“I’m Victor Helton. You ladies wanted to see me?” Tall at six feet four and well over two hundred pounds, Victor Helton was an imposing figure with swept back black hair and dark eyes.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Helton. My name is Kelly Stolter and this is my sister, Lola Stolter.” She took off her glove and extended her hand. The man grinned and gently shook her hand.
“Stolter. Now why does that name ring a bell?”
“Our ranch breeds, raises and trains champion cutting horses. I wanted to find out if you were looking for any horses for your cowboys on the ranch.” Kelly kept her voice low and her eyes on his.
“That’s where I know the name. Yes, about five years back we bought a cutting horse from your father, I believe. That horse thinks on his own. Excellent trained animal. We’ve often talked about getting two more. Do you have any with you?” His dark eyes looked from Kelly to Lola and then back.
“No, Sir. Not with us. Right now, we have a completely trained 18-month old filly and a two year old gelding that has just finished his exercises. If you’d be interested in either one, we’ll be back on the ranch in about ten days.” Kelly smiled.
“I would be interested. If you don’t mind, what are you asking for them?” The tall man crossed his arms over his chest and stood with his feet apart.
Kelly smiled. “We’re asking sixty dollars for the filly and seventy for the gelding. We’ve had a couple of low-ball offers on the filly but she’s worth the money.”
“Don’t you think that price on your filly is a bit steep?” He sounded gruff.
Kelly pulled on her glove. “No, not at all. Her mare was a blue-ribbon prize money champion cutter. If we don’t sell the filly, I’ll put her on the rodeo circuit next year. After she wins, I’ll double her price and one of the big Texas outfits will buy her.” Hamel flagged down Kelly attention and signaled time to go.
“Mr. Helton, thank you for your time. If you are interested, write and let us know when you want to come see her.” Kelly reached to shake hands with the man who reluctantly smiled and nodded.
The stage had just started to roll when the girls walked onto the porch. Hamel waved them on and they mounted quickly and trotted past as a perplexed Helton stood next to the rail.
High Man Falls
Wispy white smoke curled up from the small fire. After the larger wood pieces caught and burned, the pot went on and the girls sat down.
“Kel, do you think pa is alright? There must be something important to keep him away like this.” Lola leaned back on her sweater and looked at the fire.
“I think he must be alright, honey. If he was hurt, he’d find a way to tell someone who’d send a telegram, or write a letter or come by. I know it’s gonna hurt him a lot when he finds out ma died.”
Lola shook her head. “He’s going to blame himself for not being here.”
“Doc said there was nothing nobody could do for her. She got sick and we did our best. We would’ve done the same if it had been him instead of ma.” Kelly dumped a small amount of the coffee into the pot and put it back in the fire.
They unwrapped the pieces of soft bread covering the thick slab tender beef. They split a sweet roll as a dessert and shared two cups of coffee. Kelly was licking her fingers when Lola silently nudged her and nodded toward the horses. Both animals had stopped chewing and were looking with ears pricked forward towards the grassy area on the other side of the springs.
Kelly saw her gelding’s ears go back and she imitated a pistol with her hands. Lola went up onto her knees and both girls drew their guns. A few minutes went by and the gelding snorted and went back to grazing.
Lola had a deep frown on her forehead when she softly said, “It’s time to go.” Kelly nodded and began to spread out the embers. Lola dumped out the last trickle of coffee and then plunged the pot into the springs to cool it down.
Kelly led the horses over to the narrow path and handed the reins to Lola. “I’m gonna drag some branches over the dirt and mess up our tracks. Stay right here while I try to get that camp back to the way we found it. Lola nodded.
Kelly piled twigs and brush back over the fire and dragged a leafy branch over the soft dirt smudging the horse tracks. There was nothing she could do about the clipped grass from the horses’ grazing. She backed out scraping a branch after herself.
After they were back out on the road, they pulled the loose brush back across the narrow path. As they mounted up, Kelly looked at the obscured path. She knew it was there, but most folks will ride right on by and never know it was there.
Two miles of trotting on southward, Kelly pulled closer to Lola. “So what was it back there?”
Lola shook her head. “Something silent getting closer. It wasn’t a good idea to stick around and have a look.”
Mr. Jefferson Sterrit
“Miss, my name is Montana Clayton and this here is Jefferson Sterrit. If Glen Richardson is home, I’d like to say hello.” Clayton’s jeans were faded black and patched. They were tucked into tall run-down tan boots. Sterrit wore torn and mended denim jeans. The sleeves of his red plaid shirt were torn off at the elbows and soiled black and brown gloves covered his hands.
“Howdy, Mr. Clayton. My name is Kelly Stolter and this is my sister, Lola and my brother, Colton. My mother, who passed away recently, was the daughter of Glen Richardson. I’m sorry to tell you that Glen died almost nine years ago now, Mr. Clayton.” Kelly shielded her eyes from the bright overhead sun.
Both men’s shoulders slumped and they looked at the ground. “I’m right sorry to hear that. He was a good man, miss. Hard at times, but fair and I trusted him. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Sterrit said, “Glen was more than fair to me. Seemed like he was always helping me out of one jam or another. I was hoping to see him again.” The man’s grizzled beard hung in tattered strands. It was his icy blue eyes that held a steady gaze.
“Thank you, Mr. Clayton, Mr. Sterrit. Please, water your horses at the trough by the barn. We don’t have a lot, but you are welcome to a plate of chili and cornbread if you are hungry.”
Clayton took off his hat in thanks. “That’s right kind of you, Miss. We’ll come to the house after we see to the horses.” His light brown hair was trimmed short.
Kelly and Lola brought out two plates with bubbling hot chili with beans and set them on the round wood table on the porch. Colton put down the pate of cornbread and went back into the house. The young boy brought out a small pot of coffee and two heavy ceramic mugs and poured the black liquid.
Sterrit waved his spoon. “I seen your ma riding a champ cutting horse up at the Denver Rodeo one year. There was four young women who were all neck and neck racing for the ribbon. Your ma won it. Glenn was rightly proud.”
Lola said, “That was the year she met my pa at that rodeo. They used to tell us those rodeo stories.” All the children smiled.
The children spent more than a few minutes describing how the tall stranger came in one day and talked Nick into going out on a job. Kelly frowned as she watched the two men look at each other sideways and then look away.
“Mr. Clayton, Mr. Sterrit, we lost our ma. We know there is a good chance our pa may never come back. We don’t know where he is or even if he is dead or alive.” The two men turned and looked at Lola. “But we are smart and have good folks helping us.”
Colton spoke up. “Our ma and pa taught us how to keep a roof over our head and food in our bellies. On the morning she died, ma told us that pa would move heaven and earth to get back to us. So, we have to believe that he will come back. Someday. Somehow.” Sterrit and Clayton leaned back to listen to the young boy.
For a few minutes, the two men stared out into the darkness. Sterrit grimaced and rubbed his face.
Mr. Montana Clayton
The next morning was spent bucking up lengths of downed alders, spruce and birch on the east hills. Five wagonloads came down to the south side of the barn where the splitter awls and axes were sharpened. A half cord of firewood was stacked against the barn by midday with the short logs piled to one side.
Colton said, “We should put in a dozen more posts into that corral near the small barn and enlarge it. It’s the strongest, I’d say.” Kelly nodded.
Sterrit and Clayton went out and helped tear out the rotten posts and marked with new posts where those should be put in. After lunch, the twenty post holes were dug out and the straight alder posts sank for the new corral south of the barn. Sterrit went with Colton up to the hunting blind to help secure it and reinforce the plank trestle. He showed the boy where to set rabbit traps and how to loop the snares.
Clayton caught and killed one of the chickens which Kelly cleaned and put into the oven to bake along with root vegetables. They baked an apple pie. When Sterrit came in the front door he held a small leather packet in his hands.
He showed Kelly how to divide the sticky dough in half, wrapping the saved part back up in the leather pouch. To the small portion he added more flour, a few drops of water, a little butter, salt and an egg.
“Ma used to make bread every Saturday. I never paid much attention. We just sort of got along without when we moved here to Flint Hills. It’s funny, too. Because when we go to Bradford, we like to eat all the bread in the hotel restaurant with butter and berry jam,” said Kelly.
Clayton’s dark eyes twinkled when he chuckled. “I used to eat the same thing all the time when I was staying in one place. I’d find the best tasting thing to eat and just stick with it. You need bread, though. Sometimes there’s nothing like a good piece of bread.”
Lola said, “Ma used to put butter and a sprinkle of sugar on a sliced of bread and send me outside to eat it. I’d be a pest to her and she’d give me bread to get me out from under her feet.”
Colton smiled and said, “I remember pa putting a big piece of bread on his plate and ma pouring that beef gravy over it. He used to sit there and get it in his mustache and beard. I’d laugh at him and he’d wink at me.” The kids grinned at each other sharing the memory.
Two days later all the chores had been done and Clayton and Sterrit sat up on their horses just before sun up. The three children sat on the stony ridge on the patio.
Clayton waved. “Keep a loaf of that bread on the counter. We might ride through again sometime.” The children waved as they watched the two men walk the horses down the driveway towards the road.
The Payton Springs Waterhole
“Hey, come on you two. It’s time to get some shut eye and we want the door locked on the inside tonight,” Hamel called out. Quickly, Kelly and Lola ran over to the old barn and stepped past Hamel who closed the door behind them.
Twenty minutes later, in the darkness of the barn, Lola nudged Kelly. The older sister turned to see Lola’s wide eyes filled with tears. “He will come home, won’t he, Kel? Dad will bring those horses and come home?”
Kelly pulled Lola into a hug under the quilt. “Yes, honey. Pa told us stories about running one hundred head of stock down out of Canada with only two other cowboys. He’s good at this, honey.”
Lola’s whisper shook with emotion. “But there’s bad people out there, Kel. I see more and more every day, every mile. I want him to come home safe.” The young girl’s voice broke as Kelly shushed her.
Later, after Lola’s breathing became deep and even, Kelly turned on her side to look up through the window into the inky blackness. Tiny diamonds twinkled. Was her father safely camped for the night?
Would he make it home to them?
As her eyes became heavy and sleep called to her, one tear slid down the soft cheek.
Mr. Raymond Chapman
The wound trickled blood. For twenty minutes Colton watched as the man explored it with the tip of the knife.
“It’s in too deep for me to get it out with the knife. My fingers are too big for me to grab it. Colton, I need your small fingers to take out the bullet, please. I wouldn’t ask you if I thought I could do it myself.”
“You want me to take out the bullet?” Colton’s eyes were wide. Chapman nodded.
“If Dusty had a bullet in him, you’d reach in there to take it out, wouldn’t you, if it would save his life?” Colton looked at his lab and then nodded.
“Just pretend that it’s Dusty and you want to get it out. You’d help butcher out the chickens and rabbits around here. This won’t be so bad for you, boy. I can put a cloth over it so you don’t have to look, if you need it, Colton.”
A few seconds later, the young boy dropped the slug onto the table. Chapman rinsed the wound with the liquor and then took the threaded needle from Colton’s hand.
Colton watched the first stitch go in. Chapman grimaced and his hands trembled with the effort. “I’ve seen men lose a leg because they left the bullet in too long.”
“Where are you going to go from here?”
“You know the Milton Ranch about nine miles to the southeast?”
“Yes, I know Savannah Milton. We are in school together.”
“Her pa still owes me wages from work I did for him over the winter. They hit some hard times and he couldn’t pay me everything he owed me. I’ll go there and see if they have a horse I can take in trade for what he owes me.”
Colton watched Chapman slice off the thread from the second stitch. “I think my pa would want me to ride you over to the Milton’s place tomorrow. You ain’t thinking of trying to walk out there tonight, are you?”
Chapman shook his head as he tightened the third stitch. “No. If it’s no bother to you, I’ll rest here tonight and head for the Milton place tomorrow. You’ve done me a huge favor, boy, and I’m not sure if I can ever repay it.”
“Tell you what, Mr. Chapman. My ma taught me to pay a favor to someone who needs it, but might not have earned it. Somewhere out there on the road, you may come up on a boy like me who needs help. You help him, like it was me.”
Chapman grimaced as he knotted the fourth stitch. “Your ma was a good woman and a fine mother, Colton.”
“I miss her a lot. Every day. We did everything we knew to try to help her get well, but it was not good enough.” Colton rubbed the tears away. Chapman averted his eyes back to the thread.
He cleared his throat. “I was mining for gold up in the hills in northern California when my ma died. Her heart gave out. She was close to sixty years old and had raised six kids. We were all grown, married and gone. The letter my older sister wrote said that ma felt she had done her duty and lived a full life.”
The boy’s voice sounded small. “You have brothers and sisters, Mr. Chapman?”
“Yes, I have three older brothers and one older sister. I have a baby sister, too. We used to have some good times when we were young, like your age. I can remember the looks and the smells and the taste of my ma’s cooking.”
“A friend of mine from town, Georgie Hailey, his pa died when he was my age. He felt lost until his uncle took him in. His uncle is helping him grow up to be the man that his pa would have wanted.” Colton turned a small chunk of wood over in his hands.
“I haven’t thought about them in many months, Colton. Thank you for helping me remember my roots.”
Colton nodded and smiled.
“Last one. I need some long narrow strips of cloth to cover up these stitches, Colton. Can you tear some for me, please?” Chapman focused on inserting the needle.
The wound was wiped with alcohol and the bandages tied on.
“I’ll get a quilt and some food from the house. I’ll bring down a pitcher of water so you can wash up, too.” Chapman nodded.
It was just about nine o’clock the next morning when Colton’s buckskin walked up to the Milton Ranch gate. Colton had a few minutes to chat with Savannah who got an abbreviated version of the events.
True to his honor and word, Mr. Milton saddled a horse for Chapman. Back out at the front gate, Chapman reached to shake Colton’s hand and again thanked the boy for his generosity.
Chapman rode east and the young boy rode north. Colton went home having learned the importance of helping his fellow man and Chapman had left a small bit of himself for the boy to ponder.