Authors: Dan Arnold
Immediately following the funeral, I saddled Dusty and rode back to the Rocking M.
Buster told me he’d bring the saddle horses over whenever he could get away from the Johnson ranch. I didn’t expect to see him soon. He’d spend as much time with Katie as possible.
Now that we were fenced, there was only one way back to the Murphy ranch from the Rafter J. Approaching the headquarters of the Rocking M with a great deal of caution was becoming a habit. As soon as I closed the gate behind me, I started a wide arc toward Yellow Butte, figuring to come up behind the ranch buildings from a different direction for a change.
This time, I didn’t dismount. I rode slowly along the face of the mesa, weaving quietly in and out of the chaparral and fallen rock, with my rifle in my hand.
I stopped frequently scanning for tracks and listening to the sounds of the afternoon. Everything seemed normal. When I was within a couple of hundred yards of the buildings I turned toward the creek, crossed it and rode along the far edge, screened from view by the pussy willows.
I came to a place where I could just see the house over the tops of the willows. I sat and watched, until I was sure there was no movement there.
Turning Dusty, I loped up the hill behind me. This brought me out in the open, about two hundred and twenty five yards from the house. I figured if someone was waiting to ambush me they might try a shot. The gamble was on whether they’d be able to hit a moving rider at that distance. If there was a shot, I’d slap spurs to Dusty and get away from there.
No shot was taken, so I turned toward the house, crossed the creek and rode up into the front yard. Again, everything was quiet. I dismounted and led Dusty around the house and back to the corrals by the barn. When he was unsaddled I turned him out in his pen where he could get water from the trough, climbed up into the loft and forked some hay down for him. Anticipating the arrival of the rest of the Rocking M saddle stock, I did the same in the adjoining pen.
Once in the house, I set my rifle by the door, lit the stove, and took my coat and hat off.
I’d just poured some hot coffee when I heard the sound of horses outside. That would be Buster bringing in the saddle stock. I poured an extra cup for him and walked out on the back porch to greet him.
The pressure of the shotgun muzzle against my cheek stopped my hand from fully bringing my Colt out of the holster. Out of the corner of my eye, looking down the double barrels of the ten gauge, I saw the smiling face of Higgins.
Snake Flanagan was sitting his horse in the yard about fifteen feet away, leading Higgins mount. He had his Colt pointed directly at me. It was a good plan, so audacious I fell for it. Higgins had dismounted and snuck up to the house and was waiting for me on the back porch when Snake brought their horses into the yard. I hadn’t figured on them doing something so bold.
That was no excuse for my carelessness. Lora made me promise to come home safe. I’d failed to keep my promise. Now I wouldn’t be coming home at all.
“Put your hands up high, amigo. Slow, now. That’s good.” Snake said.
As I began to raise my hands, Higgins eased around behind me. He never let the muzzle of the shotgun break contact with my head. The slightest movement or an accidental increase in the pressure on the trigger would send particles of what had been my head all over the yard.
Snake slid off his horse, carefully, never taking his eyes off me or his aim off my heart.
He took a couple of steps back and to the side, standing about twenty feet away.
“I told you we would face each other soon. This is that day. I want to know something. They say you shot Rawlins down in a stand up gun fight on the street in Bear Creek. It takes a real man to do a thing like that, look another man in the eyes from a few feet away and reach for your gun.
Are you such a man? I don’t’ think you are. I am. Do you want to try?”
I was planning on it. No matter how they killed me, I had to try.
“I see it in your eyes, amigo. Understand this, you will die now. Even if you could get me, Higgins will blow you to kingdom come. Nothing can change that. You should say your prayers.”
“I’m prayed up. Are you planning to shoot me down while I’m standing on the porch with my hands in the air?”
Snake was good. He never took his eyes off me.
“No, I don’t want to look up at you. Come out into the yard.”
“Are you ready, Higgins?” He asked.
“Itchin’ to get him.”
Higgins increased the pressure on the back of my head, following me as I slowly stepped down into the yard.
“That’s close enough, amigo.”
He made a movement with his head, indicating Higgins should move away from me.
“Come on Snake. Let me send this lawman straight to hell, without a head.”
“That is not what we talked about, remember? You will give him both barrels in a moment. First, I get to shoot him down and then you blow him to pieces.”
Higgins cursed, but he eased away from me maybe fifteen feet, over near the porch rail, keeping the shotgun trained on my head.
Any second now, whether I employed the most delicate or the fastest move, I would be dead before I knew what hit me.
“You don’t give a man much of a chance do you?”
“I know it’s not fair, but it’s the only chance you get today. You get the chance to choose which way you’ll die.”
Snake holstered his Colt and raised his hands.
“I will count to…”
As I drew and fired, Higgins made a noise and the shotgun roared.
Snake’s bullet slammed into the .38 hideout revolver in the holster under my arm, helping me spin toward Higgins.
He was falling, with part of his head gone.
I spun all the way around to fire at Snake again, but he was down.
I stood there in shock. How was I still alive?
After the sudden gunfire, the silence made me think I might be deaf. I felt frozen in place. I took a deep breath, more of a gasp really. I realized I’d been holding my breath. Hearing the sudden intake of air, I discovered I wasn’t deaf.
When I could move, I more or less staggered over to where Snake Flanagan lay sprawled in the dirt.
My bullet had taken him just under his nose, ruining his face and killing him instantly.
I realized I still had my Colt in my hand. The trauma was taking a toll, I’d begun shaking, making it difficult to replace the spent shell and then holster my gun.
What had happened here?
I pulled out my .38. Flanagan’s bullet had hit the edge of the back strap in the grip and glanced away, tearing away a chunk of the wood from the grip. My ribs were bruised from the impact, but nothing was broken. My left arm had still been up and out to the side, so the ricocheting bullet hadn’t hit it.
Flanagan was fast, probably much faster than me, but his aim had been thrown off by my sudden action.
I walked over and looked at what remained of Higgins.
Nearly half his head and his hat were gone, just gone. It wasn’t from the shotgun blast I’d heard. The wound looked more like his head had exploded. Someone had shot him, probably with a big bore rifle. I listened and scanned the area, but I was the only living person anywhere near this place. A rifle requires a clear line of sight. From a distance the trees and brush outside the yard would’ve blocked anyone’s view, much less a shot. I never heard the sound of a rifle shot.
I managed to get to the bench on the porch, nearly collapsing onto it. I sat there for several minutes staring out into the yard.
The flies were already buzzing around the corpses.
I was alive and they were dead. How could this be?
I remembered everything that happened in that second when Flanagan began to count. I reached, seeing Flanagan’s hand drop for his gun, impossibly fast. We both fired at virtually the same time. Wait. Higgins made a noise just as I started for my gun. What was the sound? Something like a bat hitting a baseball. The shotgun roared as I was firing my Colt. Three guns all firing at virtually the same time. The cacophony of gunfire had been deafening. The buckshot from the ten guage must’ve passed directly over my head.
As I was thinking these thoughts, the sound of approaching horses reached my ears.
Ducking into the house, I grabbed my rifle and knelt by a window.
Buster rode into the yard with his rifle in his hands. He was ponying the four saddle horses behind him. First, he saw the two riderless horses standing in the yard. The sight of two dead bodies made him pull up quick.
“John, are you here?”
“I’m inside. Are you alone?”
“Sure am. Do you need help?”
I opened the door and walked out onto the porch with my rifle at the ready.
Seeing me, Buster turned and slid his rifle into the scabbard.
“Are you, OK?”
“Somehow, I guess I have you to thank for it.”
“I figure you shot Higgins over there.”
Buster pulled the lead ropes off his saddle horn.
“Me? I never shot anybody. I was just closing the gate when I heard gunfire over this way. I came as fast as I could, figuring you were in trouble. Looks like I was right. I see you handled it.”
He turned away, leading the horses over to the empty corral. He tied his mount to a post then turned the Rocking M stock out into the pen. After closing the gate, he laid the halters and lead ropes over a fence rail.
When he returned I was again sitting on the bench by the back door.
“Are you sure you’re OK, John?”
“I can’t figure it. They had me dead to rights. I shot Flanagan. Who shot Higgins?”
Buster surveyed the yard and the surrounding area.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re all alone here. Looks like you got both of them.”
“No. I couldn’t have done it…”
“Do you have any whiskey? I think we could both use a drink.”
“Huh? Whisky? No, I don’t have any.”
“How about coffee? I’ll make it.”
“There’s a fresh pot on the stove. I poured you a cup, but it’s probably cold by now.”
“Stay there, John. You’re not making any sense.”
Buster walked into the house. When he came back out he handed me a cup. Maybe the hot coffee would help clear my head.
I sat on the bench. Buster leaned against a porch post with his back to the scene in the yard. We drank our coffee in silence.
I sat on the bench by the back door and concluded God had somehow spared my life. It reminded me I had much to be thankful for.
I was still sitting on the bench and staring out into the yard, when Old Bill Kennemer just materialized from behind some chaparral. I thought I was seeing things.
Buster seeing my expression, spun around reaching for his pistol.
Old Bill held up a hand.
“Hold on there, sonny. I come in peace. I reckon there’s been enough gun talk for one day.”
It dawned on me then. Seeing Old Bill cradling that Creedmoor rifle in the crook of his arm brought everything into focus. It was his shot that saved me. His shot—by God’s grace.
“Who might you be?” Buster asked him.
“I might be one of the owners of this spread. Who might you be, sonny?”
“My name’s Buford Cavender. My friends call me Buster.”
“Well then, Buster, ain’t ya gonna offer an old man a cup of coffee?”
Buster looked at me. Seeing my smile, he proceeded into the house.
I stood up and walked out to meet Old Bill. As we shook hands I thanked him for saving my life and added, “Your mighty quiet in those moccasins. We didn’t hear you coming.”
“Pays to be careful. You should try it. You got yourself bushwhacked. That was too close.
I couldn’t see the big man once he was on the porch. I seen him sneaking in, but I figured you probably seen him too. I kept my rifle on the little guy. I was some surprised when you walked out in the yard with that big feller holding a scattergun on you. I had to rethink my target. Damned near too late.”
“Where were you? I can’t imagine how you were able to see anything at all.”
He pointed a thumb over his shoulder.
“Top of the mesa. Hell of a view from up there.”
I looked toward the top of Yellow Butte.
“Bill, that has to be over half a mile from here.”
“I calculate it’s about eight hundred and fifty yards, about a third of that in elevation. Tricky shooting. Good thing it ain’t windy.”
I stared at him. How could an old man even see that distance? He only had one chance to make the shot and he had to put the bullet exactly where he did, or Higgins would’ve killed me.
“That’s the most amazing shot I’ve ever heard of.”
Old Bill shrugged.
“I was using a new-fangled rifle scope I picked up in San Francisco. I’ve had some practice with it, but not at any such range. A shot like that could make a fella kinda nervous, but I had the strangest feeling, peaceful and real focused like. Say, things are some changed around here.”
Buster came out with a cup in one hand and the pot in the other.
Old Bill held up a hand, stopping him on the porch.
“Sonny, do you expect me to drink my coffee standing in the yard with these dead men?”
“Well then, put the coffee on the table, then go out and bring in my horse. He’s waiting a couple hundred yards northeast of here. Big Appaloosa, white blanket with black spots big as silver dollars, ya can’t miss him.”
Buster looked at me again.
I just chuckled.
Old Bill and I were sitting at the table when Buster came in.
“I’ve got to head on back to the home place, John. I have half a dozen broncs to feed and water.”
“Ok, Buster. Thanks for bringing in our saddle string.”
“What do you plan to do with those dead men out in the yard?”
Before I could answer, Old Bill spoke up.
“Well, sonny, I reckon they’d be mighty poor poker players and easy to beat if we was pitchin’ horseshoes. We’ll probably have to bury em somewhere. Don’t ya think?” He asked.
Buster gritted his teeth and looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head.
“They were riding Bar C Bar horses. Someone will come looking for them.”
I sat up.
“That’s a good thought, Buster. I believe I’ll take the bodies and the horses back to the Bar C Bar tomorrow morning. That way we won’t have to bury them.”
“Won’t that be dangerous?”
“Goes with the job.”
“After you left the Rafter J, there was talk about you being the County Sheriff. Is that true?”
Old Bill’s eye brows shot up for a second. This was news to him as well.
“Is it true you’re going after Jud Coltrane?” Buster asked.
“I have to. He murdered Sean Murphy and stole property from this ranch.”
“You can’t do it alone. What I mean is, if you need a deputy…”
“That’s a fine offer. I might just take you up on it, one of these days. I expect you’re making better money as a wrangler and all around bronc fighter.”
“Two years ago, at the rodeo in Bear Creek, I scored higher than Tom Horn. Course it was mostly just luck of the draw. I drew a better bronc. I’m just saying, if you need any help…”
“I hear you, Buster. I know you came riding in here when you heard gunfire. It takes a brave man to do that. I won’t forget. It means a lot to me. Much obliged.”
We walked outside with Buster. He’d tied the Appaloosa to a post with the thin mecate Old Bill used as a neck rope. The horse’s fancy bridle with the silver spade bit was hanging on the saddle horn.
As Buster rode out, Old Bill turned to me and said,
“Lawman, huh? What’s your plan?”