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LOVELL'S PRIZE

by

Randy D. Smith


 

Chapter 1


Two thousand, seven hundred and forty-seven Corriente steers clambered up the sandy banks of the Red River and into the Indian Nations, May 12, 1878. With some as light as six hundred pounds and a few as heavy as nine, they were filthy, rambunctious beasts–barbarous, wild-eyed, snorting, blowing, bawling and jumping at every trace in the trail. Many were torn and marred from the rough treatment of the roundup. Some had great gouging wounds where horns had raked as they settled their new hierarchy after the herd was assembled. They came out of the water in one rough-hewn horde and spread over the grassy plain in a vain attempt to gain freedom from their brethren.

Dark-skinned, thin riders circled at a gallop astride gaunt mustangs with narrow nostrils and dancing heads with eyes turned toward the herd. The riders challenged any beast that sought to break free of the imaginary ring of horseflesh and dust. If a bunch quitter breached the boundary, a cowboy would swing wide and punish the beast back into its place, often with quirt or lariat end, but usually with a sudden pressing, pushing and crowding. The steer gladly rejoined his fellows rather than endure the close proximity of such strange and alien beings.

Marshal Don Lovell sat back in the saddle, watching the herd from a distance as it crawled from the river. Lovell was a tall man, dark-eyed, and heavy-boned. He had angular features, a narrow mouth hidden under a black mustache, and square shoulders. A new, beige, "Boss of the Plains" Stetson crowned his outfit of red shirt, black vest and blue striped trousers. Knee-high black cavalry boots and large jingle bob spurs blended well with his new A-fork saddle and tall black mustang gelding. A new model Colt Army revolver fit snugly in a burgundy loop holster and high rise cartridge belt. A set of shotgun chaps was draped across the pommel of his saddle and a '66 Winchester rifle was in his scabbard. A large Bowie knife rested in an unusual cross draw scabbard at the small of his back, allowing him to be able to draw either revolver or knife with his right hand.

Lovell was a well known United States deputy marshal working the Indian Territory "on the scout" out of Fort Smith, Arkansas. He was known for a strong handshake and a firm disposition, and for making good his word.

There was also a dark side to his reputation. Lovell did not suffer fools or rustlers gently. If a man pushed him into a corner, he had hell to pay when he came out and he always came out. Men either respected him or hated him, depending on their nature. There was usually no in between for them or for him. Lovell held himself to a strict set of standards and judged other men by them. The bully, the liar and the coward found no solace in Lovell's presence. The man of his word would reap every measure of justice that Lovell felt he deserved; but no more. He was a book marshal…no special treatment, no exceptions.

Lovell was a complex man in his relationships. He acted as though he considered women to be frivolous but he was always respectful in their presence. Many women considered him to be ominous and aloof, and were uncomfortable around him. Yet a few knew better. With those few women who came along at rhythmical periods of his life he was kind, considerate and generous. What made the difference was impossible to predict and, for the most part, a woman who didn't know his character was intimidated. He had that effect upon many. Some thought that Lovell engineered such reactions to fit his purpose, but no one felt comfortable enough to question him on such matters. Whether in the company of many or a few Lovell was always the lone wolf, separate and quiet about his own affairs. No one knew all there was to know about him. He kept his distance to preserve a measure of anonymity. Lovell created the image he wanted the world to see. Only Lovell knew what was deep inside. This depth was his source of power and ultimately his security.

A few men who had followed his history knew that Lovell had been married. The first marriage had lasted for thirteen years and had produced a daughter. He had a ranch with a nice home but when his wife left him and went back east with his daughter he sold out and tried other work. A second marriage had lasted for ten years and he raised two stepchildren. Some say that his second wife found another man once her children were raised and set Lovell on the road. Others said that she was the kind of woman who would never be satisfied with just one man and never had been while they were married. Lovell seldom spoke of her and never in front of casual acquaintances. He had no contact with the stepchildren. He kept company with a woman in Fort Smith but she was not his wife and his feelings toward her were kept closely guarded. Most drew the conclusion that Lovell was a confirmed batch, didn't trust the feminine sex, and wasn't interested in tying himself down again.

Jim Flood, the tall, graying trail boss for the Madrone Cattle Company, rode up on a dun shave tail gelding and joined him for the inspection. "It's a nice bunch and they ought to trail out well into Dodge."

"For a bunch of cactus boomers," Lovell said to the dark eyed trail boss, "I can't imagine where Madrone came up with so many steers. He must have rustled half the cattle in North Mexico. How has it gone so far?"

"Long drive. A hailstorm hit the first week out and the herd stampeded. Buck's supplies got wet and we've been on short biscuits and coffee since. We crossed the Trinity and ran out of water until we reached Bender Creek. Nothing for three days. We no more and got through that before a Comanche raiding party hit. We drove them off and then Levi Roust ups and quit. I always thought Levi had more sand than that. It's a damn good thing his old man ain't around to see what a shirker he's become. Old Bob would be a spinning in his grave. So I came the rest of the way with a short crew and not a decent biscuit nor cup of coffee for a hundred miles."

"How many did you lose?"

Flood sighed. "Two hundred and twenty-eight head."

Lovell laughed. "After all that you've only lost two hundred and twenty-eight? Hell, Jim, that's great."

"Here comes Madrone," Flood said as he pointed toward the Red.

Madrone was a stocky Mexican with a long drooping mustache and chin beard. He was an awkward rider, throwing too much weight to the back of his saddle and always appearing to be a half count behind his horse. As the overburdened brown struggled up the bank of the river, Madrone looked as though he was about to slide over the cantle and rump. He managed to stay with his horse and slid forward into riding position once on the flood plain.

"It is good to see you again. For what do I have the honor?" Madrone asked.

"I've got papers on a man and I think he may be riding for your outfit."

Madrone's eyes cut nervously to Flood.

"Who is this man?" Flood asked.

"He would have joined the outfit in the last couple of days."

"What's his name?"

"Cud Hurley, but I doubt he's using it just now."

"I'm short-handed as it is. Another man lost could ruin the outfit."

Lovell's eyes grew hard. He slapped his reins against his leg. "I can't help that. I got papers on him."

"In two days we'll be in Shortfall. I can get a man or two there. I need two days and then you can have this one."

"No, can't do it."

"You got me between the rock and the hard spot. I got a herd to move. I don't want no trouble with you but I need every man I got."

"This man is wanted for rustling and a killing. If it was a minor offense I'd probably play along with you. But I can't risk losing this man again. He's too dangerous."

Flood hesitated. "Damn, I thought it was too good to be true when he rode in."

"If it's any consolation, I'll send the first man I find this way," Lovell said.

"I know that. Hell, I know you got your duty to do. I just don't think seven men can hold this outfit together if the weather goes bad."

"Where's he at?"

Madrone pointed toward the river. "I've got them coffeeing up down at the chuck wagon."

"Much obliged. I'll get him and move on."

"I'd best go with you," Flood said. "Some of the boys don't do too well with marshals."

"Appreciate it."

Cud Hurley recognized Lovell and moved away from the campfire toward the chuck wagon rear wheel without saying anything to the other cowboys.

Lovell placed his revolver across his lap in the saddle fork. He and Flood drew up their mounts with the campfire between them and Hurley. "Gather your outfit and mount up," he said with a cold stare at Hurley, his hands resting on his saddle horn. "You're coming with me."

Augy Martin rose from his kneeling position and threw his dregs into the campfire. "What the hell is this?"

"You boys stand easy," Flood said calmly. "He's a marshal and he's got papers on Cud."

"What kind of papers?" Smoky Bill Gruber asked as he stood.

"Don't matter," Flood said. "We're going to be a little short-handed for a couple of days."

"The hell you say," Vance Randall said.

Lovell refused to take his eyes off Hurley. "You gonna get these boys to stand down or do I take them all on?"

Flood stared at his men. "They'll do as they're told or they'll be hell to pay."

"Gott damn marshals! You were just waiting for us to cross the Red," Vance Randall cursed.

Hurley stood stiffly, his hand open next to his revolver.

"Don't do it, Hurley," Lovell said slowly. "You ain't quick enough."

"It's a better choice than Parker's hangman," Hurley said.

"No, at least you've got a chance with Parker."

"You gonna let this happen, Jim?" Randall said as he moved away from the campfire toward the chuck wagon. Hurley's my saddle partner."

Hurley's hand flashed toward his revolver.

"Shit!" Shorty White, the cook, yelled as he dove for the ground. Cowboys scattered for cover.

Randall watched Lovell's Colt rise from behind his saddle horn and send three shots into Hurley's chest. Outraged he went for his sidearm.

Jim Flood drew his revolver and fired in one smooth motion, spinning Randall with a bullet in the shoulder.

Randall dropped his gun and slumped to one knee holding his wound. "Damn, Flood, you shot me."

Without taking his eyes off Hurley's form lying against the wagon wheel, Lovell stepped down from his horse and slowly walked toward him. "Better him than me. I'd a killed you for that stunt."

Shorty White slowly rose to his feet. "Damn, Jim. You're still the fastest gun I've ever seen."

Lovell stared down at Hurley's dead body and kicked the revolver clear. "How many of you cowboys can write?"

"I can make all the letters," Smoky Bill said.

"I can write," White said.

"Then you write down what you saw and read it to the men. If they agree, have them sign it," Lovell ordered as he searched Hurley's clothing.

"Madre de dios!" Madrone said as he bounced his mount to a stop.

"You ought to think about marshaling yourself, Flood. That was a damn fine jerk and throw you made with that revolver," Lovell said.

"Ain't nothing that interests me. I like my life just the way it is," Flood said before turning toward his crew. "As soon as you sign that paper get to your horses and get those cattle on their way. I want to make some more miles before dark."

Randall held his shoulder and stared menacingly.

"Better get yourself looked at," Lovell said. "I got no papers and no more interest in you, cowboy."

"You ain't taking me in?"

"Flood needs you worse than I do. But you ever side against me again when I'm making an arrest and I'll send you to hell in a flour sack."

Randall blinked and cut his eyes toward Flood.

"Do as he says. I need you too bad to run you off," Flood said as he wheeled his horse toward Lovell.

"I'll plant him here. With that paper I don't need the man," Lovell said. "Thanks for the backup. I appreciate it."

Flood smiled. "Just stay clear of my herd, lawman. Seems like every time I run into you, I end up short-handed. Don't worry about this man. My cowboys will put him under."

"The sooner I leave the better," Lovell said softly and smiled.

Flood nodded grimly. "Sooner. Better."

Shorty White handed the logbook to Lovell. "Here it is. All the boys signed it. They all agreed that you gave ole Cud every chance."

Lovell quickly read over the scrawled account. "Just as long as it says that I tried the arrest and the man is dead."

"It does."

Lovell nodded, placed the book in his saddlebag and mounted. He scanned the body of Cud Hurley and sighed. "I'll see you, Flood. If I run into any cowboys looking for work I'll send them this way."

"I'd appreciate that, Marshal. Take care."

"Same to you," Lovell said as he turned his mount toward the trail.

"Too bad about ole Cud," Shorty White said as he stood by Flood's horse watching the marshal ride away. "You know, I wouldn't want anything to do with a life like that marshal's. At least Cud had a few friends. That guy hasn't any."

Flood nodded. "Yeah. It must be a lonely trail for a marshal on circuit. I wouldn't want it. Chances are that some time he'll take a bullet during an arrest or on the trail without even seeing it coming. If he's lucky somebody will take the time to put him under."

"That's a hell of a note," Shorty said.

"I'd take the time," Flood grinned. "He's a hell of a marshal. Yeah, I'd take the time to put old Lovell under. I owe him that."
"I thought you didn't like him?" Shorty asked.

"Like him? Hell, I barely know the man. I've met up with him exactly four times. Every time somebody either got shot up or killed. But he's a man to ride the river with. I'll square accounts with any hombre on that issue. Like him or not, we need him. I'd hate to guess what this country would be like without Parker's marshals."


 


 

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