Western Short Story
Finally Settling Down
Jim Bryson

Western Short Story

Jacob Weatherly Blackstock sat his horse on the top of the rise, staring at the valley below. He was here! For seven long weeks he had travelled, much of it across wide open country with no one in sight. The only living creatures save himself and his four heavily-laden pack animals, two sturdy Montana horses and two long-legged mules, were the animals of the plains and the forests. He would have preferred a large wagon, but where he was going a wagon could not easily go.

He had ridden through this area twice in the past eight years, each time riding the dust of a trail herd as a paid rider. The first time he had been on scout and wandered far wider than he intended. That was when he found the sheltered valley, seeming to be unoccupied. When three years later he came the same way, he was carrying the nickname 'Weathers' because when he was with a herd they hit a lot of wind and rainy weather. But they also appreciated his medical skills learned as he helped his mother who had been a doctor in Illinois where he grew up.

He made a special two-day trip to the valley that time to see if anyone had settled there but it was as eerily quiet as before. Off normal travel routes, it would be rarely seen. He found a small cabin that seemed to have been abandoned years earlier. And that was when he made up his mind he would have it and build the little self-sustaining ranch he had always dreamed of having.

It was nested in the northwest corner of Oklahoma near the borders of Texas and New Mexico and off the beaten track of the big herds coming north heading for Kansas and Missouri. So, on that last trip he staked it out and a year later he paid the territorial government for it with almost all his life-long savings. He now owned four thousand acres of land that he could call his own.

He tapped his heels against the big bay and it sauntered lazily down the grassy slope toward the tree line, the other animals traipsing behind. He hoped the small cabin among the trees would still be standing and it was. Nor was it in need of much repair. He would start there and work forward. The cabin was almost hidden from view at the edge of a huge forest that ran for dozens of square miles west and south. On the other side of the cabin was a series of large meadows. There were three separate creeks, one large enough to be called a small river. On his last visit toward the end of a dry summer all three creeks had been running well, suggesting year-round water. If not, he could dig wells as he had before, for others. But this was for him.

He set up two tents near the cabin and stored his goods there, hanging the foodstuffs high in trees out of the reach of critters. Then he set to work. He alternated between working on the cabin, hewing, sawing and carving out replacement pieces for those that had to be replaced. He widened the places for the large windows he had brought with him and began to establish a garden west of the cabin. It was dusty, dirty and hard work but he rose to it, his already strong frame growing stronger, though sore in many places, as he worked. For almost three weeks he saw not a single soul. There were animals aplenty and he saw deer, otter and porcupines daily, bears occasionally as he rode over the land and an assortment of smaller animals. But he saw no horses, cattle or other riders.

Then, one sunny afternoon, as he stepped out of the cabin with a long piece of spindly wood across his shoulder he saw the man sitting his horse about twenty yards from the cabin. The man's hands were clearly on the saddle pommel and he was looking the place over. Jake set down the piece of lumber and there was a brief staring contest until the big man smiled and nodded.

"Afternoon," he said. "Mind if I light and set?"

"Guests are always welcome," Jake said, waving the man down. "And all too few come by. In fact, you're the first."

They sat at a makeshift table in the shade of a large tree. Jake offered cool water from the deep drywell where he stored water from the larger and closest of the three flowing bodies of water.

"Real nice spot you have here," the stranger offered. He was a big man, broad of shoulders and with an air of quiet confidence about him. Jake guessed that he was in his early forties, maybe a bit older. "Name's Matt Benedict," he said, waiting for a reaction that never came.

"Jacob Blackstock," Jake said, extending his hand and shaking the strong firm grip of Matt Benedict. "Friends call me Jake."

"Well, Jake, as I said, you've a lovely spot here. Been here long?"

"A little more than three weeks. But I've been thinking about this place for almost eight years since I first saw it while riding by here when working with a trail herd. So last year I used up my savings, well most of it, bought four thousand acres from the territorial government and here I am. I've been working away on the cabin and the start of a good-sized garden so far, but I've bigger plans."

Benedict nodded. "Plans should always be big," he agreed. "And it's a nice spot. When was the last time you were here?"

"Almost three years ago. Why?"

"Well it's a nice spot but I've been through here time to time and there's a couple of things you should know. Might save you trouble later on."

Something stirred in Jake. "What's that?"

"Well, you've got some Indians as neighbours, though not living too close to here. There's a large Arapaho tribe, two or three hundred of them, some three or four days south of here. Peaceful folks mostly, so you won't likely see them or if you do they'll be friendly enough. And usually hungry."

"Suits me," Jake said. "Had some Indian friends back home in Illinois."

"You'll likely have some potentially less friendly company from time to time," Benedict said. "Have you heard of Nathan Cole?"

The name had a familiar ring but Jake shook his head.

"I thought not," Benedict said. "Cole heads up a gang of boys involved in everything from robbery to rustling. They've a more or less permanent camp a few days east of here but depending on where they're headed for their next outing they sometimes come pretty close to here. Not precisely through this valley but if they were to see cattle or see smoke rising they might be curious and come to visit or at least want to check things out."

"And then . . ."

Benedict shrugged. "Well, Cole's alright, as is Pride, his right-hand man. They'd simply check you out, chat and then be on their way. You've nothing big enough for them to worry about. But a couple of the boys who run with him can be nasty when Cole or Waylon Pride aren't riding along with them, or when they've been at the bottle. It's them that might make things a bit difficult because that's the way they are. Just mean enough to be pesky and troublesome."

Jake took a deep breath. After all this time.

"Can you use a gun?" Benedict asked.

Jake shook his head. "Not in the way I think you mean. Sure, I've used one while riding herd on cattle but I've used one rarely and never in a gunfight. I've never had much desire to be a gun hand."

Benedict nodded. "We'll have to do something about that. Desire aside, there might someday be a need for you to handle one well enough." He looked around again and then seemed to come to a decision. "Mind some company for a few days? I'm needing to settle somewhere for a while and I can be right helpful in the kind of work you're doing. Mind a little help?"

Jake smiled, liking the man from the moment they began talking. "Always welcome help. There's two bedrooms in the cabin. Now one's yours."

They worked hard for the next few days and the cabin was shaping up nicely. It was really three rooms, one being a big open room that was kitchen and living area, then a good-sized room that would be Jake's and a smaller room he used for storing things or as the second bedroom. Jake had transported five windows, guessing at the sizes and trimming them with molding as spacers, and in another week the cabin was as fit as it was going to be. Matt Benedict even showed Jake how to lay out two additional rooms for future building.

"I'd thought to eventually take down the cabin," Jake said, "but it's an original piece of this land and I decided to preserve it."

Matt Benedict nodded his head. "Somebody cared enough to build it and build it to last," he said. "And cared enough to tote that fireplace and wood stove all the way here. They may be old but they're in serviceable shape. And this cabin is particularly solid so I'd keep it were I you. I like the feel of the place."

The next day they worked on the garden and began setting up hitching posts on either side. When they took a break, Benedict went over to his saddlebags and brought out a holster and pistol, handing them to Jake.

"It looks almost new," Jake said.

Matt nodded. "Almost. It belonged to a young cowhand I worked with. Unfortunately, before he could learn to use it he was killed in a stage holdup in Kansas. He left it to me and I've been carrying it around ever since wondering what to do with it. Time you learned to use one. You game?"

Jake nodded. Matt checked to make certain the gun was not loaded and then spent the next hour showing Jake how to get the gun from the holster with speed. They adjusted the holster on the belt to suit Jake's longer arms and trimmed around the edge of the holster when it caught on his fingers as he drew.

"Getting the gun out fast is the first priority, of course," Matt Benedict said. "Because if you can't do that nothing else matters and you'll be dead. That's why we're working on that first. Course, once it's out you better be able to hit what you aim at but we'll get to that later. We're going to work on it a little each time we take a break and until you're comfortable."

And they did, working three or four times a day on the draw for an entire week in between their work on the cabin, garden and a dam they were building to create a larger pond, actually a small lake. It was just east of the cabin and sheltered behind the woods. Finding some old slats that Jake had removed, Matt set about building a basic frame for a windmill for future use.

Jake progressed rapidly with the handgun and turned out to have more than a little natural ability. Matt Benedict was surprised how fast Jake was on the draw, faster than he let the younger man know.

The next week they worked more on shooting accuracy and Jake had a tougher time with this, missing most of his targets at distances of twenty feet or more the first few times. But, again with guidance, patience and practice his aim became better and better. And finally they began putting it all together, from the fast draw to the accurate shot, the goal of someone using a gun in that manner.

"Most times the person you're shooting at and who's shooting at you is a lot closer than twenty feet," Matt said. "But it's better to be more accurate than the other person. You'll live longer that way."

By the end of the month, Jake was more than competent and Matt Benedict had to admit it to himself. But still he moderated his praise, telling Jake only that 'you're good enough to get by.' And by then Matt figured he had done all he could, both in terms of helping around the cabin and teaching Jake to handle a gun. He packed up his things one sunny morning and after a hearty breakfast and coffee on the stoop he was ready to depart.

"I don't know how to thank you, Matt," Jake said, shaking the older man's hand with a steady grip. "You've been great company, great help and you've taught me more about how to do things than I could have figured out in years. And though I hope not to have to use it, I appreciate you helping me understand the importance of gun skills."

"I enjoyed my time too," Matt said. "It was a really nice break for me. I might just wander back this way in a few months or so to see how you're doing. You've got a mighty nice place here, Jake. Keep it so."

"I plan to."

Matt smiled. "One last thing. Remember to gather wood and game as far away from the cabin as possible at first. That way, if the time comes when you need it there'll be enough wood and game nearby."

Jake nodded. "I'll remember," he said.

He watched Matt Benedict disappear over the top of the rise and as the horse and rider vanished he felt a sudden sense of loss and sadness. Then he put that aside and got right back to work. They had killed a couple of deer a day earlier, along with some game hens and he dressed and smoked the meat, cut it up and stored it. That done, he made himself a cup of coffee from his supplies and sat on a shelf of rock beside the pond they had created with two dams.

"A fine place," he said to himself. He had a snug cabin, though he had much wood to gather and split before winter. He had plenty of water and a large enough pond to qualify as a small lake. The fish in it would gradually multiply over time. The garden had been planted and though the rabbits and other nocturnal visitors were already taking their share, there would be enough for him over the winter. His mother had taught him canning and he would be able to use that skill.

They identified, or rather Matt had, several types of berry bushes that were safe to eat and transplanted some nearer the cabin in the shade. They would not produce fruit for a year or two, but then they would be nearby.

Jake wondered about a final trip to the nearest town, Fort Reno. He had most of what he needed for the winter but the past three weeks had been lonely. He had not seen a single soul since Matt Benedict rode over the rise and while he enjoyed the solitude of the warm autumn days he knew that winter was not far off. His original plan had been to wait until spring then head to Kansas and buy a few cattle and sheep and maybe hire a man or two to help herd them back to the cabin. Jake did not want a large herd, merely something self-sufficient for the time being.

He decided to take a walk to think it over. About a quarter-mile from the cabin he came upon the cave. There were a few outcroppings here and there in the forest that bordered the southeast of his property but he had not expected to find caves. He hurried back to the cabin and got rope, his rifle and a lantern.

He tied the rope to a nearby tree, shaking the coils loose. This would be a handhold for him, as the cave sloped sharply downward, and a way back if the lantern failed while he was deeper into the cave. The rifle was taken along in case he met any unwelcome critters inside.

The opening was scarcely a yard high and wide but he could see it opened up within. He bent over and shuffled in on his knees then stood and walked and shuffled down the slope for about twenty feet finding adequate headroom and solid rock above, below and on both sides. Another twenty feet and he came to a t-crossing, one going left and one right. Down here it was cold, very cold at this point and would be good for storing perishables.

Jake had not brought a coat and decided that was enough exploring for one day. Using the rope, he walked and pulled himself to the top of the cave. He knelt and shuffled himself out then stood and stretched. He had learned three things. First, he found somewhere cold enough to store things that needed to stay cold, such as milk. He might now add a milking cow or two to his list for the spring. Two, he had a place to hide if that became necessary. And third, the opening was small enough that he could make a door to keep out critters that might wander in. He could then camouflage it with some bushes.

He decided to make the trip to Fort Reno, and began making the necessary preparations for a winter that was still some weeks away. He dragged stacks of deadwood from far off, then cut and split it, stacking it under a makeshift wooden awning to keep snow from the top row. He did not know exactly how cold it would get in this sheltered valley, how much snow there would be or how long the cold weather would last. So he prepared. He had a heavy coat, warm boots, a couple of caps and four pairs of woolen mitts. There was a fireplace at one end of the cabin and a wood stove at the other and he intended to keep both going steadily. He could keep a hole chopped in the ice at the edge of the pond for water. It would not freeze over too thick if he used it each day.

He decided to ride out on a sunny morning, taking the two pack horses and leaving the mules to wander freely around the cabin. When he took the saddlebags off the bed Matt Benedict had been using, he found the new gun and holster lying underneath. Matt would not have left them by accident. It was a gift, and if Benedict had left it he must have felt Jake might need it. That was not a pleasant thought but he was grateful to the man once again. He strapped on the gunbelt.

He left a note on the kitchen table in case anyone happened by while he was away. He identified himself as the owner, indicated how long he would be gone, and told them to make themselves at home if they had a need. He also asked them to leave the place just the way they found it. He was taking the two pack horses with him and did not think the mules would go far but he did not want to pen them up in case something happened to him. You never knew what could happen to someone in the wilderness.

The trip to Fort Reno took four days and Jake saw not a single soul during that time. Each night he practiced with the gun, perfecting his draw and his aim, though using as little ammunition as he could. He would buy more in Fort Reno and was thankful the rifle and handgun used the same ammunition.

He made the rounds of the town around the Fort out of habit and because it had been weeks since he had seen anyone except Matt Benedict. He checked in at the hotel, had a bath and haircut, a large glass of what the bartender called beer, though Jake might have argued the point, and then sat on a wicker chair in front of the hotel and watched the world go by for a couple of hours.

He went back to the same saloon in the early evening, the hotel clerk telling him that it was perhaps the better place to get himself a decent meal. He was halfway through that meal when the trouble started.

The saloon was part bar, part restaurant and part gaming establishment with the usual hangers on and the women of what was termed loose virtue. It was also the gathering place and news center of most western towns and forts.

Jake sensed a commotion to his left and turned to see a man dragging a young red-headed woman up to her feet while she struggled in vain to resist him. The bystanders in the room looked alarmed and upset but no one seemed inclined or brave enough to intervene.

Jake stood and took six long steps, just in time to grab the man's arm as he was about to slap the young woman across the face a second time. The man turned, his face red and his expression contorted. "What the hell you think you're doing!" he snarled at Jake. "Trying to git yourself kilt? Get away from me!"

Jake kept his voice soft and even. "The young lady doesn't seem to favour your company, friend," he said. "And there's others about for you to charm."

"I'll charm whoever the hell I want!" the man said, hissing out each word. "And if you don't back off you'll be sorry!"

"I'm already sorry," Jake said taking a step back.

The man, misunderstanding, dropped his arm and turned toward Jake just in time to meet Jake's fist coming at him. Years of hard work and the past few months of even more demanding physical work had done their job and the resounding sound of fist on bone could be heard throughout the room. The man's eyes rolled back in his head and he fell backward onto the hardwood, his head hitting the floor with a second resounding thud. He did not move.

And then there was silence.

"Mister," one of the men who had been seated at the same table said. "Do you know who that was that you just hit?"

Jake just shook his head and rubbed his sore fist. "No, but he has a jaw that's a fair bit harder than cured maple."

"That's Toby Waller," the man said. "He's a knowed gunfighter, friend. He's killed more'n a dozen, some in fair fights even, though he ain't that particular about it. You better hide 'cause when he comes to he'll be hunting you!"

Jake just shrugged. "Then let him." He dropped two coins on the table and took a moment to look for the young woman to see that she was alright, but she had vanished into the crowd. He was a bit disappointed she did not have the courtesy to thank him, but then again, she did not ask for his help.

He went to the hotel, paid his bill and turned in. The next morning, getting up early, he made his purchases quietly at the trading post at the edge of the settlement, loaded the pack animals and was on his way, looking forward to leaving Fort Reno far behind. He gave little thought to the events of the night before but was watchful for Waller all the same. However, he had not used his name, not even at the hotel where no name had been requested, and he was sure no one there knew him. Still, he headed north for an hour before turning west across a rocky slope and toward home.

Early in the afternoon he began to have that sixth sense that cowboys have, that he was being followed. He studied his back trail a couple of times from the shelter of trees but saw nothing. He tried to hide his trail, but it was of little use to do so since he was in the wide-open prairie where tracks were easily followed and there were three sets of tracks being left. A little rain or wind would be nice, but the sky was clear and the wind light. He checked his rifle just in case.

The third night he was more convinced that something was out there, either following him or coming behind of their own volition. He camped in a sheltered spot under the overhang of trees, sheltered from the beginning of a light rain that looked like it would not amount to much but might last into the night.

He ate and tried to sleep but could not. Then he decided. He put on a dark slicker, took up his rifle and decided to backtrack himself on foot under an almost full moon. If someone was really back there following him he meant to know it before he got any nearer to the valley and the cabin.

He walked for almost a half hour when he stopped. No sound and no smell of wood fire that might have indicated someone was about. He was turning back when he heard the horse whinny, low and brief but unmistakable. He tensed, studied the terrain with care and then worked his way toward the sound.

It took twenty more minutes for him to locate the horse. It was a sturdy Montana horse and he watched it from about thirty feet away. It was tethered to a tree near an open space by a small creek. There was no fire going and no one evident at first. Then he heard small sounds from a rocky overhang to the left of the horse. At first he could not make out what the sound was and then he realized with a start that it crying.

He moved forward slowly and carefully and in minutes was staring at a small form huddled under the overhang. At first he thought it was a child and, after making sure no one else was around, he moved forward.

The startled look on the woman's face when she saw him made Jake take a step back and raise his arm. "Whoa," he said. "I'm friendly."

Then he recognized her.

"What are you doing out here?" he asked in surprise.

"I followed you," said the young red-headed woman from the Fort Reno saloon. "I'd nowhere else to go and so I just followed you."

He shook his head in amazement. "But how?"

She smiled up at him ruefully. "I was raised on a farm and I can track most anything that moves and over most any kind of terrain. My daddy taught us all how to hunt and trap and such and I was the best of them all."

"Well, it's way too wet to talk here," Jake said. "Let's get back to my camp and I'll make us some hot coffee."

She nodded and got up, limping toward the horse.

"What happened?" he asked, pointing to her leg.

She shrugged. "Nothing. I broke my leg when I was young and this kind of wet weather bothers it some. It's nothing much."

She rode alongside as he walked and within a half hour they were back at his camp. He blew the embers into a fire and put on some coffee.

"I never asked your name," he said. "I'm Jake."

"I'm Sadie," she replied.

"What's your story, Sadie?"

She shrugged again. "I came out to Fort Reno a week ago with three other girls. We was, that is, we were hired as hostesses for the saloon. No one told me any different and when I found out what other expectations came with the job I wanted out right away. I managed to put off the manager so far but he was getting insistent about those other things he expected me to do for money. I had nowhere to go and no one to help me. That is, until you came along."

"But you don't know me."

"No, I don't, but you helped out and you're still helping now, being polite and all and I'm a pretty good judge of character so I thought I'd take my chances. It might seem sudden, but I was pretty scared to stay there."

"So you just rushed off after me?"

She shook her head. "I'd been planning on leaving. I'd bought this horse and she's a good one. And I'd packed saddlebags with goods I might need and stuff I didn't care to leave behind. I even bought a rifle. I'm pretty good with one. So when I got things ready I watched the hotel until I saw you go to the store then watched you leave and followed along staying far behind. Your tracks were pretty easy to follow, though this rain might have been a problem for me."

"But you can't stay with me!"

She frowned. "Can't I for just a little while until I figure things out? I won't be any trouble and I can cook, hunt and trap. I'm real handy."

She paused. "Where you going? This is pretty far from anywhere."

"I've a place of my own. We'll get to it sometime tomorrow afternoon. I guess there's no choice now but to have you come along."

They were in the saddle early in the morning. They chatted along the way, Sadie talking about her life on the farm, how her parents struggled and finally gave up, sold it and moved to Texas to be near other family. She chose to stay and worked in a diner in town for a couple of years, getting nowhere she said, and then took the job at Fort Reno. He told her a bit of his life since leaving Illinois, of riding for ranches and trail bosses until he had saved enough for his own place.

They topped the rise in mid-afternoon and Jake sat and studied the place for several minutes. The two mules were still there, wandering around behind the cabin and everything else looked just as he had left it. They rode down and dismounted and Jake checked the cabin. All was indeed as he had left it. That was not too much of a surprise, he supposed, as it was pretty much off any trail.

They unpacked the supplies, storing most inside and some in the tent that he left up near the north side of the cabin. Some he stored in the cave he had found and he left a lantern in there as well this time.

Jake took Sadie on a short tour of the surrounding area and he was pleased with how impressed she was with all of the work he had done. He was quick to give proper credit to Matt Benedict.

"Why do you think he did that?" Sadie asked.

"I think it was just the nature of the man," he said. "And I hope to pass that good will along when I have the chance."

"I think you already did," she said, smiling. "By helping me."

When they got back to the cabin he set her up in the small back room, clearing out what was in there and setting up a second makeshift bunk. They had dinner together outside at a rough-hewn table under the trees.

"It's a nice place," she said. "Feels right homey."

"Well it's out of the way, which was the plan," Jake said. "But maybe it's not far enough." He mentioned Nathan Cole and her face whitened.

"What is it?" he asked.

"That man," she said, "the one you knocked down. They said he sometimes rides with Nathan Cole and somebody name Pride. Oh no," she said, bringing her hands to her face, "I've brought you trouble." She was tearing up a little.

"Don't worry about it," he said. "There's trouble everywhere and I'll deal with Waller if and when he comes along. I'm not wasting time worrying about it. Still, if while you're here they show up, I want you to go out the back window and into the cave. I'm putting a door on it tomorrow and we'll camouflage it a bit."

And they did, building a door that fit in the opening and transplanting a couple of bushes in front. By parting the bushes, the door could be pushed in and a person could squeeze by on their knees and then close the door behind them. They stood back about twenty yards and could not detect the cave at all.

"There," Jake said. "That'll do."

Sadie was more than just helpful around the place over the next week. She showed Jake where and how to set up traps on the two running creeks and how to locate animal trails in the forest where other traps could be set. And when they caught a few smaller animals she showed him how to skin them and mount the skins to dry, skills he never had occasion to learn.

"You're right handy to have around," he said. "I'd never have figured these things out without you showing me how."

"My pleasure," Sadie said. "It's the least I can do for you helping me get away from Fort Reno and letting me stay here."

And then the day he had been worried about came. Jake saw the lone rider on the upper ridge. The man sat there for a time then turned his horse and rode away. Jake found Sadie in the house and sent her to the cave, quickly hiding any evidence that there was anyone else but him living there.

An hour later five riders came over the hill and rode down into the valley. By that time Jake was sitting out front of the cabin scraping a couple of hides. His rifle was within reach and, for the first time, he was wearing the handgun, glad he had continued to practice every day. He scanned the group and Waller was not among them. Thank goodness for small mercies, he thought.

They stopped, and an older man, one in his forties, got down and walked over to Jake. He was smiling and seemed friendly enough.

"Surprised to find a place over here," he said. "Looks to be right comfortable. My name's Nathan Cole. Perhaps you've heard of me."

Jake nodded and smiled. "Some."

Cole laughed. "Well, most of it's true. But you've nothing to worry about from me and my men. We're peaceable enough around neighbours. Just wanted to stop by and say hello once Purdy said he saw your place."

He looked around. "You've done a lot of work here. Good work, too. Must have been hard to do on your own."

"Well, I've had help," Jake said, making a decision. "Matt Benedict's a friend of mine and he stayed around for a month or so to help. I expect he'll be back for a visit before too long. Said he would and Matt's not the kind to say something he doesn't mean. I expect he'll be along."

Cole knew the name, for he nodded. "I'd agree with that. Benedict's a man of his word and not someone to take lightly. He's a good friend."

"Are you and he friends?"

Cole smiled. "More like acquaintances, I'd have to say. Matt's a no-nonsense law-abiding man. I can't claim that myself."

"Man makes his choices," Jake said.

"Too true," Cole said. "And I've made mine. Still, times when I see a place like this it makes me wonder if I could change paths."

He shook his head. "Anyway, anyone comes by you tell him Matt Benedict and Nathan Cole are friends and you'll have no trouble at all."

"I appreciate that, Mr. Cole," Jake said and they shook hands.

Cole mounted and turned his horse, the others following along. One, a younger man with shoulder length blond hair called out to Cole. "I'll catch up with you, Nathan. I want to check out how he built that dam."

Cole nodded and the others rode out. The young man stepped down from his horse and tied it to the hitching post.

"I did engineering courses in Philadelphia," he said. "Planned to join the army corps of engineers." Then he shrugged. "But things don't always work out."

They walked across the field through ankle-deep grass to the pond and he studied the dam. "That's a nice piece of work," he said. "But you've got two weak spots." He pointed to them. "I'd brace those spots, were I you."

Jake nodded, recognizing merit in the suggestion. "I'll do that. Thanks. I'm Jake Blackstock." He held out his hand and the other man took it.

"I'm Waylon Pride," he said.

"Glad you appreciate the work I've done," Jake said.

But Waylon Pride was serious now. "That's not why I stayed behind, Jake. I've a question. You know a man named Waller, Toby Waller?"

Jake didn't hesitate. He nodded. "Ran into him in Fort Reno. He was trying to beat up a young woman and I had to step in. Why?"

"Thought it might be you from the description I had of the stranger who did it. I was in Fort Reno with him at the time but I was over at the hotel getting settled in. Knowing Toby Waller, you had it to do."

"Should I expect trouble from him? I was told he rides with your group from time to time. Is he around now?"

Pride shook his head. "Not any more, he doesn't. He was so mad about what happened at the Fort that he rode out to chase you down. He was still half drunk and half hung over, fell off his horse and broke his fool neck. You won't have to worry about him, or him worry about you, not ever."
"What do you mean?" Jake asked.

Pride laughed and pointed at Jake's holster. "I'd know that setup anywhere," he said. "Matt Benedict's been teaching you to draw and shoot."

Jake nodded. "He's a good teacher."

Pride nodded then turned toward his horse and suddenly stopped.

"You're not alone here, are you?"

Jake just looked at him.

"Where is she?"

"She's hiding. Once we saw you coming I had her hide."

Pride nodded. "Probably a good precaution, but as long as me or Nathan are along you'll have nothing to be concerned about. I'll make it clear to the boys that they're to stay away from here. They'll listen to me."

"I'd appreciate it," Jake said. "I don't want trouble. But just so you know, I've had some good medical training, so if that would ever be helpful, I'm here."

"Good to know," Pride said. "She staying, that girl from Fort Reno?"

Jake grinned. "You a shaman or something, knowing such stuff?"

Pride laughed. "Nope, just seems plumb logical that it's that girl you helped out that you brought here with you."

"I didn't bring her," Jake said. "She followed me for three days."

"Well good for her. It can get lonely out here," Pride said

He climbed into the saddle and rode off after Cole and the others.

Jake went to the cave and called Sadie. She pulled herself out with the rope and they walked back to the cabin. He filled her in on the conversation with Pride, especially the part about Toby Waller's death.

"Hate for anyone to have to die," she said, "but at least now we don't have to worry about him anymore."

"No, and having met Cole and Pride I'm confident we'll not have any trouble with any of their gang. But we have to talk about you."

She frowned. "What about me?"

"What are your plans, Sadie? I know you wanted to get away from Fort Reno and what was going on there but where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Do you want to head to Texas to find your family? I'd be willing to take you to the nearest town with a stage or train if you like."

"What if I want to stay right here with you?"

That shocked Jake to his boots. "Here with me? But why?"

"Cause I like it here and I like you, though you obviously can't see it. Where else could I be this safe or this happy? Does that frighten you?"

He nodded. "I like you too. But what does that mean?"

"It means just what you think it means," she said smiling. "It means we'll be able to turn my room back into a storage area."

And that is just what they did.

The next two weeks were incredibly busy and joyous as Jake and Sadie worked together getting things ready for the coming winter and getting to know each other better and better. More wood was stacked, trapping trails identified, more grass and hay cut from the fields, meat smoked and vegetables canned. It was a steady work schedule but they took time for walks and rides as well.

Jake had fashioned a larger bed to accommodate the two of them and they also used that well over the next couple of weeks.

It was the middle of the night a couple of weeks later when Jake, lying awake, heard the sound of a running horse. He got up, pulled on clothes, took the pistol in hand and slipped out the front door and into the shadows.

In the moonlight he could see the rider and as the man pulled his horse to a stop and slid down, heading toward the cabin, Jake stepped out gun in hand. The man quickly raised his hands and shook his head.

"Not here for trouble," he said, breathlessly. "I'm with Nathan Cole. Need your help. Pride's been shot and it's pretty bad. They're not far from here and Pride said to bring him to you. He's lost a lot of blood."

Jake stuck the gun in his belt. "Come help me," he said. They emptied things from the small room at the back and readied the cot for Waylon Pride. Sadie was up, shocking the rider who had not expected a woman. She put on a pot of water to boil and began preparing a set of bandages from their first aid supplies.

"We may need a needle and some strong thread," Jake said and she nodded, heading for the sewing box on the shelf.

"We don't have any alcohol," Jake said.

"We've got that aplenty," the man said. "Not to worry."

They were as ready as could be when an hour later the sound of walking horses was heard. Three men carried Waylon Pride into the back room and laid him on the bed. Sadie had lanterns going, giving enough light.

Pride was unconscious, his shirt and jeans bloody. Jake waved the others out, sending one for alcohol to sterilize the wounds. Fortunately it was of good quality and not the swill saloons typically made. And there were two bottles.

"It was sudden," the first rider who identified himself as Tobin Dell said. "Shots came out of nowhere while we was . . ."

"Never mind," Jake said, cutting him off. "Best I don't know."

He and Sadie began peeling off Pride's clothes, using scissors and pads soaked in warm salt water to loosen the clothing where it had stuck with blood. There were four wounds, one superficial, the others more serious and two were still bleeding. There were exit wounds for all but one, the one in his upper leg. "It's bleeding heavily but I can feel the bullet under the skin at the back," Sadie said.

"We're going to have to cut it out and then we'll need to stitch him up," Jake said. "It's a good thing he's unconscious for this."

They washed the wounds, applying alcohol, Pride wincing and moaning at the pain even though unconscious. Then, while Tobin held a lantern closer Jake dug out the bullet, using a long narrow knife blade. Then he and Sadie painstakingly stitched each of the wounds. They treated the superficial wound with a bandage and pad. That done, they pulled a nightshirt onto Pride and covered him with two blankets. Though the night was warm, the man was beginning to shiver.

"He's going to fever," Sadie said.

Jake nodded. "There's not much we can do about it except keep him at as even a temperature as we can. We can do that with lanterns and adjusting the number of blankets. He's strong but this will test his physical strength."

The other riders were heading back to their camp. Tobin Dell decided to stay in case Jake and Sadie needed any help.

"There's really not much else you can do," Sadie told him. "It's going to be a matter of his strength and keeping any fever or infection in check."

And that turned out to be a challenge. After a quiet night, Pride's fever spiked and they had to take turns with cool compresses and fanning his body with moist towels to keep his temperature within safe limits. The fever ebbed and flowed for two more days and they had to treat an infection around one wound with more alcohol cleansings and saline washes. The fever broke the third day and they washed down Pride's body and dressed him in a clean dry nightshirt. There were no more signs of infection, the redness around the one wound almost gone. He was a strong and healthy young man and that helped.

"I think we've turned the tide," Sadie said. "I'm thinking he's going to be alright but he'll need a lot of time to recover from this."

Tobin Dell left on the third day to update Nathan Cole and the others, indicating one of them would be back shortly to help out.

Pride stirred later that morning and opened his eyes, grimacing at the light.

"Where the hell . . ." he began, then recognized Jake and smiled wanly. "Guess they got me here in time," he said. "Am I gonna make it?"

Jake nodded. "It was touch and go there for a while but it looks like you'll be able to be up and move around, though carefully, in a week or so."

"How long?" Jake knew what he was asking.

"You've been unconscious four days. They got you here just in time and we stopped the bleeding, removed a bullet from your leg and stitched you up. You've fought fever and infection and we wasted a lot of good alcohol on you."

Pride smiled at that. "And the damage?"

"One flesh wound on the shoulder, one more through and through in your side that bled a lot but wasn't otherwise troubling, but the one near your stomach and the one in your leg were the bad ones. The leg wound clipped a vein and that was the worst one. We had to get the bullet out of there first."

"I appreciate what you've done," he said. "I owe you my life."

He paused. "Was I dreaming or was there a woman here?"

"There certainly was," Sadie said, coming into the room. "And a darn good thing for you I was a farm girl used to stitching folks up." She smiled.

"Like I was saying to Jake," Pride said. "I owe you my life."

"Yes you do," she agreed. "Let me get you some tea." She left.

"You know what happened?" Pride asked.

Jake shook his head. "Better I don't, I'm guessing."

Pride closed his eyes for a moment. "Probably so. But I got to tell you, Jake, it's got me thinking about things. Thinking hard."

"These experiences often lead to a lot of thinking," Jake agreed.

"Like to have a place like this someday," Pride said.

"Well, I'd admire to have a neighbour like you," Jake said. "You might consider land nearby for yourself. There's plenty. I'm pretty handy at putting things together and we could get a good start in the spring."

"Sounds like something I should think on seriously," Pride said.

At that point Nathan Cole arrived with another man. He strode into the room and looked down at Waylon Pride, concern on his face.

"Looks like it's been a hard time," he said.

"Hard enough," Pride answered. "I'd be dead if not for Jake and his girl Sadie taking such good care of me, Nathan."

Cole turned to Jake and his eyes were misty. "I'm beholden, Jake. Anything you need, any time, you just say." And suddenly Jake got it.

He motioned Cole outside.

"Does he know?"

Cole wiped one eye and looked confused. "Know what?"

Jake just stared at him. Finally, Cole shook his head.

"Never had the heart to tell him, Jake. Knew his mother for only a few wild days in Wichita and never even knew about the kid until he was sixteen. Then only by accident running into her. But I took it serious from then on and visited regularly, us telling him I was a long-lost uncle. I made sure they had money enough and taught him what I could. When he was nineteen he looked me up. Quite a conversation when he heard what I did but we worked that through and we been together since then."

"Were you planning to tell him sometime?"

Cole shook his head. "Better this way, and in fact we're probably a lot closer than if he knew the truth. You won't tell?"

Jake shook his head. "No, but I've a sense he's thinking about leaving the outlaw life behind. We sort of talked about him buying some land next to mine here and being neighbours. Would that be a problem for you?"

Cole shook his head. "Hell no. I'd even stake him to it. Be nice to have a place to visit and besides, this life's not for him. Me, I'm too old to change, but it would be nice to have a place to retire to sometime down the road."

He went over and peeked into the room but Pride was sleeping.

"I've got to go," Cole said. "Business. But you tell him if he wants to build out here, I'm all for it and I'll help him out."

"You going to be gone long?"

"About two weeks, I suspect. We try to work far from here."

Jake nodded and Cole shook his hand, thanked him again and mounted his horse, the two men riding off, likely to join the others on the ridge.

Pride slept for a few hours and when he awoke Jake told him about how Cole was excited for him to buy some land and build.

"I think he's hoping you'll add a room just for him to retire in when he's ready to hang up the gun and spurs," Jake said.

Pride smiled. "And I'll do just that."

He was a strong young man and he healed rapidly. A couple of days later he was walking around, though gingerly, and by the end of the week he was moving with less discomfort. He talked about riding back to the outlaw camp but realized there might be no one there.

It was ten days later when Tobin Dell rode his horse slowly down the ridge. He looked tired and had one arm in a bloody sling. Jake and Sadie were outside and they could tell the news he brought would be bad. Hearing the horse, Pride came out to see who was arriving. Seeing Dell, he knew.

"What happened?" he asked simply as Dell dismounted.

"Bad planning," Dell said. "I was with the horses while the others were in the bank. Something must have warned the town 'cause they was waiting for us and as the boys came out of the bank they opened fire. Cole was out front and went down first, then the others. I tried to ride down with the horses and Culver, he managed to climb aboard but he was shot off the horse and I was hit. I draped myself over my horse and kicked it hard and it ran me out of town. Posse chased me but I lost them in the Turtle Hills and then fixed myself up best I could and came on."

"He's dead, then?"

Dell nodded. "No doubt, Pride. He took a lot of lead. I'm real sorry."

Waylon Pride nodded numbly and walked away. They left him to his thoughts and Jake and Sadie tended to Dell's wound. It was deep but once they cleaned it up and put in four stitches it looked like it would heal fine.

"Appreciate it," Dell said.

"What now, Tobin?" Waylon Pride said, walking up to them. His face was strained but he was holding things together.

Dell shrugged. "I'm going back to the camp, gather my things, change my name and head east to look for honest work. What about you?"

Pride shook his head. "I'm done with it, Tobin, the thieving, running and riding two steps in front of the law. I'm going to do just what Jake suggested, buy land near here and build something for myself."

Tobin nodded seriously. "After a time, when things have blown over," he said. "I might just come back this way and see if there's work."

Pride smiled. "There will always be a place for you."

The next morning, Tobin Dell headed out and Waylon Pride rode with him.

Before that, Pride had taken Jake aside.

"I'm going to do what I said," he began. "And buy that land. Nathan stashed a lot of money, some of it in cash near the camp and more in an account with Wells Fargo under a name I can use. It'll be more than enough to get started and while it's money taken rather than earned, I'm going to turn it to good use."

Jake shook his hand. "We'll be watching for you."

Pride took two steps and then turned back.

"He was my father, you know."

Jake nodded. "I know. He told me. But he made me promise not to tell you. He thought you were closer this way."

Pride smiled. "I know. My mother told me the truth two years ago when I was back home to see her. She made me promise not to tell and it was probably better, since we were more like uncle and nephew anyway."

When the two men had disappeared over the rise Jake and Sadie walked, hand in hand, toward the dam, a spot they liked to just sit and share.

"Quite a couple of weeks," he said.

"Yes indeed," she agreed. "I'd not want many more like it."

"I'm glad you stayed."

She squeezed his hand. "I know. Me too."