THEY CALL HIM THE “WIDOWMAKER”
Newt Jones is none too proud of his deadly nickname. But when you tangle with the likes of Judge Roy Bean and the notorious Mexican outlaw Juan Cortina, a man’s bound to earn a reputation. Or get stuck with a moniker like “Widowmaker.” Even so, Newt is ready to put his gunslinging days behind him, hang up his Winchester, and take it easy. There’s just one problem: Ain’t nothing easy about living in Apache country . . .
When Newt gets word that a renegade tribe has kidnapped Matilda Redding’s grandson, he can’t just sit by and let the local authorities bungle it. Matilda once did him a good turn up on the Pecos and—flat broke and half drunk or not—he’s got to help the old gal out. So he saddles up his horse, straps on his dead man’s gun, and sets off to save this boy before he’s buzzard chow. Sure, Newt’s outnumbered, outgunned, and probably out of his mind. But they don’t call him Widowmaker Jones for nothing . . .
Praise for Spur Award-winner Brett Cogburn
“Fans of frontier arcana will revel in Cogburn’s readable prose and lively characters.”
—Publishers Weekly on Rooster
“Cogburn amazes and astounds.” —Booklist
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It was well past sundown, and the big man had come a long way afoot over the desert when he finally saw the campfire burning in the bottom of a canyon below him. A single grunt that could have meant anything escaped his chest while he loosened his pistol in its holster and started down the ridge with the tattered soles of his boots grating on the gravel beneath them, one long, wrathful stride after another.
Their fire was a white man fire — the kind you build up big and sit way back from, and the kind any fool could see for miles. An Indian or a smarter set of bandits would have built it different — small fire, sit close, and live to build another fire another day. The men he hunted were either confident that they weren't being followed, or else they didn't give a damn. Either way, on top of not being cautious fire builders, they were all asleep or had stared into the fire so long that they were night blind. That was why they squinted and blinked at him as long as they did when they should have been getting up out of their bedrolls pulling their pistol poppers.
Thing was, by the time they got right with the fact that they had a visitor, the big man was already squatted down across the fire from them with the flickering flames dancing across the scarred face revealed beneath his hat brim.
"Where the hell did you come from?" The bandit to the right of the big man reared up his head from the folded saddle blanket that had been his pillow. The little tufts of hair on the sides of his bald head stuck out so that they added to his incredulous, confused look. It went without saying that he didn't like being surprised, and he liked it even less that both his arms were outside the blanket over his belly with no easy way to get to the pistol he probably had covered up under there.
The big man didn't answer him, instead turning his head slowly to look at the other bandit, a young, bony Mexican, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old. The big man's right hand moved to rest on top of his thigh, closer to the Smith & Wesson revolver both of the bandits could see holstered on that hip. "Kid, you keep digging around under your blankets like that, and you're going to make me nervous. Maybe you got fleas, or maybe there's a pistol under there you're itching to take a hold of."
The young Mexican quit squirming but remained propped up on one elbow and the other arm hidden under his blanket. He tried to play dumb, or maybe he didn't speak English. "Que?"
"You heard me," the big man said. He reached out with his left hand and took up the coffeepot from beside the fire, keeping careful watch on the Mexican. "I see you guessing whether you can get a pistol out before I can lay hand to my own shooter. Tricky business, that guessing, and a game I'm thinking you don't have the experience for."
"You ought not come sneaking up on a camp that way," the bald one threw in. He scooted himself to a sitting position. "Ain't no friendly way at all."
The big man turned up the coffeepot and took a gulp from it, grimacing at the heat of it. He took two more deep swallows while he stared at them over the tilted pot.
"You boys caused me a long walk. Time or two there I thought I might not catch up to you," he said after the third drink. "Two days, and nigh forty miles or better across that out yonder." He gestured with the coffeepot in the general direction of the rough country that lay behind him, as if that said it all. "And a dry trip it was without even so much as my canteen you took with my horse and saddle. Puts a heavy thirst on a man, a walk like that. Enough to make him plumb peeved if he were a man given to holding grudges."
"Mister, I don't know who you are. What we got here is some kind of misunderstanding." It was the bald one who spoke again — the older of the two acting as the spokesman, or maybe the Mexican kid didn't speak English.
"Where's your partner?"
"Ain't nobody but us."
The big man glanced at the empty bedroll beside them while he sat the coffeepot down. He then looked into the dark beyond them at the shadows of several horses tied to a picket line strung between two stunted, twisted juniper bushes. "What I know is that your man out there probably fell asleep when he was supposed to be taking his turn at guard. By now, I'd guess he's trying to Injun around until he can get a rifle gun on me. What you ought to know is that the second he lifts that rifle I'm going to put a bullet into you. Not the kid here, not that man out there. You."
The bald fellow had eased his blanket down to his knees and made like he was going to get to his feet. He paused at those words, and then longer, as if measuring whether the big man would let him up or not. When he finally stood, he made sure to do it slowly.
The kid followed suit but only got to his knees. He had taken his pistol off when he lay down for the night and couldn't keep his eyes off it lying there on the ground beside him, half exposed under the brim of a straw sombrero, one of those great big hats that the Mexicans favored.
"You better call your man in. I admit I came down here promising myself the awful things I was going to do to you for stealing my horse like you did, but sitting here with some hot coffee in my belly I've had time to think on it some." The big man's attention went back to the picket line. "You out there, it ain't like I don't see you standing there behind that rock. You put that rifle down and saddle my horse and bring him here."
"Que?" the Mexican asked the bald fellow. "Está loco?"
"Yeah, I think he's crazy," the bald fellow answered.
"Just trying to live and let live where I can," the big man said. "This Gypsy girl I met a while back stressed to me that I need to reform."
"A Gypsy girl?" The bald outlaw seemed to find that funny. "She read your fortune with them cards?"
"No, she wasn't that kind of a Gypsy."
"What'd she want you to reform from?"
"My wicked ways."
"How's that working out?"
The big man straightened the slump in his back, and the former weariness to his posture was gone. His right hand hung just below his Smith .44. "You might say it's been mixed results so far, but I haven't killed anybody lately."
The bald fellow's tongue flicked a rotted front tooth. It was a long few seconds before he took a deep breath and gave what sounded like a forced chuckle. "Mister, you got some moxy to you, I'll give you that. But no matter how salty you think you are, you ain't getting all three of us. You know that, and that's what worries me about you."
The bald-headed bandit wasn't the only one to be thinking that the big man might have some help out there in the dark. The Mexican made a study of the dark ridge rising up behind the big man, searching for who else might be lurking about.
"Who you got with you?" The bald outlaw ran his tongue over that blackened tooth again. "Ain't no man comes down here talking like you're talking without he's got some insurance."
"Just me. That's always been enough."
The Mexican kid put one leg under him and braced a hand against the ground like he was going to push himself up. The pistol under his hat wasn't six inches from that hand, and he glanced twice at it.
"Your man out there can't make up his mind. Liable to get us all killed fidgeting around like he is," the big man said.
"Don't you listen to him, Pete," the bald fellow said over his shoulder to the man hiding near the picket line. "You stay right there. He so much as bats an eyelash wrong and you plug him. I need time to think on this. He thinks he's got some kind of edge."
"I'm watching him, Seebo," the man out there in the dark called back to the bald fellow.
One side of the bald fellow's shirttail was untucked, and he made as if to tuck it back in. "I think maybe you got a man or two up there on that cliff."
The big man didn't answer.
The bald fellow went on, working it over out loud and shaking off his first thought. "No, what I think is you're the damnedest bluffer I ever did see. You want us to think you got some help, elsewise you wouldn't be sitting here talking, not if you had the numbers and the drop on us."
"I want my horse." The big man kept his voice matter-of-fact, like he had all along, but there was a hint of a harsh edge creeping into it.
"You come all that way after us just to get yourself killed over one damned horse?"
"He's the only one I've got."
The bald fellow chuckled again and kept working at the tail of his shirt like he was having trouble with it, needing an excuse to get closer to the holstered Colt he was carrying. "I ought to give you the son of a bitch. Tried to ride him and the bastard bucked me off. Nasty piece of horseflesh, that one. I don't cherish us bleeding each other over the likes of such an animal."
The big man almost looked sad. "That horse and me have come a far piece together, and so happens that you picked a bad time to steal him. See here, I've got to be in San Antonio two days from now to meet an old friend who's up against it in the worst way. She did me a good turn once when I was down and out, and I'm not the kind to go forgetting something like that."
The bald fellow's laugh was genuine that time, louder than it needed to be, and it echoed off the stone canyon walls. "You hear that, Pete? First that Gypsy girl, and now this woman in San Antonio."
"I heard him," the man near the picket line called back. "Regular ladies' man."
"What's your name, big man?" the bald fellow asked. "You're damned sure one of a kind."
The big man's mouth tightened and he shook his head ever so slowly. "Are you going to bring that horse here, or are you going to go ahead and pull that pistol?"
As quick as that, the bald fellow quit making like he was trying to tuck his shirt in and went for his Colt, and the kid reached for his shooter under that sombrero. Across the fire from them, the Smith pistol rasped against leather and appeared in the big man's fist without him even seeming to have drawn it — a blue-black oily thing, dark as sin in the orange glow of the fire.
The bald fellow's Colt stuck in his holster, and he was having such a hard time yanking at his belt to try to free it that the big man didn't bother to shoot him first. Instead, he shot the shadow of a man at the picket line. Did it kind of nonchalantly and shot him so quick that all that one managed to do in return was to let a round off into the ground at his feet, and then he tipped over face-first into the dirt at the edge of the firelight with an awful groan.
By that time, the bald fellow had grunted and jerked enough to get his Colt free, but he never got to use it. The big man clacked back the hammer on his Smith once more and put a bullet into the bald fellow's belly that knocked the air out of him in one drawn-out groan. That first bullet was probably enough to do him, but the second one took him for good measure right through that black tooth as he was falling.
By the time the Mexican kid got a good hold on his own pistol and drug it out from under his hat, he found himself looking up into the bore of that Smith .44. The big man was aiming at a spot right between his eyes. An instant before things had been all gun roars and hellfire, and now there was nothing but dead quiet except for the sound of the Mexican's heavy breathing and the wounded man by the picket line still groaning and writhing in pain.
"You're a frog's hair away from bad things, boy. A frog hair," the big man said. "You let go of that gun, or I promise you it's going to hurt."
The Mexican kid let go of his pistol like it was red hot and crabbed backward, shaking his head. "Por Dios, no me dispare! No me mate!"
"I ain't going to kill you." The big man kept his aim for a long moment, then uncocked that Smith with another clack. "Might save somebody some trouble someday if I did, but I ain't going to."
He kicked the kid's pistol into the fire and then went over and toed the bald fellow's corpse over to make sure he was done for. Satisfied, he bent over and scooped up the man's Colt and pitched it in the fire with the other.
When he turned back to the kid he gestured once more to the picket line. "You go saddle my horse. Ensille mi caballo. Pronto."
The Mexican did as he was told, stumbling twice because he didn't want to turn his back on the big man, and giving the wounded outlaw on the ground near the horses wide berth. Nervous or not, he had the horse saddled quickly and soon led it back to the fire while the big man snapped the Smith open and let his empty cartridges eject on the ground. He replaced his spent rounds with three from the loops on his cartridge belt. The Mexican stood holding the bridle reins of the horse.
It was a plain, brown gelding, with not a single white mark on him. The only distinguishing or unusual feature on the animal was the brand burned on his left hip revealed in the firelight — a circle the size of your palm with a dot in the center of it. The gelding cocked one ear and eyed the body of the bald fellow cautiously, but held its ground.
The big man holstered his pistol and walked to where he had shot the man at the picket line. The gut-shot outlaw quit moaning and took one bloody hand off his belly to reach for the big man's pants leg.
"Damn you, help me or finish me. I can't take this hurt," the outlaw said.
The big man brushed free of the wounded man's grasp without stopping. "You asked for it."
He picked up the big-bore '76 Winchester rifle laying on the ground where the gut-shot outlaw had dropped it, and then he examined it before coming back and shoving it in the rifle boot hanging from the saddle on the brown horse.
"Sorry man that will try and shoot you with your own rifle," the big man mumbled while he took the reins from the Mexican and put a boot in the stirrup and swung up astride the horse.
"Cómo se llama, señor?" the Mexican asked softly in Spanish, and then in halting and heavily accented English. "I would like to know your name."
The big man seemed to think that over before he answered. "Jones."
"Jones? No mas?"
The big man gave the brown gelding's belly a bump with his heels, and the horse left the firelight at a trot.
"You no tell me your real name," the Mexican repeated.
From the darkness and almost muffled by the sound of the horse's shod hooves on the rocky ground, the big man called back to him. "Some call me the Widowmaker, but I never set much store by that."
"Widowmaker Jones." The Mexican repeated it as if it explained much. And then he looked at the bodies of his friends and made the sign of the Cross before he saddled another horse and rode in the opposite direction that the big man had taken. He crossed himself three more times on his way out of the canyon.
Two nights later, Newt Jones, the man some out West called the Widowmaker, slept in a rundown, abandoned adobe warehouse on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. It was raining and near to midnight when he rode into town, and he didn't have the price of a room in his pockets. So he led the Circle Dot horse under what remained of a section of roof that hadn't collapsed and then lay down in one corner and wrapped himself in some newspapers he found there.
It was a restless night, and he awoke early and rode out into a drizzly morning. He found the private train car not long after daylight — parked on a siding a hundred yards from the depot house — and he rode straight to it.
A man in a fancy Prince Albert coat and smoking a cigar stepped out on the platform at the end of the car. He propped one of his button boots on the ornate cast iron banister and puffed on a cigar while Newt dismounted and draped a bridle rein over the railing. He went to the foot of the stairs and looked up.
"I take it you're the one she's waiting for," the man with the fancy shoes said, then he inhaled deeply and let out another cloud of smoke. "You don't look like much."
Newt stared back at him through the rainwater running off the brim of his hat. "I don't feel like much. She in there?"
The fancy man took his boot down and stepped a little to the side so Newt could come up on the platform under its awning and out of the rain. "We've been waiting for you for three days."
Newt went up the stairs and stopped at the top of them. He took in the fancy man's oiled and combed hair, the silk ascot tie adorned with a diamond stick pin, and then took another glance at those patent leather button boots. "Well, you ain't waiting no more."
Excerpted from "Buzzard Bait"
Copyright © 2017 Brett Cogburn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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