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The Virginia City Trail
By Ralph Compton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1994 Ralph Compton
All rights reserved.
Fort Worth, Texas. February 1, 1866.
Nelson Story and his three companions arrived in Fort Worth in the early afternoon.
"Wal," Coon Tails said, "I dunno what else this place has got goin' fer it, but they's a blessed plenty of blue bellies."
"Texas and all the South is under reconstruction," said Story. "We'll have to report to the officer in charge and identify ourselves. Since the war's end, there are renegades from both sides looting and killing. Us being strangers in town, we'd best find the soldiers before they come looking for us."
Before they reached the end of the block, a pair of Union soldiers confronted them. One of them was Negro, and neither seemed more than a year or two out of their teens. They stood in the muddy street, their muzzle loaders at port arms. Story and his companions reined up.
"We're from Montana," Story said, "here to buy cattle. Take us to your officer in charge for whatever clearance we may need."
"Ride on the way you're headed," said the white soldier, "and take a left at the next corner. From there you can see the unfinished courthouse, and the post commander's tent in front of it. Ask for Captain Clark."
Story and his men rode on, and when they turned the corner as directed, Story could see the pair of soldiers following on foot. Having stated his intentions, he found it irritating that he and his men were not trusted to ride to the officer's tent without an armed escort. Reaching the tent, they were eyed suspiciously by a corporal who stood near the closed flap of the tent. He faced them, his rifle at port arms, a question in his eyes.
"We're from Montana," Story repeated, "here to buy Texas cattle. I want to speak to Captain Clark, the post commander."
Before the soldier could respond, the tent flap was swept aside, and the officer who emerged could only have been the officer. He was smartly dressed, and from the epaulets of his blue tunic, captain's bars flashed in the afternoon sun.
"I'm Captain Clark," said the officer.
"I reckon you heard what I said," Story replied. "I'm Nelson Story, and these men are part of my outfit. I only want you to be aware of our purpose here. Is there any reason why we can't ride from ranch to ranch, buying the cattle we want?"
"None that I know of," said Clark. "However, I must remind you that Texas is under federal jurisdiction. If you hire Texas cowboys, they'll need permission to leave the state."
Story and his men were still mounted, and Story sidestepped his horse nearer, so that he looked the captain squarely in the eyes when he spoke.
"Obviously I don't have enough men for a cattle drive, Captain, so I will be hiring riders. Is that going to be a problem, getting permission for them to leave Texas?"
"Only if they have taken up arms against the United States," said Captain Clark. "In that case, it will be left to my discretion. Those who fought for the Confederacy will be required to sign papers, swearing never again to take up arms against the Union."
"Thank you, Captain," Story said. He rode back the way he had come, with Coon Tails, Allen, and Petty following.
"Them federals is a hard-nosed bunch," said Petty when they were well away from the officer's tent. "The war's done, and they whupped the Rebs. What's to be gained by keepin' 'em penned up like a bunch of mavericks?"
"Reconstruction is a cruel punishment conceived by a few vindictive men in Washington," Story said, "but as long as we're in Texas, the law's what they say it is."
Story and his men rode past saloons, cafes, pool parlors, and several hotels. Story seemed to know what he was seeking. They rode south, the town thinning out, until they reached what was obviously a large livery barn. On one side of it was a six-pole-high corral where four horses picked at some hay. On the other side of the barn was a long, low building built of logs and chinked with mud. Above the door, across the front of it, was a sign that read: YORK AND DRAPER. Drover's Supplies, Livestock, Wagons.
"We need information," said Story. "We'll start here."
They dismounted, Story leading the way into the dim interior of the building. A long counter ran from wall to wall, with a swinging door at each end. On a stool behind the counter sat a bald man wearing an eyeshade, working over a ledger by the light of a lamp. He looked up as they entered, and Story spoke.
"I'm Nelson Story. We're from Montana, here to buy cattle. I'll be needin' riders as well as cows."
It was an unasked question, put in a manner that invited a response, rather than demanding one.
"I'm York," said the man at the counter, "and I can't be of much help to you in findin' cows. Just about everybody that can raise a herd and afford an outfit ain't sellin' locally. Had a dozen drives go up the trail last fall, and there must be fifty more plannin' to move out in a month or so. I ain't sayin' you can't buy cows. You can, but they'll cost you ten dollars a head, and there won't be many two-year-old steers. As for riders, I can't say. Might pick up a few that's sold their cows or can't afford a trail drive. Try the saloons and pool halls."
"Thanks," Story said, and not until they reached their horses did he speak to his companions. "We'll find us a hotel, get some grub under our belts, and look around some."
"This hombre York didn't seem too anxious to help us," said Tom Allen.
"He's partial to Texans," Story said. "We'll have to expect that. It's hard times here, and a man selling his cows for ten dollars a head makes no sense, if there's a chance he can do better."
"Wal, hell," said Coon Tails, "ever'body in Texas ain't got enough cows fer a drive, an' if'n they did, they wouldn't have the cash fer their outfits. After supper, when the saloons an' billiard parlors commence t'fill up, why don't we split up, circulate, an' listen?"
"I think we'll do exactly that," Story said. "When a man's needin' cash, ten dollars a head now is worth fifty at the end of a trail he can't afford to ride."
They reined up before the Fort Worth House, a two-story hotel constructed of lumber, and it bore evidence of once having been painted. A porch ran all the way across the front of the building, and above that a balcony, with a single roof covering both. On the lower porch a bench ran the length of the wall from either side of the double front doors. Half a dozen men sat there watching the newcomers approach. Several of the locals were chewing plug, spitting over the porch railing. Numerous stains attested to their inaccuracy. Story and his men nodded to the observers, entered the hotel, and Story took a pair of rooms.
"I ain't one fer beds," said Coon Tails. "Jist gimme room t'spread my blankets on the floor."
"You can have my floor, then," Story said. "I reckon Bill and Tom are used to one another's snoring."
They climbed the stairs. The rooms were nothing fancy, but they seemed clean. There was a chair, a four-drawer dresser, and attached to the wall above it, a small mirror. On the dresser there was a washbasin and a porcelain pitcher. An iron bed stood next to the only window, and the fire escape consisted of a length of rope, one end of which was tied to a leg of the bed. Story and Coon Tails took the first room, which was on their left, while Bill Petty and Tom Allen took the second room, across the hall. Story removed his boots and hat, stretching out on the bed. Coon Tails spread his blankets.
"Should of brung my saddle, 'stead o' leavin' it at the livery," the old mountain man said. "Makes a dang good piller."
"There's two pillows on the bed," said Story. "You're welcome to one of them."
"Thankee," said Coon Tails, "but they's too soft. I'll make do."
Nelson Story wasn't a man to lie abed in the afternoon. In less than an hour he was up, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking out the window. Coon Tails got up, rolling his blankets, reaching for his battered old hat.
"It's a mite early t'hit the saloons," Coon Tails said, "but I purely got t'do somethin'. These fancy hotels is passable fer sleepin', I reckon, but I can't see much need fer 'em in the daytime, less'n a man be crippled."
Story laughed. "I was thinking the same thing," he said, reaching for his boots. "Let's roust Bill and Tom and go find us some steaks with plenty of potatoes, onions, and hot coffee."
"A mite early fer supper," said Coon Tails, "but I kin always eat ag'in."
Petty and Allen were eager and ready to leave the hotel, and the four of them headed for a cafe they had passed earlier. The place had no name. The entire front of the slab-sided building had been decorated with a black-painted likeness of a longhorn bull. Beneath that, in ragged red letters, was a single word: GRUB.
"With a front like this," Bill Petty said, "if they ain't got steak, we oughta pull our irons and shoot up the place."
Since it was well past the dinner hour and much too early for supper, they had the place to themselves. There were tables, but they took the stools along the counter. The cook looked like what he probably was, an ex-cowboy too stove up to ride. Without being asked, he sent four mugs of coffee sloshing down the counter.
"Steak, spuds, onions, coffee, an' apple pie," he said. "Two bits."
"My God," Tom Allen said, rolling his eyes, "in New Orleans a feed like that only costs a dime."
"Then mebbe you'd best hit the trail fer New Orleans," the old cook growled.
Story and his companions howled with laughter, and seeing the humor in the situation, their host managed a grin.
"Relax, pardner," said Story. "Your prices are fair. We're here from Montana to buy Texas longhorns, and we're findin' out there's a shortage."
"Shortage, hell," said the old cook. "Texas is cow poor. They's cows aplenty. They must be a hunnert ranchers what ain't got a prayer of drivin' a herd t'market. 'Course they'll stick you fer as much as yer willin' t'pay. Texans is broke, an' them that ain't is terrible bent."
"I'll be needing riders too," Story said. "Do you know of any men who might be willing to go up the trail for wages?"
"They's plenty that needs the money an' got no hope of anything else, but I got t'live here, an' I ain't namin' no names."
Story said no more. It was a matter of pride. If a man got hungry enough, he might sell his saddle, but it had to be his decision. Finished with their meal, Story and his companions left the cafe. Suddenly there was the roar of a gun, and before the echo died, Nelson Story had a pistol cocked and was running toward the narrow space between two buildings where a cloud of white smoke lingered. His Colt roared twice without effect. The would-be killer had escaped. Blood reddened the upper sleeve of Story's shirt, dripping off his left elbow.
"He burned away some hide," said Story when his companions had reached him, "but missed the bone."
"Damn," Bill Petty said, "we ain't been in town but two hours. How did anybody get a mad-on that quick?"
"He wasn't after you gents," said Story. "He was gunning for me, and I'm just almighty lucky his aim wasn't better."
The shooting had attracted others, one of them a heavyset, unshaven man who wore a badge. A pair of Union soldiers were double-timing toward them, and the man wearing the badge spoke loudly enough for everybody to hear.
"Here, now," he shouted, "I'm the sheriff, an' we don't hold with strangers comin' in an' shootin' up the town. You hombres better have a damn good excuse."
"Somebody tried to gun me down from ambush," Story said coldly. "Is that good enough?"
"Mebbe not," said the arrogant lawman. "I dunno you from Adam's off ox, an' what've I got, 'sides yer word? Anybody see what this gent's claimin' took place?"
"Damn right," Coon Tails said angrily. "The four o' us was walkin' down the street mindin' our own business. Why don't you git over yonder an' nose around betwixt them two buildings where the bushwhackin' varmint was holed up?"
The belligerent lawman glared at Coon Tails, and found himself facing Bill Petty and Tom Allen as well. The pair of Union soldiers were already at the place where the gunman had been hiding, and as much for the saving of face as anything else, the sheriff turned away and joined them.
"Some sheriff," Tom Allen muttered. "Who'n hell elected him?"
"He wasn't elected," said an old fellow wearing range clothes. "That's old Lot Higgins, and when the Yankees took over, he was appointed."
"He won't find anything," said Bill Petty. "Soon as that varmint hit the alley behind them buildings, his tracks could be anybody's."
"Hell," said a disgusted cowboy, "old Higgins ain't never been nothin' but the town drunk. My daddy called him Lot the sot. My God, he couldn't find the depot if you set him on the track and let him foller the train."
"If the sheriff has further need of us," Story said, "I'd appreciate one of you gents tellin' him we have rooms at the Fort Worth House. Now can one of you point me toward a doctor?"
"Doc Nagel," said a cowboy. "Take a right down yonder, like you was goin' to the unfinished courthouse. When you come to the Masonic hall, there's a shack next to it. That's where doc lives."
Dr. Nagel wasn't a talkative man, and he asked no questions. Story paid him two dollars for dousing the wound with disinfectant and bandaging it.
"That throws a new light on things," Bill Petty said when they had left the doctor's place. "Unless you got some idea who this hombre is that's after you, and can smoke him out in the open, we'll have to put as much time into lookin' for him as for cows."
"He has an edge as long as we're in town," said Story. "Once we're on the plains, there'll always be sign. We've paid for a night at the hotel, but tomorrow we'll buy some grub and find a safer place to hole up. I'm not as aggravated with the bushwhacker as I am old Higgins. He could chuck us into the hoosegow on trumped-up charges, and he'd have the backing of the Union army."
"That's disgusting," Bill Petty said, "takin' away a man's right to vote, and then stickin' him with a shiftless old buzzard like Higgins. It's like the Union wasn't satisfied by beatin' the Rebs to their knees. They're aimin' for total humiliation."
"I expect you're right," said Story, "but it's a wrong that may never be corrected. There's nothing we can do, where the military is concerned. Let's make the rounds of the saloons. We'll split up. Do a lot of listening and not much talking, and use your own judgment as to when you let it be known we're looking for cows and riders."
Story entered a saloon called the Broken Spoke. It was still early and there were few patrons. Story ordered a beer. There was only one bartender, and he eyed Story curiously, but western etiquette forbade him asking questions. His knowledge of strangers was limited to what they willingly shared with him.
"I'm from Montana," Story said conversationally. "I'm looking to buy some cows and hire some riders."
The bartender continued polishing glasses, saying nothing, so Story tried again.
"Seems almighty warm, for this time of year."
"Been a mild winter," said the man behind the bar, "but don't let it fool you. I've watched the grass start to green in March, and then seen a good foot of snow laid over it."
Story's conversation with the bartender was getting him nowhere when a cowboy pushed through the batwing doors. Story recognized him as the man who had referred to Sheriff Higgins as "Lot the sot." He nodded, and Story saw no animosity in him. They desperately needed a friend among the locals who could put them in touch with ranchers willing to sell cows, and with riders who would hire on for the trail drive.
"Pardner," Story said, "I'm buying. Will you join me?"
"Much obliged," said the stranger. "I reckon you got a bad impression of our town. With old Higgins in the sheriff's office, and a Yankee on every corner, that's about all we have to offer." His laugh was bitter.
"So far," said Story with a grin, "I've run into a wall of distrust that'd put the Rockies in the shade. I'm Nelson Story. I came from Montana to buy Texas cows and hire some riders for a drive north."
"I'm Calvin Snider," said the cowboy. "My friends call me Cal. I spent four years with the Rebs, joinin' 'em when I was twenty-one. Pa died while I was gone, and he was the only family I had. Our neighbors rustled our cows. Took every damn thing we had but the corral fence. I'd hire on in a minute, if you could get me past the Yankees. I ain't even got a horse. I'm ridin' the mule that I rode back to Texas after the war ended."
Excerpted from The Virginia City Trail by Ralph Compton. Copyright © 1994 Ralph Compton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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