The keg of gunpowder on top of a boulder decided him on his play. The stopper in its tophole indicated that it was full.
Sam took a mental picture of the layout, memorizing the positions of his foes relative to himself, the clearing and each other. He didn’t wait for Remy to run out his taunting line. He stole a march on him and the others, taking the initiative.
He drew and put two balls of hot lead into the keg. Came a flash of blinding glare, intolerable heat, noise, pressure—a big boom!
Sam was ready for it, having already worked his booted feet clear of the stirrups. He threw himself off the saddle to the right.
Choking masses of gray-white smoke boiled through the clearing, veiling the scene. Sam hit the ground with a jarring thud, rolling to the side to avoid the horse’s stamping hooves. He lay flat as debris rained down around him, tree-branches and boughs pelting the ground. The gun was still gripped in his hand. The blast left him temporarily half-deaf.
The smoke began to break up. Cries, shouts and shots erupted. Wild bursts of gunfire. The sounds were muffled in Sam’s ringing ears, taking on a curious air of unreality.
Slugs speared through the smoke, zipping past. Somebody shrieked in pain, the cry suddenly choked off.
A voice—Jeff Parr’s—shouted, “Stop firing, you blamed fools! You’re only shooting each other—”
The smokescreen thinned, rifts appearing in the murk, showing glimpses of shadowy, indistinct figures stumbling around.
Sam rose, standing on one knee. He stuffed the gun in his belt and unlimbered the mule’s-leg, holding it leveled with both hands. A gap opened in the gray-white billows. A figure stumbled forward, gun in hand, staggering blindly.
It was Wilse. Coughing, choking, waving his arms in front of him, trying to clear away the smoke.
Sam saw him first. The sawed-off Winchester spat, a flat, cracking sound. Drilling Wilse with a center shot. Wilse screamed, falling, the gun skittering from his hand.
Not staying in the same place after firing, Sam rose into a crouch, moving a few paces forward and to the side.
Wilse rolled around on the ground, screaming. “Oh god I’m gut-shot! Somebody help—”
A breeze lifted, blowing masses of smoke east out of the clearing across the creek. The pall thinned, bringing more of the surroundings into view.
Ralph prowled around in a half-crouch, gun swinging from side to side in search of a target. Somebody—not Sam—cut loose, burning Ralph down.
“I got him!” the shooter crowed.
Jeff Parr shouted and stormed, trying to get his men to stop. “Hold your fire, you dumb sons of bitches!”
The smokescreen lifted, thinning, coming apart. Details came into view.
The blast had spooked the flatbed wagon team, sending them plunging west down the trail in an irresistible rush that tore the handbrake loose. They clattered out of sight into the distance, taking the cartload of corpses with them.
Strongman Neal had been standing near the gunpowder keg when it exploded. The blast picked him up and flung him aside. A tree got in the way. His limp, broken body lay draped around it.
One of the metal hoops that ringed the gunpowder keg, holding it together, had been turned by the blast into a white-hot streaking scythe. It hit Dutchie Hiltz in the head, taking off the top of his skull above the eyebrows.
Smoke drifted out, unveiling two outlined figures. They were on their feet, coughing, eyes tearing. Streamers and swirls of smoke drifted past them.
Remy and Gordy became aware of each other at the same time. They pivoted, leveling their guns on each other.
“Don’t shoot!” That last came from Jeff Parr, who lay prone on the ground, gun in hand.
Remy and Gordy held their fire. Jeff rose to his feet. “Where’s the stranger?” cried Remy.
“Damned if I know,” Gordy said. “Maybe we got him—”
Sam Heller stepped into view a half-dozen paces away from the trio. They all saw each other at the same time.
Sam worked his gun, levering and firing, burning down Parr and Gordy. They spun as they were tagged, throwing their hands up in the air and falling backward. Their shots went wild.
Remy, quicker, got off two shots. One laid a hot line along Sam’s left side; the other fetched him a stunning blow to the left shoulder, knocking him off-balance.
Recovering, Sam squeezed off another round, drilling Remy a few inches above the belt buckle. Remy fell.
Sam stood swaying, reeling. He spread his legs, planting his feet farther apart in an effort to stay on them. He looked around. The ground was strewn with debris and dead men. No one left to kill.
A hole in Sam’s shoulder oozed warm redness that soaked his shirt with a fast-spreading stain. He felt light-headed. His vision swam in and out of focus. He missed his footing. The earth rushed up to meet him—
Johnny Cross and Luke Pettigrew came to Mace’s Ford. Native sons both, they knew the country, knew that with Flatbridge out, the ford was the nearest way across Swift Creek.
The two men on the chestnut horse paused at the east bank of the ford. A thin film of smoke lay like a filter across the opposite bank, veiling the other side. Johnny sniffed the air. “Smell that, Luke? Gunpowder.”
They crossed to the west bank, encountering a scene of death and destruction. Bodies littered the muddy ground. Combat veterans of some of the war’s bloodiest battles, the two Texans were unfazed by the carnage.
Johnny Cross whistled soundlessly. Luke said, “Some shooting match!”
“More than a gunfight. Looks like a bomb went off. You can smell the cordite in the air.”
“They had themselves a party, all right. But who are they?”
“Beats me,” Johnny said, shrugging. “You’ve been back longer than I have. Recognize ’em?”
“I don’t know ’em from Adam,” said Luke.
“Hold the reins, I want to take a look around.” Johnny stepped down from the saddle and eyed the scene.
One of the fallen was apart from the others, off by himself over to one side of the clearing. He lay on his side with his back to Johnny, his legs together and bent at the knees. A handsome steel-dust horse stood beside him, its head down, nuzzling him. Nearby lay an unusual weapon, a sawed-off repeating rifle.
Johnny went to him, toeing the body. The man lay curled on his right side, a wide dark patch of blood staining his left shoulder and chest. His face was white.
“That gray’s a good-looking animal,” Luke said.
“This hombre don’t need it no more.” Johnny put a boot on the stranger’s upturned left hip and rolled him over on his back. He went down on one knee beside him, reaching for the other’s pockets to turn them out for valuables.
“Uh-oh,” Johnny said.
“I heard that,” said Luke, drawing the gun from his waistband and thumbing back the hammer.
. Sounding identical to the first.
“Easy, Luke. Don’t do nothing rash now.”
“I got him covered, Johnny.”
“He’s got me covered,” Johnny said.
Sam Heller’s eyes were open. He held a pistol in his right hand. It had been hidden from view beneath him until Johnny rolled him over. A Navy Colt .36.
The clicking noise had come from when he thumbed the hammer back. The gun was pressed to Johnny’s midsection. Sam’s face showed signs of strain. He propped himself up on his elbows.
He’d passed out earlier from shock and loss of blood. The sound of the approaching horse splashing in the creek and the voices of two men woke him. He didn’t know how long he’d been out. Not too long, though—the sun hadn’t appreciably altered its position in the sky.
The mule’s-leg was out of reach, and he wasn’t sure he could wield it properly from down on the ground. His left arm wasn’t working so good. While the newcomers were crossing the creek, Sam eased the the Navy Colt from where it had been stuck in his waistband, and half-rolled over on it, hiding it under him. He played dead until Johnny Cross knelt down beside him to pick his pockets. Movement started the wound in his shoulder bleeding again.
“Whoa,” Johnny said. “My mistake.”
“Don’t make another, it could be fatal. Keep your hands where I can see them,” said Sam. “Tell your friend not to get trigger-happy.”
“Hear that, Luke?” Johnny called.
“Yup. I hear me a damned Yankee, too.”
“No need to go into that now, Luke.”
“Pull that trigger and you’re a dead man, Yank.”
“That ain’t gonna do me much good, Luke,” Johnny said. “I ain’t looking for trouble, mister.”
“You shouldn’t have been looking in my pockets,” Sam said.
“What good’s money to a dead man? I thought you was dead.”
“Well, I’m not,” Sam said, voice husky through clenched teeth.
“Me and Luke were just riding through,” said Johnny.
“You should’ve kept going.”
“I’m on my way, if that’s okay with you.”
“Mind taking that hogleg out of my belly first?”
Sam eased his gun hand back, pulling the muzzle away from where it had been pressing Johnny’s midsection. Johnny rose slowly to his feet. Sam kept him covered with the gun.
“You look pretty bad hit, mister,” Johnny said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“It ain’t you I’m worried about, it’s me. You’re kind of shaky. Wouldn’t want that gun of yours to go off by mistake.”
“If it does, it won’t be a mistake.”
“I’m gonna start walking toward my horse now so’s I can ride out of here.”
Johnny turned his back to Sam and slowly started toward his horse, keeping his open hands in plain sight and away from his guns. Luke held the reins wrapped around his left hand as it gripped the top of the saddle horn to hold himself steady. His right hand held the gun pointed at Sam.
Johnny stepped around a dead body in his way and went to the chestnut. “Let that hammer down easy, Luke. I don’t want you shooting me. That’d be a hell of a note,” he said.
Luke uncocked the hammer and stuck the gun in the top of his pants. He moved back to make room and Johnny climbed up on the saddle. Johnny glanced back over his shoulder.
Sam sat upright, legs extended on the ground. He leaned forward, gun in hand, leveled on Johnny and Luke. Cold sweat misted his pale, haggard face but his gun held steady, without a tremor.
“If you don’t mind my asking—what happened here?” Johnny asked, indicating the carnage.
“A little disagreement about the right of way,” Sam said.
“. . . We’re riding out now.”
“Nobody’s stopping you.”
“Maybe we’ll meet again, stranger. If you pull through.”
“Then we’ll meet again, be sure of it,” Johnny said. He started the horse forward at a slow walk.
“Want to take him?” Luke said, under his breath.
“Let’s not press our luck,” Johnny said, low-voiced. “That’s one ornery cuss. Take a lot of killing to put him down.” They rode west along the trail, rounding a bend that put the stranger and the west bank clearing out of sight behind a screen of brush.
They came into view of a line of horses tied up to a hitching line strung between a couple of trees. These were the mounts belonging to the raiders who’d remained behind to clean up the massacre site. The explosion and gunfire had spooked them but the rope had held, preventing them from running away as the team pulling the corpse wagon had done. The animals were anxious, spooky, sidling and pawing the ground.
“You see what I see, Luke?”
“That’s some mighty fine horseflesh.”
“My thoughts exactly. They ain’t doing those dead men back at the creek no good, neither,” Johnny said. He swung down from the saddle. “You stay on my horse, Luke. Keep an eye out for that Yank.”
“I’ll do better than that.” Luke shucked the carbine out of the saddle-scabbard and turned the chestnut to face back along the trail the way they came, toward the creek bank hidden behind the trees. “Sure you don’t want to take that Billy Yank?” he asked.
“This is no time to go looking a gift horse in the mouth,” Johnny said. A veteran horse thief, he got right down to business. Taking a clasp knife from his pocket, he unfolded a blade and began cutting loose the hitching-rope to which the line of horses was tied.
He mounted up on a fast-looking roan with good lines, securing one end of the rope to the saddle horn. The line stretched behind him, trailing a string of seven horses.
“We can switch horses later, Luke. Something damned funny happened here. Something big. Best we clear out of here pronto.”
“Let’s ride, Johnny.”
They rode, taking the string of stolen horses with them, and were soon out of sight.
Sam Heller struggled to his feet, holding on to the gray’s saddle for support.
Somewhere along the way he had holstered the mule’s-leg and stuck the pistol in his waistband.
The gray turned its head toward him, regarding him with moist, dark, expressive eyes. Sam Heller stroked the gray’s muzzle. “Good boy, Dusty. Didn’t run out on me, did you? You’re a good horse,” he said.
It nuzzled him with its snout, almost knocking him down. Sam was shaky on his pins. His shirt stuck to his shoulder and chest due to dried blood. Blood that was not so dry trickled in warm rivulets down his front. The wound in his left shoulder was bleeding again. The shoulder was stiff, numb. His left side where a slug had creased it felt like a hot iron had been laid across it.
It had taken plenty for him to rise. Without Dusty standing there beside him to give him something to hold onto, he wouldn’t have been able to stay upright. He might fall on his face yet. If he did, he might not get up. What strength he had left was pouring out of him fast.
Experimentally, he wriggled the fingers of his left hand. They seemed to work okay. He made a fist, opening and closing it. The bullet in his shoulder hadn’t cut any nerves or tendons.
Something nagged at him, a sense of incompleteness. Something was missing—what?
His hand went to his head and he realized he was without his hat. It must have fallen off during the action. He looked around for it, spotting it a half-dozen paces away.
He guided the horse to it, walking beside the animal, holding on to the saddle. Clutching the stirrup, he hunkered down and picked up the hat.
He straightened up, a wave of dizziness washing over him, a torrent of darkness glittering with little colored lights. He held on to the saddle while the darkness passed, fading away as the scene faded in.
Sam pulled the hat down on his head. The Texas sun could be cruel to a bareheaded man. Besides, it was his hat and he wanted it. It had seen him through a lot of scrapes and across a lot of ground.
He had things to do, important things, but his top priority was to get back up on the horse while he still had the strength to do so. He climbed up into the saddle; a long, hard climb. It left him breathless and trembling. After a time the worst of it went away, but he was still weak.
Taking the mule’s-leg in hand, he reloaded it with cartridges from the bandoliers criss-crossing his torso. Now he was ready for whatever might come at him. As ready as could be, under the circumstances. He holstered the weapon.
Sam Heller had been wounded a number of times in the past, both before and during the war. He knew that proper first aid often meant the difference between life and death. No medic, he, but he had a working knowledge of the necessities learned on the trail and battlefield.
He undid the bandanna knotted around his neck and wiped his face with it, mopping up cold sweat. As soon as he wiped it clean, more fresh sweat oozed out to replace it.
Sam opened the top of his shirt, unbuttoning it, fingers feeling thick and clumsy. Gore plastered the garment to his flesh. He peeled back the fabric, freeing it. The entrance wound in his shoulder was an ugly puckered crater. No exit wound—the bullet was still in him.
A raw red furrow was plowed diagonally across his rib cage on the left side where Remy’s first shot had creased him. It hurt like hell but wasn’t as serious as the shoulder wound.
Folding the bandanna into a fat square, Sam placed it against the wound. He pressed down on it. Pain waves spasmed through the numbness, stabbing deep into the inside of his head. Blood soaked into the compress, wetting it, helping hold it plastered in place.
Sam leaned forward, fumbling open the top of his right-side saddlebag pouch, groping inside it. He pulled out a length of rawhide cord. He knotted a sliding loop in one end of the rawhide strand and stuck his left arm into it, drawing the loop up to his shoulder. Placing it so that it set across the bulge of the wadded bandanna compress, he pulled it tight, cinching it into place.
He wound the free end of the cord several more times around the shoulder to further secure the compress from slipping. He knotted it in place, careful not to make it so tight as to cut off circulation. No tourniquet, this. Lack of proper blood flow could also be damaging, leading to loss of the arm.
He checked the rig; it seemed crude but serviceable. Sam sipped some water from his canteen, washing out the inside of his mouth before swallowing. Shadows flitted across his face and eyes. He looked up.
The buzzards circling overhead were flying low.
Sam dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and rode on. He continually scanned the walls of brush lining the trail, looking for lurkers, hand resting on the butt of the mule’s-leg.