Muleskinner Blues
Chapter 7

Copyright© 2022 by Joe J

One of the men with a rifle was to my right and clearly visible, without giving it a thought I swung the shotgun a few inches, thumbed back the rabbit-ear hammers and pulled both triggers at once. At twenty-five yards enough of the double-ought pellets hit my target to send him flying through the air backwards. The loud report of the shotgun spooked the coach’s horses and they leapt forward against their collars and breast straps. The sudden surge of forward movement threw me back against the seat just as I was reaching down to pick up Bob’s scatter gun. That jerky movement probably saved my life as a split second later a bullet splintered the back of driver’s box smack-dab between Bob and me.

I frantically reached down and grabbed the other shotgun cocking the hammers as I pulled it off the floor. I swung the shotgun around so it was pointed in the direction of the man with the pistol. I didn’t worry about the rifleman because I knew it would take him at least twenty seconds to reload the Springfield he carried. By the time I had my head up ready to shoot, we were close enough to the pistol wielder that the horses were in my line of sight. Bob had urged the horse on after their scared initial leap with the intent of running the man down. The man jumped to the side at the last second and we thundered by him, the horses now at full gallop.

I took the opportunity afforded by no one being in front of us to break open my shotgun, shake out the two spent cartridges and stuff two new ones into the breech. Bob was ‘jehu driving’ the devil out of that big top-heavy stagecoach, just keeping it on its wheels. He cut me a quick glance as he pulled back some on the reins to slow for a curve.

“Any suggestions, Jeremiah, because we sure can’t out run them,” Bob stated calmly.

“Try to find us a place where we can hold them off for a while. I’ll try to buy us some time while you look, then we will see how many of them are willing to die for that strong box,” I replied.

Bob grinned evilly and nodded his head in understanding. I turned around and knelt on the seat so I could see behind us. The view was not a pleasant one as six riders were thundering up the road about one hundred yards behind us. I watched them for a few seconds to see if they would stay in a column of twos as they were or if they would spread out. When I saw them staying in a column even when they had room to ride abreast, I reached for my Enfield. I stretched out over the roof of the jouncing coach, plugged a percussion cap into the already loaded rifle, cocked the hammer and waited. There was no way I could acquire a clear sight picture with the coach bouncing and swaying. I did not need to make a difficult shot because my target was the middle horse in the right hand column but I would need to be somewhat steady nonetheless.

“Holler when you start to make a left hand curve, Bob,” I said loudly.

Bob grunted in reply. I tried to relax, breathe normally and look over the top of my sights as I waited.

Bob finally yell, “Here it comes,” about thirty seconds later.

The coach went into the curve and leaned hard to the right. That lean cause the ride to smooth out for a couple of seconds and that was long enough for me to aim and fire. I targeted the middle horse because I hoped if I missed him I might hit one of the others. I did not miss. The big 58 caliber slug tore into the horse’s chest with enough force to turn him slightly sideways before he faltered and flipped end for end. His rider rolled with him, his off foot caught in the stirrup. As a bonus for us, the horse following them collided with the downed horse and tumbled also. The rider of that horse managed to jump clear of the carnage. I disliked the idea of killing the horses. I did it because I disliked the idea of dying in their place, even more.

I had hoped that the entire gang would stop to help their downed comrades. That did not happen. Instead, the last rider in the left column reined in his horse and turned back. The other three simply spread out, and kept coming. I sighed and was reaching for my Spencer when Bob started whoaing on the reins and pressing his foot hard against the brake lever. When I looked at him, he inclined his head at some large boulders that had avalanched down a steep hillside and ended up at rest only a few yards from the road. Some of the rocks were close enough together to provide cover from the front and flanks.

Bob managed to stop the coach near the rocks. He locked the brake lever in place and looped the reins over it before jumping out of the driver’s box. Bob yanked the door of the coach open and hustled our frightened passengers out of the coach and into the rocks. Our passengers were a middle-aged couple and an elderly woman. The man was unarmed but accepted one of the shotguns when Bob thrust it into his hands. Our pursuers stopped when we did. They dismounted and conferred for a few seconds, and then one of them took the horses, led them off the trail and disappeared in a gully. The other two men started climbing the hill where the incline was gentler.

I tried to dissuade them from that idea with a couple of shots from my Spencer. The men were about two hundred and fifty yards away, a distance past the effective range of the short carbine. Still, my shots were close enough to make them dive for cover. While the two men had their heads down, I heaved the strongbox out of the foot well and onto the ground near the rocks Bob was hiding behind. I made sure Bob was covering me, grabbed my Spencer, Enfield and saddlebags then clambered to the ground. I handed my Spencer to Bob as soon as I scrambled behind the large rock he was peeking around. With my back against the rock I ripped open a paper cartridge of powder and poured it down the barrel of my Enfield. Next, I inserted a minie ball in the muzzle and rammed it home. Once I pushed a percussion cap into place I leaned the Enfield against the rock and looked at our frightened passengers.

I tried to reassure them by saying that the Denver Wells Fargo office would send help for us if we did not arrive there on time. All we had to do was hold out for two or three more hours. That was a crock of buttermilk of course, but it seemed to calm them somewhat. I put all three of them watching the hillside so we didn’t get flanked then peeked around the rock on the opposite side from Bob. If one of the robbers showed himself now, I had a 58 caliber surprise for him.

I was nervously watching the area in which the two robbers had taken cover while Bob concentrated on looking for the man who was holding the horses. Suddenly, a horse carrying two riders swept around the hill. Gesturing wildly and pointing in the direction they had come from, the riders did not slow down when they passed by their gang mates. I was about to drop the men’s mount when about a dozen more riders came careening around the curve. The new riders pulled up to a dusty stop when they saw the coach. They were too far away to hail so Bob popped a couple of rounds in the direction of the two ambushers up on the hillside to turn their attention in that direction.

The newly arrived riders turned their attention to the hillside and soon spotted the men on it. I heard one of the men shout some orders and watched as half of the riders dismounted and started peppering the hillside with rifle fire. Their fire was returned by the would be robbers, the posse scattered for cover and an intense gun battle commenced. Bob and I watched, neither of us unhappy to be spectators. As I looked from man to man among our rescuers, I saw a face I recognized.

“Hey Bob, is that Grady Miller over by that reddish boulder?”

Bob squinted and shrugged noncommittally.

“Could be, if it is it will be the first time I have ever been happy to see him.”

My wondering about Miller’s presence out here in the middle of nowhere was cut short when the outlaw who had taken the horses down into the gully made a break for it. He came charging out of the gully at a dead run right in back of the three men who were holding the posse’s horses. He was stretched out over his horse’s neck trying to make himself a smaller target. He cold-bloodedly shot one the men holding the horses in the back as he rode past. Then for good measure he shot one of the horses in the hind end. The wounded horse started crow-hopping around neighing loudly. That spooked the other horses and created the commotion the outlaw had counted on to facilitate his escape. With the bucking and whirling horses between him and the bulk of the posse he looked to have made his get-away.

What the murderer hadn’t counted on was a former Confederate sharpshooter with a deadly accurate Enfield sitting two hundred yards away. I swung my rifle up onto the rock and lined the man up in my sights. I could have dropped his horse easily, but it was about the prettiest pinto pony I had ever seen, so I held my fire and waited. My opportunity came when he rose up from his horse’s neck to look back, no doubt checking for pursuers. That was his official last act on God’s green Earth. My shot took him cleanly in the center of his upper chest. I figured he was on his way to hell before he hit the ground.

I dropped back down behind the rock and instinctively started reloading. In fewer than fifteen seconds, I was again using the rock for a rifle rest as I scanned the hillside for another target. I am ashamed to admit that for a minute or two my humanity disappeared as I coldly looked for someone else to kill. I had acquired my next target and started pulling back the hammer when Bob put his hand on my shoulder.

“Back down, Jeremiah, they are trying to surrender,” he said softly.

I blinked my eyes a couple of times and laid my rifle down on top of the rock.

“Sorry,” I mumbled as I sat down and calmed myself.

“You have nothing to be sorry for, son. You saved all of our lives,” said our male passenger as he handed me a small silver flask.

I didn’t comment on that, it was not all that true anyway, but I did take a drink of his excellent whiskey. He passed the flask to Bob next. I thought Bob showed admirable restraint when he only took a sip. I looked at him funny as he handed the flask back. He shrugged and squared his shoulders. “It is not politic to be drinking on duty when your boss is sure to be questioning you.”

Well Mister Miller did have a couple of questions for us, but more important he had a passel of answers. He told us that he and his men had been following us at a distance since we left Fort Collins. The heavy strongbox was nothing but bait to draw a robbery attempt. To avoid detection by anyone tracking us he had stayed about two miles back and counted on his two Crow Indian trackers to keep him oriented. I found it hard to believe that one of the trackers had us in sight every step of the way because we had not seen a glimpse of them. Anyway, when I fired the first shotgun blast, Miller and his posse had raced to save us. Miller said he had not counted on us taking independent action as we had and that was why it had taken him so long to catch us. Bob hooted at that statement and in a truly impressive barrage of foul language, told Mister Miller exactly what he thought about being used as bait.

 
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