Jed stopped chopping wood when he heard his sister's shout. He ran around to the front of their small log cabin, still gripping the axe. There was no mistaking the alarm in Sarah's voice, which was usually weak from coughing. "What is it?"
Jed had built a covered porch along the front of the crude cabin so Sarah could lie outside and enjoy the fresh Wyoming air. She pointed from her bed. "Rider coming."
The eastern mountains framed the approaching rider, little more than a speck among the sagebrush. Jed thought about going for his gun but decided to wait. It was nearby if he needed it and besides, in these parts, trouble always came from the south.
Gradually, the rider drew close enough for Jed to see him in detail. The stranger rode a black horse with a white blaze on its forehead and one white sock on its left hind leg. His saddle was black with silver trim and silver conchos. A Winchester rifle hung from the left side of the saddle.
The rider, tall and slender, wore a tan duster. Black boots, dull and scuffed, protruded from beneath it. A battered, sweat-stained hat slouched over his eyes and a bandanna hung around his neck. He hunched over his saddle horn.
"Who could that be?" Sarah asked.
"No idea," Jed said.
"You best make him some food."
Jed leaned on the axe handle. "Not just yet."
The stranger reined in his horse twenty-five yards from the cabin. Staying mounted, he straightened his back and pushed the hat off his forehead. "Afternoon."
"Afternoon, stranger," Jed said. "What can I do for you?" He watched for a threatening move, but the stranger looked leaden with exhaustion.
"Wonder if I could put in a few days' work on your spread."
"I can't afford a hired hand," Jed said. He motioned back the way the stranger had just come. A small herd of cattle grazed on the prairie grass. "I ain't a big operation."
"I'm just looking for a meal and some rest. I don't have money or anything to trade, but I can work."
Jed's eyes narrowed. "You from Tingey's?"
The stranger shook his head. Dirty stubble filled the hollows of his cheeks. "I don't know who that is."
"He's not from Tingey's," Sarah said. "Look how thin he is. He's been riding a long time." A coughing fit wracked her body, and she pressed a bloody rag to her mouth. She looked as exhausted as the man on the horse.
The stranger cast a questioning glance at the bed-ridden woman. "She has consumption," Jed said. "She has to spend some time every day on her back, taking the air."
The stranger nodded. "Good a cure as any, I guess."
"What's your name?" Jed asked.
The name stirred no warning in Jed's memory. He leaned the axe against a porch post. "Welcome, Ben Springs. Come down from there and let's get your horse watered."
* * *
Inside the one-room cabin, Ben pulled off his duster and hung it on a hook by the door. Jed studied the black-handled Colt .45 hanging from the gun belt around Ben's waist, but Ben unbuckled the belt and wrapped it around the holster. He caught Jed's eye and smiled.
"Don't like to wear guns in another man's home," he said. "It ain't good manners."
Jed nodded. "You a gunman?"
"Not unless it's necessary."
"Well," Jed said, turning to the stove, "I don't reckon you'll find any reason for gunplay here." He stoked the fire in the potbellied stove and placed a cast-iron skillet on top. "I become a fair cook since Sarah took ill, as long as you like steak. Take a seat."
Ben pulled a wooden stool from under a small, rough-hewn table and sat, leaning against the wall as though he could fall asleep there. Jed slapped a scoop of bacon grease into the skillet and laid two steaks down to cook. Their sizzle and smell filled the cabin.
Sarah tottered through the door, headed for a sheet hung on the far wall of the room. This she pushed aside to reveal a bed. Sinking into it, she pulled the curtain closed again. "What's going on in the world, Ben?" she asked.
"Let's see, I ain't seen a newspaper in some time, but last I heard, President Cleveland got married and Vancouver burned to the ground."
"Where you from, Ben?" Jed asked.
"Texas, around San Antonio."
"Yeah, I thought I heard it in your voice. We're from Louisiana."
"Little town on the coast called Salt Creek, after an inlet from the bay that runs up through the middle of town. I named my spread after it. Salt Creek Range."
"I guess we're all a long way from home," Ben said. "What brings you clear up here?"
Jed pointed at the sheet with a fork. "We needed to find a place with dry air for her lungs. And, truthfully, I always wanted my own place. A man can find those things up here."
"Looks like you're off to a good start."
Jed speared a steak from the skillet and dropped it on a plate. He added a square of cornbread cut from a pan and placed the plate in front of Ben. "Well, last winter nearly wiped us out, but we made it. I been rebuilding my herd, and nobody's going to take it away from me."
* * *
Ben slept nineteen hours that first night, rising only to eat the meals Jed cooked for him. He alternated between sleeping and eating for a couple of days, but by the third day he insisted he could work. Jed judged he looked strong enough, so he set Ben to rounding up the calves. "There ain't very many this year," he said, "so this shouldn't take long."
While Ben rode, Jed kindled a large fire, into which he placed two long metal rods, the letter "C" glowing orange-white at the ends. Branding was one of the most distasteful tasks on a ranch, and Jed watched to see how Ben would handle himself.
Ben said nothing when he saw the irons, only roped a calf by the hind feet and dragged it to the fire. While Jed knelt on the calf's forelegs and gripped its head, Ben pressed the brand to the animal's hindquarters. A cloud of stinking smoke rose with the calf's squall. Jed jumped aside, letting the calf go free, but Ben had already roped the next one.
At the end of the day, the stench of burnt hair thick in Jed's nose and mouth, he pulled off his leather gloves and flexed his sore hands. "You done branding before," he said to Ben.
Ben nodded and spat into the fire. "Never enjoyed it, though."
"Well, I thank you. That would've been twice as hard by myself." Jed turned to face the setting sun, gold and red across the horizon. "I'm planning to move my herd from the south pasture to the north this summer. Another job that would be easier with two."
"I allow I could stay on a couple more weeks," Ben said.
* * *
Days passed and, despite the tough work, regular meals returned a little bulk to Ben's frame. They camped out on the range some nights. On those occasions, as they talked over plates of beans and biscuits, Jed felt the isolation of Wyoming more acutely than he ever had working his spread alone. He had been on Salt Creek Range so long, no one to talk to but his invalid sister, living in fear of anyone who approached, that he had forgotten what a friendly conversation with another man felt like. He might make small talk with some of the other ranchers when he went into town for supplies, but Tingey's shadow hung over every conversation. Some of the men seemed leery of Jed's defiance toward the cattle baron and kept their distance. Actual companionship was like a dash of salt in a pot of beans, enhancing every flavor, even the bitter ones. He and Ben laughed, they told stories, but uneasiness gnawed at the back of Jed's mind. Don't enjoy it too much. This man came out of nowhere. He could return there just as fast.
When work took them close to the cabin, they ate their meals on the front porch so Sarah could join them. The curtain she slept behind was meant to protect the others from her disease, but no one worried about catching it in the open air.
On the porch, Jed noticed Sarah talked more to Ben than to him. When conversation lagged, she and Ben looked content in their silence, their eyes lingering on each other. Jed wondered if Ben awoke the same melancholy hope in Sarah, or if she felt something more for the tall stranger.
One day Sarah said, "Tell us about your folks, Ben. You never talk about them."
Ben looked at his plate. "There's not much to tell. It was just me and my Pa for a long time."
"Where's he now?"
"Well, you've both been so good to me all these weeks, I really should be straight with you about why I'm here. See, my Pa was murdered. I aim to find the man that done it."
"How does that bring you to our ranch?" Sarah asked.
"I hit nearly every ranch between Houston and here in the last couple of years. I'll keep going until I reach Montana, then loop back down through Utah Territory and head for Texas again. He's gotta be somewhere."
* * *
A few days later, as Jed and Ben rode south, rounding up strays, Jed said, "You notice Sarah don't cough so much anymore?"
"This air must be doing its work," Ben said.
"I think it's more than that. I think she's taken a fancy to you."
Ben blushed. "When there ain't no other choices, I guess an eyesore like me starts to look pretty good."
"She'd say you ain't half-bad as far as looks go," Jed said. "It's been good having you around, is what I'd say. You been a mighty big help to me, and I think it's helped you too. You don't look so wrung out anymore."
They crested a ridge. Below them, the range teemed with a herd that dwarfed Jed's. The sound of cattle lowing and men shouting drifted back up the ridge.
"This here's the southern border of Salt Creek Range, and that's the north pasture of the Triple T ranch," Jed said. "Owned by a man named John Tingey. He's the big cattle baron around here. Last winter was hard on him too and he's trying to regroup by buying up the small ranches in the area. He gave me the option to sell out or get out. I ain't about to do either."
"Hmm, Tingey," Ben said. He looked at the ground for a second. "Lots of men working for him?"
"Yeah, plenty of drovers, and I imagine a few gunmen too," Jed said. "If you're looking for your man, that's a good place to start."
Ben didn't say anything, only nodded.
* * *
The next day, as Jed, Sarah, and Ben sat on the porch finishing their breakfast, two riders approached from the south.
"Uh oh," Jed said. Running into the cabin, he threw open a wooden chest and retrieved a gun belt and Colt .45 revolver. He fastened the belt around his waist and hid the holster beneath his jacket. As he re-emerged, he leaned Ben's Winchester against the wall next to Sarah's bed.
"What's going on?" Ben asked.
"The one on the right's John Tingey," Sarah said. "If he's showing up himself, he means business."
"I don't want to provoke no one, but if things get ugly, you grab that Winchester and get Sarah inside the cabin," Jed said.
Tingey rode right up to the cabin. White muttonchops bristled on his jaws, and he glowered from beneath thick, dark brows. His companion wore a heavy beard, the brown hair streaked with gray. Jed noticed Ben studying the man.
Tingey pointed at the rifle. "You're right inhospitable, Jed Collins, greeting me with a gun."
"I felt it was in my interest to have it nearby, considering what you did to poor Waldrup last fall."
"Waldrup come at me," Tingey said. "I had to defend myself."
Jed sneered. "I'm sure."
"Well, you be reasonable and sell me your ranch, there won't be no violence." Tingey jerked his head toward Ben. "Who's this?"
"Ben Springs," Ben said.
"You playing cowhand for this fool, Ben Springs?"
"Just earning my meals."
"Don't get too comfortable here. This place'll be mine before long. Come down and see me about a job while I'm feeling generous."
"He'll do no such thing," Jed said. "And I ain't selling to you."
"You sell or I'll run you off."
"A man has a right to his own spread."
Sarah coughed, harder than she had in some time. "You're going to need money to bury this poor lady proper," Tingey said. "Otherwise, she'll just be something for the coyotes to dig up."
Jed clenched his jaw so hard his teeth hurt. He whipped his jacket back and his hand twitched near the Colt. "Get off my land. I ain't gonna say it twice."
The bearded man reached for his own gun, but Tingey caught his arm. "Easy. I don't want no shooting just yet. We delivered our notice, now let's give Collins a couple days to change his mind." With a final glare, he and the other man wheeled their horses around and rode back the way they had come.
"They're going to make trouble for us," Sarah said. "You can't defend yourself all alone."
Jed shrugged. "Ben and I can hold off an army." He looked at Ben and to his surprise, found his friend pale. "What is it, Ben?"
Ben seemed to stare right through Jed for a moment, then his eyes snapped into focus. "Nothing. It's just . . . " He drew a deep breath. "Something put me in mind of how my Pa died."
"What was it?" Jed asked. "You never told us the full story."
"He had some things to do in town one day, and he was headed for the bank when two men came running out of it. They had just robbed it, and they ran right into him. They went down, he went down, and before he could get up, one of the men cracked him in the head with something. Then they robbed him, too. Doctor got word to me as fast as he could, but Pa died before I could make it to town.
"Well, I set out with the posse chasing those men, and I kept going long after the posse gave up. I caught up with one of them in Omaha about three months ago. Name of Scythe McGraff. He was set to hang for another murder, but I had a chance to talk to him first. Claimed he wasn't the one that hit and robbed my Pa, but that makes no difference to me. He also said he didn't know where his partner was but thought he might have gone to Wyoming. Said the man went by Mort Rutter, but that's probably not his real name." Ben crossed his arms as though a chill had seized him. "I stayed to watch McGraff hang, then I kept going."
"You got a description of this Rutter?" Jed asked.
"Not a good one. Middle-aged, brown hair, which is about half the country. He had a beard when he killed my Pa."
"What did they steal from him?" Jed asked.
"He had sold a couple of hogs. They took that money."
Sarah put a hand on Ben's shoulder, and he placed his own over it. Jed shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ben. That must've been hard news."
"It was the worst day of my life." Ben kept his hand over Sarah's. With the other, he motioned toward Jed's holster. "That's a nice gun. Is that a cherry wood handle?"
Jed pulled the gun free and hefted it. "Yeah. Plum weapon, this is."
"Where'd you get it?"
Jed met Ben's eyes and held them. "I bought it in Little Rock, Arkansas."
"I see." Ben let go of Sarah's hand. "You know, Tingey's brought things to a head around here. I think I'll go down to his place tomorrow, see if I can smooth over some of this mess. I'll see if Rutter's on his spread, too."
"That's a good idea," Jed said.
* * *
Early the next morning, Ben hugged Sarah, shook hands with Jed, and mounted his horse. "Don't know when I'll be back," he said. "Soon as I can."
"Be careful," Sarah said.
Jed watched Ben disappear in the distance, then said, "I reckon I'll head down to the south pasture, see if Tingey's causing any trouble."
"But the herd's in the north pasture," Sarah said.
"Still, you never know what he's up to."
Jed rode south until the cabin was out of sight, then cut east until he met the dirt road leading to Tingey's ranch.
Before long, he saw the familiar shape of the duster-clad rider on the black and white horse. Spurring his own mount, he raced to catch up.
Ben turned as Jed approached, no surprise in his face, only sadness. "Jed."
"Where you really going, Ben?"
Ben hooked his thumb into the waistband of his denims, above his Colt's handle. "Pa didn't just lose his hog money. He lost his cherry-handled Colt, too. I keep that detail to myself in case it ever turns up."
"I saw it in your face yesterday," Jed said. "You don't believe I bought my gun in Little Rock, do you? You going to Tingey's to raise a posse?"
"First thing I wanted to see was if you'd follow me out here. That tells me what I hoped wasn't true."
"Did you ever stop to think there's more than one cherry-handled Colt in the world?"
Ben nodded. "There's one way to tell for sure. Pa had those cherry grips made special. But first, he had his initials etched in the Colt's handle, right into the metal. W.S. for William Springs. Said he could always prove it was his gun that way. Let's take those grips off and have a look."
Jed glanced at the gun. "I can't believe you'd think that about me."
"I don't want to think it, but I've come so far that I have to check everything."
"I took you in, I fed you, I gave you work. All the talking we done out on the range . . . good friends are hard to come by around here." He motioned back in the direction of the cabin. "You and Sarah . . . let's just go back to her and forget about this."
Ben held out a hand. It trembled, but his voice was firm. "Give it to me."
"You ain't gonna let this go, are you?"
"Okay, if that's how you want it." Jed pulled the Colt free of the holster. He held it in his palm a second, as if weighing something more than its heaviness. Then he pointed the Colt at Ben and fired.
Ben jerked in his saddle, but he pulled his own pistol and fired several shots. Three bullets slammed into Jed's body. Both men slid from their horses, Jed collapsing on the ground.
He gasped; every breath drew fire. Blood coated his left forearm. Worst, however, was his leg. His right boot canted at an unnatural angle and his knee wouldn't bend. It felt numb.
Ben staggered up beside him. Jed tried to point the Colt again, but Ben pried it from his hand. Blood soaked Ben's shirt at the shoulder. "Why, Jed?"
Jed gritted his teeth against the hot nails of pain working into his body. Ben's face swam before him. "Leave me be," he said.
"Not until I get my answers. Why'd you kill my Pa?"
Jed closed his eyes, hoping the man standing over him would disappear.
Ben grabbed Jed's hair and shook his head. "Answer me, you coward!"
"He seen me rob that bank. Couldn't leave him to talk to the sheriff. I didn't want to kill him, I swear. I just hit him in the head to give him something else to think about."
"You beat an old man and robbed him. That's right lowdown of you." Ben crouched next to Jed. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against Jed's left temple and thumbed the hammer back.
Jed's heartbeat pounded in his ears. His breath caught in his throat, yet he spoke faster than he ever had in his life.
"You gotta listen to me, Ben. I ain't a bad man. You gotta believe me, I ain't. It was McGraff. He killed your Pa and you seen justice done." Jed saw only immovable anger in Ben's eyes. "I robbed them banks for Sarah. I needed a place for her to get well. You kill me and she'll hate you for it."
"I'll tell her Tingey did it. Tell her he shot me too."
The last of Jed's strength drained away. He had nothing left to put between himself and Ben's wrath. "I just wanted my own spread. You gonna take that from me, then put me out of my misery."
Ben pressed the pistol barrel to Jed's head a second longer. Then he withdrew it, sighing. "I been in my misery a long time. No reason why I shouldn't leave you in yours." He rose to his feet, groaning, shaky. The blood in his shirt had crawled to his waist. "Sarah and me, we're leaving. Far as she knows, Tingey's after us. He'll take your ranch. But I'm gonna leave it up to the Almighty whether you live through this. You do, don't try to find us because I will kill you on sight next time I see you."
Ben pulled himself onto his horse, holding the reins with his teeth, cradling his wounded arm in his lap. He took Jed's horse by the reins with his good arm and rode away, back toward Salt Creek Range.
"Ben!" Jed shouted. "Ben, don't leave me here!" Even through the burning in his ribs and the mounting pain in his knee, he kept screaming well after Ben was out of sight.
* * *
Jack Lauridsen shivered as his shop door opened and a blast of frigid air pummeled him. Plump Father Morgan, sitting in the chair next to the apple barrel, pulled his black coat closed over his clerical collar. April was nearly over, but winter died hard in Kalispell.
When Jack saw who stood in his doorway, dark against the cold spring sunshine, he stifled a groan. He recognized the old man's sagging shoulders, the long, dirty beard, and worst, the wooden peg that jutted from the tattered, muddy pants cuff. That peg leg filled the store with a hollow thump as the man headed for the stove in the corner. Ignoring Jack and the Father, he hunched over the glowing metal, clutching his threadbare coat to his sides. Satisfied the old cripple was only there to warm himself, Jack returned to filling the candy jars in their rows on the shelf behind the counter.
Another man entered the shop a few minutes later. Blowing on his hands, he said, "Don't spring ever come here?"
"New, huh?" Jack said. "Well, spring's one of them 'blink-and-you-miss-it' things in Montana."
Father Morgan glanced at the newspaper under the man's arm. "What's the latest on the Titanic?"
"They're recovering the bodies."
Father Morgan frowned. "Shame. Been lighting candles for those poor souls all week. Mind if I have a look?"
The man handed his paper over and gave Jack his order. While Jack set about filling it, a low mumbling rose from the old man at the stove.
"Speaking of poor souls, who's that?" the man asked.
Jack shrugged. "Folks around here call him Ol' Stump. Wanders around town."
"Ain't he got no folks?"
"Couldn't say. He ain't been around that long."
Father Morgan lowered the newspaper. "I'm told he was haunting Missoula a couple of years ago. Seems to be drifting north."
As if he knew the other men were discussing him, Stump left the stove and approached the counter. Jack winced at the sound of that peg leg, wood on wood. He knew miners and lumberjacks who had lost legs, arms, fingers, toes, eyes, but there was something unnatural in the asymmetry of this wretched man.
The customer stared with open curiosity at Stump's crinkled skin, moldering yellow-white hair, and dull, lifeless eyes. Father Morgan folded the paper in his lap and rested his hands on top of it.
"We hear right, Stump?" Jack asked. "You heading north?"
"Headin' north to get a spread of my own," the old man said. "Get a few head of cattle together. A man can find those things up north."
"Sure thing, Stump," Jack said. "Ain't seen you in a while. Thought maybe winter drove you off."
"Bad winter," the old man mumbled. "Lost most of my herd. Find more up north."
Jack finished putting the customer's order into a brown paper sack. "Here you go, mister."
Stump looked at the customer, and some hidden, silent wind blew the clouds from the rheumy eyes. A maniacal gleam replaced them. "Are you Ben Springs?"
The customer took a step back. "My name's Winfield."
"Lookin' for Ben Springs."
"I don't know him."
"Maybe he's outside, Stump," Jack said.
Stump stared beyond Jack, as though he had caught sight of some phantom behind the counter, then shuffled away. He stopped when Father Morgan called to him.
"Here, take this." The Father pressed a can of sardines into the old man's hand.
Stump regarded the can a moment. The light in his eyes had snuffed out, dark as a burnt wick once more. "I'm obliged. Pay you when I get my herd."
"Tell you what, Jack'll charge it to the parish."
Winfield dug a box of crackers from his bag and handed them to Stump. The old man accepted them with a nod and made his halting way out into the chill spring.
Still staring at the door, Winfield said, "That's the saddest thing I ever saw."
"That it is," Father Morgan said.
"Can't you help him, Father?"
"We do what we can, feed him and take him in when we can find him, but we can't keep him prisoner. He insists on roaming."
"He ever tell you who Ben Springs is, or how he lost his leg?" Jack asked.
Father Morgan stood, handing Winfield back his newspaper. "He told me a story once. I don't know what was true and where he might've been drifting, but regardless, I'm treating it as a confession. Just let me say that the frontier is big enough to hide some men, and wide enough to lay some men's sins bare."
"Well, I don't think he's long for this world." Jack shook his head. "The frontier just ain't the place for some people."