Western Short Story
The bones lay scattered, white and dusty on the ground, a few tatters of ragged clothing stuck to some of the remains that had lain on the rocky slope for a long, long time. How long, he did not know.
He had to shoot his horse earlier that day after it broke its leg falling across a hidden rock on a slippery talus slope and tumbling to the bottom. Rather than try to walk all the way around the hills he decided to cross over them and save time getting to Bakersfield. He cached his saddle and gear out of sight among some rocks at the base of the hills and carrying his saddlebags, canteen and rifle, he started to climb the grassy hills.
He was overdue and he knew they had been waiting.
He studied the man's bones, not that there was much to learn, but out of curiosity. He came across them by accident as he made the climb up the east side of the mesa. There were tatters of blue and grey cloth adhering to some of the bones, but almost everything that could rot away had done so.
He was about to turn away when he noticed something. One of the dead man's arms was pointed up toward the top of the slope, the index finger still fully extended in the same direction. It was as if his last act was to point toward the eastern mesa. Of course, it could have simply been how his arm was extended in death, but still it was more than a little unusual.
Mindful of the time pressure, he decided nonetheless to climb to the mesa and see if the pointing hand meant anything. It was about an hour climb over steep rocks made slippery by moss, but he managed it.
It was nothing like he expected.
Bodies, or the remnants of bodies, many of them, lay in a shallow depression at the top of the mesa. He walked among them and counted at least fourteen, fifteen with the man at the bottom of the slope. As with the first find, these bodies were down to bones and the remnants of clothing and gear, but some had stood the test of time enough that he could see they had been soldiers.
"You didn't die of natural causes, that's for sure," he said aloud, noting the many rounds of spent ammunition on the ground. "And you didn't go down without a fight. Must have been an ambush." He noted that the soldiers' guns and rifles, now long since rusted beyond repair, remained littered about. "So, it wasn't guns they were after," he said again aloud. "It was something else. And that means it sure wasn't Indians. Besides, there's been no trouble with Indians in this area for a number of years."
He studied the area and could see an ambush would have been easy to carry out. There were many places men could have hidden in wait for the army patrol, or whatever it had been, to come by. And if the attack was unexpected, the soldiers would have had little chance of survival.
He crossed the open area and went up into the rocks on the western side. As he expected, there were bullet casings lying about and he found two more bodies, or what was left of them. These were not soldiers. He could find nothing on the bodies to identify the men, nor weapons and he left them as they were.
Back down in the meadow, he began a painstaking search of the ground around and beneath each of the bodies. He gathered notebooks and other items into a small pile as he worked his way through each of the places where bodies lay. He also took any medals or ribbons in the hope they would help identify who these soldiers had been and where they were stationed.
Then he walked back along the trail the soldiers had taken. He knew after all the time the bodies had lain there, many months if not longer, he would not find any useful tracks, but he went back a half-mile anyway, finding nothing in the way of tracks, but finding a faint path that headed north, down toward the plains below, and along which the soldiers must have ridden. It was a way up from the plains but he wondered why an army patrol would ride into the hills this way. It would have meant going out of their way and into a pretty difficult climb.
He went back, made a small fire to heat some coffee and studied the items he had gathered into a pile. He began with the notebooks.
Most were unreadable after all this time and exposure to the elements, but a few had been protected in oilskin or had been covered by the bodies and were at least partially legible. What he could read was for the most part simply personal journal entries, records people kept of daily events. They spoke to him of work, of play, of friends and families and of hopes beyond the army.
But one journal stood out. It was wrapped in oilskin and another layer of coarse material, stained with old dark blood. It was tucked below the body of one of the soldiers as if being protected. And it was the most legible. He thumbed carefully through flimsy and cracked pages to the last two entries.
They were from five years earlier. The next to last entry was revealing: 'May seventh. Changing our route. Our scout reported signs . . . renegade band of outlaws between . . . the town . . . on our way to Fort Jef . . . (That would be Fort Jefferson, he surmised). 'He has suggested a route . . . high mesa. He says it . . . safer and easier . . . animals. And, given that we are carrying the payroll for several companies, we . . . safe arrival. Sergeant Taaffe disagrees and . . . course but he never liked Mas . . . and tends to disagree . . . says. I . . . getting home and seeing . . . and family.' Randall Chap . . ., Captain, US Ca . . .' And the final entry: 'Dying, and I know it. Attack . . . unexpect . . . a trap . . . had to be Masson . . . no one else . . . if anyone fin . . . tell the army and my w . . .'
The Captain, knowing he was dying, had made this final note and had done what he could to make certain it would be protected until and if someone found it. The final act of a dutiful and responsible officer.
It did not take much imagination to guess what had happened. They left their planned route on the advice of their civilian scout and had been ambushed up here. It was reasonable to assume the scout had been part of the ambush and had set them up for the attack. Since they were carrying the payroll for several army companies it would have been a lot of money. Certainly it would have been enough to kill for and given the track they were on, so far off their normal route, no one had bothered to look here for them. It would have made no sense for the patrol to climb up the mountain onto the mesa and so, without information or useful tracks, hard to find on the dusty and windy plains below, the search, and he was sure there had been one, had turned up nothing. That was certain or these bodies would have long ago been removed and buried properly.
Now what to do?
Obviously he had to report this to the commanding officer at Fort Jefferson whenever he got there. It was another day's ride or so west of Bakersfield. Once he had a horse he could manage that easily enough. He figured he could pick up a horse at Larker's Trading Post, a day or two walk from where he was. Then he would take the journals and other items to the Fort and after that be on his way to Bakersfield. There was still time.
He made a sack out of a spare shirt and between that and his saddlebags he was able to stuff all the items in. It would add to the weight he had to carry but he did not see any other way. Besides, he was a big and strong man, the result of years of hard physical work and he could manage it for another day.
He thought about burying the remains but realized that this would be a job for the army once they knew the location of the lost patrol. So he picked up his things and headed back the way he had come, once again passing the single set of bones with the pointing finger as he crossed over. It may have been that this man, knowing he was dying, crawled down from the mesa to make sure anyone passing by would find his body or bones and follow his pointing arm to the top. A brave and remarkably thoughtful act.
He crossed over the top of the hills the next day and began his steady descent toward Larker's Trading Post, mulling over in his mind his next step. They would be waiting for him in Bakersfield and would be anxious about his late arrival but this was too important to delay.
He was dry, dusty, thirsty and hungry when he arrived at Larker's at dusk the next day. He had been walking for three days, unusual for someone who lived in the saddle, riding preferred to walking. His feet were sore and blistered and he swore he would never travel without a couple of pair of thick-soled walking boots or moccasins. In fact, he would purchase some before he left.
Larker had about a dozen horses in the corral and was always open to bartering. Beggars cannot be choosers, so he selected what he thought was the best of the lot, a sturdy looking appaloosa that rolled its eyes and looked devilishly at him. He found the pesky ones usually made the best mounts once they got used to him and he thought this would be much the same. He paid more than he hoped but Larker, knowing his reputation, loaned him the saddle and tack on the promise he would return them once he retrieved his own. He did not share the story of what he found, preferring that others not know, just saying his horse had broken its leg and he had hiked his way to the Trading Post.
He rode out at first light toward Fort Jefferson, wanting to get this task out of the way. The horse fought him for a while but then settled into a steady gait that did not rattle his bones too much. He rode as quickly as prudent, not wanting another accident, and spent the night under the trees about two thirds of the way to the Fort. He ate sparingly of his supplies and crawled gratefully into his blankets after washing his sore feet in a nearby cold stream. He was in the saddle again at first light, fighting the appaloosa again for the first half hour as they battled to determine who the boss was. And again, as the day before, once that was over the big horse settled into a ground-covering lope that he liked.
He arrived at the Fort in the mid-afternoon and immediately asked to see the company commander. He was ushered into an outer office and shown a chair where he was directed to wait until called.
It was fifteen minutes later that an army colonel, noted by his uniform, came out to meet him and led him into a private office.
"The corporal said this was a matter of importance and sensitivity," Colonel James Radcliffe began. "I take that to mean it involves trouble." He smiled.
"Not for you, Colonel," he replied.
"Your name, sir?"
"Taggart, Colonel. Riley Taggart."
The colonel's eyes narrowed. "I seem to recall a Riley Taggart being with the 5th during the war. Would that be you?"
Taggart nodded. "It would, sir, but that was a long time ago."
"And best put behind us," Radcliffe said. "So, what news do you bring?"
"The saddest kind of all," Taggard said and then related in detail what he had found up on the mountain. He had placed a large sack on the floor when he entered the room, one he had purchased at Larker's and which held all of the things he had gathered at the site of the ambush.
When he finished, Radcliffe said nothing for a moment and appeared quite taken aback by what he had been told.
"The Captain was Randall Chapman," he said. "A friend who was with me for most of the war. When the patrol didn't arrive, we searched the plains all the way back to Fort Myers where they'd last stopped. We found nothing. We searched for tracks near the hills but no one thought to go all the way into the hills, much less to the top of the mesa. It would have made no sense for them to ride up there and would have been far out of their planned route. Now I can see what happened and why we missed them in our search."
"This scout, Masson, what of him?"
Radcliffe shrugged. "We thought he was lost with the rest of the patrol. I didn't know the man but clearly from Randall's journal Masson was involved in leading them into the ambush. I'm sure I can get a description from those who knew him back then and we can begin a search. But it's been more than five years and he's likely changed his name. His appearance would be different. I'm afraid I don't hold out much hope of finding him."
He held out his hand. "I want to thank you for what you've done. It brings closure to a sad story, but that closure will be important to their families. I'll personally lead the patrol to recover their bodies and make certain they're buried with military honors as befits how they lived and died."
"Why don't you take time for a meal in the mess," Radcliffe suggested and Riley agreed and thanked him. The meal was simple and filling and he washed it down with three cups of strong coffee.
He was walking toward his horse when Colonel Radcliffe came over to him with a tall, lanky corporal beside him.
"This is Corporal Cantwell," Radcliffe said. "He was at Fort Tucson when the payroll party left there for here and he saw this Masson."
"He was about thirty, stocky and muscular," Cantwell began. "He favoured the big Texas type hats, had an ivory-handled pistol worn for a cross-hand draw. He also had two scars, one above and one below his left eye."
"Never know who you might meet in your travels, Taggart, so I thought this might be helpful information."
"I'll keep my eyes open," Riley said. Radcliffe accompanied Taggart to his horse. He mounted the appaloosa and rode out the gates of the fort.
Colonel James Radcliffe turned to his adjutant. "Corporal, prepare a patrol. Twenty men and three large wagons with fifteen sacks large enough for human remains. I want them ready to leave first thing in the morning. I'm afraid that we have a difficult and unhappy task to perform."
It was not until noon the next day when Riley Taggart rode into Bakersfield. He arranged care for the appaloosa at the livery stable and headed for the office of the town marshal, Owen MacDougall.
MacDougall rose from his seat and grasped Riley's hand. "Good Lord, Riley, it's good to see you!" he said. "Been too long. I expected you sooner."
"We still have time." Taggart gave a short account of his find in the hills and the need for the trip to Fort Jefferson to report on it.
"Durndest thing!" MacDougall exclaimed. "They goin' to be goin' after this Masson? It's been a long time but someone always knows something. Memories are pretty long out here."
"If they can," Taggart said. "But after all this time, and since he's probably long gone and might have changed his name, Colonel Radcliffe wasn't too hopeful. But that's his responsibility, not ours. We've our own troubles."
He shared the description of Masson that Corporal Cantwell had provided and MacDougall made notes on a pad on the desk.
"As you say, we've got our own troubles, lad, and that we do. It's a good thing you're back here. It's been more than a month since we sent the wire. Time's passing, and not for the better."
"How is he?"
MacDougall shook his head. "Not good, Riley, and fading. Best you not waste time talking to me and get yourself out there."
Riley Taggart nodded. "I'll check back with you in a few days."
He mounted the horse and headed west toward the Four Diamonds, the first ranch he had ever worked on.
He had come to the Four Diamonds as a kid of sixteen, looking for work, and with nothing to his name other than his horse, saddle, gear and what he carried. He had left home months earlier as there was nothing there for him, no job and no future. He had ridden long and hard, taking advantage of the hospitality of others along the way, especially the travelling herds. On one of those drives he met Mark Talbot and they became close friends even though Mark was at least ten years older than Riley.
He became part of their family, welcomed openly by Ada and Ward Talbot and treated just like one of their own.
He had not been back for almost seven years and wondered about changes. When word came to him that Ward Talbot was dying, he headed back to the ranch right away, but not without misgivings. He and Ward had been close, Riley almost like a second son, but time had seen them disagree and often fight about everything from ranching to politics, especially politics. It had been a relief of sorts when Riley departed for the Union army, but Ward had been opposed to the war and to anyone participating in it. They had more angry words as Riley left and he had not been back since. Out here the war had meant very little, but Ward's opposition was firm and unyielding. And when Walt's son Mark had chosen to fight for the south it had been the end of the relationship between father and son. Mark had been killed just before the end of the war and Riley was glad he never had to meet his friend, or any of his southern kin, in battle.
It was a three-hour ride to the Four Diamonds, so named after the four children that Ward and Ada Talbot had brought into the world. Mark had been born back in Georgia and the other three, all girls, here in the southeastern corner of Nebraska. Ward Talbot had seen the war and its troubles coming a long time before it began and wanted his family to be safe and well out of the way. So he sold everything while the selling was good and bought the ten thousand acres in Nebraska. Riley thought of it as a ranch but it was really more of a farm than a ranch. And it was completely self-sufficient.
He passed the six-foot totem signpost that informed riders they had entered the Four Diamonds range, though he was still a couple of miles from the ranch house. Similar totems were posted in various locations from which travelers might arrive. A half-hour later he could see the roofs of the buildings and he slowed the horse, thinking of what he would find and what he would say.
He dismounted in the yard and stood there, waiting for someone to notice. And they did. Two women, one slightly younger than himself and one much younger, came from one of the four large barns. They were dressed in jeans and shirts, work apparel, and they ran toward him when they recognized him.
"Riley Taggart!" Shanna called. "It's you!" She wrapped her arms around him tightly as if to make certain he was real.
"It's me alright, Shanna," he said, then turned to the other younger girl. "And you must be Riana. You were still young when I left."
She nodded, smiling but uncertain until he swept her off her feet and gave her a big hug. Her smile became a grin.
He turned to see Ada Talbot striding across the yard. She was a woman of rare beauty and size, standing at more than six feet in height. She stopped a few feet away for a moment, appraising him. "Well," she said, "You've not faded away, at least. Give us a hug."
The hug was long and warm.
Ward Talbot sat in his favourite chair on the back porch overlooking his land. He did not get up when Riley came onto the porch but did extend his hand.
"Good to have you back here, boy," he said with surprising warmth. "Wish I was in better shape to greet you."
"That's okay, Ward," Riley said. "Good to see you getting fresh air."
"Getting all I can while I can," Ward Talbot said. "Doc says I might have another couple of months, maybe more. It's a terrible thing to get old, Riley, but worse to get old and feeble. But the heart's not working right and there's nothing they can do. Me and it are running out of time together, I suppose."
"I'm sorry," was all Riley could say.
"Well, there's no use jawing or whining about it," Ward Talbot said. "It is what it is and if this is my time, this is my time. But at least I get to spend my final days with family and on the land I've watched grow and prosper."
He coughed a bit.
"Hate that damn cough," he said, wiping his lips and taking a sip of water from a glass on a table at his side. "But say, have you seen the girls?"
""Shanna and Riana," he replied. "Where's Theresa?"
His father smiled. "She's doing fine. She up and married Paul Dowdall, son of the banker and he runs the bank now. They live in a fine house in town."
"I'm glad," Riley said. "I'll head over to visit her while I'm here."
"For how long?" Talbot asked hesitantly. "How long you staying?"
"As long as you need me to."
"That could be a very long time, boy. I'm hoping you'll stay here permanent and run the place when I'm gone. There's no one else I'd trust to do it, Riley, and the boys we got, few as they are, just ain't yet up to it. They got potential, but they need someone to lead them right now. I hate to put it on you, given what I know about your wandering ways but I'm asking. I understand if the answer is no but give it some thought."
"I will, I promise," Riley answered.
"I need to lie down for a little while," Talbot said. Riley helped him out of the chair and onto a settee and covered him with the blanket that was on it. In less than a minute, the older man was fast asleep, the warm sun on his face. Riley went back into the kitchen feeling down.
"He's not got long," Ada said, a sad look on her face. "I heard him tell you it's months but it's much less. Days, maybe a couple of weeks. It's good you got here when you could, though we expected you sooner."
He explained his discovery of the slain army patrol and how that and the loss of his horse had slowed his return. She understood. Then her face brightened.
"Well, you're here now, and from what you wrote when you wrote I'm surmising you've got the skills to run the place. Am I right?"
He nodded. "Who's the foreman?"
She laughed. "You mean other than Shanna? She thinks she's the foreman but Don Scott has that honour. He puts up with Shanna because he's got a shine on for her and she makes his life difficult because she knows it and likes it. He's young and not up to being the foreman but the others help him out."
She described the ranch operations and the hands who worked for them. There were eight, two each on the north, west, east and south ranges. They hired locals when there was a drive and they planned one in two months.
"Have you ever taken a herd to market, Riley?" Ada asked. "We're a year overdue for a drive 'cause we couldn't put together enough hands last year. Help's scarce around here right now."
"Four times," he said, "the last time as trail boss."
She nodded. "That's good. That's a big help."
He left the house and crossed over to the barn where he had seen Shanna and Riana and found them at work. Shanna was at the forge, surprising him, and Riana was cleaning stalls with a big and wide rake.
He watched Shanna at work and marveled at her skill with the forge and the blacksmith tools. She made it look like artistry.
"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked.
"From dad," she said. "And I like it." The muscles on her arms and hands were evident and she looked healthy and lovely. He could understand Don Scott's interest and that of any of the punchers.
"I'm learning too," Riana said from a nearby stall.
Shanna put the tools away and they went outside and sat on a bench.
"You saw dad?"
He nodded. "He's not got long your mom says and he asked me to stay on and run things for a while. How would you feel about that?"
She grinned. "I'd like that just fine, Riley. The boys would too, once they meet you and get to know you."
"Then I should meet them as soon as I can."
"Don Scott's the foreman," she said. "He'll be coming in around dinner time. He often eats with the family."
He looked at her, and she blushed. "Is he likely to be family some day?"
"If he's lucky," she said coyly. "Now get out. I've work to do." She got up and returned to the forge.
He walked around the place, checking the buildings, finding as expected that everything was neat, tidy and well-maintained. That was Ward.
"Then I guess I'm back," he said aloud. "And it feels good to be back."
Don Scott and two other riders walked their horses into the yard just before dinner time. One of the punchers took the horses toward the corral, the other going along and the younger and taller man that Riley figured was Don Scott headed right for the barn. Riley headed there too.
Shanna introduced them and told Don that Riley would be taking over running the ranch. Scott smiled and held out his hand. "Good to have a cowman running things. Welcome home." The grip was firm and honest.
He and Don Scott sat outside on the front porch after dinner.
"Give me the overview," Riley said.
For the next half hour Don Scott went over all of the aspects of the ranch, sparing no detail and giving a concise and thoughtful appraisal of where they were. There were no real problems.
"You alright with me taking over things?" Riley asked. "I don't want it to be a problem between us."
"No problem," Scott replied. "Actually, it's a relief for me. I grew up in towns and running a ranch is something different. I've a lot to learn."
"Seems there's no real problem right now."
"Well, other than the few the Indians take time to time."
Scott nodded. "There's a small tribe of Omaha about thirty miles from here. When they can't find enough meat from hunting they slip down and take a cow or two. Ward didn't really mind and told us to just let it go, so we do."
Riley grinned. "That would be him. And the gather that's planned?"
"We figure to move at least fifteen hundred head to the rail yard in Kansas City. It's at least a two-week trip but the prices for cattle are best there this time of year. They'd probably take two thousand and we have them, but that might be pushing it. You been over the trail?"
Riley nodded. "Yes, though from Utah, the last time as trail boss."
Don Scott nodded. "That's good for us then."
many men will you need for the drive?"
"That's the problem, Riley. We need at least six men here to keep up with the place and right now it looks like it might be hard to find men for the drive. We've sent word out and I'm hopeful but we've got to wait and see. We had the same problem last year and had to put off the drive but we can't do that again. We need the money and to get rid of some stock."
Riley nodded. "Good to know what we're up against."
He slept comfortably in a large room in the main house and was up before the sun, heading to the barn to help Riana milk the cows. It was not a chore he enjoyed but he was determined to pitch in wherever he could. It was while he was milking that the idea came to him.
Shanna was working at the forge, getting the fire going.
"Shanna, who's the chief of the Omaha tribe west of here?"
"Iron Eyes. He gets his name from his grey eyes, unusual for them. Why?"
"Don said we might have trouble finding enough punchers for the drive to Kansas and I wondered if I could hire the Omaha to help out."
Her eyebrows went up. "Are you serious?"
"Sure," he said. "Why not?"
"Because it's never been done," Don Scott said, coming into the entrance of the barn and hearing Riley's idea.
"You against the idea?" Riley asked. "Against Indians?"
Scott shook his head. "Nope, not at all. Even if I was, you're the boss and if you say so, then it's so. It just that it isn't done, or hasn't been."
"How about you and I ride out and see if we can negotiate something with Iron Eyes. Have you met him?"
Scott nodded. "A good man. Probably about fifty, but there's a number of men in their twenties and thirties that might enjoy something different."
And that was just what they did. Don Scott, Riley and a puncher named Laredo Jackson, a forty-something veteran, rode the long day, camping out that night and then riding down into the Omaha camp the next morning.
Don Scott was recognized and they sat around a campfire drinking black coffee they had brought along, discussing Riley's proposal. Iron Eyes listened carefully as one of the young braves named Winter Lion, who had been to an English school at Fort Jefferson, translated Riley's words. Riley suspected Iron Eyes understood what he was saying a lot better than he let on.
"I want to hire ten of your young men to help me take up to two thousand cattle to the railhead at Kansas City," he said. "I'll pay them the same as any cowboy, the payment in money or in cattle as you choose. The drive will start in two weeks and they'll be gone at least a month. They'll report to Don Scott, Laredo Jackson or myself, not to anyone else. They'll be treated the same as everyone else on the drive and expected to work just as hard as everyone else. They'll have to bring their own horses, at least four each, and their own weapons."
Iron Eyes listened without expression and then got up and wandered off with three elders from the tribe. They carried on a quiet conversation for almost twenty minutes while Winter Lion assured Riley all would be well.
"It's for show," he said, grinning. "He has to look like he was giving it a lot of thought and that he sought the opinion of our elders."
Then Iron Eyes returned and spoke, translated by Winter Lion.
"It is good you have come here and that you value the skills of our young men. This is a good thing for us and a good bond between the Omaha and your ranch in the green valley. We will select ten of our best young men, led by Winter Lion. They will bring horses and whatever else they need and they will be at your ranch ten days from today. They will do as told by you or these two others. We will accept half of their earnings in dollars and half in cattle."
He held out his hand and Riley Taggart shook it.
"That is his bond," Winter Lion said.
The three men rode back toward the ranch later that morning.
"What do you think the other trail crews will say when they see them Indians working our herd?" Laredo Jackson asked.
"I don't know," Riley answered, smiling, "But I bet it'll be interesting."
And it was.
In the intervening days, Riley, Don Scott and Laredo Jackson rode the open range, selecting cattle for the drive and bunching them in one big open meadow east of the ranch. It would easily hold the cattle for two or three weeks. At the same time, Shanna prepared the chuck wagon for the ride. From time to time Ward Talbot would come to watch the preparations, riding out in a buckboard with Shanna twice to look at the expanding herd of cattle. He was doing a bit better of late, though the end was still undeniably close.
"I appreciate what you're doing, boy," he said to Riley when he rode up to the buckboard on the second visit. "Know we had our differences but at least we aired them out without hating one another. That's important. Once I'm gone I suppose you can do what you like. But I'd like it if you stayed on. You're family, boy, and family comes together in the tough times, don't they?"
Riley nodded. "They do and I'll stay as long as I'm needed."
Shanna turned the buckboard and headed back toward the ranch house. Riley sat his horse and looked over the cattle in the large meadow, wondering. He wished he had Wolf or Tom with him but wishing did not make it so.
They hired two riders for the gather, Tim Wilson and Doc Morgan, Doc having been a dentist before taking on the western ways.
When the Indians, led by Winter Lion arrived ten days after Riley's visit to their village, they had gathered almost eighteen hundred cattle. With current prices for cattle this would be a rich drive indeed. Each Indian had brought four or five horses and the animals looked like the type to stand up to the hard riding of the cattle drive. They had also brought rifles and a few had longbows on their horses. Riley liked the look of them right away and said so to Winter Lion.
He smiled and nodded. "They are not the youngest or the oldest but they are the best among us for this. And they are not afraid of hard work."
Two days later they moved out, with Don Scott taking the lead and the cowboys and Indians riding the side and dusty rear of the herd that a tally showed numbered eighteen hundred head. The chuck wagon came behind, far enough back to let the dust settle in front of it. Dusty Chapman was the cook, a man of many experiences and one who had taken many herds over the route they travelled. He was also an excellent cook, a step above the typical trail cook.
Laredo Jackson was a day ahead, scouting the trail, one that he knew well and that Riley knew somewhat, making sure things had not changed. He marked the waterholes, steered them away from smaller ranches and farms and generally scouted the entire trip. He joined them for supper each evening and rode out early each morning. It would be a twelve to sixteen-day trip as planned.
The first four days were uneventful as they got into the routine. The cattle were cooperative, the natural leaders taking their place in front and the rest wandering along behind. The land was wide and flat and there was not much need to chase back wanderers on the side or the laggards from behind.
Then there were three long days of rain, alternating between driving water pellets that stung and a gentle misty rainfall. The second night was the night of concern as lightning struck both north and south of them and they had to keep a tight ring on the cattle so they would not spook and run. No one slept much that night but no lightning strikes came close enough to start a stampede and the next three days of sun allowed things to dry.
"Halfway," Don Scott said over a cup of hot coffee. "So far so good."
Riley nodded. "We've been lucky, though at this time of the year that luck should hold out for us. Least I hope so."
Winter Lion and two other Indians had joined them at the fire.
"I think I'd like to ride out with Laredo tomorrow," he said. "And scout ahead. Would that be alright?"
Riley nodded. "Fine. We're passing near some settlements for the next few days and we should have two men out front. I may join you in the morning."
He did, and the three rode out early ahead of the herd. There was some slope to the ground now, not too much but enough to slow the herd a bit and maybe reduce the miles they covered each day. Nothing unexpected, nothing to raise any concerns. Just something to keep in mind as they wanted to deliver healthy cattle still fattened from an early spring.
Just after lunch, they spotted a group of riders heading toward them.
"Trouble?" Laredo asked.
Riley just shrugged.
The six men rode up to them and two advanced.
"Howdy," he said. "You with the herd that's coming along?"
"How many head?"
"About eighteen hundred," he replied.
"That many cattle can take up a lot of grass," the man said.
Riley nodded again. "That they can. Is that a problem?"
"Not if they don't stray too far north of the line you're on."
"Then they won't."
"Or too far south," the other man said. He was scowling. "We don't much care for big herds coming through here."
"But it's open land," the first man said. "And you've a right to pass. We just want to make sure you pass through fast and without too much damage."
"There won't be," Riley said. "But if there are any concerns after the herd has passed by, send someone to let me know and we'll settle it somehow."
"With guns?" the second man said, somewhat sarcastically, nodding his head with meaning toward Laredo Jackson.
Riley shook his head. "Nope. And we'll be fair about it."
"That Indian with you?" the second man asked.
"Not with us, he's one of us, him and others. They work with us," Riley said.
"Ain't never seen Indians riding with a trail herd."
"Well," drawled Laredo Jackson, "you can tell folks you seen it now. I'd stack them up against any cowboys I ever punched cows with."
"Good enough," the first man said, nodding, and they turned and rode away.
"You a gunman?" Winter Lion asked. "That man thought so."
"Long time past," Jackson said. He nodded past Winter Lion toward Riley. "I'm not as fast as him, I can tell you that."
Riley was puzzled. "You've never seen me draw a gun, Laredo."
Jackson grinned sardonically. "Don't have to. I just know. You don't show it, Riley, but you have the look. You have the look."
"I do not," Riley protested.
Winter Lion laughed. "Yes, you do." He and Laredo chuckled.
The rest of the trip was without incident and they breathed a sigh of relief when they herded the cattle into the pens in Kansas City. Riley met with Thobe Calder, the cattle agent and they settled accounts. Riley paid the riders that day, including the money he gave to Winter Lion. The Indians would travel back with Riley, Laredo and the others in case the sight of the warriors unsettled anyone. Then they would take the agreed upon cattle and head back to their village to report to Iron Eyes.
The next morning, he and Laredo Jackson were down at the corrals to supervise the transition of the herd to the railway staff that would be loading them for the trip to the east and their final destination.
As he and Laredo wandered through the bustling, noisy corrals and paddocks Riley suddenly stopped. They had passed a number of riders and something clicked in Riley's subconscious. For a moment he was not sure what it was and then the bell went off in his head. Loud and clear, and he knew.
Laredo noticed and the question was in his eyes.
"Thought I recognized someone," Riley said. "If so, it could be trouble. I might be right or might be wrong. Stay off to the side and cover me.
Laredo nodded and moved off a few yards to the right, his hand near his gun and his eyes watchful.
Riley wandered back along the way he had come, seeming to be again casually looking over the various animals, but studiously searching again for the man that had caught his attention.
Then he saw him. A man in his late thirties or early forties, stocky and muscular. He wore a large Texas hat and the man had two scars, one over and one under his left eye.
Masson! Riley was sure of it. He waited a moment until the surprise passed. Then he strolled casually over to the man.
"Buying or selling," Riley asked, leaning on the top rail of the corral.
"Selling. We brought in a herd from my ranch down Arizona way, heading for the east. You buying?"
Riley shook his head. "Selling, same as you. Deal's done, just getting ready to head back to the ranch."
"Western Wyoming. Near Fort Jefferson. Know the area?"
There was a flicker in the man's eyes, one ever so brief and then he shook his head. "Nope. Never been up that way. Hear it's nice country."
Riley nodded. "Sure is. I'd been away for a while and came back to help with the ranch and the gather for this drive. Travelled there from Montana. Horse broke his leg and I had to shoot him on the way. Good horse, too."
"Damn shame when that happens," the man said.
"Had to cross country on foot, hike up over the mountains, up across White Mesa. Know what I found up there?"
The man stared at Riley Taggart and his right hand moved slowly toward the gun that he wore on his left side for a cross-draw.
"Don't bother," Riley said. "You're covered, Masson."
Masson looked over his shoulder. Laredo Jackson held a gun on him.
Riley reached over and picked Masson's pistol from its holster.
"But how . . ." the man began.
"They gave me your description. The rest was just luck. You just happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, at least for me."
They marched Masson to the marshal's office and Riley related the entire story. The marshal locked Masson up and indicated he would contact Colonel Radcliffe about how the army wished to proceed.
"Life with you ain't never gonna be dull, is it?" Laredo Jackson said as they rode back to camp to join the others.
"Hasn't been so far," Riley had to agree.
The trip back was quick and uneventful and as they crested that final rise and Riley looked at the ranch spread out below them, and at the new friends that rode with him, he knew he had found himself back home.
Home to stay.