Last Train to Bannock [Clayburn 02]

BOOK: Last Train to Bannock [Clayburn 02]
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Marvin H. Albert (Al Conroy)
Last Train to Bannock
    
***
    
    CLAYBURN WOULD NEED ALL HIS WITS AND A LOT OF BULLETS-TO GET THIS WAGON TRAIN THROUGH.
    First a stretch of desert, then the badlands, and after that mountains just crawling with Apache war parties-that was the trail to the gold rush town of Bannock. And if the early snows didn't stop Clayburn, Adler intended to.
    Adler was determined to have only one supply train to reap the huge profits from Bannock-his. And Adler was a man used to winning. Trouble was, so was Clayburn.
    
***
    
    Scanning by unknown hero.
    OCR, formatting & proofing by
P.
    
***
    
ONE
    
    The stagecoach carrying the man they'd been hired to kill was not in sight yet. They sat their horses among the rocks on the jagged crest of the hill and gazed north along the route down which it would be coming on its way to Parrish City. The road snaked emptily toward them through a sun-scorched, barren land of eroded buttes and wind-rippled sand dunes. Except for an occasional dust devil there was nothing moving between the waiting killers and the horizon.
    Snow gleamed on the peaks of the far-distant mountains. It was well into fall. But they'd ridden hard all morning, and this far south the sun was still strong enough to take its toll of men and horses.
    "No telling how long it'll be till that stage shows up," grumbled Pollock, a heavy, harsh-faced man in his late twenties. "May have to wait here the rest of the day."
    "So we'll wait," Wilks told him flatly. His stocky figure slouched in the saddle as he surveyed the distances, his arrogant, mocking blue eyes squinted against the blazing sun. Wilks was the youngest of the three men. His two days' growth of beard showed as soft red-gold fuzz. But he was unmistakably the leader of the trio.
    Pollock scratched his bristly black stubble and tugged his hat forward to shade his eyes more. "Harry Farnell better be aboard like he's supposed to be. Or we've had a lot of riding for nothing."
    "Farnell's due in Parrish by tonight," Wilks pointed out. "And there's just the one stage through today."
    "Maybe he won't come by stage. Could be he decided to ride south on his own, like we did."
    "Could be," Wilks acknowledged carelessly. "But why would he? Farnell ain't expecting trouble."
    He took off his hat, revealing a tangled thatch of red hair, and wiped a hand across his wide forehead. Shaking drops of sweat from his thick, stubby fingers, he glanced at the third man, Ryle, a lean old-timer with a seamed, leathery face.
    "No sense us all baking our brains out," he told Ryle with easy authority. "You settle here and keep watch. We'll be down at the stage station. If that stage don't show in a couple hours I'll send Pollock up to relieve you."
    Ryle, some twenty-five years older than Wilks, accepted his order without question. He merely nodded, climbed off his horse, and found himself a patch of shade between two boulders from which he had a clear view of the road. Wilks turned his mount and headed south toward the small stage station huddled out of sight at the foot of the hills.
    Pollock followed and caught up with him. For a few moments he rode in silence beside Wilks. Then he spoke up carefully, out of deference to the younger man's judgment. "I sure hope you're right about Farnell bein' on the stage. If he gets to Parrish, we don't get paid."
    Wilks grinned boyishly. "He'll get to Parrish, all right. Only not alive."
    
***
    
    Clayburn reached the stage station on foot, carrying his saddle gear across his shoulder and the twelve-shot Winchester
.44 carbine in his left hand. Alkali dust was caked thick on his clothes and formed a mask on his lean, strong-boned face. The sun had baked him dry and his long legs were heavy with fatigue. His boots had not been designed for hours of hiking across rough country.
    He paused next to a tangle of rock and cactus, his widespread greenish eyes taking in the buildings by the road-an adobe shack and a small barn. There were three horses in the rope corral, grouped close in the patch of dark shade thrown by the barn wail. With a sigh of relief, Clayburn strode on toward the open-doored shack.
    Inside, Wilks, Pollock and the station manager were around the table playing poker. Wilks had seated himself where he could watch through the open door and single window. He was the first to notice the approach of the tall, wide-shouldered, lanky man. He noted the stranger's battered slouch hat, old buckskin shirt and well-worn Levis, and pegged him for a cowhand.
    "Company coming," he announced.
    The plump, middle-aged station manager turned in his chair and looked. "What d'you know? Walkin'…" He placed his cards facedown, shoved to his feet and went out to meet the newcomer.
    "Looks like you've had trouble," he greeted Clayburn amiably.
    "My horse broke a leg yesterday afternoon. Any chance of buying one of yours?"
    The station manager shook his head. "Only got one."
    Clayburn glanced toward the corral.
    "Them other two ain't mine," the station manager explained. "Belong to a couple fellows just taking a rest inside before riding on. But there's a stage coming through today. Going on south to Parrish City. Whereabouts you headed?"
    "Parrish'll do. When's the stage expected?"
    "Now. Which might mean three hours from now."
    When Clayburn smiled it softened the set of his wide mouth and crinkles appeared through the dust at the corners of his eyes. "Time enough. I could use a wash. So could my clothes. Been a long walk."
    "Cost you a dollar."
    The price was reasonable. A man could expect a free drink, but water for anything else came dear in the southwest. He nodded. "I've got a dollar."
    
***
    
    From inside the shack, Wilks and Pollock watched Clayburn follow the plump man into the barn.
    "He could be a problem," Pollock said.
    The young redhead shrugged. "Any extra gun's an extra problem. But he'll be easy enough to take care of."
    He told Pollock how, briefly, before the station manager returned from the barn.
    
***
    
    Left alone in the barn with a cut-down barrel half filled with water, Clayburn dropped his hat and gunbelt next to the carbine and saddlebags, pulled off his boots. Before tugging out of his shirt he glanced at the doorway to make sure no one was observing him. The left sleeve had concealed a narrow-bladed knife in a soft buckskin sheath strapped to the inside of his forearm.
    He'd first taken to wearing it back when he'd been one of the New Mexico agents for Colonel Remsberg's detective agency. It had come in handy often enough to teach him the wisdom of continuing to wear it after he'd quit the Colonel. For a man who now earned his way mostly with a deck of cards, it was a form of insurance.
    Unstrapping the knife, he got out of the rest of his clothes and slammed them against a post till he'd knocked off most of the hard-caked dust. After washing himself, he soaked the clothes in the barrel and wrung them out. Then he got his town clothes from his saddlebags. When he was dressed, he carried the wet clothing out of the barn and spread it on a humped rock to dry in the sun.
    When he entered the adobe shack the three men around the table stared at him. He didn't look the same man. He wore black, relieved only by a gold cravat setting off the darkness of his linen shirt, and the bone grip of his holstered Colt. His flat-crowned Stetson was an expensive one, and the broadcloth of his trousers and open frock coat had obviously been cut to measure by a good tailor.
    Wilks quickly revised his original estimate of Clayburn. Whatever the stranger was, he wasn't any ordinary cowhand. Clothes like that meant money-and Wilks prided himself on his poker skill. He used his boyish grin on the tall man. "Want to sit in? Pass the time till the stage comes."
    "Good a way as any," Clayburn agreed, and took the only empty chair, across the table from the burly Pollock.
    Little more than half an hour later Pollock and the station manager were out of the game, broke. They sat in their chairs disgustedly as the game became a two-man duel. Over the stretch of played hands Wilks had won most often, but Clayburn had raked in the biggest pots. The young redhead concentrated on reversing this trend, without success. Five deals later, most of the money on the table was in front of Clayburn.
    Wilks was no longer smiling. He watched narrow-eyed as Clayburn dealt, noting how the cards, flicked out with apparent carelessness by the long, rope-scarred fingers, fell exactly into place one on top of the other. His eyes remained on Clayburn as he began picking up his hand.
    "I've sure been dumb," he said tightly.
    "No," Clayburn told him. "You play a smart game. It's just the way the cards are running."
    "I mean I sized you up wrong," Wilks snapped. "You're a gambler, ain't you?"
    "I've played a lot of poker," Clayburn conceded with a faint smile.
    He'd been winning because he'd found Wilks easy to read. Now he was waiting for the redhead to lose his temper, and sensed that he was close to it. But Wilks, after a glance at his cards, simmered down and opened for ten dollars. Which meant that he had a strong enough hand to check his growing anger.
    Clayburn's hand consisted of a pair of sixes, a pair of queens, and a nine. He saw the ten-dollar bet, not raising, and discarded the nine. Wilks also threw away one card, but Clayburn decided it would have required more than two pairs to control Wilks' temper.
    He dealt Wilks a card, picked off one for himself. He'd acquired a jack, not improving his two pairs at all. Wilks was studying his cards, making a show of having difficulty deciding how to play them.
    Finally Wilks shrugged. "Might as well give you the rest of my dough." He shoved all of his remaining cash into the center of the table with the original twenty.
    " 'Fraid you've got me beat." Without expression, Clayburn folded his hand.
    Wilks was furious. He'd had three kings to start with, had kept an ace and acquired another-for a full house. And all it had earned him was ten dollars from Clayburn. With an effort, he forced a grin. "You sure bluff easy."
    "Oh?" Clayburn said innocently. "Were you bluffing?"
    "Yeah."
    "Joke's on me, then. Your deal."
    Wilks raked in the pot and started shuffling the cards. This time Clayburn acquired only a pair of jacks. He opened for ten dollars. Wilks instantly saw him and raised it another ten dollars, still forcing the grin. Clayburn read Wilks as intending to follow a pretended bluff with a real one. He saw the raise and discarded three cards. Wilks discarded only one, then dealt three to Clayburn and one to himself.
    Clayburn had picked up another jack, making it three of a kind. He bet another ten dollars. Without a moment's hesitation, Wilks saw the bet and raised it with everything he had left. His grin seemed pasted on his face now. Clayburn studied him for a moment, then counted the cash from his pile and dropped it on the pot. "See you."
    Wilks' grin crumpled. He flung his cards on the table, face up, showing only a pair of tens. Clayburn spread out his own cards and set himself for an explosion.
    The explosion didn't come. There was the sound of an approaching horse outside. Wilks turned his head quickly, looking through the doorway.
    The station manager got to his feet and went to the door. "Looks like this is my day not to be lonely."
    Wilks got up and went to the window. "Man on a spotted horse," he said quietly, and turned to face the interior of the room again. His hand blurred with motion, sweeping the gun out of his holster.
    Clayburn saw the beginning of the move and went for his own gun. He didn't get a chance to find out if he'd have beaten the redhead to the draw. Pollock shoved his heavy bulk against the table, ramming it into Clayburn and overturning him with his chair. Clayburn hit the floor hard, twisted, and came up on one knee, gripping the butt of his Colt. But by then Wilks had dead aim on him, and Pollock had drawn his gun, too.
    Clayburn opened his fingers, letting the Colt slide back into the holster as he rose to his feet. The station manager backed against the inside wall, whispering, "What is this?" But he knew what it was. He already had his hands up, making no effort to go for his own revolver.
BOOK: Last Train to Bannock [Clayburn 02]
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