I figured I wasn't going to make it this time. I was hard and I had led a hard life. Lucky most of my time, I guess I had used it all up and should have quit this way of life six months ago. I was a cowpoke and gunslinger and had taken a job protecting some rag-tag cattlemen up north awhile back. They were good enough people, but they couldn't pull together against the big outfit that was pushing them off their land. When the man that hired me died, the rest just up and caved.
At the showdown on the little dusty street where he had been killed, I was lying there alongside him. He was dead. I wasn't. I wasn't a whole lot alive either. The other side had got lead into me. One slug bounced off two of my ribs, breaking them. I was carrying another slug that had hit me as I was going down. It was lodged in my thigh. The ranchers I worked for were two damned afraid to come near me or their dead boss. I lay there for two hours until it was dark enough to drag myself to my horse. A kid helped boost me into the saddle, and only half conscious, I guided my mount out of town.
I was three and a half days into a four-day trip when my horse stepped into a gopher hole and snapped his leg. I had just been coming up on the backside of a water hole when it happened. I had to shoot the poor beast and crawl the last hundred yards to the rocks sheltering the water. I was feverish and miles away from any help. My leg was infected and every breath I took was pass-out pain from the smashed ribs.
I would have made it to my brother's spread if this hadn't happened. I was traveling cross-country and this wasn't on any trail. It might be days before anyone found me. I got a drink and made my way back into the shade of the rocks. I passed out.
I roused up when I heard voices. Unbelieving, one of them was my brother Curt's voice. God how could I be so in luck. Maybe my luck wasn't all gone after all. I raised up ready to make myself known when there was a gunshot and I saw my brother keel over. Reflexes took over and I palmed my piece, dropping the two men standing over my brother. They were going to put a couple more slugs into their victim. They died before they could. I crawled out to see how badly my brother was hit.
It was bad. Curt had been hit in the chest and was dying. He knew it and I knew it, but there was enough life left in him to recognize me. "Clarence? Clarence, it can't be. Oh God, I'm glad to see you. You've got to do something for me. Listen carefully. My saddlebags are full of money. I'm coming home from a trail drive. Those men that shot me work for a man named Hal Downs. Most of the money is his, but he might not care so much about the money as he does something else. He wants my wife, Ada. He has bragged around that someday he will get her."
Curt passed out and I didn't know if he would regain consciousness. I crawled over to his bedroll and found his kit. Opening it up, a bottle of horse liniment fell out. I thought, "That just might save my life." Just that minute the coffee pot boiled over, and I surmised that my brother had time to make camp before he was shot and I was unaware of it all.
Curt could not have realized how bad off I was, for when he came to, he thought I was going to mount up and ride off to save his wife. I said I would stay for a bit. We went back over our lives. It had been three years since I had seen him. He had married and bought a little spread. We had kept in touch by him posting me care of General Delivery at various places he knew I would be.
He told me that just as he was leaving with the herd, Ada had said she thought she might be pregnant. He had almost stayed home, but they needed to sell some of steers that were finally old enough. This Hal Downs had convinced him to drive his much larger gather with his own and would pay him extra if he would put the cattle into the same herd. Money was always short so he had agreed. Curt could see what was behind it all now. With Curt out of the way and dead, he would be free to go after Ada.
We relived our childhood and laughed about my having to fight so many times over my name of "Clarence." Even Mom had admitted it had been a mistake to name me that, but she wanted us to have the same initials. Curt was two years older than me and bigger. I was smaller, just under five-ten, but I was quicker. Neither one of us regretted our lives. I had been everywhere and done whatever my fancy pointed to. Curt said his only regret was dying without seeing his Ada and maybe the little squirt--if there was one. His last words were, "Take care of her."
The next time I looked at him, Curt was gone. I set about caring for myself. I had a mission, if you call it that. Sometime and someday my gun was going to collect the man that ordered my brother's death. Staring at my leg, I finally did it. I took my knife and slit where the bullet had traveled from back to front and popped the bullet out where it lay underneath the skin just above the knee.
I had a gash almost ten inches long. The suppuration had killed a lot of the feeling or I wouldn't have been able to do this. I poured the liniment onto the wound and the pain put me out once again. Coming to, I took the now cold coffee grounds and made a poultice and wrapped it up in my kerchief, soaking it all with liniment. I bound it over the wound with some piggin strings I pulled from one of the saddles.
I said goodbye to my brother. I left him just the way he had died. I checked the guns and made it look like a real gun battle. I didn't have the strength to bury Curt or boost him onto one of the other horses. Hell, when I pulled myself onto Curt's bronc, I nearly passed out from the pain of the smashed ribs. I sat on the horse and looked around at what I was leaving.
I went over, leaned down and untied the other horses and set them free. Eventually Hal Downs would come looking for his men. I wanted it to look like Curt had killed them and then had died from a bullet he had received in return. The killers' horses headed for their home range and I let Curt's horse drift along with them for a ways. A lot of this wasn't planned, for I was in and out of consciousness and I must have been in this condition for several miles. The other two horses plodded along in the footprints they had made coming north.
Moon was up and suddenly I felt refreshed. I knew sometime I had to head west toward Curt's spread while the Downs' ranch was almost due south. Wide awake, I gently guided my horse to the right and nearer the hills that were coming down off a small butte. The other two horses followed for a hundred yards or so, and then turned back to the northbound tracks and retraced their way south toward home.
Just as the sun was coming up I pulled into the yard of a small, neat ranch house. I croaked, "Ada." Nothing. As loud as I could. "Ada!" The door opened and a woman peered out.
"Who are you? What are you doing with Curt's horse? Where's Curt?" She was holding a rifle and it came up to cover me as she spoke.
I talked fast. "Ma'am, Curt's dead. I'm almost dead and there will be some people looking for the money he had with him and I got it with me. You have to hide me because I killed those that killed Curt. I'm Curt's brother, Clarence."
I'll give the woman credit, she got right to it. She led the horse into the barn which was about five times the size of the house. Easing me off the horse I sagged to the floor. Seeing how badly I was injured, she wanted to stop and give me some attention. "No, there's no time. Drive the horse into the corral with the others and then drive the whole bunch out onto the range. Go east over the tracks I made coming in and leave them a half mile out. Leave the saddle on so no one will know the horse made it this far.
"You'll have to walk back. Just say the corral bars were down this morning and you were looking for the horses. Where can I hide?"
Ada went over to the feed box and tugging it forward, lifted three wide planks and pointed to a hole about four feet deep. There were a few steps down to the bottom. "Nobody knows this is here. The only trouble is, you won't be able to get out by yourself when I put the grain box back."
"That's okay. If I die down here, I've got some of Curt's money on me. Now get those horses moving, please."
I heard the rush of the remuda as it went pounding through the yard. An hour later I would guess, Ada was back. She was sitting above me and talking through the floor. "Tell me about it. Curt is really dead?"
"Yes, Ma'am. I had some little time with him. His last words were for you and he sent his love. I am supposed to ask if you are pregnant. He said somehow he would know, even when he was on the dark side. Another thing, don't trust Hal Downs, because he is the one that had him killed. He wanted the money and more importantly, he wants you. Eventually I will get him."
"Yes, I understand. Oh I had such a bad feeling when Curt left. I've had a sinking feeling every day for the two months he has been away."
I could hear the woman above me crying for her dead husband and for her unborn child. "Won't you let me look at your wounds? What do you need done first?"
"I need water. I can hear some penned up chickens. Can you bring a pail of water when you feed them? Just open the floor long enough to pass it to me. If anyone sees you they will think you're just bringing water to the chickens."
"Why would Hal think to come here and so soon?"
.... There is more of this story ...