Former Texas Rangers Benton McCaleb, Will Elliot, and Brazos Gifford ride with Charles Goodnight as he rounds up thousands of ornery, unbranded cattle for the long drive to Colorado. From the Trinity River brakes to Denver, they'll battle endless miles of flooded rivers, parched desert, and whiskey-crazed Comanches. And come face-to-face with Judge Roy Bean and legendary gunslingers like Clay Allison. For McCaleb and his hard-riding crew, the drive is a fierce struggle against the perils of an untamed land. A fight to the finish where the brave reach gloryor die hard.
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six-foot-eight without his boots. The Goodnight Trail was his first novel in the Trail Drive series and 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 Goodnight Trail
By Ralph Compton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1992 Ralph Compton
All rights reserved.
It was May 31, 1865, two weeks after the burial of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
"The first day of June 1861," said Brazos Gifford, "was when I joined the Rangers. If the Confederacy — and Texas — had hung on, tomorrow would have been the end of my enlistment."
"Your enlistment," said Will Elliot, "ended the fifteenth of last month, at Appomattox, along with mine. When I joined, I got paid for the first six months, and I ain't been paid since. Sixty dollars. Fifteen dollars a year. My God, this soldierin' don't pay enough to keep a Digger Injun alive."
"I don't aim to hang around any longer," said Benton McCaleb. "If the state of Texas has any final orders for me, it'll have to track me down. I figure the next orders we'll get will come from politicians in Washington, and whatever they have in store for us won't be pleasant. The rest of the country might have been a mite sympathetic to us, but not after that fool gunned down the president. Come mornin', I say we ride for the brakes and brand us some wild cows."
The night wind fanned the coals of their tiny fire, the resulting flame lighting the narrow confines of the coulee in which they had camped. Charles Goodnight wrapped his bandanna around his hand and reached for the coffeepot, refilling his cup before he spoke.
"I expect Bent's right. God only knows what's going to happen here in Texas. Within a year — maybe sooner — I'm looking for the South to be fully occupied by Union soldiers and camp followers."
"Maybe you got the right idea, Charlie," said Will, "takin' a herd of Texas longhorns north. But it's been five years. You reckon there's still enough of your herd to make a drive?"
"I left a hundred and eighty head when I joined the Rangers," said Goodnight. "I figure, after five years of natural increase, I'm entitled to at least fifteen hundred head. Maybe more."
Brazos chuckled. "That's some hell of a natural increase."
"An unbranded cow or calf is a maverick," said Goodnight, "and when a cow's three or four years old — natural increase or not — who can say that unbranded critter belongs to him? Texas is broke, but by God, we've got longhorns by the millions. There's enough for every cowboy in Texas to have a herd, if he's got the sand to take 'em."
"I reckon," said McCaleb, "if me and Will and Brazos throwed the little cash money we have into the pot, we'd come up with enough to feed ourselves for a while. Charlie, you've trailed with us enough to know we don't start anything we can't finish. If it suits you, we'll raise a herd and join your drive."
For a moment Goodnight said nothing. These were men to ride the river with; yet they seemed to accept the leadership of Benton McCaleb without a qualm. How many times had these two stood with him and fought to the finish against outlaws and Indians? They were closer than brothers. He offered his hand to Will, to Brazos, and then to McCaleb. Only then did he speak.
"I expect you'll still be fighting bandits and Indians, but the wages ought to be considerably better. By this time next year, we should be on the trail. It'll take that long for a decent gather."
"We could rope and brand enough — maybe three or four hundred — for a drive this year," said Brazos. "That would get us some quick money for a bigger drive next year."
"Too late for that," said Goodnight. "By the time we get to the brakes, the trails to Kansas and Missouri will be crowded with small herds. Texans won't waste any time getting these cows to market. Suppose you fight the swollen rivers, Indians and rustlers, but when you reach trail's end you find the price has dropped from fifteen dollars a head to five? Or four? You don't dare hold out for better prices, because there's other herds behind you, there's no graze for your cows, and as more cattle arrive, the already low prices may go still lower. So what do you do?"
"Take what you can get," said Brazos.
"Precisely," said Goodnight. "I aim to avoid that trap by driving west into New Mexico, north to Fort Sumner, and as far as Colorado Territory, if I have to. I want money, but I want range too. We'll be blazing a new trail into virgin territory, to a range untouched except by antelope, buffalo, and elk. We can hold our herds for a year if need be, fattening them on new grass. Colorado is mining country. Men lusting after silver and gold don't have time to raise cows, but they have to eat. And they have money to buy."
"You purely know how to start a man's blood pounding," said Will Elliot. "I'd sooner be shootin' Indians and thieves in New Mexico and Colorado as here on the Texas border. Especially if the wages is better."
"At least," said Brazos, "we don't have to cross the Red River."
"No," said Goodnight, "but with the route I have in mind, we'll ford the Pecos twice; once at Horsehead Crossing and again at Pope's Crossing, somewhere in southern New Mexico Territory. While we don't know what dangers may be awaiting us, I doubt we'll encounter anything we haven't faced here on the Texas border."
"Unless somebody has a better idea," said McCaleb, "I'd say let's head for the brakes along the Trinity. All those mavericks on the Brazos belong to Charlie."
They laughed, Charles Goodnight the loudest of them all.CHAPTER 2
June 1, 1865, Benton McCaleb, Brazos Gifford, and Will Elliot rode out at dawn on a southeasterly course that would take them to the headwaters of the Trinity River. Goodnight's trail herd would move out in mid-April 1866, allowing them ten months to complete their gather and meet Goodnight near Fort Belknap on the Brazos. Each man was armed with a sixteen-shot .44-caliber Henry rifle and a pair of Ranger-issue .44-caliber six-shot Colt revolvers.
"Once we hit the Trinity," said McCaleb, "it's maybe two hundred miles to Cold Spring, the county seat of San Jacinto County. There's a post office and a store or two, and when we get there, we're just a day's ride from Jake Narbo's horse ranch. Jake's half Comanche, living with a full-blooded squaw; that's why he's alive and still wearin' his hair."
"I ain't got a drop of Comanche blood in me," said Brazos. "Are you on good enough terms with this half-Injun horse trader to keep his full-blooded kin from liftin' our scalps while we chase longhorns?"
"Who knows?" said McCaleb. "I'll have to talk to him. When you deal with the Comanches, nothing is for dead sure."
"More'n likely sure dead," said Will with a grim chuckle. "And I thought all we had to worry about was them varmints in New Mexico and Colorado."
"We'll need extra horses," said McCaleb, "and whatever you think of Jake and his Comanche kin, he's got the best Indian — gentled horses in Texas. We don't have the time to break horses, and even if we did, that's not the best way. Ride a horse into the ground, break his spirit, and you'll have an unwilling animal that will hate the sight of you. While we can't be sure of anything as far as the Comanches are concerned, it can't hurt for them to know we're buying our horses from Jake Narbo."
"I'm in favor of that," said Brazos, "but we got maybe two hundred dollars amongst us. Can we deal with this Comanche horse trader, keep ourselves in grub and ammunition until next spring, and still come out with enough to pay our own way in Charlie's trail drive?"
"I'm gambling that we can," said McCaleb. "What choice do we have? I doubt we could raise another fifty dollars cash money if we sacked the whole state of Texas. Like Charlie said, the state — the South — is broke. Our only hope lies in getting four or five hundred cows out of the brush and on the trail to market."
They continued south, following the Trinity. Just before sundown of the sixth day, they rode in to Jake Narbo's ranch. The house, a rambling adobe, had a mud-and-stone chimney. There were several less than imposing additions that had enlarged the original hut. The barn, built of cottonwood logs, had a split-shake roof and an adjoining breaking corral four rails high.
The most imposing thing about the old man who came out to meet them was the .52-caliber Spencer he held in the crook of his arm. He wore dirty overalls, an elbows-out denim shirt, moccasins, and a used-up black hat with a hole in its tall crown. McCaleb and his companions reined up, dismounting only after their host had nodded his approval.
"McCaleb," he said.
"Hello, Jake. These are my pardners, Will Elliot and Brazos Gifford. We're of a mind to rope and brand some wild maverick cows for a drive to market. We'll be needin' some gentled horses; a remuda."
"Gold," said Jake. "No trade. No Confed'racy scrip."
McCaleb flipped a coin to the old man, the setting sun winking gold off the double eagle. Deftly, Jake shifted the Spencer, neatly palming the money. Treating them to a toothless grin, he turned away without a word, shouldered aside the cowhide serving as a door and disappeared into the gloomy, windowless adobe.
"Hospitable old coot," said Brazos. "Not a scrap of hay for our horses or even a cold biscuit for us. Anybody but a damn Indian would have asked us to supper and offered to let us bed down in the barn, anyhow."
"Don't push your luck," said McCaleb. "We'll camp by the spring. He's a half-breed livin' with a Comanche woman and he's got at least two sons, yet none of them showed. The best we can expect here is an uneasy truce."
"He's almighty skittish," said Will. "I got an idea that if we get out of the brakes with a herd of longhorns and our hair still in place, we won't owe any thanks to Jake."
"We still need horses," said McCaleb, "and we'll take our chances with the Comanches. Jake knows we have gold, but he's not sure how much. He'll try to keep us around until he gets his hands on all he safely can, even if he has to offer us bed privileges with his squaw."
"I purely don't trust Indians," said Will. "No way I'd ever spend a night in that adobe. Got throwed in the Waco jail once, and I swear, compared to that Injun adobe, the juzgado looked like home sweet home."
"Jake wants our gold," said Brazos, "but he doesn't trust us. That makes it easier for us, because we can be just as suspicious as he is. Nothin' rubs me the wrong way any quicker than some hombre killin' me with kindness so's he can kill me for real, soon as my back's turned."
"That's the kind of thinking," said McCaleb, "that keeps a man alive on the frontier. We'll build just enough of a fire near the spring to boil our coffee and cook our bacon. As soon as we've eaten — after dark — we'll move back in the brush and spread our blankets there. Keep your pistols loaded and at hand. While I don't expect any trouble from Jake, I'm not so sure about the Comanches. Maybe — because of Jake — they'll hold off until they see what we're up to. But we can't count on that. Some Indians won't attack at night, but that's never bothered the Comanche. They're as ready to kill at midnight as they are at high noon."
"That's what I dislike most about plains Indians," said Will. "They were the first to have horses, and distance means nothing to them. They're the kind of bastards who'll trail you for three days if they have to, just waitin' for the right time and place."
"I'm glad we cut back on grub instead of ammunition," said Brazos. "I can stand havin' my belly lank lots better than I can stand havin' it shot full of Comanche arrows. Thank God for Captain Jack Hayes. If we ever whip the Comanches for good, it'll be all to his credit. Texas ought to build a monument to him and his company of Rangers for provin' the worth of the Colt six-shooter."
McCaleb was wide awake and he listened, wondering what it was that had awakened him. Heat lightning danced across a cloud bank far to the west and thunder muttered in the distance. Finally he relaxed and slept undisturbed until a rooster crowed just before first light.
"Chickens!" exclaimed Will. "That means eggs!"
Brazos chuckled. "Not for us. We'll be lucky if that old Injun don't want more gold than we got, just for some extra mounts."
Jake Narbo stalked into camp just as they were finishing their meager breakfast. He still carried the Spencer. He also had a tin cup, and without a word, helped himself to coffee from the pot. McCaleb had to stifle an impulse to laugh. He knew what Will and Brazos were thinking: before the month was gone, they'd be out of coffee. Jake ignored their looks of disgust and sipped his coffee. The silence dragged on, neither party wishing to seem too eager. Jake tilted the coffeepot and drained it to the grounds. Brazos fished out his half-empty sack of Durham and spilled a little of it sparingly into a sliver of brown paper, expertly rolling his smoke with one hand. Jake had dropped his empty cup and had fixed his eyes on the tobacco sack. Brazos grudgingly passed it to him, along with the thin packet of papers. Jake, using twice as much of the tobacco as Brazos had, twisted his quirly and lit it with an ember from the fire. Instead of returning the Durham and papers to Brazos, he stuffed them into the bib pocket of his dirty overalls. McCaleb caught Brazos's eye and his hand halted just short of the butt of his Colt. Finally Jake Narbo spoke.
"Six," said McCaleb, holding up a finger on his right hand and the five fingers on his left.
"Fi'teen dolla," said Jake. "Una."
"Whoa," said McCaleb. "Where are the horses? Caballos?"
"Coulee," said Jake.
"Take us there," said McCaleb.
Jake treated them to his toothless grin and set off on foot. He headed toward the adobe and then veered off to the right. The coulee was but a few hundred yards beyond the adobe and was actually the dry bed of a lesser river that had once emptied into the Trinity somewhere to the south. At the lower end — the deepest part — thick cedar posts had been planted, supporting a six-rail, wall-to-wall fence. The other end, similarly barricaded, had rails positioned so they could be dropped for entrance or exit. They halted on the embankment. Below them, two dozen broomtails were crowded. A third of them, those yet to be gentled, crowded against the farther wall, rolling their eyes in fear. The others eyed their visitors curiously. For a brief time, McCaleb, Will, and Brazos forgot Jake Narbo, focusing their attention on the horses. There were sorrels, bays, buckskins, chestnuts, browns, roans, blacks, grays, and grullas. They were stocky, deep-muscled, sturdy-legged. They had thick necks and broad, short heads. Their withers were low, their chests deep, and their hindquarters looked powerful. McCaleb managed to conceal his excitement. He judged most of them to be a little over fourteen hands and their average weight maybe a thousand pounds. They were perfect!
"Ten dolla," said Jake.
"Fifty dollars for all six," said McCaleb. "Our pick."
"Gold," said Jake.
"You got twenty dollars yesterday," said McCaleb. "You get thirty more."
Jake's grin disappeared and in its place was an uncomprehending frown. Brazos and Will had moved up beside McCaleb, their thumbs hooked in their pistol belts near the butts of their holstered Colts. After an uncomfortable silence, Jake held out his hand.
Silently McCaleb dropped an eagle and a double eagle into his palm. Jake pocketed the money and his good humor was quickly restored.
"We'll work with them three at a time," said McCaleb, holding up three fingers. "When we're ready for the last three, you'd best remember you've been paid for them. Comprender? No more gold!"
"Comprender," said Jake.
McCaleb chose a bay, Brazos a roan, and Will a grulla. They watched Jake approach the grulla, carrying only a blanket. He held out his hands to the horse as one might welcome a friend, and while they couldn't hear his voice, they saw his lips moving. The grulla's ears went up, but the horse stood its ground. The animal seemed to relax under Jake's touch. Once he had spread the blanket on the grulla's broad back, he extended his arms across the blanket and lifted his feet off the ground, putting his weight on the animal's back. Again the horse stood its ground, unflinching. Jake hooked his arm around the grulla's neck and it followed him to the end of the fenced coulee. McCaleb and Brazos let down the rails, replacing them when Jake and the horse had passed through. The grulla snorted when Will approached, but he followed Jake's example and the horse accepted him. Jake quickly brought McCaleb the bay and Brazos the roan. Without a word, he left them.
"I'll give the devil his due," said Will. "The man knows his horses."
"Now," said Brazos, "the fun begins. We get to teach these broncs all we know about ropin' and brandin' wild twelve-hundred-pound critters that ain't particularly anxious to be roped and branded."
"We'd as well spend the next few days right here," said McCaleb, "working with these horses. Then we'll ride downriver and set us up a camp."
Excerpted from The Goodnight Trail by Ralph Compton. Copyright © 1992 Ralph Compton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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