Authors: Dan Arnold
The wagon road we followed south wasn’t really a road at all. It had never been graded and was basically just the ruts made by years of wagon traffic across ground that was the easiest way to travel to and from Bear Creek, from farms and ranches to the south. I suspected the road was situated across land which was technically all private property and none of this land belonged to the state or the county.
Just south of Bear Creek, within two or three miles, we passed a few small farms, after that the country became much more sparsely populated. I noted there was no barbed wire down this way.
Occasionally I would see a stack of rocks, like trail sign, at one or the other edge of the road. I figured the stacked rocks probably marked a boundary of someone’s land.
The road wound around, twisting and turning to avoid the steep hills and deep water crossings. It also had to meander to avoid rock outcroppings and precipitous arroyos. Dusty covered the distance in about three hours. In all that time, we didn’t meet a single wagon or any people coming north.
As we approached the back side of Yellow Butte, I was enthralled by how pretty this country was. The buttes and mesas rose up here and there like flat topped mountains. Most were only a few hundred feet higher than the surrounding country. It was as if they were mountains in training, or mountains that’d never quite gotten to the point.
Some began as a gently sloping hillside and then leveled off, with crags and cliffs on two or three sides. Most of them were heavily forested on the top, with pines and spruce in abundance. Some looked like giant cakes or biscuits dropped onto the foothills. Others looked a little like castles, with great rocky promontory towers of a few hundred feet.
The land along the edges below the elevated plateaus was scattered with huge slabs of granite or sandstone, showing through the brush and grass, with here and there a few trees, most of which were close to streams coming out of the mountains.
I don’t know much about geology, but the buttes and mesas appeared to be hard high ground that’d been left exposed after a tremendous runoff from some ancient sea or the great flood had washed away surrounding land.
Maybe I was just hungry, but I couldn’t get the thought of cakes and biscuits to go away.
I decided to leave the road at a place where it curved down and away toward the town of Buttercup and ride on up to the top of Yellow Butte. I could see that climbing up the shoulder, from the north side, was the easiest way to get to the top. Yellow Butte had ragged cliffs on the sides facing south, east and west.
I scouted around on Dusty and eventually found a little used trail that would take us up onto the mesa.
About thirty minutes later, we were up on the top of Yellow Butte, riding through pristine, old growth forest, with no sign that men had ever been here. We crossed through a small meadow where there was a lot of deadfall timber, went back into the tress, and eventually emerged from a stand of aspen, several hundred feet above Buttercup Creek, high on the south rim of Yellow Butte.
From this vantage point at the top of Yellow Butte, I had a good view of the surrounding country. Behind me, the forest blocked my view to the north, but I could see for miles to the south, across rolling hills, and the occasional obstruction of another mesa. Mostly, I saw brushy grassland with small stands of pine and poplar. Here and there, and for as far as the eye could see; cattle were scattered individually and in small groups.
In far distant and widely separated locations, I thought maybe I could see some ranch buildings. Farther away still, the great wall of the Front Range jutted out here and there, like the teeth of a saw blade, in shades of blue and purple, with glacier ice on the tops of the highest peaks, seen through the softening effect of dozens of miles of atmosphere.
To the east, the land fell away like stair steps, down onto the plains, but just a few miles away in that direction, I could see the town of Buttercup.
To the west, Buttercup Creek meandered out of the towering heights of the Rocky Mountains, six or seven thousand feet above me, flowing out of the high country between other buttes and mesas like this one. As my eyes followed the meanders of the creek, back to the base of Yellow Butte, I saw far below me, a house, barn, and livestock pens, with no signs of life or activity.
I turned Dusty back the way we had come, and started looking for a trail that would take us down to the ranch buildings below.
There were several game trails which might’ve served, but I needed one I could be sure was suitable for a horse and rider. Jacob had told me he’d been up on the mesa with his dad, so I knew there would be a fairly direct route somewhere nearby.
Shortly, I saw a break in the brush and trees off to our right, so I turned Dusty that way, and soon found what I was looking for.
There was a natural cleft in the face of the mesa wide enough for a man on horseback to ride into. Over the centuries, the bottom of the cleft had been filled with broken rock and dirt and had become a natural but narrow trail down the face of the mesa between walls of solid rock, to the grassland below. I imagined not many years ago only the Indians knew of this trail, and before them, only the native animals.
It took us the better part of thirty minutes to work our way down the narrow and steep defile. Sometimes, a stirrup would scrape the rock on one side or the other, but we eventually came out into a thick stand of brush and scrub oak, with huge slabs of fallen rock all around us. When we emerged from that, we were at the edge of a cleared yard, surrounding the same house I’d seen from the top of the mesa. I could hear the creek flowing somewhere on the other side of the house, and smell the cottonwoods growing there.
The house was a simple, single story, weather beaten, pier and beam style ranch house, with glass in the windows. It had a tin roof which also provided a covered porch all the way around it.
I rode Dusty around the house, and down to the edge of the creek where I dismounted to let him drink. I tied him to a big cottonwood limb there in the shade, and walked back up to the house.
I stopped in the front yard for a moment and looked around.
Although it was obvious people had once lived here, there was no sign of life.
The vegetable patch was all dead and dried up. Even the weeds, which had found a foothold in some places, were dead.
It was evident no one had been here for some time.
There is a strange lonely feeling about abandoned buildings, as though it is unnatural for them to be empty. Cemeteries are just as quiet, but they seem to be somehow more restful and less lonely. Maybe that’s because cemeteries are anything
empty. Did you ever wonder why they put fences around cemeteries? The people on the outside are in no hurry to get in there, and the people on the inside aren’t trying to get out.
A ranch like this was meant to be a thriving and lively place, with chickens in the yard, laundry drying in the breeze, livestock in the pens, and people doing chores. There should’ve been children laughing and playing hide and go seek, cattle lowing, maybe even someone fishing in the creek.
I was alone here, except for Dusty and the occasional bird darting through the trees.
This was a beautiful location, with the ranch buildings facing Buttercup Creek, surrounded by trees, and Yellow Butte rising majestically above and behind it. Across the creek, viewed through and above the pussy willows lining the banks, was rolling grassland
From my position in the yard, I could see into the empty barn and pens.
I thought of what a great place this must have been for Jacob and Sarah, when both of their parents had still been alive.
That thought brought me back to why I was there.
I walked up on the porch, and even though I knew no one would answer, I knocked on the front door.
I little gust of wind kicked up some dust in the yard, and swirled it away in the vortex of a dust devil.
I pushed open the door of the house, not knowing what to expect.
Often, when structures are abandoned, wildlife moves in. I knew I might find a family of raccoons in the cupboards, owls in the rafters, or rattlers under the furniture.
I was hoping not to find the remains of Mrs. Murphy, somewhere in the house.
I looked in every room.
All of the furnishings were still in place. There were braided rugs on the floor, curtains and pull shades at the windows, even beds in the two bedrooms, a big bed in one room, and bunk beds in the other. The beds had been stripped, but the horse hair mattresses were still there. I found crockery and cookware in the cupboards, but there was no coffee, or any of the other staples. There were no food items of any kind, anywhere in the house, nothing that might attract animals or insects.
I found the house neat and tidy. There was some dust on the furniture, but it appeared the house had been cleaned and readied for someone to come back to. There was even firewood stacked by the stove and kerosene in the lamps.
I wondered who had gone to the trouble, and what had become of Mrs. Murphy’s body.
I sat at the table and considered the situation.
When their mother died, Jacob and Sarah had turned the milk cow loose, and started walking the long miles to Bear Creek, barefoot, with no supplies or money.
It was a fifteen mile hike as the crow flies, longer if you followed the road. Those kids had started walking barefoot, across unfamiliar country, to get to a city where they didn’t know anyone.
Why hadn’t they just gone to a neighboring ranch, or walked the few miles downstream, to the little town of Buttercup?
I heard horses approaching, so I walked out on the porch to meet the riders.
Two men on horseback stopped in the yard.
To my surprise, one of the men was “Snake” Flanagan. I’d met Snake in Amarillo. He was said to be a gunfighter, once upon a time, but we had never had a reason to lock horns. He and I were both about fifteen years older since last we met, but I hoped I’d aged better than he had. Snake had never been tall, but now he appeared thin and shrunken.
The other man was much bigger, and he appeared angry. He got off his horse and stormed up onto the porch.
“Mister, you’re trespassing on private property. What‘re you doing here? We don’t cotton to strangers around here.” He informed me as he loomed over me.
“I have friends who used to live in this house. This is their land. I’m just having a look around. Who are you, and why are you here?” I asked.
“My name is Higgins, and this is my place now.”
I shook my head.
“Not according to the deed records in the county courthouse in Bear Creek. This land belongs to the Murphy heirs.”
“You’re a damn liar. Who might you be, when you’re at home?” Higgins asked, with a sneer.
He stood so close, his foul breath nearly knocked me over.
“My name is John Everett Sage, whether I’m at home or here on this porch.”
“I don’t care who you are. You leave now, or I’ll dump your body in the outhouse.”
I took a long slow breath. Was that what had become of Jacob and Sarah’s mother? Had her body been dumped in the outhouse?
Something inside me turned to stone, and anger like a flame began spreading through me.
“Careful Higgins, he’s just as likely to kill you as not,” the man called ‘Snake’ said. “He’s a dangerous gunman from way back. You may have read about him in the newspapers.”
“Phaw!” spat Higgins, “Them papers tell stories so’s folks will buy um. Fancy suit and all, he don’t look like nothing to me.”
He reached for his gun.
I was close enough to whip my gun out and smash it across his face, even as his gun came free of the holster.
Higgins crumpled, his gun was flung aside. I turned on Snake, leveling my Colt.
Snake Flanagan sat his horse calmly, and slowly lifted both hands.
“Not my fight, Sage,” he grinned. “…watch your back now.”
Higgins came up off the floor of the porch, quicker than I could believe. Before I could swivel fully around, he slammed into me like a run-away locomotive.
I was driven backward into a corner post of the porch. The impact knocked my gun out of my hand, the air out of my lungs, and we both crashed through the post and down into the yard.
Higgins landed on top of me, effectively keeping me from catching my breath. I was trying to shake the cobwebs out of my head and get some air, when I remembered Higgins was trying to kill me. He was a scrapper and a brawler, and he outweighed me by nearly a hundred pounds. His hands clamped around my throat, and my world began to get very small.
The sound of my hideout Colt Lightening .38 being cocked, made him stop squeezing my throat. The pressure of the barrel up under his chin made him rise up off me, as though he were being lifted by a block and tackle.
“I told you, Higgins. He’s a gun slick from way back. Man like that don’t kill easy.” Snake observed.
There was a huge welt swelling over Higgins’ right eye, from where my .45 had clipped him.
“You could have backed my play, you sum’bitch.” Higgins growled at Snake Flanagan.
“I told you not to start a fight with him, you done that all on your own.” Snake responded.
I pushed Higgins backward with my gun, until we reached where my .45 had landed in the yard.
I knew I would never be able to get him to Bear Creek by myself, at least not without having to kill him. He would try to jump me the first chance he got.
“You wouldn’t kill an unarmed man would you?” He asked
“Higgins, you’re just as dangerous with or without a gun. I expect you would have no qualms about killing me if
was unarmed. Now, back up over there toward your partner, so I can watch you both at the same time.”
When he was far enough away, I picked up my .45, and with both guns leveled on the two men, I decided to let them go. But Higgins had something to say.
“You just bought yourself a one way ticket to hell, mister.” He said.
“I don’t anticipate that outcome, but I suspect
will most likely end up there.”
“Oh, we’ll meet again, alright. Maybe Jud Coltrane will let me peel your hide, and nail it to the barn door.”
“Well then, maybe I should just kill you now, and save myself the trouble.”
“Whoa there, Sage, if you do, I’ll have to mix in myself.” Snake said.
“Is that right? Are you feeling lucky, Snake? Do you think you could pull your gun faster than I can shoot both of you?”
“It’s up to you.” He said.
“OK, Higgins this is your lucky day. Get on your horse and get out of my sight. If you try something like this again, I’ll put a bullet through the pimple on your shoulders you call your head.”
Higgins looked relieved, as he mounted his horse. Then he remembered something.
“What about my gun?” He asked.
“It’s my gun now. Be grateful I took it, instead of your life.”
Snake Flanagan looked amused.
“Thanks for staying out of this, Snake.” I said.
“Por nada. When I’m ready, we’ll see just how good you really are.”
“…Another time, another place.” I said.
“You won’t have long to wait.” He replied.
I watched them both ride away. When they were completely gone from sight, or sound, I holstered my .45, put my .38 back in the shoulder holster, tucked Higgins gun behind my belt, and retrieved my hat.
The yard didn’t seem quite as lonely as when I had first arrived.
I walked down to the creek to get Dusty. It was time for us to go into Buttercup.