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A Bad Spring in East Fork

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Posted (edited)

(I thought I would try to start a new group effort story. Anyone is welcome to join in, the more the merrier as far as I'm concerned. Just be civil and try to keep it open for others to add their piece of the story)
 

Doc Ward pulled the collar of the coat he wore up around his neck. The snow that started as flurries was growing heavier by the hour. It was very late in the season for snow, and as Doc looked up, he was worried. Looking around at the pack horse following along, Doc decided he needed to play it safe and start looking for someplace to hunker down.

 

Moving into a wooded area along a hillside, Doc spotted what might be an ideal spot. An old tree had died and blown over in some recent wind, and left a tangle of roots and dirt higher than Doc’s six feet, creating a depression and protecting against the wind. Sliding off the large bay horse he rode, Doc walked back to the dun packhorse and pulled out the short double bit axe and pulled it from the leather sheath protecting the blade. Stripping the heavy coat he wore, Doc began clearing some of the roots, then began cutting limbs and heavier branches from the downed tree.

 

Hearing the bay stamp a hoof, Doc paused to strip the horses of their tack, and picketed them where they could forage for food under the increasing snow. He then worked, using cordage and limbs to create more of a windbreak for them, to keep them close.

 

Feeling the wind picking up, Doc knew the temperature was dropping, and he needed to get a fire started. Pulling the makings, Doc put some tinder together, struck a match, only to curse in frustration as the wind caught the budding flame, extinguishing it. Working his fingers against the growing cold, Doc more carefully shielded his next match, watched as the tinder slowly caught, and the flame began to grow. Slowly feeding the flames, Doc soon had a good blaze going, and let out a breath of relief.

 

Once the fire was going steady, Doc pulled out his bedroll and put it down on some cut boughs for a bit of insulation. Doc worried about the night ahead, but knew he had no choice. In good weather, he was maybe six hours from the small town of East Fork and home. With this weather, Doc wasn’t sure he would make it tomorrow. He knew that a detour should get him to the ranch of Old Man Hammond and his sons by evening, but Doc wasn’t keen on that particular stop, because he didn’t trust them any more than he would a pack of wild dogs. This was especially true when Doc considered he had well over twenty thousand dollars nestled in his saddlebags. Eight thousand of it he owed the bank, and another five thousand belonged to friends. The rest of the money he intended to use to buy cattle, horses, and to build a better home for he and his wife, Abigail.

 

Making coffee and some supper, Doc thought of what his wife was likely doing at this moment. He could picture her, looking out in the distance before closing the shutters against the storm, then making sure there was wood inside for the stove, with more close to the house. She would then be sitting to read before bed. The log house was snug, but small, and would handle the weather fine, as it had a couple of Wyoming winters now. He was sure Linn Keller, Tyrel Cody, or one of his other friends would be around by midday to check on her.

 

Adding a large log to the fire with the hopes it would last the better part of the night, Doc settled back, thinking of his friends in town. Doc knew that Whiskey’s Saloon was probably emptying, and everyone was heading for home, if they weren’t there already. Crawling into his bedroll, Doc glanced over at the horses before pulling the wool blankets and canvas tight. Making sure his guns were within easy reach, Doc Ward closed his eyes and listened to the crackle and hiss of the fire, trusting to his horses to alert him as he started to doze.

Edited by DocWard
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Posted (edited)

Sailor lay on his back and snored.

He was good about that.

Get his belly full and get warm and he'd lay down and fall asleep just about anywhere.

Me, I swirled the last of yesterday's coffee around in the bottom of my blue granite cup and listened to the wind, what little there was of it.

Wind had died down and 'twas snowing cross-legged and that meant a deep snow, unless it didn't snow deep.

I'd known rain to fall after a heavy dew and after no dew a'tall, I'd seen mornings with an absolutely scarlet sunrise and not a drop of rain to follow, and I'd known red sky in the morning that rained like Noah himself was comin' to visit.

I'd known it to snow cross-legged just like this and come sunup, why, I'd be belt buckle deep in the white stuff, and next time it snowed like that, all we got was enough of a skift to leave footy prints and that was about all.

None of that bothered Sailor.

He laid there all relaxed and dreamin', I could tell he was dreamin' for his paws twitched a little like he was paddlin', his wet black nose worked some in the lantern light like he was scentin' a trail and his tail worked back and forth a little like he was waggin' in his sleep.

I knew once I laid down of an evening, he'd come over and give me a good launderin' behint my ears and then he'd flop down behint me with a snuff and a sigh and he'd be rolled up warm ag'in my back and he'd be asleep just that fast.

The cabin was small and it was tight chinked and it was built back into the hillside where a big chunk of rock fell out who knows how long ago, the rock rolled on down the grade -- 'twas not much of a grade but 'twas enough for that rock to roll a few hundred yards and wobble down stream a little, it sit in that little crick and of course crick water doesn't really care, it flowed around attair wagon sized rock.

It's not like the rock was interferin' with free travel, that crick was a little narrow thing and you'd be hard pressed to find anywhere to float much more than a leaf on it, but the water was sweet and I'd not known it to go dry in two years' time.

A chunk whistled in the stove, the way wood will when it sighs out the last of some trapped moisture, and Sailor's ears worked a little but he never woke up, and I turned and my eyes followed that stove pipe for its long run around the inside of my little shelter.

Some fellows will run their stove pipe straight up and that loses an awful lot of heat.

I come across a good stack of stove pipe a couple years ago and scarfed it up, I made me a good long run that went along three walls before it went through that sheet of tin roofin' and I wanted to get every bit of heat I could out of that stove smoke -- not that I'm cheap or anything, you understand, but splittin' wood is hard enough work and the less of it I used, the longer it would last.

I slipped the cover aside and looked out the shuttered window's loop hole and give things a good studyin' before I opened the door.

I'd head on out and tend to the horses first off and then I'd come on back inside and fix us a bite of breakfast.

I could go on into the prosperous hub of commerce and culture of the bustlin' and busy down town and eat at Whiskey's saloon, but I felt like shavin' off some dead pig and fryin' that up, so I reckoned I'd do that soon as the morning's needfuls were tended

I turned and recht for my hat and Sailor he lifted his head and looked at me and when I recht for my coat why he come up on all fours and shook and opened his jaw and grinned at me.

"Come on, fella," I said, real soft-like, "let's say good mornin' to the horses."

 

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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Posted (edited)

Doc Ward awoke with a start. Doc had awoke twice during the night with the wind, and had added fuel to the fire and stayed as close to it as he dared. Somewhere in the last hours the wind had died, but the heavy snow continued to fall. He shivered violently even in his blankets and glanced at what was left of the fire. There was the faintest wisp of smoke coming from part of the large chunk of wood Doc had put on before retiring for the night. Shivering more, Doc pulled himself out of the blankets, scattering snow from the outer portion of his bedroll, and got down to gently blow to see if there was any life left to be coaxed out of the fire. He was greeted by a bit of fine ash, blowing and swirling upward, and the faintest of glows. Carefully pushing burnt pieces in and adding smaller twigs, Doc fought to not shake to violently as he got the fire going again.

 

Growing brighter and brighter as Doc blew and added fuel, the fire once again sprang from the coals and began lapping at the fuel that Doc added. Once satisfied the fire would continue to burn on its own, Doc hunched over the fire, trying to soak in the heat to still his shivering. Looking around, Doc could see the light pushing it’s way from the east, creating a gray that seemed to only make him colder as he looked at it. Glancing over at the horses, Doc saw them, head’s down as they stood in their makeshift shelter within reach of the warmth of the fire once it began growing larger.

 

Doc scooped snow into his pot and sat it to melt before adding more so he could make coffee, then went about making some breakfast from the food he had left. Looking, he knew that unless he killed something, he would go hungry tomorrow morning, unless he somehow made it home. As the coffee heated and the bacon cooked, Doc tended to his horses, checking them over before beginning to get them ready for the day’s ride. Looking at the snow, Doc was glad he had big, powerful horses, but knew he would need to take it easy on them. Doc checked over his guns and rolled his bedroll, and only then did he sit down to eat his breakfast and have coffee.

As he ate, Doc grinned as he pictured in his mind the look that would be on Cushman’s face when he handed the banker the money he owed. When he was recovering from a particularly bad fall from a horse the year before, Doc knew Abigail and his friends would help out. That is, until Abigail miscarried and almost died herself. Doc was left with few options, and went to the banker, hat in hand. Cushman always had an arrogance about him, certain he was always the smartest man in any room he might be in, and when Doc settled in town, the two didn’t get along from the start, despite Doc’s easygoing nature. Doc didn't seem to hold the same opinion of Cushman as he held of himself, and politely corrected Cushman on a couple of occasions during social events. What was worse was when Abigail did the same. Cushman couldn't abide by the notion of a woman being his intellectual equal. “It’ll be a good day for me when I hand him that money,” Doc said aloud as he patted the bags containing his future, and the futures of a couple of friends. Doc finished his coffee and looked longingly at the warm fire before beginning to put it out.

Edited by DocWard
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It was still early when Doc Ward climbed onto the big bay horse and started out. The heavy clouds and snow made it seem earlier than it was, and Doc pulled his pocket watch from under his heavy coat to check it. If everything went well, he might make it to East Fork before it grew too late, but likely not before nightfall. If everything didn't go well... Doc didn't like the thought of sleeping in the cold another night, especially since the wooded areas would grow more scarce. Looking through the still falling snow, Doc paused and dug into his saddlebags searching for something that might prove helpful. Finally his fingers found what he wanted. A pocket compass that he had picked up during the war. Doc wasn't keen on the idea of traveling in circles, so he looked at the compass and started off heading just a little bit North of East. As he rode, Doc wished to be home, but hoped more that nobody else would be fool enough to be out riding in this weather.

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Posted (edited)

The winter wind was now whipping the heavy falling snow into a blinding curtain of white that made it difficult for Kit to even see the black mane of Orion as he made his way through the tall, narrow pass on his way to East Fork.

He couldn’t recall the last hot meal he had, and even the thought of such a meal made his stomach twist into a knot even more. He decided he must find shelter soon and make camp before darkness falls.

They prodded along for what seemed like hours, and even though the snowstorm had now stopped as quickly as it started, it yielded no comfort to him as his numb fingers seemed frozen to Orion’s reins as one. The gaping opening at the end of the pass was now in sight, and soon they found themselves facing an open range.

Some 50 yards further, a small grouping of mesquite seemed like a reasonable place to make home for the night.

Edited by Father Kit Cool Gun Garth
OTTO correction
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Posted (edited)

Abigail Ward was up early. She hadn’t slept well in the weeks her husband had been away, and with the sudden snow, she was increasingly worried for him. She knew he should be traveling for home by this point, if all had gone well, but also knew he wouldn’t be overdue for a few more days. She looked out the small window as she nursed a cup of coffee in her small hands. She knew she needed to get out to the small barn and check on the horses, but as she looked at the snow piling up, she knew she might have to clear a path, and clear around the doors just to open them. She had planned to go into town, and hopefully visit her friends, Calamity Kris and Miss Lorelei, but that was out of the question now.

 

Abby sipped the hot coffee, holding the mug close as if warming her bones in preparation for the cold, and thought of her husband. They had met at a well chaperoned formal event when they were both in college in Delaware, Ohio, where she had attended the Female College, while he attended the neighboring college for men. Petite yet curvy, Abigail’s auburn red hair, fair skin and blue eyes had immediately caught Benjamin's attention, and she liked his easy smile and looks as well. She found him funny, if a bit shy and quiet, and liked his company. They had enjoyed their evening, and even corresponded some after. She was disappointed but understanding when he chose to go off to war, and saddened when she lost contact with him.

 

After college, she had joined her parents out West, where her father served as an Army doctor. To her surprise, She bumped into Benjamin again, where he had ended up with the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry briefly at the end of the war, ending up as the Hospital Steward for her father. Her father was a curmudgeonly Scotsman, but took a liking to the educated young man who went to work as his steward. Abigail was shocked and surprised when she saw him, and both of them knew it was serendipity at work. With the pleased approval of her parents, they married not long after the 11th mustered out in 1866. Benjamin had studied with an attorney back in Ohio, but both he and Abigail continually had thoughts of the West, and eventually ended up back in Wyoming. During the trip they had fought off raiders, with Abigail handling a gun as well as most of the men. After, Benjamin had worked quickly to provide medical treatment for the wounded, and picking up the nickname "Doc."

 

With a sigh of resignation, Abby got her heavy clothes on and went to check on the animals.

Edited by DocWard
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The long days ride took it's toll on him, and though he should have fallen fast asleep by now, his mind would not let him. Even Orion, ever restless, especially at night, kept watch for any dangers that may be lurking in it's midst. A true companion, this gentle black splash stallion was the only one Kit could rely on. Orion was never tied up, for he would protect Kit from any harm, and never leave his presence.
Kit's thoughts soon drifted to the events of this last year of his life and although the flickery flames of the fire did keep him warm, at least on the outside, his heart was still cold.
He had finally made it to Stone Creek, albeit of his own willing. Not one to meddle or interfere into the business of others, there were those that perceived him as a threat. Though he appeared to be a stranger to them, they would not remember the young boy who lived with his  grandfather on his ranch outside of town.
Besides, he had business of his own to attend to in town anyway, not that it mattered to them, even if they knew.
He had stopped by the Land Office, to see one J. Mark Flint, Attorney At Law.
You see, I came with a deed to 200 acres of land at the base of Badger Mountain just outside of Stone Creek I had inherited from my grandfather who had obtained the rights to the land long before Stone Creek became a sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere.

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Doc Ward had been underway for a bit over an hour and making slow progress through the heavy snow. Wanting to save his horses, he took frequent breaks, and from time to time would walk, breaking trail and leading the horses through deeper snow. Looking around, Doc stopped in his tracks as he noticed another trail through the snow, merging with the track he was following and leading off into the distance. Looking closer, Doc saw the snow was filling in the path, but that it appeared to be made by several horses. Doc was sure they were ridden horses, because they were being held to a pretty straight trail, and didn’t seem to be spreading out or meandering at all. Being a careful man, Doc decided to climb back onto the bay horse, and shuck his rifle from its scabbard. Looking back the way the way he had come, Doc realized the riders must have passed less than a quarter of a mile from his own camp, and had ridden by during the night. Doc had an uneasy feeling as he continued riding for home, and began pushing the pace more than he really wanted.

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Posted (edited)

"Sailor!"

Sailor's head came up and he galumphed toward the door, plowing happily into the fresh, fluffy snow: I pulled the door to, as much to keep snow out as to keep heat in.

Sailor wallowed and burrowed through knee deep snow, snuffing loudly, sounding like he was sneezing:  I never knew a dog to SNUFF when he wanted my attention, but by golly he did, and snow kind of collapsed above where he was charging happily through the fresh snow.

He made a side trip once we made it to the barn and I reckon he took time to salute a fence post -- if he could find one bare enough to water down -- anyway I fought the door open and grabbed me a flat bottom shovel and cleared snow out from the door like I did every mornin' when it snowed, not so much because it was needful, but because I can't abide a door that won't open when I want it to open.

Cain't stand equipment that works against me.

We went on inside and 'twas a little warmer inside, it smelt of horses and hay and I made sure the stock had frash straw and I went on out the back -- I'd built in a baffle so the horses could come and go and 'twould break the wind -- they could get to the crick and get a drank.

The horses were glad to see me and I rubbed them and fussed over the three of 'em and Sailor he come waggin' up and touched noses with all three of 'em and then he found a pile of straw and dug into it and hid.

I proceeded to get rid of second hand horse feed and I worked myself warm clear through and when I run the Irish buggy out back and rammed it through a snow drift to dump it, I give thanks to the Almighty I warn't wanderin' around the country side today.

Edited by Linn Keller, SASS 27332, BOLD 103
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As daylight began to peek through the heavy, grey clouds, Calamity knew she had to get to it if she was ever going to get Mrs. Cushman's dress finished before evening.  While she enjoyed her tailoring and millinery shop, some customers caused her to regret going into business.  Mrs. Cushman was one of them.  Calamity had never seen someone work so hard at trying to find the slightest imperfections in her work in order to barter for a reduced price.   There were days Calamity wished there were another tailor in town so she could tell Mrs. Cushman to take her bolts of fabric...............and go elsewhere.  Alas, she was the only one so she had to put up with the good and the not so good.  Well, enough watching the snow from the front window, time to get to work on finishing that dress, or Calamity would never hear the end of it..

Edited by Calamity Kris
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Doc Ward paused a moment, sitting astride the big bay horse as he looked around. The snow seemed to be letting up, and he had no interest in meeting up with whoever had made that other trail through the snow. Mindful of the money and responsibility he carried with him, Doc thought of what options he might have. Sedalia Dave's ranch was closer than East Fork, but over rougher country, and with the snow, likely would take longer to get to. If he kept along his current route, he might very well run into whomever was ahead of him, however many there might be. Doc decided to veer a little further Northeast, and skirt the edge of the range that Hammond laid claim to as belonging to the Rafter H. Shifting his Winchester in his hands, Doc worked his cold, nearly numb fingers and wiggled his toes in his boots. Muttering to himself about "Miserable luck getting a storm this late..." Doc continued on his way.

As Abby mucked stalls before throwing hay and bringing water to the horses, she became more and more uneasy. By the time she had finished taking care of the horses, she was worried about her husband. She wasn't sure if something had happened to him, or if he was in danger, but she knew in her heart there was a problem. Going into the small house to warm herself, she looked around as she tried to decide on a plan of action. She didn't want to face the weather and ride to town, or over to Linn Keller's place. What would she say that wouldn't make anyone think she was being overwrought or hysterical? But, the more she tried to remain calm, the more certain she was that he was, or would be, in some peril, and soon.

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It warn't far to Doc's place and I had a sudden feelin' that I might outght go over there.

I don't often feel like that but when it hits and I don't go, I tend to regret it, so I got me bundled up and I taken a good look around before I closed the door and Sailor he was right beside me and we went back out to the barn and I saddled me up that grey plug mare that looked like she was goin' to either fall asleep or fall over dead.

She was the one most unambitious, unexciting horse ever did I see, and she was the one most reliable horse ever did I ride, and Sailor he come into the barn with me and he watched whilst I saddled up Firestorm and I looked down at him and said "Sailor, you want to go see Doc?" and Sailor he dropped his ears and whined a little and he went over to attair pile of straw and worked his way in until all I could see was the white tip of that long tail of his.

Firestorm and me we stepped out into the snow and the wind was picked up so I fast up the barn doors and squinted torst the trees, gauging the snow and the wind, and then we set our faces torst Doc's place.

I'd had breakfast so I rode on a full stomach and that would keep me warm from the inside and I had me a good coat and enough layers to keep me warm from the out, at least for a little, and Firestorm, she plodded on ahead and we rode through the heavy white blanket torst Doc's place.

Now I did not go empty handed, 'twould be bad manners since I didn't have a pa'tickelar reason to go over there, Doc was a welcome visitor at my place and I at his but we was both thrifty men and neither of us given to ridin' for pleasure, what we did was with a reason and for a reason and I had to come up with some excuse so I had me a pound of sugar cones wrapped up in a pretty silk scarf -- well, the cones was wrapped up in paper, but I figured I could tell Doc attair scarf come sailin' in on the wind and he might want to give it to his good lookin' wife for she was younger, smarter and better lookin' than either of us -- anyway, sweetnin' was hard enough to come by and when I come by them maple sugar cones, why, I figgered they would make a good give-away and that's the thin and flimsy reason I stuck in my saddlebags to head over there.

I had no doubt Doc would be there and likely he'd be lathered up workin' on somethin'.

The man was forever fixin' this about the house or tendin' that about the barn or whittlin' a new leg for a chair, if it had to do with wood the man was a marvel and his house was built tight and solid and just lookin' at it, why, a man knowed 'twas well taken care of -- you can look at a building and know if it was built by a man who knew wood, and you could look at a buildin' and know if it was taken care of by a man who knew wood, and lookin' at anythin' Doc had, why, 'twas apparent it was tight and strong and every corner was square, every wall was plumb and every floor was level.

I growed up back East in a house built by an Irishman name Kilkenney, the man was said to be a drunk but I knowed him and he warn't, he liked his nip ever' now and again -- hell, who don't? -- he was a hard workin' man like most I've known, he'd build anything but the poor fellow couldn't build anythin' in a workmanlike fashion if he had to. Our house I growed up in ... well, he spiked it together of green, white oak.

If you ever worked white oak, you can cut it and spike it down when it's green but oncet it seasons out you ain't gonna make much headway cuttin' on it and you're sure as Perdition not goin' to get a nail through it less'n you drill yourself a pilot hole first and grease the nail to boot.

No floor was level, no wall was plumb, no doorway was square, the floors was warpy, we'd slab flat sand stone chunks as best we could and fetch 'em in and try to Holy Stone the decks down level and we kind of got the job done, but that was back home and back East and a long time ago before I started growin' chin whiskers.

I tucked my chin down into my wild rag a little deeper and Firestorm she plodded along underneath me, sure footed and not in any hurry a'tall.

I thought of Doc's wife ag'in and I could not help but smile, for she was a genuine sweetheart and I was right glad he'd married her.

I'd been married oncet and a good marriage it was and when I laid my dead wife's long box in the churchyard, why I laid my heart in the ground with her and I could look at women since then and all I'd feel is kind of lost, but Doc's wife, why, I was glad he'd married her for they made a good pair and besides she did her best to spoil him and I reckoned she'd grind up some of them maple cones and use 'em in sweet bread or maybe in pancakes for the man, and if she was goin' to spoil him, I'd help out.

'Course he done his best to spoil her too and that's the way it ought be.

I squinted through what little snow was fallin' now.

Not much further.

 

Back in the barn, beneath the fluffy straw, Sailor had a foreleg laid over the barn cat.

Chester-cat snarled happily, fangs bared and ears laid back, and Sailor sleepily laundered the top of the cat's head.

Warm beneath the insulating straw, both relaxed and went back to sleep.

 

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My name is John Calder. I am a Texas Ranger on the hunt for a cold blooded killer. As I road into East Fork, Wyoming I was aware that Rangers have no authority outside of Texas. That rarely stopped any of us when our cause was justice. State lines were considered more of a guideline that an absolute barrier when in pursuit of bad men. It has been said “They always get their man.”  Or was that them Red Coats from Canada? I’m not sure of that, but I am sure this man was not getting away, no mater where he fled.

 

I figured to drop my handle of “Cactus Jack” in favor of my given name. That and my natural Yankee accent should keep people from suspecting I had traveled up from the south Texas border country. My two heavy Walker Colts along with the saddle holsters were stowed in the bottom of one of the panniers on my pack mule. I carried a Navy Colt in a cross draw holster and a Spencer rifle in a scabbard. This was perhaps more armament than a drifting cowboy might carry. So my story would be that I had been trying the Buffalo hunting trade when my camp was raided by the Sioux and I barely escaped  with my hair.

 

Riding up to the only saloon in town, I stepped down into snow up to my knees. I “Howdied” the local layabouts and asked “Ain’t it a little late in the year for this much snow?” “This kind of thing happen regular?” One oldtimer responded, “Wail youngster, we genly get snow when it comes, n’ not when it don’t.” “If’n they was a mess of snow without a fall we’d shur be surprised.” He cackled a hearty Haw, Haw and slapped his knee.

 

Looking at him with one eye and putting it on a bit I asked, “You expect this saloon has a fire started in their stove?” “I do appreciate a little warmth when I partake of a libation.” The oldtimer responded, “I don’t rightly know bout no libation, but they got beer and red eye inside if yuh got the coin.” I said, “You look like you’ve lived here for a while, how about I stand you one round inside and you can tell me about this country.” “Thet sounds like a right nice offer youngster.” “ I believe I’ll take yuh up on it.” The oldtimer said, “By the by my name’s Slim Dawkins, whut’s your handle?” “I’m John Calder, Slim, pleased to meet you.”

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Abigail was busy tending to some sewing as the morning grew late. She wished she had Calamity Kris's knack for it, but she got by. The knock on the door caught her by surprise, and she was looking to the shotgun as she sat down her sewing when she heard Keller's baritone voice calling out, “Hello, the house!” Standing and smoothing the pleats of her skirt, Abby went to the door and lifted the bar locking it. Opening it, she stepped back and motioned the tall man inside, urging him “Come in out of the cold! I’m surprised to see you out in this snow, is everything OK?” As Keller doffed his hat, the snow fell from it, and he did his best to shake the snow from his coat before stepping inside.

 

“Thank you, Ma’am, I come bearing gifts.” Keller offered the scarf wrapped gift to Abby and as she took it and began unwrapping the sugar, asked, “Where’s Doc? We haven’t had the chance to catch up for a few weeks. With this snow, I thought I’d stop by and check in. I know he says he’s mended, but the cold has ways of making old injuries ache a mite.” Surprised by the sugar, Abby looked up at the tall man, lifting it as she thanked him, then, shaking her head, continued, “He’s not here, but I’m glad you came by. I’m worried about him.” Keller frowned, a crease forming between his brows, “Not here? Where is he?”

Abigail set the sugar on the shelf of goods, and Keller could tell that things were a bit sparse. He knew Doc was in need of money, but it was something he hadn’t realized to to be such a problem. Abby looked to the stove, and checked the pot on it. “I have water, I could make some coffee. Or tea, since there’s sugar.” Not wanting to offend, Keller nodded, “coffee would certainly help get rid of the chill.” He did appreciate how tight and warm the small house was. Little more than a cabin, with a great room that acted as kitchen and parlor, a small bedroom past the settee and chairs, and a loft, where Keller knew Doc and Abby had planned for a child to sleep once old enough.

“Abigail, where has Doc gone? Why the worry?” As Abigail made coffee, she spoke, “He went over toward the Morman settlement. He said when he went a couple of years back to take care of some legal business, he camped at a spot and found some gold. On his way back, he confirmed where it was and took notes. Near the river, the Green, I believe it is? He had all but forgotten about it, but the last time he was in town, Mr. Cushman reminded him of the loan, and that he had a note on our land.” As she continued, Abby handed Keller a mug of coffee. “Ben hates being beholden to the man, so he decided that once the weather broke, he would go, and if there was no claim staked, he would mine some, then take it to the Mormons. He said he worried less about someone spotting him with it and getting greedy there, that for all of their… ways… they tend to be honest. Then he planned on returning. He hoped to be back sometime this week or next.”

 

Keller nodded thoughtfully, then asked, “So, why are you worried?” Abigail smiled, “Call it me being a silly woman, or whatever you will, but I’ve had a premonition. A foreboding, that something is wrong, or he is in some kind of danger.” Keller’s concern was visible as he glanced at her, her auburn hair in a carefully coifed bun. Keller could remember Doc saying he took her premonitions seriously. Doc said it was in her blood,  that she knew there would be danger when Lt. Caspar Collins left the fort back when he had first arrived before they were married, that she told him to be careful when he volunteered to join the party that went out after the men who were ambushed. Doc said he had come close to losing his life that particular day at the hands of the Arapaho. She had also told him not to ride on the day he was thrown, and that she didn’t believe she would carry the baby they both wanted to term. Doc also laughed and said she was sure that night in Ohio when they first met that they would marry, and knew it to be true even when they lost contact. If his friend took his wife’s premonitions seriously, Keller saw no reason not to.

Edited by DocWard
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The air in the back room of the shop began to chill.  Calamity knew it was time to throw another log on the pot bellied stove in the corner, lest it get too cold inside.  The building was old and drafty, but the rent was reasonable.  Someday, I will have my own shop built to my liking, she thought, looking around the room.  She could feel the chill coming through the gaps around the windows and some of the wall.  Until then, this place will have to do.  She carefully laid Mrs. Cushman's dress on the sewing table and rose from her stool.  She knew Charlotte Freeman would be arriving any minute now to help tend the shop so Calamity could keep working in the back.  Charlotte was a sweet girl, very pretty and very smart.  Calamity hoped to teach Charlotte everything she knew, with the plan of eventually turning the shop over to her to run.  Someday, she sighed........

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I kicked myself as I turned my drowsy looking mare.

I'd no idea Doc's shelves were that bare lookin'.

They're short on supplies and what do I bring?

Sugar.

Had I a brain between my ears instead of oiled sawdust, I'd have brought in a big slab of bacon and twenty pound of flour.

As usual I was giving myself billy Hell for not havin' a crystal ball or maybe because I cain't read minds, it's a bad habit but I've had it all my life.

I left Firestorm to pick her own way and I cast my memory ahead torst the Green and the crossings I knew of, and the most likely ones was a man to head for the Mormon settlement Doc's wife spoke of.

Reckon I'd stop back at my place and rat me up some travelin' supplies and ... hell, Doc might be there already.

"Yup, girl," I murmured to Firestorm.  "Let's head on home."

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Slim figured this John feller seemed like a reasonable sort so he risked a question not often welcomed by strangers. “You come fer to get heya?” Holding up his hands he said, “No O’ffense meant, but your manor of speech is unfamiliar tuh my ears.” Laughing I said “I hail out of Connecticut on the Atlantic coast.” “My family were men of the sea.” “I decided that deep water and I did not get along, so I have been traveling west to see the country.” “I’m just up from Kansas territory, hunting Buffs.” “The local Sioux cleaned me out one day and I am not ashamed to admit I ran for my life.” “I owe my hair to that Zebra Dun’s fleet foot.”

 

Slim opined, “Takes a smart man to know when it’s time to pull his freight and give up his goods.” “Too many men have give up the ghost trying to save their possibles against bad odds.” “Better t’be poor and alive then a daid rich man.”

I nearly choked on my beer as I laughed, “I reckon you got that right.” “I’d no interest in disputing the territory with a passel of angry red skins.” “Now I’m lookin for a more sedate job, like riding herd on some cows or some such activity.” “You know anybody that might be hiring riders?” “I can make a hand, I’ve done it before.”

 

Slim drew his hand down over his scraggly beard and seemed to be deep in thought for a couple of seconds, then he said “Wail I heerd thet Doc Ward over East ah heya had a drive last year and sold off a herd.” “They say all his hands stood down to Laramie onst the drive was done and they was paid off.” “Doc’s breeding herd had nuff time to fill out some.” “He might be look’n fer a hand er two.” “Yuh head out’a town on the east road, when yuh come to the fork take the left un.” “Bout three mile more yu’ll see the axes road on the right.” “ Travel slow with yur hands in sight and hail the house from the yard fence line.”  “They’s good people but Doc is right pertective of his Missus.”

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Chester-cat glared at me from a shelf I'd put up and never did use.

Sailor-dog was plumb happy to see me, he near to beat my legs off with that curled tail of his and nothin' would do but that I hunker down and let him launder my ears.

Now Sailor is a good question, I know he's got beagle in him but he's got herdin' dog in him too and I am not sure what-all, but he's got brown dots of fur on his black Beagle head and them dots is where eyebrows would be and Doc's wife she taken a look at them and said those are Angel Eyes and was Sailor to be lookin' fixedly at somethin' -- starin', maybe not with his fur up nor growlin' -- was I to hunker down behint him and take a sight between his ears I'd see whatever speert, haint, spook, booger or ghost he was a-seein'.

Might be that's why he's always so keen to launder me behint the ears.

It could be that Mama's admonitions to me to warsh behint my ears come echoin' down with her ghostly voice and Sailor-dog heard it and taken that to heart.

Whatever the case, why, when I was done foolin' with him I recht up and fooled with Chester-cat and he snarled and hissed and laid his ears back and batted at me with them forepaws but he'd not a single claw extended, that cat didn't purr, he snarled instead.  If he was growlin' he was happy.

Damndest cat ever did I see.

Once I got Firestorm rubbed down and grained and I looked to her hooves and fooled with her and called her a good girl and she looked to be sleepin' through most of all that, why, Sailor-dog and me we went on into the house and fired up the stove and set down to think about things.

My Mama was a Wise Woman and she knowed things she couldn't possible have known.

When Doc's wife spoke of a foreboding, a premonition, I taken her serious.

Now I was young oncet and I learned fast hard and nasty the folly of hellin' across the countryside without due thought so I set down with Sailor-dog leaned up ag'in my leg and me rubbin' his shoulder and thinkin'.

I planned out the most likely line of march from here to the Green.

I'd no way of knowin' the crossin' he took but there ain't that many -- the Green is a fast runnin' river -- and those crossings between here and the Mormon settlements would narrow it down even further.

Snow was quit and that would help.

I gathered what I figgered would be useful and I saddled my ridin' mule and I fixed up and et me a good meal for I reckoned I'd be eatin' cold rations for a while , but I did grind me up some coffee and tie it into little cloth pokes and I dropped them in that blue granite coffee pot.

A man just might like some coffee with snow on.

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Posted (edited)

"What I wouldn't give for a cup of coffee," Doc Ward muttered to the horses behind him. Doc plodded along through the snow, leading the bay, the dun following behind by its own lead. Doc resisted the urge to stop and build a fire and make up the last of his coffee, thinking if he did stop one more night, which he was becoming more sure of, he would surely want some, and could reheat it come morning.

 

Thankful the snow had stopped, he looked around, seeing the clouds still hung low, gray and heavy, making any landmarks all but impossible to make out. Doc pulled his compass and glanced at it, then moved on. Still mindful of the trail he had seen earlier, he kept his Winchester in hand, just to be safe. Spotting a copse of trees in the otherwise open and rolling landscape he had moved into, Doc tugged the trees towards them, thinking he might start a fire and melt some snow while letting the horses have a breather.

Advancing carefully, Doc looked around for any sign of travel by others as he made his way forward. Satisfied, Doc looked for a spot. Finding a likely one, Doc walked around, tamping the snow flat, and kicking a small area as free of it as he could. Getting the axe back out, Doc cut some dry stuff, setting it aside, and finding a larger log peeled the bark before splitting it. Looking up to make sure he wasn't directly under any branches that would dump snow all over him before laying the bark flat, inside facing up, Doc carefully lay his tinder on it and carefully worked to get a small fire going. Scooping snow into the pot, he set it close to melt, adding a bit more as it did until the pot was nearly full. Finishing the water in his canteen that he kept close under his coat, Doc waited for the water to boil. Once at a boil, he set the pot in the snow to cool before pouring the water into the canteen.

 

Pondering his location, Doc was fairly sure he should be coming to Carter Creek within two or three hours. He was pretty sure he was skirting the edge of the Hammond place, and that would mean turning Southeast toward East Fork after crossing. What would be another four hour ride in good weather would mean if his luck held, he would be able to push home by midday tomorrow.

 

Checking his bags, Doc looked at the coffee he had left, and decided to melt a bit more water and add some to it. Enough to darken it and add a bit of flavor to the warm water, it helped warm his body, even if the weak coffee left him dissatisfied. Breaking off a small bit of pemmican, he called it lunch. He was just getting ready to kill his fire when movement from the corner of his eye drew his attention. Four riders moving through the snow toward him, slowly spreading apart as if they meant business.

Edited by DocWard
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The mule was steady and made good headway even with snow on.

He was in no great hurry and neither was I.

I knew a deliberate pace would get us both farther and in better shape than if we set off just hell-a-tearin' through the cold and the snow.

Me dear Pappy tried to teach me at a tender age that "Hurry up is brother to mess it up" and it's just plainly amazin' how often I proved the Grand Old Man right on that count!
I put my field glasses to good use -- it's less work to use them glasses than to waller through snow and whatever lay under the snow -- we made the day and we slept the night and 'twas a cold bed but Sailor he cuddled up ag'in my tender loins and snored and my blanket was big enough for us both and come daylight, why, we made a cold breakfast and the mule, he'd dug out some graze and he'd broke ice off the crick and had himself a drank so we did too,  and off we set.

Now I'll admit, I am not the brightest candle in the chandelier and I make no claims to great intelligence.

Most times I know just enough to get in trouble, but I said to myself, was I headed for that-there Mormon outfit and was I to have crossed at the most likely place, where would I be now, and there was too many things I didn't know so I had to do somethin' even if it was wrong and we steered what seemed the more reasonable course and damned if we didn't come acrost a whiff of wood smoke and I fetched up them field glasses and damn me again if it warn't Doc at a little bitty fire and him heatin' somethin' steamin' over it.

That was not what got my attention.

My bottom jaw slid out and I felt my belly wind up ag'in the way it used to before we'd go into battle and I studied the approach and figgered what was the fastest way to get from here to there, and then I taken a look at how them riders was fanned out and lookin' at Doc the way I genuinely did not like.

They were four and Doc was one and they had no idea I was anywhere near.

I could not get there in time to do much good but a rifle ball runs considerable faster than I did, and I knew right where this rifle hit at that distance, so I come off attair mule and found me a likely tree with a friendly branch and I laid my rifle's fore end in the crotch and taken me a long breath and let it out.

I'd seen this kind of thing before and my gut told me it was not going to be pleasant, and I taken one last look through them field glasses before I dropped 'em and let 'em dangle and I taken me a good sight on the one I wanted to knock out of the saddle first.

I recall how sharp and clear that front sight looked, I recall how steady it set in that rear notch, I recall thinking God Almighty, let me keep Doc safe! and the trigger was smooth and cold under my finger and the world held its breath and so did I and then the sear broke and the rifle spoke and the fight was on!

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Abigail tried to still her nerves. There wasn’t much to do around the small house, and with the snow outside, other than checking on the horses in the barn, there was nothing much to do there either. The few remaining cattle they had were likely drifted into some of the trees that dotted the land, and were self sufficient enough that they could fend for themselves. If not, there was certainly nothing she could do for them. If something did, she knew she and her husband would likely need to give up their place to Mr. Cushman, and head back East. Looking at what little was left of their food stores, she said aloud to herself, “Unless Doc found the gold.”

 

Gold… The reason Doc had not gone back in search of it earlier was because he was unsure how much there actually was, and he wasn’t one to go chasing after get-rich-quick schemes. Both Abigail and Ben were educated, and raised by parents that valued hard work. Both had fallen in love with the land when they lived in the West, and felt hemmed in once they had one back to Ohio after the war. To return to that life would actually be easier for them, as there was more business for an attorney, and she could teach or find other work. But she knew that for both of them, it would represent failure. As she pondered the situation, she heard an unfamiliar voice shouting “Helloooo… Helloooo the House!” Reaching for the shotgun near the door that was nearly as tall as her 5’2”, Abigail attempted to make out who was calling from the fence through the shuttered windows.

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Doc slowly turned his head to the left toward the riders without moving his body, but his right hand reached and sought the Winchester he had nearby. Finding it, Doc was readying himself for a quick dive behind the biggest tree nearby when the rider farthest to his right tumbled backward, his hand flinging his rifle wide, only his saddle and stirrups keeping him from falling from the saddle entirely. Almost immediately, the boom of a heavy rifle followed. As the rider rolled from the saddle, his boot hung up as he fell face-first into the snow. Caught in the open, the other riders fought to control their horses, and began trying to hurry through the deep snow toward the tree line and Doc.

 

At the sound of the rifle, Doc had made his dive for the tree, and at least two of the riders began firing from their mounts, causing Doc to keep his head down for a moment, before rolling to his left and firing his rifle, just as he saw another rider fall and another boom echoed over the rolling terrain. Squeezing the trigger, Doc saw a third rider hit the snow, out of sight. The fourth rider pulled up and laid close to his horse's back as he took off the way he had come.

 

Unsure of who had fired on his behalf, Doc shifted to stay behind cover, trying to keep his eye on the rider he had shot as well as the direction from which the rifle had spoke with loud authority.

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Just before I left town I stopped at the livery stable and asked the Smith to check my horses shoes. I knew they were alright but I wanted to ask a couple of ‘innocent’ questions. In the way of being friendly I had asked how business was. The Smith said I was the first stranger he’d seen in a week. That told me my quarry had not gotten his horses shoes changed here, as I knew the man was 50 miles away three days ago. No way he could have stopped at another town there just wasn’t that much civilization in this part of the country. So I road out East towards the Ward place. Slim’s directions worked out pretty good. When I arrived at the access road there was a trail of hoof prints in and out of the property. Before approaching the house I stepped down to examine the track. The prints showed a good sized horse carrying a fair to middling load. Either a big man or someone packing some falderal with him. They were not the tracks I was looking for.

 

Once I reached the yard fence line I set for a second to just review my story. I don’t like stretching the truth even for a funny story, outright lying was uncomfortable as all get out. My Daddy always said, “When you prevaricate you will always trip your self up by not telling it the same way when forced to repeat your story.” Now just to be clear ‘prevaricate’ is a fancy word for lying, which I try to avoid as much as possible. Being a Lawman it is not always possible to avoid stretching the truth when working. Some folks just don’t take to being arrested for their crimes and it can get downright unhealthy if they know you are after them. So anyway I fixed my story in my mind and yelled “Hellooo.... Hellooo the house.” Then I set real still so as not to look nervous or dangerous in any way.

 

I spotted a little motion behind the shutter on a window, so I raised my hand and waved to show I’d seen that someone was watching and I was friendly. Pretty soon the door opened a crack and I saw the double barrels of a scatter gun sort of pointed down so as not directly threaten, but still let me know it was there. “What do you want?” Said a pleasant female voice. I said “Mam, my name is John Calder, I’ve come to ask your husband for a riding job.” “Slim Dawkins over in East Fork told me he might be looking for some hands.” “If this is a bad time I would be glad to return when your husband is available to talk.” “I’ve no wish to make you uncomfortable, Mam, so I will head back to town.” After a brief pause she said “Perhaps that would be best for now.” I responded “Thank you kindly, Mam, you have a pleasant day.” Then I turned back for town. I was sure that the lady of the house watched me as far as she could see and did not blame her one little bit. Living out alone, even in a forted up cabin can be stressful for a woman.

 

Edited by Cactus Jack Calder
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I knew the wind would carry my gun smoke away fairly quickly and I knew anyone lookin' would see movement easier than any so I helt still behind that-there tree, only moving to feed rounds into the rifle.

I liked this rifle.

It carried a heavy ball and it didn't hold near as many as a '73 but a pistol round would not carry the distances I might require and had I my '73 rifle I would have been hard pressed to put a killin' shot into that first rider and the others I introduced to Saint Pete.

Now I could have what-if'd all day long, what-if them fellers is perfectly innocent, what-if they wanted to share a fire and some coffee, but I packed a badge some years back and I fought in that damned War and I carried scars from being too trusting and when I seen them fan out like that and then start up with weapons, I knew there was no time to debate the issue.

A far wiser man than I gave me the best advice I ever got as a green lawman.

"Son," said he, "when in doubt, follow your gut."

I have, ever since, and sound advice it was.

Here today my gut told me they intended harm to my friend and I was not going to stand for that.

Once I put down the immediate threat (now ain't that fancy language!) why I fetched up them field glasses and gave things a good study.

Doc he was rolled over and hid and I did not see any blood on the snow so I reckoned when I blew the horn he knew their attention wouldn't be on him so he moved and like as not he would not know who was firin' from above and behind him, Doc was a boar coon from way back and a bad man in a scrap and I genuinely would not want to cross him -- all this went screamin' through my head as I glassed the field of combat.

Damn.

That fancy language them officers used and I picked up is still with me.

I studied for a good while but that fourth rider was gone -- snow was beat down and confused and at this distance I could not tell what led where -- so I wrapped the neck cord around them field glasses and wrapped them in the flannel I kept 'em in and then slud 'em back into the saddle bag.

Bud Scott was still standin' there lookin' bored like he always did -- I named the mule after a coal miner I knew when I was a boy -- I rubbed his nose and he leaned his head over ag'in me and I whispered "Let's go make sure Doc is still in one piece," and I shoved my boot into the stirrup.

"Yup, Bud."

The mule swung his ears round about and headed on down hill, towards where Doc had his camp.

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Doc Ward moved as slowly as possible to shift his position, then stayed as still as possible. He was mindful of the downed riders, but wanted to see who it was that started firing, believing that the simple fact he was a foe to those men did not mean he was a friend to Doc. Doc also knew the firepower the unknown man had was much greater than his own .44-40. If he wanted trouble, Doc's only chance stood in him deciding to come closer.

 

Keeping a wary eye for movement, Doc blinked as he saw a man on horseback come into view. No, Doc corrected himself, that's a mule. Looking closer, he stared in disbelief for a moment, then pushed himself to his feet. Leaning against the tree he had been using for cover moments before, Doc watched Linn Keller ride in through the snow. As Keller got closer, Doc built up the fire slightly, then gave a friendly wave, calling out "I can't say I'm not glad to see you, but I'm more than a little astonished! What brings you out here?" Keller dismounted, then pointed to the fallen riders and gave a wry smile. "Your missus told me you needed looking after." Before Doc could respond, Keller again pointed to the fallen men. "I'll explain later, let's go check on these fellas."

Trudging out into the heavy snow, it was clear the two men Keller had put his sights on had died quickly. They didn't recognize either man.The third, that Doc had dropped with his Winchester had tried to crawl through the snow before giving up and laying there in the snow. Grabbing the man's rifle and pistol and tossing them aside, Doc rolled the man over. As the man looked up, pale and afraid, Doc cut a piece from the man's heavy coat and began pressing it to the angry wound high on the man's chest. Bleeding fairly heavily, it was clear to Doc the bullet had hit the bony structure of the man's shoulder leaving his right arm useless. Doc worked quickly and efficiently, asking the man the group's purpose as he did.

Hoarse with pain, the man replied, "We spotted you on Rafter H land, and our orders were to send you back the way you came, one way or another, same as for anyone else coming on Hammond range." Doc was inclined to say he didn't realize he had wandered onto the H, but before he could say anything, Keller scoffed, "Old Man Hammond claiming land this far out? Gettin' pretty big for his britches, ain't he?" Despite his wound, the rider looked angry and indignant. "He's big enough to fill 'em, and I wouldn't want to be either of you gents when he or his sons find out you shot up his riders."

 

Doc got the rider's arm into a sling and swath, with some cussing on the rider's part. Standing up, Doc looked down, pondering the man. "It sounds like you had plans to shoot me up some if I didn't comply, which I wouldn't have, so it seems we're on an even footing there. I'm riding for East Fork and home, and I'm not inclined to take the long way around, even if this were Rafter H land. I haven't seen cattle or any sign that it belongs to Hammond, so I'm of the opinion the range is free. Still, I'm not the kind to leave a man wounded, even if he was intent on causing me harm." Jerking the man to his feet and causing him to begin cursing anew, Doc went and grabbed a horse. "Can you get on?" Still cursing, the man reached for the pommel with his good arm, lifted his leg and pulled himself up into he saddle.

Looking up at the man, Keller gestured to the two dead men on the ground. "I reckon they'll keep until you can get back and get someone to come and get 'em. You tell Hammond if he has a problem, to come and see Linn Keller." Seeing the angry frown on Doc's face as he glared at the man, he added, "And Doc Ward. I think he knows where to find us."

Stepping back to the fire as the man rode off, slumped in the saddle, Doc looked over at Keller. "So, my wife sent you, did she?"

 

 

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As I moseyed into town and past the saloon, there was Slim sitting outside with a pal playing checkers. Why those two didn’t go inside on a cold day I couldn’t figure. So I said “Howdy” and made to ride on towards the hotel. Slim pipes up and asks “Doc not hiring?” I replied “It appears he wasn’t home at the time.” “I talked to the Missus and she said it would be best if I returned later.” “I figure to give it a day or two and then try again.” “On the way back I wandered around a little to see what type of country this is.” I knew these fellows had seen me leave town and would know I was gone longer than to ride out to the Ward place and back. I didn’t want them speculating on what I might have been up to. “I thought I’d go over to the hotel and get a room for a couple of days.”

 

Slim said, “Thet’s one option t’other is they’s a boarding house down thu end of thu street.” “Big yeller house with green shutters.” “The widow Benson ull give yuh breakfast n supper as well.” “And it’s some cheaper if yur staying longer.”

I allowed as I hoped it would only be a day or two till I found work or moved on.

Slim said “Hey, how’s bout I buy yuh a beer?” “Yuh didn’t finish thu one yuh had earlier.” So we wandered into the saloon again. Grabbing a table near the back, Slim yelled, “Hey Barney, two beers fer my friend n me.”

 

Once the bartender had delivered the drinks and returned to his station at the bar, Slim got a real serious look on his face. “You know young fellow I’ve been around quite a bit.” “I road herd in most of the cattle country from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border.” “It seems to me when I was riding along the southern border, I heard of a Ranger named Cactus Jack Calder.” “This Cactus Jack fellow was known to be a good hand at catching outlaws.” “You wouldn’t be any relation to this Cactus Jack would you?”  Well after I got over the shock of hearing my name, I noticed that Slim’s English had improved rather quickly. I hummed and hawed for a second, then said “We’ll you’ve caught me out Slim, I’m Cactus Jack and I’m here on the hunt.” “By the way, your English has taken a quick turn for the better.” “You aren’t exactly the oldtimer you are pretending to be.” “What’s you game?”

 

Slim said, “My name is Frank Willard, I’m a Pinkerton Agent undercover looking for a cold blooded killer that has been traveling all over the west.” “He’s killed in Kansas, Indian Territory, Colorado, Utah and Arizona that I know of, now I would guess he’s been to Texas as well.” I said, “It may be that we are after the same man.” “The man I’m after is a big hulking brute, he has black hair, one eyebrow over his left eye, and a scar over his right eye where the eyebrow used to be.” “Our information is that he has hooked up with three other men for whom we have no description.” What they are up to here in Wyoming I do not know.” “The name he used in Texas was Lefty Frezzel, sort of a Mexican sounding name, but he is no Mexican and would never be mistaken for one.”

 

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Doc and I headed ourselves back torst home.

We more or less taken turns hangin' back to watch our back trail, a time or three one or t'other of us would waller our mount through the snow to a higher point and take a glass to where we'd been.

Like as not that fella with the busted wing would not get home before we did -- hell, cold an' shock might kill him and wind and snow would tend to our tracks, but that would take some luck and my luck is never that good.

That's one reason I don't bet on horse races, nor do I play poker.

Now my little sis, she could take the best card sharper and skin him out of his eye teeth, I never seen the like, she'd set there all pretty and girly and she'd smile an' drop one shoulder or t'other and she'd not say more'n call or how many cards she wanted, other than declaring politely that she seemed to have the winning hand, and never once did anyone object that she might have been less than honest in her dealin'.

Me, I never counted much on luck.

I reckon I had plenty of it durin' the War, worst hurt I got was walkin' my shin bone into a stack of fire wood after dark.

As I recall, when the sentry called for the Corporal of the Guard, he was laughin' when he did an' when attair young feller come a-runnin' up an' the sentry pointed him in my direction, why, they both seemed rather entertained at the sight of a mad as hell hillbilly grabbin' his Shin Bone with his hands whilst jumpin' up and down on t'other foot and fair to blisterin' the air with language y'might say was less than Christian in nature.

Anyway we set a good pace but not one that would wind our mounts, for in case there was pursuit we weren't countin' on we just might need some speed and I don't like to push a horse in snow and especially not in the mountains, but then I didn't pa'tickelar like this cold neither and 'twas cold whether I liked it or not.

Now I did me a pile of thinkin' and I could not help but think that maybe oncet that feller said he intended to sic old man Hammond on us, I should have put a ball between his eyes, but Doc was right there and I had no wish to stain the man with my sin.

I knowed Hammond, we went to school together, he was a skinny sort when I knowed him but he filled out some oncet he got his growth and he went from laughin' and likeable to mean as a snake and a man to take his temper out on his woman, his horse and his men, and he warn't really pa'tikelar which one 'twas.

Yes sir, my battleship mouth just overloaded my canoe backside on that one.

The words was said and no recallin' 'em and I didn't really feel like tryin' to turn around and run that fella down to back shoot him.

I'd just have to live with the consequence of my big mouth.

At least I named me first.

That rider would remember the first name guaranteed.

He might well forget I'd mentioned Doc's name but he'd remember mine.

Good enough.

My wife was six foot deep in a Circleville cemetery and Doc's wife is alive and well, and they make a fine lookin' couple together, and was anyone to come after me why they'd have to get through me before goin' on to try Doc's steel.

Men tried before.

I hold me no illusions, there's the man out there that will likely kill me, and so be it, but I don't reckon to go peacefully into the dark.

Half my mouth smiled and I didn't snort at myself but I could have, for I felt a prideful fool.

God Almighty knew when and how I would die, and warn't much I could do about it.

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"Oh ma ma the dress is beautiful" Sophie declared.  "I love the color, the beading and well all of it."  The dress was a delicate light magenta silk with tiny silver-blue beads sewn on the bodice and sleeve cuffs in a Fleur-De-Lis pattern.  When the light hit the beads, they shone like tiny candles.  It was the perfect way to frame Sophie's face.  The style was simple but elegant.  The perfect dress for the Cotillion in Big Springs.  However, Sophie's mother, Mrs Cushman would have non of it.  "A blind cellar mouse could do a better job sewing on these beads" Mrs Cushman snorted as she picked at the delicate, glass beads that adorned the bodice of the dress.  "Please stop pulling on the beads," Calamity cried.  "It took many hours to sew them onto the dress."  Just as the words left her mouth, the strand snapped and a shower of tiny glass beads tumbled to the floor.  Mrs. Cushman thrust the dress at Calamity, in a snarling tone said "I'll be back in a couple of hours to pick up that dress.  It had better be ready."  With that, Mrs. Cushman grabbed Sophie's arm and stormed out of the shop, slamming the door as she left. Calamity hung her head as if she wanted to cry.  Instead she took a deep breath to gather her thoughts.  In the mean time, Charlotte was scurrying around gathering as many beads off the floor as she could find.  "I think I found all of them" Charlotte declared as she approached Calamity with her palm cupped.  Calamity grabbed a candle dish from the counter and Charlotte delicately dumped the beads onto the dish, checking her hands to make sure none of them stuck in in the folds of her skin.  "That Mrs. Cushman is sssoooooo mean" Charlotte stated.  "I wish she would just go to Big Springs with her friends and their money and never come back".  "Now, now, Charlotte.  People like her help give you an appreciation for the nice people we have here in town, don't they?"  Calamity stated, looking at Charlotte.   Charlotte looked at her feet and frowned shaking her head in the affirmative.  "Now let me get back to this dress," Calamity said, "lest I get in real trouble".  She turned to Charlotte and rolled her eyes.  Charlotte giggled, grabbing a feather duster, began to dust the shelves with the hat boxes.

 

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When Keller told Doc Abigail had a premonition and he had taken it seriously, Doc had simply nodded and replied, “Knowing that, I’m glad you did. I didn’t relish facing them alone, but if she had some feeling on it..." Doc let his words trail off for a moment. Looking up, he grinned, "The outcome was more to my liking once your rifle spoke." As the two shared some coffee before putting the fire out, Doc stared into his cup as he spoke, "I wonder why Hammond thinks he needs so much land though, or if it’s just a pride thing for him to have the biggest spread.” Keller sort of grunted, taking a moment to respond. “Known the man for a long time. He’s mean and a bully. Four sons who are as bad if not worse. I’m thinking I made an enemy today.” Doc gave Keller a glance out the corner of his eye. “I’m not given to boasting, but you have a friend or two capable of standing up to any trouble with you. Personally, I don’t think Hammond wants to come calling to either of our doors without a bunch of help.”

 

The two men rode, each alone in his thoughts, and comfortable enough in the presence of his friend to remain silent. Each pondered the situation, and what it might mean for their future. The two traveled in well practiced fashion, saving their mounts as much as possible, taking turns leading through the heavy snow, and keeping a wary eye for trouble. Retracing Keller’s path, they camped, and Doc was pleased to see Keller had brought along provisions, especially coffee. The next afternoon, as they topped a small knoll, East Fork lay before them, still blanketed in snow.

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We stopped by my place long enough for me to say howdy to Chester cat (he snarled at me) and Sailor was more than happy to chew on some dried meat whilst I loaded a sack of flour behint my saddle. I never told Doc it was for his place but my conscience still troubled me that all I'd taken first go-over was some maple sugar.

I tried not to let him see the slab of bacon I tried to snuck along.

We went on to his place and Doc he was a creature of habit, after he'd taken his wife in his arms and held her for a year and a day and whispered in her ear whilst I pretended not to know they was anywhere in the county, why, I got that sack of flour unloaded and I got it inside and hung that slab of bacon up and slid out and allowed as I fergot my head and left it layin' back at my place and I'd best get along and Doc give me One Of Them Looks and Mrs. Doc said "You're not staying for supper?" and there went my surprise, she'd go on inside and I was really hopin' not to let her left hand know what my right hand done.

She told me I really shouldn't have and Doc chawed on his knuckle and grinned for he was watchin' my ears turn a truly remarkable shade of boilin' red and besides he knew well how good a cook his wife is and if she was goin' to fix for company, why, his belly would benefit as well and that look he give me decided me to stay put.

It would have been unmannerly to have turned her supper invitation down.

My Mama, rest her soul, did her best to beat some manners into mmm ... I mean she tried to teach me good manners and was I to be impolite in the face of such hospitality, why, Mama would likely claw her way out of the grave and beat me about the shoulders with a large and heavy object.

Like an anvil.

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Frank replied, “That sounds like the man I’m after.” “The eyebrow is a dead giveaway.” “I hadn’t heard of him teaming up with other men.” “Perhaps we can work together to apprehend them.” I said, “That’s fine with me Frank, but know that Lefty is going back to Texas one way or another.” “ The Governor of Texas has authorized my hunt and he will not be denied.” Frank cautioned me, “Please, keep it to ‘Slim,’ until we catch these men.” “I’m authorized to certify this Lefty either dead or captured without returning him to my Central Office.” “So once you have him in irons or a box he is yours to dispose of as you see fit.” “I think we can work together on this, how about you?” I shook his hand and said, “OK ‘Slim’ pard you got a deal.”

 

The next morning after breakfast at the hotel dining room, I wandered down the boardwalk. I was trying to come up with an alternate plan on how to hang around East Fork, if a riding job did not become available. Slim had advised me that Doc’s spread and and a place owned by a man named Hammond were the only ranches likely to need hands. He also expressed the opinion that Hammond was a hard man to work for. He has four son’s who lorded it over the hired help. The old man played his sons off against each other and they seemed to compete in bullying people and showing off how tough they are. As Slim said, “Hammond thenks he’s thu big dog in this here territory n he ain’t above a little skullduggery to get un up on sumun else.” “Word is he’s hired a new Segundo who’s sposed tu be a real man eater, and I ain’t been able tu get a look et em yet.” I was beginning to really like the way ‘Slim’ stayed in character even when no one else was near. As he said, “Yu never knowed when sumun might sneak up on yu.” “Better tu be cornsistent then be found daid sumair.” “He, He.”

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As they walked their horses into the fenced yard, Abigail opened the door, smiling, her face showing a look of relief as she stepped out, pulling a cloak around her shoulders. Swinging his leg over his horse, Doc stepped down and reached for his wife and pulled her in to hold her close. As Doc pulled her in tight he whispered “I’ve missed you.” Finally pushing back a little, Abigail looked up at him, her blue eyes wide, “I’ve missed you too, I’m so glad you’re home.”

Once it was agreed Linn was staying for dinner, Abigail was a flurry of activity as Doc and Linn cleaned themselves up as best they could. At Abigail’s urging, Doc pulled out the china and silver and set the table for three. Then, to Linn’s surprise, Doc pulled out a bottle of Irish Whiskey and three whiskey glasses and poured some in each, two more full than the third, and handing the less full one to his wife. Lifting his glass in toast, Doc smiled and said “To our continued good health and friendship,” before lifting the glass to his lips. Abigail took a sip, then set the glass aside as she continued about her work, confident the whiskey would not go to waste.

As she continued making dinner, preparing some cathead biscuits from the flour Linn provided, along with bacon and some canned vegetables, Doc and Linn sat, enjoying the warmth of the home, the smells of food being prepared, and the taste of good whiskey. Abigail asked over her shoulder, “So, was I just being a silly woman?” Doc glanced at Keller, who gave a slight chuckle and said “Hardly. I think your husband might agree that my arrival was right timely.” Doc more or less grunted his agreement, and took a sip of whiskey before standing. Going over to his wife, he put his hands at the curve of her waist, saying “And I couldn’t be more thankful that you are far from a silly woman.” Giving her a quick kiss before she shooed him away, Doc walked over to pick up the saddlebags he had brought in.

 

Setting them on the table, Doc looked over at Linn. Before Doc could say anything, Linn said “Abigail explained why you were gone. I take it you had some success?” With a grin, Doc said “Enough. Between coins and notes, I’ve got just under twenty thousand dollars in here.” At his words, Abigail stopped what she was doing and turned, her face showing disbelief. Keller kept his composure, but reached for his glass and finished the whiskey in it before responding, “You don’t say?”

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I don't play much poker -- never was good at it -- but I've done my best to cultivate a poker face.

I tried cultivating that Innocent Expression and that never did work, and when Doc allowed as he had a young fortune  right there under his hand, why, I did my best to look noncommittal and disinterested.

We'd been friends and good friends for a long time but that's quite a confidence to share with any man, and I do not take that trust lightly.

More times in my life than I can think of, I have opened my mouth and something stupid fell out, and "You don't say" has to be right up there with some of the least intelligent utterances I've ever dropped from between my pearly whites, and my first thought was "How do we keep this safe."

I'd paid attention when officers got to discussing matters back during the War and I recall one fellow allowed as the military operates on a layered principle of defense, and the first layer is always knowledge.

First order of business would be to let this knowledge get no further.

I was satisfied Doc's wife would be just as close mouthed as the two of us, she never was given to gossip nor to discuss much of anything family with outsiders.

Doc, of course, had plans for that cash money and as I recall, that good lookin' wife of his mentioned somethin' about him squarin' up a debt so I reckoned that would be first on the list.

I was awful careful to treat Doc's wife like gold, matter of fact I recalled a jealous woman spattin' at me oncet, she made a play for me and I was nothin' but a gentleman with her and just before she turned and stomped off she hissed like Chester-cat gettin' a belly rub (he's not happy unless he's growlin', hissin' or spattin') -- anyway, that woman that just made a play for me allowed as I had my wife so high on a pedestal it's a wonder she didn't get nose bleed, and that's kind of how I regarded Doc's wife.

I was still too deep in my own grief to think about shinin' up to anyone.

I realized I'd been starin' a hole in the far wall when Doc give me that wise look and said gently, "Don't fall in," and I blinked and I laughed and I sipped down the last of that whiskey and nodded.

"That kind of money speaks a language the sinner loves to hear," said I. "Let us be Godly men and not lead the lawless into temptation."

Doc give me that wry half-grin of his and 'twas his turn to nod.

"You gettin' lazy on me, old son?" he asked, and I felt a grin pullin' at my cheek bones and I shook my head a little.

"You might say that.  Preventin' is a whole lot less work than fightin'."

Right about then Abigail came floatin' over with supper and it genuinely smelled good and I was kind of surprised.

I didn't realize how annoyed my empty belly was until I took that first good deep whiff of genuine woman cooked supper.

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After the food was placed on the table, Doc and Abby politely sat, quiet and eyes lowered, while Linn gave thanks for the food placed before him. Once done, conversation seemed to stop as the men began eating. Neither seemed to forget his table manners entirely, but both were certainly intent on the business at hand. Abby ate slowly, finding humor in the way her husband and her friend dug in, but was pleased that they enjoyed her cooking as they did.

After clearing the table with his wife, Doc went outside to speak with his friend before he left. “I owe Cushman a good chunk of that money, and I intend to pay him tomorrow. I also owe Seamus and Kay… Well, I’m not sure how much. They’ve been gracious enough to be keeping a tab for awhile now. If you could, I’d like for you to swing back by tomorrow and ride in with us just to be safe. I want Abby to be able to buy some things, perhaps have Calamity Kris fit her for a couple of new dresses.”

 

Doc looked down and shifted his feet uncomfortably, trying to decide how to continue and be persuasive. “ I want to buy more cattle, more horses, and…” Doc looked over his shoulder at the house… “Either add rooms or build something bigger. Abby deserves it, in my book. You know I feel responsible for the cattle lost in that drive we tried to railhead in Laramie. I know you, Utah Bob and Sedalia Dave lost money as a result, and it nearly wiped me out. I believe it’s only fair for the three of you to receive something from this. I want you to take this…” With that, Doc pushed a stack of bank notes out to his friend as his blue eyes looked up, a mixture of pride and need showing in them at the opportunity.

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I one time said, "I am not as dumb as I look," and the man to whom I said it was kind enough to reply with a straight face, "This proves the Lord indeed is merciful."

Brother Beymer had such a marvelous way of bringin' me back to earth with a solid ker thump, especially when I was gettin' too full of myself.

I never forgot that kindness and I put it to good use when Doc stacked up them Yankee green backs and allowed as his conscience troubled him and he wanted to make up my losses.

I knew he'd lost more than I did and I knew it hurt him to think he'd let me down (he hadn't), and I knew it would hurt him ag'in if I didn't take it.

To my credit I did not open my mouth and drop somethin' truly stupid out onto the tabletop, and neither did I scream with delight and jump on that stack of notes like an insane miser.

As I recall, I set there and considered and then I nodded, once, kind of slow, and I tried hard to think of something at least a little bit intelligent to say and all I could come up with was, "Kindly of ye," and then I blinked and looked at Doc's wife and back at Doc and allowed as darn right I'd ride with him and his wife.

Nobody knew about this cash money except the three of us -- unless them four that tried to take Doc caught wind of it but I doubted it, like as not they wanted to raise Hell and Bully Rag an old man they figured couldn't fight back much.

Now Doc, I'd noticed, never did completely let down his guard.

Neither do I.

I see that kind of common amongst men who've rubbed shoulders with the Reaper.

Doc was in that damned war and so was I, we'd both been set upon then and since by men who wished us harm.

He and I both kept ourselves alive because part of our mind was always awake, always listening, the mind is never still, the mind forever shuffles around them puzzle pieces we see and tries to fit 'em together to make some sense.

Neither of us was a trusting soul and we'd both been hurt and hurt bad.

When my wife died 'twas like a betrayal, 'twas like she chose to leave me -- which it was not her choice -- but her dyin' was like part of my beating heart was tore loose and went into the ground when I helped set that long box in good black churchyard dirt, it hurt like I'd been betrayed and someone I trusted more than I trusted myself betrayed me by dyin' and I know that is not what happened but it hurt bad enough it's sure what it felt like.

Now that ain't what I intended to say and I'm sorry.

Grief is like that, it sneaks up on a man and jumps him from behint and you just saw it happen and I am sorry you had to see it.

I prefer to keep my grief to myself.

Neither Doc nor I give our trust easily but when we do we give it completely and that's why I taken that stack of Yankee greenbacks, and that's why he asked me to ride in town with them come daylight and that's why I said yes.

I rode on back to my place by some of a round about way, I come up and studied things and then I raised up them field glasses and give things a good lookin' at like I'd done many times before, studying those places I'd use if I was to try and sneak up on my place.

I saw nothing at all unusual.

Bud he was watchful too, he'd let me know when there was bear around and oncet a wild cat and attair cat was up in a tree and watching and I fetched out my rifle and taken a look at that mountain cat and I lowered that rifle down and allowed as I'd no wish to hurt it but it was not goin' to bite neither Bud Scott in the back of the head nor me so why'nt you just go on back up the mountain and damned if attair cat didn't give me a long yellow eyed look and it didn't jump, it kind of flowed like 'twas made of yaller crickwater that only looked like a furry cat hide and it come half down that tree and into another and then down onto the bank and into some brush and it was gone.

I was near to my place and in sight of the barn when someone let out a God awful scream and two gunshots and one went crackrattlin' through the branches overhead and Bud he bunched up under me and laid his ears back and I fetched out my rifle and we went just hell-a-tearin' torst the alarm and some fella come ridin' hard torst me and he saw me and raised up a rifle and I stood up in the stirrups and drove him right between the eyes with a forty caliber stage coach that took his soul to hell and he went over backwarts with all the substance of a gunny sack full of feathers and his horse it was wallin' its eyes and it seen us and reared and turned and got its legs tangled and down it went and I seen long red claw marks on its flank and Bud and me we went hammerin' through the snow a-past him and I seen a secont man layin' in the snow and he warn't movin' and that big tawny cat was crouched over him and she looked up at me with them intelligent yaller eyes just as if to say we're even now and the she flowed off to the side into the brush and she was gone.

Now I was ready for a general war and I felt the same as I did when we'd go into battle and all that hell I lived through come roarin' like black flood water all over my soul and I tasted sulfur and iron and I smelt death and blood and had a regiment marched out of the brush towards me with bayonets fixed I believe I would have charged 'em at a dead run, screamin' defiance and ready to kill every last one of them.

Lucky enough a cold tree branch smacked me across the face and knocked some sense into me, pine needles and snow didn't taste near as good as Doc's wife's cookin' and that shocked me back into the here and now and Bud he had sense enough to stop and swing one way and then the other, he was lookin' for trouble and didn't see none and I was sure as hell lookin' for trouble but I didn't see none neither.

I pulled my boots out of the stirrups and threw up my off leg and slud out of the saddle and landed in the snow flat footed, I crouched for a long moment and come near to peelin' back my lips and snarlin' like that mountain cat.

I straightened up, slowly, and turned to take a look at the dead man layin' on his back in the snow.

My ball taken him between the eyes and come out the back but above the exit there was two punctures and I looked closer and there was two punctures below it.

Fang marks they were, like a mountain cat makes when it puts a killin' bite into the back of a horse's skull.

I considered this for a long moment and then nodded, I looked around and I listened, I looked up at my mule and my mule looked just powerful disinterested and that told me there was neither man nor mountain cat around to trouble him, so I stood and taken off my hat and I looked up torst them clouds that was well overhead.

"Lord," said I, "remind me to not shoot cats more often."

 

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