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UNNATURAL BORN KILLER
“You won’t be going anywhere, old man,” the robber said, grabbing Glick’s lapel. “You’ll be dea—”
His words stopped short as Glick’s hands moved in a blur. The robber felt the Dutchman’s thin arm wrap around his like a serpent, and suddenly Glick was behind him. The robber felt his back pressed against the foul-smelling old man, and the sharp tip of the dagger pressed against his ear. He smelled sour breath as Glick spoke, “There now, aren’t you ashamed, drawing an Arkansas toothpick on an elderly gentleman?”
The robber rose onto his tiptoes to keep the blade from going into his skull with his own hand still holding the dagger. The Dutchman had his arm entwined in such a manner that it would cause the robber to bring about his own death. He was locked in a death hold, held there by strength the likes of which he’d never encountered.
He felt as if he had stumbled upon something inhuman. . . .
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First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library,
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First Printing, March 2009
Copyright © Ralph Cotton, 2009
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eISBN : 978-1-101-01471-4
For Mary Lynn . . . of course
Time to go . . .
Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack stood at the window of his second-floor room. He had wintered as long as he could afford to in the river valley lands south of Cedar Ridge. Most of the damage from the gunshot wound in his lower back had healed. He wasn’t as good as new, but he’d been off his feet long enough, he told himself.
With his gun belt draped over his shoulder, he lowered the hammer on his freshly cleaned Colt and slipped it loosely into its Slim Jim holster. He gazed out the window. The rocky passes in the distance had shed their thick blankets of snow. The stretches of a rocky trail had begun to reveal themselves, the trail snaking upward into the mountains toward Wyoming Territory. That’s where he’d been headed before a dry gulcher’s bullet had stopped him short.
But he was healed now, and it was time to load the pack mule, saddle the big brown and white paint horse awaiting him at the livery barn and ride on. “And that’s that,” he said as he pondered the street below.
“And you are quite certain I can’t talk you out of leaving us, Ranger Burrack?” the Englishwoman, Beatrice Prine, asked quietly. She stood beside him, a tall, stately woman dressed in a clean-scented plaid gingham dress.
She’d watched him check the big Colt and put it away. She shook her head slightly and gazed with him out across the wide basin, where only patches of snow still clung along the edges of rock and brittle, dry grassland. The tops of cedar and pine trees swayed in the raw morning wind.
“I’m certain,” the ranger replied after a long moment of silence. “I won’t feel right until I get up to Hole-in-the-wall and get my stallion back.”
She sighed. “You’re fresh over a gunshot wound in the back, yet you insist on riding through a country filled with outlaws just for a horse?”
Sam gave a thin, wry smile. “Not for just any horse, I wouldn’t,” he replied. “But for my stallion, you bet I will.” He paused, then added quietly, “I should have been there long before now. Like I told you, the animal was banged up bad in a dynamite blast.”
“Yes, so you said. . . .” Beatrice Prine considered what she knew of the ranger’s situation. He had told her his story over the long winter nights he’d spent with her. “You told me you entrusted Memphis Warren Beck to take care of the stallion for you until you could make your way to Hole-in-the-wall and reclaim the animal. I expect the rest of the gang had a hard time understanding that one.”
“Like I told you, I had no other choice,” Sam said, noting the doubtful tone of her voice. “Beck gave me his word. I never thought I’d say this about a man like Memphis Beck, but he’s proven himself to be good for his word.”
“I could have told you that about Memphis Beck,” said Beatrice Prine. “I dare say I’ve known him a good while longer than you have. His word has always stood well with me.”
“He’s still an outlaw, but I have to say he’s a cut above the rest,” Sam said grudgingly, recalling how Memphis Beck had saved his life in Mexico when a madman and his cult of murderers had tried to kill him. Shadow Valley . . . , Sam thought to himself, recalling the incident all too clearly.
“That being the case, what is your hurry?” Beatrice Prine asked. “A few more days of rest would be good for you.”
“It’s been all winter since I saw the stallion, and I’m still not there,” Sam said. “I won’t feel right until I’ve got Black Pot’s reins in my hands.”
Knowing the futility of trying to talk him out of riding into the outlaw stronghold, Beatrice Prine patted his arm and said with a sigh, “Well, the girls and I are all going to miss you.”
“That’s most kind of you to say, Mrs. Prine,” Sam replied. “I’ll miss you and the girls as well.” He felt her free hand on his forearm.
“We’re alone. You may feel free to call me Miss Beatrice,” she said softly, gesturing with a nod, indicating their privacy.
Sam knew that Beatrice Prine did not easily share her first name with guests. “Much obliged, Miss Beatrice,” Sam said quietly. “In turn, I’d be honored if you’d call me Sam.”
The Englishwoman smiled to herself. “Sam, then,” she said, without taking her eyes from the endless rugged terrain beyond the window.
The two stood in silence for a moment, and then the ranger patted her hand, which was still resting on his forearm. “I must look a sight better than I did riding in. I have you and your doves to thank for that, Miss Beatrice.”
“Go on with you, now,” she said softly in her British accent. “It was our pleasure having you here.” She smiled and said as if in secret, “How many of us can say we actually wintered with the ranger?”
Sam felt himself blush. It wasn’t his way to speak loosely of such things, even if only in a light, suggestive manner. “Not many,” he said. Then, to hurriedly change the subject, he said, “Your hospitality has not only healed my back wound; I believe my hearing has cleared up some, after that dynamite blast.”
“Wonderful,” said the Englishwoman. “In that case I do hope you’ll keep an ear piqued toward those two along your trail.” She nodded at the man and woman who had appeared out of a ragged saloon tent on the street below and were walking toward their horses, which were tied to the hitch rail.
“Stanley and Shala Lowden . . . ,” the ranger said under his breath. He’d observed the rough-looking couple throughout the weeks he’d spent healing here above the muddy street. He’d also seen them in some of the towns he’d passed through before his ambush. “You can bet I will.”
“The lovebirds, we called them when they first arrived here last year,” Beatrice Prine said. She tightened her hand on his forearm. “I’m still convinced it was they who shot you.”
The lovebirds . . .
“No proof,” he said flatly, though Sam also was convinced it was these two who ambushed him. He’d thought long and hard about the circumstances of his shooting all through the long winter days and nights he’d lain here, his lower back throbbing in pain, his strength depleted from loss of blood.
“No proof?” Beatrice Prine cocked her head and gave Sam a curious look. “There was no one else for miles around. You saw them only hours beforehand . . . watching you from a trail above you. That is more proof than most people need. You have every right to—”
“I’m not most people,” Sam said, cutting her off with a smile. In turn he tightened his hand over hers and added, “That’s the cost of wearing a badge. If I start bending justice, shaping it to fit myself, it’s time I look for another occupation.”
“Come now, Sam,” Beatrice Prine said playfully, yet with her cordial air of sophistication. “Would you have me believe you have never bent the law— justice, as you put it?” She raised a skeptical brow. “Please don’t disappoint me. . . . Don’t turn out to be another hypocrite.”
“Hypocrite? I can’t say,” he replied. “I expect we’re most all of us hypocrites in some way or another. I don’t claim to be perfect. I’m far from it.”
He thought about it as he watched another man step out of the ragged tent and join the Lowdens at the hitch rail. The man shifted his eyes back and forth warily. His breath steamed in the cold air; he wore a thick bearskin coat and a wide-brimmed hat cocked jauntily above long, glistening black hair. “Besides,” Sam continued, “I didn’t say I never bent justice. I admit I have played loosely with justice at times, but never to serve myself—not to suit my own need.”
They stood in silence for a moment, until Beatrice Prine said, “So, what does this mean? Will these two go unpunished for what we both know they did to you? That hardly seems fair.”
“None of us go unpunished, Miss Beatrice,” Sam said contemplatively, watching the man in the bearskin coat, who stood close to the Lowdens and seemed to be talking privately with them. “Everything we do in life has a price. We all pay as we go.”
“I have found that to be the case,” Beatrice Prine said in agreement.
“Who is that fellow?” Sam asked, nodding toward the man in the bearskin coat.
“He’s Conning Glick,” said the Englishwoman. “Have you heard of him?”
“Conning Glick . . . also known as the Dutchman,” the ranger said, running the name though his mind. He stared more intently at the man through the wavy glass windowpane. “So, that’s Conning Glick. . . .”
“Yes, that’s him,” said Beatrice. “Not exactly a name that rolls easily off the tongue, is it?” She smiled thinly. “No wonder so many people prefer calling him the Dutchman.”
“He’s a paid assassin from years back,” said Sam, summoning up his stored information about the man. “Did most of his killing for railroads, big mining companies. Also worked on the sly for any wealthy, powerful man who needed his services.”
“As far as I know he still does,” Beatrice said. “I can’t see a man like Glick ever giving up his profession. I suspect he loves killing too much to ever retire.”
Sam studied the older man’s pasty white face, noting the long, shiny black hair hanging past Glick’s shoulders. The hair looked far too young and far too black for Glick’s aged, pale-skinned coloring. A woman’s hair, Sam thought to himself. Then he asked Beatrice Prine, “Is he wearing a wig?”