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I did. As I was sitting on the calf I noticed a bit of milk running out of the calf’s mouth. It was pink. “Buck, this calf is bleeding from the mouth.”
Buck walked up and took a look. “Just what I thought. They done split the calf’s tongue so he cain’t suck. In a few days they’d be doggies and the mama’s would quit trying to feed them. In a couple weeks them Lazy E cowboy rustlers will come out and round up the doggies, brand them with the Lazy E, and claim them forever with no way of tagging them as rustlers.”
“Let’s drive them home.”
“Let’s leave them here and follow the tracks to the new home.”
“Nah, they’d be branded and it’d be our word against theirs. Let’s take a look at the horse tracks leading outta this place. I’ll wager they go straight thataway.” I pointed.
“Let’s ride.” He reached down and took the loop off the calf, climbed aboard, rolled his string, and we set out in the direction I had pointed. Sure enough the tracks led off that way. We followed until Buck said, “We cain’t stand against that many in that crew. Let’s go back and see what we can do.”
We camped nest to the calves that night and shoved them clear back to the barn the next day.
On the way back I asked, “How come them cows didn’t follow the calves’ scent back there at the place they was standing and bellowing?”
He went over to one of the cows in the corral that let him walk up close, dropped a loop, snubbed her off, and took a whiff of her nose. “Peppermint oil. They doused their noses with peppermint oil so’s they couldn’t smell their babies. When we took out after’em, they joined us knowing that riders are always around other cows. When we go close enough, the peppermint oil had worn down some and the scent came through. Off they went. Them full bags must be real painful.” He hunkered down and started milking the cow he had snubbed off. She stood there and I’ll swear she sighed.
We relieved them all, not much, just relief.
Denver was a five day journey there and back. I figured they would take ten at the least with Diane talking with the legal folks and the bank. I know she was going to report Tor’s death to the Marshall and then talk to him about the situation with the Lazy E. She was also looking for 2 more hands to help with bringing back some breeding stock and horses. We waited and worked for two weeks and no sign of them. The oats were gone. We were eating our own beef and wild onions, with an occasional prickly pear cactus roasted on occasion.
Buck suggested we go look for them. I suggested he wait here until I got back. Buck had seemed like a good hand and wasn’t going to back down without a good reason. We discussed options if the fat man came around and a few things Buck could do while I was gone. Didn’t take me long to saddle up and hit the trail with two pounds of jerky in my saddlebags.
Just before sundown I met up with a herd. I rode in cautiously and met up with three rough looking hands. “Howdy. You boys driving them beeves anywhere in particular?”
“Yup.” The big guy up front was real talkative.
“The brands are all different.”
“I have bills of sale.”
“You headed for the Rafter B?”
“Miss Diane send you to meet up with a man called Daniel.”
“I’m Will.” He pointed to the man on his left, “This here’s Tommy,” and then he pointed right, “Cicero.”
“Welcome. You got about 10 mile thataway.”
“Figured.” Will was very talkative even when he knew who he was talking to.
Then he said, “Gonna bed down for the night. Cicero makes a mean biscuit and some thick gravy to go with the beans.”
“Mind if I join ya for the night?”
“Glad to have you, boss.”
“Yup. Miss Diane said you was the boss and for us to take order or ride on.”
“Where’s Miss Diane?”
“Supposed to be behind us with a bunch a horses. Her and that Shorts fella.”
“You don’t sound like you like our Mr. Shorts.” I smiled at that.
He grinned and shook his head, “First man to ever beat me arm wrestlin’. Smacked me down good, he did. I can work with him. Don’t worry. That man is stronger than anyone I ever met.”
“How far back you figure?”
“Two days at Denver, or so Miss Diane told me. Should be almost caught up.”
“I’ll go check in the morning.”
We bunked out after another hour of fireside chit chat. I took the sunrise turn at watching the cows who were a bit buggered by something off to the south. Come full light, three horses came trotting in, no saddles, no bridles, lead ropes, just the horsed. The way they took to the cows you’d thought they was cow ponies or something.
Tommy rode out to relieve me for a breakfast of coffee and biscuits with a few think slices of beef, we had to finish the critter before it went rotten, mixed in. The coffee was great, first I’d had in a long spell of riding. The biscuits were a bit hard being leftovers from the night before, but were good for dunking. Cicero looked at the three horses as they wandered around the herd.
“I’d swear on my first month’s pay one of them horses is one Miss Diane and Shorts were bringin’. I remember the socks and the blaze.” Cicero looked a bit pale and worried as he said it. “I surely do hope I’m wrong.”
Will was standing off by himself looking at the herd including the horses as another horse came down the slope to our camp. “Damn. I bought that horse myself,” he yelled. “Something’s bad wrong.”
I saddled up as fast as I could. As I was mounting Cicero rode his horse over beside me, “What a pardner? I can hit what I shoot at.”
“Sure. Why not?”
Will was ready to go also, but I stopped him and sent him and Tommy on with the beef and four horses that had joined up. “How many horses were they gonna bring?”
“Ten or more and their personals.”
“I’ll be back. Until then, do what Buck tells ya. He knows what needs to be done.”
“I’ll do it. You shoot straight.”
“I usually do.”
Cicero and I rode off following the tracks of the fourth horse.
We hadn’t gone more than two miles when we saw the buzzards and crows circling up ahead, must have been thirty of the carrion eaters circling, lower and lower. We kept looking at each other as if to say, ‘Oh, oh,” as we rode. Over the top of a rise was a dead horse. From the tracks and the blood trail it had been shot and made it this far before giving up. It hadn’t been dead for long.
Kicking the horses into a faster gait, we spread out. I left Cicero on the tracks and I moved way off to the north where I could watch for the tracks of someone leaving the horse trail and heading for the Lazy E. I crossed no tracks, but Cicero found something. He was waving his hat when I turned that direction as I scanned the countryside.
I joined him.
Another dead horse. It was also shot and had traveled a ways. It was the horse Shorts had ridden last I saw of him. Another horse had stood next to it as it finished dying and the tracks matched the first dead horse. Too bad that first dead horse had to die alone.
We rode, two men angry at the loss of horseflesh and wondering where our friends were, rode rapidly, but with an eye out for anything toward whatever there was to find. A dead stranger was the first find. This man had been shot through the body and didn’t look pretty. A horse had stepped on his face. From the lack of blood on his face, he had been dead when the stomping happened. We left him and continued. The trail turned sharply like there had been an ambush or something.
Tracks of many horses moving in all directions came next. Cicero was trying to make sense out of them when I spotted something that didn’t look right down the slope. Cicero agreed it was something strange. We rode down with our guns out and ready.
We found Shorts. He had been dragged over the dirt and brush. The occasional cactus was an added pain for him. He was not a pretty sight. “Where you been?” he asked.
I looked at him again. “What happened to you?” He was propped up against a tree trunk, more blood than body.
“They thought they shot me, but they missed and hit my horse. He’s over there somewhere. Then they drug me. I think some of these prickly pear thorns are in at least two inches. I’ve pull out quite a few. They got Miss Diane. She was alive and running when I went down. She was alive when they paraded outta here heading toward the Lazy E. One of them said that this was the last time they were playing; from now on it was serious. I thought that was really funny and one of them threw a shot at me. Hit me here.” He pointed to his right shin bone. “Broke it. There’s been a horse wandering around down that slope in those trees. If one of ya would get him I could ride. My saddle is down that way just out sight behind the curve of the hill.”
I tossed him my canteen and said, “You get the horse and I’ll pick up the riggin’.”
I ran a coyote off the dead horse before I could get the rig. The horse was stiff. Two days at least this horse had been down. Two days Shorts had been leaning up against a tree trunk. Two days they had Miss Diane in their possession. I was getting mad. I was going to have to kill again and I didn’t want to. I was going to have to take care of an orphan like the Word says. The two ideas went together in my mind, but didn’t come together in the Bible. Then I got to thinking of Samson who killed him a mess of Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey just because they were messing with him. Then there was God Himself who ordered that all the evil nations in the Promised Land be killed down to the last child because of their evil ways.
I thought of folks in the New Testament that had died by God’s hand for lying to Him, or the armies of Texas standing up to the evil of Antonio Lopéz De Santa Anna after the Alamo fight. Was God on the side of the Texans? It hurt just digesting all this in my head. I prayed.
With the prayer came the idea that God has always dealt with evil in different ways, but always His person did the dealing, with God’s power of course. There was no way Moses dealt with a couple million Hebrews for 40 years without God’s power and wisdom. I felt strongly that God wanted me to rescue Diane no matter what it took as long as I gave them a chance to surrender.
Cicero and I got Shorts on the horse. I rigged some splints to hold that shin bone in place. One hunk of wood was laid along the bone to hold it straight. I slid a skinned Prickly Pear ear over the wound before tying it and the splint to the front of his leg.
Couple of weeks and Shorts wouldn’t have anything to complain about. We rode. I tried to get Shorts and Cicero to head for the Rafter B, but they would nothing of the kind.
Shorts said, “You park me in a good spot and me and my Winchester will take care of anything that shows itself. I’m goin’ with ya, or I quit and will go where I want.”
“You wouldn’t quit and you know it,” I said as I swayed in the saddle, laughing.
“What’s up with you?” Cicero shouted.
“Just thinking. Not too long ago I was saddle sore and aching. Now it seems like second nature.”
“Gets that way right easy like when you’re in the saddle all the time. I remember my first week in the saddle. It was not fun,” Shorts added.
We rode along the tracks until the day was done, and even then we kept going until we just plain could not see. We camped on a stream that provided us with what we needed most, water and wood for a fire to brew some coffee. Shorts pulled the pot out of his bags and handed it down to Cicero who had the grounds in his bags. Not much in the way of a supper, but it would have to do.
Noon the next day we were looking down on the Lazy E again. No one was in sight. No smoke from the chimneys. No horses in the corral or tied out. We rode in with guns cocked and ready. Reckless? We were mad to the bone.
Shorts took one quick look around and started riding north. “Come on, they went this way. Looks like Wyoming is their new home.”
We followed. No pieces of torn shirt. No silver discs. Just hoof prints from at least a dozen horses.
We caught up.
Cicero was out front and saw dust ahead of us leading into the trees at the edge of mountains ahead. If they got into those mountains we would be stuck with following on the trails that were available and could no longer pull off to camp or even work our way around them.
Shorts said, “I don’t know this area a bit.”
“Just keep walking toward the fire.”
As I approached the fire, I saw Diane sitting on a log with her hands tied in front. She didn’t look too badly abused. She was still wearing the plaid shirt even though the hem was looking a mite raggedy. The look on her face told me she just gave up all hope. I knew better. There was a hope that never lets a gal down. It wasn’t me.
They tied me to a tree and gagged me. “We don’t need no sermons so we just goin’ ta make sure you cain’t talk. You must think you are really bad chasing a group like us. Read bad.”
I looked him in the eye and nodded as I tried to make my eyes smile. Once the tying was done they just walked away and left me there. Everson was nowhere in sight.
I WILL GO BACK AND PUT IN A MAGICIAN HIS FATHER KNEW THAT TAUGHT HIM A FEW TRICKS. You may think that’s cheating, but that’s the way it works when you are a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants.
When they tied me I had set my hands in the position the magician showed me back in Kansas City. I worked my hands a bit. By working my wrists flat together, I was able to gain a lot of freedom. Whether I could get my hands loose or not was another thing. There was going to be a showdown here shortly.
I knew they weren’t going to hang onto me for very long. As dangerous as they were I had beat them so far and they would want revenge and to make sure I wasn’t ever on their trail again. Don’t think I’m bragging here, it’s just the truth. Given half a chance, this orphan sitting across the fire from me would be free and they would all be in whatever condition I left them in after the escape. I could be dead alongside them, but she would be free.
It was as if she knew what I was thinking. She lifted her head and looked through the smoke at me with a pitiful smile on her face and shook her head. I nodded back. She just bawled all the harder. Her whole body convulsed from the sobs.
I had to do something before she had a total collapse.
The rag in my mouth was nasty tasting and caused me to try, without thinking about it, to shove it out and away from my mouth. As my jaw worked the bandana around my head began to slip downward. I was able to use my tongue to get the ball in my mouth moved above the head tie. I went into a shaking fit so I could dislodge it completely and drop it to the ground between my feet.
Something licked my hands.
The dog was here.
I froze wondering what to do now. I had a fighting partner in that dog. I looked over at Diane and nodded behind me. She looked at me, saw nothing, and went back to crying.
I laughed. I laughed out loud with the head tie on my chin. The whole bunch of supposed bad guys and outlaws jumped looking in every direction except at me. I said, “You big bad badmen all worried about a girl and a wanna be Christian preacher when nothing of this is going to benefit you one dollar’s worth. That fat man you work for is going to get it all and see to it that none of you live to tell about this. You will have killed a woman. They hang men for killing women out here, don’t they? Who wants to hang first.
“I have already killed and shot holes in a bunch of you. What? About half I’d say. You gotta kill me or there will be a witness to your killin’ a woman. You gotta kill her cuz that’s what the boss man wants.
“Why do you let that fat man boss you around like he does? He says go get a girl and off you go. He says kill the girl and you’ll do it. For what? Why? So the fat man can be rich while you work for $30 a month and food. Oh yeah, you’ll have to go steal the money he pays you with.
“Wait a minute. I have it. He wants a big ranch so he doesn’t have to outlaw any more cuz you guys have done all the killing and robbing and hell raising on the roads and in the cities around here. You get blamed and he is rich. Well, you better kill us now and scatter before he comes in and kills you off one at a time after he orders you to kill us. Or, you could cut us loose and get out of here. I do not lie. I will never tell anyone who any of you are.”
I quit. Then it hit me. They had listened and never tried to stop me. If I had been them with their evil minds, I would have just drawn my gun and ended all that speech. Instead, they had listened. They knew I was right. A few of them were looking at Diane shaking their heads. One was starring me in the eye.
“You know something, men. If you would get my Bible out of my saddlebags and cut my hands loose I could show you how to get forgiveness and change your life for eternity.”
I pulled my hand loose from the knots and brought both hands around to the front. “Just hand me by Bible, boys.”
It was like magic. Every one of them had a startled look on his face. Diane fainted and wilted into a pile across the log. Before my very eyes, this is true, the group of them wilted into the trees and began saddling their horses and leaving. I reached down to untie my feet before the rope around my waist fell to the dirt.
They didn’t leave us a thing to eat. One man walked back. “Ma’am, I am truly sorry for what I done. Please forgive me. I knew better.”
Diane was fuzzy. She looked at the man, old, wrinkled, and tears running down his cheeks, and just nodded her head.
“You been forgiven, cowboy. Now go and sin no more. If you’re looking for a job, see me in Denver in a week or two.”
He turned and walked away. He said over his shoulder, “I just might do that. I wanna hear more about this forgiveness stuff. My Ma usta talk of it when she drug me to the meetings. Shoulda listened, I reckon, shoulda listened.”
We listened as he climbed to the top of the hump. Once the sounds of them retreating were gone I went to Diane, “It’s over. We can go back to your ranch. How’s that sound?”
“You worry me. How do you just talk 16 men out of killing us and then calmly tell one you’ll get him a job and then tell me we’ll go back to the ranch, my ranch, and get things back to where they were. I was scared to death. They were going to kill me, but before they did, they were going to. . .”
“Stop. It’s over. There is nothing to fear except the usual things like snakes and such.”
She just looked at me like I was some kind of a loco lunatic.
“Diane, I have a God that is in charge. I am not in charge.” The dog walked up to me. “This dog came outta nowhere and has been in the middle of the whole thing. My horse belonged to the man who killed my Dad and that horse is a mind reader, or something of the sort. What just happened was me doing what that God I believe in told me to do. I don’t ever want to kill another man. That God allowed me to end this with no more killing. Who knows, He may have a good use for a few of them, just like he has for me. Where you were seeing no hope, I knew there was hope one way or the other. It was all up to that God.”
I hugged the dog and asked him to watch things for a bit while I got some shut eye.
Diane said, “You leave a dog on watch.”
“Yup. He can hear and see better than I ever have or will. Who else better to be on watch? Where’s your blanket?”
“I’ll get it.” She walked into the trees and returned, laid her blanket next to me and laid down on it. She pulled half over her. “Good night.”
I swear she was snoring before I even found my horse, let alone my blanket. I have no idea how long it took me to snore, but it was day light when I quit.
OKAY, YOU’VE READ THIS FAR. TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF THIS PLOT TURN.
We were half a day down the trail to the Rafter B when it hit me. The fat man hadn’t been there in the hollow. All those men were just hired hands, or at least working on shares. What happened to the fat man, Everson? How many men did he have still? Where were they? Was he still dead set on grabbing the Rafter B? There were a lot of questions and mighty few answers.
Long about mid-afternoon I saw a group of cows so I swerved off the trail to check them out. All were wearing the Rafter B except one old cow and a calf. The calf looked might stringy and the old cow didn’t have a bag to speak of. I shot the calf. Feeling bad about wasting a lot of meat, I rode off to catch Diane with only a hind quarter hanging on my saddle. We were going to have a meal tonight.
The sun was straight up the next day when we spotted the buildings of the Rafter B. “You wait here. I’ll check it out and wave bandana if it’s safe. Having to use the bandana reminded me I was going to have to get a hat next store we found, my head was frying through the hair.
No one was home. I waived my bandana and Diane joined me.
Other than dirt, the place was a mess. Coffee spills, dirty dishes, a broken chair, back door leather strap hinge at the top was busted, and the beds had been slept in with boots and spurs on. New spreads were needed on both beds. In the barn there were no oats left. The hay loft was a mess with cigarette residue all over the place. Did these clowns know nothing? Even I know better than to be in the barn, specially the loft, with a fire of any kind. The bunkhouse was a disaster. Food pieces all over the place and an obvious invasion of mice and rats destroyed the hominess of the place for me. I set up camp inside the barn next to Solomon.
Diane pointed out, “The two hands we left behind to watch the place are missing. My mother’s ring and my jewelry, cheap stuff, are all gone. The gun rack is empty. All the spare rounds are gone. I did find my dad’s hunting knife. It was stuck in the kitchen counter. From the looks of the counter, they left it there quite a few times. I will kill any of them I see. They killed my father and they have ruined this place, at least the memories. My mother’s tintype is missing. She was a beautiful woman and I’ll bet one of those cowboys is dreaming of her while he holds the picture up to the light. I’m sick, just plain sick of all this. Take me to Denver. I’ll sell the place to the meanest bunch I can find and go to San Francisco.”
“Let’s give it some time for the dust to settle before you make any big decisions. I’m not ready to go back to Denver quite yet, so I can stay here with you and help ya put it all back together. Light a fire and let’s eat.”
“There’s no food left except a few spuds in the root cellar. They broke all my canning jars, too.”
“Not too bad for only being here a few days or so. I wonder what the inside of the home ranch looks like.”
The sound of horses coming into the ranch yard called us to the window.
“It’s Buck and Shorts, the two hands we left here.” She turned and ran out the front door yelling the news and crying again.
The short of the story is that there were now three men and one angry woman on the place and Diane had turned a corner to be talking rebuild and make a go of the place. She knew there was money in the bank in Denver that she would have no problem getting when needed, and she knew the ranch had been making money. “So, why don’t we make it make more money? Dad always wanted to add a couple of line cabins along the edge of the heavy woods, one to the south and one to the west.”
“Excuse me, but wouldn’t it be better to find out what’s left of the herd and check out the graze before you start building projects for things that haven’t been done because they weren’t important enough. If there is no herd, there is no need for line cabins. If there is no herd, where did it go and how do we get it back,” the puncher named Shorts sounded like a wise man.
Standing not quite five feet tall in his high heeled riding boots, he still looked like a big man. Muscles rippled as he moved, his back was straight, the left side of his face had a deep purple bruise from a discussion with one of the outlaws when they rode into the place, and his clothes were well used up.
Buck was a good six feet tall, slim as a rail, and mad as a wet cat. “Them boys was talkin’ takin’ the cows, Mizz Diane. They’s gonna kill us till Shorts whipped their big man, not the fat one but the one that thought he could whip his weight in wolverines. Shorts showed him the error of his ways. After that we just saddled up and rode out. Ten to two left us no choice and they never even tried to stop us. I think most of the cows is over to west of here. Leastwise, that’s where we stashed the ones we found.”
Diane hugged them both, again. “Thank you, you both have a job here as long as there is a here.”
Ten hard days of riding showed us that most of the stock was still around. Diane figured she was a couple hundred short, but we hadn’t worked much to the north yet.
At dinner that night, I said, “We need supplies. That sack of oats Shorts here found in the barn has helped us, but it’s almost gone. Oatmeal mush and beef just isn’t my idea of great grub. It might keep our ribs from showin’ but it ain’t making me any fatter. A man’s gotta have a gut if he’s to be a big shot preacher, you know.”
Diane said, “Hush up and say the grace.”
Next morning Shorts and Diane rode for Denver while Buck and I started digging the cows out of the brush north of the ranch house.
Five or six miles to the north we found over a dozen cows bellowin’ without calves. All of them were bagged up to the leaking stage. “These here mama cows got calves somewhere. From the looks they ain’t nursed in two days. Two days ain’t much of a lead when it comes to trackin’ them baby critters,” Buck was angry. He pointed his horse north, writing big S’s in the dirt with horse tracks as he searched for the trail of them calves. The cows kept up their chorus of bellows as I rode off to join him. My S’s were made to the east of his, me knowing where the Lazy E was let me point right for it.
Half a mile later with the bellowing following us, Buck whooped and waived his hat. I waved the raggedy hat I found in the bunkhouse back at him and rode over. Sure enough, calf tracks separating from the cow tracks. The cows had been forcibly pushed back by two riders while three moved the calves north. While we were sorting out the tracks, the cows trotted on by us still bellowing.
“Let’s follow them,” Buck shouted.
I nodded and we were off at a pretty fair clip to keep up with the cows. They didn’t run far, maybe two miles at best, when we went over a rise and there below us in a patch of green grass with a trickle of water running through it, were a dozen calves. The cows called and the babies come a running.
One after another they hit a teat and commenced to sucking.
One after another they cried and backed off.
Looked at Buck, “That normal?”
“No.” He shook out a loop and laid it over the head of the nearest calf. “Get down there and lay that poor critter down so’s we can check it out.
Me, I just walked until I found another track closer to the trail and kept on going. I started singing ‘Amazing Grace’ as I rode along hoping to catch up before it was so dark I had a chance of missing her if she turned off.
“Who taught you to sing, cowboy?”
“My daddy’s star attraction,” was my answer.
“Got room on that horse for me?” She stood up right next to the trail not fifteen feet in front of me. The dog was at her side.
“Where’d the dog come from?”
“He’s been around off and on all day. Is he yours?”
I chuckled, “No. He belongs to him. No one is that dog’s master, unless he’s a hound from heaven and belongs to God.”
“Probably. Oh, it is good to see you up and about.”
“I’m feeling better, but I ain’t all the way there yet.” I stuck my hand out and down slightly, “Grab on and let’s get a bit further down the road before it is totally dark.”
She did and we loped along watching for something on our back trail and a place we could fort up and get some rest for the night. Just after it got really black, we crawled into a shallow cave. A rock wall about a third fallen, stretched across the mouth of the cave leaving an opening large enough for Solomon to get in. He refused the shelter and went out to dinner with the dog. The dog loved the place. I let her take the first watch at the rock wall to the front of the cave and I got some shuteye.
I awakened to a low growl from the dog. He was looking back up the trail and just rumbling under his breath. Diane was sound asleep leaning against the wall. Solomon was standing next to his saddle. We saddled in record time. I put Diane aboard Solomon and, leading the horse, I trotted down the trail. The dog disappeared so fast he might as well been smoke.
That running stuff is for the birds in or out of boots and I was wearing high healed riding boots. After a mile, I sent Diane on ahead with the horse and I took the rifle to set up a watch on the back trail. She got the small six gun. I didn’t think to give her extra shells for the gun.
After almost falling asleep in the first five minutes I was hunkered down to watch, I stood up. When I did a slug whanged off the rock right next to my head. The sound of a shot followed as I slid back down into my hidey hole. Taking a quick peek to see what I could see, I saw nothing. Someone else did. Another round went splat into the same rock. Either the first shooter moved or there was more than one. I went with two shooters.
I prayed for that silly dog to show up and for Diane’s safety.
I had checked the terrain before I hunkered down and knew they could not get past me without me knowing it or being dead of course. I was watching for the first and didn’t want to think about the second.
One man popped up and right back down just like a prairie dog after a long winter’s sleep. I didn’t move. He tried it again. I didn’t move. The third time he lost his senses, I killed them with a bullet through his head.
The second, third, and fourth outlaw returned fire. There were some angry because I had killed number one. I crawled to a second spot off twenty feet or so.
The new spot did give them a route to get by me without me seeing them, but I doubted if they could see it from their angle. The way they had followed us and not cut us off told me they didn’t know this area at all and who would unless they stumbled on it like I did.
While I was trying to make up my mind what to do next, the sound of four or five shots rattled off the mountains from the direction Diane had gone. It was time to go.
I flung three shots in the general directions of the outlaws and started around the corner of trail behind me. Once I was clear it was back to running again. Those gun dummies were sure trying to murder those rocks back yonder. Must have fired off at least a box of shells. I smiled. I wasn’t there.
The trail went uphill for a short distance and then topped out in a nice campsite situated in the saddle. A problem became very clear. Going down the other side I would be in plain sight for at least five minutes even if I ran. The trail went zigzag down the mountain with one level not twenty feet above the next. Every time I was going across I was like a shooting gallery I saw in St. Louis once with a bunch of ducks moving across the scene and the object was to shoot them down as fast as they popped up. I never got to try that, but my dad did and didn’t do very well. He could hit a target standing still, but he couldn’t hit the slow moving ducks that were larger than the bullseye he could hit standing still. I was hoping the men behind me were as bad as my dad.
They weren’t. The first one to shoot took a chunk out of my rifle’s butt leaving splinters hanging out for me to poke in my face when I brought the Winchester up to return fire. When I got to the next switchback I just kept on going straight ahead. There was a stream at the bottom of the hill, but it was a long way down there.
After I cut out about half the downhill of the slope, someone saw me and fired a couple shots that sent twigs and needles falling on my head. I turned straight down the hill and did fairly well until I was fifty feet or so above the stream where I tripped and pretended to be tumbling act all the way to the water. The water and I met with no introduction, just a noisy, wet connection. The rifle was still in my hand when I came up for air.
The dog was sitting on the bank.
I reached for him and he took off downstream along a hard rock ledge and disappeared around a rocky corner. He was trying to tell me something, of that I was sure. The trail got a washing as I trotted in his steps shaking out the Winchester and my .44. In no time at all I rounded another corner and ran into Solomon. Solomon without Diane. He had a bleeding spot on his hip that I checked. It was a grazing shot that probably hurt more that it was dangerous.
He actually looked like he was happy to see me. I know I was happy to see him.
My position in the saddle gave me confidence that God was looking out for me. I yelled, “Thank ya, Lord,” and kicked Solomon into a fast walk. It was a gentle kick.
Down the trail we found a spot where the ground was all torn up. Must have been the place where the shots I had heard were fired. Three fired rounds lay in the dirt and a piece of wet plaid cloth that matched the shirt Diane had on was lying atop a rock like someone had put it there on purpose. More trail markers from Diane? I wasn’t sure of this one.
The dog barked from downstream. We took off after him. This time I gave Solomon his head and let him go his own speed which, due to the narrow trail, wasn’t very fast. Horse tracks with dog prints over the top of them filled the trail. I could smell fresh dust. Another piece of shirt was hooked on a branch to the high side of the trail.
It was her.
I gigged Solomon telling him to move faster. He held to the pace he had. I let him, he was smarter about the trail than I.
We splashed through the stream and up the other side a bit before going down and across the stream again. After six or seven crossings, I could tell by the water splashed on the bank still soaking in that we were catching up. I pulled back on the reins, not wanting to run into them when they had the advantage and I wasn’t ready. It was a good thing I did.
Around the nest corner there they were, just crossing the creek again into a tangle of aspen and scrub. The one at the back jumped off his horse and unlimbered his long gun. He was pretty good. From about 200 yards, he planted that slug in the tree right next to my head. I mean not even a foot away. Needless to say, I hit the dirt.
From a distance came the shout of victory from the shooter. He was sure I was down and yelled he was coming to get my scalp. Someone else told him to come back, but he kept coming. I could have, but I didn’t take his scalp. He was dead from a gunshot wound when I left him.
I didn’t shoot him, it was the outlaws chasing me.
All I could do was pray and say, “Oh goody, bad guys in front of me and bad guys in back of me. How can I miss?” Right then the story of Elijah and his servant came to me.
Seems the king of the country next to Elijah’s home sent an army to kill him because of his good instructions to the army of Israel. The servant got up in the morning and saw the army of this king lining the hills around the town Elijah and he were in. The servant ran back in the house and told Elijah they were going to die, there was an army surrounding this little town. Elijah didn’t even get flustered. He just asked God to show his servant His army. God opened the eyes of the servants to see the army of God, which was huge and ferocious and more powerful than the king’s army. Needless to say, the kings army got dealt with right smartly.
“Okay Lord. Let me see your army.”
All I saw was the view between my horse’s ears and I wasn’t too happy with that. There was no army between Solomon’s ears, at least not that I could see.
We took off to get in the tangle of trees and scrub before the ones behind us caught up any more. I couldn’t believe my good fortune when there was no one waiting for us there. The tracks just kept on going. The dog tracks were still there on top of the horse tracks. A patch of cloth was on the ground partially buried by a hoof print. It looked to me like the dog’s print had uncovered a big part of it.
What kind of dog was this?
I stopped just inside the dense stand of aspen and scrub, turned my Winchester toward the men behind me, and took another outlaw out of action and of the saddle right. He fell next to the tree that had the slug in it that had been fired at me as I emerged from that opening earlier. He went down and the two horses behind him rode right over the top of him. His scream wasn’t pretty. I really do hate to see men die. God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.
I know it’s Old Testament, but the Bible says that if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword. Somehow I was figuring that gun could be substituted for sword. But, then again, Jesus told his disciples that the time would come when they would need to sell their spare robe to buy a sword. Would gun fit there? I wasn’t sure. It sure seemed like God was setting up a bunch of bad men to stand in front of my gun. Would I die by the gun?
I quit thinking on the subject with that question.
Four shots were fired in my direction so I returned the favor with two rounds from the Winchester. Didn’t hit anything important, but it made me feel better. It also scattered the crowd behind me.
Solomon decided it was time to get us out of there. I had to hold the horse back or we would have smack dab into the tail end man ahead of us. We rode slowly along moving from cover to cover always keeping an eye on the back trail. I felt like a dumb kid first time he saw the big city and all the big buildings with his head swiveling as fast as possible.
As we rounded a corner on the trail I saw a fork. One path went up the side of the hill and the other stayed down along the creek in a bottom that was widening. From where I was I could not tell which branch the outlaws had taken with Diane. Both trails led to areas of wide open country. The bottom was wider and had fallen into a different type of growth, small trees far apart. The uphill branch was hanging on the side of the mountain by a hair, a very fine hair.
I crossed the creek through a mess of brush and saplings to get a better look at the uphill branch. There were no tracks on it. There were no tracks on the trail along the stream, either. The revelation was a strange and unfathomable to me as the Revelation of Scripture must have been to the human writers. How could this be possible?
It was a cinch they had not turned around. We would have collided. There was no sign of brushing out tracks on either path. They must have gone down stream walking the horses in the water. I took the path along the creek and began serious watching of both banks for an exit point. The problem became that I had to check out every solid rock exit point very carefully which meant I had to ride up every shelf and rock bottomed side cut until I could be sure they had not used it for an exit and started off in a new direction.
I had done two shelves and three side cuts before I hit the right one. It was a shelf of sandstone three feet wide and angled off uphill and away from the stream. There was a beautiful campsite centered on a flat red rock that would have made a great dinner table and kitchen next to the fire pit. I could see where someone not too long ago had set their saddle and blankets on the ground not too far from the fire and spent the night. A reasonably new flour sack was draped over a limb to confirm my findings.
That shelf went on for a ways, but fortunately, I saw two fresh strike marks where an iron horse shoe had recently hit the soft sandstone. About two hundred feet into it and there was a silver disc and a shred of plaid shirt. Diane was still thinking. Not too far after that point the tracks became clear as the path hit damp clay and I could pick out individual horse’s prints.
From the length of strides and position of the tracks I got to thinking they had started moving faster, but like a bunch of dummies they were going uphill and were going to tire their horses much faster. Having been on the trail for some time and on tired horses, they needed to find a campsite right soon or kill their horses.
The trail rounded a corner and started going down, at the bottom was a plume of smoke. Someone had just lit a fire of wood that wasn’t very dry and I had a real good idea who it was. Sitting in the trail was the dog. The location was ideal if they hadn’t started the smoke pouring into the sky. There was a ten acre hollow filled mostly with threes so close together you couldn’t see very far into the patch of woods.
Looking around offered me no way out of the fix I was in now. Thinking on the crowd behind me and the location of the ones with the smudgy I was the meat in the sandwich. ‘Charge, always charge,’ rang through my head. Solomon started walking down the hanging trail into the hollow as the dog stood and trotted into the woods. I lifted the rifle out of its scabbard and check for a round in the chamber and a full magazine. That was about as ready as I could get.
Nobody challenged us in any way as we approached the thick woods in the hollow. The dog came out of the trees and moved toward the creek we had been following, disappearing around a pair of rocks. Still no challenge. Behind the rocks I found the dog laying down in a sunny patch of sand in the bottom of a dried up pool not six feet from a drop off into the stream thirty feet below.
So, now I was not the meat in the sandwich. I had a hidey hole just big enough for the three of us as long as only one of us stretched out at a time. It was defendable, but it would be a fight to the death, there was no exit except the entrance. I sat myself in the entrance behind a clump of brush I pulled out at the side and moved to block the entrance and waited.
Within moments, a man walked out of the woods not a hundred feet from me. I could have shot him with the greatest of ease except for the idea that it would blow my cover. There was no way I was gonna do any shooting until the followers caught up and joined up with the ones in the woods with Diane. Then and only then would I know how many and where they were.
Solomon nickered twenty minutes later. The horses in the woods responded and so did a horse coming over the hump into the hollow. Both sides thought the nicker came from the other group of friends. The following group of men saw the smoke in the hollow and pulled their rifles out in preparation of finding me. I had to chuckle at that idea. Unless there was a trail out the other side, and I hadn’t seen one, I had them bottled up real nice. Of course I had no way of stopping a concerted charge of the whole bunch of them even if every shot was a killing shot. With ten rounds in the Winchester and six in the pistol, I’d be two bullets short of dealing with the crowd I figured was down there. Twelve men had just ridden in. From the sounds of things whooping and hollering down there, they must be old friends.
Two men walked to the edge of the woods and began walking back to the ridge on the trail. They were posting guards and the fox was already in the hen house. I guessed there wasn’t a decent tracker in the bunch if they didn’t see my tracks coming up that rise before the hollow.
Two hours later the dog woke me up with a paw on my lap. I looked around to see two more men coming from the woods with rifles in their hands, walking up the trail with rifles in their hands. The changing of the guard was nothing fancy like I’d read about in the paper a couple years back, but that is what they did. I went back to sleep figuring the dog and horse were gonna be on lookout.
I was wrong.
I was awakened by a gun prodding my ear and a voice, “You listen here, boy. I will blow your head off if you move sudden like. Keep your hands where they are a Lefty gathers your armament.”
“Now, stand up slowly, very slowly.”
“Walk on out here.”
“Lefty, get the horse and keep him covered from behind.”
He did. At least I suspected he did. I could hear Solomon walking not too far behind me as we walked out of the hidey hole and down to the tree line where we were met by three real bad men who welcomed me with a heavy handed slapping up-side of my head. I pretended to be knocked out and fell to the ground. They kicked me until I got up.
The voice with the gun said, “Stop. Boss man wants him alive and whole. If he screams loud enough the girl might sign the papers.”
I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Not if I have any say in this. She won’t.”
“Then she’s gonna die, preacher.”
Oh, so at least one of them had seen me in Denver or someplace earlier. “Lefty,” the speaker was behind me, “Did you listen to the sermon?”
“Yeah. Didn’t like you sayin’ we’s all sinners. I ain’t never sinned in my life, yet.”
“Did you just join this gang?”
“Nah. Did most of the horse wranglin’ for the ranch until you come along.”
“You must feel right proud riding with outlaws that are trying to take a ranch away from a woman after they killed her father, right proud.” He hit me in the back of my head sending my hat flying.
Moving from tree to tree, I got to the horses. Actually, it was just horse, Solomon. Diane’s horse was gone and so was her saddle. Why had she left alone? Why was I on the ground? Why was it dark when it should be early?
I had to think hard through the pain to come back to the answer, my concussion. I had blanked out and she did what I told her. She left me. She left me covered with a blanket and Solomon. For both I had to thank her. My Winchester was gone.
I checked the saddle bags, but found nothing there to eat. We hadn’t had anything to eat in a day before I blacked out again, and now I was going to have to look for her tracks, find food, and catch up to her before the Lazy E crowd, specially the fat man. Not a goal I was too sure I could handle at that time.
A sharp noise rattled through the woods. I drew the .44 and stood as silent as the rock next to me. Solomon’s head came up. I grabbed his muzzle to keep him silent. We waited.
Another horse? No.
Must be a person making that much noise. No.
It was a cow, a big ugly fat cow, also referred to as beef steak on the hoof. If I shot the poor dumb critter I might as well send a telegram to the ones following us and tell them where to meet me.
The cow got to live a bit longer. I slowly and carefully saddled Solomon, eased myself into the saddle, and started to go . . . where? I had no idea. I checked the big dipper. A couple of hours left until it would begin to get light. I slowly climbed down and, leaning against a the rock wrapped in my blanket, I waited for enough light to see her tracks.
I woke again with the sun just over the horizon. Solomon was still saddled and not very happy with me. He nudged me and gave out with a couple of grunts as if to say, ‘Let’s go, laggard.’ I really could not blame him.
The tracks of a fast moving horse left that campsite heading east. It was the tracks of Diane’s horse. We took out after them.
In the morning light the tracks were easy to follow. If they were easy for me, I knew they’d be easy for any real hand on a ranch. For a while I drug a bush along behind, but looking back all I’d done is make an easier track to see the trail.
There was about three miles behind me when the sound of a rifle shot came from up ahead. Solomon kicked the speed up a bit and we went running into battle.
The sound of a couple of six guns going off echoed off the steep sides of a valley we were entering. We splashed through a small stream and up the other bank, still on the tracks. The problem became very evident. Two other sets of tracks joined Diane’s. She was in trouble.
The rifle sounded again, followed by a six gun.
I was behind two chasers which were between Diane and I. I couldn’t shoot until I knew the positions of both Diane and the two outlaws, or at least I was assuming they were from the Lazy E. Another pistol shot, this time closer.
I left the saddle and tried to walk, leading Solomon. That didn’t work by head began to swim and I went down.
The sun had moved about two hours’ worth when I woke up. I wasn’t as confused as earlier, but there was still the problem of getting into the saddle. When I finally did, I was seeing double and Solomon was wanting to move. We moved at whatever speed Solomon wanted to go and all I did was hang on.
At least there were no more gun shots.
Not two miles down the path, four more horses joined the three I was tracking. Now there were six on the trail of one young gal that just wanted to see her father buried proper and get her ranch back. The more I thought on that idea, the madder I got. Why? Why was this outlaw rancher so intent on gaining a ranch that he would kill her father and then go after a woman in a time and place where woman were looked upon as more holy than any church. You could burn down every church in the state and just rile folks a bit, but mess with a woman and every man jack of them would be on your trail with a hanging rope over the horn.
At this point, Everson had to kill her and bury her deep. If she made it to a real town, he would be a hunted man and so would all his hands, or gang. I was already on his trail and I intended to be the one who read to him from the Good Book and told him of his sins. God could deal with him when the time came for his final judgment. I didn’t want to be judge, jury, and executioner. I just wanted the girl safe and sound in her own home.
I looked to the heavens and said, calmly, “Is that too much to ask, Lord.”
Thunder rolled through the new canyon Solomon had just taken the two of us into.
I didn’t like the sound of that answer.
Solomon moved on like he knew what he was doing and I just worked at staying in the saddle and making sense of the sights I was seeing double. No more shots rolled through the canyon as the walls got steeper and the steam ran faster.
I heard a shout.
Solomon stopped before I could pull back on the reins. I slowly swung my right foot over Solomon’s rump and eased myself to the ground. Taking my left foot out of the stirrup was no easy task, but Solomon stood for it. I dropped my end of the reins in the dirt just in time to see the dog moving through the boulders on the other side of the stream. Where had he been? I didn’t really care, I was just glad to see him. I whistled softly and he ignored me. I moved parallel to the dog as we moved up the trail alongside the stream.
Another voice said, “Catch up when you can. I ain’t missing the fun when they catch that gal.”
“Some pard you are, Doby.”
I listened to hear Doby ride away followed by the other man grumbling about a busted latigo way out here in the middle of nowhere.
The trail went up steeply alongside a ten foot tall water fall. Kinda pretty it was, but who had time to appreciate the creation around them in times like this. My head came slowly over the top at the edge of the falls to see a man fumbling with his saddle, which laid in the dirt, and trying to piece together two pieces of broken leather.
It looked to me like the mice had gotten to his latigo and done a right smart job of eating a fair sized chunk out of the strap. Only two ways I knew to fix that; rivets or a new strap. He tried to use just the ring end of the latigo only to find it too short to make a tie. He reached in his saddle bag and pulled out a strip of leather a short half-inch wide and thick about three feet long. Using his knife he cut the two chewed ends of the latigo off square and over laid them. The pocket knife he dug out of his ducking trousers had a long, narrow blade which he used to start a hole through the two ends of the latigo.
I could see what he was planning on and filed that idea in the back of my mind should I ever need it. He was going to sew that latigo together with the leather. He tossed the leather strip in a backwater of the stream and as he did caught sight of me. He grabbed for his gun.
I hauled mine out, but before I could get it over the edge of the trail, the dog hit him running and leaping across the stream to land in the middle of one surprised gun hand whose gun went flying and feet went out from under. The dog stood on his chest and growled in his face. I stepped up took his knives away from him. The big one I had to roll him a bit for, but the pocket knife was lying in the dirt next to him.
The dog backed off when I asked him to.
“Stand up and tell me the name of the man I’m gonna bury right here.”
“You ain’t burying me.”
The dog didn’t like the sound of his voice or something, he took the man down again.
The man’s hand flashed into his shirt and came out with a short barreled small caliber pistol which I heard click twice as he thumbed the hammer back. I didn’t think. I just shot the man as he laid there trying to get that barrel lined up with me or the dog.
The dog backed off and wagged his tail. Last I saw of him he was going over the next rise on the trail while I was gathering what I could use of the man’s rig. Two chunks of jerky were a blessing and that little, short barreled pistol, and his gun belt were going to come in handy I was sure.
I rolled him off the trail and set all the rocks I could move over against and over his body while I was quoting the Good Book to him for a service.
No there were only five after Diane.
The double vision was going away. I could move without getting dizzy. Getting on Solomon was not the task it had been just hours ago. “You fixin’ me up, Lord? I will give thanks for that.”
We moved slowly up the trail figuring someone would come back to check on the man left behind, but no one did after a half hour. Solomon slowly picked up the pace until we came to place where someone, Diane probably, had rolled a rock and caused a slide to cover the trail with large rocks and also dam up the stream.
The Lazy E boys had moved enough rock to get their horses over the blockage making a new chunk of trail which I promptly used and kept on at the tail end of the parade.
As I rode I was looking at the tracks. There were three I could identify anywhere due to some weird markings, but the others looked the same to me. I was trying to figure out which one was Diane’s, but had no luck by the time the sun was low in the western sky. With about an hour to find a secure place to camp, the trail split. The tracks of the horses went one way, which was cresting the pass not more than two hundred yards ahead. The creek was down to almost no water in it. I could even see where the trickle began near a pair of rocks not fifty feet ahead.
I filled my canteen and took the other way until I was sure no one was following and began looking for a camp spot. My figuring was that I would set up a camp and walk up to the pass after dark and see what I could see of campfires or even cabins or a town in the distance. We were high enough up that unless the view was blocked, the view should be long and informative.
Maybe a quarter mile up the side path, I found a spot. Just as I was swinging off the back of Solomon, I noticed as single small boot track in the dirt right where I figured to put my bed. It was a flat spot maybe six feet wide and protected on two sides by rocks three feet high. The track looked to have been made by someone going from rock to rock, but there they had to hit the dirt because the jump was too far.
Eyeballing the direction I took out to see if any more tracks showed up. The reason was simple. I was sure this was a track of one of the boots Diane had been wearing. Diane had sent her horse down one trail as she got off and headed down the other going from rock to rock alongside the trail. Those gun dummies would never think of a trick like that. Why would anyone leave a perfectly good horse to walk on top of rocks when and where there was no way they could get back to the horse? And, it was a long way to anything down this new trail.
FROM HERE ON I AM INTERJECTING A DOG THAT SHOWS UP OUT OF NOWHERE WAY BACK IN CH -10 OR SO. I AM ALSO SIFTING TO FIRST PERSON BECAUSE I FIND THE THIRD PERSON USING DEAC’S POINT OF VIEW ISN’T WORKING FOR ME. I WILL GO BACK ON REWRITE AND ADD THIS IN. the dog will add more options to the story at every crisis point.
The Rafter B was quiet. There were horses in the corral, a couple tied with saddles on at the hitch rail by the bunkhouse, and one rider way off to the other side headed in. From the horse count, there were at least 22 men on hand to keep the party lively and me on my toes. As I watched from the same point Tor and I had used before, I prayed. It was a simple prayer, “Lord, help me please.”
I didn’t know what else to say.
Ezekiel, THE DOG, hadn’t been around for some time, at least since the shooting started after I was discovered at the Lazy E. No worry, sometimes I think that dog is an angel from God and other times he hits me like a demonic spirit. He does keep saving my bacon, at least on occasion. I could have used that dog right then. His smile and tail talk louder than most words.
As I watched, one man walked from the bunkhouse over to the barn. In a couple of minutes I could hear the bellows pumping in the forge and saw smoke come from the chimney. That gave me the location of two of the men. The front door on the house opened and out step Diane. She was looking back over her shoulder like someone was giving her instructions.
She flipped her hair by throwing her head around and walked to a swing chair. Her standing there was doing things to me. She had obviously had a chance to clean up and change clothes. There was no sign of any bruises that I could see from this distance. She sat and started rocking it back and forth with one foot while she tucked the other underneath her. As she rocked she kept throwing her hair. I got the feeling she was trying to say something to anyone watching. She knew it would have to be me because no one else knew she was a captive and her father was dead, except the outlaws of course.
‘What could she be trying to say, Lord?’
The flip was always in the same direction, to her right. Every time she did the flip her hair would fall over the right side of her head and promptly slide back to the left. What was she saying, if she was saying anything?
She lifted her right hand and arm so the arm rested on top of the swing back. She knocked on the wood a couple of time and then slowly extended her pointer finger and brought the hand to a quiet position with that finger pointed.
Okay, so there was something over that way that was important. The sun was over there and a couple of hours from setting. I was sure she was not pointing at the sunset. There were no colors painted, yet.
I tried to focus on the area to the west from her angle. There was nothing but wide open spaces, or so it looked from where I was. Then I saw the dog. He was sitting very still about two hundred yards out from the side of the house. Anyone not knowing what that dog looked like would only see a scrubby bush if he could see anything looking into the sun like that.
Had she given something to the dog to give me if I showed up? Was she her dog? Questions I had no answers for at that time. One thing was sure, I was going to move around and join that dog about sundown.
After a few minutes she talked with someone inside the house, stood up, stretched like she was tired and going to bed, turned, and walked into the house with her left arm slapping the wall beside the door jamb three quick times with her knuckles. Three raps. Three shots. Danger or trouble. Most of the time it was the signal for ‘I need help.’ Was that what she was doing?
An answer slapped the back of my mind. She needs help to get to the dog or that way. Wait, she signaled she is going to bed for the night at a really early, too early for a young gal. She is going to sneak out of the bedroom on that side of the house and go in that direction and will need help. ‘Lord, you and I know she needs all the help she can get.’
I started sliding backwards toward Solomon. Once I reached him, we walked slowly, very slowly so we kicked up no dust, away from the house until it was relatively safe to mount up and head west.
The darkness took a long time coming that evening.
When it did, Solomon and I headed for dog.
There was no dog.
I could see the light of a lamp through the front room window. The window on the same side, but further back on the house was opened half way and dark. I watch standing in from of Solomon just in case someone saw us from the ranch. With the two merged figures a watcher would see neither horse or man, instead it would be some object like an old tree or something of the kind.
A dark figured eased out of the back window to the ground. It was easy to see the dark against the white wash on the wall. I assumed it was her and watched her move to the back corner of the house before dropping to hands and knees and crawling toward me ever so slowly.
The bunkhouse door swung open and one of the hands stepped out for an after dinner smoke. I had never seen them eat dinner. The thought just came to me.
A figure moved at the front room window. The fat man stepped to the window and looked out.
He knew she was leaving. He knew sooner or later I would show up. The hands were staying undercover so I would not be scared off by their movements or presence. This was all just one big trap to catch me.
Diane was confident of her escape through the open window that the fat man had left open on purpose, that she stood and walked rapidly all hunched over. Her in those dark clothes were going to be very hard to see from the house or the bunkhouse as she got further and further away.
She was coming right at me like she could see me.
I moved off her path a good fifty feet and covered Solomon’s muzzle so he would not make a noise.
The bunkhouse door opened again and two men stepped out. They gather two sets of reins from the horses tied there and swung into the saddles before riding to parallel her path. The outlaw in the barn came out on horseback and paralleled her on the other side. The fat man moved out to the porch and took up position sitting in the swing. He obviously planned on hold court from that position after his boys caught me and drug Diane back.
So, he still did not have her signature on the deed that he needed, was my first thought. My second was he would kill her this time and forge a signature or make up a very large story to cover his occupying the Rafter B. A third thought was that he could burn the barn with the two of us in the ashes and no one would be the wiser when he bought the place from her just before the accident.
Tor and I were the only ones that knew where her father’s body was and Tor was not going to do any talking. I was in his way as much as the gal.
‘Lord, I need Your help.’
As Diane came abreast of me I said, “Keep riding. You’re being followed. Don’t worry, I’ll meet up with you.”
She started a bit, but kept it calm. “Please hurry. I just know they’re gonna kill me soon.”
“Did you sign the deed over?”
I turned to check on the followers. The single rider was coming straight at me and the other two were out of sight in the dark and probably behind a rise in the land. Diane kept in going without changing pace.
There was a rope on my saddle, but I had never roped anything in my life. Even when the other boys were roping hay bales and fence posts, I sat and watched. Dad raised me to be a phony preacher just like him. I really fooled him.
As the single rider came on I moved toward him going from one tree to another until I was in a great position. He saw my horse and got real cautious, climbing down off his horse, and creeping forward. As he passed by position, I clubbed him on the back of the head with my .44. He fell like he was dead.
I rode to intercept the other two followers.
By the time I caught up with Diane she was out of the woods and moving quickly across an open grassy plain. Dark spots shaped like cows dotted the country side and a clump of what appeared to be trees could be seen in the distance. I decided the best thing to do was just ride up to her and escort her on her way. The two gun dummies could follow or attack, I really did not care.
We talked a bit as we rode. Out of the corner of my eye I watched for the riders off to the left and could not tell them from cows or elk in the grass. There were just dark shapes here and there. All I could think of was they were snakes in the grass and just as difficult to see..
We arrived at the trees which surrounded a spring filled a small pond where the cows in the past had left their sign of many visits in the past. “You keep on riding and I’ll see what I can do about them two.” I nodded in their direction.
Two dark spots turned to come straight at us as the distance between them widened. I said a quick prayer under my breath and settled in to a great spot behind a tangle of tree trunk and scrub brush, and waited.
The first one to catch sight of me had his six gun in hand. He started to to raise the pistol, so I shot him out of the saddle. As I fired, I heard a shot behind me and felt a round graze my left arm like a hot iron. I turned to see the a shadow bringing his sights to take another shot at me. He didn’t like it that I did not fall down and die with his first shot. His second shot missed. He needed some practice. He wasn’t going to get any practice, I shot him out of the saddle. He fired at the sky as he fell.
I rode like my horse’s tail was on fire to catch up with Diane. “Let’s ride.”
She kicked her horse into a run alongside me. We covered some ground for about ten minutes when I called, “Let’s ease’em down to a gallop and head toward the east and the mountains. We need some cover.”
Morning found us snuggled into a clump of rocks in the foothills with a small, very small fire keeping us warm. As soon as I could make out separate rocks a hundred feet away, I saddled the horse, woke Diane, and we left the place. Swinging up into the saddle caused my head to swim and I had to hold on with both hands to keep from falling. That wasn’t good at a time like this.
“You know how to get outta here to some civilization where we can find help and a bit of rest?”
“I think so.”
“You lead, I’ll follow.”
As we rode I told her my problem. The look of fear on her face scared me.
“Just keep going if I go down. You won’t be able to put me on a horse, so you get to safety. If you can hide me a bit, that would be good, but don’t leave my horse with me. Take him down the trail a mile or so, and let him go.”
“What do I do then,” she asked.
We discussed that issue for a bit, until she went silent. I dropped back further.
It was dark, very dark. I was on the ground and it was cold. A blanket was over me, my head throbbed, and it was dark. Trying to stand was a failure for the first two times. I was able to stand only if I held on to something solid, like the tree next to my blanket. “Diane,” I whispered.
“Diane,” I said in a normal voice, except there was a twinge of fear that I didn’t like in the sound of it.
“I’d rather not, but I gotta eat. Ain’t had nothing since they killed that man back on One Horn Creek. Les should be back in a minute or two. He don’t like that food any more than you. I’m getting . . .” He walked away grumbling.
The Deacon a quick prayer of thanks and opened the door.
The two barrels of a shotgun looked like tunnels. “Get back out where you belong. I told you men, no one comes in this house without my invite. Get.” It was the fat man.
Daniel turned and walked out.
“Don’t that beat all. I get right up to the man and he’s got the drop.” The Deacon walked away from the back side of the house as he saw a man coming his direction. He dropped behind the ruins of the jail shack Diane had been in before. There was not much of it standing after someone had destroyed it. He laid there until the sun’s light no longer did much for the guards.
The man knocked on the door. The fat man answered. They talked for a minute or two. The only words the Deacon caught were, “then someone else is in this area, find him.” just before the door slammed in the man’s face. The man ran to the front of the building shouting order to everyone he passed.
Two men trotted around the house and set up station at the back door. Others went running everywhere, but no one thought of a tumbled down shack in plain sight. The lookouts were sent out to at least three points and a couple of men were put on the roof of the bunkhouse, which had a roof higher than any other building. The voice of the fat man shouted, “Take him alive and we’ll teach him to leave us alone.”
Surveying the area left few options for the Deacon. He could stay where he was or move and hope it would work out better. Just as he decided to stick until he could see really well, all havoc broke out. A man came running down the hill behind the house towing a horse. That horse was Solomon. Now he knew he had to do something.
The fat man came out of the house, listened for a moment and started shouting orders about searching the place with a flour sifter if he had to, but he was getting the man who owned the horse. The fat man lined everyone up in two lines facing opposite directions. The lines were anchored on the house at one end and the bunkhouse at the other. The men were spaced far enough away from each other that they could see each other and all that was between them.
He yelled, “Move straight ahead and comb every spot and pile and building on the place. I’ll get the house and the area behind it. Hawkins, you get the area behind the bunkhouse.”
“Yeah Boss,” was the only reply.
The Deacon knew he would be found in about 25 steps. He rolled sideways away from the building until he hit a dip he could not roll out of. Gathering his feet underneath his body he lunged and ran as fast as he could for the tree line a good quarter mile away.
A man shouted, “There he goes,” and threw a couple of quick shots into the night.
The Deacon ran like he had never run before, except maybe the time he got caught in the melon patch. He laughed as that thought went through his mind. Shots were coming at a steady rate behind him, but nothing was hitting very close. The sound of men running soon disappeared in the sound of horses running.
He stopped and turned, gun in hand.
Six horses were just passing the running men. Only three of the horses had riders allowing the runners to attempt to catch and mount the free running horses. He watched one man swing into the saddle by grabbing the horn and then sail all the way over the horse making a hard landing the dirt.
He fired two shots and moved quickly to the left as far as he could without losing too much of the lead. He turned and ran, shots were hitting the dirt where he had fired. In moments he saw a shallow ditch to his left and angled for it. It was too shallow for his purposes. The trees were closer, but still out there a ways.
The poofs of dust were getting closer. He realized he was running over a hump and the stars were behind him in the view the outlaws would have. Cutting his angle back to the right, he willed himself to go faster as he prayed deep in his mind. ‘Lord, this is a bit more delivering that I had asked for. If I had another choice, I’d ask for them to all fall down and let me get to the trees.’ He looked back. They were still coming.
He stopped, turned, and let fly with two more rounds. The rider fell off the lead horse. The Deacon ran. ‘This ain’t getting no easier, Lord. I know you said that vengeance belonged to you in your book. So, you wanna take your vengeance on these sinners, please? Any time now would be fine.’
He found more energy and kicked his feet out in front a bit further with each stride. Before he really thought about what to do next, he was in the trees. A sharp turn to the right seemed appropriate, so he did. He saw the ditch just in time to jump it and get a great idea from it.
A large tree 50 yards further became his barricade. He turned. Punched out the fired rounds and poked 4 rounds in as replacements. Looking back where he had come from, he could see three riders entering the trees. They would go past him if they continued that direction and he would be covered on two sides. Not a good position when a man is afoot and the chasers are on horses.
He fired three shots directly at the lead man who fell forward over the neck of his horse. As the wounded man hung on, the other two drew up. The Deacon fired one more round. He hit nothing but the air it passed through as far as he could tell, but it had the desired effect. The two riders turned toward him and ran their horse into the ditch.
The Deacon ran back and with a heavy hand smacked both men with the barrel of his .44. They both ended on the dirt in disorganized piles. The horse both had broken legs, the Deacon shot them and quickly reloaded. “One of them could have come through this with four good legs, Lord. I would be riding now, but thanks anyway. You’re in charge and not me. Where to now?” he said to the sky.
All he heard was, ‘Whistle.’
He also worked his way through the trees further away from the runners. As he was ready to fall down and take a rest, he heard the sound of horse’s hooves coming from direction of the ranch. The sky was beginning to look a bit gray allowing a bit better sight in the thick wooded area. The way out was going to be too well lit in a matter of minutes and he would have no chance against the riders coming.
A whiny sounded.
“Solomon. Here boy. You good looking devil you.”
The horse extended his muzzle. The Deacon gave it a quick pat and then swung into the saddle. His spurs just naturally gigged the horse’s ribs none too gently. The horse took off, swerving right and left around the trees at a clip that caused the Deacon to lie down on his neck and pray the horse was smarter than he was.
When the Deacon realized there were no more trees whizzing by, the sky was light enough for even a human to see the trees in spite of the forest. There was just one problem, there were no trees and the two of them were running horse belly to the ground across a large open flat area.
Shots sounded behind him. He turned. They were so far away and off the horses trying for a luck rifle shot. Nothing landed anywhere near.
The Deacon eased back on the reins and said, “Easy there, big boy, we got a ways to go and there may be more coming.” He was checking the surroundings as he spoke and the hills to the right looked like the best option.
‘It was going to be a long ride around the Lazy E in order to get in position in order to save that gal,’ he was thinking.
Not a soul stirred on the grounds of the Lazy E as the Deacon stood in the middle of the yard that had bristled with men 12 hours before. The .44 was hanging in his limp hand as he looked around. Tracks all over indicating a lot of moving around told the story of a rapid evacuation of the grounds.
He entered the last building in his search, the house shack. The stench of old sweaty men’s bodies was mixed with the gentle fragrance of a woman. He checked the only other room to find a bed, if you want to call it that, covered in a tick mattress that was more lump than mattress. No woman’s things were left out in the open that he could see right off. A shiny object caught his eye. He picked it up, a concha. A concha from the belt the girl had been wearing.
He stuck it in his vest pocket and left the ranch site with a new zeal to get that gal out of the hands of the Lazy E.
After riding a mile straight away from the buildings, he did a circle all the way around. Tracks showed that the men leaving had left in groups of two and three, all going in different directions. “That ain’t gonna work, boys. All I gotta do is follow one of you and I get to the meet up spot. The question I have is, which one of you has Diane with you?”
He followed each set of tracks back to the ranch one at a time. On the third one just hundred yards or so from the house, he found another concha. It matched the one in his vest pocket. He pointed Solomon’s nose along the direction of the tracks and kicked Solomon into a steady, ground eating gallop.
Within two hours it was easy to tell that the horse was about done in. The Deacon saw a small trickle of water coming from a seep into a water carved basin just a dozen feet off the trail and stopped. “Not the best place to camp, but it works.”
The horse nudged the water and sucked what was in the basin, which wasn’t much, and then walked toward some dried grass still standing beyond the seep. From the strength of the trickle of water, it was going to be an hour or so before the basin would be filled again. Both horse and rider settled in for a nap.
They had not gone very far after resuming the tracking, when the Deacon got a revelation. The three horses he was following were headed for the gal’s ranch. The man grumbled, “Wish I knew the country. It’d be nice to swing around and beat them there.”
Not a mile more the horse stopped. The Deacon looked around and tried to get him to keep on the trail which was pointed at a group of mixed aspen and fir on the far side of an open area. Every time the Deacon would pull his head straight on, the horse would turn to the right. The man let him go the way he wanted which was the downwind side of the grassy meadow the Deacon was trying to get him to cross.
Not but a few moments into the circle, the strong smell of smoke came to them. “Is that a camp or a rest spot, Solomon?”
The horse bobbed his head.
They travelled on until the Deacon caught the hint from the horse that it was time to turn back to the trail which brought them to a spot where the fire and the movement of men around the fire were seen. “Looks like they’re in for the night. Got’em a brush shelter, for the lady of course, and a chunk of meat on the fire. They musta brought that with them. There haven’t been any shots fired since this morning at the ranch.”
He dismounted and started toward the fire.
Half way to the fire he heard a noise off to his right. As he turned his head swiftly in that direction, his world went crazy. A dizziness hit him, his eyes refused to focus, and the day went dark as he fell to the dirt.
He woke up to the sun on the other side of the sky. He had been out all night. Trying to stand was a comedy show in itself. A whistle brought the horse after he checked in the direction of the fire to find nothing there. The horse walked up behind him as he was checking his gun. He turned quickly and the dizziness hit again, only this time he grabbed a tree and held on it and consciousness at the same time. Solomon looked at him as if to agree the Deacon had a problem.
The Deacon took inventory. He had been shot. He had fallen. He had not eaten for two days. The combination was obviously dangerous for him. Cogitating on all of it brought back a memory of a time when Evelyn had been climbing the steps into the caravan when his father had opened the door in a powerful hurry catching Evelyn in the head. Evelyn had gone down hard, landing on the back of her head. She was dizzy and out of sorts of a few days. His dad was mad because she could not sing and draw the crowd.
Dad had called her problem something that was hanging on the back of his mind. A concussion. That’s what his problem was, a concussion. How long would it last? How many times would he fall? How was he going to rescue the gal if he kept sleeping for many hours at a time? Something about sleep rang a bell. Someone with a concussion was not supposed to got to sleep for a day or so.
Well, he had stayed awake for a couple of days so he should be all right. But, he was not all right. Why?
“Solomon, we got a problem.” The horse bobbed his head.
“Is that the only answer you have?” The horse bobbed his head.
“Forget it.” He took the reins and walked into the campsite. Another Concha was lying in the dirt just under the edge of an emerging fern curl. Next to it was the ‘Rafter B’ scratched in the dirt.
He had been right. Now all he had to do was get there. Something else caught his eye. On the fern curl was a spot of what looked like blood. Her blood? Was she trying to show that she was hurt or being hurt?
“Come on, Sol, we got places to go and no time to get there.”
He let the horse set the pace.
Daniel saw the muscles in Tor’s back convulse.
The skin spread of its own accord and the slug rolled out onto the bunk.
Behind him came a sigh and then a thump on the floor. He turned and saw Diane just settling to the on her side.
Daniel shoved a piece of the shirt in the wound with one hand and reached out to Diane with the other. That didn’t work. He tended to Tor who had lost enough blood already. Grabbing the needle and thread he had stuck in the post, he began sewing the wound just as he had seen a doctor do on his father’s head one time in a small Kansas town.
Daniel finished sewing.
After a meal of pan bread from the kitchen and beans from a can the two men sat around the table and Diane stood at the wall.
“I am not leaving this place. They will burn it and lay claim to it.” Diane stomped her foot not once, but twice.
“How you gonna hold off twenty or more gun dummies from Lazy E?”
“I don’t know. But, I will tell you one thing, they won’t take me alive. There’s two men in that group that are going to die at my hand and that’s a promise. They could not keep their hands off me and their hands were dirty. Filthy pigs! I’ll kill them.”
Tor’s head came up staring at the table. “What?”
“Men like that should be shot down like dogs,” Diane added as she stomped her foot, again.
Daniel was not liking what he heard. He was still torn between the image his father had taught him of the Christian that was always turning the other cheek and the man that knew this was wrong and knew he could help do something about it. The Bible says for Christians to turn the other cheek and never states what you do after that second cheek was hit. It also says to take care of the widows and orphans. Here was an orphan and a woman alone all in one. What was he to do? He had asked that a lot lately and still was not getting a straight answer.
Of course, the fact that the orphan and woman alone was a very nice looking young lady all alone in a lonely patch of countryside did not have too much influence in the situation. “Ha ha,” he said outloud.”
“What?” Tor asked.
“Never mind. Just thinking.”
“How can you laugh at me?”
“Diane, I am not laughing at you. I am laughing at the choice I need to make.” Daniel got up from the table and walked out into the darkness.
The moon had not risen, but the stars were out providing more light than was necessary to walk around the ranch buildings. Daniel looked up in prayer. “Lord, you know what I am and all I am. I need your help. This gal needs your help. Tor needs your help. I am only one small man in your kingdom. Without you I am nothing. Guide me with Your wisdom and all the strength I need to keep this place safe. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
His world went black.
The sun was two hands high in the sky when he opened one eye. The ground the eye could see was dark dirt with a red tint. His head hurt like never before. He smelled smoke. Moving each leg one at a time and then his arms, he found one arm was tingling like he had slept on it wrong. He used the good arm to feel his head. There was a line plowed across the back of his head and when he checked his hand there was blood.
“Okay, Daniel. You have been hit in the head, you are bleeding, and something is burning. Get up!”
After four tries he finally made it to his feet and was able to check out his surroundings. The house was in front of him looking like someone had kicked in the back door. “Backdoor? How’d I get here?”
He took two steps toward the back door and had to fight his way to his feet again. Entering the house, it had been ransacked. Nothing was where it was supposed to be. The small secretary in the corner had everything dumped out of it and the drawers were smashed to kindling. The coffee on the stove was cold when he tried it.
He walked out front, the blood red cross felt good in his hand. “Was there a fight? Better check this .44.” It was filled with five good rounds. He put in the sixth.
Out the front door and across the yard to the bunkhouse he stumbled only to find it empty. His gear and Tor’s were still in place on the top bunks. The bloody rags were still on the floor. The view from the door finally revealed the fire he was smelling.
The shack furthest out was afire and almost completely gone.
The horses were not in the corral. He called, “Tor. Diane,” as loud as he could which sounded like a dying frog to him. No reply.
Two buckets of water from the well dumped over his head cleared his vision and his mind enough that he was now sure the ranch had been attacked and he was the first one down. Someone drug him behind the ranch house from the middle of the yard and dumped him for dead. There was no sign of the girl or Tor.
“God. This is not the answer I was looking for,” he said to the sky. He walked to the house and looked for food. A box of stale hardtack, if it’s possible for hardtack to be stale, was all he could find. The flour was on the floor and any other basics he might use were gone. On can on the counter had a touch of brown sugar left in it which he dumped in his hand and licked between bites of hardtack he broke up with the butt of his gun.
An idea hit him as he crunched more hardtack in his mouth. Solomon had come when he whistled before. He walked outside and whistled. He waited. Nothing.
He went to the barn to see what was there he could use.
He walked back outside and there was Solomon walking down the slope behind the house. He whistled again. The horse lifted his head and ran. Daniel filled the well bucket for the horse.
“Okay, Lord. I think you want me to be the Deacon that Tor talked about. Kind of a protector of the widows and orphans. The question is, how far do I go? It’d take a lot of killing to eliminate the evil men in this world that would prey on widows and orphans. Do I just kill them or only in self-defense?” The word ‘defense’ ran through his head loudly. “So, just in self-defense it is. Thanks.”
Twenty minutes later he was mounted and on the trail of the riders leaving the ranch. He had not found Tor or the girl anywhere on the ranch. He had even checked the ashes of the burnt building. The Winchester was fully loaded and a round was under the hammer. His six gun held six rounds. The horse seemed to sense the urgency of the situation and would put his head down every now and then, bring it up, and move a little faster.
“I think this horse is a blood hound and on the trail of one, or both of his old running mates.”
A trickle of smoke eased through the boughs of the trees he was watching from a ridge line. The trees were alongside a stream the reflected the sun like cheap glass beads an Indian might wear. He doubted the presence of an Indian. The trail he was following led like an arrow to the smoke.
Just as he was set to go around and get ahead of them, they emerged from the cover of the trees and climbed the far side of the small valley. He could not make out a rider that looked like Tor, but the straw colored hair of Diane was a flag in the breeze. She was riding the pack horse with a saddle on it. Her hands were tied to the saddle horn.
All he could do was continue to follow, but first he had to wait for them to clear the far side and that would give them back some of their lead.
As he waited, Solomon got more and more antsy and ready to go. When Solomon could wait no more he whinnied and was answered from the trees. The Deacon watched the crowd going up the other side until they disappeared over the top before he untied Solomon and rode down to the campsite.
Tor was there and so was his horse.
The horse was lame. Tor was a mess. Blood oozed from cuts and holes all over his body. His scalp was gone. He was alive.
He smiled at Daniel. “I’ll see you in God’s house. I told Him after I was caught that I was His to do with as He pleased. I asked for forgiveness from my doubts and sins, and I did plenty. Hey, I even named a few that I thought would keep me from Him. He took me in. I feel nothing. Through all this, I felt nothing. Well, Deacon, the task is all yours. I’m going away and will wait for you in Heaven. Do what you know you gotta do, my friend.”
His head slumped and his entire body hung from the ropes he was tied with.
Daniel cried like a baby. “This isn’t what I asked for, either, Lord.”
He walked down to the stream and washed his face. He found Tor knife stuck in the tree on the back side form the body, pulled it out, cut the ropes, and buried the best friend he ever had.
The horse had a rock between the shoe and his frog. Daniel dug it out and walked the horse a bit after tightening the shoe, using a rock for a hammer on the nails. It wasn’t a good fix, but it was a fix. Now he had two horses.
He rode to the top of the hill as he thought about all the Lord had been dealing him. He’d asked for the enemy to be delivered to him and God had sent them to him. Problem was the Deacon had not expected the method that God had choses. He needed to be more specific in his prayers or watch out for all ways God could answer his prayers.
The top let him see the rooster tail of dust moving away from him and toward where he figured the Lazy E was located.
Staring into the eastern sky as the sun set behind him, the Deacon studied the problem before him. There were twenty or more gun hands and outlaws down there. Diane was in the main shack with the fat man whom he assumed was Everson. The Bur that needed killing was somewhere, probably down there. There were two men at the front door and two men at the back. Men with rifles were positioned in pairs and one trio on high points all around the place. Six men, as near as he could determine, walked the grounds seemingly at random.
“Okay Lord. That a bit much for me to tackle. What do you have in mind?”
All that came to mind was, ‘walk in and get the girl.’
“We gotta be serious here, Lord.”
He made sure no one was coming his direction from any direction. The two not a hundred yards away and uphill from him had not even looked his way. Everybody was watching the ranch yard. To his left was a shallow wash that would probably allow him to belly crawl in most of the way to the bottom of the hill, but from there to anything that could be called cover was a long way.
As the scene darkened, he saw the cook hang his apron on the door to the cook shack. One man left the lookout spot nearest him. He checked all around. Same thing was happening at all the points. The apron must have been a signal for the meal or watch change.
Without thinking, he stood up and walked straight for the cook shack. At the last minute he turned to the house. With his hand covering the butt of his Colt, he walked up to the back door guard on the house shack. “Wanna go eat. I got all I want of that swill.”
Long about noon, Daniel caught sight of a rooster tail of dust off to the west. In moments he realized that the dust was being followed by dust. “Solomon, someone is being chased over there. We better check it out. Tor and Miss Diane might be in trouble.”
Daniel had just crossed the trail of tracks from their moving toward the Lazy E. The dust was coming straight for him. He moved off to the side of the trail to a group of rocks and scrub trees of some kind where he found a safe place for Solomon and a nest for him to set an ambush.
Just as he laid his Winchester over a rock he saw a woman riding Tor’s horse leading Tor on the pack horse and, from Tor’s position, he was hurt. No sooner had he figured that all out than eight riders topped the rise not a hundred yards behind. The woman was nice to look at even if she was dirty, sweating, and scared. He stood so she could see him and then squatted back down triggering two rounds toward the gun hands just as three of them decided it was time to shoot at the gal and Tor.
One man rolled off his horse under the hooves of the horses behind. The Deacon was fascinated by the dance of the wounded with the horses. One horse hit the man and tumbled. Now there were two men and a horse involved in the dance. “Not a pretty sight even if it is interesting,” he said to the rocks.
The gal led Tor in behind a group of trees fifty feet past the Deacons position. The Deacon saw that Tor was covered in blood down his left side and the gal was on the edge of panic as she frantically jumped off her horse and tried to catch Tor as he fell off the wrong side of his horse. The deputy landed in the dirt with a plop like a watermelon dropped off a roof. The gal screamed and tried to get around the pack horse that was in a panic himself.
The Deacon looked back at the gun hands. They still came. None of them were firing their guns. Deacon figured all their targets had disappeared. As the six remaining riders slowed they spread out into a line like a cavalry charge. Behind a ways, one rider was running trying to catch up his limping horse and the second was sitting up in the dirt watching the blood run from his arm and trying to tie his bandanna around the wound. The man in the middle of the line became his target as he fingered the trigger. The man fell and five riders came straight at him firing as fast as they could.
He moved down so his long gun was situated between two rocks and the two rocks gave him a tremendous amount of cover. Two shots brought down two more riders causing the other three to pull off into the trees up sloped from the trail. One man got up and staggered to a rock to hide behind while the other two just stayed still.
One man shouted, “You give us the woman and you can leave in one piece and upright.”
“You go back and tell the boss that ain’t gonna happen,” the Deacon replied.
“There’s still three here to your one.”
“There used to be eight. What’s that tell you?”
“You got lucky from ambush, that’s what.” The man moved as he spoke.
Deacon saw the move and splattered rocks all over the man. A few pieces of rock cut deep and drew blood. “I could have killed you, hombre, but I’m feelin’ a bit generous. I don’t know what you 8 had in mind for the young lady, but I’ll find out and your boss will hear from me. I don’t stand for a bunch of big strong growed men picking on one woman alone. You ought to be ashamed.”
The speaker for the ranch said, “Tell ya what. Let us ride outta here and we’ll share your words with the boss. I will leave one man here to make sure you don’t go nowhere until I get back.” There was a laugh in his voice.
The Deacon simply replied, “Nope. You all leave taking your wounded and dead, right now, or the buzzards and coyotes will feast tonight. I’ll just kill the rest of you.” He fired one shot and took the heel off the man’s boot. It had been showing since the last move. “I coulda put that right next to the knife scar you have on your cheek, hombre. Now move or die. If you move this direction or stay you will die. I promise.”
“Who are you? Why’s your nose in none of your business?”
“They call me The Deacon. I’ll be happy to say the service over you graves and read a few select passages from the Good Book. Now git!”
Silence reigned for about ten heartbeats.
“We’ll leave.” The man stood up in plain sight, turned, and went for his horse. He looked across the trail and yelled, “Come on, boys. Let’s gather the horses and pick up our casualties and go back to see Everson. I ain’t goin’ against that gun over there for no amount of money.”
He climbed aboard his horse and trotted after two of their horses grazing back down the trail.
Daniel stayed alert until he saw them cross the high spot. He rode to the high spot to watch them gather up another horse and keep on down the trail to the ranch. It was over.
He went back to where the girl and Tor had turned in.
Tor lay in the dirt with the girl working with pieces of Tor’s shirt trying to stem the bleeding from his side. “Ma’am. Let me get on that. I’ve done it before.”
“So have I.” There was a definiteness in her voice. “Get me some water.”
He handed her his canteen.
“How’d he get hit.”
“Lucky shot. Everson’s gun fighters and rustlers were behind us a good two hundred yards when one of them up and pulls his Winchester out and lets one go in our direction. First shot. One shot. Zap it nails this man right through the ribs. Ain’t no air bubbles, which is good.”
“There is no exi
t wound either,” Daniel said.
“I see that. Nothing we need to worry about now. Who is he?”
“Man’s name is Tor. He’s a deputy city marshal outta Denver. We’re on a fishing trip.”
“And you are?”
“My name is Daniel Fount. Lately of Denver.”
“Fount? You that preacher?” She smiled from a dirty face.
“Yup. That’d be me.”
“Tor here told me we needed to ride and meet the Deacon.”
“That’s be me. He give me that name. I ain’t likin’ it much.”
She turned back to the wound. Daniel watched as her straw colored hair caught the slant of the sun light. He had seen her eyes in the discussion and was startled to remember they were green, a deep pale green. “We buried your father right proper. And, went looking for you. Almost lost you after the rains. If it hadn’t a been for a man in that little town, Black, we woulda never found ya.”
She started as if stung by a bee. “Pa is dead. He told me that Pa had been taken care of and that’s how you found out about me.”
“We did take care of him. He was dying when I found him and talked a bit before he died. I found out you are Diane and someone named Everson owned a ranch and was givin’ you trouble. He also said to watch out for someone or something that starts with ‘Bur’.”
“Yep, he said kill Bur and died.”
“I know no Bur whatever follows.”
“It’s a mystery we need to figure out. For right now let’s get him on his horse with the saddle and move away from this spot. I’d rather not be here when the rest of the riders come back as I’m sure they must. This time they’ll bring the boss.”
“Everson is a killer and thief.”
“Perhaps we can end his sin if he shows up. Where’s a good place to defend with water, food, and a clear area for a battle ground?”
“The Rafter B. Pa’s ranch. Oh, I guess it’s my ranch now. Ma’s been dead for three years. Typhoid got her.”
They spent another hour working at hiding their tracks as they traveled just north of west. Daniel spent much of his time looking back from every high point. They came over a hump to find a small stream flowing in the opposite direction of their travel. Making a point of entering the stream at an angle up stream, they turned down stream once they were in the water.
“This riding in the water is losing time. It’s just plain slow, and I don’t like riding down in this little valley. No trees, no cover, anyone coming over that rim could see us a couple of miles away,” Daniel said in a low voice.
Tor said, “It can work.”
Daniel and Diane were both surprised by his comment. He hadn’t spoken during the ride.
“Find a rock shelf or gravel and get out of here.”
They had passed a shelf a ways back. “Let’s go back to that red rock shelf where we almost dumped our horses, Diane. You remember, the rock was so slick we almost dumped the horses.”
Daniel turned around and led the way.
The Rafter B wasn’t a large ranch. The headquarters consisted of a house about thirty feet square, a steep roofed barn, a small bunkhouse, and a couple of other small sheds and shacks. The corrals were bull tight and well laid out. The main corrals were dog boned with two large areas our on the ends and a narrow runway between them. Off the runway was three or four small corrals. Lots of gates swing in both directions allowed them to move and sort cows nice and easy with a minimum number of hands.
“Home sweet home,” said Diane. “And, it’s all mine. Only, I don’t want it now.”
“There’s no way a woman could hold a ranch like this alone.” Daniel was looking around as he said, “It is the best laid out place I’ve seen, but I haven’t seen many out this far.”
They rode up to the house. Diane stepped off her horse onto the porch with practiced ease, dropping the reins at the horse’s front feet. “You can stash the horses in the barn or the corral next to it. There’s a door that’ll allow the horses to go in and out. Should be feed in the barn unless some range rider used it all since we been gone. Ain’t happened yet, but Pa was always worried it would happen when we left the place. I’ll see if there’s anything left to eat.” She stepped through the front door.
Daniel led Tor’s horse to the bunkhouse and helped him down. Inside he laid him in a bunk on his good side and pulled the shirt bandages off slow and easy. Using his knife he cut around the one spot that was stuck to the wound. “Wooowee. You got more black and blue than you got pink. Good news is that the bleeding has stopped and I can see a bump under a rib just around the corner on your back. Let’s get some hot water and cut that slug out.” He looked around. “Stove over there in the corner with a dutchoven on top. Be back in a few moments, don’t go anywhere.”
“Sure. I’ll be right here for you to cut up like a side of beef.”
“Naw. I won’t do that. I just might carve the Lord’s Prayer in your hide though.”
A couple of old broken rails from the corrals and a match took care of the stove. Water from the well filled the dutchoven. An old shirt hanging on a nail made new bandages. Daniel found a whet stone in the barn next to the forge and worked on Tor’s knife a bit before he announced, “Okay, Mr. Deputy, it’s time for the Right Reverend Daniel Fount to get rid of the sin in your body. I will deal with it one slice at a time. Bite this.” He shoved a hunk of folded leather in the man’s mouth as he opened it to speak.
Daniel checked the lump again and with a quick move sliced a two inch gash over the slug.
“Man, leave a little there.” Tor was not speaking softly.
(PLEASE REMEMBER THIS IS HOT OFF THE KEYBOARD FOR NANOWRIMO. THERE HAS BEEN NO EDITING.)
Daniel awoke to a dark sky and a quiet campsite. Tor was nowhere in sight and he wasn’t about to start yelling for him. A quick check told him that Tor’s horse was still tied to the line they had set up for the three horses. His saddle was on the ground and his bed was still laid out like he had just gotten up from it.
He stepped into the brush to relieve himself. When he returned to camp Tor was there whittling on a long, straight limb. “Where ya been?” asked Tor.
“In the bushes, uh, lookin’ for you.”
“I was over on this other side doin’ the same thing. Them boys down there like big fires, look at that baby.”
The yard of the ranch headquarters was lit up like midday. Men were moving around with a purpose. “I wonder why.”
“Simple. They think we might be coming in to join them for one reason or another.”
Deacon kept looking as if he were mesmerized by the fire that far away.
“Don’t stare at it. You’ll have a blind spot in your vision for a while if you do.” Tor was not a happy deputy from the tone. “I do know that they have something in that small shack to the of the biggest shack that they want to keep. There’s a man stationed on each side of it. Every once in a while someone comes over and looks in the window. Big guy down there, big around that is, must be the boss. He seems to be grabbing men from time to time and sending them on their way to do something or be somewhere.”
“Any way we can get to the big shack. We torch it and we just might be able to get to the smaller shack in the ballyhoo.” The Deacon was not happy with the situation. It looked like more killing to him.
“Ballyhoo. Where’d you ever get a word like that?”
“Miss Evelyn. She had quite an education before the death of her family put her on another track.”
“She’s a pretty lady. Sings nice, too.”
“She is a lady. Wasn’t always, but is now.”
“Who cares about what folks were yesterday? I surely don’t. I just hope I’m alive tomorrow so I can continue to learn new and greater things.” Tor was looking into the night sky as he spoke. “You still gotta teach me about this God of yours who can be a Father, the Son, and a Ghost.
“Wow. You, a philosopher. Let’s make war on these men. And remember, God will deliver them.”
Both of them looked at the thirty or so men running around like ants whose hole had been flooded. Neither of them was too happy with what they saw. “Deacon. I reckon that gal is in that cabin.”
“You wouldn’t kid me, now would you? I agree. Let’s go get her.”
“Yeah. If we leave now, we got time to do what we need to do in the dark. We’ll lead our horses and leave them as close to the shacks as we safely can and continue walking the rest of the way.”
Moments passed as the rolled up their beds and loaded the horses with saddles and the rest of the camp things. The third horse was free of any kind of a load. “Deacon, I can ride as well bareback as I can in a saddle. So, when we get the gal she gets my horse with the saddle.”
“I hope she ain’t wearing a dress.”
The fire was still blazing as they watched men throw logs on it. Every once in a while major plume of sparks would fly and produce a series of eerie shadows all around the fire. Men would laugh or make ghost sounds, or at least what they were ghost sounds, into the dark.
Tor signaled a halt, “This is as close as I want to travel draggin’ a horse. Let’s take a good look and set up the details to this plan.”
Daniel was trembling inside a bit. “I ain’t too sure this is a good idea. How we gonna do anything without killing a mess of men?”
“Let’s work on that.”
They spent 20 minutes watching what was going on until Daniel said, “There’s only about 18 men down there now.”
“The boss musta put a dozen to bed. Gonna need some sharp men in the morning. I figure we got till a hour before sunup to act. They’ll be set for the good old Indian trick of a dawn attack. What’s your plan, Preacher.”
“Just a deacon, a servant of the Church.” The Deacon was testy. “My idea would be for one of us to go around the camp down there, come up on that shack where the gal is from the back, the dark side, and the other stays here to make a buncha noise for a distraction so’s the one behind the shack can sneak in and take the gal far, far away from here.
He looked over to Tor, “What do you think, Mr. Deputy?”
“I was thinkin’ exactically what you is thinking.” Tor grinned to make the statement a lie.
“Who does what?”
“Well, danged if you ain’t the better shot and I’m the better injun. I’ll get the gal and you get to shoot to your heart’s content.”
“My heart would be more content if I didn’t have to ever shoot again. Specially, if I didn’t have to kill again.”
“If you kill a couple, they’ll all dive for cover for sure. Just throwing lead isn’t go put the fear of God into’em much.”
“I know.” Daniel was not happy. “I’ll shoot’em up right nice while you get the girl. I hope she’s ugly and eight years old, and bites you when you grab her.”
“If she is and does, I’ll leave her there to chew on the crew down there. That could be why they have her guarded so well.” Tor chuckle at his own wit.
“Bye. I’ll meet ya where we camped two nights ago. Remember, her name is Diane.”
Tor started off with the his horse and the spare. “Diane the eight year old terror here I come.”
The Deacon said, “Howl like a coyote when you are in postion.”
“I can bark like one, but never howl.”
“Bark then. Daylight comes. Git.”
Daniel sat back to wait.
Tor led the horses to a gully heading in the right general direction. After a hundred yards he was out of sight of the shacks due to a rise coming between him and them. He climbed aboard the saddled horse and led the other at least a half mile beyond the shacks before he turned toward the back side of them. Thanks to another rise he was able to ride to within a few hundred feet behind the place he really wanted to be, the shack.
He dismounted and tied the horses off to some brush after he walked them until he could see the sparks fly from the fire. He crawled until he could see the target silhouetted by the fire behind it. Two men were in sight, one to the right of the shack and the other in back. The one in back stepped out into the light just as he was looking for him just like he knew there was someone who wanted to see him.
Tor crawled on his belly like a reptile until he was no more than a hundred feet behind the shack, rolled over on his back, cupped his hands around his mouth with the cone opening away from the ranch buildings, and let fly with his best imitation of a coyote barking.
Daniel was almost asleep when he heard the barking of a coyote and wondered where it was. “Oh yeah. Time for some shoot’em up.” The Deacon laid the barrel of his Winchester in the fork of a sage bush and lined up the sights on the man guarding the front of the shack. When he squeezed the trigger he was sure he had missed when the man was still standing there as the barrel came down and his sights were lined up again.
The man dropped like he was made of syrup, cold molasses syrup. He just folded in the middle and fell face first into the dirt. A moment later a cry went up and every man in sight moved toward anything he saw as cover.
The Deacon shot again. Another man tumbled to the left of the cabin. That left only the two dark sides guarded. The man that had been on the left side stepped into the light to find out what was going on and received a special delivery of lead just below his right collar bone.
Tor heard the first shot and saw the second man drop before moving toward the back of the shack, watching the man on the left side sneak his head out in the open. He drew his knife from the back of his belt and moved toward the man now kneeling at the right back corner of the shack. Shots were sounding all around the ranch area and all aimed up hill on the far side which he thought was a good idea.
The man guarding the back died with a second mouth gurgling blood directly under his chin. Tor moved to the other side. No one was there.
“Diane,” he said in a calmer voice than he felt.
“Diane.” Much louder this time.
He yelled, “Diane!”
“Hush up before you draw all them snakes around here,” came from inside.
“You don’t sound like you’re 8.”
“What? I’m old enough. Get me out of here if you’re friendly. Go away if you’re not.”
“I’m the cavalry comin’ to the rescue.”
“Then rescue and let’s ride. My father’s been hurt and I need to get to him.”
“Your father has been taken care of. How do you think we knew you needed the cavalry?”
Right next to Tor’s let a board snapped followed by a second. “Grab the boards and pull. This shack is just like the rest of this snake pit, old and rotten.”
Tor grabbed and pulled over and over again until he had an opening like a door for the voice to walk through. When she did he saw a slim build with a hat on top and heard spurs jingle at the bottom. “Come on.” He grabbed a hand and started trotting toward the horses. The gal was pulling him within fifty feet.
They got to the horse, jumped aboard, and rode like they were worried a mite about the snakes coming after them.
The Deacon continued to lay down his barrage until the Winchester clicked empty for the third time. His .44 came into his hand. He fired two shots and then loaded the rifle as slugs hit the dirt all around him. “They can’t even shoot,” he said as he saw the closest slug kick up dirt over ten feet away. It dawned on him that dawn was coming to the world and soon he would be seen. Replacing the two rounds missing from his .44, he walked calmly to his horse, swung into the saddle, and calmly rode straight away from the shooting down below.
Just as he crested the slope and was heading down the other side, he tossed two shots in the direction of the shacks with the long gun. “Bye.”
They dropped off the dead man with a Sheriff in a small town. The Sheriff pointed out that the man had a bounty on his head, a fair sized one. The Sheriff promised to wire the Sheriff that offered the bounty and would have an answer for them on the way back. The Deacon preached at the man’s funeral after his partner dug the grave and Tor laid him in it.
The Sheriff said at the end, “I hope you boys have some warm blankets. The pass and twenty miles beyond will freeze ya in the height of summer and no one in their right mind goes up there in the winter. I got a couple of blankets a saddle bum left behind when he chose to die in our little town.”
“How’d he died.”
“Chicken pox, the doc said. I think every man, woman, and child had the chicken pox after he passed. You want the blankets or no?”
“I’ll pass. I heard the Indians got all kinds of diseases from the blankets the army give them. I don’t want no chicken pox.” Tor could be real definite when he needed to be.
“Well, you boys keep a look out for them Lazy E cowboys. They think they own the range. Truth is the Rafter B has more lawful range than the Lazy E. Rafter B owns most of the water rights also.”
“That could just be that’s what all this is about.” Deacon said. “Did they pass through here in the last week or so with a female?”
“They ain’t welcome in our town and they know it. Last time they was here and had a hurrah in our town they killed the youngest son of one of our families. Six years old and shot cuz he wouldn’t pick up the gun a randy threw down for him. Seems the boy bumped into this randy and the randy was insulted. Demanded that the boy draw. Folks pointed out the kid didn’t have no gun, so the randy threw one down. Finally, the randy got egged on long enough; he just drew and killed the kid. We hung three of them. Two of the ones we hung had prices on their heads in Cheyenne. They ain’t been back since.”
The grave digger said, “They comin’ back. You just wait and see. No one hangs the Lazy E.”
“It’s been six months and they ain’t tried. I’d be happy to hang this one if you wanna leave him.” The Sheriff looked at Tor. “I can get him outta your hair that way.”
Tor was thinking heavy on it when Daniel said, “Nah. We need him to find the headquarters of this Lazy E ranch.”
“Well,” said the Sheriff, “Ya can’t miss it. It’s the poorest lookin’ property you ever did see up thataway about thirty miles. Its so cold on that side of the pass, ain’t no cows will stick around. They all head south in a hurry. Don’t you worry none, the stench will announce it for you.”
“Sounds like a glorious ranch.” Daniel was trying hard to see a place like this in his mind. This country was so beautiful he was having a hard time.
Tor cut in, “Let’s ride. We can get a good ten miles before we have to camp which should put us at the ranch by noon tomorrow.”
The sun started the new day with a sky painted by God in one of His better efforts. Daniel washed the sleep from his eyes with his fingers after dipping them in a stream.
The grave digger was getting antsy on them. “You gotta let me go. If I ride in there with you, they’ll hang me after they kill you.”
“Sounds like real friendly folks on that ranch you work for. How many cows they running?”
“Don’t rightly know. Must be around ten or twelve thousand. We brought in one lot from Wyoming last year that musta had three thousand head in it. Man was that a ride. We almost killed the cows moving them south that fast.”
“What’d you do? Steal them in Wyoming?”
“Nah. We got them in Montana. Lost a good one in ten on the way down.”
Tor looked at Daniel. “This must be one mighty big rustling outfit. Must run them to Nebraska to sell.”
“Nah. We moves’em to Kansas. Nobody knows Montana brands in Kansas.”
“We’re in deeper than we thought, Tor. How we gonna deal with this?”
“God said He’d deliver, right?”
“Then we will wait upon this God of yours.”
The Deacon looked at the grave digger and said, “There’s smoke up ahead. That the ranch.”
“Naw, that’s a line shack, and I do mean shack. I spent a week snowed in there last year.”
“How many men there now?”
“Maybe two, at worst three. Only two bunks.”
Tor said, “Is there a way around it?”
“Yeah, but it’s a long way and you don’t wanna go there.”
The Deacon said, “Let me just ride down there and ask for a job.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Tor said.
“They’ll kill ya.” The grave digger was cheery to have around.
“I’ll give it a try. I ain’t never been killed before.”
They rode down.
As they approached, a man stepped out of the cabin with a tin cup in his hand. “Howdy fellas.” He looked at the grave digger, “Welcome back, Ethan. We been a missin’ ya.”
“These men killed Frank. Kill’em.”
“Frank probably deserved to die, foolin’ with women the way he does. Never could stand a man that fooled with women that didn’t wanna be fooled with. Like you, Ethan. You kill your own snakes, I ain’t gonna help ya.”
Ethan looked at Tor with fear in his eyes. He knew how Tor felt about him and now he was getting no support for the brand. “I guess I’ll just let them kill ya then Peso. Ya oughta be dead anyhow.”
“How many men this ranch got? I need a job and I need a warm place for the winter.”
“Boss man ain’t around, but I can tell ya he ain’t hiring the likes of you.”
“Why not. I’m a better hand than anyone he’s ever seen. If you can saddle it, I can ride it.”
“Cuz you the law. I seen ya in Denver last spring when I went in to spend my winter money.” He reached for his gun.
The Deacon’s shot slammed him back in the cabin just as the window glass broke and a rifle barrel appeared. Tor and Deacon sent lead through the window taking out the glass that was left. The sound of a body hitting dirt and a man’s cry of pain put a period on the episode.
“I’ll check inside. You keep an eye on this clown,” Tor said as he headed for the door, leaving his horse ground reined. He grabbed Peso’s arm and drug him out of the way before sticking his six gun in the door, “Speak up or I’ll poke holes in ya if ya move.”
The stepped in.
The Deacon stepped down from his horse and started for the cabin. Ethan took the opportunity, slapped his horse’s rump with the reins, and took off for places unknown. Daniel let him ride until he was out a long rifle shot away before sending a couple of pistol shots in his direction. Ethan fell from the horse.
“Danged if that ain’t the best pistol shot I ever did see,” exclaimed Tor.
Deacon said, “I was just trying to scare him so’s he’d keep goin’.”
“I’ll bet he’s scared where he ends up. That ole devil ain’t gonna take kindly to the likes of him polluting Hell.”
“There’s a lot of his old friends to keep him company in misery and pain.”
“Let’s ride. Folks might a heard them shots.”
Rather than go directly toward the smoke they had been seeing of miles, they rode to the east where a group of small mountains stuck up their heads. “Time to check out the rest of the place from a distance before we go in.”
Tor was all in favor of that and led the way.
Wasn’t long until a group of six riders could be seen heading for the cabin they had left the three bodies in or near. A saddled horse trotted out to greet them. Tor led the two of them into a wash that was deep enough to keep them hidden from the new arrivals for at least a mile if they wanted to go downhill toward the headquarters, but they went up hill toward the mountains and ran out of cover in a few hundred yards.
Daniel said, “Let’s just wait right here and see what they do.”
Tor agreed. “You know something. You got that gun of yours out right quickly back there. Mine was not even moving upward when your shot went by my ear. Ya plugged him dead center, too.”
“Didn’t think or I would have let you kill him.”
“I’m happy you got him. His gun was almost clear of the holster when your slug nailed him.”
“Let’s don’t dwell on my shooting. I just reacted. I didn’t plan to kill nobody. He moved. He died. That’s about all there was to it. God delivered them.” To himself he thought, ‘God deliver me for the killin’.’
Tor shook his head as he watched the six riders toss three bodies over three horses and head back to the ranch. “Come dark, I propose we sidle on down there and take a look see. That’ll mean some walkin’. You up to some walkin’?”
“In the dark is evil. Men hide their sins in the dark. We as God’s people are the light of the world and it’s time to shine a bit of light on that mess of rattlesnakes.
Knowing that six alive and three dead hands were headed for the ranch, the two of them set out to find a very quiet corner in the mountains where they could keep an eye on things and get rested for the night work. When they found it, Tor set the Deacon to watching for a couple of hours while he napped with the understanding they’d trade tasks in two hours. Or, they’d do what was necessary if it all fell apart. “Plans ain’t worth spit unless the other side cooperates, Deacon. You remember that.”
“Yes sir. Hush up and get some shuteye.”