Updated: Nov 30, 2022
My name is Sam Colter. Samuel when Mama is about to take me to task, which is hardly ever.
I am the second to oldest of the Colter sons and I am the misfit. None of my brothers are like me. James, the oldest, wants to conquer the world with a new enterprise he has yet to discover. He’s two weeks shy of being an entire year older than me. James should be the one to take over the ranch, but he’s far too ambitious to be tied down. It’s just a matter of time before Papa realizes that me, the steady, predictable, and dependable one, will be the son that runs the place one day.
Boone is the third son, the wildest of us all. His barometer for risk is broken. Old Grandpa Ben, he wasn’t really our grandpa, but that’s what we called him, used to say that Boone was just too stupid to know he was in trouble, or he was some darned fool.
Then there’s Deacon, the fourth son. By the time he came along, Mama wondered if she had done something wrong to get saddled with four boys under the age of six. Deacon was the most resourceful of us all. He could build a fort with sticks, hay, and rope.
Then there was the baby, Preston. He was quiet, like me, but only on the outside. Inside of that kid, there was some storm a raging. Someday it was gonna come out and shoot if I didn’t want to be there when it did.
That brings to my story. Like I said, I’m the misfit. The quiet one. Cautious. Dependable. Anxious as all get out on the inside. Smart. Leastwise, that’s what Mama always says. I looked more like a cross between my papa, with my dark hair and my mama with my bright blue eyes.
If you ask anyone in the family who Mama’s favorite was, they would all say it was me. None of us knew the reason she favored me until the year I turned twenty-one.
That was the year where one letter from a journalist named E. M. Thatcher changed my life forever.
Colter Ranch, Arizona Territory
May 4, 1887
I returned from Prescott after a trip to pick up the mail and the ledgers from the butcher shop that my cousin, Eddie Colter, ran with his wife, Annabel. Eddie was roughly eight years older than me, so he was twenty-eight then.
Eddie worked with Daniel Raulings, who we all called Snake, for several years at the ranch to learn to butcher. He also learned how to smoke bacon, brisket, and more. Eddie was ready to take over the butcher shop and meat company when he turned twenty. Snake still butchered and smoked some of the meat out at the ranch, but Eddie ran that business with Annabel’s help.
I managed the finances of the meat company, the ranch, and Uncle Adam’s horse breeding and training business.
When I arrived back home, I set the mail and the meat company’s bills and books on the table. Two of my brothers were still at school. James was off somewhere in northern Arizona with his railroad job, and Boone was apprenticing with a surveyor.
“How are Eddie and Annabel?” Mama asked as she poured me a glass of lemonade.
“Fine. Looks like they’ll have a new addition to their family soon.”
“Oh, I should make them a blanket.”
I thanked her for the lemonade and sat down at the table, sorting through the mail. A letter with a postmark from Chino Valley caught my eye. It was from E. M. Thatcher.
I opened it right as the door flew open.
“Clear the table!” Warren Cahill shouted.
I jumped to my feet and grabbed the stack of mail and books. Mama swiped up my lemonade just before Warren and two of the cowboys brought Papa in and set him on the table.
“What happened?” Mama asked as Papa groaned in pain.
A trail of blood dotted the floor. My eyes searched for the source of the blood. It was Papa’s leg. I dropped my things on the desk when I felt woozy. It was where I should have put them, anyway. Sometimes I preferred working at the table because there was more room to spread out. Plus, Mama often sat and chatted with me for a bit.
“He got gouged in the leg by that ornery bull,” Warren said.
“I’m sorry, Hannah,” Papa said between groans.
Mama walked over to the pantry and pulled out her medical bag. She always had tonics, medicines, and bandages on hand. She took a pair of scissors and cut the leg of Papa’s pants so she could get a better look at the wound.
“It’s not too deep, but it is going to require stitches. Do you want me to do it? Or I can send for the doctor?”
I already knew what Papa would say before he said it. Mama always cared for any injury or illness on the ranch. Because the ranch was about an hour outside of town, she patched up whatever needed patching long before the doctor arrived.
“You do it,” Papa said.
She poured him some whiskey, and he tossed it back. As he laid down on the table, Mama got to work. She always kept a warm pot of water on, so she quickly sterilized a needle.
After that, I couldn’t watch without fear of passing out. I didn’t want to pass out right before my brothers got home. I’d never live it down.
My stomach churned, so I walked over to the open window and breathed in the fresh late spring air.
“There,” Mama said. “Now, get off my table so I can scrub it down before supper.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw the bandaged wound. I helped Papa to the couch after the cowboys left. He laid down.
“Just prop that leg up,” Mama said as she handed him some willow bark tea.
His legs were longer than the couch, so he had little choice.
I asked Mama if she needed help, but she shooed me out of the way. I found my lemonade and went over to the desk.
“Will, you’re gonna need to stay off that leg until it heals. At least a few days.”
Papa frowned. He wasn’t one to sit idle. His face looked pale, and he closed his eyes after he finished the tea.
I returned to the mail and remembered the letter from E. M. Thatcher. I opened it and scanned the letter.
“Mama,” I said as I heard her scrubbing the table and then the floor. “Let me read you this letter.”
“It is from E. M. Thatcher. He says he’s a journalist with the Prescott Gazette. The earliest pioneers in the area are being interviewed by him. He just published his first article on Grandma Betty and her son, Paul, about his boardinghouse.”
Grandma Betty wasn’t really our grandma. She was like a mother to Mama, so we treated her like our grandma before she passed.
“He included a copy of the article if you’d like to read it.”
“Maybe after supper.”
“Anyway, he heard from Paul that you were part of the same wagon train and that you might have an interesting story to tell. He wants to come out to the ranch for a few weeks this summer to interview you and Papa.”
Mama finished cleaning everything and joined me in the parlor.
“Will, did you hear that?” she asked.
“What do you think?”
“I suppose that’d be fine. He can have James’s room. If James comes back, then he can double up with Sam.”
I frowned. I wasn’t sure if Papa meant E. M. Thatcher or James would be my roommate. Either way, I was already sharing a room with Boone. I definitely did not want a second roommate. I was a man and had responsibilities, unlike my three younger brothers. Besides, I hoped to take over James’s room.
“Did he say when he would be here?” Mama asked.
I scanned the letter again. “No. I think he is waiting for an invitation from us before setting some dates.”
“Can you write back to him that we would be happy to have him come for a visit at his earliest convenience?” Mama said.
I pulled out a fresh sheet of paper and scrawled a quick reply. “You want me to sign for you, Papa?” I usually did because an accident before I was born left Papa unable to read. It was why I took an active role in the businesses.
“Go ahead. You can mail it when you go to the stockyards tomorrow.”
“Me?” My chest tightened.
I hated the stockyards. Dozens of smelly cattle kicked up dust. They looked mean. Hopefully, Papa would not expect me to know how to pick out the stock he wished to purchase. I spent most of my life avoiding the creatures.
I know. It sounds dumb. Even though I grew up on a ranch, I hated cattle. I worked with them as little as Papa would allow. My forte was numbers. I managed a budget better than anyone else on the ranch. But cattle? No, thank you.
“I need you to go with Warren and George. You’ll be my representative since I can’t go.”
“Can’t you send Boone?”
“He has his job and James is still gone. So, it falls to you.”
I bowed my head and let my shoulders slump forward. I really hated the stockyards.
At least I was a decent rider and wouldn’t embarrass myself riding into town with Warren Cahill and George Larson, the other two co-owners of the ranch. George was about twenty years older than Papa, while Warren was relatively close to Papa’s age. They were partners for as long as I could remember. If there was ever a disagreement, Papa got the deciding vote, as he had the largest stake in the ranch. He stayed out of the horse business. That was Uncle Adam’s alone.
I sighed and returned to sorting through the mail and paying the bills. It was more interesting than dwelling on the trip to the stockyards.
The next morning, I donned my only pair of denim pants and a cotton button-down shirt. Most of my clothes were nice suits, which I preferred over the getup I had to wear to the stockyards.
Papa did not join us for breakfast that morning. He wasn’t feeling too well from his encounter with that bull. I ate quickly and headed out to the barn to saddle my horse.
When I arrived at the barn, Aunt Julia finished saddling up her horse. She tied her long brown curly hair back with a ribbon. She wore her cowgirl hat and split skirt. I figured she was gonna help us bring back whatever cattle we purchased.
After I saddled my pinto gelding, Bailey, I joined Aunt Julia, Warren, and Georgie.
“Where’s George?” I asked.
“He’s sick, so he asked me to take care of things,” Georgie said. Georgie was George’s oldest son and my aunt Julia’s brother-in-law. Looked like we had plenty of representation from the Larson clan.
Two of the cowboys joined us. I was grateful for it. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to do much of anything besides pay for the stock.
An hour later, the six of us arrived at the stockyards north of Prescott. I excused myself to mail the letter to E. M. Thatcher before I returned to the stockyards. When I got back, Warren examined several heifers and bulls. Their plan was to buy a new bull to replace the ornery sucker that gouged Papa’s leg yesterday.
“You look like a real cattleman,” Aunt Julia teased me as she propped a leg on the rail of the corral and pulled my cowboy hat a little lower on my head.
I pushed my hat back up to where I liked it. “I grew up on a ranch.”
“Yeah, most days it doesn’t seem like it. You think you could run the place if anything were to happen to Will?”
My stomach tightened, and my throat constricted. “Nothing is gonna happen to Papa.”
“Not now. But someday he’s gonna want to stop working so hard.”
Warren and Georgie waved me over. Aunt Julia followed beside me.
“I think this bull is the best choice,” Warren said.
Aunt Julia entered the pen to look the creature over. I stayed outside of it. She always had been fearless.
“I think he’s sound,” she said when she stepped out of the pen.
When they asked my opinion, my tongue tied up in knots. I think I managed an intelligent answer, since none of them looked at me like I was crazy. The three of them selected five heifers in all.
I paid the stockyard owner and joined them on my horse. Then we drove the cattle the back way to the ranch. When I say we, I really mean everyone but me. I kept Bailey near enough to the back of the cattle but contributed little in the way of help.
I never did like the back way to the ranch. Something about coming to the ranch from the northwest never felt right. It was more than that. I got downright anxious, sweaty palms, sweaty neck, shallow breaths. It just unsettled me in a way that made no rational sense.
When we drove the cattle down into the valley, I parted ways with everyone else. Julia, Warren, and Georgie drove the bull into the pen by the barn while the cowboys took the heifers out with the rest of the herd. I took Bailey into the barn and brushed him down, glad to be home.
As soon as I was done, I changed back into my normal clothes and set about my normal job.