"Drop the guns boys if you want to stay in them saddles, next one won't be in the air," the blacksmith's voice followed his gun barrel to the chests of one of the Box T riders. Matt stood up and looked behind him; two of the Box T men had their guns halfway out of their holsters. Pointing his own six-gun at the one named Patch, he grabbed the man's shirt and yanked him off his horse roughly.
"Which one of you cowards shot Emily Langer?"
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Trouble at Red Wall
By Joe Bryceland
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Joe Bryceland
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHeading Home
The cold, piercing rain flew out of the darkening skies, biting the rider's hands. His body was covered with soaking wet clothes; his head was barely protected by a weathered Stetson hat. The strong, calloused hands worked hard to keep his big black horse from turning its back to the, late spring, storm. Matt Benton knew that the town of Red Wall was ahead of them, but he also knew that the big stallion he was riding wanted nothing more than to put the storm to his hindquarters and protect his eyes from being stung by the whipping rain pellets he had been enduring for the last few hours.
Matt had made a poor decision earlier in the day when he'd left Walt Bauer's ranch, hoping to make the thirty-mile ride to Red Wall before the storm hit. Now he was in the grip of a fierce plains storm. The rain was falling as a sodden sheet of grey as far as his eyes could see. The booming thunder surrounded them, while the crackling lightning momentarily lit the dark prairie in front of them with each strike. Every thunderclap shook the ground they rode on, and, every time the lightning struck, the hair on the back of Matt's head stood up. He wondered if anyone had ever drowned on the open prairie.
Matt had met Walt Bauer the day before while he was in Fort Wilson to sell his herd of wild mustangs. Roundup had been very successful this year, and he had driven almost two hundred head of "nasty-minded broncs," as his segundo, Orville Piker, liked to call them, from his ranch on the Colorado Flats to the army post at Darby.
At the post, the commanding officer, Captain Alpern, had introduced Matt to Bauer, a local rancher interested in buying some horses for his remuda-the herd he kept and used for all his ranch work. Matt planned on riding to the nearest train depot at Red Wall the next morning, so he agreed to meet with the rancher that afternoon after paying off his men.
Matt left Bauer on the captain's porch and set off for the harness shop where his foreman, Orville, was getting his saddle straps repaired. The shop was set at the end of a dusty commercial street called Merchants' Row. A small bell tinkled when Matt opened the door. The interior smelled of old wood, oiled leather, and dust. Near the back of the store, Matt saw Orville sitting on a barrel. He was tying a hitch in a leather cord while watching a man in a tattered apron working on his straps. Orville looked up at the sound of the door opening and watched his boss approach him. "Well, it looks like we part company here, Matt," Orville spoke out in his soft voice.
Orville was a tall, lanky sort with streaks of grey in his mostly black hair. His face was the color of the brown leather straps he was having repaired. Deep lines ran down his cheeks, like gullies. Wintry blue eyes looked out from under full brows. He spoke quietly most times, but, as Matt's second in command on the Cross River Ranch, he was heard by everyone when it counted. "I'm not ready to ride them steam trains again just yet," he told his boss, "and it will only take a few days of hard riding to get back to the ranch without those two hundred ponies to push. I'll meet you back at the ranch when we get there," Orville said.
Matt had already thanked his crew for their good work when he'd bought them drinks at the Post Tavern, the local watering hole. He'd told them he would leave their pay, along with their bonuses, with Orville-and that he hoped to see them all for the next roundup. Matt reached into his shirt and took out a thick envelope. He'd been paid in cash, and his crew's money, along with Orville's, was in the envelope.
"Try to keep them civilized tonight; we've got a contract for another two hundred head next spring-and maybe more. I don't want anyone here getting sore at us," Matt said with a smile, as he gave his top hand the payroll for the crew. "That's the deal then; I'll be waiting for you and the boys when you get back. Good Luck," Matt said.
Orville stuck the envelope in his shirt and grinned a question. "Any idea how I keep these yahoos civilized after two weeks on the trail?"
Matt shook his head back and forth, still smiling. The two men shook hands, and Matt went looking for the rancher he had met earlier.
He saw Bauer standing in front of the fort trading post.
"Mr. Bauer, are you ready to talk horses?" he asked, as he walked up to the stout, grey-headed man who owned the nearby Double Bar Ranch.
Bauer pushed away from the wall he was leaning against. He squinted into the late afternoon sun and put his hand on Matt's shoulder. "Sure are, young feller. Why don't you spend the night at my ranch? We'll talk there. I'm sure you wouldn't mind a home-cooked meal, and you can get an early start in the morning. You have to go right by my spread to get to Red Wall anyway."
"Well, that's very neighborly of you, sir; I sure would appreciate a good meal after eating trail grub for two weeks," Matt answered. A home-cooked meal was a blessing to any cowboy, and Matt sure wasn't going to pass one up.
The two men rode into the large, well-kept ranch yard an hour later. A lane lined with whitewashed rocks led the way to the large, blue-painted house. Mrs. Bauer watched through her kitchen window as her husband rode in with the young stranger. She was a sturdy-looking woman with a pretty face that looked younger than her years, and she was always happy to have company. Mrs. Bauer walked outside to greet her husband and their company. Walt introduced Matt to his wife as they dismounted. Mrs. Bauer took an instant liking to Matt, and told him and her husband dinner would be ready as soon as they washed up. A ranch hand walked up from the barn and took their mounts. Walt hugged his wife and then led Matt to a small shed behind his house. As he began working the well-worn handle on a water pump, cold water splashed into a cut-down wooden barrel sitting on a three-legged stool. A bar of soap sat on a shelf under a cracked mirror, and a towel hung on a wall peg. After washing, Matt and Walt Bauer walked through the back door into the Bauer's large kitchen and sat down at the table. A cast iron cook stove with a large pot sitting on it caught Matt's eye. The steam wafting from the pot sent a delicious aroma throughout the room. The table was already set for three. Mrs. Bauer served the two men and herself and sat down. As soon as she offered a short grace, they tucked into her hearty stew and fluffy biscuits.
The conversation was friendly, and Matt quickly felt comfortable with the Bauers. A half hour later and finally full, Matt pushed away from the table. "Food like this sure makes a man yearn to settle down with a good woman, ma'am," the visiting wrangler said to his hostess after he had finished the last of his apple pie.
"Then, what are you waiting for?" Nancy Bauer couldn't help kidding the handsome young man sitting in her kitchen. Matt favored his half-Cherokee, half-Scottish mother-with dark brown eyes, high cheekbones, and black hair, which he wore full to his shirt collar. His sturdy frame stood about six feet tall with only bones and muscles making up his one hundred and eighty pounds. He had a quick, natural smile that answered her question for him. She smiled back at him.
After dinner, Nancy Bauer retired, and the two men talked well into the night exchanging stories of the battles they'd fought and the rivers they'd crossed. Despite his young age, Matt fairly held his own, matching Walt Bauer story for story. They also made a deal that Matt would deliver as many as fifty mustangs to the Double Bar the following spring when he made his next delivery to the army post. Long after sunset, Matt set his dry whiskey glass down on the kitchen table and stood up. He said goodnight to Walt and went to sleep in a spare bunk in the bunkhouse.
Tired as he was, sleep came easily, and the grey, stormy morning came quickly. After a hearty breakfast of ham, eggs, griddlecakes, and coffee, Walt asked Matt to stay a while and let the coming storm pass over. "That sky don't look too friendly, son," Walt told the young mustanger, as he looked up at the roiling grey clouds in the distant sky. "Why don't you stay here 'til that storm passes?"
"No thank you, sir. That storm looks pretty far off, and, if it's only thirty miles to Red Wall from here, I should be able to beat it and make the night train. Thanks for everything."
As he rode out of the ranch yard at a fast gallop, Matt waved and called back to the Bauers,
"I'll see you next spring with your horses."
The Bauers returned Matt's wave as they watched him leave.
Matt figured he had traveled a little less than halfway to the train station at Red Wall when he realized he should have listened to Walt's warning about the storm. Travel was slow and difficult, and the night would soon be on them. He was caught "between the devil and the deep" as Orville would say. The trail he was riding offered no place for him to get out of the storm that had arrived much sooner than he'd thought it would. The mountains he saw over his left shoulder might contain a cave or two, but they were very far away. They weren't much more than barely visible grey outlines way off in the distance. He could only press on and try to find shelter ahead.
Matt lifted his head and looked as far as he could in all directions as the wind-whipped rain slapped his face like a cold hand. He knew the stallion was having a hard time staying afoot and not giving in to the soft, muddy earth that wanted horse and rider to fall into it. The black had always been an independent animal, just barely broke to the saddle, and he was in a very mean mood now. For the last few miles, whenever Matt had relaxed and let the big horse turn his head, the horse had nipped at his rider's legs. Matt knew he had better find some shelter soon or his horse would throw him and turn his back to the storm, leaving Matt to walk to the train station at Red Wall. They had been traveling on flat terrain since leaving the Double Bar, but up ahead a few small hills appeared on his right, and Matt steered the complaining horse toward them. He hoped he might find some trees or boulders that they could use as shelter from the wind and rain.
Matt rode to the top of the closest hill. He saw the small barn first, and then the cabin on the far side. "Yippee!" Matt couldn't help yelling, as he urged the black forward. But, on the other side of the hill, the wind was quieter and Matt heard a yowling that wasn't his own. In the field that fronted the house, someone was struggling with a cow. Screams of anguish were coming from the cow, and more yowls were coming from the cowhand who was trying to get the cow to do what it didn't want to do. Matt shifted his weight forward and kneed his horse in the direction of the commotion. He stopped a short distance away, not wanting his horse to spook the angry cow any further. Matt shouted into the chaos and asked what the problem was.
"She's due to birth any minute, but she won't go into the barn," a hoarse, tired voice cried out.
Kneeing the stallion again, this time toward the barn, the wet drover raced to the reddish-brown building. He dismounted near the big door and pulled it open as a welcoming target for the cow. "Now-get her moving," he shouted through the rain, which was falling harder now.
"She won't budge," came back a desperate reply.
Matt ran across the muddy farmyard to the stubborn cow and the small cowhand who was trying to move her.
"Here, let me have that rope," Matt shouted over the howling wind. "She needs to know the door is open and smell the hay," he said, as he pulled with all his might.
The large black-and-white cow took a few timid steps at Matt's urging and then suddenly had a change of heart and ran into the barn at a slow, awkward trot. The cowhand walked over to Matt and shouted over the wind, "Thanks, mister, I should have known. I always open the door when I want to milk her, and she comes right on in," the breathless voice said. "Mighty wet out here; come on in and put your horse up in a stall, if you like."
Matt led his horse into the barn and put him in a back stall near two large draft mules. Each mule stared at the intruders and greeted them with unfriendly-sounding snorts. The big black seemed unconcerned; he began chewing at bits of hay he found at his feet. Matt walked back to the barn entrance and closed the door, just as a white goose waddled in.
As soon as the cow lay down in her familiar spot, the birth process began. The cow's owner stayed with her as the new calf quickly arrived and was cleaned by her mama. Matt watched the scene as he loosened the cinch on his saddle and took care of his horse.
Several minutes later, the calf stood on wobbly legs near its mother. "You should name it Storm," Matt said, as he shook the rain off his hat and approached the cowhand. "I'm Matt Benton out of the Cross River Ranch in Colorado, and I sure would appreciate it if me and my animal could wait out this storm here in your barn. We won't be no trouble, and I'll pay for some grain for my horse if you can spare any."
"That won't be necessary; we've plenty of grain," the cowhand said. "You're welcome to stay-and thank you for your help." The cowhand stepped back away from the cow, stood up, and looked into Matt's face. Matt was astonished to be looking into the face of a pretty young woman. She reached a strong hand out for Matt to shake. She was still wearing a rain hat that reminded Matt of the ones he'd seen sailors wearing in an adventure book he'd read about the open seas. When she took it off, soft brown hair fell to her shoulders. Her smoky grey eyes looked troubled as she spoke. "My husband's in bed feeling poorly, but he'd want to thank you too. I'll bring you some hot coffee and food in a little while. Meanwhile, there are some old lengths of cloth in the chest by the rear door. You can use them to dry your horse and yourself."
She patted the tired cow and left the barn, followed by the honking goose that had followed them in.
The day was near done, and the light in the barn was a grey shadow. Matt unsaddled his stallion and then found the cloths in a finely carved wooden chest in the rear corner near the small back door. He started rubbing down his now-calm horse.
"It feels awful good to be out of that storm don't it, pardner?" Matt said, trying to get back on the good side of the horse he favored to ride over all the horses he kept in his remuda.
The big black stallion wasn't his fastest horse, though fast enough, but he was the strongest and most sure-footed of all his horses, and Matt felt good riding him. He was sure the horse had some Arabian or Tennessee Walking Horse in him. He could travel from sunup to sundown and be ready to ride the next morning.
Matt checked the horse's hooves for stones, which were easily picked up in mud and soft dirt. The young wrangler found a small stone stuck in the shoe on the black's right forefoot. "Maybe this is what's had you all mean today," he said as he picked the stone out with his pocketknife. He walked the horse around the barn and was pleased to see the horse didn't favor the leg.
"There, you're good as new," Matt said, grateful that the horse didn't seem to be hurting. Matt looked around and found a pitchfork hanging on the front wall near some other barn tools. "Someone sure keeps a neat barn," he said aloud to the stallion he called Raven because of his coloring. Raven's coat was the color of a midnight sky, and the sheen from the rain made it even shinier now.
"Thank you," the woman's voice answered.
She stepped back into the barn while Matt was looking for the pitchfork.
"I'm going to give my horse some of this hay if it's all right with you," Matt said, as he stuck the tines into the stack of hay in front of him.
"A horse needs a good meal after the kind of traveling you two have done, please give him as much as he'll eat. I brought you some dinner and coffee," she said, putting a cloth-covered tray down on the milking stool near the first stall.
"It's a small place but it's all we can do to keep it going," the woman sighed, looking around the barn.
"My husband Jacob said you're welcome to stay the night, if you like."
Matt nodded his head, with a small grin of relief on his face. "That sure would be kind of you Mrs...." he answered.
Excerpted from Trouble at Red Wall by Joe Bryceland Copyright © 2010 by Joe Bryceland. Excerpted by permission.
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