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A RANGER'S TRAILTEXAS TRAILS
By DARLENE FRANKLIN
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2012 Darlene Franklin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGALVESTON NEWS January 23, 1879
But the "Hoodoos," as the gallant Hall and his rangers were called, came. They came several times, and placed themselves before the public by acts, entitling them to the gratitude of Texas.
Mason County, Texas August, 1875
Leta laid a bouquet of sunflowers and daisies on top of the two graves in the family plot. How quickly the land revived; grass already covered what had once been two mounds of stark brown dirt. Only days after her husband's murder, their baby joined him in the ground, expelled from her womb. That second loss magnified the first. Not only had she lost her husband, but she also lost his final living legacy.
Leta let the tears fall. Andy was busy giving Ricky a lesson in roping a calf. Without her brother, she didn't know how she would've survived the past year. Poor Andy—only seventeen, too young to be the man of the house.
I'll plant a rosebush here, or maybe lilacs. Leta's dead baby girl would've loved the smell of lilacs in the spring. Her daddy promised Leta she could plant flowers on all four sides of the house, if she wanted. Cascading tears blinded her, and she crumpled on the ground, balling her apron against her eyes. If only the cotton could absorb the pain with the tears.
Her tears didn't last long. They never did. Anger and a thirst for justice followed on the heels of her tears as surely as sun followed rain. Someday, she would learn which men murdered not only her husband, but also her unborn child. They would receive justice, even if that meant returning the rough, Texas-style justice they had meted out to Derrick. She only wanted to be sure of the identity of the mob, especially the ringleader. They had killed an innocent man. She wouldn't make the same mistake.
When she wanted to run around Mason County, asking questions and demanding answers, she thought of her family. Nightmares still woke Ricky in the middle of the night, and Andy alternated between trying to take a man's place on the ranch and escaping for days at a time. If she rushed things, took unnecessary risks, she could endanger herself or worse, and then they'd be alone. She wouldn't do that, not after her own parents had died and left her and Andy alone.
The sun overhead was hot enough to dry her tears on her cheeks. It must be almost noon. Stopping by the pump long enough to wet her face, Leta headed inside to prepare the midday meal.
* * *
Buck Morgan reined in his horse, Blaze, a chestnut Morgan gelding with a white star on his nose. Below his vantage point from a hundred yards away, a woman lay prostrate on the ground inside a fenced-in burial plot. Buck considered the task Major Jones had set before him. Talk with the widow. See if she knew anything more than what was reported. Find out if she can identify the men who killed her husband. If she could, she might be too scared to say so. Buck knew she might need protection in case she found herself next in line for the mob's rough justice.
After swallowing water from his canteen, he moved Blaze forward for a better view of the tiny graveyard. Two crosses. The report he'd received only indicated one death. The woman stood up and headed for the house. She'd had her private time to grieve, and now Buck could do his job. He spurred Blaze and headed for the ranch house.
Buck scanned the landscape as he approached the house. Everywhere he saw signs of neglect. An enthusiastic bull had rammed into a fence, creating a hole wide enough for his horse to ride through. Growing up on his parents' horse ranch, he knew what it took to run a successful operation. The widow Denning wasn't managing very well on her own.
Blaze entered into the yard, and Buck slid off his back. The horse stood quietly, ground tied, like all good Morgan horses were trained to do. He heard the sound of someone chambering a round into a rifle and froze.
"Turn around real slow and keep your hands where I can see them."
The widow Denning wasn't as helpless as Buck had assumed. He could fire the Colt pistol still in his holster before she got off a shot, but he didn't want to frighten her. He raised his hands in the air and slowly turned around. Slumping his shoulders to lessen his height, he addressed himself to a spot near her feet. "The name is Buck Morgan, ma'am. I'm one of the Texas Rangers."
Brown eyes swept over him from the top of his rolled-brim hat to the toes of his well-worn boots. He had a feeling she could identify what kind of weapons he carried, what caliber of bullets they used, and how many he had with him. Not much escaped that look.
Her rifle didn't waver. "Do you have any proof you're a Ranger?"
Proof? Most of the time the only proof a Ranger needed came at the end of a gun. But this woman was wily and smart. 'Tm getting your proof." He put his palm out to advise her of the peacefulness of his gesture before reaching into the pocket of his vest and pulling out a much-creased piece of paper. "Here's the letter straight from Governor Coke, sending us out here to Mason to look into the bit of trouble you've been having lately."
"Bit of trouble? Is that what you call it?" Mrs. Denning snorted but lowered her gun. "You must be hungry and thirsty. Come on in. I'm about to fix lunch for me and the boys."
Boys? Ranch hands or children? If they were ranch hands, they were taking advantage of their employer. Buck removed his hat and ducked his head as he walked into the house. The simple cabin consisted of one large room, a stove in one corner, and blankets hiding the sleeping quarters at the back. Either Denning had been new to Mason County, or he'd been lazy, to not have built a better home for his family. With all the accusations flying about, Buck had to examine all the facts impartially.
"Do you want water or coffee?" Mrs. Denning lifted the top off the coffee pot and wrinkled her nose. "I'll make a fresh pot."
"There's no need. I like my coffee strong." He reached for an enamel cup resting on the shelf over the sink and poured it out for himself The kitchen was pin-neat, not a smidgen of dirt anywhere. If anyone was lazy in the Denning household, it wasn't Mrs. Denning.
Beans simmered on the stove, but she slipped outside and returned with a ham hock. Too much. He wandered next to her and took a deep breath. "Frijoles with a bit of jump to them. I haven't had a good plate of beans since the last time I was down McAllen way. I could fill up fast on a bowl or two."
She paused, knife poised over the ham hock. "Sure I can't interest you in a ham sandwich?"
"Beans will do me just fine." With a side of sauerkraut they'd be even better, but he doubted that Leta knew the German recipe.
"I bet you won't object to some fresh cornbread." She put the meat back in the corner and took out the makings for cornbread. It took her only a few minutes to whip it up and slip the pan into the oven.
Voices and a horse's snorts came from outside. "And here they come." A ghost of the warrior who had met him in the yard returned to her face. "I don't want to talk about ... whatever you came here to discuss ... while we're eating. My family has been through too much as it is."
Buck thought about Captain Roberts waiting back at the Ranger camp. He would prefer a complete and accurate report rather than one taken in haste. He nodded. "I can wait."
Mrs. Denning returned to the genial hostess with his nod and took bowls down from the shelf as the door swung open.
Two people entered, one a youth of seventeen or so who was still all arms and legs. In front of him came a boy of five or six, thin with big brown eyes that stared at the stranger in the house in one wide-eyed glance. "Who are you?" He put his fists at his waist, achieving a fine stance. Buck could hardly keep his lips from twitching.
The young man behind him had a rifle held flat against his side. His hand was on the action, ready to raise it to his shoulder and fire it in one single fluid motion. This young man had all the attitude of an outlaw in the making—or a Texas Ranger. Something about the set of his eyes and his shoulders looked like Mrs. Denning. She had said "family." Her brother?
"Leta, is this fella bothering you?" His voice ground out low.
"Not at all." Her eyes flashed at Buck with a warning against what—naming his occupation? She pulled the cornbread out of the oven. "He was passing by, and I invited him in for a bite to eat. Come in and join us."
The boy dropped his arms and took a spot at the table. "I'm Ricky. Is that your horse in the yard? I like him. What's your name?"
That's what Buck thought he said, but the words all ran together as he slurped down a tall glass of water.
"Andy, put that rifle away and join us at the table."
Buck watched with amusement as the kid placed the weapon on the hearth, within easy reach. Not that he blamed him. Add the constant threat from Mexicans and Indians rustling cattle with the trouble this family had already endured, and no wonder they were jump-happy when a strange man showed up at the door.
Buck didn't say much during the meal, content to listen to the stream of questions and information pouring from the boy. He asked dozens of questions about Blaze, almost as if he knew something about horse ranching.
Buck answered the boy's questions about the horse, slipping into a role he had abandoned when he became a Texas Ranger. "Blaze is a Morgan horse." Mrs. Denning raised an eyebrow at the name but made no comment.
Mrs. Denning slipped a second bowl of beans in front of him before his spoon hit the bottom of the first. They tasted as good as they smelled. Andy said even less than Buck did over the meal.
"Can I go back out with Andy this afternoon?" Ricky's tone suggested he made the same request every day, without success.
"For today, yes, you may." Mrs. Denning flicked her glance at Buck.
Andy nodded an acknowledgment, grabbed the rifle, and closed the door behind them. Mrs. Denning busied herself fixing a fresh pot of coffee until the boys' voices faded in the distance.
"So it took the death of that German Henry Doell to get the attention of the Texas Rangers." Anger laced Mrs. Denning's words.
Chapter TwoThe notorious murderer Scott Cooley having at one time been a member of the [Ranger] company had many friends among the men who were in sympathy with him and his party.
Letter from Major John B. Jones to Adjutant General William Steele, October 23, 1875
Although I'm a little surprised you showed up. Isn't Scott Cooley a Ranger? "As soon as Leta uttered the words, she regretted them. She didn't want to alienate this man.
"A former Ranger." The ranger's tips thinned in a straight line. The man didn't use any surplus words. "God doesn't ask a man's affiliation at the Pearly Gates. I try to do the same." He allowed a hint of a smile to lighten his face, a glimpse of life and humor reflecting an honorable man. "I can't make the clock turn back to last August. But since I'm here now, I want to bring your husband's murderers to justice." He was a dangerous man to cross—someone she wanted on her side.
"So you agree that it was murder." Leta twisted the strings of her apron, so she grabbed the shirt she was mending for Andy instead. "Some folks hereabouts say he got what he deserved after the court found him not guilty."
His blue eyes pierced her, threatening her peace. "Sit down, will you?" she said. "You make me all nervous when you tower over me like that."
Again, he showed that flash of a smile, sitting down in a chair barely big enough to hold his large frame. "Some feel that way."
"He didn't do anything wrong, you know. He was just helping out a friend and making a few dollars in the process. If he had known how things would turn out—" She stopped. Why state the obvious? Of course he wouldn't have taken the job if he'd known he'd end up dead.
"I'm more interested in what happened when they came for him. I know it was nighttime, but how late?" "I've already told all of this so many times, I could recite it from memory. Not that Sheriff Clark has any interest in bringing the killers to justice. For all I know, he was one of the men in the mob." Once again Leta found her tongue running away with her. Accusing the sitting sheriff of involvement with the mob wasn't likely to win over a fellow lawman.
The Ranger didn't react. Instead, he asked about the time of day, the smells, sounds, sights, of the hours imprinted on her memory. He came at the question of "Did you recognize anyone?" a dozen different ways, but nothing clicked. She only remembered figures dressed like cattlemen, most of them with their faces covered, hidden by the shadows of the dark night.
"Did you recognize their voices?"
"Just the one man spoke. I didn't recognize his voice, but that's not surprising. I couldn't tell you many folks in town. The preacher, maybe."
"Was there anything distinctive about their voices?"
Like a German accent. The words hung unspoken in the air.
"I only heard the one man. He sounded ... ordinary. Like everybody else from around here." She thought about saying "not German," but this quiet man might take that the wrong way. Besides, accents or not, the German mob had to be behind Derrick's murder. They're the ones who had gone after the rest of Roberts's men.
The man leaned forward and cupped his hands between his knees, staring at her. "There's something you're not telling me."
"I've told you everything." Even things she had forgotten. "Why would I hide anything? They killed my husband."
"Maybe it's not something you know. Maybe you suspect something." Those eyes cut through her defenses.
"If I make accusations without proof, I'm no better than they were." She'd keep her suspicions to herself. And if she ever knew for sure, she'd decide how she wanted to act. She didn't know if she wanted to depend on a company of Rangers who didn't seem all that committed to finding the real killers.
"That's a noble sentiment, Mrs. Denning." The man dusted his hat on the knees of his waist overalls and stood. "Thank you for your time. Mind if I come back if I think of any more questions?"
She nodded. "Or if you learn anything new. I'd like to know." She watched the Ranger leave the house and climb on the back of his horse. Leta surely admired the horse, and the horse tossed his neck and snorted as if he knew it.
He pulled on the horse's reins to keep him from moving.
"The Morgan horse—are you kin to those Morgans?"
The smile she had seen earlier came back out and played awhile. "All that matters is that I'm a Texas Ranger, ma'am." He tipped his hat, and his horse trotted across the rise in the direction of the family's burial plot.
* * *
Buck didn't head back to his uncle's farm right away, which was his headquarters as long as he was in Mason. Instead, Buck rode in the direction he had seen the boys head after dinner. He spotted the herd before he saw the boys. The little guy disappeared among the steers and cows.
From the top of a rise, he could make out the action with clarity. The boys rode among the cattle, the younger one throwing a loop in the direction of a calf, but not reaching it. Overall, the herd was small, small enough that Mrs. Denning must think a youth of seventeen and a child could manage them. Even if they sold the small herd, they wouldn't make enough money. The family couldn't manage the animals and take care of the ranch. They needed help.
Buck's anger burned against Derrick Denning. What kind of man left his wife little more than destitute? But other forces could be at work. Rustlers—be they Mexican, Indian, or someone closer to home—would find rich pickings at the defense-poor D-Bar-D Ranch. Buck was in Mason County to establish peace and find justice for the dead man if possible. Maybe he could make a difference for his family as well. God mandated taking care of widows and orphans; Buck felt obligated.
Mrs. Denning wouldn't be pleased with his interference; he might have to act in secret. For now, he'd take the long ride back to his uncle's house to think about his conversation with Mrs. Denning. Surely she wouldn't try to go after the mob herself. No one, no woman, would be that foolish.
Excerpted from A RANGER'S TRAIL by DARLENE FRANKLIN Copyright © 2012 by Darlene Franklin. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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