03. January 2014 · Comments Off on Lone Star Sons – Pt. 4 · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West

Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(The plot thickens, in the next part of Without a Trace! Jim and Toby have come as far as Yoakum’s Landing, searching for a missing man, the brother of cattle drover Clay Huff, who vanished somewhere along the Opelousas Trace, returning from New Orleans with his half of the profits from the sale of a herd of cattle driven from Texas to Louisiana. There are vile rumors among the local farmers and ranchers about Yoakum’s Landing…)

Rain continued to fall all that night, and into the next morning, lightening to a drizzle and then only an occasional splattering by midday. Jim and Clay had spent a restless night, for which the storm was only part responsible. Jim wedged a chair against the door to their room from the hallway when they retired for the night, and another against the tall French door which led to the outside. He also hung the gun belt with his pair of Colts – all loaded and with fresh caps on each chamber – from the bedpost within reach. Clay did the same with his own pistols. But the night passed without event – other than the storm, and Jim wondered if he hadn’t been more than a little foolish. He dispatched his errand for Ethan Landry at mid-morning, writing up an authorization for the bearer – presumably the oldest of the Yoakum sons — to sell the property described (in exacting detail, which was the hardest part to write) belonging to Ethan Landry, and allowing the bearer to do all that was required under law to transfer the aforementioned property to a new owner. Ethan, upon being reminded by Jim that the laborer was worthy of his hire, conveyed several hundred dollars worth of Texas notes into his hand, a duty done and accepted with ill-grace on both sides, since the notes were worth only about three American pennies to the dollar of Texas worth. Jim rolled up the bills, thanked Ethan Landry graciously, and privately thanked his Maker that he did not have, in this instance at least, to depend upon legal work for his living. On second thought, perhaps he was a charity in regard to this client.

The household dined at midday, on a light collation of meats, breads and vegetables. By afternoon, the sun emerged between the clouds. The grounds and gardens of Yoakum’s Landing were plastered with half-dead leaves from the oak and pecan trees, knocked down from branches where they had clung with a weak autumnal grip by the force of the storm. At mid-afternoon, with the sun peeking shyly through a break in the clouds, he and Clay made their way to the vast stables behind the main house, on the advertised purpose of seeing to the condition and keeping of their horses. Jim also had the intent of a quiet colloquy with Toby, somewhere away from where they might be overheard. Now as he and Clay walked purposefully towards the bustle of the stable-yard, it seemed quite a foolish precaution. Everything about Yoakum’s landing appeared to be quite stultifyingly normal and respectable. As expected, Toby waited in the shelter of the pergola twined about with the dry branches of grapevines, which led from the back of the house to the summer kitchen, a silent shadow making the required show of deference necessary to maintain the pretense.

But as they passed the extensive quadrangle of plowed earth which represented Yoakum Landing’s vegetable garden, Jim was brought up short by Miss Kate’s voice, crying, “Jemmy! Oh, Jemmy – come back at once!” Miss Kate herself appeared from around the side of the house, the ribbons on her white house-cap flying, charmingly pink in the face and breathless with the exertion of running. “Oh!” She gasped, very prettily distraught. “I beg your pardon – my dog has run out to the woods again. He will do that, and after all the trouble I have gone through to bathe and comb him – he will be dirty from the mud, after all the bother…”
Jim hastily removed his hat, Clay and Toby doing likewise, and said, “Miss Kate, good morning to you – If you would allow us, I’d admire to assist in retrieving your dog. If he is a ladies’ pet, he cannot have gone too far into the woods…”
“You go on and help the lady, Jim,” Clay advised, with a grin so broad that if it were a lake, Jim could have skipped stones two or three times on it. “I’ll see to the horses. You … be a gentleman and make the most of your chances.”

Clay put on his hat again, and strolled off towards the stables. He looked back again once or twice, still grinning. Jim considered how very fortunate this interlude was – but he would never hear the last of it from Clay, or Toby, either – especially Toby, whose flirtations were epic and the source of awed envy to Jack and the other fellows.
“There is a clearing in the piney woods by the lake – it’s where Jemmy usually runs. I don’t know why he goes there, it’s most peculiar.” Jim tucked Miss Kate’s tiny and capable hand into the crook of his elbow, as she looked up at him, those dark-brown eyes shining with relief and admiration. “Pa says that Jemmy was bred as a hunting dog – and all he wants is to chase after ducks and squirrels. But he is a dear little dog and I am so very fond of him!” She chattered in a charming and inconsequential manner, which quite relieved Jim of the labor of carrying on a large portion of the conversation. They walked through a grove of pecan trees, their leaves half-fallen and thickly padding the sodden ground under their feet. There was a footpath of sorts, worn by the passage of many feet; their footfalls and those of Toby following after made hardly any noise at all. They came out into a wide meadow on the edge of what Jim judged to be the bayou; a flat and shining expanse of water, lapping at the edge of the grass stems on the bank. The rain had brought the water to a higher level – but not enough to bring any current to flow from the bayou into the river of which it had once been a part.

The meadow presented a forlorn aspect – with tentative patches of new green grass coming up among the dry and now soggy stems of last years’. In the spring this might be a meadow of colorful wildflowers – now, it was just a clearing in the woods, the grass stems beaded with water and the ground soggy underfoot. Miss Kate’s Jemmy sat by a patch of new grass at the edge of the meadow; a medium-sized white dog with brown patches, a dog with long silky fur, who pawed at the earth while uttering a low and unsettling whine. His white paws were already deeply muddy, for he had been digging into the wet earth, and he looked up at Jim and Miss Kate with a beseeching expression.
“Jemmy – you are a bad, bad dog!” Miss Kate exclaimed. Jemmy looked up at her, cringing as dogs would, at the sound of their owners’ voice raised in disapproval. Jemmy was a handsome dog, Jim thought – but not to his taste when it came to a hunting dog; with long ears made even longer by the long fringe drooping from them, and round, slightly protruding brown eyes. A ladies’ dog, petted and brushed, lying in a padded basket at the feet of their mistress in the parlor …
“Poor little fellow,” Jim said. He leaned down and gathered the dog into his arms, disregarding the muddy feet or the brief hostile growl. It was a little heavier than he had expected. “Pay no mind, Miss Kate – he’s frightened and I’m a stranger. I’ll carry him back to the house for you.”
“I am grateful beyond words!” Miss Kate exclaimed, with a brilliant smile – but Jim was not so taken by it that he failed to note Toby at the edge of the meadow, looking at the ground at his feet and the shoreline of the bayou with a suddenly intent expression.

Jim carried the recalcitrant Jemmy all the way back to the house. Toby lingered in the meadow, but then trailed behind at some distance. Jim wondered abstractedly what Toby had spotted – for he had seen something in the water, or in the broken-down tumble of earth, stones and rotted stumps at water’s edge. Clay met them, coming from the stables as they approached the house, a most particularly grim expression on his countenance, which only deepened when he met Miss Kate and Jim. Clay’s eyes went to Jemmy and he whined again, deep in his throat, as Jim returned the dog to Miss Kate’s care.
“Thank you, so very much,” Miss Kate exclaimed, as if Jim had performed the most prodigious feat of chivalry imaginable. She had a length of ribbon in her hand. “You are a most gallant gentleman, Mr. Reade – and we are so grateful, aren’t we, Jemmy?” She attached it to Jemmy’s collar and led him into the house through the nearest French door – into the parlor, as Jim noted.

He had half a mind to follow, but for Clay saying in a voice hardly louder than a whisper,
“Jim, that was my brother’s dog. I’d swear on it before the magistrate.”
“What?” Jim looked at Clay, utterly astounded. “You said he had a hunting dog with him – that dog couldn’t possibly be a serious hunting dog!”
“He is,” Clay answered, still in a whisper. “One of those English spaniels, trained to retrieve ducks and flush out birds. A friend of his in New Orleans had a bitch that whelped a litter three or four years ago. Randall thought the world of that dog, and the dog followed him everywhere; kept up with his horse at a trot for miles. That’s my brothers’ dog, no doubt about it. Randall,” Clay took a deep breath. “Randall called him Gem. Silly name, but my brother always said he was a pearl of a dog and above price. And there’s another thing of my brother’s that I found here.”
“What?” Now Toby caught up to the two of them, his face completely expressionless in the way which Jim knew that he was hiding something. Toby waited at a deferential distance, in the manner of a good servant – which was good, in case anyone watching them thought there was something amiss. Being a cold and blustery afternoon, no one was about outdoors save those Negro servants who had reason to be.
“A saddle – among the tack in the stables. It’s my brother’s also, just like Gem. I’d know it anywhere – a saddle like the vaqueros use. Randall had it made special, by a Mex saddle-maker in Bexar.”
“Show me,” Jim ordered. As they made an elaborately casual way back towards the stableyard – for the benefit of any hostile and prying eyes – Toby ventured, “I also have found something, James.”
“In the field by the bayou?” Jim kept his face bland and his pace casual, as they walked. “Where the dog was digging? I thought so. You may as well let me know the worst, Mr. Shaw. A skeleton?”
“No,” Toby still kept the bland expression. “A pair of skulls and a lot of bones, there for a long time, before the rain ate away the edge of the bayou – but not so long as all that. Not above ten years or so. One more thing, James; they had the marks of having been killed by a blow to the back of the head – as if with a war-ax like mine. That whole field, James – it had a look to it, as if it had been a graveyard many times…I have seen such, in the Ohio country, after a hard winter. There are many buried there.”

Jim let out his breath slowly; he had half-expected this, until beguiled by Miss Kate, not half an hour ago. It still came as a shock; murder and villainy so open, so well-known it was the fearful gossip of half the county, black and white alike, yet under the guise of friendship and hospitality. And what of Miss Kate – so innocent, presiding over the supper-table, and charming the guests with such an open face and demeanor? Before he could entirely digest the matter – the bones in the meadow, the revelation of Jemmy the dog and Randall Huff’s saddle, a man’s voice called his name from the parlor door. Jim’s heart sunk, even further – the dapper and temporarily impecunious Mr. Landry, although looking considerably less dapper.
Ethan Landry was in his shirtsleeves, his neck-cloth awry and his dark hair standing up as if he had never been acquainted with a hairbrush. He came hurtling off the verandah, as a gust of wind blew the door behind him closed with a crash that sounded fit to shatter the panes of glass in it.
“You must help me, Mr. Reade – God help me – they’re going to kill me! I am doomed, and it’s by your hand they are aided to do it! You must help me!” He grasped the front of Jim’s coat, babbling in unseemly hysteria.
“Calm yourself, Mr. Landry,” Jim snapped. “Who is going to kill you – and for what reason? You are among friends, and this is broad daylight! What has given you this notion?”
“The Yoakums,” Ethan Landry whispered. He seemed utterly undone, pale with terror. “For the property. They will kill me, and keep the money paid for it, using the written authority you drafted for me. I overheard them talking … they are plotting to kill me, and it is your fault! You have to help me!”

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