Read an ExcerptBROKEN TRAIL
By ALAN GEOFFRION
PINNACLE BOOKS Copyright © 2006 Alan Geoffrion
All right reserved.
Chapter One Print Ritter had to quit. His body knew it even before he did. The imperceptible pains worked to slow his steps across the ground and the aches spoke to him as he sat astride a horse. He refused to see it that way, but it was the truth. He adhered to the old saw that "it was better to wear out than rust out."
He removed his hat and wiped his brow. From above his eyebrows, his forehead was as white as a fish's underbelly; below, the look and color of tobacco. His white moustache drooped to his jaw. He ran his fingers through his silver hair before he replaced his hat. He had a paunch, but that was it. He carried no extra weight. His clothes were worn but tidy. He squeezed his wiry legs and the big chestnut moved out at a ground-eating trot.
Long flying wedges of Canada geese passed overhead, and wherever there was water, it was covered with pintails, most of them with their heads underwater and their pointy little asses in the air. Spring was sure coming early this year, he thought. And that made him think of empty stock tanks and dry creek beds. It seemed to him that early springs meant waterless summers. Then again, maybe not. He was about halfway from the OO Ranch, heading to the Gap Ranch in the northern corner of Harney County. Those honkers will make it there before I do, he thought. The waterbirds had converged on Silver Lake, resting on their journey up to Canada and on to the Arctic Circle.
It was just north of the lake that the war chief Buffalo Horn had met his maker during the Indian Wars in eastern Oregon. Print had been working for the cattleman Peter French back in the summer of '78. He had been hired on to "sort out" young colts, but he was up for any chore Mr. French assigned to him. The two had struck it off from the first time they met. Print liked the way Peter French handled his men and his cows, and French liked the way Print finished off his horses. They and about a dozen hands were working over on the Diamond Ranch, branding, when Coon Smith raced in yelling that "about twenty-five" mounted braves were heading for the branding camp. It had been at the Diamond Ranch that a band of Bannocks had earlier on burned out George Smyth and his son, forcing them with intense barrage from their repeating rifles back into their cabin, where father and son burned to death. From then on, everyone got anxious anytime there was a sighting of two or more Indians in the countryside.
French, being the only one armed at the time, ordered all the hands to make a run for it back to the P Ranch. They threw the Chinaman, their cook, up on a horse and made a straight line for the P. French took up a position and started taking potshots at the approaching band. When they got close, he took off until he found a new position that offered some cover, and started dropping more of them as they advanced. He continued this until his men were over the trail crossing at McCoy Creek and the Bannocks felt that he was taking all the fun out of their day. The Chinaman had not lasted long on the galloping horse and had fallen off. The band caught the cook and put him to a gruesome death so that their entire day was not a loss.
Later, Print and Peter French and other cowhands joined up with a Colonel Bernard and made a fight of it at Silver Lake with the joined forces of Bannocks and Paiutes under Buffalo Horn. French had said that "it wasn't required and it was strictly on a volunteer basis." Print didn't care one way or the other. He went because Peter French had asked. It wasn't because of the Bannocks and Paiutes, or the Chinaman, or old man George Smyth and his son who got roasted in their cabin. He had left that kind of thinking a lifetime ago, back in the Valley Campaign, chasing Phil Sheridan up and down the Shenandoah. He went because this man he considered a friend had asked.
In the end, four troopers were killed and nearly fifty braves, including Buffalo Horn. He had been a handsome devil, even in death, thought Print. And a crafty one too. He had convinced the governor to give his braves more guns and ammunition so they could hunt for themselves, as the beef allotments from the government weren't enough to live on. Politicians. Worse than lawyers. Skimming money from the government beef fund, then allowing the tribes to arm themselves so that they could go out and kill ranchers trying to raise enough cows to feed the country, including the Indians. Print spat.
And now at his stopover at the OO Ranch, he learned from the Hanleys that his old friend Peter French had been murdered. They said it was over cows. There ain't enough cows in Christendom to be worth getting killed over, thought Print. But then maybe it wasn't really about cows. Maybe cows were just an excuse, and there was another issue. And there were issues in life worth making a stand over. They said that the fella that had done it was indicted by a coroner's jury that had been convened at the Sod House spread. Due to a low-set bail, and a firm of brass-buttoned lawyers all the way from Portland, the culprit ducked out of the justice he deserved. Politicians and lawyers. Print spat again. Forget it. Push on. Follow the honkers, the pintails, and terns north.
The following morning, the sun rose on his right. The clumps of manzanita cast long shadows across the range floor. The day would warm up quickly. Definitely an early spring, he thought. The waterbirds were high in the sky, winging north. A frantic jackrabbit darted left, then right, and disappeared into the brush. He had been in the saddle since before first light. He was betting he could make his destination before breakfast was over. He hadn't wanted to waste time making a fire, not even for coffee. He liked riding at this time of the day, especially when the weather was good. He could always have coffee, but not good weather.
He pushed Bob Tate into a lope as he sighted the Gap Ranch compound. A half an hour later, as he eased the big chestnut up at the approach to the ranch quarters, a spry man stepped off the porch to meet him.
"I'm lookin' for a Tom Harte," said Print.
The spry man said nothing. Print took his measure. No rudeness was implied.
"I'm his uncle," Print added.
The spry man nodded, removed a toothpick from his mouth, and pointed to the corral. "Over there," the man replied.
Behind the fence of lodgepoles, lariats were flying through the air. Calves bawled amid the dust and smoke as they thudded to the ground. The men wrestled a bull calf to the ground while another man slit open its scrotum with a pocketknife, tossing warm testicles into a wooden bucket. One gland missed the bucket and instantly a thin cattle dog snapped up the warm morsel. The branding iron bit into the thick hair and hide. Smoke billowed and another "new" steer struggled to its feet, its backside still smoking. A big bull calf threw himself against the poles, trying to escape. Once. Twice. The third time, he landed on the top pole, snapping it and two more. He somersaulted over, landing on his back. He scrambled and was off before the cowhands could clear the broken fence.
With a slight squeeze of his legs, Print had the big chestnut off in a shot. In one fluid motion, Print uncoiled his riata, played out a loop, and tossed it around the bull calf's hind legs. He dallied up as Bob Tate set himself for the force and the calf hit the end of the rope. Horse and rider took the impact as Print sat deep in the saddle. The calf hung suspended in the air for a moment, then hit the ground. The big cow pony backed up just enough to keep the tension on the rope.
Several hands scrambled over the breached corral, heading for the struggling calf. One of them stopped and looked up at Print.
"Uncle Print?" he asked.
He turned to the spry man who had followed Print.
"This is my uncle, Print Ritter.... Prentice Ritter."
Print and the spry man exchanged nods. Tom loosened the rope around the calf's hind legs as the other hands took over. His shirt was mottled with sweat and dust. Tom was lean and, like most of the Ritter clan, had bright red hair.
"What brings you out here? Thought maybe you'd died."
Print smiled slightly at the notion. "No, son, not yet. But your ma did. She passed away."
Tom said nothing. Neither did his face as he coiled another loop of the rope. "Did she say anything?" he asked.
"No, son. Her hired man found her in the vegetable garden," replied Print.
"Is he looking after the place?"
Print sighed. His wrists crossed over the horn of the saddle. "He is ... I need ta say something straight out: she wrote a will." Print tugged at the glove on his left hand. He looked straight into the face of his nephew. "She left it all to me."
He raised his gaze momentarily, watching the cowhands wrestle the bull calf back over the broken opening. Then he looked back at the silent young man. "I don't know what was cros't between you two, but she done it. The land, the livestock, ever'thing. It ain't a fortune, but it's legit."
Print released his end of the rope from the horn and let it slip away
"That's it?" Tom asked, his face as lifeless as his departed mother's.
Print reached inside his coat and removed an envelope, offering it to his nephew "She did leave this for ya."
Tom stepped forward, took the envelope, looked at it, and stuffed it unopened into his shirt pocket. The two men looked at one another. Tom coiled up the last of the rope.
"I don't feel good about this, Nephew, not at all. I always figgered that it would all go ta you."
Tom tapped the coiled rope against his chaps. Print continued.
"That's why I come out here. I wanted to talk. Ya see, your mother made me the executor to her estate. That means I have to carry out the orders of her will. She left ever'thin' ta me, 'cept there was a codicil. You can buy the old Fairbairn place-the three sections that run down from Steens to the Mahluer from her estate-if ya've a mind to."
"I can buy it?" Tom asked.
Print nodded. "Market price."
A bitter Tom turned to walk away
"Will's on file over ta Burns'," Print called after him.
Tom stopped and turned to face his uncle. "Sonnuva bitch. That's mother's milk for ya."
Print nodded in agreement. "More like hind tit, son."
Tom looked over at the spry man and then back to Print. "Any more good news for me, Uncle?"
Print shifted in the saddle, "Look, son, I don't like this any mor'n you do, but I got this idea ... might work out for both of us ... maybe. I got this idea ta take horses back to Wyoming."
Print extracted a newspaper clipping from his coat pocket. "Listen ta this: Wanted: Hot- or cold-blooded horses. Sound and disease free. Three to eight years of age. Proof of ownership required. Purchase price commiserate with the quality of stock. Contact William or Malcolm Moncrieffe, Quarter Circle A Ranch, Sheridan, Wyoming-Agents for Her Majesty's War Office, British Empire."
Print looked up from the paper to gauge Tom's reaction. He continued. "Why don't we take some of yer ma's money an' buy a big string of horses? Might be a handy way ta increase our capital."
"You mean your capital. They ain't got horses in Wyoming?"
A vexed Print pursed his lips. "Try not ta get all swolled up an' just think about this fer a minute. A fella name of Haythorne was out this way last year. Tried ta hire me to help drive a herd of five hundr'd head back ta Valentine, Nebraska. He had a contract with the Indian Agency ta supply horses for the Rosebud Reservation-"
"How many? An' what kind?" Tom interrupted.
Now yer gettin' it, Print thought. "I figger we could handle easy five hundr'd, maybe more if we took on a couple a boys. I'm thinkin' tough, high desert mustangs. Easy keepers. They kin go unshod and oughta be fairly broke by the time we get ta Sheridan."
Print could see that Tom wasn't as sold as he had hoped.
"An' you think I should quit here an' help make you richer than my ma already has?" Tom asked, looking over at the spry man and then back to his uncle.
"That's not my intention."
"We'd do this on shares?" Tom asked.
Print nodded. "I figger fifty/fifty split on the profits after expenses and loan repayment."
Print shifted again and Bob Tate responded by shifting his weight from one hind leg to the other. "That's right, loan repayment, ta the bank. I'd hafta put the ranch up as collateral."
"What the hell kinda deal is that? Yer gonna hock the family place to buy horses?"
Print was beginning to lose patience. "Well, that's one way a lookin' at it."
"What's the other?" asked Tom.
"No disrespect meant, but ain't you spent enough time cuttin' the nuts off another man's cows for chuck an' wages?" replied Print, first looking at the spry man and then to Tom.
Print continued. "Keep it up an' you'll be walkin' aroun' like a crab, all stove up along with all the other bachelor cowhands from here to the Dalles-no disrespect meant."
Tom walked away. Print dismounted, flipped the stirrup over the saddle seat, and loosened the cinch strap. He lifted the saddle and moved the saddle blanket forward. Tom turned and walked back to his uncle.
"Here," he said, handing him the coiled riata.
Print took the rope and his eyes followed Tom as he walked around to the off side of the horse. Tom stared across the seat of the saddle at his uncle.
"Still ridin' old Bob Tate, I see."
Print smiled. "You bet," he replied.
Tom turned to the spry man, who nodded and took the toothpick from his mouth and pointed to the bunkhouse. Tom looked back at Print and said, "I'll get my stuff."
Having reset the blanket and saddle properly, Print tightened the cinch strap, dropped the stirrup back down, and said to the spry man, "Guess I'm gonna leave you a man short."
The spry man stuck the toothpick back in his mouth. "Tom's a hell of a hand. Hope things work out for you two."
Soon Tom returned with two horses, one saddled and the other with a packsaddle and his gear. He swung into the saddle.
"Maybe we'll see ya next spring," Print said to the spry man.
The spry man nodded and replied, "Keep yer nose to the wind, 'specially in that Green River country. There's desperate citizens that populate that land."
The two men turned their mounts and started off. The sun was now high, reminding Print that he hadn't had any coffee this day.
Chapter Two The following month Print and Tom spent going from ranch to ranch buying horses. They ranged from as far south as the 3 Mile Ranch at the bottom end of the Steens to the Juniper place, then back over to Barton Lake, where they put up their stock in the big round barn that Peter French had built back in the early eighties, which was the talk of the countryside. After a lifetime of "excitement," Print found he still had a curiosity about things, even if it was only what the next week might bring.
They were sorting through some of the stock at French's barn. Print pointed to a red roan colt that Tom had picked out from stock over at the Venator Ranch that was penned up in the stone corral. "How rode out is that one?"
Tom shrugged. "He ain't no Bob Tate, but he'll do," he replied.
Print tossed a loop over the colt's head. He didn't fight and stood quietly as Print saddled him and slipped on a hackamore. In a side pen were four cows that they had picked up along the way and were planning on leaving there. Print said they would let the owners over at Ruby's know about them when they passed through.
Print quietly swung up and then carefully settled in the saddle. The cow pony stood stock-still. He then walked over to the pen with the strays in it. He opened the gate from atop the horse, passed through, and closed it from behind. At the far end of the pen, the strays bunched up. Tom took a seat on the wall of the stone corral to watch. Print approached the strays, moving in on a white-faced cow. The bunch broke and the pony cut right, splitting the cows. The half with the white-faced cow darted off to the side and then doubled back to the far end. Print and the pony were right on them. Two jumps and the pony had "whitey" separated. When the cow tried to bolt, the pony jumped right up and cut him off. Then he'd ease off to give the cow time to think it out. As soon as the cow moved, the pony was on him. No matter which way it turned, the pony would sweep left or right. Finally, the cow gave up and shut it down. Print wheeled the red roan and trotted over to Tom. He stopped and rested his crossed arms on the horn.
Excerpted from BROKEN TRAIL by ALAN GEOFFRION Copyright © 2006 by Alan Geoffrion. Excerpted by permission.
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