Hangman's Creek

Luke Starbuck Novels

Matt Braun

St. Martin's Paperbacks

 
CHAPTER ONE
Starbuck sat his roan gelding on a grassy knoll.
The sun was a fiery ball lodged in the sky and over the plains a shimmering haze hung like threads of spun glass. At noonday the heat was sweltering, and Starbuck’s throat felt parched. He licked his lips, tasting salt, and took a swipe at his mustache. With one leg hooked around the saddlehorn, he watched the dusty melee of men and bawling calves on the prairie below. Spring roundup was under way, and several hundred cows had been gathered on a holding ground near the river. There the calves were roped, quickly separated from a herd of protesting mothers, and dragged to the branding fire. Working in teams, the cowhands swarmed over each calf after it was thrown. One man notched its ear with a knife, while another stepped forward with a white-hot iron, and moments later the calf scrambled away with LX seared on its flank. Hazed back to the herd by outriders, the calf was reunited with its mother, and ropes snaked out again under the broiling Texas sun.
The work was monotonous, a seemingly endless procession of calves from sunrise to sunset. Yet the cowhands never slackened their pace, and despite the heat, the branding went forward with smooth precision. For Luke Starbuck, it was merely one of several operations he would inspect in the course of a day. From early spring to late fall, the LX spread was a beehive of activity, and he was in the saddle almost constantly. As foreman of the largest ranch in the Panhandle, he was responsible for the crew, which numbered nearly a hundred men, and close to 50,000 cattle. Scattered around the ranch were a dozen branding camps, all working feverishly to tally and mark a fresh crop of spring calves. At the same time, separate crews were gathering grass-fattened steers and older cows for the trail drive to Dodge City. Before cold weather, at least ten herds, totaling more than 20,000 head, would be driven to railhead and sold. To the LX, it meant upward of $500,000 in the bank, and to Starbuck, it meant one long, unremitting headache that vanished only with the close of trailing season. He wouldn’t have traded it for a rajah’s palace and a harem of honey-tongued whores.
Since dawn, Starbuck had checked four branding camps and one of the trail herds. Altogether, he’d ridden better than fifty miles, twice swapping horses with remudas along the way, and he talked at length with each of the crew bosses. By sundown, when he reported to Ben Langham, the LX owner, he would have hit another four or five camps and have a pretty clear picture of the progress to date. All in all, he was satisfied with the way things were shaping up, and by rough estimate, he calculated it to be a very profitable season. Yet his report would be spotted with a touch of bad news, and the prospect dampened his mood. During the night, one of the branding camps had lost eight cow ponies out of its remuda, simply vanished without a trace. He’d given both the crew boss and the nighthawk a stiff reaming, and he would likly get a dose of the same himself later tonight—Ben Langham would be furious.
Still, he wasn’t a man to dwell on problems, and it was a long way to sundown. He unhooked his leg from the saddlehorn and swung his boot into the stirrup. As he gathered the reins, about to ride down to the branding camp, a cowhand galloped over the knoll, spotting him at the last instant, and slid to a dust-smothered halt. Starbuck’s roan shied away, dancing sideways across the slope, and he hauled back hard on the reins.
“What the hell’s the rush?” he shouted through a curtain of dust. “Your pants on fire?”
“Damn near!” The rider was winded, and his horse lathered with sweat. He took a moment to catch his breath, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “The old man wants you—pronto!”
“What for?”
“Beats me, boss. He just come stormin’ out of the house and I happened to be standin’ in the way. Told me to light out damn quick, and not waste no time findin’ you.”
“How long ago?”
“Couple of hours. I missed you not more’n ten minutes over at the Blue Creek camp.”
“Yeah, and goddamned near killed a horse in the bargain.”
“Well hell’s bells, boss, the old man said—”
“All right, you’ve found me. Now, get that horse cooled down, and do it right or you’ll be walkin’ home!”
Starbuck wheeled the roan away and rode east along the river. Slow to anger, he was nonetheless a stickler on certain things, and he wouldn’t tolerate anyone who needlessly abused a horse. He made a mental note to have the cowhand draw his pay and clear out by morning. Then he put it from his mind, easing the roan into a steady lope, and turned his thoughts to Ben Langham.
Unless he read the sign wrong, the old man was on the warpath. Whatever it was apparently couldn’t wait until nightfall, and if it was that urgent, then it figured to be trouble of one sort or another. Good news could always wait; bad news travels fast. Over the years, by simple observation, he’d learned to anticipate the old man, most especially when there was trouble brewing. It was one of the reasons they got along so well, for Langham had a short fuse and a temper to match. Starbuck acted as a buffer, taking the brunt of his anger and then calmly setting right whatever had his nose out of joint. It saved everyone a world of grief, and had earned the old man’s esteem in a manner he himself considered highly uncommon. He took delight in the fact that Starbuck could get people to swallow his orders with hardly a murmur of protest. He thought it a damn fine trick, and one of life’s better jokes.
For his part, Starbuck thought it remarkable that Langham had never lost either his determination or his sense of humor. Several years past, Starbuck had hired on as a trailhand with the LX. At the time, Langham’s spread was located in Southern Texas, less than a day’s ride from the Rio Grande. A drifter, wandering aimlessly since the war, Starbuck had intended to work the season and then move on. But Langham saw qualities in the young saddle tramp that he’d never seen in himself. By the end of the season, Starbuck had been promoted to head wrangler, and charged with a sense of responsibility he’d never before experienced. The following season, when the youngster was jumped to trail boss and took a herd to Wichita, Langham’s judgment was confirmed. Thereafter, year by year, Starbuck had assumed ever greater responsibility, until he was promoted to segundo, second only to the LX foreman.
Then, during the summer of 1874, an outbreak of cholera struck the ranch. Before the disease ran its course, Langham’s wife and three children, along with the foreman and a score of cowhands, had fallen victim. The tragedy was compounded when Mexican bandidos, with jackal-like cunning, took advantage of the epidemic and intensified their raids from south of the border. Devastated by the loss of his family, and besieged by rustlers, Ben Langham sold out to the King Ranch, which already controlled much of the Rio Grande Valley. Yet, while he was determined to outdistance memories of the past, his spirits were by no means broken. Looking for a fresh start and a new land, he turned his gaze north, to the Texas Panhandle.
There, on the banks of the Canadian River, he established a new ranch. Luke Starbuck, who had stuck by him through it all, became foreman of the LX. Within a year’s time, a cattle herd had been trailed into the Panhandle, a main house and outbuildings were raised, and Starbuck attracted top hands by paying top wages. Though barely thirty when he assumed the job, Starbuck had quickly earned the respect of every man on the LX payroll. His knowledge of the cow business was sufficient in most cases, and those hands foolish enough to test a young foreman were soon persuaded by his fists. After a couple of bunkhouse brawls, everybody decided he was chain lightning in a slug fest, and an air of harmony settled over the ranch. Once again, Ben Langham’s faith in Starbuck’s ability to handle men and events had been confirmed.
To the south of the LX, Colonel Charles Goodnight had already established a ranch along the eastern rim of Palo Duro Canyon. With Langham’s operation thriving, and Goodnight running close to 100,000 head, other cattlemen were shortly attracted to the Panhandle. When the Plains Tribes were herded onto reservations in Indian Territory, thus removing the last obstacle, there was a sudden influx of ranchers. Within the last year, four cattlemen had settled around the LX boundaries, and Langham had been instrumental in forming the Panhandle Cattlemen’s Association. Charlie Goodnight, who ruled his own spread like a medieval liege lord, had declined to join. Far from being offended, Langham thought it best for everyone concerned. He’d had enough of cattle barons, and their overbearing ways, along the Rio Grande. On the Canadian, with good neighbors and a spirit of cooperation, he was convinced all would prosper equally.
In that, Luke Starbuck concurred heartily. After the chaparral and mesquite thickets of southern Texas, the boundless plains of the Panhandle seemed a cattleman’s Eden. There was sweet grass and clear water, vast prairies laced by streams feeding into the Canadian—everything western stockgrowers envisioned in their most fanciful daydreams. It was what all men searched for and few found—a land of milk and honey and sweet green grass.
Today, riding toward the LX headquarters, Starbuck was reminded that much had been accomplished in a brief span of time. Everywhere he looked there were cattle, standing hock-deep in lush graze, with a bountiful supply of water flowing endlessly eastward along the Canadian. It warmed him with pride, knowing that he and Ben Langham, working together, had created something substantial and enduring out of a raw wilderness. Truly, for the first time in his life, he felt a part of something, a nomad without family or ties who had at last taken root. He felt at home, and he felt a great debt to the man who had befriended a stray, turned a brash fiddlefooted saddle tramp into somebody—somebody who, in turn, had found himself.
All of which warmed his innards and gave him considerable pleasure. Yet fell short, now that he was approaching the ranch house, of quieting a curious sense of unease. Ben Langham was quick-tempered but hard as nails, not a man to be spooked. His summons today was all out of character, too urgent and somehow alarmed. It seemed to Starbuck an ominous sign … .
Copyright © 1979 by Matt Braun.