“Why you?” she asked.
I paused. I could see she was upset, angry, her eyes flashing. It was in the set of her body, the set of her mouth and the tone of her voice. I understood her anger and I also understood her fear; it was well justified.
“Because I can, because we both know what it’s like,” I told her.
It did little to soothe her, but she knew, as I did, that I would do what had been asked.
“You are a rancher, you have a family,” she continued stubbornly, trying to plead her case.
“That’s right, and I’m responsible for the safety of you, Matthew and Will, and the people who depend on us for a living,” I responded. “As long as this is happening, none of you are safe.”
“Then let’s leave, let’s go to Tennessee or Virginia.”
“I won’t leave our home and you should know by now, I won’t run.”
A few days before, Sheriff Dan Brooks had ridden to the ranch.
“Buck, I need some help,” he started after we sat at the table in the dining room. “You know the situation with the Indians.”
I nodded. It had been a rough year, and it was only half over. In January, Brit Johnson had been killed by Kiowas. His search for his family, taken in the Elm Creek raid, was legendary. It had taken a couple years, but he never gave up. His death came along a lonely stretch of road when some twenty-five Kiowas had attacked four wagons. It was believed he had been the last to die.
Some two-and-a-half months before, a dozen men had been attacked near Rock Creek, north of the ranch. My foreman, Juan Carrera, and two men had been with them, gathering cattle. Some forty or fifty Comanches and Kiowas had attacked. The men were pinned in a shallow wash with the Indians above and with a clear advantage. The raiders killed eight of the horses immediately and the riders entered the wash without their rifles.
Before the day was over, eight of the twelve were either wounded or dead, I knew most of them. Tom Crow died there and Bob Haskins and Tom Riley, both my hands, died before full dark. John Lemley and Shap Carter died over the next two days. Juan had managed to survive without a scratch as did Ed Graves and two others.
“There was a black man there who ran the attack on directions of the war chief,” the sheriff continued. “And there were some whites in that group.”
I had heard about the black man. The chief had sat his horse on a small knoll above the fight and sent word to the black man, telling him where to strike and when. But I had not heard about the whites.
“I don’t know if they were captives or renegades,” he told me. “But I have some information that at least one of the men was Ned Willis.”
I had heard of the Willis brothers. From Jack County, northeast of Palo Pinto County, the several brothers had been implicated — and even identified — in Indian raids. A raid in Jack County by Comanches had led to the identification of Bill Willis by eight-year-old Edith Cameron. She had identified the man as the one who had killed her mother and robbed the family of twelve-hundred dollars. It had been some fourteen years since that raid.
Although taken to court, he had been released. The clan was as vicious as the Comanche and Kiowa raiding parties with which they ran. Some years later, after being arrested in south Texas, the whole bunch had been taken to Austin where three of the brothers had been summarily hung. But the others had survived, their whereabouts and activities unknown.
“I was appointed last year to replace Madison Veale,” said Brooks. “The judge told me to start cleaning things up and I promised I would. Right now, both deputies are looking for horse thieves and rustlers and whatever else comes up.
“Everybody knows your reputation. My concern is, Ned Willis is as blood thirsty as the savages he runs with. The rangers are doing what they can, but they’re stretched thin and the military ain’t much better off. There have been enough women raped and killed, enough men have died. I want this sonofabitch, alive or dead, but I want him.”
“Why him, why now?” I asked.
“I was told he intends on riding into this country and cut a wide swath of revenge,” Brooks explained. “His family lived poor and died poor and he sees successful ranchers and businessmen as the cause of their troubles. Fact is, they were lazy, lawless bums. I’m tellin’ ya Buck there won’t be a man, woman or child safe — not yours, not mine, nobody.”
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“It don’t to me either,” he said. “All I was told was that his folks was run off along with his family. And, from I hear, folks wasn’t none too nice about it.”
“I don’t know, Dan,” I said. “I’ve got a family, I’ve got a ranch and Catherine will throw a tantrum like this country’s never seen.”
“Dammit man, I know all that. But you know what can happen as well as anyone. I need you, the county needs you, hell, Texas needs you.”
I wanted to think about it. Catherine and I had been married just a few short years. Since my run in with Henry Albertson in Palo Pinto, I had worked the ranch, building a future for my family. The last thing I wanted was to get into a man hunt for Willis and leave the ranch for what could turn out to be several months. And there was always the chance of getting killed. And I told Brooks so.
“I understand Buck, and I can’t say I blame you, but the next ones could be Catherine and the boys. Do you want to face that chance?”
I had reluctantly agreed.
~ * ~
“So, that’s it then?” Catherine asked, tears beginning to show in her eyes. “You’re just going to traipse off and leave us here with me not knowing if you’re stretched out on an ant hill somewhere?”
“Look, you and the boys are my life. Without you, there would be no meaning. I’d be out there somewhere, trying to live, but with no purpose, no reason to continue. Our time together has changed my life. If something happened to you and the boys, what do you think I’d do?”
Her eyes softened as she came around the table and hugged me. Tears were in her eyes as she looked up.
“I know, and that’s how I feel about you. I’m scared.”
“I know you are and I am, too,” I said. “But I’m more afraid of not doing anything.
“Look, why don’t you and the boys go to Virginia to visit your family for a few weeks? You haven’t seen them since you came to Texas and I’ll know you’ll be safe. You can catch the stage, travel to Galveston, get on a boat and be there before you know it.”
“How can I go knowing you’re out there?”
“There’s nothing you can do here. Juan can watch the ranch and take care of the cattle.”
An hour later she said, “No. If you are going to do this, I will not leave. I can be as stubborn as you — and you should know by now, I won’t leave my home. When you return, we can go — as a family.”
I knew then she would not budge. She had enough Irish in her that once her mind was made up, there was no further discussion.
The next day I told Juan of my leaving.
“Are you crazy, jefe?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said with a little smile. “I had hell with Catherine, don’t you start.”
He rolled his eyes.
“I can guess,” he said with a mild laugh. “She is one tough woman. I’m surprised she didn’t scalp you.”
Juan and I discussed what needed to be done and the measures I wanted him to take to guard the ranch. It was not needed, for the tough little vaquero was as savvy about Indians as he was about ranching, horses and cattle.
~ * ~
I left the ranch two days later, the parting all too bitter, leaving Catherine and the boys behind.
I headed for Jacksboro and Jack County. Fort Richardson was well garrisoned and I hoped I might catch some word of Ned Willis. I crossed the river upstream of Dark Valley and continued northeast. It had been some time since Will Blocker and I had traveled the route, and it had been much colder. Albertson had taken Catherine and Matthew and we had traveled through snow and cold, searching for some trace of their passing.
The country was rough, but it was late spring, wild flowers dotted the terrain — Indian blankets, black-eyed Susans, and occasionally bluebonnets.
But I kept a sharp eye. There were hills and washes that could hide any number of warriors and they would have no mercy on a lone white man. There were still outlaws as well, rustlers, robbers, murderers. They had always been a threat, and since the war, it had only gotten worse.
I crossed Rock Creek and camped in a small wash away from the water. There was plenty of grass for Blaze.
He had been given to me the year before as a birthday present from Catherine and the boys. She and Juan had found him. He was a sorrel with a blaze and three white stockings, part mustang and part Morgan. He stood some sixteen hands at the shoulder. Juan had a magic hand with horses and trained him.
The buckskin I rode during the war and the many miles to Texas was old. She was enjoying the lush green pastures of the ranch. At times I missed her, for she was as cautious as I when traveling and as eager to get the job done, whatever it was.
Blaze was enough mustang to be wary and enough Morgan to have unlimited stamina. He was one of the best horses I had ever ridden. Juan had done a wonderful job, using the magic he possessed to make him a special mount.
I cooked some bacon and heated beans on a small fire near the wall of the wash, ever aware of the sounds and the attention of Blaze. The mustang in him would alert me to danger. And I had time to consider Catherine and the boys.
Thus begins Blood Spirit with Buck Landers, a man who wanted nothing more than to live in peace, but whose skill with a gun and courage to face impossible obstacles would be called upon time and again. Scheduled for release this month, it can be ordered through www.unlimitedpublishing.com or drop me a line for a signed copy.