Read an Excerpt
Six Ways from Sunday
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
Copyright © 2009
William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter One Them shots across the mountain valley kind of interested me. There was a crackle of shots, and then an answering boom from some heavier artillery. But that boom wasn't on the breeze much, compared to all that crackle and snap.
Curiosity got the best of me. That's my weakness. I turned Critter, my ornery nag, toward the ruckus, thinking I'd at least find out who's shooting at what. Me, I'm a sucker for that stuff and I didn't have much to do. Maybe I'd get to drill a few rounds myself.
But I sort of doubted it. I was thinkin' it was another claim-jumping. This here valley had seen some pretty fancy claim-jumping last few months. That was all anyone talked about at Swamp Creek, the little mining town maybe fifty miles south of Butte that was the heart of this gold-mining district.
"Critter," I says, "that's a bunch of lead flying around, and it sounds like a dozen's ganged up on one, from the way the noise is coming at me."
Critter, he farted. He never did give me much credit for being smart.
I sort of wrestled with myself as I headed that direction. What was some cowboy doing getting into a mining war? But I hadn't been practicing cowmanship for a while now, and thought maybe there might be a job ahead, forty dollars and found, so I proceeded. It was a right peaceful valley, full of sunlight and pine scent on the wind. These here were the Pioneer Mountains, and there were more little gold mines being sunk in the rock hereabouts than I could count. Swamp Creek, the town, sort of mushroomed into a canvas-and-rough-plank place overnight, and now all sorts of entertaining types were digging in there, mostly to mine the miners.
The valley was drained by Swamp Creek, which was named for a big old swamp about a mile above town. It was like that creek got constipated for a mile or two there, and spread out every which way. It was said there was no bottom to it, just black muck and more muck in there, and a person would sink in and keep on sinking until the muck closed over his head. It sure was the only swamp around. I steered Critter toward a rocky gray slope that had a lot of pine forest at its base, and more forest high up, where the jagged mountains stretched toward the blue. That poppin' got louder, so I knew I was gettin' close, but so far I couldn't see nothing.
I was taking myself and my sturdy horse into someplace where lead was flying around, and I argued with myself some. My ma, she always told me to stay outta trouble, and my pa, he always told me to stay clear of women, but they's both gone now, so I get into whatever I get into. I wish I'd paid them more heed, because even though I didn't know it then, I was going to get into trouble and women both.
I rounded a bend that opened on a wide gulch feeding into that valley, and now at last I got me a little peek at what the ruckus was all about.
"Critter," I says to the nag, "I do believe they've got a little claim-jumping party a-going full tilt."
Up in the middle of that cliff was a mine head. All I could see was the mouth of a shaft driven into the side of that big old mountain, a black hole staring down upon me. And blocking that hole was an overturned one-ton ore car, rusty yeller, and a few chunks of metal I couldn't rightly name 'cause when it comes to hauling rock outa the ground, I'm dumb as a stump.
But I hauled up to study the matter, stayin' well out of range of any hot lead. It was plain enough, even to a dumb-ass cowboy. Up yonder were half a dozen hard-cases banging away at someone holed up at the mine. That old boy in the mine, he had him a Sharps, with a big throaty boom, while the rest were using lighter artillery, and no one was gittin' anywhere.
Like that feller at the mine was outnumbered but dug in.
It didn't look like any fair fight either, 'cause I seen some hardcases working around to either side, like they're planning to rush the old boy in the mine, coming at him from the flanks where he won't see much until it's too late.
I got the itchy feeling they were gettin' set to shoot that old miner plumb dead, probably for reasons I didn't want to think about, such as ownership. It must be some mine, I thought, to stir up a kettle full of pain like that.
"Well, Critter, you and me are going to buy into this here fracas," I said. Critter, he rolled an ear back and shook his muzzle in disgust. He was telling me I'm plumb nuts, and I never would argue the case, 'cause he and I both agree to it.
Ahead was a mighty stand of lodgepole pine, sticking straight and true into the air, and I headed that way mostly to keep clear of that Sharps up there, and also to get me a better view of the proceedings.
I steered the horse up a grassy slope and into the forest, which was so thick that afternoon turned to twilight, and I let Critter pick his way over fallen timber, which crosshatched the ground. There was no way to escape making a noise as loud as a steam engine, so I just let the nag poke along while I kept a sharp eye out for surprises.
Well, I got myself surprised, all right, when a dude in a dove-gray swallowtail coat, black trousers, and shiny shoes, and with a black silk stovepipe hat, appears from nowhere, pointing a shiny little pepperbox at me, maybe nine barrels in all. A quaint little weapon, outmoded by revolvers, but as lethal as any.
"Hands high," the gent says, so I consider it's my duty to obey, real careful, because pepperboxes are ornery little guns with a habit of shooting off all barrels at once.
I raised my pinkies toward the evergreen limbs above, and smiled kindly. "Just wandering through," says I. "I'm never one to miss a good show."
The gent looked me over and saw a young cowboy, well armed, skinny as hell, with a few acne patches on my cheeks that were some embarrassing, even if half hid by the scruffy layer of beard I'd not scraped away for a week or two. Me, I saw a smoothly shaven face, black hawkeyes, a trim gray mustache, clean white teeth, fancy dark sideburns, and soft hands that had never done a lick of log-splitting, shoveling, ax-swinging, or plow-wrestling. In short, he was some Fancy Dan. He even had one of them gold watch fobs dangling across his middle.
"Who are you?" the man asked, as if he expected a reply.
"I don't like to spell her out," I said. "I never was too happy with the name, so I keep her to myself."
"Nine barrels. Shall I shoot the first?"
"Cotton," says I, all hasty. "It's not a name I cotton to."
"You plumb gonna have to kill me dead before I give out the rest.'
He smiled suddenly. "Cotton Pickens," he said. "You've been hanging around Swamp Creek looking for trouble to get into."
I flushed pure red. How anyone got ahold of my rear handle I don't know. I never tell it to anyone.
"This is fortuitous," he said. "I've been looking for you."
Now that was a word I couldn't pronounce, much less figure out. "Put that in words someone like me'd know some of," I said.
"Fortunate," he said. "I heard you are good with a gun, and I thought to hire you."
"Well, I'm not rightly sure I'm for sale," I said. This feller was too clean-shaven for me. My gut feeling is not to trust anyone in a swallowtail coat and a mustache. "But you can give me the what-for."
He shrugged. "This," he said. "We have paper giving us that mine. But that gentleman resists."
"Deed and mineral rights. We paid the back taxes and bought it at auction."
"But he still figures possession is nine tenths of the law, right?"
"You know some law, Cotton."
"Well, you got to read something in an outhouse, especially when you're as slow to do your business as I am. Outhouses are plumb boring. So I read Blackstone while I'm a-sittin'."
"Frankly, it surprises me. But yes, I'm looking for able men, and you'd fit the bill. Forty a month."
That was a heap of money for some half-starved saddle tramp like me. But I wasn't all that sure about this outfit.
"Now, I don't dicker with anyone that's pointing a nine-shot pepperbox at me. It makes me nervous. And I don't think you've given me a name."
"Sorry," the man said, and slid his pepperbox into a slick little underarm holster, where it lay so close it didn't show under that swallowtail.
"Carter Scruples," he said. "I'm a partner in this enterprise."
That sure was an odd handle. I wasn't sure what scruples meant, but it was something you hid behind most likely.
I quit my twitching, now that the mean little lead-thrower was back in its nest.
"I'm not saying yes and I'm not saying no," I said. "I want to see how this here business is transacted."
He shrugged, and nodded toward the edge of the grove. "Have a look, if you want to risk a shot coming your way."
"I think maybe I will," I said. "But I'm going to leave Critter here, safe in these trees."
I slid down from Critter. He objected some, laid his ears back, and I yanked the reins just in time to keep him from taking a bite out of this Mr. Scruples.
"Horse needs subduing," Scruples said. "Either that or it needs its throat cut."
I didn't much care for that observation, and gave Scruples a hard look. But he just smiled pleasantly, like everything was fine here in a pine grove while his hired guns were trying to kill some mine owner.
We eased forward until we reached some brush that bordered the slope, and we could see the action above in relative safety.
"You just gonna kill him, just like that?" I asked.
"Not just like that. We gave him his chance to leave peaceably."
"What'd he say?"
"I wouldn't deem it proper to tell you," Scruples said. "In any case, it'll all be over in a few moments."
It looked like it might be. I studied the scene real careful, and found a few gunmen creeping and dodging up that rocky grade, hiding behind talus. An occasional boom from that big Sharps kept them from rushing, but it was plain a rush was coming, and one man with one long gun wasn't going to hold off a pack of gunslicks. Especially since now the two at the flanks were edging in, taking advantage of cover to stay out of sight.
A few of the gunslicks down below the mine head kept popping away with their carbines, just to keep the mine owner occupied, while them stalkers at the flanks was creeping along the rocky cliff getting ready for the potshot.
Then most everything happened at once. The ones in the middle upped and clambered that steep slope, while the ones at the sides opened fire, and now there were more than six in sight, maybe eight or nine, all a-jumping and dodging toward the mine head. The Sharps didn't boom at all, and I wondered if the old boy in the mine had bought the ticket. Lotta lead flying around up there, whanging off that ore car. Then the whole lot of gunslicks whooped up that slope, and the damndest thing happened. It was sort of shocking actually.
Old miner, he let fly with a couple of sticks of DuPont Hercules with a cap and some spitting fuse wired together, and next thing I know, there was a hell of a eruption as that thing went off, and I seen a couple of bodies fly upward like rag dolls and flop to the earth, no doubt extinct. They sure looked surprised up there. Not a one of them was standing. The concussion had flattened the whole lot. It knocked Scruples and me off our pins, too. Then I heard a maniac laughing up there, behind the overturned ore car, laughing like a bucksaw slicing wood. I have to give those gunslicks credit. They upped and ran toward the mine head and the whole thing happened over again. A couple of sticks of dynamite with a spitting fuse sailed out. I got smart and stuck my fingers in my ears, and tried to hit the ground before the thing went off, but didn't make it. The blast knocked me flat. This time, four more of those dudes were writhing on the slope, or tumbling down the talus. Durndest thing I ever did see.
I guess that did it some. The rest of them slicks, they hightailed downslope just as fast as they could scramble, leavin' them dead sprawled around on gray rock. Those two flanking ones just quit and come tumbling down that grade. There was four lyin' mighty still up there, and four more come stumbling into the woods, all deaf as stones and some bleeding red all over.
That's when I saw her. She was just about the most beautiful woman I ever did lay eyes on, a blonde wearing black satin from chin to toe, one of them fancy dresses with more buttons than I can count. She had one of them picture hats topping that soft blond hair, and I just stood there and stared. Where'd she come from anyway?
Scruples, he went over to her and she tucked her arm into his.
"Win some, lose some," he said to her.
She smiled wryly. I ain't seen a smile like that on a lady like that ever before, and I just stood there staring and rocking on my feet. I was dumbstruck. There just ain't any women like that in the whole Territory of Montana. That sort of woman, she's tied up with J. P. Morgan or Vanderbilt, or one of those that live at Newport and have got a lot of gold to toss around. But there she was, being led away by Scruples.
They all forgot I was there. The whole lot drifted off, those bloodied-up gunslicks, the man and woman, and in a bit I saw Scruples and the blonde get into a shiny black carriage drawn by a pair of trotters, and the rest climb into a spring wagon that was parked around a bend, and the lot of them rode away. I watched them bounce and lurch across open fields until they reached the wagon road that ran up and down the valley, and then they slowly wound their way toward Swamp Creek. And next I knew, someone up in that mine was cackling like a goose.
Chapter Two That was it. Scruples and his blond beauty rode away in a shiny black carriage. High up that slope, there were bodies sprawled in the rocks.
That didn't seem fittin' for some country boy like me. Maybe they weren't dead. Maybe they could be helped. But I had me a problem. The minute I stepped out of the pines and onto that rocky slope, that big old Sharps would bark.
"Critter," I says to my nag. "I've got me a job to do, and it scares the britches half off me."
Critter clacked his teeth and yawned. So much for admiration. I thought maybe Critter would salute.
I dug into my kit lookin' for a white flag. If I was going to step out of them trees, I'd need to be waving some white. But I didn't have no white. Just some old cotton underdrawers that started out white, but now was a sort of yeller gray. Well, yeller gray would have to do, so I tied the legs of them drawers to a handy stick, crept up the edge of the grove, and waved the thing around a bit.
I didn't see no action up there, or hear some damned bullet sail by me, so real cautious, I crept out on the rock, takin' my time, and waving my yeller-gray drawers around, and makin' a lot of noise so's not to surprise that mining bastard up there.
But all I got was a mess of silence.
Well, I thought, it's now or never. Just as a precaution, I undid my gunbelt and hung it over my shoulder as a further peace offerin', though I didn't say nothing about the two-shot derringer in my boot. I did a slow climb over talus toward the lowest of them gunmen, and found him sprawled in the rock, plumb dead. He'd been punctured here and there. So I clambered up that rough gray rock to the next, and found he'd expired, too, and was missing an arm. It wasn't no pretty sight to look at.
The next one was over on the flank, and was one of them two that was creepin' in on the miner. I was gettin' out of sight of the mine head when a voice filtered down to me.
"Stay in sight," the owner of that voice said. I took it for plumb good advice.
"Just checkin'," I said.
"He's dead, and so's t'other on your left."
"You mind if I come up and palaver a little?"
"You ain't one of them. I saw you ride in."
"That's right, I ain't. But I thought to take care of the wounded and maybe plant the dead, long as the rest of them hightailed out of here."
"No tricks. I got a few more of these little DuPont bombs."
I had yet to see this fellow. Somehow, he was hidden in the shadows of the ore car, and probably as forted up as a man can get.
I made my way up the talus slope, and finally reached a small flat in front of the shaft, where all the mining stuff lay around and about. The miner, he appeared from somewhere in all that tangle of iron, and that old Sharps was staring at my navel.
Excerpted from Six Ways from Sunday by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2009 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.