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WEST TEXAS KILL
By JOHNNY D. BOGGS
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Johnny D. Boggs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHell, the man on the gray horse decided, does get cold.
He had tied a blue woolen scarf over his hat and under his chin, bringing down the brim of his battered Stetson to keep his ears warm. Ice crystals had formed on his stiff mustache, his nose was red, lips chapped, and his lungs burned with every breath he took. Behind him, over the monotonous clopping of hooves came the sniffling of his men, the creaking of leather, the chimes of spurs. But no complaints. The sixteen men riding with him would not whine, would never turn back. He had heard the saying dozens of times before: The Rangers of Company E would ride through Hell for Captain Hector Savage.
Indeed, they had.
Hell. Mexico. He sniffed. Same damned thing.
Dead stems rising from century plants bent to the brutal wind as he led his men through rough, mountainous terrain, the ground frozen solid, the country so bleak that even the yucca plants looked worn out. No clouds. No threat of snow. As Doc Shaw had commented a few hours earlier, "Too cold to snow." Nothing but a harsh November wind, making the twenty-degree afternoon feel a lot colder. Behind him, to the north, rose the ominous peaks of the Chisos Mountains. Also behind him lay the Río Grande.
The wool-lined collar of his heavy canvas coat had also been pulled up, although he had not bothered to button the coat. Despite the gloves, his fingers felt numb as he gripped the reins with his left hand, keeping his right near the ivory grip of one of the silver-plated Merwin Hulbert .44s holstered high on his waist.
His pale blue eyes scanned the country. For the past couple hours, he had not seen any other living animal, not even a javelina or a coyote, as the horses picked their way around clumps of bear grass, catclaw, and pesky prickly pear. That would change soon. The Guardia Rural would intercept them shortly. He was counting on it.
Twenty minutes later, as he led the Rangers into a widening valley, he spotted a flash in the distance—likely sunlight reflecting off a saber. He spit out a mouthful of tobacco juice as he tugged slightly on the reins, stopping the gray. Five more minutes passed before he saw the dust, and the band of Rurales came into view a few minutes later.
Behind him, he heard an ominous click.
"Nobody cocks or pulls a weapon," Hector Savage said without turning around. A muttered sigh answered his order, followed by metallic sounds of a hammer being lowered on a Sharps, and the sliding of the rifle back into a saddle scabbard.
"Demitrio," Savage said.
"Best tie that bandana of yours to the barrel of your rifle. Let these Rurales know we come in peace."
"It is already done, mi capitán."
Savage grinned. Half Irish, half greaser, Demitrio Ahern had been riding for the Rangers since Savage had formed his company more than a decade earlier, after the government in Austin had finally wised up, gotten rid of that insipid state police, and sent men onto the frontier to bring justice—often summary, by hemp or lead—to outlaws terrorizing much of Texas. Austin had formed companies of Rangers, called battalions, and sent them to various regions. Leander McNelly got the Nueces Strip, and much glory, before succumbing to consumption. Hector Savage left his ranch southeast of San Antonio for the sprawling expanse of nothingness west of the Pecos River. He hadn't been east of that river since.
Without being ordered, Demitrio Ahern eased his horse out of line, and trotted to Savage's right, a frayed cotton square, once solid brilliant white now faded and yellowed, popped in the wind from beneath the front sight of his .45-70 carbine. The stock was butted on his thigh against the worn leather chaps. He kept his gloved finger out of the trigger guard, but his thumb on the Sharps's big hammer.
Savage could see the Rurales loping across the desert floor in columns of twos, led by a thin Mexican wearing a French-style kepi. He counted eleven men, but just to be certain, he asked Ahern how many men he saw.
"Once," came the reply.
Satisfied, Savage straightened in the saddle, and pushed his heavy coat back behind the butt of the Merwin Hulbert on his right hip. "Reckon they left any up near that pass? To keep them covered?"
Ahern studied the terrain, then said, "No, mi capitán. They are too foolish. They believe this flag of truce will protect them."
"Hell." Savage spit again. "It will." He raised his right hand, bit the dirty, oily leather above his fingers, and pulled off one glove, which he stuck in the pocket of his coat before returning his hand near the .44 revolver.
The Rurales reached them, and slowed their horses. The one in the kepi and two others rode forward, the rest remaining back, their horses nervously stomping, snorting, waiting.
The leader looked young, probably still in his early twenties, with a handsome, unblemished face. He wore a gray jacket trimmed in silver, blue-gray britches with deerskin on the insides of the thighs and buttocks for extra protection, a billowy, white shirt, and a red cravat. A gold crucifix hanging from a rawhide string bounced across his chest as he trotted forward on a black stallion, and he raised a gauntleted right hand. He carried no long gun, just a saber that clattered against his saddle, and a pistol holstered on his right hip, butt forward, covered with a leather flap. The flap, Savage noticed, was snapped closed.
The other Rurales looked more like the Mexican peace officers Savage was used to seeing—well-worn pants and jackets; bandoliers of ammunition draped over their chests, around their waists, and hanging from the saddle horns; revolvers stuck inside waistbands, or holstered on hips; knives sheathed in concho-studded belts; large sombreros pulled low on their heads. A few cradled old muskets—one carried an old fowling piece. Every one of them, except the young officer, appeared nervous, and looked like the damned bandits they'd likely been before forced into the police force, though not a one seemed cold.
"Buenas tardes," the officer said after he reined in his stallion a couple rods in front of Savage. "Me llamo Jaime Bautista Moreno, teniente de los Rurales de San Pedro. Tu siervo, señores."
"El gusto es mío," Savage said, and the lieutenant smiled and bowed. Savage spit, then asked, "¿Habla usted Inglés?"
The immediate one to Lieutenant Moreno's right answered. "I speak English, señores. You are norte-americanos, sí?" He was an old man, white hair underneath a battered sombrero, eyes suspicious, a few days growth of beard on his face and a mustache that, unlike the rest of his hair, had not turned completely white. His revolver was within easy reach, and his right hand never strayed far from the walnut butt.
With his left hand still gloved, Savage let the reins fall across the gelding's neck. He gripped just beneath the lapel of his coat and pulled it back slightly, revealing the star cut into a circle made from a Mexican peso pinned to his vest. "We're Texas Rangers." He said it loud enough for the soldiers behind the lieutenant and his two segundos to hear, and took a little pride in the reaction he got.
"Los rinches," came the nervous whisper. "Los rinches ..."
The white-haired man began speaking to the lieutenant in Spanish. Savage couldn't savvy most of it, figuring if the old man said something he needed to know Demitrio Ahern would tell him, but Savage could read the lieutenant's young face. The Rurale straightened in his saddle, his black eyes never leaving Savage, and spoke in an urgent whisper.
The old Rurale turned back to Savage. "Teniente Moreno asks, 'Why have you traveled into our poor country?'"
Poor is an understatement, Savage thought. He tugged the coat back over his vest, gathered the reins, and answered, "We were pursuing the bandit, Juan Lo Grande."
"Lo Grande?" the old one asked, his face betraying him with a wry grin. "No se corta un pelo."
"He ain't a bit of a devil," Savage snapped. "He's el diablo himself."
The white haired one translated. Lieutenant Moreno's face hardened, his head bobbed slightly, and he sighed as he told the old man something.
Again, the white-haired one translated. "Teniente Moreno regrets to inform you that our presidente, Porfirio Díaz, would consider your presence on Mexican soil as an armed invasion. He must ask that you turn around and return to your own country. Leave Lo Grande to us."
"We've been leaving him to you bean-eaters," Savage said with bitterness. He took time to switch the chaw of tobacco to his other cheek, letting his temper cool. "Lo Grande's men raided the quicksilver mines in Terlingua. Killed a couple miners, made off with a whore and the payroll. That's an armed invasion, if you ask me. I'm Hec Savage."
Even as the old one translated for the lieutenant, Savage heard the whispers among the other Rurales. He smiled, and kept talking, "We've been on Lo Grande's trail for a couple days. I would be willing to put my men and myself under Lieutenant Moreno's command. I think they call it a 'joint punitive action.' Between us, we could make Lo Grande pay for all the crimes he has committed on both sides of the border."
He listened to the old one's translation, saw an eagerness in Lieutenant Moreno's eyes, but the young Rurale's shoulders sagged, and he answered by shaking his head. Without waiting for the old one to speak, Savage said, "My understanding is that the Mex government and the muckety-mucks in Washington City have been allowing our damnyankee cavalry to pursue marauding Apaches across theArizona border into Sonora. Makes sense to me, and maybe the government of Chihuahua, that we should be able to do the same thing. Lo Grande is worse than Geronimo and old Nana. At least in West Texas. And San Pedro."
Again, the old one translated, and the young officer considered it. He wants to do it, Savage thought with amazement, but finally, Lieutenant Moreno's head bowed, and shook. He spoke, and Savage listened to the translation.
"¡Ay de mí! Teniente Moreno apologizes, but there is a difference between the government of the United States and the government of Texas. Los rinches."
Savage smiled an understanding smile.
"Teniente Moreno says that although he would accept your generosity and end Lo Grande's reign of terror were it up to him, he is a soldier, and must follow orders. Con permiso, Capitán Savage, we will escort you and your soldados to the river and see that you reach Texas safely."
Savage's head bobbed, and he let out a weary sigh." I figured as much. Worth taking a shot, though." He turned around. "All right, men. These hombres will take us back to the Río Grande. They'll protect us."
Dusk was approaching when they reached the border. The lieutenant used his saber to cut through the brush, and spurred his stallion into the gurgling river. Hec Savage followed on his gray gelding. The river was shallow and muddy, but wide, maybe fifty yards across, and bitterly cold. Halfway across, Savage reined in the gray, reached into his vest pocket, and withdrew a handful of cigars. Most of the Rangers eased their horses to the Texas banks. Most of the Rurales had stayed on the Mexican shore.
The white-haired one and the lieutenant took the cigars, muttering their thanks. The old one put his away. Young Moreno sheathed the saber, bit off an end of the smoke, and waited for Savage to light it.
Like hell, Savage thought, I ain't your manservant, boy.
But Demitrio Ahern eased his bay gelding near the lieutenant, struck a lucifer against his chaps, and fired up the cigar, before backing up his gelding a few rods. The bandana on the end of his rifle flapped in the wind.
Savage, who had spit out his quid of tobacco miles earlier, stuck a cigar in his mouth, and lit it with a match he had struck against the butt of one of his revolvers. The wind moaned through the trees and brush lining the riverbanks on both sides of the border. The bandana kept right on flapping in the biting wind.
"Demitrio," Savage said when his cigar was finally smoking to his satisfaction. "I don't reckon we need that flag of truce anymore."
"But, of course, mi capitán," Demitrio Ahern said. He removed the dirty piece of cotton, and while lowering the Sharps, thumbed back the hammer, and squeezed the trigger, blowing the white-haired Rurale out of his saddle.
Spitting out the cigar, screaming something, Lieutenant Moreno reached first for his revolver, then, realizing the flap was shut, tried to draw his saber. By that time, Hec Savage had slipped from his saddle into ankle-deep water. Holding the reins in his left hand, using the gray as a shield, he drew one of the long-barrel .44s with his right and shot the stupid officer, seeing the white shirt explode crimson.
The big black horse wheeled, spilling Moreno into the water. As it bolted for the Mexican side of the river a bullet slammed into its head, killing it instantly.
"Pity," Savage said aloud. A fine stallion like that would have brought a nice price over in Presidio. He snapped a shot that spilled another Rurale on the far bank from his saddle.
Behind him roared the weapons of his Rangers. In front of him, Lieutenant Moreno tried to push himself to his feet, but slipped back into the reddish-brown waters of the Río Grande. Savage aimed again, squeezed the trigger. The Merwin Hulbert warmed his cold hand.
Horses and men screamed. The Rangers cursed, and shot. The air smelled of sulfur, of brimstone. Most of the Rurales lay dead in the river, or on the banks, but three spurred their mounts through the brush, and up a hill, only to be met by a dozen charging, bellowing Mexican bandits, firing revolvers and slashing down with machetes.
In less than a minute, it was over, the only sound coming from the river and the wind, and the occasional pop of a coup de grâce as a Mexican bandit shot a wounded Rurale in the back of his head. Then Savage heard a small groan. Pulling the gelding behind him, he slogged through mud and water toward the lieutenant, who had drifted a few yards downstream.
"Capt'n," Doc Shaw called out, and Savage paused briefly to consider the Mexicans riding through the brush. Some of them stopped to loot the dead. One, grinning so wide his gold teeth reflected the disappearing sun, kneed his horse into the river while he shoved a Colt revolver into the holster.
"Amigos," Juan Lo Grande boasted, "we work well together, do we not? 'O heaven! were man but constant, he were perfect.'"
Ignoring the bandit, Savage reached the lieutenant, whose fancy jacket had snagged on an uprooted sandbar willow in the middle of the river, partially buried in the mud. Blood seeped from both corners of the young man's mouth, and his eyes looked up, begging for mercy, while his right fingers fumbled for something on his chest.
Savage considered Lo Grande and the bandits for a moment, but holstered the .44. He knelt into the river, the cold water pricking his nerves, and gripped the gold crucifix in the fingers of his right hand. Spitting out the cigar he asked, "This what you want, Moreno?"
The lieutenant tried to speak, but couldn't.
Savage rose, jerking the gold cross from its rawhide string, then shoving it into his coat pocket. Juan Lo Grande said something, probably quoting Shakespeare again, but Savage focused on the dying lieutenant. He turned back to his horse and started for the saddle, thinking he might use the double-barrel Parker 12-gauge to finish the job before deciding he didn't want to waste any lead. With Juan Lo Grande, he might need every shot he had.
He turned back, looked down once more at Moreno.
"Remember the Alamo," Savage said hoarsely. He put his right boot on the Rurale officer's nose, and pressed down until Moreno's head sank beneath the muddy water.
Excerpted from WEST TEXAS KILL by JOHNNY D. BOGGS Copyright © 2011 by Johnny D. Boggs. 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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