Ira Sparks is an ex-Texas Ranger who seeks a more peaceful existence on a ranch he owns in western Montana. An easy-going man, we first meet him riding his horse down the three day trip from the small, tight cabin he built at the upper end of his property, to the ranch house just a couple hours ride from town. He lives alone, takes pride in his repair work around his new corral, sheltering his two horses and two pack mules.
The year is 1880, Montana is still a territory; cattle and horse rustlers are still active. He always travels armed — never knows when he might meet a grizzly or a cougar. Or some roughnecks in town. He and Sheriff Jonas Reach have had a good relationship ever since Ira helped clear a gang out of town sometime back. Floyd the mercantile store owner, Jean Shirley who runs the boarding house, Al the blacksmith — all the town’s people look up to Ira as a man worth having around.
The stranger who appears up on “Ira’s mountain” one day is a different story. Staying concealed among the trees, he is watching Ira. Finally, he fires two shots as Ira steps out of the cabin. Ira dives back inside, kicking the door shut as he does so. And waits, guns ready.
He hears a voice call out “Give me the stock, you can live. Your choice.”
Ira sees only one spot where the voice could be calling from; a pile of rock big enough to hide a man. He keeps his rifle trained on it as he calls, “Let me think it over.” Presently, the man sticks his head out to fire again, and Ira sends two more bullets close to his head, sending rock fragments every which-way around him. The stranger broke and ran for his horse. Aiming his scope carefully, Ira shot the horse out from under him, pitching the man to the ground.
As the man gets up, dazed, Ira fires one more shot and calls out, “One more step and you’re next.” He tied the man up for the night, fed him in the morning, and put him on his spare horse for the trip to town. They arrived after dark; Ira knocked on the sheriff’s door, and the sheriff locked the man up in a cell.
“There’s another man in town been looking for you,” Sheriff Reach told Ira, “I’ll help you find him in the mornin.”
• • •
“There he is now,” said the sheriff next morning, indicating a broad shouldered man wearing trail clothes and gunleather. Ira walked up behind him, saw the man’s gun was tied down.
Ira spoke, “I understand you’re looking for me.” The man slowly moved his hands away from his sides and turned toward Ira. “Randall Childs, you old horse thief! What ya doin’ up in this country? I thought you were down south still chasing the bad guys.”
“Truth be known, I still am chasing bad guys, only up here. They been stealing horses, steadily movin’ north.”
Ira introduced his old Texas Ranger buddy to the sheriff. Nothing would do but that Randall come stay at Ira’s ranch and talk over old times. It wasn’t long before Ira, who knew all the country nearby, agreed to help Randall hunt the rustlers. They travel with a bunch of stolen horses, Randall explains, but after rebranding the horses, the outlaws must hole up somewhere until the brands heal.
Montana Territory wasn’t Randall’s jurisdiction as a Texas Ranger, but it became his personal business when the horse thieves killed his friends and stole their horses. After several days with no results, the two enter yet another hidden valley. Unnaturally quiet — not even birds singing. Suddenly, a whistle and a shout, and the sound of many horses running, bursting into the meadow. Ira and Randall keep silent and out of sight as they scout the outlaws’ camp next morning.
The outlaws outnumber them at least four to two, and occupy high ground and access to water. Two are posted above the camp as lookouts, some distance apart.
Ira and Randall keep quiet and hidden as they make their plans. They move apart into positions to cover the outlaw camp in a cross fire. Ira, flipping up his rifle’’s vernier sight to two hundred yards, called out to the outlaws to give themselves up … that no one would be hurt. The outlaws fired several shots in his direction. Taking careful aim, Ira fired off a single shot, killing one lookout; Randall fires at the other. Confusion in the camp below the lookouts.
From secure secure cover Ira called out, “Texas Rangers, you’re under arrest. Throw down your guns or die where you stand. The choice is yours. You have fine minutes to decide.”
After five minutes of silence, Ira ricochets a single shot off the rocks sheltering the outlaws. A gang member shouts out, “You don’t have any authority here, back off!”
Randall’s .45-70, firing from a different position, hit him in the side. Neither Ira nor Randall spoke.
Time was running out. If night fell, the renaming outlaws could easily escape. . . .
• • •
This is the first of four books by Jay Storkson; the early chapters tend to interrupt the story with explanations of words the author believes may be unfamiliar to the reader. But he compensates this with a writing style that eases us back a 130 years to where life went at a slower pace, with almost always time for coffee and conversation with a neighbor.