A cleft in the cliffs served as a makeshift corral, its open end roped off. Guards were posted to keep watch over it.
Comanches were passionate horse thieves. If they could steal the gunrunners' horses, they would, and damn the consequences!
The unhorsed gun wagon stood in the center of the basin. Men were grouped around it in a half-circle facing east, the cliffs protecting its rear from the west. The gang was well-armed with repeating long guns and six-shooters.
The Comanches appeared not in the east where the dust cloud had first been sighted but in the south near the cliffs.
“Looky there!” Half-Shot cried, indicating a second dust cloud to the south. It showed near the cliffs several miles away, much closer than the dust to the east.
The south cloud moved north toward them while the east cloud stayed where it was. Strong sunlight streamed down from overhead, gilding the southern dust plume. At its base rode a knot of mounted men, ten in number. They came on at a steady walk.
“That's them all right,” Melbourne said. “Dirty stinking redskins!”
“They're not so bad,” Hump Colway said.
“The hell you say!”
“Not as bad as some white folks. At least they don't try to rub my hump for luck.”
“Is that lucky?” Chait asked, genuinely curious.
“Not for them,” the hunchback said. “The last few who tried, I shot them to pieces. Lucky for me, though,” he added. “Must be.”
“How do you figure?”
“I'm still here,” Hump said.
“Is that so great?” Melbourne said, snickering.
“To me it is. Beats being dead,” the hunchback said.
The Comanche riders narrowed the distance, closing on Bison Creek hollow.
“Huh! They don't look like much,” Sully said, disdainful.
“Reckon you don't look like much to them,” Hump said. “You don't look like much to me.”
Sully knew better than to mess with Hump and kept his mouth shut. He was worried about the Comanches, not Hump's slighting remark.
The Comanche riders were short stocky men riding small scruffy horses. But they were killers, horseback warriors. The horses were Indian ponies born of a long line of wild mustangs with endurance far beyond their more domesticated cousins.
The braves were Quesadas, most aloof of all Comanche tribes, making their home deep in the Llano. They generally shunned not only whites and their works but their fellow red men as well. Their standoffishness served them well, protecting them from catching the whites' diseases such as smallpox.
Somewhere in the Llano's trackless wastes lay their homeland, its whereabouts unknown to whites. It was hidden somewhere in the expanse but where, no living white man could say.
The brave at the point sported a lone feather rising vertically from the back of his head, held in place by a headband. He was Eagle Feather, leader of the band. He raised a hand, signaling a halt. The Comanches reined in, watchful and waiting.
Honest Bob motioned for them to advance and they rode in.
The braves showed wide faces, high cheekbones, dark watchful eyes. Thick, greasy, shoulder-length black hair was worn loose or in braids. Most of them wore white men's shirtsâplaid or patterned, open and unbuttonedâand knee-high moccasin boots. Some wore breeches, others loincloths.
A few bows and arrows, war hatchets, and a lance or two were seen among them, but were far outnumbered by firearms. Firearms were the weapon of choice. Some were armed with long guns, rifles, and carbines. A few had pistols tucked into their belts.
The gunrunners were wary, restive.
“Easy, boys, easy,” Honest Bob said. “This ain't the first time we've been to the fair. Don't get trigger-happy and we'll get through this fine just like we've done before.” He readied himself to start forward. “Stand ready, Ricketts!” he called.
“I'm ready!” Ricketts sat perched on the wagon's box seat puffing a cigar. His hand was closed around a line of fuse cord, its end curling out the top of his fist.
Honest Bob gave him a two-fingered half-salute. He turned, facing the Comanches. “Sefton, you come with me. I'm gonna meet Eagle Feather halfway.”
“All right, Bob.” Sefton was a fast draw and a cool-nerved customer.
“You men cover us,” Honest Bob told some of the others.
Honest Bob and Sefton started forward. Honest Bob was empty-handed, carrying no rifle. He wore twinned belt guns and could get at them fast if he had to.
Sefton held a rifle cradled against his chest, muzzle pointed skyward. He could get it into action quick enough. That went double for the gun holstered at his side. Others were fasterâMelbourne and Chait, for sureâbut Sefton had better judgment.
The Comanches sat their horses, watching the duo approach. The braves were motionless, stock-still. Masklike faces were cut deep with hard lines. They were stoics with good poker faces.
Their horses were well-trained, but the nearness of Bison Creek water made them restless. Their long faces and snouts were powdered with dust. No doubt they'd been ridden a long way between waterings.
Honest Bob halted a few man-lengths from the Comanches, Sefton stopping alongside him. Honest Bob held up his right hand palm out in the I-come-in-peace gesture. “Howdy, Eagle Feather!”
Eagle Feather nodded, some of his men grunting as if to themselves, the lines in their faces deepening into scowls.
That was all right with Honest Bob. He didn't give a damn if they liked him or not. Not that there was much chance of them liking any white man unless he was on the business end of a scalping knife. But they liked the guns he sold well enough, and that was what counted.
“You got guns, Honest Bob?” Eagle Feather asked. He always called the gun dealer by his full moniker of “Honest Bob,” whether in mockery or not was known only to himself. Comanches held little faith in the honesty of whites, period.
“Got gold?” Honest Bob countered.
“Ugh.” Eagle Feather nodded.
“You can see the wagon for yourself. We're ready for business, so let's get to it.” Honest Bob indicated the dust cloud in the east. “Your friends out there can come in, too. We're not afraid. We'll give them a warm welcome.”
“You trade horses for guns?” Eagle Feather asked, thrusting his hatchet-faced head forward. “They good horses. Fast, strong.”
Honest Bob shook his head no. “You know my policy, Eagle Feather. I only trade for gold or cash money. Gold, silver, or jewelry.”
“Eagle Feather know. We catch plenty horses, by damn! Good horses!”
Stolen horses, Honest Bob knew. Presumably the eastern dust cloud was made by them and the braves tending them. Maybe. Or maybe it was the rest of a war party standing by waiting for the signal to attack.
“Eagle Feather tell braves stand off. Honest Bob no want horses,” the Comanche said, indicating the eastern dust cloud.
“That's the way of it,” Honest Bob said.
“When you go, we water horses here at Bison Creek, yes.”
“When we go, you can do what you damn well please for all I care.”
“No want horses, good horses?” Eagle Feather pressed.
“No stolen horses, thanks,” Honest Bob said, shaking his head. “I don't want to hang.”
“You look good that way, by damn!” Eagle Feather's eyes gleamed and the corners of his wide mouth quirked upward in grim amusement. A rare show of emotion for him.
“You'd like to see me hang, wouldn't you, Eagle Feather,” Honest Bob said. It was not a question.
“Eagle Feather want see all gunrunners hang,”
“Then who'd sell you guns?”
“Always greedy white men sell Comanches guns.”
“Not good guns like I got.”
“Mebbe so, Honest Bob. Mebbe so. Eagle Feather want all Comancheros hang. You cheats.”
“That ain't so, Eagle Feather. You know that. I never cheated you.”
“You cheat but not so bad as other white men,” Eagle Feather grudgingly allowed.
“The truth of it is, you'd like to see all white folks hang,” Honest Bob said, grinning.
“Mebbe so, mebbe so.”
“Well, let's get to business.” Honest Bob turned and walked away, Sefton following.
The Comanches came afterward, walking their horses at a slow pace.
“The gang's all here,” Sam Heller said to himself. “Gunrunners, Comanchesâand me. The uninvited guest.” He was in a covert, a kind of shooting blind. A sharpshooter's nest.
It was in a cleft at the top of the rock walls of the eastern face of the bench overlooking Bison Creek. A V-shaped crack dropped vertically from the edge of the cliff. It was six feet wide and ten feet long, tapering downward.
It was five feet wide up on the cliff top, forming a kind of cup-shaped hollow or basin. The cup was roomy enough for Sam to curl inside. Its floor consisted of loose rocks and dirt, which filled the cleft from its base to cup. Scrub brush, weeds, and vines grew from the surface of the dirt at the top of the cup.
The cliff top rim was thick with brush. Shrubs and bushes covered Sam, screening him from view of any of those below who might casually glance upward at the scarp.
It was a tight fit in the sharpshooter's nest, sharing it as he did with his rifle and supplies. Sam lay on his side in the nest, legs together and bent at the knees. He propped himself up on an elbow.
He was a big man, six-foot-four, 210 pounds, full-grown, and in the prime of life. He wanted to stay that way, a condition that would require some deft maneuvering and more than a little bit of luck in the next twenty-four hours or so. He had yellow hair and a same-colored beard, looking like a blond Viking. He hailed from Minnesota but had spent most of his youth in the West. A committed Unionist, he had fought for the North throughout the war.
Sam wore a dark, battered slouch hat, buckskin vest, brown denims, and moccasin boots. The boots were knee-high and worn under the denims. Beside him in the nest was a knapsack and canteen.
He was armed with a Winchester rifle, a .36 Navy Colt worn on his left hip in a cross-belly draw, and a bowie-style Green River knife sheathed on his right side. Twin bandoliers crossed chest and shoulders, their loops holding rifle cartridges.
The rifle was one of the new Winchester 1866 models, Sam's piece having been one of the first to come off the production line. It was one of the most effective and up-to-date weapons on the frontierâin the world, for that matter.
A keen-eyed viewer would have noticed that the rifle displayed several unique modifications. Special socket rings and fittings showed at the front stock and butt. Sam had chopped the rifle, sawing off most of the barrel and butt stock to create a mule's leg, as sawed-off repeating rifles were popularly called. It was generally worn in a custom-made holster on Sam's right hip, though not at the moment.
Sam was a born outdoorsman, and his trade required him to spend a good amount of time on narrow streets and in crowded saloons, gambling dens, meeting halls, cafÃ©s, and such in frontier towns and settlements. Easier to sport a mule's leg in those places than tote a long rifle.
It could be put into action quicker, too, a vital attribute in deadly encounters where a matter of split seconds might spell the difference between life and death. He could unlimber the mule's leg faster than most triggermen could shuck a handgun from a holster.
There were times, though, when a man preferred to work at a distance rather than up close. For such times, a long gun was necessary.
Thus the special fittings on the mule's leg, allowing different-length barrels to be attached to the muzzle, with similar arrangements at the rear allowing for the add-on of wooden stocks in place of the standard curved pistol-grip handle. The piece had all the modifications as Sam lay curved in the hollow, awaiting the moment of truth.
He'd waited a long time, weeks of solitary prowls through plains, badlands, and back trails, searching for signs that would lead to his quarry. He was a special agent with a presidential warrant. His mission was to break up the gangs supplying weapons to the Comanches of the Texas frontier.
The hundredth meridian
the Texas frontier, so Sam had set up his base of operations in the town of Hangtree in Hangtree County. What began as a mission had become a quest. He'd seen what the Comanches could do when it came to turning the frontier into a living hell.
There were many Comancheros of the rank-and-file variety, foot soldiers of the gunrunners' trade, who dealt directly with the Indians. They were renegades, enemies of humanity, and Sam killed them when he could.
But they weren't his real target. He was after the big fish, not the small fry. He wanted the ones at the top of the pyramid, the ringleaders, the organizers who supplied the contraband in bulk.
A long dark trail had led him to Bison Creek under Boneyard Bench. Honest Bob Longford and the rest of the bunch were far from unknown to Sam Heller. He'd long been aware they were Comancheros, part of the Hog Ranch outfit.
The Hog Ranch was a low dive, a deadfall that lay near Fort Pardee. It was a thieves' den, a magnet for saddle tramps, drifters, and outlaws. It featured cheap whiskey, saloon girls, and gambling. It was a great favorite with the cavalry troopers of the fort, despite having been posted off-limits by their commanding officer.
Sam had had his eye on the Hog Ranch for some time, but it was only in the last few weeks that his suspicions had taken shape regarding the expedition to the Llano. He had trailed the gunrunners to Bison Creek, always keeping out of sight.
Under Boneyard Bench, Honest Bob's bunch had tied in with the next rung of the ladder, Felipe Mercurio, who would lead to the Comanchero bigs. With his sidemen, he had supplied Honest Bob with a wagonload of weapons. Mercurio was the Santa Fe Ring's man. The Ring were known Comancheros, biggest in the territory.
Mercurio's presence was the first link to directly tie the Ring to gunrunning on the Llano. He and his men had met Honest Bob and company at the creek the previous day at dusk, delivering the wagon full of guns. They'd stayed the night, sitting around the campfire with the Hog Ranch crew, eating and drinking while Sam made cheerless camp hidden on the cliff top above.
He guessed they were sticking close to the site until the Comanches took possession of the weapons. Maybe Mercurio wanted to make sure the transaction was completed in full and Honest Bob didn't make off with some of the guns to resell them on his own. Mercurio might also be dogging Honest Bob for his share of the proceeds.
Whatever the reason, Sam meant to find out. He was no lawman, though he could have been called a law enforcer in the loosest sense of the term. He was a man on a mission, authorized by the highest law in the land, the President of the United States.
He was not bound by the rules of evidence and legal protocol. He didn't have to prove a case against his quarry in court or even bring them back alive. In fact, it was often preferable to leave as many dead as a warning to others.
He was a troubleshooter, and it was his job to shoot trouble
It had been a long hard hunt. As he watched the negotiations below him, he thought back to the past few days.
Alone, he had dogged Honest Bob's crew from the Hog Ranch to the Llano, trailing them just at the edge of vision, following them into the badlands. Their southwesterly course took them toward Boneyard Bench.
Sam knew the way. In the months since first arriving in Hangtree County, he'd ridden trail in the territory, criss-crossing it a number of times. He wished to live, so he'd learned where the water was. The twenty-five miles of the bench's eastern front was the source of three different dependable watercourses. Bison Creek was the most abundant of the three.
Sam guessed the gunrunners would make for it. Breaking off direct pursuit, he detoured northwest, taking a course that would bring him to the north end of the bench. He knew there was no way through the scarp, only around it. He rounded the gentle slope where the north edge of the bench joined the flat and rode up on top of the plateau, heading south.
The landscape was all earth tonesâa dust-muted blur of grays, yellows, and brownsâspeckled here and there with patches of dark green. On the plains, the winds blew mostly from the west, sometimes from the north. They could whip up a hellbender of a gale, but the air was hot and still, though from time to time, a welcome breath of a breeze lifted. It barely stirred up a scrum of dust, whipping it a few inches above the ground for several dozen yards, only to let it fall, exhausted.
The plateau summit was flat tableland that came to an abrupt end in the east. Sam was careful to ride far enough into the interior to avoid skylining in the east and being spotted by anyone in the Boneyard. In the other three directions it showed empty plains as far as the eye could see. If Comanche raiders spied him, he would be in a tight spot. There was nowhere to hide, not when once seen.
What seemed unyielding monotony of landscape proved to present a variety of terrain. Seemingly featureless plains were broken by rises and dips, rocks, trees, and brush.
The prairie unrolled as Sam rode south. If he'd guessed wrong, if Honest Bob had altered his southwesterly course toward the bench for points unknown, Sam would have lost him. It was highly unlikely that he could pick up the gunrunners' trail again.
But if he was right, if Honest Bob planned to set up shop somewhere in the Boneyard, the detour could save Sam many hours of hard riding. The Boneyard offered water and cover, things generally unavailable farther out on the plains.
High overhead, black V shapes circled. Vultures searching for carrion.
Several hours later, a ring of green brush took shape in the distance. It bordered a shallow basin about eight feet wide and three feet deep. A waterhole. A small spring lay beneath the basin, filling it with several inches of muddy brown water.
Sam halted, stepping down from the saddle. Small game trails arrowed in and out of the basin rim, indicating that local wildlife drank from the spring.
Good. That means the water isn't poisoned, he thought. Sometimes waterholes were contaminated by trace elements of corrosive minerals.
Sam cupped a hand, scooping out some water and tasting it. It was not warm but hot from the sun, brackish and muddy. It tasted good to him, whose water supply was so tightly rationed.
He filled his canteens, then let Dusty, his horse, drink. The animal was a gray Steel Dust, part mustang, short and scrappy. After watering the horse, Sam let it browse on the greenery ringing the waterhole, then he saddled up and moved on, reaching what he judged to be the midpoint of the plateau. Ahead lay a small cone-shaped hill, looking like an overgrown ant mound. A stand of thin straggly trees grew at its base. The cone was a landmark, a signpost pointing to Bison Creek below.
Sam halted at the mound about a hundred yards away from the cliff edge. He stepped down and tied the horse's reins to a tree branch.
Tree? Little more than scrub brush, really, but no less welcome for all of that. A man without a horse on the plains was for all intents and purposes a dead man. That's why horse theft was a capital crime on the frontier. Stealing a man's horse was pretty much the same as condemning him to death. The frontier was no country for a man afoot.
Dusty began nibbling on the green leaves. He wasn't the type of horse who ran away. He'd stay in place when his reins were free with their ends dangling on the ground. But Sam wasn't a man to leave things to chance. No telling when the unexpected would rear its ugly head and let chaos loose.
Sam heard noiseâvoices, shouts, horses neighing, movement. The sounds made his skin tingle, quivering like a struck drumhead.
He prowled the edge of the cliff, screened by thick bushes. The rim was not a straight line, solid and unbroken, but was saw-toothed with seams and fissures. One in particular looked promising, a V-shaped vertical cut topped by a dirt-filled hollow cup.
Nearing the edge, Sam ducked down and lay flat on the ground. He crawled to the cliff's edge, staying low. He parted the brush, looking down.
Rock walls dropped straight down to the flat twenty-five feet below.
Yes, gunrunners were making camp at Bison Creek.
A cut in the cliff wall below had been pressed into service as a makeshift corral. Sticks and branches were used for a palisade type fence and gate. A thin trickling vein of Bison Creek ran through it. There was green grass for grazing. Two guards were posted outside the gate, armed with repeating rifles.
There was not much work to be done by the gunrunners. Their tasks were finished and they busied themselves with eating, drinking, smoking, and loafing.
Sometimes a trick of the air currents brought a taste of tobacco smoke to Sam's nostrils. He thought of his own tobacco pouch and sighed. No smoking now, not for him. He couldn't risk having the smoke seen by the foe.
He sternly put the thought of it out of his mind, but the craving kept sneaking back.
He had a hat to keep the sun off his bare head, a canteen full of water, and beef jerky to chew. Nothing for him to do but watch and wait.
Late afternoon shadows were falling and the sun was lowering in the west when the next round of newcomers arrived.
Felipe Mercurio and the Comancheros rode in with the gun wagon. Two men sat up front on the box seat. Five men rode escort alongside. Honest Bob's bunch acted glad to see them.
Sam knew the man in the passenger seat beside the wagon driver. Mercurio was a well-known figure along the owlhoot trail on both sides of the Rio Grande. A killer, slaver, dealer in contraband, he was henchman to Quatro Matanzas, driving wheel of the Santa Fe Ring.
That was a surprise. Sam hadn't known the Ring reached so far east.
While Mercurio and Honest Bob conferred, the newcomers squared away their mounts in the corral. The gun wagon was placed at the foot of the cliff. Half-Shot showed the new arrivals to the cooking pots so they could chow down and drink up, not necessarily in that order.