Riding for the Brand (Ss) (1986) (5 page)

BOOK: Riding for the Brand (Ss) (1986)
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The town lay basking in a warm sun. In the distance the Sierras lifted snowcapped peaks against the blue sky. A man loitering in front of the Golden Strike stepped through the doors as Jed appeared in the street with his Casa Grande cowboys. Walt Seever stepped into the doorway, nonchalant, confident.

"Figured you'd be in. We sort of detained the lady knowin' that would bring you. She can go loose now that you're where we want you."

Jed stepped down from the saddle. This was a trap, and they had ridden right into it.

"There's a gent in front of the express office.

Boss"... Pardo said.

"Thanks, and watch the windows"... Jed suggested.

"Upstairs windows."

Jed was watching Seever. Trouble would begin with him. He moved away from his horse. No sense in getting a good animal killed. He did not look to see what Costa and Pardo were doing.

They would be doing what was best for them and for what was coming.

"Glad you saved me the trouble of hunting you, Seever"... He said.

Seever was on the edge of the boardwalk, a big man looking granite hard and tough. "Save us both trouble. Folks here don't take to outsiders. They'd sooner have somebody like me runnin' the outfit than a stranger. Shuck your guns, get on your horses, and you can ride out of town."

"Don't do it, Boss"... Pardo warned. "He'll shoot you as soon as your back is turned."

"The ranch goes to Miss Carol, Seever. You might get me, but I promise you, you will die."

"Like hell"... Seever's hand swept for his gun.

"I'll kill---

"Look out"... Pardo yelled.

Jed stepped aside as the rifle roared from the window over the livery barn, and his guns lifted.

His first bullet took Walt Seever in the chest; his second went into the shadows behind a rifle muzzle in the barn loft.

Seever staggered into the street, his guns pounding lead into the street. Oblivious of the pounding guns around him, Jed centered his attention on Seever, and when the man fell, the pistol dribbling from his fingers, Jed looked around, keeping his eyes from this man he had killed, hating the sight of what he had done.

Costa was down on one knee, blood staining the left sleeve of his shirt, but his face was expressionless, his pistol ready.

A dead man sprawled over the windowsill above the barn. A soft wind stirred his sandy hair. That would be Stanton. Pardo was holstering his gun. There was no sign of Strykes or Feeley.

"You all right, Boss?" Pardo asked.

"All right. How about you?"

Tony Costa was getting to his feet. "Caught one in the shoulder"... He said. "It's not bad."

Heads were appearing in doors and windows, but nobody showed any desire to come outside.

Then a door slammed down the street, and Carol was running to them.

"Are you hurt? She caught his arm. "Were you shot?"

He slid an arm around her as she came up to him and it was so natural that neither of them noticed. "Better get that shoulder fixed up, Costa."... He glanced down at Carol. "Where did they have you?"

"Strykes and Feeley were holding me in a house across the street. When Feeley saw you were not alone he wanted Harry Strykes to leave.

Feeley looked out the door and Pat Flood saw him."

"Flood?"

"He followed you in, knowing there'd be trouble. He came in behind them and had me take their guns. He was just going out to help you when the shooting started."

"Carol"... He hesitated. "I've got a confession to make. I am not Michael Latch."

"Oh? Is that all? I've known that all the time.

You see, I was Michael Latch's wife."

"His what?"

"Before I married him I was Carol Arden James. He was the only one who ever called me Arden. During the time we were coming west I was quite ill, so I stayed in the wagon and Clark never saw me at all.

"He convinced Michael there was a wagon train going by way of Santa Fe that would take us through sooner, and if we could catch them it would help. It was all a lie to get us away from the rest of the wagons, but Michael listened as the train we were with was going only as far as Laramie.

"After we were on the trail, Clark left us to locate the wagon train, as he said. Randy Kenner and Mike decided to camp, and I went over the hill to a small pool to bathe. When I was dressing I heard shooting, and believing it was Indians, I crept to the top of a hill so I could see our wagon.

"It was all over. Clark had ridden up with two men and opened fire at once. They'd had no warning, no chance.

"Randy was not dead when I saw them. One of the men kicked a gun out of his hand he was already wounded and shot him again. There was nothing I could do, so I simply hid."

"But how did you get here?"

"When they left I did not go back to the wagon. I simply couldn't, and I was afraid they might return. So I started walking back to the wagon train we had left. I hadn't gone far when I found Old Nellie, our saddle mare. She knew me and came right up to me, so I rode her back to the wagon train. I came from Laramie by stage."

"Then you knew all the time that I was faking?"

"Yes, but when you stopped Walt I whispered to Costa not to say anything."

"He knew as well?"

"Yes. I'd showed him my marriage license, which I always carried with me, along with a little money."

"Why didn't you say something? I was having a battle with my conscience, trying to decide what was right, always knowing I'd have to explain sooner or later."

"You were doing much better with the ranch than Michael could have. Michael and I grew up together and were much more like brother and sister than husband and wife. When he heard from his Uncle George, we were married, and we liked each other."

Suddenly it dawned on Jed that they were standing in the middle of the street and he had his arm around Carol. Hastily he withdrew it.

"Why didn't you just claim the estate as Michael's wife?"

"Costa was afraid Seever would kill me. We had not decided what to do when you appeared."

"What about these guns?"

"My father made them. He was a gunsmith and he had made guns for Uncle George. These were a present to Mike when he started west."

His eyes avoided hers. "Carol, I'll get my gear and move on. The ranch is yours, and with Seever gone you will be all right."

"I don't want you to go."

He thought his ears deceived him. "You what?"

"Don't go, Jed. Stay with us. I can't manage the ranch alone, and Costa has been happy since you've been here. We need you, Jed. I I need you."

"Well"... He spoke hesitantly, "there are things to be done and cattle to be sold, and that quarter section near Willow Springs could be irrigated."

Pardo, watching, glanced at Flood. "I think he's going to stay. Pat."

"Sure"... Flood said. "Ships an' women, they all need a handy man around the place!"

Carol caught Jed's sleeve. "Then you'll stay?"

He smiled. "What would Costa do without me?"

*

Author's Note:

FOUR-CARD DRAW.

As I have written elsewhere it has never been necessary to guess at what happened in the West.

We know.

There are newspaper accounts of most of the gun-fighting period. There are court records in many cases and military records; above all there are letters, diaries and journals, some of which have been published. Others are still in manuscript form but available in the archives of universities, libraries, and historical societies.

Moreover, there are photographs, for in the period after the Civil War there were many photographers traveling throughout the West.

In many cases there are several sources so one may be balanced against another. Dates can be checked and if they are of importance, should be checked for western men rarely had calendars available and just as rarely were not concerned about dates. The matter of accurate time is a comparatively new one, largely a result of the birth of the railroad timetable.

Mountain men, cowboys, or miners had no particular reason to note down a day or a time.

If they got the month right they were lucky. To we of a time-conscious period this seems rather amazing, but with the exception of the need to get cattle to market at a time when the prices were right a cattleman needed no calendars or clocks.

The discovery of fresh material on the West is still occurring with the opening up of old trunks and the discovery of records that had been forgotten.

Above all, here as elsewhere in the world, there are many archives that have never been examined or catalogued, papers gathered and stacked against some time when people and time might be available to study them. Discoveries are constantly being made, but who knows what remains untouched, unsuspected?

*

Four-Card Draw.

When a man drew four cards he could expect something like this to happen. Ben Taylor had probably been right when he told him his luck had run out. Despite that, he had a place of his own, and come what may, he was going to keep it.

Nor was there any fault to find with the place.

From the moment Allen Ring rode his claybank into the valley he knew he was coming home.

This was it; this was the place. Here he would stop. He'd been tumble-weeding all over the West now for ten years, and it was time he stopped if he ever did, and this looked like his fence corner.

Even the cabin looked good, although Taylor told him the place had been empty for three years.

It looked solid and fit, and while the grass was waist high all over the valley and up around the house, he could see trails through it, some of them made by unshod ponies, which mean wild horses, and some by deer. Then there were the tracks of a single shod horse, always the same one.

Those tracks always led right up to the door, and they stopped there, yet he could see that somebody with mighty small feet had been walking up to peer into the windows. Why would a person want to look into a window more than once? The window of an empty cabin? He had gone up and looked in himself, and all he saw was a dusty, dark interior with a ray of light from the opposite window, a table, a couple of chairs, and a fine old fireplace that had been built by skilled hands.

"You never built that fireplace, Ben Taylor."

Ring had muttered, "you who never could handle anything but a running iron or a deck of cards. You never built anything in your life as fine and useful as that."

The cabin sat on a low ledge of grass backed up against the towering cliff of red rock, and the spring was not more than fifty feet away, a stream that came out of the rock and trickled pleasantly into a small basin before spilling out and winding thoughtfully down the valley to join a larger stream, a quarter of a mile away.

There were some tall spruces around the cabin, and a couple of sycamores and a cottonwood near the spring. Some gooseberry bushes, too, and a couple of apple trees. The trees had been pruned.

"And you never did that, either, Ben Taylor!"

Allen Ring said soberly. "I wish I knew more about this place."

Time had fled like a scared antelope, and with the scythe he found in the pole barn he cut off the tall grass around the house, patched up the holes in the cabin where the packrats had got in, and even thinned out the bushes it had been several years since they had been touched and repaired the pole barn.

The day he picked to clean out the spring was the day Gail Truman rode up to the house. He had been putting the finishing touches on a chair bottom he was making when he heard a horse's hoof strike stone, and he straightened up to see the girl sitting on the red pony.

She was staring openmouthed at the stacked hay from the grass he had cut and the washed windows of the house. He saw her swing down and run up to the window, and dropping his tools he strolled up.

"Huntin' somebody, ma'am?"

She wheeled and stared at him, her wide blue eyes accusing. "What are you doing here?" She demanded. "What do you mean by moving in like this?"

He smiled, but he was puzzled, too. Ben Taylor had said nothing about a girl, especially a girl like this. "Why, I own the place"... He said. "I'm fixin' it up so's I can live here."

"You own it?" Her voice was incredulous, agonized.

"You couldn't own it! You couldn't. The man who owns this place is gone, and he would never sell it! Never!"

"He didn't exactly sell it, ma'am"... Ring said gently. "He lost it to me in a poker game. That was down Texas way."

She was horrified. "In a poker game? Whit Bayly in a poker game? I don't believe it!"

"The man I won it from was called Ben Taylor, ma'am."... Ring took the deed from his pocket and opened it. "Come to think of it, Ben did say that if anybody asked about Whit Bayly to say that he died down in the Guadaloupes of lead poisoning."

"Whit Bayly is dead?" The girl looked stunned. "You're sure? Oh!"

BOOK: Riding for the Brand (Ss) (1986)
2.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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