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War Parties


George H. Lafferty

My ranch is in Indian country, up in the mountains north and west of Bisbee, Arizona Territory. I had no business trying to start a ranch up here but the valley I had found was lush and green with tall grass with a wide, if shallow, stream running through it. The cattle would fatten up here and be a nice herd to drive to Ft. Huaccuhca to sell to the army for beef.

I love this country, the view of the mountains is beautiful and there are many smaller valleys like this one. A man could find no better place to raise good fat stock. I would like to build here permanently and maybe find a woman to share it with me. You know, maybe raise a few sons to help with the ranch later on, course a daughter or two would be okay too, I guess.

Right now though, this is a pretty dangerous place to be. The Apache, Comanche and Kiowas run pretty wild through these mountains. That Maman-Ti is a scary brave, some sort of medicine man, he rides with both the Comanche and his own Kiowas, whichever he has dreamed about winning against the White-eyes. He doesn’t just cook up the dreams and stir up the braves, he rides with them to prove his dreams are true.

I drove fifty head of breeding stock up here, with help of a couple of hired hands but I couldn’t convince either one to stay. They claimed they would rather keep their hair right where it was. Me, I guess I’m just stubborn, once I get a thing in my head, I just naturally do it and damn the consequences. I managed to round up a few head of wild stuff, some of this stuff is descended from cattle the Spanish drove up here from Mexico, or so I’ve been told, over a period of several weeks and now I am running about two hundred head. 

They call me Dakota, but my name is Laramie Whitehead. My ma was Cherokee and my pa was a no account range hand back in the Indian Territories till the Marshals out of Fort Smith took him back there to court and he was hanged for murdering a rancher who pa claimed owed him wages and wouldn’t pay. They got into it, over thirty dollars in wages, one night in the saloon over at Fort Gibson, IT and my pa was quicker on the draw. The rancher had friends in the saloon and pa didn’t. The local sheriff was a friend of the ranchers too and turned pa over to the marshals to take back to Fort Smith for trial in Judge Isaac Parker’s Court. They don’t call him the hanging judge for nothing, he has already earned the nickname, and he has only been on the bench there a couple of years.

How I got the nickname Dakota I will never know, I been called that as far back as I can remember, that’s all I recall my ma ever calling me. Being a breed and the son of a convicted killer, I had a hard life growing up. My ma ran off with a drifter heading west and a couple of years scrounging work where I could find it and sleeping in that old falling down cabin we used to
live in, was enough to make me pull up stakes and head west too.

Out here, a man can lose his background, no one asks too many questions as there are many escaping things in their past, back east, to be too nosy. It ain’t polite too ask much about anyone and a man sort of builds his own reputation as he goes.

I learned to trail cattle, work ranches, drive a team and read trail as well as sign the first few years, while I was working my way west. I had herded enough cows to want my own place and not work for the other man for quite a spell and when I rode into this valley for the first time I knew I had found my place. I seen some quartz and some layers of pyrite and such with a stream cutting through it just as it headed down into the valley. I got me a small stake panning gold dust out of that stream but a man could work a lifetime and barely make wages. Gold just isn’t gonna be the way to make it here, though a lot of panning can get one a little cash money when he needs it bad enough.

I built me a sort of lean-to over the mouth of a small cave and a small corral in a little box canyon close to the cave. That stream is there by the cave, coming from farther up the mountains and making a small waterfall not far from the cave. I diverted part of that stream to run through a trough right into the cave and down through a crack in the back of the cave, where it eventually winds up emptying back into the stream lower down. I also hung a big water olla back in the cave, in case someone disturbs my water supply.

I hauled rocks up and built a stone wall around the edges of the lean-to in front of the cave, leaving firing slits in the walls. It pays to fort up in this kind of country, if you want to keep your hair.

Just inside the lean-to, I stacked enough fire wood and kindling to last me through a cold winter, if I was a little sparing, and found where the smoke would dissipate up through the roof of the cave the best, to build a sort of fire place.

A trip to Bisbee gave me enough tins of this and that, flour, bacon, salt, a big bag of beans and Arbuckles Coffee to stock the place with provisions. I laid up a couple of bottles of whiskey and four glasses, even though I’m not much of a drinking man. Along with venison, elk and antelope, I could add an occasional rabbit and fish to round out my supplies and, of course, if worse comes to worse, I can always butcher a beef. I laid in a good supply of ammo, an extra Frontiers Model Colts and another 44.40 rifle for any prolonged siege by a war party and I feel I can handle pretty much whatever I have to.

Back in the canyon where I have my corral, fenced off from the horses, I have me a small garden, as I like some fresh vegetables now and then. It ain’t much; some spuds, some red peppers and some onions, mostly.

I swapped a day chopping firewood and mending fence at one of the larger ranches west of Bisbee for some butter, a sack of sugar and a bag of carrots, as well as a fine meal cooked by the rancher's wife.

My cave is dry year round, cool in the summer and with my fireplace, warm enough in the winter. I have all the creature comforts and have even built some shelves, and a table and four chairs to go with the two double bunk beds. I had hoped to convince a couple of hands to stay on but they wanted no part of this country.

On one trip to town, I got me a couple of coal oil lamps and a small barrel of coal oil. Now, I can even read, I have the bible and several dime novels as well as a couple of good books. I stretched a hide across the mouth of the cave, both to keep out the wind and keep the light in at night, with my fire going and lamps lit, there is no sign of light from outside the cave.

With my stock sort of fenced in by the mountains in this valley, and the only good way to drive them out, temporarily blocked off with some cut timber, I think I’m safe enough from thieves or Indians running my stock off. Oh, the Indians might run off a few to eat but that’s okay, everyone has to eat.

Last time I was down in Bisbee, I had the blacksmith forge me a couple of branding irons and I have been keeping myself busy putting my L slash W brand on all my stock. There was another reason to go to town as well, I had marked off my land and laid claim to it in the land office there, duly filed on and registered as my L/W ranch.

I want to keep everything legal and I don’t want someone trying to run me off later, saying it ain’t really my land but is government free range. I paid all my filing fees and title fees with cash money I sold my gold dust for.

I was also able to put away good wages for a couple of hands for several months, till I can sell some beef to the army. I have that in gold eagles and double eagles and well hid here in these mountains and no one will ever find it less I tell them where it is.

I’m five feet ten and go about a hundred eighty pounds, mostly muscle, cause I have had to work hard most all my life. I think I’m better with a knife and quicker with my Colts than most men I’ve met. Though I have met a lot of bigger men than me, I have always been able to hold my own and I don’t think anyone will be forcing me to tell anything I don’t want them to know. I have always felt I had to stand up to trouble and never back down from it, so I will fight at the drop of a hat, even if I have to drop it. I figure whatever trouble I get myself into is my own play and whatever it takes to get it done with is up to me to do. I just bull straight ahead and I ain’t found many who want to try to stand in my way.

I have had to kill a white man a couple of times, but unlike my pa, it was ruled a fair fight and self-defence. That is a justifiable shooting out here where the law is few and far between. I have no troubles with the law and no reputation as a bad man or an outlaw. Fact is, I always try to stand with the law and never against it. I have no desire to wind up like my pa did, though no one out here knows about that anyway.

I have fought Indians on trail drives and twice it got down to hand to hand with knives. I am still here, which doesn’t speak well for them two braves.

During a couple of them skirmishes with Indians, they managed to get some lead into me twice and an arrow once. I don’t recommend it but I managed to live through it and except for some scars, I ain’t none the worse for wear for it now. Leastwise, it don’t appear to me like I am.

I am no greenhorn when it comes to tracking and reading sign. A man can learn a lot about what animals and men have passed through the country around him recently by the tracks they leave. Whenever I leave my place, I keep a wary eye out for sign and upon returning, I always try to take a different way back. I keep a wary eye on my back trail and always keep an eye out for signs of strangers, whether they be red or white.

Though I had sold bags of dust in Bisbee, I tried never to sell much at one time and never talked about it at all. I didn’t want anyone getting the idea I had a claim or a strike anywhere around here and anyway, silver is a lot more common in these parts.

Still and all, gold spells trouble with a capital T and whenever a body gets his hands on any amount of it, there are always those who want to take it for themselves and don’t much care who they have to kill to get it. Now as long as I was at my place, I like to call it my ranch, I am pretty safe but a body can only stand being alone for so long before he gets an urge to ride into town and mingle a bit. Eat a meal someone else has cooked and maybe have a few drinks. I left my ranch in a direction I don’t normally go and rode toward the little town of Harshaw.

A saloon in a western town is a meeting place and most anything interesting happening around the country is talked about in the saloon, sooner or later. It is like a gathering house to spread the news of what is happening and also a place to let it be known you need work or are hiring. Many a deal, even for buying and selling stock, has been made in a saloon.

Of course, it is also the gathering place of less respectable characters as well and many a fight or even a shooting took place because a little 'John Barleycorn’ was mixed up in an argument. Word had apparently spread that I had sold some gold dust and there were those who wanted to know where I had found it and if there was maybe more to be had.

One of these fellas, who had sidled up to the bar beside me, got a little a little too nosy and I told him it was my business and none of his.

“I’m not asking where exactly you got yours,” he said, “just what area, where maybe I could find some of my own.”

“You want to find some,” I said, “go look for it in the mountains, you won’t find it in this here saloon.”

“You know where in the mountains,” he said, “and I think you're going to tell me George H. where to look.”

“Mister,” I said, “I ain’t even gonna tell you what day it is.”

“I think you will,” he said, and took a swing at my jaw.

I saw his intent before he could get his swing going good and stepped into him, getting inside his swing to hammer one right to his nose. His head snapped back like he had been kicked by a mule and I let him have both fists, one right after the other in the gut. As he straightened back up and started to bend a little forward from the pain in his stomach, I gave him an uppercut that rocked him back on his heels and then right on over to land on his back on the floor.

“Anyone else got any questions?” I asked.

No one seemed to want to take up where he left off, so I turned back and calmly finished my drink. He came round after a minute or so and just looked up at me.

“You can get up and try again,” I said, “or you can try to draw that six-shooter, but if you do I will kill you.”

He got up slow and wandered off toward the back of the saloon to a table, where he joined three other seedy looking characters. They were having quite a pow-wow but in low tones, so as not to be overheard. Next time I looked up into the mirror behind the bar they were gone, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

I didn’t really relish the thought of stepping out those batwing doors onto a dark street, which would silhouette me in the light from the saloon.

I didn’t know if they would kill me for whipping him or just wanted to follow me till I left town and then back to wherever I was going so they could rob me and find my stake before they killed me.

Either way, I didn’t think I wanted their company. If they got on my trail, I was going to have to shake them before heading back to my ranch.

I did manage to get the word spread with some capable looking hands that I needed a couple of men for several month's work and they told me they would pass the word.

“I don’t know if anyone will hire on right now,” one of them said, “but if you handle your problem with those three drifters okay, maybe someone will decide to see what you have to offer.”

“Fair enough,” I said, “I am not looking for trouble nor gunhands, all I need is a couple of men to handle stock and some ranch work. I want no trouble with those men or anyone else but I’ll not run from it either.”

“I am heading back to my ranch in the morning but I’ll be back in a few days. If anyone is looking for some honest work, I’d be obliged to meet them then. As for those three, if they follow me home and come looking for trouble, I don’t intend to send them home empty handed.”

“I believe I would be careful going out that door,” one wrangler said.

“I intend to,” I said, “though I don’t think they will shoot too quick, they will want to be sure it’s me first.”

I stepped quickly out through the batwing doors and then sidestepped to my right before turning that way and taking three more quick steps over behind the hitch rail where there were several horses tied, belonging to those still in the saloon, I suppose. I waited while my eyes adjusted to the dark but could see no one or anything suspicious in sight.

I walked on down to the stable where I had left my horse and gear, then decided I was in no rush to leave. I walked back up the street to the hotel and paid for a room. When I got into my room, I saw there were no locks on the door, so I moved the chair over and braced it under the doorknob. Then I got undressed and into bed but I kept my Colts under my blanket with me. If them boys was watching the stable, I hoped they would have a long sleepless night.

I got my horse and gear early the next morning and rode out toward the mountains but not back towards my ranch. I rode on out into brush country and then down a creek for a couple of miles. Then I rode more into the hills on some rock strata that wouldn’t leave much in the way of tracks.

Winding my way up into the hills, I paused from time to time to watch my back trail and sure enough I saw four riders back there trying to follow my trail.

They were going slow and backtracking whenever they lost my trail but they weren’t doing too bad as they were managing to follow me and I wasn’t making it easy for them. I came to a stretch where I was going to leave a trail pretty easy to follow, no matter what I did, so I put my dun to the gallop to cross it quick and get back to where I could be a little harder to follow. I was crossing another little arroyo when I saw the tracks. It looked like two shod horses being followed by about a dozen unshod ponies. I wasn’t too happy about this as I was getting entirely too close to my own land.

It didn’t look as if the Indians had seen those they were after, nor did it appear the ones riding the shod horses knew they had company as none of the tracks were the long strides of running horses.

The situation stayed the same the whole long day and it was dusk when I saw the light of a campfire ahead. I called a loud hello to the camp and said, "one rider coming in peaceful."

“Come ahead then,” said a slow hillbilly like drawl, “but keep your hands where I can see them.”

“Name’s Dakota,” I said as I rode in to see a man standing just out of the light of the fire. “I got me a place not far from here and I am just a little late getting back, varmint trouble.”

“What kind of varmints?” he asked. 

"Two different kinds,” I said, “some of the red variety and a few of the sidewinder kind.”

“Name’s Jed,” he said, “sit and have some coffee.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” I said, “be mighty welcome about now. You can tell your partner to come on in too, I ain’t gonna be no trouble to either of you.”

“He’s not just my partner,” he said, “he’s also my cousin,” then, “come on in Jer, it will be all right.”

When his cousin stepped out of the brush and came up to the fire, he said, "Jer, this here is Dakota, didn’t catch the last name. Dakota, this here is my cousin Jeremiah Hadley.”

“Good to meet you,” I said “and the last name is Whitehead. Laramie Whitehead actually but everybody calls me Dakota.”

“Dakota is good enough by me,” he said, “now what was that you was saying about varmints?”

“I was in Harshaw trying to hire me a couple of hands,” I said, and quickly explained about those following me and about discovering the tracks of the unshod ponies, “so it sounds like there are a couple of war parties behind us. I say us, because if those boys behind me figured I hired you two and came this way to lose them and meet you, they will be after you too. Sorry about that, I didn’t mean to bring you trouble.”

“I appreciate your saying so,” said Jed, “but I always figured trouble never had no problem finding us Hadleys without help, so it don’t make no difference. We can’t rightly draw wages from you but if Jer says okay, we might just help you out till you can get some hands. We are just riding kind of free but we are already on the payroll of the Rocking R Ranch, down near Tombstone.”

“I couldn’t have you drawing another man's pay for helping me,” I said, “it just wouldn’t be right.”

“You just let us worry about that,” said Jer, “The Kid won’t mind a bit, fact is, he would probably be upset if we didn’t lend a hand, him being a U.S. Marshal, and all."

“That is,” said Jed, “if the Indians don’t take all our scalps.”

“Believe me,” I said, “if we can make it back to my place, we can fight off and discourage those Indians, they will just attack us. It’s those white sidewinders that worry me, they seem more like the bushwhacker type.”

“Sounds like your ranch must be set up to fight off Indians,” Jed said.

“Well see, what I like to call my ranch is really a cave, with a stone wall built up around the entrance and it has firing slits built into it,” I said. “I have enough grub, water and ammo stored there so as we won’t have to worry and with three rifles instead of just my one, we can hold them off easily enough.”

“Sounds like that is right where we need to be, before these redskins take any notions,” said Jer.

"And as for them others,” said Jed, “it seems to be a curse around here. That’s about how it was on the Rocking R when we first met up with the Kid.”

“Who is this Kid, you keep talking about, if you don’t mind my asking,” I said.

“Kid Irish is what they call him,” said Jer, “though he prefers Rusty or I guess now it would be Marshal Irish.”

“Wait a minute," I said, “are you from that gunfighter ranch I’ve been hearing about?”

“Let me say first, Dakota,” said Jer, “don’t believe everything you hear and only about half of what you read. There are some who call the Rocking R the gunfighter ranch, because of the school the Kid has there for his own hands only. The Kid is the fastest gun you will ever see but he works for and with the law only. He is not a gunfighter and neither are his hands. Oh, we may be the only ranch where every hand is a quick draw but that is because we had a real battle establishing that ranch right from the start and had a very good teacher in Kid Irish.”

“No offence intended,” I said, “I only meant it as a question. I’ve been hearing that it is sudden death to go up against anyone from the gunfighter ranch, is all.”

“If you are determined enough to start a gunfight with one of our hands, then yes it might well be sudden death,” said Jed. “Mind you our hands are no different than anyone else, they don’t like to be pushed around but they have nothing to prove to anyone. They know they are greased lightning and hell on wheels with a six-shooter.”

“Hell,” said Jer, “Mountain Boy, Mama’s Boy, Carlos Zamora and Jed and I have all been U.S. Special Deputies at one time or another and will be again, when and if the Kid or Marshal Ryan need us.”

“Well,” I said, “I guess I couldn’t have met up with any better company if I had planned it myself.”

“Now, what say we put out this fire and skedaddle for your ranch,” said Jed.

We put out that fire, saddled up and rode out of there as quiet as we could. I don’t think we were going to fool anyone but then again, maybe we could get started before they realized we weren’t bedded in for the night. We rode the several miles to my ranch without incident and Jed and Jer seemed duly impressed with my preparations to hole up and fight it out.

We unsaddled our horses and after a good rub down, gave them some oats before putting them in my corral. Then we hauled our gear into my cave and Jed and Jer were definitely impressed.

“Hell,” said Jer, “I’ve been in ranch houses that weren’t set up this comfortable, much less some bunk houses I’ve seen.”

“And with that wall out front,” said Jed, “this place is better than a real fort. Why, you could hold off a whole company of soldiers from Fort Huaccuhca from here.”

“They could knock over the water trough and even burn the lean-to,” I said, “then you could only hold out as long as your food, water and ammo lasted. They could always get you with a lucky shot or a ricochet too. You could definitely make it hard for them to dig you out for awhile though, that’s the way I planned it.”

“Well, you done a right fine job here,” said Jer.

“Trouble is,” I said, “the army would attack, the Indians probably will attack, sooner or later but it’s them sidewinders I’m worried about. They are the type to hole up and watch till you are busy with chores or working the stock, then shoot from cover.”

“Yeah,” said Jed, “we been there before, ain’t we Jer? Puts a funny feeling in the middle of your back that just won’t go away.”

We kept watch all that day and the next and even scouted around some without seeing hide nor hair of anyone, red or white.

Not being the type to sit around doing nothing for long, we went to work on the place, always keeping a wary eye out for trouble. With the help of Jed and Jer, I finally got started building the ranch house proper and then the barn with stalls for the horses and a loft to store the hay I would need to put up for the winter months. We wound up diverting part of the water out of the stream to run to the house and barn as there was no really good place for a well.

A wider, deeper part of the trough made a good place to water the animals and the other trough we ran right through the walls of the house along the wall of the kitchen. I was planning to haul me a real stove up here and build all the furniture for the kitchen, living room and bedroom. We even put a loft above the bedroom to serve as another bedroom for kids, if and when.

Jed turned out to be an even better carpenter than I am and helped building furniture and shelves for the house. Jer was the stone man and built a nice natural stone fireplace in the living room wall.

All during these days and weeks, we saw no one and I was beginning to think I had imagined things. Just the same, we left the cave just as it was and I intended to leave it that way indefinitely as a redoubt for storms, Indians or whatever, even after the house was ready to move into.

We started on the bunkhouse I wanted for the help I was hoping to hire on permanently next, as well as building some split-rail fence around the ranch yard. Jed made me a sign to put above the gate in the fence that said L/W Ranch.

My supplies started running low, what with three of us there, instead of just me and one of us was going to have to go into town for supplies. Jer decided he would go and while in town, he would get a wire off to his boss, letting him know where and why he and Jed were.

Jed and I got a lot done while he was gone, in spite of having to care for the stock and hunt for fresh meat for the table.

It was while hunting meat that we found signs of where someone had been camping and judging by the sludge by the edge of the stream, panning for gold. Apparently those four who had followed me were on the up and up, or were not about to try to take on three guns instead of just one lone rancher. They had been gone for more than a week, by the signs and as hard of work as panning gold for just wages can be, I doubted they would be back. Chances of them finding a strike of any size around here are slim to none and I am sure they realized that as well after a while.

Though I had suspicions about those white men, there had been no crimes committed as yet, so there was no reason to hunt them down or look for any trouble at all, for that matter. Yet they were the type to try to steal what they got, rather than work for it.

The Indians were still a mystery but Indian ways are not our ways and it is hard to figure what they might do. All we could do was keep going like we were until something happened or I could go back to Harshaw or Bisbee and try to hire some hands.

When Jer got back with two pack-horses loaded with supplies, we restocked the redoubt and put the rest in the house. Jer said that next time I was in Harshaw there were a couple of men looking for work, but he wasn’t about to tell them how to get up here till I was sure I wanted them. I kind of wished he would have brought them along, a couple of days later, when the Indians made their play to burn me out. We had the redoubt to fall back to if necessary but I wasn’t giving up all our hard work for nothing. They caught us about right actually, as Jed was close to the barn, while Jer was finishing putting up bunks in the new bunkhouse. I was closest to the house, so of course, that’s where I ran for cover.

We had one man in each building and all of us had kept our rifles handy. A little foresight had seen to making sure there was spare ammo in all the buildings, so we had a good field of fire from three different spots.

There were a couple of times when one or the other of us had to put out a fire they tried to start but we managed to contain the attempts with little or no damage to the buildings. All except for the out-house, that is, there was no one to cover it and they burned it down.

“That was just plain mean,” Jed yelled from the barn, “that was a brand new two holer, too.”

“I’m sure you can build another one,” Jer yelled back from the bunkhouse, “if you can keep your hair long enough.”

I couldn’t help laughing, even though being shot at by Indians. I haven't seen these boys draw those Colts of theirs, as fast as they are supposed to be but they sure as hell can shoot. They were raised up in the mountains of Tennessee and learned to shoot young. They were making it hot for those braves and I was helping a might myself. They had long since given up on charging in on horseback and we had us a little sniping war going on. I spotted a little movement back in the trees and let go with a round. A few seconds later a brave who hadn't been as well hidden as he thought fell out in plain sight and lay still. 

Now, it ain't that I ain't a trusting soul but I seen Indians play possum before, so I let him have another round just to make sure. He screamed and crawled back into the brush faster than a scaled cat. The way the blood was pouring out of his side, I wouldn't think he'd get far though. Hard telling how long it was going to take to convince those boys this ranch wasn't worth the number of empty teepees it was going to cost but it was all decided for both of us when three new guns opened up on the Indians from the ridgeline. Them Indians decided to fight another day and took off out of there in one big hurry. Once they were gone, for sure, the three on the ridge came riding in.

Jed and Jer were really proud to see some friends of theirs from the Rocking R and I was at least as happy as they were. Jer's wire to the Kid had made him decide to send some more of the boys to lend a hand where needed. I was pleased to meet Carlos Zamora, Moses Carr and Harry Stevens. They were all deputized by the Kid before coming, so as to have the law on our side, in case there was trouble with those three or four no goods from Harshaw.

Carlos went into Harshaw with me, while the rest of the boys stayed at the ranch. I wound up hiring three hands and a cook. She is the sister of one of the boys I hired and is going to keep the place clean and all our meals cooked. She went shopping with me to make sure I got all the supplies she would need to run the place her way and cook good meals. I figured with a woman on the place, and a very pretty one at that, I would wind up back in the cave and let her have the house. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was the owner and she was the hired help and the cave was a perfect little house for her. Once she rearranged it and cleaned it up, of course. 

On the day the boys left to head back to the Rocking R, they told me to keep them informed, if there were any more trouble out of the riffraff from Harshaw and that they expected to be invited to my wedding.

"What wedding," I said, "I don't even have a girl."

"Sure you do," said Jed, "you just haven't figured it out yet but I'm sure she will let you know when the time is right."

I turned around to look at my new cook but she just grinned and turned in a swirl of her skirts and headed for the cave.

The End

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