Judas Steer

Judas Steer

Kiernan Kelly

Price: $3.49

When Granger Blue signed on as a drover for the Lazy J, he expected to suffer all the hardships involved in riding herd across the wild, dust-choked plains from Nebraska to Oregon. What he didn't expect was temptation in the form of a young greenhorn with cornflower blue eyes named Billy Bower. With as many secrets as heads of cattle, the drive may turn out to be the most dangerous of Granger's life as he works to bring the herd in with his skin -- and heart -- intact.
PUBLISHED BY: ManLove Romance Press
CATEGORIES: ManLove, Western/Cowboys

EBOOKS BY ManLove Romance Press

EBOOKS BY Kiernan Kelly

COPYRIGHT Kiernan Kelly/2009
CHAPTER ONE Thousands of hard hooves pounded across the prairie, churning the dusty soil into great, swirling, dun-colored clouds. Cattle, wagons, and cowboys alike were coated the same dull gold as the Earth. Nothing was spared from the bite of the prairie; not the horses, the water, or the food. Dust clogged the nose, parched the throat, and stung the eyes. Wild-eyed steer jostled and bumped one another, their lowing drowned out only by the deafening sound of their hooves striking the ground as they raced across the open prairie. Granger got the feeling the herd was driven by fear, whipped into a panic by something more than the rolling thunder of the approaching storm. Flashes of frequent lightning gave brief, blue-white glimpses of the herd, and the cowboys who struggled to rein them in. There wasn’t anything that could stand in the face of a stampede, not God nor horse nor man. All the boys could do was to try to keep up, to get alongside the lead bulls and turn them, urge them into circling back. Milling the herd wasn’t always possible, though, especially at night when the black was so thick a man might as well be wearing a kerchief over his eyes. Those times all you could do was hope the damned stupid animals didn’t run off the edge of a cliff, or into a river to drown. The animals in the lead would eventually tucker themselves out, slowing and finally stopping, the rest of the herd following suit. By the time that happened, the drive might be twenty miles off course, losing a day or more. Granger dug his heels into his horse’s sides, giving a whoop. The horse reared, nearly tossing him off into the rioting cattle, then broke into a full-out gallop. Racing along the outside edge of the herd, using the flashes of lightning to guide him, his kerchief keeping the worst of the dust from choking him, Granger headed for the lead animals of the stampede. There was a big brindle bull out front. He aimed for the beast, drawing up next to him. His horse crowded the bastard, forcing him to turn. Just as Granger hoped, the rest of the herd followed the lead bull, slowly turning in a wide arc back toward where they’d been before stampeding. The herd finally stopped, milling around a while before dropping their heads to graze. All told, they’d only gone about a mile off course. Granger spent the next few hours rounding up strays and helping turn the herd, but as he did, he wondered what in the blue blazes had panicked them in the first place. The stampede was only the latest knot in a long string of mishaps. The drive had been plagued by trouble since it took its first step along the trail. Cursed, some were saying, but the trail boss was quick to still those wagging tongues. It wouldn’t do to have the men cowering in their bedrolls, scaring themselves silly with ghost stories. Still and all, Granger agreed they’d suffered an odd streak of bad luck from the very beginning. Animals took sick, sudden-like. It wasn’t Texas cattle fever, Granger knew that right off. These beasts dropped in their tracks as if felled by an unseen bullet. They’d lost several head already. Carcasses were left where they fell, to be picked clean by crows and wolves. Cook was too worried the meat would be tainted to butcher them. Then the rear wheel of the chuck wagon broke free from its axle. The outfit lost an entire day and a goodly amount of their supplies in the accident when the wagon tipped to a precarious angle. Pots and pans went flying, a barrel of pickles was smashed, and several bags of flour ripped open, fine powder mixing with the wind-blown dust. Granger was only grateful they hadn’t lost the coffee or the whiskey. A man could live off the land if’n he had to, catching prairie dogs or hares, and picking wild onions for seasoning, but the thought of a thousand or so miles of trail ahead without a drop of coffee or swig of whiskey to warm him at night was too awful to contemplate. If that happened, the outfit would lose men like water through a sieve, disappearing into the darkness in search of better conditions, Granger among them. He’d gotten the job like everyone else. A bulletin was posted up in the saloon in the tiny town of Gold Creek, where he’d holed up for the winter. The sign offered two months riding the range, driving a herd to slaughter in Oregon Territory. The pay was good enough, but more than that, it offered the freedom Granger sorely missed. After spending the long winter months cramped up in a tiny boarding house room, he was more than ready to move on, to try his luck somewhere else. A man like him tended to keep on the move, and a cattle drive was a good way to put distance between himself and wherever – or whoever -- he wanted to leave behind. “Name?” “Granger Blue.” “You got an address, Granger Blue?” “I’ve been staying at Molly’s Boarding House, here in town. My family’s from Virginia.” “You got experience?” The foreman asked, giving Granger the once over. Granger wasn’t worried – he knew he’d pass muster. He stood over six feet tall and broad through the chest. His arms were sinewy, his legs long. He looked the part of the cowboy, too, dressed in worn denims and a flannel shirt that had seen better days. “Yes, sir. Rode with Mac Farrell’s outfit three years ago, and for Wilson the year after that,” Granger answered. “And last year?” “Been panning for gold out in California.” “That so? Any luck?” The boss asked, raising an eyebrow. “Would I be here if’n I had luck?” Granger countered. The boss smirked. “You own a horse? A firearm?” Granger answered “yes” to both questions, showing the man his Colt. It was a pretty piece, bought brand-new a year ago, his one indulgence. The boss nodded and made a mark on his list. “The Lazy J pays twenty-five dollars a month, plus fifty cents for every head you pick up and brand on the trail. Slow elk are to be rounded up and branded, not eaten.” Wasn’t the best deal Granger ever got, but it was better than nothing. It didn’t matter much about the slow elk, those few stray cows left behind by – or purposely culled from -- rival outfits’ herds, or from ranches passed along the way. He’d still be well-fed for the two months it would take to drive the cattle west from where they’d been wintered in Nebraska Territory to the markets in Oregon. Besides, putting distance between himself and Gold Creek was his main reason for signing up anyway. The pay was only a bonus. Something was amiss about this drive, though. His horse chose that moment to neigh and sidestep nervously. Even Hackneyed could smell something rotten in the air, and Lord knew he wasn’t the brightest critter to ever prance on four legs. Smitty, now he’d been a great horse, smart as a whip, fast, and as pretty as a sunset. Good-natured, too, not like Hackneyed, who’d just as soon chew on Granger’s fingers as his oats. Smitty had up and broke a leg in Wyoming just before the winter snows. For Granger, it was like losing a brother. He still grieved. But a cowboy needed a horse, and grieving or not, Granger had to buy another. He’d bought Hackneyed off a farmer a few weeks before he got to Gold Creek. Cost him twenty dollars cash money, and sometimes Granger thought the price was about nineteen dollars and fifty cents too much. Hackneyed, for all that he was a little slow and a whole lot stupid, sensed something was wrong. He was off his feed, for one thing. Nervous as a one-legged cat in a dog pen, too, sidestepping, tossing his head, and spooking at the slightest sound. Granger found himself looking forward to the time he could switch mounts, something he’d never felt with Smitty. A man needed a couple three mounts during a day’s ride, lest the beast get lathered and drop, but this was the first time on a drive that Granger looked forward to trading his own horse for another. The streak of bad luck had the feel of a human hand. Granger had ridden the trail with too many others just like the Johnson outfit not to know the difference between accidents and purposely planned trouble. He’d seen the wheel that came off the chuck wagon, had examined the axle himself. There were scrapes on the metal fittings; deep grooves that Granger was willing to bet hadn’t come from the rough prairie. He wondered if one of the drovers tampered with it, but kept his suspicions to himself, knowing that the surest way to force a drive to grind to a halt was dissension among the men, and that one poorly chosen word or accusation could lead to a well-aimed bullet. He held his tongue, but he watched everybody and everything, silently noting anything that seemed odd or out of place. A young cowboy, one with big eyes the color of cornflowers that Granger had noticed before, was riding flank on the other side of the herd. He wondered what the boss had been thinking – or drinking – to have hired such a greenhorn for a drive. The boy’s seat was piss poor; he was bouncing hard in his saddle, and Granger winced to think of what the boy’s backside must look like after a solid week of that sort of punishment. It was probably redder than a whore’s lip paint, and blistered to boot. Yes, sir, there was something odd about that boy. His wide eyes looked too innocent, and he barely seemed to know which end of the horse bit and which shit. Granger doubted he was the cause of the outfit’s worries – he didn’t seem competent enough to pull it off – but whoever he was, he sure as hell wasn’t a cowboy. The boy needed watching and figuring out, and Granger assigned himself the job. The sun was already breaking over the horizon, and they’d have a full day’s ride ahead despite the stampede. Later, when the sun was low, they’d pull up for the night again. Cook would dole out the victuals, and afterward somebody was sure to start passing the bottle around. Once the other men had a few under their belts, when they were drowsy and paying less attention, he’d try to befriend the boy, see what he could find out. Granger filed his thoughts away for the moment, clucking softly to Hackneyed to get moving. Right now, he needed to see to the cattle, get the varmints moving in the right direction and keep ‘em there. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to stop his mind and his eyes from drifting to the young cowboy. ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ The prairie was lit by a dozen small, winking campfires, smoke drifting upward to blend seamlessly with the night sky. Small, quickly pitched tents dotted the land, most men sharing so as not to have to pitch their own every night. The herd settled in, soft lowing and the occasional bovine fart the only reminder that they were there, covered by the blanket of darkness, and watched over by the boys who’d drawn the short stick that day. Cook clanged the dinner bell good and loud, and the cowboys jumped, moving faster than they had all day, jostling for position as they lined up in front of his big cast iron pot with their tin dinner plates held at the ready. Cook was a short man, and round, the years were carved deeply into the sun-browned, leathery skin of his face. Years of practice showed in his movements as he ladled out a helping of hearty stew onto each plate. The smell drifted over, making Granger’s stomach rumble, angrily reminding him it had been a good long while since lunch. He bided his time, though, waiting until he saw the young cowboy get in the chow line, and then stepped in behind him. “Sure smells good,” he said. The boy turned, and Granger nodded and smiled at him. “Don’t think we met afore the drive stepped off. My name’s Granger Blue.” “How do.” Those cornflower blue eyes were guarded, wary. There were secrets there, Granger decided. What sort of secrets could a kid like this have? He didn’t look older than eighteen or nineteen. Sure, there were plenty of men who were married to plump young girls with babies on each hip by that age, but those men were farmers, or working on a ranch or at a trade to support their family, not out riding roughshod over a herd in the middle of nowhere. Cattle drives were notoriously dangerous business. In Granger’s opinion, a man with a family had no business going up against unfriendly Indians, stampedes, rattlesnakes, flash floods, or any of a dozen other dangers Granger could think of off the top of his head. Many boys, orphaned or looking for better pastures, joined up with outfits when they were barely out of short pants, but there was something about this one that seemed out of sorts, not the least of which was his riding ability. Granger stole a look at the boy’s hands. They were soft, pink from the sun. Fresh blisters dotted the pads of his fingers and his palms where calluses should be, where they would be by the time they reached Oregon. Granger grunted softly to himself, satisfied that his first impression of the kid had been correct – he was no cowboy. He was no orphan, no street rat trying to survive. His clothing was new, and of good quality. The kid’s boots were barely scuffed, and the heel wasn’t worn down at all. City boy, for sure, Granger thought, used to fancy carriages and gas streetlamps, not hard leather saddles and open campfires. What the hell is a city boy doing out here in the middle of God’s hairy ass? The more Granger studied him, the more questions popped up, and the more he wanted answers. “You got a name?” Granger asked the kid, as the chow line inched forward. “Billy Bower.” Again, only a two word answer. Not the friendliest cuss in the bunch, which only reinforced Granger’s opinion that the kid was hiding something. Or hiding from somebody, he amended. Wouldn’t be the first time a man tried to hide from the law among the hides and hooves of a herd. “Good to meet you, Billy Bower,” Granger said. His cheek hitched in a friendly, half-smile, but Billy turned away before he could see it. Yes sir, Billy Bower, you’re hiding something alright, and I aim to find out what, if’n it’s the last thing I do.

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