Western Short Story
The big roan stepped gently down the rocky slope toward the fast-moving blue and green river below, the rider leaning back to balance the horse against the sharp downward slope. They were both tired and thirsty. The horse was the long-legged and sure-footed roan they breed in the low mountains and they reached the bottom safely. The horse stretched its legs, walking eagerly toward the river and a drink of the cool water it could see and smell.
At the river, both man and horse drank deeply, for it had been many miles since they had last seen such clear and cold water. The man emptied his large desert canteen, brushing dirt from the textured cover and rinsed it a couple of times. Then he filled it with the fresh river water. He left the canteen soaking in the cool water while the horse continued to drink downstream. Then he walked around for a few minutes, stretching his long legs and swinging his arms to get the circulation going. It had been eight long hours of travel with only brief breaks from sitting the saddle and he was as tired as the roan. But it was not good to stop for too long, and he had checked their back trail many times that day. No one seemed to be following them, at least not so far. But they were back there, riding as hard as he had been. Of that he was certain.
He was swinging back into the saddle when something shiny sparkled at the edge of his vision. He stepped back down from the horse and crossed to where an odd-shaped bulge of grey rock, the shape reminding him of a plains buffalo, came off the lower ledge. He stepped up onto it and then dropped down to the other side in search of an object that could reflect sunlight.
It was the buckle on a pair of old brown and weathered leather saddlebags, or at least what was left of them. They were half buried by drifting sand. He would not have seen them if he had not been climbing into the saddle at the time. He picked the saddlebags up gently and shook off the sand. He was preparing to open them when he looked a bit beyond them and saw the boot.
Damn, he thought, then reluctantly walked over to the base of another stone outcropping. The skeleton of white bones, tatters of cloth still clinging to some of the bones here and there, lay on the sand and rock. The remains of a battered brown hat lay to one side and worn boots still rested on the bones of the man's feet. The dead man had been here a long time.
Under the remnants of a faded leather vest he found two packages wrapped securely and tied in waxed paper, saved by that from the elements. Between them was a ratty envelope, the name of the intended recipient long gone but a date in the upper corner. That date was almost a year earlier. He hesitated a moment and then opened the first small package. Inside the waxed outer wrapping was a small box. Inside that box was a ring and pair of earrings with pearls adorning each. Inside the ring was an inscription. 'To Edith, love Dawson.' A personal gift that had never been delivered to the woman intended.
Inside the other package was a ranch tally book. It was also wrapped against inclement weather, as was the custom when travelling and it was in good shape. Inside the cover of the book a name was printed in bold letters. Patrick Shanahan, Butte Creek, Wyoming. On the pages of the book were tallies of cattle and horses, brands and other information typical of the kind a ranch hand would keep, along with to-do lists. Tucked in the centre of the book was a folded note.
'Patrick, please pick up the package from the jeweler's and bring it back to the ranch for me. I appreciate you taking the trouble to get it. Dawson.' So, he thought, Patrick had been doing an errand for his friend or boss Dawson in picking up the gift and had not made it back to the ranch.
There was nothing else to find. Using a thick, flat branch he dug a long shallow grave and carefully moved the bones into it, covering them with dirt and laying a row of stones on top. Then he found a flat piece of bark and roughly carved on it with his knife. 'Patrick Shanahan,' and the date. He knew no more than that. At least the man now had a resting place and a marker.
"Well, boy," he said to the roan when he walked back to the horse, "looks like we're going to be heading north. Wouldn't be my choice, that is if I had one, and we should be making tracks south. And, as likely as not it means more trouble for us. But, as my mama and uncle Emil always said, doing the right thing isn't always easy, just the only thing you can do." The roan snorted in what the man decided to take for agreement.
He mounted, turned north and headed toward Butte Creek, a trip that could take as much as a week. With each mile he wondered why he was bothering to make the trip. But it was his nature that when faced with such a situation he did what he felt was right. Even if it meant trouble. In the past Boone had faced a lot of trouble. It had earned him a reputation, for across the territories from New Mexico to Wyoming he was known as someone you did not want to make trouble with. And if there was trouble, you wanted him on your side.
Two days later the first of the anticipated trouble occurred. He was lying asleep in a sheltered camp under a wide oak tree when he heard the roan snort softly. His eyes snapped open immediately, and from long practice he took a gun in one hand and rolled into the nearby shadows. He never slept far from cover if he could help it. He waited, not moving, just listening. He knew the roan would only have made that sound if there was someone or something approaching the camp. It might be nothing more than a nocturnal animal of some kind, but he had not lived this long by being careless.
There were two of them, circling his camp on foot, one holding a pistol and the other a rifle. Robbers, he thought, nothing more. Not the others that might be following behind him. There would be more than two of them. It amused him to think that a simple pair of robbers was the lesser of two evils.
They moved closer and suddenly fired several shots into his bedroll. Only then did they notice it was nothing more than an empty bed.
"I liked that bedroll," Boone said from the shadows.
Both men turned at once and fired in his general direction but he had moved as he spoke. He fired twice at each man and they fell, both dead. There was no doubt about that. Boone knew where his shots had gone.
He dragged the bodies into the brush and backtracked their boot marks under moonlight until he found their horses. He brought the horses into his camp after scouting the area and making certain there were no others.
He unsaddled the horses and picketed them, then crawled under his blankets and went to sleep, comfortable that the roan was on duty. He gave no thought to the dead men lying in the brush. That was over and for Boone, done was done. It made things easier for him.
He studied them more closely in the light of early morning. Nondescript clothing and nothing on either of the men to identify them. One wore army trousers and the other bore an army hat. Hangers on who had found no work after the war and took to thieving, he surmised. They might have been better to stay in the army. Likely they did not have that option.
He took their guns, knives, a what cash they had and buried them, probably more than they deserved, but it was the right thing to do. He checked the horses and found neither had a brand. That was unusual, and interesting, and he decided to take them with him and sell them in the next town. One of the saddles was plain and unremarkable and he kept it. The other was fancier, and while he admired it, it was the kind that might be remembered. He buried it far from the graves. The guns and holsters were common and he packed them in the saddlebags on the horse he left saddled. He had breakfast, cleaned the site, saddled the roan and continued north, no more thought given to what had happened.
Back at the river where Boone had found Patrick Shanahan's body, three men sat their horses while a fourth studied the ground nearer the water. "He was here alright," that one said to the others. "He's still riding that big nasty roan. I'd know that horse's track anywhere. He wandered around on foot for a time while the horse drank and then he went over to those rocks." He pointed.
He walked over to the shallow outcropping of stone and stepped on it, studying the scene for a moment then turned to the others. "Fresh grave been dug here," he said excitedly. The others got down and they dug until they exposed the bones. Finding only that, they covered the grave back up.
"Been there for a while, maybe years," one offered. "Why'd he bury it?"
"Like what he'd do," another said. "No matter."
The tracker had returned to the edge of the river and walked around, up and down, studying the sign. Then he looked up, surprised.
"Hey, he's headed north!"
"What!" their leader said, clearly surprised. "He'd be plumb crazy to go north with us following him! You sure, Placer?"
"Yeah, that's sure as hell what he's done alright," Norm Placer, their tracker said. "Looks like he made that decision right after he was done burying that dead man over there. Must mean something, though I surely don't know what. Sides, he might not yet know we's still following him."
Silence. Then, "He shoulda guessed we'd foller him. No matter. Well, let's get after him. He ain't sitting waiting for us."
"I sure as hell hope not," a third said. "That's a scary thought."
"You a-feared of him?"
"I sure as hell am!" the man said. "He's hell-on-wheels with that gun of his and he just don’t care about nothing. Just walks right in shooting things up. You seem to forget I seen him in action. Couple of times. Damn right I'm scared. Real scared. You would be too if you knew what was good for you!"
"No matter," their leader, Toms Hastings said. "He's killed kin and it's our job to ride him down and hang him for it."
Rider Hastings, Toms' younger brother, said nothing, but he was thinking. The story around Redmond was that the two Hastings cousins had started things with Boone and had ended up dead in what all bystanders said was a fair fight. But saying that to his older brother would make no difference and would only start another argument, one he would lose, as he had lost all the others.
Boone rode into Burnsville in the early morning of the fourth day, heading north and west. It was a small town, much like every other small town he had been in over the years. He rode to the livery and paid for the horses to be checked over, brushed, watered and given oats. The liveryman, taciturn as many of them were, looked at the animals then looked at the man and said nothing.
Boone ate a tasty breakfast at the main street diner, aware of the looks of the townsfolk, looks always given to new arrivals, and ignored them. He knew what they saw. He was tall and muscular, much as most men who worked the range. He was sporting six days growth of beard and his typical range clothes were dusty and caked with sweat. He badly needed a bath. He considered his carrying money, having picked up an extra ten dollars from the bodies of the two thieves. He decided it was worth it. He bought a new bedroll and a set of fresh clothes at the general store and had a bath, haircut and shave, leaving his moustache. A laundry woman washed everything, new and old. He felt a hundred percent better when all was done. He stocked up on ammunition. If the Hastings tracked him down, as he expected they would, he might need it.
It was while he was still sitting in the barber's chair that the local marshal wandered in, having followed him around that morning surreptitiously.
Boone had noticed.
"Passing through town, mister?"
Boone nodded. "Heading east," he said, lying smoothly.
"Got a name?"
Boone nodded. "The name's Boone," he said quietly. One of the marshal's thick eyebrows went up ever so slightly. So, he knew, or had guessed.
"Leaving soon, Boone?" The marshal smiled.
Boone smiled back. He had heard that one before. "This afternoon. Just waiting for some laundry to be done and I'll be on my way."
The marshal got up, looking relieved. "Safe travel." Then he was gone out the door, clearly happy that Boone would be riding out of his town soon. Boone had that effect on the law, and on some towns.
He lazed around for a couple of hours, glad to be out of the saddle for a while and taking time even though he knew he was likely being trailed. Finally, with his clothes clean and packed, he headed to the livery.
"Fine animals," the liveryman said. "Interested in selling?"
"Why not?" Boone said. The liveryman bought the two horses, the saddle and tack from him and Boone added a little comfort to his funds. Then he saddled the roan and headed east out of town, certain the marshal would be watching. An hour later he turned the roan north and west once again.
For two more days he travelled uneventfully. He remained in awe of the sheer scope of the western lands where you could ride for days and see no other soul besides the animals that roamed the deserts, mountains and plains. And you could experience sunrises and sunsets beyond imagination.
The four men following him rode into Burnsville a day later. Two stayed in the saddle, one headed to the general store for supplies and the fourth, their leader, Toms Hastings, walked into the livery barn.
"Looking for a friend of ours," he said affably to the liveryman. "Tall fellow named Boone. Supposed to catch up to him here."
"Left here about two days ago heading east," the liveryman said, wanting no trouble from these men, not believing Hastings' story for a moment and giving no more information than he had to.
"Say where he was heading?"
The liveryman shook his head. "Didn't say much, period."
The man touched his hat and mounted his horse. The three rode down the street toward the general store, passing the marshal. They touched their hats toward him as the fourth man came out of the store with filled saddlebags and two large sacks, passing them to the others. Then they rode east out of town, Norm Placer in the lead, looking for Boone's tracks.
The marshal walked over to the livery stable. "Well, Amos," he said to the hostler, "What do you think about all that?"
"Methinks they's after that there Boone feller who was here a couple of days ago," Amos said. "Knowed one of em. Goes by the name of Curtis, rode along with the raiders late in the war. Nasty one, and they's a nasty group, except for that Norm Placer. He must be scouting for them. He's a good one on the hunt, too. Glad they moved on and didn't cause no ruckus here."
"They say why they're after Boone?"
Amos shook his head. "Nope. Just asked where he was heading. They's pretty foolish to chase after than one," he said.
"Foolish?" the marshal asked. "Why?"
Amos chuckled. "You heered of him much as me, Walt. They might get unlucky and catch up to him. That would be unlucky, for them."
Boone rode into Butte Creek late on the fifth day long after dark. He took a room at the hotel, enjoyed another bath and slept soundly. The next morning he wandered down to the general store. The woman behind the counter was in her mid-forties with a business-like air and a genuine smile.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked.
Boone smiled. "I hope so. I'm looking for a man named Dawson."
"I don't know," Boone said. "I only know his first name but I don't think there's too many men named Dawson around here. He'd be friends with or married to a woman named Edith but I don't know her last name either."
"Why do you want them?" she asked, now a little suspicious.
"I came across a dead man a few days south of here," he said. "He'd been dead a year or so, I'd guess, so I buried his bones and read over him. His name was Patrick Shanahan and he had a letter and a package for this man Dawson. I aim to deliver it if I can. Seemed the right thing to do."
"That'd be Dawson Harte," she said, relaxing. "That's who you want. Nice, nice man, nice family too. Edith's his wife. They have a middle-sized ranch about two hours west of here. What's in the package?"
"I'm afraid that's somewhat personal," Boone said. "But knowing where they live I'll ride out there today and deliver the package to them."
"You came a long way for someone you don't know. That's a nice thing to do. Patrick was a very good man, but you're a stranger, aren't you?"
"Yes, ma'am, but my mother always said you can't go far wrong doing the right thing and that's what I plan to do."
He mounted the roan and turned west, following the directions the woman in the store had provided. Sure enough, two hours later he saw the wide gate of the Box H. He rode through and about twenty minutes later saw the ranch house in the distance. He dismounted in the yard and tied the roan to the hitching post, noticing the looks of two riders near the corral full of horses.
He walked over to them. "I'm looking for Dawson Harte," he said.
They looked him up and down, noting the gun and assessing his intent.
"I've a package for him," Boone said, showing them the small box that was wrapped in waxed paper. "I've come a long way to deliver it."
"That's Mr. Harte coming now," one of the men said, pointing past Boone to the man approaching from the house. He was tall and stately, in his late forties or early fifties, with slightly graying hair, hard grey eyes and generous laugh lines around them. Boone liked him on sight.
"How can I help you?" Harte asked.
"Actually, I came a long way to see you, Mr. Harte," Boone said, holding out the package. "This package is for you."
Harte was puzzled but took the package and opened it.
"Oh, my Lord," he said, his hand shaking a bit. "Oh my," he repeated. Then he looked at Boone. "Where did you find this?"
Boone explained, watching the sadness creep across Harte's face as he learned that his friend and employee had died.
"Patrick was my ranch foreman and my best friend," Harte said. "He'd taken a small herd south for us and then decided to stay around North Platte a few days while the boys rode back up here. I ordered this jewellery from a catalogue and asked him to pick it up for Edith. She loves pearls. He said he'd bring it back with him. We never knew what happened to him, but I knew if he didn't come back he'd be dead. Patrick wasn't the kind to just ride off like that."
"I wouldn't have wanted you to think badly of the man," Boone said. "He was surely on his way back here to deliver this."
"I never doubted it," Harte said. "Like I said, we knew if he hadn't returned he was dead but we never knew until now exactly what had happened. Appreciate you taking the time to bury him proper-like and make the time to bring this to us. Hope you'll stay with us for a meal."
"Happy to," Boone said. "I've never been known to turn down a meal."
"Never asked your name," Harte said.
"It's Boone," Boone replied, "Just Boone."
Harte showed no reaction to the name, but out of the corner of his eye Boone saw both of the cowboys in the corral turn their heads sharply to look at each other at his name. Then they studied him again. He noticed it, but he was used to it by now and did not bother to look their way.
"Why don't you head to the bunkhouse over there behind the corral and get cleaned up and I'll give these to Edith and explain what happened to Patrick. Give me a half-hour then come up to the house for lunch."
Boone nodded and headed toward the bunkhouse to clean up. He saw one of the men follow Dawson Harte toward the ranch house and stop him to talk. Boone knew what the talk would be about. He washed and then passed the time brushing down the roan, giving it fresh water and feeding it from a large bin of oats he found in the barn. Then he dusted off his clothes, washed his hands and headed up to the house to join the Hartes.
Dawson Harte was as affable as when they first met, so whatever the ranch hand had told him had either been about something else, which Boone doubted, or the man might have recounted something positive. Harte might not be the kind to judge or perhaps he was the kind to be polite in the presence of his wife. She was a petite woman with flaming red hair, green eyes and a ready smile. The meal was a pleasant change from trail and restaurant fare and he said so.
"I like a man who appreciates good food," she said. "I thank you for bringing us word of Patrick and your kindness toward him. He's been missed. While it's sad news it's always better to know than to wonder."
They talked about the familiar things, the steadily growing population of the west, the typical challenges of ranch life and its benefits and of family. After the meal, he and Dawson Harte retired to the enclosed veranda with coffee and apple pie. Boone turned down the offer of a cigar.
"Mort, he's one of the boys in the corral, told me a little about you," Harte said, "but I'm not one to judge or question. Want you to know that."
"I appreciate it," Boone said. "I'm aware of my reputation, sir, and I have in some ways earned it. But you must understand that when I get asked to clean up a town or ride guard on a stage, lead a trail drive or track down bad men, I'm usually dealing with very dangerous people and equally dangerous situations. Given that, it's necessary I carry a reputation that will give them pause. There are times when just knowing I've been asked by the territory or by a town council to clean things up causes some of the most dangerous people to pack up and leave before I get there. I've never killed anyone who wasn't trying to kill me or someone I was protecting at that moment and I've never taken a thing that didn't belong to me. My parents and then my uncle Emil raised me to be strong, but more to be honest, and I've tried to be."
"I appreciate that," Harte said, "I believe you, Boone. But how long can you do that kind of work? You must make more than your share of enemies along the way, I'd think. It must be a drain on you at times."
Boone smiled. "Well that's true enough. At some point I'll probably move far away from the south-central part of the country. I have some land in southwest Utah I haven't seen in a while and I may build and settle there."
"I can understand," Harte said. "That's what brought us here those many years ago. Now, what's next for you?"
"Nothing in particular," Boone said. "I was to meet Tomas Cruz, the head of the Colorado territorial marshals, in a few days. He has some work for me. Between now and then I'll enjoy the peace and quiet of wide-open spaces."
He got reluctantly to his feet. "Well, thanks for the wonderful meal, but I must be going. Tomas is not the most patient of men and I'm probably going to be late as it is because of this side trip."
Harte shook his hand again. "I appreciate that you'd take the time to do that. Thanks once more for all you've done."
Boone mounted the roan and without a backward glance rode out of the ranch yard and turned the horse south.
And ran smack into more trouble.
He was taking the less used routes south. A day southeast of Dawson Harte's ranch he spied a lone wagon sitting in the middle of a little used trail, hardly more than a path, though a wide and flat one. There were no horses or mules in sight and no sign of movement. He sat for a time and studied the scene. It was out of place and he never rushed into what seemed unusual. He had learned caution in hard schools. Failure in those schools often meant death.
Still wary of a trap, Boone rode around the wagon in a wide circle, rifle across his saddle, but saw nothing untoward. Finally, feeling more comfortable, and noting that the roan showed no sign of worry, he rode down to the wagon. He announced himself loudly but there was no response. He got down and walked to the wagon, putting one foot on the wheel to peek inside.
And got the surprise of his life!
A woman was lying on a pile of sacking inside. She looked old, almost certainly in her late seventies or even older. He could see she was still breathing but it was very shallow. He got his canteen from the roan, climbed into the wagon and tilted her head up, pouring a few drops of water onto her lips. She drank and he repeated this a few times until her eyes slowly opened.
"Who're you?" she croaked from a still dry throat.
"Name's Boone, ma'am. Just happened by here heading south and saw your wagon. What happened? Where are your animals?"
She swallowed. "There was a bad lightning storm a couple of days ago," she whispered. "Wagon tongue snapped and the dang mules ran off over that rise. Jacob, my man, went after them and ain't come back."
"When was that?" Boone asked.
"Don't rightly know," she said. "At least two days."
He made her comfortable on the sacking, leaving her the canteen. "Sip slowly on this," he said. "I'm going to look for him and those mules."
He mounted the roan and headed in the direction that she pointed, feeling downcast, knowing if the older man had not come back he probably could not. And Boone had already had his share of death on this trip.
He was right. Less than an hour from the wagon, Boone saw the body. He knelt over the man and saw the blue tinge around the lips and throat. Heart attack, he reasoned, and knew there was nothing more to be done. Tragic thing to die alone out here, he thought, knowing at the end you have left a wife all alone and helpless in the middle of nowhere.
Boone could only hope death had been sudden.
He got back on the roan and followed the tracks of the mules. A half-hour later he came upon them. They were a bit ragged, for hitched to the traces as they were they could not bend far down to eat or drink anything except for tall grasses near the stream. He unharnessed them, led them to the stream and left them there feeding and drinking while he went back and buried the older man.
The decay had begun, the scavengers had been busy and he was not about to take the body back to the wagon in that shape. The old woman would suffer enough knowing her man was dead. Seeing him like this was not necessary. Again he pondered the shortness of life and realized this was the second time he had buried someone in only a few days.
Toady Curtis rode into the Harte ranch yard alone. He was perhaps the least threatening of the four men and had cleaned himself up and put a smile on his face that hid his sinful nature. He found a cowboy working in the barn.
"Howdy," he said, that helpful benign smile on his face. "I'm looking for a friend of mine. Name's Boone. I was supposed to meet him in town and the lady at the general store said he'd come out to the ranch."
"He did come out here," the ranch hand said, nodding, "But that was more than a day ago and he's long gone now."
"Know where he's headed. We was supposed to travel together."
"You a marshal too?"
Curtis nodded, lying smoothly. "For six years now. Why?"
"That man Boone said he was heading to the territorial marshal's office in Denver. You can probably find him between here and there."
"Obliged," said Curtis. He mounted and rode out to tell the others what he had learned and where Boone was heading.
Boone let the mules feed and drink for a full half-hour before putting them on leads, draping the harness over the two in the best shape, though they all looked pretty fit to him. He led them back to the wagon behind the roan, taking an hour and a bit more to cover that distance.
The elderly woman had climbed out of the wagon and was sitting in the shade of a tree some yards from it. She saw him coming and the sad look on her face said she already knew what had happened.
"You bury him good and deep, away from the varmints?"
Boone nodded. "Yes, ma'am, I did. And I covered him with rocks."
"Good. Thanks for that. I'm Bella Short. Be thanking you for taking care of my man. And for bringing back them mules. They don't look too worn."
"I'm Boone," he offered. "As for the mules, they were hungrier and thirstier than worn out," he said. "They're good stock, now fed and watered, and they're in plenty good enough shape for travelling."
"Thanks for bringing them back."
"In the morning they'll be fine to pull this wagon. I'll get on with repairing the wagon tongue so we can get on our way. Where we heading?"
She just looked at him, confused.
"Where were you and your man headed, ma'am?" he said. "I'll be taking you there if you can give me directions."
For another moment she said nothing. Then, "We was heading to my son's farm near Laramie. Gonna retire in a little cabin there and help out best we could. They got three young'uns to take care of and we all thought we could take care of each other. But I don't want to be a bother, Boone."
Boone smiled. "No bother, ma'am. That's on my way," he lied. "Let me make us something to eat. We'll get some rest and head out in the morning." That it was not on his way, he was sure she knew, but they both left it alone.
"No such thing," she said, getting slowly to her feet. "I may be old, Boone, but I'm not too old to cook. You build a fire and I'll do the cooking while you work on that repair. I may be getting on in years but I can still cook."
And she could. She made what was perhaps the best stew Boone had ever tasted and she had a bottle of wine which, while warm, went well with it. By the time they cleaned up their meal, the day had caught up with her and she settled in the wagon, falling immediately asleep. Boone made his bed under a large tree, trusting the roan and the mules to stand watch.
They were under way early the next morning, the mules back in form and pulling the wagon with ease over the level ground despite their travails of the past couple of days. They were able to find a wagon trail a few hours into the day and, as a result, they made good time, travelling two more hours before they decided to stop by a wide creek for lunch and to water the animals. They left the mules and the roan grazing on some short grass near the wagon.
"How long till we get there, Mr. Boone?"
"It's just Boone," he said. "I'd say another two to three days. It's a pretty level trail, so travel between here and there should be fairly easy and we can make good time. They expecting you any special time at the farm?"
Bella Short shook her head. "Just knew we was on our way. Hard to predict time and travel out here, as you know."
"Did you and Jacob have a farm back where you come from?"
She shook her head. "Nope. We lived in town. Hanceville. Jacob worked at the stockyards and I worked in the general store until we retired a few months ago. We worked long and hard all our lives. He was seventy-two and I'm almost seventy and we were looking forward to at least a few years of rest." Her eyes teared up as she thought about the time ahead on her own.
"Life's not fair," Boone said simply.
"No use fretting about life," Bella said, wiping her eyes. "We ain't any of us getting out of it alive no how. Best thing is to make the best of things. Though he did deserve a few years of retiring, I'd say, that Jacob of mine."
They headed out under a sunny sky on a cool afternoon in perfect weather. Things were going unusually smoothly and Boone was disturbed to find that he was getting that same old feeling again. He often turned and looked behind him. There was nothing. But that feeling would not go away.
They travelled for the rest of the afternoon, mostly in silence, sometimes chatting about common things. Bella was quiet, processing the death of her husband in her own way, reflecting on her future with family, and Boone left her with her thoughts. He was happy she would have family around. He checked their back trail every so often and twice rode back to a high point to sit silently on the roan and watch for dust coming up behind. But there was nothing.
He decided to make their night camp off the beaten path and took the wagon into a thick grove of trees. Then he went back along the trail and used a branch to sweep out as much of the sign as he could. It was not much of a help, but in the dark, he hoped the tracks might not be noticed.
He picketed the animals and they made a small fire for another fine meal of Bella's magical stew. Then he went to the edge of the trees and just stood there for a time, coffee cup in hand, listening.
Bella came up behind him, studying him intently. "I know that look, Boone," she said. "You've got the feeling, haven't you?"
"That someone's coming, bringing danger, strife and trouble. I gets that feeling time to time my own self and I trust it. So should you."
He smiled. "It may be nothing but whatever it is, I'll handle it."
She smiled up at the tall man and patted his arm. "Of that I have no doubt at all, Boone. None at all. But just so you know, I can handle a rifle good as most if I have to. Never doubt it for a second."
"I'll count on it," he said, smiling.
They took to their blankets early and were asleep quickly. In the morning they chanced a fire, as nothing had occurred during the night to raise their concerns. Then he hitched up the wagon and they headed out, Boone still studying the back trail. He knew if there were riders behind they would be making better time than the wagon but there was nothing he could do about it.
It was late morning when he saw the first sign of dust behind them. An hour later it was noticeably closer and he estimated it was three or four riders coming along fast. He asked Bella to pick up the pace, telling her what he had seen and he began looking for a place to make a stand. There was no chance of outrunning the riders because they were not near anywhere they could run to.
Then he saw the stand of rocks and pointed them out to Bella. She expertly turned the wagon and the mules pulled it into the semi-circle of standing rocks and trees. Boone unhitched the mules and took them and the roan behind the tallest of the rocks where they would be out of sight and safe from any gunfire. Then he checked his guns and rifle, noting that Bella was doing the same with a Winchester she had taken out of the wagon. He smiled at her and nodded, then showed her where to position herself so she would be safe but have a good line of fire. He did not doubt her skill with the rifle, watching how well she handled it.
"My fault," she said. "I slowed you down."
He shook his head. "No one's fault. Never about fault, just is as it is."
"They after you?"
He nodded. "I suppose they'd have followed me to hell, these men, Bella, though for no good reason. Best to get it settled. I hate loose ends."
"They a posse? They a badge among 'em?"
He shook his head. "They're the kin of men who tried to kill me a couple of weeks back. I expected this. They're trying to even the score."
"Foolishness," she said. "Ain't no such score ever settled up even."
Then they waited.
It was an hour later when the horses materialized from the dust cloud. There were four. Boone did not recognize them from that distance. He sipped water taken from a nearby creek and munched on jerky Bella provided. She did the same. He seemed so calm, she thought, and that gave her comfort.
The riders approached and slowed down. They wore the long-buttoned dusters common to the travelling cowboy. They stopped and one got down to study the trail, turning his head toward the cluster of rocks.
"Can I help you?" Boone called out.
"That you, Boone?" one of the riders asked.
Boone said nothing.
"I'm Toms Hastings," the man said. "You killed two of my cousins back in Redmond. You got to pay for that, Boone!"
"I killed them and they deserved it," Boone replied calmly. "Those boys had the chance to leave town like the others did. They chose badly. They started it and I finished it. I'm not losing sleep over them."
"They's four of us."
"For now," Boone said. "Not for long."
At that, two of the men looked anxiously at each other. After all, this was Boone and his skills were legendary.
"Maybe we'll just wait you out till dark and then come get you."
He and Bella had talked about this. Boone nodded to her and they both fired, each taking a man off his horse. Toms Hastings dove from his horse and scrambled for cover, another man on the ground running for the trees and diving behind one. Rider Hastings and Toady Curtis were both dead.
"Like I said," Boone drawled. "Not four of you for long. Now there's just two. You come for me any time you're ready, Hastings. I'm right here. While you're cowering down over there I'm going to get some coffee."
He whispered his plan to Bella and she smiled. He slipped out of the rocks while she placed rifle shots toward the places where Hastings and Norm Placer had taken refuge, just to keep their heads down.
Boone worked his way around the thick stand of trees and came up behind the man who knelt behind one of them. It was Placer.
"Hey," Boone said suddenly. The man pivoted on his knees bringing up his rifle and Boone shot him through the chest.
"Now there's just one of you, Hastings," Boone said loudly. "Want to meet me like a man or you gonna hide like a prairie dog."
Hastings looked at his hands. They were shaking. This was not how it was to go. They were supposed to kill Boone, not the other way around. He knew if he tried to run he would be an easy target.
"If you're willing to let me go, I'll go," Hastings said. All the while he was moving around to outflank Boone, his only hope.
"Too late for that, Hastings. I'm not having you on my back trail. Stand and fight or run and die. Up to you."
Hastings thought he had Boone's position and moved to get a line of sight, hoping to finish Boone with one shot. He saw a shadow he thought was Boone and raised his gun, taking careful aim. But he had forgotten Bella Short. She had come out of the rocks and her shot took off the back of his head.
Boone checked each of the men, making certain they were dead. Bella walked over from the rocks. "We clear, Boone?"
He nodded. He took each of the bodies, and using a shovel from the wagon, dug a deep, wide grave and tumbled each one in. He took the money they were carrying as well as their weapons and cached them in the wagon. Then he unsaddled and unbridled the four horses. Two were clearly branded, so he just slapped each on the rump and sent them running back the way they had come. The other two were not, and they would take those two along with them. They were both fine looking animals.
He put the saddles and other gear in the wagon. Then he hitched up the mules and they continued south. Three days later Bella turned the wagon into the open farm yard. The reunion with her son and his family was somewhat bittersweet because of Jacob's passing, but now she was safe with family and Boone could see she would be alright in time.
She gave Boone a solid hug and a kiss on the cheek. "I'd be done and gone without you, Boone. You take care and you come back and see me before I pass. I may be old but I'll be around for some time. You hear me?"
He smiled down at her. "I hear you, Bella. I'll try. I promise."
He mounted the roan.
"Boone," she said. "What about the horses, guns and saddles and such in the back of the wagon. Ain't you taking it?"
He shook his head. "I took a bit of ammunition and one spare belt. The rest is yours. You'll do better with it than me, Bella. I've got all I need with me."
He turned the roan out of the yard and with a final wave disappeared over a rise, once again heading south.