Ben Creedy was on top of the world as he sauntered along the boardwalk, stopping now and then to talk with neighbors and friends. Two things were foremost in his thoughts. The first was a beautiful woman. The longer he dwelt on his meeting with Joanna the next day, the more he was looking forward to it. Stunning in every way, she had a ready smile and blue eyes that sparkled with life. His imagination roamed over her athletic features, molded by the work she did at the ranch, where she matched the men in their rough and tumble existence of cattle handling. Her love of horses, the wide expanses of the open pastures and the fir-clad mountains that bound them, matched Ben’s love of an active outdoor lifestyle. Joanna had been his buddy since they were kids racing each other along the riverbank and yelling with abandonment as they charged their horses into the cool water.
He enjoyed every moment in her company. Lately he realized their relationship was taking a new turn. One where other emotions had crept sneakily in, acting like magnets to draw the pair closer, more like a couple. Being one of a couple was a scary notion.
Tomorrow, they had arranged to meet at their favorite campsite along the river, a few miles out of town, where they would swim, fish and snooze. They had been there many times before. That first kiss, filled with passion and heat, had yet to be shared. Maybe it was time to find out if Joanna was thinking along the same lines. He had no ideas how to go about that. With any luck, if the stars were aligned, there may be the chance of a kiss or two. Star alignment climbed higher and higher on Ben’s wish list as he ambled past the alleyway that lead to the stables. “Morning missus Jenkins,” he smiled as he touched his hat brim.
“And a good morning to you. How’s that sick calf coming along? Doc seemed happy with its progress.”
“Fine thanks.” And he was reminded of the second matter occupying his mind.
He felt more confident of a positive outcome in the second item on his agenda. Ranch business was easier to deal with than Joanna business. There was a clear strategy around any negotiations before he signed off the documents at his next stop.
Womenfolk, eligible or not so, paused their small talk to glance at the handsome cattleman as he passed. What a catch he would be: tall, with a working man’s build and ready smile. His sun-bleached hair framing his suntanned face, was worn a bit long. Several of them peeked demurely from under the safety of broad-brimmed bonnets, thinking of less than demure ways to throw a net over this one.
Since he was a boy, Ben had loved hard work, taking on any odd jobs he could find on the ranches that dotted the landscape around Green Forks. No matter how challenging the task, he was up to it. With his never give up approach and willingness to share his increasingly valuable knowledge of cattle ranching, he worked his way into the trust of locals whose livelihood relied on raising premium grade herds. Over the years, his reputation had grown. Now many ranchers turned to him before making any major decisions about their herd. They sought answers to questions about breeding, feed and market conditions for existing herds or how to build a new herd, starting with buying suitable land. Owners frequently asked him to act as their buyer. Ben felt a sense of accomplishment whenever he could help, especially at the High K where the delicious Joanna lived.
Most of the eligible young men had, at one time or another, tried unsuccessfully to win over Joanna O’Reilly. She graciously received their advances, never teased nor tempted, leaving them somewhat gloomy, but not dejected. They accepted Joanna as a kindhearted, very good-looking friend, whose wedding they would one day attend as guests. All bets were on Ben as her eventual partner. Looking forward to a whole of town shindig, most people who knew him thought he was a bit slow on the uptake.
His main mission this morning was filing land registration documents with the town clerk. Fulfilling that simple task would take a good deal longer than the signing of forms this morning.
He stopped to look at a horse he hadn’t seen before: a fine animal, strong and with good lines. His train of thought and the appreciation of quality horseflesh were broken as the clamor of raised voices erupted from the general store and interrupted Main Street. Lance Davis, the store’s owner, was loudly demanding payment. “You fellas owe me for that box of cartridges,” his gravelly voice insisted.
Coarse laughter and even coarser denial of payment followed. “You never said they was gonna cost money. We thought they wuz a donation for the good business our boys bring to your little town.”
The pair standing in the store were new to town, part of a bunch who had drifted in over the past few days, unsavory characters for the most part. Main Street had become a less pleasant place with these men loitering along the boardwalks, passing crude or insulting comments as people passed.
Peering between stacks of shovels and barrels in the window, Ben’s eyes groped through the clutter to see two men roughhousing the harmless old store owner, standing menacingly close to him. Ben intended to help Lance as best he could as he stepped into the store. At least he could try to persuade them into parting with some cash to pay Lance for the goods. He was a strong lad, hardened by years on the range and felt confident about holding his own against these two, if it came to that.
“Morning gents,” he greeted all three with a smile. “You're making a bit of a ruckus for such a beautiful day. What's going on?”
“None of yer business, runt. Git out before ya git y’self hurt kid. Ain't nothin' to do with you,” spat one of them. Floyd turned to face the new player square on. He placed the box onto the counter, with a warning scowl in Lance’s direction. The weathered, brawl-scarred face of the cowhand glowered at Ben. Plainly, with hostility rising in his eyes, this thug would need little provocation, assuring Ben that a passel of trouble was headed his way for interfering with Floyd’s attempt to obtain free wares.
“These fellas picked up a box of ammo and refuse to pay for it,” explained Lance
“That's just a damned lie. We don't owe you a thing old man,” growled the larger of the two.
“Seems easy to fix. Just show me your receipt and we'll accept old Lance here just made a mistake.”
Both men now faced Ben with legs spread wide, braced for a fight, chins thrust belligerently, clenched fists raised. Not that either of them thought this would be much of a fight. More a bit of a bruising lesson for the kid and some good entertainment for them. Teach him to leave men’s business to real men. They had guns, he had none.
Townsfolk had pleaded with the sheriff to make people check their guns in, but he would have none of it. “A man has the right to protect himself and his family,” Sheriff Tebbitt would reply.
He had ignored several serious gunshot injuries suffered by Green Forks citizens in random fights instigated by drifters passing through. Men like the two who had now turned their anger on Ben.
“Let’s cool down fellas.”
“Why, you chicken? C’mon Earl, let’s finish this and be outa here.” Floyd had no doubt the ensuing brawl would be quick and who would win it. The young fella would be real sore in the morning.
Ben had their full attention and, although pressed, took a moment to assess his position. He had no gun, they were armed. Two angry troublemakers against a not so angry citizen. Earl moved first, swinging a gnarled fist towards Ben’s nose. It didn’t reach the target. Ben stepped lithely to one side and slammed him in the ribs, bending him over and slowing him before smashing a left into his jaw, dazing the would-be thief.
This distraction gave Lance his opening. Just as Floyd made to join in the fray, Lance picked up the side of beef on the counter, swung it over his head and landed it heavily into the back of Floyd’s neck. Taking advantage of this opening, the young man darted closer and delivered a thumping right to Floyd’s sternum forcing out a gasp of air. Before Floyd managed to recover, Ben kicked him in the groin, doubling him over and completely taking his breath away. Ben quickly unholstered the guns of the unsteady cowhands. While they stood dazed, the shells from their sidearms were emptied onto the counter. “Interest on money owed boys,” laughed Ben, returning the guns. “Now you boys best mosey on out before you get beaten by another slab of meat.”
“Bet that’s tenderized it some. Old Lance should charge extra for that. Haw! Haw!” called someone from a knot of townsfolk, filling the doorway for a view of the action. “Beaten by a lump of dead cow, an old man and a kid,” adding fuel to the rage.
With blood oozing from the side of his mouth, Earl warned, “You ain’t heard the last of this. Next time we meet, you better have your wits and your sidearms about you. We won’t be near so friendly.” Earl shoved through the crowd, lashing out at anyone in the way and swung up onto the horse Ben had admired earlier, savagely dug his spurs into it and thundered off, leaving Floyd to suffer more torment as he weaved through the jeering mass towards the stable.
“Who were they?” Ben turned to Lance as the mocking crowd filtered back to whatever they were doing, and calm returned, the diversion over.
“There’s been a few no-good drifters like that pair in town in the last week or so. Always looking ready to make trouble. Don’t know who they belong to, but we’ll all be glad when they move on. Thanks for helping out. They woulda just left and taken that ammo. You better watch yourself. Them gettin’ beat so easy will leave those ornery critters with revenge in mind, so don’t take them last words too lightly.”
“Don’t worry Lance. I’ll stay careful till we see the back of ‘em. Might head over to Ma’s for a coffee while things settle down. You OK after that?”
“Sure thing. Thanks again. Say hi to Ma for me.”
Ben stepped into the street with his mood dampened somewhat, but not concerned. A coffee at Ma’s, served by its bubbly owner, would be a good fix. Ma did not look like a ‘Ma’, in the normal sense of the word, to the travel-weary men who passed through on the way to the mines, further west. To them she looked way too young and way too pretty. In Green Forks she was ‘Ma’ to everyone.
He stepped into the coolness of Ma’s parlor, as she liked to call it, and was greeted by the slender owner, long black hair tied into a ponytail, a fringe framed deep green eyes. “Coffee, is it Ben? How have you been? I thought you’d abandoned my humble abode.” Her smile and welcoming hug soaked into his soured spirits, instantly restoring them.
“Thanks Ma. I would love one. Been a tad busy lately.”
“Then I’ll forgive you,” he watched as she retreated to make the coffee, the charming effects of her engaging manner had already elevated his spirits.
“What was that all about?” queried Ma as she returned, nodding towards the store.
“Nothing to worry about. Just some strangers who think they don’t have to pay for items at the store.”
“I don’t like the way they’ve been hanging around making nuisances of themselves. Wonder what they’re up to?”
“No good, that’s for sure. I saw half a dozen idling along the storefronts as I came through into town this morning. They don’t look like they came to settle down here.”
“They come in here for a meal now and then, talking lewd and tough, but they do pay. Doesn’t do to get banned from the best food in town,” she laughed as she stood up and touched his shoulder as she walked past.
The sound of that laugh would drag anyone into better humor, he thought. “Be seeing you, Ma.”
“Don’t leave it so long.”
He walked out into the morning sun, warming the early chill from the endless, clear, blue dome that often enveloped a full day’s travel. Green Forks was a young town, one of the many that had sprung upon the Plains of the North West. A good mix of families seeking a new life had been attracted to the region. Farming and ranching had thrived in fertile soil, watered by a lattice of rivers and streams with origins as snowmelt that tossed and roared through narrow gorges on their way down the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Ben turned and headed off towards his original destination. He wanted to look over maps of the land around Green Forks, with an eye to securing property where he could build a ranch for him and possible family. Currently, he planned to use the holding to test new developments in rearing cattle. He had learned that some good land was coming up through a Government release and wanted to put his mark against several parcels. Swathes of Government land were being sold off to stimulate expansion and new settlement, but you had to act quickly to beat the wealthy, the sly and the criminal.
A rancher he was working with knew of a parcel coming up. Its sale was not to be made public for a time, subject to agreement with the Crow Nation. He had already spoken of his ideas with Crow chiefs who had endorsed his proposals, giving him an edge in the negotiations with government agents. It would allow sustainable practices to be set up on the land under advice from tribal elders. A good deal all round.
“Morning Ben. Mind sitting with me for a while?”
“Morning Ezra,” Ben joined the sheriff on a bench, its back leaning on a wall facing the street. The sheriff always wore his sidearm. Folks in town could not remember the last time he had fired it. He had been, and still was, a good lawman but Green Forks was a peaceful community. Reason and negotiation were strong enough to handle most law and order needs. A few jailings for drunkenness or petty theft and not much more was the rap sheet for Green Forks criminals. These were new times and Tebbitt knew a changing of the guard was due. Change that brought youthful vigor into the office was needed to strengthen law and order in Green Forks as it prepared for future expansion.
“Heard you were in town. Lance tells me you saved his hide earlier. Quite a ruckus from all accounts. Watch out for yourself. Crossing those fellas was a risky move. They will want to save face. Been trying to get more on them. So far, any information I have been sent suggests they all have dubious backgrounds. I’m waiting for more profiles but there are recurring reports of bank robbery, killing and rustling in many of their histories. Not good to get on the wrong side of this crew.”
“I’ll stay clear sheriff. Any idea what they’re up to?”
“Bit of a mystery. As well as not being your model citizens, they come from all over. I found out that much. My thinking is someone has taken them on for something major.
“Say Ben, you ever think of becoming sheriff? Everyone knows I’ve just about reached the end of my usefulness in the job. Been in for many years and I’m getting a bit long in the tooth. I’m thinking of running for mayor. You got the right stuff to be a sheriff. People round here know you and think you’d make a good one. I’ve asked around.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence sheriff. Right now I got my business to think of. You’ll make a good mayor. I’ll think on it. Best get going.”
He continued on his way, his mind returning to the possible opportunities opening up that would shape his destiny. With all that going on, tomorrow’s meeting with Joanna may prove to be a major juncture in his story. We’ll see, he walked off speculating on the next stages in his life.
The incident at Lance’s was all but forgotten, along with the storekeeper’s concerned warnings.