Authors: G. Clifton Wisler
Blake pulled the boy over and squeezed his thin shoulder.
“Papa didn't expect you to come to town,” Kate said. “You might should leave. Colonel Simpson's at the hotel.”
“Good. It's best he know right away.”
Kate's forehead wrinkled, but Blake smiled away her concern.
“He'd know sooner or later,” Charlie mumbled. “He finds out everything.”
“Well, money can buy a lot of information in a town like this one,” Blake said bitterly. “Money can buy lots of things.”
Yes, he thought, remembering the angry crowd that had tom him off his horse, beaten him with sticks, robbed him of his home, his family. He recalled the faces, those people who'd begged him to take on the duties as sheriff when he had a world of work to do at the ranch. Where had they been when the crisis came? They'd kept to the shadows, then jumped like a pack of wolves at his back.
“I'll see your horse gets some water,” Charlie said, touching Blake lightly on the arm before leaving.
“Be careful,” Kate warned as Blake turned and started for the street.
“Never been one to walk lightly,” he said, taking a deep breath. Then he started for the hotel.
People stepped back into doorways and scrambled for cover when they saw Blake. Few recognized his face, but there was no mistaking the glare in those defiant eyes, the strong, determined walk of the soldier he'd been most of his life. When he marched through the open door of the hotel, the half-dozen people in the lobby grew silent.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the desk clerk, “but the hotel's reserved this week. Colonel Simpson's expecting cattle buyers.”
“Why don't you tell the
someone's here to see him?”
“And who might that be?” a young man asked from the sofa.
Blake turned in that direction. The young man wore a tailored suit and one of those short-rimmed hats that had become fashionable in Austin. His legs were long and thin, and no whiskers were as of yet growing on his face. He couldn't have celebrated his eighteenth birthday, but he was wearing a pistol under his coat. The long blond hair, the arrogant brown eyes reminded Blake of all the Simpsons.
“I might be just about anyone,” Blake said. “As it happens, my name is Blake.”
“Caulfield Blake?” young Simpson asked as a hush swept the room.
“I figured you might recognize the name.”
“Oh, dear,” a woman near the door said.
“Mr. Blake, I'd appreciate it if you'd go elsewhere,” the clerk said.
“I'll get my grandfather,” the young man said, nervously watching Blake while backing his way up the stairs.
The hotel lobby emptied as Blake waited for Simpson. When the old man finally appeared, his wrinkled face filled with rage. Simpson needed the grandson's help to negotiate the steps. Finally, the two old enemies stood face to face.
“Blake, I warned you never to come back,” the old man shouted. “I'll see you dead this time.”
“You've done your warnin', old man,” Blake said, never flinching. “I told you somethin', too. I told you to leave my family be. If you need to blame somebody for your boy bein' a murderer, then blame me. Hannah never caused you pain.”
“She's a Blake,” Simpson said, spitting on the rich carpet of the hotel. “That's enough. And she gave birth to two Blake pups.”
“Look, Simpson, eight years ago you came to me and asked me to be sheriff of this town. You asked me to swear to uphold the laws. You didn't say anythin' about lookin' the other way when your boy shot a judge in cold blood right in the middle of Front Street.”
“That judge was a carpetbagger, a thief. He was no better'n a snake. You shoot snakes.”
“He was a man, no better or worse in the eyes of the law than Henry Simpson or Caulfield Blake. I didn't ask for that badge. You and the others, you put it all on me. Then when the soldiers came and expected justice, you turned away. Afterward your brave bunch of men came after me.”
“You hung my son, Matt's father.”
The young man glared at Blake. A trace of viciousness appeared in the corner of his eyes.
“I helped execute a killer. He had a fair trial before a jury of his peers. You could have appealed.”
“To Yankees? To the same men who killed two of my boys at Selma?”
“I fought in the war, too, remember? I didn't sit behind a desk and call myself colonel when the smoke cleared.”
The comment brought a shiver of rage to the old man's face. Blake only smiled.
“You've been warned, Blake,” Simpson shouted. “The next time you show your face in this town, someone'll put a bullet through it right in between your eyes!”
“Oh?” Blake asked, chuckling. “You think maybe you can pay someone a few hundred dollars to do that? Or will you face me yourself? Why wait? Why not right now?”
Young Matt started toward Blake, but his grandfather held him back. Then the sheriff walked through the door, a Winchester rifle in his hands. Blake moved aside and let the lawman take over.
“I think it's best you leave,” the sheriff said to Blake. “Colonel, maybe you ought to have a little rest. You seem a bit flushed.”
“You remember what I said, Blake!” the old man shouted.
“Oh, I will,” Blake told him. “And you keep in mind that I won't look kindly on you troublin' Hannah and the boys.”
Before the old man could say anything more, Blake turned and slipped quietly out of the hotel. He soon spotted his horse at a watering trough in front of the Palace Saloon. He walked cautiously the hundred yards to the horse, accepted the reins from Charlie, and climbed into the saddle.
“Tell Dix to come see me,” Blake told the boy. “And tell him to keep a weather eye out for Simpson. The old man's capable of anythin'.”
“Yes, sir,” Charlie said.
Blake then turned the horse toward the far end of town and began the five-mile ride to the Bar Double B. Home. For the first time since arriving in town he trembled.
Blake rode along the dusty road almost without thinking. The seven years he'd been away had not erased the memories accumulated in a lifetime of riding those hills. He passed the oak grove where he'd asked Hannah to be his wife. He paused near Siler's Hollow to recall the times he'd chased Dix and Marty Cabot through the high grasses. But the hollow was now flooded by an ocean of water. And Carpenter Creek . . . well, it was little more than a hog wallow.
The ranch appeared to have prospered in his absence. There were fences along the boundaries now, and the peach trees he and Hannah had planted on their wedding day stood tall alongside the creekbed. He saw hundreds of cattle on the range, tough steers ready for market, cows that would provide fresh milk and increase the herd, and three powerful bulls for breeding. But the trees appeared dry, and the animals seemed thirsty.
Another week and the creek would be barren. What then?
The one eternal truth of West Texas life was that without water, a ranch was only so much dust doomed to blow in the wind. All the building, the back-breaking work done by three generations to build the Bar Double B was useless if Carpenter Creek dried up.
“What manner of man waves his hand and brings death to all this?” Blake asked himself as he surveyed his former homestead from the crest of a small rise. Across the creek stood the house. His eyes swept from the vegetable gardens to the corral, from the swing which hung beneath the tall white oak to the distant barn.
He then started across what was left of the creek, carefully avoiding the stretches that seemed likely hosts for quicksand. As he started up the hill toward the house, he drew his horse short and stared at two small boys playing near the chicken coop.
They were far too young to be Carter or Zach. There was a girl, too, a small thing dressed in a bright yellow sun dress. His eyes lingered as they fell on a more familiar figure, a woman whose petite frame and flowing blond hair concealed an inner strength he'd known but once in his entire life.
“Hannah?” he called to her.
She waved, not with the excitement he'd expected, but casually, almost as if performing a scene from a play. As Blake approached, a man stepped out of the house, a large, muscular man with thinning brown hair and a large black mustache.
Blake slowed his horse and sat atop the saddle for a moment, watching her, waiting, trying to think of something to say.
“I, uh, I came,” he finally stammered.
“I knew you would,” she said sadly.
Blake dismounted, leaving his horse to chew the soft grass on the hillside. He wanted to reach out and hold her, lift her off the ground with a whirl the way he used to.
“You remember Marsh Merritt,” Hannah said nervously. “I wrote you . . . about us.”
“How are you?” Blake asked, extending a reluctant hand toward the man.
“Don't know what point there was to sending for you, Blake,” Marsh said. “This is my place now. I'll tend to Simpson.”
Blake glanced around. He hoped to catch a glimpse of his boys, but they were nowhere to be found. The younger boys had Marsh's dark hair, his thick shoulders. But the girl was Hannah reborn.
“There've been a lot of changes since you left,” Marsh went on. “We concentrate on cattle now, only raise enough horses for our needs.”
Marsh went on to point out the new barn, the expanded gardens. Blake nodded, but he didn't pay much attention.
“I guess it was a mistake my cornin',” Blake said, frowning. “I'll ride on to Dix's place.”
“No, wait,” Hannah said, taking Blake's hand and holding him there. “Caulie, stay.”
“He's got a right to do as he will,” Marsh said.
“I know this is hard on you, Marsh,” she said, releasing Blake's hand and turning toward her husband. “It's going to be a strain for us all. But I asked him to come, and it's not proper to turn him away now. Besides, we
“I can do anything that needs to be done,” Marsh growled, a hint of bitterness in his voice. “There's not room here for the both of us, Hannah.”
“It's better I go,” Blake said. “I don't mean to come as an intruder.”
“Intruder?” Hannah cried. “You grew up on this ranch. You built half the house with your own hands. You owe it to the boys, to yourself to stay. And I wouldn't have sent the letter if we didn't need you. Marsh,” she said, turning away from Blake, “will you fetch Carter and Zach? Tell them they have a visitor.”
Marsh frowned. Reluctantly he started back to the house.
“You have to understand, Caulie,” Hannah said quietly as she led the way to the veranda. “We've been very happy.”
“He seems a good man. Why did you send for me? He appears willin' and able to deal with the problem.”
“Marsh is good and kind and gentle. He's got a natural way with growing things. But he's never fired a shot in anger, not even at a prowling bobcat. He wouldn't know how to answer Henry Simpson.”
“And I would?”
“Yes,” she said sadly. “You did once.”
“And it cost me everythin' I ever held dear.”
“I know,” Hannah said, looking away. “Why is it we do and say things we don't mean, Caulie? Why do we let pride and duty get in the way of what's really important?”
“Duty is important, Hannah.”
“Not that duty. If only you could have turned away. But you couldn't. I know that. You never back down. Simpson knows that, too. He remembers. And that's why you've got to stop him damming the creek.”
“Can't be done, not the way you want,” Blake said, getting to his feet and pacing back and forth beside the bench. “I saw him today. He's older, but the hate's still there. None of it's mellowed. The fightin's got to be done in a way he understands. He knows power. He respects it.”
“I wish there was some other way.”
“You do, I do, Dix does, but there isn't any other way. We're not fightin' some kind of crusade, Hannah. This isn't one of your King Arthur stories. It's real.”
“I'm afraid they'll kill you this time.”
“If they can.”
“Simpson's got a lot of men. He practically owns the town.”
“All my life someone's been after me, Hannah. I'm still here.”
“I've missed you,” she said. “I don't see how we could ever have drifted apart.”
“That was Simpson's doin', too. Hannah, I never stopped lovin' you.”
“It would have been better if you had,” she whispered. “I've got another husband now. He's a good man, Caulie. I don't want to hurt him.”
“I understand. I'm only here to stop Simpson.”