Always dependable, brothers Logan and Billy Cross have worked the same cattle drive since they were teenagers. Now that they’re men, their boss is retiring, and they’re out of a job. He sends them to Fort Pierre in the Dakota Territory, recommending they join up with a horse drive to Sturgis.
But the Crosses’ journey takes a dark turn when they enter a saloon to meet their prospective boss. After the younger brother, Billy, foolishly smiles at someone else’s woman, he draws the ire of Quincy Morgan and his gang of outlaws. Soon the brothers will learn a valuable lesson—one that will be paid for in blood....
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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A SORE LOSER
“Here you go, boys!” Oscar Bradley called out as he approached the group of men waiting at the corner of the corral, their saddles and other gear on the ground beside it. “It’s payday.” He picked a saddle to sit on and set the leather bag, in which he kept his notebook, on the ground in front of him. “Like I told you when you signed on back in Ogallala, this is gonna be my last drive, and I promised I’d pay you a bonus if we made it here in less than twenty-three days.” He paused to look around at the expectant faces. “Well, we made it in twenty-one, with the cattle in good shape. But the price for cattle is down, so I ain’t gonna give you that bonus.” He paused again to witness the looks of shock and disappointment, but unable to play the joke out any further, he cracked, “I’m just joshin’ ya. I got top dollar for the cattle, but you oughta see the look on your faces.” The silence that had descended upon the drovers immediately erupted into a burst of cackling relief. “Like I said, you can each pick one horse outta this bunch in the corral, too. Now, who’s first?”
“I reckon I am,” Smoky Lewis volunteered, and stepped forward. The cook on the drive, Smoky owned his chuck wagon and the team of horses that pulled it. He had a separate arrangement with Oscar, since he had come along as an independent contractor to do the cooking. “You might not really be japin’, so I’ll get my money before you run out.”
His remark, made in jest, brought a few chuckles from the other men. Oscar Bradley was a fair man. Each of his drovers knew that he would lose money on the sale of the cattle before he would go back on his word to them. Their only regret was the fact that this was Oscar’s last drive.
One by one, the men stepped up to receive their pay. Oscar marked each man’s name off in his notebook with his pencil and shook the man’s hand. He paused briefly when the Cross brothers stepped up. Billy, the younger, was first. He and his brother, Logan, had been working for Oscar since they were teenage boys, and they had proven to be his most dependable drovers.
“I’m sorry I don’t have something else for you fellers, but like I told you, I’m headin’ back to Omaha to sit in a rockin’ chair on my daughter’s front porch. I know I’d sure as hell give you a good recommendation, if anybody was to ask me.”
“Thanks, Oscar,” Logan replied.
“What are you plannin’ to do, go back to Ogallala with the rest of the boys?” Oscar asked.
“I reckon so,” Logan said. “We ain’t talked about doin’ anything else.”
“Except gettin’ a drink of whiskey first thing,” Billy piped up. “That’s about as long as I wanna stay around this place.”
He and Logan had already decided that there was no future for them in Fort Pierre. It seemed the only sensible thing for them to do was to return to Ogallala with the others in hopes of signing on with another cattleman. Herding cattle was all they knew.
“Hang around till I get everybody paid,” Oscar said. “There’s a little somethin’ I’d like to run by you.”
Billy glanced at his brother, and Logan responded with a shrug. “Sure thing, Oscar,” Logan said. “I’m gonna go throw my saddle on that flea-bitten gray standin’ over by the fence before somebody else has the same idea.” The gray had been his favorite and the one that he had most often ridden. It was the only one he had named, calling it Pepper. Having already set his sights on a buckskin, Billy followed him.
After every man had selected a horse and saddled it, Smoky Lewis motioned to Logan and said, “We’re goin’ over to the Cattleman’s Saloon. You and Billy comin’?”
“You go ahead,” Logan said. “We’ll be along.”
When the others had gone, Oscar put his notebook away and picked up his leather bag. “I was talkin’ to a feller at the cattle sale, and he said he was lookin’ to hire a couple of men to help him drive some horses over to Sturgis in the Black Hills. He’s got two men who work for him, but he could use a couple more, since he wound up buyin’ more than he planned.” Oscar smiled and winked. “I sold him the rest of the horses here in the corral at such a good price he couldn’t pass it up.” He paused for their reaction before continuing. “Anyway, I told him I knew two good men who might be interested. Whaddaya think? You wanna drive some horses over to the Black Hills? There’s a helluva lot goin’ on up that way ever since the government opened the hills up for prospectors. This feller said there’s a heap of travel on the roads between here and Sturgis—mule trains, bull trains, wagons, and everything else that rolls or trots. Might be somethin’ else over that way for you boys.”
As usual, Billy looked at his older brother for his reaction. “How long a drive would it be?” Logan asked.
“He said it’s about a hundred and fifty miles from here,” Oscar said. “It’d take a week or more, I expect. I told him I’d see if you were interested.”
Again, looking to Logan for his opinion, Billy shrugged and joked, “I don’t recollect any appointments we’ve got. Whadda you think, Logan?”
“Wouldn’t hurt to talk to the man,” Logan replied. “Where do we find him?”
“He said he’ll be in O’Malley’s place in about an hour from now. It’s that little saloon down the street from the hotel. His name’s Matt Morrison—seems like a reasonable feller.”
“Okay, we’ll go talk to him,” Logan said. “That all right with you?” he asked Billy. When his brother shrugged indifferently, he turned back to Bradley. “Much obliged, Oscar. We appreciate it.” They shook hands again, and then he and Billy climbed into their saddles.
Oscar stood there and watched them as they rode off toward the town of Fort Pierre. I wish I was as young as those two, he thought. I’d ride to the Black Hills with them.
* * *
Fort Pierre was settled on the west bank of the Missouri River, on a level plain that provided easy access to the river. It was a pleasant setting for a town, but it held no attraction for the Cross brothers. They rode past the Cattleman’s Saloon, even though there was plenty of time to have a drink or two with the rest of Oscar’s crew before Mr. Morrison was supposed to be at O’Malley’s. They both agreed that it might cause some resentment if the others found out that Oscar had favored them with his recommendation.
There were a few horses tied up in front of O’Malley’s, though not as many as those at the larger saloon’s hitching rail. Dismounting, they pulled their rifles from the saddle slings and walked in the door. They paused to let their eyes adjust to the darkness of the room, a sharp contrast to the bright summer sunshine outside. After a moment, they started toward a table against the opposite wall, thinking it a good place to watch the door and spot Morrison when he walked in.
They had taken no more than a few steps when they were stopped by the bartender. “Howdy, gents,” he greeted them cordially. “If you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave those rifles on that table by the door.” When both men balked for a second, he continued. “I reckon you fellers ain’t ever been in here before. We ask every customer to do the same.” He smiled then to show he meant nothing personal.
Logan looked back toward the door. Like his brother, he hadn’t noticed the table with half a dozen pistols on it. “Sure,” he said, “seems like a good idea.” He and Billy went back and propped their rifles against the table and laid their pistols on top. Then they proceeded toward the table they had selected.
“What’s your poison?” Roy, the bartender, asked as they passed by the bar.
“Whiskey,” Billy answered. “Just whatever you got—rye, if I’ve got a choice.” Neither he nor Logan was a heavy drinker, so it really didn’t matter.
“I’ve got rye,” Roy said. “And I’ve also got some smooth Kentucky bourbon, if you’d rather have it.”
“Which is the cheapest?” Logan asked.
“Rye,” Roy said.
“Then we’ll have that, and two glasses of beer to chase it,” Logan said, and stopped to wait for it while Billy continued to the table.
“Well, here’s to another cattle drive behind us,” Logan said after they were seated. He raised his shot glass in a toast. Billy raised his glass to meet it, and they tossed the fiery whiskey down.
“Whew!” Billy coughed. “That stuff burns all the way down.”
Logan laughed. “It makes a difference when it’s been a long time between drinks.”
Working slowly on the beer, they looked around them at the sparse crowd in the saloon. Only three other tables were occupied. And of the three, only one had more than two men quietly enjoying an afternoon drink of whiskey. That table, back in a corner of the room, was occupied by three men and a woman. The two brothers had sat there for only a few minutes before the woman got up to take an empty bottle to the bar to exchange for a full one.
On her way past them, she openly eyed the two strangers, and on her way back, she favored Billy with a smile. It didn’t surprise Logan. His younger brother had been blessed with the good looks of his mother, while Logan seemed to have inherited the brawn and strength of his father. Though, at times, he wasn’t sure if Billy’s handsome features might better be called a curse. The thought had no sooner occurred to him than he began to hear a raising of the voices at the corner table.
He turned to Billy and asked, “You smiled back at her, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know. I mighta,” Billy answered. “Why?”
Logan gave his younger brother a tired sigh. “That’s why,” he said when the conversation at the corner table suddenly escalated into a loud argument.
“You don’t own me!” the woman exclaimed indignantly, and rose to her feet.
“Set your ass back down!” one of the men demanded. “Countin’ all the whiskey you drank, I sure as hell made a down payment on you.” His remark brought a laugh from his two companions, who seemed to be enjoying the spat between the two.
“I’ll set my ass where I damn well please,” the woman replied. A large-framed, long-legged woman, with many miles etched into her not unpleasant face, she seemed capable of handling her rough company. “I’ve wasted enough time on you and your friends. You coulda got drunk without me, if that’s all you were interested in.”
“Set down!” the man demanded again, and grabbed her wrist.
Logan glanced at the bartender. Seeing that he was now aware of the potential trouble brewing at the corner table, Logan was satisfied that the bartender would handle the situation before it became violent. As he had figured, Roy walked back to the table where the woman was still standing defiantly before the three men.
“Hey, fellers,” he began, “ain’t no need to get your backs up. Gracie didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Right, Gracie?” Gracie didn’t answer. She just continued to glare at the belligerent bully holding her wrist. Since Gracie was obviously not inclined to apologize, Roy attempted to appease the quarrelsome brute. “Let her go and we’ll have the next round on the house. Whaddaya say?”
“I ain’t takin’ no sass from a broken-down old whore,” the bully replied. He looked back at the woman and said, “I told you to set down.” To enforce the order, he attempted to pull her down on the chair, but she fought against his efforts. The ensuing struggle knocked the chair over and landed Gracie on the floor, her wrist still captured in the brute’s hand.
“Mister,” Roy said. “I’m gonna have to ask you and your friends to leave now. I think you’ve had enough.”
Fully agitated at that point, the bully clamped down as tight as he could on the woman’s wrist while she strained to free herself. “I’ll leave when I’m ready to leave,” he roared, then threatened, “How’d you like it if I tore this whole damn place down?”
“Wouldn’t like it,” Roy replied.
To this point, the few other patrons of the saloon had watched in silence. Seeing that things had seemingly gotten out of hand, two of the men got up and made a hasty retreat out the door. “Damn,” Logan cursed softly when it became obvious that Roy’s efforts to defuse a situation already gone bad were not going to succeed, for Logan had no desire to get involved in the altercation. “You had to smile at her,” he said wearily aside to Billy.
“Hell, I didn’t know,” Billy replied lamely.
By now, Gracie was desperate to free herself from the brute’s clutches. When her struggles proved useless, she resorted to attacking his arm with her fingernails. “Yow!” her captor roared in pain, and struck her roughly with a backhand across her face.
That was as much as the Cross brothers could tolerate. Logan was the first to move. “That’s far enough,” he stated emphatically as he rose to his feet. “Billy, go over there by the door and take care of those weapons.” He walked over to the corner table to confront the troublemakers. “All right, the man here asked you politely to get outta his saloon. Now I’m tellin’ you that it’s time for you to turn the lady loose and do what he says.”
His statement was enough to cause the bully to release his hold on Gracie, but he got to his feet and kicked his chair back. “And just who do you think you are, big mouth?”
“I’m the feller who’s gonna whip your ass if you don’t get outta here like I said,” Logan said.
“Huh,” the brute snorted defiantly, “you gonna whip all three of us?”
“If I have to,” Logan replied calmly. His assessment of the trio told him that they all appeared too drunk to put up much of a fight—that, and the fact that the man’s two companions did not seem overly enthusiastic about joining in. And he was not discounting Billy’s help after his brother finished emptying all the cartridges out of the weapons on the table by the door.
“He’s talkin’ mighty big, ain’t he, boys?” the bully snarled with a sneer. “Let’s see if he can back it up.” He shoved Gracie’s chair aside and stepped out in front of the table, only then aware of the effect of the whiskey he had consumed. Spreading his feet wide in an effort to steady himself, he took a wild swing at Logan, missing by a mile.
Anticipating such a move, Logan ducked down and answered with a hard uppercut under the brute’s chin, which caused him to stagger backward onto the table. Woozy from the uppercut, he managed to push himself up from the table only to meet a hard right hand flush on his nose that drove him down on the floor. The back of his head banged against the edge of the table as he went down, knocking him senseless.
With his adversary flat on the floor, Logan turned to face the man’s companions. With a glance at the menacing figure before them, and another at his brother coming toward them now, carrying a rifle in each hand, their decision was simple. “We ain’t got no quarrel with you, mister. Jake’s the one with the problem.”
Logan, still in position to attack, took a step back. “Well, get Jake outta here, and go sober up.”
He took the Winchester Billy handed him and stood aside to give the two men room to drag their partner toward the door. Billy followed them and watched while one of the men settled up with the bartender. Then they picked up their empty guns and helped Jake outside. Billy remained in the doorway to make sure they got on their horses and left.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” Logan asked Gracie as she gingerly touched her cheek with her fingertips.
“Now, that’s gonna be a pretty bruise,” she complained, her face flushed with anger. “Yeah,” she said. “I’ve had worse than that.” Realizing then that she owed him a word of thanks, she said, “I appreciate you and your friend stepping in to help me.” She managed a painful grin as she felt her face again and added, “It’da been even better if you’da stepped in a minute sooner.”
“Sorry,” Logan said.
“Least I can do is give you and your friend a free ride,” Gracie said.
“Well, now, that’s mighty sportin’ of you, ma’am,” Logan quickly replied. “And I’ve got to say that it’s a temptin’ thing to think about. But I’m here to meet a man about a job, so I’ll have to take care of that. I truly wanna thank you for the offer, though.”
“What about your friend?” Gracie asked, actually more interested in the tall, sandy-haired young man.
Logan smiled. “I reckon you’d have to ask him. He ain’t my friend, though. He’s my brother.”
“Oh,” Gracie responded. She shot another glance in Billy’s direction. Without thinking first, she blurted, “You sure you had the same daddy?”
Logan couldn’t help laughing. “You ain’t the first to ask me that.”
Roy, who had been standing there listening to the conversation between the husky stranger and the prostitute, was prompted to remark, “Gracie, you ain’t got a lick of sense.”
Realizing then how unkind her words must have sounded, she tried to make amends. “I hope you didn’t think I thought you weren’t handsome, too,” she sputtered, causing Logan to laugh again.
“Think nothin’ of it,” he said. “Billy always was the pretty one. I’m the one with the brains.”
Gracie turned her attention toward Billy, and Roy took the opportunity to thank Logan for ridding him of the three drifters. “You’d best be careful,” he warned. “They came in here a couple of days ago. I never saw ’em before that, and I just don’t like the look of ’em. That one you had the fight with especially. He looks like he’s just got a natural mean streak.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it,” Logan said, “but I don’t plan to stay in town long enough to have another go-round with him.”
Two men seated at a table on the other side of the room got up from their chairs. They had sat, silently watching the altercation, waiting until the fight was over. One of them, a man of slightly more than average height and slender build, walked up to Logan. “Is your name Cross?” he asked.
Surprised, Logan said that it was. “Yes, sir, I’m Logan Cross.”
“I was pretty sure that you were. I’m Matt Morrison. Oscar Bradley said he’d send you over to talk to me about helpin’ me move some horses to Sturgis.”
“Yes, sir,” Logan said, somewhat taken by surprise, since Oscar had told him it would be an hour before he could expect to meet Morrison. “I’m sorry you had to see that little scrap we just had with those fellers. Me and Billy ain’t normally troublemakers.”
Morrison smiled. “To the contrary, seein’ how you handled that son of a bitch made me sure I wanted to hire you and your brother. Tell you the truth, I got here early so I could look you and your brother over before we talked.” He turned to a gray-haired man behind him. “This is Red Whaley. I reckon you’d call him my foreman. He’s been working for me for so long I don’t know what his job is.”
Red smiled at his boss’s attempt at humor. “Logan,” he said and extended his hand.
Billy joined them and the introductions were repeated. Morrison got down to business then and made his proposition. “I’ll pay you three dollars a day, each, for eight days’ work. It shouldn’t take longer than that to make the drive. Whaddaya say?”
“What about grub?” Logan asked.
“We ain’t got a chuck wagon,” Morrison said, “so you’ll provide your own grub.”
Logan glanced at Billy for his reaction, knowing already what it would be. Compared to their usual pay while working for Oscar Bradley, Morrison’s offer was almost a month’s pay for eight days’ work. And they would have to feed themselves whether they took the job or not. Since leaving Oscar’s employ, they were drifting anyway, so he said, “Looks like you’ve got yourself a couple of hands.”
“Good,” Morrison said. “Let’s sit down and have a drink on it and I’ll tell you all you need to know.” He went on to explain that he had come to Fort Pierre to pick up twenty horses, which he thought he and his two men could manage. But thanks to Oscar Bradley’s ridiculous offer, he found himself the owner of over twice that number. After examining the remuda, he decided the deal was too good to pass up, but he felt more comfortable with a little more help.
Before they had finished their drinks, Morrison’s other man joined them. “They’re all bunched up in that lower corral,” he said to Morrison as he walked up to the table. “We’ll be ready to push ’em out in the mornin’.”
“This here’s Percy Walker,” Morrison said. “Percy, say howdy to Logan and Billy Cross. They’re gonna help us take those horses home.”
“Glad to meet you, boys,” Percy said with a cordial grin. “I could handle ’em all by myself, but I’m always glad to have a little help.” He pulled a chair over from another table and pushed in beside Red. “Move over, old man, and pass me that bottle.”
“Why, I didn’t know you was a drinkin’ man,” Red joked. He looked at Logan and said, “Boss forgot to tell you that Percy’s so full of hot air and horse shit that we have to tie him down in the saddle to keep him from floatin’ off.” Red’s remark brought a chuckle from Percy. Logan and Billy could see right away that they were going to fit in just fine.
“Tell you what, fellers,” Morrison said, “meet us over at the hotel after you’ve got your supplies and possibles ready to ride, and I’ll spring for supper. About five o’clock, all right?”
“Yes, sir,” Billy said. “That suits me.” He winked at his brother, already thinking that by the end of this short drive, Morrison would possibly offer them permanent employment. Logan smiled and nodded.
“Well, I reckon we’ll see you at suppertime,” Logan said, getting to his feet. “Come on, Billy, we need to buy a little grub to take us to . . .” He paused to ask Morrison, “Where’d you say we were goin’?”
“Sturgis,” Morrison said.
“Right. Come on, Billy.” They left their three new partners and headed for the door.
“Much obliged,” Roy, the bartender, said as they passed by the bar. Both brothers nodded in reply.
With Billy following, Logan stepped out the door onto the small platform of planks that served as a porch. He paused to stretch his arms in an effort to ease a stiffness in his back, the result of his brief tussle with the brute called Jake, he supposed. His arms were stretched up over his head when he was suddenly knocked off his feet by a driving tackle by Billy that sent them both sprawling. A moment later, he heard the rifle shot that sent a slug whistling over their heads.
“Son of a . . . ,” he blurted, cocking his rifle as he rolled over behind the low porch. “You see him?”
“Up the street,” Billy exclaimed, “by the stables!”
It was pure luck that he had happened to glance in that direction, and his lightning-fast reflexes might have saved his brother. The bushwhacker had time for one more shot before both Billy and Logan were able to bring their rifles to bear on the corral, but he stepped behind the corner post in time to keep from being hit by the slugs that tore into it.
“He’s runnin’!” Billy cried when he got a glimpse of the shooter through the rails of the corral. Both men scrambled to their feet and ran across the street to take cover in the doorways of the few buildings between them and the stables, dodging the few people scurrying for safety.
Running from building to building, they made their way up the street as quickly as possible. While it had been impossible to identify their assailant in the short time Billy had to see him, there was little doubt who he was. They had to assume that Jake’s two friends were in on the attempt and would have to be dealt with as well.
When they reached the hotel, which was the last building before the stables, they stopped to decide how to proceed.
“Front or back?” Billy asked, for they figured the three had probably taken cover in the stables.
“I’ll take the front,” Logan said, thinking the gunmen would be expecting them to come in that way, and he preferred to take that risk. Giving Billy no time to argue, he said, “Let’s look out we don’t shoot each other!”
He took off at a sprint for the front door of the stables, his rifle cocked and ready to fire. Billy stepped out of the hotel doorway and ran down the alley between it and the stables.
None too anxious to go charging into the front door of the stables, Logan pulled up before the door and flattened himself against the wall. He hoped the three men had not had the opportunity to sober up. He had to assume they were still a little drunk to have taken a shot at him in broad daylight in the middle of town.
Without knowing where Billy was positioned, he eased up to the crack between the door and the frame and peeked in. In contrast to the bright sunlight outside, his eyes didn’t focus at once, but just in time to jerk his head back from the crack before a chunk of the door went flying. Two more shots ripped into the door before he heard Billy’s Winchester speak from the rear of the stables. Seconds after, he was surprised by the three men charging out of the stables at a gallop, lying low on their horses’ necks. Straight across the street they fled, between the harness shop and dry goods store, intent upon riding behind the stores for protection.
Knowing that he had time to knock at least one of the assassins out of the saddle, Logan pulled his rifle to his shoulder and took aim, but he did not pull the trigger. As he had rested the front sight on the departing rider, a woman with a small child suddenly appeared in the frame, causing him to hesitate. Terrified by the three horses suddenly charging toward her, she ran, pulling the child, across the alley, barely escaping a trampling under their hooves. At first alarmed that he had almost endangered the woman and her child, his next emotion was anger for the missed opportunity to dispose of one of the assailants who had sought to murder him. He was still standing there when Billy ran out of the stable.
“You all right?” Billy asked, relieved to see Logan standing there apparently unharmed. “I heard them shootin’ at you, and they were already on their horses by the time I crawled in a back window. I got off a couple of shots, but I don’t think I hit anybody. I didn’t have time to get in a good spot to shoot. I was worried about you, ’cause I didn’t think I heard you shoot.”
“I didn’t,” Logan said, then explained the circumstances that prevented him from taking a shot. “By the time the woman got out of the way, they were behind the buildings and gone.” He was about to further express his regrets when he and Billy were joined by the owner of the stables. “Damn,” Logan said in surprise, “where’d you come from?”
“I was holed up in the tack room,” the man said as he stood staring toward the end of the street. “That right there is why I ask for payment in advance. Those fellers got away from here in one big hurry.”
“I reckon,” Logan replied.
“Well, I reckon that’s that,” Billy said. “I expect that’s the last we’ll see of them.” There was no thought on either man’s part to go after the three dry gulchers. Their horses were at the far end of the street.
“I think you’re right,” Logan said. “At least neither of us got shot, so I reckon we’ll just be glad we were lucky.” He thought of the anger he had felt when he had to pass up an easy shot, but after thinking about it, he decided it was just as well. He had never shot a man. Maybe it was better that he still hadn’t. “Let’s go get the horses. We’ve got a few things to pick up at the store if we’re gonna have anything to eat for the next week.”
Now that the danger was over, Billy returned to character. “Since Morrison’s payin’ for supper, we’d best eat enough to take care of the first couple of days.”
“Maybe so,” Logan said. “And one other thing. Next time, don’t smile at a woman when she’s with another feller.”
“I’ll try,” Billy replied with a grin, “but it’s a natural reaction.”
It seemed a good bet that the three drifters were gone for good from Fort Pierre. Logan and Billy ate their fill at supper while answering all the questions regarding the shooting incident.
“I hope I ain’t made a mistake hirin’ you boys on,” Matt Morrison said in jest. “You might have a natural habit of drawin’ trouble.”
“Just as long as you keep your shootin’ parties private,” Percy chimed in, “it’ll give the rest of us somethin’ to watch. It gets kinda dull just herdin’ horses.”
“I’ll throw a sack over Billy’s head,” Logan joked. “That oughta help.”
“I know how you feel, Billy,” Percy said. “I’ve always had the same trouble with women.” His comment brought a laugh, especially from Red. Percy had not been gifted with a handsome package to present to the world. Thin as a knife blade, with an oversized hawk nose and ears too large for his small head—it was a blessing that he had been compensated with a healthy sense of humor.
“Helluva thing, though,” Morrison said. “Come into town for the first time and somebody takes a shot atcha.”
Logan shrugged. “Well, it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stuck my nose into that little spat that fellow was havin’ with the woman.” He paused to give it a thought. “But if I hadn’t, Billy would have, so I reckon there was no way to avoid it.”
The suppertime conversation went on for quite some time with the two brothers feeling right at home with their new companions. Afterward, they said good night and retired to the stables to sleep with their horses, feeling no need to spend the money for a hotel room.
At sunup the next morning they were saddled up and waiting for the others by the corral, which pleased Morrison, although he made no comment to that effect. When all were ready, he opened the corral gate and began the drive to Sturgis, leaving the little settlement of Fort Pierre still rousing itself from sleep.
* * *
They drove the herd of horses west, following an old buffalo trail long used by the Indians. Morrison told them that up until a year before, they had been warned not to use this, or several other trails, since they cut right across the Great Sioux Reservation. But in ’seventy-seven, the government opened the Black Hills to settlement and provided the funds for three wagon roads from the east.
“Most of the traffic is headed to Deadwood, up in the hills, since the gold strike. The Injuns don’t like it too much, but they ain’t able to do much about it since they got whipped by the army after Little Big Horn.”
“So you don’t expect any trouble from the Indians?” Logan asked.
“No, not no more,” Morrison said. “Couple of years ago, though, I mighta needed twice as many men to make this drive.”
Long before the first day was over, Morrison decided that Oscar Bradley’s recommendation had been valid. He was well pleased with both of the Cross brothers’ skill as wranglers, soon realizing that they knew how horses think.
As far as Logan and Billy were concerned, pushing a herd of horses was a relatively simple matter, much more so than herding cattle. Horses were basically animals of prey, so they gravitated to the herd where there was safety in numbers, and their natural reaction to danger was flight. There was a lot less tendency to wander off from the herd as strays, as cattle were prone to do. Horses also needed to graze every so often during a drive. Even so, Logan wondered why Morrison figured to take seven or eight days to travel one hundred and fifty miles. This was especially puzzling when he told them that he wanted to push the herd almost forty-five miles the first day in order to reach Plum Creek, the first good water.
“It’s liable to be a long day,” Logan said to Billy. That turned out to be the case, as they kept the horses moving most of the day over a wide, rolling prairie with only a weak stream here and there. At dark, when they finally reached Plum Creek, Morrison told them that he planned to stay there the next day to let the horses drink and graze. “Sounds like a good idea,” Logan said. “I know Pepper will appreciate it.” Logan was a sizable man, and halfway through the day’s drive he had transferred his saddle to a sorrel to give Pepper a rest.
As Morrison had predicted, there was no sign of trouble on that first long day, and none on the following days as well. By the time they reached the Cheyenne River and followed it west, the two brothers had come to know their companions pretty well, and decided they could see themselves working for Morrison permanently if there was an offer. They drove the herd of horses onto the Lazy-M Ranch, just short of the foothills east of the dark, mysterious mountains on the horizon before them. It was easy to see how the Black Hills got their name. From a distance, they stood out in stark contrast to the prairie around them. Morrison explained that their dark color came from the ponderosa pines that covered almost all of the slopes.
Riding past scattered groups of cattle as they approached the ranch house, they saw a couple of Morrison’s crew at a distance. They pulled up to wave when they spotted the herd of horses thundering onto the flat approach to the creek.
Matt Morrison had not wasted any money on an elegant ranch house, a testament to the fact that there were no wife and daughters to pacify. A bachelor all his life, he had built the house with logs snaked from the tree-covered hills close by. More attention was paid to the construction of the barn, and to a lesser degree, the bunkhouse. Red had told them that there had been a woman who cooked for him at one time, but he let her go, since he ate most of his meals with the men at the bunkhouse.
After the horses were turned out to graze by the creek, Morrison told the Cross brothers to follow him to the house where he would settle up with them.
“Well, boys,” Morrison began. “You fellers did a right good job for me, and I’m gonna pay you for eight days, like we agreed on, even though it didn’t take us that long.”
He went into another room where he had an iron safe, leaving Logan and Billy to look at each other in speculation of perhaps a permanent job offer. In a short time, Morrison returned and counted out their pay.
When that was done, he said, “I ain’t hirin’ right now. I’ve got a full crew of good cowhands. But I expect I’ll be needin’ some extra help in the fall, so if you boys are still around and lookin’ for work, come see me.”
Without showing his disappointment, Logan replied, “We’ll do that. Thank you very much. We ain’t sure we’ll be here, but we might.”
“Fine. You’re good men, and you know your business, so I’m sure I’ll probably have a place for you. Now, if you’re in a hurry to spend that money, the town of Sturgis is that way.” He pointed to the northwest. “It’s a right lively little town. When I first brought my cattle in here, they called it Scooptown. That’s because all the folks workin’ for the army at Fort Meade used to go there to scoop up the money the army was payin’. That warn’t no name for a town, so when more folks moved in, and it looked like it was gonna stick, they called it Sturgis for some officer in the army. If you ain’t in a hurry to go into town, why don’t you stay here long enough to get some supper with us before you take off?”
Billy spoke up right away. “I’ll never turn down an offer for supper.”
“Hell, there ain’t no need to hurry off,” Morrison said. “Stay tonight and leave in the mornin’. I’m sure there’s room in the bunkhouse.”
“’Preciate it,” Logan said. “We’ll take you up on that.”
“I’ll see you down there for supper, then,” Morrison said, and walked to the door with them.
* * *
Very much at home in a bunkhouse, Logan and Billy sat outside after supper to swap yarns with Morrison’s ranch hands. Having worked for Oscar Bradley ever since they were boys, they found it a strange feeling to be without a job in the middle of summer. There were some suggestions from the other men for ranches they might try out toward Bear Butte.
Logan, having always been the more practical of the two brothers, found this an obvious plan of action. But he had to contend with Billy’s natural sense of adventure, so they were not in complete agreement on what they should do at this point. For the first time since they had started working, they found themselves free of obligations, and with a little money set aside at that. “We could afford to drift for a while and take the opportunity to see something besides the rear end of a cow,” Billy insisted. “Considering the spot we landed in, why don’t we go on and follow the crowd of folks pouring into Deadwood? It’d be like going to the circus.”
Logan had to laugh. “Yeah, I expect it would,” he allowed, “just like a circus.”
Unlike his adventurous brother, he was more interested in finding permanent employment with one of the ranches raising beef to feed the miners and the army.
“Hell,” Billy went on, “I’d like to try my hand at pannin’ for gold. We might strike it rich, like some of those other folks—give up this business of punchin’ cows.” He looked at Logan expectantly. “That’ud be something, wouldn’t it? Just sittin’ around countin’ our money.”
Logan shook his head, bewildered. Sometimes he felt like a father to his younger brother. It had been his lot, he supposed, since their father died when both boys were not yet in their teens. Their mother followed soon after, for some reason Logan never understood. Maybe she just wasn’t up to raising two rambunctious boys on her own. If he was in fact playing the role of father, however, he wasn’t a very firm one, because he found it difficult to discourage Billy’s fantasies.
“Whaddaya say?” Billy pressed. “Let’s just go up there and see what it’s all about.”
“All right,” Logan said, finally caving in, “if you ain’t gonna be able to stand it unless you see for yourself.”
“Hot damn!” Billy exclaimed excitedly. “I knew you couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
When they expressed their intentions to Red and Percy, Percy tried to talk them out of it. “I don’t know how much money you boys have got, but I’ll guarantee you it won’t last long in Deadwood. You’d be better off if you can find work at one of the bigger ranches up toward Belle Fourche. That’s a little north of the hills. Most of the folks movin’ into Deadwood and Lead, and those other towns now, are just figurin’ on makin’ a livin’ offa the miners. They ain’t diggin’ for gold.”
“I expect you’re right,” Logan said. “But some fellows have always gotta go see the elephant.” He nodded toward Billy, who met his gesture with a satisfied grin. “So I reckon that’s what we’re gonna do.”
“Well, I wish you fellers luck,” Percy said. “I kinda hope we’ll see you back here in the fall.”
* * *
Although this was their first time in the Black Hills, they had no trouble finding the way to Deadwood Gulch. The road was clearly marked by the ruts of the many wagon and mule trains that had plodded along through the passes. Especially hard on the trail were the bull trains—heavy wagons—pulled by ten or twelve yoke of oxen. Logan and Billy encountered many spots in the road that were so deep in gumbo mud that they were almost impassable for a farm wagon. On horseback, leading the one packhorse they had bought from Morrison, the trail was of no concern to them.
Their first glimpse of Deadwood Gulch was from the top of a steep hill. A winding road led down into the lower end of the gulch, which appeared to be one solid line of tents and shacks of various sizes and shapes. The gulch was filled with people, horses, mules, oxen, and wagons. From the hilltop, it reminded Logan of a bed of maggots unearthed by the pawing of a horse’s hoof. “Well, there’s your circus,” he said sarcastically.
“Looks like they ain’t gonna run short of people,” Billy commented in return.
Assuming they had found Deadwood, they rode down the road to the bottom and walked their horses along the crowded street. It seemed that every other building was a saloon, but in between there were stores of all kinds. The gulch itself was a continuous string of placer mining claims. There didn’t appear to be a lineal foot that wasn’t claimed. They pulled up before a store that displayed a sign that proclaimed WHITEY’S—EATS. “Let’s see if we can buy a cup of coffee and something to eat, and maybe some information,” Logan suggested.
There were a few customers seated on stools along a long shelflike table attached to the wall, so Logan and Billy took a seat. The proprietor, a thin, bald man, wearing a dirty white apron, called out to them from behind a counter that separated the dining area from the cook stove, “Whaddleya have, fellers?”
“Whaddaya got?” Billy shot back.
“Stew beef and beans, or beans and stew beef. Take your pick.” The wide grin on his face told them that he was joking with them.
“Have you got some coffee to go with it?” Logan asked.
“I sure do,” he replied. “You fellers ain’t ever been in here before, have you? I just cook up a couple of things every day, and not the same things, neither. Today, I’ve got stew beef and beans, and bacon and potatoes. And you can have biscuits with either one. It ain’t as fancy as the hotel dining room, but it’s just as fillin’ and a helluva lot cheaper.”
“Sounds like what we’re lookin’ for,” Billy said with a chuckle. “I’ll go with the beef and beans.” Logan ordered the same.
The man served up two plates and placed them on the counter. Then he poured two cups of coffee from a large gray pot sitting on the stove and stood there waiting. When they walked over to get their dinner, he said, “That’ll be two bucks apiece.”
“Damn,” Billy replied, “I thought you said it was cheaper than the hotel.”
The man laughed. “I can see you boys ain’t ever et in the hotel.”
“That’s a fact,” Billy said. “We just rode into town about fifteen minutes ago.”
“I figured as much. My name’s Whitey, least that’s what ever’body calls me. After you look around a little bit, you’ll see my prices are pretty good.”
Logan couldn’t help recalling Percy’s prediction that their money wouldn’t last very long in Deadwood. He took a tentative sip of the coffee, then shrugged. “I’ve had worse,” he declared as he picked up his plate. Before turning to follow Billy back to the table, he asked, “This is Deadwood, right?”
“No,” Whitey answered. “This is Montana City. You’re in Deadwood Gulch, all right, but there’s four different towns in the gulch. Deadwood’s on the other side of Elizabeth Town toward the upper end of the gulch. You lookin’ for somebody or some place in particular?”
“Nope,” Logan said, “just lookin’.” He walked back to join Billy.
“It ain’t bad grub,” Billy said when Logan sat down next to him. “But if everything is as expensive as this, I expect we’ll need to go huntin’. I’ll bet there’s a lot of deer back in these hills.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Logan said. “I figured we’d be up in the hills to make camp anyway. Damned if I wanna spend all my money in a hotel.”
“You’re right about that,” Billy said. “Besides, we need to find us a good spot on a little creek somewhere and see if we can turn up a little gold, like the rest of these miners.”
“Right,” Logan said, still skeptical. “Just look around you at all the fancy rich gentlemen.”
Billy didn’t bother to glance at the rough assortment of men hunched over Whitey’s cooking. If either of them had turned to take a hard look at the shaggy-bearded man at the end of the long shelf, he might have paused to wonder if he had seen him somewhere before. But Tom Lacey was certain he had seen the two brothers before, and he knew where, so he decided it best to stay crouched over his dinner and turn his back toward them lest they recall.
Logan had convinced his brother that it would be a good idea to try to learn a little bit about panning for gold before they wasted their time sifting through the sand and gravel of a streambed.
“We don’t even know which streams are likely prospects,” he said. “We do know that there ain’t nothing left in this gulch. Our best bet is to do like the prospectors workin’ some of the streams comin’ down from these mountains. So I think we’d do well to scout around in the mountains and see who’s doin’ what. Maybe that’ll give us an idea of where to look and what kind of tools we’ll need. Whaddaya think? That’d be better than thrashin’ around like a couple of lunatics, wouldn’t it?”
“I expect you’re right,” Billy agreed. “We’ll look the country over and find us a good stream.” As usual, Billy was cheerfully optimistic about their chances to strike it rich.
When they got up to leave, Whitey stopped them before they reached the door. “I couldn’t help hearin’ what you boys were talkin’ about,” he said. “You didn’t ask for my advice, but I’m offerin’ it anyway. You look like decent young men. Brothers, ain’cha?”
“That’s right,” Billy replied. “How’d you know that?”
“I could just tell,” Whitey said. “But here’s what I wanna tell you. The only folks makin’ any money in the gulch right now are the miners who staked out the first claims and the business folks like me that are sellin’ ’em what they need. You’re workin’ on the right idea, though, sluicin’ the streams coming down some of these mountains. If you ain’t got somewhere else in mind, I’ll tell you this. There’s been a couple of small strikes up Switchback Creek. I heard some fellers talkin’ about it the other day. You might take a look up that way.”
Logan studied the little man’s face and decided that he was sincere in his advice. “Well, sir, we appreciate the tip. How would a fellow go about findin’ Switchback Creek?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Novels of Charles G. West
“Rarely has an author painted the great American West in strokes so bold, vivid, and true.”—Ralph Compton