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The Trail West
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2013 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorth Dakota, Fall 1869
The pot wouldn't have been considered a big one in town. In fact, it would have been laughable.
But it was rich for a bunkhouse when the players were still a week and a half from payday and hurting bad for something to do. A dollar and fourteen cents, twenty-six matches, an old whorehouse token, and a train-flattened nickel sat in the center of the table. Dooley Monahan held exactly two pairs—tens and deuces.
Being unlucky at cards, it was the best hand he'd had in months. He dug deep into pockets linty with disuse and finally dug out a dime, his last. He looked across the table at Bob Smith, a summer name if he'd ever heard one, then flipped the dime onto the table. "Call, and raise you a five-cent nickel."
The other players had folded already and looked on eagerly while Smith scowled. He was the only other player left in the game, and universally disliked by the other hands.
Smith, a dull, hulking fellow with a Southern accent and a hair-trigger temper, growled, "All's I got is matches."
Everybody knew the matches would be redeemed, come payday, for a penny apiece. Monahan nodded. "Fine by me, Smith." He turned to the old codger sitting next to him. "You keepin' track, Cookie?"
Holding a folded-up piece of paper and a crooked stick of raw lead, Cookie licked the makeshift pencil. "Yup. That's five more matches for Smith. Right, Smith?"
Smith grunted and tossed five more sulphur tips on the pile. "Call," he barked. "Let's see 'em, Monahan."
Carefully, Monahan lay down the battered pasteboards to the boys' enthusiastic hum.
Smith set down his cards, but facedown. "You lose, Monahan," he growled, and started to rake in the pot.
Cookie, who was seventy-something and old enough ... or dumb enough ... to be brave in the face of a tough hombre like Smith—braver than Monahan was, in any case—grabbed Smith's arm. "Hold on, there. Let's have a look-see."
Monahan wasn't exactly sure what occurred over the next couple of seconds, but he recalled something about Smith calling him a cheat who lost more at cards than most men lose trying to put a size eight boot on a size ten foot! He thought he pushed Cookie out of the way right about the time Smith drew his gun, and he was a bit fuzzy about pulling his own.
But Monahan remembered the way it ended up, all right.
Smith lay dead, shot through the heart by Monahan, a man who normally couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a handful of beans, and Monahan himself was shot in the left hip. It wasn't bad, just a graze really, but it sure hurt like hell.
And he remembered everybody whooping and hollering and cheering.
As for Monahan? He hadn't liked Smith much, but he felt awful bad about the whole mess. He'd seen far too many deaths in his life to feel marginally good about causing yet another.
A couple of weeks later the U.S. marshal came by, and from the men's description—and the wrinkled poster he carried in his wallet—he identified Smith not as Smith, but as Jason Baylor, a man wanted in three states and two territories for everything from robbery to aggravated assault to cold blooded murder. Make that multiple murders.
"The last was when him and his brothers killed a couple fellers down in Colorado." Marshal Tobin sat in the good chair on the boss's porch with the boss and all the hands—including the still-limping Monahan—all huddled around. "Wounded three more, too. Bank job gone bad." He shook his head.
"If I was you, Dooley, I'd change my name and beat it out of here. Them Baylor boys is like rabid skunks. Reckon they're split up now, waitin' for the heat to die down from that Colorado job, but eventually they've got a plan to meet up. And when Jason don't show ..."
"That's right, Dooley," said Cookie, nodding sagely. "They'll come lookin' for you, sure as anything.
And that Alf Baylor? I hear he's plumb crazy!"
"Dev ain't exactly normal, either," muttered the marshal.
Monahan scrunched up his face. "Just how many brothers did the feller have, anyhow?"
Marshal Tobin frowned. "Just the two, Dooley, just the two. But you'll feel like you're in the hands of the legions of Satan if they catch you up. They're bad business. Real bad."
Monahan simply said, "Aw, crud." He was nearly forty-one and well past his prime. He'd been thinking—hoping, more like—he'd outlived what little reputation he had, and could get on with the peaceful business of living out the rest of his life and dying in relative obscurity.
Didn't seem the dice were going to roll his way, though.
Marshal Tobin scribbled on a piece of paper, and handed it to Monahan. "Reward voucher. There was plenty of paper out on Jason Baylor. Five hundred dollars' worth."
Collectively, the boys gasped and Monahan knew why. It was near two years' wages for a top cowhand.
"You can cash that in any place that has a bank and a telegraph, but I'd do it a far piece from here, if I was you. Think you know why. Hey, Charlie"—the marshal turned to the boss—"don't suppose you got anything stronger than coffee to drink around here, do you? Like to celebrate sayin' adios to at least one o' those damned Baylor boys."
Monahan left the next day, with a pillow under his left hip and the voucher in his pocket.
Chapter TwoThree years later
Dooley Monahan dozed, half asleep beside his dying campfire, beneath the pewter-gray of a barely-dawn sky in the piney Arizona mountains. He'd been dreaming a warm dream twenty-some years old, dreaming of Kathy and soft quilts and that old feather bed, when he was roused by the crawling sense that somebody was staring at him.
He grabbed his Colt before his eyes were all the way open, sat bolt upright, and swung the muzzle straight into the face of the intruder.
He checked himself just in time. It was a dog. A dog was staring at him, its mouth open in a grin and its tongue lolling. A dog with blue eyes, which he had mistaken for wolf yellow.
The dog just sat there, looking at him. Panting softly, expelling faint clouds of vapor, it appeared to be smiling at him—maybe laughing at an old man for being so dad-blamed jumpy.
Monahan slowly lowered his pistol.
The dog barked softy, just once, pushing out only enough air with the utterance to flutter its lips.
"Funny," Monahan muttered. "You're a real card.
Go home." He put his gun away.
The dog continued to look at him.
"Well, now that you woke me up, I gotta piss," he stated crankily, and then wondered why the hell he was talking to a dog when he didn't much like talking to people.
He stood up slowly, checking the trees ringing the old beaver meadow in which he'd made camp, and found nothing out of the ordinary. At least, there was no sign of those hounds-on-a-scent, the Baylor boys, and that was a blessing.
The morning air in the mountains was still cold and crisp, which was hard on the bones of a man who had a lot more miles behind him than in front of him. Seemed like it took forever to get his liver-spotted old body awake anymore, since it didn't wake all at one time. Aside from the general soreness he attributed to too many years of sleeping on hard ground, there were his old wounds.
His left shoulder woke first with a sharp, quick stab fading to a dull, lingering ache, where he'd taken two Mescalero arrows about fifteen or sixteen years back. A man would have thought there was a tiny little bull's-eye painted on his shirt, those arrows were so dang close together.
At least, that was what the doc had said when he was digging them out.
The way Monahan figured it, that sawbones had dug out about half his shoulder joint while he was in there. Least, it had felt like that was what he was doing. The son of a gun had enjoyed it, too!
Monahan's shoulder had never worked all that good again, but at least it was on his left side. He would have been out of work and down to sweeping saloons and emptying spittoons if it had been on his right.
His legs woke next. His right thigh complained with throbs in the places where he'd broken it, once by sailing ass-over-teakettle off a raw bronc, and once by falling down a ravine when he was out after strays.
Last to wake up was his head. Too many insults had left him with a permanent throb and ache. Sometimes it robbed him of his memory, other times, just part of it. But either way, it hurt worse in the mornings.
As he walked toward the trees, Monahan gave thought to his left hip. He'd never turned in the voucher from Marshal Tobin, although he still carried it in his hip pocket on the side that still ached from Jason Baylor's bullet. He figured it'd be bad luck—in more ways than one—to mess with bounty money. He'd been right, too. He'd worked all over the west since then, and hadn't heard a blessed word about the Baylor boys since the shooting.
Until six months past, leastwise. It had come to him that Dev and Alf Baylor were looking for him. Fortunately, he heard they were looking in Utah. But recently, he'd got word they were headed south into Arizona. He'd quit his job soon after and moved on, taking his cramps and his throbs and his soreness and his old hurts with him.
And so, on that crisp mountain morning while the dog watched, he took inventory of his aches and pains, and waited for them to stop their hollering.
At least half the time his left foot woke up numb, and he hadn't a clue why, although stomping on it for two or three minutes seemed to bring it around. And his neck always had a crick in it, from the time he took a bad fall off a bronc up in Wyoming.
He managed to hobble off a few feet and relieve himself, buttoned up, and had another look around at the trees, just in case. Another look at the dog revealed it hadn't moved more than an inch.
Monahan knew dogs like that one. He'd seen them, here and there, on cattle spreads. Well, on a few sheep operations, too, but sheep weren't something he liked to think about, at least not before he'd had his coffee. Old Billy Toomey at the B-Bar-T had a pair, an odd-eyed red merle and a brown-eyed black and tan, and he used them to work cows up from the range.
"Stand up," he said to the dog.
It yawned and lay down, stretching itself beside the fire.
"Well-trained, ain't you?"
Sighing happily—or perhaps with exhaustion—the dog closed its eyes.
The dog was a male, and bobtailed. Probably born that way, if it was what he thought it was. Its coat was longish and rough and as wild-colored as a jar full of jawbreakers. Even in the thin, early light, he could tell that much. The color was called merle: a bluish gray broken with patches of black, like somebody had slopped watery bleach over a black dog. Additionally, it had white feet and a white chest. Bright coppery markings covered its lower legs and muzzle, and a thumbprint-size smudge of copper hung over each eye.
He'd heard dogs like this called Spanish Shepherds or Australian Shepherds, or California or Arizona Shepherds, or Whatever-State-or-Territory-They-Happened-to-Be-In Shepherds. The folks calling them by any one of those names got awful touchy if somebody happened to call them by the wrong place.
He played it safe, and stuck with calling them plain old cow dogs. Of course, the Indians didn't call them that. They called them ghost dogs, the ones that had blue eyes, anyhow. Folks said as how Indians steered clear of those who had even one.
It struck him that this particular dog must belong to somebody. It looked like somebody had been feeding it regular, anyhow. He should have thought of it before.
"Where's your people?" Monahan asked, stomping his left foot on the ground rhythmically. The feeling was starting to come back. "Ain't you got no people?"
The dog opened his eyes and yawned, then went back to panting softly.
"Seems queer, you out here by your lonesome," he muttered, and his eyes flicked once again to the trees. Nothing. He was getting as spooky as an old woman.
Slowly, he walked through the tall, dewy, meadow grass toward a pine at the edge of the clearing, pausing to pat the neck of his hobbled bay gelding, General Grant. "Good mornin' to you, old son," he said softly. The horse looked up from his grazing just long enough to snort softly.
At the pine, Monahan untied his rope from the trunk and lowered his chuck bag, which he'd stashed up the tree in case of bears. He made his way back to the fire—and the cow dog—and slowly eased himself down again in his place across from the fire.
He added a few twigs to the embers and gave them a stir. "Ain't heard no folks. You run off from somebody?"
The dog sat up again and just looked at him.
In no time, Monahan had bacon sizzling in one skillet and biscuits baking in another.
The dog drooled steadily, watching his every move, but it didn't offer to snatch any from the pan.
"You got decent table manners, anyhow," Monahan muttered, and started the coffee.
When the biscuits were done, he broke one in two, the long way, and as the steam and that good smell rose on the cool morning air, he poked a piece of bacon inside it and made ready to pop it in his mouth.
Softy, the dog whined.
"Wait your turn." Monahan inched the biscuit closer to his mouth.
The dog's gaze followed that biscuit like a man's eyes, when he's fresh off a long trail, will watch a pretty woman.
"Oh, hell," Monahan grumbled, and tossed the little sandwich arcing over the fire. The dog caught it in his mouth, chewed twice, then swallowed. He licked his chops and stared again at Monahan.
"Don't try to fool me," Monahan said sternly. "I know how you dogs are. Even if you'd just ate a whole steer, you'd still be beggin' for cake."
The dog stared at him expectantly across the fire, a string of the ever-present drool slowly dripping from one corner of its mouth.
Monahan fixed a second biscuit, then averted his eyes and ate it himself ... and damned if he didn't feel guilty!
"I just got enough for two more, dog." He looked at its face more closely. The light had come up enough that he could see faint grizzle on the dog's muzzle. It was old, or at least middle-aged ... kind of like him. He figured it had to belong to somebody.
"They're little!" he said in his defense for wanting to eat both sandwiches when the dog lifted a paw and whined. "What do you weigh, anyhow? Can't be more 'n fifty, sixty pound. I'm three times bigger 'n you!"
He fixed a third biscuit with bacon and ate it, at which point the dog sat straight up on his haunches and waved his front paws in the air. Monahan heaved a sigh, fixed the last one, and tossed it to the dog, who caught it in midair.
Two chews and a gulp and the biscuit was gone.
Its front feet on the ground again, the dog looked at him expectantly.
"Ain't no more." Monahan poured himself a cup of coffee.
The dog whined softly in anticipation and shifted its weight from one front foot to the other.
"That's all there is," Monahan said more firmly.
The dog whined again, a high-pitched sound winding down three or four octaves to a low, rumbling groan.
Monahan shook his head. "I ain't never heard anything so pitiful! Dang it, anyhow! If I feed you full, will you go on home and let an old man be?"
Ever since his old yellow dog Two-Bits died, Monahan hadn't had the urge to own another. Two-Bits had got something terrible wrong with his hindquarters. First it was just a little limping now and then, but over time the poor critter howled every time he so much as stood up or took a step.
One morning, Two-Bits couldn't get up at all, anymore. Monahan had to shoot him to put the poor thing out of his misery. A whole decade later, he still felt awful bad about it. He couldn't remember what he'd been calling himself then, or what state or territory they'd been in, but he still dreamed about it sometimes. Those brown eyes had stared up at him right until the end, full of trust and terrible pain. He didn't want to go through that again. "Will you leave?" he asked the blue dog again.
The dog huffed quietly and waited.
"Hell's bells!" Monahan muttered, and dug into his grub sack for more biscuit-makings and bacon.
Excerpted from The Trail West by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2013 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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