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BOOK: William W. Johnstone
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A man stood facing the fireplace, holding a pumpkin goblet of brandy in both hands. He gazed into the glass in a kind of meditative reverie, watching the serpents of fire curling around the blazing hearth logs through the medium of rich, reddish-brown brandy in the cut-crystal goblet. Hearing Lorena approach, he turned to face her.
He was Don Eduardo, patriarch of the House of Castillo,
padrone
of Rancho Grande, and Lorena’s father-in-law. She’d been married to his first-born son Ramon, dead these last seven years.
Now in his mid-sixties, Don Eduardo remained every inch the aristocrat, ever-aware of that status. Pride of rank and heritage of blood showed in his straight-backed, stiff-necked stance, in the aura of command stamped on the features of his face.
Tall, slim, with a full head of silver-gray hair, he had a long sharp-featured face, hooded brown eyes, and a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache and goatee. Somber black clothes contrasted with a white ruffled shirtfront.
He gave the impression of a man of strong passions held tightly in check. His eyes glared, the lips of his downturned mouth were tightly pressed. The woman halted a few paces away, facing him.
“Lorena, have you gone mad?” he demanded.
“And a very good evening to you too, Don Eduardo,” she said lightly. “Greetings on your return. I hope your cattle-buying trip met with success.”
Don Eduardo had been away from the ranch on an overnight trip east to Palo Pinto County, to examine some blooded stock being offered for sale by a rancher there. An escort of some of his most formidable pistoleros had guarded him against the dangers of the overland trip. He’d returned to Rancho Grande little more than an hour ago.
“My concern is what has happened during my absence,” he said. “Diego told me what you have been up to.”
“He would,” Lorena said, her upper lip curling. Diego was the
padrone
’s younger son, long a grown man.
“Never mind about that,” Don Eduardo said. “I know there is no love lost between you and your brother-in-law. That disturbs me, but there is nothing to be done about it. At least Diego keeps me informed about matters of vital importance to this ranch.”
“Of that I am sure,” Lorena said dryly.
“Have you taken leave of your senses, bringing some filthy gringo onto my land, sheltering him under my roof?!”
“Not so filthy. He has a nice face, for a gringo,” Lorena said. “And he is not under your roof. I had him put not in the hacienda but in the storehouse.”
“Bah! They are all my roofs, they all belong to me. You know how I feel about these accursed Tejanos, these self-styled Texans. They are a blight on the land, a biblical plague. Usurpers. Enemies!”
“This one is no Tejano, he’s a Yanqui.”
“What is the difference between a jackal and a hyena? Two branches of the same Anglo root that threatens to destroy us. More dangerous than ever, now that their war between north and south is done. At least that kept them busy killing each other. With the rebellion put down, the gringos will come swarming to steal our land away from us, just as they stole the entire Southwest and California from Mexico,” Don Eduardo said.
While speaking he gestured violently with his hands, causing some brandy to slop out of the top of his glass and spill on the floor. Setting the goblet down on a side table, he took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped his hand clean of the liquid.
“Stop and think, Don Eduardo,” Lorena said, turning some of the force of her personality on him. “Have I ever done or said anything to dishonor the memory of Ramon? Ever acted in a way that went against the pride and power of the House of Castillo and the Rancho Grande?”
“No, never,” the
padrone
said grudgingly. “Which only goes to make your current actions all the more incomprehensible!” he added quickly. “I can only think that you have taken leave of your senses!”
“I know what I am doing, as I will prove to you. Earlier today, while you were away on your journey, some of our riders stopped a runaway wagon on the Old Mission Road. It carried a cargo of corpses. At the ford were more dead men. Between the wagon and the river bank, nineteen in all—nineteen!”
“Yes, I have heard of this thing,” said Don Eduardo. “Vasquez told me of it. Monstrous—an infamy! No doubt some new fiendish conspiracy devised by those pigs in town—Hutto and his creatures—to destroy us and steal our land.”
“Your hate is blinding you,
padrone
. Wade Hutto is greedy and ambitious, but he would hardly go to such lengths to entrap us. As many pistoleros as it took for that much killing, it would have been easier to strike directly at the ranch, if that was the purpose.”
“Then what was the purpose, Lorena? Tell me.”
“I do not know—yet. I know only what Sombro tells me. He’s half Indio, our best tracker. No one can read signs as well as he. He can read horse and wagon tracks like a bishop reads Latin.”
“That is true,” Don Eduardo conceded, becoming interested despite himself. “I have not yet spoken to Sombro.”
“He and some of our riders are getting rid of the dead men’s wagon so that it will not be connected with us. He will not be back for some hours. I questioned him before he left.”
“What did he say?”
Lorena leaned forward, intent. “He says there were two wagons, two bands of men. One band came across the river at the ford. They came with a freight wagon. The other lay in wait for them on this side of the river. The ambushers killed them and took the wagon. Sombro says the wagon was carrying a heavy load. Its wheels cut deep tracks in the ground.”
“What was in the wagon?”
“Ah, that is a question. What did it carry? Something worth killing for. Something worth much killing.”
“Gold?”
“That would be worth the price of all those deaths, yes—gold. Gold,” breathed Lorena, her eyes glittering, ripe red lips parted.
Don Eduardo scowled, thinking. “Who brings gold here? That swine Hutto does not have that kind of money. No, not Hutto and all the merchants and gamblers in Hangtree town put together.”
“What about the army at Fort Pardee? A gold shipment to pay the men and buy supplies, perhaps.”
“But the dead men were not soldiers. Vasquez would have told me if they were.”
“The government could have hired private guards for the shipment, no?”
Don Eduardo stroked his mustache with his fingertips, smoothing it. “What happened to the freight wagon, Lorena?”
“It went west on the Old Mission Road toward the Broken Hills, as Sombro reads it.”
“If the old one says it is so, then it is so. The other wagon, with the dead men—where does it fit in?”
“If the bandits wanted to move the bodies to cover up their trail, to hide them, it would have done for the job.”
Don Eduardo made a fist, swiping it in the air. “They could have put them on our land, so we would be blamed!”
“I did not think of that, but it could be so,” Lorena said.
“The law and the gringos would blame Rancho Grande, while the real culprits got away! Clever, very clever. But why didn’t they? What went wrong?”
Lorena’s lips curved upward in a slow, selfsatisfied smile. “That is where Señor Heller comes in.”
“Who?”
“The gringo, Don Eduardo.”
“You know his name, then.”
“I went through his saddlebags. There was a portfolio filled with papers, documents. His name was on it: Heller, Samuel Heller.”
Don Eduardo made an expression of distaste. “A name that means nothing to me.”
Lorena shrugged. “The portfolio held many circulars of Wanted men—pictures of the outlaws, killers and robbers, each with a price on their heads.”
“Is he a lawman?” asked Don Eduardo.
She shook her head. “The gringo has no badge, no star.”
“A bounty hunter, then.”
Lorena nodded. “So it would seem. No ordinary bounty hunter, either. There were seven dead men at the ford.”
“So?”
“They were alive before the gringo crossed the river.”
“How do you know this, Lorena?”
“The testimony of the horse tracks and the dead men, as read by Sombro.
“The bandits rode in on the Old Mission Road from the west, from the Broken Hills. They lay in wait on the west bank to ambush the freight wagon. Some of them rode west with the wagon. The others stayed behind at the river. The gringo crossed the river. He went west on the road. The bandits at the river were dead. The gringo was wounded. He rode on to Rancho Grande land—we found him,” Lorena said.
“How badly is he hurt?” Don Eduardo asked.
“He will live.”
“Ah, but should he?”
“He could be very useful to us, Don Eduardo—to the ranch.”
“How?”
“As a witness, for one thing. He can testify that Rancho Grande had nothing to do with the robbery.”
“The word of a bounty killer holds little weight in the councils of the law, Lorena.”
“His army discharge certficate was in with his papers. He was with the North, like the soldiers at Fort Pardee. That will carry some weight with them, more than the testimony of any Rebel, I think.”
Don Eduardo considered it. “You may be right. But if what you say is true, this gringo is more than just another pistolero. He is a dangerous man.”
“Is that so bad?”
“He could be dangerous to us.”
“A bounty hunter kills for the price on an outlaw’s head. He sells his gun for money. You have money,” Lorena said.
“I would like to keep what I have. In fact, I would like more,” said Don Eduardo.
“He may know who robbed the freight wagon and where the loot is hidden. He might lead us to it. And if something should happen to him, and the gold fall into Castillo hands, the United States government would be none the wiser.”
Don Eduardo showed a sharp, hard-eyed glint, like that of a bird of prey. “You have given this matter a great deal of thought, Lorena. And I must say, I like the way you think.”
“My thoughts are always for the advancement of Rancho Grande and the Castillo name.”
“What is the extent of this man Heller’s injuries?”
“He was shot in the shoulder. No bones were broken. I took the bullet out of him and patched him up. There was a flesh wound on his side, but it is nothing. He has lost a lot of blood, but he should be up on his feet in a few days with the help of Alma’s potions,” Lorena said.
Don Eduardo spat and made the sign of protection against the evil eye. “That witch!”
“Witch or not, she knows how to heal the wounded and the sick. The sooner the gringo is on the trail of that stolen wagon and its loot, the better.”
“You may be on to something at that, Lorena. Continue with your plan, and keep me posted of any developments. When he is able to talk, find out what he knows. But be careful not to put him on his guard.”
“I know what to do.”
“Of that I am sure. Oh, and Lorena—”
“Yes, Don Eduardo?”
“The storehouse is good enough for him. I want no gringo in the hacienda.”
“It shall be as you say, Don Eduardo.”
T
EN
 
Legend and lore say the coming of day banishes ghosts. For Johnny Cross, first light brought them. Not the ghosts of the men he’d killed last night or in the past, but family ghosts. The ghosts of memory.
Johnny awoke before dawn, early Tuesday morning. The sky was still dark, except for that streak of pale gray radiance in the east that heralds the sunrise—the false dawn, what the Indians call the Wolf’s Tail.
It was cool; dew was beaded up on Johnny’s top blanket, though the ones layered below it were dry. He lay there, looking up at the stars in the graying sky. The fire had burned low. Nearby, Luke Pettigrew slept soundly, snoring softly.
This was Johnny’s first time home since he’d left to go to war five years ago, in the summer of 1861. Ma had been dead about a month. She’d been the only thing keeping him on the ranch.
The war’s pull was strong on him, the lure of fighting was a potent strain in the Cross blood. Cross menfolk had fought in the Mexican-American War, the war for Texas independence, the War of 1812, the American Revolution, and the French and Indian War. When they weren’t fighting the young nation’s wars, they fought in private wars and feuds in Kentucky and the hill country of Tennessee.
By that time Pa had been long dead. He’d died when Johnny was a boy, leaving him and his older brother Cal as mainstays to keep the ranch going. Cal had joined the Texas Army of the Confederacy almost immediately after war was declared following the firing on Fort Sumter.
Johnny would have gone too, but somebody had to stay behind and help Ma tend the ranch. She wouldn’t leave the place, and even if she’d been of a mind to, where could she go? The Crosses had no kin in this part of the state. With her fierce, quiet pride, Ma would rather die than move into town and live on charity, not that there was much in the way of charity in Hangtown.
What little money the family had managed to scrape by on over the years came from the wild horses that the boys caught, broke to the saddle, and sold. With Cal gone, Johnny handled the mustanging by himself. Johnny put most of the fresh meat on the table. Ma kept a vegetable garden going, but his shooting was the difference between the two of them eating or starving.
Hunger had taught him a terrible patience even as it sharpened his aim to deadly accuracy. Hunting in the Breaks, he bagged the occasional deer or antelope when he could get it, but most often took varmints such as squirrel, possum, and raccoon. Wild quail and pheasant made a welcome change in the diet. Cal promised to send money back home, but if he had, none of it ever reached them.
Ma had been sickly that winter and never quite recovered even when the warm weather came. A summer thunderstorm soaked her to the skin; she caught a chill and soon expired. She was buried beside Pa and daughter Mandy in a plot behind the ranch house at the foot of the jagged-top hill.
Johnny dug the grave himself, did the burying and read a few of her favorite passages from the Bible over her. She’d taught him and Cal how to read. He wasn’t much of a reader, but good enough to get by.
With Ma gone, there was nothing to tie him to the ranch. He’d sold off what little livestock there was, loaded up his trusty smooth-bore musket, saddled up his horse and rode east across Texas to fight for the Confederacy.
Along the way he fell in with Bill Anderson and his bunch of red-hots—a story in itself—and the hard-riding, hard-fighting Texans had gone north to join up with Quantrill. He never saw brother Cal again. He heard from more than one source that Cal had died in the fighting at Shiloh.
Now Johnny was back. He’d have to visit the family plots; they’d need tending after five years of neglect. He wasn’t up to it yet. Memories—ghosts. Was there a difference?
 
 
Johnny grew tired of lying there with thoughts of times past. He wasn’t much for setting around thinking. It was a new day, time to be up and doing. He threw off the blankets, sat up and stretched.
He turned each boot upside-down and shook it out, protection in case a scorpion had climbed into one during the night. Pulling them on, he rose and stretched, shivering a little in the earlymorning chill. He draped a blanket across his shoulders.
The eastern sky was lightening but the sun was still below the horizon. The fire had burned down low. Johnny hunkered down beside it, stirring up the embers, feeding them some fresh kindling. Flames licked up, curling around the logs.
Luke came awake with a start, grabbing for his gun.
“Stand down, soldier—it’s me, Johnny.”
“Huh!” Luke said, disoriented.
“Careful you don’t shoot yourself. Or worse, me.”
Luke put the gun aside, knuckling sleepy eyes and yawning.
Monty’s gang had been encamped at the ranch. A search of their belongings turned up some food supplies: a slab of bacon, sack of flour, some beans, and most welcome of all, coffee.
Johnny and Luke breakfasted on bacon, steak and beans. The stream provided cold, fresh water. They brewed coffee in tin cups no longer needed by the dead, spiking the iron-strong liquid with a dash of whiskey, a welcome antidote to the morning’s chill.
Johnny cleared the cylinders of two guns and laboriously reloaded them with fresh cap-and-ball ammunition, insurance against morning dew having rendered the previous day’s load ineffective. A practice round from one Colt set an empty tin of beans skyward; a shot from the other holed it before it touched ground.
Luke hefted his crutch and hobbled around, prowling through Monty’s gang’s saddlebags and pouches, riffling through them. A triumphant shout announced that he’d made an important discovery.
“Look—my wooden leg!” he cried, holding the object up for Johnny to see. The prosthetic device consisted of a carved wooden foot and shin with various leather straps and buckles for holding it in place.
“Glory be,” said Johnny.
Grinning hugely, Luke sat down on the ground and wrestled on his artificial limb.
His fingers worked at the fastenings, tightening straps and pulling them into place, buckling them. He rose, walking in circles. He still needed the crutch, but moved with greater facility and surety.
“Never thought I’d see this again,” Luke said. “Wonder why they kept it?”
“Thieves never throw away something of value. Wooden leg’s useful, plenty of market for it since the war. They just hadn’t gotten around to selling it yet,” said Johnny.
“Reckon so.”
“Or maybe Monty just wanted to have something to remember you by.”
Luke fished out the gold tooth from his jacket pocket and held it up. First rays from the rising sun caught it, glinting off it, making the yellow metal look molten. “I got something to remember Monty by,” he said.
“Hell, you got Monty hisself,” Johnny pointed out. “Him and his pals didn’t get up and bury themselves during the night. We’re going to have to get rid of ’em.”
“Not before turning out their pockets to see what’s inside,” Luke said.
“Let’s clean ’em out and haul ’em out of here before they go to rot and ruin, stink up the place. I don’t want ’em on Cross land.”
“Where’ll we plant ’em, Johnny?”
“The Snake Pit. We won’t have to bury ’em, just toss ’em in.”
 
 
There had been five men in the gang. They’d left ten horses in the corral, in addition to the seven horses from the ford and the chestnut Johnny’d been riding. Each dead man had owned a saddle and firearms, guns and rifles. A search of their corpses yielded eighty dollars in gold and silver and one hundred and sixty in paper money.
Johnny and Luke split the take fifty-fifty, even shares.
“That’s more money than I made during the whole war,” Luke said, face alight with cheerful greed.
“Soldier’s pay ain’t much, and that’s when the Confederacy got around to paying it, which wasn’t often,” Johnny said.
“That string of horses is worth plenty, and the saddles, too.”
“We got to get us a running iron to change up what brands are marked on that horseflesh before selling it. I don’t reckon that bunch was too particular about where they got their animals.”
“We’re rich, Johnny, rich!”
“It’s a start, anyhow. The trick is gonna be hanging on to it—and not hanging.”
The sun had cleared the horizon. The day was already warm and heating up fast.
“The horses will keep till later. We can water and feed ’em when we get back. Let’s clear them bodies out of here quick. The hotter it gets, the more snakes there’ll be,” Johnny said.
Luke rubbed the lower half of his face, looking thoughtful. “Let’s not be too hasty, Johnny. Could be we’re throwing away good money. Bunch of no-goods like this must be wanted by the law. Mebbe they’s a price on their heads we could collect.”
Johnny shook his head, smiling. “You’re a caution, Luke. Yesterday you didn’t even have a wooden leg to stand on. Today you’ve got more cash money in your pockets than you’ve ever seen in one place and you’re scheming how to drag down more.”
“I always figured I’d make a good businessman if I had half a chance,” Luke said.
“The first rule of business is, don’t tie into the law if you don’t have to. Some of those horses are stolen—hell, most of ’em, probably—and we can’t produce a bill of sale for a single one of ’em. Uncharitable folk like sheriffs and judges and such might say we stole ’em. Things may be fast and loose in these parts but they still hang horse thieves, last I heard.”
“. . . You might have something there,” Luke allowed.
“Who’s the law in Hangtown these days, Yerkes?”
Luke shook his head. “He got killed fighting at Goliad. The new man’s named Barton, Mack Barton.”
“Don’t know him. What’s he like?” Johnny asked.
“He’s a mean one. Hutto put him in as sheriff. Anybody gets out of line, he cracks down on ’em hard. Collects taxes and fines, too, plenty of ’em. Those who can’t pay get put on a county work gang breaking rocks and clearing brush.
“Barton can take care of hisself, though. He ain’t no yellowbelly. Three rannies from Quinto up in the Nations came in last winter, tried to hoorah the town. Barton cleaned up on ’em with a shotgun. Left ’em dead in the street,” said Luke.
“Between him and Yankee soldier boys moving in to take over, let’s not go shining a light on ourselves just yet,” Johnny said. “One more thing: Monty’s bunch wasn’t alone. Their pards from the Breaks are liable to come along sometime, anytime, to see what happened to ’em. Don’t be caught without a gun or where you can’t put your hand to one right quick.”
Luke waved a hand in airy dismissal. “Teach your grandma to suck eggs, you don’t have to tell me twice about being ready with a gun. Nobody’s gonna get the drop on me again.”
“Good,” Johnny said. “Let’s get to work. Now that you got your wooden leg back, you got no excuse for dogging it.”
 
 
It was mid-morning when Johnny and Luke set out from the ranch as part of a macabre procession. Johnny rode the chestnut. A rope tied to his saddle horn trailed behind him, leading a string of two horses. Each horse had one of Monty’s gang tied facedown across its back.
Luke rode a bay horse. Roped to it was a duncolored animal of quarter-horse proportions; a big horse, deep-chested, broad in the beam, built along the lines of a dray or farm horse, a horse made for drawing a heavy load.
Harnessed to it was a travois, a kind of land-based sled used by Plains Indians to carry heavy loads for long distances. It consisted of a fan-shaped wooden framework over which was stretched and secured a strong blanket.
Johnny and Luke had felled and trimmed saplings and branches for the wood. The pieces were strong enough to bear the load, yet light enough to avoid overly encumbering the horse.
A pair of ten-foot-long straight poles served for the outer ribs. They were crossed at one end with the tips overlapping and tied with rope, causing the poles to make a V shape. Then came the crosspieces, tied down at regular intervals at right angles to the poles. Each piece was successively longer to span the widening fan shape. A horse blanket was pulled taut over the framework. Rawhide strips were threaded through holes punched in the blanket and lashed to the woodwork.
BOOK: William W. Johnstone
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