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By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
"I'm gonna hang you tomorrow at sunup, Sam Flintlock, an' I can't guarantee to break your damned neck on account of how I never hung anybody afore," the sheriff said. "I'll try, lay to that, but you see how it is with me."
"The hammering stopped about an hour ago, so I figured my time was near," Flintlock said.
"A real nice gallows, you'll like it," Sheriff Dave Cobb said. "An' I'll make sure it's hung with red, white and blue bunting so you can go out in style. You'll draw a crowd, Sam. If'n that makes you feel better."
"This pissant town railroaded me into a noose, Cobb. You know it and I know it," Flintlock said.
"Damnit, boy, you done kilt Smilin' Dan Sedly and just about everybody in this valley was kissin' kin o' his. Ol' Dan was a well-liked man."
"He was wanted by the law for bank robbery and murder," Flintlock said.
"Not in this town he wasn't," Cobb said.
The sheriff was a middle-aged man and inclined to be jolly by times. He was big in the belly and a black, spade-shaped beard spread over the lapels of a broadcloth suit coat that looked to be half as old as he was.
"No hard feelings, huh, Sam?" he said. "I mean about the hangin' an' all. Like I told you, I'll do my best. I've been reading a book about how to set the noose an' sich an' I reckon I'll get it right."
"I got no beef against you, Cobb," Flintlock said. "You're the town lawman and you've got a job to do."
"How old are you, young feller?" the lawman said.
"Forty. I guess."
"Still too young to die." Cobb sighed. "Ah well, tell you what, I'll bring you something nice for your last meal tonight. How about steak and eggs? You like steak and eggs?"
"I don't much care, Sheriff, but there's one thing you can do for me."
"Just ask fer it. I'm a giving, generous man. Dave Cobb by name, Dave Cobb by nature, I always say."
"Let me have my grandpappy's old Hawken rifle," Flintlock said. "It will be a comfort to me."
Doubt showed in Cobb's face. "Now, I don't know about that. That's agin all the rules."
"Hell, Cobb, the Hawken hasn't been shot in thirty, forty years," Flintlock said. "I ain't much likely to use it to bust out of jail."
"You're a strange one, Sam Flintlock," the lawman said. "Why did you carry that old gun around anyhow?"
"Call me sentimental, Cobb. It was left to me as a legacy, like."
"See, my problem is, Sam, you could use that old long gun as a club. Bash my brains out when I wasn't lookin'."
"Not that rifle, I won't. Your head is too thick, Sheriff. I might damage the stock."
Cobb thought for a while, his shaggy black eyebrows beetling. Finally he smiled and said, "All right, I'll bring it to you. But I see you making any fancy moves with that old Hawken, I'll shoot your legs off so you can still live long enough to be hung. You catch my drift?"
"You have my word, Sheriff, I won't give you any trouble."
Cobb nodded. "Well, you're a personable enough feller, even though you ain't so well set up an' all, so I'll take you at your word."
"I appreciate it," Flintlock said. "See, I'm named for that Hawken."
"Your real name Hawken, like?"
"No. My grandpappy named me for a flintlock rifle, seeing as how I never knew my pa's name."
"Hell, why didn't he give you his own name, that grandpa of yourn?"
"He said every man should have his father's name. He told me he'd call me Flintlock after the Hawken until I found my ma and she told me who my pa was and what he was called."
"You ever find her?"
"No. I never did, but I'm still on the hunt for her. Or at least I was."
"Your grandpa was a mountain man?"
"Yeah, he was with Bridger an' Hugh Glass an' them, at least for a spell. Then he helped survey the Platte and the Sweetwater with Kit Carson and Fremont."
"Strange, restless breed they were, mountain men."
"You could say that."
"I'll bring you the Hawken, but mind what I told you, about shootin' off a part of yourself."
"I ain't likely to forget," Flintlock said.
Sam Flintlock sat up on his cot, his mind cobwebbed by sleep.
What was that? Rats in the corners again?
"Hell, look up here, stupid."
Flintlock rose to his feet. There was a small barred window high on the wall of his cell where a bearded face looked down at him.
"I see you're prospering, Sammy," the man said, grinning. "Settin' all nice and cozy in the town hoosegow."
Flintlock scowled. "Come to watch me hang, Abe?"
"Nah, I was just passin' through when I saw the gallows," Abe Roper said. "I asked who was gettin' hung and they said a feller with a big bird tattooed on his throat that goes by the name of Sam Flintlock. I knew it had to be you. There ain't another ranny in the West with a big bird an' that handle."
"Here to gloat, Abe?" Flintlock said. "Gettin' even for old times?"
"Hell, no, I got nothing agin you, Sam. You got me two years in Yuma but you treated me fair and square. An' you gave my old lady money the whole time I was inside. Now why did you do a dumb thing like that?"
"You had growing young 'uns. Them kids had to be fed and clothed."
"Yeah, but why the hell did you do it?"
"I just told you."
"I got no liking for bounty hunters, Sammy, but you was a true-blue white man, taking care of my family like that." Roper was silent for a moment, then said, "Sally and the kids passed about three years ago from the cholera."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Flintlock said. "I can close my eyes and still see their faces."
"It was a hurtful thing, Sam, and me being away on the scout at the time."
"You gonna stick around for the hanging, Abe?" Flintlock said.
"Hell, no, and neither are you."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there's a barrel of gunpowder against this wall and it's due to go up in"—Roper looked down briefly—"oh, I'd say less than half a minute."
The man waved a quick hand. "Hell, I got to light a shuck."
Flintlock stood rooted to the spot for a moment. Then he yelled a startled curse at Roper, grabbed the rifle off his cot and pulled the mattress on top of him.
A couple of seconds later the Mason City jail blew up with such force its shingle roof soared into the air and landed intact twenty yards away on top of the brand-new gallows. The jail roof and the gallows collapsed in a cloud of dust and killed Sheriff Cobb's pregnant sow that had been wallowing in the mud under the platform.
A shattering shower of adobe and splintered wood rained down on Flintlock and acrid dust filled his lungs. He threw the mattress aside and staggered to his feet, just as Abe Roper kicked aside debris and stepped through the hole in the jailhouse wall.
"Sam, get the hell out of there," Roper said. "I got your hoss outside."
Flintlock grabbed the Hawken, none the worse for wear, and stumbled outside.
As Roper swung into the saddle, Chinese Charlie Fong, grinning as always, tossed Flintlock the reins of a paint.
"Good to see you again, Sammy," Fong said.
"Feeling's mutual, Charlie," Flintlock said.
He mounted quickly and ate Roper's dust as he followed the outlaw out of town at a canter.
Roper turned in the saddle. "Crackerjack bang, Sammy, huh? Have you ever seen the like?"
"Son of a gun, you could've killed me," Flintlock said.
"So what? Who the hell would miss ya?" Roper said.
"Somebody's gonna miss this paint pony I'm riding," Flintlock said.
"Hell, yeah, it's the sheriff's hoss," Roper grinned. "Better than the ten-dollar mustang you rode in on, Sam."
"Damn you, Abe, Cobb's gonna hang me, then hang me all over again for hoss theft," Flintlock said.
"Well, he'll have to catch you first," Roper said, kicking his mount into a gallop.
After an hour of riding through the southern foothills of the Chuska Mountains, the massive rampart of red sandstone buttes and peaks that runs north all the way to the Utah border, Roper drew rein and he and Flintlock waited until Charlie Fong caught up.
"Where are we headed, Abe?" Flintlock said. "I hope you've got a good hideout all picked out."
He and Roper were holed up in a stand of mixed juniper and piñon. A nearby high meadow was thick with yellow bells and wild strawberry, and the waning afternoon air smelled sweet of pine and wildflowers.
"We're headed for Fort Defiance, up in the old Navajo country. It's been abandoned for years but the army's moved back, temporary-like, until ol' Geronimo is either penned up or dead."
Flintlock scratched at a bug bite under his buckskin shirt and said, "Is that wise, me riding into an army fort when I'm on the scout?"
"There ain't no fightin' sodjers there, Sammy, just cooks an' quartermasters an' the like," Roper said. "All the cavalry is out, lookin' fer Geronimo an' them."
"We gonna stay in an army barracks?" Flintlock said. "Say it ain't so."
"Nah, me an' Charlie got us a cabin near the officers' quarters, a cozy enough berth if you're not a complainin' man."
Roper peered hard at Flintlock's rugged, unshaven face and then his throat. "Damnit, Sam, I never did get used to looking at that big bird, even when we rode together."
"I was raised rough," Flintlock said. "You know that."
"Old Barnabas do that to you?" Roper said, passing the makings.
"He wanted it done, but when I was twelve he got an Assiniboine woman to do the tattooing. As I recollect, it hurt considerable."
"What the hell is it? Some kind of eagle?"
Flintlock built his cigarette and Roper gave him a match. "It's a thunderbird." He thumbed the match into flame and lit his cigarette. "Barnabas wanted a black and red thunderbird, on account of how the Indians reckon it's a sacred bird."
"He wanted it that big? Hell, it pretty much covers your neck and down into your chest."
"Barnabas said folks would remember me because of the bird. He told me that a man folks don't remember is of no account."
"He was a hard old man, was Barnabas, him and them other mountain men he hung with. A tough, mean bunch as ever was."
"They taught me," Flintlock said. "Each one of them taught me something."
"Like what, for instance?"
"They taught me about whores and whiskey and how to tell the good ones from the bad. They taught me how to stalk a man and how to kill him. And they taught me to never answer a bunch of damned fool questions."
Roper laughed. "Sounds like old Barnabas and his pals all right."
"One more thing, Abe. You saved my life today, and they taught me to never forget a thing like that."
Roper, smiling, watched a hawk in flight against the dark blue sky, then again directed his attention to Flintlock.
"You ever heard of the Golden Bell of Santa Elena, Sam?" he said.
"Can't say as I have."
"You will. And after I tell you about it, I'll ask you to repay the favor you owe me."
"Are you sure you saw deer out here, Captain Shaw? It might have been a shadow among the trees."
"Look at the tracks in the wash, Major. Deer have passed this way and not long ago."
"I see tracks all right," Major Philip Ashton said. He looked around him. "But I'm damned if I see any deer."
"Sir, may I suggest we move farther up the wash as far as the foothills," Captain Owen Shaw said. "Going on dusk the deer will move out of the timber."
Ashton, a small, compact man with a florid face, an affable disposition and a taste for bonded whiskey, nodded. "As good a suggestion as any, Captain. We'll wait until dark and if we don't see a deer we'll leave it for another day."
"As you say, sir," Shaw said.
He watched the major walk ahead of him. Like himself, Ashton wore civilian clothes but he carried a regulation Model 1873 Trapdoor Springfield rifle. Shaw was armed with a .44-40 Winchester because he wanted nothing to go wrong on this venture, no awkward questions to be answered later.
Major Ashton, who had never held a combat command, carried his rifle at the slant, as though advancing on an entrenched enemy and not a herd of nonexistent mule deer.
Shaw was thirty years old that spring. He'd served in a frontier cavalry regiment, but he'd been banished to Fort Defiance as a commissary officer after a passionate, though reckless, affair with the young wife of a farrier sergeant.
Shaw wasn't at all troubled by his exile. It was safer to dole out biscuit and salt beef than do battle with Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.
Of course, the Apaches were a problem, but since the Navajo attacked the fort in 1858 and 1860 and both times were badly mauled, it seemed that the wily Geronimo was giving the place a wide berth.
That last suited Captain Shaw perfectly. He had big plans and they sure as hell didn't involve Apaches.
The wash, dry now that the spring melt was over, made a sharp cut to the north and the two officers followed it through a grove of stunted juniper and willow onto a rocky plateau bordered by thick stands of pine.
In the distance the fading day painted the Chuska peaks with wedges of deep lilac shadow and out among the foothills coyotes yipped. The jade sky was streaked with banners of scarlet and gold, the streaming colors of the advancing night.
Major Ashton walked onto the plateau, his attention directed at the pines. His rifle at the ready, he stopped and scanned the trees with his field glasses.
Without turning his head, he said, "Nothing moving yet, Captain."
Shaw made no answer.
"You have a buck spotted?" the major whispered.
Again, he got no reply.
Shaw's rifle was pointed right at his chest.
"What in blazes are you doing, Captain Shaw?" Ashton said, his face alarmed.
"Killing you, Major."
Owen Shaw fired.
The soft-nosed .44-40 round tore into the major's chest and plowed through his lungs. Even as the echoing report of the Winchester racketed around the plateau, Ashton fell to his hands and knees and coughed up a bouquet of glistening red blossoms.
Shaw smiled and shot Ashton again, this time in the head. The major fell on his side and all the life that remained in him fled.
Moving quickly, Shaw stood over Ashton and fired half a dozen shots into the air, the spent cartridge cases falling on and around the major's body.
He then pulled a Smith & Wesson .32 from the pocket of his tweed hunting jacket, placed the muzzle against his left thigh and pulled the trigger. A red-hot poker of pain burned across Shaw's leg, but when he looked down at the wound he was pleased. It was only a flesh wound but it was bleeding nicely, enough to make him look a hero when he rode into Fort Defiance.
Limping slightly, Shaw retraced his steps along the dry wash to the place where he and Ashton had tethered their horses. He looked behind him and to his joy saw that he'd left a blood trail. Good! There was always the possibility that a cavalry patrol had returned to the fort and their Pima scouts could be bad news. The blood would help his cover-up.
He gathered up the reins of the major's horse and swung into the saddle. There was no real need to hurry but he forced his horse into a canter, Ashton's mount dragging on him.
It was an officer's duty to recover the body of a slain comrade, but Ashton had been of little account and not well liked. When Shaw told of the Apache ambush and his desperate battle to save the wounded major, that little detail would be overlooked.
And his own bloody wound spoke loud of gallantry and devotion to duty.
Lamps were already lit when Captain Owen Shaw rode into Fort Defiance, a sprawling complex of buildings, some of them ruins, grouped around a dusty parade ground.
He staged his entrance well.
Not for him to enter at a gallop and hysterically warn of Apaches, rather he slumped in the saddle and kept his horse to a walk ... the wounded warrior's noble return.
He was glad that just as he rode past the sutler's store, big, laughing Sergeant Patrick Tone stepped outside, a bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm.
"Sergeant," Shaw said, making sure he sounded exhausted and sore hurt, "sound officer's call. Direct the gentlemen to the commandant's office."
Excerpted from FLINTLOCK by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2013 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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