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Authors: Savage Texas

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BOOK: William W. Johnstone
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“All very well and good, Sergeant. But the bridge is out, remember? And according to you, Swift Creek is too fast and deep to ford!”
“Yes, sir. It is, here. But several miles upstream the creek widens out. We can cross at Mace’s Ford and strike out west along the Old Mission Trail, then angle northwest through the Breaks to the fort.”
“All right, then,” Lieutenant Greer said. “Very well, Sergeant. We move out now!”
A dirt road ran along the foot of the eastern slope of the ridge east of Swift Creek. The wagon convoy followed it five, six miles north until they came to a trail cutting it at right angles. The convoy halted.
Sergeant Sales and Scout Dawkins rode to the top of the ridge. On the far side, in the valley below, Swift Creek widened, becoming more shallow, its current slowing. It was a broad, flat, lazy band, gently twisting and bending. Downstream at Flatbridge it had been dark blue, but here it was greenish-brown.
“Mace’s Ford,” Sergeant Sales said.
There was a mounted man on the east bank and a man on foot with a horse nearby on the west.
“Those two are mine. I sent them on ahead to make sure that there’s no surprises waiting for us,” said Sales. He took off his hat and waved it over his head. The man on the near side of the ford held a rifle in one hand, pumping it up and down in the air several times in response.
“Looks okay. Let’s go down to make sure,” Sales said. He and Dawkins rode down to the creek. The ground was thick with tall grass, rushes, willow trees. Everything was green and moist. Small streams and rivulets webbed the flat, tufts and hummocks thrusting up between them. There was a smell of damp earth, water. The air was a little hazy.
The trail was hardpacked, but not as dusty as it had been on the slope. It ran right straight to the water’s edge. A man in a cavalry uniform sat his horse near the creek. He had narrow eyes and a close-cropped blue-black beard. His jacket was unbuttoned and open and he sat slouching in the saddle. Sales and Dawkins reined in, facing him.
“Dawkins—Corporal Reese. Dawkins is a scout for the convoy,” Sales said, indicating the cavalryman. “How’s it look, Reese?”
“Okay, Sarge,” Reese said.
“No Comanches?”
“Ain’t seen an Injin all day.”
“You won’t see them till they lift your scalp.”
“I still got my hair and so does Fenner, so I guess we’re in the clear.”
“Good.” The creek was about fifty feet wide here. Sales put a hand to the side of his mouth and shouted to the man on the west bank. “Okay on your end, Fenner?”
“All set, Sarge!” Fenner shouted back.
Dawkins frowned. “Hell, he sounds like a Johnny Reb.”
“He was. He’s been galvanized,” Sales said, using the term for a former Confederate soldier who’d been recruited into the service of the Union. “The army don’t much care who’s fighting the Comanches as long as they get the job done. As for Fenner, he likes eating regular—even if it is Yankee mess-hall chow.”
Sales turned to Reese. “Button up that tunic and get yourself squared away. It’s time to start looking like a soldier. We got us a first lieutenant who’s all spit-and-polish.”
Reese saluted jauntily. “Yes, sir!”
Sales’s face clouded. His expression, always stony, was now glowering. “Don’t call me ‘sir,’ you dumb son of a bitch. I’m no officer. Get smart with me and I’ll kick your butt so hard your tailbone’ll be coming out the top of your head.”
That wiped the smirk off Reese’s face. He straightened up in the saddle.
“Sorry, Sarge—”
“Shaddup. Never mind that you been up all night and day chasing Indians, we got to show the lieutenant something.” Sales faced Dawkins. “You can tell Greer it’s safe to make the crossing.”
“All right,” Dawkins said.
“And make it quick—there’s a Comanche war party on the loose and we’re still a long way off from Fort Pardee.”
Dawkins nodded. He turned his horse, riding uphill, disappearing on the other side of the ridge.
Presently the convoy came into view, descending the trail to the creek. Lieutenant Greer rode at the head of the column of armed guards, followed by the wagon. The horses could see and smell the water. Some of them got antsy, nostrils flaring, ears twitching. They had to be held in.
Sales rode over to Lieutenant Greer and saluted. “My men have scouted the area, sir. The way is clear.”
Greer acknowledged the report with a curt nod. “Thank you, Sergeant.”
One of his men rode up. “It’s been a long, dry journey, sir. The horses could use some water,” he said.
“Get them across the creek first,” Greer said. “I want to make the crossing as soon as possible. We’ve already lost too much time thanks to this detour. Once we’re on the other side we’ll water the animals. But don’t let them drink too much. I don’t want them swelled up so they slow us down.”
“Yes, sir,” the other said. He went to pass the word to the rest of the men.
The convoy started across the creek, horses kicking up little splashes and spumes of water. The stream was less than three feet deep at its center and much shallower for most of its width. A mild current swirled around the horses and wagon, chuckling and purling. A light breeze lifted, rustling through the rushes, making them wave their tops.
Crossings are always a bit disordered. The line got stretched out, making a noisy hubbub. The wagon’s harnessed team lurched forward, heaving and pulling. The horses wanted to stop and drink. The driver handling the traces fought them, grunting and cursing, cracking the whip over their heads to keep them moving. The wagon bounced and jostled on its springs. Even at midstream, the water level was well below the bottom of the wagon bed.
Sergeant Sales rode alongside Lieutenant Greer. He had to shout to be heard over the racket. “Hey, Lieutenant!”
Greer glanced his way, turning a cold eye on the noncom. “What is it, Sergeant?”
“I want to tell you something.”
“If there’s one thing I hate, it’s officers,” Sergeant Sales said. He drew his gun and shot Greer in the side. Greer crumpled like he was imploding, shrinking into himself.
Sales pumped a slug into the officer’s belly. Greer grabbed his middle and fell sideways off his horse into the water.
Sales’s opening shots were a signal triggering an answering fusillade from both sides of the creek, where gunmen were hidden in the tall grass. The murderous volley took out a number of the wagon’s escort riders.
All hell broke loose. Startled shouts from the guards were drowned out by racketing gunfire. Frightened birds burst out of the trees, taking flight in droves.
On the far bank, Fenner swung his rifle up and shot the guard nearest him off his horse.
Dawkins, cursing, clawed for his pistol, fumbling with the top flap of the holster. Before it could clear leather, Sales shot the top of his head off.
The shotgun rider on the wagon swung his weapon up. Riding up from behind, Reese shot him in the back. The shotgunner’s dying spasm caused him to jerk both double triggers at once, discharging a shattering blast to the side that caught two more mounted guards, peppering them ragged with shot.
Seven ambushers lurked on the west bank, four on the east. They popped up from behind rocks and trees, potting away at the guards fording the creek. Horses reared and circled, whinnying and nickering, eyes rolling in fright. The men of the convoy cursed, shouted, screamed and died. All was chaos, confusion.
The wagon driver jerked and shuddered under the impact of slug after slug ripping into him from different directions.
Sales emptied his revolver into nearby wagon guards, burning them down. He clutched the reins tightly in his other fist, holding the horse’s head down, wheeling it this way and that in search of new targets.
Reese was on the opposite side of the column, gunning down guards.
The hammer of Sales’s gun clicked on empty chambers. The gun dropped from his hand as he freed it to shuck his rifle out of its saddle-scabbard. He bit down, holding the reins between his teeth as he worked the long-levered gun with both hands.
Something tugged at his tunic below his right arm—a slug passing through. It came not from a wagon guard but rather from one of the shooters on the far bank. Sales didn’t see who it was. He cursed under his breath.
A guard rider wheeled, breaking for the east bank. Sales leveled the rifle and shot him off his horse. The rider’s foot snagged in the stirrup causing him to be dragged a short distance before the corpse tumbled free on shore. The horse kept running.
It was all over in a minute or two. A passel of riderless horses milled about in the creek. Sales guided his horse a half-dozen paces upstream. He yelled, “Cease firing!”
The shooting did not stop at once but raggedly died down. Bodies bobbed floating facedown in the water, the gentle tug of the current starting to move them downstream. A pall of gunsmoke hung over the ford. Random shots continued to erupt from both banks of the creek.
“Stop shooting, you sons of bitches!” Sales bawled, red-faced. The firing stopped.
Reese rode up alongside the wagon, transferring to it from his horse. The shotgunner had fallen out but the driver lay sprawled across the seat. Reese planted a booted foot against the driver’s side and push-kicked him into the water. Plunking down into the driver’s seat, he gathered up the traces and took control of the team.
The man with the sergeant’s stripes spoke again:
“Get the wagon across to the other side!”
“Okay, Brock!” said Reese.
“Sergeant Ben Sales” was an alias. There was a real Sergeant Sales on the rolls at Fort Pardee, but the man calling the shots wasn’t him. That man was Brock Harper, one of the most dangerous bandit chiefs west of the Mississippi, or east of it, for that matter. Hailing from California, he’d shot his way across the map to surface in Hangtree County, Texas.
“Reese” was no alias; it was the phony corporal’s real name but it was his Christian name, not his surname. His full name was Reese Kimbro—better known as Killer Kimbro. Killer Kimbro was the name bannered on the many Wanted posters and circulars bearing his likeness that were papered throughout Texas and the Southwest. Luckily, the drawing accompanying them was generic enough to fit any one of a thousand men.
Kimbro was Harper’s trusted aide, his right-hand man.
The shooters on both sides of the creek began emerging from their places of concealment. They were a rough bunch: robbers and killers, armed with rifles, shotguns and six-guns.
Fenner took off his hat and howled a Rebel yell, echoing the defiant cry that had sounded across every battlefield of the late war. Some of the men joined in, whooping it up. Some, not all.
The bushwhackers were a mixed bag, some Southerners, some Northerners. There were a couple of Mexicans, several persons of mixed blood, a full-blooded Kiowa Indian, a Canadian, and even one transplanted Australian.
What they had in common was a lust for gold and, at best, an indifference to taking human life to get it. “At best”—some of them liked to kill for the pure fun of it.
Kimbro drove the wagon across the creek up on to the west bank, reining the team to a halt.
“Some of you men get in the water and keep those bodies from drifting too far downstream!” commanded Brock Harper. He had a big braying voice and a pair of leather lungs for bawling out commands.
He turned in the saddle, facing the east bank. Four men stood there, holding rifles and shotguns whose muzzles still trailed strings and wisps of gunsmoke. “You bastards have to get wet crossing back over anyhow, so make yourselves useful and corral those deaders,” Harper said. “Move!”
The quartet splashed into the creek to obey. There was blood in the water. Swirling, spiraling clouds of the red stuff spread among the strata of green and brown water. The creek was murkier than ever due to the bottom having been churned up by hooves and wagon wheels during the action. The four outlaws took hold of floating corpses, herding them to shore.
Brock Harper rode up on to the west bank. It was thickly wooded. The trail resumed at the water’s edge and continued west, making a tunnel through the brush. Farther down the trail, around a bend and out of sight of anyone crossing the ford from the east bank, was a clearing.
The gang’s horses were hidden there, tethered and watched by two men designated as horseholders. Nothing was more embarrassing or potentially fatal than having horses run off when their riders were dismounted. A flatbed wagon hitched to a four-horse team was hidden around the bend, too.
Fenner was gangly, thin-faced, with long, lank hair, sunken eyes and buck teeth. He went to Harper. He crowed, “Whoo-whee! What a turkey shoot! Did the feathers fly!”
Harper held a flap of his blue tunic out and away from himself, showing where a bullet hole had pierced it. “One of you jackasses almost shot me. It came from over here. Who did it?” he demanded.
Nobody stepped forward to own up. Fenner snickered, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “Must be that blue uniform, Boss. Folks just naturally like to shoot at it. You can’t blame ’em for it.”
“Think it’s so funny, you’ll be laughing out of the other side of your mouth if I get a notion to straighten you out,” Harper said.
BOOK: William W. Johnstone
11.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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