Disclaimer: I own nothing having to do with the series, "Rawhide," including the characters. (Oh, don't I wish). I receive no monetary compensation for my, so called, work. I am just borrowing.
Rated PG for some language and violence.
Characters: Pete, Boss, Rowdy, Wish, Mushy, Joe (of course), et al.
Hope you enjoy "Joe Scarlet's Secret Life," part 1. As always, feedback is so appreciated!
Pete Nolan rode into camp after several days spent scouting for decent bed ground and a plentiful water supply. Happily, he'd found both and so his mood was good, so good in fact that as he rode he whistled softly to himself. The sky was blue; the air fresh and he would sleep well tonight within the comfort and security of friends.
Camp seemed deserted. Wishbone and Mushy were probably out doing a bit of scouting on their own, searching for herbs or maybe wild onions to add some flavor to whatever it was that hung over a low fire in the cook's all-purpose cast iron kettle and from which a delicious odor already wafted. Pete's mouth watered. Three days and nothing but hard tack and jerky did that to a man.
Pete unsaddled his mount, rubbed the horse down well and made certain the big buckskin got a good ration of water and feed. Finished, he hung the damp toweling over a nearby tree branch and went to check out what concoction bubbled and steamed over the fire. With the cook away perhaps he could sneak a taste without being whacked over the knuckles like a naughty child. Wishbone was nothing if not fast with that damned wooden spoon of his!
Crouching down and using his bandanna as a pot holder, Pete lifted the kettle's heavy lid. The scent of stewing prairie chicken was pure ambrosia to the hungry man. Casting furtive looks about the camp, just to be sure no one lurked about, he stirred the contents with the ladle before dipping out a rather large sample. A sound at the supply wagon caused him to drop the ladle before he'd gotten so much as a taste and he jerked his head toward the sound. Guilt at being caught colored his face bright red. But he needn't have worried.
Joe Scarlet was oblivious to Pete's presence as he poked his head into the back end of the supply wagon. He appeared to be searching for something as he dug through the cluttered contents. Pete shrugged. At least here was some company and some company with whom he might have a bit of harmless fun. Carefully replacing the kettle lid, Nolan tip-toed toward the wagon hoping to give the big drover a bit of a scare. The nearer he crept the odder Joe's actions appeared. Whatever Scarlet was looking for seemed to elude him and his search became frantic as he tore into bedrolls, boxes and supplies. Suddenly Pete's idea of a bit of fun did not seem like such a good idea. Still some feet away, Nolan stopped. Perhaps he ought to make his presence known. Perhaps Joe could use some help. Joe swore and the words were as uncharacteristic coming out of the good-natured cowboy's mouth as they might've been coming from the lips of a Sunday school teacher at a church picnic.
"Joe…what's goin' on? What 'cha lookin' for that's so important?" Nolan stepped closer just as Scarlet turned around, his expression one of shock mingled with …surely Pete was mistaken, but it seemed fear. Across Joe's large calloused hand rested Gil Favor's leather bill fold – the one containing all the money needed for the first leg of the drive – a small fortune in good Yankee green-backs. Pete's smile of greeting faded and a small warning sounded in the back of his head. He took a single step back and his hand dropped automatically toward the gun on his hip.
Joe Scarlet, a good ole Texas boy who never so much as hurt a fly his whole life shook his head in obvious warning at the gesture. "You got no business back here so soon, Pete! Why in hell you'd come back anyway?"
"I found what I was lookin' for, Joe."
Pete gestured to the wallet in Joe's hand. "Seems you did, too."
"You don't know nothin' about this, but I ain't got time to explain!" Scarlet said, his tone pleading.
Pete never saw the blow coming, but the force of it dropped him to the ground. For a moment stars danced brightly behind his closed eyes. Dragging himself up against the wagon wheel, Nolan stood on unsteady legs.
"Why, Joe? Why?" he asked, his words slurred as he reached shaky fingers up to touch the spot that throbbed and bled.
The barrel of a pistol jammed into his back was his only answer; the hammer thumbed back with an ominous 'click.' "What the hell? Joe?" Nolan turned to face the man, but before he was halfway around, the weapon at his back discharged with a roar and a gout of red/orange flame.
Pete Nolan woke to the sound of ringing in his ears, whether from the close proximity of the pistol blast or the blow to his head he did not know. If the hot poker pain of the bullet's path through his gut wasn't enough, the stench of burning shirt and scorched flesh was more than adequate to turn his stomach.
Past the insistent ringing penetrated the sound of voices, but the sound only and not the words. Whether friend or foe hardly mattered to Nolan since he lacked the strength to go for the gun still holstered on his hip. The gibberish of overlapping voices and unintelligible words made Pete want to scream in frustration, but all he managed was a single groan, muted against the sleeve of his shirt.
Hands more concerned with speed than gentleness roughly manhandled the wounded body in an attempt to staunch the bleeding. Fainting would've been a blessing, but blessings this day were few and far between. He was a rag doll at the mercy of others; limp, helpless.
"Mr. Favor! Mr. Favor!"
Rowdy Yates cut in front of Gil Favor's trotting horse, heedless of the near collision almost caused by the reckless action.
Favor turned angrily on his ramrod. "What in hell do you think is so important that you gotta come charging into a man that way, Rowdy? What a damned fool stunt!"
Gil reached down, patting the big black gelding on the neck in an attempt to calm the animal's skittishness.
"Wishbone sent me. Said to find you pronto. There's been a shooting back at camp. One of the men's hurt pretty bad and before you ask, I don't know who and I don't know why and I didn't take time ta ask."
Without another word Gil kicked the black into a hard run. Trouble…there was always trouble.
Stepping out of the saddle before the horse came to a complete stop Favor threw the reins to Hey Soos. By the looks of camp and the men standing around the supply wagon, all silent and serious, things were worse even than Gil imagined during the ride in and he imagined them plenty bad.
"What happened, Wishbone?"
At the sound of Favor's voice the small group of drovers parted, worried faces all wearing anxious expressions, allowing their boss to pass.
The first thing Gil noticed was the smell. Blood had a sickly metallic odor and no matter how much time he'd spent around the scent, it was a something a man never got used to. But it wasn't only the blood, but the smell of singed clothing and scorched flesh added into the mix. He grimaced.
Wishbone knelt over the wounded man, a wet cloth pressed over the left side of the victim's back. Favor had no idea which drover he was looking at until the old healer relaxed back, exposing Pete Nolan's dark-haired form, and rose wearily to his feet.
"Looks like Pete surprised somebody riflin' the supplies. Sonofabitch shot 'im in the back. Shot him so close the muzzle blast set his shirt afire. Burned him some, too, though that ain't so bad it won't heal proper. Cracked 'im a good one upside the head, too. No need to tell ya how much blood he lost."
"No, no need," Favor replied. A blackish pool indicated where Pete originally lay before Wish and several of the men moved him. More dripped from the wagon's tailgate pinpointing the location of the spent bullet after it passed through the scout's body. Still more clotted thickly in the dark curly hair
Gil dropped to one knee at Nolan's side momentarily resting a hand on Pete's shoulder as he questioned Wishbone. "He say anything…like who did this? Anything at all?"
"Boss, he's lucky ta be breathin' let alone talkin'!"
Favor looked up and into the older man's eyes, reading the seriousness of the situation in the watery blue depths. "Real lucky, Boss," Wish added.
Beneath Gil's hand Pete stirred. His eyes opened and he attempted to speak, though the words were whispered and slurred. Favor bent low.
"Who did this to ya, Pete? Who? Did you see him?"
Pete's eyes closed and for a moment Favor thought he'd passed out.
"Who did it, Pete?" Favor prompted, his voice soft, his tone coaxing.
Nolan swallowed with difficulty. For some reason he couldn't seem to get past the greasy taste of black powder which lingered in his throat from the gun blast.
Favor looked to the gathered drovers, ordering no one in particular, "Water! Get me some water!"
Teddy returned quickly, handing the half-filled tin cup to the boss. Gil helped Pete get some water down, but not without considerable difficulty and much spillage. It seemed to help and when Nolan spoke again the single word rang clear if not loud.
That caught Favor totally off guard and he rocked back on his heels. "Joe Scarlet?" Behind him Rowdy whistled softly and the whispered name made the rounds of the gathered men.
Pete managed a slight nod. Suddenly he grew agitated, attempting to push his wounded body up off the ground with both hands before collapsing back onto his belly. His gaze settled on the boss's face as he lay gasping and pale. "Why?" he whispered. "Why'd he do it?"
Favor shook his head. "I don't know, Pete. But I'm sure as hell gonna find out!"
Gil got to his feet. "Anybody seen Joe Scarlet since breakfast?"
Toothless pushed through the gathered drovers. "I seen him, Boss. Seen him riding flank at oh, probably about 11. Can't recall seein' him after, though."
Favor nodded. "Anyone else?"
Drovers looked from one to another. Shoulders shrugged and heads shook.
"How 'bout Quince? Anyone of ya seen Jim?"
"Not since breakfast," seemed the general consensus.
At Favor's side Rowdy leaned in close. "You think the two of 'em are in cahoots?" He asked.
"Don't you?" Gil replied. "Where you find one the other is sure to follow."
Rowdy's reply, though in agreement with Favor's, rang of disappointment. "Yeah, I guess." The lanky youngster hung his head. "But I sure as hell wish it wasn't true."
"I wish it wasn't true." Favor replied, turning his attention to the milling drovers. "I want every man out looking for Joe Scarlet and Jim Quince. If you happen on either one, bring him in. Escort him in to me. That clear?"
"Yes, sir!" The drovers replied in chorus. No one wanted to believe Joe Scarlet could've shot Pete Nolan, let alone shot him in the back and they welcomed the chance to bring Joe in to clear things up.
"Boss?" Wishbone got to his feet, wiping bloodied hands off across his apron. "You gonna check to see what got stole?"
Favor shook his head. "Don't have to, Wish. What's in that supply wagon that's worth killin' a man for?"
Wishbone's eyes widened. "The bankroll," he said. "But I didn't think anybody 'sides me and you knew where you'd hid it."
"Anybody with half an eye coulda spotted me rummaging around back there and comin' up with cash. It's my fault. I shoulda been more careful." Favor slapped his Stetson hard against his thigh. "Damn fool's what I am," he swore. "Damn ignorant fool!"
If looks could kill Rowdy Yates would've been lying stone cold dead at Gil Favor's feet. "How come you ain't out with the others lookin' for Scarlet and Quince? Don't you understand orders, Rowdy? You ain't immune, ya know!"
The young ramrod ignored the outburst, plunging on ahead, heedless of the consequences. "Boss, I'd like to see if I can't find a trail…some sign as to where them jaspers went after they back shot Pete! Even now the signs are gettin' cold! I just can't believe ole Joe…."
Gil took a folding knife out of his vest pocket and opened out the single narrow blade. Walking over to the wagon, he poked the tip into the bullet hole and began digging the spent slug from the wood. The round lead projectile popped out and into his hand. He held it up for Rowdy and Wish to see.
"Who's the only drover carries an old style cap and ball revolver in .36 caliber?" He asked, rolling the round ball between thumb and forefinger. "Who?" He pointedly directed the question at Rowdy.
Yates swallowed, looked down at the wounded Pete Nolan and answered, "Joe Scarlet. Joe carries an 1851 Navy Colt – just like old Wild Bill Hickok or so he's fond of sayin'."
"Now, Rowdy…if you still wanta go lookin' for the jaspers who shot Pete, be lookin' for Joe Scarlet and Jim Quince."
Yates shook his head. "But Boss…we got no proof at all Jim was in on any a this!"
Wishbone stepped in with his two cents' worth, finger wagging just beneath the tall cowboy's nose for emphasis, not that any was needed. "Rowdy, just you tell me when Joe Scarlet ever came up with an original plan all on his lonesome? Huh? Joe's a follower. He ain't no leader no how! Somebody else planned this. Joe just got wrangled into the dirty work is all! And something musta gone awful wrong, 'cause I'll never believe Joe meant to shoot Pete."
The old cook was right as Rowdy was well aware. "Now that you put it that way, Wish." Yates sighed. "If it's okay with you, Boss…I'll see if I can find any sign of Joe and Jim."
"You do that, Rowdy, but I think it'll be time wasted." Favor kicked at the ground. It was hard as rock. "There's been no rain here for some time. Ground like this won't give up tracks easy." At Yates' crestfallen expression Gil added, "But give it a shot. You never can tell."