Authors: Ralph W. Cotton
Sam looked around the house’s interior one more time before following the long marks in the dirt. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the body of the dead Mexican lying sprawled in a dried puddle of dark blood, a machete only inches from his outstretched hand.
“It’s only the start,” he said, preparing himself.
Walking on, he saw the body of yet another man, this one lying ten yards away, also in a dried pool of blood. His head was missing. A few yards ahead, in the rear of the rock yard, he saw the table standing upended in the dirt, a naked, bullet-riddled body tied to it.
…, he concluded, seeing the grizzly handiwork of a monster.
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, October 2012
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Copyright © Ralph Cotton, 2012
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For Mary Lynn…of course
The Mexican Hill Country, Old Mexico
Arizona Territory Ranger Samuel Burrack rode up a long, slanted hillside above miles of smelting furnaces and mining encampments. When he’d reached a point where he could breathe without the acid odor of melted copper burning his nostrils, he stopped and pulled his bandanna down from the bridge of his nose.
Clean Mexican air
…, he told himself, inhaling deeply, letting his lungs take their fill. Beneath him he felt the stallion chuff and blow and lift its muzzle to a cool passing breeze.
“You too, pard?” he said quietly, patting the big Appaloosa’s withers with a gloved hand. He nudged the stallion forward, his right hand holding his Winchester rifle across his lap.
Fifty yards up the trail, he found the tracks he had lost earlier when he’d started crossing a hard rock ledge. Now that the ledge had given way to softer dirt and gravel, he saw the hoofprints of the two horses he’d
been tracking all the way from the foot of the Sierra Madres.
For the last three days,
he reminded himself. Wanting a closer look, he stopped the stallion and stepped down from the saddle, rifle in hand.
Yep, it’s them all right,
he told himself, looking closer at the sets of prints. He had seen early on where a faulty nail head had broken off one of the shoes, leaving a shallow gap imprinted in the dirt. Soon that gap had filled with packed dirt. But crossing the rock ledge, the impacted dirt from the shoe must have broken loose. Now that the two horses had left the stone surface, he knew the empty nail hole would fill with dirt again. But that was all right, he thought; he was back on their trail.
He had come to know the hooves of these two horses. At a walk, one of them veered a little to the left over a short distance of twenty or so feet—the sign of a lazy hand on its reins. The other horse, the one with the broken nail head in its shoe, had a splayed right front hoof. With every step this animal took, the hoofprint turned a slight bit outward—hardly noticeable except to the sharpened tracker’s eye.
Sam stood up from the prints and looked all around. He was not the gifted tracker that he would have liked to be, but he was still learning. Learning, with his fingers in the dirt. The only way to learn, as his captain would say. And his captain was right, he told himself, walking along, reins in hand, leading the stallion along the narrow trail.
Tracking required close attention to detail. Some men worked hard at learning it. Others didn’t. Some
men pinned on a badge thinking being gun-handy was all it took to be a good Ranger. But even though he’d only been a Ranger for a little over two years, he’d already seen that men who didn’t learn sound tracking skills soon left the trail in defeat, or worse. Some of them left in a plank box.
He’d not only learned the particulars about these two horses, how they moved and what identifying marks they left behind—he’d also put more than just a little thought into the two men riding them. One was a quick-to-kill Missouri madman named Hodding “Hot Aces” Siebert. The folded wanted posters inside the flap of his bib-front shirt told the Ranger that Hodding Siebert had been outrunning the law for over three years. Siebert knew that getting caught left nothing of his future but a hard drop at the end of a hangman’s rope.
Sam knew that with such a grim reckoning awaiting him, Hot Aces Siebert played out his life hard and fast. He took what he wanted when he wanted it, and heaven help the man who tried to stop him. But Siebert wasn’t the first killer the Ranger had hunted down, nor did Sam have any intention of allowing him to be the last. So, while Siebert’s murderous regard for the rest of the world gave Sam no cause for alarm, it did hold his attention.
Sam knew that in Siebert’s three years of freedom from Yuma Penitentiary, the man and his various cohorts had robbed some nine banks, three trains and a dozen or more payrolls. At each robbery he’d left at least one dead man lying in his wake. In addition to
the killings while in pursuit of his trade, Siebert was known for senseless indiscriminant killings all along the border country—an unpredictable lunatic with a gun. Especially when riding alone, left to his own devices, Sam told himself. Maybe riding with a partner would help keep him in check. He hoped so.