Authors: Peter Brandvold
Cuno was halfway up the riverbank, moving toward the wagon, when he heard the shotgun blasts and the man's shout. Cuno stopped, listening and wondering as the twin echoes chased each other around the canyon. He heard running footfalls, then scrambled up the bank, pulling at weed clumps and fixed rocks, no longer caring how much noise he made.
He'd just lifted his head above the road's crest when a man ran past him from left to right, heading for the wagon fifty feet away.
Cuno crouched and leveled his Winchester. “Hold it!”
The man skidded, stopped, and swung around with his Spencerâ¦
“Make room on your shelf of favorites; Peter Brandvold will be staking out a claim there.”
“Action-packedâ¦for fans of traditional Westerns.”
“Recommended to anyone who loves the West as I do.”
“Takes off like a shot.”
The .45-Caliber Series
The Sheriff Ben Stillman Series
HELL ON WHEELS
ONCE LATE WITH A .38
ONCE UPON A DEAD MAN
ONCE A RENEGADE
ONCE HELL FREEZES OVER
ONCE A LAWMAN
ONCE MORE WITH A
ONCE A MARSHAL
The Rogue Lawman Series
COLD CORPSE, HOT TRAIL
The Bounty Hunter Lou Prophet Series
THE DEVIL'S LAIR
STARING DOWN THE DEVIL
THE DEVIL GETS HIS DUE
RIDING WITH THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS
DEALT THE DEVIL'S HAND
THE DEVIL AND LOU PROPHET
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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.
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley edition / November 2007
Copyright Â© 2007 by Peter Brandvold
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To our good friends and white-water guides
Jan and Sarah
And to their feline gang at the top of the mountain
THREE O'CLOCK IN
the afternoon of a breezy, sunny autumn day, with a recent snow mantling the high, western peaks of the looming Rockies, Wade Scanlon hoorawed his Murphy freight wagon into the little crossroads town of Columbine Creek, Colorado Territory.
The freighter pulled the mules up before the town's only saloonâa brick-and-adobe hovel with a sod roof and a flower box of dried vines hanging askew beneath the small front window, which sported a bullet hole in its lower right corner, around which finer cracks stretched weblike. A shingle over the brush arbor showed a line sketch of a hog's head, which was the Hog's Head Saloon's only identifying marker.
Scanlon set the brake and blinked against his own dust catching up to him. As the mules drank at one of two stock tanks fronting the saloon's weathered stoop, Scanlon grabbed his canteen, stashed with his rifle beneath the seat, and took a long pull. His throat worked, water streaming from both corners of his broad, mustachioed mouth, before he lowered the hide-covered flask and made a face.
“Christâwarm creek water.” He shoved the cork into the mouth and hammered it home with the heel of his hand. “I need a beer!”
Scanlon, who'd lost a leg three years ago to a mountain lion high in the Ramparts, grabbed the cottonwood crutch he'd carved himself, and leapt over the wagon's left front wheel. He hit the ground with the ease of a man accustomed to jumping around on one leg, and deftly set the crutch beneath his right arm.
He hobbled around the back of the wagon, negotiated the two steps to the boardwalk, and yelled through the building's single batwing. “Serenity, you better have some good cold beer in there, or I'm gonna burn your place down!”
“Who's that?” came the nasally voice from within.
Scanlon pushed into the room's dense darkness abuzz with flies and rife with the smell of beer, whiskey, and salt brine. All of the knife-scarred tables were vacant.
“Ah, shit,” came the voice from within. “Not you, Scanlon. Anyone but you. I was hopin' you'd run your mules into a canyon!”
The freighter chuckled and bellied up to the bar consisting of two whipsawed pine planks stretched across beer kegs, with a five-gallon jar of pickled hog knuckles adorning the far end. In a matching jar on the right, the Hog's Head owner and operator, Serenity Parker, had pickled a diamondback, eleven feet long and as thick as a fence post. Old Serenity sat in a chair so low behind the bar that Scanlon couldn't see much more than his wizened, gray-bearded face and grimy hat from which his greasy silver hair hung straight to his shoulders. He held a yellowed, quarter-folded newspaper in his knotted, red hands.
“I'm still kickin'. At least, with one leg.” Scanlon chuckled at his usual old joke. “Now, what I was sayin'â¦”
“Yeah, I got beer, ye varmint.” The old man pushed up from his chair and reached for an overturned beer schooner on the shelf behind him. “But it ain't very cold 'cause I'm outta ice and we've had us a hot spell. So don't go raggin' me about warm beer. You won't find
beer in five hundred square miles less'n you go to Denver to git it, or less'n someone brewin' up on Long's.”
Scanlon slapped the bar with mock exasperation. “Freighters don't like warm beer, damn ye, Serenity. How many times do I have to tell you? We need the dust cut with somethin'
“Thereâtake it or leave it,” Serenity said when he'd drawn the beer and set the foamy mug atop the planks, giving the glass an expert twirl so the handle swung toward Scanlon. Foam licked over the sides to pool around the mug's thick bottom.
“Reckon you leave me no choice,” Scanlon said staring down at the beer, savoring it.
“I don't know what you're complainin' about, you one-legged dog. For every three beers you pay for, you drink two on the house.”
“On the house, bullshit!” Scanlon objected. “I win those beers fair and square.”
“Fair and square, horse plop! You're the only man I know who's low enough to cheat an old man at dice.”
Scanlon grinned and took a long sip from the mug, burying his upper lip deep in the snow-white foam. He shook his head and set the mug on the planks. “Ain't cold.” He sighed and licked his lips, slitting his eyes. “Warm as mule piss, matter of fact. But dang, if it don't cut the dust.”
The oldster stood before Scanlon, his knotted, arthritic fists resting on the bar. “Where you headed?”
“End of the line. The Welcome camp, up on the pass. Cuno got him a contract with a Dutchman plannin' to open a new mercantileâ¦soon as we get some freight to him.”
“Where is Massey anyways? How come you ain't ridin' together?”
Scanlon sipped his beer and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Still waitin' on another load at the rail yard. Only got half the rifles and shovels we ordered. Should be along in a couple days.”
“That younker's got sandâI'll say that for young Massey. Openin' up a freight line in this neck of the woods. These mountain trails ain't no easy ride in them heavy wagons. Scalawags around every bend too.”
“I'm just grateful fer the job. Hell, before he brought his freight line to Denver, I was emptyin' spittoons at the train depot.”
Serenity Parker slapped the bar. “An' even that was too good fer ya!”
Scanlon didn't reply. He'd raised his glass to take a long, heavy pull. Looking over his raised glass, he saw Parker's eyes stray to the dusty front window. A muscle twitched in the old man's haggard face, and one eye slitted warily.
Scanlon lowered the mug and followed Serenity's gaze with his own. Several men in rough trail garb were angling toward the saloon from Miss Mundy's whorehouse, which sat beside the livery barn on the other side of the street.
“Ah, shit,” the barman exclaimed. “Here they come again.”
“Who?” Scanlon asked, watching the tall, bewhiskered riders saunter toward him, their undershot boots puffing up dust in the hay-and manure-flecked street.
“Gang o' hard cases. The scalawags I was just talkin' about. One of 'em's injured, looked like a bullet wound to me. Seen 'em when they first rode in two days ago. They're all holed up at Miss Mundy's, waiting for the bullet-shot hombre to heal. They come over here reg'lar for whiskey, only pay fer half of it.”
“Sounds like me,” Scanlon said.
“Only they don't even bother to throw dice fer it.”
Scanlon and the barman watched through the dust-streaked window as the first two men mounted the boardwalk. The hard cases moved toward the batwing but stopped just outside, raking their gazes across Scanlon's wagon parked before the hitch rack. Ten or so more, all wearing at least one holstered pistol on their hips or in shoulder rigs under their arms, continued filing across the street, their sunburned faces canted toward the team and wagon.
Several voices rose from the boardwalk. One of the men chuckled. Someone commented on the size of the load, while another wondered what the tarp tied over the wagon box was covering.
“Only one way to find out,” one of the hard cases drawled.
Scanlon set his near-empty glass down hard and grabbed his crutch. “What the hell they think they're doin'?”
The old apron reached across the bar to grab Scanlon's arm, but missed. “Now, hold on, Wade. Don't be goin' out thereâ¦.”
Scanlon didn't hear the old bartender's warning. He was shuffling toward the door, the crutch pounding the puncheons as he pushed through the single batwing and stepped onto the boardwalk. He swung his gaze around, rage bubbling in his gut. The dozen or so armed men milled in the street and on the boardwalk, watching a tall, bearded man in a battered leather hat untie one of the four ropes Scanlon had fixed over the wagon's tarp.
The tall man's back faced the saloon. Without turning his head, he said, “Don't just stand there, Hays. Get over to the other side and help me lift this tarp.”
“No one lifts that tarp but me or my partner!” Scanlon shouted, outraged. “And you boys can get the hell away from my wagon.”
All eyes turned to him, including the tall, bearded gent standing back by the tailgate. He wore a fringed deerskin jacket with Indian beadwork adorning each breast. He wore two .44s on his hips, and another one snugged behind his cartridge belt over his belly.
“Who're you?” the man asked blandly.
“Wade Scanlon. This here's my wagon. Kindly get your hand off that rope.”
As Scanlon moved forward, the man to his right kicked the crutch out from beneath Scanlon's right arm. The freighter grunted and fell, rolled off the boardwalk and into the shade that the big Murphy angled over the street.
The hard cases laughed. As Scanlon climbed to his left knee and reached for the crutch, the same hombre who'd tripped him kicked the crutch to the other end of the boardwalk.
“Leave him alone, goddamn ye!” ordered Serenity Parker in his nasal twang, standing just inside the batwing door, his face flushed, eyes pinched with fury.
The man who'd kicked the crutch bolted toward the barman, then stopped short as Serenity scuffled back into the saloon's deep shadows. He turned to the rest of the group, mouth stretched with laughter, sweat sopping his thin blond beard.
“You know who he reminds me of?” asked another hard caseâshort but lean, with snow-white hair and pink eyes half shaded by his bowler hat. He wore two pearl-butted .45s down low on both hips, and a big, bone-handled bowie was fixed to the top of his right mule-ear boot. “Reminds me of one o' them kangaroos they got down Australia way. A one-legged kangaroo. Sure enoughâthat's what he is.”
Wade Scanlon lay in the dirt beside the boardwalk. He had one arm on the boardwalk, his sole leg curled beneath him. He glanced around at the laughing hard cases and eyed his crutch, feeling helpless as a rabbit in a rattlesnake den. Rage burned in him, turning his features crimson.
“This is my goddamn wagon. Get the hell away, orâ¦”
“Or what?” The leader swung the toe of his right boot hard against Scanlon's back. “What's a one-legged kangaroo gonna do about it?”
Seething, clamping his jaws against the pain shooting through his spine, Scanlon craned his neck to stare up at the man. The man nodded to the blond-bearded hombre, then turned to continue loosening the ropes. Soon, they were all jerking and pulling at the ropes, several shucking their bowies or Arkansas toothpicks to hack and saw at the ties holding the canvas in place.
Scanlon lay in the dirt by the right rear wheel, staring up with disbelief as the hard cases tossed away the ropes and jerked the canvas cover off the barrels and crates that Scanlon and Cuno Massey had back-and-bellied and carefully arranged in the Murphy's stout box.
These hyenas meant to rob him blind. What would he tell Cuno?
At the moment, they were too enthralled by the freight to pay him any mindâ¦.
While the hard cases jimmied the crates open with their knife blades and gun barrels, whooping and hollering like marauding Apaches, Scanlon hoisted himself onto the boardwalk, then crawled past the saloon door to the boardwalk's far end. He grabbed his crutch, planted the padded end against his armpit, and hoisted himself to his foot.
Inside the saloon, Serenity Parker kept a sawed-off twelve-gauge behind the barâ¦.
Breathing hard through his teeth, Scanlon made for the door.
“Hey, where you goin'?”
Scanlon whipped his head toward the wagon. The hard cases covered the Murphy like buzzards on fresh carrion. A couple were holding up pairs of new denim breeches, as if checking the fit. Another was caressing the barrel of a new Winchester repeater, the smooth walnut stock of which glowed like gold in the angling afternoon light.
The man who'd spoken had a thick, red beard but no mustache and, though a white man, he wore a steeple-crowned sombrero and a bull-hide vest decorated with hammered silver discs. He held a sack of coffee beans in one hand, a can of tomatoes in the other. He glowered down at Scanlon.
The freighter bunched his lips and turned to the door. Before he'd taken a step, a pistol popped. Pain seared Scanlon's knee, and he dropped to the boardwalk.
He looked down. The bullet had hammered into the side of his knee, blood flooding the ragged hole in his pants leg.
Clamping his jaws down tight on the pain, the freighter looked at the wagon. The man in the steeple-brimmed sombrero was still holding the coffee beans. In his other hand, he held a smoking six-shooter. The men around him had stopped looting to regard Scanlon, grinning.
Several pointed and laughed.
“Jesus Christ, Walt,” the tall, bearded man exclaimed. “That's the only leg he's got!”
“That's gotta hurt!” whooped another. “Look at him. Why, he's turnin' whiter than this here bakin' powder.”
Scanlon clamped both his hands over his shattered knee. Blood gushed through his fingers. His body shook from the pain, as though an Apache war lance had been rammed through the bone.