A land rush creates chaos and killings as a cattle outfit, a gunman, and a determined family all seek to stake their claim.
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||3 Months|
Read an Excerpt
By L.P. Holmes
Copyright © 2007 Golden West Literary Agency
All right reserved.
Chapter One Once he had finished the last bit of business in Stony Ford, Dave Salkeld turned his back on all of that burned, heat-blasted, drought-cursed range with a certain air of finality. In the past year and a half of bitter struggle against hostile conditions, he had grown to hate this country. He never wanted to see it again.
He rode fast through the waning hours of the afternoon, heading southwest. Comparatively late in the day though it was, sodden heat was still there. The bronco he was on was tough and wiry, yet, even so, rolls of dirty foam were gathered about the edges of Salkeld's saddle blanket. Sweat coursed down the lean, hard planes of his own face, glistened on the corded bronze of his throat, and his shirt clung, darkly wet, to the wide, flat sweep of his shoulders. Hat pulled low, right shoulder hunched against the relentless smash of the sun, Salkeld rode the afternoon out and hailed the dusty, blue dusk with a curse of relief.
If Salkeld's calculations were right, he ought to catch up with Buck Custer and the Flying Diamond herd somewhere around Tunison Wells. Buck Custer, Salkeld's partner, had gone on ahead with the herd, leaving Salkeld to clean up the last business items about Stony Ford.
Salkeld had to chuckle when he thought of how effectively he had done the job. They had known from the first that penny-pinching old Frenchy DuBois had long wanted to gethis hands on the former holdings of the Flying Diamond on the Stony Ford range. When Salkeld had gone to DuBois with the offer to sell, DuBois had tried to drive a hard bargain, knowing that the Flying Diamond was pulling out for the new country that the government was going to open in Gallatin Basin. Salkeld hadn't wasted any time arguing with that old pelican. He had stated his price and told DuBois to take it or leave it, else he and Custer were prepared to give the range to Frank Connors. DuBois had put up a wail like a wounded coyote, but in the end he met Salkeld's price. He had the money for that sale safely tucked away in his saddlebags.
All night, Salkeld rode. Around midnight he threaded through the gaunt desolation that was the Burned Hills. Beyond them the night was magically cooler. Weariness dropped from bronco and rider and the pace speeded up.
He crossed the sinks south of the Burned Hills and breasted the long, rising slope of the mesa country beyond. The first gray streak of dawn crept out of the east when he topped that slope and moved out across the mesa proper. Only a few miles now, to Tunison Wells.
Salkeld threw another glance to the east. The sun was still a good hour away. Tomorrow, at this time, thousands of eyes would be watching that eastern horizon, measuring time with mounting eagerness, waiting for the first gleam of the sun. For sunrise tomorrow was jump-off time, the official moment for the start of the land rush into Gallatin Basin. The start would be from the Navajo River Meadows, and he'd be there, waiting for the sun with all the rest of them.
A distant murmur reached Salkeld's ears, the complaint of weary cattle being stirred from a bedding ground, to face another day of travel. A hard grin touched Salkeld's lips. Buck Custer had the Flying Diamond herd at Tunison Wells, sure enough. Good old Buck! A man to tie to.
The mesa threw a low crest just ahead and Salkeld was halfway up it when a medley of faint sounds jerked his head up, taut and alert. Shrill, high yells, the flat thudding of guns, and an abrupt change in the sound of the herd. That peaceful, weary plaint took on a hoarse and startled rumble, a note of fear. Salkeld gigged his bronco sharply and sent that weary animal lunging for the crest.
Beyond lay a wide, flat swale, a good half mile across. Near the center was the herd, a great, dark blanket in the mists that still clung to the hollow. That dark blanket of cattle was moving in one solid mass down on the crimson eye of a campfire. Even as Salkeld watched, the movement of the herd speeded up, faster-faster. Those cattle were running. Something had set the herd off. This was stampede!
Salkeld drove his pony, lunging down into the swale. A dozen thoughts jerked through his mind. The herd was running straight at that campfire. Buck Custer and the other boys would be around the fire. They might get caught, trampled. If the herd kept running the way it was headed, it would end up in a stretch of malpais country over west where all hell and the devil himself couldn't rout them out of inside a couple of weeks of killing work.
These were some of the thoughts that flashed in Salkeld's mind. And one other. The herd hadn't started to run for no reason at all. Something definite had set them off. And that something might be....
He saw it then, a pale fluttering along the edge of the surging, crazed herd. Salkeld, biting out a bitter curse, spurred that way. As he rode, he slid a naked gun into one taut fist.
A running herd of this size was living thunder. It had a sound all its own, a deep, ominous rolling sound, that froze a man's heart and laid slivers of ice along his spine. A sound that, once heard, would never be forgotten. It had destruction in it, the heavy snarl of flood waters, the ponderous rumble of a landslide.
It dwarfed all sound of Salkeld's hard-riding approach. So it was that the first of the two men who were spurring up and down along the eastern fringe of the herd, yelling and waving yellow slickers, was unaware of Salkeld's arrival until Salkeld was within short yards of him. Then he saw and understood. He dropped the slicker, cursing, and clawed frantically for a gun. Salkeld, without slowing his headlong pace, shot the fellow through the body, twice. The rider was already falling from his saddle as Salkeld sped by, heading for that second slicker-waving figure.
Heavy as was the rumble of the stampede, the reports of Salkeld's gun had cut through, and the other rider had heard and understood. He dropped his slicker, whirled his horse, and raced away. Salkeld went after him, spurring mercilessly.
There was no halfway ground on which to meet renegades like these two. You went after them and you got them, if you could. Salkeld measured the distance through the misty dawn and saw that he was out horsed. The long miles he had covered through the night had taken all the edge off his own bronco. That fleeing rider was pulling away.
Salkeld sat up to a sliding halt, leaped from the saddle, dragging at the rifle slung in a scabbard under his near saddle fender. He jammed the lever back and forth, dropped to one knee.
The light was bad. The sights blurred against the bobbing figure heading so frantically for the haven of mists. Salkeld held low and cut loose, twice. At the second shot that racing horse went high in the air with a wild, stricken lunge and came down crashing, throwing its rider headlong.
The fellow got to his feet, weaving dazedly. He was shooting back at Salkeld now, but his lead was wild. Salkeld held low, almost at the fellow's feet, making allowance for course sighting. The recoil of the rifle swayed Salkeld's shoulder back. He heard the bullet tell, with a flat, sodden thud. The target jackknifed at the waist, and then was only a tiny blot of shadow on the earth. Salkeld went back into the saddle and whirled after the herd.
It had drawn away from him somewhat, but was as yet still short of full speed. The west edge of the herd had not known the terror of those waving slickers and, with the weariness of the drive still in it, moved with a certain reluctance, still bearing back against the pressure from the rear. But this was only a temporary thing. Given a few moments more time the blind fever of the stampede would carry these herd leaders away and they would let go full out.
Of course, there were other obstacles up front now. Mounted men. Men who had gained saddles just in time, before the living flood had flowed over the ground where they had slept, over the fire they had been gathered about to eat their frugal breakfast. These men were putting out superhuman effort to keep the stampede under control, to keep it from getting entirely away from them. Up and down they spurred, slashing rope ends across sullen bovine faces, yelling, shooting in the air-anything to hold that herd back.
But it was beginning to be a losing fight. Slowly and remorselessly the speed of the herd picked up, ponderous and overwhelming.
Salkeld was riding like a madman, down the north flank of the herd. His hard- run pony seemed to understand the urgency, for from somewhere it gathered a new burst of speed and strength. Well up toward the point, Salkeld began bearing in on the speeding cattle, rope end flailing. It was the only chance. You couldn't stop a running herd by frontal pressure. You had to press in at the side, gradually turning the leaders, forcing them to swing away into the start of a circle. Once this maneuver was fully accomplished, the crazed cattle would continue running in a blind circle until exhaustion rose greater than initial terror, and the brutes would stop of their own accord.
That was the theory. But the practice of it was another story. Salkeld could not feel that he was making an inch of progress. It was like trying to turn a raging flood with a handful of sand. Twice, in the fury of his efforts, Salkeld's pony stumbled and nearly went down. That would have been instantly fatal to both horse and rider.
A big, burly whiteface steer, running blind crazy, drove a shoulder into Salkeld's horse, lifting the gallant pony yards to one side. Salkeld, in a burst of fury, threw down and shot the rampaging brute dead. When he saw the other cattle instinctively sheer away from the dead animal, Salkeld dropped another, a little closer in.
The herd sheered farther to the left. Salkeld knew his first glimmer of hope. He drove his mount recklessly in, using his rope end with all his strength.
Up ahead, alert eyes had noticed this slight shift of the cattle and a moment later there were two riders barging in beside Salkeld, adding the pressure of their ropes and mounts to his. That left turn grew. More riders appeared, added their weight to the battle.
Slowly but surely the herd swung farther and farther to the left, and the yelling, rope-wielding riders kept pace with it, always keeping that pressure on. Now the leaders of the herd were breasting a long, low slope and, when riders got above them, willingly turned away from the hard lift of the rise, sped parallel with it for a time, then swung downhill again. And then those laboring riders whooped with relief.
Theory had become fact. The herd was circling now. The leaders were speeding after the drag, the drag blindly following the leaders. There was nothing further to do now but let the herd run itself out. The brutes wouldn't go anywhere. They would end up right where they began, gasping, wild-eyed, exhausted.
A rider came racing up to Salkeld, as he pulled aside to let his shaking, exhausted mount rest. It was Buck Custer. "Dave!" he yelled. "When in hell ... how ...?"
"I got here just as the cattle started to run, Buck," explained Dave wearily. "And it wasn't a pipe dream that set them off, either."
"I've been wondering about that," growled Custer savagely. "I heard those first yells and shots, and once I thought I got a glimpse of a waving slicker."
"You did." Salkeld nodded. "There were two of them. I got 'em both. One was Mink Shroeder."
"Mink Shroeder!" spat Custer. "That means ... Luke Converse schemed this thing. Luke Converse!"
"Who else?" Salkeld shrugged. "Any of our boys get caught?"
"Don't believe so," said Custer. "I'll check up."
He spurred away, calling to his men. Salkeld tried to build a smoke. He spilled half a sack of tobacco before he succeeded. His hands were shaking; he was shaking all over with weariness. He was ready to drop. He slid out of the saddle and sprawled flat on his back on the cool, dew- moistened earth. He felt he'd like to sleep for a week. Only he could not have slept just now. His nerves were jumping too badly. This thing had been close-too close.
Custer came back, dismounted, and dropped beside Salkeld. "All safe and accounted for. They're getting all around those fool cattle, making sure that circle stays complete. And the herd is slowing down."
Salkeld could tell that by the sound. He lay with eyes closed. "Buck," he said, "I reckon you'll agree with what I've claimed all along, now. There is no place on any range for the Flying Diamond and Luke Converse at the same time. That fellow fights dirty. Had the herd got away from us, we'd have had one devil of a job getting it out of that malpais. It would have put us 'way behind time, 'way off our schedule. It might have blown all our plans higher than a busted kite. Make no mistake about it ... Converse figured things that way."
Custer nodded. "You're right, Dave. I was hoping that Gallatin Basin would be plenty big enough for Converse and us to get along in. But I've been wrong."
"The whole world isn't big enough for Converse to get along with anybody but Converse, Buck. We found it so on the old Stony Ford range. We'll find it so in Gallatin. We might as well get this fact straight, once and for all. We've got to smash Luke Converse, or he'll smash us."
"We'll leave that to the future," said Custer thoughtfully. Buck Custer was a good fifteen years older than Dave Salkeld. He was a stocky, bluntjawed man, beginning to grizzle about the ears. A peaceful man, Buck Custer, one who believed in live and let live. But if he had to, he could be a terror in a fight. He stirred restlessly. "How did you come out with DuBois, Dave?"
Salkeld's stern, fatigue-set lips quirked to a ghost of a smile. "I got our price out of him. He set out to jaw me down, but when I threatened to give the layout to Connors for nothing, he like to threw a fit and he nearly dislocated an arm getting his out check-book. The money is in my saddlebags. Lord, I'm weary!"
Custer got back into the saddle. "I'll try and locate a sougan for you, kid. But I doubt my luck. The herd ran right over our camp. Devil only knows what's left of it."
It was good to sprawl there, right down on the clean, virile earth, to know that you had euchred one dirty ace that Luke Converse had dragged out of his deck. The cattle were no longer running, just moving at a weary, shuffling trot now. Soon they would stop. Soon the steady mutter of hoofs would die away, and then maybe he could sleep
Buck Custer came back a little later with the tattered remnants of a trampled sougan. Dave Salkeld was asleep and Custer threw a blanket over him. And left him there.
Under Custer's orders, the Flying Diamond riders did several things. They salvaged what they could of food and camp equipment and put it on pack horses. They let the herd rest an hour to quiet down. Then they slowly got it under way and headed it out of the swale and off to the south. Custer himself rode to the upper end of the swale and looked over the two crumpled figures he found lying there. "Mink Shroeder and Slim Laws," he muttered. "Dave is right. This is all the doings of Luke Converse. Well, if Converse wants to play the game this way, from now on he'll get as good as he sends."
Excerpted from Roaring Acres by L.P. Holmes Copyright © 2007by Golden West Literary Agency.Excerpted by permission.
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.