Night hadn’t gotten any darker, nor winter any colder. I’d gotten older. Sleeplessness and I had been acquainted my whole life, but now it took more work to overcome its toll. The first leg of the ride unfolded across flat land via a rutted dirt road, so I gave Chester the reins and focused my mind and body with exercises.
It felt good to be riding somewhere with purpose, even if I didn’t want to think about the confrontation waiting at the end. Instead I tested the balance of my Colts, spinning them palms up then down, forward and back. Elbows in, I closed my eyes and imagined the spinning barrels as extensions of my strikes, until the time came to leave the road west of Caddo. With a sigh, I cut a straight path south.
A man can kill the past and bury it. But time turns everything to oil, and sooner or later, circumstance brings it bubbling to the surface. While the chill of the norther lashed my back, bitter memories stung my eyes. Ranger lay at the end of the trail. Home.
The town had been named after a camp of Texas Rangers, my grandpappy chief among them. While the area was still a village, he’d bought the land surrounding the old campsite. After retiring, he settled there to finish raising his family.
Slowly, Chester picked his way through mesquite and prickly pear. The invasive species had invaded swaths of rolling hills that used to be covered in hard woods and stirrup high grasses. It was exactly the kind of bull plop my father preached on; overgrazing, over-logging. It didn’t surprise me in the least he’d refused the wildcatters, millions be damned.
I’d forsaken Ranger to follow in my grandpappy’s footsteps, but then the Rangers had forsaken me. Now I was coming full circle, and for what? To convince an old bastard who quit everything he ever started, save the damn ranch, to quit that too? I had no choice. He was my father.
Chester and I peaked Ranger Hill as lavender and gunmetal-pink streaked the eastern horizon a half hour before the sun would pull back the covers on a Texas encased in hoarfrost. Two hours earlier the winds had died without delivering a single puff of cloud. Instead the stars bled into the stillness until the back of my duster crackled with it.
Of course God would take the old man’s side, conspiring against me. The stark contrast between the silhouettes of clanking derricks and the crystalline skeletons of oak choked the bitterness in me. The constant popping of the two-stroke pump jacks, shattered what should have been a quiet thick enough to drown a man.
But I still had nagging questions. Questions God wouldn’t, or couldn’t answer, and that my old man sure as hell better. After sixteen years, he was about to get his chance.
Suddenly, instinct took over. The perimeter fence to the family ranch had been cut and rolled back. Dismounting, I slapped Chester twice on the neck, instructing him to get out of sight but stay alert. I shifted my bandana over my nose and mouth while making my way to a juvenile stand of live oak growing in the fence. Normally my father would never allow anything to clutter his fence line.
With no pump jacks nearby, the early morning fell quiet. Whoever had cut the fence had gone through it. Not expecting anyone else from the outside—they’d be more worried about their fronts than their backs. Good news for me.
Seconds later I stooped to inspect tire tracks left in the mud. Two distinct vehicle treads, weighted down with either men or equipment, had been in and out more than once. That changed things, a little. I whistled for Chester, who loped into view instantly.
“Time to go to work, boy.” He snorted his readiness. A blind New Yorker couldn’t have lost the tracks, but I knew where they were headed anyway. We loped as quickly and silently as we could toward the house, not knowing whether the men in the autos had just come or already gone.
Five minutes later the old home station, a half dozen buildings, corals and a large garden plot, sprouted out of a stand of stately pecan trees. Without pause, we loped straight for the house. I stroked Chester’s mane before gripping the horn and making a running dismount. Two targets were better than one when charging an unknown enemy.
Stiff and old, I fumbled the landing and rolled once before regaining my feet. A quick glance right showed no movement. On the left Chester continued his stride, fading wide in order to circle the structures before finding me, hopefully still in one piece. Not knowing whether the enemy was in front, behind or both could make things a mite tricky.
So far so good. The lack of autos, no doubt my father still relied on the same ancient tractor and buckboard, started me thinking the coast might be clear—unless they’d stashed them in the barn.
Just like that, the morning’s first powder ignited the chill air at the same moment the sun ignited the sky. A flash and roar burst from a window in the main house. It’s immediate and hollow echo indicated I’d been the target, and it hadn’t been a warning shot. With a sharper jolt than I would have liked, I dove shoulder-first and rolled into a hedge of mountain juniper my father had trained two decades ago.
No idea of the shooters’ numbers or their arms, very few options readily presented themselves. The sun sparked the eastern horizon behind me—the thin, yellow-gold orb still tangled in brush. Maybe using the rising sun to blind anyone trying to shoot me was a brilliant idea. Or maybe I was just pissed off.
Holstering both Colt .45 Flat Tops, I hurdled the hedge and made for the clapboard garden shed at a full sprint.