This is a bit long. I’ll post it in three parts.
Spring of 1872, with a half-dozen vaqueros and Chinese cook, twenty-three-year-old Peter French pushed twelve-hundred shorthorns from Sacrament’s grassland to Oregon’s Malheur Valley. Within two decades French’s “P” ranch ranked among top beef produces in America.
Drawn from Giles French’s Cattle Country of Peter French, “It Was Murder” is a minimally-fictionalized telling of a fated cowman’s final ride.
A full moon. Hoarfrost on the outhouse and pole fence. A draft team, still as stone, vapor plumes over their muzzles. Hung from a shed roof in silhouette, stiff as corpses from a gallows, saddles, halters, bridles, harnesses.
Two paces from the fence, in a board and batten wall, a single ten-inch glass pane. Beside it a faded, palm-size, tin holder–“Dr. Geo. A. Palmer’s Stomach Bitters—ORIGINAL—NONE BETTER!”–a thermometer flirting with zero. From the window sill, drifted snow peeks through frosted dendrites.
From the isinglass eye of a squat cast-iron stove an apricot tint plays about the room. Above the workbench aged antique gray, nails in a board wall hold hammers, pliers, hoof nippers, wire cutters, turned to brass by the firelight.
From the stove, dividing light and dark, a quavering boundary crosses the floor, stair-steps a stool and horseshoe box, zigzags up wooden shelves, tapers to a point on the ceiling.
In the shadow below, Stetson pulled low, the boy, Hank, perched legs crossed on an oat bin.
By the stove, stiff leg propped on a nail keg, the aging Mexican, Buck, uses a pocket knife to trim a frayed end from a leather cinch strap. Shadow plays at the angular jaw, the weathered crevices beside the eyes, the ominous dent in the nose, the cheekbones pressing under chestnut-brown skin, the eyes hidden in shadow, the collar-length hair black as obsidian.
Calloused fingers guide the knife blade in a precise semicircle. Holding the strap to the stove’s eye, the artisan studies his work.
“I seen Peter French get killed.”
Part II soon