Joe Hansom held the tiny newborn baby in his rough and calloused hands. It was a boy, covered in all of the things a brand new baby is covered with at birth. Joe had tied off the umbilical cord, but the boy hardly moved at all. Joe knew he was probably the worst person to have birthed this child, his hands were the hands of death, not life, but there had been no other to help.
Joe Hansom had been riding hard for almost twenty-four hours in order to reach the cabin. Although he knew he should rest, he’d not been wanting to wait. He’d waited long enough to catch his man and he didn’t want him to have time to possibly sneak out after it got dark. Joe was slipping up on the cabin’s side with no window or door, when he heard a woman scream in anguish or terror, he couldn’t be sure which. Maybe she had suffered from both. Knowing that the man he was after was capable of doing almost anything, Joe had thrown caution to the wind and charged into the cabin. The man he was looking for wasn’t there, but this woman was and she was having a baby.
“Help me, please!”
The woman’s weak request brought Joe Hansom out of his thoughts and back to the problems at hand. Problems he knew he was not cut out to deal with. He held the baby out to the woman.
“Would you like to see him?” Joe asked the woman.
“Please help me!”
That was the last words the woman would ever say in this life. A shudder ran through her body accompanied by a rush of blood that soaked the already red mattress between her legs and she died. Moments later, the baby ceased to breathe.
Joe Hansom tenderly laid the baby alongside his mother and covered them both in one of the surprisingly clean quilts folded and hung over the end of the bed. He stepped back and looked at his hands, now covered in blood and, “God knows what all?” thought Joe. There was a pitcher of water and a large pan next to the woodstove in the corner. Joe studied his hands as he walked to the pitcher, found it to be full of water and poured some into the metal basin.
Joe wondered if the two would’ve lived if they had been found by somebody else. Maybe if a circuit preacher had been riding by, maybe he could ‘a saved ’em? Better yet, a doctor with hands that cured people of all kinds of ailments but it didn’t matter now. His were the hands that had found them. Hands that were big and gnarly, with knuckles swollen from the cold and long hours exposed to the elements as he pursued one outlay and then another. Sometimes but not often, bringing those men back to stand trial for their crimes. More often than not, he just brought the bodies back in order to collect the reward. Joe Hansom was a bounty hunter.
It had been said he was related to the Joe Hansom of New York City that had invented and built the Hansom Cab, popular in the Eastern Cities but was even now being replaced by some contraption called an automobile. He’d never seen one of the things but he had seen a picture on an advertisement in a paper he had read all last winter while stuck in a line shack waiting for spring.
Joe hadn’t planned on being in the line shack, he’d planned on trapping his man there and getting back out of the mountains before the snow got too deep. What he hadn’t known was that his intended prey had some dynamite. When Joe approached the line shack, the dynamite had blown and caused an avalanche, that fortunately for Joe, had missed the small building. If it hadn’t, the force of the snow would’ve blown Joe and the line shack both to perdition. The bad part for Joe was it had closed the trail with ten feet of snow and he had no choice but to try and stay alive.
He had only had a small amount of grub with him so he butchered his pack horse right off and his saddle horse a couple of weeks after that. He’d hated to do it but there was no grass the horses could get to and Joe needed meat. Still he would’ve starved before the snow melted except for he made himself a set of snowshoes and managed to get out over the crusty, snow pack of early spring.
Joe Hansom never said if the relationship to the cab company was true or not. He didn’t much care. Joe Hansom knew what his purpose in life was and he was good at it. Others speculated that if Hansom was on your trail he’d, hand some death out to you. Over the years that had been shortened up and Joe was now known over a large distance as, the hands of death.
“Maybe that’s a true name?” wondered Joe. “Maybe it was just because he was in my hands that death took him so quick?
It made Joe feel a touch sad inside of himself, thinking about the dead baby and its mother, but he knew there was nothing to do but bury them now. Then move on. Seth Butler was worth, at last report, four thousand dollars dead or alive. Joe had been on his trail for nearly two years now, off and on. He had nearly caught him twice, had nearly been killed himself twice. If he counted the avalanche, three times. Joe was running out of patience. Next time he got close, he knew one of them was going to die. Joe was going to do all he could to make sure the one that died, was Butler.
Joe’s horses were tied back up into the trees and it was getting dark outside. He figured he’d best go get them before some mountain lion got to prowling close and caused them to bust lose and tear up something for him to have to fix. Joe had never liked mules much, he didn’t really know why either, he just didn’t like them. When he thought about it, he didn’t care that much for people that liked mules either. That’s why he always tried to be sure and have a pack horse with him. More than once, the pack horse had become his life line.
Putting his hat on and slipping back into his wool coat, he’d taken them off to play midwife, he eased the door open just a crack and cautiously looked out on the timbered hillside. It would’ve almost been easier for Joe if Butler had been inside here and they’d had a shoot out at point blank range. Now, Joe didn’t know if Butler was still around, if he ever had been, or if he was long gone making tracks for Wyoming. Joe was going on the word of one of the blanket Indians that hung around the trading post, Butler was keeping company with a woman out here. Since there was a woman’s body on the bed he guessed she must’ve been the one. Joe wondered if Butler had been the father? If he was, he hadn’t shown much maternal instinct, running off when she and the baby had needed him. Of course, Joe didn’t know for sure, if Butler had ever been here in the first place.
Not seeing any movement that didn’t belong on the hillside, Joe swung the door open. Still, he hesitated before he stepped out, just to give any trigger happy, scalp hunter or outlaw, a chance to shoot too quick and let him know where they were hiding. There was no shot fired so Joe proceeded back to his horse. He didn’t figure the woman and child was going to go anywhere while he tended his horses.
The daylight was fading fast up here in the trees. Since there was a tall mountain on the western side of the cabin, it made evening come even sooner than it did most other places. It was near dark when Joe reached the small clearing where he’d left his two horses, now the clearing was empty. Joe started to swear but stopped, mostly because he realized he was looking at the wrong clearing. He hadn’t realized there were two spots that looked almost alike when he’d left the horses. He’d just heard his saddle horse nicker a few yards farther over to the north from where Joe now stood.
What might’ve passed for a smile crossed Joe’s lips. “Bad as a dad gummed tenderfoot.” He slipped almost silently through the lodge pole pines and found the horses right where he’d left them. A shiver ran down his back as he studied the area well back in the trees. “Somebody walking on my grave,” thought Joe. Still, he didn’t move. His horse had nickered but it hadn’t nickered at him. Both horses stood with their heads up looking in the opposite direction from where Joe Hansom stood as silent as the shadows he waited in.
An evening thermal stirred the leaves of a few Quakies, as it made its way down the slope, still the horses watched with heads high. Suddenly, the pack horse let lose with a high pitched squeal as another horse came into the clearing. Only this horse was wearing his saddle underneath its belly. Judging by the damage done to the saddle, it didn’t like wearing it that way.
Joe Hansom couldn’t believe the all fired bad luck he was having trying to bring in one sorry damned outlaw. Still cautious, but running short on daylight, Joe stepped out of the trees close to his own horses. The strange horse instantly saw him and came running at a high lope straight at him. Joe barely had time to step out of the way before the horse plowed over the top of him, but he was able to grab a bridle rein that was hanging down as the horse went past.
In spite of about two feet of rein burning through the palm of Joe’s left hand he was able to hang on and get the spooked horse turning in a circle around him. The horse’s eyes were wild with the whites showing around the edges. He snorted hot air loudly out of his nostrils as he pranced and danced in a circles around Joe. Every two or three circuits around Joe, the horse would kick the saddle hanging under his belly. Joe guessed he hadn’t gotten to where he liked carrying the saddle that way after all.
With his rifle in one hand and a nervous horse in the other, Joe talked in a quiet, he hoped, soothing voice to try and settle the horse. Joe wasn’t about to drop his good rifle on the ground and run the risk of the horse tromping on it. Nor could he hold it and get the cinch loose, so the saddle could fall off and let the horse relax. Taking his time, as much as he could, he circled the horse closer to his own until he could slip the rifle under the lash rope holding the load of his equipment on the pack horse. The rifle wasn’t held very well, but it was up off the ground away from stomping hooves.
With his hand now free, it was only a matter of a couple of minutes before the saddle was on the ground and the horse almost instantly settled. Joe talked to the spooked animal in a deep, quiet voice, just like it understood everything he said.
“So, you don’t much care to wear one of them corsets, do ya?” He chuckled a little at his own whit. “Can’t say as I blame ya much there. I never could figure out why anyone would want to wear them either.”
He rubbed the horse’s back with his free hand and soon had the horse calm as any stable horse in the country. Not trusting the horse to stand tied, Joe lead him back over to the fallen saddle, picked it up and swung it back in place on the horse’s back. If there had been a blanket underneath the saddle before, it was gone now. The saddle was well made, center fire rigged, and well oiled. This was a saddle that, although not new, it had been well maintained by hands that liked quality in their gear. The thought of the phantom set of hands working to preserve the saddle caused Joe to look at his own again.
“Hands of Death,” he spoke out loud.
Moving with slow deliberate care, so as to not spook the horse again, he pulled the cinch snug and tied it off. Finally, he was able to retrieve his own horses. Joe checked both the pack’s lash rope and its cinches, to make sure it was still snug. Then he reset his own saddle, tightened its cinch, and stepped into the stirrup.
Joe knew he’d reached pretty close to the end of his endurance for one day, when he fumbled the lead rope to his pack horse. Finally, he got it and the strange horse lined out behind him, just to drop the lead rope again. Joe leaned down to retrieve the dropped rope, cussing under his breath at his own clumsiness. That move saved his life. A bullet cut the air where his head had just been, and smacked into one of the lodge pole pines behind him.
Instinctively he, pivoted his horse rapidly to the left, dropped the leads of the other two horses and jumped his own into a gap between the lodge poles. Joe moved deeper into the trees, in order to put something more substantial than air between himself and the unknown marksman shooting at him.
Almost at the same instant, the assailant came stumbling out of the trees on the opposite side of the clearing, wearing a blood soaked coat, carrying a pistol in one hand, and croaked out the words, “My horse!” Then collapsed.
Joe Hansom hadn’t heard the words, but he had seen the blood and watched the person fall. Although he was dead tired and wanted nothing more than to ride back to the cabin, put his horses up and go to sleep, he couldn’t leave a wounded person laying out here no matter who it was. It didn’t bother Joe none to sleep in the same room as a dead person, he’d done that more than once and had slept just fine. But, to leave a wounded person out here helpless, that would’ve kept him awake.
Easing up to the fallen stranger, Joe kept an eye out for any movement. Not just from the person on the ground either. The stranger, Joe was sure, wasn’t big enough to be Butler. It didn’t mean though, they hadn’t been sent out there by Butler. He knew Butler was just the kind of bad hombre that would gut shoot a person and then force them out, probably at gun point, in front of the other man’s guns as a diversion. Then he’d shoot that man in the back when they came to help the wounded. Joe didn’t care to be shot in the back, or the front for that matter. He packed the scars of three bullet wounds already and he could honestly say, he hadn’t cared for none of them.
Joe stopped his horse a few feet away from the still body laying in the grass. Without moving, he scanned the trees and waited. He knew most white men couldn’t wait for long if they were playing ‘possum, in order to try and spring a trap on the unsuspecting. Joe Hansom was a lot of things, but unsuspecting was not one of the them. When there was no movement to be seen, except for his pack horse and the new horse following him over, Joe cautiously stepped down and walked over to the body.
Even though his horse would stand ground tied, Joe kept the reins of his saddle horse in his hands as he approached. He still didn’t trust that this man was dead or at least unconscious. He knew most white men were impatient, but he didn’t know if this was a white man or not. He’d seen Sioux warriors lay still for more than an hour in order to trap a man into showing himself. In fact, that was where he’d picked up the first of the three scars, he wasn’t looking for a fourth. Standing slightly behind the stranger, Joe used the toe of his boot to prod the him in the back; still no movement. Still ready to move at a moments notice, Joe reached out and took the pistol laying beside the stranger’s out stretched hand. The gun was an old cap and ball Remington that had seen a lot of use. He knew just because the pistol was old, didn’t make it any less deadly. Quickly, he felt around to see if the stranger had anymore weapons. Not finding any, he then turned the stranger over with one hand.
Blood had soaked one side of the coat. Joe holstered his pistol, but not before he took a last look around. It was dark in the trees now and he felt exposed and venerable squatted in the grass. The coat was held closed by some hand carved chunks of Elk horn acting as buttons. Joe opened the coat and a quick inspection showed that the stranger was only wearing a long underwear shirt beneath the it. The left side of the shirt was red with blood. The inspection also revealed the impression of the rather well endowed bosom of a woman. Shocked, Joe Hansom now armed with the realization that the stranger was a woman, quickly glanced at her face and made the discovery that she was a pretty woman as well.
“What ta Hell is a woman doing out here, wounded and shooting at me?”
Woman or not, he needed to see how bad the wound was, so Joe pulled his hunting knife, a knife he’d made himself several years ago, it sported a ten inch blade and was razor sharp, and used it to split the front of the shirt. As gently as possible, but wasting no time either, he pulled the shirt lose from where it was stuck down by some dried blood, the wound itself was still bleeding but not much more than a steady seep. It didn’t look overly bad, as far as bullet wounds went, but it was the location of the wound that nearly turned Joe’s stomach. She’d either been standing at an angle, or had maybe been turning away from the shooter when the bullet hit her. Joe figured the second was probably the more likely. The bullet had made two entry and two exit holes with the same shot. Impossible to do on a man but because the woman had evidently dressed in a hurry, there had been enough, say drop, that it had happened here.
The woman’s breast had been unsupported beneath the shirt so although not saggy by any means, the breast had hung down enough that the bullet had entered one side of it and out the other. The soft tissue of the breast hadn’t hardly slowed the bullet at all and it had entered the woman’s side, glanced off a rib and exited out, just shy of what would be considered her back.
“She must have been turning away, and in a hurry.”
Joe Hansom was holding the wounded breast up with his left hand, so he could see the rest of the wound. He still held his knife in his right hand, planning on cutting the shirt off to make a bandage.
“One hell of a poor way to treat a tit.”
Joe had no more than had the thought, when the woman opened her eyes. Instantly, her double fist swung at Joe’s nose. Because of the woman’s weakness from loss of blood, it wasn’t a hard swing, but it did cause Joe to let go of the breast and catch the woman’s wrist with his left hand and hold it. But she was not through, her right hand clawed for his pistol. Not having another free hand, all he could do was put a knee on her arm and press down.
Joe now had the woman’s wrist in one hand and was partly straddle of her, trying to keep enough weight on her other arm to keep her from drawing his own pistol and shooting him with it.
“I’m trying to…” Joe never got to finish the sentence.
The woman suddenly turned her head towards the leg holding her arm down, and lunging up with her head, promptly sank a full set of teeth into Joe’s thigh. In spite of his canvas pants, she was able to get a good grip on the hide and muscle of his leg and she held on like a snapping turtle.
Joe fairly well bellowed from both being surprised by the attack, so close to his manhood, and from the pain that shot through him. Without thinking, he clubbed her on the side of the head with his right hand, it still held the knife. His fist was wrapped around the Elk horn handle which made it solid enough, to Joe’s immediate relief, to knock the woman unconscious, and her grip relaxed.
Lunging to his feet, Joe did a mostly one-legged dance, hopping in a circle, sucking air through his teeth, cussing under his breath, and rubbing the bite with the palm of his left hand.
All three horses watched with their heads high, trying to decide if they should run or not, from his new and bazaar antics.
As the pain resided a bit, Joe talked to the horses in a low voice, to calm them and to cuss the woman. He also cussed himself for being a low brained, idgit, as he loaded her across the saddle of her horse, tied her in place, not caring much what sort of discomfort she might experience from her bare bosom rubbing on the saddle. Right now, Joe was trying to save her uncooperative life.
As the pain eased in his leg, his fatigue rose. He practically fell into his own saddle. His head spinning from exhaustion, he gathered up the leads to the other horses and headed back to the cabin. With the dead woman and baby and now this catamount woman, plus himself, Joe thought, “This damned cabin is going to be way overloaded if anyone else shows up.”
Back at the cabin, it was all Joe Hansom could do to get the woman off the horse. It had been impossible for him to lift her enough so that her exposed skin, let’s say, didn’t stick to the leather of the saddle, as she slid off. The sound made Joe cringe inside. “Guess I should’a did her coat back up?” he thought. He felt a little guilty now that his leg didn’t hurt so much.
A moan escaped the woman as she leaned, propped up between Joe’s chest and the horse. Her eyes fluttered open, tried to focus.
“Lady, I’m trying to help you and I could sure use some assistance from you.”
She seemed to finally come awake enough to focus on Joe’s face.
“Doctor,” was what came out of her mouth. “Got to get a doctor.”
“I ain’t no doctor,” said Joe, “But, you ain’t shot all that bad, considering the location of the wound and all, I’d say you was damned lucky. I believe I can fix you up enough to keep you from dying.”
The woman turned and grabbed at Joe’s coat with both hands. She looked up into his eyes with an urgency so intense he could feel it.
“I have to get a doctor for my Sister! Her babies coming early!
Joe shrugged his head towards the cabin. “That your sister in there?”
She nodded her head.
“Sorry to tell ya, but a doctor ain’t going to do her or the baby any good. They didn’t make it.”
All of the strength seemed to leave her legs at once and Joe was hard pressed to keep her from falling.
“Listen!” Joe hissed at her. “I need your help! I ain’t got the strength left to carry you. You got to help me. Right now, we ain’t got the time to mourn. I’m trying to save your life and maybe my own, so help me, damn it! Help me!”
Some resolve seemed to return to her and between the two of them they managed to get her inside and laid down on the bed next to the bodies of her sister and a nephew, she’d never seen.
“I hope you don’t mind sharing the bed. I’ll move ’em to the floor in a bit, soon ‘s I get the horses taken care of and I get some strength back. Right now, I got to bandage up them holes in you, to try and stop the bleeding.”
The woman’s only response was to turn her head and look at the blanket wrapped bodies next to her. “Rachael was a good woman. All she wanted was a family and to be happy. He took that from her, left her pregnant. Now at least she’s got the baby with her, wherever she is.”
Joe Hansom didn’t know what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything. He looked around the cabin and found some clean rags close to a door he figured opened either outside or into a root cellar. He hadn’t had the time to explore none and find out. He looked on the few shelves that made up the cabinets in the kitchen part of the room and found some elixir. According to what he could read of the label, it was supposed to cure everything from a snakebite to the runs. Joe hoped it’d kill the infection in gunshot wounds. He walked back over to the woman.
“If I’m going to fix you up, I got’a see.”
She never flinched as he opened her coat and lifted the wounded breast with a gentleness that surprised her.
“This is going to hurt,” said Joe as he poured the elixir directly into the entrance wound on her breast. The woman’s body tensed and she sucked in air between her teeth. Other than that she made no move as Joe washed all of the holes in her chest with the fiery liquid. In a matter of minutes, Joe had wrapped her in bandages as good as he could. By the time he was done, the woman was once again passed out.
He took another of the quilts that had been folded at the end of the only bed in the cabin and placed it over the live sister. He looked down on them, two women, one child, only one of them still alive and shook his head.
“I’m sorry for you all,” said Joe. He turned and staggered out the door to care for his horses. As he closed the door behind him, the live sister opened her eyes.
“Me too,” she said. A tear traced its way down her cheek as she closed her eyes again.
Outside, Joe weighed his options. The barn was more or less a hundred yards away from the end of the cabin. He was so tired he didn’t know if he could walk that far without falling. At the same time, he wasn’t sure he could make it back into the saddle either. Joe summoned just about all of the strength he had left and hauled his nearly dead carcass back into the saddle. From the groan the horse let out, Joe was pretty sure he was complaining about packing Joe another step, but Joe didn’t have the energy left to care.
“Whoever built this place,” thought Joe as he headed to the barn, “did it right. They built a small house, but a nice big barn so the barn could make him enough money to build a bigger house later.”
Joe could appreciate the kind of man that built things with his own hands. Things that would last. Joe looked at his own hands.
“Hands of death.”
As far back as Joe Hansom could remember, he hadn’t built nothing more useful than a campfire or the knife he still carried. Maybe it was the fatigue or maybe the two sisters. Whatever the reason, something had struck a cord in his memory and as Joe Hansom rode his horse towards the barn, he thought about the life that had brought him to this place at this time. The first thing he thought of, not for the first time either, he didn’t even know for sure if Joe Hansom was his real name or not.
Joe Hansom was an orphan. He’d never known his parents. Maybe the name had just been given to him randomly, because he didn’t have one? Maybe the only connection between himself and the carriage maker was an advertisement in some old newspaper? He didn’t know and for not the first time, decided there was no way to find out.
For an orphan, he’d been lucky. Somebody had fed him. His earliest memories were of being inside an orphanage back east somewhere, at least he thought it had been in the east. Then there had been a fat woman and her Uncle, they’d adopted him. Joe knew there were folks who thought the orphanages were horrible places, but he knew those folks had never lived with Uncle Billy and his fat niece.
Joe couldn’t even remember her name but he could dang sure remember everything she’d ever done to him. It was Joe’s firm belief they’d only adopted him because he was strong for his age and they could make him do all of their work. That had not been the worst of it though, he had also been the entertainment for them and their sadistic ways. Then there had been the night he overheard them talking about getting a new “boy,” and all of the fun they have, while they got rid of Joe.
Joe hadn’t felt it necessary to stick around and provide them with anymore entertainment than he already had. He had slipped out the back of the tent they kept him in, with the aid of the knife he’d made on the sly and he had been on his own ever since. It was the same knife he still carried today, and his most prized possession.
That had been back in Kansas over twenty years ago. Thankfully, while he was in the orphanage, he had learned to read some and to add and subtract a bit. Both came in handy now, in his chosen profession of being a bounty hunter.
He had started hunting men more or less by accident. The truth was, the first two men he killed were hunting him. He was sixteen at the time or at least that was what he’d been told, but there again, he wasn’t even sure if the simple fact of his birth date was correct. Joe had been making his living on his own then for a little less than a year but he had been lucky and had lived fairly well.
Because he could read and write a little, he’d gotten a job with a man doing survey work for the railroad. Joe had run the stick. That job had paid him two dollars a week and he’d liked the man he worked for. The only problem was, the man died suddenly in a card game by ingesting too much lead in his diet. Since it had been the surveyor that had the contract with the railroad, and Joe didn’t know much about surveying anyway, his job was ended as suddenly as the man’s life. What was worse, in Joe’s opinion anyway, was the man still owed him twelve dollars.
The surveyor had just won a large pot of money. This had been the main reason he’d had such a sudden influx of lead in his diet. Joe had been watching from across the room. He had stepped up and laid claim to the money the surveyor had owed him. Despite not owning a gun, and being young to boot, he’d had surprise on his side. Neither one of the other two men playing in the game, had paid him any attention as he approached the table. Between himself and the card game, sat a drunk cowboy, his head resting on his arms, folded on the table. A pistol had been stuffed down in a hand made holster but it stuck up and away from the cowboy’s back conspicuously. Joe pulled the gun from the holster as he walked past.
The two men were gloating over their successful recovery of their money. They both had their arms extended to rake in the money laying on the table, when Joe cocked the pistol.
“He was my boss,” stated Joe, “and he owes me money. He don’t owe you two pecker heads a damned thing.”
Since both men were stretched out with their hands far from their guns, there was little they could do but cuss the kid. The first one to speak had also been the one that had shot Joe’s boss. As soon as his mouth opened, Joe laid the pistol across the back of his head. He had dropped like a pole axed steer at the slaughter house in Chicago. The other man tried to draw at that same time. His shoulder was ruined for life by the bullet Joe put there.
Joe’s heart pounded a chorus as it beat rapidly in his chest. He was sure it could be heard by the few other patrons of the bar, but outwardly, Joe seemed as calm as if he was cleaning fish for his dinner. Using one hand, Joe had scrapped up the money, at least most of the big bills and coins. He left some of the small change on the table because it would take too long to collect it all and he knew his time was running out. The town law would be coming soon and he’d already learned most of them didn’t cotton to strangers and more than a few had larceny in their hearts when it came to collecting money as evidence in a shooting. He also knew some of these men might decide they wanted to cut themselves in on the deal if he let them have time to think about it. Joe knew he’d been lucky so far and he wasn’t pushing his luck any longer.
He told the room his bosses name, that he worked for the railroad and might have family somewhere that’d need telling. Then he went out the back door of the saloon, crossed an alley, went to the stable and gathered up the two horses they had been riding doing the surveying and left town. At the stable he’d realized he was still holding the pistol he’d borrowed from the cowboy. Being an honest kid, at least fairly honest, it bothered Joe that he hadn’t returned the pistol. He left it with the hostler.
“They’ll be a man in the saloon that’ll be waking up later. He’ll be looking for this,” Joe had told him. “I’d appreciate you seeing he gets it back and tell him thanks for loaning it to me tonight.”
That done, Joe rode for the next two days without stopping for longer than a few hours sleep and to fix a meal now and then. The two men caught up with him five days later outside of Ogallala. The one man had his arm in a sling, the other had a bad lump on the back of his head. It made his hat sit too far forward.
Joe still didn’t own a pistol, but his former boss had owned a Colt revolving shotgun, an 1855 model. He’d always told Joe that he didn’t have much use for no handgun or rifle but with a shotgun he could always kill something to eat. Joe had used it to kill his first two men. Turned out, they were worth a hundred dollars apiece to the railroad for other crimes committed and Joe had just found his new profession.
Inside the barn, Joe started with the packhorse. He untied the diamond hitch and even though he was tired, he still coiled up the lash rope neat and tied it off so it’d be ready to use the next time. He dropped his soogan off the top pack, then lowered the panyards to the floor. His movements were practiced and smooth, as he slipped the sawbuck saddle off and slung it over the top of an empty stall. Since there were four stalls in the barn and he only had three horses, he used the first stall to store his gear.
By the time Joe had unsaddle the other two horses and placed the saddles next to the sawbuck, tossed some hay to the horses and made sure they all had water to drink, he was more than tired on his feet. Joe picked up his soogan and carried it towards the cabin. It was shaping into a clear and beautiful night with stars lighting up the sky. They looked so close it was easy to believe you could almost touch them. Joe staggered under the weight of his soogan, but drew on the last of his reserves by telling himself, it was just a few more steps to the cabin. That was when he stumbled. He tried to catch his balance but just kept going right on going down. He landed on top of his rolled up bed, already asleep.
In the vague recesses of his mind, Joe dreamed of a crippled horse, Butler, and the soft touch of a woman’s breast. He shifted once in his sleep but no one was there to notice when he slipped off of the bedroll and laid with his face in the Montana dirt.
For two years Joe had been on Butler’s trail. At the start, Butler had been riding with a man named Kelsey and another that went by the handle of the Montana Kid. The
Kid had been trying hard to make a name for himself. He’d shot a couple of miners and a freighter down in Nevada. He’d left Nevada just ahead of a lynching, changed his name and somehow, he had gravitated north and had fell in with Butler and Kelsey.
When Butler became aware they had somebody on their trail, the Kid volunteered to stay back and put a stop to him. The Kid had been worth one hundred and fifty dollars once Joe collected the reward for him, but he had delayed Joe a week and a half waiting for the money. Joe was delayed another month healing up from the bullet the Kid had put into him down low on his left side. That was the second scar Joe carried.
The next time Joe had almost caught up with Butler, him and Kelsey were in the middle of robbing a bank in Butte. Joe had dropped Kelsey as they ran to their horses but by shear luck, Butler had gotten away. The shear luck had come in the form of Kelsey’s horse rearing during the shooting and taking the bullet meant for Butler.
Kelsey had enough paper out on him that Joe had collected a little over two hundred dollars for him plus another forty dollars the Banker had paid him for saving the part of the money Kelsey had been carrying away. Once again, Joe was delayed for several weeks waiting on the reward for Kelsey.
Butler had gotten away with three thousand dollars. Then he had dropped clean out of sight. Although Joe had made some good money collecting the rewards on Kelsey and the Kid, Butler was the man he was after. Butler was worth a thousand dollars in reward money but Joe had a bigger incentive than ever to catch him now. During the bank robbery and young girl of nine years old was killed by a stray bullet. The girl was the only child of a very rich man. He put up a five thousand dollar bounty on Butler’s head; dead or alive. Joe believed the man would probably prefer dead and he intended to be the one to collect that bounty.
His neck and back stiff from sleeping in such an uncomfortable position, Joe Hansom awoke shivering from the cold and dampness that came with the dew now soaking into his clothes. He figured from looking at the sky, that it must be about three o’clock in the morning and although still tired, he was refreshed enough to gather up his strength and get himself and his bed inside the cabin, finally.
Once inside, he untied the manty rope holding his soogan closed, spread it out on the floor in the far corner, and in an instant was once again asleep.
When Joe next opened his eyes, a dim light was starting to show through the one window in the cabin. With slow movements, Joe made his way to his feet. He was startled by the wounded woman’s voice coming from a dark corner of the table near the hearth.
“You always sleep with your guns on?” she asked.
“Nope,” Joe answered as he located her. “Sometimes I even take my boots off ‘fore I go to bed but last night, I guess I was just done in.”
“It’s good for a woman to know the habits of a man that has fondled her tit and put her to bed.”
Joe wasn’t sure but he thought the woman was smiling at him there in the dark.
“I can certainly understand your concerns,” said Joe. “But, I ain’t the kiss and tell kind a guy.”
“You never kissed me,” said the woman.
“No,” said Joe, “but you never can tell.”
“I would kill you if you tried.”
“If I tried and you killed me, I would be most disappointed,” replied Joe, “but, it might just be worth it.”
“Who are you?” asked the woman finally.
“Name’s Joe,” he replied. “I’m guessing you live here?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But, last night you said your sister…” She cut him off before he could finish his question.
“Was having a baby. I came to my sister’s house two weeks ago to help her with the birthing, now she is dead. But, I do not live here. I have my own place a few miles over the hill.
“I did not like my sister’s choice of a man. I think maybe he never gave her a choice but she seemed to think he was handsome and daring when she first met him. I don’t believe she thought that for very long. She sent word to me through a neighbor, he was gone. She needed help because the baby was making her weak. So, I came to help.”
She lifted a tin cup to her lips and for the first time, Joe noticed there was part of a loaf of bread on the table, an empty plate in front of her. He also noticed the grimace that crossed her face when she lifted the cup.
“Shouldn’t you be laying down?” asked Joe.
“My tit hurts wither I am laying down or sitting up. I can’t drink coffee laying down.”
“Any more of it?”
“Some,” she said. “It is made yesterday and it’s not very hot, but it is plenty strong. The bread’s a little stale but they both tasted good to me this morning while I watched you sleep.”
“If you want, I can rustle up a better breakfast for you?”
She looked at the bundle on the bed. “I’d rather you eat what you need to and then maybe we could bury my family. I loved my sister dearly, and I’m sure I would’ve loved my nephew as well if I’d ever had a chance to get to know him. That being said, I have to admit, they are starting to smell.”
“I recon I can bury ’em but you’re bleeding again. I think we’d best tend to you first.” Joe smiled at her to reassure here, then asked, “You got a name?”
“Yes,” she said, “but why should I tell it to you?”
Joe shrugged his shoulders and looked at her sort of sideways, “Well, I just figured a man that’s fondled your tit ought to at least know your name.”
This time it was light enough now, Joe knew for sure she had smiled, even though she’d tried to cover it with the back of her hand.
“Regina,” was her reply.
“Nice to meet you Regina.”
That afternoon, with her sister and nephew buried, Regina lay on the bed sleeping. Joe Hansom set at the table cleaning the same Colt shotgun he had killed his first two men with. Although he could handle a pistol or rifle about as good as any man, and he carried both, he preferred the shotgun. With it, he seldom missed, didn’t matter if he was shooting at a quail or a man that was shooting back at him.
He was concentrating so hard on cleaning the gun, he hadn’t realized Regina was looking at him. Her face was covered in a thin sheen of sweat. She startled him when she started talking.
“I was riding to get a doctor. I came around a bend in the trail. I was going very fast. Too fast, I knew, for as far as I had to go. But, it was my sister and I needed to save her.
“The first thing I saw was a horse standing off to the side of the trail, holding a front leg funny. Then I saw Seth Butler standing in the trail, pistol in his hand. I think he had been going to shoot his crippled horse but I surprised him.
“I knew Butler would not hesitate to shoot if he so desired and he didn’t. The only thing that saved me was my horse is very quick. It slid to a stop then pivoted around and we were running back the same way we had come from. Only, as we turned, I felt the impact of a bullet and knew I was hurt. The only thing I could do then was try and get back to this cabin where we had some medicine and bandages. I knew I was never going to make it to get the doctor.
“Just before we got to the clearing where you were, my horse stumbled and went to its knees. I went over his head. Maybe I blacked out for a few minutes, I’m not sure. Anyway, when I saw you with my horse, I thought you were stealing him. I guess I must’ve been light headed because I missed.”
“I am glad you did,” said Joe. “How did your sister get hooked up with Butler?”
“She met him in town,” said Regina. “Like I said before, at first she thought he was very exciting. Rachael always had bad taste in men. She was always looking for some excitement, some bad man that was going to take her away from this cabin and give her the golden key to some big city. It was a foolish dream, I know, but it was the dream of a young woman. It didn’t take her long to discover Butler was no gallant knight and she knew, he was never going to give her any golden key. If he gave her anything it would be a key that only opened the gates of Hell, but by then she was stuck with him. He only wanted to use her and to have a place to hide out. He wanted to hide from you I am thinking. He has been here the better part of a year.”
“That’s why I couldn’t find any trace of him,” said Joe, “He was laying low here and not making any tracks.”
“He used my sister very poorly but there was nothing she could do.” Regina looked around the cabin. “It is stupid but I think she did love him. When he found out she was carrying his child he took to beating her. I think he wanted them both dead. Now, he has gotten his wish.”
When she turned her face away, Joe saw a tear slide down her cheek. Her tears unnerved him more than anything any man could ever do. He couldn’t think of anything to say that would ease her loss.
“Are you okay if I leave you for a bit and feed the horses?”
Regina only nodded her head.
“Okay then, I’ll be right back.”
Joe hurriedly slipped into his coat then put his hat on as he opened the cabin door. The end of a piece of stove wood drove into his face, crushing the bridge of his nose and sending him into total blackness.
When Joe Hansom next had a thought, it wasn’t a nice one. His face hurt incredibly bad and he couldn’t seem to focus his eyes on anything. When he tried to move his hands to feel of the damage to his nose, he couldn’t. Off in the dim and vague distance he thought he heard the sound of a woman crying, but when he tried to turn his head to look, he blacked out again.
The next time he came to, Joe was certain there was a woman crying because he was tied to her. They sat on the floor, back to back, their wrists tied together with some hemp rope. They were also tied together at the waist. Joe’s ankles were tied together, he couldn’t see if Regina’s were or not, but suspected they probably were.
Fact was, Joe couldn’t see much at all for the swelling around his eyes. There was a ragged cut across the flattened bridge of his nose. When he tried to move, a groan escaped his lips. Then Butler’s face seemed to swim back and forth in his blurry vision but Joe still wasn’t sure it was real, until Butler spoke.
“So, you’re still alive,” stated Butler as he held out a wad of money in front of Joe’s face. “That’s good, I wouldn’t want you to miss your reward for chasing me all over the territory. Thanks for the bounty money for Kelsey and the Kid. They damned sure never were worth this much alive.” Butler stuffed the money into his pocket.
Joe’s head was still too woozy to understand at first, what Butler was talking about. Then realized Butler had gone through his belongings and found the money Joe had collected for other men. It wasn’t all for Kelsey and the Kid but Joe didn’t feel up to trying to correct him.
Joe could feel the darkness creeping back up on him when Butler suddenly slapped him across the face with an open hand. The sensation felt to Joe like the top of his head had just come off, but it did cause the darkness to retreat. Joe thought he would’ve preferred the darkness.
Butler was moving around the cabin and the smell of kerosene filled Joe’s nostrils, at least what was left of them. Between the pain in his face, a splitting headache, and the fumes from the Kerosene, Joe thought he might puke and he knew that was something he didn’t want to do. Butler was talking to him again.
“Maybe you’ll appreciate this and maybe you won’t,” said Butler. “But, I’m going to make your dying last as long as I can. You see, you’ve cost me a lot of time and money by being such a nuisance and forcing me to hide out here this long. Now, I’m going let you watch your end coming. That’s why the fire’s going to start over there.” He pointed at the other side of the cabin. “Then it will get hotter and spread across the floor and up the walls. Who knows maybe you’ll be lucky and the roof will catch hold and fall in on top of you, killing you quick enough you don’t have to feel yourself cook like a buffalo steak over a fire.”
Butler picked up a lamp that was lit. “Well, I’d like to stay and talk but I’ve got a bank to rob. See you in Hell. Feel free to tell the devil I’m coming but I’m going to put it off for awhile yet.”
Butler threw the lamp against the back wall and flames lit up the room. He picked up Joe’s shotgun and stepped to the door. “I got the rest of your gear already on the pack horse. Be seeing ya.” He stepped outside and closed the door.
Joe could feel the shudders coming from Regina’s back as she silently sobbed.
“You okay?” Joe asked her.
“He hurt me,” she cried back.
“I know and I’m sorry, but right now, we got to worry about staying alive.”
“We’re dead!” Regina wailed.
Joe automatically shook his head and discovered what a mistake that was.
“We ain’t dead yet, but you got to help me.”
“How?” It was clear Regina had all but given up and was prepared to join her sister.
The flames moved across the room, catching different items in the room on fire. As the heat built up, a smoldering rug close to them suddenly burst into flames. Joe and Regina both turned their heads away from the heat.
“Trust me,” said Joe. “This is going to hurt!”
Then with all of the courage he could muster he lunged sideways, pulling Regina over with him and stuck both their hands into the flames.
Butler was just mounting up when he heard Regina scream. With a chuckle he turned the horse towards the corrals where he had the pack horse and the spare saddle horse tied. Using a packer’s knot, he was able to ride up next to the lead horse in his short string and by pulling the end of the lead rope, they were untied and he was on his way.
Inside the cabin, Joe clinched his left hand shut and held it in the flames as long as he could stand. Then, he jerked both their hands out, but he had accomplished what he wanted. The hemp rope was burning and quickly snapped in. Once his hand was free Joe went to work on the knots still holding him and Regina together. In a matter of a few minutes they were both loose. Joe stood and helped her up. Regina held her burned hand with the other as he started to pull her towards the cabin’s only door.
“No! He’ll be watching and shoot us down.” Regina shouted. “This way!”
Joe followed her through the door in the back that Joe had never had time to investigate. It lead them into a pantry that seemed to be a dead end trap with no window.
“What good is it going to do us to die in here?” asked Joe with more than a little aggravation carried in the sound of his voice. “We’ve got to get out!”
“Lift!” Regina shouted. She pointed at a metal ring in the floor, close to the outer wall.
Joe did as directed and discovered part of the floor was a trap door leading down into a root cellar.
“The guy that built this place danged sure did it right,” Joe thought again.
Once both of them were in the cellar, Regina moved to another door leading to the outside.
Butler had barely made it out of sight of the cabin, when the cellar door was pushed open and Regina and Joe flopped out on the ground, sucking in the clean, cool air. Getting to their feet, Joe noticed for the first time, Regina didn’t have a stitch of clothes on.
“You’re naked!” exclaimed Joe.
“Really?” Regina asked in a mocking tone of voice. “Thank you for telling me.”
“I mean,” Joe didn’t really know what he meant or what he should say, so he shut up and pulled off his shirt for her to put on.
“I’ve got to go after him, but I need a gun.” He looked down at her. “And you need some clothes and shoes.”
“There is a rifle and some clothes in a cache I made my sister make, in case of such a catastrophe as this should happen. It is up in a cave just past the privy. There is also some canned food there.”
“Well, let’s go get it. Then I can get after Butler before the trail is cold.”
“We will go after Butler. But not today. We have no horses and both of us are too weak to take on a man like Butler.”
Joe knew she was right, he could barely stand without the world spinning around. Then in the middle of his dizziness something she’d said started to soak in.
“What do you mean, we will go after Butler?”
Regina didn’t answer his question but started to walk away, up the hill. Since Joe’s shirt’s tail was a little too short to cover the entire subject, he noticed the view was not at all bad. Realizing that she wasn’t going to stop, he got up and followed her.
“Do you like to use a plow?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Hell, no! I ain’t no farmer. What’s a plow got to do with anything, anyway?”
“I think a woman should know if her husband has any bad habits. I do not like farmers so you are still good so far.”
“Farmers? Husband?” Joe stammered out the words as he now tried to catch up. “We ain’t married!”
Regina stopped and turned to look at him in the face.
“No?” she asked as she looked back at him. “We have been tied together with me naked. You have handled my tit. I am now wearing the clothes you have given to me. In some tribes of Indians that would be more than enough to constitute a marriage.” She turned and started up the hill again, stepping as much as possible over anything sharp that would hurt her bare feet. Then she stopped again and pointed at Joe’s busted up face. “Besides, as ugly as you are now, you should be glad that I would even look at you, let alone take you for my man.”
“But,” was all Joe could think of to say. Regina kept walking up the hill as he slowly sat down on a round topped boulder next to the path they followed. He watched her for a minute and had to admit the view was even better from the lower position. Regina called back to him.
“You can not quit now, we must get to the cache before it’s dark. My feet are already cold and we will need the blankets that are there to lay on tonight. Then tomorrow or maybe the day after, we can walk to Sheppler’s place. He should have a couple of horses we can buy on credit. Then we will go after Butler. I think it is good that we can travel together. A man and wife should do things as a pair I think. I never did buy into that, “keep her barefoot and pregnant,” philosophy. I want a man that is sure enough of himself he doesn’t mind a woman that walks beside him.”
She droned on as she topped over a rise in the hillside.
Joe decided she was right about one thing, he was in no shape to go after Butler tonight. Besides, it might be alright to have her tag along. After all, Butler was at least in some way, responsible for her family’s deaths and he had violated her. “A woman ought to have her day of revenge,” Joe thought as he walked up the trail after her. “Wonder how good of a cook she is?”