Chapter 15, Gatlin Ranch
Donni rolled over on the hay in the haymow and grinned at Robert Gatlin. It was hard to see him in the dim evening light and through the thick gunsmoke in the barn, “How you doing, Bob?”
The younger Gatlin grinned and kept reloading a Winchester, he was Phoebe’s younger brother and about 14 years old, “Doing just fine, Mr. Holt!” He had fired pretty blindly, fine by Donni as long as they had ammo and it kept the assailants heads down. Luckily the Gatlin’s had started making a habit of keeping a rifle and ammunition in the barn. Also lucky, Donni had stabled his horse along with his rifles in here when he arrived. It made for a good excuse to go to the barn and check on his horse after dinner. Of course Phoebe came along to help him. The three of them were now in the barn’s loft . Looking down over the open area between the barn and the house. There was a corral to one side and a number of other smaller outbuildings scattered around. When the shooting had started the three grabbed the guns and headed up into the loft. Donni wasn’t sure how many men were out there attacking, but it was bad. He was thinking more than they could handle. It would have been over quickly if they hadn’t been in the barn. Luckily they had caught them off guard by being here.
Donni nodded and sighted down the barrel of his Henry. He fired off two quick shots and squinted into the darkness, “Damn. I don’t think I hit anything.” The raiders had arrived just after the sun had set. Probably to help mask their approach. It had given them enough light to act, and Donni was sure they expected the attack to be over quickly.
Bob looked out of the hayloft, “There’s another body out there. Don’t look like it is moving neither.”
Donni shrugged, “I could be wrong. It’s hard to tell with all this smoke.”
“Here, Donni,” Phoebe handed him his reloaded carbine. Donni smiled at her as he placed the gun in easy reach. She sure was pretty with hay in her hair and those dirt smudges on her cheeks. It was a good thing that her little brother hadn’t come out to the barn any earlier. Yes sir, Phoebe Gatlin was quite a woman. If things really went bad at least Donni would go out with a smile on his face. Phoebe leaned against Donni’s leg and clung to him, “I think those are Josh Perkins’ men. Some of them looked familiar, at least what I could see. They rode through here a couple of weeks ago and did a lot of blustering at Dad.”
Robert spit. “Those rustlers been after my paw’s water rights for a year now. They’d as soon shoot you in the back as look at ya!” Donni glanced at the boy. He was young, he’d learn in time. A man was just as dead if you shot him in the back. Dead was dead.
Robert looked scared, “Do you think paw and the others are all right?”
Phoebe nodded, “I heard shooting from the house awhile ago. They’ll be okay.”
Donni tensed as several shots rang out. How many damn men were out there? Too many he reckoned. They would charge soon, probably trying to figure out where everyone one was that was shooting at them, and maybe how many. He remembered Mr. Gatlin had said most of their hands were out taking care of the cattle. They had had some rustling problems and most were protecting the herd. He was sure they were expecting easy pickings at the homestead. He cocked the Henry and waited, patiently sighting down the barrel. The Winchester, Phoebe had reloaded, laid beside him in the loft within easy reach. He absently reached down and pulled out one of his .45’s. He handed to Robert, “You ever used a handgun, Bob?” Robert eyed it and shook his head. Donni grinned at him, “You’ll learn quick enough.”
The four horsemen topped the rise in the faded evening light and looked down on the homestead in the valley before them. Carlton reined in as he listened to the sounds of gunfire. It was more obvious from the flash of gunfire before them that shooting was coming from both the barn and house below and aimed at what he assumed to be several assailants scattered around some outbuildings and corrals. All he could make out were some darker shapes and shadows in those areas. Further on Carlton could make out a line of small scrub brush and trees that wandered along the other side of the farmstead, indicating a stream. There was a deeper boom and a grimace crossed his face as he recognized the familiar sound of a Henry .44/.40. Most men wouldn’t recognize the sound. The Henry rifle wasn’t a common long-gun to many so Carlton reasoned that there was only two other people that would likely be using that rifle in this region. He could guess who it was most likely to be. He was not happy with the thought of going into a gun fight with either of them if they didn’t know it was him. This could get tricky. He gave Jed Thornton a sour look, “Donni, probably. That damn brother of mine got out of jail somehow. Who’s place is that up ahead.”
Jed grinned, “I seem to recall that that’s the Gatlin place.” He and Wainwright both broke out laughing at the anguished face of Carlton and the groan that had escaped his lips. The rangers words has confirmed his fears. Mathers had a wry smile that showed he saw the humor in the situation but mostly portrayed his desire to get into the fight happening in front of them. That was one scared dark quiet man.
“Hellfire! Of course it is. Donni doesn’t have the brains that God gave a pissant. He went down there and tried to get that Phoebe to warm up to him and got caught in a gunfight. Time to end this. Let’s ride.” The four spurred their horses down into the valley.
Carlton rode rapidly for the outbuildings. The Gatlin spread was a big place with lots of places to hide. He could see a few bodies scattered out front of the house, between the house and the barn. Looks like they had been caught in a crossfire. Stupid dead men who didn’t check their backside before heading into a fight. He could see flashes of gunfire from closer up towards the house and barn. Matheres came around the edge of the outbuilding they were near, “This building is clear, others probably too. I think most are looking to rush the house that way.” He indicated a dark shadowy area on the other side of the open area and closer to the house, around another outbuildingm, near the corral.
Two shadowy figures detached themselves from the fence row in that area and raced towards the barn. Carlton drew his Colt and slid out of the saddle, then crouched by a water trough. Jed Thornton and the other two joined him, their cocked pistols ready. The Henry roared again and one of the figures spun and fell, unmoving. The other disappeared beside the barn.
Jed laughed, “That sure as hell’s got to be Donni. He must have cat eyes to see in this light.” Carlton sure hoped that it was and hoped that he would be able to tell friend from foe when the time came. Carlton sighted carefully towards the corner of the barn where the second assailant had disappeared, bracing his revolver on the trough. The figure reappeared and he fired twice. It vanished back behind the barn. That sure announced their presence.
“I think you got him, ” Don Mathers said. Then he and the other rangers started unloading at a group of men up closer to the house. The rangers and Carlton had chosen a position that would give them a fairly clear view of the grounds and a little cover. Not that Don Mathers was one to use much cover. He stood stoically by the trough firing his revolvers at the men while the rest used what cover was available.
The men they were firing at realized very quickly that they were caught in another crossfire with some new players. They quickly melted away into the night. A few minutes later several horses could be heard galloping away. Carlton figured they must have approached from the other side of the house. Down near the stream, probably gave them a little better cover than coming down the road as they had.
Carlton stood and cautiously moved towards the barn, keeping behind some cover before yelling, “Donni… is that you?” not trusting his brother’s eyes as much as the rangers.
Donni lowered the Henry and frowned. What the hell was Carlton doing out here? “Sure is, big brother,” he yelled back. Damn it was good to hear his voice. Carlton had arrived just in time. Sounded like he had the rangers with him based on the amount of gunfire he had heard.
He watched Carlton cross the barnyard and enter the barn. Soon a lantern burst into life below and light shinned up. Donni stood and walked over the edge of the haymow. Carlton looked up at him. Donni grinned down at him. Robert Gatlin and Phoebe appeared behind him, looking scared.
Carlton couldn’t help it, he broke into a smile when he saw that Donni unharmed, “Donni, you dumb son-of-a-gun, I thought I told Luke to tell you to stay in town.”
Donni shrugged, “He must of forgot to tell me. It’s a good thing I came out here though. The Gatlin’s got ambushed by some of their competition.” Phoebe moved up against Donni and he unconsciously put an arm around her. Carlton took in the hay in her hair and the small dirt smudges on her cheeks, that only enhanced her pretty face, and immediately figured out what had happened. The attack probably saved Donni from being in trouble with the Gatlins.
He frowned, “What were you doing in the barn, Donni?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
Donni blinked and considered his answers. “Uh… Phoebe and me were taking a walk and she… she wanted to show me her father’s horses. When the shooting started we kind of got trapped here,” he finished lamely.
Carlton stared at Phoebe. She blushed furiously. “We were checking on Donni’s horse too,” Phoebe interjected. “He said it was walking a little tender and wanted to check on it.” Donni nodded with a big grin on his face.
Carlton just shook his head, “Well, come on down. Let’s go see if everyone else is all right.”