Well, I have a title. It’s going to be the Bell Chronicles- Showdown on the River.
Comments/recommendations appreciated as always.
Rio, Monte, Fat Jack, Long Tom, Arapaho Joe, Isom Grissom, and Pronto, dressed in buckskins or worn clothes had worked over their horses making sure nothing rattled on their tack. Rio had made up six four stick charges of dynamite in a sack behind his saddle, while Monte carried a sack with blasting caps on his horse. Anna, Flynn, Jeb, Juan, Arthur, and Rene stood on the porch as Rio looked around then at Anna. “We’re gonna take the fight to ‘em tonight. Anna I want you to go up to the cabin with the boys. It’s easier to defend than this place is.”
Anna’s chin came up and she bristled. “No, damn you. I’m not leaving my home. I’ll stay here by myself if I have to,” she yelled, “but I am not leaving my home!”
Flynn said, “We’ll protect her Rio, don’t worry about it.”
Juan stepped up beside Flynn, “Si Señor.” He grinned. “Besides, nobody will argue with Arthur and his shotgun.”
Rio threw up his hands, spooking Red. Once he had him back under control, he said, “I give up! Let’s go boys, let’s go get in a fight where we can win.” The mountain men followed him out of the yard and up the trail toward the cabin.
As they rode out, Anna said, almost to herself, “Be careful!” She hugged herself and turned back toward the front door.
Juan cheerfully said, “Not to be sorry Señorita, he is the Rio Kid now. If he dies he will take many hombres with him.”
Anna stopped and turned back to Juan. “Rio Kid? I thought his name was Rio?”
Flynn stepped up angrily. “Shut up, Juan!”
Anna rounded on him. “No! I want to know what’s going on. Who is Rio, or maybe I should say what is Rio?”
Arthur sniffed and said sorrowfully, “Somebody better tell her.”
Anna shivered and led them into the house, busying herself in the kitchen with another pot of coffee. When everyone had been served, she turned to Flynn. “Tell me the truth, please, John.”
Flynn sighed. “Well ma’am, Rio, well, he’s kinda got a bad side ma’am.”
“Tell me, dammit!”
“Jeb, you tell her, you seen most of it.”
Jeb set his coffee cup down and said quietly, “Well ma’am, Rio, he’s also known as the Rio Kid.”
Rene Cavanaugh and Anna both started and she blurted, “He’s not old enough! The stories—”
Jeb went on relentlessly, “Old enough or not, he is. Rio grew up with the Texas cowboys on the ranch and they taught him their code. You ride for the brand, and he watched what happened when his daddy and others rode off to war. And he’s seen what happened when them damn Reconstructors comin’ in.”
Anna put her hand over her mouth. “No! He can’t be, he’s not old enough. He’s…not any older than I am!”
“He’s…twenty-two. He never shot anybody that didn’t deserve it.” Jeb grinned. “Fact is, if he weren’t as fast with that pistol as he is, he’d already be dead.”
Flynn shook his head as Anna sat sharply. “Oh no! I…”
Jeb squatted and looked Anna in the face. “You didn’t start it, Ma’am. They did, but Rio or the Rio Kid is gonna end it or die tryin’. When he gits like this there’s no bloody backup in him atall.”
Anna looked around at the men. “I don’t want him to die because of me!”
“He won’t die because of you, ma’am, for you maybe, but not because of you. We’ll all fight for the brand. We sat at the table and broke bread. We ain’t gonna leave you in the lurch, ‘specially not now.”
Arthur interjected softly, “Ma’am, we’re all Texans now, wherever we mighta came from. We ride for the brand, and we’ll fight for it. We may be accidental like, but we here now. Til Rio tells us different, you are our brand.”
Anna got up. “I…I don’t know what to say.” She ran to the bedroom and shut the door before collapsing on the bed in tears. What have I done. I…I…do I love him?
Monte held up a barely seen hand in the cold stark moonlight. Rio rode up beside him and asked softly, “Are we there?”
Monte replied, “No. Smelled smoke and got to lookin’, see that flicker down there?” When Rio nodded, he said, “Guards. I guess ol’ man Kidd ain’t takin’ any chances. We…can prolly get round them, but I’d rather wait. We can ease down another hunnert yards and stop at that little bench with the cave. Build a fire there and warm up for a while. I figger we got three hours to sunrise. Give ‘em an hour to git real sleepy, then take ‘em out.”
“Let’s do that. It’s cold up here. Guess my nose is stuffed up, that’s why I didn’t smell anything”
With a snort, Monte led off again, the others following closely behind until they reached the bench. Monte said, “Y’all get some o’ that driftwood. Don’t break any limbs, just bring ‘em back here.” A few minutes later, a small fire burned in the mouth of the cave, men and horses crowding around it.
When Rio complained again about the cold, the others laughed and Joe said, “Yore blood ain’t thick enough for here. You ain’t seen cold yet. Wait a couple of months, when there’s six, mebbe eight feet of snow up here, and yore spit freezes afore it hits the ground.”
Pronto disappeared for a few minutes, then returned and looked at Isom. “We need to take out the guards, you and Joe want to take them we spotted. They’re bout two hundred yards down the ridge, jus past a lightnin struck rock. I seen one moving and looked like one sleepin’. Do what you think best. Kill em if you have to.
Isom turned to Arapahoe Joe. “Shall we my friend?”
Joe’s smile was feral. “Let’s go.” The two of them left without a sound.
One of the guards was stooped over fire, dropping bacon in a pan on the fire, and the other appeared to be asleep in his bedroll as Isom and Joe stopped at the edge of the firelight.
Joe asked jocularly, “Isom, you want to kill this’s or thet’un?”
The guard froze in position, only raising his head and looking around at Isom.
Isom grinned. “Hell, guess I’ll take this one. That way when I shoot him, he won’t land in the fire and spoil breakfast.
Joe walked quietly over to the guard asleep in his bedroll and put his old long rifle between the guard’s eyes, jerking him awake. “Yeah, thet’ll work, it is your turn to cook anyways.” He glanced at Isom. “Least ways when I kill this’un I don’t got to worry bout where he falls.”
The first guard protested, “I ain’t done nothin’! We jus sittin’ up here as guards. I ain’t kilt nobody. I promise!”
Isom nudged him to sit down. “You boys have stepped in it. Somebody down there shot a friend of ours. And somebody from down there shot that girl, Alice, and killed her daddy, and somebody named Jud tried to have his way with Miss Anna.” He poked the guard in the chest. “As far as we’re concerned, all of you deserve to die for that.”
Joe chimed in, “Lessen you got somethin’ you think you can tell us thet might make us spare ya.”
The other guard looked up at Joe past the rifle barrel still resting between his eyes. “I’ll tell ya anythin’ you want to know. Iff’n I do, will ya let me ride? I promise I’ll never come back!”
Isom asked, “How many men down there? And how many are cowboys and how many gunnies?”
The guard on the ground said, “It wuz thirty-five, til Dunn and the others got kilt. There’s fifteen of us drawin’ gun pay, and ten reglar cowboys. We took the old bunkhouse, it’s got more room, and easier to sneak in and out of.”
Joe spat at the fire. “How much they payin’ for gunnies?”
‘Fitty a month. ‘Ceptin the two that been killin’ anyone usin’ the north route up the river. They get extry.”
Isom chewed his lip for a second. “So, there are two who just kill people for just being in the wrong place?”
The guard sitting in front of him said, “Stiles and Henry. They…come in with a couple o’ fancy rifles, one with one of them…long tubes on top of it. They kilt five or six men that wuz goin’ up the Poudre. Kidd…wants all of the range, and losin’ his boy just made him crazy!”
After a few more questions, including where their horses were, Joe retrieved their lariats from the saddles. Gagged and tied up, they hung the two guards upside down from a pine tree on the edge of the fire. Isom smiled at them, “You boys stay nice and quiet, and when we’re done, we’ll cut you loose.”
Back at the cave, they told the others what they’d found, as Tom fitted blasting caps into one stick in each of the six charges. Tom said, “Now these should go off when you hit ‘em with yore rifles. But for God’s sake, don’t throw ‘em or drop ‘em. I ain’t sayin’ they’ll go off on their own, but tain’t worth takin’ a chance.”
Rio asked curiously, “Where’d you learn about dynamite?”
Tom chuckled. “Worked with this here Giant powder a while down around Georgetown. Can’t do it no more, it gives me too much of a headache.”
Pronto looked around, counting noses. “Looks like we got six charges. Everbody remember the map Monte drew of the ranch yard?” They all nodded and he started handing out charges and locations where he wanted them placed.
When Rio didn’t get one, he asked, “What about me?”
Pronto smiled. “You ain’t worth a damn when it comes to sneakin’ around. Leave that to us. You can bring the hosses down to that last rise before the flats where we gonna shoot from. Put ‘em on the backside o’ that rise. By the time you get there, we should be up there too.” He kicked the fire out and smiled at Rio. “And don’t ferget my mule don’t like to be tail end o’ the line.”
The six old mountain men disappeared into the darkness leaving Rio cussing as he strung the horses together behind Pronto’s mule. He finally got them in motion and led them carefully down the creek to the agreed location, thankfully without any problems. Tying them to separate saplings gave each horse enough room to graze a little on the dry grass that remained. He realized he could make out trees, and the sky to the east was lightening, so he grabbed his carbine out of the sheath and hurried to the top of the rise.
He heard the click of a hammer being drawn back and stopped suddenly. “Pronto?” he said softly.
“Dammit, boy, you’re noisy as a herd of squirrels. Everbody is back ‘ceptin Isom. He was gonna try to stick one on the front porch.”
Isom said, “I’m back got, within about ten feet of the porch, and somebody opened the front door. Got the charge behind a little pile of rock.”
Joe added, “I got mine on the outhouse.”
“Water trough in front of the bunk house,” Tom said.
Monte chimed in, “Edge of the corral.”
“Barn door,” Jack said with a grin.
Pronto smiled. “Put mine on that big tree in front of the house. Think it might just knock that tree down.” He motioned Rio in. “You gonna have to be the watch, since there’s only six charges and six of us know where we put ‘em.”
Rio sighed. “I guess I’ll dust any of them gunnies that come outta that old bunkhouse.”
Pronto chuckled. “We’ll fire on my owl hoot.” Rio shook his head and smiled, and Pronto laughed. “Never did learn that did ya?”
Rio glared at him. “All the rest of the sounds I’m as good as you, but that damn owl, I just never could….
Monte asked, “Am I missing something here?” He looked up at the sky. “We better git movin’, we’ll have enough light afore long.
Pronto hooted like an owl, and shots rang out. The outhouse exploded first, followed by the water trough in front of the bunkhouse. The first of the gunnies came boiling out of the old bunkhouse and Rio fired into them just as Pronto hit the charge on the tree. It toppled majestically the top branches hitting the old bunkhouse and a couple of screams sounded.
Jack was cussing as he tried again for the charge on the barn door, but it had swung so that only one stick of the charge was visible. Monte hit the charge on the corral, which blew the barn door back open. Jack hit it then, and Isom took his time and nailed the charge in front of the steps. It blew the people coming onto the porch back into the house. Rio took two more shots at two gunnies that were turning toward them and firing at random toward the top of the hill. Pronto said, “Let’s go.”
Roger, Pete, and Jud were sprawled on the floor when Buck and Jack came through the back door and down the hallway. They helped the three Kidds groggily to their feet. Roger yelled, “Dammit, what is goin’ on? Where is this comin’ from?”
Buck peered out a broken window. “Looks like up on the ridge, boss, but I think it’s stopped.” Hearing the screams of pain, he continued, “Looks like we got a few boys down.”
Roger staggered to the door and yanked it open. “Let’s go! I want them bastards! Nobody shoots up my house! Nobody!”
Pete leaned on the wall and watched Roger disappear through the door. You brought this on yourself Pa, only you. If you had just left well enough alone, and Todd hadn’t been stupid… He pushed off the wall and resignedly followed Roger out the door. Buck and Jack followed quickly. Jud, holding his side and trembling from fear, slowly followed the others, making sure he was behind someone before he stepped out on the porch.
Smoke and flames blanketed the ranch yard. Some of the cowboys were trying to put out the fires with a bucket brigade, while others tended the wounded gunnies.
Roger grabbed Buck. “You and Jack get some boys and git up there, find them thet did this an kill ‘em!”
Buck nodded. “We’ll go see what we can find boss. C’mon Jack let’s get saddled up and git a couple of the others.”
Roger yelled, “Five Hunnert dollars to the man what kills one o’ those bastards!”
Fifteen minutes later, Buck, Jack and several others rode out of the yard as Roger ran from place to place directing people, while Pete and the cowboys collected the dead gunnies and laid them out beside the old bunkhouse. Pete noted that none of the regular cowboys had been injured and wondered about that.
Rio and the others sat in their saddles at the cave, waiting for Monte and Fat Jack. They finally came around a corner of the trail trailing pine boughs on ropes behind the horses. Jack smiled. “Thet oughta do it. Lessen they got a real good tracker, or lookin’ close, they ain’t gonna find our back trail.”
Monte chuckled. “Well, there ain’t a lot o’ ways up this here ridge, but we shore will confuse the hell outta them, with thet false trail we laid goin’ north over the butte!”
Rio turned up the trail. “Let’s ride.” He glanced at Isom as he went by him. “I still can’t believe what you two did. I’d have never thought of that.”
Isom’s smile was ugly. “Well, I had it done to me before. I always wanted to do it somebody else. Worked pretty good too!” He laughed. “That it did, yes sir, that it did, very fulfilling it was!
Buck, Jack and the others came upon the two guards, tied up and hung upside down in a tree. One of them had managed to work his gag loose. “Cut us down, dammit. This ain’t funny. My head’s killin’ me.” Buck spit and drew his pistol shooting him in the chest.
“If you’d done yo job, we wouldn’t a lost eight guys.” Buck cut the rope holding them in the tree and they fell to the ground. One rolled over, but the one Buck shot didn’t move.
Jack got down and cut the bindings and the surviving gunnie ripped the gag out of his mouth, gulping air as he did so. Looking up he said, “Thank you. I thought we wuz done for.”
Jack rolled the other one over. “Thisun’s dead, Buck.”
Buck, still holding his pistol, pointed it at the surviving guard. “You sonsabitches were s’posed to be guardin’ this ridge line, you don’t deserve to live.”
“Wait a minnit, they come on us, an there was nothin’ I could do.” Buck motioned with his pistol and the gunnie said, “There wuz two of em, I wuz just stokin the fire and he,” pointing to the body, “wuz still asleep. Next thing I know, I got a Sharps stuck in my gut; with the meanest lookin ol’ Black man I ever seen on the other end of it. His partner had his rifle rammed into his
Head, right tween the eyes. Go look! I bet the marks are still there! I swear!”
Buck replied angrily, “So, you let two ol’ men sneak up on ya and the done kilt bout eight of our folk and durn near blowed up the whole place.”
The guard on the ground held up both hands. “Listen, they wuz mountain men, dressed in furs and buckskins. There wuz more than two, cause it seemed like they wuz jest tyin’ us up when the shooting and explodin’ started.” He pointed up the ridge. “Last I heerd ‘em, they wuz goin’ that way. Jus walkin’ the horses like they wuz out fer a Sunday stroll.”
Buck gestured with his pistol. Git your horse or walk and git down to the ranch. Tell Roger what you tole us. If you’re lucky, he’ll let you live.” He looked at the rest of the gunnies. “Let’s go see if we kin find thet damn trail. If they be lolligaggin’ along, we might pick ‘em off. Mount up Jack! Let’s go!”
Once they’d ridden out of sight, the remaining guard found his horse and the other guard’s still tied to the tree. Looking carefully around he untied both horses, mounted his and rode quickly north on the bluff, the opposite direction to the ranch.
An hour or so later, Buck, Jack, and the other gunnies, frustrated in their search for tracks, stumbled on the false trail heading north. Buck looked at the trail and spat on the ground. “Dammit, we wasted a couple o’ hours chasin’ our tails up that crick.” He looked up at the sun’s position and added. “Almost noon. They’re long gone by now. Guess we might as well go on back to the ranch. The old man can’t say we didn’t try.” They turned their horses down toward the main ranch and rode morosely back to face Roger Kidd.
Rio and the mountain men rode quickly back up the creek, then followed the river back down toward the ranch. Turning up the trail to the ranch, Rio finally relaxed for the first time. He grinned and glanced over at Pronto. “Looks like we made it!”
Pronto spat off to the side. “Mebbe. Now we gotta see what Kidd is gonna do. That means puttin’ guards out down here, and prolly up at the cabin too.”
Rio’s head dropped, then he looked up at the bright sunlight. “You don’t make this easy, do you?”
“Tain’t supposed to be easy. ‘Specially when you in charge. Allus somethin’ else to worry bout.”
“Can we do it? Can we pull this off, Pronto?”
Pronto shrugged and spat again. “Dunno. Gonna be up to you and how well you figger out what to do.”