Trouble in Lonely Valley: Part One
GUNSHOTS BOOMED, ECHOING OFF looming peaks. Kate Martin ducked behind Beau’s neck as he galloped across the mountain meadow. A puff of smoke bloomed from the trees in front of her. A moment later the gallant stallion stumbled, tried to recover, and then fell beneath her, throwing her from his back. The tall grass did little to soften her landing on the hard-packed plateau—clumps and clods punched her ribs.
King Blanchard’s men had found her!
For a moment the meadow swirled around Kate. Shallow breaths kept time with her racing heart. Death felt imminent. Visions of her family filled her mind. They’d be all alone now.
I should’ve…what? Abandoned Mary? Let her give birth alone?
The anticipation of King’s assault had given her pause but Matt, her husband, insisted she help the O’Shaughnessy’s—insisted he and their children would be fine. So, she had bent for a quick hug and kiss for twelve-year-old Lizzie and eight-year-old Dusty, her own tears hidden behind the curtain of long auburn tresses draped over her face.
Would she ever see them again?
Rifle barks continued to echo. Fresh gouts of earth popped around her. Kate scrambled to take cover behind her fallen horse. Beau’s eyes found hers. Bubbly pink froth foamed from his nostrils with each labored breath. Her proud companion screamed as he struggled to rise as if aware of the danger Kate faced. White bone protruded like an obscene gesture from Beau’s fetlock.
He whimpered as she patted his neck. “Stay down old friend.” Wetness soaked through her riding glove as she pulled her hand back. Blood covered the leather. She
peeled the glove off and slapped it to the ground. Tears pooled in her eyes, blurring her vision.
“I’m sorry, Beau,” she said to him as she reached for the .38 Colt Army on her hip. With her left she patted his flank. As she cocked the hammer, the weight of the revolver she had fired hundreds of times before dragged at her wrist. She choked back a sob and squeezed the trigger, the hail of rifle fire temporarily forgotten. The massive stallion’s head jerked once and then he stilled. Kate dragged her hand across her eyes. There would be time to mourn her faithful friend later—if she survived.
The rolling volley paused. Kate pulled her hat off and eased her head over Beau’s carcass to search for the attackers. Tall grass and mountain daisies stirred in the breeze. The tops of the aspens beyond the meadow swayed. She saw no one, but the silent tension hung like humidity, invisible yet palpable.
“Where’d they go?” Kate whispered her question as if Beau were still alive. Reaching past the saddle, she hauled the new Winchester ‘73 from its loops. As the barrel cleared the final loop, three men, spaced well apart from each other, peeked from behind trees at the edge of the aspen stand. They steadied their rifles against the trunks, and opened fire. Slugs shredded daisies and kicked up dirt ten feet on either side of her. Kate levered the action of her Winchester and fired off three shots in quick succession.
One of her attackers dropped, clutching at his thigh. “Serves you right,” she spat as another ducked from splinters of tree bark her slug spit into his face.
Return fire forced her to dive for cover again. She crawled forward to Beau’s head and rested the rifle on his still snout. She muttered as she drew a bead on one of the riflemen, “They must be half blind or else the worst shots among King’s hands. I swear not even a tenderfoot could miss by that much.”
“Or maybe they didn’t want to risk hitting their friend as he snuck up on you.” The deep voice behind her couldn’t mask the four distinct clicks of a Peacemaker’s cocking mechanism.
Kate’s shoulders stiffened.
“Take your hands away from the rifle. Real slow.”
Kate complied, then held them away from her prone body.
“Smart woman. Stand up very slowly. Keep your hands out wide.”
“What do you intend to do with me?” she asked, her voice taut, as she climbed to her feet. She flexed her fingers and allowed her hands to drop a little.
“Uh-uh. Get those hands up. That was a fair bit of shootin’ just now and I ain’t anxious to find out if you’re as good with that revolver as the locals say.”
“I’d be happy to oblige if you were so inclined.” Kate paused.”Ain’t afraid of fightin’ a girl, are you?”
“King says you’re fast as Hickock. I’d love to see that, but it’ll have to wait. Use your left hand and unbuckle that gun belt.”
“You haven’t answered my question. What are you going to do with me?”
“Shut up. Do what I told you.”
Blood pounded in her temples as she reached to comply. Kate didn’t need him to answer. She knew. Greed for ever more land drove King Blanchard. Already in control of seventy thousand acres, he wouldn’t stop until he had wrested every last acre loose from the small ranchers in the territory. Ranchers who wouldn’t steal an unbranded calf lynched for rustling, whole families murdered, men back-shot tending their herds.
In every case King moved his Bar KB cattle onto the newly vacant land with no one to protest. The local sheriff lived in King’s back pocket and complaints to the governor went unanswered.
No, she knew what the Bar KB men intended. She was to be bait.
She couldn’t let that happen.
“You just gonna steal a family’s home out from under them?”Her gun belt thumped on the ground.
“Walk forward.” The barrel of his gun poked into her back.“You folks squatted on King’s land. Rustled his cattle.”
“That’s a lie. Every head here is our own and we were here long before King ever came to Montana.”
When she had taken four steps, he stopped her.
“Not...,” the man hesitated, “not how he tells it.”
“He’s a liar. Ask the—”
“Shut up.” But his snap lacked conviction.”Don’t make me shoot you.” He called out, “Hank. Charlie. Shorty. Get the horses and come on up.” His loud yell drew a flinch from Kate.
The three men, one limping badly, disappeared into the trees.
“Hank’s gonna be madder than a hornet’s nest at you. Looks like you got him good.”
“He deserved it. We moved onto that land a dozen years ago.” Kate had been pregnant with Lizzie at the time. Did the man know about the children? Did he know Lizzie and Mary O’Shaughnessy were alone? Bile bit at her throat.
Kate turned to face the man. She was tall for a woman, but he stood over her like a horse over a pony. Blond hair fell from underneath his black gaucho-style hat to brush his shoulders. The Colt in his fist pointed at her navel. It never wavered.
“I know you.” She stared into his pale blue eyes. “They call you Johnnie Bronco, don’t they?”
He nodded, saying nothing. His eyes slowly raked over her before he locked gazes with her again.
Kate shivered. His appraisal hadn’t been lustful— she’d experienced that look often and recognized it for what it was. Johnnie’s, on the other hand, had been professional, sizing her up, determining whether she was as good as King said.
If the rumors and stories about Johnnie Bronco were even half-true, he was a dangerous killer. Some claimed he was fiercer than Wes Hardin. She’d heard he’d killed nearly as many as Cullen Baker. Dangerous indeed.
A horse nickered behind her as the men from below approached.
“You got ‘er.”
Kate didn’t bother turning to look. She knew the speaker. Hank Crankshaw rode ramrod for the Bar KB when he drove the herd into the territory five years ago. Not a man to anger—more because he was ornerier than a hungry pole cat than because of his ability with a gun. He had been the deadliest of the Bar KB hands until King hired Johnnie two months ago.
But Hank was still the meanest.
And the creepiest. Raking rough fingers through Kate’s long black hair, Hank limped around to stand between her and Johnnie. His leer held all the things Johnnie’s hadn’t, but she refused to flinch. He lifted his .44 Russian and casually ran the tip of the barrel along her cheek, down the length of her neck, and circled the hollow at the top of her chest.
“Very pretty.” He slipped the gun back into his holster.
“Leave her be, Hank,” Johnnie demanded.
Leaning in, Hank whispered, “We’ll talk later, when we’re alone.” His rotten breath made Kate want to retch. Hank turned to face Johnnie. “Just ‘cause I brought you in on this don’t mean you can forget your place. You take orders from me.”
“You never mentioned anything about women or children being involved.”
“We take King’s money, we involve who King says we involve.”
The two hard men glared at each other.
Kate glanced at the horses. Charlie and Shorty had dismounted and stood with their backs to her while they stowed their long guns. She didn’t hesitate. Her hand flashed to Hank’s revolver and drew it almost as smoothly as if it were her own. It cleared leather before he could react.
With Hank as a shield, she snapped a quick shot at Johnnie, who was already moving. The weapon was heavier than her own and not as smooth firing. Still, Johnnie grunted and crimson stained his shirt above the hip as he fell away.
Kate jabbed the gun in Hank’s spine. “Give me a reason to cripple you. Please.”
He swallowed hard. “Not today. I know how good you are with that thing.” He nodded to the gunfighter. “Don’t know of more’n a half dozen men could’a plugged him in similar circumstances. No, I’ll not make trouble. Least not right now.”
Kate bunched Hank’s collar in a fist, and she pulled him back, keeping him between her and Johnnie. “Shorty, Charlie. Hands up or I’ll drop you both.”
They looked to Hank, who nodded, then did as she instructed.
With a jerk of her head she signaled them to move away from the horses. “Lose your hoglegs.”
Their weapons thumped on the hard ground.
“Shorty, pick up my guns. Carefully.”
The tall man stumbled over his feet as he retrieved her belt and rifle. Bent over to pick up the Winchester, he sneaked a peek at her. He caught her eye and hesitated, his hand wavered above the stock. At last he grabbed it by the end of the barrel.
“Put them on that horse.” She pointed to a roan mare.
“Hey,” Charlie yelled. “That’s my horse.”
“Should pick better company. Get on with it, Shorty.”
Shorty looped her gun belt over the saddle horn. “What about Charlie’s rifle?”
“Pull it out. Carefully. Throw it into the tall grass over there.” Kate indicated the direction she had come from.
“Now stow mine.”
He slid the rifle into the scabbard attached to the saddle.
Johnnie continued to lie in the grass where he landed, a pensive expression written on his face even as his eyes flicked between Shorty and Kate—but he made no move against her.
“Now both of you go stand beside Johnnie. Johnnie, toss your hogleg over with the others.”
“I don’t think so.” His voice was strained, but steady. "Go ahead and shoot Hank. Save me the trouble of doing it later. Course, then you won’t have your shield.”
Hank growled at Kate, “You won’t get away with this. Kill all four of us and King’ll have eight replacements next week. And they’ll all be meaner and faster.”
Kate didn’t respond. The weight of truth settled over her soul. Hank was right. King held all the aces— money, power, and influence. And he owned the law, both the sheriff and the judge. How do you fight that? But she had to try.
She backed Hank with her to the horses and forced him to collect the five sets of reins.
Five? Something niggled at her, but she couldn’t place it.
Later. Now she needed to worry about Johnnie. And Hank.
Johnnie hadn’t moved.
Why? I’m sure I only grazed him.
“Stay with me,” she snarled at Hank. “And don’t drop any of those leads.”
With deliberate, careful steps backward, the weapon in her hand stabbing her prisoner in the back, giving him no opportunity to surprise her yet keeping him between her and Johnnie’s deadly guns, she guided him and the horses out of easy six-gun range.
Charlie and Shorty shot quick looks at Johnnie as if expecting him to do something. He did nothing.
“You plannin’ on leavin’ us our horses?”
Kate ignored Hank’s question and stopped him near the roan.
“Take two steps forward. Stand there while I mount.” When she was settled in the saddle, Kate kneed the roan close to Hank. She leaned down and whispered, “Don’t move, not even an inch, or Johnnie won’t get the chance to kill you. Understand?”
“Hand me the reins. All of ‘em.”
“You can’t leave us out here without horses.”
“I can and will. Call it the spoils of war.” They could walk the ten miles back to King’s base camp. She almost wished she could hear King bluster when they showed up on foot and empty-handed.
Raising her voice to be heard by Johnnie, she called, “You tell King I’ve buried three children on that land and I’ll bury him and a hundred of his men before I’ll surrender it.” In a loud whisper intended only for Hank she added, “Now, don’t move.” Kate lifted her leg high and dropped her heel on Hank’s right shoulder, driving spur points deep into the muscle. She dragged the wheel across the joint, leaving a dotted trail of blood in the spur’s wake.
“Aaaggghh! I’m gonna kill you,” Hank screamed. “But not before I make you dig graves for the last two brats.”
And she knew then what had been niggling at her. They set this up. These four waited for her. They had an extra horse ready for her. But the only way they could have known she would come this way was if they saw Lizzie ride over to the O’Shaughnessy’s to warn her.
A cold sweat beaded on her forehead. That meant they also knew Mary O’Shaughnessy was all alone... except for her new baby.
KATE RODE HARD FOR the shelter of the aspen forest, turning to snap an occasional shot back at her attackers. She wasn’t trying to hit anyone, just hoping to keep their heads down long enough to escape. Angry voices followed her all the way to the edge of the meadow, but they seemed distant.
Her mind focused on her next move.
Fear draped a noose over her head and threatened to tighten around her neck. Should she go back to the O’Shaughnessy’s? Had King’s men already visited there? Lizzie could shoot, but she was only twelve and Mary was in no condition to help. King would have an army around Matt by now. Tough men. How many would he have? Twenty? Fifty? And forget the easterner’s romanticized versions. These hard cases would kill a woman or child and think nothing of it. They rode for the brand.
Kate made up her mind.
A BATTLE HAD BEEN fought—the half dozen bodies littering the clearing outside their cabin paid testament to that. There had been no movement from the cabin. Kate worried for Matt and Dusty. She thought about their parting, still felt Matt’s hand on her cheek wiping tears away, his strong jaw and gentle lips as they kissed, the stubble from his two-day’s growth.
Was he still alive?
High along the scrub and pine-covered mountainside, Kate had a good view of the area surrounding their home. One of the packs on the purloined horses contained an old pair of dented and tarnished field glasses. They weren’t as nice as hers, unreachable beneath Beau on the mountain meadow, but they served their purpose. She settled in to observe.
Surely if Matt were dead or seriously injured King could have moved in to at least retrieve and bury his dead. Instead he had his army of gun hands and cowboys deployed surrounding the cabin. What help would she be to Matt against so many?
What are they doing?
For Hank and Johnnie to bring me? No sense in getting more men killed if I can be used to draw Matt out. Maybe King doesn’t know I’ve escaped. Not yet.
A glance at the sun’s position and she decided Hank and crew could have made it back.
A dry branch snapped on the hillside above her and a muffled voice shushed someone.
Kate slipped deeper into the pines. These men couldn’t sneak up on a deaf steer in a thunderstorm. Over years of working the land by Matt’s side, she had learned every nook and notch for several square miles. The stolen horses were picketed in a cut well off the trail, with access to graze and water in case it was a while before she returned. They wouldn’t be easily found.
And neither would she.
A stream fed by the high mountains had cut a draw the valley’s entire length. Deep and fast, the water rarely froze over completely in the winters. Sufficient feeders kept it flowing all summer long, even in a dry year like this one.
Often Matt and Kate let their herd graze yearround. With the constant supply of fresh water, high mountains on three sides to shield the valley from all but the worst of the winter storms, and a carpet of grass and clover fed by the rich loam beneath, Lonely Valley was an idyllic home. Little wonder why King Blanchard wanted it for himself.
The grey, purple and pink of dusk arrived with the suddenness of a summer storm. Fires dotted the Bar KB camp.
Kate knew what she had to do. She needed to settle this tonight.