Ed Wright earned his reputation as a capable and principled man from years of driving cattle—and from wearing a Ranger’s badge. The Texan wants nothing more than to drown his memories in bottle after bottle of whiskey.
Unita Nance is the owner of the Bar U Ranch, having inherited the spread after her husband’s death. She needs Ed to drive her stock from Texas to Newton, Kansas and won’t take no for an answer.
Pulled out of his inebriated retirement against his will, Ed discovers that there are those who don’t want him riding herd any more than he does—and will stop at nothing to keep him off the trail…
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Dusty Richards is the only author to win two Spur awards in one year (2007), one for his novel The Horse Creek Incident, and another for his short story "Comanche Moon." He is an inductee in the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame.
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They came out of the cedars on horseback. Both riders wore masks. They were armed with pistols, but he didn’t wait for them to shoot. He put heels to the roan and bent low. As he fumbled with his coat buttons to get to his .44 and urged the roan to go faster, a cold chill of fear swept over him. Expecting one of their wild shots to strike him at any moment, he reined the roan off into the tall cedars. At last, with the gun butt in his right hand, he reined to a halt, looking back for sight of any pursuit. Nothing.
Damn. Where in the hell had they gone? He turned the roan back. All he could hear was the rain on his hat and wind in the cedar tops. His heart still thumped hard under his breastbone and he breathed hard to get enough air. Who were they and why were they on this road? Worse, why did they want him? Were they headed for his place to get him?
He’d not recognized them or their wet horses in his haste to get away. Daylight was fading fast. He holstered the pistol and swung the roan eastward. Who wanted him dead?
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First Printing, April 2007
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eISBN : 978-1-101-00763-1
THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska,
Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
Big Mike Donaho polished glasses with a Turkish towel back of the mahogany bar in Rosie’s Shamrock Saloon. His only customer was a regular, the ex-drover Ed Wright. Wright’s six-foot frame was hunched up over the bar and he was well into his purpose of the day—to get stone blind drunk. Same as Ed did every day—got soused. He came in about nine in the morning, still hung over from the day before, and he passed out in the afternoon or evening. Then Mike had him hauled to one of the empty cribs in back to sleep it off. Big shame; Ed’d been successful and made some big money driving Texas cattle to Kansas. He owned several sections in the hill country and had some Mexicans looking after his place.
Six men filed in the door and Mike stopped polishing to watch them headed for Ed. He recognized their homemade shirts and dress, they were those same small ranchers—again. Filled with dread, he shook his head over their reappearance in the bar. They were back to try to change Ed’s mind.
“Ed,” the leader said. “It’s me. Frank Hogan.”
Shaking his head, Ed raised his unsteady gaze to the man. “I know who you are. I know who all of you are. What’re you doing here?”
“Ed, we’ve all got cattle—we need ’em taken to Kansas and sold. They’d rob us blind if we sold them around here.”
He agreed with them, bobbing his head. “They damn sure would. Cattle ain’t worth nothing around here.” He turned and looked in the mirror behind the bar, and closed his eyes. “I can’t help.”
“Ed, we all owe money. You know ranching is a corn bread living at its best. If we can sell two hundred, two hundred fifty head each up there we can hold on.”
“Just take ’em north. You’ll find it.” He waved an unsteady arm in that direction.
“Can I help you gents?” Mike asked, wiping off the bar top in front of them.
“You sure can. Convince Ed to make another drive.”
Mike shook his head. “Can’t do that, boys.”
Ed twisted around so his elbows hung on the bar and looked at the floor. “I don’t care if hell freezes over and polar bears move to south Texas—I ain’t taking another herd of cattle north.” He swung his left arm out as if to clear the air. “Any of you boys ever take a war widow the news her only son was killed on the trail, and give her sixty bucks of wages for his life insurance?
“No, no, you ain’t done it. Buried some kid that died of pneumonia at the Red River crossing. What was his name, Mike?” He scrubbed the side of his beard-stubbled face on his palm.
“That’s the one.” Ed shook his head warily and then raised up some. “Jesse Collier’s boy—damn gambler shot him in Abilene. Hell, that boy was no gun-fighter. Lucky Earl was the gambler’s name—I tracked him to Salina and called him out in the street. Blew him in half with damn buckshot. But Ethel Mae won’t never see her boy’s grave up there on the prairie—bad deal.”
“We know you’re upset. I mean about them pirates killing your partner, Dave Ivy, on the riverboat—”
“Marsh and Corley Brady—I trailed them bastards plumb to Fort Smith and lost ’em. I’ll get ’em.”
“Ed, we know losing Dave Ivy was a big loss to you. But we don’t know the way to Kansas. Ain’t got the slightest idea how to ever get them there. Folks lose everything they’ve got on them drives that go bad. You—you could get them there.”
“Go find you someone else. I ain’t the man . . .” He whirled around. “ ’Nother beer and two shots of whiskey, Mike. They’ve got my mind churning up all that crap and I can’t stand it.”
“You boys better leave,” Mike said. “He’s not going to Abilene ever again.”
“That’s right,” Ed said. “Besides, it’s Newton where Joe McCoy’s setting up the new pens. Newton, Kansas.”
“Ed,” the shortest man in the group said as he stepped up. “Billie Miller. You remember me? We fought them Yankees together.”
“Yes. Known you all my life.”
“I’m asking—no, I’m begging. Take our cattle to this Newton for us?”
With a pendulum shake of his head, Ed dropped his gaze to the brass rail at the foot of the bar. “I can’t—can’t go through it ever again. I can’t even forget it! Now get the hell out of here. All of you!”
Mike watched them leave, crestfallen, then he came out and guided Ed to a table, and set him in a chair. “They’re gone.” He put a new beer in front of Ed and patted him on the shoulder. “I won’t let them bother you.”
Ed nodded and looked close to crying. “They don’t know how hard it is. Don’t know . . .”
“I know. Take it easy pard,” Big Mike said. Why did they keep hounding him? Didn’t they see how upset it made him?
“Thanks,” Ed said to dismiss him, and put his elbows on the table to support himself.
Things had quieted down in the almost empty bar-room so Mike busied himself polishing glasses. He never served a drink in a water-spotted glass. At a rumbling sound, he looked up. Someone out front had a pushcart on the boardwalk. Then, to his shock, a fine-looking lady stuck her head in the batwing doors and looked around. She was a handsome, respectable-appearing woman in her early thirties, and she shocked him even more by walking right into the place.
She had a well-proportioned figure that would make men’s heads turn when she strolled down the boardwalk. Her tight lips and the glare in her blue eyes told him she was headed for one thing—Ed. At least there was one good thing; she didn’t have an ax to chop up his bar like they were doing in Kansas. Then Mike frowned at the next sight. Why in hell was that swamper coming in with the damn wheelbarrow?
“Lady, you can’t be in here.” He came around the bar to run her off, and waved his rag at the swamper to get out. Whores were one thing, but decent women weren’t allowed.
She looked around in an unimpressed gathering of what she could see and then met his gaze. “I’m here to get him.”
“But that’s Ed Wright and he’s drunk. He’s also sleeping.”
“I know who he is. Now help Charlie get him in the wheelbarrow. He’s going to my place.”
“But he’s Ed Wright—”
“One of the best cattle drovers in Texas. Now help me.” She had Ed by one arm.
Mike took the other and Charlie picked up his feet. They sprawled Wright’s six-foot frame into the wheelbarrow.
“But you don’t know—”
“The livery, Charlie,” she said to the grizzly old man, then opened the drawstrings on her purse. “Does he owe you a bar bill?”
“No, ma’am. What’s your name?”
“Unita Nance. I’m the Bar U owner.”
“Lady, I sure hope you know what you’re doing, ah, Mrs. Nance.”
“Two bottles of your whiskey.” She motioned him toward the bar. “He’ll need some when he comes around.”
“He’ll need lots,” Mike said, throwing the towel over his shoulder as he slipped in back of the bar. He set two fifths on the bar. “Want it on his account?”
“No, I’m paying for it.”
Pained by what he was doing, he considered taking the two bottles back. “I don’t think I’m supposed to sell whiskey to a woman like you.”
Not to be put aside, her words sounded sharp. “How much is it?”
She fished out the money and put it on the bar. “This might be like the farmer who’s mule died.”
“He said he’d never done that before either.”
Mike laughed. She was not only fine-looking, but she had a good sense of humor. She’d sure need one—in a few days she’d bring Ed Wright back and dump him off there. Her obvious plan was to sober him up. It would never work.
After she left, Mike went to the batwing doors to watch her stalk up the street for the livery. There was one helluva lot of fine woman packed in that blue getup. He closed his eyes. Fine or not, she was making a big mistake hauling Ed out of there. Unita Nance had kidnapped that poor old drunk Ed Wright in a wheelbarrow, with that wino Charlie as her cohort in crime. Mike chuckled over her absolute poor judgment. Might ought to report it to the Bexar County Sheriff. Ramon Gittez would laugh too.
Where in the hell was he at? Ed woke up on a cot in some shed, with cobwebs in his brain and hardly able to open his eyes, which were matted shut. He sure wasn’t in a crib in the back of the Shamrock. Aw, where in the devil was he at? His eyes rubbed open at last, he tried the door and it opened. It was dark outside, quarter moon shining, and he wasn’t in San Antonio, either. Damn, how did he ever get to this place?
Made no good sense at all. He tucked in his shirt and headed for the corral. Maybe his saddle pony was there. How did he get there anyway? Whew, he needed a drink, and badly. His teeth were about to float out of his jaw. In the starlight, he surveyed the corral of sleeping horses, all hipshot and grunting. No sign of one of his ponies. Must not have ridden there. Had he drunk himself into something? He was used to waking up in a crib in the back of the Shamrock. Most times by himself. Sometimes he had company, like when one of the doves got cold—she’d come over for the warmth off his body and climbed in to sleep against him. Or if one got too drunk and thought it was her room. This wasn’t one of those deals—there wasn’t a dove around. Besides, it was too cold to be out in the dark in only a shirt. He rubbed his arms for more circulation. He was so cold, he’d begun shaking all over. It was hard to swallow. Freezing to death and he was taking the damn d.t.’s. Then he noticed the light on at the main house. Whose place was this? Hugging his arms to stop the quaking, he headed for the lighted window in the house.
He managed to open the door and fell to his knees inside. Blinking against the bright light in the room, he finally managed to stagger to his feet. The room was empty save for a long table and chairs. But he could smell ham frying and the sweet aroma threatened to make him vomit. Then he blinked his eyes at the sight of a woman framed in the lighted doorway.
“You finally wake up?” she asked.
“Where—in—the—hell—am—I?” he managed, shivering all over until his skin felt ready to crawl off of him. His jaw even clinched until his teeth felt ready to come unhinged.
She nodded to the table. “There’s some whiskey in that glass.”
“There is.” She turned on her heel and went back into the kitchen that was emitting all those damn food smells. He could hear her and a Mexican woman talking and laughing back there. Probably about him—he didn’t give a damn.
He dropped down on the chair before the whiskey. For a long moment he looked at the glass. His trembling hand slid across the tabletop to clutch it. Better not spill it—there might not be any more. Still uncontrollably shuddering, he bent over, with some of the sharp vapors going up his nose. Then, sip by sip, he began to recover.
A loud bell ringing outside jarred him up. In minutes, the door came open and several ranch hands came bursting into the room.
“Oh, hi, Ed.”
“See you got up.”
A clap on his shoulder. “Glad you’re better. You were in bad shape when she brought you out here.”
He knew most of the hands—Rusty Keyes, Sparky and Don Don—all taking their places around the table and nodding to him, all of them busy with the morning’s small talk of an outfit. A busted girth, a horse that needed to be shod, a ranny cow that didn’t appreciate being snaked out of a bog. Ranch-hand conversation, and with a little chiding throwed in about some chubby German girl having her blue eyes set on Keyes.
The boss woman, the good-looking one, brought in platters heaped high with food and began serving them. Eggs, ham, big biscuits, fried mush and flour gravy—workingman food. An older, short Mexican woman began filling their pottery cups with coffee.
“You want some food?” she asked him in an accented voice, holding the pot.
He nodded and the boss woman put one of the plates in front of him at the same time.
“Eat up. Be a long time till supper,” the woman warned.
Ed looked hard at the food, undecided. The enticing aroma made him nauseated.
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