18. December 2013 · Comments Off on Lone Star Sons – Without a Trace · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book · Tags: ,

Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(Behold – the beginning of another thrilling episode of Lone Star Sons; on the track of a cattle drover who vanished on his return from New Orleans, somewhere along the Opelousas Trace. Lone Star Sons is a YA adventure series set in Texas during the time of the Texas Republic, featuring young Ranger Jim Reade and his Delaware Indian friend, Toby Shaw.)

“There’s something strange going on,” Jack’s guest said, when Jim came through the front door of Jack’s lodgings in Bexar. It was a bright autumn morning; the Plaza Mayor was alive with the bustle of the marketplace – the market-women in their bright skirts and shawls, presiding over piled up mounds of green and red peppers, yellow ears of corn. “My brother was due to return from New Orleans a month ago.” The strangers’ eyes went to Jim at once, and Jack said,
“Clay, this is Jim Reade – he’s one of my Rangers – Jim, you haven’t ever met Clayton Huff before, have you?”
“Not had the pleasure,” Jim said, as Clay Huff rose to exchange a handshake. Jack added, “Pull up a chair, Jim – since this is going to fall to you, since you’re from that part of Texas. Clay and his brother Randall run cattle near Bastrop – they’re distant kin to John White; he has a big place north of Anahuac. This summer Clay and Randall took a herd of theirs along the Opelousas trace to New Orleans … Clay, you tell him what happened, then.”
“It all went as we planned,” Clay sighed – he had a pleasant and open face, some years younger than Jim, but his face was lined and weather-burnt, as if he spent many hours in the open air. “We got to New Orleans, found a buyer and paid off all the hands. Randall, he was courting a pretty widow-lady, so he decided he would stay on for a week so he could escort her to church the next Sunday. I took my half of what we got for the sale of the cattle and came home straightaway to my wife an’ little childer by way of a coastal sloop to Copano. I’d had enough of riding the trail, I’ll tell you what.”
“How was your brother intending to return to Bastrop, then?” Jim asked, and Clay’s open countenance furrowed with lines of worry.
“The way we came – by way of the Opelousas trace. But he has just never shown up. I wrote to his lady-friend, and she answered that he set out on the Monday after they went to church. A neighbor of ours in Bastrop said that he passed an hour or so with him at the Sabine Crossing, so we know that he had come that far, but … Captain Hays, sir – Randall should have been home a month ago. I know that there’s misfortune can happen to a man … but my brother isn’t no fool. He had a brace of fine pistols, a dog and his own horse – and he was traveling on the trace! There ain’t no more public or well-traveled public road as that, and the Indians are all friendly-like. It’s like he vanished walking across the plaza outside, this very day and in broad daylight.”
“He’s a free man and of age,” Jack nodded, sympathetically. “But there’s nothing to say that he didn’t change his mind, or visit with a friend along the way. Did you consider that?”
Clay shook his head, “No – that is, he has a good few friends in that neck of the woods – and if someone asked for help, or wanted help in rounding up mustangs or hunting buffalo, Randall wouldn’t hesitate a moment. But he would send word to me. And friends would surely send word if he were hurt or taken sick. Nossir, Capn’ Jack, I think there’s something strange going on, somewhere along the stretch of the trace between the Sabine and Tevis Bluff – I think they call it Beaumont City now – somewhere thereabouts. There’s talk among some of the drovers ‘round Bastrop and other places … them who hired on to bring herds to New Orleans … that Randall ain’t the first cattleman to leave there with a fat money-belt an’ never come home at all. There’s some deep bayous out near the Neches crossing, with powerful hungry gars and ‘gators in them … and piney-woods as deep and dark as a bull’s ass with the tail clamped down.” Clay looked at them both, his weathered countenance so grave that he looked twice the age that he was. “There’s devilment going on – and I have a mind to get to the bottom of it. For the honor of all decent, hard-working men, I think you should have a mind to do the same, Cap’n Jack.”
“Clay – don’t presume to tell me what I should or should not do,” Jack answered, in swift rebuke, but softened it by adding, “As it happens I agree with you. That part of Texas … it was part of the borderlands, once – a refuge for unsavory characters of all description. Lafitte the pirate wasn’t the least of them, by any chalk. It’s in my mind that some of them might be carrying on the same tradition … on land, rather than at sea. You’re determined on this, Clay? Following the trace back from the Sabine, looking for your brother?”
“I am,” Clay’s mouth tightened in resolve and Jack nodded. “Then, I’ll send Jim with you – Toby, too – if he has a mind for it.”
“I had your leave for a visit to my family in Galveston, since my father has been released from Perote,” Jim began, in mild protest, “I was to leave tomorrow for Copano…” but Jack answered,
“You do still – stop for a few days on your way to the Sabine – but say nothing to them, or anyone else of what you are about.”
“What shall we say is our reason for traveling the trace, then – all three of us?”
“I’ll leave that for you to sort out,” Jack answered, while Clay said,
“If we are to be traveling companions, mebbe we should pretend to be drovers, paid off and returning home.”
“Good … my father may help us to purchase horses. I’d like to tell him of our mission, Jack – in confidence. He has been long a resident of those parts – he might know of … men and incidents going back a long way that might have a bearing on this matter.”
“Impress upon him the need for discretion,” Jack acquiesced. “And tell him only the least part … for his own safety as well as yours.”

* * *

“So … a man has vanished, somewhere along the edge of the Big Thicket?” mused the senior James Reade, some weeks later. He and Jim sat on the porch of the Reade’s tall white-painted house, watching the last of the day fade to a narrow red line across the horizon. The evening breeze from off the seafront brought with it the smell of salt-spray, and rustled the leaves of the tall palm-trees growing at the side of the house. From around in back came the faint clatter of dishes being washed, and the voice of Jim’s mother, raised in argument with Fat Liza, the Reade’s cook.
“And not the first one,” Jim said. He had arrived two days before, he and Clay and Toby. For this visit, Toby had put on a fine set of white man’s clothing – shirt, stock and dark coat – even a pair of boots rather than moccasins. He had not cut his hair, though – and his long dark braids lent him a slightly exotic appearance. Jim’s parents – startled and slightly disapproving at first – had been won over by Toby’s affability and perfect English, as well as the correct manners instilled by the Moravian missionaries who had educated him.
“There’s a lot of places to put a body where you don’t want it to be found,” Jim’s father said, echoing what Jack had said about bayous and deep woods. “Time was – I would have wondered if your man had run afoul of old Jean Lafitte or his men. There isn’t any chance your missing man is a nigra, or dark enough to be mistook for one?”
“No – he’s as white as you or I, according to his brother,” Jim answered, startled. “Why do you ask, Pa?”
“Just a thought,” the older man answered. He settled back in his chair, the thread of smoke rising from the bowl of his pipe hardly visible in the grey dusk. “There was a lot of slave-smuggling hereabouts – when the Neutral Strip belonged to neither Spain or the United States. Sometimes, the slave-smugglers weren’t above kidnapping a freeman of color, or even just stealing someone’s slave, taking them a good bit away and selling to someone else who wasn’t too scrupulous … who’d take the word of a nigra, anyway?”
“Do you think anything like that is going on, still?
The elder Reade puffed quietly at his pipe for many moments.
“I’ve no idea, son. I’ve been out of the way of things for near three years, now … but I recall now, there was a man on trial with his sons twenty years ago in Natchitoches for murder; slave-stealing and robbery, too. Strikes me that he was acquitted of the charges, several times – the witnesses were bribed or terrorized into changing their story, when the matter was brought before the judge. Bad business … I’ve always been of the notion that justice wasn’t done in those cases. Evil was left to prosper, like Haman and the green bay tree.”
“Is that something to do with what may be going on now?” Jim searched his father’s countenance, as much of what he could see in the twilight, thinking that three years captivity in Perote had aged his father by decades. There was a payment due to those responsible for that, Jim knew with the same certainty that he knew the sun would rise the next morning. His father was pale, almost fragile – and his wrists bore the scars that shackles had left on them. Payment would come due in time.…
“I don’t know for a certainty, son,” the elder Reade answered. “But if I know anything – I know that often blood runs true, as the twig is inclined, so is the branch that it becomes. A man brought up in honest good-will and decent Christian fellowship, nine out of ten he will be a man of honest good will-and fellowship in turn – although there’s always that one chance that he will turn to the bad. A man brought up in the practice of every vice imaginable – nine of ten he will turn to those vices when he is grown, although there is always the opportunity of repentance, and rising above a bad upbringing. This man I speak of, it was said he had been one of Old John Murrell’s gang, robbing travelers on the old Natchez Trace back in Mississippi. He and his boys settled in the borderland and got up to pretty much the same devilment…”
“What does that have to do with Randall Huff, Pa?” Jim asked again, and the older man sighed deeply.
“That man I speak of, he went by the name of Yoakum – he died before we broke with Mexico, but his youngest son settled on a good piece of land near Pine Island Bayou … near Tevis Bluff …”
“Which is on the Opelousas trace,” Jim pointed out, and his father shook his head.
“I wouldn’t condemn Squire Yoakum just because of his family. From all I’ve heard, he’s the best of them – that one who went right. He’s a respectable innkeeper now, well-thought of by his neighbors; they’ve elected him to the legislature a time or two, and I believe he’s currently the postmaster.”
“Because of that, he may have a better notion of whatever devilry is going on,” Jim observed. “I might very well consult with him on that account.”
“So, what is your plan, son?”
“Tomorrow – we set out to Liberty. Toby and I flipped a coin to see if we head east or west on the trace. Clay’s brother passed the time with a friend at Niblett’s Bluff on the Sabine, so he know he got that far. I have to rest up, Pa – we’ve got a long journey in the morning.”
“You take care, son,” his father answered. “And your ma is making you some of her special sweetmeats. That’s her in the kitchen now, getting into Fat Liza’s hair – making certain that you have a haversack full of good eating tomorrow.”
“Thanks for the warning, Pa.” Jim rose from his chair with a stretch and a yawn. “I’ll say good night now – when we find Clay’s brother, I’ll stop back on our way to Bexar and stay for a bit longer.”
“You do that, son – and you take care.”
“I will, Pa.”