only as a freight station or thankfully torn down.

Bradford took in a deep breath. It was something he had hesitated in doing while still riding inside the passenger car. No one had forewarned the two that the engines coal smoke would permeate every inch of car, clothing and any baggage they brought along. “Well brother, welcome to the west!”

Raeford stood looking about him. “It’s a bit more dismal than I thought it would be. Somehow I thought the west was all rolling grassy plains filled with buffalo. I guess the dime novels shouldn’t be too heavily relied upon for descriptive accuracy.”

“Ah, it’s going to be just fine brother. Let’s get on into town, get a room, a hot bath and a rare steak!”

Once their toilet and culinary needs had been met, the two wandered over to the attorney’s office that had been handling their real estate dealings. Crossing the deeply rutted dirt main street, they stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of a row of unpainted wooden business structures. Since there was only one registered attorneys in Cheyenne, finding it should be easy. Raeford pointed to an attorneys sign hanging above a nine paned glass door that read, Bald, Combover, Bunn and Weave- Attorneys at law.

The brothers stopped, stared at the sign for a second with raised eyebrows, shrugged in confusion and walked on in.

“Good morning gentlemen, how may I be of assistance?” The voice was that of a young girl of sixteen or so sitting behind a polished mahogany reception desk.

Bradford spoke up,“Uh, yea, I hope so. Is this the office of Maxwell Brewer the Attorney?”

The young girl sat smiling up at them. “Yes.”

“Oh the sign says something else. I was confused.”

Getting up from behind the desk the young girl headed towards the door. “Why would you be confused?” As she reached the door she poked her head out saying, “It very simple, it says….OH NO!”

Turning from the door she ran to the stairway that led upstairs to more offices. “James Rochester Brewer! You get your fanny down here right now or I’m telling daddy on you!”

Turning back to the brothers she apologized saying, “Excuse me Sirs but my young brother thinks it’s funny to redo folks signs around town. It’s not the first time he’s been scolded for it. Last week he changed out the Dentist giant tooth sign with that of a pair of bloody pliers and before that painted a shock of hair under the armpits of the baker holding up a loaf of bread.”

“ It’s a good thing my Dad is the only attorney around or we’d get sued for sure!”

Bradford chuckled , “Boys will be boys Miss. No harm done. I can reach the sign if he’ll give me the real one. Is your dad around?”

Exasperated she replied, “He’ll be right back, he just stepped out to send a telegram.”

The young Brewer boy came downstairs with the real sign tucked under his arm. He handed it over to Bradford who stepped outside and exchanged it with the joke one. Timidly he said, “Sorry Sir.” And went back upstairs.

The door suddenly opened and a middle aged properly dressed man stepped inside. With a touch of grey hair at the temples and salt and pepper mustache he looked the part of a successful businessman.

“Ah, I see you have arrived.” Sticking his hand out he shook the brothers hands and told them. “Please, step into my office won’t you?”

After closing the office door behind them, Attorney Brewer went to a file cabinet and removed a folder. “Here is the land deed. The brown folder there contains all the receipts from the construction of two houses, the animal barn, hay barn, horse and cattle corrals, shoots, bunk house etc. etc. The white folder is from the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association for four hundred head of good breeding stock, two bulls, thirty horses and from town here I already bought and delivered one donkey, a jenny.

Looking a bit confused, Bradford asked, “What’s the Donkey for?”

“They keep the Bobcats and Coyotes away. Having a dog will warn you of either but if no one is around to see what all the commotion is about, predator animals will have a field day with your chickens and young pigs while the dog barks at ‘em. A Donkey is very territorial and will kick a coyote or bobcat to death. No need to be there, they know what to do.”

Raeford unfolded a map he had been sent back in Kansas. Now how do we get to our land. I don’t see any rail road near it for fifty miles! I take it there’s a reason for that?”

“You need room for cattle. Any ranch within twenty miles of a rail road would cost too much and the land is usually broken up into farm sized acreages. There’s no problem, you just need to drive the cattle to the nearest rail platform for loading. Right now that’s in Cheyenne where your cattle will be dropped off at but they’re almost done with the one closer to you at the railhead in Hanna. They’ll be loading coal there too so make sure you make arraignments before showing up with a herd to ship. That way too they’ll have the amount of cattle cars needed to take the entire shipment at one time. It should be in operation in a couple months”

“You telegraphed something about ornery neighbors. What is that all about?”

The attorney cleared his throat and told them what he had heard through the lovcal grapevine. “It seems you purchased a property that unknown to any of us at the time, had been being used as free range land by your neighbor. Normally, it’s their tough luck and they make no big deal out of it because everyone knows the law. This case is a bit different. It’s not the neighbor directly that is the one causing trouble but the ranches foreman..or Segundo in this case.”

“Segundo? What’s that?”

“A Segundo is the ranches body guard. He’s the hired gun of the group. This Segundo is called One eye Willy, he’s a Cheyenne half breed who’s band was from the land your ranch is now placed on. One eye Willy has been demanding payment from the Double T ranch to free graze on what he calls his ancestral land. When Bill Wiley, the owner of the Double T refused, One eye Willy had him killed. Wiley’s wife and daughter now run the Double T and they’re afraid for their lives. I’m sorry I did not know this before we purchased the land for you or I would never have let you buy it.”

Bradford spoke up. “Well, what’s done is done. Has he caused any trouble yet? I mean for our trades people and ranch hands?”

“Not that I know of, but then most folks out this way don’t bring their problems to a court, they prefer to settle things for themselves with their fist or a gun.”

“That sounds reasonable, no disrespect to your profession but I’ve seen the law take years what one good thrashing can solve in minutes.”

“I’ll set up a meeting between you two and the surveyor. He’s willing to travel out with you again to show you the ranches boundary lines. As you can see it stretches from Muddy Creek to Camp creek, or about 8 miles north to south. From east to west it starts at the 40 mile Ranch and ends at the west end of Muddy Creek. All in all you bought about sixteen hundred square miles of ranch.”

Three days later found the brothers saddled up on newly purchased horses heading to their ranch. Between Bradford and Raeford rode Tom Higgins, the surveyor. Behind the three rode Higgins assistant and a black smith brought in from Laramie. One of the hands presently working the ranch was acting as the farrier for the place. The permanent black smith would take his place once he arrived. They left Cheyenne and headed west alongside the Union Pacific rails to Laramie.

It took two days before they rode into the town of Laramie. The town was mass confusion under construction. Some buildings had brick facades while most were still wooden or even canvas tents with false wooden fronts on them. Fortunately, the two story Keystone hotel was rather well built structure with its own dining room and saloon. It was here they’d rest up at.

It would take four more days traveling by horseback to reach the ranch so it was decided in the morning they’d restock up on their depleted supplies.

Bradford stepped into the mercantile under dawns early light. The store’s owner had already loaded a wagon  that was headed north alongside the Laramie Mountains to Casper. Seeing Bradford, he wiped his hands on his apron and greeted him. Bradford shook his hand and handed the owner his list.

“My names Dwight, Dwight Taylor. If it’s alright with you mister, I have most all of this on the shelves so I’ll let my Amy gather it up for you. I have another order calling for an anvil that I need to tend to.”

Bradford chuckled, “Sure go ahead mister Taylor, I wouldn’t expect your wife to go loading up an anvil while you gather up my baking soda and flour. I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate that.”

“Not my wife son, my daughter. My Betty passed a year ago last spring from the Grippe.”

“I’m sorry, I meant no insult.”

“None taken friend. Ah, there you are my dear.” Handing his daughter Bradford’s supply list, he excused himself.

Bradford stood gawking at the girl. She was no drop dead beauty by any means but to call her cute missed the point. She was mesmerizingly adorable. Wherever she went in the store, Bradford’s eyes followed. He was no prude by any means but he found himself tongue tied in trying to start a conversation with her. Each time she glanced his direction his eyes flew to something else hoping she wouldn’t realize he was openly staring at her.

“Uh, miss, I mean Amy, uh, uh.”

The girl Amy stood staring at him with a twinkle in her eyes. “Is there something you’d like to ask me mister…?”

“Oh, Bradford, my names Bradford Cobbler, I’m new here. Well not here but yes here too, I mean I’m new to Wyoming.”

Alright then Mister Bradford Cobbler, is there something you wanted to ask me?”

Bradford knew enough to know she was toying with him and was thoroughly enjoying watching him squirm. Mustering all the courage he could and throwing all caution to the wind, Bradford finally uttered what was on his mind.

“Ma’am, I’m starting a ranch up by the Laramie Plains along with my brother. From time to time I would be coming here to Laramie on business and to purchase things unavailable from the smaller mercantile stores nearer to our ranch. I’d like to ask if I could call on you when I come into town. Maybe we could have pie or a pastry of some sort at the café across the way and just talk.”

“I suppose if I was asked proper like, I might consider such an outing, but I would have to ask permission from my father. He’s very protective of me since Mama passed on. He’s not very impressed with the men folk here and I’m all he’s got now.”

“Miss Amy, I am not a vagrant or a man who collects women in every town he enters. I never even had a girl back home. My brother and I are starting a cattle ranch and we aim to be successful ranchers soon. I will be leaving for the ranch in a few minutes, just as soon as we pack up these supplies here. It would make me happy if I knew the next time I am in town that you would take the time to dine with me or even sit on the bench and talk. Either way it’d brighten my day considerably.”

The voice from behind startled Bradford, “If my daughter has the want to sit for a spell with you, then I have no qualms about it. My advice though is this. Don’t eat pastry from the café when you’re trying to impress a girl son. It makes a man look foolish when his face is painted up with powdered sugar.”

“Your point is well taken Sir, I’ll stick to the pie.”

After saying his goodbye’s and leaving with a promise to return just as soon as he was able. Bradford hefted the supply sack over his shoulder and headed to the stable whistling.

“My my, what are you all smiles for brother? Did you find everything you needed at the supply store?”

“I sure did but I gotta go back a few more times before I can bring home what I really wanted from there.”

“What in tarnation are you talking about? Bring what home?”

“My wife!”

Chapter 3 

The group reigned up and gazed at the scene distantly ahead of them. There by a bubbling brook surrounded by pines sat two beautifully made houses. Further away stood a new barn with corrals and other outbuildings. A small black smith shop sat further up the brook. Just far enough away to keep the banging hammers from becoming a nuisance. Ranch hands could be seen working the horses. Others sat out front on the bunk house porch relaxing in the late afternoon air.

“My God, it’s beautiful Raeford!”

“Look, rider’s coming.”

In the distance four riders could be seen making their way casually from the ranch. The group reigned up about a hundred or so feet from the Cobbler group.

“You folks are the Cobblers?” The lead rider shouted.

Bradford stood up in the stirrups and yelled back, “That’s us, my brother Raeford, our surveyor and myself along with a few extra’s.”

The group of riders visibly relaxed in their saddles and made their way forward.“Then you must be Bradford. I’m Chet, your ranch foreman and these three with me are Davey, Reggie and Tom. They’re a few of your flank riders and wranglers.”

Raeford spoke up, “You all look well armed, any trouble we need to know about? I heard we have an angry Segundo over at the Double T that wants us gone. How much truth is in that?”

“Plenty. We’ve been getting’ hit nearly every night for the last week. Just hit an’ run stuff but each time they get a bit braver. I’m glad you all showed up because something has to be done and it ain’t my position to grab this bull by the horns. Let’s get you and your horses freshened up a bit an I’ll tell ya’ all that’s goin’ on.”

That night over a home cooked meal, a full table of twelve sat discussing the problem over at the Double T. To the group, it was evident the owners of the Double T ranch, Angel Wiley and her daughter Becky were being held against their will. One eye Willy had worked it so any one opposing his plans was either sent off or had an ‘accident’ which left them dead.

Raeford finally summed up the problem and after conferring quietly with Bradford came to a conclusion. “It seems that we have two issues here. One is the rescuing of two innocent women and the other is making our own ranch as safe and secure as possible. Both issues have a common denominator, One eyed Willy. He needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. If you play this scene out it has two outcomes. First one is One eyed Willy is taken care of and we all live in peace. The second is One eyed Willy tries to destroy our ranch and once that’s accomplished, he kills the women and the rest of the Double T hands being held there. We need a plan to make sure the first scenario is the outcome and not the second. I want to go over the ranches books and all as soon as possible and I know Bradford wants to meet with the hands before we have the breeding cattle shipped here. Before that time comes, we need to deal with the more urgent problems of One eye Willy and the Double T. You’ll have to forgive me if our cattle enterprise comes in second right now. Please, don’t get the idea we are not concerned about the cattle enterprise. It’s just that if One eye Willy has his way, there will be no ranch.”

The others around the table nodded their heads in understanding and agreement. The ranch’s foreman, Chet, spoke up. “We never had a doubt about your commitment to the operation here. You’ve been generous with the bank drafts and payroll. A man’s money speaks volumes here. For instance, most ranches get by with a cowboy who got himself stove up to be either the farrier or cook. Little experience needed and even less quality is expected. You boys sent out a real ranch cook and brought along an honest to God black smith. To us that’s a man spending his money to keep others happy an’ not just lookin after his own comfort. Whatever you decide with One eye Willy, we’ll back you with our loyalty and our guns.”

Bradford looked at Chet with approval. “Chet, you and the others built this place while my brother and I did the behind the scenes stuff while still back east in Kansas. We owe you a debt that needs rewarding. Just as soon as this problem is resolved, We’ll take a percentage of the new births and divide them up between you all. They’ll carry two brands on them, ours and the one each of you come up with. When they go to market or give birth, it belongs to you and so does the profit.”

“That’s a mighty fine thing you’re doing. I know the hands will be thankful.One thing I need to know though is which brother do I bring my concerns to?”

Raeford answered. “If it concerns any of the livestock or their physical concerns look to Bradford. When it’s a matter of finances or legal issues talk to me.”

“What if it comes to protecting this place or the herd with a gun?”

“Then you’ll come to whoever is closest at the time. On that issue, my brother Raeford and I speak with one voice. Do what you can at the moment and we’ll worry about the legal stuff afterward.”

That night brought gunshots from a group of riders galloping their way through the ranch. A few windows were hit and a pot setting on the cookstove got plugged. While some shots were fired at the bunkhouse, no bullet was able to penetrate the thick Ponderosa pine they were made from. A few return shots were heard but by the time everyone was up and about the attackers were long gone.

Running up to Raeford with a lit lamp, Bradford found his brother. “Dang it Raeford! We need to be better prepared. They caught us in the outhouse with our pants pulled down!”

“Well, one things for sure, I’m awake for the day so let me be while I think on this. I’ve read nearly every army tactical book of famous battles. I’m sure one or more of them has some ideas we can use to deal with the night riders. In the meantime we need to send out a scouting party to watch the Double T.    When One eye Willy comes out again, one of the scouts can be sent ahead of them to warn us back here of their approach.”

“Alright, I’ll get together with Chet, he knows the hands and who’s best qualified for what’s needed to be done.”

As the two walked the cleared area that split the ranch operations from the two houses in the dark, Raeford noted something. At the start of the cleared area, the horses left tracks that were close together, as the approached the ranch, the tracks got further apart. “Looks like they started out walking beside their horses then mounted and went to a gallop about here, just before the first building. Let’s go back and check the ground where they came in at.”

The brothers scoured the ground for any evidence left behind. “Look Bradford, they had their horses laying down near the brook over there among the pinion trees. I bet they crossed over the brook to this side in the last light and waited until dark to attack. That means they may have been on the other side during daylight and we never even saw them.”

Bradford agreed. “And here I sent a scouting party to watch a ranch that no one was going to leave from. They must’ve known we’d set up a watch on the Double T. Meanwhile, they were already here.”

“Bradford, One eye Willy was raised by Cheyenne, even though we may be at peace with them now, when One eye was young we were still fighting them. He’s using old Cheyenne Indian tactics. I read about some of them. They were brilliant tacticians. What we need to do is at first light, lets see the direction they left to. I bet they head straight to the Double T then slowly disappear. At that point that they turn and circle back to the brook where they’ll cross again tonight. They think our scouts watching the Double T will believe no one is out and about so no warning will come from them.”

“So should we pull our scouts back then?”

“No, that’ll warn them we’re wise to their plan. What we will do though is replace them with hands that can’t fight or shoot well. Since no night riders will be coming their way, they’ll be safe enough. Meanwhile we need to set up an ambush of sorts.”

As dawned cracked the horizon, the two brothers were seen riding out to follow the trail of prints left by the night riders.

“You lead Bradford, your wilderness skills are much keener than mine.”

Four miles out, the prints began to disappear, just as Raeford had predicted they would. Within a half mile no prints could be seen at all.

Bradford dismounted and bending over, searched the ground close up. “I wonder how they got the horses to leave no prints. There were no side trails and I got a good set of eyes for the trail.”

“I read they would stop one horse at a time and cover the hoofs with thick sackcloth or burlap. This would both make them quiet and leave no prints.”

“Which way do you suppose they headed off to once all the hooves were covered?”

Raeford scanned the area with a set of field glasses. No obvious trail was seen. “They keep a man riding behind them picking up the horse dung along the way. Look for Urine trails.”

The made a circle a quarter mile in diameter and found what they were looking for.

“Dang Raeford, you hit the nail on the head, look!” Bradford pointed to a damp area where no dampness should have been.

Looking forward, they could imagine the trail slowly circling back towards the ranch. This meant the night riders were possibly at or near the ranch hiding until night came.

Raeford headed back to his mare telling Bradford, “let’s head back quick, we need to make plans for tonight and I have an idea that might spoil their plan!”

The two reigned up at the bunk house and dismounted. A hand came out and Raeford asked him to take the horses back to the corral for hay and water. “Loosen the cinch but leave the saddles on, we’ll be needing to ride them in a bit.”

Trailing behind his smaller brother, Bradford asked “What’s the plan brother? You seem pretty confident.”

“Do you remember when we were kids and had that fort we built in the woods? Remember what we used to keep the other kids from getting to the fort when we played Calvary and Indians?”

“Hmmm, yeah, we laid honey locust spikes all over the place. Man did Dad pound our fanny over that one! Not a kid attacking us left without a thorn or two deep in his foot.” Looking around at the Pinion and box elder growing about he said, “Wyoming doesn’t grow honey locust trees and I don’t see anything that would give us those bunches of long thorns. What did you have in mind?”

“Caltrops brother, medieval caltrops made of fence wire!”

The two called for everyone to meet on the porch of the bunk house except for those already acting as lookout scouts hidden near the Double T.

“Alright everyone, gather around real close as my brother here has a plan so give him your ears!”

Once everyone one was huddled around close, Raeford quietly spoke to them.

“First off, here’s the situation. The night riders have been hiding out all the time over on the other side of the brook beyond the black smith shop. They make their raid then make a large circle and head on back to where the once again spend the next day hiding out. We have no reason to check that area since its opposite of the Double T and we’ve no cattle to graze there yet. Come last light, they make their way across the brook and lay low until the moon comes up. It’s then they attack.”

One of the hands interrupted asking, “So why don’t we cross over the brook and attack ‘em during the day while they sleep?”

“We could,” Bradford said, “But they’re sure to have lookouts to warn them of our approach. Right now you can be sure a few sets of eyes are watching us talk and it’s probably killing them that they can’t hear us because we’re talking so low. No, we’ll let them attack us but this time they’ll be faced with a weapon not seen around here before.”

Raeford stepped forward and in his hands he had two lengths of stiff wire a bit wider than the palm of his hand. “This…” Raeford twisted the wires together until they looked like a four legged spider with each leg pointing to a different axis plane. “… is a caltrop. They were used during ancient warfare against foot soldiers and Calvary. Each leg or spike is sharpened to a needle like point. No matter how it lands…” Raeford threw the caltrop onto the poch floor, “…it lands with a spike pointing upward.”

The group piled around the caltrop amazed at such a simple but wicked device. It was picked up and inspected, turned over and its points tested on fingers.

When the group was finished examining the caltrop Raeford said to them, “We have until dusk to make as many of these as we can. We’ll lay them out in the grass where they crossed the brook. Since they rode horseback to do their shooting, we’ll set caltrops across the roadway in front of the buildings. Just in case they feel the urge to dismount and create havoc on foot, we’ll also lay some about ten feet in front of each window and door of the houses and bunkhouse. Keep any animals in the corral until we gather up the caltrops in the morning light. Put the donkey in the barn with the fowl and small animals. If by chance they ever put fire to the barn or any of the other buildings, someone get over there and open the door so any people and animals inside can freely escape.”

The blacksmith came over with a wooden case filled with sharpened lengths of wire. “I cut it into five inch lengths with a point on each end. I figure there’s about four hundred or so in this box and I can cut and sharpen another thousand pretty quick.”

In front of everyone gathered on the porch, Raeford grabbed two wires with gloved hands and twisted them together. He made sure each point was pointing where he wanted it to. It took less than ten seconds to make.

“Here, everyone grab some wire and try your hand at it. Make sure each one is near identical to the one I just made. A good test is to drop it on the ground. If a point isn’t sticking straight up, it isn’t right. When you made a bunch fill up each burlap sack here with them”

Within a minute or two everyone was producing quality caltrops and the sacks began to fill up.

Chapter 4

As dusk began to settle across the Wyoming prairie, groups of men with burlap sacks filled with caltrops headed out to each of their destinations.

One by one they returned to the bunkhouse with their empty sacks.

By dark, everyone had returned. The barn was filled with small animals and a lamp was lit and hung from the rafters to see by. On the north side of the barn, the horses had been corralled and the gates chained shut.

The ranch hands that could fight either belted on their pistols or carried loaded rifles. Each was given a specific place to wait in ambush. All eyes continually scanned the dark sky for the rising moon. Finally it began to show. The men knew the attackers were now probably crossing the brook and silently gathering on this side of the bank. When all the night riders were across and mounted, they’d attack.

Even though the brothers knew almost to the minute when the attack would commence, the night rider’s yells and gunshots still startled them.

It didn’t take long for the night rider’s first horse to step painfully on a caltrop. Rearing in pain, the rider was thrown backward onto the ground. Unfortunately for him, he landed on two caltrops lying hidden in the tall grass.  One after another, horses were prancing painfully about and riders being thrown. Some landed safely but in the process of running began stepping on one or more of the painful contraptions.

From the house, Bradford ran out into the moonlight searching for One eye Willy with Raeford trailing close behind. Guns in hand, the brothers were determined to settle this war in one night.  Some of the riders had now made it past the caltrop laden start of the trail and began firing their guns into the windows and doors alongside the ranch road. The brothers began firing back at the riders. A few fell while the rest dismounted and ran towards the buildings seeking cover.

By the light of the moon, the two brothers realized they had seriously underestimated the amount of night riders when a group of at least thirty renegade Cheyenne suddenly rounded the corner. Appearing from between the barn and one of the outbuildings they charged headlong at the two brothers. The Cheyenne made it as far as the end of the barn before their unshod horses found the caltrops hidden in the uncut grass. Screaming horses and their surprised riders halted in their tracks. Some finding more caltrops as the dismounted while a few made it back to the safety of the barren barn yard.

Three of the ranch hands laying in wait within the hay barn now threw open the door and with rifles and pistols began firing into the group of Cheyenne in the barnyard. One Brave was seen trying to run into the open with caltrops stuck to the bottom his feet. He fell forward and when he lifted his head a caltrop was stuck to his forehead. A well placed bullet from one of the cowboys ended his agony.

Caltrops of this size were not normally deadly but the night riders found they were debilitating. It felt no different than stepping full weight onto a sharp nail. Except in this case it wasn’t just the feet that suffered.

Some of the Indians and Double T night riders lay unmoving in the grass. The fear of stepping onto more of the wicked things froze them in place. Most began to throw their guns away and gave up.

Bradford suddenly felt a searing pain cross his shoulder blade. Turning he saw One eye Willy cocking the lever of his rifle to take another shot at him. As One eye Willy raised the rifle, his only eye suddenly became a black hole. Bradford looked to his right and saw Raeford aiming his pistol at One eye Willy and was pulling the trigger over and over. With rapid burst of flame pouring from Raeford’s barrel, One eye Willy’s head began to lose its round shape.

By the time Raeford had unloaded his gun into his target, One eye Willy was sitting headless on the horse. Slowly One eye Willy slid sideways onto the ground. To add salt to his wounds when he hit the ground, three more caltrops found and punctured his body.

A lone Indian had found his way into the barn and safety through an unlocked man door. Once inside he ran the length of the interior intent on escaping through the rear door. Beatrice the donkey took umbrage at the stranger’s intrusion into her domain.

Outside the barn, Raeford was reloading his pistol when he heard a loud braying from the donkey within the barn.  Afraid that someone had gotten inside in an attempt to burn it down, he quickly ran inside through the open door. He needn’t have hurried.

One look at the gory scene in the dim lamp light was enough for Raeford. Kicked beyond recognition, the Indian was still being trampled on by the upset donkey.

With nothing more he could do, Raeford exited the barn and closed the door behind him.

By now the gunfire had died down as the ranch had clearly won the fight. Bradford had gathered a group of hands and were busy rounding up the attackers. The majority of the night riders needed help in yanking off the bloody caltrops. Only six Cheyenne had survived the ambush. Out of the forty eight attackers only seventeen of them had survived.

The brothers met again in front of the barn. It had been a short but bloody battle but an awfully long day and everyone was exhausted.

“You’re bleeding Brad, you’ll be needing a doctor to look at the back wound. I wonder where the nearest town that has a Doc is at?”

“I’m thinking there’s one in Laramie”

“Laramie? That a few days ride on a good horse. Why would you travel all that way when there’s gotta be one closer?”

“Besides getting patched up, I got personal things to take care of.”

“Huh? As your brother and partner, don’t I deserve to know what in Sam Hill is so all fired important in Laramie that you’d risk infection or worse traveling there?”

“OK brother. Her name is Amy and you better get used to hearing her name because I plan on asking her to marry me.”

“Holy Cow! Is that what you were talking about when you came from the mercantile?”

“It is. Her father owns the place. He even gave me a bit of advice to impress her. I’m thinking he liked me and I know she did!”

Raeford toed the dirt under his boot, smiled and said. “I hope it works out for you. You’re a good brother but I think you’d make an even finer husband. Besides, I think you need a girl to keep you from wandering off all the time.”

The next morning Bradford and three hands had bound the surviving night riders to their saddles and were headed off to Laramie. The U.S.Marshal there would have to deal with the pack of no goods.

After some of the other hands gathered up the rider less horses, they divided them from personal owned  to branded Double T owned. The personally owned ones were used to take the survivors to Laramie. They would return with the three hands while Bradford stayed behind to tend to personal things.

Raeford called the rest of the hands together and gave them their orders. “I want these other horses and three riders to come with me to the Double T. They got the Double T brand on them and my bet is the Widow Wiley and her daughter could use them. In the meantime, everyone else gather up all the caltrops that still lay around. We made eleven hundred so don’t stop looking until you got all of them accounted for. After that get the place ready for a train load of beeves to arrive. I picked up a telegram back in Laramie saying the delivery date to Cheyenne is set for the 4th, that’s two weeks from tomorrow. All hands will be needed to drive the herd from there to here. Foreman Chet has already figured each of your positions for the drive. The ranch cook is going along with you. I’m staying back to watch things here and my brother won’t be riding back with you unless he feels fit enough.”

“Mister Raeford Sir?” It was the blacksmith who spoke up. “Seeing as we’ll be needing a bunch of irons made up for the branding, I was wondering if you had settled on a brand yet?”

“Well, to be truthful my brother and I went round and round on this one but after last night I think even he’d approve of this one.” Raeford took a stick and in the dirt drew a caltrop.

“Yes Sir! I think your brother would agree to that! I’ll get started right away”

Chapter 5

   The Double T ranch was breath taking in beauty. Set against the backdrop of the Medicine Bow Mountains Raeford could see why the original Cheyenne called this area home.

He had the hands drive the horses into one of the Double T’s large corrals. He continued on horseback to the house. As he dismounted, the door opened and a handsome women in her early fifties stepped forward. She glanced at the corral then back at Raeford.

“Those horses have my brand. My foreman rode off a week ago on them along with the group of no goods he hired. Please tell me he’s dead.”

“Him and most of those that rode with him. They have been night riding my ranch. We ambushed them last night. Those that lived are being hauled off to the U. S. Marshal in Laramie.”

The screened door opened once again and the young blond haired daughter stepped out. Though she looked drained from the recent events, her beauty still shined through. The older woman dropped her head and Raeford watched as her shoulders began to shake. The younger woman put her arms around her mother and the weeping woman drew her daughter to her.

Raeford felt awkward just standing there as the two wept. Finally he spoke to both the women. “Ma’am, Miss? My brother Bradford and I are the owners of the new ranch on your north side. He was shot last night and went to Laramie to get patched up.”

“Will he be alright?” The woman asked.

“ I’m sure he’ll be fine, thank you for asking.” Thinking of the girl Amy waiting for his brother, Raeford knew he would be.

“We heard of the trouble you were having with One eye Willy and his group from our Attorney back in Cheyenne on the way out here. He told us One eye Willy killed your husband and drove off or worse, most all your hands. I know you and your daughter are suffering badly and it’ll take a good spell of time to find replacement hands to run the place.”

Angel Wiley nodded her head, “If we can’t get a handle back on the place, we’ll have to sell it. I got only two men left now. One is our cook and the other is so stove up I keep him on just because he and my husband grew up together. My husband ran the place with a tight fist. Why I only found the books two days ago. I’m not a business person Sir, I was a wife and we raised our daughter Becky here as a girl, not a cow hand.”

Raeford turned around and let his eyes drift over the Double T’s holdings. It would be a crime to have built this from scratch only to lose it because of the personal ideology of one man. He could still obtain what he set out to do even from the grave…unless someone stepped up.

“Ma’am. We fought and beat One eye Willy but before he died he set into motion your demise even if he were to die. Since One eye Willy made sure to cripple your operation and you don’t have the manpower or time to get this place up and running again before winter sets in, I have a proposition for you and your daughter.”

“What kind of proposition? Are you going to tell me you’ll buy us out ‘real fair like’ Mister…?”

“Cobbler Ma’am, our last name is Cobbler. I’m Raeford Cobbler and no Ma’am I have no desire to buy you out and see you lose your ranch. There’s plenty of hungry beef eating souls in this country and sometimes by joining forces at times it can enhance both our operations. I propose that just as soon as our cattle arrive and the branding is finished, I send a group of our hands over this way to get your place up and running again. You won’t last half a winter without moving your cattle to winter pasture and when  birthing is over then the castrating begins. As you know, you’ll need a lot of hand to survive. During that time I’ll have a notice sent out in the newspapers saying you’re in need of ranch hands. As for your books, I’m willing to teach your daughter Becky everything she’ll need to know about accounting.”

“What’s in it for you Mister Cobbler? You make it sound so promising.”

“By securing your friendship and trust, I don’t have to worry about rustlers coming from this side of my land, do I? That means less time spent riding my property borders and yours. You have the Medicine Bow Mountains at your back. If there was to be any future rustling, it’d be from those mountain passes that they’d come. We’ll set up a signal system in case of trouble. By working together we can split some of the liabilities and double the assets. What do you say to the idea Mrs Wiley.”

“My God. You truly are an angel in denim Mister Cobbler. I’d be a fool to turn down such an offer. But tell me. Why wouldn’t you have just waited until I folded my cards and left here. You could have had all this for pennies on the dollar.”

“My father is one third owner of our ranch. We were brought up knowing right from wrong. If he were to find out I acted in such a manner, no matter how old I may be, I’d find myself bent over his knee receiving the thrashing of my life.” Then with a guilty smile he added. “That and I’d like to stay in your good graces Ma’am.”

“And why are my good graces so important to you?”

“Well,’ Raeford stood shuffling his feet. “because if you and she permit, I’d like to see your daughter without the excuse of teaching her the books.”

The widow put her hand over her mouth and began laughing. “Good Lord, you remind me of my husband!”

“Then I’ll take that as a compliment!”

With that he tipped his hat to her. Turning back to his horse Raeford stopped mid step turned back and winked at Becky. She returned it with a brilliant smile that set his heart racing.

 

When the Spirit Grandfathers spoke.

Chapter 1 

Prancing Doe raised her blood stained face to the sky and howled in anguish. Her husband, Coughing Bear, lay scalped and dead at her feet. Her infant female child bounced violently within the basket being carried away by a warrior of a renegade band. As the warrior rode off with the screaming infant, on his side hung the fresh scalp of the child’s father.

Sinking to her knees, Prancing Doe knelt next to her dead warrior husband. Paying no attention to the open gash on her head, she began hoarsely chanting his death song in order to find his way safely to the hunting grounds where the Grandfathers waited for his arrival. When finished, Prancing Doe pulled out one of the sharp flint tipped arrows still protruding from his back and dug the arrows tip deep along the length of her arms to slice open the arteries inside until she lost consciousness.

In the brightness of the hunting grounds, Prancing Doe knelt beside Coughing Bear as he stood tall and spoke. In wonderment, she saw that all of the tribes Grandfathers were present. Many she only knew by songs and legends, others she had loved and cared for in life.

After addressing the Grandfathers in greeting, Coughing Bear honored them by singing each their own song as was taught to him as a child. It may have taken days but no one cared since the sun never set in the hunting grounds of the afterlife. When finished, the pipe was passed. The Grandfathers approved and the Great Spirit breathed his pleasure over the gathering which caused a stirring of their unbraided hair. A Grandfather rose and Coughing Bear was given by him a fine strong ash bow and a quiver full of straight arrows. Another gave him a sharp knife. In appreciation, Coughing Bear held a tightly wrapped bundle of sweet grass out to each Grandfather. He then stood, left Prancing Doe behind and joined the Grandfathers to his rightful place in the hunting grounds.

As one, each Grandfather turned their respectful gaze to Prancing Doe. The grandfather that had presented her husband the bow and quiver, sang to her a song of honor. Prancing Doe was humbled. When she felt brave enough, she looked up and he spoke to her.

“Prancing Doe. You have swept the leaves from the trail so that Coughing Bear would not lose his way here to the hunting grounds. You sang until his feet stood upon the holy ground. He was not waylaid by the trickster on his journey because of you. You honored him afterward by sending your own spirit to him as a guide and helpmeet. We are pleased. We give you honor and gifts.

The aged Grandfather held out his hand and in it hung a necklace of strong medicine charms. Some were of carved beaver teeth others knapped flint or precious blue stone. Prancing Doe was afraid to touch such powerful medicine. “Take this, wear it.” He told her, “By touching each in their own order, the honor of what you have done for Coughing Bear will be transformed into the power the Great Spirit has blessed you with. The power to heal, the power of seeing in the dark, the power of smell and the power to look down upon your enemy as does the Eagle in flight.”

He placed the necklace over Prancing Does head. The power of it was so great Prancing Doe feared it would consume her and said so.

Seeing her eyes flash in fear the aged Grandfather reassured her, “It is because you are humble that you fear its power, that is good.”

“ Grandfather, I understand and am honored beyond my own might. Still, I am confused. Why would I need such power here? Is this not a place of peace where death visits us no more and where no sickness abides? “

“To those like your Coughing Bear and those true warriors that have come before him, yes, that is true. Every Grandfather from every tribe is here. There is room for all. The Great Spirit flies above us all and as one people we give him honor. In return he blesses us with no hunger or death. Those who were evil, liars and boastful in their own mind are not here with us. They are sitting on their hemorrhoids brushing away gnats and spiders and serving Iktomi the trickster in the land of the dead.”

When you arrived, we were of like mind that you should be called a new name. Prancing Doe is a child’s name, a name of innocence and naivety. It is a name with little power to go before the people of the plains, the mountains and the forest. No, to do what needs to be accomplished you must have a powerful name. You are now called Ina Hoka. Even a warrior of great courage turns from a mother badger. Nothing pursues as the badger and nothing has more determination to protect her young than a mother!”

Ina Hoka blinked. “ Gandfathers, Nothing has such power as the Ina Hoka, all fear her. Why do you bestow me with such power?”

“There is one who does us no honor. He is the one who hid during the attack upon you and your family. He hid from harm behind his horse until Coughing Bears back was to him. Only then did he step forward pretending to be brave. He killed from behind as Coughing Bear struggled face to face with another brave warrior. He shamed us all with his cowardice. By taking Coughing Bears scalp he shamed us even further. Many Grandfathers shouted displeasure and demanded his tribe be banished until Maka Cesli pays for his dishonor. You are to return to the living people and claim your female child. You are to return to save the tribe Maka Cesli was birthed from forever being dishonored. And lastly, you are to return to receive the precious gift we have asked the Great Spirit to bless you with.”

“Grandfathers, I will do as you ask. As for further gifts, I am blessed far too much already. But I must ask you this,  is his name truly Maka Cesli? Skunk Feces? If I am to find him, tell me the name he is known to his people by, for I do not want to mistake another for him.”

‘You are wise Ina Hoka. Though we have vowed never to utter that name again, we will this one time say it, then never again will it be uttered here in the hunting ground. Ohinni Lowacin, I am always full of hunger, is a name no people shall ever use again. His name will be forever Maka Cesli. Even the Trickster will despise him.

Now Ina Hoka, Listen to me with all your might!

When you return to the living land, your eyes will be opened and our talk here will remain strong within your memory. Return and find your child. Now go with our blessing.”

Ina Hoka lifted her eyes beyond the grandfathers to gaze once again at the endless grassy plains and purple mountains of the hunting grounds. She had never seen such beauty before. She would miss the affection of the Grandfathers but knew someday they would smile again upon her final return.

Stepping up to a bundle of smoldering sweet grass she wafted the aromatic smoke over her head then fanned it towards the assembled Grandfathers. Once blessed with the sweet smoke, she touched each Grandfathers hand lightly in reverence. She turned and glanced about in search of Coughing Bear. He stood proudly smiling at her with raised palm. She returned his farewell wave and suddenly screamed in pain.

Chapter 2

“Hold on Ma’am, please lay still or you’ll bust open the dressings I put on your arms. I know they must hurt a load but for your own good, please lie still.”

Ina Hoka woke up screaming from the pain in her lacerated arms. She lay on a makeshift outdoor bed of soft grass and covering her was a stiff cloth of some sort. Turning her head she saw she was still in the same killing field as before. Looking frantically about, she noticed fresh graves had been dug and her husband’s body was no longer lying next to her. True to what the Grandfather had told her, she recalled in perfect clarity her visit to the hunting grounds and all that had been spoken.

Speaking in her own tongue to the man squatting beside her, she asked where her husband’s body was.

“I’m sorry Ma’am, I don’t speak Indian very well, just some trading phrases and such. I found you lying here almost dead. You’ve lost a lot of blood but I got the best of the bleeding most ways stopped now. ”

When she had turned her head, something shifted slightly on her chest, slowly moving her hand to her throat she discovered the strange feeling was the necklace. As if she had spent a lifetime doing so she skillfully fondled the healing beads and chanted. Within a few breaths time, her eyes cleared and her contorted face relaxed as the agony of the pain began to subside. When the pain became manageable, she asked the young man who was attending to her wounds about her husband.

“My husband?” She asked in English, “Did you bury him?”

Jerking backwards her rescuer jumped back in surprise, “Wha?? I’m sorry, you gave me a start Ma’am that’s all. I did not think you spoke any English”

“Yes, I do. My husband, is he buried?”

“If the young warrior that got himself kilt near you was your husband then yes, I gave him a Christian burial along with them old folks too. I heard you Indians bury a person facing East so I did that for them. Ma’am, to tell you the truth, at first I thought you was dead too.”

“I was about to move you over to that there grave I dug when I noticed you were still breathing. After I patched you up, you woke up and started screaming bloody murder. I’m tellin’ you Ma’am, you sure got a powerful set of lungs!”

Ina Hoka understood most of what the man said except for the odd reference to her lungs. She understood her husband was buried with honor and this man had been used by the Grandfathers to also save her life. She made a mental note to ask the Great Spirit to repay his kindness by blessing him when she was up to it.

“I’m putting up a tent over you so don’t get frightened, alright Ma’am? You won’t be moving for a while yet and I wanted to make sure you’re out of the weather if it begins to rain. By the way Ma’am I go by the name  Thomas, Thomas Payne… like the famous Thomas Payne…only I’m not him. ”

“Why do you stop to help me?” She asked.

“Shucks Ma’am, what did you think I’d do? Leave you here all alone to die?”

“Are you a medicine man To-mas that you knew to care for my wounds?”

“No, I’m no Doctor Ma’am. When I was a boy, my Daddy showed me a trick to closin’ up cuts when I was a kid. See that big ant hill over yonder? What you do is rustle up them folks till the big fighters come pouring out of the hive. Then you grab onto one behind the head. If you take the two sides of the wound and squeeze ‘em together and you place the ant just so, the ant will use his pinchers to bite you. All ya’ do then let him pinch the two sides of the wound tightly together with his bite. Once he’s forced the two sides together you pinch off its body and the head stays there keepin’ the wound closed and you end up with a fine stitch. I poured some whiskey on your wounds and the gash on your head to keep you from getting’ a fever from infection. It took a couple hundred ants to sew up your arms but I think it’ll heal fine like. I’m sorry but I don’t have any willow bark to ease your pain.”

Ina Hoka smiled up at him saying, “I have my own means of making my pain leave me.” She placed her hand over her necklace and told him, ”My name is Ina Hoka, I must avenge my husband and find my daughter that was taken by Maka Cesli.”

“I’m not sure who this Maky Selsa fella is but it’ll be a bit a time a’fore you can go chasin’ after him. I’m thinkin’ that if you can tell me where your tribe is, it’d probably be best if I could get you over to them as soon as possible. I’m thinkin’ they might go on out after that Maky Selsee fellow for ya’.”

“The Grandfathers named him Maka Cesli not Makee Selsee, it means skunk dung! His people still call him Ohinni Lowacin.  He is from a tribe that we have struggled with for many winters now. We have fought them over the right to hunt buffalo on the land. At one time there were many buffalo and we all lived in peace.”

“When the buffalo became few, the young warriors of his tribe would not listen to the elders and made trouble. Since that time, war between us has become more and more. Maka Cesli leads a band of young warriors wanting to make big their name to shame their elders into making the big war with my tribe. They have attacked women and children left alone in their lodges while the men went off hunting. I am saddened for my husband’s parents. All they wanted was to see the buffalo one last time before death from old age claimed them. My husband showed them great love and honor in bringing them here to fulfill their desire. Now they are all dead. When I can stand on my own, I will go find Maka Cesli’s camp and take back my daughter. I am a mother badger. I will chase him until he has no strength left and his legs fail him. Before I kill him I will cut off his man stick and send him to the Trickster choking on it!”

Thomas sat fully down in the long grass and looked at the young Indian girl lying there with bandaged head and arms. “I just bet you will too!”

 

Chapter 3

   The summer days passed quietly on the plains. Ina Hoka grew in strength and Thomas tried his best to learn her tongue. He thought at the least, it would come in handy living in the western plains where tribes still wandered freely about. But if the truth be told he began to find Ina Hoka a fascinating woman and discovered she was pleased at his attempts to speak the tongue of the Sioux. Her smile was a reward he looked forward to. He had seen few women as beautiful. Thomas spent part of the day away from Ina Hoka gathering dried buffalo chips to feed the camp fire and spent time gathering wild plants and any meat he could find. As her wounds healed, Ina was able to take on more and more camp chores. The day eventually came though that she had to tell Thomas he was a terrible cook. She shoo’d him away from the gathered supplies and turned a once bland meal into a delicious stew. From that moment on, each began to take unto themselves the chores expected of a man and a woman.

One evening as they sat next to each other eating, Ina looked over at the man who had so unselfishly cared for her. She was troubled in her heart. She had the task asked by the Grandfathers to find Maka Cesli and her daughter but found she did not want to leave the company of Thomas.  “To-mas, I am near the time I must go and find my daughter and kill Maka Cesli.” She then told him of her near death and all that had occurred during that time she was in the hunting grounds.

“How in heavens name will you, a lone woman, be able to accomplish all this? Don’t get me wrong Ina, I know you got the sand to do it but we don’t even know where they’s at.”

Ina Hoka lifted her necklace to him, “The grandfathers gave me this gift. It has powerful charms.” It comes not from this land but from the hunting grounds. It gives me the power to heal, to see into the night, to smell beyond that of the bear and to see as the flying eagle sees in flight.”

“If it heals, why did you not use it to heal your own wounds?”

“The power to heal is not for me but for someone else. When I lay there in pain, I asked the Grandfathers to heal my wounds but they told me it was not meant for me but because I asked, they would at least grant my pain to subside. That much I know. Who it is meant to heal, I do not know. Maybe it is for another time, not now.”

“Have you tried the other charms?”

“Yes, each time you leave to hunt or gather I follow you as the Eagle because I worry on your safety. Before we sleep, I search the night prairie as the Owl.” Then with a giggle she said, “Once I used the smelling charm to smell the distant mountain flowers.”

“You say that giggling, why?”

“To-mas, forgive me but your cooking smelled so bad that if I had not had the smell of the wildflower to revive me, I would have fainted!”

Saying that, the two of them broke into a howling laughter. “Good Lord Ina, it did have kind of a skunky smell to it now that I think back! It musta’ been them weed lookin’ things I added to the meal”

The evening sky darkened as they sat enjoying each other’s company and soon the only light was cast from the glowing campfire. Seeing Thomas’s handsome face framed in the glowing light, Ina could no longer keep her thoughts from becoming words.

“To-mas,” She said quietly, “I do not want to part from you. My heart is torn, it lays on the ground. My husband enjoys the hunting grounds as an honored warrior now. He will have no need or desire for a wife anymore. I have asked the Grandfathers of this. They told me so. I am happy for him yet I am feel shame that I desire to feel as a woman feels for a man so soon after his parting. Though we come from different peoples, I have come to respect you. More than that even. I want you to share my blanket.”

Thomas scooted himself closer to her and placed his arms over her shoulder.  She leaned into him.

“Ina, all this time I’ve been trying my darndest to get you to notice me as more than just a ramblin’cowboy that wandered into your life. I was sure you would never look at me as a suitor. To tell you the truth, as much as I was happy being around you it made me sad at the same time. In your tribe, can a man like me marry you?”

“I have a secret to tell you To-mas. We have spent almost a full moon together alone on the prairie. Even though we have not slept under the same blanket, my people would assume we did. If we arrived not as husband and wife they would think of me as one who jumps from blanket to blanket. You call this woman a whore. To prevent this, I had planned to leave you here as I went in search of Maka Cesli and my daughter. When I returned to my tribe with her, no one would have known about you. But my heart cried out that it wanted you. I could not gather the courage to leave you.”

“So if we showed up at your village, they’d naturally assume you and I are married. But if we act like we wasn’t married, they’d look upon you as a whore and treat you as a outcast?”

Yes.”

Thomas stood up and knelt before Ina Hoka. Taking her hand in his he spoke to her. “Ina, I know we got some big differences between us. I’ve always figured a woman would come my way someday but not until I saw the world an’ made my fortune.”

“I ain’t no good at this Ina so I’ll just come clean with it. I have fallen head over heels in love with you and I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever laid eyes on. I know you said folks would just assume we was married but I’m askin’ you if you’d make it real. Will you marry me? I know there ain’t no one around to say we are but isn’t there something in your tribal way that we don’t need a preacher or judge to be married?”

“By lying together, the Grandfather will know. In their eyes they will see our love and accept our union.”

That night, under a moonlit night under a blanket within the confines of the canvas tent, Ina Hoka became Thomas’s woman and wife. He became the husband to Mother Badger who still had a dangerous task before her. In her dream Ina Hoka spoke to the Grandfather concerning her marriage. “It was not good that you should be alone in life. When we sat face to face last moon, I had told you of one more gift we honored you with. It was the gift of being loved.  Thomas is our gift to you. He is a good man, brave and protective. He has a large heart that now beats for you. Go now, seek your child and destroy Maka Cesli.  Your husband Thomas will be at your side.”

Morning found their camp broken and far off in the distance a man could be seen walking next to a woman who was riding horseback. Together they headed westward where the spirit of a flying Eagle had spotted the band of Maka Cesli many days ahead of them.

Chapter 4

Two weeks later, under a dark evening sky that found the couple within a few miles of where Maka Cesli’s band was camped, Ina spoke to Thomas.  “Listen to me my husband. I have powers that you do not have. I am afraid for you. I will soar once again as an eagle in the night. With my Owl vision I will see all that I need to know. I will descend within the camp and kill Maka Cesli. Then after I have humiliated him, with my talons I will grab up my daughter and return here to you. I must warn you. If they have given honor to the Unkcegila, then the Unkcegila will try to stop me. They are evil spirits that roam the land and hate those that are good. As an Eagle I can fly safely above them but you will be as a mouse to a hawk. I must chant a song of protection over you. Be still and say nothing. Whatever you see, do not let it frighten you. I am singing a song of the giant warrior. He will ride across the sky mocking the Unkcegila and daring them to attack him. They will spit and scream at him as he passes above them. The Giant Warrior will keep the eyes of the Unkcegila upon him and away from you. When I return, the Giant Warrior will become as a mountain and crush the Unkcegila under his weight. He will sit upon them until we are safe and far away.”

Thomas tipped his hat in a sign of affirmation. “I ain’t even gonna’ question any of what you’re tellin’ me Ina. I sure ain’t never heard of such things but it sure ain’t my place to say it can’t be so. Go ahead, sing your song sweetheart, I’ll try not to foul my drawers at what I see goin’ on.”

Ina Hoka told Thomas to sit. Standing over him she began her chant. Thomas was afraid her raised voice would alert someone in Maka Cesli’s band yet after a few minutes he could see no unusual movement by the bands campfire light.

As he watched the firelight miles away, his vision began to play tricks on him. The far away campfire began to waiver. It seemed to move first to the right then to the left. Sometimes it seemed close and other times very far away. Voices could be heard but he could have sworn he did not hear them with his ears. His body took on the weight of stubborn mule causing his arms to dangle uselessly at his side. Across the sky swept a faint blue light as if dawn was about to break. From out of the light in the sky a mountain appeared. As the mountain traveled from east to west it took on the shape of a warrior upon a white horse. The warrior held his coup stick high and screamed insults at an unseen enemy. It was then that he realized he could no longer see Ina Hoka yet her singing was as loud as a nearby drum.

Thomas was about to speak when he remembered her instruction to remain quiet. He realized that if he made even the slightest noise, then whatever evil spirit that was creeping in the prairie grass would hear and attack him. He knew no bullet could protect him from the Unkcegila but that was the duty of the Giant Warrior.

Thomas could now see confusion in the camp. Warriors ran back and forth. With demonic howls the Unkcegila clawed the prairie sky trying to disembowel the Giant Warrior’s horse riding above them. The Giant Warrior laughed and threw insults and humiliation upon the spirits as he rode just out of reach above and past them. The evil land spirits howled and jumped trying to gain enough height to destroy the horse he rode on. Even the horse whinnied back in laughter.

“Aaiiieeeee!” A long horrible scream came from the encampment. It was shameful for a warrior to scream from pain but then Maka Cesli was no warrior. The Giant Warrior paused and pointed his coup stick toward the camp. He threw back his head and laughed. Thomas felt the laughter strike him as close thunder would during a prairie storm. His chest reverberated from it and his head ached from the pressure. Realizing the mountain sized warrior was positioned above the half driven mad Unkcegila demons , he watched as the Giant Warrior settled himself down on top and crushing them.

The pain in Thomas’s head became almost too intense not to shout out. A giant eagle carrying a child in its talons flapped it’s powerful  wings and settled behind him. Just when he felt he could stand it no more, he felt a pair of loving arms wrap themself around him from behind in a hug. Ina Hoka’s calming voice spoke softly into his ear.

“My husband, rise, we must be off. The light of dawn will soon be upon us and we must leave while the Giant Warrior holds down the spirits of the land while it is yet dark. All has been accomplished tonight.”

To Thomas, he felt as if he had suddenly awakened from a dream. No longer could he see the Giant Warrior or the gasping Unkcegila. Wailing sadness could be heard from the camp but no warriors mounted to seek revenge for the humiliating slaughter of their leader.

Holding the child out to Thomas his wife spoke to him, “Rise,  and see our daughter, is she not beautiful?”

Thomas rose and cradled the tiny girl in his arms. “She’s beautiful all right, she looks just like her Mama.”

   The subject of the child’s upbringing and what path she would follow had never been discussed between them. Realizing it must be settled before they entered her tribe’s encampment Ina Hoka asked Thomas who’s culture would they all belong to.

“Well,” Thomas thoughtfully replied, “It seems I’m a bit outnumbered two to one. Ina, I would want what makes you and our daughter happiest. I was always a bit of a drifter after I left home. I would like to plant my roots next to yours if that’s alright with you. Besides, if we lived in a city of white men and I began telling folks all I’ve seen here tonight, they’d lock me up as bein’ crazy. I think it best for all of us if we put our roots down inside a teepee lodge with your people rather than a square house made of wood and stone among strangers.”

“Yes, that makes me happy. I will yet have much explaining to my tribe of all that has happened since my leaving the village. While they will be of sad heart to hear of my husband and his parents deaths, they will sing songs of happiness for our marriage and the return of my child.”

As the three made their way eastward Thomas asked, “Ina, I need to ask you something. Is there some reason why our baby has no name?”

“In our band, a child’s name is given to her by her father. She is yours to name. If you look upon the child your heart will be open to her name. Sometimes if it is an important name the Grandfathers will give you hints other times your Totem will speak to you.”

“I’ve actually just been thinkin’ on that. I would like to give her the name your mother was called. I want to give your Ma some sort of honor seein’ as how she raised such a wonderful daughter herself. What was her name?”

Ina Hoka walked closely beside her husband Thomas as he continued to cradle the child in his arms. “How honored am I?” she thought. “All the gifts that the Grandfathers have given to me and now my husband honors not only me but my own mother. I am complete.”

“Her name is Kimo. It means to be brimming with hope.”

Thomas stopped and lifted the now giggling child to the predawn sky. “Daughter, today you are called Kimo!”

As he handed the baby girl now named brimming with hope back to Ina, a golden shaft of morning sunlight split the dawns clouds. The narrow shaft struck the three where they stood.

Ina Hoka looked up at her husband and smiled widely. She held Kimo closely to her breast and spoke to her husband.

“To-mas, the Grandfathers are pleased you remembered my mother and gave honor to her. Stand quiet as they bless our family with the morning sunlight.”

Thomas looked up into the dawns parting clouds and swore they took the form of an old Indian proudly smiling down upon them. As the clouds continued to be blown clear by the morning breeze, the prairie lit up in the splendor of the sun.

“I love you Ina Hoka, Mother Badger.”

Ina chuckled and wrapped her free arm around his waist, “I love you to To-mas, and like the Badger, you will never escape my love.”

“Why would I ever want to leave you? You’re the best cook I ever met!”

Laughing she squeezed his waist. “So it is true then what the old women of the lodges say of their men? That all a wife is good for is cooking and keeping the Tee Pee clean?”

Chuckling he squeezed her back and replied, “That and uh, you know…”

She quickly tiptoed and kissed him and said smiling back naughtily, “Oh yes, we shall never forget that, will we?”

“Not in my life time we won’t!”

As their laughter drifted over the dew wet prairie, the grandfathers in the sky above looked at each other and smiled. The Grandfather that had blessed them spoke aloud. “Huh, he reminds me of when I myself was young.”

In the distance an elderly female chuckled and was heard to exclaim, “In your dreams my husband, only in your dreams!”

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.

A storm of bad luck

Chapter 1  

Greenhorn rancher Joe Tarboosh was born with bad luck. Even his last name on his birth certificate was misspelled. His parents, both born in Wales, immigrated to America in 1853. She was pregnant when they left the old country and gave birth to Joseph minutes after the boat bumped the dock in New York harbor. The parents considered this a sign of good luck. It wasn’t.

The first sign of impending foul fortune was shortly after the very inebriated doctor filled out Joe’s live birth certificate. Not only had the Italian Doctor misspelled his parents name Tarbush as Tarboosh (he couldn’t figure out the spelling of Tarbush and after three tries, crossed out the attempts and spelled it as he thought it should sound…with an Italian accent). He also dated Joe’s birth a hundred years too early. Date of birth, October 29th in the year of our Lord 1753. At least he had the month and day correct.

So poor Joe at the young age of one, was given the honor of being a living centurion in the New York news papers in the Society section, until of course they finally got around to doing a bit more research and discovered Joe’s parents and even grandparents, were younger than he was!

Living in the bustling city of New York, age meant everything. He was told at a hundred and five that he was too old to attend school with the other children and was told at 116 not to bother applying for the Naval Service as again, he was deemed too old. In fact, he was asked if he had grown up with the likes of George Washington and Paul Revere.

He could have lived a fairly decent life if age were the only factor in his having bad luck but it wasn’t. Joe’s life mirrored the statement, “A dollar short and a minute too late.”

Meanwhile, his parents prospered and like many immigrants, worked hard and accumulated a pretty good amount of wealth. To keep things simple, Joe would give his money he had earned from working odd jobs to his father each week and in return he and his father would both go to the bank together and deposit Joe’s pay into his Fathers account. After all, the family figured that being the only son, if anything would happen to them Joe would inherit it all anyway.

At the age of twenty (or 120 depending on how you want to look at it), Joe discovered that banking under his father’s account may not have been the wisest of choices.

It was in early January. The day started out with blustery freezing weather that by noon had added a major ice storm to its retinue. Sleet, slush and now the wind was blowing ice crystals around like a blind knife thrower in a cheap circus. Joe, his mother and father for some unknown reason, bundled themselves up and ventured outdoors.

Keeping their heads down and only looking up when necessary, the three blazed a path through the deepening slush and snow on the unshoveled walkways. When it finally became too deep to step without effort, they took to the street. Staring at his feet as he trudged through the miserable weather, it was then that Joe realized that he no longer heard his parents grunting and complaining behind him as they made their way forward in the storm. Turning around he soon realized why.

Both parents lay flat as pancakes in the streets center lane where the trolley car tracks ran. Thankfully for the mourners, it was a closed coffin affair.

Upon their demise, Joe discovered too that his parents had never filed a Will. When the case finally wound its way through the Probate Court system, the Court determined that Joe was not a relative as he not only had a different last name but was in fact far too old to be their son.

He was arrested for inheritance fraud and spent thirty five days in jail. Thirty for the attempted fraud and five for misconduct while in a Courtroom. The misconduct occurred when Joe stood up, screamed and rent his clothing from head to toe in frustrated anguish. It may have been understood or even forgiven except that in rending his clothes, he had forgotten he had worn no undergarments that day. Women fainted at the sight and men shouted in an angry uproar.

The judge on the other hand had a look on his face that mimicked that of a dog staring at a meaty bone.

I will go no further in this narration except to say Joe served his time quietly and when released, immediately stopped at the bank with a forged note ‘written’ by his father. Smiling and asking how her day was going, he handed the forged note to a familiar teller. The note stated due to ill health he, the father,  could not make it in person. It also said he had given his son full authority to close the account in order to pay the steep medical expenses he had recently incurred. The teller, used to seeing Joe and his Father come every Friday, gave him her condolences regarding his father’s health and handed him the money.  Joe then jumped aboard a train and headed to the Western Territories. Like a bat out of Hell he disappeared from New York before the Court discovered what he had done.

Chapter 2

It had taken three weeks to get to Laramie, two by train, one now by stage. At last the teeth jarring stage coach crossed into the Wyoming territory from it’s start at the rail head in Kimball Nebraska. The stage driver yelled down to those poor souls inside. “Laramie stations comin’ up ahead folks. For those of you continuing on to Rawlins, be ready to get back aboard in an hour. There’s a café up the street for those wantin’ a hot meal.”

Joe Tarboosh painfully stepped down onto the hard packed earthen street soon after the stage door opened. He waited for the driver to toss down his carpet bag, after grabbing it and his over coat, he stiffly walked up the street where he was told the land office was.

Walking along the wooden plank walkway that connected each building to its neighbor, Joe soon arrived in front of the land office. He was about turn the doors handle to enter when the door was flung violently open. A man resembling three boulders piled on top of each other stormed through the opening and stood red faced staring at Joe.

Turning his head back towards the open door the angry red faced man yelled back inside through foaming lips. “Ach, a bunch a thieves you all are! You knew for years I had been plannin’ on buyin’ that land! An here ya’ go an’ sell it from under me feet! Well damn your heathin’ souls the lot of you! When I find out who the miscreant is that bribed your sorry assess into sellin’ it to him, I promise you now, he’s goin’ to be pleading for his miserable existence as I bare handed strangle him to death!”

Turning away from the door he once again faced the shocked Joe and yelled, “Get your sorry ass out of my way!” Pushing Joe hard against the porch wall of the land sale office, he stomped on.

A thin nervous man wearing a green head visor guardedly poked his head out of the open door. Seeing Joe pressed against the wall he asked him. “Is he gone yet?”

“Yeah, he’s gone, who was that idiot?”

“Well, seein’ as I don’t recognize you, I hesitate to say, you might work for him.”

Joe responded, “I don’t, my names Joe Tarboosh and I need to see the land agent, is that you?”

“let me answer your first question first Mr. Tarboosh, that angry Irishman is Brian O’Donahue owner of the Lazy O Ranch. He’s the man who wants to make you regret you didn’t die in childbirth. See? You’re the miscreant that bought that land he’s been hankerin’ after for all these years. Can’t really blame him, but I warned him for three years that someday, somebody’s gonna up and buy it from under him. He’s just so bull headed and outright mean that he believed there’s no man with big enough cojones to do that. He’d been grazing his cattle on it for free ever since the Toker family moved.”

“Well why in God’s name didn’t you tell me that when I telegraphed the Land Office about available Ranches for sale? Now I’m gonna be fearing everyday that I’ll run into him someday when we’re alone and get pounded to a pulp!”

“Pounded? Naw, he’ll just kill you quick like, that’s his way!”

“Oh that makes me feel so much better! Now what do I do?”

“Hell, if I was you, I’d get over to Nebraska Territory and hop aboard a train as fast I could and go back East! I can resell your property to him. I know he won’t pay what you bought it for. No where nears that much even, but it’s better’n pushin’ up daisy’s.”

“Forget it, I bought it fair and square. I’ve learned when I turned tail and ran it never helped. Where is the Toker ranch I bought? How do I get there?”

“Well, you ain’t gonna walk that far an’ if you ain’t got one, you might think about getting’yourself a mule to ride.  I’d think about a wagon too to carry supplies in. Ain’t nothin’ there but an old empty fixer up ranch house and some weather beaten’ corrals. Ain’t no wagons I know of since Toker done sold off as much as he could. Maybe the drinkin’ well’s still good, I don’t know. I only handle the deed work for the Government.”

“Where can I buy a horse or mule?”

The stable’s next to the Smithy. Just at the end of town. You can’t miss it, follow your ears. There’s hammerin’ goin’ on night an’ day. ‘Ol Mackey got himself an order from the Union Pacific Railroad for an order of ten thousand rail spikes. They’s gonna be a rail road here by next year!”

Joe followed his ears and sure enough the air was filled with the sound of hammering. Walking up the livery, he looked for the owner and not seeing anyone around, stepped next door to the black smith’s shop.

A gigantic black man stood pounding a glowing red piece of bar stock iron over an anvil. When one end of the bar had been hammered into the shape of a two sided point, he chilled the point and dropped it point down into a hole in the anvil and pounded it until the other end took the shape of a rail spikes head. Joe stood staring at the transformation in awe. In less than ten seconds the man had turned a piece of useless iron bar stock into a very well made rail spike.  Joe waited patiently for the Smithy to set down his tools before greeting him.

“Hello, my name is Joe. I was wondering if you knew the whereabouts of the stable owner, I’m in need of a horse or mule to buy”

The powerfully built Smith named Black Mackey didn’t answer right off but instead walked over to a large water bucket and splashed his face in it. He then dipped his head into it and drank his fill of the stale water. Water streamed down his big lips onto his muscular bare chest.

“I am the owner!” The Smiths deep thundering voice reminded Joe of what an avalanche of rock must sound like. “ The stable boy who works for me is off on an errand, otherwise you’d be talking to him and not me.  But, since he isn’t here, Horses are forty dollars, mules twenty five. I can sell you a saddle for either for ten. What’ll it be?”

“I guess a mule? I never rode one, just horses but it can’t be too different can it? I got to keep an eye on how much money I spend, I aim to start a ranch over at the Toker’s place.

“Ha! So you’re the one that bought the ‘Ol Toker place? O’Donahue sure was on the war path when he found out someone had bought it. He just left here in a fit. I finished shoeing his horse not ten minutes ago. He came in here fuming and bellyaching about someone stealing his land!”

Mackey laid aside the hammer he still held and ushered Joe toward the livery stable.

“Seeing as how much I got a charge out of seeing O’Donahue stomp around like a temper tantrum baby, I’ll cut you a deal. You don’t want a mule, they’re too hard to control. A horse would do you much better. I’ll sell you one, a decent one for twenty five and I’ll throw in the saddle for five. Does that sound good to you?”

“Thirty total? Where can I buy a gun? I might need one if O’Donahue shows up at my place”

“If you want, I have a nice Golden Boy to sell for say… ten dollars. Some cow puncher left it to be fixed and later that night he got himself shot dead at the card table.  I was the only one who knew he left it with me. It’s fixed, just had to have the firing pin filed down, kept sticking. I have no use for it, it’s not like I’ll ever have the time to go hunting.’

Two hours later, Joe reigned up in front of a weather worn house that he had bought sight unseen. The glass windows seemed to be intact with only one pane cracked. The corral left a lot to be desired though. Most of the rails lay on the ground and the gate sat sagging on one hinge. But the land… the land was beautiful! The house sat partway up a slight incline so from its wide porch he could view the open valley that lay before him.  The valley floor lay carpeted by prairie wild flowers while patches of black eyed Susan’s and purple spring crocuses grew around the houses foundation.

Joe nodded approvingly at the condition of the outside. He stepped onto the wide porch to see what the inside held.

Opening the unlocked door, he stepped inside to a musty smelling but rather clean house. Whoever the Toker family was, they had made sure the buyer bought a clean place. A woman’s touch was in evidence. Flowered curtains, nicely painted wooden walls, the living room was even wall papered in flower prints. The kitchen cabinets and shelves had held up well. An old cast iron cook stove sat backed against a stone chimney. It would have been a perfect day except for O’Donahue. “Just my luck”, Joe mused, ”I finally get something really nice that’s all mine and someone wants to kill me over it.”

   Two weeks and over one hundred dollars later, the place looked like a home. Joe was proud of his accomplishments. He found he was better at handling tools than he first believed. Not a floor board now stood loose nor was a corral rail missing. Next on his list…buy some cattle!   

 

Chapter 3

Two days later Joe returned to town and once again stopped at the livery. One reason was to thank the Smith Macky for the fine horse he sold him, the second was to ask if he knew of an honest cattle dealer in town and the third was out of pure curiosity… why did the negro blacksmith speak like a white person .

Mackey saw Joe plodding down the street proudly riding his new mount. The grey mare looked pretty handsome with its shiny black leather saddle on her, even if it was used.

As Joe hitched his horse, Mackey stepped out into the sunlight to greet Joe. “Well, well. I see you and Grey Lady seem to be getting’ along pretty nicely. What brings you into town this time, more supplies?”

“The truth is Mr. Mackey, I wanted to thank you for selling me, Grey Lady. I also have to apologize, I fibbed. I said I rode horses before. The truth being, the closest I’ve ever been to a horse was when I rode in a buggy back east. Grey Lady almost seems to know where I want to go, I rarely have to even steer her”

Mackey began chuckling at Joe’s definition of handling his horse “I kind of figured as much, that’s why I sold her to you. She’s the gentlest and smartest creature I ever put a set of shoes on. She knew the way to the Toker’s place because that’s her home. She belonged to Mrs. Toker.”

“Ha! And here I thought I was such a brilliant horse rider too!” Joe continued to laugh thinking of how well he had ‘trained’ his new horse. “The jokes on me I guess.”

“You’re a different kind of man Joe, I don’t believe I’ve ever met a green horn such as you. You didn’t try to talk me down in price and you even come back to thank me for the sale! How’d you know I didn’t rob you blind? I could have you know!”

“You looked like an honest man, Mr. Mackey. I wasn’t going to insult your good intentions for giving me a good deal.” At this point, Joe decided not to ask Mackey about his accent, it could wait.

“That’s another thing Joe, you’re the first person ever to call me Mister! Everybody here just calls me Mackey ‘cause I think they feel uncomfortable calling me Black.”

“Why would they call you that, because you’re a negro?”

“Heck, I’m surely a negro but Black is my Christian name! When I was born my Father said to my Mama, That baby sure is a black one, isn’t he? So my Mama went and named me Black, just as yours named you Joe.”

Joe started chuckling but then became red with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I was just thinking of two friends I grew up with. One’s name was Red and the other was Whitey. I wonder if they were named under similar circumstances, that’s all.”

“No need to apologize , there wasn’t any offense taken. By the way, do you do have a last name don’t you or do you like being called just Joe?”

“Oh sure, it’s Tarboosh, it was supposed to be spelled t-a-r-b-u-s-h not T-a-r-b-o-o-s-h but the Doctor was Italian and spelled it the way it sounded to him. It caused a load of problems, especially after my parents passed on. I wasn’t allowed to inherit the house or anything. They even threw me in jail for implying I was trying to steal their home by fraud. But that’s all in the past, I’m starting my herd and I was wondering if you knew of an honest seller of cattle around here?”

Listening to Joe’s story and now his desire for cattle, Black Mackey looked at his feet and shook his head in wonder. “Good God Joe Tarboosh, you’ve sure got a whole heap of bad luck! Maybe before you go buying any cattle, you need to know a bit of history of the ranch you bought and the town here.”

Joe felt bad luck forming like a black storm cloud over his head once again. Any minute he mused, the cloudburst would come and more bad luck would rain upon his head.

“If you can spare a minute, I’d like to hear it. I know nothing of the Toker family or why they left. I’m used to facing things Mister Mackey and for sure I can’t turn around and go back. So, please tell me if you would.”

Macky sat on a stool and waved Joe to sit likewise on another. “The Tokers moved here almost ten years ago. He and the Misses had three children when they first came and added two more to that. They built everything you see out there, house, corrals, barn and two bunk houses for the men. At one point in time, a few years back, their herd numbered over two thousand and they had twelve hired hands. They were a good family, they even went to church service when a preacher passed through.”

“So what happened, why’d they move?”

“Things were going well for them, the land was good, their cattle healthy and the steam that ran through their land was flowing with good cool water from up in the mountains. All that began to change though when O’Donahue bought the land adjacent to theirs on the east side of the Medicine Bow Mountains. First thing O’Donahue did after starting up his ranch was redirect that stream with dynamite that flowed from the mountains through the Toker’s land. It passed through his land before entering the Tokers. If you haven’t already seen it, I suggest you look at the dried up stream bed. Without that stream, the Toker’s couldn’t support their large herd.”

“What about the Law? I mean there’s laws on water rights isn’t there?”

“O’Donahue offered the water but the price he asked for was beyond anyone’s ability to pay. It did end up in Court. But as you can figure for yourself, when it went before the honorable Judge O’Malley, the outcome was a given. Judge O’Malley is O’Donahue’s brother in law. Nothing was left to do but sell the place an’ move on so they did. They took what they could, sold the rest and headed to the Snake River Valley in Idaho.”

“So is there any way I can get water from another source, I got two drinking wells by the house but I know that won’t water a herd.”

“Water isn’t your only problem Joe, buying the cattle is another. You see, O’Donahue ran out the only other seller of cattle within a hundred miles of here. If you want cattle, you’ve gotta’ go to him. I’m tellin’ you here an’ now, he isn’t about to sell you any and it’s too far drive from Cheyenne to here without at least ten experienced  hired hands to drive them.”

Joe sat there looking down despondently at his new boots. For an instant he began to feel sorry for himself, but having dealt all his life with bad luck, he knew it was dangerous to dwell in self pity. Raising his head, he smiled at Mackey and reached over and squeezed the giant man on shoulder. “Thank you Black, you’re the first person that’s been straight up with me. I see where my problem lies. It’s with O’Donahue.  If I’m ever going to get on my feet out here, I’ve got to meet him head on.”

“Mister Joe? I think you’re a good man and you think like I do. If I wasn’t of a different color, I think we could even be friends. You call on me if you run into things over your head now, you hear me?”

“I will for sure, but why do you say we can’t be friends, is there some law here I don’t know about regarding Negro’s and Whites from being friends?”

“No, none that’s written down in the books anyway. Maybe it isn’t looked down upon in the big city where you came from but here I’m sure it would raise eyebrows.”

“Well that isn’t right! If I want to have a Negro or an Indian or even a Chinese man as my friend, then that’s the way it’s going to be and to hell with those who think differently. It’s true Black, I had people of all different races as friends back East, but what about you? Have folks in this town treated you so bad? I know they have to respect your skills as a Smithy. That’s got to account for something!”

“Huh, never thought about it that way. To be honest, I really never tried being friends with anyone in here in town. I just kept to myself and my family. My Father being from England, warned me all the time about how the Americans might pretend to be friendly but when your back was turned, they’d be looking down their noses at you because of our color. The only thing he ever knew of the American West was from reading books and unfortunately some of those were dime novels. He would confuse tales of the West with those of the South. He had me so mixed up I didn’t know what to believe when we all moved to America. Before we came to America, he was a successful Medical Doctor in North Hampton. He attended Imperial College School of Medicine in London where he graduated with high honors. While his clients were some of the richest and paid well, my father insisted we live in a modest house just outside of town.    Then one day he was made an offer to become the private physician to a rich and powerful family here in America. We arrived here fearing we’d be treated as badly as the Southern slaves were.”

“Did they? I mean was that the way it was or was that the way you saw it because of your father?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I kept to myself, still do. No one’s ever shook my hand in friendship. Maybe I should have tried sticking mine out first just to see what happened.”

“No need for you to do that Black, here.”

Saying that, Joe reached out his hand and presented it to Black Mackey in the act of friendship.

The two gripped hands, one powerful and black as coal and the other soft and as pale as a custard pie. The two looked at each other and smiled.

Black abruptly gave in to a deep sigh. “ Joe, I worry about you. O’Donahue will run you out like he did the Toker family, only I think this time he won’t let you walk away. If you still plan on trying to deal with him, then I’m coming with you!”

When Joe answered it was with false bravado in his voice and both he and Black knew it. “You don’t have to do that Black, I can take care of myself.”

“No disrespect intended but have you noticed he’s a might bigger than you and has a small army of armed men around him most everywhere he goes?”

“I wasn’t aware he had armed men about his place, maybe you coming with me isn’t such a bad idea after all.”

 

Chapter 4

The idea of meeting O’Donahue had Joe’s stomach tied  into knots. Even with his new friend riding beside him, Joe was reminded of the Biblical psalm of walking through the valley of death. Hopefully, not his own.

A week had gone by since their last meet up. Joe had to wait until Black finished the Union Pacific order for ten thousand rail spikes. It had taken Black two days short of a month to fill the order.

Fifty wooden crates had to freighted out by mule drawn wagons.  To their credit, the Union Pacific sent the wagons along with the full payment. Black Mackey was able to take a well deserved day off and planned on using it on the day Joe went to see O’Donahue.

The day arrived and the two rode casually from town and headed west on a well worn trail towards the Lazy O Ranch.

“Over that rise sits O’Donahue’s Lazy O Ranch Joe. The back end of his spread is what butts up against your property. That’s also where you’re your water problem is.”

“What do you think my chances really are Black? Am I being stupid for trying to solve these issues with O’Donahue? Everybody thinks I should pack up and leave, letting O’Donahue take over my spread.”

“Before you shook my hand and called me friend, I would’ve said the same. Thing is Joe, I don’t have but one friend and if he sells out and leaves, then I’m back to having no friends at all. That’s the real reason I’m riding with you. No one tells me, my family or my only friend to get the hell out… Not without feeling the wrath a God coming down on him in the form of one angry as hell giant blacksmith!”

Reining up to the front of the large woodframe ranch house, the two spotted what looked like idle hands casually standing about paying the newcomers little mind. Mackey noted how the low slung holsters had their thongs untied, they were ready for action.

The front door opened and the stocky but powerfully built O’Donahue stepped out onto the porch.

“Ha! You must be the city sniveling cheat that stole my land! If your reason for showin’ up here isn’t to apologize and return the deed to me own land, then it must be you’re wantin’ me to introduce you to Saint Peter!”

The hands began to chuckle thinking they were about to see their bosses fist go into action against the slightly built city boy. The negro was of no concern. No negro in his right mind would challenge a white man as financially powerful as O’Donahue and besides, the negro was unarmed.

“I came here to buy cattle, I need six hundred mixed cows and heifer’s along with a good bull. I also want my stream restored.”

O’Donahue looked incredulously at Joe and responded bitterly. “Ach! An’ I want it to rain gold bars but it don’t ever. You got yourself some balls, I give you that city boy. Are you stupid or just plain dumb showin up askin’ me for cows? I’d rather rot in hell kissin’ Satan’s ass day’n night than sell you a damn cow! I intended that land you’re squatin’ on to be mine and I’m gonnba’ make sure it is!”

With that said, the hands drew their pistols pointed them at Joe and Black then stepped forward.

Makey abruptly spoke up. “Before we go any further Mister O’Donahue maybe you better hear me out. When you drove off the Toker family I held my peace. I knew someday though that push would come to shove so I went and secured me an insurance policy in case it was me that you’d drive out. I know your feelings against negro’s. Sooner or later I knew you’d look my direction.”

“An just what possible form of insurance could you be havin’ to protect yourself from my plans. Tis’ true, I think you need be gone from here. I’ve already looked into me bringin’ in me a white Smithy… to buy you out.”

“Buy me out my ass!, You mean run me out. I know that’s how you get your way. You make sure you’re the only game in town then raise your price till those you don’t like have got to leave. or they just disappear”

Mackey then strode up to the porch steps directly in front of O’Donahue.

“I’ll tell you what I did to protect my interest here Mister O’Donahue but first, let me ask you this? What do you know about me? Have you ever wondered why I came out to no man’s land to open my shop? Did you ever wonder where I came from, what I did, who my family is or why I don’t speak with a Southern or negro accent?” When no response but a blank stare was returned, Mackey answered for him. “No? I didn’t think you did!”

O’Donahue, looking a might uncomfortable at being spoken to by a negro like this was still hesitant to confront the giant man that stood at the bottom of his steps. Even then it appeared to O’Donahue that Mackey still towered above him..

“O’Donahue, A wise man once said, ‘Know your enemy’. In your arrogance and conceit you didn’t do that when you thought to become King of the hill around here. You already been booted from the top of the hill and you’re too arrogant to even see it!

“Why you black son of a …”

“Don’t say it O’Donahue, I know who my Mama is and I know you can’t say the same.  You see, when my Daddy came to America, it was to be the private physician to the family of the man who now runs the Union Pacific Railroad. When my Daddy passed on, that family took to seeing I had every chance of being as well educated as a man could be. I didn’t attend Boston College after graduating from a private school and to their consternation I told them I wanted to follow my real interest, blacksmithing. They eventually relented and sent me through an apprenticeship program. I worked for ten years at different shops before starting my own place out here. Having intimate contact with the head of the Union Pacific gave me certain advantages. One of them was to know where the Union Pacific planned to expand its rail service and the other was to be in the position to ask a favor of that man”

“What kind of favor? I’m not seein’ a railroad track around here and the only rail line is going through Cheyenne through to Rawlins. What’s your point?”

“The point is when you threatened my friend here, I went and cashed in my chips with the Family. I we3nt and sat down with them to negotiate my providing spikes for them, I also asked to be allowed to choose the best route for a rail offshoot from Laramie to Soda Lake where Sodium Carbonate is being mined. I decided your property would make a perfect route for the new railway.”

O’Donahue’s face reddened darkly in anger, “I’d never sell my property to the Union Pacific or anybody else. I didn’t come all the way from Belfast just to see my hard work be taken away by a railroad bandit!”

“You’ll have no choice. The United States Government has given eminent domain powers to the Union Pacific. They’ll take your land and all of your cattle will be confiscated to feed the rail crews. They’ll pay you what I say your spread is worth, nothing more.”

By now O’Donahue had dropped his bluster and began to look like a defeated man. Even a fool knew better than to challenge the Railroad. You never won but you could lose even more by resisting.   “Why wasn’t I told of this?”

“You’re being told right now. Of course, it’s still in my powers to advise an alternate rail route. I might do so if you were willing to sell my friend here a herd at a fair price and reroute the stream you altered back into his spread. But, It’s up to you.”

“That’s blackmail!”

“I prefer to call it making a deal”

“I’ve no choice then, do I”

“Nope, none. The rail offshoot is a done deal, where it goes is up to me. I’m offering you a good deal here O’Donahue. You call down your hired guns and change them out for real Cowboys, give Joe here his water and cattle, forget about running me out of town and the railway will go north of here.”

“What’s to prevent me from changin’ me mind once the rails is laid away from here. All your cards would be played an’ I’d be holdin the Ace.”

Your holding the Joker, not the Ace. The rail road is permitted by law to add ten miles on each side of the tracks to its right of way at any time it wishes, even years from now. One telegram and your Ranch is gone.”

O’Donahue looked at his men still pointing their guns at Joe and Mackey. Admitting defeat was a bitter pill to swallow but in the end he gulped and down went the pill. Waving his hand at his men to holster their weapons O’Donahue spoke in a defeated tone.

“Ok, you win, I agree.”

Turning to his Ranch manager, he told him to separate out the cattle and bull that Joe chose.

“The rest of you put away your guns. Some of you need to be leavin here. I’ll be lettin’ you know who you are and I’ll be given’ you a months extra pay if you leave peaceful like. You have three days to clear out.”

After the cattle were separated and corralled, a bull was chosen, The herd would be delivered after the water stream had been restored and O’Donahue’s cattle moved back onto his own spread.  Back on the trail leading to town, Joe looked over at the man riding along side of him who worked a miracle.

“It Lucky for me that you’re tight with the U.P. President and his family or my infamous black cloud of bad luck would for sure have rained on me again. Thank you my friend, you saved my ranch. I didn’t know you had asked for and was given the job to choose the rail route to Soda Lake. It must have cost you some pride to ask to do it. I know how being indebted to anyone goes against your grain.”

“Oh, it didn’t cost me anything Joe. You see, I never asked them. I already knew the railroad was going north of the Lazy O.  Anyone who picked up a copy of the Cheyenne Leader could have told him that. I just happen to have read it when I negotiated my spike contract with the U.P. while in Cheyenne. ”

Joe halted his mare and looked over at his fried, “You mean to tell me it was all a fib? You being helped raised by the family an all?”

“Oh no, that’s all true. Oliver Ames helped raise me after my Father died. He also sent me to smithing school, that much is true. In truth, if I would have approached him for permission to move the route because it was such a small offshoot track, I’m sure he would have granted that to me. But like you said, I don’t like being beholding to no one, so I didn’t ask.”

Joe shook his head in wonder. “I can’t believe you got away with it!”

“Joe, the first thing I learned when I came out West was to hold your cards close to your chest and learn the art of bluffing. Otherwise, learn the art of playing poker. I don’t really cards but the game is a good way to practice both. You might learn the game Joe, there’s a lot that can be applied to everyday life…as you just saw!”

From that day on, Joe Tarboosh and Black Mackey would sit and play a few friendly games each time Joe stopped in town. Joe began to understand that it’s how you play your cards in life that determines how much luck you have. In the end, there is no such thing as a black cloud of bad luck, just one’s willingness to step up and take a gamble on your dreams…whether you’re holding a royal flush or you’re  just bluffing.