The Box M Gang

About the Book

 

The year is 1875. The Arizona Territory is a wild, sparsely settled place. The Martin family’s Box M Ranch is ten miles from their nearest neighbor and twenty miles from Tucson. Ma has been gone for two years, and Pa hasn’t been the same since she passed. Something inside him broke when he lost her.

Fifteen-year-old Ruth, fourteen-year-old Thad, twelve-year-old Sarah, ten-year-old Bart, and eight-year-old Billy have been doing most of the work to keep the Box M running. Consequently, when Pa passes away, the Martin siblings face little change in their daily routine as far as their chores go. They do, however, face an ominous threat. Ruth, Thad, and Sarah know they can continue to run the Box M without Pa. They also know if folks discover Pa has passed away, the local lawman will load the Martin siblings into a buckboard and haul them off to the orphanage near Tucson.

Ruth is confident she, Thad, and Sarah can protect their secret from the occasional travelers who visit the Box M, but she’s concerned about Bart and Billy. They need to practice their conversations with each other to prepare for talking with strangers. They need to pray for God’s help as they tackle a nearly impossible task. They need to work together. They need to become the Box M Gang.

During the next few months, visitors to the Box M include the sheriff, a bounty hunter, cattle rustlers, and a family with five small children. Some of the visitors stay long enough to rest and water their livestock. Some spend the night and move on the next day. Others overstay their welcome. All of them pose a threat to the Martins. Can they keep their secret and remain on the Box M? Saddle up, and let’s find out!

Chapter 1

When I found Pa lying on the stable floor one morning, I knew he was dead before I rolled him over. Doc Greenwood had told us almost a year ago that something was wrong with Pa’s heart. Pa hadn’t looked or acted sick, so we had reckoned the problem must not have been too serious. Sitting with my back against one of the stalls, I began planning what to do next.

I reckon most folks believe that a fifteen-year-old girl ought to cry when one of her parents dies, and I did cry when Ma passed. In fact, I couldn’t stop crying. Two years later I still cried whenever I thought about her.

But as I sat there looking at Pa, I felt no sadness; I shed no tears. I had loved him because he was my father. I had never liked him. Pa had been a hard man. He had driven Ma and his five children instead of leading us. There had been no tenderness in him toward any of us. Ma told me once that fighting in the war had changed him, but I always reckoned she had just been trying to justify his behavior.

“He’s dead, ain’t he, Ruth?”

I jumped at the sound of Thad’s voice. He had entered the stable silently, walking the way Pa had taught him. He had paused just inside the door, but then he glided to the stall and sat beside me. He put his arm around my shoulders, and neither of us spoke for a while. Finally, Thad broke the silence.

“I reckon you should tell the young’uns,” he said. I always smiled when Thad referred to our younger sister and two brothers as “the young’uns” because they weren’t much younger than the two of us. “We don’t want them coming out here and seeing Pa like this. I’ll dig a grave beside Ma’s.”

“Maybe you should come to the house with me before you do any digging,” I said. “Let’s tell the others together. I reckon we need to talk about a few things.”

Thad gave me a curious look, but he helped me to my feet and followed me to the house. Although I was a year older than Thad, I had never tried to boss him around. We had always been friends.

The five of us gathered around the large oak table in the kitchen. Billy and Bart sat across from me. “Where’s the grub?” asked Billy. “I’m hungry.” I smiled. Like most eight-year-old boys, Billy was always hungry. I reckon that was why he was nearly as big as Bart, who was two years older.

“Where’s Pa?” asked Bart.

“He went to the stable,” said Sarah. At twelve, she was often mistaken for my twin or even—to her delight—my older sister. “I’ll tell him to wash and come to breakfast.” She pushed her chair back and started toward the door.

“Wait!” I said. Sarah looked over her shoulder at me but kept walking.

“Why?” she asked. Glancing at the stove, she grinned. “Well, I declare, Ruthie Martin! You haven’t prepared our breakfast yet! What have you been doing that was so important that you neglected your duties? Pa isn’t going to be happy about this when I—”

“Sit down, Sarah!” I said.

“You’re not the boss of me!” she said. Sarah opened the door.

“Pa’s not coming to breakfast,” I said, “today or ever again.”

Sarah closed the door, tip-toed back to the table, and sat beside me. Staring at the table, she reached to take my hand. “What do you mean?” she whispered.

“Did Pa run away?” Billy asked.

“Last year Johnny Davis ran away to join the army,” said Bart.

“Did Pa run away to join the army?” Billy asked.

“No,” I said, “Pa died.” Then, not because of losing Pa, but because of the hurt I saw in those three faces, I cried.

Billy and Bart cried too; but Thad and Sarah just sat, staring at the table. Nobody spoke for a while.

Billy had leaned forward on the table and buried his face in his arms. He startled the rest of us when he sat up and wailed, “We’re orphans! The sheriff’s going to take us to the orphan house!”

Getting Billy to settle down took some time. Thad built a fire in the stove, and I made us some flapjacks for breakfast. As I worked, I planned.

We ate in silence. When everyone but Billy had finished, I began to share my plan.

“If we all work together,” I said, “I think we can stay here instead of going to the orphanage.”

“Billy’s right,” Sarah said. “As soon as folks find out Pa’s dead, the sheriff will come out here with a buckboard and haul us to the orphanage.”

Billy started wailing again. “We’re going to the orphan house!”

After we had settled Billy down for the second time, I started over. “If we all work together,” I said, “I think we can stay here.”

“We can’t stay here now that Pa’s gone,” Thad said. “Sarah’s right; as soon as folks find out, the sheriff will come for us.”

Billy opened his mouth and covered his eyes.

“Stop, Billy!” I said. “Don’t you start fussing again until you hear me out.” I looked around the table at what was left of my family.

“Sarah is right; once the town folks find out that Pa’s gone, they’ll want to put us in the orphanage. That’s why we’re going to make sure they don’t find out.”

Four mouths dropped open. I couldn’t keep from smiling just a little.

“Think about it,” I said. “Pa doesn’t have to be alive to keep us out of the orphanage; folks just have to think he’s alive. If we work together, we can keep this place going without him.”

I looked at Thad. “To start with,” I said, “we need to bury Pa where no one will see his grave. Burying him next to Ma would spill the beans.”

Billy whimpered, “Beans is all they feed them orphans at the orphan house.”

“Bart, you and Billy get dressed, and tend to the livestock,” I said. “Sarah, clear the table, and wash the dishes. Give Thad and me an hour, and then bring the boys to that stand of cottonwoods by the swimming hole.”

Sarah shoved her chair back and stood with her hands on her hips. She sneered and shook her head.

“You are not the boss of me,” she said. “Just because Pa is gone—”

“Fine,” I said. “Just pack a carpet bag with whatever you want to take to the orphanage. We don’t want the sheriff to have to wait when he brings the buckboard to haul us away.”

I pushed my chair in, turned, and walked toward the door. With my hand on the latch, I said, “Thad, if we’re going to the orphanage, we don’t need to hide Pa’s grave. I reckon we can just bury him beside Ma and save ourselves some trouble.”

“No, wait!” Sarah said. “I’m sorry! I’ll clear the table and wash the dishes. You and Thad bury Pa near the cottonwoods.”

When I turned to look at Sarah, she was pale; and her hands were clasped in front of her. I smiled and nodded at her.

“Thank you, Sarah,” I said. “I don’t know if we can get away with what we’re planning or not. I do know that our only hope will come through all of us working together.”

“I’ll hitch the roan to the wagon and get a couple shovels,” Thad said. “The cottonwoods are too far away for us to carry Pa.”

“I’m coming too,” I said. “Sarah, we’ll see you and the boys in about an hour. Please bring Ma’s Bible with you.”

As I followed Thad outside and pulled the door closed behind me, the sun warmed my face. Birds were calling to each other, and a bee buzzed past my head. We neared the stable, and I smelled the familiar odors of our livestock. Everything around me seemed as it should be, but I shuddered. I had never been more afraid.

Chapter 2

By the time Sarah and the boys joined us under the cottonwoods near our spring-fed swimming hole, Thad and I had buried Pa. Both of us were panting and sweating as we leaned on our shovel handles.

Sarah handed Ma’s Bible to me. As we stood in a circle around the grave, the boys removed their hats; and Sarah bowed her head. I read Psalm 23, thinking more about how it applied to our lives than how it had anything to do with the way Pa had lived.

As we started back toward the house, Sarah took my hand. A few steps ahead of us, Thad sat between Billy and Bart on the wagon seat. By the time Sarah and I walked into the yard, Thad and the boys had unhitched the roan and put her in the corral. We entered the house without speaking. I walked to the table, laid Ma’s Bible on it, pulled out a chair, and sat.

The five of us sat at the table in silence, not looking at each other. The only sound was Billy’s occasional soft whimpering. After what must have been a quarter of an hour, Sarah spoke.

“What are we going to do, Ruth?” All four of them looked at me.

“We’re going to do exactly what we have been doing,” I said. “Each of us will do the same chores and have the same responsibilities he had yesterday or last week or last month.”

“Who’s going to do Pa’s work?” Thad asked.

“You and I will have to divide that between us,” I said. I couldn’t sit still any longer. I scooted my chair away from the table and stood. “I reckon we have a couple things that will help us pull the wool over other folks’ eyes.”

“What other folks?” asked Bart.

“How much of our wool will that take?” asked Billy. He began to cry. “You promised me a new blanket.”

I slid my chair back under the table. Resting my hands on the back of the chair, I rolled my eyes at Thad. He was trying not to grin.

“What I meant,” I said, “is that we have a couple things that will help us keep folks from finding out that Pa’s—” I looked at Billy. “That Pa’s gone.”

“What things?” Sarah asked.

“Well, for one thing,” I said, “Pa hadn’t really been doing a lot of work around here since Ma died. Folks who stop by from time to time are used to seeing us working the ranch, so they won’t be suspicious.”

“What if someone wants to know where Pa is?” Bart asked. “We ain’t supposed to lie.”

“We aren’t supposed to lie,” I said.

“Ain’t that what I just said?” Bart asked.

I smiled. “I reckon it is,” I said. “We won’t lie to them; we’ll distract them and avoid giving them a direct answer.”

“What do you mean?” Bart asked.

“I’ll show you,” I said. “Pretend you’re a rider who just stopped by and found me gathering eggs.”

“In the house?” Billy asked.

“No, Billy,” I said. “I’d be inside the fence around the chicken coop.” I looked at Bart. “Ask me about Pa.”

“I know about Pa,” he said.

“You’re supposed to be a rider who stopped by,” Sarah said.

“What’s my name?” he asked.

“Your name is Bob,” Sarah said. “Ask Ruth about Pa.”

Bart squinted at me and spoke in the deepest voice he could. “Howdy, little Missy. Is your pa around?”

I smiled at him. “I reckon he’s not here right now,” I said. “I don’t expect him back tonight.”

Bart was grinning. “That wasn’t lying,” he said.

“What’s the other thing that will help us?” Thad asked.

“Look around,” I said. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. This ranch is a good ten miles from our nearest neighbor, and almost three times that far from Tucson. We see two, maybe three riders in a month. Nobody’s paying any attention to us, so we won’t have many folks to fool.”

“You’re right about that,” Thad said, “but we still need to keep on our toes when someone does come around.”

“How will that help?” Billy asked. “Are we going to try to look taller?”

“No, silly Billy,” Bart said, “we’re going to try to be quiet—you know—sneak around on our tip-toes.”

This time Thad rolled his eyes at me. “I reckon we’re going to need a lot of help from God if we’re going to make this plan work,” he said.

“I reckon we are,” I said. “We’re also going to need a lot of time to teach these two how to act when we have company.”

Bart sprang from his chair and banged his fist on the table. “We’re not babies!” he said. “Billy and me know how to act around company, don’t we, Billy?”

“Yes,” Billy said. His lower lip was quivering. “Don’t talk with your mouth full. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t interrupt when grownups is talking. Don’t wipe your nose or your mouth on your sleeve—”

“You’re right, Bart,” I said. “You and Billy aren’t babies. Billy, you’re right too. The things you mentioned are important whether we have company or not.”

“Then what are you talking about?” Bart asked. He unclenched his fist and sat down.

I pulled out my chair and sat for a minute or two without speaking. As I studied their faces, I thought about how much I loved my family. I folded my hands and swallowed the lump in my throat.

“We’re fixin’ to try something that most folks would say is impossible,” I said, “and maybe it is. One slip of the tongue could land us all in the orphanage.” I looked at Billy. “Don’t cry, Billy. Let me explain what I meant about teaching you and Bart how to act when we have company.”

“This isn’t just important for the young’uns,” Thad said. “All of us need to be careful about what we say and do.”

“You’re right,” I said. “What I’d like to do to get us ready for company is to practice—to play games. We need to pretend we’re company and ask questions like folks who stop by will ask.”

Sarah smiled. “If we make mistakes talking to each other, it won’t matter, will it?”

“No, it won’t,” I said, “but it will show us where to be careful and how to answer the questions other folks ask us.”

“When do you think the first rider will stop?” Bart asked.

“Maybe a month from now,” I said.

“Or maybe tomorrow,” Thad said.

“What are we going to do?” Bart asked.

“Let’s take care of our chores first,” I said. “By the time you’re finished, I’ll have supper ready. We can start practicing while we eat.”

Chapter 3

 

Our ranch was only 240 acres, a little southwest of a settlement called Green Valley, Arizona Territory, and about 30 miles south of Tucson. I reckon Pa had chosen that property because he had known the soil there was rich enough to grow food for both his family and his livestock. We got more rain than most of the territory, and we never seemed to be too hot or too cold.

I couldn’t remember a time when our family had possessed an abundance of anything, but we had always seemed to have enough of the things that are necessary. I reckoned there were two reasons for that. One reason was that Pa was careful with what little money he had. The other reason was that Pa worked harder than anyone else I have ever known.

Both of those reasons had stopped being a part of Pa the day we buried Ma. The meanness had remained, but I had never seen him do a lick of work around the ranch again unless he had to. If he had any money, neither Thad nor I had seen it.

Our livestock consisted of one longhorn bull and twenty cows, one stallion and twelve mares, a ram and five ewes, and a flock of twenty-some chickens that included at least four roosters. Although our animals steadily produced offspring, the herds had stayed about the same size.

Pa had made his money by selling our older cattle and an occasional horse. Sometimes the buyers were folks who rode past our ranch and wanted to replace livestock they had lost along the trail. Most of the stock Pa sold to folks from Green Valley. Twice each year, he’d cut out two or three cows and a horse and head for Green Valley. He usually returned the next day.

The calves and foals born in our herds replaced the stock Pa sold. That was the reason the size of our herds didn’t change much. The number of sheep and chickens stayed about the same because we used them for food when we couldn’t get deer or antelope.

While I was thinking about these things, I prepared our supper. Since I had helped Ma for most of my life, cooking came easy to me. I had been doing all the cooking since Ma had first gotten sick. That part of our new life would remain the same.

“Whatever you cooked sure smells good!” Bart said.

“It’s chicken and dumplings,” I said. “Did all of you wash up?”

I was standing at one end of the table, holding the last of the five bowls I had filled. I set the bowl on the table and smiled at Thad. We bowed our heads.

“Thank you for this food, Lord,” Thad said. “Please guide and bless us. Amen.”

“Amen,” the rest of us said.

As usual, we ate without talking. I had taken two or three bites when I noticed that Billy wasn’t eating. He grinned at me and tipped his bowl to show me that it was empty.

“Billy!” I said. “How did you eat that so fast?”

Still grinning, Billy said, “You don’t even have to chew these dumplings! They just slide right down to your belly!”

When we had stopped laughing enough for me to speak, I explained to Billy that chewing needed to be part of eating dumplings. After the rest of us had finished eating, all three boys asked for second helpings. Sarah and I waited while they ate, and then we put cups, bowls, and spoons into a washtub full of water to soak. We returned to the table and sat.

“I reckon the key to making our plan work,” I said, “is going to be us telling ourselves every day that someone is watching us.”

“Ain’t God watching us all the time?” Billy asked.

Isn’t God watching us,” I said.

“That’s what I’m asking you,” Billy said.

I took a deep breath and looked at Thad. He was grinning. “Yes, Billy,” I said, “but I’m talking about behaving as if other folks are watching us.”

“What other folks?” Billy asked.

“Folks who happen to ride past the ranch, Billy,” said Bart. He opened his eyes as wide as he could and smiled at Billy. “And folks who hide in the brush to watch us.”

“Bartholomew!” I said. “If Billy can’t sleep tonight, you’re sitting up with him.”

Billy’s lower lip was trembling. “Are folks hiding in the brush to watch us?” he asked.

“No,” Thad said. “Bart was just teasing you.”

“What I was trying to tell you,” I said, “is that if we always act like someone is watching, we’ll be doing what we’re supposed to do whenever someone actually comes calling.”

“That makes all kinds of sense,” Sarah said. “We don’t ever have real company. Most folks who stop are either looking for food and water or asking for directions.”

“And if some folks did want to rest their horses and spend the night,” Thad said, “they’d sleep in their wagon out by the stable.”

“They would,” I said. “Nobody will be paying much attention to us. The dangerous time will come if someone wants to talk to Pa.”

“We can decide what to do about that when it happens, can’t we?” Sarah asked.

“I reckon not,” Thad said. He looked at me. “Ruth?”

I shook my head. “We need to have answers ready before someone asks about Pa,” I said. “We want to be honest, but we can’t raise folks’ suspicions.”

“I don’t understand,” Bart said. “What do you mean?”

I pushed my chair away from the table, stood, and held out my hand toward Thad. “Let’s show them what I’m talking about,” I said.

Thad pushed away from the table, stood, and walked toward the door. Sarah gave me a confused look.

“Where’s he going?” she asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

Thad opened the door, looked at me over his shoulder, and grinned. “I reckon we ought to make this look real for the young’uns,” he said. Stepping outside, he closed the door behind him.

Bart and Sarah were grinning and watching the door. Billy wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “Is Thad running away?” he asked.

“No, silly Billy,” Sarah said. “He’s pretending to be a stranger. Watch.”

When Thad knocked on the door, I opened it and let him in. He glanced around the room as if he’d never seen it before, nodded toward the table, and then smiled at me. He spoke in a deep voice.

“Howdy, Ma’am,” he said.

“Good morning, Sir,” I said. I bit my lip to keep from laughing at him.

“I was hoping I could speak to your husband, Ma’am,” he said.

“Thad!” I said. “I’m only fifteen years old! I don’t have a husband.”

Thad squinted at me. “I’m a stranger. I don’t know how old you are. Some girls marry young.”

I held up my hands. “You’re right,” I said. I took a deep breath.

“I’m not married, Sir,” I said. “My sister and brothers and I live here with our pa.”

“I beg your pardon, Ma’am,” Thad said. He was using his deep voice again. “May I speak with your father?”

Before I could answer, Billy started sobbing. “Pa’s dead, Mister, and we buried him down by the swimming hole. We—”

“Billy!” I said. “We can’t tell people that Pa’s dead! Just listen.” I turned to face Thad.

“Pa’s not here right now,” I said. “Maybe we can help you.”

Thad looked at the ceiling and took a deep breath. Then he grinned at me.

“My family and I are travelling to Phoenix,” he said, “and one of our horses pulled up lame three days ago. I was hoping you folks might have a horse I could buy from you.”

I glanced at Sarah and the boys. They sat, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, waiting for my answer.

“I reckon we have one or two Pa would be willing to sell,” I said. “Let me show them to you and see what you think.”

Thad and I turned toward the table. He bowed, and I curtsied. We returned to the table and sat.

Bart leaned forward, staring at me. “You can’t sell our horses without asking—” he looked around the table, “somebody.”

“The horses are ours,” I said. “So are the cows, the sheep, and the chickens. Thad and I will decide which animals we can sell and which ones we should keep.”

“What about the bull?” Billy asked.

“We’ll keep the bull,” Thad said.

“What about the roosters?” Billy asked.

“We’ll keep them too,” I said.

“What about Bart?” Billy asked.

“We’ll only sell him if we get really short on food,” I said.

Billy laughed. Bart started laughing, and then we were all laughing. We laughed for several minutes, and the laughter felt really good.

Chapter 4

 

Pa had died near the end of January. February passed quietly for us secret orphans. We followed the same routine each day, just the way we had when Pa was still with us. Each of us had certain chores to do, and we did them. Well, most of the time, we did them. Once in a while, I had to remind somebody.

One evening when we sat down for supper, Billy looked confused.

“Hey, Ruth,” he said, “I didn’t get any food!”

“You’re right,” I said. “Neither did the chickens.”

Billy stared at the table. “I forgot to feed them,” he said.

“And I forgot to feed you,” I said. “I reckon I’ll remember by the time you get back to the table.”

Billy looked at me. His lower lip trembled, and he brushed away a tear with his sleeve. He pushed his chair away from the table and shuffled toward the door. With his hand on the latch, he looked over his shoulder. Between sobs, he said, “I’m real hungry, Ruth.”

I took a deep breath. “So are the chickens,” I said. “You can eat as soon as you’ve fed them.”

No one spoke as I walked to the stove. I loaded Billy’s plate with beef and beans. When I turned and started back toward the table, I found three pairs of eyes fixed on me.

“You’re mean!” Bart said.

“No, Bart,” Thad said. “Ruth is right.” He leaned forward, one elbow on the table, bringing his face closer to Bart’s. “What if Ruth had forgotten to cook dinner for us? What if Sarah had forgotten to wash our clothes? What if Billy had forgotten to gather the eggs or you had forgotten to milk the cow? What if you had forgotten to fill the water trough for the sheep?”

“I understand,” Bart said. “I’m sorry, Ruth. I reckon you weren’t being mean. If we don’t do our chores, they won’t get done.”

When Billy came in a few minutes later, I was waiting at the door to give him a hug. I knew he had washed his hands, because he was wiping them on his shirt as he started toward the table. Before he had reached it, he stopped and looked at each of us.

“I’m sorry for not feeding the chickens,” he said. “I won’t forget again.”

“We’ll help you remember,” Sarah said, “and we’ll remind each other too. We all forget things once in a while.”

Billy smiled as he scooted up to the table and began to eat. “Then I reckon I’ll remind you too,” he said.

The next morning, as usual, we left the house just after sunrise, ready to begin our daily chores. I saddled our bay mare so I could ride out to check on our livestock. I led the mare from the stable and paused to look around me. Sarah was scrubbing our clothes in a wooden tub. Bart was milking the cow. Billy was gathering eggs in the chicken pen. Thad was replacing a broken post in the corral fence. Everything looked the way it should on the Box M Ranch.

I smiled as I mounted the horse and started her toward the pasture. The sun was shining; the morning air was cool and fresh. The day would be beautiful. I had just started to hum an old hymn when I spotted the buzzards.

Now, I know that buzzards have a purpose, just like most of God’s other creatures. Ma had told me one time that if buzzards didn’t clean up dead animals, the whole world would stink. I believed her, but I still felt a little sick whenever I saw those nasty birds circling over something dead or dying.

These buzzards were already flying low, and they were dropping rapidly. When I realized they had to be flying over our pasture, I nudged the mare to a gallop. As I approached the pasture, I slowed her to a walk, rode to the gate, and reached down to let myself in.

At first, everything looked as it should. The cattle were spread over one end of the pasture, grazing on the grama grass that grew between scattered junipers and other bushes. I thanked God when I saw that our bull was among the cattle, alive and well. A few of the cows looked at me and then went back to eating. I rode toward the far side of the pasture until I could see the ground along the fence. I turned the mare away from the cattle, riding close enough to the fence that I wouldn’t miss anything. Glancing up at the buzzards, I saw that I was headed toward the center of their circle.

I smelled the dead steer before I saw it. I reckoned that a cougar or a rattler might have killed it. We had lost cattle to both of those no-good critters in the past. When the mare started getting skittish, I knew I was close. I pulled my bandanna over my mouth and nose, stood in the stirrups, and watched the ground ahead.

I tried to prepare myself for the sight of a bloated carcass if the cow had been snake-bitten, or a half-eaten carcass if it had been killed by a cougar. When I found it a few minutes later, I gasped because I had not prepared myself for the sight of a cow that had been killed and butchered.

I rode to the gate, left the pasture, and closed the gate behind me. The first of the buzzards landed beside the carcass as the mare passed the corner fence post.

Although I knew there were plenty of rustlers in the Arizona Territory, none of them had ever bothered the Box M before. Any rustlers I’d heard of had always driven stolen stock away from the ranch then butchered or sold them. Why had someone killed and butchered a cow in the pasture and risked being caught red-handed? I shuddered. Had someone been watching us long enough to learn our daily routine? Did the rustlers know when we usually checked the pasture? Did they know Pa was dead? Were they watching us now?

I dismounted in front of the stable and wrapped the mare’s reins around a hitching rail. Sarah was hanging the laundry on the clothesline. Bart and Billy were cleaning the stalls with a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow. Thad had finished replacing the post and was walking from the corral to the stable, carrying a pick and a shovel. When he looked at me, I nodded toward the house.

A few minutes later, Thad stepped into the house and closed the door behind him. He took off his hat and wiped his sleeve across his forehead.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“Let’s sit,” I said. I had put two cups of water on the table, and we drank before I spoke. “We lost a cow, probably yesterday afternoon,” I said.

“A break in the fence?” Thad asked.

“No,” I said. “It was dead.”

“Aww!” he said. He banged his fist on the table and shook his head. “Cougar or rattler?”

“Rustlers,” I said. “Somebody butchered it right there in the pasture. The buzzards led me to the carcass.”

Thad ran his hand over his face and let out a long breath. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then looked at me.

“It might have been someone just passing by,” he said, “but I don’t reckon it’s very likely that a drifter would have found our herd.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not.” I drank more water. “I reckon whoever butchered that cow wasn’t too worried about being interrupted.”

“Because he knew where we were?” Thad asked. He sloshed the water around in his cup.

“More than likely,” I said.

“Then whoever it is has been watching us,” he said. He finished his water and stood.

“Where are you going?” I asked. Thad walked through the doorway to the parlor. When he returned, he carried Pa’s Winchester rifle.

“I’m going to see if I can find whoever killed our cow,” he said. “If we let him get away with killing one cow, I reckon he’ll think nothing of killing another one. It’s not like we can tell the sheriff, Ruth. Remember, he’s the man who’ll take us to the orphan home.”

I sprang from my chair, almost knocking it over, and grabbed Thad’s arm. “Wait!” I said. “What will you do if you find the rustler, or rustlers? I reckon there’s a good chance at least two varmints were in on this business, and maybe even three.”

“I’ll try running them off our land,” Thad said, “after they pay us for the cow they killed.” He tapped the rifle. “I reckon this should help me persuade them to pay up and light a shuck out of here.”

I shook my head. “That should work just fine if the rustlers are little girls with no weapons.” It was my turn to visit the parlor. I crossed the room and lifted the heavy double-barreled shotgun from the gun rack. I broke open the breach and shoved a brass shell into each barrel. After snapping the breach shut, I grabbed four more shells from the box on the shelf and crammed two into each of my pockets.

Thad’s eyes widened when I stomped back into the kitchen. “You figure you’re coming with me?” he asked.

“You figure you’ll try to stop me?” I asked.

He grinned. “I reckon I won’t while you’re holding that scattergun,” he said.

About the author

Mark L. Redmond taught high school English for 28 years in South Bend, Indiana. He has published over 25 short stories and articles, a six-book middle-grade fiction series (The Adventures of Arty Anderson), a collection of short stories (Five for the Trail), three western novels for more mature readers (Bounty Hunter Nate Landry: Major Issues, Bounty Hunter Nate Landry: Family Fury, and Bounty Hunter Nate Landry: Dust Devil), and the first two books in another middle-grade fiction series (The Adventures of the Box M Gang).

A member of Western Writers of America, Western Fictioneers, The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, American Christian Fiction Writers, and the Single Action Shooting Society, Redmond has been studying the West through reading and travel for most of his life (and he’s an old timer, born in 1953!). Mark and Susie currently live in Arizona, where Mark has begun to write full time and is working on the fourth Nate Landry book.

Mark L. Redmond

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More about the book

When I found Pa lying on the stable floor one morning, I knew he was dead before I rolled him over. Doc Greenwood had told us almost a year ago that something was wrong with Pa’s heart. Pa hadn’t looked or acted sick, so we had reckoned the problem must not have been too serious. Sitting with my back against one of the stalls, I began planning what to do next.

I reckon most folks believe that a fifteen-year-old girl ought to cry when one of her parents dies, and I did cry when Ma passed. In fact, I couldn’t stop crying. Two years later I still cried whenever I thought about her.

 

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Amazon Reviews:

… Author Mark Redmond delights his audience once again with his knowledge of the old west, strong characters (both male and female!), charming storytelling, and clever dialog. His writing will enchant young readers and also entertain any older readers invited along on this adventure. All five stars are shining over this great read.

“… When I heard that a new series was coming out I was very excited! I started reading from this author in his book Arty Goes West and very soon we had the whole Arty series and also his Nate Landry books and his book 5 For the Trail too. I am really looking forward to not only reading his future books but also rereading the books I already have. GET THE BOOK! YOU WONT BE DISAPPOINTED 😁😁”

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