The creek was low, only two or three inches of water standing in some places. Her horse walked through the shallow water in the rocky bed, the sound of its hooves blending with the creaking of the saddle. He watched her guide the horse past the wooded spot on the bank. He couldn’t see her face, but the freckles and the dark green of her eyes were things he remembered. Her hair was braided and trailed out behind her hat and down her back. The horse and rider meandered down the creek about a hundred yards, and then disappeared as they rounded the bend. He had fallen for her that day and asked her to marry him on that creek bank weeks later…
Roland’s eyes didn’t pop open at the end of the dream, instead he simply realized he was awake and, staring at the dark morning sky, knew he would not sleep again that day. He got up and put some dry sticks on the coals left from the night’s fire.
He watched the dry sticks smolder and as they heated up he gently fanned the pile with his hat. The fire caught and Roland added a couple of pieces of wood and warmed his hands over the growing fire.
It was early fall, the leaves had begun to turn but it was not yet freezing cold, just cool enough for a man to enjoy a morning fire. Horse snorted and Roland took him to the spring to drink and filled his coffee pot.
Home wouldn’t be home with Rose gone but he felt like he had to return. It was a half days ride.
The tiny two room cabin looked pretty much the same when Roland rode Horse into the yard. He pulled him up short and sat for a moment rolling a cigarette. The barn and corral were on his left and the garden that Rose had started after they were married was on his right. The last stand of corn had been harvested, and Roland wondered who had done that.
He got down and made his way to the well around back and drew up a bucket of water. He got a dipper full and then set the bucket down for Horse.
Roland had just turned Horse loose in the corral when he heard a rider approaching. He smiled and threw up his hand when he saw Johnny Trask riding in.
Johnny was almost as tall as Roland but rail thin and half his age. His wild sandy blond hair and the round spectacles that constantly slid down his nose added to his youthful appearance.
“I’m sorry about your wife, sir.” Johnny said. He stopped in front of the corral and when Roland approached he jumped from his horse. He stuck out his hand and Roland took it and nodded.
“Rose thought you were the best student at the school,” Roland said.
“I didn’t know when or if you’d be back,” Johnny said as he pushed his glasses up. “We’ll move out right away! Mr. Swan said we could use the cabin. I’m sorry, Sir!”
“Rose’s father is a miserable, self-centered, judgmental old fool.” Roland’s eyes blazed. “Don’t think I’ve ever agreed with a damn thing that man ever did.”
Johnny gulped and about that time the front door of the cabin opened.
Lilly was half Cherokee, beautiful and almost as tall as Johnny with long black hair cascading across her shoulders. The noticeable swell at her waist and the shine in Johnny’s eyes told Roland all he needed to know.
“Well,” Roland grinned and slapped Johnny on the back. “Swan never did anything I agreed with until today.”
Roland enjoyed supper with the two but refused their invitation to stay the night. Johnny walked with him out to the corral while he saddled Horse for the trip into town.
“Pay what rent you can,” Roland said as he swung into the saddle. “You know life is going to be hard for you two.”
“I think I can stay on with the Rosewood Times as a typesetter,” Johnny said. “Mr. Johnson has always seemed a decent sort.”
Roland shrugged then turned to watch Lilly walk out back to draw some water.
“She takes a bath every night,” Johnny said and shook his head.
“Every night I want to share that bed,” Johnny said and a flush rose to his cheeks.
“No wonder you smell so clean.” Roland and Johnny laughed. Then Roland mounted up and turned Horse east toward Rosewood.
Tobias J. Swan owned the Rosewood Hotel and Saloon and lived there on the top floor. He also owned the livery stable across the street, one of two general stores, and the town’s only funeral parlor. He could have been at any of those places, but with the sun going down, Roland bet on the saloon. He tied Horse up out front, untied his saddle bags, and threw them over his shoulder.
The desk clerk knew Roland, but thankfully said nothing about Rose. He paid to have Horse boarded at the livery stable.
Roland took the stairs to his room then lay on the lumpy bed with his hat covering his face and tried to take a short nap. When sleep escaped him, he took the stairs once more and then stepped into the saloon. Three men stood in a rough circle around his ex father in law, Tobias Swan, who was backed up to the bar.
Swan saw him walk in but acted like he didn’t. The bartender stood behind the bar at the spot where Roland knew the ten gauge sawed off was hidden. He nodded at Roland but then turned his attention back to the men and his boss.
Bill Patterson and Jim Braddock owned a couple of the biggest ranches around and Tim Gladson had made a small fortune raising horses. Whatever the conversation had been, the silence in the air crackled with hostility.
Roland leaned on the bar, put one boot up on the ledge that ran underneath, and cleared his throat. Everyone looked his way.
“Get the man a beer,” Swan broke the silence and stepped between Bill and Jim to walk over to where Roland stood. The bartender seemed relieved and drew the cold brew then slid it down the counter. It stopped dead in front of Roland.
“Your buddies seem a bit tense,” Roland looked at Swan and took a big swallow. “You sniffing around their wives or their daughters?”
Swan ignored the comment and nodded to the bartender who only then eased away from the hidden shotgun. He poured Swan a whiskey from a bottle under the counter, brought it down, and set it in front of Swan. The other three men huddled together and spoke in whispers. They kept looking over at Roland and Swan. Their words, while boisterous and angry, still were not loud enough to hear.
“When did you get back to town, Roland?” Swan asked.
“About mid afternoon,” Roland said. “Stopped off at the house before I rode in.”
“I got some people staying there, looking after the place,” Swan said.
“Yes,” Roland said.
The three men came to some agreement and headed over.
“Just because your lap dog Texas Ranger showed up don’t mean we are done with this,” Bill Patterson said as he stepped up. Braddock and Gladson walked up behind him and stood one on each side.
“We want the half breed and that low life Injun lover of hers run out of this town.” Patterson said. “If you won’t do it, you can bet we will.”
“Watch your mouth, Patterson,” Roland said and sipped some beer before turning to face the men.
“This ain’t none of your business, Ranger.” Braddock said and looked over at Gladson who nodded in agreement.
“If he wasn’t wearing that badge…” Gladson said.
“No badge,” Roland said. “That means no rules.” He smiled and slid out of his coat and lay it on the bar next to his beer mug.
“I can handle this Roland,” Swan said.
Roland looked at each of the three men, then turned to Swan. “Suits me,” he said. “I’ll just move on down the bar a ways, wouldn’t want to catch a stray bullet.”
Roland picked up his beer with his left hand and sidestepped down to the end of the bar where he took a sip. He sat the beer down on the bar and stood facing the men, his right hand hung near his gun. He was still wondering who might draw first when the town Marshal and two of his constables came in.
After the Marshal sent the troublemakers packing Roland joined Swan back at the bar.
“Think I’ll ride back out to the farm,” Roland said. “Just in case there’s more trouble tonight.”
Roland woke to the smell of bacon frying. He walked to the house and was welcomed in. He told Johnny and Lilly about the trouble at the saloon over a big breakfast.
“I think the Marshal probably settled that bunch down,” Roland said taking his coffee out on the porch with Johnny hanging on very word. They sat in the two rockers. “Don’t expect you’ll hear from them at least not for a spell.”
He was wrong.
Roland was out front an hour later when he heard the hoofbeats of an approaching rider. Swan was riding hard and he came in hot, the big gelding sliding to a stop beside Roland. He jumped off the heaving,sweating animal.
“Gotta get those two out of here,” Swan said. “They’re not far behind me!”
When Roland didn’t move, Swan cursed, turned and rushed for the cabin.
Roland had seen Swan angry, drunk, sad, and what passed for happy. He had never seen him like this, scared. He looped the reigns of the horse around the rail and by the time he got to the porch, Swan had Johnny and Lilly out front.
“There’s about twenty of them. They’ve been drinking all night and into this morning and they’ve gotten all fired up.” Swan said. His face was red, his eyes wide. “We have to get y’all out of here, somewhere safe.”
“Too late,” Roland said and stepped off the porch as a crowd of men on horseback galloped around the curve into sight. He unconsciously slipped the piece of worn leather off the hammer on his pistol.
Johnny led Lilly into the cabin and once they were inside Swan walked over and stood just one step behind and to the left of Roland. He nodded and Roland returned the gesture. They waited.
Behind them a rifle barrel poked out of each of the two windows in the front of the cabin.
The mob had grown closer to thirty men: and, as they slowed their horses to a canter then to a walk, three men worked their way to the front.
Jim Braddock and Bill Patterson were on either side and Tim Gladson sat his mount between them. Roland figured Patterson for the leader again today and was proven right when he spoke.
“Swan, you and your boot licking Ranger need to step aside,” Patterson said.
“No,” Roland said.
Patterson spat a wad of chewing tobacco onto the ground and in the general direction of Roland then looked behind him at the men who had ridden in with him.
“Let me tell you what’s going to happen after we take care of you and Swan,” Patterson said. “We are going to drag those two out of the house, set it on fire, then we’ll deal with that Indian lover and his half-breed squaw.”
“No, no you’re not.” Swan stepped up to stand beside Roland.
Patterson pulled a knife out of a sheath on his left side and held it up. The sun flashed off the blade into Roland’s eyes but he didn’t flinch.
“After I cut that baby out,” Patterson had just started speaking when Roland’s right hand flashed to his Colt. The bullet struck Patterson in his left shoulder and before he hit the ground Roland had already cocked the gun again and was watching the others.
“Hold,” Roland said and Swan, who had pulled his own gun, kept it trained on the crowd. Roland took three steps to stand over Patterson and lowered his still smoking gun to within inches of his upturned face.
“You shot me!” Patterson said.
“You noticed that,” Roland said. A tight smile crossed his lips. “You can thank me later.”
Patterson rolled over onto his good shoulder and looked up past the gun barrel at Roland. “I didn’t even draw on you.”
“If I had waited on you to pull on me, you’d be trying to lie your way past Saint Peter right about now.” Roland said as he reached down and pulled Patterson’s gun from its holster. ”
“Get back on your horse,” Roland said. He stepped back and watched as Patterson struggled back in the saddle.
“Patterson, Braddock, and Gladson I’m putting you in charge,” Roland said.
“What are you talking about?” Braddock said.
“Here’s what is going to happen,” Roland said. “You are now in charge of the safety of Johnny and Lilly. If anything happens to them I will hold you responsible.”
“What?” Gladson asked. “You can’t do that. There ain’t no such law in these parts…”
“Not about the law, boys.” Roland said and lowered the hammer on his gun. “It’s a promise and one I aim to keep.”
“You heard the man,” Swan said. “Now git!”
It was late afternoon when Roland said his goodbyes to Lilly and Johnny. Swan waited on his horse and the two rode out together.
“You think they will be all right now?” Swan asked.
“Maybe, I hope so.” Roland looked over at him. “It might help some if you let folks know.”
“That Lilly is your daughter and Rose’s half-sister.”
“Hmmm,” Swan said. “You know about that?”
“Yes, and so did Rose.”
“Hmmmm,” Swan said. The two rode on, side by side, neither speaking for some time.
“Where you headed?” Swan asked after a while, breaking the silence.
“Going by the church, pay my respects to Rose, and then I’ll just ramble, I guess.”
“Let me show you something first,” Swan said and turned his horse off the road.
“Wait!” Roland yelled after him. “I’m not in the mood for your bull…” But Swan had spurred his horse without looking back and Roland reigned Horse to follow.
The creek was fuller than it had been in his dream, but still just a few inches of clear water ran down its bed. Roland found it very odd that Swan had stopped here but cantered Horse up and sat beside him. The two looked down the bank at the water.
“Rose told me about this place,” Swan said.
“We used to bring a sheet from the house and have lunch over there,” Roland said.
“Hmmm,” Swan took a cigar out of his vest and offered Roland one. The two men got the cigars going, each lost in his own thoughts. Then Swan said, “There’s more here, Roland. She talked a lot near the end, and most of that talk was about you.”
“I got to move along,” Roland said. He felt the heat rise in his face and hoped the other man didn’t notice.
Swan ignored him and got down off his horse. He let the reigns dangle, waved for Roland to follow and started along the creek bank.
Roland did the last thing in the world he wanted to do; he followed Swan through the brush about twenty yards to a clearing. Swan stopped and turned to face him.
“Rose told me this place was special to the two of you,” Swan said, “but never told me why.”
“If she didn’t, then I sure won’t.” Roland said.
“I can respect that,” Swan said. “She’s here, you know.”
“Here?” Roland asked.
Swan stepped aside and Roland saw where the grave had been dug and where hundreds of cut roses had turned from red, yellow, and white to a lifeless brown.
“I ordered the stone out of Laramie, and it will be here in a couple of weeks. Hope you will come back this way again.” Swan stepped around him to leave. He seemed smaller somehow as he walked away.
“Yeah,” Swan stopped and looked back.
“Why didn’t you wait on me for the funeral?” Roland asked.
“She begged me not to, made me promise, said it would be too hard on you.”
Roland turned then, took off his hat, and went to talk to his wife.
Thanks and a tip of the old Stetson to Jason Whitman for the excellent photograph that was the inspiration of Roland’s latest journey. Check out his work at the link above, it is awesome!