When his brother goes missing, a cowboy rides straight into danger in this Ralph Compton western...
The life of a cowboy suits Thalis Christie just fine. A puncher for the Crescent H in Texas, he loves what he does and is damn good at it too. He doesn’t even mind being away from his family—he’s got good friends to keep him from getting too homesick. That is, until his folks write, imploring him to hunt down his brother, Myles, who’s been shot while prospecting in the Black Hills.
Thalis sets out to do his family duty and find his little brother—still alive, he hopes. Thalis has got his partner, Ned Leslie, by his side, as well as some other surprising travel companions, including the famous Wild Bill Hickok. But as he follows his brother’s wandering trail across the country, leading him to encounter deadly obstacles from Texas to Blood Gulch, he begins to wonder if he can ever return to the comfortable life he used to lead—or if he even wants to.…
More Than Six Million Ralph Compton Books in Print!
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
David Robbins has been a writer for more than twenty-five years, publishing under a variety of pseudonyms. He is the author of Badlanders and has written more than a dozen successful titles in the Ralph Compton series.
Read an Excerpt
THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
Thalis Christie knew he was in trouble moments after he opened his eyes. Dawn was about to break, and he lay there debating whether to get up or wait a few minutes.
That was when something brushed against his leg.
Thal nearly jumped out of his skin. There shouldn’t be anything under the tarpaulin and blanket that covered him—except him. It didn’t help matters that before he’d turned in, he’d stripped off every stitch of clothing.
Thal was on his side, with just his head poking out of his bed. Goose bumps erupted as the thing that had crawled in with him slithered onto his shin. Snake, his mind screamed, and it was all he could do not to scramble out. He didn’t move for two reasons. The first was that he would rather die than let the other Crescent H punchers see him naked. The second reason mattered more. The snake might be a rattler. If he moved his leg, the thing might bite.
No one else was up yet except the cook, Old Pete, who was over at the chuck wagon fixing breakfast. A few of the hands were snoring. His pard, Ned Leslie, was closest to him and snoring the loudest.
“Ned!” Thal whispered.
Ned went on sounding like a bear in hibernation.
Thal tensed as the snake inched up his leg. It was the creepiest feeling. Worse than that time a black widow spider had crawled up his arm in the woodshed. At least he could see the spider.
His mouth was so dry Thal had to try twice to say a little louder, “Ned, consarn you. Wake up.”
Another puncher muttered and rolled over, smacking his lips.
Thal swiveled his eyes from side to side, seeking anyone else who might be awake.
The snake reached his knee.
Thal blamed himself for his predicament. He shouldn’t have used the tarp, as hot as it was. But thunderheads had been noisily rumbling in the distance when he turned in, and he hadn’t cared to be soaked. It never did rain, though. The storm had passed them by.
Because of the heat, Thal had left a gap for air to circulate. That was how the snake had gotten in with him.
Of all the ways for a man to meet his Maker, Thal reflected, being bit in his bed was downright dumb. He’d be the laughingstock of the hereafter.
He saw the tarp bulge slightly as the serpent inched up his thigh, and he broke out in a cold sweat.
To the east the sky had brightened and the stars were fading. Others would wake up soon. The first puncher who did, Thal would ask for help. He didn’t know what anyone could do, but there had to be something.
Luck was with him, for just then Ned Leslie slowly rose onto his elbows and sleepily gazed around. Ned’s hat was off, and his usually slick black hair stuck out at all angles. He yawned and gave his head a slight shake, then saw Thal staring at him. “Mornin’, ugly.”
“I need help,” Thal whispered.
“What’s that, pard?” Ned said, scratching himself. “Didn’t your ma ever teach you not to mumble? You’ll have to speak up.”
“I need help,” Thal whispered a little louder.
“You sure do,” Ned said, his green eyes twinkling. “That filly over to the Mossy Horn Saloon wouldn’t warm to you nohow the last time we were there. And Lordy, how you tried.”
Thal smothered a few choice cusswords. Ned had been needling him about his attempt at romance for weeks now. “Snake,” he whispered.
“Shake?” Ned said, and sat up. “You got cottonmouth or somethin’? I don’t see how you could, seein’ as how we haven’t had a lick of liquor for days.” He ran a hand over his hair to smooth it down. “Maybe more whiskey would have helped you with that filly. Get a gal drunk enough and she’ll do just about anything.”
“Snake,” Thal said.
Ned didn’t seem to hear him. “The problem with that is, by the time the gal is drunk, you are too. Some of those doves hold red-eye like it’s water. The last time a gal and me got drunk together, I woke up in an outhouse with no idea how I got there or what happened to her. So gettin’ drunk ain’t no guarantee you’ll get lucky.”
“Ned, snake, damn you.”
“What’s that, Thalis?” Ned jammed his hat on. “You’re actin’ awful peculiar. Quit whisperin’. My ears haven’t quite woke up yet, although the rest of me has.”
Thal took a gamble. He said out loud, “There’s a snake in my beddin’, you lunkhead.”
“You don’t say?” Ned said calmly.
Thal could have hit him. The reptile had reached his hip and was posed along his unmentionables. He shuddered to think of the thing’s fangs sinking into his private parts.
“That’s what you get for bundlin’ in all that canvas in the summer,” Ned was saying. “Snakes like hot spots, and the inside of your beddin’ must be an oven.”
“Ned,” Thal said, “I’m unshucked.”
Ned started to laugh, and caught himself. “You’re buck naked?” he said, and then did laugh. “Well, ain’t this a pickle?”
“It could be a rattler.”
“Has it rattled yet?”
“Not that I’ve heard.”
“That’s good,” Ned said. “They usually only bite when they’re riled, and they usually rattle before they bite. So long as it doesn’t, you should be all right.”
“Ned, for the love of heaven.”
“Oh, all right.” Ned cast his blanket off. He had gone to sleep with his shirt and pants on. He’d taken off his boots, though, and now he commenced to pull one on.
Much too slowly, for Thal’s liking. “Any chance you could hurry it up? Bein’ snakebit ain’t nothin’ to sneeze at.”
“Maybe it’s not the heat,” Ned said, tugging harder. “Maybe it’s how you smell.”
“You and your baths,” Ned said. “Always goin’ on about how you like to smell clean when we go to town so the gals will fancy you more. But bein’ clean didn’t help with that dove, did it? And after you sat in that river water for pretty near ten minutes, scrubbin’ yourself raw. I don’t see why you bother. You probably gave the fish fits.”
Thal couldn’t believe his pard was ribbing him, yet again, about his fondness for baths. Not at a time like this. “If I get bit and die, I’m comin’ back to haunt you.”
“That’s the spirit,” Ned said, reaching for his other boot.
“I mean it. I’ll come back and make you take baths just to get even.”
Ned paused. “Can a ghost do that? Make somebody do somethin’ they don’t want to do? If so, you can keep your darn baths. Twice a year was good enough for my pa and twice a year is good enough for me. That’s why wash pans were invented. Our face and our hair are all that count. Who cares about the rest of us? No one can see how dirty we are if we have our clothes on.”
Thal felt a feathery touch on his thigh. The snake’s tongue, he reckoned. “Ned, honest to God.”
“Don’t be bringin’ the Almighty into this. It’s not His fault He gave you a brain and you don’t use it.”
The snake was on the move again. Thal felt it creep past his hip, climbing higher.
Ned stood and stomped each foot a couple of times. “There. I’m all together. Or pretty near.” Bending, he scooped up his gun belt and proceeded to strap on his six-shooter. When he was done, he patted his Colt. “I’m not Jesse Lee, but I reckon I can hit a snake in a bedroll.”
“Like blazes you will,” Thal said. “You’re liable to hit me.” Neither of them was much shakes with a revolver. They only ever used their six-guns, ironically enough, for snakes and such.
“I know what made it crawl in with you,” Ned said, and snapped his fingers. “It’s not the heat or your smell. It’s that yellow hair of yours. I bet the snake mistook it for the sun and you for a flat rock.”
“You’re not even a little bit funny.” Thal was whispering again. The snake had reached his chest. He nearly shuddered.
“Some folks might not think so,” Ned said. “But I like to start my day with a grin. It puts me in a good mood for whatever comes after.”
“The snake,” Thal whispered.
“Oh, Thalis,” Ned said with an exaggerated sigh. “The way you harp on the little things. It’s not as if you’ve got a bear in there. That filly doesn’t know how lucky she is that she didn’t let you lead her to the altar. You’d have harped her to death with all your gripin’.”
“I swear,” Thal said. The snake was almost to his shoulder. Peering down in, he imagined he saw the tips of its forked tongue.
This whole time, others had been waking up and rising. A pair of them ambled over. Like Thal and Ned, they were pards. Unlike Thal and Ned, who were both in their twenties, one of the pair was past forty and the other was the youngest hand in the outfit.
Jesse Lee Hardesty was seventeen. He hailed from North Carolina, and was Southern through and through. He liked to wear a gray shirt as a kind of tribute to his pa, who had lost an arm in the War Between the States. His shirt matched his gray eyes. His bandanna was red. Another splash of color decorated his hip. Where the rest of the punchers got by with an ordinary Colt, Jesse Lee’s sported ivory handles and nickel plating. He was uncommonly quick on the draw, and accurate. Around the campfire at night, he loved to hear stories about shootists. Some of the more seasoned punchers worried that if the boy wasn’t careful, he’d turn into one himself.
Crawford Soames was one of those worriers. He’d been Jesse Lee’s pard for going on a year. A lot of the men figured that Crawford had taken Jesse Lee under his wing to keep him out of trouble.
“What’s goin’ on?” Crawford now asked Ned Leslie. “Why is your pard still in bed? Is he sick?”
“Thal has come down with a case of snake,” Ned said with mock gravity.
“He’s done what, now?” Jesse Lee drawled.
“A snake has crawled in with him,” Crawford had realized. “That happens from time to time. I remember Charley Logan, over to the Bar H. A snake crawled in with him one time and bit him when he rolled on top of it. Lucky for him it was a copperhead and not a rattler. Copperhead bites don’t always kill, but he was in misery for months.”
Thal was about to burst with exasperation. “Are you three goin’ to stand there jawin’ or are you goin’ to help me?”
“Someone flip that tarp off,” Jesse Lee said, placing his right hand on his ivory-handled Colt. “I bet I can shoot the sidewinder before it bites him.”
“Sidewinders are desert rattlers,” Ned said. “Southwest Texas is a lot of things, but it’s not no desert.”
“Most likely the snake’s a diamondback,” Crawford said. “Timber rattlers like trees, and we’re not near any woods.”
“We have diamondbacks in North Carolina,” Jesse Lee said. “Folks say they’re the most dangerous there is.”
“They are,” Crawford said.
The snake reached Thal’s shoulder. Now he definitely could see its tongue darting out and in. “I hope you all die,” he said.
“We’d better do somethin’,” Ned said. “I don’t want to have to break in a new pard.” He came over to the tarp. “I’ll grab this side. Craw, you take the other. When I count to three, we’ll flip it off and Jesse Lee can try and shoot the serpent before it can strike.”
“Try?” Jesse Lee said.
“Hold on,” Thal said, breaking out in even more sweat. “There’s got to be a better way.”
“What would you have us do?” Ned said. “Ask it ‘pretty please’ to not bite you and come out and leave you be?”
Jesse Lee chuckled. “Wouldn’t that be somethin’? A snake with manners.”
“The things you come up with,” Crawford said.
“Let’s hear your plan,” Ned said to Thal. “Do you have a trick for lurin’ the reptile out?”
Thal was about to say that all he cared about was not being bitten when the snake’s snout appeared at the edge of the tarp. Eyes with vertical slits peered back at him with what he took to be malignant purpose. He recollected his grandma telling him once that snakes were evil, that they were Satan’s progeny on earth, as she’d put it, constant reminders of the fact that Satan had disguised himself as a snake to cause the Fall. “It’s right here,” he whispered.
“Here where?” Ned said.
The rattlesnake slithered into the open.
Thal nearly cried out. It was indeed a diamondback. Over three feet long and as thick as his wrist, the snake glided by within inches of his face.
As if it had become aware of the others, the rattler suddenly streaked toward a patch of high grass.
Just like that, Jesse Lee’s Colt was in his hand. He fired once, from the hip, and the snake’s head exploded. The body stopped cold, writhed spasmodically, and was still.
Shouts came from different quarters, cowhands demanding to know what was going on.
“Just a rattler!” Ned hollered, and smiling, he squatted and tapped Thal on the head. “Are you fixin’ to lie abed all day? Or did you wet yourself and you need a towel?”
“What I need,” Thal said, “is a new pard.”
The Crescent H was one of the largest ranches in that part of Texas. Two-thirds of it was hilly, with a lot of brush. The cattle loved that brush. They’d hide in it during the day.
Thal and Ned and ten other punchers, among them Crawford and Jesse Lee, were searching for those hard-to-find critters to add them to the growing herd that would be shipped to New Orleans.
Thal had donned chaps on account of all the thorns. His were batwings. So were Ned’s. Crawford was fond of bull-hide chaps because they were thicker and offered more protection. As for Jesse Lee, he liked Angora chaps. Made from goat hair, his were as white as snow.
The four of them were working a section together. Crawford was the best tracker, and found some fresh sign.
“Made this mornin’. Over a dozen or more. And lookee here.” Bending low from his saddle, Crawford pointed at a particular set of prints. “The size of those, it’s got to be a big ol’ steer.”
“Wonderful,” Thal said. Older, wilder animals were notorious for giving cowpokes a hard time. The animals would run and have to be roped, and sometimes would fight when cornered, and their horns weren’t to be taken lightly.
“He went up thataway,” Crawford said, bobbing his chin at thick timber ahead. “Why don’t you boys split right and Jesse Lee and me will take the left side, and we’ll work our way in?”
“Sounds good to me,” Ned said.
Thal had his rope ready. Shorter than the rope he’d use in open country, it had a smaller loop. Both were essential. In heavy brush a long rope with a wide loop became entangled too easily. “Maybe he’ll let us herd him.”
“I love an optimist,” Ned said.
Jesse Lee laughed, and he and Crawford went their own way.
Clucking to his roan, Ned assumed the lead. “I’ve been meanin’ to ask you somethin’, pard.”
“I’m listenin’,” Thal said, although he’d rather they didn’t jaw. An old steer could be as quiet as an Apache when it wanted to, and might slip by if they didn’t stay alert.
“How long do you aim to keep at this?”
“At what?” Thal asked absently. “Brush poppin’?” They had been working the brush country for pretty near half a year, and he had gotten darn good at it, if he did say so himself.
“No, you knucklehead. This cowboyin’.”
The question so startled Thal that he tore his gaze from the undergrowth. “Where did this come from? I thought you liked it.”
“I do,” Ned said, nodding. “I like the outdoors. And I like to ride. So the work agrees with me.”
“Why talk of quittin’, then?”
Ned shifted to look back at him. “I didn’t mean quit all cowboyin’. I meant quit the Crescent H and find cow work somewhere else.”
Thal had never given it any thought. The wages were good, they were treated decent, and Old Pete had a knack for tasty victuals. “What in tarnation is wrong with the Crescent H?”
“Not a thing,” Ned said. “But it’s not the only cow outfit in the world. There are heaps of them, from Oklahoma to Montana.”
“Wait,” Thal said. “You’re hankerin’ to leave Texas?” He’d only come to the Lone Star state about four years ago, and had fallen in love with it. He’d never considered going anywhere else in a million years.
“Texas ain’t all of creation, you know,” Ned said. “There’s a whole wide world we haven’t seen yet.”
“Why, Ned Leslie,” Thal scolded him, only half in jest. “You’ve had me snookered all this time. I took you for a Texan through and through.” His friend had been born and bred there.
“I’m as Texan as you or anybody,” Ned said defensively, “and I’ll thrash anyone who says different. But would it hurt to travel a little? Would it hurt to see what else is out there?”
“I know what this is,” Thal said. “You’ve come down with a case of wanderlust.” He had a cousin who’d come down with it. An itch to see what lay over the next horizon, and the one after that, and then the one after that. The last he’d heard, his cousin was up in Oregon country and could go no farther west on account of the Pacific Ocean. That was where wanderlust got you.
“I suppose I have,” Ned admitted. “Although it didn’t come on me suddenlike. I’ve been thinkin’ about seein’ more of the world for a while now, and was waitin’ for the right time to bring it up.”
“What makes this the right time?”
“That snake. It spooked you. I could tell. You reckoned you were a goner, and I don’t blame you. That rattler was proof that none of us know when our time is up. We could be bucked out tomorrow, for all we know.”
“They call that ‘life,’” Thal said.
“All the more reason for us to see some more of this world before we cash in our chips. We could hire out on a drive to Kansas, or anywhere you wanted.”
“This is your brainstorm, not mine.”
“And you’re against it,” Ned said.
“The notion is new, is all,” Thal said. “You’ve sprung it on me out of the blue. I need to ponder on it some.”
“Ponder all you need to.”
Thal tried to concentrate on the brush but couldn’t. “Do you have somewhere particular in mind or do you aim to ride from here to Canada to find a place you like?”
“I’m not lookin’ for somewhere to plant roots,” Ned said, sounding irritated. “I just want to look.”
Thal never savvied that attitude. His cousin, for instance, had always gone on and on about what was over the next horizon. The answer was simple. Another horizon. A fella could chase horizons from now until the day of doom, and what would it get him? A sore backside from all that riding, and not much else. To Thal, one prairie wasn’t much different from another, one mountain peak wasn’t any more exciting than the next. Sure, there were some wonderful sights in the world, but riding around looking for them would get boring after a while. How many sunsets did a man have to see, how many sparkling lakes and grand canyons, before he realized that when he had seen one, he’d seen them all?
A sudden snort brought Thal out of himself.
Ned drew rein and pointed at a patch of thick brush ahead and to the left. Deep in the patch, something moved.
Unlimbering his rope, Thal nodded. It must be the big steer they were after. He looked for sign of Crawford and Jesse Lee coming from the other direction. With their help it would be a lot easier.
Another snort heralded the crash of brush as the steer hurtled from cover, making to the northwest.
“Almighty!” Ned blurted.
Thal didn’t blame him. The steer was huge. The biggest he’d ever seen, two thousand pounds or better, with a horn spread of eight feet, at least. It was a monster, and it plowed through the oak brush as if the vegetation were paper.
Ned let out a whoop and took off after it, bawling, “Craw! Jesse! It’s comin’ your way!”
Thal used his spurs. The mare he was riding was one of six horses he’d picked from the remuda. Small and wiry, she was a natural at brush popping. He’d picked her for just that purpose. Larger and slower horses were of no use in the brush.
The longhorn hurtled along like a steam engine, its legs pumping like pistons, leaving a swath of flattened vegetation in its wake. The animal was moving so fast they were falling behind.
Ned resorted to lashing his reins. “Get on there, horse! Get on!”
Acting on inspiration, Thal veered onto the path of destruction and followed it as if it were a road. He quickly gained to where he was only a few yards from the longhorn’s tail.
“Stick with him, pard!” Ned hollered.
Thal had every intention of doing so. A peeve of his was letting a steer escape. He’d only ever had it happen a few times, but it galled him. He took it personal, the way some men took insults. And in a way, it was an insult. A cowhand worth his place at the feed trough should never let a cow get away.
The longhorn abruptly broke sharply to the west.
Reining after him, Thal saw the reason why. Crawford was barreling in from the northwest. Almost instantly the older puncher reined to cut the longhorn off, but the monster flew by before Crawford could throw a loop.
Thal bent over his saddle horn to avoid a tree limb. The noise they made was tremendous. Between the pounding of hooves and the crashing of brush, he could barely hear himself think.
Two wide white stripes appeared and grew into Angora chaps as Jesse Lee, yipping like a Comanche, bore down from the west.
Again the longhorn changed direction, to the southwest this time. Jesse Lee tried a toss, but it fell short.
Thal could have told him that would happen. The youngster had misjudged. It took experience to know when to let fly. And if there was anything in the world Thal was good at, it was roping. He practiced all the time, and why not? Roping was one of the main skills of his trade. A man who couldn’t rope was worthless as a brush thumper and at riding herd.
The longhorn was going all out. The wily critter knew from experience that if it could stay ahead of them long enough, their horses would tire and they’d have to give up.
Not this time, Thal thought. The steer had met its match in the mare, who had more stamina than most three horses put together. That might be bragging, but it was close to the truth.
They swept down one slope and up another, the longhorn a living engine of destruction, the mare a credit to her kind. The chase might have gone on for a while, if not for the unforeseen.
The steer was racing down yet another hill. Thal, still glued to its tail, eagerly watched for a chance to throw. Without warning the mare squealed and pitched into a roll. Kicking free of the stirrups at the last moment, Thal pushed clear. He struck hard on his shoulder. His hat went flying and he lost his hold on his rope.
The next he knew, Thal was flat on his back. His shoulder and the back of his neck throbbed with pain. Grimacing, he raised his head and turned it from side to side. Nothing appeared to be broken.
Her nostrils flaring, the mare was back up. Her eyes were wide and she was quaking.
A bellow explained why.
Thal’s blood went cold at the sight of the longhorn not twenty feet away. Its legs planted wide, it snorted, pawed at the ground, and tossed its head from side to side. He recognized the signs. It was about to charge.
Springing to his feet, Thal dashed to the mare. He reached her just as the steer exploded into motion. In a bound he was in the saddle and reined around to get out of there. He realized he wasn’t going to make it and braced for the impact of a ton of sinew and bone.
Out of nowhere, Ned Leslie galloped up. His loop was in the air even as he broke clear of the brush, and it settled as neatly as could be—but only over one horn. That was enough to slow the steer but not stop it. The next instant, though, Jesse Lee was there, whooping as he tossed his own rope. It flew over the other horn and down over the critter’s head, but not quite far enough. The steer snorted and pulled back.
“Hold him!” Ned bawled.
There wasn’t much either man could do other than dally his rope and hope for the best.
Thal had drawn rein. Thinking to help, he swung down and ran to his rope, which lay on the ground not six feet from the struggling longhorn.
“What do you think you’re doin’?” Ned yelled.
Scooping his rope up, Thal coiled it for a throw. He wasn’t watching the steer, and looked up when Jesse Lee shouted a warning.
A shorn tip sheared at Thal’s face. Ducking, he dropped to his hands and knees and scrambled out of there before he was gored or kicked. The steer tried to reach him but was hindered by the ropes.
With a great rending of brush, Crawford finally arrived. He didn’t waste time with a head toss. He threw just as the longhorn reared back with its front hooves off the ground. His loop passed under and up, and with a swift dally and a jerk on his reins, he brought the monster crashing down on its side.
Darting around, Thal threw his own loop over the rear legs, and the job was done. Only then did it hit him how close he had come to not seeing the sun set.
“That was plumb fun,” Jesse Lee declared. “Let’s add him to the herd and go find another.”
“Kids,” Crawford said.
“Are you all right, pard?” Ned asked Thal. “You look a little shaken.”
“First the snake and now this,” Thal said. “I’m havin’ a wonderful day.”
“Look at the bright side,” Ned said. “You’re still breathin’.”
Cowboys liked to eat. After a long, hard day, they loved to stuff themselves and relax around the fire. If the food was bad, it affected their outlook, and their work. The last thing a rancher wanted was a bunch of unhappy punchers. Which was why it was often said that the most important person in any outfit was the cook.
Most, like Old Pete, were older men. Most, again like Old Pete, wouldn’t qualify to hire on as a culinary wizard with a fancy restaurant. They didn’t make dishes that dazzled the brain. But they did take pains to make the best food they could. Their meals were always hot, and ready on time, and varied enough that their fare wasn’t always the same old thing.
An outfit’s cook was the lord of the collective outfit’s stomach, and as such, he enjoyed a sort of power no one but the rancher rivaled. When a cook said he needed help with this or that task, he got that help, no questions asked. Tote water? No problem. Help to clean the pots and pans? You bet. His wishes were the cowpokes’ commands.
The Crescent H punchers adored Old Pete, even if he was as cantankerous as could be. Most cooks were. It was sort of a tradition. But Pete worked hard to fill their bellies with food they liked, and that counted more for them than anything.
On this particular evening, Old Pete had prepared stew and sourdough biscuits.
Thal and his friends were the last to reach camp. The sun had already set. They weren’t worried about there not being any food left. Old Pete always made plenty. He’d never let a puncher go hungry.
As Thal came up to the pot with his plate in hand, Old Pete cocked a crinkled eye at him.
“About time. I thought maybe I’d have to keep this food warm till midnight.”
“I’m so hungry I could eat the wagon,” Thal said.
“You do, and you’ll be pickin’ splinters out of your teeth from now until forever.” Old Pete ladled a heaping portion and added two biscuits. “If you need more, just say so.”
“I could hug you.”
“You do, and I’ll wallop you with this ladle.” Old Pete shook it at him, then motioned for Thal to move on so Ned could take his turn.
His stomach growling, Thal sat cross-legged facing the fire and dug in. He was famished.
Ned, Crawford, and Jesse Lee joined him. Not much was said until they had cleaned their plates and were sipping coffee from their tin cups.
“That was more than all right,” Crawford remarked. “If Old Pete ever leaves this outfit for another, I reckon I’ll go hire on with them just so I can go on eatin’ his food.”
Thal chuckled. Some punchers did that. They’d follow a good cook wherever he went. “You old men and your bellies.”
“I can still whip my weight in wildcats,” Crawford said.
“He’s not that old.” Jesse Lee came to his pard’s defense. “It’ll be a year or two yet before we can call him Methuselah.”
“Speakin’ of leavin’,” Thal said, “Ned told me today he’s hankerin’ to leave the Crescent H.”
“Whatever for?” Crawford said in surprise. “This here is a good outfit.”
“You got another in mind?” Jesse Lee asked.
“He does not,” Thal answered before Ned could. “He wants to wander around seein’ the world.”
“For real?” Jesse Lee said.
Thal nodded. “I was plumb flabbergasted myself. We do have it good here. I’d as soon stay on until I’m as old as Craw.”
“Keep it up,” Crawford said.
“Mind if I speak for myself?” Ned said. “I agree the Crescent H is top-notch. But there’s a big old world out there I haven’t seen much of, and lately I’ve been hankerin’ to have a gander at some of it before I’m too old to sit a saddle.”
“Stop talkin’ about old,” Crawford said.
“Where he goes, I go,” Thal said, “even if I’d just as soon not.”
“Thanks,” Ned said drily.
“I don’t know,” Jesse Lee said.
“No one is askin’ you or Craw to tag along,” Ned said. “I haven’t even made up my mind yet. It’s just a hankerin’.”
“Some hankerin’s should be nipped in the bud,” Crawford said. “Like goin’ barefoot to take a leak in the middle of the night. You never know but when a rattler might mistake your toe for a mouse.”
“My pard knows all about rattlers,” Ned said. “He’s an expert.”
Jesse Lee laughed.
“I knew a puncher once who got a hankerin’ go be an ore hound,” Crawford went on. “So he took himself to Arizona, bought a mule and a shovel and a pan, and went to it.” He paused. “Apaches staked him out and skinned him alive.”
“I’m not about to be no prospector,” Ned said.
Thal gazed up at the sky, which had darkened and was filling with stars. “Thank you, Lord.”
“There’s a lot of talk about gold up the Black Hills way,” Jesse Lee remarked. “Ever since Custer found some.”
“There’s also a lot of Sioux in the Black Hills,” Crawford said, “and you might recollect that they wiped out Custer and most of his command.”
“They’re as unfriendly as the Comanches,” Jesse Lee said.
“I’m not hankerin’ to go to the Black Hills either,” Ned informed them. “I was thinkin’ more like driftin’ up Denver way, and maybe Montana, after.”
“News to me,” Thal said. “A pard is always the last to know.”
“What’s in Denver besides whores?” Crawford said. “I hear tell they’ve got more than just about anywhere.”
“More than New Orleans?” Jesse Lee said.
Crawford nodded. “More than a thousand work the line, I’ve heard. They call it the Row, and it’s wide-open.”
Jesse Lee whistled. “That’s a heap of whores.”
“I wouldn’t go to Denver for the whores,” Ned said, sounding irritated. “I’d go to take in the sights.”
“Which?” Jesse Lee said.
“How the blazes do I know? I ain’t been there yet.”
“It seems to me,” Crawford said, “that you’ve got ants in your britches, and unless you scratch powerful hard, they’re liable to lead you to who knows where.”
“Now it’s ants,” Ned said in disgust.
“Well, it’s somethin’,” Thal said. “But you’re my pard and I’ll stick by you.”
That was what pards did. He’d tried to explain that once to a drummer from back East. The drummer wasn’t acquainted with cowpoke lingo and thought that a pard was the same as being a friend. Thal had set him straight. A pard was more than that. A pard was a range mate, a bunkhouse companion, confidant, adviser. A pard was more a brother than anything. Pards were inseparable, and would do anything for each other. Which was why most chose their pards with care. A bad pard could bring a man to ruin.
“Don’t pack your war bag just yet,” Ned said. “I ain’t even decided if I’m goin’ to go.”
“I hope you don’t,” Jesse Lee said. “You two are the best friends Craw and me have.”
“If you were to drift, I might even go with you,” Crawford said.
Jesse Lee gave him a sharp glance. “For real?”
“You say that a lot,” Crawford said.
“For real?” Jesse Lee said again.
Crawford chuckled, and shrugged. “I haven’t seen much of the world my own self, and as you three chipmunks keep pointin’ out, I’ll be sproutin’ gray hairs any day now.”
“Chipmunks?” Ned said.
“Ever see how a chipmunk’s cheeks bulge when it’s gatherin’ up nuts and such?” Crawford said.
“I have,” Ned replied.
“Well, your heads are a lot like their cheeks.”
“Are you sayin’ we’re the cheeks or the nuts?”
“Guess,” Crawford said, and laughed.
“If anyone ever tells you that you have a sense of humor,” Ned said, “shoot him.”
Now it was Thal who laughed. It struck him how much he liked these three, and working at the Crescent H. He hoped Ned didn’t give in to his wanderlust. It would be a shame to give up the good life they had.
Off in the growing darkness, hooves drummed.
A puncher who was spreading out his blanket looked up and said, “Someone is comin’.”
“Who’s left that ain’t here?” another man asked.
They all looked around, and then Old Pete said, “No one is left except the two ridin’ herd. And the rider ain’t comin’ from that direction.”
Thal rose to his feet, and he wasn’t the only one. Whoever it was was riding hard, and that was unusual unless there was an urgency involved.
“He’s in an awful hurry.” Ned had said the very thing that Thal was thinking.
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the rider drew rein in a flurry of dust and dismounted.
“Why, it’s Hank,” Jesse Lee said.
Hank Winslow was the Crescent H foreman. Like their cook, he had a reputation for being one of the best in the business. He had more experience with cattle than just about anyone, and he was fair in all his dealings. So long as a puncher did his job to the best of his ability, Hank was willing to forgive the occasional mistake. But cross him, and he came down on the offender like a stampede.
Hank didn’t look all that tough, which was deceptive. He had a square jaw and a scar on his chin from the time he was kicked by a bronc. Now he nodded and said simply, “Boys.”
Old Pete produced a cup of coffee. “Here’s some Arbuckle’s to wash down the dust.”
“I’m obliged,” Hank said.
“If you came to check up on us,” a cowboy named Fisher said, “you’ll be happy to hear there hasn’t been a hitch.”
Another puncher nodded. “The roundup is goin’ exactly as you wanted. We’re even ahead on the count.”
“It’s not the cows I’m here about,” Hank said, and shocked Thal by pointing at him. “It’s Christie here.”
“Me?” Thal blurted.
“There’s been a development,” Hanks said. “The big sugar sent me to fetch you back.”
“Me?” Thal blurted a second time. He couldn’t imagine a single circumstance that would call for the ranch owner to send for him.
“He’s not bein’ fired, is he?” Ned said. “Because if he is, when he goes, I go.”
“Why would we fire a good hand like Thalis?” Hank said, and grinned. “Now, you, on the other hand . . .”
Old Pete cackled and some of the others joined in.
“It’s nice to be loved,” Ned said.
“What can Mr. Hooper possibly want with me?” Thal asked. “I haven’t done anything.”
“He got a letter,” Hank said.
“Mr. Hooper did?”
“It wasn’t President Grant.”
Old Pete did more cackling.
“Mr. Hooper got a letter that has somethin’ to do with me?” Thal was unable to hide his bewilderment.
“It’s from your sister,” Hank said.
“If she’s the only sister you’ve got, that’s who it must be.”
Thal could have been floored with a feather. He’d left home nearly six years ago and hadn’t heard from them the entire time. Not that he blamed them. He’d only ever sent word to them once, about hiring on at the Crescent H, and how much he liked it. “Is it my ma or my pa? Are they sick or dead?”
“Mr. Hooper didn’t say and I didn’t ask,” Hank replied. “The letter was addressed to him. I wasn’t there when he read it. All I know is that he sent for me and told me to fetch you right back, and here I am. We’ll leave at first light.” He turned and went over to some other punchers.
Ned placed his hand on Thal’s shoulder. “Don’t look so stricken. Maybe it’s good news.”
“Sure,” Thal said. He didn’t believe it for a minute. Letters from home were rare, and nearly always brought bad tidings. Something was wrong. He felt it in his bones.
“You should turn in early and try to get some sleep, pard,” Ned advised.
“Fat chance,” Thal said.
Ezekiel and Carmody Hooper were third-generation Texans.
Zeke’s grandfather had come West from Ohio with a small inheritance. He’d bought up all the land he could and took to ranching like a duck took to water, which was remarkable given that back in Ohio he’d made his living as a store clerk. He started with a small herd and grew from there. Zeke’s father expanded the herd, and their range, even more, and turned the Crescent H into a prosperous example of what a ranch could be when it was run right.
Their prosperity was reflected in the ranch house. Three stories high, it had a porch that ran around the entire house, with whitewashed pillars and a railing carved in a flowery design. Inside, the home was downright extravagant. Polished mahogany floors, a music room, a den and library—the house had it all.
Thal had only stepped foot inside twice before, and each time had intimidated him. He wasn’t used to so much wealth. It made him nervous to walk on floors so clean he could eat off them. He wanted to take his spurs off before going in, but Hank didn’t give him time. No sooner did they dismount than the foreman ushered him and Ned inside.
Thal had asked if his pard could come along, and Hank didn’t object.
Now, standing in the cool hallway with their hats in hand, they waited for Hank to return. He’d gone to announce them, as he put it.
“Lordy, this place is somethin’,” Ned said quietly, as if they were in church. He gestured at a small table with a vase that held fresh flowers. “I’m afraid to touch anything for fear it might break.”
“I know what you mean,” Thal said. He was more concerned, though, about his sister’s letter.
“I wonder if you and me will ever live high on the hog like this.”
“I doubt it.”
“What kind of way is that to talk?” Ned said. “Where’s your confidence? You and me could start our own ranch someday, and it could do right well. You never know.”
“I know I’m not as smart as Mr. Hooper,” Thal said. His pa always used to say that a man should know his limitations, and Thal liked to think that he knew his. He wasn’t a fast thinker, like some. He knew a lot about horses and cows, and that was about it. As for running a business, especially a large operation like a ranch, that took more than he felt he had in him.
“I bet we could do it,” Ned persisted. “We’d learn as we go, like most folks. Maybe we’d make mistakes, but we’d have a good ranch, and make do.”
“I admire your pluck,” Thal said.
“I wish you had more of it yourself.”
Thal was taken aback. Ned hardly ever criticized him. Not a serious criticism anyway. “Well, we are how we are.”
“Not so,” Ned said. “We can change. No one stays the same their whole life long.”
“I meant in how we think and what we can do.”
“So did I. It’s not like we go from the cradle to our grave always the same. We grow, don’t we? We start out as babies and end up as old men.”
“That’s our bodies,” Thal said. He was watching down the hall for Hank to reappear.
“So what? Our minds can grow just like our bodies do. I don’t think the same way now as I did when I was wavin’ a rattle around and poopin’ my diapers. That’s because my mind has grown.”
“Maybe you only think it has,” Thal said. “Maybe it’s the same mind, but all you did was fill it with words.”
“That’s ridiculous. It’s not only words. We do things. We experience things. We grow from that too.”
Thal shrugged. “All I know is that I’m the same person now as I was when I was ten. I’m bigger, sure. And I know more stuff. But I’m still the same person.”
“You have a strange—” Ned began, and stopped.
Hank had stepped out of a doorway and was beckoning.
“Here we go,” Ned said.
Thal had butterflies in his belly. For all this fuss to be made, he had a hunch either his ma or his pa had died, or maybe his younger brother, Myles. His sister had to be all right. She wrote the letter.
“Mr. Hooper will see you,” Hank said, and stepped aside so they could enter the parlor.
Mr. and Mrs. Hooper were seated on a plush settee. She wore a lovely dress with a high collar, and her shoes were polished to a sheen. He wore a suit, which wasn’t unusual, as he only donned work clothes when he had work to do.
“Howdy, men,” their employer said, rising to greet them.
As nervous as a cat in a room full of dogs, Thal shook and nodded and said, “Mr. Hooper.”
“Call me Zeke. I prefer that.”
Thal smiled at the wife. “Pleased to see you again, ma’am.”
“Same here, ma’am,” Ned said.
Mrs. Hooper had remained seated. She smiled in return but didn’t say anything.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Hooper directed, indicating nearby chairs.
“We’re not all that clean,” Thal said. He hadn’t been able to take a bath in over a week, and he sorely missed it.
“Nonsense. Be seated.”
Roosting as delicately as if he were sitting on a flower, Thal complied. He began to wring his hat, and caught himself.
“We won’t keep you in suspense,” Mr. Hooper said. “As Hank has no doubt explained, I’ve received a letter from your sister.”
“Ursula,” Thal said.
“Yes. It was addressed specifically to me and not to you. I hope you won’t mind, but I’ve let my wife read it too. Only us. No one else knows the contents. Not even Hank.”
“Do you want me to go, then?” the foreman asked.
“No, you stay,” Mr. Hooper said. “You should know his decision as soon as he makes it, since you might have to reassign some of the hands.”
“My decision?” Thal said.
“You’ll understand shortly.” Mr. Hooper sat back down on the settee and touched his wife’s arm. “I’d like Carmody to read the letter. Since it’s from your sister, that’s only fitting.”
Thal didn’t see how, but didn’t say so.
Mrs. Hooper reached down beside her and picked up an opened envelope. Extracting the letter, she unfolded it, smoothed it in her lap, and gave a slight cough. “‘My dearest brother,’” she began.
Thal felt his ears grow warm. Ursula and he had always gotten along well. She was five years younger, only seventeen to his twenty-two. Their brother Myles was twenty.
Mrs. Hooper had looked over as if expecting him to say something, and when Thal merely sat there, she went on. “‘I’m writing this to your employer. I would have written to you, only you can’t read.’” She stopped and looked up again.
Thal squirmed in his chair. “That’s true,” he felt compelled to say. “Not real well anyhow. My ma taught us the alphabet and such, but I always had to wrestle with the words to make sense of them. The letters never look right.”
“How’s that again?” Mr. Hooper said.
“The letters,” Thal repeated. “When I try to read, they’re jumbled or upside down. I don’t know why that is.”
“How unusual,” his employer said.
“I’ve heard of one or two people with a similar condition,” Mrs. Hooper remarked. “They’re born that way, I’ve been informed. It’s very sad.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Thal agreed, although reading had never been high on his list of favorite things to do.
Mrs. Hooper bent to the letter once more. “‘Please ask your employer to forgive my boldness, but I am at my wit’s end and have nowhere else to turn. Ma and Pa can’t help, so that leaves you.’”
Thal sat straighter. He had been right; something terrible must have happened.
“‘Myles has left home,’” Mrs. Hooper continued. “‘He’s older than you were when you left, and went off to make his mark in the world. What is it with you men that you have to leave your marks?’” Mrs. Hooper paused, and chuckled. “She has that right. You men truly do.”
“Carmody, please,” Mr. Hooper said.
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