The usual comments apply, comments and recommendations appreciated as always!
I’m trying to come up with a title for this series, and I’m leaning toward The Bell Chronicles as the series title, since I’m not seeing it come up in the search terms on Amazon.
The next morning, as soon as it was light enough to see, Pronto took the chuck wagon across the ford and headed north. As soon as he was clear, Arthur and Rio pushed the bell cow down to the ford. She went right on in, swam about ten yards and her whole bunch followed right along. By noon they had the herd across and lined out north. Flynn trotted up to where Rio was sitting on a little rise looking back at the drag. “Grass looks good. I’m guessing eight, maybe nine days to Denver.”
Rio looked at the sky seeing it was clear from horizon to horizon with a light breeze blowing off the mountains. “Yep. I hope we don’t get anymore storms. I’ll be happy with eight days. What do you think about pushing them a little?”
Flynn rocked his head side to side. “Eh, maybe. Days are pretty long right now, but we want them to be able to graze too. This is the best grass we’ve seen, and it should only get better the further north we go. We should be west of the buffalo herds, and so far the Indians are peaceable.”
Rio took a swig from his canteen, capped it and said, “So far. Now that we’re north of the Mescalero’s range. Pronto says they don’t mess with the Utes much.”
“Anybody with any sense doesn’t mess with the Utes. They’re probably the best horsemen of all the Indians.” Flynn added, “Gonna go scout a bit. I remember we lost some cows around here last year.”
Rio nodded as he left, then pointed Red’s nose toward the drag. “C’mon Red, let’s get to work. At least the dust is not blowing today.” Red twitched his ears and Rio laughed as they cantered toward the drag.
The days flew by, at least to Rio, as they push the herd north. While long, the days were the easiest they’d had the entire drive, with plenty of graze for the cows, enough water to keep them quiet, and no real weather issues. It was also quite a bit cooler as they climbed up in altitude. But Rio noted that just doing basic things took more wind out of him, and the horses didn’t last a whole day. They were changing horses twice a day at the minimum, and poor Cavanaugh was getting beaten up by the constant hustle to keep the cowboys supplied, in addition to his busted ribs. Juan had dropped back and helped the last two days, with Rio’s tacit agreement after seeing Rene just about in tears trying to throw a loop.
Eight days after they left the Arkansas, they turned the herd onto the graze east of Denver and Rio watched as a wagon was driven slowly through the herd to where Pronto had parked the chuck wagon. Cocking his head, he sniffed. What the hell is this? Does Pronto know whoever is… Guess I better get my butt over there and figure out what is going on. He trotted the grulla down toward the wagons and reined up next to Pronto. “What’s going on?”
“Supplies. I ordered them when I was in Pueblo. Figgered it was easier than driving into town. ‘Sides, Charlie likes getting out of the store once in a while.” Pronto walked around to the back of the wagon, Rio trailing along curiously. “Charlie! Glad you made it. You got everthing I wanted?”
The stout, gray haired man hopped down from the wagon, moving a lot better than Rio thought someone that big should be able to move. “Pronto, haf I ever not had vat you vanted?” He glanced at Rio. “Dis your helper?”
Pronto laughed. “Charlie, meet my boss. Rio Bell. Rio, this is Claus von Striken, He runs the biggest general store in Denver.”
Von Striken shook his head and smiled at Rio. “My apologies, sir. Vith Pronto, I never know vhat is true and vhat is not.” He extended his hand as he bowed slightly from the waist.
Rio shook hands with him. “Don’t feel bad, Claus. Neither do we. How did Pronto talk you into this?”
“Charlie please. Pronto thinks ahead. He telegrammed me an order, and I haf had riders checking the graze for the last three days. Ven he said a herd was coming, I knew it vas your herd, so here ve are.”
“How much do we owe you?”
Von Striken took out an order sheet, then put on a pair of spectacles. “Barrel of flour, three gallons molasses, fife pounds lard, two pounds butter, twenty pounds sugar,” the recitation continued through the dried fruit and dry goods, and he finally said, “Fifty-six dollar, fifteen cents.”
“Fifty-six?” Rio turned. “Pronto, what the hell—”
“Blankets. I got ten. At three apiece, good price.”
Rio threw up his hands and mumbled, “Think I’m made outta money.” He walked around and climbed in the chuck wagon, reached into the hidden chamber and pulled out the tin box. Pulling out three twenty dollar gold pieces, he slid the box back into its hiding place and climbed stiffly out. He proffered the three gold coins to the merchant, “Hope you got change. We’re tight on money and a ways to go yet.”
Von Striken nodded, “Danke.” He walked to his wagon and came back with four silver dollars. “Change. Now ve transfer supplies.”
Pronto whistled and yelled, “Need to move supplies if you want to get fed!”
Grumbling, Henderson, Juan, Flynn, and two others came over and they quickly moved the goods from one wagon to the other. Henderson looked contemplatively at the bundle of blankets and asked, “Can I buy one? I ain’t got one, and it’s gonna get cold.”
Pronto flashed a grin at Rio as he said, “For a price, Henderson, for a price.”
They’d gotten the herd more or less bedded down on the graze and Rio had let the hands that didn’t get to go to town in Pueblo go in with five dollars in their pockets after cautioning them about getting drunk or getting into fights. As the cowboys galloped off toward Denver, Arthur chuckled. “Ain’t sure you’re doin’ the right thing, Boss. Them boys ain’t gonna be in any shape to push cows come tomorrow.”
Rio grinned. “Let ‘em learn the hard way. I did. ‘Sides, I owed it to them and they ‘ll keep their horns pulled in after what happened to Boyle. And, by letting them go in early, most of them will be back by dark. Five dollars don’t go far in Denver.”
Pronto grumbled, “And we’re gettin’ low on funds. We got twenty or so days left on the trail, and the only places to get supplies are Boulder or Fort Collins, and both are supporting miners, so everything is pricey.”
Rio told Henderson and Estevez to scout north to see what the grass and water situation was, then caught the grulla and saddled up. Riding out, he caught up to Cavanaugh, who was riding slowly clockwise around the cows. “Rene, how are you doing?”
“Still hurts a little, but Mr. Flynn wanted me to start working some with the cows to learn what they do. The remuda is fairly easy, horses being herd animals.”
He nodded. “Cows are dumb. The slightest thing will spook them, and one goes, they usually all go. Just remember, if anything happens and you’re out front when they stampede, get clear, then worry about trying to turn them.”
Cavanaugh looked down at his saddle. “Peterson. Believe me, I remember that lesson.”
“Good. Lesson time is over. I’ll get you relieved at noon.”
Rio continued around the herd and found Ted Green sitting staring at a brindle steer. “What’s going on Ted?”
“That sumbitch is thinkin’ bout runnin’. Ever time I ride off, he eases away from the herd.”
“Well, we could push him deeper in the herd. And I’ll check with Pronto to see if we need another beef.” Pulling his lasso off his saddle horn, he nodded. “Let’s push him for now.” Twenty minutes later, they’d pushed the steer deep into the herd and Rio said, “Good enough.”
Cavanaugh had caught up to them and watched as they rode carefully back out of the herd. “What y’all doing?”
Green answered, “Pushing a troublemaker deep into the herd. Makes it harder for him to cause trouble.” Pointing at the brindle, “Did you see the brindle we were working?”
“The one with the piebald face marking?”
“Yep, that one. Keep an eye on him if he starts working out toward the edge as you come around.”
Rio added, “It’ll take him a while to work back out, y’all get back to circling the herd. I’ll go talk to Pronto.” The two cowboys nodded and rode off in opposite directions as he turned and rode back to the chuck wagon.
After talking to Pronto, he stripped the saddle off the grulla and crawled under the wagon to get a little sleep. He woke a little before four, got up, stretched and buckled on his pistol, stomped his feet into his boots and put his hat on before he walked around the wagon. Pronto grumbled, “Sleeping beauty is awake. I was about to send Rene over to kiss you.”
Rio shook his head. “Gonna take night guard, so I wanted to get a little rest.”
“Supper be ready in…bout an hour. Rene, hop up in the wagon and get that packet of spices out o’ the tin under the seat.”
Cavanaugh hopped up in the wagon, then crawled over the seat, mumbling as he started digging for the tin. Arthur came around the back of the wagon and stopped suddenly. “Riders comin’, Boss.”
Rio looked up as Pronto jerked around and said urgently, “Rene, stay in the wagon. Stay outta sight.” Pronto got up and stirred the fire, then sat on a log on the opposite side, and casually sliding his holster into his lap.
Rio looked around as he bit his lip. “Don’t know what they want. Everybody stay calm. Looks like six of them riding down the edge of the herd. Wonder what they’re looking for?”
Arthur slid back behind the wagon and out of sight. “Prolly, lookin’ for range cows that got mixed in.”
Rio nodded. “Possible.” The six riders broke off from the herd and cantered to the chuck wagon. They pulled up in a cloud of dust, and he said politely, “Light and sit. We’ve got coffee.”
The big, slovenly rider on the black, wearing a black vest with a tin star on it said bruskly, “Ain’t got time. We’re…I’m the brand inspector. You scraped up some range cows, we’re gonna cut the herd and do a brand check on them.”
Rio looked up as the rider pushed his horse forward, forcing Rio to step back. The cowboy to the right of the leader was subtly gigging his horse, making it dance, and Rio realized he was staring at Rio, hand hovering over his pistol. The one on the leader’s left was sitting placidly on his horse, but his hand was resting on his thigh, just below his holster. They’re going to try to buffalo us and if that doesn’t work they’re going to shoot. Gotta take the young guy first, then the older guy. Hopefully somebody can take out the three hanging back… Rio dropped his hands to his side, then stepped into the horse as he said, “Whoa! Get control of your horse!” He reached up and grabbed at the bridle as he slipped the thong off his pistol. “You’re not cutting our herd. There aren’t any range cows—”
“Shut up kid. I seen local brands, we’re gonna cut your herd. Ain’t much you can do about it, is there,” he asked with a smirk.
Rio started to answer but Cavanaugh yelled, “Look out!” A rifle banged, and suddenly horses were dancing, kicking up dust. Rio shot at the young guy under the nose of the horse he held as it reared, knocking him backward even as he was frantically swinging his gun toward the older guy only to see him slipping from the saddle. The horse reared again, and he fired up at the leader without thinking as he saw him chopping down with his pistol. He pitched backward off the horse as Rio frantically rolled to the left, gun up, looking for the other three riders. All he saw were horses with empty saddles bolting away from the noise and bodies on the ground.
He got to his feet with a groan, then fell when he took a step. “Bastard shot my heel off.” He went to push off with his left hand and moaned when his shoulder gave out. He got up on the second try, hobbling as he looked around while the gun smoke and dust drifted away, he saw Pronto with smoke curling from the barrel is his pistol and saw Arthur snapping Ol’ Betsy closed. He went to take his hat off and realized it wasn’t on his head. Looking around he found it a couple of feet behind him. He went to pick it up and saw Dan Williams lying on the ground, a bullet hole through his forehead, a blanket still covering his torso. He limped over and carefully pulled the blanket up over his head. “I’m sorry, Dan. You deserved better than to be shot for nothing.” He vaguely heard Pronto yelling something as he reloaded and checked each of the bodies on the ground. He snapped up when he saw movement, his pistol coming up until he realized it was Cavanaugh climbing out of the wagon.
Cavanaugh was crying, tears running down his face as he hit the ground and collapsed into Pronto’s arms. Rio heard him say, “I kilt a man. I done kilt a man. I didn’t want to do that.”
Pronto held him and said loudly, “You saved us, Rene. Iff’n it hadn’t been for your warning, we might all be dead.”
Rio stood back with Arthur as Cavanaugh added, “I saw,” pointing to the body closest to the wagon, “I saw him thumb the hammer back on his rifle. I…yelled and…I shot him.”
Arthur walked over to the slovenly man lying on the ground, leaned down and grunted. “Rio, you need to see this.” Rio walked over and looked down as Arthur sighed. “That badge is fake. It’s just a piece of tin somebody stamped out with Inspector on it.”
Henderson and Estevez came charging up, rifles out as Rio held up his hand. “It’s all over. Corey, I need you to ride to town and get the sheriff or one of his deputies out here as soon as you can. Tell them to bring a wagon to haul the bodies off.”
Henderson touched the brim of his hat as he said, “I’m gone, Boss.” He turned his horse and cantered down the trail toward Denver as Estevez started to dismount.
“Felix, can you round up their mounts?”
“Don’t touch any of the bodies, leave ‘em where they are till the sheriff gets here.”
Arthur looked at him then said gently, “Rio, you need to sit down. You’re bleeding.”
“What?” He looked down and saw blood running down the front of his shirt and suddenly got lightheaded. Arthur and Pronto eased him down on the stump Pronto had been using.
Pronto gently pulled the shirt away from his shoulder and looked under the collar. “Don’t look like a bullet hole. Looks like a hoof caught you. Ain’t bad, but I need to treat it. Rene, get me that bottle under the seat.”
Rio shook his head. “No! Gotta wait for the sheriff. Can’t be smellin’ like booze when he gets here. Don’t want him to think I was drunk and shot for nothing.”
Pronto rocked back. “Well, I guess you’re just gonna hurt for a while then.”
He started to shrug and winced as he moved the shoulder. “Guess so. We might as well eat, gonna be a while before they can get here.” Pronto shook his head and started banging pans, mumbling to himself as he went back to cooking.
Two hours later, the sheriff, Len Walters, early fifties, burly with greying beard and hair rode up with a deputy. He sat his horse for a minute, carefully looking at the bodies on the ground before he dismounted. “Looks like you boys had yourselves a fight here.”
Rio got up with a groan. “I’m Rio Bell, I’m the trail boss. We…they wanted to cut the herd, claimed we’d swept up local cattle. I know we didn’t have any range cattle, cause we pushed them all off before the herd got here.”
“Len Walters. For my sins, I’m the sheriff of this…county,” he said waving his hand.
“Sheriff, you need to see this,” the deputy said, standing over the younger man on the ground.
“What is it, Cameron,” the sheriff asked testily without turning.
“It’s Bobby Evans!” Cameron pointed to the slovenly man in black, “And Ben Smith.”
“What? Evans and Smith?” He walked quickly over and looked closely at them. “Damned if it isn’t. Both shot in the face, too.” He toed the body on the other side of Smith over and chuckled. “And TJ Roberts.”
He walked over where the other three lay, and the deputy said, “Michaels, Wyden, and I don’t know who this one is, his face is…gone.”
Walters came back and looked at Rio closely. “You good with a gun, son?” Arthur snorted and the sheriff glanced at him, saw the shotgun, and asked, “You take out two of them?”
“Yessir, one with each barrel. Didn’t even get a chance to reload. Happened so quick. Bossman, he be good enough with a pistol.”
Rio tried to deflect the conversation saying, “They shot Dan Williams, one of our cowboys as he slept.” He hobbled over and pulled the blanket back. “He didn’t even have a gun. He was asleep.”
A half hour of explanations of where everyone was, who shot who, and Pronto doctoring the cut on his shoulder that was already turning blue led Rio to ask, “So, who did we shoot, Sheriff?”
Walters smiled. “Well, you took care of a half dozen troublemakers that we could never catch in the act. Smith was the brains behind them and ran the stables on the east side of town. Bobby Evans was a hired gun that worked with him and has killed at least three men in gunfights in the last year.”
The sheriff was interrupted by the sound of many horse’s hooves as the rest of the cowboys with Flynn in the lead came pounding into camp, sliding to a stop. A number of rifles were in cowboy’s hands, but not pointed at anyone as Flynn bailed off his horse. “You alright, Rio?”
He waved a hand as he sat on the stump and Pronto worked over his shoulder. “Got kicked by a horse and got a boot heel shot off. Other than that, I’m fine. Sheriff is okay with everything too.”
Walters nodded. “Don’t see a problem. Smith was a grifter and con man. Y’all took out him and his crew in a fair fight. You don’t mind, I need you to come to town and give me a signed statement that I can file. Wagon should be here shortly to pick up the bodies. What do you want to do with your cowboy?”
Flynn replied, “We passed a wagon headed this way, he’s a mile or so over the hill. Who got killed?”
Flynn glanced at Rio then turned to the sheriff. “Is there a cemetery in town we could bury him in? Not Boot Hill?”
Walters thought a minute. “Yeah, he could be buried in City Cemetery. You know if he was religious?”
Rio spoke up, “He said he was raised Catholic.”
Walters nodded. “They have a section. I think the cost is around twenty-five dollars, more if you want a preacher to preach over him.”
Rio shook his head. “No, we’ll say words for him. Tomorrow?”
“Probably tomorrow after noon. The undertaker will have to knock a coffin together for him.”
“Fine. A few of us will be in, in the morning I guess.” Ruefully holding up his leg, he added, “I need a pair of boots or a cobbler.”
The deputy, Cameron said, “Probably Heiser’s. I think they might do them. I know they do saddles. I think there might be others, but I don’t know where they are.”
Walters said, “I need to get back, I’ll leave Cameron here to escort the wagon back. Can I expect you in the morning?”
Rio nodded. “I’d like to get my boot fixed, I’ll be by your office as soon as I get that done, if that is alright.”
“That’s fine. I know y’all aren’t going to run off, not with this herd to take care of.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I appreciate your understanding.”
“Well, I appreciate your taking out the trash, so to speak,” Walters said with a grin.