Western Wednesdays returns this week and in style! I’m previewing the first chapter of Spur award-winner John D. Nesbitt’s latest Gather My Horses.
Also, I’m giving away a trade paperback copy of Gather My Horses to one lucky commenter, so be sure to let us know what you think of this sneak peek!
Editorial and Web Coordinator
As he came around a curve in the trail, swaying with the motion of his horse, Tom Fielding caught a view of the valley below the rim. Up here on top, the earth was ocher-colored, dotted with sparse vegetation and small rocks. Past the edge, the valley stretched out in dark hues of waving green. Across the sea of grass, the hills to the west rose in lighter tones, still green, while beyond them in the distance, the Laramie Mountainsstood in shades of bluish gray and light purple, with patches of darkest green. Another turn in the trail closed off most of the view as the edge of the rim slanted upward. A minute later, the trail turned to the left again and began its descent, a gentle slope that led into an opening in the wall. Thirty yards ahead, the trail fell away in sharper decline, down through a gash in the bluffs. Fielding drew his horse to a stop and paused on the verge before going down.
He turned in the saddle and looked back as the first four packhorses came to a stop. The kid Mahoney had come to a halt as well, and the three pack animals he was leading bunched up behind him. Fielding motioned with his head toward the trail through the gap, and Mahoney nodded.
After a moment’s breather, Fielding nudged his saddle horse and started forward. The trail itself was wide enough for wagon travel, but late spring rains had washed trenches in the road, and the horses had to pick their feet up and set them down with care as they shifted and sidestepped. By habit, Fielding held the lead rope at his hip.
Though the ruts called for careful navigation, Fielding didn’t mind them. Until someone could get a team and a scraper up here, the only way to get by was on horseback, so a bit of business had come his way, packing supplies to a couple of ranches and farms up on the flats. It had been an easy trip, with not a single tree or rock for a horse to rub a pack against, and the kid Mahoney had gotten an introduction into this line of work.
Fielding glanced down at the ravine on his left, a deep cut in the yellowish earth where dark green cedars grew in the bottom and back up in a couple of clefts. Then the trail straightened out and the valley came into full view.
Straight ahead lay an expanse of grassland that sloped down toward darker grass. Beyond the meadowlike area, Chugwater Creek marked its course with a procession of trees, left to right, as the creek flowed northward to the Laramie River. Past the creek a half mile or so lay the town of Umber, which at this distance looked like three and a half rows of packing crates set along the railroad. The tracks themselves caught a shine from the afternoon sun as they ran parallel to the creek, through the center of the valley.
Fielding’s gaze traveled from the middle distance out to the edge and around. Off to the south, two tree lines showed where Hunter Creek flowed into Chugwater Creek. Between those two protecting groves of cottonwoods would lie the headquarters of the Buchanan Ranch. Straight ahead across the valley, where the hills began to lift, he could pick out Bill Selby’s place marked by a pale clump of trees. Farther back in the hills and up a ways, Andrew Roe’s buildings squatted in a corner made by two hills. Even farther and to the left, in a place he could not see from here, would be Richard Lodge’s hardscrabble claim that he called the Magpie. Then swinging his view around to the right and following the treetop course of Chugwater Creek about five miles north, Fielding picked out the site of J. P. Cronin’s ranch, the Argyle.
These were his reference points as he took in the valley as a whole—the creek, the town, the railroad, and the ranches big and little in the country that spread out all around. Less distinct for him was a spot on Antelope Creek, tucked away on the other side of the far line of hills. It wasn’t much as he pictured it, just a set of pole corrals, a large spreading cottonwood, a level area where he pitched his camp, and a grassy creek bottom where he turned out his horses. He couldn’t rightly call it his because it was on the public domain, with no fences or boundaries to separate it from the rest of the open range; but it was his base, the place he left and returned to when he went on pack trips.
Fielding brought his attention back to the trail as his weight shifted with the horse. He had come almost to the bottom of the steep part, and the ravine on his left opened up like the mouth of a small canyon. On the far edge stood a thicket of chokecherry bushes, leafed out and grazed across the bottom like so many trees in cow country. The earth all around the thicket, except on the uphill side, was worn bare where cattle took to the shade.
Behind him he could hear the horses coming down the last part of the grade, thirty-some hooves swishing in the soft earth, nicking on stones, as the horses heaved and snorted. Fielding looked back and appreciated the procession, rocking and jostling, sometimes lurching as a hoof slipped, but orderly all the same.
The kid Mahoney rode easy, the reins in his left hand and the lead rope in his right. The young man had reddish brown hair and a light, freckled complexion, and the upturned brim of his hat did not keep the sun off his face as he turned in the saddle and gazed off to the northwest.
At the bottom where the trail leveled out, Fielding stopped the animals to let them rest for a couple of minutes. All the packs were riding even, which was to be expected, as they carried nothing but ropes, empty cloth and burlap sacks, folded canvas, and the camp items. Out of habit, Fielding counted the packhorses.
Mahoney rode up alongside and stopped. He pulled on the tag and string that hung out of the pocket of his black vest, and out came the bag of makin’s. After giving the lead rope a couple of dallies around his saddle horn, he kept the reins in his left hand as he went about rolling a cigarette. He narrowed his blue-green eyes, which never seemed to be open all the way, and paid close attention to his work. He rolled a tight one, licked the free edge, and tapped the seam. Then he popped a match, held it to the end of the quirly, and drew a deep lungful of smoke. Ten seconds later he exhaled, with his head tipped again toward the northwest.
“Horses are all takin’ this trip real good,” he said, wrinkling his round nose and turning halfway around to look backward on his left.
“Uh-huh.” Fielding thought the kid had become pretty knowledgeable in a short while. Give him a couple more days, and he’d be telling the boss how to throw his hitches and pull the slack.
Mahoney turned to his normal position without looking at Fielding. He took another drag on his cigarette and fixed a hard glance at the valley, as if it were going to yield to his scrutiny.
Fielding took a deep breath to keep himself from getting impatient. He told himself Mahoney was just a green kid trying to prove himself. From the looks of him, he had just gotten his new outfit a short while back inCheyenne. His round-crowned hat, striped shirt, denim trousers, and brown boots were all close to brand-new. So were his nickel-plated spurs with one-inch rowels, and so was his .44 with the clean wooden grips and the new bluing. Just a kid with a fuzzy mustache.
Fielding waited until Mahoney finished his cigarette. Then he put his horse into motion and looked back. The other horses no doubt knew they were on the way home, as they picked up their feet and jogged along. Mahoney fell in behind with his three horses, and the little pack train moved in order as before.
The group stopped in town long enough for Fielding to leave off the mail he had brought down from the flats and for Mahoney to water the horses. When Fielding came out of the little wooden building that housed the post office, he saw the kid slouched by the water trough, a cigarette drooping from his lips and his right thumb on his gun belt. His left hand held the ropes for the two strings of pack animals, and the saddle horses were hitched to the rack. Fielding gave an upward toss of the head as he moved to untie his horse, and when he had the reins, the kid handed him a lead rope. Fielding led his horse out, checked the cinch, and swung aboard. The afternoon sun had still not dipped below the tip of his hat brim when he crossed the tracks and headed westward.
Traveling light as he was, he figured he could cover the four miles to his campsite in less than an hour. If he were pressed for time and riding alone, he might save from a quarter to a half hour by straightening out the route rather than follow the trail as it wound through the low hills. But he had no reason to hurry today. He was on the tail end of an easy trip, with plenty of daylight left.
After the first curve in the trail and going into the second, which set the course westward again, Fielding saw the light green shades of box elder and young cottonwoods that marked Bill Selby’s place. Fielding had seen it from across the valley and up a ways, but from the valley floor to here, swells in the rising land closed off all but the fringe of the treetops. Now the ranch site came into view, a quarter of a mile to the left.
It looked as if Selby had company. He was facing three men who stood by their horses. The men had their backs to the lane that came in from the main trail.
Fielding gave the scene a close study as his horse clip-clopped along. A feeling of displeasure rose within him as he noted the layout. Selby stood hatless in the middle of his ranch yard, face-to-face with a larger man in a dark shirt. From this distance, the man looked like George Pence, one of J. P. Cronin’s riders and not the most likeable. The other two men were standing back holding the horses, with not much more than their hats visible.
A voice rose on the air as the man in the dark shirt made a flicker of movement. Fielding tensed, then reined his horse to the left and nudged him to follow the lane into the yard. Fielding glanced back to see that Mahoney was following, caught a curious look from the kid, and turned forward to keep things on course. As he approached the ranch yard, the men and horses stood ahead on his right.
Another voice came up, followed by the loud one. Fielding rode closer, wondering when the men in the yard would hear the footfalls of the nine horses.
As the voices died away, one of the two men holding the visitors’ horses came around the front of the nearest one and stared at the oncoming party. He was a clean-shaven man, a little taller than average. He wore a brown hat, brown vest, and white shirt. Fielding strained to try to recognize the man, but he saw nothing familiar about him.
The horses moved on, thirty-six hooves clopping and scuffing. The man in the brown vest raised his head in an expression of authority, then spoke over his shoulder to the large man facing Selby.
The scene ahead shifted, and the large man came to stand next to his associate. Fielding recognized the tall-crowned hat, dark blue wool shirt, beefy face, and brown side whiskers. It was George Pence, just as he had thought at first glance.
As Fielding brought his horse to a stop, the man in the brown vest spoke. His words had an even tone, neither friendly nor menacing.
“Afternoon, stranger. What’s your business?”
Fielding dismounted. He didn’t like to ride into someone’s camp or ranch and look down on him, just as he didn’t like another man to act that way toward him. “Not a stranger,” he said, passing the reins to his right hand. “Don’t need to be on business to drop in and see a friend.” He motioned with his head in the direction of Selby, who had come forward but stood a few paces away from the other two.
The brown hat nodded. “We’re all friends,” said the man. “That’s what we stopped in for. A friendly visit.”
Fielding noted the smooth voice, the polite accent he had heard in others who affected a gentleman’s image. “That’s good,” he said, “for everyone to be friends.” He flicked a glance at the blocky form of George Pence, met his dull brown eyes, and came back to the clean-shaven man with the clean vest and white shirtsleeves. “My name’s Tom Fielding, and I’m a packer.”
The other man smiled without showing his teeth. “I like a man who says what he is.” The dark eyes traveled down the file of horses and came back. “And I like a man who is what he says.” Another smile. “My name’s Al Adler. I’m the foreman at J. P. Cronin’s Argyle Ranch.” The man pulled a brown leather glove off his right hand and offered to shake.
Fielding obliged, noticing that the firm hand was pale and the fingernails were clean. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“All mine.” Adler tossed his head sideways and said, “I would guess you already know George Pence.”
Fielding nodded in the direction of the big man, whose eyelids halfway closed as he nodded back.
“And here’s Henry in back. Do you know him, too?”
Fielding looked across the saddles of the first two horses and caught a smile and a wave from Henry Steelyard. “How do, Henry?”
Adler’s smooth voice came out again. “So, as I was saying, we were all just having a friendly visit.”
“Sure.” Fielding turned toward Selby. “And how are you today, Bill?”
Selby’s ruddy face was redder than usual, but he said, “Good enough, I suppose.”
Adler’s voice cut in. “Did you have any business with Mr. Selby? Any goods to deliver?”
“No more business than I already stated.” Fielding tipped his head toward his packhorses. “I’m travelin’ empty, back to my camp.”
“Well, don’t let us keep you, then” said Adler. After half a pause he added, “Who’s your man?”
Fielding followed the glance of the dark eyes. “That’s Fred Mahoney. This is his first job with me.”
Mahoney, who had not gotten down from his horse, raised his hand from the saddle horn in a small wave.
Adler’s eyes rested on Fielding again. “Like I said, don’t let us keep you.”
“Oh, we’re not in a hurry.”
“Maybe you ought to be,” said Pence.
The surly tone was nothing new to Fielding, who felt a spark of resentment. “I said I wasn’t.”
Pence stepped forward and squared his shoulders. His right hand hung over his smooth-worn gun belt. “Maybe we think you should. You interrupted a conversation, you know.”
Fielding cast a glance at Selby. “Is that right, Bill?”
Selby’s voice seemed to have a quaver in it as he answered. “I suppose so, in a way. Pence here was trying to tell me where to run my cattle, or where not to. I said it was open range, and his boss didn’t have any more right to it than I do.”
Pence cut in. “That’s a mealymouthed way of puttin’ it. What I said was, he’d better keep his rib-racked cattle off the Argyle meadows.”
Selby came right back, his voice steadier now. “And I told him that if any of that land was private, it was up to the owner to fence it off. That’s Wyoming law, and everyone knows it.” Read more of this post