The Malefactors by A. H. Holt

The Malefactors
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Christian Fiction
Time Period – Life of Jesus Christ
Location – Jerusalem, Israel
Description – An epic tale spanning the lifetime of its characters. Set in Israel during the time of Christ, the story follows the life and times of two thieves. Jerusalem as its background, the story moves from the brutal life of a highwayman to the warmth of family and to the ultimate betrayal and a shattering revelation.

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#Bible #Christ #Jesus #Biblical #Love #Family #Palestine #Two Thieves #Thief #Jerusalem #Brutal #Betrayal #Revelation #Rome #Israel #Jews #Roman #Crucifixion #Historical #Suspense #Action #Adventure #Crime #Treachery #Procurator of Judea #Pilate #Tiberius #Pilate #Caesarea #Galilean #Golgotha #Galilee #Christian Fiction #Christian

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First Chapter

The hot, high sun of late afternoon beat relentlessly against the craggy rock cliffs overlooking the empty Roman road west of Jerusalem. Argubus the cripple seemed barely alive. He lay snuggled into a niche under a wide-overhanging cliff, high above the north side of the highway.

Many, many hours the old man spent sitting quietly, watching the road below, ever on the lookout for travelers. His lot, among the many followers of Barabbas, was to watch for some victim for the small robber band hiding in the bush filled wadi below. It was a trying, tiresome task, but one that him paid well. For Barabbas was generous in the division of spoils.

As he lay half-dozing in him as Argubus the Prophet. He the hot shade, Argubus’ thoughts were of the clever ways of his life. In the teeming city, people knew forever warned anyone who would stop to listen to his tirades of the anger God felt for his chosen people. They committed many sins.

Most mornings found him at the entrance of David Street. He marched up and down before the gate, waved his arms about and loudly prophesied the forth-coming curses that would soon be visited upon all Jewry by a vengeful God. He told his listeners of a God angered with his people for collaborating with the Romans—for allowing graven images to be displayed in the Holy City and for their many, many sins.

After his harangue, Argubus would go through the crowd holding out his beggar’s cup, seeking coins—coins he loudly proclaimed he would use to help the poor. He stared into the face of each person, a wild look of madness in his yellowish-brown eyes. The grim and fearsome expression on his sun-darkened face intimidated many out of at least one small coin.

When he gathered sufficient contributions, he would then leave the city, announcing to everyone in hearing distance that he was going into the desert to commune with God. He promised he would return the next morning to reveal his message to the people. Many scoffed at the old man’s preaching of doom, yet others believed and were fearful.

Argubus chuckled to himself as he thought of the foolishness of the devout. Especially those who believed him and gave of their small possessions, for he was a wealthy man according to the standards of his followers. He thought gleefully of a small hoard of coins hidden in a rock cleft directly behind where he sat. It was only a small sample of his treasure. He started to reach for the coins, to know the joy of holding their round smoothness in his hands, when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small dust cloud rising far up the road.

Keeping his head down, he crawled to the far side of the overhanging rocks. Staying bent close to the ground, he scurried down the steep path to the ravine behind the cliffs.

“Josias, Josias, hurry to the lookout and see who comes.”

Alarmed and excited, every member of the waiting band dropped what they were doing and rushed to gather around the old man. He waved one arm toward the lookout post.

“Go and see for yourselves.”

Josias, leader of the band and Emilack, the youngest member, rushed to climb the cliff path to the spot overlooking the road. Josias pushed his long hair away from his face and held one hand over his eyes to shade them as he cautiously peered over the rocks. The caravan was hidden from his view by a bend in the road. He motioned for Emilack to drop down lower in the rocks to assure he could not be seen.

The two men chafed at the long wait. Finally, the approaching caravan came near enough so they could examine it. Made up of a string of pack asses following a richly dressed merchant, the train moved slowly. The man rode on a fat black mule with richly caparisoned harness. Six poorly armed guards marched on each side of the merchant. The men moved dispiritedly, as though they were exhausted from a long day’s march.

Josias crowed with delight as he turned to Emilack. “Look, my friend. The caravan will be rich. Watch the way the guards walk—they’re exhausted. They’ll be no threat to us and there are no soldiers within miles. This could turn out to be an afternoon well spent.”

Still keeping their heads low, he and Emilack rushed back down the path to the waiting men. Motioning for them to come close so he would not have to shout, Josias ordered, “You men see to your weapons and get mounted. We’re going to take that caravan. It looks as if it was made for us.”

After a great scurrying about, Josias and ten well-armed men mounted their small but sturdy horses and rode to the narrow pass west of camp. Argubus returned to his lookout—he knew his part well. The robber crew hid themselves in the rocks and brush and waited impatiently for the old man’s signal to attack.

Argubus looked up and down the road again, to make sure no Roman Patrol rode within sight. As the caravan came abreast of the opening of the wadi that hid Josias’ band, the old man screamed the signal to attack. The men swept down on the caravan guards, scimitars swinging. It was over in no more than an instant and the tired guards were dead.

Josias himself held the merchant with his sword point in his throat. He ordered his men to clear the road of all evidence of the raid. Working in tandem, the men dragged the bodies of the slain guards into the broken rocks and brush and tipped them over into the ravine.

When the bodies lay all piled together, Josias’ men broke the rim of the ravine and pushed dirt over the dead guards. Finally, the robbers lead their own horses and the heavily laden mules through the mouth of the wadi and out of sight of the road.

Simon of Cyrenia sat his mount quietly, watching the eyes of the robber who still held his sword at his throat. Other members of the man’s band rummaged through his merchandise. His chest swelled with anger to know that the robbers touched his possessions, but he was cautious. Wisely reasoning that if the robbers planned to kill him he would already lie dead, he kept silent. All he could do was wait and see what would happen.

Tired of the golden-haired bandit grinning at him, Simon finally said, “I shall inform Rome of Pilate’s inability to make his province safe for honest merchants.”

“And well you may someday, my fine merchant,” Josias said, smiling at the anger so plain to hear in Simon’s voice. “If it happens that our master sees fit to hold you for ransom instead of taking your life.”

Simon of Cyrenia was one of the most successful traveling merchants in the Empire. He began his work young and seemed naturally shrewd to all those who dealt with him. Many named him a worthy descendant of Phoenician traders.

Usually he gathered costly items along the Southern Mediterranean Sea, conveyed them across the old Syrian caravan routes to Damascus and from there took them to Antioch and Corinth. He sold these goods to the wealthiest residents of those cities. Men and women demanded the best of the Empire’s offerings. Everything Simon offered his customers was of great value. The robbers shouted with joy as they opened the packs and examined their loot.

When it was full dark and safe, the men set out on a familiar path, leading the laden animals around the city to Gihon. From that place they could smuggle goods into Jerusalem by a secret door in the side of Nehemiah’s tunnel.

Moving everything in the packs took many trips by all members of the band that could be spared from guard duty. Carrying the heavy packs on their shoulders, the men splashed their way through the cold waters that flowed under the city’s walls. As soon as the merchandise all lay safely hidden away, Josias turned Simon over to two of his most trusted men.

“Take this merchant to the hidden valley, Micah. You and Elias stay there to guard him. Keep careful watch as you turn west of Mount Guarantania and Jericho. There will surely be Roman patrols moving about in that area. Take care you do not ride into them. This man will bring us a rich ransom.

“Don’t you dare forget to blindfold him when you get close to the mountain. He appears sharp and will probably remember everything he sees on the way. It wouldn’t do for him to remember the road to our valley.”

Barabbas watched Josias’ face as he recounted step by step every minute of the successful raid and described the valuable merchandise the men hid in their secret place. The bandit leader tried to keep a scowl on his leathered face, but could not contain an occasional grin. He was undeniably pleased with the returns from the attack on Simon the Cyrenian’s caravan.

He felt dismay however, when he learned that Josias decided to hold the merchant for ransom. It was Barabbas’ policy to kill everyone in a caravan. That policy served him well and kept his band in safety for many years. Only Josias dared to resort to holding his victims for ransom.

“You will let your greed for gold be our downfall, man. You’re a fool to hold men captive instead of killing them.” Barabbas began to shout angrily to Josias as soon as he rode into the hidden camp.

Josias showed no fear of Barabbas. Dismounting, he dropped the reins of his horse and approached the bandit chief. “Master, please listen to me. This is a truly wealthy merchant. He is far different from the usual petty traveling peddlers we find. His family will pay well for his release.”

“Yes, I suppose they will at that. But what of the day you hold a friend of Caesar or another official of the empire?”

Grinning impudently, Josias said, “That time Master, may be the day we have our fill of excitement.”

Barabbas stared at Josias thoughtfully. He valued the man greatly, but feared that his shrewdness and lack of fear would someday take him too far. He could endanger the entire band.

 “Meet me at the summit beyond Rimmon at dark tomorrow. We will ride to the valley and see this merchant. I, Barabbas, shall decide his fate.”

A little after moonrise the next night, Josias and Barabbas heard the challenge of a guard as they made their cautious way along a steep, rocky defile afoot, leading their horses.

“Halt where you are.”

“It is I, Barabbas, and one of my captains.”

“Enter Master, and peace be unto you.”

A small fire guided their way to a cave-like shelter. The opening was hollowed out from the limestone cliff by some ancient river. All the men of the band except the guard at the narrow entrance and one other man slept beyond the fire, rolled in their blankets.

Without a word of greeting to the man beside the fire Barabbas announced, “We will sleep the night out here, and tomorrow I will talk to the prisoner.” Taking his own blanket from the back of his mount, he joined the men who lay around the fire and soon fell asleep.

There was a great stir in the camp when the men wakened and realized Barabbas joined them in the night. Lucius, the captain of the band, feared the bandit chief’s visit. His band had found little luck in the last few weeks. He felt tremendous relief when after breakfast Barabbas covered his face with a scarf and called for Josias’ prisoner to be brought before him. Lucius’ heart swelled with pleasure when he noticed the serious look on Barabbas face.

I hope he’s so angry with that Josias he kills him as an example—right here before my men. If he does it here, it will make the cowards even more afraid not to obey my orders.

Following a guard, the prisoner emerged from an adjacent cave to stand before Barabbas. Turning to Josias and speaking pleasantly, Barabbas said, “Tell me about this fine prisoner we have here.”

“He calls himself Simon of Cyrene, Master. He is surely a merchant of great importance.”

“Is this so?” Barabbas said, laughing a little. “We shall see. Were his possessions many, my friend?”

“Yes, his goods are on their way to the usual place to be sold. I am convinced they will bring a tremendous price. Here is a heavy pouch of gold I realized from selling the fine animals of his caravan.”

Pulling a rolled sheepskin from a fold in his robe Barabbas said, “Good, let us write a demand to his steward for ransom. Here, use this fine sheepskin. To what relative shall we send our ransom demand, Simon of Cyrene?”

Simon’s voice trembled with anger. He held himself proudly, and stared into Josias’ eyes, “Write it to my son, James of Cyrene.”

“You will be pleased at the high value we set upon you Simon of Cyrene.” Barabbas turned to Josias, saying, “Captain, write the ransom for five hundred shekels.” He laughed aloud when he turned back and saw the expression of smoldering anger on Simon’s face.

Barabbas handed Simon his own business seal, stolen from the merchant’s personal possessions. “Here Merchant,” Barabbas said, “Stamp the demand at the bottom with this, so it will be recognized by your son.”

When Simon finished placing his seal on the document and handed it back to Barabbas, the bandit chief asked, amusement apparent in his voice, “Are you sure your son will think you worth such a sum?”

Simon turned away, pretending interest in the fire and refused to respond to the man’s crude humor.

Rolling the piece of skin tightly and tying it with a strip of rag, Barabbas summoned one of his men. “You will take this message to Cyrene. There you will find the house of Simon and give this to his son’s hand. The man you seek is known as James.”

Leaning forward, he stared into the man’s eyes. “Do not fail me. If you do you know I will punish you and all those you love. Remember what I say, I know where your family lives.”

Without another word, Barabbas stepped to the other side of the fire. Still masked, he confronted Lucius. “I am disappointed in you and your men, my friend. I will give you only a few more weeks to do your part.”

He turned away from Lucius without waiting for an answer and joined Josias at the horses. The two men immediately set out for Jerusalem, leaving Simon of Cyrene to wait in captivity for the many months it would take the messenger to deliver the message and return with the ransom.

The eastern band of Barabbas’ men, under control of Barsubus the Philistine, known to his men as Lucius the Hawk, because of his prominent nose and vicious ways, operated along the old King’s Highway in Perea. This was a vast, thinly populated area of wild and desolate country. There were many places to hide and escape if chased by the Roman Legion. The country, filled with rocks and gorges, contributed more to the band’s success than the wisdom of their leader, for although Lucius was noted for his savagery, he did not have the cunning of Josias.

After Barabbas and Josias left the camp, Lucius sat in the shade of an acacia tree, nursing his jealous anger over Josias’ success. “He’s got the best place to operate. Old Argubus advised it. Damn both of them any way.

“I’ll show them, I’ll pull the biggest robbery ever heard of, bigger than Josias ever dreamed. Salem has gone to Gadara to watch for the next large caravan coming in this direction. He’ll have plenty of time to ride ahead and warn us so we can get set.

“We’ll give Barabbas something to brag about of us. It will be a relief to stop him always talking of the exploits of that infernal Josias and his men.”

Lucius’ very jaws ached when he thought of the insult he suffered when Barabbas chided him for his poor showing with his men looking on.

 Josias and Argubus throw it up to me every time I see them. That Josias might not brag much, but he has a lofty air. He walks around with his head up in the air as though he thinks he’s better than anyone else—that’s worse yet—I’ll find a way to get even with him someday.

Far into the night Lucius schemed and plotted future deeds. He planned how he would execute the biggest robbery the Empire ever experienced. It would be so big it would bring out a whole legion from Rome. Then he, Lucius the Hawk, bandit leader, would have followers of his own. He would be able to get out from under the heavy thumb of Barabbas.

Lucius schemed on, completely unaware of his shortcomings. He never knew that Barabbas only kept him around because of his murderous ferocity. His activities often kept Pilate’s Legion searching the hills east of Jerusalem, leaving the road between Joppa and Jerusalem clear and enabling Josias to overcome many travelers.

It chafed Lucius greatly that he must await Barabbas’ orders as to what caravan he

might raid, and what merchant he might attack. He shook his head in bitterness as he thought of the ignominy. He could feel the shame in his gut, pressing, pressing against him.

Attack this one, it is poorly guarded. Do not attack that one–that one is a favorite of Rome or do not dare touch this other one, or this man is owed a favor. He did not need this rigid control, he could decide for himself. He could decide just as the upstart Josias did—and he would do it soon.

The headquarters of Lucius’ band lay well hidden in the foothills east of the Jordan River. The camp was in a small clearing amidst a jumble of rocks, locust trees and wild grapevines. It gave the band almost impenetrable cover. A spring furnished unlimited sweet water and some small caves in the stone wall more than filled the need for shelter during falling weather.

A merciless leader, the men of the band and their women feared Lucius’ unpredictability. Oftentimes he got the idea that one of his men may have complained to Barabbas of his cruelty. The thought didn’t bother him overmuch. He knew Barabbas had grown soft and would have little heart if it ever came to a fight between them. Lucius believed he would easily kill the bandit chief in hand to hand combat.

Late one morning, after dreaming into the night how he would glorify himself, Lucius was awakened by the high sun reflected on mica flecks in stones at the cave’s entrance. It was much later in the day than he usually rose.

Throwing aside his blankets and moving closer to the small campfire, Lucius chuckled as the women scurried to prepare his breakfast, thinking he was still in the bad mood of the previous night. He looked around the camp. Men were posted at the valley entrance and atop a high pinnacle of rock. Without instruction, they watched the road.

“Are there travelers on the road?” he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to the man on lookout.

“I see no one, Master.”

The man’s answer greatly amused Lucius. He required his men to call him master whenever Barabbas wasn’t about to hear them. It helped somewhat to overcome his feeling of inferiority to the man who owned him, for Lucius was a slave.

Early in the afternoon, one of the lookouts rode into the camp with news of a large caravan heading to Jerusalem from Damascus. He described the caravan as well laden with goods and heavily guarded.

Jumping up to face the man, Lucius shouted, “Did you count the guards?”

“Yes Master—I counted twelve. They were well armed with spears and swords. Each of them carry one of those huge Damascus shields.”

“Were they mounted?”

“No Master, they are not. Only the merchant was mounted. He rides like a Samaritan. Two guards walked ahead of the caravan and the rest followed behind. Those men drove twenty heavily-laden pack asses before them.”

Turning to his men, Lucius raised his voice to say, “Prepare for an attack at first light. I will ride ahead and spy out their camp.”

Salem, the lookout that brought the message, stepped out of Lucius’ reach and spoke softly, “Master, it would be better for us to ride now and attack as they make camp. Those guards are all tired to exhaustion from their long march. We would have a great advantage over them. Also, we would have the entire night to escape.”

“You would give orders as Barabbas?” Lucius jerked around to face the man, yelling in his anger and astonishment at such temerity.

Cringing farther away, Salem said nothing more. He hurried to join the men who were busily stuffing food into their saddlebags. When they finished they brought the hobbled horses closer to camp, and made ready to ride. There was none of the normal jesting and laughter. Few of the men relished the idea of attacking so strong a force.

It took only a few minutes for the men to lead their horses away from the camp far enough to reach a flat area. Once the reached the plain and all were mounted, they spurred their horses to a gallop and headed for a hill several miles to the west.

When he reached the brow of the hill, Salem held his hand high, signaling for the men behind him to stop. Stretching out his arm, he pointed to the group of animals, off to the side of the roadway. A large fire revealed the outline of men huddled close together partly within the circle of light. Another, smaller fire glowed nearby. It undoubtedly provided warmth for the merchant.

Without dismounting, Lucius leaned forward to speak softly, “Withdraw out of sight in that hollow to the right. That’s well out of sight of the merchant’s camp. We can’t risk a fire. Even if they didn’t see it, they would smell it. You can sit close together to keep warm. Get some sleep if you can, and be ready to attack at first light.

“I’m going to check the area and make ready for a surprise attack at dawn.”

The men sat huddled together in the darkness of their hiding place, glumly muttering about “lambs led to the slaughter.”

Raising his head, Salem spoke softly, but loud enough for all to hear, “Surely Lucius is demented. He is planning for us to attack a caravan with more guards than he has followers.”

“I wonder about him of late,” Aaron of Judah muttered, “He has done some strange things since we were sent here from the Joppa road.”

A deep voice from the shadows said, “We were only sent here because Barabbas trusts Josias more that he does Lucius.”

“Shh—keep your voice down—he comes.” Salem cautioned.

Lucius dismounted and thrust the reins of his horse to the nearest man without looking at him. In a harsh whisper, he demanded, “Are all of your weapons sharpened? Have you checked your shield bucklers? You know a loose buckler can cost you your life—check them now—all of you.”

“All is in readiness, Master.” One of the men answered for the group.

In the semi-dark and cold of the early morning, ten reluctant highwaymen mounted their horses to follow Lucius as he rode over the hill and onto the sandy edge of the highway. Holding their animals in to move quietly, they headed for the camp of the Samaritan.

Lucius, overbold and dreaming of his forthcoming triumph, allowed his horse to wander from the sandy roadside onto the main track. The animal’s shod hooves struck the stones of the road. The sharp sound awakened one of the soldiers who guarded the camp.

The man jumped up and screamed a warning to the rest of the guards as he grabbed for his weapons. “We’re attacked. Prepare to defend the camp.”

All surprise was lost. Lucius spurred his horse over the rocks and into the camp shouting for his men to attack.

“Kill them, kill them all.”

His men, lacking confidence from the start, followed him to the edge of the camp, but once there, most of them turned aside, urging their horses into the rocks and trees away from the road, desperate to escape what appeared to be certain death. A tall Syrian slammed the side of his spear against Lucius’ head, unhorsing him.

Much later, Lucius stirred and tried to move. His head hurt as if it would split. His arms were bound behind his back. The shaft of a broken spear passed though the bend of his elbows. Groaning, he opened his eyes. Three of his men lay dead. Their bodies still sprawling where they fell. He could see no other prisoners.

Bitterly, he swore to himself. “The rest of the cowards ran away.”

The tall Syrian, evidently the leader of the guards, was shouting at the merchant. “Let us kill the vicious scum and have done with it. That will surely be his fate if we take him to Jerusalem.”

“No,” the white bearded Samaritan ordered in a soft but stern voice. “That is the way of the ungodly. We will turn him over to Pilate’s jailers when we reach Jerusalem. If there will be blood shed let it be on their hands.”

“It would be better to kill him now.”

The old man still shook his head. “No. I’ll hear no more of it.”

Much to the disgust of the guards he ordered, “Get shovels, you men. We’ll bury these souls here.”

The merchant stood by until the three dead highwaymen were well covered in a common grave. He added greatly to the chagrin of the guards by bowing his head to say some sort of prayer to his strange god.

The Syrians muttered among themselves about the strangeness of Jews. The tall guard said to the others, “They’re always praying to some god men cannot see—a spirit they call their Lord. I’m convinced they are fools—they’re all fools.”

That night, the caravan camped near another that traveled north, in a smooth flat area hard by the sweet wells of Jericho. Still bound, Lucius leaned against the rough trunk of a palm tree, unable to sleep for the torture of the tight ropes and the hard spear shaft pulling against his back.

“Shh–.” A voice whispered close behind him.

Lucius felt a hand on his bare forearm. Almost immediately, he heard the whisper of a sharp knife against the rope and his bonds fell away. His savior touched his arm again and motioned for him to follow. After crawling some distance away from the sleeping guards, his liberator rose and ran ahead of him. Lucius ran at the man’s heels.

Soon the man stopped beside two saddled horses waiting in the dense blackness of a vineyard. Once mounted, he and Lucius whipped their horses so that they ran wildly between the rows of vines. Soon they emerged onto a deserted roadway and turned south to race through hidden paths. Finally, they reached the safety of the hideout, in the rocks west of Guarantania.

Obed, one of the newest and youngest of Lucius’ followers, sat beside a small fire. The rest of the band sat in a group behind him, their heads hanging dolefully, refusing to meet Lucius’ eyes.

Lucius said nothing, but his eyes and expression clearly expressed the disgust he felt for men who would desert him. Wordlessly, he leaned from the saddle to grab a sword and spear from the nearest man. Strapping the sword around his waist he looked over the men’s heads and barked an order in a voice that dared anyone to disobey him, “Get ready to ride.”

Turning his horse, he spurred away, leading the band west. After a series of long night marches they finally reached a remote hideout in the desolate hills west of Gennesaret in Galilee. Lucius was afraid of returning to Jerusalem. He knew the guards and the Samaritan they attacked could give the Romans a good description of him and probably of several of his men.

He was even more afraid when he thought of the anger of Barabbas. He dreaded their next meeting. He knew Barabbas would rage over the abortive robbery attempt. He would be furious over the loss of men, and more than furious at Lucius’ failure to gain control of the rich train. Lucius brooded; knowing his failure would do nothing but increase Barabbas’ confidence in Josias.

He is Barabbas pet—the perfect Josias of Bethany—he will be even more the pet now. It is Barabbas fault. He should not have given me such cowards as followers. This was not my fault. We would have won the train if the fools had not run away. But I will be blamed—I know I will be blamed. Then he will think Josias is even more perfect.

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Riding Fence by A. H. Holt

Riding Fence
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1880’s
Location – Kansas and Missouri
Description – Rustlers pushed a herd of Triangle Eight cows and horses through the broken fence. Dan Smithson tracked them til almost dark.

Hashtags

#Adventure #War #Cattle #Cowboy #Frontier #Historical #Horses #Novel #Ranch #Romance #Thriller #Western #Wild West #Cattle Thief #Horse Thief #Rustler #Tracker #Crime #Suspense #Kansas #Missouri

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First Chapter

Dan Smithson lay back on the blankets to prop his head on his saddle, glad to stretch out. He twisted and turned, trying to get comfortable. Suddenly he lunged to his feet, lifted his blanket and ground sheet, and brushed several rocks and twigs from the ground. When he finished brushing the area clean, he turned to check that his pony was still in sight and lay back down.

The dying fire painted his tanned cheekbones a deep red. His eyes were as black as his hair. Thoroughly tired and sleepy, he pulled one of the blankets around his shoulders and watched the moon come up through the canopy of leaves as he waited for sleep.

The sound of his horse munching on the tall grass down by the creek was comforting. He closed his eyes and listened to the night sounds. The water in the little creek made a soft murmuring as it flowed over rocks.

After a few minutes Dan realized he heard something else as well-some sound that didn’t to belong in the woods. At first he dismissed it as a tree branch or leaves moving in the wind, but when he opened his eyes and glanced up, the leaves on the tree above his head were still. No wind stirred.

Turning his head from side to side, he sat up and held his breath to listen. He heard the strange noise again-it was a soft whining and a sigh.

It almost sounds like someone crying.

He had started out from the Triangle Eight ranch house a little after dawn that morning. His regular job required him to inspect the boundary fence from the northwest corner of the property all the way to the south line shack, then back to the ranch house along the center line fence. He watched for weak or broken places in the wire or leaning posts that cattle sometimes pushed over. He expected to spend this night in the line shack and then ride as far as Ma Hainey’s place before suppertime the following day.

Like most riders, he always carried a few supplies for emergencies, times when he had to camp out, but he hadn’t counted on having to use them on this trip. There were always plenty of rations stored in the line shack in case any rider had to stay out overnight and needed them. Dan counted on reaching the shack where he would have a stove to cook his supper on. At the cabin he would have a coffeepot with plenty of coffee and all the firewood he needed, already cut and dry. More than that, he had counted on being in time for supper at Ma Hainey’s place the following night. In his estimation, that woman’s cooking beat any other he’d ever eaten.

The sections of fence he passed by the first half of the day looked fine and he thought he would have little trouble keep ing to his schedule. A little after noon-to his consternation he found posts pulled out of the ground and a long section of the wire knocked flat. When he dismounted and examined the fence closely he could see that none of the wire in the downed section was broken or cut.

Strangely, someone had taken the time to work eight fence posts loose from the dirt, pull them up out of their holes and lay them down on the ground. That pulled the wire down flat at the same time. It didn’t make sense to Dan. Cowhands always carried a pair of wire cutters. Rustlers especially always carried wire cutters. They were one of the basic tools of their business.

It cost Dan several hours of backbreaking work to repair the fence so it would hold cattle if they took it in their heads to push against it. He knew he didn’t have to worry about horses trying to get through the wire. They were smart enough to know the stuff would cut them up if they pushed against it, so they left it alone. It was getting near sundown when he finished resetting the posts and tightening the wire enough so no stock could wander through.

Even though it was late when he finished fixing the fence, Dan naturally set out to discover why it got pulled down like that and who was responsible for doing such a thing. The tracks on either side of the opening made it plain that a big bunch of cattle and as many as a dozen horses had passed through the gap in the fence, and they couldn’t have done it without human help. The tracks were still fresh. He was sure they had been driven through the gap only a few hours before he got there.

The rustled stock left a trail heading west, over toward Elk River. After examining the tracks closely, Dan decided that the animals were being driven by at least three men. All of them rode newly shod horses.

He studied the situation a few minutes and decided he had best follow the trail of the cattle and horses instead of continuing on to complete his routine check on the fence. The rustlers hadn’t been gone but a few hours, and even if they were pushing the herd along at its best pace, he knew he would likely catch up with them in no more than a day.

At first, the tracks led him on a direct route west. Later, they turned north on a path to intersect the main road to Wichita. He felt sure he would lose the tracks when they reached the road. It made sense that the men driving the stock would turn onto the main road going one way or the other. He expected to see their tracks mingle in with everybody else’s and virtually disappear, but to his amazement they didn’t turn either east or west, but continued on in the same direction-straight across the road and on toward the north.

Dan pushed his horse to a long trot and rode until almost dark. Finally he turned off the trail into a little clump of sycamore trees and elderberry bushes.

Me and this horse have worked enough for one day.

He had left the Triangle Eight’s corral that morning before sun up, and he felt whipped. He knew he couldn’t take a chance on overworking his only horse when he was this far away from home, either. The men driving the herd would have to stop and rest. He figured they had probably already stopped for the night. Horses and cattle needed rest as well as men. He planned to grab a meal and a few hours sleep then get right back on the trail at dawn.

Ducking his head to the side to avoid a low limb, he guided his horse into the coolness of a grove of oaks. His chest and shoulders still felt warm from the late evening sun, but deep shadow already covered most of the ground under the trees. The trees nestled around a small pool fed by a lazy creek. Golden leaves floated on the glassy surface of the water. There was plenty of grass for one horse and enough thick elderberry bushes growing under the trees to hide his fire if he kept it small.

Throwing his right leg over the horn, Dan slid from the saddle. Once on the ground he stretched his long arms and rubbed his back with both hands before turning to remove his mouse-colored mustang’s saddle. He took a pair of soft hobbles from his jacket pocket and leaned down to tie them around the pony’s slim front legs. Straightening, he unbuckled the neck strap to slide the headstall over the pony’s ears and remove the bridle.

He stopped a few minutes to rub the horse’s soft nose and ears and scratch some of the damp places on its head where it sweated under the straps of the bridle. Finally, he let the mustang loose to graze on the rank growth of bluestem and gramma that covered the ground in the tiny meadow near the pond.

Gathering up a pile of dry twigs and leaves, Dan built a small fire. When the wood burned down to a bed of red coals, he cooked his supper, and went to bed.

He turned his head toward the sound, straining to hear better. Carefully checking the loads in his pistol, he pulled on his boots and eased out of his blanket. He stood still to listen, holding the weapon ready. He meant to find out what was crying so he could get some sleep. The noise stopped.

Maybe I just imagined it.

Stepping carefully to avoid making noise, Dan moved in the direction he thought the sound came from. He stopped still for a moment, listening. The sound came again.

Someone’s crying or I’ve gone to imagining things.

It was easy for him to follow the sound now. He dropped his pistol back in his holster and walked over to a thick stand of bushes close under a big tree. As he approached the covert the crying sound suddenly became much louder. At the same moment he heard someone speaking softly.

“Please stop crying like that Bryce. Please-please-stop it. You’ll just make yourself sick. I know you’re hungry, but there’s nothing left for you to eat. Go on to sleep now. I’ll find us some more food in the morning, I promise I will. Hush your crying now and go on to sleep.”

Dan stretched out a long arm to grab a handful of the elderberry bush and shove it to one side. Light from the rising moon revealed the white face of a young boy staring up at him. He looked to be maybe twelve or thirteen years old. The boy held another smaller child cuddled in his arms. Shocked speechless, Dan stared down at the children.

The older child drew back away from Dan, appearing to be more angry than afraid. “You go away and leave us alone, Mister. We ain’t hurting anything.” The boy’s face screwed up in anger or fear. His dark eyes were slits and he almost hissed the words.

Swallowing his astonishment, Dan squatted on his heels to be on a level with the boy’s eyes. Striving to keep his voice quiet and calm, he asked, “Who are you, boy? Where’re your people? Where’s your mother and father?”

“We ain’t got no ma, Mister, and our pa ain’t here right now.” The child’s voice trembled a little but still sounded an gry. “He told us to wait right here in these bushes until he came back to fetch us. He had to go somewhere on some important business. He said he’d be back before night the same day he left, but it’s been three whole days and he ain’t come back yet”

Dan shook his head to clear his thoughts. He could hardly believe his eyes or his ears. How in the world could anybody leave two little children out in the woods alone like this?

“What’s your name, kid?”

The oldest child drew back away from the opening a little, looking to the side as though he was considering running away. His voice got louder, but it continued to tremble. “We ain’t got to tell you anything, Mister. You go on now and leave us alone.”

“I heard your little brother crying for something to eat. I’ve got some leftover biscuits and a big can of peaches in my pack. I’d be willing to share with you. Why don’t you come on over to my campsite? You’re welcome to the food.”

“We ain’t supposed to move away from this place. Pa told us we had to stay put-right here-exactly where he left us.”

“Okay then, stay here. I’ll go back over to my camp and bring the food here to you. That way you can stay right where you are. It won’t take me a minute.”

Thoroughly puzzled, Dan rushed back to his camp and gathered up all the food left in his saddlebags. As he approached the clump of bushes again he felt an instant flash of hope that he’d been dreaming.

Did I really just find two abandoned children? What on earth am I supposed to do with two kids this far away from the Eight?

When he pulled the branches aside again the children were still there. The older one sat on a blanket and held the little one close. Both stared up at him with wary expressions. Dan reached out and placed his last two biscuits in the older child’s hands. He pulled his knife out of his boot, and turned away to cut open the can of peaches. Taking extra care, he cut the top edge of the can smooth enough for the children to drink the peach juice without danger of cutting their lips.

When Dan turned back to hand the older child the can of peaches both biscuits had disappeared. A white crumb glittered in one corner of the littlest child’s mouth. The biggest child took the can in both hands to help the little one drink. The fruit and juice disappeared as fast as the biscuits had.

The biggest child kept his dark eyes on Dan’s face the whole time. He continued to hold the little one in one arm. They ate so fast that Dan wished he had more food. He couldn’t help but think they still looked hungry.

“Have you youngsters got bedrolls or blankets or something to keep you warm? It gets cold as-ah-it gets almighty cold out here at night.”

“We’ve got our blankets and Pa’s basket. It’s right here beside us.”

“What’s your name, kid?”

“I’m Anne Marie Gillis, and this here’s my brother Bryce”

“Anne Marie? Your name is Anne Marie?” Dan stood up and almost shouted his astonishment. “I-I took you for a boy. I thought you were both boys”

“I ain’t a boy.” The girl sounded insulted. She held her head up and moved back into the shadows, a little farther away from Dan.

“Well, excuse me all to the dickens, ma’am. You’ve got on that cap and jeans and that big old coat. It makes you look like a boy to me. It’s kinda dark back in those bushes, too”

“I can’t help it if you’ve got poor eyes”

“Look here, Missy. I don’t need your smart mouth”

“I ain’t no smart mouth”

“By golly, you sure are a smart mouth.”

Dan suddenly realized he was almost shouting at the child. He turned away for a moment, telling himself to calm down.

I can’t be standing here arguing with this poor little girl no matter how much of a smartmouthed brat she is.

He carefully lowered his voice and turned back to question the girl again. “Where’d you youngsters and your pa come from?”

“We used to live down to Wichita, but the dirty old scudder that owned the rooming house we lived in threw us out of our room. We’re on our way to New Orleans to live. Pa’s got a bunch of kinfolk living there. We’re gonna live with them. Least ways, that’s where we’ll be going as soon as Pa gets back here. He said we’re gonna have a big steak and a pair of fine horses to ride after he finishes that important job he agreed to do”

“That sure sounds interesting-is your pa a cattleman?”

“No. Our pa ain’t no cattleman. Tending cows is sorry, dirty work and he’d never do it, never in a million years. Cowboys ain’t nothing but trash anyway-least that’s what Pa says. Our pa worked in the Red Dog Saloon in Wichita. He’s the best twenty-one dealer in the state of Kansas. The lowdown sucker of a bartender at the Red Dog fired him off his job, that’s why we had to move on.

“One of Pa’s friends came by our rooming house right when we were packing up to leave town. He paid Pa some money to do a job for him. That’s when Pa brought us out here and said he had to hide us in this place.”

“What are you supposed to do if he never comes back after you?”

“He is too coming back for us. You can’t say that. You’re a stupid cowboy.” The girl clutched the little boy against her and shrieked the words at Dan. The moon glinted on a tear sliding down her left cheek.

“It’s all right, girl. Hush now. Forget I said that. Sure your pa’ll come back for you. Don’t you start crying now.” Her violent reaction to his words made Dan feel miserable.

“I ain’t crying.”

“Well I can see that plain enough. Look here, girl. I’ve got to get me some sleep. Can you two manage where you are for the rest of the night?”

The girl’s tone changed. Her voice softened and sounded dull, as if she was tired or completely discouraged. Turning her head away from Dan she looked at the ground and asked, “Are you going to go away and leave us here too, Mister?”

Dan almost felt like crying himself. “No-no I’m not going to leave you here. I swear. I’m only going to walk back over yonder where I was trying to sleep before I heard that baby crying. I’m gonna fetch my things over here so I can sleep near you two. I don’t think I’d be able to sleep a wink otherwise.”

Hurrying back to his campsite, Dan gathered up his possessions. On the second trip he stopped to kick dirt over the remains of his fire. He dropped his saddle and other belongings on a grassy place close to the clump of bushes where the abandoned children lay hidden. Remaking his bed, he stretched out and pulled his blanket up over his shoulders. His head seemed to be spinning.

Exhausted, he finally dropped off to sleep, asking himself, What should I do with two abandoned children? What on earth should I do with two abandoned kids and one of them a smartmouthed girl?

When he looked inside the clump of bushes the next morning the two children were sound asleep. The girl still had one arm around the little boy.

“Wake up you two. I’ve got some hot water ready and a pinch of tea to flavor it for you. I even found a couple of lumps of sugar you might want. We need to get moving-it’s a long ride to where we’ll get us the best breakfast in this country.”

Anne Marie sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes with both hands. She scowled and gave Dan a disgusted look. “We can’t leave here with you, Mister. I told you that last night. Pa said that me and Bryce had to stay put, right where we are, no matter what happened. He’ll tan my hide for sure when he comes back and sees we’ve disobeyed him.”

“Look girl, you can’t stay here any longer, so just forget it. We’ll leave your father a message tied to that low limb right over there. I’ve got some paper and a pencil. I’ll tell him exactly where we’re going and how he can find you. You youngsters have got to go somewhere where you can get some food and where there’ll be somebody to see to your needs.”

“I don’t need you or anybody else to be seeing to my needs, Mister.” The girl yelled, sounding desperate. She stood up and placed her hands on her hips. Dan was sur prised to see how tall she was. She wasn’t quite as little as he at first thought.

“I can take care of me and Bryce all by myself. You ain’t got no call to be messing with us anyway. We ain’t bothering you none. You ain’t nothing but a stinking, lowdown cattle drover, anyway. I can tell that by the way you’re dressed and that saddle of yours. Why don’t you just ride on away and leave us alone?”

“Look girl, you shut that smart mouth of yours and get your stuff together. We’re leaving here right now.”

“I ain’t leaving.”

“I’ll paddle your rear end,” Dan shouted, glaring at her.

Anne Marie stared defiantly back at Dan, a fierce expression on her face. She stood with her elbows out and hands on her hips until the little boy woke up. As soon as he sat up and looked around, he started crying for something to eat. She immediately forgot about Dan and reached down to try to shush the child.

When she couldn’t convince the boy to stop howling for food, the girl’s shoulders drooped as though she had given up. Without another word she knelt to pack up their blankets. She kept her head turned away from Dan the whole time, refusing to look at him.

He tied the girl’s basket behind his saddle along with his bedroll and saddlebags. Carefully arranging the children’s blankets as a pad around and over the horn of his saddle, he made a place for the girl to ride. When he got the blankets settled to his satisfaction he turned to Anne Marie. “Hold tight to your little brother and let me lift you two up here on the front of my saddle.”

“I can walk.”

“You can’t walk as far as we have to go girl, now come here and stop arguing with me about everything.”

Dan caught Anne Marie around the waist with both hands and lifted her up in front his saddle. She still held Bryce in her arms. Looking around the little grove, he made sure the note he wrote for Gillis was placed so it could easily be seen. Satisfied he had done all he could to notify the man how to find his children if and when he returned, he climbed into the saddle behind them, wrapping one arm around the girl’s middle so she couldn’t fall off.

The girl rode without speaking until Dan stopped to open a gate in the Triangle Eight’s boundary fence, then she suddenly woke up. Raising her head she began to ask questions as rapidly as she could speak. “Where’re you taking us, anyway, Mister? Are you taking us to your own house? Do you have a ma at your house?”

“Why don’t you let me answer one of your silly questions before you ask me a couple more?

“Are you kidnapping us?”

“You and your little brother have been abandoned. I’m rescuing you”

“We are not abandoned. I told you that. Pa’s going to track you down and shoot you dead for stealing us”

“Hush girl. You’re old enough to know that your pa woulda been back after you two kids long before now if he was coming back at all. You couldn’t keep staying where you were and you know it. You didn’t even have any food left or anything. Anyway, children have got to live with somebody.”

The girl ducked her head and stayed quiet for more than five minutes before she spoke again. “Where are you taking us then?”

“To the Triangle Eight. It’s a ranch. It’s where I work and live. It’s been in my family since this whole area belonged to the Indians.”

“I never heard of no ranch called the Triangle Eight before. It can’t be much”

“You don’t know everything, Miss Smarty Pants. The Triangle Eight might not be so much to some people, but it’s enough for my family, I’ll tell you that. It’s where I’m taking you, so why don’t you just keep quiet?”

Dan cursed his luck at having to abandon the trail of the stolen cattle and horses, but he knew he had to put the care of two children before chasing a bunch of stolen stock. It didn’t matter how he felt about it. The idea that the stock thieves would get away purely riled him, but he knew it couldn’t be helped-not at the moment.

It didn’t help his mood much when he thought how the ranch foreman, Jack Burton, would fairly split his sides laughing when he saw Dan ride into the ranch yard with two children up on his saddle.

For some reason, Jack always loved to get any kind of joke on me, like he did when I was still about ten years old. Once he got one, he’d ride it into the ground. This one would probably last him a good year.

Henry’ll more’n likely throw an out-and-out fit when he sees me. He’ll probably stomp around yelling that I shoulda left these two youngsters sit where I found them and kept on trailing the stolen stock.

Dan headed his pony on a beeline for the ranch house. The route he took would get them there before noon, barring unforeseen problems. He’d be good and hungry by then himself.

His mustang’s long trot fairly ate up the miles. By the time the sun got up and had good and warmed them, Anne Marie’s head began to droop. The girl gradually relaxed and leaned back against Dan’s chest, fast asleep. She still held tight to her brother.

Places to Purchase

Amazon
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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
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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
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Ten In Texas by A. H. Holt

Ten in Texas Western Novel

Ten In Texas
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1910’s
Location – Texas, Pan Handle, XIT
Description – Camping overnight in a draw on the newly released lands of the old XIT Ranch. Will Gantry suddenly feels an odd and welcome sense of belonging

Hashtags

#Cattle #Cowboy #Farm #Home #Frontier #Historical #Farwell #Horses #Novel #Pan Handle #Ranch #Farming #Romance #Thriller #Texas #Western #Wild West #Settlers #XIT #Cattle Rustlers #Mexican Wolf #Texas Trail #Hereford cattle #Polled Angus Cattle #Adventure

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

Will Gantry walked his horse down the middle of the broad dirt street. On his left he saw a hardware store, a lumberyard, and a livery stable. All three seemed to be doing a thriving business. Across the way, a two-story, barracks-like hotel appeared a beehive of activity. The building sat halfway up the hill from the railroad, its two-story bulk towering over the rest of the town.

Below the hotel and only a few hundred feet from the railroad, a new bungalow sat in the midst of a well-tended plot. Fruit trees, a kitchen garden and bright green sprigs of Rose of Sharon, newly planted but thriving nicely, surrounded the attractive place.

A semicircle of large touring cars, tops folded rakishly back, sat close to the brand-new railroad station gleaming in fresh yellow paint. Bold, black letters across the gable end announced the travelers’ arrival in Friona, Texas.

Three passenger cars, a baggage car, and a dozen freight cars shunted onto the siding next to the new station. A crowd of people stood in the bright sunshine, silent, listening to the words of a nattily dressed man. Will edged his horse closer so he could hear the speaker’s words.

The salesman delivered a spiel polished by repetition.

“Land is available in any direction, folks. You’ll find that prices are ridiculously low, the terms are within reach of anyone. All the area is virgin prairie, deep in top soil without the hazards of rocks, gullies, swamps, tree stumps or noxious weeds.”

The speaker, for all his eloquence, failed to mention the land also lacked sufficient rainfall to sustain farm crops. Finally, the man waved toward the line of waiting horseless carriages.

A wild rush for the automobiles followed his last remarks. Men clambered for seats as drivers bent to crank the motors to start the cars. Amid the roar of exhausts and swirls of dust, the loaded cars left the station yard.  The majority turned either northwest or southeast, traveling over barely discernable paths. 

Those men who didn’t take part in the general exodus from the Friona station gathered in small groups around the fast-talking land agents. As the sounds of the loaded cars died away, the knots of men separated to drift toward the hotel, the hardware store, and the lumber yard.

With a gentle pull on the reins, Will turned his horse to face the east. He watched with avid interest the activity around the box cars, as the big doors slid back to reveal farm machinery, household goods, and livestock.

Men and boys labored to roll farm wagons down plank ramps and guide them to the edge of the hard-packed dirt beside the tracks. Horses and mules, ears pointed forward, their legs still shaky from the jolting of the long train ride, picked their way down the rough board ramp.

The cold, clear water in the long wooden trough refreshed them. Familiar hands led them to be hitched to their own wagons. It took a lot of time to fit all the tools and implements into the wagons.

When it was time to load a wagon designated to haul household furniture, the ladies in the crowd came alive. Suggestions, demands, cries, even screams of caution rang out.

“That barrel has all my good dishes in it.”

“Don’t drop that box.  It’s full of canned goods.”

“Careful. You scratched Great-Grandma’s bed.”

Despite all the hard work and anxiety of the unloading and reloading, Will sensed a holiday attitude among the settlers and a pioneer spirit. Each family seemed to know that somewhere out on the broad prairie, a tiny speck of land—a place to build a home—waited for them.

“Poor dreamin’ fools.”

There’s no question about it. Few of these families will stay and really prosper. Many will put forth a half-hearted effort, then quickly give in to the ravages of drought, loneliness, and the oppression of poverty. A small percentage are no more than opportunists looking for a gold-brick type of living that could never exist on the high plains of Texas.

The more serious-minded settlers among the group foresaw the hazards of climate and the difficulties of wresting a living, much less a fortune, from the unbroken sod. These families probably spent days discussing the possibilities of bettering their lot in the newly-opened lands. They expected what they already knew, nothing but hard work and privation.

Many risks were considered. Heads of families came ahead on excursion trains, their fares paid by a land company from Chicago or other cities, to inspect the plains country. For the most part, they liked what they saw. Upon their return home, they extolled the virtues of Texas.

Friends, family and neighbors met their glowing reports with true and imagined arguments against taking the risks. Did not wild Indians roam all of Texas, they asked? Would they find churches, schools, and hospitals? 

Some believed repossession of Texas by Mexico was still a possibility. Others asked, ‘what kind of state is it that has to trade barren, God-forsaken land in order to build a capitol building? If Texas is so great, why isn’t it organized as New York City or even Milledgeville, Georgia are?’

Horny-handed farmers listened patiently. Wives, in-laws and neighbors argued and influenced many ambitious men to stay in the supposedly secure environment of the well-settled eastern or mid-western states. Others, the more determined ones, sold their farms to anxious neighbors and chartered box cars for the move to Texas. 

The black horse stamped an impatient hoof.

“Be still.” Will spoke, as if to a person. He continued to watch the heavily-laden wagons leave the depot yard, their human cargoes chattering and bright-eyed with excitement.

The sun moved almost straight overhead before he turned to ride back up the main street. A large new building, also painted yellow, a block to the west, caught his eye. Tall black letters painted on the bright wall announced “Boarding House.” 

Tying Apache at the hitch rack, Will entered the crowded dining room. The meal was being served “family style.” In boarding houses, that’s another way of saying, “We put the food on the table – you catch as catch can.”

Large china bowls of vegetables and platters of fried meat ranged down the middle of the table. Plates of hot biscuits passed from hand to hand and seldom completed even one round of the hungry diners.

Will found an empty chair and heaped his plate with the steaming vegetables. Meat was no problem on the trail, but fresh garden truck took too long to cook at a campfire. A huge platter stacked high with squares of golden cornbread was another welcome sight.  He settled down to business and did full justice to his first home-cooked meal in months.

He didn’t join in the bits of conversation he heard between the clatter of dishes and the slurping of coffee. “This-here stranger, he walks up to me and he says, ‘Friend, what is your main money crop around here?'”

The speaker looked and sounded an old timer. “Suckers, I told him.” The old man’s story got a few chuckles and few hard looks from younger men dressed as land agents.

“For heaven’s sake no, absolutely not. Don’t go to Findley, there ain’t no water out there,” someone said. The remark proved to contain more truth than poetry. “I’d go south or southeast. There’s water, grass, and the best land thataway.” 

Another speaker leaned toward his prospective customer. “Don’t go too far south.  There’s a big ravine down there where a wild Indian couldn’t raise a ruckus with a full pint of whiskey.”

As a newcomer to the table, Will just listened. He noticed a group of big, broad-shouldered men with blond hair at the end of the table. They also remained quiet. When either of the men spoke, he spoke to a member of his own crowd. Their voices and arrangement of English words carried a distinct Germanic flavor. 

Almost finished, Will looked around the table–how plainly these men wore their labels. The serious minded farmers, the flashily dressed salesmen, and the cold-eyed businessmen, most of them speculators, buying large tracts of land for profitable resale. These were men who never intended to spend even one night on the prairie. 

Placing a coin on the table, Will got up and left. A quick glance around the town’s empty streets proved the inner man wants satisfaction three times a day. The crowds were inside, eating. He smiled sardonically as he untied his horses’ reins and climbed into the saddle. He remembered weeks without three square meals.

“Let’s go, Apache.” He turned the horse south toward the railroad.

Where the main street met the east-west road, an eager-voiced young salesman stepped out in front of his horse and looked up at Will. “Are you a landseeker?” he asked.

“Sure am. I’m A. Plowman, at your service, and what’s your name?” Will leaned toward the man with out-stretched hand.

“Aw, forget it.”  Scowling at Will’s humor, the young man retreated, waving Will away.

Come on, Apache.”  Will galloped west out of Friona along the dirt road beside the railroad tracks to check out the town of Bovina.