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SIDEWINDERS: Mankiller, Colorado
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter One"We're gettin' too old for this," Scratch Morton said.
"Amen," Bo Creel agreed. "But we signed on to do it. We don't have any choice but to get it done."
He lifted the posthole digger and brought it down hard against the rocky ground. The blades didn't penetrate very far into the stubborn dirt. With a sigh, Bo lifted the digger and then slammed it down again. He pulled the handles apart, lifted them, turned to empty a pathetic amount of dirt onto a pile that seemed to be growing with infinite slowness.
Then he threw the digger and said with uncharacteristic anger, "Damn it, I hate digging postholes!"
Scratch stepped forward. "Lemme work on it for a while. You can unload the next roll of wire from the wagon."
The New Mexico sun beat down mercilessly on the two old friends. They were stripped to the waist, revealing fish-belly-white torsos that had started to thicken with age but were still muscular and powerful.
Despite not having any shirts on, both men still wore their hats. Scratch's headgear, in keeping with his personality as something of a dandy, was a big, cream-colored Stetson that was beginning to show some wear but retained vestiges of its fanciness ... much like the man who wore it.
Bo's hat was plain, flat-crowned, black. He didn't put on any airs. He just wanted something to keep the sun off his head.
They were working in a semi-arid valley bordered by low hills on the south and a string of rugged mesas on the north. The range on which they had parked the ranch wagon was part of Big John Peeler's Circle JP ranch, but the cattleman's land ended here and Bo and Scratch had been given the job of stringing barbed wire from the hills to the mesas to mark that boundary.
Bo sat down for a second on the wagon's lowered tailgate and pulled off his work gloves so he could wipe sweat off his face, which was tanned to a permanent shade matching that of saddle leather. "I don't see why somebody had to go and invent that blasted devil wire in the first place," he complained bitterly.
Scratch dug the posthole digger into the ground. The blades grated in the gravelly soil. He grinned over at Bo.
"You're the one who always talks about what a good thing progress is. I thought you liked civilization."
"Not when I have to dig holes for posts to string it on."
"I know what you mean." Scratch drove the digger into the ground again. "I sort of miss the open range days, too. But once everybody gets wire strung up, I reckon there won't be near as many range wars."
Bo shook his head. "Folks'll just find something else to fight over."
"Well, ain't you a gloomy cuss today. Look at it this way ... You're out in the fresh air, ain't you? You ain't wearin' an apron, stuck behind some store counter somewhere, clerkin' or sweepin' up in a saloon. That's all most folks think fellas our age are good for anymore."
Bo took off his hat and scrubbed a hand over his face. "Yeah, I guess you've got a point."
The digger's blades chunked into the ground again. "Sure I do. Nobody's shootin' at us, either, and that's a welcome change, ain't it?"
Bo gazed off into the distance and said quietly, "I'm not so sure."
He wasn't seeing the sweeping vistas of the landscape outside of Socorro, New Mexico Territory. Instead, in his mind's eye he saw the decades that had rolled by since he and Scratch had left Texas.
It had been an adventurous life. Bo had needed plenty of adventure to help him forget the pain of losing his wife and children to sickness, and his old friend Scratch had been more than willing to help provide it. As boys, they had fought side by side against Santa Anna's thousands at the Battle of San Jacinto where Texas had won its independence. That had given Scratch an appetite for excitement he had never gotten over.
As grown men they had drifted, from south of the Rio Grande to north of the Canadian border. They had seen the stately flow of the Mississippi past grand homes in Memphis and Vicksburg, and they had stood on cliffs and looked out over the vast Pacific Ocean as its waves crashed powerfully on the rocks below them. They had ridden through deserts, climbed high mountain passes, seen giant redwoods reaching for the heavens. They had known the solitude of far, lonely places, as well as the smoky camaraderie of saloons and gambling dens and bunkhouses.
There had been some trouble along the way, of course, because Bo and Scratch, being Texans born-bred-and-forever, naturally couldn't stand aside and do nothing when they saw someone being threatened or taken advantage of. They had a deep and abiding dislike of outlaws, bullies, cheap gunmen, tinhorn gamblers, whoremongers, horse thieves, con artists, and all other sorts of miscreants. Scratch liked to say that they were peaceable men who never went looking for a ruckus to get into. The truth of that statement was debatable.
But by and large, it had been a good life, and Bo was damned if he understood how he and Scratch had wound up here in this hellhole, doing the most menial labor available to cowpunchers, for a jackass like Big John Peeler. They'd had quite a bit of money in their poke when they came up out of Mexico, following a little dustup down there.
"Red Cloud," Bo said softly.
Scratch paused in his digging. "The old Indian chief?"
Bo frowned at him. "You know good and well what I'm talking about."
Scratch leaned on the posthole digger and shook his head. "I told you, Bo, that was a good tip. That fella in Las Cruces swore the horse hadn't lost a race yet."
"If that was true, you wouldn't have been able to get such good odds, now would you?"
Scratch grimaced. "Well, yeah, I reckon you're right about that. I guess I wasn't thinkin' too straight-"
"Because you'd had nearly a whole jug of hooch in that parlor house."
Scratch shook his head stubbornly. "You know whiskey don't muddle me none, and neither do the señoritas. Sometimes my ambition gets a mite ahead of my thinkin', though."
Bo had to laugh. "Well, if I didn't know that after all these years, I don't reckon I'd have been paying much attention, now would I? Anyway, it's like a tumbleweed. It's blown away, and there's no point in worrying about it anymore."
"Now that's a right smart way to look at it." Scratch resumed digging, adding over his shoulder, "Anyway, this ain't so bad. We'll work for Big John for a while until our poke's fattened up again, and then we can light a shuck outta here."
"Sounds good to me." Bo pulled his gloves on again and slid off the tailgate. He went along the side of the wagon until he could reach over and grab hold of one of the rolls of barbed wire he and Scratch had loaded into the vehicle before leaving Circle JP headquarters that morning.
Scratch was right. Jobs weren't easy to come by at this time of year. All the roundups were already over. A fella with empty pockets had to take what he could get, and by the time he and Scratch had reached Socorro, about halfway between Las Cruces and Albuquerque, they had barely had two coins to clink together. Usually when their funds ran low, Bo could find a poker game in some saloon and replenish them, but this time they didn't even have the wherewithal to buy into a game. It was ranch work or nothing, and Peeler was the only cattleman hiring.
Bo glanced off to the west as he dropped the roll of wire on the ground next to the line of posts. His eyes narrowed as he straightened.
"Somebody coming," he told Scratch.
Scratch paused in his digging and looked in the same direction Bo was looking. A plume of dust curled upward in the distance.
"Three or four riders, I'd say."
"Yeah," Bo agreed. "Coming from the Snake Track."
Peeler's neighbor to the west was Case Ridley, who called his ranch the Snake Track because his brand was just a squiggly line. The name fit, because from what Bo and Scratch had seen of Ridley, he was snake-mean, all right. There was bad blood between Peeler and Ridley, but also an uneasy truce. The Texans knew that Peeler hoped putting up this fence would settle some of the disputes between them.
Scratch carried the posthole digger over to the wagon and leaned it against the tailgate. "I don't know about you," he said to Bo, "but I reckon I'll feel a mite better if I'm packin' iron."
He reached into the wagon and took out a coiled gun belt with two holsters attached to it. He strapped it around his hips and then grasped the ivory handles of the two long-barreled Remington revolvers in the holsters. Scratch slid the guns up and down a little, making sure they were riding easy in the leather.
Bo followed suit, taking a gun belt with a single holster from the wagon. The gun in the holster was a Colt with plain walnut grips. He buckled on the belt, then stood beside the wagon with Scratch, waiting for the riders who were coming toward them.
The black dots at the base of the dust plume resolved themselves into four men on horseback. As the riders came closer, Bo recognized one of them as Case Ridley, whom he had seen in Socorro. Ridley was a tall, whip-thin man with a hawk nose and a narrow black mustache. His face was all hard planes and angles. Bo didn't like him a bit.
The other three men were some of Ridley's crew, hard-bitten, beard-stubbled men who'd been hired as much for their skill with their guns as for what they could do with a horse and a rope.
The riders came to a stop on the other side of the fence line. Ridley edged his horse forward a couple of steps and demanded, "Who the hell are you men, and what are you doing here?"
Bo answered the second question first. "We're stringing fence for the Circle JP. We work for Big John Peeler. His name's Morton. I'm Creel."
"Peeler told you to do this?"
"That son of a bitch!" Ridley flung out a hand to gesture at the posts. "That fence is on my range!"
Scratch drawled, "I reckon you must be mistaken, Mr. Ridley."
The rancher sneered at him. "You know who I am, eh?"
Scratch nodded. "Seen you around in town."
"If you know who I am, you must know I don't take kindly to being called a liar."
"Scratch didn't call you a liar," Bo pointed out. "He said you were mistaken."
"It's the same damn thing! Now pull those posts up, and be damned glad you hadn't strung any wire I'd have to go to the trouble of tearing down!" Ridley pointed. "Peeler's range ends a thousand yards east of here."
"I don't think so," Scratch said. "The boss gave us pretty good directions. He told us right where all the landmarks are. We're in the right place."
"Now you are calling me a liar!"
"This is where Mr. Peeler told us to build the fence," Bo said. "I reckon this is where we'll build it."
"You'll play hell doing it!" Ridley gestured to his men. "Boys, get down and teach these old bastards a lesson."
Bo and Scratch were both tough, but Ridley's men were tough, too, and a lot younger. The Texans knew they probably couldn't win a fistfight, which meant that Ridley's men would give them a thrashing.
They weren't going to stand for that. Their hands edged toward their guns.
"You fellas best stay on your horses," Bo said in a quiet, dangerous voice.
Ridley's angular face darkened with fury. "You old codgers are going to shoot it out with us?" he demanded as if he couldn't believe it.
"If we have to," Bo said.
The dust that had been kicked up by the riders had blown away. Now the air was filled with the tense expectation of gunplay and sudden death instead.
Chapter TwoBefore anybody could slap leather, one of Ridley's men spoke up, saying, "Somebody comin' over yonder, boss."
He was looking back to the east, behind Bo and Scratch, and for a second Bo thought it was just a trick to get the two of them to turn around so Ridley's gun hawks could get the drop on them.
But then Bo heard the distant pounding of hoof-beats.
"Hold it," Ridley snapped to his men. "Don't start anything. Not until we find out who that is."
Bo had a hunch who the newcomers were. They were coming from the direction of Circle JP headquarters, so in all likelihood they were some of Big John Peeler's men.
That turned out to be the case. After a couple of tense minutes, eight riders led by Joe Archibald swept up. Big John ramrodded his own crew, but Archibald was his segundo and gave all the orders that Peeler didn't.
"What the hell's going on here?" he demanded of Bo and Scratch, unwittingly echoing what Ridley had said a few minutes earlier.
Scratch nodded toward the rival rancher. "Mr. Ridley here's got a problem with this fence Big John told us to put up, Joe."
"Of course I've got a problem," Ridley said. "The damn fence is on my range!"
Archibald looked toward the hills, then turned his head to gaze toward the line of mesas. Then he faced Ridley again and said, "Looks like it's in the right place to me."
"It's half a mile too far west!"
"A minute ago you said a thousand yards," Scratch said, drawing a murderous glower from Ridley.
Archibald leaned forward slightly in his saddle and said, "This fence is stayin' right here, Ridley ... unless you think four against eight is good odds for an argument."
Ridley's face turned an even darker, mottled shade of red, but before he could say anything, Bo spoke up.
"Wait a minute, Archibald. This is between Ridley and his men, and Scratch and me. We're the ones he came up to and started bellowing at and ordering around."
Under his breath, Scratch said, "Bo, what're you doin'?"
Bo ignored his old friend's question. "If anybody settles this, it ought to be Scratch and me."
Archibald grunted. "Is that so? Have you gone loco, Creel? They outnumber you two to one."
"We've faced long odds before, haven't we, Scratch?"
"Yeah, but not when we didn't have to. Dang it, Bo, what's got into you?"
"I just think we ought to fight our own fights-"
Archibald sent his horse forward, and the men with him followed suit. They bulled past Bo and Scratch to face Ridley and his men across the fence line.
"You two saddle tramps just stay out of this," Archibald snapped. "This is between Ridley's bunch and ours, and anyway, you're too old to be gettin' mixed up in ruckuses like this. Just stay out of the way."
Bo's jaw clamped tight. His breath hissed between his teeth. Scratch watched him with a worried frown.
Ridley shook a finger at Archibald. "This isn't over!" he blustered. "There'll be another day, Archibald. And tell Peeler that this damned fence won't stand, either!"
"Tell him your own damned self if you want to come callin'," Archibald said.
Ridley spun his horse around and jabbed his spurs cruelly into its flanks. He galloped away, back toward his ranch headquarters, with his men following him.
Archibald watched them go for a moment, then turned to the men with him. "All right," he said. "I want this fence finished today, so you're all gonna work on it."
"Mr. Peeler gave that job to us," Bo protested.
"Well, you ain't gonna get it done quick enough. You and Morton can still help, but we'll finish it. Then we can have men ridin' patrol on it all the time to make sure Ridley doesn't try anything."
Scratch touched his old friend's arm. "Come on, Bo. Look at it like this-at least we don't have to work out here in the hot sun all day by ourselves."
"Yeah," Bo said with bitter cynicism in his voice. "Aren't we lucky?"
No cowboy enjoyed stringing wire, so there was plenty of complaining going on as the men set to work, but nobody was going to contradict Archibald's orders. And, Bo had to admit, with ten men working instead of two, the fence went up a lot quicker. It would have taken him and Scratch days to string the wire across the valley by themselves. With the other men pitching in, the job could be done in a day, as Archibald had commanded.
As the day went on, a sneaking suspicion began to lurk in the back of Bo's mind. It seemed to him like Archibald and the other men had shown up awfully conveniently. Maybe Peeler had sent him and Scratch out by themselves as bait of a sort, to find out if Ridley was keeping an eye on the valley. Archibald could have followed them, with orders to step in if Ridley showed up at the fence line. Forcing Ridley to back down was just the sort of slap in the face that Big John would enjoy dealing out to his rival.
Excerpted from SIDEWINDERS: Mankiller, Colorado by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2010 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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