A Western Novel

            Ben pulled the wagon team to a stop at the entrance to the large open hallway of the barn, set the brake, and jumped down. A brown-skinned man stepped from a stall and hurried toward him.
      "You must be Hosea," Ben said.
      "Yes, sir. Hosea. I take care of wagon and horses."
      "Thanks. If you'll show me where to stable my horse, I'll unsaddle him and get him fed," Ben said, untying the gray from the rear of wagon.
      "I take care of him, too. No need to help."
      "I don't mind. Fact is, I enjoy it."
      "Okay. Put horse in the second stall," Hosea said, pointing over his shoulder.
      Ben quickly led his horse into the stall, unbuckled the bridle, and slipped the bit from his mouth. He then located the feed bin and scooped oats into a wooden trough. While the gray ate, Ben unlatched his bedroll and saddlebags, hanging them across the top rail of stall. Then he unhooked the cinch and girth and pulled down the saddle, swinging it alongside the saddlebags. After spreading the blanket to dry, he grabbed a brush and reached it to the center of the horse's back, repeatedly pulling it down across the animal's side.
      When he had finished caring for the gray, Ben unrolled his bedroll, spread it across the rail, and headed for the house.
      "Mister!" Hosea called out. "You leave bed."
      "I won't need it. I'll be sleeping in the big house tonight," Ben explained.
      "You must take," Hosea insisted, pushing it toward Ben.
      After loosely rolling his bedroll, he tucked it under his arm, wondering why he would need it, and made his way across to the veranda where he slumped down on a wooden bench, piling his things at his side. In a few minutes a young Indian girl came out of the house, stepped over, and reached for the bedroll.
      Ben quickly grabbed his belongings and shook his head. Her smile suddenly vanished, and without a word, she turned to go back inside.
      "Miss," Ben called out, just as she reached the doorway.
      She looked back with cautious, dark-brown eyes.
      "Are you Ute?" he asked, speaking slowly.
      She shook her head.
      Again she shook her head.
      She was not a Comanche.
      "Who are your people?"
      "Navajo," the girl responded clearly.
      "Thank you. You're very pretty," Ben said.
      The girl smiled as she dropped her gaze to the floor and disappeared into the house. She must be about ten years old, Ben thought. Why would Maxwell have Navajo servants?
      Soon a black carriage came bouncing into the yard, its thin wheels spraying sand high into the air as it turned in front of the veranda. In one motion Maxwell handed the reins to Squire, bounded down, and in three strides he was on the veranda.
      "Come inside. I'll have someone show you to your room," he said without stopping.
      Ben grabbed his things and followed Maxwell through an entranceway and into a large empty room. The man clapped his hands loudly.
      "Deluvina," he called out.
      Another Indian girl, maybe fifteen years old, came hurrying.
      "Show this gentleman to a room," the rancher said.
      The girl reached for Ben's bedroll.
      "Miss, I'll take it," he said.
      The girl hurried along a hallway to the right, Ben following. About halfway down the corridor, she pushed open the door to a large room on the right. A small table with a washbasin stood just inside the doorway. The floor was covered with dark blue carpet but, other than the table, the room was completely empty. Ben smiled. "Thanks, Hosea," he muttered to himself, glancing at his bedroll.
      The girl spun around and left as Ben thanked her. He put his things in a corner of the room, and walked to the window. He was still looking out when the girl returned with a pitcher of water. She set it on the table, laid a small towel beside the basin, nodded toward Ben, and left.
      He crossed the room and poured water into the basin. After removing his coat and shirt, he splashed water onto his face, arms, chest, and washed his hands. The water was cold, but refreshing. He toweled off, pulled a clean shirt from his saddlebags and slipped it on. Shortly, the young Indian girl returned and managed to communicate that supper was ready.
      Ben followed her, and as they approached the large dining room, he could hear a lively mix of conversation. Standing in the doorway, he glanced around at the crowd of people milling about the room, most clutching a drink in their hands. The table was at least thirty feet long and five feet wide, and was covered with steaming dishes of food. Quickly, Ben estimated thirty people, maybe more, were chatting and visiting as they waited for dinner.
      Maxwell suddenly burst into the room and, in his commanding voice, invited everyone to be seated. Ben noticed for the first time that all the guests were men, though female laughter and the clanging of silverware against dishes could be heard coming from an adjoining room.
      The only guest Ben recognized was Maurice De Luc, the fur trapper he had met along the trail from Fort Union. Approaching the old fellow, Ben noticed the Indian girl bringing more food to the table.
      "Who's that girl?" he asked the trapper as they took a seat.
      "A Navajo they call Deluvina. Maxwell paid ten good horses to some Apache for her. She'd been stolen from her people some time back, and when Luz took a special liking to her, old Lucien bought her."
      Maxwell stood up at the far end of the table, hands raised. "I've got a couple of guests visiting for the first time. I'm sure you'll all get to know them through the evening, but now it's time to eat, folks."
      As people filled their plates, conversations struck-up everywhere, yet Maxwell's voice could be heard above all the others, often hollering to someone far down the table.
      "Kit," he bellowed out. "I'm heavy in the sheep business now. I bought me a Spanish Merino. Paid two thousand for him, but he'll pay me back ten fold."
      "Who's this Kit fella?" Ben asked the old trapper.
      "Why, it's Kit Carson!" De Luc explained, surprised at the question.
      Well down the table, the old square-jawed frontiersman leaned forward. "I recall back in the early fifties, fifty-three, I think, I went to the Rio Abajo and bought a herd of sheep. Me, Henry Mercure, and John Bernevette drove sixty-five hundred of 'em to California. Sold 'em for $5.50 a head and made a nice profit on the deal."
      As the evening wore on, Ben also learned that the three men instrumental in the design and construction of the gristmill were present: B. M. Blakemore, the designer; Emory Williams, millwright; and James Truax, mason. They were present to celebrate its recent completion, which had its origins back in 1860.
      "I designed it to produce three thousand barrels of flour a day," Blakemore said, "and it looks like you might reach that level during the corn and wheat season. And I believe you can sell every sack you can fill."
      "Well, the war helped out," Maxwell replied, "but I wish we could've completed the mill a couple of years earlier. Shipments of grain from the South to this territory dried up like a creek in a drought, leaving us a ready-made market. Now, with the war over, Fort Union is building back. The army's got to protect the growing numbers of folks and freight moving along the Santa Fe Trail from raiding Indians, and that's a market I mean to grab, both travelers and soldiers. Also, some customers in Colorado are now taking shipments of flour and meal and, of course, I have that government contract to feed the Indians. Hardly leaves enough for my own people!"
      "Lucien," guest V. S. Shelby said, "if you could get a few more customers over in Taos, I'd consider putting in a stage run, here to there. I'd run it right through Cimarron Canyon, across Moreno Valley, over the mountains, and down through Taos Canyon. There's a big fella named Kennedy who's running an inn of sorts, runs it out of his cabin on Nine Mile Creek at the base of Palo Flechado Pass. Right now, the only way through the pass is on horseback or by foot. So he doesn't get many customers. The way the trail is now, a stage can't make it over that nine-thousand-foot pass, but give me a thriving freight business along with paying passengers, and I think I could solve that problem. And we'd make a stop there at the inn and give old Kennedy some more business."
      "V. S., I'm thinking about buying a mercantile store over in Taos. If I do that, I'll have merchandise delivered here by way of the Santa Fe Trail, then send it over to my Taos store. So, there's the freight you mentioned. Find yourself some traveling customers, and you're in business. I think we could both make some money," Maxwell replied.
      "Lucien, if you buy that store, let's talk again. I'll freight the goods between the two stores for you. But to make it profitable, I'm gonna need some folks sitting in the seats. Right now, there's just not enough traffic."
      An hour or so after the meal was over, men were still talking, some sitting, other gathered around the large fireplaces, one on each end of the long rectangular room. As the night progressed, the chill in the big open room pulled more men from tableside to hearthside, Ben among those at the south end.
      "Name's A. J. Calhoun," a wiry man explained, extending his hand to Ben.
      He went on to say he worked for Maxwell, living in the rancher's house much of the time, but he never explained what he did. He dressed like a rancher, but seeing his tied-down Colt, Ben wondered.
      Later, Ben was listening to William Walker, a man familiar with Fort Union, when Maxwell walked up and joined the conversation.
      "William, did my young friend here tell you he works for the commissary over at Fort Union?" Maxwell asked.
      "Yes, we were just discussing that. Herding supply wagons through Indian country sounds like a good job for a young man like Ben," Walker replied, slapping a hand on the Texan's shoulder.
      "Yes, and now I expect to get my flour and corn meal over to the fort more timely," Maxwell said, obviously pleased with the prospect of improved business with the military outpost. "And, of course, the cavalry can be sure of getting their supplies over here for the lieutenant's troops."
      Ben had not anticipated Maxwell's keen interest. He was now beginning to understand that every building, every operation, every business transaction, and everybody in the area, in some way, involved Lucien Maxwell. It occurred to Ben that the rancher considered the deliveries between Cimarron and Fort Union to be primarily for his purposes.
      When William Walker stepped over to the fireplace to knock tobacco ashes from his pipe, Maxwell nudged Ben and headed toward the doorway, motioning for the young Texan to follow. In the next room, Maxwell turned to Ben.
      "I hear you have an interest other than delivering my flour and meal to Fort Union," Maxwell said quietly.
      "I have lots of interests, Mr. Maxwell," Ben replied evenly.
      "But one of your interests is of some concern to me." Maxwell replied. "I hear you have an interest in gold."
      "What man wouldn't be interested in gold, if he knew where to find it?" Ben asked, his heart beating faster.
      "And do you know where to find it?"
      "I might."
      "Either you do or you don't," Maxwell said sternly.
      "Mr. Maxwell, if I know where to find gold, I'm not likely to go telling other folks about it, now am I?"
      "That depends. If the gold is around here, you'd be wise to tell me about it. Work with me, and I'll make you wealthy. Work against me, and likely you won't be around here long."
      "Mr. Maxwell, you're a rich man, and a powerful one. In one way or another, most of the people around here depend on you for the essentials of life. And I don't know that you'd take advantage of them, but I can see how some men would. I just want you to know I wouldn't put myself in a situation where another man's bit is in my mouth, not even if you're the one holding the reins."
      Lucien Maxwell stared at Ben for a few moments, and then his face broke into a smile as he patted Ben on the shoulder.
      "Young man, you've got spunk. But always remember one thing. I own all the land around here, what's above and what's below, including any ore, coal, silver, and gold. So there's no doubt about ownership, I want to show you something."
      Ben followed Maxwell down the hall to a closed door. Maxwell pushed it open and stepped inside, his guest following. Maxwell pulled out the bottom drawer of an old pine chest and grabbed some papers, spreading them on a nearby desktop.
      One was a legal document dated 1841 and sealed by the government in Mexico City. It bore the signature of Governor Manuel Armijo. Another carried the seal of the United States and was dated 1860. It stated that the Congress had approved the grant and agreed to the boundaries as described in the original Beaubien-Miranda Grant. The last document was a map. It showed the grant lands as they covered northeastern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Near the bottom of the map lay Moreno Valley and Baldy Mountain.
      "You see," Maxwell, said, "It's all legal. Now, let's get back in there before somebody comes looking for us."
      Soon after returning to the noisy dining room, Ben excused himself. Back in his room he flung out his bedroll, folded his coat into a pillow, and curled up snugly inside the covers, reviewing the events of the day. Though Ben took pleasure in creating some anxiety for Maxwell, he realized the rancher was not a man to play games with. He considered explaining to Maxwell that the story he had told to Squire was just that, a story. Though temporary it might be, he wanted Maxwell to experience the feeling of not being in control of something, of something that he dearly wanted. And, after all, the story was not without substance, however meager.
      Ben woke early, gathered up his things, and headed for the front door. With his bedroll under his arm and saddlebags jostling at his side, he hurried across the open area and into the barn where he quickly shoveled three scoops of grain into the gray's empty trough. While his horse ate, he rushed over to the gristmill where he found Captain Keyes. The officer explained that a load of flour and cornmeal was ready for shipment to Fort Union.
      Ben then hurried back to the barn, hitched his team, and drove over to the mill. While soldiers loaded the wagon, Ben strolled back toward the barn to get his horse, but as he made his way across the dirt yard, Maxwell appeared on the veranda.
      "Hey there, Texan. I've been looking for you. Come have some breakfast."
      Reluctantly agreeing, Ben angled toward the house, turned along the hallway to his room, washed up, then joined Maxwell and his guests in the long dining room.
      Watching the rancher happily mingling with his visitors, Ben concluded that one of the man's most valued pleasures was having people share his home and food while exchanging ideas through endless conversation. The man liked people.
      When Ben had finished breakfast, he stepped over to Maxwell and thanked him for his hospitality.
      "I expect to see a lot of you, young man," Lucien said, smiling broadly and clapping Ben on the back. "Whether I'm here or not, anytime you get to Cimarron, just come right in and make yourself at home."
      Marveling at the man's generosity, Ben got his horse from the barn and rode over to the gristmill. He slipped down from the gray and stepped over alongside Captain Keyes who stood overseeing the loading of supplies.
      "I've got your papers inside," the lieutenant said, turning toward the doorway. "Come on in."
      Keyes pushed the document toward Ben, along with ink and pen. Without hesitating, Ben signed it, folded the paper, and stuffed it into an inside coat pocket. The two men then walked outside where the sun was now shining brightly.
      "Lieutenant, I'd like to ask a question," Ben said. "Those Navajo Indians that work over at the house . . . are they servants?"
      "I don't exactly know. Mr. Maxwell pays for them. I'm sure of that. Occasionally, a band of Mexicans will attack the Navajo, usually in retaliation. Sometimes they keep women and children, selling them in Santa Fe mostly, but Mr. Maxwell ends up with a few."
      "That sounds like slavery to me."
      "Strictly, I don't think so," Keyes explained. "Lots of folks around here, folks without money, buy land from Mr. Maxwell and then work off the debt. For most, the note never gets paid because they have to buy supplies, clothing, and food, buying from Mr. Maxwell, of course, at frontier prices. Then these costs get added to their debt."
      "Surely some must manage to pay back their loans and own the land, free of Maxwell," Ben replied.
      "Few ever climb out of debt. Most claw and scratch their way up, then slide back down with the first mishap. Yet, they don't seem to worry about it. Mr. Maxwell is always forgiving for those who have a bad year and can't pay. He even helps people out when they lose their house to fire or animals to theft. Not a month goes by but what some unfortunate farmer or rancher comes to Mr. Maxwell and dumps his woes. Mr. Maxwell will encourage the man, and sometimes give him money to replace what he lost. Of course, the money given is added to the man's debt."
      "For a fact, I see a generous side to the man. However, I suspect he takes the goods from the farmers and ranchers and sells them at huge profits while reducing their debt based on meager prices."
      "I don't know. I never thought about that," Keyes responded, frowning. "I know most folks feel he treats them fairly, more than fair in many cases."
      With the supplies loaded, Ben said farewell, tied his horse to the back, and climbed onto the wagon seat. He quickly rippled the reins along the shiny backs of the horses, and turned the wagon onto the Santa Fe Trail, headed southward.