Thursday, March 20, 2014

Secret Valley (Granddad's Short Story)

William E. Johns

(written early 1930’s)

A lone rider on a big black horse was riding slowly up the trail that led from the south into the little cowtown of Blanco.  The sun was low in the west and the little town was coming to life again.  The rider was tired and hungry and the sight of the town was much relief to him and his horse.

He rode up the dusty street to the hitch rack in the front of the town saloon.  He dismounted, left the horse untied and entered the swinging doors of the saloon.

“Good evening stranger; what will it be, Crow or Lacy?”

“Neither sir, just a cold soft drink and a generous helping to the water bucket. Some hot day I’ll say, and the rode is dry and dusty."
"Rode far?”

“About seventy miles the last two days from San Antonio.”

“Looking for work?”

“Why yes, I’ll take a job if you happen to know of one open around here.”

“Old man Kelly was in here a few minutes before you came looking for a capable man to ride night herd.  There has been lots of rustling in these parts for six months and its being done so slick none of the boys can catch them.  Old man Kelly sent word to Austin to the Ranger Captain but received news that the Rangers had more important work just now.  The old man and his daughter Viola live two miles out on the road to Austin.  They own the EX ranch and some layout if you ask me.”

“I’ll ride out and ask him about the job.”

“Better be careful stranger, them rustlers take a pot shot pretty often at night herders, Jack Perry’s got a bullet scar over his right eye now from a stray bullet in the dark while he was on guard for Kelly.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be on the lookout.”

And with this bit of information the tall stranger paid his bill and left the saloon, mounted his horse and after watering him at the watering trough rode out towards the EX ranch.

The sun was almost down and a little breeze blew up from the south.  A jack rabbit leaped across the road in its hurry to some good hiding place and a coyote yelped its hungry cry in the distant hills.  All this was familiar to the rider as he had grown up along the southern border.

Dark was falling, a bright moon had begun to cast its light over the distant hill along the Colorado River, as the stranger halted his pony at the corral gate, a dog began to bark as the stranger dismounted.

A tall gray haired man of about sixty opened the corral gate and greeted the stranger.

“Hello stranger, come in and feed your horse.  It looks as if he had gone a long ways today, and was in need of a rest.”

“Yes, we’re from San Antonio, rode up here in two days.”

“Pretty good traveling for a horse over the rough roads down that way, but he looks able to stand it.”

They watered and fed the horse and talked of the cattle country for half an hour.

The musical feminine voice of “Come and get it or I’ll throw it away” brought them to the house for supper.

As the stranger entered the kitchen door he came face to face with Viola, the girl spoke a “Good evening”, in a friendly way. 

“My name is Viola Kelly.”

“And you may call me Dick Lanning. I’m from the U-U down near San Antonio.”

At the supper table Dick opened the subject of the job.

“Yes, I can use a good man on the night herd.  Rustling is getting to be a profitable business around here.  I lost seventy head of my prime herd a week ago, all the boys on the job are in need of some rest.”

Viola had been quiet all during the supper; she had been eying this tall handsome, brown eyed young man with the dark curly hair, that called himself Dick Lanning.

“You said you was from the U-U, down near San Antonio.  Well, you look a lot like a Mister Jack Lassiter of the Rangers, from the description I have been given of him.”

With this bit of information Dick’s face reddened and he became very restless.

“Yes mam, I met him once down near the Rio Grande; and we do favor quite a bit." 

“I am sure if we could get him down here for a while that he could break up this gang of rustlers in a very short time, don’t you Mr. Lanning?”

“Yes mam, I’m sure they would be more careful, at least until he left the country.”

“But they say Mr. Lassiter never gives up a job until it is finished, and how he can handle a six gun.  I’ve heard he could shoot all six of the hearts out of six of hearts, at five hundred feet.”

Dick could stand it no longer, he was anxious to start his work and help this rosy cheek girl with the big blue eyes and hair like the princess of some fairy tale.  Beyond her tall slender figure she had the grace of a real true westerner.

After all he was glad his captain had detailed him to this Kelly job, and he vowed there at the table that he would do his best to bring this rustling to an end.

“Well Mr. Kelly when do I start on my new job?”

"We’ll get a good twenty four hours rest and begin at sundown tomorrow.  I think that will be best, as I have already sent two of the boys over in the river valley to guard the beef herd. 
I’m sure after the last big raid they will wait another week or so before pulling another raid.”

Supper was over, Dick bid them a good evening and was shown his bed.  He did not go right to sleep but lay there and thought of Viola and wandered how anyone could have the heart to steal from a girl like her.

“Must be some low breed of Mexes, to pull a wolly like that.”  He muttered.

He wondered if she would have said all those nice things about Mr. Lassiter had she known the secret.

When finally he did fall to sleep he dreamed of fighting rustlers and riding herd on a bunch of his boss’s prime steers.

When he awoke the sun was high in the heavens, he hurried and dressed then went to attend to his horse, as was his custom before he ate himself.

He had reached the barn door when voices in a low conversation reached him.  He listened as he crept closer to the stall from which the voices came.

“I tell you Slim, it’s too risky to pull that deal since the old man has hired this new guy.  He may be ace high, but that fellow never came from no U-U down near San Antonio.  I happen to know that there ain’t but one ranch in the state by that brand and its up near Abilene.  You and the rest of the gang can go on with the deal but count me out.”

“Oh! Say you’ll lay down on the job, well you little dried up horn toad.  I guess you have forgot the orders the boss give us over at the Secret Valley about the first one that laid down on the job.  You wouldn’t last very long after you quit the job and you are as deep in this as any of us and if this Lanning jasper ain’t just a wadly out looking for a job the boss’ll put the snug rope on him and plenty tight to hold him.  Now had you rather go on with the deal or face Pete’s fast draw?”

“I guess I’ll finish the job, but it’s risky with this bird on night herd.  Did you hear what the old man said about his two pearl handled forty fours? That sounds lots like that ranger jasper;Jack Lassiter.”

With this the conversation stopped and Dick backed up a few steps and came up whistling so they wouldn’t be suspicious of his eaves dropping.

They met in front of the barn door, the two eyed Dick from head to toe.  One was tall and slim with a hook nose and close set eyes that reminded Dick of a sneaky coyote.  The other was a short well-built youth not over twenty seven, smooth shaven and neat in appearance, with big blue eyes and a well-shaped nose.  The tall one was the first to speak,

“Morning stranger; my handles Jack Perry and my buddy here is Clell Wheeler.”

“I’m Dick Lanning off the U-U down south.”

“Got a job with the man yet, are does he mean to let me and Clell do all of this blooming night herding?”

“Yes, I go on the job at sundown if the rustlers let me live that long.”  He grinned at the two and went about caring for his horse.

“Better be careful I got a scar over my eye now from a pot shot them rustlers took at me a while back and they shoot to hit.”  The tall fellow warned him.

“So do I.”  Dick informed them and they disappeared towards the bunk house.

Dick had slept longer than he intended and when he got to the house dinner was ready.  Viola was in the kitchen busy with the dishes and did not see Dick as he walked up to the door and stopped to look in.  She was humming an old love song and in a nice humor as she went about her work.

“Good morning Miss Viola.”

She looked up and smiled.

"Please, just Viola I don’t like the handle of Miss very much, all the boys working for Dad call me Viola and I think I like it better that way.”

He sat down where she prepared him a plate and ate the steak and gravy with compliments of her good cooking. 

The rest had eaten and went back to their work, he found to his surprise that he had slept twelve hours.

She joked him about being a good sleeper, but had she known how long he lay awake that night thinking of her compliments about Jack Lassiter, she probably wouldn’t mention his sleeping so late.

It was an even one o’clock when he finished his lunch and left the table.

“Dad went to town this morning and said he wouldn’t be back before late in the evening and I am going over in the north range this evening and look over the heard for a little ride in the open.  Would you care to go and kinda learn the lay of things over there, Mr. Lanning?”

“Yes I’d be pleased to go along.”

It was after two o’clock before they mounted their horses and rode out of the corral north. 

They talked of the hills along the Colorado and of the green valleys and before they had reached the north range Viola was talking of Jack Lassiter and picturing him as some heroic knight.

“Now mam I wonder if you would say these nice things to Mr. Lassiter?”

She looked at him as if she was surprised at his frank question.

“Not jealous are you?”  She teased him.

“Why not?  Us poor cow waddies haven’t a chance any more with the women.  There’s always some heroic knight that rides in and corrals the fair princess, then flees to some distant place.”

They both laughed at this remark and let it drop at that.

But Dick was hoping this time he would be the heroic knight and Viola the fair princess.

They reached the north range at mid-afternoon and found the cattle grazing in a little valley near a stream of clear cold water that glittered like silver, as it wound its way across the little green meadow.

Viola was the first to mention the mysterious way the cattle were disappearing and admitted that it looked a lot like some of the boys working for her dad had a hand in it. 

“Yes mam it does look kinda suspicious but it’s not so far to the border and they could very easily slip in here and drive off a hundred head and be back across the line before the cattle would be missed.”

“I do hope you will be careful Mr. Lanning and not get shot like Jack Perry did.”

But Dick had his own opinion about Mister Perry, although he did not tell Viola.

“I’m going to do my best to stop this rusting.”  Dick informed her.

It was late in the afternoon when they reached home and Mr. Kelly had returned from town.

He met them at the door with a catalog for Viola and a letter for Dick, the letter was postmarked Blanco, Texas.  Dick opened it and to his surprise read its warning message.

Mr. Jack Lassiter;

You may be fooling the old man and his daughter by the new name, but not fooling us.  So you better make your little visit short and ride on, this place don’t need any rangers at all. 


The Rustlers

Dick folded it and put it in his pocket.  Viola prepared their supper and Dick rode off at sundown in high spirits.  Viola had bid him a good evening and wished him good luck, but the letter was troubling him.  What if she should find out who he really was, could he ever explain to her why he must go under a different name?

But now that the rustlers knew him why should he keep his identity a secret from her any longer.

I’ll tell her in the morning and try to explain that it was my orders to keep my identity a secret.

It was good dark when he reached the herd and they had begun to bed down for the night.  He was glad of this for it would be a much easier matter to watch them bedded down than if they were milling around and discontented.  He had the favor of a full moon and clear sky.

All went off nicely the first night; nothing happened except the usual low of cow or the yelp of a coyote in search of its mate.

It was so quiet and peaceful that Dick was almost sure something would happen.

He got home early the next morning and was in bed before eight o’clock.  At two o’clock he was up and eating.

Viola asked him all sorts of questions and he answered them the best he could.

She rode part of the way with him as he went back to the herd late that evening.

Dick finally picked up enough courage to open the subject of his assumed name.

“Miss Kelly, there is something I want to tell you if you promise you will try to forgive me for it.”
“Why I’ll do my very best, but I can’t imagine what it could be.”

“Well mam, I’m sure sorry but it was my orders to keep my name a secret, but as the rustlers are wise to me, I see no reason to keep it any longer.  I am Jack Lassiter.”

With this news Viola blushed a little and told him, as she rode off, that she had known it all along.

So she really meant those nice things she had said about Mr. Lassiter.  His mind was in a whirl, his heart was filled with joy and he felt as if he could whip a herd of rustlers.

All went smooth until midnight.  He always rode around the herd at that hour.

As he was looking over a herd that was moving slowly off to themselves and wondering why they were getting off so far from the main herd, a bullet hummed close over his head.  He whipped out his own gun and fired in the direction of the flash.  There was a curse and howl of pain.

Two more guns fired from opposite directions and both bullets missed his head by a small margin.

He rode to the south as a flash shot up in that direction.  The gun flashed again and he fired in return.  He thought he saw something fall but was not sure.  He road on for fifty yards and came upon a man lying face down in the leaves.  He dismounted and rolled the man over, his lip quivered and his eyes opened, he tried to smile but could not.

“Ranger fellow, I’m done for, but I want to cash in clean and try to square myself before I go.”

It was not until he had spoken these words that the ranger recognized him as the little fellow that had tried to resist this raid in the stall at the EX ranch, the day after his arrival there.

“Yes go on.” The ranger encouraged him.

“The prime herd is in Secret Valley, twenty miles south of there you will come upon an old cow trail that crosses Crow Creek two miles below the San Marcus road crossing.”

He faltered and closed his eyes as if he was passing on, but determined to tell all he began again.

“Ride south on that trail until you come to two big cottonwood trees on the left, one on each side of a ravine that leads off the hills.  There is a about (A full sentence missing where page fell apart)… you will ride into a blind canyon known as Secret Valley.  But be careful for Slim and Arizona Pete are sure to be there and they are bad men.  Tell the Boss and Viola that I tried to square myself before I cashed in.”

The ranger promised but the young man never heard him for he had passed on to a new range.

The rest of the rustlers fled after the fight started so the rest of the night was quite.

At the first rays of dawn the ranger started for home.  He reached the ranch as the sun crept over the eastern hills.

He told them of the young man lying out there dead and of his confession.

All Viola could say was, “Poor boy, he seemed like a good kid.”

After breakfast the ranger mounted and rode south in search of the rest of the gang.

It was later the second evening, after he had left that Viola was looking down the road that lead from the south.  In the distance she could see a rider coming that would surely be the tall, smiling, curly haired ranger.  (A full sentence missing where page fell apart)…the gang and they were safe in jail in Austin.

He smiled as he dismounted and started for the house, Viola met him halfway to the house.

“Well you made it Mr…er Lassiter, I knew you would.”

“Yes and now I’ve come back to see if you would say again those nice things you said about Mr. Lassiter.”

And she did.

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