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By Max McCoy
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Max McCoy
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJacob Gamble limped into Farquharson and Morris Hardware, favoring his right leg, glancing behind him at dust-blown Oklahoma Avenue. His right boot was filled with blood and the red stuff oozed from the seams with every other step, leaving a sinuous trail on the freshly polished oak floor.
"Show you something?"
The clerk was a boy of seventeen and until a few moments before had been enthralled by a ruddy account in the Police Gazette of a Chicago meatpacker who had tired of his wife and disposed of her body in one of the sausage vats. The cover of the Gazette was a full-page illustration of three swarthy Spanish agents searching a disrobed and comely young American woman in her berth on a steamer in Havana Harbor.
Gamble slapped a revolver on the top of the display case so hard the boy was afraid the glass would crack. It was an old gun with a brass frame, an open top, and an octagonal barrel. It was filthy with residue and the rotten egg stench of recently discharged black powder radiated from the gun.
The boy whistled as he tossed the Gazette aside.
The gun wasn't a Colt, it was an old cap-and-ball Manhattan converted to .38-caliber rimfire cartridges, and the boy hadn't even noticed that the loading gate and ejector rod had been placed opposite normal, making it a left-handed gun, but Gamble didn't have the will to correct him. Gamble was light-headed, there were splotches of white crowding his vision, and his legs were weak. He gripped the display case with his dirty hands to keep himself upright.
"Carry this at Gettysburg, Granddad?" the boy asked as he picked up the Manhattan. "Damn, it's warm. You been target practicing?"
Gamble clenched his jaw and concentrated on forcing the whiteness back.
"You all right, mister? You look a might peaked."
"Cartridges," Gamble managed. "Thirty-eight rimfire."
"Don't got 'em," the boy said, rummaging among the boxes of ammo on the shelf behind the counter. "Had a box or two, a few months ago, maybe longer. Sold 'em. Have a couple of boxes of .38 Colt center fire-that's what most conversions use nowadays. Got plenty of 38-40 Winchester. Everybody wants to shoot the same round in their rifles as their pistols."
"I'm not everybody," Gamble said. He took a couple of deep breaths and concentrated on forcing the whiteness back to the edges of his vision. "Show me something new."
"Absolutely," the boy said. "Probably time you replaced that ancient iron with something modern, if you ask me. Forty-five is the most popular caliber."
Leaning over the display case, Gamble caught the ghost of his reflection: a jaw bristling with salt-and-pepper whiskers, a shock of long hair turning gray at the temples, a black leather patch over his right eye. His black coat was powdered with road dust and smeared at the elbows and cuffs with red clay.
"For my money, the best handgun is the .44 Russian," the boy continued. "Top break, fast loading. Accuracy and power combined. A real manstopper."
"What do you know about stopping a man, son?" Gamble took a deep breath, then exhaled slowly. "The Russian is what Bob Ford used to shoot Jesse James in the back of the head while Jesse stood on a chair dusting a picture. I'm predisposed against it."
Gamble glanced over the row of Peacemakers, a couple of Bisleys, a variety of Smith & Wessons-including a Russian-a half a dozen other brand names, many trash guns, and a vest pocket pistol of uncertain manufacture. Damn, he needed something ... bigger. He glanced up at the rack of long guns, mostly lever-action rifles and shotgun doubles, Winchesters and Marlins and Stevens.
"Hand me that Winchester."
Gamble turned to glance through the front window to the street, and when he turned back the boy was holding out a heavy shotgun with a single barrel. Gamble was about to say he meant the lever-action carbine instead, but the big shotgun reminded him of a shoulder-mounted canon.
"Model 97," the boy said. "Twelve gauge. Only been for sale a few months. Improvement over the slide gun of a few years back. Smokeless. Shoots the new Nitro shells."
The gun was heavy. The boy said it was eight pounds and some change. Gamble put his right hand on the ribbed forestock and studied the tubular magazine slung beneath the barrel.
"Where's the lever?"
"You ain't seen one of these before, have you?" the boy asked smugly. "There's no lever. It's a slide action. You just pump it back and then forward again, and it puts a new shell in the chamber and you're still on target. Be careful, though, because if you hold down the trigger when you drive a shell home, it's going to fire."
"You can stuff five rounds in the magazine, through the slot beneath the receiver, and keep one in the chamber. So, she's good for six shots, as fast as you can work that pump."
Gamble found the release and pulled back the pump, which set the action into motion. The slide shot backward out of the top of the receiver, cocking the exposed hammer and grazing the top of his thumb. Then he drove the pump home, and the bolt. Together, the actions produced a metallic ch-chink! that presaged mayhem.
"Helluva sound," Gamble said.
"Imagine hearing that in a dark alley. I'd fill my pants."
"I'm sure you would." Gamble was sighting down the barrel, lining up the grooves on the top of the receiver that served as the rear sight with the bead at the far end of the thirty-inch barrel.
"What d'ya think?"
"It will do."
"Knew you had a good eye." If the boy realized he'd made a bad joke, he didn't show it.
"A box of shells."
"What size shot?"
The clerk took a carton of Robin Hood Smokeless Powder Company shotgun shells from a shelf behind him and slid them across the top of the display case.
While the boy went to retrieve the bottle from the shelf of cleaning supplies, Gamble ripped the top from one of the boxes. The shells weren't all brass, like Gamble was used to seeing, but had only a half-inch ring of brass at the base, with the rest being paper that was slick with wax.
"I'll be damned," Gamble said.
"Can't shoot the Nitros in the old guns," the boy said, placing the bottle on the top of the display case. "They're so hot they'll blow the bolt right back in your face. That's why they make 'em red, I guess."
Gamble shoved the shell into the bottom of the shotgun's receiver.
"You'll have to wait to do that," the boy said, and all the while Gamble was stuffing more shells into the gun. "There's a law about carrying loaded guns in the city limits. Just wait and I'll write up your ticket and we'll settle up."
Gamble worked the pump, producing that bone-chilling sound again, then pushed one last shell into the bottom of the receiver.
"You want to live?"
The boy nodded.
"Then we are settled up."
Gamble cradled the shotgun in the crook of his right arm and used his left hand to scoop up more of the bright red shells and shove them into the pockets of his dusty black coat.
"Jesus, mister," the clerk said.
"Jesus has nothing to do with it," Gamble said.
The whiteness came in on him hard just then, and he closed his eyes. His legs were numb and he felt himself sinking toward the floor. Then he heard shouting outside, and he pulled himself upright, and roughly uncorked the brown bottle. He pulled the bandanna from his neck, sprinkled some ammonia over it, then brought it toward his nose. The fumes seared his nostrils and brought the world back, fast and hard.
"You'd better get down, because it's going to be raining lead in about thirty seconds," Gamble said.
"You the law?"
"Not by a damned sight."
"Then you're ..."
"A wicked man," the boy said, grinning.
Some would say that, Gamble thought.
"How many men have you killed?"
Chapter TwoGamble hadn't kept count of how many men he had killed. But they all had it coming, he reckoned, one way or another. Among the last was an opium peddler by the name of Lester Burns in Sumner County, Kansas. The killing had earned Gamble a price on his head from the district court there, and he'd been dogged from the state line by a quartet of bounty-hunting German cousins. For six weeks, they had chased him south along Hell's Fringe-the jagged border between the Indian nations and Oklahoma Territory-in an episodic gun battle that zigzagged across the winter landscape.
Along Cottonwood Creek, in Logan County, Oklahoma Territory, within sight of the wooden Santa Fe trestle, they had shot Gamble's chestnut mare out from under him. The rifle slug had struck the horse behind the shoulder and the horse had fallen hard, unable to roll back up. Gamble had extricated himself from saddle and stirrups-losing a spur in the process-and after seeing the bloody froth spewing from the animal's muzzle, had drawn the Manhattan, pressed the barrel between her eyes, and fired.
Then he had sought refuge in a cornfield that was hard against the creek, but the cousins methodically rode down the stalks and drove him out the far side. Gamble had burst from the field and made for the creek, ducking a fusillade from the murderous cousins.
The Santa Fe railway ran along the creek, and he dashed over the tracks and then jumped over the edge of the creek bank and tumbled down the red clay bank. As he scrambled for the cover of the trunk of a fallen walnut tree, he shot blind twice behind him. This was answered with a shot that passed through his right thigh and continued on to skip across the surface of the creek beyond. Gamble scarcely felt it, thinking the bullet had simply puckered the fabric of his trousers. He attempted to vault over the trunk, but caught his remaining spur on a dead branch and hung for a moment, suspended like a target in a shooting gallery, half his body exposed. Another shot zinged past, then another thudded dully on the opposite side of the trunk. Then the strap on the spur broke and Gamble fell to the moist clay. He spun around and pressed his back against the walnut trunk, the Manhattan held tightly in his left hand, trying to think of a next move that wouldn't result in the cousins shooting him to death where he lay.
"Hey, Dutch!" Gamble shouted.
There was no answer, but he could hear the cousins up on top of the bank, speaking softly to each other in German, trying no doubt to find some path down the bank that wouldn't expose them to fire.
"What do you want?" This, with a touch of an accent.
"We are talking. Have you many blaue bohnen left?"
"Bullets," the man said. "These are called blue beans in German, because they look like little lead beans stuffed into the wheel of your gun, no?"
"Only if you're looking down the wrong end."
"You must be running low on these deadly beans," Jaeger said. "We have traded shots many times since leaving Kansas, and there are four of us and only one of you."
"Odds sound about right."
"You are a fool, Jakob Gamble."
"What say we avoid the bloodletting and come up with an arrangement that will satisfy everybody?"
There was dark laughter from above.
"And what would such an arrangement be, Herr Gamble?"
"You could let me go."
"Why should we do that?"
"Because if you do, I'll tell you where there's a fortune in buried gold. It's one helluva lot more money than whatever reward is being offered for my hide. And if you kill me, you'll never find it."
There was a long pause. Gamble flicked open the loading gate of the Manhattan and turned the cylinder-he had only three rounds left.
"Maybe, Dutch-there are nine chances out of ten that I am making up a whopper just to save my skin. But are you willing to throw away the not inconsiderable chance that I'm telling the truth? Think about what you could do with a strongbox filled with gold. And here's the beauty part-it costs you nothing to find out, except to hold off on killing me."
There was more whispering in German, then things fell silent.
Gamble listened to the sound of the creek and the breeze in the branches of a willow tree hanging low over the water a few yards downstream. Then he became aware of a pain in his right leg, and he looked down to discover blood dripping to the ground from where the bullet had passed through his thigh.
"Well?" Gamble called. "I don't got all day."
"We are going to kill you."
"Now, Dutch, that ain't right."
"The reward will be paid, dead or alive."
"Yeah, but you only get half if you bring me in dead," Gamble called. "Why don't you take me alive and double your money?"
"It's easier for us if you are dead-at least you won't be talking."
"But the gold, Dutch. Think of the gold."
"Stop lying. If you had that kind of treasure, you wouldn't be living a scarecrow life."
"A scarecrow life? That's mean, Dutch."
"Don't call me that. It is not my name."
"Well, Dutch, that's just too goddamned bad. It's the West, and every German is nicknamed Dutch, whether you like it or not."
Gamble was eyeing the thirty yards of red creek bank that separated him and the cousins. They would have to cross it, because the creek was not frozen over and was too broad for them to try to cross and come at him from that way, but even if he made every shot count-which was in itself so unlikely as to constitute a miracle-he would have three dead bounty hunters and a fourth one still very much alive, well armed, and filled with revenge.
Then Gamble heard sand shift and pebbles skitter down the bank, and he knew the cousins had crossed the railway tracks and were coming down the bank together, guns at the ready. Gamble pressed his shoulder against the trunk, rocking the fallen tree, and the cousins reflexively let go with a volley, splinters flying from the top of the trunk.
Gamble cursed floridly.
Then he heard the familiar rumble of a locomotive. He dared a look above the trunk and saw a Santa Fe stock train clamoring across the bridge a half-mile upstream. He also saw that the cousins had reached the bottom of the creek bank. Then he glanced behind him, and saw a cut in the bank where a flood had stacked some barrel-sized boulders near the water.
He stood, cocked the revolver, took careful aim at the fattest of the cousins, and squeezed the trigger. The bullet took the cousin in the chest and he went down heavy on his back, his arms outflung.
Then Gamble ran limping for the cut, with bullets ripping the air around him and the blood pumping in his ears. He fired once behind him as he ran, then dove for the cover of the boulder pile.
The train was getting closer-and picking up speed.
Gamble clawed his way up the cut, climbing over rocks and roots, trying to reach the top ahead of the locomotive before the cousins came close enough for a clean shot. If he was tardy, then he would be trapped between the train and the bounty hunters, instead of trapping them on the creek side.
Near the top, he felt the strength fade in his right leg, replaced not by pain but by a peculiar numb feeling. His pant leg was bright with blood. Then a bullet splattered in the clay beside him, and this spurred him over the top. He stumbled up onto the railway bed, tripped, and landed on his knees between the rails-and in the path of the rushing Santa Fe locomotive. He could count every bolt on the front of the frying pan-colored boiler, see the glow beneath the belly of the locomotive from the fire grate, feel the ground tremble as the locomotive bore down.
The brass whistle atop the locomotive shrieked.
Gamble flung himself over the other rail to safety only a second before the wheels of the locomotive would have sliced him into oblivion. He lay on his back for a moment, gulping air, the Manhattan still in his left hand. He laughed and threw his hat in the air. When he lifted his head, the engineer was leaning out of the cab, looking back at him, and Gamble gave him a wave to show he was all right.
The engineer pulled off his glove and returned the universal salute of displeasure. Then he ducked back into the cab and pushed the throttle forward, and the locomotive belched smoke and fire from the stack as the train struggled to pick up speed.
Then he looked the other way and could see the end of the train approaching. It consisted of only twenty or so cars, probably moving local stock, and there was no caboose.
Excerpted from Damnation Road by Max McCoy Copyright © 2010 by Max McCoy. Excerpted by permission.
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