Authors: Dan Arnold
If I’d only ridden over the next hilltop, before I crossed the creek on the previous day, I would’ve come to the corner of the Rafter J land and found it all fenced.
I turned left along the east fence line and found the ranch entrance about a quarter of a mile farther along. The gate was closed and framed by tall posts with a rafter attached across the top. A letter “J” carved from wood was mounted near the peak.
I found that while it was closed, the gate was not locked. I was easily able to open it and pass through on Dusty, then push it closed, without ever having to dismount. From the front entrance, I had a view downhill to the ranch buildings in the distance. I was pleased that all of the grass I could see was recently mowed and some was still piled into wind-rows to cure. I spotted a wagon and team off in the distance to my left, where there was a crew of men gathering the last rows of freshly made hay.
I turned Dusty along a windrow and we trotted toward the wagon. As I approached, the men all gathered at the wagon which was now nearly fully loaded. I slowed Dusty to a walk. Three of the four young men had rifles pointed at me.
I stopped Dusty and slowly raised my hands.
“Good morning, gentlemen. My name is Sage. I’m looking for Mr. Johnson. Could you tell me where I might find him?”
“Who sent you?” One of the men called.
“I’m a friend of the Burkes and the Murphys.” I replied.
“There ain’t no Murphys around here no more.”
“I know it, but I represent the family.”
One of the young men lowered his rifle and the others followed suit.
“Step down and state your business, mister.”
I looked over the men seeing they looked like they were all related, brothers maybe.
I stepped off of Dusty
“Like I said, I’m looking for Mr. Johnson.”
They all grinned at each other.
“That’d be me, and me, and me” Three of them replied. “Me too,” said the youngest one, chiming in from up in the driver’s seat.
I chuckled at that.
“I’m here representing the Murphy outfit. The round up starts the day after tomorrow. I need hands to help with the sorting and branding. Eventually, I plan to move the Murphy herd back on to the ranch proper, once the fence is finished.”
“How is it you represent the Rocking M? The Murphys are all dead.” The oldest of the four asked. He appeared to be about twenty five years old.
“No sir, not all. The children are still alive, and so is a man named Kennemer. He was Murphy’s partner.”
They all looked at each other. Then the youngest one, who might have been all of sixteen, shouted. “Hot damn”
“Watch your mouth, Toby.” The oldest one said. “Pa hears you swearing like that, he’ll whup you, sure as hell.”
We all laughed at his joke.
“Where’s your dad? I’d like to talk to him.”
“He’s down at the alfalfa fields. Just ride on down to the house, then follow the spring branch down to the left.”
About twenty minutes later, Dusty and I approached what looked to be twenty or thirty acres of harvested alfalfa fields. There were several hay stacks on the edges. I approached three men working around a boxy apparatus made of wood. There was a horse hitched to it.
They watched me with interest as Dusty and I approached.
“Howdy. My name’s Sage. I’m looking for Mr. Johnson. The boys up at the front said I could find him down here.”
“That’d be me. I’m Horace Johnson. Step down, Mr. Sage. Would you like some cool spring water?”
“No, thank you.” I said, as I stepped off of Dusty. “What is that you’re working on?”
“It’s our hay baler. Broke, I don’t suppose you know how to fix it?”
“No, but I’ve heard you can fix anything with baling wire and spit.”
He chuckled. “Yep, I’ve heard that too. What can we do for you today, Mr. Sage?”
When I finished telling him the story, he whistled.
“Say, that’s the best news I’ve heard in a coon’s age. Boy howdy, will that ever stick in Coltrane’s craw! OK, I’ve got six sons and three daughters. You’ll have me and three of my boys at the roundup. The two older girls can rope and ride as good as many a man, if you want them to help with the herd. Otherwise, they’ll handle the chuck. I’ll set my other three boys to work on the fence, starting first thing tomorrow. I’ll have em get the whole front fenced, clear over to Yellow Butte. Then they’ll finish the run down to my corner. They’ll get that much done within three or four days. They’ll have orders to get it done before the roundup’s over.
It may not be pretty, straight, or terribly tight, but it will do, and they’ll get it done. We don’t need to worry about the rest of the land on the other side of Yellow Butte, till we have more time.”
“Uhh, there’s a bit of a problem with your offer. Until we sell some of the cattle, I don’t have any money to pay for cowboys and hired hands, not to mention fence materials. How many head do you reckon Murphy had?”
“At the last roundup, the Rocking M had well over two hundred head. There’ll be something like sixty or eighty new calves by now. There could be as many as three hundred head, maybe more.”
I did some quick calculations. At the current price of beef, the Rocking M had nearly two thousand dollars in cattle scattered out on the range. No matter what, I wouldn’t need to spend more than a couple of hundred dollars for the most urgent labor and supplies.
“Can you wait to be paid?” I asked.
“Paid for what?” Mr. Johnson asked.
“For all this help you’ve offered.”
“Listen, Sage, for a dozen years Sean Murphy was my neighbor and my friend. We worked side by side when I ran cattle, and he helped me get this hay business started. We bought the fencing materials together. If I can help save the Rocking M, it’s the least I can do.”
“You understand there may be some risk? When we show up at the roundup, Coltrane or his crew could decide to cause trouble.”
“Mister, I ain’t never been to a roundup where there weren’t no risk of trouble. Your horse can throw you, a cow or bull might gore you to death, or maybe you’ll fall and be trampled. Range cattle are unpredictable and so are men. This ain’t gonna be no Sunday picnic, no matter how you look at it. We’ll be ready for whatever comes at us. You do the same.”
“OK. Starting the day after tomorrow, I’d like to gather all the cattle on the Murphy place and push um over to the roundup site. I expect the other ranches will do the same, right?”
“Yep, that’s the way it’s always been done in these parts.”
“I can’t provide a cavvy. All the Rocking M horses are gone or scattered. I saw where a couple of the Bar C Bar riders were on Rocking M horses.”
“Hmmm. Well, I’m not surprised. Coltrane helped himself to everything Murphy owned that wasn’t nailed down. We have horses enough for the first day or so. We’ll gather up the Murphy stock at the roundup.”
“How did he get away with taking Murphy’s property?”
“Coltrane claimed it was all abandoned. I heard he was taking over the whole ranch.”
“No, he isn’t, and it isn’t abandoned. I mean to put things right.”
“I’d sure like to see you do it.”
“What happened here? How did Coltrane get so powerful?”
Horace Johnson shook his head and kicked at a rock.
“He comes from money. He’s a man used to getting what he wants. When we stopped him from ruining the range, he decided to pay us back. He hired some bad men to do his dirty work. I can’t prove it, but I know his hired guns threatened Sean Murphy several times. They frightened his wife and kids, something terrible, and I guess you know what happened to Sean?”
“There were some riders for other outfits shot at, including two of my boys. One man working for the Barnett’s Circle B was shot, nearly killed him. All my cattle just disappeared in six months’ time. They burned out the Slater’s and ran them off. It’s been real bad. After they hung Sean, all the fight went out of most folks. We’ve all been trying to avoid trouble.”
“How many head did you lose?”
“At the fall roundup last year, with our new calves, we had one hundred and fifty-eight head. Over the winter, the boys would come in and tell me they were seeing less and less of our cattle on the range, but I figured my sons weren’t real eager to freeze or get shot, and they just weren’t scouting hard enough. We always lose a few to the weather, wolves and what not, but at the spring roundup we couldn’t find a single animal with our brand on it. No way to know if any of the orphan calves were ours. Sean offered to split his calf crop with us, to give us a fresh start, but I knew it was Coltrane took my herd, or killed um. I knew he wouldn’t let me start running cattle again. Sean had bought some haying equipment he was letting me use, including this dad-burn, broke-down baler. I’ve become a hay farmer. Sean and me planted all this alfalfa the year before the trouble started. Coltrane’s men kept pushing cattle in here, hoping to ruin me, but me and my kids would push um out, and we got our fences built. Here lately, the Bar C Bar riders have stopped trying to pull our fences down. I guess the boys and their rifles have discouraged some of that. My boys are itching for a fight. They’re mostly growed now. I guess it’s time to stand up to Coltrane.”
“What about calling in the law?”
“The nearest law is up at Bear Creek. We ain’t never had none around here…Wait a minute! Didn’t you say your name is Sage? Are you any relation to that Sheriff up there, John Sage?”
“You could say that. You can call me John. Can I call you Horace?”
“Hell no. My friends call me Ace. Put er there, John.”
We shook hands.
“One thing, Ace, will you keep it secret I’m the County Sheriff? I want everyone to think I’m just riding for the brand. Can you do that for me?”
“Whoooee, John. I sure will. I can’t wait to see the look on Coltrane’s face when he finds out!”
My next stop, the Box Cross ranch, was just south of the Rafter J. When I told Ace I was headed there, he cautioned me.
“That’s the Cross’ place. Them fellers are friendly enough once you get to know em. We’ve been amiable neighbors, I guess, though they hate the wire. They don’t like the way things have gone these last few years, and they hate seeing all the changes.
There are just four brothers living there. Rough as cobs they are. None of their women folk have stayed long. They’re drinkers, I believe.
The place never did amount to much, but they still run a couple dozen or so head on the range.
They stayed out of the trouble and never gave Coltrane any reason to harm them. I expect Coltrane figures they’re no threat to him. He might be wrong in his thinking.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Like I say, they’re OK once you get to know um, but it ain’t easy. They’re a prickly bunch and they stick together. Mean and ornery, I expect if they got riled enough, there would be some killing done. They got no love for Coltrane. If anyone in his bunch crosses one of them, there’ll be bloodshed. They won’t be interfered with and they won’t run.
They’ve been living off the land since long before I come here, about twelve years ago
When you meet um, you should say I sent you, and don’t take offense at um. Like I say, they’re rough as cobs and prickly as all get out, but it ain’t nothin’ personal. They treat each other the same way.
Another thing, you might not want to mention you’re the law. If you know what I mean.”
Dusty and I found the trail leading up to their headquarters on the side of a low hill covered in pinõn, scrub pine and brush, with a little creek running by at the base of the hill.
The ranch headquarters turned out to be four little shacks and a run-down barn. Next to the barn were some pole corrals holding half a dozen horses. In front of one of the shacks a gutted mule deer hung from a corner of the porch. I could smell and hear hogs rooting around in a wallow behind the barn.
Before I reached the clearing between the buildings a bearded man stepped out onto his porch. He had a shotgun cradled in one arm and a nearly empty whiskey bottle in his other hand. He whistled and the other men appeared in their doorways, each man similarly bearded and armed.
“Who the hell are you, and what the hell are you doing trespassing on our place?” The older of the four spoke up, loudly.
“My name is John. I’m riding for the Rocking M. Ace Johnson said I should come talk to you boys. Can I step down?”
“Hell no, you can’t step down. What do you want?”
“The roundup starts on Friday. I was wondering if you were going to be there.”
“That’s none of your damn business.” Another one of the men spoke up.
“Shut up, Carl. He’s talking to me.”
“Shut up, your own self, Curt. I’ll talk to him if’n I want to.”
I decided to carry on.
“The reason I was asking is because I’m new around here and I just wanted to say ‘howdy’, before we start working cows.”
“I heard the Murphy outfit got wiped out.” A different man spoke up.
“It nearly did. Sean Murphy and his wife are dead, but their children are safe. Murphy’s partner, a man named Kennemer, is somewhere around here.
“Did you say, Kennemer, he any relation to Old Bill Kennemer?” The first man, Curt, asked.
“You’re saying Old Bill was Murphy’s partner?” The fourth man asked.
“Yep, he still is. Listen, I told you my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“Well, step down, mister. I’m Curt. These sorry excuses are my brothers, Carl, Ken and Calvin. Folks call us the Cross brothers.”
I had to smile, as I stepped off Dusty and shook hands with the rough and bearded men. It was evident none of them had bathed since…maybe ever.
“You got any whisky, Sage?” Calvin asked.
“No. I’m sorry, boys. I’m traveling light.”
“Well then, how’re we sposed to have a drink, eh?” Kevin asked.
Even out in the fresh air on the edge of the mountains, the smell of the four unwashed men was something terrible.
“Shut up, Kevin. Go fetch a fresh bottle.” Curt said.
“You shut up. We’re just funnin’ with him, Curt.”
“Go fetch a bottle or I’ll be funnin’ with your ugly face.” Curt said.
Kevin cut his eyes at me.
“Lucky for you, we make our own ‘shine’, best corn likker you ever swallered.”
He headed for the barn.
Now, I don’t have much use for whiskey. On this occasion, I recognized these men were serious about their drinking. These were men who couldn’t trust a man who wouldn’t take a drink. I figured I could take a drink of their homemade and be on my way.
I was wrong.
I remember the way Dusty looked at me as I tried to climb up into the saddle an hour or two later. He’s much smarter than me, he remembered the way back to the Rocking M. I don’t even remember getting back.
I woke up in a small pile of hay, on the floor of the barn. Dusty was still saddled. I’d managed to get his bridle off and left it hanging on the saddle horn. He looked at me like I’d let him down—which I had.
I found the sunrise a bit too bright, and every movement caused me pain. I felt nearly sick to death as I unsaddled Dusty and turned him out into his corral.
In the house, I splashed some water into the sink, washed up as best I could, then I fell onto my bed and slept for three or four hours.
I woke up hungry, just before mid-day. I’d intended to ride out to the Flying W, but with the day half gone, I decided to spend the afternoon digging post holes for the fence line. It would do me good to sweat out the poisons.
I vowed never to drink whiskey again.
I hate barbed wire. I hate the fences. I miss the days when I could ride from Texas all the way to the frozen north, or west to the Pacific Ocean. As I was growing up with the Romani, we traveled far and wide, seldom bothered by fences. But, those days were gone now, and the Rocking M would have to be fenced.
Dusty and I trotted out to the place where the fence had been started, but never finished. As we approached I saw three young men were hard at work putting in fence posts. I recognized them as being Ace Johnson’s boys from the Rafter J. I lifted my hat to set them at ease. Those boys had their rifles near to hand. They’d taken a wagon load of fence posts and dropped them off in a long continuous line that disappeared over a nearby hill.
“Howdy, Mr. Tucker. Pa sent us over to get a jump start on this fence.” One of the young men said, as I rode up.
“Looks to me like you’ve been at it for a spell, I sure do appreciate it.”
I stepped off Dusty, took the neck rope out of my saddle bags, and after taking off his bridle I tied him to one of the standing posts with a clove hitch. As I was doing these things the youngster spoke up again.
“Yes sir, we’ve been working since sun-up.”
“You’re Toby, aren’t you? I remember you from yesterday.”
“Yes sir. That’s my brother Fred over yonder, and Terry’s just beyond him.”
“Pleasure,” I said. “Toby, I think it’s my turn to dig some holes. How’re you keeping a straight line?”
“…Mostly dead reckoning. We take a look at a landmark and basically work a straight line toward it. We got us a length of string that’ll stretch out to about fifty feet. We take care to look both forward and back to keep the line as straight as possible. The way we’ve laid out the posts we’re pretty near true already. As we get closer, we pick another feature to work toward.
We’ve been setting about three posts an hour, but I reckon we’ve slowed down some here lately. This ground through here is mostly rock. We’ve had to skip several posts in some places. After we stretch the wire, we’ll put in some posts with rocks piled around the base wherever we can’t put a post in the ground. It ain’t pretty, but it’ll hold cattle.”
“How far is it to the corner of your fence?”
“I figure it’s near half a mile. It’ll feel like ten miles, though.”
I nodded my understanding.
“Well then, let’s get to it.”