It was a blazing hot Texas afternoon, bone dry prairie grass crackling underfoot as they drifted along. Their last stop had been in an old riverbed, a long stretch of rock filled dryness snaking across the prairie. Water, brackish but plentiful, had collected in a small bowl at the base of an outcropping of ancient rock. There they rested for a spell, man and beast, before heading out again, slow and steady so as not to make themselves any hotter than they already were.
He let his horse take the lead, the big raw-boned mare moving along at an easy gait, looking forward to the end of the trail and a good rubdown and feed. The forage bag slung across the back of the saddle was filled with her favourite oats.
Colt McCord was the rider, a lanky six-footer, square shouldered and lantern-jawed, with a smile that charmed the ladies and a look that made men back away. He carried himself with the all the authority and self-reliance of a former Army scout. A newer Remington army style revolver, converted to .44-40, sat on his right hip and a Winchester .44-40 was snug in the saddle scabbard. He may have been all alone out here but it never hurt to be prepared.
As they moseyed along a dark spot appeared up ahead, wavering in the heat haze. Army scouts learned right quick that even the smallest shadow on the horizon could the head of Reb column or an Apache raiding party. It was too far away to tell exactly what it was but Colt made sure his revolver sat loose in its holster.
As they rode closer the spot became a smudge, then a smear and finally a wagon. And not just any wagon but an old Army Escort wagon with a stake bed box, something he hadn't seen in a month of Sundays. The two mules that drew it were a little further on cropping what spare vegetation they could find.
"Well now, ain't that something," he drawled. "What in the Sam Hill are you doing way out here." The mare shook her in agreement. She broke into a more determined trot as Colt slid his Winchester out of the scabbard and cradled it in his arms. This was too much of a mystery to pass up, especially way out here.
A young woman sat in the prairie dust, her back up against a rear wheel, in such shade as the wagon could give. The other rear wheel lay on the ground a short distance from the axle it was supposed to be riding on. The skein had dragged along in the dirt, stopping the wagon cold. The stake bed held a few small canvas sacks and a small water barrel was snugged into a corner by the seat.
She seemed to be asleep, their arrival so quiet that it wasn't until the mare whickered a greeting that she opened her eyes, saw them, and scrambled to her feet.
Colt tipped his hat in greeting. "Howdy ma'am."
"Howdy yourself," she replied warily.
"Name's Colt, ma'am, Colt McCord and this here's Daisy," he said, patting the mare's neck. "If you don't mind my asking what're you doing out here, it's a long way from anywhere and you all by your lonesome."
She shaded her eyes with her left hand, her right resting on the wheel rim. She didn't reply, just stared at him, swallowing hard. Youngish, slim, she was no more than a half a head taller than the rear wheel, dressed in the jeans and work shirt that made her a rancher's daughter. She wasn't packing but a man-sized Bowie knife hung off her left hip.
"Pretty name. Live around here, ma'am?"
"I've got a small spread a few miles west of here. Cattle. It's where I'm headed, or was," she said ruefully.
"Uh huh, so I see. Mind my my asking what happened? These old Army wagons are pretty tough, takes a lot to break them let alone lose a wheel."
"Yes ma'am, saw a lot of 'em during the war, mainly scouting for the Army. Mind if I take a look, might be I can fix it."
Her left hand drifted down from her brow to rest lightly on the knife hilt. Not that she was looking a gift horse in the mouth but she didn't know Colt from a hole in the ground.
"I'd appreciate that. I've been trying but as you can see to little success."
Colt couldn't help but notice the smooth speech, could be she'd had some schooling somewhere. More mystery.
"Be happy to ma'am, uh, Abby." He slid the Winchester back into its scabbard and slid easily from the saddle. This was going to require muscle, not lead. He could feel her eyes boring into his back as he walked slowly around the wagon, checking the condition and looking for whatever tools she might have on board. She was army all right, a faded US Army brand visible under the seat mount. The toolbox under the seat held a rusty nut wrench, an axe mounted to the underside of the lid, and̵most importantly—the wheel jack.
The wheel lay flat on the ground with clear signs all around that she'd been trying to heave the 57" rim upright and remount it herself. With the wheel weighing more than she did just getting it upright had proved impossible. Colt's arrival couldn't have been more welcome.
"So, what do you think," she asked plaintively. "Can you fix it?"
"Yes ma'am, but it'll take both of us. You might want to corral them mules before they wander off any further."
Abby nodded in agreement and marched off to rein them in. Colt dropped the tailgate, unbuckled his gun belt and draped it over the side of the bed. The sacks would have to come off, the weight might be too much for the jack. There were five of them, heavier than they looked because of their rocky contents. Of what, he wondered, was there a mine or some such out here or was she hauling something else? Didn't matter though, they had to come off in order to get the jack under the skein and lift it high enough to get the wheel back on.
It was heavy work in the Texas heat but they managed to get the wheel upright and back on the skein. Colt spun the nut back on and heaved on the nut wrench until it squealed to a tight fit. Hitching the mules went quickly and Abby shook out the reins to get them moving. Colt rode beside her, eyeing her as much as the repaired wheel, wondering what in tarnation was a woman, and a pretty one at that, doing out in the middle of nowhere.
As they rode through her spread, they passed a small herd of beef cattle grazing quietly on the dry scrub. Nothing much in conversation passed between them other than the weather and how cantankerous mules were. The ranch, when it finally came in sight, was a compact set of adobe buildings alongside a pole barn and a small corral.
Abby took a deep breath and invited Colt to stay for a meal and some coffee.
"Thank you ma'am, that would go down real well right about now. Been riding awhile so a little home cooking would be most welcome."
"Then you're in luck," she said brightly. "I've got a stew on the stove that'll put those trail beans to shame and then some. I've got fresh made pie too if you'd like some."
The mules and Daisy went into the corral beside the barn, welcome company for Abby's Pinto pony. Colt threw on some water out by the well and brushed off as much dust as he could. Come time to sit at the table he remembered his manners well enough to sit still while Abby served. And my but did it smell good! He couldn't help but take a deep sniff of appreciation which served to colour Abby's cheeks a little.
They chatted quietly of this and that until Colt's curiosity got the better of him.
"Mind my asking, Abby, what's in them bags? I don't mean to pry but I've done some mining in my time and I know ore bags when I see them. You got a stake somewhere?"
"NO," she said quickly. "Just some rocks I found on the trail. No harm in that is there?"
"No ma'am there isn't but I did come across some more back of the barn by the tool room. Might be you got quite a taste in rocks, or maybe something more? I'm just asking is all, mebbe I can help with your collecting?"
Abby hesitated with her serving, realising her secret was out and this stranger was taking an interest in it. As much as she was hoping he would just ride on, he seemed to be putting down roots. Question was could she trust him.
"They belonged to my Pa," she said quietly. "He found them along that old dried up wash a few miles back, out where you found me. He thought they might be worth something, maybe even gold, but he didn't get a chance to find out. He was killed before he could get them assayed."
"Well I'm right sorry to hear that ma'am, didn't mean to pry or anything just thought mebbe I could help a little. Just drifting westward myself, maybe sign on to a ranch somewhere, make a good trail hand." He said this as he helped Abby clear away the dinner plates and wash up, just like his Ma had taught him.
"Well, I could certainly use a hand, at least for a little while. There's a lot that needs to be done around here, but I'm afraid but I can't pay you much."
"Oh heck ma'am, Abby, you don't need to pay me if this is what ranch hands get to eat!" He held out his plate for another slice of pie. Abby smiled and served up another large slice. The look on his face told her all she needed to know.
He put his saddle roll down in the barn, declining the offer of a room in back of the main house. He didn't think it would be right, him being a stranger and she being a lady, and alone. The days flew by as he fixed fence, rounded up strays, rebuilt the crank for the well out back and replaced some missing shingles on the roof. Abby appreciated having a man around, especially one who could keep the rain off her while she cooked up a feast every night.
They made one last trip out to the creek bed and spent an afternoon collecting a few more rocks. When nothing more could be found Abby declared they were done with the effort and it was time to get them assayed. Colt agreed. He'd looked long and hard at some of them but for the life of him couldn't see any signs of anything, gold or otherwise. Maybe the assayer might know better.
Trouble rode up to the hitching rail out front not a day later. A large, heavily built hombre wearing expensive duds and riding a very elaborate Western saddle, escorted by two dusty cowpokes reined in and called out for miss Abby in a loud voice.
Abby appeared at the door to the main house, wiping her hands on her apron and flew into a rage when she saw who her visitor was. She reached behind the door and pulled out a double-barrelled shotgun which she held tight to her waist and aimed at the hombre.
"Get the heck off my property, Sullivan, I've got nothing to say to you! I told you before, you come around here again and I'll pull the trigger, I swear I will!" The barrels inched up a little, aimed right at the belly spilling over his gun belt.
He leaned forward in the saddle and spoke to her sternly, as if he was chastising a wayward daughter.
"Now look here, I told you before I'm willing to buy you out, cash money and a fair price! Them back taxes don't pay themselves and they're due right about now. If you can't pay, and I don't think you can, you're gonna have to sell out! I'm more than willing to offer you same as before."
Colt, out back washing up for dinner, appeared at Abby's side, his Winchester cradled loose in his arms.
Sullivan looked at him in surprise. "Well now I see you got yourself a hand, might be I can buy him out too. Don't you get too comfortable stranger, you'll be leaving soon both of you, see if you don't!" With that he yanked his horse's head around and rode off, followed closely by the two riders.
Abby, still cradling the shotgun, sank to her knees and burst into tears. Colt, not knowing what the tears meant, gently retrieved the shotgun and then helped the sobbing woman over to the bench by the door. She cuffed her tears away, apologising to Colt for the way she'd acted in front of that man.
"I'm sorry," she sniffed. "It's just been so hard without Pa. That's what he was hoping you see, that maybe the ore he was collecting might be worth enough to get us our land back from the bank. If not that . . . that . . . person Sullivan will take it all and throw me out."
"Not going to happen, Abby, not as long as I'm around," growled Colt. "You'll see. Maybe it is time we get them rocks of yours looked at. Town got an assay office?"
"Yes, yes it does. Sullivan owns it, just like he owns everything else in town, but I don't have a choice. Next nearest one is over at Silver Springs but it's a long ride and I can't leave the ranch."
"Well then we'll go to town together, might be he won't be so ornery with me riding shotgun. What do you say we go first thing in the morning?"
"Oh yes, that sounds wonderful, thank you." And with that she kissed him lightly on his cheek and went back inside to finish up.
They rode out at dawn the next day, wagon bed full of ore bags and hope. Colt took the reins and shook them out, the mules stepping out into a brisk trot. Abby was dressed in her best, praying that this was going to be a simple trip into town, for supplies and answers.
They were little more than a mile from town when a couple of riders approached from behind, kicking up a great cloud of dust as they came on hard. It was Colt that noticed them first, instinct maybe or just a nagging doubt, that lead him to look over his shoulder. One look and he handed the reins to Abby and picked up his Winchester.
"Friends of yours?" he asked.
She looked quickly over her shoulder and twitched the reins harder. The mules, sensing the approaching danger, gave it their all although they were no match for the shod hooves closing in on them.
If there was any doubt as to their intentions the riders made that pretty clear by drawing their irons. They opened fire from a distance, snapping off carefully aimed rounds as they closed in on the racing wagon. Colt returned fire as best he could but the rough road made aiming difficult. The riders came on hard despite the danger posed by the rifle fire, intent on their murderous business.
The Winchester model 1873 was a good all-around rifle, oil finished walnut stock, blue steel butt plate and a 24" barrel. Firing the same .44-40 ammunition as his revolver it was a reliable lever action friend no cowpoke should ever be without. Today was no exception. Exhausting the 15 rounds in the tubular magazine, Colt fed in rounds of his revolver ammunition and tried to keep up his rate of fire.
They tore along the trail with a rider now closing up on each side of the wagon, splitting Colt's fire and splintering the stake bed. It was at this point that he set aside his rifle and drew his Army revolver, snapping off careful shots at both riders.
Two things happened at once, Colt tumbled one of the riders out of his saddle while Abby gave a shout and slumped forward in the seat. He turned to see her clutching at a red stain on her right shoulder. She'd been hit! The mules kept on running as hard as they could, taking Colt and the wounded Abby to town.
With the riders falling back now, the one riding over to help the other, Colt turned to see to Abby. He ran the wagon at speed for a short distance before reining in. He quickly fashioned a rough and ready bandage with his bandanna and wrapped the wound with it, army style. It was high up on her shoulder, a through and through that didn't look to break the bone but was very painful. She gritted her teeth the rest of the way into town, saying not a word doubled over in pain as she was.
A short time later she was asleep in the Doctors front room, the bullet wound neatly bandaged and her arm in a sling.
"Mighty tough young lady" the Doctor noted. "I've known Abby and her Pa for some time, who was it put a slug in her I wonder."
"Don't rightly know," said Colt angrily. "But I aim to find out and repay the favour."
"You won't be paying anybody any favours," said a loud voice at the door. It was the Sullivan, the hombre from the earlier visit to the farm.
"Much as I hate to say it, she got what was coming to her. Told her a hunnerd times this ain't no place for a woman. All she's gotta do is sell out to me and she can be on her way, mebbe out east to Hannibal or someplace, where it's safer for the womenfolk."
The Doctor scowled when he saw his visitor. "What do you want, Sullivan, haven't you caused enough trouble for one day?"
"This ain't my doing," he growled. "Trails full of outlaws and such, no place for a woman. Some hand you are, letting your boss get shot like that. What's your game anyways you looking to steal her land or some such? Ain't gonna happen, not with me around!"
Colt ignored the insults. "Just passing through is all. Thought I might help the little lady out for a while. Nothing wrong with that is there?"
"No there ain't, but your time's up is all. Best you move along some before anything else happens."
"Anything else? That don't sound too friendly, you the law around here too?"
"Not hardly," snorted the Doctor, "he just thinks he is. We've got a lawman but our friend Sullivan here has him beat down with his threats."
"Just saying stranger, just saying," Sullivan said, easing his bulk fully inside the office. "You wouldn't know anything about them ore bags in that there wagon would ya, seems like she's been a little busy cleaning up the prairies."
"What're those bags to you?" asked Colt stiffly. "Those are my bags, bringing them for a little assay work, might be they're worth a little something. Nothing wrong with that is there?"
"No sir, none at all. Matter of fact I got me an assay office just down the street, could be I can get them assayed for you right way, mebbe see you on your way quicker."
"That would be mighty nice of you but I can't leave, not now. Got miss Abby to tend to and her farm and all."
"Don't you worry about miss Abby," said the Doctor, staring hard at Sullivan. "I'll tend to her. Long as she's in my care, nothing else will happen to her, I'll see to it personally."
"You sure, Doc?" asked Colt.
"Sure enough, son. You be on your way and I'll see to her care."
"Obliged Doc, mighty obliged," said Colt.
The assay proved disappointing.
"No gold if that's what you're after," whined the clerk behind the counter. Just plain ordinary river rock. Might be worth a dollar." Sullivan chuckled at that, winking at the clerk who kept his head down. A dollar coin spun across the counter to land in front of Colt. He rode back out to the ranch in silence, the anger within him starting to simmer.
A couple of days later Abby was sunning herself out front of the Doctor's office when a shadow crossed in front of her and sat down hard on the bench beside her. She let out a gasp of disbelief. Colt!
"You!" she gasped loudly. "What are you doing here, I thought you were long gone! I don't understand?"
"Nothing to understand," said Colt grinning. "I came back to see how you're doing. The ranch is all buttoned up tight for a day or two so I thought I'd mosey on in. Besides, I've got something for you."
"What, you've got what for me?"
Colt pulled a large bundle of notes out of his shirt pocket and laid them in Abby's lap. She stared at the money in disbelief.
"Oh my goodness gracious!" exclaimed Abby. "Where did you get all this money from? Why there must be . . . "
"Enough mebbe to pay off the ranch so's you can be it's rightful owner?"
"But but . . . I can't take your money," she spluttered.
"Not my money Abby, it's yours, all of it. Your Pa was right, all them rocks he was collecting did have some gold in them after all, leastwise that's what the assay man said. He was right nice about the whole thing, weighed them all out and paid me cash money."
Abby continued to stare at the bundle of money in her lap.
"Sullivan's assayer said they weren't worth nothing so I thanked him and took them to the next town. The assayer over at Silver Springs told me I was a lucky man, had enough gold flecks showing to make them worth his time. He smoothed off some of the edges, took a second look and gave me the good news! Got some good ones here he says."
Abby looked up at Colt, a tear dribbling down her blush hued cheeks. "Thank you. I don't know what to say, I mean you did this all for me and . . . "
"And nothing," said Colt getting to his feet. He held out a hand for Abby and helped her to stand. "C'mon, we've got to get to the bank right now and pay off what you owe."
They stepped out together down the street and up to the front door of the bank. Only to find Sullivan and those two dusty cowpokes lounging around the doorway, blocking the way in. Sullivan himself walked up to the top step of the boardwalk, thumbs thrust into his gun belt, looking down at Abby and Colt.
"Now where might you two be going," he inquired darkly.
"Never you mind," said Abby stoutly." We have business inside the bank. Kindly step aside so we may enter and do our business."
"Can't," said Sullivan, moving to block the door. "Bank's closed, no one's allowed in."
"But it's just past noon," said a surprised Abby. "Since when does it close before two in the afternoon?"
"Since it's my bank and I say when it opens and closes," He sneered. "Now, why don't you state your business and mebbe I might open it."
"Sam Sullivan that is none of your business! I demand you open up so we can enter!"
"No ma'am, not today. There's nothing in there for you. Besides you won't need a bank tomorrow, not when I own everything, so why don't you run along and get things tidied up for me."
"Oh you . . . you monster!" sparked Abby. "You won't own anything once I get in, I've got more than enough money now!"
"Abby, don't tell him anything!" whispered Colt in her ear, but too was too late. Sullivan saw the bundle of money in her hands. A look of surprise crossed his face when he realised what she was about to do. He'd waited a long time for this moment and now she was about to buy her way out.
"Consarn it woman!" growled Sullivan. "Yer as stubborn as your Pa ever was, I told him the same thing but he wouldn't listen neither! It was an accident what happened but he had coming, stubborn old mule! Now why don't you just move along. Bank's closed!"
"You?" shouted Abby in surprise. "You shot Pa? You great big liar, you told the Sheriff it wasn't you!"
"Mebbe I did, mebbe I didn't, ain't nobody gonna say otherwise, not in this here town. Like I said he wouldn't sell out to me, even when I offered cash money, more than the place was worth. He went for his gun first, had to defend myself. Ain't that right boys?" The boys yessirred but didn't move from the door, they were enjoying the showdown. Especially the one with a crude wrap around his left arm, showing a little red.
"That's not true!" yelled Abby. "Pa never carried a gun his whole life, you killed him!"
"Why you lying little . . . I oughta teach you a lesson too!" Sullivan went for his gun, held it tight in his palm for a moment before starting to draw.
Colt threw Abby aside, stepped back, and went for his own. There was a flurry of shots! Sullivan took a bullet high in his left shoulder, sending him staggering back against the door of the bank. His gun hand twitched, firing several bullets into the boardwalk before dropping the pistol. Colt's next shot passed between the two cowpokes, up on their feet and reaching. They froze in mid-draw when they realised Colt had them dead in his sights.
"Now I don't aim to kill anyone today," he said slowly. "I just want to see things done right is all. Now why don't you boys holster them irons, nice and slow like. Drop your belts. No need for any more trouble, 'specially from you," he said, pointing his shooter at the cowpoke with the wrap on his arm.
It was long towards nightfall when all was finally said and done. The Sherriff had come running up in time to witness the shooting, see Sullivan draw first and Colt defend Abby and himself. Sullivan sat behind bars, all bandaged up and cursing his luck. His two hands sat glumly in the next cell, waiting to see what they faced after Colt's talk with the Sherriff.
The deed to the ranch clutched tight in her hands, Abby couldn't resist smiling as hard as anyone had a right to. When it seemed like all was lost and she might have to head back east and to her sister, her faith in her Pa had seen her through. That and the arrival of a handsome stranger who seemed to care for her as much as her Pa had. Enough to step in front of her and draw down on all that iron! And he'd done it for her, someone he barely knew! It had been a long time since anyone had shown her anything other than anger and hurt.
Could be she'd found some ore of her own, just needing the rough edges smoothed out a little. Got a good one here.