10. January 2014 · Comments Off on Lone Star Sons – Without a Trace Pt.5 · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West

Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(The menace at Yoakum’s Landing is now obvious; Clay Huff has recognized his missing brothers’ saddle – and his cherished hunting dog – in the possession of the Yoakums – and Ethan Landry has panicked, at overhearing a plot by the Yoakums to murder him, now that Jim has made out a power of attorney allowing them to act in selling his property. Earlier chapters here, here, here and here.)

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 the Squire and his son … they are plotting to kill me, and it is your fault! You have to help me!”

“Of course,” Jim grasped the younger man’s shoulder and shook it. “Pull yourself together, Landry – and stop acting like a spinster with a lizard in her petticoats. Now – come with us. Do you have a horse, at least?” The three of them headed towards the stable, with Toby in their wake – walking purposefully, but not at so rapid a pace as to draw unwanted attention.

“No,” Ethan shook his head. “I did … but I sold it to the Squire in payment for lodging here. How could I know they would prove such utter villains! Why didn’t anyone tell me! Why did you draw up that power of attorney? It is my undoing!”

“Because you asked it of me,” Jim answered, between his teeth. What to do now, with this sniveling fool hanging around his neck? He racked his mind for options, wondering how many of the guests at the Landing were in league with Squire Yoakum’s sinister purpose – and how many of them were truly innocent travelers. There was no time to seek for allies among them; Clay and Toby were the only ones he could trust without question. Once in the shelter of the barn, he turned to the others. “Clay – get your horse saddled, and I’ll get Toby’s mule. You know the Trace better than I. Take Mr. Landry with you and ride with all speed towards Tevis’s Bluff or any closer place of safety. You have your pistol with you? Good – I shall make a pretense of you feeling poorly.” To Toby, he added. “Mr. Shaw, I regret to say that I must ask for the loan of your coat and hat for Mr. Landry here. If they cannot be returned, I will purchase new to replace them.”

Toby shrugged, “It is of no matter to me, James.” Obligingly, he stripped off his own coat, and handed it to Landry, who regarded it with distaste, until Jim snapped,

“Put it on, Mr. Landry – it’s either freeze, or venture back to the house for your own.”

Clay, his face sent in grim lines, emerged from a stable-box leading his own horse, already bridled. It was the work of a moment to saddle it, fetch Toby’s mule and do likewise, although a Negro groom appeared as though they were halfway through this operation, a curry-comb in one hand, a bucket of oats in the other, and a protest on his lips.

“Seh, there ain’t no need…”

“There is,” Jim answered, and fixed the man with his most intent and purposeful gaze. “And you have not seen anything untoward in it. You have not seen anything at all, should your master or anyone else ask. Understand me?”

For a long moment, their gazes locked – and then the groom nodded slowly, in complete comprehension. “Seh … iff’n you ride out t’wards th’ bayeau, an’ follow the track through the woods, Massa an’ Miss Kate an’ all – they won’t see a t’ing.”

“Good,” Jim answered. The groom grinned briefly, his teeth a slash of white in his dark face. “And you did not see a thing at all.”

“No, seh,” the groom answered and took himself and his currycomb and oats into the farther recesses of the stable.

“You heard the man,” Jim said, when Clay and Landry were ready to ride. “The woodland track, until you can rejoin the trace. Return by the same way, as soon as you have deposited Mr. Landry in a place of safety. I will cover your absence as best as I can. I will say that you have been taken ill. When you return, come to the outside door of our chamber under cover of dark – tap three times, then three times again.”

“What then?” Clay took up a fistful of reins. “I do not relish leaving you in this den of treacherous serpents … since it was my concern which brought you here.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Jim replied. “Mr. Shaw and I – we have been in tight places before, and likely will be in tight places again. Ride fast, Clay; bring aid as soon as you can. Then we will decide what course to take then. I do not think Squire Yoakum will be able to deny the evidence of bones in his meadow, or your brother’s dog under his roof – let alone the evidence of Mr. Landry here.”

“I cannot testify!” Ethan Landry squeaked. Jim and Clay regarded him with the same degree of distaste. “I am wanted for murder in Alabama, having killed a man in a duel…”

“Then play the part of a man, you bleating fool,” Clay snarled. “You are not in Alabama any more – a notch on your dueling pistol is a recommendation here.”


Jim and Toby strolled from the stable by the wide entrance door visible to the house, making an elaborate show of disinterest in the quiet patter of hoof-falls that rapidly diminished out of the other end of the Yoakum’s stable. Toby, lagging half a step behind as was fitting in the pretense of being a servant, kept his voice a little above a whisper.

“What do you plan now, James?”

“On the pretext of Clay being indisposed, I intend to remain here a few days longer,” Jim answered. “Or as long as it takes to get a second look at that field, without arousing suspicion. I don’t imagine there’s anyone here at the Landing that we can trust, not even the servants. If the Yoakum’s neighbors fear and dislike them, I imagine the slaves are terrified – and I certainly don’t blame them.”

“The day is cold,” Toby said, not appearing to feel any such thing with the brisk wind flattening this thin shirt against his shoulders. “While there is none about, let us take another look now.”

“May as well,” Jim agreed. With Clay and Landry safely away and no one among the Yoakums raising the alarm, this moment might be their only chance. The two of them retraced their steps towards the meadow. The wind among the pine branches shook down icy drops upon them both, and Jim thought of tears falling. No smoke without a fire – and the fire at Yoakum’s Landing burned insatiably, like a Moloch demanding constant sacrifices.

Toby led him to the waterside, first – yes, at first one might have almost thought those bleached white shapes were not bones, but the revealed dead roots of trees, scoured by the sun – but no roots were curved like those of a man’s ribs, as small and intricate as finger and backbones, or knobbed at either end like leg and arm-bones. And the rounded shapes of human skulls could not be mistaken for anything. Jim looked down from the top of the bank for a long moment.

“Either buried at the edge where the ground was soft or these are bodies dumped into the water and washed up later,” he ventured at last. Toby nodded. “The other servants did not speak so much of this,” he said, his face an inscrutable mask. “But they spoke of it as a bad place, haunted by the spirits of the dead. None of them would go here after dark, not under threat of death by their master, unless driven by the most awful threats. I think that must have been in play, James – Yoakum and his kind, they would sooner force others to their bidding.”

“What of the other places?” Jim asked. “You said that it looked as if the ground had been often disturbed … as in that place where the dog had been digging.”

“I think we should take a look at that first,” Toby answered somberly.

They looked for the spot in the tumbled meadow where Randall Hoff’s dog had dug, from which Miss Kate had bid Jim take the dog.  Where the dog had come to sit vigil, the earth had been dug up the earth again and again. It was much softened and easy to shift with bare hands, and as Jim feared, the place revealed much. A short way down through it, Jim’s hand touched cloth, from which a vile odor of putrefaction came; the edge of a pair of trousers and the corroded leather of boot-tops. Jim rose from the side of that rude grave and remarked softly to no one in particular,

“Poor faithful Gem – I think we have found his master.”

“There are doubtless others,” Toby squatted, Indian-fashion, on his heels. “But without shovels and many more men, there is no way to know without being observed. I do not think we can risk that, James. There are too many people here, who can not be trusted to keep silence.”

“You’re right about that.” Jim dusted off his dirty hands on his trousers and stood up. “I think it best that you spend the night in our chamber, on the pretense of tending to Clay. The real reason is for our own mutual protection …what is your estimation of the slaves, Mr. Shaw – what will they do, regarding what they have seen of our actions?”

“They will see nothing and know nothing, upon being asked,” Toby answered carefully. “Until they are threatened directly; they are powerless and have everything to lose on their master’s whim.”

“Fragile reeds upon which to depend for our security,” Jim sighed. It struck him as ironic; in what was supposed to be the most civilized and settled part of East Texas, he and Toby faced the most deadly threat.

The two friends returned to the main house together, still maintaining the pretense of master and servant, Jim silently readying his mind to answer sharp questions regarding Clay, and even the luckless Mr.  Landry, should the topic arise. It was good that he did, for Squire Yoakum met them on the verandah, scowling like a thunderstorm.

“My daughter, Miss Kate tells me that you accompanied her to the meadow to retrieve her dog. I do not approve of this, that you would go for secluded walks with a lady, on bare acquaintance…”

“Miss Kate requested my assistance, which I happy to render,” Jim answered, in even tones. “I did not intend any disrespect to a lady, or to your hospitality.”

The host of Yoakum’s landing scowled even deeper. “But you went back to the meadow, you and this man of yours – I saw you from the upper window, not twenty minutes ago. It was as if you had seen something and wanted to take another look. Did you indeed see something, Mr. Reade?”  Squire Yoakum looked on Jim and Toby with a hard, searching air, every shred of friendly bonhomie vanished as if it had never been.

“The meadow is your property,” Jim answered. “As the owner, you would know best what there is to be seen by anyone casually passing by.” He did not like the veiled expression on the Squire’s face; that of a glutton eagerly contemplating a tasty dish. “Are you afraid that I may have seen something untoward and tell tales to the local magistrate or the sheriff?” To Jim’s discomfiture, the Squire broke into hearty laughter.

“If you did, they would not believe you, boy. They’re all my friends, hereabouts – and I am a generous man to my friends.”

“Supposing that I had found clear evidence of a body buried there, and a murdered man’s property disposed about Yoakum’s Landing?” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Jim knew that he had spoken rashly, but it was too late to take them back. “I was sent here to find such evidence and property, by no less than Captain Jack Hays, who reposes great trust in me. Furthermore, he and others know that I intended searching for it here.” Jim rested his right hand casually on the butt of his revolver, holstered at his waist together with his hunting knife – an implicit warning to go with his words. “Should harm come to me, or to my servant, I do not think you would be able to withstand the storm which would then arise.”

“Don’t you threaten me, boy,” Squire Yoakum growled. His eyes were as cold, as absent of feeling as pebbles. “I’ll never stand trial, no matter what you and your Captain may claim to find on my property. Show it to the magistrate, say your piece … and then see how far the trial will go. I’d never be convicted by any jury in this county or the next. I’m the grand nabob of these parts – any accusation made against me will never stand in court or anywhere else.”

“You seem very certain of yourself in this,” Jim riposted. To his infuriation, the Squire smiled broadly, all menace vanishing in an instant. Here was the hospitable, generous host once again. “I am, boy,” the Squire replied, his broad countenance flushed with satisfaction. “You can’t touch me, here on my own ground – so give up trying. We’ll be friends again – and I’ll forget this little exchange ever happened, hey?” He lowered his voice, adding, “I’m generous to my friends; I don’t forget them, and they certainly do not forget me. And,” he added in a confidential murmur which fairly turned Jim’s stomach, “My daughter does not forget her friends, either – she is kindly-disposed towards them. Especially those who are well-inclined towards the family. You’ll sit with us at supper then, will you? My daughter says that the kitchen has prepared a bounteous meal for us tonight.”

“I must beg your indulgence,” Jim answered, “since my traveling-companion is ill, and I must tend on him. Mr. Huff is at least as much a friend as a client, and I owe him this favor.”

“Have it as you wish,” the Squire answered, seeming to be without suspicion, although Jim kept his hand on his Colt until the man had vanished within the house. Toby remarked quietly,

“I think we should go from here, James. I do not trust him, or any of his household.”

“I would agree – but that Mr. Huff will return here, expecting to find us in the chamber where we have stayed. If we depart – we may not be able to intercept him on the Trace. He will then walk straight into an ambush.” Jim drew a sigh, wishing that he had not been so hasty in sending Clay Huff away with Mr. Landry – or that he had been so taken with Miss Kate. “No – we stay here, and remain on guard.”

He thought for a moment, while Toby watched, as patiently impassive as ever. “One of us to be in the room, always – and we either cook for ourselves on the pretense of preparing food for an invalid, or else take from a dish that we see everyone else helping themselves from.”

“For how long, James? What if Mr. Huff does not return?”

“Four days,” Jim answered. “Four days – I think we may hold out that long.”

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