Riding Through Riddles (Preview)

Chapter One

The stench of death hung heavily in the air.

For Lewis, it was all too familiar.

After spending months fighting in the Civil War, Lewis wanted nothing but peace, but it seemed fate had other plans.

The dull thud of hoofbeats caught his attention, and he looked up to see Amos, his best friend and business partner, come riding over.

“Found them,” Lewis said with a small nod.

Amos looked in the direction Lewis had indicated, and he swore under his breath when he saw the dead cow and calf. Both bodies were bloated from the Texas heat, and flies were thick in the area.

It was impossible to see the pair until Lewis was practically right on top of them, as both had fallen into a small ravine. Hundreds of similar ravines dotted the Texas countryside, but it wasn’t often a cow became stuck in one.

But, Lewis quickly deduced from the state of the mother’s body that she had been injured before falling into the ravine, and had likely died quickly one she had. The calf wouldn’t have known any better but to follow her, and had perished itself at some point after.

The heat of Texas along with the lack of water made survival out on the ranch difficult unless the cattle made it back to the barn and ranch house. There were fenced corrals in that area, along with a pond that provided plenty of fresh water for all of them.

That wasn’t the case out in the heat.

“What do you make of this one?” Amos asked his friend.

“Mother was struck by lightning,” Lewis replied. “I’m guessing the storm that was night before last. Calf it’s hard to say. Probably dehydration.”

“With the mom gone, it’s hard to save the calf unless you get to it soon,” Amos commented. “And with both gone, that’s another hit to our pocketbook.”

“I know,” Lewis agreed with another nod. “We’re going to have to make some decisions.”

“What do you mean?”

“Winter’s coming pretty fast, and if we don’t sell enough head, we’re going to be in a tight spot. But with how things have been going for us this summer, it’s looking like we’re going to have to sell more than I’d like,” he replied. “Right now, we’re looking at selling more than half the herd if we’re going to make our base goal.”

“Damn,” Amos said. “Is that smart?”

“It’s not advised, but we don’t have much choice. With the current market rate per head, we’ve got to make quota if we want pay. It’s one or the other at this point.”

“Either we go into winter with enough money in the bank or enough cattle in the barn,” Amos concluded.

Neither of the men spoke for a few moments, each lost in their own thoughts. Lewis knew they were in a tight spot already, but unless something changed soon, it didn’t look like anything would improve any time soon.

The market was still tight after the war, and everyone was struggling. He knew he and his partner weren’t an exception with their own trials, but that didn’t change the fact they had to come up with a solution, and fast.

“We’ll have more calves next year,” he commented.

“But if things are as hard next year as they are now, what difference will that make? We’ll keep losing head and money until there’s nothing left,” Amos replied.

“Let’s not worry about that until the time comes. We’ve got to get through this year,” Lewis replied. “But for now, let’s get some wood and burn the bodies. I don’t want to attract any scavengers to the area. God knows scavengers tend to lead to predators, and I don’t want to add that on top of the weather.”

Amos agreed, and both men dismounted.

They spent most of the afternoon gathering wood and sagebrush, then piling it over the bodies of the two animals. For the most part, they worked in silence. Both craved peace after the hardship of war, and neither felt the need to fill the silence with their voices.

“Gather up the rest of the stragglers and take them back to the house, will you?” Lewis directed his friend once they had finished placing the wood and brush around the bodies. “I’ll tend to the rest of this.”

“You sure?” Amos asked. “Looks like another storm’s brewing.”

Lewis pulled his hat a bit lower on his brow, shielding his eyes better so he could see the mounting clouds in the distance. They looked dark and ominous, but he wasn’t deterred.

“We leave them here and they’ll attract more animals. I want to take care of them before I head back. Don’t worry about me. Once the fire burns down enough I’ll let the storm take care of the rest.”

Amos nodded and retrieved his horse before riding off in another direction. Both men had gone out that day to gather the cattle that hadn’t returned to the barn the day before, and Lewis felt he should be grateful that they only lost two more to the weather considering six had been missing that morning.

His partner would be able to handle driving the remaining four back to the barn himself, but Lewis didn’t feel it was wise to leave the fire unattended until it burned low enough he didn’t need to worry about a brush fire.

It wouldn’t be likely with the rain coming, but he wouldn’t risk it. With how hot and dry the entire area was, a loose spark could be devastating.

He started the fire and stood back, watching as the flames licked at the dry wood surrounding the bodies. The flies rose from the smoke, avoiding getting burned themselves. They buzzed around Lewis, but he slapped at them with his hand until they gave up and left him and the fire alone.

Lewis took a few more steps back as the heat from the blaze increased, checking to ensure his horse hadn’t left. The animal was contentedly grazing on what grass it could find in the desert landscape, so Lewis turned his attention back to the fire.

He was so engrossed in watching the flames, he didn’t notice the two riders approaching until they were nearly to him.

In an instant, he whipped out his pistol, pointing it at the pair.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Whoa, whoa,” one of the two men said, holding up his hands to show the two of them meant no harm. “Sorry to sneak up on you like that.”

“What do you want?” Lewis demanded, still holding his weapon at the ready.

“We saw the smoke,” the man explained. “Didn’t know if it was a wildfire or not.”

“And if it was?” Lewis asked, still uncertain about the two men.

“Well we have some cattle not far from here, and I would want to get them out of the way if this wasn’t under control, that’s all. Seen’s how you’ve clearly got it handled, we can move along,” he said.

Lewis lowered his gun. “How has your season been with your herd?”

“Rough,” the man said. “We’ve lost a few head over the summer to coyotes and wolves. I think we’ll do alright at the market though.”

“When are you taking yours in?” Lewis asked. “Sorry, I’ve not had as good of a year myself, and I’m just wondering what to expect this year.”

“Prices aren’t great,” the man said. “From what my boy Sam here was telling me, they’re expected to stay average at best, and may even decline some with the number of ranchers there are in the area.”

“I was afraid of that,” Lewis said with a shake of his head. “I figured with the aftermath of the war, people would be wanting to stock up on supplies while they can. The war might be over now, but you never know what’s going to cause tempers to flare again.”

“I figured the same,” the man agreed. “But way I see it is after the war so many people moved out of that area. No one wants to stay and work through all the damage that was done back there, so they came west to settle. Now we’ve got more ranchers than we do townsfolk so to speak.”

Lewis nodded along with what the man was saying, but had to reply when the man changed the subject.

“What happened here?” he asked.

“Lightning is what I figure,” Lewis replied. “There’s another storm brewing, too.”

“I saw that,” the man said. “Don’t normally worry about it though. I haven’t had an issue with losing animals to the weather. Mostly it’s other animals that are the problem, and I can solve that with a few good dogs.”

“This year is the first I’ve had to deal with the weather as much as I have, but it is what it is. Once someone figures out how to keep cows out on the range safe from lightning, I’ll have this problem solved.”

“When you going to market?”

“Soon,” Lewis said. “I figure the sooner I get in, the better. It’s going to be the early ranchers who come out with the best pay, you mark my words.”

“Don’t know about that,” the man argued. “They’re already doing auctions. If you wanted to get in there early, you would have had to take your herd in last week. If not sooner.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Lewis said. “I haven’t heard of anyone taking in their herds this early. It’s not even September!”

“You can argue if you want, but honest to God, it’s the truth,” the man said with a shrug. “It’s going to be a hard year, no matter how you look at it.”

Lewis said nothing. He wanted to tell his man he knew nothing of hardship unless he had also fought in the war. But, he already wanted these two to leave, and he figured the best way to get rid of them was to simply ignore them as much as he could.

He turned his attention fully back to the fire, which was burning hot and fast. The sparks flew into the air, and as the wind picked up, so did the flames. The fire burned bright for a few more minutes before starting to die down.

It was quickly running out of fuel, and Lewis wasn’t adding any more. He wanted it to burn to the ground, and it seemed it would soon.

“Well, it looks like it’s going to storm, so we’ll leave you be,” the man said. “Sorry to bother you.”

“Take care,” he said.

“Good luck!” the man replied with a smile. Lewis, however, just gave him a nod in reply. The younger man didn’t seem to know what to do with himself, so he said nothing as he rode away behind his father.

Lewis was relieved the two had gone, and he went to retrieve his horse. He wouldn’t stay here much longer. Not with the storm coming. The rain would put out the rest of the fire, and he didn’t want to get caught out in the middle of it.

With the wind picking up, he knew it wouldn’t be long before the storm arrived. If he wanted to get back to the barn before it hit, he knew he had to get going.

With one final glance behind him, he checked to ensure the fire was on its way out, then he gave his horse a light kick, heading home.

But, he had the conversation with those men heavy on his mind. If what they said was true, then he might have to plan on even less money than what was average, and that would really be a problem.

Amos wasn’t going to be happy to hear the news, Lewis knew that. But then, what other choice did they have? The prices were what they were, and neither he nor Amos had any control over there.

Short of a miracle, they were looking at a major loss this year.

And Lewis couldn’t do anything to stop it.

Chapter Two

“Hello to the house!”

The voice drifted in through the open window, and Amos and Lewis exchanged a look.

“Who on Earth could that be this early in the morning?” Lewis asked.

He and Amos were just finishing breakfast and discussing what they would be doing with their day. There was a long list of things that had to be done around the ranch, but after Lewis told Amos about the conversation he’d had with those two men the day before, both were worried about when they ought to take the cattle into town.

The conversation was just getting heated when they heard the greeting being called outside. So, Lewis went to see who it was.

He opened the door to find their neighbor, Jesse Holcomb, tying his horse to the hitch post out in front of the house.

“Good morning,” Jesse called out. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”

“We were just finishing breakfast,” Lewis told him. “Come on in and have a plate yourself. I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“I am, thank you,” Jesse said.

Lewis didn’t particularly care for the older man, but he was always polite. Jesse struck him as rich and snobby, and Lewis didn’t like people who were like that. Not to mention Jesse often acted as though he was entitled to the best of what the area had to offer since he was one of the first ranchers in the territory.

Lewis also didn’t agree with him on that front, which had led to friction between the two in the past. Whenever they crossed paths, Lewis prepared himself for an altercation, and today was no different.

“Amos!” Lewis called when the two men were in the hall. “Serve another plate, we have a guest.”

“Good morning,” Jesse greeted Amos with a wide grin as they walked into the kitchen, and Amos grunted in reply.

“Never one for words, are you?” Jesse asked.

Amos was quiet. He always had been. But, after going through the trauma of the war, he said even less. Lewis knew this about his best friend, but he didn’t explain the reason for his silence to Jesse. As far as Lewis was concerned, Jesse didn’t need to know.

“Bacon and eggs, very good,” Jesse said when Amos put the food in front of him. “Though I’m surprised you aren’t having sausage. Are you short on pork?”

“Just figured bacon sounded better today,” Lewis said. “I like it better than sausage anyway, even if it is cheaper.”

“Fair enough,” Jesse said. “I suppose when you grow up on cheap food, you get used to it enough it’s what you like when you’re older, eh?”

Neither Lewis nor Amos said a word. Amos was busy pouring coffee for their guest, and Lewis was clearing the dirty dishes from the table. He then sat down with a fresh cup of coffee himself, sitting on the opposite side of the table from where Jesse was sitting.

“What brings you here today?” Lewis asked.

“Getting right down to it are we?” Jesse asked with a laugh. “You know, I like that about you. You’re the kind of guy who likes to get down to business right away. There’s no wasting time.”

“I don’t have time to waste,” he said. “And neither does Amos.”

“This time of year I shouldn’t, either,” Jesse said. “But when you have as many hired hands as I do, it’s not as big of a deal for me to leave the ranch for a while. I’m surprised you don’t have more men around here to work for you.”

“I take a lot of pride in doing things myself,” Lewis said. “Between the two of us, we can the work done well enough without extra help.”

“Maybe when you’re more successful, should you be, that is, you’ll be able to hire a few hands here and there to help you out around the place,” Jesse said. “Though I have to admit, you have done a fine job of fixing it up after buying it. I was sure this whole house had to be torn down.”

“We both know how to handle a hammer and nails as well as we do cattle,” Lewis said. “We knew when we bought the place we wanted to fix what was here rather than start from scratch, and as you can see, it worked out.”

“Yes, for you it did,” Jesse said. “But you know? That seems to be the way things work for you.”

“What do you mean?” Lewis asked.

“I mean look at the two of you. Both of you fought in the war, best friends who have been like brothers since you were boys. You both made it through the war not only alive, but with your limbs, too. Then you come out here to purchase a rundown ranch to fix up, and you manage to do that, too.”

“I’m curious to know what you want,” Lewis said. “I’m sure you didn’t come here to tell me you admire the hard work we have put into the place.”

“Actually, no, I didn’t,” Jesse admitted. He took another bite of his food. “I came here to offer you a job, actually.”

“A job?” Lewis asked.

Amos was washing the dishes from their breakfast, but the mention of work caught his attention. He then poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and took a seat at the table, clearly curious to hear what Jesse had to say.

“Yes,” Jesse said. “I’m sure you two have heard of the issue with the market this year?”

“From what I understand, prices are lower than average, or average at best,” Lewis said.

“They are, they are,” Jesse said with a nod. “How’s your herd?”

“It’s been a hard season,” Lewis said. “Lost more than usual, and I’m not sure how many we’re going to have to sell now to make up for it. Especially if we’re dealing with lower prices than what we’re used to.”

“Thought so,” Jesse said.

Lewis wondered why Jesse would think they were having a difficult time with their herd that year, but he didn’t have the chance to ask. Jesse was here for a reason, he knew that, and since he had prompted the older man to get on with things, Jesse was cutting to the chase.

“Let me back up a bit,” Jesse said. “This year seems to have been difficult for a lot of the ranchers in the area. I’m personally blessed to report that I have had an exceedingly bountiful year, and because of that, I have money in the bank right now. And I mean before market.”

“That’s great, Jesse,” Lewis said. “What does that have to do with us?”

“More than you think,” Jesse replied. He shoved another bite of food in his mouth and continued. “I like you, Lewis. And you, too, Amos. I like that the two of you keep to yourselves, and I like your resilience and determination. You aren’t the kind of men to be deterred by hard work.”

“Thank you,” Lewis said. “But you’ve not told us what you want.”

“I want to hire you,” Jesse announced.

Once again, Lewis and Amos exchanged a look. Amos remained silent, letting Lewis do all the talking. And that was fine with Lewis. He knew he his best friend well enough to speak for both of them without question.

“For?” he asked.

“Now, let me back up a bit,” Jesse said again, using one of his favorite phrases. “The French army is in need of food.”

“The French?” Lewis cried. “Why do we care what the French army needs? I’m done with the military, Jesse, and I won’t change my mind on that. I don’t care what you want from us, the answer is no.”

“Now hold on,” Jesse said, undeterred with Lewis’s outburst. “Hold on a second. Don’t be so fast to turn this down. I know you don’t care to get involved with the military again, but I’m not here to tell you to. I’m here to hire you to drive cattle to the army.”

Both men stared at their guest with confusion etched into their features. Lewis wasn’t quite sure what Jesse was getting at, and while he listened to the proposition, he kept a sharp ear for anything that didn’t sound right. Jesse was known for doing things his way rather than the legal way at times, and the last thing Lewis wanted was to get caught up in some scheme the older man had devised.

Any more trouble in his life would ruin the peaceful existence he envisioned, and he was careful to agree to anything that would cause hardship.

“Let me explain,” Jesse continued, “The French army is still down in Mexico. They’re in need of resources, and as it turns out, with the overstocked market we have up here, they’re dealing with practically the opposite down there. From what I understand, prices are double what they normally are here per head. That’s per head, gentlemen!”

He slapped his hands on the table as he spoke, then he sat back and looked from one face to the other with a grin. He’d finished his plate of food, and noisily shoved it across the table. Amos, without a word, got up and cleared the dirty dish, busying himself with washing it while Lewis handled the conversation with Jesse.

“Double the price per head?” Lewis asked. “And you know this for sure?”

“As sure as I am sitting here in front of you,” Jesse nodded. “And like I said, I have money in the bank right now. So this is where you come in.”

“I’m listening,” Lewis replied.

“I want you both to drive my cattle down to Mexico. I want you to take them to the French army, and sell them at the market price down there. Of course, this is an opportune time for you to take your own herd down and sell them at the same price, which is nothing but profit for you at that point.”

“And I take it you’re going to give us a cut of the pay for your cattle?” Lewis surmised.

“And I’ll give you a bonus for taking them down,” Jesse said, slamming his hand on the table once more. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime, gentlemen. You could easily bring in double if not more than double what you would on a good year selling up here, and you can do it with the lean herd you’re dealing with.”

“I see,” Lewis said.

He hesitated to agree to the idea right away, unsure of whether to believe what Jesse said was true. It would be a dangerous trip down to Mexico. He knew that. On the other hand, why would Jesse take the time to come here and offer this job to them if it wasn’t true?

“Now,” Jesse continued, cutting into his thoughts. “I want to be clear that this is a business. As such, each head is worth quite a bit to me. I don’t want there to be any sort of confusion between us, so I’ll be clear up front that I am paying you for each head that makes it to market. I’m trusting you to handle this, so each head that doesn’t make it, well, I expect you to replace it.”

“Me?” Lewis didn’t bother hiding his surprise. “You’re hiring me to take your herd down to Mexico, but any who don’t survive you want me to replace?”

“I do,” Jesse said. “Think of it as motivation to make sure the herd arrives safely.”

“You know as well as I do that there are all kinds of things that can happen out there on the trail,” Lewis replied. “It’s a rough road for even a healthy animal, and you want me to account for all of the cattle we lose along the way?”

“Again, it’s a business transaction. I want nothing but the best for my animals, and my customers, too, for that matter. With that being the case, I feel it’s only fair to give you the motivation to get each and every one of my animals down there in good health. Otherwise, it’s coming out of your pocket. There’s a reason why I’ve been the top rancher in this area for as long as I have,” he said with a grin.

“That cuts out of our own profit,” Amos chimed in, speaking for the first time that morning.

“Don’t think of it as anything but motivation to get all the cattle down there safely,” Jesse said over his shoulder. “I have faith in both of you, and with good reason. Look at what you’ve done around here.”

Jesse held his hands out and looked around the room as he spoke. “And from what I understand, you two have done this in a matter of months, right?”

“When did you plan on us leaving?” Lewis cut in, changing the subject.

“As soon as possible,” Jesse replied. “It’s going to take some time for you to get down there, especially if you’re moving at a pace that’s meant to keep as many of the head alive as you can.”

“I always run my herds to keep all of them alive,” Lewis said. “But whether that happens is up to something bigger than any of us.”

“Then you know the sooner you get on the trail, the better,” Jesse replied. “And I’m quite okay with that. I want the money, which I’m sure you can relate to. If you leave tomorrow, I’ll be a happy man.”

“It’s not going to be that soon,” Lewis informed him. “First off, we need to discuss if we’re going to take you up on your offer. Then we have to get supplies. With how money has been, I’m not sure we’re in a place just this week to be able to go out and get the supplies we need for the trail.”

“Perhaps I haven’t been clear enough,” Jesse cut in. “I’m paying you to be the ones to take the cattle down to the army, with that comes pay in advance so you have the money for supplies you’ll need, then you’ll get the rest when you get back.”

“Then I take it you’re not basing the driving fee on how many make it alive?” Lewis asked.

“My boy, I’m counting on you getting all the animals down there alive, so I’m not worried about that in the least. I know if you lose one or two along the way you’ll take care of it properly, and besides that, there’s nothing for us to worry about, is there?” Jesse asked. “I do understand the need to discuss this, and I’m sure you don’t want to do so with me sitting right here. So how about you come see me Saturday and we can discuss the rest of the details, shall we?”

Lewis quickly counted in his mind how many days that gave him. Saturday was three days away, which was enough for him to know for sure whether he and Amos would take the job. His initial response was to agree to the idea, but he knew Amos might have some reservations after hearing that they would be responsible for any of the heads that didn’t make the journey.

But, Saturday was reasonable, so he agreed.

“I’ll ride over to your place Saturday morning with an answer,” Lewis said. “And we can go from there.”

“Of course, but I’m taking your tentative reply as a yes,” Jesse said as he rose from the table. “Thank you for breakfast, and thank you for your help with my herd.”

“Well now, I didn’t agree to doing the job yet,” Lewis reminded him as he walked with him to the door.

“Yet, my boy, yet,” Jesse replied. “That is the key word there. I know after you two talk about it and add up some of the figures, you’ll be happy to take the job. Double. That is huge, Lewis, huge! Double the pay plus the fee I’ll give you to take them down. Shall we say two dollars a mile?”

“I’ll think about it,” Lewis told him. “We’ll talk about it, and I will give you the answer on Saturday. Thank you for coming by.”

“I’m counting on you, Lewis, don’t let me down!” Jesse beamed as he shook Lewis’s hand. “You’re the man for the job, trust me on that one.”

Lewis shook his hand and once again told him he would think about it, then he waved his neighbor off as Jesse got back on his horse and rode away.

As much as he hated the idea of working for Jesse, Lewis had to admit that this could very well be the solution he and Amos needed to get through the winter. It wouldn’t be an easy trip, but he wasn’t worried about easy.

It was driving cattle, and that was something he and his friend could do. They’d already survived the war, so compared to that, this was easy, right?

He had to talk to Amos before giving any definite answer, but Lewis already had a pretty good idea of what that answer would be.

They were going to Mexico.

“Riding Through Riddles” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Scarred by the horrors of the Civil War, Lewis Briggs, a man hardened by trauma seeks refuge in the quaint Texas town of Greenbrooke alongside his loyal comrade, Amos Bell. Driven by the promise of peace, they labor tirelessly to breathe life into their vision of a ranch. However, when a wave of adversity threatens their haven, they are lured into a high-stakes venture by a proposition from a fellow rancher.

Could there be a malevolent force plotting their downfall?

Accompanying them on their perilous journey is the spirited and fiercely independent Essie Dale. Having taken up the reins of her ailing father’s ranch, Essie is a beacon of resilience and determination. Lewis, captivated by her strength and allure, can’t help but imagine a shared future. Yet, the lurking threats of the trail and the prospect of imminent danger make his dreams seem a distant mirage.

Isn’t love just a luxury in the harsh West?

Their journey to Mexico is a gauntlet of danger, a trip loaded with deceit, inclement weather, and ruthless bandits. Cornered, and with the noose of betrayal tightening, can an unexpected ally turn their fortune around? Amid the chaos, one question looms: will they survive the high stakes of this deadly adventure?

“Riding Through Riddles” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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