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    • "Ain't hardly nothin' to do but hunker down till she blows herself out." The man squatted, "Rance, is the name. Been watchin' you, doin' a fine job. You'll do Wheeler, you'll do. Try and get some rest, might end up bein' a long night. Least you won't be ridin' drag come daylight, there's a plus for ya."   He stood and made his way to his shelter to await the grub that was coming.   @Bongo
    • Meanwhile, in the main house, Reb Culverson was visiting with his old friend Fightin' Joe Hooker, who was the ramrod for the fledgling Montana Territory Stockgrowers Association, Northern District. He was there to convince ranchers to join and support the organization, hoping it would take root.   "And just what good is this here association ya got started?" Reb asked.   "It'll give us a voice in the territorial government, Reb, that's what it'll do. Once that happens we'll be able to git us some sortta range police to protect the herds, and the ranchers." Hooker responded. "Rustlin' might not be the threat it was, but you know as well as me, it can come back."   "You get anywhere with Lost Lake, 'er that cow thief on the Evergreen?" Reb asked.   "Can't say as I have, startin' with the smaller spreads an' workin' my way up to them two. I'm well aware of both spreads, and the men that own 'em."   -------------0------------   They swept down out of the trees whooping and hollering and firing off a couple of shots as they closed on both sides of a big group of cattle, just as they had planned. The  lone night hawk knew he had no chance of stopping the raiders, or of saving the cattle while he watched the chunk of the herd moving toward and then into the trees at a run.  He emptied his Colt at the raiders, the whipped out his Winchester  and levered several shots in the area where they had disappeared.   He could not know that one of his shots had found its mark. A man that had just joined took a slug in his back and toppled from his horse. Toole and the men continued to drive the cattle toward the dry riverbed as planned. It was an acceptable loss.   The sound of the shots, mere pops at the distance to the main house and the bunk house alerted everyone, and men boiled out of the bunk house guns in hand, only to watch the night man shooting after the rustlers.
    • Out on the boardwalk they stopped, "So we managed ta git a deal right off, thet's good, it is. Now all we gotta do is convince ol' Wentworth to free up the money so's ya don't have ta use yers right off." Amos commented, "Seems a fair deal but like you say, minin's not no sure thing."   "John and Mary are good folks. It's not a sure thing, but you saw the vein, went to the floor and it looks rich," Speed responded. "And it looks to be wider where they stopped digging. I can't wait to get it assayed to see what we've really got our hands on."   "And it should assay out pretty good from the looks of it, though I know so little about copper ore." Alice admitted.   "Well, you saw the copper ore, which is clearly distinguishable from the surrounding rock due to its reddish, mottled appearance. And that surrounding rock is granite which is not easy to work, but it can be done, and, if we have hit it, the veins could be as much as a mile long, a mile wide, and a mile deep!" Speed explained with a grin. "With that equipment we'll be able to not only dig deeper, we'll be able to tunnel, and we have the property to do just that."   "Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" Amos exclaimed. Might oughtta buy up what ground ya can aound 'er, jest ta be certain!"   "First things first, let get on up to the bank." Speed suggested.
    • Justus was more than happy to have a chance to get out of the bulk of the wind, although he knew this was far from over.  And he knew they'd be hacking up dirt for days.     With the picket lines set, he moved over to help put up the shelters for the night, pretty quickly deciding that it was a fool's errand...they were all going to be miserable until this let up.   Squinting, he looked out toward the herd, not able to see but a few in the dust, it looked like they had been swallowed by the big, dirty cloud, and weren't even there.  In fact, he had the eerie sensation that all that was left in the world was this small circle of men and horses.   "Ya need me ta do anythin' else?" he called over the din of the wind.   @Flip
    • Doc Gilcrest walked into the bunck house to see Carson on his feet, dressed. "I may not be able to ride, but I can darn sure walk some. Tired of layin' in that bed."   "I reckon you kin do thet, sure 'nough. No body said ya had ta lie there if'n ya didn't want to. Yer stitched up plenty good. Jest leave thet hog leg where she's hangin' fer now, don't need the weight in thet wound."   "So anybody come sniffin' around?" He asked.   "Not so's you'd notice. There's four men down there keepin' watch, but it don't look like Lost Lake's lost any sleep over their man, that is if'n they even know he's gone." Gilcrest offered.   "He seen that brand an' went ta shootin'!" Carson reflected. "I jest shot straighter. Had no choice in the matter. Fool could'a rode on, but, well, that just ain't what happened. Hell of a mess."   "Oh I dunno. So far nobodies come huntin', the boss ain't upset over it, neither's Granger, so you got nothin' ta worry on 'cept gettin' better."   "I should'a been more careful, but maybe there just wasn't no way to be more careful. Up on the side of that mountain is the purdiest view a man could look at. You can see fer miles, see right where they got them cows of theirs. Now that ain't gonna be no easy matter to get to any of 'em. They're deep on Lost Lake range. Gonna be hard to get at, an' worse to get out. We'll lose some men tryin' this one, that's for sure!'   Gilcrest rubbed his chin. It wasn't like Carson to go on about the prospects of a job.

Justice Over the Horizon

Shade Thornton

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Shade leaned sideways and narrowed his eyes, scanning the rocky and hard packed earth for signs of the track he'd been following. The wind played havoc with the tracks and even Shade, who had trained for tracking and scouting at the knees of his grandmother's Blackfoot tribe, was having a hard time following the trail. Shade reined in his big bay gelding and patted the horse's powerful neck. "We both need a break, don't we, Brim?" Brimstone's answered by twitching his ears and giving a soft snort. Shade dismounted and looped the reins over his arm, leading the horse into the shallow draw. As so often happened in the high country, there was a small natural spring welling up between the boulders of a rock fall. Shade let Brimstone have a long drink before he cupped his hands and took several long drinks himself. He then filled both canteens. While Brimstone grazed on the sparse grass, Shade chewed on some jerky and hardtack.

As he worked on the tough crackers and dried meat, Shade's eyes constantly roamed the landscape. He had been riding for the better part of a day and a half, and the fury and determination that drove him had not abated in the slightest. For once, the longing to keep riding, to see what lay beyond the next hill and over the next horizon was not the driving force that kept him riding. No, it was the image of his friend lying with a bullet in his back that kept Shade moving. He had been riding fence while John brought in a few strays that had gotten through a break. Two gunshots had brought him to where Sherman was working in time to see a trio of would-be rustlers galloping hell-for-leather up the ridge and John laying face-down in the dirt. He'd made his friend as comfortable as possible before riding to the ranch to get John's wife and the buckboard. Marianne had sent Shade to town for the doctor while she took her husband back to the ranch house.

The bullet had gone straight through without hitting anything vital. John would recover, but Shade could not shake the image of seeing him lying there, shot in the back and left for dead over not even a handful of stray steers. Shade had reported the incident to the sheriff and had been duly deputized, authorized to bring the rustlers in if he could find them. To his way of thinking, it was less an if and more a case of when he brought them back. The fury wasn't new. Shade had always been easily angered by what he perceived to be an injustice. He had lived rough, especially in the early years when he'd first set out on his own, but he had never stolen or killed to live. Even at his lowest and hungriest, he had managed to either find work to pay his way or had traded his skills, such as they were, for food and roof.

The determination wasn't completely new either although the reason for it was. Until a few months back, Shade had been living on the drift, going from one job to another, following the wind and his whims. Then, he had ridden into the Shermans' place, half dead with fever from an infected bullet wound. They had not questioned taking him in and nursing him back to health. Upon learning that he was heading into Laramie to take up a job as a guard for the same stagecoach company that they ran the relay station for, they'd immediately offered him a place to live and a job on the ranch, something to help make ends meet. John and Marianne had offered him a home, a place to belong, and people to come home to. He still felt the itch sometimes, the one that had kept him moving for so many years, but John seemed to recognize the signs. He would send Shade on stock buying or selling trips or say nothing when Shade took on extra stagecoach runs.

Shade leaned down and scooped up a handful of water to wash the rough meal down with. The second handful he splashed over his dusty hair and face. He took off his dark blue bandana and soaked it in the cold water, twisted it to ring the water out and tied it back around his neck, sighing at the coolness against his skin. Gathering the reins, Shade gave his signature hop, setting his foot into the stirrup and swinging into the saddle. Touching his heels to the bay's flanks, he guided him back to where they'd left the trail.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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The sky was barely light when Shade rolled out of his blanket and got to his feet. He'd lost the tracks late on the previous day. High winds had scoured all trace from the ground. It didn't matter. He thought he knew where the rustlers had holed up. It wasn't the best place to ride into alone, but going back for a posse meant they'd likely escape completely. No, he had to keep going and hope he could get them to surrender peacefully. Except for a few law enforcement jobs over the years and riding guard for freight and stage companies, Shade had never been paid to use his gun. And, despite being hot-tempered and rumored to be quick to draw, he had never killed for vengeance. However, Shade was determined to bring the three men to justice, it would be up to them how that played out.

Shade took the time to make a pot of coffee. If he was right about where the rustlers were, they couldn't go much of anywhere without passing his position. There was an old, long-abandoned, line shack tucked back in a narrow canyon less than five miles from the camp. John had shown it to him one time when they were out hunting. It had been more holes than walls and the way it shuddered and creaked when the wind whistled down from the cliffs, Shade had thought it was going to fall down around their ears. Having tracked the riders this far, Shade felt sure that was where they'd holed up. There was a good amount of cover on the approach, but they could stay in the old cabin indefinitely. John's Pa, the man that had built it, had constructed the cabin around one of the natural wells that littered the high country.

After a meal of coffee and leftover fire-roasted rabbit from the night before, Shade saddled and bridled Brimstone. There had been plenty of grazing for the big bay, and he'd had a good night's rest leaving him edgy and anxious to be on the trail. Shade chuckled and slapped the gelding's neck, "Settle down, big fella. We're near the end of the trail."

The wind cutting down from the highlands had a bitter edge to it. Shade turned up the collar of his jacket and fished in its pocket for his gloves. Winter was some months off yet, but the weather turned cold early up here. He dropped the reins long enough to tug on his gloves, flexing his fingers to stretch the leather. Less than an hour later, he rode Brimstone into the mouth of the little canyon. The only other way out was on foot because the path was too steep for horses, even if they were being led. Brimstone came to an abrupt stop and raised his head. Fearing he was about to sound a greeting to his quarry's mounts, Shade tugged the reins sharply, distracting the gelding long enough for him to dismount and muffle the horse's muzzle against his chest. "Do me a favor, Brim, don't announce our presence here to the world, okay?"

Fortunately, the gelding spied some fresh sprigs of grass nestled against a nearby tree. Shade did not want to hobble the horse, he might have to leave in a hurry. Instead, he looped the reins over the saddle horn to keep Brimstone from stepping on them and used his lariat to secure the horse. He tied the loose end to a low hanging branch, securing it with a quick-release knot. Shade then pulled his rifle from the saddle scabbard, making sure it was fully loaded. After checking his six-gun, he started walking into the draw, keeping close to the shadows cast by the tall conifers lining the ridge. 

The shack was hidden by a slight bend in the ridge. Its position was an advantage to Shade as there was enough cover to let him get fairly close. The old shack looked ready to fall down. There were more holes in it than he remembered and half the roof was missing. Just beyond the ramshackle building, Shade could see wood poles set across the canyon where it narrowed the most. Beyond the makeshift gate, he could see several heads of cattle grazing on the sparse vegetation. He sent up a silent prayer that the three men he'd seen ride away from the ambush were all there was in the gang.

"You in the shack," Shade shouted, "come out with your hands up. I'm taking you in to face charges of attempted murder and rustling."

Gunfire erupted from the shack causing Shade to roll back behind the boulder he was using for shelter. Shade shifted to a kneeling position and fired two quick shots from his rifle, eliciting another spate of gunfire from the shack. By the sounds, he estimated only one of the occupants was using a rifle. The hard part was that he would have to try to estimate where the shooters were standing based on muzzle flashes. Shade would have preferred to be in a position where he didn't have to shoot to kill. He'd rather take them in to stand trial, but they did not seem inclined to surrender peacefully. Shade fired again, but this time he remained in a position where he could watch for the return fire. Estimating as best as possible, he aimed for where he hoped would be a non-lethal shoulder shot. When the men inside the shack opened fire again, there was one less shooter.

'One down, two to go,' Shade thought grimly as he continued playing his bizarre version of cat-and-mouse. "Throw out your weapons and come out with your hands up!" Shade shouted again, hoping the two remaining gunmen would surrender. The reply was the same as before, a renewed spate of shooting.

"Damn all to hell," he muttered as a bullet nearly parted his hair. He ducked back behind his rock. Shade popped up and fired, ducking back just far enough to make himself hard to hit. When the two returned fire, he took a chance, stood partially up and fired back, aiming at the muzzle flashes. A man cried out from inside the shack, and the shooting stopped.

Shade approached the shack cautiously, ready to dive for cover should the shooting start again. He stopped several feet shy of the door, "Coming in."

Inside the cabin, one man, barely more than a boy, sat on the floor with his back to the wall, one hand pressed to his shoulder. Another man lay sprawled over a ladder-back chair, the other slumped lifelessly against the other wall. Shade gathered the weapons, making sure they were out of reach. He stared coldly at the boy, "Which of you shot the rancher in the back?"

"M-Mac," the wounded man answered, nodding toward the body of the man lying on the floor. "Please, mister, it hurts."

"Good enough for you," Shade snapped. "Taking you in and if you don't wanna join your friends in the hereafter, you won't be givin' me any trouble."

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The ride back to Laramie had not been easy for the boy, and Shade wasn't inclined to make it pleasant. He was relieved to hand him over to the sheriff along with the bodies of the other two rustlers. After giving Randall the location of the shack and the steers in the makeshift corral, Shade rode for home, pushing Brimstone at a gallop. As he trotted the horse into the yard, the house's front door flew open. The Shermans' two sons charged out, both chattering at the same time, barely waiting for Shade to dismount before flinging their arms around him in a welcoming hug.

Shade returned the greeting, looking up as he heard a light, feminine voice say, "He's been waiting for you, and worrying," Marianne Sherman said, giving Shade a good once-over to make sure he was all in one piece. "Andy, Mike, put Brimstone up for Shade." To Shade, she added, "You look tired."

He smiled wearily, "Worn out. John's okay?"

"See for yourself," Marianne patted his arm. "I held dinner, hoping you'd get back."

Shade walked into the house, stopping when he saw John Sherman resting on the sofa, propped up by a stack of pillows. The other man's expression lightened, and his face broke into a grin, "Shade! Welcome home, pard!"

"It's good to be...home," Shade replied, and there was no doubting the sincerity in his voice.

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