Authors: Charles G. West
Cord's instincts took charge of his body. Without conscious thought about what he was about to do, he launched his body into the startled Charley, his shoulder into the man's midsection, while grabbing the barrel of the rifle with one hand. Ruby screamed and just managed to jump out of the way of the hurling bodies before they crashed against the wall. The rifle fired, sending a bullet into the ceiling and causing the women to scurry for cover. It was the only shot Charley was able to get off. There was a brief struggle over possession of the weapon before Cord wrenched it out of his hands, pulling Charley up from the floor with it before he was slammed back down from a solid blow from Cord's left fist.
MARK OF THE HUNTER
Charles G. West
A SIGNET BOOK
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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Copyright Â© Charles G. West, 2013
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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.
The image of his mother's death had been etched upon his mind so clearly, a picture that would dwell in his subconscious forever, only to surface occasionally and remind him never to forget. He was only twelve years old when his father, outlaw Ned Malone, returned to the hardscrabble farm in southwestern Nebraska after an absence of nearly four months. Young Cord Malone was never glad to see his father return from one of his robbing or rustling sprees, for it usually meant a drunken session of abuse for his mother, Lottie. The only emotions the young boy had ever witnessed from his father were fits of contempt for his ill-treated wife and his undersized son. Cord had bitterly chastised himself for his failure to protect his mother from the terrible battering she suffered at the hands of a man who had held her in the same regard he had for his horse. When making even a feeble plea to his father to leave the poor woman alone, Cord was usually rewarded with a sharp backhand for his efforts, along with a scornful remark about the boy's lack of size or fight. A big and powerful man, Ned Malone had never failed to tell the boy what a disappointment he was.
On the night Cord's mother was killed, Ned Malone had ridden in with one of his villainous partners, Levi Creed, a man seemingly cut from the same evil stock as Ned. When supper was finished and the drinking started, Lottie told her son to leave the house and go to the barn, for she knew what was going to follow. “Yeah, you little shit,” his father had roared, “get the hell outta my sight. It makes me wanna throw up just lookin' atcha.” Cord did as he was told, knowing that his mother did not want him to witness the wanton abuse of her body that always accompanied Ned's drinking. As he walked out the door, he felt a sickening chill when he was met with the lascivious grin on the brutal face of his father's friend, Levi Creed. The man reeked of evil, especially to a twelve-year-old already fearful of what misery the night might bring for his mother. He hurried out the door, anxious to be away from the scene.
What happened next remained vague in Cord's mind because he could only construct a picture from the loud sounds of cursing and an occasional cry of pain from his mother that had carried across the yard to the barn. The sounds told him that his mother was suffering abuse from both men. Determined to stand up to his father this time, he went to the feed room in the barn to get the single-shot shotgun kept there for the purpose of killing rats. The shells were only loaded with bird shot, but they would do some damage at close range. He had loaded one in the gun and dropped a couple more in his pocket when he heard the pistol shot and his mother's terrified scream. At once alarmed, he ran from the barn and up the steps to the front porch of the house.
The scene that confronted him when he ran into the room would linger to haunt his dreams for years to follow. His father's body lay facedown on the floor, shot through the head. The evil Levi Creed, with no shirt on and his trousers down around his boots, was lying atop his mother's limp body. Cord did not hesitate. He raised his shotgun and fired, sending a load of bird shot into Creed's back and buttocks. Roaring out in pain, Creed rolled off Lottie while Cord fumbled to reload his shotgun. Seeing it was the boy who had attacked him, Creed moved quickly to defend himself, and even with the hindrance of his trousers around his boots, he managed to reach the boy before he could remove the empty shell and replace it with another. There followed a brief struggle over possession of the weapon that quickly went in favor of the man. He wrenched the shotgun from Cord's hands and delivered a blow with the butt of it that landed on Cord's forehead, knocking the boy senseless. He stood over the unconscious boy for a few moments while he pulled up his trousers and strapped his gun belt on, deciding whether or not he should put a bullet in Cord's brain, leaving all three of them dead. Another shot might bring nosy neighbors to investigate. There were two small homesteads within two miles, so he thought it best to ride out while there was plenty of time. Hesitating briefly to ransack the little house for anything of value, he took another look at the fallen boy, lying motionless. “Hell, I believe I kilt him, anyway,” he muttered. Then for good measure, he kicked the kitchen stove over and piled the table and chairs over the spilled coals. When satisfied that the fire was burning steadily, he went to the barn and saddled his horse. Leading his late partner's horse, he left the small farm and headed north.
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A little over a mile down a narrow, dusty wagon track, Nettie Anderson stepped out on her back porch to empty the supper dishwater from her dishpan. Uncertain about the gunshots she thought she might have heard a few moments before, she listened, but there were no more. Probably her young grandson shooting at a rat, she thought, or a rabbit, although the two shots didn't sound exactly the sameâas if they came from two different guns. She was about to go back inside when she noticed a thick column of smoke wafting up against the fading evening light. She paused to study it for only a moment before calling her son. “Jesse!”
“Yes'um,” Jesse answered, and walked out to the porch to stand beside his mother.
Nettie pointed to the column of smoke. “Does that look like it's coming from Lottie's house?”
Jesse squinted as he peered in the direction his mother pointed. “It sure looks like it's comin' from Lottie's,” he said after a moment.
“You'd best jump on your horse and go see about it,” Nettie said, genuinely concerned by then.
Equally concerned, since his sister lived alone, for most of the time, save for her twelve-year-old son, Jesse didn't hesitate. As far as he knew, Lottie's no-good husband was away on one of his lengthy absences, so he ran to the corral and hastily put a bridle on one of the horses. Not wishing to waste any more time, he didn't bother with a saddle, jumping on the horse's bare back for the short ride up the road.
As he neared the house, he discovered a scene worse than he had anticipated, for it was not a brush fire. The small frame house was ablaze with flames licking the sides and sending up black smoke from the pine boards. At a gallop, he entered the barnyard, yelling, “Lottie! Cord!” There was no answer from his sister or his nephew, and there was no sign of anyone outside the house. Jesse didn't hesitate. Sliding off the horse even before it came to a complete stop, he ran, almost stumbling in his haste to reach the door, and plunged through it into the blazing building, still calling for Lottie and Cord.
Inside, the room was filled with heavy black smoke, causing his eyes to burn and making it difficult to see, and equally difficult to breathe. As he moved across the main room, on his way to the bedrooms, he almost fell when he stumbled over a body. Down on his hands and knees then, holding his shirttail over his nose and mouth, he identified the body as Ned Malone. He had not even known that Ned had returned. In a panic then, he looked to his side and discovered a second body and knew at once it was Lottie. He moved to her side, crying, “Lottie! Lottie!” But there was no response. She was dead, her skirt and undergarments torn away. “Oh, Lord, no!” he cried in anguish over the still body. “Please, Lord, no!” In the next instant, part of the roof over the kitchen came crashing down on the floor, and he knew it was only a matter of minutes before the rest of the roof collapsed, so he got his arms under his sister's body and struggled to his feet. With only a glance at Ned's body, he thought,
To hell with him,
and moved quickly back toward the door. It was only then that he remembered that Cord had not been accounted for, but there was no time to search the smoke-filled dwelling. So he staggered through the open doorway, his lungs screaming for fresh air. As he did, he almost tripped over the outstretched hand of his nephew. Startled, for he did not remember it there when he plunged through the opening in the flames on his way in. It could be no one but Cord, but he would have stepped on the extended hand, or tripped over it when he entered the smoke-filled house, as he had on Ned's body.
Maybe he moved,
Maybe he's alive!
He couldn't stop then, however, so he carried Lottie out the front door, across the short porch, and laid her on the ground, away from the burning building.
Then he turned again to look at the inferno from which he had just escaped, wondering if he could risk another trip through the flames in hopes that Cord was alive. His common sense told him that the boy was dead, just as his motherâthat somehow the heat from the fire had caused his arm to move. “But damn it, it moved.” So he knew he had no choice but to make sure. Even if he was dead, his nephew's body should be removed from the fire, so Jesse took a couple of breaths of cool fresh air, then plunged back through the flames.
There was no time to be gentle. As soon as he found the outstretched arm again, he took it in both of his hands and dragged the body through the doorway. Once off the porch, and away from the flames, he picked up the undersized boy, whose face was covered in blood from a gaping gash across his forehead, and carried him to lie beside his mother. Totally exhausted then, Jesse sat down on the ground and coughed repeatedly in an effort to clear his lungs of the smoke. When he could breathe again, only then did he begin to sob over the tragic loss of his sister and her son. It was especially painful for him, because he and his mother had worried about Lottie ever since she had married the no-good son of Hiram Malone. Jesse had tried to persuade Lottie on more than a few occasions to take Cord and walk out on Ned, but she would not consider it. She had married Ned for better or worse, she had said, and she always hoped that the worse might someday end. “Well, sweet Lottie,” he said to her corpse, “I reckon the worse is finally over now.”
Seeing a quilt hanging on the clothesline near the house, he went to get it to wrap around his sister's half-naked body. It would be hard for his mother to see Lottie like this. The heat from the burning house was so intense that he had to work quickly to take the clothespins off the quilt and snatch it off the line. Even then it was necessary to pat out a dozen sparks that had taken root in the heavy quilt. Returning then to his sister, he wrapped her body in the warm quilt.
He wondered then about Ned. The body still lying in the cabin was surely that of Ned's, and he had been shot in the head. Who shot him? Did he and Lottie kill each other? From the marks on Lottie's neck, and the location of the shot that killed Ned, it seemed impossible that they could have killed each other. Maybe he would never know what had happened in that tragic funeral pyre, but at the moment it didn't make sense. Deep bruises around Lottie's throat indicated she had been strangled. There must have been someone else involved. He was startled in the next moment by a weak moan from his nephew. Moving quickly to the boy's side, he raised Cord's bloody head and called his name. “Cord! Can you hear me? It's Uncle Jesse!” But there was no response from the boy, whose eyes remained closed. Jesse pressed his ear against Cord's chest and listened. He was alive. There was a faint heartbeat, but no other signs of life.
Trying to determine what to do next, he decided first of all he should take Lottie and Cord back home, away from this evil place. Looking toward the barn, he spotted Ned's wagon, so he hurried down to hitch it up. It was then that he realized that the corral rails were down and the horse was gone, so he went back to get his horse. Finding a harness in the barn, he hitched his horse to the wagon, then gently loaded mother and son.
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There was no doctor in the little settlement called Moore's Creek, so the care of Nettie Anderson's grandson was left entirely up to her. There was little for her to do, so much of her time was spent in grieving for her late daughter. It had been two days since his mother had been buried and Cord still lay unresponsive, seeming to be in a deep sleep. All Nettie could do was try to tend to the ugly wound on his forehead and pray for him until his heart finally ceased to beat. The spark of life within Cord Malone refused to die, however, and on the morning of the third day, he opened his eyes to startle Nettie, who was bending over him to change his bandage.
“Good Lord in heaven!” Nettie exclaimed, recoiling as if having been struck. “Cord, boy, can you hear me?” His only response was a nod, but it was enough. “Praise the Lord,” Nettie blurted. “We thought you was dead!” She turned to yell through the doorway to alert the others, who were still at the breakfast table. “Jesse! He's awake!”
In a matter of moments, the rest of the family was gathered around the bed, with the exception of Nettie's other grandson, fourteen-year-old T.G., who deemed the biscuit he had just slathered with butter warranted first priority for his attention. “My stars!” Jesse's wife, Cindy, exclaimed. “He
awake.” She reached over to pat Cord's hand in encouragement, although the boy still looked more dead than alive. There was movement in his eyes, however, shifting to gaze weakly at each person who spoke.
“I'll get him some water,” Nettie said, then turned back to look at Cord. “Can you drink some water?” He nodded. “You ain't had nothing to drink for more'n two days,” she went on. “I expect you're about dried up.”
When he had recovered enough to talk about it, Cord told the anxious family what had happened on that fatal night as best he remembered. “We figured there had to be somebody else had a hand in it,” Jesse remarked when Cord said the murderer was a friend of his father. “I went back down there yesterday and scouted around the barn till I picked up a trail where he had rode outâfollowed it for about eight or nine miles till I lost it at the river. I finally gave up. He'da been long gone by then, anyway.”
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In the months that followed, Cord became stronger, nurtured by the grieving family. Soon he recovered enough to work in the fields with his uncle Jesse, and his cousin T.G. The two cousins got along very well. T.G., whose name was Thomas Grant after his late grandfather, had always been a friend to his younger cousin. So the boys worked well together. Watching the two watering the horses one evening, Cindy was prompted to comment to her husband, “Those two don't ever argue. Do you suppose he talks more to T.G.?”