Travelling north from New Mexico, Chad Miller happens upon the small Colorado township of Hooper, where Perdi Bridge is vainly trying to protect her family and cattle business from Brig Porton. A one-time army commander and now the powerful owner of High Smoke, Porton is intent on wresting the Bridges’ property from them, taking their very lives if necessary.
From the outset Chad finds himself involved with the Bridges and he knows he cannot ride on and leave a family who has real need of his skill with fists and gun power. With the odds against him, can Chad shape up a fighting force before Porton and his mercenaries overwhelm them all?<BR>
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By Caleb Rand
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2006 Caleb Rand
All rights reserved.
It was midway between the Mexico and Colorado borders. Under the blaze of a late summer sun, Chad Miller was hunting for a meal, checking his snares for jackrabbit or quail. His eyes were relaxed as they scanned the sand-dunes, then sharp when a figure appeared through the heat shimmer.
The body was half-hidden under a powdered drift, but one arm was stretched to the barrel of a carbine that was aimed straight between his eyes. Chad swung up his Colt as he fell into a crouch. He held his breath, watched tensely for a few seconds, before realizing the figure was too unmoving. No sheen of sweat glistened on the skin, the hand that clawed the barrel of the carbine was dried out, withered. A fine, white line of sand layered the dark metal.
Chad waited for his pulse to drop, then he walked closer and pushed aside the barrel. The movement toppled a perished forage-cap into the sand, then a wasted head fell sideways. Empty eye-sockets glowered at him, and from half a jaw, a row of blackened teeth grimaced insanely.
The macabre heap seized Chad with horror. He'd encountered many animals in the sunburned spread of death, but this leering human unnerved him. He groaned inwardly, stared at the remains a long moment before lowering his gun.
Shreds of clothing still adhered to one of the man's arms. Traces of skin were stretched like canvas, and knuck-lebones glimmered white. Once-grey material hung from lower, exposed parts of the corpse, and from the remnant of a mule-eared boot, bleached foot-bones curled into the sand. There was little telling of what had happened, or how long the man had been there.
Chad stepped around the dead man, kicked aside a mound of soft sand. He looked down and saw a clutch of small stones pinched in the fibres of a dried hopsage root. As he kneeled to take a closer look a big Gila monster flicked its fat tail and skittered to new sanctuary. Chad flinched and cursed, turned back to the stones beside his knee. They'd been stored in a powder-pouch which had long been eaten by ants, and they weren't stones, but ore.
He put his head closer to the sand, looked into a hole which the venomous lizard had formed. Warily he put in his hand, drew a stub-bladed bayonet from the hot burrow. He'd found the dead man's digging tool for his small silver-lode.
Then Chad began to understand more. He stood slowly and had another look around him. Now he could see part of a gun carriage with a buried barrel, a dry, rotted limber and the tailboard of an iron-banded ammunition wagon. It was the remains of a long-ago defeated infantry brigade.
At the outset of the War between the States a few southern prospectors who'd tried their luck below the Magdalena Ridge had travelled back to Richmond with stories of silver bounty. 'Grain more plentiful than stars in the sky ... got to be heaven on earth,' one of them had reported to the cash-strapped Confederacy leaders.
The man at Chad's feet had undoubtedly been a Confederate soldier, and one to be pitied. With a few comrades he'd probably been on a greed-filled initiative during his brigade's retreat from Peralta. But they'd been caught on Indian land, had put up a fight trying to retain what in fact they were stealing. Beneath the vast spread of sand there would be more bones, harness-parts, pieces of camp equipage. Many men who beat a path to the home of the Mescalero Apache paid a gruesome, torture-filled price for their trespass. Soldiers and civilians alike.
So, other than any following-on Union soldiers, it would have been unlikely that anyone would return for a long time, or would ever have found the small working.
In the present, it was approaching first dark. From far off Chad heard the howl of a dog coyote. He rolled an ore- pellet between finger and thumb, cracked a thin smile. 'I wonder which of us gets what we deserve?' he muttered.
He'd ride east, then north, all the way to Kansas, get his new-found gain deposited in a Dodge City cattle-bank. Then he'd head west, along the Arkansas River into Colorado. It was many, many miles, but it would give him time for thinking on an investment, an appropriate business, his settlement corner.CHAPTER 2
One hundred and fifty miles north of the Magdelenas, on one of the narrow tracks that wound through the timber-line rimming the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the hoofs of a buckskin mare clicked in the still, morning air. The rider wore a wide-brimmed hat and riding-duds, and from way she handled the mare it was more than her first time out.
They halted and the girl looked up, held her hand against the early morning sun which was already powering down. Then they edged off the trail, stepped carefully alongside a deep, secluded pool.
The girl dismounted and watched the pony as it lowered its head into succulent, waterside plants. Then, she flung her hat to the ground and pulled off her boots. Pinching her nose between her fingers, she jumped fully clothed into the pool. She pushed her face to the surface and floated lazily, kicked her feet against the coolness.
After a few minutes, she heard a splash somewhere around her and rolled quickly in the water. From where the water eddied as it entered the pool, Chad Miller's head suddenly pushed up. The girl splashed wildly, made a gurgled shout similar to the one Chad was making. For the shortest moment they held each other's startled eyes, then they swam for the nearest bank.
Chad was still spluttering as he stood dripping on the bank. He pulled on his boots and tucked his Colt back into his waistband, grabbed his coat and Stetson.
He turned to his blood bay, then, from behind him this time, the girl appeared again. She was as wet as Chad, but gripped a small .36 carbine.
She waved the gun defiantly towards him. 'Stand still,' she said. 'And keep your hands away from that Colt.'
Chad stepped slowly away from the side of the horse and raised his hands. He looked at the dripping, curiously attired girl. She had striking good looks he saw immediately, and his look turned to a stare.
'Who are you?' she asked. 'What are you doing here?'
He shook his head at the corner he was in. 'I would o' thought that was pretty obvious.' Then he dragged up a self- conscious grin. 'I've a few miles o' dust to wash away, what's your excuse?'
'I own the water,' she said briskly. 'That, and everything you can see in just about every direction. So now you've had your bathe you can ride on. Me and mine don't like trespassers.'
Chad shrugged, glanced at the vastness of the Colorado landscape. 'Trespasser, huh. That's interestin',' he said. 'But I'll ride on if you're sayin' so. I can see I might be crowdin' you an' yours,' he added cynically.
He tossed his coat up behind his saddle, and led the horse back to the narrow rocky trail. He ignored the girl as he rode up through the timber-line, coolly patted the gnarled burr of a spruce.
The bay plodded up the hill and halted gratefully when Chad jerked the reins. It had been a long ride, and the hot overhead sun hadn't made the going any easier. The horse was winded and spent. Chad dismounted, loosened the cinches and patted the glistening, sweaty neck of his mount.
He walked forward and hunkered down. From the outcrop of rock he could clearly see a winding creek, a shallow crossing that fronted a ranch house. He traced around the tight bend of water, noting the stands of juniper and willow that fringed the banks.
After about ten minutes a man on a tall grey rode from behind a timbered shed. It was alongside a bend in the creek and the rider pulled up near the crossing. Like Chad, he'd seen the horse approaching from the foothills.
From his vantage point Chad could see it was the girl on her buckskin mare. He watched her interestedly. 'She's more'n baby beef, that's for sure,' he murmured appreciatively.
He shifted his eyes to the horseman who sat quietly, waiting. From a short distance the girl checked her pony. She looked at the man, then nudged the mare across the creek.
Chad went on to one knee. There was something about the situation that gave out trouble. He saw the man ride forward to meet the girl who, at the last moment, veered off. But the man was quick and he made a grab for the pony's bridle. The girl tried to snatch away as the man pulled hard on the reins. He swung his horse sideways on to the girl, and to Chad the tussle appeared to be over. It maybe would have been if the horse hadn't cracked into the pony's forelegs. The mare squealed, reared up and kicked out with its flashing hoofs.
Chad's heart thudded at the sudden confrontation. He watched fascinated as the girl twisted around in her saddle, swung her fist wildly at the man. But it was a futile, glancing blow and only spurred her pony on. The mare leaped forward, bearing its big yellow teeth.
It was a close-quarter combat that the man was handling well. He still retained his grip on the pony's reins, and as the pony lunged the bridle-iron bit cruelly into its pink jaws. The pony screamed with hurt, and that brought Chad to his feet. He stood with his hand on his Colt, watching helpless from the distant outcrop.
As the mare threw its head in the air the girl made up her mind to make a move. She hung a leg over the saddle horn and twisted out of the saddle to the ground. The man immediately let go of the pony's bridle, whirled his horse as the girl ran back through the shallows.
He choked, then roared: 'Get back here, you little firebrand.'
Chad pulled and pushed the Colt in his waistband. 'She can run, too.'
The man drew a whip from under the back-bow of his saddle. 'Maybe this is for the tamin' of you,' he yelled, and spurred his horse forward.
Chad drew his Colt and looked at the distance. Knowing it was too far to hit the man, he drew back the hammer and held the gun at arm's length. He pointed the barrel skywards, then lowered it slowly to a point above the willows. He held the gun steady, fired three bullets out from the timber-line.
In the still, hot air the echoes reverberated around the foothills. The lead would have little effect, but the sudden triple crash was enough to panic the grey. It reared, throwing its rider from the saddle. The man lost his balance and landed awkwardly, face down in the fast-flowing water.
The girl had already crossed the creek and was racing breathlessly along a wagon road while Chad was tightening the cinches of the bay. He took a quick look out at the ranch, but the man had disappeared.
As rapidly as the terrain allowed he nosed his horse back through the rocky scree.
'I guess I could o' winged him,' he told himself. 'Still would be some shootin'.'
The girl stumbled and almost fell, then she steadied herself and kept running. But she was breathless and tiring, destined for a fall. She landed on her hands and knees, then, with dogged effort, forced herself up. Her vision was blurred when she looked back at the crossing.
She realized she wasn't being chased, but in the same instant she heard the sounds of a galloping horse. She felt sickness and a new seizing fear. There was no one in sight, no one coming from the crossing or the ranch. Then she saw a rider coming from one of the foothill trails. She was as rooted to the ground as a nesting quail in the gaze of a fox. She was incapable of any further movement as the man on the bay swung his horse towards her.
She heard the man call out, but there was nothing familiar about it. She stumbled on again until, with a great sob, her legs buckled and she crumpled.
She never knew how long it was before she regained consciousness, until she felt the cloy of the soil between her fingers. Then she saw the man watching her. He was kneeling, and close by.
'Maybe you'd better stay down for a while longer,' she heard him say.
'I'm not hurt,' she said, and clambered to her feet with her head still buzzing. 'It's you?' she said unbelieving, as soon as she recognized Chad.
'Yep, it's me all right, miss. Just as well too.'
They looked at each other, not quite certain what to say. They were still in their damp clothes, but hers were covered with dirt and dust.
'Take a sip ... or perhaps you've swallowed enough already today.' He smiled. He offered the girl his water-canteen. 'Why didn't you stop when I called?'
She sipped some water. 'Someone was firing at me.'
'That was me. I was firing at him.' Chad took his canteen from the girl. 'Surely that gives me some sort o' right to know what was goin' on. Who was that settin' out to lay his whip across you?'
'I don't know. I never saw him before.'
'What did he want o' you? He must have said somethin'. I couldn't exactly hear from where I was.'
'He didn't say anything. He was just ... waiting.' The girl faltered.
Chad glanced back along the wagon road. 'Oh, right. I'll just have to guess then. Who owns the ranch?'
'My father. It's called Big Windy.'
Chad's brow creased.
'It's the men ... the cowboys. They can't cope with the land ... get exhausted,' she explained.
Chad thought he understood and nodded. Then he looked back again at the ranch house. 'We ain't met properly.'
'My name's Rose Bridge,' the girl said. 'Who are you?'
'Chad Miller.' Chad nodded back towards the creek. He saw the man, who'd emerged from the willows. He was still holding the whip, trailing his grey out on to the range. 'You still sayin' you don't know him?' he said.
Rose thought for a second. 'I don't exactly know him. But he's one of Brig Porton's men. Porton wants the land ... our land. He's got nigh on everyone else's in the valley. They're pushing in on the house now. I don't think we can hold out much longer.'
Chad felt the gut thump of riding into trouble again. 'Who is this Porton? What's his grind?' he asked.
'He was big-shot, army. Got brevetted after chasing some Confederate infantry into the desert in New Mexico. Apparently there never was a battle. Some say, he's been looking ever since. Being called Brig is just about all he can to do to keep the memory alive. When the war was over he started buying land with annuity cash. But he didn't know when to stop ... started to take. "The war gave us thieves as well as cripples and mourners", Pa says.'
For a while Chad recalled the Confederate soldier half-buried in the sand near Peralta, wondered if that could have been part of Porton's war. 'How many of you are there, that can't hold out?' he wanted to know.
'I've got a brother and an older sister, and our foreman's still with us. There's two more who help with running the ranch. That's it.'
'How about your parents?'
'There's only my father. And they managed to shoot him last week. Then we lost two ranch hands. Porton sent over some of his hired guns to frighten them off.'
'They killed him ... your pa?'
'He's not dead yet. He's at the ranch. The town doctor won't come out, though.'
'He's scared of Porton. Same as everyone else in Hooper. Before this trouble started we often had up to a dozen hands. Most were intimidated or beaten up in town. I don't blame them for leaving. They weren't on fighting wages.'
Chad turned away and stared back at the Big Windy ranch house. He rubbed his chin, looked earnestly at the girl. 'Well, miss, a while back, it really weren't the sort o' work I had in mind. But right now, an' until somethin' better comes along....'
Rose looked doubtful of Chad's seeming offer. 'Well, that's going to be sooner rather than later, I'll guarantee. However, we can't pay you. The money's run out,' she added simply.
'You can feed me, an' I can drag a cot to shelter.'
Rose shook her head in confusion. 'I don't understand. Why would you want to do this?'
'Because I'm mighty hungry, an' mighty tired.'
Rose looked into Chad's dark eyes, saw the assurance and grit. 'You'll be risking your life for ... for what?' she asked. 'For nothing?'
'There's been times when I've done it for less than nothin'. Believe me,' he said, and smiled.
Rose stood nervous, undecided. Sniffling, she rubbed a hand across her grimed face.
Chad walked the bay in a full circle. He pulled its head down, spoke softly. 'Maybe now's the time to move on ... ride East. I hear they're real civilized ... eatin' cake in St Louis.'
He mounted the horse and looked down at the girl. 'Unless you want to walk?' he said, offering a hand.CHAPTER 3
THE BRIDGE FAMILY
Shortly after they rode from the low slopes of the timberline Chad saw the gruesome, scorched corpses of the cattle.
'That's the last of the longhorns,' said Rose. 'The High Smoke riders shot them all. We couldn't bury them,' she stuttered.
Chad glanced at the dried-out remains of a yearling. 'It sure ain't a pretty sight. Someone owes you,' he drawled.
Sitting behind Chad, Rose involuntarily shuddered. She sensed that behind the casual remark, there was a dire threat. She wondered who Chad Miller was, what he was doing in the San Luis Valley. He didn't look or sound like an out-of-work cowhand, a grubline rider. But Rose knew that looks often deceived, knew better than to be too enquiring of strangers.
Big Windy ranch house overlooked Saguache Creek. There was a barn and sheds, a stable, two corrals, and a shacky bunkhouse for sleeping the extra hands. The main house was constructed of flat, square stone and split logs, with a broad porch, front and back. The shake roof was unburnable, laid upon two feet of sod. The outside doors were massive, and the windows had heavy shutters swung inside.
Excerpted from Miller's Ride by Caleb Rand. Copyright © 2006 Caleb Rand. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Contents1: MILLER'S GIFT,
2: BIG WINDY,
3: THE BRIDGE FAMILY,
5: OPENING ROUND,
6: RIDING THE HILLS,
7: HIGH SMOKE,
8: THE DIVERSION,
9: THE MUNCIE NOTE,
10: THE DEAD LEAD,
12: TELLING OF TALES,
14: THE HAND,
15: NIGHT FIRE,
16: HIRED GUNS,
17: CIVIL LAW,
18: THE PERSUADING,
19: TOWN HELP,
21: SHORT STAY,
22: BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY,
By the Same Author,