He was a man of two tribes and the Comanche blood that flowed in his veins was that of one of the most savage raiders of the south-west. But a white man had raised him and there was as much hate as duty mixed in with those years. They called him Blaine, a name known far and wide across Texas: a man who said little and who was willing to be judged by his actions. He worked hard and fought hard, essentially a loner with a void in his heart that could never be filled. Unless he killed the man who had raised him - a man to whom he owed everything. And Blaine always paid his debts.
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By Tyler Hatch
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2005 Tyler Hatch
All rights reserved.
The sun was standing a hand's-breadth-and-a-half above the western peaks of the sawtooths when Blaine rode upriver and found Hardesty asleep under a tree.
Not ten yards away, the cattle in his charge were bellowing and snorting and struggling in quicksand that was already up to their bellies.
Hardesty's awakening was not gentle.
A hard, scuffed-toe riding boot bent in his ribs on his left side, rolled him out of the shade into the burning sun. Grunting and already swearing, he came abruptly out of his doze and crouched, hugging himself as he blinked up at the tall man-shape standing over him.
'What the hell ...?'
Blaine kicked him again alongside the ear, not hard enough to put him out, but with plenty of force to send him sprawling off the bank into the shallows. Clem Hardesty roared and erupted out of the muddy water, clambering up the bank, running in at Blaine, head down, arms out-stretched, eager to grapple and fight.
But Blaine had other ideas. He twisted aside, slapped one reaching arm away, grabbed Hardesty's long black hair and threw him against the tree. He cannoned off and went down to one knee, holding his throbbing head. He snapped it up quickly enough when he heard the whisper of gun metal against leather. Blaine, dark, wolfish face totally deadpan, those grey-green eyes looking almost dead, thrust the Colt's muzzle against Hardesty's teeth as he cocked the hammer.
'We'll settle our differences later – right now, you get your rope and mount up. We're gonna save as many of those cows as we can.'
Clem Hardesty's thick lips curled, but then he frowned, shifted his gaze past the long, rangy shape of Blaine. He noticed the cows' predicament for the first time and his jaw dropped.
'Judas priest! I – I never ...' His words were slurred because of the gun pressing against his lips.
'You never did the job you were s'posed to,' cracked Blaine coldly, grinding with the gun muzzle. Hardesty wrenched his head aside, spitting a little blood.
'Get that thing outta my face!'
Blaine tapped him across the temple and Hardesty swayed, cursing, crabbing away on all fours, fear showing in his eyes now. Blaine's boot found his backside and as Hardesty sprawled, the tall man yanked the coiled rope off the saddlehorn and flung it at him.
'Get going, Clem, or I'll shoot you right here.'
Hardesty groped for the rope, standing slowly and unsteadily. His face was contorted with hate. 'Yeah, we'll settle this, all right!'
Between them, they saved seven out of the ten steers, tossing ropes over the long curved horns, using the range-trained mounts to help drag the beasts on to solid footing. Of the other three, one was already down to the chest and floundering in panic, driving its body deeper into the ooze. The other two were in too far to save.
Blaine's Winchester '66 blasted, just the three shots necessary, then he turned the smoking muzzle on to the sweating Hardesty who stiffened, wet rope dangling from one hand.
'Wade out and put your rope on the nearest cow,' Blaine ordered. 'No sense in wasting good beef; we'll butcher it on the bank and send out a buckboard to bring in the meat.'
'S'pose you do it,' Hardesty said slowly, face challenging. 'I'm about plumb-tuckered.'
'After the way you were sleeping when I found you?' Blaine shook his head slowly, but he sheathed the rifle and swung down from his mount. 'You're just bone lazy, Clem. You've been warned. This time it's the finish for you. Only you ain't just going to ride in and collect your time and head on out, you're gonna remember your time here at Broken Wheel.'
Hardesty bared yellow-stained teeth. 'I sure will. But no damn breed's gonna try to whip me....'
'This one is gonna do it,' Blaine murmured as he walked forward. The 'breed' part didn't bother him: that's what he was and there was nothing he could do about it and he had learned long ago how futile it was to go through life bristling and getting into fights just to protest. So he could live with being called a breed.
But what galled him was he knew Hardesty meant it as a bad kind of insult and he was damned if he'd let this lazy sonuver feel good at his expense for any reason.
Clem Hardesty tossed the wet coils of rope into Blaine's face but the tall man batted the rope aside, stepped in as the other charged. Clem shuddered as a fist banged against his jaw and knocked him sideways. He staggered and came back swinging, found the blow blocked by an uplifted forearm and then felt the smashing impact of a fist driving into his midriff.
His legs wobbled and he floundered, grabbing instinctively at Blaine. His wild, uncoordinated efforts fouled the tall man's flurry of blows and although they landed, Hardesty was too close for them to do much damage. Blaine twisted and thrust him off, then pulled him back while he was still off-balance, snapped his head up and kneed him in the belly.
Hardesty bared his teeth, sucking in desperately needed air violently as a tattoo of punches mauled him. He managed to hit back, throwing two good blows into the hard-muscled midriff of Blaine. The tall man was in good shape and took them without effect. Hardesty, a saloon brawler from way back, bored in, swinging confidently but wildly.
Suddenly his head snapped back on his shoulders and his view of the mountains and river and trees, was scrambled violently, tinged with red. He felt himself staggering as if falling off the world, then came up against a bunched fist at the end of an iron-hard forearm. He felt as if his spine had been driven through his back. He tumbled wildly into whirling space.
When he opened his eyes, groaning with even that small effort, his vision took a little time to focus and what he saw did nothing to make him feel any better. Blaine was sitting close by, broad back against the tree, smoking a cigarette down.
'Ready to butcher that steer now?' he asked, stubbing out the butt against a tree root.
Hardesty groaned, then, as he began to come slowly to life, he cursed, sat up stiffly.
'Morg's gonna hear about this,' he gasped, swollen and split lips slurring his words.
'Sure, when you go to draw your time.'
Hardesty froze, 'You cain't fire me!'
'I'm doing it, Clem. We butcher that steer, then we drive the others back to the spread. Someone brings a buckboard out to collect the meat, and you ride on out. That's twice I've told you. It better be enough.'
Hardesty thought about it. 'We'll see what Luke has to say!'
'Don't matter who you run to, won't do you no good. Now let's get this chore done.'
From the porch, Morgan O'Day watched the Mexican cookhouse roustabout, the one they called Fernando, harness a team to a buckboard and drive out of the ranchyard through the long shadows of late afternoon. But it was idle observation: his real interest was in Clem Hardesty, battered and moving mighty stiffly, talking earnestly with his son, Lucas, down by the barn. Someone had been in a fight ... a hard fight! Morg observed silently.
His gaze wandered across to the corrals where Blaine was unsaddling his sweat-polished sorrel. He, too, was moving a little stiffly and his lean face showed a couple of signs of violence. Not as bad as Hardesty's which told the old rancher plenty.
Then Lucas came hurrying across the yard while Clem Hardesty limped to the washbench at the rear of the bunkhouse. Lucas was medium tall, average build, and liked to dress in work clothes that others might figure were good enough to wear into town for a Saturday night on the tiles. He was twenty-seven years old, a good worker – if he had plenty of men he could delegate the manual labour to – and good with the ranch's books. But he lacked something, always had....
Morgan, deep down, knew what it was, but wasn't about to admit that his son was weak, bordering on being a coward, even to himself ... But he was his son and so Morg was willing to overlook his faults. But he kind of wished Lucas O'Day had a little of Blaine's steel in his backbone and the breed's sense of right and wrong and ...Hell! A man had to love his children, didn't he? No matter what. ...
Now Lucas came up onto the porch, his handsome, well-fed face flushed, clean shaven so close the skin gleamed and never seemed to sweat. He pushed back his hat, revealing tight black curls that sprang down on to his forehead as he turned worried brown eyes to his father.
'Pa, Blaine's in some kind of a tizzy over Clem. Told him he's fired.'
'What kinda tizzy?'
Lucas shrugged. 'Nothing much – Clem had worked his butt off getting those steers out of the brush above the riverbend, turned 'em out to graze a spell while he took a smoke. He was that tuckered he fell asleep. Blaine come in like a high wind outta the north, cracked a couple of his ribs, then beat him up....'
'For fallin' asleep on the job?' queried the older O'Day.
Lucas pursed his womanish lips and shrugged. 'Couple of the cows'd wandered upstream a little and went into the river....'
Morg sat straighter in his chair. 'At the high bend? Where the quicksand is ...?'
Lucas nodded briefly, trying to play down the seriousness of this. 'There was plenty of graze for 'em where Clem left 'em.' Lucas licked his lips. 'But, Pa, Clem can't be blamed for that! He said it was hell busting those steers outta that brush in the sawtooths. You know what it's like up there. ... Pa, he's a pretty good cowpoke. We can't let him go just because he knocked himself out for the ranch and fell asleep. Hell, he only sat down for a smoke. He never meant to doze off ... And they saved seven cows outta the ten, butchered one of the dead ones ... Fernie's gone to collect the meat now.'
Morgan looked down to where Blaine was hanging his saddle across the top corral rail. 'Tell Blaine I want to see him.'
Lucas smiled. 'Sure, Pa! Can I tell Clem he's still drawing pay?'
'Send Blaine up to me.'
Lucas went away whistling. He knew he had talked his father around – hell, he'd had plenty of practice over the years. Why, he was even better at swinging things his way than was Kitty, and she could turn many a man to water with just a roll or two of those hazel eyes with the fluttering dark lashes....
'The Old Man wants you up to the porch,' Lucas said as Blaine headed for the wash bench.
The tall man turned and looked soberly at his half-brother. 'You wag your tail and let your tongue hang out on behalf of that son of a bitch Hardesty?'
Lucas flushed. 'No need for that! I'm the one has to see the ranch makes a profit and we can't do that if we start firing our top hands in the middle of round-up.'
Blaine looked hard at Lucas. 'You figure Hardesty for a top-hand and I'm Governor of California.'
Lucas flushed, moved uneasily. 'Anyway, you don't have the clout to fire the men here without first referring to me or Pa, Blaine!'
Lucas swung away, flushing but smiling to himself, too: that was as good a chance as he'd ever had of putting that damn breed in his rightful place ...!
Blaine paused at the foot of the porch steps, one boot on the bottom tread. He thumbed back his hat, showing sweat-darkened hair. The sun threw a shadow of his hawklike nose across one bruised cheek.
'You beat up on Clem pretty bad, looks like,' opined Morgan. 'But I see he got in a lick or two.'
Blaine shrugged. 'He riled me. Seems to think he can do what he likes – him and that pard of his, Clint Rendell. They're both pains in the butt.' He squinted at O'Day. 'I've seen you favour 'em from time to time, too.'
Morgan's face hardened and he shook a stiff finger in Blaine's direction. 'You watch it! You don't talk to me like that!'
Blaine said nothing, his face unreadable. Morg let his breathing settle and said in a milder tone, 'Clem's a good man, even if he is a mite lazy. He's worked for me for ten years. Likely feels he has a right to cut a few corners.'
'You're the one pays his wages.'
O'Day's mouth tightened into a thin slash beneath his drooping frontier moustache. He sighed. 'You just don't give a damn, do you?'
'I give a damn – where it matters.'
'And who decides that?'
Blaine merely held the old man's gaze. 'So what happens? Hardesty stays?'
Morg hadn't really made up his mind when he had sent for Blaine but now he nodded curtly: Damn, Blaine! The man was just too hard for his own good at times. If he hadn't given his word all those years ago, he might've....
'Yeah, I'm willin' to give him another chance. And that means you are, too. He's just another cowboy, but I'd watch him if I was you, Blaine. Clem Hardesty's got a long memory – and one of the things he won't forget is that you beat-up on him, and left him marked for all the others to see.'
'Luke tell you we saved seven, and butchered one of the downers?'
'He told me. You keepin' pace with the round-up times? We can't miss that drive or we're in real trouble – Bank's puttin' on the pressure for a mortgage payment. I held out last time, borrowed more money to fence in them extra acres takin' in Fool's Canyon. But Hayden won't stand for it this year.'
'Use your influence. He's Marsh Kilgour's brother-in-law, ain't he ...?'
Morg's eyes narrowed. 'Don't make no nevermind – Marsh, I get along with. His sister, Abigail, never forgave me for marryin' Gracie instead of her. She'll influence Miles Hayden if it means makin' things hard for me.'
'You've made too many enemies over the years, Morg.'
He never called O'Day 'Pa' like Lucas and Kitty, Morgan's blood children, did. When Morgan had told him he was only part of the O'Day family because of his benevolence, he had specifically said, 'Now you know your place, you can quit callin' me "Pa". You're twelve year old, no real kin, so you can call me Morgan ... I ain't your real father: he's dead. And you might's well know, I was the one killed him....'
Blaine had never called O'Day 'Pa' since that landmark day, thirteen years ago.
And never would.
'Before she died in my arms, your Ma – my dear Katy – told me she had a four old son, fathered by that red devil, Yellow Wolf. She got me to promise with her last breath I'd raise you and take care of you for the rest of your life – It's a promise I'll keep. But you'll never have my name and you'll never be called "Adam" like she named you in this family. Katy married a man called Blaine because of family pressures, but we both knew we had been meant for each other. She never broke faith with Blaine and I never tried to make her. And I stayed true to Gracie till she died. ... I'm damned if I'll use your Injun name and while it churns my belly, "Blaine's" what you'll be called within my hearin' from now on. It'll be a constant reminder of my promise to Katy. ... Man, I loved that woman so! If only we'd....'
But he'd said enough that day.
'I'll work hard for you, Morgan,' the boy had said flatly. 'I'll give you your money's worth.'
It was a cold, cocky tone, almost contemptuous. O'Day had flushed with anger then, came close to slapping that dark, narrowly-handsome face.
'That don't enter into it!' he snapped. 'I don't give my word lightly – to anyone!'
'Nor I, you've taught me that much.'
O'Day still could call up the way the child-Blaine had stared back at him. Face narrow and sober, the eyes disturbing and unflinching, looking at him the way he looked at every white man and woman with that same stubborn pride and 'don't-push-me-around' contempt that Morgan O'Day knew he had inherited from Yellow Wolf.
At times he woke sweating in the night, wondering what else Blaine might have inherited from that savage.CHAPTER 2
Round-up was almost over and the final branding and preparations for the trail drive were proceeding well, when Kitty O'Day came back to Broken Wheel from her College For Young Ladies in St Louis for the summer break.
Morgan had seen that she was named 'Catherine' but while Gracie was an easy-going wife, and knew she had been married on the rebound, she drew the line at calling her daughter 'Katy': it would be too much of a reminder of her husband's unrequited love for Katy Blaine. She had insisted that everyone call the baby girl Kitty and Morgan had let her have her way – there were some whirlpools in his conscience about the way he had treated Gracie from time to time, knowing he had made a convenience of her after Katy had been forced into her marriage with Adam Blaine. Who, when you got right down to it and, in some private moments, Morgan allowed, was not so bad, and had likely taken Katy as wife when he would have preferred some other woman. (Morgan was wrong there – Adam Blaine had loved Katy truly and ended up dying for her to prove it so, when he had stepped into the path of a bullet meant for her during a stage hold-up.) Not that it mattered now – that had been nigh on twenty years ago....
Excerpted from Longhorn Country by Tyler Hatch. Copyright © 2005 Tyler Hatch. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PROLOGUE: END OF SEARCH,
CHAPTER 1: QUICKSAND,
CHAPTER 2: REVENGE,
CHAPTER 3: PUNISHMENT,
CHAPTER 4: VANISHED,
CHAPTER 5: BACK TO STAY,
CHAPTER 6: LONG VENGEANCE,
CHAPTER 7: IN OLD MONTERREY,
CHAPTER 8: HOWDY AND ADIOS,
CHAPTER 9: WELCOME BACK,
CHAPTER 10: FRAME-UP,
CHAPTER 11: TRAIL'S END,
By the Same Author,