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Authors: Savage Texas

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BOOK: William W. Johnstone
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“It was the least we could do,” he added piously.
The excavation had uncovered an eerie heap of podlike objects like monstrous cocoons nestled in the bosom of the earth.
“Careful now, men. Watch how you dig. Don’t damage these pore fellows any worse than what’s already been done to them,” Sergeant Oakes instructed the detail.
“Why not? Hell, they’re dead,” Bill said.
“Show some respect, trooper,” Captain Harrison said. “If what I suspect is true, these are—were—our comrades in arms. Brother soldiers.”
The digging was about done. A massive hole had been gouged out of the earth. The soil was hardpacked clayey ground, but the real work had been done by the diggers when the bodies were first interred. With picks and spades they carved out a basin of yellow-brown hard ground, breaking it up into pieces and clods that were used to refill the hole.
Unearthing it was far easier, though still a chore. Now a pile of oversized, dirt-covered cocoons was exposed to view, heaped one on top of the other.
“Sergeant, have the men haul out the bodies and lay them out side by side so we can identify them,” Captain Harrison said.
Oakes gave the orders to the detail, who began to comply. Guards had been set around the top of Boot Hill to turn back curious civilians. A crowd of them, male and female, drunk and sober, milled around the perimeter, pushing, shoving, craning for a better look.
“Ain’t that just like a Yankee? Not content to confine their botheration to the living. They won’t even let the dead be,” somebody said.
“It ain’t decent, I say,” another chimed in.
“Probably going to melt down the corpse-fat to make tallow candles. Grind the bones up and use ’em for fertilizer.”
“Them bluebellies’d sell the gold teeth out of their mammas’ heads if they had a buyer.”
The first five blanket-wrapped bodies hauled out of the pit were laid out in a row.
Sergeant Oakes handed his torch to a trooper to hold. He covered his nose and mouth with a yellow kerchief knotted at the back of his bull neck. Captain Harrison, too, had wrapped the lower half of his face with a yellow bandanna.
Oakes unwrapped the first cocooned corpse, peeling back a folded blanket to uncover the head. “Hold the light closer so I can see the face,” Harrison told the torchbearer, who moved to obey.
The cadaver’s flesh was gray-white, pale, bloodless, raw-boned. “A stranger to me,” Harrison said, shaking his head. “Keep going, Sergeant. Try the next one.”
Oakes unveiled the next in line, whose facial wounds were so disfiguring as to render his features unrecognizeable. They moved to a third, the routine unvarying: unwrap the blanket shroud, peeling it back to expose the face, a torch thrust forward and down to illuminate the features.
“No,” Harrison said. Came the fourth man:
“I know him. It’s Lieutenant Greer,” the captain said. He straightened up, stepping back and away from the row of bodies and the pit. “That’s enough. I’ve found out what I needed to know,” Harrison said.
Hutto stood at Harrison’s shoulder, not wanting to get any closer to the bodies. “What’s it all about, Captain? Who’s that?”
“A soldier,” Harrison said, distractedly. “He was on a mission for the army.”
“They all were,” he added, indicating the massed dead.
“What mission?” Hutto asked.
Harrison, ignoring him, wondered aloud, “But then who’s buried over there, in that second grave?”
“I can tell you that,” Sam Heller said.
 
 
Harrison turned to look at the speaker, seeing a stranger. “What’re you doing here? I gave orders that all civilians were to be kept out!”
“Begging the Captain’s pardon, but I passed him through the line,” Sergeant Oakes said.
Harrison’s reaction was a mixture of outrage and astonishment. “You did? But why—”
“This gentleman has important information,” Oakes said.
“Information best heard only by you in private, sir,” he added, indicating with a tilt of his head Hutto and Barton standing nearby.
It was unorthodox, a direct violation of orders, but Harrison had not survived the war years without learning when to listen when a veteran noncom was trying to tell him something.
“All right, we’ll step over here,” Harrison said. His tone of voice, posture, attitude all proclaimed: This had better be good.
Harrison, Oakes, and Sam moved off to the side a dozen paces, well out of earshot of Hutto, Barton, and the troops on the scene.
“I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t deliberately disobey a direct order without good reason, Sergeant,” Harrison said. “That being the case, perhaps you’ll enlighten me on who the devil this man is and what this infernal mystification is all about!”
“Glad to sir,” Oakes said. “Captain Harrison, meet Major Sam Heller.”
“Major, eh?” Harrison said, skeptical.
“Retired,” Sam said, “officially.”
“That’s Major Samuel T. Heller, sir, a hero of the Union Army,” said Oakes.
Dawning comprehension showed on Harrison’s face. “Heller? Not the officer whose counterattack broke the back of the Reb’s artillery at the Battle of Goleta?”
“The very same, sir. I know. I was there,” Oakes said proudly—pardonable pride, at having been a frontline veteran of the victorious Federals at the epochal New Mexico battle with Confederate troops that was universally regarded as “the Gettysburg of the West.”
“Yes sir, as soon as I saw the major outside the perimeter, giving me the high sign, I knew something was up so I had him passed on through.”
Harrison, confused, said, “An honor to make your acquaintance of course, Major, but I fail to see what bearing it has on the current situation.”
“This may help explain things, Captain,” Sam said. Reaching into the inside breast pocket of his jacket, he took out a long, slim billfold bound in Moroccan leather and handed it to Harrison.
Harrison opened it, noticing that it contained a folded piece of vellum paper. He unfolded the single-sheet document, holding it in both hands. “What’s this? It’s too blamed dark for me to make out,” he complained.
Sam struck a wooden match—a self-igniting “lucifer”—on the tip of a thumbnail.
It flared up in a hissing globe of light that shone on the document. “This’ll shed some light on the subject,” he said.
The warrant’s brief text identified the bearer as Samuel T. Heller, “Agent on Special Assignment.” It instructed all relevant individuals in branches civilian and military of the government of the United States of America to render any and all such assistance in money, materiel and personnel that the bearer should require to accomplish his mission for the document’s issuing authority.
It bore the handwritten signature of the president of the United States and was embossed with the official seal of state. It was also signed, sealed and notarized by the secretary of the War Department. Its lower left-hand corner was marked by what was unmistakeably a dried bloodstain.
Darkness returned as the charred ember of the stick-match was hastily discarded by Sam as the flame flickered low and out. “Ouch! Burned my fingers,” he said, swearing. “Hope you got all that, Captain. If not, I’ll light another match.”
“No need, I’m a fast reader,” Harrison said, returning document and walletlike holder to its owner.
Sam refolded the document, inserting it in its container inside the folder and putting it back inside its jacket pocket. This was the presidential warrant discovered by Lorena Castillo, which decided her on forging a secret alliance with Sam.
“If that’s not enough, a coded telegram to the commanding general of the Western District referring to me under my operative’s name of ‘Paul Pry’ will further confirm my identity,” Sam said.
“I’ll do it if I think circumstances render it necessary. I’m willing to accept your credentials for now, especially with Sergeant Oakes vouching for your identity,” Harrison said. “But what’s it all about?”
“This’ll take a few minutes to explain.”
“I’ll make the time.”
Sam took a corncob pipe and waterproof tobacco pouch from a jacket side pocket. “You a pipe-smoking man, captain?”
“Cigars.”
“Sorry, I don’t carry them.”
“I do.”
Sam filled the pipe’s bowl with shredded tobacco, tamping it down. Harrison took a cigar from a pocket of his military tunic. He bit the tip off, spitting it out. He rolled the cigar in his fingers.
“I’d offer you some, Sergeant, but I know you favor cigars,” Sam said, sealing the tobacco pouch shut and pocketing it.
“Quite all right, Major,” said Oakes.
“Do me a favor and drop the ‘Major,’ Sergeant. From here on in, I’m just plain Sam Heller, bounty hunter.”
“Yes, sir. Uh, sorry, Maj—er, Mr. Sam.”
Harrison found another cigar in his tunic and gave it to Oakes. “Here, have one of mine, Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Oakes said, grinning.
Sam lit another match and held the flame over the pipe bowl, setting the tobacco alight. He puffed away, head wreathed with ghostly gray clouds of smoke. Harrison fired up his cigar, then held the match for Oakes to light his cigar.
“What I’m about to tell you is information I picked up working undercover, posing as a bounty hunter,” Sam said. “There’s nothing fake about the bounty-hunting part. I kill wanted outlaws for money. But it’s a good cover that gets me into lots of hard-to-get-into places on both sides of the law. You’d be surprised how many bounty killers are crooks—or maybe you wouldn’t be.
“I wouldn’t be telling you this if I didn’t think you could keep a secret, Captain.”
“Thanks,” Harrison said curtly.
“And I know Sergeant Oakes can keep his mouth shut. We worked together in the war. It would be useful for him to know the background, if you have no objection.”
“Why not?” Harrison said, shrugging. “Sergeants always seem to have a way of finding out things, anyway.”
“Only so we can serve our commanding officers better, sir,” said Oakes.
“Save that bull pucky for fertilizer, Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir.”
“During the last years of the war I was assigned to the Secret Service as a member of Lafayette Baker’s National Detective Bureau,” Sam began. “I enjoyed some success as an undercover agent. Which is why I got picked for this job.
“I don’t have to tell you the strategic importance of Hangtree County as regards the entire Southwest. It’s a critical junction of a number of militarily vital corridors. It’s smack-dab in the middle of the war trails used by Indian war parties to raid from as far north as Kansas south through Texas into Mexico. That’s a two-way route, since it’s also used by Mexican bandits and slavers to strike deep into our country. Hangtree sits on the trails used by stage and freight lines and westbound settlers, too. With the war over, the territory’s more important than ever.
“Then there’s the situation with Mexico. During our Civil War, French Emperor Napoleon the Third installed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian as ruler of Mexico. It was an outright violation of the Monroe Doctrine prohibiting European powers from colonial ventures in this hemisphere. They got away with it because they could. With the secession to put down, Washington had to overlook the French-Austrian takeover of Mexico and the Juarista revolution it produced. Now that the war’s over, the administration’s not minded to be so forbearing.
“Hangtree County is a hotbed of organized banditry and lawlessness. Comancheros selling guns and whiskey to hostile Indians; bandits and slave raiders up from Mexico; and gangs of homegrown badmen are all operating out of the Breaks, using it as a base to found an outlaw empire.
“The president and the secretary of the War Department have given me a roving commission as an undercover operative to suppress the most dangerous threats to the orderly settlement and reconstruction of the territory.
“I planned to contact you, Captain, at the fort and establish my credentials but things moved too fast for me to work through proper channels,” Sam continued. “Through official channels I already knew about the secret weapons shipment of a wagonload of repeating rifles and ammuntion being sent from Fort Wolters in Mineral Wells to Fort Pardee.
“It was up in Quinto in the Nations in Oklahoma Territory, a settlement that’s become a robber’s roost, that I first heard rumors of a plan to hijack the guns. I found my first solid lead in Denton, Texas, from an outlaw on the dodge who’d had too much to drink and liked to run his mouth when he was in his cups.
“The strike was set for somewhere in Hangtree County, but that’s all I knew. Nothing about the who, how or where. I was playing a lone hand and had no way to contact anyone at either fort. I rode here as fast as I could. I arrived about an hour too late. I stumbled into the ambush spot by luck—bad luck.
BOOK: William W. Johnstone
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