Gun For Hire
: Encounter with Calvary by Catherin Elizabet Belle
The sinking sun lights up the western sky with golden hues and vibrant reds casting an eerie pall as night descends on the prairie. Horace pulls the wagon into a small clump of mesquite as the radiant sky turns to gray. As he steps from the seat he turns saying, "Maw, we'll run a cold camp tonight. You and the kids stay in the wagon."
Mrs. Clettus nods her head, passing out jerky with cups of water.
"Thank you, ma'am" I move to the far side of the stand of mesquite, unsaddle Lancer and settle down in the darkness leaning against a tree with my rifle across my knees. The night cricket's chirp, the rodents scurry across the fallen leaves, and the breeze rippling through the leaves, I doze in the early hours before dawn.
Clouds move in during the night shutting out the sun with a promise of rain. Smoke wafting on the air tells me the Clettus's are busy at the campsite. I saddle Lancer. As I approach, Carrie Sue comes running grabs me around legs and says, "Jeb, Maw says vittles ready."
My eyes twinkle with delight as she dances around me then takes my hand pulling me toward the campfire. Never been around young'uns before Carrie Sue and Tommy, they're shor full of fire.
The Missus calls, "Jeb sit yore self-down a spell."
I jist get a sittin' when she hands me a cup of coffee, "Thank you ma'am, I'm right beholden to you."
She says, "Posh son, we'd be in a real fix if you hadn't come along when you did." She goes on with her work.
Clettus comes from behind the wagon saying, "Howdy Son." He sits hisself down saying to the missus, "We'll be moving soon as yor ready, Maw." He sips his coffee and picks up his plate from the ground saying, "Jeb how far you think it be to the Colorado."
With a shake of my head, I say, "Horace, never been over this trail afore, don't reckon I know." Handing my plate to the missus I mount Lancer saying, "I'll ride out a way."
Horace dumps his coffee and his plate he says, "We'll be right behind you, son. Thirty minutes at the most. Be on the lookout."
A touch of my hat I ride west out of camp. A couple miles down the trail I meet up with a cavalry patrol. Sitting my steed, I push my hat back and wait til the Colonel halts the troop I say, "Howdy, Colonel."
He looks me over then asks, "Who are you? Where you headed, mister?"
Watching the swirl of dust settle behind the troops I reply, "Name's Jeb Smith, I reckon I be heading to Fort Concho? Where you bound fer, Colonel?"
"We been on patrol about ten days, Comanch are on the prowl, you seen any injuns?"
Thinking back to where we buried the two, I stoke my beard before answering, "Bout three days back we ran across a wrecked wagon; buried two people, man and woman."
The colonel sits a little straighter in the saddle saying, "Injun?"
With an eye off in the distance I say, "Yep, Comanch arrows. The woman assaulted and gutted, man scalped. Tracks of unshod pony's day or two old led north." Pausing before I continue, "Colonel, there was a clothing for a girl child and a doll, but no sign of her."
"Jeb, if she's young they'll take her to raise as their own. He turns in the saddle to speak to his Sergeant. "Dismount the troops we'll rest a spell." Still sittin' in the saddle he asks, "You travelin' alone Jeb?"
Settin' my hat on my head I say, "Naw, there's a wagon about an hour behind me, family broke down and missed the wagon train then set out on their own hoping to reach Fort Concho for the next wagon train headed out west."
The colonel interrupts me saying, "Damn fool thing to do."
I continue, "Yep, I came up on them across the Texas border at the Sabine; been riding with them since then."
Watching a dust devil dance across the prairie the Colonel dismounting gets my attention. "Well, Sir, I'll be moving on."
He shakes dust of the trail off his hat asking, "You goin' on west, son."
Sportin' a grin I say, "No Sir! I'll be riding south from Fort Concho. I ain't been home since before the war, wanta see the folks."
He dons his hat asking, "Where you call home?"
I was remembering Maw standing on the front porch apron wrapped around her arms callin' me to sup I say, "I'm sorry, Colonel, what did you say?"
His eyes question but he only asks, "Where you call home?"
"Ah shucks, sir, my folks have a ranch in Burned Valley down near Quemada." With my foot in the stirrup I prepare to ride out then pause and ask, "How far to the Fort Concho?"
As I pick up the reins the colonel says, "Fifty maybe sixty miles. Keep a sharp eye out, those red devils may still be in the area."
Finger tips to my hat I ride out without looking back until I'm out of sight of the soldiers. Off in the distance there's a cloud of dust rising into the air, with caution I ride into a grove of mesquite and wait. On one of the older mesquites there's a lot of mistletoe growing on the trunk. Maw would sure like that come Christmas. She held great store about bringing it in the house. Said it made the room purty.
Well, I'll be damn, That's the Clettus' wagon! He musta been pushing them horses hard to catch up with me afore dark. I ride out to meet them as they near the grove. Pulling alongside the wagon I say, "Howdy, Horace, you pushing them horses awful hard aint you?"
Horace reins in the team and removes his hat saying, "Yes siree bob! See'd a big ole dust cloud a way North? That's where them Comanch headed. I tweren't taking no chances on gettin' scalped, no sireee, I'm not."
Couldn't help grinnin' when I say, "Horace, they's most likely that cavalry patrol I ran across a way back; they t'were trailing comanch."
Pulling on his whiskers he says, "You don't say, Jeb. Then soldier boys outta Fort Concho?"
"Horace, pull the wagon up in that Mesquite grove up ahead. We'll rest the team." He slaps leather rolling down the trail toward the trees.
As the wagon rolls toward the grove I sit in the saddle watching a dust devil skipping across the prairie, a crow soars in the blue sky to the south. Only the sound of the wagon wheels disturbs the silence of the countryside. With spurs to Lance I ride after the Clettus' wagon.
Pulling deep in the grove of Mesquite Horace sets Tommy makin' a fire for the missus while he and I see to the team. As he unharnesses the lead Horace says, "Jeb, whatcha you gonna do when we reach the fort?"
I heerd but don't give no answer jist keepin' on with the work. A coyote 's lonesome howl echoes through the evening shadows creeping toward darkness when I say, "It's been nigh five year since the war ended, Horace. I've a hankerin' to be on my way south back to the ranch and my folks."
Horace hobbles the team before saying, "When you be leavin' son?"
We walk toward the camp Carrie Sue's wee voice rings through the night air singing to her doll. As we approach the fire the missus hands me a cup of mud. I turn to Horace saying, "I reckon I'll turn south at Fort Concho."
Sitting on a log near the fire he sips coffee then says, "Son, you bein' here pleasures me." The missus hands out plates of biscuits and beans calling Carrie Sue from the wagon. We sit around the glowing fire listening to the hoot of the owl as he soars through the night seeking a rodent on the prairie floor.
Rising from the stump I say, "Thank you Ma'am...mighty good eats." I turn to Horace and say, "I'll be out thar a piece keeping watch. What time you plan to hit the trail?"
My eyes twinkle as he stokes his beard before replying, "I reckon about sunup, son. We got five hard days travel to reach the Fort."
Touch the hat to the missus, nod to Horace then stroll toward the north side of the mesquite grove where Lancer's grazing. Leaning on the saddle under a tree with the carbine lying near, check the six-shooter and settle back with hat over my eyes listening to the rodents scampering around the wagon. As the stars glisten from the Texas Sky, the night grows quiet, chirp of crickets lulls the tension, I sleep.
The sun tips the eastern horizon glazing the sky with a golden glow as we hit the trail. The wagon rolls across the prairie with the sun's heat parching the land, dust swirls dance across the sky. Rabbits skitter away while roadrunners dart here and there. Around midday dark clouds gather and hard wind whips up the land, shor don't look good. I touch spurs high tailing it to the wagon, "Horace, slap leather." Galloping, not looking back to see if the wagon follows, I ride to a small gully, hold up at the edge I motion for him to follow me. He pulls the wagon into the hole. I yell, "Horace get the missus and young'uns' under the wagon back against the bank cover with whatever you can grab. Hurry!"
Horace's eyes go wide with alarm hearing the roar of the twister skipping across the land. Carrie Sue is crying, and Tommy is pale with fear. I yell above the roar, "Cover the kids with your bodies, now." In a flash they are against the wall of dirt, wrapped around the young'uns. Back against the dirt I watch the cone of debris twirling above us. Never been much of a praying man, not since the war, I utter a silent prayer for the Clettus's. As the calm descends Horace rises. Again, my voice takes on the rough command saying, "Stay put, it's not over." He eyes me but doesn't move. While we have a lull, I check the horses as we hadn't had time to unhook. Lancer stayed with me through the turmoil. Hours seem to pass as I wait for the eye to pass and the storm to reach us once again. The wind seems to grow in intensity as I wait with a kerchief tied across nose and mouth eyes held close against the debris. An eternity as the twister crosses the prairie.
Horace raises his head asking, "Now, son?"
I reply with a grin "Yup, now!" Standing I look around to see what damage we have. The land is soaked water runs through the gully where we sit, wagon tarp tattered, half ripped off the frame.
The family soaked to the skin and covered with mud look at me with puzzled expressions as the soft steady rain pours down on their heads when Horace asks, "Son, What the hell was that?"
With a grin I tell him, "That's a first-class Texas Twister, ain't much spared in its path."
Shoulders sagging, the missus asks, "What now?"
Carrie Sue runs and grabs me by the legs tears mixed with the rain. Picking her up I say to her and the family, "We salvage what we can and move on."
The water continues to rise in the gully, "Horace let's see if we can get this wagon up top. Missus climb up top handle the reins; Tommy and Carrie Sue you ride Lancer. Horace we'll lead the horses. It's gonna be a touch pull but their strong."
The water continues to rise in the gully took two hours of hard work slipping and sliding, pushing and pulling. Horace and I covered in mud as we reach the top. We still have a muddy mess to drive through with horses spent. Across the prairie there's a stand of mesquite a mile to the west, I say, "Horace off to the west there's a small grove, let's make for the trees yonder and camp for the night. We need rest."
As the wagon pulls into the trees, the sun drops behind the western horizon casting an eerie gray across the land. A rabbit scurries through the brush as Tommy rides up beside me. Taking the reins, I help Carrie Sue from Lancer as her maw calls to her and the boy. "Gather firewood young'uns', we'll have hot vitals for supper."
Horace and I unharness the horses hobbling them near a stand of grass. He removes his hat and wipes his brow saying, "Jeb, their tired, maybe we should rest tomorrow."
I tip my hat back looking into the night I reply, "A right good idee. Best I can figure we're about twenty miles from Fort Concho. With a rested team we might make it in two days."
As we return to camp the Missus hands each of us a cup a joe. "Thank ya ma'am." We're a weary bunch Carrie Sue is asleep with her plate in her hand. Her maw takes the plate as Tommy lifts her gently placing her in the back of the wagon. She hands Horace and I our plates of hot beans and biscuits; chowing down, I say, "right tasty eatin' ma'am." Her eyes belie the grin on her tired face. "Thanks, ma'am, I'll be turning in now."
Horace nods as I move toward the north side of the grove of mesquite. With a slight motion of his head he signals he will be bedding down on the south.
My saddle for a pillow, I recline near a snarled mesquite listening to the wind in the trees. An old hoot owl searches for a stray rodent darting through the grass. There's a million stars shining from the ebony sky; 'tis a comforting sight to behold. My last thought before sleeping "shor a hankering to be home."
Near dawn loud noises coming from the wagon wake me, with pistol in hand I creep through the trees. The chilluns hanging out the back of the wagon and Horace comes charging from the south. As he reaches the edge of the clearing, I hold up my hand signaling him to stop then motion to look under the wagon. Horace pulls his hat off wiping his brow with a big old grin spreading across his weather tanned face.
Under the wagon tearing through the pans is a big old 'coon. Carrie Sue and Tommy are climbing out of the back when I tell them, "Stop". Tommy hears me and stops Carrie Sue as she hangs her leg over the backboard.
When the missus sees Horace, she starts to climb from the seat, and he motions for her to stay put. Horace and I move toward the wagon making lots of racket. That mean ole coon raises his head and hightails it outta thar. Seeing him skitter away the chilluns laugh with their three elders a joinin'.
The missus climbs from the wagon saying, "young'uns gather the wood and we'll be havin' hot breakfast.
While Horace checks the team, I bring Lancer into camp. Sitting by the fire he tells the missus, "We'll be resting today. The trail could use dryin' out.
The sun is creeping higher with a breeze wafting across the prairie. I sit my cup on the ground saying, "That ole sun'll dry the road afore long, Horace. Whatcha say we check the wagon axles and wheels."
A grin spreads across his sunbaked face as he says, "Right smart idee, son."
The next two days we work on the wagon, waiting for the sun to dry up the muck and mire from the rains sweeping across the prairie. On the Third day horses and family rested Horace and I sitting by the campfire sipping coffee in the late evening shadows he says, "Son reckon we oughta mosey down the trail come sunup."
"Right smart idee." As I stand, I hear riders near and fade into the shadows as Horace nods.
In a low voice he says, "You, young'uns get in the wagon, be quiet. Maw stay close to the wagon." Without a word they do as told.
Tain't but a short time till he hears, "Hello in the camp."
After checking his six-shooter, he says, "Ride in slow."
Two mounted riders move into the firelight and stay seated in the saddle. The older hombre says, "That thar coffee shore smells right good."
Horace tips his hat back says, "Step down, help yourself." As they approach the fire, he asks, "Where you fellows headed?"
Squatting before the fire they sip coffee the older gent says, "Gotta homestead up near Buffalo Gap, headed for Fort Concho for supplies. Name's John Pallone, this here's my son, Josh."
Horace strokes his beard, a habit when he is pondering, then he asks, "Any Comanch up your way?"
"Naw, seed a cavalry patrol riding northeast up toward Fort Griffin. Figured they be headed back to the fort."
"Well mister, we seed them four days back, they were chasing them red devils, been raiding all across this here country."
John sits his cup by the fire; he stands tips his hat and says, "We'll be moving on, I thank ya for the hot coffee." His son follows him mounting his horse as his father steps in the saddle, they ride west out of camp.
As Jeb hears the horses ride toward the Fort, he moves out of the shadows. Sitting beside Horace he asks, "Whatcha think."
"Don't know son, he could be a telling the truth. It shor is odd they ain't seen no comanch." He looks where the missus is still standing and says, "Maw, you and them young'uns sleep in the wagon. We'll be pulling out early."
Horace moves out into the shadows south of the wagon while I move out to the northwest. Jist if those hombres happen to circle back with ill intent. The gray shadows turn to ebony with stars dotting the dome with their brilliance. Nothing like being under a Texas Sky. Off in the distance I hear the howl of an old coyote calling to his mate...taint long till a lonesome wail rends the air in answer. Silence creeps across the land with gun in hand my chin falls to my chest.
T'was midnight when Lancer snickers. Two shadows creeping around the trees moving toward the wagon. They don't see me sitting at the base of the scrub cedar. When they are five yards ahead of me, I creep behind them jist out of sight. As they enter the clearing where the wagon sits, I'm right behind them. I cock that old rifle, the one I carried through the war. "Drop the guns! One false move and you're dead!"
The older man says, "Mister, you wouldn't shoot a man in the back!"
"Drop the guns or you'll find out. This here rifle is pointed right at your back, you wanta chance the odds."
Horace cocks his rifle and steps out from behind the wagon and says, "Gents I reckon you best be dropping them six-shooters." Smiling that toothy grin of his he continues, "Ye jist might be laying across them saddles of your'n."
The old man says, "Drop your gun son."
With the guns on the ground I say, "Kick them to the man in front of you and unbuckle your belts." I wait until Horace picks up the pistols then I tell the two hombres, "On the ground." When I'm sure they are flat I tell Horace, "Bring a rope." I see Tommy's arm extend out of the wagon with a rope dangling from his hand. Horace takes it and moves closer. He stands with the rifle pointed at the two as I tie their hands behind them. I sit them near the fire, I tie their feet then loop the rope around the two of them back to back with the older man facing the fire.
Horace, hollers at Tommy, "Build up the fire son." Tommy jumps out of the wagon and soon has the fire going from the embers of last night.
"Well, well, Jeb It's the visitors from last evening. Where's your horses, boys?"
With no response I put the tip of my rifle to the boy's head, saying, "He asked you where your horses are?"
The old man's shoulders slump as he replies, "North edge of the grove."
I lower my rifle then ask, "Horace, you got this?"
With his gun on the pair he says, "Yes siree bob, son! You get thar horses.
I trace my steps to where the two intruders rode in on the north edge of the trees with caution I walk soft, they mightn't be alone. I breathe easy when I find two horses. Leading the cayuses to camp I tie them to a cedar near the tongue of the wagon.
As I approach the fire Horace says, "Son, I'll take the first watch. Spell me at midnight."
With a nod of my head I move to the far sight of the clearing back into the shadows where my saddle lays. Check my pistol laying my rifle across my knees, I pull jerky from my saddle bags. Our supper kinda got interrupted. Soon the hoot of an old owl and the howl of the coyote in the distance calms the night as I drifted to sleep.
When the moon is high in the sky, the crack of a twig wakes me. I grin when I see a possum sneaking through the brush. With my rifle in hand I move toward the camp where at the edge of the clearing, I give a low whistle.
Move forward only when I hear Horace say, "Come on in son."
As I reach the fire he says, "Son, I'll bed down for a bit. We'll move out at sunup."
I squat by the fire before I answer, "Sounds good, we should reach the Fort Concho in two days."
The old man asks, "whatcha gonna do with us?"
With a look to Horace, I say, "Mister, we'll taking you to the Fort."
He snarls and in a harsh voice asks, "You gonna keep us tied up?"
Without turning Horace says, "Yup", and keeps on to his bedroll under the wagon.
The old man says, "That's downright unfriendly."
I point my rifle at him and say, "Sneaking into camp to rob or kill could a got you kilt. I'm just a wee bit unfriendly. Don't press your luck,"
Sitting by the fire with my rifle cocked at the two cahoots, soon their heads rest on their chest. Along toward sunrise I pitch a log on the fire to keep it high enough so that the hombres are visible against early morning sky. Off in the distance I hear the lonesome howl of a coyote headed home from his roaming. The lonely wail echoes my itch to get back to the ranch and my folks; been nigh on nine year since I joined up.
I turn to the sound of Horace crawling from under the wagon. As he nears the fire he asks, "Son, why didn't ya wake me."
With a smile I say, "Tweren't, no need, Horace! Couldn't sleep."
He squats by the fire saying, "Them hombres give ya any trouble, son?"
With that I stand, take my rifle off cock, and stretch, then say, "Horace, why don't we move out and eat down the road."
Horace scratches his old gray beard looks up saying, "Right smart idee son. By the time we get hitched should be light enough to travel." He goes to get maw and the kids ready to travel.
Sittin' my hat firm I bring the two would be thieves' horses. Un wrap the rope from around them and untie their feet. "Okay, you get on your feet."
The old man struggles to stand as the boy attempts to help but gets slapped away as the old man says, "Leave me be, boy." The boy tumbles to the ground, lays there, then gets to his feet backing away from his paw.
I look at the boy saying, "Get on the horse boy." He climbs in the saddle and when he's settled, I take the rope and tie his feet under the horses' belly.
His paw starts toward me and finds my six-shooter in his gut, "Mister, whatcha do that fer."
I took him by the arm and led him to his horse, "Get in the saddle."
With one foot in the stirrup he says, "You ain't gonna tie my feet, Mister," He hoists himself into the saddle, kicks at me. As the gun aims a few inches from his gut, he sits still. With nary a word I tie his feet under the horse. Taking the reins, I attached them to Lancer.
Horace has the team hitched and sittin' on the seat. Tommy jumps in the back after dousing the fire. With the two hombres in tow, I say to Horace, "We'll ride a head, if one of these galoots makes a move, kill um."
Horace nods, slaps leather and we roll toward Fort Concho.
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Catherin Elizabet Belle
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