Ridin' for the Brand - Part V
Sam set a plate of bear sign and fresh pot of coffee on the table. A trail cook that could make bear sign was a rare thing in the West, those fluffy sugar filled biscuits could put a smile on the roughest cowboy’s face. I waited until we ate the tray clean before asking the question that had been rolling around like a boulder in my head.
I figured the answer would come from the boss, Mr. Jacobs, but I knew better than to break my chain of command. I asked the question to my foreman, Bill Nelson. “Bill, what is it that started this feud with the Four-Sixes?”
Bill took a sip of coffee and stroked his mustache before looking over at Mr. Jacobs. “Probably better if it came straight from you.”
Mr. Jacobs wiped his mouth and put the tablecloth on his lap. “Ain’t really that much to it. Root of the issue comes down to water rights. In order to expand their operation, the Four-Sixes needs water from the spring on the west side of my ranch. When they found out that I properly surveyed and deeded this ranch, including that spring, they decided to frame me as a cattle thief. I guess they figured with me out of the picture they could just take over the Bar-T.”
Mr. Jacobs paused to take a sip of coffee and look out the window across the tall green grass swaying in the breeze. The beauty of the snow capped mountains in the background over the valley could make a man want to give up the life of a drifting cow puncher and settle down.
He continued, “I staked my claim to this property back when it was nothing but a valley of tall grass filled with Indians looking for scalps. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna lay down and let a crooked Sheriff and an easterner with hired guns take it from me.”
I nodded in agreement with the boss. “I don’t understand how they could ever convince someone that you were stealing cattle. The Bar-T and Four-Sixes brands aren’t even close. I saw the cows they said you stole. Any cowhand can plainly tell that the Bar-T brand was the original and had been altered. And they done a mighty poor job on the alteration.”
Bill Nelson, the foreman nodded. “Well … they didn’t need to convince anyone other than the Sheriff. And they did that with money, not evidence.”
“With the Sheriff in their pocket, what chance do we have?” I asked.
“While you were breakin’ us out of jail and settin’ Missy free, Sam sent a message on the mail wagon for Marshall Wickert, he’s the county law. He’ll be able to settle the issue. Mail carrier told Sam that Marshall Wickert’s less than a day ride away up in Poguna Springs. He should be here before noon,” replied Bill Nelson.
Mr. Jacobs nodded. “Marshall Wickert and I go back a long ways. He’ll be ridin’ in with a cloud of dust behind him. We just need to sit tight until he gets here.”
Marshall Wickert rode into the Bar-T ranch just before lunch, just as Mr. Nelson figured. Mr. Jacobs and Marshall Wickert greeted each other like they were brothers. They went inside to discuss the situation, Bill Nelson and I stayed on lookout. Not ten minutes after Marshall Wickert arrived, five riders came through the main gate.
Tom Burnett the owner of the Four-Sixes ranch was in the lead, flanked by John Wesley and two other hired guns, crooked Sheriff Anderson trailed by three horse lengths. Georgina sensed my nerves on edge and stamped her foot, I patted her on the neck and whispered in her ear. She calmed down at the sound of my voice, it sounds foolish, but she just wanted to be reassured that I could handle the situation.
Bill Nelson rode up and stopped fifteen feet to my left. Bill was a savvy rider, if the two of us were going to face five men, staying apart from each other would at least force them to take an extra second to move between targets. It wasn’t much of an advantage but it was better than nothing.
Bill looked at me and nodded, we both took our rifles from their scabbards and laid them across our saddles. There’s no such thing as a fair fight when it’s two against five.
The riders came closer, while they were still out of earshot I told Bill my plan. “The one with the black hat, leather vest and pearl handled six shooters, that’s John Wesley. He’s the most dangerous man in the group. If this turns into a shooting affair, I’ll take him first. You take Tom Burnett, no sense letting him ride out of here.” I looked over at Bill to make sure he understood.
Bill shifted in his saddle and spit a stream of tobacco juice on the ground. “Sounds good to me.”
Bill’s choice of weapon caught my attention. It wasn’t a rifle as I assumed, he had a double barrelled scattergun across his lap. I smiled and nodded toward the shotgun.
“Just a safety precaution. They’ll be less likely to get itchy trigger fingers once they see that I’ve got a scattergun. They won’t be expecting it and even a blind man can’t miss at close range with this cannon. Heck, if they aren’t spread out, I might get two with one barrel.” Bill smiled.
I chuckled. “Darn good idea Bill.”
The group of riders led by Tom Burnett stopped in front of us, they stayed in a fairly tight group. My shoulder was stiff from the ax handle beating I took the day before. Chances of me beating John Wesley to the draw were slim, even with a rifle already across my saddle. I slowly cocked the hammer on my Winchester before they got close enough to see me do it. John Wesley was directly in front of me, he had a mean look on his face and didn’t try to hide it. I thought to myself, I should have never let him live. I hope I live to learn the lesson.
“Bill Nelson, you’re under arrest. Get down from your horse. Where’s Mr. Jacobs? We’re taking the both of you back to jail. The hangman’s waiting,” said the crooked Sheriff Anderson.
The door to the ranch house opened and slammed shut. Marshall Wickert stepped out on the front porch with Mr. Jacobs at his side. Marhsall Wickert shouted, “Rest easy in your saddles gentlemen. I’ve got these two men in my custody. This here is a county matter.” He unhitched his horse from the front of the house galloped toward the group.
Tom Burnett snapped back, “This ain’t no county matter Marshall. Cattle rustlin’ is a town matter. And Sheriff Anderson already settled the matter.”
Marhsall Wickert stopped to my right. “I don’t see no badge on your chest. You must be Tom Burnett of the Four-Sixes.”
“That’s right Marhsall. And I’ve been a victim of cattle thievery.”
Marshall Wickert grabbed the horn of his saddle. “That so? I took a look at some of the cattle that you accused Mr. Jacobs of stealing. Any man that’s been around cattle a day in his life can see that they're Bar-T. The Four-Sixes was put on after, it’s clear as day. Your claim of thievery has no merit and I won’t let you hang two innocent men. We’ll take it up in front of the county Judge on his next visit. Understood?”
Tom Burnett looked at Sheriff Anderson. “Well Sheriff what are you gonna do?”
“Nothing I can do, Marshall’s authority supersedes mine,” replied Sheriff Anderson.
Tom Burnett yanked on the reigns and turned his horse around, the rest followed. John Wesley stayed in place, he stared at me the cold eyes of a killer. “I’ll be seeing you again.”
I smiled and tipped my hat to him. “Looking forward to it.”
John Wesley turned his horse and followed the rest of the group. I turned toward Marshall Wickert, “thank you. That was shaping up to be an awfully tight situation for me and Bill.”
“Least I could do. Your boss is a mighty fine man, I couldn’t stand to see him hung for something he didn't do. I wish I had heard about this feud earlier,” said Marshall Wickert.
“Much obliged Marshall. We’ll stay on alert, I don’t think we’ve heard the last from the Four-Sixes,” said Bill Nelson.
That evening at sunset Sam and I rode the western perimeter of the ranch, Georgina slowed down to a walk, she took a big snort of fresh mountain air and shook her mane. The sun crept down over the top of the mesa with an orange glow.
“Sure is pretty,” said Sam.
“Sure is,” I replied and took a drink my canteen before biting off a plug of chewing tobacco. The days on the range were too hot for chewing tobacco, it dried me out like a piece of jerky and gave me headaches, but in the evening at sunset, gnawing on a plug gave me a sense of peace.
The crack of a bullet moving past my ear ended my hopes for a quiet evening on the ranch. I grabbed my rifle as I slid out of the saddle. With me hidden in the grass, I knew the next bullet would be for Georgina. Her and I spent many days together on the range and we had two whistle signals, one was for her to come to me, and the other was for her to light a shuck out of the area. I slapped her hindquarters, put two fingers in my mouth and let out a whistle. Sam took my lead and left his mount who followed Georgina toward the ranch stables.
“How many you reckon there are?” Sam whispered.
We were both flat on our bellies in grass that was about eight inches high. Two more shots cracked over our heads, they likely came from a clump of pine trees and shrubs about a hundred and fifty yard to our north. The wind picked up and swayed the grass above our heads.
“Hard to tell, but we’d better spread out,” I replied.
“I’m gonna try to draw’em out,” said Sam.
“We’ll have a better chance if we wait till dark. We can get up and move without them seeing us.”
Sam shook his head. “I know but I’m afraid that if we try to wait’em out they’ll go around us and right on through to the ranch house. They’ll lynch Mr. Jacobs and Bill without hesitation, not to mention what they’ll do to Missy.”
I put my head down. “You’re right. What’s your plan?”
“I’m headin’ off toward that rock pile about thirty yards to the left of us. You’ll know when I get there. Be ready with that Winchester,” said Sam.
He crawled away from me, I maneuvered in the opposite direction and found a nice shallow divot in the ground for cover. Peeking through the swaying grass I had a good view of where I thought the shooters were hiding.
The awful groans that came from Sam startled me. They sure sounded like a wounded man to me and they fooled the bushwhackers from the Four-Sixes as well. Not two minutes after Sam started groaning, four men quickly moved out of their cover in the pines. They bounded quickly, taking five or six strides before disappearing in the grass.
With each bound they got lazier in their approach and stayed standing longer before disappearing into the grass. There was no doubt that Sam also picked up on their lazy approach,I followed the man closest to me with my Winchester and aimed chest high where I thought he would pop up next. As soon as he stood up I squeezed the trigger and put a round dead center in his chest. The flame at the end of my barrel from the shot gave away my position. The dirt around me exploded, I rolled to my left to get as far away as possible.
The sound of Sam’s Sharps .50 echoed through the valley, another of the four men coming after us went down. The other two were silent for the moment. I wiped the dirt from my face and checked myself for holes, I wasn’t leaking.
The orange flash of flames drew my attention. It took me a moment to realize what was happening. They were trying to start a grass fire, I’d seen wildfires spread a hundred acres in less than five minutes. The valley we were in was the perfect fuel for a fire and In a dry windy situation like this it would burn out the pasture and be out of control within minutes.
As quick as I could get my rifle sights on them, I fired four shots then jumped to my feet and started sprinting toward the fire. As I ran, the initial flame seemed to go out, for a few seconds the two men struggled to get it going again, they succeeded. The boom of Sam’s rifle filled the valley as I ran.
The two men got the fire going and headed toward their horses that were tied up in the pines. One of the men wore a pair of pearl handled pistols, it was John Wesley. By the time I made it to the fire it had spread to two small spots. I stripped off my buckin shirt, threw it on the flames and stomped it with my feet. I frantically repeated that process until I stomped out the flames, had I been a minute later to the scene, the fire would have been out of control.
Sam walked up next to me. “You saved the ranch.”
“Maybe … but you saved me with that Sharps,” I replied.
“Those two that started the fire, I winged one of them,” Sam said.
“And the four that came after us?”
“All down. We’ll let Tom Burnett come fetch’em in the morning.”
Sam and I headed back to the ranch house and found everyone safe and sound.
The next morning I rode into town with one thing on my mind, killing John Wesley. He wasn’t a hard man to find. I left Georgina at the livery and walked straight toward the Bird Cage hotel. John Wesley sat on the bench outside with his feet kicked up on the rail post, puffing on a cigar. I stood in the middle of the street and stared him down.
“John Wesley. You’re a cattle thief and a no good bushwhacker,” I figured that would get his attention. I was right.
He smirked, stood up and walked toward me. “You lookin’ for a fight?”
“Sure am. You tried to kill me last night and set fire to the pasture at the Bar-T.” I pulled my hat down and focused on his hands.
“Well that ain’t true. Got any witnesses?” John asked. He moved toward me at an angle so I couldn't clearly see his right hand.
A crowd began to the gather on the street, I stayed focused on John Wesley, he was fast, it was a coin flip as to who would survive. He kept talking to try and throw me off balance. I tuned out his words and kept still.
Just as he pivoted to face me, his right hand dropped toward his pistol. It was a dirty move but I was ready for it and didn’t hesitate. John Wesley’s pistol cleared leather before mine, I felt a sting on my left ear just before I pulled the trigger on my Colt.
He was faster on the draw but his shot was off the mark, it took off the lobe of my left ear. My round landed dead center through his heart, John Wesley was dead before he hit the ground. My ear burned and stung like hell but I was alive. I put my pistol back in my holster where it belonged.
“Clayton Daniels, you’re under arrest for murder,” shouted Sheriff Anderson. He walked toward me with his hand on the butt of his pistol. He had a bandage on his left shoulder. No doubt due to a wound from Sam's rifle the night before.
“I don’t have the money to pay you off like Tom Burnett … but I’m not going to let a crooked Sheriff arrest me.” I began walking toward him. After my first step I saw fear in his eyes and knew he wasn’t up to the task of drawing down on me. I kept walking and got within a step of him before I let loose with a straight right that landed on his cheek. I followed up with a left cross and a right hook to the ribs that knocked him to the ground. I finished with a boot heel to the ribs that knocked the wind out of him.
The badge pinned to his shirt glistened in the morning sun, I reached down and ripped it off his shirt. “That badge deserves better than you.”
I put the Sheriff's badge in my pocket and headed down the street to find Kate.
This is the last story in this series. Next week I'll start another series of Western stories. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them.