Colt Enderby let his painted pony make its own along the dry riverbed. Long since emptied of water, it made for a long, winding, trail across this part of the prairie. The bed was wide enough for three riders abreast and deep enough to hide them from view save for a sharp-eyed eagle. Judging by the tracks, Colt could see more four-legged than two-legged travelled along this route.
The warmth of the afternoon sun massaged his aching joints and brought him to a comfortable half doze. He'd been crisscrossing this section of the prairie for some little time, making notes on a map. He was bone weary and saddle sore from so much riding, but his work was almost done. His thoughts drifted to that soft, warm bed waiting for him in Elmira, a small frontier town a few miles to the west.
It wasn't much more than a livery stable and a Pony Express stop, but the Red Dog Saloon had cold beer and hot beef, and lots of it. The second floor boasted four clapboard rooms to rent with the finest straw mattresses west of the Missouri. There was a jug and wash basin, a dresser for what few clothes he carried rolled up behind the saddle, and a peg on the wall to hang his guns. That suited Colt just fine, the fewer prying eyes the better.
The distant sound of pistol shots woke him from his reverie. Even before his eyes fully snapped open, the worn butt of a .44 Colt filled the palm of his right hand. The shooting sounded far off but being down in a riverbed would have that effect.
Satisfied the bullets weren't meant for him, Colt eased over to the side of the bed and rode up a little until he was able to peer over the edge. Three, no four, riders were coming on fast, their hard-charging mounts kicking up small plumes of dry prairie. They looked to pass Colt left to right at a slight angle towards him. The lead rider mounted a big bay, riding as if the devil was after him.
The three riders giving chase were whooping and hollering to beat all. Their horses were sturdy mounts, painted and sorrels, riding at speed but not overly so. Lariats and rifles in scabbards could be seen ready to hand, showing them to be cowpunchers. Every so often one of the riders would fire a shot into the air. It struck Colt this was how punchers drove strays back to the herd so as not to injure valuable stock.
He had done it himself enough times in times past to earn his keep. Cow puncher, trail hand, deputy sheriff, honest hard work that gained him a wealth of experience and an easy confidence. He hadn't killed anyone in that time but he'd burned enough powder to shoot true if he had to.
As the bay moved to cross in front of him, Colt noticed the rider sported a plain white blouse and long dark skirt. He was a she, a tiny little thing laying flat along the length of the much bigger bay. She rode low in the saddle, hands clutched tight to the horse's mane, long black hair streaming behind her like a flag. He stiffened in the saddle, instantly concerned with the doings in front of him.
This didn't sit right with Colt, a lone woman being pursued by three cowpokes intent on who knows what. His mama had raised him to treat women with respect and courtesy, both of which seemed to missing here. There was no way of telling what was going on but it seemed a mite unfair, three against one and a woman to boot!
He slid his Winchester 73 out of its saddle scabbard, chambered a round and waited until the chase came a mite closer. It was his intention to fire a warning shot to let the pursuers know that she wasn't alone anymore. Whatever the dispute, he was certain it could be settled in a more gentlemanly fashion than this stampede.
As luck would have it, the bay swerved sharply right to avoid a gopher and made straight for him. Colt kneed his horse forward several paces before raising his rifle and firing a warning shot high into the bright prairie sky. He instantly chambered a second round, holding the rifle loosely in both hands across his waist, resting it on the saddle horn.
The effect of the shot was to bring the three horsemen to a halt, each looking around wildly to see where the shot had come from. It also had the effect of shying the bay, which reared up on it massive hind legs spilling the woman—and it clearly was a woman—onto the dry prairie dust like a sack of potatoes. The horse skittered away, blowing and stamping, leaving her flat on the ground unmoving.
Quick as lightning, Colt leaped from his saddle and scrambled up the side of the riverbed, rifle in hand. He took up a position at the top edge of the gully where he could easily see all three riders. Too close for rifle work now, he laid it aside within easy reach and drew his .44 Colt.
They saw each other at the same time, the three riders swirling up the dry prairie dust in confusion over the rifle shot. One of them, a short, dark-haired man in a red checked shirt and worn leather chaps saw Colt crouching down at the edge of the gully. He snapped off a shot that went nowhere, joined in by the other two. Bullets flew back and forth to no effect other than to waste lead. Colt was guilty of that himself, not knowing these riders and reluctant to empty a saddle until he had good reason to.
The desperadoes appeared to be of a similar mind, less inclined to aim well, seemingly just firing for effect. Eventually they brought their prancing horses under control, ceased firing at Colt, and holstered their weapons. After a brief palaver amongst themselves they skedaddled, riding hard and fast back they way they had come.
Colt took his time before standing up to take a good look around. Last thing he wanted was some stray shot to come his way and add to the two creases he already had. And wasn't it curious than not a one of them made any attempt to shoot at each other. Just burned a lot of powder, was all.
Satisfied they were gone, Colt holstered his .44, picked up his rifle, and strode quickly over to where the woman lay. Her horse meantime had returned and was gently nuzzling her, as if trying to make amends for his bad behaviour. The woman stirred slightly, swatted away the inquiring muzzle of the horse, and rose up on one elbow. Colt reached her side and knelt down beside her, rifle still held loose in his hands.
She was right nice-looking, a young woman maybe in her twenties, dressed in a plain white blouse and dark skirt. So, what in tarnation was she doing out here all by her lonesome, with no gun and no man? He extended his left hand and pulled her into a sitting position with less energy required than to roll a smoke. First thing, she fingered her long black hair out of her face and beat some of the dirt off her clothing. Just like a woman, he reckoned, hot off a chase by gunmen and she's got to go and get all gussied up first before saying hello. Or thank you.
"You all right, ma'am?" Colt asked gently. "You took quite a spill there."
"Yes, I'm all right," she whispered. "Not the first time I've fallen off Goliath, but certainly the first at full gallop. What made you want to shoot in the first place, I was outrunning them."
"Well ma'am, it didn't seem like it at the time. They was three and you was one and riding to beat hell, so's I figured I oughta help out some. Trim down the odds a little. Didn't figure to spook your horse though, guess he's not used to gunshots."
She made to stand up, resting her right hand on Colt's shoulder to steady herself.
"No, he's more of a city horse. I brought him with me when I came out west a while ago."
A city horse out here? Colt couldn't believe what he was hearing. Surely she could have found something a little more range-ready. Elmira wasn't much, but the livery could fix her up with something more suitable, certainly something smaller and more ladylike. The bay was more of a cavalry mount, big and heavy and used to carrying a lot more than this nothing of a girl.
"What did you say your name was, Mister?" she asked, shading her eyes from the prairie sun with her left hand. "Mine's Cassie, Cassie Winthorp, double R Bar ranch."
"Name's Colt, ma'am. Just passing through is all."
"Well, thank you for doing just that. I suspect I was in more trouble than I was willing to admit. You saved me. Thank you, thank you very much." She leaned up and gently kissed him on the cheek. Colt was so surprised he almost fell over. When was the last time some girl kissed him for anything other than good night!
He recovered his wits quickly. "Mind my askin' what the ruckus was all about, ma'am? What were those three desperadoes wantin' with you?"
"It's Cassie and, no, I don't really know. I was just riding along the east fence looking for breaks in the wire when they came out of nowhere. I wasn't sure what to do and then they started shooting, so I made a run for it."
Colt's brow furrowed as he chewed over what she'd said. Wouldn't be the first time a woman running a ranch had been run off by neighbours. Ranching was a hard life and many of the old-timers saw it as a man's business, no place for a woman. If Cassie truly was running a ranch, it could be just that, an angry old-time rancher determined to keep it that way, sending his men out to make the point. Maybe scare her off.
She was standing now, coming up to just past his shoulders and he a good six-footer himself, well muscled from years of hard work and browned by the unforgiving prairie sun. A couple of quick steps and she was standing in Goliaths shadow. Colt cupped his hands and gently lifted her up onto a beautiful hand-tooled ranch saddle. The deep seat, low swells, and high cantle marked it as a man's rig, no side saddle here. She really did mean to run a ranch.
They rode together back towards where she thought the ranch ought to be, chatting amiably in the afternoon sun.
"Mighty fine saddle you got there, ma'am," Colt said, quietly admiring both the saddle and the rider.
"Yes, it belonged to my uncle, Silas Grainger. He passed the double R on to me when he passed. Guess some of the folks around here didn't take to that too well. I'm sure I've turned down a half dozen offers to sell, but I'm quite taken with the ranch and I mean to stay."
The rest of the ride back to the ranch passed in pleasant chatter. Turned out Cassie was from out east, someplace or other in Indiana. Widowed during the war, she'd made a living as a schoolteacher until a lawyer came to visit one day and gave her the news. Her uncle Silas had passed and bequeathed her the double R Bar ranch out west in Kansas.
At first sight, it wasn't much to look at, just a collection of rundown buildings and a barn surrounded by sections of broken and rusted barbed wire fencing. Her first couple of days had been spent cleaning out a lifetime's worth of dust and dirt left by her uncle. It was while she was turning out the drawers of his bureau that she found the map.
It was old, heavily creased from much folding, and appeared to show the extent of the ranch. She wasn't sure how much land was actually involved but, in riding around the property, discovered that much of it was wide open. That offended her sense of propriety and she quickly placed an order for several coils of barbed wire, and a mountain of fence posts.
There were no ranch hands, they had long since left for other parts. There was just Gomez, the old Mexican caretaker who had greeted her that first day when she rode up. He showed her around the crumbling property, introduced his wife Anna, who whipped up a marvelous welcoming feast of tacos, burritos, and tamales. A couple of trail hands drifted in, looking for a little work, but just as quickly disappeared after a few days of fencing.
They reached the spread just as the sun was setting in the west, a red fireball framed with streaks of yellow gold. She marvelled at the beauty—nothing like this back east, she proclaimed.
Once at the door of the ranch house and a very relieved Gomez, Colt made to leave, but Cassie would have none of it.
"You saved my life. The very least I can do is see you fed and offer you a place to stay for the night. The bunkhouse over there might be a bit dusty but I'm sure it would be comfortable."
"Much obliged, ma'am, don't mind if I do. It's been a while since I've had home cooked."
Following the plentiful dinner, Colt and Cassie passed the evening on the front porch engaging in polite conversation. He offered to stay a few days to help her look things over with a practised western eye. And to see that nothing else troubled her, which she gladly accepted. Next morning, Colt was up bright and early, saddling his painted pony in the stall next to Goliath in the barn.
The next few days were a blur of activity as Cassie, Anna, and Gomez continued to set the ranch to rights while Colt busied himself riding the property. It turned out to be several hundred acres of prime ranch land, partially fenced in along the western edge and fed by a bubbling spring of cool clear water, just right for thirsty cattle.
Much to his vexation however, trouble continued to visit the double R. Some of the new fencing was found stripped of wire for a long length. Goliath somehow got free of his stall and had to be tracked down.
The next day Colt came across a slow burning grass fire near the barn. Quick work with an old saddle blanket put an end to it but the intent was clear, an attempt to burn out, or at least smoke out, Cassie.
The third day brought more a more dangerous kind of trouble. On his way back from another ride out beyond the ranch and into the neighbouring ranch land, Colt heard the distinct sound of gunfire. There was shooting going on at the ranch house!
He spurred his horse into a gallop and arrived in time to see two men riding up and down in front of the ranch house, shooting it up with pistols. The windows were shot out and the bench on the front porch was showing holes and splinters. Luckily the front door was closed tight but it too was showing fresh scars.
Once again Colt slid his Winchester from the saddle scabbard and loosed off a couple shots into the air. Taken by surprise, the two gunmen wheeled away from their sport and made to ride off. One slapped leather around the side of the barn and vanished while the other sprawled in the dust when his horse swerved around a gopher hole. Colt sheathed his rifle and rode up to the gunman as he rose to his feet, his hands in the air. He dismounted in a fury and marched straight up to him, palm tight to his gun butt.
"Who in tarnation are you?" Colt asked, eyes ablaze with fury. He looked familiar somehow, like maybe he was one of those hombres shooting at Cassie a couple days past. It was reasonable enough to think that, given all that had been going on lately. Question was, why?
"No one to you stranger, just doing my job is all." He was tall and unshaven, dressed like a cowpuncher in a worn checked shirt and faded jeans. He wore a single pistol, tied low, which Colt yanked from the holster and tossed away.
"And what job might that be, shooting unarmed women, setting fires, and such?"
He made to take a swing at Colt but he blocked the swing and flattened the gunman with a solid right cross. He lay in the dirt, nursing a bruised jaw, eyes glowering.
"Who you working for?" Colt demanded.
"Can't say exactly. Me an' my pard got hired by some ranch hand or other to put a little scare into the lady is all. Not supposed to harm her or anything, just rattle her some, maybe chase her off if she runs. But that's it. Today was the last day for all that ruckus."
"You got that right," growled Colt as he drew his pistol. "Today is gonna be your last day—"
"No, Colt, no!" wailed Cassie. "Don't' shoot him he didn't hurt me you can't murder him! Please, just let him go! I'm alright, I promise." She had rushed to his side from the ranch house the moment Colt had dismounted. She stood there, unsure what to do but unwilling to let one man kill another over her. Even eastern nesters like her knew that wasn't right.
"Oh, I'm gonna let him go alright," said Colt. "I just want his boots is all. If he wants his iron and his horse and his boots back he'll find who hired him and tell him to be here tomorrow morning, first light. We're gonna settle this once and for all."
The gunman made for a sorry sight, limping across the prairie afoot and unarmed.
Early the next morning, a half-dozen riders reined in and tied off their horses at the front gate Colt had rebuilt. Their outfits said ranch hands, lariats hanging from saddles and rifles snug in well worn scabbards. The lead wrangler was older and sported black broadcloth, while the others sported range riding gear and spurs. They walked up to the porch of the ranch house slowly, pistols tied down, but with hands visible at their sides.
Colt stepped out onto the porch cradling the Winchester, his .44 loose in its holster. Cassie stood in the doorway while Colt stepped down to go nose to nose with the grey-haired wrangler in the broadcloth.
"You. I shoulda known," grumbled the wrangler darkly.
"Yeah, like they say, bad pennies turn up sooner or later," said Colt, smiling thinly.
Cassie was puzzled. "Colt, you know this man?"
"Yeah, he's from the next ranch over, bar X. Leastwise, I used to know him, 'til he kicked me out. Ain't that right, old man."
"Nothing more than you deserved," groused the wrangler. "Can't abide backtalk 'specially from family. My ranch, my rules. Guess that wasn't good enough for you."
"Not then, not now. You got no right trying to scare Cassie off her property. She owns it fair and square." Colt continued to stare him square in the eye.
"What's fair about it? I got me a deal with old Silas for water and free run of his property for my cattle, then she comes along and starts throwing up fencing." He glared at Cassie over Colt's broad shoulders. "This here's free range, honey, can't fence it off just 'cause you want to. Deal's a deal, woman. I want my rights and I want you gone!"
"You're think you're a big man, do you, pickin' on women? Well, come on then, pick on me." Colt thrust his face up to his father's, daring him to do more than just scowl.
Cassie ran down the stairs and pushed her way between the two bulls pawing at the ground. "Stop it, stop it I say, before someone gets hurt. I won't have it, not on my land." She took a deep breath. "Look Mister, uh . . . "
"Enderby, name's Enderby."
"Look Mister Enderby, if I've done something wrong, I'm sorry. I didn't know about any deal, I have this map and I thought it prudent to act on it and fence in my land. I didn't think anybody would mind." She was too flustered to cotton on to his name.
"That a fact, you got some kinda map or other showing your property lines? Funny how ol' Silas never mentioned it. Lemme see it."
"Very well," said Cassie relieved that the pawing had stopped. "You both may come inside and I'll show it to you. I've just made some coffee and I got fresh bread on the sideboard. You're welcome to both, but I insist we talk this over. No shooting."
The two men followed her inside, taking care not to get too close. The hands waited outside by the horses.
Colt's father, Clayton, took a good long look at the map before setting it down and finishing his coffee.
"So, you got a map showing your land, doesn't give you the right to fence it off just like nothing. I got me a deal, I need your water and passage across to it. That's what Silas done give me. In return I gave him a couple head each year for food. Now you come along and throw that over." Clayton sounded hurt, like a bear with a thorn in its paw.
"That seems awful cheap for all that water you been drinking," Colt said. "Mighty cheap, might be you owe Cassie a sight more than a couple head."
"That's all he wanted!" spluttered Clayton. "I offered him more but he said just a couple of head and we shook on it and that was that. I'm not fool enough to let that go by."
"I don't understand," asked Cassie. "What water are you talking about? I've got a well out back and a pump in the kitchen. No one ever told me about water anywhere."
"Here" said Colt, pointing to a couple of squiggly lines near the top of the map. "That's where it is, pure spring water just gushing up like nothing, runs along this creek bed and out into the prairie. I think it runs into the river but I didn't look any further."
"Oh my," exclaimed Cassie. "I never knew that. The lawyer I spoke to said I should define my land as soon as get here. He said the State was about to start surveying and I should get my rights established as soon as possible."
"Surveying?" Clayton exploded. "Why, those dad blasted no good slickers are gonna try and rob me, and you, of what's rightfully ours! Shoulda knowed them govmint men were up to something! Been hearing stories 'bout them running all over the State, measuring up things and buying people out. Not this cowboy, nosiree, I worked too hard to get what I got and I aim to keep it! Let 'em come I say, I'll show 'em what's what, see if I don't."
Colt took a deep breath. "It's too late for that, they're already here."
Clayton looked at his son in surprise. "What do you mean it's too late." His eyes narrowed. "What do you know about all this! What've you been up to? Is that why you come crawlin' back, try and rob me of my land?"
"And mine?" asked Cassie. "You've been acting awful funny the last couple of days, riding off by yourself, coming back late for supper. Who are you, really, what do you want?"
"What I want," sighed Colt. "is for the two of you to figure this out, come to some kinda deal right quick or else it ain't coming."
"What's coming, what are you talking about!" roared Clayton. "I knew you was up to no good! You never was, not after your momma died. Why do you think I kicked you out, all that mopin' and moanin'. She's dead and she ain't comin' back, but you just couldn't get that through your thick skull. I couldn't take it anymore so I kicked you out. Figured maybe you'd learn some sense. Seems like you did, only now it's gonna cost me."
Cassie stared at the two of them in wide-eyed surprise. Father and Son!
"It will cost you if the two of you can't settle this. Yeah, I learned some sense, growed up some punching cattle, did some sheriff work. Now I'm working for the railroad. I'm surveying land for them, looking to see where a line can run. They're wanting to run a line through here and to do it they need your land, Clayton, and your water, Cassie. But if the two of you can't agree to share, they're gonna go elsewhere. They don't want any kind of trouble, legal or otherwise, they just want to lay rail and run trains."
"Tarnation! That means I won't have to run my herd no more, they can just wait right here, all fat and ready for sale." Clayton exclaimed.
"What's my water go to do with anything? It's just a spring that runs somewhere," Cassie asked, puzzled. Out east trains were an everyday thing so why it was such an issue out here she couldn't understand.
"Engines need water and lots of it. Took a look at your spring, Cassie, seems to me it has more than enough to water cattle and railroad engines. Might be they even put a station out here. Be a hell of thing if they did, turn this whole valley upside down."
"It shore would," said Clayton, smiling. "Y'know, I'm thinking we might need some more coffee, Miss Cassie. Seems like we three got us some talking to do. Lemme take another look at that map, son."