Western Short Story
It had been a hard winter. Mort Seever sat at the little table and ran the stub of his pencil down the line of figures. The oil lamp laid the pencil’s shadow across the paper in a way that emphasized the dark reality of the numbers. He tapped the pencil tip on the paper and sighed deeply.
Mort was a young man as ranchers go; he had only turned thirty a couple months back. His wife of three years stood silently across the table from him and studied her husband’s weary eyes. She knew without asking that the prospects for the year were not good.
Mort looked up, “Darcy, we’re busted. The winter killed over half the cattle, we might see a few new calves this month, but the cows are in pretty poor shape for it. Even if every one of them threw twin calves it wouldn’t do us any good this year.”
Darcy Seever stared at the floor. Like her husband she was a fighter and not easily conquered by bad fate, but she knew he never saw her that way. “If this had been a good year, like we hoped, we would be paying off the note on this ranch by fall.”
“If we sold every cow, yearling, and steer we have left we would.”
Looking up at her husband Darcy said flatly, “Then sell them.” Mort leaned his chair back until it balanced on the rear legs, “What’s a ranch without cattle?”
“What are cattle without a ranch?”
Rubbing his hand over his whisker stubbled jaw he nodded his head, “You’ve got a point. We can always get more cattle, but once the land is gone it’s all over.” For a long moment he stared silently at his wife, and then set the chair back down on all four legs. “Then we sell ‘em, every last head, and pay off the note.”
Darcy gave him a slight smile, “I know it will make it tough for a while, but we can’t lose our home, and the flour barrel is empty. We need the money more than we need the cattle right now.”
“Darcy, you do know that we’ll have to drive them all the way to Miles City, there won’t be a buyer around here this time of year.”
Putting her hand over her mouth Darcy winced, “I never thought of that.”
“There’s only Ben and me to do it and moving a hundred head that far could be tricky, but I don’t think we have a choice.”
“I wish we had some money to hire another hand, or maybe I could ride with you.”
“Well, we don’t, Ben’s the only hand we can afford, but that old man’s as good as any three hands anyway. We’ll make it.” He ignored her offer to help.
Morning broke with Mort and Ben saddling their best cow horses. Ben had been with Mort Seever for the full five years he’d owned the ranch. The cattle business had started out promising, the Army was buying beef and the prices were high. Mort had married Darcy two years later. Then the prices started to slip, but they tightened their belts and pushed forward. Ben liked the young couple and stayed on even when wages were short a few months. Now they faced their worst crisis and Ben was still there.
Tossing a glance toward the old cowboy Mort grinned weakly, “I sure appreciate your sticking with us through all these problems.”
Ben looked back over his shoulder and returned the grin revealing several missing teeth, “I like you young folks, and you need help from a man what knows cattle.” Then with the grin widening, “Besides, nobody cooks up better grub than Mrs. Seever.”
Mort laughed, “She’s managed to put a few pounds on my scrawny carcass.” With the smile fading from his face Mort looked at Ben’s back, “You know Ben, when we sell these cattle there’s nothing left and we have to start over.”
Ben nodded his head, “That’s a sure thing alright.”
“There won’t be any money to pay you with.”
The old cowboy finished tying off the cinch latigo, pulled the stirrup off the saddlehorn and let it drop in place. Turning he faced the younger man, “Mort, I’m over sixty years old. When you get to be my age with no family or kin a bunk under a dry roof and a full belly are what’s important. What can I do with money anyway? You keep feedin’ me and I’ll keep ridin’.”
The smile came back on Mort’s face, “You’ll be the fattest, driest cow hand in Montana – I promise.”
Ben grinned and stepped into the saddle, “Then let’s have at ‘er.” As the two men rode away from the house Ben added, “There’s a bunch of wild cattle down in those draws to the west of here. We could round ‘em up and start over with them.”
Mort sat bolt upright in the saddle, “I didn’t know that, but you’re right. We could catch enough of those wild critters to start up a new herd. That’s what we’ll do, as soon as we get back we head out there.”
By mid-afternoon there were just over a hundred head in the holding pens, every beef animal on the place. Come morning they would point the bunch north, and if all went well, be in Miles City in a week. Another week after that and the note for the Seever Ranch would be in their hands.
The lush spring grass was putting some weight back on the cattle. The men decided that it would be to their benefit to move the herd slowly and let them eat along the way. A few more pounds per animal meant a few more dollars in the pocket. It might take them an extra day, but it would be worth it.
Noon of the second day found the herd moving slowly along grazing freely as they went. To the west the winding tree line of the Tongue River was visible and somewhere off to the east the Powder flowed. Mort and Ben rode casually to either side of the cattle just enough to keep them on track.
Ben was the first to see the line of riders coming at them from the west. He called out to Mort and pointed. Mort stood in the stirrups to get a better view. As the men came close enough to make out their features he knew they were trouble.
Ben moved in close to him, “I don’t like the look of this. I’ve seen it before, they’re herd cutters. They’ll claim this here’s their land and we’re trespassin’, even though it’s free range, they’ll claim it. Best slip the loop off that Colt of yours ‘cause they’re gonna try and cut this herd.”
The six riders formed a line in front of the two men. They were range riders, but not wearing anything that indicated they rode for any particular brand. For a minute they held the line and studied the two cattlemen and the herd.
A man in the middle jabbed a thumb toward the cattle, “Your herd?”
Mort slipped the loop off his revolver and held the man’s eyes, “They are, what business is it of yours?”
“It’s my business mister because you happen to be crossing my property.”
“I doubt it.”
The speaker had expected fear and he wasn’t getting it. “You’re a pretty smart one for being outnumbered and on another man’s spread.”
Mort eyed the man coldly and was about to speak when Ben broke in, “You say this here’s your spread?”
Ben rolled the chew of tobacco in his mouth and spit, “Then what’s your brand?”
The question caught the man completely off guard. His eyes went wild for a second as he hunted for an answer. “The Elk Horn, old man.”
“Elk Horn’s up in North Dakota and you ain’t it. Besides, if you’re the Elk Horn then how come every one of them horses you’re riding has a different brand or no brand at all?”
“You ask too many questions, old man. You boys just back away now, we’re fixin’ to cut our toll out of that herd.”
Mort’s face turned dark, his eyes burning, “Fist man who makes a move toward that herd’s dead.”
The six men were well practiced cattle thieves, each man knew his part. In a blur of motion five of the men jerked out their guns and fired over the cattle, riding hard after them they stampeded the herd away. In the instant of surprise the man who had been doing the talking pulled his gun and blew Ben out of the saddle. Mort drew his Colt and shot the man before he could turn his horse to run, yelling out in pain he slumped in the saddle. Clinging to his saddlehorn the outlaw kicked his horse toward the fleeing herd and riders. Mort fired two more shots after him before they disappeared into a draw.
Swinging to the ground he rushed over to where the old cowboy lay in the grass. His closed eyes and chilling hands said it all. With his mind in a fog Mort lifted Ben’s body and laid him over the saddle. Tying him in place he remounted his horse, turned south, and took Ben home.
Without the cattle to slow him Mort was riding into the ranch yard that next morning. Darcy burst out of the house, alarmed by her husband’s early return. Seeing Ben’s body tied over his horse her eyes locked on Mort searching for an explanation. Mort dismounted and embraced his wife.
Leading the horse with the old cowboy’s body Mort explained what happened as Darcy walked beside him. Picking up a shovel from the barn they made their way to a knoll and laid Ben to rest. The long ride back home had moved Mort from shock to anger; by now he was ready to hunt some cattle thieves.
Darcy Seever knew the look on her husband’s face, he was set to do something and nothing could turn him back from it. Stepping into the front room of their little house Mort jerked open a drawer, took a box of .44-40 cartridges out and dropped it into his coat pocket. He put a box of .45’s in the opposite pocket. Taking a Winchester 73 off the stand with several other rifles he grabbed a handful of cartridges out of the drawer and began shoving them into the rifle’s side port.
With his mind bent on what he was doing he failed to notice that his wife had disappeared from the room. Minutes later she appeared dressed like a range rider. Reaching past her husband she grabbed the new Evans off the rack.
Stopping, Mort stared at her, “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Going with you.”
“No, you’re not.”
Darcy glared hard at him, “Ben was my friend too and without those cattle we’re finished with this ranch. I know you don’t think I’m fit for anything but this house, but I can shoot and fight every bit as well as you can. Now stop wasting time and hand me that box of .44’s for this Evans.” Without another word Mort handed the box to his wife.
The trail the cattle had left was easy to follow in the soft spring sod. The outlaws had run the herd toward the Tongue and then turned them due north. Topping a hill the two stopped and looked down the expanse of country before them. Mort gave Darcy a sidelong glance, “They’re going to Miles City, it’s the only place to sell cattle around here. Let’s stay on the trail, maybe we can still catch them before they get there. They have a lead on us, but those cattle are pretty poor, they’ll probably stop for a few days to put some weight on ‘em before driving them in to sell. They don’t expect to be followed.”
Using the stars to guide them the two rode through the night. With the sun rising in the eastern sky and the breeze blowing in their faces Darcy suddenly put her hand on Mort’s arm and pulled her horse to a stop. “Mort, listen, I hear cattle lowing.”
The sound came again, the unmistakable sound of cattle calling to each other. Moving their horses Mort whispered, “Smell that?”
Darcy sniffed the breeze, “Wood smoke – and cows.”
As one they slid their rifles out of the scabbards and continued on cautiously. The sounds of cattle were growing louder as they stopped at the base of a hill, dismounted, and ran the last hundred feet to look over the edge and into the bowl below them. The cattle were bunched with five men sitting around a fire; a sixth man lay in his bedroll.
Pointing toward the camp Mort whispered, “I’ll bet that’s the man I hit. He seemed to be the leader, they might be waiting for him to get better or die.”
Darcy studied the men in the camp, “Got a plan?”
“Yep. You go around to the hill on the other side there, when you’re set I’ll throw a couple of shots into their fire and singe ‘em a bit. You shoot a half dozen shots all around that bunch and that should get their attention. Then follow whatever I do.”
“And if they shoot back?”
Darcy nodded and dropped down the hill and around the bowl the cattle were grazing in. Ten minutes passed before Mort saw her climbing up the hill and settling down in a prone position, rifle aimed at the camp. Thumbing back the hammer of the Winchester he drew a bead on the fire and pulled the trigger. The men jumped to their feet with startled shouts. Levering in another round he fired again. Darcy opened up with the Evans, the outlaws ducked and twisted around in circles not knowing which way to run.
As the shots faded Mort shouted down to the men, “Pull them guns out of your holsters, dump the cartridges on the ground, and throw the guns in the fire.”
The man closest to him jerked his revolver up and fired in the direction the voice had come from. Mort’s bullet took the man in the stomach while Darcy’s shot hit him in the back. The man fell heavily to the ground.
“Anyone else feel the need to be stupid and join him?”
The outlaws quickly obeyed and dropped the empty guns in the fire. “Who’re you?” one of the men shouted to the hill.
“The man who owns them cows, and whose partner you killed.”
“You’re crazy mister, them cows are ours.”
Mort fired another shot at the man’s feet, causing the outlaw to jump back. “You bunch of damn herd cutters, don’t make me any madder than I already am. I’m still deciding whether I shouldn’t just kill the lot of you where you stand.”
“Okay, okay, what do you want from us?”
“I want you to run them horses off and start walking west.”
“Run our horses off! How are we supposed to get out of here without horses?”
“Tough! You picked the wrong occupation so get used to it, or I could just gut-shoot you and leave you to die. Which is it? I’m running out of patience.”
Pointing at the man on the ground the outlaw shouted back, “What about our pal here? He can’t walk.”
“Leave him – and his horse.”
Another shot hit the ground at the man’s feet. “My patience is gone – get!”
The four men turned and started to walk away. Darcy fired over their heads, with the whistle of the bullet they started to run. She fired several more times to make sure they understood the point.
Together Mort and Darcy made their way down to the camp leading their horses. Looking down at the man in the blankets they could see he was fevered and dying. The man looked up at them, his voice weak, “You aim to shoot me now?”
“I should, but I won’t. You’re about dead anyway, why waste a bullet on you? We’re taking our cattle back and leaving you right where you’re at. If you live, your horse is there, if you die good riddance to you.”
Mort swung into the saddle, Darcy did likewise and they began moving the cattle out of the bowl. Darcy looked back over her shoulder, “Is he the one that shot Ben?”
“I guess he’ll have a long time to think about it before he dies.”
Mort stared straight ahead, “Nobody forced him to be a cattle thief, he lived with it and now he can die with it.” He held silent for a moment and then added, “We need to get these animals to town, that outfit’s cost us enough time.”
They rode together in silence for several minutes until Darcy spoke, “Once we get the note paid off then what?”
“Ben told me about a bunch of wild cattle out west of our place. We were going to round them up when we got back.”
Darcy was silent for another minute, “We can still round up those cattle.”
Mort looked over at his wife and studied her; he had failed to consider her as a partner in the ranch. He had always thought of her strictly as his wife, and as such best suited for the house. The ranch work was his and Ben’s, not hers, but he was now seeing her in a new light. She had proven her strength and courage in the last two days and was as good as any man, probably better than most. He had a solid partner all this time, and had never even seen it.
Nodding his head he smiled at her, “You bet we can – you and me. And I’ll bet the next time we drive a herd this way we won’t be running into any more herd cutters.”
She returned the smile and patted the Evans in her saddle boot, “I bet we won’t.”