Authors: Dan Arnold
We were a somber group pushing the Rocking M herd to the Murphy ranch. After we helped the Cross brothers cut their thirty six head out of the bigger herd, they’d turned for home.
I’d decided to sell one hundred head, including most of the mature steers and some culls. Those cattle were now part of more than four hundred being driven to the stock pens at Buttercup. That left us two hundred and eighteen to drive back to the ranch, mostly mama cows and calves. Several of the other hands helped us sort our cattle and get them on the trail. Then, once we were moving along smoothly, one by one, they peeled off to go home. That left just me, Ace, and his son Henry, to make the drive.
Because the three of us were efficient and the cattle were cooperative, at first the shortage of help wasn’t too big of a problem. After a couple of miles we were having trouble holding them together and moving forward. We were saved because Thomas, Fred, Terry and Toby Johnson rode out to meet us. Everything went more smoothly after that.
As we approached the new fence boundary of the Rocking M, one of the boys opened the gate and we pushed the herd through the gap and onto the ranch. The gate was made of roughhewn lumber, swinging from a tall post on one side of the gap, suspended about a foot off the ground and balanced by a length of chain attached high on the post. The latch was just a loop of wire that was laid over the shorter post on the other side of the gap. Simple, but workman like.
When the gate was closed behind the cattle, we sat our horses for a moment, watching them spread out.
“Ace, I don’t have words to thank you for all you’ve done. I’m much obliged. I’d like to come over to your place, once I get cleaned up. Could I be there when ya’ll bury Jimmy? I’d be proud to say something.”
“Yes. I expect he’d like that. As for being obliged, don’t thank me. I did this in remembrance of Sean Murphy. I was obliged to him. He helped save the Rafter J and I let his children down.”
“Still, I couldn’t have done any of this without your help and…I’ll be along in an hour or so.”
“Better make it closer to noonday. Give us all time to get cleaned up. I don’t know what has yet to be done.”
“Nothing, Pa. We have Jimmy laid out in a pine box. He’s wearing his Sunday go to meetin’ clothes and everything.”
Ace squeezed Thomas’ shoulder, a sign of both appreciation and affection.
“What about the grave?” Henry asked.
“We dug it last night. We finished this fence yesterday evening. When we come in and found Ma with Jimmy…Anyway, we dug the grave last night.” Toby said.
Ace blinked and looked away, nodding. He looked ten years older than he’d been the day we set off for the roundup.
“I’ll come over around noon.” I said.
Turning his horse toward home, Ace raised a hand in farewell, his boys falling in around him.
I opened the gate without having to step off Dusty, eased through and closed it. I sat for a moment looking over the cattle and the land. This was a good place. Good land, good water and the promise of a future for Jake and Sarah. I couldn’t wait to tell Lora all about it.
I had some things to do between then and now.
I’d arranged to have Buster bring the Rocking M horses to the ranch. He’d be along any time now. I cleared it with Ed Baxter the day before when we finalized the count.
“Ed, there’re four Rocking M mounts in the remuda. I intend to take them back to the ranch. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Course not, why should I?”
“Your boss seems to think they belong to him.”
“Again, that’s between you and him. Do you see him around here?”
“No, I don’t. Why do you suppose that is?”
“He’ll be along. We’ll have the usual after roundup get together and whoop-ti-do in an hour or so. Losing Jimmy will kind of put a damper on things, but it’s how we do at the end of a roundup. If those horses carry the Rocking M brand, as far as I’m concerned they can go with you.”
“I’ll ask Buster to bring them to the ranch. The young stock is missing, along with the work horses, wagons and other equipment from the Rocking M. I’ll be coming out to the Bar C Bar to get what’s been stolen.”
Ed gave me a sharp look.
“Don’t be a damned fool. I can’t help you.”
“I’m not asking for help. I’m just telling you how it’s going to be. It’s how I do.”
He regarded me for a moment,
“Suit yourself. It’s your funeral. One man is dead already, aint that enough?”
“Are you referring to Jimmy Johnson or Sean Murphy? Jimmy’s death today was an accident. Sean Murphy was murdered. Your boss will answer for that. So will whoever helped him do it. Were you there when Murphy was lynched?”
“No. As the foreman, hanging rustlers goes with the job. I ride for the brand, but I was in Bear Creek when it happened.”
“Do you believe Sean Murphy was a rustler?”
Ed Baxter looked away.
“No, no I never believed that.”
“Might be why Coltrane waited till you were away from the ranch, don’t you think?”
“Who was riding with him when they lynched Murphy?”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“I told you, I wasn’t here when it happened.”
“No, but you’re the foreman. You would’ve heard the whole story when you got back.”
“I heard stories, but that’s all they were, just stories.”
“In these ‘stories’ you heard, who rode out with Coltrane to hang Sean Murphy?”
“All I’ll say is it wasn’t any of the working cowboys. There are three men Mr. Coltrane has to do work the cowboys can’t or won’t do. Maybe they were with him, but I don’t know it for a fact.”
“You mean gun hands. Men who burn down barns and shoot whoever they’re told to shoot.”
“You’re in this, Ed. Maybe you don’t want to be, but you’re in it. Take my advice, ride away. When I come for your boss, I’ll take down anyone who gets in the way.”
“I told you. I ride for the brand.”
“So do I.”
“Ride away yourself. This isn’t your fight.”
“Yes, it is. I represent the owners of the Rocking M, and I ride for another brand.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m branded myself, Ed, with a star. I’m John Everett Sage, the Sheriff of Alta Vista County. I have work to do. After I get the Rocking M cattle home, I’m going to arrest your boss for murder and theft of private property.”
Ed’s mouth dropped open.
“Does Mr. Coltrane know who you are?”
“I expect so. If he doesn’t know by now, he’ll find out soon enough. Still, I’d appreciate it if you’d keep that bit of information to yourself.”
Ed laid his reins over his saddle horn and rubbed his face with both gloved hands. When he picked up his reins, he looked at me, squinting.
“Well, hell, if that don’t muddy the water. Alright, he won’t hear it from me, but let me tell you one thing. You’re drawing from a marked deck. You’ve upped the ante and the pot is full. You’re playing for all the chips, but this is a rigged game. Mr. Coltrane don’t ever lose.”
“He’s already lost. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Ed leaned forward and started his horse trotting toward the camp. He turned to look at me over his shoulder.
“I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Most of the families of the cowboys and ranchers had come to the camp under Haystack Rock for the usual get together at the end of the roundup.
The atmosphere wasn’t as festive as usual. The news of Jimmy’s death had been a sad reminder of how hard life can be. Many of the cowboys were riding nighthawk because the herd wouldn’t be let go until the sale cattle were cut out the next morning.
Still, the children were playing and running around like wild Indians. They were under close supervision, to keep them from spooking the herd. Half a dozen musicians were doing their best to liven the atmosphere. The ladies had brought some home cooking which included pies, cakes and cookies. Ace and Henry were the center of the ladies attention and because the three of us were together, I was a lucky beneficiary as well. Among the men in camp, the mostly hidden and subtle application of alcohol was loosening things up. The Cross brothers were plenty loosened up and there was nothing subtle about it.
Ed signaled the musicians to stop playing for a moment. He stepped up on a bucket.
“Can I have your attention, please” Ed called out.
The din of conversation began to die down. A loud whistle jerked everyone to a stop. The crowd began to assemble in a circle facing where Ed stood on the box in front of the musicians.
“Shuddup. Cand ju she Baxter has shome, uhh, somethin’ to shay?” Curt Cross slurred so badly, it was hard to understand him.
I was glad he’d whistled instead of firing his gun, which he held in his hand. Evidently he planned to use it to get everyone’s attention if the whistle had failed. His drunken action would’ve endangered the crowd and might’ve spooked the herd.
“Thank you, Mr. Cross…”
“Nothin’ uff it.” Curt said, struggling to holster his gun.
“I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for the hard work you put in today. You all know we lost a man. Jimmy Johnson was a good boy and a good cowboy. He’ll be missed. Mr. Johnson, I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say how sorry we are for your loss.”
There was a murmur through the crowd and Ace bowed his head and nodded his acknowledgement of the sentiment.
“We branded over four hundred calves, of which two hundred and ten were bull calves, now steers. The total head count came to over a thousand head. We paint marked about four hundred to be sold, and they’ll be moved to the holding pens in Buttercup, tomorrow. John and I have a tally of every critter here, and how many head per ranch are being sold. Mr Coltrane would like to say something about that. Mr. Coltrane, come on up.”
I hadn’t seen Jud Coltrane earlier. It seemed he was avoiding the limelight. After Ed stepped off the bucket, Coltrane stepped up.
“Thanks, Ed. I want to announce that I’ve negotiated the price for the sale of our beef. Let me introduce two gentlemen, Mr. Tom Guinn, and Mr. Leroy Lefever, cattle buyers from Denver.”
The assembled crowd applauded politely.
“These gentlemen were bidding against each other, but soon decided to combine their efforts and keep the price down.”
The crowd grumbled in disapproval.
“Now don’t be discouraged. You should have more faith in me. These men are hard bargainers, but not as hard as me. I’m proud to announce, the price of beef has gone up. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re getting four dollars and ten cents per hundred weight, on the hoof, delivered in Denver!”
The crowd didn’t react. They were trying to figure out if it was good news or bad.
The cattle buyers looked at each other, then up at Coltrane.
“Folks, let me break it down for you. Those are prices as good as Chicago and there’s no shipping cost. Our cattle here are very fat and healthy. A mature steer will probably weigh about a thousand pounds, some cows more. That means forty one dollars a head, more or less, on average. You can take that to the bank!”
Heads were nodding all around.
Until about 1885 the cattle market had been booming, with prices approaching eight dollars a hundred weight, and then it crashed.
The following winters had decimated many herds, but here the winters hadn’t killed off many and the location with available shelter and hay production was ideal for raising healthy stock. Now the price of beef was recovering and the locals were in position to capitalize in the market. The timing was perfect. The range was overstocked and unless some cattle were sold, serious damage would be done.
Coltrane had done right by himself and his neighbors. The Rocking M stood to make about four thousand dollars. If the price held, we could do it again next year and every year after that.
Four thousand dollars was more than twice what I made in a year. It was a lot of money. I reminded myself it was money Coltrane had been planning to put in his own pocket. Money he would not let slip through his fingers if he could find a way to avoid it.
“I’ll see to it everyone selling cattle gets the full price. We’re moving the sale cattle to Buttercup tomorrow. Each ranch will have to provide a couple of cowboys for the drive down to Denver. That’ll take a couple of days. I’ll have your money for you by the end of the week. How does that sound?”
“Wahoo,” someone yelled. The band struck up a tune and Coltrane stepped off the bucket, shaking hands as he worked his way through the crowd.
Ace was watching me as we stood together by our cook fire, so was Ed, from over by the band. I didn’t figure this was the time or place to confront Coltrane. He was pretty popular with the crowd at the moment, and I had no idea where his gun thugs were.
That question was answered a moment later, when I turned and found myself staring across our cook fire at Snake Flanagan and his massive friend Higgins, as they emerged out of the darkness outside the camp.
“Howdy. I’ve been wondering where you boys were. I guess working cattle isn’t something you enjoy.”
Ace was in the process of pouring coffee into a cup. Henry was off somewhere with his friends. The Cross brothers were too drunk to stand, much less help. I figured Flanagan and Higgins had been waiting for a time when it was just Ace and me. Ace set the pot down and casually took a few steps off to one side, making sure we were now two targets instead of one, and he had room to move, if it came to a gun fight.
“Never did care much for cattle, amigo. Besides, we’ve been in Bear Creek running an errand for Mr. Coltrane.” Snake said.
I was studying the situation, wondering if I could get them both if it came to gun play. They were pretty close together, but Snake was said to be fast. I didn’t know how well Ace would do in a gun fight. I was praying it wouldn’t happen. There was still a crowd of people milling around behind us. If Flanagan and Higgins started firing, many people could be killed or injured and the herd would probably stampede.
What was it Ed had told me? He’d said something about three gunmen. So far I’d only met these two. Where was the third man?
Another figure stepped up beside me.
“Hey, John, the Rocking M has a hundred head in the herd being driven down to Denver on Tuesday. I was wondering, how many cowboys can you provide for the drive?” Ed Baxter asked.
I noticed he was standing off to my left, facing Snake and Higgins. Ace was on my right doing the same thing.
“I figured to hire a couple of hands tomorrow. Will two be enough?”
“Sure, that’s fine.” Ed was staring at Flanagan and Higgins. “Howdy, what brings you boys out here tonight?”
“None of your damned business, Baxter. Go take care of your cows. We’re here to talk to Sage.” Higgins said.
“Actually, whatever happens at this roundup is my business. This is a friendly get together we’re having here tonight. I intend to keep it that way. State your business and be on your way.”
“We don’t take orders from you. We work for Jud Coltrane.”
“Is there a problem here?” Buster asked, stepping into the firelight next to Ace.
That did it. Four against two were odds Snake didn’t like. I saw it on his face. Higgins was still trying to figure it out.
“No, there’s no problem. We just wanted to have a word with Mr. Sage here. We’ll do it another time.” Snake said.
“Uh uhh. Do it now.” I said.
Snake sighed and looked up at Higgins. “Ok, show him what we brought, my friend.”
Higgins grinned and reached inside his jacket.
I never meant to draw, but my gun was leveled at him before I thought about it.
“Whoa, John. Let the man show you what he has. There’s no need for that” Snake said.
Higgins scowled at me as he slowly drew a folded sheet of paper out from a vest pocket. As he began to unfold it, I holstered my Colt.
“You say you represent the owners of the Rocking M. Well, they don’t have no claim, no more. This here’s the deed from some feller named Kennemer.” Higgins said, holding the sheet of paper up so I could see the writing. He tossed it into the flames. I was closest to the fire. I almost made a dive for it, but now was not a good time for a sudden move. No one moved.
“See? Poof, just like that, there’s no record of any deed to Murphy.”
I almost laughed. What was the old saying? Stupid is as stupid does.
“Where did you get that deed?”
“County Clerk’s office, up at Bear Creek.”
“I see. You rode up there, found the deed and tore it out of the deed records. Is that it?”
Higgins grinned and nodded.
“Had to ask for help. There’s a bunch of deeds.
“Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the fact, just complicates the record. I’ll bet you never looked in the indexes.”
“Never mind. Burning the deed doesn’t negate its validity.”
Higgins looked at Flanagan for an explanation.
“He says burning the deed doesn’t change anything.”
“Yeah?” Higgins turned back to me. “Well I say you got no business here. The Murphy heirs don’t own the Rocking M, and the cattle are all mavericks. If you take them off the range, you’re a rustler.”
“Is that what you say, or what your boss says?”
“It don’t matter, Same thing.”
“Yes, you’re right. It is the same thing. It comes from the south end of a northbound bull.”
Buster chuckled at that. Higgins’ open-mouthed stare and sidelong glance at Flanagan showed his momentary confusion.
“You’ve been warned. You’d better haul your freight.” He said
“Is that it then? Anything else?” I asked.
“Nope, that’s it. You git.”
“Well then, gentlemen, our business here is done. You have a nice evening.”
“OK, amigo. We’ll be seeing you.” Snake said. He gestured to Higgins indicating they should leave.
When they were gone Ed turned to me.
“John, those men are hired guns. They intend to see you put under.”
“They’re not the first.”
“Maybe not, but they mean to be the last.”
I slapped him on the shoulder. Feigning more confidence than I felt, I smiled and said,
“Don’t worry about it. So did the others.”