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.
#adventure #war #cattle #cowboy #frontier #historical #horses #novel #ranch #romance #thriller #western #wild west #Comanche
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.”