Authors: Ralph Cotton
HERE, KITTY KITTYÂ .Â .Â .
“Oh no,” Sam said, seeing the big cat staring at him.
At the gap in the wall, the soldiers heard the panther squall out. They turned, guns in hand, just in time to see her spring forward onto Sam and roll atop him down in the ditch.
Sam had just enough time to draw his Colt as she hit him. But in spite of her wounds, her rage was so sudden and intense, his knife flew from his hand in one direction and his Colt in the other. The cat was weakened enough by its ordeal that Sam managed to get his hands around its throat and hold it back, but it did him little good. The long, sharp fangs didn't reach his face, his neck, his jugular vein, but the claws slashed at his chest, at his shoulders.
Across the campsite three soldiers raised their rifles as one and fired. The shots missed the cat, but the roar of explosions and the impact of bullets knocking chunks of stone from the wall caused the cat to leap away. But by the time the soldiers fired again, Sam heard the cat breaking through the vine bed and vanishing into the darkness.
Sam struggled to his feet, his hands raised high, four red slashes across his bare chest. Blood ran down from the claw marks. Rifles turned and trained onto him, their barrels already smoking. He froze in place.Â .Â .Â .
“[Cotton's] works incorporateÂ .Â .Â . pace and plot in a language that ranges from lyric beauty to macabre descriptions of bestial savagery.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal
“Cotton's blend of history and imagination works because authentic Old West detail and dialogue fill his books.”
Wild 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, March 2014
Copyright Â© Ralph Cotton, 2014
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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 .
Blood Mountain Range, Old Mexico
Above a stone-lined water hole seated in the foot of the Twisted Hills, Arizona Territory Ranger Sam Burrack lay on his belly in the arid dirt hidden between two brittle stands of mesquite. On the sand flats a hundred yards below him, he saw four men on horseback riding toward the water hole at a gallop. Their duster trails flapped on the hot Mexican wind like tongues waggling from the mouths of lunatics.
With a dusty telescope to his eye, he moved from face to face, studying the men in the circular lens. The only face he recognized was that of Clyde Burke, a gunman he had left at this same watering hole a month earlier. The other men were just three hard-set faces darkened out beneath wide hat brims. Sam lay in wait like some predator of the desert floor, his duster and trail clothes long faded to the color of desert and stone.
At midmorning the scalding sun had already cast and drawn a wavering curtain of heat between a clear blue sky and rolling desert floor. Behind him at the edge of the water hole, Sam had left his dun and a spare horse, a mottled white barb, to draw their fill, having tied their reins around a rock spur standing up from the gravelly sand.
And now to wait,
he told himself.
He lowered the telescope and let his mind pore over the events leading up to now.
It had been a monthâover a month, he decidedâsince he'd left Crazy Raymond Segert lying dead on a hotel balcony in Agua FrÃa. He had no regrets about killing Raymond Segert. It had been his job to bring down the outlaw leader. Yet, recalling that day, he still saw the body of a peddler girl named Lilith Tettovia lying dead in the street below the hotel balcony. Segert had thrown her over the balcony rail, but it wasn't the fall from the balcony that had killed Lilith Tettovia. Her death had come from a bullet through her head as Sam had held her weakened body in an embrace.
Four inches to the right, the bullet would have struck him in the back of his head. But as it turned out, the bullet came in just over his shoulder and hit her squarely in her forehead. He still hadn't decided if the long-range rifle shot had been meant for the woman or for him. But he had a strong feeling it was for him. Whomever it was meant for, the shot was made by one of Segert's men, a Chinese-Mexican named Jon Ho. Sam had every intention of killing Jon Ho, he reminded himself.
He was still working undercover; he was still careful to keep his identity a secret.
His objective a month ago had been to infiltrate the gangs operating back and forth across the border out of Agua FrÃa and the Blood Mountain Range. He hadn't been successful in joining either group of outlaws, but he had found out that the two gangs were in reality only one gang run by one manâBell Madson. It was useful knowing the head of which snake he needed to cut off. Now that Segert was dead, Madson was, without question, the head of the snake.
Sam had also established himself as a hard case, a gunman who was out to do anything that had a dollar attached to it. While Madson might not trust him yet, there was no one on Madson's payroll who suspected him of being an Arizona Ranger working on the sly. Even better, he reminded himself, after he'd killed Madson's right-hand man, Crazy Raymond Segert, in a straight-up gun battle, there would be few in the gang who would be quick to lock horns with him mano a mano. Strange as it sounded to him, he had established himself as an outlaw a lot faster than it had taken him to establish himself as a lawman. And he had managed to do it well enough that most hard cases prowling the desert knew himâor thought they did.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
Good enough.Â .Â .Â .
Now he was back on the job.
Sam remained in the mesquite cover the next twenty minutes, watching the four riders draw closer, riding abreast, to a path leading up to the water hole ahead of a wide, roiling stream of trail dust their horses raised. Sam shook his head.
Nobody rides abreast this time of day,
at least nobody who wanted to keep the hair atop his head. When he raised the lens back to his eye, Sam looked out past the four riders all the way across the sand flats to a stretch of sloping hills standing beneath the Twisted Hills. At this time of morning, he could still see the hills well enough to distinguish any signs of life and what that life-form might be. Another hour or so and the wavering heat would obscure these foothills from view for the rest of the day.
Good Apache weather,
Sam told himself.
The Apache knew this; they used the time of day or night to their advantage. Their knowledge of earth and weather was as instinctive to them as the scent of blood to a wolf, the sense of sight to a hawk. Sam knew that not seeing the Apache in the foothills this time of day did not mean they weren't there. It meant they knew the desert wouldn't yet hide them from watchful eyes. When the wavering heat overtook the flatlands, the Apache would venture down. They would cross toward the place where they had first spotted the wide trail dust.
So, here we goÂ .Â .Â . ,
Sam told himself. It appeared his first job of the day would be to save the hides of some of the men he was sent here to kill. That struck him as darkly ironic, he thought, rising onto his knees, his rifle pressed to his shoulder, levered and cocked at Clyde Burke from ten feet away.
now!” Burke shouted, all four riders and horses startled at the sight of something rising from the sand that way, sand pouring down from Sam's shoulders. The riders struggled to keep their spooked horses from bolting away beneath them.
“Everybody, freeze up!” Sam shouted, hoping that he wouldn't have to fire his rifle. On the slimmest outside chance that the Apache in the foothills hadn't seen the trail dust, he didn't want to send a rifle shot resounding in a five-mile radius.
The three other men tightened on their reins but kept their hands chest high. So did Burke.
“Jesus, Jones!” he said. “What the blazing hell are you doing here?”
“I felt bad leaving you, so I came back,” Sam said, thinking quick. He stood up, the rifle still pointed and cocked.
?” Burke said. The other three men watched and listened.
“I got sidetracked,” Sam said. “But I'm here now. I even brought you a horse.”
“As you can see, I already acquired a horse. A gun too,” said Burke. He gave a mirthless grin. “Like you said, there seemed to be plenty of guns and horses drifting around out here.”
“Glad it worked out for you,” Sam said, not sounding as though he cared one way or the other.
“And I heard how you were
too,” said Burke. “I heard how you killed Segert and a couple of his men in Agua FrÃa. Stuff like that always gets around.”
“I was ambushed by them,” Sam said. “I did what any clear-thinking man would do. I killed the ones I should. I chased away the one that had no stake in the game.”
Burke nodded. He stared at Sam as he spoke to the other three gunmen.
“Pards,” he said sidelong, “this is Jones, the man I told you about. Be advised that every damn thing he just said is most likely a blackguarding lie.”
“So, this is Jones,” said a tough-looking gunman wearing a high Montana-crowned Stetson. As he spoke, his hands lowered a little. He and the other two men began to inch their horses away from Burke and form a half circle around Sam.
“Clyde,” Sam said calmly, his rifle still leveled at Burke's chest, “you might explain to your pals how the closer they try to get around me, the tighter my finger gets on this trigger.”
Burke knew enough to realize that this man Jones had no hesitancy about killing. Yet he only sat staring at Sam.
“I meant to tell you fellows,” he said to the other three, “Jones here is one of them suspicious kind of folks, always thinks everybody is out to get him.”
“Adios, Clyde,” Sam said with finality. He braced the rifle in his hands, ready to fire.
“Hold it, Jones!”
said Burke. He quickly recommitted to raising his hands chest high. He gave the other three men a jerk of his head, calling them back in. “There's no need in you breaking ugly the first smallest thing we might disagree on.”
As the three inched their horses back beside Burke, Sam kept his rifle tensed, ready.
“We disagree on a lot, Clyde,” Sam said. “The last thing you told me was that I'd better hope I never see you again.”
“It was?” said Burke, looking surprised. Sam saw that he wanted to ease the tension, get the rifle bead off his chest.
“It was,” said Sam.
“All right,” said Burke. “I admit I was piqued at you, leaving me out here with no horse, no gun, Apache crawling all aroundâ”
“The question is,” Sam said, cutting him off, “are you and your pals here going to do something to cause me to drop this hammer?” He gestured his eyes toward the distant hill line. “The minute this rifle barks, the Apache are going to come to see what's left to pick over.”
Burke looked off toward the Twisted Hills. “You figure they're still here?” he said.
“They've been here a hundred years or so,” Sam said. “I've seen no sign of them leaving.”
“I meant, right here, right now,” Burke said.
“They locked on to the four of you the minute they saw you stirring up dust,” Sam said. “Only fools ride abreast that way. It makes too wide a rise of dust.”
“Hey, watch the name-calling, Jones,” the man with the Montana-crowned Stetson warned. “Killing Dirty Tommy Mullins and the Argentinean doesn't cut you a width swath, far as I'm concerned.”
Sam didn't answer. He looked back at Burke.
“Want to sit here and see if I'm right about the Apache?” he asked Burke.
Burke scratched his beard stubble as if in consideration.
“You brought me a horse, huh?” he asked.
The other men gave him a curious look. They couldn't believe he was falling for it.
“He's over there watering,” he said.
“What about a gun?” Burke asked.
“No gun,” Sam said. “I didn't trust you that much.” He gestured at Burke's mount. “Now that I see you've already got yourself a horse, I'm keeping the one I brought as a spare.”
“This man thinks we're idiots, Burke,” the man with the Montana-crowned Stetson cut in. “He didn't come here thinking you were still here after all this time.”
“Hush up, Montana. I know why he come here,” said Burke without taking his eyes off Sam. “He come here headed the same place we're headed. Am I right, Jones?”
Sam only nodded.
Burke took a deep breath. “Jones, this is Jarvis Finland, the Montana Kid,” he said. “If you think Montana won't kill you, you'll be wrong starting off.”
Montana Kid,” Sam said, eyeing Finland up and down.
“One and the same,” Finland said proudly.
“And this is Stanley Black,” said Burke, gesturing toward the next gunman, a rat-faced young man with pinched cheeks and a crooked nose.
Sam only nodded.
“And this isâ” Burke said, gesturing toward the third man.
“We met already,” said the third man. He pushed his hat brim up and Sam recognized him as the gunman he had chased out of town the day he'd shot it out with Segert and his men. “I'm Boyd Childers,” the third man said.
“Oh, that's right,” said Burke. “I nearly forgot, you two have met.” His sly grin told Sam that he hadn't forgotten a thing. “Boyd here told us how you and him stood each other to a truce after the gunfight. Said you watched him mount up and ride out of Agua FrÃa. Is that how you recall it, Jones?”
Sam recalled telling this man to leave town, not slow down and not look back. The man had raced away on foot, and had not even stopped long enough to mount his horseâleft it standing at a hitch rail. He stared at Boyd Childers, letting the nervous-looking gunman wonder what he would reply. Childers looked embarrassed with Sam's eyes searching his.
“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Sam said finally, letting Boyd Childers off the hook. He saw relief flood through the gunman.
Sam turned to Burke. “I figured, when I saw you coming, you're headed out to find the three bags of gold I hid from Segert.”
“You'd be right in thinking that,” said Burke. “Would I be right, figuring you're headed the same place?”
Sam only stared at him. “Wherever I'm going, you'd also be right figuring I don't want any partners,” he said bluntly. “How were you going to find the gold anyway? Turn over every rock on the hillside?”
“Might have had to,” said Burke. “But now that we're all here, let's talk about partnering up.”
“Didn't you hear me, Clyde?” Sam said. “No partners.” Yet even as he objected, he began working the idea around in his head. He still needed to find Madson and his men. Burke was part of the gang. “I figure with you riding for Madson, you'd be prone to letting him know about the gold, maybe even giving it up to him,” he said.
Burke started to answer, but before he could, something sliced past his face. “What theÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
He looked around just as Childers let out a yelp and grasped an arrow shaft sticking from his shoulder. Another arrow thumped into Montana's saddlebags. His horse reared. As it touched down, he drew his Colt and fired wildly into the rocks above the water hole.
Stanley Black also let out a sharp yelp and stiffened as an arrow sliced across his hat and left the front brim hanging down below his eyes.
“Injuns!” shouted Burke, gigging his horse forward, making for cover. Upon hearing Finland's gunfire, he jerked his own Colt from its holster on his hip.
“Don't shoot!” Sam yelled, but it did no good.
Montana fired wildly in three different directions. So did Burke. Stanley Black did the same as arrows streaked in, broke and bounced off rocks, sliced through mesquite and low cactus.