Walkers Creek

Here are a couple of sample chapters of my Western novel Walkers Creek:

Can a woman run a ranch on her own? Emily Nixon is determined to prove that she can, even if it means resorting to violence. She arranges for an anonymous mercenary to get rid of a troublesome neighbor by blowing up his house. Everything seems to be going to plan, but then the Sheriff’s deputies start following her around. She gets scared and arranges to have the mercenary killed too.

Emily has taken a liking to the handsome new man in Walkers Creek. She doesn’t realize that he’s the man she’s trying to have killed. Will she find out before it’s too late?

Chapter One

The explosion shakes the valley. The cabin is ripped apart in a ball of flame. Shards of splintered wood rattle in the leaves of the trees where Logan stands soothing the frightened horses.

The remains of the cabin smolder, the fire extinguished by the force of the explosion that started it. The brickwork of the hearth pokes out from the broken timbers. A piece of cloth snagged on a broken post flutters in the breeze like a flag of truce. Smoke drifts silently.

There were no screams or cries from the blasted house. No signs of life at all. He turns away, satisfied at a job well done and saddles up one of the horses and reties the load on the other. The mining equipment clanks and rattles on the pack horse as it shuffles, still nervous from the blast. He is unhurried, talking all the while in a soothing tone to the horses, but he isn’t wasting time. There will be people arriving soon, drawn by the sound and rising smoke, and he needs to be well away from here by then. He mounts up and kicks the horses into motion, giving no thought to concealing his trail as he leads the pack horse along the wide trail through the trees. People will come but they will be excited fools from the town with no tracking sense at all. They will stamp all over any signs that he leaves. He’s done this before. He is certain he will be safe.

He rides across the valley to the other side of the road. He coaxes his horses on as they push through the low branches of the trees. He isn’t riding fast now. He is clear of the cabin and will look as innocent as any other prospector. He is sure that he cannot have been followed. But not so sure that he doesn’t check over his shoulder from time to time.

He dismounts on a small rocky slope up the valley side above the trees. It’s a carefully chosen spot, reconnoitered the previous day. He will make a camp here. He hobbles the horses near the edge of the low trees. He can light a small smokeless fire later to cook on, but in the meantime he takes his Winchester rifle and watches from near the crest of the ridge. Taking care to keep below the horizon he looks down on the road that leads from the town to the splintered remains of the McLaren house. Soon enough there will be riders from Walkers Creek out to investigate the damage. In the meantime he can watch for them without fear of being seen.

‘McLaren needs to be taught a lesson.’ The Mexican told him when they met in a mining camp twenty miles East. It was Logan that had come up with the idea of blowing up the house. He suspects that the Mexican wanted McLaren shot but he’d quickly got agreement to use the dynamite instead. He likes the irony, traveling out West with his prospecting kit but instead using it in this more certain but equally lucrative way.

Logan sips from his canteen, and pulls his battered hat down to better shade his eyes from the scorching midday sun. He wonders who the Mexican is working for. He hadn’t looked as though he had much money of his own and yet he was able to pay generously for this McLaren’s life. Someone wants McLaren out of the way without getting their own hands dirty. That isn’t normally the way he likes to work, but the Mexican paid well so he asked no questions. Will the other half of the payment be made? He has done this sort of work before. Each time he needed to be persuasive to get the rest of the money. Being persuasive might be more difficult not knowing who held the purse strings.

He is beginning to doubt his careful planning now. Is there another road to the town? Finally, a dust plume reveals riders on the road below. He still hasn’t seen Walkers Creek with his own eyes and wonders what the delay can tell him about the town. They are so slow reacting, it seems this town is sleepier than the others. Or perhaps the townspeople are easily scared and have deliberately waited for the dust to settle before venturing out. Scared people are dangerous people. It isn’t a comforting thought.

Only four riders have come to investigate the explosion. One of those appears to be McLaren himself. Logan has watched the house for a couple of days and recognizes him. Clearly McLaren was safely away from the cabin when the dynamite went off. Logan isn’t troubled. He is sure that he can still persuade the Mexican that he should have the rest of his money. He thinks he can detect the glint of a star on the chest of another rider. The sheriff. The other riders busy themselves riding round the ruined house as if expecting to find the dynamiter still there waiting for them. None of them appears to be taking any care to look for a trail. He allows himself a smug satisfied smile. It has all gone according to plan. He heads back to the horses to unpack and to cool off in the shade. Even if they find him now, there will be nothing but their suspicions to link him to the cabin.

As he moves away from his uncomfortable vantage point he notices, with a start, that he is not the only one watching the sheriff and his men poking around the remains of the cabin. Someone is watching from horseback on the opposite side of the valley, their silhouette clearly visible against the sky. He’s a fool or he wants to be seen. Is that the Mexican, or perhaps the man the Mexican is working for? Is he checking to see that he’s got his money’s worth? The shape is of a short, slight man. It isn’t the Mexican. He can’t make out any more than that.

It is almost dark when the sheriff and his riders head back to Walkers Creek. Logan plans to wait until the morning and camp out here on the slopes above the valley. He pulls his bed-roll from his pack and settles down for a night beneath the stars. Tomorrow he will ride into the town. He needs supplies and hopes to treat himself to a decent shave and a bath and a decent bed. Nobody should connect his arrival with the excitement at the McLaren house.

Chapter Two

She lets the horse find its own way back towards the ranch in the growing gloom. She knows she shouldn’t have come out but she was determined to see for herself what had been done. The cabin has certainly been demolished. The man Sanchez hired has clearly done that part of the job well, but she has seen McLaren ride out with the sheriff. That is just getting the basics wrong. As her father would have said, if you’re going to try to kill a man, you’d better not miss.

Not that McLaren will know that it is her money that paid for it, but he’ll be able to guess. That is a bad thing if he strikes back. She can only hope that she scares him into leaving her alone.

The ranch is hers now, since her father died, and she is doing her best to run it with the same firm hand that he used to. Mostly the farmhands respect her. She shot one, in the foot, for making lewd remarks to her face. He doesn’t work for her anymore and she’s had no more trouble since. Sanchez, a knarled old Mexican that was her father’s best friend, is helping her. Whenever she lacks in strength, resolve or just downright cunning, he can be relied on. Together they managed the process of building a small dam to get more water for the cattle in the dry summer months. McLaren, his land being downstream of the dam, waited until the construction was complete before complaining that she was stealing his water. He became angry and threatened to get a Judge to sign over her dam to him. The last straw was when she’d encountered him standing on the dam. He’d pointed a gun at her. Remembering that moment makes her wish that he’d been in his cabin when it exploded.

Sanchez had promised to take care of it. She will be having words with him about that when she gets back to the ranch.

A movement up ahead wakes her from her reverie. She pulls her horse to a stand and reaches for her revolver. Sanchez has shown her how to wear her father’s beautiful old pearl handled six shooter. He gave up on the idea of convincing her that she shouldn’t be riding about on her own. She still hasn’t got used to the weight of it. She has to fumble with it for a few seconds before it comes free from the holster. In the gloom she can’t make out what it was that moved. Resting her gun hand on the pommel of the saddle, she coaxes the horse slowly forwards.

That sound is quite distinctively a horse, playing with its bridle in its mouth and sputtering. She can’t see a horse but the sound and the direction it came from are clear enough. She points the gun now at where the sound came from. If this is an ambush then it isn’t a very good one. She is ready for them.

How many are there? She can only hear one horse. Is it a trap? Are there others? How sure is she of hitting anything with this big pistol? She should run away. Her horse is faster than most and she knows this ranchland better than anyone.

She will go. She sets her heels to her horse. At that moment a horse steps out into the open, its rider slumped in the saddle. Her horse rears in surprise as she hauls back on the reins.

‘Billy!’ she cries, recognizing the hatless figure on the horse. She rides up alongside and reaches over to the boy.

‘Miss Nixon’ he manages to say, before coughing. His shirt is soaked with blood.

Billy works for her on the ranch. He is only fifteen but keen and hard-working. And now he sits on a horse, slumped and bleeding and probably dying. She cannot bear it. Guilt consumes her, a tear forming in the corner of her eye. She sent this boy to die. It is her fault.

‘…ranch…’ he coughs again. ‘…back…’

That is enough to make her realize that she can still do something. She can’t help him here in the gathering darkness. Back at the ranch there are medicines and bandages and people who’d know what to do. It isn’t over for this kid, not if she can get him back to the ranch. She reaches over and grabs the reins of horse and sets off at a slow walk, checking all the while that Billy isn’t in danger of falling. Gradually she increases the pace. Somehow he manages to stay in the saddle.

The lights of the ranch are a welcome sight. It has taken them almost an hour to cover the distance. Billy stopped trying to talk soon after they started moving, now he has even stopped coughing. She is worried she might be bringing a corpse back.

‘Sanchez!’ she cries out as soon as she thinks she is close enough that someone could hear. ‘Laura!’ she shouts, hoping for her maid.

There is no reaction from the ranch. Billy lets out a quiet groan. Her shouting must have woken him. But still nobody at the ranch seems to have heard her. If only she could somehow shout louder. Then she remembers the heavy pistol hanging from her belt. No need to aim it anywhere but in the air. She fires a shot and is surprised by the violence of the recoil even though she has fired this gun before. The sound of the gun echoes around the valley. She fires again, and again.

Now there is movement in the lights. Someone has heard, and now she can hear voices, distant shouts.

‘Sanchez!’ she yells again, and spurs the horses to greater speed. Tears run down through the dust on her cheeks as she sees help riding fast towards her.

‘Will he be alright?’ she asks.

‘I don’t know Miss.’ says Laura, crouching down beside the bed of the injured boy. ‘I’ll do what I can. He needs a doctor really.’

‘Or maybe a priest.’

‘Don’t blame yourself Emily. You sent him to keep watch, not to get into a gunfight.’ Sanchez is, as always, the voice of reason.

‘Maybe if you’d dealt with…’ she started intending to berate him about the botched attempt to kill McLaren but realized that Laura was still there. Only Sanchez and her knew what had really happened. Billy had been sent to keep watch on the dam, to report back if anything happened there. He hadn’t been told about the explosion at the house either.

‘There is no maybe, Emily. This is where we are, we must make the best that we can from it. Billy is stronger than you think. He is a fighter. He already looks better than when he came in. He is in good hands with Laura. I go to tell the others what has happened.’

‘Don’t go yet.’ she says.

Sanchez hesitates.

Billy groans loudly and then starts coughing.

‘Take it easy.’ says Laura. ‘You’re going to be alright.’

‘Miss Nixon?’ he asks, trying to sit up.

‘What is it Billy?’ she says, rushing to his side, worried that he’ll hurt himself trying to see her.

‘I’m sorry.’ he says.

‘Sorry?’

‘He was hiding in the trees, I didn’t see him. I know I should have been keeping watch but I was looking, I really was looking Miss, I just didn’t see him.’ He coughed again. Laura mopped at his brow and gave a concerned look to Emily.

‘Who was it Billy?’ Emily asks, drawing an angry glance from Laura. It barely registers though. She is thinking about revenge now. If Billy can tell her who shot him then she can do something. She can’t make Billy better, she must leave that to others, but she can protect him. She can avenge him.

‘Who was it?’ she asks again.

‘Deputy.’ There is a sharp intake of breath around the room at this word. Billy takes to coughing again.

‘You were shot by a deputy? Who? How?’ Emily is still seized with the determination to find out how she can make amends.

‘I don’t know his name. He came out of the trees so suddenly. I didn’t see him.’

‘Damn.’ she mutters.

‘I didn’t see him, and then I saw him. His gun was drawn and he was talking all this and that about the law and I should do what he says and not what you say. I wasn’t liking it much, not with his gun pointing at me and all. He kept waving it at me as he talked and I figured he was just waiting for an excuse to shoot me with it. Then there was a big explosion from somewhere down the valley and he got distracted. I took my chance and drew but he was too quick for me.’

‘Damn. If only we knew which Deputy it was.’

‘It should be easy enough to tell Miss, I put a couple of holes in him before he shot me.’

‘You killed a Deputy?’ Laura says, incredulous.

‘I don’t know that I killed him. I was too busy bleeding to check if he was dead or not.’ Billy managed a half-smile.

‘You’re a good kid Billy.’ Emily squeezed his hand. ‘We’re going to make this alright. You get some rest now.’

‘Sanchez, did you hear all that?’ she asks, taking him outside the room.

The old Mexican nods.

‘I want you to take one of the men to the dam and check.’

‘You don’t believe the boy?’

‘Oh I believe him. I want you to make sure.’

‘Make sure?’

‘Do I have to spell it out? There’s a Deputy out there that Billy here put some holes in and only Billy and the Deputy know what happened. Billy will hang if the Deputy gets to tell his side of the story. I want you to get out there and make sure that you finish the job that Billy started. If he’s not dead already, then kill him.’

‘Are you sure that’s what you want?’

‘I’m certain,’ she says. ‘That boy nearly died doing work for me. I’m going to do what I can to repay him for that. It’s what my father would have done.’

‘Yes,’ Sanchez says sadly, ‘yes it is.’

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