"The Crown Conspiracy"

by
Layla


Logline: Crown returns to the valley just as Nick predicted in "Palms of Glory"

  Nettie Sample stopped and looked back. She thought of an illustration in the family Bible that she had read long into the previous night. A sad woman in white robes looking back toward her deserted home with longing eyes. Lot’s wife. Instead of the wicked Cities of the Plain, Nettie’s eyes gazed lovingly on a simple farmhouse. It was not a remarkable house by any means to anyone other than Nettie. Though it was no mansion, she and Frank could not have been prouder of their little home. Frank and his father Henry had built it with their own hands. In ten years, Frank had never quite gotten around to giving it the paint job that he had promised her. The house, the barns, the fence and the fields out back were all a testament to the dream they had once shared.

It was all Frank had ever wanted: a farm of their own. He had worked along side Henry as a tenant farmer on a large Virginia plantation. They made enough sharecropping to get by, but Frank longed for a house and land to call his own. They had been too poor to buy a farm outright, just like so many others who shared the same dream. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised to make the dreams of many settlers a reality.

By the 1850’s, huge land acquisitions had filled out the continental United States. Congressman Andrew Johnson had taken up the cause that the public domain rightfully belonged to the American people. Southerners opposed Johnson’s land giveaway as benefiting poor whites that were unlikely to vote slavery into the new states. President Abraham Lincoln finally signed the bill in 1862 after the Southern states had left the Union.

The Homestead Act declared that any citizen or intended citizen could claim 160 acres – one-quarter square mile – of surveyed government land. Claimants had to “improve” the plot with a dwelling and grow crops. After five years, if the original filer was still on the land, it was his property, free and clear.

Frank, Nettie, their young children and Frank’s father had come west in 1863 in hopes of laying claim to 160 acres. The fertile San Joaquin Valley area around Stockton was an ideal place to settle but available government land had already been filed for.

Frank Sample and his family could have moved on to a more remote government homestead, but the Valley’s climate and plenteous water supply promised bountiful crops. The only other option had been to secure a bank loan and purchase land from the Coastal and Western Railroad Company at its’ upcoming land auction.

The various railroad companies were in possession of 200 million acres of grant land spanning across the entire country. When they had finished laying their tracks, the railroad companies were eager to auction off the excess acreage to farmers and immigrants as well as provide farm-to-market transportation – at a price.

The Samples and many other families had chosen to stay in the Valley and to purchase farmland from Coastal and Western. The land had yielded its’ promise and the farm had been profitable even in the face of loan repayments and transportation fees.

It had all seemed too good to be true. And it was. Four years after the farmers had been “sold” their land, Coastal and Western had identified the ideal route for its’ southern rail line to Los Angeles. That ideal route was right through some of the Valley farms.

The railroad company took the position that it had simply “leased” its’ grant land to the farmers and had tried to drive them from their land through sheer force and intimidation. The farmers had felt helpless and hopeless until Tom Barkley had convinced them that the farmers could unite and fight back. The state legislature and the courts had sided with the railroad and that might have been the end of it back east… but this was the West! Legal words and phrases notwithstanding, men still defended their principles and property at the point of a gun.

Tom Barkley and the other men had fought off the hired guns that had come to drive the farmers off their land. Eleven farmers, including Frank’s father, had died in that fight. Tom Barkley had also paid the ultimate price for standing with the farmers. His money, influence and importance had not saved him from an assassin’s bullet.

Nettie walked over to the little flowerbed she had planted by the front porch. She stooped and pulled a handful of purple and yellow pansies and scattered them on the ground near the front steps where Frank had drawn his last breath. Where the dream had died.

Where would she be this time tomorrow? The irony was not lost on her. Nettie and the children would be riding in a Pullman coach, Jacob Crown’s rails taking them back east to Virginia. “Is not he rightly named Jacob? For he hath supplanted me…” Esau’s lament echoed in her mind. Supplanter… one who uproots and replaces, especially through treachery. Nettie sighed, “You, too, were rightly named, Mr. Crown.”

Nettie instantly recognized the horse coming up the road at a canter: a handsome, bright copper chestnut with four knee-high white stockings and a broad white blaze. It seemed to Nettie that Jingo was perfectly suited for the dapper lawyer who rode him. News travels fast, she thought. Jarrod Barkley reined the horse to a halt and swung to the ground.

“Nettie!” He reached out and took her hand. The blue eyes were at once concerned and sympathetic. “I just heard the rumor in town that you’re leaving.” Jarrod glanced over at the packed bags and the two youngsters who sat solemnly aboard the wagon. “It looks like it’s more than just rumor.”

“It’s true, Jarrod. I’m taking the children back east to Virginia. I’ve still got family there.”

“Nettie, I can only imagine how hard it has been for you to try to hold on to your farm without Frank. I would never presume to tell you what you should do. I will only say that if you want to stay, my brothers and I will fight for your right to remain here. I know Swenson, Worth and the rest of the men feel the same way. We’ll see to it that yours and the children’s interests are protected. I’ll help you find a tenant farmer to replace Otis and in the mean time, Nick could send over one of the hands to keep the chores caught up…”

“I don’t want to stay, Jarrod!” Nettie’s eyes filled with tears and Jarrod could see the sadness and defeat in them as well. “I can’t stay.” Her voice softened. “Twenty-five men died in this yard six months ago. How many more, Jarrod? Crown can easily replace the twenty hired guns he lost. How does a family replace a husband and father? The price is too high, Jarrod. The price my family has paid… The price your family and the other families have paid… As long as Crown has money – and he has plenty – and there are guns for hire, the farms will never be safe. Is it worth all that we’ve lost?”

“Father believed it was. Frank believed it, too, Nettie.” Jarrod hoped his eyes did not betray the private doubts that sometimes intruded into his thoughts.

“Frank is dead.” Nettie’s reply tore him away from his thoughts. “So is my father-in-law and so is your father. No more blood will be shed over this land, at least not on my account.” Her eyes moved to the bare ground below the loft of the large red barn. “I’ve no intention of hiring another tenant farmer to work the land for me. I won’t put another life at risk. Otis Carter’s death was no accident, Jarrod. Crown can have this land!”

“I know Otis’ death was a shock, Nettie, but Fred says Otis appeared to have fallen out of the barn loft and broken his neck while you and the children were in town. It was apparently just a tragic accident.”

“An accident that happened two days after Crown came back to Stockton, Jarrod. In the five months that Otis worked here, I never saw him go up into the loft. And two months ago when the windmill broke, Sieg Swenson had to come over and fix it. Do you know why, Jarrod?”

“No, Nettie, I don’t.”

“Otis Carter was deathly afraid of heights!” Nettie stated firmly.

Jarrod was momentarily taken aback. Had the unseen hand of Jacob Crown played a role in the tenant farmer’s death? The facts had seemed obvious. But Jarrod had learned long ago that there is sometimes nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.

Nettie reached down and took his hand again. “You must be careful, Jarrod, both you and your brothers.”

“We will, Nettie. Is there anything at all we can do for you and the children?”

“No, but thank you just the same, Jarrod. Sieg and Marcy Swenson were here earlier and helped me pack what I intend to take back to Virginia by train. I told them that they could have all the furnishings I’m leaving behind. Sieg’s got the house rebuilt after the fire and they could certainly use the furniture.”

“That’s very kind of you, Nettie.” Jarrod said as he helped her aboard the wagon. She took one last longing look at the farmhouse and then her eyes shifted to the oak tree that stood 150 yards beyond the house. There were three small headstones beneath the shade of the oak: Frank Jr.’s, who had died of pneumonia, Henry’s, and her beloved Frank’s.

“Do you think he’d understand, Jarrod? He knew I was never a brave woman…”

“You have more courage than you know, Nettie. And yes, I believe Frank would understand and respect your decision. You and the children were always what was most precious to him.”

“Thank you, Jarrod, for not thinking me a coward. Tell your mother that I’ll write once the children and I are settled.” She took up the reins to start the wagon toward Stockton. “God be with you all!”

“Goodbye, Nettie.”

Jarrod did not start for home immediately. He gazed out over the property that very soon would no longer be known as Sample’s Farm: property that held such bittersweet memories for Jarrod as well.

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Siegfried and Marcy Swenson headed home as dusk approached. They had been away most of the day. The morning had been spent in Stockton buying supplies. After lunch at the Café, the Swensons had gone over to help Nettie Sample pack her belongings. Their wagon was now loaded with some of the furniture Nettie had given them.

Marcy was the first to spot it. The thin wisp appeared to be no more than a column of dust in the distance. As Marcy and Sieg grew closer, the thin wisp became discernable as a column of smoke arising from the location of their home. Sieg whipped up the team to cover the last few miles to their farmhouse quickly. They pulled into the yard utterly stunned as they watched the heavy black cloud filled with glowing embers roiling into the sky.

Marcy began to weep as she gazed at the once again gutted and charred remains of the farmhouse. The house, the barn, and the outhouses were nothing more than burned-out shells. Sieg got down and walked across the yard on numbed legs toward the collapsed pile of blackened timbers that had once been their new home.

“Skipper!” Sieg spun around at the sound of Marcy’s anguished cry. Her little terrier was lying still by the fence. The dog had been shot. It was then Sieg noticed the note nailed to the gate.

SWINSEN
YOU BILD IT AGIN AND WE’LL BURN IT AGIN

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“Well, Jarrod, is there any doubt in your mind that Crown is behind what is going on in the Valley?” The instincts that had served Nick well through the years screamed that the return of Jacob Crown was inextricably linked to the events of recent days. “I told you, Pappy, Crown wouldn’t let twenty dead men stop him from pulling off a billion dollar haul down here! This valley is gold and Crown knows it. And I’ll tell you something else. Los Angeles has a world of natural potential that spells nothing but growth! You mark my words; it’ll be as big as Stockton one day… maybe bigger. Crown wants to be the man that runs the southern line down there. I don’t believe for one minute that Nettie Sample’s hired man getting killed and the Swenson place burning down again were coincidence.” Nick stood ramrod straight, arms crossed and jaw firmly clenched. A tendril of dark brown hair fell down over his forehead and his hazel eyes bored into Jarrod’s own. He had assumed his ‘I’m right and you know it’ posture.

Jarrod swirled the Scotch around the sides of the glass he held. He had to admit that while Nick was often times hasty in forming his conclusions, in this instance, Jarrod was inclined to agree. “It’s very possible that Crown is indeed the culprit. I’ll go as far as to say that it is highly probable. But it is also possible that Otis’ death was accidental and a gang of outlaws is to blame for the Swenson place. It wouldn’t be the first time a roving band of marauders has targeted the Valley.”

“And this gang just happens to show up the same time as Crown?” Nick looked incredulous, his tone tinged with sarcasm.

“At this point it is all circumstantial evidence, Nick, and circumstantial evidence is a tricky thing.”

“Men have been hanged on circumstantial evidence!”

“Yes, they have…and some men have been wrongfully hanged! I would like nothing better than to nail Jacob Crown. But it will be done on the basis of evidence, Nick, not feelings. And it will be founded on the truth for the sake of justice, not revenge!”

“Have you noticed any strangers around town?” Heath had been staring pensively into the fire, his arm draped on the mantle.

“No, Heath, I haven’t.”

“But Nick could be right anyhow and Crown’s just keeping his hired guns outta sight this time.”

“Could be. I plan to meet with Crown tomorrow. The meeting is ostensibly to discuss the appeal I’ve filed, but I hope to feel him out as well. It will be interesting to see exactly what business Crown says has brought him to Stockton.”

“I don’t care what he says! I know why he’s here!” Nick stated hotly. “If it’s another fight Crown wants, I’ll give him a fight you won’t believe!”

“Nick, I’ve told you this is no barroom brawl. This is the State you’re swinging on, Boy! Thanks to Hannibal Jordan’s influence, the Governor vetoed the Bill to rescind and Judge Powell ruled against my injunction. The authority of the State and the Court is on the side of the railroad. Even if Crown’s men did burn the Swenson place, as long as the courts say it is railroad land, there is nothing anyone can do about it.”

“Like hell there’s not! We did something about it six months ago.” Nick fumed. “Don’t tell me you’re waffling again, Jarrod!”

“I’m just facing facts…”

“Facts don’t mean a thing!” Nick snorted. “It’s a fact that there isn’t a court around here that the railroad doesn’t own. It’s a fact that Crown is greasing the pockets of those sleazy politicians in the legislature. You’re wasting your time filing appeals and running back and forth to Sacramento, Jarrod!” Nick glared at his older brother.

Jarrod met his stare and gave no quarter. “The rule of Law will ultimately prevail, Nick…”

Heath’s soft drawl broke the steely silence. “The night before the fight at Sample’s farm, I was riding back from town with Audra… making sure she got home safe. We saw the Swenson place burning and rode down there. I rode off when it looked like nobody was going to stand with Frank Sample. I came back to the ranch to get the money you offered me. I planned on riding out of here and never looking back. I wanted no part of being a Barkley if that was a name I couldn’t wear with pride.” Heath took a deep breath. “Before I got out of the house, your mother was standing inside the door. She must have known what I was thinking.”

Heath smiled slightly, in his heart he was sure that she did. He glanced out toward the foyer and in his mind’s eye he could see her image so clearly: proud, dignified and regal. “She told me that Tom Barkley had brought a changing way. A way that said ‘you are your own man’ and no one, not Crown or the railroad could own you. A way that is won through pride, leadership and courage. She said that if I hadn’t ridden away, I’d have seen that he instilled that in his sons.”

Heath looked squarely at Nick, then Jarrod. “She told me to be proud, because any son of Tom Barkley had the right to be proud!” He paused. “I believe that a man who is his own man lives by his own code: that Law of Right and Wrong written on his own conscience. Jarrod, I know we are subject to other laws, made in the legislature and backed up by the courts… But there isn’t any government or court on the face of the earth that’s made up of anything other than people! Those people can be wrong. They can make bad laws or hand down bad decisions. When that happens and it goes against your conscience, a man must decide which one to disobey. The governor and the rest of those politicians are wrong. Those judges are, too. This is stealing, pure and simple.”

Heath moved to stand beside Nick in a gesture that left no doubts as to his convictions. “Politicians and judges be hanged! If it comes down to a fight again, I stand with Nick and the farmers.” Live as he’d live, fight as he’d fight and no one, no one can deny you his birthright! The words echoed again in Heath’s mind, which were for him and him alone.

Jarrod smiled. He was once again struck by the astute, thoughtful opinions his taciturn younger brother could offer. As Heath had shared their mother’s words of wisdom, the right path had become crystal clear. Jarrod locked eyes with Nick and with an almost imperceptible nod, conveyed his stance as well.

The Barkley brothers would stand shoulder to shoulder on the side of right come what may.

Nick smiled broadly, his eyes beaming with pride. This boy is a Barkley to the core, he thought. Then his brow furrowed and he stared slack-jawed. “How do you get him to do that, Jarrod? I can hardly get him to string a half-dozen words together. That boy hates to talk!”

“Oh no, Nick, I love to talk.” Heath winked at Jarrod. “I’m just choosy about who I talk to.”

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Jarrod rode through the front gates of Lacaise House. Only farther down the driveway could a visitor appreciate its’ gracious outlines and stone facade. Like many of those Old World builders of great houses, the Frenchman had known how to conceal his home from view. Tall, neatly manicured shrubs completely lined the fence surrounding the property. An abundance of trees had been left intact on the grounds.

Jarrod had always felt that the landscaping was an apt reflection of how the Marquise de Lacaise viewed his neighbors in Stockton. They were kept at arms length from both himself and his daughter. Jarrod doubted that the Marquise’s concern for Stockton extended any further than his immediate business interests. Lacaise and his daughter were once again back east, where they spent a good deal of their time. It was typical of the Marquise’s indifference to the feelings of the community-at-large that he had no qualms about making his home available to Jacob Crown when railroad business brought Crown to Stockton.

Jarrod tied his horse and walked up the flight of steps beneath the gracious portico. The curtains in every window were drawn shut. Jarrod rapped the heavy brass knocker several times. Jonathan Hoak answered the door.

“Mr. Barkley.”

“Mr. Hoak.”

“Mr. Crown will see you in the study.” Hoak led the way and opened the elegantly carved wooden doors. Crown sat at a large walnut desk, papers scattered in front of him.

“Mr. Barkley.” Crown rose to greet his visitor. He did not offer a handshake, but gestured toward an armchair. “Take a seat. May I offer you a drink, or a cigar?”

“No, thank you.”

“I’m not a man who mixes business with my pleasures either, Barkley. I don’t even allow myself the luxury of eating lunch during the course of my workday.” Crown answered, once again taking his seat behind the desk.

“Then let’s get right down to business, Crown. Shall we?”

“Please do, Barkley.” Crown replied, leaning back in his chair and putting his fingertips together as was his custom. “I’d be very interested to know what we left undiscussed on the train ride to Stockton six months ago.”

“Crown, you and I both know the disputed land was sold to the farmers at public auction ten years ago…”

“Leased!”

“Sold, Crown! That land was legally bought and paid for.”

“You’ve taken the farmer’s case before both the legislature and Judge Powell. You have lost in both the political and legal arenas, Barkley.”

“I didn’t lose on the substance of my case as you are well aware, Crown. I have no doubts that bribery and graft played the dominant role in those decisions.” Jarrod said flatly.

Crown feigned a wounded look. “Ah, Barkley, what has given you such a low opinion of your public servants and judiciary? Might it not be that the greater public good that this rail line will bring to all the citizens of California has outweighed the concerns of the few?”

“I’m sure the answer to that question lies buried deep within the accounting records of Coastal and Western.” Jarrod countered. “Crown, I have filed a brief before the 9th District Court of Appeals. I am optimistic that Judge Powell’s decision will be overturned.”

“I admire your tenacity, Barkley, I really do… especially since your family’s holdings won’t be affected one way or the other.”

“We care about our neighbors, Crown. It is distressing to us that the Swenson family has lost their home for the second time in six months. It grieves us as well when a tenant farmer meets an untimely death.” Jarrod watched Crown closely for some hint of emotion.

“Tragic.” Crown’s eyes and demeanor betrayed nothing.

“Yes, tragic…” Jarrod affirmed. “And suspicious! Suspicious in that these events happened after you returned to Stockton.”

“Mere coincidence, I assure you. I am in Stockton on purely business purposes. I have decided to use the Stockton Bank as the repository for the funds we will use for construction of the southern line. It is simply more convenient for this project than the San Francisco Bank. I am simply here to make the arrangements for this account. As for the evictions, I am perfectly willing to await the outcome of your appeal. The Board of Directors would like to avoid the type of confrontation that occurred at Sample’s farm as well.” Crown’s insincere smile did not thaw his icy blue eyes.

Jarrod rode away from the meeting with suspicion still churning in his mind. He decided to have a talk with Sheriff Madden. Jarrod could not help but think that when Jacob Crown had decided to pursue business as his career, the stage had lost a fine actor.

Crown laughed softly to himself as he stretched out upon the cushioned sofa. “Come on in, Carlo!”

The doors to the adjoining parlor opened and Crown motioned Carlo Lucci to sit in the armchair. Lucci turned down the cigar offered him from the ornate wooden case. Crown lit one for himself and his eyes sparkled as he looked over at Lucci and sent up a large gray-white cloud of smoke.

Happening upon this former street criminal in New York City had been a stroke of luck! The raven-haired, dark-eyed immigrant was a man on whom he could thoroughly rely. Lucci was completely loyal. The man was not only proficient in any task he was given, but also discreet and capable of preserving a secret.

Hired guns were too often loud-mouthed braggarts who had a propensity to put their business in the street. Crown could not afford to be in direct contact with those lowlifes. Lucci had proven himself to be an indispensable go-between when there was dirty work to be done. Hoak was completely loyal as well but didn’t have Lucci’s ‘killer instinct’.

“So sorry I could not formally introduce you to Mr. Barkley, Carlo.” Crown sneered. Carlo smiled at Crown’s insincere remark. Lucci was well aware that he could have no public contact with Crown while in Stockton. He would meet with Hoak secretly for Crown’s instructions. Lucci’s face was the only one the hired guns would ever see. He would in turn tell them what to do and handle the pay-offs.

“Perhaps, I will meet him later.”

“Perhaps. I hope the Barkleys will rethink their obstinate position. I once told Barkley that a man may beat the iron for a while, but eventually he’ll die, and all he will leave is dust!”

“I can guarantee it if I put a stiletto in the right spot, Mr. Crown.” Carlo hissed. His obsidian eyes smoldered, but there was no warmth to be found in them. They were stone cold and predatory, almost as if there was a cobra in his lineage.

“Or a bullet.” Crown mused. “The old man learned that lesson… his sons may have to as well. But as to our more immediate plans, they must be carried out with the utmost care. Jarrod Barkley is a smart fellow. He is, in my judgment, the second smartest man in Stockton at the moment. Of course, it wouldn’t take much intelligence to form certain suspicions. Even the loudmouth brother can put two and two together and come up with four! Remember this, gentlemen, the larger crimes are apt to be the easiest to solve, as the motive is more likely to be apparent. All one has to do is ask the age-old question: ‘Cui bono?’ Who benefits?”

Crown took another drag off his cigar and savored the taste in silence for a moment. “Yes, gentlemen, suspicions are one thing, but proving a thing sufficiently in a court of law is another matter entirely! Take Tom Barkley’s murder, for example. Had the killer been taken alive, then I suppose the world would have known for certain who hired him. Never trust a back-shooter for hire! I had my own bounty hunters waiting patiently in the wings. They had been informed that the killer was to head for the Mexican border. My men promptly informed the rest of those hide-hunters and even started the rumor that the Barkley family would pay an extra $1000.00 bonus if the killer was brought back dead! Save Mrs. Barkley from the anguish of a trial…” Crown laughed. “My men had been ordered to shoot on sight, but that little rumor was all it took to get the rest of those boys trigger-happy. They would have shot the killer dead sleeping, taking a bath, or sitting in the outhouse! Some old relic by the name of Handy Random saved me from a murder conspiracy charge. I suppose it’s a good thing that men of that ilk are so predictable and therefore so easily manipulated. It gave me a considerable amount of amusement to hear the Barkley family embraced that old back-shooter like a conquering hero!”

“I do not understand this, Mr. Crown…” Carlo shook his head slowly. “These Barkley sons, they believe that you are responsible for the death of their Papa, no? But yet they do not attempt to kill you. In my country, I would revenge my father’s death as a vendetta!”

“The Barkleys are a principled lot, Carlo.” Crown found that fact not a thing to be admired, but a weakness to be exploited. “Jarrod Barkley is a prime example. He wants nothing more than to see a ruling in favor of his appeal and yet he will stay fastidiously crimes to be prosecuted and would never be considered as a means to an end.”

Crown took another long draw from his cigar and smiled with satisfaction. “And that, gentlemen, is why Barkley has no chance of winning this fight via political or legal avenues. He actually expects those politicians and judges to do the ‘right’ thing!”

Crown leaned forward and crushed out his cigar in an ashtray. “Now, down to business. Carlo, I believe you and Mr. Hoak have already discussed your next task. Hoak will rendezvous with you at the appointed time to relay further instructions. Otherwise, you will remain at the gang’s hide-a-way. You are not to show your face in Stockton for any reason. Understood?”

Carlo Lucci nodded his understanding and quickly slipped out of the room through the French doors that opened to the backyard gardens.

Crown turned his attention to Hoak. “Wire our attorney regarding the upcoming appeal. Abner Kirkland knows I am a man who doesn’t tolerate surprises! He is well aware of what I expect of him. And you, Mr. Hoak, I expect you to be my eyes and ears in Stockton. Keep me abreast of all the local gossip. The saloon would be an excellent place to see what information you might glean – particularly from the Barkley hands. You never know, you may happen upon a disgruntled cowboy that we could put to good use!”

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Eliza Worth stood on the front porch of the farmhouse and looked out toward the gate. She wished Abe were home. He had been gone for over a week and Eliza didn’t expect him back for three more days.

Abe had been so excited when he’d left Stockton by train for Denver. He had finally saved enough money to buy a blooded Angus bull. A friend of Abe’s in Colorado had imported some of the beef from Aberdeen, Scotland. The rancher had been so impressed with the stocky black cattle that he had convinced Abe to introduce the bloodline into their own small herd.

Eliza thought about the Swenson place being burned for the second time two days before. She was glad that at least Clem, their hired hand, was on the farm with young Abe Jr. and herself. Eliza’s body suddenly shivered. The chilly evening air seemed to carry a strange sense of foreboding.

“A.J.! Clem! Supper will be ready soon! Come on in and wash up, A.J.”

Abe Jr. jumped down off the corral fence where he’d been watching Clem brush down a large dapple-gray mare. “Coming, Ma! See you in a bit, Clem.” A.J. ran off toward the house and the smell of his mother’s fried chicken that wafted through the air. Clem closed the corral gate and walked into the big red barn to replace the brush. Behind the barn, six riders had made their way through Abe’s peach grove unnoticed.

Clem walked over to the pump and water trough on the far side of the barn. He slid his thumbs beneath his suspenders and eased them off his shoulders. He took off his shirt and draped it over the fence. Clem worked the pump handle up and down several times. He cupped his hands to catch the water and immersed his face in it. The cold water felt so invigorating as he rinsed off his face and neck that he pumped the handle a couple more times and dunked his entire head beneath the flowing water.

The strong hands that accosted Clem and pushed his head beneath the water in the trough did it so quickly that he had no time to cry out. He struggled and flailed with all the might that sheer terror can summons, but there were too many strong and determined hands holding his body for Clem to overcome. His intense struggling only hastened the depleting of the oxygen supply in his lungs. What seemed like an eternity were only minutes, and Clem’s struggles had ceased.

The others backed off from their victim, but Butch held tight to a handful of hair and kept Clem’s head beneath the water for several minutes longer.

“Just makin sure he ain’t playin possum, boys.” Butch Keller lifted the limp head out of the water trough and grinned. “Nope, don’t believe he is. Come on boys, let’s go have some fun with that old sod buster!”

The gang approached the farmhouse carefully with guns drawn. Carlo had told them one old farmer, his wife, young son and a hired hand inhabited this farm. Butch led the way. He had emerged as leader of the gang. Butch had enough experience in his past to know even an old sod buster can get off a lucky shot.

When Eliza heard the doorknob turn and the door swing open, she turned with a smile. “Supper’s on the table, Clem…”

The smile died on her lips as panic rose within her chest.

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Fred Madden urged his mount forward toward the Worth farm. Fred had not come away from yesterday’s conversation with Jarrod Barkley convinced that the farmers were being targeted for violence. One death in which there was no evidence of foul play and one mysterious fire didn’t exactly establish a pattern. Still, he could not get Jarrod’s suspicions out of his mind. Jarrod had a shrewd, incisive intellect that he had learned never to discount. Fred knew that Abe Worth was away on a cattle-buying trip. It wouldn’t hurt to go look in on Eliza and Abe Jr.

Fred rode into the yard and reined his horse to a stop. The front door of the farmhouse stood ominously open. “ELIZA?” Fred called as he dismounted. The eerie silence that greeted him filled him with dread.

Fred unholstered his gun and walked into the house. He swallowed hard against the sour taste of bile rising into his mouth.

Eliza lay where she had died of her gunshot wound – her dead eyes now opaque, but still wide with terror. Abe Jr. lay huddled on his side a few feet away. His skull had been smashed in. The stench of blood hung heavy in the still, stagnant air.

Fred backed out of the house, away from this scene of horror. His horse whinnied nervously at the smell of death. Fred took several deep breaths to steady his nerves. As a sheriff, he had witnessed death on many occasions – usually violent men who had come to violent ends. But this had been a slaughter of innocents!

Fred walked around the farmhouse toward the barn and corrals. He stopped short when he saw a cloud of gnats droning erratically above the corpse lying by the water trough. Clem was now accounted for, as well.

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As the scores of buggies and buckboards made their way back to their respective farms, Abe Worth continued to stare at the two freshly dug graves. Over two hundred of his Valley neighbors had gathered to pay their respects at Eliza and Abe Jr.’s funerals.

The Barkley family stayed behind while the other neighbors made their way home. Victoria was particularly worried about her old friend. She had never seen a man look so crushed. Abe had hardly raised his head throughout the entire service or as the mourners filed past to offer their condolences and continued prayers and support. Victoria wanted a private word with her dear friend when he had finished saying his goodbyes.

When Abe dropped to his knees beside the graves, his body wracked with sobs, she could bear it no longer. “Stay here.” Victoria said softly to her sons and made her way over to Abe’s side. She knelt beside him there and grasped his hand. The air around them hung heavy with the aroma of the many floral arrangements that blanketed the graves.

Victoria knew that mere words were inadequate. She would simply sit here with Abe, silently lending her strength. Her very presence would speak more eloquently than words: you are not alone.

When his tears were spent, Abe pulled his handkerchief from his pocket with his left hand and wiped his tear-stained face. His right hand never loosened its’ grip of Victoria’s. Abe’s head remained bowed; his silver hair had fallen haphazard across his forehead. He took a long shuddering breath and finally spoke.

“I came west about the time you and Tom did. About the only thing I had that I could call my own was a sluice box and a tin miner’s pan. It took me over twenty years of panning for gold to find enough color to afford a place of my own. It was getting so late in life that I had all but given up on having a family.”

Victoria reached over and gently brushed the wayward strands away from Abe’s face. He looked at her with anguished eyes. This crushing blow dulled, but had not completely extinguished the fierce pride that had always shone from those eyes. This stubborn man was in many ways so like another dear friend, Jubal Tanner, who still toiled in the mining camps hoping to fulfill his own dream. As if all Abe’s years had suddenly caught up to him, Victoria couldn’t help but think how suddenly old and frail Abe appeared.

“I met Eliza in a saloon back in Nevada City. I knew from our many talks that she wanted a different life than the one she was living. Eliza wanted a home and a family. When I finally had enough money to buy a farm, I asked her to come with me, to marry me. I figured she would tell me I was too old, but she didn’t… She married me and I couldn’t have asked for a better wife. She was all she ever promised to be. I promised Eliza a good life, a good life for her and our son. I left them unprotected and now they’re dead! I promised her…” Abe could no longer continue as sobs again wracked his bent frame.

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Tom Barkley continued to gaze down from his formal portrait in the gunroom. The clock on the mantle chimed the hour, but otherwise the room was uncharacteristically quiet. Usually, the evenings after dinner were filled with lively banter and challenges to cards, checkers or billiards. The somber mood that accompanied the recent tragedies remained in the Barkley household.

“More bad news for the farmers, I’m afraid.” Jarrod sighed.

Victoria laid her needlework in her lap. “What now, Jarrod?”

Nick and Heath regarded their older brother silently.

“Luther informed me today that the Stockton Bank will no longer advance any loans to the farmers.” Jarrod said.

“Why that low-down, sorry excuse for a …”

“Just a minute, Nick. Did Luther tell you why, Jarrod?” Victoria asked.

“I’ll tell you why! He’s been bought off by Crown!” Nick fumed.

“In a way that is true, Nick.” Jarrod continued. “The construction of the southern line to Los Angeles will be a huge operation. Coastal and Western will first send ahead an advance guard of surveyors and locaters. Following them will be the second line of graders; building bridges, cutting through gorges and grading the road. Then comes a virtual army of workers, placing the cross ties, laying the track and spiking down the rails. All the while, construction trains will be pushing along the line of completed railroad loaded with supplies and food for the men. The budget will be enormous! Crown has promised Luther that the payroll and construction funds will be deposited in the Stockton Bank. That would make Coastal and Western the bank’s largest depositor. Crown made a calculated decision based on more than simply convenience. The unspoken quid pro quo was that the bank would no longer financially back the farmers.”

“But haven’t the farmers always repaid their loans?” Heath asked.

“They have.” Jarrod said. “Luther said the farmer’s credit history is not at issue. In the past, the bank was willing to advance the farmers large sums because the farmers in return put up unimpeachable security: their land. Now that the ownership of the land is in question, the bank no longer will do business with them. Luther refused the Swensons a loan to rebuild their house and barns.”

“I can send word up to our timber operation and have all the lumber Sieg will need brought right to his farm.” Nick stated firmly.

“What else can we do, Jarrod?”

“Sieg will need a cash loan to replace the tools and farm equipment that he lost in the fire, Mother. I thought that we might offer him an interest-free loan, but of course I intended to put it before the family first.”

“Do it, Jarrod!” Nick spoke up immediately. “Any other building supplies that we have on-hand Sieg can have as well.”

“We’ll help him with the construction, too.” Heath added.

“Mother?” Jarrod awaited the final approval.

Victoria gazed at her three sons. “Your father gave his life to help those families hold on to their farms. My sons risked their lives against a small army of hired guns…” her voice cracked with emotion. “Why would I withhold mere money?”

Jarrod smiled. “Thank you, Mother. I’ll speak with Sieg tomorrow. I will also be riding over to talk with George Mills and William Lewis. I heard a rumor in town today that they are planning to voluntarily vacate their farms.”

“WHAT?”

“The Worth murders really have the farmers shaken, Nick. It is one thing to face off in a fight man-to-man, but it is quite another if Crown is willing to drag women and children into this war.”

Nick’s eyes grew hard with resolve. “Heath and I have been talking about how to protect the families, and we have a plan. With the help of the rest of the ranchers, we can all spare enough men to place at least two guards on the farms at highest risk. The farmers will stay put with their families. Fred’s posse will be made up of men from town and some of our other hands. Heath and I will spread the word to the farmers tomorrow. Then we will be joining up with the posse. We’ll turn over every rock in this entire valley until we find that nest of rattlesnakes!”

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They sat in the spacious study, with its’ walls of paneled wood and its’ polished hardwood floor. It was another of Crown’s idiosyncrasies along with his refusal to eat lunch that he would only discuss business in this designated room. Jonathan Hoak was settled on the sofa. Jacob Crown had taken a seat at the large desk. He was dressed in an immaculate blue suit, black hair slicked back and a triumphant look in his blue eyes.

“What did I tell you, Mr. Hoak? The Sample widow has already left town and now Mills and Lewis are leaving as well.” Crown studied the land map spread out before him on the ample desktop. “Excellent! I believe these farmers will fall like dominos. I expect Swenson will be next as he won’t have the means to rebuild. The bank will not be issuing loans to any of the farmers for any purpose. I have also instructed Mr. Minter at the freight office to double the current transportation fees.”

“Squeeze them financially from both sides, eh, Mr. Crown?” Hoak smiled. He often wondered if Jacob Crown wasn’t up at night scheming while everyone else was sleeping.

“What I have learned from the fight of six years ago as well as the one six months ago, is that these are courageous men. In both fights, I felt I had them at a considerable disadvantage. Twice, they were out-manned and out-gunned and came away victorious. The Board of Directors was extremely displeased with the outcomes.” Crown shook his head. “Coastal and Western can not afford that kind of negative publicity. There is something that captures the public’s imagination about these David versus Goliath confrontations. They see something noble and heroic about simple little farmers standing against the hired guns of the big, evil railroad! Public opinion could turn on us very easily.”

“But we have never cared about public opinion in the past, Mr. Crown.”

“No. But politicians do. While we may line the political coffers, it is the rank and file that cast the ballots. Our money won’t buy much political influence if the prevailing winds of public opinion are blowing strongly against us.” Crown believed in keeping his finger on the political pulse. He always seemed to know who and how far he could push for political favors.

“That’s the beauty of this plan, Mr. Hoak! There is no overt involvement on my part. This battle can be won by recognizing those men’s needs and fears. I am confident we can bring them to the point of submission. We simply let monetary concerns and fear chip away at the farmers’ resolve. Between the financial hardship and visits from Carlo’s friends, the farmers will find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place!”

Hoak squirmed in his seat and cleared his throat. “There is other talk in town that I think you ought to be aware of, Mr. Crown. Rumor has it the Barkley family is making a personal loan to Siegfried Swenson. The Barkley timber enterprise has eight loads of finished lumber headed for the Swenson farm on the direct orders of Nick Barkley as we speak.”

Hoak could see Crown’s face redden as the rage grew within him. Crown’s jaw clenched and his eyes hardened to an icy blue. “It seems there is no end to the Barkley family’s meddlesome interference!”

“There’s more, Mr. Crown.” Hoak shifted uncomfortably once again. “Nick Barkley has convinced all the valley ranchers to lend enough of their cowhands to place armed guards at each of the disputed farms. Meanwhile, Sheriff Madden, the Barkleys and the rest of the posse will be scouring the valley in search of the gang.”

Crown slammed his fist down on the desk. “So the Barkleys still want in on this fight? So be it! The die is cast. It seems their father’s example taught them nothing… Although, I am not surprised. They are, after all, their father’s sons. They have his horns.”

Crown fingered the map absently. “At least I am well acquainted with the enemy. I loathe surprises.” The blue eyes became pensive as he sized up his adversaries. “I have always found Jarrod to be a formidable opponent. He is a very intelligent man, capable of playing a deep game. But as I said before, Jarrod is also a very principled man… and that can be a liability in a game where there are no rules. Nick does not possess his brother’s intellect, but he has one positive virtue: he is as brave and tenacious as a Pit Bull. He knows much about force and very little about strategy. A man with an excitable, impulsive nature is often the most predictable adversary.” Crown smiled slyly. “Let me think on my next move a while, Mr. Hoak. Remember that old Persian saying, ‘There is danger for him that taketh the tiger cub’. Instruct Carlo to have the gang to lay low until I give further orders!”

“One other thing, Mr. Crown. There is another Barkley brother to contend with. Tom Barkley’s bastard son Heath rode into the valley the same day we arrived six months ago. The local gossip is that Nick Barkley threw him off the ranch. The next morning, he showed up at the Sample farm and was right in the middle of the action, fighting against our men along side his half-brothers!”

Crown sat in silence for a long moment. “So we now have a complete unknown thrown into the equation…” he said more to himself than to Hoak.

“Well, not a complete unknown, Mr. Crown.” Hoak again fidgeted uncomfortably. “He’s the man who beat our locomotive in the race to the crossing. You remember, the man you and Jarrod Barkley were laying bets on. I believe you were up to fifteen hundred dollars when…”

Hoak was cut off short by the abruptness of the reply. “I REMEMBER!” Crown barked out through clenched teeth as he saw the vision of a wild, daring young rider on a fleet-footed black horse once again in his mind’s eye.

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With the family gathered around the table for dinner, Victoria gave thanks for the food as well as the added blessing that her youngest sons had once again returned home safely.

For the past five days, they had combed the rugged mountainous regions surrounding the valley with the rest of Fred’s posse.

“Still no luck, boys?” Jarrod asked as he passed a heaping platter of roast beef to Nick.

“Nope.” Nick answered dejectedly, unable to keep the weariness out of his voice. “You know how hard it is to pick up a trail up there among those rocks. We’ve tried to cover as much ground as we can, but the men are getting pretty worn out.”

“Can you get more men?” Victoria queried.

“That’s not gonna be easy, Mother.” Heath replied. “The ranchers have given up every man they could spare to post guards at the farms. Many of the men from town believe the attacks on the Swenson and Worth farms were completely random.”

“Yeah.” Nick added. “They think that since we haven’t found any sign of the gang and there have been no more attacks, that the gang has already moved on out of the area. They’ve been complaining pretty loudly the last two days about needing to get back to their businesses.”

“By tomorrow, I expect it’s going to be down to Fred, Billy, Nick and me.” Heath sighed. “We’re short on our crew like everyone else, but we plan on taking a couple of our hands out with us every day.”

“Adkins and Barrett have volunteered to ride with the posse. Barrett claims he’s a pretty fair tracker.” Nick said.

“I wish I could join you, boys.” Jarrod’s blue eyes were sincere. “I’ll be leaving for San Francisco on the morning train. Judge Matheson has moved up the preliminary hearing for the appeal on the court calendar. Several important documents are at my office in San Francisco.”

“Well, I hope you’ll have more luck than we’re having right now.” Heath flashed Jarrod one of his crooked smiles.

“I still think you’re wasting your time, Pappy.” Nick grumbled. “Unless you’re taking a suitcase full of money with you so you can level the playing field.”

“Nick!”

“I’m just stating the obvious, Mother.”

“Surely, you’re not suggesting that Jarrod offer a bribe!”

Jarrod tilted his head and awaited Nick’s reply with a hint of amusement dancing in his eyes at Nick’s predicament. Heath was pretending to concentrate on his dinner, hoping Nick wouldn’t come back with an ‘Ain’t that right, Heath?’. Big Brother, you are on your own, he thought.

“Of course not, Mother!” Nick protested with wide-eyed innocence and a gesture toward Jarrod. “It’s the lawyer here who is always saying he only wants to deal with facts. I just gave him one.”

Heath tried to stifle a smile. He wondered how many times over the years his brother’s straightforward bluntness had gotten him into hot water. But every time Heath had seen Victoria chide Nick, he had noted something else in her eyes. It was one of his big brother’s most endearing qualities to their mother as well.

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Jacob Crown and Jonathan Hoak retired to the Study for an after-dinner brandy. Crown took a seat in an armchair while Hoak poured the two drinks. Hoak handed Crown his glass and then settled down on the settee.

“So you’ve found two men who may be of use to us to carry out the gang’s next task, Mr. Hoak?”

“I have, Mr. Crown.” Jonathan Hoak’s excitement was evident in his voice.

“So what was the impetus for switching to our side? Is it another case of the truism ‘every man has his price’?” Crown’s curiosity was piqued.

“Partially.” Hoak replied. “But there is more to it than that! Jed Kyles is the type man who has no side other than his own. He’s the totally shiftless sort. I get the distinct impression from our few conversations in the saloon that he thoroughly resents all the other families in the valley that have prospered – particularly the Barkleys! He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Mr. Crown, but then we won’t be requiring that much of him.”

“I agree.” Crown nodded in affirmation. “Even the village idiot ought to be able to deliver one message! And the other pawn?”

“His name is Barrett.” Hoak paused for a moment with a smile. “What makes him a particularly valuable catch is that he works for the Barkleys!”

“And why is this Barrett willing to betray his employers?”

“There is talk in town that Barrett was one of the ring leaders when the Barkley hands decided to jump ship and follow General Wallent down to Mexico.”

“Our General Wallent?” Crown laughed out loud. “I heard rumors that lunatic had some wild plan in the works after he parted company with our hired guns to get up a small army and go fight for Diaz.”

“Wallent had Nick Barkley shot while out on a cattle drive and convinced practically all the men to abandon the herd.” Hoak chuckled.

“It proves the old lunatic was right about one thing. Wasn’t he fond of saying ‘men are sheep’? This is an amusing story, Mr. Hoak. You’ve saved me from an evening of boredom!”

“Heath Barkley killed Wallent in a showdown over the men.”

“That further confirms my suspicions that this new son could do us harm.” Crown’s tone turned serious. “But you believe this Barrett can be counted on?”

“I do. Barrett realizes that to a man like Nick Barkley, disloyalty to the brand is no small thing. Barrett believes he’ll be let go when the Barkleys cut back to their winter crew. He knows he won’t be re-hired in the spring, either. Seems Barrett and Heath Barkley have butted heads a few times. Barrett still has no use for Heath, but he follows his orders and calls him ‘Mr. Barkley’ since Nick won’t tolerate anything less. Barrett doesn’t want any blood on his own hands, but he would very much like to see the bastard get his comeuppance!”

Crown’s eyes glittered with satisfaction. “Then Barrett sounds perfect for the role of Judas goat!”

...Continued