Chapter Ten—Rooting Out a Nest of Snakes

Moving on to late September…
          Isabel was right about a few things. I intended to search for water the next day and I would be traveling Rock Canyon Road.
          I was anxious to get the cattle drive started again; it was moving on near the end of September and if these people were going to get settled before the nasty weather hit, we couldn’t delay much longer. Again I wondered in amazement who planned such a trip at this time of the year.
          But Ben balked—because of the Nelson boy. “I think he’s showing a bit of improvement, Rob. At least I don’t think he’s any worse. But I still don’t think he ought to be moved. We’ve got good water here and the doctor isn’t too far away if we need him.”
          “How long do you think he’ll need to stay here?”
          Ben shook his head. “I don’t know. But really, it shouldn’t have to be too many more days. The issue will be decided, one way or another, by then.”
          I nodded, frustrated, but I trusted his judgment on it. “Well, there’s no sense in wasting time. I’ll scout on ahead and see what I can find in the way of water for the next few days. I may be gone a day or two, depending on how far I have to search.” I looked to the north. There was a pretty nice barrier of high, craggy mountains ahead of us, but I knew there was at least one pass, and maybe two, through them, and neither would tax the animals or travelers too much. And while those mountains were at least two weeks away, and probably three, their spring runoff would provide water on both sides. The only question was how far that watershed drained in this semi-valley we were in. That’s what I’d need to find out, if possible. I wasn’t really worried, long-term, about water, but I was concerned about the next ten days or so. There was water out there, but how far would we have to go to find it? If we pushed the cattle too hard, then we’d start being plagued with bunch quitters again, and with the crew we had, we’d probably lose a few. Ben and I could do only so much. The Pickens boys might get good enough to help, and hopefully, those two Reese men would pitch in with us—when they healed. But they couldn’t be counted on any time soon.
          Anyway, I left the next morning about sunup. I wanted to travel at least 20 miles ahead and maybe 30, I’d just play it by ear. I didn’t want to be gone too long, but the fact that the caravan was going to be parked for a few days longer would provide me an opportunity to do some advanced scouting and then perhaps I could stay with the cattle drive and help out for several days. That might help things move along a bit faster.
          It was a nice day, lots of sunshine, not a cloud in the sky. A bit warm, but not unbearable. The trail was called “Rock Canyon Road” because, for about five miles, it meandered through a…rock canyon. It wasn’t really a “canyon,” there was simply a lot of foliage along both side of the road and in places, piles of rocks and boulders littered the ground and knolls. It was a good place for an ambush, if someone was of a mind to set one up. Which someone was—recall the dastardly critters at the end of the last chapter.
          When traveling by one’s self on a lonely, empty road—and Rock Canyon Road wasn’t really much more than a trail—one tends to get bored and starts daydreaming. I’d been traveling about 10 miles and hadn’t seen any water yet, and that caught my attention and bugged me some; pushing a herd of cattle beyond 10 miles on a day’s drive could be problematic, so I’d make sure the settlers’ cows filled up with water before we left the camp. Yet, I was also thinking about Clearwater Valley and how I was going to handle that. I might not go the whole way; I’d let Ben and the Pickens boys drive the cattle into the valley. Somebody was going to have to go on ahead into River Bend and determine a location in Clearwater Valley to drive the herd. They could be kept on the south side of the mountain until that issue was dissolved. I wasn’t exactly sure what the settlers had in mind about buying land and divvying up the beef, but that was their problem, not mine. I’d get the herd near the valley and then….do what? I wasn’t sure yet. Did I really want to see Kelly and Gail? I was going to have to make a decision about that, though I kinda sorta already knew what it was.
          Anyway, I was so lost in my thoughts that the decision was almost made for me, i.e., I wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon, or any time, period. But a part of my mind never slept or wandered and when I heard a bullet being levered into a rifle chamber, I immediately—and I mean immediately—fell off Ol’ Paint to my left. A bullet whistled by right where my head had been before the immediately of the previous sentence.
          I didn’t know who was shooting at me, but I had a pretty good idea. I hit the dirt running, and dove behind a boulder on the other side of the road as three bullets chased me, kicking up dust behind me, with a fourth bullet pinging of the top of the rock I had just sought as a refuge. I hadn’t been able to grab my rifle on the way down, but I did have my pistol, and, figuring my would-be assassin would be momentarily irritated that he had not dispatched me, I rose up just above the rock and fired five times into some trees where I thought the rifle shots had come from. I was rewarded by a grunt and a curse, and I ducked back down to reload just as another bullet whizzed over my head. I then heard some stomping and tree rustling from across the road and I knew the other fellow was beating a hasty retreat. I hadn’t killed him, but I apparently had wounded him enough that he had had enough.
          I took a chance and, in a crouch, dashed across the road to another boulder. There were no shots and I thought I heard a horse galloping off. I wasn’t going to let the so-and-so escape, not if I could help it, so I ran to Ol’ Paint and took my pride and joy from the saddle boot where I had stored it.
          My “pride and joy” was a modified .58 Swiss Vetterli rifle, one of the best repeater rifles in the world. I say “modified” because it was designed to hold 11 shots, but I had a French gunsmith in Whitewater, Marcel Puissant—the best gunsmith I had ever known—upgrade it from a .41 caliber to a .58. It could only hold six bullets now, but I figured if I couldn’t kill what I wanted in six shots, I didn’t need to be shooting anyway.
          Being a .58 caliber, it had a terribly long range—terrible for whatever I was shooting at. The Sharps .50, largely used by buffalo hunters, had an effective range of 500 to 600 yards, and really good marksmen could hit targets beyond that; I had heard up to a mile, but I was very skeptical of that. The .58 caliber I had could reach 1,000 yards—almost three-fifths of a mile. Marcel—bless his heart—had also fixed it with a scope, which made things for my target doubly unfair. I didn’t usually miss what I aimed at anyway, and with the scope I could shoot with my eyes closed. The rifle could be broken down into three parts—stock, barrel, and scope—and kept in a small carrying case, which is what I usually did. But since I was also looking for meat—the cook, Demars had reminded me of that before I left—I had put the rifle together before I left and had shoved it into a saddle boot; I had my Winchester .73 on the opposite side. I’d use the .58 if I needed to make a long-range shot, the Winchester if my victim was closer.
          Anyway, I went through all of that to let the reader know that I took the Vetterli and ran into the copse after my ambusher. It wasn’t a wide batch of trees and I reached the opposite clearing in a few seconds. The undulating valley stretched out before me and a horseman was beating a hasty retreat. He was probably 200 yards away now, but I could tell it was Billy Reese.
          The Vetterli was a long rifle so I needed to rest it on something when shooting. I found a convenient branch on a nearby tree, laid the barrel across it, and looked through the scope. Billy’s back leaped into view and I held the rifle hard against my shoulder—it could kick like a mule—took a deep breath, allowed a smidgen for the wind, and gently squeezed the trigger. And saw a puff of dust poof off his back, Billy jerk, and disappear from view as he fell off his horse. He had been about 400 yards away, a piece of cake for the Vetterli.
          I whistled for Ol’ Paint and he trotted up a few seconds later. I booted the rifle, mounted my horse, and headed towards Billy. When I arrived at his body, it was obvious he was dead. I didn’t feel like messing with him, so I left him for buzzard bait. I wasn’t terribly happy with the whole Reese outfit and figured it was time to end this feud once and for all. I had no intention of having to watch my back and fall off Ol’ Paint for the rest of my life.
          I wasn’t exactly sure when the Reese ranch was, but it wasn’t hard to find because Billy’s horse made a beeline for the place. It was a good 15 miles away, so it was getting on in the afternoon when we arrived. I decided not to go up and knock on the front door—pardon my sarcasm. I saw the ranch from about a half-mile distance, and then backtracked about a mile to a stream I had seen. I found a nice cottonwood to camp under and had some coffee and supper. And a nap. I was going to wait till it got plenty dark before I paid Colt and Isabel a visit.
          I doubt they’d think I’d come after them. They would see Billy’s horse, of course, and figure the worst had happened, but I was pretty confident they wouldn’t do anything immediately. At least I hoped not.
          I took a little snooze and it was dark before I awoke. I could tell by the stars that it wasn’t especially late and I wanted to make sure that everybody was good and asleep before I did any dastardly deeds like kill people. Yet, I also wanted to do some reconnoitering so that I wouldn’t go in blind. So I saddled Ol’ Paint and we rode the mile back towards the ranch and found a nice little knoll from which to watch the comings and goings of the Reese contingent. By the stars it was probably about 9 o’clock. My pocket watch had stopped earlier and I had forgotten to wind it. I hated it when I did that.
          I lay on the grass as I played spy. The house was nice, as I expected—two story log structure, with some pretty cottonwoods in front and a sizeable garden in back. There were some outbuildings, mainly a barn, bunkhouse, and another small building which I figured might be a tool shed. The corral adjacent to the barn had a couple dozen horses milling around. The whole set up was nicely snuggled against the backdrop of a steep hill, which had to top out at least at 1,000 feet. The base of the hill had been cleaned of foliage, but about 100 feet up, the pines became thick and mature. It was a lovely scene.
          As I mentioned, I was perched on a small knoll west of the house; I was probably 300 feet up and a quarter mile from the house. The land to the east and south of the ranch house was basically flat grassland. There were some mountains in the distance; I knew that from the fact that I had lived there, but I could also see the outline against the dark purple night sky. It would have been a nice place to live. I’d like to have a ranch like this.
          I had a pair of field glasses, and they helped a little even though it was dark. There wasn’t a lot of activity; I reckon it was because most of the family and hired hands had been left on the dirt back at the settlers’ camp. I saw five men—hired hands—but two of them looked pretty old and I don’t think they had been on the raid at the caravan. A female came out the back door and tossed some water out of a pan and then went back inside. There were some lights on downstairs, then lights appeared in two of the rooms upstairs, and soon after the lights downstairs were extinguished. It wasn’t too long before both of the lights upstairs went out as well. I didn’t know if that meant the Reeses had gone to bed, or if those rooms were used for other purposes. So I slipped around to the other side of the house—it took me about 15 minutes to get there—and sure enough, there was a light on in an upstairs room. That’s the first place I’d go when I decided to pay Colt and Isabel a visit.
          I will openly confess that I had murder on my mind, although I justified it as self-defense. And I think justifiably so. That witch up there had threatened me and tried to kill me twice. If that wasn’t a just cause, I didn’t know what was. Besides, I didn’t intend to let anybody see me anyway. Of course, I had tried that when I released Wilson Brant from the world after he and his thugs raped and murdered my first wife, and it didn’t keep the law off my tail. I wasn’t going to let history stop me from doing what I thought I had to do, though. I didn’t think Colt Reese owned Dave Braniff, the sheriff in Windy, but he might own another lawman somewhere. I’d take my chances; rather the law, who might leave me alone, than Isabel Reese, who obviously didn’t intend to.
          The light in the upper room went out and the house was dark. Again, judging by the stars, it was probably close to midnight. It was a beautiful, star-studded night; countless thousands of stars were visible, though the moon was only about half full. The stars provided enough light to see fairly well. I found myself staring at them, wishing Julie was there with me. And it went through my mind that I thought of Julie before I had thought of Robin, though both thoughts made me very sad. I shifted my thinking towards Kelly Atkins and Gail Sanders in Clearwater Valley, but that didn’t shake my melancholia much. Get back to the issue at hand, Conners, or you might not be thinking about anybody very soon…
          The operation before me looked pretty straight-forward. I had done it before—Wilson Brant’s house—so I didn’t expect this would be much different. Go in the back door, find the stairs, find the bedroom, find the people (or person) I wanted to dispatch, find my weapon—I intended to use my knife so I wouldn’t wake up the whole neighborhood—find their throats, then find my way back out, and find my way back to wherever I intended to go. Rock Valley Road to look for water. But I’d get a good night’s sleep before I made that 15 mile journey again.
          There was a dog, but he—she?—barked at everything so I figured he’d bark at me, too. I just hoped his “there’s a human around” bark didn’t sound any different from his “there’s an animal around” bark. I’d pitch him some jerky, if necessary. It was a universal method of shutting dogs up or making friends with them.
          As it turned out I didn’t have to worry about the canine. He was asleep on the front porch and I intended to go in the back. About 2 A.M.—by the stars—I made my way back around to the western side of the house—northwestern, actually, I intended to come in at an angle, just so the dog wouldn’t see me, just in case his human bark was different from his animal bark. Also, the bunkhouse was on the eastern side of the house, so I’d be as far away as possible from the men who slept there.
          I didn’t really expect any problems and I didn’t encounter any. The back door wasn’t locked, though it did creak a bit. But it probably sounded louder to me than it actually was. I slipped inside and, when my eyes adjusted, I could tell I was in the kitchen. I could see well enough to avoid any obstacles, though when I heard a noise behind me I almost jumped out of my skin. I drew my gun in haste and pivoted, but all I saw was a cat crouching and staring at me like he didn’t think I belonged in the house. Well, I’d let him worry about it. If he wanted to drive me out, he was welcome to try.
          A walk through the kitchen door put me in the dining room. Big table, six nice chairs, all of them soon to be empty, though if Colt didn’t give me any problems, I wouldn’t give him any. He didn’t strike me as the revenge-seeking kind, but I’d play that by ear. Isabel was who I really wanted, and intended to get.
          The living room was adjacent to the dining room and I could see the stairs leading up to the second floor to my right. With victory in sight, I almost blew it. I got a little hasty and stubbed my toe on a lamp table. It was loud and I had to grab the lamp to keep it from falling to the ground. Then I froze, hoping nobody had heard. Unfortunately, the maid was a light sleeper and, in a few seconds, I heard a voice from down a hall.
          “Hello? Is someone there?”
          I did a quick dash to my left and hid behind a couch, berating myself for being so clumsy. That maid could ruin everything. I took my hat off and peeked around the corner of the couch; sure enough I could see her outline at the edge of the hallway near the front door of the house.
          “Is someone there?” she repeated, and I really wondered if she thought “whoever was there” was going to answer. Her voice sounded frightened so it wasn’t terribly surprising that she apparently didn’t know how to handle the situation.
          Then I heard what might have been a life saver—the cat meowed. With obvious relief in her voice, the woman said, “Oh, was that you, Button? You must be more careful. Come on, you can sleep with me.”
          My first thought was…Button?? But then, I was probably as relieved, if not more so, than the maid was. All she would have had to have done was see me—she would have screamed her head off and every living creature within five miles would have run one way or another. And the human creatures would have headed in my direction and that would have been catastrophic. I certainly didn’t want to shoot her and I would have to have been very, very desperate indeed to have done it.
          But all’s well that ends well. She disappeared down the hall with…Button. I waited a few minutes to let her get back to bed, then resumed my nocturnal perfidy. The stairs were solid and carpeted, except for a couple of inches on each edge, so I crept silently to the landing of the second floor. I got my bearings, heard some snoring, and followed the sound.
          Second door on the left. It was partly open and I could see two lumps in the bed. I slipped inside and closed the door. I took two steps and heard, “That’s far enough, Mr. Conners.”
          Well, they say witches have magical powers, and apparently such was the case with Witch Isabel Reese. She had been hiding behind the door, obviously anticipating my arrival.
          But—to be modest—she wasn’t dealing with a greenhorn here. Successful operations plan for every contingency—(even men who have to go to the outhouse in the middle of the night, Allie)—and while I had no idea that Isabel Reese was behind that door, I had already figured out what I was going to do if I heard somebody behind me. Actually, it was something that I had decided long ago—it was my natural reaction to such a circumstance. Her mistake was announcing her presence. If she had simply fired the gun she was holding, she would have lived and I would have died. But the arrogant must gloat and that cost Isabel Reese her life.
          There wasn’t enough room for a good pivot—my usually first move—so I actuated Plan B. Immediately—and I mean immediately—see Rock Canyon Road and Billy Reese--upon hearing her voice and knowing she was behind me, I dove to my right, drawing my gun and twisting. Sure enough, she fired the rifle she was holding. And the bullet whizzed harmlessly by, thwacking into the opposite wall. My shot hit her dead center in the heart. She grunted and fell back, and how she ever got another shot away, I have no idea; it’s hard to lever a rifle when you’re dead. But, again, witches can do strange things and she did one. But she died, too.
          The problem with that second bullet was not mine—it was Colt Reese’s. He was still in bed, playing possum as one of the lumps that I had seen. When Isabel fell back, the rifle shifted in her grip and the bullet went straight into Colt. I heard him grunt. I got to my feet, gun pointed towards the bed, but he didn’t move. I lit the bedside lamp and looked down at Colt Reese. He was still breathing, but he wouldn’t be for long—the bullet hit him in the chest and I could see white froths of blood coming from his mouth, indicating a lung had been perforated and that he was on his way to join his beloved Isabel in the very near future in whatever eternal home the devil had saved for them.
          But he was able to speak. And give me a wry grin. “I knew…that woman…would…be the death…of me.”
          I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I just replied, “I’m sorry, Colt. I’m sorry all this had to happen.”
          “Yeah…me…too…but…better this way…….” And he was gone.
          I sighed and thought that he might have made a decent man if it hadn’t been for that she-demon he had married.
          The gun firing obviously woke up everybody within waking up distance. The maid appeared at the door in a few moments, and stared at the dead bodies of her employers. “Wh-what happened?” What an innocent soul she was.
          “Isabel shot Colt and I shot Isabel,” I told her. It didn’t happen exactly in that order, of course, but it sounded better that way.
          She looked at me, shock in her eyes. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
          Before I could answer that, I could see some men behind her and in a few moments, five of them had pushed their way into the room. “What’s goin’ on here?” some intelligent stud asked. Then, he looked at me. “Did you kill Colt and Isabel?”
          “I know who he is,” another fellow said. “That’s Rob Conners. He’s a murderin’ skunk if there ever was one. I say we ought to string ‘im up right now.”
          So much for a fair hearing and trial.
          But I made my defense. “Let’s hold on here a moment, guys. Yes, I’m Rob Conners and I shot Isabel, and I think you all know why. Her rifle went off a second time and the bullet hit Colt and killed him. So I didn’t kill him.”
          “Sez you,” another man responded.
          I handed him my gun, which was a bit dangerous, but then, I was outnumbered five to one anyway. Six to one counting the maid. “How many shots have been fired?”
          He checked. “Only one. But you coulda reloaded.”
          I gave him a “give me a break” look. “If I reloaded, why would I only put one bullet in the gun? Check Isabel’s rifle and you’ll find two bullets missing. It’s a Henry, I believe.”
          One of the other men reached down and grabbed the rifle. He ejected all the shells. “Two missing. All right, Conners, we’ll buy your story. You shot her and she got him on the rebound. But killin’ her is still a hangin’ offense.”
          “You mean you’re unhappy she’s dead?”
          That stopped them a moment. Then, He-Who-Checked-The-Rifle said, “Well, she and Colt did pay our wages.”
          I nodded. “Yeah. And they can’t do that any more, can they. But I’ve got a job for you.”
          Five sets of eyes narrowed at me. “What’s that?”
          “Well, as I think you know, I’m trying to move 500 cattle north for a bunch of settlers. I’ve got a bunch of tinhorns trying to wrangle ‘em. They’ve lost about 150 cows since they left Colorado a few weeks ago.”
          I could see some winces at that. “They are tinhorns, aren’t they.”
          “Haven’t a clue,” I responded. “I know you fellows can work cattle. I don’t know what those settlers can pay, but…” I shrugged. “It’s probably more than the Reeses can pay you now. Two of the boys who went on that raid with you yesterday are still alive, though they are going to be bed-ridden for a few days. They said they’d pitch in with us.” I looked at the men. “How about it?”
          I saw some thoughtful faces, and the men looked around at each other. “Where they goin’?” one man asked.
          “Clearwater Valley.”
          “Lots of cows up there to rustle,” another man said, and they all laughed. I even got a chuckle out of it.
          “Or good decent work for men who’d like to start over and go straight,” I said.
         "What's yer second idea?"
          I shrugged. "Stay here. All the Reeses are dead. Whose land is it now? I don't know how many cattle they've got but...well, I reckon you fellows could divvy up the land and make a go of it. It's free land now."
          Eddie, one of the older men, said, "There's about 1,500 cattle out there in the pasture."
          "How many of them have the Reese brand on them? Legitimately?"
         Everybody looked away from me. "Uhhh...well...a couple hundred. We was gettin' ready to move the rest of 'em north and sell 'em anyway. Reckon we could take 'em with you?"
          I shook my head firmly. "I'm not going put 1,300 rustled cattle in with the ones I'm driving. If we got caught, those folks would lose everything. I can't do that. I'll take the 200 legal ones, though, if you fellows want to come with them."
          The men still looked thoughtful, but one of them said, "What do you suggest?"
          "You'd best leave those cattle and come with me. Or you can try to drive them yourself to wherever you were going to take them, sell them, and split the money. That's a legal risk, of course, and if you get caught...well, you know the penalty for rustling. The bottom line is, do you want to take this opportunity to go straight? I'll give you some legitimate work and when we all get to Clearwater Valley, maybe you can find some outfit to hook on with."
          "And if we can't?"
          "Your choice. I can't make it for you."
          "I think I'd like to sleep on it," one fellow replied. Then, sardonically, "In what's left of the night."
          Well, yada yada yada. We discussed some other details for a few minutes until everyone was about to drop. Eddie and Barney—the second older man—were given the burial task, though the other men helped carry the bodies. I was surprised, but then I wasn't, that nobody seemed to be too disturbed that Colt and Isabel Reese were dead. These fellows were pretty hardened. So, one employer dies, you move on to another. I didn't know what they'd do, but then, that was their decision, not mine. These men were outlaws, but I was giving them a chance to escape that way of life. I didn't know if they'd take it or not.
          I slept in the bunkhouse with the rest of the men. We all arose before sunup, which meant we didn't get much more sleep. Sadie, the maid, did the cooking chores--Barney usually doubled in that role, but he was glad to let her have the job.
          "We're glad, too," one of the men, Red Zimmer, said, and to general merriment.
          "I've got to head out and go find water," I told them. "I lost at least a day trying to save my hide from the Reeses. Have any of you boys decided what you want to do?"
          "I want to go with ye," Barney replied, immediately, and Eddie echoed him. "I hear Clearwater is growin'. I think I could catch on with somethin'."
          Sadie said, "There's really nothing left here for me. I'd like to go, too."
          "Do you have any nursing experience, by any chance? There's a boy with typhoid in the settlers' camp and he needs all the help he can get."
          "As a matter of fact, I do," she said, and then launched into a lengthy--and boring--monologue on what to do to take care of him, most of which Ben was already doing. But it would be nice to have her there. It would free Ben to work cattle.
          So I nodded and said, "Thanks. We'll be glad to have you." I looked around at the other three men. "What about you boys?"
          The looked at each other. "Sure hate to leave those cattle. We worked hard getting them. And all this land..." He left it at that and nobody else said anything.  Then he added, "If we go to Clearwater with you, you ain't gonna turn us into the law for rustlin', are you?"
          "I've never seen you boys rustle one cow, so I'd have a devil of a time making it stick.  But if you start rustling the cattle I'm moving..."  They got the point.  "Well, I'm heading out," I continued.  "Y’all make up your mind and do what you will." I looked at Barney, Eddie, and Sadie. "The wagons are camped, for the moment, on Grizzly Creek, on the road heading to Windy. You know it?"
          They all nodded.
          "Get your stuff and get there as quickly as you can. See a black man named Ben Baker. Tell him I sent you."
          "Black fellow?" Eddie asked, but his voice sounded curious.
          "Yes. But solid gold."
          He nodded. "Knowed a few black cowboys in my day. Most of 'em pretty good men, just lookin' for a fair shake."
          "Ben's one of the best, believe me. A man named Clem Everett seems to be ramrodding the caravan. See him, too."
          "We'll be there, tomorrow at the latest, maybe this evenin'."
          "Great." I looked at the other three hired hands. "You can join them--with the 200 legal cattle--or you can stay. That's up to you."
          They glanced at each other again. They either hadn't made up their minds yet, or they didn't want to tell me they intended to stay.
         I didn't wait around. I saddled Ol' Paint and went back to searching for water. I had a cattle drive to manage and I needed to get on with it.