Blanco Sol by A. H. Holt

Blood Blanco Sol
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1860’s
Location – Texas
Description – King Sutherland is dead—at least that’s what both friend and foe assume. The war ended almost a year ago, yet King was seriously wounded after the surrender, delaying his return home.

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#Horses #Cowboy #Betrayal #Revenge #Western #Novel #Ranch #Texas #Horsethief #Story #Deception #Escape #Action #Adventure #Romance #Civil War #Soldier #Union #Confederate #Immigrants #Galvaston Island #New Orleans #Spanish Land Grants #Gun fight #Corruption #Cattle Drive #Indians #Flood #Railroad #Red River #Brazos River #Aberdeen #Cattle Thieves

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First Chapter

King bypassed a little town and worked his way southwest toward New Orleans. He made less than twenty miles most days and literally fell out of the saddle when he found a campsite. He managed to pull his saddle from Ranger’s back, hobble him in the lush grass, and crawl into his blankets too tired to think about fixing a meal. He waited until breakfast to make coffee most days.

This morning, dawn woke him. At first King couldn’t remember where he was. He saw Ranger standing by the creek. Looking up at the thick branches of the live oaks, he rubbed his head several times and finally remembered. I’m on my way home. It’s still almost a thousand miles to Texas. I’ll be there in a few weeks. Maybe I’ll be well again by the time I get to New Orleans. Once I get well I’ll make better time.

Suddenly ravenous, he untied the cloth bag of food from behind his saddle. He had saved some bread and fried ham from his midday meal the day before. He finished the ham and one piece of the bread, saving enough to eat at noon so he wouldn’t have to stop. When he finished eating he knelt awkwardly at the edge of the creek and drank from his cupped hands.

Ranger seemed glad to see him. “Come on, boy. We’ve got a lot of travel ahead of us. You won’t be so fat and sassy when we get home. Those months you spent in the stable in Washington City almost ruined you”

King rode as though he belonged on horseback. He kept Ranger headed southwest and held him to a fast walk or a trot. The horse’s long stride ate up the miles. Day after day he seemed to grow stronger. Unlike his rider, he showed no signs of weariness when they stopped at night.

Several days later, King rode into a little town where a shabby storefront announced: “TOWN OF BILDAD, LOUISIANA. Food, Drink, and Supplies.” The three other buildings that made up the town seemed to be deserted. He couldn’t see any people, but the door of the store stood wide open.

Tying Ranger to the hitch rack in front of the store, King limped across the porch and went inside. There were stacks of goods everywhere; mountains of bagged flour, beans, brown sugar, and salt. Guns, harness, and wagon parts decorated the walls. Anything you could think to ask for was there in abundance.

He approached the counter and asked the storekeeper, “How far is New Orleans from here?” The man was a thin, pasty-looking fellow with tobacco stains on his wispy beard.

“I’d say the city is about three days’ travel, Mister, if you move right along. That is, if you’re traveling horseback.”

“I am, and I’m obliged to you. I need some decent clothes and a few supplies.”

“Headed to Texas, I reckon”

“As a matter of fact, I am. Do the packet boats still make a regular run to Galveston?”

“They run twice a week now. Lots of folks going west. Ain’t much to hold them around here no more. Them free blacks, backed by the army, is about taking over this far south. Most folks around these parts don’t hold with that at all. Everybody that can scrape up travel money is going down this road headed for Texas.”

“You don’t say. Well, I’ll just collect up the things I need and get a move on”

King chose coffee, flour, salt, and bacon. He bought some heavy cord pants and riding gloves. A light carbine and sheath for his saddle and several boxes of shells completed his purchases.

The storekeeper eyed King’s choices as he piled them on the counter. “You’ve been west before ain’t you, friend? Most folks ask me what they need. Then they buy all they can of what I say.”

Watching the man’s shifty eyes, King thought, I’d bet they buy a lot of junk they’ll never need. Ignoring the storekeeper’s comments, he added a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy wool blanket to his pile of goods and asked for his bill. He almost yelled out loud when he saw the total.

Ranger snorted and shied at the huge pack King tied to the back of his saddle. “Behave, you wild cayuse. I’ll get us a packhorse in Galveston. You’ll be about enough trouble on a packet boat all by yourself. A little extra work won’t hurt you one bit. Maybe it’ll make you behave some better on the boat ride.”

New Orleans seemed to be full of soldiers in Union blue. The sidewalks teemed with people, and the streets were crowded with every kind of cart and wagon and carriage that could be imagined. It seemed the whole town was trying to get somewhere in a hurry. King took Ranger to the first livery stable he found.

Shouldering his pack, he asked the old man who had taken his horse, “Can you direct me to a clean hotel, Uncle?”

Removing his pipe, the man asked, “You wanting to sleep or is you looking for some devilment?”

King laughed aloud and answered, “I want to wash off this trail dust and sleep until the next packet leaves for Galveston.”

“Well, you better not be going to no hotel then. They’s so much trash in this here town you got to sleep six to a room. Shore as shooting some sorry son will steal your gear while you’s sleeping. You go ‘round to number 8 Rue Saint Mary. Missus Glade takes roomers. She feeds good too. You’ll be better off there, mister.”

“I’m much obliged to you,” King said, handing the man a coin. He left the stable and slipped into the stream of people moving along the sidewalk. He soon found the house and dropped his heavy pack on the porch to lift the big brass doorknocker.

This sure doesn’t look like a rooming house, he thought. It looked more like some planter’s townhouse. King examined the imposing doorway with its frame of colored glass as he waited for someone to answer his knock.

The walls of the house were brick and stood three stories high. Wide windows reached from ceiling to floor on the porch level and were covered with fancy wrought iron. The little front yard had been clipped smooth and the flowers looked well-tended.

Beginning to feel nervous, King thought, I wonder what that fella meant by sending me to this house?

The door suddenly opened inward to reveal a handsome woman in the opening. She looked to be about thirty and wore a severe but attractive black dress. “Yes?” she asked in an icy voice. King noted that she obviously disapproved of rough-looking men with clumsy packs showing up at her fine door.

“I beg your pardon, ma’am.” King removed his hat and bowed. “I’m Kingsley Sutherland from over in South Texas. An old black fella that works at Higgins’ livery stable directed me to your house. I do apologize for bothering you. I see there must be some mistake. I was looking for a place to stay until the packet boat to Galveston leaves.”

To King’s astonishment, the woman smiled and opened the door a little wider. “Oh, Melton sent you to me. Do come in, Mr. Sutherland.”

She turned to walk back into the hallway. King picked up his pack and followed as she led the way into a large room that was beautifully furnished as a parlor. King felt strange standing on the carpet. The room looked a lot like the ones he remembered seeing in houses in Charleston when he was a boy.

The woman crossed to seat herself behind a desk and said, “Please be seated, Mr. Sutherland. I’m Victoria Glade.” She smiled invitingly and patted her glossy black hair into place. “I keep records here exactly like a hotel would. The town authorities require it. I must have your full name and your home address”

“You already have my name and I guess the nearest place I can call an address is San Antonio, Texas”

“You’re actually from Texas. Well, my land, that’s the first time I ever heard anyone say they were from Texas. Most people are on their way there.”

“I really am from Texas, Mrs. Glade. I’ve, uh, I’ve been back east on business.”

That’ll just have to do. I’ll never explain what really took me east to this fine southern lady.

“How long do you plan to stay with us, Mr. Sutherland?”

“Only till the next packet boat leaves for Galveston please, ma’am.”

“That will be Friday. You’ll owe me fifteen dollars for room and board for three days”

Wincing at the staggering sum, King paid the amount she asked. “Money sure don’t go very far these days, does it?”

“Shouldn’t be any surprise to you” Victoria Glade stood up. “It’s been like this since the war ended. I’ll get you some supper. Your room is the first one to the left at the head of the stairs. The door is open. There will be hot water in the wash-house out back, so you can bathe after you eat”

King watched as she swung her skirts around and walked through the door. She was a good-looking woman and she knew it. It must be hard for someone like her to run a boarding house. No wonder she only took people sent to her by someone like Melton, he thought.

A tiny black woman dressed in a white Mother Hubbard apron appeared in the door. “If you’ll come to the kitchen, sir, Miz Glade says I’m to feed you” Her lined face was full of disapproval and her voice was as stiff as her starched apron.

Entering the kitchen, King seated himself at the long table. It was set with real china and silver as fine as the kind his mother owned. The woman served him a plate piled high with fried potatoes and ham. There was a plate of cornbread cut in huge squares on the table. A new mold of butter and a jar of pickles were within reach. The woman slammed a pitcher full of cold sweet milk down in front of his plate. By the time he’d eaten his fill the black woman had stopped working and was standing in front of the stove staring at him.

“I sure do thank you, ma’am. That was good. I’ve been eating rough and I was some kind of hungry. You’re a great cook”

She seemed to lose some of her hostility at his smile. “You can eat, I’ll say that for you. I guess it takes a lot to fill up a big man like you”

“Not usually as much as that. It really tasted good.”

“I’m Ida. I’m Melton’s wife. Miz Glade said he sent you over here”

“Yes, ma’am, he did. I left my horse at the livery stable and he said it would be better for me to come here than take my chances in a hotel.”

King pushed his chair back and stood up. “I’ll go up to my room now, Ida. Will you yell when my water is hot?”

“I’ll knock on your door. It’s bad enough Miz Glade done turned her home into a hotel. I don’t have to go ‘round yelling at people.” She sniffed and tossed her head.

King chuckled as he left the kitchen.

His room held furnishings similar to the precious family pieces his mother had hauled across Texas. The huge bed was covered in hand-worked quilts. When Ida knocked on his door, King followed her downstairs and through the kitchen to a cabin in the yard. He soaked off the trail dust in a huge tin tub full of steaming water. He found a razor and strop hanging beside the mirror and shaved.

Staring in the mirror, he saw that his face had filled out again, but he looked older. Time had faded the livid scar and the sun had fired his skin until he looked almost as dark as an Indian. He thought he resembled his father. The scar didn’t look too bad.

Dressed in his new tight-fitting trousers, King looked at his shapeless and broken boots and almost laughed out loud. I look like a spavined mule. I’d get laughed out of Texas in these boots. I’ll have to get me a decent pair right away. There might be some smart-mouthed drover or two hanging around the docks in Galveston and I’d have to throw my gun.

Leaving the house, he walked slowly downhill, sometimes moving out into the street to get past groups of people crowding the sidewalks. After a few blocks he could see the empty masts of ships ahead. The wharf teemed with people, just like the streets.

King pushed his way past men in overalls standing beside women dressed in poke bonnets and calico. He also noticed flashily dressed men with smooth white hands and careful eyes. Cajun fish hawkers yelled from their boats. Children screamed and ran and climbed over the piles of boxes and baggage waiting to be loaded on the packet. He stepped over the barrier at the end of the gangplank and placed one tight new boot on the deck.

“Hold on there, dude,” a voice yelled from the nearest door. “You can’t just come on this boat without a by-your-leave.”

A man rushed out onto the deck. He was dressed in tattered and filthy riding clothes, his face as red as fire from the heat of the cabin. His shaggy black hair made him look wild. He stopped in his tracks when he got close enough to see King’s face.

“King Sutherland!” he whooped. “My God, man, you’re supposed to be dead.”

“Luke, I’m as alive as you are” King yelled with delight and held out his right hand.

Luke clasped King’s hand in his and almost danced with excitement.

“Boy, it almost broke my heart when I talked to y’all’s Mexican drover Eduardo in Santone. He told me your family had given you up for dead. Does your family know you’re all right? Have you written to them?”

“Hey, hold on now, Luke-one question at a time. Let’s go someplace where we can talk.”

“Aw, King. I can’t leave this dang boat. I’m working my passage back to Galveston. I come over on the cattle boat. Me and some old boys threw a little party last night and the blasted army threw me in jail. I ain’t got enough money left to get home unless I work my way.”

Luke hung his head and looked down at his scuffed and torn boots.

Slapping his friend’s shoulder, King said, “I’ve got enough to see us home, Luke. I just paid for a cabin and space for my horse on this boat. We’ll go see the captain and make arrangements for you.”

“I reckon he’ll jump at the chance to make a passenger out of me. I’ve lived on a horse so long I can’t hardly walk on this boat with its everlasting rocking.”

King told the captain that Luke wasn’t going to work for him, bought passage for Luke, and led his friend to Rue Saint Mary. “I’ll lend you some clothes so you can clean up decent. You can turn the legs of the pants up some. I’ve got enough to lend you some money for some new boots, too. Yours look like they might have been your granddaddy’s.”

“I been riding the grub line lately, old son. There ain’t no money left in Texas to pay drovers. The cattle market went bust as soon as the war started and I’ve just been drifting lately. You know work is scarce for yore old pard Luke Wilson to sign on to wrangle cattle on a stinking boat”

“You can ride along home with me if you want,” King offered. “Blanco Sol always needs riders.”

“I’ll shore trail along with you,” Luke answered slowly. “Pards are as scarce as jobs these days.”

King led Luke around the house to the wash-house and the bathtub. “You better clean up some before anybody sees or smells you, Luke. I shocked them bad enough when I showed up. You look like a wild Indian wrapped in rags. There’s a cook here by the name of Ida that can make cornbread so good you’ll think you’ve died and gone to heaven. We don’t want her upset none”

“Cornbread. That sounds good to me. I ain’t been good and full since I can’t remember when” Luke moaned in anticipation of the delights to come.

“You go ahead and get cleaned up and shaved. I’ll go get you some clothes,” King said.

He ran through the kitchen and up the stairs. As he came back down with his arms full of clothes he met Victoria Glade.

“Oh, ma’am, I ran into an old friend from my home. He’s going to travel back to Texas with me. He hadn’t found him a place to stay yet so I brought him back here with me. Can he share my room?”

“Of course, he can, Mr. Sutherland. We’re delighted to have your friend stay with us. There’ll be a small extra charge, of course, for his meals.” She was still dressed in black but had changed to a dress that bared her pale neck and shoulders. King tore his eyes away from the deep neckline.

She moved closer to him. “I’ll be joining you for dinner this evening. Perhaps you’ll have a glass of Madeira with me after we eat?”

“Why, sure thing, Miz Glade, I’d enjoy that” He wondered if the dress was for his benefit. She sure is something, he thought. Supper might get to be real interesting.

Luke was transformed when he strapped his old gun belt over the new clothes.

“Come on, man” King said. “If you’ll try to hurry a little bit we can get you some respectable boots before dark”

The two Texans left the tanner’s shop and sauntered along shoulder to shoulder. They were both lithe and handsome, and their skin had taken on a rich reddish-tan color from their days in the sun. Their clothes and new boots marked them as cattlemen; aliens in the hustle-bustle of the city.

“I’d shore hate to be stuck in this burg for long,” Luke said as he looked at each passing face. “You can’t hardly tell what kind of varmints you might meet.”

“Don’t you go getting touchy with anybody now, Luke. That boat leaves early Friday morning and we’re going to be on her. There’s too much law here for a drover to act natural.”

“You can say that again. That doggone lieutenant that throwed me in jail would be dead if he’d been in Santone.”

King laughed. “Still the same old fire-eater. You always stayed in trouble. I don’t know how you managed to keep yourself alive this long without me to look after you”

“Aw, you laugh. Most of my gunplay started with you or Clint sparking some gal some other fella thought he owned.”

“Look, Luke,” King said, ignoring the jibe. “Here’s a barbershop. It’s still open. We could both do with a haircut.”

They emerged from the shop some time later with their sideburns trimmed and their hair smooth. Except for the identical Navy Colts hanging low on their sides, they looked almost civilized.

“Let’s get on back to that boarding house,” King said. “I don’t want to run into anybody else that knows me today.”

“What in the world have you done to be on the dodge?”

“I’m not on the dodge. I’m a little bit afraid some Army man might recognize me. I should report to the garrison, it’s kind of expected-but I don’t want to be stranded here for weeks tied up in Army red tape”

“Why would the army care where you are?”

“They don’t really. I’ve got papers showing my separation due to my injury, but I don’t want to be bothered explaining myself.”

“Well, come on then, we can hole up at your rooming house tonight and all day tomorrow. I don’t want nothing more to do with them sorry blue boys myself.”

Ida was almost finished putting supper on the table when the two men entered the dining room. “Sit down, y’all. Miz Glade will be down directly.”

Luke moaned at the sight of plates piled high with fried chicken and delicately browned biscuits. The long table was almost covered with dishes: several bowls of vegetables, a gravy boat, a mold of butter in the middle of the table, a crystal dish of pickles, and another of applesauce.

“I can’t believe what I see. Is it real?”

“It sure is, Luke. And I can swear that it tastes as good as it looks. Ida is the best cook in New Orleans, so her husband tells me”

“That fool. How would he know that?” Ida smiled her pleasure at King’s compliments.

At that moment Victoria Glade walked in the door. Luke’s eyes popped at the sight of her pearly white shoulders showing above the low neckline of her black dress.

“That’s your landlady?” he sputtered. “I can’t believe the luck some fellas have”

King pushed his chair back and he stood up, grabbing Luke and pulling him to his feet as well. “This is my friend I told you about, Miz Glade: Luke Wilson, from San Antonio. He’s the best gun-toting cattleman in south Texas and he’s saved my life more than once.”

Luke turned red and mumbled, “How do, ma’am”

“I’m honored to meet you, Mr. Wilson. What an introduction! You must be pleased that you found Mr. Sutherland. Please take your seats, gentlemen.”

Luke fell back into his chair and fastened his eyes on his plate. He didn’t look up again until the meal was over.

As soon as everyone was served, Victoria asked, “Does your business take you east often, Mr. Sutherland?”

“Oh no,” King answered, hoping Luke would maintain his silence. “I’m usually much too busy at home to travel. This was sort of an emergency trip.”

“I want you to tell me all about Texas after dinner. People tell such outlandish tales. I’m sure I can trust you to tell me the real truth. Will you excuse Mr. Sutherland and me, Mr. Wilson?”

“Shore I will, ma’am,” Luke replied, turning an accusing look on King. “I need my rest anyway.”

Pushing his chair back, Luke stood up and bowed, his face serious and his cheeks still red. “I can’t begin to say how great that meal was, ma’am. I’ll be looking forward to breakfast”

“My room is the first on the left at the top of the stairs,” King called as Luke hurried out of the room.

Victoria led King through a door off the central hall. “The other salon is only for entertaining my nosy neighbors and my husband’s family,” she explained. King wondered where this husband of hers was.

The room held French furniture upholstered in pale blue silk. The patterned carpet was so thick that King’s boots sank in with every step. Victoria lit a lamp beside the sofa. “Come sit here beside me, Mr. Sutherland. We can enjoy the fire as we talk.”

The room seemed almost too comfortable. King sat down and stretched his legs out toward the small fire in the marble fireplace. Victoria sat on the sofa near him. She turned his way, looking directly into his face and smiling as she listened to his tales of Blanco Sol Ranch and the part of Texas he’d grown up in.

King realized that her eyes were sad and hungry-looking. Tiny lines marred the beauty of her full mouth. Discontent and bitterness were written on her face. She dropped her hand to the seat of the sofa, her fingers almost touching King’s knee.

“Won’t you call me Victoria, Mr. Sutherland? I’ve been dying to call you King. It sounds so grand.”

“That’s real kind of you, Miz Glade, but I wouldn’t feel exactly right acting so familiar all of a sudden. It surely ain’t polite.”

King stood up and held out his hand. “I reckon I’ll just get on upstairs. I’ll have to get up early to tend to some business and I’m downright tired from traveling. I’ve been looking forward to sleeping in that big bed, so I’ll say goodnight.”

Victoria Glade’s eyes turned dark with anger, but she smiled and wished him a pleasant night.

King entered his room on tiptoe. Luke was already snoring. King slipped off his clothes as quietly as possible and slid under the quilts. He gently pushed Luke’s inert body over to make room. He knew it wouldn’t do to wake him, he’d surely raise a fuss.

King had no more than straightened out on the bed when sleep claimed him. He woke to rude shaking. Luke was already dressed. “Get up out of there you lazy hog. Breakfast is long over. Are you going to sleep forever?”

“Get the heck out of here, you sorry no-good talking machine. Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?” King turned his face to the wall and pulled the cover over his head.

“Ain’t no need for you to cuss your friends just because you’ve been out tom-catting around all night,” Luke taunted him.

“Oh, shut up. I have not been out tom-catting around and I ain’t no kid for you to be trying to mind.”

“Well, you shore act like one. Get dressed, will you? Let’s get on that boat and stay there until it leaves. That high-stepping widow downstairs was making sheep’s eyes at me at the breakfast table. Almost put me off my feed. I can smell trouble if we stay here a minute longer than it takes to get ourselves together and run.”

“Aw, come on, Luke. You’re lying. She wasn’t flirting with you too?” King sat up in bed and looked into his friend’s grim face. “No, I guess you’re not lying at that. All right, get my pack while I dress. We’ll put my horse on board and spend tonight on the packet”

The two men made short work of packing and slipped quietly down the stairs and out into the street. “Whew,” said Luke. “Life is something, ain’t it? A fella never can be shore what will happen when a good-looking woman’s around”

King and Luke found a restaurant with an empty table and ate a huge meal. “Let’s rustle on down to the docks,” Luke said as he washed down his last bite of leathery steak with his second beer.

“We’ll need some daylight to get your horse aboard the packet. If he’s any good at all, he ain’t going to want to take no boat ride.”

“He might raise a fuss at that. He’s a great horse. I wouldn’t want him to hurt himself. I might have to bed down in the hold with him to keep him quiet.”

“Don’t you worry none about that. We’ll hobble him and tie his head to the stall. He’ll stand. Most horses are smart enough to not get hurt if they see they can’t get loose.”

The two men had to detour twice around groups of soldiers on the way to the livery stable. Luke’s expression told King he might say something insulting to the men and get them in trouble. It didn’t feel right to King for him to talk to Luke about his service in the Union army, but he would be forced to talk about it if the soldiers asked for their papers.

Melton wasn’t at the livery stable, to King’s great relief. He didn’t want to have to explain to him why he was leaving early. A young boy led Ranger out into the yard for King to saddle him and tie his pack on.

Luke stood back and admired the horse. “That’s a grand trail horse, King. He looks like he’s strong and fast”

Luke was known as a good judge of horses. King had never known him to be wrong in his choice of a mount. He could pick out the finest horses in a remuda at a glance. Then he could get all the work a horse was capable of with his superb riding.

“Thanks, old man. That’s fine praise coming from you. Ranger likes to show off, but he’s strong and he’s got a smooth gait.”

The horse acted as though he was glad to see King and stood quietly for him to strap on his saddle and pack. “I’m going to buy a pack horse in Galveston, Luke. Say, where’s your big red colt?”

“He’s in Jake Benton’s corral in Galveston. He’s eating his head off, I reckon. He’ll be too fat to run by the time I get back there”

“He’ll lose the fat fast enough. I’m in a hurry to get back home”

King jumped into the saddle. “Here, Luke, climb up behind me. He can carry both of us easily.”

King had to hold Ranger tight even with such a load on his back; he was skittish in the crowds of people. The loaded wagons and crowds of people seemed as numerous as they had been the first day he arrived in town.

When they finally reached the boat, Luke and King dismounted. Holding tight to Ranger’s head, they led him onto the deck of the boat. A boatman rushed over to hand King two heavy pieces of canvas attached to a cable and quickly moved back several steps. “Lead him up beside that hole and get the straps under his belly,” he shouted.

Luke looked at the man disdainfully. “Are you afraid of horses, fella?”

“You bet your boots I am, fella. I ain’t fool enough to let one of them crazy nags kick my brains out”

Luke slipped Ranger’s saddle from his back, placing it and his pack well out of the way of the horse’s hooves.

“You hold his head, King. Look how he’s rolling his eyes”

King held Ranger by his bridle and rubbed his quivering nose. He began to talk to him softly. “Take it easy, boy. We’re not going to hurt you.”

Luke slipped the canvas strips under the horse and attached them to the cable.

“Get out of the way,” yelled the boatman. Two black men turned the pulley wheel, lifting Ranger clear of the deck. The great horse screamed in rage and fear. He kicked out with both hind feet, making the sling sway from side to side.

“Hold him still,” Luke said quietly. “He’ll calm down soon as he sees he caught”

King watched with his heart in his throat. One lunge at the wrong moment and he could lose Ranger.

Luke got the horse quiet finally by just talking to him. “Let him down easy now,” he cautioned the men on the pulley. He slipped into the hold beside the horse as they slowly let him down. “Come on now, boy. I’ll put you in the best stall these folks have got since we’re here first and then I’ll give you a bait of grain.”

Ranger stood stock still on the bottom of the boat with his head up, trembling all over. Luke’s voice and hands soon calmed him and the danger was over. King felt as though he could hardly breathe until Luke climbed back up on deck.

“Stop your worrying, pard. Your precious horse is tied up like a baby. He’ll be fine if this tub don’t sink.”

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Silver Creek by A. H. Holt

Silver Creek Western Novel

Silver Creek
By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1870’s

Location – Rio Grande
Description – Smart, loyal, and tough, John captures your heart, and the heart of “Andy” Blaine the heroine. Andrea is a bit of a tom-boy, but a beautiful, strong, and true western woman. John gets involved in the war for water rights on Silver Creek and neighboring ranches because his father seems to be involved on the wrong side of the law.

Hashtags
#Horses #Novel #Story #Action #Adventure #Romance #Western #Classic #Western Woman #Cowboy #Suspense #Thriller #Murder #Crime #Water Rights #Texas #Ranching #Heroine #Outlaw #Rancher #Texas #Family #Cattle #Cattleman #Hero 

First Chapter

John Garrett tied his gear behind his saddle and left the Wilson ranch just before daybreak. He followed the old Butterfield stage road north for about thirty miles to the Rio Grande crossing just south of Mesilla. The first night on the trail he camped at Cooke’s Spring.

His goal that morning was to reach the hills before the sun was high. He said his farewells to the ranch owner and the other cowboys the night before he left. Buck Wilson had wished him luck, and John had assured him that if he ever rode for another ranch, he would come back and ride for him.

He didn’t explain why he was leaving, he simply said he had business that needed tending and a long ride to get to where that business was. Wilson knew enough not to ask questions.

John Garrett rode a long, rangy sorrel horse with the unlikely name of Prince. Sometimes he thought the name was kind of silly, but he named the horse when he was a colt because he was almost too showy to be a working horse. He was still showy, as well as big and powerful, and he was the best trail horse John ever owned. He lifted the reins and urged Prince to a mile-eating trot.

The second morning John broke camp early and rode two miles into Mesilla to stock up on supplies. There would be nights he would have to camp on the trail. Later in the day, working his way northwest from Mesilla, he made good time. He was determined to save his horses’ strength, so he stopped and made camp the second day after riding only twenty miles. He unsaddled Prince and rubbed him down thoroughly with his saddle blanket, then turned him loose to forage. There was little grass for him to find on the lower slopes of the Las Cruces Mountains.

“I have to take it easy and be patient,” John said to himself.

He desperately wanted to hurry, but he knew that pushing his horse too fast would be a foolhardy way to begin a journey of more than four hundred miles. A journey that would take him back to another life. A life he had sworn to forget.

Alec Gunnison’s visit brought it all sweeping back. The anger, and the sickness he felt every time he thought of that last day. The day he left the ranch he loved and expected to live on for the rest of his life.

He could still see Mason Garrett’s angry face, and the whip. Alec told John he had a duty to go home and help his father in his trouble.

“Well,” John thought, “I’m going home, but only because it’s my duty. When this is settled, I’ll never stay.”

It was the best time of the year to travel. Most late afternoons John found water and a good place to camp. Whenever possible he stopped at a large ranch. The owner or foreman was sure to offer a meal and a bed in the bunkhouse for him and feed for his horse. Occasionally he spent the evening and night at a mining camp or a small town where he could get a hot meal.

When he passed the night in a town or at a ranch John always took time to groom Prince well and feed him grain at night. He repeated the process before they started out the next day. The big horse had great stamina, but he was used to being fed grain regularly and it would preserve his strength.

John followed the route he had taken when he left his home six years before. Remembering how he burned with anger and bitterness as he rode away from all he loved was still painful. The anger had softened, but he was still bitter.

There was little in the way of a direct trail to follow in the direction he was traveling, but here and there a rough track was marked by wagon wheels. Those trails provided easy travel for a few miles until they turned in a different direction.

It was late August and rains came almost every afternoon. The slopes of the White Mountains were covered in patches of green. This was the only time of year when there was color on the mountains southeast of Silver City.

John turned north at a town called Deming that was once a stop for the Butterfield Stage, then his route turned northwest, keeping the Mimbres River on his left. The going was easy near the river and he made the hundred miles to Silver City in only four days.

This trail was once a favorite route of the Apache. The whole area was Apache territory. Ten years earlier no one would have been foolish enough to ride from Deming to Silver City alone. Only large well-armed groups were safe. But the Apache were gone. They had all been killed or tamed.

Leaving Silver City on a trail leading northwest to Buckhorn, John crossed a small river. He thought it probably was a branch of the Gila. After that crossing his route turned more to the north and passed a short distance east of Mule Creek on an old trail into the Mogollons.

It took several days for him to ride through the mountains. The valleys were covered in a thick growth of Grama grass providing plentiful welcome food for Prince.

As the trail led upward, he passed through areas covered in scrub oak, and then reached forests of the tall, graceful ponderosa pine. Up higher, he could see aspens growing on nearby slopes.

Most nights he camped near a creek or spring that lay under large cottonwoods or the tangled branches of willows. Game was plentiful. He often shot a rabbit from his horses’ back and ended the day by enjoying it for his supper, roasted over his campfire.

When he finally crossed the San Francisco River and turned west toward Clay Springs, John felt as though he had been on the trail a month, although he left the lake country and reached Clay Springs on his fourteenth day of travel.

Clay Springs was a beautiful place to camp. After removing his gear and unsaddling the horse, he led Prince to a grassy area about a hundred yards from the spring. He decided to stay at the spring for two full days to give the horse a rest. He saw a small herd of deer less than a mile before he reached the spring, and wanted to try to get a shot at one.

At daybreak three days later John broke camp and set off to the northwest. His route would turn sharply back to the east before he reached the Tonto and then it would join a trail running northeast into the mountains.

Deep in the mountains, he decided to make a last stop at a little town sitting across the trail that led to an unnamed river crossing. As he remembered, Ellison Grove wasn’t much of a town, but it would surely have a mercantile with the supplies he needed.

He looked forward to getting a meal someone else cooked and a good night’s rest in a bed for himself and a stable with a large bait of oats for Prince. He would be able to replenish his food supply and buy more ammunition.

He felt sure he could reach the cabin in no more than two day’s ride from Ellison Grove. He wanted to arrive alert and well rested and hoped the cabin would be empty, but he knew there was no telling what he would find.

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Kendrick by A. H. Holt

Kendrick
By A. H. Holt

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

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

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First Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you been up there?” I asked.

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

“What did he mean by that?”

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

“Where’s this man’s office?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You talk to me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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