5 The Rustlers

The Rustlers

(Part Five of the Ranch Days)

By Maz McCoy

“There were three of ‘em. Mean and ornery; biggest men I ever saw. They stood in front of me, blocking the way through the pass. Their long black coats were covered in dirt. Their hats pulled down low so I could hardly see their eyes. They all carried rifles and I had only two bullets left in my gun.” The men around the camp fire watched as Jethro took a sip of his coffee. He gazed into the flames.

“So what did you do?” Jed asked.

Jethro, drawing out the suspense for his audience, swirled the coffee in his cup.

“Well, Jed I’ll tell ya. I was scared. Now that ain’t something I’ll admit to often, but they had me outnumbered and outgunned. I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I was staring death in the face.”

The boy’s blue eyes opened wide with anticipation and he swallowed.

Jethro took a deep breath. “I looked the one in the middle square in the eye and he didn’t flinch. I knew what I had to do, the only thing I could do.”

“What?” Jed hung on the man’s every word.

“Faster than I ever had before, I drew my gun.” He reached for the coffee pot and poured another cup.

“What then?” Jed perched on the edge of the tree trunk they were using as a seat. Jethro looked at the faces around the camp fire. Orange flames flickered, casting a warming glow. Tobacco smoke snaked into the air. All eyes were on the old man.

“Like I say, I drew my gun….”

“And?”

“They shot me, dead.”

Jed’s mouth dropped open.

“What?”

The men around him laughed and he realised he’d been had. He sighed.

“He got you good, Jed!” Marty slapped him on the back.

Heyes smiled at his friend.

“Did you know?”

“He told me that one when we were on watch last night,” Heyes informed him. “Course I didn’t fall for it.”

“Yeah, sure you didn’t.”

The ranch hands had gathered around the campfire as the sun set. They were moving the herd again but the presence of rustlers in the area meant there was a need to keep a more vigilant watch. Henry was cooking up supper on the chuck wagon and Jeff Collins and Bill Napier were out, placing men on the first watch.

Henry banged a spoon on a frying pan and the men formed an orderly line waiting for the cook to ladle out plates of stew. Heyes exchanged a smile with Jed. It felt good to be part of a team, working with others, sharing jokes and comradeship. They had gradually been accepted as hands on the Bar T. Henry, placed an extra ladle of stew in Jed’s plate, Heyes rolled his eyes; even if they did treat Jed as more of a mascot at times.

They took their food back to the fire and settled on the log. Others sat down and the talking stopped as they ate. Despite what some folks said about food on the trail, Henry was a marvel, making good grub from a few basic ingredients. When the cook sat beside Jed, silence descended, until Jethro belched.

“Do you hafta do that?” Marty asked.

“You should be glad he don’t serve up beans. Then you’d really have something to complain about.”

“Why d’you think I make him sleep on the bottom bunk?” Henry asked.

“We share the bunkhouse, we hear him,” Bill said, as he and Collins entered the camp. They looked tired and worry etched Collins’ face. “Got any grub left?”

Henry stood up.

“You know I do.” He served up two more plates full and handed them to the foreman and his right hand man. The men made a space for them and the sound of chewing and spoons scraping on metal, returned.

“I want you boys to keep your eyes open out there,” Collins announced. “We’ve lost some cattle last night.”

Heads snapped up at this revelation.

“How many, Boss?”

“Maybe twenty head.”

“I didn’t see no one,” one of the hands stated.

“We think they took them from the gulley. Make sure you keep ‘em out of there tonight. Just keep a look out and wake us if you hear anything, anything at all! And don’t tackle them on your own.”

There were nods of agreement.

***

“What do you think?” Jed asked, as he lay down and pulled the blanket up to his chin.

“About what?” Heyes lay on his back, head resting on his hands as he looked up at the stars.

“About the rustlers.”

“What’s to think about? They’re rustlers.”

“I mean what if we see them?”

“Then we call for help.” He looked sideways at his friend. “Don’t go trying to be all heroic. We just get help, fast.”

“Could be exciting though.”

“Exciting?”

“Catching ‘em.”

“Jed, we’re not gonna see them. And we’re certainly not gonna try and catch ‘em. Now go to sleep, we’re on watch in four hours.”

“Wake me, okay?”

“Sure.” Heyes closed his eyes. “Just go to sleep.”

Jed lay on his back, thinking about the men out there in the dark, waiting for a chance to steal the cows. He wished he’d brought his gun.

***

“How many?” Jeff Collins sat taller in his saddle as he looked over the moving herd.

“At least ten, I reckon, maybe more,” Bill Napier announced as he sat beside him on his own horse.

“Were our men asleep in the saddle or what?” Collins removed his hat, wiping a hand across his brow. He sighed, then whacked his hat on his thigh, uttering a curse. Composing himself he looked at Bill.

“Can you pick up their trail?”

“No problem, and Marty recognised a horseshoe print. Belonged to a horse owned by Ely Jacobs when he worked for us.”

“Jacobs? Well that explains it. No love lost between him and me. All right, we’ll leave enough men to guard the rest and move them down into the valley. Then we’ll head after them. They’ve got at least thirty cows, hidden somewhere. I reckon in that arroyo just south of here.”

“Most likely. What about the two boys? Leave them with the herd?”

“No, I’d rather they were back at the ranch, outta harms way.”

“You mean where they can’t cause trouble?”

“I saw the eager look in Jed’s eye when he heard the word rustlers. Don’t want to turn this into a dime novel. Send ‘em back once we’ve reached the ford.”

“Okay, Boss.”

Bill turned his horse away and a scowl spread on Collins’ face. Rustlers. Just when things had been going well for the Bar T. They couldn’t afford to lose cattle. Money was too tight. They were going to get them back! It was time he settled his score with Jacobs.

***

“Hi-up!”

“Come on cows!”

“Yah! Come on!”

“Move it!”

More cries and whistles filled the air mingling with the dust cloud the cattle created as they moved slowly into the valley. Hats swung in the air, urging the animals on. The smell of fresh grass and water caught their attention and the herd picked up its pace.

When the cattle were settled, Collins called the men to him, explaining what each man was expected to do; who would stay with the herd, who would accompany him and go after the rustlers. They nodded their understanding and rode off. Collins turned his attention to Heyes and Jed.

“Boys, I want you back at the ranch. Keep an eye out for any strangers or anything unusual on the way. Tell Mark and Nathan what’s going on. They’ll get word to the sheriff.”

“Yes, sir.” The reluctance in Heyes’ voice was obvious. He knew why they were being sent back and his pride didn’t like it. He was old enough to ride with them, old enough to watch the herd or go after the rustlers, but they didn’t want Jed there and that meant he had to go back too.

“Why can’t we come with you?” Jed, it seemed, was more direct.

They waited for Collins’ tactful response.

“You’d get in the way, Jed,” the foreman told him, bluntly.

“I ain’t big enough to get in the way.”

“Don’t argue with me, boy. You’ll ride with us to the ford and then get back to the ranch. Understood?” He looked directly at Jed. The boy frowned.

“Understood.”

“All right, let’s get going.”

***

“I don’t see why we can’t go along,” Jed muttered as they rode at the rear of the group.

“You heard what he said; you’d get in the way.”

“So why’s he sending you back?”

“’Cos I got to see that you get back safely!”

“Han, I don’t need you to babysit me! I can get back on my own.”

“Well the Boss seems to think otherwise, so I got to see you do as you’re told and get there in one piece.”

“And who sees you get back in once piece?”

“I’m older than you. I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah, right! I reckon he thinks you’ll get in the way too.”

“Stop bickerin’!” Bill rode up beside them. “You two are like a coupla girls at times, d’you know that? When we get to the ford, I’ll…

“THAT’S THEM!” Someone yelled and they turned to see five men on horseback beating a hasty retreat into the trees on a nearby hill.

“GET AFTER ‘EM!”

The men spurred their horses. Jed and Heyes did the same. As they reached the trees the rustlers turned in the saddle and a volley of shots filled the air. Drawing their guns, the men of the Bar T returned fire. Jed ducked low over his horse’s neck as a bullet whizzed past his ear.

“Stay back!” Collins ordered Jed and Heyes but they continued to ride with the rest of the hands. There was no time for Collins to reprimand the two boys. Hearts pounded in their chests, adrenaline flowed through their veins, their breathing quickened with fear and excitement.

“Wish I had my gun!” Jed yelled.

“Why? So you could shoot one of us?” Heyes snapped as he rode off.

“I’m a good shot!” There was no reply. “I am!”

They followed the men into the shadows. Hooves pounded on crisp, fallen leaves, snapping twigs as their riders ducked low hanging branches. Even in the dense undergrowth shots were fired. Someone cried out and they heard another man curse. Finally they emerged into the sunlight. The five men spilt up, each man heading off in a different direction. Bill turned to Collins for instructions. Spilt up themselves or go after the leaders?

“Boss, what do you…?” He pulled up when he saw the blood on the foreman’s shirt. “Boss?”

Collins slumped over his horse, his hand at his left shoulder.

“Jeff?”

“I’m okay. Probably just a flesh wound.” His eyes met Bill’s; clearly he wasn’t convincing anyone. “Well, maybe not.”

“Let me take a look at that.”

“There’s no time. Get after ‘em Bill, but be careful.” He grimaced; blood seeping through his fingers.

“We need to get you back.”

“I’ll get back. I’ll take the boys. Just don’t let those *&!#! get away. When you catch Jacobs, bring him to me!”

“Jeff, I…”

“Go, Bill! Go on; get after them before they take more of our stock.”

Their eyes met. They had worked together for many years. With a nod that meant more than just okay, Bill turned his horse, calling to the others and headed after the men. Heyes and Kid pulled their horses alongside Collins’.

“Boss, what do you want us to…” Heyes’ eyes fell on the blood.

“Should we…” Jed pulled his horse to a halt beside the foreman. “Oh.” Jed exchanged a glance with Heyes.

“What can we do to help?” Heyes asked.

“Give me your bandana.”

Heyes removed it and handed it over. Collins removed his hand from the wound and young eyes focussed on the blood. They watched as the foreman folded the bandana along with his own, creating a double thick dressing, and placed them over the wound, flinching as he did so.

“I don’t reckon this’ll staunch the flow for too long but it should see me back.” Raising his head he saw the concern on their faces. “It’s your job to see I get back to the Bar T. If I pass out…Well, just make sure I stay on the horse, okay?”

“Sure, Boss.”

Collins looked at Heyes.

“If I pass out, you’re in charge.”

Heyes nodded, willing to accept the responsibility and wondering if he was a bad person for wishing, just a little bit that Collins did lose consciousness, just for a while. Then again, he only had Jed to boss around and he could do that anytime.

“You all right?” Collins’ eyes fell on Jed, who was looking at the bloody wound.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. ‘Cos you look worse than I feel. You don’t faint at the sight of blood do ya?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Okay, boys let’s ride.”

Holding the reins between clenched fingers, Collins turned his horse back towards the trees, Heyes and Jed riding on either side of him.

***

After half an hour Collins’ horse slowed. The foreman leaned forward in the saddle, hanging over the horse’s neck.

“Mister Collins?” Jed rode closer. Sweat ran down the man’s face, his eyelids drooped and he didn’t acknowledge Jed’s presence. “Han!”

Heyes rode up and looked at the man.

“Mister Collins? Boss? Jeff? Jeff?”

Two half closed eyes looked up at him. Pain lined Collins’ face.

“Get help. I can’t…Can’t ride any…”

Heyes scanned the surroundings. There was a stand of trees at the bottom of a small incline.

“Let’s get you over there; you can rest in the shade.”

Nodding, Collins allowed them to lead his horse. Once there he fell rather than climbed off his horse. Between them the boys managed to get the man sitting with his back against the trunk of a large tree. Jed handed him his canteen.

“Thanks.” Collins took a long drink, spilling much of it down his shirt. He handed it back and Jed grabbed it before it fell and spilt the rest. He knelt beside his boss and untied his own bandana, then reached for the ones at Collins’ shoulder. The man placed a bloody hand around his wrist, stopping him.

“What are you doing?”

“Changing this.”

“What for?”

“A clean one. Mine.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Let me, okay?”

Collins looked into two blue eyes and nodded. Heyes paced beside the horses.

“One of us should stay here and the other go for help.”

“I’ll stay,” Jed stated.

“You sure?”

Jed met Heyes’ eyes. His friend now seemed more affected by the blood Collins was losing than Jed was.

“Yeah, I’m sure.” The blond boy dropped the bloody cloth on the ground, and then placed his own folded bandana over the gaping wound. “We need more bandages, or something.”

“In my saddle bags,” Collins told them, as his head rested back against the tree. “Always carry a clean shirt in case I get lucky and meet a pretty gal. Just my luck to get stuck with you two, instead, huh?”

They smiled and Heyes went to the horses. He rummaged in Collins’ saddlebags, returning with a clean white shirt.

“Tear it up.”

“It’s a new shirt.”

“Yeah, and I’m gonna bleed to death if you don’t.”

“Oh, right.” Heyes took a knife from inside his boot and Collins raised his eyebrows. “I always carry it. Ever since we were in the… Well for years now.”

“I’m not complaining, son.”

Heyes nodded and got to work cutting the shirt into strips. Between them Jed and Heyes helped the foreman remove his shirt and then bandaged his shoulder. Their clumsy attempts must have hurt but he didn’t complain, just flinched now and then. The foreman pointed at the bloody shirt, Jed now held.

“Cut that up too. I have a feeling we may need to replace this soon.”

“I don’t think it’s bleeding as much as it was,” Jed informed him, optimistically.

Heyes picked up his knife and began shredding more cloth. When he finished, he placed the strips of fabric beside Jed.

“I should get going. You gonna be okay here?”

Jed stood and faced his friend

“Yeah. I can take care of him.”

“Okay. I’ll be as quick as I can, send someone for the doctor and bring Nathan and a wagon back.” He looked at Collins. “I’ll be back soon, Boss.”

“Thanks.”

Heyes climbed back in the saddle and Jed watched him ride off. Then he turned back to the injured man.

***

“NATHAN! NATHAN!”

The sound of Heyes yelling brought Nathan running from the barn, pitchfork still in his hand. He squinted against the sun, watching the approaching horse and rider.

“What’s wrong?”

“Rustlers! They shot the Boss. Bill’s taken some men after them. We need someone to go for the doctor and I hafta take the wagon back for him.”

“MARK! MARK!” Nathan yelled and the door to the bunk house opened and the owner’s son stepped out.

“Whatcha yellin’ at me for?”

“Boss is shot. Rustlers. Send for the doctor. I’m heading out with the wagon.”

“D’you need me with you?”

“No, just get things ready for when we get back.”

“Will do.”

Nathan turned to Heyes.

“Help me hitch up the horses.”

***

“D’you want another drink?” Jed held up the canteen.

“No, I’m okay.” Collins focused on the youngster. “You’re a good kid, Jed. You and Heyes are doing fine.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“How ‘bout you call me Jeff or Collins or Boss, like the rest of the men? Sir’s kinda formal.”

“I don’t want to be disrespectful.”

“You’re not.”

Jed smiled.

“Okay.”

Collins watched the boy as he gathered twigs and branches to make a fire.

“Mind if we talk?”

“No, sir.”

“I don’t want to pass out.”

“What d’you want to talk about?”

“I’m not thinkin’ too well, how ‘bout you pick a topic?”

“Oh, okay.” Jed thought. “How long you been at the Bar T?”

“Six years. I was starting a place of my own but…Well, it didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. I needed something new. Mister Culver offered me the foreman’s job. I couldn’t say no.”

“I like working here.”

“I’m glad, although you still got a lot to learn.”

“So, Heyes keeps telling me.”

“He’s a good kid.”

“I ain’t complaining. He’s all I got.”

The man closed his eyes. No, he wasn’t going to pass out. He shivered. That wasn’t good. He needed to focus on something.

“How long were you in the orphanage?”

“Too long.” Jed’s face clouded over.

“You don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to. A man should know when not to pry.”

“It’s okay. It just wasn’t a good time for us. They weren’t nasty or nothin’; just wasn’t home. Even in a room full of people it felt real lonely.”

“I know what you mean.”

“Were you an orphan?”

“No, but I know what it’s like to lose your home, your family.”

“Hurts don’t it? Losing your folks.”

“More than my shoulder does right now, I’d say.”

Jed stood up and moved towards him. Collins shivered once more.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“No. Seems to have got cold here all of a sudden.”

“I’ll get you a blanket. Then get the fire started.”

Collins closed his eyes.

***

“You all right?” Nathan asked as he led a horse from the barn.

“Yeah. Sure.”

“How bad’s Jeff hurt?”

“He’s got a bullet in the shoulder. It was bleeding pretty bad.”

“Jed all right staying?”

“He volunteered.”

“Go grab some canteens and bandages.”

Heyes ran to the bunkhouse.

“HEYES!” He stopped at the shout and turned. “D’you know where Henry keeps the whiskey?”

“Doesn’t everyone?”

“Well fetch it. I reckon we’re all gonna need it.”

Nathan finished hitching the team and was ready to go when Heyes returned carrying a bag.

“I put in some grub too.”

“Good. Tie your horse to the back and climb on up.”

Heyes did so and with a flick of the reins they headed out.

***

The injured man mumbled something Jed couldn’t understand. His face was pale and his skin clammy. Jed had decided against lighting the fire he’d made in case the rustlers were still close by. Instead he’d removed his saddle and blanket from his horse and used the blanket and his jacket to cover Collins. At least he was no longer shivering.

Jed heard the snort of a horse.

“Mary?” Collins’ eyes flew open and a hand clamped over his mouth.

“Shhhh!” Jed placed a finger to his lips. Collins struggled in confusion and Jed pressed his hand harder. “I heard someone,” the boy whispered. “Keep quiet.”

Collins nodded and Jed removed his hand.

“Who?” His voice was a dry whisper.

“I don’t know.”

He reached down to Collins’ holster.

“What are you doing?”

“I need your gun.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, it could be one of ours.”

“It isn’t.”

“How the heck do you kn…” A small hand shot up, cutting off his words. Jed removed the gun from the holster and gripping it tightly, his eyes scanned the trees.

They heard the horses before the men’s voices drifted to them.

Jed crouched low, watching, listening.

“I tell ya I reckon we’re being followed.”

“Not a chance, they all took off after Jacobs. You saw ‘em.”

“So we goin’ back to the cattle or what?”

“I lost two nights sleep for them, I ain’t losing money too. Darn right we’re goin’ back and if Jacobs don’t show I say we take ‘em south ourselves.”

“I’m with you on that.”

“How many?” Collins mouthed, not making a sound.

Jed held up two fingers and then crept forward. He made his way cautiously up the hill until he could see the trail. Two men sat on their horses. He held his breath. The horses were just a few feet away. Jed could hear his heart thumping in his chest. Hooves shifted in the dust. A saddle creaked. A man spit on a rock. Finally they moved on. Jed watched nervously, until they were out of sight, then he crawled back to Collins.

“Well?”

“Only two of them. They didn’t see me.”

Collins groaned, clenched his teeth.

“Anything I can do?”

“No, I jus…I jus need some sleep.” After a few laboured breaths, his head dropped forward.

“Jeff? Jeff?”

Seeing the man’s chest still rose and fell, Jed relaxed. He hoped Heyes was back soon.

***

Heyes knee bounced up and down with impatience as he sat beside Nathan.

“Sit still will ya?” Nathan shot him a sideways glance.

“Sorry. I just want to get back there. Jed’s…Well…You know.”

“Yeah, I know.” Nathan flicked the reins. “Tell me again about the rustlers.”

“They came at night. Bill reckons they’ve got at least thirty cows by now. He thought they’d hide them in an arroyo south of where the herd are.”

“I think I know where he means.”

“Did they think we wouldn’t notice some cows were missing?”

“They knew we would. That’s why they carry guns.”

“I never realised ranch work was gonna be dangerous as well as hard on the back.”

Nathan smiled and flicked the reins once more.

***

“Mary.” Jed looked across at the injured man. He was murmuring something. Jed moved closer. Collins had slid down the trunk and lay on his right side.

“Jeff?”

Sweat covered Collins’ forehead but he shivered as he muttered.

“Mary.”

“Jeff? Can you hear me?”

“Mary, I can’t see….Mar…”

Jed chewed his lower lip, not knowing how to help the man. His head shot up when he heard a sound…Gripping the gun he stood and walked to the edge of the trees. Shielding himself behind a large trunk, he looked out onto the plains below. A wagon headed towards the trees. Jed relaxed when he recognised the two figures sitting up front. He stepped into the open and waved.

***

Jed stood before the front door of the main house. He removed his hat and flattened his hair down with his hand. He rubbed the toes of his boots on the backs of his pants legs to polish them. Swallowing, he knocked.

It was a few moments before he saw the outline of someone heading towards the door. A woman opened it.

“Ah, Jed, Mister Collins is waiting for you. Come in.” Judith Tyler, the housekeeper, stood to one side allowing the boy to enter. He stopped, in the hallway, waiting for instructions. “Follow me.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. Tyler led the way up the stairs and along a short corridor to a bedroom. She knocked and then opened the door, without waiting for a reply.

“Jed is here to see you.” She beckoned the boy into the room and turned to leave. “Don’t tire him out.”

Jeff Collins sat up in bed, his shoulder heavily bandaged. He looked better than the last time Jed had seen him, unconscious in the back of the wagon, but he was still pale.

“Hi, Jed.”

“Boss.” Jed edged forward. “How’s your shoulder?”

“Painful.”

“It’s nice of the Culver’s to let you stay here.”

“They’re nice people.”

“Yeah.” Jed looked at the floor. “Bill said you wanted to see me.”

“I did. I wanted to thank you for looking after me. Not sure if I said it at the time.”

“I didn’t do anything special.”

“Well, I’m grateful for what you did. I doubt I was the best patient.”

“You were okay.”

“Well you have my thanks.” Collins looked at the boy; clearly there was something on his mind. “Everything okay with you and Heyes? No one giving you a hard time?”

“We’re fine.”

“Good.” Still he could tell, Jed wanted to say something. “What is it?”

“Boss?”

“There’s something eating at you, I can tell.”

“It’s none of my business.”

“I reckon I can let you ask a question, if you’ve got one.”

Jed considered this.

“When you were unwell, shot, you called out for someone.”

Collins face clouded over.

“I did?”

“Yeah.”

“Who?”

“Mary. I just wondered who she was and if we could get her for you?”

Taking a deep breath, Collins looked away. His gaze focussed on the curtains and the light spilling into the room. Jed wasn’t sure but he thought the man’s eyes misted over. Taking a moment to compose himself, Collins turned back.

“Mary was my wife.”

“I didn’t know you were…” Then he realised the man had used the word ‘was’.

“She died giving birth to our first child. A boy. He died too.”

“I’m sorry.” Jed gripped his hat tighter. “Was it a long time ago?”

“Six years.”

“The same time you started…Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Despite the topic, Collins smiled at the wise head on young shoulders.

“I won’t say nothing about it to the others.”

“I’d appreciate that. You’re a good kid, Jed. What are you hoping to do with your life?”

“I don’t know. I enjoy ranching; well, I like the horses. Not sure if Han and I will ever afford a place of our own. Just wanna do something that’d make our folks proud.”

“I’m sure you’ll be a success at whatever you do.”

“I hope so.” Jed shifted awkwardly. “I’d best get back or Henry will yell at me.”

“Go on then; can’t have the cook mad.”

They exchanged a smile and Jed left. Collins reached over to the bedside table and picked up his pocket watch. Opening it, he ran his thumb lovingly over the photograph inside.

***

Mrs. Tyler saw Jed to the door and had just closed it when she heard someone pounding down the stairs.

“Miss Emily, that isn’t the way a lady…”

“Where is he? Has he gone?”

“Who?”

“Jed.”

“The young man is on his way back to…” Emily flew past her, flinging open the door before the housekeeper could finish her sentence. Emily raced outside. It wouldn’t be proper to call out to him but…She stopped in her tracks. Jed was heading towards the bunkhouse and talking to her brother, Mark. Darn. There was something important she had to tell him…

End of Part 5

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