Cowboy (Chapter 3)


Cowboy - Chapter 3

The inevitable had to happen. Craig was seen from afar with the pack string. It was too tempting a target. The man looked like a wannabe cowboy. Dave Holstein decided he and his small gang could easily take the man. Let some of the guys laugh at the cowboy, instead of laughing behind Dave’s back about his last name.

Dave and his small band were scraping together a perilous living trying to keep a hill farm going and doing some raiding on the side, to keep some meat in their bellies. It didn’t matter much what the guy had on the pack horses. The horses alone would give Dave the ability to roam much further afield on his raids. Everything else would just be gravy. Maybe he could even capture a few women to bring back to the farm to do the work and provide some badly needed entertainment for the few men still left in his gang.

If Dave had known what was in the packs, he would have drooled. If he knew how well Craig was armed, he would have drooled some more. If he knew Craig at all, with or without his new armament, Dave would have run off to hide.

Hide he did, but in ambush with all of his men. There was no way Dave was going to let the horses get away. He wanted everyone there to grab the lead ropes when he shot the man out of the saddle from behind a tree.

Only it didn’t work that way. When Craig got close to the ambush site, there was only one horse. The one Craig was riding. The rest were nowhere in sight. Drawing Clyde up suddenly, when he hesitated, Craig sat there a minute, searching the tree line near the road.

He’d settled the horses for the night and was coming down to a road to see if it showed any signs of traffic. But when Clyde alerted, he knew someone or some thing was ahead of them. Not inclined to take a chance, Craig whirled Clyde around and headed into the forest near him.

Enraged, Dave started firing, using up precious ammunition in his attempt to stop Craig. Every one of his men did the same thing until Dave realized the folly of it and called on them to stop shooting. “Come on, let’s go,” he screamed, running toward the spot where Craig had disappeared. “He can’t go fast in those woods on horseback!”

Greed and murder in his heart, Dave led the charge. It was the last thing he did. Dave had been right about Craig not being able to go very quickly in the heavy forest. Craig knew the same thing and pulled up Clyde as soon as he was out of the men’s sight. He’d turned Clyde as soon as they entered the forest, so was nowhere near the spot that Dave and his men were approaching at a hard run.

Craig shifted his right arm slightly, to lift the Drover’s coat enough for the Calico to swing around where he could get a grip on it. He was moving quickly but quietly back to the point where he’d left the clearing. He could hear the men approaching huffing and puffing, already running out of steam from their run.

Knowing it was showboating, pure and simple, Craig stepped out of the forest a few yards to the right of the group, the stock of the Calico extended and at his shoulder. He didn’t hesitate. These men had tried to ambush him. More than likely they’d been raiding, stealing and killing and who knew what else.

Having tried the Calico shortly after leaving the Hicks place, he knew exactly what to expect when he pulled the trigger of the submachine gun. Men went down like they were poleaxed. The heavy .45 ACP slugs did their grisly work, each man taking three or more rounds in the mere seconds that Craig fired initially. It was a little eerie for Craig, for though the Calico wasn’t totally quiet with the suppressor, it was far less than there should be for as much damage as it was doing.

Most of the men died on the spot, including Dave. A couple lived to tell the tale, as Craig refused to shoot men no longer able to defend themselves.

“Who are you, Cowboy?” one of the men asked, holding his left elbow that had been shattered by one of the rounds.

“I’m…” Craig hesitated. He smiled slightly. “I’m your worst enemy. Stay away from the area around Sullivan. The day of the raiders is ending.”

Though he wouldn’t kill them in cold blood, Craig had no compunction about leaving the injured to their own devices. To live or die was up to them and God. Craig broke camp when he got back to it and moved several miles in the late evening and early night. Then he set up another camp, sure he hadn’t been followed.

Craig took even more care than he had been, knowing how valuable to the Retreat the things he’d found were. It was bravado that had him tell the wounded ambusher that the raiding was going to end. But the more he thought about it, the more he was determined to see that it turned into a fact. And it would start at the Retreat.

To say the least, the members of the Retreat were surprised to see him, especially Sally. He’d left her after implying he might be gone for years. Here he was back in only a couple of months. But as soon as he spoke to her, she knew that he was only here temporarily. He would soon be gone again, this time probably for the years he’d implied before.

Quentin was a bit hesitant about sending a salvage convoy that far away, but Craig’s description of what he’d cached was persuasive. Craig didn’t mention the items he’d left in the vault room. Only the items he’d cached. Craig had decided that the ammunition and food that he’d left behind might come in handy some day. And it would be a shame for the collector quality arms to be used and abused if it wasn’t necessary. What had use to him and to the Retreat he’d cached. The rest would stay where it was until he needed or wanted it.

When Quentin agreed to the salvage operation he didn’t waste any time about getting it ready. The convoy was on the road in three days, heavily armed. Where it had taken Craig a week to bury everything, it took the salvage crew only two days to get everything dug out and loaded. It wouldn’t have taken that long, but it seemed everyone wanted to see everything that Craig had found.

Craig, after showing the team where each cache was, began patrolling the area. There were tracks all around the remains of the house, and it and the barn had been burned. Craig hadn’t done that. There’d been other people around since he’d left. Not knowing if it was coincidence or someone investigating the explosion, minimal as it was, that Craig had created when he brought down the house into the basement.

There were obvious indications that someone had been digging through the debris in the basement, after the fire, but things were still so jumbled up with unburned combustibles and the various hardware and appliances that a house contained that they’d given up.

Craig debated with himself for a while about making known the rest of the items in the vault, but counted on the reluctance of raiders to expend much energy for an unknown gain. Craig kept his silence and stayed on guard.

The team was back at the retreat before the week was out, delighted with Craig’s find. Quentin didn’t question what Craig had kept for himself out of the caches. He could have reasonably kept it all, since he was no his own when he found the stuff. But Craig gave the Retreat over half of what he’d found, trading off another fourth to individuals for items he could use, or for the businesses.

And then he was on his way again, on horseback, a new resolve in him. This time he saw Sally watching him leave. He’d barely spoken to her while he was back in the Retreat.

There had been one small attempt made on the Retreat while Craig had been gone. It had been driven off successfully, but when Craig had been told about it he began to wonder. The raiders usually attacked in force, giving some of them enough time to harvest what they could and take any animals caught outside the compound. Craig began to wonder if the attack might have just been a probe, to test the readiness of the Retreat.

He began to backtrack the raiders. It wasn’t that difficult. No one had ever gone after them before. There were just too many of them and they were too well armed. They left an obvious trail if you looked for it. Craig did.

Wherever they camped, they left a mess behind. From the looks of it they weren’t eating all that well. Craig was more certain than ever that the attack on the Retreat had been a probe. It had been almost a year since the last attack. This was July. There would be no food to harvest while the MAG members were pinned down in the Retreat compound. A raid was in the offing that fall, for sure.

Suddenly Craig felt a chill go down his back. But why scout so early? It was more likely to be an attack soon. There very well could be a determined raid this time, to take over the entire Retreat. Only it wouldn’t be a raid, it would be a conquering force.

The trail led back to where the raiders had taken up residence, at least some effort taken to shake off any pursuers. It took Craig three weeks of careful tracking to find the raider’s compound.

It was much like the Retreat. Probably had been another MAG group retreat that the raiders had taken over. Craig couldn’t leave the horses for very long, but he scouted the compound several times, with the horses and his gear left in what he hoped would be a secure area.

There were women and children in the compound and that fact bothered Craig no end. Perhaps he’d lost the original track and stumbled upon just another MAG retreat. The fourth scouting trip cleared that thought from his head. They were definitely raiders. He’d seen a party of eight leave on an earlier scouting. They came back to the compound, with much jubilant fanfare. They unloaded one truck of food. The other truck had half a dozen prisoners in it. All women.

The women of the compound made themselves scarce when the group showed up, taking the children with them. What looked like a short auction took place and each of the women was taken away by one of the raiders in the compound.

Craig rolled over on his back and fought back the bile and the tears that tried to flow. There wasn’t anything he could do at the moment. “But soon, very soon…” Craig told himself. He withdrew from the area and went back to his camp, determined to do something. Soon.

Soon was the next day. Riding Clyde, carrying the M14E2 across the saddle horn, Craig made his way back to the raider’s compound.

In his previous scouting trips Craig had spotted half a dozen spots he could use to snipe from. Tying Clyde to a tree out of the way, with a loose knot that he could eventually work free if something happened to Craig, he worked his way silently to one of the spots, carrying the M14E2.

He had a 100-round dual drum magazine in the gun, with two more in a shoulder bag. When he got to the spot he wanted, Craig made a hide for himself where he could go prone and be well hidden. Folding the legs of the bipod down, Craig readied himself.

Craig watched for some time, taking note of where the women and children were. When he was certain there were none in one of the wooden buildings, Craig lined the sights of the rifle up and began to dump round after round of automatic fire into the building. He worked the rifle slightly side to side and up and down to thoroughly saturate the building.

He switched to a fresh drum and began firing semi-auto at the survivors that stumbled out of the building. Though the raiders were still not returning fire or even trying to get organized, Craig emptied the second drum at targets of opportunity and then switched to the third drum. He stood, shouldered the bag with the empty drum magazines and slung the M14E2 over his other shoulder, and took off for Clyde.

He rode as quickly as he could back to his small camp, loaded up the horses and took off their hobbles. Craig left the area with his string of horses, determined to come back and work the compound over again.

Craig gave it a week, scouting out a wider area around the raiders’ compound. He had two opportunities to ambush vehicles leaving or returning to the compound and took advantage of both of them, making sure it was all men in the vehicles both times.

Having heard many of the old prep hands while he was growing up, stating that full auto weapons had no place in a preppers battery, Craig decided that while they were right probably 95% of the time, full auto was a very handy thing to have that other 5% of time, such as laying ambushes, attacking vehicles, and taking on groups of assailants that tended to bunch together.

Plus there was the psychological factor. People tended to keep their heads down when auto weapons fire was aimed at them.

Craig found another place to set up camp and leave the horses when he attacked the compound again. It was much the same as the first attack. Catch a group of male raiders together, in a building or out in the open, and pour the fire to them.

There was no sign of any pursuit this time, just as there hadn’t been any but a token response the first time. And there’d been no sentries roaming about, only guards at the two entrances of the compound.

The third time Craig approached he had to stop and conceal himself. When the man walked past him, Craig put Hicks’ Laredo to good use. It slid silently between the sentry’s ribs, into his heart. The man died never knowing what happened.

Craig took up another sniping position and watched the compound for a while. Apparently the man on sentry duty was late in reporting in. A group of eight men gathered and seemed to be talking the situation over, if Craig was reading their body language correctly, including waving arms and pointed fingers in all directions.

Not one to pass a good chance up, Craig put a long burst from the M14E2 into the group. Every man went down. This time Craig waited for more targets. Instead, what he saw was a group of women, with several children in tow make a run to one of the trucks. When one of the men tried to stop them, Craig cut him down and then shot the gate guard so he couldn’t try to stop the truck. When it was clear, Craig left the area and went back to his camp. He left the area for several days again.

When he came back a month later there were new faces in the compound. The feel of the place was completely different. Sure they had a guard at the gates. The Retreat did the same thing. And women and children were moving about openly, not furtively.

Craig decided to risk contact. He stashed the rest of the horses and went back to the compound, taking the main road in to it. Stopping well back from the gate, Craig called out, “Hello the gate! I’m friendly. I’d like to talk to someone in charge.”

“Just rest easy there, mister,” said the guard that stepped forward out of the woods just enough for Craig to see him. “Keep your hands there on the saddle horn, just like you’re doing. You even twitch toward any of them guns you’re carrying, I put a hole in you the size Detroit used to be.”

“No problem,” Craig replied. He saw someone running up the driveway. “I was by here a month ago and they ran me off at gunpoint.” It was only a bit of a twist on the truth.

“You’re not one of them raiders, coming back, are you?” The man held the shotgun more tightly, letting the muzzle come around a bit more towards Craig.

“Easy there, guy,” Craig said. “I’m not one of them. I just need to know you aren’t either. I’d like to do a little trading. Get a little information. I’m just passing through.”

“We’re not raiders!” The man spit in disgust. “Them that was here took off someplace else. Heard they was run off. Never even saw who it was drove them out, according to some of the women that got away from them just before the rest took off.”

“That’s what I was hoping to hear,” Craig said. “What do you think people here would want to trade for?”

“No more talk, mister,” the man said. “I’ll let Dirk Cameroon do the talking for the retreat.”

Craig nodded. “Not a problem.”

It wasn’t very long and Craig could see three men coming down the driveway into the compound. When they got to the gate the one in the middle asked, “Who are you and what do you want?”

“Just a trader, looking to do a bit of business, and get what information I can about routes west.”

“Don’t much care for someone that won’t give his name,” came the reply. “I’m Dirk Cameroon. Now state you r name or just ride away.”

Craig was a bit tempted to do just that. But the Retreat needed some trading partners and this might be a good place to start.

“Craig Davenport. I’m with a big retreat near Sullivan.”

“Sullivan, huh?” said Dirk, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “I think I heard about them. Big outfit. Been doing really well for themselves. Even do a bit of outright buying, with real gold and silver money.”

Craig nodded. “Yes. Still not many that will take precious metals, but more and more are using it the way cash was used before the war. We’re looking to set up some regular trade routes with other good outfits. We’re particularly looking for salt at the moment.”

“We need salt ourselves. You find any, and we’ll for sure do some trading. What do you have for trade?”

“Not too much with me. I’m mostly scouting for future trades. Have some premium black powder if you have any thing you can use it in.”

“We got a couple of guys that hunt for us. They use muzzle loaders. Need powder and caps.”

“Got a few,” Craig said. “Any chance me coming in to do a trade with them?”

It was obvious Dirk was considering it. The men flanking him had not said anything up to this point, but at Craig’s request both leaned toward him and whispered something, one in one ear and the other the other ear.

“Don’t want to be inhospitable, but that’s too big of a risk until we get to know you a bit better. We’ll check with the men and if they are interested, send them down here. You’re welcome to wait.”

“If it is okay, I’ll get off Clyde here, and stretch my legs a bit while I wait.”

“Keep an eye on him,” Dirk told the guard, and then headed back up the driveway.

Craig threw his leg over and stepped down off the saddle, careful to keep the Calico hidden under the duster he now wore in lieu of the Drover’s coat, which was too hot to be wearing yet. But the duster performed the same tasks as the coat, and was much lighter and cooler, and still took the chill off at night. The weather patterns had changed. They were still getting hot summers, but short ones, with short fall and spring seasons, too. Winter was on the land for five months out of the year now.

Craig stepped to the edge of the woods and relieved himself, stretched and passed back and forth a bit while he waited.

“Hey,” said the guard. “My name’s Gary. You got any tobacco to trade?”

“Little. You looking for some?”

“Yeah. Tough habit to break.” He gave a little laugh. “I been holding some good shine, for somebody that has tobacco.”

Craig neither smoked nor drank. But he was a natural born trader. It took a couple of minutes to dicker, but Gary had his small can of tobacco and a booklet of papers, and Craig added the moonshine to his saddle bags. The pint bottle that the whiskey was in went in the saddle bag next to three small bottles of Everclear he’d brought for trading.

The two men stood silently for the rest of the time it took for Dirk to come back with two poorly dressed men. Both were carrying vintage style black powder rifles that looked a lot better than the two men did. Apparently they took the kind of care of the firearms that they demanded to stay in working condition.

“Dirk here says you got black powder,” said one of the men as soon as they came to a stop at the gate. “Any good?”

“Ball mill ground using willow charcoal. Screened out FF, 2F, 3F, and 4F if you have a flintlock. Welcome to try a shot if you want.”

That surprised both men. Craig went to Clyde and opened the saddle bag again. He took out a one pound bag of FF powder. He went to the other side of the horse and opened the saddle bag on that side. He took out a small flat box containing #11 percussion caps, thanks to Hicks.

“One shot on me,” Craig said, handing the first man a cap and opening the powder sack so he could take a bit out to charge his rifle. He capped it after the patched ball was loaded and raised it to his shoulder. Taking aim at a tree some distance off, he fired.

Bark flew off the tree and the man grunted slightly. After checking the barrel for residues the man said, “Okay. It’s good stuff. Burns clean. Not much residue. What are you asking?”

“Roll of silver quarters, if you got it. If not, make an offer,” Craig replied.

The two men stepped back and whispered to one another for a moment. Finally one of them said, “Got a spare .32 flintlock squirrel rifle, now that we have some caps, but it’d take more than a pound of powder and a box of caps to get it.”

“Two pounds of powder and another box of caps, if you’ve got a bullet mold for the .32,” Craig immediately said.

Again the two men talked it over quietly.

When the negative shake of the head began, Craig said, “And I’ll through in a pint of quality moonshine, small box of tobacco and some rolling papers.” The guard looked a bit taken aback.

“Done!” said one of the men. The other man didn’t look too pleased, but he didn’t object. The first man told the second, “Go get it. Mold and all.”

As the man headed back up the driveway, Craig got out the items he was trading to the men. He held onto them until the man returned with the rifle and accessories. Craig checked out the rifle quickly. The men knew good black powder arms. This was one.

Craig handed over his trade goods to the first man and took the rifle and accessories from the second. “Unless someone has another trade in mind, I guess I’ll be off,” Craig said. He gave Dirk a frequency and added, “You can contact my people on that frequency if you want to set up something permanent, retreat to retreat.”

Craig climbed back up on Clyde, balanced the rifle on the pommel of the saddle and slowly rode off, just a bit tense. There was still the possibility they could shoot him in the back. But it didn’t happen and Craig breathed a sigh of relief when he went around a bend in the road and was out of their direct line of sight.

After making his way back to where the horses were hobbled, Craig got them ready to move and headed back out, still angling southwest, parallel to I-44.

But he didn’t stay on that route for more than a couple of days. He thought about the salt that had been mentioned. The Retreat had laid in a large supply before the war, but there were a lot of uses for it. Their stock, while not critical, was getting to the point where they had to start taking measures to conserve what they had and find a source for more.

If he was remembering one of the history lessons his mother had taught him correctly, salt had once been produced in central Arkansas, near Little Rock. He headed south with that goal in mind.

Traveling slowly, again to allow plenty of time for the horses to graze, stopping occasionally to trade what he could for fresh food. He was getting plenty of game, but craved salads and vegetables. And fruit. He missed the fruits the Retreat produced in quantity.

Those fruits would probably one of the trade items the Retreat used to get the things they needed and wanted, along with Craig’s steady production of quality black powder. Without the raiders to contend with, assuming another group didn’t form, the Retreat should be able to triple their production of just about everything.

Especially the biodiesel. They still had plenty of the chemicals to convert plant oils to biodiesel, but planting and harvesting the oil crops had been severely limited by the risks from raiders. The major oil crops were grown on property some distance from the Retreat.

Even with the usage to make the trips for trading, there should be a significant amount for trading. Though, with the possibility of a refinery coming back on line in Texas, they might have to concentrate on trading the biodiesel to the north.

Craig was somewhat surprised at the positive reaction to the idea of regular trading routes. He came to wonder if it wasn’t as much to have outside human contact, rather than just the radio contact through the network of Amateur Radio Operators that became the major source of news for the surviving population of the world.

But every community seemed to have some special resource of one kind or another that other people could use. That was reason enough for the trading to progress as far as Craig was concerned.

Craig found that the Sullivan area wasn’t the only one that still had trouble with raiders long after the war. There were many retreats in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas that had weathered the war and aftermath. Nearly every one of them kept regular armed guards around to protect their compounds, fields, and workers from attacks by raiders. Most of it was small scale and manageable.

But there was a large group of raiders based somewhere south of Harrison Arkansas. At least according to the reports Craig was hearing. And apparently they were as vicious, or more so, than the group that had been harassing the Retreat for so long.

“I just may take a look at that situation,” Craig muttered as he headed south again after having spent a few days talking to people from several retreats along the upper reaches of Bull Shoals Lake.

It was no longer a ‘maybe’ idea after Craig ran across the remains of a family that, from all the remaining evidence, was in the process of relocating from somewhere north, to somewhere south of the point he found them. What was left of them.

The three adults and three children had been butchered. Literally. Their remains had been ravaged by animals, Craig could tell. He’d seen it before. But there were signs that a knife had been used on the bodies. And there weren’t enough bones left. Only torsos and heads. The arms, legs, and pelvises were missing. From all six bodies. No animals would have taken the same body parts. Craig got sick and threw up at the side of the road at the realization that the family had been attacked by cannibals.

Craig had discounted the whispered allusions to cannibalism he’d heard at a couple of the retreats he stopped at recently. He was a believer now. Craig took the time to bury what was left of the bodies, but headed straight for Harrison as soon as he was done with the grisly task.

He made himself slow down. The cannibals had left ample evidence of their route south. He didn’t want to be too hard on the horses. It wasn’t right. He’d catch up to the raiders eventually. And he needed to be careful of an ambush. There was no way he wasn’t going to see justice done. That meant he had to stay alive to see it happen.

As Craig got to Harrison and continued south he came to the realization that there were some people not necessarily in the gang that benefited from its activities in some way. Rather than outrage at their activities there were a few people that were more than a little evasive when the subject came up. He heard the phrase ‘people gotta live’ several times.

If there were family members of some of the gang feeding information to them Craig was probably on their radar by now. He pushed on, avoiding further contact, glad he always cached his goods and hid all the horses but the one he was riding at the time when he went into a town, or up to a property away from the towns. He was pretty sure no one knew exactly what he had.

Craig swung wide and circled the area south of Harrison, looking for where the raiders might be holed up. When he had no luck after circling the town twice, it suddenly dawned on him that this particular gang might actually be based in one of the small towns in the area. That was going to make it much harder.

He decided to rest the horses for a few days, so they would be up to a long run if things went bad in town. When he was ready Craig saddled up Clyde, and after considering it several times, left the M14E2 cached and took only the Cowboy weapons, Glock, PPK, and Calico in with him when he visited the first town.

He would stay in town for a few hours, do a trade or two if he could, asking a few questions, and then go back to move his camp. He entered several towns and actually made some good trades and contacts. He found out where he could get salt, some distance further south, but north of Little Rock.

Every town was different now, these years after the war. But as soon as he entered the fifth small town in the area, he felt more than the usual cautiousness of life after the war. He’d run into a few evasive people in the area, but he was immediately made very unwelcome.

One man sitting outside a small diner that was apparently open watched Craig as he rode down the street, talking to anyone that would talk to him. Craig saw the man watching him and rode up and stopped. He didn’t get off Clyde, but sat there a moment, looking at the man. The man had the chair leaned back on two legs, and had a AR-15 leaning up against the wall beside it. There was a pistol in his waistband.

“What’cha looking at, Cowboy?” the man said. He was picking his teeth.

He’d had a plan, of sorts, to try to get some idea of who might have knowledge of any of the members of the gang, but Craig suddenly decided on a different way to handle the situation.

“Looking at you. I need someone to spread the word for me. I thought you might do it for… say… a half pint of whiskey.”

“Do I look like a town crier, you dipstick?” The chair thunked down and the man stood up. “But let’s hear a little more about that whiskey. You got some to trade?”

Moving slowly, Craig reached into the inside pocket of the Drover’s coat and pulled out the sample bottle of alcohol he’d taken to carrying to break the ice when he went into a town. “Sure do. Still need that someone to spread the word for me.”

Just as slowly as Craig had moved, the man casually leaned over and picked up the AR-15, not pointing it at Craig, but positioning it were he could in a moment. “I told you that I’m not your town crier. Just hand over that bottle.”

“You mentioned trading…” Craig replied, more calm than he thought possible.

“Yeah. Your life for that bottle.”

“Sure,” Craig said, and tossed the bottle directly toward the man’s face. The man dropped the rifle to catch the bottle with both hands before it could hit him in the face.

The man started cursing but fell silent when Craig said, loudly, for those ears he knew were listening from out of sight, “Might want to spread the word anyway. I’m looking to take out all the cannibals in the area.” With that Craig gigged Clyde with the blunt spurs he used, and Clyde was off like a shot. It was a good thing, for several shots rang out after him. Craig heard the sound of one wiz past his ear, much too close for comfort, but none of the rounds hit him or Clyde.

Craig left the road as soon as he cleared the edge of town and entered the woods. He pulled up short and dismounted, quickly tying up Clyde and running back to the edge of the road, swinging the Calico out from under the coat. Sure enough, two vehicles came roaring out of town. Not willing to take a chance on killing an innocent, Craig showed himself.

The drivers of both vehicles slammed on their brakes, and the passenger in one of them fired a shot at Craig. Sure now he wasn’t firing on innocents, Craig cut loose with the Calico, riddling both vehicles with the .45 ACP rounds. The men in the vehicles didn’t get off another shot.

Craig wasn’t sure if he’d killed them all, but he emptied the 85-round magazine. He turned and ran back into the woods, changing magazines as he went, careful to make sure the empty went well into the pocket of the Drover’s coat. He couldn’t afford to lose even one of them. There would be no replacements.

Climbing back aboard Clyde, he took off in the opposite direction from his camp. He had to be careful of his time, since he wouldn’t let the other horses stay hobbled more than a few hours, but he was careful to take a roundabout route back to the camp.

He roamed the area around the town the next several days, moving his camp at least every two days. He hoped to catch some of the gang of raiders he was now sure were using the small town as their home base out looking for him.

Either he missed them, or the gang leader had decided to let Craig’s attack go as a one time thing, despite what Craig had said. Since they wouldn’t come to him, at least at the moment, Craig decided to go after them again. There was just no good scouting spot he could use to watch the town from some distance using his binoculars. He would have to go into the town again.

This time Craig went in under cover of darkness, leaving Clyde well back in the woods surrounding the town. He went looking for activity. Hard working people scratching out a living would not be up, wasting fuel, late at night. They’d be in their beds, trying to get enough sleep to carry on another day.

It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. A house lit up like Christmas, with lots of noise coming from it. Taking one cautious step at a time, Craig scouted around the entire neighborhood, finally making a circle around the house. There were no signs of sentries.

About ready to make his move anyway, the sound of breaking glass and a woman’s scream spurred Craig into action. The Calico held in his right hand, Craig used his left to try the front door knob. It wasn’t locked. Pausing to take a deep breath and let it out slowly, as another scream cut through the loud cursing going on inside the room, Craig opened the door and stepped inside.

He took the scene in quickly, noting the three women in various stages of dress and the eight men that were in for the shock of their lives. Craig fired first at the one holding one of the women, in the act of slapping her. He died without knowing what was happening.

The other seven men either went for guns, or tried to get away. The eighty-five rounds in the first drum of the Calico were more than enough to take down five of the men, those standing and going for guns first, and two that tried to scramble for a window to leap through.

The other two men had dropped to the floor, hands over their heads and were crying and begging for mercy. Before Craig could react one of the women grabbed the pistol that one of the gang members had managed to get out but not shoot, and fired it point blank into one of the men’s head and then into the head of the other.

The three women then huddled together, staring at Craig in disbelief. Craig didn’t take time to do anything but say, “Spread the word. I’m after the cannibals,” and then he was back out the front door, fading into the darkness as several people came running toward the house.

After swapping magazines in the Calico, Craig stopped in the even deeper shadows of darkness of a huge tree two houses down from the one he’d attacked. He raised the Calico to his shoulder and fired half a dozen three round bursts into men he saw carrying firearms. Even though the Calico was suppressed, Craig didn’t press his luck. He headed for the edge of town and Clyde while pandemonium still reigned.

Several shots rang out suddenly and Craig hoped they were at shadows and not innocents coming out of their houses to see what was happening. He made it back to his camp in a blowing snowstorm that had been building all day.

The next day Craig decided to call it quits for the winter. It would be far too easy for someone to track him down by his tracks in the snow. Craig thought about staying and just going into the town for more attacks when it was threatening snow, so new snow would cover his tracks but decided the option was too risky.

It was time for him to find winter quarters. And he knew just the place. Craig saddled up and packed the horses and left the area, headed north into the snow that continued to fall slowly. His destination was the Mark Reed farm right on the border with Missouri. The man had offered Craig a full time job when he’d stopped to do a little trading, having heard that Mark was one of the good ones in the area.

Craig declined, other things on his mind, but the offer had been left open. Now he decided to take the man up on it, if Mark was still willing.

A week later and Craig was riding into the farm, first having scouted it for possible changes in ownership. One never knew in this day and age who might be overrun by the raiders. Mark was more than happy to have Craig winter over with his family and two farm hands. As a matter of fact, he put Craig to work the very next day cutting wood for the winter. The job had taken second fiddle to the task of getting the crops harvested before the snow flew. As it was, Mark, his son Josh, and the hands were busy getting the last few acres of wheat combined in the snow while Craig cut wood.

With the last of the wheat in the storage bins, the others began helping Craig with the wood cutting. When Mark decided they had enough for even a longer than the new usual length winter, he put everyone to work butchering and preserving that year’s crop of animals.

Finally, with hundreds of pounds of meat canned, dried, smoked, or salted, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and settled in for the winter. Other than staying out of the clutches of Mark’s sister-in-law Ruth Ann, who was staying with the family, Craig spent most of his time in the bunkhouse with the hands, rotating the work of caring for the animal in the barns with them.

He did spend some time with Josh, who had a bad leg from a fall from the barn while putting up hay. The young man had taken up leatherwork again while laid up, recovering from the fall.

Josh told Craig, as Craig watched him in the barn working on a hide, “I did the leather kits when I was a kid. Always liked it. The doc said my leg is going to give me problems the rest of my life, so I decided to pick up the leatherworking as a second career, for when I can’t do the farm work. I just wish I could get some more hides. As things wear out, there is going to be a good market for quality leather goods.”

“We just might be able to work a deal,” Craig said. “There is no one close to us that can do leatherwork. At least, not quality work. We haven’t had any problem preserving hides when we butchered, but don’t have a market for them. I’m sure the Retreat would be willing to trade you hides for finished goods. I know I personally will.”

“Really?” Josh asked, intrigued with the idea.

Craig nodded. “Any chance you know a saddle maker? Our herd of horses is outgrowing the supply of saddles from the old days. Oh. And boots. It’s getting hard to find good boots.”

Josh smiled. “I’ll learn. We’ve got one old saddle we don’t use any more. It was a really good one, but it’s really old and worn out. Got left out in the weather for two years by accident.”

“Ouch!” Craig replied.

“Yeah. But I can take it and reverse engineer it and add saddle maker to my list of talents. Same with the boots.” Josh’s eyes suddenly brightened. “I just thought about Crazy Joe Gutterman. He has some experience with leather work and tack. I bet he could and would help me. He needs something to do that’s productive. He’s on the verge of starvation most of the time. I hope he makes it through the winter.”

“If you are sure he would be a help, I’ll do my best to see that he does make it through the winter in shape to start working as soon as I can get some of our hides down here.”

“Really? You’d do that?”

Craig nodded. “I believe in long term investments. He sounds like an asset worth cultivating. How far away does he live?”

“Not too far, actually. His little place is just over the ridge beyond the south forty. If you want, we can take a ride over there when it stops snowing.”

“Absolutely. In the mean time, I have some work I’d like you to do, if you have the leather for the projects.”

“I still have a small supply, plus this hide.”

Craig described the items he wanted made and Josh said there would be no problems. They began working on them, Craig more just watching than helping. When the current snow storm blew through, Craig saddled up Clyde and Mule Ears, and the two went to visit Crazy Joe, taking enough food for one person to make it through the winter, that Craig took as part of his minimal pay for helping on the farm.

Craig wondered if the man would make it through the winter, even with the food. He’d never seen anyone so bone showing skinny, except in the pictures from World War II of the German Death Camps he’d learned about in home schooling.

Even as bad off as he was, it took some long, persuasive talking on Craig’s and Josh’s parts to get Joe to accept the food before doing any work, which he was more than willing to do. But finally he accepted and Craig and Josh went back to the farm.

That winter Josh made every one of the items Craig had wanted, plus a couple that Josh said he could make that hadn’t occurred to Craig to ask for.

The first item was a leather holster for the tomahawk, so it could ride alongside the Laredo and Whippet. A much better holster for the Whippet was next. While Josh was working, and Craig watching, Josh asked Craig, “Why do you carry the old fashioned stuff?” Josh had seen Craig’s modern weaponry.

Craig turned a bit red. “I don’t know, really. Gives me a certain goofy look that has given me that split second advantage of surprise when I pull the Calico or M14E2 instead of drawing the single action or the Marlin. People just aren’t expecting it.

“And since I can make the black powder to reload the .45 Colt and .45-70 I use them to hunt with mostly, to save the cartridges that are smokeless powder only. I’ve got that vierling, that I love to use, that I told you about, back at the Retreat.

But I’m kind of hanging onto it and the ammunition for more peaceful days where I can hunt at leisure without needing to worry about getting ambushed. Same thing with the .32 flintlock squirrel gun and the 10-gauge flintlock fowling piece when I run out of primers.

“You really think we’ll ever have those days again? Peaceful where you don’t have to worry about your back all the time?”

Josh saw the glint in Craig’s eye when Craig said, “If I have anything to do with the matter, we will.” Josh believed him.

Another item Josh made for Craig was a shoulder holster assembly for the Calico. It allowed the gun to hang under Craig’s left arm, with the stock collapsed, for easier access than Craig’s hanging down his back on a string. The harness carried a spare helical magazine under his right arm.

Craig had Josh make several fancy tool worked leather slings for the fancy guns, like the vierling. Also a belt slide ammunition carrier for it, to hold extra 12-gauge, .30-’06, and .22 Hornet rounds.

With pigskin from the previous year’s butchering, Josh made Craig another set of gauntlets and two pairs of work gloves. The family kept all the skins of the game they took, so Josh was able to make two pairs of warm rabbit fur lined gloves for Craig.

As the winter wore on, Josh, with some help from Crazy Joe, made Craig two sets of boots. One pair was shotgun style boots with cavalry toes. The other pair was lined with sheepskin Josh got from a neighboring farm, with Craig doing a trade for the skins.

Since Craig did almost as much walking as he did riding at times, the boots were soled with used tire tread. Even though it wasn’t the best for riding, since Craig’s saddles both had tapaderos to keep the rider’s feet from going too far through the stirrup, he opted for the better traction when afoot.

One day when Craig was in the bunkhouse, carefully mending some of his clothing Josh came in to get him and saw what he was doing. When Craig looked up he noticed Josh’s face turn slightly pink when he spoke. “You know, Craig, I know someone that does repairs and even makes new clothes from fabric she makes herself.”

“Really?” Craig asked, amused at Josh’s sudden shyness.

“Yes. Her family does lots of stuff the old ways. Lola told me they got to the museum first and got a bunch of tools and stuff that the pioneers had used to make their own stuff.”

“You kind of like her, I’m thinking,” Craig teased Josh.

“Well… Yeah… But…”

“Perhaps you could take me over and introduce me. I wouldn’t mind getting some new clothes, and setting up a trading partner for the Retreat back home.”

“Sure! Just whenever you say!”

“Let’s wait for the snow to stop for a bit,” Craig said, rather dryly, noting the eagerness in Josh to go visit a woman he obviously had feelings for.

“Oh, well… Yes. Of course.” Josh turned to leave, but remembered what he’d come in for in the first place. “Need you to help Aaron move some hay for the stock.”

“Sure thing,” Craig said, putting away his sewing. He put on his Drover’s coat, with the lining in it, slapped the Rogue River hat on his head and cinched up the chin strap to keep it on his head in the wind. His work gloves were already in a pocket of the coat.

When spring finally arrived, after the hard winter, Mark convinced Craig to stay on a few more weeks to help get the spring ground work done. Craig couldn’t refuse and put off his trip down to find the rest of the cannibals.

But three weeks later, the horses all a bit fat and sassy, about like Craig was feeling, he headed south once again, a little lighter of trade goods, but well clothed, equipped, and supplied.

He felt a pang of quilt when he ran across a small town that had been hit by raiders just the week before. But he probably had helped more people by getting Mark’s farm going to supply food for people than he might have saved. And that was a big if.

The people of the town gave him all the information they had on the group of raiders. One of the things they told him was that though there were fewer of them than in the past, they’d been even more vicious in their attack. It was only whispered that they might be cannibals. Craig was pretty sure it was the group he was looking for.

He got on their track, which wasn’t that difficult, despite the fact that they made rudimentary efforts to conceal it. It lead him straight back to the town he’d been at before. His heart as cold as the winter had been, Craig picked up where he left off the previous fall, sneaking into town in the early evening, looking for the members of the gang.

The first three times it was easy and he managed to kill half a dozen of the gang and wound at least that many more. But he got careless and paid a price. The bullet holes in the Drover’s coat were matched by a pair in his left arm. Fortunately the round had been a small caliber jacketed pistol bullet that missed the bone in his upper arm. He doctored himself up and laid low for several weeks, though he continued to watch the main road into and out of town.

The continued surveillance paid off. A small convoy left the town one day and headed north. He got on Clyde and followed at a distance, on the watch for an ambush. He carried the M14E2 across the saddle horn, at the ready. Fretting a little at leaving his camp for such a long time, though the horses were in a rope corral now and could get to water and graze a little bit, Craig continued to follow until the group stopped early in the afternoon.

Craig waited until their camp was set up. He watched the process carefully. There were no women or children, and every one of the men was heavily armed. Still not willing to just open fire on the camp, Craig set up the M14E3 in the fading light and then hollered to the camp. “I’m here to kill some cannibals. Anyone that isn’t has two minutes to come out with your hands up.”

Pretty sure that no one would come or that the group would wait for two minutes to do anything, Craig took up the slack on the trigger. Sure enough, the words were barely out of his mouth when the gang members started shooting. Only one was firing anywhere close to where Craig was lying prone, one 100-round magazine in the auto-rifle and another sitting ready. He raked the camp with the auto-rifle, using the entire 100-rounds in a series of short bursts.

As he was reloading, the return fire from the camp starting to come close, Craig heard a sound behind him and then a gunshot at close range. Either Craig had missed seeing a guard circling the camp, or the man had managed to locate Craig and circled around behind him. Either way, it was very fortunate that the man was both scared, and a horrible shot to start with. The first round missed Craig, hitting the ground right by his cheek.

Craig rolled away from the M14E2, grabbing the Calico where it lay beside him. On his back, Craig fired a long burst from the Calico up into the man’s center of mass. The guy got off another shot, but it went Craig knew not where. It was only some time later that Craig found the bullet hole in the stock of the M14E2.

The man fell heavily, half on Craig. Craig shoved him off, holstered the Calico, and picked up the rifle. There were survivors in the camp and they knew where he was now. At least approximately, at first.

Craig laid down some covering fire with the remaining rounds in the drum, causing the rest of the gang to take to the ground. He shoulder slung the rifle and took the Calico out again, running in a curved path away from and slightly around the camp.

Deciding not to press his luck any more than he already had, Craig kept going as the night darkness deepened. Taking a circuitous route back to the well hidden Clyde, Craig headed back to his camp. The horses were glad to see him and he spent a bit of time with them as a sort of apology for having been gone so long.

He took up a position outside the camp, and settled down to doze on and off the rest of the night, on the slim possibility that one or more of the gang had followed him back in the dark. Stiff and sore the next morning, Craig took care of the horses, packed up and changed camp locations.

Waiting another day to investigate, Craig finally went back to the site of the ambush. All three vehicles were there, out of commission until some work was done. Craig had intentionally disabled them, but did so with the idea of getting them running again sometime so the town would have them to use.

Besides the vehicles and remains of the camp, there were eight dead bodies, including the one at the edge of the camp clearing that had almost got Craig. The bodies had already been stripped of anything useful, including all the footwear and some of the clothes. The gang members that survived hadn’t bothered to even try to bury the bodies and they had suffered severe depredation by wild animals.

Craig took up his vantage point overlooking the road, doubting if he’d be able to do another attack like he’d done. To his great surprise, a week after the attack, Craig saw someone walking down the middle of the road, carrying a white piece of cloth tied to a broom handle.

Following the man’s progress through the binoculars, Craig kept checking the man’s back trail for possible ambushers. Craig hurriedly shifted position, to get to the edge of the road that was just around a bend in the road.

Craig thought for a moment the guy was going to have a heart attack when Craig softly said, “You looking for me?” Craig was behind a tree, his eyes shifting from the man to the bend in the road.

“If you aren’t alone, you’d better just turn around and go. I won’t kill you under a white flag, but if I’m ambushed, you’ll be the first to go, white flag or not.”

The man didn’t move. “I’m alone. I promise. Can I put my hands down?” He’d lifted them automatically when Craig had spoken.

“Keep them where I can see them. Now what do you want?”

“We want to help you,” said the man. “I’m Walt Gruber. Some of the honest folks in town want the raiders out of our town, but we haven’t been able to do anything but get killed trying. With your help…”

Craig cut him off. “Why should I help? You know they are raiders. Did you know they were cannibals?”

The man turned white. “Rumors! Just rumors!”

“No, they are not. How could you allow them to live among you?”

“It’s just so hard,” the man said, almost whimpering. “They shared some stuff with some of the people of the town… Not everyone wants them to leave. But I do and so do many others. We’ll help you. Just tell me what to do so I can tell the others.”

“Take up arms. Kill them. You obviously know who they are.”

Again the man’s face turned white. “They took our guns.”

“I’m sure,” Craig said, not able to hide his disgust. “I’d bet everything I own that there are plenty more than enough guns in that town to do the job. People just aren’t willing to take the risk.”

Walt didn’t say anything, and Craig was silent for a moment. Then Craig asked, “Do you know when they plan for another raid?”

“I don’t know,” Walt said slowly. “A group left a few days ago, but only a few came back, all shot up. I don’t know when they might chance another try.”

“What about getting them all together in one place, if your people aren’t willing to gang up on them one at a time.”

“Well,” said Walt, “They are mostly staying in just two places now, and only leave in groups of three or more. They’ve begun taking back… Uh… taking food from us.”

“I see,” Craig said, his voice cold. “Tell me which houses.”

Walt gave Craig two street addresses. “Go home and keep your mouth shut,” Craig told him.

“When are you going to come in and do it?” Walt asked, his eyes shifting more than Craig thought normal under the circumstances.

“Tell everyone you don’t want killed to be off the streets the night of day after tomorrow.”

“Ok,” the man said. He turned and hurried away without another word, holding the flag at his side.

“Quisling!” Craig muttered under his breath. He didn’t trust Walt Gruber one whit. Craig was getting set up for an ambush, and he knew it. But suddenly he smiled a small smile. Just perhaps the ambushers could be beat at their own game.

Craig waited with mounting tension for the night to come two day’s later. The task was going to be very risky, so he turned the horses loose. They would stay right close to where he left them if a bear or cougar didn’t spook them. At least for a while.

He worked his way to the edge of town just before dark, so he could get one good look at the route he would take to get to the two houses. The streets were silent and empty. When full dark came, Craig began working his way, not to the two houses named, but others. The ones next to each of the designated houses.

Using all the stealth tactics he’d learned hunting, Craig approached the first house. Nothing. He tried the house on the other side of the designated house. Sure enough, there was a sentry standing on the back porch, trying to stay concealed, watching the house Craig was supposed to enter.

Moving back just as quietly as he had approached, he checked the houses flanking the other house Walt had told him members of the gang would be in. Like the first one, the gang wasn’t in the house stated, they were in one flanking it, with a sentry watching for Craig to try to enter it.

Making two assumptions he hoped were true, Craig prepared the two black powder bombs he’d made up the previous day. The first he placed under the front porch of the house with the gang members in it just waiting for the sentry to alert them to Craig’s presence. Being as quiet as possible, Craig put the second on the side of the house away from the target house.

He lit the homemade fuse of the second bomb, and then hurried back to light the fuse of the first bomb. Moving carefully, but in something of a hurry, Craig headed toward the other set of houses. Stopping at the corner of the street where the other houses were, Craig took the M14E2 off his shoulder, opened the bipod, and went prone with it, the auto-rifle aimed down the street toward the other houses.

A few seconds later the two black powder bombs went off within seconds of one another. A few seconds after that, men burst out of the house down the street and came running toward the site of the explosion. It was like shooting ducks, and it made Craig a little ill, but he mowed down the group of gang members running toward him, catching them all with a long burst. Some bullets went through two or more of the men before they stopped, the men were so close together.

Getting up and carrying the M14E2 at the ready, Craig ran back to the bombed house. There was little left of the house that wasn’t knocked down and burning. Not wanting to waste the ammunition, Craig watched from the shadows for a bit before deciding everyone in it was either dead or long gone.

People started coming out of other houses and Craig turned the rifle toward them, but held his fire. “I’ve done what you should have done. I don’t know if I killed all the cannibal gang, but I know you know who they are. It’s up to you what you do to any survivors. And be aware that Walt Gruber sent me in here into an ambush.”

Craig started to lift the M14E2 up to his shoulder, but someone beat him to it. Someone in the crowd, with a rifle, fired three times and the plump body of Gruber fell, sliding to an ignominious stop.

The same man stepped out of the group, making sure his rifle wasn’t pointed anywhere near Craig. “We’ll take care of it now. What’s your name, Cowboy?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Craig said. “The town is now yours. Make what you want of it. I want no part of a place that would allow what’s been going on here to happen.”

“Listen, you…” said another person, but Craig just turned and began to walk away, not in the least interested in hearing what she had to say.

Craig broke camp the next day and headed south. It took him a little while to get to the area where people were still extracting salt from the hot springs that were common in the area. As always, he scouted out the area before making human contact. He found a relatively peaceful area, with quite a bit of local trade going on. It was peaceful enough and with enough commerce going on that Craig was able to take a rental room for a few days while the horses were boarded and cared for.

It took those few days to convince the management of the most likely of the several salt operations to set up a trade agreement between them and the Retreat, with the Retreat not only getting salt for its own use, but enough to act as a distributor for salt.

Their local Amateur Radio operator contacted the Retreat and Craig got the guy with the salt operation talking to Quentin, to set up the deal, with Craig getting a life time supply of salt and a small piece of the action for working as the Retreat’s expediter on the deal.

With two of his primary objectives taken care of, Craig wondered what to do next. He didn’t wonder long. He really needed a reliable long term supply of high grade sulfur for his black powder operation. There were plenty of willow trees around Sullivan and he planted as many as he cut, getting a grove of them started for coppicing, to insure the supply of charcoal he needed.

There was plenty of nitrate for the operation in the many caves around Sullivan. Bat guano converted into excellent quality nitrates. Only the sulfur was starting to become a problem. A little went a long way in making the black powder, and his Mother had early on cornered the market for sulfur available through local salvage operations.

So, with sulfur sources on his mind, Craig headed south again, toward the Gulf Coast. They extracted sulfur as a side product from several operations there. “Might just get myself a lobster to eat, too,” Craig said to himself. He’d heard his Mother talk about some of the meals that had been available before the war. Lobster had been her favorite.

Craig became accustomed to the looks he got with his horses, Drover’s coat or duster, and the old weapons that they saw him wearing and carrying in the saddle scabbards. Along with the looks came the obvious ‘Hey, Cowboy’ greeting. But he kept it up. It was role camouflage that continued to give him an edge in reacting to dangerous situations. Besides, it was fun. Craig fully understood the appeal of Cowboy Action Shooting before the war.

It took a couple of months to get to the coast. Craig stopped often, to allow the horses to get plenty of rest, and so he could look around areas that might provide trade opportunities in the future. He continued to do a bit of trading here and there, as often as not moving items he’d traded for earlier. It was just instinct with him to trade.

He used a little of the gold and silver he’d acquired. It was becoming fairly commonplace the further south he went. When he reached the Louisiana Gulf Coast, between the short section west of New Orleans, that had been nuked, and the area far west, which had taken a lot of fallout from Houston, much of the trade was being handled with an agreed upon standard for an ounce of gold. Craig got his lobster, and found more sulfur than he could ever use.

He even found someone to deliver a few tons of it to the Retreat outside of Sullivan. It would go by boat up the Mississippi River, and then overland to Sullivan. Craig penned a letter telling Sally to pay the man the remaining half of the gold that Craig would owe him. The man had wanted the full amount up front, but Craig wasn’t a fool. He paid him half.

His main business done, Craig decided to look around a bit and see what else he could turn up. It suddenly struck him that Louisiana was also known for oil production and sugar production. “You idiot!” Craig said to himself. “You should have been thinking of these all the time, beside just the sulfur and getting some fresh seafood.

Like Texas, some Louisianans had got one of the smaller refineries on the coast working and was producing diesel, kerosene, and small amounts of gasoline. Craig got Quentin involved and was able to set up a regular delivery of all three fuels for distribution in the Midwest. Like the sulfur, the fuels would go up the Mississippi River and then overland.

Three weeks later, Craig had an almost identical trade set up to provide sugar for the area. Both the deals required payment in gold. The Retreat could trade the goods for what they wanted, but both producers wanted gold in payment. A private conversation with Quentin and Craig convinced him it was doable. More and more people were using precious metal coins to conduct business. The more that went into circulation, the more people were willing to use them.

Craig thought about heading east when his business on the Gulf was done, but the massive destruction of the nuclear attacks east of the Mississippi would make it problematical to make a trip without having to take extreme measures to avoid hotspots. Besides, there was a rumor that a rough gang was operating on the Texas Oklahoma border, doing a lot of horse and cattle rustling. “I ought to fit right in there,” Craig mused, swinging his leg up and over Clyde, in preparation of leaving.

With the destination in mind, Craig drifted west and slightly north, taking his time, stopping regularly to trade for fresh food for him, and grain for the horses, primarily trading his considerable capability as a skill laborer in return. He did a few trades, picking up a couple of extra horses once, trading them away two weeks later, for items of much more value to him than what he’d given for the horses.

One could never have too many open pollinated seeds. He got enough to load the pack horses to their maximum capacity until he traded off a few of the heavier items in the panniers. So it took him quite a bit longer on the trip to Wichita Falls than initially planned. He took it real easy on the horses until he traded off the six cured hams and several pounds of salt he’d picked up in other trades in Arkansas.

He began to see quite a few other men outfitted much as he was outwardly, when he got to cattle country. He talked to a few of the buckaroos. They were slow to open up, thinking he might be part of the gang that was operating as far south as they were.

But Craig was able to convince them that he was actually on the look out for them himself. “You aiming to do something about them, Cowboy?”

“I own horses. Of course I’m going to do something about rustlers,” Craig would answer when asked the question or one of its variants. He was offered jobs several times, but turned them all down, but again was able to set up a couple of trade agreements for small numbers of additional cattle for the Retreat. Some for breeding to increase the genetic diversity of the herds, with more for butchering and meat to be trade about the area, which the Retreat would be able to expand with the additional cattle available.

Craig spent two months reconnoitering around Wichita Falls. Making friends. And, he guessed, making a few enemies. Though he thought he was being careful, he was shot at from a distance when out scouting. “Must be getting close,” he muttered, looking at the two holes in the arm of the duster a few hours later after he’d made it back to the ranch where he was staying.

He’d found the place through the grapevine. In return for a bit of hard money, Craig was permitted to use the ranch as his home base, where he could keep the animals safe, and he could have a safe spot to rest and recuperate after the long hours out looking for the rustlers.

It was only after two weeks of suddenly finding less and less information about the rustlers that Craig came to the conclusion that he need not look further than the ranch that he was on for the rustlers. He’d been bamboozled for the last three weeks.

Craig wondered why they hadn’t just killed him and disposed of the body. They could have easily gotten rid of the horses. People were more than willing to buy good horseflesh, without asking too many questions. That’s why the rustling was so effective. There had to be a reason they were keeping him alive.

He woke up in the middle of the night, that night after he decided he would be leaving the next day. “They want a trade deal for stolen stock! I can’t believe it!” Craig came up with his plan during the rest of the night, getting just a few hours sleep before he got up, ready to implement it, still not sure why they hadn’t broached the subject.

Feigning mild illness, Craig stayed around the ranch for three days running. Sure enough, he saw people come and go that he could see no real reason to be there. Frank Holloway, the owner of the ranch, asked him up to the ranch house to talk to him the fourth day after the epiphany.

“How you doing? Didn’t know you were sick until this morning.”

“Just a touch of the flu,” Craig replied, accepting the cup of real coffee Frank’s wife served them. “Thank you,” he said, looking up at Katherine and smiling. She smiled back.

It was a complication Craig had to figure out how to deal with. This wasn’t the relatively simple situation with the cannibals. The whole group had been bad. They used people, but had no tight relationships. Craig had no way of knowing if Katherine knew of the rustling or not.

“Well,” Frank said, having no inkling of Craig’s thoughts, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you. I hear you have a deal with a couple of ranches down south to supply beef back to Missouri and Arkansas.”

“Sure have. Only a few head a year, but it will help. People are hungry for beef. Most of what is being produced by local ranchers is consumed by them or people in their immediate area. Not much left for, if I may use the term, consumers.”

“You know, I think I’d like to be part of that. How much beef do you think you could move? And what about horses?”

“Kinda hate to open up competition to my own horse breeding work, but yeah. There is more of a market than I and the other local breeders can fill. As to the beef, I think the area would support as many as twenty-five head a month, if the price was right.”

“Really?” Frank looked to be thinking about it. “I think I could supply that, without any problems.”

“Wouldn’t you have to increase your production? And what about rustlers. Moving cattle across country would make them really vulnerable.”

Frank smiled a smile that was rather secretive looking to Craig. “Well, with your help, I think I can guarantee delivery.”

Going along with the charade, Craig said, “Well, I’m certainly trying to do what I can, but I’m not having much success.”

“I’m not even sure why you are looking in to it,” Frank said. “What business of it is yours, anyway?”

Craig shrugged. “Kind of a hobby with me. Life is hard enough without predators like rustlers making it harder. I’ve got friends to help protect. I’d rather go out looking for the troubles than wait for them to come to me and mine.”

“I guess I can understand that. But I haven’t had much trouble with the rustlers. Let me be your supplier and I think we can take care of business.”

“It’s tempting. Of course, I’d have to clear it through the Retreat Administrator, and let the council decide if the price is right or not. Be nice to get a herd started that way before winter. The other ranches can’t do anything until next spring.”

“I’ve got some cattle up on the high range. I could have them brought down and start a drive right away. Need to get paid in gold, though. Is that doable?”

Frank was greedy, and it showed. Craig had dropped a baited hook and Frank had snapped it right up. Not wanting to make himself an immediate target of opportunity, Craig didn’t mention that he had more than enough gold with him to buy just about any size herd of cattle was available. Instead, he said, “It would have to be on trust. You’d get paid when you got there.”

Frank didn’t seem to like it, but he was still tempted. Suddenly he said, “You make the deal with your people and I’ll get my men rounding up the cattle. Up in the high country.”

“You have a communications set here?”

“Of course.” Frank took Craig to what would pass as a study in the old days and pointed out the Kenwood HF Amateur Radio set.

“I’ll get ahold of Quentin just as soon as I can,” Craig said. “How much for how many head?”

Frank told him and Craig managed not to show his surprise. Frank was more than greedy.

Frank left the room, a big grin on his face when Craig nodded and said, “Sounds okay. I’ll get right on it.”

Craig fiddled with the radio and actually was able to make contact with the Retreat. At least for a moment or two before the signal faded out. Craig went back out to the living room and waited for Frank. He didn’t have to wait long.

Still smiling, Frank came back in and asked, “What did they say?”

Craig gave Frank a thumbs up.

“We’re going up right now to bring down the herd. Should be back in a couple of days,” Frank replied, the smile even wider than before.

“I’ll get saddled up and go with you,” Craig said, getting the immediate reaction he was expecting.

Frank’s smile was gone in an instant and he was hurriedly making excuses for Craig to stay on the ranch. “No… Uh… Man, you are still sick. Shouldn’t be out and about right now. Besides,” Frank continued, the thought suddenly coming to him, “You’ll be going to Missouri with us won’t you? So you’ll need to rest up.”

It wasn’t really a question. Frank was used to giving orders and have his men jump to obey them. It was more than a bit difficult playing the upstanding citizen. Craig played right along, despite the flash of anger at Frank’s authoritarian attitude.

“Perhaps you’re right,” Craig said, hesitating a convincing amount of time.

“Okay, then. I need to get ready to go with the men. I’ll see you in no more than three days.”

“Okay Frank. I’ll go back to the bunkhouse and get some rest. You’re right about me needing to conserve my energy.”

Craig went to the bunkhouse and began getting ready. As soon as Frank and all of his men left, Craig saddled up and loaded up the pack horses. He was gone less than an hour after Frank and his men.

He made his way to the nearest ranch and got permission to stable the horses for a couple of days. “Boy, these guys like their gold,” he said to himself, when the rancher indicated that keeping the horses for Craig wouldn’t be a problem. For a bit of gold. Craig forked over the coin and then climbed back on Clyde and went hunting Frank and his rustling gang.

Craig still had a touch of doubt about Frank being the rustler, but it was soon dispelled when the tracks of Frank and his men turned from the route to the high country and turned toward another ranch.

They were moving quickly and with the later start that Craig had, there was no way Craig could get ahead of them to warn the ranch that a raid was going to happen. Besides, Craig couldn’t be sure which ranch would be hit until the gang made their move.

With the timetable Frank had given Craig, it seemed that it was a ranch some distance away. Craig was sure of it when the men stopped and set up camp near a river. Craig did the same, staying with a dry camp and no fire to avoid detection. He was up before dawn the next morning and ready to follow Frank and his men after they breakfasted, saddled up, and hit the trail again.

Frank had called the timing pretty close. The gang hit the small ranch just before noon, going in shooting. Craig saw the ranch hands diving for cover and hoped none of them were hit. In order to reduce the chance for injuries to the rancher, and his hands and family, Craig let Frank and the gang get the herd started and then dropped in behind them.

Craig had almost brought the M14E2, but had been doubtful it would be reasonable for use in the endeavor. It wouldn’t have been. Neither was the Calico. What Craig was doing called for close up handgun use to avoid injuring any of the cattle. Firing a rifle from atop a running horse at any range but pointblank was just asking for a miss. Besides, there was no point in stopping the rustlers if all the rancher’s cattle were dead.

With a slight flick of the reigns Craig had Clyde up to speed. The big Barb gained on the rustlers. The herd, though running, was no match for Clyde. Craig didn’t just start shooting as he came up on the men. One of them was slightly behind the others and he rode up beside him, Craig’s hand going to the smooth wood of the Ruger .45 Colt Revolver in the right hand pommel holster.

“Stop!” Craig yelled over to the man. It wasn’t one of Frank’s hands that Craig had met. And the man was none too smart. He pulled a gun from his waistband and tried to shoot Craig. But Craig was quicker. He pulled the trigger of the Ruger and down went the rustler, his horse angling off and slowing down without the rider to urge him on.

The first two shots were enough to speed up the herd slightly and alert the other rustlers that there was someone trying to stop them. In the full light of day a battle royal ensued with the rustlers leaving the herd and heading off to get away from Craig. If they’d stopped and faced him as a group they would have had him. But each one was looking out for himself.

They didn’t start to split up, shooting over their shoulders, the rounds going wild, until Craig had dropped two more of them from close range right behind them.

Frank was still in the lead and he reigned over, breaking away from the three men left in the group. Craig managed to down one more, with what he knew was a lucky shot. He holstered the Ruger and drew the left hand Ruger from its pommel holster, gigging Clyde a bit and turning him to go after Frank.

Craig saw Frank drop the magazine from the pistol he was using and ram another home. He turned and began shooting, but the shots were wild. But even a wild shot could hit something. And that was what happened. Clyde took a round across his left hip. He shied and came to a sliding stop, Craig almost going off over Clyde’s head.

But Craig got Clyde stopped safely, with Frank getting further away. Immediately Craig dropped the Ruger and drew the Marlin 1895. He sighted the rifle on Frank. It took five tries, with Frank getting further away between each one, for Craig to finally get a hit on him. Frank went off the horse head first.

Craig checked the shallow groove in Clyde’s hip and then calmed the horse down enough to get back on after picking up the Ruger he’d dropped. Keeping the rifle at the ready, Craig rode up to Frank. He wasn’t moving. Not trusting him, Craig slid off Clyde the rifle still in his hand and walked up to the body. For that was what it was. A body. Frank was dead. Not from Craig’s rifle shot, not directly, for it had hit him high in the shoulder. But the shot had caused Frank to loose control and when he fell off the horse he broke his neck.

The herd had slowed down and finally stopped, exhausted. Craig circled them up and started drifting them back toward the ranch from which they’d been taken. He saw a couple of the dead rustlers, and at least two of them limping away from the herd’s line of travel. Craig had hit them, but not killed them.

Seeing the dust cloud nearing the herd from the direction of the ranch, Craig made sure to keep his hands in clear view as five men rode up to him, slowing from a gallop to a sliding stop just a few feet from Craig.

Between not making any dangerous movements, and the fact that he’d talked with the rancher while making his early inquires, Craig managed not to get shot as a rustler himself. The men allowed him to explain what had happened.

When he explained what he discovered, one of the men exclaimed, “You just lived right there with those snakes to get evidence! And then chased them down! Man, you are some tough Cowboy, fer sure!”

Craig let the rancher and his fellow ranchers in the area take it from there. He didn’t need to know what happened to the rest of the now identified rustlers, or Frank’s wife. Feeling more than a bit weary, and very lucky not to have been injured or killed, Craig headed for the ranch he’d stabled the horses.

He packed up again and left the area the next day, headed for Wyoming now, wondering about maybe rounding up a few buffalo, if the herds had grown. Just because.

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