Usual caveats apply. One question, I’m ‘trying’ to write it as they would speak, please let me know if you think I’m going overboard with that and kicking you out of the story.
One note, Isom is extremely well read, and is the most literate speaker due to his background.
The next morning everyone had been rousted out and eaten in shifts around the small table in the kitchen. They couldn’t find enough coffee cups in the house, so the cowboys had dug into their saddlebags and brought their own. As they passed another pot around, Rio said, “Well, if Alice is still alive, we better try to hold the ranch for her. Monte, you know the area the best and know the people involved. How ‘bout filling us in?”
Monte found a piece of paper on Hank’s desk and turned it over, picking a piece of charcoal out of the fire, he started drawing out a rough map. “Well, lemme see; south of the river, the Kidd’s are the biggest ranchers in the area. They came in about three years ago with a herd and partnered up with ol’ man Brewster. He was one of the first settlers out here and had laid claim to about ten thousand acres. ‘Bout two years ago, Brewster was apparently thrown from a horse and died. Since he didn’t leave any heirs, Kidd and his clan took over the ranch. They run a couple a thousand head below the river, to the end of the canyon and out on the plain.”
He pointed to what the Kidd’s claimed as theirs. “They’re real touchy ‘bout anybody crossin’ their range or even getting on the land they claim. They’ve been buyin’ out or runnin’ off the small ranchers for about six months or a year now.” He drew the ridges and features on the north side of the river. “Nevell here, he’s been here for bout fifteen years, here at the head of Deer Valley. He claimed bout five thousand acres and owned a thousand out right.”
Rio asked, “What about Ethan? Where did he fit into the picture?”
Monte shrugged. “Not sure. Guess your uncle mighta owned some land up by the cabin, but I don’t know. Like I said earlier, I never knew him. Biggest town is Fort Collins, over here. The Sheriff only works the town and the other side of the ridges. Out here there ain’t no law, lessen they come up from Denver, or you can find a US Marshal.”
He sketched in the town and railroad. “Over here is the railroad. Got that depot out here at Evans, and that’s it between Fort Collins and Cheyenne. Thet depot is primarily there for water and cattle, and a stopover if Cheyenne is snowed in. I didn’t get to town much, so I don’t know what wuz happenin’ down there.”
Rio nodded. “Ok. Pronto, I want you and Monte to come with me to the cabin. Jeb, you and Juan go up the canyon and see how many cattle are up there. Rene, you and Arthur go down to the river and sweep back this way. If you get a shot at a deer or elk, take it. We’re going to need to feed everybody. Look for the waterholes, any line cabins or anything else. John, if you would, stay here and look around. Make a list of things that need to be done.” He looked around at everyone. “Everybody goes armed. One of each pair rides with a rifle out. Something happens, three shots and hunker down. We’ll come a runnin’. I want everybody back here by supper.”
“Señor Rio, what if someone they shoot at us,” Juan asked.
Rio’s smile was a rictus of hate. “Kill ‘em.”
Rio led them out and everyone got their horses saddled, heading out in pairs as the three of them rode slowly toward the cabin, Monte in the lead.
Two hours later, after crossing the river at the upper ford, the bench came into view above the river and Rio sighed as they rode up to the cabin. Monte quickly checked around. “Nobody’s been here since we left.” Tying the horses to the corral, Monte led the way into the cabin and Rio sank gratefully into a chair at the table as Monte got a fire started in the fireplace. “You okay, Rio?”
Pronto came in and spun a chair around, then sat. “Five stalls, all empty. No tack, but plenty of hay. Corral hasn’t been used in a while.”
Monte added, “When I found this place, it was…a mess. Somebody, probably injuns had been through the cabin, but nothing was really tore up. All the foodstuffs were gone, along with the blankets, but that was about it. There weren’t any horses or tack around, just the stable.”
Rio sighed. “Uncle Ethan was breeding horses up here. He…had two he’d brought from Texas. Spike and Rose, Red…is one of their foals. He was also breeding them with some mustangs mountain horses. They…” Rio shook his head. “They were the basis of what he hoped would be a new line of horses. He…liked the horse more than people anymore. But I think from what he said, he got along with the Arapahoe pretty well. He…made some kind of deal, I don’t know what else to call it, for the land this cabin was on.”
Getting up, Rio went to the right side of the fireplace, counted with his fingers, and worked one stone loose. Pulling out an oilskin, he brought it back to the table. Moving the lamp, he untied it with shaking fingers. “Uncle…Uncle Ethan told me…where to find this. He said this was my…legacy.” Ten gold coins rolled out, with one falling off the table. Ignoring it, carefully unrolled a deerskin and said, “I think this is something he got from the Indians.”
Pronto and Monte stepped up beside him and he stepped back so they could see. Pronto cocked his head and asked, “Monte, is that…like a grant? It’s pictures, but,” he pointed to one place then another, “Looks like that’s Horsetooth mountain, and here’s the river. With the marking’…northern Arapahoe?”
Monte nodded. “I think so. Looks like they…maybe are givin’ him ‘rights’ to that area.” He tapped the deerskin. “This here is where we are now.” He looked up at the ceiling, then sighed. “Rio, I’ll move out so you kin have the place back. I’m…sorry.”
Rio shook his head. “Don’t…we don’t have to make any moves right now. I’m…not sure I want to stay here.” He turned and started for the door.
Pronto started to roll the oilskin back up and an envelope slid out. “Rio! Here’s sumpin’ you might want. It was under the deerskin.” He handed it to Rio as he walked out of the cabin.
Walking aimlessly around the bench, Rio finally walked back to the stable and sat on a barrel by the door. Opening the envelope, he took the paper out with a shaking hand.
To whomever finds this. This is my last will and testament. I Ethan James Bell do give all my worldly possessions, this cabin, and the horses to my nephew, Rio Austin Bell of the rocking B ranch in Texas.
Ethan James Bell
October 10, 1870
Make sure to keep the rats out of the stable, Rio.
Rio looked at the paper as tears rolled down his face. Rats out of the stable? There was only one rat, and I killed it out here. There weren’t any…oh… That hole in the back. I’ll have to wait until I’m up here by myself to get back in there. He carefully folded the paper and put it back in the envelope, then folded that and put it in his jacket pocket. Scrubbing his face, he looked around. Well, Uncle Ethan, the horses are gone, and I don’t guess I’ll ever find them. I bet the Indians got them, but at least Monte has taken care of the place and saved my life, so maybe I’ll just let him stay here, cause I kinda want to go home. He got up and walked over to Red, took the envelope out of his pocket and slipped it in the saddlebags, then strode back to the house.
Stepping inside, he said, “I don’t think we’re going to find anything else up here.” He picked up the oilcloth, walked to the fireplace and replaced it in its hiding place, then tapped the rock back into place. “Let’s head back down to the ranch. By the time we get back, maybe somebody will be back and we’ll have some idea of what we’re dealing with.”
It was after noon as Roger Kidd turned away from the grave as Todd’s body, in the cobbled together coffin was lowered by Pete and three others, using their lassos. He climbed on his horse, scowling as he watched them fill the grave and mound it up. Pete walked over to the wooden cross they’d fashioned with Todd’s name on it and brought it to the head of the grave, then looked up at his dad, saying, “This is all I could do, Pa.”
He didn’t say a word, merely nodded and Pete shoved the cross into the dirt, then held it as Billy pounded it down with the shovel. Once that was done, they stood around nervously, waiting to see what the old man was going to do.
Roger finally glared around and said, “Everbody back to the house. I got decisions to make.” He rode off, leaving everyone else scrambling to their horses as he galloped away. Roger slid the horse to a stop at the steps, dismounted, and stomped up the steps. He turned as the rest of the riders came into the yard and bellowed, “Billy, Pete, Jud, git your asses in here.” Slamming through the front door, he called out, “Emma! Dammit, woman, where are ya?”
She came timidly from the back pantry and said, “Right here, Mr. Kidd.”
“Get the Chink to put some coffee on and bring me a plate o’ beans and cornpone.”
“Yes, sir.” She disappeared as he stomped toward the dining room, grabbing a bottle off the table as he went through the office. Slumping back in his chair at the head of the table, he pulled the cork and took a long pull from the bottle, then set it carefully on the table in front of him.
When the others had filed in, he took another swig of whisky and said carefully, “Billy, you take Buck you and Jack. You go to town. Find out who those bastards were. Find out where they went,” he paused long enough to take another drink and added, “I’ll hunt ‘em down and kill em myself.”
“You want me to leave now, Boss?”
“Go, and don’t come back til you got answers.” Billy got up and headed for the door as Roger rounded on Jud. “I want revenge for Todd. Jud, you gonna take Harvey and…pick three others. You gonna go back over to the Nevell place and burn it. Kill whoever is there.”
“I’ll leave right now, Dad.”
“No! You…will wait til Billy gets back and I know where them others are.” Pausing, he took another drink and continued, “And tell Harvey he’s in charge, since you ain’t gettin’ the job done.”
“He’s family. He’s my…our cousin. He’s been with me from the start.” He picked up the bottle and took another drink, wiped his chin and said, “Both of you get outta here and leave me in peace.” Pete and Jud looked at each other and Roger roared, “Out! Damn you useless little…out!”
They scrambled out the door and Pete closed it softly as he looked at Jud. “Pa ain’t right in the head right now. We gotta keep…we can’t let anybody else know.” Jud gulped and nodded, then almost ran for the front door, as if the devil were chasing him. Pete saw Emma coming down the hall with a pot of coffee and whispered to her, “Be careful, Pa is…in one of his moods.”
She paled and nodded as she tapped softly on the door. “Mr. Kidd, I got your coffee.”
Pete and Jud walked out of the house and saw Harvey Dunn lounging against the corral. Jud started that way and Pete followed until Jud hissed, “I can do this on my own. I ain’t gonna cross daddy right now.”
Pete nodded sharply and continued on to the bunkhouse. Seeing Ed Cory standing there, he asked, “Where’s Ivan?”
Cory looked up in surprise. “Far as I know, he’s out at the line cabin. Billy sent him and Obadiah down to the south line cabin, they supposed to be pushin’ the cows up toward the high meadow. Billy wanted to get it grazed while the cows could still get to the grass. Didn’t Billy tell ya?”
Pete grimaced. “Billy’s got other things on his mind right now. Who else is here?”
“Me and Malachi,” he nodded toward the bunkhouse, “And them others. But Billy apparently can’t send them out cause…”
Nodding, Pete said, “Well, we need to get ready for the cold. Last I counted we’d got ten or eleven wagons of hay in the barn, but I’m not sure it’s gonna be enough.”
“Mebbe, mebbe not. Depends on how much snow, and how cold it gets. ‘Member last year? We didn’t get snow til January, and it didn’t get real cold until February.”
Pete looked up at Houndstooth mountain and shivered. “Yeah, but this year, snow’s already a third of the way down the mountain. And the injuns are long gone. That tells me they know it’s gonna be bad and they’re holing up wherever they go in the winter.”
Fat Jack sighed as they crossed the last ridge and he could see the tops of the buildings in Cheyenne. “Almost there, boys.”
Joe said, “Don’t like this place now. Too many folks. Liked it better when it was end o’ track.”
Tom spit and replied, “Ain’t nothin’ here for us now but trouble.”
Smiley laughed. “Well, iff’n you stay outta the damn saloons, you won’t have no trouble.”
Tom bristled, and Isom rode between them. “Gentlemen, we have a job before us. That does not mean we can fight among ourselves, or get in fights before we get there.”
There was some grumbling, but they rode the last miles in silence, and Jack led them to the train station by a roundabout way, missing the town and saloons. Dismounting, he grunted and stretched, then walked up to the ticket office. He looked at the young man across the desk and asked, “When’s the next train south?”
“Not till tomorrow morning. Last southbound left a half hour ago.”
Jack grimaced. “That ain’t good. We need…five tickets on the morning, and five horses, too.”
“To where? Denver?”
Drawing a blank, Jack fumbled and finally said, “That…whatever the stop is for Fort Collins.”
“Oh, Evans. Five people and five horses, you said?”
“That’ll be fifteen dollars. Two dollars for each person, and a dollar for each horse.”
Jack shook his head. “Fifteen? Damn, boy, we ain’t wantin’ the horses to ride in the coach with us!”
The young ticket agent threw up his hands, “Old timer, I don’t make the rules. Y’all don’t like it, don’t buy a ticket. Ain’t no skin off my nose, one way or t’other.”
Grumbling under his breath, Jack rooted around in his sash and pulled out a twenty-dollar gold piece, then slapped it down on the counter. “You gonna write us tickets?”
Nodding, the young man pulled out five tickets and quickly wrote them out, then pulled his cashbox open and counted out five silver dollars, sliding all of it across the counter. “Train leaves at eight. Gotta load the horses, so be here by seven thirty. You ain’t here in time, the horses don’t get loaded.”
Jack grimaced. “We’ll be here.” Scooping up the dollars, he slipped them in his sash and folded the tickets, sticking them in with the money. Striding back out of the ticket office, he went over to the others. “Ain’t no more trains today. We are on the first train in the mornin’. Gotta be here by seven thirty. Anybody got a watch?”
Isom shook his head sadly. “Jack, you know I’m the only one with a watch. Let me make sure my watch matches the clock here.” Quickly stepping up to the door, he looked through the glass and saw the big clock behind the agent. Pulling out his pocket watch, he glanced at it, smiled, and turned away. “We are good. My watch and the clock match. Now, what are we going to do?”
Smiley grinned. “I could allus use some food that ain’t burnt. And a real bed.”
Joe shivered. “Ain’t goin’ to Bessie’s agin. Got bugs last time.”
The others laughed, and Tom said, “You got bugs? You mean more than normal?”
“Aw shut up. I’ll go sleep in the livery stable.”
Tom nodded. “Me to. Eat first though.”
Jack sniffed and said, “Alright. Café and then the livery. At least the hayloft will be cheaper than Bessie’s and won’t smell as bad.” They led their horses around the corner and tied them in front of the café, then trooped inside.
The menu was chalked on a board and said beef, beans, taters- 15¢ Apple pie 5¢. An older woman with her hair up in a bun and a clean apron came over to the plank table. “You boys want supper? Coffee or water comes with.” There were nods around the table and she added, “Be a couple of minutes. I’ll get you some coffee now.”
She came back shortly, carrying five cups and a beat up coffee pot. “Coffee’s good. Only used the mother once this afternoon.”
Jack looked up and said, “Thankee, Ma’am. I want apple pie, too.”
“I’ll see if there’s any left. I do a pretty good pie, if I do say so myself. I do bear sign too.”
Tom perked up. “You do bear sign? I ain’t had any of them in…mebbe two years.”
She shook her head. “Lemme see, maybe there’s one or two in the back. Ain’t makin’ no promise.”
As she walked off, Tom mumbled, “She makes bear sign, I’ll marry her.”
Isom chuckled. “Tom, that’s…oh never mind.”
Joe replied, “He don’t, I will.”
A half hour later, stuffed with the meal and dessert, including two bear sign Tom had enjoyed with his coffee, they walked out of the café and Joe said, “Lemme talk to the hostler. I know him.” Mounting up, they rode down the street to the livery stable, and Joe, good to his word, went in and a couple of minutes later came back out and waved them in. “Got good stalls, and feed. We can sleep in the hay loft. Fresh hay. Dime apiece for the horses and us.”
As they dismounted, led their horses into the respective stalls and stripped the saddles, blankets, and bridles, Smiley shook his head. “This gettin’ to be an expensive trip. I already spent more than I spent in the last two weeks.”
Jack spit in the stall’s corner and replied, “Dammit, Smiley, you’re makin’ fifty dollars a month scouting. I know you be squirreling it away. You do this same stuff ever couple o’ years. This is for a good cause.”
Smiley grinned, showing his gums. “I know. But I can only stand to be around people for so long, before I gotta go back in the mountains and get away from everbody.”
Taking their blanket rolls, they climbed into the hayloft and found places where they could spread their blankets. Within minutes, they were all asleep.