Kendrick’s Pride by A. H. Holt

Kendrick’s Pride

By A. H. Holt

Genre – Western
Time Period – 1920’s
Location – Colorado
Description – Kendrick is thrown into a battle for the survival of himself and his family. A twisted tale of betrayal, intrigue and violence set in the early 20th century American frontier.

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#Sequel #Western #Classic #Cowboy #Betrayal #Twins #Frontier #Loyalty #Thriller #Horses #Mining #Colorado #1900’s #Orphans #Gold #Gold Mine #Mountains #Family #Gunfighter #African American #Kidnapping #Slavery #Romance #Crime #Mystery #Suspense #Adventure #Historic #Family Friendly

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First Chapter

I filled the stove with kindling and added a couple of chunks of sap-filled pine to heat the place up fast. In minutes the sides of the heater glowed red from the roaring fire. By the time it calmed down I was warm and nearly finished making entries in the ranch books.

I suddenly heard running footsteps on the path from the house.

 “What the devil….”

The office door flew open to crash back against the wall and Meg fairly jumped through the opening. Her face glowed a pasty white and her hair tumbled down on her shoulders. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

 Sobbing between every word, she shrieked, “Oh Ken—Ken—you—you have to come up to the house–now—please hurry.

“You have to hurry. It’s Sheriff Collier–the town sheriff from Belden—the sheriff and two other men are in our parlor. They say we have to give them the boys—right now–today.”

 Startled by her tears and mystified by her crazy sounding words, I stood up and leaned over the desk —, “What in the name of Heaven do you mean—what are you talking about. Meg?”

 Meg didn’t say another word. She just looked at me through her fingers, tears streaming.

 I pushed my chair back and hurried around the desk to grab my wife’s shoulders with both hands. “Stop that crying Meg, for Pete’s sake—calm yourself—I can’t even understand what you’re trying to say to me. Take your hands down from your face and tell me what in the world you’re babbling about.”

 Dropping her hands so her whole body took on a defeated look, Meg looked up at me, tears streaming and wailed, “It’s true, Ken—it’s true. It’s what that Sheriff Collier told me—just now.

“One of the men with him claims he’s Trent and Tyler’s real blood uncle and the sheriff says we have to give him the boys.”

 “Well, you just stop your crying. It won’t do any good and you know it. Come on. We’ll go back up to the house and see what they have to say—somebody’s out of their mind—I just need to go find out who.”

 Taking my hands away and stepping around Meg, I rushed out of the office and stretched my legs as I strode toward the house.

Meg ran to keep close behind me, still crying aloud. “You can’t let them take the boys Ken—you can’t.”

 “Don’t be silly Meg,” I said over my shoulder.

“Of course they can’t take the boys—don’t be ridiculous. You just calm down—I’ll talk to the marshal.”

 Crossing the back porch, I threw open the kitchen door letting it slam back against the wall, crossed to almost run down the hallway and rush through the parlor door.

I stopped in the middle of the room and stared first at Collins then at the two men sitting nearest the fireplace. A slender young man in a boiled collar and a slick looking head of black hair perched on the edge of the seat of Mother’s rocking chair. He frowned up at me.

The fattest man I ever laid eyes on overflowed my dad’s easy chair. My easy chair.

 Collins tried to stand a little taller as he stepped closer to me, his hands out as if to stop me. “You just take it easy now Wayne Kendrick–don’t you go getting yourself all upset and excited. These here men are out here on legal business. I come with them because I figured you was likely to get yourself all riled up and try to cause them some trouble.”

 Collier turned to wave his hand at the fat man. “Mr. William H. E. Stinson, Jr. here showed me clear proof in writing he’s brother to them there poor little boys own real father, Mr. Hal Stinson. He come here all the way from back east in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to get them boys and fetch them home with him.

“Mr. Stinson’s ready to give them boys a fine home and a future you can’t never hope to match, Kendrick. You got to turn them boys over to him today.

“It’s only right. The man’s their only blood kin.”

 I took a deep breath to calm myself down. “Collier, take these two men and get out of my house.”

 “I was afraid of this, Kendrick—I been warned about you and your ways by a lot of folks around Belden. You needn’t come on all proud and stuck up with me. You can’t be talking to me like that anyway. You know I represent the law.”

 “You don’t represent any law around here, Collier. You’re nothing but the Belden town marshal, not the county sheriff. Nobody but the county sheriff or a sworn federal marshal can represent the law out here and you know that without me telling you.

“You take your friends here and get the devil out of my house.”

 The fat man leaned forward in my chair.

“Mr. Kendrick, please–please calm down and listen to what my lawyer has to say about this.

“I do have proof I am Hal Stinson’s older brother and blood uncle to those two poor little boys. I want to take them to my home back east and provide for them. I lost my only brother. I want to give his sons a fine education and the life they deserve.”

 Mad enough to fight, I turned to face Stinson, trying to keep my voice down and sound a lot calmer than I felt.

“To start with Mister, my boys are living the life they deserve. They’re well provided for and loved as much as any children can be loved. I don’t know what notion you might hold about the kind of life my boys live here with me, but they are fine and happy and have everything they need.”

 “But they’re not your boys, Mr. Kendrick.” The fat man grabbed both arms of the chair and straining, sort of oozed forward to sit on the edge of the seat.

“You must admit that, Sir. You simply took those poor little babies over without leave from anyone but that so-called marshal over at the Springs.

“You brought them back here where nobody knew where they came from and convinced a poor ignorant country judge you and your wife would provide a fine home for them.

“Marshal Collier here suggests to me that people in Belden tell him you only wanted the boys as extra hands to help you run this ranch.”

 I had to take me a deep breath. I felt about ready to explode. In fact, I was so mad my whole chest sort of jerked when I heard the fat skunk say that.

I took one long step forward and leaned forward to be closer to the fat man before I managed to say, “Mister, you get up out of my chair and say that again and I’ll break your head for you.”

 Collier rushed over to push himself between me and Stinson.

“Look here Kendrick, you calm yourself down now. If you hit Mr. Stinson I’ll have to arrest you.”

 “I’ll say this again Collier—you do not represent the law here. Now I’m going to leave this room to get my shotgun. I’ve asked you to leave. That’s all I intend to say. Now you get out of my house before I get back and take these two with you.”

 Without giving Collier time to answer, I turned and legged it out of the room, grabbing Meg by the hand as I went by to pull her along behind me. Without speaking I stomped down the hall to the kitchen.

 When we stepped through the kitchen door and stopped Meg turned to look back down the hall, her eyes wild. When she stopped sobbing and opened her mouth to say something, I slid my right hand over her mouth and shook my head to keep her quiet.

Leaning forward close to the kitchen door, I listened carefully, but could only hear a dull murmur of whispered conversation from the front room—no words I could understand.

After about one long minute, the three men moved into the hallway and left by the front door, closing it softly behind them.

 As soon as I dropped my hand Meg looked up at me with an expression of pure terror on her white face.

She finally managed to choke out, “What are we going to do, Ken? Tell me what we’re going to do?”

 “I don’t know, Meg. Please try to calm down.

“I’m certain this isn’t the last we’ll hear of those three. I just don’t know. If that little one with Stinson is really a lawyer, I expect he’ll swear out a warrant trying to make a legal claim to the boys as soon as he gets back to Belden.

“I’ll go to town first thing in the morning and talk this mess over with Adam Fletcher. He’ll know how to deal with Stinson if he does take us to court.”

 “Oh no—oh no.” Meg began sobbing aloud again.

“You don’t think a judge would—surely no one would give that horrible man our boys?”

 “Of course not—there is no possible way Judge Montague would give our sons over to that man. The whole thing is downright foolish. We adopted Trent and Tyler like we were supposed to, with the judge’s say so. Don’t be silly about it, Meg—use some sense and stop taking on so.

 “Look, go wash your face and put your hair back up. The boys and Katie will be home from school in a little while. I’ll catch them at the barn and explain what happened here, but I don’t want them to see you like this.”

 “I can’t help crying Ken, I’m so scared. You always think I can stop crying just because you say I should, but I can’t—I can’t help it.”

 “You’ll have to help it this time Meg—that’s all there is to it. I can reassure the boys and Katie, but if those children see you crying and carrying on like this, it’ll scare them half to death.”

 “I’m so frightened, Ken. Trent and Tyler are almost twelve years old. How could that horrible man come here trying to take them away from us now—after almost twelve years?”

 “I can’t explain it Meg, it does look strange for him to wait so long, but you just stop your crying and worrying over it. I’ll see Adam Fletcher tomorrow like I said I would and do whatever needs doing if that Stinson fella pulls the law into this. The boys will be fine.”

 “You can’t know that Wayne Allen Kendrick—you always think you know everything. You always say everything will be fine—but it is not fine always—it’s just not—no matter what you say. You know it’s possible the law might give those boys to that man.

“I’m taking Katie and Trent and Tyler and going home right now. My father will protect us.”

 “Meg, you are not to go to your father about this. I’ll take care of it. If I’ve told you once I’ve told you over and over—our business is our business. I don’t need Major Cason sticking his nose in.”

 “Darn you and your stuck up Kendrick independence. You should be glad my father’s willing to help us instead of acting so prideful.”

 “Well maybe I should, but I don’t want your father’s help. I’ve told you that hundreds of times and I mean it. I want you to stop running to Major Cason with every little thing.

“Try to have a little confidence in me, Meg.”

 “This is no little thing Wayne Kendrick—it would kill me if I lost my children. I mean it—it would kill me.”

 Meg stared up at me through her tears for a long moment and then turned to run into the hall, sobbing wildly. I could hear her feet pounding the steps as she ran up to our room.

 I stood where I was and stared after her, my thoughts buzzing around in my head. I finally shrugged and left the house and hurried toward the barn.

My head filled with pictures of Meg today and Meg ten years ago—the Meg I married. I can’t help but think she will surely drive me crazy one of these days.

After almost twelve years of marriage she still thinks of her father before me—every time we have a problem.

Sometimes I wish she’d go on back home to the Major permanently and leave me in peace.

I guess I don’t really mean that, but Major Cason has the idea he ought to rule just about everything—including my life.

He and I just strike sparks—it was like that even before I married Meg. I try to hold back, but the old scudder’s stuck his nose in my business more than once since Meg and I got married.

I don’t know what in the world he’ll say about this. He never wanted us to adopt Tyler and Trent in the first place even though it was Meg’s idea—well, I guess it was Meg and Aunt Letty’s together to begin with—but Meg sure went along with it—she even pushed it.

Katie met me at the barn door.

“Daddy—Daddy, Trent pulled my hair and I told him I would tell you and you would punish him good for being so mean to me.”

Lifting my daughter in my arms, I tousled her mop of yellow curls and laughed as I snuggled her close.

“What did you do to make Trent pull your hair, Miss?”

“Daddy—I didn’t do nothing to Trent. I’m a good girl.

“I didn’t do nothing to that big boy—he’s just mean to me—he’s always mean to me.”

Tall for his age, his head almost up to my shoulder, Tyler stepped into the bright sunshine, settling his hat atop his overlong blond hair.

“Little Sister, I saw you poke at Trent with your pencil over and over before he turned around and yanked on your hair to make you stop.

“We rode at least half a mile while he let your devilment pass without doing a thing. Shame on you for telling Dad and trying to get your brother in trouble.”

“Aw, Tyler, don’t tell on Katie. Dad knows how she is.”

Trent followed his brother out of the barn.

Once they stand side by side, it’s almost impossible to tell the twins apart.

I gave Katie a gentle shake and stood her on her feet. “You stop telling things on your brothers’ young lady, or I’ll have to send one of the hands to take you to school and bring you home every day.

“If you can’t tell the truth you won’t be allowed to ride with the boys.”

“I’m sorry Daddy. Please don’t do that.

“I won’t do it again—I promise. I like to ride to school with Trent and Tyler.”

“Go on up to the house and help your mama, Honey. She’s not feeling too good today. She’ll be glad to see you.”

I watched a moment as she ran toward the house, bright curls flying. Turning to the twins, I hesitated a moment, trying to get my thoughts together.

“What’s up Dad? What’s wrong? You look kinda upset.”

“I knew I couldn’t hide anything from you, Tyler. You’re right. I am upset, seriously upset. You boys come on up to the office and I’ll tell you about it.”

I returned to my chair, stretched my legs under the desk and rested my arms on the open ledger. Trent perched on one end of the desk and Tyler took the only other chair in the room.

After inspecting the top of my desk for a least a full minute as I tried to gather my thoughts, I cleared my throat. “We’ve never really talked about this boys, but I’ve never tried to keep it from you—you know you’re adopted, don’t you?”

“Of course we do, Dad.”

Trent laughed and stood up to parrot Major Cason. “You may call me Grandfather children, although you must understand and always remember, I am not your grandfather by blood, only by a verdict of the county court.”

Tyler broke in– “You stop mocking our Grandfather, Trent. He’s a bit silly, but he’s a good old duffer. He doesn’t mean anything by what he says.”

“I get your meaning Tyler, but I don’t think you should refer to Major Cason as an old duffer, either.”

I put my hand to my face to hide the beginnings of a grin.

Trent stood up straight and sort of announced. “Okay Dad. We know we’re adopted–so what’s going on—what’s got you so upset?”

I wished I didn’t have to tell them at all, but I stopped wishing and figured there was nothing to do but say it flat out.

“Sheriff Collier brought two strangers out here today. One of them is a Mr. Stinson. He claims to be your real uncle, your father’s brother.

“He doesn’t look a bit like Hal Stinson to me or either of you for that matter, but Sheriff Collier claims the man can prove he’s really your uncle.

“Stinson says he’s here to claim you boys, take you back east to live with him so he can give you the kind of life you deserve.”

“Tell him to—.” Trent sounded furious. He stopped talking but took off his hat and ran his hands through his hair.

I knew his actions meant he felt scared and upset. He only acted that way when something got too close.

“Easy son. You’ll have to keep calm. I know this is a shock, but you just take it easy.

“This visit today was most likely just the opening gun of what may be a real problem for us. I figure we’ll probably be going to court over your adoption before many days pass.”

Tyler looked down at his hands a moment before he leaned forward to stare into my face. His voice was soft. “Can this man claim us Dad? Can he take us away from you? Can he make us live with him?”

“No son–no, I won’t hear of it. We’ll fight him in court as long as it takes to prove you belong to me.

“The marshal who looked after you boys when we found you tried his best to find your family. Your mother and I advertised in the Denver paper and when no one answered our advertisements, we went to court and the judge signed adoption papers making you legally our own children.

“You’re legally my sons and I’ll go back to court as many times as I have to go to court to prove it. I just plain won’t let him claim you.”

Trent moved close to his brother.

“Don’t be getting upset now, Ty. You know Dad won’t let anybody take us away from here.”

“Maybe in the end Dad won’t have the say, Trent. Maybe some fool court will say we have to go with this Stinson.”

“Well I don’t care what a court says. I just won’t go. I’ll go hide in the timber or somewhere so they can’t find me.”

“You talk like a little kid, Trent. This is serious. Look at Dad’s face.”

Both boys turned to look at me with such a grim and half-scared expression I began to feel guilty.

“I’m sorry boys. I don’t mean to look downhearted about this—I’m not really downhearted.

“To be truthful I’m just plain angry and concerned. It’s a serious thing of course, and it troubles me to have to go through it. It troubles me to see you upset about it, but we’ll come out fine.

“I’m going into Belden first thing tomorrow morning to hire a lawyer and we’ll figure out how to defend ourselves against this.

“Don’t you two go around worrying about it–this mess has upset your mother badly, but it will upset her even more if she sees you two acting like you’re scared that man might win.

“He won’t win—you boys remember that.”

“We’re not scared Dad. I’ll get Ty to wipe that glum look off his face and we’ll make Mama think we’re not even concerned—that we think the man’s silly. I know you’ll take care of us—we’ll make her understand.”

Trent turned to his brother. “Come on Ty. Get a smile on your mug and let’s go get something to eat—I’m starved.”

As soon as the boys walked out of the door, I dropped my head on my arms. I felt wrung out. Each boy reacted exactly as I expected. Trent made light of everything and Tyler always saw the serious side.

Poor boys. What an awful fear for them to bear. I’d like to hurt that overgrown pig of a Stinson—hurt him terminally.

This mess is almost more than I can take in. To wait around almost twelve years. Then to come here demanding my sons as if it would mean nothing to me to turn them over—and daring to say I only wanted them to work on my ranch.

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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.

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