The Horse Thieves
(Part Eight of the Ranch Days series)
By Maz McCoy
“They’re fine looking animals, Boss.” Nathan stood beside Jeff Collins, watching the herd of recently broken horses moving around the corral.
“They sure are.” He turned to his friend and smiled. “And you broke your share of ‘em.”
“Yeah, ‘till one broke me.”
“You’ll be fit again soon.”
The men exchanged a smile. The Bar T ranch foreman, Jeff Collins, was still recovering from a bullet wound to the shoulder and Nathan was hobbling around on crutches waiting for a broken leg to mend.
“We’re quite a pair,” Collins agreed as he cast an eye over the horses.
“So when you driving ‘em in?”
“Tomorrow. That’ll give ‘em time to rest up before we ship ‘em out.”
“Wish I could go with you.” Nathan’s gaze turned wistful. “I’m feelin’ pretty useless around here.”
“Nathan, you ain’t useless. You just got hurt that’s all. And don’t think for one minute that I haven’t been keeping note of all the things waiting for you to do once you’re fit again.”
This brought a smile to the man’s face. He looked at the ground.
“Now before we turn into a coupla mushy ol’ women go get those kids will ya, I got a job for them. That is if you can hobble up to the bunkhouse by yourself?”
Laughing, Nathan turned.
“Reckon I can just about manage that.”
Collins watched him limp away.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee woke Heyes the following morning. He turned over in his bunk and pulled the blanket higher. It was surely too early to get up.
“Coffee’s up boys,” Henry announced.
There were murmurs and the sounds of men climbing from their bunks. Boots scraped on the floor, phlegm was brought up with chesty coughs and a ping announced its arrival in the spittoon. Heyes tried to ignore the belches and other bodily noises of the men moving around him. He’d been dreaming about a pretty, brown-haired girl and he was sure if he could get back to sleep she’d be waiting for him.
“You gettin’ up?” A hand poked him in the back.
“Leave me alone,” the shape beneath the blanket muttered.
Heyes heard a chuckle and the blanket was pulled off.
“HEY!” He sat up and found Marty standing beside his bunk, a broad grin on his face.
“Get up and getcha breakfast or will leave before you’ve eaten. Or throw you on your horse in just your underwear.”
“Now wouldn’t that be a sight to scare the horses!” Henry chuckled.
Reluctantly, Heyes swung his legs over the edge of his bunk and ran a hand through his hair, having no affect on its dishevelled appearance. He yawned and stretched as Jed approached. The blond boy held a biscuit and cup of coffee.
“Mornin’.” Heyes eyed his friend. “You’re looking awful cheerful this morning, any reason?”
“Nope. Just looking forward to driving the horses into town.”
“We’ll be riding drag, again,” Heyes moaned as he jumped down from his bunk.
“Boy, you sure got outta the wrong side of the bed.” Jed sat down on his bunk. He looked up at the fuzzy growth on Heyes chin. “You gonna shave again?”
“You growing a beard?”
Heyes rubbed his thumb and finger over his chin.
“You’ll have trouble growing a moustache, with that peach fuzz,” Nathan scoffed as he hobbled over. Jed smirked and looked away. “You boys ready for the ride to town?”
“We riding drag?” Heyes rummaged for his wash kit.
“Sure, if that’s what you want. I’ll tell the Boss.” Nathan turned away.
“No! Wait! I didn’t mean…”
Nathan turned back and smiled. Heyes realised he’d been had.
“Just get yourselves ready.”
Heyes turned back to his bunk and found Jed grinning at him.
“Shut up will ya.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were thinking it though.”
“I wasn’t thinkin’ nothin’.”
Jed stuffed the final piece of his biscuit in his mouth and decided to say no more.
In various states of undress, lined up along a waist-high water-filled trough, the men of the Bar T washed at the back of the bunkhouse. Mirrors, some broken to little more than shards were propped up on a long wooden beam above the water. Soap was lathered and applied to stubbled faces as razors scraped over sun-toughened skin. Hannibal Heyes stood at the end of the row trying not to cut himself. He had no idea Marty was watching him as he shaved, keeping an eye, in case the boy slit his own throat. He winced as the razor slid swiftly towards a major artery. Heyes had several small cuts along his jaw line but he was getting better. Marty smiled as he remembered his father’s attempts at teaching him to shave. That was a lifetime ago. He wondered if his Pa had watched with as much trepidation as he followed the slide of Heyes’ razor.
“You bled to death yet, Heyes?” Bill Napier asked from the other side of the trough. Heyes didn’t reply as he concentrated on removing the soap from that delicate space beneath his nose. Then he smiled, triumphantly.
“I think I’m getting the hang of it.” Heyes admired his reflection in the mirror. Marty rolled his eyes and ran his own razor up his neck.
At the sound of gunshots, Marty cut a chunk out of his chin.
Dropping their razors, soap and wash cloths, the men grabbed their guns and ran, suspenders swinging at their sides. At the front of the bunkhouse they found themselves faced with ten or so men, all brandishing rifles or handguns. The anguished whinnying of horses could be heard in the corral as the animals were rounded up. Seeing the ranch hands, the rifles turned in their direction.
Collins stood on the bunkhouse porch along with Nathan. A man stepped forward from the group of horse thieves. There was a gasp as he was recognised.
“Jacobs.” Collins stepped forward. “I told you not to come back here.”
“Since when did I ever listen to what you said, Collins?” Ely Jacobs turned his attention to the ranch hands. “Boys, just stay out of our way and no one’ll get hurt.”
“We’ll hang ya when we catch up with ya!”
“Collins, you ain’t gonna catch us. Didn’t getcha cows back, did ya? I had hoped to be outta here before sun up but I don’t think you broke some of them horses properly.” He glanced at the ranch hands. “Putcha guns down, boys.”
Some looked to Collins.
“Do as he says.”
Slowly, the men placed their weapons on the ground. Jacobs smiled, waving a hand and three men stepped towards him, rifles at the ready.
“Keep an eye on them, while I see how we’re doin’.”
Marty, soap covering one side of his face, stood at the back of the group. Unseen by the men watching them, he dropped to his knees. Beside him Henry did the same and slowly moved backwards. The men shifted to shield their departure.
Jeff Collins stood and seethed as the horses were herded to one end of the corral and two more were led from the barn. When he got his hands on Jacobs… Raised voices could be heard in the barn along with the sounds of a struggle before a large man, Collins knew as Fox, emerged from the shadows dragging Jed Curry behind him. Jed fought and struggled against the man’s firm hold. Collins and Nathan took an unconscious step forward.
“Look what I found!” Fox announced as he pulled the boy towards Jacobs. “Caught him sneaking up on Silas with a pitchfork.” He threw Jed to the ground.
“Bring him over here.”
Fox hauled Jed to his feet, blood showed on the knees of the boy’s jeans as he dragged him towards Jacobs.
“Come here, boy.” The tall man grabbed hold of the kid’s shirt collar, pulling him up. Jed struggled and Jacobs tightened his grip on Jed’s arm, twisting it behind his back.
Heyes stepped forward, angry eyes fixed on the man holding his friend.
“Don’t!” someone cautioned.
“We can’t just do nothing!”
“You choose your time, Heyes. Choose your time.”
Jed’s wide eyes scanned those of the men outside the bunkhouse, searching for Heyes. He found him and their gazes locked. Heyes knew his friend was scared and there was nothing he could do to help. He gave his head a slight shake.
Jacobs cast a glance over his shoulder, checking on the progress of his men.
“We’ve got ‘em all,” Fox informed him.
“Time to go,” Jacobs announced as he turned back to the ranch hands. Jacob dragged Jed backwards as he walked towards his horse. “Might just take this little one with us, to stop you doin’ anything stupid Collins. What d’ya say to that? You reckon he’s worth the trouble?”
“You don’t need to take him.” The foreman stepped to the edge of the porch.
“Now why don’t I believe that?”
“Just leave the boy.”
“You always were a soft touch.” Jacobs reached his horse he pushed Jed away. The boy stumbled, but without another thought he got straight back to his feet and lashed out at the man, landing a blow to his stomach. Jacobs doubled over.
“You little *@$#!”
Before Jed could land a second punch, Fox turned his horse towards him. His large hand made contact with the side of the boy’s head, knocking him to the ground. This time Jed lay still.
“JED!” Heyes cried. Jacobs climbed into the saddle. With a wave to his men they opened the corral, herded the horses out and rode away.
“GET AFTER ‘EM!” Collins yelled and the men grabbed their guns and sprang into action. Rifles were raised, shots fired, two horses went down taking their riders with them. Marty and Henry appeared from alongside the main house guns raised, cutting off the escape route. A third man fell from the saddle as the men of the Bar T gave chase. Marty aimed and fired his Colt, Jacobs horse went down and the man toppled from its back, quickly scrambling to his feet as he drew his gun and exchanged fire. Marty only needed one more shot to bring him down.
The newly broken horses ran off, the horse thieves scattered and the Bar T hands leapt on the back of their unsaddled horses and rode after them. Collins ran towards the corral as Nathan hobbled after him on his crutches.
Heyes stared down at his friend lying still in the dirt. He dropped to his knees. The scene was all too familiar. He’d seen it every night in his nightmares for months after the event and now Jed was part of it too. Something inside Heyes snapped. Heyes turned and walked away, not waiting to hear how Jed was. His eyes focussed on Jacobs.
Henry had the man’s arms pulled tight behind his back as Collins glared at him like he wanted to rip him apart. Blood soaked into Jacob’s right sleeve, where Marty’s bullet had caught him. No one took much notice of the young man approaching so they were taken by surprise when Heyes launched himself at Jacobs. Heyes punched the man square in the jaw and he staggered backwards. Henry let him go and Jacobs hit the ground. Heyes landed another blow and then fell on top of him. Fists flew as Heyes punched, kicked and clawed.
“YOU KILLED HIM, YOU *$!#! YOU KILLED HIM! YOU KILLED THEM ALL!”
“HEYES! HEYES! THAT’S ENOUGH!” Hands grabbed at his shirt but he was running on adrenaline and no one was going to stop him getting his revenge. Years of hurt came streaming out of him with every blow he landed. Unable to protect himself, Jacobs could do nothing but turn and try to wriggle away.
“STOP HIM. HE’S INSANE!”
“WHY? WHY DID YOU DO IT?”
More blows rained in on the defenceless man.
“ENOUGH HEYES! STOP IT BOY!”
As his strength weakened Heyes felt himself lifted off the man and dragged away, still kicking and screaming.
“Calm down, son,” someone whispered in his ear. “Jed’s alive.”
As his pulse and breathing slowed, Heyes realised that someone was holding him, strong arms wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his side as he kicked for release. Eventually he stopped struggling. The blood-filled fury disappeared to be replaced by a blurred view of the hills beyond the Bar T. He had no idea he was crying.
“Jed’s fine. He needs you, Heyes.”
Heyes couldn’t see who held him but he recognised the scar on the arm around him. Marty.
“I’m okay.” The tears betrayed him.
“You sure, boy?”
Heyes breathing slowed.
“If I let you go you ain’t gonna fly at him again are ya?” Heyes shook his head. “What’s that?”
“All right. I’m gonna let go.” Marty set Heyes’ feet on the ground and released his hold on him. Heyes staggered forward and took several deep breaths. Marty looked him in the eye. “I reckon that was a long time coming.”
Embarrassed by his outburst, Heyes wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He did his best to compose himself. With a nod of his head, Marty indicated something behind Heyes. The young man turned and saw Jed, sitting on the ground, staring at him with concern.
“You okay?” the blond boy asked.
Heyes nodded, not sure if it was true.
“Best get you cleaned up,” Heyes said. He held out his hand to Jed and pulled his friend to his feet.
Jacobs and the other men they had managed to capture stood against the corral fence, hands bound behind their backs. The men of the Bar T stood guard.
“I could hang you right here.” Collins stood boot tip to boot tip, eye to eye, with Jacobs.
“You ain’t got the nerve.”
“Oh, I have, but unlike you I respect the law. We’ll take you into Claremont and the sheriff can deal with you. I imagine we’ll be invited to the hanging.” Collins turned away. “Bill, get them in the wagon. Marty, take some men and go round up the rest of the horses.” Without a look back, Collins headed for the bunkhouse. It was time to find out how the youngest of his men was doing.
Jed sat on his bunk. Heads rose when Collins entered the bunkhouse. He strode purposefully towards Jed’s bunk.
“How is he?”
“He’ll be fine,” Henry informed him. “A bump on the head mighta knocked some sense into him.”
Collins eyes met Jed’s.
“You were lucky. That was a dumb thing to do, going after Jacobs like that.”
The boy’s shoulder’s stiffened, defensively.
“I was angry.”
“So I saw, but you ain’t paid to get angry. You’re paid to follow orders, understand?”
“Yes, sir.” Kid’s voice was little more than a whisper.
“What was that?”
Jed looked up at the Boss.
“Good. Now make sure you remember that. If I want you to attack anyone I’ll letcha know.” Collins turned his attention to Heyes. “What’s your excuse?”
“I thought he’d killed Jed.”
“Did you bother to find out first?”
“No.” Heyes eyed the floorboards.
“Did I ask you to attack Jacobs?”
Henry didn’t say a word, just watched.
“Who’s in charge around here?”
“You are.” Heyes toed the floor with his boot.
“You are, Boss.”
“I’m glad we understand each other. If either of you pull another fool move like that I’ll have your hides tanned. Do I make myself clear?”
“I didn’t think you’d take the side of men like that. They all deserve to hang.”
Collins’ eyes narrowed at Heyes words.
“Maybe Jacobs does. He’s done more than just steal a few cows and horses. Fox, too, I reckon. But the others…I don’t know.”
“They ride together, they should suffer together.”
“I guess I’d want to know more about them first, Heyes. Don’t let what happened to your folks cloud your judgement about every man that does something wrong. I’ve known some pretty good bad men in my time. Men who’d cut a man’s throat one minute then save a drowning kitten the next. Don’t be so quick to judge, that’s all I say.”
Jed looked at his friend but Heyes’ eyes were still focused on a knot hole in the floorboards.
“When Henry’s finished I want you to get over to the barn and clean out every stall, then you can do the same for the hen house. If I don’t like what I see, I’ll get you cleaning the outhouse too.”
Brown eyes shot a glare at the foreman.
“Got something to say, Heyes?”
A deep breath was taken.
“Good. Next time you act on my orders, not your own.”
With that Collins turned and walked out.
“I don’t see why he’s taking it out on us.”
“I thought you were smart, Heyes.” Henry got to his feet. Looking at the boys he shook his head. “Jeff’s trying to save your lives.”
End of Part Eight