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.
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.”
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.”
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.