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Showdown at Juniper Pass
By Kent Conwell
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Kent Conwell
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSlade had no choice. The young half-breed tightened his cinch and swung into the saddle, bound for the Texas Panhandle. The snow had fallen all night, a light breeze pushing it into gentle drifts.
Leaving the thicket of piñon, he paused on the crest of a shale ridge for one final look down into the valley at the lump of snow impaled on the charred limb of a bristlecone pine, the body of his Apache brother, Nana. His vision blurred, and when he refocused his eyes on the pine, the body had vanished. Only a slender black limb stood out against the snow.
Slade jerked awake and stared into the darkness above. In one corner of his small adobe, embers blinked like wolf eyes in the chiminea.
Despite the chill of the winter night, sweat beaded his forehead. The same dream. Every night since his return from the high lonesome in New Mexico Territory, the same dream, but this night would be the last.
Today he would ride out of Tucson for that valley high in the Sangre de Cristos to bury his brother.
Two hours later, shortly before the sun rose over the Catalina Mountains to the east, Slade closed the freight office door behind him and filled a tin cup with six-shooter coffee. He plopped down on an empty cartridge case in front of the potbellied stove.
Cupping a steaming mug in his hands on the other side of the stove, Three-Fingers Bent rocked back in the straight back chair and grunted. "Damnation, Jake. I know you left Nana so you could get back to New Gideon to save my hide. I can't never pay you back for that, so that's why I don't mind saying you got rocks for brains heading out in this kind of weather." He cut his dark eyes to Bill Harnden, Slade's partner in the stage and freight line. "Tell him what you told me, Bill," Bent growled.
With a crooked grin, Slade glanced up at his old friend. "Yeah, Bill. Why don't you tell me?"
Harnden, his bushy brows knit, studied the lean half-breed. "Hell, I understand what you're doing. I'd do the same thing. But the fact is, we're smack-dab in the middle of one of the worst winters in years. Second, you left a heap of bad blood behind you up there in them mountains. And third, which oughta be the most important thing to you right now, is the stage line. The new route from Fort Atkinson to El Paso is running smooth, but there's only been half a dozen trips. Who's going to handle it if something goes wrong?"
"Besides," Bent put in, "them Utes is thicker'n seven cowboys on a cot up there. They'll have your scalp before you get within ten miles of that valley."
The wiry cowpoke ran his fingers through his close-cropped hair and, with the unperturbed aplomb of the Apache, studied his two friends with cool gray eyes. He knew they had his best interests in mind, but he also realized he could never explain to them the intensity of family loyalty within the Apache psyche. A knowing smile ticked up the sides of his lips. "I can't argue with what you say. I know the weather's bad, and I know there's them up yonder who would sell their own mother for my hide. But that's my brother up there." He glanced at Bent. "I left him because I had no choice."
He paused, sipped his coffee, and reached for the bag of Bull Durham. While he rolled a cigarette, he continued. "Now I got a choice. I go now because I got me a sentir perdido." When Bent arched an eyebrow, Slade explained. "That's Apache for a feeling of being lost. What you and me call a bad feeling. Not about me, but that Nana won't be there. I can't shake the sentir, but I can do something about it. As far as the stage line goes, you can run down any problems. We got good men at each of the way stations. Besides, I won't be gone more than a month."
Cantankerous as a ringy longhorn, Bent snorted. "If you're so damned bound and determined to go up there, then I'm going with you."
Bill Harnden shot a surprised look at Bent. Slade chuckled. "Forget it. Paleto's going."
Harnden frowned at Slade. "Your brother?"
"Yep." He grinned sheepishly at Bent, who picked up the moniker Three-Fingered Bent because of the loss of his thumb and forefinger in a game of chance between him and a band of White Mountain Apaches at a drunken party on the banks of the Gila River. He was a distant relative of the Bent brothers, William and George, who built the fort near the confluence of the Arkansas and Purgatory rivers in 1833, thirty-nine years earlier.
"In fact," Slade continued, "I'm meeting him up in the Catalinas midmorning. Come nighttime, we ought to reach the Hayden spread at the edge of the Dripping Springs Mountains. By heading due east, we can avoid the heavy snows."
Bent peered through the frosted windows at the brittle blue winter sky. "Well then, if I can't change your mind, I reckon you'd best get a move on while the weather holds." He flexed his left arm at the elbow two or three times. "My old bunk mate, arthritis, says we got us another cold spell coming in."
The sun was a shimmering globe overhead when Slade gave the call of a whip-poor-will. Moments later, the coo of a dove drifted down the boulder-strewn slope of the Catalinas. His Apache brother, Paleto, rode out on a craggy slope high above.
Slade held up his right hand in front of his body, pointing the index finger at Paleto, then bringing the first two fingers to his lips, the Indian sign for "brother." With a faint smile in his eyes, Paleto returned the sign.
Slade reined up beside the wiry Apache who wore knee-high moccasins, leather leggings, and a fur-lined vest over a Yankee battle jacket. A bear-claw necklace hung from around his neck, his totem, his personal protector. A rolled bearskin was tied behind the cantle of his saddle. "You look well."
His dark face impassive, Paleto nodded. "And you, brother."
Gesturing to the north, Slade asked, "Ready?"
Paleto shook his head. "Your father wishes to visit with you."
"Santos? But I thought he was in Mexico for the winter, down with Juh's people."
Nodding to the craggy peaks towering over them, Paleto replied, "He waits there for you." He reined around. "Come."
Slade started to protest, but Santos was his father, and the Apache son always obeyed his father. He would just have to ride harder to make up for the lost time.
Excerpted from Showdown at Juniper Pass by Kent Conwell Copyright © 2010 by Kent Conwell. Excerpted by permission.
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