Laredo Trent never expected to be drawn into a war between the ranchers in the valley.
I stepped outside the batwing doors onto the dusty street. Looking towards the faraway mountains, I envied their coolness and wished I was there. I looked up and down the road, for trouble, I always knew was hiding near. I watched the dust devils dance across the road by the wind, never noticing the old woman until she spoke.
"Are you the one?" her voice crackled as she asked.
"Excuse me?" I replied back.
"Are you the one?" once again she cackled out. Looking up at me.
"I don't know," I answered honestly. "I have no clue what you are talking about. Who do you think I am?"
"This valley's savior. We put a notice in the papers for help. Now, here you are. You have the right look."
"And that would be?"
"Gun handler. Can you?" she asked pointing to my side and the forty-five Peacemaker I wore low and tied down.
"Yes, I can handle a six-shooter when need be. Many men can. But, I don't go out of my way to do so or hire my gun out. Sorry, ma'am, I am not the one you are hoping for. I wish you well."
I climbed aboard my lineback dun and rode away towards those mountains. The conversation kept nagging at my mind and I replayed it over and over again. Sounds like trouble was brewing in this valley and that was something I was not looking for. But, it seems trouble always had a way of finding me out. No matter how well I hid.
In the foothills of the mountains, I stopped to make camp. Setting next to the fire with a cup of coffee in my hand, I thought back on that little old lady. She seemed desperate and at her ropes end.
A voice called out of the semi-darkness. "Halloo the camp! May I come in?"
"If you are friendly you can and be welcome. If you have other thoughts you better be ready to pay the fiddler for the dance." I replied back.
Chuckling followed the old cowboy into the light. He looked tough as a rawhide and stepping down he cared for his horse first. I liked him already. Afterward he sauntered up on slightly bowed legs and dropped his saddle onto the ground.
"Smelled your coffee from a ways off and my mouth started watering. I ran out of the makings yesterday." he said.
"Help yourself." I motioned towards the pot. "Come a long ways?"
"Not really. I am from around here. Have a place ten miles up the valley. Or I did have until someone burned me out last week. I put some lead into a couple and they have been chasing me ever since." he claimed.
My head swung around in all directions and the look of concern must have showed on my face.
"You need not worry friend. I left them boys miles back and by the time they work out my tracks, I'll be an old man. I'm Jubal Holly. What's your handle?"
"Laredo Trent." I replied.
"You named after that town in Texas?"
"Yah. My Mother thought it sounded pretty." I said rolling my eyes.
Jubal laughed. "Mother's do beat all. Don't they? Where you headed?"
"No place special. What's happening around here? Some old lady stopped me in town and asked if I was the one. Says they put an ad in the papers looking for a gun handler as she called it." and I described her.
"Sounds like you met Sally. I'm surprised she is still around. She was one of the first in the valley to be threatened. Stubborn as a mule she is."
"Who's doing the threatening? What's at stake?" I asked reaching to refill my tin cup.
"Someone who thinks mighty of himself. Bryce Fargo is his name. He rode into the valley, must have been about two years ago. Nothing special to him, just a small time rancher like the rest of us. Then gun hands started showing up on his ranch. Laying around and not one of them punches cattle. A month later things began to happen to the other ranchers spreads. Fences pulled down, hay stacks burned, gardens churned up by horses hoofs during the night. Little annoying things that have steadily gotten worse."
"Such as, Jubal?" I asked.
"Cattle and horses rustled. Barns and houses set on fire. Gunshots during the night. People have been hurt and finally two days ago, the Murrays were found hung from them barn rafters. All of them. Mother, Father and even the children. Katey was only three. What kind of animal hangs a little girl?" Jubal looked at me and had tears in his eyes.
I responded quickly," A dead man. Where do we start?"
In the morning we broke camp and saddled up. Jubal led off and I followed. He had a destination in mind and wanted to get there as soon as possible. He didn't say where but said he would take me there nonetheless.
Heading north by northwest, we wove our way through trees of Birch, Aspen, Pine, and Cedar. The leaves of the Birch danced on the breeze, flashing glimpses of Silver on the bottom of each one. Laredo had always loved the smell of Cedar and Pine, so he enjoyed himself during the long ride.
Come mid-afternoon Laredo could see a jumble of rocks up ahead. It was as if someone had thrust massive rocks up through the Earth's crust in a close-knit pattern. They stopped before them.
Jubal turned in the saddle, "From here onward we will be under watch. Beware of any move you make." He smiled and added, "I wouldn't want you shot by mistake."
"Neither would I." I commented back, looking as serious as possible.
A click of our tongues set our horses in motion. In and around huge rocks the trail we followed weaved. In places, we had to take our feet out of the stirrups, and still, we brushed rock on each side of us.
Sometimes we rode in bright merciless sunshine and other times through shady rock tunnels almost as dark as night.
Half a mile further someone called out, "Riders coming in!" Men began appearing alongside of us on the rock walls and every man jack of them was holding a rifle in our direction. It was unnerving.
I looked over at Jubal and commented, "It's come to this has it?"
He shrugged and responded, "People are fed up and if the Law isn't going to do anything about it, we will. Come and meet some people.
We rode a quarter of a mile further and then we rode into a wide open space. There had to be almost ten acres of grass, knee high to my horse and a few trees dotted around. Mostly Cedar and Pine. A bubbling creek came out of the rocks at the west side and flowed gentley towards the south and disappeared near where we entered.
In the center stood a log pavilion and underneath were tables that could easily sit up to fifty men. A campfire was boiling coffee. We could smell it from this distance. Thirty men and women huddled around those tables talking. With those on the sides of the trail on our way in, there must be close to seventy people here. and all of them were as mad as hell.
The talk stopped as we rode up. They knew Jubal , but I was a stranger and strangers were not to be trusted. No matter where I turned, eyes were covering my every move.
"Howdy all. This is Laredo Trent. A friend of mine. He's come to help."
"If he's such a friend. How come we've never heard you speak of him beefore, Jubal?"
"Have you told us abut every single one of your friends, Bailey? What a minute, do you have any friends?" smirked Jubal smiling.
Laughter exploded around the tables and coffee was offered up. Accepting a cup, I looked around and commented on what a sweet little place this was.
"We like it." said Sally coming up to refill my cup.
"Anyone got claim to it?" I asked.
"Not that we know of." she claimed and then asked, "Why?"
"Just making conversating Sally. How are you again?"
She looked me over from head to feet and asked, "Do I know you?"
"We met in town yesterday. Out in front of the Saloon. You asked me if I was the one."
"No I did not young man. Why would you say that?" she snapped back at me. Then she turned to look at Jubal before walking away shaking he head.
HIs explanation was shrugging his shoulders and reaching for his cup to be refilled. Where did he put it and how? This cowboy coffee was as hot as Hades. I was barely on my first cup.
Gordon, who ran a local saloon, stood up and raised his voice to be heard above all, "Ladies and Gentlemen. We have a major problem here. One that goes by the name of Bryce Fargo. Incase you are all not up to speed with everything. I'll give a short rundown of the past couple of days.
"The Morton's are missing half of their stock. That's twenty horses and a hundred cattle, if you go by the numbers. Burnside had his gather of hay for this Winter burned last night. Now he's out of ten tons of hay and doesn't know yet how he is going to feed his cattle. The last bit of news is too ghastly to even mention. Jubal will you please?"
Jubal stood up and looked all around, his eyes full of tears. " The Murrays were all hung in their barn two days ago. All of them, including the children. Katie was only three years old." Gasps rang out in the air. He conitinued, "And it's because of that ghastly incident that Laredo climbed aboard our wagon. Now, no one in this valley knows him and that can work in our favor. Not any of Bryce's riders nor Bryce himself. Any suggestions on how to best use him?"
Nobody spoke up. They just looked around at one another. After ten minutes I cleared my throat. "May I make a suggestion?"
"Please do." Pleaded Gordon.
I rose to sit on top of the table. Taking a drink to wet my lips I began. "Are you sure this Bryce Fargo, is the cause of all the trouble in this valley?" Pausing to let this sink in, I recieved glares of hatred. Continuing now on shaky ground I added, "From the looks I would say a big yes. One way to deal with him is to mount all who can ride and shoot, go to his ranch and wipe them out once and for all. Every single person we find there."
"Then we'd be no better than them." spoke up Carson , the Blacksmith.
"Exactly and we want to stay on the side of the Law as much as possible. What if someone was to join them as a ranch, and keep an open eye and set up traps natural like. We'd whittle them down and do it legally. What do you think?" I finisheed and sat back down on the seat.
Silence greeted me afterwards. That could be either a good or a bad sign. I walked over to my horse and grabbing my beedroll, I stretched out alongside the creek and promptly fell asleep.
They waited until I was softly snoring before talk continued.
"What do you think about Laredo?" asked Jubal.
"Seems nice enough, but are you sure he wasn't sent here by Bryce just to find this place?" asked Burnside, who hadn't spoken to anyone since arriving here early this morning.
Gordon and Carson had been talking softly amongst themselves. Gordon now spoke up, "If he turns out to be a plant? We plant him ourselves after a bullet to the head. Any disagreements?" When no one challenged him, including Jubal he added, "Then it's settled. We have a plan."
Jubal looked over at his new friend and hoped he hadn't made a mistake. One that would come back to haunt them all. Grabbing his bedroll he sank down next to the fire under the pavilion and drifted off to sleep. Tomorrow would be an interesting day.
Laredo slept as well as he could on the ground amongst the Cedar. No gunfire and his horse did not move around to wake him up. The smell of fresh coffee and Bacon frying woke him, and he enjoyed the way it made him feel this morning. Something that did not happen very often. Rolling his bed-roll, he saddled his horse before sauntering over to get a cup of coffee and a Bacon biscuit.
He stood to the side slowly studying each member of the group. Family-orientated, God-fearing, hard-working down to Earth people. Salt of the Earth. Exactly how his own family had been at one time before he decided to go his own way in the world and found out he had a natural way of handling guns.
Jubal spoke to him around bites of his biscuit and sips of coffee. "Morning Laredo. What do you think of the group?"
"Honestly, you people do not have the mindset to fight a sustained battle."
"What the Hell does that mean? Granted, they are not gunfighters, but all have been around and used weapons all their lives. And most importantly, they will fight when the chips are down.."
"Are they ready to be as dirty a fighter or more than anyone they go up against? I am and will not think twice about it afterward."
"Then it is a good thing you are on our side, isn't it? Want to see what we are up against? Let's take a ride."
Together they rode away side by side toward the Southeast. The others watched them with raised eyebrows, each wondering what was going on as they had heard only a part of their conversation. Quickly the land around them changed from rollings hills to a more flat plain, full of sagebrush and sparse grass. Great place for Rattlesnakes and such.
They had bypassed the town an hour ago and once again they headed up into rolling hills. At a small puddle of leftover rain from the week before, they stopped to rest and water the horses.
"You do know where we are going, right?"
"Of course I do, Laredo," Jubal answered back. He spread his hand around them in every direction and added, "All of this land is claimed by Bryce Fargo. We must ride weary from here onward. All of his so-called hands have standing orders to shoot anyone they deem a trespasser and that includes us. Well, includes anyone they find in the area. We have a few more miles to go to reach the headquarters of his emerging empire as he calls it."
"Lead on." Replied Laredo backing his horse from the puddle, now mostly just a mud hole.
They slowed down and rode around a large rock outcropping onto a flat space of the hills. Where they had stopped they blended into the rocks behind them and if they did not move around much, nobody down in the yard would see them. Only, there was not much of anything happening in the yard area, around the House, Barn, or Bunkhouse. Jubal could see an addition had been added onto the Bunkhouse since the last time he had been here visiting the previous owners.
Jubal stared down and murmured hmm. Laredo looked over at him. "What's bothering you about this setup? I can tell something is."
"The bunkhouse is twice the size it once was. There are more gunhands down there now. What the Hell is he up to?"
"Why don't you ask him? I'm sure he would be more than happy to tell you. Every single person I have ever come up against love to gloat about themselves."