Western Short Story
The Morris ranch was leaking cattle. Shelby the widowed owner of the ranch told Ben Smith her newly hired foreman of her fears that someone was rustling them. He sat out then to keep his eyes peeled and watch for any sign of rustling.
Tanner, ex-foreman of the Morris ranch found out that gambling required much time and more money than he now had.
Tanner had become addicted to gambling some time back, now the only time he wasn’t sitting in a game was when he’d gone broke. He and Randy his partner in crime had been gambling and drinking hard ever since they’d gotten fired from the Morris ranch. The only time they worked, was when they ran over to the Morris ranch to dip their hands into what they now considered their own private bank account. As long as they’d worked daily and hadn’t time to go off to town to drink and gamble, both men had plenty of money to jingle when the rare opportunity to run into town revealed itself. Now, though, gambling seemed to be their fulltime job.
Gambling had taken a greater hold on on Tanner than it had on Randy. The lure that he might win a large jackpot kept him in the game long before he could find a way to step away from the table. He had absolutely no restraint. What’s worse, he was a lousy gambler. Even worse than Randy.
“Damn it all,” Tanner muttered. He slapped his losing hand onto the face of the small round table in Jack’s Café in which the men used to gamble at. He stood up, hitched his gun belt. He swung his eyes toward the bar. He felt damned dry. But Jack, the female owner of the joint, met his eyes in a firm denial. It seemed she could read his mind. He watched as she leaned an elbow on the bar, as if she were guarding the whiskey on a wide wooden shelf behind her. Slowly, she shook her head. She had no intention of doling out good whiskey to a man unable to pay in silver. Tanner owed her five dollars already. Randy was in her debt too. Tonight, she’d shut that source off.
He hated the thought, but it was time to go back to work.
“What’s wrong, Tanner,” Standish Phelps said. He wore a knowing and smug smile on his fat, sweat shiny, pink face. “Ain’t quittin’ already, I hope.” The man had just drained him of ready cash, all cash really.
Phelps was a drummer out taking orders for kitchen ranges from a big firm located in Kansas City. He would also loan money on occasion at exorbitant rates and made sure the collateral was worth more than the dough he loaned out to a sucker. No one had ever beaten Phelps on any kind of deal. He gambled nearly nonstop while in town—well after jotting down orders from the Owen’s Hardware store, that is. The man was a teetotaler, and Tanner often noticed that Phelps made sure he never sat down to a game where the men weren’t at least halfway snookered with whiskey. Everyone felt him a cheat, but no one had ever caught him in the act. He was slick all right. Too slick.
“You know damned well what’s wrong, Phelps,” Tanner said. He swung about then and lit out for the door. He crossed the street in a hurry, as he headed toward the residential area of the small town of Rowena toward a boarding house where he and Randy had a room.
Randy lay sleeping when Tanner barged into the room. The room itself smelled like a whiskey barrel. Randy snored loud enough that the walls should’ve been shaking. Tanner raised a boot and shoved hard against the bedrail. The entire bed slid back against the wall with a bang, and this awakened Randy. He sat up, wide eyed, hair all down in his face. He looked like a wild man, red-eyed, the start of a beard on a face that was homely to begin with. He held his gun in hand.
Tanner decided Randy slept with the gun in his grip at all times. Hell, ever since he’d killed that unfortunate man in Jack’s Cafe, Randy began to take himself as a tough gun-slick, hard as nails. But he was a true friend. Just then he thought back to the time Randy had pulled them both out of the deep ditch they were in out at old man Ibsen’s outfit, how he’d gotten their full payment on the rustled cattle they’d brought to his door to sell, instead of taking a big cut the way Ibsen planned it. He saw that Randy had matured a good deal with the gun backing him. So maybe thinking it had made it true.
“Tanner,” Randy said his voice raspy with sleep. “What’n hell are you doin’? You come damned close to gettin’ your head blown off.”
“Get your ass outta bed, Randy. We got work to do.”
“You packin’ any dough in your jeans?”
Randy shook his head. “You know right well I ain’t. All I’m packin’ is the sorry habit.”
“It’s time. So, get outta there. Throw some water in your face and lets go.”
Randy muttered under his breath as he washed his face, then struggled into his clothes and boots. “You know what this means, boss?”
“Sure. Means well have to drive them cow-creatures all the way over to Ben Nightingales outfit. But that’s on you, I ‘spect. No way Ibsen will buy from us again after how you treated the man the last time.” At the time, Tanner had appreciated the action Randy made against Ibsen. But he sure didn’t want to tell that.
“Hell’s on fire,” Randy protested. “I don’t recall you turnin’ down that dough that old bastard was fixin’ to beat us out of.”
“Come on, Randy. Get your skinny ass ready and stop whinin’. It’s time to get back to work. Be grateful we got a safe cache so nearby.”
Randy mumbled curses under his breath all the way down the steps, on outside and all the way over to the livery stable. They mounted up and as they passed the city limits sign, the wind had blown it sideways from its constant swaying action.
The wind blew a thin screen of snow in a loud moan across the road. Both of them had hiked the collars of their heavy coats by now. Even Randy, normally a man to take the cold, suffered from the cold treacherous wind. Tanner heard his own teeth chatter even above the moan of the wind.
Tanner allowed that by the time they located the herd and picked up what they needed the snow would still fall but at a lesser pace. Tanner felt the entire mess would blow over soon. The snow that still fell amounted to little. If not for the wind that shifted it across the trail in front of them, neither man would’ve thought much of it. The night grew colder, though, and Tanner drew his head down as deeply as possible into his coat.
Tanner headed straight for the heavy cedar growth. He felt he’d find the cattle there for sure. But when the dark mass of cedars loomed large before them, he drew rein.
“Now what?” Randy said. He pulled up next to Tanner. “Let’s get on with it. I want to get it over with this as soon as possible. Need to get out of this wind.”
“Hush now,” Tanner said. He lifted a gloved hand, thrust his head up out of the protection of the wool coat. Something was wrong.
“What is it, boss?”
“Hush,” Tanner warned again. He felt a sudden chill invade his heart that he wasn’t satisfied was the full fault of the cold wind. “Hell,” he muttered.
Again, Randy said, “What wrong, boss?”
Tanner heeled his animal forward with a sinking feeling that the cattle weren’t beneath the cedars. He drew rein beneath one of the giant trees, partially screened off by the lower growth of younger cedars, which did a great job deflecting the wind.
The wind moaned in the treetops mournful screeches that brought to mind souls of men lost for eternity in their search for a place of safety. He scanned the area, bent low onto his animal’s neck, and peered beneath the lower limbs and the brush that grew beneath the larger cedars. Nothing.
His feet grew numb in his boots. He stepped to the ground to walk about with the wish of warming them, searching for the cattle all the while. Soon both men were afoot leading their animals beneath the bend of the limbs, heads ducked low, as they cast about for the herd. Tanner heard nothing except the mournful, chilled cry of the wind. By and by, they emerged on the far side of the cedars, out again into the full blast of the wind.
“Where’n hell are they?” Randy said.
“Yeah,” Tanner answered. “Where’n hell’s right?”
Tanner added nothing more. He mounted up, swung out onto the trail again. Soon, he heard Randy’s animal striking the iron hard earth. He looked to his left and Randy rode along beside him. The wind now struck them from behind, some warmer, but not by much.
“Where we headed?” Randy said.
“Only one place them cows might be.”
“You ain’ t alkin’ ‘bout the grove up by the ranch house?”
“Yessir. That’s exactly what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”
“The herd don’t go over there, but what they’re driven there, boss.”
“I suspect that new foreman of Shelby’s, Smith, must’ve driven them over there.”
“What for?” Randy protested. “That grove closer to the barn don’t have near as much brush to block the wind as this one does. Don’t make no sense.”
“Smith must’ve figured this snow might ‘mount to something. If he had to drive a wagon of hay out to feed them creatures, that it would be a much closer drive. Hell, why ask me? I don’t know. Had to guess, though, I’d say that’s what happened.”
Randy cursed again, but under his breath. Tanner allowed him to mutter on. He figured the exercise might just keep Randy’s jaws from freezing up tight as a rain barrel.
The cedars loomed straight ahead. It was a forty-minute ride. This chilled them both to the bone. The wind blew the odor of the cattle into Tanner’s face. He sighed deeply and felt a wonderful relief in his chest. The cattle lowed softly in the night.
“’Bout time,” Randy protested as he drew alongside Tanner.
Both men stopped. They stared into the gloom without speech. Tanner felt the search had ended. The ride to Ben Nightingale’s would be rough, but at least they’d have their payday at the end of the drive.
“Damned me, but I felt sure’s hell somebody had moved this damned cedar grove,” Randy said.
Tanner felt magnanimous because they’d located the herd, and he chuckled at this. Eventually, he said, “Let’s get after it.”
They’d carried out this routine for so long that by now it’d become second nature. Tanner rode around the huddled cattle to the east side and kneed his horse into the grove. He squinted in the dark and eventually selected six animals that he figured would fetch a fair price. When he drove them from the relative warmth of the cedars, the cattle bawled their protest. Deep gouts of steam escaped from heated lungs through the nose of each animal. Steam also rose from the backs of the creatures. It was carried off instantly on the fierce wind. The effect looked ghostly to Tanner in the gloom of night, but he’d grown used to it from years of riding on the animals in winter. It was merely a part of the business of tending the creatures he’d grown used to by now.
He drove the six cows out onto the trail, and sat his horse, until by and by he saw Randy emerge from the herd from the west side behind his six animals. He sat in place while Randy drove his cows into those of his own to make a small run of twelve in total. The cows moved out, forced by soft whistles from the lips of Randy, the pressure of the joining of the two groups. But it was plain to see that they were plenty reluctant to leave their shelter.
He guided his horse up then and soon he rode alongside Randy. He noticed that Randy, by now, had his head setting far down inside the protection of his coat collar. The night temperature had fallen dramatically since sunset. His hands, especially his fingers, felt as if they belonged to someone else. They were wooden and wouldn’t respond properly to the commands issued by his brain. He tried to ignore the cold, but in the end found this an impossible task.
“Damn me,” Randy complained, “it’s so cold I can’t even roll a cigarette. Wish I’d taken time to do that while I was in the cedars.”
“Be a good time to quit, I reckon,” Tanner mumbled. No answer from Randy, so he allowed he hadn’t heard him or didn’t want to one or the other. He’d long noticed that the man had a way of hearing only what he wanted to hear, a man hard to order about.
Some tortured minutes later, the herd halted as a group then milled about on the trail, going in a short circle, lowing as if they’d suddenly lost their sense of direction.
“What the hell,” Randy cried out.
Tanner watched as his pal stood up in the stirrups. His head sprang from the collar of his coat like a mechanical toy. Now he stood up in the stirrups too. He peered intently into the dark, the wind-driven snow. He stared so long into the maelstrom of constantly blown snow that he felt his eyes about to cross.
“What’s wrong with these beasts?”
“Let’s push ‘em. Get ‘em on the move again. I think they’re fixin’ to turn back for the cedars.”
Tanner kicked up his gelding. It sprang ahead and in two lunges ran up against the broad side of one of the cows. This stopped his animal, and he kicked it up again. This time the cow ran ahead twenty feet, then swerved about. It plunged toward the side, moving through the herd. He saw its plan. If it reached the outside of the herd and swung back to the east, it would hike its tail and light out back to the cedars. Shortly after that, they rest would follow.
“Head her off, Randy. Stop that heifer. She’s fixin’ to head back to the cedars.”
Randy heeled his mount and quickly turned the wayward cow back into the center of the small group and pushed her all the way into the middle. Tanner had always admired the skill Randy possessed as a cattle hand. He would have made a top hand if he had wanted to.
“What’s causin’ this old business? Them cows’re actin’ mighty strange,” Randy yelled out over the racket of the wind, the bawling of the cows, which by this time had reached its peak against the wind. They were under pressure it seemed from front and back. It looked as if they were unsure just what they could do, in which direction they might go.
“You take this side, Randy,” Tanner called out. “I’ll go to the other side. We’ll have to keep ‘em moving forward until they find we ain’t gonna allow ‘em to turn about.”
Ten minutes later, they managed to push the cows forward and kept them at it through the thin, blowing snow. Tanner noticed that the herd had suddenly split, one half going to the left and the other half to the right. It seemed odd, as if they were avoiding something in the middle.
A few hundred yards down the trail, Tanner drew up short. He blinked his eyes, squinted hard against the snow and the dark. Something stood there, just ahead, a dark figure, like a large rock in the middle of a stream, which divided the water to the left and right.
“Hold it right there, men,” a voice called out. Suddenly the large rock turned into a man on horseback. “I got you in the sights of this rifle, Tanner. It’s to my shoulder. My finger is on the trigger and it’s squeezin’ out the slack right now while I’m speakin’. Toss down your arms and hold up right where you stand. Both of you.”
Shelby’s new foreman, Smith, had set them a trap and they’d stepped into it as if they’d been blind. “Get about, Randy,” Tanner screamed. “Get the hell outta here.”
Then before Tanner had half a chance to do anything except stand pat, the loud crack of a pistol shot shattered the air. He swung his animal about, set heels deep into its flanks and caught air. Randy, the fool, had shot at Smith instead of lighting out for safety. He flung himself forward over the neck of his gelding and kept his head down. He heard two shots from a rifle quickly behind the heavy thump of Randy’s .45.
Another pistol shot rent the air and the frantic blow of the wind. This time it sounded weak in competition to the overwhelming blasts of nature. Then two more shots followed, louder, heavier, more mature reports from the rifle, followed only by the blasts of the wind. The pistol then fell silent.
He heeled his horse continually in an effort to urge more speed from the animal, panicked, not noticing that the animal was running full-out and had no more speed to offer. The wind in his face, the blowing snow in his eyes, he rode on in an effort to outrun Smith. He saw no way that Randy had survived those four discharges of the man’s rifle. He’d heard no more pistol shots after the second one, the second series of rifle shot. The new foreman had shot his partner dead. He felt this strongly.
He wondered what he would do now. Even if he escaped, he had no dough. He’d left his gear back in the boarding house. All but what he now wore. What he sat on. What he carried tied on behind his saddle.
“Damn it to hell,” he muttered through firmly clenched teeth. “I should’ve waited. Should’ve waited a couple more weeks.”
But he hadn’t. He’d needed the dough. Now he figured he’d taken too much from their private bank account and far too soon, now he saw that it might just be his undoing. He raised up in the saddle, turned his head to the side, and listened for the strong beats of hooves behind him.
Faintly, he heard the rattle of hooves behind him. He made his decision. He swung the horse to the side of the trail, lay far back on the reins. Its rear feet slid upon the earth. The steel horseshoes over the frozen earth skidded beneath his animal. It nearly went down still out of control. It was plain the good creature would topple forward. The horse still fought for sufficient purchase to stop its wild flight, but it seemed to be a losing battle. The horse went down headfirst. Tanner set his feet beneath him and stepped out of the saddle before he too fell on his face.
He stepped to the side to prevent the animal from kicking him as it fought to gain its feet. He wrapped the stiff reins about his wrist to prevent the gelding from fleeing and stranding him. The animal succeeded getting to its feet. It blew steam from its mouth and nose, foam burst into the wind with each exhalation it made, and it tried to swap ends, but was held in check now by the strong arm of its owner. The animal had a strong feel for the run now. It wanted to continue until it grew too weary to run anymore.
“Hold, fool,” Tanner commanded. He whistled softly to the panicked animal, and soon it calmed down as much as it ever would.
Tanner snatched his .45, held it aloft. Suddenly, he no longer felt the cold. The fear of losing his chum, his easy stock of cash, locked up every other sensation in his body and soul, as he waited in ambush for Roper to show himself.
“Damn the bastard. I’ll kill him. If Randy’s dead, I’ll carry him and Smith both off. I’ll dump ‘em in that deep ravine west of here. No tellin’ how long before anyone finds ‘em. When they do, all that’ll be left is what the vultures turn up their noses at.
“Randy shot that ol’ boy in Scarlet and after that he thought nothin’ could touch him. Reckon now he knows the truth. Jesus. Had no fear, seems like. Worse thing ever happened to him, was killin’ that man.” He waited. The wind cut down his hearing, the snow hampered his vision. He held the pistol in his hand, ready. Then he heard the pound of Roper’s approach, caught at his breath to his futility.
Smith worried that Tanner, might set him a trap. He slowed his gelding’s pace, but still plunged on into the darkness and blowing snow. He felt sure the man he’d dropped back there had been Randy. Tanner was the man fleeing. Randy had been cocky, relied too much on his pistol. It’d gotten him blown out of the saddle, probably dead by now. He had struck him with one of the first two shots. He saw no way he could miss. They’d been very close. Randy had shot blindly, taken from surprise, and had missed. Smith’s first shot had missed as well. The second one hit Randy. He heard the solid “whump” as the impact of the bullet took him somewhere in the upper body.
Randy’d had sand left. He’d fired again. Smith had heard, or imagined he’d heard, the slug whistle sharply past his head. It’d been a near miss, but a miss, he knew, was still a miss. He’d take the luck. Luck had been a stranger to him for a long time. It’d been his time to catch a break. He’d ejected the second shell, fired again, ejected again, fired and this time watched as the dark form of the man folded in the saddle, and like sand in a slow flow from a wheelbarrow fell to the ground.
But he shut down those thoughts. He had to sharpen his senses for survival. His eyes searched as far to the front as possible, which was little under such severe weather conditions. It seemed his head set upon a swivel. He searched each side of the trail for the trap he felt sure lurked in silence, among the shadows, the blown snow.
Sometimes, though, no matter what you do, it’s not enough. He suddenly felt a sharp cut of pain, a strong burn raced across the back of his shoulders, both shoulders, high up next to his neck. He heard the booming discharge of what he recognized as a forty-five. He threw himself to the side and plunged from the saddle like a boy into his favorite swimming hole.
He heard his wind escape his lungs in a loud burst of air as he struck the ground hard. A heavy impact with the ground never ever felt good, he knew, but somehow this one did. He figured his plunge saved his life.
He lost his rifle, reached for his pistol, drew it forth and held it close, as he watched for the man behind the shot that struck him down.
Seconds later, he saw Tanner’s horse. It stood as a dark shape against a darker background. He lay there in wait. He laid there so long his bones and muscles seemed to freeze up on him. He lifted the .45 off the frozen earth before him, and fired one off, aiming to put one between the horse’s ears, frighten it, force it to run, and leave Tanner afoot. Fire flamed from the barrel in a bright yellow flash. The sound rang in his ears and nearly deafened him. The grip of the pistol bucked in his fist, but he scarcely felt it for the heavy rush of excitement that’s a part of death’s approach.
His shot forced the horse to rear in fright, turnabout and cut out across the prairie in search of a safety. Smith heard a loud ruckus that lifted from the earth somewhere below the animal. The sound was familiar. He’d heard it before. Then he recognized it. The animal was dragging Tanner over the earth like a sled over snow, but noisy as some wild creature running through heavy leaves of a fall season.
“Hell,” he muttered. “His horse is dragging him. Must’ve had the reins wrapped around his wrist.”
He leapt to his feet and in three bounds hit full stride in pursuit of the fleeing animal, and the helpless man it dragged along the ground. As he ran, he heard Tanner yelling in an attempt to stay his horse. But it wasn’t to be, the animal was far too frightened. No way was it about to stop.
He saw soon enough that he should’ve caught up his horse to follow, but after he’d fallen, it continued down the trail at least fifty yards before it stopped. He would’ve had to run those fifty yards, turn the horse, and make his pursuit, which made no sense.
He ran on, his weapon still in hand. His eyes strained to make out what had happened to Tanner. Then, he saw what he took to be the boss rustler, a large dark shadow just ahead, low, and close to the ground. Tanner had gained his knees by now. Smith heard another whisper of death pass his ear, and another loud blast ring dead ahead. Again, his luck held. He fell to the ground, lifted his pistol, and squeezed the trigger as calm as he’d ever felt in his life. He missed. Then he saw the bright flame of fire leap from the barrel of Tanner’s .45, heard its loud report. Still, his luck held. This time Tanner had missed by much more than the other two shots that he’d heard zip past his ears earlier.
Calmly, he squeezed the trigger, felt the buck, saw fire spout from the barrel. His ears rang from the explosion. He watched as the dark humped shadow slowly toppled forward, then struck the ground.
He stood up, forced on in an unnatural calm he’d not felt since the end of the war, and stepped forward. The .45 led him along. He stopped above the dead man, face down, gun in hand, thrust out from him as if in preparation to fire another shot when the slug tore through his middle chest and ripped away his life. He bent, and with his left hand, turned the body over, face to the sky. Tanner lay dead, he saw this by the unnatural way his eyes remained open. No one, he knew, could hold his eyes so still unless death had overtaken him. He’d seen this too many times in the war not to recognize it when he saw it. Still, though, it seemed a waste to him. He realized that death had lurked just ahead of Tanner in all his struggles between his birth and now his death. No one, he knew, including himself, ever felt that death loomed just ahead, and waited in a cold patience for him. There was no way Tanner had felt his death imminent when he climbed from bed this morning. This was too great an expectation in which to put too much trust. Hell, it’d drive a man insane if he ever gave in to it. No man operates well under pressure of such magnitude.
“We just take it minute by minute, I reckon. Have to take it that way,” he mumbled to the dead man. Tanner held his gaze much longer than Smith did. It wasn’t possible to stare down a dead man. By and by, he turned, walked back to the road, caught up his gelding, mounted and rode off after Tanner’s creature. He found it a good half-mile from where the animal had abandoned Tanner. It held its head down nearly even with the ground, its hindquarters taking the full force of the wind. He caught it up and turned it.
Later, he tossed the rustler across the saddle, searched into Tanner’s saddlebag, found two leather pegging strings, then tied him by the left wrist, crossed to the other side and tied his right leg. Done, he mounted his animal and led Tanner’s horse back to the trail and jogged back again to where he’d shot the other man from his saddle.
Randy looked as dead to Smith as had Tanner. He made quick work, tossed him across his saddle, and tied his leg and wrist to the stirrups. The twelve cows were gone. He knew exactly where they were by now and left them there in the sheltered cedar grove out of the wind among its own kind. He decided to carry the men on into Rowena despite the late hour. It was bad enough that he had to look death in the eye. There was no way Shelby, Carl or Garrett should be witness to the same.
He was nearly frozen to the saddle by the time he caught the gleam of a lantern burning on a pole before the livery barn. He reined into the shelter of the barn with the wound on his back burning brightly by now. No one was home. So, after warming some he turned the animals out into the cold again. He figured Evan had a room somewhere in town, which was the reason she was not in attendance. Most of the stable owner’s he ever knew of had a house and family. This wasn’t odd for Evan, the female stable owner, twin sister to Jack who ran the café, to not be here.
Next, he rode down to the marshal’s office. A dim light glowed inside. He stepped up, tapped on the door, but after too long a wait, he swung the door open and stepped inside.
The deputy jumped to his feet from the chair where he’d been sleeping. He staggered against the wall, shocked from sleep by the frigid blast of air that entered, along with Smith.
The stove in the east corner of the building burned hot with the damper flung all the way open. It hit Smith full blast. Quickly he crossed the room to it and put his back to the heat escaping the sides of the stove that felt warmer than heat from the sun.
“What’n hell?” the deputy muttered. His legs wobbled beneath him, still influenced by sleep. “What’s goin’ on here, mister? Who are you?”
Smith felt moisture fall down to his nose. The heat had already melted the frost of his eyebrows, then his frozen mustache followed suit. He spat the moisture from his lips. It snapped briefly like foxes on the stovetop. “I’ve got a couple corpses outside. Need someone to look at ‘em.”
“Who’re you talkin’ ‘bout?”
“Tanner and Randy. Don’t know Randy’s last name. You’ll need to go for the coroner.”
“Hell’s fire. In this weather? How’d they come to die?”
Smith ignored the question for the time. He removed his handkerchief. His hands were stiff yet from the cold. He blew his nose, wiped away the melt run off from his eyebrows, his mustache. The fire felt good on his back. Already he was becoming somewhat sluggish.
“I guess if you don’t want to fetch the coroner, you’ll have to bring the bodies inside, put ‘em in one of your cells. Then in the morning, you can bring in the coroner to handle matters.”
“Who killed them men, mister?” The deputy marshal looked brighter now and had lost a bit of his sleep-induced lethargy. “I do reckon they got themselves shot, didn’t they? Them two boys always was pretty much trouble. It was just a matter of time till it happened. Why and where?”
“I did. Shot ‘em both dead. This was out on the Morris outfit. I caught ‘em drivin’ off a dozen of Shelby Morris’s cows. I filled in out there for her after she fired ‘em both.”
The sheriff’s deputy worked awhile at rolling a smoke. He finished the task, stuck the cigarette between his lips, fired up, and managed to take on a good deal of swagger that Smith allowed was this man’s normal character. He blew smoke toward the ceiling, and said, “You killed them men out at the Morris ranch, then that there’s a job for the sheriff’s deputy. My jurisdiction is inside the city limits of Rowena.”
The deputy swung on his heel then, walked off into the cellblock. Smith stood in wait and listened as the marshal’s deputy awakened the deputy sheriff.
Five minutes later, the deputy marshal returned. A few minutes passed and the deputy sheriff stepped out of the cellblock. He gaped widely, reached for the ceiling in a long stretch.
“Now,” he said. “What’s all this about a shootin’?”
“I work for the Shelby Morris outfit,” Smith explained. “The ranch has been losin’ cattle for some time now.”
“You right sure the cows didn’t just die off natural, mister?”
Smith raised his voice, irritated, his back burned like fire from the bullet wound.
“A dozen at a time? Hell, no. They were being rustled. I set the men a trap. Waited a good long time, froze my ass off many a night as-a-matter of fact. Tonight, they made the mistake of their lives, and showed themselves while I sit in wait, hopin’ they’d show.”
“I hope you know, mister, you might’ve stepped in a blame mess. This work you just did was work for the law to handle. Sheriff Best will soon pay you a visit, I reckon.”
“You’d been welcome to do that work for me, deputy. All you’d needed do was sit out there in the snow and the cold in wait. I’d been damned glad to’ve let you have at it.”
The deputy dropped his gaze from Smith’s then. “Sheriff Best will have to pay you a visit soon, ” he mumbled again. He swung on Shag. “Whatta you think we should do ‘bout these bodies, Shag?” he said to the deputy marshal.
“I don’t want them corpses in my jail, Tugg. Why don’t you ride down to Spector’s office he’ll need to haul ‘em back to his shop. Take ‘em down now while their across their saddles. Save you a trip later.”
“Nah, hell no. If I can’t wake Spector I’ll need to bring ‘em back.”
Smith mopped the remnants of sweat from his brow vigorously and stuffed his handkerchief away in a hind pocket. They were at last making sense.
Thirty minutes later, the county coroner, Ralph Spector, entered the office behind Tugg, and despite the cold ride that should’ve livened him considerably, he too looked sleepy.
He questioned Smith for ten minutes, and recorded it all in a pad of paper, sitting at the marshal’s desk to fill out his report.
Finished, he stood up, buttoned his coat to the neck and said, “Well, I’m going to need help to transfer the corpses from their horses to my wagon. Why is it you didn’t fetch them to me when you came?” He didn’t wait for an answer but swung toward the door.
Both deputies tried to wait out the other one, but finally, the deputy sheriff said, “We’ll help, Mister Spector, both of us.” He turned an expectant eye to Shag, the deputy marshal.
Shag sighed and gave in. Both deputies looked annoyed as Smith watched them file outside behind the county coroner.
Later, Shag said, “We’ll need to hold on to their horses, gent. I’ll take them over to the livery in the mornin’. It ain’t nobody there at this hour, and I ain’t man enough to face Evan. That woman is fierce.”
What Smith now needed to do was hunt up the doctor, wake him up, so he could peek at his wound to make sure it’d properly heal.
Two days later, Ben Best, Sheriff of Riley County, rode out to the Morris ranch. He questioned Smith for some time, them sitting together on the porch of Shelby Morris’ house. Smith told him why and how he’d come to the job of ramrodding her ranch, and that he found out not long after having free run of the ranch that Shelby was losing cattle.
She told him of her fears that the two ranch hands that she had fired, Tanner and Randy, were the men behind the rustling, and that it had been going on even before her husband was shot to death. She suspected the two riders had killed her husband after he had apprehended them red handed, driving off her cows. But had had no proof.
“After I heard that, Sheriff Best, I set out to trap them in the act. It took a while, but I finally got the job done. Tanner lit out as soon as I called out to them, but Randy shot at me. I shot him down then and lit out after Tanner. Finally, I chased him down as well. We had a shootout and he came out on the bad side of it.”
“I suspect it ain’t nothin’ you done wrong then, Smith. But I had to question you. I hope you know that.”
“I do, Sheriff Best. You were doing your elected job.”
He sat there and watched as Sheriff Best rode off.
Later, the door opened, and Shelby stepped outside and sat with him. In the end, he agreed to run her spread for as long as she wanted him to. Her son, Garret, was still young. So was Carl, the boy Shelby had taken in when he was still a youngster. He told Shelby he would wise them both up and when the boys felt he had the proper skill and training to keep the ranch above water, he would turn it over to them and move on down the road.
She smiled then, for one of the few times he’d seen, and said, “We’ll see about that when it’s time, Mr. Smith. I might just learn to rely on you too much to turn you loose.”
He felt a warmth in his chest that hadn’t been there since the death of his own wife. By and by, he smiled back at her.
stood up then and said, “It’s ‘bout time to eat. Come in when
you’ve washed up.”
“I will and thanks.”
“Nah,” she replied, “thank you,” she replied.