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Death in the Dark
I was cat footing across the prairie when I should have been thinking about Samson in particular, and Ty and Clell. I was forgetting the rules that had kept me alive for so long, rules I had made myself. I came on a gully I hadn’t known was there, stumbled down the slope, and collided with someone slinking along the shadows at the bottom. The next instant, iron fingers like a vise clamped onto my throat.
In the dark above me loomed Clell Butcher. I seized his wrist and sought to wrench his hand from my throat, but he was strong as a bull. His other hand locked on my right wrist even as his knee gouged into my gut, and he slowly bent me backward into a bow. All the while, his fingers dug deeper into my flesh.
I could not break his hold. I could not throw him off. My lungs started to ache for air. . . .
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Printing, February 2007
Copyright © The Estate of Ralph Compton, 2007
eISBN : 978-1-101-00755-6
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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.
They didn’t hear me, which was how I wanted it. I slipped into the canyon well before the moon rose above the east rim and worked my way down to their shack. Gruff voices and an occasional laugh told me they were there. In the corral were the thirty head they had stolen.
I firmed my grip on the scattergun and stalked to within a pebble’s toss of a side window, which was covered by a piece of hide. No one could see in, and no one could see out either, unless they moved the hide. Training both barrels on the square of light, I cat footed to the corner.
So far, so good. But in my profession it’s the yet-to-do that can do you in. I crept toward the front door. With any luck I could kick it in and let them have both barrels before they so much as blinked.
I’m partial to shotguns for close-in work. Mine was a double-barreled twelve-gauge made by an outfit in England. I’d sawed off all but six inches of barrel and whittled down the stock to a stub so I could carry it under my slicker, or, for that matter, under my vest, with no one the wiser. All I had to do was loop a piece of rawhide over my shoulder so the scattergun hung free and easy, and I was in business.
I was maybe two steps from the door when I thumbed back the first hammer. With the noise they were making, I figured they wouldn’t hear. What I didn’t count on was Ned Wheatley having to heed nature’s call. Light spilled into the night, catching me in its glare, and it was hard to say who was more surprised, the old rustler or me.
To his credit Wheatley didn’t panic. He kept his wits about him and clawed for his Smith & Wesson, bawling over his shoulder, “It’s him, boys! Lucifer himself!”
I’ve been called a lot of things but never that, although when you think about it, it fits. The flattery aside, I let Ned Wheatley have the right barrel full in the gut, which had the same effect as cutting loose on a cantaloupe at that range. Wheatley was lifted off his feet and flew backward, his innards exploding every which way. I truly believe he was dead before he smashed into the table and upended it and a couple of chairs, besides.
The other three were caught with cards or glasses in their hands. Spike Thompson recovered first and snaked a hand for his Colt. I gave him the second barrel square, as much for the splatter as for the fact that Spike was the one who bragged in town that no so-called miserable excuse for a Regulator would ever make worm food of him. A person should be careful what they say.
Some of the gore caught Festus Blish in the face and Festus instinctively jerked away. It slowed his draw. My Remington cleared leather before his revolver. I shot him in the chest and he started to melt, but I was already spinning toward the last rustler.
Pettigrew was on his feet. He favored a cross-draw and he was pretty slick at it, too, but in his haste he snagged his long-barreled Whitney on the table. I shot him between the eyes, then crouched to finish off those that needed finishing, but they were all down and would stay down this side of evermore.
Folks say I’m a cold-blooded cuss, but with all the body parts and brains and whatnot lying about, I needed a drink as much as the next man. I leaned against the jamb, took out my flask, and treated myself to a healthy swig. The coffin varnish burned clear down to my toes.
I smacked my lips in satisfaction at a job well done. Of course, it doesn’t do to put the cart before the horse, and I had a lot of work left to do before I could collect. There’s another gent in the same business who likes to put rocks under the heads of those he kills, but me, I take their ears. That way I’ve got proof, yet I don’t have to tote the bodies all over creation. I shucked my boot knife and set to work, and soon my pouch bulged with eight ears.
I didn’t bury the deceased. Hell, why should I? It wasn’t likely anyone would pay their shack a visit before all the flesh rotted from their bones, so I let them be. That, and I’m as lazy as the next man.
Brisco was where I had left him. The roan knew better than to run off. The last time he pulled that stunt, I staked him out under the hot sun for three days without water. Nothing like a powerful thirst to teach a horse to mind its betters.
I headed for the Tyler spread. I admit I was feeling pretty good. Soon my nest egg would grow. But once again I was mixing my carts and my horses. Until you have the money in hand, never spend it in your head.
Judging by the North Star, midnight came and went by the time I drew rein in front of the main house. I was bone tired after a week on the stalk, so I wasn’t as alert as I should be. Which explains why the click of the hammer took me unawares. Naturally, I hiked my hands and said, “Hold on, hoss. Your boss is expecting me.”
I reckoned it was one of the hands. But no, it was the big sugar himself, Bryce Tyler, who strode out of the shadows into the moonlight, a level Winchester at his hip. “Am I, now?” he said with a grin.
I relaxed and started to lower my hands.
“Keep reaching for the sky,” Tyler said.
“What is this?” I was mighty confused.
“Is it done?”
“Of course it’s done,” I snapped, annoyed by his treatment. “And I’m here to collect the rest of my fee.”
“Five hundred in advance and five hundred after,” Tyler quoted our agreement, his bald pate bobbing. “Did you bring them?”
I started to reach under my vest for the pouch but thought better of the notion. “The ears? Yes.”
“Are you sure you’re not part Apache?”
“Whatever gave you that notion?”
“How else can you do the things you do? What does this make? Twenty-nine? And you without ever so much as a scratch.”
I couldn’t decide if he was serious or poking fun.
“Then there’s this business with the ears. What kind of depraved human being mutilates folks like that? What sort of man are you, Lucius Stark? How is it you’re so fond of killing?”
Forgetting myself, I shrugged. “It’s a job. I do what I have to. Now, suppose I give you the ears and you give me the rest of the money I’m due, and we part company and go our separate ways?”
That was how it should be. When we first met, we shook hands, sealing our word. Nine times out of ten those who hire me prove trustworthy. But there is always that tenth time, that tenth hombre, who thinks that giving his word to a Regulator is not really giving his word at all.
“I’ve been thinking,” Tyler said.
“Now, now. Let’s keep a civil tongue. Five hundred is more than enough for four measly rustlers.”
“We agreed to a thousand.”
“Yes, we did, but that was before I sat down and talked it over with my wife.”
There it was. He had come right out and admitted it. “We also agreed no one else was to know you hired me. It was one of the conditions I set. Remember?”
Tyler took another step, the Winchester’s muzzle pointed at my head. “Conditions change. I didn’t feel right not telling her. She has as much of a stake in this ranch as I do.”
“You gave your word,” I reminded him. I always reminded them. Not that it ever did any good.
“Don’t lecture me, assassin,” Tyler spat. “Just take the five hundred and go. Take the ears, too, because I sure as hell don’t want them.”
By then I was good and mad. If there is anything I hate worse than a no-account who goes back on his word, I have yet to come across it. “What about your missus?”
The question caused him to blink. “What about her?”
“Maybe your wife wants the ears to hang over the mantel. Trophies of the time you hired a Regulator and made a damn fool out of him by cheating him and sending him skulking away with his tail between his legs.”
“I don’t much like your tone,” Tyler said. “And I’ll thank you not to speak ill of my wife. She is the salt of the earth, my Mildred. It was her brainstorm to hire you in the first place.”
I was flabbergasted. He had lied all along. He and the missus had planned the whole thing, including their swindle of me. I gave him one last chance, though. Folks say I don’t have a shred of decency in me, but they don’t have to put up with the nitwits I have to put up with. Like the Tylers. “Please. I’m asking you nicely. Give me my money and I’ll be out of your hair.”