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Authors: Brett Cogburn

Panhandle

BOOK: Panhandle
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PANHANDLE
B
RETT
C
OGBURN
PINNACLE BOOKS
Kensington Publishing Corp.
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
I
NTRODUCTION
The greatest thing about stories of the Old West is simply a matter of sheer space. No tale seems too tall under the scope of that big, wide-open Western sky. There is room to let your mind wander along buffalo-scarred trails, and up wild rivers that lead to the fossilized and bleached bones of a land that only once was, but forever lives on. That mythical West has a flavor like no other, with a grit and a physical feel to it as sharp as the frigid bite of a blue norther blowing down across the plains, or the scorching heat of a desert sun. It was a wild, raw land in an era where everyone seemed tougher, and there were things worth fighting for. Its stories are best told by the light of a campfire, or with a far horizon in sight. An old pioneer heart beats strongly in some of us, and we long for a place yet undiscovered.
I had the fortune for many years to make my living from the back of a horse, in a place where cowboys still step on frisky broncs on cold mornings, and drag calves to the branding fire on the end of a rope. Growing up around ranches, livestock auctions, and backwoods hunting camps filled my head with stories. My great-grandfather on my mother's side was a former U.S. Cavalry sergeant who used to set me on his knee and tell me stories of chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico. His wife told me how she came to Indian Territory in a covered wagon prior to statehood, and how their milk cows got so sore-footed on the trail that they had to shoe them like work oxen. There were family tales of a great-great-grandfather who was a Johnny Reb turned Galvanized Yankee, sent west during the Civil War to fight the Sioux in Minnesota and the Dakotas.
While other children were dreaming of robots and caped superheroes I was fighting Indians and grizzlies with my BB gun on a frontier no one else had ever trod. I dreamed of a place and time where nervy people could throw down their old lives and strike out toward the setting sun.
Perhaps no other thing had a greater influence on my fascination with the Old West than the family stories that went with an old sepia photograph hanging on the wall of my childhood home. My great-grandfather, Franklin “Rooster” Cogburn, was an Arkansas and Indian Territory badman who had a scrap with Hanging Judge Parker's deputy marshals. He was too tough to die, and as wild as the rugged mountains that reared him.
And maybe after all those years I've absorbed a little of that Western flavor, like an old piece of barn-wood soaking up rainwater. If my tales leave readers with a little taste of trail dust in their mouths, the smell of powder smoke in the air, and the feel of a prairie wind tugging at their shirts, then I'm a happy man. I'll prop my boot up on the fence and spin you another yarn.
—Brett Cogburn
P
ROLOGUE
Reynolds Ranch, Higgins, Texas—1936
 
I
t's a damned shame, but the Texas I knew is just about gone. Soon, there won't be even a hint left of those days other than the prattling of old-timers with wandering minds, stooped backs, and their rheumy eyes twinkling with yesteryear. If we don't die young, maybe that's how all of us end up—nothing more than a story we keep telling ourselves, over and over.
There are folks who call me a pioneer, whatever that means. Those who say that are newspaper writers and such. Mostly, they weren't around to live the life I knew, so they naturally think the old days were something special. Maybe they were, because I miss those years more and more, hard times and all. To hear them talk, I moved out here before the buffalo, but that ain't nowhere near the truth. I was a relative latecomer to this country, but I did ride into the Panhandle before barbwire, railroads, and farmers busted things to hell. The boys used to call me “Tennessee,” and we cut a wide swath through this country once upon a time.
Nowadays, most mornings I wake up feeling older than Methuselah. I can't ride a horse anymore, but I still saddle mine up every morning and tie him to my yard fence like I've got somewhere to go. I still tug on my boots even though my achy knees creak and protest, and I'd feel naked without a good hat on my head even if I don't make it any farther than the spur-scarred rocking chair under the shade of my front porch. I'm just old whether I like it or not, but my story is that of a young man in his prime, wild and hard to handle, and yet to learn that life charges a price for every pleasure.
I still don't claim to be much wiser than I ever was, but I do know one thing for sure. Two cowboys getting hold of a racehorse is like giving matches to children. Throw a pretty woman into the mix, and somebody's bound to get burned. Looking back down the long years, that isn't exactly how it was. The horse was just an excuse for adventure, and the woman, well, she had everything to do with our trouble. But hell, I'm getting ahead of myself. . . .
C
HAPTER
O
NE
A
nyone who feels sorry for an Indian hasn't ever been shot at by one. I was a far cry from being an expert where Indians were concerned, but I guarantee you I was learning by the minute.
We ran our horses breakneck across the prairie, with those Cheyenne shooting at us every step of the way. I lay low on my horse's neck, cracking my rope on my chaps' leg, and urging the wild-eyed herd of stolen horses on before me. Some four hundred yards behind me was a whole passel of the savages, screaming like banshees and whipping their ponies furiously in an attempt to run us down. Here and there, black powder smoke blossomed, and the dull boom of a gun sounded across the prairie. They were way too far off to hit anything from the back of a running horse, but they had their mad up, and continued to bang away like it was the Fourth of July.
Occasions like that one led a man to thinking about the ramifications of his actions, and the pattern of his life. Right about then, I was thoroughly disgusted with my life in general, and was promising myself to reform from all my bad habits. It was at that moment that I swore off of horse-thieving, and any more dealings with mad, bloodthirsty Indians.
Fast wasn't fast enough to suit me so I lashed my horse across his hip with the tail of my rope to hurry him along, but he didn't have anything extra to give. He wasn't going to last much longer, and I knew I was just about two jumps ahead of becoming buzzard bait.
To the north, an immense, black wall of clouds spread across the horizon, silhouetting the buttes and canyons of the Canadian River. Lightning laced the sky with jagged brilliance. The herd of horses pounded over the rough ground, and the drum of their hoofbeats and the thunder that rumbled from the storm throbbed in my chest like maddened war drums. The dust boiled up in a thick veil, and I felt alone in the insanity of it all. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. I was running blind away from one storm and into another, and I was more alive than ever.
A bullet whistled by me, and it was entirely too close. Those heathens behind me were dead-set on collecting my hair. That was the terrible thing about Indians—they had peculiar notions about how one should go about killing one's adversaries. It just wasn't civilized at all the way they went about things. A white man would just kill you, content with the fact that you were dead, but an Indian liked to kill you slow.
They should have made doctors out of the Indians considering how they liked to remove things from the human body. They would cut off, and cut up, things that most folks just naturally take for granted. I was determined that if they were going to catch me, they were going to have to run one hell of a race, because I was fond of all my parts. I found the notion of going around missing vital components to my natural look to be highly unsettling to say the least. My scalp, my skin, and my nutsack were among the things that I'd consider especially bothersome to lose.
Where in the hell was Billy Champion?
Life has taught me that there is no such thing as easy money. I cursed myself for the stupidity of letting him talk me into such a predicament. It had sounded easy enough—just round up a few Cheyenne ponies one evening and slip them off in the night as easy as you please. Never mind the fact that those same Cheyenne might not be as high on the idea as we were. We had stirred up a hornet's nest is what we had done.
The rain started to fall in huge, scattered drops that popped on my hat brim. One of the horses before me stumbled and fell, followed by the crack of a rifle. I reined away from the crashing animal, barely missing going over the top of him. The shot had sounded pretty close and I took another look behind me.
Most of the Cheyenne had fallen back some, but one of them, better mounted, had closed to within seventy yards of me. His heels drummed madly against his horse's sides, and he was close enough that I could see the fury beneath the war paint on his face. His rifle wobbled crazily as he strained to draw a bead on me.
Another bullet thumped the ground just behind me and I drew my pistol. My horse lunged with irregular stride, rising and falling over the gullies and rolling ground. I looked down the long barrel of my Colt at the Cheyenne brave bobbing in and out of my sights, and I slowly tightened my finger on the trigger.
Before I could shoot, the Cheyenne's horse lost its footing and cartwheeled end over end. That Cheyenne buck sailed through the air with his arms outstretched, his back arched, and his eyes as big as saucers. I swear he bounced at least three times when he finally hit the ground. He was a rolling ball of dust with an arm and a leg sticking out here and there.
Most of the starch was knocked out of him when he rolled to his feet, and he didn't look so scary anymore. His rifle was gone, his body was covered in dust, and his hair reminded me of a mad porcupine. Staggering in a circle, he tried to remember which end was up. His eyes focused drunkenly on me as I rode away. In exasperation, he sucked up a big breath, and tried vainly to blow out of the way the eagle feather that dangled limply in front of his face.
I squalled like a bobcat and raised my pistol barrel to my hat brim in a mock salute. He threw up one hand, middle finger upraised, in a universal vulgar symbol. It didn't take any Buffalo Bill to read that sign.
Now, where in the hell did a savage learn that?
One moment I was laughing and the next I was falling. I had one instant of awful recognition as the herd vanished before me, and then my horse was sailing over the edge of a high cut-bank. My heart rose up in my throat as I prepared to meet the impact rising up to meet us. We landed in a shower of rock and sand, and when I say it jarred me to the teeth I'm not exaggerating one bit. It was at least a twelve-foot drop, but like many of those range ponies, mine was tougher than nails and he hit the ground running.
I scanned the hill above me where the plain fell off into the deep breaks of the river bottom. A big rifle boomed, and I saw the bullet strike the hill. A Cheyenne there jerked his horse up hard just as another shot stung him with dirt. The brave tucked his tail and fled back over the rise and out of sight.
Thunder clapped, and the bottom dropped out of the bucket. The rain fell in an almost impossible sheet of water. The herd turned toward the river at a wide, flat spread of sand, and I could just make out somebody riding at the lead. I ran my horse by the mouth of a small canyon where a man stood there on its lip, shooting back the way we had come. I thought it was Billy.
The horses hit the shallow crossing at a dead run. Water splashed high, and their legs churned in the deep, sandy bottom. My horse bogged up to my stirrups, but somehow he lunged free and hit the center of the river channel, where the footing was firmer. The herd was already coming out on the far bank where they turned west and raced along the river. I tried to find Billy behind me, but couldn't see anything for the storm.
It was a full hour before sunset, but it turned pitch-black in a matter of minutes. Great gusts of wind brought with them a scattering of hailstones, and I hoped I wasn't about to be sucked up by a tornado. Here and there, lightning lit up the canyon for an instant, but all I could see was rain. The little Cheyenne horse I rode was played out, and nickered pitifully for the herd, but there was no answer. I walked him blindly up and out of the canyons, hoping I was following, and not at all sure I hadn't lost the trail. Where the hell was Billy?
Like the devil, you mention his name and he pops right up. I stopped in the mouth of a gully leading up to a long rise. The dark shape of a horseman sat crossways on the trail above. It was Billy, and if I looked as bad right then as he did I was a sorry sight. He looked like a wet hen just about to run all over the place.
Many years later, I saw a book about Billy with a picture on the cover showing a masked man with a smoking pistol in one hand, and a pretty woman in the other. They sure made it look wonderful. In the spring of 1881, sitting on a horse with the cold rain running down the crack of my ass, fifty stolen ponies lost in the night somewhere before me, and a pack of mad Cheyenne somewhere behind me, I pondered on those types of romantic notions. Adventure can be more fun to tell about afterward than the actual experience in the moment.
I rode up to Billy and he was smiling, if you can believe that. He was grinning like a possum, and there wasn't any pretty woman to be had, nor any gun to be found that would smoke on a night like that. I thought about shooting him.
“Reckon the rain will wipe out our tracks?” I sputtered.
Billy looked over his shoulder back down the canyon. He spit out a mouthful of the water running off the bridge of his nose, and grinned again. “I just wonder if Noah will have room on the boat for a bunch of Cheyenne nags and a couple of sinners.”
“The trick will be loading those wild devils two by two when he comes paddling by.”
“Won't be any job at all for good cowboys.”
“You reckon Andy's still in front of them?”
“He's living it up right now if he ain't dead. That boy doesn't seem to know that a body can break their damned fool neck running a horse in this. Coming down off the lip of that canyon back there, it was so rough I didn't know if this nag was bucking or falling with me.” Billy shook his head as if he really gave a lick about personal safety.
I kicked my horse on up the caliche trail. “Let's hope he checks them this side of Kansas. That boy rides like a drunken Injun.”
“Don't worry. His horse is bound to fall over dead before too long,” Billy called out as he spurred his horse past me.
I had to over-and-under my horse with my rope, and punch the wore-out little devil with both spurs to keep Billy in sight. We caught up with the horses about four miles up where they were scattered out along the banks of a good-sized creek. They were a sorry sight, heads down, asses to the wind. The creek before them was rolling out of its banks. Andy wasn't to be found.
“I had hoped to bed down in Texas tonight,” Billy muttered.
“That little grove of trees yonder looks accommodating enough until that creek slows down.”
Billy nodded. “I guess these ponies ain't going anywhere tonight, and maybe Andy will show up.”
Our saddle horses were done for, and we drifted to the herd to catch new mounts. Only a few of the horses so much as scattered before me—they were that tired after their long run. I started to attempt to pick a good one, but deemed it an impossible feat, and managed to rope the first one within my reach. It was a wonder my rain-soaked rope didn't knock that poor little fellow down, as it must have weighed twenty-five pounds.
The little horse came along easily enough, and I laughed as Billy came dragging his choice out by his saddle horn. His victim was set back on the end of the rope and shaking his head. Billy's saddle horse leaned into the pull, but stalled out after a step or two. It was just about an even match. Billy managed to face his horse up, and waited until the little paint he'd roped reared high and lunged forward to stand snorting and spraddled on quivering legs. At that, the bronc seemed to have enough and came along willingly.
“Ever notice how a horse will handle like a baby for a hundred pretty days straight, and then when it's muddy and wet, and blowing or snowing, they want to wrestle?” Billy asked. “Never try to catch your old gentle saddle horse in a muddy lot with your Sunday best on, I guarantee you.”
“It's just that they ain't any happier than the rest of us with inclement weather.”
“What the hell is ‘inclement'? Where did you get such a god-awful word?”
“You just ain't got any education, that's the problem with you. This here”—I raised a finger to the sky—“just about fits the bill. Inclement. I'd say it is.”
Billy had managed to coax the paint up beside him, and as I raised my hand, the bronc bolted and snatched to a halt at the end of the rope. Billy's horse staggered in the mud, the rope digging into Billy's thigh. For a moment I thought his saddle would roll, broadside like he was. He righted things, and managed to bring the paint back in, blowing like a buck deer and rolling his eyes.
“Serves you right for roping a pinto.”
“That sore-footed nag you've got won't go five miles tomorrow. Besides, I like a horse with some flash.” Billy wasn't lying. He loved nothing more than parading around on a good-looking horse.
“Well, I won't have any problem riding this one, will I? You can do all the trick riding you want, and if those reservation savages catch up to us, they might spot you first and leave me alone,” I answered as smugly as a cold, saturated man who'd had no sleep in two days could.
Billy stepped down under the trees, and began unsaddling his horse. He was silent for once. I was sure I had bested him, and that was enough to make things a little bit bearable.
Billy somehow managed to saddle the paint without a wreck, and turned the other horse loose. He had the little fart tied to a tree and hobbled by the time I finished my own. If he hoped to soak some of the devil out of that paint, he was sadly mistaken.
I pitched my roll on the highest, driest spot I could find—one with only three inches of standing water—and flopped down. I could hear Billy splashing around somewhere behind me. I rolled up in my blanket, hoping to sleep, or float through the territory, one or the other.
BOOK: Panhandle
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