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A Case of Bad Blood?
Gus shifted his focus onto the black case and the contents that had been strewn about. He collected the items and put them in a pile. Even with the scar swelling over his damaged left eye, he could see there was something peculiar about the garments. Just to be sure, he picked them up and took a closer look at each bit of clothing one by one.
“Damn it, Gus, pay attention,” Doyle scolded. “Now ain’t the time to sniff them bloomers.”
“There’s blood on these clothes,” Gus said.
Shifting his eyes to Mason, Gus held up a torn blouse and said, “This is blood and it’s on every piece of material in this case.”
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Printing, April 2009
Copyright © The Estate of Ralph Compton, 2009
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eISBN : 978-1-101-02900-8
THE IMMORTAL COWBOY
This is respectfully dedicated to the “American Cowboy.” His was the saga sparked by the turmoil that followed the Civil War, and the passing of more than a century has by no means diminished the flame.
True, the old days and the old ways are but treasured memories, and the old trails have grown dim with the ravages of time, but the spirit of the cowboy lives on.
In my travels—to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona—I always find something that reminds me of the Old West. While I am walking these plains and mountains for the first time, there is this feeling that a part of me is eternal, that I have known these old trails before. I believe it is the undying spirit of the frontier calling, allowing me, through the mind’s eye, to step back into time. What is the appeal of the Old West of the American frontier?
It has been epitomized by some as the dark and bloody period in American history. Its heroes—Crockett, Bowie, Hickok, Earp—have been reviled and criticized. Yet the Old West lives on, larger than life.
It has become a symbol of freedom, when there was always another mountain to climb and another river to cross; when a dispute between two men was settled not with expensive lawyers, but with fists, knives, or guns. Barbaric? Maybe. But some things never change. When the cowboy rode into the pages of American history, he left behind a legacy that lives within the hearts of us all.
Cochise County, Arizona Territories 1885
Gus McCord had lived outside the law for so long that he’d forgotten what it was like to live anywhere else. He carried his victories and losses as scars on his face, wounds on his body and nervous tics that acted up at unexpected noises. Every so often, Gus thought his whole body had gone numb after being put through the wringer too many times. He learned to live with the numbness, just as he’d learned to deal with the pain. It wasn’t any harder than learning to live with the use of one good eye.
One of Gus’s scars started a few inches above his hairline, cut down perilously close to his left eye and then sliced along the side of his nose to end at his upper lip. The ax blade that had done the damage had also taken out a pair of Gus’s teeth in a fight that ended with the wielder of that ax being shot full of more holes than a sieve. Gus never knew that man’s name and had left him to rot under a few scoops of dirt somewhere in Oklahoma. It took months for him to see anything out of that eye and even when the wound healed up, the scar was fatter than an oversized caterpillar, which prevented him from opening it all the way again. His aim suffered after that. In fact, it suffered enough for him to find himself a .38 Smith & Wesson to go along with the modified Colt .44 he’d carried since he’d first struck out on his own. Actually, he’d stolen the .38 just as he’d stolen pretty much everything else he’d ever owned.
Gus wasn’t an old man, but he looked like someone who’d seen a hell of a lot more than forty-one winters. A thick mustache sprouted from his lip in an effort to cover a bit of the damage done by that ax. His hair sprouted like desert scrub and was colored with just enough gray to make it seem as though ash had taken root in his scalp. Rough yet steady hands were currently wrapped around a fork and knife so he could tear into the steak that had been brought to him. When most men would have sat and enjoyed their meal, Gus looked around to challenge anyone brave enough to try to take it away from him.
The restaurant was in a town near the eastern border of Cochise County that had been built up around a stagecoach platform and the neighboring shed that sold tickets. A telegraph wire hung from a series of poles and threatened to fall to the ground whenever the gentle breezes grew into gusts. It was a clear day and the wind was barely strong enough to push a tumbleweed along, so everything was right in that pathetic excuse for a town.
As he sawed his last hunk of beef in half, Gus looked over to one of the nearby tables. A little boy over there had been staring at him since his arrival. The young man with the boy could have been the kid’s father, but Gus didn’t know for certain. When that man shifted around to see what the boy was staring at, he immediately turned the kid’s chair around and scolded him.
“It ain’t polite to stare at folks,” the young man hissed.
“But he looks funny,” the kid insisted. “I think he hurt his eye.”
“Don’t stare. Whatever happened is over and I’m sure it didn’t hurt none. Just eat your soup and stop making folks uncomfortable.”
Oddly enough, Gus hadn’t felt uncomfortable until that moment.
Before the kid could twist around to get another look at the forbidden sight of Gus’s beaten face, his attention was drawn to the front door of the little restaurant as it was pulled open with almost enough force to separate it from its hinges. Through that door stomped a man who looked to be on the verge of howling like a coyote. His wild face was covered with thick dark brown whiskers and his jacket was open to display the two pistols hanging at his sides.
Unlike Gus, this man had always carried two guns. Doyle Hill also carried knives and a railroad spike that had been split in two and dented almost beyond recognition. Doyle insisted the spike was a good-luck piece, but Gus knew better. Some men just got bored killing folks the same way too many times in a row.
It didn’t take long for Doyle to spot Gus at his table. When he did, Doyle charged through the restaurant as if he intended on knocking a hole clean through the wall. “Order yerself a whiskey, because we need to celebrate!”
Gus bared his teeth a little when he replied, “They don’t serve no whiskey here, Doyle. Why don’t you just sit down and have some water?”
“No whiskey? What kind of place is this?”
“A place that just serves food,” Gus replied. “How about you sit down and stop making so much noise?”
“I don’t want to sit down.”
“Then just shut the hell up.”
Doyle took a look around to find the few others inside the restaurant all glaring nervously back at him. Letting out a sigh, Doyle pulled up a chair, spun it around and sat down in it so his chest was leaning against the back rest. “I got some good—”
Gus raised the hand that was wrapped around his knife. The blade was dented and still covered in juices from his steak, but he brandished it like a weapon. “Quiet. Some folks are trying to eat.”
Doyle nodded and leaned across the table until his nose practically touched the steak knife. “I got some good news,” he said in a voice that didn’t carry through the entire place.
“What’s your news?”
“That stage we wanted to catch ain’t left yet.”
Just then, the woman who’d brought Gus his steak returned to the table to set a glass of water in front of Doyle. “The stage won’t leave for another hour,” she told him.
Doyle looked up to find the pleasant, somewhat plump face of a woman in her late thirties. Light hair was tied to fall down her back and friendly eyes were framed by deeply etched lines. “That’s real nice,” he told her. “Thanks for the water.”
“Can I get you anything else?”
“Got any whiskey?”
“No,” she replied without missing a beat. “But there’s a saloon just down the road. They even have a piano that plays loud enough to be heard over the commotion you’re making.”
Gus smirked and used the last crust of his bread to sop up what remained on his plate. “She’s got you there.”
Doyle nodded slowly and looked at her closely. His light blue eyes took their time wandering all the way down the front of her body and back up again. By the time they’d reached her face, the woman’s expression had changed considerably. Grinning at the way he’d sapped her confidence, Doyle said, “Bring me something sweet. Cake with frosting if you got it.”
“We don’t,” she said as she took a step away from the table.
“Then pie. Just go find something and bring it to me.”
The woman wanted to say something else, but she couldn’t bring herself to spit out the words. Wincing at the gruff tone in Doyle’s voice or perhaps out of frustration with her own squeamishness, she hurried back behind the counter separating the dining room from the kitchen.
After Doyle turned back around, Gus spoke to him in a barely audible snarl. “You know better than to talk about business where others can hear.”
“These people ain’t nobody. They probably don’t even leave this piss bucket of a town.”
“You got something to say? Say it so I can finish my meal.”
“You ain’t finished? There ain’t nothin’ left but the plate.” Seeing the fire that was growing in Gus’s eyes, Doyle added, “All right, all right. That stage we wanted to catch won’t be loaded when we thought. Seems, they had some difficulties with their team.”
“You hobble one of them horses like I told you?”
“Hobbled? I nearly cut one of its legs off.”
“For the love of—”
Cutting Gus short with a quick wave of his hand, Doyle said, “I hobbled it just like you told me. Can’t you take a joke no more?”
“Maybe you ain’t as funny as you used to be,” Gus said.
“And maybe you’re losing yer nerve. If we ain’t ridden together for so long, I might suspect you didn’t want to go after this stage at all.”
“What’s that supposed—” Gus stopped when the woman with the wrinkled eyes came back to the table.
“We don’t have any pie,” she said. “No cake, either. Nothing sweet.”
“Well, ain’t this a sorry excuse for a restaurant?” Doyle grumbled.
Before the other man could say anything else, Gus reached out to hand some money over to the woman. “Here you go. This should cover what I ate, plus a bit more for yourself.”
“Thank you, sir,” she replied. Without so much as looking at Doyle, she turned and rushed away from the table.
When Doyle started to speak again, Gus stood up and walked toward the door. He could hear the other man wrestle out of his chair and stomp behind him as he walked outside and came to a stop along the edge of a crooked street. As soon as he emerged from the restaurant, Doyle circled around to stand toe-to-toe with Gus.