Western Short Story
As I rode out of the Army Camp at Baggs Crossing, I asked the soldier on guard how to get to the Baggs Ranch and was informed it was back across the river and a little way West.
I arrived to find both George and Maggie Baggs working cattle they had been gathering since early morning. It was fall and that meant “shipping time”, which required separating out the steers and heifers to be sold, as well as older cows that would be supplanted by replacement heifers. The resulting sale herd was then trailed to the railhead in Rawlins and shipped to regional feed lots for finishing, but Baggs had cornered a lucrative market selling directly to meat packers in Denver. The whole business of raising cattle hinged on their ability to gain weight on the range and retain a good portion of that weight when they arrived at market. The successful Wyoming cattle rancher of 1881 was essentially selling blue-stem grass and like George Baggs, ran thousands of head to hedge his bet.
[George had met Maggie while on a trip to Chicago, where she was employed as a dancer. Little did he know she would become one of the meanest bosses of cow hands around. She could out cuss and out right browbeat any wrangler that George Baggs could hire. Because of her constant profane bullying, it was hard for the Baggs spread to keep good cowboys. This was further complicated by her frequent and indiscreet sexual liaisons with the hired hands. Nevertheless George, who was ten years her senior, was a patient and tolerant man who simply chose to ignore it.]
I rode up to the pair and tipped my hat to Maggie. “Are you George Baggs?” I asked loudly.
“I am and this is my wife Maggie. What can we do for ya?” he replied, yelling over the cacophony of bawling cattle.
“Name’s Billy, Mr. Baggs. I’m a bounty hunter lookin’ for this bail jumper,” handing him the wanted poster of Wolfe. “He’s a rustler and could be hidin’ out nearby.”
“I don’t recognize him. He’s never worked for me,” he said, passing the poster to Maggie just as her horse shied, dancing a sashay to avoid the horns of a runaway steer.
“Damn it, Mike! Get t' hell out there and fetch him back!” she ordered, directing her anger at a nearby red-headed cowboy, “and don’t run all the weight off the sonofabitch doin’ it, neither!”
“Nope, I ain’t seen him before,” she declared, closely scrutinizing Wolfe’s face. “He is kinda handsome though,” she said, looking up and smiling directly at George.
“Have you lost any cattle to rustlers lately?” I asked, as we rode away from the herd where we could talk.
“Hard to tell for sure, but our tally seldom evens out. My Double Eleven brand goes on both shoulders and I crop off most of both ears. Even if they hairbrand ‘em, the ears don’t lie.” he replied.
“If some don't get gathered and they ain't rustled, then we’ll find ‘em next year. Hell, it ain’t that unusual to brand two year olds!” he laughed.
“Well thank you sir, for takin’ the time to answer my questions. I’d best be movin’ along now and let you get back to your cuttin’.”
“Oh, won’t you stay for supper?” pleaded Maggie. “There’s room in the bunkhouse too if you’ve a mind to lay over.”
I had a feeling, although this offer was identical to the one I had received from Rosanna Reader, Maggie’s motives were nowhere near the same.
“Sorry ma’am, but there’s still plenty of daylight and I need to keep lookin’ for this hombre. Maybe some other time?” I said, as I tipped my hat once again and spurred Blackjack further down river.
A couple of miles west of the Baggs place, we climbed a juniper covered ridge where I could survey the surrounding country and get a better look at the lay of the land.
I could see the fledgling town that was beginning to spread out around the Army Camp at Baggs Crossing and speculated as to what it would become named, questioning whether it might eventually bear the name Baggs Crossing or simply be named directly for Mr. Baggs. I reasoned if it was to survive in the aftermath of closing both the agency supply road and the Army Camp, that it would probably just be called Baggs.
[In 1883 George Baggs sold out to the L7 Swan Land and Cattle Company and finally having run out of patience, he “split the blanket” with Maggie. There was no divorce proceeding because there was never any marriage, but Maggie was awarded one third of George Baggs’ assets. She immediately “flew the coop” to California with her proceeds and a redheaded cowhand named Mike Sweet. It is said she “picked him out of the herd” while voyeuring the ‘pokes from the willows as they bathed in the local swimmin’ hole. When the money began to run out, Mike Sweet ran off and Maggie ended up operating some “rooming houses” in Galveston, Texas. George Baggs went back to New Mexico from whence he had come and never returned to the town of his namesake.]
Through my field glasses, I observed a thick dust cloud to the South on what I assumed was the agency road. Though I couldn’t tell for certain, I guessed it was probably being caused by the ID cattle that Josiah Chesterton had referred to earlier as being brought up from there.
About half a mile north was a tiny dust cloud coming from a lone rider heading their way.
I decided to get closer for a better look, so rode back down to the bottoms and crossed the river at a place just downstream of where a creek came in from the southeast, climbing back up onto a flat sagebrush plateau cut by the agency road. There I tied off Blackjack to some high brush in a gully and took up a position at its head where I could again glass the approaching herd.
I immediately recognized the lone rider as Josiah Chesterton for he hadn't bothered to change out of his office clothes and was wearing the black dress coat and bowler hat I'd seen hanging on a rack by the door.
As he rode to the back of the herd, I lost sight of him in the dust, but he soon emerged on the upwind side accompanied by another man who was evidently the head wrangler. The two began to have what appeared to be a heated exchange and after some arm waving and yelling that could not be heard, Chesterton spurred his horse and galloped back the way he had come. When the dust cleared some more, I could see at least three other cowboys. The herd boss hesitated, apparently to give them some orders and then took off after Chesterton.
When they got closer I saw that, low and behold, he was Jody Wolfe!
Grabbing my rifle from the scabbard, I placed myself in the standard cavalry skirmish line position of kneeling on one knee and resting the elbow supporting the gun on the other. Leading Wolfe slightly at what I estimated was a total distance of 200 yards, I held the front sight between his horse's ears and squeezed off the big 45-70. The slug caught him through the chest with a resounding thump, rolling him backward off the horse’s hindquarters and into the road. Chesterton just looked over his shoulder, whipped his horse over and under with the reins and kept on riding. The other rustlers heard the shot and saw Wolfe fall, then made a break away from the herd, riding hard in the opposite direction under cover of the dust.
Since it was now late afternoon, I decided to let them go, as I had a suspicion they were probably the three 'pokes I'd seen at Perkins' that morning. Since I also knew where Josiah Chesterton was probably going, I rounded up Wolfe's horse, tied his corpse over the saddle and headed back toward Baggs Crossing keeping one eye on my backside.
When we arrived at the Army Camp, I told the sentry to fetch First Lieutenant Jerry Stimble.
“Hell that was fast!” Jerry exclaimed, approaching Wolfe’s horse. “Damn good shot.”
“I found him and three others bringin’ up the ID herd,” I replied. “They must have rustled ‘em from the real trail crew. Chances are they murdered those boys and ditched the bodies where they won’t be found.”
“Well he damn sure can’t tell us,” he said, jesturing toward Wolfe. “Where are the other three?”
“When I left ‘em they were makin’ tracks south. The herd’s just millin’ around down there.”
“I’ll mount a detail and try to bring ‘em in,” he said, “both the rustlers and the cattle.”
“Wait a minute Jerry, there’s somethin’ else. Josiah Chesterton was out there talkin’ to Wolfe right before I shot him. He’s got to be in on it too.”
“Sargent!” he shouted. “Arrest Josiah Chesterton if you can find him and hold him in the guardhouse!” “Then form a mounted detail for pursuit of rustlers and retrieval of government beef.”
“Yes, Sir! Right away, Sir!,” came the answer.
Well, if you have no further need of me, I’d best be gettin’ the late Mr. Wolfe up to Rawlins and collect my reward before he gets too overripe,” I said.
“I think the U.S. Army can handle it from here,” said Jerry.
“I know you can, Lieutenant,” I grinned, then saluted and headed Blackjack across the river.
Although the late afternoon sun shone radiantly across both our backs, somehow I knew it was probably a lot hotter where Jody Wolfe now found himself.
© WFS 2018