A hard, ugly sun rose over the Bolingbroke Ranch, the glare of dawn throwing long shadows over the dusty ground. Three such shadows fell across the porch of Henry King’s ranch house, their heads falling just short of King’s boots. These three shadows belonged to three men. They stood before King as he sat in a chair and took his breakfast.
The youngest of the three men opened his mouth to speak, but King held up a warning finger while he drank his coffee. It was still early, but the old cattleman had decided to start his day with a plate of fried steaks. The beans and fried eggs were an afterthought, nothing more. Taking his time chewing a mouthful of food, King said not a word, and the three men were forced to wait until it was his pleasure to join the conversation.
King stabbed at his steak with a fork, slicing off another mouthful, smearing it in the yolk of an egg, and lifting it to his mouth. Again he chewed to his satisfaction. Chickens were difficult to keep in that part of the country, and eggs were relatively rare, almost luxuries to some. Deciding that he had tired of his, King picked the egg up and tossed it at the feet of one of the men who stood before him. The egg splattered on Chester Percy’s finely polished black boots. Seeing it, the old dog that lived under King’s porch slunk out and began to lap up the creamy, golden yolk.
Percy made to kick the dog, but King stopped him. “That’s his,” said the old cattleman in a quiet, self-assured grumble. “I gave it to him. Let him have it.”
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Episode 3 – “Hard As Ice and Just As Cold”
Percy stared first at King, then at the dog as it ate the egg off his feet. King, for his part, paid no more mind to the three men, the dog, or Chester’s Percy’s boots, and simply continued to eat in silence. When there was nothing left on his plate, Henry drained the last of the coffee from his mug, dabbed his mouth with a napkin, and gave a satisfied grunt before standing up and setting his palms on the porch rails.
Henry King survey the bustle of activity in the yard. The hired hands were up and out of the bunkhouse. Some of them were working in the corral or the barn, others were busy repairing tools, making improvements, or fixing things up—except that they weren’t. They all looked as if they had some job they were doing; none of them appeared to just be standing around. In reality, though, they were arranged in a broad half-circle around the ranch’s three guests, closely observing everything that went on. Each of the hands had a gun on their person or tucked away somewhere nearby.
King stuck his tongue between his teeth, working at a piece of beef that had gotten caught there. Dislodging it, he made a sound in his throat and spat, then said, “I think I owe you gentlemen an apology.”
This caused two of Henry’s guests to shift uncomfortably. Chester Percy and Mann Northumberland both knew something of Henry King. They knew how he had come into possession of the Bolingbroke Ranch. They knew what he did to those who crossed him. They knew him to be ruthless and unforgiving. They did not, however, know him to be apologetic.
The third man, or boy rather—Harry “Hotspur” Percy being little more than sixteen years old, readied himself to scorn any show of redemption King was prepared to put forth. He stood a little straighter now, a smile playing at his lips as he thought of ways to rebuff the old cattleman’s plea for forgiveness. He did not notice the concern creeping into the faces of his father and uncle.
“I can see now that I ain’t quite given you fellas the treatment you got comin’ to you,” King went on calmly. “Now Hotspur, Mann, you’ve both spent enough time in the saddle to know how to herd cows, ain’t you? When I was a younger man, I figured it if I was friendly to the cows and I did right by the herd, I’d receive the same in return. A soft touch, that’s what I had in mind. A soft touch don’t work with animals, though. It ain’t enough to point steers in the right direction and good intentions don’t get the job done. You gotta make sure the herd knows you’ll watch over ’em when they’re behaved and you’ll beat ’em senseless when they get outta line. If they suspect you won’t, they’ll turn on you.”
Hotspur opened his mouth once again, but Mann’s tight grip on his shoulder prevented him from saying whatever was on his mind. “Any man can be forgiven a little naivety now and then, Henry,” said Northumberland, hoping to pacify the situation. His words had the opposite effect.
“Steers are dumb animals, but think they’re noble,” said King, now fixing his gaze on Hotspur. “They’re proud, a little too proud for their own good. And you know what that pride does to ’em? It goes to their head and convinces ’em they got a right to go out and do whatever they want so long as there ain’t nobody to punish ’em for it. They learn respect out of fear. Nothin’ else teaches ’em.”
Hotspur, Mann, and Chester stood stiffly. Hotspur’s face had grown red with indignation, and it was obvious to all who saw him that he was struggling to keep his thoughts from flying out of his mouth. If his uncle hadn’t gripping his shoulder so fiercely, he would have let loose already. Mann and Chester, on the other hand, understood the need not to say anything too inflammatory. They were surrounded by skilled gunfighters. King didn’t hire on anyone whose trigger finger didn’t itch just a little bit.
Chester Percy took hold of the lapel of his tailored suit and stroked his handlebar mustache with his other hand, curling one of its waxed tips to a sharper point. “Mr. King,” he began amiably, “Henry, now listen. How long have we been friends? A good while now, hasn’t it been? From the day I met you, I knew you were a going to be a great man one day, and sure enough, here you are. Why, you’re one of the greatest men in this country—maybe one of the greatest men it’s been my pleasure to make the acquaintance of. Myself, my brother, my son here, we would never so much as dream of paying you the slightest disrespect, but perhaps we have shown too soft touch, too. After all, who ought a great man to respect more than those friends who helped him become great?”
King examined Chester for a long moment. The man bothered him. He was done up like a dandy, polished like a yankee, his hair and mustache groomed like a European, his speeches stinking of horseshit like a politician’s. King picked up his napkin from the table and tossed it to the ground at Chester’s feet.
“You got something on those shiny boots of yours,” he said gruffly. “Clean ’em up and clear out. If I wanted to hear from you, I would’ve sent for you.”
Chester Percy stared at Henry for a long moment. King was no longer paying any attention to him, but was instead watching Hotspur once more. His blood boiling, Harry Percy glared at the old cattleman, but King merely gazed back at him impassively. Seeing that there was nothing more that he could accomplish here, and sensing that the hired hands would carry out Henry’s wishes if he remained, Chester turned on his heel and made for his horse at a fast but dignified walk.
“Get talkin’,” King said, fixing his attention on Northumberland as Chester rode out of the yard.
“Alright, Henry,” said Mann, removing his hat and holding it with one hand. “I understand you not being well pleased ’bout not getting all them cattle, but you got Harry’s intention wrong.” Hotspur looked to his uncle as he listened to the older man speak, managing only by great effort not to interject.
“In the first place,” Northumberland went on, “there’s only one steer in this whole wide world Arch Douglas gives a good Goddamn for, and that’s his prize breedin’ bull, Mordecai. If that bull was his own son, he couldn’t look after it no better. Yesterday you got one steer out of two hundred, but that steer was Mordecai. Ain’t none better in the whole country. Our good ol’Harry here sent him right to you, and there wasn’t no selfish to it. Now second of all –”
“Second of all!” Hotspur cut his uncle off, taking a brazen step toward King. “Second of all, I had no intention of keeping more than our share of the cattle I brought back! But listen up and listen good, because my side of all this hasn’t been heard yet.”
King raised his brow, examining Hotspur an appraising eye. “Then speak up, boy,” he growled. “You kept your tongue for a while now, let’s hear what you got to say for yourself.”
“I caught six or seven of Douglas’s crew rustling up near the line between his spread and ours,” said Hotspur, anger causing him to speak fast, his tone biting.
“I heard it was more like twelve,” said King. “But you’re saying it was only six or seven?”
Hotspur waved his hand dismissively. “Seven or twelve, what’s the difference?! The point is, I caught them in the act, running our cattle back to Douglas’s country—your cattle too, I might add, since you’ve been grazing them up that way. I was out there alone, and I didn’t have time to go back for any of the hands, so I chased the rustlers down myself. When they caught sight of me, they put up a fight, but I clipped a few wings and they showed me their tails feathers. Well, I don’t take that kind of treatment light-like, so I decided they needed to learn their lesson. I ran them all the way back to that little clump of shacks Douglas calls a town. They tried to shoot it out with me again, but I scared them into Douglas’s saloon, shot out the windows, tore the bar up good, and burned up their corral. Then I took us a small token from them to compensate myself for the trouble and to let them know that stealing from us will cost them more than they could ever hope to gain.”
King opened his mouth to reply, but Hotspur wasn’t finished telling his version of events. “Now, I didn’t come through that tussle unharmed. No! You can ask my Uncle Mann, he’ll tell you. I took no bullets from that crew, but I had many a close encounter. See my neck here? My hand? And all along my arm? Plenty of their shots scathed me close enough to burn and draw blood. Why, look at my boot here! See that hole? That hole wasn’t there before. A bullet made that hole! I put my life on the line and nearly had it taken from me, and a body has a right to demand some respect for fighting it out with a pack of rustlers to bring back another fellow’s livestock. But what do I find instead? Walter Blunt sends some dandiboy lawyer to take half the steers away from me!
“This fellow comes wandering up like a man stepping out of a London carriage. I was covered in dust, and blood, and gunpowder, and all of it was overwhelmed by the powerful smell of his soaped-up, clean-shaved, greasy-haired, chicken-shit person. He looked like a little boy and he talked like a little boy and he treated me like I was the child between the two of us! Me! After I risked my life, sent Douglas’s men packing—some of them to the doctor, I might add, but here’s this happy little rooster of a fellow putting on airs and playing with his snuff box, when he can’t hardly sit his own horse, much less ride it proper.
“This dude of yours, out there playing cowboy, starts into me about washing with this kind of soap and that kind of aftershave after a gunfight. He told me to keep our horses separate ’cause he didn’t want my stallion stinking up his nag by standing too close to it! Have you ever heard a fool thing like that before? Not on your life! Never! You’d think he was a prince for all his high-hattin’ presumption—certainly not the kind of fellow I’d expect to see representing a King, I’ll have you know.”
In the midst of this speech, Walter Blunt came through the door of the ranch house behind King. He and Henry exchanged a look as Walt took a seat at King’s breakfast table. He furrowed his brow as listened to Hotspur, occasionally following with his eyes the frothy spit that was flung from the young man’s mouth as he spoke.
“Heaven help me! The things he said you just couldn’t fathom, I swear!” Hotspur cried in exasperation. “That lawyer of yours told me that if I was bleeding internally, I ought to rub whale sperm on myself. He told me that there’s a kind of whale that keeps its sperm in its head. Then he wonders aloud if I should go out and find the bullets the rustlers fired at me so that I could them use again myself. He says that’d be more cost-effective! Just what in Hell is that supposed to mean, I ask you?!
“I’m standing there with two hundred cows I took from Arch Douglas and this dude wants me to go digging around to collect up all the bullets that were shot at me! And that isn’t even the very worst of it! No! This playbaby dingleberry, wannabe greenhorn has the nerve to inform me that he is just as slick and salty as any gunfighter, except that guns are too loud for his delicate ears and too dirty for his sensitive skin, so he prefers to fight uncouth criminals with a pen and ink, which he informs me are far mightier than bullets and black powder.
“Well, you can imagine I wasn’t going to hear any more of his crazy prattle, so I resolved in my head to ignore everything else he said and get on with my business. The steers were drifting and I had no more time to waste on that damn fool rooster. All I heard was him mentioning something about you and him wanting to know which was the best of the animals I was herding back. I told him Mordecai was the prize of the lot, then I gave him a rope and told him to take that bull back to you. If you ever did hear that man talk, you’d know that a body would do and say just about anything to get some peace and quiet from him.
“Maybe he had some trouble getting Mordecai back to you, and maybe he blamed me for that, and maybe that’s why you were told that I had some malice against you, because some little dandy got his britches knotted by Mordecai. But that was late yesterday and now it’s early today, and there wouldn’t have been time to get all ninety-nine other steers over to you in between. Besides, you’ve already got herds up that way. Why, you could wait to see your cut of what I took for as long as you had other cattle up there and it wouldn’t hurt a thing in the world. So I’m asking you, Mr. King, don’t think the worst of me for this, because I haven’t done a thing wrong and I certainly have not done you a bit of harm.”
King worked his tongue around among his teeth again, then glanced back at Blunt. “Well, Walt, got anything to say ’bout all that?”
“Dingleberry’s as good a name as any for Sam Carlton sometimes,” replied Blunt, rolling the fixings of a cigarette. “But I needed someone to get out there to back up Harry here, and I didn’t have nobody else on hand. So if anybody oughta shoulder the blame for this one, it better be me. Whatever Hotspur said or did when Carlton talked to him, I figure I can understand and forgive.”
“I’d sure like it if I could agree with Walt, but he didn’t hear the whole conversation, did he?” King said, turning his eyes to Northumberland. “Mann, why don’t you tell me what it was that your nephew said to me when y’all rolled in here?”
Northumberland was silent a moment. Finally, after a deep breath, he said, “Henry, I don’t think this is necessary.”
“Just tell Walt what Harry said to me,” Henry repeated. The old cattleman seemed plenty cavalier, but underneath the facade, Mann knew he must be seething.
Blinking, Northumberland chose his words carefully before speaking. “Harry said he’d like to focus on getting’ his brother-in-law safely returned to us ‘fore he gets to work herdin’ those cattle over here.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” nodded King. “Now, let me put it the way Harry put it to me. This young man said to me –”
“I said you weren’t going to see a single one of those steers until you’ve ransomed Mort!” snap Hotspur. “That’s what I said!”
King smiled at Hotspur and nodded once again. “That’s right. That’s exactly what you said to me. Without a ‘good morning’ or a ‘howdy,’ or any pleasantry at all.” He turned to Blunt. “How do you like that? I ain’t gonna see a single one of those steers until I pay off Glen Owen for taking Mortimer Bordeaux. In these three come a’riding and no sooner is Hotspur off is horse before he’s dictatin’ terms to me.
“Well, lemme lay down some terms to you gentlemen. Glen Owen ain’t gonna get a damn thing from me, ’cause I ain’t gonna pay one red cent for a lousy, backstabbing son-of-bitch like Mort Bordeaux. Mort’s made his choice. He got the Wye crew slaughtered, lead ’em right into a trap, and now he’s thrown in Owen. Now you want me to give Owen money and concessions? You’re out of your mind!”
“You know, you fellas ain’t the first folks I heard from this morning,” King pursued, accepting a a cigarette from Blunt and puffing on it. “I got word from Reverend FitzAlan before y’all showed up. He was called out to the Owen place last night to perform a wedding of all things. Turns out Mort’s been courtin’ Katherine Owen in secret—secret to us, anyway. I’m sure Glen knew just who was wooing his daughter. So now Mort’s a married man and we got ourselves an Owen in the family. I ain’t gonna ransom a traitor, gentlemen, and that’s final.”
“A traitor!” Hotspur exploded. “Mort is no traitor! I tell you it’s slander is what it is! Mort has never been anything but brave and honourable, and you know it. He was headed to see Owen on your orders, and you sent him even though you knew it’d be dangerous. Why, we could just as easily say that it was you who sent them into that trap, couldn’t we?
“Mort was doing as he was told, that’s all. He and the hands from the Wye Ranch where making their way to the Owen spread when some of Owen’s folks started taking shots at them from up on a ridge. Mort was shooting back, giving them as good as they gave him, and protecting his riders as best he could, but he was outnumber aplenty. He exhausted his ammo, but not before trading shots with Glen Owen himself for the better part of an hour. Mort took his life into his hands defending the Wye crew and trying to do the job you gave him.
“When you don’t get exactly what you want, you’re awful quick to assume you’ve been slighted, Mr. King. I don’t fork up my steers, Hell, must mean I’m a traitor! What other explanation is there? Mort doesn’t beat a whole gang of snipers single-handed? Mort marries a woman? Must be he’s got something personal against you. How can there be anything else for it? Well, Mr. King, some girl being some fellow’s daughter never stopped anybody being in love. It isn’t any fault of Katherine Bordeaux that she’s got Glen Owen for a father, and that’s no reason for Mort not to marry her.”
Henry King flicked what was left of his cigarette onto the porch, then put it out with a hard stomp of his boot. “You’re tellin’ tall tales, boy,” he said, his voice low and menacing. “You might as well ‘ave given a confession of Mort’s guilt right there. Harry, Glen Owen is a university boy. He’s no gunfight and he sure as Hell ain’t no sniper. If he was even there, which I gotta tell you is mighty doubtful, it was only ’cause he wanted to meet up with Mort personally. Now I could wonder where you came up with that story about Mort the Hero, but I won’t speculate as to who you’ve been communicatin’ with. After all, I’m tryin’ not to think the worst of you.
“Now, your brother-in-law got the hands from the Wye killed. Those were good punchers with families, and they’re gonna need lookin’ after. So, don’t talk to me no more about Mortimer. You owe those families for his wrong-doings. I’ll foot that bill for you in exchange for those steers you took from Arch Douglas. And Mann, Percy, I don’t mean ninety-nine of them. I mean all of them. All two hundred of those steers are my property now.”
Northumberland and Hotspur stared at King. Blunt slowly stood up, one hand hovering near the gun at his hip as he watched the two men. Hotspur’s jaw quivered with rage for a moment, his fists clenched and his face red. Words piled on top of words at the tip of the young man’s tongue, but King spoke again before any of them could come out.
“My cows ain’t gonna deliver theirselves and you’re burnin’ daylight,” said Henry, his voice hard as ice and just as cold. “Y’all can get gone.”
Lookin’ For More?
We hope you enjoyed the third episode of our new webseries, The Rise of Hal King. This is just the beginning! New installments will be published every first and third Tuesday. The adventure continues Tuesday, February 03, 2015. Don’t miss it!
(Featured Image: “Drag Iron” by Dickinson Cattle Co LLC)
(Roggen Wulf, 2014)