I did. As I was sitting on the calf I noticed a bit of milk running out of the calf’s mouth. It was pink. “Buck, this calf is bleeding from the mouth.”
Buck walked up and took a look. “Just what I thought. They done split the calf’s tongue so he cain’t suck. In a few days they’d be doggies and the mama’s would quit trying to feed them. In a couple weeks them Lazy E cowboy rustlers will come out and round up the doggies, brand them with the Lazy E, and claim them forever with no way of tagging them as rustlers.”
“Let’s drive them home.”
“Let’s leave them here and follow the tracks to the new home.”
“Nah, they’d be branded and it’d be our word against theirs. Let’s take a look at the horse tracks leading outta this place. I’ll wager they go straight thataway.” I pointed.
“Let’s ride.” He reached down and took the loop off the calf, climbed aboard, rolled his string, and we set out in the direction I had pointed. Sure enough the tracks led off that way. We followed until Buck said, “We cain’t stand against that many in that crew. Let’s go back and see what we can do.”
We camped nest to the calves that night and shoved them clear back to the barn the next day.
On the way back I asked, “How come them cows didn’t follow the calves’ scent back there at the place they was standing and bellowing?”
He went over to one of the cows in the corral that let him walk up close, dropped a loop, snubbed her off, and took a whiff of her nose. “Peppermint oil. They doused their noses with peppermint oil so’s they couldn’t smell their babies. When we took out after’em, they joined us knowing that riders are always around other cows. When we go close enough, the peppermint oil had worn down some and the scent came through. Off they went. Them full bags must be real painful.” He hunkered down and started milking the cow he had snubbed off. She stood there and I’ll swear she sighed.
We relieved them all, not much, just relief.
Denver was a five day journey there and back. I figured they would take ten at the least with Diane talking with the legal folks and the bank. I know she was going to report Tor’s death to the Marshall and then talk to him about the situation with the Lazy E. She was also looking for 2 more hands to help with bringing back some breeding stock and horses. We waited and worked for two weeks and no sign of them. The oats were gone. We were eating our own beef and wild onions, with an occasional prickly pear cactus roasted on occasion.
Buck suggested we go look for them. I suggested he wait here until I got back. Buck had seemed like a good hand and wasn’t going to back down without a good reason. We discussed options if the fat man came around and a few things Buck could do while I was gone. Didn’t take me long to saddle up and hit the trail with two pounds of jerky in my saddlebags.
Just before sundown I met up with a herd. I rode in cautiously and met up with three rough looking hands. “Howdy. You boys driving them beeves anywhere in particular?”
“Yup.” The big guy up front was real talkative.
“The brands are all different.”
“I have bills of sale.”
“You headed for the Rafter B?”
“Miss Diane send you to meet up with a man called Daniel.”
“I’m Will.” He pointed to the man on his left, “This here’s Tommy,” and then he pointed right, “Cicero.”
“Welcome. You got about 10 mile thataway.”
“Figured.” Will was very talkative even when he knew who he was talking to.
Then he said, “Gonna bed down for the night. Cicero makes a mean biscuit and some thick gravy to go with the beans.”
“Mind if I join ya for the night?”
“Glad to have you, boss.”
“Yup. Miss Diane said you was the boss and for us to take order or ride on.”
“Where’s Miss Diane?”
“Supposed to be behind us with a bunch a horses. Her and that Shorts fella.”
“You don’t sound like you like our Mr. Shorts.” I smiled at that.
He grinned and shook his head, “First man to ever beat me arm wrestlin’. Smacked me down good, he did. I can work with him. Don’t worry. That man is stronger than anyone I ever met.”
“How far back you figure?”
“Two days at Denver, or so Miss Diane told me. Should be almost caught up.”
“I’ll go check in the morning.”
We bunked out after another hour of fireside chit chat. I took the sunrise turn at watching the cows who were a bit buggered by something off to the south. Come full light, three horses came trotting in, no saddles, no bridles, lead ropes, just the horsed. The way they took to the cows you’d thought they was cow ponies or something.
Tommy rode out to relieve me for a breakfast of coffee and biscuits with a few think slices of beef, we had to finish the critter before it went rotten, mixed in. The coffee was great, first I’d had in a long spell of riding. The biscuits were a bit hard being leftovers from the night before, but were good for dunking. Cicero looked at the three horses as they wandered around the herd.
“I’d swear on my first month’s pay one of them horses is one Miss Diane and Shorts were bringin’. I remember the socks and the blaze.” Cicero looked a bit pale and worried as he said it. “I surely do hope I’m wrong.”
Will was standing off by himself looking at the herd including the horses as another horse came down the slope to our camp. “Damn. I bought that horse myself,” he yelled. “Something’s bad wrong.”
I saddled up as fast as I could. As I was mounting Cicero rode his horse over beside me, “What a pardner? I can hit what I shoot at.”
“Sure. Why not?”
Will was ready to go also, but I stopped him and sent him and Tommy on with the beef and four horses that had joined up. “How many horses were they gonna bring?”
“Ten or more and their personals.”
“I’ll be back. Until then, do what Buck tells ya. He knows what needs to be done.”
“I’ll do it. You shoot straight.”
“I usually do.”
Cicero and I rode off following the tracks of the fourth horse.
We hadn’t gone more than two miles when we saw the buzzards and crows circling up ahead, must have been thirty of the carrion eaters circling, lower and lower. We kept looking at each other as if to say, ‘Oh, oh,” as we rode. Over the top of a rise was a dead horse. From the tracks and the blood trail it had been shot and made it this far before giving up. It hadn’t been dead for long.
Kicking the horses into a faster gait, we spread out. I left Cicero on the tracks and I moved way off to the north where I could watch for the tracks of someone leaving the horse trail and heading for the Lazy E. I crossed no tracks, but Cicero found something. He was waving his hat when I turned that direction as I scanned the countryside.
I joined him.
Another dead horse. It was also shot and had traveled a ways. It was the horse Shorts had ridden last I saw of him. Another horse had stood next to it as it finished dying and the tracks matched the first dead horse. Too bad that first dead horse had to die alone.
We rode, two men angry at the loss of horseflesh and wondering where our friends were, rode rapidly, but with an eye out for anything toward whatever there was to find. A dead stranger was the first find. This man had been shot through the body and didn’t look pretty. A horse had stepped on his face. From the lack of blood on his face, he had been dead when the stomping happened. We left him and continued. The trail turned sharply like there had been an ambush or something.
Tracks of many horses moving in all directions came next. Cicero was trying to make sense out of them when I spotted something that didn’t look right down the slope. Cicero agreed it was something strange. We rode down with our guns out and ready.
We found Shorts. He had been dragged over the dirt and brush. The occasional cactus was an added pain for him. He was not a pretty sight. “Where you been?” he asked.
I looked at him again. “What happened to you?” He was propped up against a tree trunk, more blood than body.
“They thought they shot me, but they missed and hit my horse. He’s over there somewhere. Then they drug me. I think some of these prickly pear thorns are in at least two inches. I’ve pull out quite a few. They got Miss Diane. She was alive and running when I went down. She was alive when they paraded outta here heading toward the Lazy E. One of them said that this was the last time they were playing; from now on it was serious. I thought that was really funny and one of them threw a shot at me. Hit me here.” He pointed to his right shin bone. “Broke it. There’s been a horse wandering around down that slope in those trees. If one of ya would get him I could ride. My saddle is down that way just out sight behind the curve of the hill.”
I tossed him my canteen and said, “You get the horse and I’ll pick up the riggin’.”
I ran a coyote off the dead horse before I could get the rig. The horse was stiff. Two days at least this horse had been down. Two days Shorts had been leaning up against a tree trunk. Two days they had Miss Diane in their possession. I was getting mad. I was going to have to kill again and I didn’t want to. I was going to have to take care of an orphan like the Word says. The two ideas went together in my mind, but didn’t come together in the Bible. Then I got to thinking of Samson who killed him a mess of Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey just because they were messing with him. Then there was God Himself who ordered that all the evil nations in the Promised Land be killed down to the last child because of their evil ways.
I thought of folks in the New Testament that had died by God’s hand for lying to Him, or the armies of Texas standing up to the evil of Antonio Lopéz De Santa Anna after the Alamo fight. Was God on the side of the Texans? It hurt just digesting all this in my head. I prayed.
With the prayer came the idea that God has always dealt with evil in different ways, but always His person did the dealing, with God’s power of course. There was no way Moses dealt with a couple million Hebrews for 40 years without God’s power and wisdom. I felt strongly that God wanted me to rescue Diane no matter what it took as long as I gave them a chance to surrender.
Cicero and I got Shorts on the horse. I rigged some splints to hold that shin bone in place. One hunk of wood was laid along the bone to hold it straight. I slid a skinned Prickly Pear ear over the wound before tying it and the splint to the front of his leg.
Couple of weeks and Shorts wouldn’t have anything to complain about. We rode. I tried to get Shorts and Cicero to head for the Rafter B, but they would nothing of the kind.
Shorts said, “You park me in a good spot and me and my Winchester will take care of anything that shows itself. I’m goin’ with ya, or I quit and will go where I want.”
“You wouldn’t quit and you know it,” I said as I swayed in the saddle, laughing.
“What’s up with you?” Cicero shouted.
“Just thinking. Not too long ago I was saddle sore and aching. Now it seems like second nature.”
“Gets that way right easy like when you’re in the saddle all the time. I remember my first week in the saddle. It was not fun,” Shorts added.
We rode along the tracks until the day was done, and even then we kept going until we just plain could not see. We camped on a stream that provided us with what we needed most, water and wood for a fire to brew some coffee. Shorts pulled the pot out of his bags and handed it down to Cicero who had the grounds in his bags. Not much in the way of a supper, but it would have to do.
Noon the next day we were looking down on the Lazy E again. No one was in sight. No smoke from the chimneys. No horses in the corral or tied out. We rode in with guns cocked and ready. Reckless? We were mad to the bone.
Shorts took one quick look around and started riding north. “Come on, they went this way. Looks like Wyoming is their new home.”
We followed. No pieces of torn shirt. No silver discs. Just hoof prints from at least a dozen horses.
We caught up.
Cicero was out front and saw dust ahead of us leading into the trees at the edge of mountains ahead. If they got into those mountains we would be stuck with following on the trails that were available and could no longer pull off to camp or even work our way around them.
Shorts said, “I don’t know this area a bit.”