Western Wednesdays—GATHER MY HORSES + Giveaway

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!

Happy Reading,

Allison Carroll

Editorial and Web Coordinator

 

CHAPTER ONE

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?”

“Howdy, Tom.”

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.”

The big man made a sound like “Pah.”

Selby’s jaw muscles tightened, and his eyes blazed. “They just came here to bully me. They ride in here, the three of them, and they put this one on me like a bulldog.”

Pence made a quick turn and, with spurs jingling, moved toward Selby, who backed up. “Stand still,” barked Pence, “and take what you’ve got comin’.”

Selby’s blue eyes flickered from one side to the other as he took another step backward. He was short and sturdy, but no match for the larger man. “Just a bully,” he said. “All the courage in the world when you’ve got someone three to one.”

Pence doubled his fists, and his voice came out gravelly as he said, “I’ll take you one on one.” He moved forward.

Fielding dropped his reins, took about five quick steps, and came between the two men with his shoulder almost touching Pence’s chest. “I think that’s enough,” he said. “There’s no need for any more.”

Pence laid his left hand on Fielding’s shoulder and gave him a shove. “This pissy little nester called me a bully.”

Fielding squared around. “Maybe you are. Look at you. And you’re callin’ names just as much as he is.”

The big man surged forward and shoved Fielding with both hands, throwing him off balance but not knocking him down. Fielding went back a couple of steps, regained his footing, and got ready for the other man as he came hulking toward him. As long as it was just a shoving match, Fielding did not want to throw a punch. He hovered with his weight forward, and then he pushed off.

He went between Pence’s two hands, which were poised above waist level and were not yet tensed for another shove. The thumbs gave way. Grabbing the big man by the shirt and putting the toe of his boot on Pence’s right spur, Fielding pushed hard and sent the man backward, arms flailing for balance. Pence landed with his butt on the ground, and his high-crowned hat went rolling away. His pale forehead showed where his dark brown curly hair was receding. As he turned in a smooth motion and came up with his .45 Colt, the beginning of a bald spot showed in back.

Adler stepped in to block Pence’s view, though the barrel of the six-gun was still raised in Fielding’s direction.

“This has gone far enough,” said the foreman. “Put it away, George.”

Fielding, having stepped out of the line of fire, saw the gun barrel lower and withdraw.

Adler turned to Fielding. “Maybe I’ll say it a third time, my friend. Don’t let us keep you from going on your way.”

Fielding gave him a cross look. “So you can pick on Bill some more?”

Adler jutted his chin and shook his head. “No one’s pickin’ on anybody. We’re about to leave, too. That’s the secret of a friendly visit, know when to leave so you don’t stay too long.”

Fielding turned to Selby, who was standing off by himself with his hands at his sides. “Are you all right, Bill?”

“Oh, I’ll be fine.” Selby had a subdued tone, but he did not seem afraid. His eyes followed Pence, who had gotten up and found his hat and was now walking back to the horses.

Fielding shrugged. “I guess we’ll go, then.”

Adler raised his eyebrows. “All the best.” Then after giving a closemouthed smile, he added, “Good to meet you, Fielding.”

“The same here.” Fielding returned to his horse, a calm sorrel that stood hipshot with its head forward. Fielding gathered the reins, turned the sorrel, and found the lead rope for the first packhorse where it lay in the dirt. Positioning the sorrel to avoid throwing his leg over the lead rope when he swung aboard, Fielding held the reins and the rope at the saddle horn as he mounted up. He transferred the reins to his right hand, and with his left he waved to Bill Selby and Henry Steelyard.

Adler was turning out his stirrup and had his back to Fielding, as did Pence in his dark hat. That was just as well, thought Fielding. As he turned the packhorses and led the way out of the yard, he looked across at Mahoney, who had not gotten down from his horse the whole time and who gave no expression in response. That was just as well, too.

The campsite on the west side of Antelope Creek was a welcome sight as Fielding brought the pack train in off the trail. He and Mahoney worked together to untie the packs, lift the panniers off the sawbucks, strip the gear, and water the horses. They picketed two, a dun and a gray, then belled the rest of the packhorses and turned them loose. They tied the two saddle horses to the corral for the time being.

Next they set up two tents, using the poles that Fielding had left stacked. They set up one tent for living quarters and one to stow the gear, including the tepee tent they had used on their recent trip. When they had the gear put away, Fielding stood back and looked over the whole layout.

“I think that’s pretty good,” he said, turning to Mahoney. “If you want, we can call it a day.” He brought out a ten-dollar gold piece and handed it to the young man. “Here’s this. We can call it square for the six days.”

Mahoney’s eyebrows went up. “Thanks,” he said.

Fielding waved toward the corral. “Go ahead and take the horse you’ve been riding. You can leave him at the livery stable in town, and I’ll pick him up when I go in. Probably tomorrow.”

Mahoney nodded, turned to walk toward the brown horse, and stopped. Someone was riding into the camp from the main trail.

As the horse came to a stop about twenty-five yards out, Fielding recognized the features of the young range rider. “Come on in, Henry,” he called.

Steelyard rode his horse another fifteen yards and then dismounted. Leading the animal by the reins, he walked forward with his usual easy air about him. His round hat with the ranger’s peak was set back on his head, and his trimmed, wavy brown hair combined with his clean-shaven face to give him a look of innocence.

“Evenin’, Henry. What brings you to this side of the valley?”

“Oh, I just thought I’d drop by to see if everything was all right.”

“I hope so.”

“That’s good. You know, I felt kinda awkward, bein’ in the middle of that scrape earlier in the afternoon.”

Fielding waved his hand. “Ah, don’t worry about it. I didn’t think you had anything to do with it.”

Steelyard shrugged. “Well, I was there, and I wouldn’t want to have any hard feelin’s.”

 “None on this side, not towards you. As for Pence—well, I’ll just have to wait and see if he wants to start somethin’ again. You know as well as I do that some of these things go away on their own, and some don’t.”

Steelyard pushed out his lower lip. “I don’t blame you for steppin’ in,” he said. His words hung on the air until he added, “But I don’t know how good an idea it would be to take sides.”

Fielding’s eyebrows pulled together. “What do you mean, take sides?”

“I didn’t say you did.” Steelyard laid his hand out, palm up. “I meant something you might or might not do later on.”

 “Such as . . .”

“Better not to burn bridges.” Steelyard gave a tip of the head.

“Ah, as far as that goes, I figure I already lost any work I thought I might have with Cronin.”

 “Well, that, or anything else. Just thought I’d mention it.” The young man’s brown eyes were steady.

“I’m glad you did. Good of you to drop by.”

Steelyard gave a backward wave. “Think nothin’ of it.” He glanced at the sun, which was about to set. “Huh,” he said, “looks like I’d better be headin’ back.”

“Are you goin’ by way of town?”

 “I could. Do you need somethin’ done?”

Fielding motioned toward Mahoney, who had been standing by and taking things in. “I don’t, but Mahoney here was about to leave. He could ride along if it was no bother to you.”

Steelyard looked at Mahoney and smiled. “Not at all. Glad for the company. Was your name Pat?”

 “Fred.”

“Good enough. Well, I’m ready to go when you are.”

Mahoney untied the brown horse, led it out a few yards, tightened the cinch, and mounted up. Steelyard swung aboard also, and the two young men waved good-bye and rode away.

As the hoofbeats faded on the trail, Fielding unsaddled the sorrel and put him in the corral. He gave the animal a bait of grain and went to look for a canvas bucket. When he came out of the gear tent holding the bucket by its rope handle, he paused to appreciate the sunset over the skyline. Shades of orange and scarlet shot through a layer of low-lying clouds, and the rangeland was falling into shadow.

The bells of the grazing horses tinkled in the still air, and the creek made a light, rippling sound as Fielding walked toward it. He washed his hands and face in the stream, then dipped the bucket and brought it up swelled and dripping.

Night was falling as he walked to his camp. It was a good feeling to have the day’s work done, a night horse close at hand, a bucket of water to hang in camp, and no one to mar the pleasure of being alone on the plain.

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13 Responses to Western Wednesdays—GATHER MY HORSES + Giveaway

  1. Craig Clarke says:

    I really enjoy Mr. Nesbitt’s non-traditional Westerns — literary in style but still devoted to the genre. For more detail, see my review of the author’s novel Death at Dark Water:
    http://somebodydies.blogspot.com/2009/11/death-at-dark-water-by-john-d-nesbitt.html

    I hope he continues to find his audience.

  2. JackieW says:

    With all the colorful descriptions I feel like I’m right in the story….I can see John Wayne riding that horse along that trail. I love stories where I feel that I’m “there” with the characters…this is one I will read to the end.

  3. JOYE says:

    I have read John D. Nesbitt before and liked that book so this one is a must for me as well…thanks for the info…I’m going to add it to my stack of books to be read this summer.

  4. I love westerns and this one sounds like it will be great!!

  5. This is a real genuine old west western with a good suspenseful start and a promise of more action to come.

  6. Yvonne B. says:

    Great preview. I’ve heard about John Nesbitt for a while, just hadn’t had the opportunity to check him out as yet.

  7. Dawn Carnes says:

    I love a good western. This one starts off kind of boring but gives a great viewing of the area and the grounds. Then a somewhat description of the people already there and the disgruntled gentlemen who didn’t quite get what they wanted and were quite put out when the traveling person kinda butt in and made it his business. The book definately appears to have some humor, alittle bit of surprise to the beginning of the story which leads you to want to keep reading to find out what happens next.. For me this is the way a book should start out. Just enough info to get you interested to want to keep reading….which I would love to do! I think it is going to be a good inticing and juicy story and I would love to read it!!

  8. Brian L. Bennett says:

    I am strapping on my six gun and heading into work in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States; Stockton, Ca. I will be in a Toyota Camry, ever ready to defend and protect against inevitible lawlessness.

  9. Love westerns and have read John Nesbitt.before. Know it will be good.

    • Allison Carroll, Editorial and Web Coordinator says:

      Hi Patsy,
      Congratulations—you’ve been randomly selected as the winner of the Gather My Horses giveaway!

      To claim your prize, e-mail contests@dorchesterpub.com with your shipping address. As someone already familiar with Mr. Nesbitt’s work, you can be sure you’re in for a real treat!

      Happy Reading,
      Allison Carroll
      Editorial and Web Coordinator
      Dorchester Publishing

  10. Linda says:

    I LOVE COWBOYS IN CHAPS!!

  11. Richard says:

    Overall a very good start to a story that I look forward to continue to read. I am not familiar with Mr. Nesbitt;s writings but after this sneak peek i will have to look after some of His other books as well as this one.

  12. eclairre says:

    This excerpt makes me think its a very good book, so I’d love to win!!

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