Armed with only a Colt rifle, a Bowie knife, and courage as big as the West, Ten Chisholmthe bold, illegitimate son of frontier scout and plains ambassador Jesse Chisholm and a Cherokee womanarrives in the heart of Comanche country with a price on his head. His only crime: loving the beautiful daughter of a powerful New Orleans gambler who has promised her to a wealthy man she hates.
Now that Ten has returned to the harsh Texas brakes with a team of battle-toughened cowboys and ex-soldiersand a vow to return to Priscilla and make her his wifehe must round up wild longhorns, ward off angry Comanches, and survive treacherous outlaw attacks as he crosses the Red River and sets off on a brazen quest to open a new trail to Kansas on the savage frontier.
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. His first novel in the Trail Drive series, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was also the author of the Sundown Rider series and the Border Empire series. A native of St. Clair County, Alabama, Compton worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist before turning to writing westerns. He died in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1998.
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The Chisholm Trail
By Ralph Compton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1993 Ralph Compton
All rights reserved.
Jesse Chisholm and Tenatse took a steamboat south along the Mississippi to its confluence with the Arkansas. At Mound Bayou, Mississippi, they boarded a westbound stern-wheeler, traveling the Arkansas as far as Fort Smith. Once the unpleasant episode in St. Louis was behind them, Jesse Chisholm found that young Tenatse possessed some surprisingly mature ambitions.
"Despite what old man Buckner likely told you," said Ten, "I didn't spend all my time playing poker. Sure, I hung around the saloons, but I listened, and I learned. There's millions of wild longhorn cows roaming the rivers and plains of Texas. They're there for a man with enough sand to go in and take them. That's what I aim to do; build a herd and trail-drive it north."
Chisholm, well-known at all the frontier outposts, was assigned a small officer's cabin at Fort Smith. He had left his horse there, and tomorrow he would borrow a horse and saddle for Tenatse. After supper they went to the post store.
"We might as well have left that bag of town clothes in St. Louis," said Chisholm. "Go ahead and outfit yourself for the frontier. There's a new Henry repeater in the gun case. Have them throw that in, along with a thousand rounds of shells."
They returned to their cabin laden with purchases, and the first thing Tenatse did was clean the Henry and load it to capacity. It was the mark of a western man, a frontiersman, and Chisholm watched approvingly.
"You'll be seeing a lot of Fort Smith, Ten. The horses and mules I take in trade are driven here as often as need be. Our other goods, like pelts and hides, are rafted down the Canadian, then shipped from here by steamboat to the port of New Orleans. One of us — maybe you — will need to travel with the next load and meet with our buyers. From what I hear, there'll be Union soldiers occupying all the South, and I don't know how — or if — that's going to affect our moving our trade goods to New Orleans."
"There'll be soldiers in Texas, then. But I'm not a Texan. How's that going to affect my trail drive? Or will it?"
"I'm not sure," said Chisholm. "Federal occupation may hinder the moving of everything, including cattle. That's why I want you to take this next load of goods to New Orleans. Don't go running off to Texas just yet. Give it a while, and let's see what the presence of soldiers is going to mean to us."
"I heard talk in St. Louis, after Booth shot the president, that the Union aims to give the South hell. Some Yankee congressmen are blaming all the Rebs for what one man did."
"I'm expecting that," said Chisholm. "Never underestimate the evil of which men are capable in the name of justice. Congress is concerning itself with a vindictive occupation of the South, when those soldiers could be of more benefit to the Union on the frontier. I've devoted — maybe wasted — a good part of my life trying to get some workable peace treaty with the Comanches. The West, especially Texas, won't have any peace until they're beaten. God only knows how many years we are from that, with most of the Union army on a spite mission to the South."
"You stayed out of the war," said Ten, "and you kept me out of it. Now we're both going to feel the aftereffects of it."
"Should you need it, I can help you with the military. I have considerable influence there, because of my work with Indian Affairs. But that won't help you against the Comanches in the Texas brakes. There may be a better way. I'm by no means poor, Ten. I can send you to Texas with enough gold to buy a herd."
"Whoa, Jess! What's the use in a man forkin' his own broncs if he ain't man enough to gamble on gettin' throwed and stomped? You'd send me to Texas to buy a herd, when the brakes are full of cows for the takin'?"
"No," chuckled Chisholm, "if I was your age, I'd do exactly what you aim to do. I'd get me an outfit, ride to Texas, and commence draggin' them free cows out of the chaparral. I'd take along my Henry rifle, a saddlebag full of shells, and the everlasting hope that I could get in there and out without the Comanches liftin' my hair."
"It's not that I'm ungrateful, Jess, but I want to ride my own trails, stomp my own snakes. You could send a banker from New Orleans or St. Louis to buy a herd, but it'll take a muy bueno hombre with sand to rope them out of the brush. But I'd be obliged, if you'd loan me enough to buy horses, guns, shells, and supplies. I'll repay you. With interest."
"I'll stake you," said Chisholm, "but wait until the first of the year. Take a couple of trips to New Orleans and see what you can learn about this Federal occupation and how it may affect us. You'll need some time to build yourself an outfit. If you like, you can take your pick of the horses and mules we'll be buying from the Indians. More important, when you ride into those Comanche-infested Texas brakes, take some fighting men with you. When you meet them, you'll recognize them. They'll be the survivors of four years of war, and they've already been to Hell and back."
June 28, 1865, they set out for Indian Territory, Chisholm riding his bay, while Ten rode a borrowed roan. They covered forty-five miles and made camp beside a willow-lined creek. Something had been bothering Jesse Chisholm. He had some questions that needed answers. For all Ten's bold talk, he was still only seventeen and untried. Brawling in a saloon was one thing; facing hostile Indians and outlaws was another. When they'd had their bacon, beans, and coffee, he went to his saddlebags, taking out the Colt, the throwing knife, and the deck of cards.
"Here," he said, handing them to Ten. "The police gave me these."
"Thanks," said Ten. "I'm surprised that bunch at the Dragon didn't grab these, along with all my money. Decent of them."
He dropped the cards into his shirt pocket, slid the Colt under his belt and the throwing knife into a sheath sewn into the inside of his right boot. There was no easy way, so Chisholm took the bull by the horns.
"Where did you get the weapons, Ten?"
"Bought 'em off of some hard-up hombres in the saloons."
Now came the touchy part. It was a question that a prideful man quick with knife and gun might consider an insult. He risked it.
"Have you had a chance to work ... practice ... with these weapons?"
Ten caught the hesitation, realized Chisholm was uncomfortable with the question, and he laughed.
"I'm not the fastest gun around, I reckon, but I have some talent for it. And I hit what I'm shootin' at. Watch."
He whipped out the Colt, cocking the hammer as he drew. He fired five times, a continuous drumroll of sound that seemed the prolonged echo of a single shot. From a branch of the tree under which they stood, five pinecones fell, almost at Chisholm's feet. Only one had been hit dead center. The other four had been clipped off neatly, where they had joined the branch.
"There was a border outlaw taught me how to draw and shoot," said Ten. "He was pretty good with a throwin' knife too. He showed me how to pull and throw this one."
He took the deck of cards from his shirt pocket, fanning them out until he found the ace of hearts. Head high on the trunk of the pine, a bubble of resin had seeped out. Ten pressed the back of the card against the gum until it stuck.
"Now stand away from the tree," he said.
Taking ten paces from the pine, he paused, crouched, turned. He held the thin haft of the knife with the thumb and the first two fingers of his right hand, and the act was unbelievably swift. The blade went true, burying itself in the center of the card. Chisholm walked back to the tree. The blade had pierced the red heart, cutting it neatly in half. Ten withdrew the knife, ran it into the ground, and wiped the blade on the leg of his Levi's. He then returned the lethal weapon to its boot sheath.
"There's another question," he said, "likely the most important of all. It's just as well you didn't ask it, because I can't answer it. This tree can't throw its own knife or fire its own gun. When I'm facin' a man, can I shoot as straight or throw as true? I don't know. I believe I can. Have you ever wanted to know somethin', but feared the learnin' of it could be the death of you?"
"More times than I like to remember," said Chisholm, "but it's something a man has to face, else he's not much of a man. Now you'd better reload that Colt. That shooting could bring unwelcome visitors."
"I don't have any more shells. I came off like a tenderfoot, didn't I, emptying the gun at a tree?"
"For a fact," said Chisholm. "That's overkill. If your enemy's dead after one shot, four or five more won't kill him any deader. Never empty your gun at a single opponent, if you can help it. Any Comanche worth his salt can scalp you in considerably less time than it takes to reload. Look in my saddlebags and you'll find a tin of shells for the Colt. I got them last night at Fort Smith. I'm satisfied you can handle knife and Colt, but I want you to get the feel of that Henry and get in the habit of carrying it with you wherever you go. The Colt's good at close range, but the first time your horse is shot from under you at three hundred yards, you'll bless the Henry."
Chisholm's trading post and ranch was on the north bank of the Canadian River, 140 miles west of Fort Smith. Ten hadn't seen the place in four years, and much had changed. The slave quarters were still there, but they were now occupied by entire families of Cherokees. Chisholm needed many hands. There were two barns. An adjoining corral beside the first contained only horses. A similar corral next to the second seemed devoted entirely to mules. Roosters crowed, dogs barked, mules brayed, and from somewhere came the steady thunking of an axe. There were four wagons, all with hay racks, loaded high.
"You've built a town," said Ten.
"There's a dock down by the Canadian, beyond the barns. Built so's we can back the wagons right up to the boats."
"What's that building this side of the first barn?"
"Warehouse for pelts and hides," said Chisholm. "We still have to build a flatboat for the next trip. Three men will be going with you as far as Fort Smith. Once your goods are loaded on a steamboat, you're on your own. When our buyer in New Orleans has approved the bills of lading, you're given a check. Then you can leave."
"You don't need me for this," said Ten. "You must have a dozen men you could trust to represent you."
"I like to think so," said Chisholm, "but I have my reasons for sending you. By the time you reach New Orleans, Washington should have lifted the blockades from southern ports, and it may be possible to get cattle to market by boat. Before the war, trail drivers had a problem in Missouri, and nothing's been done to resolve it. Texas cows carry some kind of disease that doesn't bother them, but it kills other cattle. Missouri has a law that says Texas cows can't enter the state. Violation can get the herd and the riders shot. The railroad is still eighteen months away. I want you to talk to Roberts and Company. Find out how expensive it's going to be, shipping cattle by water to northern markets."
"Trail drives to New Orleans?"
"Do you have a better idea? What good is a herd without a buyer? You can't carry those cows across Missouri in your pocket."
Ten was disappointed. He wanted to lead a trail drive across the western frontier, not to some swampy place in Louisiana where folks sat under magnolia trees, swatting flies and mosquitoes. At best, he expected New Orleans to be as dull and uninspiring as St. Louis. But he was to learn that death was not restricted to the untamed western frontier. It could — and did — prowl the cobblestone streets of New Orleans.
July 5, 1865, Ten and his crew of three poled the flatboat out into the swirling brown current of the Canadian river. Time after time, just when Ten was convinced the crude craft would capsize and drown them all, somehow it righted itself and continued on its way. He took heart in the knowledge that his "crew" had done this before and survived. He quickly wore blisters on his hands, helping pole the heavy barge loose from sandbars on which it was constantly marooning itself. Worse, they hit occasional shallow water, where the flatboat dragged bottom. There, they got into the water to lighten the load, using their poles to pry the clumsy craft along an inch at a time, until it reached a depth where it could float.
For three days they fought the river, tying up to a convenient tree only when darkness overtook them. Ten gave silent thanks they only had to pole this cumbersome thing to Fort Smith. None of them would ever live enough years to get it to New Orleans. But he couldn't complain. The ill-concealed grins of his three-man crew strengthened his resolve. He caught them looking slanch-eyed at him, expecting him to whine, He vowed he would die first, and before the second day ended, he thought he was going to. He was forced to face the brutal, unpleasant truth. Four years of town living had ruined him! He was a damn tenderfoot Injun, and this was just the lesson he had needed. Roping wild cattle, fighting Comanches, and a trail drive from Texas, demanded more than a fast hand with knife and gun. Despite his misery, he almost laughed. He was admitting to himself what Jesse Chisholm had probably known since the day they'd left St. Louis. After a few sixteen-hour days in the Texas brakes, he'd have been sent back to Indian Territory, belly-down over his saddle. He would be forced to pole this miserable log raft down the Canadian and lay his hands to some hard ranch work before he even considered going into the Texas brakes. Chisholm had been right: he did need some time.
Since Fort Smith was the jumping-off place, with only Indian Territory for three hundred miles westward, there was a steamboat only twice a week, on Monday and Thursday. After unloading freight and passengers, it returned to New Orleans. The layover was seldom more than two hours, or as long as it took to replenish the vessel's supply of wood and load the outbound passengers and freight. Ten had reached Fort Smith on Sunday, July 9, and he welcomed the night of rest before departing for New Orleans. He was accorded the same accommodations and courtesy as Jesse Chisholm. At the post store he bought a round-trip passage to New Orleans, and found he still had more than a hundred dollars of the expense money Jesse had insisted he take.
He wandered through the store until he found the guns and ammunition. He selected and bought a belt and holster, a silver-mounted rig, solid black, with tie-down thongs. He had begun to feel self-conscious, carrying his Colt stuck under the waistband of his Levi's. His three Cherokee boatmen had been amused with the way he carried the pistol, and he'd heard them speculating as to how long it might take him to accidentally shoot off his privates while drawing the Colt. Illegitimate or not, Chisholm had accepted him as his son, and nobody could change that. The Cherokees living on or near the ranch had been nice enough, but he felt he was a constant source of amusement to them. They simply weren't impressed. On the frontier nobody cared a fig what you thought or said, or who your daddy was. The measure of a man was what he did or failed to do.
Ten was part of a small crowd at the dock the following morning when the steamboat whistled for the landing. She was a handsome twin-stacked vessel, with an upper and lower deck, and was a gaudy red and white, with gold trim. Gilt letters a foot high spelled out her name: THE NEW ORLEANS. There was always cargo, most of it government-related, but nobody seemed interested in that. The four passengers got all the attention. Two of them, with their heavy leather cases, had to be drummers bound for the post store. The other two had no baggage, and once off the boat, seemed to have no real purpose in being there. Ten judged the younger man to be maybe twenty-five. He wore town clothes, with nothing particular calling attention to him. The older man, in his fifties, was far more eloquently dressed. He wore a flat-crowned white hat, white linen suit, frilled shirt, and a flowing black string tie. His black boots were highly polished, and might have been handmade. The deckhands were unloading the freight, and one of them dropped a load near Ten.
"Who's he?" Ten asked. "The man in the white suit?"
"That's Colonel LeBeau," said the sweating deckhand. "That old devil's got it all. Big, fancy house, handsome wife, beautiful daughter, and likely more money than anybody else in New Orleans."
Excerpted from The Chisholm Trail by Ralph Compton. Copyright © 1993 Ralph Compton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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