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A Tale Out of Luck
By Mike Blakely
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- Trade Paperback (Large Print) $19.99 $24.99 CAD
- ebook (Digital original) $9.99 $11.99 CAD
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Meanwhile, Hank’s twenty-year-old son, Jay Blue, and his adoptive brother, Skeeter, find themselves on the trail of a valuable Kentucky mare who vanished under their watch. The trail leads them into the dangerous haunts of outlaws and vengeful Comanche warriors. Now Hank must attempt to keep his sons safe while trying to catch a murderer who he knows will soon strike again. His ace-in-the-hole is beautiful Flora Barlow, the tavern owner with a knack for detective work.
Though rival lawman, Matt Kenyon, and competing rancher, Jack Brennan, complicate Hank’s investigation, he and Flora slowly begin to uncover a crooked web of crime, deception, and murder. Dark secrets emerge, and everyone must choose sides as lawmen, outlaws, soldiers, and Indian warriors converge for a final, bloody confrontation.
Copyright © 2008 by Willie Nelson
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: September 2008
Summary: "Country legend Willie Nelson makes his fiction debut with an action-packed western set in the semi-fictional town of Luck, Texas"—Provided by publisher.
HE CALLED HIMSELF, among other aliases, Wes James. Hunkered down now beside a fire of compact yet functional design, he made it a point to actually think of his name as Wes. The crucial thing here was to keep branding the current alias into his mind, as surely as he aimed to use his running iron, now heating in the coals, to do some quick branding of its own.
He whispered the assumed identity as he used a stick to pile gray-speckled orange coals over the tip of his running iron: "Wes James . . . The name's Wes James . . ." He glanced across the open top of the rocky hill where he had come upon the brindle yearling. As he turned the iron with his fingers, his wary hazel eyes swept the line of live oaks rimming the summit. He looked over his shoulder at his claybank cow pony, the gelding still keeping a taut rope on the lassoed brindle, the heifer securely hog-tied now on the ground.
"Howdy, ma'am, the name's Wes James."
The trick was never to react to one of the other aliases should some stock detective or brand inspector track him here to the limestone hills outside of the frontier town of Luck, Texas. In New Mexico, he had named himself Butch Smithers. He had styled himself Samuel Longstreet in Indian Territory. Elsewhere, he had variously announced his handle in saloons and recorded his identity in brand registration books as Joe Dudley, John Allen Roark, Shorty McDonald, Billy Ballard . . .
The alias was never random. It was always shaped around a brand Wes needed to register somewhere—a brand made by altering an existing brand on somebody else's livestock. Wes James—John Wesley James, to be more precise—was not without a measure of intelligence, a sense of creativity, and even a parcel of pride. What he lacked was ambition. He had no vision of the future, other than where he might find his next bottle of whiskey or woman of soiled virtue. His given name? The name of a father he never met? The name his mean stepdaddy had forced him to adopt? None of them mattered more than a plug of chew to one Wes James.
He looked up at the wisp of branding-fire smoke trailing off at an angle and dissipating into the slate gray of the evening sky. His identity here would fade like that smoke trail. He fanned it thinner with his hat. He didn't want anyone to see the smoke any more than he wanted to remember his past or visualize his future.
Wes James had gotten caught only once doctoring brands, in Omaha. Lucky he was caught in town, instead of out on the range where he would have been shot or lynched on the spot. Hard labor, mean guards, and meaner convicts were the consequences of carelessness that he didn't intend to suffer again, though he had fared better than men of lesser grit. Wes was six feet tall, lean, broad-shouldered, and tough. He wasn't given to violence, preferring to escape clean rather than fight his way out of a bind, but he could take care of himself, and would, with fists or firearms, if pressed into a corner.
He felt heat creeping up the running iron—a simple, straight rod no bigger around than his little finger. With it, he could "run" a brand with the same deft hand he often used to forge bogus bills of sale. He had employed this particular running iron for years—a short model that, after it cooled, slipped into a hidden pocket of his saddlebag. He knew from experience that when this end of the iron began to scorch his leathery palm, the business end was plenty hot enough to transfer possession of one brindle heifer to Wes James's ill-gotten ownership.
He lifted the iron from the coals and rose from his crouch, his knees and back aching a bit. Again his eyes swept his surrounds. He kicked some dirt on the coals, then hastened to the hog-tied brindle, the red-hot tip of his running iron leading the way, taking on the same shade as the setting sun.
The claybank was still leaning back on the rope. Too bad he couldn't keep this pony. He was a real good one. But Wes James never rode the same horse or wore the same crease in his hat for very long. The brindle thrashed on the ground as Wes approached, but the piggin' string held tight around the two hind legs and the left forefoot, and soon the beast rolled her eyes back in her head and lolled out her tongue in bovine stupefaction.
This was the moment of highest risk for a brand doctor—a rustler of beeves who specialized in modifying existing brands. It was impossible to explain away the act of doctoring another man's brand. Once altered, however, he would have his own brand registration papers showing title to the new design of the brand. No one would have reason to believe it had ever been altered. And, just to make sure no one saw the old brand in the new one, Wes would trail his rustled beeves far away to Jacksboro to sell to some unwitting British investors who had bought a large chunk of the Texas free range near there.
Selling his ill-gotten cattle too close to home was the mistake that had landed Wes in prison before. He had sold a small herd of rustled beeves at the stockyards in Omaha. After the sale, a sharp-eyed brand inspector had recognized the original brand, owned by a prominent area rancher, through Wes's doctored brand. They found Wes—George Brannigan as he called himself there—drunk in an Omaha saloon, a maiden of ill repute on his lap. He had always maintained that he could have jumped up and made a run for it, had the harlot not been so plump. He had leaned toward slender whores ever since, and suspected he could find one skinny enough to suit him up in Jacksboro.
Now the red-hot tip of the running iron descended on the brand of the Broken Arrow Ranch—two lines, roughly vertical, but closer together at the top than the bottom, intended to represent a broken arrow shaft.
The brand, and the ranch, belonged to one Hank Tomlinson, a retired Texas Ranger captain of some renown. Tomlinson was not the kind of man Wes cared to get caught by, and that, in part, was what worried him now. On top of that, he had heard in town that a small band of Comanches had camped on Flat Rock Creek. Wes made a point of staying better mounted and armed than Indians, but the prospect of losing his scalp still raised concern.
Then there was that other matter. He tried not to think about that at all. In the past, he had always kept things simple and worked alone. He had always rustled for himself. He should have held to that policy.
His iron touched the existing brand, joining the tips of the two lines that made up the Broken Arrow brand, changing it to an inverted V. At the touch of the red-hot rod, the heifer bellowed and lunged against her bindings. Wes lifted the iron for a moment so the brand wouldn't smear an amateurish burn scar across the hide. He held the iron as an orchestra conductor would hold his wand, waiting to signal the strings, and he shushed the complaints of the heifer.
"Shhh . . . Hush, now, girl, I know it ain't fair."
And the beast seemed to listen. Deftly now, he added two more lines, expanding the inverted V into a W, all the while lifting his wand and shushing the piteous bellows when the brindle convulsed. He squinted past the odors of burnt hair and flesh as he added a J below the W.
This was the brand—the WJ—that Wes James had registered up in Jack County. This brand was, in fact, the reason for the alias, Wes James. As a final touch, he ran the hot iron over the scars of the existing brand, to freshen up the look of the entire brand and make it all appear newly burnt. If caught with this fresh-branded brindle somewhere between here and Jack County, he could claim that he was simply a mavericker working the free range—a poor cowboy trying to get a stake by roping and branding wild cattle owned by nobody.
A welcome sense of relief came over him. Now he could remove the piggin' string and let the heifer up. He'd leave her necked to a live oak overnight so she couldn't wander off. He'd camp nearby, catch some sleep. Before dawn, he'd be moving the heifer to that lonesome canyon where he was holding half a dozen more rustled beeves with doctored brands already penned behind a crude cedar picket fence. By daylight, he'd be on the trail to faraway Jack County. After that, he'd never again return to these ranges, ride this claybank, or use the name of Wes James.
Something sent a sudden alarm through Wes's nervous system. Had he heard it, smelled it, or just felt it? He turned. His eyes locked onto a figure at the tree line, fifty paces away, backlit by a western sky of red and purple. A feeling of dread chilled his guts. Then his eyes focused more clearly, and he knew he was in trouble. He gasped, and his heart throbbed in fear as he dropped the running iron and groped for his revolver. An arrow hissed toward him and thudded into his chest like a drumbeat before the running iron even hit the ground. He gasped and staggered back at the impact of the projectile. His fear overwhelmed him, and he could not find the handle of his weapon in the holster.
The pain and terror mounted now, and the last thing Wes James saw was a second arrow shaft protruding from his chest, just an inch from the place where the first one had struck. The colors of the sunset melted away, and Wes James hit the ground dead, his long, straight frame cooling alongside that of his trusty running iron.
From the east, swelling above the distant horizon, came the leading bulge of a full moon, thinly smeared with a tincture of blood.
SKEETER RODRIGUEZ stepped out of the bunkhouse and into the cool autumn evening.
"Mind them Injuns, Skeeter," came a voice from the bunkhouse, followed by a chorus of chuckles from the grown men inside. Skeeter smirked and slammed the door behind him. Already, he was regretting covering guard duty for Jay Blue. It was Jay Blue's night. Skeeter had gotten talked into taking the night guard in his stead so Jay Blue could ride into Luck and flirt with some barmaid who scarcely knew he existed. Agreeing to the favor had made Skeeter feel like a good friend at the time, but now it seemed like a bad decision, for the Winchester was heavy in his grasp, and he was already tired from a long day's toil around the ranch.
The headquarters of the Broken Arrow Ranch overlooked a broad bend in the Pedernales River, the pretty stream named a couple of centuries earlier, most probably for the remarkable flint arrowheads—pedernales—that the conquistadors had found and admired. Most of the Anglos who had since moved into the frontier region could not even pronounce the name correctly, and had bastardized it into a thing that sounded like "Perd 'n' Alice."
And so, the river enjoyed two pronunciations at the Broken Arrow Ranch, for the spread employed white cowboys as well as Mexican vaqueros. Skeeter Rodriguez was caught in the middle of it all, a little confused as to exactly where he fit in. He didn't remember his mother, a Mexican woman about whom no one would give him many details. He remembered his grandfather. His abuelo, a kind but strict old goat herder, had raised him to the age of six, dubbing him Izquierdo, meaning "lefty." Finding his grandfather dead in the pasture one day, little Izquierdo Rodriguez had walked to the newly founded town of Luck, Texas, not knowing what else to do.
Captain Hank Tomlinson, owner of the Broken Arrow Ranch, retired Texas Ranger, founder of Luck, and the most respected citizen of the Pedernales River valley, happened to hear of the orphan's plight and took Izquierdo in, giving him a home at the Broken Arrow Ranch and raising him alongside his own son, Jay Blue, who was only a year older than Izquierdo. The cowboys on the ranch—the Anglos, that is—could no more pronounce Izquierdo than they could Pedernales, so Izquierdo became "Skeeter." Skeeter Rodriguez.
Now, eleven years later, he spoke both Spanish and English with equal facility. It was as if he had half a dozen fathers, some Mexican, some white, for all the hands on the ranch liked Skeeter and looked after him. Yet, he had no father at all, and in fact had no clue as to the identity of the man who had sired him. Well, he had one clue. Skeeter's eyes were blue. That didn't exactly narrow it down a whole lot. Skeeter was just an orphan, and that's all there was to it. It lurked in the back of his mind as he trudged away from the warm bunkhouse.
He took a moment to admire the full moon rising across the river. It was the color of cream skimmed from the top of a milk pail. Its brightness almost hurt his eyes. He looked across the neatly organized grounds of the ranch headquarters. The road to town stretched downstream, along the rim of the bluffs overlooking the river, running under the sign reading Broken Arrow Ranch, suspended high between two tall, straight cedar timbers. His eyes swept across the wagon yard, blacksmith shop, toolshed, smokehouse, barn, and springhouse, to the two-story limestone home rising among venerable live oaks. There was one light on in a window upstairs, and Skeeter knew the captain was reading. Maybe the Bible, the mail, the Austin Daily Statesman, or a book of poems. Skeeter reckoned he, himself, ought to learn to read better if he wanted to be more like the captain. And he did.
He wandered to the circular corral where the ranch hands busted broncs. The captain's new Thoroughbred mare stood alone in this enclosure. Captain Tomlinson had traveled all the way to Kentucky to find and purchase this mare, hauling her back to Houston in a railroad stock car and leading her the rest of the way to his ranch on the frontier. Having gone into heat yesterday, she had been segregated here alone, out of reach of the studhorses. The captain had yet to choose and purchase the stallion who would enjoy the charms of this Kentucky mare, and in fact intended to race her a year to establish her fame before he let her breed.
The Thoroughbred saw Skeeter coming. She raised her head in a greeting. He leaned on a corral rail, and she came right to him, in contrast to the wilder ranch ponies of mixed mustang blood, who would usually shy away from a man afoot. Skeeter liked this mare for this reason. Her big doe eyes sought his face with curiosity, her long neck extending gracefully, her soft muzzle reaching between corral rails as if to kiss Skeeter on the cheek.
He smelled her sweet, warm breath; let her smell his. She nudged his face, with more anxious purpose now. He read her mind. Where have you been? Let me out!
The lantern light in the window shrank into darkness. Skeeter thought he saw the curtains move. He stood straighter, propping the Winchester on his shoulder. He felt the captain looking down at him.
"Guard what?" he said to the mare. "Guard you?" There hadn't been trouble around the ranch in years. Indians—Comanches, Kiowas, Lipan Apaches, and others—still passed through the valley on the way to Mexico, but they knew Hank Tomlinson's reputation as well as anyone, and stayed clear. The captain had a wild notion that rustlers were working the outlying extremes of his ranges, chiseling away at his ample herd, but Skeeter attributed that to the old Ranger's longing for the old days, when he had ridden roughshod through the haunts of outlaws, Mexican bandits, and renegade Indians, helping to wrest this whole broad swath of the frontier out of the grasp of the lawless wilderness. As far as Skeeter was concerned, he and this mare were as safe from depredations here on the ranch as Jay Blue was in town at this moment.
Jay Blue, who by all rights, should have been standing guard over the Broken Arrow Ranch precisely now, as a matter of fact. He heard a roar of laughter in the bunkhouse and knew he was missing out on a joke that nobody would remember in the morning. "Night guard, my foot," Skeeter said. Then he grew even more morose, considering how Jay Blue, the rancher's son, had talked him into this nonsense. "Your ass!" he said to the mare.
JAY BLUE could hardly wait to get inside Flora's Saloon, feeling quite sure that he was already missing out on an opportunity at this very instant. But his father, Captain Hank Tomlinson, had taught him to always take care of his horses before entertaining himself, so he let a few inches out on the latigo, loosening the cinch and allowing the dun to breathe deep while he stood tied at the hitching rail.
Thank goodness he had talked Skeeter into taking his watch. Jay Blue knew he wouldn't get much sleep tonight, but hadn't his father often ridden days without sleep in the old times? Jay Blue considered himself pure Tomlinson, as much so as his daddy. More importantly, it had been over a week since he had been to town, and he could feel his chances slipping away. He had to put in an appearance tonight or forever lose any hope of winning that girl.
He leapt to the top step of the boardwalk, his jinglebobs ringing merrily against his spur rowels, and shoved the double swinging doors aside, entering the saloon with something of a flourish. Those swinging doors squeaked to good purpose. Nobody stood anything to gain in a frontier town by letting anybody slip into a saloon unnoticed. Every eye turned to look at the new arrival.
There were an odd number of eyes, for old Gotch Dunnsworth was at the bar, and Gotch had lost an eye in the war. Dunnsworth owned the livery stable next door, and spent as much time in the saloon as anyone. But Jay Blue had not come here to see Gotch Dunnsworth.
Within a fraction of a second, he located the object of his sleepless nights of longing. Her name was Jane Catlett. She was the prettiest thing in this saloon, and perhaps in the state of Texas, as far as Jay Blue knew. Like everyone else, Jane glanced toward Jay Blue as he stood in front of the still-swinging doors. For a moment her indifferent stare brightened. But then she clearly smirked and rolled her eyes in such a lazy way that their gaze took some time landing elsewhere, and not anywhere near Jay Blue.
He smelled lilacs, or maybe it was lavender—one of those feminine fragrances. He glanced back over his shoulder to see Flora Barlow, the owner of the saloon, standing right behind him. She was old enough to be Jay Blue's mother, but that didn't much tarnish her desirability, or the popularity of her drinking establishment. If young Jane was the prettiest thing in Texas, Flora Barlow surely ran her a close second. She also exuded a vague essence of knowledge of things that would surely make a man very happy.
"I hope you don't have your sights set on little Janie," Flora said, her voice a tease and a warning all at once. "She doesn't like cowboys. At least not as much as I do."
Jay Blue turned to Flora and smiled. "Janie? Janie who? I just came in for a beer, Miss Flora."
Her hands landed naturally on hips accented by her corseted waist. "You rode all the way here from your daddy's ranch for a beer?"
"It's my ranch, too. Will be, anyway."
Flora smirked at him, crossing her arms under her breasts, and making it difficult for Jay Blue not to glance toward the low-cut bodice. "What would your daddy think about me selling you a beer? You're barely old enough to shave."
"I beg to differ, Miss Flora. I'm on my second straight razor. I wore the first one smooth out."
Flora smiled and dropped the mock interrogation. "Well, I guess one beer won't hurt you, then. But, just one, then you'd better make tracks for that ranch you intend to claim. If I know your father—and I do—he's not going to hand that ranch over to you just because your name is Jay Tomlinson."
"Jay Blue, ma'am."
"Oh, Jay Blue, of course. You're going to have to earn that ranch, Jay Blue." She sure made her mouth look attractive when she said, "Blue."
"Harry, give this big-shot rancher a beer," Flora said to her bartender.
Jay Blue sauntered to the bar to collect his beer, nodding a greeting to Gotch Dunnsworth.
"You want to drink a whiskey toast to Dixie, kid?" Gotch said.
Jay Blue knew Gotch expected him to purchase said shot of whiskey. "I never touch the stuff, sir," he replied, lifting the beer mug to his lips and sucking in the warm, bitter brew.
"Don't know what you're missin'."
Jay Blue's eyes followed Jane across the room. "I'm sure you're right about that, Mr. Dunnsworth."
"Your daddy know you're here?"
"Well, your ass is gonna be exactly in a crack when he finds out." Gotch wheezed a volley of laughter.
Jay Blue smiled sheepishly, but then entertained himself with thoughts of what it was going to be like when Jane finally consented to being alone with him somewhere. He stood there at the bar— suffering through tiny sips of his acrid beverage and hoping Jane would again look his way, which she did not—until the squeaking hinges of the swinging doors announced a new arrival. A towering hulk of a man burst in, followed by five loud and dusty cowhands.
The big man was Jack Brennan, owner of the Double Horn Ranch, the closest thing the Broken Arrow had to a rival on the ranges around Luck. Jack possessed the size and muscle to strike fear into the hearts of most men, but came nowhere near Captain Hank Tomlinson in his command of respect.
The Double Horn cowboys spotted an empty table and went to claim it. Jay Blue knew them all by name, though considered none of them as a friend. The redheaded foreman, Eddie Milliken, led the way, followed by Joe Butts, Ham Franklin, Bill Waterford, and Johnny Webb. Jack Brennan stood his ground at the door for a moment, sweeping the room with his eyes. When he spotted Jay Blue, he drew back his head and furrowed his brow, then strolled over to the bar.
"Whiskey," he said to the bartender. "And you better send a bottle to them boys at the table, too." His big hand gripped the full shot glass hastily placed before him. He threw the shot back and seemed to get lost for a moment in some faraway place full of worry and sorrow. "Hit me again."
With his second shot in hand, he turned to Jay Blue, feigning surprise. "Didn't notice you there, Jay Boy."
"It's Jay Blue, Mr. Brennan."
"That's what I said. Did you see that thing outside?"
"Looked like a cross between a ox and a javalina. I guess it was a ox-alina. Anyway, it had a saddle on it looked just like yours." He threw the second shot of whiskey past his teeth.
Jay Blue felt stupid for letting Jack Brennan set him up, once again, for an insult to his horseflesh. "I'll match Old Dunnie up to any cow horse in the country—" he began, but Brennan stepped on his reply as if it were nothing but a whistle in the wind.
"What the hell are you doin' here, kid?"
"Huntin' strays." Jay Blue kept his eye on Jane as she moved closer to the table the Double Horn Ranch cowboys had occupied.
"I know what kind of stray you're huntin'." Jack tapped the shot glass on the bar at the bartender. "Gotch, you want a whiskey? Harry, pour Gotch a whiskey, for God's sake. The man's a war hero."
"To Robert E. Lee!" Gotch said, lifting his glass toward Harry's bottle.
Jack looked down at Jay Blue. "Where's that little half-breed shadow of yours? What do y'all call him? Skinner? Scooter?"
"Skeeter. He's standing guard tonight."
Jack shook his head in disapproval. "Your daddy ought to know better than to put a boy out on guard tonight. I hear some Comanches are camped over on Flat Rock Creek. I don't reckon they'd steal one of y'alls' horses to ride, but they might want to eat one."
The comment galled Jay Blue, but not as much as the fact that the Double Horn foreman, Eddie Milliken, was clearly flirting with Jane. "Daddy just came back from Kentucky with a new Thoroughbred broodmare."
"Broodmare, my ass. That's a racehorse. Ya'll think you can win the stake race on Texas Independence Day with that nag, don't you?"
"Well, we've got to prove her reputation around here if we're going to advertise her as any kind of a broodmare for our future. So, yes sir, Mr. Brennan, we're going to run her in the stake race, alright."
"One prickly pear sticker's liable to send that spoilt bitch limping back to the barn."
"On the contrary, I think we can win next year, Mr. Brennan."
"Ain't that what you said before this year's race?" Jack slurped at his third shot of bourbon.
"Next year will be different, Mr. Brennan. I'd bet money on it." Over the rim of his beer mug, Jay Blue continued to watch Jane. She was ignoring Eddie Milliken, but he was still saying something to her that Jay Blue could not hear. The foreman had a stupid grin on his face that Jay Blue did not like. Then, apparently, Jane said something that put him in his place, judging by the way the other cowboys laughed at their own foreman. But when Jane turned away, Milliken stood and grabbed her ass.
Jane wheeled to slap the foreman, dropping a tray of empty glasses as she did so. Milliken caught her right arm, then grabbed her left wrist as she tried to strike with that hand. Jay Blue was already advancing among the saloon patrons, arriving at the Double Horn boys' table in seconds. He hit Milliken in the side of the head, knocking him to the floor. But Milliken managed to hold on to Jane and dragged her down with him.
Jay Blue pounced on Milliken and landed another punch, but soon found himself swarmed by the cowhand's friends. A fist struck his jaw, a boot kicked his ribs. He wrenched his right arm free and hit somebody somewhere, but was soon restrained again. Something hit him in the mouth. He tasted blood. He could hear Jane screaming, "Stop it! Stop it!" He could hear the Double Horn boys cussing him as they laid on more blows. He saw too many fists and boots flying at his face to enumerate.
Jack Brennan watched the melee and chuckled until he heard Flora call out to her bartender: "Harry!" The barkeep reached for a shotgun behind the bar, but Jack cautioned him with an open palm. "I'll break it up." He took three big steps to the pile of cowboys and began pulling his ranch hands off Jay Blue one at a time, tossing them aside like half-grown children. When he finally got down to Jay Blue, he lifted him to his feet and looked him over.
Jay Blue spit out some blood in the direction of Eddie Milliken. "That'll teach you," he slurred across a busted lip.
Jack laughed. "You ought to know better than to start a fight you can't win."
Jay Blue wiped the blood from one eye with his shirt sleeve. "Somebody had to take up for the lady."
"I can take up for myself, Jay Blue Tomlinson!" Jane grabbed him by the sleeve and dragged him toward the door. "Now you get on out of here and go home."
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2008
- Page Count
- 448 pages
- Center Street