In this scene, two of the outlaws are conspiring against the MacMahons.
Cade MacMahon is found by his brother, Bren, and uncle, Miles, bushwhacked. His attack begins the family on the hunt for the outlaws.
It was a full-moon night, the air still warm from the heat of the day. Crickets made the silent night ring with the steady drone of their sound as two men met under the cover of darkness. One rode in from the north, the other from the west.
The man from the west jerked his head toward a grove of trees, “Under the trees, I don’t like being lit up out here like a Christmas candle.”
They moved their horses into the protection and shadow of the trees. The north man spit out angrily, “What happened with Harley’s men? Your little brother came back blithering like a hysterical woman carrying on about everyone being killed and he was almost hung.”
“Don’t get tough with me,” the west man snapped. “I’ve never been afraid of you, so watch yourself.” Even in the dark shadows he could see the other man stiffen threateningly in his saddle.
The west man continued, “Those two you sent last month got themselves hung when they stopped to take a nap, and the idiots were still on MacMahon property. Now, you recruit this last worthless bunch. Don’t seem like you’re capable of hiring anything but idiots.”
“What do you mean I recruited? You knew Harley as well as I did.”
“Yeah, you recruited. Harley could stick up a stage with help, but I would never have trusted him to raid the MacMahons. He’s got no more sense than a two-year-old. You sent them in.” He stopped abruptly, glared at the other man, and said, “You never told them it was MacMahons, did you?”
“They didn’t need to know that. Besides, Ed was with them, he was supposed to stick to the plan.”
“Well, they didn’t. You don’t stir up a hornet’s nest like the MacMahons and then skip down the trail like little girls picking flowers. I’ve put in a lot of time scouting this thing out, and we can pick off hundreds of head of MacMahon cattle if we do it right. Right is the key here, and it’s not getting done right with the morons you’re hiring.”
The north man took a deep breath and calmed his angry voice. The other man had always been quick to kill, and he didn’t want to end up on the business end of his gun. “Tell me what happened.”
“They stopped off to get drunk. What else would you expect from Harley?” He heard the other man sigh disgustedly.
The west man went on, “The orders were to run off the cattle quicklynot lollygag about it. They took their sweet time about it. You can’t do that with MacMahons. You have to hit them hard and fast, and keep moving. The idiots lost a man right off.”
“What do you mean, lost a man?”
“I mean while they were lollygagging, he got blown out of the saddle by a MacMahon hand.”
The man stared hard at the west man, “Did this hand recognize anyone that we know?”
The question was pointed at him and he didn’t like it. “He’s dead.”
“Don’t change the subject. We were talking about your blunder in hiring incompetent drunks. That was your mistake, don’t try and shift the blame of the mess on me or Ed. Bottom line is they didn’t follow orders and they’re dead for it. Let it be a lesson to anyone else who can’t follow orders.”
The north man shook his head. “The instructions were simple.”
“I guess not simple enough.”
“They were supposed to drop the cattle at the pickup point and keep riding for Dakota without stopping. They were to lay low for a month before returning. They understood that. I gave them enough money to stay drunk the whole time.”
“Well, they couldn’t wait for Dakota to get drunk. They stopped at the first saloon they came to after dropping the cattle. That’s where the MacMahons caught up to them.”
“Okay, it was a mistake.”
“All right, I got it, my mistake. Now, shut up about it. I think we should halt operations until things settle down. People are getting suspicious and starting to figure things out.”
“People like who?”
He ignored the question. “We have been moving a lot of cattle and hitting stages. There’s bound to be a posse, or at least search parties out looking for us. If we shut down for a while, and let the dust settle, we can resume again once everything has calmed down.”
The west man nodded, “I’ll agree with that. With those idiots stirring up the MacMahons, we had better. You don’t know that outfit, you’re new here, but you step on a MacMahon and they won’t ever let up on you. Those people could gut this operation wide open.”
“They’re not as tough as they think they are.”
The west man glared at him, the whites of his eyes eerie in the darkness. “You’d better get it straight in your head, and get it fast, the MacMahons are that tough. You don’t mess with that outfit and walk away. Pass the word on to Dillon that we’re laying low, tell him to do the same.”
“I’ll get word to him.”
“I’ll contact you next, don’t look for me.” He pointed his finger at the north man, “And, keep your mouth shut, you always did run your mouth like a gossipy woman. Don’t do anything to rile up the MacMahons, leave them be. One more incident with them and we’ll be the ones gutted.”
The west man turned his horse and disappeared into the darkness. The north man sat still on his horse and felt a sharp pain in his stomach. It was almost like a knife, like he was being gutted by a MacMahon. He had made another mistake, a big mistake.
Ita knocked on the door to Miles’ room. She heard bed springs squeaking as he got up, then a shuffling of feet on the wood floor as he moved toward the door. The door opened and Miles looked at her sleepy eyed. “Ita. What’s up?”
“It’s after midnight and Caden’s not back yet, I’m getting worried.”
“He went to see Jo, didn’t he?”
“Yes, fifteen hours ago. He should have been back long before this. I’ve got a bad feeling Miles, a bad feeling.”
Miles was wide awake now. “Yeah, he should have been back by now. I’ll get Bren and we’ll ride out and look for him.” He didn’t need to tell her that it was a dangerous time for one man to be out alone.
“Thanks, Miles.” She turned and walked away.
He nodded and closed the door. Picking up his watch from the night stand he saw it was ten past one. Dressing quickly, he buckled on his Colt and picked up his rifle from the corner of the room where it stood. Walking down to the next door he opened it and went in. Bren was lying on his back sleeping.
Miles shoved him hard. “Wake up!”
Bren’s eyes snapped open. “What?”
“Get your butt out of bed. We have to go look for Cade.”
“He went to see Jo.”
“Yeah, and it’s after one, and he’s still not back.”
Bren grinned, “Maybe . . .”
“Don’t say it. Your ma would wash your mouth out with soap for even thinking it, and I’d give her a hand at it. Come on Sunshine, let’s go. I’ll be saddling up.” He left the room, leaving Bren to rouse himself out of bed and sound sleep.
Miles had two horses tied outside the tack shed and was pulling the cinch on his saddle when Bren strode up to him. The bright full moon shone like a room lit by a lamp. The horses and corral posts cast shadows across the ground.
Bren leaned his rifle against the corral rail and ducked inside the tack shed. He returned carrying his gear. Tossing a saddle blanket over the horse’s back he dropped the saddle in place. After tightening the cinch, he slid the bit into the horse’s mouth and set the headstall. Pushing his rifle into the scabbard he glanced up at the moon. “It’s a good night for looking.”
Miles pulled the reins loose and mounted. “I hope it’s a good night for finding.”
Caden had told them that the Stanfords lived on the Verdigris Creek Road. Verdigris Creek Road branched off the main road a half mile west of Niobrara and followed the creek south. They knew the road. They also knew that Caden would stick to the established roads when riding in the dark. If he was on the road, they would find him.
They rode along in silence for the first half hour, the only sound being the footfalls of the horses and creaking of saddle leather. Bren broke the silence, “I hope he’s all right.”
“I hope so, too.”
“Because, if he is, I’m going to kill him.”
Miles chuckled. “Brotherly love?”
“Younger brother deprived of sleep because older brother is playing Romeo, and doesn’t have enough sense to come home and not worry everyone to death. So, if he says, ‘Oh, I lost track of the time,’ I’ll kill him.”
“If that’s the case I might help you. Actually, I hope that is the case. I agree with your mother, I have a bad feeling about this.”
They rode on for another hour. The moon was lower to the horizon when Miles pulled to a stop. He peered into the night ahead of him. “Is that a horse standing in the road up there?”
“All our horses ground tie,” Bren replied as he stared up the road. “It is a horse that looks to be ground tied.”
They moved on toward the standing horse. The horse lifted his head, recognizing his herd mates, and whinnied at them. Bren caught up the trailing reins and ran his hand over the saddle seat. He felt a sticky, dry substance on the seat. He held his hand up so the moon cast some light on it. His hand had a dark stain on it. “I think this is blood.”
Miles glanced at his hand and rode past the riderless horse. He shouted, “Here he is.”
Miles jumped off his horse. He knelt over Caden who lay off the road almost hidden by the grass. Bren was a second behind him. Miles dug a match out of his pocket and stuck it up. Holding the flame closer to Caden he could see the dark stain over him. Blowing out the match, he placed his hand over Caden’s heart, and then put his ear on his mouth. “He’s still alive. Get into town and roust that doctor out of bed, and come back with a wagon.”
Bren jumped into the saddle and hit a gallop for Niobrara a half mile down the road. Miles examined Caden as best he could without moving him. He had been shot in the back and had lost a lot of blood. He hunkered in the grass listening to the pounding of Bren’s horse. He stripped Caden’s gun belt off and rolled the belt around the holstered gun. The fact his Colt was still holstered proved he was bushwhacked.
Bren slid his horse to a dusty slide in front of the doctor’s house, which also served as his office. Leaping from the saddle he ran up and began pounding on the door.
A man’s voice from inside shouted not to break the door down. The door swung open and the doctor glared out. “Do you know what time this is?” he demanded in his German accent.
“I’m Bren MacMahon. Doctor, come with me, my brother’s been shot and he’s in bad shape.”
The sleep suddenly left the doctor’s eyes. “Oh, my!” he exclaimed. “Oh, my yes, I know MacMahons.”
“Yes sir, hurry, Cade’s been shot. He’s laying in the road just out of town.”
“Yes. Yes. I’ll be right with you. Hitch up my rig, there’s room in the back to carry a prone man.”
The doctor went back inside and woke up his wife, who assisted him as a nurse. “Caden MacMahon has been shot and is lying in the road. I’m going with his brother to bring him in. Get the room ready.”
As he hurriedly dressed, his wife jumped out of bed. “What is going on here, Lorenz? In one day, one man is shot to death, and two others shot as well.”
He picked up his medical bag. “I don’t know, but it is bad.” He hurried out the door as his wife was on the move preparing the room for him.
Coming out of the house, Bren met him with the rig. He slid over as the doctor jumped into the seat and took the reins. Bren pointed, “Straight down the road.”
The doctor broke the horse into a trot and moved out onto the road. When he reached the place where Miles knelt next to Caden, he pulled the rig to a stop. Jumping quickly out, he made a rapid cursory check of Caden. “Yes, he is alive. Get him on the back of the rig.”
Rolling Caden carefully on his back, the three men lifted him and laid him on the bed of the rig. Bren jumped up on the back with his brother, while Miles led Caden’s horse and followed as the doctor kept the buggy horse at a brisk walk back to his office.
Pulling around to the back door, they carried Caden in and laid him on the examination table. In the fully lit room, they could see that Caden’s shirt was a mass of dried and wet blood. His face was pale and his body cold. The doctor turned to Bren and Miles, “In the waiting room, gentlemen.”
“Will he be alright?” Bren shouted at him. “Will my brother be alright?”
“I will do what I can. Now go.”
Miles put his arm across Bren’s chest and forced him out of the room. “Come on, let the Doctor work.”
Bren sat down hard in a chair, his faced strained. He rubbed his hands hard across his face. He was close to tears. “I wish I hadn’t said what I said before,” he whispered.
“It’s okay, Bren, we were hoping for the best, knowing it could be worse.”
“I know. I only said that because I was scared. Scared something like this had happened to him.”
“He’s a tough man, Bren, and the Doc is a good one. Let’s keep our hopes up.”
Bren leaned back in the chair pushing his legs out in front of him. He stared at the closed door behind which his brother lay between life and death. “I’m going to find who did this and kill him.”
Miles nodded, “I’ll be right by your side.”
“What do you think happened?”
Miles shook his head, “I don’t know. Maybe it was a robbery.”
“First, we get cattle stolen, then Randy gets killed, now Cade. I think I’ve had about enough of this target on us. I’m going to find out where this gang is holed up and wipe the lot of them out.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Dawn was breaking as sunlight streamed through the windows of the doctor’s waiting area. Bren was asleep in his chair as Miles stood staring out the window. It had been at least two hours since they brought Cade into the room. The length of time gave Miles hope that Cade was going to make it. If he was going to die, he would have by now. He had seen it before with wounded soldiers.
He spun around as the door opened and the doctor, looking worn and exhausted, came out. There was blood on his white apron as he walked toward them. Bren snapped awake and jumped to his feet.
The doctor sat down with a groan and removed his spectacles. “We now wait, gentlemen. The next forty-eight hours will tell. He has lost a lot of blood that his body must replenish and that can be a slow process. The bullet did not hit any major organs or his spine, which is a blessing in itself. A liver or kidney destroyed by a bullet does not re-grow. He is strong, young, and in good physical condition, all points in his favor. It is the loss of blood I am most concerned about. If he had lain out there for another hour or two, he would have died.”
Bren’s expression was grim, “What happens now, Doctor?”
“I will move him into a room here where I can watch him for the next couple of days. If he makes it the forty-eight hours, he will be on his way to recovery. It will be slow after that, but if he lasts the forty-eight hours, he will live. It takes that much time to rebuild enough blood into his system to keep him alive.”
“At that time, he can be moved home to recover. He will have more personal attention at home than I have time to give him here. Besides, patients heal quicker in a familiar environment.”
Bren put out his hand, “Thank you, Doctor.” Miles did the same. The doctor wearily shook their hands.
They turned at the sound of knocking on the front door. The doctor rose from his seat and answered it. It was Ita, followed by Rafe.
She walked in and looked at everyone. “We headed for town when no one came back this morning.” The fear in her reddened eyes told of her long, anguished night. “We saw everyone’s horses outside. What happened?”
Miles took her hand as he gave her a sympathetic look, “Cade was shot. We found him in the road and moved him here in the doctor’s rig. The doctor just came out from working on him.”
Ita turned her pain-wracked eyes to the doctor. He knew Ita well, his expression reflected kindness. “He is alive. He lost a lot of blood, and that is the greatest danger right now. The wound was bad, but as I told the others, it missed all vital organs, that is very positive for his recovery. The next forty-eight hours will tell. His blood has to replenish, and he has to build up enough strength to heal. If he makes it over that time, he will recover fully.”
She looked into his eyes, “And, if that doesn’t happen?”
The doctor let out a pent-up breath, “He will die.”
Ita swayed slightly, Miles took her hand and helped her sit down. She looked up at Miles, “Was it a robbery?”
The doctor answered, “His valuables and his money were still in his pockets. I will give them to you. It would be my guess that rules out robbery.”
“Then what was the reason?”
Miles shrugged, “We don’t know, but Bren and I are going to find out what is going on around here.”
Bren sat down next to her. “Miles and I are going to root these people out and put an end to this once and for all.”
Rafe stepped forward, “I’d like to be in on that.”
Ita looked up at him, “I know you would, Rafe, but with Bren and Miles gone – and Cade . . .” She took in a shaking breath. “And, Cade in this condition, I need you at the ranch.”
“Sure, Ita, anything you want. You know I’ll do whatever you need.”
Ita looked at the doctor, “Can I see him?”
“Yes, for a bit. He’s still unconscious, you understand.”
Ita nodded and followed him into the room where Caden lay on his right side on the table. He was covered with several blankets to warm his body. She gasped at his ashen face and shallow breathing. She touched his face and felt coldness. She wiped a tear from her eye with a hand that trembled.
Leaning down by his ear she whispered, “I lost your pa and Aiden, I won’t lose you, too. You come back to your ma, you understand, Caden Patrick MacMahon. You come back to me.”