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Authors: Willie Nelson,Mike Blakely

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A Tale Out of Luck

BOOK: A Tale Out of Luck
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Copyright © 2008 by Willie Nelson

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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The Center Street name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

First eBook Edition: September 2008

Summary: “Country legend Willie Nelson makes his fiction debut with an action-packed western set in the semi-fictional town of Luck, Texas”—Provided by publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-59995-176-8


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

About the Author


, among other aliases, Wes James. Hunkered down now beside a fire of compact yet functional design, he made it a point to actually
of his name as Wes. The crucial thing here was to keep branding the current alias into his mind, as surely as he aimed to use his running iron, now heating in the coals, to do some quick branding of its own.

He whispered the assumed identity as he used a stick to pile gray-speckled orange coals over the tip of his running iron: “Wes James . . . The name’s Wes James . . .” He glanced across the open top of the rocky hill where he had come upon the brindle yearling. As he turned the iron with his fingers, his wary hazel eyes swept the line of live oaks rimming the summit. He looked over his shoulder at his claybank cow pony, the gelding still keeping a taut rope on the lassoed brindle, the heifer securely hog-tied now on the ground.

“Howdy, ma’am, the name’s Wes James.”

The trick was never to react to one of the
aliases should some stock detective or brand inspector track him here to the limestone hills outside of the frontier town of Luck, Texas. In New Mexico, he had named himself Butch Smithers. He had styled himself Samuel Longstreet in Indian Territory. Elsewhere, he had variously announced his handle in saloons and recorded his identity in brand registration books as Joe Dudley, John Allen Roark, Shorty McDonald, Billy Ballard . . .

The alias was never random. It was always shaped around a brand Wes needed to register somewhere—a brand made by altering an existing brand on somebody else’s livestock. Wes James—John Wesley James, to be more precise—was not without a measure of intelligence, a sense of creativity, and even a parcel of pride. What he lacked was ambition. He had no vision of the future, other than where he might find his next bottle of whiskey or woman of soiled virtue. His given name? The name of a father he never met? The name his mean stepdaddy had forced him to adopt? None of them mattered more than a plug of chew to one Wes James.

He looked up at the wisp of branding-fire smoke trailing off at an angle and dissipating into the slate gray of the evening sky. His identity here would fade like that smoke trail. He fanned it thinner with his hat. He didn’t want anyone to see the smoke any more than he wanted to remember his past or visualize his future.

Wes James had gotten caught only once doctoring brands, in Omaha. Lucky he was caught in town, instead of out on the range where he would have been shot or lynched on the spot. Hard labor, mean guards, and meaner convicts were the consequences of carelessness that he didn’t intend to suffer again, though he had fared better than men of lesser grit. Wes was six feet tall, lean, broad-shouldered, and tough. He wasn’t given to violence, preferring to escape clean rather than fight his way out of a bind, but he could take care of himself, and would, with fists or firearms, if pressed into a corner.

He felt heat creeping up the running iron—a simple, straight rod no bigger around than his little finger. With it, he could “run” a brand with the same deft hand he often used to forge bogus bills of sale. He had employed this particular running iron for years—a short model that, after it cooled, slipped into a hidden pocket of his saddlebag. He knew from experience that when this end of the iron began to scorch his leathery palm, the business end was plenty hot enough to transfer possession of one brindle heifer to Wes James’s ill-gotten ownership.

He lifted the iron from the coals and rose from his crouch, his knees and back aching a bit. Again his eyes swept his surrounds. He kicked some dirt on the coals, then hastened to the hog-tied brindle, the red-hot tip of his running iron leading the way, taking on the same shade as the setting sun.

The claybank was still leaning back on the rope. Too bad he couldn’t keep this pony. He was a real good one. But Wes James never rode the same horse or wore the same crease in his hat for very long. The brindle thrashed on the ground as Wes approached, but the piggin’ string held tight around the two hind legs and the left forefoot, and soon the beast rolled her eyes back in her head and lolled out her tongue in bovine stupefaction.

This was the moment of highest risk for a brand doctor—a rustler of beeves who specialized in modifying existing brands. It was impossible to explain away the act of doctoring another man’s brand. Once altered, however, he would have his own brand registration papers showing title to the new design of the brand. No one would have reason to believe it had ever been altered. And, just to make sure no one saw the old brand in the new one, Wes would trail his rustled beeves far away to Jacksboro to sell to some unwitting British investors who had bought a large chunk of the Texas free range near there.

Selling his ill-gotten cattle too close to home was the mistake that had landed Wes in prison before. He had sold a small herd of rustled beeves at the stockyards in Omaha. After the sale, a sharp-eyed brand inspector had recognized the original brand, owned by a prominent area rancher, through Wes’s doctored brand. They found Wes—George Brannigan as he called himself there—drunk in an Omaha saloon, a maiden of ill repute on his lap. He had always maintained that he could have jumped up and made a run for it, had the harlot not been so plump. He had leaned toward slender whores ever since, and suspected he could find one skinny enough to suit him up in Jacksboro.

Now the red-hot tip of the running iron descended on the brand of the Broken Arrow Ranch—two lines, roughly vertical, but closer together at the top than the bottom, intended to represent a broken arrow shaft.

The brand, and the ranch, belonged to one Hank Tomlinson, a retired Texas Ranger captain of some renown. Tomlinson was not the kind of man Wes cared to get caught by, and that, in part, was what worried him now. On top of that, he had heard in town that a small band of Comanches had camped on Flat Rock Creek. Wes made a point of staying better mounted and armed than Indians, but the prospect of losing his scalp still raised concern.

Then there was that other matter. He tried not to think about that at all. In the past, he had always kept things simple and worked alone. He had always rustled for himself. He should have held to that policy.

His iron touched the existing brand, joining the tips of the two lines that made up the Broken Arrow brand, changing it to an inverted V. At the touch of the red-hot rod, the heifer bellowed and lunged against her bindings. Wes lifted the iron for a moment so the brand wouldn’t smear an amateurish burn scar across the hide. He held the iron as an orchestra conductor would hold his wand, waiting to signal the strings, and he shushed the complaints of the heifer.

“Shhh . . . Hush, now, girl, I know it ain’t fair.”

And the beast seemed to listen. Deftly now, he added two more lines, expanding the inverted V into a W, all the while lifting his wand and shushing the piteous bellows when the brindle convulsed. He squinted past the odors of burnt hair and flesh as he added a J below the W.

This was the brand—the WJ—that Wes James had registered up in Jack County. This brand was, in fact, the reason for the alias, Wes James. As a final touch, he ran the hot iron over the scars of the existing brand, to freshen up the look of the entire brand and make it all appear newly burnt. If caught with this fresh-branded brindle somewhere between here and Jack County, he could claim that he was simply a mavericker working the free range—a poor cowboy trying to get a stake by roping and branding wild cattle owned by nobody.

A welcome sense of relief came over him. Now he could remove the piggin’ string and let the heifer up. He’d leave her necked to a live oak overnight so she couldn’t wander off. He’d camp nearby, catch some sleep. Before dawn, he’d be moving the heifer to that lonesome canyon where he was holding half a dozen more rustled beeves with doctored brands already penned behind a crude cedar picket fence. By daylight, he’d be on the trail to faraway Jack County. After that, he’d never again return to these ranges, ride this claybank, or use the name of Wes James.

Something sent a sudden alarm through Wes’s nervous system. Had he heard it, smelled it, or just felt it? He turned. His eyes locked onto a figure at the tree line, fifty paces away, backlit by a western sky of red and purple. A feeling of dread chilled his guts. Then his eyes focused more clearly, and he knew he was in trouble. He gasped, and his heart throbbed in fear as he dropped the running iron and groped for his revolver. An arrow hissed toward him and thudded into his chest like a drumbeat before the running iron even hit the ground. He gasped and staggered back at the impact of the projectile. His fear overwhelmed him, and he could not find the handle of his weapon in the holster.

The pain and terror mounted now, and the last thing Wes James saw was a second arrow shaft protruding from his chest, just an inch from the place where the first one had struck. The colors of the sunset melted away, and Wes James hit the ground dead, his long, straight frame cooling alongside that of his trusty running iron.

From the east, swelling above the distant horizon, came the leading bulge of a full moon, thinly smeared with a tincture of blood.

BOOK: A Tale Out of Luck
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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