Chapter Five—The Wind Blows in Big Trouble

Back to mid-September, a day later….
          I actually stayed out of trouble the rest of the day, but not the next. I had a bath, and Ben and I ate at a local Chinese food place. “He doesn’t get much business, either,” Ben told me, speaking of the Chinese restaurant owner, “so I come here about once a week or so.”
          The following day was Friday, and as noted, tribulations found me. I was planning on leaving that day; I saw no reason to stay. I went and picked up Ol’ Paint, and on the way out of town, we stopped at the general store so I could replenish my depleted supplies. I’m especially fond of beef jerky, so I bought quite a bit of it, but the proprietor also had some dried apples and oranges that looked good, so I stocked up on those, too. I could hear some commotion outside as I paid for my stuff, and figured—knowing my luck—that I’d be right in the middle of whatever mess was brewing.
          I left the store with my bundle and there was a group of people standing about while some ugly fellow was pointing at Ol’ Paint.
          “That’s my hoss,” he was saying. “Whoever stole him is a hoss thief and needs to be strung up.”
          I walked over and laid my new purchases down. “And just what makes you think this is your horse, mister? I’ve had him for seven years now. He was born at my ranch so I think you’ve made a bit of a mistake.”
          He looked at me at scowled. “Yore a-lyin’, you sidewinder. This here is my hoss and I want him back.”
          I looked around at the crowd. “Does anybody know this cretin?”
          A man standing a few feet away had a bit of a sour look on his face. “Yeah. He’s Race Canton. One of Colt Reese’s men.” He nodded his head down the street. “And here comes the man himself, though I’m not sure which one wears the pants in that house, Colt or Isabel.”
          I looked where he nodded. Riding in on a wagon were a man and woman, with four horsemen tagging along behind—the four sons Sheriff Braniff had mentioned, I supposed. Colt Reese was a square-faced, square-jawed man with dark blue eyes and iron grey hair—at least what I could see under his cowboy hat. He had a bit of a cowed expression on his face. His wife, Isabel, rode with a ramrod straight back. Her wrinkled face was hard, she had thin, colorless lips, and almost non-existent eyebrows with brown eyes that showed nary a bit of friendliness or kindness. The four boys riding behind ranged from a pot-bellied, bearded ox, to a skinny, but tall, weasel. The other two were fairly non-descript, except they weren’t looking too sociable, either. An impressive, if fierce, looking species, though I wasn’t too sure of what kind of species they were. Homo sapiens might be stretching it.
          Race Canton was speaking again so I turned my attention back to him. “Are you ready to give me my hoss back, thief? Let me have ‘im and I’ll overlook it this time.”
          I just shook my head, a wry expression on my face. “Can you read that brand on the horse’s left hip?”
          He looked. There was a double R brand, for “Rob and Robin.” I was hoping it would fade away at some point, but it hadn’t yet. “Don’t matter none. You coulda put that brand on at any time.”
          “How long has the horse been…gone?” I asked him.
          “Six months. Now give him back.”
          I shook my head again. “Tell you what, buddy. You get on his back, and if you can stay on for ten seconds, you can have him. That is, if you can get on his back at all.”
          The Reeses pulled up, the four boys dismounting and scattering. “What’s goin’ on here?” That was Isabel.
          Race spoke up. “Miz Reese, this here is my hoss. You remember. Had him fer a long time. This here feller claims he belongs to him, but I know he musta stole him. It’s my hoss and I want him back.” Race was beginning to sound like an echo.
          Isabel looked at Ol’ Paint, who I could tell was getting a little fidgety. He knew he was the subject of the conversation, but, of course, he didn’t know what was being said. He inched a little closer to me.
          “Yep,” Isabel said. “That’s your horse, Race. Git him and git on back to the ranch.”
          It had gone far enough. “Lady, that man is getting this horse over my dead body.”
          She shrugged. “That can be arranged.”
          “Watch it, mister,” somebody muttered to me. “That’s Isabel Reese. She usually gets what she wants.”
          I was staring at the woman. “I don’t care if she’s Mary the Mother of God, she’s not getting this horse.” Ol’ Paint was close enough now so I quickly reached up, pulled my rifle out of its scabbard, and pointed it at Canton and the Reeses. “Any of you touch this bay and I’ll blow you to the far side of eternity.”
          The place got awful quiet awful quick. I could see fire in Isabel Reese’s eyes. Colt looked a little angry, too. But it was the woman who spoke. “How dare you point a rifle at me!”
          For an answer, I chambered a bullet into the Winchester.
          Isabel didn’t exactly appear afraid. “Mister, you just signed your death warrent.”
          “If any of your thugs try to take my horse, la—excuse me—woman, you’re going first.” I looked over at Colt Reese. “Reese, can’t you control your wife and men? That horse is not Canton’s and you know it.”
          Reese responded, “Mister, I suggest you give him the horse. He’s going to end up with it anyway when you end up dead.”
          I saw a smile slowly come across Isabel’s face. “Go ahead and shoot him, Billy. Git him out of the way.”
          I had been paying so much attention to Isabel that I had lost track of the sons. One of them was behind me, and I assumed had his pistol pointed at my back. “Drop the rifle, fella,” he said. “I don’t want it goin’ off accidental like when I plug ye.”
          “It won’t go off ‘accidental like’ if you shoot, Billy. You pull that trigger and, believe me, your ape-faced mother is going with me. And maybe the old man, too. I don’t die easy.”
          We had a standoff and it was more than a little tense. I didn’t know if, at any moment, I was going to get a bullet in the back. And, given the fact it had never happened before, I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d react. I just hoped I could bluff well enough to where Isabel Reese wouldn’t want to take the chance and would call her boy off. Her facial expression didn’t lend a lot of support to that prospect.
          However, the stalemate was broken from a surprising source. A man behind Billy said, “Billy, maybe you ought to drop your gun. You’ll be one of the dominoes to fall once the shooting starts.”
          Ben Baker.
          We were in a bit of a conundrum, but I pivoted on my left foot and pointed the rifle at Billy. “I’d do as he says Billy. That’s an awful mean .45 he’s got pointed at your head.”
          Ben cocked the gun, a sound that must have been heard down in the valley.
          Billy gulped. “Ma,” he started.
          Just about that time—and finally—the sheriff showed up. “What’s going on here?”
          This time I spoke first, turning back to Isabel and Colt Reese. “Sheriff, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that this piece of human garbage”—and I nodded towards Race Canton—“is wanting to steal my horse, claiming it’s his. That prune-faced hag I’ve got my rifle pointed at said he could have him. I respectfully disagree and announced my intention of putting a bullet into anyone who so much as touches Ol’ Paint.”
          Braniff winced at my “prune-faced hag” comment, but he walked over to Ol’ Paint. “An R-R brand. What does it stand for, Canton?”
          “Rob and Robin,” I cut in. “Me and my former wife.”
          The sheriff looked at me. “Sound like the horse is yours. I’ve never believed a word Race Canton said anyway. Now everybody put away their armor before I haul all of you in.”
          “You first, Billy,” I said to him, shifting my rifle back in his direction. “You’re sandwiched in between.” Ben and me, I meant.
          Billy gave me an acid look, but holstered his pistol. Ben uncocked his and lowered it. But kept it in his hand. His eyes met mine. I nodded my thanks. He nodded in response.
          “Who are you, mister?” Isabel asked.
          I turned back to her. “Rob Conners, if it’s any of your business.”
          That got a reaction. Colt inadvertently sucked in his breath. Isabel’s eyes narrowed. “I heard of you. Fast with a gun. But all I wanted to know was the name to put on your tombstone.”
          “Sheriff, that sounded like a threat to me. Can I go ahead and do the world a favor and shoot that witch?”
          “If I wasn’t sheriff, Conners, I’d let you do it and pin a medal on you. But I’ve sworn to uphold the law.”
          Just then we heard a scream from inside the general store. Everybody sort of looked around, stunned, and then an old man came running out of the store. “Somebody’s gotta help. He got my daughter. He took her out back and he’s gonna…” He swallowed and couldn’t finish.
          Sheriff Braniff wanted more information. “Now, hold on just a minute, fella. Who took your daughter?”
          I didn’t bother waiting. I had all the information I needed. A woman was fixing to be abused and it wouldn’t be solved by cross-examination. I ran into the general store. The clerk behind the counter looked frightened.
          “Ou-out back,” he said, pointing. “Blin Reese—“
          I didn’t hear any more, I took off around the counter towards the back door. I heard somebody behind me and gave a quick glance. Ben. I stared at him a moment.
          “What are you looking at, Conners? He’ll have that girl raped ten times by the time you quit gawking at me.”
          I couldn’t help but grin. “I’ll take the girl, you take the guy,” I said, as I headed towards the back door.
          “Kinda what I figgered,” I heard Ben mutter, and he was on my heels.
          We got out the back of the general store and saw…a long alley with lots of doors. “Oh, geez,” I said. “Ben, you go right, I’ll go left.” He nodded.
          Another scream, then muffled. It was hard to tell exactly where it came from, but it wasn’t far away. I bolted to the first door and kicked it in—nothing. Ben was unsuccessful, too.
          But we were getting close and I thought I had it targeted when I heard a man laugh and a long riiiiip as if fabric was being torn. Another female cry.
          Ben looked at me. “Second door on the left,” he said.
          “That’s how I make it, too. Me right, you left this time.” He nodded his acquiescence.
          We were there in a jiffy. The door was part-way open and I went in low, to the right, Ben followed me, low to the left. The room was an old, dusty storeroom, with a few broken, empty boxes scattered around. The place looked like it was about to fall down.
          But my attention was directed towards the center of the room. Sure enough, a man was standing there, trying to tear the rest of the clothing off a young woman. He had the dress off her right shoulder, but it was still clinging to her left. She was whimpering and struggling.
          He reacted quickly when Ben and I came in. He pulled his gun, grabbed the girl, pinning her in front of him, and put the gun to the side of her neck. I had witnessed this scene very recently, or one similar to it. A bank robber with a gun at the throat of an innocent boy…
          “She’s mine, wranglers,” he said, with a grin that showed two missing front teeth. “Maybe I’ll let you have a piece of her when I finish.” Then his face turned fierce. “Now git outta here or I’ll blow her head off.”
          Ben looked at me, not quite sure what to do. I slowly stood up. I could have shot the man—his face was showing over the woman’s shoulder and I’m that good—but he had a cocked pistol at her throat and it might go off just by an involuntary reaction if I fired. “All right, Reese,” I said, and lowered my gun. “But I hope you know that rape is a capital offense out here.”
          He grinned again. “Not with my ma and pa runnin’ this town, it ain’t.”
          I nodded to Ben to lower his gun as well. His face became hard, but he could see the predicament. The girl spoke, pleadingly. “Please don’t go. Please help me.”
          I shook my head. “He’s got a gun to your neck and the coward is hiding behind you. There’s nothing we can do that won’t get you killed.”
          She sobbed and closed her eyes. “Please…” she begged again.
          I started backing out of the room and Ben moved with me. And then Blin Reese did what I hoped he’d do. He lowered his gun. Or at least, he quit pointing it at the girl.
          I raised my pistol and fired. The bullet struck Blin in the forehead and went on through, shattering his skull and sending some brain matter flying in every direction. Blin grunted when the bullet struck and the girl screamed. Some of what little brains Reese had landed on the girl and she groaned and cowered, whimpering some more.
          Ben pursed his lips and glanced at me. “I heard you were good. That was as fine a shot as I’ve ever seen.”
          “No,” I replied. “A good shot wouldn’t have scattered his brains everywhere.”
          The young woman was trying to wipe some of the offal from her body. I pulled out my handkerchief and held it out to her, but I could tell she was about to be sick. She turned, went into the corner of the room, and spilled her guts.
          As if right on cue, i.e., always late, the sheriff showed up. The old man who had cried for help was there, as well as Colt and Isabel Reese.
          “What happened?” Braniff asked.
          “That should be fairly obvious, sheriff,” I replied.
          He shot me an annoyed glance and spoke to Ben. “Baker?”
          "Should be fairly obvious, sheriff,” and I grinned. “That fellow was about to rape that nice lady over there and Conners…helped her out a little bit.”
          Isabel was staring at her son, who was sprawled out on the floor, the blood from his wound slowly leaking out. “You…you shot my boy.”
          “Do your sons make a habit of raping women?” I asked her.
          She was still staring at Blin’s body. “You shot my boy,” she repeated, and then looked at me with as hateful and as fierce an expression as I had ever seen in my life. “You killed a Reese, Conners. Nobody kills a Reese and lives to tell about it.”
          I wasn’t intimidated. I walked right up to her and said, “Woman, I’m going to take what you just said for what it was—a threat on my life. So let me tell you something. If I ever see your face again, or the face of your husband, or any of your sons, I’m going to shoot to kill and leave your bodies to the buzzards. Although I doubt they’d touch you.” I looked at Colt Reese. “Get her out of here, Reese, and keep her away from me.”
          Isabel wasn’t intimidated, either. “Oh, you’ll never see me again, Conners, that I assure you.”
          I grunted. “A dry-gulcher. Why am I not surprised? All cowards are.”
          She sneered and turned. “Come on, Colt,” she said.
          “What do you want to do about the body, Isabel?” her husband replied.
          “He’s dead. There ain’t nuthin’ we can do for him, you dolt. Sheriff’s problem now.” And she left the building, her husband meekly tagging along behind.
          Braniff looked at me. “Don’t take her threat lightly, Conners. She meant what she said.”
          I sighed. “Yeah. I know.”
          The girl had finished throwing up and came over to us. “I’m…sorry. I just…”
          “Yeah, he made me sick, too,” I said. I took my handkerchief again and wiped a little more stuff from her face. “I’m sorry it was so messy.”
         “No…no,” she said. “Thank you so much. If you hadn’t showed up…”
          The girl’s father had been with his daughter, and he finally spoke. “Yessir, we are almighty grateful to you. Thanks so much. That…bully. There’s no telling what he mighta done.”
          Well, it was pretty evident what he was going to do, but I let it slide. The man introduced himself. “My name is Clem Everett, and this here’s my daughter Rachel. We’s mighty grateful to you, mister, mighty grateful.” I got the point.
         I held out my hand to him and he took it. “Rob Conners,” I said, “and this man who helped me is Ben Baker.”
          Everett looked at Ben for a few seconds, then nodded. “Obliged to you.” Then back to me. “Rob Conners, did you say? I heerd of you.”
          My creditors all know me, too.
          Everett wasn’t as old as he first appeared. He had a bit of a stoop to his back, which made him look beyond what his age probably was, and his hair was grey, but there weren’t a lot of lines in his face. About 45-50 years old, I guessed.
          Rachel was a fair-looking blonde, maybe 5’6, fair features, fair blue eyes, fairly proportioned. I’d seen worse, but I’d seen better. She had the modesty to pull her torn dress up over her shoulder as much as possible and she was holding on to it tightly.
          I turned to Sheriff Braniff. “Is there anything else you need, Sheriff?”
          “Well, I’d appreciate you dropping by my office and making a statement.”
          I frowned. “Can Ben do it? I was getting ready to leave town when all this ruckus started.”
          “Well, I guess so.” He didn’t seem to favor the idea.
          Clem Everett spoke up. “Mr. Conners, can I…talk to you fer a few minutes? I’d like to discuss something with you.”
          Frankly, I was in a hurry to get out of Windy, but I couldn’t think of a reason to say no. “Ok.”
          “Which way was you headed?”
          “West. North.”  Up.  Down.  In.  Out.  I didn’t know.
          “That’s where we’s headed, too. We got a wagon train with about 500 cows out o’ town aways. Good land fer sale up north, we hear, and gonna go git some of it. Can you give me a few minutes to buy some supplies and then we kin ride that direction together.”
          I nodded. I had a feeling I already knew what he wanted. “All right. I’ll go make that statement the sheriff wants. Catch me in his office.” He nodded and headed out. Rachel smiled at me as she passed me. Frankly, if there was anything behind that smile—and I detected nothing, but I can be pretty dense—I wasn’t interested.
          “Ok, sheriff, lead on….”