End of an Era
Chapter 4

Copyright© 2011 by woodmanone

Johnny Burrows walked back to the porch of the ranch house and sat in a rocker. He watched as Josh and Red led the two would be gunmen on their horses toward their fate with the Sheriff in Fountain. Sarah came out of the house and handed him a cup of coffee.

"Those two are like a stampede when they get something in their heads," she said nodding toward Josh and Red. "And if you see one the other isn't far away." Sarah chuckled. "If Danni and I hadn't a put our foot down we might all be sleeping in the same room."

Sarah laughed at the look on Johnny's face. "Well ... it isn't quite that bad but pretty close," she admitted. "Breakfast will be ready by the time you get washed up. Come and eat."

"Yes em," Johnny said. He walked to the pump at the rear of the house and washed his face and hands. He went into the kitchen and sat at the huge table which was designed to seat twelve but could handle up to sixteen if everyone crowed in a little.

Sarah and Danni put a large breakfast on the table for Johnny. They served the children who were seated at a small table off to the side with the exception of Clint. When he saw Johnny he squirmed and twisted until Johnny reached out and took him from Danni.

Clint settled in on Johnny's lap. "Bear," he said with authority and snuggled closer to Johnny.

Johnny had a smile as big as Texas on his face. "How's my little cub this mornin?" He asked as he shared his food with Clint. The youngster turned up his nose at the coffee but determinedly took a sip because his personal bear was drinking it.

"Y'all got bout the nicest family I ever did see," Johnny said with what suspiciously looked like tears in his eyes.

"I guess we do," Danni agreed. "We've been lucky. I guess it was sort of fate that Josh and Red rode into Fountain and our lives."

"Never did hear how y'all met," Johnny commented.

Both Danni and Sarah smiled. "Josh, Red, and Jerry had just ridden into Fountain," Danni said. "Josh was just putting in time until the war was over and he could go back home. Course you know about that."

Johnny nodded. "Josh told me about the problems at home with Fogerty and the Bushwhackers that tried to make him join them."

"The boys were looking for work and came into the store to get some supplies and talk to Mr. Mitchell the owner. Sarah, our younger brother Jacob, and I had just left the general mercantile to meet Dad at the stable. We didn't know that the boys were following us. They thought they might find work with our father on the Maggie M."

Sarah took over the story. "We were confronted by three cowboys who worked for Tom Larson at the Lazy L. Did Red and Josh tell you about Larson and the Lazy L?" Johnny nodded and Sarah continued.

"Those cowboys were trying to scare us and had us backed up against a store front; they'd already slapped Jacob around, he was twelve at the time. Red and Josh stepped in front the cowboys to protect us."

"Those cowboys couldn't make up their mind on whether they should fight with Josh and Red," Danni remarked. She smiled at Sarah. "Red did all but call them cowards for jumping two women and a boy. And he was quite willing to make a fight of it." Danni turned to back to Sarah and added, "Red's is a good man and I'm glad he's Josh's friend and partner."

"Now you got me almost blubbering," Sarah said dabbing at her eyes with her apron. "Before those men could decide what to do, Jerry got the drop on them from behind. Red pointed out the rifle that Jerry had aimed at them and I guess that made the odds too even for them. They rode out of town like the devil was on their tail."

"The rest was just getting to know Josh and Red," Danni said smiling. "Course Red started courting Sarah the day that they met."

"Those two sure have led an interesting life," Johnny said. He chuckled and added, "I guess I rubbed off on Josh a mite."

Josh, Red, and Dillon led their two prisoners to the Sheriff's office. They pushed the two into the office and explained to the Sheriff what had happened.

"They said a man named Jackson in Colorado Springs hired them to scare us off," Red told the Sheriff. "He should have hired better help."

"We're going to Colorado Springs and find this Jackson," Josh continued. "Need to find out why he hired them and put a stop to it."

The Sheriff warned them not to take the law into their own hands. Red just smiled and said, "Ain't against the law to talk to a fellar. Now ifin he wants to get nasty we'll have to protect ourselves."

Dillon asked, "If it was your family would you just sit back and let him run another bunch at you Sheriff? Or would you go put a stop to it?"

Shaking his head the Sheriff admitted, "Reckon I'd do just what you boys are intending to do. Find out why and put a stop to it."

"One way or the other," Red offered. Turning to his two friends he said, "Let's ride boys. The sooner we get shed of this problem the sooner we can get back home."

It would take then about half a day to get to Colorado Springs if they didn't push their horses. As they rode Josh said, "Sorta wish Jerry and the boys had taken the cattle to Colorado Springs this time instead of Pueblo. We could count on some help if things get interesting."

"Most of those boys are just cowhands," Red replied. "Other than Jerry they've never been in a fight." Looking at Josh he said, "I think we're better off with just the three of us." Before Josh could object he added, "If things look too bad, we'll go to the Marshal if need be."

They arrived in Colorado Springs just before supper time. After stabling their horses and arranging rooms at a local boarding house, they went to the café for supper. "Where you plan to go now?" Dillon asked as they walked out of the café.

"Thought we might scout out the Bird Cage saloon," Josh answered. "That's were Jackson is supposed to be tomorrow evening."

"Good idea," Dillon said. "Besides it looks like Red could use a drink."

The Bird Cage was only about a hundred yards from the café. As the three friends entered through the swinging doors, Josh and Red stepped to one side of the doors and surveyed the big room. Dillon did the same thing on the other side. There were several men in the saloon but it wasn't crowded.

I can see where they got the name, Josh thought. There was a big cage about ten feet tall and another ten feet around that held several types of small birds.

"Sure are noisy ain't they?" Red asked. "I bet the bartender can still hear me order whiskey. Let's find out." He made his way to one end of the bar.

They bartender came over. "What's your pleasure gents?"

Red looked at Josh and at his nod replied, "Three whiskeys if you please." The man set three glasses in front of them and reached for a bottle.

"Give us some of the good stuff back there," Dillon ordered pointing to several bottles behind the others next to the mirror.

"Yes sir, ' the man replied. He poured three generous drinks. "That'll be three dollars Mister."

"Dang, I didn't plan on buying the whole bottle," Red complained.

Dillon tossed three silver dollars on the bar and chuckled. "Got to pay more for quality Red." Turning to Josh Dillon said, "Thought you didn't drink whiskey Josh."

Taking a sip of his drink Josh answered, "Don't normally but this isn't a normal time. One or two won't hurt me."

A few minutes later Josh motioned to the bartender for three more. As the man poured Josh said, "Heard I might find a fellar named Jackson in here. Got a business proposition for him. You know the man?"

Nodding the bartender replied, "He's not here tonight but he should be in tomorrow evening. He usually is."

Josh thanked the man and gave him four dollars. "The extra one is for you."

"Name's James. Let me know if you need anything," the bartender said.

As they drank and talked, all three looked around the saloon. They were all veterans of more than one gun fight and weren't going to be surprised by someone coming up behind them. Josh pointed to a door to one side of the bar. Red nodded and pointed to the big windows in the front of the room.

Standing at the end Dillon casually leaned over and looked behind the bar. He straightened up and shook his head at Josh, indicating that there was no gun behind the bar. They were leaving nothing to chance.

"Think I'll sit in on that poker game," Dillon said. "See if I can get a handle on Jackson." He walked over and sat down at the table. He ordered a round of drinks for the table and soon he was talking to the other players like he'd known them for a long time.

Josh motioned to the bartender for another drink for Red but ordered a beer for himself. Seeing Red smile at his beer he said, "No need to get sick like I did on my Pa's white lightening when I was a youngster."

Dillon played poker for about an hour. He stood thanked the men for the game and left the saloon. Josh and Red slowly followed him. They met up outside.

"Jackson is a supporter of Clay Allison. Colorado will become a state next month and Allison wants to be its first elected governor."

Josh nodded. "I think I understand now." Dillon nodded agreement.

"What?" Red questioned.

"Well Allison was in Fountain while you and Jerry were in Nebraska getting those new bulls," Josh replied. "Dillon here knows Allison."

"He was one of the northern regulators in Virginia during the Reconstruction," Dillon explained. "Allison, and others, got rich punishing the Virginians for being part of the Confederacy. These 'carpet baggers' stole most of the property of the southern sympathizers. They confiscated farms, livestock, and businesses leaving a lot of people homeless and penniless."

Dillon stopped with a faraway look in his eyes. He was remembering back to his father's death. In a low, steel hard voice he continued. "The northern regulators confiscated my father's bank to get his personal accounts. When they found out he'd sent the money to my mother in Boston they killed him."

After almost a minute, Dillon came back to the present. Looking at Red and Josh he said, "Allison was involved in taking my father's bank. Wouldn't be surprised if he was involved in the killing too."

"When Allison was in Fountain drumming up support for his run to be Governor, Dillon called him on his past," Josh explained to Red. "He told me the story that day and I backed Dillon's play. Everyone at the meeting started to grumble and left cussing Allison."

"So I reckon Allison hired Jackson to pay us back and scare us to keep us quiet," Red replied. Josh saw "that" look come into Red's eyes. That look that promised someone was going to be held accountable for their actions. "I think Mr. Allison chose the wrong people to rile," Red added with a deadly tone in his voice.

"We don't know for sure if Allison is involved Red so let's not go off half cocked," Josh said putting his hand on Red's shoulder. Then Josh's voice got hard. "But if he was, he'll regret the day he did."

The three friends were quiet the rest of the way to the boarding house.

"Guess we can sleep in tomorrow," Red remarked with a smile. "Don't get a chance to do that at home. Sarah's always got somethin or another for me to be doing."

Just after first light the next morning, Red walked into the kitchen of the boarding house looking for coffee. He wasn't that surprised to find Josh and Dillon sitting at the table with cups of coffee. Dillon pointed at the coffee pot on the stove. Red poured himself a cup and refilled his friend's cups.

"Guess you did sleep in this mornin Red," Josh said. "I didn't think you'd ever get up."

Red chuckled. "Reckon I'm too used to Sarah rousin me outta bed in the mornings to sleep very late."

Dillon and Josh both nodded. "Couldn't seem to sleep when I heard a rooster this morning," Dillon remarked. "I found Josh in here waiting for the coffee to cook." Taking a drink he said, "Josh tells me that Danni and Sarah never said much about you two coming to find this Jackson."

"No. Sarah didn't say anything but be careful," Red replied. "Reckon she and Danni both know it wouldn't have done any good to try and stop us."

"Danni said the same thing, be careful," Josh added. Then he chuckled. "She also told me not to push Diablo too hard. She thinks almost as much of that horse as she does me."

"What about Elizabeth?" Red asked. "With your two little ones at home, how old are they now? Didn't she try to stop you from leavin?"

Dillon gave Red and Josh a small smile. "John Robert is two and Ellie is just six months. Elizabeth started to try and talk me out of going but when she saw the look on my face she stopped. Her exact words were 'you wouldn't be the man you are if you didn't go protect your family'. I do believe the woman knows me better than I do myself."

"Well now that we got ourselves convinced that we rule our women, what should we do until this evenin," Red asked.

Josh laughed and snorted, spraying coffee all over the table. Dillon almost choked on his drink of coffee and laughed too. Red joined in the laughter.

"I think we rule them just the amount that they let us," Dillon said when he stopped laughing.

After a couple of minutes Josh suggested, "You know Dillon you could set up an account with the bank here in Colorado Springs. We set up an account here when we started driving cattle to the railhead here years ago. I know we've been driving the cattle to Pueblo the last two years. But if the prices get higher here at the Springs in the next year or two, we'll start driving the herds up here again."

"That's a good idea," Dillon responded. "Even if the prices are the same we'll make the drive here instead of Pueblo. It's a lot shorter drive than to Pueblo."

Before they could continue Mrs. Thomas, the owner of the boarding house, came in to begin making breakfast for her guests. She wasn't surprised to see the three men already up and ready to begin their day. Those boys aren't the kind to lie around until late in the morning, she thought as she built up the fire in the wood cook stove.

About 9 AM they made their way to First Colorado Bank and Dillon opened an account. Leaving the bank they rode around Colorado Springs for a couple of hours taking in the sights. Josh led Red and Dillon to the resort that General William Parker had built. In front of the hotel was a statue of the General.

"Who's this Parker?" Dillon asked.

"He's a railroad man that decided he would build a resort here to take advantage of the mineral springs," Red answered. "He sure went whole hog," he added pointing to the Antlers Hotel and the surrounding stores.

"I know this might sound a little strange, but I think I'll see if there's some little do dad in one of those shops that I can take home to Elizabeth," Dillon said. His natural tan turned a little red with embarrassment.

"That's a good idea," Josh replied. "Might be the smartest thing we could do."

They each found something they thought would please their wives. Josh suggested that they have lunch at one of the outdoor cafes near the hotel. After lunch they scouted the Bird Cage one more time, returned their horses to the livery and went back to the boarding house to wait for the hoped for meeting with Jackson.

It was going on 6 PM when Josh, Red, and Dillon pushed through the swinging doors into the saloon. Once again Josh and Red stepped to one side while Dillon stepped to the other. They surveyed the room and walked to the bar.

James, the same bartender that they had met the previous day was serving drinks. He came over and set three glasses down in front of them. Reaching back to the special section James pulled down the good whiskey and poured. Josh smiled at him and took a sip of his whiskey.

"That man you asked about is sitting at the back poker table," James said pointing with his chin.

Dillon tossed a $5 gold piece on the bar. Josh, Red, and Dillon turned as one looked at each other and walked toward a large poker table in the back corner of the room. There were six men at the table and there was no doubt which one they were looking for.

Jackson had stood to pull in a large poker pot. He was taller than Josh, who at 6' 2 was considered a big man. His long dark hair hung down to his shoulders. Looks like Wild Bill Hickok, Dillon thought. Jackson wore a hand carved leather gun rig with an ivory handled gun on each hip. The long scar running down the right side of his face matched the description that Lenny and Jess had given.

Josh stepped to one side of the table, Dillon stood directly across from the man with the scar and Red stepped to the other side.

The big man had set back down but looked up as Josh, Red and Dillon came to his table. There was a questioning look in his eyes but no fear.

"You boys want something?" Jackson asked.

"If you be Jackson, we've got a message for you," Red replied.

"I'm Stewart Jackson. What's the message?"

Johnny Burrows had just finished mucking out the stalls in the barn. With the cowhands on a cattle drive and Josh and Red in Colorado Springs, Johnny wanted to help with the chores around the ranch. Got to earn my own way, he thought. As he came out the barn he got a whiff of himself. Checking the position of the sun he knew he had better than an hour until supper.

Maybe I ought to ride out to that lake Red showed me and take a bath, he told himself. I sure don't want to offend the ladies, or my little partner Clint. He quickly saddle William and rode toward the lake. Johnny stopped at the bunk house and got a clean pair of pants, clean shirt, and a pair of socks. He was wearing his moccasins and could go barefoot in them but he had to admit that socks did feel better.

Johnny also grabbed a pair of long johns that Danni had given him. The one pair he had when he got to the ranch was threadbare and had several holes in them. When Danni did his laundry that first morning she just threw them away. She gave him a set of Josh's because they were close to the same size. Got to keep myself decent around womenfolk, he thought.

He came out of the lake and used his hands to strip the water from his body. Johnny had just finished dressing and put his dirty clothes in his saddle bag when he heard rifle shots in the distance. Too many shots to be someone huntin, he thought. Sounds like it's comin from over to the ranch house.

Johnny mounted William with a leap and spurred him into a gallop. Riding as fast as possible over the broken ground he quickly got to the tree line surrounding the house. Slowing his horse, he saw three men each separated by 30 feet or so shooting at the house. The sounds of the bullets striking the logs and the breaking of the windows were plain to hear.

No time to be careful this time, he thought. Little Clint had continued to call Johnny "bear" and that's how he reacted. He was like a big bad tempered grizzly protecting his young. Johnny put William back into a high gallop, pulled his pistol and charged the three men. He intended to kill them before they could kill him or anyone in the house.

One of the men turned at the noise of the galloping horse and tried to bring his rifle up. He didn't make it; Johnny spurred William and ran over him. One of Williams hoofs landed on the man's head, killing him. The next man in line heard his partners scream. He turned and saw a crazy man charging at him and raised his own rifle. The man got off one shot before Johnny shot him twice in the chest from less than 15 feet away.

The last man turned and dropped to one knee; both to steady his aim and to make himself a smaller target. He got off two shots before Johnny emptied his gun into the man. Johnny pulled William to a stop and looked over the three men to make sure they were dead.

"Don't pay to rile a mountain man," he said out loud.

Johnny rode to the hitching rail in front of the house and called out, "Danni, Sarah, its okay now. I got em. They can't bother you no more."

Danni and Sarah came out onto the porch. As they did a fourth man stepped around the near corner of the house and shot. Johnny staggered; the man turned toward the women and raised his rifle again.

Johnny roared his anger and charged his shooter. His scream was a cross between a Cheyenne death song and rebel yell. Johnny threw his empty pistol, striking the man in the side of the head. The gunman almost dropped his weapon and before he could recover Johnny was on him. The man lost his rifle in the struggle and tried to pull his pistol as Johnny beat on him with one hand. Johnny's left arm hung useless at his side.

Pushing the gunman back to the log wall of the house, Johnny pulled his 12 inch Bowie knife and pushed it into the man's middle just below the breastbone. The knife went through the man and pinned his body to the wall behind him. The outlaw gasped and slumped over. He was dead.

Johnny stepped back, swaying and fell to the ground. The last thing he remembered was Danni and Sarah kneeling by his side.

Dillon was the one that answered Jackson's question. In a low dangerous voice he said, "Lenny and Jess won't be coming back. We thought we'd meet with you instead."

"And who are you?" Jackson asked beginning to worry. There were three angry, capable looking young men facing him.

"I'm Josh Kelly and that's Red McCall," he answered. "We're from the CBC. And that is Dillon Gallagher from the Winterborn ranch."

Jackson looked from one man to the other as Josh introduced themselves.

"Understand you've got business with us," Dillon continued. "Thought you might want to deal with us in person." He watched Jackson's face as the man realized he was in trouble.

"Your dogs didn't do such a good job, you know," Josh said.

"If you want something done right you have to do it yourself don't you know," Red added.

Two of the six men slowly stood and scurried away from the table. That left Jackson and three others still there. Jackson had one hand below the table and started to move the other one down also.

"Put your hand back on the table Mister," Red ordered. Jackson left his hand in sight. "Bring the other one up real slow and ifin there's anything in it I'll kill you where you sit." Jackson did as ordered.

"Now stand up real easy," Josh ordered. "We going to take a walk over to the Marshal's office and tell him a little story."

As Jackson stood the other three men at the table stood with him.

"Nobody told you three to move," Dillon said.

"Maybe not, but we work for Mr. Jackson," one of the men said. "Don't reckon we'll let you take him."

"Besides I want to have words with you," another one said to Dillon. "Understand you killed a friend of mine over to Prescott, Gallagher.

"I wouldn't want to be called a friend of any of those I shot in Prescott," Dillon replied.

"You shot Bill Wilson, did you?"

"Yeah, and I was facing him when I did," Dillon answered. Bill Wilson had been a hired gun and reputed to be one of the fastest in the southwest; Dillon's answer was a warning.

"Well I'm facin you now," the man replied and went for his gun.

The other two men and Jackson all reached for their guns. Jackson tried to pull both pistols at the same time.

Before the man facing Dillon could get his gun out of his holster, Dillon shot him in the forehead. The man's eyes blazed a question at Dillon before the light faded from them. Dillon felt rather than saw Josh put his man down and turned his gun on Jackson. There was no need. By the time Dillon turned Red had shot Jackson and the fourth man.

Red calmly ejected the spent cartridges from his pistol and reloaded. "Jackson wasn't good enough to wear a two gun rig," he said. "That other one wasn't much better."

Josh knelt next to Jackson. He was on his back, gut shot but still alive. "James," Josh turned and yelled. "Send for the doctor and the Marshal."

Turning back to Jackson he asked, "Why? Why did you send those men?"

Jackson coughed up some blood. "You and Gallagher there were killing Allison's chances to be elected Governor. I wanted to scare you so you'd be quiet."

"Do you work for Allison? Are you related to him? I don't understand why you'd send men after us," Josh said puzzled.

"Oh hell, I'm not gonna make it am I?" Jackson asked.

"You're gut shot Jackson. It don't look good," Dillon answered. He had come over to listen. Red was walking around the table kicking the guns away from the dead men.

"Might as well tell you now," Jackson said. "I don't work for Allison. But he promised that if I helped him get elected he'd appoint me as the head of the Department of Mining for Colorado." Jackson looked up at Josh. "You realize how much power I would have? You realize how much money that appointment was worth?"

Red had stepped closer and heard Jackson's explanation. "Well now you can be the head of the mines in hell, you son of a bitch."

The doctor came into the saloon at a run. He saw the group in the back of the room and hurried to them. The Marshal was right behind him.

"Those three are dead but Jackson's still breathing Doc," Josh offered. The doctor knelt by Jackson and began to cut away his shirt.

"Just put your guns on the table boys," the Marshal ordered. He held a double barrel coach gun at the ready. "Take it easy and do it now."

Red turned and faced the Marshal. "I don't reckon I'm gonna let you take my guns tonight Marshal."

"Daniel. Take the rest of the children out back and stay there until we call you," Sarah ordered her son as she knelt next to Johnny. "Danni get some water heating and send John back out with one of the paring knives and some clean towels."

They'd just started cooking supper and the stove was hot. Danni sent John back to his mother with several towels and a knife. She poured warm water from the kettle sitting on the stove into a flat bottomed dish pan. Setting the kettle back on the stove to heat Danni took the wash basin out to Sarah.

Sarah had slit Johnny's shirt open and put a towel on his wound to stop the bleeding. Between Danni and Sarah they cleaned the area and tied towels tightly against the wound. Johnny was a big man but they managed to get him up and into one of the downstairs bedrooms.

As they tended to Johnny's wound Danni said, "Josh told me those first two men planned on going over to Winterborn after they were done here. I know Oso is at the ranch but maybe I should warn them about the attack on us. There could be one planned for them too."

"I think you're right," Sarah agreed. "I'll take care of Johnny and you go to the Gallagher's. Be careful Sis."

Danni quickly changed to a split riding skirt and ran down to the barn. She saddled Itsa, one of Josh's horses and the son of Diablo. Her horse Sunny nickered at her wanting to go.

"Sorry big fellar," she said. "I need to get to Winterborn and back as fast as I can." Danni took a minute to stroke Sunny's forehead. "Itsa's strong and very fast."

She led Itsa out of the barn, mounted, and put him into a high gallop. The big horse seemed to be happy to be out of his stall and even happier to be running. He extended his head forward and put his ears back to hear Danni's commands and ran as fast as the eagle he was named after.

I hope I'm not too late, Danni said to herself.

Josh was worried because Red had that crazy look in his eyes. Dillon stood and faced the Marshal. He gave a small smile and stepped between Red and the lawman.

"It's okay Red," Dillon said. "Boys I like you to meet Marshal Tom Ryan." Turning back toward Red and Josh he added, "I worked as Tom's deputy for two years over to Wichita Falls in Texas."

"I'll be damned," Tom said. "Dillon Gallagher. What are you doin in this part of the country?"

"Got a ranch down to Fountain way," Dillon answered. "These two are my neighbors and good friends. That's Josh Kelly and Red McCall."

Lowering his shotgun Tom said. "You boys own the CBC, I've heard about your ranch." Turning to Josh he said, "You must be the Kelly that raises horses. Damned fine animals from what I hear."

In spite of the seriousness of the situation Josh had to smile. "Nice to meet you Marshal Ryan. Dillon's told us about you and your shotgun," he said pointing to the scatter gun in the Marshal's hands.

"When did you and Juanita move to Colorado?" Dillon asked his friend.

Tom's face went a little slack and he sort of hung his head for a few seconds. "Juanita got the fever and died Dillon. It was just over a year ago." Ryan paused and added, "Couldn't stand to stay in Wichita Falls so I sold the boarding house and came up here." He brightened a little. "Stayed in the same line of work though."

The Marshal stepped closer to the doctor. "He gonna make it Doc?"

The doctor stood and shook his head. "He's already gone Marshal Ryan. Best have James send for the undertaker."

"Dillon you and the boys come over to the office and give me a statement tomorrow morning," Tom requested. He turned toward the bar and said, "James you're a witness, you better come too." Looking back at Dillon he added, "Won't be a problem but I will need something to show the judge."

"If you say so Tom," Dillon agreed. "We'll see you after breakfast."

Marshal Ryan had to wait until the bodies had been collected by the County Coroner. It wasn't a very long wait. In spite of being a now famous resort, Colorado Springs was still at heart a wild cattle town. The Coroner was used to being called out at all times of the day or night.

Saturday morning Dillon, Josh, and Red had breakfast at the café. They met with Marshal Ryan and gave their statement as to the events at the saloon. After visiting for almost two hours with Tom Ryan they left the Marshal's office. They settled their accounts with the livery stable and the boarding house and were on the trail back home by midday.

The ride could be made in an hour if they pushed the horses hard but it wasn't necessary. Josh let Red and his horse Jasper set the pace. Jasper never rushed or ran until he was forced to. It took three hours with the horses just loping to make the trip.

Johnny came up out of the dark place where he'd been. Slowly opening his eyes he saw he was in a big bedroom and felt himself lying on a feather bed. If this is hell, it ain't half bad, he thought as he drifted back to sleep. He woke once again as Danni was wiping his forehead with a cool damp cloth.

"Howdy Missy," Johnny said and went back to sleep. The next time he woke he could see that it was night time. The lamp in the room gave a dim light and the window showed darkness. He woke and went back to sleep two more times during the night, staying awake longer each time.

Waking up again, Johnny tried to sit up and wished he hadn't. A pain like nothing he'd ever felt shot through his left shoulder. It slowly forced him back down into that dark place again. The next time he woke he said to himself, don't think I'm gonna move until I find out a bit more.

Johnny was able to move his head and his eyes. Yep it's a bedroom alright, he thought as he surveyed the room. The lamp was still burning but the window showed the glow of daybreak. Looking to his right he saw Danni asleep in a rocking chair placed next to the bed. Must be in the big house cause it sure don't look like the bunk house, he thought. He felt a warmth and pressure on his right side and looked down. Next to Johnny, sound asleep was Clint. The boy was curled up against Johnny with a little arm thrown across Johnny's waist.

"My little cub," Johnny said softly. Using his good right hand he brushed Clint's long hair out of his eyes. When he looked up again, Danni was sitting up and smiling.

"Glad you're back with us Johnny." Danni stood and walked over to the bed and looked down at her son. "Clint refused to leave when he saw you. He was making such a ruckus I put him down on the bed to keep him quiet." She grinned and added, "You can see where he ended up. Here let me take him so you can rest easier."

"Leave him be Danni," Johnny said smiling. "Little guy is all tuckered out from watchin over me." Johnny put his head down and went back to sleep.

The next time Johnny woke there was a giant standing in the doorway. That's the biggest man I ever did see, he thought. "Who are you?" Johnny asked.

The big man stepped into the bedroom. "I am Oso Senor Burrows, from Winterborn," he answered.

"Con mucho gusto," Johnny replied.

"Senora Danni came to tell us of the attack. I thought it would be a good idea for all of us to be in one place so I brought Elizabeth and the little ones over here." Oso stepped next to the bed. "Rest Senor, I will stand watch."

"How long have I been laid up?" Johnny asked.

"Just one day Senor. The men attacked yesterday afternoon late," Oso said. "This is Saturday."

Johnny started to peel back the bandages on his left shoulder to see how bad he was hurt.

"Leave that bandage alone Mister," Sarah scolded him as she came into the room.

"Yes em."

"The rifle bullet went all the way through Johnny," Sarah explained. "Danni and I washed the wound with coal oil and got the bleeding stopped. If you pull the bandage off you could start bleeding again."

Oso stepped away from the bed as Sarah brought a cup of water to Johnny. "We'll keep an eye out for infection but if you take it easy for a spell you'll be fine," Sarah told him.

"Yes em," Johnny replied and laid back. After Sarah left he asked Oso, "What about the dead men?" Know who they were?"

"It's not important right now," Oso said. "I've moved them out of sight and covered them until we can get the Sheriff out here. Maybe he can find out who they are, I mean were."

Johnny gave Oso a small hard smile and said, "Or maybe we can just throw them in a canyon. Coyotes and vultures have to eat too you know."

Josh, Red, and Dillon came down a small rise and crossed Black Squirrel Creek. The main trail continued on southeast. To the east a trail branched off toward the CBC; to the west the trail led about three miles to Winterborn.

"Reckon this is where we part ways," Dillon said. "I'll head on home to Elizabeth and the kids."

"Bring your brood over tomorrow about midday," Red suggested. "We can go to the lake and have a picnic."

Josh nodded in agreement. "It'd be a good way to get the bad taste out of our mouths."

"Josh it bother you that we killed Jackson and his men?" Dillon asked.

"Not bother exactly. We were protecting our families and I'll kill anyone that tries to harm them," Josh said. "I just hate to see all those lives wasted I guess."

Josh shook himself. "Enough about bad things. Y'all come on over tomorrow and we'll have a good time."

Dillon nodded, turned west toward Winterborn and Elizabeth and put his horse Buck into a lope. Josh and Red made the turn east toward home still letting Jasper set the pace. It was four miles to the CBC ranch house and they had covered about half of it when Red sat up straighter in his saddle.

"Rider coming up fast behind us," he warned Josh. They turned their horses to face the rider.

It was Dillon coming at a high gallop. He pulled up next to Josh and Red. "Elizabeth left a note that there'd been an attack on your place. She said your families are okay but your friend Burrows had been shot. Oso, Elizabeth and the little ones went to your ranch."

Josh didn't say anything in response. He turned Diablo, kicked him into a gallop and gave him his head. "Run like hell big fellar," he yelled at his horse.

Red was right behind him. He spurred Jasper and said, "Time to go to work." In four steps Jasper was at a full gallop.

Dillon followed, losing ground with every step. Buck was a good, strong horse but he didn't have the speed of Diablo and Jasper.

Danni was sitting beside Johnny's bed spoon feeding him some soup. He had complained that he needed real food. "When we're sure you can hold this down, I'll cook you a big steak. Quit fussing and eat this soup," she replied forcing the spoon into his mouth.

In spite of his shoulder Johnny sat up straighter in the bed. "Riders comin and comin hard," he said. "Y'all warn Oso and get the kids into the house."

Johnny started to get out of bed but Danni gently pushed him back. "You won't do us much good if you start bleeding again. Oso can handle most anything and Sarah and I have been in more than one battle." She went to the night stand and pulled Johnny's pistol out of the draw. Handing it to him she said, "Here, I'll send the children into your room and you can protect them for us."

Taking the pistol he checked to make sure it was loaded and leaned back against the headboard. Very shortly all the children, including Elizabeth's, were in the room with him. Daniel went to the window to keep watch. John and William gathered the rest of the kids into a back corner. Trained em good, Johnny thought.

Josh and Diablo were the first to ride into the large clearing in front of the ranch house. He sawed on the reins pulling Diablo to a skidding stop. As he dismounted he saw movement at the side of the house. Josh pulled his pistol and turned in that direction. He lowered his weapon when he saw it was Oso.

"Everyone's okay amigo," Oso said. "They're in the house." He pointed to the front porch as Danni came rushing out the door.

Josh turned as Danni threw herself into his arms. As they stood there, Red and Jasper came into the yard. Red dismounted and Sarah rushed to him.

Elizabeth came onto the porch and looked down the valley as Dillon rode in. She met Dillon as he dismounted and hugged him.

"Are you alright?" Josh asked. Red echoed the question to Sarah.

Danni nodded. "The kids are fine too but I'm glad you're home."

Sarah told Red she and the children were okay. "We might not have been if it wasn't for Johnny," she told Josh and Red.

"Elizabeth wrote that there was an attack and he'd been shot. Is he okay?" Josh asked.

"He will be," Danni replied. "Come on. He's awake and guarding the children."

Sarah almost chuckled at Josh's puzzled look. "I had to give him something to do to keep him still. So I asked him to guard the kids. It was either that or tie him to the bed." Then Sarah did laugh. "He was all set to grab a rifle and greet whoever was riding in."

Josh, Red, and Dillon walked into the house with their wives. Oso followed smiling at the families. On the way Danni and Sarah told them about the four men and the attack on the house.

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