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Published on Thursday, October 24, 2013

Rustler's Choice

By Connie Vigil Platt

 

Lynette Timmons paced back and forth in her small kitchen. She couldn't shake the dark foreboding feeling she had since her husband, Walker, had left to hunt for stray cattle. A tingle of fear traveled up and down her spine every time she looked out the window. There was nothing in sight but the bare countryside, yet deep inside she was sure something or someone was out there.

The feeling she had was the same as she used to get after the War Between the States when marauding men came through looting and taking anything they could find. Some of them wore gray uniforms and some wore blue but it didn't matter they were all after what they could find and destroy the rest. These men took any chickens they could catch kill them, eat what they wanted and leave the rest lying on the ground to rot, then demolish property for meanness. They would go through the buildings and break plow handles or axe handles so they couldn't be used, destroy whatever was there. The war had been over for years but there might still be some of these men roaming the west and hiding from the law. They all acted as if they didn't have any relatives that would be ashamed of them. As if they had already lost everything that they valued. Lynette shivered thinking about it.

   

The feeling she had was the same as she used to get after the War Between the States when marauding men came through looting and taking anything they could find. Some of them wore gray uniforms and some wore blue but it didn't matter they were all after what they could find and destroy the rest. These men took any chickens they could catch kill them, eat what they wanted and leave the rest lying on the ground to rot, then demolish property for meanness. They would go through the buildings and break plow handles or axe handles so they couldn't be used, destroy whatever was there. The war had been over for years but there might still be some of these men roaming the west and hiding from the law. They all acted as if they didn't have any relatives that would be ashamed of them. As if they had already lost everything that they valued. Lynette shivered thinking about it.

She was glad her eight year old daughter, Hannah, had stayed home from school. Hannah had claimed to have a stomach ache and not only was Lynette was glad of the company; she didn't want her walking the lonely road to and from the school alone, not today. She was watching the girl playing with her homemade rag doll when the dog outside started to bark. He would bark, growl and run to the door and scratch to get in then whine and go back to barking.

Lynette looked out the window, this time she saw that two men were riding toward the house, dust puffing up around the horses' hooves as they skirted around the corral and pens. She went to the door making sure the rifle was it its place. She kept it beside the door jamb so that it was always in easy reach without being seen by any one outside. She stood on the porch waiting for them, keeping her hand hidden and on the rifle. Visitors were rare at a remote homestead like this one so she kept a rifle handy when her husband was away from home. If they weren't friendly she would be ready. She had no qualms about shooting an intruder; she had to defend her daughter, the livestock and herself.

The older man was riding a big bay, the other man young enough to be his son, was riding a flashy brown and white paint horse. Both men had rifles in their saddle scabbards and pistols tied on their hip. They rode easy in the saddle as if they were at home there. Their boots were all dusty, their chaps well worn as if they had been riding a long time. Lynette saw all this at first glance, indicating that they were a couple of hard cases. These men meant business; only she didn't know what business they had in mind.

Fear bubbled up in Lynette like a pot ready to boil over. She choked back a scream and said as calm as she could, "Mornin' can I help you men?" She asked keeping her voice steady with great effort. She scanned the peaceful scene of barn and sheds, chickens scratching in the dirt, a pig rubbing his back on a fence post. These men would be able to tell that she was alone. Alone or not she would not be taken advantage of and she would protect her little daughter at all costs. Every frontier housewife had heard stories of men that raided isolated homesteads plundering and looting and doing things she didn't want to think about.

"Howdy Ma'am" The older one tipped his hat. "Your husband at home?"

A quiver of fear traveled up her spine at the question but she was prepared for the worst.

The younger crowded up to the hitching rail as if he couldn't handle his horse. Lynette could tell by watching him he was too good a horseman not to be able to control his horse. She knew he was getting himself in the position he wanted.

"No he's out hunting strays. He should be back any time, you're welcome to wait." There was no need to lie; they could tell by the way the stock acted.

"Yeah, I'll bet he is." The younger man muttered.

"What?" Lynette's eyes widened.

The dog sat in front of her swishing his tail in the dirt, hearing her tone of voice a growl rumbled deep in his throat. She reached down and patted his head to calm him.

"He didn't mean anything ma'am" the older man, obviously in charge, shook his head at the younger man.

"You're welcome to water your horses at the water trough, throw down some hay" she pointed to the barn keeping her hands from shaking with great effort.

"Thank you, we'll let them get a drink." They dismounted, stretched their legs and led the horses to water. When the horses had drank their fill the men splashed water on their faces washing off the trail dust and dried off with their neckerchiefs. They led their horses to a cedar tree where they loosened the chinches. They hunkered down where they could watch the house and the road leading to the barn at the same time. They leisurely took out tobacco sacks and rolling papers from their shirt pockets. The horses stood patiently hip shot swishing their tails at flies. The men pushed back their hats and rolled their cigarettes, striking matches on their gun butts. Wisps of smoke drifted up fading into the tree tops.

Lynette went back inside the kitchen and pulled the coffee pot to the front of the stove. "Hannah honey, cut a couple of chunks of that cake I made yesterday and put on some plates." She kept looking out the window watching the men.

By the time Hannah had put the cake on tin plates, the coffee was hot and Lynette poured it in the tin mugs. "Here take this out to the men sitting that cedar tree, try not to spill any." She handed the loaded tray to Hannah.

Hannah walked carefully, trying hard not to let the steaming hot coffee slop over onto the cake. When she got to the tree she shyly offered the burdened tray. "My ma thought you might like some cake and coffee."

"We don't want no-----"the younger man started to say. The older man shook his head. "Leave her alone, Thank you little missy." He smiled at her as he took the tray.

Hannah ducked her head bashfully and ran to the house.

"Now I want you to bring in some firewood. Get small sticks." Lynette told Hannah.

The men watched as she went to the pile of wood stacked up by the shed. Hannah brought in two arm loads of wood for the cook stove.

"What do you suppose they're doing?"

"The woman might be cooking you some supper. She's going to invite you in to a home cooked meal. Look at that delicious cake she sent out." The older man replied.

When Hannah got back in the house Lynette told her, "That's fine honey. Now I want you to bring in a bucket of water. Use that bucket on the porch."

Hannah picked up the bucket and went to the well. By this time the men had lost interest in watching her. She went back to the house listing to one side from the weight of the water.

"That's a good girl." Lynette took the bucket, set it by the stove and put some of the kindling Hannah had brought in to soak.

Hannah watched her mother with her eyes wide. "What are you doing mama?"

"Years ago there was a lot of bad men that rode around doing bad things and your father and I used this as a sign to be used if there was something wrong here at the house. The wet wood will give out a lot of smoke and your father will be able to see from a long way off that there is something amiss here at home. That way he won't ride in unaware." She put several of the wet sticks in the firebox. She didn't need to look outside, she knew smoke would be tumbling out of the chimney and the men watching wouldn't notice anything different.

"Are those bad men outside mama?"

"I'm don't know, I'm not sure, but this way your daddy won't be surprised when he sees them."

The two men sat dozing under the shade tree. Not paying attention to the smoke pouring out of the ranch house kitchen stove pipe.

"If those men see the smoke they'll think I'm cooking something."

Walker Timmons had a very successful cow hunt. He found several head he had been missing and now was heading back, driving his cows to the home corral when he saw the spiral of smoke on the horizon. He had found his cattle in the rough Malapis where the rocks made good cover for them. He was hot and tired and that made him more nervous about the smoke. He was too far away to be sure where it was coming from. He kept on at an even pace and the closer he got the more concerned he became. The cows were moving at an easy pace and he would be home soon. He fought down the urge to ride helter-skelter to his ranch. He would have to leave the cattle he had worked so hard to gather but he couldn't drive them and still surprise whoever Lynette was trying to warn him about. Driving the cows would cost him too much time, even at the steady rate they were going, and he was anxious about his family. He would have to leave the cattle and come back another time. He drove them into a grassy arroyo and left them there, hoping they would rest and eat until he could come back for them. They all had his brand but there were still rustlers that didn't care about another mans' brand. Right now the most important concern was his wife and daughter

He rode around so he could come up on the back side instead of the main road. He sat on his horse watching the two men. They didn't look too forbidding.

"Howdy" Walker called.

The younger man jerked in surprise. The older man tipped his hat.

"What brings you boy's way out here?" Walker didn't get off his horse and looked down at them.

"We're looking for rustlers." The younger man said. The older one put his hand on his arm. "We're looking for strays."

"Yeah? Me too. I found where the fence had been cut, I got it fixed and I think I got all my stock back."

"We're from over near the Oklahoma border and heard that you had some stock with the rafter H brand."

"No I bought some twenty head of cows with the diamond H brand from Herman Chavez over in New Mexico. Do you know Chavez?"

"I've heard of him, he deals in a lot of cattle. He has a lot of different brands on his place. He buys and sells all the time."

"Yes that is what he does; Chavez is a good hard working honest man. I can't believe you would accuse him of blotting a brand or selling rustled stock. He told me he had raised these and that he had not bought them someplace else. Sometimes if a cow is traded too much she can get sick and I don't want infect the rest of my herd with some sickness."

"I'm not accusing anybody of anything. It would be easy enough to change a rafter H to a Diamond H. All it would take is a running iron and a hot fire." the younger man looked around. "There's an iron that could be used, hanging on that fence post."

All three looked at the post holding the iron that had a ring for hanging and was in the shape of a bar.

"Every ranch in the country has an iron like that." Before either man noticed Walker had his saddle rifle across his thighs with his hand on the lever. Walker would not back down and he knew these men would get what they came after at any price. There was a matter of honor at stake here.

"Are you accusing me of something? You'd better be sure of what you're saying. I've got a bill of sale and I can take you to where the cattle are resting right now. No. I can do better than that. There are two in the corral right now. I didn't want them with the bull yet so I kept them up."

Walker turned to the house. There might still be a way out of this situation. "Lynette!" He called. He knew she would be watching out the window. When she came to the door he said, "Bring me that bill of sale I got for those cows I bought last week from Herman Chavez." She went back inside the house.

The younger man tightened his chinch and pulled down his hat. "Let's go see what you have to show us."

The older man said, "That's my son Juan. He's a little hot headed. We've been losing a lot of stock to rustlers. We can't afford for that to go on much longer."

"I understand it's been bad here too." Walker nodded.

They rode around to the corral; Juan shook out the lariat he kept tied to his saddle horn. He made a perfect loop, swung it around his head and it sailed across the open space to land around the neck of the closest cow. As soon as the noose was around the cow, another loop shot out to the back feet quickly throwing the animal on her side. Both men dismounted and examined the animal.

"This brand hasn't been tampered with." The older man said. Running his hand lightly over the hide.

"No I guess you're right. I can tell if a brand has been blotted."

Walker watched as they took their ropes off the cow and she stood up shaking her head. Silently he put his rifle back in the saddle scabbard.

"Do you want to check the other one too?"

"No we've seen enough. From the looks of things here I can tell you're a hard working and honest. We meant no disrespect." The men coiled their ropes and got back on their horses.'

Lynette came out of the house with her head down, holding a folded piece of paper and handed it to Walker. She didn't say anything to the men or acknowledge that they were there.

Walker took it and handed it to the older man who opened it up and glanced over it. "This seems to be in order." He handed it to the younger man.

"No harm done, but you've had a long ride for nothing. How about you boys stay for supper, now that we've got the brand business settled. You can rest your horses and ride out in the morning."

"Well we thank you but we'd better get on home. We don't want to take any more of you time."

Western courtesy demanded that Walker ask them to supper as it was a long way between ranches. Western courtesy also demanded that the men turn him down as they had come ready for a shoot out if he had their cattle.

"Tell your woman we didn't mean to upset her. Tell her we appreciated the coffee and cake." The older man tipped hat and they rode off the way they came.

Walker watched until they were out of sight. He unsaddled his horse and went to the house.

Lynette came out on the porch, "I was afraid you wouldn't see the signal or wouldn't see it in time."

"No I saw it, you did good."

Hannah came out side holding her cat and stood behind her mother.

Walker saw her. "You did good too honey."

"I helped didn't I mama?"

"Yes baby you did." Walker hugged his daughter.

THE END

 

Connie Vigil Platt has gone kicking and screaming from writing on cave walls to the electronic age. She is now published in Australia, Canada, England and Japan as well as the United States.

 

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