He was only ten years old when he heard the news. Custer was dead! The whole 7th Cavalry had been wiped out by the Sioux at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. He remembered being overwhelmed by confusion and grief. George Armstrong Custer had been his hero. How could he have been defeated?! But over the next few years he had come to grips with it and Custer had risen back up toward the top of his hero list.
And one of the things he had learned from that hero was to ride to the sound of the guns! So, he did. Nick Morgan had been casually riding to town from his family’s ranch when he heard the gunfire. Several shots in the distance echoed off the hills. It sounded like they came from Molly’s ranch! Without hesitation, he turned his horse and galloped in that direction. The shots stopped, but he rode on toward the home of his nearest neighbors, the Franklins.
Fear gripped his heart as he sped closer. He wasn’t afraid for himself – just of what he might find when he got there. In fact, most people thought of young Nickel Boone Morgan as fearless. He was only seventeen, but he could ride like the wind and rope, shoot, and fight like any man around – better than most. A keen eye and a calm squeeze on the trigger made him an excellent shot with his rifle. Untold hours of practice with a rope made him proficient with a lasso whether on foot or on Comanche. He had named his horse after the horse thought to be the sole survivor of Custer’s Last Stand. When it had foaled in the family stable, his pa, who had once seen the surviving horse while on a trip to St. Louis, said he looked like Comanche. The name stuck.
Nick learned to be a cowboy that could ride and rope and shoot and yes, even fight. His six-foot muscular frame had led to more fights than his ma cared to count. He was generally well-mannered and polite, but he could get a little rowdy at times and would always fight to defend the helpless or stand up for a conviction. He got a six-gun and holster for his fourteenth birthday and months of constant practice had earned him a fast draw with an accurate shot. By his 16th birthday he had won several local shooting and quick draw contests! Big, ruggedly handsome, looking older than his seventeen years – Nickel Boone Morgan was already a force to be reckoned with.
Everyone called him Nick except for his ma when he was in trouble and she called him Nickel Boone. Boone was her family name, descended from another of Nick’s heroes, Daniel Boone. The name Nickel came from the headlines on the day he was born. The U.S. government had just minted the first 5-cent coins two weeks earlier. On June 1st, 1866, when the young boy was born to James and Sarah Morgan, the newspaper had just arrived and the headline on the paper on the kitchen table read, “Welcome the Nickel.” It seemed to James like the only natural thing to name his first born.
Nick was kind of sweet on Molly Franklin who was a year younger than him. He would have ridden to the sound of the guns anyway, but his main concern was “is Molly alright?!” As he galloped toward her ranch, he began to scan the area in every direction. There were no signs of anyone near the ranch. Could the shots have come from somewhere else? He kept riding and looking and then he saw an Indian pony tied up at the far side of the corral. The two Franklin horses that were usually in the corral were not.
Nick reigned in his horse and dismounted with his rifle drawn from its scabbard almost before Comanche had come to a complete stop. He dropped to one knee making a smaller target while scanning the entire panorama. He saw no one. Not the Franklins – not any Indians. He saw that the front door of the small but cozy ranch house was wide open and then he noticed the haystack near the barn was on fire! Funny he hadn’t noticed that before.
It was eerily silent. He thought through the possibilities. Why just one Indian pony? If only one Indian had come, where was he? If Mr. Franklin had killed him, where was the body and where were the Franklins? Why was the front door wide open? He decided to fire off a signal shot. If there were Indians around, they had likely seen him already anyway. If all was okay, Mr. Franklin would signal back. Unless he thought it was more Indians!
Nick drew his six-gun. Mr. Franklin would know the difference between the sound of a rifle and that of a pistol. Indians don’t carry six-guns. He fired two shots into the air and waited and watched. He didn’t know he was being watched, but he felt like something was wrong. He got no response from the house or anywhere else for that matter.
He was not experienced in this kind of fighting, so he didn’t know if he could trust the feeling he was getting. He had to get to the house to see what had happened, but he also had to be careful. Should he walk in slowly or charge in fast on Comanche?
Nick decided on the charge. He had practiced long and hard at shooting from a gallop and was pretty good at it. Actually, he was very good at shooting cans off a fence rail at a full gallop – but then, cans don’t shoot back!
He returned his rifle to its scabbard and mounted his horse. He rode to his right first in order to give himself a few moments to get Comanche up to full gallop before he rushed into the yard. As he got close, he saw movement to his left. A young brave popped up behind the well that was to the left of center of the house. He was aiming his rifle in Nick’s direction. A shot rang out!
Comanche was galloping fast and the shot missed. The brave cocked his gun for another shot. Nick swung down over the opposite side of Comanche, hanging onto the saddle horn with his left hand. He stretched himself down and under his horse’s neck and fired his six-gun at the brave. Two quick shots and the brave went down! Comanche’s speed took them past the house. Nick righted himself in the saddle as he circled the house and reigned Comanche to a stop near the front door.
He had only two bullets left in the gun, but there was no time to reload. He hit the ground running and burst right into the house yelling for the Franklins. “Molly! Mr. Franklin! It’s me – Nick!”
The front room was empty. Nick kept his gun out as he looked around and called again for Molly. He ran to her bedroom door and opened it. No one was there. He called again, “It’s Nick!” but no answer came. He returned to the front room and strode across to the other bedroom. As he approached the partially open door of the Franklins’ bedroom, he heard a slight moan from inside the room. As he pushed the door fully open, Nick heard another groan.
Mrs. Franklin lay dead on the brass bed. On the floor on the opposite side of the bed was Isaac “Frank” Franklin, barely alive. Molly’s pa had been shot more than once and from the look of it, hadn’t long to live. It was as if he had used all the strength he could muster to stay alive long enough to tell someone what had happened.
Six, maybe eight Kiowa warriors – apparently a raiding party – had struck suddenly, without warning. They set fire to the haystack near the barn as two of them went for the horses. Mr. Franklin had been in the barn when he heard them ride in. When he saw who it was, he ran out the side door of the barn for the house. A couple of shots missed him. Molly came running from her bedroom and the two met in the middle of the house. He sent Molly to his bedroom with her ma as he grabbed his rifle from its perch above the fireplace mantel and joined them. He took one shot in the back from a buck who had just busted through the front door.
Frank made it on into the room and closed the door, but a second Indian fired through the bedroom window, hitting him in the left arm. As Isabelle, Molly’s ma raised up from the floor beside the bed to help her husband, the first brave burst through the bedroom door and fired another shot. It struck Isabelle, knocking her backward onto the large feather bed that quickly became her death bed.
Molly covered her face as her screams turned to gasps and then sobs. A third brave had entered by this time and shouted something at the other two. The first one grabbed Molly by the arm and jerked her roughly to her feet. She screamed again as he forced her out of the room. There were more shots fired by the others out behind the barn. – Frank stopped his story and pointed in that direction. “Jacob” was the last word he spoke.
Nick laid the man’s head gently on the floor and checked on Mrs. Franklin to confirm that she was dead. Then he hurried outside to the barn and went around back. Jacob was there. Molly’s brother had apparently been working a few cattle about a quarter mile from the barn by the trees that bordered the Franklin property behind the barn and house. Nick figured Jacob had come running in to help his family when he heard the shots. He had been working so he didn’t have a gun – he never got the chance to help.
Molly was gone. The horses were gone. Nick was a pretty good tracker for such a young man. The tracks led westward from the corral toward the hills. He ran back to Comanche and headed after the raiding party – after Molly. He knew he needed to go home. Needed to get help. Needed provisions. But he also needed to follow these tracks while they were still fresh. The wind was picking up and it had been so dry lately. He feared the tracks might blow away in the wind and the dust. He would return later, if he could, to get help.
Four men with a wagon set out from a small town in Oklahoma Territory near the Texas border and headed southwest toward Mexico. Two men rode on horseback and two were in the wagon, taking turns driving the two-horse team. It was a small covered wagon in which they kept their provisions, extra weapons and ammunition, sleeping gear, and such. They were a scraggly looking bunch. Mean looking. None too clean, either. Always spitting tobacco juice and smelling of whiskey. They had plenty of extra whiskey in the wagon, too. Some for drinking, some for trading with Indians.
The two men in the wagon looked to be about forty and the two on horseback were much younger. One was about Nickel Morgan’s age, maybe a little younger, and the other maybe thirty. The youngest was a brother to one of the older men. They weren’t wanted by the law, but they should have been! They had done just about everything; they just hadn’t been caught at it any of it yet.
The men had heard rumors about Kiowa raiding parties, but they weren’t afraid. They had run into them before. As long as they didn’t run into a whole tribe, they figured they could handle it. If they did meet up with a large group, well, they could likely trade whiskey and guns for their freedom and maybe even a squaw or two!
Mostly, they planned to stay away from towns and steal whatever they needed – or just wanted – from farms and ranches between their current location and Mexico. If they came across any young, strong women, they would take them along for some “pleasure” and to sell as slaves later.
Nick followed the tracks out of the Franklin ranch toward the west. In a short distance the dirt gave way to some scrub grass, but within less than a quarter mile or so the grass was taller. The wind was still strong, and the grass waved in the breeze. It was going to get harder to track the Indians as time went on. He didn’t dare turn back now or he’d lose them for sure. They headed for the hill country that led to the Texas border and then they veered southwest. From there, they might go anywhere.
They might also run into more Indians. Molly could be traded away for anything – or stolen again by a rival tribe. Nick would have to push on. They shouldn’t be too far ahead of him. He had only missed them by a few minutes, and he had only been at the Franklin ranch for maybe thirty minutes more. They couldn’t travel very fast since they were leading the Franklin horses and a captive. But then, Nick couldn’t travel very fast either as he had to keep checking for tracks. He dared not forge ahead too quickly. If they changed directions, he might miss it and lose them forever. Lose Molly forever! He tried not to think of what might happen to her.
She was hot and tired and thirsty. She had been riding bareback on one of the Franklin horses the Indians had stolen. She had ridden that horse many times, but never without a saddle and never in a dress! Her hands were tied with a leather strap and she had to hang onto the horse’s mane to stay on its back. One of the braves led her horse by a rope tied around its neck. One of the others led the second Franklin horse. There were six Indians left and they were beginning to wonder why the other brave had not caught up to them yet.
They spoke only in their own language, though they did not say much. Sometimes they would look or point at Molly as they talked and laughed. It frightened her when they laughed. Her imagination ran wild with thoughts about what they might be saying. She wished they had killed her like they had her family. That caused her to think about them and sorrow overwhelmed her.
She thought about Nick. She would likely never see him again. She had heard about girls who had been taken captive by Indians before and they seldom were rescued. A few had but things were never quite the same afterwards. She vowed to try to run away as soon as she had a chance. She hoped they would kill her if she didn’t get away.
Nick kept riding though it was getting dark. He was sure that they would keep heading southwest. From hunting trips with his pa, he knew there was water about an hour from where he was in the direction they were headed. That had to be where they would stop for the night. Perhaps they already had, and he would soon see their campfire. He shuddered to think about Molly with several Indian men in the camp!
The Indians had made camp in a clearing near the stream where Nick and his pa had spent more than one night while hunting. He was about thirty minutes away. They had no idea that anyone would be that close unless it was their friend catching up. They assumed the Franklins would not be discovered for quite some time. If they had been, Lone Wolf’s job was to lead the searchers off in a different direction! They were thinking that might be why he hadn’t caught up to them yet.
They were so sure of themselves that they didn’t even post a guard. That was to be their undoing! Nick wasn’t far away, and he kept coming, though slowly now that it was dark. However, there were four other white men closer than Nick! A wagon had stopped just northeast of a campfire that one of them had spotted glowing in the distance. After a brief discussion, the thirty-year-old, Nathan Tanner, rode off to scout out the campfire.
The Dawson brothers, Sam and his kid brother Dan, stayed with the fourth man – the oldest and their leader, Mort Keeler. They gave the horses and themselves a rest and drank a little whiskey while they waited for Nathan to return. They figured they just might gain a ready-made supper and a few extra supplies from whoever belonged to the campfire!
It didn’t take Nathan long to return. He had stopped his horse short of the campsite and crept close enough to see who had made the fire. It gave more than enough light for him to see six Kiowa braves and one frightened captive white girl. Even in the flickering light of the campfire, as scared as she was, she was a mighty tempting sight for Nathan Tanner. He was tempted to rush the camp with his guns a-blazing! But he realized it made more sense to go get his partners. Besides, he would have to share her with the others anyway!
He crept back to his horse and quietly rode back to the wagon. He found the others sharing a bottle and joined them as he laid out the situation. He claimed rights to the girl, offering to forego any share in the horses or guns. The others objected or laughed and reminded him it had always been “share and share alike.” Mort gave the plan and they slowly, quietly rolled on in a little closer to the Indian camp.
The men stopped about a quarter mile away and tied off the horses with some grain handy to keep them content. They stayed together as they stealthily approached the camp – they had done this before. On Mort’s signal, the other three gradually spread out until they had all but surrounded the camp. The only side without a man was boarded by the stream. When Mort was sure that they were all in place and ready, he took aim at the brave closest to the girl and fired.
Immediately, the others fired, too. The braves had been easy targets in the light of the campfire and in only three seconds, four of the six dropped dead! Molly screamed and fell over sideways to get low on the ground. The remaining two braves jumped up and ran. One went for his rifle and the other headed for the stream to escape.
Mort dropped his second target as he reached the stream’s edge and the brave fell into the water. Nathan got the last brave as he picked up his rifle. It was all over in less than a minute. Molly laid there trembling, but hoping she was being rescued. Her hope quickly faded back into fear as the four men walked into the camp. They were rough looking. They laughed and each bragged on his kill shot. Tanner reached the girl first and helped her sit up.
Sam Dawson got his first good look at Molly and looked her over pretty well. He turned toward his young brother and said, “She looks about your age, Dan. Might be a good time for you to become a man!” They all laughed as Sam quickly added, “After I break her in fer ya!” More laughter came as Molly realized that she was still a captive.
The men split up the chores under Mort’s direction. Dan and Nathan went back for the wagon and horses. Sam and Mort gathered up the rifles and meager provisions. When the younger two returned they topped off the water barrel with buckets of water from the stream. Sam and Mort tied the six Indian ponies and the two Franklin horses to the back of the wagon. They ate a quick bite from the rabbit the Indians had roasting on the fire and prepared to move on.
Nathan asked, “Why not stay the night?” Though he directed the question to Mort, his eyes moved to Molly.
Mort noticed and answered, “This pretty little gal doesn’t look like she’s been with these bucks very long. And if I’m right, there could be some folks out there lookin’ for her right now.”
Sam chimed in, “We had best git busy and git gone. Plenty of time later fer campin’.”
Dan said he’d fix a place in the wagon for the girl. Mort winked at Sam noting Dan’s interest in looking out for the new addition to their traveling band. It was only a matter of minutes before all was set. Dan asked Molly her name as he led her to the wagon and helped her up into it. Mort heard her and introduced the men to her as he and Sam climbed to the wagon seat and Nathan doused the fire out. Dan mounted his horse and the caravan eased out of camp. Nathan stayed behind as the wagon headed to the southwest again.
After the others had gone, Nathan cut a branch from one of the trees and dragged it around to wipe out the wagon tracks. Then he mounted his horse and rode off to the north. About a quarter of a mile out, he stopped and dismounted. He walked his horse around for a little bit and then mounted again and slowly walked off to the west. In a little while he picked up the pace as he turned south and rode to catch up to the wagon. He hoped to confuse anyone who might come along soon looking for Molly.
What he didn’t know was that he had been watched as he dragged out the tracks and rode out of camp! The fire was out, but the moonlight was bright enough for the keen eyes of a wounded brave to watch his enemy’s actions. The brave had pulled himself to the bank of the stream after Mort’s second shot hit him in the back. He had lain there as if he were dead as Nathan filled the water buckets just a few feet away. Later, he had slowly dragged himself closer to the camp to watch the men clean out the camp, load the wagon, and tie off the horses. He watched Nathan Tanner try to hide the tracks and lay a false trail out of the campsite. Then he crawled closer to the smoldering fire.
Several minutes later, Nickel Morgan slowed Comanche to a walk as he approached the area that he knew held the stream where he had camped before. He remembered there was a clearing nearby, but it took him a few minutes to get his bearings in the dark. As he walked slowly and quietly toward the clearing, he wondered why there was no campfire and no noise. He had been so sure that the Indians would stop here.
He smelled the smoke that still lingered from the fire that had been doused just a short time ago. He tied Comanche to a tree, patted him gently, and crept off toward the source of the smoke smell. As he crept up behind a big rock, he could see the remains of the camp massacre in the moonlight. Nick scanned the area quickly, six-gun in hand, and counted the bodies of four braves that he could see from his position behind the rock.
He saw no horses and no Molly. He had no idea yet how to account for what he saw. He would have to examine the camp for more clues, so he walked slowly into the camp with all of his senses on full alert for any sign of trouble. As he walked, he kept scanning – looking and listening. He spotted two more bodies, but no Molly. He silently thanked God. But where was she?
He saw that the fire had been doused. He knelt to examine the ground around him and discovered the tracks of the wagon as it had rolled into camp and prints of shod horses. The Indian ponies were not shod. White men had been here. They killed Molly’s captors and took her and the horses away! He was sure of it.
He stood up but remained stooped over as he walked around looking for the tracks of the wagon that led out of the camp. They had been obliterated by the branch. It was an old trick his pa had taught him – told him his great, great uncle Dan’l Boone had done it that way long ago. Nick would have to make an ever-widening circle of the camp in hopes of eventually cutting across the tracks of the wagon. Then he heard a moan from over by the fire!
He drew his gun – fast – and turned in the direction of the moan. The brave on the ground was stirring, trying to turn over. Nick holstered his gun and went to him. Kneeling down, he turned the Indian over on his back. Nick could see the brave was near death. “Where’s the girl?” Nick asked. He gestured to show long hair and repeated, “Where girl?”
The brave understood. He pointed in the direction the wagon had left camp and said in broken English, “White men. Wagon.”
To confirm, Nick pointed in the same direction and asked, “White men took girl that way in wagon?” The brave nodded yes.
Nick asked how many – holding up first one finger, then two, then three. The brave held up three fingers. Then he pointed in the direction in which Nathan Tanner had ridden and held up one finger. Nick thought it through and asked, “One man went that way?” The brave nodded and died. Nick rose to check the tracks.
He could see that one shod horse had indeed ridden off to the north. “Why?” he wondered. “Why would one leave the other three and go a different way?” Then he got it! It was to complete the masking of the wagon’s trail. A fourth man had scratched out the wagon tracks and then set out on a false trail. He likely would eventually head the other way and catch up with the wagon. Nick ran back to get his horse and returned with him to the campsite. He filled his canteen from the stream and let Comanche get a drink, too. Then he rode off in the direction the dying brave had indicated the wagon had gone. It didn’t take long to confirm that he had “told” the truth.
Nathan Tanner had cut across country and caught up with the wagon. They didn’t know it, but they were only about twenty minutes ahead of Nickel Boone Morgan. He couldn’t travel fast at night, but he could go faster than a wagon pulling six Indian ponies and the two Franklin horses! The four outlaws and their captive had no idea that anyone was on their trail at all, much less that close. That gave the outlaws a false sense of peace and offered no hope to young Molly, who dreaded the time when the men would stop to make camp!
Nick could not push Comanche’s pace, but he couldn’t back off either. He knew he was close, but he had to stop occasionally to find signs that he was still headed right. A wagon and ten horses left plenty of signs. In daylight, Nick could have galloped after them. At night, he had to travel more deliberately.
It only took about ten minutes for Nick to get close enough to hear them a little way out in front. He forced himself to slow Comanche to a walk. He couldn’t risk detection. He needed a plan. He had to trust that while they were moving, Molly was safe. He decided to keep this distance and trail them until they made camp. Meanwhile, he would try to formulate some kind of plan.
As Nick and Comanche walked along behind the outlaws, Nick tried to imagine what they might be thinking. No doubt they were anxious to make camp. They were probably arguing over who would take Molly first! Nick shuddered at the thought. He wondered what it would take to make them feel safe enough to stop and make camp for the night. More time? More distance between them and the Indian camp? What?
Then it dawned on him. If it was him, he would have one of the men stop and wait a while. Find some vantage point to wait unseen and watch to see if they were being followed. He reined Comanche to a standstill. How could he continue to trail them, yet avoid being seen – or worse, being ambushed?! He wasn’t familiar enough with this part of the country. His earlier hunting trips had only been as far as the clearing by the stream. He didn’t know what lay ahead nor what kind of terrain was in either direction flanking his path.
His first thought had been to veer off to the northwest a ways and try to actually get ahead of the wagon when he circled around. He could have done that if it was daylight. He could easily outpace the wagon with its trail of horses. But daylight was still hours away and with no sign of anyone trailing them, they might stop for the night while he was circling around. He could get ahead of them and they would be camping at their leisure – with Molly!
He decided on a compromise. The prairie seemed wide enough to allow a parallel trail. He could move off to the west just a little and keep an even pace riding parallel to the wagon, rather than behind them. He could risk being closer since he would never overtake them and hope they only waited and watched along the trail directly behind them. Being closer, he would hear if they stopped for camp.
It seemed like the only way he could keep up with them yet avoid being ambushed. He turned Comanche to the west and headed out – first at a walk, then at a trot to be able to come up even with the wagon, though at a safe distance at its right flank. He slowed to a walk again as he gradually closed the gap between them. He got close enough to hear them.
His plan must have worked for in about thirty minutes, the wagon stopped. Nick stopped, too. He dared not get any closer yet. He wanted to make sure of their plans. In a few minutes it was clear that they were planning to set up camp. He would need to form his own plan quickly and then strike even more quickly. There were four of them and from what he had seen at the Indian camp they must be crack shots and crafty enemies. This time, though, the element of surprise would be in his favor, not theirs.
He tied Comanche to a tree and got his rifle and rope. He didn’t have much ammunition so he would have to be accurate when he shot with either gun. He had reloaded his six-gun before leaving the Franklin ranch. He crept slowly toward the new campsite – watching, listening. They had stopped among a small grove of trees, with a few clumps of bushes and single trees scattered around them. This gave Nick cover to move in close and get the lay of the camp.
The full moon kept him from getting too close but allowed him to see what they were doing. No one even gathered wood for a fire, so apparently, they had opted for a cold camp to avoid discovery. Two of the men set up a picket line and tied off the horses. The other two unhitched the wagon team and one took them to the line while the other got Molly out of the wagon. With the horses secured at the picket line, one of the men got up into the wagon and began handing out blankets, feed sacks, and a few boxes. Nick’s heart had leapt a little at his first sight of Molly!
He could see that her hands were tied, but she seemed okay. The young man that helped her out of the wagon led her to one of the trees and helped her sit down. He then returned to the wagon for some blankets which he gave to Molly. Dan Dawson then got her some food. Nick couldn’t tell from a distance what it was, but he guessed some hard tack and biscuits. He watched her try to eat a little.
The others spread out their blankets in a circle. Two used saddles to make leather “pillows” and they all got some food. Nathan Tanner took Molly a cup of water. All the men were talking and laughing, but Nick couldn’t make out any words. He could see that the men were washing down their food with whiskey. It wouldn’t take long for one or more of them to drink up enough courage to brace the others for dibs on Molly!
Nick told himself to be ready, but he still didn’t have a plan. He was sure he could shoot and kill in a fight, but could he simply shoot a man, even a bad man, from a sniping position? Just shoot a man down?! He might have to. He couldn’t face four men at once. He also couldn’t risk one taking Molly for a shield. He still didn’t have a plan.
As his mind raced to try to form one, things began to change in the camp. The tone of some of the voices changed. Nick guessed they were beginning to argue over Molly. He hoped they’d shoot each other over her but couldn’t count on that. He would just have to be ready to do that himself! The argument stopped abruptly. He wondered what they were up to.
Nick saw one of the men take Molly by the arm and draw her to her feet, pushing her toward the center of the camp. Nick raised his rifle, just in case. Another man went to the wagon and returned with a box in one hand and something else in the other. Nick couldn’t tell what else he had. He set the box on the ground, upside down and put the other object on top of it.
They all formed a circle around the box and Nick could finally see that they were starting to play cards. He lowered his rifle and at first, he thought maybe they decided to play cards and leave Molly alone since they couldn’t agree on who could have her. But as they played on and drank more, the laughter and gestures toward Molly suggested to Nick that they were playing to see who would get her – first!
Nick noticed that the one who had first gotten Molly out of the wagon was not drinking. That was Dan, though Nick didn’t know that. He decided that when the shooting started, that man’s sobriety might mean he should be the first target. The ones drinking might be slowed by the alcohol and less likely to shoot straight.
Nick could take him out with the first rifle shot from ambush and get another before they knew what had happened. He would rush the other two hoping that in their drunkenness, neither would grab Molly nor be able to hit a moving target. He could hopefully take them both out with his six-gun. His fear was Molly getting in the way.
He was almost ready when one of the drinkers suddenly stood up and shouted, apparently in victory. He had won the prize – Molly! He reached down and grabbed her up to her feet and that changed everything. She would be right in the way and he would have her there to use as a shield if Nick fired. The man took Molly by the arm and started for the wagon.
“Not here!” one of the others shouted. “Take her out there somewhere!” He waved his arm in a wide circle indicating outside the camp. The man with Molly, Nathan Tanner, stopped and looked around, spying a clump of bushes in the moonlight. Heading Molly toward the bushes, Tanner had no way of knowing that Nickel Boone Morgan was behind the clump! Nick had Plan B in the works now.
Hiding among the bushes, he could wait and take Molly’s captor without a shot. He could then snipe shoot the sober one and maybe one more before they knew what hit them. With Molly safe behind the bushes, Nick could take the others either way.
He wished he could let Molly know somehow that she would be alright, but he couldn’t. She was struggling against her captor, but he nearly dragged her along. She was crying, pleading, but it was useless. Nick had to block it from his mind and stay focused, hidden behind his bush with his rifle in both hands. As they came around to behind the bushes, Tanner pushed Molly to the ground and dropped to his knees beside her. He tauntingly said, “This is gonna be fun!” It wasn’t!
Nick stepped out of hiding and brought his rifle butt down hard on the back of Tanner’s head. He didn’t know it, but he had just killed him. Tanner’s body slumped over Molly and she screamed a little. The men in the camp grinned at each other, except for Dan. Through her tears, Molly saw Nick standing over them and realized Tanner was not a threat anymore! She struggled to get out from under him and Nick knelt down to help her. She sat up and leaned into Nick, whispering his name, asking him, “How…?”
Nick interrupted her and told her to hush. He released his hug and took out his knife to cut her hands free. Whispering, he said, “I’ll tell you all about it later. Right now, I have to finish this.” He rose to his feet, still sheltered by the bushes. He told Molly that after two shots he would leave her the rifle and rush the camp. Nodding toward Tanner he added, “If he comes to, shoot him.”
The other three outlaws were into another poker game. Nick spotted the young sober one sitting facing Nick with Mort to his right and his brother Sam to his left. Nick was glad that Dan was facing him. He would be the first to go and Nick didn’t want to shoot him in the back. He took aim at Dan’s chest with plans to go for Mort next and calmly squeezed the trigger.
At just that exact moment Mort raised his whiskey bottle for another swig. Nick’s bullet shattered the bottle on its way to the target and blew into Dan’s heart, knocking him backwards. Mort yelled out a drunken curse and fell backward, too. Sam jumped to his feet and immediately looked in Nick’s direction. Nick’s second shot dropped Sam at this brother’s feet.
Mort was scrambling for cover under the wagon as Nick handed the rifle to Molly, drew his pistol and ran for a tree to his left. He deliberately fired a shot toward the wagon so Mort could see where Nick was going. He wanted to draw attention away from the clump of bushes, lest Mort fire into them and hit Molly. Mort had drawn his gun and squeezed off two quick shots toward Nick as he ran to the tree. There had been little chance of hitting Nick – it was nighttime, Nick was running, and Mort was drunk and in shock.
Mort called out, “Who are you? What do you want?”
Nick answered, “A friend of the girl!” Then he dropped to the ground and crawled to another clump of trees to his left.
Mort responded, “Take her and go!”
Nick replied, “I’ve already got her! Throw out your gun and come out with your hands up!”
Mort fired a shot into the bushes but was way off. Nick had moved to test how well Mort could see his movements. No more talking to the enemy. It was kill or be killed. Nick fired at shadows under the wagon – then ran to the next tree as he fired again on the run. Mort’s next bullet hit the ground behind Nick. That was four if he hadn’t reloaded and Nick was pretty sure he hadn’t, so he fired back hoping to engage Mort in a gun battle to keep him firing. Mort obliged with one more, leaving only one bullet in his six-gun.
The next tree over from Nick held the picket line of restless horses. They were tugging at their ropes, but still tied. Nick ran for that tree and shot at Mort again, hoping to force him into using his last bullet. It didn’t work. Even drunk and confused, Mort knew his business. Nick realized that if the man was aware enough to know he was about out of bullets; he might also be reloading even now. Nick needed to end this quickly.
Nick slipped out among the horses, knife in hand. He cut the ropes of each of the Indian ponies, holding on to the lead ropes in his left hand as he went. He guided them toward the wagon, figuring Mort was busy reloading. Releasing the ropes, Nick stepped back behind the horses. He smacked a couple of them and yelled, smacking a third on the rump and waving his arms madly. The horses stampeded toward Mort’s end of the wagon. Mort was in no danger, but he couldn’t see Nick running toward the “former poker table”. Nick dove to the ground behind the body of his first target, firing on the fly. Mort pumped two shots into Dan’s dead body and Nick raised up to shoot Mort in the only part of his body he could see in the dark under the wagon – right between the eyes!
Nick laid there for a second or two to collect his breath. He knew the three men around hi were dead. He wasn’t sure about the one he had left with Molly. He hadn’t heard any shots from there. He called out, “Molly?! “
She yelled back, “I’m here! This one’s dead!”
Nick stood up and said, “So are these three! C’mon out!”
Molly stepped out from behind the bushes, now holding the rifle by its barrel, dragging the butt on the ground. When she saw that Nick was standing tall and holstering his gun, she dropped the rifle and ran to him. He held her tightly while she sobbed into his chest. He told her it was over, and she’d be okay now, but then let her cry it out.
They walked to where Nick had tied off Comanche and brought him back to the camp. The Indian ponies were gone now, and Nick was fine with that. He would take the two Franklin horses and the two from the outlaws back home, along with the wagon team. He told Molly they would sleep awhile and head for home early in the morning.
Molly helped him tie up Comanche along with the others at the picket line. Walking back to the wagon, she told him she didn’t think she cold sleep with the dead bodies around. They might even attract animals! Nick said he would take care of it and got a shovel from the wagon.
As Molly cleared a place to sleep inside the wagon, under cover, Nick dug one large hole among the trees. He pulled all four of the outlaws to the grave and laid them in there. He got two blankets from where the men had spread them out for sleeping and covered them in their grave. Then he filled the grave back up with dirt. There just weren’t enough rocks around to cover the graves in stone.
Molly came out from straightening up the wagon and asked about a marker. Nick replied they didn’t deserve one, but Molly said, “It’s about who we are, not them.” So, Nick broke up the box that had been their poker table and tied together a cross after he scratched “4 OUTLAWS” on the crosspiece. He hammered the cross into the ground with the shovel at the head of the grave.
The couple climbed into the wagon to try get some rest. With Nick there for comfort and safety, Molly went right to sleep. Nick had had quite an eventful and draining day himself, so he soon followed her into slumber land.
Birds chirping at the break of dawn woke Nick up and when he stirred around, Molly awoke. It took a minute or two for her to realize it all had not just been a bad dream! She really did lose her family and get taken captive by Indians! And there was Nick – he really had saved her!
“Good morning,” she said to greet her hero.
“Good morning to you, too,” Nick replied. “You want to start home quickly or take time to build a fire and eat something?”
“Let’s just go. I know there’s no one waiting for me at home, but I want out of this place anyway!”
Nick said he’d get the horses and wagon ready as soon as he could and he put on his boots, climbed down out of the wagon, and did just that. Fifteen minutes later, he turned the team toward home and the young couple began the slow trip back. Nick and Molly were on the wagon seat. Comanche and the four saddle horses were tied on behind the wagon. Quite a different picture than when the wagon had pulled into the camp the night before.
With saddles, bed rolls, guns, and a variety of other provisions neatly packed inside, they had no choice but to retrace the wagon’s trail back to the clearing by the stream where the outlaws had left the bodies of the raiding party. Nick tried preparing Molly for what they might see there and what they might do about it.
They approached the clearing a little before noon, but they were not at all prepared for what awaited them. As they got closer, they could see a group of men and horses! Nick told Molly to get in the back and hide. He took his six-gun out of its holster and laid his rifle beside him on the seat. He watched the men spread out a little across the face of the clearing and he braced himself for another fight.
It never came. When the wagon got close enough for the men to clearly see the driver, one shouted out, “It’s Nick!”
Nick turned to Molly and said, “It’s Pa, Molly! C’mon up! It’s Pa and some men from town!”
Nick!” shouted James Morgan. Then as Molly climbed into view to sit beside Nick, James added, “and Molly! He’s got Molly!”
The men ran out to meet the wagon and escort them in. Nick climbed down one side to hug his pa as one of the other men helped Molly down as well. It was a bittersweet reunion. Nick with his pa with the young couple safe and sound, but no family to greet Molly. Both of the “kids” took a little time to wash up and they all shared their stories over lunch.
When Nick hadn’t come home from town when expected, James went looking for him. He learned that no one had seen him in town at all, so he rode by the Franklins before beginning to worry. After seeing what had happened there, James went back to town for the sheriff and more help, they had a decent but quick funeral for Molly’s family this morning and the rescue party set out to track the Indians. James was pretty sure Nick had gone after them, too.
They found the Indians and the wagon tracks at the clearing, buried the bodies, and were just about to begin a search for signs to tell them which way to go, when the wagon appeared on the horizon. The rest, of course, Nick knew.
Nick and Molly had much to tell but had already agreed that it would be up to Nick to tell the part about the gun battle. After all, Molly had not actually seen any of it after Nick had clobbered Nathan Tanner behind the bushes. She did tell that part of the rescue.
Nick merely said that after that there was a shootout. He had killed two with his rifle and then shot it out with pistols killing the last one. He buried them in a small grove of trees, spent the night in the wagon, and headed home early this morning.
“Home,” Nick said. He took Molly’s hand and repeated himself. “We’re headed home.”