Western Wednesdays—NOT A RUSTLER by John D. Nesbitt

I’ll make this short and sweet since I hope everyone is on their way to visiting family and friends, or preparing to host the main event themselves. Either way, may this holiday weekend be filled with those you love and good food. Take a breather from packing or cooking and enjoy this preview of Not a Rustler by John D. Nesbitt, a story of a working ranch man falsely accused of being a rustler. Will the conspiracy be uncovered before it buries him? Find out!

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

CHAPTER ONE

Spencer Prescott reined his horse to a stop when he saw a rider come over a hill on the trail ahead. The man was leaning forward and had his horse let out at a gallop, leaving a low cloud of dust in his wake.

Spencer moved his horse off to the side of the trail and waited. The oncoming horse was a common-looking sorrel, rigged for ranch work, and the man aboard, in addition to his intent posture, had the appearance of a seasoned range rider. His clothes were dusty, creased, and worn-looking in the sun.

As the man brought the horse to a jolting halt, Spencer recognized the upturned hat brim, the blond mustache, and the hard cheekbones of Kent Anderson, one of the men who rode for George Farrow. The rider worked his reins to each side as the horse, heaving deep breaths, shifted its feet and settled down.

“What news?” called Spencer.

“Nothing good.” Sunk into the flushed, sun-weathered face, the man’s blue eyes showed alarm. His chest moved up and down. “Someone’s killed the boss,” he announced.

Spencer felt his pulse jump. “When did that happen?”

Anderson’s voice quavered. “This morning, it looks like. He sent us hands out to gather horses. We left at first daylight and come back about noon. Looked like he’d been dead a few hours.”

“Right there at the ranch?”

“As he stepped out the front door. Hadn’t even pulled it shut.”

Spencer shook his head, slow and thoughtful. “That doesn’t sound good at all. Any idea who might have done it?”

Anderson gave a hard stare, and his eyes showed bloodshot. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He paused, as if to let the comment sink in. Then he went on to say, “You know as well as I do that anyone who isn’t part of the Association gets called a rustler and is liable to show up on a list somewhere.”

Spencer thought it sounded like an exaggeration, but he said, “I’m sorry for that.”

The upturned brim and the drooping blond mustache moved back and forth in an agitated motion, and Spencer couldn’t tell if it was from anger or fear.

With another heave of the chest, Anderson spoke. “Nothing personal to you, Spence. You ride for wages just like I do. But you know damn well, what they do to one man, they can do to another. Brand him a rustler, and take it from there. Now, you, you work for a member, so you’re on the safe side. For right now.”

Spencer frowned. “You think it would come around to me?”

“Oh, hell, who knows? I was thinkin’ of myself and the other two boys. If the big cattlemen put it out that George was rustlin’, then it’s a short step from there to say that the men who ride for him are doin’ the same thing. And it could happen to anyone, if the big shots had a mind to do it.”

“Well, I sure don’t have a part in it.”

“Oh, I didn’t think you did, or I wouldn’t have said this much.”

Spencer nodded and said nothing.

Anderson lifted his rein hand from the saddle horn. Worry showed in the blue eyes now. “Well, I’ve got to get along. I don’t like to be the one to do it, but someone’s got to carry the news to town.”

“Good luck.” Spencer raised his hand in farewell.

“Same to you.” The upturned brim leaned forward as the rider touched a spur to the horse’s flank, and the sorrel with three white stockings moved out in a rising trail of dust.

Spencer shifted in the saddle and nudged his horse forward. The dun stepped into a fast walk, and as Spencer settled into the rhythm, rocking in the smooth leather of the saddle, he went back through the news he had just heard. George Farrow was dead, shot down in his own ranch yard. Spencer recalled an image of Farrow—a quiet, dark-featured man with deep-set eyes and a bushy mustache. Now he was lying on his back, his eyes closed forever. His men would have taken him inside and laid him out with his hands folded on his chest, with his hat on a chair nearby.

Spencer brushed away some of the dust that had settled on his eyelids and cheekbones. He felt the warmth of the sun on his back, the energy of springtime as the grass was growing out and life was coming back to the rangeland. Raising his eyes to scan the country around him, he took a long breath and thought about the man who would not be able to see it anymore.

It was a bad way to go, even if Farrow had branded a few slick calves, which he might have done. Turnabout was supposed to be fair play, at least when it came to branding strays. The way Spencer had seen things in the last few years, everyone lost a few and picked up a few, and so it all came out even. That was the way things went on the open range. But now the men who ran the Association wanted to do things their way, and their way only. Cattlemen whose men mavericked through the winter, as Spencer had done for five dollars a head, wanted to outlaw anyone who didn’t participate in the Association’s roundups. Even a man who was branding his own stock could be called a rustler, while the Association kept all the mavericks in their gather so they could divvy up the proceeds among themselves.

Spencer tried not to concern himself with things that went on in higher-up places. A man who worked for a living liked to think that the man he rode for was on the square. As for branding stray calves or killing a steer that had wandered too far from its own range, those seemed to be common practice. Al Jerome had never asked his men to change a brand or slaughter someone else’s beef for sale. He had just followed the custom of the country. If he was a member of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, as he was, that was his business, and it helped protect his interests. As Spencer saw it, the bigwig politics didn’t reach down to the cowhand’s level. Besides, a man needed to work somewhere, and most of the good work was with men like Al Jerome.

Meanwhile, George Farrow was dead, shot down, and his hired man Anderson blamed the big ranchers. He made a point of saying he didn’t hold it against another ranch hand, but Spencer was left feeling uneasy. He felt the man’s bitterness, and he knew how the elite cattlemen hung together. Still, he was not going to jump to conclusions. He was in a position to stay calm and keep his eyes and ears open. Then, if he didn’t like the look of things, he could ease out and go look for work somewhere else.

Spencer had another fleeting image of George Farrow laid out, eyes closed, hatless, his weathered complexion fading into the pale forehead and tousled hair. He would never again see this greening rangeland, never again feel the warmth of the sun as the country came out of winter. Anderson said it could happen to anyone.

He also said Spencer’s guess was as good as his, and he didn’t mean all guesses were possible. It was clear that he meant there was one good guess if a man chose not to ignore it.

 * * *

Talk of the killing had reached the A-J Ranch by the time Spencer rode in and put his horse away. As he took his place at the supper table, he gathered that the other hands had heard the same sketchy details as he had. At the moment, the talk dwelt upon Farrow himself and why he might have come to misfortune.

Al Jerome, boss of the A-J, sat in his customary place, facing the door. He had both hands on the table in front of him, touching a coffee cup with the thumb and first two fingers of each hand. His reddish brown hair caught the glow of lamplight from overhead, and his pointed, upturned nose reminded Spencer, as it sometimes did in certain postures, of a fox. Now with his head lifted and turned, Jerome listened to the talk coming from the table at his left.

A hired man named Waltman said, “If he got into trouble, it was probably of his own makin’.”

Spencer was struck by the man’s tone, which carried no sympathy. Waltman was not a foreman, but he assumed rank over several of the other hands, and Spencer was accustomed to his comments delivered with an air of authority. At present, though, he seemed to go beyond that point, as if he wanted to disparage the dead man.

As silence hung in the air for a moment, Spencer observed Waltman. The man sat with his forearms resting full-length on the table, his shoulders squared, and his chest high. Settled on his thick neck was a head that Spencer assumed took the largest-sized hat of all those in the bunkhouse. Like the others at the table, he wore no hat at the moment. His short, thick, coarse hair, somewhere between blond and light brown, thatched his top. He had a rough complexion, with little pocks and large pores, so that the face had a full, almost swollen appearance. That, along with large ears and a round nose of corresponding size, and a tendency to squint, made his eyes look small. He was not lethargic, though—just complacent when he had his say—–and he gave Spencer the impression of a full-grown tomcat that has lived around a steady source of mice.

Al Jerome broke the silence. “Not sure what you might mean by that, Dick.”

Waltman cocked his large head. “I don’t know it about him, par-say, but when a small operator has a fast-growing herd, his outfit has likely got long ropes and fast horses. That gets ’em in trouble.”

Al Jerome raised his eyebrows. “Well, now, a man doesn’t want to be too quick about saying another man’s a——”

“Rustler,” said Waltman. “And I didn’t say he was. I just said that’s what men like him sometimes get it for.”

A young fellow, Perkins, new to the outfit, spoke up. “One man brandin’ another’s stock. I thought they had to catch him red-handed. Did they do that?”

Jerome answered, “Things aren’t the way they used to be. Not with what they call rustling, or with what they do about it.” He looked around the table, taking in those men who had stayed on through the winter.

Spencer remembered the man’s assurance, back on those cold days when snow lay on the ground. Branding a few mavericks wasn’t really rustling, the boss had said. Not like those other fellows did. But winter was over now, and the crew was no longer a small, confidential circle. There were more men on the range in general as well, more eyes and ears, and talk was looser. In the boss’s words, there seemed to be an unspoken message that the past was past, and for the present no one should get out of line.

Waltman spoke again. “To answer your question, Perk, I don’t know who shot him, or how or why, so I don’t know what they had on him.”

Spencer frowned and said nothing, but he thought Waltman as much as said that someone had something on Farrow.

“Oh,” said the kid. “From the way you talked, I thought maybe you knew something I didn’t.”

“Everyone knows somethin’ that the next man doesn’t.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” said Jerome, with his assuring smile. “Thing is, what a man knows is usually trivial. And I’m speakin’ for myself. Everybody’s got a headful of knowledge that he acquired without trying and will probably never use—thimbles and barnyard geese and where the post office is in Omaha. Harmless stuff. Why, Perk, if someone pumped you, they’d probably be amazed at all the things you knew and weren’t even aware of.”

The kid smiled. “I don’t know where the post office is in Omaha, but I can tell you where to find it in Canton, Ohio.”

“My point exactly. And Dick, here, could tell us where to buy a thimble.”

“Small chance of that,” said Waltman. “The women I’ve known don’t put their fingers in those things.” He gave a wag of the head. “But ask me where they pawn their jewelry and watches, and I can tell you of a couple of places inSt. Louis.”

* * *

Spencer reached forward and patted the buckskin on the neck. The horse had shed all his winter hair, and the undercoat felt smooth and warm to the touch. Sometimes in the morning the buckskin was rambunctious and had to be held in, but today he felt calm as he stepped out at an even pace.

According to his assignment that morning, Spencer was to ride north and then west, which meant he would go around the Wingate place before he angled off to the range he was supposed to check on. As he rode north in the gentle warmth of the sun, he felt in no hurry. He could ride fast later on if he had to, but right now he was turning over a couple of thoughts.

About three miles north of the A-J headquarters, he came to a place where the trail from the west made a T with the trail he was following. Casting a glance off to the west, he thought it would not lengthen his ride by much if he spent a few minutes visiting with Collins Wingate. Spencer gave a shrug, then turned his horse to the left, and with the sun warming his back he headed in the direction of Wingate’s little place.

After a mile he came to a boundary line that Wingate had plowed around his quarter-section claim. For many homesteaders, that was a first step toward proving up. Some didn’t go much further than that and putting up a sod house, but Wingate was more industrious. He had a good water hole to protect on his claim, and as the neighbors were all aware, he planned to run a barbed-wire fence all the way around his property line. Meanwhile, he ran cattle on the open range as everyone else did, and he did not fence in the water hole itself. All the same, everyone knew the larger fence was coming, and no one could deny him the right to put it up and cut off a good water hole from everyone else’s cattle.

Spencer let his eye rove out to follow the boundary line. He could imagine the fence all too well, and the thought of it kicked up a little resistance inside him. In spite of his range rider’s prejudice, though, he liked Wingate and was interested in knowing what the man might have to say about recent developments. Spencer nudged the buckskin and picked up a fast walk.

Half a mile from the boundary line, the horse and rider topped a small rise. Ahead on the right lay the small house and the stable next to it. No sounds came from the ranch yard or the corrals behind, and a thread of gray smoke rose from the stovepipe sticking out of the roof of the house.

As Spencer rode into the yard, the front door opened. Collins Wingate stood in the doorway, wearing his hat as if he were on his way out, but he stayed in place and raised his head in acknowledgment of his visitor.

“Go ahead and tie him up, and come on in,” he said. “There’s still coffee.”

Spencer swung down, tied the buckskin to the hitching rail, and walked to the doorstep. As he shook hands with Wingate, he took in a quick impression.

The man was dressed as if for work, in a dull white work shirt, brown vest, and denim trousers. He was clean-shaven as usual, and his light brown hair was neat and trimmed. Although his face carried a tenseness, he raised his brows and gave a faint smile.

“Come in,” he said, moving aside to let the visitor pass through.

It was the first time Spencer had been inside the house, and he did not see anyone else as he stepped into the front room. The smell of coffee and cooked food, something like flapjacks, hung in the air, and the house had a cozy warmth to it. Spencer turned toward Wingate, who closed the door and stood with an air of hesitation.

“Didn’t know if I’d catch you at home,” Spencer offered.

“I was on my way out a little earlier, and one of George Farrow’s men came by. I guess you heard about what happened.”

“I met up with one of his men yesterday afternoon. The one called Anderson.”

Wingate nodded, still in a pause. He was a square-built fellow, and his work-roughened hands seemed to be hanging idle at his sides, as if he wanted to do something but didn’t know what. “Here,” he said, as his brown eyes flickered away and came back, “let’s sit down. Eva’s in the kitchen. I don’t think you’ve met her. This thing caught us both off guard.” He raised his voice. “Say, Eva. We’ve got another visitor. Come out for a minute when you can.” Wingate pointed to a table against the left wall, off to the side of an open doorway, and moved toward it.

Spencer heard the sound of a door closing on a wood stove, and as he was halfway to the table, a woman appeared in the doorway. He stopped and took off his hat.

The woman was of average height, with dark hair and blue eyes. She wore a gray dress and an apron over it, but it was easy to see that she had the pleasant build of a woman who had not yet been worn down by ranch work and childbearing. She had a calm air about her, but she held her hands clasped at the drawn waist of her apron.

“Eva,” said Wingate. “This is Spencer Prescott. I think I’ve mentioned him. Spencer, this is my wife, Eva.”

The woman nodded but did not release her hands, so Spencer held his hat in both hands and made a slight bow of the head in return.

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Wingate.”

“And likewise.”

As she turned and went back into the kitchen, Spencer noticed that her hair was tied up in a neat coil. From there his gaze moved to the table, where Wingate was pulling out a chair. The man set his hat on the table and sat down.

Spencer took the closest chair to him, which sat around the corner and perpendicular to Wingate’s. A few seconds later, the woman reappeared with a black enamel coffeepot and two cups. No one spoke as she poured the coffee. When she had gone back into the kitchen, Wingate cleared his throat.

“There’s nothing good about this,” he began.

Spencer shook his head. “Not at all.”

“I don’t know how much you heard at the place where you work.” Wingate held his gaze steady, in a gesture of inviting a comment.

“Not much. Some surprise. Jerome and Waltman were sort of matter-of-fact about it.”

“I wouldn’t expect them to have much sympathy.”

Spencer shook his head, slower this time.

“Well, I’m not trying to get anything out of you. I know you’ve got a living to make, and I don’t want to say anything you wish you hadn’t heard.”

“Oh, I’m not that easily offended. That fellow Anderson already gave me an idea of how the little man might see it. If I didn’t want to know more, or if I was afraid of what I might hear, I wouldn’t have come by. On the contrary, I was interested in knowing what it looked like to you.”

Wingate raised his brows and gave a close, appraising look. “You want to know what I think?”

“Yes, I do.”

As if deciding whether to speak his mind or not, Wingate blew steam across the top of his cup and took a sip of coffee. After a few seconds, he spoke. “Here it is, then. I think these big cattlemen have gotten way too much nerve. I’m not mentioning any names, just saying, some people in general.”

“I understand that.”

Wingate paused as he looked at his cup.

“Go ahead,” said Spencer. “None of this goes beyond here.” He waved his hand at the nearby walls. “And there may be something I need to know.”

The other man heaved out a breath. “Well, like I say, I think some of these men have gotten the idea that they can do as they wish. They’ve seen others get away with it, and they think they can do the same.”

“Others…”

“Ever since they hanged that woman and her common-law partner over on the Sweetwater. In plain daylight, with witnesses, and they got away with it clean. Then a similar bunch put their heads together and went into it in a bigger way, over in the Powder River country, just last year. And none of them has had to answer to it. Now it seems like some others around here have got the same bold idea.”

“Which way? Those men on the Sweetwater took it into their own hands, while the ones up by Casper brought in a bunch of would-be gunmen fromTexas.”

“That’s right. They hired it done. But before they brought in that gang and killed the two men at the K.C., they had someone doin’ individual jobs. A back-shooter. When he couldn’t get Nate Champion by himself, the bosses brought in their little army. But when he worked on his own, he got some jobs done. Men saw him, and still he got away with it. Even now, it’s not healthy to mention his name.”

“And you think that’s the style someone wants to go in for, or has already gone in for, around here?”

Wingate narrowed his eyes and lowered his voice. “You know this fella named Fred Carlton, the one they call Wolf?”

Spencer moistened his lips, which felt dry. “I know of him. They say he’s a stock detective. He’s been around here since the middle of winter.”

“That’s him. He’s a stock detective, all right. He doesn’t have cattle himself, but he attaches himself to men who do—–men of prestige—and he’s willing to do their dirty work. He’s the kind that’s well fitted for it.”

“You think he did it?”

Wingate did not answer right away. After a few seconds he said, “I think he could have.”

Spencer gave a couple of slow nods but waited for the other man to go on.

“I heard from George Farrow himself, just about a week ago, that some of these bigger cattlemen might have contracted with Wolf Carlton to take care of what they call the ‘rustler problem.’”

Spencer felt a twinge of discomfort. “I’ve heard of that before.”

“It’s a term they use in the Association, to avoid calling something by its real name.”

“Anderson went on about the Association. Do you think they’re behind it?”

Wingate shook his head. “If someone is doing something here, they’re doing it on their own initiative. Same as elsewhere. They go through people they know, line up someone like Carlton, and make a contract with him. All spoken, of course—nothing written.”

“Naturally.” Spencer gave a slight nod.

“Then if they need support, they can get other members to stand behind them.”

“Like playing with a stacked deck.”

“Sure it is.”

Spencer moved his head back and forth in slow motion. “You put it that way, and there doesn’t seem to be much a little man can do.”

Wingate’s brown eyes had a fire behind them. “When you’ve had a bullet put through you, there’s not a damn thing you can do. But that doesn’t mean everyone else should turn and run.” He paused and looked at his wife, who had come out of the kitchen with a plate of cookies and stood at the corner of the table.

Spencer wasn’t sure, but the two seemed to be exchanging some kind of unspoken message, and he did not want to be seen as eavesdropping. He was absentmindedly gazing at the blue pattern that ran around the edge of the plate when he realized Wingate was waiting for him to look up and hear the rest. He gave Wingate his attention.

“The little man’s got to stick up for himself, and he’s got to stick up for the others like him. When something like this happens, he can’t crawl in a hole.” Wingate’s eyes still blazed.

Spencer gave a brief nod.

“They keep their hands clean. They bring in someone who’s good at it. But you just can’t let ’em get away with it.”

Wingate looked straight at Spencer and then at his wife. She nodded in agreement and turned her eyes to Spencer, who met her full gaze and answered as she had, without words.

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