Authors: Ralph Cotton
Sam held his gaze fixed ironlike on Fain's eyes. “Ready to take them now?” he asked, running his free palm back and forth across the two gun butts.
Wanting a way out, Fain looked at the other two gunmen. The looks on their faces told him they weren't backing down. He took some courage from knowing the odds were on his side.
“Oh, we'll be taking them, sure enough,” said Fain with a scowl. His eyes widened. “You don't come carrying our friends' guns in here and telling lies, saying you killed them, whether you did or notâ”
His words stopped short as McCool's big Russian Smith & Wesson came up from Sam's waist and made a vicious swipe across the outlaw's jaw. Fain flew backward to the floor. Montoya and Petty wasted no time snatching their guns from their holsters. But it did them no good. Before either gun aimed or fired, both the Russian Smith & Wesson and Sam's own Colt fired at once.
“One of the best Western writers today.”
“Cotton's blend of history and imagination works because authentic Old West detail and dialogue fill his books.”
âWild West Magazine
A SIGNET BOOK
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Printing, February 2014
Copyright Â© Ralph Cotton, 2014
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REGISTERED TRADEMARKâMARCA REGISTRADA
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Mary Lynn, of courseÂ .Â .Â .
The Badlands, Arizona Territory
Under a blazing desert sun, Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack slid two warm and spent cartridge shells from his bone-handled Colt and replaced them with fresh rounds from his gun belt. A thin sliver of smoke still curled in the gun's cylinder. He closed the Colt's loading gate and held the gun upright as he looked all around the rocky, desolate desert floor. A mile out, trail dust rose and drifted across a stretch of flatlands reaching toward the border.
“Looks like your pal Pres Kelso decided it's time to clear out of here,” he said down to the wounded outlaw lying beneath the sole of his left boot.
“Preston KelsoÂ .Â .Â . was never my
, Ranger,” the wounded man, Curtis Rudabell, replied in a pained and halting voice. “I only rodeÂ .Â .Â . with him this one time. He's aÂ .Â .Â . son of a bitch.Â .Â .Â .”
So it was Pres KelsoÂ .Â .Â . ,
Sam ascertained to himself. That was what he'd wanted to know. Looking at the outlaw's bloody chest, realizing Rudabell wasn't going anywhere, the Ranger lifted his boot off his shoulder. He stooped down beside him, picked up the smoking revolver sitting at Rudabell's side and held it in his free hand. He picked up a tobacco pouch made from a bull's scrotum, with Rudabell's initials carved on it. He tipped up the brim of his pearl gray sombrero and took a long breath. Twenty yards off lay the horse Rudabell had ridden to death.
“Feel free to take anything of mine you might need,” Rudabell said with bitter sarcasm.
“Obliged,” Sam said, his own sarcasm more veiled. As he spoke, he shoved the tobacco pouch behind his gun belt. He felt a few coins down inside the bag mixed with some chopped tobacco.
“Sons of Mother NancyÂ .Â .Â . I'm left for deadÂ .Â .Â . ,” Rudabell muttered under his failing breath. “Blast Kelso's eyes.Â .Â .Â .”
“I could have told you he's a runner,” Sam said.
Rudabell clutched his bleeding chest.
“YeahÂ .Â .Â . but you
tell me, did you?” the outlaw said bitterly, his voice weakening as he spoke. He stared at his gun in the Ranger's hand. “Tell the truth.Â .Â .Â . I nearly got you, didn't I, Ranger?”
“To tell the truth, Curtis,” the Ranger said quietly, “no, you didn't. Fact is, you didn't even come close.” He looked all around again, feeling the scalding heat of the sun pressing hard on his shoulders through his shirt, his riding duster. “Can I get you somethingÂ .Â .Â . some water?” he asked.
Rudabell gave him a sour look. “Got anyÂ .Â .Â . whiskey?” he asked.
“Not a drop,” Sam said.
“ThatÂ .Â .Â . figures,” said the dying outlaw. He reflected for a second, then said, “You reckonÂ .Â .Â . there'll be whiskey aplenty in hell?”
“Never gave it much thought, Curtis,” the Ranger said. “Seems like a tough place to go drinking.” He stayed patient.
“I bet I'veÂ .Â .Â . drank in worse,” Rudabell commented.
“Where's Pres headed in old Mex?” the Ranger asked. He knew the odds were long on the outlaw telling him anything, but it was worth a try.
“He's headedÂ .Â .Â . to Cold Water, Ranger,” Rudabell offered without hesitation.
FrÃa,” the Ranger said.
“YeahÂ .Â .Â . that's right, Agua FrÃa,” said Rudabell. He gave a deep, wheezing chuckle, his teeth smeared red with blood. “I hope you bust out andÂ .Â .Â . follow him there.”
“I intend to,” Sam said, wanting to get as much information as he could from Rudabell before he died. “Why do you hope I follow him there?”
Rudabell didn't answer, his eyes drifting shut. Sam shook the outlaw by his shoulder.
“You'll see,” said Rudabell, his eyes managing to reopen and focus on the Ranger.
My kind of peopleÂ .Â .Â . have taken over Agua FrÃa.” He gave a waning grin; his eyes closed again. “Ranger, guess whatÂ .Â .Â . ,” he whispered. He managed to grip Sam's forearm, as if to hold on and keep from sliding off the edge of the earth.
“What?” the Ranger replied, letting him hold on, feeling his grip diminish with each passing second.
whiskey in hellÂ .Â .Â . I see it, plain as dayÂ .Â .Â . ,” Rudabell said. He let out a breath, which stopped short and left his mouth agape.
Sam thought wryly.
He shook his head, reached out, touched the barrel of Rudabell's gun beneath the outlaw's beard-stubbled chin and tipped his gaping mouth shut. A trickle of blood seeped from the corner of Rudabell's lips and ran down his cheek toward his ear.
Sam stood up and looked off at the trail of dust roiling in the distance, seeing it disappear over a low rise of rocky ground. Lowering his Colt into its holster, he took off his sombrero and ran his fingers back through his damp hair. He shoved Rudabell's Smith & Wesson down behind his gun belt. On the ground lay a set of saddlebags stuffed with cash from the Clifton-American Mining Project.
Since he'd retrieved the money,
he reasoned, maybe this was a good time to pull back and do some thinking.
For the past year, he'd heard of various thieves and killers taking refuge in and around the town of Agua FrÃa. It was time he checked things out there. Under the Matamoros Agreement, the Mexican government gave U.S. lawmen limited rights to cross the border in pursuit of felons in flight from American justice. But after what he'd just heard from Curtis Rudabell, which was nothing less than a dare, he wasn't going to follow Pres Kelso there. Not today.
He'd head there laterâmaybe a week, maybe longer. And when he did go to Agua FrÃa, he wasn't going to be wearing a badge.
He got the feeling that wearing a badge would be the same as wearing a bull's-eye on his chest. He looked himself up and down, the pearl gray sombrero hanging in hand, the long duster. He looked over at his Appaloosa stallion, Black Pot; then he gazed back down at Curtis Rudabell.
“Obliged for the warning, Curtis,” he said to the dead outlaw. He stooped enough to grip Rudabell by his shirt collar and drag him off toward a pile of rocks.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Preston Kelso rode hard and straight, nonstop, until he reached the shelter of a rocky hill line. He wasn't sure if he had yet crossed the border, but when he swung his sweat-streaked bay around and looked back through the billowing dust, he saw no sign of being followed.
What the hellâ?
Only a vast and empty stretch of desert floor lay behind him. Nothing moved on the arid rocky ground, save for the black shadow of a hawk circling high overhead.
“Ha,” he chuffed to himself in surprise. So much for all the brave and relentless lawmen along the border.
He smiled to himself; but then his smile fell away quickly, as his fear subsided and his memory sharpened.
The moneyÂ .Â .Â .Â !
He turned quickly in his saddle and looked down at his bay's sweaty dirt-streaked rump.
Damn it to hell!
He let out a breath in exasperation, realizing Rudabell had been carrying the moneyânot just some of the money, but all of the money.
“Damn it to hell!” he repeated, this time out loud, looking back again in the direction of the place where he and Rudabell had had the running shootout with a lone lawman. “Curtis, you lousy dog,” he murmured, “if you don't show up with that money, you'd better be deader than a cedar stump when I find you.”
He jerked the bay's reins, turning the horse hard-handed, as if it were to blame. He slapped the long ends of the reins to the winded animal's side and spurred it forward at a run. The bay chuffed hard in protest, but shot forward, resuming the same fast pace beneath the scorching desert sun.
“You fall dead on me, cayuse,” he warned, “and I'll eat your tenders and leave your carcass for the night feeders.”
He gave a dark laugh and pushed the tired animal a full hour farther until they reached a water hole at the base of a low rocky hill line. After both horse and rider had drunk their fill, Kelso started to step up into his saddle when he heard the chilling sound of a snake rattling its warning from a pile of rocks less than five feet away. Instead of swinging the already frightened bay away from the sound, he instinctively turned, snatched his Colt up from its holster and fired into the rocks, blindly. The bullet ricocheted three times off the rocks, whined back toward Kelso's head and zipped past the bay's ear.
The horse, badly spooked by the sound of the snake followed by the blast of the Colt and the whining bullet, reared in panic and jerked free of Kelso's grip.
“Whoa!” Kelso shouted. But the bay bolted fast, its reins sliding through Kelso's hand before he could stop it.
Seeing the bay bounding away from the water hole and the hillside, out across the desert floor he'd just crossed, Kelso swung his smoking Colt up in anger. He fired two wild shots at the fleeing animal before he stopped himself and let his smoking Colt slump at his side.
“You're going to let me down too,” he shouted at the animal, walking forward, seeing the bay slow to a halt less than a hundred yards away. The bay turned quarterwise to him and stared back, its head lowered, its reins hanging to the ground. Kelso saw the horse scrape a front hoof on the rocky, sandy ground.
“Stay right there, you flea-bitten bag of bones,” he murmured to himself. “I will beat you god-awful fierce.” Even as he spoke, he closed the distance between himself and the bay with his left hand held out, as if offering it some sort of treat. The bay turned its stance a little more toward him, its muzzle pushed out in curiosity. A hot breeze lifted its dusty mane.
“Thatta boy,” Kelso said, easing forward the last fifteen feet, his Colt still hanging in his right hand. He knew how much he needed the horse to get across mile after mile of rocky hills and long stretches of desert between here and Agua FrÃa. “Easy, now, ol' pal of mine,” he whispered, taking the last few steps. “You know I wouldn't hurt you for the world.”
The horse stood still, blowing and staring at him until Kelso got close enough to reach out for the dangling reins. But just as he made a grab for the reins, the bay spun sharply, bolted off twenty yards, stopped again and seemed to jeer at him.
“You lousy son of aâ” Kelso gritted his teeth, jerked his Colt up and fired again before he could stop himself. Because he was weakened and winded, the impact of the shot knocked him off his feet. As the bay turned and loped away from the sound of the shot, Kelso staggered to his feet and bolted after it, weaving, screaming, cursing both the horse and himself. He fired another wild reckless round as he ran. Again the gun's impact knocked him to the ground.
For a half mile the bay continued to play its mindless stop-and-go game with him. Kelso, falling with every shot fired, was gasping for breath and so engrossed in catching the horse, he neither saw nor heard the four unshod Indian ponies and their riders bound up behind him and sit watching him curiously from forty feet away. Still cursing the bay, Kelso staggered in place, winded and sweat-soaked, his mind bordering between sunstroke and hysteria.
“I'veÂ .Â .Â . gotÂ .Â .Â . youÂ .Â .Â . nowÂ .Â .Â . ,” he said, his breath heaving in his chest. He shoved fresh rounds into his Colt with shaking hands while the horse stood fifteen feet away, scraping its hoof on the arid sandy ground. “YouÂ .Â .Â . rottenÂ .Â .Â . dirtyÂ .Â .Â . no-goodÂ .Â .Â .” Kelso panted and wheezed and struggled to catch his breath as he finished reloading, lifted the heavy revolver with both hands and took aim.
On one of the Indian ponies behind him, a young Apache brave named Luka looked at an older warrior, Wallace Bad Man Gomez.
“This one shoots at his own horseÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” Luca whispered sidelong to the older warrior.
Without taking his dark eyes off the staggering, cursing white man in front of them, Gomez nodded and laid his hand on the stock of an old short-barreled flintlock rifle lying across his lap.
“I have seen them do even worse,” he replied, referring to his days as a scout for the U.S. Cavalry's desert campaign. He stared intently at the staggering, cursing white man. “And they wonder why we want to kill them.”
The others grunted in agreement.
Kelso, with his revolver cocked and ready, finally steadied himself and smiled a dry lip-cracking smile.
“I've got you now, you run-off son of a bitch,” he murmured to himself. He started to squeeze the trigger; but he stopped and clenched both hands tight on the gun butt as a searing pain sliced through his back. The Colt's barrel tipped upward and fired a blue-orange streak into the sky. Kelso staggered in place but remained upright. His eyes widened as he saw an arrow shaft suddenly stickling out of his chest, its chiseled stone point smeared red with his blood. His left hand turned loose of his Colt and felt the tip of the arrowhead as if to make sure it was real.
Oh no! Damn it!
Kelso said to himself. No sooner had he realized that an arrow was stuck through him than another bloody arrowhead appeared beside the first as if to reinforce his findings. “All day it'sÂ .Â .Â . been like thisÂ .Â .Â . ,” he gasped to himself. Behind him he heard his bay's hooves pounding away across the desert flatland.
Son of a bitchÂ .Â .Â .
He turned to face the four Apaches, his gun still up in his right hand, but weaving unsteadily. One of the arrows through his back had sliced one of his wide suspender straps. The strap flew loose so fast it caused the other strap to fall off his shoulder. As he'd turned, his low-slung gun belt and loose trousers fell down around his boots. He faced the Apache in his dirty long johns as a third arrow whistled in and sliced deep into his chest.
Kelso grunted with the impact of the arrow; his Colt fell from his hand. Scrambling, he managed to stoop down for the gun as he saw one of the Indians come charging toward him. He grabbed the gun and stood just in time to see pony and rider streak past him in a roil of sand. He felt a strong hand lift his hair, hat and all, atop his head, and in the next second, the rider was gone, swinging his pony in a short, tight circle, letting out a war whoop.