Authors: Dan Arnold
At the end of the day, my shoulder wound was aching. Actually, I was tired and sore all over. My hands were stiff and nearly blistered. I’d only worked half a day, and if I hadn’t been wearing gloves, I would’ve been in trouble. It’s funny how soft we can get when we don’t work hard every day. Those Johnson boys, on the other hand, had worked like full grown men, from sun-up till the sun went behind the mountains, without much complaint.
Compared to the daily life of a working rancher, life in the city of Bear Creek had made me soft. Of course, I had to allow for the fact I’d been nearly killed a few weeks back. I was just starting to regain my strength. I figured the roundup was probably going to be pretty taxing.
It was full dark by the time Dusty and I got back to the ranch headquarters under Yellow Butte, now bathed in moonlight. I pulled up short. There were lamps lit inside the house!
I eased off Dusty and left him ground tied by the creek, as I crept up to the house. The shades were all drawn, so I couldn’t see inside. I didn’t like this. Someone was waiting for me, but who?
I circled wide, away from the house, toward the barn. There in the pen where I’d been keeping Dusty, I found the spotted Appaloosa horse I’d seen Old Bill Kennemer riding. If I had to have a house guest, I figured he’s do.
I turned and started across the yard toward the back porch.
“Pleasant evenin’ ain’t it?” A voice called out from the porch.
I froze in my tracks.
Old Bill Kennemer was sitting on the bench outside the back door. He was hidden in the dark between two windows glowing from the lamps inside. I couldn’t see him, but he’d been watching me.
“Yep, it’s starting to cool off, though.” I said.
“I’ve got some steaks and taters cooked up inside. Reckon you’re hungry. Best come on in and eat.”
“Thank you. That’ll be as welcome as the rainbow after a thunderstorm.”
Old Bill stood up and opened the back door. The light from inside revealed he was still wearing his sombrero and had the Sharps Creedmoor rifle cradled in his arm.
Inside, he kept his rifle but hung his hat down his back with the stampede string holding it in place.
“Go wash up, Sage. I’ll fetch your horse from where you left him down by the creek. He’ll be wantin’ some victuals hisself. There’s fresh coffee, if’n you want it.”
I pumped water into the sink, and that cold water on my hands and face sure felt good. I scrubbed up as best I could, then swung over to the stove to investigate the good smelling source of onions, potatoes and beef steak coming from that location.
Old Bill came back inside.
“Smart, leaving your horse by the creek. You near snuck up on my Appaloosa in the gloom. You’re a careful man.” He said, as he set his rifle down, leaning it against the wall by the back door.
“I promised my wife I would be, but I reckon I’m still not as careful as you.”
He grinned at me, his dark face turning into all lines and creases under his long white hair.
“I’ve had me more practice, the reason why I ain’t pushing up daisies.”
I shrugged, conceding the point.
“How long had you been sitting out there?”
“Oh, not long, I reckon.”
“How did you know I’d be coming back here?”
“I seen you out with them young fellers. It was late in the day, so I figured you’d be along, directly. I came on in, and rustled us up some grub. Let’s eat.”
“You bet, my belly button’s rubbing against my backbone. How’d you come to have beef steaks?
Bill grinned and winked.
“This afternoon, I found a steer with a Bar C Bar brand. It’d just been shot.”
I figured he was the man who shot it, but I wasn’t above eating a good steak.
As we ate, I told him about what I’d learned and seen since we’d met in Buttercup. After a while it dawned on me I was doing all the talking.
“What have you been up to these last couple of days? Will you be joining us at the roundup, tomorrow?”
Old Bill nodded, thoughtfully. He began to pack tobacco into his pipe.
“I’ll bed down here, tonight. Tomorrow I’ll help you gather and move the cattle on this spread, but I’ll drop out before we get to the big roundup. I don’t care for crowds. I’ll be around though. I’m thinking I might stay on here, if’n it’s alright with you.”
“This ranch is half yours, Bill. You’ve more right to be here than I do.”
He popped a match and lit his pipe.
“Rightee-o then, let’s clear up these dishes and get some shut-eye.”
Stretched out in my bedroll, I reflected on the day and took some thought for the morrow. I couldn’t be sure what would happen at the roundup. My plan was to ride in with Ace Johnson and three of his sons, pushing the cattle we picked up along the way. When we showed up, I intended to claim I was riding for the Rocking M. It was unclear how the sudden appearance of someone claiming to represent the Murphy Ranch would be received.
I didn’t fully understand where Old Bill Kennemer fit in to the picture. He was a hard man to read. He seemed more interested in getting whoever had killed Sean Murphy than he was in the ranch itself, but he didn’t seem very pleased with my presence on the scene.
I reminded myself of the admonition not to worry about tomorrow-“
Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
” I knew God had a plan and whatever it was, it would be good enough.
With that final thought, I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up before dawn, awakened by the sound of Old Bill getting dressed. I met him in the kitchen. While he was slicing bacon for our breakfast I threw some wood on the coals in the stove and got the fire going. When I had the fire well lit, I filled the coffee pot and set it on the stove.
We were saddling our horses in the early light of day, when we heard riders approaching. Bill took his rifle and disappeared back into the dark of the barn. I pulled my rifle out of the scabbard and waited to see who was riding in.
“Hello, the house!” Ace called, as he and three of his older sons pulled up near the back porch.
“Hello, to you.” I said. I stepped out from Dusty’s off side, placing myself directly behind the riders from the Rafter J.
The four men jumped a little, each showing his surprise.
“Morning, John. Are you expecting trouble?” Ace asked. He and the others turned their horses to face me where I stood with my rifle cradled in my arm.
“Yep, usually. You boys want to step down and drink some coffee before we get started?”
The young men looked like they thought it was be a pretty good idea, but Ace shook his head.
“Naw, we’ve had breakfast and I figure we should get after it.”
Old Bill stepped into the light, easing up beside me.
“Howdy.” Ace said.
“Howdy do.” Old Bill replied, with a nod.
“You fellers look like you’re ready for a fight, which might be a good thing, but are you ready to work cattle?” Ace asked.
“We are” I said.” Ace Johnson, shake hands with R.W. Kennemer.”
After the introductions were made and everybody had a chance to get the measure of each other, Bill and I mounted up.
“We found twenty four head between here and our place.” Ace said. “We pushed them to the edge of the creek. If we spread out from here, we can gather them and whatever else we find on our way to Haystack Rock, where the roundup meets.”
“Sounds good to me” I said.
“I’ll ride along with you for a spell, but I won’t go all the way to Haystack Rock. I expect the five of you can manage without me.” Old Bill said.
I looked over at him and asked, “Where you headed?”
He made a forward motion with his hand, ending in a vague gesture.
“Over yonder. I’ll be close if you need me.”
As usual, when a large herd is gathered, we heard the cattle before we saw them. The five of us were pushing one hundred and three head of cows, calves, and steers we’d gathered up along the way. It took me back to when I’d first seen the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. I was on a horse back then too, pushing more than a thousand head of cattle from Texas toward Wyoming. My friend Yellowhorse and I were working for Charlie Goodnight in those days. I had to smile. More than twenty years later, here I was pushing cattle again.
As we approached Haystack Rock, rather than take the long way around, we chose to go over the back of a smallish butte. From the top of the rise we had a good view of the flats where the herd was being held. Below us there were hundreds of cattle milling about. These were all range cattle of mixed breed. Most of the cows had calves, some a few weeks old, others born more recently.
Over at the base of Haystack Rock, a cow camp had been set up. Some wagons had been pulled into a circle on the edge of a stand of pinõn and scrub pine. In the center of the circle a mixed batch of tables and chairs had been assembled under a big tent cover. Between here and there, spread out around the edges of the herd, were about a dozen mounted men holding the cattle together on the flats. A small creek meandered through the middle of the herd.
As we started our bunch down the slope, a couple of riders peeled away from the larger herd and split up to help us ease our cattle into the bigger group. Once that was accomplished one of the riders trotted up beside me and Ace Johnson.
“Mornin’ Mr. Johnson. Who’s this feller?” The rider asked, looking me over.
“Mornin’ Ed. Shake hands with John, here. He’s repping for the Rocking M.”
The man showed a sudden interest as he reached over and shook my offered hand.
“Ed Baxter, Mr…I didn’t catch your last name.” He said, giving me a sharp look.
“You can call me John. All my friends do.”
“OK, John. I’m the foreman for the Bar C Bar. I heard someone was claiming to represent the Murphy outfit, but the story I heard was the Rocking M is abandoned.”
“Nope. A couple of the owners shifted into town, but I represent them. The other owner is here in the area.”
“Other owner? I thought Murphy was the sole proprietor.”
“Nope. He had a partner.”
“Who’s the partner?” He asked, clearly surprised by the whole conversation.
“Now, that isn’t really any of your business. Is it, Ed?”
His gaze wandered away toward the snow-capped peaks. Ed pulled his hat off and wiped the sweat band with his bandana. He pulled it back on and looked over at me.
“No. I reckon not. You might want to think about keeping that bit of information to yourself. My boss is a mighty nosey man. All he needs to know is you’re riding for the Rocking M. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Seeing this exchange, Ace spoke up.
“Where do you stand in all this, Ed? Seems to me you’re a reasonable man.”
Ed shook his head.
“There’s trouble brewing. I want no part of it, but I ride for the brand.” He looked at me again. “Same as you, John.”
He turned his horse and trotted back to the edge of the herd.
“What do you make of that?” Ace asked.
“He’s some worried. Ed knows he’s thrown in with the wrong outfit, but he can’t back up. Not that kind of man.” I said.
He gave me a look.
“I expect you aint either.”
“Nope. Got no backup in me. It drives my wife crazy.”
“Then he was right. There will be trouble.”
“I won’t start it, but if it comes my way, I aim to finish it. What do you say we check out the camp and figure what to do next?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
At the Johnson wagon, Ace’s daughters had a cook fire going with coffee on, so we all climbed down to get a cup. I looked over the set up. Each ranch had their own little area for cooking and bedding down by their wagon. Most were just buckboards or freight wagons they used every day on the ranch. I wished there was a real chuckwagon like Charlie Goodnight had built. Still, the Johnsons had a chuckbox on their wagon, outfitted as a mobile pantry and field kitchen. Those girls sure knew how to use it.
The arrangement was each ranch had their own gear and cook fire, but come meal time we could go from one wagon to the other to visit and sample all the victuals. In the heat of the day or the event of rain, we’d all eat together under the tent canopy. The crews holding or working the cattle would rotate in and out.
Off to one side of the camp, the horses were all thrown into one remuda. There were about a dozen head being held inside a rope corral. Other than our mounts now picketed outside the wagons, the other horses were being ridden by the men holding the incoming cattle and the herd. A wagon loaded with hay was parked nearby. The older kids would be responsible for feeding and leading the horses out to water at the creek.
I liked the lay out.
There were a few men sitting at a table in the shade, so we left our horses with the boys and headed that way to palaver.
As we approached, one of the men called out.
“Howdy, Ace. I see you have most of your older kids here with you. How’s the Missus?”
“She’s fit as a fiddle and about as high strung, Kermit. How’s Carol? I expect she’s pretty busy with the little ones, huh?”
“Yep. She’ll probably come on out when we’re finishing up. Who’s this you have with you?”
“My name’s John. I ride for the Rocking M.”
The men at the table all glanced around at each other.
“Welcome, John. I’m Kermit Wilson. I own the Flying W, just south of here.” The first speaker said.
“Pleasure.” I said. I looked around at the three other men who hadn’t spoken up.
Their attention turned to a well-dressed man sitting at the end of the table. He wore a sombrero with a silver studded band. Beyond that he was dressed like a business man., right down to the celluloid collar and tie with a pearl stickpin. His grey wool suit pants were tucked into fancy custom boots with a −C− brand worked into the front of the uppers.
Grabbing the lapels of his vest, he tilted his head back and looked down his nose at me.
“The Rocking M is finished. I don’t know who you think you are, but you have no business here.”
“I can see how you might think that, but we just gathered and drove in over a hundred head of cattle. Of those, twenty three cows carry the Rocking M brand. They all have calves. There were another eleven head of Rocking M steers. I expect once the gather is done, there’ll be at least three hundred head of Rocking M cattle on this range. Probably more than a dozen horses, too. I don’t call that finished. Like I say, I’m repping for the Rocking M. Who are you to say different?”
The man’s face turned beet red.
“I’m Jud Coltrane. I own the biggest ranch in these parts. I took over the Rocking M when it was abandoned. You say you brought in cattle wearing the Rocking M brand? Unless your name is Murphy, you need to ride away before we mistake you for a rustler!”
Four riders leading a packhorse were approaching in a cloud of dust. Everyone’s attention turned to them. The four bearded men rode right up to the edge of the tent.
“Howdy, John, how the hell are you?” Curt Cross said. “Ace.” He added, with a nod.
“Mornin’, Curt, Carl, Ken. How are you, Calvin. Glad to see you boys could make it.” I said.
Jud Coltrane and the other men with him observed the greeting with mixed expressions.
“How do you know each other?” Coltrane snapped.
“I told you, I ride for the Rocking M. I’ve visited with some of the other ranchers. I asked the Johnsons and the Cross brothers to throw in with me. We’ll help each other sort and brand our stock. The Rocking M has a lot more cattle than I can handle alone. Seems like a good arrangement , don’t you think?”
Coltrane just sat there, his face red, struggling to respond.
“Sure thing. We all help each other. It’s the way we’ve always done it.” Kermit Wilson said.
“No. You’re not welcome here. You have no claim on the Rocking M. It looks to me like you and these men are just a bunch of rustlers who banded together to steal our cattle.” Coltrane said.
“You talk too damned much, Coltrane. You shut the hell up, or I’ll climb off this horse and cut your damned throat for you.” Carl said, pulling his Bowie knife from his boot.
Jud Coltrane paled at that.
“Easy now, Jud. Maybe these fellas do ride for the Rocking M.” Kermit Wilson said. “If Ace Johnson says their legit, that’s good enough for me.”
Jud Coltrane didn’t say another word. He stood up and walked away from the table. Two of the other men looked at each other and silently left the table, hurrying to catch up with Coltrane.