I stood on the ground at the bottom of three steps leading to the long, wide veranda of the main ranch house and called, "Hallo, the house!"
I had noted the run-down condition of the house as well as the buildings around back... a barn and a lean-to that probably served as a bunkhouse. Either this was a poor hardscrabble rancher or he didn't care how his place looked. Either way, I figured there wasn't much chance of getting a job but I was getting kind of desperate now. I still had some money but if I didn't find a job for the winter, the money wouldn't last long.
Since I had finished the cattle drive at the railhead in Dodge, I had ridden into eastern Colorado, then into the foothills of the mountains, hoping to find work for the winter. And, who knows, maybe something more permanent than a drover of cattle for a living. But now, I had been stopping at every ranch house for the last four days and everybody already had a full crew. I just knew that somewhere somebody had to need another hand.
When a woman appeared at the open door, I swept my hat off my head and looked down. I knew I was not a sight to behold. It had been three days since I crossed a stream where I could take a bath and by now my clothes were dusty and I probably smelled of horse sweat and worse.
"Hello," she said in a sweet tone. The last female voice I had heard was the raspy cough of a two-bit whore in a brothel in Dodge. That was not exactly a lyrical tone either.
"Good afternoon, ma'am. I was wondering if I could speak to the man of the house."
"No, sorry, he's not here right now. Can I help?"
"Well... I was wondering if you needed a hand... ?"
"I don't... well, maybe. Are you a hard worker?"
"Yes, ma'am, I am. I'm good with fences, moving cattle, mending things around the buildings. I know I don't look like much 'cause I just rode in from Dodge after a cattle drive but I can do anything you need done."
"Well, you might not like everything that's going on around here. Are you any good with that Colt?"
My hand automatically went to the revolver in the holster on my right hip. "Yes, ma'am, I know how to use it."
"Well, there are some people around here who want to push us off this land. They don't mind cutting our cows or pulling down our fences or shooting our hands. So you probably don't want to stay here."
"Ma'am, if you've got work, I'd like the job. I'm loyal and if that means fighting for my boss's rights, then so be it."
"Oh, yes? Hmm, well, we don't have much to pay but, if you're willing to work, we'll give you a chance."
"Thank you, ma'am. I'll do my best to see that you don't regret it. My name's Dancer... Allan Dancer."
"Well, Mr. Dancer, you can move into the bunk house out back. There's nobody else in there right now so it will need some cleaning. My daughter and I will be out in just a few minutes to take care of it. My name is Mrs. Thompson... Lottie Thompson... and my daughter is Nettie. I've got a son who's out back right now. His name is Jackson but we all call him Jack. You'll eat dinner with us at 6 o'clock. Welcome, Mr. Dancer."
She turned back into the house, the conversation over. I picked up my horse's reins and headed around back, grateful for a place to hang my hat for a while.
The bunkhouse was very dusty, indicating that it hadn't had much use for quite a while. I picked up a broom right inside the door and started sweeping but I had just gotten started when Mrs. Thompson knocked on the door.
"Come in," I called. She was followed by a flaxen-haired young woman that I would have considered being a beauty in any setting, let alone out here in this sparsely settled land. I found out later that she was 19 but I would have guessed that she was at least in her twenties.
"Here, let me have that," Mrs. Thompson said, taking the broom from my hands. Nettie... at least I assumed it was her daughter... had brought cloths for dusting and they fell to work while I took a look at the broken-down bunks. At Mrs. Thompson's direction, I went to the barn and found a hammer and nails and soon had the bunks back in usable shape. They had turned the corn-shuck mattress and smoothed it out, then covered it with some blankets for padding and covers. It wasn't much but it would be a lot better than camping out on the wind-blown prairie.
After the women had returned to the house with my thanks, I checked out the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room. I wouldn't need it for heat for a few more weeks but I would use it for making coffee.
I didn't meet Jack until dinner. He was a very active, tow-headed twelve-year-old with a great sense of humor and an equal respect for his mother. I noted that Mr. Thompson still had not returned and, over a hot peach cobbler, I asked when she expected him to be back.
"I think he'll be home any day now, Mr. Dancer. He's been gone a little longer than he expected."
I noticed that both kids ducked their heads and wondered about it. I said, "I was thinking that tomorrow I should start riding the fences and see what the condition of the cattle is. Would that be a reasonable plan?"
"That would be a good plan, Mr. Dancer. How many days do you expect to be gone?"
"Well, from what you told me about the boundaries, I would guess three days if the fences are not too bad. If there are a lot of breaks, it will probably take longer."
"Okay. I'll have a pack of food and coffee for you in the morning."
"Thank you. Goodnight, ma'am... Nettie... Jack."
I turned in, knowing my internal clock would get me up before dawn tomorrow.
It didn't take me long to pack what I needed: a bedroll, coffee pot and utensils in one saddlebag and, as promised, the food that Mrs. Thompson brought out to me as I was loading up. It went in the other saddlebag. I packed a tow sack with a coil of wire, wire cutters, and a wire stretcher and tied it over my saddle horn before mounting up.
Tipping my hat to the lady, I said, "I'll see you in three or four days, I 'spect, ma'am."
"Take care, Mr. Dance. And do be careful, please. We want you to come back safely."
"I will, ma'am," I replied, kneeing my horse out into the breaking light.
Three hours of riding along the eastern edge of the ranch brought me to the first break. It looked like a single post had been roped and pulled to the ground, leaving an opening about 20 feet wide. Checking for tracks, I found those of a single horse, probably not more than two days old, but no recent cattle tracks so maybe no harm was done.
I got the post set back in the ground and tamped down, spliced the three strands of barbed wire with the patching wire I had brought and then headed on down the line. Again in mid-afternoon, I found another break where the fence had been cut and two posts pulled down. There were tracks indicating that six or seven cows had been driven through the break and then left to scatter.
I rode through the break and after a half-hour had rounded up six cows with the Running-T brand. I herded them back through the break and then mended the fence. I still had an hour of daylight left so I rode on before making camp just after sundown.
The next day was about the same. I mended three breaks but found no missing cattle. Then on the third day about mid-morning, I came across a huge break and the tracks looked like 30 or 40 head of cattle had been driven through the gap. I pulled my rifle out of the scabbard and lay it across the saddle in front of me, then rode through the gap looking for the cows. There were quite a few carrying the R-Bar-S brand and the Running T cows had been interspersed with them.
I started cutting out the Thompson's cows, heading them back toward the break, when a cowboy rode up. He shouted, "Hey! You don't belong here. Get off this ranch. Leave our cows alone."
I turned to face him. "Some of these cows are Thompson's. I'm taking 'em. You wanna stop me, have a try. Otherwise, leave me alone."
I don't think he liked the look of my hand near my Colt. He reined around and headed back the way he'd come and I went back to cutting cattle. I found 37 head of Running T's and got them back on home grass, then set about mending the long break. It was growing dark by the time I had finished.
The fourth day I found only one small break and no missing cattle so I wound up riding back into the ranch yard just before sundown. Jack came busting out of the back door to greet me and talked a mile-a-minute while I hung my tack and curried my horse, then fed him a scoop of oats for doing a good job.
By the time I had washed up, the family had long finished dinner but the missus had warmed up plenty of leftovers for me and it was scrumptious, since I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast that morning. She asked me to give a report of the conditions I'd found so I told her about the breaks and getting them repaired and pushing the cattle back onto their property.
I asked if she'd heard from Mr. Thompson and she dropped her head.
"Mr. Dancer, I'm afraid I've misled you. Mr. Thompson left three years ago last spring. He was always very punctual so... not having heard from him in more than three years, I seriously doubt if he's coming home. We'll probably never know what happened to him but... I know if he could, he would contact us. So... I'm quite sure he must be dead. Unfortunately that means that I'm left with all the work around here and I'm not all that good at some of it." She stopped and ducked her head. After a few moments, she looked at me and continued, but with tears in her eyes. "I know I hired you under false pretenses, Mr. Dancer, and if you want to leave, I'll pay you for your time and you can go."
.... There is more of this story ...