A half-hour later she stopped to fit the saddle to her shorter legs. The steers showed no inclination to veer from the trail home. As she shortened the stirrup leathers she noticed her heart rate and breathing had begun to slow their frantic pace.
"Now I'll have to listen to Mother go on and on about how I left her alone for a whole two days," she said to the horse as she pulled the lacing free. "Then she'll make Matt feel awful by telling him it's his fault that I was almost murdered over a few filthy animals." She finished on one stirrup and moved around to the other. "Then Matt won't ever want to leave the place again."
She was finishing up before she continued. "Which might not be all bad, at least I wouldn't have to listen to Mother's drivel all by myself."
She remounted and continued, liking the feel of what she was already coming to think of as her saddle. It was also a fine, smooth-gaited horse.
"That's not really fair," she continued. "It's not fair to make Matt have to put up with any of Mother's prattle when I can protect him from it. It's not fair to expect that she would be hard on him over this. She probably won't say a thing about it to him, thereby making me feel guilty because he doesn't know how much danger I was in, and because I have kept something from him."
The steers were beginning to tire and wander, looking to fill their stomachs with the old grass that was showing now in more places than were covered by snow. She drew her mount in a little and began pushing the yearlings along the trail.
"Yes, that would be more like Mother. Then she would think she had a new power and control over me."
She had also lost Ben, Matt's one remaining tie to his childhood. She knew that the sight of Ben had brought back many pleasant memories for her husband.
"And I don't want Matt to feel he's tied to us. He should be able to leave, but want to stay.
"Besides, for the next few years at least, we need that trapping money. Otherwise we'll never have our own life."
She looked at her mount and rigging with a critical eye. True, she had lost one of the light team but she now had an excellent saddle horse. She also had a fine saddle and bridle, an extra rifle and a pistol.
Holding her own rifle and the reins in one hand she slid Rolley's rifle from the scabbard far enough to identify it. It appeared to be similar to her Winchester '73, though both the lever and breech looked slightly different. It also had a saddle ring and appeared - though she didn't remove it all the way - to be shorter. She did remove it far enough to see the 44WCF stamped into the round barrel, making it the same caliber as her own octagonal barreled '73.
Next she removed the pistol from her pocket and studied it. The barrel was perhaps three inches long and, though the stamping was worn, she could make out "S & W" along the left side. She fiddled with what appeared to be a catch ahead of the hammer and finally tipped the barrel and cylinder down to reveal the bases of five cartridges all stamped ".32 S & W."
Closing the pistol again she placed it back in her pocket. "Well, I suppose, if we don't have the trapping money I could always rob somebody. I'm certainly armed to the teeth and well mounted."
After she had turned the steers back into their pasture and ensured the gate was shut, Janet rode toward the barn. On the other side of the house she could see another rider trailing a pack horse piled high with fur. Matt was home.
She met him by the house and they swung down together. As they embraced, Mark and Margaret came running from the house.
When the greetings had been completed, Matt turned back to his wife, holding his son in his arms and a twinkle in his eye. "You bin makin' a habit out o' feedin' the cows with a rifle. Must be hard to get the hay down the barrel."
Janet looked down at the Winchester in her hands then back to her husband. His eyes had gone beyond her to the strange horse and saddle and the twinkle had turned to puzzlement.
Janet stepped closer and put one hand on his shoulder. "Matt, I have some bad news. Ben died."
Later that summer, Joshua Casey's brother, Gabriel, rode up to a group in central Montana as they branded the latest batch of calves.
Joshua was busy with a knife when the horse came up, but it wasn't long before he realized someone was sitting a horse and not roping, or doing anything else to help with the work. Finished his latest cutting, he swung his attention around to the rider and saw his brother. The hair was very long and ten years had put some creases in the face, but it was definitely his brother.
He stood, the pocket knife down at his side, and nodded. "Afternoon, Gabe."
Gabe nodded in return. "Josh." He removed his hat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. "Looks like you picked a hot one." He swung from the saddle.
"That we did," Josh acknowledged.
"Well, I'm not much with a rope, but I'm a crackerjack with a knife and a branding iron."
"We could use the help," Josh responded, turned the knife around and passed it to his brother. "You gonna be home for awhile?"
Gabe nodded, and then gazed off to the north. "Reckon I'll stay if you'll have me. I get out there I run the risk of gettin' into somethin' I won't be proud of."
After roundup that fall, Matt Kingsley went hunting for a few days. He trailed a moose back up into a draw where he shot it in a small clearing. In that same clearing he found what was left of a skeleton lying next to the remains of an old fire. There was a small, round hole, perhaps from a bullet on the right side of the skull and much of the left side was missing. The remains of what might have been a shirt and pants were also there. There was no sign of boots, belt, coat or hat.
With only an axe to work with it was difficult, but he managed to cover the bones and cloth in a shallow grave. During the fifty-eight years they were together, until her death in 1969, he never told Janet what he had found.