Ralph Compton The Convict Trail

BOOK: Ralph Compton The Convict Trail
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Table of Contents
 
 
Trailblazer with a Tin Star
The day after tomorrow he'd take custody of six dangerous killers. It was nearly 250 miles to Fort Smith, and not a single yard of it would be easy.
The marshal smiled, rain beating on his lean, leathery face. As a youngster he'd pushed cattle along the Chisholm and Western trails, routes first forged by others. But now he was about to pioneer his own trail—northeast across plains, mountains, and rivers, a dust-and-cuss journey across an unforgiving land that offered nothing except a hundred different ways to kill a man. With an empty wagon, plenty of supplies, and good weather, the trip south from Fort Smith had been relatively uneventful. But heading back would be different now that fall was starting to crack down hard. Buff Stringfellow and his boys were no bargains either. Six desperate men who would do anything to escape the noose would be a handful.
“I'm blazing the Convict Trail,” Kane said to himself.
SIGNET
Published by New American Library, a division of
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, December 2008
Copyright © The Estate of Ralph Compton, 2008
eISBN : 978-1-440-64061-2
All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
 
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
PUBLISHER'S NOTE
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.
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.
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THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
 
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
 
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind's eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
 
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
 
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
—
Ralph Compton
Chapter 1
Deputy Marshal Logan Kane was irritated. A man who had long since lost the habit of smiling easily, the face he turned to his elderly companion was masked by a ferocious scowl.
“I should have gunned him, Sam. I should have drawed my Colt an' put a bullet in his fat belly.”
Up on the box of the prison wagon Sam Shaver leaned to his right, spat a stream of tobacco juice over the side, narrowly missing Kane's horse, and asked, “What fer?”
The fact that Sam chose to ignore the obvious irritated Kane further. “Highway robbery, damn it. That's what fer.”
Sam was not by nature a questioning man, and now he held his tongue. For a few moments the only sound was the thud of mule hooves and the steady banging of the wooden water bucket that hung from a hook at the rear of the wagon.
Kane spoke into the silence, his voice cracking with anger. “A dollar-ninety-seven to cross the Red. A dollar-fifty for the wagon an' mules, thirty-seven cents for me and my horse and”—his simmering outrage reached the boiling point and his voice rose to a shout—“he had the gall to charge ten cents for you. Said oncet you clumb down from the wagon you was considered a pedestrian.”
Sam's eyes were on the forested landscape ahead. “In all my born days I never did meet an honest ferryman.” He was quiet for a spell, then seemed to make up his mind about something. Finally he said, “You're right, Logan. You should've gunned him.”
Somewhat mollified that Shaver had agreed with him, the marshal said, “Maybe on the way back. I'll put a bullet in his greedy hide and then we'll be on our way.”
“Crackerjack plan, Logan. I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that he drawed down on you, to make it look good for Judge Parker, like.” The old man smiled. “I never did cotton to a ferryman with a bald head an' red beard anyhow. Serve him right fer lookin' like that, I say.”
To further justify his homicidal intent, Kane said, “When we go back the way we come, I know he'll charge us sixty cents for the convicts. He'll say them boys are pedestrians.”
“Then you should gun him fer sure, Logan.”
Kane was silent for a few moments, then said, “Of course, I could refuse to pay. Tell him, ‘Send your bill to the judge and be damned to ye.' ”
“You could do that very thing, Logan. Save a bullet thataway.”
“I reckon it's something a man should study on for a spell, Sam. I mean, which way to go for the better.”
“I reckon it is. But remember, it's no big thing to gun a robbin' ferryman.”
“Well, I never shot one o' them afore,” Kane said, turning the thought over in his mind.
“There's always a first time for everything, Logan. But if it does come to a killin', just don't let it upset you none.”
Kane glanced at the sky, an upturned ceramic bowl of pale blue ribboned with streamers of scarlet and jade. The moon was already rising, transparent, hovering above the surrounding treetops like a white moth. “Coming up on dark, Sam,” he said. “Best we find a place to camp.”
“I been smelling water for the last two miles,” the old man said. “We must be coming up on a creek.”
The trail was a winding wagon and cattle path, cut through thick forests of pine and hardwood, mostly crowded stands of elm, oak, dogwood and ash. Among the tree trunks grew cacti, ferns and wild orchids that nodded their bonneted heads in a gusting wind. The untouched timber around him had a serenity and permanence that reminded Kane of the columns of an old Spanish cathedral he'd once seen down in the Mexican Durango country. That he'd splattered the church's ancient oak doors with the blood and brains of the bank robber Pancho Ramos had done nothing to spoil his appreciation of the holy place, then or since.
Now, among the trees, he experienced the same relaxed inner peace he'd felt in the ancient cathedral, only tonight the stars would substitute for candles, and the smell of orchids for the blue drift of incense. He had postponed his decision on the crooked ferryman until later, and he wouldn't have to deal with the six dangerous convicts he had to escort back to Fort Smith until tomorrow.
For the present, he was looking forward to coffee, crisp fried salt pork, skillet bread and his blankets.
As good as he felt, he dared to hope that just maybe the dream would not come tonight. His mouth tightened under his mustache. Maybe tonight it would leave him alone . . . they would leave him alone.
“Wash up ahead, Marshal,” Sam said. He was leaning forward in his seat, his eyes searching into the shadowed distance. “Maybe you should ride on ahead an' take a look-see.”
Kane kneed his sorrel into a trot and rode up on the wash. Both banks were broken down by the passage of wagons and cattle, and only a trickle of water ran over the sandy bottom. He swung to his right and followed the stream into the trees. After a few yards the banks narrowed to less than two feet, but here the water ran clear and several inches deep. The stream gradually arced to the north, through a clearing about half an acre in extent, roofed by a leafy overhang of elm and post oak. There was grass enough for the pair of mules and his horse, dry firewood aplenty and space to park the big prison wagon. It would do.
BOOK: Ralph Compton The Convict Trail
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