High Plains Fort by A. H. Holt

High Plains Fort
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1830’s
Location – S. Carolina, Virginia and Colorado
Description – Riding west to find a new life for himself and his beloved Amelia, Justin faces murderers on the trail. In Bent’s fort he finds friends, but also a traitor planning to take the fort with the help of the Comanche. Warned, he prepares the fort and its people for the attack.

Hashtags
#Adventure #War #Cattle #Cowboy #Frontier #Wonderer #Historical #Horses #Novel #Ranch #Romance #Thriller #Western #Wild West #Comanche #Colorado #Western Novel #Suspense #Family Friendly #Bent’s Old Fort #Otero County #Arapaho Plains Indians #Santa Fe Trail

Places to Purchase

Amazon
Smashwords – Available on March 28, 2021
Good Play – Available on March 28, 2021

Facebook Page

Lulu
Pocket Book (4.25 x 6.875 in) – Coming Soon.
US Trade (6 x 9 in)
Hardback (6 x 9 in) – Coming Soon.
Hardback with Dustcover (6 x 9 in) – Coming Soon

First Chapter

Milt Anders jumped the four steps and hit the porch at a dead run. His boots heels rattled the oak boards. Grabbing the top of the swinging doors with both hands, he stuck his flushed face into the cool darkness of the Red Wheel Saloon and shouted, “Git out here, you sons! Red Thornton and Wes Lane are at it again. Hurry it up if you want to see anything. They’re just past Pecan Hill and running flat out.”

Boots pounded on the wooden floor of the saloon as five men jumped to their feet. The tall one knocked his chair over backward and spilled his beer as he joined the group running for the door. Pushing against one another to get through the swinging doors, they hurried out onto the porch to cluster around the still yelling Anders. Holding their hands flat over their eyebrows to shade their eyes, every man squinted into the late afternoon sun.

Wes Lane’s big palomino led Thornton’s horse by at least a length. Long-legged and powerful, the horse stretched out, running his hardest. Anders laughed aloud and held his right arm out to point at the riders.

“Look at Wes Lane-slapping his horse’s rump with that little whip he always carries”

Red Thornton’s black appeared a lot smaller than the yellow horse. The sleek mustang stallion ran with his legs bunched close against his belly and his body low to the ground. A cloud of dust thrown up by the horse’s hooves followed the racers.

As the riders approached the wooden bridge across Acorn Creek, the men could see Wes Lane’s right arm swing high and slam down hard again and again. Every time the quirt struck the palomino’s side, the horse flinched a little, almost breaking stride. Foam flecked the animal’s pale nose and flew back against its shoulders.

The black ran steadily. His head was lower, but he gradually advanced until his nose looked almost even with the palomino’s. The straining horses hit the bridge side by side. Their hooves slammed the thick oak planks, sounding like thunder. Red rode hunched forward, low over the black horse’s withers, shouting encouragement and patting the animal’s neck with his left hand.

When they hit the dusty street, the black ran nose to nose with the larger horse. Still flailing wildly with his whip, Wes raked the straining palomino’s sides with his big California spurs. Blood flew in a spattered arc across the horse’s hindquarters.

The black lunged at least a full head out in front of the larger horse as they passed the group of men clustered on the saloon porch. After another hundred yards the racers passed the town well, and the smaller horse showed the palomino his rump.

Wes sawed on the reins and pulled his heaving horse to a stop. His face like a thundercloud ready to pour rain, he dismounted to stand stiffly in the middle of the street. He stared with angry eyes and his fists propped on his hips as Red slowed his black to a walk and turned to ride him back to the well, moving at an easy trot.

Stepping down from the saddle, Red led the black to the water trough, patting the animal’s neck and shoulder and murmuring praises with every step. Trying to hide a grin, he kept his face turned away from Wes’ angry stare.

“You cheated me again, blast your eyes, Red Thornton. That ugly piece of crow bait could never beat my palomino if you knew how to ride a fair race. You crowded me on the turn.”

Red turned, lifting his head to look straight into the eyes of the tall, blond rider. “Face it, Wes, I didn’t crowd you anywhere at all, and you know it. That oversized pony of yours is all show and no bottom. He starts off with a bang, but he’s used up in half a mile.”

“You just hold on ’til Coronado gets a blow, and I’ll beat you on the way back-if that crow bait of yours don’t crowd me”

Red laughed and shook his head as he said, “If you don’t walk that horse some to cool him off, he’ll not be fit to race again anytime soon”

Yanking the palomino’s head up, Wes led the horse by the bridle reins as he walked toward the group of men still crowded around the saloon porch, discussing the merits of the race. He waved to a ragged boy hanging over the hitch rail.

“Here’s two bits, boy. Walk my horse for me. Take him down to the bridge and back a couple of times. After he’s cooled off good, give him about half a bucket of fresh water and tie him right here in front of the saloon”

Tossing his mount’s reins to the boy, Wes stepped up onto the porch and stomped his feet as he swaggered through the crowd of men and pushed open the Red Wheel’s swinging doors. Shaking his head and looking serious, he announced to anyone who would listen, “If Red Thornton ever ran a man a fair race, that black devil of a pony he rides wouldn’t show a chance against my Coronado. You fellas shoulda seen how slick that boy did it. He guided his black close to Coronado so he could crowd me on that sharp turn down there by Lewis Gillium’s place. I had to hold on as hard as I could to stay in the saddle. He almost put me and my horse both right over into the ditch.”

Striding across the room to an empty table, Wes took a seat facing the door and called to the bartender, “Give me two beers over here, Johnny. Red’ll be in here in a minute-soon’s he gets through babying that scrawny mustang of his.”

Outside, Red let his horse drink a few mouthfuls of water, then pulled him away from the trough. “Take it easy, Pitch. You’ll get plenty more water in a few minutes. You know better than to try to founder yourselfdrinking too much when you’re all hot from running. Come on now, you need to walk some more”

Leading the horse by a rein, Red walked up the street away from the Red Wheel. He turned left a few steps past the courthouse and headed toward the livery stable. Burt Glassner, the liveryman, came running from the direction of the saloon to catch up just as Red reached the open stable door.

Burt’s face was red from exertion and he was chuckling as he said, “I saw the race, Red. I was in the Red Wheel getting me a cold drink with some of the fellas when old Milt Anders came running to the door. He yelled out that you and Wes was racing again, and everybody in the place got up and made tracks out to the porch so they could see the finish. This here black horse of yours sure can run.”

“You’re right there, Burt. This horse purely loves to run. Give him a bait of grain and a little more water, will you? Don’t give him too much, now. He’s just like any other fool of a horse and would drink too much if he could.”

“I’ll get old Nate to take good care of him for you, Red. Don’t you worry about him none. I can’t hardly get my hands on that horse without he gets all riled up, but he took to Nate the first time you ever left him here. He’s as gentle as a lamb with him. You going over to the saloon now?”

“You bet I am-Wes owes me a beer, and I mean to collect”

Burt laughed and pushed his hat to the back of his bald head. “Wes Lane won’t be none too happy that your horse beat his out. You can bet on that. He holds a lot of store by that big yellow horse of his’n. You’re bound to the hurt his pride some beatin’ him that wayright out in public like that. It’s the second time you’ve done it too, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, it’s the second time I’ve done it. I know it hurts his pride to lose a race, Burt, but he asks for it. Heck, Wes plain out begs for it.”

When Burt led Pitch through the wide end door of the livery stable, he held only the tips of the reins to stay as far from the horse as possible.

Nate hobbled over to grab the horse’s bridle. “I seen the race too. This here cayuse can some kinda run”

“You got that right.”

“Say, hold on there a minute, Red. I got a question for you.”

“Sure thing, Nate. What is it?”

“I figure Burt’s been living hereabouts more years than God, so he could probably tell me, but I’d rather hear it from you. Why in the heck do folks call you Red? You ain’t got red hair. Your hair’s as black as that Indian’s what runs around with your old man-that Chief Billy something.”

“It’s no big mystery, Nate. I was named after both of my granddads. One of them was William Lane, and the other was Rufus Thornton, so I’m really William Rufus Thornton,” Red began.

“You coulda asked me that,” Burt said. “I sure knew it. Both them names is downright famous around here. Them two fellas come in here together way back. They were tough old birds too. They cleaned out a nest of thieves and scoundrels that was using the valley for a hideoutfollowed them over the mountains on the old outlaw trail. After the crooks was gone, they took up land here, side by side.

“Red’s granddad went by Bill, and his dad goes by Will, so they set out to call the boy Rufus-figured that would keep down the confusion. I guess the name didn’t exactly fit, because it got turned into Red some kinda way, and it stuck.”

“Well, I’ll be swiggered,” Nate said, a slight smile showing under his white mustache. “I figured you’d know, Burt. You know just about everything else.”

Laughing softly, Red waved to the two men as he turned away to walk toward the saloon.

When he reached the porch, he placed one hand on top of each of the swinging doors and pushed them open, stepping inside. The light in the room was poor, but the air felt several degrees cooler than outside.

As soon as he spotted Red standing at the door, Wes called out, “Come on over and sit down, partner. Here’s the beer I owe you. I was beginning to think you were somewhere hiding your head in shame for winning a horse race the underhanded way you won it.”

Winding his way through the tables, Red ignored the way the other patrons looked at him. Removing his hat, he dropped it onto a nearby table and settled in the chair directly across from Wes.

Careful to speak loudly enough for everyone to hear, Red said, “You keep on telling that tale over and over, Wes Lane, and you’re gonna start to believe it your own self. I don’t need to cheat none to beat you on a horse, and every man in Acorn Creek knows it-except you.”

Wes raised both hands, palms out. “I know, I know, you’re the best rider with the best horses in this part of Arizona Territory. I’ve heard it said more than enough times. I just don’t believe it, that’s all.”

“Believe what you like. I know what I can do, and I know my stock. That saying you’re quoting ain’t so very wrong, either.”

“Drink your beer, old son. I need to talk to you about those cattle you’re moving for my old man.”

Red lowered his voice. “Wes, Major Lane gave me my orders about what to do with those cattle. He even backed them up in writing. I’ve got his note right here in my pocket. I’m not thinking about doing a doggone thing with those cattle but exactly what your father wrote down here for me to do”

“You don’t even know the deal yet, Red. You don’t know anything about what I have in mind. You could at least listen to what I’ve got to say”

“That’s true, Wes. I don’t know the deal, and that’s a fact. But you need to understand this before you start talking. I don’t give a rat’s hind end what you have in mind. I’m doing exactly what I agreed to do and not a thing besides.

“My orders are to roust a hundred steers out of that patch of woods near the creek bed behind your house, drive them to the railroad, and turn them over to Major Lane’s factor, who’ll be waiting down there to meet me. That’s what your father said for me to do, and that’s the end of it as far as I’m concerned”

“Come on, Red. Don’t be like that. I need twenty of those cows just twenty head. You can tell the major you tried but couldn’t find the full hundred. He’ll never know the difference.”

“I’m not going to do that, Wes-you can just forget it. Stop talking about it. You’re wasting your breath. I already told you this before we even left the ranch”

Wes leaned across the table and reached out to grab Red’s right wrist in one long, slim hand. His face flushed with anger, and his voice grew louder. “You’ve got to help me, Red. You’ve just got to help me. Listen to me, man just listen. Gil Patten will send some of those bully boys of his to hurt me. They’ll do it too. Patten swore if I didn’t place the money I owe him in his hands by noon this Sunday, he’d see I got two broken legs.”

“Look, Wes, just stop it-stop talking about it. I can’t do it. I just can’t. Back off, for heaven’s sake. I know I helped you the last time you got into trouble, but I can’t do this. I won’t do it. I don’t have the money to lend you this time, and I won’t do your father dirt. And that’s the end of it.”

Wes leaned forward to plead, “All you have to do is look the other way for a few minutes, Red-Bob Jenkins and me’ll meet you down by the river crossing and cut twenty cows out of your herd. We’ll drive them over to Cutter. I can sell them to that Mason Jones fella-the new man who’s running the mine. Those miners are always needing beef.”

Red shook his head and remained silent.

“Stop shaking your head at me, Red-please stop. You’ve got to listen this time. This is important. It may be life or death for me. You can’t refuse me-you can’t. You’ve got to help me”

Wes’ face was covered in sweat, and his fingers tightened on Red’s wrist. “Patten’s men probably won’t stop with breaking my legs. They’ll likely try to kill me this time. You know they will.”

Red yanked his wrist out of Wes’ grip, pushed his chair back, and stood up, reaching for his hat. “I have to get home, Wes. You need to let this gojust forget it. I’m not going to help you take twenty of Major Lane’s cows. I don’t care how much you talk or how sad your story gets”

Wes pushed his chair back and stood also. He rushed around the table to stand close to Red. His expression was grim. “Come on out back and talk to me about this, Red. There’s another reason you’ve got to help me this time.” Lowering his voice, he leaned closer to Red to whisper in his ear, “Becky’s involved this time.”

Red’s face flushed, and his dark eyes seemed to flash with light when he heard Wes whisper Becky’s name. He slammed his hat down onto his head with a jerky movement. His whisper sounded almost like a snarl. “Get out back right now, you everlasting weasel, and don’t you say another word in here.”

Red turned to stride through the back room of the saloon, out the door and down two stone steps to the gravelly dirt of the alley. Wes was right on his heels. Taking a few long steps away from the door so that no one inside the saloon could hear his voice, Red turned to face Wes, his hands on his hips.

“What the Sam Hill is the matter with you, Wes? You know better than that, for heaven’s sake. How could you bring Becky’s name up in there? Have you lost all your sense, all your decency?”

“Oh, calm yourself down, Red. Nobody but you heard what I said in there. The rest of those lazy bums weren’t paying any attention to us”

“Like heck they weren’t paying attention to us. Those two Dolman brothers sat right there at the next table, pop-eyed the whole time we were talking. They heard every blasted thing we said. They both plain jumped in their chairs when they heard you say Becky’s name. I saw them do it.”

“Well, I don’t give a rip what those two clowns think about me or Becky McClain, either. So there.”

“You’d better start caring, Wes, and start it fast. By golly, if you try that again, I’ll teach you to care.”

“Just shut up about it, Red. Talk to me about those cows. I’ve got to have the money to pay Patten, and you’ve got to help me”

“You might as well shut up about it yourself, Wes. I’m sorry, but it’s like I’ve said over and over. I’m doing what I’m supposed to do and not one thing more”

Wes stepped closer to Red. His face gleamed white in the weak light, and his voice grew louder. “You’d let Patten’s men work me over when all you have to do is look the other way long enough for me to drive a little jag of cows out of there? You know those cows partly belong to me”

“That’s almost the same thing you told me back in June when you were so desperate for money, Wes. Remember? When you took most of my savings to get you out of the same sort of jam. Remember how you swore to me that if I would only help you, you’d never gamble again, and you’d return my money the next month? Well, I still don’t have any money, and here you are in trouble for more gambling. I’m not falling for it again, Wes. You can just forget it.”

Wes’s face went from white to almost purple with anger. He suddenly lunged forward with his arms straight out and slammed both open hands against Red’s chest, knocking him back against the building.

Caught completely unaware, Red lost his balance and fell sideways, sliding down the back wall of the saloon to strike his head on the sharp edge of the stone step. He rolled off the end of the steps and lay still, his body limp.

“Red?” Wes knelt beside the steps to stare into Red’s still face, muttering to himself. “He’s out like a light. Oh, but he’s all right-he’s still breathing.”

Red groaned, his eyelashes fluttered, and he slowly moved one hand to the back of his head.

Wes rubbed his face with both hands, a desperate look in his eyes. “I thought sure he was dead,” he whispered to himself.

Then he thought about that. “If Red was dead-if he got killed by some freak accident like this one, like falling down and hitting his head on that step-he couldn’t stop me from getting some of those cows of Dad’s and selling them to get the money I need to pay Patten”

Reaching past Red to feel around in the rubble beside the foundation of the building, Wes’s fingers found a piece of granite almost as big as a water bucket. Using both hands, he raised the rock high over Red’s face.

As his back and arms stiffened to smash the rock straight down with all his strength, the back door of the saloon opened.

“What in the dickens are you fixing to do, Wes?” Johnny Yates yelled as the door slammed shut behind him. Yates started running down the steps. “What are you doing out here, you fool? Have you murdered that boy?”

Frightened and overcome by panic, Wes looked down. Red’s pistol lay within an inch of his right hand. He yanked the gun out of Red’s holster and turned to fire at the bartender.

The .44 bullet entered between Johnny Yates’ eyes and took off most of the back of his head. He fell back against the saloon door and rolled off the far side of the steps.

Wes dropped the gun beside Red and ran for the saloon steps. He could hear the sound of boots striking the wooden floor as men rushed toward the door.

He yanked the back door of the saloon open with one hand and yelled at the top of his voice, “Somebody get Sheriff Logan and Doc Bailey over here fast! Red just killed Johnny!”

Red groaned again and put both hands on the ground to push himself to a sitting position. His head pounded. He forced his eyes open to see a crowd of men gathered around him. The alley suddenly seemed to be full of men. He could see Doc Bailey and Wes kneeling beside someone lying on the ground beyond the back steps of the saloon.

“What’s happening?” Red muttered.

Sheriff Logan moved closer and squatted down in front of Red. “So you finally came to, huh? I thought you would-sooner or later. How many drinks did you have tonight, Thornton?”

Puzzled, Red lifted both hands to hold his aching head and whispered his answer, closing his eyes against the pain. “I had one beer-the same as usual, Sheriff. Why?”

“Ha. One beer. That’s what they all say. You won’t get away with this, though, doggone your sorry hide. Not a bit of it. You ain’t gonna get crazy-mad drunk and shoot innocent people down like dogs in my town and get away with pretending you don’t even know what you did.”

“What in blazes are you talking about, Sheriff? You’re the one who sounds drunk right now.”

“Don’t go getting yourself excited, Thornton. I’ve got your gun right here in my hand, and it’s been fired. I can smell the burned powder plain as day. And Wes Lane stood within a few feet of you and watched you kill the man. You and him were the only ones out here, and he ain’t even armed.”

“Sheriff, this is crazy.” Red struggled to get to his feet. “Anybody in town can tell you I never drink but one beer. Ask Johnny Yates-he’ll tell you”

“It’s poor old Johnny Yates you shot down, you miserable drunk. Straighten yourself up. I need to get you locked up for your own protection. People around here were fond of Johnny.”

Motioning to Jack Dorman to move forward and take Red’s left arm, Sheriff Logan pulled him forward.

Red lurched against the two men, still dizzy from his head’s hitting the stone step. “Sheriff, wait. Listen to me. Please. I was knocked out. Wes and I were arguing, and he got excited and pushed me down. I didn’t shoot anybody. I swear I didn’t. I never even touched my gun. Get Doc Bailey to look at the back of my head-I’m still bleeding from where I hit my head.”

“I see you’ve got some blood running down the back of your neck. You musta been so drunk, you fell over after you murdered poor old Johnny.”

“You’re not listening to me, Logan. I didn’t shoot anybody. I haven’t even touched my gun. Wes pushed me, and I fell and hit my head against those stone steps over there. The fall knocked me out for a few minutes.”

“Stop your yammering, and move along, Thornton. You’re still so drunk, you can’t hardly stand up straight, much less talk sense.” Giving a hard yank on Red’s right arm, the sheriff dragged him through the crowd of men filling the alley.

Red’s head cleared enough that he could see men he had always counted as friends and neighbors staring at him with hostile eyes. Still unsteady and confused, he held his head as high as he could and stared back.

As Jack Dorman and the sheriff pulled on his arms to lead him around the corner to Main Street, Red came face-to-face with Wes.

Wes stood in the middle of the street, surrounded by a group of cowboys from White Willow Ranch, waving his arms and talking.

Red called out to him, “Wes, come over to the sheriff’s office and tell him how you pushed me and I hit my head on the step back there in the alley. He thinks I shot Johnny Yates”

Wes didn’t answer. He stared at Red, his eyes as hostile as those of the other townsmen in the crowd. Still without answering, he watched as Jack Dorman and Sheriff Logan dragged Red away.

By the time they passed through the sheriff’s office and reached the door with the iron-barred window to the jail’s one cell, Red was feeling a bit steadier on his feet.

“Get in there,” Dorman said, pushing Red toward the open door.

Catching himself against the low cot as he stumbled across the cell, Red turned to look at Dorman and said, “Jack, you know I wasn’t drunk. You and your brother sat right there in the saloon no more than an arm’s length from my table and listened to everything me and Wes said. You know as well as I do that I hadn’t even finished drinking all of one beer when Wes and I went out back”

Without speaking, Dorman backed away from the cell door with his head down and refused to look at Red.

Sheriff Logan slammed the door so it latched and turned to grab Dorman’s arm. “Hold it there a minute, Dorman. Is Thornton telling the truth about that beer? Were you sitting next to him and Wes the whole time? Is it true what he says? Did he only drink one beer?”

“I don’t know, Sheriff Logan.” Dorman pulled his arm out of the sheriff’s grasp and raised his voice, a stubborn expression on his face. “I don’t know nothing for sure. I didn’t paid no never-mind to what Thornton did in there. All I could say for certain-sure is, he wasn’t hardly in the Red Wheel long enough to get drunk, and I sure don’t reckon he coulda been drunk while he raced that horse”

Shaking his head, Sheriff Logan turned away from Dorman to turn the key to lock the cell door. Raising his head, he peered through its barred window at Red. His voice sounded a little kinder.

“I’ll ask questions, Thornton. Wes Lane’s telling everybody you were so blind drunk, you pulled your gun and shot Johnny for no reason at all. He says he’s the only witness to the shooting, and now you claim you were knocked out. Can you tell me any reason for Wes to shoot Johnny down like that and then turn around and blame it on you?”

Red sat down on the cot and held his throbbing head in his hands as he tried to think.

He finally lifted his head to look up at Logan and mutter, “I don’t know, Sheriff. I just don’t know.”

Places to Purchase

Amazon
Smashwords – Available on March 28, 2021
Good Play – Available on March 28, 2021

Facebook Page

Lulu
Pocket Book (4.25 x 6.875 in) – Coming Soon.
US Trade (6 x 9 in)
Hardback (6 x 9 in) – Coming Soon.
Hardback with Dustcover (6 x 9 in) – Coming Soon

Kendrick by A. H. Holt

Kendrick
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1907’s
Location – Colorado
Description – Wayne Kendrick is suspicious. His best friend, Jim Carson, has suddenly disappeared, and Jim’s claim has been taken over by The Blake Mining Company, which claims the land was abandoned.

Hashtags
#western #classic #cowboy #twins #frontier #loyalty #thriller #gunfighter #African American #kidnapping #slavery #romance #crime #mystery #suspence #adventure #historic #family friendly #horses #mining #Colorado #1900’s #Orphans #Gold #Gold Mine #Mountains #Family

Places to Purchase

Amazon
Smashwords – Available on February 25th, 2021
Good Play – Available on February 25th, 2021

Facebook Page

Lulu
Pocket Book (4.25 x 6.875 in)
US Trade (6 x 9 in)
Hardback (6 x 9 in)
Hardback with Dustcover (6 x 9 in)

First Chapter

The cup sailed over my head and crashed against the wall. Coffee and pieces of china flew over half the kitchen floor. I could feel drops of hot coffee hitting the back of my left shoulder.

Me and Millie started arguing while I was trying to eat my breakfast. I got so angry with her I went and said something really stupid. Something I should never even think, much less actually come right out and say to somebody. When I said it, she didn’t even answer me. I happened to look up in time to catch a glimpse of her arm moving. That cup would have caught me right alongside my head if I hadn’t ducked.

I couldn’t believe she did it. I stood up to stare at Millie in astonishment. She slapped one hand over her mouth and stared right back at me. I think she was every bit as surprised I was. After a second or two of staring her eyes began to fill up with tears. She put both hands up to her face and dashed out of the room. I could hear her sobbing out loud as she ran up the steps and down the hall to her room.

First thing I thought of was to clean up the mess. There was coffee and pieces of that cup everywhere. On second thought, it come to me that the best thing I could do for Millie was to grab my hat and coat and get myself out of the house for a few hours.

Shutting the door carefully so’s not to let it slam, I stepped out on the porch. I needed to go to Belden anyway-been putting it off for days. The trip would take me most of the day. That ought to give Millie time enough to calm herself down.

The sun was just edging itself up over top of the mountains when I led my pony out beside the corral and threw my saddle up on his back. All the lights were out in the bunkhouse. The only sign of activity I could see was in the cook shack where Billy Dunn would be cleaning up after cooking breakfast for the crew. The riders would all be out on the range by now.

I poked my knee into Rollo’s fat belly and yanked the cinch strap tight before he could get his breath good. That fool pony’s got a slick trick of blowing his belly up so’s he can get the saddle loose. He tossed his head around when he knew I’d caught him in his meanness and jangled his bit at me, the devious little skunk. He knows every dirty trick a horse can think of and is always trying to toss me in the dirt. Anybody would think he was part mule.

After tying my saddlebags and canteen securely behind the saddle I mounted, pulling hard on the reins at the same time. You couldn’t let Rollo get his fool head down. He danced around kind of sideways for a few steps and then pretended to give in. I held him tight though. He’d caught me sleeping before and thrown me on my butt. I wasn’t about to give the blasted jughead another chance to put me on the ground.

It galls me to have to take a day away from the ranch, but I’ve got some important business in town. I’ve been laying off to take a day and go to Belden to get some cash money to pay the regular hands. It’s about time for me to hire six or seven extra riders to help us out with spring roundup too. I always put the trip off as long as I can. The doggoned town is just far enough away from the ranch to be aggravating. It takes long enough to get there as it is. I don’t have time to be fooling around with this maverick pony.

Me and my sister-Millie that is-have been running the ranch together for two years now. Ever since our Dad died. She’s the foreman in the house and barns and I run the show with the cattle and horses mostly, then we work on the infernal bookkeeping together.

We don’t fight over things often, but Millie’s got her way of thinking and I’ve got mine. That’s the way most folks are, I reckon. But we both got up on the wrong side of our beds this morning.

That woman’s got her a wild notion lately that she wants us to buy some highfalutin kind of bull to improve our herd. She read about the thing in some newspaper or other. I think the critter’s from Scotland or maybe it’s another foreign place. I’m not sure. Well as it happens, I like the bulls we’ve got.

Besides, it appears to me that Millie’s real problem is she knows we’ve got a bit of money laid by and she’s itching to spend it on something or other. We started out just talking about buying that bull, but now we’ve been arguing over it for more than a week.

That woman’s about as stubborn as this clabber-headed yahoo I’m trying to ride when she gets something stuck in her head. This morning, I got brave and said a nasty thing about women folks sticking their noses in men’s business. Then Millie got so fretted over me making that crack that I’ll be doggoned if she didn’t haul off and throw that coffee cup at me. Maybe I deserved it. I don’t know. But it looks like Millie and me are both gonna have to say “I’m sorry” more than once before we get over this fracas.

There’s a lot of work to running a ranch the size of ours. To be fair, Millie’s about as good a partner as a man could find. We’ve got a good foreman, too. Rich Thomas started working for us maybe four or five years before our Dad died. It would be hard to think of running the place without him now.

He was the first one to get to the house the morning Dad passed away. At first Dad looked like he was sleeping real peaceful like. The Doc told us later that it was a heart attack that killed him. He seemed to think Dad had died in his sleep and never knew what hit him.

Rich was a right smart help to us then. He still is. He could probably run the ranch a whole lot better and at a bigger profit if me and Millie would just keep our noses out of things.

As soon as Rollo calmed down a little bit I eased up on his reins enough so he could trot out between the barns. I took the dirt lane that connects to the road to town. By the time I cleared the ranch buildings that ornery sucker had decided to quit his foolishness. He commenced to jog along easy, eating up the miles.

I complain about Rollo a lot, but I actually enjoy riding him. Even being sore at Millie can’t take anything away from that. He’s a fine looking horse: compact and shortcoupled with a slick-looking black hide. And he’ll work, I tell you. He’s probably the best cow horse I’ve ever seen. It’s just a darn shame he has to act so ornery every single morning.

By the time I got off ranch property and started down the main road the sun was full up. It looked as if the day would build up to a real scorcher. We get desert weather here oftentimes, even this early in the spring. The sun tries to cook you in the daytime, and you have to wrap yourself up in a heavy quilt to keep from freezing at night. Soon I got so warm I took my jacket off and stuffed it down in one of my saddlebags. Then I settled down to get myself to Belden.

My head was still full of that crazy argument with Millie. As I kept thinking over what was said before we both blew up, it come to me that she had been acting a little different the last couple of weeks anyway. Millie’s ten years younger than I am. She’s always been “baby sister,” to me, but she’s no baby, especially when she loses her temper.

Come to think of it, Millie’s gonna have her twenty-first birthday the fifth of next month. Maybe she’s just generally upset because we’ve had the care of the ranch these last two years, and she’s getting older and ain’t had a chance to get out and kick up her heels none.

I don’t know if that could be it or not. I don’t rightly understand the way women folks think about things like that. I know she’s been sort of moody lately, like she had something on her mind.

Rollo kind of sunfished as we passed by the big stone posts that sit on either side of the entrance to Major Cason’s place. He does that every single time I ride him past here. It’s hard to blame him. I can’t help but shake my head when I see those crazy piles of stone sticking up. You’d think royalty lived there or something.

In a way I guess it does. The only woman I ever thought to marry does, anyway. Meg Cason was a pest following her brother and me around for years, but all of a sudden she was a grown up lady and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. That was when the Major sent her off to Boston to go to school.

Meg stayed East for more than four long years. I was sort of courting Sue Lane, the banker’s daughter, when Meg came home. The first time I went over to Cason’s place and saw her again I knew I was just wasting my time with Sue. Meg was what I wanted. I guess she always was.

But when I went over there again the next week and asked her to go to a dance in town that Saturday night, Meg yelled at me that she didn’t go to dances with men who were promised to other girls. Before I could say a word she turned around, marched out of the room, and slammed the door.

Now Sue Lane’s been married to some storekeeper from Denver for more than two years. I heard somebody say she had twin girls and was in a family way again. But from that day to this if I ask for Meg, either the Major or his son Jim tell me she’s too busy to see me.

It’s sort of puzzling to me. I’ve run into her out on the range two different times lately. Each of those times she’s ridden alongside me for a few minutes and pointedly asked me why I’ve been such a stranger. Now that’s sort of a puzzle too, because up until early last fall, I was making myself a regular pest by going over there so often. At least that’s the way I had gotten to feeling about it. I wonder sometimes if maybe it ain’t Jim and Major Cason that don’t want me to see Meg.

All those things kept jumping around in my head all the way to town. It made the trip seem like it would take forever. When I finally got to town, and made the turn past the livery stable, I was out and out flabbergasted to see that the street was jammed full of wagons, buggies, and people.

Everywhere I looked, all I could see was people, people and more people. Most of the folks I saw were men, but here and there I spotted women and some kids. They were sitting up on wagon seats, walking along the street, and going in and out of the mercantile. People were crowding in the saloon and every one of the stores and shops along the street.

I’ll tell you what. The sight plumb dumbfounded me. I ain’t never seen so many people in the same place anywhere. I certainly never dreamed I would see such a crowd on the main street of Belden. Why, I’d bet a dollar there’s not that many people living in all of Custer County.

Pulling my hat down to shade my eyes, I stood up in my stirrups so I could look over the multitude and try to see anybody recognizable. It gave me an actual feeling of relief when I finally spotted Tom Dillard, our town sheriff. I could see his white head sticking up over the crowd. He was standing on the sidewalk in front of his office. His deputy, Ollie Foster, was standing right alongside him.

Them two stood there, leaning back against the front of the building, just watching the folks in the street. I figure they were as amazed at the sight as I was. That crowd of strangers milling around seemed like some sort of a show.

I walked Rollo around the wagons and buggies and through groups of people until I worked myself over to the hitch rail in front of the store porch. There was so many people it looked hopeless to try and get a horse across the street. I stepped down and made my way across to the other side on foot. When I got near enough so Tom could hear me over the crazy ruckus, I yelled.

“What the Sam Hill’s happening around here, Tom? I’ve never seen so many people in all my life ‘less it was up in Denver. Did the whole blasted world decide to come to visit?”

Tom Dillard always takes the time to screw his mouth up and spit tobacco sideways before he can say a word. I propped the toe of my left boot up on the edge of the board sidewalk and leaned my elbow on my knee to wait him out.

Tom finally got started talking and said, “How you doing today, Kendrick? Ain’t this something? All them folks you see wandering around here is headed up to Shell Mountain to dig for gold. Some fancy dude come in town around the middle of last month claiming he had found some color up there. I don’t know how the word spread so fast, but by now you’d think he’d found another Comstock Lode.”

It was a big surprise to me to hear him say that. You can bank on that. I had a special interest in Shell Mountain. I stepped up on the boardwalk so me and the Sheriff could talk better. I needed to know more about this.

“Would it happen that I know this fella you’re talking about?”

My head was going a mile a minute. What in the world was going on here, I was wondering. The more Tom Dillard talked the harder I had to work to keep a straight face. I didn’t want to give myself away to the sheriff, but my belly felt all hollow-like and I was beginning to be some kinda worried.

Jim Cason, Meg’s brother and my best friend, started himself a homestead up at the top of the valley, right there on Shell Mountain. He had been working on it over the last couple of years. His place sits over on the eastern-most side of the lake, and his claim covers almost the whole top of the mountain.

Sheriff Dillard hitched up his pants a time or two and shrugged, then he finally answered me. “I don’t think so, Ken. Nobody around here knowed the man. Least ways, I ain’t talked to nobody that’ll own up to knowing him. I seen him out a my office window when he first rode in town. He was up on a fine looking roan gelding. He come down the street past my office to go to the assayer’s place. Me and Ollie was sitting here passing the time of day, like we do most days, but I kind of like to pay attention to strangers when they come in town. I reckon he stayed in the assay office for about as long as I ever seen anybody stay there, ‘ceptin maybe the assayer himself. He was down there for a particular long spell, anyway.”

“Tom, what exactly do you mean by a long spell?” I asked, beginning to feel impatient and a little irritated with Tom’s roundabout way of talking. I was wondering what in the world the man staying at the assay office a long time could have to do with anything.

“Well, I reckon he maybe stayed in there a good hour and a half. Or, I don’t rightly know for sure, it mighta even been nearer to two hours.” Dillard continued talking at his own pace, ignoring my show of impatience.

He turned to his deputy for confirmation, “Don’t you reckon it was the best part of two hours that fella was down there, Ollie?”

After Ollie nodded his agreement to Tom’s estimate of how long the man had stayed at the assay office, the Sheriff started up telling the story again, taking his time with it, as he usually did.

I knew there was no need for me to try to rush him any. Me and plenty of other people around this town have tried to do it, more times than once, but Tom just goes along talking at his own pace.

“When that fella finally come out of the assay office, I watched him walk down past here. He was leading that roan horse then. The next thing he did was to go over yonder to Judge Stern’s place. The Judge told me later that the man come in his office to file a homestead claim on most of the whole top of Shell Mountain. I hear tell he’s living up there now. He’s got himself a mine office in a little cabin. Calls it the Blake Mining Company. I reckon he’s making most of his money offa selling the right to mine gold to folks like these here pilgrims cluttering up our town.”

“Have you been up there?” I asked.

“I took me a ride up there early last week. I didn’t have no particular law reason to go up there, but I did it anyhow. I thought I’d just sort of check around some. A miner stopped by here one day and told Ollie here a long kinda mixed-up story about some of them miners going missing from the diggings.”

“What did he mean by that?”

“He said some of the men that were working claims up there were going missing. I don’t rightly know exactly what he did mean Ken, besides meaning exactly what he said. Well of course you know, it ain’t rightly my lookout what goes on up there anyway. Any lawbreaking on the mountain would be for the county sheriff to be worrying about, not me. Shell Mountain’s right close by here though, and the county seat is a pretty far piece away. Come to think of it, I ain’t never yet seen that County Sheriff or even one of his deputies over in these here parts. Anyhow, I decided I would go on up there and poke around some. I figured those miners were more than like just going on home cause they weren’t finding no gold, not really disappearing. But I was getting downright curious to have me a look at the place. That man’s story about miners disappearing made me all the excuse I needed to stick my nose in a little. When I got up there that Blake was standing behind a counter in his office looking downright important. I asked him if he knew anything about men going missing and he got all puffed up and said it was all a lie that had been made up on purpose to try to cause him trouble. He allowed that the men that were supposed to be gone missing had only just given up looking for gold and left the diggings, or either they had found what they come for and gone on back home.”

“Where’s this man’s office?” I asked.

“It’s in a snug little cabin, right at the end of the old road. I don’t think Blake built it his own self. Somebody took some time building that cabin. It even had a puncheon floor in it. Most of the new shacks up there are just thrown together out of bits and pieces. That one’s a real cabin.”

I couldn’t say anything. I just stood there feeling cold all over and looked at Tom until he started talking again.

“I sort of hinted to Blake that I’d be available to help if he had any trouble keeping order up there, but I already knowed he had a gang of toughs working for him. Three of them were standing out on the porch when I went in the mine office. I thought I recognized one of them from a poster, but I can’t be sure. I ain’t found the poster yet, but I will. Blake said them rannys were there to keep the peace in the diggings, then he as good as said he didn’t want or need no help from me.”

My heart sank even more, and it was a struggle for me not to start yelling for Tom to hurry up with his story. I was getting spooked. The more I heard about this mining business the worse it sounded.

When I finally calmed down enough to talk again, I asked Tom outright, “Have you seen Jim Cason around town lately, Sheriff?”

I knew the words came out of my mouth, but my voice sure didn’t sound right in my ears. I almost held my breath as I waited for Tom to answer.

“Now you know something, Ken. It’s passing strange you should ask me that. I mentioned to Ollie here just the other day, that I ain’t seen Jim Cason in town for a long spell. I think it was sometime last fall I seen him.”

Dillard turned to his deputy, “Didn’t I say that Ollie?”

Ollie straightened up from where he was leaning against the front of the building and nodded his head in agreement. Heck, Ollie always agrees with Tom.

Tom turned back to me and said, “By rights, Jim ought to ‘ave been down here early this month buying his spring supplies, don’t you reckon?”

Tom didn’t wait for me to answer, but kept right on talking.

“I remember Jim was in town in the fall. I think it musta been late September that he was here. At least I know it was some time before the snow started.

“You come into town with him that day, didn’t you Ken?”

I nodded my head. I couldn’t get a word out to answer him. My throat was stopped up with the awful feeling of dread I got from thinking about what might have happened to Jim.

“Why, that boy’s bound to be out of supplies by now.” Dillard rambled on. He knotted up his forehead like he almost had a thought then, but if he had one he decided not to share it with me.

This was getting to be too much for me to deal with. I turned away from the two men and jumped down off the boardwalk. As I walked away, I finally remembered my manners enough to turn back and wave my hand to Sheriff Dillard and Ollie as I rushed across the street.

Rollo seemed content, so I left him standing where he was in front of the mercantile store and hurried along to the land office. This situation was getting scarier by the minute. I’d been going along happy as a fat cow in tall clover, picturing Jim living up there on the mountain. I imagined him snug in his little cabin, just waiting for spring to open up before he came to town. The crazy story Tom Dillard was telling convinced me that this situation needed some serious looking into.

I noticed again that the sidewalk was full of strange faces. Crowds of people were in the mercantile store and the gun shop. Glancing through the doors as I passed, I could see that the clerks in both stores seemed to be frantically busy. One ran right past me to load a big sack on a wagon.

None of the people I passed on the way to the land office were people I knew. That coulda been because I was so busy worrying about what might have happened to Jim Cason that I couldn’t hardly see.

The boundaries of Jim Cason’s homestead claim are as familiar to me as the beginnings and endings of my own ranch. I helped him drive the stakes in the ground to mark his corners early one spring. That was two years ago.

Jim picked himself out about the prettiest spot in this country to start his place. He’s situated almost up to the tree line on the mountain and his claim runs right down to the edge of Shell Lake.

Me and Jim spent more than a month up there last summer, building him a good tight cabin and some furniture to go in it. We even dug us a sawpit so we could ripsaw enough boards to put a puncheon floor in the place. I don’t know who hated standing in that pit more, me or Jim.

We didn’t stop when we finished off the cabin, either. We set to and built a stout corral for his horses and two good tight sheds to hold his sheep.

Yep, that’s right, Jim’s planning to run sheep on his place.

Now believe me, I ain’t no sheep man. I raise red cows like any sensible man. But that Jim Cason, he’s got a bee in his bonnet that he can make himself a fortune up there raising some kind of special breed of sheep. He probably got that notion out of a dratted newspaper. He’s almost as bad as Millie Kendrick for reading everything he can get his hands on.

I think Jim mighta said it was some sheep that come over from Spain that he’s so het up about raising on his ranch. The last time I talked to him he was all excited. He told me that the kinds of grasses that grow naturally up in those mountain clearings are exactly the sort of grazing that breed of sheep need to eat so they can thrive.

It about broke Jim’s daddy’s heart to think his only son would turn into a sheep herder, but Jim’s so iron-headed that he’s got to have his way once an idea takes ahold on him. His daddy’s right-smart stuck up to my way of thinking, and the idea that his son would even want to leave his place and start up his own ranch was bad enough, but add the sheep and Major Cason was plumb mortified, I reckon. I know the Major and Jim got into an awful argument, and Jim was so bent out of shape that he swore to me he’d never set foot on his daddy’s place again.

When I got in front of the land office I could see Judge Stern through the window. He was sitting there behind his desk with his feet up on a chair, reading a newspaper. The useless old fool. Now, Stern ain’t really no judge, he’s only the federal land agent, but it sets him up some when folks name him judge.

“How-do Judge,” I said as I walked through the door. “How you getting along these days?”

Stern looked up from the paper and eyed me. I watched his expression, but I couldn’t read anything, except I thought he was looking a little bit more unfriendly than normal. But that ain’t even a little bit of a surprise. He likes to think he’s better’n most folks around here.

“Hello there, Kendrick, I’m just fine, thank you.”

He stood up as he asked. “What can I do for you today?”

It was possible Stern’s voice sounded a little bit odd when he said that, but then it may be that I was looking for something so hard I was just imagining things.

Stepping across the public part of the floor to lean my elbows on the counter I said, “First, I’d like to take a look at the plat book that covers the upper reaches of Shell Mountain, Judge. Then I’ll want to see what claims have been filed up there recently.”

Stern got a queer look on his face then, and sort of hesitated for just a second. It was clear enough that he didn’t want to show me that book. But there was no way he could rightly refuse. He knew I understood the law. That plat book and the survey maps are public property.

Even if Stern came up with enough nerve to actually refuse to let me see the records all I had to do was go get the sheriff and he’d be forced to hand ’em over. He knows that. It took him some time, way longer than it should have, but he finally reached underneath the counter and lifted the big leather book up on top. He even opened it to the right pages.

“If you’re planning to go hunting gold up there you’re some late, boy.” Stern said. I thought he sounded sort of sarcastic like. “You’ve got to go up on the mountain to the Blake Mining Company office and buy a mining rights claim from them now. That is if Captain Blake has any claims left. All the federal land up there has already been filed on.”

Stern was trying to look sort of I-don’t-care-like as he continued talking, so I just stood there and kept staring at him. It was plain enough that something was making him feel uncomfortable.

“I just want to check out the maps and pages that cover Jim Cason’s claims.” I said. “He filed on his place in the middle of September, I think it was.” I kept watching Stern’s face as I talked. “Seems like it was around two years ago now. I came in the office with him that day.”

“That’s right, I remember that you did that.” Stern said. I thought his voice was beginning to sound a mite unsteady.

“Kendrick, I know young Cason filed on two pieces of property up there, but he never stayed on the land long enough to prove up on it, so another settler’s got the claim on that spot now.”

I held on to my temper, but I felt like going across that counter and kicking that lowdown, miserable, doubletalking varmint right into the middle of next week.

“What the devil do you mean Cason didn’t prove up?” I demanded. My voice kept getting louder with every word. “Jim staked his claim, come down here and registered it proper, and built himself a cabin. I know he did all that, Judge, cause I helped him do it. He’s been living up there on the property year-round for near-about two years now. That’s what the government requires a body to do to prove up on a claim, ain’t it?”

“You’re wrong about that, Kendrick. You’re just wrong. Cason wasn’t living up there at all this winter. His cabin and corrals are standing empty and he’s long gone. Captain Blake told me it looked to him like Cason had been gone from there since sometime early last fall.”

Stern’s voice was getting louder too and his eyes began to look sort of blank. It seemed to me like I could feel his lies filling up the little office.

All of a sudden I knew I couldn’t stand still for Stern’s weaseling another minute. I reached over the counter to grab hold of his arm and yanked him over close to me. I jerked him as hard as I could too. I wanted to make darn sure he felt it.

“Exactly what is it you’re trying to tell me.” I was so mad by then that my words almost sounded like a snarl.

Stern tried to pull his arm out of my grip, but he wasn’t strong enough. His face turned about as white as butcher’s paper and he almost screamed, “Take your hands off me, you crazy hoodlum. I’ll call the sheriff.”

“You know I ain’t worried none about Tom Dillard. Go ahead and call him if you want to. He needs to know about this, same as me. If I remember rightly, he’s one of Jim Cason’s good friends, just like I am. He’d be more like to side with me than to pay any mind to anything you’ve got to say Stern, and you know it.”

I yanked on his arm again and almost pulled his sorry behind all the way across the counter.

“You talk to me.”

My temper was so fired up it felt like I was almost spitting the words out through my teeth when I said that.

Giving Stern another stiff shake, I thought how much he reminded me of a sneaking coward of a coyote. What I really wanted to do was punch his lying face in for him. A terrible, sick feeling was telling me that Jim Cason was almost sure to be dead-that maybe he’d been dead for a month or more by now. That feeling about filled me up with rage.

There was no way Jim would simply walk off and leave his place, not after all the work we had put in on it. Building that ranch was Jim’s dream. He just wouldn’t leave it. Not for no more time than it would take for him to make a trip to town for supplies or maybe to go visit his sister.

I stuck my face right down in front of Stern’s ugly, lying mug and said. “You tell me what you know about that Blake Mining Company.”

He sort of shriveled up then, like he might faint or some thing, and started in to whining. “All I know about it is a stranger that called himself Captain Malcolm Blake came in here about six weeks ago and showed me a hand-drawn map of the land up at the top of the mountain. He said he wanted to file a claim on the land that runs all the way around Shell Lake. I told him another claim was recorded right in the middle of what he wanted. That’s when he explained that he had found the mountain deserted. Then he filled out the paperwork to file on the land.”

“And you accepted his filing right over-top of Jim Cason’s, just like that? You didn’t think you needed some sort of proof besides that man’s word?”

My temper seemed to be getting worse every time I spoke a word.

“You’d take the word of some stranger you never seen before against a hometown boy you’ve known since he was a youngster? Without even checking it out or anything? Didn’t you think the man could be lying?” Every time I asked a question I gave Stern a hard shake.

“I can’t be running ten miles up on top of a mountain to check on every homestead somebody comes in here and says they find deserted. I’ve got this office to run.” Stern was almost crying.

His whining aggravated me so I shoved him back across the counter. I pushed him so hard he fell on the floor with his back leaning up against his desk.

“You’ll find out what you can and can’t do after I ride out and tell Major Cason what you done with his son’s claim.”

Staring down at the whimpering coward, I felt so spiteful I couldn’t keep from adding, “I hope that stranger paid you enough money to get your no-account behind out of town before the Major gets his hands on you. I’m on my way out to his place right now to tell him what you’ve done.”

I turned around and stomped out into the street. It may be I was mad enough right that minute to kill somebody with my bare hands. I sure felt like I was. If that blasted skunk Stern woulda been worth it I’d a liked to start out on him. On top of that I was feeling almost crazy with fear over what might have happened to Jim.

Places to Purchase

Amazon
Smashwords – Available on February 25th, 2021
Good Play – Available on February 25th, 2021

Facebook Page

Lulu
Pocket Book (4.25 x 6.875 in)
US Trade (6 x 9 in)
Hardback (6 x 9 in)
Hardback with Dustcover (6 x 9 in)