Bounty Hunter (9781101611975) (21 page)

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
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A person who has lost a parent often dreads the loss of the other, but to lose him to the gallows would cast a debilitating shadow across her own life.

Still, she had to know the truth. As much as she dreaded it and wanted to prevent the pain, she
had to
see the look in her father's eyes when he looked into the eyes of Gideon Porter.

Of more immediate concern were Blake and Clark and what the bounty hunter had put into perspective about the probability that they would strike before the sun rose again.

As they crested the last rise before the Sixteen Mile Creek trail dropped into the valley of the Missouri River, she breathed a sigh of relief to see a distant stagecoach making its way from Gallatin City to the territorial capital in Helena. It seemed to symbolize their passage from wilderness to civilization.

When they reached the broad plain through which the river flowed, the bounty hunter announced that he was going to look for a campsite.

“What about near the riverbank, where there's water,” she suggested. “We'd also be near the road. If there are other people on the wagon road, they would be less likely to ambush us . . . wouldn't they?”

“Being near to water is useful, but unnecessary,” he said. “Our canteens will hold enough water to get us through one night.”

“Then where?”

“High ground,” he said, studying the hills that lay in the direction of Gallatin City. “I want to be where they got to show themselves to get close . . .
if
we have enough moon to cast light.”

“It was pretty bright in the middle of the night where I was
last
night,” she said. “But I don't like the looks of those clouds.”

“We'll have to take what we get,” he said, staring at the same gathering clouds and at the diminishing patches of deep blue twilight sky, touched by the first pin-pricks of distant stars.

*   *   *

A
S THE BOUNTY HUNTER CHAINED HIM TO HIS TREE,
Gideon Porter made a crude comment to Hannah, but Jimmy Goode just stared at her.

Noting that Cole had chained the two men to widely separated trees, Hannah decided to approach Goode with the purpose of getting the information that Cole had failed to elicit from Porter. She knew him, as many people in Gallatin City did, as the easily manipulated oaf who lived in the shadow of the Porter boys and strived for their esteem and respect.

“What have you got yourself mixed up in, Jimmy?” Hannah asked in a sympathetic voice, which she crafted so as to be inaudible to Porter.

“Nothing,” he said, not looking at her.

“Don't you go talkin' to that goddamn hussy, Jimmy Goode!” Porter shouted from the opposite side of the camp. “Don't say a goddamn thing or I'll kick your fool ass from hell to kingdom come.”

“Don't listen to him,” Hannah said softly, trying to play a sympathetic card against Porter's threat. “He can't hurt you. He's chained to a tree.”

“Not forever he ain't,” Goode said in a low voice.

“What happened to your arm, Jimmy?” she asked sympathetically, sitting down on a log near where he was.

“Got shot.”

“By who?”

“The bounty hunter . . . the goddamn bounty hunter.”

“Why?” Hannah asked, startled. “What did you do to
him
?”

“Done got away.”

“You escaped?”

“Yes, I did,” Jimmy answered, looking at Hannah for the first time, and seeing her sympathetic expression.

“He shot you for
escaping
?”

“Yeah . . . sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“Well there was sort of this homesteader . . . a whole family of 'em.”

“Did you hurt the homesteaders?”

“No, ma'am . . . not one bit.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I took the boy . . .”

“You took a boy? How old was this boy?”

“You know . . . eight or ten or something? Goode answered, his voice expressing that it had never occurred to him how old the boy might be, and that he found it difficult to guess.

“You
took
an eight-year-old boy? Whatever for?”

“I dunno . . . Guess I kind of took him . . . well, like a hostage.”

“You took a hostage? Did you have a gun?”

“Yeah . . . but I swear I did not shoot the boy . . . I only wanted to flush him out when he went to hidin'.”

“The bounty hunter shot you for trying to scare the boy, then?”

“No, I guess he shot me for trying to shoot the boy's pappy.”

“Did you?”

“I tried, but I got hit in the elbow.”

Hannah just shook her head. What had he expected for having kidnapped a child and having tried to shoot the boy's father?
Really?
At the same time, she was pleased to hear that the bounty hunter had not shot the man merely for trying to escape.

“How did Gideon Porter get you mixed up in all this?” Hannah asked, continuing to feign sympathy.

“I was part of the gang,” Goode said proudly.

“I know, but this shooting of people . . . at the Blaine home . . . ? That doesn't sound like
you
. Like you were saying, you are not one to shoot people.”

“Got paid,” he said. “Done it 'cause I done got paid.”

“How much?”

“Thirty bucks.”

“Who paid you?”

“Gideon.”

“Who paid
him
?”

“I dunno.”

“Do you know . . . ?”

“I don't know
nothing
 . . . and I wish I didn't even know
that
,” he said sadly. “Miss Ransdell, I really wish none of this would have happened.”

“I can tell,” she said with an empathetic glance at his limp forearm.

“Did Gideon say anything about my father?”

“Just that he wasn't there that night . . . course I knew that 'cause I
was
there.”

“Anything else?”

“Not that I can remember, but I have trouble remembering sometimes . . . you know?”

“Yes, Jimmy, everybody's got trouble remembering sometimes.”

“Miss Ransdell?” Goode asked after a pause. “Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Are we gonna hang? Gideon says we ain't . . . but I figure since those folks got killed that we are.”

“What makes Gideon think you
won't
be hanged?”

“Says he's got friends . . . friends who ain't gonna let it happen.”

“What friends? . . .
Who?

“Gideon never tells me nothing.”

Hannah smiled and stood up.

She walked away, regarding the man with a mixture of pity and contempt. What was it that made this man tick? Perhaps he didn't tick at all. Perhaps he was, as everyone had always said, really just “good-for-nothing Jimmy Goode.”

*   *   *


S
OUP?” THE BOUNTY HUNTER ASKED, HANDING HER A CUP.

“Thank you . . . much obliged,” she said, noticing herself smiling at the man. “Aren't you having any?”

“I just did,” he replied. “This is coffee.”

She nodded. “Yeah, I could smell it. But it's kind of late for coffee, isn't it, Mr. Cole?”

“I don't plan on much sleep tonight . . . or rather I don't plan on
any
sleep tonight.”

“It's almost night now,” she said, looking out at the landscape.

He had picked a campsite on the side of a hill that was separated from other hills by at least half a mile.

“You can see almost everything from up here,” she said. “You can see everything but the far side of
this
hill.”

“From up there, I
can
see everything,” he said, nodding to the top of their hill, which rose another fifty feet. “And I guess it's time for me to get to work.”

“You'll be cold up there,” she said, regretting her forwardness in expressing concern for his welfare.

“It'll keep me awake,” he said, before he disappeared around a boulder into the nearly complete darkness.

Chapter 27

B
LADEN
C
OLE SURVEYED THE SCENE FROM HIS CROW'S NEST
high above the campsite. He watched the surrounding terrain as the moonlight brightened and faded with the passing clouds. Even when the moon slipped away, though, the contrast between the sheet of snow and anyone who walked on it was still stark. Cole saw a few deer at a considerable distance and was pleased by how well they stood out against the snow, even in the cloudy diffusion of the moonlight.

After so much overcast and snow in the preceding days, he was thankful for as much moonlight as he could get and thankful for it not to be snowing tonight. A snowstorm would have been ideal cover for the two gunmen attacking the camp.

He had built the campfire down below larger than necessary, intending to have it remain burning late into the night as a beacon to lure the bushwhackers into the trap that he intended to spring.

He thought about the grizzly and the feel of dreading the animal in the darkness. If he had, as Natoya-I-nis'kim believed, inherited the medicine of the grizzly, then he hoped that he would be a force worthy of such fear when the night brought the inevitable encounter with the bushwhackers.

Suddenly, Cole was jarred into the moment by the sound of something moving on the hillside below.

There was a little bit of a scratch, the tumbling of a small stone, then silence.

What was it? A ground squirrel?

Cole was certain that he had seen no animal larger than a deer approaching the hill from any direction.

He peered into the darkness and quietly raised his Winchester. Then he saw the movement, barely fifteen feet beneath him on the slope.

What?

Who?

At first he did not recognize Hannah Ransdell. She had undone the bun into which her hair was normally wound. It framed her face and tumbled across her shoulders.

“What are you doing, sneaking up . . . ?” Cole hissed.

“Wanted to keep you awake,” she whispered as she slid gracefully into a narrow hollow near where he had been lying.

“I almost shot . . .” Cole began.

“Shhh . . . I brought you some coffee,” she whispered.

She had a cup in one hand and her rifle in the other. She had made the climb up from the camp with her hands full, and without making more than a trace of noise.

He took the cup with a nod. The coffee was lukewarm, but warmer than anything atop this hill, including his fingers.

Together, they crouched on the perch, scanning the approaches to their hill. He admired the skill and tenacity of this young woman. She was made of far hardier stuff than he might have imagined on that day when they strolled the streets of Gallatin City. Back on that day, he had found her attractive, dressed in lavender gingham, trimmed in lace—and with those three freckles on her nose which always drew a smile when he thought about them.

Tonight, dressed in black, with a Winchester in her arms and her long chestnut-colored hair cascading about her shoulders, he found her even more attractive, more exciting and untamed in her appearance—not unlike that black mare she rode.

As they sat quietly on their perch, each studying the distance, awaiting the arrival of their foes, he occasionally allowed his eyes the pleasure of falling upon his companion. Once, he caught her sneaking
that kind
of glance at him. She briefly made eye contact, smiled, and looked away.

He thought about Natoya-I-nis'kim, and how there is something magical that is done by moonlight to the image of a beautiful woman.

The night was passing slowly, and naturally there were other things he would rather have been doing with a beautiful woman. He imagined feeling the softness of her smooth skin and tasting her lips, but he forced these distractions into the back recesses of his mind.

There were other things that must be done.

Cole consulted his father's pocket watch a time or two, more out of boredom than anything else. The news that it told was merely a reminder of how slow the hours were ticking by.

The laborious ticking had moved the passage of time closer to four than three, and Cole was stifling a yawn, when he saw it.

There was movement in the shadow of a neighboring hill. Was it another deer?

He strained his eyes into the darkness until they saw the unmistakable glint of moonlight on a well-worn saddle.

He nudged Hannah, who was looking the other direction, and pointed.

She turned and nodded.

This was it.

Two men had dismounted and were creeping toward the fire, approaching so as to screen themselves behind the shoulder of the hill. The fire had died down considerably from its original roar, but it was still the brightest thing on the ground for as far as the eye could see.

One of the men, apparently Lyle Blake, was nursing a limp. Joe Clark would walk, get ahead of Blake, and pause impatiently.

Slowly, they made their way up the slope toward the ledge where the campsite was located.

Clark prodded Blake ahead, and he stepped into the glow of the fire first. He went into action immediately, firing a pistol round into Cole's bedroll, which had been previously arranged to appear occupied.

“You missed,” Cole shouted from above.

Blake turned to look up at the sound of the voice.

His eyes were narrowed by the brightness of the still flickering fire, and he fired wildly. This was his only chance at a shot, for he was promptly cut down by a bullet from Cole's rifle.

Clark, still in the shadows, fired at Cole's muzzle flash as Cole was ejecting the spent cartridge.

Hannah squeezed off a shot.

There was a loud curse, indicating a non-fatal hit, and Clark began to run.

Hannah fired again, as did Cole, but they both missed.

The moon was behind a cloud again, and Clark was moving quickly.

Impulsively, Cole set down his rifle, stood up, and ran down the hillside in pursuit.

Hannah watched as he slipped on an icy patch and fell, but managed to roll into an upright position and keep going.

She fired again and watched Clark hesitate slightly, giving Cole a chance to narrow the distance.

Clark reached the place where he and Blake had tethered their horses, glanced back, saw Cole coming, fired two shots from his pistol, and leaped onto his horse.

Cole dropped to the ground when he heard the first shot but was running again as Clark was mounting up. He pulled his Colt and fired one shot at the fleeing man.

Without a second thought, Cole grabbed the reins of Blake's horse and jumped on. He had left his Winchester behind because he felt that he could run faster without it. Now he wished that he had not.

The clouds had passed, at least for the moment, and the pursuit continued briefly at a gallop in the stark black and blue of a moonlit night.

As the open terrain abruptly gave way to one studded with more and more trees, however, both riders slowed, knowing that to run a horse in the dark over uncertain ground and through trees was dangerous. For a horse to trip, fall, and break a leg would be the end for the animal, but this would also put its rider at a great disadvantage.

The fast pursuit had become a hunt in which stealth, not speed, would be the deciding factor.

Cole stopped, straining his ears for sounds as he had earlier strained his eyes for a glimpse of Blake and Clark.

Above the heavy breathing of Blake's horse, he heard the light wind whining in the creaking branches of the low trees.

In the near distance, the unmistakable sound of a horse walking in the brush was the proverbial music to his ears for which he had hoped. It was impossible to move silently with light snow covering broken limbs and other objects that made noise when a hoof stepped on them.

Cole moved as quickly as he could, pausing periodically to listen. He heard Clark doing the same—moments of quiet, followed by the sounds of him continuing.

He thought of taking a shot in Clark's direction. The purpose would be only to keep him on edge, because the odds of hitting him in the darkness at this range were essentially nil.

He felt around on the saddle and found Blake's rifle, an old army-issue Henry, still in its scabbard. There was no way of knowing whether it was loaded and, if so, with how many rounds. Again, Cole cursed himself for not bringing his own rifle.

The thicker the woods became, the slower and noisier the pace became. Each man could hear the other, but neither was close enough for a decisive shot.

Crunch.

Crunch.

Snap.

Clunk.

Pause.

This could not go on all night—or could it?

I could
walk
faster than this
, Cole thought.

Walk faster?

Of course he could.

At least he could walk more quietly.

Pulling the Henry from its scabbard, Cole slid off the horse, whacked him on the hindquarters, and watched him disappear into the woods.

He heard Clark, on the move again, adjusting his direction to match that of Blake's horse. The hunted was now the hunter; Clark was maneuvering to attack what he believed to be his still-mounted pursuer.

Moving carefully, and more quietly now that he was picking his own steps, Cole chose a path by which he could outflank his adversary.

Time stretched out like a reclining house cat.

How long has it been?
Cole asked himself.

It may not have been longer than about ten minutes, but it really did seem like an hour since he had dashed down from his perch in an effort to catch Joe Clark.

Stepping as silently as possible—at least more silently than Clark's horse—Cole circled through the woods toward the place where Clark was aiming to intercept his prey.

Cole came over a small rise and peered into the woods below.

He could see Blake's horse rather clearly now, and a short distance away, a shadowy object was moving toward it.

It was Clark's horse, and it too was
riderless
.

There was a brief exchange of snorting and whinnying. Without their riders, the two horses had sought each other's company.

Clark had the same idea as I did!

Cole realized this with alarm.

Which of us discovered it first?

The bounty hunter had to credit the man from Gallatin City's cesspool of ne'er-do-wells for being smarter than his pedigree suggested he should be.

Somewhere amid the blackness, Clark was either still circling to the rendezvous of the horses, or waiting for Cole to show himself.

There was the sound of snow falling from a branch, but it was a high branch, and it was not a man-caused event. Both men would have heard this, and each would have jumped a little at the sound against the stillness and the tension of the moment.

It was Clark who first broke the silence, who first tipped his hand.

“Hey, bounty hunter,” he shouted. “I ain't got no beef with you. Let's just go separate ways.”

Cole was tempted to shout back that if he had no beef, why had Clark been trying since yesterday to kill him—but he resisted this temptation.

By saying nothing, he did not reveal his position, and he therefore now had the advantage.

Clark had revealed not only his position—or at least the general direction of his position—but also the fact that he was nervous about a shootout and wanted to get away.

“See here,” Clark continued. “There's nothin' personal . . . I'm just gunnin' for you for pay. You done shot Lyle . . . that should be enough for you to be satisfied with your night's work and be ready to let bygones be bygones . . .
I'm
willing to just let bygones be bygones.”

Again, Cole chose not to reply.

Again, time seemed to slow to a crawl.

There was no sound but that of the light wind in the trees and the two horses scraping in the snow for easily uncovered bunches of grass.

At last, Cole could hear Clark walking through the snow toward the horses. He waited for sight of the shadow moving through the trees and took aim with the same Henry rifle with which Blake had taken aim at him the day before.

He would not let Clark reach his horse.

Krrr-ack!

The sound of the shot shattered the peaceful stillness and impacted a tree very close to where Clark was walking.

Clark paused to fire a shot in the direction of Cole's muzzle flash.

Clark was nervous, and he was anxious to escape. To save himself, he ran.

As at the beginning of this misadventure, Cole again found himself running down a hill to pursue the man on foot.

They crashed and thrashed through the brush for a few hurried moments, then the woods fell silent. Somewhere up ahead, Clark had decided to make a stand.

Cole moved as quietly as he could, trying to close the distance.

K'pow!

Cole ducked.

The shot came from very close, and it was a pistol shot. Had he, like Cole at the beginning of the chase, left his long gun behind?

BOOK: Bounty Hunter (9781101611975)
13.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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