Dave P. Fisher                        
Author & Western Humorist

Double Diamond Books                      
  
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Monthly Feature
     
       Cat Yancey

  A short story from the Beaver Valley short story collection
                                        
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Cat Yancey

 

The lion tracks in the soft sand of the river bar were only minutes old. The dragging left hind paw proved the cat was the stock killer he had been after for months. He was crafty and never made a mistake that would put him in line with a man’s rifle sights.

He knew the huge tom’s tracks even without the dragging leg, which was no doubt due to an encounter the cat had lost with a big mule deer buck or bull elk. That also explained why the cat had taken to killing beef calves instead of deer and elk. Local ranchers had put a two hundred and fifty dollar price on the tom’s head and he intended to collect it.

Jason Yancey preferred the remote canyons and timbered ridgelines of the Colorado Rockies to anything remotely resembling a town. He had taken to hunting mountain lions and wolves for the bounty at an early age. He had worked cattle, but a single cat bounty was worth two or three months of a cowhand’s wage. This tom was worth nine months, and he didn’t have to work sixteen hours a day and take orders from anyone to do it. Most everyone knew him as Cat, Cat Yancey.

He moved the blue roan slowly along the cat’s trail that followed the river bank for several hundred yards. Then, sensing he was followed, the cat had suddenly left the easy travel of the sand bar for the rugged incline of the mountainside. The cat was moving toward the narrow gap of Spruce Pass where the trail would be quickly lost in the rocks and thick cover of evergreen needles. Yancey continued to move up the pass hoping for a look at the cat and maybe a lucky shot.

It was the lowing of cattle on the move that first caught his attention. His concentration was split between the dangerous rocky footing his horse was picking his way through and glancing around for the cat. At first, his mind didn’t register the sound and it took several seconds to change thoughts from the cat to the sound of cattle.

Spruce Pass was timbered country before it became a trace of a trail around a sparsely treed shale slide of the timberline. There wasn’t supposed to be any cattle up here. It had been over a year since the last cow had been moved over Spruce Pass. Yet the wind carried the sound of cattle. None of the area ranchers had this mountainside as part of their range. It was too rugged and there wasn’t enough grass to keep an elk calf alive.

Yancey pulled the roan to a stop and strained his ears into the wind. Silence held for several minutes and then it came again. There was no mistaking it, cattle were moving up the narrow rough trail of Spruce Pass. Cows would never wander up that trail on their own, and there was no legitimate reason to be driving cattle over this crack in the mountain. That left only one reason. He prodded the roan on he was going to find out.

The crack in the mountain that was unofficially called Spruce Pass began 3000 feet below at the river. The pass was fairly wide at the bottom where it met the river, it steadily narrowed as it went up. Natural forces at one time had split the granite mountain, leaving a natural passageway that bighorn sheep had used for centuries to access the river. At the top, where it broke over to the west side, it was a mere hundred feet wide, just a chute of hard packed granite.

Once the trail reached the summit of the pass it spilled out over the west side of the mountain range into thick forests of spruce and fir. From there it was an easy ride down to the green valley and the settlement that sprawled along a rushing stream. The settlement had started with a gold strike that eventually petered out, it was forever after known as Pauper Meadows.

The closest town to Pauper Meadows was Central City, forty miles to the south. It served the Colorado gold country the way Brown’s Hole served the Green River country of Wyoming. It was a place for outlaws to hide and illegal trade to be carried on away from the eyes of any lawman.

He had been to Pauper Meadows a time or two, but preferred to avoid it because of its affiliation with his father, Arliss. Arliss Yancey was an outlaw, in particular a cattle thief. He made no excuses for what he was. However, he kept his son out of the business. Rustling was the only thing he knew how to do, but he didn’t want his son to live the life of an outlaw. They lived alone in the mountains where Arliss conducted his business, often being gone for weeks at a time.

He knew a couple of his father’s friends and business associates, but there were others he never met. One in particular used to ride to the cabin under the cover of darkness, the two would meet outside, and then the man would ride away. That one he never saw or wanted to.

His father was eventually caught by Harold Kinsdale, a hard-nosed rancher known to be death on rustlers. He and his men had caught Arliss in the act of rustling Kinsdale cattle and strung him up. Cat had found his father’s body the next day, brought him home, and buried him behind the cabin next to his mother.

He lived in the shadow of his father’s criminal legacy. He was not an outlaw himself and had never stolen a thing in his life, yet he was constantly held in suspicion by all those who had known of his father. He was the son of an outlaw and was never thought of as his own man. In his own defense he was quick to stand up to anyone, no matter their importance. He was good with a six-gun and deadly with a rifle. He backed up for no man.    

Reining his horse up the grade, he came to the trace of a bighorn trail that would bring him above the cattle. From there he could see who was behind the cattle without being seen himself. He knew this country better than any man alive, every rock, game trail, and spring. Only his father had known it as well. One other man knew of the trail, the shadowy figure who visited at night – he would know it.

A quarter-hour later he was bellied out looking down on the trail where it skirted the shale slide. The clattering of hooves echoed up to him and the unmistakable chink of iron horseshoes on rock. The first steer came into view followed by another, each wore the HK brand of Harold Kinsdale. He counted ten head and then a lone rider with a faded red kerchief around his neck, mounted on an HK branded horse, followed behind them. He knew the man, it was Kinsdale’s Foreman, Marv Dent.

This was a long ways from Kinsdale’s range. The big rancher owned a lot of land, but this mountain was not part of it. He was not particularly fond of Harold Kinsdale and liked Marv Dent even less. Kinsdale had a reputation for being a hard man, yet an honest one who was known for dealing fair and square. He never cheated on a deal and he never let a cattle rustler go free. Marv Dent was just a tinhorn who he trusted about as far as he could throw him.

He watched Dent push the cattle up around the shale and out of sight. The question was, why would Kinsdale’s foreman be driving cattle over this remote little-known pass? He had a pretty good idea why.

 

It was just before noon of the next day when the three men rode up to his cabin. He was sitting inside when the hoof and tack sounds of moving horses came to him through the trees. He picked up his Winchester and casually stepped through the open door and watched them come on. The riders pulled up forming a line in front of the cabin.

 With the rifle resting on his right shoulder, Cat made a quick sweep of the riders. Harold Kinsdale was in the center with a man to either side. He knew Kinsdale, but he didn’t know the others. Cat’s hat was pulled down over his brow making it difficult for the men to read his eyes.

The men remained mounted, carefully studying the lone man in front of them. This was no time for brash moves. Cat Yancey might be young, but he was deadly. Kinsdale was tough, but hadn’t lived as long as he had by being a fool. 

Cat lifted his chin slightly, “Help you men with something or you just out for a ride?”

Kinsdale shifted in his saddle, his hard eyes locked on the face below him. “I’ve been losing cattle.”

Cat knew where this visit was headed. He shrugged, “And that concerns me how?”

The cattleman’s face began to redden, “Yancey, you know full well how!”

Cat shook his head, “Nope, can’t say I do.”

“At least fifty head of my cattle are gone and we followed a fresh bunch of tracks right into your neck of the woods here. They weren’t more than a day old. It’s only natural that I’d want to come and talk to you about it.”

Cat’s eyes intensified as he held those of the rancher. “That almost sounds like you‘re accusing me of having something to do with those cattle going missing. Now, you wouldn’t be saying that I took those cattle, would you?”

The red in Kinsdale’s face deepened to the point Cat thought his head would explode. “You know full well what I’m saying. Your old man was a cattle thief, proved and hanged. Like father like son, I always say. You’re living out here all alone avoiding town and everyone in the country. That’s mighty suspicious to me. Yeah, I’ll say it, I think you stole those cattle.”

Cat never moved. “I don’t like towns or the people in them. And yes, the old man was a cattle thief. You should know, you hung him.”

“You’ve got that right. I personally put the rope around his neck. We caught him dead to rights, or at least Marv caught him, and we took care of business.”

“Kinsdale, I’m not arguing the point. The old man chose his life and paid the price for it. If I was in your boots, I’d probably have done the same thing. Now, we come down to this. I’m not my old man, I’m not a thief and I take exception to being called one. I’ve always heard that Harold Kinsdale was hard as flint, but that he was a man on the square. I know you’re upset, but you need to turn around and ride out of here before you talk yourself into a problem. Maybe you need to give a few things some serious thought before you go any further.”

Kinsdale glowered at him, “Things? What things?”

“Like, why was your foreman pushing ten head of HK cattle over Spruce Pass?”

Kinsdale’s face showed surprise, “What? Marv’s on a cattle buying trip for me. He has been for the past three days.”

“You always take cattle on a buying trip?”

“Of course not. What exactly are you getting at?”

“Yesterday, I saw Dent push cattle over Spruce Pass to the west side. Couldn’t figure out why he’d be doing that. Only three men know of that pass, me, my pa, and another rustler he worked with, a man I never laid eyes on but he knew the country. You might want to take a long think about all that.”

“I never heard of any Spruce Pass.”

“Like I said, only three men know, or knew of it, so why does Marv Dent?”

“Where does it go to?”

“Pauper Meadows.”

“Pauper Meadows! That’s an outlaw hangout.”

“Yup.”

Kinsdale studied the ground in front of him, “That doesn’t add up.” Then his head came up and his eyes locked on Cat’s. “Then again this might be your way of throwing me off your trail. Blame it on a man who’s not here to speak up for himself. I’d trust my foreman before I’d trust the son of a no-account cattle thief.”

Cat brought the Winchester off his shoulder and dropped the forearm in his left hand. “Now, you’ve called me a thief and a liar, I believe you’ve about worn out your welcome here.”

Kinsdale ground his teeth, then snarled, “We’ll be back and I’ll bring the same rope we used on your old man.” The three men turned their horses and broke them into a lope back the way they had come. 

Harold Kinsdale might be a lot of things, but one thing was for sure, he was a man of his word and Cat knew he’d be back. The time had come to take a ride down to Pauper Meadows and find out what Marv Dent was up to.

 

The mountain range loomed up behind him as Cat rode slowly toward the rough-board row of buildings. Beyond the buildings the white caps of the fast moving stream reflected in the morning sun. A corral on the far western end, fairly removed from the town, held a good number of cattle. Angling the roan toward the corralled cattle he rode directly to it. Pulling up he studied the mix of brands among the thirty head in the holding pen. Ten head wore the HK brand.

Cat heard a distant shout and looked back over his shoulder to see a man walking toward him. “Those cattle are for sale if you’re interested.”

Cat nodded toward the man, “Nice looking bunch, real good stuff.”

The man stopped beside Cat’s horse, “The best.”

“Interesting how they’re all mixed brands.”

The man shifted from one foot to the other and looked up at Cat in silence.  

Cat smiled lightly at the man’s response. He looked back at the corralled cattle. “HK, don’t believe I recognize that brand. That outfit around here?”

“Not anymore. Fella rode in here a few days back, said he was done with the cattle biz and was selling the last of ‘em. Make you a good deal on ‘em.”

“I don’t think so. Mixed brands make me a little nervous.”

The man stiffened. His eyes flicked back and forth as he touched the tip of his tongue to his dry lips. “They ain’t rustled if that’s what you’re gettin’ at.”

He knew the man was lying, everyone knew the Kinsdale brand. Cat grinned, “Wasn’t what I was thinking.”

“’Cause, they ain’t. In fact, a fella over in the saloon knew the gent who was selling ‘em and vouched that they was his cows.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Yeah. I don’t want no rope around my neck, I’m an honest stock trader. You go on over and ask for Judd, he’ll tell you.”

Cat nodded to the man and reined the roan around. He wanted to meet this Judd.

Tying the horse off to the rail in front of the saloon Cat went inside. With the exception of a few loafers hanging around the room was empty. Stepping up to the bar he looked at the silent barman, “Man name of Judd in here?”

“You drinking or asking questions?  Questions don’t pay the bills.”

Reaching into his pocket, Cat dropped a pair of coins on the bar. “Whisky – and Judd?”

“Why?”

“Why do I want whiskey?”

The barman rolled his eyes back, “No, why do you want Judd?”

“How about an old family friend? He told me to look him up.”

The barman filled a glass as a man pushing fifty years of age stepped up to Cat’s left. “I’m Judd, don’t recall seeing you at any of the family socials though.”

Cat tossed off the drink and grinned at the man. “Most families have outlaws and in-laws, guess it depended on which side of the family we gathered with.” 

Judd studied the young man for a long moment. “By chance is your name Yancey?”

“Depends.”

“Related to Arliss Yancey?”

“He’s dead.”

“Figured as much. Haven’t seen him in a year or so. Are you his son?”

Cat nodded.

Judd chuckled, “Fancy you coming in here, it’s like old home week. I just rode in a couple days ago myself and ran into Yance’s old partner selling cattle. Hadn’t seen him in a while either.”

Cat motioned for the barman to give Judd a drink. “Would that old partner happen to be a man name of Marv Dent?”

Judd shook his head, “Don’t know any Marv Dent. I’m talking about Frank Jones, your pa’s old partner.”

Cat grinned, “That sounds like a made up name if I ever heard one.”

“You don’t know him?”

“Tell you the truth I never met him. Is he the one brought in those HK cows?”

“That’s him. Both Frank and your pa were friends of mine. We did a bit of work together, if you know what I mean. You in the business like your old man?”

Cat shook his head, “I hunt cats for a living. Ranchers pay better for a dead mountain lion then I can get for a rustled cow and there’s no chance of ending up on the end of a rope.”

Judd grinned, “Smart man. Is that what happened to Yance?”

“Yup.” 

“Word of advice son, watch that Frank. Arliss was better with a gun and his head than Frank ever was. If Arliss is dead and Frank’s not, I’d bet a dollar to a knothole that Frank set him up for the fall to cover for himself.”

“Thought Frank was your friend.”

Judd chuckled, “Well, there’s friends you invite into your camp and can turn your back on, that was Arliss. Then, there’s those you loosely call a friend. Someone you might turn a quick deal with but watch every second, that’s Frank.”

“By chance, this Frank, is he about six-foot, blond hair and a mustache. Likes to wear red kerchiefs.”

“Yeah, he looks like that.”

“Sounds an awful lot like Marv Dent. They just may be the same man.”

“Looking for Frank for any particular reason?”

“Let’s just say I’m not taking a rope for him.”

Judd nodded, “Sounds reasonable.”

“I thought so.” Cat turned and walked out.

Mounting the roan Cat headed back for Spruce Pass. He intended to ride straight for Harold Kinsdale’s house. “I’ll save them the trip,” he muttered under his breath.

 

The afternoon was giving way to evening as Cat rode into Kinsdale’s yard. His hired men were putting up their gear and heading for the cookshack in a staggered line. The third man in the line was Dent. Harold Kinsdale came out of his house and walked directly up to Cat. “You’ve got your nerve Yancey, riding right up to my house.”

Cat gave the rancher a cold look, “What are you? The Queen of England and I have to have an appointment?”

Kinsdale bristled at the insult. “I don’t like you Yancey and I don’t like you on my place.”

“That’s fine, I don’t like you either, but this isn’t a social call Kinsdale. Call that no good foreman of yours over here.”

Kinsdale glared hard at the young man, but the glare was mixed with curiosity. He moved his eyes away from Cat and picked out Dent, “Marv, come over here.”

With the confident swagger of a man who figures he’s holding all the high cards, Dent broke away from the direction of the cookshack and came toward his boss. “Yes sir, Mr. Kinsdale, what do you need?” He tossed a look of contempt at Cat.

Kinsdale pointed a hard calloused finger at Cat. “Yancey here says you were moving some of my cattle over the mountain a few days back. I told him you were on a buying trip for me. You want to set him straight Marv?”

Dent bobbed his head arrogantly, “Just like Mr. Kinsdale said, I was buying cattle. So, what are you trying to do here? Throw suspicion off yourself maybe?” The look of worry in Dent’s eyes did not match his calm for the benefit of his boss appearance.

Cat squared around to face him, “Then why are there ten head of HK cattle standing in a pen over at Pauper Meadows?”

The worry in Dent’s eyes turned to fear as his hand moved down toward his holstered .45. “I don’t like where you’re headed with this, Yancey.”

Without moving his eyes off of Dent, Cat directed the next statement to Kinsdale. “You might like to know that Marv Dent isn’t his only name. He uses Frank Jones and he used to rustle cattle, your cattle, with my old man.”

Dent’s voice came out in a hoarse scream, “You’re a liar!”

“It’s a simple matter to find out, Kinsdale. Let’s take a ride over to Pauper Meadows and have a look, and while we’re at it we can have a talk with Judd.” Cat paused to read the effect the name had on Dent’s face. “You know Judd, he was a good friend of Pa’s . . . and yours.”

Dent’s hand dropped for his gun. He was crazed with fear of his identity and crimes being exposed. It was a clumsy draw. 

Kinsdale barely managed to clear himself of the guns as the two men drew on each other from six feet apart. Dent worked back the Colt’s hammer like a man with a broken hand and pulled the trigger. The bullet kicked up dirt six feet behind Cat. Cat fired once, the bullet hitting just above Dent’s buckle. Dent screamed in pain and fired a second shot that missed. Cat lifted his pistol higher and fired a second shot that dropped Dent in his tracks.

Kinsdale’s eyes were wide in astonishment as the ten second gunfight erupted in front of him. Men came on the run, all stopping short and staring at the body of Marv Dent lying in front of them. As one their angry eyes shifted from the body to Cat who held his gun steady, yet pointed at no one in particular. They then turned their attention to their boss, expecting an explanation as he took a step forward.

Kinsdale looked at Cat. In a low voice he said, “That was insane. Only a lunatic would pull a gun over a disagreement that could be so easily resolved.”

Cat turned his eyes from the men in front of him to Kinsdale. “You might say that only a guilty man would have acted in such a rash manner, wouldn’t you? An innocent man would have stood his ground, accepted the offer to ride over and clear himself. Then again, killing men to cover for himself is what Frank Jones does best.”

The rancher stared at Cat in silence before asking, “All that you just said, I mean about Marv or Jones or whatever his name is, is that true?”

Cat glared at the man, remembering the accusations leveled at him on their last encounter. “Seems like you’d be able to add this up for yourself.”

“Seriously Yancey, I want to know. Have I been the biggest fool in the state and too blind to see what was right in front of me?”

Cat’s first reaction was to tell Kinsdale to go with both ideas. He was both blind and a fool, stuck in his own stubborn, self righteous wagon rut. Then he thought better of it.

“Every word Kinsdale. Pa had a partner that I never saw. He came and went in the dark. They would go off and rustle cattle, move them over Spruce Pass, and then a couple days later the old man would come home alone. I was wondering why your foreman was moving cattle over that pass. I took a ride over to Pauper Meadows where I found your cows corralled with a bunch of other rustled stock. I met a man who knew my old man and his partner, Frank Jones. It turned out that Dent was this Jones.”

“But Marv was the one who pointed us to your old man. Claimed to have caught him red handed stealing my cattle.”

“Were you closing in on the source of the rustling at the time?”

“Actually, we were. It was someone close and we set a trap for him and we caught your old man.”

“Dent was your man. He knew you were getting too close, so he double-crossed Pa so that you’d hang him and put himself in the clear. I won’t argue that a cattle thief deserves to be hung. My old man was guilty. No one forced him to be an outlaw and he got what most outlaws get in the end. With my Pa out of the way, Jones was then free to keep everything for himself. He kept on stealing your cattle, figuring you wouldn’t be looking anymore since you obviously killed the rustler involved. Dent also figured if it ever came down to you getting wise to more rustling, he could just lay the blame on me.”

Kinsdale nodded, “It was him who set me to thinking you were a thief as well. When I found more cattle missing he was quick to say you were taking after your old man. All the while the real thief was right under my nose. I must be getting old and stupid.”

Kinsdale took a deep breath and then stiffened his back. He looked Cat directly in the eyes and held out his right hand. “I pegged you wrong son, and I apologize . . . for everything I said.”

Cat took the hand in the spirit of reconciliation it was offered in. It took a lot for a big man like Kinsdale to swallow his pride. “No hard feelings. Like I said before, you’re a hard man, but a man on the square.”

Kinsdale nodded, but was still clearly embarrassed. “You said you could take me to my stolen stock?”

“Come on by first light tomorrow I’ll take you over there. While we’re in Pauper Meadows, there’s an outlaw named Judd you might want to have a word with. You can tell him that HK cattle need to stay on their own side of the mountain.”

“I’ll be there . . . and thanks.” Kinsdale stood silent for a moment and then added, “I’m having some lion trouble up in my high pastures, happen to know of a good cat hunter?”

Cat grinned, “Just so happens I do. We can talk about it going over Spruce Pass.”   

 


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