Standing on an outcrop, holding the reins to his horse, Jacob Wright took in the stunning sight. He was about five hundred feet above the valley floor, in the same spot he had stood dozens of times before and was still amazed at the beauty of it all. He and his wife Rebecca had a small spread about twenty miles north of Laramie and he had ridden out two days earlier. He was searching for any stray cattle that may still be alive. Over the last few days, he was able to round-up a couple dozen but also came across just as many rotting carcasses. Some of the strays were his brand and some from other ranches. He would sort it out later. He had built a temporary corral to hold them and this would be his last day before he herded them home.
The canyon was about two miles wide and extended two or three miles in length until it intersected with a river flowing from the north. Beyond the river was a mountain range topped in white; disappearing into the horizon. It was just after dawn and the trees glistened from the overnight rain and the sun slowly spread its luminous warmth over the valley. Spring was a welcome visitor after the dreadful winter of 1886. The snow had come in early October, and often. It accumulated in giant drifts and grew like small mountains throughout the Wyoming Territory. The weather was so severe that over fifty percent of the territory's livestock perished. In some areas of the territory the snow was over six feet deep with an outer layer of impenetrable ice.
Now most of the snow had melted but there were signs of the devastating winter everywhere. It was early March; there were frozen drifts of hard packed snow and ice on the shady side of the valley as well as the damage to the trees and plant growth. Some of the ice would still be there in May.
Jacob stood there for a few minutes, enjoying the warmth of the sun as it moved higher in the sky. What a lucky man he was, he thought. He was twenty-seven years old; had a wife and a ranch. He knew he worked hard for everything he had, including his wife, but was still in wonderment at his good fortune. Jacob was a little under six feet tall, slender with broad shoulders. He was wearing an old pair of boots, dungarees and a heavy canvas coat. He had a wool scarf around his neck to keep out the chill and an old brown Stetson that was his constant companion. He had dark brown eyes, high cheekbones and a straight nose. His hair was black as coal and hung almost to his shoulders. Some suspected he was from Cherokee stock. He wasn't considered a half-breed but there was no doubt there was Indian blood somewhere in his lineage. His beard was lighter in color but a three day growth gave him a weathered and worn appearance.
He had met Rebecca shortly after he staked his claim. She was the daughter of the owner of the general store in Medicine Bow, the closest town to his ranch. Rebecca was a tall woman, but shorter than Jacob. She had strawberry-blond hair, usually pulled back in a bun. Her blue eyes were bright and a few freckles dotted her face. She was the kind of woman that spoke her mind and was not generally liked by men. She was too head-strong for some but Jacob thought it was strength of character. He was immediately smitten with her. He knew right off she was the one he wanted to marry. He only hoped she felt the same and he would make every effort to win her over. He spent a day's pay to one of the foremen at the Crooked Tree Ranch, where he worked prior to working his own spread, so he could have the opportunity to pick up the supplies for the week. Apprehensively, he stood on the wooden porch, working up the courage to go in. He was nervous and awkward but found the strength and walked into the store and marched directly to the counter where Rebecca was standing.
"Howdy ma'am, I'm Jacob Wright.", was all that he could say.
Rebecca had seen him coming and put on a serious expression and looked him over. She had seen him about town a few times, mostly with other cowboys but occasionally riding alone on the street. He carried himself in a different manner than the other cowboys. It wasn't cockiness but more of confidence. He seemed like he knew what he wanted and nothing would interfere with accomplishing his goals. He was a tall lanky man; a little older than her. He was nervous and couldn't stand still and it seemed to her he had never talked to a girl before. He had a nice smile and he looked her in the eye. She liked that. Most cowboys looked at her all over but rarely in the eyes.
"Hello cowboy", she said. "What can I do for you?"
He handed her the list of goods. "These are the supplies needed at the Crooked Tree", he said.
"Are you new? I haven't seen you in here before?" She asked.
"I've been there since last summer, almost a year."
"They finally let you out for some errands. They must trust you."
"Yes ma'am, I guess they do". He said with a slight smile knowing that not in a million years would they ordinarily allow a young cowhand this responsibility.
Rebecca looked over the list and handed it back to him. He looked bewildered.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"Yes." She said. "What is the fourth item from the top? I can't read the writing?"
Jacob looked over the sheet of paper and said. "That says twenty pounds of coffee." And he handed the note back to her.
She took it and thought that at least he can read and write. That was a good sign. Most cowboys couldn't write their own name. She proceeded to get everything together and had Jacob pull supplies from the shelves and take them out to the wagon and they both recounted the supply's and agreed everything was there. Jacob signed for the receipt, thanked her for the help and waved good-bye as he whipped the team to move out.
"Nice meeting you Jacob. I hope to see you again." She yelled as he steered the team away from the general store. "By the way, my name is Rebecca."
Jacob could only look over his shoulder and gave her a nervous grin.
They were married in 1884 in a small ceremony with friends and her family and some hands from the Crooked Tree Ranch. She immediately fit into the life of a rancher's wife. She enjoyed the work and companionship of Jacob and looked forward to starting a family.
* * *
He climbed into the saddle and gave Betsy a gentle pat on her neck. She was a chestnut mare with a white diamond on her forehead. "Let's go, girl". He said. Pulling on the reins with a little kick in her flank, she nickered and headed down a worn path to the valley below. Jacob always rode her when there was a lot of work to be done. She was nimble in the mountain terrain and thrived on the exercise and was always willing to run; something Jacob enjoyed immensely. He swayed in the saddle and moved with the horse as if they were one being, resting one hand on the saddle horn and the other controlling the reins. He had a Winchester rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun slung on her right side in a scabbard he made himself and a slicker tied in the rear. He carried both guns for different reason. He generally used the shotgun for small game and the rifle for big game; and you never knew when they would come in handy for other reasons. He rarely wore a side arm but kept a Colt and extra shells with his grub in his saddle bags.
In a few minutes, he was on the valley floor and moving east towards the river. There were some tracks from several cattle headed in that direction. If he was lucky, he would find them on this side of the river as he was sure they would not cross on their own volition. As he was approaching the water he saw several cattle near the shore, about two hundred feet from where he was. He stopped and stood-up straight in the stirrups to get a better view. He saw two men standing on the other side of the cattle with ropes in their hands. He watched for a moment not moving, then pulled the twelve gauge from the scabbard and rested it across the saddle. He slowly approached the men without saying a word.
The two men noticed him at almost the same time. They pushed the cattle aside and both rested their hands on their side-arms and watched Jacob approach. There were about thirty feet between him and the men.
"Howdy", the taller of the two said. "Can I help you?"
Jacob looked them over knowing that he was in a better position with the shotgun in his lap. "I should be asking the questions. What are you doing here and who are you? Those are my cattle."
"Why nothin, mister. We was just gathering up these cows to return them to their rightful owner. Weren't we, Bud." He said to the shorter stockier one. "We was hoping for a reward."
The shorter one was about forty with dirty blonde hair. He was wearing worn dungarees and a plaid workman's jacket. He had mean looking brown eyes that were void of any emotion and a week's worth of beard. He didn't look like one to back down from a confrontation. The taller one was a little older and was dressed similar to his friend but with a dusty derby sitting on the back of his head. He seemed more reasonable and knew when to be aggressive and when to back down.
Jacob looked them both over. Bud looked mean and ready for a fight; the taller one seemed to sum up the situation and was thinking of his alternatives. Jacob said. "Well, you found the owner; see the JW brand. Those are my cows and I appreciate you taking care of them for me. I'll take them off your hands now."
"Well . . . you gonna give us a reward as we found them for you?" Bud asked.
"I wasn't offering a reward but I'll give you a dollar for your troubles."
The taller one was looking Jacob over; deciding his next move. "A dollar!" he exclaimed. "You should pay us five dollars for each cow." The taller one moved to Jacob's right and Bud moved to Jacobs left in an effort to flank him. Jacob moved quickly and raised the shotgun and pointed it at the shorter one, Bud.
"Stop right there and don't move your hand closer to your pistol." Jacob said. The man stopped in his tracks and made no effort to go for his gun.
"What are you gunna do cowboy?" the short one asked. "There's two of us and only one of you. I see your scatter gun but you can't get us both.
Jacob raised the twelve gauges and pointed it towards Bud. "You're right." He said. "I can't get you both. But I can cut you in half and see what you ate for breakfast."
"Yeah." Bud said. "But my friend Stokes over there will shoot you dead."
"He might" said Jacob, "But it won't much matter to you, will it? You'll already be dead. What would you like to do?"
Bud starred at Jacob contemplating his next move. Jacob had the shotgun pointed at his mid-section with an unblinking stare.
"Well, we was just testing you mister." He said with a laugh. "I think I might want to collect our dollar and be on our way."
With the shotgun in his right hand, Jacob went into his waist pocket of his jacket and pulled out a coin. He flipped it to Bud who caught it in the air. Jacob again had both hands on the shotgun and jerked it towards the taller man. "Move over close to your partner there and get in your saddles." He said, tilting his head towards the taller man. "And do it nice and gentle-like or my finger might get nervous."
Not speaking, the two men moved closer and mounted their horses.
"Now, both of you move out across that river and don't look back." Jacob said in a firm voice.
The two men hesitated and looked at each other and then turned their horses and slowly headed for the river bank. With their backs to Jacob, he raised the shotgun and let one round go into the air. Both men and horses were startled by the gunfire and the mounts jumped and took-off into the river. The men had to hang on as the horses staggered and jumped across the shallow water. They made it to the other side without falling from their mounts and turned and glared the hundred and fifty feet across the river. The short one yelled something and then they turned their horses and headed toward the far mountain.
Jacob watched them as they disappeared into the brush and trees. He sat there for a while to make sure they hadn't turned back. He was worried. He knew that the two men were scavengers and could be dangerous to anyone who let their guard down. He would need to pass the word to the other ranchers at the next meeting.
Jacob herded the half-dozen or so cattle two miles and had them in the corral before sundown. He settled in for the night and knew he needed the rest as he had a long day tomorrow. It would be a fitful sleep as he couldn't shake the image of the two men. He knew they would have killed him and taken his cattle if they had half the chance. Could he sleep tonight knowing they were still out there somewhere? After he made himself some supper, he got his sleeping gear and lay as close to the fire as he could. The evening was cool and the warmth of the fire soothed his aching body and he was asleep in an instant.
He woke to the coolness of the night as the fire burned to cinders and the only light was the glow of the embers. There was nothing to see; the night was dark with no moon or noise. He could faintly see the outline of the trees as they met the horizon. Jacob lay there awake and heard nothing but the swaying of the branches from the wafting wind. It was quiet, too quiet. His horse was silent tethered by the corral. Even the cattle were quiet; tired from the long drive. He pulled his boots on and put on his coat. He left his hat on his saddle and sleeping gear on the ground and grabbed his shotgun and moved about twenty feet from the fading fire. He sat on a rock and waited.
A half hour passed and he heard noise from near the corral. It was at first unidentifiable but then he heard footsteps and a low murmur from a cow. The footsteps stopped; then started again. Whispers were carried on the breeze and he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He had adjusted to the darkness and saw two hunched-over shadows approaching his sleeping area. They stopped and stood over his sleeping gear and a familiar voice broke the silence of the night.
It was Bud's voice. "Wake up sleepy. It's time you paid in full, not just that one lousy dollar." He was pointing a pistol at what he thought was Jacobs's body.
Stokes felt in control of the situation and was braver than he had been earlier in the day. "Get up mister. We've got some business to finish with you." He then kicked the blanket intending to roust Jacob from his slumber and he immediately realized there was nothing there but a sleeping roll and a blanket.
"Holy Christ." Stokes whispered as he realized there was nobody sleeping on the ground. He lifted his head and squinted into the darkness. Bud quickly looked around.
Bud softly said. "Where is he, Stokes?"
"I dunno. Maybe he went to piss."
"I think he's watching us." Bud said quietly. "Let's back out of here."
At the same moment Jacob walked out of the darkness pointing his shotgun at the two men.
"Drop those Colts or I'll put you both down!" Jacob said, startling the men. "I figured you boy's right; bushwhackers! Now drop'm."
The men froze. Stokes immediately dropped his pistol and raised his hands. Bud didn't move and though Jacob couldn't see his face he knew he was thinking of a way out of the situation.
Jacob lifted the twelve-gauge, pointing it at Bud's chest. "I think we've been through this before and I don't much care which way you decide mister. It's your call and I ain't got all night."
Bud stood more erect and his face slowly came from behind the shadow of his hat. Jacob instinctively knew what the man was going to do as soon he saw his eyes. Bud lifted his pistol to fire but Jacob was already pulling the trigger on the shotgun. Being only fifteen feet from the man, the buckshot didn't have a chance to spread and hit him square in the chest. The explosion lit up the campsite for an instant and Bud was lifted off his feet and landed on his back before the echo of the blast subsided.
As Jacob fired, Stokes dove to the ground to avoid the next shot and rolled away from Jacob into the darkness. As he rolled, he picked up the Colt and fired at Jacob. Jacob could not see Stokes until he saw the flash from his gun. He turned his body sideways hoping to narrow the target and he felt the slug crease the back of his shoulder and he fell to the ground. Stokes walked out of the shadows holding the gun on Jacob.
"You just kilt my best friend and I'm gunna kill–"
Stokes never finished the sentence. Jacob, lying on his back, fired the shotgun; the blast hitting Stokes under the chin. His face and front of his head disappeared in a wash of red and white. For a moment Stokes didn't move and then crumpled to the ground.
* * *
The next afternoon, Jacob was herding his cattle over a ridge when the ranch house came into view. He saw his wife, Rebecca, by the corral and they both waved. By the time Jacob had the cattle at the corral gate; she had it open and was prodding the cows through the opening. Once the gate was closed she rushed over to Jacob who was still on his horse.
She raised her arm and Jacob bent over and gave her a kiss. Looking up she said. "It's good to have you home. Everything go alright; see anything interesting out there?"
Jacob looked at her then lifted his head and looked to the direction he had just come from. "Yeah, let's talk it over at supper."