Read Sunset Trail Online

Authors: Wayne D. Overholser

Sunset Trail

BOOK: Sunset Trail




They came suddenly, came from where an instant before there had been nothing at all, their yells high and terrifying. Swift
moving figures circled the wagons, painted bronze-skinned devils, loosing a cloud of arrows that rapped into the wagons with

. Flame tongues vomited into the dawn light. Purdy’s exulting battle cry rose above the din as a Kiowa was knocked off his
horse. “Give it to ’em fer hoss ’n’ beaver, boys. Thar’s one fer the wolves to chaw!”


It was May 1846, and Independence, with civilization behind it and wilderness ahead, teemed with savage life. Acom mon trail
stemmed westward and split. One branch bore up the Platte and across South Pass and on to Oregon; the other stretched toward
the Arkansas and forked at Cimarron Crossing, one road following the river to Fort Bent where it angled south, the other taking
the dry route across the terrible
Jornada del Muerto
, the Journey of the Dead Man

Along these trails the decision for empire would be made. In the northwest the British still held their claim to the Oregon
country. At Santa Fé swashbuckling
Manuel Armijo strutted in his gold braid and crimson sash and ruled with the same cruel hand that had marked so many Mexican
governors of the past.

Bruce Shane, standing on the corner of Courthouse Square, listened absent-mindedly to the wag-oners’ thundering oaths. He
thought sourly that, except for the foreign agents who worked beneath the surface here in Independence, there were few indeed
who realized that the destiny of a great nation would be decided out there in the plains and mountains, along the roads that
were little more than wheel ruts of loaded Conestogas.

Atall lithe man was Bruce Shane, as capable of playing the fast game as the slow one, as much at home visiting in a Ute lodge
as in the White House in Washington. He had returned only the day before from Washington, his mind heavy with the importance
of the mission that had been given him. Discarding the clothes of polite society, he had donned his worn buckskins, slid his
Green River knife and Colt revolving pistol into his belt, and turned back a page in his book of life.

“How thar, Shane!” a man called. “Heerd you was in Washington. Confabin’ with the big bucks.”

Bruce wheeled to the mountain man who had come up behind him. “Bill Purdy!” he bellowed. “What are you doing in civilization?
Get lost?”

“Reckon so.” Purdy motioned to the turmoil in the street. “Ain’t heerd so much cussin’ since I was hyar the last time. That
what you call civileezashun?”

“Sure. You’ve got to be mighty civilized to cuss like a muleskinner.”

Purdy sniffed. “I’ll take a cañon where you don’t heer nuthin’ but a Ute war whup. This kentry’s goin’ to the devil. Wasn’t
no crowd like this the last time I was hyar.”

Purdy stared disdainfully at the street. He was a small wiry man, his face as wrinkled as an overripe apple, filled with a
restlessness that had driven him from the Río Grande to the Columbia. The ashes of his thousands of campfires made an aimless
trail through mountains and prairies. Hungry for white man’s “fixin’s” he had come to Independence only to find he had no
stomach for it.

“Won’t be long till those cañons will be gone,” Bruce said soberly. “The country’s on wheels this year.”

“Danged if hit ain’t. The creeks’re trapped out, and beaver’s down to a dollar a plew.”

“I’ve got a job for you, Bill.”

“You know me better’n that, Bruce.” Purdy turned a hurt face to him. “I kin still tell fat cow from pore bull. Long as I kin,
I ain’t takin’ no job in this hyar mess you call civileezashun.”

“Let’s have a drink.”

“Thet shines.” Purdy’s bearded face softened under a grin. “Muley Mogan’s got some skull varnish thet’ll take the hide right
offen your gullet.”

They pushed through the milling crowd, Bruce mentally cursing himself for his mistake. He should have known that his abrupt
mention of a job would have slashed the oldster’s pride, but his mind had been on other matters. He needed Purdy, and, now
that he took time to think about it, he knew there was only one way to get the mountain man’s help.

Bruce, who had known Independence for years, had never seen it like it was this spring of 1846. Emigrants for Oregon waiting
for the grass. Traders. Mountain men in fringed buckskins. Dragoons from Fort Leavenworth. Gamblers. Adventurers staked by
relatives who lacked the courage to risk the wilderness,
from the north country. Thieves and killers wanted by the police of a dozen nations. Sky pilots who preached of a fiery hell.
Hard-faced women looking for anything that would better their lives. Blanketed Indians of the friendly tribes.

This was Independence, doorway to empire. A finger pointing westward. Cradle of men’s dreams. Hodge-podge of humanity. Here
was the essence of life: marriage for those who had cast their lot together and refused to wait, birth on the trail with a
dusty blanket for a bed and the sky for a roof, perhaps death and a sagebrush grave. This was where the timid had their first
and only look at the frontier, where the daring cut the shackles society had forged and rolled out into the unknown to mold
their own destiny. Gamblers preyed on the unwary, stripping them of the money that might make a dream come true. Violence,
then, and blood and flashing Green River knives. The smell of powder and the stink from the mule markets.

Out there was the untamed wind and land that reached to the sky. Thirst and starvation and the scalping knife. And farther,
if there was still life, was the treasure, out there toward the sunset. Oregon by one road. Santa Fé by the other.

That was the run of Bruce Shane’s thoughts as he stood with Bill Purdy at the bar in Mogan’s Saloon. He had his place in this,
a vital place given him by officials in Washington, but two men had twice as much chance of carrying out the perilous mission
assigned him as one.

“You know a man named Ed Catherwood?” Bruce asked.

“Yup.” Purdy gnawed off a chew of tobacco and tongued it into his cheek. “Seen him jest tuther day. Headin’ fer Santy Fee
soon as the grass is up. Him and his pard, Curt Glover. Got a big outfit.”

“They have a store in Santa Fé, don’t they?”

“Yup,” Purdy repeated. “Catherwood’s a square ’coon. Ain’t shore ’bout Glover.”

“Where’ll I find Catherwood?”

“Got a cabin at the edge o’ town. Him and his kid Mick.” Purdy rolled his quid to the other side of his mouth. “What’re you
drivin’ at?”

“I’ve been looking for Catherwood,” Bruce said evasively. “Who’s guiding their train?”

“Catherwood don’t need no guide. Been over the trail so much he could go it blind.” Purdy turned and spat. “Glover asked me
to go with ’em, but don’t reckon I hanker to see Santy Fee this year. Might go fur as the Cimarron Crossin’.”

“Reckon they’d take me?” Bruce asked casually. “Had a notion lately I wanted to see Santa Fé.”

“I’ll give Catherwood a push,” Purdy promised. “He kin use another rifle.” He lowered his voice.

“Y’er crazy to go to Santy Fee this year. Eff thet’s the way a man’s stick floats, then it’s what he’s got to do, but you’ll
shore lose your ha’r.”

“It fits pretty tight.”

“Not tight enough with buffler plumb scerce like they is. Every tribe on the plains is honin’ fer trouble.” He brought his
mouth close to Bruce’s ear. “We’re fixin’ to fight Mexico shore as my rifle shoots center. AY ankee in Santy Fee ain’t gonna
stay healthy long.”

“What’s the talk in Santa Fé and Taos about Armijo?”

All shiny brass and no guts.” Purdy turned to spit again. “Some gab ’bout separatin’ and formin’ a Republic o’ their own.”

Bruce would have told him then if Armadillo Dunn hadn’t come in. Aswell-chested bull of a man, Dunn could break an enemy’s
spine with two hands and a knee, and do it with as little feeling as he’d wring a pigeon’s neck. He paused inside the door,
muddy brown eyes sweeping the room. Seeing Purdy, he came toward him in a rolling walk, meaty lips holding a malicious grin.

“How thar, Purdy,” Dunn rumbled.

Purdy swung away from the bar, hand darting to his knife, but he was too slow. Moving with surprising speed for so big a man,
Dunn clutched Purdy’s right wrist as his other hand jerked the oldster’s coonskin cap from his head.

“Wa-al, I’ll be damned,” Dunn crowed. “No ha’r, Purdy.”

Bill Purdy had lost his hair years ago to the Co-manches and they had left him for dead at Point of Rocks. It was a matter
of intense shame with him, and he always wore his coonskin cap regardless of the occasion. His friends understood and ignored
it, but Armadillo Dunn was no friend. Bruce had never heard how the trouble between them had started, but it went back over
the years.

Purdy cursed, tried to pull free, and failed. He reached for his knife with his left hand, but Dunn jerked him forward and
brought a great fist swinging upward in a blow that held the power of a mule kick. The old man’s teeth
together and he went down as if he’d been clubbed with a gun barrel. He fell flat, the sun from a front window shining on
his horribly scarred head.

“Ain’t much left o’ thet old coot.” Dunn’s muddy eyes fixed on Bruce. “Might as well go find a hole and die.”

Armadillo Dunn had held a bad name along the frontier for years. On at least two occasions he had hired out as guide, his
caravan had been attacked by Indians and destroyed, and he’d been the only one to get back to Independence. He’d claimed that
he’d had a fast horse, and, when he’d seen that it was all up with the wagon train, he’d broken through the ring of savages
and escaped, an explanation which was less than convincing.

Nobody had fought Armadillo Dunn and won. Most had died or been maimed for life. Bruce knew that, and he knew he had a bigger
job than brawling in a saloon, but he wasn’t a man to stop and reason at such a time.

Bruce hit Dunn in the face, a looping blow that staggered the big man. He hit him again, driving him back across the room
and upsetting a card table. Men scattered before him, and formed a circle. Someone yelled: “Give him Green River, Shane!”

No one liked Dunn. He was a coyote in a grizzly’s body, a killer and probably a thief and traitor, but there was none to see
that Bruce Shane got a fair fight. It was the two of them now. No rules. A prim-itive struggle, perhaps with death for the
loser, or at best the loss of his eyes.

Now Dunn held his ground, using his weight to force Bruce back, taking a dozen blows so that he could give one. He could afford
to fight that way, knowing his greater strength and weight would eventually wear his lighter enemy down.

Bruce sledged the squat man on the nose, felt the squish of flesh and saw the spurt of crimson. He cracked him on the side
of the head, blacked an eye, and smashed him on the jaw. Still Dunn’s grin clung to his wide battered mouth, a grin that said
he’d never been knocked out and Bruce Shane wasn’t the man who could do it. He kept crowding, needing but one chance. One
good chance, and he’d take this punishment to get it.

It came when Bruce slipped, his swinging right making a complete miss. Dunn got him then, a ham-like fist cracking against
the side of his face. A million lights flashed across Bruce’s brain. He fell, but he didn’t go out.

Ama n yelled: “He’ll get your eyes, Shane!”

Prodded by the words, Bruce rolled, heard Dunn drop on his knees, and curse. He’d aimed to smash Bruce’s ribs.

Coming to his feet, Bruce rubbed a hand across his blurred eyes, and backed around a card table.

“Stand up and fight!” Dunn roared, lunging around the table in pursuit.

Still Bruce retreated, keeping away from those outstretched hands that would snap his neck once they had fastened upon it.
Slowly his head cleared and, reversing his tactics, came at Dunn, moving swiftly and unexpectedly. Lowering himself and turning,
he pulled the man’s arm over his shoulder and twisted. Dunn flew over Bruce and crashed onto the floor, wind gushing out of
him in a yeasty sigh.

There was that one short moment when Dunn lay paralyzed, lungs laboring for breath, long enough for Bruce to drop upon him
exactly as Dunn had aimed to do a moment before. Again wind spurted out of the man. Ribs caved under Bruce’s knees. A downsweeping
fist cracked Dunn’s jaw.

“Give him Green River, you fool!” Purdy shrilled. “He’d slit your gullet eff he had a chance.”

The knife was in Bruce’s hands, the point against Dunn’s throat. Terror was in the man’s bulging eyes, in the whimper that
broke out of him.

“I wouldn’t do that,” a man said, a soft voice Bruce had never heard before.

“Let him have it!” Purdy cried.

Bruce came to his feet. It wasn’t in him to knife a man who lay helplessly under him.

“Get out of town, Dunn,” Bruce grated. “Next time I’ll kill you.”

Dunn lumbered to his feet. Still laboring for breath, he moved in his rolling gait to the door.

“You fool,” Purdy growled. “He’ll git you in the back shore.”

Bruce paid no attention. He was looking at the soft-voiced man who had spoken to him. His eyes and hair were black, his face
inscrutable. No buckskins for this man or ordinary linsey. He wore black broadcloth and a fine beaver hat, a handsome polished
man with none of the frontier roughness about him.

“So you sided Armadillo Dunn,” Bruce said evenly. “I reckon you’re the only man in Independence who would.”

“You won your fight,” the other said. “There’s no sport in cutting an enemy’s throat when he’s helpless. I’d have said the
same if you’d been underneath.”

“What’s your interest in Dunn?”

“I have no interest in him.”

“I wouldn’t have slit his gullet,” Bruce said hotly, “though he had it coming, but I don’t like another man telling me how
to fight.” He laid a hand on his Colt butt. “Maybe you’d like to back your talk with lead.”

“I never brawl unless there is a reason. When there is, I kill a man. I have no reason to kill you.” The man nodded, his veneer
of courtesy a mask to cover his feelings, and shouldered his way through the ring.

“You dang’ idjit!” Purdy cried witheringly. “You let Dunn walk out.”

But Bruce wasn’t listening. He was watching the black-eyed man walk in an unhurried pace to the door. When he was gone, Bruce
asked: “Who is he?”

“Calls himself Wade Flint,” a bullwhacker said.

“Been lookin’ for a way to get to Santy Fee. I hear Curt Glover’s takin’ him.”

“Let’s have another drink of Mogan’s skull varnish.” Bruce turned to the bar, wondering if Ed Catherwood knew about Wade Flint.

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