Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Here is an excerpt from “Homesteader”, my third published novel and the second with SBPRA. This is the piece very near the first where Hank and Harry meet the man who will prove a problem for them, Portis Martin. It is also one of the reasons that Hank decides to apply for land under the Homestead Act … to prove a thorn in Martin’s side.

I'm not sure where these pictures were taken but this is the type of country they would have been riding through on their approach to Calgary, first on the train and then mounted and trailing down the eastern slope.

By D. M. McGowan
Copyright © 2000

It was close to noon before we met the first discouraging thing although it took us several minutes to realize it. It was a man of perhaps two hundred and fifty pounds riding a sixteen hundred pound horse. He came out of the bush on the north side of the draw that ran down hill off to our left, followed by two average size men on two average size horses. We didn't know he was a sorry cuss at that moment, but it didn't take us long to find out.
            They sat and watched us approach for a few moments.
            Our pack horses were free and followed well, but just in case I dropped back and pulled the halter shank out from under a pack rope. Passing the lead behind my back to my left hand I flipped it over Blackie's rump and looped it around the saddle horn. When Harry saw that he dropped back and did the same with the other pack animal.
            The three strangers rode down into the draw and up our side to meet us. The way they jerked their mounts to a halt justified my leading the pack horse. I put a half hitch slip in the lead rope so I wouldn't have to hold it.
            All three of them wore the tall crowned, big brimmed hat of the time over hair too long and dirty. Their high healed boots too narrow for their feet branded them as cattlemen. They all wore handlebar mustaches, usual for the time, but were otherwise clean shaven which was not always usual for men riding the range. The two average size men wore stove-pipe chaps over canvas pants, cotton shirts - one blue and one red - cow hide vests and red neckerchiefs. The big man wore wool pants, a plaid, flannel shirt, tweed vest fully buttoned with a watch chain stretching across his ample middle and a blue bandana. They all wore Colt pistols, the younger and smallest man carrying two, hung with butts forward.
             They drew up abreast, no more than two feet between each of their mounts. The youngster, who, by the appearance of his weapons and how he wore them seemed to think he was a gunfighter, was in the center.
            This young fellow and his appearance drew my attention more than he should have. Riding alone in the wilderness or working with wild cattle and horses it always makes sense to wear a hand gun. But in those days many people couldn’t afford a hand gun, let alone two. And wearing them butt forward as this young man did meant they would be catching on things like his rope and the brush as he was trying to do the work of a cow hand. Therefore I suspected he was probably a poor range rider and a good trouble maker. I should have ignored him and paid more attention to his riding partners.
            The way the three of them charged right up to us and stopped so close didn’t add to my feeling of comfort. They were crowding us and had an arrogant manner about them. I didn’t like the look in their eyes and I was glad I had taken the pack horse lead shank.
            Even though he was a few years older than me, Harry Gilmore always followed my lead. Part of the reason was that, up until the fall before, I had been his boss for about a year. Mostly, though, it was because he was part Sioux - although few ever knew that - and several years of folks tramping on him and his people meant that he generally followed and kept his mouth shut. What that meant for me at the time was that I knew I would be handling the conversation with the fat man, and I could depend on Henry to back me up, whatever happened.
            “Where do you think you’re going?” the fat man asked.
            Maybe my confidence in Henry's loyalty and ability made me a little too mouthy in my response to the big man's arrogant manner. And, as I said, I was paying too much attention to the gun man and not enough to the fat man. "East," I replied.
            He tried to stare me down. I smiled and he shifted his gaze to Henry, rolling his chew around in his mouth.
            He forced his big horse forward a few steps so that its head was on Blackie's off side, its nose about a foot from my right knee. "Where did you come from?" he asked, bringing his gaze back to me.
            "West," I replied.
            He spit tobacco juice at Blackie's cheek.
            Blackie was a good horse but he wouldn't put up with very much foolishness even from me. He was also one of the fastest animals I ever rode. It seemed that stream of tobacco juice was still in the air when he turned and bit the fat man's horse on the shoulder.
            Sixteen hundred pounds of horse squealed and jumped to the left, blood flowing down its leg from a three inch gash. The horse ridden by the young gunfighter, at least six hundred pounds lighter than the fat man's horse, was too close and no match for the bigger animal. Rider and horse hit the ground hard.
            The mustang grunted, squealed, and jumped to its feet. The rider's left foot was caught in the stirrup as the horse lunged away from another collision.
            The fat man put his hand on his pistol and turned his gaze from the donnybrook back to me. His hand froze when he found my Colt was already in my hand. I didn't point it at him, just let it hang there, muzzle down, my forearm resting on the horn. Very slowly he put his right hand back on top of his left which rested on his own saddle horn.
            At the same time the third rider shook out a loop and turned his mount toward the bucking mustang and dragging rider. Within a hundred feet he had the animal roped. It stood on the end of the lariat with legs spread wide and vibrated. The bundle attached to the stirrup didn't move.
            "I'm Portis Martin," the fat man said.
            I was doing my best to maintain a calm, this-is-an-everyday-thing appearance, but was in fact having a tough time with that. Not only had I been approached poorly in a generally friendly land, but one of my best friends had just been spit on.
            "Henry James," I responded. "Some folks call me Hank, but you can call me Mr. James." Without taking my eyes from him I inclined my head to indicate my saddle partner. "This here is Mr. Gilmore."
            The roper dismounted on the off side and, speaking slowly and calmly, worked his way up the rope to the frightened horse.
            Martin made a sweeping motion with his arm. "This is all my land an' the cattle on it are mine," he said. "Them horses you're ridin' are a whole lot better than any drifter'd be usin'. Or cow punchers, fer that matter."
            The other rider took a grip on the headstall on the shaky animal. Very slowly he reached for the stirrup and released his partner's foot. He led the horse off a few steps, and then returned a knelt by the motionless body.
            I had to give Martin high marks for guts. Like I said, I wasn't pointing it at him, but I had a loaded Colt in my hand and he was calling me a thief. At the same time I had to give him fairly low marks for smart. "You callin' me a rustler?" I asked.
            He smiled. "Well I don' see no cows with yuh, but its bin a while since I seen drifters with 'nough truck they gotta have 'em a pack horse. An', like I said, you're on my land."
            "Thought this was the Cochrane Ranch," I said.
            "Yuh rode off it a ways back," he said. "This land here, an' the land north o' Cochrane right t' the mountains is my problem."
            "Looks t' me like a railroad track over there," I noted. I didn't turn to look at it, but kept my eyes on Martin.
            "Right smart fer a Yankee," Martin responded.
            I ignored the attempted insult. During my years in the country I had tried to lose my American way of speech, but it appeared I had not been completely successful. "Be about fifty yards?" I asked.
            "I reckon," he nodded, his expression somewhat puzzled.
            "Railroad claims a hun'red yards each side o' the roadbed," I informed him. "That means we ain't on your land. They also claim alternatin' sections on each side of the rails, so a lot of what you're claimin' ain't yours."
            Martin worked his chaws for a moment, and then sent another stream of tobacco juice into the dust. He made a point of missing Black. "Ain't no nevermind," he said. "Ain't no railroad men out here. Me that runs this country."
            "Too bad," I said, putting my pistol back in the leather.
            "What's that supposed to mean?" he fired back.
            "Country's likely to go to hell," I replied. "One of your men just got himself squished an' dragged. If he's lucky, he won't have more than a broken leg. For ten minutes you been arguin’ with me and you ain't even looked at him. You look after the country same way you look after your hands, why, I reckon we're all in trouble."
            I turned Black and we started away.
            "Don't make no nevermind fer you," Martin said. I looked over my shoulder at him and he continued. "You'll be leavin'."
            "Don't reckon," I said, then added before he could threaten me if I stayed. "You claimin' all this land that ain't yours, makes me wonder if maybe we should ask the Mounties to see if you're claimin' cows ain't yours."
            Martin smiled. "Rode intu this country in '73 with them boys. Got me two stripes 'for I took t' raisin' beef."
            This was not news that I found comforting. However, I didn't let it show and just smiled. "Then they won't likely be too su'prised when I describe our meetin' here today." We rode on, being sure to stay within' the railroad right of way.

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