Western Short Story
Billy Browning - Bounty Hunter
Hoss Thieves and Hair Branders
William F. Stocks

Western Short Story

After seeing to Blackjack’s needs, I entered the warm Baker cabin which was two large rooms separated by a hanging buckskin partition that had been rolled up. It was clean and well kept. A bear hide as well as a large set of elk horns embellished the walls of the front room, where Jim sat in a rocking chair smoking a clay pipe. There were three young Indian women busying about, whom I assumed to be either wives or daughters. To my surprise, the table was set with fine china and the girls had prepared a hearty meal of stewed meat and vegetables, with fresh biscuits and coffee.

[Ol’ Jim was about 63 and a widower living with three of his daughters: Madeline (20), Jennie (19) and Isabel (18). The girls’ two mothers, Mary and Eliza, were Shoshone women, sisters who had been raised by a French family. Mary was the mother of Madeline and Belle (as Isabel was called) and Eliza was the mother of Jennie and Joseph, a son who lived nearby and worked as a teamster. Jim’s oldest son, William Baker had taken up a homestead just west of his where he lived with wife, Bella and an adopted daughter, Annie. Another of Jim’s daughters, Mary Runnels had died the previous year (1880) in Hahn’s Peak. She had married John Runnels, a gold seeker at Ute Park.]

Standing up and extending his hand, he said, ”Jim Baker. What be yer name young fella?”

“Name’s, Billy. Pleased to finally meet you Mr. Baker,” I said, hurriedly dropping my saddle bags and bedroll in the corner, and standing my rifle next to them before I shook hands.

“Hell! call me, Jim. I ain’t no mister to nobody. Siddown, m’ girls has got supper ready,” he said gesturing toward the table.

Though he proudly introduced me to each of them, in the shy manner common to most native women in the presence of a stranger, all three girls kept their eyes lowered and did not speak.

“Thanks, Jim. It looks mighty fine to a man whose been travelin’ all day”, I said, as I took my place and we began to dig in.

“A ol’ soldier ridin’ light an’ late, seems may-bee you was comin’ ‘speshly ter see me,” he said, proving he was still a savvy old mountain man.

“That I was. You see, I’m a trooper turned bounty hunter and lookin’ for a bail jumpin’ rustler I handed over last year. I suspect he might be applying his trade again hereabouts. With your knowledge of these parts, I was hopin’ you could direct me as to where any rustlin’ might likely be afoot?”

“Wull if that don’t beat all, a Injun fighter huntin’ down hoss thieves an’ hair branders,” he mused. Ya know, I’d probly be a doin’ the same thing if’n I warn’t so bygod old.”

Jim’s remark about being old just didn’t match his appearance, for he still looked like a man you would not want to tangle with, who could hold his own under any circumstances with both Indians and outlaws.

“M’ herd’s purebreed shorthorns. I brung ‘em here m’self from back home a few years ‘go. It’s a perty hard prospect ter be rustlin’ sech a scirce breed ‘thout gettin’ caught. Oh, I’ll run a couple o’ steers out now an’ agin to friendly tribes pitchin’ their lodges ‘bout m’ cabin. Not the Utes, tho’. The Utes don’t like me,” he said with a hint of regret.

[Jim had been instrumental along with his good friend, surveyor and Indian agent Major D.C. Oakes, in finding and plotting out a place for the Northern Utes, finally selecting the White River Agency. His subsequent involvement with the Army in putting an end to the uprising that led to their eventual removal to Utah Territory, probably played a large part in their dislike for him. Although he was a “squaw man” and had lived with Indians most of his life, adopting their dress and many of their customs, superstitions and beliefs, Baker held them generally in contempt and mistrust, as did most of his contemporaries from the Fur Trade Era, who were able to survive in the unforgiving Shining Mountains.]

“Speakin’ of Utes, about a week ago, I ran into Captain Jack and a small hunting party quite a ways east of here. Do you know him?”

“I surely do. Claims ter be the one shot Major Thornburgh. Y’know I was guide to Colonel Merritt. He’s a Genr’l now. We rescued them that was und’r the Ute guns. They war pinned down tight, an’ bein’ pick’d off like bufflers from a stand. Biggest waste o’ good hoss flesh an’ mules I ev’r did see. Them Ute devils shot ev’r po’r critter, jist ter be a killin’!” he said, shaking his head.

“I heard the way they killed Meeker was pretty gruesome and then took his wife and other agency women and children captive,” I said, observing that his daughters had quietly cleared the table and were now retiring to the adjacent room, dropping down the hide partition.

“We found th’ ol’ coot staked out th’ Apache way, an’ with a barrel stave drove through ‘is mouth an’ clean out the back of ‘is head. I ‘spect them Utes nev’r liked him much neither,” he grinned.

“What about the women, I think I read in the papers they were eventually rescued?”

“Nope, I rode nigh on three moons with Merritt’s army. We’s camped right thar by what was left o’ th’ agency. I led a rescue party first thing an’ we dogged ‘em plenty hard, but them bucks still had the’r way with the captives whenev’r they pleased, ‘til Ol’ Ouray made Douglas give ‘em all back.”

“Hell, it sure sounds like the whole affair was nothin’ but bad medicine all the way around,” I said. The 5th is my old outfit as you know, and First Sgt. Dolan was a good leader and comrade in arms. We “saw the elephant” together in the Powder River Campaign and rode many miles o’ misery on sow belly and hardtack. He was about ready to leave the column like I did and draw his papers.”

“We’ll jist drink us a to’st then to him an’ th’others,” he said, uncorking a crock jug from a nearby shelf and taking a long pull that would probably kill an ordinary man.

Passing it across the table to me, I took a fair swallow of what unexpectedly tasted like fine Tennessee whiskey.

“I kin tell by th’ look on yer face, that ain’t what ya was brac’d fer, Billy.”

“Nope it wasn’t, but it sure was a nice surprise, one that I think the fallen troopers would be pleased about as well.”

Th’ older I git, th’ more I fancy the polish’d drinkin’ whuskey. I’ve drank mor’n my share o’ that ronnyvoo firewater.”

“I’ll bet you have,” I grinned, then tipped the jug back again before passing it over.

[What Jim refers to as “ronnyvoo firewater”, got its name from the rum served at the annual rendezvous held by the mountain men every spring. It was usually watered down to make it go further, with red pepper and a little plug tobacco added to give it back some bite.]

“If ye be lookin’ fer a rustler, th’ George Baggs outfit’s th’ big’st spread ‘round. He runs ‘bout 3,000 head on the low’r country, under th’ numb’r ‘leven brand. Ain’t too hard ter make a difernt hairbrand outta his, if yer good w‘th a runnin’ iron, but he chops th’ ears near clean off, an’ ears ain’t nev’r gonna grow back,” he laughed.

“Jist mosey on down ter Charlie Perkins’ place t’mara an’ keep yer eyes peeled. Thar’s a army camp on th’river at Baggs Crossing too. They’s sure ter be needin’ meat an’ it don’t have ter come with th’hide ‘tach’d,” he smiled, as he stood to take a final drink and placed the jug back on the shelf.

“Well right now, I’d best roll out here on your floor, if ya don’t mind. It’s been a long ride,” I said yawning.

“Make yer self ter home. I’m turnin’ in too. The girls’ll get breakfast goin’ ‘bout daylight,” he said, snuffing out the lantern.

The morning broke with the sound of hushed giggling as the three young women worked quietly on breakfast. I arose and was quickly given a cup of hot coffee by Madeline, who pointed toward the door and said, “Pappa’s out by the corral. He says to send you on out there.”

Ol’ Jim was puffing his pipe and looking Blackjack over intently when I approached.

He’s a real beauty ain’t he, Jim?” I hollered, from a good distance so as not to startle him.

“He truly is that, Billy. Whar’d ya come by sech a fine hoss?” he asked.

“At the races in Cheyenne. He trotted out for the last race of the day and won. After that, I just had to have him. Traded the two mounts I was ridin’ and some hard money to boot.”

“It’s jist too bad he’s bin gelded. Ida paid ya most dearly to put ‘im ter stud,” he replied regretfully.

“Come and get some breakfast, Pappa!” cried Belle, from the door.

“C’mon 5th Cav’lry, time ter fill yer meat bag,” said Jim, as he tapped the bowl of his pipe against the top rail.

We sat down to a wholesome breakfast of fresh eggs, bacon and cornbread cakes, topped with butter mixed in raw honey.

“Your girls are sure good cooks, Jim. This honey-butter’s mighty tasty, too.”

“They’s th’ ones took it from a hive o’ bees a cub bar’d got after in a holler cottonwood ‘tween here’n th’ river. They sceer’d him off, smok’d out them bees and theev’d it off ‘em both!” he laughed.

“Three bee bandits!” I declared, to smiles and more giggles, winking as I said, “Hope there’s no mama bear bounty hunter lookin’ for you girls.”

[His daughters took good care of Ol’ Jim, both before and after they were married. Traveler’s along the road which passed near the cabin, would often see them in the lantern light grooming and curling Jim’s long hair and trimming his beard. Madeline married Frank Adams a teamster, Jennie married August Reschke a ranch hand and Belle wed N. B. Kinnear, a surveyor.]

After showing Jim the man-wanted poster of Jody Wolfe, I thanked him and his little ladies for their gracious hospitality and set off toward Charlie Perkins’ store about four miles down river. There was definitely a touch of fall in the air and the morning sun felt good on my back. Blackjack was feeling his oats a little, so not following Jim’s suggestion to mosey, I just let him go and we were soon loping along the wagon road without a care in the world…..or so it seemed.

© WFS 2018