Cotton's Inferno

Cotton's Inferno

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by Phil Dunlap

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No one within fifty miles of Whiskey Crossing, Texas, could match Carp Varner’s skill with a sidearm. No one could match his murderous temper either. But when his half-cocked bid for mayor yielded only one vote in his favor—having voted for himself—his fury razed the tiny town to the ground in a

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No one within fifty miles of Whiskey Crossing, Texas, could match Carp Varner’s skill with a sidearm. No one could match his murderous temper either. But when his half-cocked bid for mayor yielded only one vote in his favor—having voted for himself—his fury razed the tiny town to the ground in a blaze of flames and hot lead.
Showing up in Apache Springs to offer his services as a gunsmith, Varner even gets on the good side of Sheriff Cotton Burke. But when Burke learns of Varner’s true nature—and past crimes—he unleashes an inferno of his own to see justice done.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Dunlap is definitely a Western writer to watch."—Larry D. Sweazy, Spur Award-winning author

"Phil Dunlap's sharp prose packs the punch of a Winchester rifle."—Johnny D. Boggs, four-time Spur Award-winning author

"Dunlap uses his passion for history and the Old West to paint a realistic setting for his work."—The Indianapolis Star

“Phil Dunlap is a writer to fog the sage with!  Flesh and blood characters, compelling plots, and cinematic action—Western writing doesn't get any better than this.  I’ve become a big fan.”—Peter Brandvold, author of The Last Lawman
“A new star in the Western writing firmament.”—Roundup Magazine

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sheriff Cotton Burke Series, #4
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
4.20(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Dingo lay sprawled in the dirt with eyes wide and mouth askew in surprise, an expression he would retain in perpetuity. A man in a long black duster and stovepipe boots stood staring down at what he had just done. A thin trail of smoke curled skyward from the barrel of the .45-caliber Smith & Wesson Schofield revolver in his hand.

“You sure as hell shoulda listened better, Dingo. Now, look at what you’ve made me do. Nobody back-talks Carp Varner!” A wry smile crossed his lips. What he gazed upon wasn’t a pretty sight. Not pretty at all. But then, blood never is.

The gunman angrily jammed his six-shooter back in its holster and stormed off to the nearest saloon, the only saloon in town. The body lying in the street only began to draw the attention of a couple of townsfolk after the gunslinger disappeared inside the swinging doors of the Whiskey Crossing Saloon, the one purveyor of whiskey, beer, and a single whore in the pitiful crossroads appropriately named Whiskey Crossing, Texas. The first person to approach the body was the town constable, and he did so cautiously, then merely clucked his tongue and drifted off to find someone to bury the poor soul. Two others gathered around with much the same response.

“Why would Dingo do something so foolish as to challenge Carp Varner, the vilest gun-toter in a hundred miles? Plain stupid, if you ask me,” said a bearded man wearing a leather apron stained with smudges of ash and bearing small burns from the flying embers of a blacksmith’s forge. He served not only as blacksmith but also as the liveryman.

“Good question, Emmett. Can’t seem to conjure up no good answer, though,” said the man who owned the only general store within twenty miles. “Maybe you should ask him.” A cynical smile crossed his face as he looked down, pointing at the dead man’s gun still in its holster.

A buckboard slowly came to a stop next to where the corpse lay. The driver reined his horse, hopped down, and began the task of hefting the body into the bed of the wagon. He looked around for anyone willing to help. The two gawkers finally offered a reluctant hand before wandering off to go back to their own responsibilities. None ventured to the Whiskey Crossing Saloon. And for good reason. A man took his life into his own hands just being in the presence of such a killer, especially when he was in one of his “moods.” Chancing any remark that might set off the incendiary temper of the man in black was sheer foolishness.

* * *

The funeral was an informal affair and drew three people, one-third of the town’s population. No one really mourned the loss, but then it wasn’t such a loss anyway. Dingo had a number of shortcomings, any one of which was bound to get him killed sooner or later. His mouth was the most likely culprit. The fact that he carried a gun was of little consequence. Any ten-year-old girl could have beaten his best draw.

Since the dusty little spit of a town had no church, it likewise had no clergyman to bestow a eulogy over the departed soul. The mayor was forced to step in and say what he could. Unfortunately, he could find no words more fitting than “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, uh, I can’t remember the rest. Amen.” He promptly turned on his heel and hurried back to his office, namely the table at the rear of the saloon that was held for his exclusive use. The top was covered with official-looking papers, although few contained anything more important than a handful of complaints over his general mishandling of town business, all of which he totally ignored. They’d been collecting dust for a whole year.

The constable didn’t make an appearance for fear of more questions about his failure to show the notorious gunman the way out of town. In fact, he’d as soon the nasty-tempered gunslinger would leave of his own accord. That, however, wasn’t the common thinking on the matter. The town actually had need of a man with Carp Varner’s skills. At least one of them. He was the best gunsmith for fifty miles; he was also the only one. He could repair anything that fired a bullet, or even build one from scratch. When he’d blown into town about a month back, he found plenty of men willing to pay for repairs to beat-up, dirt-encrusted, or busted firearms. He found an abundance of business, at least until he’d repaired almost every gun in the county. Since the town itself was comprised of only four buildings and three tents, those needing his services began to trickle down to only one or two requests a week, not enough to keep a man like Varner in whiskey. That’s when he tended to reveal his ugly side. His murderous side. He’d shot four men since coming to town, but none of his victims had held any standing in the community and talk of reprisals had been largely nonexistent. All four had been drifters, merely passing through for a drink or a poke.

* * *

While never incorporated because of a paucity of citizenry, Whiskey Crossing nevertheless voted itself a mayor and hired a constable—by way of a whiskey trade-out—to keep the peace. There had been some mention along the way that if a town was to have any chance of growing into a viable community it should offer an incentive for businesses to settle there. But a lack of initiative on the part of the mayor, who spent most of his days languishing over his pile of totally useless scribblings, a few back-East newspapers, and many empty whiskey glasses, had brought no interest from any potential businessmen. In fact, the only reason anyone ever stopped in Whiskey Crossing was that it was an unavoidable crossroads, situated at the apex of two intersecting valleys. That, and the town had a whore, a commodity of some worth to cowboys from surrounding ranches looking for company more pleasurable than a herd of longhorns.

The mayor looked up from his perusal of a month-old newspaper as a shadow draped itself across his table. It was the man in black, himself, Carp Varner.

“Mayor, this miserable town needs a mayor who’ll do something to get folks to come, spend their money, and stay long enough to build the place up. My thinkin’ is that four shabby, run-down buildings, three tents, and nine citizens, now that Dingo is gone, don’t really constitute a town. Progress, that’s what we need. I’m thinkin’ I’d do pretty well in that capacity. Therefore, I’m plannin’ on stayin’ a bit longer and runnin’ against you in the election next month.”

“Uh-huh. I hope you’ve noticed that of the town’s few citizens, most are my relatives. I wish you luck, though, I surely do.” He went back to his reading.

The look on Carp’s face turned from hopeful to dark.

“I’ll figure some way around that dilemma, don’t you worry none.” Varner stormed off muttering to himself. The mayor watched him leave with a touch of trepidation.

* * *

The day of the election found Carp Varner casting a vote for himself with a smile of satisfaction. He had lobbied everyone he could for his or her vote. Feeling confident in the outcome and counting on a victory, Varner strutted around like a peacock to await the final verdict. As the time for an accounting drew near, the constable was called upon to ready the tally. Hearing the results, Varner was thunderstruck. He’d garnered but one vote, his own. He decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the saloon pondering his next move. And getting well lathered in the process.

As Varner sat by himself with a newly opened bottle of whiskey, sitting beside its empty companion, his expression grew morose. Whenever such a dark cloud descended on the gunslinger, someone was about to rue the day they’d ever met him. And one of those someones was drawing near. Carp Varner had come to a conclusion, and he committed himself to its immediate execution. If there was a method to his madness, he had no notion of it. An aimless decision not formulated with logical parameters coursed through his slightly addled brain. The whiskey hadn’t made his plan any clearer, and had, in fact, likely muddied the waters a bit more.

Unexpectedly, the mayor strode through the doors and into the barroom. He had both thumbs stuck in his suspenders and was flexing them in and out. His wide grin pretty much said it all. Gloating over his win at the polls was about to prove unwise. Carp Varner glared at the pompous mayor and slowly began to scoot his chair back. He stood, if somewhat unsteadily, to his full height. His eyes narrowed and his hand dropped to the Schofield on his hip. The mayor approached him, cackling like an expectant hen.

“You see, Carp, I told you there was no sense in wasting your time. I got this town locked up. Maybe next time—”

Those were his last words.

With a snarl, Carp Varner drew and fired two bullets into the unsuspecting and foolhardy mayor. Carp saw the bartender reach under the bar for something. Whatever it was, Varner wasn’t taking any chances. He spun around, plugged the bartender, then turned to take down the two customers sitting at the only occupied table. Varner was already reloading by the time the men slumped to the floor. He raced toward the door as if he was heading for a Sunday picnic. But what was coming next for Whiskey Crossing, Texas, was anything but a picnic. Before he reached the door, Varner grabbed for an oil lamp that hung close-by. Because the day had been overcast and dark, the lantern was lit. He turned the wick up and threw it against the bar, and flames suddenly engulfed the floor, bar, and two tables. The dry wood allowed the fire to spread rapidly as Varner ran two doors down to the livery to get his horse, while everyone else was trying to either stop the fire from spreading to every building in town or make their escape from what was bound to become an inferno of the first order. As he led his horse from the stall, Varner tossed a blazing lucifer into one of the piles of straw. The barn fairly exploded as the flames rushed from stall to stall, quickly aided by grain dust and dry corn husks. With a strong, dry wind to fan the fire, bright tongues of death leapt from building to building like a mountain goat scurrying to escape a puma. Whenever a person burst out a door in a panic to escape the rapidly spreading inferno, Varner put a bullet in them. Two had done so, and it hadn’t mattered to him whether they were men or women. They all fell to his murderous accuracy with the six-shooter. Licking flames blew tiny embers into the wind, dropping them all around, consuming outhouses, tents set up as temporary residences, and in short order, each of the four buildings. Without means to douse the flames, the town would soon become nothing more than a pile of embers. Not that it mattered all that much, because there were likely no citizens left alive to carry on.

Varner swung into the saddle and drove for the outskirts as fast as his mount could carry him. After about two miles, he reined his horse, turning in the saddle for a last look around before whipping the animal to a dead run for the Texas border. He shouted back, “That’ll teach you stupid bastards to mess with Carp Varner!”

By the time he reached the crest of nearby foothills, five miles to the west, he could look down and see the whole town—or what had been a town—now burned to the ground, leaving as its legacy nothing more than a few smoking embers and lingering shafts of smoke snaking their way skyward. He had no idea how many of the town’s citizens had been caught up in the terrible and swift consumption of wooden buildings and tents. He also didn’t care. Of its nine residents—including Varner, himself—he’d personally shot down five or six, and he figured those almighty consuming flames had taken care of whoever or whatever might be left. He squinted as he spied a lone, shadowy column of undulating smoke at the far edge of what had only a few minutes before been a town.

“Well, I’ll be damned, that shaft of smoke makes it look as though someone did live through that inferno.” Varner snickered at the thought as he spurred his horse on westward. Not a chance in hell.

Cotton, you been staring out that window for a half hour. What’s eating at you?” Emily Wagner said. She placed a steaming cup of Arbuckles’ coffee on the small table beside him. “Drink this. It’s freshly brewed. Might help cure whatever’s ailing you.”

“It’s nothin’, Emily. Just got a head full of feathers this mornin’. Must be the election comin’ up next month. Got a bad feelin’. I’m not sure just how the wind might blow this time, even though so far no one has decided to run against me. If some hotshot jumps in, I could end up comin’ out here to work for you after all.” The Apache Springs sheriff lifted the cup, careful not to spill a drop on Emily’s just polished floor. He took a cautious sip, fully aware that Emily Wagner tended to serve her coffee almost at a boil.

“Oh, don’t be silly, Cotton. If it hadn’t been for you, this town would likely have dried up and blown away. Why, there’ve been enough gunslingers through here to start their own regiment. Shucks. There’s not a chance of you losing even one vote.”

“Most of those gunslingers were here because they were lookin’ for me. They likely wouldn’t have dropped by if I hadn’t been here.”

“Yeah, well you were here, weren’t you? You can’t tell me that Virgil Cruz and his gang wouldn’t have still had their eyes on that gold shipment, whether you were here or not,” she said, crossing her arms and looking disgusted.

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Well, Cotton Burke, you can just stop moping around here and either get yourself off to that jail of yours or help some of my boys put up the rest of the fence back of the barn. Take your pick. I have too much work to do to sit around trying to cheer you up.” Her faux outburst got Cotton so tickled he grabbed her by the shoulders and kissed her just to keep her quiet.

Still grinning from ear to ear, he picked up his hat and gun belt and marched out the door, whistling as he went. He could feel his quickened heartbeat as the door squeaked shut.

* * *

When he got to town, Memphis Jack Stump, Cotton’s deputy, was sweeping dirt off the boardwalk in front of the jail. Jack stopped, leaned on the broom, and gave Cotton a cynical look as the sheriff stepped up the single step.

“Nice to see my deputy accepting some of the domestic duties hereabouts,” Cotton said, with a sly grin.

“Don’t get too used to it, Sheriff. It blew so hard last night that dirt was piled around the door, keepin’ me from gettin’ inside to make myself some coffee.” Jack followed Cotton inside and leaned the broom against the back wall. He then stuck some paper and a few sticks of split wood inside the stove and lit a lucifer to the paper. “What made you decide to leave that comfy bed out at the Wagner place? You know, I do understand why you don’t like it that you got nothin’ warm to snuggle up to in that squalid little dump of yours down the street,” Jack said, sniping.

“Yeah, well it is startin’ to get nippy at night. But I figured it’d be best if I’m close-by to give you a hand keepin’ the town safe from all the riffraff. Couldn’t take the chance we’d get a sudden blizzard come roarin’ through that’d strand me with nothin’ to do but watch cowboys makin’ tracks in the snow.”

“I reckon it is that time of year when you never know what you’re gonna wake up to.”

“Anything happenin’ that I should be aware of?” Cotton asked.

“Not unless you figure old Pete Baker gettin’ a snootful and fallin’ off the porch at the saloon is newsworthy. Broke his arm. I’d have sent a rider out with the news if I’d thought you’d find the incident all that interesting,” Jack said with a grunt.

“Reckon not. Although, if you happen to fall down and break somethin’ other than your fool neck, better get word to me. I might just find that interestin’.”

* * *

A scrawny young man stared forlornly at the scene before him, shaking his head. He stood at the edge of the still smoking ashes of what had been Whiskey Crossing. His state of mind was unmistakable. Tears ran down his sooty cheeks as he choked back sobs. Wisps of smoke from dying embers curled around him. He felt a pang of guilt for not being among the dead. I should have been here to try my best to put a stop to what that bastard did. Johnny had been just over the ridge after hauling a load of manure from the livery in the little pushcart designed for just that purpose. It was one of his daily chores that paid for his keep. When he’d heard the gunfire and the screams, he rushed to the top of the rise and peered over. That’s when he saw Carp Varner whipping his horse to a run, firing his gun in the air and laughing uproariously. Johnny raced down the hill waving his fist, cursing as he watched helplessly while Varner escaped the conflagration he’d created.

The young man shook his fist as he shouted, “The devil’s comin’ for you, you bastard! And I’ll be the instrument of retribution! So help me, I will.”

Kicking aside smoking beams and pieces of tin siding, clumps of adobe and blackened shards of glass, he searched for whatever might be sufficiently salvageable to outfit him as he set out to trail the man who’d killed every last one of the town’s citizens, the only family he had. He started his search where he remembered the cash drawer had been located beneath the bar at the saloon. He figured gold and silver coins might have survived the fire. To his surprise, the tin box had melted into a solid mass from the intense heat and was unrecognizable as to its purpose. Try as he might to salvage its contents—if anything remotely resembling coins remained at the core of that molten mass—he knew it would be useless as money. Barely into his manhood, eighteen-year-old Johnny Monk could only hang his head and weep.

* * *

Johnny spent most of the remaining daylight trying to gather anything he could find that might be of use. He was, by his own count, the only thing that drew a breath left living in that godforsaken pile of debris. Not a horse, mule, or donkey to use for transportation. Every man and woman now nothing more than charred cinders. He couldn’t even bring himself to dig any graves, partly because the only shovel he found had the handle burned to charcoal, and also because he was too choked up to even look upon such a grisly sight.

He did find two scorched whiskey bottles at the bottom of a blackened heap. He poured out the contents and filled both with water from the nearby stream. With no more than the clothes on his back, his water, and the gun he had thankfully strapped on before hauling the manure, and before all hell broke loose, Johnny started off in the direction Carp Varner had taken. A bright red bandana was the last thing he’d seen as Varner disappeared over the western hills. He knew little of the country hereabouts, but he wasn’t reluctant to travel at night. Since the weather had yet to turn too cold, he figured to make good time for a boy on foot. With seemingly endless energy, his strides were long and purposeful. He had no illusions about catching Varner on foot, but he hoped to come across a ranch soon. Maybe he could work out a deal to trade a few days’ labor for an old nag. It was a long shot, but regrettably the only choice he had.

When he reached the top of the rise over which he’d seen the last of Varner, he could make out only a faint trail in the distance, and was nearly overwhelmed by the enormity of the landscape, and the task, that lay before him. In the light of a full moon, the desert created surreal and frightening images; that strange, bright heavenly illumination cast jagged shadows from jutting rock formations, trees, and shrubs. His trek would take him farther away than he’d ever been from the town that adopted him when his father died soon after reaching it. The pain of that day was so firmly etched in his mind he shuddered at the remembrance.

Since there had been no real doctor within a two-day ride, Johnny’s father had had little chance of survival after being bitten by a rattlesnake as he walked through the brush alongside his horse. Johnny—having barely reached fourteen at the time—was left to fend for himself among strangers; his mother had died of a fever soon after they began their journey west. Now here he was, a teenaged boy with the weight of the world bearing down on him and a grating hatred growing in his heart.

An easygoing lad, Johnny had found Whiskey Crossing an acceptable place to live until something better came along, which he figured to happen by the time he reached nineteen. But then, opportunities in that part of western Texas were few and far between. And now, broke and unprepared for whatever the fates had in store for him, Johnny Monk would have to seek out his own salvation while dogging a vicious killer, and while bent on but one objective: revenge. It was an emotion with which he had experience, even at his tender age.

Carp Varner rode west at a good clip, reaching El Paso three days later. He’d pushed hard and his horse had been nearly ridden into the ground. He reined in in front of the corral at the livery, his mount heaving. Carp slid from the saddle as dust swirled around him. He watched a man come toward him. Taking note of the well-lathered horse, the man gave Carp a look that suggested he had little regard for anyone who’d treat a good piece of horseflesh that way. Varner ignored the man’s snide look and draped the reins over a rail.

“You work here, old man?”

“Own the place.”

“Good. Take care of my horse. Feed, water, and give ’er a rubdown. I’ll be back in the morning,” Carp said, tossing the man a greenback, which fluttered to the dirt. The man bent over with a groan, whisked the money into his pocket, and led the horse inside the barn, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like “Yessir, your lordship.” Carp ignored the comment and made a hasty retreat to the nearest watering hole, a place called “El Paso Rose’s.”

He strode up to the bar, keeping a wary eye out for anyone who might recognize him from the last time he’d been through. Carp had made a habit of leaving evidence of his nasty temper all over Texas, most of it residing in cemeteries. The saloon was pretty crowded, but the only people he recognized were three men at a table already in their cups. All three weaved back and forth just trying to remain upright and not crash to the floor. He knew them to be nasty characters, although not all that fast with a gun. Certainly not in his league. The boys were brothers, the Callahan Brothers. One was a killer of sorts, the others just hangers-on. They were wanted in a couple of the smaller towns for robbery.

Carp eased up to the bar and ordered a whiskey, keeping his back to the Callahans to keep from being recognized. If they didn’t see him, there’d be no trouble. Once, when they’d crossed paths in Amarillo, he’d had to club the older brother, Black Tom, over the head with his gun butt. Tom went down in the dirt, moaning and groaning, while Carp made off with his saddlebags, which contained the brothers’ take from a recent stage robbery. Another brother spotted him and took a shot at him, but his aim was poor in the dimming light of evening and the bullet merely grazed his arm. Carp beat a quick retreat out of town in a cloud of dust, while the Callahans tried their best to follow. He lost them within a few miles and hadn’t seen anything of them since. He wasn’t looking forward to getting reacquainted, either, although he knew he could cut all three of them down before they could clear leather. Right now, he needed to rest up from his recent hasty retreat from the devastation he’d wrought in Whiskey Crossing. He figured there’d be no one alive to tie him into that burned out pile of debris. But, lying low as best I can seems my best option, for the time being, at least.

“Where’s a good place to rest up for the night?” he asked the bartender.

“We got three rooms upstairs. Only one’s occupied at the moment. Six bits for a bed and breakfast.”

“I’ll take it,” Carp said, as he tossed the coins on the bar. The bartender handed him a key and pointed upstairs.

“Second room on the right.”

Carp wound his way through the room full of cowboys, made his way up the stairway unseen by the Callahans, opened the door to his room, and tossed his saddlebags on the floor next to the narrow, iron bed. The mattress, such as it was, had rips and tears at one end where cowboys had failed to take off their spurs, chewing up the linen covering and spilling wads of cotton batting like confetti. He was too tired to care. He dropped onto the squeaky bed and drifted off in no time.

* * *

The next morning, he went downstairs for the breakfast he’d paid for. When he got to the bar, all that was left was some pickled eggs and three pieces of dry bread. The only piece of thinly sliced beef was lying on a plate already covered with flies. He pounded the bar to get someone’s attention. No one came, and the saloon was devoid of other customers. He reached into the jar and scooped up a couple eggs and went outside. He plopped down in a chair. The town was just waking up, with freight wagons and buckboards rolling slowly up and down the street. Two men on horseback paid him no mind as they drifted by, both wearing badges.

Still hungry, Carp got up and followed the wooden walkway to find a restaurant. Half a block was all it took before he came upon a hole-in-the-wall Mexican place that advertised tortillas with frijoles and rice for ten cents. He went inside. A short, hefty lady came to his table and asked if he’d like coffee. He said yes and decided to order his frijoles with jalapeños, which, it turned out, were plentiful, spicy, and hot enough to take the skin off a man’s lips. He ate them anyway, washing them down with generous gulps of coffee to quell the possibility of a blistered throat. After breakfast, he wandered down the street, looking in a few shop windows, before going after his horse. He had no intention of lingering too long anyplace in Texas, especially anyplace that endured the likes of the brothers Callahan.

As he was about to cross the street to the livery and corral, he failed to notice a large man stepping out of the bank. They collided, with the result being that the other man lost his balance, dropping a leather bag and spilling several gold coins onto the boardwalk. The man was furious as he caught himself before falling into the street. He got up, red-faced and sputtering. He took one look at Varner and spewed out a string of curses at the same time he was reaching for his revolver. Varner didn’t flinch, drawing and firing in an instant. The man flopped off the boardwalk and groaned. Lying in the dirt, the man twitched once more before lapsing into unconsciousness and dying as the dust settled.

Seeing the scattered coins and the leather bag the man had dropped, Carp hastily grabbed the bag and what coins he could and made a run for the livery. He tossed some coins at the owner, quickly saddled his mount and sped off north across the border into New Mexico Territory, his intended destination before he’d decided to stop overnight in El Paso.

* * *

Coming to a tiny trickle of a stream about five miles out of town, Varner found refuge in a tangle of shrubs and scrub trees. He needed to let his horse rest before proceeding on. He also needed to see if he could spot any posse that might be following him. He climbed to the top of a rugged escarpment and cupped his hand over his eyes to shade them. He wiped his brow free of dirty perspiration with his shirtsleeve. The day was clear and bright, making it easy to see any dust that might be rising from anyone hot on his trail. To his amazement, he saw nothing. Not a hint of pursuers.

He slipped and slid back down to where his horse was nibbling at mounds of short grasses gathered around the bases of some scraggly cottonwoods. He would need water before he started off across the wasteland that lay ahead. The measly stream was too dirty and too shallow to even reach the lip of his canteen. He’d been lucky that no posse was on his trail, but he began to wonder if it was because they knew something he didn’t. Maybe the direction he was headed, straight into a blazing desert, could turn out to be what cost him his life, especially if he didn’t locate water soon. Scanning the horizon, he looked down on what looked like a thin ribbon of trees wandering through the desert.

If there are trees growing in a row, they must be following a stream or river. I think I’d better do the same.

Mounting up, he decided a change of course would be to his advantage. Heading down out of the mountains, he rode for about an hour before coming upon a wide but shallow river where the water was plentiful and cool. But that joyful revelation wasn’t the only surprise that greeted him as he walked his horse into the rushing waters. Four riders sat watching him from the far bank. All well armed and all grinning. They wore sombreros with bandoliers across their chests, loaded with cartridges.

Damn! I was sure as hell right about a posse! But why aren’t they coming after me?

That’s when it hit him. The riders were Mexicans guarding their own turf from northern intrusion, probably because of all the cross-border cattle rustling that had been going on. Carp tossed the riders a salute and rode off to the north, following what he now figured to be the Rio Grande. He looked back several times to make certain his assumption had been correct. It had.

If I follow this river far enough, it ought to lead me straight to Las Cruces. A good place to rest up, especially since no one there knows me.

Carp Varner’s hopes of laying low for a spell in Las Cruces were short-lived. He’d wasted no time making himself persona non grata by clubbing a hapless Mexican, with his usual aplomb. A conscience was something with which he’d never felt the need to saddle himself. He rode out in a hurry, certain he would have a posse on his tail in no time. But history seemed to repeat itself. He fairly flew across the desert and over the mountains, with nary a hint of anyone on his trail. So he headed northwest to find some other place where he wasn’t known. Perhaps a place where his talents would fit well. And the smaller the town, the better.

* * *

After what seemed to him a year in the saddle, Varner slipped into Apache Springs in the early evening and left his horse inside the livery when he couldn’t find the hostler and figured he’d gone for dinner. He removed his saddle, attached a note with instructions, and tossed it over a wooden horse next to the stall. He then hung the bridle and blanket on a peg, gave his gelding a bucket of grain, and wandered down the street to find a room at the hotel along with a bite to eat. He had no idea whether the law in New Mexico had any reward posters on him yet, or even if any existed. There was not a living soul left back in Whiskey Crossing, Texas, to give chase. He’d made damned sure of that. There were no witnesses to his crime except some smoldering ruins which he’d left behind in a hurry. And he made certain he’d already ridden far enough away to avoid recognition from any cowboys who might have met up with him sometime as they passed through the miserable crossroads. He had no doubt that no one could have escaped the conflagration, and he had no interest in going back to make double sure. He’d never spotted anyone on his trail, so he figured he’d just hole up in this little out-of-the-way town to consider his future. That column of smoke had looked somewhat like a lone figure, but it could only have been his imagination, an apparition of departed souls formed in the rising columns of smoke. Although, in the back of his mind, something was eating away at him. He just couldn’t come to grips with what it was.

After finally remembering the leather bag he’d taken from the man he’d shot in El Paso, he opened it and found it contained nothing more than receipts from a business and a few coins. Wasn’t worth the trouble or the risk. He’d need a way to make some money, something honest for a change, not that it mattered all that much to a man who’d shown no compunction burning a whole town to the ground and killing its citizens. But it did make sense to keep from attracting attention to the fact that he had no visible means of support, which might, at some time in the future, bring his crimes down on his head. The one talent he had for making a living was the thing he did second best: the repair and care of firearms. His most notable gift was, however, his quickness with a handgun. As he walked toward the hotel, and in need of money to even pay for a room, he noticed a small shop with a shingle saying it was the gunsmith shop. He figured to just drop by and see about getting hired. Temporarily, of course.

When he cupped his hand over his eyes to peer through the shop’s dusty window, he saw an old man hunched over his workbench, holding a stripped-down Colt frame in his hand. A paper sign in the window said the shop was closed, but he tapped on the door to get the man’s attention anyway. When the door opened, Varner knew in an instant there would be trouble. The old man recognized him as soon as he got inside far enough for light from the three oil lamps to illuminate his face. Carp had no choice but to act, and act quickly.

* * *

“Cotton, we got a problem,” Jack shouted as he approached the jail. Cotton looked up from doing some paperwork when his deputy, Memphis Jack Stump, came bursting in the door.

“Slow down, Jack. What’s happened to get you in such a lather?”

“It’s Carl Burnside. One of the other storeowners found him lyin’ on the floor of his gunsmith shop this morning. They took him down to Doc Winters, but it don’t look good, not good at all.”

“What happened to him?”

“Don’t know. Thought I ought to come tell you first before hoofing it on down to the doc’s to see what I can find out. If that’s okay with you, of course.”

“I’ll go with you,” Sheriff Burke said. He snagged his hat off a peg and followed Jack into the street. A chilly breeze whipped up dust and sent it swirling through town in miniature dirt devils. The fall season was but days away, and already a few of the deciduous trees had begun to turn red and gold, a sure sign that winter wasn’t far off.

When they got to Doc Winters’s porch, the grim-faced doctor greeted them. He came out wiping his hands on a towel. He slumped into the only chair on the porch, staring off into the distance. He barely acknowledged their presence. Cotton waited in silence to see if the doctor was going to volunteer information as to the gunsmith’s condition. Jack wasn’t that patient.

“What’s the story with Burnside, Doc? He goin’ to make it? Any idea what happened to him?”

Winters gave Jack an impatient scowl, scrunching up his mouth before the words began to trickle out.

“Even if he does live, he’s going to need lots of care. I doubt he’ll be working on anyone’s shooting iron anytime soon, if ever.”

“What happened?” Cotton asked.

“It appears to be a condition I haven’t seen much out here. It’s when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. It’s called apoplexy.”

“How’s a thing like that happen?”

“Can’t say. He could have fallen and hit his head. He’s got a nasty bump as evidence of that happening. Or it could have been something that got him all excited suddenly, and he could have fallen after it happened. There could be any number of possible reasons. Maybe just his advanced years. I don’t have any answers yet, Cotton. Sorry.”

“Has his wife been informed?”

“I can’t say. Haven’t seen her for, oh, maybe four months. Someone should let her know.”

“Then I reckon it’s up to me. Is she going to be able to care for him while he gets better?” Cotton asked.

“There’s no guarantee he’s ever going to get back to the way he was. Wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. He’s mostly crippled and unable to speak. If he could only say something, it would make treating him easier. Only saw this kinda thing once before, and that time it didn’t turn out well, even though the man lived, he was never himself.”

“Keep me informed, Doc. A town like Apache Springs can’t go long without a gunsmith.” With that, Cotton left the doctor’s office, with Jack close behind.

“That ain’t good news,” Jack said, as they crossed the street. “You think if we went down to his shop we might find some reason for him collapsing like that?”

“That’s not a bad idea, Jack. Tell you what: you go look around and I’ll call on Mrs. Burnside, let her know what’s happened.”

* * *

Jack nodded and headed off for the gunsmith’s storefront. Cotton went to collect his horse, since the Burnsides lived about a mile outside of town. When he arrived at the Burnside place, he was surprised at the sad state of things that he saw. He’d known the old gunsmith ever since coming to Apache Springs, and he’d been impressed with how both the man and his wife kept everything neat and organized. The Burnsides’ plot of ground was small, no more than enough to have a few chickens and a milk cow, but then the man had never claimed to be a farmer, he just liked privacy. A small structure sat at the back of the property to house what few tools Mr. Burnside needed. It was a three-sided building, little more than an elaborate lean-to. It, however, seemed to serve the purpose.

Cotton dismounted and walked across a yard surrounded by a short picket fence. Walking onto the porch, he noticed how a deadly silence seemed to gather all around. Knocking on the door resulted in no response. He attempted to peer through one of the windows, but couldn’t see through the dust, plastered on by fierce rainstorms that drove the soil ahead of them in horizontal waves. It looked like the windows hadn’t been cleaned for a year or more. That kind of housekeeping didn’t follow with the fastidious homemaker he’d known Mrs. Burnside to be. He knocked again and, again, was greeted by an eerie, dead silence. He tried the door but found it locked. He walked around to the back thinking the lady of the house might be out there doing her weekly wash or feeding the chickens. What he found, however, was quite unexpected.

Off to the side of the house under a cottonwood tree was a freshly mounded grave with a simple cross protruding from one end. Scratched into the wooden marker were the words ELIZA BURNSIDE. BELOVED WIFE 1830–1880. That was all. But that was enough. It surprised Cotton that Burnside had never said a word about his wife being ill or in failing health. The man had ridden in every day and tended to his business just as if nothing were wrong. Cotton realized how devastating the loss of his wife must have been. That incident alone could easily have brought on that “apoplexy,” that Doc Winters said it was.

On his slow ride back to town, Cotton began to have thoughts about who besides Emily would give a hoot if he suddenly dropped over? His living alone, having no real commitment to anyone or anything except the town, sent a shiver up his spine. It may be time to rethink my relationship with Emily.

* * *

When he reined his mare up in front of the jail and dismounted, he saw Jack trotting along the street toward him.

“What’d she say, Cotton? Pretty upset, huh?”

“I’d have to say I found her beyond caring, unfortunately.”

“What do you mean? Why, Mr. and Mrs. Burnside were closer’n two peas in a pod.”

“What I mean is: Mrs. Burnside has passed away. And I’ll bet that’s what brought her husband to his knees. Poor soul. I’d say he was completely lost without her. What’d you find at his store?”

“I’m not sure I know what to make of it. You’d best come along with me and see for yourself,” Jack said, turning about with the obvious expectation that the sheriff would hurry along right behind him. That turned out not to be the case.

“Hey, Cotton, you comin’ or not?” Jack said, with a hint of disapproval in his voice.

“Yeah, I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’m goin’ to see Doc Winters first. I’ll catch up. You go ahead.”

* * *

That morning, after arriving in town, Carp Varner stepped into the only saloon in Apache Springs and immediately caught sight of Melody. Looks like I might finally be at the end of a long and dusty trail. This could be where I’m goin’ to have to stop my wandering and settle for a spell. I can see myself all wrapped up in the sheets with that pretty filly. I surely can.

A cunning, hungry smile crossed his lips as he stepped up to the bar and was quickly greeted by the bartender, Arlo, who wiped a wet spot from in front of his new customer.

“Howdy, stranger, what can I get you?”

“Well, that pretty little lady over there for starters. Give me a whiskey to seal the deal.”

“The lady to which you’re referrin’ is the owner and she’s not available anymore, leastways not since hookin’ up with Memphis Jack, the deputy sheriff. Still want the whiskey?”

“Certainly. I don’t intend to let a little thing like a whore’s stupid commitment come between me and my desires. And you can count on it, I do intend on havin’ her.”

Arlo set a glass in front of the stranger, poured it full with whiskey, then leaned over to speak without others hearing. “Whatever you say, mister, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Memphis Jack isn’t a man to trifle with.”

“Well, my good man, I’d have to say he isn’t alone on that count.”

Pick Wheeler was whistling to himself as he slowly rode a flea-bitten mule out of the hills and down into Apache Springs. His grizzled face bore a well-lined smile for the first time in months, maybe years. He rocked from side to side on the back of one mule, letting the lead rope to his second mule slacken at the unhurried pace. The pack was piled high with clothing, a straight-back wooden chair, a copper tub, a near worn-out feather mattress, and a ten-gauge shotgun. When he turned the corner at the town’s entrance, he straightened as his thoughts turned to his prospects for that day. Old Pick Wheeler had been prospecting in the hills outside Apache Springs for almost two years. His silver claim had never brought him the riches he’d sought, and he was never able to buy more than a few supplies, just enough to keep body and soul together. He’d claimed to have built up a small nest egg at Darnell Givins’s Apache Springs Bank, but no one ever saw him make any deposits, and never any withdrawals.

Pick reined in his mule in front of the livery and dismounted. The hostler shielded his eyes as he stepped out into the sun with a warm greeting for the old man.

“Good to see you, Pick. What can I do for you?”

“Like to leave my animals with you while I do some business. That be all right?”

“Sure, Pick. Happy to help out.”

“Much obliged.” Pick gave a nod as he strode off in the direction of the saloon. The liveryman called after him.

“Hey, Pick. Don’t you think you ought to go to the assayer’s first, so you don’t spend all your silver on foolishness?” The liveryman snickered.

Pick grunted and called back, “Don’t you worry none, Mother, I plan to behave.”

The liveryman shook his head with a grin. He turned and coaxed the two mules inside the barn doors, kicking up sawdust that covered the floor.

Pick continued on undaunted by his friend’s admonition concerning his well-being, until he reached the steps to Melody’s Golden Palace of Pleasure. He stopped before entering to slap the dust from his clothes, take off his battered bowler hat, and lick his fingers to slick down what little hair he had; then he pushed through the swinging doors. He walked straight up to the bar, where Arlo, the bartender, was wiping the surface with a badly stained rag. Arlo looked up as the man approached.

“Well, well, Pick Wheeler. Haven’t seen you in here for a month of Sundays. Where you been keepin’ yourself?”

“I been diggin’ so much silver my bags are about to burst. But I’m tired. I’m an old man, Arlo, and I can’t keep up with such backbreaking work day after day. I’m about to drop in my tracks.”

“I’ll draw you a beer while you sit yourself over there at one of them empty tables. Maybe a little rest will help settle your mind before you start back to your diggin’s.”

Pick dragged himself over to the nearest table and plopped into a chair. Arlo removed a glass off the stack behind the bar, pulled the handle on the beer tap, and drew off a full pint of the golden ale. He carried it over to the old miner and set it before him. Pick thanked him as he slurped the foam off the top, grinning a nearly toothless grin. While he drank slowly, Pick looked up at the balcony, as Melody Wakefield came out of her room and leaned on the railing a moment before gliding down the stairs. Smoothing the wrinkles out of her satin dress, she glanced about, seeming to take notice of each and every one of the saloon’s patrons before walking over to talk to Arlo. Pick watched her every move. When her eyes fell on him, his head bent and his shoulders slumped, the sure sign of a nearly worn out prospector.

“Did the whiskey I ordered arrive, Arlo?” Melody put her hands on her hips in a display of the authority of ownership.

“Yes, Miss Melody. I had them stack the boxes in the back room.”

“Good. I got a very good price on this shipment. Ordered it all the way direct from Kentucky. Some little upstart brewery near a town called, uh, hmm, oh yeah, Bardstown. But I figure it has to be premium quality because the salesman swore to it. I told him if it wasn’t, he’d be walkin’ the territory without his manhood intact.”

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Meet the Author

Phil Dunlap is the critically acclaimed author of the Sheriff Cotton Burke Western novels, including Cotton's Inferno, Cotton's War and Cotton's Law.

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