Crater City, New Mexico, is a bustling mining town brimming with the stench of men hungry to get rich the old fashioned way—killing the competition. Dennis Conroy is the owner of the biggest saloon in town, and he needs a few good sharpshooters to help protect surveyors laying out a route for a spur railine before his rival Hugh Thornton beats him to it. Joe Buckhorn’s handy with a gun so he takes the job. Against his best advice, he’ll also take a liking to the boss’s daughter, which doesn’t go over well with her father. Worse, Buckhorn starts wondering exactly what kind of man he’s working for. Before the sun goes down much blood will be spilled and a lot of men will be blasted into the middle of next week.
Joe Buckhorns aims to be sure he’s not one of them.
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Buckhorn rode into Crater City, New Mexico Territory, about eight o'clock in the evening.
It was at least half an hour after that before he had to kill anybody.
Crater City was a boomtown, and it lived up to the description, especially after sundown. Workers from the lucrative silver mines in the nearby range of mountains headed into town after their shifts were over, ready for booze, gambling, and painted women to help them forget the backbreaking labor they'd engaged in all day. Payday was every Saturday, so a steady stream of coins flowed into the coffers of the saloons, dance halls, and whorehouses.
Buckhorn reined his horse to a halt in front of the Irish Rose Saloon, which appeared to be one of the biggest and busiest establishments in Crater City. Through the saloon's front windows he saw men thronged at the bar and filling the tables. Raucous laughter and tinny strains of music drifted past the batwings and into the night, along with clouds of tobacco smoke and stale fumes of whiskey, beer, piss, vomit, and unwashed flesh.
Buckhorn had smelled that same mixture of aromas in hundreds of saloons scattered from one end of the frontier to the other.
He looked up at the large sign nailed to the front of the building that announced the name of the place. His mouth quirked a little as he read the word Rose.
He had known a woman named Rose once. The relationship hadn't ended well.
He swung down from his mount, found a place for the horse at the hitch rail, and wrapped the reins around the rough wooden pole. He stepped up onto the boardwalk and paused there to take a better look through the window.
Light from inside shone through the glass onto Buckhorn's hard-planed, high-cheekboned face, which bore a few faint pockmarks from a childhood illness. He was a tall man, on the lean side. His hawklike features and the faint reddish tint to his skin testified that one of his parents had been an Indian.
He dressed like a white man, however, an outfit more like what a whiskey drummer would sport than a proud warrior of the plains. He wore a brown tweed suit over a dark brown vest and white shirt. A string tie was fastened around his neck, and a bowler hat sat on his longish, midnight-dark hair.
The only thing that would have been out of place in a whiskey drummer's outfit was the Colt .45 Frontier Model revolver holstered on his right hip. The weapon's varnished walnut grips showed the marks of plenty of use.
Buckhorn's dark eyes narrowed as he studied the men inside the saloon. A lot of them wore the rough clothing of miners, but mixed in with them were frock-coated gamblers, cowboys in range garb, and men who looked like punchers from their clothing but weren't.
Buckhorn recognized those individuals immediately, knowing their type even though he had never crossed trails with these particular specimens before.
They were hired guns, just like him. The wary stances, the way their eyes never stopped moving as they checked the room, the hands that never moved far away from their guns — those things were plenty of evidence for Buckhorn.
He made a mental note of the location of each gunman. They were clustered, generally speaking, on two sides of the room. Opposite sides, in more ways than one.
Buckhorn's gaze lingered on a man sitting at a baize-covered table playing poker with several other men. He had his back to a corner, sitting close enough to the wall that no one could get behind him without him knowing it.
Less than a decade earlier, up in Deadwood, Wild Bill Hickok had learned the hard way the folly of sitting with his back to the door. It looked like this hombre was in the habit of not repeating Hickok's mistake.
He was barrel chested, wearing a black vest over a gray shirt. A black hat was thumbed back on curly brown hair. A neatly trimmed mustache adorned his upper lip. He held his cards in his left hand and used his right to toss chips into the pot when the bet came around to him. When he wasn't doing that, the right hand was out of sight, probably resting on his thigh near his gun so it would be handy for a fast draw if he needed to make one.
Buckhorn's eyes were drawn to a woman behind the bar. A number of gaudily dressed saloon girls moved among the Irish Rose's patrons, reasonably attractive women with painted faces, wearing dresses that were provocatively low in the neckline and high in the hem.
The redhead behind the bar put them all to shame, though. Her mass of auburn curls framed a breathtakingly lovely face, and even though she was more modestly dressed than the others, something about her made a man's breath speed up a little and his belly tighten with instinctive need.
She was the sort of woman few men could lay eyes on without wanting.
A wagon pulled by a couple of mules rattled along the street and came to a stop in front of the saloon. Half a dozen men jumped down eagerly from the back of it. Buckhorn glanced over at them as they tromped up onto the boardwalk. Their grimy faces and hands and rough, sweat-stained clothes told him they had just come from the mines.
Their boisterous voices indicated that they were ready to blow off some steam, despite the weariness they must feel from their day's labor. They wanted to carouse for a while before going back to wherever they were staying to fall into an exhausted sleep for a few hours before the bleak cycle began all over again.
One of the miners paused and stopped the others by saying, "Hey, boys, look at that."
He pointed a blunt, filthy finger at Buckhorn.
The other men laughed. One of them said, "Hey, fella, shouldn't you be standin' in front of a barbershop?"
Evidently that was the most hilarious thing the others had ever heard. They whooped with laughter and pounded each other on the back.
The one who had spoken first came closer to Buckhorn and asked, "Are you a full-blood redskin, mister, or just one of them dirty 'breeds?"
The way Buckhorn was standing, they couldn't see his gun. He turned so it was visible. The big grins disappeared as they saw the weapon.
"Damn, Sid," a man muttered. "He must be one o' them hired guns workin' for Conroy or Thornton."
A lot of men around here carried guns, but all it took was a glance at Buckhorn to tell that he wore his differently. It was the tool of his trade — the most obvious one, anyway, the others being a keen eye, sharp reflexes, and cool nerves.
The miner called Sid looked doubtful for a second, then he produced a forced laugh. Buckhorn knew the sound. Sid wasn't going to let himself be backed down. He swaggered closer and said with a sneer, "I never heard of no Indian gunslinger."
Buckhorn slid his left hand into his pocket and brought out a silver dollar. He said, "I'm not looking for trouble. Have a drink on me, friend."
With his thumb, he flipped the silver dollar toward Sid. The man's eyes followed the coin, and his hand came up automatically to reach for it.
A quick step brought Buckhorn within reach. His left fist came up and smashed into Sid's jaw. The man slewed sideways, tripped over his own feet, and fell onto the boardwalk. The coin he had failed to catch bounced a couple of times on the planks next to him before coming to rest.
A collective growl came from the throats of the other miners. Buckhorn stepped back and rested his right hand on the Colt, which caused them to stop as they began to surge toward him.
"I meant what I said. I'm not looking for trouble — but I'm not looking to be insulted, either. Pick up your friend, take him inside, and buy him that drink on me. Just steer clear of me, because I'm going in, too."
Buckhorn could tell they wanted to swarm him and beat the hell out of him for what he had done. His icy demeanor and the blunt threat of his gun held them back. After a moment one of them shrugged and said, "You're the damned strangest redskin I've ever seen, mister."
That comment actually brought a faint smile to Buckhorn's lips.
One of the miners picked up the coin from the boardwalk while a couple of the others took hold of Sid and lifted him to his feet. His eyes were unfocused and he shook his head groggily. As they started to steer him toward the batwings, he pulled back against them, shook his head again, and looked at Buckhorn.
"That was a dirty trick, mister," he said. His voice was a little thick because his jaw was already starting to swell. He went on, "But it was one hell of a punch, too. I'll take that drink."
Buckhorn nodded. Sid returned the nod, curtly, then went into the saloon with his friends.
The wagon that had brought the miners to town was still stopped in front of the saloon. The wizened little man at the reins said, "Lord have mercy, I figgered they'd be all over you like fuzz on a peach. Or at least they'd'a tried. 'Preciate you not shootin' 'em. I'd hate to have to go tell Mr. Thornton how some o' his crew got ventilated."
"You work for Hugh Thornton, do you?" Buckhorn asked.
"And I guess Sid and his friends do, too."
"Yep. I just brung 'em in from the Jim Dandy."
The old-timer frowned and said, "Yeah. You're new in town, ain't you?"
"Just rode in a few minutes ago."
"Seem to know some about what's goin' on in these parts, though."
"Knowing what's going on is important in my line of work," Buckhorn said.
The old-timer looked at the gun on Buckhorn's hip and said, "Yeah, I expect it would be." He lifted the reins and got ready to slap them against the backs of the mules. "Got to get goin'."
"Heading back out to the mine?"
"Naw, I'll hang around and haul that bunch back to the bunkhouse later."
Buckhorn inclined his head toward the batwings and asked, "You don't drink?"
"I drink plenty — of coffee." The driver pointed. "At the Crater City Café, down the street yonder. Stoutest coffee and the best steaks you'll find around here."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"I'm usually there any time I'm in town. Look me up if you're of a mind to. Name's Woodrow."
"Pleased to meet you, Joe Buckhorn." Woodrow clicked to his mules, swatted them with the reins, and got them moving. As he drove off, he muttered under his breath but loud enough for Buckhorn to hear, "Although I got a hunch it ain't ever'body in Crater City who's gonna be able to say the same thing."
That brought a chuckle from Buckhorn as he turned to the batwings, pushed through them, and stepped into the Irish Rose Saloon.
His earliest memories were of hate.
He saw that emotion etched on the face of his father every time the man looked at him. Joe was a living, breathing reminder of his ma and how she had run off with another man like the faithless whore she was, as his pa always said.
Albert Buckhorn was a "tame Injun'," according to folks in the little Kansas town. He worked in the livery stable and was a good man when he wasn't drinking, everybody in town commented as they nodded self- righteously.
But he was a redskin, so of course he couldn't handle firewater, the townspeople went on. Albert went on a drunken spree every couple of weeks, just like clockwork.
Since there weren't any Indian squaws around, he started courting the daughter of the old man who worked as the swamper in the local saloon. That was as high on the social ladder as Albert could reasonably set his sights.
Even that would have been enough to cause some folks to resent him, but that was during the days when people started calling the state "Bloody Kansas," when emotions ran high over the war that was brewing and everybody had too much on their minds to worry about an Indian sniffing around a white woman, especially a woman who was just one step above trash herself.
Selma Rogers got herself in the family way — well, actually Albert got her that way, but she was a more than willing participant — then told him he had to marry her. She thought he was a good catch, since he had a job that didn't involve emptying spittoons. Even shoveling manure was better than that, in her eyes.
For his part, Albert agreed meekly when she decreed that they were getting married, since he hadn't figured he would ever have a wife, let alone a child.
In the course of time, Selma gave birth to a strapping baby boy with a headful of black, black hair, a pair of healthy lungs, and a face that put the lie to the notion of all babies being born beautiful.
Six months after that, she took up with the driver of a freight wagon passing through town and left with him. Albert and baby Joseph could fend for themselves, as far as Selma was concerned.
Albert had taken to drinking even more after that. He had tried for a while to raise the boy right, but it was just too hard. He didn't have it in him.
Joe didn't have any friends who might have made his life better. The adults in town despised him for his mixed blood, or pitied him, or both. The kids taunted him. Girls snickered at him, and boys beat him up. He spent his days running from trouble and his nights listening to his father whimper drunkenly while sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle.
The war started up, and things got even bloodier in Kansas. Roving bands of partisans who might as well have been outlaws were everywhere, cloaking their brutal depredations in supposed devotion to one side or the other, pretending to be fighting for some glorious cause when all they were really doing was looting, raping, burning, and killing.
Joe was six years old when a band of guerrillas raided the town one day, shooting and yelling as they galloped in. His pa, drunk as usual, was weaving from one side of the street to the other when all the hell broke loose. A wagon team spooked from the shooting and stampeded. Albert Buckhorn tried to get out of the way, but he stumbled and fell. The man on the wagon couldn't stop the runaway team.
Two of the wagon wheels rolled right over Albert's head, leaving it busted to pieces and oozing red like a watermelon somebody had dropped.
Joe saw the whole thing from the boardwalk. In the back of his mind, something told him he ought to yell and cry, but he remained silent and his eyes stayed dry.
As bad a parent as Albert had been, he was better than nothing. With him dead, the good citizens of the town didn't want some 'breed kid running around like a wild animal. To hear them tell it, that would be just as dangerous as the guerrillas.
So the local justice of the peace made arrangements for Joe to be sent to a reservation down in Indian Territory. That way, he could be with "his father's people," as the judge put it.
Only problem was, the Indians on the reservation weren't really his people, either. They hated Joe for his white blood just as much as the citizens of the town had hated him for the red.
The only good thing he ever got out of the time he spent there was learning to read, which allowed him to realize there was a whole wide world beyond the reservation where things might be better for him. He knew the odds were against that, but he couldn't stop hoping for it, anyway.
He ran off from the reservation when he was sixteen and got a job with a cow outfit from Texas trailing a herd through the territory to the railhead in Kansas. Normally, the trail boss wouldn't have hired a 'breed, but he was shorthanded, having lost two men to drowning while the herd was crossing a rain-swollen river.
So Joe became a horse wrangler, did a decent job of it, and spent a couple of years going up and down the cattle trails. It was hard work, but he didn't mind that.
Then he met a cowboy named Jared McSween, who took a liking to the young man and showed him how to use a gun. Turned out Joe was good at it — really good — and that was something he might not have ever known if not for McSween. McSween even bought him his first gun, an old Colt Navy .36.
McSween was also the first man Joe killed. A soiled dove McSween was sweet on in one of the trail towns decided she fancied Joe more, even though calling him handsome would have been on the charitable side. But he'd gotten his full growth by then and maybe the girl just liked the idea that he was part Indian.
McSween took offense to the whole thing and came after Joe to hand him a licking. That wound up with Joe knocking him on his butt. Still furious, McSween jumped to his feet, just liquored up enough to forget that he had seen Joe use a gun — hell, had taught him how to use a gun and given him one — and slapped leather.
Later, McSween's friends claimed that no half-breed horse wrangler could have beaten him to the draw — but Joe Buckhorn knew better. He shaded McSween cleanly, and he had seen that realization in the cowboy's eyes just before Buckhorn's slug smashed into his chest and bored through his heart.
Excerpted from "Buckhorn"
Copyright © 2016 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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