Western Wednesdays—RIDE FOR RULE CORDELL by Cotton Smith

It’s not often you come across a female antagonist in Westerns, but Cotton Smith’s villainous Lady Holt in Ride for Rule Cordell is a triple threat—she’s smart, mean, and ambitious to the point that she’s just about got the whole of Texas under her greedy thumb. Only the Texas Rangers stand in her way, and they’ll have to form an unlikely alliance with a notorious outlaw if they’re to break Lady Holt’s stranglehold on the great state and its people. Get in on the action with this preview of Ride for Rule Cordell by Cotton Smith.

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

Chapter One

Texas Ranger John Checker saw the two gunmen coming in the darkness before they saw him. Like a cat, he dove toward the short buffalo grass pushing against the right side of the ranch shed. He rolled until he was lying chest-down in a shallow creek fifteen feet away. His long black hair brushed along the shoulders of his Comanche tunic.

Moonlight shivered on the dark water that fed upon most of his pants. He laid his Winchester against the edge of the creek itself. Hidden from the gunmen until they got close. Swiftly, he lifted the thong from the hammer of his short-barreled Colt carried in a reverse holster on a double-rowed cartridge belt. His hand gripped the black handles, carrying an embedded elk-bone circle on each side, and drew the fine revolver.

If they saw him, the short gun would be faster to bring into action. He froze in place as they came closer. He was certain they hadn’t seen him. A shooting encounter now might prove fatal for his old friend, Emmett Gardner. The smarter move was to determine what exactly was going on and where.

He and fellow Ranger A. J. Bartlett had come as soon as they received the wire from the gray-haired rancher. The two Rangers had hit town and learned from a loose-lipped cowboy that Lady Holt riders would descend on Gardner’s ranch tonight. They stayed only long enough to get fresh horses.

Right now, Bartlet twas somewhere on the other side of the ranch yard, waiting for Checker’s signal to close in. If he wasn’t fussing with his new socks; things like that mattered greatly to his partner. He even kept a detailed journal of recipes of meals that could be prepared on the trail. Probably the result of growing up with schoolteacher parents.

So far, there had been no shooting. Most likely, this meant the old rancher and his sons had been surprised and subdued. Or it could signify something worse. A lone light in the ranch  house gave no clue to what was happening inside, but Checker thought it was encouraging. He wasn’t certain how many gunmen were at the ranch, but guessed it was ten to twelve. Bartlett was uncomfortable with any estimate, especially one like that; Checker reminded him they wouldn’t know for certain until the attack was over.

The two gunmen finally stopped and stood above him on the grassy bank. Their rifles were carried casually in crossed arms. Both were looking back toward the ranch  house. It appeared their only objective was to stay out of the way of others.

Checker dared not lift his head enough to see them any better. He had learned well from Stands-In-Thunder how a man could remain unseen by his enemies when actually in plain sight. No movement was the first requirement.

Courage was the second.

Third was to avoid staring directly at the person; such eye contact would often make the man realize he was being watched.

Ranger reports indicated Lady Holt had forty gunmen in her employ, including the notorious Tapan Moore and the half-breed Luke Dimitry. Were they all  here? He didn’t think anything near that, but  wasn’t certain. So far, his first guess of ten to twelve seemed right. Forty gunmen didn’t count all the regular cowboys who handled her vast herds. There was little in this part of Texas the English woman didn’t own—or control. There was talk of her employing the new devil’s rope to stop open grazing. Barbed wire would change everything, most agreed—and few liked the idea.

The two gunmen’s conversation was casual in the tense darkness.

“Looks like the ol’ lady’s gonna get her wish.Gardner’s spread’ll make it just about complete. The ol’ man’s got some fine water. Grazin’ land ain’t bad, neither. Sil said he’s gonna make him sign over his place—or start hangin’ his sons.”

“I was kinda hopin’ we’d just hang ’em all an’ get it over with. Hazel’s waitin’ for me in town. Damn, don’t know what Sil’s waiting for.”

“Lady Holt wants it this way. Nice an’ legal. Heard Sil’s gonna give him a thousand dollars for the ranch.” The taller man rubbed his chin. “ ’Sides, Hazel ain’t waitin’ for ya. She’d spin anybody who’s got silver.”

The shorter man flinched, but didn’t respond. Checker heard a match strike and saw the glow against the tall man’s face as he lit a cigarette. Tobacco smoke drifted down to him.

“Damn it to hell, you’re right about Hazel.”

“ ’Course I am. You oughta try that new blonde-haired gal.” The tall gunman grinned; white teeth gleamed in the night.

“Good idea. Thanks.”

“Say, how’d Rikor—and the kid—get away?”

“Wilson’s fault. Let ’em go piss—an’ Rikor jumped him. Took his guns.”

“Rikor any good with a gun?”

“Doubt it. Figger he’s a cowman. Like his pa. But so far, he’s been real quiet. Smart, I’d say.”

“Hey, Charlie’s got some who-shot-John in his saddlebags. Saw it. What say we go back an’ have at it? Nothin’s gonna happen around here. We can tell Sil we were checking on some noise. Thought it was Rikor.”

“I like the way you think.”

Neither heard the swift movement behind them. Checker’s gun barrel cracked hard against the taller man’s head and he shivered and crumpled. The shorter man spun toward Checker, trying to swing his rifle toward the Ranger. Too late. Checker backhanded him in the face with his Colt and he staggered backward and collapsed. The tall Ranger hit the stunned gunman again in the head; his hat bounced from his head. A soft groan was the only response.

With a quick look for assurance, Checker holstered his Colt and yanked the two unmoving bodies down into the creek bed. He threw their weapons into the night, grabbed his own Winchester and began crawling slowly through the creek bed. Where the creek turned sharply to the south, he climbed out and looked around. At least, he now knew why gunmen were stalking through the night around the ranch. Gardner’s oldest son, Rikor—and his youngest, Hans—had somehow escaped. Emmett Gardner and his middle son, Andrew,  were being held in the ranch house, as he suspected.

Only the dark shapes of trees and rocks greeted him. Yet the darkness could easily hide armed men. His reputation for tracking outlaws at night was well-known. His visual intensity grew with the darkness. It had always been so. Seeing color and measuring distances  were the only things that he could not do well at night. Several outlaws had been surprised by his sudden appearance at their nighttime camp.

He slid into the dark. All of the night sounds had disappeared. All of this was definitely a confirmation of Emmett Gardner’s wire for help. The two Rangers had been riding hard since the old rancher described a massive land grab under way with small ranchers being squeezed out or overrun. County law was worse than useless; the sheriff was in Lady Holt’s employ. Emmett said he feared his ranch was the next target.

It made good sense. This was fine cow country with lots of water—creeks and ponds born of a fat river—and hilly with fine stretches of grazing land in between. Along the waterways, oaks of every kind, cottonwoods, and large pecan and walnut trees  were in charge.

Captain Harrison Temple readily agreed to their going. He was growing suspicious of the activity in the region. There was little in this part of Texas not under the control of Lady Holt, an extraordinarily wealthy rancher. There  were even rumors of the notorious New Mexico hired killer, Eleven Meade, being in the area.

On top of that, Captain Temple worried about the rumors of her alliance with Governor J. R. Citale. The governor was a corrupt man, pushed easily by money. The rumors seemed to coincide with the growing gap between Captain Temple and the governor.

Checker touched the small buckskin pouch hanging from a leather strip under his shirt. A gift of wolf medicine from Stands-In-Thunder. The old war chief, then on a reservation, said the Comanche warriors called Checker Tuhtseena Maa Tatsinuupi, Wolf With Star, because he came after them like a fierce wolf. The wolf was the young Ranger’s puhahante, spirit helper, the old man had said. Checker  wasn’t certain how the old man had determined this, but had decided not to question the tribute. Choosing, instead, to enjoy the older man’s companion.

According to the Comanche, the mysterious beast gave him courage and was the reason Checker could see well in the night. Inside the small pouch, according to the old war leader, was strong puha, strong medicine, including a wolf claw, powder made from the wing of a night owl and the howl of a wolf.

To his far left, gray shadows along the dark trio of cottonwoods introduced more gunmen. John Checker took a deep breath, drawing in the velvety cool air, and flattened himself with his rifle aimed in their direction. He wiped each hand on his pants, as if to help him pierce the darkness to determine how many were there. Less than fifty yards away from his position, the shadows were moving. Moonlight washed stingily across them. Six. Yes, six. They were obviously searching for the two Gardner sons. Shadows told him more men  were searching on the other side of the ranch. His estimate was too low; there must be closer to twenty gunmen.

Behind came soft movement from beside the shed and Checker spun to meet it.

A yellow cat.

Checker shook his head and returned to watching the gunmen.

“You look over there, Vince. By that shed.” A tall man with a full beard pointed in the direction of Checker’s position. “Eilert, you go there. The bastards have to be here. Somewhere. Remember Rikor has Wilson’s guns.”

The Ranger watched the lone gunman advance. Everything about the night was bothering the man. Slightly built, he wore a derby over long, stringy brown hair. A long coat glistened with remains of a greasy dinner. It looked as though he was wearing two belted guns; both were tied down. He held a Winchester tightly with both hands. Cocked. His finger was on the trigger. Checker watched him from twenty feet away, careful not to look him in the eye.

The gunman was far too jumpy.

If Checker attacked him now, there would be a good chance the man’s finger would squeeze the trigger the instant Checker hit him, but he didn’t want to leave the man in a position to shoot at him as he advanced.

Silently, Checker left his Winchester propped against a tree, circled to the outside and edged himself directly in back of the gunman, and in line with the bunkhouse. It would appear he had just come from there. The move was risky, walking in the open for a few seconds, but he thought no one would pay attention to another man walking in the darkness. He pulled his hat brim lower to cover his face and drew his short-barreled Colt. Even in the dark, it was easy to see the trigger guard was half cut away, the section gone nearest the barrel and the filed-away barrel sight. Both were designed to help the Ranger shoot faster.

The brown-haired gunman remained with his back to the bunkhouse and had not heard Checker’s careful repositioning. Instead, he was watching the same yellow cat that had surprised the Ranger. Rubbing its back against a tree, the scrawny animal was a welcome diversion. The man’s cocked rifle was cradled in his arms, but his right hand was still wrapped within the trigger guard.

Checker declared his presence in a friendly, offhand manner, “Evenin’. Don’t shoot, partner. The boss sent me. Found them yet?”

The nervous gunman flinched, but the reassuring voice was a comforting sound in the lonely night. He turned and said, “Glad to have the—”

“If you whisper, I’ll blow your head off,” Checker snarled. His Colt barrel lifted the nervous man’s chin to attention as Checker’s left hand slid between the rifle’s cocked hammer and the readied bullet in its chamber. His move was a blur. The hammer hit the back of his hand hard, pinching it against the steel frame, but keeping the strike from reaching its intended target. It was the reflex action he had anticipated.

“Let go of the rifle real easylike.  Wouldn’t want that hammer to get any farther, would you?” Checker growled. “Because if there is any noise to bother your friends, you won’t be around to see the fun. Now move over here in the shadows. Walk naturally. That’s it.”

Holstering his revolver, Checker’s hand pulled the rifle from the shaking fingers of the gunman with his right hand; the Ranger’s left hand still blocked the hammer’s path. Carefully removing his hand, he recocked the rifle and returned its barrel to the guard’s neck.

“Tell me what’s going on  here. I’ll know if you’re lying.”

“Y-you’re a Ranger, aren’t ya? I’m just doin’ what I was told. P-p-please, mister, I—I—I’ll tell ya the truth.”

In a frightened staccato, he told Checker that Sil Jaudon, Lady Holt’s right-hand man, had led a night attack on the Gardner ranch  house. They had taken the youngest when he was milking and used him to get inside by threatening to kill him. Jaudon and three others were holding Gardner and the third son in the ranch  house now. Jaudon expected to get Gardner to sign away his ranch.

“What are they waiting for?” Checker asked.

“Oh, two of that old man’s sons got away. They’re around here somewhere, I reckon,” the shaking man said. “Sil’s mad as hell at Wilson for letting them escape.”

He further explained Jaudon and his men would take over the Gardner herd later, probably tomorrow or the next day at the latest. Satisfied the man  couldn’t tell him more, Checker delivered a blow to the back of the man’s head with the barrel of his Winchester and he crumpled to the ground.

Checker’s eyes quickly searched the yard for signs of discovery. Nothing. He breathed a deep release of tension. The men were spread out, most of them looking north. He dragged the immobile body behind the shed and into a shallow ravine that ran parallel to the ranch house, so it wouldn’t be discovered easily.

Quickly he removed the man’s pistols, shoved one into his own cartridge belt and threw the rifle and the other revolver into the darkness. He considered slowly eliminating Jaudon’s men as he had the first three. But the other searchers had left the area, moving toward the barn and the main corrals. It would be difficult to do without being discovered. A shoot-out with those odds wasn’t likely to end well.

He heard someone coming through the brush. From his left. He crouched to wait.

It was his partner, A. J. Bartlett, a medium-sized man in a short-brimmed fedora. He held a double-barreled shotgun. A three-piece brown suit looked as if he had just bought it. His bullet belt and a holstered Smith & Wesson revolver were strapped over his coat. But everything—and every way— about him was precise. Or as precise as he could make it.

Even the shotgun had been carefully chosen because of its firepower and its threatening appearance. He wasn’t nearly as good with a handgun as Checker. Few  were. Supposedly, the Confederate cavalryman-turned-outlaw, Rule Cordell, was. So were John Wesley Hardin and Clay Allison. Rule Cordell wasn’t dead as previously reported and was now a preacher, or so Ranger reports had confirmed. Facing each other  wouldn’t be anything any of them would want.

“Saw you introducing the fellow to the stars,” Bartlett said, pointing with the gun at the unconscious gunman. “Thought I’d see what you had in mind—and introduce you to a couple of lads I just ran into.”

The Ranger waved and an eight-year-old boy and a lanky young man of eighteen appeared from the darkness. The young man held a Henry carbine in his hands; he looked comfortable with it. A long-barreled Smith & Wesson revolver was shoved into his pocket.

“You remember Rikor, John. And this fine-looking lad is Hans. Looks just like his pa, I do believe.” He continued telling Checker about the situation, then expanded his assessment to tell how much the boys had grown since the last time he had seen them, then wondering if Emmett Gardner’s herds  were safe, and then wondering if cattle prices in Kansas  were holding up. He finished by saying that his socks had gotten damp and  were troubling him.

Checker stopped his wandering assessment by greeting the boys. “Well, good to see you, Rikor. You, too, Hans. The last time I saw you, you  were just getting into everything you could reach.” Checker held out his hand to greet both.

Rikor, and then Hans, accepted the handshake enthusiastically. The smaller boy looked him straight in the eye. “They’ve got my pa. An’ Andrew.”

“Yes, I know,” Checker said, and leaned forward. “How many are in the  house—holding them?”

Hans glanced away as if seeing the inside of his  house once more, then looked back. “Four. Two inside—and two more fellas watchin’ the front an’ back doors. Standin’ outside.” Checker nodded; that matched the number given to him by Vince, the gunman he had just dispatched.

“There  were five. One less now,” Rikor said with a grin reaching the corner of his mouth. “These are his guns. Jumped him when we went outside to the outhouse. He’s behind it now.”

“Heard about that,” Checker said. “Good work. You gave your pa time. Us, too.”

Rikor’s eyes brightened with the compliment.

In spite of his favored choice of weapons, the older Ranger was actually much less intense than his younger fellow Ranger, now a gun warrior known throughout Texas. He loved to talk and usually it seemed to fill the silence left when he and Checker rode together. Now it was getting in the way.

“How do you want to play this, John?” Bartlett grinned and recited, “‘How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use, as tho’ to breathe were life!’ ”

Checker glanced at his older friend. “I think you made that up.”

“Ah, no, my friend, ’tis Ulysses, one of Tennyson’s best.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson was Bartlett’s favorite poet and he quoted from his works often.

“I like it.”

Checker looked at Bartlett, then back to the two Gardner sons. “Got an idea of how we might get close. Maybe even inside. But it will take being very brave.”

“What do you want me to do?” Hans blurted, and crossed his arms.

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