Rancher's Law: Some Called It A Crime. Some Called It Revenge. He Called It Justice... [NOOK Book]

Overview



In a hot Arizona river basin, three bodies sway from ropes: three men executed by their fellow ranchers. Hundreds of miles away, in the muddy streets of ort Smith, Arkansas, a deputy marshal hunts down a killer--the first of eight outlaws on his list. Now, the manhunter is about to be chosen for a mission to Arizona territory. Major Gerald Bowen wants Luther Haskill to go undercover and find out if the Arizona lynchings were a matter of ...
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Rancher's Law: Some Called It A Crime. Some Called It Revenge. He Called It Justice...

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Overview



In a hot Arizona river basin, three bodies sway from ropes: three men executed by their fellow ranchers. Hundreds of miles away, in the muddy streets of ort Smith, Arkansas, a deputy marshal hunts down a killer--the first of eight outlaws on his list. Now, the manhunter is about to be chosen for a mission to Arizona territory. Major Gerald Bowen wants Luther Haskill to go undercover and find out if the Arizona lynchings were a matter of justice, or cold-blooded murder.

Bowen is on a campaign to bring law to the frontier, and Haskill is the right agent to investigate the deaths. But in Arizona, Luther comes up against a wall of silence and a family guarding a deadly secret. And in a land where some people get second chances and some don't get any, Luther Haskill must make hi sway through the good, the bad, and the damned--in pursuit of a cold-blooded killer with a plan of his own...

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429939904
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/15/2001
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 127,473
  • File size: 294 KB

Meet the Author



Dusty Richards writes of the Arizona where he lived, explored, and hunted in his youth. The land of cactus, unforgiving heat, sidewinders, deep canyons, and the dark-eyed Apache renegade crouched in the greasewood. This is a territory of legends that he still explores for the untold stories of the past. Rancher, rodeo announcer, former TV anchor, and author of over a dozen books, he is a member of the Western Writers of America.
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Rancher's Law
1A cloud of thick cigar smoke hung in the back room of the Texas Saloon. From the overhead wagon wheel fixture, the yellowish candlelight flickered through the haze onto the faces of four men. Behind a fan of cards, Matt McKean looked hard at his hand, then raised his gaze to study the other players. It was time, he figured, to learn where he stood with these three. Could he risk the exposure of his plans with the whole group or should he do it individually? Test them one at a time. Undecided about his next move, he made no raise, simply discarded a five of hearts and a seven of spades. Jack, queen, ace, all he could hope to do at best was pair one of them.Across the table, Dan Charboneau met his look from under his frosty brows. The older man's face was the color of leather from sixty years of being out in the blazing sun, except where his hat protected his bleached forehead. He was short and burly, with steel-blue eyes that never seemed to blink and a snowy mustache that didn't move as he held out the deck. Matt discarded two cards and drew two new ones. He left his draw on the table."What'll it be for you?" Charboneau turned and asked the youngest of the four ranchers. In his early thirties, Porter Reed always looked red-faced, his skin never tanned. He and his late father had brought their large herd of Herefords to the Christopher Basin from Kansas. Three years earlier, his father, Yancy, died in a horse wreck. Matt wondered if the son would ever be ready to fill the old man's shoes."I'll take one.""No bet?"Porter shook his head. Good, Matt decided, he had nothing.Simple enough, the fool was drawing to an impossible inside straight. Matt picked up his draw and slid the new pasteboards in the fan. The sight of two more ladies drew a smile to his thoughts.Charboneau looked across at Louie Crain for his draw. The tall, thin bachelor in his forties tossed out a fifty-cent's raise and asked for three new ones. Crain had a pair. Matt watched for a flicker of the rancher's eyes when he looked at his new cards. Not a thing--good, he probably had nothing.Everyone stayed in, though Matt wondered why Porter tossed in his four bits. Perhaps his mind was no longer concentrating on playing cards.The dealer checked the bet, drew two for himself, and made a scowl, which could mean good or bad in Matt's book. The Frenchman made a sharp hand anytime at poker. Still undecided about his next move, Matt slumped in the captain's chair and pitched in a dollar raise.Porter folded. Crain saw his bet and Charboneau tossed in his cards. Matt spread out his three ladies on the felt."Beats my pair," Crain said in disgust.Matt rose, reached for the small pot with both hands, stopped, and looked around at the three of them. "Boys, this here is sure penny ante, compared to the cattle we're losing to them rustlers.""Huh," Charboneau grunted. "What do you suggest we do about it?""We know who the three of them are.""You certain?" Porter asked, obviously taken aback by Matt's words."Sure as I am the damn sun will come up." He looked right at Porter."That's pretty sure.""Who you thinking about?" Crain asked, leaning forward. He searched around as if to be certain they were alone.Matt had no worries about the security of the back room. Lincoln Jeffries made damn sure that they were left alonewith only an occasional barkeep coming, knocking first, to take their order for a new bottle of whiskey or more cigars. These chambers strictly belonged to the Christopher Basin's Stockmen's Society on Thursday night or any other night that they wanted it."That Texas cowboy Luke Stearn," Matt began. "How did he get that many head? His S Star is all over the place on young cattle."Charboneau relit his cigar butt, drew deep, held it pinched between his fingers, and leaned back in his chair. "You figuring that Burtle is in on it, too?""T. G. Burtle. He's number two of three," Matt said, feeling more at ease. So far the men around the table acted like they were in this with him."Three? Who's the third one?" Porter asked."Ted Dikes.""Teddy Dikes!" Porter slumped in his chair, taken aback. "Why, he bought that place--""Yeah, I know, he acted like he came in here all legitimate like. Bought the KT from Earnie's widow, but boys, sure as shooting, he's fell in with those other two wolves.""I ain't so sure he's into this rustling." Porter looked half sick at the notion and dropped his chin. "Them other two, I wouldn't argue about them, but I don't think Teddy's in on that rustling business.""Ain't no maybe about any of them," Matt said, and slapped the table top with his palm, unable to control the rage inside his chest. "That upstart from New York is in with them others!"Charboneau held up his hands in surrender. "All right, but what are we going to do about them sons a bitches? The only thing that the law out of Prescott ever does when they send a deputy over here is count our cattle for the tax rolls. If we caught them boys red-handed, they'd probably turn them loose over there.""Boys, there is only one judge and jury. That's hemp rope." Matt sat back in his chair. His cards were on the table; the men were either with him or not. Made no difference,he'd get it done himself if he had to. Having them on the vigilante committee only added to the respectable appearance that it wasn't a personal vendetta on his part. Folks might start asking lots of questions, since that big spring on the Earnie Matson place joined his range. If that old bitch had sold out to him at his price--no matter, it was that damn Yankee coming in there, giving her twice what it was worth that wrecked his plans to acquire it. All that was a nevermind now, Dikes buddying around with those two lobo wolves had fixed his fate."When?" Charboneau asked, taking the stub of the cigar from his colorless lips."You all in?" Matt asked, looking around the table hazed with their smoke. The adrenaline surged in his veins. He had to suppress his excitement. Too many things counted on his plan working. He couldn't afford a show of confidence or jubilance over his victories at this point. Fighting back his own excitement, he casually began a man by man search of their faces.Crain nodded grimly, then ran his fingers through his thin black hair.Charboneau deliberately ground out the butt in the ashtray, then raised his gaze to meet Matt's. "You can count me in."Matt turned to Porter. This would be the real test. The man looked deep in thought and rubbed his palms briskly over his pants legs under the table. A visible shudder of his thin shoulder under his galluses; his Adam's apple bobbed as if he had tried to swallow something large."Damn, it Matt, I can sure agree them two drifters are probably using a running iron ... but Teddy Dikes? Hell, Matt, he's ate supper at my house a dozen times.""He's courting your sister?""Sort of. Hell's bells, I can't believe he's rustling. His folks have lots of money. He don't need to steal nothing.""Porter." Matt looked him square in the eye. "He's after some kind of excitement. Why else would some rich boy buy a damned two-bit ranch and go to wearing cowboygarb? And I say he's running with that pack and doing what they do.""Porter, that makes an awful lot of sense," Charboneau broke in. "Them three are thicker than mud. Two weeks ago, I seen them together up on the Beaver. They weren't up there looking for no butterflies. Besides, that's miles from their outfits.""You see them rustling?" Porter's voice had a high-pitched edge.The older man twisted on his mustache and nodded as if considering the matter again, then made a wry face. "Nope, but I seen two big calves carrying Burtle's fresh mark this week.""Oh, no." Porter collapsed."You want out of this?" Matt asked, sharp enough to get his attention.Porter wagged his head no. "I just hope to God we're right.""We are," Charboneau said, as if the whole thing had been settled forever. "Now, what do we do next?""Saturday at noon," Matt began. "We'll meet at the Alma Creek crossing. Wear masks. Keep out of sight. They'll be coming through there sometime in the afternoon on their way to the schoolhouse dance."Their card playing over for the night, they stood up without a word, except the dejected Porter, who remained in his chair. Matt slipped on his suit coat, satisfied his longawaited plans would unfold in the next two days. Patience. He needed lots of it. And in due time, he would control the entire Christopher Basin. Eliminating two of them homesteaders and that rich kid would be enough sign for the next ones drifting in this country with their long loops to keep on tracking."Alma Creek Crossing?" Charboneau asked, and put the weathered Stetson on his head. Matt gave him a nod. Then, like a small bear, he lumbered out the doorway into the hall. Crain followed him with a wave and shut the door behind him.Porter poured more whiskey into his glass. Still seated, he looked like a man who had lost his best friend. Matt realized Porter was the weakest link. Somehow he needed to resolve the matter before they left this very room."I sure hope you know for certain that Teddy's in on this." Porter tossed down half the glass's contents."You worried about your sister?"Porter swiveled his head around and frowned. "Yes. And I'm hoping we're dead right about Teddy being in with them other two.""If I showed you a calf with his brand on it, sucking one of my cows, would you believe me?"Porter blinked, and swallowed hard. "You've got one?""Yeah. Seen her last week up on the mesa. A brindle cow carrying lots of longhorn blood. That's why I figure we missed her last spring. She hid out. The calf weights four-fifty.""Why? Why would he do that?""Excitement. He's here for a high old time. Live dangerous. Your sister, she might be lots better off without his kind.""Oh, Matt. It will break Margie's heart."Determined to convince him of the matter, Matt pulled out a chair and sat on the edge of it. "What would your old daddy do?""Hang him." Porter dropped his gaze to the table and warily shook his head in defeat. "I was with him and two other ranchers back in Kansas when they caught this kid red-handed with three of our horses. They strung him over a walnut limb on the spot."Good enough. Matt nodded as if he understood. That lynching had left a real mark on Porter. Good thing he didn't want him to find that calf, because there wasn't one--yet--that he knew about."All right." Porter raised the glass and with another shudder of his thin upper torso beneath the snowy-white shirt, he tossed down the contents. After a great sigh, he said, "I'll do my part. I'll be there at noon.""It's the right thing," Matt said, and rose wearily. He still had a ten-mile drive back to the ranch. Taking his stiffbrimmed hat from the wall peg, he considered the Brown Hotel across the street, but dismissed the notion. No, he had plenty to do before Saturday. Best get home and make all the arrangements.He reached his ranch headquarters in the starlight. The buildings and pens set back in the tall ponderosas at the base of Loafer Mountain. At the corrals, he drew the buggy horse up. One of the hired men could put the bay up in the morning, only hours away. He fastened the lead to the hitch rack.His wife, Taneal, would be asleep upstairs. With his thumb, he rubbed the light bristle on his chin and considered the large log home. She wouldn't want to be disturbed at this hour. That's why they slept in separate bedrooms.He entered the dark house and the pine floors gave small groans under his soles. His hat and coat hung on the hall rack, he combed back his short brown hair with his fingers, then headed in the shadowy light for the kitchen. A small candle night lamp flickered in the room filled with the rich smells of spices, cooking, and wood smoke. He looked about and noticed a fresh-made loaf on the table. In passing, he tore off a large hunk of it and went to the side door. With a mouthful of the sourdough drawing his saliva, he eased the door open with a thin squeak.In the faint light, he could see Lana's shapely form under a blanket on the cot. Wallowing the sourdough around with his tongue, he was ready for her. Dessert came next, he mused, and shook her shoulder to awaken her."Señor?" she asked in a sleep-filled voice and bolted up. "You are home?""Sí," he said, and took another bite of the bread. He stepped in front of where she sat on the edge of the bed in her flowing white gown. His free hand grasped the nape of the neck and roughly he forced her to get to her knees before him. The rest of the bread stuffed in his mouth, he swiftly undid his belt and britches to expose himself."My sweet Lana," he said around the mouthful. "I have thought about you the entire ride home." He took the back of her hesitant head and forced her closer. She understood her obligations. Feet set apart and engrossed in his personal pleasure, he slowly chewed on the mouthful of bread. It had been a fruitful evening. 
"Where's Randy?" Matt demanded. Seated at the great table with sun spilling through the open windows and the cool early-morning breeze lifting the lace curtains, he fumed over the absence of his son at breakfast. "Get that lazy thing up!""I swear, Matthew McKean, you act like some kind of wild bear in the morning," his wife, Taneal, said, coming into the room, wrapping the long white robe around her slender form. Her light brown hair up in a French braid, she took a cup of coffee from her place and went to look out the front door."Is he here?""I would think so," she said with a shrug, not looking back standing in the open doorway."Lana! Go upstairs and get him up!""Matthew, you don't send a young woman to wake up a young man in his bedroom.""I don't care whether it's proper or not. Lana, go get his ass up!"The Mexican girl of eighteen looked wide-eyed at him, then at his wife, who told her to stay. She wore a simple white blouse that showed her proud breasts and a full skirt that hugged her narrow waist. Her olive fingers fussed with the ties of the apron behind her back as if unsettled about what she must do next. Her dark eyes looked close to panic. At last, he shook his head at her to dismiss his order.Taneal came stalking back, her glare fixed on him. "What's got you so fuzzed up this morning?"He bolted to his feet and pointed at the table. "I want that boy's ass down here and right now. You've babied him long enough. He's sixteen. That's old enough, and heneeds to pull his weight in this outfit or get the hell out.""Matthew, he's a boy.""When I was his age--""You were the only male at home. I know, I know. The rest of the men were gone to war. We aren't at war any longer, Matthew.""He's going to think it's war, if he don't get his lazy ass down here and start doing a day's work on this ranch.""Someone calling me?" Randy entered, putting his shirt on over his head."This is not the place to dress, young man," Taneal said in disapproval and looked around for Lana, who had already exited into the kitchen."Hell, I heard all the screaming and thought the gawdamn house was on fire or something.""Enough of your lip. Did you check that spring yesterday?" Matt demanded, ready to smash his mouthy offspring upside the head."It's working.""It need digging out?" He looked down at his plate of eggs, peppers, and potatoes, which was growing colder by the minute and realized he was still standing astraddle of the chair."Needs more water.""You saying it's slowing down?""He told you--""Shut up!" He waved Taneal aside with his hand. He wanted that hatchet ass boy to tell him what he found."The damn thing is running about half what it was and I couldn't pry open the mountain and get it to run any more," Randall said."I won't be talked to like that!" She stood in defiance at the end of the table. "I am not your cowboy nor your laborer."Matt dropped on the chair and waved for her to take her place."I don't bid at your beckon call, Matthew McKean. AndRandall is your own son, not some Mexican peon you own under slavery terms.""This is his ranch and he better learn how to run it." He pointed the fork at her. The only thing that kept him from going down there and jabbing it through her long face was a tiny thread of containment."If I were him, I would tell you to take this place and ... ." She glanced away without finishing her threat."And what?" he demanded, knowing full well what she meant, but he wanted her to say it. To spit it out."Put it up your pompous ass!" She glared back at him."Well, I keep you up pretty damn well, Miss Priss.""Not well enough for me to put up with your tyrannical rages every time you come back from Fortune with a hangover. Did you lose money at cards last night?""No," he snapped, and resumed feeding his face. She needed a good horsewhipping. Some day he would give it to her."Don't plan anything for Saturday," he said to the boy between mouthfuls of food.Randy shrugged, then raised his gaze and blinked in question at him."Don't ask, I'll explain later.""What's so damn secret about Saturday?" Taneal demanded."None of your gawdamn business!" He threw down his fork and napkin on his plate and stood up. "You're asking for it.""Hump," she snorted out her long slender nose. "You lay a hand on me and you'll wake up the next morning a gelding.""We'll see about that. You heard what I said about tomorrow, boy?""Yeah.""What?""Yes, sir.""Today I want you to start riding them colts. It's your job to break them.""You're going to get him busted up trying to ride them. Those aren't colts. They're all outlaws from hell. You sold the good ones."Matt paused in the doorway of the kitchen and turned around to face her. "That's how I can afford my highfalutin wife, selling the good ones. They bring more money. I want them all rode at least two hours apiece today," he said directly to the boy. Then he started and turned back. "And don't plan on anything for Saturday. You understand?"The boy nodded."What's so gawdawful important about Saturday?"He heard her asking as he went through the kitchen. "Some folks need a day off ... ."He needed a day off from her sharp tongue. What happened to that sweet girl from Ohio whom he married when the bluebonnets flooded Palo Pinto County? The one who so cheerfully cooked for him and his trail hands coming on that long cattle drive to Arizona from Texas? Maybe if some of their other children had lived, and she hadn't had all those miscarriages ... Hell, he built her the biggest house in Christopher Basin, ordered the finest furniture from St. Louis, hauled it all in from the railhead at Flag.She couldn't still be mad about finding him with that Mormon gal. That had been years ago at a dance. Lucille was her name. Hardly out of her teens and good-looking. Her dark brown eyes alone would have fully aroused an eighty-year-old man on his deathbed. He'd danced a waltz with Lucille, when she, kind of sly, suggested they meet at his wagon after two more sets.He'd glanced down at her ripe form in the calico dress and agreed to the whole thing without thinking. Afterward, he rejoined his wife, who made some snide comment about his last partner."Her? Nice young lady," he said, and went after some lemonade for both of them.He danced with Taneal and the next tune with Sam Haygood's widow, Mae, a gray-headed woman twice his age. That was to take Taneal's mind off Lucille. His wasn't, andthe longer the dance went on, the more he felt a growing need for the shapely one. He showed Mae to her place and strode across to where Taneal sat on the wall benches."I'll be back," he said to his wife like he was on his way to relieve his bladder or to take a snort of some moonshine, the ordinary things he did every Saturday night during the dance.Moments later at his wagon, that out-of-breath Mormon gal rushed over and said that she couldn't be out there with him for long. Only a few minutes, or her husband would-surely miss her. So they had to be fast. Quicker than a fox, she crawled under the wagon ahead of him, lay on her back across the bedroll, and drew up the dress above her waist.He looked around, but saw nothing out of place in the darkness. Filled with a huge urge for her, he jerked open his pants, dropped to his knees, and joined her under the rig.Right in the middle of everything, Taneal, screaming like a panther, began kicking his feet and legs. He raised up, mad as hell at her interruption. Lucille, with a look of fright, slithered out the far side, shrieking loud enough for all to hear, fighting down her dress and running off as fast as she could across the school yard in the starlight.Wearily, he backed out while trying to dodge his wife's flying fists and shoes. He finished pulling up his pants and buttoned them under her barrage."I knew you were out here with her." Like a buzz saw, Taneal's fists pummeled him on the shoulders. "You noaccount horny devil!"He finally took hold of her flailing wrists and got her calmed down."Ain't nothing happened here," he said to the gathered crowd of onlookers. "Just a little family misunderstanding."But he could have killed her for the snickering that went on as the curious moved away. He held her in place by the forearms and they stood glaring at each other in the starlight. Not a word was spoken until the others were out of earshot."You can sleep by yourself from now on," she hissed. "And screw every little hussy in this basin that you want to. But you won't ever touch me again, Matthew McKean."Outside the ranch house in the fresh morning air, he shook his head and closed his eyes to the distasteful memories of that fateful night. She had damn sure kept her word all those years. He looked across the open yard, anxious to set the entire matter aside, and noticed the cowboys had put away his buggy horse. Good enough. He headed for the blacksmith shop, where the activity centered on shoeing horses. The ring of hammers on steel pealed off in the fresh, pine-scented air.Sid Jakes stood, rolling his own, and overseeing the three ranch hands. They each shod a different horse. The lanky, older foreman nodded morning to him. Jakes came from Texas with Matt. Tough as cured mesquite and despite his age, still the best man on the place with a riata.Henry Davis gave his usual morning grin looking up from shoeing. Another of Matt's veteran hands, Henry came from back in the Tennessee hills. Lacking two teeth in front, the wiry little man was dependable, though a bit dense. Beside Henry, and nailing shoes on the bald face horse, labored Sweeney O'Brien, a drifter who never had much to say. He nodded at the boss, spat tobacco to the side, then businesslike he resumed his nailing.Lefty Mounds was the youngest crew member. Sweat streaked his face, and he gave a sudden look that said, "Oh, hi," then he fought with the horse's kicking hind hoof grasped in both hands.The action of the horse drew some cursing from Lefty as he moved about on the end of his hind leg. Finally out of patience at the fuss going on, O'Brien grunted and went over beside the jittery animal. He caught the lead, shouted a command at the upset horse, then slapped him hard on the ribs with the side of his hammer. His actions settled the bronc for Lefty.Matt went over to the side of the shop to join Jakes. He and his foreman squatted on their heels to observe the handsat their work. There was plenty on Matt's mind about how they would handle the rustlers at the crossing. No place for errors once they were committed. He fretted about all the details left."Henry and O'Brien are getting ready to pack some salt up on the rim," Jakes said. "Soon as we get these here shod.""Good. Then have Lefty help Randall saddle them colts today. I told him to ride them some."Jakes raised his thin eyebrows as if skeptical of the plan, then shifted his weight to the other leg. "Those two may be all day saddling one of them.""Good. Come dark, they'll have it figured out how." He gave a head toss toward the side of the shed and rose. What he had to tell Jakes needed to be said in private. Less folks knew about it, the better for all concerned.When they were out of earshot of the crew, Matt kept his voice low. "Give them boys the day off tomorrow. Send them into Fortune. Give the three of them each ten bucks to blow." He dug the money out of his pants and handed it to Jakes. "I don't want them rooting around up here.""Whatever you say, boss.""I want you to stick around. And without them noticing, gather us up three good long new ropes. We're going to need them tomorrow."Jakes nodded. "I'll get it done.""Fine. Have 'em saddle up that chestnut for me. I'm going to do a little checking around.""Be careful riding out there by yourself. You might ride up on one of them brand blotters.""I do, he won't ride away."In deep thought, Jakes stared off into the distance like he was considering it. "You know, I've lost some good friends that a way.""Yeah." He wanted to tell the man that in twenty-four hours, this basin would be rid of its three biggest troublemakers. He looked up in time to see his son dragging his way from the house, scuffing his boot heels along in thedust. Must have plenty of lead in both his boots and his ass, the way he was coming. To ignore him and not lose his temper twice in the same morning, he went inside the blacksmith shop.The smell of acrid coal smoke from the forge filled his nose. He heard Jakes send Lefty off with the boy to help capture the colts. Matt would have liked to have been a mouse sitting on the corral the rest of the day. No. Best he went scouting. How could he be certain that those three rustlers were coming to the dance? They were a part of the usual crowd there every Saturday night. A regular ritual for them to be there. Only it would be his bad luck if for some reason they changed their routine. He hoped not. If they only caught one or two of them, those left would certainly be on their guard."Blocky's saddled," Jakes said from the doorway."Good, see you later."He went out in the bright sunshine, took the reins from Henry, tested the cinch, then satisfied, he swung up. The big gelding built a bow in his back. Matt checked him up close, hoping to walk it out of him. In the far corral, he could see the two boys had the initial front-feet-flailing colt snubbed to a post; a deep red bay, he sure was fighting them. Both of the boys were taking turns at their courage, and making false starts for his head to ear him down.Anxious to be on his way, Matt used his spurs to nudge the horse beneath him. Blocky gave two short crow hops before Matt pulled his head up, then set him into lope."You bucker, you. I'll take that starch out of you before dark," he promised the pony. Then he looked off to the pine-timbered knoll to the south, across the wide-open grassland. This high country still beat Texas. He swung Blocky east on the road and let him run.Close to midday, he spooked some cows and their calves out of the trees. Easing Blocky downhill, he wanted to take a good look at the brands. Most of them wore his ear notch, but that meant little. Rustlers would notch the calf to match the cow and then scorch their own brand on its hide. Whena working cowboy saw an owner's ear notch, he figured the calf had been worked and let it go, never checking the match.Matt had seen at least one S Star brand like that on a big calf. His notch was in the left ear on the half-grown critter, the S Star burned in the hide. That threesome was getting a lot bolder at it. After tomorrow, there would be no more of that, and allowing a respectable period, he would have his lawyer contact the Dikes family and buy the place. Them being back east, not knowing the value and by then anxious to part with their sad memories of the real estate, he should take it off their hands well worth the money.Absently he rose in the stirrups, and sent Blocky into a trot to keep up with the bunch of cattle that moved away suspiciously at his approach. He wondered if either of those other two cowboys had proven up on their homesteads. In that case, he would need to claim or buy them both before more squatters moved in. Kinda like rats, they always settled in some abandoned nest and saved themselves the work of building a new one. Both places had some water, too. A commodity that came scarce up there.Then he noticed a two-year-old brindle bull break out of the brush. He sure never left one a stud carrying that much longhorn blood. Must have missed the wiry devil at roundup. A real maverick. No. The stag wore Ted Dikes's ear mark. Matt pushed the big horse to go faster. He wanted to see the other side of the animal. What brand was on him? The boughs of the junipers scraped his legs as the horse scrambled over rocks and jumped downed trees.The critter cut to the right to try and beat him to the timber, and Matt could read the fresh TK brand. He reined up the horse on the hillside and nodded. Not missing the other signs either, he could see the dried black blood on the insides of the steer's legs as he fled into the trees. The sumbitch had cut him, too. That steer didn't belong to Ted Dikes or those other two. Sure he understood the brand laws in the territory, but that two-year-old had to comefrom one of his older Texas cows to carry that much longhorn blood. It was stealing, by damn, in his book. With all that he had invested, all the cattle he owned, some upstart with only a long loop shouldn't be able to come in here and take his living away from him and his family. Something had to be done about it.By noon tomorrow, something would. 
Overhead, the sun produced a blinding glare. Nothing stirred the air. No one spoke. Except for the occasional snort of one of their horses on the picket line stretched between two saplings, there were no voices. The ring of a spur rowel pealed like a schoolhouse bell when someone moved a foot. A crow called and another answered. The men sat around with their backs to pine tree trunks or squatted on their boot heels. Some whittled, others just whiled away the time.Matt decided there wasn't a hell of a lot to talk about. When he glanced uphill, he could see Randy seated on his butt, dozing part of the time. Matt had told the boy coming over what they intended to do and why. Told him straight out that his very livelihood and future depended on ending these rustlers' reign. This was a real man's work and you never told anyone, your maw or anyone, by God."Someone's coming," Charboneau whispered, and stood up. He brushed the dirt and pine needles off the seat of his pants. "Could be them.""Nope, it's a wagon," Porter said, and looked relieved as he settled back down to the ground. "Probably one of them Mormon families from Goose Creek."Matt agreed. A string of them had small farms along that waterway. Clannish, they ran a few cows and kept kinda of to themselves. They were no great threat to his ambitions for the basin. In time they'd probably all move on. They were more farmers than ranchers, and it was damn sure a hardscrabble way of life at this elevation to miss the late frosts with their spindly little apple orchards and food plots.It took a long time for the wagon to pass through on the road just over the rise from where they waited out of sight. Matt could hear the children screaming and playing. They must have stopped at the ford to let the team drink and to wade in the cold water. He fretted, hoping that they soon moved on, in case the three rode up while they were there.At last, to his relief, the wagon left. He had food in his saddlebags that Lana had packed for him, but no real appetite. So close to having his plans completed, he worried the three might not show. It would be hard to get everyone together again. Some of them, like Porter, might change their minds. Word could get out to those three rustlers. No, it had to work this time."They're coming," Jakes said, ambling down the hillside on his high boot heels, collapsing his telescope. "I recognized that purple silk scarf that Dikes wears."The time had come. Men began getting to their feet, pulling up their masks, and checking their rifle chambers. No one said much, only a few short words were exchanged."Come on, let's get this over with."A nod, and everyone spread out. Matt motioned for Randy to stay with him. They slipped through the junipers. This made the best place to ambush them. Plenty of cover. Jakes carried the ropes, all made up. The nooses on the ends looked official enough.Matt shifted the Winchester to his left hand and dried his right palm on the butt of his pants. He regretted still wearing his bat wing chaps, but they planned to head for the rim afterward. That meant some tough country to cross and to circle through coming back. He would need them to protect his legs. Still, the leggings stifled his movements.The cedar aroma filled his nose. When he glanced back, Randy's face looked flushed. The boy swallowed hard, then nodded he was coming."Hold it right there!" Charboneau said. "Get them hands high!""What the hell--"Matt charged out of the brush in front of them with hisWinchester ready. His tightened chest only let him use half of it for air. A lack of oxygen made him feel light-headed. The threesome had their hands high."Boys, we ain't got much money," Dikes said through his handsome grin. His frisky sorrel pony danced around under him."Get his horse." Matt motioned to Randall, who wore a bandanna over his face."We don't want your money," Matt said, taking charge as the others held their rifles on them. "Get their guns."Crain, wearing a flour sack mask with holes, cautiously jerked the rifle out of Burtle's scabbard and sent it to the ground. Then he stepped in and took the man's handgun from its holster.The whole time, the Texan Burtle wore a cross look on his face, like he planned to bolt out of there. Matt read it. "Git a hold of that other bridle, too," he said to Randy."What're you boys fixing to do here?" Luke Steam asked, frowning in disbelief as they relieved him of his Colt. "Hell, boys, we're just on our way to the schoolhouse dance. We ain't--""Shut up and get off those horses," Matt ordered."You can wear them damn masks," Burtle said, obeying and stepping off his pony. "I know who the hell all of you are.""So you do," Matt said. "We represent justice, and you better be making peace with your God. Get their hands tied.""Whatever for?" Dikes screamed, holding the men back with his outstretched hands."You three have done your last rustling in this basin," Matt informed him."Rustling! I never took any cattle that wasn't legal mavericks," Dikes protested as they forcefully tied each man's hands behind his back. "This ain't a court of law! You can't do this!""When the law isn't enforced by the authorities out here, then Judge Hemp takes over," Matt said, seeing that theirhands were bound. He set his Winchester down. "Get those nooses on that limb. You boys be thinking what you want to say to your maker.""This isn't justice!""Ain't going to do no good, Teddy" Burtle said. "These rotten bastards done got their minds made up.""Why did you have to throw in with 'em?" Porter asked."Throw in with them?" Dikes asked, nearly hysterical. "That you, Reed? Gawdamn, I never took nothing that wasn't fair. You tell Margie that I love her.""Well, I've got proof says different," Matt said quickly. He couldn't afford a breakdown with Porter and have all of them thinking Dikes might not be guilty. His plan was too damned close to fulfillment. "Get them over under that tree and bring their horses."When he turned back, he frowned, seeing Randy on his knees puking up his heels. Matt scowled. That damn chicken. He went and jerked away the reins from the boy and with disgust, gave him a swift kick. "Next time I'll bring a damn man."On all fours, the boy moaned in protest and lurched forward to vomit some more. The sour stench ran up Matt's nostrils as he dragged the three ponies up to where the rustlers stood.Jakes had the hemp strands slung over the thick branch and the nooses dangled in place. The men quickly loaded the rustlers in their saddles. The ropes placed around their necks were drawn tight and the ends tied off. Somewhere, a noisy magpie scolded them. Matt searched up and down the two dusty ruts for sight of anyone or anything. This needed to be over quickly in case some others came along.Time to wind this down. He stepped over to Stearn's pinto. The noose looked to be set right around the man's throat. The long knot was beside his left ear, so when the horse was driven out from under him, the fall with the weight of his body would snap his neck. The main thing was to get this done with, and fast.He spoke to Steam with his hand on the pony's rump."You have anything to say to God or us about your crimes?""Innocent. God's damn sure going to punish all of you for this."Next, Matt went to Burtle's horse, examined the hangman's knot, and satisfied it was proper, asked him the same."I'll see every one of you fuckers in hell for this," the Texan snarled.Ignoring the tough man's comments, he stepped over and stopped beside Dikes, dreading the words that the kid might spout."Want mine? You boys are making the biggest mistake of your lives. I just hope that God forgives you."Matt moved back. Each rancher held a coiled lariat in his hand. At his nod, they busted the horses on their butts. The mounts charged away. The unmistakable snap of spines cracked like gun shots. Two of them. Burtle's noose failed, and he danced in midair gurgling and strangling. The rustler fouled his pants and the stench filled the air.Porter's eyes flew open. "Do something!" He fought off the mask. "Don't let him suffer like that."Matt shook his head. "He won't for long."The ring of the rustler's spurs sounded like school bells as his dying body fought to stay alive. With a flat hand to Porter's shoulder, Matt forced the distraught man toward their horses. They still had to cover their tracks. He had no sympathy for that tough bastard and his talk about seeing them in hell. Let him strangle forever.They trudged over the hill, with Porter still glancing back and looking white-face scared. Matt forced him to go on. He wasn't having anyone breaking their ranks, not even the weak-kneed Porter. At their horses, the men tightened their cinches and took down the picket rope."God, Matt. Can I go back and do something for him?" Porter pleaded. "One of us should have shot him. Put him out of his misery."Filled with impatience, Matt motioned for his foreman to go check. Jakes rode to the top of the hill, looked overat the three rustlers, and turned his pony around. He nodded that it was over. His actions gave Matt some breathing room. Next, he must disperse them so they didn't draw any attention."We need to spread out after we ride up the creek. Everyone needs to go their separate ways. Act normal. Not a word about this can ever leak out. Our lives and our families depend on it. Don't tell a soul." Matt looked for each man's solemn nod, then swung up in the saddle. "See you all at the dance tonight."He looked with bitter disgust at the ashen-faced Randall seated on his dun. Nothing he could do about that for the time being. He spurred his horse for the stream. 
The fiddle music carried in the evening air. The usual Saturday night crowd of ranchers and settlers was gathered at the Lone Pine Schoolhouse. Matt stood beside the buggy; Taneal on the other side was busy gossiping with Lucy Burns. Nothing out of place in the twilight that spread purple shadows across the grounds. He went and unhooked the horse. Needed to feed him some grain and tie him to a tree. Unlike the old days when they came in a farm wagon or buckboard like most folks, they had a nice buggy with a leather seat and a top to drive to the dance."No, Randall was sick tonight. Couldn't keep anything down." He heard Taneal tell Lucy as he hitched the horse's lead to a tree and went back for the feed bucket."What's wrong with him?" Lucy asked."I think it's those bronc horses that Matt has him riding. I believe he's all busted up inside.""No such thing," Matt said, returning to join them. "He ate something on the ride today that didn't settle. He just got sick to his stomach. He was perfectly fine till we had some work to do.""You aren't a doctor either, Matthew McKean." Taneal glared at him."If he ain't better in the morning, you can take him to Fortune and have him checked out by Doc."The three of them looked up as a racing horse and rider burst into the yard. The intruder came charging through without any regards for the safety of all the playing children. You didn't do that on the school grounds. A few angry voices were raised to complain about his disrespectful invasion. Mothers rushed to protect their little ones. The rider dove off his mount and ran into the hitch rack. It was Jacky. Out of breath, he collapsed on the rail."Oh, my God!" he gasped. "There's been a triple hanging!""Who?" someone shouted at the cowboy. People rushed outside the school building and came on the run from across the grounds to hear the news."Stearn, Burtle," Jacky managed to say between gasps. "And Teddy Dikes.""Oh, no! Not my Teddy!" Margie Porter's shrill voice carried over the school yard. "Tell me, Jacky, it ain't so?"Skirt in her hand, the attractive girl of nineteen rushed down the schoolhouse stairs. She made her way through the crowd to confront the visibly shaken messenger."Sorry, ma'am." The cowboy's hat in his hands, he nodded it was so and dropped his head."Do something, Matthew," Taneal said, sounding annoyed at his lack of action."Boys, boys," Matt said, holding up his hands and starting across the yard. "Get a wagon and some blankets. Several of you menfolks come help me get them down." Then, fatherly, he laid his hand on the young messenger's shoulder. "Do you have any idea who did this, Jacky?""No, sir. I just saw them up there. Hanging--" He shook his head, unable to say any more for the tears streaming down his cheeks."Where are they at?" Matt asked, to his own relief that at the last minute he recalled that he wasn't supposed to know their location."At the Alma Creek Ford," Jacky managed to say, and whipped off his kerchief to mop his wet eyes and face. "You can't miss them.""I've got a rig still hitched that we can use," one of the Mormon men said."Good, I'll ride with you," Matt said, turning to Taneal. "I'll go help them take the bodies down." He shook his head in disapproval. "Then we can have them properly buried.""Yes, you should go. People look to you for leadership. But, Matthew, shouldn't we send word to the sheriff?""Good idea," Matt said, then with hint of sarcasm added, "He'll send some deputy over here in a week or two.""He's the law, and he needs to know about this crime," she insisted."We'll send him word in the morning. I have to go with the wagon now," Matt said. "I'll be back." The man was there with his team and rig ready to leave."Be careful," she said, sounding concerned. "No telling who did this."He agreed and climbed up on the spring seat beside the Mormon man. Matt believed no telling was right, and it needed to stay that way.Copyright © 2001 by Dusty Richards.
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