Western Wednesdays—THE WAY OF THE WEST + Giveaway

Tomorrow marks the winter solstice, at least for those of us residing in the northern hemisphere. Hope everyone in the southern hemisphere is enjoying their sunny December solstice. In honor of the shortest day of the year, I’m previewing a novella by Elmer Kelton, part of the new anthology collection The Way of the West, that also includes shorts from Max Brand and Cotton Smith.

In Elmer Kelton’s Long Ride, Hard Ride, a retreating Confederate troop has seized a Union cache of munitions—only to find themselves surrounded by Apaches. But these soldiers are the unlikeliest of heroes, as you’re about to find out.

A broiling feud between two ranchers over water rights turns to blood in Cotton Smith’s Morning War. And The Desert Pilot by Max Brand is a thrilling tale of a quiet man who has to learn to stick up for himself in a lawless town.

The Way of the West contains three prime examples of Western adventure by the best writers of yesterday and today. Check out the preview below and be sure to leave a comment in the thread—you could win a copy of the paperback! Let us know what some of your favorite anthologies are. Have you discovered a new writer that was paired with one of your favorites?

Happy Reading,
Allison Carroll
Dorchester Publishing

I
“The Wagons of Munitions”

There could be no doubt about the sudden volley of gunfire that echoed from the ragged mountain pass to the south. For more than an hour the sixteen soldiers in gray had watched the mirror flashes on the high points. They had seen the  blue-clad Yankee cavalry patrol trot into the defile.

The rattle of gunfire tapered off. For a terrible ten minutes there was silence, a quiet as awesome as had been the screaming sound of death at Valverde on the Río Grande, or Apache Cañon in the Glorietas.

Lt. Miles Overstreet, Confederate States of America, unfolded his spyglass with trembling hands and trained it on the pass. He stood tall, a lean, angular man in dusty gray, with futility weighing heavy on his shoulders. His hand-sewn uniform was frayed and stained from a thousand miles and more of riding and fighting and sleeping on the ground. A thousand miles since San Antonio. A thousand miles of sweat and thirst and blood.

The Indians came then,  fifty-odd of them, riding northward in single file. The clatter of their ponies’ bare hoofs on the rocks came clear as a bell on the sharp morning air. Exultant yelps ripped from red throats like the cries of demons in a child’s nightmare. Behind them the red men led a dozen riderless  horses, not wild mustang Indian ponies, but  well- bred mounts of the U.S. cavalry.

Overstreet’s leathery skin stretched even tighter over his jutting cheekbones. Despite the  knife-sharp chill left from the night air, a trickle of sweat worked its way down through the streaked dust and the rough stubble of whiskers. He lowered the glass and looked at the remnant of his command. Fifteen men, flat on their bellies in skirmish line.

“Load up,” he said. “We’re next.”

For this was New Mexico Territory in April of 1862, torn by civil war, with white man against white man, and red men against them all. Less than a year ago, fiery Col. John R. Baylor had led his 2nd Texas Mounted Rifles up from captured Fort Bliss to take New Mexico for the newly formed Confederacy. Then had come Gen. Henry Hopkins Sibley and his huge brigade. These men were ill- clothed,  ill- fed, poorly armed, but through eight months of struggle and privation they had ridden to one victory after  another—Fort Fillmore, San Augustine Springs, Valverde, Albuquerque. At last, they had raised the Confederate flag over Santa Fé itself and envisioned a daring sweep across to California, to the gold fields, to the open sea.

Then came disaster in one flaming day at Glorieta Pass. Grim men in tattered gray turned their faces southward toward Texas, the sweet taste of victory now bitter ashes in their mouths. Men like Miles Overstreet, who had known the dream and now stood awaiting the futile end of it, had been wasted under a savage onslaught that no one had even considered.

He listened to the click of captured Yankee single-shot carbines as his men prepared for a battle that could end but one way. He saw one soldier flattened out in fear, without a weapon.

“Vasquez,” Overstreet called to a  dark-skinned trooper from the brushy cow country below San Antonio, “give Hatchet back his gun. His little mutiny is over.”

His men! The thought brought an ironic twist to his cracked lips. The sorriest soldiers in Sibley’s Brigade, and Major Scanling had saddled him with them. A thousand times he had cursed the day he stole a victory right under the pointed nose of the  glory-hunting major. Scanling’s lips had smiled as he read the communication. But his eyes never masked the anger that simmered in him. Scanling transferred Overstreet then. Gave him these men, prisoners all, to relieve their guards for action.

“We need a good officer like you to handle them,” he had said, his yellow eyes gleaming. “Take them. Delay the federals long enough for the main body of troops to get away. Hold every pass as long as you can, then drop back and hold another. We’re buying time with you . . . with you and these miserable scum who call themselves soldiers. Go on, Overstreet. Go on and be a hero.”

He had hated the major then, and his hatred swelled a little more every time he’d been forced to use his own gun to keep half the men from running away. Now, this looked like the end of it.

Beside Overstreet, young Sammy McGuffin  rose on his knees and lowered his head in prayer.

“Better flatten out there and spend your time getting ready for those Indians, son,” the lieutenant said curtly.

The boy looked up in surprise. “You don’t believe in prayer, sir?”

“I believe in a man taking care of himself.”

The Indians stopped three hundred yards short of the Confederates’ position. They shouted defiance and waved muskets and Yankee guns and showed the fresh scalps that dangled beneath the firearms. Then they wheeled their ponies and galloped away into the morning sun, shouting their victory to the mountains.

Overstreet stood watching  open-mouthed, hardly believing, hardly daring to believe.

Sammy McGuffin’s  high-pitched voice spoke out, almost breaking. “They’re leaving. They’re letting us live. But why?”

The answer came in a gravel-voiced drawl from a  thick-shouldered,  middle-aged Texan with a stubble of black beard coarse as porcupine quills. Big Tobe Wheeler said: “That’s the way with Indians, boy. To them killing is a sport, kind of. Without they really got their blood hot, they’ll generally kill just enough to satisfy their appetite. They’ll count a few coups and have them a victory to brag about in camp. They’ll pull out before they start to taking a licking themselves. Maybe tomorrow they’ll get the itch again and come looking for us. But not today.”

The trooper named Hatchet was already on his feet and making for the  horses. “Well, they ain’t going to be finding me here.”

Overstreet yelled at him, an edge of anger in his voice. “You hold up there, Hatchet. You’ll  ride out when the rest of us do.”

Hatchet turned and glowered at him with eyes the light blue of a shallow stream, disturbing eyes that never stopped moving. As was his habit when he was angry, he gripped his right arm with his speckled left hand. The faded gray sleeve showed where a sergeant’s chevrons had been torn away. Hatchet was a thief. He had lost his rank after he had left a battle to hunt for loot in a bullet-scarred town.

“Look  here, Lieutenant, you know we’re whipped. Between them damn Yankees and the redskins, we ain’t got a chance. Now let’s hightail it like the rest of the brigade and get back to Texas with our hair.”

Overstreet’s long back was rigid, and his lips  were tightly drawn. “We’re heading for Texas like the rest, Hatchet. But we’re going like men, not like whipped dogs. Any time we get a chance to take a lick at the federals, we’ll do it. Try to run away again and I’ll gun you down.”

Deliberately he turned away from Hatchet’s silent fury, half expecting a bullet in his back. One day the bullet might come. And if it did, he knew that probably every man in the outfit would swear he had died by enemy fire.

“Mount up,” he ordered his scalawag band. “We’re moving south.”

He rode out in the lead, tall and straight in the saddle, just as he had once ridden with the Texas Rangers, before secession. He held his shoulders squared. But within him was a certainty that Hatchet was right. Wasted, gone for nothing,  were all those hard miles they’d fought. All those days they’d ridden until their tailbones  were numb and their dry tongues stuck to the roofs of their mouths. All those men they’d lost. Good men, fighters. They’d died bravely, most of them. But they’d died for nothing.

A dull ache worked through his shoulder, and for the hundredth time his mind dwelt on the angry words of that girl in the makeshift hospital in Albuquerque. Shafter, her name had been, and she was a  Union supporter all the way. A refugee from farther south, someone had said. Her name was American, and so was her speech. But proud Spanish flowed in her raven hair, her piercing brown eyes almost black, her oval face in which even her hatred pointed up her  strong- willed beauty. She was helping in the hospital only because wounded Yankee prisoners  were being treated there along with the Texas soldiers.

Always he remembered the sharp odor of the nitric acid before it was swabbed onto his wound to cauterize it, and he remembered the caustic words she had spoken after he had half fainted from the searing agony.

“Remember this well,” she had said. “It  wouldn’t have happened if you tejanos had stayed home. This is Union land. Maybe you’ve taken it, but you’ll never hold it. You  were beaten before you started.”

She was right. They were beaten. It was a painful thing to run away, leaving so much unfinished, so much hope unfulfilled. Yet it might not be so bad, he thought, if they could win just one more victory, one more triumph as a final gesture. With all his soul he longed for that one last chance.

Out of his fifteen men there  were two whom he trusted more than the rest. Before riding into the pass, he sent Vasquez and big Tobe Wheeler up on either side to scout for ambush. When they hipped around in their saddles and waved their hats, he moved on in.

They found the  Union soldiers heaped like rag dolls, scalped and mutilated. At a glance Overstreet knew the Indians had stripped them of guns and ammunition. A few months ago the sight would have made him turn away, sick to his stomach. Now he only grimaced and rode on in.

His gray eyes sought out the body of the commanding officer. Spotting captain’s bars on the shoulder of a  bullet-torn uniform, he swung down and knelt beside the dead man. There might be papers.

Inside the coat pocket he found an envelope, the corner stained a sticky red. Opening it, he became aware of the onetime sergeant methodically searching the pockets of the  Union soldiers. “Hatchet,” he thundered, “do you even have to rob the dead?”

The trooper’s pale eyes flitted over him, then away. “They must’ve been  trading-post Indians, Lieutenant. Leastways they knew what money’s for. They ain’t left a  two-bit piece in the  whole bunch.”

“Get back on your  horse, Hatchet,” Overstreet ordered.

He took the letter out of the envelope. Reading it, he felt his heartbeat quicken. There was a sudden eager tingling in his fingertips.

He had hoped for another chance, all but begged the devil for it. Now here it was, delivered by a bloody band of  paint-smeared savages. He read the letter again, half afraid his imagination had run away. But it hadn’t. This was an order for the Union captain to take a detail of cavalry and proceed to the Walton Shafter ranch west of the Río Pecos. There he was to prepare for shipment a store of rifles and ammunition that had been hidden by Union forces fleeing northward from Fort Stanton the year before.

A train of ten wagons will be dispatched on the 10th instant, and should reach the ranch within two days after your arrival. Shafter, his daughter, and house hold should also have returned by this time. The family abandoned the ranch and took away the cattle upon the approach of the secessionists. You will render all possible service and show utmost courtesy to them. Shafter was a loyal scout for the forces of General Kearny fifteen years ago. The family has been of much aid in this campaign. I do not have to tell you how badly any and all munitions are needed if we are successfully to push the rebellious Texans from our borders.

Martin Nash
Colonel, Commanding

Overstreet clenched his fists, crushing the order. Ten wagons of munitions. Not enough to wage much of a war, but enough for one good battle, if judiciously used. And who could say? It had taken just one battle, that awful fumble at Glorieta Pass, to turn back the gray tide that had all but engulfed New Mexico. Ten wagons of munitions. Pitifully little, but who could say they might not halt the retreat, and launch the gray legions on a new drive that could carry all the way to California?

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5 Responses to Western Wednesdays—THE WAY OF THE WEST + Giveaway

  1. Craig Clarke says:

    Kelton and Brand are legends. I’ve not read Cotton Smith yet.

    Previously, I didn’t read many anthologies since I prefer novels. But having a Kindle is broadening my appreciation of stories of different lengths, and I’m coming to actually prefer novella-length works.

    One anthology I do remember is an audiobook called Tales from the Old West, Volume II, which I got for the Max Brand story “Black Jack,” but which also introduced me to what has since become my favorite Zane Grey story, “Tappan’s Burro.”

  2. cwreenactor says:

    I have been familiar with Max Brand for a while now. He was a good writer, even though many of his westerns are retellings of mythological tales set in the west. As a Civil War reenactor, I am intrigued by Kelton’s Civil War tale, “Long Ride, Hard Ride.” This looks like a good anthology.

  3. Allison Carroll, Editorial and Web Coordinator says:

    Congrats cwreenactor! You’ve won a copy of the anthology The Way of the West. Email contests@dorchesterpub.com with your mailing address and I’ll get your prize in the mail. Happy reading in 2012!
    Allison Carroll
    Dorchester Publishing

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