Chapter 1: Trial by Fire
I didn't know the guy but I liked his spirit. He was maybe in his early forties, short and stocky, and he made me think of a cocky bantam rooster. He was playing poker at the high-stakes table. Almost everyone knew Julesburg was the 'wickedest city in America' so he should have been paying more attention to the dealer. I guessed the half-empty bottle of the local rotgut sorta dulled his senses.
I'd bought a small herd in to the railroad for Cap Jones, the old man that ran the ranch I'd worked at since I was fourteen. He was selling out to some Eastern investment company and although they had offered to make me the foreman if I would stay on, I wanted no part of it. Cap and his wife were moving east a bit to live with his daughter in Lincoln so I figured after I took him his money from the sale of his cattle I'd just mosey on.
I came to the King of the Hills to say good-bye to Carla. It was one of the better but still not so nice dance halls around. I was half in love with her even though I knew there was no future in it. She didn't come on duty 'til ten so I dropped back to the poker room to kill the time.
As I watched this cowman getting cleaned out by the dealer using his sly fingers to palm cards off the bottom of the deck, I grew to like his feisty attitude. With a sudden move he stood up and drawing his .44, he slammed it down on the table.
"God damn you cheatin' bastard! I seen ya dealin' off the bottom. Give me back my money or I'll blow yer damn head off."
What he couldn't see, but I could since I was standing behind the dealer, was that the gambler was holding a .41 caliber derringer under the table and didn't look like he would hesitate to use it with no warning. I leaned over and grabbed his wrist, forcing it down. The derringer went off shooting the dealer in the lower leg. Reaching down I grabbed his left hand, turned it forcefully over and banged it on the table. The seven of diamonds, which would have filled his inside straight, was nicely stuck in the dealer's palm.
It was over pretty quick. A couple of teamsters grabbed the gambler and unceremoniously threw him out the door into a pool of muddy water in front of the dance hall. The various participants, with big smiles divided what they felt was their just desserts from the gambler's leavin's and the bowlegged rancher took my arm and led me to the bar.
The grin sliding from his face, he admitted, "Wal, I guess he had me purt near to rights. I was damn near dead there for a minute. You don't look like the kind I could give some money to so I'll just say if ya ever need a job come see me." He took my hand and tried his best to crush it. "I'm Pete Dancer, and damn, it, thanks!"
"I'm Slade Ransom." I told him a bit about myself, twelve hard years herdin' cattle and how I'd started at fourteen after my folks died when our house burnt down under questionable circumstances.
He told me about his ranch, the Circle R, and gave me the directions on how to get there. He added, "My ranch is north a few miles up from Walden, Colorado, just a ways down from the Wyoming border. It's not huge as far as ranches in the area go, but I have four hundred acres of hay along the river and I've spent a lot of money upgrading the herds.
"I've been losing too many cattle to rustlers and I don't think my foreman, Bill Klein, is working hard enough to stop them. I'll be honest with you, twenty years ago I could have chased him off but I'm too old for that now. I need a man like you to kick him off the ranch and take care of my rustling problem. The other thing is he's chasing after my daughter and I'm afraid of what might happen. She's a notional gal and hard to handle.
He said as he shook his head, "Her ma has done her best, but she has a temper, and ... oh, hell. I just can't handle her anymore. She's a red headed filly that's near as wild as the few longhorns I got left. She shore 'nuff needs a man to rein her in, so maybe you're the one that can do it. Man, I'd like to see that. Her name is Candace but everyone calls her Candy."
We talked on for a bit as he told me of his drive of a couple of hundred head of three year olds to the railroad in Walcott and of his plans to upgrade his herds with Herford bulls. He'd taken the train on down to Julesburg to see a local rancher about a couple Hereford bulls.
He gave me a hard glance, and finished with, "I'll be honest with you. This job could be a bit dangerous. I'm steadily losin' cattle, particularly calves. It seems like each of my cows only have half a calf!"
He laughed with a bit of bitterness and walked out of the dance hall. I liked him and thought maybe I'd look him up. I wasn't worried about the rustlers, and it sounded like a fair challenge — and maybe a bit of fun — to tame his wild daughter. He said his daughter was "right nice lookin', but I took that with a grain of salt ... not that I was picky or anything.
I found Carla, and after a couple of dances, took her back to her room to say good-bye. As I left the dance hall, I could see her wipe the tears away and start dancin' with a cowboy from Wyoming I'd seen a couple of times. I guessed she'd not pine for me too long.
I went back to Cap's place to say good-bye to him and to gather my possibles pouch. Cap was real nice about it and gave me a good bonus. He almost felt like my dad and I'm sure he looked at me like a son. We said our so longs and I moseyed on down to Ogallala to figure out what I wanted to do. I got down there late in the afternoon — Cap's place was on Blue Creek north of the small settlement of Lewellen a few miles — and had a couple of drinks and ate a steak I figured must have taken the better part of a steer. It was too late to get to the bank and put my money from Cap in a safe place so I put up at the hotel.
I'd saved up quite a bit and with Cap's bonus I had more money than I'd ever dreamed of, and didn't want to carry it with me. When I said good-bye to Pete, he told me with a pleading voice, "Just get here as damn fast as you can." I figgered I'd work for him for a couple of years and start buying a bull and a few cows and maybe I could build my own ranch to park that red-haired Candy Dancer.
I didn't sleep well listening to some woman complainin' to her man somethin' about promises not kept. I was 'bout ready to go next door and rap this fools head against the wall when they gave up with their damn folderol and went to sleep. I woke early the next mornin' and after stuffin' myself with flapjacks and a gallon of damn fine coffee, I was waitin' in front of the bank for them to open.
I'd tied Dirty Red to the rail with a loose loop of the reins. The red part of his name was from his color and the dirty from his disposition: he felt honor bound to make sure I really knew how to ride each time I threw a leg over the saddle. He wasn't shy about trying to bite me. I was sittin' on the bank's steps, finishin' a smoke, knowin' they'd open in a minute. Three worn-out lookin' men pulled up on better horseflesh than I'd seen in a while, stepped by me to the door and started bangin' on it.
A nervous lookin' clerk opened the door and the men went in. Of a sudden, there was a crash of guns and two of the men came runnin' out only to be cut down at once by both barrels of what sounded like a twelve gauge. The man with a gun had a star on his shirt and saw me as I jumped up trying to figure out what the hell was going on. He saw my movement and, in his excitement, forgetting he'd just fired, swung the barrel over to me and pulled both triggers again. With an oath he threw the empty gun down and swept his hand down for his sidearm.
I hadn't done anything wrong but be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Standing' around jawin' about things didn't seem like a healthy option as long as bullets were flyin'. I grabbed the reins that were lying loose over the rail and jumped aboard Red. He took off with a savage leap, wasting no time crow hopping like he was wont to. We made it about ten yards 'til we were on the verge of swinging around to the alley between the bank and the mercantile.
I heard a shot from the deputy and felt a hammer blow to my back. The shock of it almost knocked me off my straining horse but I fell flat as another bullet whizzed by so close I swore I could feel it tug at the too long hair at the side of my head. I jerked Red around the corner then took a left at the trash filled back alley and took off for the stockyards down by the river.
The pain was intense but I knew I had to hold it together. It looked like the law had gotten a tip about a bank robbery and had set up an ambush. I'd just been in the wrong place at the wrong time but I didn't feel like arguin' with some deputy about how I was an innocent bystander. As I swung through the muddy tracks around the pens, I made for the willow breaks alongside the South Platte. The river was low for February since we had had a very dry winter, and I slid down the low sandy bank into the water making my way upstream. I didn't have a plan; I just knew if I didn't get lost in a hurry my cowboy days were over.
Even with the heavy growth of tress alongside the river I could hear the yelling and pounding hooves of a posse forming, but looking back at the stockyards I couldn't see anyone. If I could lose myself along the river I might get away from them unseen. My more immediate problem was the intense burning in my side that cried for relief.
The bullet had torn through my left side a couple inches over my belt and in about two or three inches. It had gone straight through and I was bleedin' like a stuck pig. The worst of it was from the ragged exit wound in the front but I was able to untie my dusty neckerchief and wad it into the wound.
The thick stand of young willows and a number of large, overgrown cottonwoods screened the river from the town. There were no leaves at this time of year but the willows were so dense I wasn't worried about being seen. There hadn't been anyone around when I went past the stockyards but someone might have seen me. I knew a place about two miles west of town where the north bank was sandy for about a half mile.
I climbed up at that point, making my way the short distance to the railroad tracks. I was fadin' fast but I got Red headed west down the tracks. There was gravel filling the spaces between the ties so he didn't have too hard a time of it. I collapsed on Red and was out of it for a while but he kept plodding on. He stopped and then I woke up puzzled as to why. I saw there was a trestle in front of us bridging a quarter mile wide swale. I recognized it as the drainage for the Ogallala Gulch and eased Red on down the embankment into the dry wash. Looking back I couldn't see or hear anything of a posse.
The Gulch led through the range of hills that were a few miles north of the South Platte. Past the hills another four or five miles was the North Platte. I figured if I could make the far side of the North Platte I could hole up for a day or so. From there it was maybe thirty miles to Cap's Double Cross ranch which was a few miles north of Lewellen in the valley east of Twin Buttes.
Somehow, I made it and holed up in some thickets close enough to the river to get water. I boiled some water and washed the wound as clean as I could. It didn't look good; I knew the dusty scarf hadn't helped. I'd hoped I could hide here for a few days but I knew I needed help. I drank some water and chewed on some stale jerky from my saddlebags then smoked a couple of quirleys. I fell into a deep, troublin' sleep. In the cold gray fog of a winter morning, something had woken me and I was surprised to feel my gun in my hand. I had no idea how it had gotten there. Peeking around a small cottonwood was a small fawn alive with curiosity about this strange apparition.
I pulled myself up by hanging on to the tree and stood there a moment adjusting to the shock of the sudden, intense pain. I didn't bother checking the wound; I knew it was bad. I whistled for Red and standing on a half-rotted log was able to mount him. I don't know how but we made it to the Double Cross and I was able to tell Cap what had happened before I passed out.
I woke up in what I recognized was an old trapper's log cabin we had been using as a line camp about half-way between the ranch and Crescent Lake. The cabin was up a narrow canyon about a half mile from the creek. It was on the side of the creek toward Wild Horse Hill. A small spring yielded only enough fresh water for a patient man. Cap had put a galvanized tub there to catch the trickle of water.
One of Cap's riders got up and walked to the cot I laid on. I'd only ever heard anyone call him Dad, although I don't think he was more than thirty-five. "I see you're awake. D'ya know you been sleepin' for a week? Damn if you didn't almost die on us. Cap's wife should be back this afternoon to check up on ya."
I dozed back off and woke to feel Caps chubby wife, Molly, checking my wound.
"Slade, you sure had me worried. You got a bad infection but I was able to get it cleaned out. You should be able to be up and around in a day or so but you're shore gonna be weak. Cap thinks it'll be a couple weeks afore you can travel. Your wound is okay now but you will have an ugly scar. Guess you won't be so much of a pretty boy anymore." She laughed at her joke and continued, "Have Dad help you up and start walkin' 'round. Cap'll be by tomorrow."
She left and Dad did help me. The first priority seemed to have him help me get out to the outhouse. I felt weak and dizzy, but by the time he'd fixed me some rabbit stew I was feelin' better. It was three or four days afore I could walk on my own.
Cap had stopped by and got me up to date. "Since you had been working here the Sheriff did stop by a couple of times. I tried to tell him you never woulda done anything like robbin' a bank but I think he was still somewhat dubious. We are leaving Sunday for Lincoln, but I'll stop by the jail in Ogallala and talk to him again. The three wanna be bank robbers were all killed. Someone had heard 'em in a bar in Julesburg and the Marshal there wired their plan. That's how they were all set up for the ambush. If they were dumb enough to talk in a bar, they were dumb enough to die.
"I'd say yore best bet would be to rest up for a week or two and then head for the hills. You got any place in mind?"
I started to tell him, but he cut me off. "No, I don't wanna know 'bout it. Just take off and lie low and let's hope it'll blow over. I've enjoyed working with you. Yore sure one of the best hands I've ever had. Good luck to ya boy."
With that, he shook my hand and left. I never saw him again. After another two weeks, I was at last able to travel. Loaded up with the supplies from the line shack (at Cap's invitation) I mounted Dirty Red to try to find my way to Pete Dancer's Circle R, and his daughter, the girl with the curious name of Candy Dancer. I could see already that Candy Slade would be a fine upgrade for her name.
When I'd talked to Pete in Julesburg, he had suggested that the best way to come was to Fort Collins and up the Cache la Poudre River and on over Cameron Pass. He said from the pass to head north and pick up the headwaters of the Canadian River, one of the tributaries of the North Platte. This river provided drainage for the Medicine Bow Mountains and following it down stream would take me some miles north of Walden and right to the ranch.
I was still weak and tired so I took it slow. Wanting to stay away from populated areas, I made it down to the edge of the foothills to LaPorte, just northwest of Fort Collins. I rested there for weeks to make sure my side was completely healed and gathered information about the route and what I might run into. I'd seen no sign of anyone lookin' for me.
At a mercantile, the owner told me, after giving me a good looking over, "Wal, I'd get me a good sheepskin coat, several pair of gloves and a good slicker. Even though it's early April, Cameron Pass is over ten thousand feet and gets colder than hell at night all year 'round. You'll get snow at the higher elevations on into June and sometimes July."
I took the merchant's advice and headed up the canyon of the Cache La Poudre. As I wound my way along the river, I remembered the story the broken down old man that worked as a swamper at one of the bars in LaPorte told me one night after I bought him a drink.
"That there river's name means 'Hiding Place of Powder'. The story I got from an ol' mountain man I knew years ago was that some French fur trappers way back when were caught in a nasty blizzard. To lighten their load, they buried large amounts of gunpowder in a hiding place along the banks of the river. Now that grizzled old man done tol' me that poudre meant powder and cache did mean a hiding place. So I figger it did make some sense."
What I hadn't expecting was the sheer beauty of the river gorge. The trees were leafing out with light shades of green and the view up the canyon was spectacular. Red and I took it at an easy pace and enjoyed the trip. I shot a turkey and found the eating quite tasty for a couple of days.
About half the way up to the pass — we must have been somewhere around eight thousand foot high — it started raining. It was mostly a cold misty drizzle at first but I knew what could happen in the mountains. I started looking for a place to wait it out. If it was raining down here that it would be snowing hard up at the pass. I saw a heavy stand of lodge pole pines on the other side of the river and up about a quarter mile. I'd just forded at a shallow, rocky spot when the wind came up and the rain came in heavy slashing waves.
My new, heavy sheepskin coat in a pack behind the saddle. I had on a medium weight coat and shirt and a full-length union suit on under everything. The coat and shirt were both heavy wool. I'd been comfortable with a pair of leather riding gloves on but the rain had saturated my coat in minutes and I could feel the rain coming down the back of my neck with each strong gust of wind. The cold was setting into my bones and my wound was starting to ache with a shocking fierceness.
I noticed the pines were separated from the rocky wall by a narrow three foot width and I looked for a suitable place to hole up. I found not so much as a cave, but a rounded indentation setting back from the face of the cliff wall about a dozen feet. It looked like the cutout had been formed by thousands of years of floods eating into the cliff. The river made a bend here and I knew that in the mountains a heavy flash flood could tumble huge rocks down the river like pebbles.
I slid off Dirty Red and pulled him in the cave. There were several rock circles for fires and a large stack of dead branches on the far side of the cave. There was also a large pile of dried grass for feed so this place was used regularly.
I got a fire started and then took the saddle off and hung the horse's blanket over a rock to dry. Using a handful of the grass, I wiped Red down, and then led him to a pool of water at the cave's entrance where a large depression in the rock floor had filled with rainwater. He wasn't going anywhere so I took the bridle off and gave him a fair pile of grass. I took off my wet clothes and put them on rocks to dry. I stood by the fire until I warmed up then put on my only clean set of clothes. I put on a pot of coffee and started some bacon and beans. The dense stand of lodge poles kept most of the wind and rain out so I was actually more than comfortable.
Using my new sheepskin coat as a pillow and replenishing the fire several times I slept well and the ache in my side gradually let up. I woke the next morning to find the heavy rain had slowed to a light mist but the roar from the river didn't sound good. It was colder than a witch's tit so I put on my new coat and walked out to see the bad news. The river was a seething cauldron and was out of its banks. The area I was on was pinched in by the river at each end so I wasn't going anywhere for a day or so.
The river slowly settled throughout the day and the next morning came with a warm breeze and more seasonal weather. Okay, it was a warm, sunny morning in April and it looked like it would be this way for a couple of days. My dilemma now was if I left right away, I was going to be making some dangerous fords but if I waited, the river was sure to rise as the snow started melting at the higher elevations. I took the chance and pushed hard, taking chances but nothing foolish. Red was well rested so we did okay.
We made the pass two days later and struggled through drifts of snow three to four foot deep. I ignored the Michigan River on the other side of the pass and went straight north looking for the Canadian. We found it later that day, deciding what looked like a small creek was really the river. I found out later that the Canadian ran into the Michigan north of Walden, joinin', at some point, the North Platte. The Canadian was supposed to save me a half days travel and wasn't so steep, so I was happy. Late the next afternoon I saw what must be the ranch down on the valley floor. I'd seen the drab buildings of Walden a hour earlier.
I saw a flash of water in a heavy stand of aspens about a hundred feet off the valley floor and maybe four or five miles from the ranch. As I got closer, I could see a waterfall, probably from a creek or spring which splashed over a rock wall about twelve feet above the pool. I knew the water would be cold but I wanted to clean up before I went to the ranch. Not that I wanted to impress the young lady, but well ... one never knew.