Authors: G. Clifton Wisler
“I agree. I think we should meet with Simpson first. Then we try a few diversions. Finally, if necessary, we blow the dam.”
“How do you think it'll turn out?”
“I think we've got too few people to make it work.”
“Well, the Mexicans over in Ox Hollow will pitch in. And Marty Cabot, of course. Three or four families from town, too.”
“Can they fight?”
“Joe Stovall and Art Powell you remember from the war. I ordered us a case of Winchesters. That ought to even things a bit.”
“People are goin' to get killed over this, Dix.”
“Is it worth it?”
“If it isn't, I don't know what is. I don't make my livin' out here anymore, Caulie, but it's my land. My daddy passed it on to me, and I aim to do the same to Charlie. No fat old man's goin' to chase me off it. I never retreated from Grant, and I'll be hanged if I back down now.”
“Then it's settled.”
“Caulie, you plannin' to stay with Hannah?”
“I didn't feel I'd be welcome.”
“Nobody stays at the cabin anymore. You're welcome to it. We've got a spare bed in town, but if it's all the same, I'd feel better havin' someone out here.”
“Seems like a hard proposition to pass up.”
Dix smiled, and the two old friends clasped hands in a firm shake. Then Dix excused himself. Blake watched sadly as his old friend rode toward town and his family, bound for a warmth, a sense of belonging Blake hadn't known in seven long years. It was painful to think of it.
As the gathering darkness settled in all around him, Blake rode to the cabin. He spread out his blankets on one of the two beds. The place was clean. Dix had obviously prepared for him. Then Caulie remembered he hadn't seen Rita in town. The cabin definitely showed a woman's touch.
Caulie enjoyed a light supper of boiled beef and corn bread, then readied himself for sleep. As he sat in the bed, staring out the open window at the distant light that marked the Bar Double B, he frowned. He had ridden so far, and yet he was no more at home than when he'd been in the little picket cabin on the Clear Fork of the Brazos. He sighed and closed his eyes.
No sooner had he fallen into a light slumber than he heard hoofbeats on the road. Instinctively he sat up, grabbed his revolver. He rolled off the bed and slipped over behind a great oaken chest. A horse came to a stop outside, and a lone rider entered the house.
“Who's there?” Caulie asked cautiously. “Make yourself known.”
“It's just me,” a young voice called out. “Zach.”
The boy stepped into the moonlight streaming through the window and held his hands out to each side of his body.
“For heaven's sake, son, don't you know better'n to ride up on a man in the middle of the night?”
“It's not that late,” Zach said, walking over and sitting beside his father on the bed. “'Sides, Ma wasn't eager to have me come.”
“She know you're here?”
“You didn't tell her?”
“I was afraid she'd be angry. She doesn't take to talking about you much. It saddens her, I think.”
“And what else do you think?”
“You came 'cause she asked. I heard Ma talking to Marsh about the letter. He wasn't any too happy.”
“I'm glad you came. People always say I'm like you. I guess it's about time I found out.”
“You don't remember much from before, I guess.”
“Sometimes. I remember how you took us up into the hills. And I remember the fight you had with Ma over riding to town that morning, the day you left.”
“I didn't want to leave.”
“Then how come you did?”
“It's not an easy thing to understand.”
“Maybe that's because there really wasn't a good reason. Pa, I used to wake up in the night and think I saw you coming in to look at us, the way you did when we were little. I used to run out whenever a stranger rode up, hoping it might be you.”
Blake pulled the boy over against his shoulder. Zach threw his arms around his father's shoulders and sobbed.
“I won't be disappearin' again on you, son,” Blake vowed, squeezing the boy's thin shoulders. “I promise.”
“Don't make any promises, Pa. They're hard to keep.”
They sat together in the darkness a long time, swapping stories of hunting deer and buffalo, or riding horses and being thrown. Finally Blake stood up and pointed at the fading lights coming from the Bar Double B.
“Your ma's waitin' up on you,” Blake said, pointing to a single flicker of yellow on the far horizon.
“Then I guess I better head home. Maybe I can ride night watch with you.”
“What do you know of night watch?”
“Mr. Stewart told me all kinds of stories, how you raided the railroads and captured Yankee wagons.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Before I was bom.”
“Good night, Zach. Be careful on the road home.”
“I'll just climb up on old Jasper out there. He knows the trail home blindfolded, so the dark doesn't much matter.”
Caulie chuckled at the boy. And watching him ride off, Caulie couldn't help feeling a father's pride.
“He'll make a fine man,” Caulie said as the hoofbeats melted away into the chorus of crickets and owls. “All he needs is a little time to grow.”
Lying alone on the hard oak slat bed, Caulfield Blake promised himself Zach would have that time. It would be one thing Simpson wouldn't steal.
If Caulfield Blake was unsure of his reasons for returning, Zach's visit erased any doubts. Blake woke up early, took an ax from Dix's toolshed, and began splitting mesquite logs. For the briefest of times he shut out the world of trouble that was hovering above his head. He was as close to home as he'd been in years, and as he gazed out across the familiar slopes and gullies, he recalled other, better times. He set aside his ax a moment and watched the sun paint an amber swath across the hills. A moment later he trotted toward the porch and fetched a loaded Winchester.
The sound of approaching horses drifted across the landscape. At first they appeared to be coming from the Bar Double B, but now, as he concentrated, Blake realized the horsemen were arriving from the south . . . from town . . . and maybe from Henry Simpson.
“He was never one to waste time,” Blake grumbled as he readied himself for the coming confrontation. As it happened, though, the lead rider was none other than Dix Stewart. With Dix rode a bewhiskered scarecrow whose scarred brow and fiery red hair betrayed him as Marty Cabot. A thin-faced man a dozen years younger trailed along behind.
“Never thought I'd live to see the day!” Marty bellowed as he rolled off his saddle and clasped Blake's hands. “Caulie, I tell you, you look fit, my friend.”
“And you look like you haven't eaten in a month,” Blake commented as he stepped a foot away and examined his old friend. “Ought to've married a cook instead of the prettiest hair in Wichita.”
“Maybe, but I've got no complaints. Shoot, even Hannah's ma had a hard time puttin' meat on these old bones, and Emma Siler could cook the feathers off a goose.”
Blake laughed as Marty tugged on a pair of suspenders. Dix interrupted then.
“Caulie, this is the fellow I was tellin' you all about,” Dix said, nodding toward the stranger. “Jeff Perry's his name. He reads the law. He's a fair man with a writ, and he's the one to spell out what we're up against.”
“Mr. Blake,” Perry said, extending a hand. Blake shook it, then looked the young lawyer over.
“Perry? Have a brother name of Patrick?”
“Yes, sir,” Perry answered. “He wrote many a letter from Tennessee with your name on it. Swore by you, Captain.”
“Or at him,” Marty remarked.
“Either way, it got him through the campaigns,” young Perry commented.
“And just where'd Pat be nowadays?” Blake asked.
“Last I heard in the Dakotas, doing his best to get rich. You know Patrick. He never could settle down to a thing.”
“Yes,” Blake mumbled, knowing the same thing had been said of others.
“So, Jeff, tell it,” Dix said, taking a seat on the rickety porch and motioning for the others to do likewise. Blake sat between his two old friends and waited for Perry to begin. The young lawyer paced back and forth, then suddenly pointed to the west.
“There's the trouble in a nutshell,” Perry declared angrily. “It's Henry Simpson. He thinks he owns Texas.”
“He does own a pretty fair chunk of it,” Marty remarked.
“Not all of it, at least not yet.” Perry paused long enough to brush the hair back from his forehead before continuing. “I read the deeds, even showed them to a judge in Austin. You've got clear rights to the water from Carpenter Creek. Simpson's built a hindrance to that water.”
“And here I thought he'd built a dam,” Marty said, laughing.
“What it means is he can't stop you from getting that water. It's a kind of a rule in law. It's the same as building a fence across a road to keep your neighbors in. He can't do it.”
“Does seem like he has,” Blake said sourly. “Our problem is what to do about it.”
“Exactly,” Perry agreed. “Normally a county judge would issue an order of sorts, but there hasn't been a county judge here for better than a year now.”
“The last one sort of disappeared,” Marty explained. “Some say he's gone off to Tennessee or somewhere. Heard judges have a way of gettin' shot when they go against Simpson's wishes.”
“So what do we do about that?” Blake asked.
“We file papers at the state capital,” Perry replied. “I've been to Austin, and I did just that. But somehow or another those papers've disappeared. I can't prove anything, of course, but it's clearly Simpson's work. He's paid off a clerk somewhere. I filed a second time, but there's no guarantee these papers won't disappear, too. It's best to do it through the courts, but...”
“By the time anybody does anythin', Hannah'll be long on parched corn and mighty short on cattle,” Caulie grumbled, shaking his head. “You, too, Dix. At least the Bar Double B's got a fair stretch of the Colorado for its northern boundary.”
“And my place has got no water to speak of,” Marty complained. “I always run my cattle over on Dix's range in the dry season. Now what am I to do? A spring and a pond may provide for the family, but my stock'll be dead inside a month.”
“Well, I've got to give it to Simpson,” Caulie said, rising to his feet. “He's come up with a fine notion of how to grab half a county. To think Hannah's ma sold him his first acre, and my pa helped frame his barn! Well, any dam that can get built can also be blown to perdition. Bedford Forrest taught me that much.”
“You haven't been down there,” Dix argued. “You don't know. Simpson expects that. He's got men waitin', eager to ambush anybody who sets foot on that dam. There are always three or four of 'em up there, and they carry their guns loose and easy, like they know what they're about.”
“We've dealt with worse,” Blake said, laughing. “Why, I remember we rode through half a regiment of Ohio cavalry back in Tennessee, and they were nothin' to those Comanches back in 'sixty-six.”
“That was a long time ago,” Dix reminded Blake. “We were young. The most I ride anymore's from here to town and back. I've got responsibilities, too. So does Marty.”
“So what will you do, sell out?”
“To my knowledge, Simpson isn't making any offers,” Perry said, shuffling some papers into a small valise. “I don't see you have any choice. Destroy that dam or . . .”
“Give up?” Blake asked. “Not on your life. I've never been much good at surrenderin'. Tell you what, Jefferson Perry. You keep filin' those papers of yours down in Austin. Go to Washington if you have to. As long as Simpson knows you're tryin', he's apt to ease his guard a bit. Meanwhile . . .”
“Yes?” Dix asked.
“We'll round everybody up, have a talk. And who knows? Some dark night when the moon's all gone, an old rebel might just ride down and pay a visit on Henry Simpson's dam. Could be that rebel just might take a couple of Texas candles along with him.”
“Texas candles?” Perry asked.
“Dynamite,” Marty explained as he threw his hat in the air. “Whoopee! Caulie, I'm glad you came back. Don't know how much good you'll do with this, but you sure make things interestin'.”
Blake received a somewhat different response later that morning when Dix Stewart led the way to Ox Hollow. It was hard to imagine a more miserable stretch of farmland anywhere in creation. Boulders three feet tall peppered every hillside, and gullies etched the sandy soil as if some giant hawk had clawed the ground in anger. The few trees were mostly scrub mesquite or gnarled junipers, good for little save fenceposts and stove wood. And yet a half-dozen Mexican families managed to eke out a living planting vegetables and a few acres of sweet com.