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The Hanging Road
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe crackle of gunfire drifted to the ears of the two young men riding across the prairie and made them sit up straighter in their saddles as they reined their mounts to a halt.
"Now that sounds interestin'," Matt Bodine drawled. He was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years of age, a handsome, muscular young man with dark brown hair under his pushed-back Stetson. Even when he was mounted, it was easy to tell that he was tall and rangy, though the width of his shoulders indicated that there was plenty of power packed into his form.
The rider next to him was about the same age and almost could have been cut from the same cloth. His hair was darker, as black as a raven's wing, as were his eyes, black to Bodine's blue. His deeply tanned skin bore a faint coppery hue that Matt's did not. His cheekbones were slightly more prominent. And he carried only one walnut-butted Colt holstered on his hip, compared to the pair of six-guns sported by Matt Bodine. His name was Sam August Webster Two Wolves. His father had been Medicine Horse, a Cheyenne chief; his mother a white woman Medicine Horse had met, fallen in love with, and married while being educated at an Eastern school.
Most importantly, Sam Two Wolves was blood brother to MattBodine. They were Onihomahan-Friends of the Wolf. Brothers of the Wolf, some said.
Brothers of the gun, definitely.
Sam grunted and jerked a thumb over his right shoulder. "We could turn around and ride the other way, you know," he pointed out.
A grin stretched across Matt's rugged face. "Yeah, we could," he agreed, "but you don't really want to, do you?"
"You'd never let me hear the end of it if we did, now would you?"
"Probably not," Matt said. He dug his boot heels into the flanks of his mean-eyed gray stallion and sent the animal leaping forward into a gallop. Sam was only an instant behind him on a big paint horse.
They raced toward a tree-dotted ridge. The shooting came from the other side of the rise. The flat reports of numerous handguns were interspersed with the sharper whip-cracks of at least a couple of rifles. From the sound of things, a small-scale war was going on up ahead.
Matt Bodine and Sam Two Wolves knew about war. Though they were too young to have participated in the great struggle between the Blue and the Gray, they had instead witnessed, and on occasion taken part in, the bloody clash between red men and white. They had been there, watching from a nearby hill overlooking the stream called the Greasy Grass by the Indians and the Little Big Horn by the whites, as a large detachment of the Seventh Cavalry under Colonel George Armstrong Custer had been wiped out by an army of warriors gathered from the various Plains tribes. Sam's father, Medicine Horse, had died in that battle, riding with an empty rifle up the slope toward the hilltop where Custer had rallied his troops for the final battle. He had counted coup on the notorious Yellowhair himself before falling with a fatal wound. The smells of blood and gun smoke and tragedy had been thick in the air that day.
Bodine and Two Wolves had smelled gun smoke again many times, in battles of their own. They were well-to-do; each owned a profitable ranch in Wyoming. But those ranches were run by others, because restlessness ruled the natures of these two young men. They were fiddle-footed, as folks said, always on the drift, not looking for trouble but not running from it, either. When the Good Lord made them, He had included not an ounce of backup.
So now they rushed toward the gunfire rather than away from it, as more prudent souls might have done.
Nobody had ever accused these two young hellions of being prudent.
They surged up the ridge and topped the crest. The slope fell away in front of them, down to a level plain crossed from right to left by a stagecoach road. A vehicle careened along that road, but it wasn't one of the red and yellow Concord coaches. It was a wagon with a squarish canvas cover over the back, rather than the rounded, arching Conestoga sort of wagon that had carried thousands of pioneers from the East to new homes in the West. Dust boiled up from the hooves of the six-horse team pulling the wagon, as well as from the rapidly turning wheels. Gray smoke spurted from under the canvas cover at the back of the vehicle-powder smoke.
Nearly a dozen men on horseback gave chase to the wagon, firing after it with revolvers as they galloped along the road. Matt and Sam had no idea who was inside the wagon or why the men were chasing it. But as they reined in for a second at the top of the ridge and their keen eyes took in the scene, they exchanged a glance and each knew that the other had seen the same thing.
The person driving the wagon, hunched over on the seat and sawing at the reins, was a woman. Long, curly red hair streamed out behind her head.
Any gents who would sling lead at a woman were bad hombres in the blood brothers' book. Matt yanked his Winchester from its saddle sheath and sent his stallion plunging down the slope. Sam followed suit.
Matt guided his horse with his knees as he worked the rifle's lever, jacking a round into the chamber. Smoothly, he brought the Winchester to his shoulder. The hurricane deck of a galloping horse wasn't the best platform for accurate shooting, but Matt Bodine wasn't an average marksman. The rifle kicked hard against his shoulder as he fired.
A hat leaped off the head of one of the men giving chase to the wagon. Startled, the rider hauled back on the reins so hard that his mount's hooves skidded on the dirt of the road. The horse reared up violently. With a yell, the rider went out of the saddle and crashed to the ground.
While that was going on, Sam opened fire, too, and his first shot creased the arm of another man, who howled in pain as his gun flew out of suddenly nerveless fingers. Gripping the reins tightly with his other hand, he wheeled his horse and shouted, "Look out! Up on the ridge!"
Several of the gunmen slowed their pursuit of the wagon and turned to pepper the slope with bullets as Matt and Sam descended. As a slug whistled past his ear, Matt knew the men were shooting to kill, so he returned the favor. His Winchester cracked again, and one of the men was driven backward off his horse by the .44-40 round that smashed into his chest. Dust puffed up around him as he landed in a limp sprawl signifying death.
Sam growled as he felt the fiery kiss of a bullet that tore his shirt and scraped along his ribs. He levered his Winchester and fired again. One of the gunmen hunched over and sagged in his saddle, but he managed to drop his gun, grab the saddle horn, and stay mounted. His horse bolted, probably spooked by the sudden smell of blood.
Halfway down the slope, Matt veered his stallion to the left. Several of the horsebackers were still giving chase to the wagon and shooting at it, so Matt went after them while Sam continued dealing with the ones who had given up the pursuit and stopped to meet the new threat. In both cases, the odds were four to one against the blood brothers.
They had faced worse in their time. Much worse.
Matt slid the Winchester back in its sheath and leaned forward over his horse's neck to urge the stallion on to greater speed. Cutting down the slope at an angle, he was able to intercept the riders. The pair of six-guns fairly leaped into his hands as he opened fire on the pursuers, raking their flank with deadly accurate shots. One man flew out of the saddle and another slewed sideways but was able to hang on.
Bullets plucked at the sleeves and the sides of Matt's buckskin shirt, but with the cool fatalism of a born gunfighter he ignored them. His time was up when it was up, and until then he was going to do everything he could to help that woman on the wagon and whoever was with her.
Another gunman threw up his arms and toppled off his horse as one of Matt's bullets punched through his body. That left only one man, and he whirled his horse around to flee. Matt snapped a shot at him but missed. The rider leaped his horse over a gully, rode through some trees, and disappeared from sight. Matt let him go.
He had another problem to deal with now. The team pulling that wagon was out of control. The horses leaned against their harness and raced madly along the road, never slowing even when the trail curved. As Matt rode after the vehicle, he saw the wagon lean perilously to the side, almost to the point of tipping over before the wheels on the high side came back to earth with a crash. At this point, it was a toss-up what would happen first. Either the wagon would roll over or an axle would crack, causing a wreck that way. Matt urged, "Come on, big fella!" as the stallion stretched out in a blinding run.
Concern for his blood brother flickered across Bodine's mind, but he shoved that out of his thoughts. Sam would have to take care of himself. There weren't very many hombres better at that than Sam August Webster Two Wolves.
The wagon was moving fast, but the big gray stallion was a magnificent animal with speed and sand to spare, much like the man who rode him. Matt drew closer and closer to the wagon. The dust billowing up from its wheels made it difficult for him to see into the vehicle, but he spotted some movement there and then a second later, the spurt of flame from a rifle muzzle. As the bullet whined high over his head, he shouted, "Damn it, hold your fire! I'm trying to help you!"
It was no use. Whoever was in the wagon couldn't hear him over the thunder of hooves and the rattle of wheels. He leaned forward as more shots were fired. Luckily for him, the riflemen inside the wagon weren't very accurate in their aim.
He was only a few yards behind the careening vehicle now. He guided the stallion to the left side of the trail so they could pass the wagon. As they drew even with the back of it, he glanced over and saw a woman crouched just inside the tailgate with a rifle in her hands. Matt ducked as she fired. He didn't know where the bullet went, but neither he nor the stallion were hit, so that was all that mattered at the moment.
Then he was galloping alongside the wagon, the stallion running flat out. As they came up beside the driver's seat, Matt saw why the team was even more out of control than it had been earlier. The redheaded woman was slumped to one side on the seat, either unconscious or dead. The reins had slipped out of her hands and fallen so that they now trailed loosely underneath the wagon. Matt knew he wouldn't be able to reach them.
That left him without many options. He kept the stallion moving at a gallop until they were next to the left-hand leader. Then Matt kicked his feet out of the stirrups, hauled in a deep breath, and launched himself into the air.
That diving, daring leap carried him over the leader. As he landed on the horse's back he grabbed for the harness. He felt himself starting to slip to the right. His momentum had taken him a little too far. His right boot hit the singletree, stopping him for the instant he needed to wrap his fingers around the horse's harness. He held on for dear life, knowing that if he fell underneath the team, their hooves would pound and slash his body until it didn't resemble anything human.
As Matt got his balance and steadied himself, he pulled back as hard as he could on the harness. The horse responded, slowing down. The other members of the team did likewise, following the example of the leader. Gradually, Matt brought the horses to a halt. A breeze swirled the cloud of dust that rose around the wagon.
"Charity!" a woman's voice screamed. "Oh, my God, Charity!"
Still sitting on the leader, Matt turned to look toward the wagon. He found himself staring down the twin bores of a double-barreled shotgun. A woman's face glared at him over the weapon.
"Careful with that Greener, ma'am," he warned her. "I mean you no harm, and it might go off."
Another woman leaned from the back of the wagon over the unconscious driver. Matt could see now that the redhead's chest was rising and falling. As the woman ministering to her lifted her into a sitting position, Matt saw a slightly bloody lump on the side of her forehead. She had taken a hard lick from something and probably been knocked out by it. Matt figured one of the violent bounces taken by the wagon had thrown her to the side and cracked her head against one of the supports holding up the canvas cover over the back of the vehicle.
Meanwhile, the woman with the shotgun was still pointing it at him. With the wagon team now under control, standing there with their heads down and their sides heaving, he let go of the harness and raised his hands to shoulder level where they were in plain sight.
"Who are you?" the woman demanded.
"Name's Matt Bodine. My brother and I saw those hombres chasing you and figured you could use a hand." He leaned a little to the side, trying to look past the wagon in hopes of seeing what had happened to Sam and the men he had been trading lead with. No more shots rang out, and Matt felt a surge of relief go through him as he spotted Sam jogging the paint up the road toward them.
Another female voice called from the back of the wagon, "Here comes another one! Lydia, what should we do?"
Lydia, who appeared to be the gal with the Greener, said, "Hold your fire." She asked Matt, "Is that your brother?"
Matt nodded. "Yep. Blood brother, actually. We don't have the same ma and pa, although some folks say you can't tell it to look at us."
"What about the men who were chasing us?"
Matt saw at least half-a-dozen bodies littering the trail. A similar number of riderless horses had drifted off the road and were now cropping at the grass alongside it.
"I don't think the ones who are still alive will be bothering you anymore," he said. "Looks like they all took off for the tall and uncut."
The redhead let out a moan and shook her head, then winced as the movement obviously hurt. She was coming back to her senses. Her eyelids fluttered as she leaned against the woman who was bracing her up. When her eyes opened and looked around in confusion, Matt saw that they were a vivid shade of green.
"What ... what happened?" she said. "Did they get us?"
"No," Lydia told her. She nodded toward Bodine. "This fella and a friend of his ran them off and evidently killed some of them."
"Oh." Gingerly, the redhead lifted a hand to the lump on her head. She winced again as she touched it. "What happened to me?"
Matt said, "If I had to guess, I'd say you bumped your head on one of those bad bounces hard enough to knock yourself out. Are you wounded anywhere else?"
She looked down at herself for a moment and then shook her head. "I don't think so."
Sam reached the wagon and grinned at the sight of Matt sitting on the draft horse. "Changed mounts, did you?" he asked. Without waiting for Matt to respond, he turned toward the seat and politely took his hat off, holding it over his chest. "Ladies."
Lydia relaxed a little and said, "Ain't you the cultured one?"
"I try, but it's difficult sometimes when my trail partner is such an unlettered lout." Sam settled his hat back on his head.
"Wait a minute," Matt protested. "This lout, as you put it, is the one who saved these ladies' bacon. And I'm not all that unlettered. I've been to school, too, you know."
"Ignore him," Sam said to the women. "Are any of you wounded? Do you need medical attention? I think there's a town not too far from here."
"There is," the redhead said. Bodine recalled that one of the other women had called her Charity. "It's called Buffalo Flat. That's where we're headed." She turned her head and went on. "Anybody hurt back there?"
A chorus of female voices answered her, all assuring her that their owners were all right. Matt frowned. Were these women traveling alone? he wondered. It was unusual to find a group of ladies out here on the frontier without at least one man accompanying them.
That appeared to be the case, though. One of the women asked, "Can we get out and stretch our legs, Charity? I mean, our limbs?"
The redhead nodded. "I guess so. But we can't stop for long. I want to make it to Buffalo Flat by nightfall."
Excerpted from The Hanging Road by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2007 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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