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Blood on the Verde River
By Dusty Richards
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Dusty Richards
All rights reserved.
Dust boiled up from the cloven hooves of the herd of three hundred head of cattle. An arrow struck his saddle fork hard, only inches from his chap-covered leg and Chet Byrnes put spurs to the big horse's sides, shouting, "Indians. Indians."
The bare-chested Indian took off on foot for some juniper cover.
Chet's gloved hand filled with the .45 Colt from his holster as he drove the bay horse through the sagebrush to his right, racing after the Apache archer. A shot from his gun might stampede the cattle, but the arrow shooter had meant business. That turkey feather–fletched arrow quivering in his saddle fork could have been his death.
A young cowboy, Cole Emerson, fired the first shot. His bullet took a war-painted, pistol-shooting buck who had came charging at them.
Chet realized the result of the shot as he tried to overtake the breechcloth-clad arrow shooter leaping to clear the knee-high sagebrush and escape. The cattle behind him were already on the run. Chet could hear the drum of hooves and their bawling. The screaming sound of their panic—familiar from past cattle drives—forced a feeling of dread that came from deep in his belly. The boys would have their hands full getting them under control again. He considered turning back and helping them, but wanted that arrow slinger more, to teach him a lesson.
Coming from the left, Cole was trying to cut off the Indian, as well. The buck finally stopped and threw his hands up in the air.
Chet reined in his horse knowing full well there had to be others. They must have disappeared quickly into the juniper brush to strike again. Since his youth, he'd fought them. In Texas, he'd fought Comanche/Kiowa. Three of his siblings had been taken by them years before and were never heard from again. In the Arizona Territory, he was fighting Apaches, but all were alike in their vicious ways of making war.
"What should we do with him?" Cole asked, nodding at the buck.
"Tie his hands behind his back and put a rope around his neck. Then bring him to camp. I need to help the crew with that stampede."
"You bet I can handle that. Where did the other red devils go?"
"Damned if I know. But keep your eyes open. They may be back." Obviously the boy could handle the buck, so Chet charged off after the plume of dust in the northeast sky. Damn worthless bunch of Injuns, anyway.
The cattle were part of his contract to deliver beef to feed the Navajos. A task he had to make work for the financial welfare of his ranch and many of his neighbors', too. Beef markets without a railroad to ship on were a serious source of income. The Tucson Ring and Old Man Clanton held all the Army beef contracts and those for the tribes in southern Arizona, plus the ring supplied Tombstone, which had the largest population of any city between St. Louis and San Francisco.
Chet's racing horse took a cow path through the sagebrush. Chet never saw any more attackers, and soon he was on the ruts of the road. The cattle were milling when he drew near.
One of his main men, Hampt Tate, rode back to see him. "What in the hell went on back there?" the thick-chested big man asked.
"Cole and I had war on our side with some Apache bucks. He shot one and then we captured the shooter who gave me this arrow in my saddle. Cole's bringing him in with a rope around his neck."
Hampt stood in the stirrups, looking over the sagebrushy world of the northern Arizona Territory. "When the cattle have settled down a little more, we'll go on to that watering hole."
"It will be hard to slip them in on it," Chet said recalling the site. "Not like a river in the Indian Territory or Kansas, where you can feed them in sideways and not push the first ones in the water from the ones in back."
The big man agreed. "You already promised this job of getting them there would be hell."
"I also said we had to make it work. Selling beef to the reservation will be a great shot in the arm for the Quarter Circle Z and all the rest of the ranchers in the region."
"I ain't complaining, but it's damn easy to get mad about Injuns causing stampedes. I see Emerson coming. He sure ain't got no Apache on his rope."
Chet turned half around. "No, he don't. Well, that boy's got himself two bucks today."
When the freckle faced boy in his late teens reined up, he shook his head. "When I got down to tie his hands, he drew a knife on me and I shot him."
"Fine," Hampt said. "You see any more?"
Cole shook his head, obviously shaken by the way things turned out.
Chet wanted to reassure him of his action with the Apache. "Sorry. I'd have stayed if I thought he'd try that on you."
"No sir. I just handled it."
"Did you reload your pistol?" Hampt asked.
"You know you could have been jumped again?"
"Yes sir. It won't happen again."
Hampt rode in closer and clapped him on the shoulder. "You did good, son. Lots of things we all have to learn to stay alive out here."
"I won't forget what you told me. I like living." Cole rode on to join the others.
"He'll make a good hand one day," Chet said as he and Hampt rode stirrup to stirrup down the wagon tracks. Hampt had recently married Chet's brother's widow May and the arrangement had satisfied the whole family. The newly acquired Hartley ranch with a fair dwelling would be Hampt's place to run.
Chet's wife Marge was two months pregnant with their firstborn and she'd never carried a baby to term in her two previous marriages. At twenty-nine, she had high hopes and had stopped riding her hunters, just in case. But Chet wasn't too sure it made her any easier to live with, though they both were excited about the prospect of a child of their own.
He looked over his shoulder, wondering why those damn Indians attacked a cattle drive. Maybe to cut out a cow to eat, though Apaches preferred mules first, horse second, and cattle last as a meal of choice after deer and elk meat.
He shook his head and looked back at the cattle. The biggest spoilers in the Verde County range had sold out after a big shoot-out that left the two Hartley brothers dead. Some of their sale cattle were being moved to the recently obtained Joseph McQuire Windmill Ranch, now simply called the Windmill. With its two windmills and tanks to water stock, it was the in between place where Chet could park cattle, and had lots of grass to fatten them while they waited to be shipped to the Navajos. There, they were also closer to the reservation for the next month's drive.
The agency people had been pleased with his first delivery to the five places from where the cattle was dispersed. They'd told him it was the best stock they'd ever received. But Chet needed to cut down on help and the big expenses to make it work. He could see how the Windmill, as the shipping point, would make it smoother than driving cattle out of the Verde River valley up on the rim and then across the northern plateau to the four corners country.
Sarge and his bunch had already cut and stacked hay at the Windmill for when snowstorms swept that country in winter. The former Army NCO had been on the Quarter Circle Z payroll almost two years and had proved his ability to get things done.
It was dull, rolling land compared to the range under the rim, but it had lots of strong grass. The power of the forage was obvious in the cattle delivered up there earlier. He hoped the range being developed at Hackberry Ranch proved that good. His nephew Reg and his new wife Lacy were stocking the ranch with maverick cattle they gathered up in the region. The hay crew had hauled mowers, a beaver board stacker, and rakes from the Windmill to Hackberry to gather some forage before winter set in. The carpenters and crew were building a house, bunkhouse, and corrals for Reg and Lacy on that ranch as well.
All of McQuire's good cows and calves had already been moved down to the Verde Ranch, so the upper one held only sale cattle getting ready each month for the Navajo contracts. It made the sorting system simple and was the best plan. The operations were evening out, but the damn Apache raid earlier made Chet mad. He'd done nothing to those people, but they still were on the uproar. With his jackknife he sawed off the arrow's shaft and tossed it aside. He left the deep-set arrowhead in the saddle fork. Damn them, anyway.
"This about the end of the Hartley dispersal cattle?" Sarge asked Chet while he was unsaddling. The straight-backed former Army man was about the same age and the same height as Hampt, but thinner. One of the original employees Chet had hired to take back the Quarter Circle Z, Sarge was a levelheaded tough veteran.
A guy named Ryan had been running the ranch to suit himself. The former owner had feared him so much, he would not fire the man, despite his stealing and misdeeds, and Chet had stepped in.
The Hartleys had been two greedy brothers who'd filled the range with cows, complained when folks ate them, and ended up dead after trying to boss everyone.
"Yes, this is all we have of that stock besides the rebranded stock that Tom needed to replace the culls he sold off the River Ranch," Chet answered Sarge's question.
"The men and I'll have six hundred ready to ship in two weeks."
"It will be colder then. Better get the men equipped for some hard cold after you make this October run. They tell me the snow's going to fly any time before that November delivery. Folks who've been up here say the years vary in temperature and snowfall, but it can be damn tough. We'll face that, getting over there with our cattle."
"We can figure it out. How's Susie?" Sarge asked.
"Word's out she ain't going to marry Tom Hannagan."
"I don't think so. Leif Times has been around a lot."
"A good young man. He ride with you and a posse a couple times?"
"Yes, he did. I like him. His dad has the Rafter Eight Ranch. He's a polite young guy."
"That's my luck. I guess I should have tried harder. I always really liked her and felt if there was a way, I'd have proposed. But I never felt there was much chance of her agreeing to marry me."
Chet shook his head. "You should never let things like that hold you back."
"Well"—Sarge turned his hands up—"I guess I've been a bachelor too long, anyway."
Chet laughed and clapped him on his shoulder. "You know I count on a whole bunch of you guys. You, Tom, Hampt, and even Hoot."
"Speaking of a guy ... I promised Victor I'd take you right over to the cook tent when you got here. Man, he's a helluva great cook. We sure like him."
"Victor took Marge and I on our honeymoon to buy the Hackberry Ranch. Never had a bad meal with him."
"What's your nephew JD doing?"
"Helping Tom. He ain't been like himself ever since he and Kay Kent broke up."
"He's young enough to come out of it."
Victor, the smiling, handsome Mexican, came out of the cook tent and shook Chet's hand. "Good to see you boss man."
"They say you been poisoning these men." Chet grinned.
"Oh, they gripe all the time. If it ain't my food, it's my music."
"I doubt that."
"How is Marge?" Victor asked.
"Fine. She sent her love to you."
"Tell her I miss her. The hands that just came in from the drive say some Apaches attacked you today."
"Put an arrow in my saddle."
Victor frowned. "What did they want?"
"Maybe some beef to eat."
He shook his head. "Spooky isn't it?"
"At times, damn spooky."
Victor frowned again. "I thought all them renegade Apaches were in Mexico."
"Some were left behind, I guess. But two of them are dead now."
"Will the Army find the others?"
"I hope so."
Victor nodded. "I am getting some food ready. Are you hungry?
"Come inside and drink my coffee."
As soon as coffee was poured, Chet launched into his plan for Sarge and his men to take the cattle to the agencies for the October delivery. With all he had to do back home, Chet needed this business handled by one of his men. Sarge could handle it. That taken care of, he closed out the rest of his business and thanked the two men for their good work.
After the meal and anxious to be back with his wife again, Chet resaddled his horse and headed back for the Verde outfit. It would be a long ride through the night, but he wanted to be back with Marge and handle more necessary business. He thanked Hampt and told him to take his time coming back with the rest of the men.
"I'd sure like to ride with you back through that Injun country." Hampt looked awfully concerned about Chet's safety.
"Naw. Apaches don't attack at night. I'll be close to home by sunup."
Hampt still frowned. "You just be damned careful. We're all counting on you."
Chet rode out, short loping the tough bay horse the crew called Sam Brown—a stout six-year-old gelding. With lots of ground to cover, he pushed the horse to make as much progress as he could before sundown. Nighttime would slow him, but the moon should come up early. His mind raced over all the business things that involved him. The Hartley Ranch dispersal was about complete. He'd paid a fair price for the place and the cattle. The sale to the Navajos would save him. Plus he would have all the cattle sold after this month, except for the hundred and fifty mother cows Tom had chosen to replace the Quarter Circle Z aged ones. The rest of the culls Tom sold to the Indians at Fort McDowell. Things were taking shape, but the cool nights told him he'd not make great progress in the winter. Best he got it all done by the time snow flew on his northern range.
Tired and stiff, he arrived at the main headquarters of the Quarter Circle Z at dawn. Tom and the men were saddling up and looked shocked to see him back so soon.
Chet waved off their concern. "Aside from an Apache raid on the herd, it was uneventful."
"Oh, one shot an arrow in my saddle. Cole shot the other one off his horse. I ran down the arrow shooter and he surrendered then tried to kill Cole, so he shot him, too."
"That boy got him two Apaches?" one of the hands asked.
"Yeah. We had a small stampede because of it and finally got them all up there."
"Cole's going to get a reward?"
"I don't know. Who'd award him one?"
"Damned if I know, but we'll sure award him when he gets back." Everyone laughed.
Chet grinned. "Be a good deal. He's a tough enough guy." Then he waved Tom away from the men and spoke to him about his plans.
"We're riding up to Perkins to check on the Herefords. Routine head count is all."
"JD around?" Chet asked.
Tom shook his head and never said a word.
That was enough for Chet. He thanked him and went to the house. He could see his sister standing on the porch with her hands shading her eyes against the sun's glare.
"Saddle a roan for me," he said to the young man who took his horse.
"You back already?" Susie asked. "Come in. I'll have coffee and breakfast in a few minutes."
"How are you doing without May?"
"Boy, I really miss her. But she brought the boys over to fish yesterday, since Hampt was gone. She says the house on the Hartley place is nice now that they have it cleaned up. Ray and Ty fish some below the house on that part of the Verde, but they like the river better over here."
"Oh, yes. She's really happy to have a man who treats her nice and loves her."
"Good. I sure like Hampt, but I don't have to live with him."
Susie laughed. "I like Leif, but I wonder if I could stand to be married. I have become so independent since I don't feed the crew meals. Now May has married Hampt and moved over to the Hartley place and ... well, I wonder what my role is. Aunt Louise lives with Harold Parker most of the time. I suspect they will get married some day, which is fine, but I don't know what I should do."
"Don't do anything unless your gut tells you that's what you want."
She nodded. "Leif is serious and would take me if I was a raving witch. Will being married to him make me feel more his wife than I do today?"
"Hell, you know how wild my life has been. I really worried about how marrying Marge would work out. But I love her ten times more as my wife than I did when we were going together. We have a wonderful private world that I miss every time I step out of it."
"I know that. I really misjudged her. You two are like a gentle stream flowing together when you are in each other's company. In fact, I am jealous of the ease in your marriage. Everyone doesn't have that or get that way after the honeymoon."
"Sis, I can't tell you what it is, but we have it all. I hope for Marge's sake, and my own, she can carry our child. I think she wants it for me even more than herself. But win or lose, I'll still love her."
"She confided to me it was her main goal in life to have a son."
Chet nodded and cupped the warm coffee cup in both hands. "What have you decided?"
She looked at him hard. "I guess I'll jump in the water, if he still wants me."
"Good. Don't make plans about everything. Let the plans come to the both of you. Where you will live? What you will do with your lives? Be dedicated and that will find you a better path to float down. I am going to go see my wife. God bless you two."
Excerpted from Blood on the Verde River by Dusty Richards. Copyright © 2013 by Dusty Richards. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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