Summary: The Cartwright brothers stumble upon a gang of suspected horse thieves.
Word Count: 2907
The half-moon gave off just enough silver light to allow the men to see where they were going as they approached the camp. The sound of restless horses came to them from a grove of trees to the east, and the red glow of a campfire shone like a beacon in the midst of a small clearing.
Adam stopped on the outskirts of the clearing just inside the ring of pines surrounding the camp and pulled his gun. Roy Coffee stopped next to him, and the rest of the posse stood quietly behind them. Two days of hard riding had led the ten men to this quiet glade in the dead of night.
Roy glanced at Adam. “I never thought they’d make it so easy for us,” Roy whispered. He turned and the men huddled down in a circle.
“Almost too easy. I don’t like it, Roy.” Adam’s voice was low and cautious.
“Unless they didn’t know we were following them,” Little Joe breathed from Adam’s right.
“They knew we was following them all right,” Hoss assured him quietly. “I’m with Adam, this just doesn’t look right.”
“Well, what you suggestin’ we do about it?” Roy’s voice held a hint of frustration.
Adam held up his gun and a quick smile turned up the corner of his mouth. A dimple flashed. “We take care of it.”
Roy rolled his eyes and Hoss and Joe chuckled quietly.
Glancing over at his brothers, Adam jerked his head toward the left. Hoss nodded, and swiftly and silently, he, Little Joe, and three of the men moved off into the trees, circling to get around to the other side of the encampment. Roy had already taken the rest of the men off to the right.
Adam crouched within the shadows of the trees and scanned the camp, counting the number of bodies lying around the campfire. There were eight men and with ten in the posse their odds were good, providing there weren’t others hiding in the trees. It puzzled him — the apparent lack of someone on watch. Suddenly, there was a muffled grunt from across the clearing and the sound of something falling. It came from where he had heard the horses earlier, and where Joe and Hoss were headed. Adam held his breath and strained his eyes trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening.
The darkness under the trees was complete and he waited, his heart thumping, until he caught sight of some movement on the edge of the trees. It was Joe. He signaled toward where he knew Adam was hiding and Adam breathed a sigh of relief. So there had been a guard, but he was obviously no longer a concern. With Hoss and Joe in position, he only needed to wait for Roy’s return. Keeping an eye to his right, Adam waited for him to reappear and was startled when the older man suddenly spoke at his left elbow.
“Ready?” the sheriff asked in a whisper, the glint in his eye indicating he had seen Adam start.
“Ready.” Adam nodded, ignoring Roy’s amused smile. “The men?”
“In position,” Roy confirmed. “Sounds like yer brothers took care of someone already.”
“Yeah, lucky they were quiet about it.”
“Well, for as big as he is, Hoss moves like a cat. But no need of us standin’ here jawin’ about it. Let’s get this over with.”
Together the two men stepped into the open and walked to the edge of the firelight.
The sheriff swept his gun toward the sleeping men, “They’re your horses, be my guest,” he whispered.
Adam nodded. “All right, on your feet!” he suddenly bellowed into the still night air. “And keep your hands where we can see them.”
The response from the sleeping men was instantaneous. Sitting up most grabbed for their guns, but a warning shot from the trees stopped them. Slowly the eight men stood, their hands in the air. They turned to face Adam and Roy. The sight of the steady guns in the two men’s hands made more than one man gulp. Seven pairs of eyes turned to the middle-aged man who stood closest to Adam and Roy.
The man stepped forward and eyed the menacing steel pointed at him. “Say, what’s the big idea, waking us up like this? Pulling guns on us.” He started to take another step forward when the sound of cocking guns from around the clearing stopped him.
“We’re looking fer some horse thieves, and the trail’s led us right here.” Roy explained.
“Horse thieves!” the man repeated, looking around at his companions, then back at Roy. “Well, I’m afraid your trail’s led you in the wrong direction. These here are wild horses we picked up on the rim a couple days ago. Ain’t that right, boys?” he asked over his shoulder. There were murmured agreements, and a “that’s right, Bird” from a tall lanky lad who stood directly behind him.
“Wild horses?” Adam’s tone was smooth, his face impassive. “You’re holding wild horses in a rope corral?”
The man, Bird, chuckled. “Why sure, ain’t you never heard a’ that?” He looked around again, seeming to gain support from the amused laughter of his friends. “We do it all the time.” His voice was cocky but Adam could see the beads of sweat beginning to stand on out on his brow in spite of the cool night. The man was lying.
Joe appeared across the clearing, his gun in his hand and his face hard. Adam looked at him expectantly.
“They’re here all right, Adam, all six of them.” Joe didn’t take his eyes off Bird’s back.
Bird, who had turned his head toward Joe when he’d heard his voice, now he turned back toward Adam and Roy, and smirked. “Well, I guess some of those horses you was missing got mixed up with the wild herd we was chasing.”
“I don’t think so.” Hoss’ voice from behind them made several of the men start. It held an edge one didn’t hear often in its normally genial tones. “There’s several more branded horses in there and near all of ’em’s shod,” he informed Roy.
“Branded and shod, you say.” Roy cocked his head at the leader, then swept a glance around at the others “Well, boys, looks like you’re in a heap of trouble. Now you just come along peaceable like and we’ll see you get a fair trial. Don’t try anything funny ’cause we got ya surrounded.”
Adam saw a telltale sneer sweep across the thief’s face, and he knew what was coming. The man dropped and rolled to the side, coming up with his revolver, his accomplices diving for their weapons at the same time.
Adam and Roy darted for the safety of the trees, then turned as the clearing erupted with the sound of gunfire. The thieves were in the worst position, caught in the open as they were, and Roy and Adam began firing methodically, waiting for the glow from a fired gun before aiming and firing. More often than not, a cry would indicate their bullet had found its target.
Within minutes, it was all over. In the clearing, the bodies of the thieves lay scattered. Low moans could be heard from the one or two that had been wounded, but the rest were eerily silent, their forms contorted in the position they had fallen when they died. Cautiously, the members of the posse stepped out of the safety of the trees. Adam did a quick count, relieved when all were accounted for and seemingly unhurt.
Adam and Roy walked slowly to where Bird lay dead; Joe and Hoss joined them, their faces grim.
Roy shook his head sadly. “He just had to try it.” He slipped his gun into its holster then left to join his men.
Adam holstered his own gun and looked at the carnage surrounding them. “I suppose he decided it was better than hanging.”
“Yep,” Hoss agreed solemnly.
The three brothers looked at one another. It had been a grim night’s work, but the job was finished. It never set easy on any of them, this taking of other men’s lives, but each knew it had not been their choice. The thieves had chosen for themselves.
“I guess we’d better get things cleaned up, then we can get some rest and head back inta town in the morning,” Hoss said softly.
Joe and Adam nodded, agreeing with him; there was really nothing else to do. Together they moved off to help Roy and the others. Adam paused next to the lanky kid who had spoken Bird’s name and knelt down on one knee. The kid was still alive. The boy’s hands clutched his stomach and blood oozed out from between his fingers. Gently, Adam pulled a hand away and winced. He laid the hand back down and looked up to find the boy’s fear filled eyes staring at him.
“It’s bad ain’t it?” the boy asked softly.
Adam’s brow furrowed and he nodded sadly. “Yes.”
The boy gulped. “Bird said it was going to be easy.” He paused and grimaced as pain shot through him. “He said…” the boy gasped.
“Take it easy, son.” Adam said, laying a hand on his shoulder.
The boy’s breath came faster. “I don’t want to die, Mister. I didn’t think…” He grasped hold of the front of Adam’s shirt. “He said I’d be rich. He said…” His face contorted once more and his eyes closed. Adam reached up and clasped the hand clutching his shirt.
He looked up as Joe knelt down on the other side of the boy. “He hurt bad, Adam?” Joe asked his voice soft and concerned.
“Yep.” Adam answered shortly.
“There’s two more wounded. One’s going to make it, the other’s touch and go. The rest are dead.” Joe’s report was concise and emotionless, but Adam knew better. He could see the sadness in his little brother’s eyes.
Adam looked down at the boy in front of him; he and Little Joe were about the same age and he wondered at how fickle life could be. What had brought the boy to this point — dying in the dark, clutching a stranger’s shirt? Was it a conscious decision or merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time that had turned him into a horse thief?
“He’s so young,” Joe commented sadly and Adam realized they had been thinking along the same lines.
“Yeah,” Adam replied softly.
Joe leaned over and briefly gripped Adam’s shoulder, then stood and left. Adam realized he should probably be helping the others, but something wouldn’t let him let go of the kid’s hand. The boy was still breathing, but shallowly. The blood continued to trickle from underneath the hand still grasping his stomach.
Suddenly the boy’s eyes flew open. “Mister?!” His hand clenched convulsively under Adam’s, and his eyes sought wildly for… something.
Adam tightened his hold on the boy’s hand. “I’m here, son.”
The wild eyes turned to him. “Mister… Mister… will you… tell Ma…” the words trailed off and the eyes rolled back. The hand beneath his relaxed and Adam knew the boy was gone. Slowly he laid the boy’s hand on his chest and reached forward to close the staring eyes. Standing, he sighed deeply and looked around the camp. The other dead men had been placed in a row to one side. Roy and Hoss were kneeling over the two wounded men near the fire. He couldn’t see Joe, but assumed he was off getting firewood or taking care of the horses. Adam wiped a hand over his face, suddenly realizing how very tired he was.
“Jim?” Adam called to one of the men. “Can you help me move him over with the others?” Adam asked, indicating the boy on the ground. The man nodded and moved to help him. Together they gently placed the boy in the row next to the other dead.
“Sad sight, that.” Jim commented about the bodies laid out in front of them. “But they knew it was coming when they dove for their guns, I guess.”
“Yes, they knew.” But Adam wondered again about the boy. Had he known? He’d seemed so surprised. So shocked that it had ended that way. Bird had known, Adam was sure of it. He’d known they were headed for a rope and had chosen a bullet instead. Adam almost admired him for that. He might have made the same choice, in the same circumstances. But the boy…
Adam shook himself mentally; he had to quit dwelling on it. There was no reason to torment himself with something he couldn’t have helped.
Turning suddenly, he strode over and joined Hoss and Joe at the campfire. Hoss had made coffee and he handed Adam a cup. “Joe says the horses are bedded down fine. He put ’em in with the others. There’s about thirty head in there. Our six and about 18 or so carrying various brands. The rest are a hodgepodge, some shod, some not,” Hoss commented.
Joe nodded. “It looks like they’ve been stealing horses from just about every ranch in the valley.”
“About time they was stopped then,” Roy said as he crouched down next to the fire and filled a coffee cup from the pot. He looked around at the three men, noticed their solemn faces and his eyes narrowed. “We done a good days work here, boys. And don’t you start forgetting that. It’s sad that they chose to end it the way they did, but they did, and that’s no fault of ours.
“Yeah, Roy. We know you’re right. It’s just…” Hoss trailed off, not sure what he wanted to say.
“I know. I always feel that way myself when something like this happens. But ya can’t beat yourself up over it. Now it’s gettin’ late, boys, and we got us a long ride home tomorrow so why don’t you three get some sleep. I put Charlie and Jim on watch.” Roy stood, taking his coffee with him. “Let’s just be thankful there ain’t one of ours laying over there.” He gestured toward the row of dead, then walked off.
Hoss, Adam and Joe looked at each other.
Adam sighed deeply. “Well, he’s right.” He threw the dregs of his coffee into the fire. “We’ve a long ride ahead of us tomorrow.” Standing, he said goodnight, then moved off to find his bedroll. Hoss and Joe soon followed him, and together with the other men, they bedded down around the clearing, leaving Charlie and Jim to finish the night on watch around the campfire.
It wasn’t long before silence reigned over the night. The fire glowed red in the middle of the clearing, a beacon in the night. The rustle of restless horses broke the stillness momentarily then faded away as they settled to sleep. And high above the half-moon gave off its silver light.