Chapter One:

Calico

Book with Dorien Grey on Cover

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Chapter 1

Calico Ramsay was tired, and hungry, and ready for the day to end. So when he topped the small rise and looked down onto the cluster of ranch buildings spread out before him, yellowed lights just beginning to appear in the windows, he sighed a deep sigh of relief and sat up tall, stretching his shoulders back and lifting his head high to relieve the tension in his muscles.

A sudden lightning storm the night before had stampeded the cattle on the east range. Calico had spent the entire day with the hands, rounding up as many strays as they could find. Ten were still unaccounted for, and the rest of the hands he'd ridden out with that morning had camped out in the area, and would find the strays the next day.

Calico bedded his horse and entered the bunkhouse just after dark to find Sven, the cook, muttering and cursing over a burnt dinner of beef and beans. Dinner finished, Calico went over to the ranch house to check in with Uncle Dan, the owner of the ranch and Calico's unofficial guardian since Calico was twelve.

There were no lights in the house, which told Calico he would find Uncle Dan in the ranch office, a small shed-like building a few dozen feet from the main house. Dan Overholt, at sixty-five, was still a man to be reckoned with, though his massive frame had begun to settle around his middle. He was totally bald in the center of his head, but his sunburned scalp was surrounded by a wild shock of thick white hair. When Calico was a boy, he'd always thought it looked like mashed potatoes around a steak. Uncle Dan was seated, feet up on the battered table that served as his desk, reading a letter, as Calico entered. Dan looked up, grunted a greeting, and laid the letter aside to light up a huge warped cigar.

"Get 'em all?" he asked, after first blowing an enormous cloud of smoke into the room.

"All but ten, 's far as we can tell. Tim and the boys camped out up near the ridge. They'll find 'em in the morning."

Dan merely shifted his cigar from one corner of his mouth to the other and nodded. He motioned Calico to a chair, then picked up the letter. "You know I had a brother," he said, removing the cigar from his mouth and staring at the glowing end, as if talking to it rather than to Calico. It was a habit he had, Calico knew, whenever he had something really serious to talk about.

"I heared you mention him, once or twice," Calico allowed noncommittally.

"Yeah. Well, we never did get along all that good. He married a rich-type woman when we was barely more than kids, and she and me didn't get on no way. So I came out West and he stayed in Chicago and got even richer, and we just sort of drifted apart." Dan took another long draw from his cigar. "By the time his wife died some years back, we'd pretty much lost track of one another." He paused to pick a bit of tobacco from his bottom lip. "Anyway, now he's dead too."

Calico, not knowing exactly what to say, stared at his boots. After a moment, Dan continued. "Him and his wife had two kids—both girls. I never seen either one of 'em. But they both growed up and got married; one of 'em moved out to Colorado somewheres, and the other married a city feller and stayed in Chicago. The Chicago one, she had two kids, twins, just about the time I runned into you. Then, 'bout six years ago, she and her husband was killed in a fire, and the twins was orphaned. I never knew a thing about any of it, 'cept what this lawyer feller tells me in this here letter." Calico was somehow both surprised and touched by the unfamiliar tone of regret in the older man's voice. Dan carefully re-lit his cigar, which had gone out, before continuing. "They'd be about seventeen now, I reckon. Almost growed up; but by law they got to have a guardian at least 'til they're 18."

Dan paused again, staring at he tip of his cigar. Calico didn't think Dan expected him to say anything, so he remained silent. "I get the idea there was something peculiar about that fire that killed their folks. Lawyer didn't come right out and say anything, mind, but...."

Apparently suddenly aware that Calico was staring at him, Dan took one last puff on the cigar and stubbed it out on a rock paperweight. "Anyways, my brother took on the raising of the kids and now he's dead. Lawyer says the kids get all the money, 'cept for a little bit to the Colorado daughter, which is fine with me, but, well, my brother, he asked that I take the kids 'til they're of age." He looked straight at Calico and shook his head inwonderment. "Hell, I don't know nothin' about raisin' kids."

Calico gave his adopted uncle a broad grin. "Well, if they're seventeen, they're 'bout ready to fend for themselves. Shouldn't be much raisin' involved. Besides, you didn't exactly do too bad with me, 'f I do say so myself."

For the first time since Calico had entered the office, Uncle Dan's solemn air broke, and Calico could almost see him relax. "Yeah, but that was different...you was a boy, and a farm boy at that. If your folks hadn't 'a got killed, you'd 'a still turned out okay. But these two's different. Out here, by the time you're eighteen, you're on your own. But rich city kids is different. One's a boy, true, but like I say, they're city kids. What the hell do they know about ranchin'?"

"Well, I expect they could learn, don't you?"

Dan sighed, his entire huge frame rising and falling with the motion. "I expect they'll have to."

Calico sat silent for a moment, his lips pursed in thought. "Well, if ya' don't want the kids, why not ship 'em off to their aunt in Colorado? Least she's a woman." Dan shrugged. "If my brother'd wanted 'em sent out to her, he'd 'a sent 'em to her." His face once again became serious, and Calico had the feeling there was something Uncle Dan wanted to say, but couldn't. "'Sides," he continued, "they wouldn't be no better off with her...she lives even farther from civilization than we do. No, I'll abide by my brother's wishes. Kin is kin, and even if we never met, the young'uns is kin." Calico had learned long before to accept Uncle Dan's determination. It was, he told himself, none of his affair. He raised his hands from his lap and let them slap back against his thighs. "Well, I guess that's it, then. When they comin'?"

Dan fumbled in his vest for another cigar. "I'm supposed to go pick 'em up in Hutchinson three weeks tomorrow. They got school to finish, things to take care of back there. Lawyer's puttin' 'em on the train for Hutchinson on the 15th."

"You want I should go fetch 'em?" Calico asked. Then, fearful that he may have offended the older man by implying he wasn't in condition to make the trip, hastened to add, "I mean, Hutchinson's a full three days' ride, an' you havin' so much to do 'round here...."

Dan stared at him for a moment, lighted match poised just short of making contact with the end of his cigar, and Calico thought he saw a flicker of amusement in the older man's eyes. Dan held the match until it had burned almost to his fingers, then with the precision timing born of long practice, lit the cigar and blew out the match with casual unconcern. "Nope, boy. It's my duty, an' I'll do it. But I'll want you to run things while I'm gone."

Calico started to object. "But Caleb's your foreman. He..."

"I know who Caleb is, boy. No buts about it. You're the closest thing I got to real kin, and it's about time you started t' take over things. I ain't gonna last forever, ya know. I'll do my duty by these kids, but don't you worry; when I go, this ranch and everything on it's yours."

In the fifteen years since Dan found Calico in the smoking ruins of the wagon train, this was the first time they had ever spoken of such things. Both men suddenly realized they were in an awkward position, dangerously close to openly showing the deep affection they felt for one another, and both were appropriately embarrassed. After a long pause, during which Dan shuffled through a stack of papers and Calico studied a fly strolling across the toe of his left boot, Dan cleared his throat and said: "You find them ten head tomorrow, hear?"

Calico rose quickly to his feet, rubbed his index finger under his nose self-consciously, and backed awkwardly toward the door. "Sure. First thing. Ah...well, guess I better hit the hay; get an early start. See ya', Uncle Dan."

Dan did not glance up from the pile of papers, but dismissed Calico with a cursory wave of one large hand.

#

Three days later, in town to pick up supplies, Calico stopped in at the general store. Calvin Grubb, the store's owner, adjusted his armband and shifted his green eye shade as he looked up from the ledger open on the counter top in front of him. Calico had known the man for fifteen years, and had yet to see him smile.

"Howdy, Calico," Calvin said with a curt nod. It was the same greeting he'd used since Calico first stood before him, an unsure twelve year old at Uncle Dan's side. Calico remembered the meeting very well because it was the first time—and one of the very few times—in his entire life that someone he met had not commented on the origin of his nickname: fact that he had one brown eye and one blue. He'd always held Calvin in special regard because of it.

"Calvin." They shook hands, and Calico gave a nod to Evie-Mae, Calvin's oldest daughter, who came out from the back room, apparently at the sound of his voice. He'd known Evie-Mae since they were kids, and it was no secret that she had set her eye on him long ago—a prospect now, as then, that made him extremely uncomfortable. He knew he was the object of the attention of many of the young women in town, but he simply was not interested. He much preferred the company of the other ranch-hands and cowboys. Women—specifically those with a potential romantic interest in him—made him painfully ill-at-ease.

Nonetheless, he smiled, touched the brim of his hat, and said "Howdy, Evie-Mae." She gave him a smile that had more than casual greeting in it and made his toes curl inside his boots.

"Hello, Calico," she said, as though his name was soft butter and she was spreading it on a slice of fresh-baked bread.

Calico turned quickly to Calvin and handed him the list of supplies the ranch needed. Usually it was Sven or one of the other hands who made the trip to town, but Dan had specifically requested that Calico go this time, to send a confirming wire to the Chicago lawyer. "I'll be by in an hour or so to pick everything up," Calico said, adjusting his hat on the back of his head and nodding goodbye to Evie-Mae. He was just turning to leave the store, when she said: "Will we be seeing you at the social Saturday night, Calico?"

"Afraid not," he replied."I'm headin' out Saturday morning to do some fence-fixin' an' probably won't be back 'til Sunday afternoon sometime." He truly did not like lying, but sometimes it was necessary, and he felt this was one of those times. Evie-Mae was obviously disappointed. "You never come to our socials," she said, with just a hint of petulance. "Some of the girls and I were talking, and we were wondering if you're deliberately avoiding us."

Calico managed a grin. "O'course not. I'm just real busy…and not much into socializin'."

He turned to make another break for the door when Calvin, this time, stopped him. "'Second, Calico," Calvin called, reaching behind a counter in the special drawer reserved for incoming mail. "It 'pears your Uncle Dan's a mighty popular man, all of a sudden."

Calico took the letter and looked at it as though it were some fragile living thing. Two personal letters in one week was an almost unheard of occurrence for Dan Overholt —and Calico himself had never received a letter in his life. He searched the letter for clues, but could only determine that it was written in a woman's hand. "Thanks, Calvin," he said, then carefully slipped the letter into his shirt pocket, making double sure it was pushed all the way in so it wouldn't fall out on the way home.

By the time Calico reached the stagecoach office, he'd pretty much forgotten the letter. He gave the wire to the stage line manager, to go with the next stage to Hutchinson, where both the rail and telegraph lines ended. From there, he went to the saloon to pick up an order of Uncle Dan's favorite whiskey and to have himself a beer. Whiskey was plentiful at the ranch, but cold beer was a luxury to be found only in town.

Tim Hibler, owner of Grady's biggest saloon, was also one of the town's most respected citizens, and was looked on as something of a genius by the drinking men of the community—which was to say all of them. Tim had built his saloon with a deep basement with double-thick walls. Every winter, he hired men to cut river ice to fill his basement, alternating layers of ice with layers of straw. It not only kept the saloon fairly cool well through summer, but it enabled Tim to serve cold beer even during the warm months. Calico always enjoyed dropping by to see Tim whenever he got into town.

After Calico's second beer, Tim, who had been busy in the small back room, came out to greet his customer. His big, beefy face broke into a wide, snaggle-toothed grin as he saw Calico, and he came over to grab him by the shoulders and shake him vigorously—a habit that usually thoroughly drenched any customers not familiar enough with the practice to hastily set their drinks down when they saw Tim coming. Calico had seen Tim enter, and had had ample time to set his beer aside.

"Good to see ya, Tim," Calico managed after the hearty shaking.

"You too, Calico...you too," Tim boomed. Then his face took on an air of mock seriousness. "But I'm afraid your Uncle Dan's not gonna be so happy to see you when you arrive home empty-handed."

"What do you mean?" Calico asked.

"Well, them nitwits from Hutchinson ain't got here with the shipment yet. You know I got to order Dan's in special. So I ain't got it t' give you. Can you come by again next week, or send one of the boys for it? It'll be here by then, sure." "Well," Calico said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, "I 'spect Uncle Dan's got a bottle or two stashed away somewheres to last him through. He'll live." Then he grinned. "But how's about another beer? I helped myself to two while you was out back." "Sure thing. Fact, I'll join you—all this hard work makes me thirsty." He poured two beers, and Calico knew what was coming next; it was another ritual, but one Tim reserved only for him. "Here's to your blue eye, Calico..." Tim took a healthy drink

"...and here's to your brown." Tim drained his mug. Calico just grinned, shaking his head, then—just a little more slowly than Tim—drained his own mug.

"Well, Tim, I'd best be gettin' back to deliver the bad news. I'll try to make it in next week, or send somebody. You take care now, hear?" The two men shook hands, and Calico headed back for Calvin's store, the supplies, and home.

#

By the time Calico reached the ranch, unhitched the team, and unloaded the supplies, it was nearly dark. He was just ready to join the hands for supper when he remembered the letter in his shirt pocket, and hurried over to the ranch house to deliver it to Uncle Dan. Dan was in the kitchen, stirring a large pot of rabbit stew. He motioned Calico to sit at the table.

"Be with you in a second, Calico. Sven got a couple of rabbits this morning out around his garden. Not enough for the whole crew, though, so I decided to make me a little rabbit stew. Be pleased to have company."

Calico removed his hat and hung it on a hook behind the door, then opened the huge, rough-wood cupboard to get dishes and set the table.

Dan usually ate with the rest of the hands, but from time to time he preferred eating alone, or with Caleb, his foreman and longtime crony, or with Calico. On these occasions, he usually did the cooking himself, or had Sven prepare something special in the early afternoon before starting supper for the hands. Calico always enjoyed the chance for him and Uncle Dan to eat together, just the two of them—a pleasure enhanced by the fact that Dan was an excellent cook.

The men ate, as usual, more or less in silence, talking only briefly about ranch business or news Calico had picked up in town.

"'Ya' happen t' run int'a Evie-Mae while you was at Calvin's?" Dan asked with a grin.

"Yeah, I did."

"I figgered. Manage t' fight her off?"

It was Calico's turn to grin. "Well, it didn't quite come t'that," he said. "But I'd 'a won."

Dan just nodded and kept grinning. "The world ain't always easy, boy," he said, and Calico once again knew that Uncle Dan understood him better than any other human being.

As they finished dinner and Calico returned from the stove with their third refill of coffee, he took the letter from his shirt pocket and laid it in front of Uncle Dan.

"This come for you," Calico said, as he filled both cups, then returned the pot to the stove.

Dan studied it, much as Calico had, then opened it and read in silence. Calico stared into his coffee cup, until he heard the letter land casually on the table in front of him. "Read it," Uncle Dan said. Calico wiped his hand on his pants before picking up the letter. The handwriting, he noted, was large and penmanship-perfect. Definitely a woman.

Dear Mr. Overholt:

I have been informed of my father's passing by his Chicago attorney, and of his stated intention of placing my late sister's children in your custody.

I think I should point out to you, Mr. Overholt (I regret my inability to call you 'Uncle,' but since we have never met, I feel such familiarity would not be appropriate), that the tragic death of my dear sister and her husband, following so shortly as they did after the death of my mother, had adversely affected my father's mind to the point where, near the end of his life, his decision making capabilities were seriously impaired.

I apologize, on my father's behalf, for the inconvenience and imposition his request to you may have caused. My husband and I have ample facilities for caring for my niece and nephew and since I understand that you are unmarried, I am sure you would agree that they would be far better off in a more 'homelike' setting. I shall be happy to make all the necessary arrangements to have them sent to me, thus sparing you unnecessary inconvenience and expense. Trusting this letter finds you in good health, and thanking you for your cooperation and understanding, I remain,

Most Sincerely,

Mrs. Rebecca Thomas

Bow Ridge, Colorado

Calico finished the letter and handed it back across the table without comment. Dan took it, folded it carefully, and put it in his shirt pocket behind his cigars. "When's that stage leave for Hutchinson?" he asked.

"Tomorrow morning, 'bout noon...if it's on time, which it usually ain't," Calico replied.

Dan took out a cigar, bit the end off and expertly spat it into a spittoon near the stove, then lit it before speaking. "Want you to ride into town first thing," he said, staring at the glowing red tip of cigar, "and give the stage master two more wires—one to the lawyer sayin' never mind what he hears from Mrs. Rebecca Thomas of Bow Ridge, Colorado, he's to put those youngsters on the train to Hutchinson like scheduled. The second to Mrs. Rebecca Thomas, sayin' much obliged, but I'll abide by my brother's wishes. Got that?"

Calico nodded. He wanted to ask several questions, but sensed that now wasn't the time. They finished their coffee in silence, Calico staring intently into his coffee cup, and when he looked up, he saw that Uncle Dan had nodded off.

Calico cleared the dishes away, stacked them on the counter, then washed them in the iron dish kettle that was always kept hot on the stove. He considered waking Uncle Dan before he left, but thought better of it. Instead, he closed the door loudly behind him as he went out, hoping the sound would awaken the older man, and he'd go to bed.

#

Calico rode into town the morning after his talk with Uncle Dan, as instructed, and sent off the two wires.

On the Tuesday before Uncle Dan's scheduled departure for Hutchinson to pick up the twins, Dan asked Calico to ride with him into Grady. It was a bright, clear day, and both men enjoyed the ride, though nothing was said about either the twins or what their arrival would mean to the ranch's normal routine. As they approached the last high ridge before town, Calico felt the hair on the back of his neck rise, as it had on several occasions in his life when danger was imminent. He had the distinct impression that they were being watched, and he thought he saw a momentary flash of movement near a large rock at the top of the rise. Uncle Dan was obviously occupied with his own thoughts, so Calico said nothing, but as they topped the rise, Calico could see the dust of another rider far ahead of them, heading into town. Once in town themselves, Dan and Calico hitched their horses in front of Tim Hibler's saloon. Calico assumed Dan was going to join him for a beer, but Dan left him at the door, saying he was going over to Calvin's general store for a new saddlebag.

The saloon was, as usual, dark, cool, and smelled of stale beer and spilled whiskey. Two hands from a ranch near Dan's were at the bar, and Calico returned their nod of greeting. At the far end of the bar, near the storeroom and in the shadows, was a short, dark stranger talking with Tim. Calico leaned across the bar, took a glass, and poured himself a beer as Tim turned toward him.

"Well, look who's here," Tim bellowed. Calico had never heard him speak in anything under a roar. He put his glass aside just in time, as Tim grabbed him by the shoulders and gave him a neck-snapping shake. "Ya' come for the stuff for yer old Uncle Dan, didn't ya? I seen him at the door—how come he didn't come in with ya'?"

Calico rolled his shoulders to get the blood circulating again, then said, "He's over t' Calvin's for a minute. Be here shortly."

"He better," Tim said jovially. "Friend of his here lookin' for him."

Calico looked around. "Yeah? Where?"

"Why, right down there at the...." Tim's voice trailed off as he looked toward the end of the bar only to find the stranger gone. Tim shook his head in puzzlement. "Well, I'll be! He just come in a few minutes before you, had a beer, an' when you two showed up at the door, he says: 'Ain't that Dan Overholt?' An' I says: 'Yeah, you know Dan?' An' he says: 'Yeah, we're old pals, but don't say nothin' 'cause I want to surprise him.' Then you come in, an' he ups and disappears. Must'a gone out through the storeroom." He shook his head again. "Now if that don't beat all...." Calico felt the hairs on his neck rising again. He downed his beer, tossed a coin on the bar, and said "Yeah, that's real strange. Look, Tim, I gotta get something at Calvin's too. I'll be right back."

Calico hurried over to the general store, nearly running into Dan, who was standing just inside the doorway talking to Calvin.

"Howdy, Calico," Calvin said.

"Howdy, Calvin," Calico replied, easing past Dan into the store. "Uncle Dan, you expectin' t' meet somebody in town here t'day?"

Dan looked at him and pursed his lips. "Nope, can't say's I was. Why'd you ask?" Calico suddenly felt a little foolish. "No reason. Just some guy over to Tim's said you an' him's old friends, an' I never seen him before. Little short guy, dark. Couldn't see him too well—you know how dark it is in Tim's."

Dan shook his head. "Don't sound like nobody I know. What'd he say his name was?"

"He didn't say. He must have just walked out while Tim was rattlin' my teeth. I just thought it was a might peculiar."

"I think Tim's a might peculiar at times," Uncle Dan laughed, "but he serves the best whiskey this side o' St. Louis, and that's enough to excuse a man a lot of peculiarities. You go on back there an' see if you can find anything else about this stranger fella. Did you see him, Calvin?"

Calvin looked up from the box he was unpacking. "Nope. I never see nothin', stuck behind this counter all day."

Calico returned to Tim's saloon, where Dan joined him a few minutes later. "Find out anything?" he asked, leaning against the bar next to Calico.

"Nothin'," Calico admitted.

"Well, if whatever he wanted was important, I reckon he'll be back," Dan said with a shrug, then hollered toward the back room, into which Tim had disappeared shortly before. "Hey, Tim...how's about two beers down here? You expect a man t' die o' thirst?" As he spoke, he winked at Calico and reached behind the bar for two mugs, which he had filled by the time Tim came lumbering back into the room with a tub full of ice.

Tim grinned broadly when he saw Dan but, with his arms full, spared the older man his usual bone-jarring greeting. The three men spent the next half hour drinking beer and swapping stories, but Calico kept glancing toward the front door, and he noticed that Dan did, too.

Calico and Dan left the saloon, attended to a few other chores, then mounted their horses for the ride back to the ranch. Calico was vaguely uneasy, but wasn't sure why.

"Hey, Uncle Dan, why don't we take the long way home?" he suggested, trying to sound casual, but for some reason not wanting to take the ridge road. "The Martins got some new breeding stock down by Deep Lake, an' I figured we could take a look at 'em...maybe try t' get that prize bull o' theirs for stud later."

Dan shook his head. "Not today, boy. I got some things need doin' back at the ranch before sundown. We c'n stop by the Martins' after I get back with the kids."

They rode up the steep trail to the crest, then started down into the next small valley. Without trying to appear obvious, Calico kept a sharp eye on every clump of trees and outcropping of rocks large enough to hide a man and horse.

"Ya' know, Calico, what I was sayin' the other night...'bout you and the ranch...."

Dan kept his eyes on the trail ahead, the reins loose in his hand but sitting ramrod-straight in the saddle. It was as though he were talking to the soft breeze that carried his words to Calico, who rode slightly behind him. "I know we ain't never talked much about it...don't seem men have t' say a lot when they understand each other's well as you an' me...but I want you to know I meant what I said. These kids may be my blood kin, but you're the closest thing I got to real family. I just didn't want you to think that their comin' would make a difference far as you an' me's concerned." Calico spurred his horse gently until the two men were riding side by side. "Hell, Uncle Dan, you think I'd mind whatever you did? You don't owe me nothin'. It's me that owes you. You're the one saved my hide when my folks was killed, an' took me in an' looked after me all these years. Where'd I'd 'a been without you?"

For the first time, Uncle Dan turned his head to look Calico straight in the eye. "Ya' know, boy," he began....

The shot was like a whipcrack through the quiet air. It caught Dan directly between the shoulders, and he pitched forward in the saddle.

"Uncle Dan!" Calico yelled, lunging sideways to try to keep the older man from falling to the ground. A second shot rang out, whistling past Calico's right ear. Calico reined his horse up short and leapt off in the same motion, catching the reins of Uncle Dan's horse with one hand and easing Dan's fall to the ground with the other. He dragged the heavy form behind a nearby rock as three more shots came in rapid succession, sending up little spurts of dust and dirt on either side of the two men.

Once safely behind the sheltering rock, Calico tore off his hat and put it as a cushion beneath Uncle Dan's head. Dan's eyes were open but slightly unfocused. "Uncle Dan! C'n you hear me?" Calico said, forgetting the hidden gunman, forgetting everything but the wounded man at his side.

Dan coughed, and a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. "Of course I c'n hear you, boy," he said, lifting one hand weakly into the air as if to dismiss the idea. "You don't worry 'bout me; you just concentrate on getting that son-of-a-bitch that shot me!"

Calico's fear for his adopted uncle turned to rage as still another shot chipped the top of the boulder not three feet from his head. He looked around for the horses...Uncle Dan's was down on his side, having been hit by one of the bushwhacker's shots. His own mount paced nervously about twenty feet away, head bobbing and right front hoof pawing the ground. Calico could see his rifle in the saddlebag. If only he could get to it....

He removed his neckerchief, grabbed a long stick, and draped the kerchief over the end. Slowly, he raised it to the top of the rock. When there was no responding fire, Calico peered cautiously around the edge of the boulder, keeping his head low to the ground. At the top of the ridge they'd just passed, he saw the dust of a horse, moving off, fast. With a quick look at Uncle Dan, who now lay with his eyes closed, breathing heavily, Calico dashed across the open space to his horse, leaped on, grabbed the rein with his left hand and the rifle from its holster with the other, and spurred the horse to a gallop.

#

The day was clear and bright, but to Calico, it was as if he were riding through a long, dark tunnel. All he could see was the receding cloud of dust in front of him. He felt as though he were looking out through someone else's eyes, seeing nothing else, feeling nothing but an explosive hatred for the man he was trailing. The jolting of the horse's gallop over the rough terrain gradually brought back some of his senses, and what had been wild rage was slowly replaced by an icy determination. As he crested the ridge, he could see the figure of the other rider below, moving through a gulch that Calico knew made a slow circle around the town. By riding hard, straight through town, Calico just might be able to head him off. He reined his horse to the left, to the smoother and straighter trail, then spurred him to go even faster. The horse responded and the wind whipped Calico's long blond hair across his eyes.

As he approached the town, Calico could see several people in the street, staring at the galloping figure approaching. With one hand, Calico waved them out of the way, and they scattered like chickens as he thundered past. As he rounded the corner leading out of town, he saw a woman pushing a baby carriage crossing the street directly in front of him. There was no time to stop or swerve, and with Calico's urging the horse leapt into the air, his hind legs clearing the carriage by inches, the woman falling into the street in a faint.

The last houses were behind him, and Calico could see dust rising from the gulch just a short way ahead of him. "Just a little farther, boy," he said to his straining horse. The gulch fanned out onto more or less open plain a hundred yards or so ahead of the fast-moving rider; a short distance beyond that was a large grove of trees. Calico knew that once the rider got to the grove, his chances of catching him were slim....there were too many places to hide, too many directions he might take.

The rider was now less than fifty yards ahead of and below him.

Calico reined his horse up short on a slight rise and raised his rifle.

For the first time in his twenty-seven years of life, Calico Ramsay had another human being in his rifle sight. A human life. His finger hesitated on the trigger. Then he saw, in his mind's eye, Uncle Dan pitching forward on his horse, a bullet between his shoulders, and Calico pulled the trigger. The rider toppled from his horse and bounced three times as he hit the ground, legs and arms flailing like a rag doll. Rifle re-cocked, Calico spurred his tired horse forward, down the hill toward the unmoving figure. He got close enough to see that the man was short and dark—the stranger from the saloon—and that he was dead. Without dismounting, Calico turned his horse back toward town...back toward Uncle Dan. As he galloped back through town, the streets were full of people staring, pointing, gossiping. As he approached Tim Hibler's saloon, he saw Tim standing in the doorway. Without slowing, Calico yelled to Tim "Uncle Dan's been shot. Up beyond Taylor's Ridge. Get Doc Enders quick!." He saw Tim wave and start running up the street, toward the doctor's house.

Calico's horse was exhausted, but sensed the importance of haste, and gave its full effort in climbing the steep ridge. Calico saw the boulder in front of him, and Uncle Dan's legs protruding to one side. He was off the horse before it had fully stopped, and at Uncle Dan's side in an instant.

The older man was still breathing, but his breath came in deep, labored rasps. Calico took Dan's hand in his own, and felt it was very cold. "Uncle Dan! Uncle Dan!" he said, his voice nearly breaking.

Dan opened his eyes and gave a weak grin. "We get him, son?"

Tears welled up in Calico's eyes and ran down his cheeks. He tried to speak, but couldn't, so he merely nodded.

"Knew it," Dan said, then began coughing, the blood gushing from his mouth.

Calico propped him up, hoping to stop the bleeding and make his breathing easier. He realized he was squeezing the older man's hand, trying to force life back into him.

"Calico...." Dan's voice was weaker. "The kids...the kids...." Another coughing fit wracked his huge frame. Blood was running down the front of his neck, staining his shirt. Calico was terrified and sick with the knowledge that there was nothing he could do. Dan muttered something Calico did not hear, and he lowered his head until his ear was only inches from Dan's lips. "Rebecca...Rebecca Thomas...."

"I understand, Uncle Dan. It's okay. I'll see that the kids get to her."

Dan's limp hand suddenly grasped Calico's so tightly it nearly made him wince. Dan made an effort to sit up, opened his mouth to say something, and then collapsed, his final breath leaving him in a long, rattling sigh.

"Uncle Dan...," Calico said softly, lowering him gently to the ground. And then, for the first time in fifteen years, since that day in the wreckage of the wagon train, Calico Ramsay cried.



Calico can be ordered from UntreedReads by clicking here; you can order it from Amazon by clicking here.

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