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Western Short Story
Back Where You Belong - (Morgan Westland #2)
Jim Bryson

Western Short Story

He stepped down from the stagecoach and bent forward and back, stretching muscles that were cramped and tired from the long bouncing ride in the stagecoach. Turning, he took the large saddlebags that the driver handed down to him from the top of the stage and draped them over his broad shoulders.

"Leave the boxes at the station," he said and the driver nodded, clucking at the horses and heading to the stage station at the far end of town. He would pick them up when someone from the ranch arrived with a buckboard.

"Well, you ain't forgot how to walk at least," the raspy voice said. "Bout time you come to your senses and got yourself back here."

Morgan Westland smiled and turned to see his old friend Monte Callahan standing on the boardwalk, one bony shoulder leaning against a thick wooden column, the ever-present length of dry straw hanging from his lips.

"Good to see you, boy," Monte said, extending his hand. "Been away too long. Thought for a time we'd ne'er see you agin'."

"I wasn't sure myself how things were going to unfold," Morgan replied, "But things have settled down on the family farm, the folks are doing well. My brother Liam has taken a liking to being a farmer, so he can have the fun of running the place and owning it when the folks pass. How have things been on the ranch?"

"Same's allus," Monte said. "But the boss'll be happy to see you back. I brung in a buckboard so's we can take back your stuff."

"Not much, just a few small boxes of personal stuff," Morgan replied. "You know, when I packed it I just looked at it and wondered how, after all these years, those were all the possessions I'd acquired. It seemed a small collection for all the years and all the places I've travelled. Then I realized it's not things that make a life, it's what you do with it and who you meet along the way."

"Exactly," Monte Callahan said with emphasis.

They put his saddlebags into the back of the buckboard and drove down to the freight office. There Morgan picked up the wooden boxes containing clothes, his other guns and more of his personal belongings. Then they were on the trail to the Box W, Doc Fallon's sheep and cattle ranch. It would be an almost three-hour ride cross country with some of it pretty rough going in a buckboard.

Morgan told him of the return trip home, the use of his card skills on the riverboat to win back the money card sharks had taken from a young couple, the skills Monte had taught him and how he had outsmarted the banker at home. Monte chuckled. "Them there bankers," he said, shaking his head. "The only way they can stay in business is if the rest of us stays in debt. Sad system if'n yuh ask me. They're willin' to lend you an umbrella, but if it starts to rain then they want it right back."

Suddenly Monte slowed the buckboard down. Ahead of them, standing in the middle of the trail, if it could be called a trail, was a single horse. The saddle was empty, the reins drooping down nearly to the ground. Monte pulled up to the horse, which did not move, and they got down from the buckboard and approached it. It did not shy away, just staring at them with big brown eyes.

"Halloo!" Monte called several times but there was no response.

"What do you think?" he asked Morgan.

Morgan shrugged. "Don't know. Guess we better back-trail it and see what we can find. It doesn't look to have been hard ridden but it might have wandered a far piece. And there was someone in the saddle at some point."

He took the reins, checked the ground for the horse's tracks, which were faint on the soft sand but still noticeable. He held the reins in one hand and walked along, backtracking the horse for almost a half mile until the tracks veered away from the trail and disappeared over some flat rocks.

"Well, that's a fine how-de-do," Monte said.

Morgan nodded, then headed to the back of the buckboard. He unpacked his single gun and belted it on, then took his rifle and slipped it into the empty boot on the horse. He took his saddlebags and stuffed them with some of the supplies Monte had purchased for the ranch while in town. He slung them onto the horse which was not carrying saddlebags though it had only an almost full canteen hung on the saddle. "Whoever was riding this has at least a rifle and saddlebags, but no canteen," he said. I'm going to trail it back a bit further. The buckboard can't navigate the hills, so you get back to the ranch, get a couple of horses and follow me from here. I'll make sure to leave a plain enough trail to follow."

"That'll take me some hours there and back," Monte said, concern registering in his voice. "You sure about this, boy?"

Morgan nodded. "I'll be fine. Just move along and get back here quick as you can. I don't expect trouble, but it seems to have a way of finding me."

He mounted the stocky brown horse and headed back along its trail. Monte Callahan clicked the reins and moved the two horses to a steady trot, wanting to make as good time as he could to the ranch and back.

Morgan moved the horse along slowly, studying the trail, and though it was faint in some places, here and there he found enough sign to keep going. He kept an eye on the surrounding area for possible trouble but saw nothing to be concerned about, nothing moving - nothing out there at all. One long hour passed into two and then almost three and still there was still nothing but the continuing tracks on the ground.

He stopped at a shallow, fast-flowing river and refilled the canteen with fresh water, letting the horse drink its fill and chomp at riverside grass while Morgan stretched and walked around for a few minutes. He went up and down the side of the river but saw no tracks left by the horse and presumed he would find them on the other side. That made him study a mountain peak not too distant. He wondered if that was where the missing rider might be found. If so, the horse had come a long way, including crossing a river, and that was unusual.

He crossed the river and rode in one direction then the other until he found faint tracks that he could follow and they did point directly toward the mountain peak. He figured another two hours would get him there. Along the way he had stopped from time to time to mark a tree or leave a stone cairn of some type so that Monte and the others would have no difficulty following him.

He reached the base of the peak as darkness fell and decided to find a suitable spot to camp for the night. He chose a sheltered grove of trees, picketed the horse and unrolled his blankets. He made a small fire, ate and then lay down and drifted off to sleep immediately, realizing what a long day it had been.

The rifle shot had him sit bolt upright in bed!

It was the first light of morning and after giving himself a moment to orient himself after the sudden awakening, he thought the sound had come from further up the peak. He quickly put his things together and mounted the horse, starting it up the slope, at first heading straight up and then, as the slope became steeper, walking the horse back and forth across the face of the slope. Finally he got to a relatively flat spot and decided to leave the horse there and go on foot, thankful that he was wearing good hiking shoes and not his usual riding boots.

He took the rifle and canteen and started upward but he had gone less than a hundred yards when there was another rifle shot just ahead and to his right. He held his rifle in front of him and went up and over a gentle rise.

And got another shock!

A man was lying among the rocks, a rifle across his lap. He looked to be dead but as Morgan approached, rifle ready, he moaned. Morgan put the rifle down and took the one the man held, setting it aside. Then he held the canteen to the man's lips and forced a small sip of the cool water down the man's throat. The man coughed and spit at first then took a little more of the water but he was still only barely conscious.

Morgan could see no obvious wounds but one leg looked crooked and when he touched it the man cried out. It was broken. Then Morgan saw the rudimentary crutch lying off to the side and he began to understand part of the story.

He set about putting a fire together and then went back to the horse to retrieve the saddlebags with the rest of his supplies. He was gone for less than a half-hour but when he returned the man's eyes were open and he watched Morgan approach down the slope with obvious worry and mistrust.

"Who're you?" he asked in a hoarse voice.

"My name's Morgan Westland," Morgan offered. "I'm here to help."

The man's eyes closed and he lay his head back against the rock. He took another drink from the canteen Morgan had left in his lap, savouring it. "Mighty good," he said. Then paused. "I'm Tank Wayans. What day is it, by the way?"

"Thursday," Morgan said. "May second."

The man's eyes widened. "Thursday?" he said questioningly. "Really? I thought I'd been stuck up here a whole lot longer."

"Can you tell me what happened?"

"How'd you find me?" the man asked instead.

"We, a friend and I, found your horse wandering around a long way east of here and I back-tracked you to the base of this peak. Then this morning I heard your rifle shot and climbed up here to try to find you."

"You found my horse?" the man said, struggling to stay connected.

Morgan nodded. "Now, what happened?"

The man paused to catch his breath. "We're prospectors, Murray and me, here in the high mountains. Been scratching a living from these mountains for five years just finding enough to feed and fool ourselves. Then two weeks ago we struck a good find, a thick seam of gold better than we'd ever seen before. We worked pretty hard at it for a couple of days and then we run out of necessary supplies and Murray, he went off to Morrison's to get what we needed."

Morrison's was a large, well-known trading post a day or so northeast of where they were located right now.

"I was expecting him back, but three days later I saw these men coming up the divide right on line to where I was working. I checked them with a scope and they looked not at all friendly so I took out my rifle and when they came closer I fired a warning shot and told them to back off. Instead they raced their horses at me, firing all the while. I'm no fighter and I ran for my life, running my horse and getting away from them after a few hours but then falling off when the horse slipped and breaking my leg in the fall. I lay flat through the night and then in the morning made this here crutch and tried to walk down to the mine site. But they was still all there waiting for me so I had nowhere to go. I decided to work my way down the soft side of the mountain until I ran out of steam and then decided to just lay down right here and die."

"What day was that?"

"Monday night through Tuesday morning. Thought I'd had it."

"Well, you're going to need a splint on that leg and I can do that, though it'll hurt like hell when I do it. Then I'll help you to where your horse is and you can ride. By now my friends are coming along and we can get you to a doctor."

"I'm worried about Murray. Whaddya think happened?"

Morgan frowned. "The worst possibility is that he's dead and these men chased you away so they can mine what you found or register the claim as their own if you haven't done that yet. But it might be they just scared Murray off."

The man shook his head. "Murray wouldn't be scared off and leave me. We been together for nigh onto eleven years. I been thinking along the lines they killed him once he told them about the gold."

"We can take care of them later," Morgan said. "Right now, let's get a splint on that leg and get you down from here."

He found a couple of suitable branches, cut and shaved them into the shape he wanted and then placed one of them on each side of the leg. When he straightened the leg, Wayans moaned and sweat broke out on his face. But he did not pass out and as Morgan lashed the splints into place he breathed more deeply and then relaxed. "That was pretty bad," he said.

Morgan helped him to his feet and with Morgan helping him along, and with the use of the crutch, they managed to work their way down to Wayans' horse, stopping every few minutes to let the man catch his breath. When they got to the horse, Morgan helped Wayans aboard and then held the reins and led the horse slowly down the slope, crisscrossing it until they got to the bottom. Then they made a camp again where Morgan had stayed the night before. He made a meal and then let Wayans rest for a time in the shade of a large tree.

They were just getting ready to pack up when they heard horses coming. Morgan drew his rifle, then relaxed as Monte Callahan and three of the men from the Box W ranch rode into sight leading an extra horse.

Morgan introduced the men to Tank and Tank explained what happened. "We're going to get Tank to a doctor and then alert the sheriff," Morgan said. "He can take care of the outlaws who ran Tank off."

"Why bother?" Monte asked. "We're here now and they ain't that far off. And there's five of us. I say we ride over there and chase their asses off this man's claim. We ain't had much fun of late and this would do it."

The others nodded in agreement. Simpson Dole, Frank Shaffer and Brad Storm were capable and seasoned hands, Shaffer something of a gun hand in his younger days and Morgan had no doubt they would stand and deliver.

"If you're game, I am," he said. Then he turned to Tank. "Can you draw us a map. You'll have to wait here while we chase them off. You're not up to this."

Tank Wayans shook his head. "Cain't let you boys do all the fighting. After all, it's my claim. I can sit a horse and I can fire a rifle better than most."

No point in arguing, Morgan thought. They mounted, and with Tank Wayans leading the way they headed around the base of the mountain toward his claim which he said was only a couple of hours from where they were.

Two hours later they were within sight of the ledge on which Tank and his partner Murray had found their strike. Morgan went ahead to scout the place. He took a slightly roundabout way to the mine site, using available cover and staying above the level of the wide ledge that Tank Wayans had pointed out.

Coming to the edge of an overhang, he lay down, hat off, and inched forward until he could just see over the edge. He could immediately see two men working on a small pile of ore beside the open pit and he could see the tips of a homemade ladder just above the lip of the opening. As he watched, one of the two men he could see walked over to the ladder and bent down over the opening.

"How's it coming, Warren," he called down into the hole.

Morgan could not hear the reply, so the hole must be deep, but the man on the surface nodded and returned to his work, using a hammer to break chunks of raw ore into smaller pieces to separate any gold contained within.

From where he lay Morgan could see six horses, all with saddles, and he assumed that as many as four men might be below, though one or more could be out of sight or off hunting game for meals. Still, with some of them down below, taking the two men working on the surface and pulling up the ladder would take care of most of them.

He hustled back to where he had left the others and explained the situation. Monte Callahan smiled. "Seems straightforward," he said. He turned to Simpson Dole. "Sim, you take a rifle and get up where Morgan was lying so's you can cover us and let us know if there's any more a-comin'."

Simpson nodded and without a word picked up his rifle and began to climb to the point Morgan had indicated.

They left Tank where he was, seated comfortably on the ground, his back against a boulder and rifle in his hand and the other four went down the slope on foot using the abundance of cover that was available to them. It was slow going and they were careful not to make any noise or dislodge small stones that might rattle and give warning that they were approaching the mine site.

When they reached the ledge, they simply stepped out, guns drawn and waited. One of the two men noticed them first and stepped back, raising his hands. The other turned to stare at his partner, then seeing the guns, did likewise.

Frank Shaffer and Morgan walked to the opening. Each took hold of one side of the ladder and they pulled it up and out of the opening. Staring down, Morgan could see that it was a natural opening that had been dug out to about twenty-five feet deep. The ladder they had pulled up dropped to a smaller ledge some ten feet below and then there was another ladder from that point to the bottom. Without the upper ladder, those who were below were trapped unless there was another way out and Tank had assured them that neither he nor Wally had found one, at least not yet.

"Alright," Monte said to the two men, "what happened to Murray?"

The two men stared at the ground. Monte drew the hammer back on his pistol and the look on his face was dark.

"Wait!" one man said, raising his palms. "I'll tell you. It was Warren. He got the directions from this Murray at gunpoint then he shot him dead. Gospel truth. We didn't know about it until he told us the next day on our way here."

"Where's this Warren?"

"Him and two more is down below gathering ore," the man said.

"There's one more," Morgan said. "Six saddled horses."

The man nodded. "Alf Shute. He's out huntin' meat, not supposed to be back till sometime tomorrow. Likes to hunt the high rocks on foot."

"Hold it right there!" a voice from behind them said. Morgan turned his head and saw a man twenty feet away holding a rifle on the three of them.

"That's Alf," the first man said, now smiling.

The single rifle shot took Alf in the middle of his chest, throwing him back ten feet to lie unmoving on the ground. But he never felt it, dead the instant Simpson Dole shot him from the upper ledge where he had been lying.

"Guess he was too early gettin' back," Monte Callahan said dryly.

Now they heard a yell from the opening.

"Cowan! What the hell's that shooting all about!"

"Tell him," Morgan said, waving toward the opening with his pistol.

Cowan went to the edge and looked down.

"Where the hell's the ladder!" Warren asked.

"We got us some trouble up here, Warren. Men with guns, friends of that feller we ran off from here a couple of days ago. Alf's dead and they's got our guns and the first ladder. We didn't have no chance."

Morgan walked to the edge of the opening and looked down. Warren was a man in his late thirties, big and wide with a dark beard. He was dirty and sweaty from the hard work in the mine and a scowl was on his face. Morgan could see no weapon though there might be some down there somewhere.

"Whaddya want?" he asked, his voice surly.

Morgan smiled. "Nothing you can give us, friend. You're all going to jail and then to trial for killing Murray, one of the two men who staked this claim."

"Whoever told you that lied. We found this mine and we own it," Warren insisted, then smiled, "but since you have the upper hand, maybe we'll share the gold equal with you, that is if you want. Whaddya say?"

"I say you and the other two men down there will climb the lower ladder to the ledge. When we see you have no weapons we'll put this ladder down for you and you can climb up here and be tied and taken to Waverly for trial."

"And if we don't please to come up peaceably?"

"Then," said Monte Callahan, "we'll shoot the hell out of that ladder in front of you and see if there's any mountain goat in any of you. You might figure a way to climb out but you'll be a lot more tired and sorry than you are right now."

Warren retreated back out of sight down a passageway and they could hear a muttered conversation, though they not able to make out the words. Then there was a period of silence.

Morgan turned to Monte Callahan and smiled. "Why don't we tie up these two; that is, after they bury Alf, and then make some lunch?"

Monte nodded and pointed toward a couple of shovels on the ground. "You heard him. You got a burying to do, so best get at it."

He turned toward the ledge. "C'mon down, Sim."

While Frank Shaffer supervised the burial, Morgan and Monte went back and met Tank and Simpson at the horses. They brought them down to a spot just below the ledge on which the mine shaft had been found and then trudged up a trail, saddlebags and canteens on their shoulders.

The two men were rolling some rocks over Alf's grave. Monte waved them over to a flat rock face and he and Simpson Dole tied them securely.

Morgan and Monte started lunch while Frank Shaffer and Simpson Dole kept an eye on the shaft opening just in case the men below found a way up.

Tank Wayans stood in front of the two men tied and seated on the ground, a fierce look on his face and his rifle in his hands.

"What happened to Murray?"

"We done told them others," Cowan said. "It was Warren. He met this Murray in town, got him drinking and that there Murray spilled everything to him. Then Warren got him outside and killed him. We wasn't there and didn't know nothin' 'bout it till the next day when he told us about this here mine and we loaded up to ride here. I swear it!"

Tank holstered his gun and joined them. "Why bother taking them back?" he asked. "We can just shoot them and let them rot. All the same to me."

Monte nodded. "I'm inclined to agree, Tank, but that makes us no better'n them and that ain't a good thought. Naw, we'll take 'em in and let the law handle it. That is, less'n they gives us reason to shoot 'em."

Monte walked back over to the opening and peeked over the side, careful not to present a target, but there was no one in sight.

"Well, gents," he called out, "what's your pleasure?"

No response. Then, "we ain't comin' out! You want us, come and get us!"

Monte chuckled and made a small loop in the lariat he carried up from the horses. He tossed it over the ladder and with a jerk pulled it loose and hauled it up out of the shaft. The level on which Warren and the others remained was now at least twenty-five feet below the surface and the walls looked smooth and much too challenging to climb. "They might climb out using tools to make handholds," Monte said, "but it's gonna take some time and by then the sheriff from Waverly can be here to corral them. We got to get ourselves back to the ranch."

They loaded up and headed to Waverly, a three-hour ride. Once there, they turned the two men over to the sheriff and explained what they had done. The sheriff, an experienced miner in the past, chuckled.

"Well, we'll just mosey along out there later and have a talk with Warren and the others," he said. "Might take along a couple of sticks of dynamite to boot. Give 'em a choice of climbing up a rope or being buried alive down there. Might give 'em pause to consider."

They shook hands and the Box W hands left, heading for the ranch. The sheriff began to put together a posse to head to the mine and Tank Wayans would return with them. First, he took time to register the find.

"Won't be the same without Murray," he said. "But at least I can send some money to his wife and kids to help out."

The trip back to the Box W was without further excitement and Morgan spent some time unloading his things in the bunkhouse, filling two footlockers. Then he saddled up and joined the west end crew, reconnecting with the other hands who were happy to see him back, no happier than he was to be back.

The next few weeks were busy, as spring on a ranch tends to be. Repairs to be done, cattle and sheep to be moved from winter to spring meadows, hay and other crops to be planted and regular rounds to be made of all areas of the ranch. Morgan threw himself into the work as he did with most things.

But there was a certain tedium about it as if he was simply doing the same things over and over again. Even though they were demanding and engaging activities, he could sense he was not getting the same feelings of enjoyment as he once had. Monte Callahan had noticed it too.

"Morgan, yuh don't seem to be enjoyin' yourself the way you once done," Monte commented one afternoon. "Got a burr under your butt?"

Morgan smiled. "You don't miss much, old friend. Yes, I'm finding the work a bit tedious and boring. I've been thinking about it and I think it's what a lot of ranch hands come to, that point where you wonder why you're not working for yourself rather than simply working for someone else."

Monte nodded. "I've had the same thought time to time, Morgan, just ain't had the gumption to get up and get at it. Maybe I'm just too comfortable letting someone else take the chances and payin' me regular."

"So," he continued, "Whaddya gonna do 'bout it?"

Morgan shrugged. "I used most of my savings to pay off the mortgage on my parents' farm, and I don't regret that for a minute, but I don't have enough money right now to put down a payment on even a small ranch."

"You'd need that to get money from a bank," Monte agreed. "I got a bit put away myself that I could let you have," he offered.

Morgan shook his head. "Loans between friends are never a good idea, Monte, but thanks. No, I have to find a way to get some funds together, something faster than working as a ranch hand for forty and found."

"Got any ideas?"

Morgan nodded. "Back there in Waverly I noticed some wanted posters on the sheriff's wall. If I was able to capture a few of those outlaws and rustlers, the rewards would be enough to get me ahead. One was for the Hollow Mesa gang, and if I could bring them in, even some of them, it'd be a big reward. Maybe big enough to get me started on a place of my own."

Monte looked surprised. "Morgan, that ain't no way to go. Them boys you'd be after ain't just playin' round, y'know. They's dangerous men. Might be robbers, alright, but they ain't above shootin' folks if'n they need to. I knows a couple of them. Bob Tasker and Lute Reynolds, they's the tough ones in the bunch. Not real gunhands, mind, but tough and no give or give up to 'em."

Morgan nodded. "If they weren't bad men, there'd be no reward."

Monte nodded. "Well, you got the skills, that's for sure. You're a good tracker and hell on wheels with them guns when you got to be, so that's a plus. But you cain't do this alone – ain't smart and you know it."

Morgan nodded. "I'd need at least one more person as a partner."

Monte grinned. "Well, don't look at me, Morg. I'd be no help. I'm getting on, stiffer every morning, 'specially when it's cold and damp, and with my arthritis I ain't near good enough with a gun to side you, much as I'd like to."

"I know," Morgan said, "but I have someone else in mind."

"Who'd that be?"

"Rune Tanner. I ran into a friend of his on the stage on my way here and he said Rune's taken a cow-punching job on a ranch near Marysville, so I know I can find him there, or at least I think so."

"Well, he's a good'n, that's for sure," Monte agreed. "Think he'll be interested in huntin' down a few owlhoots?"

"Might be," Morgan replied. "He's got a woman now he likes and I think he's hankering to have his own place. She's working in Marysville in a store."

"Rune Tanner settlin' down," Monte mused, shaking his head. "Never thought I'd see that day. How'd he meet up with this gal?"

Morgan grinned. "She rustled his cattle and he shot her."

Monte Callahan laughed long and loud. "That'd do it," he said when he caught his breath. "That'd sure do it!"

Two days later, with a purchased horse and mule, Morgan Westland said goodbye to Monte and the others and turned his horse toward Marysville. It would be a week's ride and he was looking forward to the trip and the solitude. He had never been particularly social and though he like his coworkers on the ranch, he never was really close to anyone but Monte Callahan.

"When you get that place of your own," Monte had said, "You let me know and I'll pack right away and head there."

Morgan smiled. "Never considered anyone but you for foreman, Monte. You know that. Give me a few months and we'll be back together."
It was three days later that he stopped, his head, and that of the animals, coming up. It was the smell of campfire smoke, rather than a forest or plains fire. He turned the horse in the direction from which it was coming.

A half-hour later he was standing behind the shelter of a thick tree looking into a camp in a hollow fifty yards below him. There was a lanky horse picketed ten yards further in thick grass near a brook and one man squatted in front of a small fire, serving himself. Morgan saw nothing about the man that seemed threatening, so he hollered out and was invited to come into the camp.

The man had a wide and open smile. "Light and set," he said. "I'm Ben Lassiter and I'm sure glad to have some company."

Morgan extended his hand. "Morgan Westland," he said.

Lassiter had been making dinner and added more to the pot and pan. It was simple travelling fare, hot and hearty and they dug in with enthusiasm. After eating they cleaned up in a small brook that tumbled from a nearby chain of high hills.

"What brings you out here?" Lassiter asked.

Morgan told him of the events of the past year, his trip back to settle the mortgage on his parents' farm, his return to the ranch and his plan to chase down the Hollow Mesa gang, or some of them, to build a stake.

Lassiter nodded. "It would be a big job, Morgan, but I guess you wouldn't be doing it if you didn't think you can. On your own, are you?"

Morgan nodded. "So far, but I hope to team up with Rune Tanner. He's living near Marysville and I'm heading there now to try to talk him into it."

Lassiter grinned. "Won't take much talking, I'd guess. I hear Rune's been working on ranches now for more than a year and all it got him was cold, wet, shot up and hooked up with a woman. That ought to be enough."

"You know Rune?"

Lassiter shrugged. "Just enough to say hello time to time in passing. He's a good man with a good rep. He's solid."

"I agree," Morgan said, nodding. "That's why I want him in on this."

"There's another way," Lassiter offered, "if you don't mind hard work."

Morgan was interested. "What?"

"Cattle," Lassiter offered. "More money in it and less risk."

"But I don't have the money. That's the idea behind the bounty hunting."

Lassiter grinned. "Isn't what I mean. About three years ago a rancher from near the Montana-Idaho border was driving a herd toward California for sale. They ran into bad weather and then some kind of illness in the mountains and had to give up the drive and head for home without the cattle. Only three of the twelve men made it back. The rancher was one and he planned to come back, but as far as I know they never did. There were about eight hundred head that they left in a shallow valley in northern Idaho near the Bitteroots Mountains."

"Would they still be there? Won't someone else have gathered them up?"

"Not as far as I know. And given the time, they'd have to be seen as lost and good stock for those who find them. And after three years, there'd likely be a lot more than eight hundred depending on how the original eight hundred fared. Any new ones would be wild and unbranded and a bunch of the originals were much the same, so I'm told."

"Who told you?"

"One of the sons of the rancher, man named Miles Bolton. Said it would be a waste of time to try and drive them out of those mountains and valleys, especially since they had a large enough herd of their own. As far as his father is concerned, it's finders-keepers. What I suggest is we get out as many as we can, drive them to market and then let Bolton know how many branded cattle we find and offer to pay for them, less our cost to gather them. My guess is he'll not care one way or another but it would be the best way to go. What do you think?"

"At current prices in California we'd all be well off if we can get even a thousand of them to market. But there'd only be three of us."

"It's a big job, alright," Lassiter agreed, "and maybe we could sign on a few men for wages and share the load."

Morgan nodded. "Then there's no point in talking to Rune. He made it clear to me that he was done with hazing cattle. It'll be just you and me and whoever we hire. I've some money, enough to put together an outfit. You?"

Lassiter nodded. "I've enough for a good outfit and to pay some wages to men until we get the cattle sold. And I've been considering what to do next myself. Your idea appeals to me."

"What have you been doing?"

Lassiter hesitated. "I've been helping my brother deal with some ranchers who were trying to run him and some other farmers off their land in Nevada."

"And your help worked?"

Lassiter nodded. He needed to say no more.

Morgan held out his hand. "Then it's partners. We can buy outfits in Scanlon and probably pick up three or four men there to help out."

They shook.

In Scanlon, they were able to outfit themselves for a reasonable investment. They were only able to pick up two men, brothers Tad and Warren Sable, but the livery man said he would let others know they were looking and about where they could be found. The Sable brothers knew the area in which they would be hunting for cattle pretty well, but not knowing the story of the herd left behind, they thought they would be going after wild strays in the mountains and valleys. Morgan and Ben did not let them in on the story of the lost cattle, preferring to keep that part of the story a secret as long as possible.

They headed out the next day and travelled to the area Miles Bolton had described to Ben, using landmarks Bolton had given him. Even with that information it took them a week hunting in pairs through the hills and valleys before they found a significant number of cattle. When they did, they smiled, as the cattle were numerous and in excellent condition given the mild past winters.

The following month was a whirlwind of activity, gathering cattle into three meadows in the lee of the surrounding hills, natural bowls that held the cattle comfortably and kept them from wandering. The four men were joined by three others in the third week, sent along by the Scanlon livery man. Each brought extra horses and they made all the difference. In five weeks, they were able to gather sixteen hundred head of cattle and more than a dozen horses that had been left behind with the cattle.

Over a campfire on one of their final nights, they did a tally, comparing notes each had taken while on duty with the groups of cattle. They had sixteen hundred and eighty head of cattle, about five hundred with the Circle B Bolton brand and the rest unbranded. It would be enough.

They gathered the cattle into one large herd over the next two days and began to move them south toward California, knowing it would be about three weeks to the markets north of Sacramento.

The first week went without any trouble other than a full day of drizzling rain. The weather cooperated for the most part, the cattle moved calmly along and the terrain was not any particular challenge. Ben and Morgan worked fifteen-hour days, asking less of their cowpunchers than of themselves, though the Sable brothers worked as hard and almost as many hours.

It was Tuesday of the second week when Jeff Chalmers, one of the newer riders, rode casually along beside Ben Lassiter.

"We're being watched," he said. "Don't be obvious about it, but look over my left shoulder and halfway up that rise."

Ben casually looked past Jeff and saw the two riders just disappearing over the top of the rise. He frowned.

"Could be they were just passing by and wanted to take a look," Ben said.

"Could be," Jeff acknowledged. "Still . . ."

Ben nodded.

They bedded the cattle in a sheltered meadow late that afternoon and met around the campfire as they put together a meal from supplies. There was no chuck wagon in this makeshift trail drive, but they ate good food to keep their strength up. The physical demands of the drive were far more challenging than most would realize who had not driven cattle a long distance across country.

Jeff and Ben told what they had seen.

"Best not to take changes," Morgan said. "If they plan to attack, there are three possibilities. They attack the camp at night, they stampede the cattle, or they pick off the dust rider and take stock from the back of the herd."

"This isn't the type of herd to bolt," Tad Sable said. "They're a calm bunch. And we'll be in valleys for the next few days where they can only run forward. That'll do no real harm if we stay out of their way and the lead riders regroup them. I'd suggest two men riding behind, but if I were to guess I'd say an attack on the camp would be the most likely thing to watch out for."

Ben nodded. "But not for a few days. Let's face it, they'll want us to do the work for them and won't attack until we get somewhat farther along."

Bucky Dent, a quiet middle-aged man, spoke up. "I come from mountain stock and I could take on out and track those men and try to find out what we're up agin, if you like. They'd never know I was around."

Morgan nodded. "That'd be a help, Bucky. But you take care."

Bucky was gone before first light, having taken out during the night with none of the others knowing he had gone.

"If he can get out of camp with a horse without any of us being aware of it, I guess he knows what he's doing," Jeff Chalmers said, smiling.

The made a good distance that day and were setting down to another meal, Ben and Jeff with the herd, when Bucky Dent returned. Ben and Jeff rode in when they saw him arrive, wanting to know what he had found.

"Back trailed them to their camp," he began. "Seven of 'em in the party and I didn't recognize any of 'em. Got close enough, though, to hear the lay of the land. They plan to follow us to the wide bend in the Truckee where most folks turn for California and then hit us at midnight. Two of them will handle whoever is with the herd, them knowing only one of us is on night ride, and the others will storm the camp. They'll come in quiet, they said, not whoopin' in a way that might spark a stampede that they'd have to handle."

"Fair enough," Ben said. "Now we can plan. Once we have our plan we just keep on acting normal until we get to the bend of the Truckee."

They talked for an hour about how to handle the attack and then, everyone in agreement, Ben headed to the herd and everyone else bunked down.

It took four more days to get to the bend and for the two nights before arriving they had been on alert, plan in place, though nothing had happened. They reached the bend in late afternoon. They watered and settled the cattle before having their own meal. Two men rode out to the herd and the others finalized the camp setup. Then, as darkness fell, Bucky Dent came in from the herd to join the others while Ben stayed with the cattle. He rode in the shadows, rifle across his saddle, watching the general direction from which the riders must come.

The others set up their beds as it got dark, let the fire burn down to coals and took to their beds, ready for the attack.

Ben noticed the two riders coming over a ridge to his right and backed his horse under the shadows of a large tree, out of sight to the two men. They came near, waiting, he suspected, to attack when the assault on the camp began. He smiled and ranged in the rifle.

The attack came suddenly with five men erupting from the surrounding bush, all on foot and firing into the six sets of blankets on the ground.

And they died right there under withering fire from the woods on the other side of the camp where the six men lay, rifles ready, firing as soon as they had targets. The five men had no chance and died, guns in hands, before they could even see where the shots were coming from.

Out with the cattle, the two men were confused, not seeing the rider where they expected. "Where is he?" one called.

"Over here," Ben called out and shot both men out of their saddles. He rode in slowly, dismounting away from them and walking toward them, rifle ready. In the moonlight he could see that one was dead, drilled right in the middle of the chest and the other was near death, also from a chest wound. That one moaned and tried to roll over and then fell onto his back and was silent. Ben removed their weapons and walked his horse and theirs back to the camp.

The others had finished laying the five men against a log on the far side of the campsite. Three were dead, one dying and one badly wounded but who might live, that due to Tad Sable's medical skills.

Morgan squatted down and spoke to the wounded man. "Who are you?"

The man stared at him for a moment, then said, "Lute Reynolds. You?"

"Morgan Westland. Is this the Hollow Mesa gang?"

Reynolds nodded. "Was. Ain't gonna be no more, thanks to you boys." He coughed. "Am I gonna make it?"

Morgan nodded. "Looks like. At least long enough to get to prison. We're going to take you and the bodies of the others into the nearest town. I understand there's good reward money for some of you."

Reynolds nodded. "For all of us, I think." Then he closed his eyes.

They left the Sable brothers in charge of the herd and the rest toted the bodies, and Lute Reynolds, to Stillwater where the sheriff took charge and promised to have the reward money waiting for them in Sacramento.

"Not sure how much," the sheriff said, "but likely a few thousand. This bunch sure picked the wrong herd to attack. Some folks never learn."

Another week on the trail and the herd was safely corralled in the pens outside Sacramento. A deal was easily made with a cattle buyer. A message was sent to Samuel Bolton, the original owner of the herd, telling him of the sale of almost five hundred Circle B cattle. The message came back from Bolton by telegraph two days later. 'You found them, you trailed them in and did the work. You owe me nothing. Good work, boys. Luck to you.'

Once they showed that telegram to the cattle buyer all was well and the money was paid out. Once Morgan and Ben had paid their riders, with a bit of a bonus, they had more than seven thousand dollars each. And when they split the reward money for the Hollow Mesa gang equally among the seven of them, each of them walked away with another five hundred dollars.

"Well," Ben said, "that certainly enough for you and me to each start our new spreads. Where you thinking, Morgan?"

Morgan looked thoughtful. "I've always liked the Dakota territories. I know the winters can be pretty awful from time to time, but overall it has the feel I like. I think I'll head on up there and check out the land that's available and if I find something I like that will be where I'll settle down. What about you?"

"Not far away. I have friends and family over in Iowa and I'm more inclined to farming than ranching. Think I'll use this money that way and do some catching up. It's been three years I've been away and it's time to get back there. Besides, there's this red-haired girl I sort of promised I'd come back and marry."

"Sort of?" Morgan asked, eyebrows raised.

They just laughed.