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Authors: Jon Sharpe

Tags: #Fiction, #Westerns, #General

Hangtown Hellcat (8 page)

BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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“Skirmishers waltz!” he shouted to Buckshot, who caught on instantly.

The two men stood with their backs braced one against the other. In perfect synchronization they rotated clockwise in a continuous circle. Not only did this reduce two targets to one, it allowed them to keep up a deadly, methodical, sustained field of fire to all four flanks.

“Horses are as good as men!” Fargo roared out above the unbelievable din of battle. “They’ll be chasing us soon!”

The Henry’s huge magazine capacity and rapid-firing lever action were critical now. Fargo propped the stock in his hip socket and fired with deadly accuracy, first a horse, then its rider. The attackers were just out of effective range of Buckshot’s double-ten, but his North & Savage repeater was nearly as fast as Fargo’s Henry—the trigger guard was combined with the lever, and when Buckshot moved it the cylinder revolved and cocked the hammer.

The attackers, their blood up for a quick slaughter, were stunned when the two men were able to rack up several kills and break up the pincers. Both groups fell back in a confused moil, wounded and dying men and horses raising hideous shrieks.

“Now!” Fargo told Buckshot. “Break for my stallion!”

Bullets nipping at their heels and kicking up plumes of dirt all around them, the beleaguered defenders raced full
bore to the Ovaro. Fargo seized the reins, vaulted into the saddle, and pulled Buckshot up behind him.

Fargo thumped the stallion with his heels and the Ovaro shot forward as if spring-loaded.

“Them cockchafers ain’t giving it up!” Buckshot shouted behind him even as a bullet knocked the left stirrup from under Fargo’s boot.

At first, even under a double load, the Ovaro’s superior speed and endurance opened up a slight lead. Soon, however, the attackers began to slowly gain, bullets raining in more accurately. A yellow cloud of dust boiled up behind the pursuers.

“We can’t outrun ’em!” Fargo called to his friend. “So let’s outgun ’em!”

“Steal their women and fuck their horses!” Buckshot rallied behind him. “Put at ’em, Trailsman!”

Fargo had learned that when escape was impossible, a sudden surprise attack was often the best option. He wheeled the Ovaro and both men shucked out their short guns.

Raising war whoops, revolvers blazing, they charged into the teeth of the attack. A man twisted in his saddle, blood blossoming from his wounded arm. Fargo emptied his wheel, took the reins in his teeth, and popped in his spare cylinder. With his third shot the lead rider slumped in his saddle, his jaw blown half off, then slipped from his mount.

One foot caught in the stirrup so that his body bumped and leaped over the uneven ground, slamming his wound hard over and over and making him scream like a hog under the blade. This broke the momentum of the attack as his unnerved companions fanned out helter-skelter to avoid this two-man juggernaut of death.

Fargo reversed their dust and headed in the same direction Buckshot’s cayuse had taken. Both men were so powder-blackened they wore raccoon masks.

“Skye,” Buckshot said behind him, “me ’n’ you has been invited to a few balls in our day. But
that
one caps the climax. You coulda knocked me into a cocked hat when all them sons-a-bitches come spittin’ up outta the ground. My nuts still ain’t dropped back into the sac.”

“I figured we were celestial,” Fargo admitted.

“We done some fancy shootin’ back there. But if your stallion hadn’t held like he done, them double-poxed hounds woulda turned both of us into sieves by now.”

“No bout adoubt it,” Fargo agreed.

“Mister, I mean this is the onliest horse of its kind!”

“He’s a fine old campaigner,” Fargo said, patting the Ovaro’s sweat-matted neck. His bit was flecked with foam, but the stallion tossed his head as if it was all in a day’s work.

“How you set for ammo?” Buckshot asked.

“My long gun’s empty and I’ve only got five shells for it in my saddle pocket. I’ve got seven loads for my Colt in my shell belt. How ’bout you?”

“Six slugs for my rifle, six for my short gun, eight for Patsy.”

“I never expected we’d be locking horns with a battalion,” Fargo said in a tone of self-reproach. “We were numbskulls not to pack along more ammo. Say, there’s your cayuse.”

The grulla was calmly cutting grass out ahead of them.

“The spavined nag,” Buckshot muttered. “What now, chumley? We ride back to the work camp? We ain’t got enough Kentucky pills to waltz with that bunch agin. Next time they jump us, all we’ll have is our dicks in our hands.”

“Yeah, we’ll have to steer clear of them. But damn it to hell anyway, Buckshot—we have to at least glom the inside of that hidden gulch or whatever it is. We can’t even make a report to Fort Laramie if we don’t.”

Fargo placed one hand against the sky. “Four fingers between the sun and the horizon—about a half hour until sundown. The moon goes into full phase tonight and we should have a clear sky. I say we hobble our mounts well out and sneak in on foot for a reconnoiter after dark.”

Buckshot shook his head in wonder. “Fargo, I do believe you’d slap the devil’s face in hell. But I kallate we all gotta die once.”

“Last time I looked it up in the almanac,” Fargo agreed, “the death rate was still one per person.”

6

The moon-washed Wyoming landscape was an eerie silver blue like a painting. Fargo and Buckshot Brady hobbled their horses in a well-hidden draw about a mile south of the outlaws’ position.

“Ain’t seen any vedette riders,” Buckshot remarked as he blackened his face with gunpowder.

Fargo carefully wiped out the bore of his Colt with a clean patch. “I’d wager they figure they ran us off for good.”

Buckshot grunted. “A-course. That’s what two
sane
men would do after that little cider party today.”

“Always mislead, mystify, and surprise your enemy,” Fargo retorted. “They’ll likely have sentries out like they did earlier, but they won’t really expect trouble. Like you say—sane men would skedaddle after realizing the odds. By now they’re likely drunk as the lords of creation.”

“I wunner if any of them three that attacked the work camp and killed Danny was amongst them we killed today,” Buckshot said. “I sure-God hope so.”

“Kill one fly, fill a million,” Fargo replied.

Buckshot cursed and slapped his neck. “Case you ain’t noticed, it’s the skeeters’ turn now.”

Fargo glanced at the fat ball of moon. A man could tell the approximate time by it; a full moon was pure white early at night, and turned more golden as the night advanced, lightening to white again just before dawn.

“It’s around midnight. Let’s head out.”

Knowing they might have to low-crawl, both men left their rifles with the horses although Buckshot, as always, refused to part with his beloved Patsy. Sticking to shelter when possible they covered the first half mile at a fast route step.

Soon they were close enough to see the orange-glowing tips of cigarettes marking sentry positions. As Fargo had predicted, the men were drunk and making no effort to hide their presence. Fargo could hear them roweling each other and laughing.

He and Buckshot moved in at a crawl for the last eighth mile, the flinty soil tearing at their knees, huge mosquitoes as big as a man’s thumb-tip playing hell on their exposed skin. At times maddening swarms of gnats forced them to close their burning eyes until tears streamed out.

Fargo aimed for a spot between two sentry posts, coming in low now like a wriggling snake. The protective growth was a thick wall of wild plum and chokecherry bushes. The two men penetrated it and got their first good view, in the generous moonlight, of what lay below.

“Well I’ll be hog-tied and earmarked,” whispered Buckshot.

As Fargo had already surmised, a gulch—a narrow, shallow, three-sided canyon tapering to a spear point at its west end—lay below them. A crude facsimile of a town filled it. Several of the “buildings” were just stones piled up against the sides of the gulch to save on building back walls; others were clapboard shanties with oiled paper for windows and stiff cowhide doors hanging lopsided on leather hinges. There were a few large army tents and, at the far end of the gulch, a solid limestone structure that seemed luxuriant compared to the rest.

“That limestone building has no windows but plenty of loopholes,” Fargo observed. “I’d guess it was built by fur traders for a winter quarters back in the day. Why the hell else would anybody even be here?”

“Ahuh. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company had trappers all over this neck of the woods.”

“No awnings or duckboards anywhere,” Fargo noted. “No church, no school, no hotel. This is no town, Buckshot. It’s a vermin nest—the biggest one I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

And damn near invisible from up on ground level, Fargo realized. This thick growth along the entire rim of the gulch guaranteed that. The rock-strewn terrain around it, dangerous for horses, would discourage riders from even getting
near it. Fargo knew of several robbers’ roosts in the West, but none that was actually a hidden town.

Buckshot’s hand suddenly gripped Fargo’s shoulder like an eagle’s talon. “God’s trousers, Fargo! Look just past the entrance to the gulch.”

Fargo did and felt his scalp tingle. A crude gallows had been erected, and the bright moonlight showed a ghastly sight: three men in varying stages of decomposition, swaying gently when the breeze gusted.

“I reckon that’s the welcoming committee,” he said in a grim tone.

A leather case over Fargo’s left hip held his 7X binoculars. There was adequate light, so he pulled them out and focused them on the corpses.

“The one on the left is priddy near a skeleton,” he reported to Buckshot, “but the one on the right looks fresh-killed.”

Fargo saw a couple dozen or so horses gathered in a pole corral near the gallows. The single street—actually just a mud wallow—showed little activity. But one of the big tents appeared to be a gathering place. Oily yellow light spilled out of the open entrance, and he could hear drunken voices shouting and cursing. There were even the raucous notes of a worn-out hurdy-gurdy.

The dark, square structure of rocks beside the big tent caught Fargo’s eye. A guard was perched on a barrel in front of it, a rifle balanced across his thighs.

Fargo was still watching the building when he heard it—the unmistakable sound of a small child’s cry of misery.

“Shut that puling whelp up!” the guard snarled through the doorway of the crude structure. “Or else I’ll brain the little shit against a rock!”

Fargo cursed. “Well, that tears it, Buckshot. Big Ed told me the Butterfield kidnappings include a husband and wife with a one-year-old girl. That’s gotta be the place where they’re all held prisoner. Ed ain’t gonna like it, but we can’t just report this roach hole to soldier blue and walk away like it’s none of our business. We got to handle this deal ourselves.”

“Big Ed ain’t gonna like it, huh? Great jumpin’ Judas, Fargo, I don’t like it neither! Sometimes I think you’re at
least a half bubble off bead. We ain’t even drawing fightin’ wages. I signed on to help you hunt and scout, not to do the mother-lovin’ army’s job. Boy, there’s only
two
of us! Didn’t that cartridge session today learn you nothin’?”

“No, because I learned it long ago—any son of a bitch who tries to kill Skye Fargo will end up shoveling coal in hell. I never marked you down for a chicken-gut, old son.”

“Fargo, me ’n’ you is chums, but you best ease off that sorter talk.”

“Like hell I will. If those prisoners were all grown men, well, that’d be different. Men know this is harsh country, and they have to face up to their choice to be here. But women and kids—especially kids—got no choice in the matter. We’re strong men, Buckshot, and by the code of strong men out West, we’re duty bound to help those who can’t fight for themselves. You know that, hoss—you’re cussed ornery but a decent man. These whoreson shirkers will collect the ransom and then kill the whole family. Right now, like it or not, that kid is
our
kid.”

Buckshot was quiet while a sudden wind gust shrieked through the gulch.

“Hell, Fargo,” he finally said, his tone gruff, “no need to have a hissy fit. I’m with you right down to the hubs. But we need to stock up on ammo and parley with Big Ed.”

BOOK: Hangtown Hellcat
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