Some months ago Jim Curtis, better known in the blogosphere as Old NFO, invited several Texas authors, including the members of our local North Texas Writers, Shooters and Pilots Association, to contribute stories to an anthology. We could write about anything we pleased; the idea was to have an easy-reading fireside collection of stories by local authors who were given free rein.
The results were a lot of fun. Vampires in Wichita Falls? We got 'em (with a typically Lawdog twist, too!). Space adventures? Other planets? Cattle drives? Ditto.
The anthology is titled "Tales around the Supper Table", and it launches today.
The e-book edition is available now. A print edition will follow as soon as Jim receives, checks and approves the proof copies.
As a teaser, here's the beginning of my contribution to the anthology. Readers of my "Ames Archives" series of Western novels will remember Tyler Reese, Walt Ames' partner in a cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Tyler and Walt met just after the Civil War, as described in the first book in the series, "Brings the Lightning".
In that book, I described how Walt came to be in that place at that time - but what about Tyler? I figured it was time to flesh out his backstory a little. Here's how it begins.
The lean, gaunt man pulled his horse to a halt as it topped the rise, staring eagerly at the log cabin nestled among the trees, next to the pond made by the dammed stream in the hollow. He sighed, a great, long, gusty breath, and took off his broad-brimmed hat, wiping his forehead with the sleeve on his left arm.
His collarless shirt had once been white, but was now a blotchy blend of dirt-brown and gray, the product of years of inadequate laundering. His trousers were worn and patched, originally smart Confederate military issue, but now a nondescript faded gray. His face was lined with weariness and remembered pain, and stubble stood out on his chin. Despite his shabby appearance, the Army Colt revolver on the right side of his belt, in a military holster with its flap cut off, was clean and serviceable, as was the knife sheathed at his left. The handgun’s twin rode in a saddle holster on one side of his horse, balancing a Sharps single-shot cavalry carbine booted on the other.
“Dang, ol’ hoss, there was times I never figured to see home again,” he said aloud. His dark brown mount snorted, as if in agreement. He touched its ribs with his spurs, replacing his hat as the animal headed down the slope, its tired legs stepping out gamely as it sensed rest and shelter ahead.
As he rode up to the barn, an older man emerged from it. He stopped dead in his tracks, staring, then exclaimed, “Tyler! Air that really you, son?”
The rider grinned as he slid from the saddle. “It’s me, pa.” With a swift stride, he reached his father, and they embraced tightly for a long, silent moment.
At last the older man said huskily, “Well, let me look at you.” He stood back, still holding Tyler’s arms in his work-toughened hands, and studied him up and down. “You’re rail-thin, boy. Reckon your ma will have to fatten you up. Are your wounds still troubling you?”
“A bit, but not near as much as they were. I guess I should be glad I’m alive to feel ’em. A lot of us ain’t. The First Texas Infantry started out in August of ’61 with ten companies. We had more’n five thousand good Texas boys pass through our ranks ’tween then and now. There were just 149 of us left at Appomattox, three months ago.” He could not keep the rough emotion from his voice as he remembered the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Union forces, marking the end of the Confederate States of America for which he’d fought for almost four years.
“And you were there almost from the first, right to the last. Ain’t no-one gonna say you didn’t do your duty, son. Come on. Let’s get inside an’ tell your ma you’re home.”
His mother’s excited, tearful greetings kept them all occupied for some time. When she’d recovered herself, she turned to her husband. “Well, don’t just stand there! Go get us a yearling beef an’ slaughter it. We’re going to feast tonight, to celebrate Tyler coming home!”
Tyler put his horse into a stall with a meager feed of oats, and borrowed one of his father’s spare mounts to ride out with him. “How are our cows doin’?” he asked as they set out.
“All the time you boys were off at the war, they’ve been breedin’ like rabbits. We got several hundred now, but they’re scattered to hell an’ gone across the range. Most of ’em ain’t even branded. Ranches all over got the same problem. Trouble is, we can’t sell ’em. There’s no demand round here. The only places that want ’em are the hide an’ tallow plants, and they pay only two or three dollars per head. Down Brownsville way, they strip off the hide an’ take the fat for renderin’, then throw the rest o’ the carcass into the bay. They do say the sharks down there are the biggest an’ best-fed critters in the seven seas.”
“Likely. They need meat up north, though. In Virginia an’ Tennessee, there wasn’t enough beef to go round. The Union Army had to bring in ration cattle from as far away as Iowa and Nebraska.”
“Yeah, but that’s a long ways from here. How do we get our cows to where they’re wanted?”
“I came up with an idea about that on the way home. Let me think on it a mite longer.”
“All right.” His father glanced across at him. “Word was that at the surrender, you had to hand in your weapons an’ hosses. How did you get to keep yours?”
Tyler grinned. “I didn’t, but some Yankee units got real careless after the surrender. They was too busy celebratin’ an’ gettin’ drunk on rotgut sutler’s whiskey to pay much attention to their duties. A man who knew how to move real quiet at night could take most anything he needed while they was sleepin’ it off. I got my two pistols, that Sharps carbine, plenty of food and ammunition, two good hosses, an’ about nine hundred greenback dollars I took out of a paymaster’s desk in a tent.”
The older man whistled. “I hope you still got some o’ them greenbacks. Confederate money’s worthless now. Only place you can use it is in the outhouse.”
“I still got it. You need some?”
“I’d sure appreciate it, son. We ain’t had cash money to shop for our needs for six months or more.”
“Let’s head into Gainesville with a wagon tomorrow mornin’. Tell Ma to make a list of what she needs for the house, an’ not to skimp. You do the same for the ranch. I’m buyin’.”
~ ~ ~
They set out at dawn on a two-horse farm wagon. The dust kicked up by the team and the wheels eddied in the light morning breeze as the sun rose higher.
As they drew near to Gainesville, a rider came up from behind them, masking his face against the dust of their passage with his bandana. As he drew alongside the wagon, he glanced across at them, did a double-take, then pulled down his bandana. “Tyler, is that you?”
Tyler glanced over, then gave a whoop of delight as he hauled on the reins to stop the team. “Dutch! How the hell are you? When did you get back?” He reached across the gap to shake hands.
“Last month. I was in Chimborazo Hospital at Richmond when the Yankees moved in, a couple of weeks before the surrender.” He inclined his head towards the stump of his left arm, only a few inches long below the shoulder. His shirt sleeve was folded and pinned together over it. “When I was healed up enough, I took a ship to Galveston and rode from there.”
“You got here faster than me. I had to ride through the Carolinas an’ Georgia, then across Alabama, Mississippi an’ Louisiana – more’n thirteen hundred miles. Took me almost three months, what with havin’ to steer clear o’ the Yankee army so they wouldn’t take my guns again. My butt’s still bitchin’ at me.” They laughed softly together.
Tyler’s father frowned. “I didn’t know you’d been hurt, Dutch. How did your parents take it?”
“Bad, Mr. Reese. They was hopin’ I’d take over most o’ the work around the ranch, but it’s a real problem with only one arm. There’s so much to be done, a man needs at least two of ’em, if not more. We ain’t got no cash money, either. Matter o’ fact, I’m on my way into Gainesville to sell my Spencer carbine.” He nodded towards the seven-shot repeater in his saddle boot. “I took it off a Yankee cavalryman at Chattanooga. I hate to part with it, but with only one arm I can’t handle it right. Jeb at the hardware store says he’ll give me ten greenback dollars for it.”
Tyler’s eyes gleamed. He’d wanted a good repeating rifle for a long time. “I’ll give you fifteen.”
“You will?” Dutch’s face lit up. “That’s real gen’rous, Tyler. No-one else has that kinda money right now.”
Tyler took out his wallet, peeled off a ten and a five, and held them out. “Here you are. Fresh Yankee greenbacks.”
“I’m thankin’ you. That’ll help buy some o’ what we need.” Dutch took the notes from him, slipped them into his shirt pocket, then drew the carbine from his saddle boot and passed it to Tyler. Reaching into a saddlebag behind him, he took out a leather-covered Blakeslee cartridge box with its shoulder strap. “Six of the ten tubes are full. That’s 42 rounds. The others are empty.” He handed it over.
Tyler placed the rifle and ammunition box in the wagon behind him. “Ride the rest of the way with us.” He started the horses moving again. “You say there’s a lot to be done on your pa’s ranch?”
“Yeah. There’s a lot of unbranded stock that need seein’ to. The hay needs cuttin’ real bad – that ain’t been done for two years, ever since pa broke his leg. The barn needs settin’ to rights. Trouble is, we ain’t got hands. They enlisted or drifted away during the war. None of them have come back yet.”
“Even if they did, how could you pay them?”
Dutch shook his head sadly. “We’d have to pay ’em in beef on the hoof, not in cash; but they’d have nowhere to sell it, just like we don’t.”
“I got a couple of ideas about that. Can you bring your folks to our place for supper tomorrow? I’d like to talk to you an’ your pa about cows. Your folks can use my room overnight, and you and I’ll sleep in the barn.”
Tyler and his father spent a couple of hours buying supplies for the ranch, loading the wagon with as much as it could carry, plus another wagonload to be prepared for collection later. He took the opportunity to buy more ammunition for the Spencer carbine and his Colt revolvers, plus a Leech & Rigdon revolver for his father, a Confederate copy of the .36-caliber Colt Navy model of 1851, well-used but still serviceable.
His father thanked him, but looked puzzled. “Not that I don’t ’preciate it, son, but why the pistol?”
“Pa, no-one’s got spendin’ money. There’ll be those desperate to get some any way they can. Those we know around here are good people, but not all those passin’ through on their way back from the war will be. I want you and Ma to be able to protect yourselves if need be. I’ll help if I’m there, but if I’m out on the range, you’ll have to do it.”
“Can I use that Sharps carbine you brought back? Ain’t had much practice with short guns.”
“You sure can, and I’ll teach you to shoot your belt gun better.” Tyler turned to the clerk, hovering attentively. “Reckon you’d better add a hundred linen Sharps cartridges to my order, plus a holster to fit that Leech & Rigdon.”
~ ~ ~
Dutch and his parents arrived by wagon late the following afternoon. That evening they feasted on two of Ma’s gigantic pies filled with prairie chickens and savory gravy, plus mashed potatoes, spinach and squash. There was utter silence as they did full justice to her cooking. Apple pie followed for dessert. The men helped clear the table after the meal, and washed the dishes while the ladies roasted and ground coffee beans – real coffee, bought at high cost from the store in Gainesville, the first any of them had enjoyed for months.
They settled down at last, sipping their coffee with groans of contentment. “That was the finest meal I’ve eaten for a year or more,” Dutch’s mother said. “It’s so good to have something to celebrate! We lost Henry at Glorieta Pass in ’62, but at least Dutch came back to us.”
“Yes,” Ma agreed. “Tyler’s got a few holes in him, but he’s still alive and well. That’s more than many can say about their children.”
Dutch set down his coffee cup and saucer. “Tyler, you said you wanted to talk to us about cows.”
“Yeah. I raided a few Yankee camps after the surrender, to get what I needed to make it back to Texas. In a paymaster’s desk, I found a letter from his father in Iowa. He talked about how he’d set up a feed lot for cattle to sell to the Union Army. Seems the Yankees bought everything they could close to the fighting, and had to look further afield to get more meat. Some farmers in Iowa bought cattle all over the state, even as far away as Nebraska, then drove them to feed lots and fattened ’em up on corn before selling them to the Army. The Quartermaster’s Department paid them up to ten dollars per cow.” There was a rustle of surprise at the figure.
“His father’s gonna carry on with that now the war’s over. He plans to fatten up more cattle, then send them to Chicago. The stockyards there will slaughter some, and ship more east to New York an’ other cities by rail. He expects to get as much as twelve to fifteen dollars a head for good, fat cows. He reckons hundreds o’ thousands of Union soldiers have gotten used to eating plenty of meat. They’ll want to go on doing that as civilians. He figures there’s gonna be a big market in Eastern cities. If he’s right, and iffen we can get our cows up to Iowa, we can make good money.”
“But how?” his father asked, bewildered. “It’s a good six or seven hundred miles from here, an’ much o’ the land ’tween here an’ there’s already bein’ farmed. They won’t let you trample their crops to drive a few hundred cattle. How are you gonna get ’em there?”
“That I’m still studyin’,” Tyler admitted. “If we take a more westerly route through Kansas, we’ll avoid most of the farms. We can go north to Nebraska, then turn east. I kept that letter, and I’m gonna write to that man. I’ll say I heard about him from a Union quartermaster.” The others smiled. “I’ll ask about sellin’ Texas cows to his feed lot an’ others like it in Iowa.”
“It’ll take time to hear from him an’ make plans,” Dutch pointed out. “What’ll you do while you’re waitin’?”
“I’m not gonna wait. I’m gonna get right down to work. That’s why I wanted you to come here tonight, because I need you to be part of it. Y’see, there’s hundreds, mebbe thousands of cattle wanderin’ all over this area right now that’ve never been branded. The ranch hands that would have branded ’em went off to war. A lot ain’t comin’ back, and others are still on their way. I want to hire a crew of half a dozen men. I’ll pay ’em ten bucks a month in Yankee dollars, plus their food, and I’ll give ’em a couple o’ cows every month too. We’re gonna round up cattle for miles around here, on every ranch that lies empty and on land that ain’t yet been taken up. We won’t touch branded animals, or branded cows with unbranded calves; but apart from them, the law says that any unbranded animal belongs to the one who brands it. That’s gonna be us.
“I want to brand every one we can find, and drive ’em back here. We don’t have enough grazin’ land to handle more than a few hundred, but you got more land than we have, an’ Dutch was sayin’ that your grass is real long and needs hayin’. I’ll hire people to help do that, and on our land too, so we have cattle feed for the winter. We’ll gather together a big herd, maybe a thousand head or more, and hold ’em here while we make plans. Come spring next year, we’ll head ’em north to Iowa and see how we do. If we sell them for a decent price, I’ll pay you for the use of your land and grazin’ over the winter, then use the profits to do it again with even more cows.”
There was a long, thoughtful silence. Dutch’s father looked up and said, “You may not need to gather all the cattle yourself. What if you offered to drive cows north for ranches around here? You could charge them a dollar or two per head for doin’ that, plus expenses, and bring back the rest of the money to them. They can’t afford to drive their own herds north – they ain’t got enough money, cowhands or time for that.”
Tyler’s eyes gleamed. “That’s a real good idea! I’ll do it. If they contribute cowhands and supplies, I’ll charge them less; if they don’t, I’ll charge them more.”
Dutch shifted uncomfortably. “What about me, Tyler? With only one arm, I reckon I won’t be much use to you.”
“There’ll be all sorts of things to be organized, supplies to be bought, an’ what have you. You can handle that while I’m out bossin’ the roundup team. You can also talk to other ranchers about comin’ in with us, an’ keep an eye on the workers cuttin’ hay for us an’ fixin’ up our ranches. I’ll pay you ten bucks a month, same as the hands, an’ give you and your folks a share of the profits when we’re done.”
His friend’s eyes lit up. “I get it! Sure, I can do all that.”
Dutch’s father added, “Iffen you do well in Iowa, instead of a share in the profits, I’ll sell you my ranch to add to this place. We’re gettin’ too old to run it, and Dutch won’t be able to handle it with only one arm. I’ll give you a good price for the land if you’ll let us stay on in the house.”
“Iffen I get enough money, I’ll do it. I’m thankin’ you.”
“Where will you find the men you need?” Pa asked.
“I’m headin’ into Gainesville tomorrow to collect the rest of our supplies. I’ll pass the word in the stores an’ saloons there.”
That's the start to my story in the new anthology. There's a lot more to it, so if you want to read the rest, you know where to find it! The other stories are great, too. The whole collection was fun to read, and I'm honored to be a part of it.