Chapter Eight—Sicker and Sicker

Mid-to-late September…
          I roused everybody up just when I started to see some pink over the eastern horizon. I wanted the drive to start by sunup, but I waited a little too late to get people moving. By the time we all finished eating and mothers got their kids dressed and ready to go, it was full daylight. Still, it was early and we could drive the cattle a good ways. Hopefully, we wouldn’t have to go too far, but I didn’t want to stop in the next two or three miles, either.
          Before I left in search of water, I told Ben. “You’ve got drag, Ben. Get Arlie Pickens to help you. From what I’ve seen he’s the best of the lot. Go ahead and push the cattle and horses ahead of the caravan. We’ll let them get watered first, then bedded down, before the wagons arrive.”
          He nodded.
          “Bust anything that moves that needs it,” I said to him. “Animal or human.”
          He smiled at that. “Be careful and come back in one piece,” he replied.
          “See you soon.”
          The terrain was rolling hills, not too steep, but there were mountains in the distance between us and Clearwater Valley. I’d have to find a way through those mountains, but I remembered from my first trip that there was a pass that wasn’t too steep or high up. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but I’d find it. Follow the road, I guess. That’s what the settlers were going to do…I didn’t remember a road going through this area the last time I came this way, but it was there now. Clearwater might be getting a lot of new people. I recalled that Gail Sanders was going to mortgage her land to buy the whole valley, and then divide and sell the parcels in the western half of the valley in order to make her payments to the bank. What was that fat little greasy banker’s name? I thought a moment. Kragan. Homer Kragan. What a slimeball… But then I remembered that he certainly gave Gail a good deal and I left the area with a better impression of him. Well, hopefully everything is going well up there. I guess I’ll find out.
          I turned to the matter at hand. The first order of the day was to find water. I figured there wouldn’t be too much trouble doing so. The mountains produced quite a bit from snow runoff, but that had happened in the spring and early summer. If it had been hot and dry over the summer, then a lot of those water holes might have dried up. I wasn’t sure about the weather here, but we didn’t get much rain in Whitewater this year. The grass around me looked brown, but then, it was almost autumn so that didn’t surprise me much.
          I did pass a couple of small ponds, but they wouldn’t water 500 cattle and a 30 or 35 hungry humans. Come to think of it, I didn’t really know how many people were on the drive. I had never asked. Clem Everett had told me about 10 families, but how many children were among those families, I didn’t know. I needed to find out and berated myself for the oversight.
         I found a nice stream about twelve miles from the previous night’s camp. That was almost perfect. Not too far, but it would stretch the cattle a little bit, which meant they would be more tired at night and maybe not so restless. Going up and down some of those undulating hills would weary them as well.
          I rode back to the drive and arrived about noon. They were doing well, having made about five miles so far. I could even see the wagons not too far behind. I rode up to Ben.
          “There’s water about six-seven miles ahead, so we’ll need to push them a little bit to get there before dark. I’ll go tell the others and we’ll put them in a ground-eating trot.”
          After getting that done, I went back to the wagon train to tell Everett and his people. “See that big rock up there?” I said, pointing. “Follow it and it will take you directly to the water.”
          “We should be able to follow the tracks of the cows, shouldn’t we?”
          “Yes, but we might take a more direct route, so you may need your tracker to make a wider search for the tracks. The road you are on is only about a mile from the water, so you should have no trouble finding it.”
          He nodded. I noticed a concerned look on his face. “Mr. Conners,” he began.
          I didn’t like the sound of his voice. “Yes?”
          “Grant and Molly Nelson’s boy is runnin’ a fever. May be nuthin’ but it’s been goin’ on fer a few days now and they’s gettin’ concerned. Might be a doctor-type illness.”
          I sighed. We didn’t need that, but we couldn’t let the child die, either. “Well, let’s see how he is tonight, and if he’s no better, I’ll have somebody take him back to Windy. Or I’ll take him myself. I’ll check with you when we camp.”
          I helped with the cattle, where I was more needed. We kept them bunched and didn’t have any quitters. I rode around helping where necessary. I asked Ronnie Pickens if he got a head count.
          “Yessir. 503.”
          “Ok. We need to count them as often as possible to make sure we haven’t lost any. With a herd this size, we should be able to do it every day or every two days at the most. That’s your job.”
          “Yessir. Glad to do it.” I liked the Pickens boys. They were agreeable, wanted to learn, and seemed capable. If Ben and I could train them right, they’d probably be good hands by the time the drive was over.
          The rest of the day was uneventful. We got the cows to water with still plenty of daylight left. Ben and I then rode back to meet the wagon train. They were about three miles behind, but moving at a solid pace. We stayed with them until they arrived at the watering place.
          “How’s the Nelson boy?” I asked Clem Everett.
          “Don’t know. Haven’t talked to the Nelsons since lunch.”
          “I’ll ride back and see.”
          I had only met Grant and Molly Nelson once. They were young, well, maybe a little younger than me, which meant late 20s-early 30s. I hadn’t known, until Everett told me, that they had a boy. His name was Simon.
          The Nelson wagon was seventh in line. Grant was handling the team; I didn’t see Molly, so I asked him about her.
          “Back in the wagon with the boy,” he said. He seemed stoic, but I could tell he was worried.
          “How bad is he?” I asked.
          Nelson shook his head. “Been sick for over a week now. Doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
          I nodded. “I told Everett we’d see how he was tonight, and if he’s not any better, I’ll backtrack to Windy and get some medicine for him.”
          Nelson glanced at me, and I saw some relief on his face. “We’d appreciate that, Mr. Conners, we sure would.”
          “We’ll do what we can for him, I promise you. How old is he?”
          Too young to be dying, but it wasn’t an unknown tale in the West. Hopefully, the boy would show signs of improvement soon.
          The wagon train arrived at the watering hole just before dark. The drovers formed the wagons into a defensive position, and everybody made camp and got ready to eat. Ben stayed and ate—I insisted upon it—and the cook, Demars, had a good meal.
          “Thought you was going to bring me some meat, Conners,” he said to me.
          I had completely forgotten about it and admitted it. “Hmph,” he replied. “Folks cain’t live on beans the whole time.”
          He was being a little facetious. He had some bacon, flour, and dried fruit, and most of the settlers had brought some food, too, so nobody was going to starve anytime soon. But I mumbled to him that I’d try to find something tomorrow.
          Grant Nelson was there, by himself, but he was fixing an extra plate, obviously for his wife. “The boy any better?” I asked him.
          “No, and we can’t get him to eat, either.”
          Ben was close by and overheard. “What’s wrong with him?” he asked.
          Nelson had the worried look again. “Been sick for several days now. Fever, spots on his body, weak pulse, that sort of stuff. I don’t know what it is.”
          Ben frowned. “Can I take a look at him?”
          Nelson and I—and several other people standing around who had heard—looked at Ben. Nelson said, “What can you do?”
          “I’ve had a little doctoring experience.”
          My eyebrows shot up. Ben looked at me and nodded. “I read some medical books when I was down south and got a chance to practice a little at a ranch I worked at a few years ago. I remember most of it. Still have a couple of the books in my saddlebag, but they are a bit dated.”
          Nelson said, “Yes, you can look at him, if you think you can do any good.”
          “Well, I can’t make any promises, but I’d like to see him anyway.”
          People were still staring at Ben as he—and I—followed Nelson to his wagon. Some of the looks Ben was getting were far from friendly, but he didn’t appear to care. All the same, I thought it was a good idea if I…watched his back.
          We arrived at the wagon and Nelson called out to his wife. “Molly, Mr. Conners and Mr. Baker want to see Simon. Mr. Baker thinks he might be able to help. He has some medical experience.”
          “Oh, thank God,” Molly Nelson said. “He just seems to be getting worse and I’m really worried.”
          The boy was inside the wagon, of course, and we all squeezed in. I looked at him while Ben was examining him. I could see a rash of pink oval spots, and the boy had a slightly distended abdomen. Ben took his pulse and mumbled, “Slow,” and then felt the boy’s head and grimaced. He looked at me and his face was grave.
          “Let’s go outside,” he said.
          “Do you know what it is?” Grant Nelson asked.
          “Typhoid,” Ben replied, and Molly Nelson gasped a sob.
          We all stood outside the Nelson wagon. “Are you sure it’s typhoid fever, Mr. Baker?” Grant asked.
          “Classic symptoms, Mr. Nelson.”
          “What can we do?”
          “Does he have loose bowels?”
          Molly nodded. “That started today. I want to wash the soiled linen in the river.”
          Ben nodded. “That’s a sign that the fever has advanced. Don’t be surprised if his tongue turns brown and dry, and he’ll probably become delirious. He needs to be isolated; we don’t want others coming into contact with the disease. Typhoid is contagious. Wash his back and his buttocks at least once a day. Keep his mouth clean and don’t feed him much food. Current wisdom is to stave the disease.”
          “Will he…I mean, will he live?” Grant Nelson asked in obvious anguish.
          “He can. It depends on how far the disease has progressed inside him. If he has intestinal ulcers, he’ll probably hemorrhage and die. There’s no way to tell whether he has those ulcers or not.” He looked at me. “He needs medicine, Rob. A doctor would know what kind. And he shouldn’t be moved.”
          “You mean keep the camp here?”
          Ben nodded. “At least until he shows some sign of improvement.”
          “How long will that be?”
          He shrugged. “I can’t guess. Could be tomorrow, might not be for two weeks.”
          We didn’t have two weeks to sit at this water hole, not if we were going to make it to Clearwater Valley before the cold weather really set in. But I wasn’t going to say that with the Nelsons standing there. I just nodded my head. “I’ll backtrack to Windy tomorrow and get the medicine. It’s less than 20 miles. If I leave before sunup, I might be able to make it back tomorrow evening.” I hated to push Ol’ Paint like that, he was needing a break, but there wasn’t a better horse in the entire camp.
          “We’d be eternally grateful to you, Mr. Conners. I’m just so worried about my boy.” This from Molly.
          “I’ll go with you,” Grant Nelson volunteered.
          “No, you stay here and help your wife. She needs you more than I do.” Besides, he might slow me down, though I kept that thought to myself.
          Ben was looking at me and it was clear what he was trying to say, i.e., why was I waiting until morning to leave? I threw him an annoyed glance, but I knew he was right. I was tired and Ol’ Paint was tired, but we didn’t have to push it. I could walk him, for the most part, and in three or four hours get halfway to Windy. I could then get up early, make it into town by no later than mid-morning and be back here by mid-afternoon at the latest. Those few hours might mean the difference between life and death.
          So, I said, “Actually, I don’t see any reason why I can’t leave right now. I could be back several hours earlier if I did.”
          “Oh, Mr. Conners, that would be so wonderful. We’d be eternally in your debt.” Molly again. No show of concern for me, no, “oh, you shouldn’t do that” sort of stuff, but at least they were being honest. And in their position, I’d probably do the same thing.
          I glanced again at Ben and he nodded.
          So I went and saddled Ol’ Paint. I didn’t especially like the look he gave me, either, but he didn’t throw me when I climbed on his back. It was dark now, and cool, so the brisk air was refreshing. I let Ol’ Paint have his head and set the pace, and he started out in a slow trot. He’d slacken the pace when he got tired.
          He kept up that speed for quite awhile, but then slowed to a walk. I dismounted and we walked together for maybe and hour or two, I wasn’t really paying any attention to the time. I had a lot of thoughts going through my head. Could I get back in time with the medicine and would it save the boy’s life? Would I be able to lead those people to where they wanted to go? I really had no doubt that I could, but it was hard to plan for every contingency. And then—Clearwater again. Would Kelly be glad to see me? Maybe she was already married. Would I go see Gail Sanders? I did like Gail, even though we didn’t get off to a very good start. She just wanted—needed—somebody to handle her firmly. I frowned, mainly at myself. Robin hadn’t been gone but a few months, I was still very melancholy, but, I had to admit, the thought of Kelly and Gail lifted my spirits a little. I guess finding someone else was the best way to overcome the pain. Robin helped me with Julie; maybe somebody else could help with Robin.
          I just worried about going through the pain again, were I to lose Kelly or Gail. Then I berated myself for thinking such thoughts. What right do I have to think Kelly or Gail would even want me? They may both be married—or dead, for all I know. I hadn’t heard from either since I had left Clearwater about three years ago. Anything could have happened. I knew Gail was a little peeved at me for leaving, not because she was enamored of me, but because she wanted me to ramrod her ranch, something I didn’t want to do. Kelly and I had separated on good terms, but…who knows?
          Why was I even thinking about that?
          I knew one thing at that moment. I was dead tired and about to drop. I had no idea what time it was, but from the stars, it was probably midnight or later. Ol’ Paint’s head was drooping, too, so I headed to the side of the road and made camp under a sycamore tree. I didn’t bother looking for water. I had enough in my canteen. After taking off his saddle, I gave some water to Ol’ Paint, drank some myself, spread out my blanket on the ground, and went to sleep. Without even taking my boots off.

          We made it to Windy mid-morning. The people were a little surprised to see me, but seemed friendly enough. I asked one of them, “Where’s the doc’s office? Got a boy with typhoid among the settlers and I need to get him some medicine pronto.”
          The fellow nodded. “Turn left at the bank, about two-thirds the way down the block, left side.”
          The doctor, a man named Radison. I told him the boy’s symptoms, and he nodded. He had a couple of bottles of some kind of white liquid which he handed to me. “What is it?” I asked him.
          He looked at me skeptically. “It’s an old Indian concoction, frankly. We don’t have anything right now to combat typhoid. It’s contagious, especially for children, so keep the boy isolated. Europe has a theory that germs are found in filth and dirt, and might be transmitted by bad water or human waste, so keep him clean, and any water you give him, have his mother boil it first. I’ve had some success with this medicine, though I’m not sure if it was the medicine, the other things I just mentioned to you, or a strong constitution in the patient.” He shrugged. “I’m sorry, it’s the best I can do at our current state of knowledge. Tell his parents this medicine is a wonder drug and that will at least make them feel better.”
          “And get their hopes up for a big letdown if the boy dies.”
          Again, the doctor shrugged. “I think it’s best they have a positive outlook now.”
          “Ok, you’re the doctor.” I thanked him, paid him, and left. And I didn’t hang around town for a glass of milk. Ol’ Paint seemed to catch my urgency and found a new burst of energy. If he held up, we could make it back by noon.
          And we would. But the boy and his typhoid proved to be the least of the immediate concerns of the camp.

          “Mr. Baker, we may have us a problem.”
          Ben looked up from where he was examining the boy, Simon Nelson. Ryne McKenzie was standing outside the wagon looking in. “What is it?” Ben asked, and was struck by the fact that he was asked. A couple of nights ago, he was a pariah; now they come looking to him for help. Now I know how Rob Conners feels…
          “I think maybe you ought to come look,” McKenzie said, and he had a worried expression on his face.
          Ben glanced at Molly Nelson. Simon was still feverish, delirious, and didn’t seem to be any better. “Keep him as cool and clean as possible,” Ben said. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
          She nodded, tears welling up in her eyes, but she held them back. “Thank you, Mr. Baker. I know you are doing the best you can.”
          “I’m trying. Hopefully, Rob will be back with that medicine soon.”
          Ben climbed out of the wagon, his first thought being more cases of typhoid had been discovered. There were about 12 or 13 children in the caravan, but Molly had kept them away from Simon since he’d gotten sick, not because she knew what the boy’s disease was, she just didn’t want the other children around while he was sick. So, hopefully, no one else had been affected. But Ben was concerned.
          Needlessly, though, at least concerning the typhoid. McKenzie just motioned for Ben to follow him, which he did. They wound their way through a couple of wagons and Ben saw most of the men standing, looking at something in the distance. Ben walked up and stood next to them.
          He saw about 15 or 16 men—and one woman—riding towards the camp. They were in no hurry and were still a half mile away. Confident bunch of louses, aren’t they, Ben thought. He was looking at Colt and Isabel Reese, their boys, and several of their hired men.
          “What do you think they want, Mr. Baker?” Angus McCoy asked him. All the men were looking to Ben, now that they were worried about their own hides. If Rob Conners had confidence in him, that was good enough for everybody else.
          “They want Rob Conners. And we don’t have him at the moment. Not that I’d give him to them anyway. Get your guns and rifles, men.”
          The group hesitated. McCoy spoke again. “Don’t you think that if we act real peaceful-like, they’ll just leave us alone?”
          Ben looked at him, hard. “No, I don’t. Mr. McCoy, if you act ‘real peaceful-like,’ they’ll shoot you down where you stand and you’ll have done nothing to protect yourself. Is that what you want?”
          McCoy and the other men fidgeted—as well they should. “We’s farmers, Mr. Baker, not gun fighters,” Elbert Edison said.
          “Yeah, and all they want is Conners,” Rig Carson, the man who had given Conners the most trouble, said. “I say, tell ‘em he’s on his way back and that he’ll be here soon. They can have him.”
          Ben was incensed, but he had learned, long ago, to control his temper. He turned to Carson. “And just what do you think that bunch is going to do while they are waiting for Conners? Talk to us about the weather and cattle prices? Are you forgetting what that Reese fellow was going to do to Rachel Everett before Rob stopped him? You haven’t got a wife, Carson, because no decent woman—or whore, for that matter—would have you, but the rest of these men have got wives and children to protect.” Then Ben looked around at the men, disgust written all over his face. “If they’ve got guts enough to do it.”
          Carson grumbled, but didn’t respond. Still none of the men moved. Ronnie Pickens showed up just then and handed Ben a gun belt. “Here’s your gun, Mr. Baker. Me and Arlie have rifles.” Ben noticed Arlie behind Ronnie, and indeed, they both were carrying Henry repeaters, good weapons that held 15 .44 caliber cartridges. Ben nodded at both of them as he put on his gun.
          “Thanks for your help. It’s nice to know that there are a couple of men in this outfit.” He looked around, but nobody was looking at him.
          There were 11 wagons in the caravan and they had been positioned in a half-moon configuration for defense. The water was behind them, and Ben muttered a curse at that bit of defensive stupidity. But then, if they had moved the wagons to the other side of the river, they would have been vulnerable to attack from that side. So there really wasn’t much to do but bemoan the bad luck.
          But that was irrelevant at the moment. “Ronnie,” Ben said, “you get over there behind that wagon”—he pointed about three wagons to his left—“and hide, but keep your eyes and ears open as best you can. Arlie, you get behind that wagon”—he pointed to his right—“and do the same thing. If nothing else, we’ll have them in a crossfire.”
          The Pickens boys nodded and scattered.
          Ben looked back out towards the Reese group, and saw them trotting their horses now, less than a quarter mile away. He checked his gun quickly, then went and stood in front of the other men, hands on his hips, right hand ready to move towards his gun. In a few moments, Colt and Isabel Reese pulled up about 20 feet away from Ben, with their three remaining boys just behind them. There were ten other men, Ben counted, and the spread out in a line about 15 feet behind the Reeses. The sun, noon high in a cloudless sky, was hot, but nobody was especially aware of it, though there was a lot of sweating going on, particularly among the farmers. Isabel Reese brushed a wisp of hair from her face that a soft wind had blown there.
          She, of course, was the one to speak. “Are you running this camp now, nigger boy?”
          Ben had been called that so many times in his life that he didn’t even notice any more. “I’m the one you’ll have to deal with at the moment. What can we do for you?”
          “I think you know the answer to that. Where’s Conners?”
          “He’s not here. If he was, you’d probably be dead by now. He shoots everything ugly that he sees.”
          Isabel grunted, but behind her, Billy Reese spoke up. “Ma, can I have a piece o’ him? He’s the fella who put that gun to my back and I think he helped Conners kill Blin.”
          “Hang on a minute, Billy, I’ll let you have him, but I want to know where Conners is first.”
          Before Ben could say anything, Angus McCoy blurted out, “He’s gone back to Windy to git some medicine. Grant and Molly Nelson’s boy’s got typhoid and Conners went to see if’n the doc had somethin’ to help. He should be back…..soon.”
          His last word was spoken lightly and without conviction, mainly because he saw Ben staring daggers at him.
          “Well, thank you kindly, sir, for that information,” Isabel responded. She looked back at Ben. “When did he leave and when will he be back?”
          Ben replied, “He left about two hours ago and probably won’t be back until tomorrow. So you can sit there on your horses and wait for him or you can ride on home and mind your own business.”
          “I don’t think I believe you, nigger,” Isabel said. She looked straight at Angus McCoy. “When did he leave? Billy, shoot him in if he doesn’t answer in three seconds.” Billy cocked his gun.
          “He left last night.” McCoy couldn’t say the words fast enough.
          “So, he should be back any time now,” Isabel said.
          She didn’t know how right she was.
          But, for the moment, ignorance reigned, and she said, “Colt, what do you think we ought to do while we’re waitin’ for Conners?”
          Colt Reese was caught completely off-guard by the question. He was a pretty good rancher and made those decisions, but he wasn’t in Isabel’s league when it came to dealing out misery to the human race, so he let her handle those matters. So he stumbled and stuttered, “Well, I…I, uh…think maybe we ought to get our men positioned for when he gets back.”
          “Not bad, husband, I might make a man out of you yet,” his wife responded. “We don’t want him seeing us, now do we? He’ll ride on in here completely unawares of what’s happening and we’ll give him what he deserves for murderin’ a Reese.” She glanced back at her men with a wicked grin. “Then I’ll let you boys have all the fun you want here.” She received a universal response of wicked grins in return. “And we’ll take the cattle, too. Be a nice bonus.”
          “We gonna kill all these, folks, ma?” Blaine Reese, another son, asked.
          “Oh, no, we won’t kill none of ‘em that don’t ask for it. We’ll let Billy have some fun with this nigger, you boys can enjoy the women, and as long as the men don’t object none, we’ll leave ‘em alone.” She looked hard at the contingent of farmers standing lamely before her. “You men ain’t going to object none, are you? You want to go on livin’, don’t you? You won’t do your wife and family no good if you’re dead, and my boys is gonna have your women anyway, so you might as well live and git on with your lives. As soon as we have Conners and I give these boys a reward, we’ll take your cattle, head home, and not bother you no more. Deal?”
          Ben actually laughed. “You’ll murder at least two people, then, you daughter of a drunken whore. I’ll defend these men’s wives, whether they will or not.” And he looked at Isabel Reese hard. “And I ain’t in Rob Conners’ class with a gun, but I promise you I’ll take as many of these men with me as I can. And I’ll get you and your boys first.”
          Isabel sneered. “You got a big mouth, boy. We’ll find out, in a little while, if you can back it up. Doesn’t look like anybody is going to side you.”
          Then a voice from the left. “He’ll have some help, witch.” Everybody looked. Ronnie Pickens was standing there at the edge of a wagon, rifle pointed at Isabel. He chambered a bullet.
          “And from this side, too.” Heads turned to the right. Arlie Pickens. Rifle pointed at Isabel, too. The chambering of the bullet in his rifle sounded loud and clear in the sudden silence that had descended.
          Isabel didn’t back down, and certainly didn’t seem afraid. “You two just signed your death warrants, you know that, don’t you?”
          “If Ben doesn’t get you, one of us will,” Ronnie said. “So we’ll all meet in hell together. You can buy the first round of drinks.”
          Ben spoke again. “There’s going to be a lot of people killed here, Reese, if you stay around, and some of them are going to be your own family. Is that what you want? Is Rob Conners worth that much to you? A few more family deaths?”
          Nobody was sure if his reference to “Reese” was aimed at Colt or Isabel, but he was looking at Colt. The man didn’t respond. His wife did. “But it will be your fault, nigger. All we want is Conners. Nobody else has to die, unless you start shooting.”
          “Well, believe me, woman, I’ll start shooting before I let you dry-gulch Rob Conners.”
          “I second that motion.” Ronnie.
          “Third.” Arlie.
          Isabel’s face turned red, fiery red with anger. She looked at the other men, none of whom, except Angus McCoy, had spoken during the entire confrontation. “Some of you men will die, too. And probably your wife and children. Are you going to let this nigger and these two upstarts put you in your graves? Again, all we want is Conners.”
          Ben glanced at Angus McCoy and the other men. He saw fear on their faces. McCoy looked at Ben, pleading in his eyes. “Mr. Baker…I mean…there’s lots of folks gonna get kilt onct the shootin’ starts. We…if…if all they want is Conners…is one man…I mean…maybe we kin find some way to help him…without…without all of us gettin’ kilt…”
          It was a difficult situation and Ben knew it. If the lead started to fly, yeah, a lot of people would die, some of them innocents. What would Rob do? Ben wasn’t even sure of that. But one thing he did know….”So, you’re not only going to let these thugs murder an innocent man, but you’re going to let them rape your wives.”
          “No, they aren’t going to do any such thing.” The voice came from behind Ben, and he, as did everyone else sought the source. The wives of the men, about six of them, had appeared between the wagons, all holding rifles, pointed at the Reeses and their men. It was Flo McCoy who had spoken. “We’d rather die than let these mongrels rape us.”
          Well, at least there are SOME men in this camp, even if they are women. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, Ben chuckled inwardly at his thought.
          But even with the wives pointing rifles at her and her men, Isabel Reese didn’t back down. In fact, a wide, wicked grin appeared on her face. “Well, looks like we got us a reg’lar Mescan standoff here. I wonder what’s gonna happen.”
          Colt Reese wasn’t quite as bold as his wife. In fact, he was downright worried. “Isabel, maybe we can pass on the women. I mean, all we really want is Rob Conners. Let’s just…agree with these people to give us Conners, and we’ll leave the women and cattle alone.”
          “Aw, you gutless worm,” Isabel said to her husband. “You’re afraid of seein’ a little blood, ‘specially if it’s your own.”
          “Besides,” Ben said, “you can’t have Rob Conners. If you think you can ride in here, murder a man, and then ride out scot free…I, for one, am not going to allow that.”
          “I second that motion.” Ronnie Pickens.
          “Third.” Arlie.
          “Fourth.” Angel McKenzie.
          “Fifth.” Flo McCoy.
          And it was then that Angus McCoy spoke up. “Flo, honey, it’s just one man ‘gainst…how many of us is gonna get kilt? Do you really want that?”
          “Angus McCoy, would you please be quiet? You are embarrassing me, to let these people think I’m married to such a sniveling coward.”
          “I just don’t want nuthin’ to happen to you,” Angus muttered.
          “You mean, you don’t want anything to happen to yourself,” his wife replied.
          “Whoooo-eeeee,” Isabel Reese responded, her grin even wider, if such was possible. “Now we got us a good ol’ domestic spat. Mrs. McCoy, we’ll save ye the trouble of divorcin’ that inchworm by puttin’ ‘im six feet underground fer ye.”
          Flo’s eyes blazed. “You’ll do no such thing, you caterwauling, prune-faced, she-devil. Once the shooting starts, my first bullet is headed straight for you.”
          Isabel scowled at that.
          Ben spoke up. “Isabel, that means you’re going to have about eight or nine bullets in you, by the time everybody who’s aiming at you get through shooting.”
          Still there was no quit in the Reese woman. “Mebbe so. But am I worth the deaths of several of you people?”
          No, she wasn’t, and no one had a response for her.
          “All right,” Isabel said. “I’ll compromise with ye. We get Conners and half the cattle, and we’ll leave the women alone. Fair enough?”
          Ben glanced back at Flo McCoy. “What do you think, Mrs. McCoy? You like that deal?”
          For an answer, Mrs. McCoy chambered a bullet into her rifle.
          Ben smiled. “That would have been my answer, too.” He looked back at Isabel Reese. “Your decision, Mrs. Reese, on how many people are going to die.”
          “No, it’s not, nigger. It’s yours. All I want is one man. I don’t mind sitting here and waiting till he gets back. I’m not going to order my boys to fire—except on Conners. So if you’re gonna save his hide, you’re gonna have to fire the first shot.”
          The tension was high, to say the least…

          So…I figured it was time for my grand entrance. “I don’t need anybody to save my hide, woman, and I’ll fire the first shot.”
          And I did. My rifle exploded.