Riding For The Brand: Sage Country Book Three (15 page)

BOOK: Riding For The Brand: Sage Country Book Three
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the Rocking M – changes and chances
29.

I approached the ranch buildings with caution, mindful that Snake Flanagan and Higgins were gunning for me. This would be the logical place to jump me. Here, they could bushwhack me while I was alone, at any time of the day or night.

The situation brought into focus my promise to Lora.

Once again, I left Dusty tied to a cottonwood limb while I circled the buildings on foot. There was no sign anyone had been here since we rode out a couple of days ago. No horse or human tracks since the rain, anywhere I looked. Still, there might be someone hidden in the house or up in the loft of the barn.

Rifle in hand, from a corner of the barn I dashed across the yard to the back porch, where I flattened against the wall by the door. I’d almost expected to be caught in rifle fire from both the house and the barn.

Waiting for my heartbeat to slow and my breathing to return to normal, I scanned everything in sight and listened for any sound from inside. It was quiet and peaceful.

Birds flitted through the trees and a dragonfly buzzed through the yard. Otherwise, there was no movement.

When I pulled the back door open, nothing happened, and nothing was what I was hoping for. I stepped through the doorway and once again flattened against the wall. The room was empty, exactly as Old Bill and I had left it.

It was time to get cleaned up. There wasn’t enough time to light the fire and heat water for a bath, so a cold bird bath would have to do. I stripped off my clothes and pumped water into the sink. I was glad it wasn’t winter. Even without the stove being lit, the house was reasonably warm.

I hadn’t shaved since I left Bear Creek, and without plenty of hot water, I wasn’t going to attempt it now. At home we had hot and cold running water in our bath room, piped in directly from a wood fired water heater in the kitchen.

Thinking about it made me miss Lora and the kids more keenly than I had since finding this place. I reminded myself that everything I was doing down here was for the benefit of Jake and Sarah.

Thirty minutes later, I was dressed in in my suit, even the celluloid collar and tie, running a comb through my freshly washed hair. It felt wonderful. I was tired from working long days and a bit stiff from sleeping on the ground, but strangely refreshed in body and mind. I thanked God for that.

I walked out to where I’d left Dusty tied and watered him in the creek. There was still no sign of Buster and the saddle stock.

***

Riding down the hill from the entrance of the Rafter J, I was surprised at the number of people, buckboards and horses surrounding the house and outbuildings. It looked as though there was a wedding or party of some sort in progress. Were these people from the other farms and ranches that had come for Jimmy’s burial? The thought hadn’t occurred to me. I’d assumed I might be the only visitor.

I rode Dusty down to a corral beside a barn, tied him with a neck rope and unsaddled him. I was startled to see the four horses in the pen were the Rocking M saddle stock. Evidently Buster was here somewhere, stopping off on his way to the Rocking M.

Leaving the tack on a fence rail, I walked over to the house.

Several cowboys I’d met on the roundup greeted me as I approached, including Gabe Partridge and Ed Baxter. I shook hands with the latter two men.

“I figured ya’ll would be back at the Bar C Bar.” I said.

“We were. I understand you need hands to help drive the sale herd down to Denver. I’d like to be one of them.” Gabe said.

“I’d appreciate the help, but won’t it be a conflict for you? You ride for the Bar C Bar.”

“Nope, I’m fixing to quit that outfit. I can’t ride for somebody as low as Jud Coltrane. I’d rather ride the grub line.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I’ve seen his hired guns and I know what he uses them for. Everyone knows what he did to Sean Murphy. Left to his own devices, he’ll take over the range, no matter who has to be hurt or killed. Then he’ll ruin it. Some of us are sick of it. I’m not the first to quit him.”

“I see. It just so happens the Rocking M is hiring. We’ll need a couple of hands, not just for the drive to Denver, but to stay on and work the ranch. Can you shoe a horse?”

“Yes, sir, I can.”

“Most cowboys want to rope and ride. They don’t like to be set afoot. The rocking M is a small outfit and we’re mostly fenced. How do you feel about that?”

“The wire is pretty much everywhere these days. I’d have a hard time finding another outfit that wasn’t fenced. This is the wrong time of year to start looking.”

“Are you willing to ride fence? Will you put up hay, and do whatever work needs doing?”

“Yes, sir.”

Well then, I’d like to have you, if you’ll ride for the brand.”

“I might. What are you paying?”

I laughed. I like a man who gets to the point.

“For an experienced hand like you, we’ll pay a dollar and a half per day and found. You know how it is, you’ll work at least six days a week, but we’ll pay for seven and we’ll provide the saddle stock.”

“Seems fair.”

“We’ll drive twice a year, once in the spring, to move some or all of the stock up into the high country, and again in the fall to bring them back down.”

“Oh. I’d like that.”

“Before you decide, I should tell you there’s trouble coming. You know what’s going on. You should know something else.” I opened my suit coat showing the badge pinned to my waistcoat, “My name is John Everett Sage. I’m the County Sheriff.”

Gabe shot a look at Ed, who nodded his affirmative.

“Holy smoke!”

“I intend to arrest Jud Coltrane for the murder of Sean Murphy.”

“He has hired guns. I’m no gunfighter.”

“I’m not asking you to fight. I just want you to know the next few days might get hairy. You’ll be gone to Denver with the sale herd, but even that could be dicey. If you take the job, you’ll start riding for the Rocking M as soon as you get back.”

“No sir.”

“Not interested, huh? I understand. It’s why I told you the whole deal.”

“No, what I mean is, if you’ll have me, I’ll start tomorrow. I’ll be riding for the brand on the drive to Denver.”

I slapped him on the shoulder and extended my hand.

“That’s capital. We have a deal.”

Ed watched us shake on it with some interest. As I walked away, he fell in beside me.

“Let me ask you this, John. You say you ride for the brand and you’re the foreman for the Rocking M, but you’re also the County Sheriff. How’s that work?”

“It doesn’t. I never knew anything about the ranch when I first rode in here. When I learned the ranch belonged to the Murphy heirs and Old Bill Kennemer, I figured someone should represent them at the roundup. I can’t be the Sheriff and the foreman. My home is in Bear Creek. As the crow flies, that’s more than fifteen miles from here.”

“I expect you’ll have to choose.”

“I already have a job. I’m the Sheriff. The kids need to be in school. There’s no school in Buttercup.”

“Sounds like you need more than one man at the ranch.”

“I sure do. The day to day operations have to be handled and one man can’t do it by himself. I’m hoping Old Bill will look after things. The place is half his.”

“I’ve never met him. Is he around?”

“Yep, around here somewhere. He’s strange though. Likes to keep to himself, roams around. I don’t think he’s ever really settled anywhere.”

“I’d sure like to meet him.”

“I hope you get the chance. I can’t go home until I work out some things with him.”

“Will that be before or after you arrest my boss?”

“That’s another problem. I can’t go home without my prisoner.”

“You think that’s a problem? You’ll be lucky to stay alive.”

“I don’t believe in luck, Ed. I believe God has a plan. I may not know exactly what it is or what I’m supposed to do, but the plan is in place. I just need to trust Him and do my best to follow were He leads.”

“Or die trying.”

30.

On the front porch of the Johnson home, several men were engaged in conversation. It seemed most of the women were inside with Mrs. Johnson. At the top of the steps I was met by Henry Burke, the store keeper in Buttercup.

“Howdy, Mr. Sa… er, John.”

“Relax, Mr. Burke, after today, everyone will know who I am. Did you send that telegram for me?”

“Sure did. I was hoping I’d see you here.” Henry reached inside his coat and handed me a folded telegram. “I waited for the reply, just like you asked. Imagine that, a telegram from the governor himself.”

I gave the telegram a quick look.

The governor simply said he had no objection to me arresting any suspect I deemed necessary. This was his way of saying that although Jud Coltrane’s wealthy and influential family might object or even interfere, he would not.

It didn’t really matter to me much anymore, but when I’d composed the telegram I was aware of the possible complications for both the governor and myself. The telegram was intended to give him notice so he could make his own plans.

If he’d sent a reply that I should not proceed with my plan to arrest Jud Coltrane, I would’ve done it anyway, but at least I’d know what to expect. I had no desire to make an enemy of the governor, but justice had to be served—no matter the cost to me personally.

“I was going to bring it out to you at Haystack Rock, last night, but Lida needed me to help her cook and gather some things for the Johnsons. It’s just terrible news about young Jimmy.”

“It is indeed. Thank you for this, Mr. Burke.”

“Something else you might be interested to know. While I was in Bear Creek, I saw them gunslingers that Coltrane has doing his dirty work.”

“How many men were there?”

“I just seen that big fellow Higgins and the one they call Snake.”

“What were they up to?”

“I don’t know. They were on the square by the courthouse.”

I nodded my understanding.

“Thanks again, Mr. Burke. Do I owe you anything?”

“Nope. We’re square.”

I looked around at the little knots of people.

“I must say, I’m surprised by the turnout here. I hadn’t expected so many people to be in attendance.”

“The Johnsons are good folks. Most everybody is, except that polecat Coltrane. It’s natural for friends and neighbors to gather around someone who’s hurting.”

“I had no idea something this bad would happen on the roundup.”

“It happens more than you might expect. Last year Mike Waters, he rides for the Flying W. He got bucked off a horse and dragged. Busted up pretty bad. Part of his head was stove in. We all thought he’d die. After a week or so he woke up.  He gets around pretty good these days. Sorta moody and mean mouthed, kinda forgetful too, but he can still work. We all took care of his missus and the kids, for a spell. You know, just till he was back on his feet.”

“Is Jud Coltrane here?”

“Humph! Not likely. He hates the ranchers that haven’t buckled under. Ace Johnson has been nothing to him but a thorn in his side. Now, you’ve come along. No, I don’t believe we’ll see Mr. Coltrane today.”

Ace walked out on the porch. He nodded at me, and then spoke up loud enough for everyone to hear.

“I want to thank all of you for coming out here for Jimmy’s funeral. We’re taking him over to the family plot now…Again, thanks for coming.”

There was movement behind him and five men emerged carrying a coffin made of pine planks. Ace took hold of the sixth rope handle. The others carrying the box were Ace’s remaining sons.

We all stepped aside as the coffin went by, then fell in around and behind Mrs. Johnson and the three girls as they went down the stairs. I saw Buster walking beside Katie. She took his hand. It appeared some of the women around Mrs. Johnson noticed this. No doubt it would be cause for gossip.

It was a sad parade that hiked over a small foot bridge and up the side of a hill to the little family cemetery. Inside the decorative fence were two graves with limestone markers and a freshly dug hole. I noted the names on the markers. The dates indicated they were both young children, one an infant girl and the other a three year old boy. Jimmy wasn’t the first child the Johnson’s had lost, maybe not the last.

Two ropes had been placed across the open grave. Four cowboys held the ropes taut as the coffin was lowered onto them, then they gently let the coffin down into the grave. When the ropes had been removed, everyone stood by in silent respect, the men removed their hats.

Seeing there was no preacher in attendance, I felt I should speak up.

“If I may, I’d like to say a word.”

Ace nodded. His red rimmed eyes indicating he was too choked up to speak.

“Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, thank you for sharing your son with me, these last few days. Like you, I’m proud to have known him. He was a fine young man and a good hand.

Mrs. Johnson, yesterday you reminded me of the words from Job. The scriptures record those words. ‘Naked came I from my mother’s womb and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord’.

And, I’m reminded of these words of comfort from our Lord, recorded in the book of John; ‘Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And, if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also’.

I believe it’s certain we’ll see Jimmy again one day, on the other side.”

Mrs. Johnson attempted to smile through her tears, her gracious nod acknowledging her understanding and gratitude.

Suddenly, a beautiful tenor voice began to sing:

“In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore:

In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.

There’s a land that is fairer than day. And by faith we can see it afar;

For the Father waits over the way

to prepare us a dwelling place there.”

Others joined in, one by one. As we began the refrain again, the song swelled.

“In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore:

In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.

We shall sing on that beautiful shore.

The melodious songs of the blessed;

And our spirits shall sorrow no more,

Not a sigh for the blessing of rest.

In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore:

In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.

To our bountiful Father above,

We will offer our tribute of praise

For the glorious gift of His love

And the blessings that hallow our days.”

Now, with bittersweet joy, we were all singing.

“In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore:

In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”

As the song faded away, I couldn’t help looking at Buster in appreciation. His strong clear voice had come as a complete surprise. His timing had been superb. Katie was looking at him with something akin to awe.

“Amen.” Ace said, pulling on his hat. “Folks, please go on up to the house. These kind ladies have brought enough food to feed an army.”

Everyone began to wander back toward the house, leaving the Johnsons to have a moment alone by the grave.

I looked back to see Ace Johnson filling in the grave, with his family gathered around him.

BOOK: Riding For The Brand: Sage Country Book Three
3.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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