Western Short Story
GOING HOME (MORGAN WESTLAND #1)
The stage station in Kansas City was nearly empty. Morgan Westland sat stoically, staring at the single suitcase and satchel on the floor in front of him. Almost his entire life was in those two pieces of luggage and the large travelling saddlebags that were draped over the wooden chair on which he sat. It did not seem like a lot to show for his eight years in the west, he thought to himself. But then again, he was still alive and in one piece which, given some of the events of those eight years and some of the jobs he had taken on, was something of an achievement in itself. And he now had a wealth of experiences that had taught him much about life and about himself, and that counted for something more. And, of course, he had his sizable stake safely stored within the saddlebags that never left his side. Those same worn saddlebags also held his guns.
He had travelled far from the ranch in Colorado where he was working. His plan was to ride the eastward stage to St. Louis and take a steamship south, perhaps as far as Memphis. There he would buy a horse and ride the final trail east to Jackson and the family farm. It would be a matter of several days across open country and he was feeling a bit anxious about the time it would take. It had taken his mother's letter a month to catch up to him and she sounded worried for herself, his father and the farm. Apparently, there was trouble with their outstanding bank loan and they were worried about losing a farm that had been in the family for three generations. A man named Talbot had bought out their mortgage and was threatening to foreclose unless they paid it off promptly. Surprisingly, his mother had not mentioned Liam or Natalie, his two siblings. He wrote back immediately to let her know he was on his way home and that he would be there within ten to fifteen days. He also told her not to worry, though he knew she still would. If she wrote back to him he would not know, as the letter and he would cross paths without connecting. But even though it had been eight years that he had been away he knew that she would trust him to get there.
The stage rolled up in a cloud of dust and the driver leapt to the ground, the shotgun guard staying put. The driver was a youngish man for the job, a wide smile on his face. He helped Morgan store the suitcase on top of the coach and the satchels in the boot. Morgan kept the saddlebags with him since his essentials, his money and his guns were in them. There was only one other passenger at that point, a middle-aged man who identified himself as one Orval Milligan, a salesman of general goods who visited stores throughout Kansas, Wyoming and Utah with a wide variety of stock items in his cases and his print catalogues. He was a man of surprisingly few words, unlike many of the travelling salesmen Morgan had known and he dropped off to sleep, lulled by the tempo of the coach as it wove its way across the Kansas countryside.
It took four more days and several switches of stagecoaches to reach St. Louis and he knew he had no time to spare with the steamship leaving less than two hours after he arrived. He had booked a stateroom in advance, a small luxury he permitted himself given that he would be on the boat at least two and perhaps three or more nights. He arranged for the use of a safety deposit box in the ship's safe for his funds. It was too much money to carry on the ship where those who were of particularly evil intent tended to roam about. That money was to be the saving of the family farm.
The huge chugging steamship pulled out from the pier just after lunchtime on a bright and breezy September morning. A flock of seagulls accompanied it for most of the first mile, squawking and diving toward the boat in their never-ending search for food. The sound of the paddle wheeling thumping its regular beat into the water was rhythmical and almost hypnotic to those on the deck watching its revolutions. Morgan wandered about the enormous ship, one that would hold more than two hundred passengers, amazed and delighted by how it was adorned and by the variety of people who were sailing upon it. He had never seen so many people in such a small space in his entire life and it made him wistful for the simple frontier life of the cowboy during the past eight years. Monte Callahan, the ranch foreman, friend and mentor at so many things had warned him of this, that once he had spent some time in the openness of the west, returning to the east he would feel cramped, at least initially.
"Might get used to it for a bit of time, I suppose," Monte had said. "But it won't keep you any more, Morgan, not now that you been out here this long. The west is like a beautiful woman, always drawing you back into her arms. You might steal away for a time but you'll always be pulled back."
They had become close friends when Morgan had saved Monte's life the first time. He had just crossed into Colorado from Kansas when he had heard the gunfire. He rode in that direction and came to a small hill. Looking down he saw a group of five or six riders chasing a lone man on a horse. That man turned the horse sharply into a circle of rocks and threw himself off the horse, rifle in hand. The pursuers had slowed down and dismounted, taking cover behind rocks and trees. An exchange of gunfire had followed. All of this Morgan saw as he rode down the hill toward the scene.
When he was close enough, he dismounted, tied his horse behind a tree and took cover behind a stump, rifle in hand. He had learned to fire that rifle on the family farm in Missouri where his father always punished missed shots. He honed the skill even more as a sharpshooter in a travelling carnival, shooting apples off the heads of his fellow entertainers from long distances.
Once in position, he focused on the two men who were moving around to flank the man in the rocks. They were nearing spots where they could get a clear shot at the man and he did not seem to have noticed them. In another few minutes he would be an easy target. Morgan did not know who was in the right and who was in the wrong but the group of men had not acted like lawmen. There was no call for the man in the rocks to toss out his gun and come out with his hands raised. So be it. He made his decision.
Morgan aimed carefully and shot the man on the right in the leg. The man screamed, dropped his rifle and fell over. Without hesitating any longer than it took to aim Morgan then shot the man on the left who was above the man in the rocks. He hit that one in the hip and the man similarly yelled out and fell over.
The others, realizing shots were coming from off to the side, and that they were in the open, tried to find cover from both sides. Failing that, they raced for their horses. They rode off after helping the two wounded men onto their horses under the cover of fire toward Morgan and the man in the rocks.
They were quickly out of sight, riding hard and fast and Morgan led his horse down the hill toward the circle of rocks.
"I'm friendly," he called out, not wanting to be shot by mistake.
Monte Callahan led his horse out of the rocks. "More'n friendly, mister, you're downright helpful. I was never so glad to see a stranger."
He introduced himself as did Morgan.
"Why were those men chasing you?" Morgan asked.
Monte pointed to the saddlebags on his horse. "I'm carrying a lot of money in there. We just finished driving cattle to Kansas City. The rest of the boys wanted to take some time to whet their whistles and dance with the ladies, if you know what I mean by dancing. Me, I just wanted to get the money back safe to my boss. I thought I was out of there quiet and unseen, but apparently not, though it took this bunch near a week to catch up to me. They must have got the information out of one or more of our boys once they was drunk. Anyway, I appreciate the help, but you might as well have killed them two as wounded them."
Morgan shrugged. "Killing's not as easy as it sounds. And there was no need. Maybe they've learned something from this."
Monte Callahan laughed. "Mebbe so, but I'd not be betting on it."
They became close friends and Morgan had been working on the Box W for the past eight years, growing to love the west as Monte had predicted. It had indeed taken a solid hold on him.
As a result he knew he was not going to stay home very long unless there was no other choice. He was prepared to remain as long as the need was there, but his hope was to ensure that his family was well protected and then head back west. The lure of the western lands was as strong as Monte had suggested and he knew that untold opportunities lay there if one believed in oneself. His brief eight years on the frontier had already shown him what was possible for someone with courage and an ability to take advantage of the many opportunities. He had done very well, demonstrating that courage and ability many times, and being pretty lucky. Yet home was home, and his aging parents had to be considered.
He found an empty seat on the upper deck of the boat and sat down with a book taken from a well-stocked reading shelf on the main deck. Thomas Carlyle's 'Way of the West' was an interesting read, he mused, though it was clear Thomas Carlyle had dramatically romanticized the west to a degree that stretched both imagination and literary license. Still, it was entertainingly written and easy to read and amid the exaggerations Morgan found little nuggets of insight that rang true based on his experience. So many books about the west were written by those sitting safely at desks in the east and it was refreshing to find a writer who had actually been west and understood some of the realities of frontier life. So many worked from imagination rather than information. Those that ventured into the west ended up writing much differently from then on.
A young couple sat down on a pair of lounge chairs a few seats away and he immediately noticed their despondency. The man sat on the edge of his seat, head buried in his hands and the woman, pretty and with bright blonde hair, hazel eyes and nice makeup, placed one comforting hand on his shoulder. Morgan could not help overhearing the conversation when the woman said, "You should have known better, Kip. They saw you as a mark and went after you and now you've lost most of our money. What are we to do now? Where will we go?"
The man lowered his head even more and spoke to her through his hands. "I know I was a fool, Samantha. I know it, and you just saying it over and over again isn't going to change things or make me feel any better. They obviously saw me for an easy mark and I was arrogant enough to fall for it. I'm so very sorry. What more can I say? There's nothing more I can do about it. We'll just have to take courage and hope that our families will be understanding and helpful to us when we arrive. Other than that, I simply don't know what to do except to just sit here and feel like such an incredible idiot!"
Morgan Westland swiveled around in his chair to face the couple. "I apologize for overhearing your conversation. It couldn't be helped, given where I'm sitting. But may I be of assistance? What seems to be the difficulty?" He thought he knew but he wanted to hear the story from them.
The young woman took out a pink handkerchief from her purse and wiped a tear from one eye where the makeup was beginning to run down her cheek. "I'm sorry we're bothering you with our difficulties, sir. I'm Samantha Cottrell and this is my husband Kip. I'm afraid he has lost most of our money in a silly poker game he played last night up in the salon," she said. "He was both enticed and entrapped, to be sure, but nonetheless he's the one who decided to gamble with our savings and he's the one responsible for his actions. I fear there's little that can be done about it now. The men who took our money were very good at what they do and they're not the kind to be challenged for cheating, which is what we believe happened. Neither of us is in a position to make a case against them, you see."
"Of course they cheated!" Kip said angrily. "I know they cheated! How else could they have won all the money on the table? And not just from me!"
Morgan raised a hand to stop Kip Cottrell before he could speak further. "Those are very strong words, Mr. Cottrell," Morgan said, "And they're the kind of words that can get you killed out here. You should know that by now. Please don't say such things again out loud anywhere on this boat where it can be overheard and get back to those men. Now I want you to tell me exactly what happened with as much detail as possible."
Kip and Samantha Cottrell did, describing the scenario as it had unfolded and Kip gave Morgan the names of the players he felt cheated him. They left nothing out and it gave Morgan an appreciation of how the sting had worked. He did not know the two men mentioned, but he knew the type.
"How much money did you lose?" Morgan asked.
Kip blushed and hesitated, embarrassed. "Nearly three thousand. All of our savings. All the money we were going to use to start fresh in Louisiana."
"That's a lot, to be sure," Morgan said. "But perhaps I can get some of it back. I have some experience in these sorts of matters. Perhaps I'll join their game later this evening but if I do I would ask, actually I insist, that you stay away from the game room this evening. It's better that we're not connected in any way in case this does not work in my favour, and especially if it does."
"Why would you help us?" Kip asked. "Not that I'm not grateful, sir, but it's not been my experience to trust strangers no matter how well presented their intentions. You seem to be an honest man who is genuinely willing to assist us and yet you're asking nothing of us in return. Why?"
Morgan Westland smiled. "I'm not really sure. I suppose it's because I resent the kind of behaviour you described," Morgan said. "I've seen too much of it the past few years. It gives the career gambler a bad name while most of the gamblers I've met are honest businessmen with a strong set of ethics and values. And, as it turns out, these are skills I happen to possess though I'm not a professional gambler. I'll sit in on the game this evening and if they are cheating I'll know it and I'll try to recoup your losses. I make no promise other than that. I will try. But, as I said, please stay in your room or at least away from the salon so that you'll in no way be connected to my actions. If I'm able to recover your funds, you don't want these men to know, do you?"
Kip Cottrell shook his head. "Our thanks to you, sir. We'll do exactly as you ask and once again thank you for helping us."
Morgan smiled. "Sir is my father's name. Call me Morgan. Now, how about some tea? I love hot tea and my mother said that whenever you are feeling down a nice cup of tea can improve your mood. Let's see if she's right."
Smoke hung heavy in the open salon on the upper deck late in the evening. Morgan wandered through the area where a number of gaming tables were strategically placed and where small circles of watchers observed the various games of poker that were underway. He recognized the two men, Max Velbert and Tonkin Parsons, from Kip and Samantha Cottrell's detailed description. He watched and waited patiently until a chair in the game was emptied. While he did so he studied each of the players and listened with a finely tuned ear. Monte Callahan, his old friend, despite looking like a forty-a-month cowhand, was a magician with cards, from a past life he talked about rarely. He had not wasted all that time teaching Morgan how to protect himself from such men for nothing. Morgan had never used his newly-found skills for personal gain, and would not, but he was not above using them to teach others a lesson, which was what he planned to do tonight. That is, if his skills remained sharp. He had not used them for some time.
Max Velbert did cheat, though he was particularly good at it. Monte Callahan had taught Morgan most of the usual tricks of the trade and though Morgan rarely played at cards other than to pass the time, he kept his fingers limber in practice with cards and by handling his guns. Parsons was the older partner and the winnings would be shared between the two of them so as not to be so obvious to any of the other players. It was an old trick.
He was invited to take the available open chair and a player on his left slowly dealt out the cards with rheumatic fingers. He watched the other six men at the table move cards about in their hands, sorting and arranging, something Monte Callahan always discouraged him from doing. "Moving them cards all around like that tells people things you don't want them to know. It's only five cards, for gosh sakes, Morgan. Sort them in your head, for goodness sake!"
They anted and the hand began. Morgan played casually for the first few hands, learning what he could about the signature tells of each of the players. Velbert was very good and gave nothing away and his ability to slide the bottom card when desired was masterful. None of the others seemed to notice. When it was Morgan's turn to deal he shuffled the cards well, but not too well, checking the feel of the deck to see if any cards were marked. None seemed to be, nor did the deck seem to be short. He dealt that hand and play continued for a half-hour during which he lost a little, but not too much. He was still observing and learning and not caring too much about how much he won or lost at this point.
An hour later, five players remained at the table. Money had changed hands back and forth but there was no real winner and no big loser at that point. Their chips were much the same as when the game began. Time to get a move on, Morgan thought. On his next deal he ran the deck and dealt himself a good but safe hand, three tens. He played the hand out and managed to win almost two hundred dollars. A good start, he thought. If Velbert or Parsons were irritated or suspicious it did not show, and it was early in the game. The next deal was the man on Morgan's left, a retired sheriff from Montana who could no longer do the job given the rheumatism, so he had told them all. Morgan received three eights, a ten and a four in the first deal and when he asked for one card he received the second ten. He reasoned that this was nothing more than good luck and decided to go with it. A round of bets later he managed to pick up another three hundred dollars.
"Luck seems to favour you," the retired sheriff said.
Morgan smiled. "I'm overdue, and thankful."
Velbert dealt the next hand and Morgan received a pair of fives.
On the draw he got a third five and was tempted but decided he was being set up and folded. The game worked itself around and Velbert took the pot with four twos. So, Morgan thought, it has begun.
When the deal came back to him the deck felt a little light and he suspected Velbert and Parsons were holding preferred cards. He shuffled the deck thoroughly and moved cards about, dealing them slowly. He dealt himself most of a small straight and in the next draw he filled it, looking a little downfallen for effect. Parsons pushed the betting up to almost eight hundred dollars. On the call, Parsons turned over three eights, Velbert three Jacks. The others had folded. Morgan lay down his straight and took the pot, noticing Velbert's icy eyes on him. They were beginning to wonder. They were not sure, but they were wondering. He would have to be careful and get this over quickly before they were certain.
The sheriff cashed out, leaving another man, a wheat dealer from Missouri, Parsons, Velbert and Morgan at the table. It was Velbert's deal and after the shuffle, Morgan heard the slide of the bottom cards that went to Velbert and Parsons. He bet conservatively this time and lost about fifty dollars. He lost a slightly smaller amount on Parson's deal and then it was his turn.
He shuffled the cards around and dealt, giving Velbert the beginnings of a straight, Parson's two red kings, the wheat dealer nothing, wanting him to drop out of the hand and dealing himself most of a flush in spades. The betting went quite high and did so quickly this time. On the draw he gave Velbert all but one of the cards for the straight and gave Parson another king. The money pile grew even larger and he went along with the deal, giving himself the rest of the flush and looking hesitant and worried as he pushed chips to the centre of the table. On the final pass he filled Velbert's straight, gave Parsons a pair of sixes to go with the kings and drew nothing more for himself.
"Well," he said, "It's not that good a hand but I feel lucky tonight." He pushed a thousand dollars onto the pile.
Velbert paused to consider and slowly fingered his cards. "I think you're bluffing, sir," he said smiling, matching the amount on the table.
"As do I," Parsons said, grinning broadly and sliding his money and chips out onto the table. "I believe that there's now nearly five thousand dollars sitting on the table and I would like it, so I'll call."
He put down his full house a little too smugly, laying out the cards one by one. At the other side of the table Velbert dropped his straight onto the table with feigned disgust. "Damn it. You've beaten me. Take the pot, sir. You've earned it." He smiled across at Parsons as if they were complete strangers.
"Not so fast," Morgan said, laying down the flush in spades one card at a time, as had Parsons, three through seven. "I believe this pot is mine." He reached out and raked in the pot while the onlookers around the table oohed and aahed. A few of the onlookers even applauded. Now the look in Velbert's eyes was intense suspicion and Parsons looked almost homicidal.
Morgan appeared not to notice either of their expressions, smiling to the gathered crowd and gathering his winnings. The he turned back to Velbert and Parsons. "Well, gentlemen, I thank you for a most pleasant evening. May we do this again tomorrow night? It does break the monotony of the voyage." He had no intention of giving them another chance, but this might mollify them.
"Indeed," Velbert said smoothly, looking somewhat relieved. "I shall look forward to the opportunity to regain some funds."
A few minutes later, making certain he was not followed, Morgan knocked on the Cottrell's stateroom door. When Kip Cottrell opened it, Morgan presented him with three thousand dollars from his evening's winnings. Kip Cottrell was shocked and was for a moment at a total loss for words.
"How can we ever thank you?" he said, a little embarrassed.
"That's easy," Morgan said. "Act still as if you've lost all of your funds so they don't suspect anything and especially not suspect any connection between us. And put this money in the ship's safe right now. Then I suggest you either learn how to play cards better or stay away from the tables."
He nodded to Samantha Cottrell who mouthed 'thank you' to him and then, after putting the rest of his own winnings in the steamship safe, he headed back to his stateroom. He turned the key, looked up and down the corridor, opened the door, stepped in and then, feeling a presence, began to turn. But he was too late and the blow to his head sent him tumbling to the floor!
He awoke slowly a few minutes later, lifting one hand to touch the tender spot on the back of his head. No cut, and that was a good thing, but it would be sore for a few days. Fortunately, he had been turning as he was hit and it was not as bad as it might have been. He got up, one hand placed on the edge of the bed to steady himself, and then sat down on it for a moment. When he could stand he lit two lights in the stateroom and looked around. The room was not in much disarray but he could tell it had been thoroughly searched. But whatever they were looking for, and he suspected it was his winnings of the evening, the searcher, almost certainly Velbert or Parsons, would have found nothing of value. His winnings and his wallet were securely stored in the ship's safe. He checked the bottom drawer of the dresser and found his one gun was still there. He checked its load and it was fine. So it was definitely the money they were after and they had been frustrated in that as well. He would have to watch for them the following day. He locked the stateroom door and went to bed.
He had an early hot breakfast, and strong tea, and then spent the balance of the morning sitting on the upper deck in the bright sunshine, though mornings on the Mississippi were quite cool at this time of year, the early fall now in bloom. From time to time some of other passengers would stroll by, a few nodding toward him in recognition as they passed.
A little while later Samantha Cottrell came out onto the deck, well-dressed for the cool morning. She was wearing a burgundy wool shawl around her shoulders against the early morning chill in the air and it suited her.
There was no one else on deck as it was early. Samantha, after first looking around, brought him a brimming cup of steaming dark tea and two scones with jam. "I was told by the server that you drink your tea strong with just a little milk," she said. "And the scones looked so good I brought them as well."
"Thanks," he said. "The morning's a little brisk and I appreciate the drink and the food, though I've already had breakfast."
"I just wanted to thank you once again for what you did for us, Morgan. Without the stake you recovered we would have been quite lost. I think Kip has learned a lesson, one he'll not soon forget."
He smiled at her. "We each learn from our experiences and, for most of us, from our mistakes. I'm sure your husband has learned from this."
"Oh, he has, you can be sure of that," she said. "Kip's a good man and this has been, as it turns out, a good thing for him. As soon as you left he handed the money to me and I took your advice and placed it in the ship's safe. I just wanted to thank you again. The kindness of strangers, as they say, will often help those in need. We hope to pass that forward ourselves."
Still alone on the deck, they chatted for another half-hour about life in the west and how different it was than the east. The Cottrells were returning to the east after teaching in Arizona for a couple of years and they were looking forward to seeing family again. They had decided that the west was not for them and Kip was planning to teach in a large school in Louisiana. Samantha would return to her job as a shipping clerk.
"Will you be going back west?" she asked and Morgan nodded.
"I believe so, though that depends to some extent on what I find when I arrive home. My parents are aging and I may be needed there for a little while. I've two siblings but neither of them has shown any particular interest in farming. One is studying law and the other works in a general store. But I prefer the west, its openness and wildness, its risks and opportunities."
She nodded and then excused herself and left to join Kip for breakfast.
Morgan remained seated out on deck.
A little while later a couple of traders came out onto the deck with their mugs of steaming coffee and Morgan sat listening with enjoyment as they talked about their expeditions, their trade and about the upcoming stop they were making at the town of Osceola. He suddenly had a thought. Rising from his table, he stepped over to where the two men sat sipping at their coffee.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said. "I heard you talking and was wondering if one can buy a horse in Osceola for a reasonable price.
"Sure you can," one of the men said. "Tibbett's livery is right there and he buys and sells horses all the time. He has some nice stock, but some are mostly stove in, so you're fine if you know horses well enough, not so much if you don't. Be happy to side you when you go to buy your horse. Name's Hanson, Tip Hanson. Friend of Tibbett." He extended a hand that was shaken.
"Thank you, Tip, I'd certainly appreciate that," Morgan said. "I have to get my gear together. I'll meet you on the docks." He returned to his stateroom and quickly began to pack his things. Then he went to the steamship office and retrieved his wallet and money from their safe.
The steamship made its brief stop in Osceola. Morgan, having regained his valuables from the ship's safe and having let a steward know he was debarking, so no one would worry about his absence, walked down the gangplank hidden as well as possible among a large group of departing passengers. He was dressed in his western garb, including his large black flat-brimmed hat tipped forward to shield his face. He slipped into the crowd and moved quickly into the shadow of a building. He watched until the steamboat slipped from the dock, out of the small bay and turned back into the river heading south before turning toward the livery stable. As far as he could tell, neither Velbert nor Parsons had left the ship while it was docked and so he should be free of anyone following.
He found Tip Hanson waiting up the street and they headed to Tibbett's Livery. With guidance from Hanson that he did not really need but allowed, he purchased a solid black gelding, a saddle and tack for a reasonable price and a second horse, a solid, well-built gray to use as a pack horse and second riding horse. The price was a bit higher than he liked, but still fair, in part because Tip Hanson and Tibbett were acquaintances. He put his gear together and within the hour was on the trail east. He might lose a day or more riding rather than travelling on the big boat but it felt good to be back in the saddle. And since he could travel on a direct route home he might not lose that much time after all. He also found that it was nice to be free of the noisy crowds that he found on the steamboat, though he had enjoyed the boat ride.
He rode until dark, enjoying the rhythm of the ride and the beautiful landscape. He made a night camp, fixing a simple meal for himself from supplies bought in Osceola. Lying under the stars in his bedroll, he fell asleep to the sounds of the animals in the woods around him, an accustomed and welcome orchestra that played a familiar tune. He was up later than usual, giving himself extra sleep time and he rode at a leisurely pace through the morning before a stop for a cold lunch. Again he took more time than usual and read from a book that he taken from the steamship with the permission of the steward.
It was late in the afternoon when he began to feel the unmistakable tension in his neck that told him something was amiss. He was sure he was being followed. But followed by whom and for what reason? He was pretty sure that neither Velbert nor Parsons had left the steamboat when he did, and he could not imagine who else might be after him. He quickened his pace, aiming the horse toward a high ridge in the distance. It was getting dark as he made it to the top of the ridge. He circled a grove of pines and found a spot for his night camp. By now it was completely dark. He unsaddled the horses, brushed them down and picketed them. Then he built a wall of dirt and stone within which he built a small fire, one whose flames would not be seen from beyond the trees.
That done, he walked the thirty or so yards back to the edge of the ridge and studied the landscape below. At first, he saw nothing, and then there it was, the unmistakable twinkling of a far-off campfire. A small one, probably for no more than three or four people. It could be anyone, he supposed. Perhaps it was just a group of travellers heading in a similar or parallel direction to him. But Morgan Westland was suspicious by nature and cautious by western experience. Had either Velbert or Parsons somehow gotten off the ship to follow him? Had they hired someone to follow him and recover their money? Or was it some others simply after him because he was alone, had two horses and gear for the taking?
He wrestled with what to do until he dropped off to sleep and he awoke in the morning with an answer. He saddled his horses after a quick meal and rode ahead for almost an hour until he found a likely spot. He walked the horses across a wide and flat rock face, leaving no mark behind that he could see and then rode east and southeast parallel to the trail he had made earlier. An hour later he saw their dust and pulled the horses behind a shelf of dark rocks, tying them securely and climbing onto the rock to watch their approach.
He had to wait almost twenty minutes. Then three riders appeared, moving in single file. He had never seen them before but the one in the lead was obviously tracking Morgan's trail for the other two. They looked like the typical bully boys of the midwestern towns, comfortable on the trail and an all too familiar type to Morgan. He had dealt with the sort before and he knew they were not travelling on the same path as he was. They were after him.
He let them pass by and get ahead of him and then rode out and onto their trail, staying well back. Good trackers often have a sixth sense about being followed, just as Morgan had. Toward the latter part of the morning the three riders reached the point where Morgan had taken the horses over the rock face to lose the trail. He stayed back in the trees and watched. There was a short and animated conversation, with the tracker raising his arms and shrugging his shoulders to show that he had, at least temporarily, lost the trail they were following. More talk ensued, with a lot of gesturing on the part of one of the other two men, and then the tracker nodded. He waved the other two toward a grove of trees to the west and went on to try and pick up Morgan trail. The other two headed straight toward the trees, presumably to set up a camp and wait.
Morgan left the pack horse in the trees and circled around to cut off the tracker, knowing the route the man would take if he continued on Morgan's trail. He was sure the man would find the trail he intentionally left and would be coming back toward him. Morgan found a convenient spot and waited, sitting perfectly still on a rock with his rifle across his lap, his clothing blending in with the colours of the rock. He knew if he did not move he would not be easily seen. Sure enough, about a half-hour later, the rider appeared to Morgan's left, studying the ground ahead of him. He was so focused on the ground that he did not see Morgan until Morgan moved, turning the rifle to point directly at the man's chest.
"Looking for me?" Morgan asked quietly.
The man swallowed nervously but said nothing.
"Who are you? Morgan asked.
"Stiles. My name's Harry Stiles."
"Why are you following me, Harry? I don't like being followed and I've killed men for doing things I don't like."
Harry Stiles swallowed hard. "Not following you, mister. Just happen to be going in the same general direction as you. Lots of folks travel this here way heading toward Hudson's. Hudson's was a well-known trading post where a number of the trails heading north, east, west and south crossed.
Morgan cocked the rifle. "Try again, Harry. Why are you following me? And this time I want the truth. I'm getting a bit impatient. And when I'm impatient I tend to do impulsive things like shooting people."
The man was afraid. "Alright, listen, we's planning to sneak off with your horses and gear whilst you was sleeping. And hopin' you had some money. That's all. Them two hired me to do the tracking, to help them catch up to you. They saw you head out of Osceola on your own. You can get good money for horses and gear in the mining camps north and west of here. That's all, just take your horses and goods. Honest to goodness! I'd never get mixed up in nothing more."
"Fair enough. But I don't like being followed, Harry. Maybe I should just shoot you. That would make it two to one instead of three to one. What do you think about that?"
Harry Stiles shook his head vehemently, now in a real sweat. "Ain't no need for that, mister. You just let me be and I'll head right back to Osceola at a trot without nary a look back nor a word to them others. Don't cotton to them anyhow and they ain't been kind so far. I'll just go, God as my witness!"
Morgan Westland uncocked the rifle. "Alright Harry, I'm giving you one chance. You ride west and don't look back. If I see you on my trail again I won't waste time talking. And I'm an excellent shot. Do you understand?"
Harry Stiles nodded, pushed his horse past Morgan and continued westward. As he stated, he did not look back. Not once.
Morgan retrieved the pack horse and rode toward the camp the other two men were setting up in the grove. He left the horses out of sight and went ahead toward their camp on foot, hearing them before he saw them.
"Where the hell's that damn Stiles got to!" It was a deep voice.
"Well, he can suck on the dregs of this coffee, then," the other said, "while we drink it fresh and hot." He chuckled at his own joke.
Morgan backed carefully away from the campsite and went to where they had left their horses. They were still saddled and made no sound as he approached. Taking the reins of each horse he led them away from the camp, circled it and continued on his way. He rode along, the three horses trailing along behind him, for the balance of the afternoon. Then, as the light began to fade toward evening he found a broad open meadow where he unsaddled the two horses, hanging the saddles and tack high up in nearby trees in plain sight. Someone would have quite a find, he thought. Then he turned the horses loose into the meadow where they began to much contentedly on the rich grass. He doubted the two men would come this way but he knew someone else coming along would likely find and take the horses and the gear. And he did not care.
He smiled at his good fortune and turned northeast once again, continuing to slant steadily eastward until he ran out of daylight and made himself a cold camp. He remained cautious but the night was quiet.
On the third day he saw the sign for Hudson's Trading Post and decided to stop there. It was a small collection of buildings including a general store with limited stock, a blacksmith's forge, a horse barn and silo and a bunkhouse for those wanting to stay for the night. And, of course there was a saloon where travellers could whet their whistles and get a basic meal. The trading post was situated at the hub of a number of trails that ran north, south, east and west and had long been a popular and central stop for travellers coming through the area.
He tied the horses to the hitching rail and took the two wide steps up and into the general store in one long stride. He wandered around the store for a time, looking at different items and picking a couple of things from the limited inventory. These were just simple essentials needed for the rest of his trip. He took them to the desk and put money on the counter to pay for them.
"Heading east?" the man asked.
Morgan nodded. "Heading back home. Been out west eight long years and it's past time I was getting back to see my family. There's a bit of trouble I have to take care of when I get there."
The man hesitated. "Your name wouldn't be Westland, would it?"
That prickly feeling returned and Morgan's hand paused in midair. Then he slowly nodded. "Why do you ask?"
The man looked uncomfortable, but he was not about to stop what he had begun. "There's a fella over there in the saloon. Been hanging around here for almost a week, not doing much else but eat and drink. Making folks uncomfortable. Wally, the saloon keeper, also my brother, says he's waiting for a man named Westland. Wanted to know if he'd been through yet. Says he's a friend, but we don't believe it. Most everyone coming east or west stops here. Wally says he's a gunny and he didn't think he meant this Westland any good. Not my business, really, and Wally might be wrong about it, but I'm just saying for you to be careful. You seem a decent sort and we don't think this other one is."
Morgan smiled and nodded. "Thanks," he said. "I appreciate the warning. I think I'll just go over there and have a little chat with him."
He supposed it would be easy enough for others to figure out his route if he was coming across land. Talbot, the man his mother said was holding their bank loan, may have learned Morgan was on his way home. If this were his doing, he might also have had someone waiting at the docks for the steamship. To kill him or merely to stop him getting home on time and with his money? Well, he thought, I could just get back on my horse and ride off, letting the man follow as he might, but I'm tired of being followed and of people trying to get in my way. He hitched his gun, slid it in and out of the holster to make sure it came easily to his hand and headed for the saloon.
He saw the man sitting at a table in the corner and walked over, peeling back his coat as he walked to expose the handle of his gun. The man looked up when Morgan stopped in front of his table. He frowned, uncertain.
"I'm Morgan Westland. I'm informed you've been waiting here for me. Well, here I am. You have two choices, friend. You can get on your horse and ride west right now and keep riding west or you can stand up and reach for your gun. I don't really care which you choose. I'm tired of being followed." He stepped back, hand hovering above his gun.
The man raised both hands in front of his face. "Wait a minute, Westland. Just wait another minute here! Hang on!"
"No," Morgan said. "Stand and draw or stand and ride. All the same to me." He drew his gun with such speed that the man was startled and almost fell off his chair. He raised his hands chest high, keeping them well away from his gun and slowly stood up from the table.
"Who sent you?" Morgan asked, cocking the gun. "I won't ask twice."
"Man named Talbot," he said quickly. "I was to stop you and take what money you had and your horse. That's all. Leave you stranded, no killing. I don't get involved in that kind of trouble. He just wanted you slowed down and robbed of any money or other valuables you might be carrying. Seems he don't want you getting where you're going for a while or if you got there you got there without anything of value."
Morgan nodded. "Fair enough. Now get on your feet, get on your horse and head west or I start shooting. You have two minutes."
The man rose, keeping his hands away from his gun and walked outside. The liveryman, overhearing the conversation, had the man's horse tied in front of the saloon. He mounted without a word and rode west. Morgan watched while until the man disappeared over a rise, then walked to his horses, mounted and headed east. He was careful to leave no tracks and to watch his back trail but no one appeared to be following him the rest of the day. The trip was uneventful and three days later, under a bright morning red sun heralding some bad weather later, he rode down the main street of Jackson. His first stop was the town bank.
"I'd like to speak with the manager, please," he said to the clerk.
"Sorry sir, but Mr. Harrison's out of the bank for the rest of the day," the man said. "He's visiting several farms on business and he may not return until late in the day, until well after we've closed."
"Very well," Morgan said. "Who's in charge when he's not here?"
"That would be Mr. Daly, sir," the clerk said. "He's occupied at the moment but will shortly be available to meet with you."
Morgan nodded and took a seat near the door, examining the local paper and getting caught up on the various activities and events in and about Jackson. He recognized several names in the paper, one an old friend and he made himself a mental note to reconnect with Arlen and get reacquainted.
In the early afternoon, some three hours later he was riding down the long gentle slope toward the massive farmhouse his father had built.
The homecoming was warm and emotional. It had been a long eight years and everyone had changed somewhat, everyone that is except his mother who never seemed to age.
"It's so nice to have you home, son," she said.
"But it's a bad time for us, Morgan," his father said. "The past two years have been poor for our harvest, some of the poorest in years and we had to borrow heavily to make ends meet and keep our hands and workers with us. This year's been much better than the last and next year should be quite good as well, but unfortunately Morris Talbot has purchased our loans from the bank and has threatened foreclosure unless we pay up right now. We don't have the cash on hand to make that payment."
"Does he really think he can get away with that?" Morgan asked. "What has Liam to say about it?" His brother Liam had been studying for the law when Morgan went west and should have been finished long ago.
His father nodded. "Liam's angry, Morgan, but he says Talbot is within the letter of the law if not its spirit. Indeed, he can, though it's sad to say. In fact, I understood he intended to visit us late this afternoon to discuss terms and if we can't meet those terms we may lose all we've worked for over these many years. We've been trying to avoid thinking about it but it's been on our minds."
Morgan smiled and patted his father on the shoulder. "Let him come, father, and don't worry about it any longer. Everything will be alright. No one is going to take this farm away from you. Not while I'm here."
"Now, Morgan," his mother admonished, knowing her son all too well. "Don't you do anything rash. Mr. Talbot is within his rights, even though we make find it distasteful. We don't want you getting in any trouble when you've just come home." She looked at the gun he was wearing and frowned.
Morgan smiled. "Best behaviour, mother. I promise."
They had a late lunch together and then Morgan saw the three riders coming down the slope. His hand went automatically to his gun before moving it away. It was nothing more than reflex. His father noticed but said nothing. Morgan walked out of the room and into the large kitchen to wait out of sight.
Morris Talbot had long desired the three large farms in the rich valley and the Westland's would be the first and largest. He intended to set out terms that would look fair to outsiders but that he knew from his contact in the bank they could not meet. They were fine folks, the Westlands, and that he acknowledged, but business was business and profit was profit. He and his associates travelled this day with the sheriff in tow for security, in case of angry reactions. They dismounted and were invited into the large living room where his mother and father were waiting. Morgan stayed out of sight.
"I know this is difficult for you," Talbot began, "and I wish beyond all else to be fair to you and your family, but the times have been hard, as you well know. I find myself challenged to recoup the loans I've bought. I've come to outline specific terms of payment that I must insist you meet."
"There will be no need for terms," Morgan said quietly, stepping into the living room. If Talbot was surprised he hid it remarkably well with the poker face of the experienced businessman. Or perhaps he thought Morgan was Liam and did not realize who he was facing. Morgan could not be sure.
But still, he looked no less confused than Morgan's parents.
Morgan continued without waiting. "The entire amount of the loan has been deposited to your account in the bank in town, Mr. Talbot. It has been paid in full, along with interest for the short time that you have borne the loan. I have a witnessed document to present to you, signed by Mr. Daly, the bank's senior accountant. You can confirm it when you return to town, which I suggest that you do immediately. There is nothing for you here."
"But Liam," Talbot began.
Morgan smiled and shook his head. "I'm Morgan Westland, Mr. Talbot, not my brother Liam. We are, you might say, differently inclined when dealing with the kind of business you're carrying out. Liam is tolerant. I am less so."
Talbot looked first astonished, then frightened. "I don't quite understand, Mr. Westland. Whatever do you mean?"
"I mean that the loan has been paid in full, with proper interest and therefore we have no further business to discuss," Morgan said. He produced a copy of the receipt that the bank had provided and handed it to Talbot to examine. "Now please leave our home." He pointed toward the door and ushered the two men toward it. Talbot's companion had not uttered a single word the entire time.
Talbot blustered but there was no more to be said and Morgan walked him and his associate to the door and then to their horses. He held Talbot back for a moment from the others and out of earshot of the sheriff.
"You paid a man to prevent my return, perhaps more than one," Morgan said, raising a hand to prevent Talbot's vain protest. "Don't bother to deny it, Mr. Talbot. Where I come from, men have been killed for less than what you've done. If I hear of any such behaviour from you again toward any farmer in this county I'll inform the sheriff of what's occurred. And I have witnesses. You will offer the other farmers reasonable means of paying off their loans, and more than reasonable time lines, or I'll do what I need to do to destroy you. And if not, I'll kill you. Am I being clear enough, Mr. Talbot?"
Talbot, his face alternating between ashen and white, nodded quickly and left, unhappily and without further salutation.
"How?" Morgan's father asked when he walked back into the room.
Morgan smiled. "I've worked hard, lived simply and saved well," he replied. "As I was taught by my parents. Now it's time to be home with family."