When visiting his uncle's ranch, Caleb Hart finds himself smack in the middle of a bitter dispute between a group of canny rustlers and vigilante cattlemen out for blood justice!
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The Hart Brand
By Johnny D. Boggs Dorchester Publishing
Copyright © 2006
Johnny D. Boggs
All right reserved.
Chapter One Let's see. Where to start? Well, at the beginning, I guess, on the train ride from St. Louis to Las Cruces, and the time I met Kim Harrigan. He was the first cowboy I ever knew, not counting my father, of course, or any of those other broken-down old-timers who had rocked on stools around the stove in our mercantile and talked about days long gone. He was a working cowboy. I knew that from the worn but shiny saddle he threw with a grunt onto the seat across from me as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé pulled out of Raton, New Mexico Territory.
As the cowhand took his seat, Mrs. Hudspeth-I never knew her first name-turned up her nose in distaste and pinched my arm, as had been her habit for the past 100 miles, to which the bruises on my forearm could attest. Since settling her bony frame next to mine at La Junta, Colorado, every time she wanted to say something snide about any of the passengers, she'd give me a painful pinch, lean over, and whisper into my ear, then straighten and suck on her dentures. I would have changed seats, but the railroad car was packed to the gills, and, Methodist upbringing and all, I didn't want to offend the old biddy, though I wondered if my arm would last to Albuquerque.
"The air has turned rancid, Master Caleb." Her cold eyes blazed at the cowhand sitting across from us. Her breath stank of Aromatic-a misnomer if ever there was-Cachou Lozenges, which she popped into her mouth with some frequency. Personally I preferred the smell of Papa's rye whiskey.
"Yes'm," the cowboy said, causing Mrs. Hudspeth to sit bolt upright as if she had heard a ghost. My eyes widened, too, amazed that anyone could hear the old woman's whisper over the din of the coughing locomotive and cacophony of voices inside the rocking car.
"It's them sodbusters," the cowboy continued, and he hooked a thumb toward a family of farmers a few seats up and over. "One of 'em just farted."
Well, I mean to tell you, I thought Mrs. Hudspeth would keel right over from cerebral apoplexy, and the stranger's comment caused my mouth to drop wide. Had I used such language, especially in front of a God-fearing elderly woman like Mrs. Hudspeth, Mama would have whipped my backside with a willow switch, and afterward Papa would have torn off the rest of my flesh with his razor strop. With a shaking hand, Mrs. Hudspeth somehow managed to open her bottle and toss another lozenge into her mouth. Then she got all haughty.
"I did not pay the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fé my hard-earned money to be exposed to such vulgarity," she snapped.
"No, ma'am," the stranger said. "And if them nesters keep fartin' like that, I'll be gettin' off at the next station with you."
I grimaced as her fingers dug into my flesh again, but this time she did not lean over to whisper a thing. She released her hold on my skin, stood up, and let out a-"Why, I never!"-before collecting her grip and storming down the aisle, out the door, and into the next car.
The cowboy gave me a wink, then stretched his long legs, propping his boots on the seat Mrs. Hudspeth had vacated, pulled his battered hat over his eyes, and started snoring within seconds.
His clothes looked new, nothing fancy but store-bought. Like I said, growing up in a mercantile, I knew about store-bought duds. The boots were older, their counters torn by years of rough use from spurs, though he wore no spurs now, and a plug of Even Change tobacco stuck out of his vest pocket. The hat was misshapen, stained from sweat and dirt, and his face resembled iron, forged by years in the elements, with a reddish-brown mustache, flaked with gray, that would have been the envy of many a tonsorial artist back home.
'Twas the saddle that gave him away.
A Wyoming stock rig, it barely fit in the seat next to him, and I knew it had to weigh more than thirty pounds with its steel fork, sixteen-inch tree, brass-bound stirrups, and wool-lined, thirty-inch skirts. How I knew so much about the stranger's saddle was because Papa had one in the mercantile for better than a year, priced at $60, which finally left the store-Mama had complained that it would never sell-about two weeks before I departed for New Mexico. This saddle looked scarred and used, but smelled of fresh saddle soap, and I remember Papa telling us kids as he vigorously worked a brush and rag against his proud possession: "You can tell a lot about a man from just looking at his saddle. A fellow may appear rougher than a cob, but if his saddle's clean, he's a good cowhand. If his saddle ain't, then he ain't fit to muck stalls."
Well, this saddle was clean, so he was a cowboy, and a good one, as far as my father would be concerned.
His name was Kim Harrigan, and he woke up south of Maxwell City.
I had been staring out the window, watching cows in the distance in this broken country of hogbacks, Spartan trees, and distant mountains. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck the ground, raising a cloud of red dust, and the cattle bolted every which way. I jumped back in my seat, although the scene took place at least a quarter mile away, and the cowhand snickered.
"Some hob goblin out there spook you?" he asked.
He pulled off his hat, revealing a bald pate, the paleness of the top of his head in stark contrast to the dark hair over his ears and that sunburned face. After fishing out his chewing tobacco and a folding knife, he carved off a sizeable wad, shoved the quid into his mouth, then held out the pouch of Even Change toward me.
"No, thanks," I said.
"Name's Harrigan," he announced. "Kim Harrigan."
"That's right. I got a girl's name." His voice had an edge now, but the dancing of his blue eyes let me know he held no anger toward me. "Nobody give me a choice about my handle when I was born."
"No, I'm sorry ... I mean ... I'm Caleb Hart. I was just ... it's not your name ... just...." I pointed outside. "Lightning struck the ground, scared some cows. I've never seen anything like it."
Nodding, he worked his tobacco silently, spit out a flake, and shoved his hat back on his head. "Some folks change their name faster than they change their unmentionables, but I figured, by grab, a name's the one thing nobody can take from you, and if my stupid pa wanted me to be named after a girl, well, I'll live with it. And fight anyone who insults me."
From the scars on his face and the crooked nose, I detected that he had defended his name many times over the years. "You ain't insultin' me, are you?"
"Good." He moved the chaw of tobacco from one cheek to another, and changed the subject. "You'll see a lot of lightnin' in this country," he said. "Hit any cowboys?"
"No, sir. Didn't see any cowboys out there."
"That's good. Kill any cattle?"
"No. I don't think so. Just spooked them."
"That's even better. Did it fry any sheepherders?"
"That's a shame." He spit into the cuspidor, stretching his arms and legs. "You say your name's Hart?"
"Yes, sir. H-a-r-t."
To my surprise, and disappointment, he simply nodded, pulled his hat down over his eyes, and fell back asleep, a huge bulge in his cheek. I thought we were beginning a conversation, that he would ask where I was bound, and then I could bombard him with questions about his saddle, working the range, lightning strikes, and any green- pea question that popped in my green-pea brain. Instead, I pulled out a copy of the New Mexican Single-Taxer, which someone had left behind, and read the newspaper again and again, while sucking on the last of the peppermint candies Papa had plundered.
Fact is, that turned out to be the bulk of our conversation as the train wound south, through Wagon Mound and Las Vegas, through Glorieta Pass, over to Lamy and down to Albuquerque, where Mrs. Hudspeth scowled at both Kim Harrigan and myself as she departed the train. Deep south we traveled, leaving the mountains and piñons behind and into a vast desert. Every so often, Harrigan would wake up, work his plug of tobacco, and ask for our location before drifting back to sleep. Belen ... Socorro ... Cutter, names that meant nothing to me, and, from the look on his face, held little interest to him. He slept so much, I wondered if he were sick.
Finally, as the train slowed to a crawl, the conductor walked down the aisle, checking his pocket watch as he announced: "Las Cruces!"
Kim Harrigan didn't budge as I stood and collected my carpetbag, hat, and overcoat, which, from the heat I already felt, I doubted I would ever need. Cautiously I stepped over his legs, wanting to tell him good bye, but daring not wake him. A man as tired as that, well, he needed his sleep. We hadn't talked much, but I thought I owed him a debt of gratitude. After all, he had saved my arms from Mrs. Hudspeth's incessant pinching. Yet the only movement I detected was the rising of his chest, which at least assured me that he hadn't died during the night. With a sigh, I followed a couple of drummers and stepped off the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fé-finally-and walked around, lost, on the crowded depot.
On my travels along the AT&SF line, I had seen some country. Kansas and Colorado had looked like a vast wintry expanse of plains, brutal in its nothingness, where the windows of the cars became frosted with thick coats of ice. Then we had climbed into the mountains, strained our way over Raton Pass and entered New Mexico, and I loved the scenery. Snow capped the mountains between Raton and Lamy, often covering the piñons. Lightning strikes ... hundreds of antelope ... frozen rivers and dry creekbeds. All romantic to an adventure-starved teen.
Nothing looked romantic here. The dust felt choking, and the mountains, looming in the eastern horizon, held neither snow nor piñons, just craggy rises spearing the sky, the setting sun staining those rocks with a crimson blaze. The warmth of the evening surprised me, and the spicy aroma of food pricked my nostrils. Conversations sprang up all around me, but I could understand none of the words, for most of the talk was in Spanish. In St. Louis, I had learned a bit of French here and there, which did me no good in this strange country.
Now what? I thought again, looking for some familiar face. My uncle wrote that he would have a rider waiting for me, but how was I to know this man? My eyes sought out someone who resembled a cowboy, and, as the depot cleared, I noticed several who filled the bill, but I couldn't make my legs move.
"Fellow you're lookin' for is that hombre over yonder rollin' himself a smoke."
The voice I recognized instantly, and I quickly spun to see Kim Harrigan, looking wide awake, the bulge in his cheek gone, lugging that Wyoming rig over his shoulder. He jutted his chin out, and I followed that line to see a tall, thin man sitting on the tile floor, back braced against the adobe column, wetting a cigarette with one hand while striking a lucifer with the other.
"How?" I began.
"Said your name was Hart, didn't you?" Before I could reply, Harrigan continued: "Then I take it you're kin to Capt'n Hart, and that fellow has been ridin' with the capt'n as long as anyone can recall. Come on, Caleb. I'll introduce you."
The cigarette-smoking man saw us first and pulled himself up with a big grin, an infectious smile, I mean to tell you. Railthin he was, with sandy hair, mustache, and goatee, dancing eyes, and a sod-colored hat pulled practically down to his eyebrows. In his high-topped boots, he stood a good four inches taller than Kim Harrigan, and towered over me.
His hand shot out, and the smoke dangled from his lips as he said: "Kim Harrigan. Well, I'd bet my bottom dollar they'd never let you out of Wyoming."
"How you farin', Rex?"
"I'm finer than frog's hair. Reckon you seen the elephant?"
"Ain't seen much these past five years."
"Well, it's good to have you back, riding for the brand. Who's that nubbin of a shadow you got there?"
"This is Caleb Hart. Met him on the train, and I take it he's here to see the capt'n. Caleb, meet Rex Steele."
We shook hands, and, after taking a long pull on his smoke, he tilted his head southward. "Yes, sir, seems Caleb's daddy sent him down here to ride with us. Ain't that right, Caleb?" I couldn't get a word in, which would prove the case time and again whenever I got into a conversation with Rex Steele. "Caleb's pa is Frank's older brother. Reckon you heard Frank mention him a time or two."
"Good timing, it is, Kim," Rex said, and he walked, pigeon-toed, toward a string of horses. "Wasn't sure you'd be here, but I'm glad you can ride along with us. Frank sent some of the boys over here to pick up his cousin...."
"Nephew," Kim corrected.
"Well, pick up Caleb here, and then we could ride back to Lincoln with Colonel Fountain. The sorrel horse is yours, Caleb. Kim, we'll pick up a mount for you over at Lucero's." He swung into the saddle with ease, finished his cigarette, and tossed it into the dusty street.
Me? I was trying to figure out which horse was the sorrel.
The smile faded from Rex Steele's face as he looked down on Harrigan.
"You bring your rifle, Kim?"
I hadn't noticed the scabbard until then, not really, but Harrigan shifted the saddle until Rex and I saw the battered stock and case-hardened bolt of some kind of rifle Papa had never kept at the mercantile. A bandoleer filled with long, brass cartridges was wrapped around the bedroll tied behind the cantle. I hadn't noticed that, either.
Rex Steele nodded solemnly. "That's a good thing, Kim. Things been getting a mite danger-some."
Excerpted from The Hart Brand by Johnny D. Boggs Copyright © 2006 by Johnny D. Boggs. Excerpted by permission.
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