The Trail of an Outlaw
Posted on Wed Jun 7th, 2017 @ 6:04pm by Jess Harper
Edited on on Wed Jun 7th, 2017 @ 6:18pm
Shadows of the Past
Location: Sherman Ranch and Relay Station, Laramie, Wyoming
Timeline: Early Fall 1870
The Sherman Ranch lay roughly twelve miles west of the town of Laramie and sprawled over more than a thousand acres. It encompassed a variety of terrains, had rich pastures, and the most consistent water supply west of the town. Water coming off the highlands kept the streams and lakes filled although drought could sap the water seemingly overnight. It was routine for the ranch to move the cattle up to pastures in the high country after the spring thaws and bring them back down in the early fall to fatten on grain and hay during the winter months before driving them to market the next spring. It was a gentle and timeless routine.
The day was crystal clear, and the sky reflected its color in the depths of the man's deep blue eyes. In the thirteen years since he had left Montana, Jess had done a little bit of everything. He had worked as a ranch hand, mended fences, broken and trained horses, scouted for wagon trains and the army, and yes, he had even made a living by his gun when there were no other opportunities to be had or when he was given no other choice. Since coming to the Sherman Ranch and Relay station, Jess had found a way of life that suited him. His urge to drift was mitigated by his days of riding shotgun on the stage or helping John Sherman move his cattle and horses around the range or to market. Fort Laramie occasionally employed his skills as a scout and dispatch rider. Jess's days were full and busy, most nights now spent in the warmth and comfort of the Shermans' company at their modest ranch house.
This morning, Jess was alone in the high country, a few hours from the house and barns. John, his wife, Marianne, and their two sons had gone ahead with the herd. Jess had stayed behind to check for strays and bring in any stragglers he could find. There hadn't been many, not quite twenty head. They were still a challenge to keep together and keep them moving in the same direction. During the spring and summer, they came up from the ranch to check on the animals, but they were mostly left alone to graze. This meant they became unused to having humans around and some of the youngsters only saw humans for the first time come fall. It made them skittish and fractious, but the months spent grazing the high country's rich meadow grasses fattened them up. Wandering the steep slopes toughened them up. It made herding strays a chore, but when coupled with a winter's worth of grain feeding, it made for nice, sleek, fat and healthy animals for the spring markets. Most of the area's ranchers took their stock to market in the fall, so they did not have to winter them, but John had seen a new market opening up. The fancy restaurants back east, and along the west coast, were clamoring for grain-fed beef. While the cattle mostly took care of themselves during the spring and summer, the Shermans could concentrate their efforts on supplying horses to the army and to the stagecoach companies.
Jess shook his lariat out and fanned it at the haunches of the stragglers, "Hey-yup," he called out as his gelding expertly moved to head off one of the heifers. His chances of a hot homecooked meal and sleeping in his own bed that night became lower and lower. It was okay. Jess didn't mind one more night on the trail, and he didn't mind the solitude. He wasn't a loner by nature, but he didn't object to occasionally being on his own.
By evening, Jess had located the shallow, narrow draw that Sherm had shown him before. It was easy to barricade with brush and made a good holding pen for a small herd of livestock. As long as something didn't spook them, the cows would bed down for the night, and the rough gate would keep them in making it easy to gather them the next morning. As the daylight faded, Jess removed the tack from Brimstone and put his halter on him. He made sure the gelding's hooves were picked clean, brushed and curried his coat until it gleamed, then made sure he had water and feed for the night. Jess always made it a point to take care of his horse before taking care of himself. Jess chuckled softly as he laid out his campfire and set the coffee pot to boil. He often joked that his only two fears was a decent woman and being left afoot. He glanced at the big bay gelding with his nose deep in his feedbag, then at the rifle laying beside the overturned saddle. Jess had other fears too, but they were ones he didn't like to put a name to.
Jess pulled his night's rations out of his saddle bag; bacon, beans, a crisp apple, and some cheese. He decided to cook up the remaining bacon and beans so it would only need to be heated in the morning. He was about three-quarters of the way back to the ranch and wouldn't need to spend another night in the big open. After he'd finished his dinner, Jess stoked the fire and lay back against his saddle, coffee cup in hand. He pulled a book from his saddlebags. It was an old dime novel about a haunted house in Boston, not something he normally liked to read, but it had been small and easy to tuck away for the journey. Besides, the story was entertaining and somewhat better written than most of its kind. Jess normally preferred histories, even fictional ones, but on the trail, space was a premium. As usual, when alone, Jess read until the fire dimmed to the point that he couldn't see the pages. By then, the long day in the saddle had caught up with him. He rolled into his blanket and was soon fast asleep.
Jess was up with the birds the next morning. The sky was barely beginning to gray when he rolled out of his blankets and stretched, waiting for his night chilled muscles to warm up a bit. He built a fire back up, set the fresh coffee to brew, and uncovered the small pot of leftover beans. To that, he added crumbled bacon from the night before and placed the pot on the fire. Next, he untied Brimstone and led him to the stream, allowing him a good drink before he took one himself and splashed the cold water on his face. Like many cowboys, Jess really disliked feeling dirty, but he needed to be on the move. He could indulge in a hot bath when he got home.
After the usual ritual of feeding and grooming Brimstone, Jess sat down by the fire to have his breakfast. It was filling although not his preferred breakfast food. Jess grinned as he sipped his coffee. He'd eaten far worse, some of it made by his hand. He could look forward to the evening meal. Knowing that breakfast was his favorite, Marianne almost always made it for dinner when he and John came in off the range. By the time it was light enough to safely travel, Jess had saddled Brimstone, cleaned his cookware in the stream, packed everything back into saddlebags, bedroll, and tough canvas bag and secured everything to the saddle. Last of all, he slipped his rifle into its scabbard. Leaving Brimstone ground-tied nearby, Jess dragged the brush away from the opening to the draw. Mounting the horse, he shook out his lariat, rode into the draw and began encouraging the cattle out into the open. He reined Brimstone in and waited patiently as the animals crowded into the shallow stream and lowered their heads to drink.
Jess only stopped to give Brimstone and the cattle a breather at mid-day which let him be within a few miles of the ranch by early afternoon. He had just moved the strays down the next to last ridge when the lead cow threw her head up and mooed loudly, rolling her eyes in alarm. Seconds later, Jess saw what had startled her. A band of horses, led by a tall black and white yearling of all things, galloped into sight, causing the cattle to scatter in alarm. Jess muttered a string of curses, most of them aimed at the paint's parentage, as he gigged Brimstone into action. Still, his eyes followed the distinct black and white hide of the big colt. "We'll be back for you, big fella," Jess told the disappearing band of horses, then turned his eyes toward the scattered strays, "providing I get these useless critters to the barn before midnight."
To Jess's way of thinking, it was something of a miracle that the strays had not scattered further afield. It was also a relief to see John Sherman ride over the ridge, a smile on his handsome boy-next-door features. He reined his big sorrel in next to Jess, "I thought you might be close to home by now. Figured you could use some help."
"Hard Rock, you never looked so good," Jess said with a laugh, referring to John by the nickname he'd given him in response to the other man's rather strict code of conduct.
John nodded at the restless mob of cows, "Twenty! Didn't expect that many. Good job."
"Thought I was about to lose half of 'em," Jess said. "A small band of horses scattered them. Say!" He turned his eyes to his friend, "There was a big black and white yearling leadin' 'em. Think you'd sell him?"
"Jess, if you can catch him, and bring in that black mare running with the band, you can have the colt!" John said, his voice rather gruff with disgust. "The mare is a pure blood Tennessee Pacer that I brought back from the war. Pirate, an old outlaw Spanish Mustang ran her off and has sired several foals on her, including that paint you saw. Haven't been able to bring her in."
"I'll get them, Sherm," Jess said confidently. "Didn't see a stallion with the band, just mares, and some youngsters. Looked like the paint was taking over."
"Make sure to let us know when you go after 'em, pard," John said, a warning note in his voice. "That old mare is just about as bad as Pirate was. She'll kick your brains out given half the chance."
"I spent some time mustanging. I'll get her and the colt," Jess said, brimming with confidence.
"Just be careful, Jess. It's not worth getting hurt over," Sherman said, his voice mildly warning and carrying a note of concern. "C'mon, cowboy, let's get these varmints in."
The two men unfurled their lariats and set spurs to their mounts, gathering and driving the small herd ahead of them.
It was two weeks before Jess was able to set out to hunt the small band of feral horses. The ranch had had a last minute request for two extra stagecoach teams, and Jess had been needed to ride shotgun on the Cheyenne to Denver run. John's warning had also proved prophetic. He'd cornered the horses only to have the big black mare double back and charge him and Brimstone. The gelding had stumbled when he shied out of her way, and Jess had been thrown into a pile of loose rock. Fortunately, his only injury was a slightly sprained wrist. He'd soaked his spare bandana in cold water and wrapped his wrist with it. It was a good thing it was his left and not his gun hand.
The sun was at its zenith when Jess spotted the horses again. This time, he had the advantage. The were not far from the well-camouflaged corral that was used for holding horses during the annual musters. Three days of cat-and-mouse games with the mare and her colt made Jess a bit reckless. This time, he was upwind of the herd. Jess leaned forward and patted Brimstone's shining neck, "Bring 'em in, boy."
He set his heels to the big bay's flanks, and the horse leaped forward, his ears going flat. Jess yelled with his best war cry and swung his lariat as Brimstone nimbly zigged back and forth, keeping the wild horses from breaking backward past him. Jess was almost surprised when the herd shot past the hidden fencing into the corral. Brimstone slid to a stop and turned sideways, effectively blocking the opening. Before the horses could make a full turn in the corral and head back for the opening, Jess leaped from the saddle and pulled the gate rails into the place. With his adrenaline pumping and wrist aching, Jess watched the horses sweep around the enclosure, desperately searching for a way out. The black mare stopped and reared. Shaking her head, she advanced toward the man leaning against the gate and stopped. Her eyes showed white with a hint of red, and her finely shaped ears lay flat to her head. Furiously, she pawed the ground, squealing a threat at the human that blocked her way to freedom.
"Settle down, Mama, be gentle," Jess said soothingly. "No one is gonna hurt you or your boy. In fact, if you'll just calm down, your life will get a whole lot easier."
The mare squealed again and charged the fence causing Jess to leap back involuntarily in response. "Or not," he chuckled. "I've dealt with worse than you, Mama. We'll get on just fine."
It took several more days and sleeping close enough that the mare could keep his scent in her nostrils, but gradually she calmed down. John and Marianne came out daily to bring Jess food and spell him so he could go to the house, rest, and clean up. He learned from Sherm that the mare's registered name was Glory at Midnight and that she'd always been called Glory. That bit of information helped as she seemed to remember her name when Jess spoke it. Her big, leggy black and white colt was actually more willing to listen to reason.
Once brought to the barn and corral next to the ranch house and separated from the rest of the band, Glory quickly gentled down although John said it was Jess's endless patience that did the trick. By spring, both Glory and her son, the pinto colt that Jess named Lakota in honor of the Sioux tribe that had once saved his life, were well-settled. Lakota promised to be a spirited, but well-mannered horse and Jess made the decision not to geld him, seeing in the horse a potential to sire a good line. After all Jess's work with the mare, Sherman offered her to him as well, but Jess refused, saying that he'd rather have a couple of her foals later on.
Jess leaned on the corral fence and watched as Lakota trotted around its interior perimeter, moving in time to Brimstone who followed the colt, mirroring his moves and by that, teaching the colt how to move more easily. He would be sad when the day came to retire Brimstone, but the big blood bay gelding had earned it. Jess had bought the horse not long after he'd lit out from Montana and he hadn't been a youngster even then. He was probably pushing thirteen or fourteen years of age. By the time Lakota was fully tamed and broken in, it'd be time to let Brim rest. He'd make a good first horse for Sherman's younger boy, Mike, but Jess sure would miss him.
The sound of the dinner gong interrupted Jess's reverie. Marianne's pretty voice called from the porch just outside the kitchen door, "Dinner! Sherm, Jess, come on before it gets cold!"
Jess turned away from the corral as John came out of the barn. He paused and turned back to look at Lakota, "You're not the only one being gradually tamed," he told the stallion before trotting across the yard to fall in step with his friend.
~*~ The End ~*~