Texas Trails 1, страница 1
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About Texas Trackdown
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After starpackin’ for a spell in Benton, Rawley Pierson and his pard Chaw Stevens reckoned it was high time they got back to some honest work like cow punching. So, they handed in their tin stars and headed north through the Diablos, fixin’ to find work in the panhandle. But trouble seems to follow the men like coyotes on a spring herd, and soon they found themselves trading lead in a full scale range war.
Hired by Zeb Hawkins to protect his small Circle H Bar spread from the army of gun-totin’ rustlers working for rival cattleman Ed MacWilliams, Rawley and Chaw kept their guns loaded and the herd on the move. But when Rawley kills a gunsel in a fair fight and is sentenced to hang, there’s hell to pay. Bustin’ out of jail to clear his name, the ex-sheriff and his ornery sidekick go gunnin’ for payback until the open Texas range runs red with rustlers’ blood.
This book is dedicated to my sister
The two horsemen rode easily and slowly across the flat west Texas landscape. They had come a long way and still had a great distance to go, so neither one saw the sense in wearing out the animals at that particular stage of their difficult journey. They slouched noticeably in the saddle, fighting to stay awake to keep their mounts from wandering off the slightly northwest course they followed across the trackless prairie.
The taller one was also the younger. Broad-shouldered with coal-black hair and bright green eyes, Rawley Pierson was in his early thirties. Slim but with a sinewy muscularity, he had an easy grin and a rugged face that the ladies found irresistible. But that grin could turn to a scowl when he was angered. Rawley’s manner of dress showed he preferred to spend most of his time in town rather than out on the range. The trousers and shirt were more for the street than the open country. But the wide-brimmed sombrero and chaps he wore also gave evidence he could be an outdoorsman when he had to.
The Colt in the holster tied down low on his right thigh and the Winchester in his saddle-boot also exhibited a side of his makeup that would make most sensible folks think twice before seriously riling Rawley Pierson. He was good enough with those irons to be paid for his services.
Rawley’s traveling companion was a lot older. Chaw Stevens had served with Hood’s Texans of the Confederate Army from start to finish in that Southern rebellion over twenty years before. Chaw was forty-five, looked sixty-five, and was bewhiskered and generally bad-tempered. He wore a battered old hat with its wide brim turned up at the front. His careless choice of dress showed in a faded, worn shirt with the elbows completely worn out. An ancient pair of buckskin trousers was stuffed into scuffed high-top boots that sported badly worn heels.
The bulge of chewing tobacco in his cheek showed how he’d earned his moniker. Short and wiry, he was a bandy-legged little man who looked at life through squinting eyes as if staring into a hot desert sun. Excitable and quick to act, he could get into more trouble than was natural for a codger his age. Most of those difficulties came about when he voiced his mostly contrary opinions.
But today Chaw was in a good mood.
“Sumbitch!” he exclaimed with a cackle. “It do feel good to get rid o’ them tin stars.”
“That’s about the hundredth time you said that since we left Benton,” Rawley said, coming out of a doze at the sound of his old friend’s voice.
“Well, by God, I’ll prob’ly say it a hunnerd more times afore we get up to Delbert’s place,” Chaw told him.
Rawley shook his head. “I dunno.”
“What the hell’s the matter with you? After two years as the town law you think you’d be glad to have a change,” Chaw said. “Particular when the folks you put your butt on the line for don’t appreciate the risks you take. Anyhow, you was ready to change. That’s for sure.”
Rawley shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Maybe, my Aunt Bessie’s tits!” Chaw exclaimed. “I could tell from the way you was always staring off in space that it was time to pull stakes and go.”
“I ain’t sure if going back to cow-punching is that good an idea,” Rawley said. “That ain’t real easy work.”
“You been in town too long,” Chaw retorted. “Once you’re out from under a town job and are out there on that range, you’ll get them ol’ stirrings again. You can trust me on that. Working for a ranch ain’t easy, but you got more freedom.”
“I’ve knowed you since you was a tad, Rawley Pierson,” Chaw said. “When I come back from the war you’d been out on your pa’s ranch all your life. That’s your beginnings and they can’t be denied.”
“And we’re gonna have our own herd to drive north in a coupla more years if we play our cards right. That’s what this damn trip is all about.” Chaw spat out the stale tobacco in his mouth. He reached inside his leather vest and pulled out a plug. He took a bite and shoved the remnant back in its resting place. “It ain’t natural for some men to live in a town. Besides, if we kept packing them stars we’d end up in boot hill. You can’t beat ’em all.”
“I reckon not.” Rawley stood in his stirrups and stretched away some of the kinks before sitting down again in the saddle. “I got to admit I was getting edgy. Someday one or both of us would’ve caught it from a feller a little faster.”
“My idea was the best,” Chaw said. “Get outta all this law business and back to what we really are—cattlemen. We got a few dollars saved. Once we’re back in practice at ranching, we can get that outfit of our own. And of Delbert’s place up there in New Mexico is a mighty good location to start up again and get that god-awful town stink outta our noses.”
Delbert Wayland was an old friend of the pair who had a nice spread just short of the Colorado line. A Texan by birth, he’d known Rawley and Chaw since boyhood. When he’d found out from a passing friend that the pair were in Benton, Texas, he’d sent off a letter offering them jobs for the coming roundup. It took the missive three months to find Rawley and Chaw. But tired of being sheriff and deputy, they’d decided to take him up on the offer for at least one seasonal drive. Then their plans were to strike out on their own, and get a herd to run and a place they’d stay on for the rest of their lives.
A distant gunshot sounded over the horizon. Both men looked in that direction.
“Could be a hunter,” Rawley said.
“Yeah? Then let’s be careful his game ain’t heading this way or we’ll catch a stray slug as sure as shit stinks,” Chaw said. “An excited hunter is a right careless sumbitch at times.”
Another shot followed. Then another. Within moments an entire fusillade sounded.
“Let’s see what’s going on,” Rawley said, spurring his horse.
“Hold up!” Chaw said. “We got to keep on straight to reach Delbert’s place. Hell, we ain’t got time for no damn wandering around.” But he followed his younger friend.
They cantered in the direction of the shooting until they topped a rise. Looking down, they could see the source of the noise. Two riders, going desperately fast, were being chased b
“Hey!” Chaw exclaimed. “Them fellers doing the chasing is wearing hoods.”
“Folks that hide their faces are generally up to no good,” Rawley said.
“They might be vigilantes,” Chaw suggested.
“Yeah,” Rawley remarked. “And them two being chased might be a coupla rustlers too.”
“Is that something we’re gonna have to decide here real quick?” Chaw asked.
“Yeah. And I vote that them masked jaspers ain’t vigilantes,” Rawley said, making up his mind.
Chaw looked over at him. “You know, most folks who were strangers on an unknown range wouldn’t want to get tangled up in a situation like that.”
“That’s right,” Rawley agreed. “Particular when they didn’t know what it was all about.”
“But we ain’t most folks, are we?” Chaw asked, grinning.
“We never was, pardner,” Rawley said.
“Whose side did you say we’re on?”
“Them two getting chased,” Rawley answered. “They’re outnumbered and they ain’t wearing masks. Anyhow, ain’t that our style?”
They kicked their horses’ flanks and galloped fast toward the traveling melee. By making a diagonal cut that took them behind a stand of cottonwoods, they were able to stay out of sight until they burst on the scene almost directly behind the hooded pursuers. Now they pulled their pistols and cut loose, the salvos zipping across the prairie at the masked men.
One of the horsemen twisted in his saddle, his gun arm going limp. Surprised and shocked, he pulled away from the chase. Rawley and Chaw closed in, pumping ill-aimed shots that still managed to slap into the crowd of eleven men ahead of them. Another rider suddenly went forward as a slug struck him between the shoulder blades. He tried to hang on, but slipped out of the saddle and hit the deep grass, bouncing twice before rolling to a halt.
Now the two men being chased noted they were getting help. Wanting to give their unknown rescuers a better chance, they cut sharply inward, making the route shorter. Rawley and Chaw continued firing, dumping another of the riders. When the others finally noticed the pair closing in on them, their surprise caused them to veer away. They kept right on going until they had galloped over the horizon out of sight.
Up ahead, the men who had been human prey only moments before reined up. They waited for their rescuers to join them. One was a middle-aged man with a craggy, sweat-soaked face. He reached out to offer his hand when Rawley rode up.
“I don’t know who the hell you are, mister. But I’m obliged as all hell to you.”
“Damn right,” his companion said. “I plain didn’t think we was gonna make it.”
Chaw observed the formalities by introducing himself and Rawley. “I’m Chaw Stevens and this is my pard Rawley Pierson.”
“Jim Pauley,” one said.
“I’m Duane Wheeler.”
“I don’t want to appear nosey,” Rawley said. “But I’m a mite curious how two fellers could get a dozen others so damn mad at ’em.”
Pauley laughed. “Hell, mister. All you got to do to get shot at around these parts is be a cowpuncher.” Rawley looked at Chaw and grinned. “Still think it’s better’n being a star-packer?”
“In most parts it is, goddamnit!” Chaw snapped. “We’re off the Circle H Bar,” Wheeler said.
“It’s owned by the Hawkins folks,” Pauley added. He thought there might be a chance that the two strangers had helped them because they knew the family they worked for. “You friends o’ theirs?”
“Nope,” Rawley said. “We just got a natural dislike for gunslingers that hide their faces.”
Wheeler laughed. “You just like to jump in where the odds is against you, huh? Well, mister, that was all right with me.”
Pauley noticed their gear. “You boys is traveling, ain’t you? Why’nt you come on over to the ranch and let us intr’duce you to Hawkins. He’ll prob’ly give you a good hot meal for helping out.”
“That’s the best offer I’ve heard today,” Rawley said, tired of eating trail grub.
“Lead on, boys,” Chaw urged them.
The four riders showed some consideration for their tired horses by making the ride across the rolling land an easy one. But they instinctively kept their eyes on the horizon in case more dry-gulchers suddenly burst into view.
They managed to reach the ranch a half hour later, riding into the yard and up to the corral. All dismounted and tied their horses to the rail fence. The slamming of a door at the house caught their attention.
A gray-haired man, limping a bit, came out. He had a huge handle-bar mustache set under a large, hook nose. His wrinkled skin was as much from years spent in the outdoors as it was from advanced age.
“What the hell happened?” he asked.
“Howdy, Mr Hawkins,” Wheeler said. “Me and Jim was tending the south herd and got jumped. If these two fellers hadn’t lent a hand, we’d be two carcasses out on the prairie by now.”
“Howdy,” Hawkins said. “Zeb Hawkins.”
“I give you my thanks,” the ranch owner said.
“You’re welcome,” Rawley replied.
“They got two of ’em, Mr Hawkins,” Wheeler said. “But we couldn’t take time to go back and look at ’em.”
“That’s the trouble,” Hawkins remarked. “They outnumber us so even if we get one or two, there ain’t no chance of pulling them damn hoods off to see who they are.”
“Have you tried trailing ’em back to their camp or hideout?” Chaw asked.
“Yeah. But all we’ve found is cold ashes and piles o’ shit,” Zeb Hawkins said. “They move around a lot so they can’t be nailed down.”
“Sounds like you got a real job ahead of you before you clear this mess up,” Rawley said.
Hawkins snapped his eyes back to Wheeler. “What about the herd?”
“Stampeded, I reckon,” Wheeler said. “We’ll have to go out and round ’em up again.”
“I could see somebody going to all that trouble to steal cattle,” Hawkins said. “But why go through so damn much just to scatter ’em? Must be a joke.”
“We buried four fellers on account o’ them jokes,” Pauley reminded him.
The door at the house slammed again. This time a decidedly pretty young woman came out. She wore a blue calico dress and had done up her light-brown hair in a bun.
Jim Pauley and Duane Wheeler took off their hats. “Howdy, Miss Nancy.”
Nancy Hawkins nodded and smiled. “More trouble?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Wheeler said. “But this time we got help.”
Chaw looked at her with a mistrustful glare in his bachelor eyes. “I’m Chaw Stevens, ma’am. This here is Rawley Pierson.”
Rawley smiled easily, subtly admiring her pretty face. “At your service,” he said politely.
“This is my daughter,” Hawkins said. “And don’t let that dress fool you. She can ride, rope, and herd with the best of ’em. And it’s a damn good thing too. I ain’t been able to keep much of a crew.”
“None of the ranchers on the Diablos Range has,” Nancy added.
“I’m kinda confused,” Rawley said. “You talked like nobody rustled your cattle, but only scattered ’em.”
“After shooting any careless cowboy nearby,” Duane Wheeler said.
“Why don’t we all go into the house and I’ll explain what’s going on to you,” Hawkins said. “By the way, are you two fellers looking for a job?”
“We already got one,” Chaw quickly interjected. “Up in New Mexico. That’s where we’re a-headed.”
“Come on in the house anyway,” Hawkins said. “The least we can do is take the wrinkles outta your bellies with some good food and give you few swallows of whiskey to cut the trail dust.”
Nancy led the way back as Rawley, Chaw, and Hawkins followed.
The ranch house showed Nancy Hawkins’s strong influence. The furniture, though not fancy or expensive, was well arranged and covered with doilies. Family portraits were lined neatly along the top of the fireplace.
“Make yourselves to home, boys,” Hawkins said. “Don’t be afeared to use the furniture.”
He went to a cabinet holding a bottle of whiskey and glasses. Nancy settled onto a settee at the side of the room, not so much to keep out of the way as to be able to see what was going on.
Chaw walked over to the sofa and gently sat down, letting his trail-weary butt relax into the softness of the overstuffed piece of furniture. He emitted a long sigh. “Now this is right nice, I must say!”
Rawley, feeling the need for some stretching after sitting in the saddle so long, walked over to the mantel and looked at the pictures.
One, an old-fashioned tintype, showed a stern-looking young man sitting beside an unsmiling girl who appeared to be in her late teens. Hawkins, pouring out some tumblers of whiskey, noted Rawley studying the double portrait. “That’s my first wife,” he said.
“Is that young feller with her you?” Rawley asked. Hawkins grinned as he handed a glass of liquor to a grateful Chaw. “Sure is. I was nineteen at the time. We had that pitcher took right afore we left Kentucky.” He walked over and gave Rawley his drink. “She didn’t last long out here. It was terrible hard for a woman in those days.” He went back to his liquor cabinet and fixed his own libation.
Nancy, who had been doing her best to watch the handsome Rawley without being obvious about it, said, “He married my mother ten years later.”
“I lost her too,” Hawkins said. He took a deep breath. “I need a drink bad.”
Rawley raised his glass. “Here’s to fast horses.”
“And fat cattle,” Chaw added.
They drank and Hawkins said, “Mr Stevens is definitely a cowman.”
“That I am,” Chaw agreed. “Right down to my spurs.”
Rawley took a swallow of the liquor. “You were gonna tell us about your troubles, Mr Hawkins?”