Authors: Shirl Henke
The men, relaxing after a long, hard day, were the usual lot, mostly young with painfully vulnerable faces and poorly barbered hair. Here and there grizzled veterans sat among them with gnarled hands and weather-blasted faces.
At the moment, all attention was turned to the confrontation between a tall, thin young man and a wizened veteran who lobbed a mouthful of tobacco into the well-worn spittoon and said, "Gawd dammit, Sly, that's the third time this week I seen you throwin' a grayback on the floor without killin' it first." The old-timer's voice was high and raspy, as if his chaw had coated his vocal cords.
"I didn't neither," the young cowboy protested.
"There it goes," a third man yelled and proceeded to stomp a rapidly moving louse into the rough pine plank.
"I got witnesses now, don't I?" the toothless veteran asked. Several of the men nodded and murmured their agreement with varying degrees of vehemence.
"You gotta pay up, Sly. The fine's ten cents," one said to a chorus of yeahs.
The old-timer held out his hand as the red-faced Sly scratched his belly through a greasy flannel shirt and rummaged in his vest pockets until he produced the required revenue.
"It goes to the readin' fund. Pretty soon we got us enough to buy that new women's catalogue."
The babble of agreement quickly died down as Jess stepped into the bunkhouse. Nearly eighty pairs of eyes fastened on the stranger, quickly sizing him up by the expensive Colt Lightning on his hip and the cold look in his eyes, gray as a winter sky. "I'm looking for the ramrod, Moss Symington."
"I'm Symington," a big, barrel-chested man with slouched shoulders and a bulbous, red-veined nose said, stepping through the crowd of men. His expression was guarded as he combed a thick pawlike hand through the few dozen strands of gray hair remaining on top of his head. "You must be Robbins. Boss said you'd be along in a few days. They's a free bunk at the end of the wall down there. Stow your gear and then meet me in my cabin." He jerked one hamlike hand toward a small log building directly across the corral. "We got some things to talk out." He headed toward the cabin, walking with the rolling, bowlegged gait of a man who had spent his life on horseback.
As Jess walked down the long rows of bunks, the hands stepped back, some insolently appraising him with hard eyes, most backing out of his way with nervous nods. He glanced curiously over them as he passed until he neared the end of the long aisle and one tall, rangy figure stepped into his path.
"Jess, it is you! Damnation, I knew it. I'd recognize you in hell with your hide burned off, even after ten years." His coal-black face split in a wide grin as he extended his hand.
Jess seized the older man by the shoulders and inspected him fondly. "Tate, you leather-legged son of a bitch. Last time we parted company, you were heading to Arizona to work for the Hash Knife outfit."
"This ole boy had him purely enough of hot country. Shit, Jess, after a year in Arizona, when a feller goes to hell, he has to wire home for his overcoat. I quit. Drifted some after that." His liquid brown eyes were haunted.
"Tabitha?" Jess asked, already knowing the answer.
"She up 'n died, Jess. That winter while I was workin' Hash Knife. After that, I lost interest in savin' to buy that little spread. Seemed kinda pointless."
"I'm real sorry about Tabitha, Tate," Jess said.
"I reckon I was a lucky cuss to have a gal like her, even for a few years. You still buildin' that place of yorn in the Big Bend Country?"
"Yes. Jonah takes care of it for me." He noticed the worn denims and scuffed boots the black man wore. Even more, what he did not wear. Tate Shannon was unarmed.
Seeing the direction of Robbins's gaze, Shannon said softly, "I give up guns, Jess. Got too old. Too old and too tired of dodgin' bullets. Don't need the money anymore since Tabby's gone. Got no reason to hire out. You oughta give it up yourself. Find a good gal and settle down. Raise a passel o' kids."
Jess chuckled. "Someday, maybe, but not just now." He stepped over to the empty bunk next to Shannon and piled his gear on it.
"You here to stop this russlin'?"
"If I can. I have to palaver with the ramrod right now, but I'll be back in a bit. Then you and I have some catching up to do."
"Right enough, Jess, right enough."
While the two men talked, other hands studied them furtively, some curious about the allusion to Tate Shannon's hanging up his gun. The rest just figured blacks and breeds naturally belonged together and went back to getting ready for supper.
Jess left the bunkhouse and walked quickly to Symington's cabin. The big ramrod was waiting for him outside the front door. He nodded curtly and did not invite Jess inside. "I know Mr. Jacobson hired you, Robbins, and he's the boss, but I want to speak my piece. These here is good boys, but they ain't gunhands. Hell, half of 'em'd shoot their own feet off if'n they had to strap on a fancy Colt like you wear. I know we got us a problem with thievin', but I don't hanker ta see any of my boys shot up." He hung his thumbs belligerently on the big brass buckle attached to a fancy braided leather belt and leaned back against the cabin wall.
"I fight my own battles, Symington. The last thing I want is a bunch of greenhorn kids and crippled old men riding out like a pack of vigilantes. If I need backup, I'll call in professional help."
"'N Marcus Jacobson'll foot the bill?"
"Yeah. Jacobson'll foot the bill," Jess echoed softly. "You say these are all good hands. You hire anyone new since the trouble started?"
Symington pushed off the wall angrily. "You mean you think one of my boys is in with them vultures?"
Jess shrugged indifferently. "It's always possible. Jacobson told me the rustling started last summer. Who's signed on since then?"
The ramrod's eyes narrowed, but he sighed, then said grudgingly, "A couple of them come last year. Ralph Sligo. Billy Argee. Nate Blum. Oh, yeah, 'n that nigger, Tate Shannon."
Jess did not move, but his eyes turned to silver ice.
"Shannon's a friend of mine. He's no thief. I'll see about the others. Don't send them on roundup. Assign them jobs around the ranch so I can keep an eye on them easier." The foreman nodded stiffly. Jess started to leave, then turned back to Symington and said, "I'll try not to get crossways of you, Symington. Try not to get crossways of me.”
* * * *
While Jess had ridden to the bunkhouse, Lissa followed Germaine inside. "You had no reason to insult Mr. Robbins."
The Frenchwoman snorted as she poured a glass of sherry from the decanter sitting on the parlor credenza. "No reason,
? He is mixed blood, one of your father's hired men, and you ride up on his horse as if he were courting you. Look at yourself—damp and disheveled. I can see through that blouse."
Her hard little eyes burned through the sheer batiste as Lissa stiffened angrily and walked past the cook with her back rigidly straight. "We were caught in the rain this afternoon. It was scarcely my fault—unless you plan to blame me for the weather, too."
"You're wearing clothes fit for a drawing room, not a day's ride on these desolate high plains," Germaine said scornfully.
"I had an accident and was thrown into some quicksand. Of course I had to change out of the ruined riding skirts."
"Of course," Germaine echoed snidely, her eyes following Lissa up the wide stairs. "I must, of course, tell your father how you have consorted with this gunman," she called out, then quickly swallowed the amber liquid in her glass.
When she reached for the decanter and began to pour another drink, Lissa leaned over the railing at the landing and said, "Tell him anything you want—if you can stay sober enough to remember it."
* * * *
The stench of burning hair and the hoarse bawls of steers carried on the cool morning air. Men cursed and spit as they subdued the thrashing cattle they had roped, dragging them by their bound feet to the fire. There the iron men held glowing, cherry-red running irons ready to change the J Bar brand to the Diamond T by the judicious addition of two straight lines.
Tom Conyers stood back from the frenetic activity surrounding him, smoking a cigarette and watching the sun climb over the eastern horizon. His men had begun work as the first faint rays of dawn tinged the horizon. The J Bar herd had been stolen from an isolated stretch of northern range last night and driven to their hidden camp in a brushy basin off Lodgepole Creek.
"Your information about the roundup helped us decide on this range. Should be at least five hundred head we can take down before their crew and wagon reach this basin." He tossed his cigarette in the fire.
"I told you I could do good working for Jacobson this way," Billy Argee said.
"Yeah, but it's getting dangerous. You could be followed to our camp or even missed, riding out this far," Conyers replied as he rolled another cigarette and licked the coarse brown paper to seal it. Wilt Mason reached over with a stick from the fire and the rustler boss leaned down to get a light.
Conyers's angular face was creased like crumpled parchment. He closed his pale, heavy-lidded eyes and took a drag from the cigarette, letting the smoke expel slowly through long thin nostrils. Then he walked over to Billy Argee and Wilt Mason and squatted down. In a low, melodic voice, oddly at variance with his harsh appearance, he said, "I think we ought to set up a meeting site."
"Like we did in Idaho, boss?" Wilt asked.
"Yeah. We need us an isolated line shack, somewhere off the well-traveled trails. A dry place where Billy and Sligo can drop messages and I can pick them up." He looked at the curly-haired boy, then continued, "There's a deserted line shack I seen once a few months back during the winter. Hands built a new one further down Squaw Creek. The old one's clean in the end of a little box canyon near the start of the creek."
"I seen the place last month, boss," Billy said, warming to the idea.
"From now on you ride over there whenever you got news for us of somethin' worth hitting," Conyers said. "Have Sligo write a note saying what needs to be said and one of you put it under the floorboard next to the door. I'll check the shack every few days."
"What if something big comes up—something that can't wait?" Billy asked.
Conyers considered for a moment. "Be damn sure it can't wait. Then ride here."
"You nervous about that breed range detective Jacobson hired?" Argee asked.
The rustler boss made a dismissive gesture with his hand and took another deep drag on his cigarette.
Argee persisted, saying, "This is the biggest haul yet, Tom. You reckon we ought ta take all this time to run them brands?"
"Too far trailin' a herd this size all the way to the Nebraska railhead with a brand as well known as J Bar. We'd need papers—bills of sale—to do that," Conyers said.
Billy scratched his curly hair and shifted his weight nervously. He was a wiry little banty rooster, twenty years old and full of himself. "Moss takes care of that for old Jacobson. Maybe I could steal some of them papers."
A sharp bark of laughter cut him off. Conyers looked at Argee with complete disgust. "You couldn't teach a settin' hen to cluck, Argee. You can't read—how in hell you gonna know what you're stealing?"
Argee's face turned beet red and he stiffened in outrage. "Just 'cause I can't read don't mean nothing, Conyers. I'm real handy with this here gun. I ain't afraid of that breed range detective neither. I could take him."
Another man working an iron spat a lob of tobacco into the branding fire and laughed. "Yew oughta be afeered o' Jesse Robbins. He'd squirt enough lead in yew ta make it a payin' job meltin' yew down."
"Finishing off Robbins'd be about as easy as tying down a bobcat with bootlaces," Conyers said, looking at Argee speculatively. The kid had shot several men back in Nevada before moving into Wyoming and joining his band of rustlers. Word was he was good. "You say you could take him. I'll give you the chance."
Conyers turned to a squat, thickset man with a neck like a bull buffalo. "Ace, you and Wilt ride with Argee as soon as we finish this branding. Head to J Bar land and lay for that breed. Be real careful. Get him alone first—then let Argee here do the shooting." Conyers smiled, revealing square yellow teeth with one front incisor missing.
Ace ran a callused palm across the back of his thick neck. "Thought you said the boss was goin' to take care of everythin'. Warn't no need to worry 'bout the breed."
"He pays us good and ships the stock we steal, but when Jacobson brought in Robbins . . ." Conyers shrugged expressively. "It complicates things. Best we take care of it before the breed starts to figure stuff out. When I get to Nebraska with the herd, I'll talk to him. He might just be real grateful and give us a bonus this time."