In the title novella of this Western trio, a rancher implements a dangerous plan to get his herd across the treacherous Colorado River.
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By L.P. Holmes Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2006 Golden West Literary Agency
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Chapter One I
Perhaps a superman might have stood up under the punishment of the lash without an outcry. But Slip Hankins was no superman. And when the cruel, hissing length of the bullwhip wrapped about his thin, shrinking shoulders and body, Slip Hankins shrieked his agony.
Cass Denio was a big, burly, powerful man and he had put every ounce of strength he owned into the blow of that bullwhip. And when the lash, after clinging a moment like some venomous snake, fell away, a dark stripe of crimson leaped to take its place on Slip Hankins's thin, faded shirt. That shriek of mortal fear and pain carried a long way in the hot afternoon air that overlay the little cow town of Rocky Pass.
At his bench in the rear of his saddle shop, old Joe Kirby was twisting a final wax end to finish his repair job on the saddle before him. His gnarled, wax-stained fingers grew still and his shaggy, grizzled head swung to an attitude of strained listening.
"What the devil was that?" he growled.
Perched on the end of the tool- and leather-littered bench, Rick Dalton slid lithely to the floor. "I'll go look," he said.
From the door of the shop the scene lay stark and plain and brutal. The long, white, dusty length of the street, and the figure of Cass Denio standing over the cringing Slip Hankins. Even as Rick watched, Denio flung the lash back over his shoulder, gathered himself, and flung another savage blow. And again, as the lash crackled about him, Slip Hankins shrieked.
The afternoon before, Shawnee O'Day, the stage driver, had brought his whip to the saddle shop to have a new rawhide lash braided to the tip of it. Joe Kirby had completed the job and the whip now stood just inside the door, waiting for O'Day to call for it.
Rick Dalton grabbed that whip and sped along the street, full of lean, wolfish speed despite the encumbrance of chaps and spurs. In the rugged planes and angles of his sun-blackened face and in the cold depths of his gray eyes, Rick showed a dark and dangerous anger. The knuckles of the hand that gripped Shawnee O'Day's whip were knotted to whiteness.
This whip had not the thick and brutal weight of the one Cass Denio was wielding. But in the hands of a man who knew how to use it, that six-foot length of worn, tough hickory and the twelve-foot lash of hard, braided leather was no puny weapon. Rick shook the lash clear as he ran.
The brute lay strong in Cass Denio. He was enjoying this job and he wanted to savor it to the full. The first blow had shaken the thin frailty of Slip Hankins like a tempest. The second had brought him nearly to his knees. He was weaving on his feet now, a sick, stark horror filming his eyes. And Cass Denio, big, white teeth bared and snarling, was figuring on bringing his victim flat in the dust with the third blow. He had the lash flung out behind him and the muscles of his burly shoulders were bunching for the effort.
Cass Denio never delivered that blow. A sharp hissing filled his ears. And then a slender line of fire cut fully across his face and wound about his throat, half blinding him and filling him with an agony that jerked from his throat in a bawl like a wounded animal.
Denio clawed at his face, tore at the lash encircling his throat, and the slender, hard, braided lash burned his hand as it was jerked away from him. Denio spun instinctively to face the source of this sudden, unexpected attack. He saw Rick Dalton, spat a curse, then gave his wounded animal bawl as the merciless lash took him a second time around the face and neck.
"That's right ... yell!" rapped out Rick Dalton, his tone as thin and merciless as the lash he wielded. "Open your lungs, you big hawg, and let the world know you're suffering. Not so nice when you have to take it, is it? Two for Slip Hankins ... now two for you. Ah! No you don't ...!"
Cass Denio had dropped his bullwhip and in instinctive and blind defense had gone for his gun. He had it just clear of the leather when the licking lash of Rick Dalton's whip closed around his wrist in a band of fire, and the sudden pull Rick gave to the whip, before the lash could unwind, jerked the weapon from Denio's fist.
The gun fell in the dust some ten feet in front of Denio, and he dived for it, clawing and scrabbling in the dust. By the time Denio got hold of the weapon again, Rick had closed in. "If that's the way you want to play ...," he gritted. And Rick flipped out his own gun and hammered Denio solidly across the head with the heavy barrel. Denio grunted and went flat and motionless. Rick picked up Denio's gun, tossed it across the street where it skidded from view under the board sidewalk. Then he moved over to Slip Hankins, took him by the arm.
"Come on, you poor devil," he said.
Rick led Hankins over to the swinging doors of the Buffalo House, where a silent group of men opened up to let them through. "Pour him a double shot of bourbon," Rick ordered of the bartender brusquely. "Then trot out some of that healing oil you're always bragging about."
The bartender shook a bullet head obdurately. "No whiskey or anything else over this bar for any damn' High Plains man," he blurted sullenly.
"Listen, Caraway," crackled Rick, "I just bent my gun over Cass Denio's thick skull. You can have exactly the same medicine if you want. You heard what I ordered."
Hob Caraway tried to meet the cold intensity burning in Rick's eyes, failed, shrugged, pushed over bottle and glass. Rick poured the liquor, held it out to Slip Hankins, who gulped it down. Rick then led his man to a chair, while speaking over his shoulder. "A bucket of clean water and a couple of towels along with that healing oil, Caraway."
The bartender shrugged again, brought the required articles. That heavy jolt of liquor had brought back some measure of strength to Slip Hankins and cleared the shock from his dazed brain. He sat up straight now, and said no word as Rick carefully pulled his shirt over his head. At sight of Hankins's shoulders and back, Rick's lips pulled to a thin, white line.
"I should have shot Denio's black heart out," he growled. "I would have, too, if I hadn't known he was acting under the orders of somebody else. Hang on to yourself, Slip. This is going to hurt like hell for a minute or two, but it'll be a lot better when I'm finally done."
"Go ahead, Rick," said Hankins thickly. "Nothing could be as bad as ... as that was."
Rick washed the blood from the livid, savage welts, then smeared on healing oil, which gave off the rich, unguent odor of balsam. Then he eased Hankins's shirt back on.
"There," he said. "That's going to help a heap. Want another jolt of liquor?"
Hankins shook his head. "Thanks a lot, Rick. You're the one white man left in this lower valley range."
"You're wrong there, Slip. There's a heap of white men along the lower valley. All they need is waking up. Well, you better grab your buckboard and get before the word gets out and Matt Iberg comes riding in with more of his bullies. No ... I don't want any thanks. It was a supreme pleasure to work over Cass Denio. Get going."
A number of men had come into the Buffalo House while Rick had been caring for Hankins. Most of them were cowboys, a few citizens of Rocky Pass. Now, as Slip Hankins started for the door, a rider, one Howdy Orleans, barred his way. Three other riders moved in as though to back up Orleans.
"Not so fast, not so fast, Hankins," said Howdy Orleans thinly. "The Box I ain't done with you yet. Had you stood up and took the licking Cass Denio was givin' you, then you could have gone your way as a good example that it doesn't pay to beef Box I strays. As it is, we ain't done with you."
"I never beefed any Box I stray," quavered Hankins. "You know that as well as I do, Orleans."
"All I know," bit out Howdy Orleans harshly, "is that a fresh hide was found spread on your corral fence and that hide carried a Box I brand. And in your meat house was the carcass of a fresh-beefed two-year-old. Which is plenty good evidence for Matt Iberg, Cass Denio, and the rest of us Box I boys."
"The hide I hung on my corral carried my own brand, Lazy H," argued Hankins. "The beef in my meat house carried that hide. Somebody must have taken that hide and put the Box I hide in its place. Why should I beef a Box I critter when I got cattle of my own? That's a fair question."
Howdy Orleans grinned crookedly. "Yeah ... and why should a hold-up rob a stage or a bank when he's got ten dollars in his jeans? Same thing, Hankins, and makes just as much sense. It won't do at all. What we're going to with you is...."
"Get out of the way and let him go." Rick Dalton had listened to the interplay of words. Now he moved forward beside Hankins. "Move out, Orleans," he growled. "Get out of the way."
Howdy Orleans's eyes flickered. It was one thing to bully and threaten Slip Hankins. It was something else again to stand up before Rick Dalton. But Orleans tried.
"I reckon the boss will have plenty to say to you, too," he blurted. "I know that for a long time Matt Iberg hasn't liked the way you play in with the High Plains crowd. Today you went over the line a little too far when you butted in and gun-whipped Cass Denio. What you trying to do, anyhow ... take the part of a cow thief?"
Rick's lips curled. "Orleans, the shinamaroo that Iberg and all the rest of you Box I gents are trying to put over on this range is a little too thick in some spots and a little too thin in others. About that hide you claim you found on Slip Hankins's corral ... well, that reminds me of the Box I horse that Iberg claimed he found in old Bob Shelly's corral. So he lynched Bob Shelly as a horse thief. Oh, he was righteous as hell about it all, Matt Iberg was. He whined about how he hated to do it and all that, and that he only did it because law and order had to be preserved and horse thieves discouraged and more of that guff.
"Now all that happened near three years ago and I guess a lot of skulls hereabouts have forgotten about it. I haven't. Because I notice now that the Six Springs water hole, which used to be Bob Shelly's water, is now watering Box I cattle. So, from now on, when any Box I jigger starts yelping around about what he's found in somebody else's corral, or on the fence of it, why I'm going to hold my nose and yell ... 'Boo.'" Rick Dalton's voice had been dripping with sarcasm. Now it took on that crackling chill once more. "Back away, Orleans. You're cluttering up the trail."
Howdy Orleans and two of the others who had moved as though to back him up shuffled sullenly aside. But the last of the quartet held his ground. He was tall and lank, with a hatchet face seamed with hard, wild living. His eyes were little and pale and no deeper than mere surface. He was a new man to the Rocky Pass range, and, as far as Rick knew, he had never seen the fellow before. He noticed one thing. The man wore a pair of guns, tied low, butts flaring. And now he spoke, after throwing a glance of sneering contempt at Orleans and the other two.
"Judging from the way some of these shorthorns knuckle under, you must rate as a woolly wolf in these parts, mister. But from where I come, we know that a wolf ain't far removed from a coyote. Lots of time he's all coyote, once you get under his bluff and bully puss. So right now, I aim to find out the real color of your liver. Maybe it's white, or yellow. Maybe...."
"Yeah," cut in Rick harshly, "maybe."
And then his right fist was whistling. It came in with slashing speed, caught the fellow squarely on the point of his hatchet jaw. And the doubter spun around, crossed his feet, and crashed.
"The answer was a lulu, Rick," drawled an amused voice in the crowd. "No question ... when you hit 'em right, they shore drop. Scat Kelly talkin', Rick. Go your way, boy. I'll watch your back for you."
"Thanks, Scat," said Rick, blowing on his knuckles. "Come on, Slip ... we're wasting time."
Nobody else tried to stop them from leaving the Buffalo House after that. They hit the sidewalk and clattered along the loose, warped boards to where Hankins had tethered his buckboard in front of John App's store.
"You roll right along home, Slip," cautioned Rick. "And was I you, I'd sleep a little light for the next week or two. I might not even sleep in the cabin. Fact is, I'd roll my blankets back in the sage a little way and I'd take me a rifle to bed with me. And if Iberg or any of his Box I bullies come prowling, I'd shoot first and ask questions after."
Hankins nodded as he picked up the reins. "They'll kill me before they ever lay another whip on me," he said somberly. "Matt Iberg better steer plenty wide of me from here on out. And I won't forget what you've done for me, Rick. Neither will anybody else up on the High Plains range."
"Forget it." Rick shrugged. "You High Plains folks got a right to live, just as much as Matt Iberg has. Adiós, Slip ... and good luck."
Rick watched the buckboard out of sight, then turned back toward the street. Somebody had helped Cass Denio out of the dust and over to the shade of a building, where he sat, holding his head in his hands, staring at nothing with numbed, befuddled eyes. He glared at Rick as Rick passed, but said nothing. And Rick gathered up the borrowed whip from the street and returned it to Joe Kirby's saddle shop.
The old saddle maker frowned at Rick from under shaggy, grizzled brows. "Your pappy all over again ... that's what you are, Rick Dalton," he growled. "Quick, sudden, and plumb complete, that's you. Which means that few folks will ever feel halfway about you. Either they'll hate you everlasting and complete, or they'll swear by you and stick with you through hellfire and then some. You made some enemies today, boy."
"You mean I brought 'em out in the open, Joe. They've always been against me. While I'm at it, how do you feel about what I did just now?"
The old saddle maker tamped tobacco into the bowl of a black, stubby pipe with a methodical forefinger. "Wal," he mumbled, "I jest finished fixin' a saddle ... for nothin'. And it's your saddle. I guess that's answer enough. But don't ever forget for a minute, son ... Matt Iberg has made a strong man of himself in this section. He's going to have a lot of followers and folks who'll back his hand toward the High Plains ranchers. Some of them Iberg backers will surprise you who they are."
It had been Rick Dalton's original idea that he would head back to his own little spread along the headwaters of Chinquapin Creek as soon as Joe Kirby finished repairing his saddle. That was about all that had brought Rick to Rocky Pass in the first place. Subsequent things that had happened had not been in his original calculations at all. Now he couldn't very well head for home without some people drawing the wrong conclusions. It would look as if he was running away, trying to avoid meeting Matt Iberg, after he had horsewhipped and pistol-whipped Iberg's most favored and trusted lieutenant, Cass Denio, had made another of Iberg's riders, Howdy Orleans, back down, and had topped off the whole thing by knocking still a third of Iberg's cohorts stiff with a good solid right to the jaw.
Excerpted from River Range by L.P. Holmes Copyright © 2006 by Golden West Literary Agency. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
L.P. Holmes will probably never be lauded by any great critics, but for great stories that are fun to read and leave a reader satisfied, there are few better than he was. The three stories collected in this binding follow the common theme of much of Holmes' work and all three are worth the read.