Ridin' for the Brand - Part I
I woke to the smell of steel and gunpowder. I would have preferred bacon and biscuits but at least I was alive. I stayed still, kept my eyes closed, and listened for a moment. There were at least two men, one behind me and the other in front, both on my left side. A smart move on their part, if there was some shootin’ to be done, no chance of them getting caught in a crossfire. A gunfight in the dark at close quarters is dangerous business and apt to get messy in the blink of an eye.
The metallic sound of the hammer being pulled back on a Colt revolver was the cue to open my eyes and let them know I was awake. The man holding the pistol was out of my field of vision, from the sound I figured he was about three feet behind me. I stayed calm and was extra careful to keep my hands in plain sight. It didn’t take much for a nervous man to accidentally pull the trigger on a cocked revolver.
The moonlight was bright enough to get a good look at the man in front of me, he wore a pair of moccasins, long overcoat, smooth leather chaps, and a black bandana. His brown shaggy hair hung just over his ears. He must have left his hat and boots with his horse. Both barrels of the shotgun resting in his shoulder, were pointed at my chest.
The man behind me asked, “You Clayton Daniels of the Bar-T outfit?”
I replied without moving a muscle other than my lips. “Sure am. Who might I be speakin’ with?”
“Don’t worry about who I am. All you need to know is that it’s time to quit the Bar-T. That outfit is finished. You understand me?”
“You clear that with Mr. Jacobs? I don’t remember him sayin’ anything about selling the outfit.”
“Son, this is your first and last warning. Starting tomorrow morning, this land and any cattle grazing on it belong to Mr. Tom Burnett.”
“Whelp. Given that you’re holding a shotgun to my chest. Really isn't much I have to say about it,” I replied.
“This isn’t a conversation. I’ve seen you workin’ the cattle drives into town, you’re a good hand with a horse and I thought you deserved a fair warning. Don’t get any ideas, there won’t be a second chance. We told the rest of your outfit last night. They should be gone by the time you get back.”
The situation didn’t make any sense to me. Mr. Jacobs owned the Bar-T ranch fair and square. He settled in the territory just after the war, and was one of the first ranchers in the area fighting off the Ute Indians. Tom Burnett was a newcomer, and rumor was that he was run out of New Mexico a few years back.
“Where is Mr. Jacobs? Not that I don’t trust you fellas, but I’d like to hear the news straight from the boss.”
Both men chuckled. “Your boss, Mr. Jacobs, is safe and sound in the Durango jail. He’s about to go on trial for cattle rustling.”
“Cattle rustling? Says who? Mr. Jacobs is as honest as a day is long,” I replied, continuing to keep my hands in plain sight.
“Well that ain’t what the Sheriff says. Sheriff Anderson came out to investigate and found a hundred and fifty head of cattle with the Four-Six brand on Mr. Jacobs's ranch. The brands had been altered to look like Bar-T. I don’t need to tell you, the Four-Six is Mr. Burnett’s brand. Shut and closed case if you ask me.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well ain’t that the pot callin’ the kettle black.” I hardly finished the sentence before I felt the butt of a pistol smash into my temple. I was only unconscious for a few seconds and woke up just in time to see the man with the shotgun take the hobbles off Georgina, my mule. He slapped her on the hind quarter and fired the shotgun up in into the air, which was more than enough to send Georgina galloping through a clump of trees and across the creek.
I heard the men ride away on their horses and reached up to check the wound on my head. There was a decent sized lump forming but no blood. At least the butt of his pistol didn’t cut me. I spent enough time on cattle drives to acquire a healthy fear of head wounds. A few years back on a cattle drive, I watched Jake Reynolds, the best cowhand I ever had the privilege to work with, die from a deep gash on the side of skull that we couldn’t get to stop bleeding. Jake’s horse spooked coming out of a creek crossing and he hit a tree branch with the side of his head. Before he could get off his horse, the whole left side of his shirt was covered in blood. Jake was a hell of a cowhand. You just never know what’s going to happen on the trail, could have happened to any of us, damn shame.
The throbbing in my head picked up and every heart beat sent a dull pain through the lump on the side of my forehead. I took inventory of my gear, it was mighty nice of them to leave my saddle, pistols, and rifle. But they took my boots.
The ranch house was a good three hour ride from here. I needed to find Georgina and my boots. I walked gingerly across the dirt and rocks in my bare feet, hoping they were nice enough to leave my boots behind. Finding Georgina wasn't going to be a problem but riding her back to the ranch barefoot was more of a challenge than I wanted to take on.
Both boots were sitting nicely against a tree where Georgina was hobbled. I sure as hell wouldn’t be sharing any of my grub with those boys from the Four-Six ranch but they weren’t all bad in my book. I put my boots on and walked out from the clump of trees in same direction as I last saw Georgina headed. I put two fingers in my mouth and whistled for her. Almost immediately, I heard her deep whinny in reply. She came up out of the creek bed about two hundred yards away and trotted toward me.
The sight of Georgina’s long ears flopping in the moonlight brought a smiled to my face. Every cowboy I know has questioned me about riding a mule. There aren't enough enough fingers and toes on my body to count the times Georgina saved my bacon. Mules have a bad reputation because they won’t allow themselves to be mistreated, they’re a heck of a lot smarter than horses. You can beat a horse and get it to follow your orders. That doesn’t work with a mule, a mule is your partner. You treat them right, and they’ll respect you. They’ll also keep you out of trouble on the trail. A horse will put itself in a precarious position without knowing it, then spook at the first sign of danger, not caring whether you stay in the saddle or not. A mule on the other hand will rarely get itself into a bad situation, they’ve got more trail sense than any cowboy I've ever met.
I rubbed Georgina on the neck and promised her that we were headed home. I saddled her up and we headed back the the Bar-T ranch house. I needed to find out what the hell was going on. I knew one thing for sure, Mr. Jacobs was no cattle rustler.
Ridin’ for the Brand - Part II - Next Week