The land is lush—but bare of cattle. Colonel Tremaine never expected his ranch’s grass to come in so thick, and with his health failing, the old soldier lacks the strength to assemble the kind of herd that could take advantage of nature’s bounty. He reaches out to Kirby McBride, an old recruit from his army days, and begs him for a favor. Once, the colonel saved Kirby’s life. Now Kirby will save his.
He sends Kirby to Mexico to collect a thousand-head herd from the drought-ravaged ranch of Don Trujillo-Lopez. Drive the cattle north, fatten them on Tremaine’s grass, and he and the don can split the profits. But when jealousy overwhelms the drive and some of Kirby’s own men prove treacherous, death threatens the operation. As Kirby McBride drives into Devil’s Canyon, a fortune hangs in the balance—and so does his life.
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The Devil's Canyon
By Paul Lederer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Owen G. Irons
All rights reserved.
The wind was cold off the north. The sky was blue between clusters of swift-moving high clouds above the North Texas plains. There was a long valley covered with bright green grass below. The wind flattened the grass and turned it silver as it blustered southward. The mane and tail of the big gray horse Kirby McBride was sitting whipped in the gusting wind as well. Kirby shifted in the saddle and sat leaning his hands against the pommel studying the land. He could see the glint of a small pond further west and around it a grove of mature live oak trees. It had been a long ride, but maybe it had been worth it.
Colonel Tremaine hadn't exaggerated in his letter. It was a fair, lush country. The problem was, as any cattleman would notice immediately, there weren't but a hundred or so cattle scattered across a valley that could easily graze thousands.
The gray gelding lifted its head and pricked its ears. Some sound Kirby hadn't heard had caught its attention. Perhaps other horses, nickering distantly.
'It won't be long now,' Kirby said, patting the gray's neck. 'We'll get the saddle off and find you some feed.'
It had been a long ride for the horse as well. Five hundred miles or more, most of it across arid country with poor graze through some bad weather. The threat of the Comanches had been constant. That and the almost equally dangerous threat of prairie dog holes where the big gray could snap a leg and leave Kirby on foot.
Kirby unfolded the well-worn letter Lou Tremaine had sent him in San Angelo, glancing at the roughly drawn map. The house should be just beyond the oaks and the gleaming pond. He kneed the horse and they started forward down the long, grassy slope.
The house, when he came upon it, wasn't much as yet. Log and wattle, sod roof. Sawn lumber was hard come by in this country. But Kirby could see where Tremaine had been laying out ground plans to expand his house.
If he ever got cattle enough to pay for the additions. That was the reason Kirby was here. Of course, he would have gone anywhere at anytime to pay back the debt he owed to his former commanding officer.
Four men stood around the pole corral, watching as Kirby rode the weary gray slowly across the yard of the ranch house. Another man stood inside the corral holding the lead to a trembling, frothed horse, apparently a mustang newly broken, for it was exhausted, head hanging. It had streaks of blood along its bay flanks where it had been cut by spur rowels and Kirby's mouth tightened just a little with disgust. There was no need to do that to a horse, even when breaking it.
'Afternoon,' he said as he drew up, looking down at the men. 'Is the colonel around?'
'He won't be back for awhile,' one of them answered. He turned his head and spat, still leaning casually against the corral rails. He was bulky, with a low forehead. His red shirt was torn at the elbows and sun-faded.
'I'm ramrod here,' he told Kirby, 'Asa Donahue.'
No hand was offered and Kirby just nodded. Slowly then he swung down from the gray's back. He felt numb from the waist down. His lower back had a kink in it.
'Where can I stable up my horse?' he asked Donahue.
'Out on the prairie if you like,' Asa Donahue answered expressionlessly. The narrow cowboy with the long black mustache beside him laughed out loud.
'You don't understand,' Kirby said mildly, already disliking the big man, 'I'm staying here. My name's Kirby McBride. Maybe the colonel mentioned I was coming.'
'Maybe he did ...' The expression in Donahue's dark eyes changed, his eyebrows drawing together. 'McBride? Ain't I heard that name before?'
'It's a common enough name,' Kirby said. He was loosening the double cinches on his Texas-rigged saddle, hat tilted back now. He smiled at the others.
'I'll talk to you all a little later, boys. I'm the new ramrod.' He glanced at Asa Donahue whose face went as hard as stone, touched the brim of his hat and turned away, leading the gray toward the stable.
Asa watched him go, his cold eyes set and glittering.
'I guess that's that then, Asa,' the man with the mustache said as they watched the tall man leading his horse across the yard. Asa spun on his companion angrily.
'You think so, Len? Do you!'
'You heard what he said....'
'Shut up. I'm thinking.'
The redheaded cowboy who had been in the corral slipped through the rails and stood coiling up his lasso.
'Is that who I think it is?'
'I don't know,' Asa said, in a hoarse whisper.
'He gave his name as McBride, didn't he?'
'Yeah, but he looks too young to be that one, don't he?'
'Maybe,' Red said shrugging. 'May be him, may be kin.'
Asa continued glowering. Abruptly he made up his mind. 'It don't matter who he is. He's leaving, and now!' He took three purposeful steps toward the stable, his hand resting on the butt of his holstered gun, the others lagging behind.
They halted suddenly because from under the large oak trees to the north the tall man on the silky roan appeared unexpectedly.
His hair and mustache were silver. He sat ramrod straight in the saddle. His strange blue-gray eyes were looking at them, studying the situation. And Colonel Lou Tremaine was not smiling.
'Better get back to work,' Len said to their leader in a low voice. 'The colonel doesn't look happy.'
Asa hesitated a moment, still staring at the open stable door and then he nodded. He lifted a hand to the approaching ranch owner, a gesture to which Tremaine did not respond, and then the three cowhands scattered to attend to various chores.
Kirby McBride stood hatless in the shadows of the stable, the open door framing him, his curly dark hair across his forehead. His hands were on his hips and there was a grin on his face as he watched Tremaine's slow approach.
The colonel looked older, of course, but no less trim, no less resolutely in command. He took the reins to the colonel's horse as Tremaine reached the stable and the older man swung down.
The colonel stood studying Kirby for a long minute, taking in the well-set-up shoulders, boyish blue eyes where a hint of menace also lurked.
'Let's go inside, Kirby. Someone else can put the horse away.'
And that was his greeting after five years to Kirby McBride. Kirby smiled inwardly. No, the old man had not changed a bit. He never would. There was little room for emotion in Colonel Lou Tremaine's world. You went out, did a job, expecting no thanks from anybody for doing your duty.
He had fought for five long years in the War Between the States, later six more against the Indians and outlaw bands of Texas.
If the colonel ever laughed, Kirby had never seen it during their two fighting years together. He barely smiled; when he did it was a knowledgeable smile as if he and he alone understood the foibles of mankind and he reflected on these with ironic detachment.
He was a man of a fading breed. Inflexible, maybe, but fiercely loyal. The old man would lay down his life for a cause he believed in, and for a friend.
He had proven that before. If it weren't for Tremaine, Kirby would have been dead at Anchor Wells when a band of Comanches jumped their Ranger detachment.
'It's not much yet,' the colonel said, as they reached the plank porch of the house and stepped up, 'but I have hopes.'
He slipped the latchstring and they entered the strongly built, low-roofed house. The room they had entered had Indian rugs scattered on the packed-earth floor for decoration. The roughly built stone fireplace was massive. Above the mantel an old Spencer carbine hung in brackets. Two huge upright supports braced the low ceiling. The windows were small, flanked by swing-shutters with firing slots cut into them. The furniture was sparse enough: three heavy home-hewn chairs, all facing the fireplace. And beyond, a puncheon table, seven feet long with an array of stiff wooden chairs around it.
'I'll be putting wooden flooring down soon,' the colonel said, nearly to himself, stamping on the earthen floor with his polished cavalry boot.
'It'll do, sir. In time it will do just fine.'
Kirby stood, hat in hand looking the place over. The colonel sighed, removed his own hat and wiped back his gray hair.
'In time ... come to the table and sit down, Kirby. I've got some coffee. And we've a lot of talking to do.'
They sat at the big table and Tremaine poured them each a cup of coffee. The colonel studied Kirby in silence for quite some time, then as if he had made his final decision, he said, 'You've looked the ranch over?'
'Just what I could see riding in. A handsome piece of land, Colonel.'
'Damn few head of cattle.'
The colonel nodded. 'Unfortunately, you're right, Kirby. That's why I wrote asking you to come out here.'
'Oh?' Kirby's eyebrows lifted slightly. He let the colonel continue in his thoughtful way.
'We have had some luck. You have to understand,' Tremaine said, leaning back in his chair, 'the past three years this land was dry and sere, short yellow grass, and so little of that the steers were practically fighting each other over graze. Then the rains began, good soft rains soaking gently. I could see the country going green, and I knew I was going to have a good growth of grass.'
'But still the same number of cattle,' Kirby said. The colonel nodded agreement.
'Ranching is a risky business at all times, Kirby. You know that. Next year could be dry again. I have to make a profit while I can.'
'You have a plan,' Kirby prompted.
Tremaine shook his head. 'Down south. Down in Mexico they had a drought year. Terrible times. Their cattle are gaunted out, those that they haven't lost.'
He leaned forward, forearms on the table. His gray-blue eyes grew intent.
'I have a friend down there, a good man. Don Honario Trujillo-Lopez. You wouldn't know him. It was after you left the Rangers that we met. He and I worked both sides of the border fighting Comanches. We correspond from time to time.
'Anyway. Don Trujillo-Lopez has a thousand head of cattle he can't feed: I have the graze.'
'You want to drive them north.'
'Exactly. I can fatten them up over spring and early summer. Drive them to Kansas and turn a hell of a good profit.'
'It's a good plan.'
Tremaine was a cautious man at heart. He was not planning on breeding the Mexican cattle and keeping them on the land indefinitely. Then if he had another dry year he'd find himself in the same position as his Mexican friend.
'I want you with me, Kirby.'
'Of course, sir.'
'I've collected a dozen men to help with the drive. Some of them are good. Some I have doubts about.'
'Like your ramrod?'
'Exactly. Asa Donahue keeps the others in line around here. He's been useful up to now. He brought four men in with him.' Tremaine rose, opened a small window over his zinc sink and looked out at his promising land.
'Good men are hard to find out here, Kirby. Putting together a decent crew is just about the most difficult thing there is to do on a ranch. But they are fighting men, and we will need them.'
'Yes?' Kirby's eyes grew curious.
'The Comancheros. They're still roaming the country between here and Mexico, and in force. Rapacious, without morals – well, you know how they are.'
'All too well,' Kirby reflected. Bands of ex-Confederates, Indians who had jumped their reservations out of frustration, revolutionary Mexicans, former slaves all thrown together for one cause – to plunder as much as they could, without a scruple among them. They were an army of their own, a roving, pillaging army.
'I can better understand why you took on people like Asa,' Kirby said.
'Yes.' Tremaine turned back from the window and leaned against the sink, arms folded. 'But how far can I trust them, Kirby? Any more than the Comancheros? I hadn't met a single one of my new crew before I took them on, except Tomas – you'll meet him later.'
'I see. My job, then is ...?'
'Is to help me drive those cattle northward. And,' Tremaine added significantly, 'to watch my back.'
'Do you think they want the cattle?'
'That could be. They could have designs on the herd, yes.'
Kirby understood. A thousand head of cattle on the hoof, even in poor condition, represented a lot of money. If something should befall Colonel Tremaine on the trail back, who would know? They could kill the colonel, bury his body, appropriate the bill of sale from Trujillo-Lopez and sell them at the first opportunity with no questions asked. If they were that kind of men.
Kirby asked the Colonel, 'Have you any reason to think they have designs on the herd?'
'None. None at all. Kirby, I have been around hard men all of my life. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt, partly because I am desperate for hands right now.'
He smiled very thinly. 'But that does not mean I trust them. I have my pension, everything I've worked for all my life tied up in this ranch, and I've borrowed against it, gambled, you'd have to say, everything on bringing the herd through.'
'I can't guarantee you much, Kirby, little but a long trail and a percentage of the profits once we've brought the herd home and get them fattened for market.'
'I'm not asking for anything more,' Kirby McBride said.
'I don't want you to feel like a hired gun.'
It was Kirby's turn to smile. 'Nothing is further from my mind, sir. I feel like a man who is offering to pitch in on a tough job for a friend. And,' he added, 'for the old Ranger who saved a young green comrade's life at Anchor Wells.'
'As long as you understand, Kirby. If we don't get through there's nothing at all I can pay you with.'
'I understand.' Kirby looked down at the empty coffee cup he held between his hands.
Silent for a moment, he then asked, 'What about Asa Donahue? How do you expect him to react to this?'
'Why, Kirby,' the colonel said, 'I suppose he'll try to make sure you don't last out the day on this job.'
The colonel's eyes shifted. The door had opened and a silent figure had entered, a soft-footed, slender man.
'Oh, Tomas, come on in.'
'I did not wish to disturb you,' a soft Spanish voice replied.
'It's all right. We were just about through. Tomas, this is Kirby McBride. He is the new jefe, understand?'
'Of course,' the man replied, in a voice like a purr. He came out of the shadows and Kirby could now make out a wiry man, silver-stitched black sombrero in hand, crossed gunbelts worn low on his slender hips. He was dressed in faded black jeans and a blue shirt. His clothes were old, but he gave the impression of being a man once used to much finer things.
'Tomas is the only man you can trust completely, Kirby.' To Tomas he said simply, 'Kirby's orders are mine, understand, Tomas?'
'As you say, patron,' the young Mexican agreed with a broad smile that showed one gold tooth.
No further explanations were given, but from Tomas's manner it seemed that more than one man owed Colonel Tremaine a debt that would never be forgotten. All that mattered to Kirby was that the colonel trusted Tomas implicitly, therefore Kirby knew that he, too, could trust the young vaquero.
'Please show Kirby where he will sleep, Tomas,' Tremaine said, and now there was a touch of weariness in his voice. 'I must see to my horse.'
'It has been done, señor,' Tomas replied.
'Thank you. Thank you both. Now if you will excuse me....'
'Of course,' both of the younger men answered almost in unison, and Kirby rose to leave. The weariness he thought he had detected in Tremaine's voice had been confirmed. He was tired, very tired, and Kirby wondered suddenly if the colonel was as robust as he would have people believe. Could he be ill, or simply exhausted? Either of these could explain his reason for searching out his old Texas Ranger comrade to assist him with the trail drive.
Kirby followed Tomas to the door. The two put on their hats again and stood for a minute on the covered porch, looking out across the long land and to the skies where white clouds were gathering now, cutting out the sun. The wind had decreased, but far away to the north distant thunder rumbled like an omen of trouble on the way.
And trouble wasn't long in arriving.
Excerpted from The Devil's Canyon by Paul Lederer. Copyright © 2005 Owen G. Irons. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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