It was a small figure slowly leading a horse …
He hadn’t shaved in a month because he saw no need. Nobody ever visited except the occasional cowhand looking for a meal, so what the hell did it matter? When it got too itchy, he stropped his razor, heated some water, and laboriously scraped it off. He smiled ruefully at the thought. Julie would have made him shave every day, but that was a long time ago, and Julie was now only a distant memory.
Cletus Rawlins sat on his front porch in a rough chair he made himself, idly watching the valley floor far below in the mid-afternoon. His cabin was twenty miles from the nearest town, and he liked it that way. Once every six months, he saddled up and took two pack horses to the crossing to put in supplies. Otherwise, he cherished his isolated loneliness, and the remoteness of the two hundred deeded acres of timber he called home.
He often saw deer and elk because he never hunted within ten miles of the cabin. He liked watching the wildlife, and even saw a black bear now and then. He fed a covey of quail just down the slope, and squirrels fearlessly came right up on the porch looking for a handout. They were never disappointed.
Finally, he rose and caught up his Winchester. His headache was finally receding, and the queasiness that went with it. Glancing around one last time, he was about to go feed the livestock when something caught his eye. It was a small figure slowly leading a horse along the valley trail below, and even at this distance, he could see that the horse was lame. Sighing, he went to the corral and saddled his horse. Then he roped a second horse, and headed down the hill.
The forest floor was heavy in pine needles, so he rode almost silently and was nearly on top of the stranger leading the limping horse before he was seen. The startled cry made Cletus Rawlins’ jaw drop, because the figure leading the horse was a young woman. He drew up and tipped his hat.
“Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am. Didn’t mean to sneak up on you like that, but horses don’t make much commotion on them soft pine needles. I seen you from my cabin up yonder, and that your horse was lamed up, so I come to help.”
The young woman nodded. She looked to be about twenty.
“I should not have cried out like that, but I was lost in my own thoughts when I should have been paying attention. You could just as easily have been a bear or a mountain lion.”
“Bear maybe, but not likely a lion. I’ve lived up there nigh on to ten years, and I’ve yet to see a catamount.”
He spat over his shoulder and indicated the spare horse.
“Brought you a mount. We’d best take the saddle off your mare, put it on my gelding, and head up to the cabin. You hungry Miss…?”
“It’s Miss Hungerford, and yes, I could eat.” She looked down at her feet.
“I’m afraid I left the ranch in anger, and did not prepare properly. Then Molly lamed herself, and I was in a real pickle until you came along. I thank you for coming to my aid, Mister…I’m afraid I don’t know your name either.”
She smiled, and he realized for the first time that she was a beautiful young woman.
“Yes ma’am. Name’s Rawlins. Cletus Rawlins.”
“Then I’m thanking you, Mister Cletus Rawlins.” She walked back to Molly and started removing her saddle. Cletus nodded in appreciation. She was a western woman, no doubt about that. He dismounted and went to help.
The cabin was a surprise to her. The old man was unshaven and a little unkempt, but the cabin was neat and clean, as was the small barn and corral. He had already apologized for his appearance, mumbling something about seeing no need until now. She found herself liking him more and more, as he talked. He was obviously lonely, and felt the need to talk now that he had a listener, but she found his stories to be fascinating, so listening was easy. Finally, the talk got around to her.
“My father is not an easy man, Mister Rawlins. Oh, I love him I suppose, but I’m not sure that I like him very much. My mother died bearing me, so maybe he’s bitter about that and blames me. I don’t know. All I know is that he treats me more like a maid than a daughter. In fact, as soon as I was old enough to clean house and cook, he fired old Mary, the woman he hired to raise me and keep house. She was the only mother I ever had, and he just fired her one day. I never saw her again.”
Cletus handed her a plate of beef and beans, along with a loaf of fresh baked bread. She was surprised at how good it tasted. The old man could cook.
He sat down across from her and absentmindedly rubbed his beard as he listened to her talk about her life on the Hungerford ranch. He’d heard talk himself about the Rafter H and the hard man who owned it, but it was none of his concern…until now.
She finished talking, and they sat silently, sipping their coffee. Finally, Cletus Rawlins cleared his throat.
“I always figured that the best way to work a problem is to face it head on. I’m thinking that we ought to ride to the Rafter H in a few days, and have a talk with Hungerford…”
“Bob. His name is Bob Hungerford.“
“Yes ma’am…have a talk with Bob Hungerford, and see what comes of it. Then you can decide what you want to do.
He peered at her from under bushy brows.
“I’ll back whatever you decide, young lady.”
There was a sudden steely resolve in the last part of what he said, and she realized that this old man was not someone who allowed others to push folks around. She watched him as he moved around cleaning up after supper, and there was no wasted motion. There was no fat on him at all, and his shoulders were broad and strong. His hands were large, and when he pulled the saddle off Molly, she saw that he did it with one hand and easily. She decided that she would go back and confront her father.
Cletus thought Molly would be healed well enough to make the trip, but while the mare was improved, she still wasn’t fit to travel, so they rode out on two of his horses. After three hours of steady riding, Cletus asked how far it was to the Rafter H.
“We’ve been on it for the last two miles. Father owns ten thousand acres outright and controls all the land for miles around. I don’t actually know just how large it is. I don’t think anyone knows.”
She pointed to a hazy grove of cottonwoods in the distance.
“That’s the main house and barns. There are two more houses for use during roundups, but I’ve never seen them. Father won’t allow it.”
It was noon before they rode into the cool shade of the cottonwoods and stopped in front of the big house. Several curious ranch hands ambled close enough to hear, and several more were coming from the barns and bunkhouse. Then the front door to the main house slammed, and an angry looking man walked quickly up to their horses.
“You climb down off that damned horse and get to the house, Audrey. I’ll deal with you in a minute. Where’s Molly?”
“She’s lame. This kind gentleman has her in his corral, and I’m riding his horse.”
He glared at Cletus and shook his finger at him .
“If that mare ain’t back here in a week, I’ll have you hunted down and whipped for a horse thief.”
He turned around and started to walk back to the house.
“Hello, Jimmy. It’s been a long time.”
The man known as Bob Hungerford stopped in mid stride. He turned slowly around, and Audrey was astonished to see how ashen his face had become. He was staring at the old man, who was now standing on the ground with a short, double barreled shotgun in his hand and pointed in his general direction. Then the old man spoke again.
“Folks, this here feller is Jimmy Flanders, woman murderer and thief.”
He smiled, but it was not pleasant to see.
“You don’t recognize me for the beard and all the years, Jimmy, but I’m Cletus, and I ain’t dead.”
The man known as Bob Hungerford felt his knees buckle, and he had to grab the hitch rail to keep from falling. His mouth was open in shock and his eyes were wild with fear.
Cletus waved the ranch hands in closer.
“I’ll want all of you to witness this. Jimmy Flanders here was once my partner up on the Yuba River, where we were washing for gold, but he was so contrary that I finally just signed my part of the claim over and went on my own. He was some put out by that because I done most of the work. After a spell, I filed another claim on an old high bench and discovered a large crack in the bedrock that was just filthy with gold. By the time I got it cleaned out, the shack where my wife Julie and I lived had thousands in gold hid here and there.”
He paused and spat over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off Jimmy Flanders.
“That last night after I finished cleaning out the crack, I woke up and saw Jimmy here standing over me with a gun to my head. That’s the last thing I knew for almost a year.”
With his left hand he lifted the shock of gray hair from his forehead, exposing a deep, dimpled scar, and the blackness of a permanently tattooed powder burn. Audrey gasped, and the ranch hands looked at each other. Cletus nodded at Jimmy Flanders.
“That’s right , Jimmy. You shot me point blank, sure enough, but I did not die. The doctor said it can happen, but it was the first one he’d ever seen. Seems the brain is funny like that. Your bullet’s still in there somewhere because the doctor was afraid to take it out. Oh, I get bad headaches now and then, but I get by.”
He glanced at the others.
“But my wife Julie wasn’t so lucky. He shot her in the head too, and just like that she was gone. Like I said, your boss here is a woman killer.”
That brought an audible gasp. Just bothering a woman in the west usually ended in a hanging. If she was killed, it was almost certain.
Cletus Rawlins waved his hand around in a wide sweeping motion.
“All of this here was bought with my money, and so I’m taking it all back. One of you boys get a horse saddled for Jimmy here, and bring it by. He’s leaving, and he ain’t never coming back. If he does, I’ll kill him on sight.”
Realization was setting in on Jimmy Flanders. All his scheming and killing would be for nothing if he just rode away. The ranch and all the power that went with it would be gone forever, and that he simply could not abide. He felt the weight of the pistol he kept under his shirt, and he began to plan his next move. He looked at Cletus and shrugged.
“I ain’t armed, so I’ll need to fetch me a gun out of the house. A man can’t just ride off like that without a gun, what with renegade Indians still about.”
Cletus watched, saying nothing.
Jimmy Flanders turned as if to go to the house, and his hand disappeared under his shirt. But he had only just started to wheel and face Cletus Rawlins when the first blast from the shotgun hit him. Even then, he still managed to raise his pistol a little, but the second blast ended his worries forever.
For a long moment, they all stood in shock at the sudden violence. Then Cletus Rawlings addressed the crew.
“He forgot that I knew about that hideout gun.”
He looked around slowly at each man.
“There’s been a change in management and ownership. Y’all are all welcome to stay and work for me, if that suits you, or you can draw your pay and move on. What’ll it be?”
One red-headed cowboy pulled at his lip thoughtfully for a moment and then made up his mind. “I’ll stay.’ That was followed by a chorus of others also wanting to stay on. They instinctively liked their new boss and had never been partial to the old one.
“Fair enough. Four of you hitch up a wagon then, and haul this body far away from here and bury it deep. I don’t want him buried on this ranch.”
He turned to Audrey, who was still pale with shock.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, but he gave me no choice.”
She nodded her head slowly, staring at the body.
“My father lies dead. I suppose the grief will come later, but at the moment, I feel nothing at all.”
Cletus Rawlins stepped in front of her and gently lifted her chin until she was looking into his eyes. For the first time, she realized that they were a deep Irish green, like her own
“Jimmy Flanders shot me, killed my wife, and stole my money, but even that was not the worst of it.”
The tough old man’s eyes filled with tears.
“He also stole my baby daughter. Her name was Audrey, and until today, I always figured he just took her off somewhere and killed her out of spite. Neither him nor her was ever seen again, and it was two long years before I was even fit to look for her.”
He put his big arms around her and held her gently.
“Jimmy Flanders was not your father, Audrey. I’m your father.”