Iragene and Cassie were riding to town when Cassie stopped suddenly on the trail. "What is it?" Iragene called out. "Something the matter?"
* * *
"I'm having an odd feeling, Iragene. Something is wrong, I know it."
"Are you sure? What makes you think so?" This wasn't the first time Cassie had a premonition, and she was usually right. "What is it? What do you think is happening?" Iragene asked and waited.
Cassie closed her eyes and remembered a dream she had last night of horses. The vision came back to her again. "Iragene, I think something is wrong. In my dream I remember seeing horses running wild in a blowing storm, but I don't see any riders."
"Are you sure? Should we take that dream literally, Cassie?"
"I don't know what to think, but I'm concerned."
"If you feel that strongly that something is wrong, let's turn around and go back home to see what's happening with the horses."
"Thanks," Cassie responded, relieved that Iragene respected her feelings. Like many of the healers and curanderas, Cassie had the ability to sense when things were not all right. Both women turned around in the trail and began to ride back to their ranch. The promise of the sunny day was quickly disappearing as an unexpected, early winter storm was beginning to build. By the time they got back to the ranch, sleet was falling on the two women, and they were relieved to be home and not on the trail.
Daniel who had been waiting for his horses ran out to greet them. "What's the matter?" he asked.
"Cassie had a vision of horses lost in a blizzard without riders. She felt it was better if we got home, and I'm glad we did. The weather sure changed quickly."
Both women scrambled off their horses and pulled them into the stable. Cassie looked around and asked, "Where are the other horses? They should have been here by now." She paused and then realized that her vision was not off the mark. "I'm hoping those horses are in better shape than they were in my dream. I'm worried about Bobby and Alonzo and the men."
"I am too, but there's nothing we can do now. Go into the house and warm up. I'll tend to the horses. When I'm done, I'm going out to find Bobby and the herd. I've been plumb worried, and I didn't even have any visions," Daniel said.
"I'm going to change, and I'm going with you, Daniel. Remember, I'm the sheriff, and you may need me." Daniel turned and looked down at his sister. His frown turned to a smile, and he reassured her that he'd wait.
He began to care for the two wet horses in the barn. As the women headed toward the open barn door, they saw a strange caravan of apparitions coming out of the whirling whiteness of the storm. Men and horses and five shivering foals following their mothers, every so often trying to get a drink of milk or falling in the effort.
Daniel saw them too. "What the . . . ? Bobby is that you? Doc? Tim, Angus, Tootsie, Silas, and Russ? Damn I'm glad to see you all. Come in, come in," and he held the door to the stable open for them. "What in the dickens happened to all the horses, including yours?" he paused, almost embarrassed at his questions. "Well, questions can wait. We have some extra clothes in the bunkhouse, and I'll have some hot food for you all." It was only then that Daniel, Iragene, and Cassie saw the bloodied faces and bruises.
"Oh my God, what happened to you all? Bobby?" Cassie gasped. "I'll run and get my medicine basket."
Iragene walked up to the seven men to find out what happened while Daniel worked on the cold, wet horses, trying to save the mares and their foals. Cassie reappeared with her medicines and bandages. She chose Russ, the youngest and the most needy to work on first.
"Bobby," Iragene asked, "where's Alonzo?"
"That sonafabitch is the one behind all this! While cozying up in your home, his buddies were beating up your men and stealing your horses. That goddamn bastard was the one who shot me, left me hog-tied, and stole my horse. I'll kill him!"
"Bobby, are you sure there's not some mistake? Are you sure Alonzo wasn't forced to be a part of this?" Iragene was only fishing. She pretty much believed Bobby about his so-called best friend, but she had to be sure. No one would ever have guessed that Alonzo was capable of turning into a rustler, shooting his best friend, and stealing Bobby's horse.
Killing someone for stealing a horse was justifiable homicide in many Western counties, but not in El Brazo, so she wanted to make sure Bobby turned the job of catching the rustlers over to the sheriff—to her.
"Damn," she said and then looked around surreptitiously, hoping none of the men had heard her, but they all had. "I wish I had Cruz here. He could track those horses through any country and any weather. The only good thing is, the weather that's keeping us put is keeping those horses put."
While Cassie and then Pru worked at cleaning wounds and bandaging the men, Iragene went around and asked each man what happened and if they had overhead anything that would suggest where the rustlers were taking the horses.
Their stories were similar. After Bobby and Alonzo left camp, the other six men turned on the Austin ranch hands. Their actions caught them completely off-guard; they hadn't even a clue that these men were rustlers until they turned on them; they had played their parts so well.
Tootsie, an older bewhiskered man who was the cook, spoke after Bobby. "I swear, Miss Jones, those bushwackers caught us all by surprise. They got the drop on us 'fore we knowed what were happening! I'm so sorry 'bout your horses. Damn that Alonzo anyway (pardon me, Ma'am), but he's the worse rattlesnake of all. Me 'n Bobby 'n the boys thought he was one of us. We still can't believe that bast . . . uh owlhoot shot Bobby and left us to die."
"Tootsie, I'm sorry you all got beat up. We'll get by without the horses, but we couldn't get by without you men," Daniel interrupted as he entered the barn. He had just finished up with the mares and their fouls. "Hey, we've already got two new colts and three very pretty fillies. Worse comes to worse, we can start over."
"Oh, no! There ain't gonna be no starting over, because I'm going after those sonafabitches and kill them all. I'll especially take my time with Alonzo. You'll get your horses back all right!" Bobby spit out angrily.
Iragene turned to him, "We might, but not the way you want to go about it, Bobby. I'm not going to let you kill anyone and end up in jail for it, let alone possibly hang. We'll do it right. I'll deputize you, and we'll let that arm heal a bit. Besides, no one is moving cattle in this blizzard. "
Daniel left and heated the bunkhouse. He helped the men who couldn't maneuver themselves over there and promised some warm food in the next hour. "Thanks, Mr. Jones," said Silas a wizened old cowboy who had known Daniel's father. "You know, me and the men decided while we was walking here that you don't need to pay us nothin'. We sorta let ya'll down, losin' your horses. Hell (pardon, Ma'am), we'll understand iffen ya'll don't even want us here."
Daniel looked at the men. "I need you here. If we can't get those quarter horses back, we're going to have to go after those mustangs and start from scratch. I'll need every one of you. As for pay, hell, you boys earned every dime. You delivered ten good horses, and we'll get more." He looked up, "Ahh, here's the missus with Cassie and the food. I'll get the coffee."
The men were relieved though still feeling guilty about letting the rustlers get the drop on them. But they enjoyed the ham, the calabasitas, and the fresh bread. The men were in good enough shape to eat, and the food and hot coffee did wonders. A few finished up their meals and had a smoke or two while the others called it a day and went to sleep. Adelaide and Iragene cleaned up while Pru and Daniel put the baby to bed. Cassie made a final round of her patients.
Outside the wind and occasional sleet continued. Through all this, a lone horseman rode onto the Rancho Tecolote. He and his horse were half frozen, but they plodded on until they came to the front door of the main house. Daniel heard the horse's neigh and began to run out into the cold, but as an afterthought, he first grabbed his rifle.
The storm was really blowing, and Daniel could barely identify the rider. He looked closer, "Cruz, what the hell are you doing out on a night like this?"
Cruz, Iragene's deputy was a small man who could take on men twice his size. He spoke several languages, and he was dedicated to Iragene since she lost her fiancé, Alejandro Gallegos. Cruz had made a promise at Alejandro's grave that he would watch over Iragene. He kept his word, and he became her deputy when she became sheriff.
"Señor Daniel, Señorita Iragene did not return to town, and I was afraid she had gotten lost in the blizzard. Is she all right?" he tried to sound professional, but his feelings towards Iragene were known by everyone.
Daniel quickly reassured him, "Cruz, she's all right. Come in and warm up. I'll take care of your horse. Once you're warm, we'll explain everything!" Daniel went off, and Cruz entered the house. Iragene was talking to Adelaide by the sink when she turned around and saw the shivering young man.
"Oh my God, Cruz! You came out in this weather to look for me! If something had happened to you, I never would have forgiven myself!" She ran over to him, made him take off his wet coat and stand by the fire. Adelaide brought over a cup of coffee and then went back to the kitchen to prepare a plate of food for him."
"I'm fine," he chattered, "I knew there was a good chance you would have turned around when the storm hit, but I had to be sure."
"She put a wool wrap around him. "As soon as you're back to room temperature, we'll tell you everything that happened today." Cruz looked around the room and saw a large stranger asleep on the sofa, hanging half off on the ground. He looked a little like Iragene, same curly, reddish brown hair and coloring. He wondered if he had her sapphire blue eyes—Cousin Bobby.
"Will our talking wake him?" he whispered.
"No, don't worry," she continued in her regular voice, "he's had enough whiskey and laudanum to knock out a buffalo," Iragene chuckled. She looked at the question in his face, and figured he was warm enough to sit down and eat. Then she would retell the events of the day.
"Come on over to the table. Some nice hot food should help you thaw." They walked over to the table, and Adelaide brought a hot plate of food to him. She warmed his coffee and then removed herself to the kitchen to finish cleaning up after the seven new guests. Iragene started at the beginning of the day when she and Cassie set out for La Madera, and Daniel waited for the horses and his hired hands. She told Cruz about the double cross by Alonzo and the condition of the men from Austin who refused to go along with the plan to take the horses and sell them. She then told him how Alonzo turned and shot Bobby.
Iragene continued and even told him about Cassie's dream and their decision to turn around and come back to Rancho Tecolote. Through all this, Cruz said nothing. Then he sat for a moment, thinking and finally asked where the rustlers were camped yesterday and where did they said they were heading.
"Las Vegas," Iragene said, "Bobby said Alonzo told them they were heading for Las Vegas [New Mexico]. Their last camp was twenty-five miles east of the ranch."
"Señorita Jones, Las Vegas is more wicked than Dodge City. That town is the worse of the worst. The only way we can get those horses back is to catch them before they get to Las Vegas. Some of those passes can get bogged down in snow, so I'm hoping we'll be able to catch up with them."
"But we'll have the same problem, won't we?" she asked.
"Probably, but we won't be tied down feeding and caring for a hundred horses in the snow. We'll be able to make better time than they will," he concluded with a reassuring certainty.
"Fine, we leave at first light tomorrow, snow or no snow," she said. "I second that," added her half lucid cousin sprawled on the sofa. They all looked over to Bobby. He was already back to sleep, but they had little doubt that he would be up tomorrow morning and ready to go.
Sure enough, while Cassie packed enough food to hold them for about three days, Bobby came back into the house, dressed and ready to ride. He was wearing some of Daniel's warmer clothes, including some rabbit hide gloves with the fur on the inside. Tim was the only Austin men in any shape to ride, so the posse of four rode out. Daniel was to stay back and take care of the newly arrived mares and fouls until the five men were on their feet. Cruz was in the lead with Iragene, riding side by side with Bobby and Tim behind him. Cruz figured that the rustlers would have taken the shortest route, not realizing that they were heading into an early snowstorm.
The snow had stopped falling temporarily, but the New Mexico sun that normally burned away the snow was itself buried under heavy gray clouds. Though no wind blew, the temperature continued to stay well below freezing. The four horses and pack mule blew out steam with their breath as did their riders. They were all cold and silent as they headed southeast to avoid the saltflats.
After a day of riding that usually took only hours, the wind began to pick up again. They were all relieved when Cruz pointed to a small cabin that had smoke coming out of its chimney. "My friends live here." Cruz turned to the two cousins, "Let me tell Carlos y Rosa who you are. They'll open their home to you. They're too proud to accept anything in exchange, but I know they would love some of your ham, if that is all right?"
Iragene nodded, and they proceeded to the building. Cruz knocked and entered, speaking the entire time in a soft, rhythmic Spanish typical to New Mexico. After a moment, he signaled to the others. They entered the home, Iragene bringing in the oilcloth that contained the ham. Carlos, a thin older man, shyly greeted them and left the room to go outside. Rosa said something to Cruz, and he turned to translate.
"Carlos will take care of your horses, and Rosa says to warm up by the fire. She has some beans and tortillas that you can eat."
"Will you ask her about the ham? We can add some to the beans and then leave the rest of it for them tomorrow," she suggested.
Rosa agreed, and took the ham, slicing and dicing it to add to the hot beans. By the time Carlos came in, the smell of smoked pork was in his home. His eyes twinkled as he looked over to Iragene and acknowledged her gift. Through all of this exchange, Bobby said and did nothing.
Iragene was surprised at his silence, but then remembered his best friend betrayed him. Bobby hadn't gone into details why Alonzo turned against him, but no matter what it was, it must have hurt Bobby badly. Tim too was quiet, but then he always was.
Cruz and the couple were talking about the horses now. Iragene was able to follow the conversation a little. Bobby probably could have understood too if he was listening, but Iragene wasn't sure where his mind was.
Cruz turned to Iragene. "Sheriff, Carlos told me that he was out looking for some stray sheep just before the storm broke. He said he saw your horses, but they were cutting too far north too soon. They were headed right to the salt flats. In this weather, with the blowing wind, the horsemen are probably blinded by the alkaline salt."
"The horses would probably not be too happy either, but their lashes would be better protection. Too bad we can't protect our own eyes and go after them now," Bobby muttered.
"It's only late October. I can't imagine this storm lasting another day. Can we stay here tonight and head out tomorrow, Cruz? Can you ask the couple?" she wondered, hearing the wind blowing again and the occasional sound of hail on the shutters.
"The Vigils insist that you stay. They even offered you their bed, Sheriff! I politely declined for you."
Before she could thank the couple, Bobby yelled, out, "Hey, I'll take the bed." His cousin and her deputy each gave a disgusted grunt. "Hell, I was only joshing, Iragene."
The visitors all got their blankets and rolled them onto the sheep skins covering the couple's floor. By moving back the table, they just fit. Iragene slept by the door. Carlos banked the fireplace and went into his corner room, and they all fell asleep even though it was early by everyone's standards.
The next day bright rays of sun were sieving through the cracks and holes in the shutters. They all awoke to the smell of freshly cooked tortillas and went out to freshen up. The day was cold, but the southwest sun promised to take the chill out of the air. The snow and hail, so visible last night were no more than memories.
* * *
The posse ate their breakfast, and Iragene left the additional cut of ham. They thanked their hosts and left, heading straight for the flats, hoping the weather had caused enough damage to stall the rustlers.
The four rode directly north and arrived at a small bluff overlooking the salt flats about noon. The sun was up, and the weather was finally comfortable. However, from the appearance of the chaos below them, the rustlers hadn't had such an easy night. Apparently some of the mares got separated, and some of the young stallions took advantage of their departure to join them, ignoring the frustrated riders who must have gotten little sleep for the past two nights.
Six riders could be seen trying to herd the horses together away from the flats. The horses were probably thirsty after the salty storm and lack of drinkable water. They weren't any happier than their handlers. "Weren't there seven men? Six rustlers and Alonzo?" Iragene asked.
"Maybe someone is off somewhere, looking for strays?" Bobby volunteered.
Iragene continued to watch and then turned toward the men. "Let them round up the horses. They can do the work for us. We can wait until they get closer, and then I'll go down and tell them to surrender. If they don't, there's four of us, and we'll just do what we have to do. Cruz, you're best with the rifle, how about finding a good hiding place halfway up the bluff with Tim? You'll be covering us. Bobby, you're with me.
"You know I don't like to take orders from a woman, Iragene, but jes' this once," he quickly added as he saw her hand go down to her holster. They took up their positions and watched the rustlers do their work for them, even going so far as to pull out cheese and jerky and eat.
Bobby interrupted Iragene's observations. "I've been watching these guys. I don't think I see Alonzo or my horse. Wonder where he is."
* * *
"Forget Alonzo for now. You and Tim spent time with these men. Got any ideas who would be in charge here?" Bobby shook his head.
"I do," Tim answered, "it's Salazar, the large man on the black. His boss owns a saloon in Las Vegas. Apparently the boss man, Silva, has been robbing and murdering for years, but he's been so good to the locals that they turned a blind eye to him." Iragene was about to comment when Cruz interrupted.
"Sheriff, the herd is coming closer. Maybe, we better get into place?"
"Right. And I want to be the one to put a bullet through Alonzo's head!" Bobby jumped up and shouted.
"Quiet, Bobby, or we'll be the ones with bullets in our heads," Iragene shot him a look that quieted him.
As the six men began to round up the strays and headed closer to the bluff where Iragene and Bobby stood sheltered behind some rocks, Iragene could see their clothes were haggard and probably still wet. She hoped this would make the men more agreeable to turning themselves in, but in reality she prepared herself for a fight. She stepped out and pointed her rifle directly at Salazar. Bobby stepped next to her and did the same.
"Stop where you are! I'm Sheriff Iragene Jones, and I won't shoot if you take off your holsters and drop them. We have all of you covered, so don't try anything stupid."
The lead horsemen looked up and her and started to chuckle, "Huh, Alonzo said the sheriff's a women. Don't do nothin', men, we can take her and Bobby on." His foolish grin disappeared as Iragene took aim and shot off his hat.
"I said drop those guns! I've got men on the bluff. You're all covered. The next time I'll shoot to kill!" she shouted. Just as she finished, a loud blast from the top of the bluff sounded, and a man in the rear of the herd bent over, dropped his rifle, and fell off his horse. Cruz shot the man as he had pulled up his rifle to shoot Iragene. She and Bobby shot at the same time, and two men on each side of the herd fell. Now the horses began to panic and run in every direction.
Salazar and another man tried to get themselves into a more defensive position, but they were too exposed. They continued shooting, but shooting from a moving horse amidst a herd of panicking horses wasn't the same as being stationary and being semi-sheltered by a rock. When they saw Iragene and Bobby weren't hit, neither of the rustlers looked interested in rounding up the horses or facing the law. They both turned their horses to go, but two shots rang out, one from Iragene, and one from Bobby. Both men were shot from their horses.
Cruz took a few moments to climb down the bluff. Though still above her, she could hear him without shouting. "Sheriff, I've got you covered if you want to check the men," Cruz shouted. "Thanks, Cruz," she responded as she and Bobby quickly climbed down to the flats, empty now except for the six prostrate men.
She and Bobby walked among the fallen rustlers. Four were dead, and one was barely alive. Though Iragene hadn't shot to kill, the panicking horses had done their damage with their shoed hoofs and weight. Just as she neared the sixth man down, she saw a slight movement of the man's left hand, reaching slowly for his downed pistol. "I wouldn't if I were you," she barely finished saying when he made a quick grab for his gun. Immediately, she and Cruz both put a bullet in him. Her bullet went into his head, and his went into the man's spinal cord—both bullets deadly.
Bobby looked with renewed interest at his cousin. "Iragene, Ah need to apologize to you. Little cousin, you really do know your job," and he patted her on the back.
Iragene ignored Bobby and looked over at Cruz who was coming down the bluff, Tim behind him leading their horses. "We have wanted posters on these four men," she said pointing. "I don't doubt the other two are also wanted."
"What are they wanted for?" asked Bobby.
"Would you believe rustling and murder?" she answered.
"I'll round up the rustlers' horses, and tomorrow I'll take the bodies into town," Cruz said and looked out at the plains before him. "Sheriff, I see three riders coming. I'm not sure, but I think one of them is your brother."
Sure enough, Daniel, Silas, and Tootsie came riding up. One of them was leading a horse with them. Iragene and her two deputies watched as the riders came closer.
"We thought you might need some help, ma'am," Silas said with wonder in his voice as he looked around at the six, "but I see ya'll have everything under control."
"I said she'd need some help with the horses, Silas, not with the rustlers," Daniel said grinning. "I knew she could handle them," he chuckled.
"How did you find us?" Iragene asked.
"I remembered Cruz mentioning the Vigils once. We checked with them," Daniel responded.
Bobby walked forward and grabbed the extra horse. "My horse! Where'd you find him? Was that sonafabitch Alonzo riding him? Did you shoot him?"
"Bobby, we found your horse, but we didn't find Alonzo." Daniel said.
"Where was Rebel?"
"Five miles due west of the camp where you found us," Tootsie replied. "He was just grazing, relaxed and content." He looked up and saw Bobby on the horse. "Bobby, where ya goin'?"
" I'm going to get that double crossing bastard. I'll be back when I find Alonzo and not before," and he took off.
As Bobby rode away, everyone else started rounding up the horses and the bodies.
Not wanting to waste a minute, Bobby ate while he rode. Hoping that his horse had had time to rest, he pushed him to his limits. He arrived at the last camp and looked around. Sure enough, Bobby recognized Alonzo's boot prints and horseshoe prints. Why the hell did he come back here?
Bobby got on his horse, and followed the horse's trail easily in the soft soil from the melted snow. Anger, hatred, and betrayal spurred him on. Huh? The sonafabitch was headed back to the Jones property. "Damn," he said, and he quickened his pace, knowing that only the two women were there.
Finally ahead of him he saw Alonzo. He realized that the man was hurt, but he didn't care. Alonzo was wobbling and barely able to stay in the saddle. "Alonzo, you bastard, I've got you covered," Bobby shouted, "and I'm not going to shoot you in the arm, I'm going to shoot you through the heart!"
Alonzo turned and panic was written all over his face. "Don't shoot, Bobby, I'm already hit. You were right, those bastards did turn on me."
"You think I care? If you're dying, I want to be the one who puts the final bullet in you." Alonzo looked once more at his former friend and then kicked his horse to go faster, but his horse tripped slightly. Normally Alonzo would have righted himself, but this time he fell to the ground, his head striking a piece of granite. When Bobby rode up to where he had fallen, he saw Alonzo had been shot several times, and now with the fall from his horse, his head was bleeding profusely. He was dead. Bobby thought about putting a slug in his heart, but he decided it wasn't worth a bullet.
Bobby callously threw Alonzo's body across the horse, tied him down, and took him to the Joneses'. He entered the property only to find both women there with their rifles. Normally he would have laughed, but not today. Cassie and Pru put their guns down when they saw Bobby with the body of his former friend.
Cassie ran out to examine Alonzo. "Oh, Bobby, I am so sorry about the death of your friend," Cassie gasped as she saw the injuries.
"Sorry? Why? If that bastard wasn't already dead, I would have killed him myself," he said indifferently and led Rebel and the other horse into the stables.
A few days later, most of the horses were again eating the Joneses' food and grass. Daniel had the men working with the herd. He had sent word to town with Cruz and was waiting for the arrival of the army to purchase them.
Iragene was back in her office in town. She and Cassie had ridden in to town on horseback while Cruz drove the wagon with the seven bodies in it. He had dropped the bodies off at the mortician, and Boot Hill would soon have seven new occupants. Iragene was busy doing the paper work to pay the mortician, and Cassie was with Dr. Stein, sharing medical procedures.
Suddenly, Iragene heard several loud whoops and stood up to see Bobby walking past her office with a girl from Mrs. Brown's establishment on each arm. She shook her head knowing things would be a little livelier with cousin Bobby in town.