Chapter Nine--Firefight

Same day….
          Ol’ Paint must have had a pretty good night’s rest, either that, or he was in a hurry to get back to camp so he could rest. Whatever the reason, he made good time getting back to the wagon train. I let him have his head and he didn’t slow down much, so we would have arrived a little before noon if….
          …if I hadn’t seen the problem developing at the wagons when I topped a hill about a half mile away. It had been a pretty steep hill, so—fortunately—I stopped and gave Ol’ Paint a breather before we rode the rest of the way. As I looked down at the camp by the river, I could see there was a problem. I was riding basically west, and the small river —wide stream would be a better term—wound from north to south. The settlers had arranged their wagons in a semi-circle on the eastern side of the stream, so Ben and the farmers were partly facing me—looking a little to their left--while a rather substantial group of men—and one woman—had their backs to me. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on, so I backed Ol’ Paint down the hill and out of sight, and tried to decide what to do. First thing was to get a little more information.
          I crept back up the hill and flattened to my belly and I surveyed the scene. If anyone had seen me, they were doing a good job of not showing it. There wasn’t really much more to see than what I already had. I couldn’t see the faces of those talking to the farmers, but I saw Isabel Reese—she was obvious—so it didn’t take much to recognize Colt, and then his boys, and clearly a number of their men—I counted 10, besides the Reeses. Ben was standing in front of the settlers, and, as I was watching, I saw Ronnie, and then Arlie, Pickens come out from behind wagons, holding—and pointing—rifles. That was all I needed to see.
          I headed back downhill and decided what I wanted to do. There was some undulating land south of the road and I headed that way and was able to remain out of sight of the wagon train. I made it to the stream about a quarter mile south of where the wagons were stationed. There was a lot of foliage, trees and bushes along the bank of the stream, so I had no problem remaining out of sight as I approached the confrontation. As I came up to the wagons, a couple of women who were behind the wagons saw me, but I put a finger to my lips in the classic “shhh” sign, and they nodded. I crept between a couple of wagons near the right edge of their semicircle and listened in on the conversation for a few minutes to determine just how matters stood. And they stood pretty much the way I figured they would. I wasn’t surprised at Ben’s stance, I was disgusted in listening to Angus McCoy, and a bit flabbergasted that some of the women were making such a strong defense. But then I realize that it was their virtue at stake and their husbands weren’t doing much to protect it. But the fact that they were all willing to fight—and maybe die—on my behalf was certainly moving.
          I had no intention of letting them die on my behalf, not if I could help it.

          I could have, and probably should have, kept my mouth shut and just come around the corner of that wagon blasting away at anything that was sub-human. But I announced my presence, as already noted, and took everyone by surprise. And there was such surprise that nobody reacted until I had the first two bullets on the way, and then I had two more on the way before much defense could be mounted. And by then, it was almost too late—the defense, that is.
          As much as I wanted to shoot that old hag, Isabel Reese, she wasn’t holding a gun and thus wasn’t an immediate threat. So my first four shots all downed some of the Reese men who were holding hardware. As soon as I started shooting, I yelled at Arlie and Ronnie to start firing as well. And they responded quickly, and I saw a couple more of the Reese contingent fall. By then, there were screams and hollers and wailing and pandemonium like a rung of Dante’s inferno.
          Since one of the best strategies of a successful attack is surprise, the good guys had the battle won almost from the beginning. The Reese men were competent, however, and those that were left standing—or, more accurately, sitting (on their horses)—began shooting back. I was an obvious target, but even if I hadn’t been, I would have hit the deck and rolled—which is what I did. I wasn’t really paying a whole lot of attention to what everybody else was doing, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw the farmers scattering and their wives shooting. I saw a couple of farmers go down, but before too many seconds—literally, seconds—the Reese contingent had had enough and turned and rode off. When they turned their backs to us, I quit shooting and yelled for everyone else to quit firing as well.
          One of the things I had noticed, and that hadn’t surprised me in the least, was, once the lead started flying hot and heavy, Isabel Reese turned her horse and hightailed it out of there. One of her boys, Billy, was on her heels and so was Colt, though he was leaning forward, indicating that he may have been hit. The other Reese boys had been shot, too, and they were on the ground. At the moment, I didn’t know if they were alive or dead. And I didn’t care.
          I thought fleetingly about going after the remaining Reeses, but decided against it for a few reasons. Number one, I didn’t want to stretch Ol’ Paint any more; he’d had a rough couple of days and he needed the rest. I could have grabbed another horse, but I didn’t see one saddled at the moment, and I doubted there were any, which made me wonder why someone wasn’t out with the cattle. Also, I had the medicine for the Nelson boy. I needed to get back to Ol’ Paint and deliver it to Grant and Molly. And, to be honest, I didn’t especially feel like chasing the Reeses right then. I hoped I didn’t live—or die—to regret it.
          Once the shooting was over, I started taking inventory of the camp. Ben had hit the ground immediately when I started firing and had rolled under a wagon. He made an appearance, alive and well, reloading his gun. The Pickens boys, who had responded so magnificently, were also unhurt. Angus McCoy was on the ground, moaning and bleeding, and Flo was attending to him. Fred Cameron and Clem Everett had also been hit, and Cameron looked to be in a pretty bad way. He was holding his stomach, and being gut shot was not only incredibly painful, it was also usually mortal. The only good thing about Cameron being hit was that he had no family, so, if he did die, he wouldn’t leave a widow and orphans. Everett was also on the ground, and his head was bleeding, but it turned out that he had only been grazed and would be ok. Otherwise, nobody else was injured. It wasn’t too surprising since we had taken the Reese party by surprised and most of them never got a shot off, and the rest had fired wildly, then turned and skedaddled.
          There were seven of Reese’s men on the ground, and five of them were dead, including Race Canton, the fellow who had tried to steal Ol’ Paint a few days back. I didn’t aim for their horses when I fired and my first four shots were true. I don’t know who got the fifth dead one, it might have been me, too, but I don’t think so. After my first four shots, I hit the ground and was rolling so my accuracy suffered. I know I hit somebody else, but I don’t think I killed him. A couple of those who had been hit hadn’t been knocked off their horses and rode off with the rest who fled.
          Ben came over to me. “I think it would be superfluous to say that you arrived in the nick of time.”
          I smiled at him. “Where did you learn the word ‘superfluous’?”
          “Didn’t I tell you I went to Oxford for a couple of years?”
          I laughed. “Well, I’m glad I showed up when I did. What’s the damage?”
          He and I went on an inspection tour and came up with the totals I recounted above. I asked Flo about Angus. “He’s got a bullet just under his right shoulder. He’s lost some blood and I’ve been able to staunch the flow.” She seemed a little peeved. “The way he acted during the whole thing I’ve got half a mind to let him bleed to death.”
          I didn’t fully understand what she was talking about, of course, and Ben said, “The women were the men and the men were the women in this fight—if you’ll pardon the reference, Mrs. McCoy.” She nodded her understanding. Ben looked at me. “If it hadn’t been for Mrs. McCoy and a few of the other ladies, we would have been in big trouble. McCoy and the rest of the men were ready to deliver you to the Reeses tied in a nice big bundle and would have paid them for the privilege of doing it.”
          Flo McCoy glanced up at me, then back down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Conners. Angus is a good man, but he’s no fighter. None of these farmers are.”
          “That’s all right, Mrs. McCoy. I appreciate your help and I know Ben does, too.”
          “Let me check on everybody else, Mrs. McCoy,” Ben said, “and then I’ll come back to look at Angus. He’s not in real serious shape, but we’ll probably need to get that bullet out.”
          She nodded and thanked him.
          We walked over towards Fred Cameron. A few of the men were kneeling at his side and he was moaning miserably, holding his stomach. There was a lot of blood. Ben knelt down, looked at him, and grimaced. He looked up at me and shook his head. “I’ll try, but…I’m not really a doctor.”
          Elbert Edison came over. “Five of them Reese people is dead, Mr. Conners. The other two will probably make it, they’s not hurt too bad.”
          “Ok. Do the best you can for them now, Elbert, and we’ll see what we can do for them. But they are last in line.”
          “Why don’t we just hang ‘em?”
          “We might if Cameron dies.”
          Clem Everett’s wife and daughter took care of him. Ben spent the rest of the day operating, trying to remove bullets. Some of the men helped him; the next thing I did was get the medicine for the Nelson boy and give it to his parents. They were almighty grateful, but all we could do was hope the youngster would pull out of it. Maybe the remedy would help. I then went and unsaddled Ol’ Paint and turned him loose. He headed for the stream and rolled in the water. I chuckled. I’d never seen a horse do that, but then, Ol’ Paint had been cut from a different mold.
          Fred Cameron died as Ben was trying to get the bullet out. It hurt the big Negro when the man expired, but he had done the best he could. He gave me a wry, but sad, smile. “No doctor likes to lose a patient. And when you ain’t a doctor, it’s even worse because you want to think you are one.”
          He had better luck with Angus McCoy. He removed the bullet and patched McCoy up. “I’m can probably take care of him from here, Mr. Baker. Thank you for your help.”
          Ben nodded. “I’ll check in on him. My first concern is still that Nelson boy.”
          The two Reese men both had bullets in them, but not in serious locations. Ben took them out anyway. “What’re you gonna do with us?” one of the men asked me.
          “Depends. Either of you ever work cattle?”
          He blinked at me a few times, albeit painfully. “Yeah. We can work cattle.” Then he gave me a wry smile. “Steal ‘em, too.”
          I grunted. “You do that and I’ll hang you. But I could use a couple more men. Get well, and if you don’t give us any trouble, you can stay with us. But if you so much as blow your nose backwards, I will hang you both because one of the farmers died, and since I don’t know who pulled the trigger that put the bullet in him, I’ll just assume you both did it.”
          The fellow exhaled and closed his eyes. “We won’t give you no trouble, Conners.” He smiled a painful smile. “We ain’t in much position to right now anyway.”
          “Just see that you don’t, because I promise I’ll keep my word.”
          “Yeah. Understood.”
          Ben frowned a little as we walked away. “You trust those guys?”
          “Nope. But they can’t do us any harm right now in their condition. We’ll see how they do. Could be they rode with Reese because they didn’t have anything any better to do.” I shrugged. “Maybe they’ll do the same for us. And if they can work cattle…” I let it hang.
          “All right. We’ll keep an eye on them. It will be several days before either one can take to a horse, though.”
          “Fair enough.”
          It was almost dark by now. Not surprisingly, Ben was exhausted, but said, “I’ve got to go check on the Nelson boy. He’s priority one.” He headed towards the Nelson wagon.
          Before he got too far, I said, “Ben.”
          He looked back at me.
          “I’m sure glad you’re here.”
          He didn’t smile, but I could see the appreciation in his eyes. He nodded. “Somebody’s got to watch your back, Conners.” And he left.
          I took a little inventory of myself—and realized just how tired I was myself. But I found the Pickens boys, thanked them for their help, and asked them who was watching the cattle.
          “We had been until we saw the Reeses coming,” Ronnie said. “Then we headed back to camp because we thought they might need some help. I think McKenzie and Edison are out there now.”
          I talked with them a little further, got the watch set up for the night, and then went to check on the Nelson boy. “I can’t see that he’s any better,” Ben said, “but I can’t see that he’s any worse. We got some medicine into him, so hopefully that will help.”
          I nodded. “The doc in Windy said to boil any water you give him. Cleans out germs or something.”
          “Been doing that,” Ben said. 
          There wasn’t much else I could do. Supper was served, I ate, and then found a nice cozy spot to sleep. Ben and I had the last watch.
          And I slept till he woke me up to start that watch.

          Colt Reese had indeed been hit by a bullet, but it wasn’t serious. The missile had taken a hunk out of his right side, but passed clean through so nothing was needed but to stop the bleeding and patch him up. He, Isabel, and Billy—the remaining son—rode about five miles back towards their ranch house and stopped by a stream in order to clean Colt’s wound. He had lost a lot of blood and was getting weaker by the moment.
          “Why did you have t’ go an’ git yourself shot?” Isabel grumbled impatiently, as she, none-too-gently, worked on cleaning the wound and patching it. She didn’t have any bandages, so she just tore a strip of his her husband’s dirty shirt to bandage the damage until they could get home. They still had a good 15 mile ride back to the ranch house.
          “Momma, they kilt Blaine and Bubba. At least, I think they’s dead. All my brothers is gone now.” This obviously from Billy, and in obvious angst.
          “I know that, you big, dumb ox.” In frustration and anger, Isabel yanked hard on the binding she was wrapping around Colt, so hard that he cried out in pain. “And we’re gonna make ‘em pay, too, you can count on that.”
          Colt took a deep breath, exhaled, and spoke up. Weakly, grimacing, he said, “Isabel, leave it alone. Just…forget it. We’ve already lost three sons; I don’t want to lose Billy, too.”
          This angered Isabel even more. “Yore a coward, Colt, nuthin’ but a coward. We wouldn’t even come this time, if I’da listened to you.” Which wasn’t a terribly intelligent thing to say, and Colt caught it.
          And the husband flared. “Yeah, and if you had listened to me, Blaine and Bubba would be alive right now. Drop it, Isabel, before you get us all killed.”
          Isabel wasn’t listening to Colt. The woman appeared to be past insane now. She was already thinking about how she could get her revenge. “That Conners…we need to roast him nice and slow over a hot fire. Nobody kills my boys ‘n gits away it.”
          “I’ll go git him, mama,” Billy offered. “I want that nigger, too.”
          “Billy, you leave it be, too,” his father said. “You’re no match for Conners or that black man, either.”
          But again, Isabel wasn’t listening to her husband. “Naw, Billy, forgit about that nigger. He’s an aggravation, but it’s Conners I want. Hmmmm…” Her mind was racing. “Conners is lookin’ for water for that trail drive. That means he’s alone.” She looked up at her remaining son. “You know Rock Canyon Road?"
          “Yes’m. We took many a cow thataway after we rustled ‘em.”
          “Conners will have to use that road. Probably tomorrow or the next day. You get up there, find a good hidin’ place, and ambush him.”
          “Isabel…” Colt began.
          “You hush, husband. I’ll take care of it. Billy’ll get Conners and we can relax knowin’ our boys has been ree-venged.”
          Colt Reese closed his eyes and sighed. “Billy’ll get himself killed is what Billy will do.”
          “No, I won’t, pa. I’ll hide myself real good and when he rides by…blam!...I’ll blow his ugly head clean off’n his shoulders.” Billy’s eyes were shining at the thought.
         “Get gone now, Billy,” Isabel said. “Find you a good place and wait. And don’t come home without the news that Conners is dead. You hear me?”
          “Yes’m. I’ll get ‘im, you wait an’ see.” And Billy mounted his horse and headed west.
          “Billy’s the only good ‘un we ever had, Colt,” Isabel said. “He always done what I told him, too.”
          Colt was hurting and didn’t feel like arguing. “Whatever you say, dear.”
          The rest of the Reese contingent rode up right then—three of them.
          Isabel growled. “Where’s the rest of ‘em?”
          “On the ground dead, Mrs. Reese. At least most of ‘em, as far as I could tell.”
          “Why didn’t you stay and fight? That’s what I pay you for.”
          “Ma’am, if we had stayed, you wouldn’t-na had to pay us no more. We was lucky to get out alive.”
          Colt spoke up in his men’s defense. “You didn’t exactly hang around and help, Isabel.”
          “I’m not a gunfighter and you know it,” Isabel snapped. “What do we pay these men for?”
          “To rustle cattle, ma’am, not to shoot farmers.”
          Isabel growled, but didn’t pursue the matter any more. “C’mon, you useless toads, help me get Colt into the saddle and let’s get ‘im home so I can doctor him proper.”
          So Colt and Isabel Reese, left with three men out of ten, and one son out of four, headed back to the Circle CIR ranch, Isabel grumbling the whole time about the incompetence of her husband and her hired help.