Mike Blakely again takes us on the trail with cowboy musician Caleb Holcomb. Caleb now becomes embroiled in Wyoming's Johnson County War, the Arapaho uprisings, the West's bloody cattle wars, the great cattle drives, and the wild, lawless land rushes that settled the Indian Territory.
Through it all Caleb finds music, friends, and wonderful women. But will he ever settle down with Amelia Holcomb, his brother's widow, the only woman he's ever loved? Or will he stay too long at the dance?
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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
Too Long at the DanceThe sequel to 'Shortgrass Song'
By Blakely, Mike
Forge BooksCopyright © 1998 Blakely, Mike
All right reserved.
Caleb rubbed his trigger finger smoothly around the inside of the glass lantern chimney, a black smudge of soot collecting on his callused digit. Peering wide-eyed into the tarnished mirror held to the wall with horseshoe nails, he rubbed his blackened finger under one eye, smearing the soot across the curve of his cheekbone.
He lifted the chimney from the coal-oil lantern and swabbed another lode of blackness from the bottom, painting it under his other eye. He probed deeper into the lantern globe, leaving a translucent band around the top and bottom of the glass, long overdue for a cleaning. He smeared the soot on his eyelids, across the bridge of his nose, and over the squint-creases reaching for his temples.
A gust whistled through cracks in the board and batten wall, and Caleb Holcomb heard ice crystals pitting against the lone window. He grinned at the raccoon mask he had darkened on his face, admiring it from sundry angles, like a painted lady checking her rouge.
The warmth of the potbellied stove and the smell of fried bacon from the lean-to kitchen made him dread the first step outside. But he had stayed here long enough. His belly was full of breakfast and his pockets jingled with silver. The weather would be warming down in Texas, and if he intended to get in on a roundup, he would have to start this week, if it wasn't already too late. Nosense putting it off any longer.
Milt Starling limped through the open door clenching an iron coffeepot by the handle with an old rag. "It's plain you ain't buyin' supplies around here!" he blurted. "The coffee you boil would bog a Missouri mule." He stopped short, for Caleb had turned to face him. "What in the name of hell have you done to yourself now? Is that war paint? You look plumb crazy!"
Caleb lifted the makeshift latch and let the door blow open. White morning sunshine burst across virgin snow like the tail of a comet sweeping the High Plains. "I'd rather go coon-eyed than snow-blind."
The saloon keeper squinted at the harsh glare and scowled. "All right, close the damn door! Where do you think you're goin', anyhow?"
Caleb kicked the door shut. He shrugged as he slipped a feedsack over his rugged old Mexican guitar, the catgut strings stretched against a neck as thick as a wagon tongue. "Ridin' grub line." He checked the latches on his fiddle case and picked it up.
"You might just as well wait till the snow melts. Man's a lunatic to ride out in weather like this."
"The Stanley Ranch is just eight miles south on Rush Creek. I'll hole up there overnight and be that much closer to Texas. Probably see you come summertime with a herd headin' north."
Milt hissed. "Why you'd punch cows when you could just as easy lay up here and fiddle of an evenin' is a mystery to me. You've got cow fever, boy! It's like gold fever. It'll ruin you yet!" The old forty-niner dismissed Caleb with a curt wave and turned back into his saloon, never one for lengthy farewells.
In spite of Milt's arguments that he should stay, Caleb could tell the old man was tired of having him around. After thirteen winters adrift, he had come to know when his welcome was worn out.
His first step into the cold wind braced him for the ride ahead, but the soot shadowing his eyes enabled him to take in the vast frosted beauty of the Colorado plains without squinting much. Milt's advice wasn't all nonsense. Another blizzard this late in the season was unlikely, and the snow would surely melt in a day or two. He might have ridden more comfortably tomorrow or the next day.
But Caleb had awoken this morning with a familiar lust to wander that he had never been able to curb. After a week of entertaining the hard cases and rakehells at Starling's Road Ranch--drunks crowding him as he tried to fiddle; glad-handing him with glazed eyes; snoring off hangovers on the cots Milt rented--after such a week he looked forward to riding alone. He would smell the snow instead of the tobacco smoke. Hear the music of wind through his spurs.
The animals waiting for him at the hitching rail were different as ice and lightning, but they seemed to complement each other. Whiplash wore the swell-fork saddle, for he sometimes gave a pitch or two on cold mornings. He stood at the rail already head-high and anxious. The ash-gray mule, Harriet, stood beside him sleepy-eyed, her nose actually resting on the rail as if she were too disinterested to hold her own head up.
Caleb looped the handle of his fiddle case to the old mule's pack saddle, lashed the guitar down opposite, and covered both with the tarpaulin. Whiplash pranced a circle as he mounted, but Caleb kept the stallion's head too high to buck. A week of free oats had varnished a gloss on his spotted rump and rounded his belly.
"Come on, girl," the drifter said to the mule, clucking his tongue at her, and she ambled stoically into the trail of hoofprints the stallion had punched in the foot of new snow. Harriet was obedient to the point that she didn't even require a lead rope.
A lyric he had been trying to conjure for some time crossed his lips, the melody yet cumbersome but the meter well defined:
We have known our finer hours,
And you can see it in our faces
And we've all earned our places
In the blizzard and stampede
And we 've tried to mend our ways
But we 're all too damned bullheaded
Yet, there's common ground we've treaded
And on one thing we're agreed:
This thing agreed upon had not yet occurred to Caleb. Whatever it turned out to be would have to serve as a framework for the rest of the lyric. It would probably give name to the song. Not that he was going to think about it too hard. It would come to him somewhere, sometime--probably when he expected it least. No sense rushing a thing like a song lyric. It wasn't as if anyone was anxious to hear it.
Starling's Road Ranch--a paint-shy collection of shacks and sheds--stood on the stage route one team west of Kit Carson, Colorado. Caleb gave it a parting glance over his shoulder, noting that the snow on the rooftops lent something picturesque to the place. It would be well to remember it that way. He didn't know when he might drift back to these climes.
Heading south at a long walk, he thought about his animals. It felt good to have rested them this week, and to have fed them well alongside the stagecoach teams. The mule was a loan from Buster, and it was a luxury to have her along. He could still hear Buster's advice:
"You gonna ride that ol' Whiplash, you don't want that fiddle on him. Time's gonna come he'll pitch you and everything you own off his ol' wild-ass back. Take ol' Harriet to pack your poke on. You don't never have to buy no feed no-ways."
She had Buster's disposition in many respects. She didn't look for trouble; she never avoided work; she kept her head on straight and made herself appreciated.
Whiplash was another brand of animal. The stallion had belonged to Caleb's brother Pete. Some said Whiplash had killed Pete, but Caleb judged that kind of talk wilder than the horse. It was probably true that Whiplash had shied and thrown Pete Holcomb into that canyon, but the horse didn't deserve all the blame. Certainly he wasn't a man-killer, as Piggin' String McCoy had once claimed.
The white blanket with coin-sized black spots on Whiplash's rump betrayed the Nez Percé bloodlines. Folks were calling them Appaloosas these days, as they had come from Nez Percé country along the Palouse River in Washington State. They were scarce since the army had destroyed the Nez Percé's herds in 'seventy-seven.
Caleb valued every spotted horse he had ridden since the age of six. It was then that the old Holcomb Ranch--long since fragmented by homesteaders--had gotten the brood stock for their line of Appaloosas from a mountain man called Cheyenne Dutch. That was the only good Caleb ever heard of Cheyenne Dutch coming to, for the old son-of-a-bitch had ended up killing Caleb's brother Matthew in a sawmill that was being used as a dance hall at the time. Whether Cheyenne Dutch was a lunatic or just a mean bastard was something Caleb had never figured out. The old Holcomb Ranch manager, Javier Maldonado, had killed Cheyenne Dutch in the same shoot-out, and Caleb guessed he appreciated that. Javier had once been one of his finest friends, but that had come to pass, too.
Oh, well, all that was done. He had lost two brothers, his mama, and a lot of friends along the way--killed and scattered and gone the way of renegade Indians. He was just a drifter, anyway, and nobody cried much over his hard luck, so it was his own burden to pack here alone in a snowed-over wasteland.
Ah, but certain things made it go easier. A good horse. A pack mule he didn't have to lead. A saddle that fit well between his legs. And the things that fit well in his hands: the Winchester model '77; the walnut grip of the Colt .44; the stout slick neck of the Mexican guitar; and the fiddle, more delicate in his hand than a lady's wrist, and more faithful to his caresses.
Whiplash plodded willingly through the snow, casting showers of frozen white powder ahead of his hooves with every step, almost as if he had sense enough to create them on purpose. Caleb rode light in the saddle today. It felt good to be moving, and his spirits wouldn't be mired. He was remembering something. A wonderful thing had occurred when last he left Holcomb Ranch, and he could not shake the glow of it from his thoughts, nor did he want to.
This thing of wonder involved his father, Colonel Absalom Holcomb--one-legged Ab Holcomb, who had fought on the winning side of the Mexican War and the War of the Rebellion, and on the losing side of the fence wars that had decimated his once-borderless ranch.
Thirteen years ago this spring, Caleb had left his home on Holcomb Ranch to spend his first year adrift. He had left cussing his father with words so vile that he now regretted them as deeply as any he had ever uttered. He had said, among other things, that as far as he was concerned, old Ab Holcomb could shove his peg leg right up his ass.
He had since returned every spring to Holcomb Ranch--to visit with Pete before Whiplash threw Pete into Cedar Root Canyon; to work the roundup back when the ranch was big enough to warrant one; to sing and play with Buster Thompson, the former slave who had taught him more than music--and never once during those annual visits had his father spoken a single word to him. Rarely had they even looked at each other in thirteen long years.
But this past winter Caleb and Buster had strung a telephone system to a barbed-wire fence, and one day he had unexpectedly placed the earpiece against his head to hear the voice of his father, and his father had said something civil to him.
And this spring, Ab had taken to using a walking stick, his good leg having taken on a touch of rheumatism. And three weeks ago--the day Caleb had left to ride grub line--his father had used that walking stick in a momentous way. They had all come out to see him off--Piggin' String McCoy and his bride-to-be, Tess Wiley; Buster and his little boy, Frederick; Pete's widow, Amelia, whose beauty drifted in and out of Caleb's dreams and idle thoughts like a painted tanager; Dan Brooks; and Ab Holcomb.
Yes, Ab Holcomb for the first time ever had come to see his son off as he rode Whiplash up the Arapaho Trail and vanished into the Rampart Range. Ab Holcomb had waited to catch Caleb's eye, and he had raised that walking stick, thrusting it once at the sky as a farewell gesture.
And Caleb had answered. Thank God he had found a way to respond. He had touched the trigger finger of his right hand to the brim of his hat, and brushed it forward with a nod. With those parting gestures, the father and son had communicated more than they had in the past thirteen years.
And now he was riding light in the saddle, for he had pulled an idea down from the crisp prairie air. He was going to do something he had never done before. He was going to write a letter to his father. It would read swift and shallow, some cryptic reference to business. Maybe a telegram would be better. One the old man would not even have to answer.
Papa...Mules selling cheap in Dallas. Expect a carload in two days.
Of course, Amelia, too, had smiled and bid him farewell that day, but her eyes had revealed her disappointment. She had wanted Caleb to stay to help raise Caleb's nephew, Little Pete. Was that all she wanted? Caleb couldn't tell. Was it right to be thinking of her like this now, his stomach all full of fluttering aspen leaves? His brother's widow? Was it wrong to have always thought of her just so? She only became more beautiful as the years passed. He could see her now. My God, was he going snow-blind?
* * *
By late afternoon, the limitless field of snow had made a mockery of the raccoon mask, and Caleb was squinting. As Whiplash plodded steadily up Rush Creek, the rider took his bandanna off, stood in the stirrups, and fished in his pocket for his old bone-handled knife. Measuring the kerchief carefully against his face, he cut two tiny slits in the faded red cloth.
He took his hat off, clenched the brim in his teeth, felt the cool air on his head for the first time since leaving Starling's Road Ranch. He tied the bandanna around his forehead, adjusting it until he could look through the slits his knife had made. He couldn't see much, but the glare diminished. Anyway, it wasn't as if he was going to run into a tree or fall off a cliff out here. All he had to do was ride up Rush Creek till Whiplash found the Stanley place.
The sod and scrap-lumber ranch rose from the drifts before sundown, a thin smear of smoke in the sky first giving it away. Snowfall had caught on the edges of sods used to make walls, lending an appearance of lace.
When Caleb reined his mount in, old Harriet continued to plod so methodically along that she butted Whiplash's rear, giving him cause to lurch.
"Howdy in there!" Caleb shouted, waiting a respectable distance from the sod house. He rubbed the stallion's withers to settle him and pulled the bandanna from his face so he wouldn't look like some sort of outlaw.
The door cracked. "Howdy, yourself." A shotgun barrel followed the words out into the evening, all plum-tinted by the new snow and the sinking sun. "You want somethin'?"
"Just a place to light for the evenin'. Name's Caleb Holcomb."
A silence ensued, and the shotgun barrel dipped out of sight. "Put your stock in the shed. Bring some firewood in, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind," Caleb said, spurring his horse forward.
Copyright 1996 by Mike Blakely
Excerpted from Too Long at the Dance by Blakely, Mike Copyright © 1998 by Blakely, Mike. 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.
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What People are Saying About This
"Mike's style grabs the reader from teh first page. Since I've been around I've seen the 'Wetern' declared dead three times. Young writers like Bakely will keep it alive and expanding." -- Autnor of The Spanish Bit Saga
"Besides being a fine spinner of tales, Mike Blakely is a poet and musician at heart, which makes his narrative sing and his unusual characters dance their way through this epic story of changing West."