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BOOK: William W. Johnstone
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The trail plunged west through a half-mile of woods before breaking out into a stretch of wide, open country, rolling hills dotted with trees and brush. Sam paused at the treeline at wood’s edge, surveying the scene. The vast, sprawling landscape seemed empty of any other humans. The hill country lay north, the plains south.
Sam rode into the open, out of the shade into the hot sun. The openness increased his sense of vulnerability. He followed a course that minimized his exposure, leaving the trail to strike a zig-zag route/path that took advantage of what cover there was. He angled toward a stand of timber, a low mound, a rocky knob. He kept to the lowland, threading the washes and draws, avoiding crossing the ridges where possible.
Sam knew from previous studies of the map that the main trail west was the Old Mission Road. Hangtown lay to the southwest, more south than west, far from sight. Going to town was his best bet. He needed doctoring. Entering Hangtown in a weakened condition presented its own dangers, but it was still the best worst option.
He looked back at the woods between him and Swift Creek. The buzzards were slowly but surely descending on the west bank clearing he had quitted.
He didn’t have to see the scene to know what would happen. The airborne scavengers would soon be at their work, touching down to begin the feast. The big birds would batten on the dead, bringing sharp, tearing beaks into play to rip and tear. Usually they went for the eyeballs first, pecking out the delicacies and gulping them whole. Left undisturbed, they wouldn’t quit until the carcasses were stripped clean of every shred of flesh, leaving only gleaming white bones.
“Eat hearty, boys,” Sam muttered.
He meandered southwest across the plains. This was the open range; no fences here to mark property lines. Streams and rivulets spilled south out of the hills to lace the prairie with winding silver veins. It was well-watered country, prime grazing land.
Clusters of quadrupeds dotted the landscape. Longhorn cattle by the hundreds, running free and wild. Weird-looking creatures with long faces and narrow sides. Sam kept his distance from them; they were ornery critters with no fear of man. The bulls sported horns spanning four feet across and more, with wickedly pointed tips.
In this land of vast vistas, distances seemed endless. No sign of town yet. The westering sun was bright and and blazing, but curling around the edges of the big sky lay boiling, bubbling darkness. The darkness was in Sam, light-headed from loss of blood.
His awareness drifted, fading in and out. A lurch of the horse jarred him, shaking him awake. He realized he’d been semi-conscious. That scared him.
In the distance, several hundred yards away, a many-legged black blur of motion swarmed down a long, low ride toward him.
Sam’s eyes stung from sweat in them; he rubbed them to clear his vision. The many-legged blur resolved itself into a group of riders. About a dozen of them, maybe more.
The newcomers were ahead and to one side of him. They halted when they saw him. His course would take him past them so that they’d be fifty yards to the right.
They started downhill, swinging left to intercept him. Some of them shucked rifles out of scabbards. One shouldered a rifle to fire but was forestalled by a shouted command from another of the group.
Sam rode on, seemingly unconcerned, oblivious. Pounding hoofbeats neared.
The riders spread out in a wide arc to bar his way. They formed an inverted crescent, shaped like the horns of a bull.
Sam sighed, hoping he wouldn’t have to fight his way through this bunch. He didn’t have much left. It was all he could do just to stay in the saddle.
Nearing, he was able to make them out. They were Mexican-style vaqueros, decked out in widebrimmed sombreros, white shirts, bell-bottomed pants, brown leather chaps. Armed with six-guns and rifles. They reined in hard, their horses’ hooves kicking up dirt as they halted a stone’s throw away.
At the center of the crescent was the trim figure of a woman. She was flanked by a shaggy-headed ogre and a gypsy with a gold earring.
The woman filled the field of Sam’s vision. She was a beauty, with dark, flashing eyes and vivid red mouth. Full-bodied and long-legged. A black bolero hat was worn tilted rakishly to one side. Masses of inky blue-black hair were pinned up at the back of her head.
She wore a long-sleeved white blouse, black vest, black wrist-length gloves, black jeans and black leather riding boots. Vest and gun belt were trimmed with decorative silver conchos that sparkled and glinted in the sun.
The scene pulsed with shadows and light, the pulsing synchronized to the labored beating of Sam’s heart. Was it love?
No. He’d run out of everything that had kept him going up to now. With his last flickering reserves of energy, he managed to lift an arm to courteously touch thumb and forefinger to his hat brim.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he said. Her face was as impassive as that of a carved stone idol.
Sam slid sideways off his horse. The ground rushed up to meet him, fetching him a terrific jarring blow.
He lay on his back on the ground, as if at the bottom of a deep well. At the top was a blue disk of sky.
The well shaft resolved itself into a circle of bodies surrounding him, hemming him in. Looking down at him. Faces were featureless orbs floating high above, impossibly distant.
Blackness returned, swallowing up Sam Heller.
E
IGHT
 
Long shadows of late afternoon were falling across the landscape when Johnny Cross came in sight of the Cross family spread.
Johnny lay prone at the top of a ridge several hundred yards east of the ranch. It was in his nature to look before leaping. Growing up on a frontier plagued by outlaws and warlike Indians will do that, if one wants to live to grow up at all. Subsequent years of war and outlawry had only confirmed him in the habit of caution. He rarely came at a thing directly, preferring to approach it sideways—a trait that promotes longevity.
Luke was down at the foot of the ridge, minding the string of stolen horses. Johnny had dismounted and climbed to the top of the rise for a looksee. He was careful not to show himself above the crest; a skylined figure could be seen from a long way off.
He now set eyes on the family homestead for the first time in over five years, since the day he had ridden off to go to war.
The Edwards plateau came down from the northeast, slanting southwest across the plains to intersect the Broken Hills. The Broken Hills, commonly known as the Breaks, was a belt of rough country, a rocky rampart stretching north-south for many a mile. The Breaks was a maze of hills, ravines, gullies, valleys.
The Cross spread was the westernmost ranch in Hangtree County. It stood midway between the Old Mission Road in the north and Hangtown Trail in the south. It sat on a flat covered with green grass at the foot of the Breaks, near the eastern mouth of Wild Horse Gulch. A stream ran through the property, splashing and sparkling.
The lowering sun grazed the western hills, casting long shadows across the plains. Blue-gray gloom pooled at the foothills, creeping east across the land.
A rocky spur thrust out into the range. At its tip rose a a moundlike hill with a jagged top. The ranch house nestled at the base of the hill. It was a flat-roofed, square-walled blockhouse.
A line of smoke rose not from within, but from somewhere near it. Human figures moved around in the yard in front of the house. They were too far away for Johnny to make out any details.
Whoever they were, they weren’t Crosses. Johnny was the last of the family. He went downhill and got on his horse.
“What’s up?” asked Luke.
“Somebody’s home,” Johnny said. “Any idea who?”
“Nope. I ain’t been out this way since I came back home last fall. I’ll tell you this, though: chances are it’s a bunch of no-goods. The Breaks was always wild but it’s outlaw country now. They make their hideouts there and raid out on the plains.”
“Squatters or outlaws, they’re on Cross land.”
“What’re you fixing to do, Johnny?”
“Serve notice on ’em—it’s moving day.”
“How many are they?”
“I don’t know, I couldn’t make out much detail.”
“Well, what’s the plan?”
“We’ll circle north into the Breaks, swing around and come out of the gulch.”
Johnny and Luke had come down from the north, turning left off Old Mission Road and riding south below the ridge for cover. Now they partially retraced their route, pointing north along the ridge trail. They rode at a slow pace, almost a walk, to avoid having their string of horses kick up a dust cloud that would alert those at the ranch to their presence.
The ridge broke up into a line of low hills. The duo turned left, riding west through a gap to emerge on the plains at a point where the hill with the jagged top stood between them and the ranch house, screening them. They crossed a long open stretch to the foot of the Breaks. They saw no one from the ranch and were apparently undetected.
What looked like a solid rock wall from a distance became a jumble of hills, ridges, ravines, arroyos, boulders, knobs and stone needles. This was home turf to Johnny Cross, who’d spent countless boyhood hours ranging the Breaks and making it his. He’d roamed its myriad hills and ways, searching for stray cattle, seeking wild mustangs, hunting the game trails.
The terrain was unchanged from the way he’d remembered it. People come and go, the works of man fall into ruin, but the land abides.
He and Luke entered a ravine, one of many feeder routes through the hills into Wild Horse Gulch. The cut was thick with shadow, the sun hidden behind the hills. The path wound west, then south, opening into the gulch. The gulch was an oval valley comprising many square miles of well-watered grassland ringed by rock walls. Many smaller ravines and gullies fed into it. It was home to several hundred wild horses.
Johnny and Luke swung east, making for a gap opening on to the plains. The setting sun was at their backs. Nearing the gap, they reined in to make some final preparations.
Johnny reached into a saddlebag and took out a pair of gun belts, each carrying a holstered gun. He fitted them on over his shoulders, so the guns hung butt-out under his arms.
Luke’s eyes bulged, staring. “Damn, Johnny, how many guns you got?”
“Never enough,” Johnny said, “but these should do for now. Back with Quantrill, we never went on a raid with less’n six guns each.” He dipped into another saddlebag and brought out two more revolvers. “Take these, Luke. You want to make sure you’re dressed for the party.”
Luke hesitated. “I’d just as soon use the carbine, if you can spare it. I’m a better hand with a long gun than a pistol.”
“Suit yourself.” Johnny shucked the carbine out of the scabbard and handed it to Luke.
“Much obliged,” Luke said.
“Take another six-gun, might come in handy.”
“All right.” Luke took the pistol. He already had a gun stuck in the top of his pants, so he stuffed the second in the side pocket of his Confederate gray tunic. “What about the horses?” he asked.
“We’ll picket the string here and come back for them later,” Johnny said. A cleft in the rocks about ten feet wide and fifteen feet deep served as a place to pen the spare horses, who were hitched and hobbled to keep them from straying.
 
 
Darkness was drawing in when Johnny and Luke rode side by side out of the gap, east onto the flat. The sunset was a bright red band slashing across the western horizon. Gaps in the rock wall allowed shafts of lurid red light to pour out of the mouth of Wild Horse Gulch.
The two riders were black outlines against a red sky. Dusky gloom settled on the flat, pierced by red beams fanning out across the plains.
The Cross ranch was near the mouth of the gulch. Firelight showed in front of the ranch house.
Even in the best of times, the ranch was only marginally a going proposition. The Cross family had barely been able to eke out a subsistence living from the property. It was a threadbare patch of civilization on the edge of a howling wilderness. Nobody settled in the Breaks. The broken land was the haunt of Indian war parties, outlaws, and bandits up from Mexico. Apparently it had only gotten worse since the war.
The ranch house was a stone-walled cube, a single-room structure with a flat timbered roof and dirt floor. It fronted south, its rear wall butted up against the side of the jagged-topped hill, protecting against attack from that direction. It was built as a strongpoint, with thick stone walls, a massive door and windows with thick wooden shutters. Strategically placed gunports and loopholes dotted the walls. The roof was covered with blocks of sod to guard against Indian fire arrows.
That was then. Johnny was the last living member of the immediate family, and at the time he’d gone off to war, the scant remaining livestock had been sold off and the ranch abandoned to time and the elements. Now, much of the spread had gone to ruin. The barn was a mound of charred timbers and an ash heap. The ranch house was a gutted shell. Its timbered roof had collapsed, opening it to the sky. Windows were blank, gaping square holes. No door remained, only an empty doorway. A platform boardwalk fronting the house was a litter of broken planks and beams. The yard was littered with empty whiskey bottles and other trash.
The one part of the homestead that was in decent shape was the corral. The wooden rail fence had been patched up and repaired. Penned inside it were eight to ten good horses.
The squatters were gathered in the yard between the house and the corral. In the center of the space was a campfire. Firelight stood out in the gathering gloom. Overhead, the sky was going from a colorless void to deepening dark.
Johnny and Luke rode in, making for the fire. It blazed in a shallow pit ringed by large, round stones. The gutted, headless carcass of a freshly butchered longhorn hung on a spit roasting over the flames. The air was filled with good food smells that made Luke’s mouth water and his belly rumble.
Three men were grouped around the fire, two more stood leaning with their backs against the corral’s wooden rail fence. They were loafing and idling, eating, drinking, smoking and talking. Violent, profane men, talking loud, bragging big. They hadn’t even bothered to set a sentry, Johnny noticed. Bunch of damned fools, he thought.
The newcomers got pretty close before being noticed. One of the squatters caught sight of them and called out to the others. Heads turned toward the intruders as if swivel-mounted with a single control. Their chatter faded away into silence.
The riders neared, their horses coming steadily at a slow, deliberate walk. Sunset had settled into a single red razorline streak across the western horizon. The Evening Star glimmered in the darkling sky.
One of the men at the fire stood holding a rifle stretched horizontally across the back of his shoulders, bent arms raised with hands clutching the piece. He was bare from the waist up, with a solidly muscled torso and brawny arms. A single decorative eagle’s feather was stuck in the hatband of his hat; a second, similar feather was secured to the muzzle of his rifle by a length of rawhide. He started forward, swinging the rifle down along his side.
One of the loafers by the corral reached for a rifle that stood beside him, leaning upright against the fence. All the squatters were armed with six-guns; several wore braces of pistols.
Johnny and Luke reined in a few paces away from the group. They were outside the circle of firelight, their faces shadowed. Johnny’s hands rested on the pommel of his saddle horn. Luke held the carbine to one side across the front of the saddle.
The man with the feather in his hat stepped forward, the others falling in in a loose line behind him.
“Psst! That’s the bunch that jumped me!” Luke said, in a stage whisper.
“Wait for me to get the ball rolling,” said Johnny, smiling.
The man with a feather in his hat raised his left hand in casual greeting. When he opened his mouth to speak, firelight glinted off a gold front tooth. “Howdy, boys. What’s new at the hideout?”
“Evening, Monty,” Johnny said.
Monty thrust his head forward, squinting up at Johnny, trying to make out his face in the dimness. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“I’m Johnny Cross.”
“Never heard of you,” Monty said.
“This’s Cross land you’re on.”
“What of it?”
“Monty, look!” one of the men said, pointing at Luke. “It’s the cripple!”
Monty turned his attention from Johnny to Luke, staring at him. “Why, so it is . . . Well, I’ll be damned! Talk about someone who don’t know to leave well enough alone—!”
Monty stroked his chin, marveling. “You sure must have a hard head. I thought I busted your skull wide open. What do you want, crip?”
“I come to even up,” Luke said, tightly.
“Forget it—you ain’t got a leg to stand on.” Monty guffawed, glancing back at his sidemen. “Get it, boys? He-ain’t-got-a-leg-to-stand-on, haw haw!”
Luke swung the carbine toward Monty. Monty was ready for it. He dropped into a crouch, pointing his rifle at Luke. His sidemen reached for their guns—
While everybody else was reaching and getting set, Johnny Cross went into action. He drew. Fast.
One instant his folded hands rested on top of the saddle horn. An eyeblink later, both guns were in his hands. He opened up, guns blazing, his face underlit by muzzle-flares.
BOOK: William W. Johnstone
4.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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