Lone Star Sons is my reworking of a certain classic western adventure, in the wake of last year’s disastrous movie attempt to re-launch it. I suggested in various blog posts here, and in other author blogs, that the only hope for the franchise was to eliminate some very identifiable features on the basis of sheer improbability, keep certain classic Western story principles, and rewrite it all as a straight historical adventure, set in 1840s Texas.
There was, I argued, a whole wide-open range of interesting events and characters to explore … and the more I thought about it all, the more fun it looked like being. So – I went and did the initial establishing adventure. It’s a little more of a romp than the other books, and is intended for the YA audience, especially boys of all ages who have sorely missed traditional Western heroes, the Cowboy Way, and all that. And then I wrote another, and another. Very likely I will write some more, for a second volume of the adventures of the Lone Star Sons, Jim and Toby.
Lone Star Sons
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From Under the Harsh Blue Skies
The First Adventure
Wherein Ranger Jim Reade first encounters
Toby Shaw, the Delaware Indian Scout
A dark winged shadow sailed on motionless wings. Jim Reade lay on his back in the desert dust, incuriously watching that ominous shadow circle, lower and lower until every finger-like dark feather became distinct against the burning sky, aware in a tiny corner of his mind that he should do something, should move. But he hurt in every bone, from his head down to his fingertips, and all the way to his booted toes. There was something flint-hard under his shoulder, unyielding, the sun had blazed on his exposed face and hands for many hours, and there was a mass of congealed blood which had oozed from his forehead, running back into his sweat-matted hair. It took a great deal of concentration and will to move his right hand, dropping the object clenched in it – his hunting knife – with a brief metallic clatter. Why was the knife in his hand? Had he tried to free himself from the saddle? He must have. The dark-winged shadow veered abruptly away. That sight recalled him to a sense of danger. Turkey vulture. Dropping down on something freshly – or not so freshly dead. What had happened? Jim willed his eyes and his memory to focus.
There … within sight and reach – a dapple-grey form which loomed as tall as a cliff not a hand-reach beyond, as still as death, it’s neck and head laid out at an unnatural angle, nostrils already being crawled over by a trail of industrious flies and ants; Jim felt a twinge of regret and remorse – his horse, that he had paid twenty American dollars and the task of writing out a proper deed of sale for fifteen acres of land on Salado Creek for to the man who sold him the horse. Well, that was a waste of a good horse and a small part of his time … but Daniel had insisted. If he was to ride with Daniel’s Ranger company, he had to have a good horse, a good Springfield musket and a pair of Colt revolving pistols. That tall and tow-headed sergeant of Rangers – Captain Jack Hays’ right-hand man – had looked over Jim’s equipment and horse presented for inspection and nodded a silent assent. Daniel had clapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Thanks, Dutch. Now, let’s ride, little brother!’
But I’m a lawyer, Jim had said to Daniel, when they met at Daniel’s little house in Bastrop, after Jim came hastening all the way from Galveston in answer to Daniel’s urgent message. The Mexes have taken Bexar, Daniel had written. General Woll came from the west with a whole army; they took every white man prisoner there, including Daddy – and dragged them back to Mexico in chains. Captain Hays, he’s already gone to follow them, with every man he could muster.
So is Daddy a lawyer, Daniel answered, white with suppressed fury. And those bastards took him with all the others there for the district court. The judge, the recorder, the district attorney – all the defense attorneys, the clerk and every one of those who had suits to be judged or came as witnesses. They brought their whole damned army to invade … again – and took them prisoner just for doing their civil duty. You’re a lawyer, little brother – but what happens when the law don’t do you no good at all? You put down your law books and you pick up a Colt. Else the law don’t mean anything at all. Join my company, pick up your trash – that which you can hitch to your saddle, and let’s you and I go rescue Daddy.
And that’s what Jim had done. He packed all four duodecimo volumes of Blackstone’s Commentaries in one saddle bag, and bought a pair of patent Colt revolving pistols, a box of caps and an extra powder flask, and a bullet mold to balance Blackstone in the other – and the horse to carry them. The books and the Patersons made a not-inconsiderable burden, taken together with his Springfield, the haversack with a double-handful of lead shot, bullet-mold and metal powder-flask. He swore into Daniel’s company of ragged and ill-dressed Rangers … they did it in the plaza in front of the crumbling old chapel and the ruined presidio which surrounded it on the outskirts of the old town of Bexar. It didn’t look like the brief occupation of General Woll’s Mexican army had done any good to the old place. But they hadn’t done much harm, either. Colonel Caldwell and Captain Hays had lured the invaders away to the banks of Salado Creek, a piece a good bit north of town. And there had been a battle, and General Woll had gathered up his troops and skedaddled … stealthily, of course. For the Texas militia and mounted Ranger companies were assembling…
Jim Reade gathered up his scattered thoughts again. What had happened to him? Where were Daniel, and the four other Rangers who had gone out on long scout at Cap’n Hays’ orders? He couldn’t remember which worried him. It cost him some pain to turn his head – the blue sky, the turkey-vulture floating lazily in it, the dappled body of his dead horse – all swam together. He pressed his eyelids tight together, waiting until the pounding of his heart stopped sending scorching patterns of light against them. Now Jim squinted against the blinding sun, falling almost parallel across the rolling desert scrubland and flat-topped hills along the bottomlands of the Nueces River. There were shadows, stretching out … and the tumbled still forms of men, laying in the unnatural positions in which sudden death had found them. They sprawled like rag dolls, and horribly splotched with blood already gone the color of dark red morocco leather, at throat, back or breast. The nearest to him wore a dark blue hunting coat, just like his brother – his hair the same light brown, and that was Daniel’s plain straw planter’s hat, hanging from a branch of mesquite shrub, tossing in the light breeze.
“Dan! Dan’l … Cap’n Reade!” Jim croaked. He attempted to rise, by rolling onto one side and levering his elbow against the ground, but unbearable, searing pain exploded in his shoulder and the black darkness descended again. After a time, that darkness receded. Jim blinked, hardly believing what he saw. The shadowy form of a man loomed over him, a young and weather-burnt face with a quizzical expression on it. Dark Indian braids hung over the young man’s naked shoulders, and three lines in red ocher painted across his cheeks. Comanche – he was done for, surely, Jim decided in despair. The shape he was in, he wouldn’t last long, under whatever torture the Comanche had in mind – and with any luck at all he should be unconscious almost at once. The other Rangers – and every settler in Texas, Anglo and Mexican alike – they all had stories of the sickening tortures which the Comanche inflicted on their live captives.
“Sorry … to deprive … you of … your fun,” Jim whispered, with the last of his wavering strength, and he almost thought he heard a reply in perfect English. “Wait until I set your arm, Ranger. That is all the amusement that I will need.”
* * *
The next time Jim swam up to the surface of life, he was in a place that was dark, but dimly lit with moving shadows – a fire, a little distance from him. The sharp object under his shoulder was gone. It seemed that he lay on something relatively soft, inside the shelter of a shallow cave. He still hurt all over, but the pain was a lesser thing now, in his shoulder and arm, and in his head, which ached fiercely when he turned it to look in the direction of the fire. There was someone sitting beyond it, in the mouth of the small cave, silhouetted against a darkly-starry sky above, and a thicket of those spiny, thick-leaved cactus plants – the ripe red fruit and tender young leaves of which the Mexicans in Bexar relished very much. Jim struggled to focus his eyes and attention. He must have made some involuntary movement or a noise, for that someone stood, swift and almost noiseless, and padded around the fire with a plain tin cup in hand – the young Indian.
“You are aware,” he remarked, in good humor. “Good. This is sage and willow-bark tea. Very healing properties.” The young Indian knelt next to the rough pallet of blankets on which Jim lay, raised his head and held the cup to his lips so that he might drink easily.
“Who are you?” Jim gasped, when he could speak. “Where am I? And where is … where are the others? What have you savages done with them?”
The young Indian gently laid Jim back upon the blanket, and sat back on his moccasined heels. “They are all dead,” he answered without heat. “You speak rashly, Ranger. I – my people – did not kill them. I am of the Lenni Lenape, the True People, whom your folk call the Delaware. My mother’s Eldest Brother is known to them as James Shaw. I am called Toby Shaw, but my friends among the Tonkawa call me the Long Walker – the Tireless One.”
“I am sorry. I spoke rashly,” Jim answered, abashed. “I am James Reade, Esquire. I am pleased by your acquaintance, Mr. Shaw… and also grateful for the consideration.” Jim realized belatedly that his arm – the one which had pained him with especial agony – was splinted and bound. And that his head was roughly bound up – the blood from that wound washed away from where it had crusted over his eyes. “I did not intend insult, Mr. Shaw.” He swallowed painfully against his grief, wondering why he was moved to speak with such odd formality. Before he was ten years old, he had lost two little brothers and and older sister – and now Daniel – Daniel, his oldest brother, stubborn, fearless and daring, who had fought with Houston on the field at San Jacinto, not six years ago. Daniel left a wife and three children in Bastrop. The Reades would never leave Rebecca, the boys and their sister to beggary – but if Jim survived this mad affray into the wilderness, he would be the one to bring the sad news to Rebecca. His heart sank at the prospect of that errand.
“I have buried them,” Toby Shaw answered simply. “I marked each with a pile of stones and a cross of saplings. I was taught well your customs. And because I did not know who killed them … or why they died … I made six graves. There was a man of the Eye-Rish I knew, who used to say in jest that the soul of a fortunate man should be safely in the Fortunate Place some time before the Evil Spirit who ruled in the underworld of the souls of the wicked and condemned even knew of his death. So,” he shrugged. “I thought to confound the Evil Spirit and make him think you were dead. The bones of a deer is all they should find in the sixth grave. It was a lot of work,” he added, with a grimace. “I think you should avoid venison, James Reade Esquire – lest you offend its spirit, gone ahead of you in decoy.”
“There is something wrong,” Jim answered helplessly. “I cannot recall … but there is something wrong. Daniel … that is my older brother, among the dead.”
“I am sorry,” Toby Shaw arranged himself more comfortably at the side of where Jim lay, crossing his legs and setting the tin cup aside. He leaned forward, looking at Jim with a most earnest expression. The firelight at the mouth of the cave now fell sideways across his face and shoulders. Jim realized that Toby was quite young, not much above his own age of twenty-three, for all the weathering of his face; a wiry, long-faced youth with the high-cheekbones and straight line of lips so often seen among the tribes of people which Jim had knowledge of. Toby wore a tattered black frock coat against the coolness of early evening, a coat which pulled across his shoulders and left his brown wrists bare, for lack of shirt-cuffs. “There is indeed something wrong. I do not know why, not in words you would understand. My uncle said I should follow the setting sun, where the men of General Somervell’s army were going. It was a test, I think. There are tests among the People. He said I should wait for dreams … a vision given to me by the Elder Spirits who would guide me.” His expression was totally without guile, honest, open, and puzzled.
“A vision?” Jim coughed, rackingly. It hurt his broken arm and broken head. Toby Shaw gravely proffered the tin cup again and waited with all courtesy for him to continue. “Why did you stop where you did? Come to find me, bury my … bury my brother and the others?”
“I was waiting,” Toby Shaw answered. He settled back with the unmistakable air of someone about to tell a very long story to an appreciative audience. “I made my camp here, four nights ago. Uncle said that I should neither eat nor drink, but wait for … something to find me. On the third night – six days ago, I saw a white flame in the sky, as if something fell to earth from the sky overhead. I thought – maybe one of the stars came loose, like a shining pebble or a spark, glued to the sky at night. But I was told by a teacher in the white school that was not possible. The stars that shine in our sky are like the sun, only many times farther away, so that they are dim and small as a speck of dust. But I still saw it fall to earth … so I marked exactly where it might land, and at sunrise I went to look for it. I wanted to know who was right, my people or the white school – and to know what a star fallen from the sky would really look like.”
“Did you find it?” Jim asked, drawn into Toby’s tale, in spite of himself. “How did you know where to look?”
“I have a very good memory, James Reade Esquire. I need only to close my eyes and call up to mind anything that I have ever seen. I marked where it fell among the distant hills … and in the morning I went out from here in a straight line, and found it. A small thing, the size of a pecan nut on the tree, yet heavy like iron, but looking as if a child had made thumb-prints in clay … it fell into a small bowl in the earth and set some small bushes on fire.” Toby drew out from the front of the ragged coat a dark globular stone hanging on a buckskin thong around his neck. There was a natural hole in the dark stone, which served to thread the buckskin through. “Which is how I found it without trouble. I took this as my … talisman,” he spoke the word as if it were something which tasted unfamiliar in his mouth. “I thought – this star-iron must be what I was supposed to see. But I saw dust rising from the valley beyond. Being alone, I hid myself and watched. I saw six men – your comrades, I think – in the valley below me. Following a trail made by a wagon track, six days ago, I think.” Toby frowned, obviously deeply puzzled. “It was an old trail and a small wagon, but the ruts were very deep. Also – someone had tried to hide them, by brushing the dirt with a branch. But not very well,” Toby appeared rather smug. “A puzzle, but nothing to me.”
“It was a baggage cart, from Woll’s train,” Jim coughed and coughed again, rackingly. He was beginning to recover his memory. Yes. That was it; the puzzle of a single cart, deviating from the churned trail of General Woll’s extensive baggage train. “We … we saw the track, too. Capn’ Hays, he would have thought nothing of it, save that maybe some of the Mexes had decided to desert an’ go home their own way, but Bigfoot Wallace an’ some of his, they caught up to and tangled with a dozen Mexican cavalry troopers, a fair distance off the trail. They were heading west by north … not towards Mexico. It looked to ol’ Bigfoot as if they were following the wagon trail.” Toby Shaw held the tin cup to his lips and Jim drank again.
The memory of it came clear, sharp around the edges as a shard of glass, the one thing he could recall of the last few days. Bigfoot Bill Wallace, a mountain among Hays’ Rangers, exuberant about returning victorious in the clash with the Mexican troopers – he and Captain Hays, Daniel and some others, gathered around the evening fire, listening to Bigfoot tell the tale, of pursuit and clash, and leaving the surviving Mexican troopers dispirited and on foot in the harsh desert, limping south toward the Rio Grande.
“What were they doing, Bill – so far from the baggage train an’ Woll’s company?” Captain Hays asked. In the firelight he looked as untried as a mere boy, gentle-spoken and modest, but Jim had already learned not to underestimate the Ranger captain. He might have looked as if he were hardly older than Jim himself, but Jack Hays had the heart of a lion, an iron will and a sense of daring which stopped the heart of other men – but inspired them to follow him. Bigfoot Bill Wallace, Daniel, Chief Placido of the Tonkawa, and proven fighters twice his age – all followed where Captain Hays led, without question.
“They wouldn’t say … but they were serious about that wagon. The sargento, he scowled something fierce at the others, when we asked. I think he was the only one with a clue.” Bigfoot scratched his bristly cheek thoughtfully. “He said he was following the Gen’ral’s orders. Me, I think there was something valuable in it, even if only ol’ Woll’s winter drawers and extry boots.”
“There’s something odd about that wagon,” Captain Hays mused. He looked into the fire, and said, “Dan’l – you take five of your men in the morning at sun-rise. Follow the tracks of that wagon – I want to know what was in it worth sending a squad after.”
“What do you think, Jack?” Daniel had asked, and no one thought it the least insubordinate in seeming to question an order – or as near to an order as Jack Hays ever gave.
“That wagon – or cart – had something heavy in it,” Jack Hays put a small twig into the fire, and used it to light his pipe. Drawing on it, he looked directly at Daniel. “A mighty lot of gunpowder, guns, and lead is what I think. Ol’ Santy-Anna, he has no love for Texians, and you couldn’t go wrong betting that he won’t pass up a chance to do us dirt. Pass off weapons to the Comanche, tell them they have a free hand in killing us? In a heart-beat, he’d do it. Bribe the Cherokee into making war instead of walking the path of peace? Santy-Anna hisself, he’d smile and smile, all the while waiting to slip a knife into your back, like he walked back on the Velasco treaty the minute we let him go. I b’lieve there’s devilment in that wagon, and I don’t want any but us to have it.”
* * *
“And did you find that devilment?” Toby Shaw asked. Jim shook his head without thinking, a gesture which redoubled the pain in it, as well as the nausea – almost to the point of vomiting up the herb-tea which Toby had gotten him to drink.
“No … at least, I do not remember if we did.” He thought, very carefully, rummaging through that errant memory of the morning when he and Daniel had ridden out, following Bigfoot’s directions on where they could pick up the trail left by Woll’s stray wagon. “The last thing that I remember was the wagon-tracks were clearer, as if they were in haste and didn’t want to bother with trying to hide them any more. We were following at a good rate, since the trail was so plain…” Yes, that was it. The tracks were plain, Jim recalled now. Gouged deep into the soft sand, leaving a line of broken brush between and on either side. The hoof-prints of mules – at least three teams of them, and pulling hard. Jim racked his memory. Nothing came, save the ghost of a recollection; Dan’l shouting, his voice cut off abruptly, the feel of the hunting knife in his own hand, snatched in that moment from his belt. “What did you see, then,” he asked. “What manner of men ambushed us, and how many?”
“It was hard to see from where I watched,” Toby answered, without hesitation. “But I think … three or four. I think they were white men … not of the Patuhka – the Comanche Enemy, or of the Kayëwa – the Other Enemy. They would have done … things. Counted coup, taken scalps. Made certain of you, James Reade Esquire, before fleeing. Instead – they hit hard, and having done that, rode fast, taking all the live horses but one. I am not certain it was an ambush at all, James Reade Esquire … three of your friends were knifed, two shot at close range, so close that they were burned. Your horse fell, I think … they left you, thinking you were dead or would soon be.”
“They did for us, I expect,” Jim answered, the realization of that treachery as bitter as alkali dust. “But I cannot understand how they could have caught Dan’l by surprise … unless …”
* * *
A tiny seed of memory, a mere thread, took root. Now Jim could see in the crystal of memory a brief and tiny picture, the place where they stopped for a rest, and a mouthful of cold bacon and hard-tack. They had picketed their horses … and yes, built up a small fire. Dan, hunkering on his heels, drawing a map in the dirt with a stick, and saying with a smile, as Jim impatiently saddled his own horse. “Don’t worry, little brother. They may have a lead on us, but they can only have gotten a hundred miles or so in four days. We can catch them up in another day…What’s that?” Dan stopped, suddenly alert. “Someone coming,” Jim answered. From the saddle of his horse he had a better view of their back-trail. “Looks like some old friends,” he added. “I guess Capn’ Hays thought we needed reinforcements…”
* * *
“You knew them?” Toby demanded, suddenly alert.
“I recognized them,” Jim answered, racking his memory again. “They were rangers, all four of them, but in another company. I saw them in Capn’ Hays’ camp. Their leader is a man named Gallantin, J. J. Gallantin. Dan’l knew him from the war, when we took Bexar the first time. He was at the fire, when Bigfoot talked about the wagon. I think he wanted to come with us at the start … but Cap’n Hays gave the order to Dan’l. They came up to us, laughing … they were chaffing Dan’l for lagging behind. They came up on us and dismounted and then … I can’t remember.” Try as he could, Jim could bring up nothing from that memory crystal but the sound of a gun-shot going off like cannon and his horse screaming, a high and unnatural sound – the part-memory of it still made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Toby nodded, with the look of a man who had solved a puzzle.
“Not an ambush,” he said. “They came among you as friends and turned swiftly as a snake strikes. They killed your horse, lest you escape and bear witness, and thought they had killed you as it fell, James Reade Esquire. Then they killed your other Rangers and took their horses – all but one, which I found wandering before I found you.”
“Damn them,” Jim whispered, sick at heart, grieving and horrified. He, and Daniel and the others – they had been betrayed, betrayed unto death by someone they thought a friend and a comrade. “They will pay for this, Toby Shaw. I swear it. I will bring them to justice before the law … even if only to Capn’ Hays. He would not countenance this, I swear…”
“The law?” Toby shrugged, “What does it matter, your white man law, James Reade Esquire? Why not just follow the trail of this … Gallantin and his friends, and pay them back in kind?”
“Because that is not the rule of law,” Jim answered, as a feeling of great weariness fell over him. “To take vengeance personally for a wrong … that is the rule of men, which varies among men according to ability and whim, and so falls unevenly. But the rule of law … the rule of law falls across the shoulders of all men, alike. Rich or poor, no matter their education or property. I live by the law, Toby. I can’t countenance private vengeance, no matter how justified it is.”
“You are a fool, James Reade Esquire,” Toby Shaw answered, in mild exasperation. “But I think that I will follow you … even if only to know that devilment is in that wagon.”
“Thank you,” Jim said, strangely grateful. And then the dark sleep took him under again, somewhat broken by uncomfortably vivid dreams.
* * *
“You should return to Bexar,” Toby Shaw urged Jim, on the day that he was well enough to stand and walk a little way beyond the shelter of the cave. Jim shook his head. They were sitting companionably on either side of the small fire which burned in the mouth of the shallow cave. The single horse which had escaped the treachery of Gallantin and his renegades was picketed a short way away, moodily nibbling on a stand of long yellow grass; a brown and white pony with a wall-eye and a jittery temper. Jim hadn’t known his owner long enough to put a name to horse or rider – but the beast likely panicked when the renegades had murdered the Rangers. While Jim had lain unconscious on the rough pallet of blankets in the cave, Toby had retrieved Jim’s saddle-bags, with the books and Paterson revolvers, although not the Springfield. The renegades had taken it which Jim regretted, as it had been fitted with a percussion lock, instead of the old-style flintlock, and the haversack with the lead shot and his large powder-horn. They had missed the Patersons, which was fortunate.
“No,” he answered. “I’ve got to hunt down J. J. Gallantin, and find out what was in that wagon. That’s what Captain Hays sent us out to do, and I’m damned if I’ll return and face him empty-handed.” The pain of his broken arm – still bound and splinted between two straight lengths of willow-branch – had retreated to a dull and constant ache. His head was clear – and he no longer saw double. Toby, carefully roasting shreds of some desert creature for their meagre supper – Jim didn’t dare ask what it was – only shrugged. If Toby had been entirely white, Jim would have said he looked exasperated. Jim added, “Look, I’m not asking you to go with me …”
“I go with you of my own will, James. This is a duty laid on me.” Toby’s normally cheerful countenance reflected the utmost gravity. “There is an evil walking in the tracks of that wagon. I can feel it. To take no action, allow evil no hindrance – that is an evil of itself. You seek your law, one for all men – I seek for balance in things, what the white teacher said was fairness to all. This … whatever is in that wagon, is an un-balancing of things.”
“All right then.” Jim was obscurely comforted in this strange alliance between the two of them. “We take the cross and make our journey towards Jerusalem the Blessed, vowing brotherhood and service ‘gainst all perils. I am glad of your company, Toby. You have certain skills and knowledge which is closed to me. And I would have been dead very soon, if you had not found me.”
“That was a thing meant to be,” Toby shrugged and carefully turned the stick with the unidentified meat shreds roasting on it. It looked to Jim as if the ends were already burnt as tough as jerky. No, not completely inedible – not even unappetizing, for he was hungry for what felt like the first time in days. “I think that this is the journey that my uncle foresaw for me. The star-iron and you are my talismans. The horse … was also meant for me to find.”
“Would that you had found two of them,” Jim answered and Toby chuckled.
“The True People are not riders of the nehënaonkès, when we take to the warpath, James. And this may be the war-path. We should prepare carefully.”
“I will,” Jim promised, although he deeply regretted the loss of the Springfield, taken from the saddle holster of his horse as he lay insensible. In ransacking the dead Rangers, the renegades had been in too much of a hurry for anything but a cursory search – too rushed to roll his dead horse aside to look in the saddlebag underneath. “I don’t have any spare lead, though – only the bullets already loaded in my pistols.”
“Shoot wisely, then,” Toby advised, dryly. Jim laughed, with an ache of grief in his throat. “That’s what my brother always said. ‘Shoot wisely, Little Brother – and hit what you aim for.’”
“I also must hit what I aim for,” Toby nodded in perfect agreement. “But I get my arrows back, most times.”
“Mining for lead never appealed to me,” Jim answered. “Too messy.” Chuckling, Toby handed him one of the blackened wood skewers, threaded with shreds of meat which were hardly any lighter than the wood. Or any tenderer, as Jim discovered, although the sizzling meat gave off an aroma so as to make his mouth water in anticipation. They chewed away companionably, while the sun slid lower and lower in the sky, final slipping below the horizon in a brilliant smear of dark orange, threaded with gold-edged smears of purple cloud.
“In the morning,” Toby said at last. “At first light. You are certain you are able, James?”
“I am certain.” Jim was – although the broken bones in his arm had not yet begun to knit. “We can’t wait, Toby – the next winter rainstorm may destroy the trail beyond all your reading.”
“This is true,” the other man agreed. “But there will be something, even after this time.”
Jim thought of the straight-ruled ruts made by a heavy wagon, the disarrangement of the soil left by the teams which pulled it … and now the trail of the renegades and their stolen horses. Yes, there would be clear markings in the arid desert, where things grew slowly and the marks left by men and animals lasted long.
In the chill, directionless light of dawn, the two broke camp. It did not take any time at all, merely a moment to quench the tiny fire with a swift kick of dirt over it. Toby helped Jim saddle the wall-eyed brown and white pony and tighten the girths, for he could not manage that one-armed. It was a further bit of good luck that the wall-eyed pony had not managed to scrape off the saddle, or shed the bridle, for Jim doubted that he could have ridden the beast otherwise. One rolled blanket went behind the saddle and the other over Toby’s shoulder. Toby hefted his war-hatchet – a stout maple shaft of some age and very well worn, set with shell beadwork and terminated at the business end with a double-headed metal fitting. One side was a curving metal blade of antique design, viciously sharp and rather like a hatchet, balanced on the other by a shape like a blunt hammer-head. A leather quiver of freshly-fletched arrows and a bow-case with a short bow strung with buffalo sinews completed Toby’s baggage. In riding a horse, with saddle-bags well-filled with his own oddments and supplies – including Blackstone’s Commentaries – Jim felt as if he was driving a Conestoga wagon filled to the canvas cover, in comparison.
They set off, Toby in the lead, at a gentle trot which always kept a little distance ahead of Jim on the wall-eyed brown horse. They crossed a shallow valley, as the sun rose ahead of them, etching all the shadows of rocks and scrub brush in a clear outline. On the far side of the valley, Toby led him and the wall-eyed horse around the flank of a flat-topped hill, beyond which lay another shallow valley, in appearance the same as the first; clay-grey ground, dotted with sparse thickets of dull green brush. Only in this valley, the turkey-vultures circled and flapped now and again to the ground. Jim looked away from the grisly remains of his horse, now almost unrecognizable and reduced to white bone, shreds of dried brown flesh, hide, and tufts of sun-bleached horse-hair. Yes, this was the place …
(Like it? Interested? Intrigued? – Lone Star Sons will be available as a print and e-book from Amazon and Barnes & Noble in mid-October 1014.)