The Last Ride of Caleb O'Toole

BOOK: The Last Ride of Caleb O'Toole
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Copyright © 2013 by Eric Pierpoint

Cover and internal design © 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover illustration © James Brown

Map illustration © Ute Simon

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

www.jabberwockykids.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the publisher.

Source of Production: Versa Press, East Peoria, Illinois, USA

Date of Production: July 2013

Run Number: 20656

This book is dedicated to children everywhere. For within them lies great courage and inspiration.

And to the memory of my father, Robert Pierpoint, who was also my best tennis and fishing buddy.

Caleb O'Toole ran through the blazing streets until he thought his heart would burst through his chest. The night air was filled with the choking smoke and ash of fires that had been started by a mob of terrified townsfolk. They were burning down the houses of the dead, of those who had perished in the cholera epidemic that had spread throughout the population of this cattle town in the middle of Kansas. It wasn't just the fires and the cholera that had the citizens in a panic. Murderers and thieves were about.

“Tilly!” Caleb shouted as he desperately searched the streets for his little sister. He ducked down the alley past the Last Chance Saloon. “Til…” he gasped, choking from the smoke. Tears streaked his face, tears that came from the grief of having lost his loving father to the deadly grip of cholera just two days before. Caleb had buried him with his own two hands. And now his beautiful mother was gravely ill with the disease.

Caleb stopped, his hands on his knees, trying to catch his wind.
CRACK!
A shower of sparks warned him as the sign from Mrs. Greeley's Finery crashed down from above. Caleb dove out of the way just in time. He yanked off his hat and slapped away the sparks that burned through his shirt. “Tumble!” he called. During the confusion of the night, scared by the screams and the gunshots, their crazy dog, Tumble, had run off and little Tilly went looking for him.

Caleb raced past the train depot, but there was no one around. Trains hadn't stopped there in weeks because of the cholera. He dashed over to the schoolhouse where his father had taught, thinking that perhaps Tilly went there. He ached knowing that his father would never again be that wise, sturdy figure who stood out front and kept the boys in line as they filed into the little school. Caleb darted around to the back. There was still no sign of his sister. He vaulted over the schoolyard fence, then leaped onto the wooden walkway that connected all the stores along Main Street, peering into the windows along the way. Fine brick buildings stocked with brightly colored wares were mixed in with the old wooden shacks that were relics of the past before the cattle boom hit some seven years ago. No Tilly anywhere!

The loud crack of a gunshot stopped Caleb in his tracks. Just ahead, a huge man with a smoking revolver, wearing a hat and a long black duster, backed out of Jim Jackson's Mercantile. The flash of a shotgun blast lit things up from inside the store. The man in the duster whirled around and fired back as he tossed a bag over his shoulder. Mr. Jackson, mortally wounded, crashed through the glass storefront, the shotgun dangling from his helpless fingers. Suddenly, the big man looked at Caleb and raised his pistol. Caleb dove behind a rain barrel.

“I see you there, boy,” said the mountain of a man as he advanced on Caleb. “Come on out now.”

Caleb held his breath, his heart pounding in his chest.
Run
, his mind screamed, but his legs felt like lead. The sweat of his fear trickled down his back. Carefully, Caleb peered around the barrel. In the firelight, he caught a glimpse of the man's fat cheeks under his hat, his mouth set in a gleeful grin. The big man's gun roared. A chunk of the rain barrel blew up near Caleb's head and he felt the sting of wooden splinters in his face. He could hear the man chuckle to himself.

“There he is!” a voice cried.

“Over at Jackson's!” another shout rose. “Get him!”

Caleb's attention was suddenly drawn to a commotion coming from the street over by Town Hall.

The huge killer turned to face the advancing men and snapped off three shots. He quickly ducked away, using the cover of smoke to escape. The men raised their rifles and fired back, shattering a window just feet from Caleb. He bolted like a deer from his hiding place, fearful that he might get gunned down in the crossfire.

Caleb raced for his life. As he turned down the alley, he saw three men in masks toss lit torches into the Andersons' home. There was no one alive in the sad old house. All had perished in the epidemic. One of the men lost his mask as he threw his torch. It was Henry Kalbe, a nasty, skinny do-gooder. Kalbe cheered and shook his fist as the curtains in the house caught fire.

“Out evil!” shouted Kalbe, nearly frothing at the mouth. He suddenly saw Caleb and his crazed eyes lit up in the blazing fire as if he was possessed. “We'll be a comin' for yours, Caleb O'Toole! The devil is in your house too!”

Caleb sprinted down the street to the Sheriff's office. As he burst through the door, the black mustachioed Sheriff W. W. Winstead and Deputy Daniel Foley tossed a drunken man roughly into an already crowded jail cell. They quickly swung their rifles toward Caleb. Caleb hit the deck and the lawmen jerked their guns up at the last second. Foley's knees were knocking, but the Sheriff was a tough and steady western man, as much cactus as Ponderosa pine. It took nerves of steel to stand up to the gunfighters and thieves that passed through Great Bend. One look into the deadly calm of Sheriff W. W. Winstead's piercing eyes would usually send the outlaws packing.

“Lord, Caleb!” growled the Sheriff. “I nearly blew your head off! What are you doing out? You best get home to your family.”

“Tilly's gone! I can't find her anywhere,” said Caleb as he picked himself up off the floor. “And someone just shot Jim Jackson. Killed him cold.”

“Son of a skunk! You get a look at the shooter?” The Sheriff continued to reload. Deputy Foley, shaking from the violence of the night, checked his Colt pistol.

“He was big, real big. Wearing a long black duster.”

“Black duster, you say?” Sheriff Winstead jammed more shells into his Winchester rifle. “Third time I've heard about him today. Lord help him when I find that thieving snake.”

“And Henry Kalbe and some men just started burning up the Andersons' house. They were wearing masks.”

“Kalbe! I'll have his hide, that crazy fool. Daniel! Get some men and sweep the other end of town. Some cowboys are fixin' to run a herd of cattle out the south end. I'll see if any'll help out and head over to the Andersons'. Anybody robbin' or settin' fires, shoot 'em down!” The Sheriff shoved a Colt revolver into his holster.

“Right, Sheriff,” said Foley. His hands shook as he racked a shell into his Winchester. “Heaven help me.” He closed his eyes, drew a deep breath, and took off out the door.

“But, what about Tilly?” pleaded Caleb. “We can't find her and I've been looking all over.” Caleb felt his throat catch at the thought of his little sister somewhere in the midst of all the mayhem.

“Lord knows what you've been through, boy, but you best get home and look after your family.” said Sheriff Winstead as he grabbed Caleb and headed for the door. “We'll look out for Tilly. Go on now.”

“Yes, sir.” Caleb stood for a second to gather himself as the Sheriff hustled down the street.
There is no way I
'
m going home without Tilly
, he thought as he sprinted down the road.

Caleb dodged and ducked his way through the alleys between the stores, desperately avoiding anyone. He knew he could get his head blown off by friend or foe. When it seemed that he had exhausted his search, the thought struck him like a thunderbolt. The Thatchers! Why didn't he think of them sooner? The old couple who owned the bakery on the edge of town always gave Tumble his share of muffins and treats. Tumble might head there!

Caleb raced down Main Street toward the Thatcher house. He was running out of time, and he had no use for caution. As he ran, he was blind to the glass smashing on his left. A scream was heard coming from somewhere in the smoke, but Caleb kept his legs pumping. Ahead of him, a shot rang out, and Caleb's heart jumped. It came from the edge of town. It came from the Thatcher house!

So desperate was Caleb's purpose that he didn't see the dark-clad stranger astride the black stallion in the road. He ran headlong into the beast and crashed to the ground. With his head ringing from the impact, Caleb looked up, half expecting to stare into the gun of the man who shot Jackson. But instead of the high-pitched cackle of the murdering thief, the voice Caleb heard was so low and dangerous it shook Caleb to his boots.

“Watch yourself, boy,” said the stranger as he stared hard at Caleb.

Atop the fierce stallion rode a tall, lean man in a long dark coat, with a square jaw and eyes under a black hat that were so piercing they could cut glass. His right hand gripped the handle of the Colt pistol at his side; his left held the reins of the coal-black horse. A Spencer rifle rested in a scabbard; the initials “N.V.” were carved into the gun's stock and burned into the leather saddle. The firelight played shadows on the stranger's face. He seemed to exude calm and a kind of dangerous power at the same time. Like an unlit stick of dynamite. He sat deadly still upon the huge horse and took in the chaotic rage around him like he was born to it.

“My…sss…sister!” was all Caleb could muster as he shook his senses together and picked himself up off the ground. A muffled boom and flash of light tore his attention away from the mysterious stranger. Several shots rang out. The flicker of fire danced from a building in the distance. The Thatcher house was burning. Then he heard the scream. Tilly's scream.

“Tilly!” called Caleb as he took off down Main Street. He could hear Tumble now too. The little dog was in a barking frenzy. At fifty yards away, Caleb saw his little blond sister standing in the middle of the street in front of the Thatcher house. Tumble was at her side. A rider in a long black duster was circling Tilly, and laughing at her.

“Let's go, boys!” called the rider. “We ain't got all night!”

Two more riders in black dusters emerged from the dark, carrying bags of what was probably loot. Caleb's heart stopped. The biggest of the two held the reins of a riderless horse. It was the man who shot Mr. Jackson! The three men circled his sister, taunting her and laughing. Tumble snapped at the hooves of the horses, determined to protect his best friend. One of the horses kicked Tumble full in his ribs, but the faithful dog would not relent. If Tumble managed to attach his jaws to that horse's leg, there would be no letting go.

Caleb ran with all his might to his sister, choking back his fear. He had no weapon, but that didn't stop him. He dodged through the stomping legs of the horses and covered his sister with his body as the men circled them. A wiry man in a black duster emerged from the burning Thatcher house to the porch. He threw a sack over his shoulder, drew his pistol, and fired back inside. Old Mr. Thatcher, holding onto his wounded wife, staggered to the doorway. He raised his revolver and fired wildly, causing the thieves to scatter for an instant and yank their horses away from the burning house. Quick as a snake, the wiry thief shot the old man in the shoulder and spun him to the floor, his poor wife falling beside him. As the outlaws advanced on the house, Caleb used the distraction and grabbed Tilly, then ran and took shelter behind a big oak tree. Tumble raced around the hooves of the stomping, kicking horses that tried to rid themselves of the four-legged cyclone.

“Tumble!” cried Tilly as she attempted to run back into the street for her dog.

“Shhhh! Tilly, be quiet,” pleaded Caleb.

“Let's go, Nathan!” shouted the leader of the murderous gang. “Get it done!”

“No…no…please!” cried Mr. Thatcher. He reached painfully over and held his wife who was bleeding from the heart. He tried to raise his hand to surrender. But the wiry killer would have none of it. He seemed to take his time to enjoy the moment, relishing the power of the kill. The Colt shot its flame. The Thatchers lay dead.

Caleb held Tilly to him and clamped his hand over her mouth. They were witnesses to this murder, and Caleb knew the gang could well turn on them. As he peered carefully from behind the tree, he saw one of the riders draw his pistol and fire at Tumble, who was dashing around the horses' legs. He missed as Tumble ran underneath his horse.

“Dang dog,” muttered the rider and aimed for a second shot, the others laughing at him.

Tilly squealed and twisted and finally broke from Caleb's grasp. “Tumble!” she screamed. Caleb dove for her and hauled her back behind the oak tree. His heart pounded as he sneaked a look to see if they'd been discovered. The four black riders shifted around on their horses and stared toward the tree. Slowly, they advanced on Caleb's hiding place. He knew he should make a run for it, but his legs felt frozen. He watched death come to call as if he were a terrified rabbit waiting for a pack of wolves.

Suddenly, the crash of gunfire somewhere up the street stopped the outlaws in their tracks. They urged their horses together, pistols pulled, straining to see the source of it. Thundering hooves pounded ever closer. Three more rifle shots scattered the thieves. They fired back blindly as two of their horses began to rear and buck. Out of the smoky darkness, the mysterious stranger came, his dark coat swirling behind him. He galloped toward them on the black stallion like he was sent from Hades. Crouching low, the reins in his teeth, he fired his rifle as he charged down Main Street, a deadly knight on a warhorse.

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