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by Mack Saunders
Description: Ya gotta love these westerns! Wonderfully written in a way that draws you into the story right from the beginning. Rock Wesley and two ranchhands are moving fifteen Morgan mares back to Wesley's ranch. They are ambushed and his two friends killed and the mares stolen. Left for dead, Rock escapes, is found by Meg McAlpin who helps him recover. How to find the killers as well as the horses in a town where one man owns most all the businesses and rules without mercy is the quest of Rock.
eBook Publisher: Gate Way Publishers,
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [202 KB]
Reading time: 133-187 min.
Rock Wesley took delivery of the horses in the railroad yard at Winslow. He had brought Stu Henley and Vic Anderson with him to help in the drive to his ranch near Silver Springs. Stu had been skeptical about this latest venture of his, but after one glimpse of the Morgans, he was sold. His eyes brightened and he gave a low, appreciative whistle. "Man, what horseflesh! They're worth every cent they cost you, Rock."
"That's the way I figured it," Rock answered. "If we're going to raise horses, we might as well do it right. A couple years from now, we'll really be in business."
He had a horse ranch up on the high mesas and a dozen men trapping and breaking wild mustangs. He had a good market for such horses right here in the territory, at various cattle ranches, but an even better market existed. The Army always needed horses. Army specifications, however, were hard to meet. He thought this would do it--the Morgan strain added to the mustang should produce the wiry but manageable horse the Army wanted.
They left Winslow that afternoon, angling across country to the north and west. Rock had been afraid of some trouble on the way, that after their long confinement in cattle cars the Morgans might be restive and want to run, but they didn't. And when the men made their camp that night, Rock was more pleased than he wanted to admit. It had taken every cent he could raise to buy these brood mares, but the risk was going to be worth it.
After the horses had been staked out for the night, he and Stu and Vic sat around their fire and talked. Rock had known Stu Henley from boyhood, and Vic Anderson longer than that. Vic had worked for the elder Wesley and had not been enthusiastic about Rock's changing the place over to a horse ranch--he was a man who never liked change. His disagreement with Rock had not, however, made any difference in his loyalties.
"We'll head due north tomorrow," Rock suggested, "then swing west the next day, skirt the Modoc Valley and cut through the Temple Hills. That way we'll miss most of the rough country. It may take a little longer, but there's no rush."
"I'll bet those Morgans could take any kind of country, any kind of rush," Stu said.
Stu had fallen in love with them.
"I had a horse, once, that was a quarter Morgan," Vic said. "Good horse, too. I could run him all day and when it came to cutting a herd he couldn't be topped."
They went on talking, mostly about horses, finally drew straws to settle who was to take the first, second, and third watch during the night. Rock wasn't convinced any kind of guard was necessary, but the Morgans were too valuable for him to take a chance.
He drew the first watch himself and, after the others had turned in, lit his pipe and made a brief inspection of the herd, then came back to the fire. He was tall, with wide, sloping shoulders and a wiry body. He had dark eyes, dark hair, and a face that was too narrow, too thin and bony. Chasing wild horses and breaking them to the saddle didn't help a man put on weight. He could have carried thirty more pounds comfortably, but he felt good, ate well, and had almost perfect muscular coordination.
The purchase of the Morgan brood mares was the fourth important step in his career. The first had come when he was eighteen, and when his father had said to him, "Rock, you're a grown man and supposed to be responsible for what you do. If you've got yourself into trouble with Nels Bergstrom, it's up to you to work it out the best way you can. Don't come running to me." In a bloody fight he never would forget, he had settled his quarrel with the neighbor's son. The second step in his career had come with his father's death, five years ago, when he had decided to hold the ranch rather than sell it. The third important milestone had been passed two years ago, when he had sold his cattle and started raising horses. There nearly had been one more. Three years ago he had been desperately in love with a girl in Sawtelle. He had wanted to marry her and take her to his ranch, but things hadn't worked out that way. He was getting over it, now. The memory didn't hurt him as much as it once had.
Rock added more wood to the fire, then sat down near it. He glanced at the silent figures of Stu Henley and Vic Anderson. He had two good men in Stu and Vic, and a third one, just as loyal, back at the ranch. Jeff Elliott. He had two crews out in the hills who had working arrangements with him and in an emergency might he counted on, but Stu, Vic and Jeff were the three he depended on, and he was lucky in the kind of men they were. He had stretched himself more than he should have in buying these Morgans, but he had a crew to stand by him if things were hard for a time.
* * * *
They rode on again shortly after dawn, heading due north this time, and avoiding the rugged, hilly country to the west, and the day passed without incident. It was on the next day, and when they were riding west, skirting the Modoc Valley, that they met the two men--tall, gaunt, bearded fellows who said they worked for Arne Chenoweth.
"Nice horses you got there," one of them mentioned. "Where you taking them?"
"Up to our ranch, on Rolling Mesa," Rock answered.
"Near Sawtelle, three days' ride from here."
The man nodded. "They wouldn't be for sale, would they? Arne's in the market for horses."
"These aren't for sale," Rock told him. "I have other horses for sale."
"Then why don't you drop by an' see Arne? His place ain't far out of your way. Dip south a little as you're headin' west and you'll run right into it."
"I may do that," Rock said vaguely.
He didn't like the way the two men kept looking at the Morgans. He felt sharply on guard. And after the unkempt pair rode on he watched them out of sight, aware of a growing uneasiness.
"Two nice characters," Stu said under his breath. "If they'd been six instead of two, we might have lost our horses."
"We still might," Rock said. "We didn't skirt the Modoc Valley wide enough."
"Then you've heard of this Arne Chenoweth?"
"Yes, I've heard of him. There are a dozen ranches in the Modoc Valley, but only one that counts. Arne Chenoweth is the Modoc, both valley and town. I've been told he makes his own laws, rules the place like a king. He heads a tough crew and does as he pleases. The Modoc Valley is a good place to stay away from."
"We can angle more to the north," Vic suggested.
"We're going to," Rock said. "And we're going to move faster."
They did, and saw no other men that day. By the time they made their night camp, some of Rock's uneasiness had worn off. Chenoweth, he reasoned, might be a law unto himself in the Modoc where people had come to accept it. But that shouldn't necessarily mean that he would risk anything crude on the outside.
"We could stand a double guard tonight," Stu offered. "Or for that matter, we could keep traveling. We've got a moon."
Rock shook his head. "Just keep your rifle handy, Stu. But I doubt you'll need it."
The night was quiet and again they got an early morning start. Toward noon they were driving up a long, narrow fold in the hills when the firing started.
It came from the trees to their left. At the head of the string of horses, Vic stiffened in his saddle, then pitched to the ground. Rock reined up. He felt the crease of a bullet burn across his chest. Another lifted his hat from his head. He shouted an unnecessary warning to Stu Henley as he reached for his rifle and drew it from its boot. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Stu weaving from side to side in the saddle, like a man who had had too much to drink.
He stared at the trees from where the shots were coming, and saw only trees--there was nothing to fire at. A blow ripped against the side of his head so sharply it blinded him. He felt his horse leap forward, and held on for a while, but the stabbing, blinding pain in his head smothered his senses. He didn't know when he fell. For a long time, he didn't know anything.
* * * *
His awareness returned slowly. It was growing dark. Rock tried to sit up but a sudden wave of dizziness nullified the effort. After a time he found the gash in his scalp. It was above his ear and temple; it was deep and still bleeding a little. The side of his face was matted with dried blood. He untied his neckerchief, then wound it around his head and under his chin. He tore off a piece of his shirt, rolled it up, and fitted it in the gash, under the neckerchief. The makeshift bandage hurt and was unsanitary, but it might help stop the bleeding.
By now, it was fully dark. He waited for the moon to come up, and while he waited he thought back over what had happened. He and Stu and Vic had accepted delivery of fifteen Morgan mares in Winslow. A dozen men, there, had seen and admired the horses, but no one had followed them when they left Winslow, and on their way north and west they had run into no one but Chenoweth's two riders. From those bare facts and from what he knew of Chenoweth, it was easy to reach a conclusion. This was on the border of Chenoweth's range where his word was law. The deadly ambush they had run into had been neatly set up by men who knew this country and had been planned not only to take the Morgans but to eliminate all trace of the men driving them. The merciless firing from the trees was proof of that. They hadn't been given a chance to surrender their horses. Stu and Vic, he was sure, were dead. That he had escaped was pure chance--something to think about later. Perhaps he hadn't escaped.
He struggled to his feet after the moon came up. He didn't know the country, or why he was alive. There might be a ranch over the next hill, or the closest ranch might be Chenoweth's, but he would have to take a chance on that. He couldn't stay here. He had to get to a place where he could have his head properly bandaged and where he could borrow a horse, and food. His best bet lay in heading toward Modoc and hoping he could find one of the small ranches in this end of the valley.
His first steps were uncertain and he fell several times, but each time got to his feet again, and moved on. After a while he grew steadier, and for what seemed like hours he walked in what he thought was a fairly straight line to the south. He came to a stream where he drank, bathed his face and hands, and rested. Then he walked on, climbing the low ridge ahead and dropping into the valley below.
Somewhere toward morning, his mind started wandering and his feet grew heavy and started tripping, and finally, when he fell, he couldn't get up.
The sun, beating down on his shoulders, awoke him. He got up and stumbled on, not sure now where he was going, or why. He fell, got up, and fell again. A bird wheeled in the sky, high overhead. It was joined by another, then a third. They circled lower and lower until Rock, lying motionless, could hear the beat of their wings. He turned on his side and saw them and cursed them in words that came from a sand-dry throat and were scarcely louder than a whisper. He got up and staggered on until he fell again. This time, when he heard the sound of the birds, he had no strength to swear at them.
He tried desperately to cling to a fringe of consciousness but the hammering pain in his head seemed to be growing worse. He closed his eyes, promising himself he would close them for only a moment or two.
One of the buzzards lighted on a nearby rock and sat there, watching him silently. Another dropped down, closer. The third made a circling dive just above his head.