By A. H. Holt
Genre – Western
Time Period – 1880’s
Location – Kansas and Missouri
Description – Rustlers pushed a herd of Triangle Eight cows and horses through the broken fence. Dan Smithson tracked them til almost dark.
#adventure #war #cattle #cowboy #frontier #historical #horses #novel #ranch #romance #thriller #western #wild west
Dan Smithson lay back on the blankets to prop his head on his saddle, glad to stretch out. He twisted and turned, trying to get comfortable. Suddenly he lunged to his feet, lifted his blanket and ground sheet, and brushed several rocks and twigs from the ground. When he finished brushing the area clean, he turned to check that his pony was still in sight and lay back down.
The dying fire painted his tanned cheekbones a deep red. His eyes were as black as his hair. Thoroughly tired and sleepy, he pulled one of the blankets around his shoulders and watched the moon come up through the canopy of leaves as he waited for sleep.
The sound of his horse munching on the tall grass down by the creek was comforting. He closed his eyes and listened to the night sounds. The water in the little creek made a soft murmuring as it flowed over rocks.
After a few minutes Dan realized he heard something else as well-some sound that didn’t to belong in the woods. At first he dismissed it as a tree branch or leaves moving in the wind, but when he opened his eyes and glanced up, the leaves on the tree above his head were still. No wind stirred.
Turning his head from side to side, he sat up and held his breath to listen. He heard the strange noise again-it was a soft whining and a sigh.
It almost sounds like someone crying.
He had started out from the Triangle Eight ranch house a little after dawn that morning. His regular job required him to inspect the boundary fence from the northwest corner of the property all the way to the south line shack, then back to the ranch house along the center line fence. He watched for weak or broken places in the wire or leaning posts that cattle sometimes pushed over. He expected to spend this night in the line shack and then ride as far as Ma Hainey’s place before suppertime the following day.
Like most riders, he always carried a few supplies for emergencies, times when he had to camp out, but he hadn’t counted on having to use them on this trip. There were always plenty of rations stored in the line shack in case any rider had to stay out overnight and needed them. Dan counted on reaching the shack where he would have a stove to cook his supper on. At the cabin he would have a coffeepot with plenty of coffee and all the firewood he needed, already cut and dry. More than that, he had counted on being in time for supper at Ma Hainey’s place the following night. In his estimation, that woman’s cooking beat any other he’d ever eaten.
The sections of fence he passed by the first half of the day looked fine and he thought he would have little trouble keep ing to his schedule. A little after noon-to his consternation he found posts pulled out of the ground and a long section of the wire knocked flat. When he dismounted and examined the fence closely he could see that none of the wire in the downed section was broken or cut.
Strangely, someone had taken the time to work eight fence posts loose from the dirt, pull them up out of their holes and lay them down on the ground. That pulled the wire down flat at the same time. It didn’t make sense to Dan. Cowhands always carried a pair of wire cutters. Rustlers especially always carried wire cutters. They were one of the basic tools of their business.
It cost Dan several hours of backbreaking work to repair the fence so it would hold cattle if they took it in their heads to push against it. He knew he didn’t have to worry about horses trying to get through the wire. They were smart enough to know the stuff would cut them up if they pushed against it, so they left it alone. It was getting near sundown when he finished resetting the posts and tightening the wire enough so no stock could wander through.
Even though it was late when he finished fixing the fence, Dan naturally set out to discover why it got pulled down like that and who was responsible for doing such a thing. The tracks on either side of the opening made it plain that a big bunch of cattle and as many as a dozen horses had passed through the gap in the fence, and they couldn’t have done it without human help. The tracks were still fresh. He was sure they had been driven through the gap only a few hours before he got there.
The rustled stock left a trail heading west, over toward Elk River. After examining the tracks closely, Dan decided that the animals were being driven by at least three men. All of them rode newly shod horses.
He studied the situation a few minutes and decided he had best follow the trail of the cattle and horses instead of continuing on to complete his routine check on the fence. The rustlers hadn’t been gone but a few hours, and even if they were pushing the herd along at its best pace, he knew he would likely catch up with them in no more than a day.
At first, the tracks led him on a direct route west. Later, they turned north on a path to intersect the main road to Wichita. He felt sure he would lose the tracks when they reached the road. It made sense that the men driving the stock would turn onto the main road going one way or the other. He expected to see their tracks mingle in with everybody else’s and virtually disappear, but to his amazement they didn’t turn either east or west, but continued on in the same direction-straight across the road and on toward the north.
Dan pushed his horse to a long trot and rode until almost dark. Finally he turned off the trail into a little clump of sycamore trees and elderberry bushes.
Me and this horse have worked enough for one day.
He had left the Triangle Eight’s corral that morning before sun up, and he felt whipped. He knew he couldn’t take a chance on overworking his only horse when he was this far away from home, either. The men driving the herd would have to stop and rest. He figured they had probably already stopped for the night. Horses and cattle needed rest as well as men. He planned to grab a meal and a few hours sleep then get right back on the trail at dawn.
Ducking his head to the side to avoid a low limb, he guided his horse into the coolness of a grove of oaks. His chest and shoulders still felt warm from the late evening sun, but deep shadow already covered most of the ground under the trees. The trees nestled around a small pool fed by a lazy creek. Golden leaves floated on the glassy surface of the water. There was plenty of grass for one horse and enough thick elderberry bushes growing under the trees to hide his fire if he kept it small.
Throwing his right leg over the horn, Dan slid from the saddle. Once on the ground he stretched his long arms and rubbed his back with both hands before turning to remove his mouse-colored mustang’s saddle. He took a pair of soft hobbles from his jacket pocket and leaned down to tie them around the pony’s slim front legs. Straightening, he unbuckled the neck strap to slide the headstall over the pony’s ears and remove the bridle.
He stopped a few minutes to rub the horse’s soft nose and ears and scratch some of the damp places on its head where it sweated under the straps of the bridle. Finally, he let the mustang loose to graze on the rank growth of bluestem and gramma that covered the ground in the tiny meadow near the pond.
Gathering up a pile of dry twigs and leaves, Dan built a small fire. When the wood burned down to a bed of red coals, he cooked his supper, and went to bed.
He turned his head toward the sound, straining to hear better. Carefully checking the loads in his pistol, he pulled on his boots and eased out of his blanket. He stood still to listen, holding the weapon ready. He meant to find out what was crying so he could get some sleep. The noise stopped.
Maybe I just imagined it.
Stepping carefully to avoid making noise, Dan moved in the direction he thought the sound came from. He stopped still for a moment, listening. The sound came again.
Someone’s crying or I’ve gone to imagining things.
It was easy for him to follow the sound now. He dropped his pistol back in his holster and walked over to a thick stand of bushes close under a big tree. As he approached the covert the crying sound suddenly became much louder. At the same moment he heard someone speaking softly.
“Please stop crying like that Bryce. Please-please-stop it. You’ll just make yourself sick. I know you’re hungry, but there’s nothing left for you to eat. Go on to sleep now. I’ll find us some more food in the morning, I promise I will. Hush your crying now and go on to sleep.”
Dan stretched out a long arm to grab a handful of the elderberry bush and shove it to one side. Light from the rising moon revealed the white face of a young boy staring up at him. He looked to be maybe twelve or thirteen years old. The boy held another smaller child cuddled in his arms. Shocked speechless, Dan stared down at the children.
The older child drew back away from Dan, appearing to be more angry than afraid. “You go away and leave us alone, Mister. We ain’t hurting anything.” The boy’s face screwed up in anger or fear. His dark eyes were slits and he almost hissed the words.
Swallowing his astonishment, Dan squatted on his heels to be on a level with the boy’s eyes. Striving to keep his voice quiet and calm, he asked, “Who are you, boy? Where’re your people? Where’s your mother and father?”
“We ain’t got no ma, Mister, and our pa ain’t here right now.” The child’s voice trembled a little but still sounded an gry. “He told us to wait right here in these bushes until he came back to fetch us. He had to go somewhere on some important business. He said he’d be back before night the same day he left, but it’s been three whole days and he ain’t come back yet”
Dan shook his head to clear his thoughts. He could hardly believe his eyes or his ears. How in the world could anybody leave two little children out in the woods alone like this?
“What’s your name, kid?”
The oldest child drew back away from the opening a little, looking to the side as though he was considering running away. His voice got louder, but it continued to tremble. “We ain’t got to tell you anything, Mister. You go on now and leave us alone.”
“I heard your little brother crying for something to eat. I’ve got some leftover biscuits and a big can of peaches in my pack. I’d be willing to share with you. Why don’t you come on over to my campsite? You’re welcome to the food.”
“We ain’t supposed to move away from this place. Pa told us we had to stay put-right here-exactly where he left us.”
“Okay then, stay here. I’ll go back over to my camp and bring the food here to you. That way you can stay right where you are. It won’t take me a minute.”
Thoroughly puzzled, Dan rushed back to his camp and gathered up all the food left in his saddlebags. As he approached the clump of bushes again he felt an instant flash of hope that he’d been dreaming.
Did I really just find two abandoned children? What on earth am I supposed to do with two kids this far away from the Eight?
When he pulled the branches aside again the children were still there. The older one sat on a blanket and held the little one close. Both stared up at him with wary expressions. Dan reached out and placed his last two biscuits in the older child’s hands. He pulled his knife out of his boot, and turned away to cut open the can of peaches. Taking extra care, he cut the top edge of the can smooth enough for the children to drink the peach juice without danger of cutting their lips.
When Dan turned back to hand the older child the can of peaches both biscuits had disappeared. A white crumb glittered in one corner of the littlest child’s mouth. The biggest child took the can in both hands to help the little one drink. The fruit and juice disappeared as fast as the biscuits had.
The biggest child kept his dark eyes on Dan’s face the whole time. He continued to hold the little one in one arm. They ate so fast that Dan wished he had more food. He couldn’t help but think they still looked hungry.
“Have you youngsters got bedrolls or blankets or something to keep you warm? It gets cold as-ah-it gets almighty cold out here at night.”
“We’ve got our blankets and Pa’s basket. It’s right here beside us.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
“I’m Anne Marie Gillis, and this here’s my brother Bryce”
“Anne Marie? Your name is Anne Marie?” Dan stood up and almost shouted his astonishment. “I-I took you for a boy. I thought you were both boys”
“I ain’t a boy.” The girl sounded insulted. She held her head up and moved back into the shadows, a little farther away from Dan.
“Well, excuse me all to the dickens, ma’am. You’ve got on that cap and jeans and that big old coat. It makes you look like a boy to me. It’s kinda dark back in those bushes, too”
“I can’t help it if you’ve got poor eyes”
“Look here, Missy. I don’t need your smart mouth”
“I ain’t no smart mouth”
“By golly, you sure are a smart mouth.”
Dan suddenly realized he was almost shouting at the child. He turned away for a moment, telling himself to calm down.
I can’t be standing here arguing with this poor little girl no matter how much of a smartmouthed brat she is.
He carefully lowered his voice and turned back to question the girl again. “Where’d you youngsters and your pa come from?”
“We used to live down to Wichita, but the dirty old scudder that owned the rooming house we lived in threw us out of our room. We’re on our way to New Orleans to live. Pa’s got a bunch of kinfolk living there. We’re gonna live with them. Least ways, that’s where we’ll be going as soon as Pa gets back here. He said we’re gonna have a big steak and a pair of fine horses to ride after he finishes that important job he agreed to do”
“That sure sounds interesting-is your pa a cattleman?”
“No. Our pa ain’t no cattleman. Tending cows is sorry, dirty work and he’d never do it, never in a million years. Cowboys ain’t nothing but trash anyway-least that’s what Pa says. Our pa worked in the Red Dog Saloon in Wichita. He’s the best twenty-one dealer in the state of Kansas. The lowdown sucker of a bartender at the Red Dog fired him off his job, that’s why we had to move on.
“One of Pa’s friends came by our rooming house right when we were packing up to leave town. He paid Pa some money to do a job for him. That’s when Pa brought us out here and said he had to hide us in this place.”
“What are you supposed to do if he never comes back after you?”
“He is too coming back for us. You can’t say that. You’re a stupid cowboy.” The girl clutched the little boy against her and shrieked the words at Dan. The moon glinted on a tear sliding down her left cheek.
“It’s all right, girl. Hush now. Forget I said that. Sure your pa’ll come back for you. Don’t you start crying now.” Her violent reaction to his words made Dan feel miserable.
“I ain’t crying.”
“Well I can see that plain enough. Look here, girl. I’ve got to get me some sleep. Can you two manage where you are for the rest of the night?”
The girl’s tone changed. Her voice softened and sounded dull, as if she was tired or completely discouraged. Turning her head away from Dan she looked at the ground and asked, “Are you going to go away and leave us here too, Mister?”
Dan almost felt like crying himself. “No-no I’m not going to leave you here. I swear. I’m only going to walk back over yonder where I was trying to sleep before I heard that baby crying. I’m gonna fetch my things over here so I can sleep near you two. I don’t think I’d be able to sleep a wink otherwise.”
Hurrying back to his campsite, Dan gathered up his possessions. On the second trip he stopped to kick dirt over the remains of his fire. He dropped his saddle and other belongings on a grassy place close to the clump of bushes where the abandoned children lay hidden. Remaking his bed, he stretched out and pulled his blanket up over his shoulders. His head seemed to be spinning.
Exhausted, he finally dropped off to sleep, asking himself, What should I do with two abandoned children? What on earth should I do with two abandoned kids and one of them a smartmouthed girl?
When he looked inside the clump of bushes the next morning the two children were sound asleep. The girl still had one arm around the little boy.
“Wake up you two. I’ve got some hot water ready and a pinch of tea to flavor it for you. I even found a couple of lumps of sugar you might want. We need to get moving-it’s a long ride to where we’ll get us the best breakfast in this country.”
Anne Marie sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes with both hands. She scowled and gave Dan a disgusted look. “We can’t leave here with you, Mister. I told you that last night. Pa said that me and Bryce had to stay put, right where we are, no matter what happened. He’ll tan my hide for sure when he comes back and sees we’ve disobeyed him.”
“Look girl, you can’t stay here any longer, so just forget it. We’ll leave your father a message tied to that low limb right over there. I’ve got some paper and a pencil. I’ll tell him exactly where we’re going and how he can find you. You youngsters have got to go somewhere where you can get some food and where there’ll be somebody to see to your needs.”
“I don’t need you or anybody else to be seeing to my needs, Mister.” The girl yelled, sounding desperate. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips. Dan was sur prised to see how tall she was. She wasn’t quite as little as he at first thought.
“I can take care of me and Bryce all by myself. You ain’t got no call to be messing with us anyway. We ain’t bothering you none. You ain’t nothing but a stinking, lowdown cattle drover, anyway. I can tell that by the way you’re dressed and that saddle of yours. Why don’t you just ride on away and leave us alone?”
“Look girl, you shut that smart mouth of yours and get your stuff together. We’re leaving here right now.”
“I ain’t leaving.”
“I’ll paddle your rear end,” Dan shouted, glaring at her.
Anne Marie stared defiantly back at Dan, a fierce expression on her face. She stood with her elbows out and hands on her hips until the little boy woke up. As soon as he sat up and looked around, he started crying for something to eat. She immediately forgot about Dan and reached down to try to shush the child.
When she couldn’t convince the boy to stop howling for food, the girl’s shoulders drooped as though she had given up. Without another word she knelt to pack up their blankets. She kept her head turned away from Dan the whole time, refusing to look at him.
He tied the girl’s basket behind his saddle along with his bedroll and saddlebags. Carefully arranging the children’s blankets as a pad around and over the horn of his saddle, he made a place for the girl to ride. When he got the blankets settled to his satisfaction he turned to Anne Marie. “Hold tight to your little brother and let me lift you two up here on the front of my saddle.”
“I can walk.”
“You can’t walk as far as we have to go girl, now come here and stop arguing with me about everything.”
Dan caught Anne Marie around the waist with both hands and lifted her up in front his saddle. She still held Bryce in her arms. Looking around the little grove, he made sure the note he wrote for Gillis was placed so it could easily be seen. Satisfied he had done all he could to notify the man how to find his children if and when he returned, he climbed into the saddle behind them, wrapping one arm around the girl’s middle so she couldn’t fall off.
The girl rode without speaking until Dan stopped to open a gate in the Triangle Eight’s boundary fence, then she suddenly woke up. Raising her head she began to ask questions as rapidly as she could speak. “Where’re you taking us, anyway, Mister? Are you taking us to your own house? Do you have a ma at your house?”
“Why don’t you let me answer one of your silly questions before you ask me a couple more?
“Are you kidnapping us?”
“You and your little brother have been abandoned. I’m rescuing you”
“We are not abandoned. I told you that. Pa’s going to track you down and shoot you dead for stealing us”
“Hush girl. You’re old enough to know that your pa woulda been back after you two kids long before now if he was coming back at all. You couldn’t keep staying where you were and you know it. You didn’t even have any food left or anything. Anyway, children have got to live with somebody.”
The girl ducked her head and stayed quiet for more than five minutes before she spoke again. “Where are you taking us then?”
“To the Triangle Eight. It’s a ranch. It’s where I work and live. It’s been in my family since this whole area belonged to the Indians.”
“I never heard of no ranch called the Triangle Eight before. It can’t be much”
“You don’t know everything, Miss Smarty Pants. The Triangle Eight might not be so much to some people, but it’s enough for my family, I’ll tell you that. It’s where I’m taking you, so why don’t you just keep quiet?”
Dan cursed his luck at having to abandon the trail of the stolen cattle and horses, but he knew he had to put the care of two children before chasing a bunch of stolen stock. It didn’t matter how he felt about it. The idea that the stock thieves would get away purely riled him, but he knew it couldn’t be helped-not at the moment.
It didn’t help his mood much when he thought how the ranch foreman, Jack Burton, would fairly split his sides laughing when he saw Dan ride into the ranch yard with two children up on his saddle.
For some reason, Jack always loved to get any kind of joke on me, like he did when I was still about ten years old. Once he got one, he’d ride it into the ground. This one would probably last him a good year.
Henry’ll more’n likely throw an out-and-out fit when he sees me. He’ll probably stomp around yelling that I shoulda left these two youngsters sit where I found them and kept on trailing the stolen stock.
Dan headed his pony on a beeline for the ranch house. The route he took would get them there before noon, barring unforeseen problems. He’d be good and hungry by then himself.
His mustang’s long trot fairly ate up the miles. By the time the sun got up and had good and warmed them, Anne Marie’s head began to droop. The girl gradually relaxed and leaned back against Dan’s chest, fast asleep. She still held tight to her brother.