C.J. heard another voice—Clem’s—“We know better than use running irons, mister, and we’re glad to hear we finally found a working ranch. Is this Mister Webster hiring?”
What was Clem talking about now? He’d shown C.J. such a branding iron only yesterday. They were going to use it on Bud’s Uncle’s cattle. Something wasn’t right, but he didn’t want to ride into the conversation. Should he stay and listen or turn and slip away?
The answer came from behind. “Why don’t you join your friends?”
A skinny man with a reddish-blond beard cut round to match his chin sat astride a dappled gray horse as rangy looking as Skewy. The pistol trained on C.J. seemed big enough to shoot fence posts. He swung the barrel toward the group before bringing it back to aim at C.J.
C.J. felt the target between his shoulder blades as a physical poke, as if a broom handle pushed him. Knowing that’s where the gunsights pointed put a tingle on his back that he tried to erase by shifting his shoulders. It didn’t work.
“Hey, Davis,” said round beard, “this one was pushing Webster cattle up a box canyon.”
“Well, that’s interesting,” the man addressed as Davis said. “Two-Teeth, see what he’s got in his bags.”
A third man on the far side of the new group pulled his horse’s head around to ride behind Davis and toward C.J. “You know I don’t like that name,” he said. “Just see what I come up with if you get kicked in the face.” He searched one of C.J.’s saddlebags without dismounting, then rode to Skewy’s other side. From that bag he pulled out Clem’s running iron.
Davis immediately pulled his gun.
So did Clem and Bud.
Horses jerked and bucked at the explosion of rapid gunfire in the quiet rim country.
When C.J. got Skewy under control, Davis, Two-Teeth, and Bud were on the ground. Round beard sat astride his horse, his hands stretched so high his shirt came untucked. Clem had him covered.
“You OK, Indian Fighter?”
C.J.’s ears rang. “I guess, but what was that branding iron doing in my saddlebag?”
Clem laughed. “I didn’t want to be caught with it. You see how these ranchers take to finding one.”
One Man Gone
Clem shot a glance at Bud and the bright red stain spreading down the front of his shirt “Doggone it. Bud was too big a target to miss.” He turned his attention back to round beard. “The question now is, ‘What do we do with this one?’ shoot ‘im or hang ‘im?”
“I could go with you,” Round Beard said.
Clem rubbed his chin. “Don’t you ride for the brand?”
Underneath the beard, the man’s Adam’s apple worked up and down his throat. “Yeah, but there’s an order to things. I can’t ride for any brand if I’m dead.” The lump in his neck made several more trips. “If’n I ride for you, I’ll be as loyal as any man.”
Can’t Be Happening
C.J. had an urgent need to empty his bladder. How could these two keep talking back and forth when men, who had themselves been talking only moments ago, lay dead? It was an unreal experience, and Clem still spoke.
“We can’t go to the Uncle’s place now. He’d kill us for letting Bud get shot. So, here it is. I’ll leave it up to you, Indian Fighter. Do we let this fellow join up with us, or do we kill him?”
What will C.J. decide? What do you think? Leave your idea here.
Here’s a look at what some think of cowboys going to Heaven.
To read the series click on the down arrow in the Archive list, start with Tales Old Roy Told and work up.
Writing Fiction is published on Wednesdays.
Please thank a veteran. The time to do so is precious.
Want the story to ride into your inbox? Click on the picture, or here.