The rain had been relentless. Creeks were at flood stage, prairie depressions full of water, and the sodden skies offered no hint the weather would soon change.
Bert sat inside the cabin staring through the single, grimy pane of glass that served as a window; a rickety door barred most of the winter from entering. A pot-belly stove added a bit of warmth to the secluded shack while a kerosene lamp provided a dismal sort of light. The young cowboy sat at a small table oiling a leather harness.
It had been a brutal winter on the High Line of Montana. Winter blizzards had lashed the barren range for months with deep snows. Finally, a warm Chinook wind arrived in February and most of the snow had melted, only to be replaced with an onslaught of spring rain.
Outside, his horse Rosie nickered in the corral. A dilapidated shed offered some shelter for the beast while she searched the small pasture for any bit of greenery. A three-strand barb wire fence surrounded Rosie and controlled her desire to find greener pastures.
For three months Bert had endured a lonely existence in the line shack. He had visitors only twice—other out-of-work cowboys riding the High Line, looking for a plate of beans and a place to bed down. Bert's "job" had been to push the range cattle back towards the TR Ranch if they started to drift before the blizzard gales. For this work he was allowed to stay in the shack and exist on beans and bacon. There was no pay for the work he was expected to do—just the food and the shack.
Rosie perked up her ears and pointed her head toward the shapeless horizon. A dark silhouette was moving slowly towards the shack. Still a mile away, it might be a steer, a stray buffalo or a horse and rider. It was the most interesting thing Bert had seen in many days.
"Good eye, Rosie." Bert moved to the door and leaned against it as he stared at the dark form.
Rain water continued to drip from the shack's roof after an afternoon squall had passed. Bert hiked up the collar of his wool Mackinaw while a stealthy gust of cold sought out his flesh. It might be spring but Old Man Winter was not giving up just yet.
The dark form took shape as a horse and rider. Bert's hand slipped inside the door to feel the blue steel of his .30-30 Winchester. Just to be safe, just to be ready for whatever.
Fifty yards from the shack the horse and rider stopped. Bert only stared from the doorway, uneasy this stranger had arrived.
"Hello in the shack. I'm looking for Bert Evans. Might you be he?" Black Stetson, worn slicker, fancy saddle, chestnut mare.
"Maybe. Who's looking for him?"
"Son, I've just rode six hours to get here. Mind if I step down? My horse could use a drink and so could I."
Bert nodded and waved the rider in while his hand curled around the barrel of the carbine. It had been a year since the saloon fight and he had been watching his back trail ever since. When the stranger stepped down from his horse, Bert caught a glimpse of the six-gun and the silver flash on his chest that could only be a badge. He smiled weakly and stood silent while the rider tied his horse to a coral post. Both horse and rider were well-speckled with Montana prairie.
"I'm Deputy Colin Bensin from over Miles City way. I stopped at the TR Ranch and they told me I might find you here. Your are Bert Evans, aren't you?"
Bert nodded but continued to stare silently at the deputy. A wisp of gray hair showed under the Stetson while a whitened scar crossed his left cheek and tugged his eye downward. A fight-broke nose complimented his whiskered face. From there down it was all well-used cowboy-red kerchief, faded blue shirt, worn leather vest, leather chaps that hid the wornout jeans, gnarly black boots that had seen better days. But it was the low slung gun belt that riveted Bert's attention. It was black, highly polished and filled with cartridges. The Colt in the holster had polished ebony grips. It was not a town deputy's average rig but a real gunfighter . . . or a bounty hunter.
Bert casually lifted the carbine and cradled it across his chest. If there was to be trouble, he wanted to be ready. Deputy Bensin was not unaware of this escalation and continued to tend his horse.
"Son, there's no call to get all riled up. I just came out here to deliver a letter and a message. I knew your ma and she asked me to give this to you." The deputy turned back towards his horse and fumbled through his saddlebags. He deliberately turned his back to show Bert he offered no threat.
At the mention of his mother, Bert was surprised and shifted uneasily. He was already nervous about this stranger-a deputy at that-visiting him 50 miles from nowhere. And now the woman that bore him 26 years earlier was somehow reentering his life. He had not seen her in fifteen years, and then she was half drunk in a saloon entertaining any man any way he desired. That night Bert left her and left town.
"Here it is." The deputy had found the well-soiled and creased envelope at the bottom of his saddlebag. He handed it to Bert who reluctantly took it; he simply stared at the envelope, embarrassed because he had never learned to read. Hesitantly, he glanced at the deputy who sensed the frustration in Bert's eyes and guessed at the reason. "I understand. Maybe you'd like me to read it to you?
"I knew your mother for a number of years. I arrested her several times for . . . well, let's just call it 'behavior unbecoming of a lady.' She could be a hellion sometimes, but these last few months she has been real sick. I took a liking to her and offered her a place to stay out at my little ranch. I'm sorry to tell you this, but she passed away nine days ago. I was there at her side when she passed."
For a moment Bert thought he saw a bit of moisture in the eyes of Deputy Bensin.
"Anyhow, she asked me to personally deliver this to you. And she wanted me to tell you she never forgave herself for not being a better mother." At this Bensin nervously looked at the ground and then the distant horizon.
"You knew ma? You knew that whore who ignored me and drove me out of her life? Now here I am in this miserable shack! Why don't you just take that letter back to Miles City. I've got no desire to hear another word about her." Bert cocked the hammer of his rifle.
Colin cleared his throat and shifted his stance. "She meant this letter for you. Either you read what's in it or I will!" The deputy's hand dropped to his side near the black-handled .45 in his holster.
It was time to put up or shut up. Bert admitted to himself he was no gunfighter, no match for a man with a fancy black holster and an ebony-handed pistol. He let the hammer down and lowered the rifle to his side. The deputy heaved a sigh of relief and then carefully opened the dirty envelope to find a single sheet of stationary. The letter trembled in his hand and he blamed the non-existent wind.
"My dear son," the letter began. "I've not been much of a mother to you and I am ashamed of that. I cannot undo all those hurts and years but I have always thought of you. I know the end is near for me, but I want you to know this: the man who carries this letter . . . "
Bensin stopped in mid-sentence while his eyes raced across the last few sentences. He was suddenly very nervous as he stared at the letter and then at Bert. The non-existent wind rattled the paper again.
"The . . . man who . . . carries this let . . . letter is your father. He is a good man but does not remember me. I wanted you to know this, hoping that it might somehow console you. Please forgive me."
Bert and Colin stood there silently trying to understand what had just happened. Colin was the first to speak.
"I . . . I don't know what to say. She must have been feverish and out of her mind."
"You're right," Bert stammered. "Must be something wrong. Can't be . . . " and Bert's voice trailed off.
The deputy folded the letter back into the envelope while he searched his memory for some meaning to all this. A flicker of remembrance appeared. Colin, too, had once been a wild, young cowboy, fresh off a trail drive . . . reckless, drunk and looking for love in Dodge City. Colin cleared his throat nervously. "Well I guess . . . I've done what she asked. Might as well head back to town."
Bert was still in shock. This man, this deputy—his father? His own mother had never given him a hint of his parentage, but now he was curious. "Gettin' pretty late. Why don't you just head back in the morning? There's plenty of room on the floor and you'll have a roof over your head."
Bensin wanted to leave, but like Bert he was also curious. He looked north to the horizon where dark clouds were forming. "Well, OK. Looks to be some weather moving this direction. Much obliged." He undid the cinch and slipped the saddle off his mount. The horse shook with relief as she was led into the corral with Rosie. Colin carried his saddle and bedroll into a far corner of the shack. An awkward silence followed as neither man knew where to begin or what to say.
"Your ma was a fine woman once you got past her brassy exterior. She was a good cook and never hardly complained. Even when she took sick, she'd still have something on the table when I came home. She did speak of her son from time to time, sometimes real melancholy that he . . . you . . . had gone off like he did. But since you'd never contacted her, she figured it was better to leave the past in the past.
"The doc said it was 'consumption' that got her. It was slow to come on but ended in a big rush. I was there when she died and I buried her at the ranch. She left me only this." Colin reached into his pocket and took out a $10 gold piece.
Bert gently took the coin in his hand slowly turning it over and over, remembering a few good times he had—a summer picnic, a swimming hole, a piece of hard candy she once bought for him. A letter and a $10 gold coin was now all that remained of her.
"I got some worn-out coffee grounds and a few beans in the pot. I'll heat 'em up some. At least you will be warm and dry in here." Both men silently turned to their tasks while the wind rattled the tarpaper on the shack. Each was lost in his own thoughts and memories.
"So, you're a deputy in Miles City? How long you been doin' that? Much excitement in that line of work?"
"Not really. Get a few cowboys like you at the end of a drive. The usual Saturday night drunks and fights, but usually not much trouble. Couple of buffalo hunters tried to rob the bank once. It got pretty lively when they got out their Sharps and tried to shoot their way out of town. They never made the city limits." Colin tapped the ebony-handled Colt on his hip.
"How about you? What you been doing all these years?"
"Been on a couple trail drives between here and Texas. Worked a couple ranches here and there. Just trying to make it through to the next meal. You said she had 'consumption.' Was it painful?"
"Mostly just getting tired, depressed, like a watch winding down." Colin's eyes shifted towards the dirty glass window. He tensed his body and his hand drifted toward his holster.
"You expecting any company?"
Bert turned toward the window and saw the riders in the distance. They were coming hard. "No, but I wasn't expecting you either."
Horse hooves were pounding on the Montana prairie, growing louder. The horses skidded to a stop in front of the shack's door. Three riders sat in their saddles staring at the shack.
"You in the shack!" The voice definitely did not sound friendly. "Bensin! You in there?"
"Yeah. Who wants to know?"
"We heard you were up here on the range. I see two horses in the corral. Who else is in there?"
There was a silence and then the deputy spoke. "Nobody but me." Colin eased himself over to the shack's door and peered through the cracks. Instantly, he recognized the Grimes brothers.
"Not only are you a murdering bushwhacker, but you're a damn liar! Come out here where I can see you and I'll let your friend go clean."
Colin knew why the Grimes boys were outside. "He had it coming, that dirty weasel. He had no call to hurt Julia the way he did."
At the mention of Julia, Bert was really confused. That was his mother's name. He tightened the grip on his carbine.
"My pa wasn't like that. Now are you coming out or do we just start blowing holes in the shack?" The three brothers had slipped from their saddles, careful to keep the horses between themselves and the shack.
Colin turned towards Bert. "Just stay inside and I'll handle this. It's time to finish it anyhow."
The deputy was about to open the door when a bullet from Bert's rifle took off the top of Jamie Grime's head. Bert had not waited and shot through the window.
"What in the hell are you doing?" Colin yelled. Outside it was pandemonium as horses reared and broke away. Jamie lay flat on his back without moving. Cody and Jason began peppering the shack with bullets; the flimsy boards barely slowing the barrage of lead. Colin doubled over as one bullet hit him just above the belt buckle, but he still flung open the shack's door and returned the gunfire.
Cody went down but was still alive enough to keep shooting. Jason had sprinted towards the corral, firing over his shoulder into the shack. He was running full tilt when he hit the strands of barb wire. Bert's last shot took him in the back and Jason was dead, hanging on the fence.
Colin collapsed to the floor, blood gushing from the bullet in his stomach. Bert grabbed a dirty towel and knelt down next to the deputy. He tried to staunch the flow of blood but the rag only became more sodden. It was apparent to both men that Colin would not see the next sun rise.
Bert stammered, "You said 'Julia.' Did you mean my ma?"
Colin nodded and grimaced with pain. "Yeah. Old man Grimes roughed her up real good one night at the saloon. I took off my badge and waited for him outside. I shot him dead in the alley." Colin coughed and a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of his mouth. "I did so love that woman."
"But you don't remember about being my pa?"
"It was a long time ago and I was pretty wild and drunk, just coming off a drive. It was Dodge City. I barely remember a night with a young lady, and then I moved on. After a couple years, I ended up in Miles City. She showed up a year later with you. You were a wild kid and up and disappeared one day, till today." Colin choked again and blood spewed from his mouth.
"She was working the saloons—that's all she knew. I stuck her in jail a couple times and she got pretty melancholy, telling me all about you. She never did admit to me about being your father. Don't know why. Maybe she figured it was better I didn't know.
"When she started taking sick, I felt sorry for her and let her stay out at my place. By then I was pretty fond of her." Another spasm of coughing seized Colin.
Bert chanced to glance through the open door. There was movement outside as Cody Grimes crawled towards the cabin—a gun still in hand. Bert grabbed up Colin's' pistol, pulled the trigger three times and the Grimes brother stopped crawling. When Bert looked back at Colin, the deputy was dead.
Bert rocked back on his heels and slumped to the floor. For a while he had a family of sorts, and now there was just bloody carnage surrounding him. For long minutes Bert stared at the bodies and relived the gunfight. As he stood up, he noticed Colin's Stetson lying nearby. A carefully folded, sweat-stained paper was stuck inside. Curious, and now that he seemed to have inherited the deputy's rig, Bert unfolded the paper. He instantly recognized a Wanted poster, the drawing and the name "Bert Evans Reward $3000." So the saloon fight he survived two years prior had earned him a reputation. It was time to be moving on.
It was a week later when the foreman of the TR Ranch showed up. The line shack was deserted, the horses gone, and four fresh graves dotted the prairie. One grave was marked with a deputy sheriff's badge. The bullet-riddled shack and the pools of dried blood told a grim story. He squatted down on his heels as he rolled a smoke. He'd send word into Miles City about what happened out on the desolate prairie. Meanwhile, there were cattle that needed calving and branding.