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LUKE JENSEN, BOUNTY HUNTER DEAD SHOT
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Luke Jensen muttered, "Oh, hell," in disgust as a rapid whirring sound came from behind him. He knew what it was, having heard similar sounds many times in his life. A rattlesnake had been denned up in the rocks where he had taken cover, and the scaly creature was upset about being disturbed.
A bullet flew over Luke's head and splattered against the rocks. He had a venomous serpent behind him and an equally venomous human in front of him.
He crouched a little lower and looked over his shoulder. The snake had crawled out of a gap between the rocks and curled up at their base. It was big around as Luke's wrist and the diamondback pattern was etched vividly into its scales. Even though it was difficult to guess how long the snake might be since it was coiled to strike, Luke figured it would stretch out to six or seven feet, at least.
A blasted monster, in other words, and not something he wanted to share the hidey-hole with.
He was confident he could blast the head right off that serpentine body with a single shot, but the solid rock face was right behind the snake. There was a chance the slug would ricochet back into Luke's face ... a good enough chance that he didn't want to risk it.
He sighed and drew the knife sheathed on his left hip. Reminding himself to keep his head down so Monroe Epps wouldn't put a bullet through it, he used his left hand to poke the Winchester's barrel at the rattler.
The snake uncoiled and struck with blinding speed. Luke swatted it aside with the rifle barrel, then brought his booted left foot down on the writhing body just behind the head. He was pretty fast. The knife flashed in the sun as he brought it down and severed the snake's head from its body with one swift, clean stroke.
He grimaced as he kicked the head back into the rocks. The snake's eyes were still open and its jaws opened and closed as it tried to bite the air. Its prehistoric brain hadn't realized yet that it was already dead.
Epps fired twice more, and the shots came so close to Luke's head that he ducked even lower. Starting out, capturing or killing Monroe Epps had been just a job to him, but he was starting to get irritated.
"Listen to me, Epps!" he called as the echoes of those last shots rolled away across the mostly flat and arid southern New Mexico landscape. "The reward dodgers on you say dead or alive, but I'd just as soon not kill you!"
"You lie, Jensen!" Epps screamed back at him. "I recognized you. Everybody knows you kill a lot more men than you ever bring in alive!"
"That's because they're always so damned stubborn," Luke replied. "They don't give me any choice. You can do better than that, Monroe. All you have to do is throw out all your guns and come out with your hands in the air."
Epps had forted up in a similar cluster of rocks on the other side of a broad, shallow draw, about twenty yards from Luke's position. The fugitive's horse had run off when Epps had been winged and knocked out of the saddle during their running fight awhile earlier. He wasn't hurt too badly.
Luke had watched the man scurry into the rocks, then had dismounted and sent his hammerheaded dun galloping back up the draw with a swat of his hat on its rump. He wanted the horse well out of the line of fire. He had taken cover as Epps started shooting at him.
Monroe Epps had robbed close to a dozen banks in New Mexico Territory and western Texas. He wasn't a cold-blooded killer, the sort of mad dog outlaw who gunned down anybody who happened to get in his way, but he had killed a Texas Ranger and an El Paso city policeman during a couple of his escapes, so the Lone Star State wanted him pretty bad. Bad enough that there was a $5,000 bounty on his head.
Luke wanted that five grand. It was why he had gotten on Epps's trail and tracked him to that desolate landscape. It wasn't that he lacked a sense of justice or a desire for law and order. It was just that the money interested him more.
"Why would you want to give me more of a chance than all the other men you brung in dead?" Epps called.
"We're a good long ways from the nearest town," Luke replied, "and the weather's been pretty hot lately. If I have to kill you, there's a good chance you'll go to stinking before I can get you there and collect the reward. I have delicate sensibilities, you know."
Epps let out a bray of laughter. "That's rich. A bounty hunter with delicate sensibilities. I guess you're just gonna have to let 'em be offended if you want to collect on me, because I ain't surrenderin', Jensen. No way in hell!"
Luke sighed again. "You're sure about that?"
"In that case, I guess I'll just have to let a friend of mine give me a hand."
"A friend? I didn't see nobody ridin' with you whilst you was chasin' me!"
"You're about to meet him," Luke said. "I'm going to send him over there to introduce himself."
He turned and slid the rifle barrel under the thick, scaly body of the dead rattlesnake. It had finally stopped writhing around in its death throes. Grimacing again and being careful to keep the barrel in the middle of the snake's body so it was balanced and wouldn't slide off, Luke picked it up with the Winchester and took hold of the rifle with both hands.
Epps said, "I think the sun's made you go loco, Jensen! There ain't nobody—"
Luke swung the Winchester in a high arc with as much force as he could muster in his lean but powerful body. At the top of the arc, the snake flew free and sailed across the draw toward the rocks where Monroe Epps had taken cover.
The bank robber saw the huge rattler flying toward him and let out a startled, high-pitched yell. He started blazing away at the snake, trying to shoot it out of the air, never noticing that it didn't have a head anymore.
Luke dropped the rifle, burst out from behind the rocks, and raced toward Epps's position. He whipped his twin Remingtons from their cross-draw holsters as he charged the bank robber.
Epps realized what he was doing and screeched a curse at him, still shooting at the snake wildly, instinctively, as it dropped beside him. Luke heard the gun roar, but could tell that none of the shots were directed at him.
With the speed he had built up, he was able to bound atop one of the rocks and look down to where he could see Epps. The outlaw had shot the already dead snake to pieces and tried to wheel around and bring his gun to bear on Luke.
The Remington in Luke's right hand blasted and sent a slug tearing through Epps's left shoulder. Luke meant for the shot to go through his quarry's right shoulder, thus disabling his gun arm, but Epps had shifted to the side at the last second, just as Luke pulled the trigger.
Even so, the wound should have been enough to put him down, but Epps managed to stay on his feet. He held his gun and fired again, the slug sizzling past Luke's left ear. Luke figured the bank robber might be out of bullets after wasting so much lead on that rattler, but he couldn't afford to take that chance.
Both Remingtons erupted. The .36 caliber slugs struck Epps in the chest and hammered him back against the boulder behind him. He hung there for a couple seconds, his eyes wide with pain and his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. His gun slipped from his fingers and thudded to the ground. Epps pitched forward after it and landed facedown on the bloody shreds of the rattlesnake.
That seemed fitting to Luke. Both of them were low-down varmints who served no purpose, and the world was better off without them.
Just as Luke had predicted, the body of Monroe Epps started to get a little ripe before he reached the settlement of Rio Rojo late the next day. He had been lucky enough to find Epps's horse, so he'd lashed the bank robber's corpse over the saddle. No way would he have shared his own mount with a dead man for that far.
If he hadn't found Epps's horse, he would have cut off the man's head like he had done with the snake, stuck it in a canvas sack, and left the rest of him for the buzzards and coyotes. The head would have been enough to let him collect the bounty. He had done that before when he had to, although he didn't like being forced to that grisly extreme.
It would have offended his delicate sensibilities, he had mused with a faint smile as he'd tied Epps's body over the saddle.
After more than a decade and a half as a bounty hunter, surviving in a violent land as he followed that ugly profession, he shouldn't have had any sensibilities left at all, let alone delicate ones. But to a certain extent it was true. He was a well-spoken man. He loved to read, especially the classics, and he appreciated a fine glass of brandy, along with a well-played piece of music.
Once a year or so, if he had the funds, he paid a visit to San Francisco so he could take in an opera, dine in the city's best restaurants, and enjoy the company and conversation of people who weren't thieves, killers, and ruffians.
He usually enjoyed the company of a few beautiful women, too, because despite the fact that he wasn't exactly handsome—far from it, in fact, with his craggy, deeply tanned face—the ladies seemed to find something about him attractive. He seldom lacked for pleasant feminine companionship during those visits to the city by the bay.
San Francisco was a long way off at the moment, although he thought briefly about it as he rode down the dusty main street of Rio Rojo, leading the dead outlaw's horse. Most of the buildings in the New Mexico Territory settlement were adobe, although some had been built of lumber brought in from the mountains to the north and east. A school stood at one end of the street, a church with a bell tower at the other. In between, a couple dozen businesses lined the street's three blocks. The residences were scattered haphazardly around the outer edges of the settlement.
Most important for Luke's purposes, Rio Rojo had an undertaker, a bank, a marshal's office, and a telegraph office. He planned to drop off the body of Monroe Epps at the undertaker's and then pay a visit to the local law. Once the marshal confirmed who Epps was and that there was a reward offered for him, he could send a wire to Texas and claim that reward for Luke. And then the bank could pay him. Simple as that.
Luke reined to a stop in front of the funeral parlor and dismounted. The sound of hammering drew him to the back of the building. As he expected, he found the proprietor building a coffin. The pieces of wood were varnished and decorated with fancy scrollwork depicting cherubs and flowers. Somebody important would be laid to rest in that coffin.
"Looks like you already have some business," Luke said to the man. "I've brought you another customer."
The undertaker was in his thirties, a dark-haired man with broad shoulders and brawny arms. He set down the hammer and said, "It'll have to wait awhile. I've got to finish this first. The funeral for one of the town's leading citizens is tomorrow morning."
"When did he die?" Luke asked.
"A couple hours ago. I've been working on this coffin for a while, though. We all knew it was just a matter of time."
"The fella I brought in has been dead since the middle of the day yesterday."
The undertaker frowned. "That might present a problem, all right. If you don't need a special-built coffin for your friend, I've got a plain one already put together that might do."
"Plain is fine," Luke said. "And he's not my friend. You can stick him in anything and put him in the ground without any ceremony as far as I'm concerned ... as long as it waits until after the marshal has taken a look at him and confirmed his identity."
The undertaker's frown deepened as he pursed his lips. "Like that, is it?"
"Like that," Luke replied with a nod.
"All right. You've got the body with you?"
"Out front, tied over the back of his horse."
"I hope you had the decency to wrap him up in a blanket or something."
"Well, then, bring him on back here, I guess. Are you going to get the marshal now?"
"That's my next stop," Luke said.
"Fine. I'll send my boy on up to the cemetery to start digging a grave. Or does the deceased need to be laid to rest in consecrated ground?"
"I don't know anything about his religion, but I sure wouldn't waste anything sacred on him. Out back of Boot Hill is good enough for the likes of Monroe Epps."
"I never heard of the man, but I hate to hear anyone spoken of that way. How would you like it if someone said something like that about you, someday?"
Luke grimaced. "Mister, when my time comes they're liable to be saying a lot worse than that."
Luke had expected the corpse to draw a crowd. Dead bodies usually did whenever he brought them into a town.
When he walked back around the building to the hitch rail where he had left the horses, he saw half a dozen people standing nearby. They didn't get too close, the stink saw to that, but they were near enough to satisfy their curiosity.
Only one man stood right beside the horses, and he had a tin star pinned to his vest.
The local badge-toter blew air through the walrus mustache that drooped over his mouth, jerked a thumb at the blanket-shrouded shape, and asked Luke, "This belong to you?"
"I suppose it does, until I get paid for it."
"Bounty hunter, eh? That don't surprise me. Who's under that blanket?"
"Monroe Epps," Luke said.
The lawman frowned. "That name's familiar."
"I'm sure you've seen it on wanted posters. The State of Texas has put a five thousand dollar bounty on his head." Luke reached inside the breast pocket of his black shirt that a layer of trail dust had turned gray and brought out a folded piece of paper. He held it out to the lawman and went on. "Here's one of the dodgers. You can compare the picture on it to the body."
He reached for a corner of the blanket to pull it back.
The lawman grimaced. "Not here. Let's at least take him around back." He inclined his head toward the bystanders, indicating that he didn't want to give them a show.
That was a little unusual, Luke thought. A lot of lawmen he had run across liked to put the corpses of dead outlaws on display for the public. Sometimes the undertakers even charged for taking a look. In those cases, though, it was usually the bodies of freshly slain owlhoots, which Monroe Epps definitely wasn't.
Luke untied the reins of Epps's horse from the hitch rail and led the animal to the rear yard.
The undertaker had resumed hammering on the fancy coffin. He stopped again as Luke and the lawman appeared. "Marshal Dunbar."
"Howdy, Calvin," the marshal replied. He waved a stubby-fingered hand at the coffin sitting on the sawhorses. "That the box for old Lucius Vanderslice?"
"That's right. He called me in and gave me instructions for what he wanted about six weeks ago, after the doctor told him he didn't have much time left."
"Lucius was always one for bein' prepared, all right." Dunbar turned to Luke. "All right, let's have a look at that carcass."
Luke pulled the blanket back enough to reveal the bank robber's slack, pale face, even more unlovely to look at in death than it had been in life. He unfolded the reward poster he had taken from his pocket and held it up next to the dead man.
"Well, hell, it's hard to tell anything that way," Marshal Dunbar said. "The way he's loaded on that saddle, his head's hangin' upside down."
"Why don't you catch hold of his hair and lift his head up?" the undertaker suggested.
Luke sighed and turned the reward poster upside down, so that the picture of the man's face on it was oriented the same as the corpse's face.
"Oh," Dunbar said. "Yeah, that's him, all right. No doubt about it. Epps was the name, you said?"
"Monroe Epps." Luke handed the poster to the lawman. "All the particulars are on there, including the charges and the place you need to wire to authorize the reward being paid to me."
"And just who might you be? I reckon I'll need to know that."
"The name is Luke Jensen."
Dunbar's eyes narrowed. "I think I've heard of you. Used to go by Luke Smith, didn't you?"
"That's right," Luke admitted.
"Why would you change your name?"
"It's a long story, Marshal, and one that has no bearing on our dealings here. So no offense, but if it's all the same to you, I'll leave both of you to your respective tasks. I want a bath and a shave and a place to stay, then a good meal."
Excerpted from LUKE JENSEN, BOUNTY HUNTER DEAD SHOT by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 2013 by J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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