For the umpteenth time, Marshal Jed Thompson wondered how this one-horse town ever got such a name. Saddlers Gulch must have been named shortly after the rainfall of the century, because that slit in the ground sure didn't have any water in it, now. What little rain Saddlers Gulch ever did have certainly channeled through the eroded trench east of town, but Jed couldn't imagine how it could ever have had enough water in it to justify the appellation of "gulch." Must have been some wanderer's fevered dream!
Saddlers Gulch was reasonably typical of western New Mexico Territory, but maybe a little more prosperous than most—it did have 3 saloons and 2 general stores. That second general store was the surprise; Jed often wondered where Cole Granger found enough customers to stay open. Granger wasn't the most pleasant person to deal with, but his prices were a little lower than his competitor, Sam Hudson, so that might make up for the grumpiness.
Hudson's father had been in Saddlers Gulch since before the big war with the Yankees, and Sam had kept the store going after the old man had died. That gave him some extra stock with the long-time residents, but Granger's lower prices had gradually been pulling away the customers since he moved in 4 years before.
The two general stores were on opposite sides of the gunsmith's shop. Hans Glueck was a fine fellow and a damned good gunsmith, but his German accent was so thick that a body had to strain to understand him.
Jed thought that it was appropriate that the most prosperous business in town was directly across the street from the gunsmith. The funeral parlor was a busy place, and Bill Hanscomb averaged a customer a week. He also managed the town's grave yard and had a contract with the town to handle all of Jed's fallout.
It was difficult to tell how much significance should be attached to the fact that the Methodist Church was at the north end of the town's only street and the Catholic Church was at the south end. Two of the saloons were across the street from each of the churches, much to the chagrin of the pastors of the respective congregations. The final saloon was actually a cantina a little to the south of the Catholic Church.
The town's "Mexican" inhabitants lived in adobe shacks scattered around the cantina, while the Anglos lived mostly near the Methodist Church or on ranches outside of town.
The railroad track ran down the middle of "Main Street," and a train disrupted traffic on the street either on Tuesday, northbound, or on Friday, southbound. There was a station, a water tank and fueling bin, and a spur for loading cattle during the fall season. A stage line met the two trains to handle passengers and a few packages. As can be seen, Saddler's Gulch was a veritable metropolis of the southwestern desert.
Jed made his rounds once in mid-morning and the second time in late afternoon as most of the businesses were closing. He also made a third round after 10:00 o'clock on Saturday night to pick up any stray drunks. The jail was down by the railroad station. It was made of adobe with very sturdy walls and could easily serve as a fort if it had to. There were two cells and living quarters for the marshal, which Jed used, since he was not married.
Jed never failed to make a call at all three saloons on Saturday night, since that was when and where he transacted most of his official business. Jed was armed with his Army Brass pistol, his Bowie knife, and an iron sap he carried strapped to his left wrist so that the sap fell naturally into his hand as he let his arm hang at his side.
One Saturday evening, Jed strolled into the Gold Nugget saloon just in time to hear the concluding remarks in a difference of opinion between two cowpokes who worked on adjacent ranches. The argument was now very heated, and both cowpokes had drunk enough to be in a surly mood. As they reached for their knives, Jed popped one on the head with his sap and covered the other with his pistol.
"What's this all 'bout," Jed asked the bartender.
"These two yahoos wuz arguing over the relative speed of two hosses, an' the argument kind of got out of hand. They'll be friends again, soon as they sober up."
"OK. Kin I borrow yer swamper ta he'p me ta git 'em ta cells where they kin sober up?"
"Sure. HEY, JETHRO, COME HE'P THE MARSHAL!"
The cowboy still on his feet helped the swamper to carry to other one to the jail. Jed had already taken their guns and knives, so all he had to do was lock them in the two cells. To the standing one, he said, "I'll let ya'll out tomorrow when ya're sober. 'Til then, jus' sleep it off."
The standing cowboy saluted the marshal and lay down on the bunk. He tipped his hat over his eyes and was asleep before Jed could return to his desk to deposit the confiscated weapons. Jed didn't bother to fetch the doctor for the cowpoke he had hit. Jed hadn't hit him very hard, and the cowboy was mostly sleeping off the effects of too much two-bits-a-shot whiskey.
Jed made a note of the event in his log book and returned to his rounds. Not much else was going on; all the poker games appeared to be moving along without more cheating than usual, and the hookers were not complaining, so Jed decided to call it a night. He removed his boots and weapons, loosened his belt, and flopped down on his bed. He was pretty tired, so he didn't wake up until the two prisoners yelled that they were hungry and thirsty.
Jed let them out of their cells and returned their weapons. They walked out of the jail as friendly as ever, the argument of the night before forgotten in the depths of their hangovers.
After he had fixed himself some breakfast, Jed decided to walk around town to check for any sleeping drunks he had missed the night before. None were found, so he went to the livery stable he favored and rented a horse and tack. Jed liked to ride out on Sundays to escape the pressure of being marshal; this was the only way he could get completely away from his responsibilities to the town.
He had ridden into the hills about 3 miles from town where there were a few trees and he could find some shade. His horse was barely making headway through the trees toward a stream when he heard a woman scream. He came alert immediately and picked up speed as he rode toward the source of the scream.
Jed reached a wide place in the stream and was startled to see a naked woman standing in the water. She was facing the opposite bank where there was a very large cougar staring at her. She was about waist deep in the water, but Jed was able to see a little bit of her rump through the clear water.
Jed pulled his pride and joy from its scabbard—a brand new Henry .44 caliber rifle. He'd had it long enough to be sure of his ability to hit any target within 50 yards, so he cocked the rifle and took careful aim at the "mountain lion." He squeezed the trigger, and the cougar fell to earth, shot in the head.
The woman had not heard Jed's approach; for obvious reasons, she was more interested in the actions of the cougar. She jerked around and saw Jed sitting on his horse, the smoke still rising from his rifle. She screamed again and covered her breasts as she dropped to a squatting position in the water.
She said, "Go away! I'm not dressed!"
"I noticed, ma'am. Where are yer clothes?"
"Over there by the lion."
"OK. I'll turn my back while ya git dressed. Call out when ya're dressed."
Jed turned around and sheathed his rifle. A few minutes later, the woman said, "Ya kin turn aroun' now. I'm dressed."
Jed rode his horse through the stream and said, "Howdy, ma'am. I'm Jed Thompson, marshal over ta Saddlers Gulch."
"Howdy, Marshal. I'm much obliged ta ya fer killin' that there lion. I'm Mary Kelley. I live over at the Rockin' KK, my father is Kevin Kelley."
"I'm pleased ta meet ya, Miss Kelley. I've met yer father in town a time or two. Where's yer hoss?"
"He ran off when the lion showed up. Can't say that I blame him."
"I tell ya what. Wait while I skin out that there lion, an' I'll give ya a ride home. Is that agreeable?"
"It shore is. Somebody'll come fer me once that fool horse gits home, but who knows when that'll be?"
About 2 hours later, they were ready to ride to the Rocking KK. Jed had the rolled up skin in front of the saddle and Mary was riding behind. The horse was not very happy with either one, but put up with the indignities.
They had nearly reached the Rocking KK when they met Kevin Kelley and two of the cowhands riding toward the stream. Kelley was driving a buckboard, so they dropped the lion skin on the bed, but Mary said that she preferred to stay where she was during the ride back to the ranch house.
Once they had reached the ranch house and the animals had been seen to, Jed was invited into the house and asked to stay for supper. No bachelor in his right mind would refuse such an invitation, so Jed agreed to visit for a while. They went into the parlor and a maid brought in coffee and cookies.
Mary said, "Dad! Neither Marshal Thompson nor I have had any lunch! Don't you think that we could feed 'im a sandwich, at least?"
Kevin looked embarrassed and instructed the maid to fix sandwiches for Mary and their guest. While they were waiting, Mary gave her father a "sanitized" version of what happened. She never mentioned that Jed had caught her without any clothes.
Jed said, "Miss Kelley, since you were the one threatened by the lion, would you accept the skin as a gift from me?"
"Why, Marshal Thompson, I'd be honored. Thank you so very much!"
The rest of the day and the early part of the evening were spent in small talk as the three people got to know each other. By the time Jed was ready to leave after a sumptuous supper, he felt like he knew the Kelleys better than he had known his own parents. Not only that, he was very attracted to Mary, who made no effort to hide her attraction to him. It was with a light heart and high hopes that Jed returned to Saddlers Gulch with an invitation to return to spend the day at the Rocking KK the next Sunday.
A month later, rumors were running rampant about the Apaches increasing their raiding. They were coming in from their hideouts in Mexico and eluding all efforts by the Army to find and stop them. Everybody knew what a pall of smoke on the horizon meant: another ranch or nester's home burned by marauding Apaches. Nowadays, no one went riding alone, or at all, if it could be avoided.
It was kind of galling, but Kevin sent in several riders to escort Jed to his ranch on that Sunday. Jed didn't like the way it seemed to impugn his manhood, yet he knew that he wanted to visit Mary, and he was not stupid enough to tempt fate. The group of 4 men left for the Rocking KK after Jed had made his sweep for drunks.
They reached the stream where Jed had first seen Mary when war cries were heard, and 6 Apaches rode out of the woods at them. Fortunately, the Apaches had started yelling too soon, so the Anglos had time to react. They dashed across the stream and headed for some convenient rocks to shelter behind.
Upon reaching the rocks, they dismounted and pulled their rifles from the scabbards. All the rifles were repeaters, 3 Spencers and Jed's Henry. The men found places to use as shelter and opened up on the Indians. Two of the Apaches fell in the first fusillade, and they rode away out of effective range. The three escort riders drew straws, and the man with the short straw ran to his horse and rode to the Rocking KK for help.
The Apaches didn't react to the man riding away, and none of the Anglos knew how to interpret this. Hoping that it meant that the Apaches figured that they had no chance of catching the escaping rider, the remaining 3 Anglos prepared to fight off the Apaches as long as they had some daylight to work with.
The fallen Apaches had been picked up during the retreat, so the Anglos didn't know whether they had been killed or just badly wounded. It really made no difference, a badly wounded Indian was going to die, it just took longer and was more painful than a shot that finished him quickly.
The Indians were using bows and arrows, so they had to get pretty close to do any really accurate shooting, but accuracy wasn't required if they had enough arrows. They could get around the rock shields the Anglos were using by firing their arrows into the air and letting them fall back to earth at a steep angle. There weren't many warriors to shoot, so there was less chance of wounding one of the Anglos, but it was still a worrisome problem.
Jed and the two others kept up their sniping, simply because there was nothing else to do. It was doubtful that they scored any hits on the Apaches, but the Apaches didn't score any hits, either. The three men wondered what the Apaches had in mind; usually, they didn't want to face a battle of nearly equal numbers, particularly since they were outgunned. They must be expecting help, themselves.
The desultory battle dragged on for 2 hours without much happening, but suddenly, the whole scope of the conflict changed. About 20 more Apaches showed up, and now the Indians were much bolder. A shower of arrows fell among the Anglos, and the Apaches charged before the last arrow had fallen.
The real value of the repeating rifle came to the fore at this point. Jed and the other two Anglos fired at the charging Indians as fast as they could lever in a new round and aim. By the time the Apaches' charge was broken, Jed's Henry was so hot that he couldn't hold it. The barrel was so hot that he was afraid to reload the empty magazine for fear of having the heat set off bullets in the tubular magazine. He had set his pistol and Bowie knife where he could reach them without fumbling, should the Indian charge overwhelm them.
The Apaches had pulled back out of range when they were suddenly assailed on their left flank by 14 horsemen riding hard into their gang while firing their pistols at any Indian they saw. The Indians were so surprised by this attack that they panicked and ran away in all directions. It's quite possible that more Indians were hurt by being run over by horses than by bullets, but it made no difference—the attack was finished for that day!
Jed and his friends ran out to greet their rescuers, there was a lot of cheering and back-slapping that went on for minutes. Finally, things calmed down, and they all rode to the Rocking KK ranch house.
Mary was overjoyed to see Jed come riding in unharmed. She had reached the point of considering their Sunday meetings as something ordained by nature, and she had no patience with any interference. Mary ran up to Jed and kissed him hard on the mouth while holding him in a tight embrace. This produced a loud outbreak of cheering and laughing, and Mary jumped back, suddenly realizing what she had done.
Jed winked at her and said, "Looks like we're engaged! I hope ya don't mind!"
Mary answered, "Of course I don't. I just thought ya'd never say nothin'"
This brought more laughter, and Kevin walked up to Jed, stuck out his hand, and said, "Welcome ta the family, son! I guess we'll need to set a weddin' day."
Supper that night was a very festive occasion!