The sun was coming up as I sat looking down the valley to the east. It was called Peaceful Valley by the rancher I had acquired the land from. It wasn't peaceful for him and it didn't seem that way to me. After a restless night of uneasy sleep, I often came out here in the early morning wondering if I had chosen the right path. This was a self-imposed exile I had set for myself.
I lived now in a small rock-walled house I had constructed when I first came here to this ranch. I earned the property by caring for a man until he passed on. I built the house while he watched me and told stories of his life here. I had made the walls solid for there was a clay bank near that I used to chink the walls tight. The only timbers were the hewn rafters and the joists for floor and the loft. I did buy some boards for the roof and I had rived the shakes my own self.
There was a lean-to that sheltered my two animals who were now my only companions. I had my big gray gelding and an older mare that I used for a pack animal. Feed for them was plentiful as there was a spring just below where I had located my building. There was green feed from the runoff that was there for ten of the twelve months in the year. I cut hay for the horses by hand each fall to see them through the deepest winter.
This morning I was particularly restless. Maybe it was the loneliness. It had been almost three months since I had seen another human. I had come here twenty-three months ago after I had killed someone. I had killed before, for that was what my business was. Up until that last time I had killed three bad men, but this time I was troubled. All three men I had killed before had been legal, for I carried a badge. The last one was legal too, I suppose. A stage had been held up at one certain point twice and it had been guessed it would happen again as the first two times had been so successful and without problems for the bad man.
I was sitting thinking back to how things happened a couple of years ago. At that time I was riding the stage waiting for it to be robbed again. The bandit had never been seen or identified. There was always a warning shot fired from concealment high up in the rocks and the command to throw the mail sacks down. As soon as the sacks hit the ground the coach was directed to continue on. The mail sacks were opened and the letters rifled and left where they were with all money taken from them. Whoever was doing this couldn't have been getting very rich, but it was a crime.
The shot came in the same location and from the same place! I squirreled out the opposite door of the stage, and waiting my chance, I eased around back. The minute the mail sacks were thrown down as directed, I ran for the shelter of the rocks. I knew I couldn't be seen. I doubted the bandit would even know he was in trouble.
When the stage left I could hear the thief coming down off the ledge. He never suspected I was there, me up against the rocks as I was. The bandit still had a kerchief over his chin and a big hat on. A small man, his gun was still in his right hand and just as he bent to grab a sack with his left I spoke, "Drop your gun. You're covered."
There was no hesitation. He fired across his body in my direction, the slug hitting the rock to my right and spattering me with rock chips. I automatically fired in defense. He dropped right there. I stood shaking my head in disbelief. Christ, I didn't want to kill the damned fool. He wouldn't have got more than two years in Yuma. I knew he was dead from the way he thrashed around and then lay still. I eased up to him knowing he was dead, but I was still wary. The hat had come off and the bandanna had come loose as well.
I was immediately sick, for it was a kid that I looked at, maybe fifteen or sixteen. I looked for the bandit's horse, but didn't find how he had got here. The buckboard I always arranged to follow the stage came up a few minutes later. Pete and I loaded the body onto the wagon along with the two mail sacks and headed for town. The sheriff was waiting for us when we came down the street to our office. The townspeople gathered behind us as we moved along, making quite a crowd before we got there.
The sheriff was the first to say something. "Got him did you Dan? Good job."
"Stupid kid didn't listen and fired at me the minute I told him to drop his gun. I fired and killed him to protect myself. Does anyone know him? He must be from around here."
"He looks like the nester's kid from across the valley. The nester died from snakebite a couple of months ago. He's got an older sister. They're having it rough. Pity. Pity for the girl. I wonder what will happen to her?" This came from one of the men standing by the buckboard.
"Give me directions. I'll have to go tell her what happened." It was a chore that held no joy for me. "Take the body over to Doc Kimbal's and I'll find out what his family wants to do about a funeral."
The sheriff took me over to the saloon and bought me a drink. "People ain't going to like you killing someone as young as that even for cause. I may have to ask you for your deputy's badge."
"Here, take it Jim."
"No, not yet. You better have it on when you tell his people. That'll show them it was the law killed him, not you personally."
"Same difference ain't it, he's just as dead."
"I guess, but it might help just a little."
I went across the flat and rolling valley to where some small ranches and homesteads were settled up against the range of hills. There were two large ranches that held the open land that I had to cross. Here and there I could see men working cattle, but I didn't stop to talk. This was something I wanted to get over with as soon as possible and liking none of it.
I rode into the yard and shouted, "Anyone home?"
"What do you want, Mister?" A voice came from the shack's doorway. The only thing I could see was what appeared to be the barrel of a shotgun.
"I'm Deputy Dan Collins. I want to talk to you." I was still on my mount.
"Speak up then."
"What's your name and do you have a brother?"
"Penelope Breckenridge and yes, I have a brother. His name is Abe. What about him?"
"There was a kid killed trying to rob the stage. Somebody said it might be your brother." There was silence while I waited.
Two minutes, "Who killed him?"
"The law killed him."
"You're wearing a badge. Was it you?"
"It was me. He didn't give me a chance. He was shooting at me. Anyway the body is in town. Will you be in to claim it? You can ask the sheriff for the details."
"No, I won't claim him. Put him in the town graveyard. You killed him, you bury him."
"Don't you want to make sure he is your brother? You should at least identify him. In fact, I insist on it."
"What are you going to do if I don't? Are you going to shoot me too?"
I ignored that. "Will you at least come out where I can see you?"
"You won't be seeing much." The woman stepped out.
She had on bib overalls and a faded chambray shirt. Her shoes must have been her father's, for they were way too big for her. The only thing neat about her was her hair. That was chestnut brown and looked like it had been brushed. It curled around her face so I couldn't tell clearly what her features were. "Where's his horse? I can't go into town without a horse."
"I didn't find a horse at the robbery. Did you know he was robbing stages? This would have been the third time it was held up."
"I suppose I knew. He came home a couple of times with a few dollars. He wasn't too bright, but we had to eat since Pa died. You going to take me to jail?"
"No, but you will have to go in with me. I'll borrow a horse from one of the ranches for you to ride. I'll be back for you in an hour." I headed out for the nearest ranch. I borrowed a buckboard and a driving horse. The rancher agreed to send one of his cowboys to look for the thief's horse. The boy must have hidden it and walked a distance to the robbery site.
The woman saw me coming with the buckboard. She disappeared into the shack and by the time I arrived she was coming down the steps. She had on a faded dress. This was a girl, not a woman yet. "How old are you?"
"Eighteen." I read defiance and hate on her face. It bothered me, but when I remembered I had killed her brother just a few hours ago, I wasn't that surprised at her attitude. I tied my horse to the tailgate. It was a silent journey into town. I didn't even know how to say I was sorry and I was sure that she didn't want to discuss what happened. Not with me anyhow.
Arriving in front of the doctor's office, I tied the horse to the hitching post and turned to help her down. She was down and looking at me, waiting to see what was next. "We'll go into the office and speak to Doc Kimbal who has charge of the body. While you are talking to him, I'll tell the sheriff you are in town."
Penny was trembling and near tears. I continued, "I'll ask Mom Kimbal to be with you." I knew I had to say something. "Miss Breckenridge, I know it won't help, but I am truly sorry this has happened."
Anger and hate replaced the tears in her eyes. "I'll just bet you are. When are you going to be filing my brother's notch on your gun?" I just shook my head, knowing I would never change this girl's mind about me. I went in and found the doctor and went around back to his quarters. I asked Mom Kimbal to go in and be with the girl for support in this troubled time. I found the sheriff and told him I had brought Penelope Breckenridge into town. I then went into the saloon and ordered a drink, carrying it to a table. Everyone left me alone as they could see I didn't want company. As darkness fell, it matched my mood.
I went across the street to my room at the boardinghouse. As I was going up the stairs, I came face to face with Miss Breckenridge. "Dan Collins, someday I am going to kill you just like you killed my brother. I don't know how or when, but you can count on it." She brushed by me and went into the last room down the hall.
I was busy in the morning. There was a coroner's inquest and it was declared a justifiable shooting, although regrettable. It was determined that the robber was killed in the commission of a crime. When he resisted arrest, he had been killed by the law. Penny glared at me from across the room. She was only asked to identify her brother and state his name for the record. The inquest lasted nine minutes which was just long enough for me to tell my story. My reputation was such that I was believed without reservation.
When I reached the boardinghouse for dinner, there was a crowbait of a horse standing at the hitching rail. I swung around and went to the sheriff's office and listened to what my boss had to say. Penny Breckenridge was now an orphan. She had no money and the shack she and her brother had been living in was on land claimed by the nearest ranch.
"So what's going to happen to her?"
"Dan, I don't know. Some man will come along and sweet talk her. Maybe he'll marry her or maybe he won't bother. I think the girl is smart enough, but she is a long way from being educated. You can't do anything for her. She positively hates your guts."
"I know. How did she get along with Mom Kimbal?"
"Good. Especially when Doc and Mom got her a room at the boardinghouse."
"Sheriff, I'm taking off my badge. That way if she kills me, the law won't be as harsh on her."
"Did she make threats? We could hold her on some kind of charge if she did."
"No, I was just going by the look in her eyes. Anyway, I'll be leaving shortly after the funeral. I'm giving up the law for awhile. It has been good working for you. You are a good sheriff." I turned and went out and across to Doc Kimbal's office. Mom and I were closeted for two hours. That was at one p.m. and from then until five I was at the telegraph office sending and receiving messages.
This killing really got to me. I knew the prospect for Miss Breckenridge to have a life wasn't very good. If she didn't take up with the right person, she would end up in some saloon and then probably down in a crib alley somewhere. I would feel worse about that than the killing of her brother. I had saved a few pennies and now I used some of them. Just before I left Mom's she said, "You know Penny isn't going to forgive you no matter what you do."
"I know, but I destroyed one young life. Maybe I can help save another. She won't know and I wouldn't want her to either."
I was at the funeral, but I was far back standing with the curious onlookers. I was across the street when the livery stable owner came to the door of the boardinghouse and offered Penny ten dollars for her five dollar horse. A day later I was watching from the door of the stage office when she was handed into the stage heading east. Clothes had been found for her to travel in and I knew she had eighty-five dollars in her purse. It also held her ticket paid all the way to St. Paul. She was heading to my sister's and her doctor husband.
A sense of relief washed over me as the stage made the turn at the end of the street and disappeared leaving the settling dust. I could go on with my life now. There would always be that regret for the pain I had caused by killing someone. I was touched by the grief I had caused this young woman. I hoped what I had done would relieve it somewhat. I wanted to be free of all thoughts of her, but wants and what happens are sometimes far apart.
Two years later I still thought about the girl. I had a ranch now and it had come to me fairly easily. I had come up on an old rancher when I left town and headed west after watching Penny take the stage. It was forty miles back to where I had been a deputy. The old rancher, Cad Wilkins, had been rustled down to his last horse and that was gone too. He was old, disappointed with life and on his last legs. It was mostly loneliness, I suspect. Anyway he said if I'd take care of him, he'd give me title to his land. It was a full section and he owned it outright.
When I got sick of old Cad's tales about coming west and all that had beset him to bring him to this pass, I would go up in the hills and prospect for gold. These hills had been prospected extensively in the past and some gold had been found. There were diggings all over the hillsides. While the old man lived, which he did for almost a year, I looked around. The ranch in the valley controlled the land back of it. There was good graze for stock, both here and in the rough country back in the hills. No big meadows, but if someone had cattle and spread them around in the pockets of grass, he could run quite a few.
Problem was I had no money to start a herd. That changed one day some time after old Cad died when I was caught out in the hills. I still prospected and occasionally found some color. Enough to keep me in provisions and buy myself a drink or two when I went to town. There was a cloudburst from a fast moving storm that came down on me. I had crawled up under a ledge high up in a ravine leaving me covered, except for my boots which stuck out in the rain. The water went rushing by just outside the hole in which I had found shelter. The storm was soon over and I crawled out. A flat rock had been uncovered. Along the bottom edge there was something that glinted like copper.
I picked it up and a shock went through me. It looked like a gold nugget. I stared at it, turning it around and around in my fingers. It was kind of irregular and made me think of a walnut meat with sharp edges. Two feet farther down the ravine I spotted another. I searched and searched and I found one more smaller one about the size of a pea.
I pondered, now how did the nuggets get here? If it was gold, where did it come from? I crawled up the ravine, now drying in the sun. Near the ridge I could see where an outcropping of a ledge had been worked over by some miner in times past. I figured at one time the ledge must have harbored a vein of gold, the vein now mined out.
I came back and sat down near where I had crawled out of the rain. Was there anything under that slab of rock? The stone was about five feet long and three feet wide. The edges were clearly defined and I could see where the water had run under it. It looked to be between one and two inches thick. Grasping one of the long edges, I struggled to lift it and tip it over. I got it up about a foot before my foot slipped. I set it down with a bang. Another nugget squished up near the bottom edge of the stone. Excited now, I tried lifting again. I felt like Atlas and could lift the world.
I flipped it completely over and out of the way. Nestled in the silt and mud I could see several of the beautiful little golden buggers all gathered in a pocket along where the bottom edge of the flat rock had laid. If this was gold, and I firmly believed it was, there was my herd of cattle, horses and money enough to hire me some help.
A week later I sat looking down the valley. I missed old Cad and wished him back. I could have made it the peaceful valley he named it. He died a year too soon. I'd have bought him cattle to restock his ranch and we would have worked it and been happy. There was still that uneasy feeling I had this morning.
I guess I was reminiscing in my mind when I became aware that I was seeing a bronc coming up the valley. Company coming! I put the coffee pot on. When the man got here he said he was from the livery stable and the sheriff had sent him out. He had other letters from various people. There were three from my sister in St. Paul, one from the sheriff and two from Mom Kimbal. I almost immediately guessed what information was contained in the missives before I opened any of them. Henry, the liveryman, was talking about the new schoolteacher who had arrived from the east two days previously.
He went on to describe her, saying she was twenty-years-old and a likely looking thing. The town fathers were holding a dance on Saturday for everyone to become acquainted with her. She would be teaching the younger children in a separate schoolhouse from the older students. Henry asked if I would be coming into town for the dance.
"Yes, of course. I'd like to meet the schoolteacher. What's her name?"
"Penelope Breckenridge. Her brother was killed out here a couple of years ago during a hold-up. One of the sheriff's deputies did it. That was before my time. People wonder why she came back to where it must be awful painful for her. I know where her brother's grave is too. The sheriff pays someone to have the marker varnished and to keep the grave clear. He says the money comes in the mail for the upkeep of the grave. Foolishness, I say. When you are dead, you are dead and you don't know if weeds are growing over you or not.
"Well, I have to be heading back if I want to get in before dark. God, how can you live out here all alone? I got to have people around me to survive. See you at the dance."
After he disappeared across the valley, I opened my sister's latest letter. I would read the earlier two some other time. "Dan, Penny is coming back to your town. She said she made someone a promise one time and needs to resolve it before she can move on with her life. She has never said much about her previous life before you sent her to me. I think she has mellowed some since I have known her. She was so filled with hate when she first moved in. You never told me why you sent her here. It must have cost you a bundle." (It had.)
"Sam has her helping him in the surgery and is going to hate to see her leave when school starts. I think if you hadn't paid for her teaching lessons, she would have made a great nurse. Let me know all about her when you can. She has been as close a sister to me as can be. The kids are going to miss her more than Sam and I do. Someday maybe we can see each other again. Love, your sister Mabel.
"PS, Sam and the kids send love as well."
Mom Kimbal's letter was much the same.
"Penny keeps asking if I know where that deputy who killed her brother is located. I couldn't lie totally. I said you came into town occasionally for supplies, but I didn't know exactly where you lived. It doesn't seem possible that she can still hate you after all this time. I think you should let me tell her how much she owes you.
"There is going to be a box social Saturday with a dance afterward. I'm going to put the lunch in the box I usually use. It is plain, but you must remember which one it is. You bid it off. She can't kill you in front of everyone. I'm working on her by telling her about how you gave up your badge so you wouldn't have to shoot any more bad men."
The sheriff's letter was in the same vein.
"Dan, that Breckenridge woman is back and looking for you. She is insisting that I tell her where your place is. This is just a warning. I have no idea what is in her mind at all. Be careful. Jim."
I made it to the boardinghouse before all the rooms were filled for the dance. I went over to visit with Mom Kimbal. "Doc is in setting a broken leg and Penny is helping him. I wish she would be his nurse all the time. She is staying here with us you know. This is her lunch that is going into the box for the social. I wish you two were friends. Won't you let me tell her about you?"
"No, Mom. If I want her to know, I'll tell her when I see her at the dance. That is if she doesn't shoot me first. Save me a waltz will you?" I went over to the saloon and bought me a beer. I nursed it until I decided maybe I should get cleaned up. The barber gave me the works and the Chinee brushed my jacket after he steamed the wrinkles out of it.
People were heading for the social that was being held in the church. I saw Penny with Doc and Mom. I hung back and was almost the last one in before the doors were closed. The bidding went on in the hall and then everyone went out back to where tables had been set up. More chickens were killed to fill the boxes and baskets for these doings than at any other time of the year.
The bidding was fast and furious. Sometimes a man was elated and sometimes crushed when the box he had bid on turned out to be brought by someone he didn't know. Once in awhile the bids were run up for a lunch if it was suspected to have been put together by a pretty girl. No one was aware which lunch belonged to Penny and I bid it in at the average price of seventy-five cents.
Her face flushed when she saw who she was to eat with and turned to look at Mom, knowing she had been set up. "Don't blame Mom. She has had the same lunch box for every one of these socials. How was I to know it was your lunch?" I grinned. "I knew you were staying at Doc's so I took a chance and bid on it. I wouldn't have been too disappointed if it was her lunch either." I paused, "Miss Breckenridge, you've grown up. You are much prettier than I remembered you."
"Thank you Mr. Collins. Shall we find a seat by the trees where there is a small table and a bench?" Small talk continued while we consumed the lunch, her telling me about her last two years. There were four pieces of chicken, two biscuits, some fried potatoes--cold, but delicious, and two pieces of berry pie. There was a fire in the center of the grounds that had several coffee pots hung over the coals and we drank from the tin cups that Mom had packed.
"Mr. Collins, this has to be said. I think I am aware of everything you have done for me in the last two years. I believe that it was you that arranged for me to have some money when I left here after the funeral of my brother. It took me almost a year to figure out that Mabel was your sister and that it was you who arranged for me to become educated enough to be able to teach school. I'd like to thank you for everything.
"I'm concerned now how you want me to pay you back. Is it me that you are after? I will have some trouble with you if that is what you plan. First though, tell me why you have done this for me."
"Miss Breckenridge, to tell you why, I'll have to go back further than when I shot your brother. All my life, I wanted to be a law officer. I had to kill three men in the line of duty before that fateful day. All three had to be brought to justice because of things they had done. One was the rape of a young lady, one was a bank robber who killed a teller, and the other was a man who ordered a nester's family killed so he could take over their property. All of these men would have been hanged eventually. They just chose to die by my hand instead.
"There were others that I brought in who gave up when challenged and chose to let a judge and jury deal with them. I was comfortable in the way I was administering the law. When I killed your brother, that all changed. I couldn't be sure I was doing things the way they should be done. I questioned myself, could I have done anything differently? I will tell you this. If your brother had been three or four years older and I had killed him, I would still be a law officer.
"This brings me to you. I knew what your future prospects were. You, poor, uneducated and reasonably attractive--well, let's say in your circumstances, your future had only one road leading toward something not so nice. I gave up the law the minute I saw your brother lying on the ground. I had a few dollars so I used them to help you. I think I have succeeded. I have never entertained the idea of you having to pay me back for anything. The law killed your brother, but I pulled the trigger. That precludes any thought of us being any sort of friends.
"I do appreciate the chance to have this little talk so I can make my apologies again. I was afraid you might cut me cold when you saw who bid in your lunch. I truly hope you will be a good teacher. If you do, that will be my thanks, knowing I was a part of your success."
"I will be Mr. Collins. What are you doing now that you aren't a deputy anymore?"
"I have a bit of land about forty miles from here. It takes about eight hours to travel there with a good horse. I'm going to be buying some cattle to stock the ranch with very shortly. Both the land and the funds to buy the stock would never have come to me if I hadn't given up my deputy's job. In a way I feel that is the thanks for what I have done for you. I do so regret taking your brother's life to have it happen."
"Mr. Collins, I think we should put my brother's death behind us and move on. I am grateful for what you have done for me." I thought she might continue in this way because she was silent and pensive for a minute. Then she brightened. "The dance is about ready to begin. I can hear the fiddles warming up. Would you ask me for the first dance?"
I did not have another chance to dance with Penny again and left the dance more than a little disappointed. Schoolmarm Penny was young and attractive and much in demand by all the men at the dance. I had one dance with her and I guess that was all I was entitled to.
The next day I found a cattle buyer in town and I commissioned him to purchase a small herd of shorthorns for me. I wanted proven bulls to service them. What I needed was a mixed bunch of cows and young stock. I couldn't wait very long for income, so was looking for yearling steers to fatten up.
I took the stage to a town some distance away to have my gold turned into a bank draft. The assay office was supposed to keep information secure from the public, but sometimes the news of gold got out. I didn't particularly want a bunch of prospectors crawling all over land that belonged to me--or nearby, for that matter. I never heard that there was any but the occasional prospector in the hills, so the secret of the gold I had found was safe.
To be honest, I didn't know that much about cattle ranching. I was late to start at twenty-eight. But I had listened to the old man that owned the land before me. I intended to change several things from the way he ran his cattle. One thing that he cautioned was that about one in five years we had a dry time, and one in seven years there was a severe winter that came down on the area.
I knew that inevitably I would have to deal with these two things if I continued ranching. The water--I hired a young girl of about thirteen who had built up a reputation for finding water with a stick. She identified several likely places that could be developed. When fully developed the water holes would be spread throughout my ranch and should get me through a drought. The snow and cold--I was going to have stacks of hay every year. There were crews that I hired to come and put it up for me. The cattle might not put on weight, but at least I would have them alive to rebound when the grass was greened up in the spring.
To have hay, I had to manage my herd so I could grow it. There was a new thing on the market called bobbed-wire. I traveled and looked at some of it in a hardware store and I visited a ranch that had been using it for the last two years.
It takes time and money to do all of this and I was fast running out of both. I hired an old broken-down cowboy named Montana who just wanted to have a place to live out his life and be able to tell his tall tales about how things used to be. I paid him with board and room and supplied him with whisky. He was happy with that and I made sure all his needs were met including enough money to buy tobacco.
He was the one handy person I needed and knew cattle ranching inside and out. He drove the buckboard delivering posts and wire used to divide my ranch into fields and pastures. He also fed the horses and messed around in the garden spot growing a few vegetables. The three B's, (beef, beans and biscuits) you can get tired of them. When I needed to move stock, I hired someone on a weekly basis or swapped labor with another ranch that wasn't too far away.
Springtime I had my cattle in the hills, spread out into the various pockets of grass. A few here and a few more there--whatever the graze would bear. My hay stacks were all in a row by August and the fields were ready for fall graze when I brought the cattle in from the hills late in September. Where the cattle would be wintered I let the grass cure all summer long for winter feed. The cattle could dig down through the snow and find graze. When the snow was too deep, I fed them from the stacks.
The only other full-time help I hired was Ken, an orphan boy of seventeen. He had been brought up in the city and had run away and heeded the call to go west. I picked him off the streets and he was so thankful he worked his butt off showing his appreciation. He soon was earning cowboy wages and tried to emulate me in every way.
The world around me was fast changing. Not more than a month after I got my herd, silver had been found in the hills west of my ranch. Enough so that several mining companies were developing mines there. Although they were twenty miles away they did affect me considerably. A sixty mile spur was constructed from the railhead to the mines. The rails had replaced the stage in the town where I was deputy years before.
Three acres of my land was bargained for. I made a deal with the railroad that they would stop the train and take on my cattle or stop to take on a passenger if I put up a flag. I constructed a few small loading pens and a shute so the train wasn't held up but for a short time during the loading.
When I made the deal, I thought my beef would be heading east to the slaughterhouses, but as the mines developed, most of it was sold to feed the miners. This was a good life, but I was lonely. I went into town occasionally and socialized when there was a dance.
Always I would run into Penny and always I would think about her and sometimes we danced together. It had been two years and a few months since she had come home. We still addressed each other formally and although I would have loved to call her Penny, I didn't know how to go about it. There seemed to always be a barrier between us--in my mind anyway. Many people, friends and acquaintances alike, wondered why she didn't pick someone and get married.
Penny just brushed the many comments and the several proposals aside saying she wasn't going to settle for anything but love. Penny still lived with Mom and Doc Kimbal and she was treated like a daughter by them. She, in turn, looked upon them as her parents.
It was a year after the track to the mines was laid that Mom and Penny visited my ranch. Mom kept declaring that she wanted to see where I lived. It was to be a flying trip. The train traveled west to the mines and would be returning east in a few hours. Mom had informed me days before when they would be arriving so I was waiting at the loading pens with the buckboard when the train stopped.
The train was a work train carrying ore out and supplies and mine personnel in. Penny started to call me Mister as she had always done, but I said. "Call me Dan. You are my guest. I'd very much like to call you Penny."
"Of course. This Mister and Miss has gone on way too long. What beautiful country. I don't get out of town too often. Just on a Sunday for a drive sometimes."
That sent a pang of jealousy through me. This was an unconscious statement by Penny I was sure. Penny just didn't see me as a suitor and why should she? Mom saw what the effect on me was though, and quickly asked about my cattle. I asked the two women into my little stone house for a lemonade that I had made. Mom and Penny were impressed with the way I had arranged it and how nice and snug it was.
Montana and Ken ate their meals with me in the house. They had a room behind the tack room for sleeping in the barn I had built for the horses. Montana came out from the barn to say "howdy." Penny asked him if he was from Montana and if that was how he got his name. "Nope, but I all'es intended to go there and I just might do that someday." This was his standard answer to the question.
We had only been at the house for a few minutes when Ken came sliding into the yard on his bronc. "Boss, two men have got a steer down and are butchering it. If we hurry we can catch them before they get out of there. It is over in that pocket where the buttercups are."
Mom spoke up, "Go Dan. If you don't get back in time for us to catch the train, we will stay overnight and go back to town in the morning." I had my newest work clothes on but didn't take time to change them. I buckled on my gun, grabbed my Winchester while Ken caught me a mount and a fresh one for himself. In just a few minutes I was mounted. I stopped long enough to make an apology.
"I'm sorry Mom, Penny. I'll be back as soon as I can." It was Penny who said to be careful. I heard this as I put spurs to my horse.
It was two miles to where my steer was being butchered. I knew the lay of the land and I knew the point they had to be headed to get off my land and it was in me to beat them there. We just made it. They had a wagon with the steer dressed in the back. It was covered with sacking to keep the blow flies off the meat. We were almost up to them before they saw us. I pulled up and sat with my horse sideways, blocking their trail out.
"Pull up and get down. I want to know who you are." Instead of doing as I said, the driver flicked his reins and shouted to his team. Pulling a whip from its socket he lashed the team, and I had to move or get trampled. I pulled my weapon as I dodged, but couldn't fire without hitting the horses. I was hit in the right side by a bullet as I turned to take after the thieves. I realized then there were three bandits instead of just the two. I heard Ken fire his gun. The one who shot me was mounted and had been off the trail higher up and I hadn't seen him at all.
If I hadn't been so intent in stopping the wagon, I should have at least looked the situation over before my challenge. I knew I had been hit and hit hard. I managed to sit my saddle, but it took all of my effort to stay on. My handgun was on the ground. I looked for Ken. He was reloading his pistol. I could see the wagon in the distance going flat out. The third rustler was joining them.
Ken came up to me. "You hit, Boss?"
"Yeah. I think it came in from the back and through the soft meat above my hip bone. Guess it tore into me some. I'm losing blood pretty bad. I think we had better head back for the ranch. Tie me on so I don't fall off."
Some people would say what a lucky time to get shot. I had two women at the ranch and both had some nursing experience. I passed out before they took me off the horse. It was dark when I roused up enough to know I was home and in my bunk. I could hear someone moving around behind the curtain that separated my bunk from the rest of the house.
Suddenly the curtain was pulled back. "You're awake Dan. Good. Mom caught the train east and Doc will be out in the morning. The sheriff will be with him too, I expect. Can't have one of the county's best citizens shot. You're going to be in a lot of grief with the pain before the doctor gets here. He'll have some laudanum with him to kill some of it."
"You shouldn't be here alone with three men. What will people say?"
"Oh poo, who cares. I'm your nurse, that's all."
I was in pain--so much I couldn't think. Thankfully I passed out and Penny's vision wavered before me as I slid into darkness. I roused again during the night. There was a candle beside the bed and I could see Penny sitting in the only decent chair that my little house was furnished with. She must have been watching for she came and leaned over me with the candle held in one hand. The other hand went to my brow.
"You have some fever, but that is to be expected. Drink more water if you can. You have lost a lot of blood. I'm stewing some beef for broth. Doc will be here in another six hours. He'll tell me what else you can have. Try to sleep." Penny put a wet compress on my forehead and I was eased. I swore when she turned it over to the cooler side, I felt her kiss me. I wanted to hold that thought, but I was gone again.
The next thing I knew Doc Kimbal was working over my wound. "Hey boy, you're going to be lopsided. I had to cut away part of one rib. Here drink this, it will ease the pain. It might taste a bit bitter, but when the pain goes away you won't mind. Penny is going to be making you drink a lot of water and is going to be spooning broth into you. She's a great nurse--pretty, too, in case you haven't noticed." He finished with me by saying, "The sheriff wants a word with you before you sleep."
"Dan, what the devil were you thinking by going in blind like you did? I thought you were better than that. Can you tell me anything about the outfit?"
Sleepy and in pain, I was having to concentrate. "Nearly new wagon. Smart, well set-up team with shiny harnesses. The man driving the team had a light gray hat with a snakeskin band on it. I didn't see the man who shot me. Maybe Ken can tell you. They may be outlaws waiting to hit the mine payroll. Oh, that's some kid I got working for me. He didn't flinch a bit. Take him if you need him. He'll stand."