Dixie Hardin was only sixteen when the hooded riders swooped down on her parent's forty acres with a whole lot of whooping and drunken laughter. The hired guns of the beef industry consortium made short work of her near-sighted father with his pitiful shotgun and her older brother with the Henry rifle that had a broken sight. Her poor mother ran out to pull them out of the dust and she was bowled over by a rider just for sport.
The sight of her mother lying motionless in the dirt was enough to get Dixie's Irish up and she lined her sights up real careful on the drunken neer-do-well who had ridden her mama down and let him have a hot piece of lead right through his despicable open laughing mouth. It got a mite quiet for a short spell after that what with four bodies lying lifeless in the front yard. The baby was wailing non-stop in the crib next to the pot-bellied stove letting the attackers know the cabin was not empty of still living sod-busters as yet.
The milling horses and shouting hooded men stayed circling in the distance for a while and then rode off back in the direction of the "Rocking R" to report to their crippled master Jake McMannis about the outcome of their aborted raid. The lead raider was a nasty piece of work called "Tex" from down near the Pecos who had a habit of constantly fondling the butt of his cross-draw iron like it was a girl's bottom. He was the one who had done in both Dixie's father and her beloved older brother Pete.
Dixie hushed the baby and told Manuela the Mexican woman hired by her parents to wet nurse baby Jonathan because her mother was in such a bad way after the birth. With both her parents lying in the dust outside, the baby was all the family Dixie had left unless you counted Manuela and the shiftless Indian worker her father had hired for room and board to help him with the fences and the digging up of stumps. The Indian only carried a long sharp knife which was totally useless in a gunfight. He sat in the corner watching everything with those expressionless black eyes that announced he had seen it all lots of times before.
She checked the pantry and saw that she had plenty of ammo for her Winchester was running low on the shotgun shells. Dixie didn't see any Henry ammo anywhere but it was a moot point because the rifle was practically worthless without a functioning sight anyway.
"Running Eagle, I need you to help me put those bodies outside in the ground."
The stoic Indian managed a terse rejoinder entirely uncharacteristic of his nature.
"Missy, better put on fire and burn all into the happy hunting ground!"
She was aghast at the thought because it was almost like a desecration of the dead in her bible-raised mind. Still, she knew the usually silent American native was trying to make things simple for her. His face set in a mask when she handed him the spare shovel and they both started digging new holes next to your young brother Ned who had fallen from a bucking horse right on his head snapping his neck like one of the chickens she helped prepare for Sunday dinner.
Dixie took the dirty hired gunman's gun-belt off his body before rolling him into the hole and was pleased to see there were almost thirty rounds shoved into the loops. The idiot still had four rounds still in the cylinder of the six-shooter so she was happy with the added firepower in case the hired yahoos returned to finish the job. She wrapped her family in the bed-linens since they wouldn't be needing them any longer and when they had shoveled all the dirt back on top of them she said a little prayer silently to herself because she didn't want to offend the non-Christian Sioux Indian who was more attuned to the chanting of a medicine man than the soft-spoken words of an immature female.
Manuela was inside tending baby Jonathan and fixing some tortillas for dinner. Dixie suspected the Mexican woman was a little simple minded but it didn't seem to affect her ability to do a lot of different chores and she was a big help ever since she wandered in off of the dirt track that ran right next to their fence.
The nearest farm was at the end of the long valley and the two brothers who worked it were not what she would call overly sociable. Still, they were familiar faces and she wanted to let the other farmers know that had happened to her family so they could band together to fight off the range riders who were dedicated to their eradication.
Manuela was actually humming a little tune inside the cabin but it didn't upset Dixie because she knew it was better to be distanced from the stark facts of reality when it got beyond the limits of human endurance. She was stabilized by the Mexican woman's calmness and didn't protest when she asked permission to take baby Jonathan to her nearby village to visit her family. It was probably a good time for the baby to be out of the danger zone for a few days.
Dixie stripped down to her bloomers to take a bath in the big wooden tub her mama had insisted on carrying on the back of the wagon all the way from Saint Louis, Missouri and was not at all shy in front of Manuela or Running Eagle because they were like family now. Then, she sat down at the table and wrote a nice long letter to her mama's family all the way back in Boston, Massachusetts. She knew her grandfather was a factory owner and made the cloth for the suits her mother's sisters made up into fine men's formal clothing. They were not enthusiastic about their sister leaving for the wild, Wild West filled with dangerous outlaws and Indians with evil intent. Some tears fell from her eyes onto the paper splotching the ink as she related he circumstances of her mother's demise. She had watched her mother do the same thing when she wrote a letter the previous year about young Ned's accidental death.
She took the letter with her and took the buckboard to the next farm over to announce the disastrous raid on her parent's farm and to ask the assistance of one of the brothers to help get in the crop that would rot in the fields unless they got it in before the late summer rains hit them within the following week. She knew her father had helped the other farmers before in a spirit of cooperation to help each other.
Dixie dropped Manuela off at the trail that ran back south into the low country that separated the valley from the Hispanic region to the south. She trusted the woman who despite being a bit simple minded didn't have a mean bone in her body. Manuela told her in a whisper as if trying to keep it a secret from the smiling baby,
"I find my Pablo and my other son Manuel to come up and help with the crop. Those folks at the crossroads are not dependable. I can see it in their eyes and you need to be very careful around them, Dixie darling. They have the eye of lust for your body, I am very much afraid."
She knew that Manuela's story was probably filled with lots of drama of its own but she was not the kind of person to pry into other people's affairs and was perfectly willing to wait for the Mexican woman to tell her in her own time.
She waited for a few minutes inside the tree line watching the Anderson boy's ranch but everything seemed normal and she continued on down the trail and hitched up the horse at the watering trough with her hand holding the Winchester across her lap.
The Anderson boys were a couple of rough looking dirt farmers who always looked like they were in dire need of a bath.
They came out the front door like a pair of Siamese twins close enough together to be in each other's back pocket.
Their names were Hector and Jethro and she never could remember which was which. When she got confused, she just called them, "Sir" and they never seemed to mind.
They took the news of the raid with nary a blink. Jethro, at least she thought it was Jethro hollered up the hired hand to go over to the mercantile store and post Dixie's letter and also start the "word of mouth" communication system to warn all the other farmers about the escalating developments in the budding range war crashing down around them.
The brothers invited her in for some coffee and she felt it would be impolite to refuse. Once inside, they started flitting around her like a pair of bees looking for honey. Since she was only sixteen, had just lost her entire family and was in no mood, she told them point blank that she was there only for a cup of coffee. It was Hector who laughed and told her not to worry because she was too young and too "skinny" for either of them. That tended to irritate her more than mollify her and she gave them both a steady stare that wiped the smiles off their silly faces.
When she spilled a little cream on her partially exposed bosom, they both fell over themselves to find towels to "clean her up". She found their hand and fingers all over her flesh to be most disconcerting but since they were trying to be helpful, she allowed them to have their bit of fun. In fact, she discovered she was breathing quite rapidly at the attentions of two virile and aroused males even if they looked somewhat disreputable and one of them had bad breath. She thought it was Jethro but was not completely positive.
When she left to return to the farm to help take care of the animals in the barn being tended by Running Eagle, Hector gave her a vigorous boost with both hands on her bottom to get her up on the buckboard bench. She was forced to gasp at the surprise of male hands on her posterior because it was something she had really never experienced before except when her daddy had to tan her bottom a couple of times when she was really a naughty girl. She almost had to laugh thinking about it because he always seemed so embarrassed to be doing something like that to his own daughter even if it was at the instigation of her unremittent mother driven to distraction by her unruly antics.
The two men laughed at her response and Jethro seemed a bit jealous that it was his brother who managed to explore her backside first. Dixie had to laugh as well because they were both so transparent in their desperate need for female companionship. Besides, they were not that bad looking if you managed to overlook their lack of bathing and bad breath.
The next morning, she put up the markers that she had burned with the tip of the branding iron with the names and dates of her entire family's lives. It was a sad chore but one that she tackled with firm determination because she knew they would have done the same for her if the roles was reversed.
That afternoon Manuela returned from the south with her two sons in tow. They were handsome and obedient boys who looked just like their mother. Actually, they were both a couple of years older than Dixie and that surprised her because Manuela didn't look that old.
Running Eagle didn't seem particularly enthused with their presence but he welcomed the helping hands with the many chores and left them to the farm work while he continued finishing putting up the barbed wire fence that Dixie's father had declared was their only defense against the free-roaming steers that managed to damage their crops whenever they wandered onto their land.
It looked like it was going to be a long winter.