Jason Harris walks down the street watching the people who are out and about on this Saturday morning in Arroyo, Texas. It is a small town compared to Ft. Worth or Waco, but for Jason it is his hometown because Of its location to his ranch 15 miles northwest of Arroyo. Walking along the boardwalk he nods to several men, and he tips his hat to the Preacher's wife as she goes into the Mercantile Store.
Two men ride into town out of the North and pull up in front of O' Reilly's Saloon. Jason hesitates for a moment before walking across the street to intercept the men. "Excuse me," Jason says as he walks up to the men, "I believe you are riding two of my horses."
The two men are dusty from riding a long trail and each has a week's growth of whiskers which are stained with tobacco juice that is leaking from the corners of their mouths. The older one looks Jason up and down and rests his hand on the gun hanging on his hip. "Sonny why don't you run on home before you get yourself hurt trying to be a big boy."
People began stopping to see what is going on as Jason steps back a couple of paces and says, "Sorry, I may be young, but I'm old enough to handle a couple of horse thieves like you." As he says it he reaches for his pistol and hauls back on the hammer as he looks them both in the eye.
By now eight men have gathered watching to see how Jason is going to handle this problem. "Now see here Kid, I don't want any trouble, but if you don't put that gun down you might shoot yourself. Or someone might take you seriously and shoot you for being a pest. Now get out of here before I turn you over my knee and give you a paddling," the older one says.
Jason never even blinks when the younger one reaches for his gun. Jason shoots him in the hand as the man lifts it from his holster. Jason turns his gun on the older one and says, "Unbuckle your gun and drop it on the ground. One false move and you will end up like your partner or worse."
To anyone who will listen, Jason says, "When I left my ranch this morning these two horses were in my corral. If there is any doubt about my ownership, lift the saddles off and you will find a JH branded on the withers on the left side of each horse."
Sheriff Nichols came walking up and demanded, "What's going on here. Who shot that man sitting on the ground?"
The older one of the horse thieves speaks up, "Sheriff this punk kid shot my brother for no reason. He came over here and began threatening us then pulled his gun and shot my brother."
Jake Wellman from over at the livery stable spoke up, "That's not exactly the way it happened Sheriff. Young Jason accused these two of stealing his horses. That one was standing arguing with him and the one on the ground tried to sneak a gun, so Jason shot him. I know these two horses they've been in the livery several times and they do belong to Jason."
"Alright you there, grab your brother and help him up. You're both going to jail until the judge gets to town and then we'll hang you for being the horse thieves that you are."
"But Sheriff, I've been shot. Aren't you going to take me to a doctor? I might bleed to death."
"When you are both locked up I'll send someone to fetch the Doc to patch you up."
"Jason take these horses to the livery, then come on over to the jail so I can get your story."
Jason is sitting in the Sheriff's office waiting for the Doctor and the Sheriff to get done patching up the prisoner when Jason notices some wanted posters on the wall by the Sheriff's desk. He walks over and is looking at them when the Sheriff comes into the room.
"See anyone you know," the Sheriff asks as he sits down behind his desk?
"Yes actually," Jason responds. "There are posters on both those guys. John and Billy Hillman wanted on two counts of bank robbery, one count each for stealing cattle and John is wanted for murder in Kansas."
"No joke?" says the Sheriff as he gets up from his chair and comes over to look at the wanted posters. "Well, I'll be! You have had a busy morning young man and it looks like you have reward money coming to you. Good job!"
The Sheriff takes down the posters and returns to his seat behind his desk. "Have a seat son. You don't get to town very often. Is everything going ok at the ranch since your father passed away? Is Old Brazos still out there with you or has he finally kicked the bucket?
"No Sir, He's still there. He works harder than I do. He's a good man. I couldn't have made it without his help. We're busy working with the horses. I sold 20 head to the Army in Fort Worth. They came by two days ago and picked them up. That's why I'm in town today, to deposit the money at the bank and buy supplies for the ranch. Between selling cattle and horses to the Army and breaking colts and chasing mustangs we stay busy."
"I don't mean to get personal Jason, but how old are you now?"
"Well Sir, I'm not sure but I believe I'm 14. Pa said he thought I was born in the fall of 56. It was a couple of years before we headed west from Tennessee."
"At 14 you're doing a man's job and walking the walk of a man. I know your Daddy would be proud of you. I'll need you to come to town and testify when the Judge gets here. It will be in a couple of weeks. I'll send someone to the ranch to let you know when he's coming. Court won't take long, what with these posters to help support your claim about them stealing your horses."
"Can I take the two horses back to the ranch or do I need to leave them here for evidence," Jason inquired?
"No, go ahead and take them home. There is not any reason to run up a feed bill at the livery. I do not think we are going to need them here for the trial. There are enough witnesses to testify to who the horses belong to."
"If there is nothing else, I will hit the trail for home. Either Ole Brazos or I will be in town before the end of the week to pick up the supplies that I ordered. Whichever one of us it is, we will stop in and check with you about the trial."
"Sounds good, I'll see you at the end of the week. Tell Ole Brazos I said to get a real job," the sheriff grins as he waves goodbye to Jason.
Jason leaves town leading the two horses. As he rides along he remembers it was a year ago when he and his dad had ridden back from town trailing two mares they bought from the banker, Mr. Billings. The mares were mustang/ Morgan cross that they were going to breed to a Tennessee Walker stallion to improve their blood stock. A lot had happened in that years' time. His dad was kicked to death by a young colt. That was the hardest thing Jason ever dealt with. When his mother died coming west, he didn't remember it being as hard as when his dad died.
After his dad died, the neighbor to the west of them moving his cattle on to their winter range but with the help of Old Brazos, they pushed his cows off and Old Brazos rode guard to prevent the neighbor from trying again. Once the cattle were gone Jason went to town and met with Tom Wilkerson a lawyer in Arroyo, and the Judge. He was able to show them the title to the ranch. After that he never heard from the neighbor again.
He and his father settled in a valley that had a stream flowing year around. It was fed by 4 springs which originated on the ranch. After they settled in, Jason's father went to Austin and purchased 2500 acres of land which included the 4 springs as part of the ranch. Money was hard to come by in Texas at the time so when his dad offered the State $2.00 an acre for the land the State accepted his offer. With the title to the land his dad didn't have to worry about people trying to move on to the ranch.
He and his father brought with them three Tennessee Walker mares carrying foals to start a horse ranch in Texas. A year after arriving his father traded two of the 'Tennessee Walker' colts for two Morgan stallions to breed to the mares they brought from Tennessee. One of the stallions he kept at the ranch and the other one he turned loose to run with the band of mustangs that called the ranch home.
The first couple of years they built feeder dams to irrigate the meadows along the valley floor for hay to feed during the winter months. As the meadows grew lush the cattle began coming down out of the hills to feed on the grass. These cattle were running wild for years and the brush country around the ranch was full of them. Jason and Old Brazos spent months combing the brush bringing in longhorns until they had a herd of 400 young cows and several good young bulls they could civilize to the ways of the ranch.
Jason reaches the road to the ranch as the sun is setting behind the hills. Coming through the gate into the ranch yard he's surprised not to see a light at the house or bunkhouse. "Old Brazos must be out checking cows," Jason tells his horse as he rides to the barn to unsaddle.
When he went to put the three horses in the corral where there should have been four horses, instead there were six. This morning there had been eight horses in the corral. Jason is riding one and Old Brazos is riding another one. If the thieves took two horses and left theirs there would be six horses which was correct except for the fact that four of the horses in the corral aren't his. They show signs of being ridden hard and when they were put in the corral they weren't rubbed down. Their coats are stiff with dried sweat and the paint horse has a sore on his back where a saddle rubbed him raw.
Jason studies the tracks around the corral but it is too dark to be able to tell anything. He is going to have to wait for Old Brazos to come in to find out what is going on. The one thought he had was there must have been four horse thieves. If they took four horses out of the corral and left theirs, it would make sense why there were six horses in the corral.
Jason went to the house and stoked up the fire in the kitchen stove before putting water in the coffee pot and added a handful of crushed coffee beans. While he is waiting for the coffee, he slices off a steak from a rump of venison hanging in the cool room on the back porch. Removing a skillet from the hook next to the stove, he dips a spoonful of bacon grease from the tin beside the stove and drops it into the skillet. While he is waiting for the grease to get hot, he slices up a couple of potatoes and an onion. When the grease is ready, he puts the steak, potatoes and onion in the pan.
Soon supper is ready, and the coffee is done so he pours a little cold water into the coffee pot to settle the grounds then pours himself a cup of coffee before settling down to eat.
When he finishes eating, he pours hot water into a pan and washes his dirty dishes and wipes them dry before putting everything away. Then pouring another cup of coffee he goes for a walk around the ranch checking all the outbuildings, the hen house, and finally the barn and the corral behind it. Everything is quiet. As he is walking around, he cannot help but wonder where Old Brazos is.
Old Brazos wasn't really that old. His name was Ollie Swenson, and he is about 35 with blonde hair and blue eyes that are always seeing the funny side of life. He was raised on the banks of the south fork of the Brazos River hence the name Brazos. When Jason's dad died Old Brazos became a mentor and a big brother to Jason. Together they do the work of four men and when Old Brazos is not around, the ranch seems awful quiet.
The sun is beginning to show a little color in the eastern sky as Jason gets up and stokes the fire in the stove. On his way to the outhouse, he checks the corral to see if Old Brazos's horse was there, but it isn't. Jason throws down hay to the horses in the corral and checks the water in the trough before going by the bunkhouse to see if Old Brazos came in afoot, but he is not there. Now Jason figures it is time to start worrying.
The sun is peeking over the east rim as Jason starts looking for tracks that will tell him which direction Old Brazos went when he left the ranch yesterday. He also wants to find the tracks left by the horse thieves telling him which direction they came from and if they left the ranch together or if they split up when they left.
Circling the ranch buildings, he finds where four horses came down off the rim behind the barn where they could not be seen from the house. All four horses were carrying men so that explains the four strange horses in the corral. Now to find out which direction they went and what happened to Old Brazos.
It did not take long to find the tracks of the horse thieves. They left the ranch heading south across country towards the Mexican Border. Soon another horse joins up with them because all the tracks are going south. "Those new tracks look like that bay horse Old Brazos rides," Jason tells his horse. "If it is, then he is following the same trail we are, but he's a day ahead of us. We better see if we can catch up with him. He might need our help."
Two miles from the town of Arroyo the trail split. Two of the riders rode into Arroyo and three kept riding south. Old Brazos must be following the ones riding south so Jason decides to ride into Arroyo and warn the Sheriff there are two more outlaws connected to the two in jail.
He rides up to the livery and ties his horse to a post. He asks Jake the hostler to give his horse some oats and to put a bag of oats on the back of his saddle while he goes to see the Sheriff.
"You'll have to go to Doc's house if you want to see the Sheriff. He was shot last night when somebody broke into the jail and turned those horse thieves loose," Jake said.
"Thanks, I need to see him for one minute and then I'm coming back."
Jason heads up town to the doc's house and knocks on the door. When Doc answers, Jason explains to him that he must see the Sheriff and he cannot wait.
"He's awake but groggy. I gave him Laudanum last night to help him sleep. He is still in danger but every hour that he lives he has a better chance of making it. Don't excite him and don't stay to long."
Jason steps into the room and is shocked at the appearance of Sheriff Nichols. He is grey in the face and looks like he's aged 20 years since Jason saw him yesterday. He tries to speak but Jason holds up his hand and tells him, "Don't talk. Let me do the talking. I don't have much time and I need to go after those who did this to you. When I got home last night there were 4 strange horses in my corral and four of mine were missing. I tracked them this morning and they split up outside of town. Two of them kept heading south and the other two came into town. The ones who went south must have circled around and came back and broke their friends out of jail last night, shooting you in the process. Old Brazos is on their trail, and I aim to catch up with him before he tangles with them. If I don't show back up here in a week I'll try to let you know where I am. Get well! We need you around here." With that said Jason turns and walks out the door and back to the livery.
When Jason arrives at the livery Jake Wellman is leading a horse into the barn. He looks over his shoulder and says, "Give me a minute, I'll put this stray in a stall and get your horse."
"Wait! Let me see that horse, I think it's the horse Old Brazos was riding yesterday." After a closer inspection Jason knew it was Old Brazos's horse.
While he is looking the horse over Jake says, "I think there's blood on the saddle," and points to a dark smudge on the left front swell on the saddle.
Jason wipes it with his finger and finds it still slightly damp. He looks at Jake, "This didn't happen very long ago. Which direction was the horse coming from when you found him?"
"He was coming up the road from the south dragging his reins when I caught him."
"Thanks, what do I owe you for the grain and I'm going to take this horse with me because Old Brazos may need him to get back home."
"Don't worry about the grain, you're in a hurry, we can settle later. Good luck and don't let them buzzards get away."
Jason picks up the trail of the bay and follows it south. The bay came out of the brush and on to the road about five miles south of town, so Jason follows the tracks back through the brush and mesquite trees. A mile into the brush he comes to the mouth of a canyon where there are a lot of hoof prints and at one spot near some rocks is a pool of blood. It looks like someone was shot.
Jason turns into the canyon and starts working his way quietly back through the brush. He knows he must be getting close, so he ties the horses back in the brush away from the trail where hopefully no one will see them.
He goes a mile on foot following the tracks when he catches the smell of mesquite smoke coming down the canyon. He leaves the bottom of the canyon and moves up on to the side hill about 30 feet up into the dense brush that is shoulder high on a man. He finds a deer trail where the deer created a tunnel leading through the brush so if he bends over, he can follow the tunnel allowing him to move quietly toward the fire. "There are some advantages to being smaller than a man," he tells himself as he moves forward. A hundred feet later he finds a place where he can look down on the fire. He sees the two brothers John and Billy Hillman standing with two men talking around the fire.
Jason can't hear what they are saying, but the two guys don't appear to be very happy with the brothers. John is looking down into the fire and shuffling his feet like he wants to run but is afraid to move.
Suddenly there is a rifle shot somewhere up the canyon and the shooter isn't that far away. It's followed by a second shot about 10 seconds later. All four men turn and are staring up the canyon trying to figure out who is shooting and at what.
The brothers stay at the fire while the other two men walk up the canyon towards where the horses are picketed and in the directions the shots came from. They stop next to the horses and stare up at the canyon with their hands shading their eyes as if it will help them see better.
Watching the men Jason thinks to himself, "Why not? What do I have to lose?" He starts working his way down to the clearing where the four outlaws have their camp.
The clearing is narrow, only about 20 feet wide and maybe 60 feet long. Jason steps out from the brush directly behind the brothers. He moved up behind brother John and put his gun in the middle of his back and cocked the hammer. Both brothers jump as Jason says in a quiet voice, "I told you if I ever saw you again, I was going to kill you. So now you have a choice. You can die here in the middle of nowhere where no one will ever find you, or you can loosen your gun belts and let them fall to the ground. Then you can step away from them and live. I wouldn't advise you to alert your friends over there because when they turn around, they will be pulling leather and firing at the first thing they see, which of course is going to be you."
Both brothers looked at the other outlaws and then looked at each other. Billy reached down with his good hand and slowly unbuckles his gun belt and lets it fall to the ground. John hesitates for a second then slowly follows his brother's example. Jason has them step two paces away from the guns. He then bends down never taking his eyes off the outlaws and picks up both gun belts with his left hand. He tells them to stand real still so the men who are waiting in the brush won't shoot them by mistake. The brothers look around and raise their hands up to shoulder height.
Jason slowly moves toward the other two outlaws. He hardly dares to breathe because he wants to get as close as possible before making his play. He is six feet from the outlaws when the one on the left must have seen a movement out of the corner of his eye because he starts to turn and at the same time reaches for his gun. Jason stands calmly and when the man's gun clears leather Jason shoots him between the eyes. The other man had started to say something when Jason's gun went off. The man jumped 4 foot in the air and when he landed Jason had his pistol stuck against the outlaw's right ear. "If you want to die, just twitch and I'll blow your head off your shoulders. If not, then unbuckle your gun belt and walk backward until I tell you to stop," Jason said in a quiet voice.
Sheriff Rob Johnston from Packer's Landing was standing in the brush watching the young boy who didn't appear to be much over 13 or 14 walk up and disarm the two men standing at the fire. The Sheriff had recognized both men as the part of the gang that robbed the bank at Packer's Landing 10 days ago. He saw them as he was coming out of the mercantile. They had exited the bank and rode off before he could get off a shot at them.
After the boy disarms the first two outlaws he continues walking toward the horses. From where the Sheriff is standing he can't see him so he moves through the brush until he can see where the boy has gone.
The Hillman brothers were considering an escape into the brush until they saw the man step out to the edge of the brush. At that point they sat down and placed their hands on top of their heads.
Just as the Sheriff reaches the edge of the brush, he sees one of the outlaws standing by the horses spin around and pull his gun and the young boy shoots him. The boy turns and grabs the other outlaw and disarms him with no trouble.
Jason is slowly walking backward toward the brothers when he sees a man step out of the brush with a gun in his hand. He knows that if this guy is with the outlaws, he is a dead man. There is no way to turn and fire before the new guy can shoot him. He jabs his gun into the outlaw and slowly turns him so that he is facing the newcomer. When the man steps clear of the brush, he moves the front of his jacket to reveal a silver star pinned to his chest. Jason nods and blows a sigh of relief when he sees that star.
Jason walks the outlaw up to the sheriff and says, "Sir I hope you have some handcuffs or a length of rope that we can secure these hombres with. I was afraid I was going to have to crack their skulls until I could find enough rope to hogtie them."
The Sheriff laughs and says, "I think I can manage to find something to tie them up with since you have already done the hard work. By the way, I'm Sheriff Johnston from over to Packer's Landing. These men robbed the bank in Packer's Landing 10 days ago and I've been on their trail since then. Now who are you and how do you figure into all this?"
The Sheriff produces some rope and ties up the outlaws while Jason held a gun on them and tells the Sheriff his story about the stolen horses and the shooting of Sheriff Nichols. He told him how his partners horse had showed up in town and he backtracked it to here.
"That's quite a story, but where's your partner? Did they kill him?"
"Those rifle shots we keep hearing are him trying to let me know where he's holed up. As soon as these guys are bound, I'd like to go get my friend and bring him down before we take these hombres into town, if you don't mind watching them while I'm gone. I think there's coffee on the fire if you're so inclined."
"I'll manage, go get your friend. We'll be here waiting when you get back. If they give me any trouble, I'll shoot them and save the judge the trouble of having a trial for them."
Jason walked back to the mouth of the canyon and retrieved his horses. Back in the saddle once again Jason goes looking for Old Brazos. He thinks he knows the general area Old Brazos is in from the sounds of the rifle shots. Soon Jason is high above the canyon floor. Looking down he can see Sheriff Johnston sitting with the prisoners. As he rides along, he is whistling a tune, when he hears a voice say, "Junior, you never could carry a tune, but I see you at least brought me my horse. Do you think you can help an old man whose been shot get on his horse?"
Jason took the time to bandage the gunshot wound which was just above Old Brazos hip. Once he had Old Brazos patched up he helped him into the saddle and led him down off the mountain.
When Jason, Sheriff Johnston, Old Brazos, the three prisoners and the dead man draped across a horse rode into Arroyo the whole town came out to meet them. Everyone was asking questions but none of the riders were saying anything.
As soon as the prisoners are locked up, Sheriff Johnston, Jason and Old Brazos head for Doc's house to get Old Brazos fixed up and to report to Sheriff Nichols.
After telling his side of the story to Sheriff Nichols, Jason went to check on Old Brazos. The Doc was wrapping a bandage around his middle when Jason entered the room. Old Brazos looks up and says, "Boss I may have to lay around for a day or two, but I'll be back on a horse before you know it."
Jason laughs, "What's with calling me Boss? You never called me that before. I thought we were partners."
"We are that, but after the last couple of days I don't feel right calling you Junior anymore. Boss seems to fit you better."