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SIDEWINDERS: Deadwood Gulch
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSix sturdy mules pulled the wagon along the trail that followed a winding gulch through the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Off to the right of the trail flowed a narrow, brawling creek lined by cottonwood, aspen, and box elders. The pine-covered sides of the gulch rose steeply and cast a pall of gloom over the trail despite the sunny day. Winter wasn't far off, and a chill hung in the air.
Breath fogged in front of the faces of the driver and the three guards on the wagon. The guards wore sheepskin jackets, while the driver was bundled in an old mackinaw. The man on the seat next to the driver had a shotgun across his knees. The two guards in the back of the wagon, with the sacks of gold dust bound for the Stebbins & Post Bank in Deadwood, clutched Winchesters. Deadwood was four miles away along this narrow gulch, and lately every foot of the way had been dangerous. Time was, these runs from the mine to the bank had been made by just two men, a driver and a guard, but with the latest outbreak of lawlessness and violence plaguing the area, the mine owners had increased their precautions.
The driver hoped having three tough men along with him would be enough. He wasn't in any mood to die today, and he dang sure didn't want any devil's pitchfork carved into his forehead.
His name was Chloride Coleman. He had followed the lure of gold and silver from one end of the frontier to the other for more than twenty-five years, after first heading for California during the Gold Rush of '49. Since then he had been a lot of places, including the rough mining camp of Deadwood when gold seekers first flooded into the Black Hills. He had spent part of the intervening years searching for his own fortune before finally coming to the realization that he wasn't fated to find it. He could make a living, though, working for men who had been more fortunate.
"Can't you get those jugheads moving a little faster, Chloride?" Mitch Davis, the guard on the seat beside him, asked. "This place gives me the fantods."
"Hold your horses," Chloride said. He chuckled. "Of course, them ain't horses I'm drivin', are they?"
He turned his head to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the weeds beside the trail. Steaks of brownish-yellow in his white beard testified to the thousands of other times he had done the same thing.
"I'll feel better when we get to Deadwood," one of the men in the back said. Chloride didn't know them very well. The one who had spoken was called Turley. His more taciturn companion was Berkner. Like Mitch Davis and Chloride himself, they had come to the Dakota Territory in search of their fortune, only to find that the big mining concerns had gobbled up the best claims already, squeezing out the individual miners. The days of some prospector striking it rich were as dead as Wild Bill Hickok, shot in the head from behind in the Number 10 Saloon about four years earlier.
Davis lifted his shotgun and said, "I don't like the looks of that deadfall up ahead. I don't think it was there the last time we came through here. There might be half a dozen of those Devils hiding behind it. Better steer around it as much as you can, Chloride."
"Now how am I gonna do that?" Chloride asked. "The trail goes right beside that big ol' tree, and the way the side of the gulch comes crowdin' in, there ain't no way to go except right past it."
"Yeah, well, maybe not, but don't waste any time getting by it. Better whip up that team a little."
Chloride sighed and reached for the whip socketed into a holder next to him. With skill born of long experience, he popped the blacksnake over the heads of the mules and yelled, "Gee up, you varmints! Gee up!"
The stolid mules leaned into their harness and moved a little faster, but not much.
"Keep your guns on that deadfall," Davis told Turley and Berkner. He was nominally in charge of the guards. Both men lifted their rifles to their shoulders and trained the weapons on the huge log lying a short distance to the left of the trail. Davis was right, Chloride thought. Several of the outlaws who called themselves the Deadwood Devils might be hiding behind it, lying in wait to ambush the wagon carrying the gold shipment.
Davis got up on one knee on the seat so he could fire the shotgun over Chloride's head if he needed to. "Careful with that," the old-timer urged him as the wagon started past the deadfall. "I ain't partial to havin' greeners go off right next to my ear. I'm already deaf enough from old age."
"Better deaf than dead," Davis told him. "If there are any road agents behind that tree, you'll be glad I've got this shot—"
He didn't get to finish his sentence, because at that moment a shot rang out, but not from behind the deadfall. Instead it came from the other direction, from the trees on the other side of the creek.
Davis grunted and toppled over, falling against Chloride. He rolled off the startled driver and landed on the floorboards at Chloride's booted feet. Chloride's rheumy eyes widened in shock at the sight of the grisly mess that the back of Mitch Davis's head had turned into. A bullet had blown away a fist-size chunk of his skull and some of the brain underneath.
More shots blasted from across the creek as Turley and Berkner tried to swivel around and return the fire. Chloride slashed frantically at the backs of the mules and shouted at them, trying to get them to break into a run.
Turley and Berkner got several shots off. Flame spouted from the muzzles of their Winchesters. But then Turley slumped back onto the chests that held bags of gold dust and chunks of gold ore. Blood welled from a hole in his chest where bushwhack lead had found him. He dropped his rifle and pawed frantically at the wound for a second before his head slumped back and his eyes began to glaze over in death.
That left just Turley to fight off the attack, and he was badly outnumbered. Several outlaws burst from the trees on horseback and splashed across the creek to give chase to the wagon, which was rattling and bouncing along faster now as Chloride finally got the mules to run. Smoke puffed from the six-guns wielded by the men, who had bandanas pulled up over their faces to conceal their identities.
Chloride yelled encouragement to the remaining guard. "Hold 'em off, Turley!"
"Get this wagon moving faster!" Turley shouted back as he levered another round into the Winchester's chamber. Both men knew the odds of the wagon team being able to outrun the desperadoes' horses were mighty slim. The outlaws were closing the gap by the second.
A gurgling cry came from Turley. Chloride glanced over his shoulder and saw the man thrashing around as blood poured from his bullet-ripped throat. Chloride bit back a curse. Turley would be dead in seconds, Davis and Berkner had already crossed the divide, and that left Chloride alone against a horde of bloodthirsty outlaws. For a second he thought about reining in the team, bringing the wagon to a stop, and throwing himself on the mercy of the gang if he turned the gold shipment over to them.
He discarded the idea almost instantly. Those varmints were cold-blooded murderers and had proven that on several occasions in the past. They had earned the nickname of Devils they had given themselves. If he surrendered, they'd just put a bullet in him.
Besides, he was too old and stubborn to quit. Holding the reins in his left hand, he used his right to fumble the old cap-and-ball revolver from the holster at his waist. He twisted around on the seat and lifted the gun, earing back the hammer. It went off with a loud boom as he aimed at the riders thundering along right behind the wagon and pulled the trigger.
None of the outlaws even slowed down.
Because Chloride was turned around on the seat, he didn't see the sharp bend in the trail coming up as it followed the winding course of the creek. The mules didn't slow down as they raced around the turn. Chloride felt the wagon lurch and sway underneath him. Something in its underpinning gave way with a loud snap, and Chloride yelled as he suddenly found himself sailing through the air. The wagon overturned with a crash behind him.
Branches clawed at his face as he landed in a thick clump of brush. That was probably all that saved him from a broken leg at best or a broken neck at worst. The impact knocked the breath out of him. He lay there unable to move, unable to do anything except gasp for air. That probably saved his life, too, because the outlaws' guns continued to roar and bullets whipped through the brush all around him and just over his head.
Chloride squeezed his eyes shut. He and the Good Lord weren't exactly on the best of terms, due to Chloride's fondness for whiskey, cards, and, when he was younger, wicked women, but with all that lead flying through the air, the old-timer didn't hesitate to offer up a plea for help to El Señor Dios.
"That's enough!" a man ordered. "Hold your fire, blast it!"
"But the driver fell off the wagon and landed in that brush," another man protested as the guns fell silent.
"I saw what happened," the first man said. "He probably broke his neck when he landed, and even if he didn't, you've thrown enough lead in there to turn him into a sieve. Let's go on about our business."
Chloride held his breath now, even though he felt like he was half-suffocating from lack of air. He knew that if they heard him gasping, he'd get a bullet in a hurry.
At the same time, he knew he couldn't stay here. The outlaws might take it into their heads at any second to search the brush and make sure he was dead. Moving slowly and as quietly as possible, he began working his way backward, inching along so he wouldn't cause the branches to wave around and give away his position. It was nerve-racking, especially because he could hear the killers moving around only a few yards away.
His feet bumped against something. Carefully, he turned his head and saw that he had reached a cluster of large rocks at the base of the slope forming the northern wall of the gulch. Chloride crawled among the rocks, confident that they would offer him better shelter. He lay there on his belly for a long moment as his heart pounded furiously in his chest. He started breathing again, shallowly so it wouldn't be too loud.
After a while he lifted his head. He had lost his battered old hat with the turned-up brim when he went flying off the wagon, so he didn't have to worry about that. He stayed low, edging his head up just enough so he could see part of the trail.
The outlaws were moving the gold from the wrecked wagon. They had busted open the chests and were loading the pokes of gold dust into their saddlebags. The sacks of nuggets were slung onto the backs of a couple of pack animals and lashed in place. Chloride didn't see the wagon team. The mules must have broken loose from the wagon when it crashed. They were probably still running toward Deadwood.
Those outlaws were crafty varmints, Chloride thought. They had dragged that deadfall up by the trail and then left it there as a distraction for the guards on the wagon, and all the while they were hidden in the trees on the other side of the creek, ready to ambush and hijack the gold shipment.
The old-timer counted eight men, all of them still masked and wearing their hats pulled low. He couldn't see enough of their faces to have even a hope of recognizing them. They went about their business with swift efficiency, and when they had transferred all the gold to their horses and the pack animals, one of the men reached under the long duster he wore and drew out a knife. Even in the gulch's gloom, the blade glittered.
The bodies of the three guards had also spilled out of the wagon when it overturned. They sprawled limply on the trail not far from the wrecked vehicle. In the concealment of the rocks, Chloride swallowed hard as he watched the man with the knife go over to Turley's body. He hooked the toe of his boot under Turley's shoulder and rolled the corpse onto its back, then knelt beside it. Sunlight flashed on the knife again as the man got to work.
And once again, Chloride closed his eyes tightly. He didn't have to watch to know what the man was doing. The tip of that razor-sharp blade would slice through Turley's forehead and cut a vertical line down it. Then, part of the way down that line, two more lines would be carved into Turley's skin, curving up on either side of the first wound to form a symbol that looked roughly like a pitchfork.
It was the bloody mark of the Deadwood Devils, the calling card of the gang that had descended on the Black Hills. Chloride had seen it before on bodies brought into Deadwood after previous robberies.
When the old-timer forced his eyes open, he saw that the outlaw with the knife had finished his grim work. The bodies of the three dead guards lay on their backs, their eyes pointed sightlessly toward the sky and blood seeping from the grotesque markings on their foreheads.
"What about the driver?" one of the men asked as the one who seemed to be in charge wiped his knife on Mitch Davis's shirt.
The man straightened and sheathed the weapon. "I told you, he's probably dead."
"But he might not be. We ought to take a look."
Chloride held his breath.
"No," the boss said. "If he's alive, we'll leave him that way."
"But he'll head for Deadwood and tell folks what happened."
"They'll find out soon enough. There'll be another wagon or a rider come along this trail before the day's over, more than likely. And it's pretty obvious what happened here, don't you think?"
The man who had wanted to search for Chloride shrugged his shoulders. "If you say so."
"I do say so," the boss snapped. "It might be better if the driver is still alive. Then he can tell what he saw here, and everybody in Deadwood will be even more afraid of us than they are now. We want everybody in this part of the country to know that if you cross paths with the Deadwood Devils ... you're going straight to hell."
After what he had seen today, Chloride Coleman didn't doubt it a bit.
Chapter Two"Place has changed quite a bit since the last time we were here," Scratch Morton said to Bo Creel as the two Texans rode along Deadwood's Main Street.
"What did you expect?" Bo asked. "The place was just a raw mining camp then. It had only been here a couple of months. It's a real town now. Not only that, but I remember hearing something about a big fire they had here a year or so ago that burned down some of the buildings. They've rebuilt since then. The saloon where Bill Hickok was shot isn't even there anymore."
"Well, I recollect we didn't find no gold when we were here before. So what are we doin' here now?"
Bo shrugged. "Everybody's got to be somewhere."
That was especially true of these two wandering sons of the Lone Star State. Best friends for fifty years, Bo and Scratch had met when they were both youngsters, so long ago Texas had still been part of Mexico ... but not for much longer. That was during the middle of the Runaway Scrape, when Sam Houston's ragtag army and most of the Texican civilians had been fleeing from the inexorable advance of the dictator Santa Anna's forces. An even smaller and more ragtag group of volunteers had delayed the Mexicans by luring them into a siege of an old mission near San Antonio de Bexar, but a lot of scared people believed that was just postponing the inevitable.
Of course, it hadn't turned out that way. Houston's men, among them the barely-old-enough-to-shave Bo and Scratch, had won a stunning victory at San Jacinto, and Texas had become an independent republic for nine years before joining the Union.
Although they were still friends, Bo and Scratch had gone their separate ways after that monumental battle and might have lived out their lives like that if sickness hadn't claimed the lives of Bo's wife and their young children several years later. Heartbroken by the loss, Bo had wanted to be anywhere but Texas, and his friend Scratch, who hadn't settled down yet, had been glad to go with him.
Somehow or other, they had just kept on drifting ever since then. Through the long decades, they had been almost everywhere west of the Mississippi, had worked at a wide variety of mostly honest jobs, and had managed to stay out of jail except for every now and then when some lawman got overzealous.
Excerpted from SIDEWINDERS: Deadwood Gulch by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2011 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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