Ride The High Lonesome

By: Rosanne Bittner

One


August 1869

Kate ducked into the tall grass as soon as she heard men’s voices. She slowly crawled to get close enough to listen, then parted the dense, yellow blades to see five rough-looking men gathered around a lonely, half-dead cottonwood tree. One of the men raised up in his stirrups and flung a rope over the biggest branch left on the leafless tree, while another, guarded at rifle point, sat astride his horse with his hands tied behind his back.

Dear God, are they going to hang that man?

In the distance, about twenty head of cattle and a pack horse grazed, unconcerned about the terrible event about to take place. All five men shouted at each other, but Kate could distinguish only bits and pieces of their conversation.

“Hang…son of a bitch!”

The man whose hands were tied was angrily and desperately yelling back at them. “I didn’t steal—”

“Makes no difference—”

“Murdering bastards!”

If she were a man, with a weapon and a horse, Kate could at least ride down to the site to see what was going on and maybe talk the men out of the hanging, but whether what was happening below was lawful or lawless, what could a thirty-two-year-old woman, with nothing more than the clothes on her back, do against five men? She didn’t even dare show herself. This was pure outlaw country. There wasn’t a man around who could be trusted to help and not harm.

Was the poor soul about to be hanged innocent or guilty? And did it really matter in this lost world of lawlessness? All around them, massive and endless mesas stood guard over a valley that stretched so far into the distance that she couldn’t even see the end of it. It would probably take a week of nonstop riding to escape this place. How many weeks would it take to flee on foot—her only way out?

She’d never seen such big country, such endless horizons, nor had she ever felt so far removed from civilization…so dreadfully and completely alone. She’d read somewhere that canyons and strange rock formations like this were formed by water cutting a path through the land—probably a million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. She felt caught up in that past. Did civilization still exist beyond this vast chain of buttes and mesas?

She watched with a sinking heart as one of the men led the man with his hands tied under the noose and placed the rope around his neck. Kate put her head down, unable to look. Strangely, the worst part of this was wondering how close she might be to food and water, to men who might be able to help her find her way out of this god-forsaken country and back to safety. But she’d rather die from thirst and hunger than to suffer the things four desperate, lonely men might decide to do with her if she showed herself. They might even kill her for witnessing what they were about to do.

She heard more shouts and strained to hear the doomed man swear his innocence.

“I paid for those cattle!”

“Thief!”

“Rustler!”

“You’re the outlaws!” he snapped.

Kate jumped and almost cried out when a gun was fired. A couple of horses whinnied, and she felt literal pain in her stomach at the thought of what had just happened. Everything grew quiet, until one man yelled loudly, “Goddamn it! He isn’t dead yet.”

“He will be in a couple more minutes,” someone answered.

“Let the son of a bitch suffer.”

“Let’s go!”

Kate hadn’t watched any of it. With her ear to the ground, she heard the pounding of horses’ hooves, a sound that seemed to carry like thunder for miles through the earth. She’d learned from the wagon train guide how to listen for oncoming horses or buffalo this way. That guide was dead now, along with all the others she’d traveled with—even two children. She would always remember the guide telling her that out in this land a man could hear the thunder of horses’ hooves from miles away. Too bad old Gus hadn’t listened to the ground the day of their attack. They would have had more time to circle the wagons and prepare for a fight.

As the thundering began to fade, she raised her head slightly. She heard whistles and shouts that sounded more like war whoops, but they sounded far away.

She dared to lift her head higher. Three men were charging after the cattle in the distance, while one kept trying to grab the hanged man’s horse. It kept rearing up and yanking itself away, until finally the fourth man rode off after the others, who’d already stolen their victim’s pack horse. Kate thanked God they were all riding away from her rather than toward her. She noticed then that the hanged man’s feet were still kicking, and she grasped her stomach at the awful sight. “God have mercy on his soul,” she said softly.

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