The wind was picking up some, there was snow in it, and Jess Harper was cold clear to his bones. All he wanted now was some of Jonesy’s hot coffee and a place to sleep right through to morning. But he had a problem that he had to settle before he hit the sack.
“Jonesy, you seen my gloves?”
“What’s the matter, boy? Why you so all fired up anxious?” the older man drawled, amusement in his voice.
“Can’t find my gloves anyplace.”
Jonesy chuckled, “Why you had ‘em the other night when you an’ Slim went into town and settled Hake Ballard’s hash.”
All three of the residents of the Sherman ranch had a low opinion of Mr Ballard. He had been a cheating no-account who deserved all he got which was a bullet. They had gambled on getting their beeves to market before the blizzards started and the aforementioned Hake Ballard, a bully of the first class, had tried all manner of trickery to diddle them out of any profit they had coming. This was money which was desperately needed to keep the ranch going. The stage line had folded (temporarily, they hoped and prayed) because of the drought ravaging the area. And the way Jess could knock back the grub didn’t leave their tab at the mercantile store in town looking too healthy. So they had signed onto Ballard’s trail-drive to earn some folding money.
“Might’ve had ‘em the other night, ain’t got ‘em now.”
“Anyone think you couldn’t do without ‘em, " Slim interrupted, helping himself to coffee.
“Maybe I can’t.”
“Sounds to me like there’s a story in that.” Jonesy pulled the heavy blanket around his shoulders and tossed another log onto the camp-fire.
“Yeah, well, there is,” Mister Harper admitted, somewhat shamefaced.
“You save it for when we’re back home, fed an’ warm,” Jonesy said. “This wind’s gonna freeze my tail-bones off. Good job we got the money for them beeves, I want a dinner in the Diamond Palace in Cheyenne to make up for all this. What a drive!”
“I been on worse,” Jess said, sparking their interest.
“Tell us about it,” Slim grinned.
“Well, as I told you already...after the war, when I got me back into the way of being alive an’ free, but without a cent to my name, I signed on for a trail-drive comin’ up out of Texas. The boss of this outfit, Marty Colcannon, saw that all them fine Texas steers had been running free while we was away fighting. Not fattenin’ much, though. Scrawny, nasty minded critters most of ‘em.”
Jonesy tried to keep a straight face, “Sounds just like someone I know.”
Jess punched his arm, “Shut up, you! But, any rate, the man that could slap a brand on ‘em and drive ‘em to where they was wanted, well he’d make top-dollar.”
“Not many dollars to spare , back then,” Jonesy allowed.
“So. One of the places that needed our Texas longhorns was a fort in the back end of no where. Kiowas down there was keepin’ ‘em on the hop, and they was cryin’ out for beef.
"I signed on. I had a horse an’ worn out old saddle, not much else, like a whole lot of others . Now the man Colcannon picked for trail boss was Ash Cullen. Real hardcase, made Hake Ballard look wet behind the ears.”
He favored Jonesy with an I-dare-you-to say-a-word look, at which Jonesy kept his mouth firmly shut.
“This Cullen, he rode a big sorrel, all gussied up with a Mexican silver saddle. The lines was braided horse -hair, real pretty, black an’ white, but I never got real close. Not close enough to see any different. Pity I didn’t get that close a look or I’d never have signed on.
"Cullen had him a partner called Choctaw, as bad a piece of work as I ever seen. He was a scrawny runt, with a dirty bald head. You could smell him halfway through Texas. I didn’t trust him an inch. Why? It was soon plain, he was a scalp- hunter.
"Most nights Choctaw would disappear an’ turn up at breakfast with a fresh scalp or three. Don’t reckon he was fussy, Indian, Mexican, it was all hair. An’ he wanted the bounty. All I wanted to see was the back of him, he was more of a savage than the Kiowas who was trailin’ us.
"Indians was trailing us, for sure. Some tribes ask for beef, just like them we dealt with back aways, a payment for crossing their territory. But them Kiowas wanted more than that.
"They wanted Cullen and Choctaw.
"We lost horses, we lost men, good men. Some high-tailed it out an’ took their chances. Some died to Kiowa bullets. I was lucky with never a scratch. "I needed the dollars. I stayed.
"It was a war. Choctaw was out to get hair. The Kiowas fightin’ back, an’ they were bounden determined.They hung about an' picked us off, one by one. Never seen the like of it before.
"Then I found out why.
"Now Cullen had him a Mexican wife to go with the Mexican saddle. That’s what I supposed. She rode the cookwagon and we saw less than nothin’ of her. But Ash Cullen didn’t treat her with any respect, not like a wife at all. Heard he beat up on her until you couldn't tell where the bruises ended and her skin began. Pretty thing, she could have been, I reckon. Hard to tell.
"Now this lady, I’ll call her Rosie, I didn’t get to hear her name, she had a boy. Real nice little sprout, three or four maybe, dark eyes an’ real pretty like his Ma might have been if Cullen left her alone.
"Cullen and Choctaw would both terrorize the boy, but never a word came out of him for all the punishment they laid on him. An’ that made it worse.
"One night I was chowin’ down, the others had gone to check the remuda or were rolled up in their blankets, when Rosie came up, quiet-like behind me, “Been watching you,” she said. “Help me? Must leave afore Cullen kill Yellow Bird like he kill my daughter.”
“The boy. I need to get away. Every time I try, Cullen beat me. Beats Yellow Bird. Cullen not my husband, not my man. I belong to Kamwit, the boy’s his.”
“You want to go back to the Kiowas?” I was surprised at that.
“Belong there,” she said.
"She had no place else to go. All her people in La Nortena were gone because of Choctaw.
"I’ll spit on his bones. That’s my papa’s hair, that quirt he uses. Choctaw scalp my papa, my brothers, pretend it’s Apache, Kiowa, Commanch’. He wants Kamwit to come, wants to kill him an’ take his hair.” She explained that Kamwit was a war chief, and there was a mighty good price on his head from the government.
“I’ll think on it, I said, but for sure I didn’t have to think long.
"That night, we got a storm of rain and wind, a perfect night for hightailing it. So we did.
"Cullen had a guard on the remuda. But I got saddles onto two horses, good ones. There was me on one. Rosie an’ the boy on the other. We left the guard unconscious. Well, I couldn’t kill him, not even to save my own hide. Ash Cullen an’ Choctaw was another matter entirely. I’d take them out an’ not think twice about it.
"We was gettin’ along fine, but Ash Cullen must’ve found the unconscious remuda guard. He rounded up a gang of the cowboys that was left an’ came after us. We headed for the Kiowa camp an’ Cullen started poppin’ off lead at us. We was almost home free when the horse that Rosie an’ the boy was ridin’ got a hoof down in a hole. Down it went, leg busted, an’ Rosie and Yellow Bird was thrown an’ ended up half way down this arroyo. Rosie was okay, I could see that. But the boy was hangin’ by his fingertips over a nasty drop with Cullen lookin’ like a madman, and trying to kick him all the way down into pergatory. I wasn’t goin’ to let that happen, when Cullen took a few more shots at me.
"I got myself kinda wet an’ muddy, but I got Cullen. Just the one bullet it took."
“Save the boy, Jess!” - I didn’t even know she knew my name- but know it she did.
"I tried to get a hold of his arm. It was slippery in that rain an’ Yellow Bird was heavy for all he was a scrawny little runt. Cullen didn’t feed him much, I found out later. He slid down some more. But somehow I got a grip. The fancy new gloves helped, the ones I’d bought before we set out on the drive. Without ‘em I’d never have managed, an’ I hooked that boy up like a trout on a line. That was the best fish I ever caught.
"The Kiowas came up, they didn’t seem pleased with me at all. I reckon Kamwit wanted the pleasure of taking Ash Cullen to pieces all on his lonesome for what he’d done. They’d got Choctaw and they was so mad he didn’t last long at all. They wanted to give him a last chance to prove he was a man and not a murderin’ scumbag. But he died fast, so that was maybe a mercy for him. But it wasn’t a pretty sight. So I reckoned I was going the same way, if I didn’t find some way out, but I was sure goin’ down fighting.
"But Rosie saved me.”
“Oh, no," she said. “No more killing. Not this one. I’m determined to keep this one. Him an’ his shiny black gloves an’ all. Me an’ Yellow Bird, we owe him. I think we’ll keep him.”
"You shoulda seen Kamwit’s face, he didn’t know what to do, what to say. “No,” he says at last. “Not sharing you with another husband.” And he looked at me, serious like. “You go, you with the black gloves like gambler. They bring you luck. Not going to kill you, not this time. But ain’t sharin’ my woman, not even with you. Take gun an’ horse, an’ go.”
"Rosie was smilin’. “Don’t forget, while you live, they bring you luck. Don’t you lose ‘em now.”
"So I never did. Until now...”
“They’ll wear out,” Jonesy said. “You’re gonna have to get a new pair sometime, for sure.”
“Sure I will. But up to now, my luck’s held, ain’t it? Still kept my hair. No bullet’s killed me, has it?” Jess stood, and tried to look threatening at Jonesy. He didn’t make a good job of it. “Now, where are they? Jonesy, I’m gonna put sand in your coffee and burrs under your blankets. If you got my gloves, I want ‘em back!”
“Keep your hair on, Jess. I saw the right hand needed a stitch, so I done it for you. Here they are."
And Jess pulled on his shiny black gloves with a look of unashamed relief.
“But, what happened to the Mexican saddle?” Slim asked, pouring coffee and passing it to his partner. “What about Rosie, you ever hear from her again?”
“She burnt the saddle. Saw her do it. Every cursed scrap of leather, every bit of hair. Took the lump of burnt silver and buried it deep. "
"Praise be!" Jonesy muttered, cupping his own freezing hands around a mug of coffee. "I'd be afeared there was a curse on it!"
"Last I heard the family was down on the Red River, dodgin’ the soldiers. Tryin’ to stay free. But I kept Ash Cullen’s horse. Sold it in Abilene, but that’s another story. Tell it to you when we get home to Laramie..."