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Authors: Jon Sharpe

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BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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Stringing this line in late summer was travail enough, too. Mosquitoes all night, flies all day. Sometimes they drove men and beasts into frenzied fits. Trees to provide telegraph poles often had to be freighted great distances, as did the supplies needed to keep a virtual army of workers fed, clothed, and equipped.

And most vexing of all was the serious lack of drinking water. Fargo had spent more time locating water than he had hunting or scouting.

Now came this new trouble—Fargo studied the ground around the downed poles and felt a familiar foreboding. Instinct told him that, soon, lead would fly.

“Well,” Creighton said, kicking at one of the broken poles, “wha’d’ya think? I could use the pocket relay and telegraph back to Fort Laramie. Maybe Colonel Langford could send enough soldiers to scatter the herds away from these parts.”

Fargo shook his head. “The Laramie garrison has always been undermanned. And now half the troops have been ordered back east. That leaves just enough for force protection at the fort.”

Creighton expelled a long, fluming sigh, nodding at the truth of Fargo’s words. “Speak the truth and shame the devil. You got any suggestions?”

Fargo glanced at his employer. Big Ed Creighton, the son of penniless Irish immigrants, was a ruddy-complexioned, barrel-chested man in early middle age with a frank, weather-seamed face. He wore a broad-brimmed plainsman’s hat, sturdy linsey-woolsey trousers, and calfskin boots. He was the rainmaker for this ambitious project and a damn good man for the job, in Fargo’s estimation. He rode every mile of this route before he mapped it out, and now he was working right alongside his men, eating the same food and taking the same risks.

One thing he was not, however, was a good reader of sign.

“Ed,” Fargo said, “it’s true that great shaggy brought down some poles back in the grassland. And we are sticking mostly to bottomland and valleys lately where you’ll sometimes spot herds. But does the ground around us look like it’s been torn up by sharp hooves?”

“Why…” Creighton surveyed the area around them. “Why, no. In fact, the grass isn’t even flattened, is it?”

Fargo watched a skinny yellow coyote slink off through a nearby erosion gully. Clearly the boss did not like the turn this trail was taking.

“Then it must be Indians,” Creighton said.

Fargo snorted. “I’d call that idea a bug of the genus hum. Sure, there’s been Lakota and Cheyennes watching us like cats on a rat. They don’t like what they see, and I don’t blame them. But they don’t understand what we’re up to, and when the red man doesn’t understand something he tends to wade in slow. Everything connected to the white man is likely to be bad medicine—they aren’t touching those poles. Not yet, anyhow.”

Creighton looked like a man who had woken up in the wrong year. The weather grooves in his face deepened when he frowned. “You yourself are always pointing out how the
Indians are notional and unpredictable. Back in western Missouri, the Fox tribe learned how to use stolen crowbars to rip up railroad tracks.”

Fargo sighed patiently. “Indian scares” were common because they stirred up settlers. Stirred-up settlers meant more soldiers, and thus, more lucrative contracts to the eastern opportunists supplying them.

“Ed, if it was Indians who tore down these poles, then their horses have iron-shod hooves.”

These words struck Creighton like a bolt out of the blue. He hung fire for a few seconds, not understanding. “You’re saying white men did this?”

“’Pears so.”

“But…Fargo, there’s nary a settlement anywhere near here.
What
white men?”

“That’s got me treed,” Fargo admitted. “But there were three of them, and they rode out headed due south. Buckshot left at sunup going after game. He should be back anytime now. We’ll pick up that trail and see where it takes us.”

“White men,” Creighton repeated as the men headed toward the two mounts calmly taking off the grass nearby. “Why would white men go to such trouble to sabotage a telegraph line?”

Fargo forked leather and reined his Ovaro around to the west, pressuring him to a trot with his knees.

“Because,” he suggested, “the telegraph is even faster than a posse. There’s been strikes against bull trains and mail carriers in this neck of the woods. Even a few kidnappings of stagecoach passengers on the Overland route. Good chance the owlhoot gang behind those crimes don’t want that telegraph going through. Back east, the talking wires have put the kibosh on plenty of road agents.”

“All that rings right enough,” Creighton agreed reluctantly, gigging his blaze-faced sorrel up beside Fargo’s black-and-white stallion.

“It does and it doesn’t,” Fargo hedged, keeping a weather eye out and loosening his 16-shot Henry repeater in its saddle scabbard. “Most outlaws are a lazy tribe with damn poor trailcraft. They like good meals, saloons, and beds with a whore in them. You’ll most often find them in towns, not
running all over Robin Hood’s barn. Like you said, there’s no settlements around here.”

“Right now,” Creighton said, “Jim Gamble and his Pacific crew are racing to beat us to Fort Bridger. Working in those God-forgotten deserts of Nevada and Utah. Black cinder mountains, alkali dust, and warpath Paiutes—until now, I figured we had the easy part.”

“You might be building a pimple into a peak,” Fargo reminded him despite his own growing sense of unease. “If it’s just three outlaws, me and Buckshot will salt their tails. That sort of work is right down our alley.”

“You two are just the boys to do it,” Creighton agreed. “It’s
water
I’m really fretting about. I’ll tell you who will soon get rich out west—well diggers and men who build windmills to drive the water. You won’t find one in a nickel novel, but one man with a steam drill is worth a shithouse full of gunslingers.”

“I respect honest labor, Ed, but to hell with wells and windmills.”

Creighton flashed a grin through the dusty patina on his face. “To hell with this magnetic telegraph too, huh?”

Fargo grinned back. “I’m straddling the fence on that one,” he admitted. “Couriers and express riders are murdered every day, including some good friends of mine. It’s an ill Chinook that doesn’t blow
some
body some good, I reckon.”

By now the two men had ridden into sight of the main work crew. Under the watchful eye of Taffy Blackford, the Welsh foreman, workers were busy digging postholes, setting and shaping poles, and stringing wire. Other men had scattered out to scavenge wood for poles. A carpenter was at work repairing the broken tongue of a wagon.

“Here comes Buckshot now,” Fargo remarked, spotting a rider approaching them on a grulla, an Indian-broke bluish gray mustang also known as a smoky. “Something must be on the spit. He rode out without eating and he’s always hungry as a field hand when he gets back. He’d ought to be feeding his face right about now.”

Buckshot Brady had been hired at Fargo’s insistence. He was an ace Indian tracker and experienced frontiersman who
had learned his lore at the side of Kit Carson and Uncle Dick Wootton during the shining times at Taos. He earned his name from carrying a sawed-off double ten in a special-rigged swivel sling on his right hip.

Buckshot loped closer and Fargo saw that his face was grim as an undertaker’s.

“Trouble, old son?” Fargo greeted him.

“Skye,” Buckshot replied quietly, drawing rein, “I got me a God-fear.”

The hair on Fargo’s nape instantly stiffened. Buckshot’s famous “God-fears” were as reliable as the equinox.

“Ed,” Fargo snapped, tugging his brass-framed Henry from its boot, “whistle the men to cover.”

“What’s—?”

“Now!”
Fargo ordered and Creighton reached for the silver whistle on its chain beneath his collar.

Just then, however, a hammering racket of gunfire erupted from the boulder-strewn slope on their left. Fargo watched, his blood icing, as a rope of blood spurted from one side of the carpenter’s head and he folded to the ground like an empty gunnysack.

“God-in-whirlwinds!” a shocked Ed Creighton exclaimed.

An eyeblink later, the withering volley of lead shifted to the three men, and Creighton, too, crashed to the ground, trapped under his dying horse.

2

Fargo had no idea how badly Creighton was injured. But with slugs snapping and wind ripping past the Trailsman’s ears, it wasn’t the time to find out.

Simultaneously, he and Buckshot swung out of the saddle and threw arms around their horses’ necks. Both mounts were trained to lie on their sides when wrestled down. Using their horses as bulwarks, they searched for their targets.

Fargo spotted curls of dark gray powder smoke. “That rock nest halfway up the slope!” he shouted to Buckshot.

In moments Fargo’s Henry and Buckshot’s North & Savage revolving-cylinder rifle were barking furiously. Again and again the lever-action Henry bucked into Fargo’s shoulder socket as brass casings flew from the ejector port, glinting in the bright sunlight.

Their fusillade sent up a high-pitched whine as bullets ricocheted through the boulders above them. Soon the firing from the slope tapered off, then ceased completely as the attackers chose discretion over valor and escaped down the back side of the slope. Fargo heard the rataplan of hooves as their horses escaped to the south.

“You hurt bad?” Fargo asked his boss. He and Buckshot heaved mightily on the dead sorrel.

Creighton grunted. “Just trapped my leg. A little more, fellas. A little more…”

With another grunt he rolled free and gingerly sat up, feeling his left leg. “Nothing broken. I’ll be limping for a few days, but damn it to hell! I paid two hundred dollars for this horse!”

Fargo whistled the Ovaro up and helped hoist Creighton into the saddle.

“I counted three shooters,” Buckshot told Fargo as they started forward, leading their horses.

“Same here,” Fargo said. “Likely the same three who brought down the poles last night.”

“The war kettle is on the fire,” Buckshot said grimly, watching a knot of men gather around the murdered carpenter. “That’s Dan Appling they knocked out from under his hat.”

“A damn good man,” Creighton added from the saddle. “With a wife back in Ohio.”

“And two pups on the rug,” Buckshot said. “Dan showed me a tintype of his family. Let’s me and you get horsed, Skye, and drill some lead into them three sons-a-bitches’ livers.”

Fargo glanced at his fellow hunter and scout. Buckshot was Choctaw on his mother’s side and had a hawk nose and no facial hair. His long silver mane was tied off in back with a rawhide whang under a snap-brim hat.

“Bad idea,” Fargo said. “Be damn easy to dry-gulch riders in this country. We’ll track them down, right enough, and put paid to this account. But let them get a day ahead of us. We can’t let them spot our hand before we play it.”

Buckshot had ridden into his share of traps, and now he nodded reluctantly. “That shines. Revenge is a dish best served cold, huh?”

“Anybody else hit?” Creighton demanded as the trio joined the main gather.

“Two men wounded,” Taffy Blackford replied. “Steve Mumford and Ron Shoemaker. They’ll be all right if their wounds don’t mortify.”

Fargo took a quick look at the wounded men.

“The bullet passed clean through Steve’s forearm,” he announced. “Just flush it good with carbolic and wrap it. Ron’s caught a slug in the meat of his thigh, and I recommend leaving the bullet in him—it’s not close to anything dangerous. Flush the hole good and then cram it with beef tallow to stem the bleeding before you wrap it. Give both of them laudanum for the pain.”

Big Ed Creighton looked at Appling’s body, his jaw trembling with the effort to control his emotions.

“Boys,” he called out, “I got no money to pay fighting
wages. I won’t hold it against any man who wants to draw his pay and light a shuck back east.”

Taffy Blackford waved this offer aside. The Welshman was a big, blunt-jawed, rawboned man with curly red hair and whipcord trousers gone through at the knees. “Bottle that talk, boss. If you want to get up a posse to run those bastards down, deal me in.”

Common troubles tended to knit men, and many others chorused agreement. It was a foolish, hotheaded idea, but Fargo had to admire these simple laborers. They were paid only a dollar a day, yet they were going full tilt to meet Western Union’s tough deadline. Now and then jackass mail reached them, even less frequently warm beer, and on Sundays they rested and supped up on steak. But the other six days they worked from sunup to sundown. They slept on the ground, ate mostly bland and boring food yet kept their spirits high.

BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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