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Authors: Jon Sharpe

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BOOK: Six-Gun Gallows
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An elderly woman spotted him riding in and screamed. “Please, God, no more!” she begged the heavens. “Thou must please make him leave us alone!”
Fargo realized she had confused his fawn-colored buckskins with butternut.
“I'm a friend, ma'am,” he assured her. “I'm not part of that bunch that just left.”
“Friend?” she repeated in a tone implying she no longer trusted the word. Then she turned away and folded to the ground, overcome with grief.
A man lay slumped on the box of his wagon, screaming in agony. Fargo hauled back on the Ovaro's reins and threw a leg over the cantle, dismounting. He threw the reins forward to hold his pinto, and then checked on the man. He'd been gut-shot twice and was past all help. All that lay in store for him was hours of indescribable agony while he bled out.
His face set hard as a steel trap, Fargo moved out of the man's line of sight, shucked out his Colt, and sent the man to glory with a clean head shot. He expected howls of protest, but this bunch was in such shock no one took notice.
“Listen, folks!” Fargo shouted. “We'll have to bury your dead and get you out of here. Even if that gang of white men is done with you, the Indian Territory is only forty miles south of here, and some of the hotheads like to jump the rez. There's dozens of tribes there, and warpath braves could be anywhere in this area.”
No one seemed to be listening. Fargo grabbed a shovel from a wagon and began digging a mass grave. Soon a few women and older boys had joined him. The elderly woman Fargo had first spoken to had recovered from the worst of her shock and spoke a prayer after the bodies had been covered with dirt.
“We thank thee, young man,” she said to Fargo. “We came out from western Pennsylvania. We never expected anything like this. No one warned us. We're just farmers.”
Fargo felt a welling of hopelessness. How many times had he heard those fateful words on the lips of green-antlered settlers burying their dead?
“What brought you folks this far out, ma'am?”
“Well, all the talk of railroads. We hoped to prosper.”
Fargo had all he could do not to curse. There were still no railroads west of the Missouri River, but plenty of misguided folks were riding west on rumor waves. In 1854 the Committee on Territories proposed building three transcontinental lines, two of them slicing through the entire width of Kansas. Squatters immediately began pouring into the area. Some were the usual profiteers who hoped to cash in by being first on the scene. Others, like these folks, were hapless farmers expecting new markets for their crops—and finding only a nameless grave like this one.
But Fargo looked at this tired old woman, her eyes water-galled from weeping, and dropped the matter.
“Ma'am, obviously you folks are in no shape to push on. Fifteen miles east of the Cimarron River there's a trading post called Sublette. There's clean water, plenty of room to camp, and plenty of protection if you join with other settlers. There's also experienced guides for hire if you decide to go home.”
The woman nodded. “My name is Esther Emmerick. Who were those men who . . . who attacked us?”
Again that question niggled at Fargo. “Well, they sure looked like Kansas border ruffians. But this is mighty far west for them.”
“I've heard of them—supposedly they are looters. These men hardly touched our possessions.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too,” Fargo said. “It's a mite curious, isn't it?”
The old matriarch steeled her resolve with a mighty sigh. “We're in God's hands for good or ill. Will thou take us to this trading post, Mr. . . .”
“Fargo. You better believe I will. I'm on a mission for the U.S. Army, but it can wait.”
“Army? Thou are a solider?”
“No, ma'am. I do contract work for them now and then. Scouting, hunting, messenger, in that line.”
“I see. One moment, please, Mr. Fargo.”
The woman went to a nearby wagon, rummaged in the back, and returned with a doeskin pouch. It was sewn shut with thick gut string.
“Two nights ago,” she explained, “a badly wounded soldier, barely able to walk, met up with our group. The poor man died, but before he did he gave this to my—my husband—”
Her eyes cut to the new grave, but then she forged on. “He could barely speak, but he said it was imperative that this pouch be delivered to a military officer—any officer. He said it must not be opened before such delivery. Thou, Mr. Fargo, are more likely to see an officer before I do. May I trust it to thee?”
Fargo took it, noticing dried blood all over it. “It feels empty,” he remarked.
“Yes, but that poor soldier was adamant that it be delivered.”
“I'll take care of it,” Fargo promised.
He glanced around. A westering sun threw long, flat shadows to the east.
“All right, folks, I know it's hard for you, but we have to get a wiggle on. If you rehitch some of the teams, there should be at least one ox for every wagon.”
Nobody moved, not wanting to leave the grave. Most stood still as stone lions, staring at the new mound of dirt. Fargo hated to get rough with them, but there was no other way to save them.
“Damn it, people, stir your stumps!” he snapped. “What's done is done. Do you want the children to die, too?”
That finally goaded them into action. Feeling like a brutal mine foreman, Fargo began helping the women with their teams. But he vowed to move heaven and earth—if that was what it took—to punish every murdering son of a bitch who had attacked these helpless innocents.
Rafe Belloch, hidden in an erosion gully north of the attack site, studied everything through a pair of German-made field glasses.
“Christ on a crutch,” he muttered softly. “That's all I needed.”
“What's wrong, boss?” Shanghai Webb asked.
“Plenty,” Belloch replied, still peering through the glasses. He was tall and whipcord thin, with a high pompadour, a thin line of mustache, and a pointed Vandyke beard.
Belloch took in the magnificent black-and-white pinto, the tall man's buckskin clothing, and the brass-framed Henry rifle protruding from the man's saddle scabbard.
“I could be wrong,” he said, “but I think that jasper helping those Quakers is Skye Fargo.”
“So what? Whoever that is, he's just one man.” Shanghai was a barrel-chested, rawboned man with long, greasy black hair tied in a knot between his shoulder blades. Unlike his boss, whose only visible weapon was a thin Spanish boot dagger, he wore a brace of pistols and a bowie knife.
“No,” Belloch corrected him. “If we're not careful, he's the rock we'll all split on. That son of a bitch is death to the devil. But we'll bide our time and soon Fargo will be worm fodder.”
Two more men, Moss Harper and Jake Ketchum, had just joined Rafe and Shanghai in the gully. Both wore the cutaway holsters of professional gun-throwers.
“Hell, why wait at all?” demanded Moss. “Best way to cure a boil is to lance it. Me, Jake, and Shanghai can pop the bastard over right now.”
Rafe's thin lips twitched into a smile. “All three of you boys have a set on you, all right. That's why I chose you over the rest as my field lieutenants. But even three good men won't take down Skye Fargo—not on the open plains.”
Moss grunted. He had thinning red hair, a crooked nose broken in two places, and a patch over his left eye, which had been shot out in the Mexican War. “Happens he's so rough, how's come he didn't try to help them mealymouthed psalm singers when it would've mattered?”
“Men like him, who live their entire lives on the frontier, don't stay alive by tilting at windmills. But you can take
to the bank: He won't ride away like it's none of his business. It's an account he means to settle.”
“All right,” Shanghai said. “You want I should catch up with the rest of our men? He can't whip thirty at once.”
“No, it's too risky.”
“Boss, has your brain gone soft? We can catch him in fifteen minutes and shoot him to rag tatters.”
Belloch lowered the glasses and looked at him. His hard, dark eyes pierced like a pair of bullets. “Evidently you lads don't recognize the name Fargo. You might know him better as the Trailsman—that's what some call him.”
“The Trailsman,” repeated Jake Ketchum, a wiry and small man with a mean little face like a terrier. A string of leathery human ears dangled from his rattlesnake-skin belt. “Yeah, I've heard some saloon gossip.”
“In his case it's not gossip. He's got more guts than a smoke-house, and he rides the fastest, strongest horse in the West. Our men's horses are stale by now, they'd never catch him at a dead run. Even if they could get close, Fargo's a dead shot with that Henry rifle of his. That's—what?—sixteen accurate shots from a repeater. And they say he can knock the eyes out of a buzzard at two hundred yards.”
Shanghai snorted. “Yeah, and oysters can walk upstairs, too. No offense, boss, but since when did you turn into a nervous Nellie who believes in Robin Hood? Sounds like this lanky bastard puts ice in your boots.”
“No man does that, Shanghai. But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about killing a man like Skye Fargo. We're going to do it the right way—and before he turns that mystery pouch over to the U.S. Army.”
“Pouch?” Shanghai repeated. “What's in it?”
“That's why I employed the adjective ‘mystery.' Some old Quaker crone gave it to him. They're all headed east now, probably to Sublette.”
“Might be it's nothing to do with us,” Moss suggested, adjusting his eye patch.
Rafe shrugged. “Yes, maybe it's just her family recipes, eh? But she gave it to Skye Fargo. And that tells me it's likely to be trouble—the worst kind in the world. The kind that leaves men dancing on air.”
Shanghai paled under the dust coating his face. “You don't mean . . . the senator?”
Rafe nodded. “I have no idea, mind you, but that's what I suspect.”
“Mr. Belloch,” Jake put in, “speaking of that deal with the senator, there's something I don't quite savvy. You work for the Kansas Pacific, ain't that right?”
Belloch kept a poker face. “I draw pay from them, Jake, yes.”
“Then how's come we're raising hell in these parts? Ain't this close to the route they favor?”
“Jake, you flap your gums too much,” Shanghai cut in. “You got some problem with your pay?”
“Hell no.”
“Good. Just shut your gob and carry out orders.”
“Sorry for nosing in, Mr. Belloch,” Jake said in a contrite voice. “You're the rainmaker in these parts.”
Belloch flashed his thin-lipped smile. “Rain, sleet, snow, and sunshine. But, boys, never mind me,” he said. “Don't you realize there's been a horrifying massacre here today?”
Shanghai's eyes narrowed. “You been grazing locoweed?
done the massacre.”
“Shush.” Belloch touched a finger to his lips. “Boys, it was shocking and we all saw it. Skye Fargo, dressed like a border ruffian, led a band of desperadoes against those poor defenseless Quakers and killed their menfolk. Even violated their girls. Then he had the brazen effrontery to slip off, change back into buckskins, and pretend to help them.”
“What's brazen frunnery?” Jake asked.
“Gall, Jake, gall. The murdering bastard is widely known as a railroad hater. That must be why he did it. And we, being only four in number, were helpless to prevent it.”
Shanghai grinned, revealing a few stumps of tobacco-stained teeth. “Boss, you are some pumpkins. That's pure genius.”
“I'll write up a report for the dispatch rider, and we'll all sign it,” Belloch added. “Under territorial law, and with my credentials, that'll be excuse enough to shoot him down like a rabid wolf.”
“There's still that pouch,” Moss pointed out.
Belloch nodded. “From now until we kill him, Skye Fargo is the man of the hour. Since he's known to work for the U.S. Army, I suspect he intends to deliver that pouch to a military man. Come hell or high water, we're going to prevent him.”
Fargo knew he was being watched, but out on the Great Plains that never worried him much.
He never felt as relaxed, anywhere in the West, as he did on the open plains—still foolishly known as Zebulon Pike's Great American Desert in geography books back east. There were dangers, to be sure. In some places rattlesnakes bred unchecked, and he had seen horse and rider suddenly consumed by them as if in flames, a writhing mass that brought death in seconds.
And up from deep Texas there were wild herds of man-killing longhorns and equally lethal mustangs. The mustangs “liberated” saddle horses, stranding men to die in the vast lonesome. Fargo had encountered prairie-dog towns that stretched for miles, where grass knee-high to a tall man hid the holes so well a rider could lame his horse without warning.
But human enemies were at a serious disadvantage out here. Ambush was nearly impossible, except in the growth near water, and the only real danger was large groups of attackers—and with a good Henry rifle like his, even they could be discouraged.
Still, especially after the brutal massacre he'd witnessed yesterday, Fargo kept his sun-crimped eyes in constant motion while he formed balls of cornmeal and water and tossed them into the hot ashes of his campfire to bake. Several hours after sunset yesterday he had ridden into Sublette with the survivors of the massacre. After resting and graining the Ovaro, he had headed west twenty miles or so to the Cimarron River and made camp.
BOOK: Six-Gun Gallows
11.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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