A farmer is pulled into the world of outlaws when his estranged brother turns up dead in this new Ralph Compton Western.
Brothers Clay and Cal Breckenridge, sons of a hardscrabble East Texas farmer, never did see eye to eye. Clay, the eldest, returned home after the Civil War to help his father run the family farm; Cal deserted his military post and disappeared into a new life with a new name. Everyone knew who was the good son and who was the bad.
Clay had almost forgotten his wayward brother until the morning a limping horse approaches the farm with young Cal Breckenridge’s body slumped in the saddle, shot in the back.
Vowing to avenge Cal’s death, Clay sets off on a perilous journey across the West to find the man responsible and bring him to justice—and take down an outlaw enterprise in the process.
About the Author
Ralph Compton stood six foot eight without his boots. He worked as a musician, a radio announcer, a songwriter, and a newspaper columnist. His first novel, The Goodnight Trail, was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Medicine Pipe Bearer Award for best debut novel. He was the USA Today bestselling author of the Trail of the Gunfighter series, the Border Empire series, the Sundown Riders series, and the Trail Drive series, among others.
Carlton Stowers is an award-winning journalist and the author of more than two dozen books, including Comanche Trail, which was named a finalist for both the Western Fictioneers and the Texas Institute of Letters best first novel awards. He lives in Cedar Hill, Texas.
Read an Excerpt
Clay Breckenridge stood on his front porch, drinking coffee as he looked out on the fog that had swept across the bottoms overnight. The morning plowing he had planned would have to wait until he and his team of mules would be better able to see their way. He reached down and stroked the hindquarters of his dog, Sarge. "Appears we're gonna be getting a late start," he said.
It wasn't that he felt any great urgency. The East Texas farm, which his family had staked claim to when he and his brother were just youngsters, was small. The plowing for spring planting amounted to only twenty acres of grain and corn to feed his livestock and a garden spot for raising vegetables. The rest was open grassland interrupted by a large stand of pecan trees that were home to wild turkeys and squirrels. Along the southern boundary was a shallow spring-fed creek that provided ample watering for his mules, a small herd of cattle, a few goats, and his horse.
A quiet and picturesque spot, it had been Clay's home all of his life, except for the time he left to fight for the Confederate Army. After the war ended, he immediately returned to help his aging father with the farm. And when Ed Breckenridge followed his wife in death, the elder son dutifully assumed responsibility for maintaining the farm.
Sarge was still wagging his tail when he lifted his ears to acknowledge a distant sound that was, at first, too faint for his master to hear. Only as it got closer could Clay determine that it was likely an approaching horse, moving slowly and with strained effort.
Though there had been no problems with renegade bands of Comanches recently, Clay hurried into the cabin to get his rifle. "Might be somebody's just lost his way," he said, "or a horse that broke loose and can't figure where he's at."
Sarge responded with a low growl.
Minutes later Breckenridge detected a dark shadow just beyond the yard. Moving in the direction of the barn, it appeared to float through the bank of fog. Clay grabbed his rifle and a lantern and hurried toward it, Sarge trotting at his side.
Inside the barn stood a horse that Clay immediately recognized. It was nibbling at a bundle of hay while favoring a badly swollen front leg. Tied atop its saddle was a body.
For several seconds Clay stood motionless, staring at the dead man, bloated and discolored, a pattern of dried blood indicating that he had been shot in the back.
Breckenridge finally set his rifle and lantern aside and slowly began to loosen the ropes that held the rider in place. After he pulled the rigid corpse from the saddle, the weary horse shook his mane and limped away.
Looking down at the body that he had placed on a bed of hay, Clay suddenly felt his legs give way and his breathing turn to rapid bursts. He covered the dead man with a saddle blanket, then sat beside him and gently stroked his matted hair. Sarge nuzzled his master and softly whined.
This was not the way Clay had hoped his younger brother would return home.
It was nearing midday when Clay arrived in Aberdene and pulled his wagon to a stop in front of the marshal's office. Behind him, Cal Breckenridge's body lay beneath a blanket. Sarge had ridden along, standing sentry on the journey into town.
Dodge Rankin, a short, portly man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a warm smile for any and all who did not violate the law, had served as marshal for over a decade. Tamping his pipe against the hitching rail, he acknowledged the arrival of his visitor. "Your timing's perfect," he said. "I just got back from Ralph Giddens' place, where some of his cattle got rustled during the night. Indians from up in the Territory, be my guess. Been some time since I've seen you."
The somber look from Clay made it obvious to the marshal that small talk was not in order. Stepping from the board sidewalk, he approached the wagon bed and lifted the blanket to view the swollen face of the young man, who was barely recognizable.
"This who I'm thinking it is?" Rankin said.
"Best come into my office, where we can talk. I'll send someone to fetch Doc Franklin so he can begin tending to the necessary matters."
Inside, Clay was recounting the morning's events when the doctor arrived, short of breath, his round face flushed. Darwin Franklin was Aberdene's only doctor, undertaker, and veterinarian. On any given day, he might deliver a baby, treat a cow whose milk had mysteriously turned sour, or help a grieving resident select a coffin.
"I'm sorry for you misery, Mr. Breckenridge," the doctor said. "Rest assured I'll fix him up properly. Have you given any thought to funeral plans?"
"No," Clay replied. "No funeral." In truth, he could not think of anyone who might attend. Too, his brother had never cared for preaching and hymn singing. "Once you've tended him and seen to a sturdy coffin, I'll be putting him to rest back on the farm, alongside our folks." Then, as an afterthought: "Soon as possible I'd appreciate you coming out to check on his horse that arrived lame and in some degree of pain. I'd prefer to avoid putting him down if at all possible."
"I can be there early tomorrow morning," Dr. Franklin said. "Meanwhile, it might be of use for you to start putting some warm rags on the horse's leg to reduce the swelling."
Rankin watched the doctor leave before returning the conversation to the death of Cal Breckenridge. "I can't recall seeing young Cal since you boys were getting ready to go off and fight against the Union," he said. "You seen or heard from him much lately?"
Clay shook his head.
"Got any thoughts on who might be responsible for this?"
Though Clay didn't immediately answer, the marshal was already certain that the list of suspects might well be lengthy. A close friend of the boys' father from the time his children were young, Rankin knew many of the troubles Cal had caused his old friend. Ed Breckenridge had occasionally shared his worries with the marshal when they were fishing together and drinking persimmon beer. The father could never understand what caused the anger and rebellion that so darkened the soul of one son while the other was kindhearted and loving.
There was a troubling meanness in Cal. He picked fights, drunk or sober, and had no friends aside from his older brother. He wasn't above stealing now and then, rarely pulled his weight at chore time, and showed little respect for his elders.
When he joined the Confederate Army along with Clay, Ed allowed himself hope that the discipline of military service might provide the maturity his son so badly needed. Instead, his heart was broken when he learned that Cal had deserted.
Thereafter, Ed Breckenridge never again spoke his younger son's name.
"Bein' as we don't know from which direction his horse might have come or how far he traveled," the marshal said, "it's likely to be difficult determining responsibility for your brother's killing. But you've got my God-honest word I'll be asking questions. And if you think of anyone I might need to speak to, just let me know."
Clay stared at the floor as the marshal spoke. "Somebody will pay for what's been done," he said, his voice barely a whisper yet filled with a resolve Marshal Rankin had never before heard from the man seated across from him.
A grave had been dug in the grove near the creek by the time the hearse arrived. Clay was in the barn, applying heat packs to the leg of his brother's horse when Dr. Franklin called out.
Joining him on the trip to the farm was Jonesy Pate.
"Just so you know," Pate said, "I invited myself to ride along after Doc here told me what has taken place. Figured you fellas might could use a hand with the lifting and burying." A rancher and Breckenridge's nearest neighbor, he and Clay had been friends since boyhood days. He'd been in town, having breakfast in the hotel dining room, when he'd overheard the doctor talking about Cal's death.
Silently and with little ceremony, the men lifted the wooden casket from the hearse and lowered it into the grave. While Clay and Jonesy shoveled dirt, the doctor headed to the barn to examine the lame horse.
Once the burial was complete, Jonesy leaned against a tree trunk, studying his friend. Clay had read no scripture nor said a prayer once his brother had been laid to rest.
"What are you thinking?" Jonesy asked. "You've been mighty quiet."
As they walked toward the barn, Clay reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded two-dollar note he'd removed from his brother's body before taking it to town. He handed it to Jonesy, who unfolded and read the message scrawled on it.
Will Darby was a no-good coward. . . .
"Who do you reckon Will Darby might be?" Jonesy asked.
"My brother. It's a name he took after he left the Confederates. He wrote me about it sometime back so I'd know the name he was using and his whereabouts. I wrote him a letter, telling him of Pa's failing health and urging him to pay a visit. But he never showed."
"Got any notion what this note's about?"
Clay shook his head. "Only that somebody had a powerful grudge against him and appears to want the world to know about it."
"You tell Marshal Rankin about it?"
"I got no reason to think the note was for the marshal's benefit."
Doc Franklin was rubbing liniment onto the horse's leg when they entered the barn. "The heat you've been applying has helped with the swelling enough so that we can put on a splint," he said. "I'm guessing he done damage to ligaments, most likely stepping in a gopher hole.
"I think there's a good chance the leg will heal to a point that he'll be able to walk without a problem, but should you choose to keep him, he'll not be of much use for anything except eating and keeping the mares company."
Clay stepped forward and stroked the animal's neck. "Then I reckon that's the future he's got to look ahead to," he said. "My brother thought highly of this horse. Raised him from a colt. And I figure the horse loved him back. When the need came, it was him who brought my brother home."
After the doctor left, Clay and Jonesy sat on a bench outside the barn, silently facing the warm sunlight as it peeked through the limbs of the distant pecan trees.
It was Clay who finally spoke. "I'm wondering," he said, "if you might consider doing me a favor."
"Whatever you need."
"I might be away for a spell and was wondering if you could spare one of your hands to come over and see to things here on the farm-keep doctoring Cal's horse, feed the stock, keep my dog company, things of that nature. I've got calf money set aside, so I can afford to pay a fair wage."
"I expect I could spare old Ruben. He's a hard worker and honest, just not much at cowboying anymore, truth be known. When do you think you'll be needing him?"
"Soon," Clay said. "Maybe a couple of days from now."
"Then I'll bring him over day after tomorrow so you can tell him what it is you'll be wanting him to see to," Jonesy said as he rose to leave.
Clay walked with him to where he'd tethered his horse. As his friend climbed into the saddle, he buried his hands into his hip pockets.
"You know," he said, "my brother wasn't near as bad as most folks believe."
Smoke had just begun to lazily curl from the cabin's chimney when Jonesy Pate and Ruben arrived at the Breckenridge farm. Ruben was leading a packhorse.
"We're wasting daylight," Jonesy called out as Clay stepped from the barn and pulled his hat tight against his head. "I got no idea where it is we're going or how long you figure it's gonna take us to get there, but until we get on our way-"
"We?" Clay turned his puzzled look from Jonesy to the packhorse. He saw bedrolls, a couple of rifles, saddlebags no doubt filled with foodstuff, and a couple of canteens.
"Don't want you getting lost or lonesome," Jonesy said, "so I made up my mind to go with you." He'd known from the first time Breckenridge spoke of his brother's death that he was determined to find whoever killed Cal. And apparently he had some idea of where to look. Pate had doubts that it was a mission his friend would be able to accomplish alone. Despite his military service, Clay was a farmer, not a fighter. "No need for arguing. You get on with telling Ruben here what it is you'll be needing him to do in your absence. Then we can be on our way."
Resigned, Clay smiled. "I'll be grateful for your company."
"Want to inform me what direction we'll be heading?" Jonesy dismounted and began petting Sarge.
"West. Out to a place called Tascosa," Clay replied. "Least that's where I'm of a mind to start asking questions. When I last heard from Cal, his letter came from there. It's a resting stop for cattle drivers and buffalo hunters. My impression is it ain't exactly a peaceful place to visit. What we'll do is just follow the Red River the better part of the way. In time we'll be up on the high plains. Somewhere up there is Tascosa."
As he spoke, Ruben stood nearby like a soldier awaiting orders. Clay waved him toward the barn. Inside, he first took the old cowhand to the stall where Cal's horse waited.
"Es a beautiful horse," Ruben said.
Clay showed him the salve he was to rub on the bay's injured leg. "He's improved considerably, so I'm thinking maybe you can lead him out into the pasture of a morning so he can graze for an hour or two every day. Sunshine and fresh air will do him good."
As he showed his spread to Ruben, it was obvious that Breckenridge was proud of his place. The barn and the pens housing pigs, goats, and laying hens were stoutly built. Tools were stored in an orderly fashion. There was no disrepair or neglect to be seen. "About all that'll need doing is to keep the animals fed and watered," Clay said. "As for your own needs, there's venison and beef in the smokehouse. In a bin out back of the cabin, there's sweet potatoes buried in straw, and the chickens lay eggs regular. In the kitchen you'll find necessaries like coffee, flour, and corn meal. In the cupboard is a half-full bottle of whiskey you're welcome to sip on if you're of a mind."