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Authors: G. Clifton Wisler

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BOOK: The Return of Caulfield Blake
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“He won't like that much,” Zach warned.

“Maybe, but he'll do it,” Marsh answered gruffly. “It's time we start pulling together, whether we call ourselves Merritts or Blakes or whatever.”

Caulfield Blake waited for them on the banks of Carpenter Creek.

“Pa, we've come!” Zach shouted as he raced the bay up alongside his father's big black. “Got my rifle and everything.”

“Might be best if the boys stayed out of this,” Caulie said as he read the eagerness in Zach's eyes. Carter rode more reluctantly in the rear.

“It's better they get a taste of it now, in the daylight,” Marsh declared. “Besides, Zach's already been in it up to his eyeballs.”

“That wasn't my idea,” Caulie said, leading the way southward toward Ox Hollow. “If it's to be, though, keep to cover, boys. Zach, you stick to my side like fleas on a hound. Carter, you . . .”

“I'll stay with my father,” Carter said angrily. “He doesn't run out on people.”

“Hush, boy!” Marty said angrily.

“Leave it be,” Caulie said, trying to shake off the sting. “He's got a right to his feelin's.”

“And good reason for them,” Carter added.

“You best save all that anger for old man Simpson,” Marty warned. “Pretty soon he's liable to be shootin' bullets at you. Then we'll find out who sticks and who doesn't.”

Carter whirled his horse around so that Marsh lay between himself and the others. Caulie motioned Marty up front, then urged the ebony stallion into a gallop. Soon the little company raced across the broken hills at a fair pace. In an hour's time they'd crossed the road, joined up with Dix Stewart and a handful of riders from town, and were nearing Ox Hollow.

The sound of gunfire just ahead led Caulie to turn cautious. He waved the others to a halt, then motioned for Marty to follow.

“What about me?” Zach asked.

“You stay with the others for now,” Caulie instructed. “I'm not goin' any further till I know the lay of the land.”

Without pausing any longer, Caulie nudged his horse into a slow trot and drew out his pistol. He crossed the low ridge which separated Marty's place from the Mexican farms in Ox Hollow. Down below two of the farmhouses blazed brightly. The remaining houses spit fire from their front windows at a dozen or so encircling riflemen.

“We could ride 'em down, Caulie, but they'd likely shoot some of us to pieces,” Marty said, scratching the stubble of his beard. “If we closed in on 'em from cover, we'd have a dandy crossfire goin' for us.”

“Take Dix and the men from town,” Caulie said, examining the terrain carefully. “Use the cornfield as cover. See if you can't catch 'em off guard. I'll lead the others around to the south. That way we can squeeze 'em to the middle.”

“They could turn on you, Caulie. You'll only have Marsh and those boys with you.”

“I don't figure 'em to run my way, Marty. If they do, we'll take our toll.”

“You can't shoot 'em all, Caulie. I'll have Dix go with you. And unless Marsh has lost his eye, he used to be a fair shot with a rifle.”

“Sure. Now let's get to it.”

They returned and divided the small band. Caulie then led Dix, Marsh, and the boys off across the ridge and then back toward the encircled cabins. Caulie dismounted and asked his companions to leave their mounts in a small ravine. Soon thereafter Caulie spied the first of severed dark-shirted marksmen. Each wore a flour sack over his head, but even so, Caulie made out the strutting figure of Matt Simpson in the center.

“Give it up, you fools!” young Simpson shouted. “We've got more coal oil. Won't be long before the rest of you are fryin' like your cousins down the hollow.”

“We go nowhere!” the powerful voice of Hernando Salazar replied. “What right do you have to shoot our cows, burn our homes?”

“This right!” Simpson declared, waving for his men to resume firing. The front of Hernando's house absorbed two dozen rapid shots. Pieces of door splintered. The little glass remaining in the windows shattered into fragments. A woman cried, and a child shrieked in terror.

That's enough of that, Caulie told himself as he edged closer. He could feel Zach's nervous breathing as the boy crawled alongside.

“Wait for me to fire, then shoot,” Caulie whispered as he made his way to a pile of boulders on the edge of a field. It was the last cover available, and it offered a perfect shield from which to open up on Simpson's raiders.

“Pa, I never shot at a man before,” Zach mumbled. Caulie steadied the boy's hands on the rifle, then patted Zach's shoulder.

“No real need to think much about it, son. Just shoot in that direction. We're not here so much to kill as to pry 'em loose from their perch.”

Caulie swallowed. It was a lie, and Zach's eyes knew it. Caulfield Blake hadn't ridden seven miles to chase bushwhackers. He'd come to kill Simpson men, come to make war on young Matt and the Jenkinses and all others who meant to do Hannah harm.

“We're ready,” Dix called from behind the far end of the rocks.

“Then it's time,” Caulie said, leveling his rifle at the closest of the hooded killers and easing back the trigger. The Winchester spouted flame, and the gunman whirled around and collapsed.

“Matt, they're behind us!” a second rifleman called seconds before Dix's bullet shattered a thigh. “Lord, help us!”

Young Simpson shouted to the others and started toward the cornfield. Rifles from the house killed a third man, and a fourth went down shortly. Matt's companions were in a wild panic as they raced toward the safety of the cornfield. At that moment Marty's men aimed and fired a deadly volley at the oncoming riders. Two more fell, and another clutched a shoulder.

“What now, Pa?” Zach asked as the confused raiders rushed in a dozen directions.

“You watch yourself,” Caulie said, pushing Zach's head back behind the shelter of the boulder. “Fire only if they come by.”

By now the survivors had reached their horses. Marty's group continued to fire from the cornfield, and the Mexicans at the farmhouses had rushed out to finish off one lame gunman who'd headed that way. Matt Simpson tossed aside his hood and kicked his horse into a gallop. The Jenkins brothers trailed along behind, and a pair of young cowboys raced to catch up.

“I know that's you over there, Blake!” Matt shouted, pointing directly toward the boulders. “You won't find me as easy to ambush as my father!”

Caulie aimed and fired, but young Simpson moved away. His Winchester struck the young man's horse in the ribs, and the horse rose high into the air. Marsh and Carter fired, too, and one of them hit the horse a second time. The animal whined in pain, then fell on one shoulder.

“Abe!” Matt yelled.

Abe Jenkins raced by, and Matt Simpson crawled up behind the veteran gunman with a quickness Caulie had rarely seen from a white man. The remaining raiders then headed away, pausing only long enough to set the cornfield on fire.

“Dix, see if you can get that fire stamped out,” Caulie said before rushing toward the farmhouse. “I'll see who's hurt.”

“Marsh, boys, come along!” Dix cried. “That fire'll take half the county if it's not put out quick.”

Marty already had his crew busy beating down the flames, and Hernando's youngsters were out there as well. Caulie let them deal with the fire. His eyes were watching Hernando.

“I thank you for your gift,” Hernando said as he sank, exhausted, to his knees. “If you had not come . .

“Wasn't just me,” Caulie explained. “Was Marty saw 'em come. We had lots of help. We didn't altogether kill off those skunks, but we stung 'em a bit.”

“Yes, and they hurt us, too,” Hernando said, motioning toward the flames that even now consumed half the little settlement. “They killed Jesus Cortes and his wife. Their little Anita, too. My own boy Carlos is shot. The Rojas family will go now. The Vargases as well. Only Roberto and I will remain, and for how long? Who will die next?”

“You, me, Simpson. Maybe next time they'll surprise us.”

“But there will be a next time, won't there, amigo?”

“Seems like there always is.”

“When our fathers were alive, we would have gone down to Senor Simpson and set him ablaze. Ay, we would have killed him like a mad bull. Even the wolf does not hunt his own kind.”

“No, that's left for men. And old man Simpson, well, he's got an appetite for land. Our mistake was lettin' him settle here in the first place. Pa thought him to have a bad eye, and he said as much, but you know how softhearted Emma Siler was. Ernest was dead, and I'll admit Simpson offered a fair price for the land. Now we're payin'.”

“You went away once. You came back. Is it so hard to leave the place of your birth?”

“Hard enough.”

“Maybe we should all go. There has been already too much bleeding.”

“Maybe,” Caulie agreed. “I've read death in Simpson's eyes. And I've never read such greed and hate on one man's face. There'll be more dyin'.”

“Yes. Next time he will come by night.”

Caulie nodded, then turned away. He headed toward the cornfield, but by then the fire was under control. A line of weary people passed buckets from a well to a pair of men who slung water on the fringe of the smoldering cornfield. Marty and Dix had the others slapping wet canvas against the opposite edge of the fire.

“Anybody dead?” Dix asked as Caulie approached.

“The Cortes family. I think they caught the first charge. Hernando's got a boy hurt. Most of 'em are headin' out.”

“Can hardly blame 'em. Even in a good year the corn crop barely pays the bills.”

“I just hate to see the land go to Simpson.”

“I think that's goin' to be the least of our worries, Caulie. After today, it's bound to be all-out war. You ready for that?”

“I'll have to be. 'Cause Hannah won't be leavin'.”

“The boys did just fine today,” Dix observed. “Zach was a little shaky, but that Carter squared up just fine, kept up a steady fire you'd been glad to've seen at Johnsonville.”

“That's good. Before we're through, there'll be need of such talents,” Caulie said.

“Like as not before Simpson's finished, I'll have Charlie firin' a Winchester.”

“Maybe Hernando's right, Dix.”

“Oh?”

“He says our fathers would've ridden right out there and burned old man Simpson out.”

“They might've tried,” Dix admitted. “That's Simpson's game, tiiough.”

“Dix, we've fought Comanches and chased Yank cavalry across half the South. We can deal with Henry Simpson, and we will.”

Chapter Nine

Hannah sat on the porch and mended a pair of Zach's trousers. Whenever she was most nervous, she took to sewing. Usually the work took her mind off her troubles, but all she managed to do this time was prick her fingers and miss stitches.

“Ma, you hurt yourself,” little Sally remarked as she sat down and leaned her small head against her mother's side.

“It's nothing, Honeybee,” Hannah told the child. “Where have your brothers gotten off to? I haven't seen them the past hour.”

“They rode off,” Sally said, pointing to the south.

“Not those two,” Hannah said, smiling as Sally squirmed and giggled. “Wylie and Todd.”

“They're back at the pond splashing around, Ma.”

“Why don't you go fetch them, child. We might have a little lunch, don't you think?”

“They don't like me to watch them swim, Ma. Todd threw mud at me one time.”

“They know better than to go in the water without anybody back there to watch them. Now go fetch them, Honeybee. Tell them I said to come up quickly.”

“Yes'm.”

Sally scampered off, and Hannah set aside her sewing. Her fingers lacked the touch today, and when she gazed again toward the south, she couldn't help seeing the pillar of smoke rising from the distance. Something was burning, most likely the hovels over at Ox Hollow or Marty Cabot's place.

“I never should have let the boys go,” she grumbled. “That's why Caulie came back, so they would be safe from all this.”

A vision of Zach slung across a saddle filtered into her mind, and she gasped. Instantly she shook off the thought. After all, Caulie would look out for them. Marsh was there as well. They'd never let her children come into any real danger.

“Ma, I told them,” Sally said, reappearing at her mother's side. “They've been fishing. Didn't catch so much as a worm, though.”

“Well, come along and help me ready lunch. Maybe your father will be home in time to join us.”

“I'll set the table for everybody, then. You think Uncle Dix will come? I wish he'd bring Katie. She gave me a bonnet, remember?”

BOOK: The Return of Caulfield Blake
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