Lips in a smug smile of satisfaction Clayton caressed the ledger’s leather cover. Things were looking mighty good here at Cornerstone Ranch. Lush pastureland sustained ever-increasing herds of cattle and flocks of sheep. Along with a creek running through the 100,000 acres, good fortune had led Clayton to dig water wells in just the right spots. Even in the dry California summer nobody went thirsty.
Cornerstone’s foreman chuckled as he anticipated an entertaining evening later at the saloon in Dry Gulp.
That town’s gonna have to change its name one of these here days. Ain’t no way none of us is goin’ thirsty no how. Everyone there knows they owe their success to me and my boys out here on the ranch. We bring ‘em all the business they can handle.
All the same, a small shudder rose from some locked down place in his middle when he looked out the window. The weeping willow at the edge of the gully whispered an oft-repeated accusation. Murderer.
Clayton flapped his hat at the window dismissively. Ain’t nothin’ but the breeze in that durn tree. He sauntered out of the ranch house and saddled his horse. Time to survey the little kingdom he considered his own. It had been many years since Cornerstone’s owner, a gentleman who lived on the eastern coast, had visited. All the time and effort Clayton had put in gave him cause to believe he was more owner than Mr. Eastern Fancy Pants would ever be.
Clayton spit a stream of tobacco juice onto the corral’s hard packed dirt. It’d be a blue moon that’d see Mr. Fancy Pants settin’ foot here again. To top if off, them ‘messages’ I sent by way of Mr. Fancy Pants’ agents as well as that son of his, oughta be enough to scare those fancy pants right offa him. He’ll stay away for good.
The weeping willow stirred again and a shiver went up Clayton’s spine. That consarned son of his shoulda never left home. I told him to skedaddle before he ended up gettin’ tangled in my rope. I was just protectin’ what’s rightly mine! Ain’t nobody gonna take it from me! He spurred his horse out onto the range and left the willow far behind.
Squinting his eyes against the glare of the midday sun, Clayton peered across the high chaparral. Was that a plume of smoke he saw just beyond the ridge leading to Santiago Peak? He removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his face with the red bandana he wore around his neck.
Nah, must’ve been a cloud of deerflies. It’s gone now.
Fire was an ever-present threat at this time of year. He was real strict with his cowhands about leaving fires unattended or tossing smoldering cigarette butts. To be on the safe side, he’d send Little George out to investigate.
After dinner Clayton put on a clean shirt. “Hey, Willy,” he called to his lead ranch hand, “I’m headed into town. You’re in charge. Most of the boys are goin’ with me.”
“Okay, boss,” Willy’s bushy eyebrows waggled up and down as he pictured the fun they’d be having. Then he remembered something, “Oh, hey, boss. Little George ain’t come back yet from scoutin’ out that bit o’ smoke ya seen. Ya reckon he’s alright?”
“Shucks! You know the man’s part Juaneno Indian,” Clayton rolled his eyes. “Every so often he takes it into his head he’s gotta observe some ceremony to the moon or somethin’. Yeah, I ain’t worried ‘bout him.”
With that Clayton and the boys, whooping and hollering, galloped off to town. Several hours later, bleary-eyed, they let their horses navigate through deep midnight shadows. Slim and Whit’s harmonizing about not being buried ‘neath the western skies on the lone prairie prompted Clayton’s gaze upward. He let out a gasp. “What in tarnation is that?”
“Why, that’s a blue moon,” Slim replied, his higher education kicking in. “And I believe I smell smoke, through which we are viewing that celestial orb.”
Fear surged through Clayton, dispelling the whiskey-induced stupor. Little George! Fire!
As they passed the weeping willow and neared the ranch, complete soberness hit. A horse-drawn buggy waited at the gate, a tall immaculately dressed figure alongside. In a long line to either side, mounted soldiers stood firm, fire reflecting in their drawn sabers.
“Boss,” Slim said, “It appears Mr. Eastern Fancy Pants has returned and intends to avenge his heir with flame and sword. Adios, Clayton.”
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