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FREE BOOK – The DEACON – LAST EPISODE

I rolled.

All sound stopped, but my hand was on my blood red engraved pistol handle.

Another foot step.

I rolled fast, pulling the hammer back and letting a lead slug fly toward the shadow that appeared as I opened my eyes. The shadow dropped with a grunt and intake of air a man makes when he’s hurt bad.

I rolled again.

The shadow, which I couldn’t see now, fired two quick shots into where I had been. All I could think was that makes two more holes in that saddle blanket.

Now I was blind due to the flash of his gun.

I heard him or her running into the woods downhill toward the mine. I waited until the moon came out from behind a cloud and my night vision began to come back. When I could make out trees and tell them from a horse, I moved downhill taking a wide sweep to the left where I remembered there was thick brush in places and lots of trees, big trees.

I turned Solomon loose as I went past him and told him to stay close unless something happened to me. Like he understood or something.

I walked, my boots crunching everything they touched. I took them off and hung them on a couple broken off branches so I could find them later. I walked quieter, much quieter.

The sound of splashing through the stream, probably the pool, told me a lot. If there weren’t two of the enemy here, the one had just gone in the mine.

Picturing the mine, I thought perhaps he had a smallish cowpony in the mine waiting for him.

Something moved off to my right. Something big. I went to ground. A fair sized pine was between my position and the big thing. I was ready to shoot when I realized it was a horse. A small cowpony. I let it walk right up to me and stood to greet it.

I knew the horse. Only one man had ever ridden it until he died. That man was Shorts. Shorts’ horse had come all the way here. I might believe that he would go to the ranch, but no out here.

I buried Shorts so I knew it wasn’t him down there in the mine. There was just one other man that might have brought that horse here.

Stepping out in the open I yelled, “Cicero, come on out. I’ll see ya get a fair hearing.”

No reply. The horse walked to the creek, bent down and drank.

“Come on, Cicero. It’s all over. You killed a lot of people, but you’re done, finished, it’s all over.”

No sound.

“I’m coming in, Cicero.”

I walked keeping the horse between me and the mine mouth. As I approached the line sight kept me drifting down stream until I stepped over the stream and walked along the wall toward the mine. Every two little steps I stopped to listen.

Nothing.

I arrived at the edge of the entrance to the mine. There was no way I wanted to do what I had to do. He had ridden with me. We shared the hunger of the hunt. Then at one point I think he even saved my life.

“Cicero,” I said softly, “Come out, now. Toss your gun out first and then come out.”

After a few moments of listening to the music of the stream, I heard, “I’m hurt. You hit me bad. I can’t come out.”

“I’m coming in. Put your gun on the ground and I’ll come get you.”

“Come get me and take me out of this hole so I can die looking up at the moon.”

I could hear the pain he was feeling in his voice. He was a hurting man. “I coming in.”

I moved into the entrance of the cave. He should have been able to see me silhouetted by the light of the moon behind me. I slid into the hole along the left side, my back rubbing the wall and my sixgun pointed deep into the cave. “Where are you?”

“Here.” A grunt and then a shot.

A line of flame come toward me and finished off my night vision again. My hand started pulling the hammer back and then the trigger until I had fired four rounds.

He screamed again.

This time I could hear death grab him and wrestle him deep down to hell where the unrepentant go.

I went outside, started a fire, got the pine knots, lit the unused one, and returned to drag Cicero out and across the stream where I laid him out like he was in a coffin before I went back in to find a shovel at the face of the mine.

With him buried I rode back to the Rafter B, sleeping in the saddle as Solomon took me where I needed to go and the dog tagged along.

 

The sun came up on me lying in my blanket in the dirt behind the house. Now I could tell Nancy and Buck that it was really over. Nancy could get a few miners to work the mine. Within days of beginning work there, she could afford all the cows she wanted. Buck could ramrod for her, he was a capable man.

I, I could got back to Evelyn and figure out what was next in my life of being the Deacon, a servant to the Church.

Another dream.

 

Last chapter

 

Two days later, with Solomon all packed up and another horse from the outlaw Laze E crew packed with almost nothing, I headed for Golden. The plan was to load up the pack horse with food and other supplies, I had a list, and hire a couple of hands to bring it back to the ranch and work there while I went on to Denver and the Caravan, hopefully with Evelyn if she waited. Oh, I wasn’t going to marry here, but we made a good team for the Lord. I had two or three great sermons in my head that needed to be preached.

Arriving at the main street of Golden, I checked the horses in to the livery down the alley from the hotel and then walked into the hotel. The lobby was busier than on the last visit. The windows had been fresh washed and the furniture was polished and waxed to shine like the sun itself. On one of those shiny pieces of furniture was a familiar face.

“Daniel, come and sit down.”

“Tor, what’s up with you? I sent you in here to recuperate, not hibernate or retire.”

“Well, I’d like to tell ya right now, but it’s my bed time. I am under strict Doctor’s orders. If I don’t live up to those orders I will be fired and the good Doctor’s bill will be mine to pay.” He got up stiffly and walked to the stairs with the stiffness of a very old man with all kinds of rheumatism.

“I’ll meet ya here in the morning. What time?”

“Make it about 8. And, do I have a surprise for you. Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

The desk man yelled, “We have no bed bugs in this hotel.”

Tor chuckled. “See ya a 8. I’ll bring the surprise.”

“I can wait. I need the sleep.” I turned to the desk, “Sir, a bed now or I perish.”

“Boy. Take this man to room 305 and hang the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign out for him. His rig is right there by the settee. Make it quick before he faints from exhaustion, Boy.”

“Yes, Sir.”

It was everything I could do to keep up with the young man he called, Boy, but I made it. He did hang the sign after my gear was put on a rack next to the door. The lamp was turned down. I blew it out as he closed the door with, “Good night.”

“Wake me at 7 please and have the barber fill a tub for me.”

“Yes, Sir.” I heard from the hall.

The pounding on the door was deafening. “I’m coming.”

“It’s 7:20, Sir. I’ve been trying to rouse you for twenty minutes.”

“I’ll be down for the barber in five. I’ll want a shave and a bath.”

“Yes, Sir. The bath is waiting. It might be a touch cool by now.”

“Get out of here. I’m coming.”

I grabbed the cleanest clothes I had, the ones I had on for the last week, and headed down the stairs.

The barber was waiting with hot water, a razor, and soap.

As I finished and was getting ready to dress, he returned. “Sir, you cannot surely wear those same clothes. I had the Boy iron out the store creases in these. Your Mr. Tor has paid for them. He stated that he would be waiting in the café you ate breakfast in last.”

“Thank you.” I wanted to toss him a dollar, but I was broke until I could get to the bank and get some dollars for the gold in my bags.

“Mr. Tor said for you to not worry about money.”

“Thank you.”

Then I thought, ‘What is this guy, a mindreader?’

I dried and dressed. Brushing my hat was a waste, but I did it.

The café was a hole in the wall where an old roundup cookie held sway with a spatula and a cleaver. Tor was waiting for me in a back corner table sipping a cup of what I assumed to be coffee. I sat down with him and told the waiter, “I’ll have what he’s having.”

Tor smiled.

The man delivered the cup and I took a testing sip. “TEA! You’re drinking tea?”

“Yeah, according to this Doctor I have, it’s supposed to promote healing and I need all the promoting I can get.”

“How much longer before you can ride back to Denver with me?

“Don’t know that I’ll be going back to Denver. Sent the Marshall a note to tell him I’m probably out of the law business. Thinking about ranching with my new partner.”

“New partner?” That was a surprise, but then a lot had happened since we separated not that long ago.

“Order up. I’m hungrier than a sore toothed bear.”

“So what’s the surprise?”

He put a dumb grin on his face, “It’s comin’. Don’t you be worrying none.”

My mouth was full of steak and fried potatoes when Tor whispered, “Here she comes.”

“She?” I turned to see who he was talking about.

Coming across the room was a stunning young woman in a wool shirt and denim trousers. Her hair was the darkest of blacks. The way she walked said ‘look out here I come and I am confident.’ Then her eyes focused on me. Those eyes were dark and seemed to penetrate deeply whatever they focused on. “And, who is this lovely young lady?”

“This is my new partner. She has nursed me and wants me to work her ranch with her. I asked her to marry me last night and she is supposed to answer this morning.”

“Oh.”

I could not take my eyes off her.

Arriving at the table triggered my manners. I stood. She stuck out her hand which I took strictly out of habit. “I’m Nancy. This man here has told me all about the Deacon.”

She looked at Tor, “The answers ‘yes’ to your question last evening. I have already talked with the local Parson and he can do the ceremony this afternoon if that’s what satisfactory with you.”

“Whatever you say, Dear.” He tried to stand to greet her.

“Sit down. You aren’t ready for standing alone and walking, yet.”

“How’d you get here, then?” I asked.

“Got me a fancy chair with wheels. The boy from the hotel pushes me around when Nancy’s not available.”

“How can we have two Nancys in our lives?” I asked.

“We can’t. One of them is a fake.”

I sat down. My brain went to work with the extra pressure on it. “Nancy is a fake.”

“One of them is.”

I looked at the strong woman still standing at the table and stood up again. Sliding her chair out, “Would you care to join us at the table and have some breakfast?”

“I would.” She sat and slid herself up to the table.

I sat. “So, tell me about all this. I am, shall we say, befuddled.”

“Dad had come to Golden to meet me coming back from school in Philadelphia. I got here and he wasn’t here so I was waiting when Tor came in. My training was Nursing, in part, so the Doctor asked me to wait on him hand and foot until he was well. He’s been ordering me around forever. The gal you chased all over the country and rescued was an imposter. I am sure she was the daughter of that Lazy E owner. They been after the ranch for a long time and Dad was getting a bit leery of their activities. We were missing cows and hands were leaving without notice. They would just come in, get their gear, and leave. My last letter from Dad said that someone was shooting up the place without really trying to hit anything. He was worried they would start shooting to kill. So, here I am. I left school and caught the next train. I had wired the Doctor here to let him know I was coming.”

“Sorry about your Dad. Wish we had gotten there sooner.”

She looked at Tor, “When do you want to do the wedding?”

“When I’m ready for the honeymoon.”

“I am not waiting that long before I go to the ranch, cowboy. Today or six months from now. Take your pick.”

“Now, of course.”

I chimed in with, “I was told in Denver I could do weddings.” I smiled.

“Who said that?” Tor asked.

“Evelyn.”

“Who’s Evelyn?”

“My singer.”

“We’ll use the Parson,” Nancy ended the conversation.

We talked a bit longer while we finished breakfast. I left to get a spring wagon from the livery along with a couple of horses to pull it. The wrangler was very understanding and was willing to anything for Miss Diane and her beau. “That’s a right purty woman there. Women rare enough out here and purty are impossible to find. Danged if I can even find an ugly one.”

I chuckled as I drove off to the front of the hotel.

It was three days later when we stopped on top of the rise and looked down on the ranch house. I was mad. Tor was hurting. Nancy was ready to spit nails at the phony Nancy down below.

“I will ring her neck first and then slap her silly,” Nancy spit out like venom.

“Nancy. Hate will burn you for the rest of your life. What happened happened. We can get things straightened out and you will have your ranch with the gold for the rest of your life.”

“Don’t be preaching at me, Deacon. I’ve heard it all before and it did nothing to keep my Dad alive.”

“Everything dies. Why should you be exempt from death in your life?”

“Don’t even try to give me that religious garbage, Mr. Deacon. I have had it up to here,” she waived her hand above her head.

I pointed to my heart, “You only need it in here.”

“Shut up and drive.” She kicked Solomon in the ribs and headed for the ranch house as fast as he would go.

I had to take is slow. Tor was hurting and whining. Not that I could blame him any.

He said, “Catch here. That woman down there will shoot her out of the saddle if she gets half a chance.”

I saw Nancy jump off Solomon in the middle of the ranch yard and run to the house. The front door open and the false Nancy walked out. The two met at the edge of the porch in a collision I thought was going to kill them both. I could see the fur fly from my bouncing seat as we zigged and zagged down the slope to the yard.

We got there just in time to see the false Nancy catch Nancy with a beautiful roundhouse swing that caught her in the left ear. Nancy went down into the dirt hard.

My eyes must have bugged out because she bounced up and laid the false Nancy backpeddling onto the porch and flat on her back. Her head hit the wood with a resounding boom and bounced. She laid there still with a small pool of blood growing under her head.

Nancy moved forward and rolled the unconscious one on her side and began doctoring the head wound. Within moments the false Nancy looked like a war hero with a bloody bandage around her head as she sat up on the edge of the porch.

Nancy said, “Why?”

No answer.

I moved Tor into the wheeled chair on the porch and into the house. Neither of us worried about the battle on the porch.

After returning to the porch I asked, “Where’s Buck. Did you kill him, too?”

False looked up at me and said, “I have killed no one, ever. Buck is out checking a rumor from a passing rider that over two hundred head of my cows are over to the west in a large hole in the lava country. Who’s the tramp?”

“The real Nancy who was raised on this ranch, whose mother is buried up on that rise, whose father was killed by the Lazy E, that’s who.”

I watched. She never blinked. “So who am I if not Nancy who was raised on this ranch, whose mother is buried on that rise, whose father was killed by outlaws?”

“Beats me, lady. I have no idea. Who are you?”

“I am Nancy.”

Nurse Nancy came through the door. “No, you are not. I am the Nancy and I can prove it. Deacon, in the top drawer of the dresser in the room Tor is in you will find a tintype. Bring it out here.”

I did.

I looked at it as I walked out. There was no longer a doubt in my mind. I handed it to false Nancy. She took one look at it and began crying. As she shook her head the ends of the bandage flapped in the breeze.

“It’s not true. She planted that tintype while she was in there. I am Nancy.”

I was taken aback by her anger and pain. Why would she continue to cry and fight with the picture settled it? The tintype was definitely Nurse Nancy. I asked, “When was this picture taken, Nancy.”

“Around spring last year. Dad wanted me to get the picture so he could put it on his dresser. We never got around to getting a frame for it.”

I looked at False Nancy. “If you are you the real Nancy, what do you have for proof?”

“There was never a picture of me, but there is a picture of my mother in my room under the paper in the bottom of my jewelry box, the small wooden ammunition box on my dresser.”

I retrieved the box and handed it to Nurse Nancy. She fumbled the latch. “It sticks.” On the second try she got it open and laid out the jewelry on a small table like it was important to her, lifted the paper, and there was nothing there.

False Nancy grabbed the box and shook it. Nothing fell out. “Where did it … She took it. She stole my mother’s picture. Now I really do have nothing, no ranch and no picture.

Nurse Nancy said, “I found where you had hidden it and put it up on the shelf in the closet.”

I looked at the paper lying on the table. There was a slight change of color over a part of the paper that was close to the size of the supposed picture that I saw when Nurse Nancy brought it out.

I prayed, ‘Lord, I need wisdom and answers here. Please show me the truth.’

An idea hit me, I looked at false Nancy, “What’s the terrain like to the west?”

“Mostly slow rolling hills until you get to the mountain.”

“Nancy, which direction is the nearest water hole from here. Just point.”

She stalled as if to think, “I don’t know if the one over there, or over there.”

False Nancy said, “There are no water holes in that direction for miles.” She pointed and shook her head with a smile. She knew she was right.

“How old was your dad?”

“61. He married late and I took a couple of years to come along.”

I said, “Alright. Nancy, how old was your mother and when and why did she die?”

She looked lost. “What is all this questions crap? I am the daughter. I’ve been away for a long time and now you want all these answers.”

The real Nancy yelled, “My mother died six years ago from some sickness that withered her away like a hot wind on green grass. She went from a healthy woman to dead in less than four weeks. I helped dad bury her. Come to think of it, she’s buried up on the hill, but her feet are under the headstone. Dad wanted it that way so the pressure wouldn’t be on her head. If you look at the head stone you’ll see a five pointed star that I carved in the sandstone one day when I was up there crying.”

“She spied it all out while she was here alone with the cowboy. Tramp? You’re the tramp living alone with a cowboy.”

“Did up the coffin and see where her feet are. No one could know that except Dad and me.”

I picked up the tintype from the jewelry box and then I slowly lifted the paper. When I put the two together it was plain that the tintype had been in that box at one time under that very piece of paper.

Nurse Nancy turned and walked to Solomon as I was doing the match up. As I lifted my eyes from the paper, she swung onto his back and took off like a shot. I called, “Solomon.”

He spun on a silver dollar and gave about ninety-five cents change before returning to the hitching rail right in front of me. False Nancy the nurse landed in the dirt after her flight of fifteen feet or so.

I’ll give her this. She got up and started walking away from the ranch slumped in her defeat.

I went to retrieve her. There were still questions without answers.

 

The last chapter

for now

 

After a tough couple of days we found out that Nurse Nancy was really a Nancy, just not the right one for the ranch. Cicero had met her on a trip to Golden when he had the gold assayed first time. He got drunk and told her everything, so when XXX brought Tor in she figured she could worm her way in if the outlaws killed the real Nancy or there was a miracle and the real Nancy died of unknown causes.

Cicero had told her a lot about the ranch and where to find the gold when he was whiskey blabbing and had even invited her to the ranch where she could live at the mine and he could visit her. She liked the idea of living in a gold mine and sooner or later would have killed Cicero. The gold would have then been hers and she could get out of area from time to time to spend a lot of money. The first thing she was going to do was buy out the saloon and dance hall she was working in.

I made sure she didn’t change her mind to ride away by taking her to the law in Golden.

Bottom line, Nancy had her ranch and the Lazy E was not going to be a problem anymore. Buck was going to stay on. Tor cried because he mad at himself for getting suckered in. He decided to take on the Lazy E seein’s how he no longer had a job in Denver and all the owners were dead.

Me, I went home to Evelyn to get my head on straight after all the killing and rescuing and just plain miracles.

If God was for me, who could stand against me. I could see me getting real proud in a short time. My thinking could turn to – Since I am so good, no one can stand against me.

For the first time in my life I felt fear so deep I trembled and froze. Fortunately, I was on Solomon and he was headed for Denver.

It wasn’t all about the money at all.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 24

Tommy went wide up the slope into the trees. I motioned for Buck to stay behind me. All of a sudden it hit me. I didn’t know what this horse would do if the shooting started. ‘Hey, Lord. Please keep an eye on this horse and let me hang on, Please. Thank you, amen.’

I rode along the steam.

A spot where the stream had been blocked a bit by rolling rocks across its width, causing a pool of fifteen feet across and two feet deep right in front of mouth of a cave. The cave looked like it was natural. The top of the dam lined up with the cave and on my side of the stream, fifty feet or so, was a pile of smaller rock that looked different than the rock the cave was in. There were no fresh tracks anywhere except for one set where Buck had come close a couple days before.

I got off the horse, dropped the reins, and walked across the dam. The cave opening was natural. No sign on it of any tools, but inside the mouth ten feet, I could see a pick and a single jack standing against the wall with a couple of drill steels alongside. A wooden box like one I had seen blasting powder in once over by Amarillo what seemed like a long time ago.

I walked up close and read the label. AJAX BLASTING POWDER. I lifted it and moved it up to the trees behind a bunch of scrub and rock with Buck’s help. Actually, he grabbed it and rode up there while I walked empty handed.

Returning to the hole was in a quandary. That hole was dark. How far could I go in and be safe. I had no light of any kind. ‘Lord, I need to see what’s in there. Any ideas.’ All I came up with was that small voice in the back of my head saying, ‘walk.’

I did, carrying my little pointy headed hammer.

Thirty feet in it was so dark the floor was difficult to see and there were no more colors, just dark shapes and space. Running my hands up the wall on the right side and across the ceiling I came to a foot wide hole in the ceiling. I checked it out by running my hand along the hole toward the entrance. It ended ten feet back. Now that I was looking in a different direction I could see a bit better. At the edge of the slot in the ceiling were whitish rocks with lines in them.

I went back to the thirty foot area, took a whack at the edge of the slot with the hammer, and brought down a fair sized slab of the roof, a few pieces hit me on my hat. Bending over, I grabbed the slab and made for the entrance.

In the noon sun the whitish stone looked white as snow and the lines were a rusty yellow. The rock crumbled with very little effort. The tough parts felt the hammer. Tommy came down from the trees, took one look, and said, “Gold, or my name’s little Suzy Brown.”

“Gold?” said I.

“Gold?” Buck said.

“Yeah, that’s gold. That’s the kind of gold miners love to see, cain’t remember what it’s called, but they love it. You can sit here with our little hammer and crumble it, separating the white quartz from the gold veins, and walk away with almost pure gold to take to town. Most banks’ll give ya 90 to 95 percent of the ounce price without any further refining. Why heck, you can refine it in a forge down to dang near the pure stuff.”

We all said, “Woooweee,” at the same time as we stood there gawking.

Tommy looked around and found a couple of sappy pine knots. Buck got a fire going. When we put the two together I had two torches to go in the mine with. They smoked a bit, but put out a fair amount of light. Forty feet in the veins of rusty yellow got bigger and the channel in the ceiling went wider and wider. All I could think of was, ‘Nancy’s gonna be a rich gal. This mine has enough gold showing to restock the ranch and build those line shacks she wanted.’ It was just a shame that her daddy wasn’t going to get to see it.

I left the mine without burning out the first torch. A dunk in the stream simmered it to out and both were put in a crack twenty feet south of the entrance so no one would see them if they happened to drop by.

We headed for the ranch house with some good news for a change.

Nancy cried all the way through the meal she prepared and set before us. I said grace and the crying started. It the time for me to eat the steak in front of me and five biscuits for her to settle down enough to talk about it. “What would I have done without you all? I feel so good and so bad all at the same time. Cicero missing. Tor dead. Shorts dead. All those gun hands dead and even that horrible Mr. Everson dead. All over gold. I wish it wasn’t there. Why couldn’t it be on someone else’s ranch? My mother homesteaded that section just because of the water. My father always said that place was a waste because it was so far out. I wish he was here now.” Her bawling wiped out the rest.

I went for a walk. I had a lot of questions I would have liked answered. Why homestead a place that far out even with water? Who was digging the hole deeper into the wall? Who found it? “What do I do next, Lord? I really need You to tell me.”

Everything seemed so done. The kidnapper/killers were all accounted for. Nancy was safe. Every body we knew of was buried properly. The hands remaining were trustworthy. I could leave whenever I wanted to.

Tommy died that night.

Tommy had the first watch. He never woke up me or Buck. I woke at the first hint of dawn and saw Buck’s bunk occupied. I didn’t even bother to check my boots for varmints before I kicked my feet into them. Grabbing my gun belt I whipped it around my hips and missed catching the buckle. I tried again and succeeded. The yard was empty. The house was quiet. All the horse seemed to be in the corral. Solomon looked at me like, ‘What’s up, Deacon?’

I found Tommy in the kitchen with a cup of coffee on his finger. The coffee was ice cold. I put the pot on the stove and added some kindling, blew on the ashes, and had a fire in a minute or so. Buck ran in, saw Tommy, and asked very quietly, “What happened?”

I told him all I knew.

Tommy’s body laid on the floor just as I had found him. He had soiled himself and his face was one of agony. His back was arched backwards. The coffee that had been in the cup must have gone down his gullet because none was seen spilled on the floor except one large drop under his cup lip.

The pot on the stove boiled. I reached for a cup on the counter and handed it to Buck. He grabbed the pot and poured as I reached for another cup.

I dropped it and spun around, slapping Buck’s full cup from his lips. The hot coffee go on both of us. My shirt caught some, but I leaned forward to give the hot coffee distance from my skin. Buck wasn’t as lucky. The scalding coffee splashed on his cheek and ear before pouring off his face and down his back. He screamed like a gut shot horse. I grabbed the water bucket and doused him with half a bucket of water.

“Thanks, I think. What was that all about?”

“The coffee is the only way Tommy could have been poisoned.”

“How do you know he was poisoned?”

“The box in the far corner of the counter. See, the one that says ‘rat poison’ on it.”

“Oh, thank you, Deacon.”

Nancy walked into the kitchen with her wrong shaped robe wrapped around her and fear in her eyes. “What’s all the . . .”

She saw Tommy.

“Is he dead?”

“Yes. Poison,” Buck answered.

“Oh, my god.”

“Ma’am. I wish you wouldn’t say that unless you know God up close and personal.”

“How’d he die?”

“Poison. I already told you that.”

“You don’t have to yell.” The crying started all over again. “Damn gold.” She turned and walked back to her room.

I heard the door slam.

“Let’s get him out to the barn, Buck. Did you see that box on the counter at dinner?”

“No. No one puts poison on the kitchen counter.” He looked around. “Do they?”

“Someone did. Far’s I can see. Either you or Nancy put it there, cuz I know I didn’t do it.”

“You can count me out. I know I didn’t do it either.”

I just shook my head grabbed Tommy under his arms. He was cold and stiff. Buck grabbed his feet. The barn was cool and a board across a stall became his marble slab until the grave was ready for him.

Nancy was still in her room with the door shut when they returned to the house. “I’ll cook, you watch,” I said.

“I’m watching after I get rid of this rat poison.” Buck walked out the back door. I watched him go a hundred yards from the house and slowly pour the poison out of the box onto the ground in a thin stream. The morning breeze kicked up a bit to help disperse the poison. He brought the box back and threw it in the stove.

We both watched it burn to ashes. I stirred the ashes. It was gone.

Three of us on the ranch and one of us was a killer.

Then my brain kicked in again. It wasn’t me. The reason for the murder was important. Tommy knew where the gold was. Of course, so did Nancy and Buck. Nancy already owned  the gold mine. That only left Buck, and he didn’t act like a killer. He was genuinely startled and surprised when his saw Tommy on the floor. So was Nancy.

Was there someone else on the ranch trying to kill us off? Why? Because that someone else knew about the gold and did not have a prayer of getting it without killing us off. That had to be it.

My head hurt as I grilled some steaks in a fry pan and burned some biscuits in the oven.

We ate it all regardless.

I told Buck I was camping out a ways tonight and if he wanted to do that he could. I informed Nancy of my decision and she just shrugged, locked her bedroom door, and yelled, “All you brave men leaving a woman at home to guard the fort. Oh well, I guess it is my ranch so it’s up to me to keep it. I won’t move outta this room tonight and I want everyone to know, I have a Winchester and two pistols in here. I know how to use them and I can’t miss if you come through the window or the door. Goodnight.” Her lamp went out.

I had done so much figuring that I was wondering if I was guilty of the murder of Tommy, by accident. We had really torn that kitchen apart a looking for all we needed to cook and serve a big meal, any one of us could have left that poison on the counter. Although, I can say I don’t ever remember seeing it in the kitchen or anywhere before.

I just started riding trying to keep the moon light bright around me while I was in shadows and under cover. After a mile or so I just rode. The dog appeared beside me just sauntering along with the horse’s quick walk. So here we were so deep in the mystery, but all together like we had been shortly after it began. The dog wasn’t too talkative, so I just shut up and rode.

Without thinking I had ridden toward the mine and come in on the high side of the ramp down to the creek. We set up camp near the high side of the slope and settled in for a night’s sleep in peace and quiet.

Solomon grunted which woke me up. I didn’t move. I didn’t open my eyes. I prayed that my breathing hadn’t changed any. Someone was very close to me. How did I know? I don’t know, I just knew.

A foot step.

Another.

A sixgun rubbing leather as it was drawn.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 23

I let the gun barrel drop and set the hammer down. “Sorry fellas, I was trailing them and you looked like them in this mornin’ light.”

“You saying I’m fat,” the man at the fire asked?

The other man laughed. “Mister Daniel, I’m glad you didn’t come in shooting. We’da both been dead and you would have killed two somewhat innocent men, us.”

I still couldn’t talk. The dog looked at men and then walked into the woods.

“What’s with the dog?”

I finally found my voice, “He shows up from time to time. I don’t know if nor when, nor where he come from, but he sure is handy sometimes.”

“Now that you’re here, want some coffee.”

“I’d be forever thankful. Sorry for the wake up.”

“It was kinda sudden, but the chill in my spine might just make me travel further today.”

The man from the blankets asked, “Tell us about them two. If she was a hostage, he had her under control. She never let on.”

“She didn’t want to die after watching you two die,” I said.

I spent the next hour sharing their coffee, bacon, and beans, while I told them my story. They never interrupted; they just kept my cup full. At the end I said, “I gotta get goin’ and get Nancy back to her ranch safe and sound. Much obliged for the feed. I ain’t had a real meal since I don’t know when.” My stomach was somewhat prominent when I stood up.

“Talk about a fat man,” the cook chuckled.

The other man rolled his blanket as he asked, “You really were a phony preacher until you got to believing your own preaching. Don’t that beat all? Where ya gonna preach next?”

“Denver, I hope. If I get through all this in one piece. Sounds like that fat man is right cagy. He just keeps giving me the slip. Again, I am sorry for the sudden wake up call.”

“See ya in Denver, Preacher.”

“I prefer, Deacon. I’m God’s servant and deacons are servants. I guess preachers are, too, but I don’t have the right to call myself one.”

“The Deacon. That’s quite a handle for a young fella like you. Have a safe journey to Denver by way of the fat man. I wanna hear ya preach. Maybe even I will believe.”

The Deacon climbed on his horse and rode off in the direction the two pointed out and the tracks in the dirt led. Where those tracks would end, he knew would be an ending to this episode in his life.

 

Within an hour he found where they had camped. The coals were still warm. He checked the tracks as well as he could. It looked to him like Nancy was doing all the work while the fat man watched from a cozy flat rock near the fire.

An hour later he noticed the tracks were getting further apart and more dirt was kicked up by each hoof. He was thinking on that when it come to him that they had started moving faster. Had they seen him? Was there something else that would cause them to run? He didn’t see any bear tracks or other wild critters that might have scared them. Even if it had been a critter, the fat man had guns and could have taken care of that issue.

They must have seen him.

He looked at his back trail. He had topped a rise and then dipped and topped out again. They could have seen him on the first top and been gone by the second. He had been seen.

That changed everything. He didn’t know the country. There were no towns around that he even had a hint of. They had not seen a ranch or signs of one in days. All he could do was keep on following and pray that he would see them first next time. If he didn’t, he knew he would die and the hand of the fat man, whose name he did not even know for sure.

He prayed and rode on along the tracks.

The dog appeared ahead of him with his nose down and very obviously tracking a scent.

“Well, thank you, Lord.” A smile grew on my face as I watched the dog stay just far enough away that I would be a long shot for a pistol if he tripped over the fat man. I shucked my Winchester and set its butt on my thigh, hammer back, and magazine full.

A mile or so further the dog jumped off the trail and I hit the dirt. Solomon stood over me like I was some crazy new-fangled rider. A shot broke the stillness. It didn’t come my way, but I could hear it whack into a tree trunk near where the dog disappeared. I moved through the trees and that horse followed me. He had never done that before with bullets flying. I wondered why he would do it now. I passed a large pine of some kind and he stopped behind it. Now I knew.

I heard another shot. This time it rattled a couple of limbs above my head before smacking into a tree somewhere behind me. I was getting shot at. Peeking around the tree on the far side from where I was last, a puff of powder smoke lifted ever so wispy from a copse of young firs about 50 yards in front of me.

The girl screamed.

I’d had enough. I ran twisting and turning one way and then the other, dodging around trees and over logs until I was not too far from where the shots were coming from. A nice soft bed of pine needles up against a fallen log became my home for a few breathes as I tried to get enough air. Another shot smacked into my log, but it didn’t come through. I waited.

Another scream.

I crawled to the end of the log where there was a large root ball with a hole under it. I entered the hole and found myself sharing it with a rattler, a black tailed timber rattler to be specific. He, maybe it was she, wasn’t happy.

I moved on in a hurry. My hurry caught the fat man flat footed. He didn’t get off a shot before I ducked into a small wash. The sand was damp, but there was no water running. I peeked. Nothing. I started to peek again when sand flew over me and a shot sounded. I ran to a large tree and stood behind it for dozen breaths before taking a look

I was now about 20 yards from the fat man’s firing spot.

A scream, again.

I ran straight at the spot watching for the barrel of a gun to show. A slug whipped by my head. A puff of powder smoke rose. I was still charging.

I fired and jacked the lever. I fired and fired and fired, until the hammer when click. The Winchester hit the dirt as I cleared the first bushes in front of the spot. A slap on the rock next to me was followed by a singing slug flying away and a puff of smoke not 15 feet in front of me.

My sixgun came out and three rounds went into the spot just under the smoke before I leaped through the crack between two fair sized boulders landing in the middle of the fat man.

He was bleeding from the corner of his mouth as he breathed a gurgle or two. His eyes came open as he gurgled one more time. He smiled. He died.

“Nancy, where are you.”

“Here.” She called from a few feet away, sitting on the ground behind the biggest of the two boulders. Her hands were tied.

I fell to my knees in front of her, untied the loose knots, and helped her up. She threw her arms around me and kissed me. “Thank you. You saved my life. He was going to kill me soon. That man told me I had one more sunset to see and then he would kill me if I didn’t sign the papers for the Rafter B. I kept telling him you were going to kill him and he would have nothing. Oh, Daniel, you saved my life.”

She fainted.

I whistled for Solomon and looked for the horses. Solomon trotted in, the spare tagged along. Nancy and fat man had to have some horses around here close so I went looking.

An hour later we set off for the home ranch back trailing all the way.

Nancy told me about the fat man as we rode. He was the owner of the Lazy E, Toby Everson. He wanted the Rafter B because there was gold in the hills on the south side of the ranch, the deeded side. Nancy’s father and mother had homesteaded a section each in those rolling plains and her father had paid every one of his hands to homestead a chunk and then sell to him. He paid them well for the land and for their job on the ranch, $5 above the going rate for hands in the area.

Nancy knew nothing of the gold until one of the Lazy E hands let it slip while they were running from us.

I asked why they ran.

“Oh, Everson wanted the ranch right proper. He wanted me to sell it to him. I told him it would be a cold day and then you came along. Something about you scared him stupid. He started running and you kept on following. Every man he sent was lost, they never came back. You were a jinx to his plan. Two of his men, two in the first ambush, were professional gunfighters and he had hired them on their credentials of being in a couple of grazing wars. What is it about you?”

“I don’t know. I just went to get you back to your ranch like your father asked me to do.”

 

We caught up to Cicero. He came out of a side cut of the valley where Shorts had died and surprised us both. I had my gun out and was forcing my finger not to squeeze the trigger when the Winchester that Nancy was carrying went off in my ear. Red blossomed on Cicero’s chest, his eyes went wide starring at Nancy as he slid sideways off the horse saying, “Not here, anyone but …”

Nancy broke into tears and bawling like I had never heard before out of woman, man, or kid. “I killed him. Cicero, I killed him,” she said, over and over again.

All I could do was get down and bury the man that had ridden so far to save this gal and then die at her hand. There was something there that just didn’t ring right with what I knew of God. Cicero was a hero, a warrior, and a woman had shot him, a woman he pledged to free or die trying to free. It just wasn’t fair.

“Lord, You are the boss, but was this really necessary? Did this man have to die at the hand of the woman he rescued? I hurt all over, Lord. Please, no more death. Please!” I cried out to the sky, the trees, the rocks, but really to God.

I buried him not far from Shorts taking time to scratch both their names on sand stone headstones. Men who chose to ride with me, will they all die? I mulling that over in my head when Nancy started riding away on the trail toward the Rafter B.

 

We arrived at the Rafter B on a blustery day. Brush rolled across the yard and no one was home. After I cared for the mess of horses we had brought in, Nancy called me to eat. She was at the table when I arrived. I ate like there was no tomorrow, at least until I was so full I was sick.

I darted out the back door and unloaded on the dirt. She wasn’t far behind. We sat on the half log seat and laughed. “You got more where that came from?” I asked.

After eating like a normal ranch hand, I sat and thought about all that had gone on. For some reason I was troubled.

 

RESERRECT TOR AND SEND HIM BACK TO GOLDEN WITH ONE OF THE HANDS. WHICH MEANS ONE MORE MAN (will) WILL HAVE TO LEAVE THE RANCH WITH THEM.

 

I could tell Nancy was feeling the horrors of the past episodes. She had seen her father dead. Then there was the kidnapping, the rescue, the rides, the lack of hope, the death all around her, the lack of sleep, and all of it was affecting her as I watched. She fumbled through the cupboards looking for a pan and then needed a sharp knife. There were three on the end of the counter just out of sight, but she went through everything before she stumbled on to the three knives. She seemed really pleased with herself when she found them.

I decided I didn’t need any more food and told Nancy I was going to bed down in the bunk house.

Along about somewhere in the night when it was dark shouts started in the yard. A gun was fired. A scream from the house. I went out the door with a gun in my hand and my body covered with not much except the blanket. It was a good thing I recognized the bean pole frame of Buck in the moon light.

I yelled, “Don’t shoot, Buck,” and put my gun under my arm with the  barrel pointing backwards.

Buck said, “Who the heck are you.”

“Daniel. Nancy is in the house.”

At that time Nancy come to the door with her robe covering her night clothes. She must have lost some weight, the robe hung like she must have been a bit heavier, not fat of course, it was just out of proportion somehow.

I called to her, “Nancy, it’s your hands. Go back to bed. We’ll get organized in the morning.”

Motioning Buck and Tommy inside and turning back caused me to drop my gun which made me bend over and using the wrong hand to pick it up caused my blanket to fall away and leave me bending over naked. I blushed all over.

“Even in the dark, I can see the shine, Boss,” Tommy yelled.

Nancy laughed and went back in her house.

I spent an hour or so jawing, catching Tommy and Buck up on all the latest with Nancy. Buck ended it with, “We ain’t finding many cows on this place with the Rafter B brand. We’ve moved a bunch of Lazy E and a few of a couple of other brands off to the north over the big ridge. We’re working the south side now and not much is showing. Saw some funny stuff off yonder,” he pointed, “Like someone’s working the ground and a hole in the canyon wall.”

“I’ll take a look at that tomorrow. Heard something about others working part of the ranch. We’ll see. Goodnight all.” I fell back and pulled the blanket all the way up.

The food bell clanged and my opened to bright sunlight coming through the one window in the bunkhouse. Every other bunk was empty. I emptied the one I used and grabbed for some clothes to cover my nakedness and ended the dressing by pulling on my boots. The table in the kitchen set for four. A plate from the counter, a spoon from the pot, and within moments my plate was full. Wasn’t sure what it was, but it smelled like good food.

Nancy came from her room with the same clothes she had been riding in, nothing was different.

“Why no clean clothes?”

“I need to wash up first.”

I looked around. “Buck, fill that bucket will ya and let’s get it on the stove to heat for a bath.”

I finished my meal and trotted outside to a #2 wash tub I had seen hanging on the back of the house. It came off the nail easily. In the bedroom it went. I lit the lamp for warmth. Then a blanket was up to cover the window completely. The bucket of hot water was brought in and dumped in the tub, a couple buckets of cold water were hauled in, and Tommy came up with a bar of stinky women’s soap from the kitchen under the sink. “Now, your bath is ready, Miss Nancy, enjoy.”

Buck tossed her a towel from the stack on the top shelf of a closet between the bedrooms, “Found these a couple days ago when I figured the water in the horse trough was warm enough for my ever’ three month’s bath.”

“Why thank you, boys. I’ll be awhile getting all this squished in dirt outta my pores. May even need another bucket of hot water.”

Every the gentleman, Tommy said, “I’ll get the bucket full and heating. When you need it I’ll bring it too ya.” Just as he finished he realized what he had said and turned as red as a ripe apple. “I mean, uh, you know, uh, awe forget it. I’ll put the bucket on the stove and you can do what ya want with it.” He got up and walked out with the empty bucket.

Once the rest of us regained our senses, off we went to get our chores done and move south.

 

An hour later she was still bathing.

I yelled through the door, “We’re leaving now. Off to the south.”

It was quiet for a moment, and then. “Be safe. I do not want to bury anyone else.”

“I agree.”

Our saddle bags were full of food and ammunition. Each of us had a few things we thought were important. I had found a pointy tipped hammer in the barn that I figured might come in handy and stuck it in my bags along with an old shirt of someone’s I had found in the bunkhouse. Actually, I had found two. One I was wearing and one was stashed.

South is a nice direction. It’s warmer that way – – – if you go far enough, which we were not going to do.

It was a good half hour before we saw our first beef, a cow with a calf about two days old. The brand on the side was Rafter B. An hour later we found a bunch of six cows with four calves. “Calf crop ain’t too bad,” Tommy said.

Buck had his opinion, “This ain’t much of a beef outfit. We shoulda found a couple hunnert by now the way we been zigzagging all over the countryside. This is just what we did yesterday, Boss, only it was a couple miles thataway. Someone has either been lying to himself in his tally book or this place has been stripped. I think it’s been stripped. That corral we found the first day out had been used. Cows in there for a couple days. Then the tracks go east. East is where a market might be. Them mines over around Golden and such make for a great place to sell a head here and a head there. Man could make more money with beef than with a pick in that country, unless he hit the mother lode, of course.”

“What about this side? How do you to figure this?” I said.

“Well, boss, I agree with Buck. Now for this side, there just ain’t no tracks. Except for the few head we done found, there just ain’t no other tracks. I’m thinking they started on this side. Only way to find out is go over to the east and see if we can come up with a serious mess of a herd going yonder.”

“Sounds like we got a beef problem for the little lady. What about the dirt shifty and digging? How far away is that?”

“Over thataway a mile or so, but we’d have to go back a couple miles to get a path in there. That’s some pretty rough country that happens of a sudden. If you don’t go at it just right you’ll miss or get blocked.”

“Let’s ride.” I kicked one of the new horses into a lope. Solomon got the day off.

 

We entered the grazyest valley I had ever seen. One side was a wall with a stream running right up against the wall. In many places the stream had cut way back into the wall. On the other side was a gradually sloping grass and tree filled ramp up to the level of the top of the wall. It was like God had dug a slopping ramp a half mile long down to a place where he just quit when He hit stone. Don’t get me wrong, He coulda smacked the rock and moved it. I’m just saying what it looked like to me at the moment.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 22

I looked at Shorts, “You figure they heard all that shooting and took off?”

“Nah,” he replied, “They were leaving anyhow. Probably figured his boys got the men following them and that his men would catch up. Why’d we take the shirts and hats of them?”

“Well, let me tell you what we are going to do next,” and I did.

After washing the shirts in the stream near their campsite, we headed after the Lazy E crew with the shirts flapping in the breeze from over the saddles of the extra horses. The hats were tied to our own saddles.

Long about noon we spotted our targets riding over a hill ahead of us. We were still in the trees so they didn’t see us. One man stopped at the top and dismounted. Cicero said, “Lookout. One man to watch the back trail for a spell.”

Shorts nodded and I reached for a shirt.

Within a short period of time we were the three survivors of the shootout riding to catch up. We were dressed in the shirts, wearing the hats, and riding the horses of the foursome that came to kill us.

Sure enough, as we got close to the lookout, he waved, climbed on his horse, and rode off the join crowd. We just kept out gallop steady and soon we were standing on the top of the hill looking at one man riding after seven more out on the flats. The one man rode in amongst the other and they just kept on going.

One or two looked back.

We waved our hats.

Resting the horses allowed the outlaws to move on down the trail and into a countryside that was broken and would only allow them to see on for a while longer. Once they lost us we could catch up or even get into them before they realized the trick we had pulled.

The ride became one of close the gap, but don’t catch up. They weren’t lollygagging on the trail. We weren’t either.

As we entered the broken countryside, we got a lot more cautious. It was a place that lent itself to ambushes and other nasty tricks. There was also the possibility that one or two might hold back just to find out what happened. I was almost hoping for that. We were still riding armed for bear and even had spares. I had the butt of my Winchester on my thigh and a second one in the scabbard. There was a Colt hanging by a piggin’ string from the horn of my saddle and another tucked in my belt. Both were .44’s of the same model as my .44.

All I could think of was ‘bring on the bears.’

Two men did drop back to visit with us and see what happened. Unfortunately they died as their guns cleared leather. The real unfortunate side of that was now we had six riders ahead of us. Five of which were outlaws and one was Diane, we hoped. The problem became one of possible ambush and another of hostage.

Just as we were moving forward again, we heard horses coming our way. I fired a couple of shots just to make them think the fight was still going on and they would be able to help their side get rid of the terror behind them, us. It worked. They rode right into us with guns drawn and fell off their horses with guns in hand. One fired just as he hit the ground and took a chunk out of Cicero’s left arm a hand span below the should. The worst part of it was that it was on the underside of the arm and was bleeding in squirts.

I ripped my bandana out of my pocket, wrapped the arm, and tied it as tight as I could get it. The bandana slowly turned red, but a second wrap with my own shirt seemed to do the trick. Shorts moved slowly forward with a sixgun in each hand, his Winchester hanging by a string from the horn.

Cicero said, “I’m okay. Let’s get this finished before the pain really sets in.”

There were now four ahead of us. Three outlaws and one young lady, we hoped.

We rode slowly, with Shorts out in front and Cicero in the rear. I kept the Winchester on my thigh, but it was in my left hand with the reins. In my right hand was a Colt, six rounds loaded. I signaled a stop with an air blast between my teeth. Shorts pulled up. Cicero and I joined him. “We’re going to get ambushed if we stay on this trail. Look how easy it was for us to deal with the last four men. That’s how easy it would be to deal with us at this point. Got any suggestions?”

“Yeah,” said Shorts. “You try to circle them by riding high above all this badland stuff and we follow the trail. If you can draw their attention, do that and we’ll hit them from another direction. If you can’t, you ambush them and we hit them from behind. If you see they have an ambush for us, let us know even if you have to start the shooting.”

“Sounds solid to me. Do either of you know anything about this trail or country?”

Cicero answered, “Yeah. North of here somewhere is Wyoming. Not too many more miles and the country widens out and there’s a long, wide open plain at about 8,000 feet or so, but I have no idea how far and in what direction. Went through there from Fort Collins to the Great Salt Lake just to see what it looked like right after I got into this country. Wasn’t too impressed with the lake. Cain’t do nothin’ with salt water except smell it.”

“But, you don’t know nothin’ about this country? Right?”

“Yup.”

“That is a lot of help. Next time keep it to yourself, Cicero. I hurt too much to be listen travel story with no sense to it.” Shorts wasn’t happy.

“Grouch.”

“Yup. Wait til that little nick you got starts to heal and see how it feels.”

“Boys, we got a woman to rescue. Let’s ride.” I looked around to see the dog walk out from behind a clump of rock on the higher ground and start to trot up high on the side hills. Looked like a good route to where I could look down on the badlands where everybody else was gonna be.

“Luck,” said Cicero.

“Skill,” said I.

“Cow plops,” said Shorts.

“Grouch,” said Cicero and I as I lost sight of them.

I was riding one horse and dragging another as I followed the dog. Thing that amazed me was that none of those men had any food in their saddle bags. What were the folks we were hunting eating? Didn’t make any sense to worry about it. Hopefully, we would be eating with Diane by dark.

That was a pipedream, only I didn’t know it then.

 

The dog led me higher and higher, riding right out in the open. I could see both parties on occasion, but never together. The two on my side of the argument were moving slow and easy like along the trail. Every time I saw them I waved. If they waved back, I pointed to the other crew so they knew where they were and that they were all together.

An hour before the sun would go behind the western mountains the dog whined at me while he looked down on two of the gunmen stopping at the junction of this valley of badlands and set up an ambush. I couldn’t see where the fat man and Diane, I was sure it was her, went. There was no sight of the two on my side. I waited with the ambushers in my sights from a long way away. The dog just sat watching. I figured that if they raised a gun, I’d shoot. I might hit one of them, but I would surely warn Cicero and Shorts.

One of them raised his Winchester and put the butt to his shoulder. I fired.

The shot splattered off a rock six feet from the outlaw I wanted to hit. He ducked. Shorts rode into the ambush with guns blasting until he went down right after I fired my second shot. The rifleman went down hard at the same time. He had been sitting and unfolded to hit the ground hard enough to bounce. He was out of the picture.

Shorts’s head whipped back from the rifleman’s last shot, before he hit the dirt landing on his bad side and didn’t move. Cicero rode in

The second outlaw tried to get on his horse and leave, but chose to stand and fight it out with Cicero. He fired. Cicero spun around and off his horse, landing one his one good arm and both feet in a crouch. His sixgun spoke from ground level and I watched the second outlaw fold. He let fly another round that caught the bad man with his head coming down and spun the man around. The outlaw squeezed the trigger as he died and his one last round that caught Cicero somewhere in the body.

Cicero tumbled and laid still.

I rode down to check on my friends. As I rode I prayed, ‘Don’t let them die, please.’

The gunmen were never going to shoot another round or see another sunset. I almost wilted at that thought. All this killing and dying just wasn’t my thing. I could do it, but I surely did not want to.

Shorts was dead when I got to him. The round had caught him on the tip of his nose and went all the way through, leaving a mess on the back of his head. I covered his face with the hat he had been wearing.

Cicero was out of action, but alive. One bullet had caught him in the ribs right under the wound on his arm. The second round caught him in the other arm, breaking a bone just above his wrist. Two wings clipped and a furrow along his ribs put him out of action.

Catching up the horses I realized the dog was nowhere in sight. Every time he shows up, it helps the situation, so where does he go in between. s he off in the woods watching? Is he tracking the bad guy for us? What and where, big questions.

Checking the saddlebags, I found a can of beans and a pouch full of corn meal. Oh, yeah, here were guns all over the place and horseflesh aplenty, but right now I drooled over beans and corn meal mush. I had to use three shirts to get Cicero to quit leaking before I could get him set up so I could go after Diane alone. He would have no problem getting on his way, but he was going to hurt for a long time.

A quick fire, heated beans, and a slurry of corn meal mush filled our bellies. I left the rest of the corn meal with Cicero and set him leaning against a soft rock with guns at hand and three blankets. All the horses except Solomon were his to keep, also.

“I hate to leave a man down, but I gotta go.”

“I understand. I’d do the same in your shoes. I’ll meet ya at the ranch if ya don’t catch up.”

“If you leave this place, go back along the same trail we came on. I’ll catch you.” I was hoping out loud.

“Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll pull out in the morning after I eat this fancy meal you left me.”

“I can take it if it doesn’t measure up to your standards.”

“Anything’s better than nothing.”

“Adios.” I pulled Solomon onto the tracks of two horses heading up the side canyon.

 

I lost their tracks a dozen times in the rocky ground, but each time I just kept going the same direction and there would be tracks not too far up the trail. I was tired and hungry by noon and decided to take a break at the next spot that suited me. I could have used that dog right about then.

A shady spot near a small rivulet of water beckoned me and I took advantage of the invite. As I ducked my head to swing down from Solomon’s back, the whip of a slug went past and the sound of a rifle shot came rattling through the trees. My hat went flying and Solomon lunged, dumping me in the dirt. Solomon took three steps and stopped.

I rolled behind a downed tree and tried to figure out where the shot came from. My hat lay in the dirt not ten feet from me. I could see a hole in the brim on the back side. The shooter must have been behind me. A back shooter is no one to mess with. A real man will meet you and make his challenge face to face, but scummy cowards shoot people in the back.

The dog stood not twenty feet from me, sheltered by a rock and a tree.

“Thanks for the warning,” I said looking him in the eye.

He trotted off into the woods.

“Bye.”

Then it dawned on me. I followed the dog. After a hike up the hill he stopped looking off in the direction I had been traveling. Two riders were just topping a distant hill and going out of sight. “You could have told me to bring my horse.”

The dog trotted after them. I went back for Solomon.

By the time I returned to the spot where the dog and I had separated, it was dark enough to know I was not going to do anymore tracking today. I took a nap.

The moon climbed high enough to do some good long about midnight. Half a moon stood out amongst a beautiful sky of stars and I could see my tracks coming in to this spot. Solomon walked over to me as if to say it was time to git. I threw the rig on him and we did.

 

Tracks leaped out of the dirt as we topped the hill where the two riders were last seen. I put the moon off on the far side of the tracks to help build a shadow in the tracks to make them easier to follow.

Over the next three hours I was off and back on Solomon as the tracks moved through different terrain. Once in a large spread of sage where all was in deep shadow, I had to get off and walk along bent over in order to see the tracks. Another time I had almost gone asleep, awakening suddenly if found that Solomon was plodding along the tracks of our quarry. I wrapped the reins around the horn and let him go. He stopped at a point the tracks led to hard rock and there were none to see. I got off and kept going in the same direction. After a dozen feet or more there was a scratch, another a little further, and finally they were back in dirt.

Just as the sun was beginning to put a bit of light in the east, I saw their fire pit full of glowing coals. We stopped and the dog walked right in front of me and parked himself as if to say, ‘what took ya so long?’

I looked over the dog to the campsite. Someone threw a hunk of wood on the coals making the sparks fly. Not a lot of them, but enough to let me know someone was awake down there. Leaving Solomon there, I headed down the slight drop to the camp on hands and knees.

The camp was larger than I would imagine they would need. A man squatted at the fire coaxing the heat out of the coals to catch the wood he had put on top. A coffee pot sat on the ground beside him. I could see another person wrapped in a blanket on the far side of the fire

Nancy!

I slid my gun out and moved toward the man at the fire. Twenty feet away I said, “Put your hands in the air and stand up slowly.”

The man froze in his position at the fire. Slowly he began to stand. I said, “Nancy, it’s me, Daniel, get out of that blanket and come over here to me.”

The blanket exploded.

The dog landed in the middle of the blanket.

A gun went off from under the blanket.

The blanket froze in place as the dog stood atop the rounded form.

“Get this animal off of me. Who you calling Nancy anyhow?”

I looked real good at the man who was now standing with his hands up. He was well built, but not the fat man. What was going on here?

The dog backed down and another man emerged from the blanket. He, too, was slim and not the fat man or Nancy. My jaw dropped.

“Who are you, Mister Daniel?”

I stood there silent, gun in hand, hammer back, and could say nothing.

The man at the fire asked, “You lookin’ for a heavy man with his daughter with him.”

“No. I’m lookin’ for a fat man with a hostage named Nancy.”

The man on the ground asked, “Was she ugly as a twenty year old post?”

“No. She was pretty and well built.”

“That must be the two that ate with us last night and then kept riding even though it was dark already.”

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – EPISODE 21

I looked down at a sleeping Shorts, “God, he is hurt. Let him get some peaceful rest and quick healing.” Now, was they telling God what to do or was it asking. “I am asking, Lord. Your plan is best.”

Cicero was sitting under Solomon, who was calmer than the other two horses. He looked at me and said, “You praying?”

“Yeah.”

“Pray for me, too.”

“You a believer?”

“Once I thought I was, but then God allowed my wife and son to die in a cabin fire. I walked away from God and since then I’ve just tried to be a good man to their memory.”

I had to think for a moment, “I think God will understand. Look at this way, maybe, I ain’t no expert. All of us are gonna die. Every single one of us. Why should your wife live forever? My Ma died. Was it God’s fault or was it man’s fault when he chose to not obey his Creator in the Garden of Eden? You really just didn’t like the pain. I don’t like the pain of not having a Ma to raise me up. If it weren’t so wet I’d get my Bible out and read to you, but all I can do is tell you what I remember in my own words. God says if we ask in all seriousness, He will forgive any sin except ignoring Him, or His Holy Spirit. It says in there that we are sealed to Him by His Holy Spirit until He can make all the promises He has made come true in your life.

“Does that make sense, Cicero?” I looked him in the eye.

He shook his head, “How can God forgive me for the things I’ve said about Him when I was mad or drunk?”

“I don’t know, but He says He can and will. Try it if you mean it.”

He looked at me and shook his head, but I watched his head bow and his lips start moving.

When he looked up again there was a peace shown on his face. “I think He said I was forgiven.”

“What a load of hoowey that was Daniel. How could you believe that, Cicero? How?” came the weak voice of Shorts from the ground as he sat up.

“Don’t ask me, but I did. You might wanna try it yourownself, Shorts.” Now Cicero was the preacher.

Shorts got to his feet and turned his back on us, relieving himself into the rain, downwind of course. He turned back buttoning his fly. “If your God is so powerful and forgiving, can He heal me and forgive me killing another man?”

I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes to both.”

He worked his way back to the ground and turned his back on us.

Cicero gave me a look and I nodded my head.

We stayed quiet until the storm decided to quit and the moon broke through the clouds. The wool blankets were very wet as we rolled them and got the horses ready for travel. Cicero and I had to lift Shorts to his saddle and make sure he was balanced.

With the leg dangling to the stirrup, I checked his wound again. The scab was forming nicely. I was healing well as far as I could see. Nothing looked or smelled bad. That was all I knew about wounds other than the prickly pear pods for a poultice and Evelyn had taught me that when I cut myself pretty bad one time.

We rode into a wet forest with the dripping boughs getting us wetter than we already were. I looked for a place to build a fire in this wet swimmin’ hole. Everything was soaked and so were we. Shorts didn’t need the cold and chill as weak as he was and it wasn’t doing Cicero and I any good either.

The trail was gone and so were the hoof prints. We’d have to worry about the next day. A lightning strike off to the east, lit up what looked like a shelter of some kind. Cicero saw it, too and turned off to check it out. In moments he was waving his hat and calling for us to come.

It was a recently abandoned cubby hole probably made by some Indian or trapper. There was a packrat’t nest at the back, two feet deep and three feet wide, that had enough wood in it to warm us up a bit. Any heat was better than none. The boughs of needles over the top of the shelter were just beginning to drop from age so inside was fairly dry. Compared to the outside it was a dry desert.

Cicero got the fire going while I put up our two horses. When he was ready, we hauled Shorts into the shelter and I went back out to put his horse on the rope with ours. I watched them put their rumps to the wind and shift to three legged stances, which is a horse’s way of saying good night. Thinking that was a good idea, I went inside to try for a nap myownself.

As I entered, Cicero tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to Shorts. He had tears running down his cheek. I said, “You okay, Shorts?”

He didn’t answer for a minute or two as Cicero added wood to the fire in the middle of the shelter. “I just asked God to show me He’s real by getting me warm and here we are.”

“Don’t expect that kinda service all the time,” Cicero said.

“I agree. I’ve asked for all kinds of signs and the answers rarely, if ever look like what I asked for.”

We were all asleep in a matter of minutes after we quit jawing. It’s amazing how warm a wet wool blanket can be when the wet gets warmed up.

 

All the next day we rode ourselves in circles trying to find the tracks. We found a few horse tracks, but the group was never big enough.

The distance to the Lazy E wasn’t that far and in searching we had moved closer and closer. At sundown we were looking down on the ranch frin a mountain side a good mile out.

We had talked as we rode and in those times we were separated we prayed, or at least Cicero and I did. I have no idea what Shorts did other than hang on to his horse.

As we watched the ranch fade into the dusk, I began to worry. No lights were being lit and I only saw one hand moving around. There were horses in the corral, but we were too far off to get a count.

“Okay, I’m going to go down there once it’s dark and see what I can see. If Diane is down there, I’ll try to get to her. If she isn’t I will be taking at least one prisoner. We get her again and there ain’t anyone that will take her away from me while I’m still breathing.”

“Is this a romance budding.”

“No, I’m just tired of riding around in circles and wondering if she is safe or not.”

We waited.

I rode into the darkness leaving the two cowboys behind and with a prayer on my lips.

The ranch was just as I’d seen it before, dying and falling down, filthy and stinking. One lamp was lit in the bunkhouse, if you wanted to call it that. I looked in the winter after creeping up a quietly as I knew how. One man was sitting at a three legged table playing solitaire. I watched him cheat twice before going around to the door. I drew my .44 and walked in.

“Howdy. Where is everybody?”

“Off to  Ooops,they’re headed for Wyoming and not the ranch. Done passed that.

 

Just before sundown we found the tracks. We had moved toward the north as we searched and figured we had covered a lot of country, but weren’t sure how far we had gone. Whatever the distance was, these tracks were fresh. The dirt, or should is say mud, at the edge of the tracks was still curling into the deep tracks. We couldn’t be more than an hour behind, if that.

How did they get so close? Had to be they found a spot to dry out and spent some time getting everything warm and dry, and all the people fed. I wasn’t about to backtrack to find out. We were close and we were going to stay close.

Within minutes we found a camp site that served out purposes, lots of wood, a tree canopy to break up the smoke, and shelter from the night breeze. We built a high wall on the north side of the fire to keep prying eyes from seeing the fire and even then we kept it small. We had nothing to cook and nothing to brew. Water was the only thing on the menu.

Cicero broke the silence. “We gotta ketch them folks tomorrow if for no other reason than to get their grub. We sure’s all get out cain’t shoot something without telling them we’re right behind them.”

“You know, Cicero, that gives me an idea. Let’s find us a spot in the morning for an ambush. Then we can shoot off one round like we was hunting and wait for a couple of them to come back and see what’s goin’ on.”

Shorts’ head came up, “I can sit and hold a Winchester without any problem. I can, I can. I’ll be of some use that way, instead of being an dead cow on the end of your rope to drag along.”

“Shut up,” I smiled when I said it. “If you was an anchor, I’d cut the line.”

Cicero looked at him. “How you feeling?”

“Pain’s tolerable. Bone aches. Toes wiggle. Butt is sore. Gut is empty. My attitude is one of wantin’ to kill someone or blow up something.”

We all got a chuckle out of that as we bobbed our heads. The jawing kept on for another hour as we worked to get the blankets reasonable dry. They weren’t too wet what with the body heat and fire the night before.

My blanket felt better than it ever had before as I rolled up in it after telling Cicero to wake me at something that resembled one in the morning. He had taken a look at the Big Dipper and said, “Goodnight, Boss.”

I awoke to see Shorts on watch and the night very dark. The Dipper showed it was close to 4 or so. I let him keep watchin’ and rolled over to find a more comfortable position in the damp needles.

Cicero kicked me gentle like. “You gonna sleep all day, Boss?”

“I was trying to after I saw Shorts on the job.”

Shorts smiled, “Just tryin’ to be of some use. Let’s go get’em.”

We ate our water for breakfast and saddled up three tired horses. They complained a mite, but not enough to be aggravating. The sun was behind the mountain we were one as we worked our way to the tracks and, with Cicero out in the lead, we went after our prey.

My head or something was telling me that this was going to be a day, an eventful day. That’s all I could latch on to. It wasn’t as if it were going to be a bad day or a good day, just an eventful day.

We rode into it with our minds and guns ready, like soldiers I would say.

Within minutes we saw their smoke and smell the breakfast cooking. Oh, was that an bodacious smell. I drooled. Cicero shook his head. Shorts just kept riding.

Right soon we came up on a cut to the left that was lined with boulders at the entrance. Shorts stayed on the trial and Cicero and I went to check it out. It was as close to perfect for our task as any place I’d ever seen. The gunmen could come right through the boulders and into the cut where we could take them on up close and personal. Even if things went sour there were two escape routes for us to back out through.

“Hey, Boss, it just don’t get much better than this.”

“I agree. Let’s get Shorts set up and then send out invitation to the party out.”

I rode down and got Shorts. Cicero got a smoky fire going for the outlaws to head toward and showed Shorts the place he thought the wounded man would work best in. It was right alongside of the main escape route. There was a crazy looking rock that was slick but not too slick. Shorts was set in position on the rock with lots of protection and a simple slide to the ground next to his horse. All he had to do was shoot until it was time to leave, turn and slide down landing on his good leg, grab the reins, and swing up with as little weight as possible on his bad leg.

Cisco got set at the spot he had picked out for himself which would us the same escape route as Shorts had. Me, I just parked my butt atop a rock dead in front of the trail coming in. The only bug in the ointment was the extra tracks coming and going on the trail, but that could easily have happened in we camped in the cut. All we could do was get ready.

I stood atop my rock and looked to Shorts. He nodded. Cicero stuck his arm in the air with a thumb up. There was nothing left to except start the party. The hammer clicked twice as I pulled it back. I aimed up the cut and let fly with on .44 round, immediately jacking the lever and then inserting a round through the loading chute. The .44 on my hip with the blood red cross on the grips had six rounds in the cylinder ready for a fight.

I prayed. “Lord, I don’t want to kill none of these men, but I think they aim to kill a woman, a defenseless woman. All of this is in Your hands. It surely isn’t in mine. Use me for Your will. Whatever, Lord.”

We waited.

We waited some more.

Four men made an appearance like magic out of the trees near the trail into the trap. The lead man pulled up and pointed to the tracks before swinging his arm along the trail to end pointing at the rocks. Another man motioned them on along the trail.

We had planned that Shorts would take the man on the left, Cicero would do the man in the middle, and I would take care of the man on the right. We never figured on four. I had estimated two. Cicero said three. Shorts said he didn’t care how many, he’d kill his share. We also agreed I would ask them to surrender before I fired. The two companions didn’t care much for that, but agreed that if one of them made a move for a gun, we would open fire.

They came forward as if it were a Sunday afternoon ride to check out a water hole or something.

I waited until they had passed the three entrance boulders and stood up. They didn’t see me concentrating on the trail like they were.

I yelled, “Surrender or die.”

All four looked at me and grabbed for their guns. Three rounds hit them with the shots sounding like one. The survivor of that blast caught three slugs just as his gun was coming to bare on me.

Cicero slid off his boulder and eased into the death scene. One at a time he checked them for life. He looked up, “This one is still breathing.” It was the one on the left. Shorts swore loud and clear. “He won’t last long though. He’s shot through both lungs from the looks of it.”

Cicero bent over and kneeled next to the man putting his ear to the man’s face. Moments later he arose. “He said he knew he should never have hung out with a man that would kill a woman.”

He bent to check again. “He dead.”

‘Three down and how many left’ ran through my mind.

We pulled the three to a spot where a boulder was in a position that the wind hollowed out a large hole under it. After stripping them of shirts, hats, guns and ammo, personal information, and money, we stashed them in the hole and stacked smaller rocks on top until they were well covered. Now we had four Winchesters, six Colts, and four fully equipped horses, all of which were top quality like most successful outlaws ride. Problem was, they had just gotten these back at the Bordeau ranch. Was Bordeau an outlaw? I might have to think on that awhile. All I knew was he wouldn’t be using that gun hand of his for a long time.

We backtracked the quartet to their campsite, which was abandoned. The fire had been drowned and steam was still rising.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 20

That made three of us that had no idea of what was ahead. Cicero talked of a discussion he had in a saloon one time with a rider from Wyoming. The rider said there were more dead ends in these mountains than there were good trail and even the deer get lost now and then. Shorts looked around like there was something lost before he said, “I did hear of a park in this area where the outlaws met to swap stock going north with those going south.”

“Why would they do that,” I asked.

“Easy reason. If you stole horses in the north, it’d be hard to sell them in the north. Same with cows. By making the swap, you end up with critters that no one’s gonna know the brands on and you can forge bills of sale much easier.”

“So, where is this park?”

“Beats me. I just heard of it, but this collection of mountains and such look like what that rider described to me. Said they weren’t too happy to see strangers in this area either.”

“Well, then. Let’s announce our arrival and see what happens.” I said as it pulled out my Winchester and headed for a small herd of elk a mile or more away. “Find a camp site and smoke it up. I’ll be right back.”

The young doe was easy to skin due to the winter fat she was working on. The three of us cut off some nice chunks of meat and began roasting over the fire which was now almost smokeless except for the fat drippings sputtering as they hit the hot coals. The night closed in around us.

Morning brought company.

“Hello the fire,” came out of the trees.

“Come on in. Hands in sight,” Shorts hollered while Cicero and I found holes we had spotted the night before.

The man came in riding a real fine horse that had not been ridden too far or for very long. He passed by my hole by not more than ten feet. “I got some biscuits in my bags. If you got the bacon, we got a meal.” He looked around.

“Where’s the other two?” he asked.

“What other two?” Shorts looked up. “I got coffee and nothing more. Even the coffee is puny, second pot with the same grounds. Lite and set.”

The man swung down on the off side of his horse from me and Shorts, but right into the full sight of Cicero. Then I saw the rest of them coming in from behind Cicero.

I stepped out. “Tell your friends to keep their hands away from their guns or they will die.”

“Who’s gonna kill them?” he asked as he turned to see me.

The two other riders moved in close to Cicero and right on past him. If I hadn’t  known where he was, I could not have been able to see him.

“Me.” I turned out into plain sight for all to see. Pointing at the two riders, “Get off your horses and lead them in here.”

“What’s your problem?” asked the first man.

I let him think on it as the two men got off their horses. One of them made the horse move so him getting off would be hidden from me. His boot hit the ground and Cicero stuck his gun in the man’s back, “Walk to the fire.” He looked at the other rider who was some startled. Cicero was only five feet from him.

The first man was tall and lean. His clothes were well worn but neat. The gun on his left hip was worn, but ready. The tie down had been slipped off. He just stood there looking at me.

He said, “You’re trespassing on private property.”

“Didn’t see no signs,” Shorts said from his spot on the ground near the fire.

“You must have missed them. I am the owner of this ranch. I am Bordeau.”

Cicero said, “Bordeau, ain’t that some sissy wine folks back east drink?”

Bordeau drew his gun as he brought it to bear on Cicero. I put a round in his gun hand taking his pinky off as it pushed the Colt out of his hand.

He cussed shaking his hand flinging blood all over spooking the horses they had ridden in on. “Mister Bordeau, I reckon we got off on a bad start. My name is Daniel. This is Cicero and the man with the bum leg is Shorts. Cicero is long on knowledge and Shorts is short on patience. I would recommend that you and your men come into the fire while Cicero takes your horses to the line. At the fire you can enjoy some of our weak coffee and pleasant conversation.”

“I will kill you, whoever you are.”

“Not with that gun or hand you aren’t. Sit down and shut up.” I was getting madder.

Cicero relieved the other two of their weapons, including a big knife from each, led the horses to the line, and returned to camp from different direction, nodding to me as he leaned on a tree.

“Now then, Mr. Bordeau, we are looking for a young lady, our boss. She is being deprived of her freedom and her ranch by a fat man that owns the Lazy E ranch. I believe his name might be Everson. Have you seen or heard of such a person or such persons trespassing on your ranch?”

He just stared at me.

I put a round between his toes. “Now, I took off your pinky and sent your gun to the scrap yard. I don’t want you to doubt that I missed your toes on purpose. Did you see or hear of such people in the last few days?” I jacked the hammer back for emphasis.

“No.”

“He’s lying, boss. I can tell by his eyes.” Shorts swung his six gun to point in Bordeau’s direction. “Bet I can take an eye out without hurting him too bad. Might just smart for a while, but he’ll never forget the day he met us.”

“No.” I walked to the other two men. One was a fidgety and a saloon gal in church. “You. Have you seen or heard of any such folks around here lately?”

He flinched when the gun barrel just naturally pointed at his face. I lowered it to his fat belly.

“Well?”

He got to dancing like he had to find a tree.

Cicero stuck his gun in the man’s ear. “Well?”

“Well?” Cicero pushed on the gun a bit and almost made the man lose his balance.

The second man caught him and pushed him away. “Get away from me. Answer the question. You do know the answer, don’t you? It’s simple, yes or no.”

Bordeau started to say something. I said, “You had your chance. Shut up.”

“Everson was through here two days ago. Swapped out horses and headed north. I saw no woman or girl. He had three men with him, but swapped out 13 horses.”

“Thank you. Cicero let him go. Give him back his gun and knife. He will need it to survive until he gets where he’s going.”

“Where am I going?”

“Anyplace you want, but I would suggest someplace far from here. I hear Texas is nice this time of year.” I gave him my toughest look which I’m sure didn’t come near to matching Bordeau’s.

The third man said, “Can I ride with him. He and I been pards for two years now and only got in with this crowd cuz it looked easier than playing with cows and no one wanted us over the winter. I liked Texas and I ain’t got no posters on me down there.”

“Go. Cicero, give them both back their gear and watch them carefully. I turned back to the leader of the trio. “Mr. Bordeau, whatever am I gonna do with you?”

“You better kill me or I will kill soon’s I can.”

“That just is not the proper respect for your captor. Tell ya what, I’ll leave ya here with you six gun and all the ammo you want. You can walk back to the hole you crawled out of and know that if I see you again looking my way, you will die. Now go sit under that big fir over there and get some sleep.” I walked to his horse and stroked the neck and mane. “I do like your horse. Maybe I’ll just swap you for him.”

“You ain’t got anything I want.” He was getting real grouchy.

“Your freedom.”

“You ain’t gonna kill me, kid. You ain’t got the guts.”

“Let me see you again after today and you will find out the hard way. Without your pinky, you are gonna have to learn gun slinging all over again. And, I gather you are a hired gun.”

He sat quiet.

“Who’s your boss.”

“I am the boss.”

“No wonder them two wanted out. No man wants to work for a boss that can be beat by a kid. Them boys were looking for someone to take care of them.” I stopped and looked around like I was thinking. “Get over under the fir; I’m sick of playing with you. Now get!”

He started to swing the right hand and I dropped him with my gun barrel planted across his skull. I grabbed his feet and drug him over to the spot under the fir. I sat him astraddle the trunk and tied both feet together, and then did the same with his hands. He was truly loving that tree. Bark was bristly. He wouldn’t like that at all.

Shorts was roasting elk when I got done. Cicero walked back to the fire at the same time I did. “Boss, what now?”

“We keep tracking. We are now sure that the trail is still the right one. They are headed for Wyoming. Whether they get there or not we don’t know. We don’t know a destination, we only know the direction.” I looked to Shorts, “You up to this, partner?”

“Just try to leave me behind.”

We finished what we wanted of the elk. I partially cut the ropes holding Bordeau, laid his gun next to him (didn’t work anyhow), walked to Solomon and got him ready for the ride. We killed the fire and away we went. I decided it wasn’t going to do us any good to try to sneak up on them and get the drop. So, we’d have to follow and take our chances on an ambush. But, we’d make much better time and close the gap quicker.

The trail laid before us like the stairs to Heaven that Jacob saw. Only this time there were no angels on the trail. That was a truth for sure.

Due north we traveled. Finding a campsite with an hour after we took to the trail with small boot prints around the fire gave us hope. No sign of blood or bloody bandages. There was one place where someone slept that was more than ten feet from all the others. I checked it out very carefully. Back up under a scrubby plant was the Rafter B brand scratch in the dirt and partially covered with a leaf. We were on the right trail for sure. Cicero said the fire was cold and he figured they were two days ahead of us.

I said, “How’d you figure that?”

“That’s what the man said when you questioned him.”

“Well now, aren’t you the smart one.”

“Yes I am.” He turned to climb aboard his horse, turned, “I’ll bet they’re headed for that pass and are probably moving up the trail to it right now.”

“I am not going to argue with you. You’re too smart for me.”

Shorts yelled, “Let’s ride. I can’t take much more of you two clowns. I gotta find the circus you come outta and give you back.” He was smiling.

I gave him a phony smile back and swung into the saddle we were at the bottom of the main climb by sundown. Like most trails to passes and saddles in this part of the world, there was a stream running not far from the trail. The sun was already behind the mountains to the west and the temperature was dropping. We built a fire well sheltered from the breeze and the trail, pulled out the last pieces of elk, and set to roasting. We ate it more hot than cooked so we could curl up in our blankets. Shorts took the first watch. He said his leg was hurting some and he wanted to get good and tired. I changed the dressing and saw there was no sign of infection or such. He was happy at that news.

Sleep came easy.

Cicero woke me up way too soon.

A hot bed of coals allowed me to stay warm as I listened to the last of the night.

Soon as I could see fifty feet, I woke up the other two, saddled the horses, and let them graze a bit before everybody was ready to mount up. Knowing the trail was gonna be steep and rocky, we checked the shoes all twelve feet and found nothing to trouble us.

When the sun’s rays hit us we were two miles up the trail and coming close to a false pass. The real pass showed behind the one we were approaching. “Cicero, you wanna check out that false pass and make sure there is no one waiting for us?”

He rode on ahead and just as he got to within range of the pass he turned off the trail. He got off his horse and tied it in a spot anyone up top couldn’t see. Then he went deeper into the trees to circle around their flanks if there was anyone up there. A good half hour later he was standing in the false pass waving us up.

I picked up his horse on the way.

Shorts was hurting pretty bad as we approached Cicero. I asked, “You gonna make it, friend?”

“Just try to leave me behind. I’ll be riding when you quit.”

Never underestimate the power of a man’s pride on something like this. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself he could make it. I responded, “That convinces me,” and meant it.

I handed Cicero the reins to his horse. He said, “There was a man here. He’s behind the rocks over there.” When he pointed I saw the knife cut on his arm. “That bad?”

“Nah. He just nicked me as he fell. I got him from behind and as he fell he spun. Dead on his feet, he got me with a touch.”

I checked it out. It was a bit more than a touch, but should be nothing to worry about. Now I was riding with two men that were limited in their abilities due to the outlaws. I wasn’t going to have much chance to do any talking to Everson or any of his gang. That after noon, late, we crossed the pass after I checked it out. No one was waiting to give us a well-earned reception. We rode through without feeling any disappointment concerning the reception not coming off.

The downhill side didn’t offer any good campsites. We curled up on the trail. Cisco took the first watch and I got the last again. My eyes opened to a well-lit world. Shorts was leaning against a rock wrapped in his blanket snoring up a storm. Speaking of storms, black clouds were rolling over the mountain ridge to the west.

I yelled, “Let’s get out of here. This is no place to be in a storm.”

Shorts jumped to his feet before he thought. Fortunately, he didn’t put full weight on that bad leg. “What?”

I pointed.

Cicero said, “That doesn’t look good. I hate mountain storms. We have a ways to go to get below the tree line and under cover. You got a slicker, Daniel?”

“No. You?”

“No. Shorts, you got a slicker?” I asked.

“No. Our blankets will have to do.”

The wind hit us hard enough that the horses staggered. We kicked them to go faster. Solomon wanted to run, but the shale and gravel wouldn’t allow that. He’d end up with a broken leg and I’d have to shoot him if he ran. The first marbles of hail hit us as we ducked into the first clump of trees.

Cicero, in the lead, yelled, “Keep going. There’s a better place down a ways.” He threw his blanket over his hat and most of his body.

Shorts and I did the same. It was hard to keep the blanket in place with the wind blowing as hard as it was, but without it the hail would be very painful. Solomon didn’t like it at all and tried to get to Cicero in a hurry. I held him back.

The first crack of lightening hit the first clump of trees just as we entered Cicero’s choice of hidey holes. The first clump of trees burst into flames. If we had been there, we would have died.

“Thanks, Cicero,” yelled Shorts.

I help him off his horse and, with three blankets, set up a shelter that would keep most of the hail and the rain that followed off us and the horses. The horses were all spooked and hard to keep close under the shelter. Even Solomon in all his wisdom wanted to run with the wind. To do so would have been his death. The lightening might still take us away from this world. I had no fear of that, matter of fact, on some days it seemed like a good idea. God was in control, not me.

We waited. I tried to imagine what it would have been like if that lightening had hit us in camp just below the top. It wasn’t a pretty mental picture at all. Fried cowboys and preacher did not sound too appetizing or productive.

As I stood there trying to hold the blanket shelter together by sheer willpower I go to thinking, which in the past has been sparse and not too productive. What had I gotten myself and Tor into? It had killed Tor. Yeah, I knew he could have walked away from my stupid ideas, but he wasn’t that kind of man. How many times had Diane been with me and how many times had I let her get taken away? This prayer stuff was shaky at best. God wasn’t my servant and He wasn’t going to jump every time I said, ‘hey, God.’ His plan was best, that I knew in my head and heart, but sometimes I questioned. Was that okay? Was I allowed to question God?

“What about the killing? Was that okay if I was protecting someone or even just me? Should I be doing what I am doing? Is this what God wants me to do or is this what I want to do because Diane is pretty and in trouble?”

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 19

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.

 

 

24

 

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?”

“Could be.”

“Miss Diane send you to meet up with a man called Daniel.”

“Could be.”

“I’m 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.”

“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.

 

 

25

 

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’.”

“Sure, boss.”

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 followed.

We camped.

We followed.

We camped.

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.”

Cicero agreed.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 18

“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.

23

 

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.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 17

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.

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.


21

 

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.


22

 

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.”

I did.

“Now, stand up slowly, very slowly.”

I did.

“Walk on out here.”

I did.

“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.

FREE BOOK – The DEACON – Episode 16

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.

For awhile.

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.


20

 

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.

© 2017 Doug Ball – Author