The sharp crack of the axe hitting dry pine was familiar and distinctive. The sound had been repeated hundreds of times over the past three days. Behind the barn surrounded by a pile of split wood and an even bigger pile of unsplit rounds, Winston Standish took a break and drank from the canteen hanging on a fence post.
Thunder, his blue lacy, took the opportunity to trot over, seeking attention or a scratch behind the ears. The dog got both. Since mid-July, he had taken his free time to fell dead pine trees, buck them up with a one man cross-cut saw into eighteen-inch sections and haul them out of the hills on the buckboard wagon. He figured he would need eight or nine cords of wood to heat the ranch house during the New Mexico winter. Best to get it in the summer before the weather turned.
Suddenly, Thunder began a low, intense growl. Standish glanced first to his Winchester .45-75 carbine leaning against the same post, then in the direction the dog was looking. A lone rider moved slowly up the road toward the house and wagon yard. Watching the rider, he could tell two things, the man could sit a horse and there was no rush to him. He rode easy in the saddle and no doubt observed everything.
“Howdy,” the stranger greeted, pulling up a short-backed bay gelding. He kept both hands firm on the saddle horn in plain sight. “Are you Mr. Standish?”
“Howdy yourself, and yes I am. Come on down,” Standish watched as he dismounted and turned.
“Ebenezer Childress,” The tall man said sticking out his hand as he limped forward. “But, everybody calls me Bean.”
“Winston Standish,” his hand met the stranger’s. “Win to most everybody, ‘cept for a few who like to call me more colorful names.”
Bean chuckled. “Know just what you mean. Pleasure to meet you.”
“What can I do for you, Bean?”
“Sheriff Hewitt said you might be lookin’ for some help with your place here. I’m good with animals, and with an axe, hammer and shovel.”
Standish closed his eyes momentarily, as a vision of his young hired hand Emilio lying dead on the hill above Badger Creek flooded through his mind.
“You okay, Mr. Standish?”
He blinked. “Yeah, a bad memory. My last hired man was killed riding with me by a gang of rustlers.”
“The sheriff told me some about that. I’m truly sorry.”
Changing the subject, Standish looked the somewhat younger man up and down. “I could surely use some help, but it’s hard work. Couldn’t help but notice you have a real limp.”
Bean nodded. “Lot of places won’t hire me ‘cause of it, but I can do the work, just not much in a foot race.”
“Took a Lakota arrow in the knee riding with the Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn. Was with Major Reno’s command. We attacked a large village and real quick like, the Major realized it was a mistake. We retreated to some bluffs and hunkered down, me with an arrow sticking out of my knee. That’s why we survived and that arrogant fool Custer didn’t. Shame he took a lot of good men with him.”
Nodding, Standish noted that Bean had looked him straight in the eyes while telling the story. “I remember reading about it back in seventy-six. But you’re a long way from the Dakotas. What brings you to New Mexico Territory?”
Bean looked down and away for the first time. “To be honest, I’m kind of on the run. Looking for a new life if that’s possible.”
“From the law?”
“No, from three brothers.”
Standish waited for the rest of the story.
“After the Army drummed me out ‘cause of my knee, I drifted to Butte, Montana. Got a job as a shoveler cleanin’ up spills and ditches in a big underground copper mine. Pay was poor, but it was a job and I was watchful of my money.
Then I met an Irish girl who worked in an eatery. Irena O’Malley was the most beautiful woman I ever laid eyes on. We started seeing each other and that’s when the trouble started. Her four older brothers took a quick dislike to me. Called me the English pig.
One evening when I was walking her home, they jumped me. They were all liquored up and the fist fight ended when the youngest pulled a knife and attacked me. I turned it back on him and he went down, blood everywhere. Sean, the eldest brother, and most drunk, pulled a pistol and shot at me but missed. The bullet hit Irena in the chest and she fell dead in front of me. The youngest brother died moments later. I ran. Sean screamed into the darkness that they would hunt me down and kill me. Then as people came out to see what was going on, all three of them ran into the night.
So, here I am Mr. Standish, askin’ for a job and always lookin’ over my shoulder.”
Standish studied the man in silence, remembering his own personal tragedy. The senseless murder of his wife and daughter haunted him daily. Looking to the west he saw the sun nearing the horizon. He made his decision. “Bean, I’ll tell you what. If you can get past the ‘mister’, you can put your horse up in one of the empty stalls in the barn. There’s oats and hay, and then you can bring your outfit to the house. I’ve had enough for today.”
“Yes, sir, mis…uh, Win.”
Standish motioned to the dog, still sitting at his side. “By the way, this is Thunder. If he growls or barks, it’s usually for a good reason.”
aroma of frying meat met Bean as he knocked on the ranch house door.
Standish hollered for him to come in. Picking up his saddlebags,
rifle and bedroll, he pushed through the door into a large
comfortable room that had definitely seen the touch of a woman’s
Standish was cooking in the adjoining kitchen over a wood-fired stove. “The bedroom’s on your right, you can put your outfit in there and wash up. Food’s about ready, such as it is.”
Bean entered the small but clean room and immediately saw that it belonged to a child, a girl by all signs. He was curious, but figured Standish would tell him about it if there was something to be told.
“Grab a cup. Coffee’s hot.” He motioned to the well-worn pot. “Dinner’s half a minute away. Pull up a chair.”
Seconds later, Bean surveyed a meal such as he hadn’t seen for a long time. A large steak, beans, a plate full of fresh sliced bread beside a dish of butter. He looked up at Standish.
“Ain’t no formalities here, so dig in. Work’s hard, but you won’t starve.”
“Much obliged, Win. You can count on me.”
“Figured I could. You think you can split another cord of wood or so tomorrow? I need to ride up Badger Creek and check on the cattle. That should leave about three cords to split before winter.”
“Consider it done.”
“One other thing. We have neighbors. Ted Albers has the spread north of the Circle S. He’s a good, dependable friend. Then there’s the Mescalero Apache on the reservation to the west,” he watched as Bean stopped chewing and stared at him. “We have a friendly, respectful relationship. We’ve helped each other, but those are stories for another night. Just don’t start shootin’ if they happen by.”
Bean resumed chewing and swallowed. Winston Standish was a very interesting man. “Got it, Win. Guess the Indian wars are over down here too.”
“Almost. I was with the Tenth Cavalry. We chased Victorio, the Warm Springs Apache war chief into Mexico, but were ordered back across the border. Our help wasn’t needed. The Mexican army hunted him and his men down and killed them in October 1880. On the other hand, Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache, is not a chief, but a leader and medicine man. He and some of his followers have broken out of confinement, again, but word is the cavalry is in hot pursuit . . . again.”
“And . . . you trust these Mescaleros?”
“With my life. I left the army right after Victorio was killed. Settled here and met a schoolmarm. Wonderful woman.”
A dark cloud crossed his face and Bean could see Win’s eyes well up but no tears.
“Don’t know about where you’re from Bean, but dawn comes early here. Time to clean up and turn in.”
~ ~ ~
Badger Creek flowed east out of the mountains. It would be virtually dry by this time if it were not for the springs that kept enough flow for the cattle and assorted wildlife. From a low ridge, Winston Standish sat his sorrel horse and watched the cattle. Some were grazing on patches of grass, while others lay in the shade of juniper and mesquite. He wasn’t too far from the spot where Emilio fell and where he was rescued by Thomas, the Mescalero elder. In some ways, it seemed like ages ago, but it had been only months.
Nudging the horse forward, he picked his way down the hillside, approaching the creek at one of the spots where springs flowed. He observed a variety of animal tracks, deer, coyotes, javelina, and a host of rabbits and small rodents that frequented the spot. A quarter mile up the creek, he pulled up. Shod hoofprints indicated a group of five or six riders had crossed heading south. Looked like they were headed to Texas or toward town.
Groups of that size often meant trouble in the West. Could be just a bunch of cowboys headed south after driving cattle north to Wyoming or Montana. On the other hand, it could mean outlaws or rustlers. He needed to learn more about the group so he turned the gelding south. They had made camp close to the creek, with no effort to conceal their presence. Following their trail, it turned east after about five miles. They were headed to town.
Noting the sun’s low position in the afternoon sky, Standish turned the horse around and headed home. Curious, he decided to make a trip to town in the morning. The pantry had to be restocked anyway. He was cooking for two now, and there was a hell of a lot of fencing still to be done before winter.
Thunder trotted out to greet him as he entered the wagon yard. There was no sign of Bean. Heading toward the barn, he passed by the timber splitting area. All the cut timber rounds were gone. Dismounting, he led the horse toward the barn by the lean-to that protected the split wood. It was overflowing. Shaking his head in wonder, he moved to the barn door. A muffled whack – whack sound came from within. Pushing the door open, Thunder ran in, looking up.
“Howdy Win,” came a cheerful voice. “Hopin’ you’d get back afore dark.”
“What are you doin’ up there?”
“Ladder was loose and so was some of the stall hinges. Told you I knew how to use a hammer.”
“And you split and stacked all the wood too?”
“Yes sir, could‘a got more done, but took some time to find a file to sharpen the axe.”
“Come on down. Bet you could use some chuck.”
“I’d be grateful,” Bean said climbing down the ladder.
~ ~ ~
Over dinner, Standish related his day to Bean. Talking about the riders, he saw a frown cross the man’s face. “Probably nothin’. Most likely a bunch of cowboys headed south. I’m goin’ to town tomorrow to stock the larder back up and get as much barbed wire as I can. There’s still miles of fencing to put in, but it’s been hard for the mercantile to keep it in stock with everybody startin’ to fence their places now. Figured you might want to mosey up Badger Creek and check out the lay of the land.”
“Sounds fine to me.”
Both men finished eating in silence, but Standish knew what was on Bean’s mind. The same thoughts would have been on his.
~ ~ ~
“Hello, Win,” the man seated at a well-used oak desk greeted as Standish walked through the door. Sheriff Rance Hewitt stood to shake hands. “Been a while.”
“That it has. Town seems quiet.”
“This morning it is,” he said rubbing his jaw. “Should have been here last night.”
“Nasty bruise,” Standish nodded at the sheriff’s jaw.
“Yep. Bunch of toughs got drunk and said some unpleasant things to a few of the local cowboys. Hell of a fight! Good thing nobody drew a pistol or there would have been a lot of work for Father Gomez and Reverend Throckmorton.”
“Father Gomez? Doesn’t he usually tend to the Spanish folks in town?”
“Usually, but the troublemakers were five hooligans from up Montana way. At least three were Irish. Two are in the back sleeping it off. The other three skedaddled out of town. I’ll kick these two out after they pay for damages, but money doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for those boys.”
A sinking feeling made its way through Standish. Bean wouldn’t have to look over his shoulder much longer. He mulled over the situation and his mood brightened. A handful of bullies against two experienced cavalrymen. All things considered, the odds weren’t too bad.
“Say, did a fellow come your way lookin’ for a job?”
“He did, and he’s already proven himself a damn fine hand.”
“You figured that out after one day, and him with that limp?”
“He might gimp around a bit, but he’s got grit. I’d ride the river with him.”
“Good enough for me, Win. Anything I can do for you?”
“Try to keep those two hombres locked up as long as you can. Don’t want ‘em catchin’ up to me headin’ back to the ranch.”
“Will do. In their condition, I don’t think they’ll be chasin’ after much of anything for a day or two. Then . . . well.”
~ ~ ~
The drive home was a slow one. The buckboard wagon was heavily loaded, mostly with barbed wire, but he had stocked up on groceries as well. Planning for the worst, he had also loaded up on .45-75 and .45 caliber ammunition for his carbine and pistol, as well as 10-gauge double-aught buckshot for the shotgun. Observing that Bean carried a Colt .44 pistol and a Model 1873 Winchester rifle in .44-40 caliber, he bought a hundred rounds of each. He rounded it all off with a half-dozen bottles of whiskey . . . for medicinal purposes.
The benefit of an unhurried journey home was that it gave him time to think. He knew now that the Irish brothers would not give up their hunt and would eventually find Bean here. The meeting was inevitable. He visualized approaches to the Circle S ranch buildings and possible approach routes. The fencing he had installed would offer no defense. There were a few trees closer in, but trees could work for both attack and defense. They needed to reduce the gang’s numbers before they reached the ranch house and barn. He didn’t much fancy the thought of a last stand in a building that could burn.
He was still thinking as he passed through the Circle S chaparral. Looking toward the approaching buildings, the wagon suddenly lurched. Attention focused elsewhere, he had driven over a good-sized rock. Rolls of wire hitting the ground behind made distinctive thuds. Swearing, he pulled the horses up and put on the brake. Three rolls had fallen off and one had come undone, spirals of razor-sharp barbed wire unraveled for thirty feet to where it had rolled to a stop. Standish threw two rolls back into the wagon and was starting to gather up the stray loops of the third roll when it came to him. He knew precisely what he and Bean had to do.
With dinner finished, Win broke the news of the Irish brothers and the two men discussed strategy while enjoying a can of peaches in syrup. At first light, they would construct two defensive walls about six feet in length from the piled, split firewood out a hundred feet from the house. Those would provide cover and still be well within range of their weapons from the house should the brothers reach them and force their retreat. Another wall fifty feet out would be their last line of defense before making a stand in the ranch buildings.
The next part would take over half of the ten miles of wire he had bought, but it would be worth it. From the wagon, they would play out and stake two slightly overlapped loops of wire beyond the split-wood structures completely surrounding the ranch buildings. Spaced so that a horse might jump one, but not both, he felt sorry for the horses and hoped no one in the gang was that stupid, but inside he knew better.
By mid-afternoon, the defenses were in place. The two men split up boxes of ammunition and dispersed it behind the walls with plenty for each of their weapons along with a canteen of water at each. The double-barrel 10-gauge shotgun leaned against the door frame with six boxes of shells within reach. Over a glass of whiskey, Bean and Standish wished each other good luck and pulled up chairs on the porch to wait. Thunder sat and watched everything with curiosity. He was alert. He knew his job.
~ ~ ~
Sean O’Malley kicked his younger brother hard in the butt. “Get up lazy boy. You’ve got man’s work to do. Liam is ready to ride.”
“Damn it, Sean. I’m not wantin’ to ride that horse another mile. I have blisters on me arse.”
“Too bad, little brother. You’ll ride until the English pig is dead. Besides, this is your fault. You gave Fergus the knife and egged ‘im on. We could have killed him right then and we wouldn’t be chasing him now to avenge sweet Irena’s death.”
“But you shot her, not him” Colm replied.
“It was still his doin’. Another word from yer yap, and you’ll be joining her,” his eyes shone like Satan’s.
“Stop it,” Liam O’Malley stepped between them. “Sean’s right. We got work to do. Where’s that bottle of whiskey? I need a couple shots of breakfast. That bartender said the pig and his new friend are only an hour away.” He pivoted toward the two other men in the small camp. “You two, what are ya starin’ at? This is family business, but you’re being well paid to do your part.”
“Speakin’ of gettin’ paid,” Jester Krebs replied. “Where might our money be? Was to be half when we found him and the other half when he’s dead.”
“That’s right,” piped up Zeke Marsden, a Butte bully and ne’er do well.
Both Krebs and Marsden had been hired by the brothers because of their reputation in Butte for being toughs and good with guns. Krebs was reputed to have killed two men in Deadwood during the gold rush heyday.
Sean went to his saddlebags and pulled out two small leather pouches. He tossed one to each man. “Here, half now. Half back in Butte. When the job is done as agreed.”
Both men opened their bags and shook out twenty-five gold double eagles. The gold twenty dollar coins glinted in the sun. Krebs looked at O’Malley. “Good enough . . . for now.”
~ ~ ~
Standish and Bean had swapped guard duty every couple of hours during the night, not that either really slept. Approaching noon, Thunder began to growl. Both men were up in a heartbeat. “There,” Bean shouted, pointing to the north.
“No, there,” Standish pointed to the south-east. “And there. They’re hitting us from five different directions.”
Both men looked at each other for a moment and started to the forward walls, Bean going as fast as he could. Racing his horse through the chaparral, the nearest rider started shooting. Bean responded with three rapid shots with his Winchester and watched as the rider lurched off his mount headfirst into the wire. The horse couldn’t stop and became entangled in it. Rearing up, it flipped over and fell, the sickening sound of its neck breaking heard by both defenders. Win noted the newly made gap in their wire defense. The other riders kept coming. The one from the north slowed trying to jump his horse over the wire and almost made it. The horse got its rear hooves tangled but fought free of the wire as the rider jumped off, firing a rifle as he rose from the ground and started running toward them, clear of the wire. Bean stood, returned his fire and then a slug from one of the other three attackers hit him and threw him to the ground.
“Fall back!” Standish shouted as he cocked and fired until the man running on the ground with his rifle blazing fell face forward over one of the wood walls. Turning in the direction of the dead horse, he instantly saw that two of the riders were going to use the breach in the wire to gain entrance to the protected area. The third rider was whipping his horse into a full gallop in the opposite direction, putting as much distance as he could between himself and the fight.
Falling back toward the house, Standish fired at one of the pair but missed. Both attackers were inside the wire now and on foot. Suddenly a searing pain shot through is left leg. He pitched forward and hit the ground as a shotgun roared from behind, cutting the man who had shot him nearly in half. Wobbling to his feet, Standish saw the last man wildly empty a pistol at them. Screaming in rage, he threw it to the ground while drawing a knife. The man ran straight at him with consummate hate distorting his features.
Shoving pain aside and waiting for the right moment, Standish pushed forward with all his strength. The move took the other man off guard. The knife slashed harmlessly through the air as Standish plowed his head into the other’s stomach. The knife fell to the ground at the same time both men hit it. Rolling, the stranger threw his arm around Standish’s neck to choke him. The move was met with two vicious blows to the groin from the rancher. The man bellowed in pain and released Standish only to quickly hit him with a wicked blow to the temple. The rancher fell back momentarily stunned. His attacker picked up a handful of dirt and threw it at his face, but Standish turned his head. Both men were on their knees. The attacker grabbed for the knife as Standish threw a powerful cross punch hitting him square in the face, breaking his nose instantly. Blood splattered everywhere.
The blast of a shotgun filled the air. “That’s enough. I got another barrel just for you,” Bean pointed the 10-gauge at the man’s chest from five feet away. “Your choice, Sean O’Malley.”
~ ~ ~
To the east, Standish watched as clouds of dust lifted into the sky. “More riders comin’,” he hollered to Bean. Hobbling out to the wire, he waited having no idea who they were. As they drew closer, he recognized the lead rider and a couple of others. He frantically started waving his arms for them to stop. Thankfully they pulled up a dozen yards short of the wire.
“Damnit, Win! Looks like a battlefield out here,” Sheriff Rance Hewitt spoke up, observing a body and dead horse tangled in spirals of barbed wire. “Can we come in?”
Standish had already pulled a securing stake at the front of one loop of wire and dragged it away. The second loop overlapped the first and he moved its stake as well, allowing the riders to safely enter. The group walked their horses as Standish made his way back to the house, the left leg of his trousers still wet with blood.
“You’re hurt, Win,” the sheriff stated with concern.
“Long way from my heart. Bean might be needin’ some stitches though.”
“Doc’s coming, told him to stay behind a bit.”
Standish just nodded in acknowledgement as they came up to the house. A body was slumped over the side of one of the wood structures and another face down in the dirt, the side of the man blown away by the shotgun. Ebenezer Childress sat on a chair, the upper right side of his shirt covered in blood, with a pool of the sticky liquid drawing black flies on the porch. He cradled a shotgun in his arms, pointed at a man on the ground. The man’s face was bloodied and his nose broken. He was tied up, but hatred prevailed as he recognized the sheriff and spat at him.
“Ah, Mr. O’Malley, you didn’t like my accommodations in town?” Rance Hewitt pulled a folded piece of paper from his shirt pocket and pointed to another man who stood next to him. “Like you to meet Mr. Clancy O’Brian, a fellow Irishman. Uh, I should say Montana District, Deputy U.S. Marshal O’Brien,” he waved the paper at O’Malley. “And this here is a warrant for your arrest for the murder of Miss Irena O’Malley. Seems there was a respectable witness to your foul deed. Marshal O’Brian and his deputy will be taking you back north. Too bad, we sure would have liked to see you swing here for killing your own sister. Marshal, he’s all yours.”
~ ~ ~
Promising to return them the next day, Sheriff Hewitt had borrowed the buckboard and team to take the bodies back to town. After putting Sean O’Malley on top of his horse, both he and Marshal O’Brian conferred and agreed that the Circle S should be home to the remaining two horses, saddles and other tack, except what the outlaw was sitting in.
Wounded as he was, Bean had tended to the horse with its hind legs cut up by wire. True to his word, he knew a lot about animals and the horse would recover. While Bean worked on the horse, Standish took all the gang’s saddles, bridles and other gear to the barn and sorted through them. Most of it wasn’t in very good condition, but the ranch could use the additions.
Sitting at the table after a light meal, Standish refilled two cups, and set the bottle back down. It was nearly empty and the pain of their wounds had eased. Thunder lay asleep nearby, he had done his job. Both men had been quiet, with little talk, lost in their own thoughts. Suddenly, Standish stood and walked to a cabinet. Returning to the table, he dumped four leather bags on the table. “This here was in one of the saddlebags” Bean’s eyes opened wide at the “clink” and “jingle” as the rancher dumped the shining contents of each bag into one pile. Last bag empty, he pushed one shiny, gold twenty-dollar double eagle to Bean and drew one back for himself. He repeated the process until the mound was divided into two equal piles. “You done real good, Bean. I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you. I can surely use your help, but there’s enough for you to start a new life if you want. Your choice.”
“I hired on to help and I’ll stay as long as there’s work to do. But, I don’t understand why you’d split this with me.”
“Because you earned it today. Besides, as the old saying goes, ‘to the victors go the spoils of war’.” Standish looked him squarely in the eye, “In this case we are both victors in what I’ll call Bean’s War.”