by J D Webb
Cowhand is wounded and loses his life savings when ambushed. He vows revenge.
Rattler is set in the mid 1800s in Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. Ben Turner has been a cowhand for ten years, saving his pay to purchase cattle for a ranch further west away from the glut of people where he worked. Waylaid and severely injured on his journey, he's befriended by a mountain man named Pots (so named because of the jingling pots attached to his pack mule retrieved from a deceased peddler). Pots nurses him back to health and allows Ben to work in his hidden silver mine and keep what he finds. |
Ben's uncle Wade Turner, a retired gunfighter, taught Ben how to handle a gun and a Bowie knife. Ben's not quite as fast as Wade, but is more accurate. That ability comes in handy as Ben winds his way west.
The cabin was cramped, but livable. With the firewood already cut he would be assured of warmth during the time he stayed here. There was the cot and a chair fashioned of cut pine branches notched together and held by rawhide straps. The back and seat were deerskin stretched across and laced to the frame with more rawhide. It was very comfortable and obviously built for a man of considerable proportions. He wondered where that person was and when he might come back.
Ben found a pot to use to get water from the stream. At the water’s edge he dressed his shoulder and fashioned a new bandage. Moving the shoulder was still too painful. If circumstances were different he would have taken more time to enjoy the stillness and beauty of this place. But right now he needed to recover from his ordeal.
That stillness was broken by someone coming through the woods talking and by what sounded like a bunch of pans banging together. Ben realized he had left his gun in the cabin. There was not time to get to the cabin so he crouched down behind some bushes. A giant of a man limped down the path cradling a rifle in huge arms. He was leading a mule loaded down with furs and at least ten pots and pans clanging together with each step, and behind two horses ambled along. One of those horses was Compadre. The man headed for the cabin.
Ben let him pass and yelled out, “Hold it right there and don’t move. Put your gun on the ground and kneel down.”
The man stopped and started to turn around.
“I said, don’t move or I might have to put a bullet in you.”
Slowly the man put his rifle down. Ben moved behind him and grabbed the rifle.
“Well, what ya goin’ ta do ta me?” The man’s voice was surprisingly very soft.
“Where did you get that horse?” Ben asked.
“I hope ya believe me. I jest found him wanderin’ ‘round. I looked fer his owner. Found him up in the rocks with a big hole in his chest. Looked like a knife wound.” Tilting his head toward the horse he remarked. “I figured he wouldn’t be needin’ him anymore so I brought him home.”
“That’s my horse.”
“Say, can I git off my knees? I’m too old to be very steady jest kneelin’ down. ‘Sides, it hurts like hell.”
Ben saw he was having trouble trying to stay upright.
“Very slowly and don’t make any sudden moves. Where is your partner?” Ben was still sheltered by some trees so that someone else could not get a good shot at him.
“Ain’t got no partner. Jest me, my horse, and my mule, Grubstake. I was talkin’ ta him there on the path. Hey, ya don’t even have a gun on ya. What would ya have done if I’d jumped ya?”
“Well, I’d probably got killed. Is that your cabin back there?”
“Yep. Looks like you got a bad shoulder there. It’s bleedin’. If ya come on up ta the cabin I’ll git ya some injun medicine that’ll stop it.”
Ben took in the man’s face and decided he was not going to give him any trouble. It was grizzled and gnarled and yet somehow kind. There was a certain twinkle in those old but sharp eyes. His nose had been the recipient of some hard blows. It had at least three extra bumps that Ben could see. And on one cheek, a nasty scar where the flesh had at one time been opened to the bone. Yet with all that, it was not a hideous face. There was an aura of good that escaped all the obvious punishment that had been heaped upon it. Ben could not guess how old the man was.
“Name’s Wesley Martin but ever’ one around here calls me Pots.” He motioned to the mule. “Ya can probly figure out why. Been out here prospectin fer six or seven years now. Ain’t hit nothin’ big yet, but I think I’m gettin’ close.” He winked and his nose moved more than his eye.
When he stood, Pots was at least six foot five and heavy, but not fat. Dressed in a combination of furs and leather there was no mistaking a mountain man. A hatchet hung on his belt and as well as a large knife.
“Come on. I ain’t gonna hurt ya. Ya stay out here, you’re gonna bleed ta death and I’ll have ta bury ya.” With that Pots took off toward the cabin. Ben had no choice but to follow.
When they got inside Pots went to a small shelf and pulled down something wrapped in a cloth.
“Take off yer shirt and I’ll put some of this on it. It smells powerful bad but it works. Got it from a Blackfoot medicine man.”
Ben sat cautiously while the mountain man very gently applied the smelly ointment to his shoulder, and it seemed to immediately stem the flow of blood. After fashioning a bandage the man sat on the cot and looked at Ben.
“So! What happened ta ya?”
“I got dry gulched by some not so friendly cusses. Took all my supplies and money and lit out. I was able to get one of them, but the other fellow shot me.”
“Looks like he got ya twice.”
Ben touched his head and winced as the pain returned. “He did. Guess I’m too hardheaded for just a little bullet. I really am grateful for your help. As soon as I can get settled down somewhere and can earn some money I’ll pay you for the use of your cabin.”
“Don’t think nothin’ of it. I’m glad ta be able ta talk ta somebody besides that cantankerous old mule. You’re welcome ta stay, at least till ya git that shoulder better. You’re goin’ ta need a place ta lay low fer awhile. Did ya recognize them fellas that waylaid ya?”
“Never saw them before. I’ll know the one that got away though. He had a silver belt buckle with a snake carved on it.”
“I reckon I never saw that feller before.”
The two men spent the rest of the day learning about each other. Pots had been a mountain man for most of his life. Ben guessed him to be about 40 or so. Pots walked with a telltale limp and he told Ben how it happened.
"'Bout eight years before I surprised a very mad grizzly an' my leg got purty mangled. See?" The scarring he exposed just about made Ben ill. "The leg laid me up for some time and so I took up prospecting to get by while I couldn’t do no trappin'. The nickname Pots was given me by the locals after I found a peddler on the trail that had been killed and robbed. Some of the dead man’s supplies in a wagon included a bunch of pots that I strung across Grubstake. The jangling of the pots helped forewarn any nasty grizzlies to move on.
Pots told Ben, the closest town was Mountain View about four miles due south. Ben decided that he would go there to find work as soon as his shoulder allowed. And to see if anyone knew of a man with the snake belt buckle. He wouldn’t rest until he retrieved his life savings or at least make that man pay for what he did. Ben made a pledge that he would not make a move until he was fully recovered and able to face the man on his terms.
Ben Turner had confidence that when he was fully healthy he could handle himself in any fight. Wade Turner’s lessons included hand-to-hand fighting as well as the use of various weapons. Brawls and street fighting usually settled arguments. Gunfights rarely were face to face fast-draw contests. The seven gun battles Wade had survived involved some famous fast guns, though, giving him a reputation that had grown to almost legend status. Wade retired and settled down as a rancher and enjoyed teaching his nephew how to defend himself. Ben’s only family was Wade and a long-lost cousin. He was a good student and became an excellent shot. He remembered Wade telling him: “It don’t mean a lick to be fast. You got to get your shot off accurate. More than likely you will only get that one.” It was a tribute to Wade’s ability that he was able to retire after spending seventeen years as sheriff of Diablo, Colorado.
| Chapter Two
Sunlight reached Ben’s eyes coaxing him to consciousness. He hurt. Everything hurt. He felt as though he had been underneath a stampede. At first he thought his tongue was extended and in the dirt, but it was just extreme dryness. With much effort he wet his lips gratefully tasting no dirt. He had no idea how much time passed before he tried to move. He dreaded moving. If it hurt so much just being still, the pain would be intense when he moved. He had to move. He could not just lie there and die. Gingerly he tested his legs. They seemed to work properly. His right shoulder was another matter. When he tried to move his arm he remembered the bullet he had taken. With considerable effort he raised up to a sitting position. The bleeding began again when he sat up so he stuffed his bandana against the wound. He slowly looked around and discovered the second man’s body where it had fallen and involuntarily shuddered. Ben had never killed a man before. He would never forget the look of that dead man. It was not so much remorse he felt but regret that it could not have been avoided.
Numerous attempts to stand met with little success. His head pounded so much he had to close his eyes for several minutes. Finally able to get to his feet he staggered over to the corpse. A quick search of the body revealed nothing. The fire had been put out and the campsite deserted. Sketchy scenes of the robbery kept flashing through his mind. Always it ended with Harley groping over his body hunting for treasure. Ben touched his waist where his life savings had rested, confirming its loss. Anger engulfed him as memory of the reflection from the fire returned to haunt him. The rattler on the belt buckle became a symbol of the destruction of his hope for the future.
Ben retrieved his gun belt from the thick brush and with effort pulled his knife from the dead man’s chest. Now he needed to find some water, then some food. Remembering that he had not seen any horses or even bedrolls at the camp he wondered where Harley’s horse had been. It had not been on the trail in front of the camp. Heading into the dense stand of trees next to the cliff, Ben realized he wouldn’t be able to make it very far. Every few steps he stopped to rest. His head throbbed and he was sure his shoulder was still bleeding. He was afraid to take out the handkerchief for fear of making things worse. Blood had caked on the side of his head and thankfully it wasn’t bleeding. He was also thankful for all the trees that helped keep him on his feet. Ahead he heard running water. At least he thought so but he couldn’t be sure because of the constant ringing in his ears.
About a quarter of a mile farther Ben came to a river. The cool water was just the refresher he needed. He bathed his head feeling a furrow where the bullet had gouged his scalp. Only a quarter inch more and he would still be lying back there next to the other body. The bullet in his shoulder had passed clear through and he didn’t think anything was broken. Both wounds had bled enough to convince Harley they were fatal. Washing out the handkerchief Ben applied a generous pack of river mud to draw out the soreness and protect from infection. All this sapped what little strength he had. Propping himself against a tree as comfortably as he could, he rested. Each subsequent movement interrupted his nap bringing an onslaught of pain.
Sometime later Ben awakened. By the position of the sun he reckoned it to be between one and two in the afternoon. He then spotted what had disturbed his sleep. The sun was glinted off metal or glass in front of him across the river. He moved as fast as he could with his wounds. If it was a reflection off a rifle or gun his location was too open. Moving behind a large tree he tried to determine what it was. What if Harley had doubled back and found him gone? After checking his gun making sure it was fully loaded, he decided to see if someone was aiming to shoot him. He used the thongs from his holster to tie three small branches together to form a triangle about three feet high. Setting that beside the tree, he gingerly removed his coat and placed it around the triangle and topped it with his hat. He moved it out in the open and waited. Nothing happened. He stayed there about ten minutes occasionally weaving his makeshift dummy. Still nothing. Putting his coat back on, he began to carefully work his way toward the spot the reflection had come from. His head was feeling better but he knew he desperately needed someplace he could rest and tend to his.
He didn’t see the glint again until he was almost on top of it. Nestled in among the trees backed up to the cliffs that ringed this area was an old cabin. The glint was the sun reflecting off a piece of mirror hanging beside the door. Ben debated hollering a hello or bursting in. In his condition he decided to holler.
“Hello in the cabin.” No answer. He approached with his gun drawn just in case. The cabin was empty, but someone lived here. Probably an old mountain man or hermit. Dishes were on the table as if someone had left after a meal expecting to return to clean up. The fireplace had a buildup of ashes that needed to be removed. Outside Ben found a treasure. A woodpile filled with enough wood to last a month even in the coldest weather. He followed a path to a branch of the river with easy access to water. Here was a perfect place to recover from his wounds. It was hidden from anyone traveling the trail Ben had been following. This cabin could be discovered only by accident as Ben had done. Food was his next worry. A quick search turned up two cans of peaches, some moldy flour, a little bacon grease, as well as an old rifle, some oil for cleaning and fortunately some bullets since it was a different caliber than his revolver. He could get some small game and maybe even a deer with luck.
That night after a meal of rabbit stew, some peaches and sassafras tea Ben began to feel that he might make it after all. The fireplace made the cabin cozy especially with the severe drop in outside temperature. Winter had arrived. The cot, despite appearances, was comfortable. Ben slept better than he had in some time in spite of his wounds.
Morning came and Ben was barely able to get out of bed. Stiffness almost incapacitated him. Where he wasn’t stiff, he hurt. After wrestling his boots on with one hand he finally struggled to his feet and headed down the path to the stream. He washed and redressed his wounds with the remainder of his shirt.
The cold water revived him enough to survey his situation. The cabin was solid and provided adequate shelter. Off to one side was a stable and a meadow beyond the stable supplied a good stand of grass for a horse. Ben wondered again about Compadre. There was no cause for concern. That horse was half wild to begin with, a pure buffalo runner. Local Indians and cowboys alike prized the Buffalo runners. They were bred to run faster than the buffalo so that a brave could chase down three or four buffalo at one time obtaining enough meat in a day to feed his family for months. These horses were long-winded and intelligent. Having a buffalo runner was a sign of wealth and power with the plains tribes. Compadre could survive on his own quite well, but it sure would be comforting to have his horse nearby while recuperating. Ben didn’t want to think about having to walk out of there when he got well.
|The gentle roll of the saddle and the hypnotic creaking of the leather had just about lulled Ben Turner to sleep when a rustling of the bushes some twenty yards downstream rousted him to full alert. Ben’s horse, Compadre’s ears perked up and the muscles of the big sorrel’s hindquarters twitched in anticipation of danger. Ben’s gun appeared in his hand. He didn’t remember drawing it.
Long hours of practice had made him a fast draw. The W. T. carved in the handle announced that the notorious gunfighter, Wade Turner, had been the previous owner of that gun. Although credited with twenty-two gunfights, Wade had actually had only seven.
Ben waited and watched the clump of brush. Compadre’s nose flared and his eyes rolled back into his head. The bush shook violently. Ben holstered his handgun and drew his Winchester from its scabbard. A large brown nose poked through the brush followed by the huge shaggy body of a very startled grizzly. He growled and sniffed at Ben and the horse. He hesitated and Ben wondered if it was going to be a Mexican standoff. The last thing he wanted to do was shoot such a magnificent animal. Besides, how many bullets would it take to bring a grizzly down? The bear approached slowly. His head appeared to be about the size of a whiskey barrel. He sniffed the air as if trying to figure out what animal belonged to that scent. He stopped, lifted his head and shook it from side to side. With a final growl he ambled off toward the river. The giant animal stopped at the water’s edge and took a drink. Ben quickly turned his horse and continued on his way, thankful that he and the bear could part company peacefully.
~ * ~
The air always smells fresh and clean following a rain. Yesterday’s soft steady drizzle brought out many pleasant smells. The scent of pine drifted down from the mountains mixed with the fragrance of wild flowers that wafted from the meadow just this side of the river. And a strong odor of wild onions as well. Feeling he had traveled far enough from the bear, Ben gathered some of the larger stalks for the evening stew. Night was fast approaching and Ben so far had failed to find a suitable place to set up camp. One thing for sure, he still wanted to put a few more miles between him and that grizzly.
Later, as the last of dusk was being swallowed, Ben’s attention was drawn to a light from a campfire in a stand of trees under a rock outcropping. From a distance it looked to be a good spot for a campsite. He made sure to make plenty of noise as he approached and yelled to the fire.
“Hello the fire. Can I come in?” Ben caught a glimpse of a figure sitting cross-legged by the fire holding a cup in his right hand.
“Sure, come on in. No sudden moves though. I get a mite nervous around strangers.”
Ben entered the firelight and explained, “Smelled the coffee and couldn’t resist coming in. I ran out of real coffee a couple of days ago. Never did acquire a taste for mesquite coffee. Mind if I have a cup?”
“Help yourself.” The man had not moved and Ben noticed his left hand was concealed under the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His hat was pulled down so Ben could only see the bottom half of the man’s face. A handlebar mustache separated a small mouth from a nose that had obviously been broken several times.
“Name’s Ben Turner.”
“I’m Harley.” The man said in a low gravelly voice.
Ben pulled a dented coffee cup from his saddlebags and poured some of the hot liquid. “Oh, that coffee tastes good. Much obliged.” A slight nod of the man’s head was Ben’s only response.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen in over a week. What brings you way out here?” Silence hung in the air for a full minute. Ben’s friendly question crossed one of the invisible boundaries the West observed. Don’t judge a man by his past, and don’t intrude upon one’s private business. The uncomfortable feeling Ben had when he first approached the camp intensified.
“You a lawman or just plain nosy?”
Ben chuckled. “Sorry. I’m just plain nosy. Don’t mind me. I was tryin’ to make small talk.” Ben considered the campsite as he sipped his coffee. It was well chosen. The base of a twenty foot cliff joined the forest providing an impenetrable backdrop. A patch of thick brambles formed a third side. The only entry was from the front which had been cleared and the fire was placed between the camp and any approach. Anyone entering the camp was also temporarily blinded by looking into the fire while they would be highlighted by it. Ben saw no sign of a horse or anything else for that matter. No bedroll, no dishes from supper. He was uncomfortable and regretted letting his desire for a cup of coffee over come his usual sense of caution.
The man called Harley didn’t move except to drink his coffee.
“Put your hands up sonny.” The voice came from behind a large boulder off to the side of the trees. “Move closer to the fire and unbuckle your gun belt, slowly.” Ben edged toward the fire. Harley dropped the blanket revealing a gun in his hand.
“By golly, it worked again, Harley.”
“Shut up you old fool. Turner, toss the gun belt into the brush and don’t make any funny moves.”
Ben did as he was told and raised his hands. Harley stood up and started to move closer. Movement behind Ben let him know the second man was leaving cover of the boulder. Ben’s mind worked to figure a way out of his dilemma. Men like these would not simply set him free when they were done. He decided not to wait to find out how they intended to dispose of him. He still had a weapon. In his right sleeve was a perfectly balanced knife. He had practiced many hours throwing that knife.
Harley was smiling, a very nasty smile. Usually some warmth and softness is evident on a person’s face when they smile. Not Harley’s. Death was in that smile.
“Take off your boots, Turner. Folks have a tendency to keep their money in their boots.” Cold steel blue eyes narrowed and an extra furrow on his brow made Ben shiver.
“All right. You win. My money is in my left boot.” Ben did have about fifty dollars in his boot but around his waist a money belt carried almost two thousand dollars, his life savings. He lifted his foot and pulled off the boot balancing on his right foot. Taking his chance he tossed the boot at Harley and in the same motion released the knife into his hand. Swinging around, he shoved the knife underhanded toward the second man. A look of total surprise filled the man’s face. He pulled the trigger and Ben felt a tug at his shoulder, but oddly little pain. The man dropped his gun. Both hands grabbed the hilt of Ben’s knife now protruding from his chest. It had been delivered with such force that he couldn’t pull it out. With a sigh he pitched forward.
Ben was already diving at Harley. His reflexes were not quite quick enough. Harley dodged the rush and fired at close range. The bullet slapped Ben’s head in an explosion of bright white light. The next few minutes were lost. Then partial consciousness allowed him to sense Harley, kneeling next to him, searching Ben’s clothes. Ben was paralyzed and couldn’t even voice a protest. Through a veil of haze and pain he tried to concentrate on a flickering light in front of him. He realized the light from the campfire was reflecting off Harley’s belt buckle. The huge rectangle looked to be solid silver and had a carved image of a coiled rattlesnake. That was the last thing he remembered.
J. D. Webb Author of Mysteries
Shepherd's Pie (Golden Wings Award winner)
Moon Over Chicago (2008 Eppie Finalist)
Her Name Is Mommy(Top twenty mystery Preditors & Editor's poll 2009)