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SIDEWINDERS: Texas Bloodshed
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScratch Morton peered up at the gallows and said, "I'd just as soon go somewheres else, Bo. This place surely does give me the fantods."
"You don't have anything to worry about," Bo Creel told his old friend, "if you haven't done anything to give Judge Parker cause to order you hanged."
Scratch frowned and shook his head. "I dunno. They don't call that fella the Hangin' Judge for no reason. He can come up with cause if he wants to."
Bo laughed and said, "Come on. We don't have any business with the judge, hanging or otherwise."
The gallows they'd been looking at was no ordinary affair. It stood off to one side of the big, redbrick federal courthouse in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and had eight trapdoors built into it. When huge crowds gathered on the broad courthouse lawn to watch convicted criminals put to death, it was quite a spectacle at times. It wasn't that unusual to see eight men kicking out their lives at once at the end of those hang ropes.
As Scratch had said, Judge Isaac Parker wasn't known as the Hanging Judge for no reason.
The Texans continued strolling past the courthouse. It was a crisp, cold, late winter day, and large white clouds floated in the deep blue sky above Fort Smith. Off to their right, bluffs dropped steeply to the Arkansas River where it curved past the city, forming the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory.
Bo and Scratch had been to Fort Smith before—they had been almost everywhere west of the Mississippi in their decades of wandering—but it had been a while, and after stabling their horses, they had decided to stroll around town and have a look at the place to see how much it had changed.
They probably should have started somewhere besides the courthouse and its adjacent gallows, Bo mused. His old friend Scratch was generally a law-abiding sort, as was Bo himself, but they had wound up on the wrong side of iron bars a few times in their adventurous lives, albeit briefly and usually because of some sort of mistake.
Both men were about the same height. Age had turned Scratch's hair pure silver and put streaks of gray in Bo's dark brown hair, but the years hadn't bent their rugged bodies. Bo was dressed in a sober black suit and hat that made him look a little like a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher, while Scratch was the dandy of the pair in high-topped boots, whipcord trousers, a fringed buckskin jacket over a white shirt, and a cream-colored Stetson with a fancy band.
Scratch's fondness for the flashy extended to his guns, a pair of long-barreled, ivory-handled Remington revolvers that rode comfortably in cut-down holsters. Bo, on the other hand, as befitted the conservative nature of the rest of his attire, carried a single Colt .45 with plain walnut grips.
The similarity between them was that both Texans were fast on the draw and deadly accurate with their shots when they had to be, although they preferred to avoid trouble if that was at all possible.
Trouble usually had other ideas where they were concerned, though.
In fact, one ruckus or another had been dogging their heels ever since they had met as boys in Texas, during the infamous Runaway Scrape when the Mexican dictator Santa Anna and his army chased the rebellious Texicans almost clear to Louisiana. However, General Sam Houston had known what he was doing all along, and when the time finally came to make a stand, the Texicans lit into Santa Anna's men in the grassy, bayou-bordered fields near San Jacinto and won independence for their land and people.
Despite their youth at the time, Bo and Scratch had been smack-dab in the middle of that epic battle, and each had saved the other's life that day. That was the first time, but hardly the last.
They probably would have been fast friends for life anyway, even if they had settled down to lives as farmers and ranchers as they had intended. But Fate, in the form of a fever, had come along and taken Bo's wife and children from him after several years of that peaceful existence, and rather than stay where those bitter memories would have haunted him, he rode away and set out on the drift.
He hadn't gone alone. Scratch had ridden with him, and the two of them had seldom been apart for very long since. They had wandered all over the frontier, taking jobs as ranch hands or shotgun guards or scouts when they needed to. Bo was a more than fair hand with a deck of cards and kept money in their pockets most of the time just by sitting in a poker game now and then. His preacherlike appearance didn't hurt. Because of it, folks tended to underestimate his poker-playing ability.
As they passed some steps leading down to the courthouse basement, Scratch shivered, but not from the chilly temperature.
"Hell on the Border," he said. "I've heard about that jail Parker's got down there in the basement. Sounds like a doggone dungeon if you ask me."
"I'd just as soon not find out firsthand," Bo said.
The creaking of wagon wheels made him look to his right. A wagon with an enclosed back was approaching along the drive that ran in front of the courthouse. One man perched on the high driver's seat, handling the reins hitched to the four-horse team. He wasn't all that big, but he had broad shoulders, a prominent nose, and a drooping black mustache. He looked plenty tough and was well armed with two pistols worn butt-forward and an old Henry rifle laying on the wagon seat next to him.
Pinned to the man's coat was a deputy U.S. marshal's badge, Bo noted.
He and Scratch walked on past the entrance to the jail as the wagon rolled up behind them. The deputy hollered at his team as he hauled back on the reins and brought the vehicle to a halt. Bo glanced curiously over his shoulder and saw the lawman climbing down from the seat.
The deputy was probably either delivering or picking up some prisoners, Bo thought. Either way, it was none of his or Scratch's business. He heard a lock rattle, then the deputy called out, "All right, climb down outta there, you—"
That was as far as he got before he let out a startled yell. A second later, a gun went off with a boom that rolled across the broad courthouse lawn.
"What in tarnation?!" Scratch exclaimed as he whirled around.
Somehow, Bo wasn't surprised that trouble had erupted right behind their backs.
Chapter TwoBo turned quickly, too, his hand going to his gun as he did so. He saw the deputy marshal who'd been driving the wagon wrestling with a burly, unshaven man as they fought over possession of the deputy's rifle.
Another man and a woman were dashing away across the courthouse lawn.
"Those prisoners are escaping!" Bo snapped. "Come on, Scratch!"
It never occurred to him to just stand there and watch the drama unfolding, which is what most people would have done. In fact, there were already a number of bystanders gawking at the struggle behind the wagon or at the fugitives running past them.
The Texans started running, too. Luckily, the direction in which the escaping prisoners had fled sent them on a course that Bo and Scratch could intersect at an angle. If that hadn't happened, they probably wouldn't have had a chance to catch up, because the prisoners were younger and faster.
The woman was especially swift. She'd hiked up her long skirt, and her bare calves flashed in the winter sunlight as she sprinted for freedom. Long, curly blond hair bounced on her shoulders and back as she ran. Scratch, who was a little faster on his feet than Bo, went after her, while Bo targeted the tall, skinny hombre with long black hair.
Bo's pulse was pounding hard after only a few feet. He knew he couldn't hope to win a distance race with this long-legged gent, so he took a chance and launched himself off his feet in a diving tackle at the man's legs.
He almost fell short, but he was able to get a hand on one of the man's ankles. The fugitive let out a startled yell as he pitched forward out of control. The yell turned into a pained grunt as his face plowed into the grass and dirt of the lawn.
The impact of Bo's own landing on the ground knocked the breath out of him and stunned him for a second. He knew, though, that he didn't have time to lie there and recover. He scrambled onto his hands and knees and lunged toward the man he had tripped up.
The fugitive rolled over and brought a mallet-like fist swinging up at Bo's head. Bo twisted so that the blow landed on his left shoulder instead.
The punch packed enough power that it made his arm go numb all the way down. He dropped on top of the man, driving his right elbow into the fugitive's belly as he did so. Sour breath gusted from the man's mouth into Bo's face.
Years of finding himself in such rough-and-tumble brawls had given Bo plenty of experience. He considered himself an honorable man, but when you were fighting for your life, no holds were barred and no blows were too low. He aimed a knee at his opponent's groin. That was usually the quickest way of ending a fight.
It probably would have been in this case if the knee had landed. But the man blocked the blow with a thigh and slammed clubbed fists into Bo's jaw. The brutal wallop sent Bo rolling across the lawn.
The man lunged up into a stumbling run and scrambled after him. He bent, reaching for the Colt in Bo's holster.
Bo had no idea who the man was or why that deputy marshal had arrested him and brought him here to Fort Smith, but he knew it wouldn't be a good idea to let an escaping prisoner get his hands on a gun. Bo jerked his right leg up at the last minute and planted the toe of his boot in the man's belly.
The man's own momentum, along with a heave from Bo's leg, sent him flying through the air above the Texan. He crashed down hard, and this time the soft lawn didn't cushion his fall. He landed on one of the flagstone walks instead.
Bo rolled over, came up on a knee, and drew his gun. He leveled the Colt at the fugitive, who was also gasping for breath now as he lay on the ground.
"Don't move ... mister," Bo warned as he tried to catch his own breath. "I'll blow one of your knees apart if you do, and you'll never walk right again."
The man's face contorted in a snarl. He started to push himself up and said, "I'll never walk again after they hang me, anyway!"
That made sense. He didn't have anything to lose. Bo's finger tightened on the trigger.
Meanwhile, Scratch had given chase to the blonde. She must have heard him coming after her, because she glanced over her shoulder at him with wide blue eyes. Seeing him closing in on her, she increased her speed.
Scratch didn't have enough breath left to curse, or he would have. Instead he just tried to run a little harder.
The woman had almost reached the streets that ran through Fort Smith's business district. If she made it into that maze of hills and buildings and people, she would stand a good chance of getting away. Scratch knew that. If he drew one of his Remingtons and took a shot at her, he could probably bring her down, even on the run like this.
But he had never liked the idea of shooting at a woman, even one who must have broken the law. Nor did he know what crimes this particular gal was charged with. Gunplay didn't seem called for.
And he couldn't close the gap, so it was starting to look like she was going to escape.
She likely would have, too, if a man leading a team of mules hadn't emerged from the mouth of an alley just as the woman rounded a corner and started along the street. She let out a startled cry and had to come to a sudden stop to avoid running into them.
Scratch saw that and poured on the last of the speed he had in reserve. He reached out and grabbed the collar of the blonde's dress as she tried to dart around the mules and their startled owner.
With a loud rip, the garment tore, splitting down the back and exposing a considerable expanse of smooth, creamy skin. Scratch bunched his fingers in the fabric and didn't let go. He tried to haul the woman closer so he could get hold of her.
"Help!" she screamed. "This crazy old coot's trying to rape me!"
Well, shoot! Scratch thought. That was a smart move on her part. They had gone around a corner and were out of sight of the courthouse now, and the folks who'd been walking along this street had no earthly idea what was going on. Naturally, they believed the woman's apparently terrified claim that she was the victim here.
The man with the mules let go of the reins and came toward Scratch.
"Let go of her, you varmint!" he yelled.
A woman cried, "Somebody fetch the law!"
More men shouted threatening curses as they closed in around Scratch. He couldn't fight all of them, and he sure couldn't hang on to the blonde if they jumped him.
So he did the only thing he could. He pulled the woman closer to him with his left land, drew his right-hand Remington, and bellowed, "Everybody back off, dadblast it!"
From the corner of his eye, he saw the woman's hand come up. Sunlight flashed on something she was holding. He jerked his head back, and it was a good thing he did, otherwise the small straight razor she had flicked open would have cut his throat neatly from ear to ear.
She grunted in fury as she twisted in his grip. The dress ripped even more. She slashed down at his arm with the razor, and he had to let go of her and yank his arm back to avoid being cut. As it was, the blade sliced through the sleeve of his buckskin jacket.
She could have run again then, but rage made her come after Scratch instead. She swiped the razor back and forth at his face, forcing him to give ground. Scratch was more tempted now to shoot her, but if he did that, some of the bystanders might open fire on him.
Somebody grabbed him from behind, wrapping strong arms around him and saying, "I got him, ma'am! He won't hurt you now!"
The same couldn't be said of the blonde. With her face twisted in lines of hate, she kept coming, obviously intent on carving Scratch's rugged face into bloody ribbons.
Back on the courthouse lawn, Bo was about to fire at the prisoner he'd been battling when somebody suddenly stepped past him and swung a leg in a well-aimed kick. The man's boot crashed into the fugitive's jaw and laid him out again. The newcomer moved in and brought the butt of his rifle crashing down on the back of the man's neck.
Bo recognized the rugged-looking deputy marshal who had driven the wagon up to the courthouse. More law officers swarmed past him and grabbed the unconscious fugitive.
The deputy swung his rifle toward Bo and snapped, "Put that gun down, mister. Better yet, holster it. You're makin' me nervous."
Bo pouched the iron as he came to his feet. Obviously, the deputy had overcome the man he'd been fighting with at the wagon, maybe with help from other deputies who'd come running out of the courthouse.
"Did you see which way that yellow-haired gal went?" the lawman went on.
"She was headed that way," Bo said as he pointed toward the downtown area. "My partner was after her."
"Come on, then. She's the most loco one in the whole bunch!"
Bo and the deputy ran toward Fort Smith's business district. They heard a lot of yelling, and as they rounded a corner they saw a group of people in the street. Through gaps in the crowd, Bo caught a glimpse of Scratch being held from behind, his arms pinned by a burly townsman.
The blonde that Scratch had pursued was coming at him, a razor in her uplifted hand.
The deputy skidded to a halt and fired three shots into the air, cranking off the rounds as fast as he could work the Henry's lever. The roar of the shots made people in the crowd gasp, curse, and fall back.
They also made the woman hesitate, and Scratch took advantage of the opportunity to lift his left leg in a kick that caught her wrist and sent the razor flying from her fingers.
Disarmed, the woman whirled around to flee again. The deputy snapped the rifle to his shoulder and fired again, this time through a narrow gap in the crowd. The bullet smacked into the paving stones at the woman's feet.
The deputy worked the Henry's lever and called, "Next one goes in your back, Cara!You know I ain't foolin'!"
The mob that had surrounded Scratch and the woman was vanishing rapidly as people scrambled for cover. There was nothing like a few gunshots for clearing a street in a hurry. The deputy had an unobstructed aim now as he settled the rifle's sights on the woman's back.
She must have known he would kill her rather than let her get away, because she stopped and raised her hands. The torn dress hung open almost indecently, revealing her smooth back down to the curve of her hips.
"Marshal, that woman needs something to wear," Bo said, his chivalrous instincts coming into play even in this situation.
Excerpted from SIDEWINDERS: Texas Bloodshed by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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