In 1870, Bart Young heads for the New Mexico Territory, where he's heard men were making fortunes overnight in land speculation on the old Spanish grants. He figures to be a rich land baron before the year is out.
But the ranchers are stubborn and the local officials corrupt, and many men were there ahead of him. Bart's dream seems hopeless until he stumbles onto evidence of a lost grant bigger than he could have ever imagined: the entire Sacramento Mountain Range--over a million acres.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
A native of Texas, Mike Blakely grew up working on the family ranch. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force and holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the former president of Western Writers of America and has taught fiction writing at numerous workshops nationwide. He is a winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Novel. Also a singer/songwriter, Blakely tours all over the U.S. and in Europe with his band and records his original songs on his own independent record label. He currently lives on his horse ranch near Marble Falls, Texas.
A native of Texas, Mike Blakely grew up working on the family ranch. He is a veteran of the United States Air Force and holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the former president of Western Writers of America and has taught fiction writing at numerous workshops nationwide. His novel Summer of Pearls is the 2001 winner of the Spur Award for Best Western Novel. Also a singer/songwriter, Blakely tours all over the U.S. and in Europe with his band and records his original songs on his own independent record label. He currently lives on his horse ranch near Marble Falls, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Territory of New Mexico
The label on the package was stamped in ink, as if with an often-used woodcut daubed on a blotter. The postmark came from Santa Fe. The address, hand printed, was to Bartholomew Cedric Young, Tulane University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Bart slid the small package across the saloon table to his friend, and glanced out through the beveled glass at a passerby on Bourbon Street.
"Rattlesnake eggs?" Randy Hendricks said. "What in the world?"
"I ordered them from a Santa Fe trading company. Those are registered diamondback eggs. Take a look."
Randy regarded the postmark, the address, the authentic ink stamp. It was just like Bart Young to raise venomous reptiles from eggs. "What are you gonna do with rattlesnakes?"
"Pull their fangs out, and you can have all kinds of fun with 'em. You know, leave 'em in peoples' beds and things like that. Mailboxeswhatever. Go on, take a look. But you've never seen rattlesnake eggs before."
Randy picked up the box and judged its weight. He donned a skeptical smirk, and opened the cardboard lid.
Even before his eyes could find the source, the noise burst from the packagea loud, aggressive rattling. Randy's knees banged against the bottom of the table, his warm beer sloshing from the mug. He felt his heart throb in his ears, and looked wild-eyed into the open box as he scrambled in his seat.
Where he expected to find a coiled snake, he saw instead a dismantled alarm clock with thin pieces of wood tied to where the alarm bells would ordinarily go, the tiny hammer still winding down, tapping against the wood with diamondback rapidity.
Across the table, Bart Young was almost choking on his own laughter, his head rolling all around on his shoulders, his eyes moist with gladness, his mouth wide and bellowing.
"Damn you, Bart!"
The prankster took an ink-stained woodcut from his pocket and tossed it on the table in front of Randy. "You can get 'em down at the jetty. The old man there will carve anything you want on 'em. As for the postmarkwell, I just mailed the box to the Santa Fe postmaster, and asked him to send it back to me."
"I don't care how you did it." Randy shoved the box back at his grinning friend.
"Notice how I attached the alarm trigger to the lid of the box?"
"Ingenious," Randy said, his sarcasm thickening. "I've been wondering who made off with my alarm clock."
"You can have it back now. I won't need it where I'm going. The roosters wake you up there."
Bart tapped the box labeled rattlesnake eggs.
"New Mexico!" Randy Hendricks rubbed the knee he had banged on the bottom of the table. "When?"
Bart shoved two train tickets across the table. "I leave for Dodge City tomorrow afternoon. From Dodge I take the stagecoach to Santa Fe."
"What'll your old man say?"
Bart shrugged. "He's in Houston. He won't know a thing about it until I'm long gone."
Randy fell back in his chair to study Bart's face. It looked sincere this time, but with Bart Young, you could never be certain. "Who's the other ticket for?"
Randy scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Now I know you're insane. You'd better cash in those tickets and start paying attention to your studies if you ever want to pass the bar."
Bart's grin flashed quickly across his face. He had perfect teeth and flaunted them often. He used the grin to draw attention away from his forehead, which worried him a great deal. He was only twenty, but his hairline was already receding. He planned to grow a beard to make up for the loss, just as soon as he was safely beyond the reach of his father in New Mexico. "That's just it," he said, "I've already passed the bar."
"You couldn't pass the bar examination given free run of the library."
Bart shoved his beer mug aside, opened a manila envelope on the table, and pulled some documents out. "Take a look at these."
Randy's brow wrinkled above his green eyes, and he scratched his curly red hair like a dog with fleas. It was an annoying habit with him. Suddenly, though, his fingernails stopped working his scalp and he sat perfectly still, staring at the papers in his hands. "Where did you get this diploma?" He shuffled the documents. "And this is a certificate from the Texas bar! How did you get these?"
"I found some old diplomas nobody ever claimed in the files of the bursar's office when I worked there last year. I just bleached the old names off and…"
"Never mind. I don't want to know." Randy shoved the papers back at Bart as if they were burning his hands.
"As for the bar certificate, my father won't miss it for another"
"I said, I don't want to know! Someday one of these little tricks of yours is going to get you into trouble."
As the redhead put his mug to his lips and tilted it, Bart reached across the table and lifted the bottom of the glass, causing beer to cascade down Randy's chin.
"Dang it, Bart! You're going to chip a tooth doing that!"
Bart slapped the table and laughed. "But seriously, don't you think it would be funny to pull one over on the whole university and the bar association?"
Randy glowered as he dried his chin. "When you talked me into leaving the milk cow on the second floor of the librarynow, that was funny. Loosening the hubs on Professor Stangle's buggy was funny. But this…" He paused to look over his shoulder. "This is forgery," he said in a whisper.
"That's not what you called it when I faked your father's handwriting."
Randy squirmed a little in his chair. Once, when he had spent his quarterly allotment on a Bourbon Street harlot, Bart had helped him out by forging his father's signature on a check.
"That was different," Randy said. "That was between me and my old man. But this…" He gestured fearfully toward the manila envelope.
"They won't know the difference, or care, out in New Mexico. It's wide open out there."
Randy frowned and shook his head. "Why New Mexico, of all the godforsaken places?"
"Because a good lawyer can make a fortune out there with those old Spanish land grants."
"The only problem is you're not a good lawyer. You're not a lawyer at all. Do you know the first thing about acquiring a Spanish land grant?"
"We'll figure it out. We'll have more money and land than you ever dreamed of."
"So, it's the land thing again. Bart, you wouldn't know what to do with my granddaddy's forty-acre farm. What makes you think you could manage a New Mexico land grant?"
"There's nothing to it. We get some old Spanish grant, make a few improvements, sell it off at a huge profit, then buy a bigger place. You can handle all the legal stuff, and I'll take care of the land."
Randy started to argue but knew it was useless. Bart Young would persist. With exams coming up, he didn't have the time to waste in debate. He simply sighed and looked away.
"My old man fought there during the war, you know. He told me about the mountains. Most beautiful place in the world, he said. It's got to have something if even my old man can rave about it."
Randy looked at Bart straight-faced and threw his arms into the air. "All right." He picked up one of the railroad tickets and rose from the table.
"You mean it?"
"If we're leaving tomorrow. I'd better go pack. And you'd better get to work on my diploma."
Bart's face made a rare reflection of surprise. He had doubted he would succeed in uprooting Randy from his studies even if he talked all night, which he had been prepared to do. But now it appeared the redhead was finally loosening up and deciding to live. "Well, I'll be damned! My good influence is rubbing off on you." He got up to follow his friend out of the saloon.
They squinted against the afternoon sun as they stepped out onto Bourbon Street.
"You won't regret it," Bart said. "This is the best decision you'll ever make." He burst into a sudden and joyful fit of laughter. "Rattlesnake eggs!"
• • •
Bartholomew Cedric Young was a flatlander, born and raised in Houston, Texas. He had never even seen a hill that amounted to anything and had begged his father to send him to study law in some mountain state. He went instead to New Orleans.
There had never been any question that Bart would become a lawyer. His father was a lawyer, and Bart was to join the family firm once he passed the Texas bar. He didn't like his father very much. The only fond memories he had of George Young revolved around Sibley's Civil War campaign in New Mexico.
Bart's father had ridden with General Sibley out west to El Paso and engaged Union troops all the way up the Rio Grande, helping to capture the city of Santa Fe. He had been badly wounded at the battle of Glorieta Pass, where the Yankee forces destroyed the Texans' supply lines and ran them all the way back to El Paso. He had spent weeks recuperating at the rancho of a rich native New Mexican near Santa Fe. When he finally recovered, he was granted amnesty by the Yankees and allowed to return to Houston.
When Bart occasionally got his father to talk about New Mexico, the descriptions of the mountains, the high plains, and the deserts engrossed him. His father never spoke of the battles, but Bart wasn't interested in that, anyway. He wanted to see the ground rising five thousand feet above him. He wanted to taste snow. He wanted to find out for himself if adobe walls really made the houses feel that cool, even under the blistering summer sun.
Most of all, he wanted to escape the suffocating Gulf Coast air. Even though he had never lived anywhere else, he knew there was better wind to fill his nostrils with. He smelled it on the winter northers that blew down all too infrequently from the northwest.
Bart didn't have much use for law school. New Orleans was much like Houston, except bigger. He had convinced himself that he should have been the son of a High Plains rancher. He should have inherited a spread instead of a law firm.
After his first year of law school, Bart discovered something about his father that truly angered him. George Young had once owned a league and a labor of land south of Austin. He had never seen it, but he had held the deed on it. The place had been settled by George's grandfather, who had come to Texas when it was still part of Mexico. The claim was part of an old Spanish land grant, and George was the only heir. He had sold it to finance his education.
When Bart found out his father had traded more than four thousand acres for a lousy law school sheepskin, he started planning his escape from New Orleans. He felt his destiny had been denied him by a mere generation. That old Spanish land should have been his.
Then he read an article in a legal magazine about land-grant speculation in New Mexico. He decided he would go to Santa Fe and acquire some huge old Spanish grant for pennies an acre. But instead of parceling it up and selling it off at high profits as most speculators did, he would keep it. He would become a cattle king or a land baron or a mountain lord.
It was a very vague image, however, and that's why he decided to rope his friend, Randy Hendricks, into the plan. Randy was good at fleshing out details. He actually enjoyed wading through statutes and manipulating technicalities. No one had forced him into law school.
In fact, Bart was rather surprised that Randy had so readily agreed to quit law school for New Mexico. He assumed the talk of acquiring land grants had done it. If Randy loved thinking law in school, he would doubly enjoy putting his skills to practice in the real arena of a New Mexico land office or courtroom.
When he put the ink on Randy's fake credentials that night, he felt as if he were charting the course for his own glorious future, signing the deed to his own Spanish land grant.
• • •
Bart found Randy at the depot the next day, sitting on a bench, scratching his scalp, two suitcases at his feet.
"Where have you been all day?" Bart asked.
"You attended classes today? We're heading west, boy. What were you thinking?"
"My father doesn't live in Houston. If I had missed a lecture, some professor might have sent a message across town to the old man, inquiring as to my whereabouts. He's got them all looking after me like watchdogs."
Bart sniffed at his friend's paranoia, but resisted taunting him. "I guess you have a point."
They boarded the train and took their seats. When the locomotive jerked the couplings together, Randy nudged his companion. "Let me see my papers," he said.
Bart grinned with pride as he produced the forgeries from his portmanteau. "I've prepared everything you'll need. Diploma, transcripts, certificates…I even wrote you a letter of recommendation from Professor Stangle."
The train was inching out of the station.
Randy thumbed through his false credentials. "Stop looking over my shoulder!" He took a gold piece from his vest pocket and handed it to Bart. "Go back to the smoker and order us a couple of drinks while I check these documents. I'll be along in a minute or two."
"Now you're talking sense." Bart rose, turning the coin between his fingers, and strode down the aisle.
He bought two whiskeys in the smoker and took a seat by the window where he could watch the scenery pass. The train was slowly increasing in speed, and his excitement seemed to build with the pace. He was free of the wretched university. Soon he would smell the high, dry air of the West. Someday he would peer down from a mountaintop he called his own to survey his personal kingdom. His goal was a league and a laborthe inheritance his father had traded away. He didn't even know how much land that was, really, but he envisioned it rolling away under him from one horizon to the next.
As he smelled the whiskey and took his first sip, Bart heard a knuckle rap on the window at his elbow. He turned and found Randy Hendricks's fake law school diploma plastered to the glass. The forged document pulled away from his eyes, and he saw a grinning Randy taking long strides to pace the train, waving the forgeries in his hands.
"Hey!" Bart shouted, oblivious to the other men in the smoker. "What in the hell are you doing out there?"
Randy yelled something that the steam whistle obliterated, and tore his fake diploma in half. He threw his head back and laughed, wild-eyed. He ripped another forgery in two, and let the pieces flutter into the air. He was trotting now to keep up with the train.
"You son of a bitch!" Bart yelled. "I worked all night on that!"
"Hey, boy," the bartender warned. "Mind your language in this car."
Bart ignored the bartender and ran to the door at the end of the car. Bursting out onto the platform, he leaned over the rail and found Randy loping along beside him, still laughing, shredding papers, and throwing them into a cloud of locomotive smoke. "Randy, get your ass back on the train!"
Randy broke into a dead run and pulled his train ticket from his pocket. "Who do I look like? Sancho Panza?" He tore the ticket in two and let the pieces flutter to the ground behind him. "You don't need me to tilt at your New Mexico windmills!"
"Have you lost your mind, boy? Give me your hand! Jump aboard!"
Randy slowed and let the gap widen between himself and Bart. "I got you, Bart! I got you good! Beat you at your own game!" His laughter died as the train rushed away from him.
The reality hit Bart like a wave of steaming New Orleans air. He almost got mad, until he saw the beauty of it. "You son of a bitch!" he yelled, shaking his fist at the shrinking figure trotting beside the cars. "Damned if you didn't!" A smile pulled across his face, and he laughed to the rumble of the steel wheels. Randy had learned something from him after all. His fist opened, and he waved.
Copyright © 1996 by Mike Blakely