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By: Wayne Brown
CHAPTER 1: The Stranger
Two cowpokes leaned back in chairs against the front wall of the saloon and surveyed the dirt strip in front of them that was Main Street. Both wore wide brim hats covered in dust and twisted in various directions by overuse. Leather chaps adorned their legs indicating that they had ridden the brush recently, probably punching cows somewhere about. Both men wore pistols strapped about their waist with the holster tied down at the leg indicating a propensity to not turn away from a fight once encountered. Neither man said much as they sat and glanced about chewing on toothpicks all the time.
The first indication that the stranger had ridden into town was the nicker of big dapple gray horse on which he rode. Apparently, the trail had been long and dry and the big gray had sense the water trough near the hitching post in front of the saloon. He was a big man and he was sitting on a big horse. Following behind was a dark sorrel pack horse toting a canvas covered load strapped over its back.
“Whoa, Buck,” the stranger said quietly to the dapple gray as he rode him up to the watering trough. Both horses immediately began to drink indicating their high thirst levels. The stranger sat quietly on the back of the gray slowly gazing about. The dust was thick on his canvas range coat and it was easy to see this man had been on the trail for a while.
The two cowpokes lowered the front legs of their chairs back down on to the porch and looked at each other as if both were thinking the same thing. Both stood up and pushed the loop off their pistol hammers just in case there was trouble.
“What do ya think, Shorty?” The tall one asked of his small friend standing to his right as they eyed the stranger. “Hell, I don’t know, could be anybody I suppose. Let’s go over and talk to him, Tom.”
The two slowly sidled over to where the two horses stood still drinking from the trough. As the approached they spread out ever so slightly to reduce the chances of becoming one target. Due to the range coat, it was hard to see what this man was packing or if he had a gun on at all from this vantage point.
“Say mister, you look a bit dusty. Where you trailin’ in from anyway?” Shorty asked as they approached and stopped in the street.
The big man turned slowly to his left and eyed the two from under the brim of his high-rise sweat stained hat with a three dimple crease in the top. “Montana if it is any of your business,” the stranger replied then spat some of the dust in his throat on to the street. “I don’t recall asking you two over here nor do I recall asking you where you rode in from,” Added the stranger. “Now move on and ask your questions of someone more eager for conversation.”
“Now that ain’t no way to be friendly, mister,” Tall Tom replied. “We don’t mean no harm, we just like to know who people is, that’s all. As for moving on, we’ll do that when we outright please and not a minute before. You must be stupid talking to two guys like us that way. Why we will mop the streets with ya.” Tom added.
The stranger flipped back the canvas flap of the long range coat revealing a cross-holstered nickel-plated bone handle 44 caliber pistol. “Who you callin’ stupid, fella. I have been on the trail a while now. My horses are thirst, my ass aches from sittin’ a saddle and I got dust in places I can’t see right now. But, given all that, I don’t stand for no man callin’ me stupid. Now, I think you just need to apologize and move along.”
Tall Tom looked at Shorty and then back to the stranger. “Mister, you’re a damn fool if you think that some saddle tramp is going to push me and Shorty here around. And you are really stupid if you think anyone is making apologies” With that, both Tom and Shorty grabbed for their pistols.
The nickel-plated .44 came out of the holster as if it had jumped into the right hand of the stranger. Two quick rounds from a fanned hammer left both Tom and Shorty lying dead in the street with their pistols beside them. The stranger popped the cylinder on the .44 and plucked the empty cartridge rounds onto the ground. Once the pistol was reloaded and ready, he slid it back into its holster.
“Come on, Buck. You and Hercules are gonna drown yourselves if you keep drinkin’ water. Let’s go find us some grub.” The stranger said quietly to the two horses as he reined Buck off the trough.
“Now you just hold up there, fella” came the command from a man running out of the sheriff’s office across the street. He carried a double barrel shotgun at the ready as he ran toward the stranger.
“You can’t just shoot people down in the street and ride off. We have laws here and I am the man sworn to uphold them. I am Sheriff Ed Lawson. Now climb down off that horse slow and hand me that sidearm of yours that you seem to be so damn good with,” Sheriff Lawson added waving the shotgun around for effect.
“That’s pretty brave of you making such demands of a man you just watched gun two people down before they could clear their holsters. What makes you think that shotgun is going to even up those odds?”
“I don’t think anything. This is my job and by God I’m gonna do it. Now climb off that horse like I told you or I swear I’ll blow your carcass right out of the saddle.” The Sheriff responded.
Looking about, the stranger swung off the gray and stood holding the reins of the horses as the sheriff slowly approached and pulled the .44 from the cross-holster.
“Look, sheriff, if it makes any difference, I am not in the business of shooting lawmen. I am not particularly fond of killing anyone but those two kept egging things on even when I told them to move on. Then they started handing out insults and finally drew on me. I had no choice.”
“I know,” Sheriff Lawson replied. “I watched it all play out from my window. They gave you no choice once they went for those guns. I don’t know who they are. They rode in here with a cattle herd about two days back and have been hanging around the saloon since then getting drunk and generally whooping it up. Now you just lead those horses to the rail and follow me into my office. We need to talk a bit.”
Chapter 2: The Problem
Sheriff Lawson walked into the office with the stranger in tow. He slipped the shotgun back into the rack and motioned for the stranger to take a chair. “You care much for coffee,” He asked nodding toward the pot on the stove. The stranger nodded in the affirmative and the sheriff poured two tin cups half full of the black hot liquid.
“Sheriff, if I am right, those two fellas out there in the street are Shorty Till and Tall Tom Stuart. Both of them are known cattle rustlers from up Montana way. I tracked them down here. I have been on their trail for a while now. Out there on my pack horse, you’ll find the body of Punk Thompson, another of their breed that they must have sent back to slow me down.” The stranger said.
“Just who the hell are you anyway?” Sheriff Lawson asked sipping heavily at the hot coffee.
“Name is Heck Elliot. I come from up around High Ridge, Montana. I worked a ranch up there known as the Rollin’ Bar B. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s owned by Jasper Steins and his family. They raise some of the best beef in the territory. The rustlers can attest to that as the Bar B was something they were always trying to steal from. That was my job mostly…to keep that riff-raff out. They got in two weeks ago last night and run off about 300 head of prime cows. It was my job to find them and get ‘em back. I’ve got a letter here in my coat from Mr. Steins as proof and I also got another letter from Butte County Sheriff, Hank Tanner, deputizing me as an officer of the law in Butte County,” Elliot replied pulling out both letters for the sheriff’s inspection.
Sheriff Lawson read carefully through the two letters then handed them back to Heck Elliot. “This is a bit out of your jurisdiction, Mr. Elliot. I am not sure that Wyoming Territory is going to look upon everything you might do as being the official act of a lawman. That said, I will certainly cut you some slack in my jurisdiction. As far as I am concerned, if you can locate that herd, they are yours to take back to the rightful owner. Those cows were sold here locally, I am pretty sure. Otherwise, those two you shot out there would have moved on with the herd by now. Let me nose around a bit and see if I can find out who might have bought some cows lately and you can work from that. In the meantime, I recommend the hotel down the street if you are looking to bed down with a roof over your head. You can stable your horses with Klem Jackson down at the livery.” Lawson said rising from his chair behind the desk.
“Now here’s that gun of yours. Be careful what you do with it. Those two might have had some friends about who will be looking for you. Now, let’s go out and get this third rustler unloaded and over to the corner,” Lawson added walking to the office door.
As the two walked over to the packhorse and began unloading the body, Elliot said, “Sheriff, I am much obliged for your understanding and your help. I promise you that I will cause as little trouble as possible in getting these cattle rounded up and back to Montana. I also promise you that I will find them if they are here and I will employ the necessary means to regain them to their rightful owner. That lost herd is my problem, Sheriff and I intend to solve it as quickly as I can.”
Lawson said nothing, only looked at Elliot and nodded his understanding.
“By the way, Sheriff, where might a man hire a few cow punchers around here? I will need some help getting that herd back up to Montana,” Elliot asked.
“I don’t know. Once word gets around that you shot those two drovers and you are looking for a stolen herd, folks ma clam up a bit. I do have one empty-skulled boy locked up over there in the cell for drunkenness and public disturbance. I am letting him cool off a bit before I cut him loose so that he will think twice before he does something like that again. He might be interested. Drop by the jail and talk with him later. I’ll see that the dead folks are attended to here. You get on with your business, Mr. Elliot. Get yourself a hot bath and some sleep before you venture out too far,” said Sheriff Lawson lifting the dead man off of the pack horse.
Heck Elliot touched the brim of his hat and nodded to the sheriff as he led both horses away down the street toward the livery. Heck was beat to the bone but he was also anxious to eliminate this problem and get on back up to Montana. Once he settled the horses in and got a room, the hot bath and shave might be just the thing to take some of this wear and tear out of his bones. Maybe he could get his clothes washed at the same time.
A big and muscular man stood at the doors of the livery stable. He had all the features of a blacksmith with arms that seemed as large as small tree trunks. Seeing Elliot approach with the two horses, he quickly stepped forward and asked, “How can I help you mister?”
"How about boarding these two for me. Start ‘em out with a good rub down and a bucket of oats. That should hold them for a night’s rest. I will check back with you tomorrow. I will be over at the hotel under the name, “Heck Elliot”. Look for me either there or at the saloon if you need me.” Heck handed the man a five dollar gold piece, loosed the cinch on Buck and slid off his rig. He would drag it over to the hotel with him for now just for safe keeping. Once he got some rest and some grub, he could start working on the problem.
Chapter 3: Branded Cattle
Heck Elliot checked into a second floor room at the Rose of Wyoming Hotel. The room overlooked Main Street allowing him to keep an eye on things. After a hot bath and shave, he was beginning to feel human again. As soon as the Chinaman brought his clothes back from the laundry, he would be getting back to his normal self. In the interim, he had whiled away the time cleaning the dust off his saddle and lathering it good with saddle soap. The saddle and saddlebags now lay shining like new in the corner of the room. Heck had just finished cleaning then reloading the .44 when there was a light knock at the door. He cocked the pistol and called out, “who is it?
“Your laundry back now, sir. May I bring to room?” Inquired the voice of the Chinaman.
“Sure, come on in,” Replied Heck releasing the tension on the hammer of the .44 pistol.
The Chinaman entered the room and placed Heck’s clothing on the bed. Everything really looked good thought Heck. One just cannot beat a good Chinese laundry for quality work. The Chinaman headed back for the door as Heck tossed him a five dollar gold piece with a smile. The Chinaman bowed and smiled a big grin before quickly departing the room.
Heck dressed, strapped on the .44 and headed downstairs for some grub.
“Where’s a good spot to eat around here?” Heck asked the front desk clerk as he cleared the stairs heading for the exit door of the lobby.
“If you like a good steak like I do, the best place in town is Maude’s Café down at the end of Main Street,” Replied the Clerk pointing to the north end of town. “You can’t beat it around here,” He added.
“Thanks,” Heck replied. “That sounds like just what I was hungry for.”
As Heck entered the front door at Maude’s, he noticed Sheriff Lawson sitting at a table alone against the wall near the back of the café. He walked over to the table.
“Mind if I join you, Sheriff?” Heck asked before sitting down. “I need a good steak and some company wouldn’t be bad either,” Heck added.
“Suit yourself, a good steak is not hard to find here. Maude has a way with them that is hard to beat,” Sheriff Lawson replied motioning for Heck to take a chair at the table.
A young girl looking to be about seventeen approached the table and asked if Heck would like to order something.
“Heck Elliot, this here’s Maude’s daughter and her pride and joy, Emily,” Sheriff Lawson quickly said.
“Nice to meet you, Emily. You are quite the beautiful young lady…no wonder you mother is proud. I’ll have good-size steak, some fried potatoes, and a cup of coffee…black,” Heck said tipping his hat to Emily. Emily smiled, wrote down the order and departed toward the kitchen.
“I think I might know where your herd is, Heck” Sheriff Lawson said as he cut another piece of steak for himself. Heck eyed the food hungrily hoping his steak would arrive soon.
“Oh yeah, where might that be? Heck asked.
“There’s a spread out west of town that belongs to the Joiner family, Whit Joiner to be specific. He’s been known to make a buck any way that he can and turn his head when things don’t always fit the definition of legal. At the same time, he is smart enough to stay just far enough out of the way to not get caught. One of my deputies told me that he saw some of his boys driving about 300 head the other night to a pasture down south of the his ranch house. Are those cattle you are looking for branded, Heck?
Emily showed up before Heck could answer and placed the plate of sizzling steak and potatoes in front of Heck. She refilled his cup with black coffee, smiled and moved on. Heck tore into the steak like a ravenous wolf into a herd of sheep. He’d been living on trail jerky too long now. After a few bites, he regained control of his hunger and responded to Sheriff Lawson.
“You dang right they are branded with the Rolling Bar B brand which is bar at top curved up like a cowboy hat brim; there’s a straight flat bar of the same width under that with a large B below it….Rolling Bar B. I have seen enough of that brand and applied enough of them myself to know it well,” Heck replied continuing to work on the steak and potatoes.
“If my hunch is right, you probably won’t find that brand intact on any of those cows. Those drovers knew someone was trailing the herd after they took the cows so they probably warned Joiner to get those brands changed as soon as possible. Of course old man Joiner would say that he wouldn’t buy a stolen cow but that would probably be a lie. He just rather no one told him that it was stolen when they sold it to him for 50 cents on the dollar,” Sheriff Lawson observed.
“Look, Heck, I need to handle this situation initially myself. Joiner can be quite cantankerous and this is my jurisdiction. I don’t mind deputizing you if it will help you get the job done. In fact, if you’ll give me time to make my rounds, we’ll get one of my deputies and ride out to Joiner’s place and check things out,” Lawson said as he pushed back his chair, racked off his hat and pushed back his hair. He then carefully repositioned the hat.
“That would be fine, Sheriff. I hate to see a man lose his money buying stolen cattle but, at the same time, they are stolen cattle and a man needs to be more careful,” Heck stated. “I’ll wait in the saloon for you once I finish up this meal.”
Lawson tipped his hat and headed to the counter to pay as Heck turned his attention back to the steak and potatoes. The way this food tasted, Heck was of the mind that he would marry Maude sight unseen just on the basis of her cooking skills. He chuckled to himself between bites as he worked toward cleaning the plate.
The Wyoming Gypsy Saloon was about the most popular place in Sand Springs, Wyoming except maybe for Maude’s Café thought Heck Elliot as he walked through the set of swinging doors and headed toward the bar. It was a lively crowd with a number of saloon girls working it steadily as the piano player cranked away on the old upright.
Heck slid into a gap at the corner of the bar and signaled to the bartender for a beer. Within seconds a saloon girl was at his arm attempting to hustle a drink but before Heck could answer another cowboy grabbed her for a dance. Heck was relieved. He really was not much for idle conversation with saloon girls. Not that he had anything against women…not in the least. But rather than being hustled for half the night, he had rather just buy ‘em a drink and move on. Attraction was one thing; hustle was another altogether different.
Two cowboys standing next to Heck had been leaning against the bar just watching the girls. One of them picks up his beer and drains it. “Come on, Charlie. Those cows aren’t going to go away and there’s lots of branding yet to do,” Said one to the other. The other cowboy just groaned and drained his beer as well.
“Excuse me boys, but I could help overhearing. You mentioned something about branding. I am out of work and just wondered if you might be headed somewhere that I could latch on to a job. I can work a branding iron pretty well if I can get the work,” Heck said to the two as they were walking away from the bar.
“I dunno know, mister. We ain’t nothin’ but hands who get told what to do and draw our wage for workin’. Ride out to the Joiner spread tomorrow and ask them yourself. You never know…it’s a big place,” Replied the poke named Charlie.
“I will. I’ll ride out there at first light and check with them. Who do I need to talk to about hirin’ on?” Asked Heck
The two cow pokes eyed one another and the Charlie replied, “That’d be the old man, Whit Joiner…he makes all the decisions.”
“Much obliged,” said Heck, “I appreciate the help.” He then turned back to the bar and his beer.
So Whit Joiner did have a bunch of cows to brand. Those hands specifically said cows…not spring calves or the like. Most ranches don’t normally brand large herds of cattle unless they can find them in the wild and that is mighty slim pickin’ nowadays with all the fenced range land.
Chapter 4: A Night at the Joiner Ranch
Sheriff Lawson arrived at the saloon just as Heck was finishing his second beer. He looked about, spotted Heck, and waved him outside onto the saloon porch. “I sent Deputy Bill Hanks down to the livery to saddle our horses. Why don’t you grab your saddle and meet us there. We’ll ride out to the Joiner place and see what we can find out,” Lawson said.
“I’ll go up to the room and get my saddle then see you down at the livery,” Heck replied.
Heck hurried up to the room, checked his .44 one last time then reloaded the empty cartridge loops in his gun-belt with fresh cartridges from his saddlebag. Now he found himself wishing that he had brought along his Sharps lever action. It just might come in handy if there was any gunplay. Heck gathered up his gear and headed for the livery.
The Sheriff introduced Heck to Bill Hanks. Both of their horses were saddled and ready to go. Heck went to work getting Buck dressed out for the ride. Buck was moving all about indicating his desire to do something. A couple of days in the corral had left him a bit restless. Heck checked the saddle cinch once more before mounting and then caught a stirrup up into the seat.
Sheriff Lawson looked at both men for a moment in silence. “Now look, we don’t need anything getting out of hand out there tonight. We don’t know that anybody has done anything wrong until we have asked some questions and found some evidence. Let me do the talkin’ and you sit back and watch. Elliot, raise your right hand and I will swear you in as my deputy. Let’s just keep things peaceful and try to stay alive. Got that?” Lawson said looking Heck and Hanks.
“Got it,” Heck replied. Hanks nodded his agreement and understanding.
Satisfied that his message was clear, Lawson spurred his mare out of the barn followed closely by Hanks. Heck pulled up the rear with Buck itching to get moving. It was a nice night for a ride. The moon was full, the temperature was good. It was the perfect night to be looking for stolen cows.
The ride to the Joiner place took about 30 minutes at a steady trot. It was after 8:00 PM when the threesome rode up in front of the porch at the Joiner home. Apparently someone knew they were coming as Whit Joiner stepped through the front door before they had a chance to dismount their horses.
“Well, Sheriff Lawson, what brings you out this way this evening?” Whit Joiner inquired as if he did not already know or at least suspect.
“I am on business, Whit. Seems there was a herd of about 300 cattle that got ambushed up in Montana. Rustlers run the herd off down this way. We think they might have been sold somewhere round these parts. I just wanted to check with you and see if you had heard anything or been offered any cows of a questionable origin?” Replied Lawson.
Whit Joiner was a big man, slightly overweight in the midriff but tall enough to carry it. His hair was gray but thick and full. He smoked a briarwood pipe which caused the air to smell of apples and apricots. Joiner took a long pull on the pipe as if in meditation then released the smoke in a slow flourish into the air.
“Can’t say as I have, Sheriff. Besides, you know that I don’t deal in stolen property. I’ve told you that time and again,” Joiner responded. “I recognize Bill Hanks there with you but I don’t believe I‘ve ever seen this other fella. Who might you be stranger?”
“That’d be Heck Elliot, he’s a new deputy I just put on from up Montana way,” shot back Lawson before Heck could open his mouth to reply.
“Nice to meet you there, Deputy Elliot. We’ll probably get to know each other well if you stay on with the Sheriff,” Replied Joiner. Heck touched the brim of his hand with his glove hand in acknowledgement.
“Mind if we look about the place a bit, Whit?” Lawson asked leaning forward on his saddle horn.
Again Joiner release another flourish of blue smoke from his lungs. “Well Ed, I would rather you didn’t. Since I didn’t know you were coming, I was not able to alert the hands. I’ve got men strung out all over this ranch with guns and instructions not to ask too many questions. Now, I’d feel real bad if a Sheriff and two of his deputies got themselves killed nosing around in the middle of the night unannounced. You get my drift?”
“Yeah, I hear ya, Whit. I gotta take that as a ‘no’.” Lawson replied. “But I also caution you that if you got nothing to hide then your cooperation is the best way to show that. You get my drift, Whit?
“Look, Sheriff, I got nothing to hide. If you choose to look around, then go ahead but understand that you are doing it at your own risk. Even I am not going to ride out on the ranch unannounced this time of night without chancing catching some lead,” Replied Joiner as his teeth clenched the stem of the pipe now.
“We won’t keep you any longer, Whit. Let us know if you hear and see anything,” remarked Lawson. With that he tipped his hat toward Joiner and turned his horse back toward the main entry. Bill Hanks and Heck followed him. Once they were far enough down the road, Lawson stopped and said, “Guns or no guns, we are going to have a look around starting with that south pasture area. Now take a right and let’s ride down there,” Lawson directed. All three men rode south in the light of the moon.
Whit Joiner locked the front door and stepped over to his study. There was a man sitting in the overstuffed wingback chair puffing a cigar. Clint Floyd was Joiner’s new foreman, a position he had wrangled with the sale of the Montana cattle. Honest work was not his cup of tea but this would do until things cooled off a bit on the herd. Once that happened, he could get back to rustling and a more lucrative paycheck.
“Floyd, I told you those cows were going to be more trouble to me than they were worth but you swore that you brought them so far that no one would be looking for them. I got a feeling that one deputy followed that herd all the way here from Montana. I tried to talk them out of looking around the ranch but I don’t think that will be the case. Grab a couple of the boys and catch up with them…see if you can scare them off before they get anywhere near that south pasture,” growled Whit Joiner.
Floyd sprang up from the chair and replied, “Whatever you say boss, I am on the way”.
“Oh and Floyd…one more thing,” Joiner added. “Quite smoking my damn cigars, you got that?
Floyd smiled and tipped his hat then departed the room. Firing a few shots at lawmen would top off a nice cigar smoke and make for a nice evening he thought.
Floyd and the two wranglers grabbed their horses and headed off to cut off the threesome from the south pasture. There was a cluster of rocks up on the north side of pasture valley which would offer some good cover to throw around a little lead. Floyd spurred his horse into a run and signaled for the other two to do the same. They didn’t have much time if the three had headed straight to the south pasture.
Heck used the light of the moon to look for evidence of the cattle. There were plenty of signs all right and they were fresh. Those cows could not have been here much more than a day ahead of him. He pointed the tracks out to Lawson who nodded in agreement. Bill Hanks knew the whereabouts of the south pasture and he had been the deputy who had spotted the cows being moved this way.
“We’re getting close, Sheriff,” Hanks remarked as the reined the horses to a stop. “How are we going to play this? We could be heavily outgunned before we make it to the herd,” Hanks added.
“That’s a good question, Bill,” Lawson said. “We cannot afford to start any shooting, as we are the law. Legally, we can only respond. I don’t need Whit Joiner complaining to the governor that I am a trigger happy lawman,” He added.
“I got a couple of ideas, Sheriff,” Heck said resting crossed arms on the pommel of his saddle as Buck gnawed at some of the grass stumble near his feet. “Maybe you and Bill could go in the front door and I’ll head round to the back. This pasture is down in a valley and only has a few passable ways in and out the way Bill describes it. If Bill can tell me how to get in on the back side, then I’ll ride around there and slip in for a look. You and Bill ride in the front door on and talk with whoever you meet. If I don’t hear any trouble brewing, I’ll just slip around a bit and try to get a look at one of the brands. Those drovers must be bedded down for the night so there will only be two or three pokes watchin’ the herd until morning. I should be able to get a look. You might run into a guard up at the entry but that will just take some talkin’ to distract him and then you ride off. I’ll meet the two of you back in town. Once we size things up, then we can get some help and come back to get the cows.”
“Sounds pretty good to me, Sheriff,” Hanks said. “Better’n anything that I can come up with right now,” He added.
“Okay,” Said Lawson, “That’s the way we’ll play it. I sure hope we are wrong about this and end up spending a quiet ride back to town. Remember, if there’s gunplay, make sure it is because they started it,” Lawson cautioned. Everyone nodded in agreement and Hanks began to explain to Heck how to get into the back side of the valley.
“All right, boys” Lawson said, “Let’s see if we can make this plan work and keep from getting ourselves killed. Heck, we’ll give you a fifteen minute head start before heading on into the north entry.” Heck nodded his understanding, spun Buck about and rode off to the back rim of the valley.
Chapter 5: The Best Laid Plans
Heck soon rode into a thick band of trees which surrounded the upper side of the valley. He looked for the landmarks Bill had noted to him in the moonlight. Hanks had laid out an easy trail to follow and he was making good time getting to the backside.
Floyd and the two drovers had made good time as well arriving at the cluster of rocks without a sign of the three lawmen. The three dismounted and led their horses behind a group of rocks then picked some spots with good cover and elevation for the shooting. The drovers had lever-action Winchesters but Floyd had decided a handgun would be enough for this job.
Lawson and Deputy Hanks waited out the agreed upon fifteen minute head start. Hanks checked his pocket watch and nodded at Lawson indicating that time was up. They both spurred their horses back on to the trail and headed for the north entry to the valley pasture.
Heck had found the entrance through a break in the tree line just as Hanks had described. He was close as he could hear the sounds of a few lowing cattle from his spot near the entry. Heck dismounted and led Buck to a stand of trees where he would be out of sight if someone showed up from that direction. Heck wrapped the reins loosely on a limb. If he needed Buck in a hurry, then he wanted Buck to be able to get loose. He then slowly worked his way down the rocky slopes toward the pasture grass. Hiding behind rocks, he began to pick out the various drovers working the herd for the night. A chuck wagon sat on the far west side of the grassy land. Most of the drovers would be bedded down there for the night. For now Heck needed to get to a cow and check a brand or two.
Floyd heard the hoof beat of the approaching horses before he saw them. As both men rounded the turn and came into view, Floyd gave the order to shake them up a bit and fired the first shot over their heads. Both Lawson and Hanks dove off their horses on to the ground and ran for the cover of some nearby trees. One of the Winchesters spoke as flames shot from the barrel into the night air. The spinning lead caught Bill Hanks in the upper shoulder and knocked him to the ground.
“You damn fool,” I didn’t tell you to kill them…just scare ‘em!” Floyd shouted at the drover. By this time Lawson had dragged Hanks to cover and pulled his pistol to return fire. Sitting behind the rocks he eyed the Winchester in his saddle boot wishing he had thought to bring it along. Seeing movement in the rocks, Lawson fired off a round from his pistol and heard a groan.
The drover slid down off his perch and almost fell on Floyd. He was dead by the time he hit the ground. Floyd rolled him over with his boot and saw that the bullet had caught him square in the heart. These guys were playing for keeps. All be damned if he was going to be firing over anybody’s head now. This was a life or death struggle. He grabbed the Winchester from the dead drover and pumped two more rounds into the trees only to have the shots answered with rounds that careened off the rocks around him. Even though the rocks offered some good cover, the ricochet of the lead could get a man killed. Lead began to fly back and forth between the two sides both wondering how long the ammunition would hold out.
Heck Elliot spotted two cows grazing near a large rock about the time he heard the first shot fired. He noticed the drovers were alerted and had moved more toward the entry to hold off any potential stampedes. More shots fired. It sounded as if Lawson and Hanks had run into trouble. Heck worked his way slowly over to the grazing cattle and eased up close enough to examine the brands. Sure enough, these two were Rolling Bar B stock. Their brands had not yet been modified. That was all the evidence Heck needed. He turned back to the tree line and gave a loud whistle. In a matter of seconds, Buck came trotting out of the trees running straight toward Heck. As the big gray ran past, Heck grabbed the saddle-horn and swung aboard. He pulled Buck to a stop, thought for a second and decided that this was a good time for a stampede. Pulling the .44 from its holster, Heck fired over several rounds that sent the cows about him running. He reloaded and repeated his actions then spurred Buck off for the tree line. The cows should be spooked enough to give the drovers a challenge, especially since most of them were sleeping at the present. It would take them a while to settle the confusion. In the meantime, he needed to get back and check Lawson and Hanks. Heck gave Buck a loose rein and let him run. The trip back would be much shorter than the ride up here.
Lawson was half through the cartridges on his belt. Hanks lay nearby moaning in pain and bleeding like a stuck hog. If this didn’t end soon, Bill would bleed to death right here on these rocks. A rifle round careened overhead and Lawson spotted the fire from the barrel in the rocks. He slammed two quick rounds back hoping to lower the odds.
Floyd lay on top of a large rock looking down toward the wooded area concealing the Sheriff and his deputy. He remembered that Joiner had mentioned three of them but he had seen only two. Where was the other rider? Just then two rounds fired back to back careened about in the rock cluster. Floyd was tired of this game. It needed to end. He heard the sound of horse hoofs running, no wait, that sounded more like cattle in stampede. This was not good. While the rocks shielded them from the bullets, cattle approaching from the rear had a clear run at them. It was time to move. He and the other drover needed to get to the horses. “Move out!” Floyd shouted and ran for the spot where the horses were hid. As the drover rose up to move, Lawson shot him in the head. Floyd watched as the drover tumbled down the rocks only to land on the ground just as the first of the stampeding herd began to arrive. Floyd ran for his horse as fast as he could.
Heck Elliot came riding around the rock formation hell bent for leather. He spotted Lawson’s horse and rode to that spot, dismounted and ran to take cover with Lawson and his deputy.
“Bill’s hit pretty bad, Heck. We’ve got to get out of here soon or he’ll bleed to death. They’ve got us pinned down pretty good,” Lawson shouted. Just then the thunder of cattle on the run came from all directions as the creatures emerged wide-eyed from the rocks running in all directions scared out of their wits.
“Here’s our only chance,” Heck yelled. “Get Bill up on that horse and the both of you ride for town. I’ll hold off any of the drovers who might have been shooting. Suddenly a horse ran out of the rocks near the entry in a full out run back toward the Joiner place. He did not seem to have any interest in turning the herd…only getting away. “Get goin!” Heck yelled to Lawson as he ran and jumped upon Buck’s back. The big gray was off like a flash after the running cowboy.
Heck was slowly gaining on the rider as they both cleared the front of the running herd. Floyd headed back for the ranch house which should provide plenty of cover to fight anyone off. As he looked back over his shoulder, he spotted the rider on the big gray horse closing on him rapidly. Floyd spurred his horse unmercifully attempting to get more speed out of him. He fired shots over this shoulder which had no mark except to slow down the cowboy who was after him.
Floyd rode up to the front of the Joiner house and quickly jumped from his lathered up steed. As he hit his feet the big gray horse came sliding in beside him and the rider dived off knocking Floyd to the ground. Both men got to their feet and Floyd ran for the porch.
“Stay where you are, mister!” yelled Heck Elliot a large bleeding scratch on his left cheek acquire in the fall.
Floyd spun around on the steps and quickly drew his pistol. The .44 seemed to leap into Heck Elliot’s hand and he quickly fanned off two rounds in Floyd’s direction. Both bullets found their mark even before Floyd could align his gun to shoot. The impact of the big .44 slugs caught Floyd in the chest and heaved him backward into the front door of the Joiner house busting it off the hinges and out of the frame. Floyd lay dead in a pool of blood and splintered wood.
“Joiner! Joiner! Come on out Joiner!” Shouted Heck as he moved toward the porch. “I’m taking you back to Montana to hang for stealing these cows. Either come out or I’ll be coming in to get you. You can go back to Montana either upright in the saddle or strapped over it…your choice, Joiner!”
At that moment, the gray haired Joiner ran through the front door firing both barrels of a sawed off shotgun in the general direction of Heck. Elliot dropped to the ground and rolled but not quickly enough to miss a few of the buckshot clipping his upper left arm. The .44 barked planting a bullet firmly between the eyes of Whit Joiner leaving him face down in his own kingdom of thieves. For once, Whit Joiner had not been able to cheat his way out.
Doc Steen finished bandaging Heck’s buckshot wounds in his left arm. He then turned to the more serious condition of Bill Hanks who was resting on a nearby cot. Heck picked up his hat off the table and left a few coins in its place for the doctor.
“How about you, Bill? Heck said sitting lightly on the edge of the cot, “You gonna make it?”
“Doc says I will but I wasn’t so sure for a while. I tell ya, those Winchesters really pack a wallop. I owe you and the Sheriff my life, Heck. If the two of you hadn’t got me out of there when you did, I’d be dead for sure,” Hanks replied.
“You just take it easy Bill; take some time to heal,” Heck said. “I am going to head down to the Sheriff’s office and get started finding me some drovers for moving that herd back to Montana. I’ll see you before I leave.” Bill nodded and smiled.
Heck found Sheriff Lawson eating apple pie at Maude’s Café. “I figured you’d be here” Heck laughed. “You know, this is looking more and more like a habit…you eatin’ in this place,” Heck added.
“Habit?” Lawson shot back, “Hell, my wife owns this place! You don’t think I could afford to eat here on a Sheriff’s pay do ya? Lawson laughed.
“You mean….Maude’s your, and Emily’s your...” Heck never got the sentences finished before Ed Lawson burst out in a loud roar of laughter.
“You know I would have locked you up if you had said the slightest thing out of line about either one the other night,” Lawson said continuing to laugh. “You certainly know when to keep your mouth shut Mr. Elliot. Come on, what’s say we eat us one of them steaks then I’ll help you find some drovers to get that herd home”. Heck Elliot laughed and he kept laughing the rest of the day. WB
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