The usual caveats… Things are beginning to come to a head…
Comments/recommendations welcome, as always!
Roger Kidd was badly hungover as Emma served breakfast to them. He slurped his coffee and moved the eggs around on the plate, finally eating a biscuit and a piece of bacon as he stared at Pete and Jud. “I want you to have everbody pair off and git out on the range. Tell ‘em anybody they see, they don’t know ‘em, kill ‘em.”
Pete asked carefully, “Pa, aren’t you overreacting a little bit?”
“No by God, I ain’t. It’s time to take over! I ain’t never gonna leave here now. Not with Todd buried out there.” He pointed wildly at the door with his coffee cup, slopping coffee everywhere. “Ya’ll get out of here, git!” Pete and Jud got up quickly and headed for the door, but Roger added, “Not you Pete, I need you here. I ain’t gonna run no more. You an Billy got to keep the ranch goin’. I want at least two in ever line shack we got!”
“Ok, Pa,” Pete replied softly, as Jud looked back and shook his head.
Jud stumbled down the front steps and hurried to the bunkhouse, throwing the door open. “Pa’s mad. Everybody needs to get up and out. Pair up, get out on the range. Shoot anybody you don’t recognize.”
As the cowboys hurried out, Jud looked around and saw the gunnies were still lounging around. Biting his lip, he said, “That includes y’all. Buck, you and Jack go up by the river to where you can watch that trail up on the north side. Shoot anybody you see. Harvey, dad wants us to ride up that way later today, but you might want to keep the boys out of sight.”
Harvey spit out the piece of straw he was chewing on and regarded Jud curiously. “Okay. We’ll saddle up and ride out. We’ll be up around the far side of the butte. Buck, Jack, git up to the river, you got the good rifles.”
Buck and Jack looked at each other and smiled. Buck said, “Git the horses saddled, Jack. I’ll go git a bait of grub from the Chink. Meet you at the corral.” He reached under his bunk and came up with the scoped Winchester. Cradling it in his arm, he strolled out, winking at Jud on the way. “We get anybody, the old man’s gonna pay, right?” Jud nodded sullenly as Buck brushed by him, closely followed by a smirking Jack. A few minutes later, Buck walked out of the cook shack, a poke in his hand. He smiled at Jack. “Got biscuits, bacon, and I stole the mint outta the Arbuckles’ can. It shore is good!”
Jack grimaced. “Thanks a lot. Gimme a biscuit. I’m hungry now.”
“Let’s get outta sight o’ the house first. I heered the old man rantin’ at Pete, and I don’t wanta be around if…” He shrugged. “I think Todd gettin’ killed has sent him off the deep end.”
Jack reined the buckskin around and headed north, looking back over his shoulder. “Fine by me. Youse right. The old man ain’t right in the head, ain’t been for a while now.” Buck sneaked a look back at the house as he mounted, and gigged the horse to a trot, quickly catching up with Jack. They dipped into an arroyo as quickly as they could and both relaxed once they couldn’t be seen. Buck dug into the poke and handed a biscuit and a piece of bacon to Jack as they rode. Jack munched it slowly, then asked, “We goin’ to the usual place?”
Sure. I figger we can hide out up there all day.”
Fat Jack kicked Smiley’s foot. “Wakee, wakee you old fart.”
Smiley grumped, “Damn, I’m gittin too old to sleep in a barn like this.” He sneezed loudly, causing Joe and Tom to jerk awake. “Got the sneezes now. Prolly have ‘em all damn day now.”
Isom laughed from the floor of the barn. “Hell, Smiley you’re just getting old, period.”
“You ain’t no youngster yore self, Isom. I notice you ain’t jumpin’ for joy this mornin’ either.”
“Well, I’ve already done my ablutions, saddled up, and I’m ready to go. We have…” He glanced at his watch in the lamp light. “An hour before the train leaves.”
Jack interrupted, “Y’all stop jawin and lets mount up.”
Joe shuffled over to the ladder and climbed down as Smiley said, “Damn, y’all are testy this mornin’.”
Jack shook his head. “Shut up, Smiley, git your horse saddled and lets go.” He looked around asking, “Where’d Tom git off to?”
Joe replied, “His horse is gone, so I’m thinkin’ he’s…somewhere other than here.”
Isom laughed again. “You know where he is. He’s got to be at the café, looking for some bear sign. Tom is Tom, he’s not going to ever change.”
Jack mumbled, “Sumbitch better be at the train, otherwise I’ma cash his ticket back in. Let’s go!” The four of them mounted and rode slowly and quietly out of the livery stable, brushing straw from their clothes in the early morning chill.
Isom said softly, “Winter isn’t far off. Cold and still. It’s going to be a long cold winter.”
Jack replied, “A pox on you, Isom. I don’t want long and cold unless I got me a bed warmer.”
Joe snickered. “You couldn’t get a squaw now, your life depended on it, you old fart.”
They rode up to the train station and the agent said, “You the ones going to Evans?” When Jack nodded, he added, “Get your horses loaded. Second cattle car back. Ramp’s already in place. I’ll get your tickets when you get ready to board.”
Jack looked around and shook his head. “Tom ain’t here. I ain’t gonna go lookin’ for him. Let’s go, boys.” Riding past the engine spooked the horses a little bit, as the escaping steam whistled out of the bypass. It took them a minute to get the horses calmed down, and Isom, as usual was the first one to lead his horse up the ramp. The others got their horses on and started back down the ramp just as Tom rode up, bag in hand.
Dismounting quickly, he handed Jack the bag. “Hold that poke while I load Bessie.” They finally got Bessie loaded after Isom took over, blindfolded her, and had Tom lead her up the loading ramp.
Once she was secured, Isom said, “Leave her blindfolded. She can smell the other horses, and as long as they stay quiet, she will too. Otherwise, I’m afraid she’ll kick the hell out of them, the cattle car, and everything else as soon as the train moves.”
Tom spat on the loading ramp. “Mebbe I need to stay with her, too.”
Jack shook his head. “Iff’n you want to, go ahead. Me, I’m gonna ride the cushions.” He opened the bag and smiled. “And I’m gonna eat your bear sign, too!”
Jack turned and headed for the passenger car and Tom charged down the ramp after him. “Come back here you damn thief! Them are my bear sign!” The others laughed and headed for the passenger car as the railroad workers moved the loading ramp and shut the cattle car sliding door. Tom finally got his poke back as the train pulled out of the station, but it was short four bear sign, and Smiley was laughing as he gummed his, licking the sugar off his moustache after every bite.
An hour and a half later, they had the horses unloaded at Evans and were headed to Fort Collins. Jack said, “We’ll go to the café and git some food, nose around a bit, and ride out, quiet like.”
Isom chuckled. “Jack, we’re not exactly…unremarkable, if you take my meaning.”
Shrugging Jack replied, “Well, iff’n we keep our mouths shut…”
Smiley sniped, “Iff’n you keep your mouth shut,” prompting a round of laughter.
At the Nevell ranch, Pronto, Rio, and Monte sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee as the sun came over the horizon. Pronto looked at the other two and said, “Rio, Monte, I got to tell y’all somethin’,” he took a sip of coffee before he continued, “I sent a telegram to some folks and tole ‘em to come on down.”
Rio looked sharply at him. “Why and who, Pronto?”
“Well, I jus got a feelin’.” He glanced at Monte. “Monte, when I heard you wuz here, I sent a telegram to Fat Jack. Last I heard he wuz at Fort Laramie.”
Monte leaned back. “Fat Jack? Hell, I ain’t thought of him in years either. Think he’ll come?”
“If he gets it, he’ll be here. He was out scouting for the Army when we dropped the herd up there. I don’t know who might come with him. Hell, I don’t even know who’s still alive outta that bunch we used to run with.”
Rio said thoughtfully, “If nothing else, they’ll help if we gotta hold this ranch, Monte.”
Monte nodded, a faraway look in his eyes. “Yeah, thet they will. Fat Jack…ain’t one to be messed with.” Turning to Pronto he asked, “Who else have you heard about, or heard from?”
Before Pronto could answer, the front door banged open and Arthur and Cavanaugh came in, shivering. “Is there coffee, Boss? It’s downright cold out there!”
Pronto got up. “Where’s your cup, Rene? Ain’t enough to go ‘round. You know that.” Cavanaugh looked at the ceiling, mumbled something under his breath and headed for the door.
Arthur pulled a cup out of his coat pocket with a smile. “I have mine, right here.”
Pronto said gruffly, “Then you get coffee, as soon as you come back with another bucket of water.” He handed the bucket by the stove to him and smiled as Arthur’s face fell. “Arthur, you got a long ways to go to put one over on me.” He started to say something, thought better of it, grabbed the bucket, and headed for the door. Pronto said, “Guess I better get cookin’, the rest of ‘em will be coming in shortly, wantin’ to be fed.” He picked up a knife and started slicing bacon into the skillet. “Rio, go git me some eggs.”
Rio knew better than to argue and got up, slipped on his coat, and went out the door. Monte levered himself up and said, “I’ll make the biscuits. You never could do ‘em right, you old fart.”
Arthur came back with the water, closely followed by Cavanaugh, and they got cups of coffee, standing close to the stove until Pronto threatened them with the knife. “Git outta here! Go stoke the fire in the fireplace, you’re thet damn cold.”
Rio finally came in, “I could only find a dozen eggs.”
Pronto grimaced. “Ain’t enough. Go git some taters out of the root cellar. I’ll mix ‘em in with the eggs. Rio came back a couple of minutes later, four potatoes in his hand. Pronto glanced at them. “That’ll work. Rene, go roust everbody out. We gotta get movin’ on gettin’ things done.”
Rio looked around. “Has anybody seen Juan and Jeb?” A chorus of negatives answered him and he scratched his head where the scab was. “Soon as we eat…Arthur and I’ll go look for them. Maybe they found a…line cabin and stayed there last night.”
Monte frowned. “Or, somebody saw ‘em and potshotted ‘em. Not like we coulda heard it all the way down here.”
A half hour later, as Arthur and Rio looked at Red’s off hind hoof, the two missing cowboys rode up. “Where the hell have you two been?” Rio asked angrily.
Juan put his hand on his chest, “Señor, we have been working. We found…” he pulled out his tally book, “Four hundred sixty-one cows north of the ranch house. Some of them were hidden in draws and up on the buttes to the north. By the time we got ready to start back, it was getting dark.”
Jeb added, “We found a line cabin with a small corral ‘bout five miles north of here. Figgered we’d be better off spending the night up there than trying to come back in the dark, as ‘techy as everbody is.” We left at first light, come straight here.” He looked at Red. “What’s wrong with Red?”
Disgusted, Arthur said, “He’s tryin’ to throw a shoe. I gotta try to find somethin’ to fix it. I didn’t search the barn yesterday like I shoulda.”
Rio cocked his head. “Well, let’s see what we can find. You two go on in and eat. I think Pronto saved you a bit of breakfast, just in case.”
Juan took off his hat and bowed, “We thank you, Señor! As soon as we take care of the horses, we will enjoy Señor Pronto’s muy magnifque cooking.”
Arthur snorted. “Jeb, take that boy’s temperature. I be thinkin’ he’s sick…at least in the head.” The two of them laughed and led their horses toward the corral as Rio and Arthur fanned out searching the barn.
Down in Denver, Anna Nevell was quickly packing her valise as Elizabeth Morgan came into the bedroom. “Anna, I wish you didn’t have to rush off. I know you want to get home but—”
Anna, twenty, lithe, and pretty, tucked her hair behind her ears. “Mrs. Morgan, I can’t tell you how much I appreciated the bath last evening and being able to wash my underthings. But I wrote dad that I would be home before the twentieth, and that’s tomorrow.”
Impulsively, Mrs. Morgan hugged her. “I know, dear. But we haven’t seen you in…almost two years. And Caroline has decided to stay with Bea, saying she’d rather complete her studies and come home for good next May. I truly did appreciate the letter and the tintype you brought, besides, if we hadn’t welcomed you, Bea would have come up here and skinned me alive!” She smiled at Anna, who chuckled.
“So Caroline and I are carrying on the tradition you two started?”
Mrs. Morgan bit her tongue and cocked her head at Anna. “Well, we’ve known each other for…a lot of years. We went to school together all the way through college. And your dad sending you and then Alice down here to go to school did nothing but cement those relationships. With you and Caroline both going to Bea’s finishing school in New Orleans, yes, you are continuing the tradition!”
Anna made a face. “But you don’t use your…education, do you?”
Mrs. Morgan laughed softly. “Oh, I help Jack out. I just don’t let him know how much I help him. Speaking of Jack, he should be getting the carriage ready to take you to the train station.”
Anna closed the last strap on her valise and smiled. “I’m ready. I promise I’ll be back to see you.” She hugged Mrs. Morgan and sighed. “And I’ll bring Alice with me. Now that the trains run to Cheyenne, it’s only an hour or so trip, instead of two or three days!”
Jack Morgan called from the base of the stairs. “Liz? Anna? I’ve got the carriage out front, and your horse on a hackamore, ready to go. We need to get going if you’re going to get your horse loaded!”
Mrs. Morgan chuckled. “We’ll be right down, Jack! You know us females, we’re always late.”
Anna smiled and picked up her valise, leading Mrs. Morgan out the door and down the stairs. “Thank you for doing this, sir. I do appreciate it.”
He smiled as he took her valise and led her to the carriage. “Well, it’s the least we can do. Tell Hank I said to come on down and see us. And bring some of that good elk meat when he comes.”
She laughed. “I will, I surely will, sir.”
The ride to the train station was short, and Mr. Morgan supervised the loading of her horse while she dealt with the two trunks that had been stored overnight in the baggage room. As soon as everything was loaded, she made her goodbyes and settled into a seat in the rail car. Home! I’ll be home this afternoon. I can’t wait to see dad and Alice! And I won’t ever make another trip like this one! I’m tired, so tired.