“Just keep walking toward the fire.”
As I approached the fire, I saw Diane sitting on a log with her hands tied in front. She didn’t look too badly abused. She was still wearing the plaid shirt even though the hem was looking a mite raggedy. The look on her face told me she just gave up all hope. I knew better. There was a hope that never lets a gal down. It wasn’t me.
They tied me to a tree and gagged me. “We don’t need no sermons so we just goin’ ta make sure you cain’t talk. You must think you are really bad chasing a group like us. Read bad.”
I looked him in the eye and nodded as I tried to make my eyes smile. Once the tying was done they just walked away and left me there. Everson was nowhere in sight.
I WILL GO BACK AND PUT IN A MAGICIAN HIS FATHER KNEW THAT TAUGHT HIM A FEW TRICKS. You may think that’s cheating, but that’s the way it works when you are a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants.
When they tied me I had set my hands in the position the magician showed me back in Kansas City. I worked my hands a bit. By working my wrists flat together, I was able to gain a lot of freedom. Whether I could get my hands loose or not was another thing. There was going to be a showdown here shortly.
I knew they weren’t going to hang onto me for very long. As dangerous as they were I had beat them so far and they would want revenge and to make sure I wasn’t ever on their trail again. Don’t think I’m bragging here, it’s just the truth. Given half a chance, this orphan sitting across the fire from me would be free and they would all be in whatever condition I left them in after the escape. I could be dead alongside them, but she would be free.
It was as if she knew what I was thinking. She lifted her head and looked through the smoke at me with a pitiful smile on her face and shook her head. I nodded back. She just bawled all the harder. Her whole body convulsed from the sobs.
I had to do something before she had a total collapse.
The rag in my mouth was nasty tasting and caused me to try, without thinking about it, to shove it out and away from my mouth. As my jaw worked the bandana around my head began to slip downward. I was able to use my tongue to get the ball in my mouth moved above the head tie. I went into a shaking fit so I could dislodge it completely and drop it to the ground between my feet.
Something licked my hands.
The dog was here.
I froze wondering what to do now. I had a fighting partner in that dog. I looked over at Diane and nodded behind me. She looked at me, saw nothing, and went back to crying.
I laughed. I laughed out loud with the head tie on my chin. The whole bunch of supposed bad guys and outlaws jumped looking in every direction except at me. I said, “You big bad badmen all worried about a girl and a wanna be Christian preacher when nothing of this is going to benefit you one dollar’s worth. That fat man you work for is going to get it all and see to it that none of you live to tell about this. You will have killed a woman. They hang men for killing women out here, don’t they? Who wants to hang first.
“I have already killed and shot holes in a bunch of you. What? About half I’d say. You gotta kill me or there will be a witness to your killin’ a woman. You gotta kill her cuz that’s what the boss man wants.
“Why do you let that fat man boss you around like he does? He says go get a girl and off you go. He says kill the girl and you’ll do it. For what? Why? So the fat man can be rich while you work for $30 a month and food. Oh yeah, you’ll have to go steal the money he pays you with.
“Wait a minute. I have it. He wants a big ranch so he doesn’t have to outlaw any more cuz you guys have done all the killing and robbing and hell raising on the roads and in the cities around here. You get blamed and he is rich. Well, you better kill us now and scatter before he comes in and kills you off one at a time after he orders you to kill us. Or, you could cut us loose and get out of here. I do not lie. I will never tell anyone who any of you are.”
I quit. Then it hit me. They had listened and never tried to stop me. If I had been them with their evil minds, I would have just drawn my gun and ended all that speech. Instead, they had listened. They knew I was right. A few of them were looking at Diane shaking their heads. One was starring me in the eye.
“You know something, men. If you would get my Bible out of my saddlebags and cut my hands loose I could show you how to get forgiveness and change your life for eternity.”
I pulled my hand loose from the knots and brought both hands around to the front. “Just hand me by Bible, boys.”
It was like magic. Every one of them had a startled look on his face. Diane fainted and wilted into a pile across the log. Before my very eyes, this is true, the group of them wilted into the trees and began saddling their horses and leaving. I reached down to untie my feet before the rope around my waist fell to the dirt.
They didn’t leave us a thing to eat. One man walked back. “Ma’am, I am truly sorry for what I done. Please forgive me. I knew better.”
Diane was fuzzy. She looked at the man, old, wrinkled, and tears running down his cheeks, and just nodded her head.
“You been forgiven, cowboy. Now go and sin no more. If you’re looking for a job, see me in Denver in a week or two.”
He turned and walked away. He said over his shoulder, “I just might do that. I wanna hear more about this forgiveness stuff. My Ma usta talk of it when she drug me to the meetings. Shoulda listened, I reckon, shoulda listened.”
We listened as he climbed to the top of the hump. Once the sounds of them retreating were gone I went to Diane, “It’s over. We can go back to your ranch. How’s that sound?”
“You worry me. How do you just talk 16 men out of killing us and then calmly tell one you’ll get him a job and then tell me we’ll go back to the ranch, my ranch, and get things back to where they were. I was scared to death. They were going to kill me, but before they did, they were going to. . .”
“Stop. It’s over. There is nothing to fear except the usual things like snakes and such.”
She just looked at me like I was some kind of a loco lunatic.
“Diane, I have a God that is in charge. I am not in charge.” The dog walked up to me. “This dog came outta nowhere and has been in the middle of the whole thing. My horse belonged to the man who killed my Dad and that horse is a mind reader, or something of the sort. What just happened was me doing what that God I believe in told me to do. I don’t ever want to kill another man. That God allowed me to end this with no more killing. Who knows, He may have a good use for a few of them, just like he has for me. Where you were seeing no hope, I knew there was hope one way or the other. It was all up to that God.”
I hugged the dog and asked him to watch things for a bit while I got some shut eye.
Diane said, “You leave a dog on watch.”
“Yup. He can hear and see better than I ever have or will. Who else better to be on watch? Where’s your blanket?”
“I’ll get it.” She walked into the trees and returned, laid her blanket next to me and laid down on it. She pulled half over her. “Good night.”
I swear she was snoring before I even found my horse, let alone my blanket. I have no idea how long it took me to snore, but it was day light when I quit.
OKAY, YOU’VE READ THIS FAR. TELL ME WHAT YOU THINK OF THIS PLOT TURN.
We were half a day down the trail to the Rafter B when it hit me. The fat man hadn’t been there in the hollow. All those men were just hired hands, or at least working on shares. What happened to the fat man, Everson? How many men did he have still? Where were they? Was he still dead set on grabbing the Rafter B? There were a lot of questions and mighty few answers.
Long about mid-afternoon I saw a group of cows so I swerved off the trail to check them out. All were wearing the Rafter B except one old cow and a calf. The calf looked might stringy and the old cow didn’t have a bag to speak of. I shot the calf. Feeling bad about wasting a lot of meat, I rode off to catch Diane with only a hind quarter hanging on my saddle. We were going to have a meal tonight.
The sun was straight up the next day when we spotted the buildings of the Rafter B. “You wait here. I’ll check it out and wave bandana if it’s safe. Having to use the bandana reminded me I was going to have to get a hat next store we found, my head was frying through the hair.
No one was home. I waived my bandana and Diane joined me.
Other than dirt, the place was a mess. Coffee spills, dirty dishes, a broken chair, back door leather strap hinge at the top was busted, and the beds had been slept in with boots and spurs on. New spreads were needed on both beds. In the barn there were no oats left. The hay loft was a mess with cigarette residue all over the place. Did these clowns know nothing? Even I know better than to be in the barn, specially the loft, with a fire of any kind. The bunkhouse was a disaster. Food pieces all over the place and an obvious invasion of mice and rats destroyed the hominess of the place for me. I set up camp inside the barn next to Solomon.
Diane pointed out, “The two hands we left behind to watch the place are missing. My mother’s ring and my jewelry, cheap stuff, are all gone. The gun rack is empty. All the spare rounds are gone. I did find my dad’s hunting knife. It was stuck in the kitchen counter. From the looks of the counter, they left it there quite a few times. I will kill any of them I see. They killed my father and they have ruined this place, at least the memories. My mother’s tintype is missing. She was a beautiful woman and I’ll bet one of those cowboys is dreaming of her while he holds the picture up to the light. I’m sick, just plain sick of all this. Take me to Denver. I’ll sell the place to the meanest bunch I can find and go to San Francisco.”
“Let’s give it some time for the dust to settle before you make any big decisions. I’m not ready to go back to Denver quite yet, so I can stay here with you and help ya put it all back together. Light a fire and let’s eat.”
“There’s no food left except a few spuds in the root cellar. They broke all my canning jars, too.”
“Not too bad for only being here a few days or so. I wonder what the inside of the home ranch looks like.”
The sound of horses coming into the ranch yard called us to the window.
“It’s Buck and Shorts, the two hands we left here.” She turned and ran out the front door yelling the news and crying again.
The short of the story is that there were now three men and one angry woman on the place and Diane had turned a corner to be talking rebuild and make a go of the place. She knew there was money in the bank in Denver that she would have no problem getting when needed, and she knew the ranch had been making money. “So, why don’t we make it make more money? Dad always wanted to add a couple of line cabins along the edge of the heavy woods, one to the south and one to the west.”
“Excuse me, but wouldn’t it be better to find out what’s left of the herd and check out the graze before you start building projects for things that haven’t been done because they weren’t important enough. If there is no herd, there is no need for line cabins. If there is no herd, where did it go and how do we get it back,” the puncher named Shorts sounded like a wise man.
Standing not quite five feet tall in his high heeled riding boots, he still looked like a big man. Muscles rippled as he moved, his back was straight, the left side of his face had a deep purple bruise from a discussion with one of the outlaws when they rode into the place, and his clothes were well used up.
Buck was a good six feet tall, slim as a rail, and mad as a wet cat. “Them boys was talkin’ takin’ the cows, Mizz Diane. They’s gonna kill us till Shorts whipped their big man, not the fat one but the one that thought he could whip his weight in wolverines. Shorts showed him the error of his ways. After that we just saddled up and rode out. Ten to two left us no choice and they never even tried to stop us. I think most of the cows is over to west of here. Leastwise, that’s where we stashed the ones we found.”
Diane hugged them both, again. “Thank you, you both have a job here as long as there is a here.”
Ten hard days of riding showed us that most of the stock was still around. Diane figured she was a couple hundred short, but we hadn’t worked much to the north yet.
At dinner that night, I said, “We need supplies. That sack of oats Shorts here found in the barn has helped us, but it’s almost gone. Oatmeal mush and beef just isn’t my idea of great grub. It might keep our ribs from showin’ but it ain’t making me any fatter. A man’s gotta have a gut if he’s to be a big shot preacher, you know.”
Diane said, “Hush up and say the grace.”
Next morning Shorts and Diane rode for Denver while Buck and I started digging the cows out of the brush north of the ranch house.
Five or six miles to the north we found over a dozen cows bellowin’ without calves. All of them were bagged up to the leaking stage. “These here mama cows got calves somewhere. From the looks they ain’t nursed in two days. Two days ain’t much of a lead when it comes to trackin’ them baby critters,” Buck was angry. He pointed his horse north, writing big S’s in the dirt with horse tracks as he searched for the trail of them calves. The cows kept up their chorus of bellows as I rode off to join him. My S’s were made to the east of his, me knowing where the Lazy E was let me point right for it.
Half a mile later with the bellowing following us, Buck whooped and waived his hat. I waved the raggedy hat I found in the bunkhouse back at him and rode over. Sure enough, calf tracks separating from the cow tracks. The cows had been forcibly pushed back by two riders while three moved the calves north. While we were sorting out the tracks, the cows trotted on by us still bellowing.
“Let’s follow them,” Buck shouted.
I nodded and we were off at a pretty fair clip to keep up with the cows. They didn’t run far, maybe two miles at best, when we went over a rise and there below us in a patch of green grass with a trickle of water running through it, were a dozen calves. The cows called and the babies come a running.
One after another they hit a teat and commenced to sucking.
One after another they cried and backed off.
Looked at Buck, “That normal?”
“No.” He shook out a loop and laid it over the head of the nearest calf. “Get down there and lay that poor critter down so’s we can check it out.