In this Ralph Compton western, a man rides for vengenace and into danger...
Thad Taylor is no one’s idea of a fine man. Usually drunk and shiftless, he’s disapproved of by most—especially his father. But when his father doesn’t return from a trip across the Kansas plains, Thad is the only one who can search for him. And he’s far from ready for the ordeal.
Because his father is already dead. He has fallen victim to the bloody Benders—a demented family who lures travelers into their cabin way station only to rob and brutally murder them.
Now, for his father’s memory, Thad must hunt the Benders down and deliver them either to the law—or to the grave.
More Than Six Million Ralph Compton Books In Print!
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six foot eight without his boots. He worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist. His first novel, 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 Riders series and the Border Empire series.
Carlton Stowers is the author of the Ralph Compton novels Comanche Trail and Phantom Hill.
Read an Excerpt
Kansas, summer 1873
Thad Taylor’s lanky body throbbed with pain and the bright morning sun forced him to shield his eyes as he stepped from the front door of the jail. His recollection of the previous night was hidden away in a drunken fog—too many whiskeys and an argument in Stubby’s saloon down the dusty Independence, Kansas, main street, a flying chair or two, then a full-scale free-for-all. The fact that one eye was almost swollen shut, his knuckles were raw and blood-crusted, and his ribs felt as if an anvil had been dropped on them was all the hungover Taylor needed to realize he’d been on the losing end of whatever fight he’d likely instigated.
It wasn’t the first time.
He was making a futile attempt to smooth his tangled rusty brown hair and wipe the dried vomit from his torn shirt when he saw his sister glaring at him from a nearby buggy. Once again the sheriff had called her to fetch him and, despite earlier vows that she would never again do so, she had come to take him home.
Thad nodded in her direction, aware that a tongue-lashing was soon to come.
“Get in, Thaddeus,” Sister said, hoping passersby would not take notice and quickly spread the word that the doctor’s boy had again gotten himself in trouble with the law.
He ran his fingers through his hair again. “Gotta find my hat,” he mumbled through swollen lips.
“Get in . . . right this minute.” Her tone made it clear that finding his hat would have to wait.
They rode in silence on the trip out to the Taylor Farm, sweat beading on Thad’s forehead despite the cool morning breeze. Sister kept her eyes focused on the mare in front of her, her knuckles white as she held tightly to the reins and her temper.
The weathered old farmhouse was in view before she finally spoke. “Thaddeus,” she said, careful not to look toward him, “you’re past your twentieth year and still whoring and drinking and carousing, doing absolutely nothing worthwhile with your life. It’s a shame, if you ask me. Are you ever going to amount to anything?” A tear ran down her cheek as she spoke.
“Reckon not.” He was sorry for his response as soon as the words escaped his mouth. “Where’s my horse?”
“Unlike you, he came home last night,” Sister said. “I unsaddled him and put him in the barn.” She gave him a stern look. “Just like I always do.”
“Much better than you. I’m just glad Daddy’s away and not here to see what a frightful mess you are.”
After cleaning up and pouring himself a cup of coffee from the pot that hung above the fireplace, Taylor declined Sister’s offer of breakfast. His stomach churned at the very thought of food. Instead he headed toward the barn and the small room he’d converted from what was once a place for storing saddles and tools back when the home place was still a working farm. It had only a bed and a small chest, most of its faded paint peeled away. But the place provided him solitude, away from the big house that he’d stormed out of three years earlier, following yet another argument with his father.
He fell onto the bed, resting an arm across his eyes, hoping the dizziness would soon go away. And, as was his routine following each of his boozy misadventures, he took stock of his miserable station in life. As was always the case, he didn’t like the scenes that played in his mind.
His father, Independence’s only doctor, was one of those bigger-than-life characters. He’d lost count of how many children, his own included, he’d helped bring into the world, how many broken bones he’d mended and lives he’d saved. If the stories Thad had heard since boyhood were true, Dr. Winslow Taylor, a portly Scottish immigrant with a booming voice, had been a fun-loving man in his younger days. He was quick to help out friends and neighbors, ever ready to buy the first round on Saturday nights, loved dancing, playing the fiddle. And, above all, his wife.
That he had been unable to save her life when complications developed following his son’s birth had changed Dr. Taylor forever. His good nature disappeared, his delight in the company of others waned. While he continued to carry about his medical responsibilities in a professional manner, he was never the same after Maggie Taylor was buried. Doc Taylor became a bitter man. Often, on late nights when he sat alone in his library, sipping whiskey and smoking his pipe, he would quietly talk to himself. His words, part curse, part an expression of haunting disbelief, were always the same: I can heal others but couldn’t save my own.
The only thing that brightened his spirits was his daughter, Peggy, whom everyone had begun calling Sister even before her younger brother was born. She had her mother’s features—high cheekbones, eyes so blue as to be almost hypnotic, shiny auburn hair—and a warm, generous nature. In Sister’s company, Dr. Taylor was able to think back on happier times.
Thad, on the other hand, was a constant reminder of the darkest day in his life. And, while the doctor had never said as much, his son was certain that he was blamed daily for the death of his mother. Thad had long since resigned himself to being the family curse, robber of all of his father’s joy. He’d so balked at the doctor’s insistence that education was the path to a man’s success that when he’d stopped going to the schoolhouse, no argument was offered. Whatever small effort at guidance the elder Taylor had tried ended in such grand failure that he’d long since halted the useless exercise. By the time Thaddeus reached adulthood, he couldn’t even remember when he’d finally given up on any effort to win the doctor’s approval.
In exchange for doing handyman jobs around the farm—milking, mucking out stalls, carpentry when the roof of the house leaked, clearing brush, and tilling Sister’s summer garden—he lived on the family place and enjoyed his sister’s cooking. Otherwise, he and his father were as distant as strangers, seldom speaking, seeing each other rarely, and then only from a safe distance.
What little money Thad earned came from odd jobs he did for folks in town who occasionally tried to reach out to the young man whose life they perceived to be painfully lonely, filled with anger, and without real purpose.
If Independence had a bona fide outcast, it was Thaddeus Taylor.
• • •
The day was nearing an end under a gray sky that was forewarning a thunderstorm by the time he was wakened by a gentle knock at his door and the sound of Sister’s voice. “You feeling good enough to eat something?” On her arm was a basket that held a plate of tomatoes, corn bread, beans and bacon, and a large slice of apple pie.
“Looks like I’m gonna live,” he said as he realized that his appetite had returned.
Sister sat silently watching her brother as he began to eat ravenously. He wasn’t exactly a handsome man, she thought, but if one looked beyond the bruises, swollen eye, and unkempt hair, overlooked his need for a shave and new clothes and another ten pounds on his skinny frame, there was something about Thaddeus Taylor that she assumed women might find attractive. Not just whores, but good women like those who attended church at the Calvary’s Cross Baptist. She was certain she wouldn’t always be the only one to love her brother—if he straightened up.
“I’m sorry about what I said today,” she said.
Thad smiled for the first time since he’d been released from the jail. “I’ve heard worse,” he replied as he buried his fork into the apple pie.
After gathering the emptied plates, she sat beside him on the bed. “You up to talking for a bit? I’ve got something on my mind that—”
“I know I’ve said it before, but this time I swear on the Good Book that I ain’t going back to Stubby’s.”
“That’s not what’s worrying me.”
“It’s been over three weeks since Daddy left to go visit Uncle Dalton in Fort Scott. Dalton’s getting up in years, you know, and he’s not at all healthy, so Daddy felt it was time to look in on him, maybe talk him into coming here to live with us. But he told me he wouldn’t be gone more than two weeks, since Julie Simpson—you know her, she works at the grocery in town—is going to be having her baby soon. It’s not like him to delay his return and ignore her needs.”
“Didn’t even know he was gone,” Thad said.
“Anyway, the last couple of nights I’ve been having these awful dreams. In them, bad things are happening to Daddy, like Indians getting him or some outlaws knocking him in the head and robbing him. I know it sounds crazy. But the truth of the matter is I’m getting really scared.”
“And just what is it you want me to do about it?”
“I want you to go find him.”
• • •
A bright eruption of stars had filled the moonless, cloud-free sky after the rainstorm. It was still a couple of hours before daylight and there was a clean, newly washed smell in the prairie air as Taylor stood at the entrance of the barn, a packed saddlebag draped over one shoulder.
He’d slept little. Instead he had listened to the gentle rhythm of the rain on the roof as he contemplated his sister’s request. Go find him. Where? How? And, perhaps most puzzling of all to him, why?
He was saddling his sorrel, Magazine, when he sensed that he was not alone. In the flickering light of a nearby coal oil lantern, he made out the image of his sister standing in the doorway.
“You’re going to do it,” she said.
Her brother shrugged. “Got nothing better to do.”
“Come up to the house before you leave. Coffee’s about ready.”
Carefully laid out on the kitchen table was a knotted bandanna filled with freshly baked biscuits, a hat her father wore when he was making his rounds to visit patients, and his hunting rifle.
And there was a small gold-framed photograph of their mother and father. “Could be that you might need this if you need to make inquiries,” Sister said. “Of course, it was taken when he was considerably younger, but it’s the only likeness I have.”
Taylor gave the picture only a glance. Instead he focused on the Winchester and laughed. “I couldn’t hit the side of a sizable barn with that thing. I ain’t exactly got a reputation as a gunfighter, you know.” The fact was, he’d never even owned a sidearm.
“I doubt it would be a barn you’d be aiming at if you found yourself facing some kind of serious trouble.” She handed him a pouch filled with ammunition, then reached into her apron and produced a small white kerchief knotted around a fistful of coins.
Her brother sipped from his coffee cup and shook his head.
“You take it and don’t argue,” she said. “But don’t you dare go spending it all on whiskey and foolish amusements.” She put her arms around him, burying her face against his shoulder. “I’m expecting you back real soon, you hear?”
He reached for the doctor’s hat and wasn’t surprised when it fell across his bruised forehead and rested against his ears. He sighed. “Figures that it’d be too big.”
Sister put a hand to her mouth to hide her smile.
Aside from a lone coyote that appeared from an alley and stopped in the middle of the muddy street to watch him pass, Independence was quiet as Taylor began his northward journey. Even the morning birds had not yet begun to sing, and no rooster’s crow had signaled the arrival of a new day. Whoever might have taken his place in Sheriff Henry’s jail was still lost in tortured sleep, and the saloon was dark and quiet. Thad welcomed the solitude as he passed the deserted general store, the livery, and the hotel, making his way toward the open plains.
He was without any real plan, aside from following the trail that led north toward Fort Scott. Once the route of Indians following buffalo herds, it would take him along the Kansas-Missouri border, across miles of flatlands, past an occasional way station and a few small communities established by ambitious settlers. Depending on Magazine’s willingness, Taylor judged that it would take him three days to reach the home of Uncle Dalton, a man he’d not seen since he was a child.
Likely as not, he would arrive to find his uncle and the doctor sitting on the front porch, sipping whiskey, talking of old times, and arguing the virtues of Dalton taking leave of his home to make the trip back to Independence. Taylor would make his father aware of Sister’s worry, urge that he consider a prompt return, and offer to help with the loading of Uncle Dalton’s belongings in the event he’d decided to take the doctor up on his offer.
Once the sun rose, its warmth felt good on his aching body, and he’d begun to sense a small measure of purpose to his journey. While he didn’t share his sister’s concern for the well-being of his father, believing that his delayed return was nothing more than a matter of his own choosing, the rider was enjoying the sights and sounds of the flatlands through which he was traveling. He’d not seen another person or even a settler’s cabin since sunup.
By noon he reached a small creek and dismounted to allow Magazine to drink and graze while he sat in the shade of a small stand of mesquites, eating a couple of the biscuits Sister had sent with him. Taylor had closed his eyes and was about to doze when he suddenly felt the presence of someone standing over him.
It was a boy, no more than ten or twelve, wearing overalls and a frayed straw hat.
“That’s a mighty big hat you’re wearing, mister,” the youngster said.
Taylor smiled. “Borrowed it off a giant. What brings you here?”
“Been fishing since sunup. Pa said it would be okay if I promised to bring home enough catfish for supper.”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
The boy introduced himself as Jakey Barstow as they made their way down the creek bank, where he lifted a length of rope from the muddy water to display half a dozen fish.
“By the look of things, I’d guess you’re a pretty fair fisherman. Where’d you come from?”
“Our cabin’s ’bout a mile past that ridge,” he said, pointing to the west. “Me, my pa, and Ma come here from Tennessee.”
“Well, then, welcome to Kansas, Mr. Jakey Barstow. We’re glad to have you and your folks settled in our fine state.”
“My pa says we’re likely to have neighbors real soon, maybe even a town one of these days. He says there’re gonna be lots of folks moving this way.”
“You got no worry about Indians, being out here all by your lonesome?”
Jakey shook his head. “Pa says the soldiers moved ’em all down south to the reservations where they’ll mind their own ways and leave civilized folks alone.”
As the boy chewed on one of the biscuits offered him, he cast an eye toward the rifle strapped to the back of Taylor’s saddle. “You fearing you might come up on Indians along your way?”
“Nope,” Taylor said as he mounted Magazine. “But I am gonna be on a careful lookout for rabbits and squirrels intent on making any trouble.”
Jakey grinned and waved as Taylor tipped his oversized hat and rode away.
• • •
Fort Scott, Kansas, had changed dramatically since the days when it was garrisoned by army troops charged with protecting the frontier and negotiating treaties that called for Indian tribes to take leave of their land and move farther west. For years there had been more fighting than negotiating as the Removal Act, which President Andrew Jackson had signed into law, dissolved into all-out war.
Finally, after a great amount of bloodshed, the spirit of the tribes and their leaders was broken, and most survivors had been driven away. All that remained were scattered bands of angry young warriors who continued to occasionally raid white settlers, stealing livestock, burning homes, and leaving unspeakable death in their wake.
The danger, though still real, was no longer considered grave enough to keep Fort Scott active.
Long before it closed in 1853, Dalton Taylor had resigned his position as legal attaché for the military, convinced that the Indians were being treated unfairly. A gentle, well-educated man who could not embrace the bloodlust of either the soldiers or the Indians, he sought to distance himself from what he perceived as unchristian cruelties by all parties.
He opened a law office, and when the military buildings were eventually sold at auction to discharged soldiers and newly arriving settlers, he purchased one of the clapboard officers’ quarters and made it his home. And from that vantage point he’d spent two decades watching Fort Scott grow into a thriving community.
• • •
Thad Taylor was pleased to see the town on the horizon. He’d stopped only to spend a night in the settlement of Parsons, sleeping in the loft of the livery after seeing that fresh hay was laid out for Magazine. In the morning he’d bought a bowl of stew and a cup of chicory coffee from the owner and was on his way. The following night he’d slept under the stars.
His empty stomach was growling as he rode along the main street, searching for a place that served food. A sign positioned on the wooden walkway in front of the hotel caught his attention: FRESH BREAD AND GRAVY, 25 CENTS.
The proprietor waited until he’d finished his meal before initiating a conversation. “Will you be needing a room during your stay?” he asked. “For a dollar a day I can give you one of the upstairs rooms with a window and a nice view of the town. A heated bath is fifty cents extra.”
Taylor said, “I don’t expect to be staying here long. I’m here to see my uncle, Dalton Taylor. Don’t reckon you might know where he lives.”
“Oh my, yes. Everybody knows Mr. Taylor. A real gentleman, he is, and a fine and honest lawyer until various illnesses caused him to close down his business. He still comes in here every Sunday after preaching’s over to have his lunch. It’s always a genuine pleasure to see him. You’re mighty lucky to have him as kin.”
Then, pouring more coffee into Thad’s cup, the hotel owner gave him directions to his uncle’s home.
As he prepared to leave, Taylor reached into the pocket of his jacket. Wiping dust from the small gold frame, he handed it to the owner. “You seen this man here lately?”
The owner studied the photograph, then shook his head. “Can’t say as I have.”
It was the same response Taylor had heard earlier from the man who ran the livery stable back in Parsons.
• • •
A frail-looking old man stood in the doorway of the small cabin located near what was once the hub of military activity. He looked at his visitor over glasses that rested on the end of his nose. His hair was white and he leaned against a cane. In his free hand he held a book, a thumb marking the place where his reading had been interrupted.
“So,” he said after clearing his throat, “you’re my brother’s boy. Can’t recall when I last saw you, but I’m guessing you weren’t more than knee-high.” He invited Taylor inside.
The interior of his home was sparsely furnished but neat, the front room resembling a library more than a place for greeting guests. On the rows of makeshift shelves that covered each wall were carefully arranged books on a variety of subjects. A welcome aroma wafted from a small kitchen.
Dalton Taylor put aside his book—Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter—and poured coffee for his nephew.
“It appears you do a good deal of reading,” Thad said in an attempt to make conversation.
His uncle glanced at the small volume on the arm of his chair. “It passes an old man’s time, though I can’t say this one here is worth the dime it cost me. All these folks back in New York City are writing about life in the West like they’ve grown up out here when the truth is they don’t know anything about this part of the world.” He set the book aside. “So, what is it that brings you this way?”
Thad explained his father’s planned trip and its purpose. And his sister’s worrisome dreams that had sent him on his search.
“I’ve not seen him,” the old man replied. “Last time I heard from him was a letter that came maybe a month or more ago. We correspond on occasion, just to let each other know we’re still breathing, but he made no mention of coming here. And if he had suggested it was to convince me to return with him down to Independence, I’d have told him not to waste his time. I’m quite satisfied where I am and plan on dying right here. Sooner than I’d like, I expect.”
He put a handkerchief to his mouth to muffle a hard, rattling cough. “Tuberculosis, in case you’re wondering,” he said.
The simplicity of Taylor’s mission vanished as the dying old man spoke. The likelihood of Sister’s dreams coming true sent a sudden chill along his spine.
So sure had he been that his father had safely reached Fort Scott, he hadn’t bothered to pay careful attention as he followed the trail northward. Now he would need to visit every way station and farmhouse along the way as he retraced his route. As he contemplated his task, he reached into his pocket and felt the coolness of the small picture frame.
What, he wondered, would he tell Sister if he wasn’t able to find their father?
“I suggest you stay the night here,” his uncle said. “Get some rest before you start out again. There’s a grove of trees out back and a small stream. You can tether your horse there. I’ve got a bed that’s fairly comfortable.” Before Thad could argue, his uncle added, “I’d enjoy having the company.”
• • •
The sun was going down as the two men sat on the shaded front porch, Dalton Taylor steadily puffing on his pipe despite the fact that it increased his coughing spells, Thad lost in thought about what the next few days might bring.
It was the elder Taylor who broke the silence. “One of the few benefits of getting up in years,” he said, “is that you’re allowed to express yourself as you please. That being said, I’ve got something I want to ask you about.”
“I’m wondering why it is that in his letters, your daddy has never once mentioned you, good or bad. He’ll always say something about your sister and how pretty she is, but nothing about you.”
Thad smiled. “I guess he don’t think I’m pretty.”
“I take it you and he don’t exactly get along.”
“That’s a kind way of putting it. Truth is, me ’n him have never had much to do with each other, least not since I got old enough to talk back when he was scolding me.”
“Your daddy mean?”
“No.” After a brief silence, he added, “Mostly, he’s just sad. Folks who know him say he’s been that way since my mother passed.”
Dalton tapped the ashes from his pipe. “And you’re thinking that all these years he’s blamed you for what happened, I suppose. An angry man has to have someone to hold responsible for his misery, and it sounds to me like you got elected.”
Thad didn’t respond. He stared toward the road, where someone’s dog was hurriedly trying to beat the darkness home.
“I knew your mama, even back when your daddy was courting her,” Dalton continued. “She was as fine a woman as you could ever hope to meet. She made every day of your daddy’s life a pleasure. When she died, more than a little of him did too, I expect. Being a bachelor all my life, I can’t claim to be an expert on the love shared by a man and a woman, but what I saw between your folks was special.
“It’s no wonder that he changed once she was gone. But, boy, none of that was your doing. That she didn’t survive giving birth to you was no fault of yours. Call it the course of nature or the will of the Almighty, but don’t go blaming yourself like he’s done all these years. No need for you to be as unfair as your daddy’s been.”
Thad pulled the small photograph from his pocket and handed it to his uncle. Dalton studied it carefully for several seconds. “A happy time,” he said. “Unfortunately I fear that the days ahead might not be.”
For adventuresome settlers dreaming of a better life, the Osage Trail, extending westward from Missouri through Kansas and into New Mexico, was the route increasing numbers followed in search of prosperity. A steady caravan of wagons, loaded with meager belongings and high hopes, traveled the rutted and dusty pathway originally blazed by massive herds of migrating buffalo.
Now, with the Indians moved westward or onto the Indian Territory reservations to the south, the spacious plains of Kansas had become a new and welcoming frontier, offering pioneers free plots of land simply for the claiming.
Among those staking claim to a hundred-and-sixty-acre plot in an isolated region of Labette County was a large, bushy-eyebrowed German immigrant named John Bender. Older than most who had made the hard journey, he had arrived with his son and set about building a small cabin and barn, dug a water well, and planted a small orchard and garden before summoning his wife and daughter from the Michigan mill town where they had waited for word that their new home was ready.
Bender’s wife, Kate, a lumbering, overweight woman who spoke little English, had immediately recognized that the untilled land her husband had claimed would hardly yield a living for the family. And it was she who soon devised a plan to improve matters. With the help of her grown daughter, Kate Two, she set about rearranging the interior of the small cabin, stretching the canvas from her husband’s wagon across the middle and placing a table in the front half of the room, leaving only a small area in back for the family’s living quarters. She instructed John to build a small row of shelves across one wall, and began canning the produce from the orchard and garden.
Soon a hand-painted sign hung above the doorway, visible to those traveling the Osage Trail, proclaiming that GROCERIES, FOOD, AND LODGING were available. Crude though it was, another way station for weary travelers was in business.
In time, a steady stream of settlers stopped in. Some purchased a meal, a few bought sacks of ground corn and canned pears, some only stopped to water and feed their horses. Occasionally an exhausted traveler would take restful advantage of a night spent in the Benders’ barn.
And Kate Two, a pretty young woman who had not inherited her mother’s girth or ill humor, would entertain guests. If a male traveler arrived alone, she would invite him to the bed in back of the cabin while the rest of the family excused themselves to the barn to tend the visitor’s animals.
It was another talent, however, that most intrigued travelers. Kate Two claimed the mystic ability to communicate with the dead. For a dollar, the same price she charged for a visit to her bed, she would conduct séances once a meal was finished and the table cleared. With a flair for the dramatic, her eyes would roll and her head would jerk as she reached out to passed loved ones and communicated their reassuring thoughts to mesmerized onlookers.
Along the Osage Trail, Kate Two was becoming something of a celebrity.
• • •
Thad Taylor had felt a growing sense of uneasiness as he traveled back southward, stopping to ask settlers and townsfolk if they might have seen his father. None, however, recognized the man in the picture he showed. It was as if Doc Taylor had simply vanished.
Thad spent a morning in the small settlement of Thayer, getting no positive response from shopkeepers or passersby. The town marshal was asleep in his tiny office when Taylor entered and roused him. He grumpily said he’d not seen the man in the photograph before, placed his booted feet back atop his desk, and was again snoring even before his visitor left. Down the street, an elderly gentleman, repairing the broken axle of a traveler’s wagon, had suggested that he might want to make a stop at the next way station. “It’s only about five miles down the way, where you meet up with the Osage,” he said, pointing southward. “You’ll see it just ’fore you get to Big Hill Creek. Likely there’ll be a number of folks to inquire to once you get there.
“If nothing else,” he added with a smile and a wink, “I hear tell you’ll find a mighty pretty young lady living there.”
• • •
It was nearing noon when Taylor saw John Bender hoeing in the garden. “Young fella,” Bender called out as he tilted his hat back and wiped his brow with an oily bandanna, “it looks as if you’re headed the wrong way. Most folks are traveling west these days. Why don’t you get down and come on into the house? You look like you could use something to eat and something to wet your whistle.”
As he issued the invitation, a young man who appeared to be close to Taylor’s age peeked from the corner of the cabin, a grin on his freckled face. “Howdy, howdy, mister. Howdy, howdy,” he shouted, then broke into laughter as he began flapping his skinny arms. Then he disappeared.
“That there’s my boy,” Bender said. “He’s a bit touched, as you can see. But he’s a hard worker and does what he’s told, so I ain’t complaining none.”
The inside of the cramped cabin had the odor of lard too often used, boiled turnips, and a faint metallic smell Taylor didn’t recognize. Kate Bender stood at the woodstove, sweat beading across her forehead and a dip of snuff protruding from her bottom lip as she removed a pan of corn bread and placed it on the table. She ladled a cup of water from a barrel that sat near the doorway and handed it to the visitor.
“It vas jus draw from vell,” she said in broken English. “Maybe it still can be cool.” She motioned for him to sit at the table.
“You’re more likely to feel some breeze if you sit on the side by the curtain,” her husband suggested.
Just before Thad took his seat, the canvas parted and Kate Two appeared. Her long black hair fell across shoulders that were exposed by a white peasant blouse, her blue eyes quickly settling on the visitor. “Can’t say I’ve seen you here before,” she said. Her voice had a lilt to it, free of her mother’s accent.
“Never been here before,” Taylor said as he sipped at the turnip soup, which proved to be foul-tasting.
“So, what is it that brings you this way?”
Taylor pulled the framed photograph from his pocket and pushed it across the table. “I’m looking for this man,” he said.
He looked so intently at the face of the young woman seated across from him that he didn’t notice the quick exchange of glances between the elder Benders.
“Yes, I do recall him,” she said. “He stopped in a while back to water his horse and purchase a jar of Mama’s peaches. A fine old gentleman, he was. We exchanged words for a bit and he seemed seriously interested in taking advantage of my gift.”
“And what gift might that be?”
“I, sir, am a spiritualist.” She smiled. “Blessed with the special ability to make contact with the departed.”
“You mean you talk to dead folks.”
“That’s exactly right,” she said, ignoring his skeptical tone. “I felt there was someone he wanted me to reach out to, but he said he was already late arriving at his destination and took his leave. I urged him to stop in another time when he was of a mind. It was my opinion I would be seeing him again.
“Is it your fear that he might have run into deadly trouble with Indians? Maybe you’d like me to try to make contact with your friend.”
“I don’t recall saying anything about him being a friend.”
Kate Bender began wiping crumbs of corn bread from the table and looked across the room at her husband. “Time for you get back to working,” she said. John Bender reached into his trousers pocket, pulled out his watch, and nodded.
Taylor’s pulse quickened at the brief glimpse of the gold pocket watch. It looked exactly like one his father had carried for as long as he could remember. His first thought was to rip it from the old man’s hand and challenge him about the whereabouts of the doctor. Instead he took a deep breath and said, “Mighty nice-looking watch you’re carrying.” He tossed two of Sister’s dimes on the table.
Without reply, an ashen John Bender turned and was out the door, moving swiftly in the direction of the barn. The two women stood silently, their faces vacant stares.
“Fact is, I found that watch to be familiar-looking,” Taylor said, “and it makes me wonder a bit what else might have taken place here when my father visited.”
Though neither of the women responded, he was overcome by a feeling of uneasiness. The sweltering cabin suddenly felt cold and threatening. Would the old man return from the barn with a gun?
What People are Saying About This
“If you like Louis L’Amour, you’ll love Ralph Compton.”—Quanah Tribune-Chief (TX)
“Compton writes in the style of popular Western novelists like Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey…thrilling stories of Western legend.”—The Huntsville Times (AL)
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