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The California Trail (Trail Drive Series #5)

The California Trail (Trail Drive Series #5)

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by Ralph Compton

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From bestselling author Ralph Compton—the bold saga of a trail-blazing cattle drive in the blistering heat of the California gold rush.
The only riches Texans had left after the Civil War were five million maverick longhorns and the brains and brawn to drive them north to where the money was. But it all took a wild and dangerous turn on the


From bestselling author Ralph Compton—the bold saga of a trail-blazing cattle drive in the blistering heat of the California gold rush.
The only riches Texans had left after the Civil War were five million maverick longhorns and the brains and brawn to drive them north to where the money was. But it all took a wild and dangerous turn on the California Trail, a passage overrun with dreamers, schemers, and gold…
Gold fever has hit California, and suddenly the land is full of hungry pioneers. For Texas brothers Gil and Van Austin, it means a chance to sell their well-grazed longhorns after years of hard ranching and a death-defying cattle drive up through Mexico. The only thing that stands between them and California is a scorching desert, swollen rivers, a barrage of Indian attacks, and a passel of outlaws. And while the Texans are ready and willing to take it all on, there’s one thing they’re not prepared for: the ultimate act of treachery, greed, and back-stabbing deceit. . .

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“Very seldom in literature have the legends of the Old West been so vividly painted.” —Tombstone Epitaph

“Lovers of Louis L'Amour–type Westerns will welcome [this] series.” —Nashville Banner

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St. Martin's Press
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Trail Drive , #5
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The California Trail

By Ralph Compton

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1994 Ralph Compton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-0310-3


Once Gil and Van Austin had agreed upon the trail drive to the California goldfields, they wasted no time in approaching Clay Duval with the proposal.

"You're right," said Clay, "this is somethin' we can't afford to pass up. If the kind of money they're talkin' about is for real, this one trail drive could set us up for life. We'd never have to sell another cow. Trouble is, I don't know if I. should feel flattered that you're leavin' the Bandera spread in my hands, or insulted that you reckon you can take a herd of longhorns on such a drive without me."

"Take it as a compliment," said Gil. "Remember the last trail drive, when the both of us ended up in a Mexican juzgado? Next time, it may be a California juzgado. We may need you on the outside, with a keg of powder."

"Don't laugh," said Van. "He may be more right than he knows. We're only lookin' at the potential reward of such a drive, without considering all we may have to survive to reach it. We could hire a segundo and the riders to look after the ranches, the longhorns, and the horses, but there's more at stake than that. I want to know that little Van and Dorinda are safe, all the time I'm away."

"And there's Rosa," said Gil.

"Whoa," said Clay. "She's your querida. She'll grab a horse and light out after you. You want me to rope her out of the saddle and hogtie her till you get back?"

"We still have some time," said Gil. "I'll talk to her." He looked forward to that with all the enthusiasm of a man about to be bucked off into a cactus patch and then stomped.

"You're only leavin' me Solano," said Clay, "but with Mariposa and Estanzio helping, we should be caught up on the gentling of horses before you're ready to move out. Now at your place, there'll be only the cook, old Stump. We'll need a good dozen riders while you're gone, and I don't mean just men with horse and cow savvy. Sooner or later the Comanches are goin' to come after us; if not for our hair, then for our horses. Same holds true for rustlers."

"Why don't you ride to San Antone tomorrow," said Gil, "and make known our need for hard-ridin', fast-shootin' men? While you're there, stop at the mercantile and have them order us new weapons. I want two dozen of the new Dragoon Colt six-shooters, with the seven and a half inch barrel, and a thousand rounds of ammunition for each. If possible, I'd like the same number of .50 caliber Hawken rifles, out of St. Louis. Get plenty of horseshoes too, along with an extra set of necessary tools. I'll want enough shoes for every horse on the trail drive to have an extra set. We'll be taking a sixty-horse remuda and five packhorses."

"My God," said Clay, "do we have that kind of credit in town?"

"We do," said Gil, "and more. Remember, we've been supplyin' beef to the town for nearly six years, gettin' only credit. Nobody's had any gold."

"That reminds me of something," said Van. "The outfit's been taking wages in cows. Do you aim to let that four thousand head include some or all of their stock?"

"I'm inclined to," said Gil. "I think it's fair. We could allow every rider to take as many as fifty, without it hurtin' us."

"That's more than generous," said Clay. "All right, I'll ride to town tomorrow and get the word out that we're needin' riders, and I'll drop this list of needs off at the mercantile. I just hope they have credit enough to buy for us."

"So do I," said Gil.

For three days after she had learned of the impending trail drive, Rosa had sulked in silence. Not so much because she wouldn't be going, Gil felt, but because he would be. She had become so possessive, something had to be done. Thanks to Dorinda and Angelina, Rosa already had a better education than most frontier females, but Gil decided she was ready for something more formal. Such as a four-year girl's school, in New Orleans or St. Louis. If the trail drive to California proved even half as successful as they hoped, he would have the money for such an extravagance. But it soon became apparent that they wouldn't be able to begin the drive until after the first of the year, and that Rosa had ideas that exceeded Gil's wildest imagination.

She had always respected his privacy in the cabin they shared, and Gil had respected hers. It came as a shock when, one night, he awakened from a sound sleep and found Rosa in his room. She stood at the foot of his bed, and how long she had been there, he didn't know. While he wasn't sure why she was there, he had a terrifying suspicion. His first look at the girl dispelled forever his thoughts of her as a child. The light of a full moon shone through the window, and Rosa stood there stark naked, a woman in every sense of the word! Gil almost stopped breathing, but forced himself to continue slowly and evenly, lest she know that he was awake. But his years on the hazardous frontier had so conditioned him, that another's breathing could awaken him, and this Rosa knew. Still he played possum, fearing that she might actually get into bed with him, forcing him to acknowledge her presence. Finally she turned away and, like a pale ghost, swept slowly through the open door, out of his sight. He slept no more that night, discarding one idea after another, a vivid picture of the naked Rosa burned into his mind. When at last the eastern sky paled from gray to rose, Gil got up. He would say nothing of Rosa's nocturnal visit, covertly watching her. It came as no surprise when he found her in her usual garb, breakfast all but ready. He sat down and she poured his coffee. She returned the pot to the stove, and when she turned back to face him, the half smile on her lips was more terrifying than the frown she had worn for the past three days. Something in his expression told her what she wished to know, and she was glorying in it! She spoke not a word, but sat down across the table from him, sipping her own coffee. Her enigmatic smile remained, and in her eyes was the wisdom of a thousand years. Chill fingers caressed his spine, and he sat there looking into his half-empty cup....

When Gil and Van Austin had departed, Clay Duval sat at the kitchen table so immersed in his own thoughts that Angelina had to speak to him twice before he heard her.

"They are going without you," she said. "Do you have regrets?"

"No," he said. "I was just wonderin' why Dorinda didn't come out breathin' fire and smoke when Van decided to go."

"Dorinda understands. Van is concerned about his brother."

Angelina had pulled out a chair and sat across the table from him. His eyebrows lifted, Clay looked at her, and she laughed.

"Gil is restless, lost, vulnerable," she said.

"So Van is goin' along to protect him," said Clay. "Querida, Gil Austin is about as vulnerable as a lobo wolf."

"I do not question his ability to physically defend himself against almost any odds," she said. "It is you and Van who are forcing him to face an enemy he fears, in a fight he is unsure of winning."

"Well, by God," said Clay, "thanks on behalf of Van and me."

She continued as though he hadn't spoken. "You have a home, a wife, and a daughter. Van has a home, a wife, and a son. Gil is lacking all this, and it is the contrast that is bothering him, making him vulnerable."

"So he's likely to go to California and bring back some female catamount that'll geld and brand him."

"Clay Duval, sometimes you are so crude, I —"

He grinned. "That ain't what you said, but it's what you meant."

"The problem does not lie in California, or at the end of any trail, but within Gil himself. Can you not see what is happening between him and Rosa?"

He kicked his chair back and got up, his palms flat on the table, just looking at her. His nostrils flared and his brown eyes had gone cold.

"Rosa can't be more than twelve," he said. "Thirteen at the most. Are you sayin' that Gil —"

"I did not accuse Gil of anything," she said. "While you think of Rosa as a child, she thinks of herself as a woman, and it is in that light that I see her. So does Dorinda. Rosa has the resources and the yearnings of a woman. A child of twelve, perhaps thirteen? I think not."

He sat down, allowing his temper to subside before he spoke. "So the trail drive to the goldfields ain't just the money," he said. "Gil's leavin' a situation here that he ain't sure he can handle. But a man can't run forever. What's going to keep this thing from gettin' back in the saddle and sinkin' the gut hooks in him again, when he returns?"

"A wife perhaps," said Angelina.

* * *

Oscar Stackmeier was a Missourian, a friend of Moses Austin, Stephen's late father. The potential of Texas's American Colony had excited Oscar, and he had given up his trading post in St. Joe for a larger one in San Antonio. Oscar had long been a friend to Gil and Van Austin, even when they were anything but flush, a condition that had plagued them since their arrival from Missouri. It had been Oscar Stackmeier's willingness to trade for beef that had been the salvation of the Bandera spread. He was a thin little man, with watery blue eyes and wire-rimmed spectacles, whose generosity was exceeded only by his bluntness. Having read the list Clay Duval had given him, he looked at Clay over the tops of his spectacles.

"Clay, you boys are a mite late. Two thousand years late. Jesus Christ could of turned longhorn beef into Hawken rifles and Colt revolvers, but I purely can't. I doubt the Hawken brothers make as many rifles in a year as you're wantin' right now. As for the Colt Dragoons, you'll have to get in line behind the Texas Rangers and the United States Army. Now horseshoes, I can get."

That had been setback enough, but the day wasn't over. Clay had made the rounds of the saloons, the stores, the barber shops and bathhouses, even the wagon yard, without finding even one potential rider for the Bandera ranch. Instead he heard story after story of men who had lit out for California in pursuit of gold. He had been about to ride out in total defeat, when he encountered "Big Foot" Wallace and several of his Rangers. In the fall of 1843, Gil, Van, and Clay had brought a herd of longhorns and a herd of blooded horses from Mexico, stampeding them across the Rio Grande, with the Mexican army in pursuit. Big Foot Wallace had been the first Texan they'd seen, and the big Ranger had taken a personal interest in them.

"Howdy," said Wallace. "Them Mex cows learnin' to eat Texas grass?"

"That's the easy part," Clay grinned. "We're aimin' to take a herd to California, to the goldfields, if we can find the guns, the ammunition, and the riders. We was hopin' for some of the new Colt Dragoon six-shooters, but I just learned the Rangers and the United States Army's ahead of us."

"You can thank Captain Jack Hays for that," said Wallace. "He's managed to order enough for every Ranger to have two Colts, plus an extra cylinder. The extra cylinder will interchange with either Colt, givin' a man eighteen shots without reloading."

"That's why we wanted our riders on the trail drive to California to have them," said Clay. "We hear there's hostile Injuns every jump of the way, and we come out of Mexico with all manner of foreign-made pistols. I reckon no two of 'em takes the same kind of ammunition, and I'd swap the whole bunch for one good Colt."

"Know what you mean," said Wallace. "How many Dragoons was you tryin' to get?"

"Two dozen," said Clay, "but we could make do with fifteen."

"Captain Ben McCulloch knows you and the Austins," said Wallace. "Ben's after Captain Jack Hays to order enough of the Dragoons so we'll have them to arm new men. You know, Colt went busted in 1842, and Ben thinks it could happen again. Let me talk to Ben McCulloch; if he can get Captain Jack to order a few dozen extra Dragoons, I might arrange for you to get the Colts you need. The Comanches are goin' to give us hell in the years to come, and I'd like to see every Texan armed with one of these Colt six-shooters."

"We'd be obliged," said Clay, "and the sooner the better. Now we need some riders. Ain't got a dozen Rangers, with horse and cow savvy, that you can spare for about a year, have you?"

Wallace laughed, not even dignifying that with a reply. Clay mounted and rode back to Bandera Range.

* * *

Gil had delayed his talk with Rosa as long as he could, and when he finally decided to be done with it, he found her every bit as adamant and unreasonable as he had expected.

"If I cannot go with you," she insisted, "then I will stay where I wish to stay, and I wish to stay here at our house. I am no longer a child, and I will not endure all the months you are gone, having Angelina and Dorinda threatening to spank me."

"I'd not mind you staying here," said Gil, "if our own riders were going to be in the bunkhouse. But they're going with me on the trail drive, and Clay will be hiring some new men to take over until we return. I am very much aware that you're no longer a child, Rosa, and I don't want you here alone, with strange riders in the bunkhouse."

"It would upset you, ah reckon," she said, imitating his drawl, "if these new riders had their way with me."

That half smile touched her lips. She was taunting him with the very thing he feared the most, throwing it in his face.

"Yes, damn it!" he shouted. "It would upset me. I didn't drag you out of Mexico to have you become a puta in my own house while I am away. Maybe I've been wrong, but I'd hoped that if you had no respect for yourself, that you'd have some for me!"

That got to her. Her face paled, the smile vanished, and she swallowed hard before she spoke.

"No man will ever use me against my will. I would kill him."

Their conversation ended, resolving nothing, but Gil discovered he had won a small victory. While she adamantly refused to stay with Angelina or Dorinda while he was gone, never again did she taunt him in a manner that opened her morality to question.

When Van and Clay again rode to Gil's place, their concern was for new riders. Or the lack of them. The three men seemed to fill a room, each of them over six feet without hat or boots. Gil and Van were towheaded and blue-eyed. Clay's hair was a faded brown, almost a sorrel. His eyes were soft brown, but when he was angry, they shot sparks of green fire.

"I've got just one possibility," said Gil, "and it's not my idea. Long John Coons claims if he could ride back to Louisiana for a few days, he could maybe bring us some old pards of his."

"For some reason I've never quite figured out," said Van, "I like Long John, but I'd think long and hard before hirin' any rider that's a friend of his. Remember in 'forty-two when we was tryin' to get a trail herd out of Mexico, and we ended up in a Mex calabozo in Monterrey? Who ends up right in there with us, but Long John Coons, big as life and twice as ugly? When we'd left him here with specific instructions to keep an eye on the ranch."

"It was just a thought," said Gil. "We don't have that many prospects."

"Who wants to stay in Texas and nurse cows?" said Van. "Huntin' gold has to pay better."

"Anything pays better," said Clay. "Hell's fire, I hear a private in the army gets eight dollars a month. That's a regular bonanza, compared to what we've made in the cattle business."

"This is gettin' us nowhere," said Gil. "I'm going to ride into San Antone tomorrow and nose around some. Maybe I'll check with Big Foot Wallace and see if he's havin' any luck gettin' us some Colt Dragoons."

November 5, 1849. San Antonio, Texas

When Gil reached San Antonio, Wallace and his men were away. Captain Ben McCulloch was there, however, and that proved even more beneficial. Gil, Van, and Clay had fought under McCulloch's command at San Jacinto. Then, in 1843, when the trio had brought a miraculous trail drive from Mexico, they had so impressed Big Foot Wallace that the Ranger had arranged for them to tell their story to Sam Houston. The information Gil, Van, and Clay had supplied had been helpful in the eventual war with Mexico. As a result, Clay Duval and the Austins were well thought of by the Texas Rangers and by men at the reins of state government in Austin. When Gil saw Captain McCulloch go into a restaurant, he followed.

"I hear you're taking a trail drive to the goldfields," said McCulloch.

"I'm beginning to have some doubts," said Gil. "We've run headlong into a couple of problems, and haven't found a solution to either of them."


Excerpted from The California Trail by Ralph Compton. Copyright © 1994 Ralph Compton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998.

Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee in 1998.

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The California Trail (Trail Drive Series #5) 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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Another great book by Ralph Compton! Don't miss this one!