Authors: Phil Dunlap
“Phil Dunlap'sÂ .Â .Â .
is a rip-roaring yarn that realizes the best traditions of the Western genre: strong, well-defined characters, the color of the West vivid and perfectly researched, and the writing entertaining and quick as a bronc set free to run wild. A surefire read for Western fiction fans.”
âLarry D. Sweazy, Spur Awardâwinning author
is an old-fashioned, barn-burning, gut-wrenching Western story that moves at a gallop over dangerous territory. Phil Dunlap's sharp prose packs the punch of a Winchester rifle.”
âJohnny D. Boggs, four-time Spur Awardâwinning author
“This is a well-crafted story with a good, clear writing style. It hits a good pace and keeps it up.”
âJohn D. Nesbitt, Spur Awardâwinning author
“Dunlap uses his passion for history and the Old West to paint a realistic setting for his work. The prose is good without being heavy, and the story has a good pace that readers will enjoy. For those who share his love affair with gamblers, scalawags, and claim-jumpers with gold fever, this fun novel will keep you guessing.”
The Indianapolis Star
“With a raft of well-drawn, even indelible, characters, the novel also offers a compellingly involved, quite plausible, and tightly woven plot.”
“[Dunlap] appears to be poised to become a new star in the Western writing firmament.”
Berkley titles by Phil Dunlap
A Sheriff Cotton Burke Western
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
USA â¢ Canada â¢ UK â¢ Ireland â¢ Australia â¢ New Zealand â¢ India â¢ South Africa â¢ China
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A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2014 by Phil Dunlap.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-13705-9
Berkley mass-market edition / February 2014
Cover illustration by Dennis Lyall.
Cover design by Diana Kolsky.
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.
ingo lay sprawled in the dirt with eyes wide and mouth askew in surprise, an expression he would retain in perpetuity. A man in a long black duster and stovepipe boots stood staring down at what he had just done. A thin trail of smoke curled skyward from the barrel of the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver in his hand.
“You sure as hell shoulda listened better, Dingo. Now, look at what you've made me do. Nobody back-talks Carp Varner!” A wry smile crossed his lips. What he gazed upon wasn't a pretty sight. Not pretty at all. But then, blood never is.
The gunman angrily jammed his six-shooter back in its holster and stormed off to the nearest saloon, the
saloon in town. The body lying in the street only began to draw the attention of a couple of townsfolk after the gunslinger disappeared inside the swinging doors of the Whiskey Crossing Saloon, the one purveyor of whiskey, beer, and a single whore in the pitiful crossroads appropriately named Whiskey Crossing, Texas. The first person to approach the body was the town constable, and he did so cautiously, then merely clucked his tongue and drifted off to find someone to bury the poor soul. Two others gathered around with much the same response.
“Why would Dingo do something so foolish as to challenge Carp Varner, the vilest gun-toter in a hundred miles? Plain stupid, if you ask me,” said a bearded man wearing a leather apron stained with smudges of ash and bearing small burns from the flying embers of a blacksmith's forge. He served not only as blacksmith but also as the liveryman.
“Good question, Emmett. Can't seem to conjure up no good answer, though,” said the man who owned the only general store within twenty miles. “Maybe you should ask
.” A cynical smile crossed his face as he looked down, pointing at the dead man's gun still in its holster.
A buckboard slowly came to a stop next to where the corpse lay. The driver reined his horse, hopped down, and began the task of hefting the body into the bed of the wagon. He looked around for anyone willing to help. The two gawkers finally offered a reluctant hand before wandering off to go back to their own responsibilities. None ventured to the Whiskey Crossing Saloon. And for good reason. A man took his life into his own hands just being in the presence of such a killer, especially when he was in one of his “moods.” Chancing any remark that might set off the incendiary temper of the man in black was sheer foolishness.
*Â *Â *
The funeral was an informal affair and drew three people, one-third of the town's population. No one really mourned the loss, but then it wasn't such a loss anyway. Dingo had a number of shortcomings, any one of which was bound to get him killed sooner or later. His mouth was the most likely culprit. The fact that he carried a gun was of little consequence. Any ten-year-old girl could have beaten his best draw.
Since the dusty little spit of a town had no church, it likewise had no clergyman to bestow a eulogy over the departed soul. The mayor was forced to step in and say what he could. Unfortunately, he could find no words more fitting than “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, uh, I can't remember the rest. Amen.” He promptly turned on his heel and hurried back to his office, namely the table at the rear of the saloon that was held for his exclusive use. The top was covered with official-looking papers, although few contained anything more important than a handful of complaints over his general mishandling of town business, all of which he totally ignored. They'd been collecting dust for a whole year.
The constable didn't make an appearance for fear of more questions about his failure to show the notorious gunman the way out of town. In fact, he'd as soon the nasty-tempered gunslinger would leave of his own accord. That, however, wasn't the common thinking on the matter. The town actually had need of a man with Carp Varner's skills. At least one of them. He was the best gunsmith for fifty miles; he was also the only one. He could repair anything that fired a bullet, or even build one from scratch. When he'd blown into town about a month back, he found plenty of men willing to pay for repairs to beat-up, dirt-encrusted, or busted firearms. He found an abundance of business, at least until he'd repaired almost every gun in the county. Since the town itself was comprised of only four buildings and three tents, those needing his services began to trickle down to only one or two requests a week, not enough to keep a man like Varner in whiskey. That's when he tended to reveal his ugly side. His murderous side. He'd shot four men since coming to town, but none of his victims had held any standing in the community and talk of reprisals had been largely nonexistent. All four had been drifters, merely passing through for a drink or a poke.
*Â *Â *
While never incorporated because of a paucity of citizenry, Whiskey Crossing nevertheless voted itself a mayor and hired a constableâby way of a whiskey trade-outâto keep the peace. There had been some mention along the way that if a town was to have any chance of growing into a viable community it should offer an incentive for businesses to settle there. But a lack of initiative on the part of the mayor, who spent most of his days languishing over his pile of totally useless scribblings, a few back-East newspapers, and many empty whiskey glasses, had brought no interest from any potential businessmen. In fact, the only reason anyone ever stopped in Whiskey Crossing was that it was an unavoidable crossroads, situated at the apex of two intersecting valleys. That, and the town had a whore, a commodity of some worth to cowboys from surrounding ranches looking for company more pleasurable than a herd of longhorns.
The mayor looked up from his perusal of a month-old newspaper as a shadow draped itself across his table. It was the man in black, himself, Carp Varner.
“Mayor, this miserable town needs a mayor who'll do something to get folks to come, spend their money, and stay long enough to build the place up. My thinkin' is that four shabby, run-down buildings, three tents, and nine citizens, now that Dingo is gone, don't really constitute a town. Progress, that's what we need. I'm thinkin' I'd do pretty well in that capacity. Therefore, I'm plannin' on stayin' a bit longer and runnin' against you in the election next month.”
“Uh-huh. I hope you've noticed that of the town's few citizens, most are my relatives. I wish you luck, though, I surely do.” He went back to his reading.
The look on Carp's face turned from hopeful to dark.
“I'll figure some way around that dilemma, don't you worry none.” Varner stormed off muttering to himself. The mayor watched him leave with a touch of trepidation.
*Â *Â *
The day of the election found Carp Varner casting a vote for himself with a smile of satisfaction. He had lobbied everyone he could for his or her vote. Feeling confident in the outcome and counting on a victory, Varner strutted around like a peacock to await the final verdict. As the time for an accounting drew near, the constable was called upon to ready the tally. Hearing the results, Varner was thunderstruck. He'd garnered but one vote, his own. He decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the saloon pondering his next move. And getting well lathered in the process.
As Varner sat by himself with a newly opened bottle of whiskey, sitting beside its empty companion, his expression grew morose. Whenever such a dark cloud descended on the gunslinger, someone was about to rue the day they'd ever met him. And one of those someones was drawing near. Carp Varner had come to a conclusion, and he committed himself to its immediate execution. If there was a method to his madness, he had no notion of it. An aimless decision not formulated with logical parameters coursed through his slightly addled brain. The whiskey hadn't made his plan any clearer, and had, in fact, likely muddied the waters a bit more.
Unexpectedly, the mayor strode through the doors and into the barroom. He had both thumbs stuck in his suspenders and was flexing them in and out. His wide grin pretty much said it all. Gloating over his win at the polls was about to prove unwise. Carp Varner glared at the pompous mayor and slowly began to scoot his chair back. He stood, if somewhat unsteadily, to his full height. His eyes narrowed and his hand dropped to the Schofield on his hip. The mayor approached him, cackling like an expectant hen.
“You see, Carp, I told you there was no sense in wasting your time. I got this town locked up. Maybe next timeâ”
Those were his last words.
With a snarl, Carp Varner drew and fired two bullets into the unsuspecting and foolhardy mayor. Carp saw the bartender reach under the bar for something. Whatever it was, Varner wasn't taking any chances. He spun around, plugged the bartender, then turned to take down the two customers sitting at the only occupied table. Varner was already reloading by the time the men slumped to the floor. He raced toward the door as if he was heading for a Sunday picnic. But what was coming next for Whiskey Crossing, Texas, was anything but a picnic. Before he reached the door, Varner grabbed for an oil lamp that hung close-by. Because the day had been overcast and dark, the lantern was lit. He turned the wick up and threw it against the bar, and flames suddenly engulfed the floor, bar, and two tables. The dry wood allowed the fire to spread rapidly as Varner ran two doors down to the livery to get his horse, while everyone else was trying to either stop the fire from spreading to every building in town or make their escape from what was bound to become an inferno of the first order. As he led his horse from the stall, Varner tossed a blazing lucifer into one of the piles of straw. The barn fairly exploded as the flames rushed from stall to stall, quickly aided by grain dust and dry corn husks. With a strong, dry wind to fan the fire, bright tongues of death leapt from building to building like a mountain goat scurrying to escape a puma. Whenever a person burst out a door in a panic to escape the rapidly spreading inferno, Varner put a bullet in them. Two had done so, and it hadn't mattered to him whether they were men or women. They all fell to his murderous accuracy with the six-shooter. Licking flames blew tiny embers into the wind, dropping them all around, consuming outhouses, tents set up as temporary residences, and in short order, each of the four buildings. Without means to douse the flames, the town would soon become nothing more than a pile of embers. Not that it mattered all that much, because there were likely no citizens left alive to carry on.
Varner swung into the saddle and drove for the outskirts as fast as his mount could carry him. After about two miles, he reined his horse, turning in the saddle for a last look around before whipping the animal to a dead run for the Texas border. He shouted back, “That'll teach you stupid bastards to mess with Carp Varner!”
By the time he reached the crest of nearby foothills, five miles to the west, he could look down and see the whole townâor what had been a townânow burned to the ground, leaving as its legacy nothing more than a few smoking embers and lingering shafts of smoke snaking their way skyward. He had no idea how many of the town's citizens had been caught up in the terrible and swift consumption of wooden buildings and tents. He also didn't care. Of its nine residentsâincluding Varner, himselfâhe'd personally shot down five or six, and he figured those almighty consuming flames had taken care of whoever or whatever might be left. He squinted as he spied a lone, shadowy column of undulating smoke at the far edge of what had only a few minutes before been a town.
“Well, I'll be damned, that shaft of smoke makes it look as though someone
live through that inferno.” Varner snickered at the thought as he spurred his horse on westward.
Not a chance in hell.