Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(At last, the final segment of the mystery of the vanishing rancher, Randall Huff. Previous chapters linked in the entry below.)

The two friends returned to the main house together, still maintaining the pretense of master and servant, Jim silently readying his mind to answer sharp questions regarding Clay, and even the luckless Mr.  Landry, should the topic arise. It was good that he did, for Squire Yoakum met them on the verandah, scowling like a thunderstorm.

“My daughter, Miss Kate tells me that you accompanied her to the meadow to retrieve her dog. I do not approve of this, that you would go for secluded walks with a lady, on bare acquaintance…”

“Miss Kate requested my assistance, which I happy to render,” Jim answered, in even tones. “I did not intend any disrespect to a lady, or to your hospitality.”

The host of Yoakum’s Landing scowled even deeper. “But you went back to the meadow, you and this man of yours – I saw you from the upper window, not twenty minutes ago. It was as if you had seen something and wanted to take another look. Did you indeed see something, Mr. Reade?”  Squire Yoakum looked on Jim and Toby with a hard, searching air, every shred of friendly bonhomie vanished as if it had never been.

“The meadow is your property,” Jim answered. “As the owner, you would know best what there is to be seen by anyone casually passing by.” He did not like the veiled expression on the Squire’s face; that of a glutton eagerly contemplating a tasty dish. “Are you afraid that I may have seen something untoward and tell tales to the local magistrate or the sheriff?” To Jim’s discomfiture, the Squire broke into hearty laughter.

“If you did, they would not believe you, boy. They’re all my friends, hereabouts – and I am a generous man to my friends.”

“Supposing that I had found clear evidence of a body buried there, and a murdered man’s property disposed about Yoakum’s Landing?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jim knew that he had spoken rashly, but it was too late to take them back. “I was sent here to find such evidence and property, by no less than Captain Jack Hays, who reposes great trust in me. Furthermore, he and others know that I intended searching for it here.” Jim rested his right hand casually on the butt of his revolver, holstered at his waist together with his hunting knife – an implicit warning to go with his words. “Should harm come to me, or to my servant, I do not think you would be able to withstand the storm which would then arise.”

“Don’t you threaten me, boy,” Squire Yoakum growled. His eyes were as cold, as absent of feeling as pebbles. “I’ll never stand trial, no matter what you and your Captain may claim to find on my property. Show it to the magistrate, say your piece … and then see how far the trial will go. I’d never be convicted by any jury in this county or the next. I’m the grand nabob of these parts – any accusation made against me will never stand in court or anywhere else.”

“You seem very certain of yourself in this,” Jim riposted. To his infuriation, the Squire smiled broadly, all menace vanishing in an instant. Here was the hospitable, generous host once again. “I am, boy,” the Squire replied, his broad countenance flushed with satisfaction. “You can’t touch me, here on my own ground – so give up trying. We’ll be friends again – and I’ll forget this little exchange ever happened, hey?” He lowered his voice, adding, “I’m generous to my friends; I don’t forget them, and they certainly do not forget me. And,” he added in a confidential murmur which fairly turned Jim’s stomach, “My daughter does not forget her friends, either – she is kindly-disposed towards them. Especially those who are well-inclined towards the family. You’ll sit with us at supper then, will you? My daughter says that the kitchen has prepared a bounteous meal for us tonight.”

“I must beg your indulgence,” Jim answered, “since my traveling-companion is ill, and I must tend on him until he is fit to move from here. Mr. Huff is at least as much a friend as a client, and I owe him this favor.”

“Have it as you wish,” the Squire answered, seeming to be without suspicion, although Jim kept his hand on his Colt until the man had vanished within the house. Toby remarked quietly,

“I think we should go from here, James. I do not trust him, or any of his household.”

“I would agree – but that Mr. Huff will return here, expecting to find us in the chamber where we have stayed. If we depart – we may not be able to intercept him on the Trace. He will then walk straight into an ambush.” Jim drew a sigh, wishing that he had not been so hasty in sending Clay Huff away with Mr. Landry – or that he had been so taken with Miss Kate. “No – we stay here, and remain on guard.”

He thought for a moment, while Toby watched, as patiently impassive as ever. “One of us to be in the room, always – and we either cook for ourselves on the pretense of preparing food for an invalid, or else take from a dish that we see everyone else helping themselves from.”

“For how long, James? What if Mr. Huff does not return?”

“Four days,” Jim answered. “Four days – I think we may hold out that long.”

But it was only two days and half of the following night, before Clay Huff returned. Jim and Toby took turns sleeping at night. During the two days, one of them remained in the room always, on the pretense of seeing to Clay. Two blankets rolled together made a convincing simulacrum of a human figure in the bed, at least from the doorway. Servants came several times to empty the chamber-pots, but otherwise the household took little notice. Toby stole down to the kitchen to prepare meals, having persuaded the cook to allow him to take from the household stores and allow him the use of a corner of the vast cooking stove. Jim was certain that Toby had been gallant and attentive to the cook and her assistants in order to ensure this. For himself, he avoided the Squire as much as possible and Miss Kate as well, although she smiled brilliantly at him when their paths crossed.

It was nearly midnight when someone outside on the verandah rapped three times on the glass, then three times again. Jim couldn’t remember when he had been happier to hear that simple sound, or so relieved to see Clay’s tense face in the light of the single candle that he held as Toby unbolted the door.

“I was starting to get worried, Clay,” he said, and Clay grinned. He slipped through the door, and Jim added, “I thought you might have tied up Mr. Landry and dumped him in the bayou out of sheer exasperation.”

“Came close enough,” Clay answered. “Who-whee, I certainly do like the sight of that fine feather bed! Is that where I’ve supposed to be, these last two-three days? Give me a couple of hours, and I’ll be as right as rain and ready fit. Jim – justice for Randall is on the horizon!”

“What kind of justice?” Jim asked, as Clay collapsed himself onto the bed, boots and coat and all.

“Regulator justice,” Clay said, propping himself on an elbow. He fixed Jim with a stern look. “I know you have all that book-learning lawyer talk, Jim – I don’t hold it against you, in the least – but it’s gone beyond all that. I had a nice long talk with … some folks outside Tevis Bluff. They know what Yoakum is, and they’ve had a belly-full, all these years. And sometime tomorrow before sunrise, they’re going to do something about it.”

“Do what?” Jim’s overwhelming sense of relief was tainted with apprehension. “Clay, I can’t approve of giving over to mob rule – how will the innocent fare at their hands? What of Miss Kate – Mrs. Yoakum, and the servants?”

“They need not fear,” Clay yawned. “Being womenfolk or under the authority of old Yoakum, they have nothing to fear. But the Regulators,” Clay yawned again, “They are bound to get to the bottom of all this. That old devil and his gang, they murdered Randall and I don’t know how many others. They want the truth of it – and soon. The reputation of the whole county is at risk, you know. Who will come and do business in Tevis Bluff – sorry, Beaumont – or anywhere along the Trace, knowing they stand a good chance of being murdered.”

“But the law …” Jim began, and Clay answered, curt and cold. “The law has done what it could, exactly nothing against a man with the law wrapped up in his pocket. Folk will have justice, Jim – if the law will not protect against the likes of Yoakum.”

“A proper trial…” Jim made one last attempt, and Clay sighed, much exasperated. “There’ll be a trial, all right – when that field is dug up and we hear what Yoakum has to say about what we find. You’re a good man, Jim – and you mean well, but this is the way it’s gonna be. Now, let me sleep for a few hours.” Clay closed his eyes, deliberately – and in moments was deep in sleep. Jim looked across the room, where Toby sat on his heels, before the fireplace, where the fire in it had burnt down to red-glowing coals. Before Jim could speak, Toby said,

“He is right, James, regarding justice. Men desire that it be done. If it is not according to your little book of rules – they still wish for it, and will have it. You should rest as well. He said the others will be here before sunrise.”

“I do not like this,” Jim answered, although he knew in his heart that both Clay and Toby were right. It galled him, though – knowing that the rules of law into which he had put so much of his own trust had been of no use when it came to resolving the depredations of the Squire and his gang.

“Then use your law to protect the innocent,” Toby said. “If there are any innocent in this house.”

“Guess that’s the best I can do,” Jim agreed. There was nothing to be done, but try and get some sleep himself.

 

In the dark before dawn, even before the sky to the east began to pale, a roll of thunder made the whole house shudder. Jim shot awake in an instant. The room was dark, save for the faint glow of coals on the hearth, but full of whispers and movement. Someone touched a spill to the hottest of the coals, and lit a candle – Clay Huff.

“They’re here,” was all that he said, and hardly necessary, for the candlelight revealed three or four men – men with their faces concealed behind dark kerchiefs or scarves.

“Is this all?” Jim asked, for those numbers hardly seemed to be a threat to the Yoakums at all. One of the masked men barked a laugh, short and harsh, answering, “There’s fifteen men gone to the quarters to ensure that Yoakum gets no help from the slaves – they’re locked in, ‘til this is done. The others are outside, surrounding the house, or inside, searching for Yoakum.”

Jim thought he recognized the voice – that first farmer, who had offered them a meal, whose wife had spoken slightingly of the Squire. The thunder rolled again – not thunder at all, Jim realized – but someone pounding on a door, within the house.  He gathered up his brace of Colts, and drew on his coat and boots. It appeared that justice had arrived.

“The womenfolk will be in the parlor,” Clay murmured. “You should go and reassure them – there’ll be no insult offered to Miss Kate or her mother, or any of the other women.”

“It doesn’t sound like the ladies agree,” Jim answered – he could now hear a woman sobbing, another brokenly crying out.”

“They’re upset, some.” Clay said. “There’s men with torches all around the house. Right now, they’re sorting out who among the guests are just innocent travelers – and who are part of the gang. There’s those will speak up and vouch for them or no.” Clay turned his head, listening intently.

“Open up, Yoakum – before we take the door down!” came a shout from within the house. Clay shouldered his way out of the bedroom, his face set and grim. “He’s locked himself in the strong-room,” he said over his shoulder. “But it doesn’t matter – we’ll wait him out. And meanwhile, when the sun comes up, they’re going to start digging in the meadow. There ain’t no doubt about what we’re gonna find.”

“No, I guess not,” Jim said, recalling again the fresh grave, where the dog Gem had gone, over and over. With a heavy heart, he found his way to the parlor.

Miss Kate was dressed – in haste, as near as Jim could see, her hair hanging in tangles over her shoulders – and comforting an older woman, wrapped in many shawls and weeping into her hands. Gem the dog curled up at their feet, whimpering. The dogs’ eyes showed white all the way around; he was not happy in the least. Jim cleared his throat.

“Miss Kate – I have been tasked with seeing to your safety,” he started. Miss Kate leaped to her feet, exclaiming,

“Mr. Reade! What is happening – and why are these men invading our house!” Tears stood in her eyes. “You must do something – Mama is exceeding distressed and poor Jimmy is frantic! Jimmy – sit down, stay!” she added, as the dog rose from where he lay. Heedless of her, Gem whined again, and pawed at the door which Jim had not quite closed behind him. In a second, the dog slipped between it and the doorjamb, vanishing in the dark hallway. “Jimmy, come back!” Miss Kate cried, and Jim stayed her when she would have run after him.

“No, Miss Kate – you must remain here.” Jim blocked the door with his body, and looked at her with sorrowful regret.

“But my dog!” She looked at him, pleading in her eyes, and Jim steeled himself, remembering the unmarked grave in the meadow, and how the brown and white spaniel came to dig in that place so often. He cleared his throat again.

“Those men have come to dig up the meadow – I have found where your dog’s true master was buried.” Miss Kate turned pale, and then pink with anger.

“Mr. Reade – I thought you were our friend, but you are no true friend at all!”

“Ma’am, I am the true friend of justice,” Jim answered with an effort. “And justice demands that justice be done.”

 

He took his place on a chair just inside the parlor, sitting there for many hours, while the Yoakum ladies whispered bitterly together and Jim did his best to pay no mind. At midday, a man walked heavily down the hallway outside, and rapped on the door. Jim opened it, to see Clay, his young face set in lines of weary grief.

“We’re not near done with the meadow,” he said, in answer to Jim’s unspoken query. “But we’ve found enough. There’ll be a carriage ready in an hour – tell the good ladies to dress for a journey and take what they may carry with them.”

“What – how many did you find besides your brother?” Jim asked, seeing that Gem the dog followed like an adoring shadow after Clay – and that Clay reached down to absently fondle the dog’s white and brown head.

“Eight so far.” Clay answered. “And the strong-room … contained many odd items of value. Gold coin, Watches and chains, fobs and weapons – many engraved with names of men known to have done business along the Trace.” His eyes went into the room, falling upon the Yoakum ladies with bleak regard. “This enterprise was built on the profits of murder and robbery – I should advise Mrs. Yoakum and Miss Kate to look their last upon it, take what they can, and depart as soon as possible, whilst the Regulators are still in a mood for chivalry.”

 

A carriage was brought around to the front of Yoakum’s Landing at mid-day. Jim noted that it was driven by the groom who had encountered them in the stable, when Clay and the luckless Mr. Landry had made their initial run for safety. The groom nodded briefly and winked at Jim with a knowing eye as Jim assisted the ladies into the carriage. Toby lurked at his elbow – Jim could not fathom for what purpose, although his hired horse and Toby’s mule, all saddled, bridled and ready with their slight luggage had also been brought around by another of the Yoakum’s stable hands.

Both of the women were dressed for the out-of-doors, and Miss Kate carried a large fur muff … still she managed to drop it as Jim helped her up. Jim blinked – how did that happen? The muff fell, even so – and Toby rescued it from the ground in one swift gesture. Miss Kate took back her property with no thanks, but an expression of indignation. The groom slapped the reins on the backs of the two teams of fine-bred horses which drew the carriage – and Jim wondered irreverently if the horses had also been plundered from a wealthy traveler.

He did note that Toby’s expression, as they took to their own mounts and followed after the carriage, was most particularly smug.

“What was that about?” Jim asked, as the carriage rolled ahead of them, along the Trace.

“A little matter,” Toby answered, although he smiled. “She had a knife hidden in her hand-warmer, James. Which I think on the whole is a good thing for a woman to have … but…”

“But, what?” Jim was honestly baffled – Miss Kate and a knife? He would not have believed it, save that Toby drew it out from the front of his shirt, where he had it concealed – a slender thing, a stiletto with an ivory handle in a silver and ivory sheath.

“Of the bodies that were found, not very much decayed,” Toby answered, looking straight at the carriage, now drawing ahead of them. “Two of them had their throats cut.”

“You can’t possibly think…” Jim stared at his friend, aghast, and Toby shook his head.

“James – I think nothing. But I do not assume that a woman may be wholly faultless in circumstances like this. But,” Toby added with the air of a man putting a bothering matter to rest and already thinking of new ventures, “I do not think she was the one for you, James – there are many women in the world. This one would not suit your mother at all.”

 

 

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    :: Snort :: That was the perfect last line!

  2. Celia

    Thank you – yes, Toby comes from a matriarchy, and I will assume that mothers will have the ultimate veto-power. I had thought about making it a part of the story that Miss Kate was a willing participant in all the skullduggery, but alas, this chapter was already too darned long!

  3. Avatar

    When you’ve done “enough” short stories, you might want to run them together, or have reoccurring characters, both good and bad. Hard to say. As Boy’s Adventures, the complete break between stories may work well. I guess it depends on the age of the readers you’re aiming the book at.

    She’s a lovely start on a femme fatale. But I don’t know it this is contrary to the history of the times or not.

  4. Celia

    When I have about about 200-250 pages worth, I’ll out them all in chronological order, edit, polish, etc – and publish as a book. The breaks also make it easy to write, too!