THE OLD RANGER
Donald L. Robertson
Copyright © 2016 Donald L. Robertson
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, or events, is completely coincidental.
Cover Design by James, GoOnWrite.com
Editing by Jan at LJMPublishing.net
Formatting by CM Publishing
THE OLD RANGER
The Old Ranger
- Logan’s Word
- Chapter 1
- Chapter 2
- Chapter 3
- New Book Notification
The Old Ranger
“Mr. Nielson, oh, Mr. Nielson—Mr. Nielson are you here?”
“Stop your caterwauling, Mordecai. I can hear you,” Chuck Nielson said, stepping through the open door and onto the front porch of his home. “What’s so blasted important that you’ve got to wake the dead?”
Mordecai Jessup shifted in his saddle and stared wide-eyed at the older man. “Mr. Nielson, the Sunset Kid’s here, and he’s asking for you.”
“Yes sir, that’s what I mean. He’s in town and he says he’s going to meet you in the street at sunset, unless you’re too afeared to meet him. Those are his words, Mr. Nielson, not mine. I’m just bringing the message.”
“Mordecai, why don’t you get down off that mule and join me on the porch. We’ll sit a spell and have some fresh lemonade that Mrs. Nielson just made. You can relax and tell me all about this Sunset Kid.”
“Thank you, sir,” Mordecai said. He dismounted and tied his mule to the hitching post.
Nielson’s two cowhands, Randy Pinch and Jesse Smith, stepped out of the nearby barn. Randy called, “Everything alright, Mr. Nielson?”
“Yeah, boys, everything’s just fine. Martha, would you bring some lemonade? Mordecai Jessup’s here.”
“I know he’s here, Chuck,” Martha Nielson replied from inside the house. “Folks five miles away know he’s here, what with all that yelling. I’ll bring some lemonade right out. I’m sure Mordecai’s throat needs something cool and soothing.”
The two men settled into the rockers, on the porch, that provided a view of the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush covering the hills. Chuck decided years ago that spring, in Texas, was his favorite time of year. The hills were covered with flowers, fresh bunch grass was growing, and the new calves were feisty in the pastures. The weather was warming, but not yet hitting the blistering temperatures of summer. He could smell the fresh honeysuckle alongside the ranch house. He loved this place.
He and Martha settled here ten years ago, after he retired from rangering. This was their home-place, he thought. Chuck knew Martha loved it as much as he did. He recalled building the barns and corrals before—
“Mr. Nielson, sir, what are you going to do?”
“I’m going to sit here and enjoy my lemonade, Mordecai. Now, tell me all about this Sunset Kid.”
Martha brought the lemonade out to the two men.
“Would you like to join us, Honey?” Chuck asked her.
She placed a glass of lemonade in his outstretched hand and said, “No, that’s fine. I’ll sit inside. I’ve sewing to do.” With that she handed Mordecai his lemonade, flashed a smile in his direction and walked back inside the house.
“Mr. Nielson,” Mordecai said, “I reckon I tried to tell him several times, I surely did. But he wouldn’t let me finish. He just kept saying, ‘Tell Chuck Nielson to come into town this evening, or I’ll come out and get him.’ He’s young, Mr. Nielson. I’ll bet he’s not even twenty. But you know his reputation. He said right there in the saloon that he’d killed seven men, and you were going to be his eighth. Right then I tried to tell him again, but he wouldn’t listen.” Mordecai paused long enough to take a sip of his lemonade, then wiped his mouth with the back of a scrawny hand.
Chuck rocked in his rocker and felt the warm afternoon breeze against his cheek. I do love this country. They’d been here for two years when he fell from the barn loft. He’d been stove up for a couple of months, but he could get around fine now. He bumped into things occasionally, but not very often.
“Mordecai,” he said, “tell me about this boy. How tall is he? Is he a big man? Does he look like he’s good with his fists, or does he depend on his six-gun?”
Mordecai took another long swig of his lemonade and said, “Mr. Nielson, he’s about your height, five-ten or so. No sir, I don’t think he could whip a pillow in a fist fight. Why, he’s so skinny, if a middlin’ dust storm came along, he’d just up and blow away. Like I said, he’s young. His face still has pimples all over it. He’s trying to grow a mustache, but I bet there ain’t no more than five or six long hairs on the top of his lip. It’d be funny if he weren’t so blasted mean. In the saloon, I thought he was going to shoot little Jesse; all Jesse did was bump into him. He’s on the prod, Mr. Nielson, and he wants you.”
Chuck Nielson stretched his long legs out in front of him. It’d been some time since he had a need to draw on another man. He’d hoped he was done with killing. When he was younger, the word had spread, across Texas and Oklahoma Territory, that he was the fastest gun west of the Mississippi. But age had slipped up on him now and had probably slowed him down. Not that he would know, he hadn’t pulled a six-gun in years. “Did you say he’s killed seven men?”
“Yes sir, seven men. He killed a rancher over in Uvalde. The rancher was in town with his wife and daughter. The Kid called him out and killed him. Killed him right there, in the street, in front of his family. Cold as a fish, the Kid just walked back in the saloon while the lady held her husband, bleeding and dying. The Sunset Kid’s a killer. No telling how many men he’ll kill. … I didn’t mean that like it sounded Mr. Nielson. Nobody’s expectin’ you to meet him.”
Mordecai finished off his lemonade and held his empty glass. His rocker squeaked continuously as he, hunched over in the rocker, pushed back hard with his feet, each time it came forward.
“Relax Mordecai, you’re gonna wear that rocker out. I take no offense. This Sunset Kid wants to meet me when?”
“At sunset, Mr. Nielson. He said he wanted you in the street at sunset. ‘In the street at sunset,’ those were his exact words.”
Chuck rocked slowly, thinking about his answer, his thick gray hair rippling in the afternoon breeze. He and Martha had a wonderful life here. They’d never been able to have children, which was a huge disappointment for them both. They were active in their church and loved to put on socials at the ranch for the young folks. He’d surely miss that if something happened to him. He knew he was slower now, and, slower or not, there was always someone faster with a gun. He’d been fortunate. All these years there’d been no other men looking to add to their reputation by fighting him, but here it was. If he didn’t stop this kid, then other men and husbands would die.
“Mordecai, tell him I’ll meet him, with one stipulation. We’ll draw on a signal from you. Tell him if he’ll agree to that, I’ll be there.”
Mordecai jumped to his feet, almost dropped his glass and set it on the porch next to his rocking chair. “Mr. Nielson, you just can’t do that. Why, look how young he is, and, from what I hear, he’s rattlesnake fast. Pardon me sir, but you’ve gotten older and—.”
Chuck continued his slow rhythmic rocking, “Now, Mordecai, don’t get excited. Everything will work out. I hope you don’t mind calling this shoot out.”
“Why, yes sir, I do mind. You’re respected and liked in this town. I don’t want nary a part in you gettin’ shot. No sir, I surely don’t.”
“Mordecai,” Chuck said. His rocker stopped. “I respect your feelings, but if you don’t do it, I’ll have to ask someone else. You’re the man I trust.”
“Well, Sir,” Mordecai said, “if you put it that way, I’ll do it. I don’t like it, but I’ll do it.”
Chuck stood up and offered Mordecai his hand. “Thank you, Mordecai. Now go on into town and tell the Sunset Kid I’ll be there.”
Mordecai shook Chuck’s hand, turned, and headed for his mule. He mounted. “Mr. Nielson, are you sure you want to do this?”
Chuck walked to the edge of the porch, leaned against the column and folded his arms. “No Mordecai, I don’t want to, but someone has to stop this killer, and it looks like I’m elected.”
“Mr. Nielson, no one would think less of you if you didn’t meet him.”
“I would, Mordecai. Now go on and tell him.”
Mordecai turned the mule and trotted back to town as Martha came out the door. “Chuck,” she said, “you can’t do this. You just can’t. We have a wonderful life here. I know things have been harder for you since your fall, but life is still good, and I don’t want to lose you. I can’t even begin to imagine what life would be like without you. You just can’t do this.”
Chuck turned around to face the woman he loved. They’d been married for thirty-five years, her hair was starting to gray, and a few wrinkles were showing up, but, to him, she was as beautiful as the first day they met. [_I’ll never know what such a beautiful, young woman saw in a rough, raw-boned, tongue-tied kid like me. _]After a short courtship, they had married, and she brought a happiness into his life that he had never thought possible.
Martha made a home wherever they were; ten years ago, after saving and scrimping, they had bought this ranch. It wasn’t big, only ten thousand acres, but it was big enough for them. He’d hung up his gun and gone from rangering to ranching. The best part, almost every night, he was able to sleep with his wife. The first twenty-five years he’d been gone a lot chasing bandits and Comanches. This last ten made up for those lonely nights under the stars.
“Chuck, say something.”
“Sorry Honey, I was just thinking of how you looked the first time I saw you. Why, I never in my life saw a girl as pretty as you. I figure you must have been chewing on loco weed to have said yes to me.”
Martha smiled softly, “Chuck, you were the most man I’d ever seen, tall and strong, and those gray eyes looked right into my soul. I melted the first time I saw you. You had me at, ‘Howdy ma’am.’”
“Wish I’d known that. You sure made me sweat for a while.”
“Alright, Mister, enough of this flattery. You know you can’t fight this boy. He’ll kill you.”
“Martha,” Chuck said, “I’ve got to. There’s no one else. He’s got folks buffaloed. He’ll keep killing; good people will die. Now, why don’t you get my hat and gun, and a box of shells, and bring them out here. I like the smell of the honeysuckle. I’ll wait here, on the porch.”
Martha went back into the house as Chuck returned to his rocker and slowly rocked, enjoying the smells and sounds of the ranch. A mockingbird sat in a nearby mesquite tree and sang its never-ending melody. He could hear an armadillo snuffling for grubs and ants at the end of the porch. If there was a heaven on earth, he had truly found it, and Martha was his angel.
Martha walked back on the porch with his six-gun, cleaning gear, and hat. “I brought your cleaning gear. I thought you might want to clean your Colt before going into town.”
“Thank you, Honey. That’s mighty thoughtful of you.” He smiled up at her as she turned and went back into the house. Chuck removed the five rounds from his Colt .45 Peacemaker. The gun stayed loaded all the time.
The Colt was a good weapon, but loading all six chambers was an invitation to a bullet hole in the leg. A hard jolt on the hammer would cause the firing pin to strike the primer of any round that was sitting under it. For that reason, unless the Colt was going to be fired right then, it was best not to load that sixth round. Always let the hammer ride on an empty chamber.
He ran a cleaning patch through the barrel and each chamber, wiped down the Colt, and slipped it back into the holster, snubbing it down with the leather thong. Chuck stood and swung the gunbelt around his waist, catching the buckle, in his right hand, as it came around—experience showed in the smoothly executed maneuver. He buckled the gunbelt, flipped the thong off the hammer, and grasped the butt of the Colt, rocking it in the holster to be sure it was loose.
He practiced drawing several times until he was satisfied. [I may be a little slower, but I’m still fast—even after all these years. _]When he was young, Chuck had learned from an old ranger, his mentor, that it was more important to be accurate than fast. So many gunfighters went for speed, and their first round went wild, usually in the dirt in front of them. He smiled to himself. _Of course, fast and accurate always trumped.
Satisfied, he sat back down in the rocker and picked up the box of cartridges. He loaded five chambers of the Colt, the empty chamber rested under the hammer, then dropped the Colt Peacemaker into the holster. He closed the box and set it back down on the porch. Chuck leaned forward in the chair and ran his right hand over the cartridge loops on the back of the gunbelt—they were all empty. One way or the other, I won’t need more than what’s in this here Colt.
“Randy, would you saddle the buckskin and bring him up here?” Chuck called from the porch.
“Yes sir, be glad to.”
Martha came back out and rested her hand on the strong shoulder of her husband. “So you’re going?”
“I have to, Honey.” Chuck stood and took Martha in his arms. He could hear Randy leading the buckskin to the hitching rail. He held Martha a moment longer, kissed her and said, “I love you, Martha.”
“I know,” Martha said, “I love you, too.”
Chuck turned, grasped the column, and stepped down off the porch. He adjusted the gunbelt as he walked over to the buckskin.
“Boss, this old buckskin’s been to town so many times, you could take a nap on the way and wake up at the livery,” Randy said, as he placed the reins in Chuck’s hand.
Chuck stepped into the stirrup and swung up into the saddle, just like the thousands of times he’d done this before. “Thanks Randy.” He leaned forward and patted the horse on the neck. This horse had saved him on several occasions. It just felt right—the two of them going into town together—two old warhorses, maybe for the last time.
“I’ll have supper waiting,” Martha called to Chuck’s back as he left the yard.
He raised his hand in acknowledgement, but never looked back. His mind was on what lay ahead. He had done this many times before. Well, not exactly like this. He went over his plan in his head, while the buckskin trotted toward town.
The horse’s hooves echoed on the bridge at the eastern edge of town. Chuck slowed him to a walk, as they entered the small town. He knew everyone here and counted most of them as friends. The main street ran east and west, and Chuck could feel the sun on his face. He pulled the brim of his sweat stained, white Stetson a little lower.
“That’s far enough old man. Stop right there or I’ll blow you outta that saddle.”
Chuck pulled the buckskin up and stepped down from the saddle. Clive Westerly, the general store owner, was sweeping the boardwalk in front of his store. It was so quiet in town the coarse broom could be heard as it scraped across the rough boards. “Clive, would you mind taking my horse?” Chuck asked. “Seems this boy’s in a hurry.”
Clive, still holding his broom, stepped into the street, “Sure thing, Chuck.” He moved the horse well out of the path of the gunfire, returned to the front of his store, leaned on his broom, and watched Chuck.
Chuck turned west. The brim of his Stetson blocked most of the bright sunlight. “I take it you’re the Sunset Kid?”
“That’s right, old man,” the Kid said, “and I’m here to kill you.”
Chuck started walking toward him. “How old are you, son?”
“First off, I’m not your son, and it ain’t none of your danged business. But, I’ll be twenty next month, and I’ve already killed seven men. You’ll be number eight.”
“You agree to my terms, boy?”
“You mean having that old town bum call the shot? Sure, why not?”
“Mordecai, you still good with that?”
“Like I said, Chuck, I … I agree to it, I just don’t like it.”
“Son, you really want to do this? You’re mighty young to die.”
“I told you, I’m not your son. And it’s gonna be you dying, old man. Then I’ll have the reputation of killing Chuck Nielson, famous Texas Ranger.”
“That won’t be much of a reputation, boy. What does your ma think about your profession?”
“You keep my ma outa this and stop right there.”
Chuck continued to walk toward the Sunset Kid. “I don’t want to kill you, boy. There’s still time to walk away.”
The Sunset Kid gave a high pitched laugh and said, “It’ll be you in the dust, old man. I said stop! If you don’t stop, I’ll blast you in your knees and then kill you.”
Chuck took two more steps and adjusted his feet slightly. “I guess you might as well make the call, Mordecai. This boy’s got his mind set on dying.”
The only sound in the town was the soft whisper of the evening wind. The sun had turned a brilliant red in the west as it reached the horizon. It shone directly into Chuck’s face. The Kid had the sun to his back, as he always did when he braced a man.
There was rolling thunder as two six-guns blasted in the street of the small Texas town. The Sunset Kid fired twice. The first bullet hit in the street just in front of Chuck and threw dirt on his boots. The Kid’s second bullet went skyward; he was falling back.
Chuck fired four times. Two bullets had blown through the third button of the Kid’s shirt, the third had broken his collar bone, and number four grazed his head as he was falling.
The young killer gasped for breath as Chuck walked slowly toward him, his gun down at his side.
“How?” the Kid choked and coughed. “How? The sun was in your face. That’s always been my hole card.”
Chuck slid his Colt back into the holster and raised his face to the sun as it slipped behind the western hills, felt the warmth, but saw nothing. “It didn’t work for you, son, because I’m blind. I’ve been that way for eight years.” Chuck turned in the general direction of Clive’s store. “Clive could you bring me my horse. Martha’s waiting supper for me.”
The sun slipped below the horizon, turning the scattered clouds golden. The old ranger mounted his buckskin and rode slowly back to the woman he loved.
Thanks to my family, my wife Paula, son Steven, and daughter Dana. Their encouragement keeps me going.
Thank you to James, at for his cover design.
A big thank you to Jan at LJM Publishing, . Jan not only edited [_The Old Ranger, _]but answered and continues to answer my many questions.
Thank you for reading The Old Ranger. _]If you enjoyed this short story, you’ll enjoy the Western Novel, [_. _]It is available in both ebook and paperback on Amazon.
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If you would like to read an excerpt of
[_Logan’s Word, _]
please turn the page.
Read on for an exclusive sample of the compelling Western, Logan’s Word.
October 19, 1864
Young Lieutenant Rory Nance lay dying in the fertile Shenandoah Valley. Moments before he had sat astride his cavalry mount, a striking figure—Lieutenant in the United States Cavalry. Now he looked up at men and horses of the Sixth Michigan Volunteer Cavalry as they milled about him. The river valley breeze cleared the air and pushed the stinging smell of gun smoke and blood from the battle scene. Dead and dying men, both blue and gray, and horses littered the normally tranquil forest floor with the carnage of war.
His best friend and troop commander, Captain Josh Logan, Logan’s tall body and wide shoulders weak from loss of blood, lifted Rory and lay him against the saddle of his dead horse. “You saved my life, Rory,” Josh said as he kneeled alongside his friend.
“That almost makes us even,” Rory whispered and grinned up at Josh, his even white teeth stained with blood. He gripped Josh’s hand, and his eyes squeezed tight from pain. “That Rebel Captain did me in, Josh. I think he surely did. Did I get him?”
Josh looked down on his good friend. “You got him, Rory.” They had survived this war together. Now, as the end was nearing, he was watching his friend’s life leak out onto the earth. “Rory, I’ve been almighty proud to be your friend.”
Rory looked up. “Josh, I need you to do something for me.”
“This war is almost over, and you’re planning to head out and start your horse ranch in Colorado. Could you make a detour to Texas for me? I know it’s out of your way, but my folks would feel some better hearing about this from you instead of the war department.” A spasm of coughing racked his body and frothy pink blood issued from his mouth and nose.
Josh could hear the sucking sound from the saber wound in Rory’s chest. Josh answered without hesitation, “I give you my word, Rory.”
Rory relaxed, leaned back against the saddle, and smiled. “We’ve had a good run, haven’t we?” He was overcome with another spasm of coughing, and his voice grew weaker. “Thanks, Josh. Now … I’d like to rest.” Rory’s grip on Major Joshua Logan’s hand gradually relaxed. He took two more shallow breaths, and the hope of Texas Ranger Bill Nance and the big brother of Mary Louise Nance died in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.
Josh continued to grip Rory’s hand. He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Captain Sir, Lieutenant Nance is dead, for sure,” Sergeant Pat O’Reilly said. “‘Tis a sad thing, his dying. But you need to see to yourself. Your leg and your side are bleeding. It’s now that we must attend to you.”
“Alright, Sergeant,” Josh said as he laid next to Rory, bracing his back against the dead horse.
“Did I hear you give your word you’ll go to Texas?”
“Yes you did, Pat.”
“Sir, if you’re planning to go to Colorado after this fighting is finished, that’ll be quite a distance out of your way.”
“Makes no difference, Pat. I gave my word to Rory, and I aim to keep it.”
August 25, 1867
Joshua Matthew Logan reined the big gray Morgan to a stop, removed his U.S. Cavalry hat, pushed back the black hair that had fallen into his eyes, and wiped sweat from his wide forehead. The scar across his forehead was becoming less pronounced as time passed. He’d been fortunate his opponent was dying when he made this last slash with the saber, otherwise Josh would have remained on the battlefield permanently. Below his pronounced cheekbones, where his hat offered less protection, his face was baked the color of a dry creek bed, the crevices filled with miles of Texas dust.
Slapping the hat back on his head, he kicked his right foot out of the stirrup, swung his long leg over the saddle, and, with a grace not usually seen in such a big man, stepped softly to the ground.
He pulled the water bag from the saddle and walked over to the shade, if you could call it shade, of a big mesquite tree. Shadows were starting to lengthen as the day was drawing to a close. He’d have to make camp soon. The big gray followed, pushing at the water bag.
“Chancy,” he said, as he rubbed the gray between the ears, “we’ve been together too long. I’m talking to you and you’re bossing me. Now somehow that just don’t seem right.”
He slowly poured water into his hat and let the horse drink.
“That’s enough for now,” Josh said.
He took a small sip from the water bag, hung it over the worn saddle, and reached inside his saddle bags. He pulled out some beef jerky and a few oats for the gray. Josh closed the saddle bags and eased his rifle, a .44 caliber 1866 Winchester Yellow Boy, from its scabbard and walked slowly back to the tree.
The rifle had been a gift from a grateful gentleman, Mr. Nelson King. Josh wasn’t of a mind to take the Winchester, as much as he liked it, but Mr. King wouldn’t accept his refusal. So here he was, with the very best lever action rifle the world had ever seen.
He gave the oats to his horse, squatted and leaned against the trunk of the tree, careful not to be jabbed by its dagger-like thorns. Josh laid the Winchester next to him, in easy reach should he need it quickly. Texas, in 1867, was only as safe as a man was careful.
Chewing slowly on the beef jerky, he shifted the Colt revolver hanging by his left hip into a more comfortable position and contemplated Chancy.
He and Chancy had seen the bear together. Josh had been there with all of the Logan clan, Pa, Ma, and his brothers and sister, when the horse had been born out of solid Morgan stock. That had been eight long years ago. He had been seventeen, almost three years before the war started. Even then people were talking about independence and secession, and how folks in Tennessee had better get ready to stand up for their beliefs.
The gray’s ears twisted forward, his gaze riveted on the western end of the mesquite thicket. Josh quietly reached for his rifle, stood and moved to his right, keeping the big tree between him and possible trouble.
Two riders were walking their horses slowly through the trees. He stepped out from behind the mesquite. His movement gave away his position, and for the first time the two riders saw him and his horse. They stopped, then turned and rode slowly toward him.
“Howdy,” the smaller of the two men said. His twinkling eyes quickly sized up Josh and his horse. “Nice horse.”
“He’ll do,” Josh replied. His rifle was draped casually in the crook of his right arm. It could be brought to bear instantly.
“You seem a mite cautious with that rifle, mister,” the other man said. He was the bigger of the two riders, broad-shouldered and husky, with forearms jutting out of his rolled up, dirty shirt sleeves like fence posts.
Josh smiled icily. “Where I come from, if you’re not a mite cautious, you could be a mite dead.”
“Where do you come from?” the smaller man asked.
“Well, I might be more apt to speak of it if I knew who I was speaking to.”
Twinkling eyes glanced at his partner, then back at Josh. He seemed to make up his mind, then grinned. “We ride for the Circle W. I’m Scott Penny and this house-on-a-horse is Bull Westin. Bull’s not much of a talker; guess I make up for both of us.
“We’ve been trailing some strays. Been some Indian activity hereabouts, and we mean to work those cattle closer to the ranch. Indians do like a young heifer or two if they’re easy to come by.
“In fact, we were planning on making camp just a ways from here. It’s getting late and we need to be moving on. You’re welcome to join us if you like. Those Indians prefer easy pickins, if you know what I mean.”
Josh considered for a moment. Spending another night alone on the Texas prairie didn’t bother him, even with the threat of Indians. He’d spent many a night alone in a dry camp over the past few years, but if he went with them, it would give him a chance to find out where this Circle W outfit was and maybe locate the Rocking N.
“My name’s Logan, boys, Josh Logan, and I’d be much obliged for some company tonight. All the conversation I’ve had here lately has been with my horse. Course, that’s not all bad. He don’t talk back.”
Josh Logan slid the Winchester Yellow Boy back into the scabbard and swung up into the saddle. He looked at Bull and said, “Reckon I’ve been traveling by myself so long that I might be getting just a mite cautious.”
Bull looked sullenly at Josh for a moment before jerking his horse around into a walk. “It happens,” he said gruffly.
There would be a full moon tonight, Josh noticed. The pale white orb rose early above the Texas prairie, looking balefully upon the three riders as they slowly followed the cattle trail. This was going to be a real Comanche moon tonight, bright enough to ride pall-mall across the prairie, without fear of unseen gopher holes lying in wait to break a horse’s leg or a man’s neck, bright enough to take a white man’s cattle, bright enough to take a white man’s scalp.
“You’re not from these parts,” Scott Penny observed as they neared a small creek.
It was already getting dark under the thick canopy of pecan trees. The moonlight could hardly penetrate the overhead foliage.
“Nope,” Josh replied as he examined the shadows beneath the trees. This was Pecan Bayou, he thought. His friend Rory Nance had spoken many times, during the war, of hunting along the Pecan and the Jim Ned. Jim Ned Creek should be another seven or eight miles west.
Scott Penny and Bull Westin dismounted in the pecan grove.
“We’ll camp here tonight,” Scott said. “There’s water in the creek and plenty of grass for the horses.”
“Fine,” Josh said, as he surveyed the area.
The cut bank of the creek was about fifteen yards away. The creek bottom was rocky and the whole area was covered with old dry pecan leaves and hulls. It was fairly clear of underbrush beneath the trees, but the outer edges of the creek were lined with thick brambles and broomweed.
No one, not even the most stealthy Comanche, could slip quietly through these leaves. The campsite would be well hidden from any observers outside the pecan grove. It would be almost impossible to see into the depths of the grove through the bramble perimeter.
“You picked a good campsite,” Josh told Scott.
“Thanks,” Scott said, as he grinned at Josh through the deepening darkness.
Josh turned his horse so his back wouldn’t be toward the other two men and dismounted, an act that didn’t go unnoticed. He rapidly stripped his bedroll and saddlebags from Chancy, then laid the Winchester on the saddlebags and removed the saddle and blanket. After rubbing the horse down and watering him, he staked him out with sufficient rope to feed. He spread his bedroll and sat down, leaning back against his saddle.
Not far down the creek, turkeys could be heard yelping as they walked toward the roost. In a few moments, the crashing and clucking began as they flew up into the big pecan trees, hitting limbs and jockeying for position high above the ground, also above any marauding coyotes or bobcats. They continued to cluck and fuss as they settled down for the night.
“At least we don’t have to worry about Indians coming from down the creek,” Scott said, listening to the clamor of the turkeys.
“Maybe,” Josh said. He picked up the Winchester and worked the lever, throwing out the round in the chamber and driving in a fresh one. Picking up the ejected round, he examined it, and slid it back into the rifle’s magazine, confirming the magazine was full and there was a round in the chamber. He lowered the hammer on the rifle and laid it aside. Drawing the Model 1860 .44 Colt Army, he checked all the loads carefully before finally sliding it back into the holster. With both weapons checked, he relaxed against the saddle.
“You expectin’ trouble?” Bull asked.
“I never expect trouble. But if it comes looking for me I aim to be ready,” Josh replied.
“You never said where you’re from.”
“Bull, I assume that’s what everybody calls you, you’re right. I didn’t. Not that it’s any of your business; I’m from Tennessee—northern Tennessee.”
Bull glared at Josh through the deepening darkness. “I need a smoke,” Bull said. He pulled out his tobacco sack and matches.
“You’ve got a choice,” Josh said. “You can go down into the creek bottom, where the light won’t be seen, or you can chew it, but don’t light it. I crossed Indian sign about a mile back from where we met. They were Comanches and traveling light; probably spoilin’ for a fight.”
“He’s right, Bull,” Scott said. “You never know where those Comanches could be. We sure don’t want to wake up with our hair hanging on some Indian’s lance.”
“We’re back here in this thicket,” Bull said. He rolled the cigarette, put it in his mouth, took out a match, and started to strike the match on his gunbelt buckle.
“Ain’t nobody goin’ to see us. Anyway, no Yankee drifter is tellin’ me when I can or can’t have a smo—”
A sickening hollow thud sounded as Josh’s rifle butt struck Bull just above the jawbone. He hadn’t seen nor had he sensed the speed with which Josh Logan picked up his Winchester by the barrel and back-handed Bull with the stock. The unlit match and cigarette fell silently to the ground.
“Mister, you could kill a man hitting him like that,” Scott said.
“He could have killed us if he’d lit that match. I’ll not abide stupidity. Specially if it might get me killed.”
“Well, I sure wouldn’t want to be in your boots. He’s gonna be madder than a wet hen when he wakes up.”
Josh looked at the crumpled and bleeding figure at his feet. “He won’t have far to look. I’ll be right here.” He turned slightly so he was facing Scott. “If you’ve a mind to deal yourself into this hand, now’s the time.”
“No siree-bob. That was all his doing. I reckon you might have saved my hair tonight, and I’ve no call to be put-out about that.”
“In that case,” Josh asked, as he returned to his bedroll and sat down. “I wonder if you might answer some questions for me?”
“Well, sure, I’ll try. I do a lot of talking, but I don’t usually have a lot of answers.”
“How long have you been working for the Circle W?”
“It’s been a little over a month. Just drifted in from Fredericksburg way. Had an itch to move north—maybe on up to Colorado Territory. Understand there’s some gold showing up in those mountains west of Colorado City. So anyway, I needed a little stake since I lost most of my money in a card game down in Brownwood, and I heard the Circle W was hiring. So I—”
“Whoa, slow down, Scott. I didn’t ask for your life’s history; I just need a little information.”
“Uh yeah, that’s been my problem. Pa always said that if words were an axe, I could clear a section of land in a day’s time. Anyway, I been working one month at the Circle W. That’s where I met Bull Westin. He’s been riding for them quite a while.”
“Scott, have you heard of the Rocking N?”
“The Rocking N? Yeah, I have. Why?”
Josh ignored Scott’s question. “What can you tell me about them?”
“I don’t know much,” Scott said. “Seems Mr. Nance, he came out here from around San Antone ‘bout ’45 or ’46. From what I hear he was tougher than an old boar coon, what with all that rangerin’ he did.
“He brought his wife and kids. Didn’t have but two, a boy and a girl. Plus he pushed up, so the story goes, about a thousand head of those rangy longhorns he choused out of the brush south of San Antone. Supposedly he was big friends with Sam Houston, though I don’t know that for a fact being’s I’ve just been around here for a short while.”
Josh leaned back against his saddle, suppressing a grin. For being around such a short while, Scott Penny had certainly picked up a lot of information, some of it more accurate than Scott was aware.
The night had cooled into a comfortable evening. A light breeze was blowing, rustling the leaves on the pecan trees and carrying away the afternoon heat. Nearby an armadillo shuffled through the pecan leaves searching for grubs and ants. A family of coyotes serenaded the moon as it shone over the hills to the east. The solitude spoke to him as it had spoken to many of his warrior ancestors on the Scottish moors so many years before.
Through the brambles and sagebrush he could see the prairie surrounding the grove, bright in the light of the moon, peaceful for now. Hopefully it would stay that way. Josh had no desire to confront those Comanche braves. It was obvious from their tracks that they were traveling light and looking for blood. It was his aim to make sure it wasn’t his. For that reason, he had moved quickly when Bull started to light that cigarette.
Josh had known from the minute he first saw Bull there would be trouble. Bull reminded him of another man, a sergeant who ran rough-shod over his men and intended to do the same with the new shavetail second lieutenant who had taken over the command. The sergeant was a big barrel-chested man, like Bull, with shoulders wide from hard work and knuckles scarred from many a brawl. When he challenged Logan to join him behind the camp and shed his blouse, he was surprised to see the youngster turn, without a word, and stride toward the rear of the camp.
Josh thought about what Pa had told them all, on many occasions, that to go looking for a fight was a fool’s errand, for you would surely find one; but if a fight came to you, you best get on with it, for it wouldn’t go away.
Pa backed this up by teaching all the boys how to fight with their hands, arms, feet, and head, something he’d learned from a Frenchman he met down New Orleans way when he was with Andy Jackson. Then the boys practiced among themselves until tempers would flare and Pa would step in.
The sergeant didn’t know that. All he could see was a big raw-boned youth, barely on the high side of twenty; easy pickings for a barroom brawler like himself. By the time he realized he’d bitten off more than he could chew, it was too late. His face carried the scars of his mistake until a minie ball from a reb’s musket snuffed his life out six months later.
Josh knew he wasn’t through with Bull. The man would have to try him now or later. It was a thing that would have to be finished. Bull had been dealt a blow not only to his head, but also to his pride. No man could continue to live in this country, this wild, prideful land, without defending his honor.
“So how far is the Rocking N from here?” Josh asked.
“Well sir,” Scott responded with a nod, “it depends on who you ask. My boss says it’s about a half-day’s ride from here. But according to Mr. Nance, you’re on Rocking N range right now.”
Josh woke to the turkeys’ yelping as they greeted the West Texas morning. He came awake quickly, scanned the area in the dim early morning light, picked up his rifle, and stood. As soon as he moved, Scott Penny woke and looked around.
“I could sure use a cup of ranch house coffee right now, as bad as it is,” Scott said.
Josh went to his horse, saddled him, and slid the Winchester into its scabbard. As quietly as possible, he walked Chancy down to the creek for water. While the gray drank, he filled the water bag and his canteen, then went back up to the camp. Bull was awake, sitting where he had fallen.
Blood had clotted on Bull’s left cheek just below the hairline. His left eye was black and swollen almost completely closed.
Scott Penny was saddling his horse and chewing slowly on a piece of venison jerky. He turned to Josh with a wink, “Bull here’s not feelin’ too shiny.”
Bull turned his head so that he could fix Logan with his right eye. “You’re gonna pay for this one,” he said, rubbing his right fist in his left hand. His shoulder muscles bulged under his dirty shirt.
“Anytime you’re ready, Bull,” Josh said. He waited for a moment, then deliberately turned his back on Bull. “Scott, how far a ride is it to the Rocking N ranch house?”
“Bout a half-day’s ride south by west will put you on their doorstep.”
“Then I’ll be leaving you boys. Watch out for the Comanches, I’ve a feelin’ they’re not too far away.”
Josh heard the rush of feet in the pecan leaves behind him. He spun to his left, filling his hand with the Colt. Bull was caught in mid-stride.
Josh could see the bloodlust in Bull’s eyes. The man wanted to hurt him. He’d seen brawlers like Bull; they waited until a man’s back was turned, then attacked. Josh waited for the man to make a decision. Bull didn’t appear to be a fast thinker. He was probably weighing his chances. He didn’t want to, but if Bull kept coming, he’d kill him; but the man had frozen as still as a block of ice.
He looked calmly at Bull over the muzzle of the Colt. “You have an almighty urge to die, Mister. But this isn’t the time nor the place. I’ll tell you this much; you ever try to jump me like that again, and I’ll hole you where you stand. Now drop your gun, real easy, and go hunker down by that tree.”
Bull dropped his gun, turned around, moved over to the pecan tree, and sat down. Josh watched the man. He’d been humiliated twice. Josh realized Scott was a talker. He’d have the whole story about Bull spread across the prairie in no time. Bull would become a laughing stock. Well, he’d brought it on himself.
Josh raised a hand to Scott, eased down into the creek bed, and mounted the horse. He could feel the big gray’s muscles quiver as he settled into the saddle. What more could a man ask than to be on horseback in a free, wild land like this Texas. He eased Chancy up to the crest of the mesquite covered hillside just high enough to see over the top. He was only a half mile from the pecan grove where they had camped. He hadn’t seen any movement as he rode out of the grove, but a man kept his hair by being careful.
The hill was a plateau that ran west as far as he could see. Mesquite and prickly pear cactus covered the rocky plateau. Occasionally an island of scrub oak provided a haven for deer, javelina, or marauding Comanches.
A family of white-tailed deer browsed contentedly. The two fawns still wore their spotted coats. They wouldn’t be around if Indians were holed up nearby. The doe’s head shot up as Josh rode over the crest. She watched him for a few moments as he drew nearer, then with a flick of her tail admonishing the fawns to follow, she trotted out of sight.
Only a few yards in from the edge of the hill, Logan saw the Comanche sign. Ten or twelve braves had passed by here last night. The horse droppings were crusting over, but still soft. All the horses were unshod, which meant they hadn’t raided anywhere yet. At least, they hadn’t captured any horses, and that was a Comanche’s passion—horses; horses and killing.
It was interesting, Josh thought, how city folks believed Indians wouldn’t fight at night. Night was the ally of the Comanche. When the summer night winds blew across the prairie under a full moon, he rode with blood in his eye and lust in his heart. The Comanche was the best light cavalry who ever sat a horse.
Josh sat relaxed but alert in his saddle as he rode southwest. Survival in this country meant spotting the other fellow first, and that’s just what he aimed to do. He had covered thousands of miles on the back of this horse in this same manner, both of them alert for danger. They had been together through some happy and some terrifying times.
Now he had a mission to complete for a friend; a friend who whetted his curiosity with his talk of Texas, of the land and of the people; a friend who had talked of Stephen Austin, Sam Houston, and even a Lt. Colonel in the United States Cavalry stationed in Texas, Robert E. Lee; a friend who spoke of his younger sister and his concern for her in this harsh but beautiful land; a friend who had brought to him the magic of this land; a friend who died on the point of an enemy’s saber.
Chancy had carried Josh into that battle, and now he carried him to the family of Rory Nance.
The valley was at least five miles long, with hills rising from the northern and southern edges. In the bottom, near the southern side, a wide creek flowed southeast. It was covered with heavily laden pecan trees. Even from this distance, he could hear the racket of the red fox squirrels fussing over the green pecans.
The ranch house was on a shelf about fifty feet above the creek bed, well above the high water mark. It backed up against a small hill that rose out of the valley floor. The limestone, two-story house was solidly built. Josh admired the way the stone bunkhouse and the ranch house provided good fields of fire for each other. The barn and corrals, across from the house, were well maintained. It looked like Bill Nance believed in taking care of his property.
“Come on, Chancy,” Josh said. “We best get on with it. The quicker we finish here, the sooner we can be on our way to Colorado.”
The big gray horse nodded as if it understood as they started down the hill. It had been a long and tiring trip since they had left Ma and Pa back in the Tennessee hills. The horse sensed they were near a resting place.
Josh pulled up at the hitching rail in front of the rock fence that surrounded the house. The ranch seemed deserted. He had seen no one as he rode up, yet there was no indication of damage or of a fight.
Maybe everyone had left the ranch for the fort because of the Indian reports. He immediately dismissed that thought. From what Rory had told him about Mr. Nance, a report of Indians wouldn’t phase him, even a little bit.
Chancy’s ears twisted around trying to pinpoint a sound too faint for human ears. Josh also felt it. He didn’t know where this ability came from, maybe from some old Scot ancestor, but he knew he had it, and he’d learned to trust it—too many times during the war it had saved his bacon. Rory had always said he was like a cat with nine lives but Josh knew it was this uncanny ability to know when he was being watched that had saved him.
This time his sixth-sense had been slow. Now he was sitting in the open with his Colt snubbed down and his rifle in the scabbard. If whoever was watching was a tad unfriendly, he was going to be in deep trouble.
He heard the sharp metallic click from behind as a hammer reached its full-cocked position. The horse heard it, too. Josh could feel the horse’s muscles tense beneath him. They had been in trouble together many times before, and each felt the other’s tension.
“Buenas tardes, señor. Please do not make a sudden move, for I am an old vaquero, and I tend to nervousness. If you move suddenly you might cause me to jump, and if I jump, I might accidentally touch the trigger on this old and worn Sharps, and it might blow a big hole in your back—right between your shoulder blades. So if I were you, I would sit very still.”
“Mister, that borders on being one of the most unfriendly greetings I’ve ever had,” Josh said as he concentrated on sitting perfectly still. “I can tell you, that hitchin’ post will move before I do.”
“Bueno hombre, that’s some smart thinking.”
“Miss Nance,” the vaquero called, “you want I should take this hombre away from here?”
Josh was thinking how he didn’t particularly like the thought of being taken anywhere. In fact, he was starting to get mad—real mad. He had come here to help, to pay a debt, and now he was being treated like a thief. He didn’t like it at all.
“Now listen, mister. I’ve ridden a long way for a good friend. I don’t reckon a gun in my back is the reception I’d get if Rory were here.”
The ranch house door burst open as an attractive young woman carrying a big Colt .44 dashed breathlessly up to his horse.
“Do you know Rory?” she asked. “His last letter was almost two years ago.”
Josh looked down at the young blonde with sky blue eyes. He realized she didn’t know about her brother.
“Yes, ma’am, I knew Rory,” Josh said. “But I could talk a heap better if that Sharps wasn’t dead center on my back.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Juan, please lower your rifle.”
“Señorita, we don’t know this man. It’s obvious he’s not from around here. I recommend we be very cautious of him,” Juan said, as he reluctantly lowered the rifle.
Josh heard the hammer click as it was lowered to the safe position. He relaxed and turned around to look steadily at the man who, for a few moments, controlled his life. His appraisal was met, and returned, with an equally level stare. Josh decided that from what he could tell so far, Mr. Nance knew how to pick men.
“Ma’am, I’m Joshua Matthew Logan. I rode with your brother under General Grant’s Command.”
“Mister Logan, I must apologize once again—I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Mary Louise Nance, and the cautious man with the rifle is Juan Alvarez, a truly dear friend.”
Josh stepped down from the horse. He noticed the elderly Alvarez had visibly relaxed when Josh introduced himself. Alvarez must be a close friend to the Nance family to be privy to Rory’s letters.
Juan stepped forward and extended his hand. “Señor Rory is a good friend, and I know you are his good friend. Welcome to the Rocking N.”
Mary Louise said, “Please come in, Mister Logan and tell us all about Rory. Oh, I’m forgetting my manners again. You must be tired and hungry after such a long journey. You can clean up and we’ll get you something to eat. Papa should be back by then, and I’m just dying to hear about Rory.”
“Well, ma’am, that’s mighty nice of you. But first I’d like to take care of my horse. Then I’d truly be pleased to wash off this trail dust and sit down to a home-cooked meal.”
“Señor Logan,” Alvarez stepped forward and grasped Chancy’s bridle, “I’d be honored if you would allow me to take care of this fine animal.”
Josh started to tell him to be careful, for the big gray was finicky about who handled him, but Chancy nuzzled the older man as if he’d known him forever.
“Señor Alvarez, I was goin’ to tell you to be careful, but it looks like you’ve made a friend. Would you put him off by himself, since he’s a stud horse.”
“I like horses, Señor, and most of them like me, and yes, I will keep him away from our other horses. Por favor, Señor, call me Juan.”
“Juan it is then,” Josh said. “I answer to Josh or Logan. Thanks.” He turned to Mary Louise and said, “Ma’am, I’d be much obliged if you could forget the Mister. I’m not much for titles. Just call me Josh.”
“Why Mister—uh Josh—thank you. Won’t you please come in now?”
Josh followed her into the house. Rory had talked about his sister a great deal. Logan had never been much with the ladies. When he was younger, he was always too busy working, hunting or fishing; always finding a reason to be with his Pa or his brothers in the Tennessee forests. As he grew, he came to realize that he wasn’t a handsome man, as men go. He was too big, too awkward around women. The saber cut across his forehead didn’t help any either, but mostly, he just never knew what to say.
Before he was barely grown, the war came along, and for almost five years it occupied his every waking hour. Now here he was, in the home of this beautiful young woman, about to break her heart with the news of her brother’s death.
“Teresa,” Mary called to the kitchen.
A large Mexican woman came into the living room from the kitchen. Her jet-black hair, shot with traces of gray, was pulled back and pinned at the back of her head. She held a dish she was busily drying. A wide smile lit her face as she saw Josh.
“I have ears, Mary,” she said. “I know this is our little Rory’s friend. We’ll have another place for dinner. Now I’ll heat some agua, for I see Mr. Logan needs a bath—badly.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Josh said, as Teresa walked back to the kitchen.
“Where’s Mr. Nance and the rest of your ranch hands?” he asked, as Mary led him to a small room adjoining the kitchen. A dresser and a chair were against one wall, with a real honest to goodness mirror above the dresser. In the middle of the room sat a big bathtub.
“This is our bathroom,” Mary announced proudly. “Father put this in right after Rory left.”
She had a right to be proud, Josh thought. There were few homes that had the space to have one room devoted only to taking baths. In fact, there were doggone few homes that even had bathtubs. Why, the only baths he ever had at home were in a washtub when he was young, and later in the river when he grew too big.
“Mighty nice, ma’am.”
“I wish you’d stop calling me ma’am, Josh.”
“Mary,” Josh asked, “where’s Mr. Nance?”
“Oh yes,” she said, “you asked me that awhile ago. Father took some horses down to Brownwood. He should be back for supper. Brownwood’s about a half day’s ride.”
“Here’s the hot water,” Teresa announced as she marched in from the kitchen. “Supper will be ready soon, so don’t dawdle. Come on, Mary, Señor Nance should be back soon and Señor Logan can tell us all about Rory then.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Josh said as Teresa ushered Mary out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Josh felt like a new man. The hot water had washed away trail dust and tension. Now his muscles were relaxed as he dressed. He was pulling on his boots when he heard the horses riding up in the yard. The moment he’d been dreading was close at hand. He’d ridden hundreds of miles to do this for a friend. He must have rehearsed what he was going to say a thousand times.
It wasn’t like this was new to him. He’d had a lot of practice with all the letters he’d written to loved ones of men killed in his company. He had even told a few fathers and wives in person, but never had it been someone this close. He took a deep breath and opened the door.
Bill Nance was talking to his daughter as Josh opened the bathroom door. Nance turned and strode toward Josh, his hand extended.
“Welcome to the Rocking N—what there is left of it,” he said ruefully. “I’m Bill Nance. The few letters we received from Rory sure spoke highly of you. We’re mighty proud to have you here.”
Josh took the extended hand. “I’m pleased to meet you Mr. Nance. Rory talked about you all the time.”
“Call me Bill,” Nance said. “Now let’s eat. You can tell us all about Rory and what he was up to when you last saw him. We figured he would probably have made it home by now. But there’s many a mile between Virginia and Texas.”
Josh could see that Bill Nance knew that something had happened to his son, but this was a strong man. He couldn’t have survived and accomplished all that he had without great inner strength. That’s what it took to settle this great country. Without men like Bill Nance, everyone would still be back in Europe, talking about coming to the new world. This country was built by men of strength and action; men like Bill Nance.
Rory had told Josh, as they sat around camp on those lonely nights, how his father had traveled to New Orleans when he was only nineteen. There he had spent a couple of years accumulating a handsome stake.
Bill Nance met Stephen F. Austin in New Orleans, and Austin wove his magic as he talked about Texas. He told Nance he’d been awarded a large land grant by the Mexican Government and was looking for a few brave men to come to Texas and settle there. He told him about the wild land. There were buffalo that moved south during the winter. They were so thick a man could walk across their backs for miles and never put boot to dirt.
In southwest Texas, along the Rio Grande near Reynosa, Mexico, there were wild cattle for the taking; cattle that had been brought to Texas by Colonel Jose de Escandon, when he attempted to settle the north country in 1749. He established several towns along the southern side of the Rio Grande but those Mexican ranchers on the north side, in Texas, were continually harassed, killed, and finally driven out by the Comanches and Apaches, leaving their cattle behind.
Austin had given this adventurous young man a Texas transfusion. He would never again be the same. Austin, a man of vision, had seen beneath the surface and recognized the fierce determination that drove Bill Nance. He needed men like him in his new Texas. He also saw something else. He saw the integrity that lived in the heart of this man.
Josh thought, it wasn’t hard to picture Bill Nance as Austin must have seen him. The tall man who sat before him now was older. His hair was white. His face was a dark brown map of his adventures, baked by the many years in the Texas sun. But there still burned, behind those hard, blue eyes, that same fierce determination that Austin must have recognized when, in 1822, he had persuaded Bill Nance to come with him back to Texas.
“Josh,” Nance said, “Teresa’s fixed a mighty fine meal. Let’s go on in and have a seat. Everybody’s anxious to hear about Rory.”
Josh walked into the kitchen where everyone waited. Teresa fussed around getting all the food on the table, while Nance seated Mary. Josh sat next to Nance, facing Mary across the table. Juan was there with a couple of cowhands Josh hadn’t met. He figured they must have driven the horses to Brownwood with Bill Nance. That was still a mighty small crew for a ranch this size.
“Josh, those two boys at the end of the table are Frank Milman and Lee Stanton,” Bill Nance said. “Lee’s first name is Leonard, but don’t call him that. He’s not very fond of the name.”
The cowboys nodded and Lee said, “Mr. Nance, you know I’m partial to Lee. My mother liked Leonard; I never could figure why.”
As everybody pitched in, Bill Nance said sharply, “Well, Josh, I guess you’d better git to it.”
Mary looked questioningly from her father to Josh. There was something in her father’s voice. The constant clamor, so common to a ranch house kitchen at dinner time, suddenly ceased. An ominous quiet settled over the people assembled at the table as they all turned expectantly to Josh.
Josh looked closely at Mary. Her dark eyebrows lifted questioningly as she looked from him to her father and back.
“Bill, I left Rory near Cedar Creek, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley. It was the Battle of Cedar Creek. Don’t know if you heard about it or not. We were assigned to escort General Sheridan back to his headquarters. He’d been in Washington, meeting with Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton. General Early’s troops attacked our lines the morning of October 19, 1864. When General Sheridan received the message, we rushed back to find our lines retreating and in turmoil. The General turned the troops around and attacked. We were detailed to find and attack Early’s cavalry.”
Josh looked around the table. The cowhands sat quietly listening. Those boys probably fought on the Confederate side. Josh wondered what they must think, sitting at this table, eating with a Yankee they would have gladly gunned down only a short time ago, and still might if they got half a chance.
He looked again at Mary. He could see the concern on her face, but it was obvious she hadn’t yet considered the possibility that Rory might be dead.
“We had them on the run,” Josh continued, “but those boys were real fighters. We cornered almost a troop in a bend of Cedar Creek. They decided to fight it out, probably figured it would be impossible to make it across the river alive. I’ll give it to them. They had guts. They turned, formed a skirmish line, and charged right back at us. Why, that was some of the hardest fighting I’d been in throughout the whole war. Both sides emptied their handguns, it was man to man, saber to saber. We had them outnumbered, but they fought like demons.”
Josh took a deep breath. He knew he had to tell this, but it was like being back there. He could hear the screams of men and horses, the crash of steel on steel, and feel his lungs and eyes burning from the stench of blood and gunpowder.
He could see Rory with his Colt Army in his left hand, swinging his saber with his right. Rory was on his left, fighting like a man possessed. A Reb Sergeant took the full force of Rory’s saber at the base of his neck. It almost cut him in half. Rory jerked the blade out and thrust it through the side of another Reb about to cut down one of his men.
The fighting was thick and fast. Horses and men were down, screaming from gunshot and saber wounds. Josh had been shot in his left leg. It didn’t feel like it was broken, but it was bleeding like crazy. He remembered hoping the bullet hadn’t hit his horse. Several Rebs had Josh busy. He shot one in the face, the bullet striking just below a scar under his right eye. Josh felt the searing pain of a glancing blow along his ribs. He forced himself to turn in the saddle, for he was growing weak from loss of blood, and with his last ounce of strength, thrust his saber clean through the wide-eyed, young Confederate Cavalryman who had dealt the blow.
“Bill,” Josh said, “I sure hate to upset the women-folk with this. There’s some left, and it surely gets worse.”
“Go ahead, Josh,” Bill Nance said sadly. “This is family, and it begs to be said.”
“Well, I was in pretty bad shape. I’d taken a bullet in the leg and had my ribs sliced open. I was losing a lot of blood and getting mighty weak. When I stuck the last Reb, his horse reared. I was so weak my saber was jerked clean out of my hand. My revolvers were empty, and there was this big Reb captain bearing down on me at full gallop. I reckoned I was a sure goner. All I could do was hang on to Chancy as the Reb bore down on me. I knew my time was surely up. Then Rory appeared out of the smoke. The last I’d seen him, he’d had his hands full. Now, there he was cutting between me and that big Reb captain. Neither of them slowed. Both horses went down when they hit.”
Josh turned and looked squarely at Bill Nance. “Bill, your son saved my life. Rory’s blade hit that captain straight through the heart, but he took the Reb’s thrust in the upper chest.”
Mary was sobbing uncontrollably into her apron as Teresa, with tears slowly coursing down her cheeks, tried to comfort the girl. Bill Nance was having a hard time. His big brown hands were quivering and his jaw muscles were knotted, but his eyes were clear. Juan sat quietly, a deep sadness etched across his wrinkled old face.
“That was the last of the fighting,” Josh continued. “I fell off my horse and dragged myself over to Rory. He was still alive, but in bad shape. I lifted him as best I could and rested him against his dead horse. ‘Josh, I ain’t got long,’ Rory told me. ‘I know you been talkin’ about goin’ to Colorado. But maybe you could make a little detour down through Texas. You can’t take me back, but you can take a message to my folks. Tell them I was buried in the Shenandoah Valley, alongside some mighty brave men, both blue and gray. But tell ‘em my heart’s in Texas. …’ He never finished. For he died, right then.”
Josh sat back and took a deep breath. He had lost a good friend in the Cedar Creek fight, but these folks had lost family.
Mary suddenly pushed her chair back from the table. Her eyes were red and her face streaked from tears. She glared at her father. “If it hadn’t been for you and Sam Houston, Rory might be alive today. All you talked about since I can remember was Texas joining and preserving the Union. Well, I don’t give a tinker’s damn about the Union. I just want my brother back.”
Then she turned back to Josh and fixed him with an icy stare. “And you, Mister Joshua Matthew Logan, you caused my brother’s death. If you hadn’t been his friend, and he hadn’t looked up to you so, he might be sitting here at this table instead of you!” With tears streaming down her face, Mary ran to her room.
“Excuse me, Señor Nance,” Teresa said. “I must go to her. She’s very upset. You know she worshipped her brother. But she doesn’t mean what she said. Señor Josh, I’m so sorry. Thank you for coming.”
Bill Nance looked around the table. Frank and Lee stared at their plates, embarrassed by Mary’s outburst, and Juan sat gazing out the window at the darkening hillside.
“You boys go ahead and finish supper,” Bill said. “No sense letting good food go to waste. We have a busy day ahead of us tomorrow. I’m going to step outside. Josh, would you join me? You, too, Juan, when you finish.”
“I am finished now, Señor. It will do me good to be outside.”
Josh followed Nance out the door. It was another cloudless night. The moon was bright enough to make out the hilltop overlooking the ranch where he’d been just hours before. They walked to the rock fence surrounding the house, checked for rattlesnakes, and sat down. Josh figured that from Mary’s response, he might as well plan on riding out in the morning. It was a shame she felt like that, but a man would have better luck reasoning with a bobcat as trying to reason with a woman when she had her mind set. He’d just pack up and head on for Colorado in the morning.
“Josh, what are your plans now that you’ve delivered Rory’s message?” Bill Nance asked.
“Bill, I’m riding up into Colorado Territory. There’s some land out there that an uncle purchased. My older brother, Callum, is headed directly from Tennessee. He and I left home together and parted in Nashville. He’ll be by himself until I get there. I’d like to be there before the first snow flies. There’s a massive amount of work that must be done to get the ranch going before winter sets in. I’m planning on crossing Chancy with the Spanish Mustang breed. I’m thinking the endurance of the Spanish, plus the speed of the Morgan should produce quite a horse. Chancy and I’ve been together since before I left home for the war, and I thought after we got to Colorado, I’d just let him relax and enjoy himself. He brought me through some tough scrapes, and I reckon he’s almost like family.”
“He is an excellent horse, Señor,” Juan said. “I know a little about horseflesh, and I have seen few like him. He should make you plenty of fine horses.”
“Josh,” Nance said, “for the past year we’ve been having some problems. The Indians have always been a problem, but you expect that out here. About a year ago, we started missing cattle. That was around the time that the Circle W ranch moved in. Now I can’t prove anything, but they’ve been increasing their herd size pretty fast. The owner, Jake Ruffcarn, has tried to buy me out a couple of times. This ranch is not for sale. Now that he’s brought in some gun-hands, I reckon I’ve got a good idea what he’ll try next. But he won’t get this ranch—not while I’m still alive.”
“Yeah, I’ve met a couple of his men,” Josh said. “One of ‘em, a guy by the name of Bull, was a mite unfriendly.”
“If you had a run-in with Bull Westin, you’d best watch your back. The man is a brawler and a back-shooter. If someone doesn’t shoot him first, he’ll eventually stretch a rope.”
Bill Nance took out his pipe and tobacco. He sat quietly, in the moonlight, while he packed the tobacco into his pipe. He didn’t light it, but put it into the corner of his mouth. “Josh, like a lot of people, we had it kinda rough during the war, what with me siding with Sam Houston, then Rory going off to fight for the North. Now I’m not complaining. Lots of folks had it much worse than us. We made it through fine. But since the war’s been over, we have a new kind of trash moving into Texas. They’re speculators and carpetbaggers.
“They’re here to rape the state, get rich quick, and get out. I hate to say it, but it looks like the army’s backing them up. I figure that this Jake Ruffcarn is one of them. You know if it looks like a snake, crawls like a snake, and bites like a snake, it’s pretty easy to figure out—it must be a snake.”
Josh sat quietly on the rock wall listening to Nance. He hadn’t planned on staying long, maybe just a few days to let the horse rest up, but this was Rory’s family. Even if his sister wished Josh were dead, they still needed help. The fact they had only two cowhands working the ranch indicated that most folks around here didn’t cotton to what they saw as Yankee sympathizers.
Well, he’d just hear Bill Nance out. Maybe there was some way he might help, without staying too long. There was the fort where Nance had taken the horses. He might just ride up there and have a little discussion with the Colonel. Anyway, Nance hadn’t asked him to stay yet.
“Josh, I guess what I’m saying is I need some help. Juan and I have been around some and we can sure take care of ourselves. But we only have two fellers workin’ for us. They’re good cowhands, but they ain’t gunfighters. The closest help, not counting the fort, is Duke Jackson down at the Gap. He opened his operation about three or four years ago. But he’s about a day’s ride and he has his own ranch to take care of, specially since it’s that Comanche time of year.
“I’m surprised they haven’t hit us yet. It boils down to the fact that we’re up against the Indians and Ruffcarn. So, if you could see your way clear, I’d be much obliged if you’d hang around for awhile. At least until things settle down.”
There it was. If he didn’t get moving pretty soon, the snow would catch him long before he could get to Colorado, and Callum would be stuck doing all the work alone, but these folks were Rory’s family, and they were in a tough situation. The only thing was, Mary sure didn’t want him around here. She’d made that pretty clear.
“What about Mary? She didn’t seem too pleased about me being here, and I reckon my staying won’t set too well either.”
“Josh,” Bill Nance said, “you’ve got to understand, she and her brother were real close. After their mother died, Rory took his sister under his wing. He virtually raised her until Teresa came along. I was gone a lot, rangerin’ during that time. So now she’s hurting real bad. I kinda figured something might have happened to Rory since we hadn’t heard from him. Then when you showed up I knew you wouldn’t be by yourself if he was still alive. So I was expectin’ it. I don’t think it ever entered her mind that he might be killed. He was bigger than life to her. Now she’s had a terrible shock. But she’s strong; she’ll get past this. Why, one of these days, she’ll thank you for staying.”
Josh thought about it for a moment more. A light breeze drifted up from the south, bringing a faint sour-sweet smell of a skunk. Something must have frightened it. A fox barked on the creek. Josh did like this country. He could understand why, so many years before, Bill Nance could have been entranced by the tales of Austin.
“Okay, Bill, I’ll stay for a while, at least till we get this Ruffcarn thing sorted out.”
“Good,” Nance said. “I’ve done a lot of rangerin’ and fightin’ in my time. But Juan and I are getting older. Rory wrote about your campaigns and tactics. I liked what I read. I want you to be foreman. You run the show. Just tell me what you need.”
Josh looked at Nance and Alvarez thoughtfully. “I appreciate the confidence. I’ll do my best. First thing we need are some more men; good men, not just gunslingers. I’ll leave for Camp Wilson tomorrow and look around.”
Bill Nance stuck out his hand. “Fine, Josh. Welcome to the Rocking N. I’ll tell the boys right now.”
“No, don’t tell anyone yet; not even Mary,” Josh said. “When I ride into Camp Wilson and do a little checking around, it’ll be on my own. I’m kinda curious how this colonel finds himself so able to side with Ruffcarn. I’ll just sniff around a little. Soldiers love to talk. You never know what they might say over a bottle.”
Juan Alvarez placed his hand on Josh’s shoulder. “Be careful, amigo. Ruffcarn’s men may be at Camp Wilson. This Bull is a dangerous man. Watch your back.”
Nance nodded his agreement. “You also want to be on the lookout for Indians. They’re out in force. We crossed several trails today on the way back from town. There’s nothing a Comanche likes better than a good horse. Believe me, if they see you, they’ll chase you till you drop.”
A smile played at the corner of Josh’s mouth. “Well then, if they see me, I reckon I better not run.”
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This is a short story. Chuck Nielson hung up his six shooter and retired from the Texas Rangers ten years ago, at one time the fastest draw west of the Mississippi. He loves two things, his wife and his ranch. Now the Sunset Kid is in town. Heâ€™s killed seven menâ€”all seven died with the sun in their eyes. Chuck is number eight and the Kid has sent word for him to be in the town street at sunset. If Chuck meets the Kid, he risks everything; if he stays home he loses his self-respect, and the Kid goes on killing. This is a short story by Donald L. Robertson, the author of Loganâ€™s Word: A Logan Family Western - Book 1.