The great inferno had followed the herd on the high plain south from the Colorado border-town of Gypsom, and into the New Mexico Territory. High walls of flame roared into the air, consuming the dry brush that littered the flat land, and spread furiously fast. Smoke, dark as pitch, swirled into the air and clouded over the sky in a dark shadow.
Shannon Wood rode the rear of the herd, keeping the slackers up to pace with the rest of the four hundred heads of beef. He had spent most of his earnings and time driving the herd from St. Louis to sell at Gypsom. The foreman, J.T. Hughs, refused Shannon's offer, insisting he sell them for a loss. The cattle were prime grade, top of the line cows. To Shannon, there could only be a profit by selling them out west. He knew exactly what type of man Hughs was; a cattle baron who always got what he wanted. Now, Shannon stood to lose it all as the wildfire encroached on them.
Deep down, he knew the fire wasn't a coincidence; and neither did the rest of the outfit. Six cowhands managed the herd. Daniel Hauker and Burt Edsfield took the left flank, while Ned Furlow and Roland Polks rode the right; Shannon and Cooper Dawson held the rear. Cooper had been the wagon driver, but the outfit had since abandoned the wagon to the fire as it only slowed them down.
It was quite the predicament, and it would soon get worse. The Rockies curved down through Colorado and a small wing cut into the New Mexico north; Shannon saw them rise up. Inevitably, they would run up into the alpine and would be trapped.
Shannon yelled to Cooper, "Hold the rear! I need to talk to Burt!"
Cooper acknowledged him with a stout nod and Shannon reined his tabiano paint to the right flank of the herd where he saw Burt Edsfield just on the outside of the sea of cattle. Burt was his second in command and a trusted friend. Many a trail had been driven with Burt as a companion. Whenever a decision had to be made, Shannon always consulted him for advice and input; and now was a time when advice was needed the most.
He rode up alongside him and brought the horse to a trot. Burt had been expecting him to come up and see him for a while now, ever since the mountains grew up out of the distance and gradually got bigger.
"We need to change course," Shannon said.
Burt said, "Steer them east toward the river. We'll find a place to cross and hopefully catch a break. That is if the fire don't jump it."
"That's what I was thinking. But we'll have to cross it again to get a heading back west." Shannon looked back behind them briefly. The wall of fire stayed at their heels like a pursuing wolf. Trees that populated the plain were torches now, charred black and burnt into ash.
"Send Dan up to scout the river for a crossing," Shannon said.
Shannon turned off and returned to the rear. Pine and spruce trees became common as they rose in elevation, and it was in these trees that Shannon thought he saw movement. He didn't have time to go and investigate, but he knew they were being followed. No doubt it was Hughs' men, perhaps even Hughs himself.
* * *
Every moment was precious, but the herd needed a quick break. While the cattle rested, Daniel Hauker rode off toward the river to scout a crossing. The rest of the cowhands convened.
Roland Polks, a veteran cowhand who'd seen it all, was a tough, weather-beaten man with a drooping mustache and light eyes. His woolly chaps were the same he had been wearing for years, and they'd been through everything. Roland drove horses, ponies, cattle, and everything there was to push across the west with expertise; this venture was no different. Shannon had hired him in Tulsa a few years back, and the two of them had drove together ever since.
Ned Furlow was the youngest in the outfit, being only twenty years old. His young attitude and excitable demeanor kept the rest of them entertained and in high spirits. Ned was a greenhorn, but he was quickly learning the hard ways of the trail. Ever since the whirlwind of flame began, his upbeat expressions turned sharply into fear and near uncontrollable panic.
Burt Edsfield was Shannon's best friend. They met back many years in 1872 as young cowpokes. Burt was loyal, steadfast, and above all calm. They had run-ins with Comanche in south Texas, fought off rustlers, and wolves and mountain lions in Wyoming. If the outfit they were in ever broke up, you could bet that Burt and Shannon would still be riding together.
Cooper Dawson was new to Shannon, this being their first drive together. Cooper was a confident and competent wagon driver and so far, Shannon had no reason to dislike him. He was quiet and solemn and never paid much attention to anyone during down time. Cooper did, however, always volunteer to take first watch on nights.
And lastly, Daniel Hauker, who was now riding his horse along the banks of the flowing water. He was young, older than Ned but younger than everyone else. Shannon had met him in Nebraska and witnessed his handiwork with a rifle. He hired him solely for his firearm expertise and tracking. Daniel was an expert marksman, fresh out of the cavalry scouts. He could shoot anything you put in his hand. But when you gave him a rifle, he could ward off a whole war party of Comanche by himself.
This group of six cowboys stood amidst the low alpine prairie, watching the cascading inferno come after them.
Shannon thought he could feel the heat, and he removed his salt-stained hat and rung it in his gloved hands.
"We're crossing the river," Shannon said, "It seems to be the only way to get out of the path of the blaze."
Roland said, "You think there's a crossing there?"
"I sent Dan ahead to look for one."
"And what if there's not a crossing?" Ned asked, visibly stressed and afraid, "what will we do then?"
Burt looked at Shannon and sighed.
Shannon knew what Burt had meant by that unusually loud exhale.
"If there's no crossing," Shannon said, "we'll have to drive them into that mountain."
Roland snorted, "It'll scatter the whole herd. These beef aren't meant for mountains."
"I know, Roland. We'll have to manage."
"Manage? How many heads will we lose? How many legs will break in the rocks, or head trampled?"
"I know, Roland." Shannon was irritated, after all he was paying for the endeavor and it would be his loss too. "What's the alternative?"
Cooper grunted and Roland gave him a hard look.
Several rifle reports thundered from the direction of the river. Their heads snapped over and they stared in silence. A growing howl was audible from the fire, like a low rumble.
"Could it be Dan?" Ned asked, face hanging in fear.
"No other," Burt said, then turned to Shannon, "if Hughs' men are following us, no doubt they would have seen the river as a point of escape. They'll try and cut us off."
Shannon reined his horse around. The fire was growing ever closer. Time was not on their side. He made his decision.
"I'm not going to wait for Dan to find the crossing. Ned, Roland, Cooper, push the herd toward the river. Burt and I will ride ahead and get a look-see of the situation. Move now!" He spurred his horse forward, with Burt at his heels.
Ned, Roland, and Cooper peeled off and took to their positions and began to slowly move the herd.
* * *
When Shannon and Burt made it to the ridge that looked over the river bank, they saw that the scenario was dire. Dan was off his horse and in the cover of a clump of pine trees with his Winchester. Guns thundered from the low-cut bank where four men were; Hughs'.
What caught Shannon and Burt's eye wasn't the skirmish, but the growing flames from dry brush that was scattered in and around the shrubs and trees near the river. Hughs' men were attempting to cut them off, and there was just one space left on the river bank that wasn't lit; they were fighting for it.
Shannon drew a Winchester from the saddle scabbard and aimed from horseback, firing down at the bank. Burt cut to the left and tracked down the ridge in the cover of the cottonwoods.
Dan looked up from his cover and hailed Shannon, then returned to slinging hot lead at the assailants. Shannon's heart raced as he barreled down the ridge to Dan, bullets whizzing by him, nearly taking him off the horse. He made the cover and jumped down.
"That's it!" Dan yelled above the booming, "that's the crossing!" He fired from the cover, hitting his target, but receiving a face full of splitters as a bullet smashed in the pine next to him. He rubbed his face and cleared the splinters.
Shannon shouted, ignoring Dan's pain, "keep up the fire, then! Burt's flanking them!"
Dan's eyes were watery and red as he blinked out little specks. He started pushing fresh cartridges into the loading gate of his Yellow Boy Winchester.
Shannon aimed and popped off several suppressing shots. He could see the top of Hughs' men's heads as they ducked down, then jumped back up and offered up their own gunfire. Then he saw two of them change the direction of their gunfire as Burt sprang from the cover of the trees which were now gathering flames. He let loose with a coach gun, cutting down two of them.
Shannon charged toward the bank and stepped over the top of it as the two remaining gunmen turned to Burt. He shot one, then stopped and held it on the last man. Burt had drawn his Colt Lightning revolver, but he never fired it.
The last man stood before a pile of pitch wood and grease wood shrubs, drier than could be. It spread along the whole of the crossing. In his hand was a fire brand, held close to the pile of tinder.
Shannon shook his head. "Don't do it." He noticed the man's eyes were red with tears.
"You want to throw your life away for Hughs?" Burt shouted.
The man spoke in a shaky voice, "I haven't anything left. You just killed my friends."
Shannon ignored it. "Throw that torch into the river, damn you."
The man broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. His arm lowered toward the tinder.
"No!" Shannon screamed. He shot the man in the chest several times, Burt joining in with the double action revolver. But it was no use. The man that was now a corpse fell slack into the pile of pitch wood and dry grease wood shrubs. Instantaneously, the flames grew and spread along the bank, catching the nearby cottonwoods and low spruce trees.
Shannon swore, turning and running back.
"Get back to the herd!" He yelled to Burt.
Shannon helped Dan up, who was still clearing his eyes. They mounted their horses and fled back to the herd which was now headed to the river.
* * *
Ned's already fearful look turned worse as he saw his boss riding hard towards them. Roland swore as he saw the black smoke rising from the direction of the river. Cooper, with a look of disappointment, grunted.
By now, the original fire that had been chasing them had gotten too close and started into the valley they were already in. They were completely trapped, the mountain being the only thing not ablaze with fire.
Shannon was waving his arms in the air while Burt rode alongside Daniel Hauker, trying to keep him on his horse.
"Turn them around! Turn them around!" Shannon screamed above the rumble of hoofbeats.
Roland stopped and drew his horse around and circled the herd, Ned followed and they pushed the herd back to the north; back toward the mountain. Shannon caught up to them.
"What happened?" Roland boomed.
"Four of Hughs' men were down there. Lit the river up." Shannon was out of breath. His eyes were wide and Roland could tell he was desperate. Roland had never seen that look on Shannon.
Roland nodded, "That's it?"
Shannon looked shocked at the questions, then rolled it over quick and answered, "There has to be a way."
Shannon broke off and moved to the left side of herd and funneled them into a straight path toward the mountain. His heart was racing with panic, he felt light headed, and now the low roaring of the fire had turned into a horrific howl.
Dan was able to ride in the rear with Burt and Cooper rode at Shannon's side. It took Shannon a few moments to realize what Cooper was pointing toward. Shannon looked up to the northwest and saw the clouds; big black-gray clouds. Streaks of lightning crackled through them and streaked across the sky. The thunder came a few moments later.
Shannon saw hope, and he gripped it hard and didn't let go. He was sure the rest of them had seen the clouds and they double-timed the herd, at the verge of stampeding. The ground had by now sloped upward and they were starting to meet the low-growing pines and the rockier terrain. This slowed the herd, but it didn't slow the fire. It existed to consume, leaping from one source of fuel to the next. And it leaped at the pines and shrubs and wildflowers, whithering them to ash.
The thunder clouds were now over top of the mountain, and the herd was slowing down to a crawl as the elevation rose sharply. Large rocks and boulders halted their progress. Outcroppings and sheer cliff walls brought them to an abrupt stop.
Shannon motioned for Burt and Dan in the rear to hold. The clouds hung over and boomed terrifically, challenging the howling of the fire.
Shannon and Cooper calmly waited at the front as the other four trotted up and met them. Sullen looks were on their faces.
"This is it," Shannon said, wiping his glove across his sweaty forehead. He took a gulp of water from his canteen and sighed. They waited for him to say more, even though they knew the situation.
"We can't move the cattle anymore. The fire is at our heels and we are treed. We can hope those clouds drop their load of rain, but it's doubtful."
"What do we do?" Ned asked, "I mean, we."
Burt answered, "Our horses can make it over the mountain."
Shannon nodded with agreement, "We can escape it."
Cooper grunted, looking back over the herd. The cows started to bellow, and a few of the bulls snorted and tried getting further up the mountain. The base of the mountain was completely lit.
"We can't leave them," Ned said, eyes starting to redden.
Shannon was resolved, and he knew he couldn't save them; It was a loss.
Roland said, "It's our lives, or nothing. You stay with the cattle, you die with them. There's nothing we can do."
"No," Ned said, "I ain't giving up. I'm not going to leave them."
Shannon furrowed his brow and ignored him. "We'll cut up into the mountain and circle back down when it looks safe. I'll stay back and wait to survey the losses. You boys will have to find help."
Burt snorted, "If you stay behind, then I will too."
Ned was nearly crying, "I won't leave. I'll stay down by the animals if I have to."
Roland nudged his horse over next to Burt and Ned.
Shannon scoffed. "Somebody has to go for help, and get Dan out of here at that. His eyes are full of splinters."
Dan, eyes watering, said, "Ain't bad. Just need to wash water over them."
"I'll hear none of it." Shannon turned to Cooper. "Coop, take Dan and move over the mountain and head back to Gypsom."
"Fort Union is close," Dan said.
"Then head to Fort Union and get help."
Cooper grunted and grabbed Daniel's horse by the reins and led them up the mountain and they soon disappeared from sight.
Shannon stepped off his horse and patted her neck as he watched the wall of fire grow tighter and tighter. Roland leaned over the saddle horn and rolled a cigarette. Burt was silent and Ned was sobbing.
The bellowing of the cattle had grown so loud, even the bulls had quit their snorting and began to bellow in fear. They bunched up and began forcing each other against the mountain side; panic running through them.
Shannon couldn't bear to watch as the fire began to overcome the first of the cattle, sweeping across them like any other fuel source. Bellows turned to shear screams. Smoke clouded over the valley.
Horror had seized Ned, and he was unable to sob anymore. He just sat in his saddle looking down with wide eyes and a drooped jaw. Burt was tight-lipped, not a quiver was seen. Shannon knew what Burt was feeling. Of course he felt for the beasts, but it was mostly hatred that burned in him. Roland smoked his cigarette, his own eyes beginning to glaze over and redden.
Soon the heat from the inferno became too much, even at the height of the mountain. But then, the thundering clouds birthed their water and rain plummeted, rain drops bigger and heavier than Shannon had ever seen. A small sliver of hope shined inside him, but he knew the rain wouldn't be enough to save the cattle.
* * *
They had camped near the peak of the low mountain and were still exposed to the smoke that blew in. The rain helped dampen it and push it away. Thunder continued its low growling as lightning crackled.
The four cowboys sat crouched beneath their saddle blankets with their slickers on. All the same, they were soaking wet. No food was cooked or coffee boiled; all provisions having been abandoned in the supply wagon. Roland was generous and shared his tobacco and cigarette paper. An evening smoke was the smallest comfort they had available.
It had been a while since the bellowing of the cattle had ceased. A part of Shannon felt as if it had withered and fallen off of him, as if he didn't have any obligation anymore.
Ned had cried himself to sleep and was set up in the crotch of a pine, just as wet as any one of them. Burt had his arm around the kid and held him as he slept.
No words were shared and no one kept watch, and no one slept aside from Ned. The three stood awake and watched the raging fire meet the mountain and start to lessen in strength. Water started trickling down from the mountain and hissed at the fire as it glowed against the backdrop of smoke. It held the same light as a sunset and was just as beautiful.
* * *
Early morning light shone to the east in pale blue. The night flashed by, almost literally, as lightning and fire battled it out.
What little sleep was had was now over and Shannon had waited long enough. He started down the mountain by himself and stopped in a rock fall that would be truly treacherous to navigate. He looked over the valley and was amazed.
The whole of the valley was black with char and soot. Trees were burned down to stalks and stubby branches. Grasses were nothing more than fields of ash. Some of the low rocks were blackened by smoke and still steamed hot. Water continued to run down the slope and flow into small creek beds.
What truly amazed, and sickened, Shannon was the remains of the cattle. The air smelled of steak, food that Shannon would regularly eat, but now sounded sour. Black bones littered the valley, flesh incinerated completely. The horns of the bulls remained, sticking out of the ground like cairns memorializing the lives that were lost.
Shannon didn't just lose the herd, he lost all he'd invested in them; it was all he had. It was all taken from him. His fists clenched and relaxed and clenched into fists again. He heard footfalls behind him and found Roland moving down the rocks toward him.
"Something, isn't it?" Roland said solemnly.
Shannon nodded, "It is. Sure is something."
Roland's face was sagged into a mournful gaze as he looked over the valley.
"Thank you, Roland, for riding with me."
Roland smiled, "of course, pard. I've yet to meet a better trail boss."
They stood quietly for a while, listening to the silence that the fire had brought. Then they heard the low cries from down the slope. Soft at first, then more pronounced. Shannon and Roland looked at each other, then bolted down the grade as quickly and carefully as they could.
At the base of the mountain was a cutout that was sheared into the side of the rockfall, creating a small cave and cliff edge. Rainwater poured over side of it from a stream that was made from the storm. Shannon bent over and tried to see down without falling over top of it.
Down in the cutout was a calf with its mother, and ten other heads of cows bellowing and calling for their wranglers. Shannon was truly astonished. He did not wait a second before he tore down the rest of the slope and moved into the cutout to the rest of the cattle that had miraculously survived.
"Impossible," Roland said, standing next to Shannon.
The cows' hoofs had been singed, but that aside, they were perfectly fine. The mother and calf ran up to Shannon and stood just next to him, the other ten came over and they paraded into the valley.
"Roland, go wake the others and get the horses."
Roland obeyed and went back up to the others.
The remnants of the herd mingled around Shannon as he waited there. The calf was licking the raindrops that ran off his slicker. A night spent in the cave surrounded by fire and smoke was sure to make them thirsty, and the water that ran off the overhang was quickly lost in the sooty ground. He started to walk out from the cutout and into the open. His stomach turned sour at the burnt flesh and blackened bones.
Shannon's surprise at finding the twelve left was quickly overwritten by the horror that met the rest of the herd. It would still be a complete loss and he realized he would have to hire in with another outfit to recoup his losses; he couldn't imagine doing anything other than cattle work.
As he was meandering over the ravaged plain, he heard the snorts and whinnies of multiple horses. At first it was obvious to him it was his companions descending the mountain, but it was not. It came from the far tree line, or what was left of it. Six mounted figures trotted through the burnt stalks; more of Hughs' men.
Shannon crouched low, and realized he didn't have his pistol on him. He watched the riders mingle in the trees, unsure of what they were doing. Then he saw the big man. He rode a black mustang and wore a large tan hat and gray suit. Even at this distance, Shannon could tell the chaps were brand new; it was Hughs himself. Shannon's heart leaped in his chest and his ribs began to hurt. But there was nothing he could do about it. He took his chances and ran back toward the mountain and jumped up the rocks, hoping they wouldn't see or notice him. The twelve heads stayed there in the open and scrounged for food among the bones of their fellow cows.
Shannon was out of breath as he ran up the slope, tripping once. He sat behind a large white rock and caught his breath looking back over to observe the riders. They'd begun to emerge from the tree line, but only slowly. Roland and the others started their way down and Shannon waved to them. Burt's eyes went wide and he looked around for a threat. Shannon pointed down at the far tree line. Burt, Roland, and Ned dismounted and hid the four horses behind the cover of a large spruce tree. Burt grabbed his shotgun and Shannon's Winchester and gunbelt and a box of cartridges from the saddlebags and met Shannon behind the rock, handing him his rifle.
"Hughs himself," Shannon said, "black mustang, giant hat."
Roland answered, "I see him."
"We can't take them," Ned whined, "there's eight of them and four of us."
"There's six," Shannon corrected, but Ned insisted, pointing down.
"No, eight," Ned said.
Shannon looked down; there were eight now. He swore and started feeding shells into his rifle. Burt was silent as he shoved two shells into his coach gun, ejected the spent casings from his revolver from the last shootout, and replaced them with fresh cartridges.
"Need to get close with that scattergun," Roland said to Burt.
"Of course," Burt said, "I'll move down the grade and hide in them low rocks."
Shannon levered a shell into his rifle and stopped, thinking out a plan. He looked sternly at Ned.
"Are you in this, Ned?" He asked.
Ned gulped, shaking visibly. He looked around as if weighing it in his head. But in the end, he nodded.
Shannon said, "Okay. Burt, I want to talk to Hughs before any gunshots let out. Give me that scattergun and you take my rifle." Burt shrugged and swapped guns with him and gave him a few extra shells.
"I want you boys to move down a little and settle yourselves in the low rocks and trees. Lay low and stay in cover. Hold your fire until I open up. I have a few choice words for Hughs."
No one said anything.
"Alright," Shannon said, "let's set to moving."
They stayed low as they crept down the slope, careful not to knock any stones or dried brush loose. Shannon couldn't believe that Hughs would come out after him, but there he was in the open. He could just pick him off when he stepped within rifle range, but that wouldn't do. Shannon had to resolve this dispute up close.
The now eight riders had noticed the twelve cows wandering into the wide valley and began to move on them. What they didn't notice was the four cowboys hidden amongst the rocks and trees on the low end of the mountain with the barrels of their guns trained down on them.
Shannon was back at the cutout waiting patiently in cover. He checked his Colt revolver one last time, and then the shotgun. The cows had moved out of shotgun range and the riders were just about on top of them.
Shannon yelled out to them, "Hughs!"
This stopped the riders in their tracks. Their heads looked around as they conversed, then they came toward Shannon, leaving two riders with the cows.
Hughs' drooping mustache was visible now, sagging greasily from his top lip and circling his mouth. Shannon stroked his stubble and held the shotgun at his side. He stood at the edge of the cutout and the rock overhang just behind him. If he needed to, he could retreat into the small cave.
"Mr. Wood," Hughs belched in his deep voice, "I suspected you to have moved on." He looked around the valley. "Fire did in all your cattle. I'm sorry to see that." A wry smile curled up on his face like a coiling rattler.
"Mr. Hughs," Shannon said, "I didn't think you capable of riding far from your ranch. I suspected you to have damaged your legs by sitting on that god-awful chair the whole of your days. No wonder you hire cattle hands to do your driving, you couldn't do it if you tried. Hell, you couldn't wrestle a calf to the dirt even if it was already tied and laying down waiting for you."
Shannon had spent his insults rather quick, and ended up staring at Hughs as he registered them. His five gunhands were restless and angered by the looks of their contorted faces.
"Amusing," Hughs proclaimed, resting over his saddle horn.
"I'm not finished, Hughs. I spent the rest of my long-earned money on those prime heads. Four hundred. No, that's not the biggest herd. But they were desirable, pure-bred Angus. Finest stock if there were ever one. And they're gone aside from the last twelve that you put yourself between. Mr. Hughs, I ain't a fool, I know you started that blaze. Too much of a coincidence.
"You took every last thing from me, Mr. Hughs. You took my cattle, thereby taking my money, and my livelihood. I have not a thing left but those twelve head. It's because of your selfish greed and always getting your way."
Hughs' smile was still greased across his face and it burned inside Shannon.
"Well," Hughs said, "you're right," he paused, "but you have one thing left I haven't taken." Hughs reached toward his gunbelt, but Shannon was quicker, lifting the barrels of the shotgun up and blasting Hughs from his horse. With the second barrel, he aimed between two of the gunhands and winged both with one shot. He threw down the shotgun and pulled his Colt. Before he could get a shot off, he felt hot lead cut through his leg and side. Finally, the rifles sang from the slope and picked off two of the gunhands.
Shannon, having fallen to the ground, aimed his revolver and shot the last rider from his horse. He looked to the cows as the last two assailants began to herd them off. The rifles clapped angrily after them and Shannon saw the puff of red and one rider falling from the horse. The last one stopped and threw his hands in the air.
Pain screaming through his side, Shannon eased himself up on his good leg and waddled over to Hughs' body. Two of the gunhands were still alive having been winged by the shotgun.
"Don't go for your pieces," Shannon barked, "I've had enough killing for the time being."
Both were younger men, and both obeyed as they rolled over on their sides and groaned, feeling for the many holes that were left in their wounded shoulders.
One of them spat, "You'll hang us anyway." and started to crawl away.
Shannon nodded. "But not presently, so don't move."
He stopped and lay flat in the ash and dirt.
The sound of hooves clopped from behind and Shannon turned to see his outfit descending the hill. Burt looked all around the valley, to the bodies and to the ash they lay on, then to the survivors. Roland spurred his horse over to the cows, holding his rifle on the man who had surrendered. Ned's face looked ever concerned as he saw the dead lay before him.
"Excellent shooting, boys," Shannon said, clutching his side where the bullet had passed.
"Looks like you got yourself some," Burt said with a sly smile as he got down from his horse.
"Ain't funny. I'm bleeding to death."
Burt observed his leg and side, seeing that both bullets had passed through.
"Just got to plug up those holes."
"Sorry I pitched your coach gun into the dirt."
Burt shrugged and picked it up, shucking the empty shells.
"What are we going to do about these low individuals?"
One of the wounded men swore at Burt. Burt laughed.
"Tie them up and bring them with us. Have them hanged by the nearest sheriff I suppose."
"Hanged?" Ned asked.
"Yes, boy, hanged. You know, for being accomplices in destroying our entire livelihood," Shannon's face was beet red as he sauntered over to the wounded men. "I hope your necks don't break right away, and you're left there hanging and choking on every last breath."
Ned was shocked by the graphic description. His eyes beginning to water up. Burt saw him and shook his head.
"It's what happens kid," Burt said, "they take from you, and you take from them."
"I don't like it," Ned said.
Burt shook his head and remounted his horse.
Roland was coming back with the third prisoner, cattle following rather than being herded.
A fury growled up from within Shannon, rekindling his hate for the three men, but as he remounted his horse an idea popped into his head, and it bothered him all the way back to Gypsom.
* * *
The four cattlemen and three prisoners rode into Gypsom covered in smoke and ash and trail dust. Bystanders looked curiously at the cowboys, especially the wounded ones.
Gypsom was a small trading outpost, with a hotel and a few stores. It looked like a town, and it was in some ways. But the amount of cattle traffic and cowboys roaming around the place offset the town-like feeling with a more business appearance.
The sheriff's office was a small shack-like building with two holding cells in the back that were primarily used to hold drunk cowboys. They were empty when Shannon limped in there.
The sheriff, a short and stocky man with a ragged beard and tired eyes greeted Shannon at a table that acted as a desk.
"How may I assist you, sir?" The Sheriff asked.
"I have three prisoners in need of a tight rope around their necks." Roland and Burt came in with the men at gunpoint.
"And why is that?" The sheriff said.
"They lit a fire in the mountains about two days back, them and their cohorts. They aimed to trap me and my outfit and respective cattle. They succeeded in killing all four hundred head aside from twelve. A Mr. Hughs had hired them to do it, I gather."
The sheriff seemed perplexed, then his eyes went wide in realization.
"You're the man that had the prime Angus headed to the Arizona Territory. I know who you are. I heard you refused Mr. Hughs' offer and drove on."
"That's correct. I don't have my cattle anymore. They were taken by these, low, despicable, devils. And Mr. Hughs paid for them dearly. He shan't see another steer again." Shannon stared them in the eyes and then turned back to the sheriff.
"Mr. Hughs is dead?"
"That is correct."
"That's big news," The sheriff rubbed his hand through his greasy hair.
"Will you take these men?" Shannon said.
The sheriff nodded.
* * *
The four of them met in the small saloon and were joined later by Cooper. Dan was in great pain and a doctor attempted to pick splinters from his eyes, and thus, would not be joining them.
They sat at a large, round, table in the corner of the adobe saloon and sipped on cheap whiskey. Shannon had sold the last of the cows to a trader for top price, telling the man he had killed Mr. Hughs. He had the money in the middle of the table.
Hughs estate had caught wind of what had happened and were actively trying to take legal action, as far as legal action could go in a frontier town. A circuit judge that was coincidently passing through passed judgment on the estate and were ordered to compensate Shannon Wood for the damages caused against him.
Shannon nursed his whiskey. It helped with the pain in his leg and side, which were now bandaged.
Finally, he said, "I don't expect any of you to continue your ventures with me. After such a devastating loss of cattle, I don't expect any of you to have any heart left. I will pay you for your time and we can be done. I don't know when my money will come, but I will pay you."
Roland stood up and shook Shannon's hand.
"I will be around. But for now, I need a bed." Roland left, walking through the swinging doors of the saloon. Ned stood, about to say something, then closed his mouth and left. Cooper grunted, finished his whiskey and patted Shannon on the shoulder. He walked out.
Burt alone stayed seated with Shannon.
"As far as I am concerned, boss, you don't owe me anything. We're partners. I'll help you wrangle Hughs' cattle and we'll start again."
"I don't know if I have it in me after hearing those screams of the cows back in the valley. That's enough to kill anyone's spirit."
Burt sighed, "But yours isn't dead. I'm sure of it."
Shannon leaned back, folding his arms in his lap.
"Whether we were burned alive, or shot, it doesn't matter what would have happened in those mountains, that is if you quit. If you quit, it's as if the vile Mr. Hughs had won anyhow." Burt downed the rest of his whiskey and set it firmly on the tabletop. "The trail calls." He turned on his heel and went out the doors, heading to the hotel to sleep.
"So it does," Shannon said to himself, thinking over Burt's words. It made him all the more happy to have Burt as a friend.