Low, pewter-colored clouds began to spit flakes of snow as the wind whistled across the wide valley floor with an unrelenting force that chilled Walt Wheeler to the bone. They were both exhausted, but the safety and comfort of the ranch, such as it was, demanded another six miles of travel along the two-track road that traversed their part of northeast New Mexico from north to south. He had to keep the sorrel horse moving.
A day earlier, mare's tails scattered across a clear blue sky and a stiffening breeze out of the east told him a storm was coming, but he had to ride the thirty miles to town. There were no options. Three days earlier, Sheriff Luke Dolman had ridden up to his front door and handed him a legal notice. Make a payment on the ranch or the bank would foreclose at the end of the month.
The bank, Wheeler mused, was owned by Eldon Turner who also owned tens of thousands of acres of grassland and wanted only one thing—more. The man already had more cattle than Wheeler had ever dreamed of. The size of Wheeler's ranch was insignificant by comparison and the cattle he raised amounted to only forty head. What his ranch did have, and what was the real object of Turner's maneuvering, was water. Some act of nature had created a multitude of springs that produced enough water to support hundreds of cattle. Wheeler had simply beaten Turner to it and had an indisputable claim and water rights.
At first the offers were friendly, but as Turner's influence spread and his empire grew, they turned hostile. Other folks had caved into the greedy man's ambition, but a veteran of the last of the Apache wars, Wheeler held his ground and fought against the intimidation. Taking out a mortgage on the ranch—he realized too late—had been a mistake. Build and improve the place was his intent, but now . . . no matter, it was what it was.
Suddenly, the horse shied away from a huge tumbleweed rolling toward it. Wheeler watched the object spin away but an unnatural flash of white caught his eye. He pivoted the horse and followed the tumbleweed. The persistent wind calmed for a few moments and the object slowed only to be ensnared in a stand of prickly pear cactus. Wheeler stopped and was out of his saddle reaching for the dried-up weed ball.
Turning the tumbleweed over, a bit of white caught his eye and he grabbed for it, breaking a dried branch off in his glove. Back to the elements, Wheeler slowly opened his hand revealing what looked like a note written on heavy, white paper securely tied with string to the branch. A gust of wind blasted him with needles of snow reminding him they had to keep moving. There would be time for the note later.
* * *
The sorrel was fed, watered, and happy to be back next to its paint horse buddy in the adjacent stall, Ward Wheeler secured the door to the barn and fought in near darkness through increasing snow and wind to the ranch house. The structure was cold, but Wheeler quickly started a lantern and built a fire in the wood-fired cook stove that began chasing the cold away.
A coffee pot on the stove heated as he poured a generous portion of whiskey into a tin cup that he placed on the room's table. The space was warming nicely and he made sure a good supply of wood for the stove was at hand to keep it doing so. Lastly, he shed his heavy coat, but not before removing the note and fragment of branch from its pocket and setting them on the table next to the cup.
Wheeler placed the lantern in the center of the table and sat in one of four chairs surrounding it with his back to the stove. Ready to give in to curiosity, his calloused hands untied the string from the note. Brushing fragments of branch and string aside he paused before unfolding the paper. He had heard of sailors and others placing messages in bottles then sealing and casting them into the ocean hoping they would be found by others in faraway lands. Maybe this was a similar attempt to reach out.
Wheeler took a healthy swallow of whiskey which warmed him throughout, then gingerly unfolded the paper. He was surprised that it was not as dry and brittle as the tumbleweed. In fact, it looked as though it was not old at all. Unfolded, he stared at the words neatly printed with a graphite pencil. Although his body was warm the message brought a chill to his soul.
Please help us. I pray to God one of these is found. They are watching us. My husband left on business a month ago and never returned. I fear for my life and the lives of my two small children. They will come for us soon. L.G.
Wheeler stared at the note, re-reading it several times. Who? Where? How? He emptied the cup and then added to it. He needed food. He needed to think. The only things he knew for sure were that he found the tumbleweed about six miles north, the wind was howling from the west, and the plight of L.G., whoever that was, sounded more desperate than his.
* * *
Morning dawned sunny and cold—it would make for good travel. Wheeler cared for the horses, fixed himself a hearty breakfast, and packed his saddlebags for the unexpected. His plan was simple, ride back north along the two-track to where he found the tumbleweed and turn west. He had no idea how far it could have been driven by the wind, but it was his only clue.
Deciding the sorrel needed a break, Wheeler saddled the paint and loaded it with the weighty saddlebags. Not knowing how long his search would take, he haltered the sorrel and tied its lead rope to his saddle. After securing the house, he slid his Winchester into its leather scabbard, and stepped easily into the saddle. Adjusting his scarf, he glanced back at the sorrel and nudged the paint. They were on their way.
Riding in silence gave him time to think about the mysterious L.G. From the words in the note, he figured she was a woman with two children. The peril she referred to made little sense. She seemed to be holding out—but against who or what? Outlaws, Indians, rustlers—he had no idea—but she sounded desperate. The open range that lay to the west was just that—open.
In the distance he could see a solitary rider approaching. Always cautious, Wheeler opened the bottom buttons of his coat for easy access to the Colt on his hip. One never took chances in a harsh land. As the rider came closer, he recognized the thin frame of Charlie Fraser, his neighbor to the south. Fraser had a small spread, and like himself, was struggling to keep Eldon Turner at bay.
The two men reined their horses in and exchanged greetings. "You goin' on a trip Walt? Two horses seems a bit much."
"I honestly don't know Charlie. Might be chasing a wild goose."
"Wild goose?" Fraser stared at his neighbor. "I don't understand."
"You ever hear tell of notes tied to tumbleweeds hereabouts?" Wheeler asked and then watched as Fraser's eyes narrowed.
"As a matter of fact, I have. Truth is, I found one a couple weeks back. Wind had been blowing out of the northwest. The tumbleweed was stuck under the water trough in the corral. The note was written in pencil and tied to a thick branch. I thought it was a joke or somebody fooling around," Fraser said.
"What did it say?" Wheeler questioned.
"Sounded like some gal lookin' for her husband to come home. Said he left home and hadn't come back. Fellow's name was Frank or Fred Gentry. I didn't give it anymore thought. Got plenty of my own problems," Charlie said.
"Understood," Wheeler replied. "Eldon Turner is my biggest, but then I found a tumbleweed with a note on the way home yesterday."
"Do say. Reckon we have two things in common on this fine day—an Eldon Turner problem and a tumbleweed note," Fraser chuckled. "What did yours say? If you don't mind me askin'."
Wheeler sighed. "A bit like yours, but the gal said they, whoever they are, were watching, her husband had never returned, and she feared for herself and two children."
"So, you're goin' lookin' for this gal?" Fraser cocked his head.
"Yep, that's our plan."
"The paint and sorrel are buddies," Wheeler said and grinned.
"Well, I best not hold y'all up. Besides, if I don't get back today, my wife and little ones will be sending off tumbleweeds of their own wondering where I'm at. Oh, and Walt, do be careful—good neighbors are hard to find hereabouts." Fraser tipped his hat and pushed his horse south.
Wheeler sat for a few moments and watched his friend depart. Turning back to the road ahead, he nudged the paint and the trio moved out. The dusting of snow from the previous day was already melting and he thought about Fraser's words as he rode. The same woman sent earlier notes in the same manner, but without the concerns she expressed in the one he found—that time was running out. The message was more than unsettling.
Finally, he spotted the thicket of prickly pear that had stopped the tumbleweed. Riding closer he could see that most of the tumbleweed still stuck to it. Checking the sun and its position he changed course and pushed west.
The day was still young and if they moved along at the same pace, he could make thirty more miles without the horses working too hard. The fact that a Frank or some other Gentry had never crossed his path didn't mean much. Despite Eldon Turner's maneuverings, there were plenty of folks moving into the region intent on making a go of it. Talk had it that a railroad was coming soon. That would create a lot of opportunity, and no doubt, trouble that always seemed to follow the rails.
With the sun lowering to touch the western skyline and approaching a small stand of trees, Walt Wheeler decided that was enough for one day. After tending to the horses and making sure they were secure, he gathered pieces of wood for a small fire and meal. He would melt some snow that remained in shaded spots for coffee and to water the pair of mounts.
As he squatted to start the fire, he suddenly stood again. There was a smell of smoke on the breeze out of the west. True, it was faint, but still there. Rubbing his whiskered chin, he decided to hold off on the fire for a bit longer as he studied the countryside stretching to the distant hills on the horizon. At last, the sun was down and the sky was turning deeper shades of purple.
There it was again. He blinked and squinted at a flicker of light. He guessed it was a good five miles away. Wheeler frowned, and in the gathering darkness moved all his fire makings to a different location so the flames would be shielded from observation by the trees. Soon, a small blaze was warming him and snow was melting in the coffee pot. After he watered the horses he would make coffee. A strip of beef jerky and two pieces of hardtack completed the evening's bill of fare.
Rifle at his side and wrapped in the relative comfort of his bedroll, Wheeler stared at the stars above and contemplated the next day. The single point of firelight might indicate another traveler like himself, or perhaps something else entirely. Whatever he found at the location of the distant fire would help determine his course of action.
* * *
The scene that greeted him was not what he expected. The ground was trampled around remains of a large fire that still had wisps of smoke rising from it. Hand-rolled cigarette butts were strewn around as well as two empty whiskey bottles. A mile back he had come across their trail. Four horses had been ridden in from the northeast and then abruptly turned west at a low spot where rainwater collected to provide a seasonal watering hole. Town lay in the direction they had come from—Eldon Turner's town.
Wheeler decided to follow the group since they were headed in the same direction with some unknown objective. He changed horses and with the paint trailing, they moved at a more rapid pace than the day before.
As time passed, he became aware that the landscape was rapidly changing. Low hills made it more difficult to see beyond the next rise. Five or six miles ahead, tree-covered mountains rose sharply hundreds of feet above the countryside. A cautious man, Wheeler slowed as they approached the crest of each hill and each time the trail of the four riders was plain to see heading ever west toward the mountains.
The abrupt upthrust of the mountains was close as he rode up yet another rise. Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot could be heard from beyond the crest of the hill he was ascending. Immediately he was out of the saddle and pulling the Winchester from its scabbard. He ground-tied the sorrel knowing neither horse would move. Crouching low, he moved upslope until he could peer over without being seen.
A few hundred yards away, at the base of the nearest mountain stood a cabin with smoke drifting upward from a stone chimney. The cabin door was open enough to allow a rifle or shotgun barrel to be seen. The four riders sat their horses in a semi-circle a short distance from the cabin—at least out of shotgun range. One of the riders was talking in a loud voice to the occupant of the cabin but was too far away for Wheeler to hear his words.
Abruptly, the men turned south to ride away from the cabin, but then stopped. As they looked back toward the dwelling, Wheeler let out a deep breath. The rider in the lead was none other than Eldon Turner followed by his lackey, Sheriff Luke Dolman. He didn't recognize the other two, but no doubt they were riffraff hired to do Turner's bidding.
Moving on, the four pulled up at a few trees a quarter-mile from the cabin and went about settling in for the night. Surveying the cabin and surrounding terrain, Wheeler spotted an opportunity. A narrow canyon sliced into the mountainside just north of the cabin. The nature of the hills would allow him to take the horses and enter the canyon without being seen. From there he could leave them and after sunset make his way to the cabin. He needed to learn what was going on, but if it involved Turner, it couldn't be good.
* * *
On foot, leading the horses, he worked his way around the hills and into the canyon. In a short time, he found a sheltered spot to leave the pair. They were content to graze on grasses in and around trees and a small spring provided water. He wondered if this was what Turner was after.
As the sun set, Wheeler cautiously started out of the canyon. Keeping to as much cover as possible, he made his way toward the cabin. From Turner's camp came loud voices and an occasional whoop. No doubt they didn't ride too far without an ample supply of whiskey.
Within sight of the front of the cabin, he could see a feeble light from inside through a single window. Some kind of cloth was hung over the opening making it impossible to see inside.
At last, it was dark enough for him to make his move. From the back, Wheeler edged along the walls of the cabin with rifle in hand until he was at the front door. The hubbub at Turner's campfire showed no signs of diminishing.
Without further hesitation, Wheeler knocked on the door.
"Get out of here!" a woman's strong voice demanded. "I mean it! I'll shoot—and I don't miss with this shotgun."
"Ma'am . . . Mrs. Gentry. My name's Walt Wheeler. I'm here to help."
"How do I know that? Maybe you're one of them," she retorted with the same tone.
"I found your note on a tumbleweed. Two days ago—riding home to my ranch."
Moments ticked by without response then abruptly the light from the window faded. The sound of something scraping along the inside of the door could be heard, then ever so slowly the door opened a few inches. Immediately he was looking into the side-by-side bores of a shotgun pointed at him. Wheeler did the only thing he could think of and smiled.
A pretty, but hostile, face studied him. She backed up but the shotgun never wavered. "Get in, close the door, and put that rifle down" she ordered.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, quickly scanning the interior of the cabin as he stepped in and leaned the rifle against the wall. It was neat and clean. A kitchen with table and chairs was on one end, a fireplace made of stone with a fire burning rose opposite the door in the center, on the other end there were two beds separated by a hanging blanket. One was occupied by two small children who stared at him in silence as they clutched one another in fear.
"My name is Lucy Gentry. How do you propose to help me?" she demanded. "Do you know where my husband Frank is?"
Wheeler locked eyes with her. "I'm sorry Mrs. Gentry, I don't know anything about your husband. Your note . . . " he carefully reached into his coat pocket, pulled it out, and showed her, "asked for help and says you feared for you and your children. I had to try and find you."
Lucy lowered the shotgun and set it on the table. "Thank you, Mr. Wheeler, I am afraid of those men. I believe this time they mean to kill me and my children. But I won't leave."
"Those are very bad men, ma'am. Eldon Turner is the boss. He's been trying to take my ranch for the water it has and my water rights. Why is he threatening you?"
"He and that no-good sheriff have been her several times threatening my husband—and now me. Each time was more heated. Frank finally had all the legal papers he needed to put off Turner for good. That's when he left—weeks ago," she said with a pained expression full of sorrow, "and never returned."
"What does he want? Water, like me?" Wheeler quizzed.
Instead of answering, she walked to a bucket next to the fireplace and bent down. Returning, she held out her hand and gave him a piece of solid black rock. He studied the rock with curiosity, then it struck him. "Coal?"
"Thant's correct, Mr. Wheeler. My Frank came from West Virginia where he mined it. The mountains behind us have untold amounts of it. Frank studied the rocks and beds it's deposited in, then learned how to claim it. That's what Turner is after. The railroad is coming and that's the first thing they need and want—coal for their locomotives. This coal is called bituminous and there's a fortune of it in those hills," she explained.
"I understand. Right now, we have to get you and the little ones to safety so I can give them a surprise they won't forget."
"What are you suggesting?" she asked.
"You need to get you and the children bundled up to stay outside overnight. Round up blankets, food, and water quick like. We'll go to where my horses are. You can make camp there and I'll come back here and wait for them to attack in the morning. You and the children will be safe, and if anything happens to me, you can ride to town for help. There are good people there in spite of Eldon Turner."
"I will agree to this Mr. Wheeler, but please call me Lucy." She motioned to the children to come closer. "This is Jacob, he's six." Without prompting Jacob stepped forward and shook hands. "And this is Abigail, she's four," Lucy smiled as she introduced the children.
"You both look brave and strong." Wheeler smiled at the pair noting that both nodded in agreement. "Would you like to camp out tonight?" Again, both nodded in response.
"Only one thing Lucy, please call me Walt. The mister thing makes me a bit . . . uncomfortable," he grinned.
"Agreed, Mr. . . . er, Walt."
Making sure the fire was stoked and that the lantern would keep going, Wheeler closed the door then led the way into the darkness with Jacob following close behind and Lucy carrying Abigail. Boisterous noise from the Turner camp indicated the whiskey was still flowing.
A small, sheltered fire blazing and extra wood handy, Wheeler made certain everyone was settled in for the evening then checked on the horses. As he picked up his rifle to leave, Lucy walked up and looked into his eyes. Hers were wet and her voice soft. "I don't know how to thank you. You've saved us from those evil men. Your wife is very lucky and must be very proud of you," she said.
Wheeler looked at her. "It's an honor to help, Lucy, but two things. My years in the cavalry taught me that until the war is over, it's not over and," he paused and smiled, "there is no Mrs. Wheeler. Guess I never had time to find the right woman. Now try to get some shut-eye and keep that shotgun handy."
* * *
When they came at him, he would show no hesitation. Both Turner and Dolman were bullies—and cowards. The other two he didn't know, but they were almost certainly hired to do the dirty work. He was outraged by the thought of what men like them would do to Lucy if given the chance.
Creeping to the cabin's front door, he knocked with the barrel of the Winchester and waited. Nothing. Gingerly, he pushed the door open a few inches and waited. No threat forthcoming, he eased inside, closed the door, and secured the metal bar into uprights on either side. After adding fuel to the fire, he turned the lantern down as low as it would go. Propped up by his coat, he sat on the children's bed facing the door, Winchester cradled in his arms.
Suddenly he was wide awake. He sat perfectly still and listened. Hearing nothing, he rose and tossed more fuel into the fireplace. Light from the window indicated the sun would appear any moment. Suddenly he heard a scuffing sound but couldn't immediately locate it.
Making sure the rifle had a shell in the chamber, he went to the window and slowly moved the cloth curtain aside. Instantly a heavy bullet slammed into the window frame. Removing his hat, he lifted it with the rifle's barrel toward the partially open curtain. This time, a slug shattered the window and put a hole in his hat. "Damn!" he exclaimed.
A voice shouted from outside. "Mrs. Gentry! This is your last chance. You have exactly two minutes to bring you and those children out or you will never be going anywhere—ever. Your choice."
The voice of Eldon Turner was infuriating. There—the scraping sound again, behind him . . . no, above him. Without warning, the cabin began to fill with smoke from the fireplace and blocked chimney. Clever, very clever. Smoke them out and shoot them as they came out the door.
Rising, Wheeler glanced out the window as a man ran from the cabin toward the others who waited with rifles in hand. Without hesitation he aimed and fired, the bullet lifted and slammed one of the thugs backward to the ground. As bullets slammed into the cabin, and choking on smoke, he cocked and fired again at a shape that lurched to the ground. He had to get out of the cabin.
Yanking the bar out, he pushed the door wide open. Smoke poured out as he ran and rolled bringing his rifle to bear on the man he had wounded. It was Dolman. Without thinking he fired again and watched the sheriff tumble over backward. On his feet, he ran for the water trough at the empty corral. Suddenly a blow struck him from behind followed by a fierce pain in his side but he refused to go down. Firing again, he almost made it to the trough when his rifle jammed.
Grabbing for his pistol, he heard a blast from the direction of the cabin and saw his adversary seem to fly backward. Another blast was answered by a pistol shot. Wheeler looked in time to see Lucy retreat into the still smoking cabin as Turner started to close the distance to her with pistol in hand,
"Turner! You coward!" Wheeler shouted.
The banker changed direction and fired, missing the rancher. "Wheeler. What are you doing? Help me end this and your ranch is free and clear—you'll have the title and your water rights." Turner watched Wheeler lifting his pistol, fired again—and missed again.
Wheeler fired and hit Turner in the arm causing him to drop his pistol. The two men kept advancing toward each other. The rancher unexpectedly tossed his Colt aside as he reached Turner and despite the pain in his side threw a powerful punch into the banker's head.
Stunned, the banker staggered backward as Wheeler threw another punch and missed. Enraged, Turner charged and hit Wheeler in his wounded side. The pain was terrible but he managed to stay upright. Turner charged him again, but the rancher stepped aside pushing Turner off balance. Bellowing, he turned and walked straight into a wicked uppercut followed by a strike to the face that broke the banker's nose and sent blood spraying. Staggering backward, Wheeler followed him and threw a roundhouse that put the banker on the ground. Unmoving, Turner lay there breathing heavily, finally pushing himself to his knees.
Bleeding from his wounded arm and glaring at Wheeler, Eldon Turner spat the words. "If you think this is over Wheeler, you're sadly mistaken. I'll see you hang for murdering these men who were serving the law," he sneered. "Your ranch and its water will be mine."
Wheeler glared at the useless man who would murder innocent people to have more wealth. "Pathetic, Turner. Just pathetic." As a final insult, he walked up to the banker and slapped him open-handed across the face. "When word gets out what happened here, there'll be no place in this territory for you to hide," he said holding his side.
"Walt!" Lucy shouted. "There's more coming."
Wheeler turned and saw two men riding fast down the hill he had used for cover. The sound of Lucy cocking the shotgun was reassuring. Grimacing in pain, he picked up his pistol and both waited at the ready.
The pair slowed their horses as they approached and surveyed the scene. "Don't shoot!" a voice yelled. It was Charlie Fraser riding with a serious-looking stranger.
Relieved, Wheeler responded. "Howdy neighbor. You're a long way from home."
"Walt, this here is Deputy U.S. Marshall Foss Pritchard. There's been trouble," Charlie said.
"Ma'am," Pritchard tipped his hat to Lucy. "I'm very sorry to report that your husband, Frank is dead."
Suddenly Lucy started to shake. Overcome by grief, tears flowed freely. "Who, who would do such a thing? Frank never hurt anybody." Wheeler went to her and she grabbed his arm to steady herself as grief turned to anger.
"Hold on, Mrs. Gentry." Pritchard resumed, "I have here a warrant for the arrest of Eldon Turner for the murder of your husband Frank Gentry."
"That's ridiculous!" Turner screamed.
Pritchard glared at Turner, still on his knees. "There were witnesses. A respected man, Reverend Morgan Thatcher, and his wife observed the confrontation—over mining leases it turns out—legal leases that had been duly filed with the proper authorities. Frank was headed back here to Mrs. Gentry when he was assaulted and then shot in the back by Turner.
"Townsfolk saw Turner and his gang ride out day before yesterday as I was headed out to question Mr. Wheeler who had been in town to see Turner. He wasn't at his ranch so I kept on south to Mr. Fraser's spread. That's where I learned of the tumbleweed notes and the one that Mr. Wheeler was pursuing. We rode fast to get here," Pritchard explained. "If you two help me get the bodies loaded on their horses and secure Turner, we'll be headed out. I'll be in town with him locked up by sundown."
Before departing, Pritchard once again expressed his sympathy to Lucy and thanked Fraser and Wheeler. The trio watched as he rode away with Turner and his lifeless gang in tow.
A few minutes later, Charlie Fraser was sitting his saddle. "Remember what I said Walt, good neighbors are hard to find." Grinning, he nudged his horse toward home.
Wheeler turned to Lucy, who still held the shotgun. Her eyes were wet, but she was strong.
"What now?" she asked.
Walt realized that she was now adrift in a world that had unexpectedly changed forever.
"Time to gather up the children and horses. I bet Jacob and Abigail could use a hot meal."
"You need to be tended to and a meal yourself," she said with a gentle tone.
"Children and stock first," he replied with a grin.