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Authors: Brett Halliday
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Death Rides the Night
A Powder Valley Western
Brett Halliday writing as Peter Field
Something was worrying big, one-eyed Ezra. This was quite evident to Pat and Sally Stevens as the evening meal progressed. Pat had butchered a fat two-year-old steer that afternoon, and Sally had a huge pot of son-of-a-gun for supper. Son-of-a-gun is a rich and savory stew consisting of the heart, liver, kidneys, sweetbreads and marrow gut of a freshly butchered beef, very popular throughout the West, though where it got its curious name no one knows. It was one of Ezra's favorite dishes and he always looked forward to a butchering on account of the pot of son-of-a-gun that was sure to grace the supper table that night.
But tonight he didn't seem interested in food. He didn't seem to even realize that he was eating his favorite dish. Sally had a huge iron pot of the stew on the kitchen range, and she had dished up deep bowls for each of the men at the table before calling them to supper. There were three cowhands besides Ezra at the Lazy Mare ranch who ate at the table with Pat and Sally Stevens and their son, Dock. The way the three hands and Dock dug into their bowls of stew convinced Sally that it tasted all right, but Ezra was just dallying with his.
This was so unlike him that it was convincing proof he was badly worried. Mighty badly worried, because Ezra wasn't the sort to let any little worries keep him from enjoying his food. He had a huge body with the strength of a bull in his vast shoulders and he generally ate enough for three ordinary men. Sally had big, flaky biscuits to go with the stew, and a platter of fried potatoes. When Ezra took only one spoonful of potatoes and then began searching around in his bowl for pieces of heart instead of sopping his biscuit in it and gulping it up wholesale, Sally knew something was radically wrong with him.
She glanced at Pat who sat at the head of the table, and saw that Pat was also regarding Ezra with some concern. She lifted her eyebrows when Pat turned in her direction, and he shook his head soberly to indicate he didn't know what was the matter. The other men and Dock were busy filling their stomachs and didn't notice anything amiss.
“Isn't it all right, Ezra?” Sally asked anxiously across the table. “I put in two cloves of garlic particularly, because I thought you liked it that way.”
Ezra looked at her with his one eye and said, “What, Ma'm?” His broad, scarred face was blank with incomprehension.
“Didn't you hear me?” Sally asked.
He said, “I was thinkin', Ma'm.”
“When Ezra has a thought in his mind there isn't room for anything else,” Pat said with a grin. “You know that, Sally. Let him eat his supper.”
“Shore is good son-of-a-gun,” Ezra muttered. He bent his red head to search in his bowl for another tidbit of heart and munched on it delicately.
Sally turned a worried gaze on her husband. She asked in a low, shocked voice, “Do you suppose he's in love, Pat?”
Pat shook his head to indicate this wasn't the time to badger the big man. He and Ezra had been close friends for a good many years, so close that they generally understood each other's thoughts without spoken words. There had been three of them years before when Sam Sloan made up the trio; but many things had happened to separate the three and drive them apart.
First Pat had married Sally and settled here on the Lazy Mare ranch in Powder Valley, and Sam and Ezra had settled on a ranch of their own in the lower part of the valley. This was an ideal arrangement for a time, but both men were restless after the roving life they had lived before Pat's marriage, and it wasn't long before they sold off the ranch and went off on an adventure of their own to Corpse's Corner, from which Pat had eventually had to extricate them.
Returning to Powder Valley after that episode, Sam Sloan fell hopelessly in love with pretty Kitty Lane, and after they were married Sam settled down to ride a leg of the new Pony Express route into Dutch Springs, and Ezra had finally gravitated to the Lazy Mare ranch to act as foreman for Pat whose duties as sheriff prevented him from overseeing the ranch closely.
But Pat had known all along that Ezra wasn't happy in this arrangement, and he had been trying to help the big one-eyed man acquire a ranch of his own so he wouldn't have to live with either of his married friends. For Pat knew that the marriage of himself and of Sam Sloan was basically at the bottom of Ezra's unease. It was because he felt himself to be alone and a misfit. It wasn't so much that Ezra actually hungered for a wife and home of his own. Ezra had given up such hopes long ago. With his ugly scarred face and his single eye, he knew that no woman could ever love him; but just the same it wasn't easy for him to be around either Pat or Sam and see the happiness which an accident of nature had denied to him.
Pat understood this feeling of Ezra's without it being put into words, and that's why he had been quietly doing everything in his power to help Ezra get situated on a place of his own. Just lately they had found a suitable place for sale, and a month previously Ezra had bought it with the aid of a loan from Pat.
At the time, Pat thought the problem of Ezra's unhappiness was solved. He had been very cheerful this last month, buying cattle to stock the new ranch, putting the buildings and fences in repair and getting ready to move in and take possession.
That's why this sudden recurrence of Ezra's gloomy mood worried Pat tonight. For a month he had been cheerful and happy like his old self, and Pat was afraid something had gone wrong at the ranch to cause this relapse that left him with no appetite for Sally's delicious supper of son-of-a-gun.
Pat Stevens scraped the bottom of his own bowl loudly, and when Sally jumped up to take it to the kitchen for a refill, he rubbed his bulging stomach and told her, “Only about half-full, honey, an' then I'll finish up with biscuits an' jelly.”
When she went to the kitchen, he asked Ezra casually, “Everything goin' all right out at the ranch?”
“You bet.” Ezra took a sip of coffee and set his cup down. “I'll be gettin' outta yore way an' movin' in next week, I reckon.”
“You know you're not in our way,” Pat told him sharply. “It's been mighty fine havin' you here to keep things going right.”
Ezra was staring fixedly at the red and white checked tablecloth. With a huge forefinger he traced a line around one of the red squares. He said, “I run into Eustis Harlow in Dutch Springs today.”
Pat chuckled softly. “Is Harlow still sore because you got the jump on him and snapped up the Spangler ranch before he had a chance to overbid you?”
“He hasn't any right to be angry about that,” said Sally briskly as she brought Pat's bowl back from the kitchen. “Just because he's got all the money in the world isn't any reason why he should want to own
of Powder Valley. How about you, Dock,” she went on, “ready for more stew?”
Dock said, “I reckon not, Mom.” He looked up with a frown on his young face. “Can I go to the meetin' with you tonight, Dad?”
Pat dipped into his fresh bowl of stew and asked, “What meeting?”
“Naw,” said Ezra loudly. “I don't reckon Mr. Harlow carries a mad very long. He bought me a drink in town today an' offered me the loan of some of his boys if I needed he'p gettin' things started.”
“I think that was right nice of him,” said Sally approvingly as she reseated herself. “I guess it isn't his fault he's as rich as Croesus and don't know what to do with his money except buy up ranches.”
“Who's Croesus, Mom?” Dock asked curiously.
“He was an old king who had all the money in the world.”
“Gee whiz, I never heard tell of him.”
“Don't forget your mother used to be a school teacher,” Pat chuckled. “What meeting were you talking about, Son?”
“I shore wouldn't trust him too fur, though,” Ezra put in darkly. “Had a couple of men with him today that looked like Texas gun-hands tuh me. Ain't no need fer him tuh be hirin' strange hands when they's cowpokes here in thuh Valley lookin' fer jobs.”
Pat turned back to Ezra with a frown. “Meaning Eustis Harlow?”
“Shore. That's who we wuz talkin' about, weren't it?”
“Along with history-kings and meetings I don't know anything about,” Pat conceded dryly. “So Harlow's bringin' in gun-hands from down Texas-way, is he?”
“Shore-miff looks thataway. Folks say he's got so many han's hired now they ride herd on each other, lackin' cattle tuh ride herd on.” Ezra laughed loudly at his own joke and pushed his bowl back from him less than half-emptied. He rubbed the back of a huge hand across his red-whiskered face and pushed back his chair to get up.
“Goodness,” said Sally sharply. “Aren't you even going to eat your dessert, Ezra? I opened a gallon can of peaches today and made a deep pie.”
“I reckon I jest ain't got no appetite tuhnight,” Ezra rumbled, avoiding her troubled gaze. “Thought I might saddle up an' ride into town, see what's goin' on.”
going to the meeting, Ezra?” Dock called out excitedly. “Maybe mom'll let me ride in with you.”
Ezra said, “I dunno what yo're talkin' about,” and stalked out.
Pat stared after him and shook his head dubiously. “He's mighty upset about something.” He turned to the three cowhands still at the table. “You boys know anything that's gone sour with Ezra?”
They all shook their heads and muttered that they didn't know. They hurried, self-consciously finishing up their dessert, and pushed back their chairs to leave as though to avoid any further questioning.