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Hardback with Dustcover
King bypassed a little town and worked his way southwest toward New Orleans. He made less than twenty miles most days and literally fell out of the saddle when he found a campsite. He managed to pull his saddle from Ranger’s back, hobble him in the lush grass, and crawl into his blankets too tired to think about fixing a meal. He waited until breakfast to make coffee most days.
This morning, dawn woke him. At first King couldn’t remember where he was. He saw Ranger standing by the creek. Looking up at the thick branches of the live oaks, he rubbed his head several times and finally remembered. I’m on my way home. It’s still almost a thousand miles to Texas. I’ll be there in a few weeks. Maybe I’ll be well again by the time I get to New Orleans. Once I get well I’ll make better time.
Suddenly ravenous, he untied the cloth bag of food from behind his saddle. He had saved some bread and fried ham from his midday meal the day before. He finished the ham and one piece of the bread, saving enough to eat at noon so he wouldn’t have to stop. When he finished eating he knelt awkwardly at the edge of the creek and drank from his cupped hands.
Ranger seemed glad to see him. “Come on, boy. We’ve got a lot of travel ahead of us. You won’t be so fat and sassy when we get home. Those months you spent in the stable in Washington City almost ruined you”
King rode as though he belonged on horseback. He kept Ranger headed southwest and held him to a fast walk or a trot. The horse’s long stride ate up the miles. Day after day he seemed to grow stronger. Unlike his rider, he showed no signs of weariness when they stopped at night.
Several days later, King rode into a little town where a shabby storefront announced: “TOWN OF BILDAD, LOUISIANA. Food, Drink, and Supplies.” The three other buildings that made up the town seemed to be deserted. He couldn’t see any people, but the door of the store stood wide open.
Tying Ranger to the hitch rack in front of the store, King limped across the porch and went inside. There were stacks of goods everywhere; mountains of bagged flour, beans, brown sugar, and salt. Guns, harness, and wagon parts decorated the walls. Anything you could think to ask for was there in abundance.
He approached the counter and asked the storekeeper, “How far is New Orleans from here?” The man was a thin, pasty-looking fellow with tobacco stains on his wispy beard.
“I’d say the city is about three days’ travel, Mister, if you move right along. That is, if you’re traveling horseback.”
“I am, and I’m obliged to you. I need some decent clothes and a few supplies.”
“Headed to Texas, I reckon”
“As a matter of fact, I am. Do the packet boats still make a regular run to Galveston?”
“They run twice a week now. Lots of folks going west. Ain’t much to hold them around here no more. Them free blacks, backed by the army, is about taking over this far south. Most folks around these parts don’t hold with that at all. Everybody that can scrape up travel money is going down this road headed for Texas.”
“You don’t say. Well, I’ll just collect up the things I need and get a move on”
King chose coffee, flour, salt, and bacon. He bought some heavy cord pants and riding gloves. A light carbine and sheath for his saddle and several boxes of shells completed his purchases.
The storekeeper eyed King’s choices as he piled them on the counter. “You’ve been west before ain’t you, friend? Most folks ask me what they need. Then they buy all they can of what I say.”
Watching the man’s shifty eyes, King thought, I’d bet they buy a lot of junk they’ll never need. Ignoring the storekeeper’s comments, he added a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy wool blanket to his pile of goods and asked for his bill. He almost yelled out loud when he saw the total.
Ranger snorted and shied at the huge pack King tied to the back of his saddle. “Behave, you wild cayuse. I’ll get us a packhorse in Galveston. You’ll be about enough trouble on a packet boat all by yourself. A little extra work won’t hurt you one bit. Maybe it’ll make you behave some better on the boat ride.”
New Orleans seemed to be full of soldiers in Union blue. The sidewalks teemed with people, and the streets were crowded with every kind of cart and wagon and carriage that could be imagined. It seemed the whole town was trying to get somewhere in a hurry. King took Ranger to the first livery stable he found.
Shouldering his pack, he asked the old man who had taken his horse, “Can you direct me to a clean hotel, Uncle?”
Removing his pipe, the man asked, “You wanting to sleep or is you looking for some devilment?”
King laughed aloud and answered, “I want to wash off this trail dust and sleep until the next packet leaves for Galveston.”
“Well, you better not be going to no hotel then. They’s so much trash in this here town you got to sleep six to a room. Shore as shooting some sorry son will steal your gear while you’s sleeping. You go ‘round to number 8 Rue Saint Mary. Missus Glade takes roomers. She feeds good too. You’ll be better off there, mister.”
“I’m much obliged to you,” King said, handing the man a coin. He left the stable and slipped into the stream of people moving along the sidewalk. He soon found the house and dropped his heavy pack on the porch to lift the big brass doorknocker.
This sure doesn’t look like a rooming house, he thought. It looked more like some planter’s townhouse. King examined the imposing doorway with its frame of colored glass as he waited for someone to answer his knock.
The walls of the house were brick and stood three stories high. Wide windows reached from ceiling to floor on the porch level and were covered with fancy wrought iron. The little front yard had been clipped smooth and the flowers looked well-tended.
Beginning to feel nervous, King thought, I wonder what that fella meant by sending me to this house?
The door suddenly opened inward to reveal a handsome woman in the opening. She looked to be about thirty and wore a severe but attractive black dress. “Yes?” she asked in an icy voice. King noted that she obviously disapproved of rough-looking men with clumsy packs showing up at her fine door.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am.” King removed his hat and bowed. “I’m Kingsley Sutherland from over in South Texas. An old black fella that works at Higgins’ livery stable directed me to your house. I do apologize for bothering you. I see there must be some mistake. I was looking for a place to stay until the packet boat to Galveston leaves.”
To King’s astonishment, the woman smiled and opened the door a little wider. “Oh, Melton sent you to me. Do come in, Mr. Sutherland.”
She turned to walk back into the hallway. King picked up his pack and followed as she led the way into a large room that was beautifully furnished as a parlor. King felt strange standing on the carpet. The room looked a lot like the ones he remembered seeing in houses in Charleston when he was a boy.
The woman crossed to seat herself behind a desk and said, “Please be seated, Mr. Sutherland. I’m Victoria Glade.” She smiled invitingly and patted her glossy black hair into place. “I keep records here exactly like a hotel would. The town authorities require it. I must have your full name and your home address”
“You already have my name and I guess the nearest place I can call an address is San Antonio, Texas”
“You’re actually from Texas. Well, my land, that’s the first time I ever heard anyone say they were from Texas. Most people are on their way there.”
“I really am from Texas, Mrs. Glade. I’ve, uh, I’ve been back east on business.”
That’ll just have to do. I’ll never explain what really took me east to this fine southern lady.
“How long do you plan to stay with us, Mr. Sutherland?”
“Only till the next packet boat leaves for Galveston please, ma’am.”
“That will be Friday. You’ll owe me fifteen dollars for room and board for three days”
Wincing at the staggering sum, King paid the amount she asked. “Money sure don’t go very far these days, does it?”
“Shouldn’t be any surprise to you” Victoria Glade stood up. “It’s been like this since the war ended. I’ll get you some supper. Your room is the first one to the left at the head of the stairs. The door is open. There will be hot water in the wash-house out back, so you can bathe after you eat”
King watched as she swung her skirts around and walked through the door. She was a good-looking woman and she knew it. It must be hard for someone like her to run a boarding house. No wonder she only took people sent to her by someone like Melton, he thought.
A tiny black woman dressed in a white Mother Hubbard apron appeared in the door. “If you’ll come to the kitchen, sir, Miz Glade says I’m to feed you” Her lined face was full of disapproval and her voice was as stiff as her starched apron.
Entering the kitchen, King seated himself at the long table. It was set with real china and silver as fine as the kind his mother owned. The woman served him a plate piled high with fried potatoes and ham. There was a plate of cornbread cut in huge squares on the table. A new mold of butter and a jar of pickles were within reach. The woman slammed a pitcher full of cold sweet milk down in front of his plate. By the time he’d eaten his fill the black woman had stopped working and was standing in front of the stove staring at him.
“I sure do thank you, ma’am. That was good. I’ve been eating rough and I was some kind of hungry. You’re a great cook”
She seemed to lose some of her hostility at his smile. “You can eat, I’ll say that for you. I guess it takes a lot to fill up a big man like you”
“Not usually as much as that. It really tasted good.”
“I’m Ida. I’m Melton’s wife. Miz Glade said he sent you over here”
“Yes, ma’am, he did. I left my horse at the livery stable and he said it would be better for me to come here than take my chances in a hotel.”
King pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’ll go up to my room now, Ida. Will you yell when my water is hot?”
“I’ll knock on your door. It’s bad enough Miz Glade done turned her home into a hotel. I don’t have to go ‘round yelling at people.” She sniffed and tossed her head.
King chuckled as he left the kitchen.
His room held furnishings similar to the precious family pieces his mother had hauled across Texas. The huge bed was covered in hand-worked quilts. When Ida knocked on his door, King followed her downstairs and through the kitchen to a cabin in the yard. He soaked off the trail dust in a huge tin tub full of steaming water. He found a razor and strop hanging beside the mirror and shaved.
Staring in the mirror, he saw that his face had filled out again, but he looked older. Time had faded the livid scar and the sun had fired his skin until he looked almost as dark as an Indian. He thought he resembled his father. The scar didn’t look too bad.
Dressed in his new tight-fitting trousers, King looked at his shapeless and broken boots and almost laughed out loud. I look like a spavined mule. I’d get laughed out of Texas in these boots. I’ll have to get me a decent pair right away. There might be some smart-mouthed drover or two hanging around the docks in Galveston and I’d have to throw my gun.
Leaving the house, he walked slowly downhill, sometimes moving out into the street to get past groups of people crowding the sidewalks. After a few blocks he could see the empty masts of ships ahead. The wharf teemed with people, just like the streets.
King pushed his way past men in overalls standing beside women dressed in poke bonnets and calico. He also noticed flashily dressed men with smooth white hands and careful eyes. Cajun fish hawkers yelled from their boats. Children screamed and ran and climbed over the piles of boxes and baggage waiting to be loaded on the packet. He stepped over the barrier at the end of the gangplank and placed one tight new boot on the deck.
“Hold on there, dude,” a voice yelled from the nearest door. “You can’t just come on this boat without a by-your-leave.”
A man rushed out onto the deck. He was dressed in tattered and filthy riding clothes, his face as red as fire from the heat of the cabin. His shaggy black hair made him look wild. He stopped in his tracks when he got close enough to see King’s face.
“King Sutherland!” he whooped. “My God, man, you’re supposed to be dead.”
“Luke, I’m as alive as you are” King yelled with delight and held out his right hand.
Luke clasped King’s hand in his and almost danced with excitement.
“Boy, it almost broke my heart when I talked to y’all’s Mexican drover Eduardo in Santone. He told me your family had given you up for dead. Does your family know you’re all right? Have you written to them?”
“Hey, hold on now, Luke-one question at a time. Let’s go someplace where we can talk.”
“Aw, King. I can’t leave this dang boat. I’m working my passage back to Galveston. I come over on the cattle boat. Me and some old boys threw a little party last night and the blasted army threw me in jail. I ain’t got enough money left to get home unless I work my way.”
Luke hung his head and looked down at his scuffed and torn boots.
Slapping his friend’s shoulder, King said, “I’ve got enough to see us home, Luke. I just paid for a cabin and space for my horse on this boat. We’ll go see the captain and make arrangements for you.”
“I reckon he’ll jump at the chance to make a passenger out of me. I’ve lived on a horse so long I can’t hardly walk on this boat with its everlasting rocking.”
King told the captain that Luke wasn’t going to work for him, bought passage for Luke, and led his friend to Rue Saint Mary. “I’ll lend you some clothes so you can clean up decent. You can turn the legs of the pants up some. I’ve got enough to lend you some money for some new boots, too. Yours look like they might have been your granddaddy’s.”
“I been riding the grub line lately, old son. There ain’t no money left in Texas to pay drovers. The cattle market went bust as soon as the war started and I’ve just been drifting lately. You know work is scarce for yore old pard Luke Wilson to sign on to wrangle cattle on a stinking boat”
“You can ride along home with me if you want,” King offered. “Blanco Sol always needs riders.”
“I’ll shore trail along with you,” Luke answered slowly. “Pards are as scarce as jobs these days.”
King led Luke around the house to the wash-house and the bathtub. “You better clean up some before anybody sees or smells you, Luke. I shocked them bad enough when I showed up. You look like a wild Indian wrapped in rags. There’s a cook here by the name of Ida that can make cornbread so good you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. We don’t want her upset none”
“Cornbread. That sounds good to me. I ain’t been good and full since I can’t remember when” Luke moaned in anticipation of the delights to come.
“You go ahead and get cleaned up and shaved. I’ll go get you some clothes,” King said.
He ran through the kitchen and up the stairs. As he came back down with his arms full of clothes he met Victoria Glade.
“Oh, ma’am, I ran into an old friend from my home. He’s going to travel back to Texas with me. He hadn’t found him a place to stay yet so I brought him back here with me. Can he share my room?”
“Of course, he can, Mr. Sutherland. We’re delighted to have your friend stay with us. There’ll be a small extra charge, of course, for his meals.” She was still dressed in black but had changed to a dress that bared her pale neck and shoulders. King tore his eyes away from the deep neckline.
She moved closer to him. “I’ll be joining you for dinner this evening. Perhaps you’ll have a glass of Madeira with me after we eat?”
“Why, sure thing, Miz Glade, I’d enjoy that” He wondered if the dress was for his benefit. She sure is something, he thought. Supper might get to be real interesting.
Luke was transformed when he strapped his old gun belt over the new clothes.
“Come on, man” King said. “If you’ll try to hurry a little bit we can get you some respectable boots before dark”
The two Texans left the tanner’s shop and sauntered along shoulder to shoulder. They were both lithe and handsome, and their skin had taken on a rich reddish-tan color from their days in the sun. Their clothes and new boots marked them as cattlemen; aliens in the hustle-bustle of the city.
“I’d shore hate to be stuck in this burg for long,” Luke said as he looked at each passing face. “You can’t hardly tell what kind of varmints you might meet.”
“Don’t you go getting touchy with anybody now, Luke. That boat leaves early Friday morning and we’re going to be on her. There’s too much law here for a drover to act natural.”
“You can say that again. That doggone lieutenant that throwed me in jail would be dead if he’d been in Santone.”
King laughed. “Still the same old fire-eater. You always stayed in trouble. I don’t know how you managed to keep yourself alive this long without me to look after you”
“Aw, you laugh. Most of my gunplay started with you or Clint sparking some gal some other fella thought he owned.”
“Look, Luke,” King said, ignoring the jibe. “Here’s a barbershop. It’s still open. We could both do with a haircut.”
They emerged from the shop some time later with their sideburns trimmed and their hair smooth. Except for the identical Navy Colts hanging low on their sides, they looked almost civilized.
“Let’s get on back to that boarding house,” King said. “I don’t want to run into anybody else that knows me today.”
“What in the world have you done to be on the dodge?”
“I’m not on the dodge. I’m a little bit afraid some Army man might recognize me. I should report to the garrison, it’s kind of expected-but I don’t want to be stranded here for weeks tied up in Army red tape”
“Why would the army care where you are?”
“They don’t really. I’ve got papers showing my separation due to my injury, but I don’t want to be bothered explaining myself.”
“Well, come on then, we can hole up at your rooming house tonight and all day tomorrow. I don’t want nothing more to do with them sorry blue boys myself.”
Ida was almost finished putting supper on the table when the two men entered the dining room. “Sit down, y’all. Miz Glade will be down directly.”
Luke moaned at the sight of plates piled high with fried chicken and delicately browned biscuits. The long table was almost covered with dishes: several bowls of vegetables, a gravy boat, a mold of butter in the middle of the table, a crystal dish of pickles, and another of applesauce.
“I can’t believe what I see. Is it real?”
“It sure is, Luke. And I can swear that it tastes as good as it looks. Ida is the best cook in New Orleans, so her husband tells me”
“That fool. How would he know that?” Ida smiled her pleasure at King’s compliments.
At that moment Victoria Glade walked in the door. Luke’s eyes popped at the sight of her pearly white shoulders showing above the low neckline of her black dress.
“That’s your landlady?” he sputtered. “I can’t believe the luck some fellas have”
King pushed his chair back and he stood up, grabbing Luke and pulling him to his feet as well. “This is my friend I told you about, Miz Glade: Luke Wilson, from San Antonio. He’s the best gun-toting cattleman in south Texas and he’s saved my life more than once.”
Luke turned red and mumbled, “How do, ma’am”
“I’m honored to meet you, Mr. Wilson. What an introduction! You must be pleased that you found Mr. Sutherland. Please take your seats, gentlemen.”
Luke fell back into his chair and fastened his eyes on his plate. He didn’t look up again until the meal was over.
As soon as everyone was served, Victoria asked, “Does your business take you east often, Mr. Sutherland?”
“Oh no,” King answered, hoping Luke would maintain his silence. “I’m usually much too busy at home to travel. This was sort of an emergency trip.”
“I want you to tell me all about Texas after dinner. People tell such outlandish tales. I’m sure I can trust you to tell me the real truth. Will you excuse Mr. Sutherland and me, Mr. Wilson?”
“Shore I will, ma’am,” Luke replied, turning an accusing look on King. “I need my rest anyway.”
Pushing his chair back, Luke stood up and bowed, his face serious and his cheeks still red. “I can’t begin to say how great that meal was, ma’am. I’ll be looking forward to breakfast”
“My room is the first on the left at the top of the stairs,” King called as Luke hurried out of the room.
Victoria led King through a door off the central hall. “The other salon is only for entertaining my nosy neighbors and my husband’s family,” she explained. King wondered where this husband of hers was.
The room held French furniture upholstered in pale blue silk. The patterned carpet was so thick that King’s boots sank in with every step. Victoria lit a lamp beside the sofa. “Come sit here beside me, Mr. Sutherland. We can enjoy the fire as we talk.”
The room seemed almost too comfortable. King sat down and stretched his legs out toward the small fire in the marble fireplace. Victoria sat on the sofa near him. She turned his way, looking directly into his face and smiling as she listened to his tales of Blanco Sol Ranch and the part of Texas he’d grown up in.
King realized that her eyes were sad and hungry-looking. Tiny lines marred the beauty of her full mouth. Discontent and bitterness were written on her face. She dropped her hand to the seat of the sofa, her fingers almost touching King’s knee.
“Won’t you call me Victoria, Mr. Sutherland? I’ve been dying to call you King. It sounds so grand.”
“That’s real kind of you, Miz Glade, but I wouldn’t feel exactly right acting so familiar all of a sudden. It surely ain’t polite.”
King stood up and held out his hand. “I reckon I’ll just get on upstairs. I’ll have to get up early to tend to some business and I’m downright tired from traveling. I’ve been looking forward to sleeping in that big bed, so I’ll say goodnight.”
Victoria Glade’s eyes turned dark with anger, but she smiled and wished him a pleasant night.
King entered his room on tiptoe. Luke was already snoring. King slipped off his clothes as quietly as possible and slid under the quilts. He gently pushed Luke’s inert body over to make room. He knew it wouldn’t do to wake him, he’d surely raise a fuss.
King had no more than straightened out on the bed when sleep claimed him. He woke to rude shaking. Luke was already dressed. “Get up out of there you lazy hog. Breakfast is long over. Are you going to sleep forever?”
“Get the heck out of here, you sorry no-good talking machine. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?” King turned his face to the wall and pulled the cover over his head.
“Ain’t no need for you to cuss your friends just because you’ve been out tom-catting around all night,” Luke taunted him.
“Oh, shut up. I have not been out tom-catting around and I ain’t no kid for you to be trying to mind.”
“Well, you shore act like one. Get dressed, will you? Let’s get on that boat and stay there until it leaves. That high-stepping widow downstairs was making sheep’s eyes at me at the breakfast table. Almost put me off my feed. I can smell trouble if we stay here a minute longer than it takes to get ourselves together and run.”
“Aw, come on, Luke. You’re lying. She wasn’t flirting with you too?” King sat up in bed and looked into his friend’s grim face. “No, I guess you’re not lying at that. All right, get my pack while I dress. We’ll put my horse on board and spend tonight on the packet”
The two men made short work of packing and slipped quietly down the stairs and out into the street. “Whew,” said Luke. “Life is something, ain’t it? A fella never can be shore what will happen when a good-looking woman’s around”
King and Luke found a restaurant with an empty table and ate a huge meal. “Let’s rustle on down to the docks,” Luke said as he washed down his last bite of leathery steak with his second beer.
“We’ll need some daylight to get your horse aboard the packet. If he’s any good at all, he ain’t going to want to take no boat ride.”
“He might raise a fuss at that. He’s a great horse. I wouldn’t want him to hurt himself. I might have to bed down in the hold with him to keep him quiet.”
“Don’t you worry none about that. We’ll hobble him and tie his head to the stall. He’ll stand. Most horses are smart enough to not get hurt if they see they can’t get loose.”
The two men had to detour twice around groups of soldiers on the way to the livery stable. Luke’s expression told King he might say something insulting to the men and get them in trouble. It didn’t feel right to King for him to talk to Luke about his service in the Union army, but he would be forced to talk about it if the soldiers asked for their papers.
Melton wasn’t at the livery stable, to King’s great relief. He didn’t want to have to explain to him why he was leaving early. A young boy led Ranger out into the yard for King to saddle him and tie his pack on.
Luke stood back and admired the horse. “That’s a grand trail horse, King. He looks like he’s strong and fast”
Luke was known as a good judge of horses. King had never known him to be wrong in his choice of a mount. He could pick out the finest horses in a remuda at a glance. Then he could get all the work a horse was capable of with his superb riding.
“Thanks, old man. That’s fine praise coming from you. Ranger likes to show off, but he’s strong and he’s got a smooth gait.”
The horse acted as though he was glad to see King and stood quietly for him to strap on his saddle and pack. “I’m going to buy a pack horse in Galveston, Luke. Say, where’s your big red colt?”
“He’s in Jake Benton’s corral in Galveston. He’s eating his head off, I reckon. He’ll be too fat to run by the time I get back there”
“He’ll lose the fat fast enough. I’m in a hurry to get back home”
King jumped into the saddle. “Here, Luke, climb up behind me. He can carry both of us easily.”
King had to hold Ranger tight even with such a load on his back; he was skittish in the crowds of people. The loaded wagons and crowds of people seemed as numerous as they had been the first day he arrived in town.
When they finally reached the boat, Luke and King dismounted. Holding tight to Ranger’s head, they led him onto the deck of the boat. A boatman rushed over to hand King two heavy pieces of canvas attached to a cable and quickly moved back several steps. “Lead him up beside that hole and get the straps under his belly,” he shouted.
Luke looked at the man disdainfully. “Are you afraid of horses, fella?”
“You bet your boots I am, fella. I ain’t fool enough to let one of them crazy nags kick my brains out”
Luke slipped Ranger’s saddle from his back, placing it and his pack well out of the way of the horse’s hooves.
“You hold his head, King. Look how he’s rolling his eyes”
King held Ranger by his bridle and rubbed his quivering nose. He began to talk to him softly. “Take it easy, boy. We’re not going to hurt you.”
Luke slipped the canvas strips under the horse and attached them to the cable.
“Get out of the way,” yelled the boatman. Two black men turned the pulley wheel, lifting Ranger clear of the deck. The great horse screamed in rage and fear. He kicked out with both hind feet, making the sling sway from side to side.
“Hold him still,” Luke said quietly. “He’ll calm down soon as he sees he caught”
King watched with his heart in his throat. One lunge at the wrong moment and he could lose Ranger.
Luke got the horse quiet finally by just talking to him. “Let him down easy now,” he cautioned the men on the pulley. He slipped into the hold beside the horse as they slowly let him down. “Come on now, boy. I’ll put you in the best stall these folks have got since we’re here first and then I’ll give you a bait of grain.”
Ranger stood stock still on the bottom of the boat with his head up, trembling all over. Luke’s voice and hands soon calmed him and the danger was over. King felt as though he could hardly breathe until Luke climbed back up on deck.
“Stop your worrying, pard. Your precious horse is tied up like a baby. He’ll be fine if this tub don’t sink.”
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