Western Short Story
The weather was warmer than usual for late fall in New Mexico. The sky was a rich blue with white, feathered clouds. While enjoying the view from the windows, Daniel turned to his wife, “Sure you remember Alonzo, Pru,” the soft spoken man said, “he was the one who passed out with cousin Bobby in your mother’s azaleas during our wedding,” Daniel looked to see if his wife remembered the man who accompanied Cousin Bobby everywhere. His sister, Iragene Jones, the sheriff of Los Brazos County just shook her head, “Who can forget those two?”
After a moment, his wife, a striking Texas belle with mahogany hair remembered, “Oh, yes, Ah do remember Alonzo, and Ah recall Mother being quite upset about her azaleas. Ya’ll say he and Bobby are inseparable?”
“Have been since they were kids. Their families were friends as far back as when Texas was its own Republic,” Daniel responded.
“I always wondered,” Iragene asked, “how does Alonzo earn a living? His family lost everything during the War.”
“Alonzo earns his keep looking after our cousin. He’s a good man, can ride almost as well as Bobby, and is one of the few men that can hold his liquor and keep up with our cousin. I guess he’s on the Montague payroll.”
“Remember that 4th of July celebration when that little girl dropped her doll out the window onto the roof? It was during one of the worse summer storms in Austin’s history. Remember what Bobby did after hearing that little girl cry?” Daniel asked.
“I sure do,” Iragene said, deepening the tone of her voice. “He said, ‘Don’t you cry none, little lady, Uncle Bobby will rescue yer darlin’!’”
Daniel chuckled, “Everyone tried to stop him, because of the lightening, but Bobby only responded, ‘Hell,’ unabashed in front of the ladies, ‘jes’ git me another drink and a ladder and, Ah’ll git that doll.’ He swallowed the drink, climbed onto the roof, and rescued the doll. He was the hero of the day with the ladies, in spite of his language.
“And remember the dozens of rodeos Bobby rode in, always riding the most brutish bull or the highest kicking bronc. Even as a kid, Bobby chased the greasiest pig and caught it. The man either lacks all common sense or is one of the most daring men I know,” he said with the unmistakable tone of hero worship.”
“Enough memories, Daniel, I’ll help you with the chores. I might have a day off from being sheriff, but I know you can always use an extra hand around here.” The two of them got up to complete the chores. They each carried a pitchfork to muck out the stables and lay down some fresh hay. “How many men did you say Bobby was bringing?” Iragene asked.
“A dozen. The others will leave as soon as the horses are delivered, while our men from the Austin ranch will stay on and work. In addition to their pay, Bobby promised all the riders two nights in town.” Both brother and sister knew that most of the men would end up spending all their time at any one of the eighteen bars and a visit to Mrs. Brown’s girls.
The loud barking of their dog, Oso, interrupted their conversation. He was a large dog, covered in thick brown fur that resembled a bear, hence his name, and now he was barking at two approaching horsemen.
On guard from past experiences, every adult grabbed a rifle and stood ready to fight off any threat to their home. In the distance, they heard a loud whooping. The two siblings looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Cousin Bobby is here.”
Bobby and Alonzo came loping up the road to El Tecolote. Both men had their hats in their hands and were whooping and yelling like two happy banshees.
In the doorway, Prudence stood beside Cassie, another member of the Jones family unit. Cassie was orphaned early and grew up along side Iragene and Daniel and had always been treated like a third sibling. Cassie was a healer, but she could shoot a gun as well as the Jones brother and sister.
“Whoa there, Cousins, we come in peace!” Bobby shouted as he looked at the rifles. Gracefully he jumped off his horse and made a grab to hug Iragene. “Ol’ Bobby is here and ready to celebrate!” He pounded Daniel on the back and proceeded to lead his horse into the stables. “Hey, where’s the stable boy, Daniel?” looking around for someone to take care of his hard-ridden horse.
“Well, until we can get one of those cowboys you brought out with you, you’re looking at him,” Daniel said.
“Hell,” Bobby said unapologetically, “Alonzo, how ‘bout you taking care of the horses while I meet and greet the family?” Bobby’s words were more of a statement than a question, and the now silent man got off his horse and took his and Bobby’s horses in to the stable.
“Thanks, Alonzo,” Daniel said, “we’ll have some chili heating up for you.” The man looked at Daniel and nodded. When Daniel looked around he found Bobby kissing Pru’s hand and then lifting Cassie up and twirling her. Cassie was smiling an indulgent smile as Bobby put her down and kissed her on the cheek, still standing with his arm around her.
“Hey, Cassie, ya’ll know you’re still the gal that got away. How about some sugar for me!”
“How about some hot chili and fresh bread instead, Bobby?” she smiled indulgently as she slipped out of his grasp and disappeared into the house, Bobby following. During this time, Prudence just looked at the bold and handsome cousin. His presence filled the small home. After a brief tour of the place, Bobby went off to join Alonzo and get washed up.
“Oh mah, ya’ll grow those boys a lot wilder in Austin than we do in Beaumont, Daniel,” Prudence said as she waved a feminine fan across her brow. “Now all of yer stories about Cousin Bobby don’t seem so tall.” Cassie added, “You’ll find that most of the stories about Bobby are actually toned down.”
Bobby cut quite a figure. He was over six feet tall, had dark brown hair that curled slightly, and was built as solid as an oak. In contrast to his tanned skin, he had piercing blue eyes. He was everything a cowboy should be, right out of a dime novel, fearless, masculine, and oozing charm. Everyone responded to his charismatic personality, and when Bobby Montague entered a room, every eye was upon him.
Compared to the colorful Bobby, Alonzo appeared like a sepia photograph. Not bad looking and certainly impressive a figure on his own, but when next to Bobby, he almost faded into the background.
The group was interrupted as Bobby Montague and Alonzo Mayfield entered the house. Alonzo looked around the small but pleasant home with surprise. “Very nice, but ah’m
surprised. . .” but he didn’t finish after realizing what he was about to say. “Well, ah jes’ expected something different.” Everyone shrugged and they sat down to a pleasant meal of venison and green chili, fresh bread, and flan. Cassie had been cooking all day, and their helper, Adelaide, served the meal.
“So,” Bobby started, “the horses are about twenty five miles east of here. Ya’ll were right about there being enough water and grasses this here time of year.”
“Did you have any trouble? Lose any horses?” Daniel asked in between chews. “Seven hundred miles is a long way to drive horses.” He looked at Bobby and Alonzo, not caring who answered and attempting to draw Bobby’s quiet friend into the conversation, but Bobby answered.
“We lost only six horses.” Bobby said proudly. “We lost a mare one night while she was giving birth. The foal was breach, and we couldn’t get to her in time to save her or her foal. Two yearlings strayed up an arroyo and ended up in a gully washer. Two got into some locoweed, and one broke its leg. Ol’ Alonzo here, took care of it. We started out with 115 horses, and we brought ya’ll 109 plus five youngins born on the trail.”
Daniel looked at the two cowboys. “Amazing work, gentlemen. We are in your debt! I’ll wire the captain from Fort Sumner. He’ll be sending some of his men to pick them up. After these horses are sold, I want to add some local mustangs. Cruz, Iragene’s deputy, saw a herd of mustangs south of here on some of the mesas. I’d like to pack out a couple of days and see if . .”
“Stop,” Bobby guffawed, “are you telling me those crazy stories about your sister being the sheriff of the county are true?” He looked at Iragene. “How in the world did they make you a sheriff? My cousin, a woman sheriff!” and he laughed. Alonzo’s eyes went wide, but he didn’t say anything.
“It’s a long story,” Iragene quietly answered, “let’s save it for another day.”
“Hell no!” and Bobby turned apologetically toward Prudence, “Sorry ma’am, but ah can’t believe mah little cousin Iragene is a sheriff! Must not a’ been a lot of qualified men around, I guess,” and he elbowed Alonzo who just continued to stare.
Surprisingly it was Prudence who replied, “Bobby Montague. We have seen a lot of violence out here. We women fought off vicious murderers while the old sheriff not only did nothing to help us but was actually married to the woman who planned the murders—which, if she succeeded, would have included our own. We ladies resent yer disparaging tone of voice and mockery,” Prudence said and then sat back somewhat mollified.
Iragene and Cassie just stared at this proper Southern Belle, not only saying what she did, but taking on a dinner guest in her own home. Prudence had indeed changed from the pampered lady she had been when she left Beaumont. Since that time she had had a child with only the assistance of Cassie, a women whom she had at one time considered a woman of lesser worth, and only a day later, she had had to kill a man to protect her husband and herself from certain death. New Mexico had changed her.
“Ah’m sorry, ma’am, Iragene, and Cassie. Ah guess Ah got a lot to learn,” and Bobby put on a face of contrition.
“Bobby, we almost lost our lives. Out of that mayhem, Iragene was singled out to be our sheriff, and so far things have worked out for us and the town,” Daniel explained.
“But how do you arrest anybody?” Alonzo spoke for the first time, “Yer such a tiny little thing.”
Iragene laughed, “Oh, I have my ways.”
“She can outshoot, outdraw, and kick faster than anyone in the county,” Cassie said proudly. “She and her deputy, a fellow about the same size of Iragene, took down three of the biggest, ugliest, and meanest brutes La Madera has ever known—the Smalley brothers,” she continued.
Shock appeared on both men’s face. “We ran into the Smalley brothers in Amarillo two years ago,” Alonzo continued. “Me ‘n Bobby got the best of them with a little help from the bartender who hit one of them boys with a billy-club. We barely made it out with our lives.” Turning quickly to Iragene, “And you took them out?” he finished, his face filled with awe.
“Yes, well let’s not talk about me anymore. What do you think of your new cousin, Bobby?” Iragene quickly changed the course of the discussion, pointing to the baby in Prudence’s arms.
“He’s a real beaut, Daniel, Pru, and ah love that tassel of red hair on his tiny head. Yep, a real beaut. Got a horse picked out for him yet, Daniel?”
Daniel laughed, “Not yet, but soon.”
“Well now, we have jes’ one last job—bring in that there bunch of horses and close the deal. Then we’re off to town for some nights of celebration, huh Alonzo?”
Alonzo nodded and smiled, “Lookin’ forward to meeting some of them New Mexico gals ya’ll got in town,” than realized his audience and looked around sheepishly. “Oops, sorry ladies.”
Iragene tried to hide her smile, “I’m sleeping in Cassie’s house, so you two can take my place. It’s the adobe closest to the corral.” Iragene lit two lanterns, and they all said goodnight.
The next morning the two young men showed up for breakfast. Cassie was ready for them. She had green chili, eggs, ham, potatoes, and fresh coffee. Besides being a midwife and healer, Cassie loved cooking, and her well-eaten meals reflected it.
“Why lookey here, Alonzo, Cassie ain’t only purty, but she’s one talented cook, as well,” Bobby said. Alonzo just stood there.
The rest of the family joined the two men now. Everyone sat at the table, eating and talking about old times and now the arrival of the horses. “I just can’t begin to thank you boys for bringing those horses up. They’ve been eating our feed and running in our fields on the Texas property. Now their sale can help pay some of the bills!” Daniel laughed. “I’m a lucky man, got my family, my land, and now my horses—thanks to both of you.”
“Well, before ya’ll get teary eyed on us, Daniel, don’t forgit ya’ll are paying us for this,” Bobby added.
“Why, I almost forgot,” he laughed. “When you boys are finished, I’ve got some supplies for the last day of the drive. You can bring the horses in tomorrow. Everyone can feast here, get paid, and then head for town.”
“Sounds mighty fine to me. Any special gals in town I should keep my eyes out for?” Bobby asked, turning to Iragene with a twinkle in his eye.
“Lots of beautiful New Mexican women, but none who want to get their heart broken, Bobby. Just promise me you and your men will stay out of the cantinas. We had some problems here not too long ago, and a lot of distrust exists between the ranchers and the locals,” Iragene replied matter of factly.
“Okay, Sheriff, mah boys and Ah’ll watch ourselves. We won’t cause you no grief, ma’am,” and Bobby cuffed Alonzo on the shoulder, apparently a favorite gesture of his. “Let’s go, amigo, one more day in the saddle, and those ladies in the town are ours!” Both men stood.
“Thank you for the fine vittles,” Alonzo said to no one in particular, and he walked over to retrieve his hat.
As the men walked over to the stables to saddle their horse, Bobby let out another hoop and holler, “Amigo, we got some fun days ahead of us. I can’t wait to git to town and enjoy the ladies.” Realizing Alonzo hadn’t responded, Bobby looked over at his friend saddling horse. “What’s got into ya’ll, boy? I haven’t heard you this quiet since ya’ dove into the pond and cracked your head senseless.”
Alonzo looked at his friend, “Guess Ah’m tired, Bobby. Also, that high yeller gal, Cassie, hell she acts just like a white, eating with us and all, and your cousin being a sheriff. Don’t them women know their places, Bobby? Ah’m telling you it ain’t natural.”
“Dammit, Alonzo, can’t ya’ll let it be? My uncle was an odd one--some say a Quaker. They’ve always been the mavericks of the family, but who the hell cares? As I said, you don’t have to marry them, so jes’ drop it.”
Alonzo knew the conversation was over, so he didn’t respond. But he thought it mighty queer to have a female as Sheriff and a yeller gal as an equal. Maybe this would make things easier to justify later, he thought, and then jumped upon his horse and followed Bobby out of the stable and onto the trail.
The day was much cooler than the former one. As the two men rode along, they could hear the chatter of ground squirrels and the sound of scrub joys squawking out their melody. The two men rode side by side as if they’d been in this formation most of their lives—and they probably had. Bobby looked over at Alonzo and said, “Come on, I’ll race you down to the stream where we can water the horses and take a lunch break.”
“Nah, Ah’m jes’ enjoying this easy gait, relaxing after over a month on the trail. Let’s jes’ take our time,” Alonzo said quietly.
“Ya’ll do that, Alonzo, but I think I’ll let this here horse let out some of his thunder!” and he dashed away down the trail, letting his horse have his rein, and the two of them galloped out of sight, leaving Alonzo in a cloud of dust.
“Phew, Ah’m exhausted from one day of Cousin Bobby,” Pru said, sitting down to nurse her baby. “Ah glad he’s headin’ back to Austin soon.”
“Well, I guess it takes that much energy to drive more than a hundred horses over 700 miles,” Iragene responded to her and got up. “Guess I’d better go and pack. I want to leave early tomorrow for town and see what Cruz has been up to.”
“I wish you didn’t have to get back so soon,” Cassie said. “It’s not the same around here when you’re gone—too quiet,” and she smiled.
“Why not come with me? We have a couple of hams in the smokehouse, Daniel brought a bunch of supplies from town, and all you need to do is bake a few loaves of bread for Pru and Daniel and the men. Come on, Cassie, it will be fun having you in town. You’ve been wanting to meet the new doctor and share medical ideas. He told me he’s excited to hear about the local herbs.
“I don’t know,” she hesitated looking at Pru, “the ranch will be awful busy tomorrow with all the men coming. What do you think, Pru?”
Prudence looked at the two women. She knew she was dependent on Cassie being there to cook and organize, but she also knew it was time for her to accept the responsibility of her home, besides she had Adelaide now to help with the meals and a neighbor, Dorothy Powell to help her with baby Alexander. “Of course, Ah’ll be fine. If ya’ll could just bake up some bread and biscuits for us and a pot of calabasitas with the last of our squash,” she said, trying to sound confident.
“Okay, then it’s settled. Tomorrow we’ll leave right after breakfast,” Iragene sang out, then turned and gave Pru and Cassie a hug. Cassie smiled and Prudence tried her best not to be too surprised at her sister-in-law’s unusual display of affection.
It was sundown before the two men arrived where the horses had been kept, but when they got there, only a trampled field remained with five hobbled mares and their foals. There was no sign of the other horses or the dozen men who had driven them from Texas.
“What the hell! What happened to the damn horses and the men?” Bobby shouted and turned to see Alonza with a gun pointing at him. “What the. . .are you nuts, man!?”
“Git off your horse, Bobby.” Bobby glared at him and didn’t move. Then when least expected, Bobby made a grab for his gun. Alonzo, with his gun already out shot his friend in the arm. “I sorta suspected you would try that. Sorry, shooting you in the arm might hurt but not as much as shooting the hand you draw with, and it should heal quicker. Ah ain’t such a bad guy now, am Ah?”
Bobby grabbed his arm. It hurt like the devil, but the bullet seemed to have missed the bone. His elevated adrenaline and anger kept him on his feet.
“You goddam bastard, we’re friends, almost brothers. What the hell is going on?” He looked around. “What happened to our Austin men? Did your buddies kill them? You murderin’ sonafabitch. Now ya’ll are gonna kill me too, huh?” he jabbered on with the shock of what just happened. He looked at Alonzo with venom in his eyes.
“No, ah’ll jes’ leave ya’ll with the rest of the men that weren’t interested in making a little more than what they were gettin’ for their hard work. Some of us are jes’ tired of having to work for others that were born into money and never had to worry.”
“Hell, you sonafabitch, you never minded eating those rich folk’s food, staying at their house, or spending their money. Even now you’re on the payroll, have been all your life.”
“Yeah, and having to follow you everywhere, do what you want me to do, like Ah was your slave. This here boy got tired of being told where to go and when. We’re selling those horses up in Las Vegas to a man named Silva. He offered us $100.00 a horse--same as the army.”
“You fool. How long do you think you’ll be able to live on a few hundred dollars if you’re an outlaw, even if they let you live long enough to collect—which I don’t see happening.”
Doubt shadowed Alonzo’s face for a brief moment. “Ah’ll live, and for the first time in mah life, I’ll live the way I wanna.” Alonzo got down from his horse, approached the injured man, and took his gun and rifle. “Now git off your horse and walk towards those rocks. I’ll follow ya.”
They had only a few hundred feet to go, but the pain was beginning to hit Bobby and every step became unbearable. Finally they walked around a large rock surrounded by shrub oaks. There were the six men from the Austin ranch, beat up and tied up. “Hell,” Bobby managed to say, “how could you let those bastards beat up on these men? Damn, Alonzo, you’ve worked with these men and spent all those months on the trail with them. Are ya loco?”
“Shut up, Bobby, Ah guess they put uppa fight. Ain’t no one killed, so don’t sweat it none.”
“Don’t sweat it?! You bastard! We’ve been friends all our lives. Doesn’t that mean nothin’ to you?”
“Bobby, ya’ll don’t know what it’s like to always be the poor one, the quiet one, the unnoticed one. Ah’ve lived in your shadow all my life. Now ah want my own life without you.”
“Poor bastard,” Bobby managed to insert enough sarcasm to make his words hurt. He then looked at the men who were bound and gagged. “At least let me remove their gags and let them have some water.”
Alonzo hesitated and then nodded. Barely able to move with the pain from the gunshot wound and the bleeding, he went to get water for the men, knowing dehydration was the deadliest killer next to man in the Southwest. By the time he had given them water, he almost collapsed with the pain. Alonzo just sat astride his horse and watched.
“Ah’m takin’ yer horse, Bobby. He should fetch me another couple o’ hundred bucks. The saddle alone will bring in some extra bucks, doncha think? Oh yea, and thank the Joneses for the extra vittles.” But the exertion of walking and then giving the men water had taken its toll, and Bobby lay there unhearing next to his men.
The next morning found the Jones family sitting and eating breakfast together. The smell of cooking, baking and coffee filled the air, but Daniel was up and out of the house long before the others had finished eating. The excitement of seeing his horses and starting his horse breeding ranch up again wouldn’t allow him to do anything but walk around, checking the stables and the corrals. He filled buckets with water and put them in the wagon to refill the troughs. He was so busy, he almost missed Iragene’s and Cassie’s departure.
“Hey, you two weren’t leaving without saying good-bye, were you?” Daniel looked up to see the women already astride their horses, both wearing the long, split riding skirts with their saddle packs on their horses.
“Of course not,” Cassie laughed. “but you were so busy that we thought we’d ride over to you.”
“I’m not so sure that he would have noticed we were gone,” Iragene feigned seriousness, “until he came in and tasted his afternoon coffee and lunch. Prudence is in charge of the kitchen for the few days we’ll be gone.”
“Oh, yes. But then, how can anyone spoil cutting slices of ham?” he asked, uncertainty shadowing his voice.
The two women, friends since childhood though they were from two worlds, one a wealthy rancher and the other slavery, waved good-bye and headed out. Looking at their backs, they almost looked like sisters, same height and dress, one a sheriff now, and the other a healer and midwife. Daniel smiled and went back to his work.
Bobby woke up that next morning with a burning pain in his arm and a mouth that tasted like foul cotton. “What the. . . where the hell am I?” he groaned as he tried to open his eyes in the bright sun.
“Boss, you’re in New Mexico. Don’t ya remember? Alonzo shot ya yesterday and then took off to meet the other rustlers,” one of his men explained. “Ya’ll been out since early yesterday evening. We was startin’ to get worried about ya ever waking up.”
Bobby looked at the man speaking, “Why Tim Everett, you old cowboy, you, worried about Bobby Montague? Huh, no need. I’m fine,” and he attempted to focus on the man and not slur his speech. Everett was about five feet eight and lean and wiry. Right now Everett seriously needed a bath and some bandages for the weeping wounds on his face and arms. Bobby looked at the other men, some in worse condition than Everett. Though his head and arm ached, he began to recall the events. He remembered Alonzo acting a little odd, and then he remembered his so-called best friend shooting him in the arm—even going so far as to steal his horse. Damn! What got into the man?
“Boss, what are we going to do? We’re all hog tied an’ hurtin something fierce. That water helped, but we’re all dried up, thirsty and hungry,” another man, Doc, asked. Doc was one of those men that could doctor any horse. He didn’t, however, have any people skills, and he was no good even bandaging a hand, but show him a sick or hurt horse, and he could work miracles.
Bobby was becoming more alert. His hands had been tied as well, but for some reason, Alonzo had failed to remember that he carried a knife in his boot.
Bobby looked around at the six men who lay next to him. Everett seemed to be the one in the best shape. “Tim, put your back to me and put your hand in my left boot. I got a knife in there. See if ya’ll can pull it out and hold it steady so I can use it to cut my ropes.”
“We knew ya would git us out of this mess, Boss!” another rider said hopefully.
“Well, let’s just see if we can get these ropes cut,” he answered as Everett angled his body to pull out the knife from his boot.
“Got it!” Everett croaked out, his voice as dried up as the rest of him.
“Tim, hold it still, up and out.” Bobby moved back to back to Tim, and hoped his cutting the rope off his wrists would not lead to a major artery being cut instead. Since neither man could see, they depended on the other riders to help them out. “A little to the left, Boss. Now up about an inch. Yeah sir, you got it. Now move your wrists up ‘n down,” another man said.
Those men who were able to speak encouraged the cutting of the rope and let out a strange bellow of joy through their dried up mouths when the rope around Bobby’s wrists gave way. Though exhausted, Bobby turned around and with his good hand, sawed the ropes off Everett. Everett then sawed the rope off of Doc and the others.
Some canteens were lying around empty, and those who could make it down to the stream filled the canteens for those who couldn’t. Open sores and some broken bones were tended. Luckily the breaks were mostly fingers though some ribs had been bruised or cracked.
Bobby’s wound was painful, but having washed it out in the cold stream, he noticed with relief that no infection had set in and the bleeding had stopped. There had been a lot of bleeding but the bullet had gone through his arm without doing serious muscle or bone damage.
While rummaging through the campsite, one of the men found a bag of spilled flour. There were also some berries bordering the stream. Tootsie, the camp cook gathered up what he could find and made the men some pretty decent biscuits with berries. After not having eaten for two days, the meal was a feast.
Iragene and Cassie were riding to town when Cassie stopped suddenly on the trail. “What is it?” Iragene called out. “Something the matter?”
“I’m having an odd feeling, Iragene. Something is wrong, I know it.”
“Are you sure? What makes you think so?” This wasn’t the first time Cassie had a premonition, and she was usually right. “What is it? What do you think is happening?” Iragene asked and waited.
Cassie closed her eyes and remembered a dream she had last night of horses. The vision came back to her again. “Iragene, I think something is wrong. In my dream I remember seeing horses running wild in a blowing storm, but I don’t see any riders.”
“Are you sure? Should we take that dream literally, Cassie?”
“I don’t know what to think, but I’m concerned.”
“If you feel that strongly that something is wrong, let’s turn around and go back home to see what’s happening with the horses.”
“Thanks,” Cassie responded, relieved that Iragene respected her feelings. Like many of the healers and curanderas, Cassie had the ability to sense when things were not all right. Both women turned around in the trail and began to ride back to their ranch. The promise of the sunny day was quickly disappearing as an unexpected, early winter storm was beginning to build. By the time they got back to the ranch, sleet was falling on the two women, and they were relieved to be home and not on the trail.
Daniel who had been waiting for his horses ran out to greet them. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“Cassie had a vision of horses lost in a blizzard without riders. She felt it was better if we got home, and I’m glad we did. The weather sure changed quickly.”
Both women scrambled off their horses and pulled them into the stable. Cassie looked around and asked, “Where are the other horses? They should have been here by now.” She paused and then realized that her vision was not off the mark. “I’m hoping those horses are in better shape than they were in my dream. I’m worried about Bobby and Alonzo and the men.”
“I am too, but there’s nothing we can do now. Go into the house and warm up. I’ll tend to your horses. When I’m done, I’m going out to find Bobby and the herd. I’ve been plumb worried, and I didn’t even have any visions,” Daniel said.
“I’m going to change, and I’m going with you, Daniel. Remember, I’m the sheriff, and you may need me.” Daniel turned and looked down at his sister. His frown turned to a smile, and he reassured her that he’d wait.
He began to care for the two wet horses in the barn. As the women headed toward the open barn door, they saw a strange caravan of apparitions coming out of the whirling whiteness of the storm. Men and horses and five shivering foals following their mothers, every so often trying to get a drink of milk or falling in the effort.
Daniel saw them too. “What the . . .? Bobby is that you? Doc? Tim, Angus, Tootsie, Silas, and Russ? Damn I’m glad to see you all. Come in, come in,” and he held the door to the stable open for them. “What in the dickens happened to all the horses, including yours?” he paused, almost embarrassed at his questions. “Well, questions can wait. We have some extra clothes in the bunkhouse, and I’ll have some hot food for you all.” It was only then that Daniel, Iragene, and Cassie saw the bloodied faces and bruises.
“Oh my God, what happened to you all? Bobby?” Cassie gasped. “I’ll run and get my medicine basket.”
Iragene walked up to the seven men to find out what happened while Daniel worked on the cold, wet horses, trying to save the mares and their foals. Cassie reappeared with her medicines and bandages. She chose Russ, the youngest and the most needy to work on first.
“Bobby,” Iragene asked, “where’s Alonzo?”
“That sonafabitch is the one behind all this! While cozying up in your home, his buddies were beating up your men and stealing your horses. That goddamn bastard was the one who shot me, left me hog-tied, and stole my horse. I’ll kill him!”
“Bobby, are you sure there’s not some mistake? Are you sure Alonzo wasn’t forced to be a part of this?” Iragene was only fishing. She pretty much believed Bobby about his so-called best friend, but she had to be sure. No one would ever have guessed that Alonzo was capable of turning into a rustler, shooting his best friend, and stealing Bobby’s horse.
Killing someone for stealing a horse was justifiable homicide in many Western counties, but not in El Brazo, so she wanted to make sure Bobby turned the job of catching the rustlers over to the sheriff—to her.
“Damn,” she said and then looked around surreptitiously, hoping none of the men had heard her, but they all had. “I wish I had Cruz here. He could track those horses through any country and any weather. The only good thing is, the weather that’s keeping us put is keeping those horses put.”
While Cassie and then Pru worked at cleaning wounds and bandaging the men, Iragene went around and asked each man what happened and if they had overhead anything that would suggest where the rustlers were taking the horses.
Their stories were similar. After Bobby and Alonzo left camp, the other six men turned on the Austin ranch hands. Their actions caught them completely off-guard; they hadn’t even a clue that these men were rustlers until they attacked them; they had played their parts so well.
Tootsie, an older bewhiskered man who was the cook, spoke after Bobby. “I swear, Miss Jones, those bushwackers caught us all by surprise. They got the drop on us ‘fore we knowed what were happening! I’m so sorry ‘bout your horses. Damn that Alonzo anyway (pardon me, Ma’am), but he’s the worse rattlesnake of all. Me ‘n Bobby ‘n the boys thought he was one of us. We still can’t believe that bast. . .uh owlhoot shot Bobby and left us to die.”
“Tootsie, I’m sorry you all got beat up. We’ll get by without the horses, but we couldn’t get by without you men,” Daniel interrupted as he entered the barn. He had just finished up with the mares and their fouls. “Hey, we’ve already got two new colts and three very pretty fillies. Worse comes to worse, we can start over.”
“Oh, no! There ain’t gonna be no starting over, because I’m going after those sonafabitches and kill them all. I’ll especially take my time with Alonzo. You’ll get your horses back all right!” Bobby spit out angrily.
Iragene turned to him, “We might, but not the way you want to go about it, Bobby. I’m not going to let you kill anyone and end up in jail for it, let alone possibly hang. We’ll do it right. I’ll deputize you, and we’ll let that arm heal a bit. Besides, no one is moving cattle in this blizzard.”
Daniel left and heated the bunkhouse. He helped the men who couldn’t maneuver themselves over there and promised some warm food in the next hour. “Thanks, Mr. Jones,” said Silas a wizened old cowboy who had known Daniel’s father. “You know, me and the men decided while we was walking here that you don’t need to pay us nothin’. We sorta let ya’ll down, losin’ your horses. Hell (pardon, Ma’am), we’ll understand iffen ya’ll don’t even want us here.”
Daniel looked at the men. “I need you here. If we can’t get those quarter horses back, we’re going to have to go after those mustangs and start from scratch. I’ll need every one of you. As for pay, hell, you boys earned every dime. You delivered ten good horses, and we’ll get more.” He looked up, “Ahh, here’s the missus with Cassie and the food. I’ll get the coffee.”
The men were relieved though still feeling guilty about letting the rustlers get the drop on them. But they enjoyed the ham, the calabasitas, and the fresh bread. The men were in good enough shape to eat, and the food and hot coffee did wonders. A few finished up their meals and had a smoke or two while the others called it a day and went to sleep. Adelaide and Iragene cleaned up while Pru and Daniel put the baby to bed. Cassie made a final round of her patients.
Outside the wind and occasional sleet continued. Through all this, a lone horseman rode onto the property. He and his horse were half frozen, but they plodded on until they came to the front door of the main house. Daniel heard the horse’s neigh and began to run out into the cold, but as an afterthought, he first grabbed his rifle.
The storm was really blowing, and Daniel could barely identify the rider. He looked closer, “Cruz, what the hell are you doing out on a night like this?”
Cruz, Iragene’s deputy was a small man who could take on men twice his size. He spoke several languages, and he was dedicated to Iragene since she lost her fiancé, Alejandro Gallegos. Cruz had made a promise at Alejandro’s grave that he would watch over Iragene. He kept his word, and he became her deputy when she became sheriff.
“Señor Daniel, Señorita Iragene did not return to town, and I was afraid she had gotten lost in the blizzard. Is she all right?” he tried to sound professional, but his feelings towards Iragene were known by everyone.
Daniel quickly reassured him, “Cruz, she’s all right. Come in and warm up. I’ll take care of your horse. Once you’re warm, we’ll explain everything!” Daniel went off, and Cruz entered the house. Iragene was talking to Adelaide by the sink when she turned around and saw the shivering young man.
“Oh my God, Cruz! You came out in this weather to look for me! If something had happened to you, I never would have forgiven myself!” She ran over to him, made him take off his wet coat and stand by the fire. Adelaide brought over a cup of coffee and then went back to the kitchen to prepare a plate of food for him.”
“I’m fine,” he chattered, “I knew there was a good chance you would have turned around when the storm hit, but I had to be sure.”
She put a wool wrap around him. “As soon as you’re back to room temperature, we’ll tell you everything that happened today.” Cruz looked around the room and saw a large stranger asleep on the sofa, hanging half off on the ground. He looked a little like Iragene, same curly, reddish brown hair and coloring. He wondered if he had her sapphire blue eyes.
“Will our talking wake him?” he whispered.
“No, don’t worry,” she continued in her regular voice, “he’s had enough whiskey and laudanum to knock out a buffalo,” Iragene chuckled. She looked at the question in his face, and figured he was warm enough to sit down and eat. Then she would retell the events of the day.
“Come on over to the table. Some nice hot food should help you thaw.” They walked over to the table, and Adelaide brought a hot plate of food to him. She warmed his coffee and then removed herself to the kitchen to finish cleaning up after the seven new guests. Iragene started at the beginning of the day when she and Cassie set out for La Madera, and Daniel waited for the horses and his hired hands. She told Cruz about the double cross by Alonzo and the condition of the men from Austin who refused to go along with the plan to take the horses and sell them. She then told him how Alonzo turned and shot Bobby.
Iragene continued and even told him about Cassie’s dream and their decision to turn around and come back to Rancho Tecolote. Through all this, Cruz said nothing. Then he sat for a moment, thinking and finally asked where the rustlers were camped yesterday and where did they said they were heading.
“Las Vegas,” Iragene said, “Bobby said Alonzo told them they were heading for Las Vegas [New Mexico]. Their last camp was twenty-five miles east of the ranch.”
“Señorita Jones, Las Vegas is more wicked than Dodge City. That town is the worse of the worst. The only way we can get those horses back is to catch them before they get to Las Vegas. Some of those passes can get bogged down in snow, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to catch up with them.”
“But we’ll have the same problem, won’t we?” she asked.
“Probably, but we won’t be tied down feeding and caring for a hundred horses in the snow. We’ll be able to make better time than they will,” he concluded with a reassuring certainty.
“Fine, we leave at first light tomorrow, snow or no snow,” she said. “I second that,” added her half lucid cousin sprawled on the sofa. They all looked over to Bobby. He was already back to sleep, but they had little doubt that he would be up tomorrow morning and ready to go.
Sure enough, while Cassie packed enough food to hold them for about three days, Bobby came back into the house, dressed and ready to ride. He was wearing some of Daniel’s warmer clothes, including some rabbit hide gloves with the fur on the inside. Tim was the only Austin man in any shape to ride, so the posse of four rode out. Daniel was to stay back and take care of the newly arrived mares and fouls until the five men were on their feet. Cruz was in the lead with Iragene, riding side by side with Bobby and Tim behind him. Cruz figured that the rustlers would have taken the shortest route, not realizing that they were heading into an early snowstorm.
The snow had stopped falling temporarily, but the New Mexico sun that normally burned away the snow was itself buried under heavy gray clouds. Though no wind blew, the temperature continued to stay well below freezing. The four horses and pack mule blew out steam with their breath as did their riders. They were all cold and silent as they headed southeast to avoid the saltflats.
After a day of riding that usually took only hours, the wind began to pick up again. They were all relieved when Cruz pointed to a small cabin that had smoke coming out of its chimney. “My friends live here.” Cruz turned to the two cousins, “Let me tell Carlos y Rosa who you are. They’ll open their home to you. They’re too proud to accept anything in exchange, but I know they would love some of your ham, if that is all right?”
Iragene nodded, and they proceeded to the building. Cruz knocked and entered, speaking the entire time in a soft, rhythmic Spanish typical to New Mexico. After a moment, he signaled to the others. They entered the home, Iragene bringing in the oilcloth that contained the ham. Carlos, a thin older man, shyly greeted them and left the room to go outside. Rosa said something to Cruz, and he turned to translate.
“Carlos will take care of your horses, and Rosa says to warm up by the fire. She has some beans and tortillas that you can eat.”
“Will you ask her about the ham? We can add some to the beans and then leave the rest of it for them tomorrow,” she suggested.
Rosa agreed, and took the ham, slicing and dicing it to add to the hot beans. By the time Carlos came in, the smell of smoked pork was in his home. His eyes twinkled as he looked over to Iragene and acknowledged her gift. Through all of this exchange, Bobby said and did nothing.
Iragene was surprised at his silence, but then remembered his best friend betrayed him. Bobby hadn’t gone into details why Alonzo turned against him, but no matter what it was, it must have hurt Bobby badly. Tim too was quiet, but then he always was.
Cruz and the couple were talking about the horses now. Iragene was able to follow the conversation a little. Bobby probably could have understood too if he was listening, but Iragene wasn’t sure where his mind was.
Cruz turned to Iragene. “Sheriff, Carlos told me that he was out looking for some stray sheep just before the storm broke. He said he saw your horses, but they were cutting too far north too soon. They were headed right to the salt flats. In this weather, with the blowing wind, the horsemen are probably blinded by the alkaline salt.”
“The horses would probably not be too happy either, but their lashes would be better protection. Too bad we can’t protect our own eyes and go after them now,” Bobby muttered.
“It’s only late October. I can’t imagine this storm lasting another day. Can we stay here tonight and head out tomorrow, Cruz? Can you ask the couple?” she wondered, hearing the wind blowing again and the occasional sound of hail on the shutters.
“The Vigils insist that you stay. They even offered you their bed, Sheriff! I politely declined for you.”
Before she could thank the couple, Bobby yelled, out, “Hey, I’ll take the bed.” His cousin and her deputy each gave a disgusted grunt. “Hell, I was only joshing, Iragene.”
The visitors all got their blankets and rolled them onto the sheep skins covering the couple’s floor. By moving back the table, they just fit. Iragene slept by the door. Carlos banked the fireplace and went into his corner room, and they all fell asleep even though it was early by everyone’s standards.
The next day bright rays of sun were sieving through the cracks and holes in the shutters. They all awoke to the smell of freshly cooked tortillas and went out to freshen up. The day was cold, but the southwest sun promised to take the chill out of the air. The snow and hail of yesterday were no more than memories.
The small posse ate their breakfast, and Iragene left the additional cut of ham for the Vigils. They thanked their hosts and left, heading straight for the flats, hoping the weather had caused enough damage to stall the rustlers.
The four rode directly north and arrived at a small bluff overlooking the salt flats about noon. The sun was up, and the weather was finally comfortable. However, from the appearance of the chaos below them, the rustlers hadn’t had such an easy night. Apparently some of the mares got separated, and some of the young stallions took advantage of their departure to join them, ignoring the frustrated riders who must have gotten little sleep for the past two nights.
Six riders could be seen trying to herd the horses together away from the flats. The horses were probably thirsty after the salty storm and lack of drinkable water. They weren’t any happier than their handlers. “Weren’t there seven men? Six rustlers and Alonzo?” Iragene asked.
“Maybe someone is off somewhere, looking for strays?” Bobby volunteered.
Iragene continued to watch and then turned toward the men. “Let them round up the horses. They can do the work for us. We can wait until they get closer, and then I’ll go down and tell them to surrender. If they don’t, there’s four of us, and we’ll just do what we have to do. Cruz, you’re best with the rifle, how about finding a good hiding place halfway up the bluff with Tim? You’ll be covering us. Bobby, you’re with me.
“You know I don’t like to take orders from a woman, Iragene, but jes’ this once,” he quickly added as he saw her hand go down to her holster. They took up their positions and watched the rustlers do their work for them. While they watched, they pulled out cheese and jerky and relaxed and ate.
Bobby interrupted Iragene’s observations. “I’ve been watching these guys. I don’t see Alonzo or my horse. Wonder where he is.”
“Forget Alonzo for now. You and Tim spent time with these men. Got any ideas who would be in charge here?” Bobby shook his head.
“I do,” Tim answered, “it’s Salazar, the large man on the black. His boss owns a saloon in Las Vegas. Apparently the boss man, Silva, has been robbing and murdering for years, but he’s been so good to the locals that they turned a blind eye to him.” Iragene was about to comment when Cruz interrupted.
“Sheriff, the herd is coming closer. Maybe, we better get into place?”
“Right. And I want to be the one to put a bullet through Alonzo’s head!” Bobby jumped up and shouted.
“Quiet, Bobby, or we’ll be the ones with bullets in our heads,” Iragene shot him a look that quieted him.
As the six men began to round up the strays and headed closer to the bluff where Iragene and Bobby stood sheltered behind some rocks, Iragene could see their clothes were haggard and probably still wet. She hoped this would make the men more agreeable to turning themselves in, but in reality she prepared herself for a fight. She stepped out and pointed her rifle directly at Salazar. Bobby stepped next to her and did the same.
where you are! I’m Sheriff Iragene Jones, and I won’t shoot if
you take off your holsters and drop them. We have all of you covered,
so don’t try anything stupid.”
The lead horsemen looked up and her and started to chuckle, “Huh, Alonzo said the sheriff’s a women. Don’t do nothin’, men, we can take her and Bobby on.” His foolish grin disappeared as Iragene took aim and shot off his hat.
“I said drop those guns! I’ve got men on the bluff. You’re all covered. The next time I’ll shoot to kill!” she shouted. Just as she finished, a loud blast from the top of the bluff sounded, and a man in the rear of the herd bent over, dropped his rifle, and fell off his horse. Cruz shot the man as he had pulled up his rifle to shoot Iragene. She and Bobby shot at the same time, and two men on each side of the herd fell. Now the horses began to panic and run in every direction.
Salazar and another man tried to get themselves into a more defensive position, but they were too exposed. They continued shooting, but shooting from a moving horse amidst a herd of panicking horses wasn’t the same as being stationary and being semi-sheltered by a rock. When they saw Iragene and Bobby weren’t hit, neither of the rustlers looked interested in rounding up the horses or facing the law. They both turned their horses to go, but two shots rang out, one from Iragene, and one from Bobby. Both men were shot from their horses.
Cruz took a few moments to climb down the bluff. Though still above her, she could hear him without shouting. “Sheriff, I’ve got you covered if you want to check the men,” Cruz shouted. “Thanks, Cruz,” she responded as she and Bobby quickly climbed down to the flats, empty now except for the six prostrate men.
She and Bobby walked among the fallen rustlers. Four were dead, and one was barely alive. Though Iragene hadn’t shot to kill, the panicking horses had done their damage with their shoed hoofs and weight. Just as she neared the sixth man down, she saw a slight movement of the man’s left hand, reaching slowly for his downed pistol. “I wouldn’t if I were you,” she barely finished saying when he made a quick grab for his gun. Immediately, she and Cruz both put a bullet in him. Her bullet went into his head, and his went into the man’s heart—both bullets deadly.
Bobby looked with renewed interest at his cousin. “Iragene, Ah need to apologize to you. Little cousin, you really do know your job,” and he patted her on the back.
Iragene ignored Bobby and looked over at Cruz who was coming down the bluff, Tim behind him leading their horses. “We have wanted posters on these four men,” she said pointing. “I don’t doubt the other two are also wanted.”
“What are they wanted for?” asked Bobby.
“Would you believe rustling and murder?” she answered.
“I’ll round up the rustlers’ horses, and tomorrow I’ll take the bodies into town,” Cruz said and looked out at the plains before him. “Sheriff, I see three riders coming. I’m not sure, but I think one of them is your brother.”
Sure enough, Daniel, Silas, and Tootsie came riding up. One of them was leading a horse with them. Iragene and her two deputies watched as the riders came closer.
“We thought you might need some help, ma’am,” Silas said with wonder in his voice as he looked around at the six, “but I see ya’ll have everything under control.”
“I said she’d need some help with the horses, Silas, not with the rustlers,” Daniel said grinning. “I knew she could handle them,” he chuckled.
“How did you find us?” Iragene asked.
“I remembered Cruz mentioning the Vigils once. We checked with them,” Daniel responded.
Bobby walked forward and grabbed the extra horse. “My horse! Where’d you find him? Was that sonafabitch Alonzo riding him? Did you shoot him?”
“Bobby, we found your horse, but we didn’t find Alonzo.” Daniel said.
“Where was Rebel?”
“Five miles due west of the camp where you found us,” Tootsie replied. “He was just grazing, relaxed and content.” He looked up and saw Bobby on the horse. “Bobby, where ya goin’?”
“ I’m going to get that double crossing bastard. I’ll be back when I find Alonzo and not before,” and he took off.
As Bobby rode away, everyone else started rounding up the horses and the bodies.
Not wanting to waste a minute, Bobby ate while he rode. Hoping that his horse had had time to rest, he pushed him to his limits. He arrived at the last camp and looked around. Sure enough, Bobby recognized Alonzo’s boot prints and horseshoe prints. Why the hell did he come back here?
Bobby got on his horse, and followed the horse’s trail easily in the soft soil from the melted snow. Anger, hatred, and betrayal spurred him on. Huh? The sonafabitch was headed back to the Jones property. “Damn,” he said, and he quickened his pace, knowing that only the two women were there.
Finally ahead of him he saw Alonzo. He realized that the man was hurt, but he didn’t care. Alonzo was wobbling and barely able to stay in the saddle. “Alonzo, you bastard, I’ve got you covered,” Bobby shouted, “and I’m not going to shoot you in the arm, I’m going to shoot you through the heart!”
Alonzo turned and panic was written all over his face. “Don’t shoot, Bobby, I’m already hit. You were right, those bastards did turn on me.”
“You think I care? If you’re dying, I want to be the one who puts the final bullet in you.” Alonzo looked once more at his former friend and then kicked his horse to go faster, but his horse tripped slightly. Normally Alonzo would have righted himself, but this time he fell to the ground, his head striking a piece of granite. When Bobby rode up to where he had fallen, he saw Alonzo had been shot several times, and now with the fall from his horse, his head was bleeding profusely. He was dead. Bobby thought about putting a slug in his heart, but he decided it wasn’t worth a bullet.
Bobby callously threw Alonzo’s body across the horse, tied him down, and took him to the Joneses’. He entered the property only to find both women there with their rifles. Normally he would have laughed, but not today. Cassie and Pru put their guns down when they saw Bobby with the body of his former friend.
Cassie ran out to examine Alonzo. “Oh, Bobby, I am so sorry about the death of your friend,” Cassie gasped as she saw the injuries.
“Sorry? Why? If that bastard wasn’t already dead, I would have killed him myself,” he said indifferently and led Rebel and the other horse into the stables.
A few days later, most of the horses were again eating the Joneses’ food and grass. Daniel had the men working with the herd. He had sent word to town with Cruz and was waiting for the arrival of the army to purchase those that were for sale.
Iragene was back in her office in town. She and Cassie had ridden in to town on horseback while Cruz drove the wagon with the seven bodies in it. He had dropped the bodies off at the mortician, and Boot Hill would soon have seven new occupants. Iragene was busy doing the paper work to pay the mortician, and Cassie was with Dr. Stein, sharing medical procedures.
Suddenly, Iragene heard several loud whoops and stood up to see Bobby walking past her office with a girl from Mrs. Brown’s establishment on each arm. She shook her head knowing things would be a little livelier with cousin Bobby in town. Apparently, Alonzo was forgotten.