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Wagons West Texas!
By Dana Fuller Ross
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 1980 Book Creations, Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCaptain Rick Miller, head of the criminal investigation division of the Texas Rangers, rode at a seemingly easy canter across the vast plains of the young Republic. Homesteaders whom he passed as they worked in their fields and with whom he exchanged friendly waves wouldn't have guessed that two of his Rangers following behind him were hard pressed to maintain his pace.
Tall and sinewy, with a physical strength and endurance that his slender frame did not indicate, Rick kept a constant watch in all directions, his pale eyes squinting beneath the blazing, shadeless sun. For six months the authorities had been unable to capture a gang of thieves who preyed on isolated farms and ranches. The day before, when a report had been received in Austin regarding the area in which the criminals were now operating, the task of killing or capturing them had been given to Captain Miller. Respecting the power of the pistol hanging from a holster at his belt and the rifle slung from his shoulder, Rick believed in shooting only when necessary, but at the same time he was sworn to rid Texas of lawbreakers. President Sam Houston himself had said, "I'd hate to have Rick Miller on my trail."
Although he didn't want to admit it to himself, Rick was pleased he had the opportunity to leave Austin-with its grubby murders and robberies that were commonplace in a new civilization-and return for a time to the field. He loved the open spaces as much as he despised criminals.
One of these years, he reflected, he would leave the Rangers, find some property he liked, and settle down. He was in no great rush, to be sure. A man needed a wife for that kind of life. At the moment there was no woman who interested him, and, he had to admit, he was more than a little uncomfortable in the presence of ladies. The only women he had ever known had been harlots, and he had attended to his physical needs, then gone on his way.
Looking back, he took pride in the knowledge that he had come a long way since the death of his parents and his start in the Rocky Mountains, where he had lived for years as a trapper and hunter before migrating to Texas, where he had become a Ranger almost immediately. He had been wise to give up the life of a mountain man, which offered few opportunities these days. The great heroes of the Rockies were gone now. Jim Bridger had set up a trading post somewhere in the mountains, either in the Utah or Wyoming countries, and Kit Carson, the last he had heard, was in California. Sam Brentwood had become completely civilized and lived with his wife and family in Independence, Missouri, where he owned a supply depot that provided essentials for members of wagon trains heading westward. Even Rick's own hero, Whip Holt, had married and remained in Oregon after leading the first wagon train to that territory.
Smiling slightly, Rick shook his head. It was hard to think of Whip Holt as a married man. He guessed he himself could be tamed, too, if the right woman ever came into his life, but he shrank from the thought. He was too independent. And, he had to concede, assignments like his present job still gave him a feeling that he was performing a genuine service. He was not ready to settle down.
A cloud of dust on the horizon caught Rick's attention.
"Look yonder," he called to his two Rangers. Instantly he increased his pace to a full gallop.
His men did the same, silently cursing him. While it was true that Captain Miller had become famous because of his instinct for smelling trouble, they saw no need to exert themselves unduly on what well might be a wild-goose chase.
Rick's stallion responded to the slight touch of his spurs and ran steadily, his hoofs thundering on the hard, dry ground beneath his feet. It hadn't rained in weeks, much to the distress of the plains farmers, but a horse could make better time on such ground.
A farmhouse came into view in the distance, with two barns behind it, and when Rick made out five horses tied to hitching posts near the front door, he became even more alert. Signaling to the Rangers behind him to follow his example, he unslung his rifle, made sure it was ready for instant use, and cocked it.
An unseen woman's scream sounded from somewhere behind the house and was followed by a single shot. Then all was silent again.
Before Rick and his men could reach the house, five men, all armed, raced around to the front of the house, four of them carrying filled burlap sacks.
Rick and the Rangers had two choices: either they could dismount and shield themselves behind their horses, or they could continue to ride forward, taking a greater risk relying on their momentum to achieve a victory in the face of odds that were almost two to one against them. Rick chose the latter course.
The man who was not carrying a burlap sack appeared to be the leader, and as he reached for his pistol, Rick instantly drew a bead on him with his rifle and squeezed the trigger. So certain of his aim that he reloaded without delay while still riding, a feat that few could emulate, Rick had the satisfaction of seeing the man crumple to the ground, a small, neat hole in the center of his forehead.
The Rangers fired a second or two later. One bullet found its mark, and another man fell to the ground, flinging his arms upward and dropping his burlap sack with a crash as he died. The other Ranger missed his target completely, but now the odds were even. Rick fired a second shot as quickly as he could raise his rifle to his shoulder, and again he was successful.
By now the two remaining thieves had placed their burdens on the ground and were returning the Rangers' fire with their own pistols. A bullet whistled past Rick's head, close to his ear, but he did not flinch. Instead, he felt angry. Timing his move carefully, he forced his superbly trained stallion to a halt, at the same time leaping to the ground and firing his pistol at one of the remaining pair before they had the chance to reload. For the third time he found his target.
The last of the robbers turned and started to run. Rick had no opportunity to reload now, but he sprinted after the criminal. Using his rifle as a club, he grasped the weapon by its still-warm barrel and sent the stock smashing into the side of the man's head. Blood spurted from his head as he dropped like a felled log and lay motionless, his sightless eyes fixed on the pale, cloudless sky.
The two Rangers were not surprised at their superior's accomplishments. Dispatching four of their five foes had been a typical Rick Miller performance.
Leaving the Rangers to make certain that all five of the criminals were indeed dead, Rick walked to the rear of the house, then removed his hat when he saw the tableau that awaited him. A man with the tanned face and forearms of one who lived behind a plow was stretched on the ground, a faint trickle of blood still oozing from the spot on his chest where a thief's bullet had killed him. Standing over him, dry-eyed, were a woman with a lined, careworn face and two girls in their early teens, who wept as they clung to their mother.
"Miller, Texas Rangers, ma'am," Rick called, announcing himself so he would not alarm the trio.
The woman looked at him and nodded, her face blank.
"I'm afraid we got here too late, but those thieves won't do any more damage, not to anybody," he said.
"Thank God for that much," she replied in a dry, cracked voice.
He moved a few steps closer, then halted, feeling very much ill at ease. He had no idea that, when he spoke again, there was genuine compassion, even a touch of tenderness, in his voice. "We'll return your stolen property to the house for you, ma'am, and we'll remove the bodies of those bobcats so you won't have to look at them again. Is there anything else we can do for you?"
"Yes, please." Like so many who lived on the frontier, the newly widowed woman was eminently practical, even in a time of great tragedy. "I'll be obliged to you if you'll dig a grave for my husband's body. The girls and I have no heart for it."
"Yes, ma'am," he murmured.
"You'll find shovels in the near barn," she said, then led her children into the house.
Rick and his Rangers went to work digging a grave, fashioning a crude coffin, dragging the bodies of the thieves off the property, and throwing them into a gully, where the vultures soon would dispose of their remains, and then piling the stolen goods on the front porch. Rick noted absently that it was in need of paint.
There were several other chores that had to be done, and then Rick tapped at the door. The woman, still dry-eyed, opened it and stood on the threshold.
"It won't make up for the loss of your husband, ma'am, but I've put the thieves' horses in the big barn for you. I reckon you can get a fairly good price for them. They're all sound geldings. And here are the robbers' firearms, along with a purse that's filled with all the money they were carrying. Maybe all this will help tide you over."
An expression of gratitude appeared in her shocked, grief-stricken eyes. He became still more uneasy. If there was anything that upset him, it was being thanked for doing his duty. It didn't occur to him that he was going far beyond the call of duty, any more than he knew his voice and manner suggested a surprising inner, gentle quality that was at odds with his conduct when he tracked down criminals. He would have been astonished had anyone told him that he was a truly gentle man.
"What more can we do for you, ma'am?"
The woman hesitated for an instant, then said, "Would it be asking too much to bury my husband, please? My girls are taking it bad, but they'll accept his death as final once he's buried and they realize life must go on. That's why I hate to wait a day or so until the neighbors can gather."
As Rick well knew, the closest neighbors might live as far as five miles away. "It's the very least we can do," he said.
Again she hesitated. "Maybe you could read a prayer? I can fetch a Bible for you."
He had never read aloud, but duty sometimes made it necessary for a Ranger officer to do unusual things. "Is there something in particular you want me to read?"
She shook her head. "You choose it."
"Then," he replied, surprising himself as well as the widow, "I won't need the Bible."
A few minutes later the little group assembled behind the barn where the grave had been dug. The Rangers carried the farmer's coffin there and, at the widow's request, nailed it shut before her daughters came out of the house.
Rick knew without being told that she wanted the girls to remember their father as he had been in life. The woman called to her daughters, and when they joined her, she placed her arms around their shoulders.
Rick's instinct told him what to recite. He had been reared in a God-fearing home before the untimely death of his parents, and although he never spoke of his religion, his faith ran deep. His voice resonant but soft, he spoke the Twenty-third Psalm from memory:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
At a nod from their commander the Rangers lowered the coffin into the ground and began to fill the excavation. One of the girls sobbed, and for the first time tears trickled down the woman's cheeks. She brushed them away. "That was beautiful." Her voice became firm as she issued an order. "Mr. Miller, you and these boys will stay to dinner."
Rick became fidgety. "We can't impose on you, ma'am."
"Stuff and nonsense, Mr. Miller," she said. "Dinner has been on the stove for hours, and if you don't eat it, I'll have to throw it out. If there's anything that's a sin, it's wasting good food when there are folks starving all over the world!"
It would be an insult to refuse her hospitality, so he agreed to stay.
An enormous bowl of beef stew was placed on the kitchen table, and with it the widow served a large loaf of crusty, hot bread and slabs of butter. The two young Rangers ate lustily, and the teen-age girls recovered sufficiently to engage them in conversation.
Rick had little appetite and pushed the stew around on his plate. He could not rid himself of the thought that he was eating a meal that had been intended for a man who was now dead. It was absurd, he reflected, for someone in his type of work to be so sensitive, and he wished he could curb his feelings sufficiently to live up to the hard-bitten image he presented to others.
"I'll drop in to see you whenever I'm out this way," he said at last. "And if there's anything you want or need, just send word to me at headquarters. I'll either come myself, or, if I'm too busy, I'll send one of the boys."
"That's right kind of you, sir," the widow replied. "As it happens, my son is due home in a month or two, so I reckon we can make out until then."
Rick was relieved. "How old is your son?"
"Ah, then he's plenty old enough to do a man's work on your property. I was going to suggest that I could help find a hired hand for you."
"Oh, he's worked on the farm with his pa ever since he was a tyke, so he knows what needs to be done here. He just went off to St. Louis to pick up some newfangled wheat and onion bulbs that are supposed to stay alive during the dry spells here." She paused, then looked at him carefully. "Are you always this helpful to the survivors of folks who are killed by thieves, Mr. Miller?"
He felt color rising to his face and hoped it would not show beneath his heavy tan. "Well, ma'am," he said, "there's nothing in Ranger regulations that requires it. But the way I see things, Texas is putting up one whale of a fight for her existence. Between the weather and the threat of a new war with the Mexicans, who'll slaughter every last one of us if they win, we've got to stand together. It's the only way we'll survive." The discussion made him uncomfortable, so he turned to the two Rangers and issued a brusque order. "Help the youngsters clear away and wash the dishes, and we'll be on our way. We can reach Austin by late tonight if we push ourselves."
A few minutes later the widow escorted him to the front door, putting her hand on his arm for an instant. "Mr. Miller," she said quietly, "I want you to give your wife a message for me. Tell her she's a very lucky woman."
The embarrassed Rick didn't have the heart to tell her he was a bachelor.
He took the lead on the ride back across the open fields, his stallion settling into his customary canter. With his broad-brimmed hat shielding his pale eyes, his rifle and pistol ready for immediate use in case of need, Rick Miller looked, once again, like a tough-minded law enforcement officer.
* * *
Cathy Blake tried to achieve a more matronly appearance by fixing her long blond hair in a bun at the nape of her neck, but the effort failed. Standing by the window of the commandant's house at the Oregon fort overlooking the Columbia River, she looked as young and pretty as she had before her marriage, when she had driven her lead wagon in the first train that had crossed the continent. She glanced at her two-year-old daughter, Beth, who was sitting on the floor, busily scribbling on scratch paper, then resumed her vigil. Her husband was due home at any moment.
She saw him when he left his office and started across the parade ground, trim and erect in the blue uniform of a full colonel in the United States Army, his physique lithe, his step light. It was absurd after being a married woman for years, Cathy thought, to feel a warm glow when she saw her husband. Perhaps she was an incurable romantic, something she had never suspected about herself.
Excerpted from Wagons West Texas! by Dana Fuller Ross Copyright © 1980 by Book Creations, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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