tagNovels and NovellasSlowly but Surely Ch. 03

Slowly but Surely Ch. 03

byJakeRivers©

Chapter Three – Trail Drive

The vision in front of me continued, as she put her dainty hand out so shake mine. "I'm Roxie Zell."

I woke up from whatever trance I'd been in. "A lovely name for a lovely lady. I'm Slade Ransom from Nebraska. If I'd known how beautiful the women were here I expect I would have moved to Colorado much sooner."

"My, and gallant too."

Somehow, we wound up on the dance floor. She was shorter than Candy but had more curves in more places; at least as far as I could tell from what I felt as we bumped into each other on this turn or that. I'd always been a fair to middlin' dancer and she was somewhat better than I was so we danced well together. We chatted, getting to know each other, and before we parted, she agreed to a couple more dances that night and a ride the next afternoon.

I caught a couple of glimpses of Candy while we were dancin' and she looked a bit put out. I guessed she was happiest if no one liked me, including herself. She did stop by later and hint at a dance and seemed miffed when I told her I had promised Roxie the next one. A couple of times during the evening I caught her staring at me but when I did, she gave a haughty toss of her fiery red hair and looked away.

One strange thing happened about an hour before we left. With no expression on his face, Pete led me over to introduce me to another rancher. Dark and somber looking, he was a man who, once seen, stuck in your memory a long time. He wasn't that big but he gave a sense of being large. He wasn't handsome in the way most often considered: his features were too perfect, in the manner of a beautiful woman. Yet, he by no means was effeminate. He exuded an aura of power and ruthlessness.

"Slade, this is Colin MacPherson, he owns a large spread down at the south end of the basin. Colin, this is Slade Ransom, my new foreman."

"What happened to Klein?"

I answered, "He wasn't doing a good job of cuttin' down the rustlin'. I aim to be more aggressive."

"That could be a dangerous task, Mr. Ransom."

Maybe a little too harsh I replied, "No, I don't think you understand. Stealin' cows is much more dangerous. I noticed there were large numbers of cottonwoods along the rivers with branches big enough to decorate with thieves!"

Colin answered me back, "Maybe so. Hey, is that your large roan horse outside? He's one I'd like to have. I can make it worth your while to sell him."

"I reckon that horse ain't for sale, Mr. MacPherson."

"I'll give you five double eagles for him. Of course, I don't need your cheap saddle and gear."

With a flat voice, I replied, "Even if he would allow it, I'd never let you ride him for ten times that. Red is like family to me."

With a smirk, he came back, "Yeah, now that you mentioned it there is a close resemblance."

Pete had his hand on my shoulder and felt me tense up. He squeezed my shoulder and I backed off, offering MacPherson a spare nod before I walked away with Pete. This was neither the time nor place to continue our 'discussion'.

Taking my arm, Pete said, "Let's go outside."

We walked over to his wagon and sat on the back. He handed me a flask and I took a healthy swallow. Feelin' the burn make its way down my throat, I gasped, "Who the hell was that?"

"Colin moved in about five years ago. He bought out a couple of the ranchers and forced several others out. He's been goin' round trying to buy everyone's place at a low price. Things happen to holdouts. I saw you dancin' with Roxie. Last fall someone set fire to a number of the stacks of hay at her dad's ranch. I had to loan them some to make it through the winter. Things like that seem to happen around the basin all too frequently. It don't make sense that rustlers would waste time on things like that."

Thinkin' about what he'd said, I responded, "What's he tryin' to do, get the whole basin."

"Yeah, that's just what he's graspin' for."

"Damn, how big is this area, it must be purt' near a million acres?"

Pete replied, "Yeah, I reckon so. Maybe even more. MacPherson's got the south end of the park all the way across in front of the Rabbit Ears Mountains and he's working his way north. He's got money and he's a ruthless bastard."

"Well, he sure didn't get on my good side."

We went back inside and I rounded Roxie up for a couple more dances before we left. Damn, I was getting' to like this girl a lot. I even got a new hand out of it. Roxie was nineteen and her brother, Bud was seventeen and wanted to work for someone other than his dad for a while. Roxie gave me the how and when for the ride the next day, Sunday.

The ride home was quiet, with an occasional sleepy murmur from Candy or Glenna. I took care of the wagon for Pete, and then went on to bed.

I slept late the next morning and woke up to a warm summerlike day. The Dancers had gone into Walden for church, which left me on my own. I had some coffee and a slab of leftover apple pie for breakfast. After taking my time getting ready, Red and I lazed our way over to the Zell's ranch. While one of the hands was getting Roxie's horse ready, I had more coffee on their front porch with Clem Zell. That's how he was introduced to me but I understood his name was Clement.

He was a short stocky man with a brushy brown mustache, stained like his fingers from his incessant smoking. Looking at his hands was 'bout enough to make me give up my quirleys. He seemed nice enough, kinda laid back with a sharp wit. He didn't seem worried that I was taking his daughter up towards the hills.

Roxie rode up from the corral on a large dark blue or black mare. I couldn't be sure of the color because it kept changing as the light reflected off it. We cantered west towards the North Platte. The riverbank was grassy and she led me to a flat place under a large willow. It was a beautiful spot for the picnic lunch she had packed.

I spread a blanket out that she had brought with her and put the basket on it. Roxie wanted to walk so we took off upstream. It was a pretty place with the sun-speckled river laughin' its way downstream over the rocks, the snow covered peaks on all four sides of the valley and the open view of the entire North Park. The grass and the foliage from the cottonwood and willow trees were a bright emerald green. Standing next to a deep pool in a bend of the river, I could see several large brown trout. I'd have to come back here alone sometime – although it was quite pleasant being there with Roxie.

We, with me doing most of the work, polished off the lunch of fried chicken and fresh bread with some raspberry preserves. After I saddled the horses for the ride back, Roxie leaned over and gave me a warm kiss as I helped her mount. It was nice but it promised more for the future than it delivered now. I had dinner with her family and rode back to the Circle R with warm thoughts of Roxie in my mind and her brother Bud by my side.

Bud was a good-looking kid with curly brown hair and a cowlick hanging down over his forehead. He was more knowledgeable that I would have expected about the affairs of the basin and ranching in general for someone his age.

As we went into June, the weather continued to warm and Pete had a great calf crop. It was my job to see that he kept them. I did a lot of riding the range getting familiar with it and keeping my eyes open trying to understand where various signs of travel came from and went to. There were a lot more people going from place to place than I would have expected … which worried me a lot.

We'd pulled out the stuff we wanted to ship and moved it to a bench the other side of Shipman Mountain. We took the herd up Sand Creek and over Ute Pass to get there. The South Fork of La Guarde Creek kept the grass well watered and made it excellent grazing. The area was around a mile wide and ten or so miles long. After we drove this herd to market, we'd move the rest of the cattle up here for a month to fatten up. I had thirteen guys in the crew but left three around the ranch to watch over things. They also took care of the horses that were in a large fenced area about a half-mile from the ranch.

For the trail drive, I'd take the five men on the bench, plus Bud and Gramps. Unless we ran into trouble, we should do okay.

I was getting to know the crew, and besides Bud, we had hired four other riders – three of them for the normal summer work plus to help with the drive to Walcott. They were a good group, close and good-humored. The three that had left, Klein, and his two buddies, Packrat and KC, were the ones that had kept the Circle R from being a first rate crew. The men both worked and played hard.

One Saturday I'd gone with Bud to get some supplies. We took the wagon and I parked it behind the store. We went in and gave the owner, Jerry Edwards, the list. I'd met Jerry a couple of times. He was young to have a store, about thirty, and was married with two small boys. They lived in a nice, but small house at the edge of town.

I asked him, "You have any of the cigars Pete smokes?"

"Naw, I'm out 'til next week. Ken over at the saloon keeps the same brand of smokes. He buys by the carton so I'm sure he'll loan you a box."

I looked at Bud, "Can you go over and see if you can get some?"

He ran off and I helped Jerry load the wagon. We finished and there was no sign of Bud. I eased over to Ken's place and heard some yellin' as I got close. The doors were open so I could see Bud was cornered by KC and Packrat had Bud cornered up against the bar. One was on each side and one would shove him, then the other when he turned. I went over and pulled them off Bud. I asked him with a soft voice what was happening.

"Wal, I came over like you said and these two yahoos started runnin' off at the mouth."

"Bud, is there a fight here?"

"Damn right, but I can't take on both of them."

"Which one do you want?"

"I'll take KC. He was sayin' things about Roxie."

"KC, you'd better damn well hope that Bud kick's your ass. If there is anything left of you I'm gonna tear it apart and stomp on it. Packrat, you come with me. If you wanna fight Bud after he finishes with KC, you can have yore turn."

I steered Bud and the two former Circle R riders out of the bar. I still had to talk Ken out of the cigars and I didn't want to see his place torn up. I looked at the two men. KC had a reputation for being a fighter but I could see he had been spendin' more time leanin' on a bar than ridin' a horse. I'd seen Bud without a shirt and he was a lot tougher than he looked with his boyish face. He had wide shoulders and long ropy muscles, and had the advantage of workin' hard every day.

KC got one good shot at Bud's head then Bud knocked him ass over teakettle and never let him up. When it was over, Bud and I looked at each other and I started laughin'. He looked mad at me for a minute then he came out with a big grin. I was sure that was his first real fight. Far as I was concerned, he was a man now, a man that looked like he'd be sportin' a first-rate shiner.

I put my arm around his shoulder and shoved him toward the bar. "Go get them damned cigars. I'll pick you up on the way out of town. Tell Ken I said to stand you a shot." From the sour look on his face when I stopped the wagon, I guessed he'd had his first drink also.

That Saturday was the next dance. I picked up Roxie in one of Pete's wagons and drove on in to Walden. Bud trailed along beside us, wearing his black eye like a badge of courage. The dance was great but for one thing. I'd left Roxie with two of the other girls and went out to get some fresh air and have a smoke. It did give me a chance to talk to a couple of the other ranchers about how big of a problem it was with the rustlin'. We agreed that we needed some joint action.

When I went back in, I looked around for Roxie. At last, I saw her in the corner of the schoolhouse – dancin' with Colin MacPherson. They were a lot closer together than I liked. I didn't say anything, thinkin' maybe he was just being aggressive with her. Later we danced a couple of numbers before we left.

We were quiet on the way back to her place. Neither of us said anything about Colin. But when I kissed her goodnight I felt like everything was okay. She kissed me in such a way it started a fire that I had a hard time dampin'. I was so distracted by her kisses I didn't remember the trip back to the Circle R.

When I got back, the place was in an uproar. While everyone had been at the dance or with one or the other of the cattle herds, someone had broken a long section of the fence where Pete kept his horse herd. They had choused the horses in all directions. It didn't look like any were stolen but it took a couple of days to round them up. Of course, my first thought was that it was MacPherson with his pushin' ways.

The next few weeks flew by. I was busy ridin' from place to place makin' sure the work was progressin' okay. The herd on the summer range up in Shipman Park was puttin' good weight on which should bring a good price for the cattle at the railroad. Gramps had his wagon ready to go with all the supplies we would need.

Every chance I had I made it over to see Roxie and we were progressin' nicely. I loved her; knew she was the one for me. I was sure she loved me back. She sure seemed to show it! We were able to make it to our picnic spot only a couple of times. But those two times were enough to curl my hair. It was excitin' to know I could look forward to a real lovin' wife. We were talkin' about getting' hitched around the first of September.

After all the plannin' we were able to start the drive. Gramps and Bud took off straight up the valley and I went up to where the herd was waitin'. The cook wagon would setup where we planned the first nights stop. We had to bring the cattle back the same way we took them. We would bring them from the La Guarde Creek, back over Ute Pass and then north, swingin' above the sand hills, after we got to the valley floor.

Bud had showed a flair for workin' with horses so I made him the wrangler for the drive. He drove the remuda while Gramps took the wagon. The chuck wagon was a four wheel, springless wagon with a large 'chuck box' on the back. It had shelves and drawers for the cookin' equipment. Coverin' it was a hinged lid that swung down and with a couple of legs made a large worktable. Gramps had an oversized dishpan he called the 'wreck' pan that was always under the wagon during mealtimes. The poor fool that put his dirty dish on the table instead of in the wreck pan had Gramps to reckon with.

I had a packhorse along with me for the first night on the trail. We would stop for the evening when we got down from the pass and the next night catch up to where the chuck wagon and remuda waited. It was about a hundred miles to the railroad. We would go up around Watson Mountain and through Saratoga, Wyoming on up to the stockyards at Walcott.

We met up with Bud and Gramps about six or seven miles south of Sentinal Mountain. It was a good spot with plenty of water and rich, tall grass. The five men that had stayed up at the summer range were Charlie and Tom Rangel, Carl Abell, Mark Morgan and Kirby Grant. The first three were all in their early twenties and tough and lean. Charlie and Tom were brothers. Mark was around thirty and Kirby was somewhere in his forties; he was a little vague about it. He was a former army scout and knew the area well. I made Mark my segundo.

I was worried the gang that had been doin' the rustlin' might try somethin' so I talked to Kirby about my concerns.

"Wal, if'n they are gonna try somethin' the best spot would be when we cross the river goin' around the west side of Watson Mountain. There's a narrow spot where they could cut down on us and start a stampede. Why don't I sashay around and take a look."

He left an hour before dawn. I held the herd where we were. We weren't in any particular hurry and this was a good spot. We lazed around but I had extra riders on the herd and one man taking turns scoutin' out the area.

Kirby made it back late that afternoon. "Yeah, it's like I figgered. I been thinkin' on it and here's what I suggest. Let's you and I go around the east side of Watson Mountain. We'll go over the pass and come around in back of where they are staked out. They are about a half-mile north of the ford at a spot where the hills pull back from the river. It appears they figger to surprise you when you come around the corner. You and I'll be staked out behind them.

"Tell Mark to hold the herd as they get across the river. As soon as he hears us start shootin' he should get all the men behind the cattle and push them hard. If they stampede that's all the better. We'll have them caught flat footed and in the middle."

We were in place by mid-morning. I could see that the area close to the river where we were was heavily overgrown with willows and skinny cottonwoods. We'd found a good spot about two hundred yards further down river from them and could see where they had their horses bunched and ready to go. We also had a good view of where the cattle would cross the river. We were pretty sure they would have a man on foot around the corner watching who would alert them as soon as the herd was almost completely across.

When their lookout man came back after spottin' the cattle, the rustlers jumped on their mounts and started the ambush. As soon as they cleared the corner, we could see them stop in confusion as they saw the cattle milling at the ford. I put a couple of quick shots right behind their mounts and, at that signal, the riders with the herd started shooting to panic the cattle and get them movin' fast at the mounted rustlers.

One of the rustlers had seen the smoke from my shots and started firin' back. Kirby made a quick shot and knocked him off his horse. I took a couple more shots but by then the herd was runnin' into the bunched ambushers. Several of them tried to turn and run and Kirby and I killed one apiece and I winged another.

When it was over, three of them had gotten away including the one I winged. We had shot three and the herd got one of them. Carl was our only casualty with a crease from a bullet across the top of his thigh. It was not serious but the way he looked, I knew it was painful. The cattle were still running but the men were heading them in the right direction. They had no trouble keeping the herd pointed north since they were hemmed in by the river and the hills. I'd told Mark to just let them run it off. I didn't think we'd see the rustlers again this trip.

The man that was trampled by the cattle was KC. I was sure that one of the men that got away was Klein. Bud thought the one I'd winged was Packrat. I'd have to look them up when I got back from the drive.

We did lose a half-dozen head with broken limbs and had to shoot them. Gramps, with Bud's volunteer help, butchered one of them to feed the crew. We camped that night along the river. Mark, Kirby and I talked it over and decided to keep the cattle there for a couple of days to settle them down and put some tallow back on. I doubled the riders on the night herd, and put them on two-hour shifts. As keyed up as I was I couldn't sleep so I stayed up late to make sure there was no trouble. It was satisfyin' to hear the cowboys serenadin' the cows all through the night. I put Kirby out about a half-mile in the direction where the survivors had fled but nothin' came of it.

The rest of the trip was quiet. There was lots of nothin' but borin' hard work, which was just what I liked. We got to Walcott in good shape and got a better price for the herd than Pete had expected. There wasn't much to do in Walcott. There were a couple of saloons so I gave the men an extra ten bucks apiece as a bonus and the fight with the rustlers. Two days later I sent them home with the horses and their headaches.

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