Copyright Â© 2013 Anthony Whitt
All rights reserved
No part of this book may be copied or reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
Published by Anthony Whitt
ISBN-13: 978-0-9898868-0-2 (softcover)
ISBN-13: 978-0-9898868-1-9 (ebook)
Hard Land to Rule is a work of fiction. Although actual locations are mentioned, they are used in a fictitious manner, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or to places, events, or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author's imagination.
Cover design by Philip Whitt, www.philipwhitt.com
Cover image copyright @ Shutterstock/27454459
Editing, interior design and layout by Lana Castle, Castle Communications, www.castlecommunications.com
This book is dedicated to my wife, Cathy. She knows the true value of
family. Without her support, this story would not have been possible.
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A feral danger brimming with intelligence inhabits the Texas hill country. This native menace awakens the deepest primordial fears of all the frontier settlers he encounters. He, like the land, knows no kindness. He gives no mercy. His cunning and ruthlessness are legendary. Moving with incredible stealth, he stalks his quarry, often catching it totally unaware. The blood he spills flows freely over the white limestone rocks, staining them umber in the drying sun. Watching the pall of death cast its shadow over his victim satisfies his savage instinct. A lustful trance of ecstasy intoxicates him after his conquest. Retribution is his. He does not kill to satisfy a hunger in his belly. He kills for vengeance.
These were his hills, his hunting lands. This is where he formerly made his life. This was where he raised his family. He mourns the theft of the cut-up canyons and rugged hills where he used to roam in freedom. Resentment and anger fill his soul with the need to quell the bitterness at any occasion that presents the chance.
Opportunity knocked on this damp night, faintly lit by a moon sliding behind a solid layer of cloud cover. A wet blanket of fog smothered the woods and obscured his furtive movements. His supple body crept forward, long and lean as a mountain lion, an undefined apparition gliding from one cluster of brush to the next. The rocky terrain was slippery from the moisture but offered little challenge to his catlike movements. He was adept at traversing unfamiliar territory. His eyes were accustomed to travel at night and provided him an advantage in the somber conditions. At home in this element, he knew no fear. He was confident in his ultimate conquest.
His other companions, secluded at the end of a ridge overlooking this small group of cabins, depended on him. They would hold the horses secure until his return. Then, they would make their getaway and bask in the glory of their raid. Their desires for continued raiding against these white intruders depended upon his success during this predawn raid.
Closing in on his target, he paused to take in details of the unfamiliar terrain. The line of dense cedar currently providing concealment would get him to within fifty feet of his intended target - a detached shack of weathered cedar logs. Inside the crude enclosure was the food his party would need to continue their incursion amongst these despised trespassers. Since leaving the village on the high plains a month ago, their provisions had dwindled to nothing. The smoked meat and corn stored in the log building was a temptation he could not pass. This should be an easy theft with the white men safely secured in the main cabin, deep into their dreams. He did not respect the poor fighting skills of the loosely organized bands of pale intruders.
A short lapse of time passed as he finished acquiring the final details of the surroundings. All that remained was a quick dash to the closed door of the shack. Crouching behind the fog-shrouded brush, he gathered his courage and offered a prayer to his guiding spirit. He prayed for clear thinking and protection during his coming actions. He would begin with a stealthy exit from the brush when the fog gathered its thickest. Concealment of his movements from the main cabin was a necessary precaution, but he felt there was little to fear if discovered. White men seemed hesitant to respond to unexpected events they did not understand. He had learned this during past raids that had left the men with hair on their face bewildered.
After completing this theft, he would rejoin his brothers on the ridgetop. Together, they planned to ride to the adjoining valley to raid another cabin at a previously scouted location. This cabin, apparently inhabited only by women, would be their destination just after sunrise. Once there, it would be a simple matter to overpower the undefended occupants. Then the soft bodies of the white women would satisfy his powerful animalistic needs. His loins began to stir while considering the prospect of several helpless females at his lustful disposal. After they served their purpose for pleasure and degradation, the blood spilled from the bellies of these unworthy squaws would briefly appease his long-standing resentment. He missed his former home. He missed his old hunting grounds in the violet-crowned hills outside of the town the white men called Austin.
Finally, the fog rewarded his patience with a floating haze that provided maximum concealment. War club at the ready, he uttered a final plea to his spirits for their protection, now and later. He cautiously rose from his crouch and darted towards the shack in a stooped trot. His soft buffalo moccasins made contact with the ground in well-placed steps that mimicked a deer's ability to travel with no disturbance, no sound. The distance to the door closed rapidly until he stood motionless at the entryway.
Taking a moment for observation at this close proximity uncovered nothing disturbing. He could detect no movement or white man smell. The only odor was from the mesquite-smoked meat hanging tantalizingly close, just inside the door. He salivated at the thought of tasting the richly flavored meat. No alarm from within the shed or the nearby cabin indicated any detection of his movements. All that remained was to push the door open. The time had arrived to enter and take the hard-earned reward of plunder. Pride in his quest swelled in his heart and filled his head with confidence. He would be triumphant here, and in the upcoming raid at dawn. Success was ordained by the spirits and meant to be. He was a warrior. He was a Comanche!
Hiding to the side of the door, he cautiously pushed it inward. A drawn-out creak broke the silence as the door slowly swung open. The enticing aroma of smoked meat spilled out the gap, filling his senses. His mouth watered; he had to have the meat. He stepped into the open doorway, pausing to acquire details of the darkened interior.
The blinding blast met him with the heat of searing fire and the roar of a dozen enraged bears. His body rippled with shock waves tearing through his left breast. The intense concussion of hot lead ripping through flesh spun him from front to back and threw him to the ground with the force of a charging buffalo. His eyes burned with the bright orange flash of the gun's violent explosion. An undeniable power had shattered his success at pointblank range. Pain was immediate, and deeper than any he had ever known.
The jarring impact on the damp soil awoke every survival instinct instilled since his youth. To remain on the ground meant surrender, and acceptance of the death that would surely follow. Summoning his catlike reflexes for evasion, he used the ground contact to ricochet back to his feet in a stumbling escape to the nearby treeline. Running with his vision blurred in agonizing pain, his left arm dangling useless, he bolted into the woods in an adrenaline-induced panic. With tree limbs and underbrush tearing at him, the foliage and fog wrapped a cloak of concealment around his retreat within moments of the dreadful blast. Dazed and confused, he disappeared quickly with but one thought on his mind: to make it to the hilltop where his brothers waited. Survival depended on his companions and the horses they held for a hasty escape. They had to ride like the wind to reach a safe distance from the tricky white men. His spiritual medicine was weak compared to the unexpected strength of the weapon that roared like a bear.
Matt eased out of the confines of the smokehouse a little stunned from the thunder of his Colt in such a small enclosure. His head throbbed with the booming resonance of the pistol. Peering around the doorway, he caught a fleeting glimpse of the prowler making a remarkable exit into the pool of blackness, albeit with a definite droop to his left side. Matt was amazed at the swift response he had just witnessed. This nighttime intruder had tumbled to the ground from the impact of the bullet, but he wasn't fast enough to get a follow-up shot. All he saw was the back of an Indian vanishing into the fog-shrouded murkiness of thick woods. Damn all the luck! He wanted results. He wanted a dead Indian on the ground. Now, the uncertainty of tracking a wounded and dangerous foe faced him. Failure mocked his efforts.
Hesitating outside the door, Matt ran his fingers through his rumpled hair, contemplating the new problem. His mind worked on the numerous angles when he realized the risk he was taking. His low voice seemed loud in the silent darkness, "I could end up shot out here in the open. Be a helluva way to take one."
Instinctively, he ducked back inside the shed.
He felt disgusted by the circumstance brought on by his poor aim. It had been startling to wake to the sight of an Indian buck silhouetted in the door less than ten feet away. But that was no excuse. He would not forget the mistake that was his alone. His lips curled up in contempt as he muttered, "It's what I git for snoozing."
He could not detect any movement outside as he peered through the doorway, but he knew Indians could be sneaky. He continued to grumble under his breath, "Best git back to the cabin. They'll be jumpy."
His thoughts were racing with all the possibilities as he stepped out into the damp night. Near the door, he found the war club that had flown from the intruder's hand after he took the hastily aimed bullet. This definitely identified the prowler as a marauding Indian. Apache or Comanche was hard to tell, but it didn't matter much to him. All Indians were the same, a nuisance, and a hindrance to his efforts to make the land productive. All of the tribes were better off far removed from the settlers, or just plain wiped out. Just get the hell out of the way.
He felt the same way about carpetbagging Yankees as he did about Indians. He spent four years fighting the blue-bellies in that cursed land to the east. Now, he had heard of a few of them showing up in Austin. Those scoundrels were down here to suck the life out of honest Southerners. Yankees and Indians! To hell with any of them that stood in his way. He had a life to maintain in these hills and failure was not an option his family would understand. The complexities of the current situation were enormous without a body on the ground.
Cautiously, he backed his way up to the steps of the main cabin. The woodline faded into the dreary shadows without any sign of danger emerging. Matt mounted the steps of the porch and cracked open the door. He sensed movement inside the darkened room. From the depths of the cabin came the murmurs of the women worked up in nervous chatter. Matt could hear his younger brother Lee, and his nephew Travis shuffling around the darkened interior groping for their clothes. More importantly, he hoped they had their guns.
Through the cracked door Matt hissed, "Lee! Git your ass out here."
Lee quickly appeared at the door. He was half dressed, with his long hair badly tangled, but armed and wide-awake. He stepped outside to face the criticism Matt's voice conveyed.
"Hell, Matt, I was comin' fast as I could."
"I might've been dead by the time you got your slow-movin' ass out here. I told you to expect something tonight!"
Lee hung his head and kept quiet at the truth of Matt's words. Death in these hills came suddenly, and the reports of Indians thieving food from the neighbors had just hit home.
Matt spoke with agitation, "We got ourselves a situation here that's gonna take some attention. Got a wounded Indian trailed off in the direction towards Tucker's Ridge. I reckon he'll leave some sort of sign. Be light enough in about thirty minutes to follow him."
Lee absorbed the context of Matt's comment and wasn't at all pleased with the implications it carried. What could be gained from following a wounded Indian? Not much, but a lot could be lost.
Lee knew it would do no good, but he said it anyway. "Uh, Matt, who all is goin'?"
"Just you and me, brother. Travis can stay with the women and kids in case more trouble comes around."
"What are we gonna accomplish? Did he git anything?"
"No, he didn't. But I'll not be havin' attempts on my land."
"How bad was he hurt?"
"Left arm drooped a little, was all."
"Could be more of 'em?"
"Yeah, there could be. But I aim to finish business. Git your carbine and rustle up some food. I'll git some water and saddle up the horses. Make sure Travis is squared away with the scattergun. Women and kids stay inside until we git back."
"When will that be?"
"After our business is finished. However long it takes. Best git a move on."
Lee slouched back inside the cabin to do as directed. The women moved aside to let him enter when he reached the door. Their worried glances surveyed the gloom outside the cabin before they ducked back in to assist Lee in his efforts to get ready.
Matt moved cautiously to the side of the cabin where the sturdy corral fence secured the stock. He felt a little uneasy moving about in the open with such low visibility, but the woodline was set back a ways on this side of the cabin. Most likely, no sneaking Indian would cross the open area around the corral. Besides, after suffering one of theirs wounded, most Indians would make for the hills. Too damn cowardly to take any loss.
Not at all like his boys with the Rebel cavalry. He'd left behind a lot of brave men on those forlorn fields of battle. They'd followed him wherever he asked them to go. Through dense thickets, or across open meadows. They
had followed him suffering, bleeding, and far too many, dying. In the end it was all for naught. Their sacrifice had accomplished nothing. Just a lot of long, hard miseries, day after day. And now, back home, the tough fight to survive continued relentlessly.
He mumbled in the damp air, "Don't need no damn Indians prowlin' 'round."
Matt knew Lee didn't want to come along, but that was just too bad. He needed somebody for his backside and another gun if more Indians were about. Lee was not an aggressive sort, but he could handle a carbine well and generally remained cool in hot situations. Lee would do. He was all Matt had at the moment. Travis was a little too young at seventeen, and somebody needed to stay with the women.
The women. What a subject! Cora had been with him quite a while. She knew what was up. She'd come with him to these hills when they both were a lot younger. Together, they'd built up their spread until it could produce a suitable living for a family. A good woman to have. Good for the kids. Kept the cabin running smooth. She worked hard. Here lately, that was where it ended between them.
Disgruntled with the situation, Matt quickly filled the canteens with water and had the horses saddled. He checked the action on his Henry repeating rifle. The smooth-loading lever action he took off a dead Union soldier would serve well against mobile Indians. Satisfied with the rifle, he confirmed that the trailworn saddlebags contained extra boxes of .44 caliber ammo. By the time Lee got the grub and gear organized, Matt had the horses in hand and was anxious for a start. The first signs of dawn were glowing orange through the mist that hung stubbornly in the air.
Lee rushed out to his mare, Midnight, slid his Spencer carbine into the scabbard, and then secured the rations of beef jerky, pemmican, and hardtack in the bags. Always wanting sweets, he also included some hard cinnamon candy that he kept easily accessible.
With his final preparations completed, Lee finally looked at Matt and asked, "What's your plan?"
"We'll lead the horses to start with. You follow a little distance behind me. Go ahead and git your carbine out right now. You be ready to cover me while I look for sign. I'm sure we can pick up some sort of trail over by the shed door. Just about enough light to follow if the trail ain't too puny."
"You gonna say goodbye to Cora before we go?"
"We got to git goin' and take advantage of daybreak. Not much time for long goodbyes. She knows what's expected."
A sad family watched from the cabin porch as their men left for an undertaking that could be their last. Worried expressions laced with frowns spoke of their uneasiness at this departure. They called out words of concern to be careful, mixed with pleas to return home soon. Cora, in particular, knew what Matt was capable of. She did her best not to show any outward signs of the fear she felt swelling up in her chest. This scene had become all too frequent in her life.
Matt looked her way until their eyes met. His cold gaze did nothing to bridge the emotional chasm growing wider between them with each passing day. He nodded slightly at her before shielding his eyes with the brim of his hat.
The dirt around the smokehouse showed clear signs of the encounter. A fresh pockmark in the damp soil gave evidence of a body tumbling to the ground. The shallow indentations in the dirt held faint bloodstains, providing proof of the damage done to the Indian. The moccasin footprints led into the thick underbrush that flourished beyond the smokehouse. Fog continued to hang heavy in the air, obscuring the canopy of oak trees and the knot of brush below their arching limbs. Matt grimaced at the thought of following a trail in these conditions. Despite their propensity to flee, they were still Indians, and an ambush was one of their favorite methods of attack. The buck could be slightly wounded, and as ready to pounce as a cornered mountain lion.
Matt mulled over these thoughts while gazing at the trees standing somber in the pale gray mist. The bloodstain was evidence of a wound, but that didn't count for much. The injury could be fatal, or simply a nick that quickly dried up. Damn his poor shooting! The buck should be dead on the ground instead of running off. No sense in delaying any longer; it was time to move out.
"Lee, take the horses and work your way around the treeline to meet me on the other side. I'm going straight in, but it will be slow trailin' until I git a feel for what's going on. Give me a little lead-time. I suspect the bastard cleared out, but he might be laid up in there. Keep your eyes peeled. I want to be first out of the trees on the other side. Hang back some. I'll whistle when it's time for you to come around."
Lee held the reins in his left hand, while cradling the Spencer in his right, ready for action. He watched as Matt trailed off with his Henry, disappearing as silently as a hawk gliding overhead.
Matt kept his eyes roving from ground to treetop, moving cautiously into the brambles the Indian had crashed through earlier. It was difficult to see far into the mess. The brush seemed undisturbed, with no broken limbs, and the soil was too rocky in this area to show much sign of anything. Working along, no blood trail showed up. Matt realized that catching the Indian might not come easy. He fought to control the anxiety building with the prospect of tedious trailing.
Easing forward, he thought like the fugitive he was pursuing. I would go this way. It is easier that way. Help is just a short distance away. They might be following.
Knowing what lay on the other side of this grove of trees, it was no problem for Matt to contemplate a band of warriors waiting for him or Lee to make an easy target. Searching thoroughly, he finally reached the edge of the woods. He paused to survey the exposed hill rising before him while he hid under the cover of limbs sagging with the weight of moisture. Water dripped from the overhanging oak and rolled off the brim of his hat onto his back. The cool water chilled his skin and sent shivers to his stomach, knotted up with tension. Violence could erupt at any time.
The gray murkiness of the hill loomed before him, strewn with blackened stumps and littered with fallen limbs. Charred remnants of burned-out cedar trunks resembled beasts sulking behind the suspended wisps of fog. The atmosphere seemed permeated with an evil premonition. Matt had to shake his head clear of the menacing images that burrowed into his mind. It was becoming hard to distinguish real danger from imagined.
Collecting his thoughts, he calmed his overactive imagination to realize nothing of danger stirred among the limestone ledges. Easing up to the outside border of the trees that concealed him, Matt paused a moment before he let out a soft whistle.
Lee materialized as a ghostly image at the far end of the obscured treeline, trailing the horses behind him with a racket of shoe scraping against stone.
When Lee came up shoulder-to-shoulder, Matt confessed in a whisper, "Didn't find any sign in there. Didn't really think I would."
Lee was jumpy. He searched for directions in Matt's eyes and asked in a hushed voice, "Where to now?"
He knew the answer would spell out difficulties not pleasant to consider.
"That's a good question," Matt replied vaguely as he continued to analyze the lay of the hill, working out his plans.
Lee's eyes darted around the hillside, imagining Indians lurking behind every stump and tree.
Matt calmly continued with his answer, "If I was makin' a raid, I would want a fast getaway. The best spot to rendezvous around here would be on top of the hill. Then they could take Tucker's Ridge. Connect up with any number of trails to head off anywheres they wanted to. It all seems clear from down here, but you never know. There's some cover up there on top."
Lee gazed up the hill with apprehension.
Matt nodded his head toward the open hillside ledges as he said, "Tell you what. Tie off the horses and let's separate a little. We'll ease on up to the top and have a look."
Lee tied the horses off and they both crammed extra ammo in their vest pockets before heading up. The slope was rock strewn and a little steep, but they carefully picked their way through the weeds hiding rocks slick with moisture. Maintaining thirty feet of separation from each other, they reached the top within minutes to find all the evidence they needed. The water puddles on top of the limestone slabs still had mud in them. Hoofprints mixed together in a jumble of confusion on the damp soil. Bent and tromped down grass was everywhere. It was plain to see where moccasin prints pressed into the soft mud when the Indians mounted up. Matt took in the details of the site. The implications of the evidence sent the hair on his neck erect.
"Three or four of them red devils is what I'd say. They held the horses and waited for the thief to meet 'em back up here. Just as I expected. He took a bullet, and they didn't like that one bit. No siree. Didn't like it at all. Bunch of no good bastards. Boy, do I want 'em."
Matt stomped around, soaking in all the sign. He was hardly able to contain his excitement. He rushed over to a point of evidence that interested him.
"Look over here. You can see where they trailed out. Tracks narrow a little as they git into a line. Probably just three from the looks of it. Got a pretty good head start though."
Lee followed the prints of the hasty exit the Indians had made. He realized the trail receding into the distance would transform Matt into a bloodhound on the scent of a coon. Matt would not stop until the masked bandit was treed.
Behind Lee's back, Matt had already spun on his heels and headed out in a straight line down the hill to retrieve the horses at the bottom. Lee had to put it into a run or face being exposed and alone on the ridgetop. Matt led the way in a rush and rapidly descended to the base of the slope. He loosened the reins on Midnight and flipped them to Lee just as he awkwardly slid to a stop.
Mounting up, Matt was a blur of motion calling out to Lee, "Git yourself saddled up! They got nearly an hour on us, but by God, we will close that down on 'em. They'll soon regret their mistake."
Lee mounted without hesitation. He raked his mare to stay in sight of Matt's swift ascent up and over ledges, around cedars, and under low-hanging limbs in a superb display of riding. Matt created a memorable sight for Lee, riding low, just off the saddle, absorbing the impacts, leaning forward, shirtsleeves flapping in the breeze. Matt was intent as an eagle diving from the heavens, tucked in and ready to release his latent power upon contact with the target.
Reaching the crest, Matt pulled to his right and made his way to the beginning of the pony tracks, with little slacking in pace. Lee fell in behind Matt a short gap to the rear, taking up his unspoken duty to scan for signs of danger while Matt concentrated on following the path of the Indian ponies. The land flattened out on the hilltop and the vegetation opened up, but vigilance was still called for to avoid the frequent areas from which an ambush was possible.
Matt set a blistering pace with an easy trail to follow. The low-hanging vapor in the upper meadows started to dissipate with the piercing beams of early morning warmth. Dense patches of haze occasionally rolled over them, but their pace never slackened. Lee contemplated the recklessness of such speed. They could stumble into the fleeing warriors in an instant and uncover more fight than they could handle. It didn't matter; he knew it would do no good to speak up when Matt was on a fresh scent.
For half an hour, they pressed on with a pause now and then to relocate the tracks when they crossed solid rock. Matt was determined to make contact with the raiders as soon as possible, for he knew time was on the side of the Indians. He knew the Indians were as good as lost if dusk overtook their pursuit before they brought them to engagement.
His desire burned deep to punish those that intended harm to his family or to his place on the Colorado River. Trespassing Indians were at the top of his list. Too many times, he had witnessed the aftermath of their handywork. Homes burned to the ground. Cattle scattered about, riddled with arrows. Women lanced to the ground and left for dead. Men sliced up and tortured until death finally lifted them away from their torment.
Worse yet, the images of brutality inflicted on children and babies stoked the fire that raged in his heart. Innocence ravaged. There was no need for the wanton destruction of young life. The despicable acts of the red man made no sense to him.
And he required justice. If the scales were out of balance, it was his duty to right them. He would pursue the Indians to hell and back to deliver his preferred method of reparation.
The trail unfolded beneath his mount, veering to the north. The change in direction began to strengthen his suspicions of its ultimate destination. It could all come together if they pushed hard enough. Retribution would be at hand, and the expectation of its deliverance radiated from his steel-gray eyes.
Thoughts of a different nature consumed Lee. The winding tracks of the Indian ponies were leading them to the proximity of the Ellis homestead. This fact seriously concerned Lee for the safety and well-being of the Ellis women. Frank Ellis had recently taken a nasty fall from a horse that had temporarily left him an invalid. The fall came near to killing him. He suffered severe head injuries that required confinement to a bed for recuperation. This situation left his wife and daughters alone to run his spread. The family had adapted and done well enough to keep their place running while he recovered. But the thought of Indians about with no men to protect the women produced disturbing images in Lee's conscience, impossible for him to ignore.
They were now riding on a ridge directly above the Ellis place and Lee knew it would be very disruptive, but he wanted to get this thorn out from under his saddle.
"Hey, Matt," Lee hollered into the wind.
Matt showed no signs of hearing, his focus on the Indian trail and the drumming of horseshoes drowning Lee"s voice. Lee spurred his mount to close the distance to Matt and repeated his hailing in a shrill voice. Shocked, Matt pivoted to glare back at Lee. He pulled up on the reins and slowed his buckskin until Lee rode up beside him.
"Matt, I been thinkin' about the Ellis place. They might need to be looked in on."
Matt gave Lee a hard once-over that had weakened many a Confederate soldier who'd served under his rank of sergeant during the recent war.
"Ain't got time."
"We have to make time. Could be those bucks paid them a visit too last night."
"Slow us down too much."
Matt continued to stare at Lee with an expression of annoyance. The slackening of their pace didn't rest well with him. Lee could see color beginning to flush Matt's face. Matt could be single-minded to a fault, but Lee decided to press on.
"Not much, Matt. We can swing by their place and won't even lose sight of the trail."
"Damn, Lee. I hate to lose any ground we might've gained. This here trail is awful fresh. And I want them Indians dead."
"We'll make it up. Won't take long, and them bucks can't travel too fast with one bein' hurt. I can cut down to their cabin while you keep an eye out up here on the ridge. If everything's fine, great! If it's not, how would you feel about it if we kept on ridin' by and not stop? You'd have hell livin' with that. Won't take long, and besides they need to know there's Indians about."
A flush of realization came over Matt's face. He should have thought of it and probably would have if Frank had been an able body. It would have been worth picking Frank up just to have another gun. Matt mulled it over, chastising himself for not considering the women down on the Ellis place. Lee was right. They needed to check in on them. He nodded to Lee to acknowledge his younger brother was correct. At the same time, he reined Whiskey to the left, heading towards the rocky overlook above the Ellis ranch.
Arriving in short time, Matt halted his buckskin at the scenic outcrop above the well-kept cabin and corrals that made up the homestead built by Frank and Mary Ellis.
"I'll watch from here. It'll give Whiskey a breather. Things appear fine, but go on down. Be quick about it and find out if Frank is any better."
Matt watched Lee work his horse down the cactus-strewn hillside before he dismounted to stretch out his legs. Whiskey put his head down and began to work on the sparse bluestem growing amongst the honeycomb rocks scattered along the ridgeline. Matt felt his back muscles tightening from the pounding of the early morning ride and the all-night vigil in the smokehouse. He bent at the waist to grab his ankles and stretch the taut muscles. Holding his ankles brought some relief to his aching back but allowed the other pains of his abused body to be recognized. Knees that cracked and chafed as if packed with sand reminded him of the many twists and turns of negotiating the rough terrain of the hill country. He also remembered the Yankee who'd delivered a hot round to his leg in the backwoods of Virginia. The muscle around the bullet wound never healed properly and served as a painful memory of his service in the war of independence from the Northern states.
Ignoring these ailments was a necessity he had learned and accepted as a man's role in dealing with the struggles of life on the frontier. The gnawing hunger in his stomach was another matter. He rose from the bending position and pulled some venison jerky from his beat-up saddlebag. The meat, seasoned with pepper and spices in the proper mix, made a satisfying breakfast out here on the trail. Cora was responsible for the satisfaction he received from his meals while in the woods. She had the right skills to bring an acceptable level of comfort to this unforgiving land.
Matt's mind started to wander at the thought of female companionship, and in particular, the woman directly below him in the little cabin. He could not help but reflect on the ability of Frank's wife to soften the harshness surrounding this remote location subject to such intolerable extremes. Mary was a pleasure to think of, in contrast to the woes that normally bedeviled Matt. She had a pleasing influence on him with her long blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. Her eyes, clear blue as a pool of cold spring water, always invited him to peer into their mysterious depths. Like any man, Matt was susceptible to seduction in their promise of sensual charms. Mary's stylish manner of dress accented her voluptuous feminine curves. Unforgettable memories of her beauty danced across his mind, dimming the urgency of the current task at hand.
For years, he had watched her at the frequent social gatherings that brought neighbors together for special occasions. She always outshone the other women with her attractiveness. All of the frontier men held Mary up on a pedestal, but she remained unaware of their idolatry. This was part of her charm. Despite her fine appearance, she remained modest at heart, except for one occasion that Matt remembered well.
Mary had accidently brushed against him rounding a blind corner at a community celebration. Facing each other, isolated and alone, his hand had slipped around her waist to help catch her balance. He was surprised as she willingly fell into his embrace and leaned immobile in his firm grasp.
Now, he vividly remembered her warm softness under the thin material of her dress. Purposely, he had let his hand linger in the pleasure of touching her far longer than fitting. She didn't try to break free of his caress, but gave him a yearning look that flushed her face with impassioned desire. As if it were yesterday, he recalled how his pulse quickened at the realization she could be his for the taking. The mesmeric attraction sizzled between them. In that short moment, imaginary thoughts of lovemaking bound them together as one. Time had slowed as his focus narrowed on the tantalizing possibilities tempting him.
Eventually he had mumbled an apology as the fascination of her feel lengthened to the point that he feared they would be stumbled upon. But she insisted there was no need to make an apology. She seemed willing to accept the consequences if they were discovered.
The want in her eyes from that day haunted him still. Matt dwelt on the spark that moment had produced many times, but this was an indulgence the current dilemma spoiled. He peered down the hill and saw Lee stepping briskly up to the cabin door.
Before Lee could make it to the door, it swung open, and out stepped Mary. She was a vision of loveliness powerful enough to capture Matt's appreciation, even at a distance. Lee had his hat in his hand and stood before her explaining the morning's events with hand gestures that Matt could easily follow. When he pointed up at Matt, her attention turned to him with a gaze lasting longer than necessary. Matt met her distant stare and held it in his grasp until her focus returned to Lee standing by reverently. She finished her explanations to Lee and he backed up from her, placing his hat on his head before turning to remount.
Mary took the opportunity to glance up at Matt, shaking her head in answer to her private thoughts before she melted back into the shadows inside the door. The scene on the porch was suddenly much less interesting
Matt remained standing, chewing on a last bit of jerky as Lee rode up beside him. Raising his canteen, Matt washed down his thirst and said, "Go ahead and step on down, little brother. A few more minutes is all we got. Give your horse a rest while you give me the news. All seems to be fine from here."
Lee grunted as he lifted his leg and slid off the saddle. He plopped to the ground and said, "She says all's well. They didn't hear a thing last night, except the coyotes howlin' it up. Haven't seen or heard anything to be alarmed about. Mary is keepin' the guns on hand, just in case. Says the stock is secure as can be. Frank is showin' some improvement and might be up and movin' in a day or two. Thinks we're foolish, goin' off, just the two of us."
"She did, huh? Think she'd prefer we did nothin'? Maybe let them pay her or our other neighbors a visit after they finish lickin' their wounds? No, we got a job to do and not enough time to raise a posse. I want to catch 'em now. Before they git out of reach. We just gotta be careful of an ambush or them joinin' up with more of their kind."
Lee pulled some jerky out of his bag and chewed slowly while listening to Matt expound. His mare chomped at the grass near his boots, nudging him out of the way of the sparse offerings. Off in the distant head of a brush-choked ravine, a turkey let loose with a coarse rattling gobble. Another tom hidden in the woods nearer to the Ellis overlook answered him with fervor. Valley fog continued to blanket the wood-lined creek bottoms that meandered down to the river. Cottontails fed along the distant edge of moisture-soaked bee-brush while overhead a red-tailed hawk was sizing the rabbits up for an early breakfast. All around them, the early morning atmosphere seemed refreshed from the overnight cleansing of fine mist.
Lee felt moved by the serenity cast by the receding ridgelines that gradually faded off into the distant hills. He said, "You know, it can be nice and peaceful at times out here. That's why I hang on. Times it seems worth it to be on our own."
Matt nodded in agreement and said, "Wouldn't want to work for another man or live in the city packed together like a bunch of sorry rats."
"Not that it's easy being so far out," Lee replied. "Damn red man raising hell. No doc. Supplies so far off."
"Sure not easy," Matt drawled after another long pull on the canteen.
"Don't bother you too much, does it?"
"Been near men long enough, I guess. Don't always like what I see."
"Can't argue that point. But this here trackin' ain't my idea of a good time. We could end up dead, or worse."
"Losing your faith?"
"No, I still got it. It's just the thought of somethin' more than we can handle is a real possibility. I don't want to be in their hands and have to take what they could dish out."
"We'll do the dishin'."
"Don't know how you can be so sure."
Matt didn't reply while he watched Lee, sizing him up and once again wondering how he would do in a pinch. Lee had never faced a man in a life-or-death situation. Matt's hard stare pierced deep, searching for an answer. Lee became uncomfortable with the obvious scrutiny and felt compelled to break the momentary silence.
"That Mary sure is a looker."
"My, oh my," Matt cracked his first smile of the day. "The obvious just now hittin' you? I've already dealt with enough of them thoughts tuggin' at me. Don't need you remindin' me of her fine qualities. Let's head it out. Wasted enough time already."
Quick as snakebite, Matt swung back up into the saddle, turning Whiskey to the direction of the fresh pony trail. Lee fell in behind as Matt quickened the pace, intent on making up for lost time. The trail weaved in and out of sparse stands of live oak that cast their long shadows on grasslands tinged burnt orange in the shorter days of fall. Scattered thickets of dark green cedar trees created large areas capable of hiding horse and rider alike. The trail was fresh, with grass flattened and muddy rocks overturned in the Indians' haste to put distance behind them. They never veered to the handy concealment available. Matt didn't have to slow his pace to stay on top of such obvious signs of passage. The riders were not trying to mask their escape.
Matt began to understand they just wanted to put distance between them and their potential pursuers. This knowledge inspired him to maintain a reckless pace. He wanted to push the Indians up against the wall. He sought a violent conclusion. Anticipation began to rise within him as the passing ground took them both further from home. A strong metallic taste filled Matt's mouth with the unpleasant reminder of the brutality men inflicted upon one another in their disputes over who ruled the land. He intended to tear into his red quarry like a wolf ripping into the soft underbelly of a deer.
The chase began to seem endless to Lee. They had covered many miles in a rough pounding gait that chewed up the distance. The advancing morning warmed up nicely with only a few of the deeper valleys continuing to hold remnants of the heavy fog. Terrain was occasionally familiar to him, but they were approaching areas Lee had never traveled through. In his apprehension, he realized they were not well prepared for an overnight stay. They possessed only the most basic necessities packed during the dark hour before dawn. Overnight camping was becoming a distinct possibility when he considered their increasingly remote location. Camping deep in the wilderness with savages about! Cold camping. Cold food. Noise in the night that could be man or beast. Hell of a situation, he thought, while pulling out hard candy and nervously popping it into his mouth.
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Up ahead at a high ridge, the Colorado River bottom was visible for the first time since leaving the home place. Matt was slowing, peering down intently at the trail and leaning out of the saddle to his right when Lee loped up behind him.
"Lee, come see what you think."
Lee pulled up beside Matt, looked down, and saw signs of where several horses had churned the soil at the juncture of two trails. One trail headed west. The other turned north into the broken-up headlands that rose above the river bottoms covered in heavy stands of ancient pecan trees. The mixture of hoofprints was haphazard in the mud-strewn intersection, proving that the fugitives had spent some time in the area. Several table-sized, flat limestone rocks rested in the area. One in particular caught Matt's eye.
Lee observed, "Looks like they headed north, to them draws leadin' down to the pecan bottoms."
"Yeah, they headed out on the old Comanche trail, no doubt about it. But check the sign on that rock and tell me what you see."
Lee sized up the rock and shook his head no. Matt had always trailed like he was part Indian. Lee often felt inadequate in his presence.
"Looks like they dismounted here and maybe our friend had to lie down for a while," Matt said. "See the dark spot? Not much blood. But enough that it hurts a bit too much for him. Seems to me like they got a little rest, and then those moc tracks show me they helped him back up on his pony. Judgin' by what I see, it wasn't too long ago neither. We're gittin' close. I bet they know we're trailin' 'em by now."
Lee frowned. "I don't like that too much."
"Just got to be careful is all. They're Indians. Always sneaky devils, wherever they're at."
Lee's frown deepened as Matt gazed in the direction the trail led. It melted away into thick brush. Matt stood in his stirrups to get a better view while speaking his mind. "I like it. We're catchin' up. Got enough day left to press 'em 'til they show. They'll make a mistake if we apply pressure."
Matt's chest swelled at the thought of closing in on his target.
The frown Lee wore turned into a look of fear.
"Matt, they may show all right. With a couple of shots to the head. Think of that?"
Matt gave Lee a hard stare as he said, "You go ahead and hang back a little further for right now. Could be they won't git us both at the same time."
His brother paled at the comment.
Matt grinned and then said, "If they git me, you can take care of 'em, and git all the glory."
Lee was having none of it. "You ain't helpin' one bit, smart ass."
Matt's grin faded. A veil of serious intent spread across his face turned hard as granite.
"Fall in a little behind me and keep a sharp eye out. Carbine at the ready. Watch for hand signs. If I see somethin', you'll know. Coo like a dove if you see somethin'. This hunt just changed. Be ready for anything."
Matt reined Whiskey onto the fresh tracks, leading them off the break of the ridge. They rode down the rock-covered trail used by past generations of Comanche hunting in the hills outside of Austin. The trail declined steeply at first, and they worked the horses gently off the highlands, facing the risk of sliding on the slick limestone ledges topped off with fist-sized rocks. While leaning back in his saddle, Matt kept his eyes roving, searching for danger concealed in the thick brush that flanked the trail. The slower pace irritated him but was necessary.
Lee did as directed and cradled his Spencer in his left arm, a short distance behind the imposing buckskin Matt rode. At times, Matt held his hand up to halt Lee while he gave a troubling area a thorough search before proceeding. They slowly lost elevation as the river bottom faded from sight, blending into a distant tangle of treetops that glowed with the golden light of the late afternoon sun.
Seldom did Matt venture this far out on the old trail. He continued to make occasional slowdowns to absorb the unfamiliar surroundings. Reaching level terrain, he reined to a stop below a low rise that the trail made its way over before entering the river floodplain. The fertile black soil supported a forest of massive pecan trees littered with fallen limbs and thick underbrush. Matt motioned for Lee to pull up beside him to his left. They sat silent for a short time, taking in the feel of the claustrophobic woods.
The hill rose before them and blocked the view of where the trail would eventually lead them. Off to the right, a pair of fox squirrels chased each other round and round the coarse bark of a dead pecan tree. They chattered loudly as the pursuit carried them to the top splintered limbs and a death-defying leap to a neighboring tree. Crows cavorted in the upper canopy and called out warnings of a nature understood only by them. Aloof in their high perches, they looked down upon the earthly events of men with scorn. A passing cloud cast a gloomy blanket of shadow over the scene when off in the distance, past the intervening hill, a faint but unmistakable whinny of a pony floated through the trees.
Matt turned to find Lee's face contorted in a wide-eyed expression.
He whispered, "Now, Lee. It's action time. These woods close in thick on this trail with a helluva lot of places to hide out. The risk is up. I don't know if they got guns, arrows, or what. Might be both, but we are damn close to 'em. This trail is real fresh and that pony sure ain't far off. They could be anywhere up ahead."
Lee focused on Matt with all of his attention. This was a new experience for him and he depended on Matt to lead him through it safely.
Matt continued in a subdued voice, "Best to go on foot from here. I got a feelin' they're holed up, waitin' on us. They don't like lookin' over their shoulders, and maybe even seen us. Just three of 'em, I reckon. Unless they met up with others, but I doubt that. Don't like leavin' the horses behind, but we'll risk it for now. Let's work in a little ways to see what we can and come back for the horses later. Questions?"
Lee wore a dazzled expression when he said, "You jokin' again? Matt, I'll be honest. We could turn around right now. No problem with me. We chased 'em out of our area. Good enough for me. We're done."
Matt slid quietly to the ground and met Lee with a scowl that said turning back would never be the case. He motioned for Lee to dismount and get ready for the stalk. They finished loading their haversacks with ammo and checked the readiness of their weapons. Satisfied with their preparedness, Matt led the horses to a couple of elm trees further back from the hill and hidden from the trail. He tied them up and made them secure as possible.
Lee came up close as Matt whispered more instructions, "Let's keep the same formation. You hang back a little and we'll follow the trail to the top of the hill. If they cut to the side or anything unusual, we'll head back for the horses. We won't git too far from 'em. Those bucks are up there just a little ways. I can feel it."
Matt led the way to the crest of the hill, pausing to examine the low land before them. Pecan trees dominated the scene, spaced at irregular intervals, with branches drooping low from the weight of mature nuts. Fallen branches, jagged with broken tips, formed dams of limbs entangled with climbing vines of mustang grapes. Poison ivy grew mixed in the chaotic clutter, tinged with red fall leaves that radiated warning signs to keep away. Matt peered intently through this scene of wild growth, trying to find signs of his quarry. His senses were keenly alert to the hidden dangers that might be lurking in the woods.
Observing no sign of the Indians diverting off the trail, he led Lee down the hill and across the next section of the pony trail. They reached a point at the base of another slight rise where the woods closed in and crowded the path with impenetrable growth. Matt was breathing deeply when he motioned for Lee to come up even with him.
"Enough of this," he let out with a long breath. "They're right up yonder. I got that feelin'. Let's ease up to the crown of this hill. Take it slow. You head a little to the left of the trail. I'll take right. Stay even with me and don't git out of sight. You'll know when it's time to shoot. Questions?"
Lee's face paled with anxiety. He swallowed hard but nodded in agreement with the plan.
"When we git to the top, take a look around. If we see 'em, let's work up close as possible for our shot. Watch for my hand signs. Remember, there should just be three."
Matt took a few more deep breaths. Things were about to get interesting and he wanted time for Lee to compose himself. But it was no use. He was trembling when Matt reassured him, "You'll do just fine."
Lee made off to the left of the trail in a low crouch with his carbine in his right hand, fending off the brush slapping at his legs. Matt saw Lee well on his way before he carefully approached the hill directly before him. He veered to his right in order to space out his position from Lee, keeping an eye on him and moving forward an even amount. They both eased up to just below the brow of the hill.
Matt found an area relatively free of brush to his right that would give him a clear view of the backside of the hill. He removed his hat and lowered his large frame down to belly-crawl the last few feet. Reaching the crest of the hill, he tried to confirm that Lee was doing the same thing.
He was disappointed to realize Lee was no longer within sight.
"That's not good," he complained to himself.
Lee had been about forty yards away when Matt last saw him but was now out of sight. Matt had wanted to stay in view of each other for mutual support within rifle range. Several large trees shielded his view of Lee, and there was little he could do about it now with the top of the hill just inches away.
Deciding to risk it, Matt used his elbows for support and pushed his way to the brim for a quick glance on the other side. The soil was damp and pungent. The stench of decay filled his nostrils as the woods below came into focus. Scanning the area to the right and working slowly back to the left, he determined there was no obvious sign of Indians. The brush cover was heavy in front of the area Lee was supposed to be covering but seemed clear of danger from Matt's far-right perspective.
Returning his focus to survey the cluttered woods directly in front of him, Matt made out a slight movement through an opening in the underbrush. The motion resembled a deer feeding behind a cluster of bee-brush. It was hard to make out, but the color was right and the height was right. It looked like a deer with its head down feeding, but Matt reasoned deer would have scattered at the passing of Indians. It could be a man, but the height was not tall enough. No horses were visible from his viewpoint, despite the unmistakable whinny heard earlier. All he detected was slight movement of a buckskin color, partially hidden behind a screen of leafless gray brambles. Was it a deer, some other animal, or an Indian? Indecision set in, and he hesitated while pondering the next move to take. He wondered, what was Lee seeing?
The twang of bowstring releasing an arrow met Matt's ear without warning. Lee's howl of anguish shocked Matt from his uncertainty. . . . .
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