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The Loner: inferno
By J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 J. A. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe place didn't have a name, at least as far as the rider on the dun horse knew. Probably the people who lived there called it something, but the tall young man didn't care about that.
He just wanted a drink after riding all day in the baking New Mexico sun. One of the handful of buildings alongside the trail was a saloon, so that was all that mattered to him.
He reined the dun over to the hitch rail in front of the saloon and swung down from the saddle. Most of the buildings in the tiny settlement were adobe, but this one was constructed of lumber—freighted in from somewhere—and even had a porch and a false front giving the illusion of a second story.
MAHONEY'S—BEER—LIQUOR—GAMBLING was painted on the false front. Right to the point, the newcomer thought. He was a little surprised WHORES wasn't painted up there too.
The man was broad-shouldered, lean but powerfully built. He wore brown whipcord trousers tucked into high-topped brown boots, a buckskin shirt unadorned with fringe, and a wide-brimmed, flat-crowned brown Stetson with conchos on the band.
A Colt .45 revolver with black grips rode easily in the holster on his right hip. In sheaths strapped to his saddle were a nearly new Winchester repeater and an older Sharps Big Fifty carbine. With the dawn of a new century not that far away, it was getting more unusual to see men armed like that, even on the frontier, but it wasn't yet uncommon.
He wrapped the dun's reins around the hitch rack and stepped up into the blessed shade of the saloon's porch. Even though the air was blistering hot and dry, it helped to get out of the direct rays of the sun.
The stranger was thirsty, but before he stepped into the saloon he paused and leaned on the porch railing for a moment to look along the street. He was in the habit of being cautious and studying his surroundings.
Next to the saloon was a mercantile, beyond that a corral, and on the other side of the corral a single-story adobe hotel. Across the street was a blacksmith shop, a cantina, and a couple of adobe houses. That was the extent of the settlement.
A dog, panting in front of the blacksmith shop, was the only sign of life in the community. The stranger's dun was the only horse tied at the hitch racks, although a few unsaddled mounts shifted around listlessly in the corral.
Everybody was taking a siesta, the man thought. Given the heat of the day, it wasn't surprising. Nobody wanted to move around much.
But somebody was moving, and in a hurry, he realized as he glanced to the south. His blue eyes narrowed at the sight of the dust cloud rolling up into the brassy sky.
Usually when somebody was moving that fast in such heat, it meant trouble. But it couldn't have anything to do with him. He had just ridden in and had never been there before.
With a mental shrug, he turned, pushed through the batwings, and walked into Mahoney's Saloon.
The stranger was the only customer. The place would soon go broke if it never did any more business than this. The bar was empty, and so were the half-dozen tables. A single bartender stood behind the hardwood, aimlessly wiping a cloth over it.
He looked up in surprise at the stranger's entrance. He was a middle-aged man with a pinched face and was mostly bald with a fringe of graying red hair around his ears. "Afternoon, mister."
"It surely is," the stranger agreed as he approached the bar. "Is your beer cold?"
"Oh, now, you might as well be asking for a miracle, my friend. The closest cold beer is in Albuquerque or El Paso. But what I have is wet, and it'll wash the dust out of your throat if that's what you're looking for."
"It is." The stranger took a coin out of his pocket and dropped it on the bar.
The bartender frowned. "Beer's usually four bits."
"I pay four bits for cold beer. Warm is only worth two."
The bartender thought for a second and then nodded.
"I suppose that's fair enough, especially seeing as I don't exactly have customers beating down my door right now."
"You may in a few minutes," the stranger said as the bartender filled a mug from a keg. "I saw some dust headed toward town. Looked like quite a few riders, and judging by the hurry they're in, they must be thirsty."
The bartender dropped the mug. It shattered and splashed beer over the floor behind the bar.
"A bunch of riders ... coming toward town?" he choked out.
"That's right." The stranger's eyes narrowed. "You act like you have a pretty good idea who they are and what they want."
The bartender kicked the broken glass aside and didn't bother picking it up. "If your horse isn't completely played out, I'd advise mounting up and riding out of here right now, mister. You don't want to be here."
The bartender wiped sweat off his face with the bar rag. "Because when Hammersmith's men get here, there's likely to be shooting. A lot of it."
"Shooting about what?"
"Dan Hammersmith owns the Hammer Ranch south of here. He's been losing stock, and he blames Pepé Flores. Flores owns the cantina across the road. He's holed up in there now with half a dozen Mex gunmen. When Hammersmith and his crew get here, there's going to be a battle. Everybody in town knows what's coming. That's why they're all hunkered down, waiting until it's over. I'm going in my back room, where I've got some crates stacked up to stop any stray bullets that come this way."
"Is Flores actually behind the rustling?"
"I don't know. Hammersmith thinks he is, and that's all that matters."
The stranger thought it over, and nodded. "I still want that beer."
"You're not leaving?" the bartender asked, his eyes wide with surprise.
"Not until I've had that beer, Mister ... are you Mahoney?"
"Aye. William Mahoney, his own self."
"Then draw another beer for me, Mr. Mahoney, and you can go get behind your crates."
Mahoney stared at him for a long moment, then muttered, "'Tis a madman you are."
The stranger smiled. "No. Just thirsty."
Mahoney grabbed a mug from the backbar and filled it. He pushed it across the hardwood toward the stranger. "There. It's on the house this time, since I dropped the first one. And whatever happens ... it's on your head, mister."
He turned, scurried to the end of the bar, and disappeared through a narrow door.
The stranger picked up the mug and took a long swallow of the beer. Mahoney was right. It wasn't the least bit cold, but it was wet and washed away the trail dust, and it wasn't too bitter. The stranger sighed in satisfaction as he set the mug back on the bar.
He turned and walked to the door, pushed the batwings aside and stepped onto the porch. The dust cloud was a lot closer to the settlement. Close enough he could hear the pounding hoofbeats of the horses.
Riders appeared at the cloud's base, black dots at first and then recognizable as men on horseback. They swept into the settlement and reined their mounts to a halt at the point where the trail turned into a street. The skidding stop kicked up more dust, and since there was barely any breeze, it hung over the street, drifting slowly past the saloon.
The stranger took off his hat, revealing a thatch of sandy hair, and waved some of the dust away as it tried to settle on him.
As the air gradually cleared, he saw that ten men had ridden into town, all of them wearing range clothes and sporting guns in tied-down holsters. They fancied themselves Coltmen, whether they actually were or not.
One man was a little better dressed than the others, so the stranger pegged him as Dan Hammersmith, the rancher whose herd had been the victim of rustlers.
Hammersmith cast a frowning glance at the stranger, who had replaced his hat and stood with a hip braced against one of the posts supporting the awning over the porch. Hammersmith said something to the rider beside him, who shook his head. The second man was probably indicating he had no idea who the tall stranger was.
Hammersmith jerked a hand in a curt gesture. The stranger's identity clearly didn't matter to him. He hitched his horse into motion and started leading his men along the street toward the cantina.
"Hold on a minute," the stranger called as he straightened from his casual pose and stepped down from the saloon's porch.
Instantly, some of the cowboys put their hands on their guns. The stranger ignored them as he walked toward Hammersmith. He didn't figure they would draw and fire without their boss giving the order.
"What the hell do you want, mister?" the leader snapped. "This ain't a good time to be askin' for a job, if that's what you're doin'."
The stranger shook his head. "I'm not interested in work. Are you Hammersmith?"
"That's right. What's it to you?"
"I hear you've got a grudge against the fella who owns the cantina down yonder."
"That's right. What business is it of yours? Are you friends with that greaser thief Flores?"
"Never met the man," the stranger said. "Never even seen him, just like I never saw you until now. Whatever problems you have, I'm not part of them."
Hammersmith scowled. "The biggest problem I have right now is you're interferin' with what we've got to do. We're about to clean out that rat's nest, and if you don't like it, you can go to hell!"
Mutters of agreement came from his men.
"I don't care what you do," the stranger said. "But you see that horse over there?" He pointed to the dun standing at the hitch rack in front of Mahoney's with his head drooping in weariness.
"What about it?" Hammersmith demanded.
"That's my horse, and he's tired and hot. He needs some water and the chance to rest for a while before I ride out again. But if you and those men holed up in the cantina start shooting at each other, my horse is liable to get hit by a stray bullet."
"Well, then, get him off the damned street!" Hammersmith bellowed.
The stranger shook his head. "He's fine where he is. I'll be leaving in an hour or so. Flores and his men will still be waiting for you in the cantina then."
The rancher's eyes widened in amazement. "You want us to wait and have our showdown after you're gone, just so your horse won't get shot?"
"It seems like a reasonable request to me," the stranger said.
With his face turning purple with rage, Hammersmith demanded at the top of his lungs, "Just who in blazes do you think you are?"
"They call me Kid Morgan."
Chapter TwoThe Kid rode away from the little settlement an hour later. He had finished his beer, let the dun drink from a water trough once he'd cooled off some, and even bought a few supplies from the extremely nervous proprietor of the general store.
During that time, Dan Hammersmith and his men waited just outside the western end of town. When The Kid finally left, he rode past them, feeling hatred radiating as they glared at him.
Outnumbered ten to one, there was no question he would have been killed if Hammersmith had decided to force the issue and ordered his men to slap leather.
But the rancher had looked into The Kid's eyes and known that if he did that, he would be the first to die in the fracas. None of the cowboys were anywhere close to fast enough on the draw to stop The Kid from getting lead into him.
So Hammersmith had turned his horse and barked orders at his men and they withdrew to the western end of the street to wait reluctantly.
Facing them down had been a foolish stunt, and The Kid knew it. It was the sort of thing a man with a death wish might do.
He didn't have a death wish, he told himself as he rode away.
He just didn't give a damn anymore.
A few days earlier, he had been in the town of Val Verde, east of there, standing in front of a tombstone in the graveyard behind the mission with his hat in his hand. He hadn't spoken aloud, and he wouldn't have known what to say to his late wife, anyway.
Good-bye, maybe, because he was putting his former life, with all its tragedies and disappointments behind him, once and for all. Conrad Browning was just as dead as the woman in that grave.
He had made that decision once before, but things kept pulling him back to his former existence. First the need for revenge, then the prospect of family, a prospect that promised at least a degree of healing.
Instead, all the scabs on the old wounds had been brutally ripped away again, and the only way to deal with the pain was to put it behind him.
So it was Kid Morgan, the gunfighter, who rode away from Val Verde, leaving Conrad Browning buried back there.
Rest in peace, you unlucky son of a bitch.
In the few days since then, he had drifted farther west, through the arid, but starkly beautiful, reaches of southern New Mexico Territory. He hadn't run into any trouble until today, and his reputation as a deadly gunman had ended that before it well and truly began.
While he was still in earshot, revolvers and rifles and shotguns began to roar in the settlement. The Kid didn't look back. There was nothing he could have done to stop what was happening. The hatred between the two sides was too deeply ingrained. It was a shame that men had to die, but they had gone into it with their eyes open.
The Kid hoped William Mahoney was keeping his head down, along with all the other citizens who weren't part of the fight. Innocent people shouldn't have to die because of somebody else's hate. Of course, they often did.
The heat eased a little as the sun lowered toward the horizon. A range of rugged hills bulked to the north, but the flats where The Kid rode stretched endlessly to the south. It was dry, treeless country, except for some scrubby mesquites and the occasional stunted cottonwood that grew along the washes where streams ran part of the year. Clumps of hardy grass dotted the landscape, along with saguaros that reared their spiny arms, sentinel-like, over the sandy ground.
That part of the territory was sparsely populated, and for good reason. There was enough graze to support cattle—if you had an abundance of rangeland and a small enough herd. Farther south, along the border, were deposits of silver, gold, and copper.
Mostly, it was a route for people going somewhere else. The original Butterfield stage line had gone through there more than forty years earlier, and nowadays the Southern Pacific's steel rails spanned it, linking El Paso and California.
The Kid was several miles north of the railroad, riding roughly parallel to it. He knew it well, since Conrad Browning had been a stockholder in the Southern Pacific, but he had no interest in it now. Back to the northeast was a spur line the Browning financial interests had built, but The Kid had even less interest in that.
He could still be curious when he saw something unexpected, though. His eyes narrowed as he spotted a line of pale blurs a mile or two ahead of him, and reined the dun to a halt. He wasn't sure what those things were, but they were moving. Slowly, to be sure, but they were definitely creeping along.
He reached inside his saddlebags and brought out a telescope. Extending the cylinder, he lifted it to his right eye, closed the left, and squinted through the lenses.
One of the objects he was looking at sprang into sharp relief.
"Well, I'll be damned," The Kid said.
It was a covered wagon.
He moved the telescope, swinging its field of view along the line of wagons with their bleached canvas covers. He had seen covered wagons before, of course, but only one or two at a time. Never a whole train of them.
He knew that in the past, wagon trains had carried hundreds of thousands of immigrants to new homes on the frontier, but in this day and age, when the railroads reached almost everywhere, they were rare. Rare enough that The Kid had never seen one.
But that was what he was looking at, no doubt about it. Using the telescope, he made a quick count. Thirty wagons in the train stretched out, single file, for a couple of hundred yards.
A dozen or so outriders moved along with the wagons, flanking them on horseback. Two more riders were in the lead, several yards ahead of the first wagon in line.
Excerpted from The Loner: inferno by J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 by J. A. 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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