|Western Fiction posted July 11, 2009||Chapters:||...13 14 -15- 16...|
The chase is on to recapture the stolen horses.
A chapter in the book THE TOUGH BREED
The Peralt Land scandal led to violence pitting settlers against new arrivals that had fallen for the farce.
The drunkened, merry group of cowboys started back to the ranch a few hours after the colonel left. Slim was the most sober one of the crew. He thought it odd the surrey and horses were standing by the barn. Then, he saw two motionless figures lying nearby on the ground.
“Trouble!” Slim shouted as he raced to the bodies and dismounted. He lit a match off the seat of his pants. “They’ve been shot!”
Slim took charge. “Set the wagon up and get the colonel and Cookie to the doctor! Panhandle, go with Pecos and see if you can stop the bleeding.”
The men quickly changed the horses from the surrey to the wagon and made a bed of straw. Panhandle threw two horse blankets over the straw and jumped into the wagon with a horse blanket in hand. They loaded the two victims into the wagon. Pecos was on the way within five minutes, with Panhandle, who was busy tearing a horse blanket into bandages.
Slim looked at the cowboys in different states of drunkenness. “Get some lanterns out here. Half of you check for Dusty and the other half check for tracks. We’ll be following them in the morning!”
The cowboys took lanterns, divided into two groups and began to carry out Slim's orders. The bodies were discovered out by the main corral, near the tack room. They carried the three dead men into the barn and laid them out in adjoining stalls.
It was a sobered group of cowboys who helped to search the area for tracks. They found the tracks of the mysterious shooter behind a bush about fifty yards from where the colonel and Cookie had been shot.
Tea, Coffee and their cowhands were at the train station when Pecos raced into town. He stopped in front of Doctor Barnett’s house, jumped down and started pounding on the door.
“Something’s wrong,” Tea said hastening to the scene of action. The others followed him.
“The colonel and Cookie have been shot,” Pecos said to the sleepy doctor.
Dr. Barnett climbed into the wagon and made a quick examination. “They’re both breathing. The colonel has a head wound and Cookie has been shot in the chest. Neither one is in good condition. Let’s get them inside and be quick about it.”
The doctor was joined by his wife, Eleanor, and he started working on the colonel.
Tea cornered Panhandle. “What happened?”
“Someone stole the horses. The colonel and Cookie were lying between the surrey and the corrals. I don’t know what happened to Dusty and his helpers.”
Coffee and the others joined Tea, who looked at his partner, “Are you in? I didn’t bring those horses here just to have them stolen.”
“Half of those horses were mine.”
“Take the crew to the K-Bar and see what you can find out. I’ve got to go notify Leland and Cindy.”
“We’ll be on those bastards' trail before sun-up.” Coffee motioned to the Cup’s crew and they left.
Halfway to the hotel, Tea was accosted by Sheriff Graham. “What’s going on? I heard someone pounding on Doc’s door.”
“The colonel and his cook have been shot. Someone ran off with the horses I delivered.” Tea kept on walking toward the hotel.
Sheriff Graham went to Doctor Barnett’s house.
McKenzie knocked on the special room’s door.
“Who is it?” Leland called out.
“It’s Tea. There's been some trouble.”
Leland, clad only in pants, opened the door. “This better not be a joke.”
Tea motioned for him to step into the hallway and close the door. “It’s no joke.” Tea lowered his voice. “The colonel and Cookie were ambushed. The boys just brought them in.”
The door flew open. Cindy, wrapped haphazardly in a sheet, her legs exposed above her knees, stood facing the men. “Ambushed? Are they all right? Who did it?”
“The doctor is working on them now,” Tea told her and turned his head toward Leland. “The horses were stolen. I don't know who's responsible.”
“We’ll meet you at Barnett’s house as soon as we’re dressed.” Leland gently pushed Cindy back into the room and closed the door.
She dropped her sheet and grabbed him. "Who would do something like this?"
"I don't know, but I aim to find out."
The young couple dressed as quickly as possible and ran to Doctor Barnett’s home. Tea, Panhandle and Pecos were waiting for them outside.
Pecos took a couple of steps toward the couple. “Doc and his wife are working on them.”
Cindy, fearing the worst, asked, “How bad are they hurt?”
“According to Doc, Cookie is worse off than your father. He has a head wound and she was shot in the chest.”
Leland grabbed Cindy’s arm when she started for the house. She fought to get free. “Let the Doc take care of them. We’ll see them when he's finished.” When she setted down, Leland looked at Pecos. “What else can you tell us?”
“Slim had the boys get some lanterns and were searching for Dusty and his helpers.”
Tea and Panhandle joined them. “I sent Coffee and my crew to the K-Bar. The sheriff went with them.”
Leland nodded and turned his attention to Panhandle. “How do you read this?”
“If this is the Circle C, they would go after the herd, also. Slade would ambush us as soon as we entered Circle C’s range. Old man Barker has been itching for a fight.”
Tea cleared his throat. “Coffee says the only Barker with any backbone is Barker Jr. Who else would want to attack the K-Bar?”
Pecos answered, “Peralta’s man. That Pettigrew gent didn’t like us chasing them off the ranch.”
The men continued to talk about the different possibilities until Mrs. Barnett stepped onto the porch.
Cindy broke Leland’s hold and hurried to her. “How are they?”
“They are both still breathing and are under sedation.”
The young woman took a few steps toward Mrs. Barnett. "Can I see them?”
“I’ll take you to them.”
Mrs. Barnett led them all to a back bedroom. “We have your father in here, but we’ll need help to move Cookie.”
Cindy cut off a sob when she saw her bandaged father’s sleeping form and hurried to his side. “Is he going to be all right?”
Doctor Barnett joined them. “The bullet struck him on the back left side of his head near his neck. Only time will tell how much damage it did. As for Cookie, I was unable to get the bullet out. It was lodged too close to her heart. I’ll need help to move her to the other bedroom.”
“Can you set a bed up for her in here?” Cindy asked; her eyes never left her father.
Leland walked over to her and placed his hand on her shaking shoulder.
“We could move his bed over and set up a single bed for her.”
“Would you, please? I could watch both of them and be able to help when needed.”
Tea, Panhandle and Pecos followed the doctor out of the room. They returned shortly with the parts to a single bed and reassembled it.
Mrs. Barnett quickly made it up and smiled at her husband. “No lifting.”
“I can help, Doc,” Leland offered.
“What about your ribs?’ Cindy asked and stood. “Let me help.”
“What's wrong with his ribs?” Doctor Barnett asked Cindy.
“He was in a fight and got a couple of cracked ribs. Cookie wrapped him, but he took the wrapping off.”
“I’m okay, Doc,” Leland said, hastily.
“Come with me.”
Cindy and Leland followed the doctor to the front of the house.
“Take your shirt off. I want to look at your rib cage.”
Leland handed his shirt to Cindy and stood still while the doctor pressed and tapped on his bruised left rib cage.
“It seems to be healing nicely. You can get dressed.” He smiled at Cindy. “Go get the men and let’s get Cookie moved.”
It took a few minutes, but Cookie was moved safely to the single bed.
Cindy, stroked Cookie’s brow. “What are her chances?” She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand.
Dr. Barnett walked over to the young woman and stared down at Cookie. “She’s in God’s hand. I’ve done all I can.”
Cindy dropped to her knees, placed her hand on Cookie’s left forearm and closed her eyes. “Please Lord, let her live. She’s a good woman. You know she is one of Your own, but we need her here.”
Leland, moved by Cindy's actions, motioned for Tea and the ranch hands to leave. He stopped Pecos in the hallway, “Pecos, saddle Sidewinder and get a horse for you and Panhandle. I’ll be with you in a few minutes.” He turned to walk back to say goodbye to his wife.
Tea touched him on the arm. "We'll get the bastards."
"I'll put the rope around their necks with pleasure." Leland did his best to control his anger.
The four men rode to the K-Bar in a somber mood. In the darkness, they did not see the tracks of a single rider riding toward the K-Bar. Most of the tracks were covered up by other traffic. The mysterious rider left the trail a half mile from the ranch.
Slim, with the sheriff at his side, waved his lantern to get the riders' attention. He singled out Leland when the riders dismounted. “It looks like the rustlers ambushed Dusty, Mike and Big Bill. I had the boys put their bodies in the barn. The one that shot the colonel and Cookie came on the scene later. He hid in the bushes at the end of the corrals. I don’t think he was one of the rustlers….”
Tea interrupted Slim. “Where are Coffee and my men?”
“They took some lanterns and started following the rustlers.”
Sheriff Graham spoke up. “I deputized them, but I stayed to study the scene come morning.”
Leland kept his opinion to himself and still struggled with his anger. He looked at Slim. “We can dig graves in the lantern light. Let’s bury Dusty, Mike and Big Bill.”
“I’ll stay here and guard the scene,” Sheriff Graham said.
The young foreman knew the sheriff wasn’t too anxious to get involved with physical work. His anger mounted as he started toward the barn.
The task of burying the three murdered cowhands was completed just short of sun-up. Leland, with his hat in hand, led in The Lord’s Prayer. Tea quoted the Twenty-Third Psalm with Leland and Panhandle joining in.
The men walked back to where the sheriff was busy searching the area around the corrals.
Leland waited until Graham finished his report. “Did Coffee and the men take time to gather up some supplies?”
“The crippled fellow, with two others, raided the pantry.”
The young foreman looked at Pecos. “Pack up what you and Panhandle can find.” He looked at Graham. “Are you coming with us?”
“It would be best if I went back to town and sent off some wires to get the word out.”
“Okay. Would you tell Cindy we’ll be back as soon as we can?”
The sheriff nodded and went to his horse.
Leland looked at Tea and Slim. “We need something from the colonel’s office.” He started walking toward the house to raid his father-in-law’s gun cabinet. They took five hunting rifles and as much ammunition as they could find.
The rifles, ammunition and supplies were divided among the five men, who took the time to load them. They started riding north-east following the trail left by the posse and rustlers.
The trail led a mile west of the box canyon. Leland led his men to the box canyon to check on the cattle. Much to his relief, they were greeted by Fred and Jesse.
“Anything unusual happen out here?”
“Nothing of interest,” Jesse answered.
“Horse thieves hit the ranch last night and killed Dusty, Mike and Big Bill.” Someone wounded the colonel and Cookie. The thieves’ tracks are about a mile west of here. I’ll need the horses we left Saturday and I need you two to alternate between here and the ranch house to look after the animals.”
Leland took the time to answer the two cowhands' questions while Tea and the rest of the men gathered the nine horses.
Tea lashed the horses together and gave the rope to Pecos. He and Leland took the lead and the race to catch the rustlers was on.
Leland stopped the riders when the trail veered off toward Circle C’s range. “We’ll change horses and get ready for some fireworks.”
The men grabbed some jerky, switched horses and prepared to continue their pursuit.
Leland looked at Tea. “The trail the rustlers are on turns south for Mexico. They are trying to make this look like the Circle C is behind this, but their trail has been too easy to follow. We can cut across this tip of the Circle C and gain time.”
“What if we come upon Circle C riders?”
“We can out ride them and out shoot them. I don’t think they’ll be much of a problem. I can mend those fences after we get our horses back.”
After the tired horses were roped together with the spares, Leland led the charge onto the Circle C’s range. Two hours later, they were back on the trail of the rustlers. Thirty minutes after that, they heard sporadic gun fire.
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