“If you appreciate a good story and good writing, grab anything Tim Bryant writes and prepare to be hooked and fully entertained.”
—Joe R. Lansdale
For a Texas Ranger, death is a way of life.
Wilkie John Liquorish may be a young man, but he’s no greenhorn. So far in his short, hard life, he’s dug graves, driven cattle, and nearly dangled from the end of a hangman’s noose—no thanks to his ungentlemanly enemy, Gentleman Jack Delaney. Now Wilkie’s been newly deputized as a Texas Ranger—and the real fun begins . . .
At Fort Concho, Wilkie John receives word that a bounty hunter is tracking the notorious outlaw known as Phantom Bill. Wilkie John has every reason to join the party: duty, honor, redemption, maybe even fortune and fame. But he has one reason to be wary: the bounty hunter is Gentleman Jack. He tried to kill Wilkie John once. This time, he might succeed . . .
THERE ARE TWO PATHS TO IMMORTALITY IN THE OLD WEST:
SHOOT FAST OR DIE FASTER.
About the Author
Tim Bryant was born in Smackover, Arkansas. He graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in 2007 with a BFA in creative writing. Before that, he was a singer-songwriter and recording artist, performing in his native Texas as well as his second home, New Orleans, and recording with musicians from Ireland, England, Norway, and all over the United States. He continues to write, record and perform music, and is a proud parent of two children. Readers can visit him at timbryantbooks.com.
Read an Excerpt
People who live out in the sea of sand that is West Texas tend to have strong beliefs in God and the devil. It's not really any mystery. When you walk out into the landscape and take a look at the mountains and plateaus, the cliffs rising up dramatically out of the earth in streaks of reds and browns and even a few greens here and there, it's real easy for these people to see God. Even a nonbeliever like myself can be swayed. Walk out farther into that same landscape, try to ride very far across the flatland, into or around one of those mountains or maybe through a pass between them, hang out for a while with just you and your horse and the sun, it gets pretty hard not to see the devil, too. You can hear him rattling, cooing, and cawing at you. He might show up in the form of a black bear or a javelina. He might even show up as a man.
I found the bones of a guy out there in the middle of nowhere, and I just as well might have been looking at my own self. I was out of water, my horse Little Cuss was down and dying, and I had good reason to think I was following shortly behind.
When I say the man I found wasn't nothing but bones, I'm speaking in the most literal of terms. There were some leather chaps less than ten feet away, and the ripped remains of a shirt pulled over some scrub brush. The only other thing was bones bleached pure white in the sun, gleaming like the teeth of some dust devil.
Of course, everything was starting to look white. The sun was bleeding into everything and washing out enough of my eyesight that I was blind to just about anything farther away than ten feet. I was hoping I didn't step on a rattler or run up on any of the black bears that called the area home.
"Hell's Half Acre got nothing on you," I said.
I had been talking to myself ever since I left Little Cuss back a few miles. I had reason to believe there was an army encampment just over the hills to the south, and that's what I was aiming for. If I made it by nightfall, there was a chance they could send back for the horse. At least that's mostly what I was telling myself.
I had spent a considerable amount of time in Hell's Half Acre, the area of Fort Worth where gambling dens rubbed up against the most spectacular whorehouses you ever saw and made the sweetest music ever heard by a sinner's ear.
What I was standing in right here was more hell than Fort Worth ever thought of raising. A week out of camp in Fort Concho, I'd followed the Pecos River down to the Pacific Railway and then turned west. It had been days since I'd seen smoke behind me. I was on the part of the map that was a big blank. And I could see why.
The bones strewn out in front of me weren't me. I was pretty sure who they were. If I was lucky, they belonged to a man known among the Apache Mescaleros as Phantom Bill. His true name was Manley Pardon Clark, from Chicago, and he had been on his way to Chihuahua with a sackful of money taken from a train from Santa Fe.
I'd stumbled across the carcass of a horse the day before, so I expected to catch up with the Phantom. I just thought there would be more to him.
"The Tonkawa ate your horse like it was a fine steak, Manley," I said, "and, from the looks of things, they got their teeth into you, too."
That didn't bother me much. I'd heard tales of the Tonkawa eating captured families and then dining on the family dog for desert. They were a hearty bunch of people. Great trackers, too.
"What I want to know is what you did with the money, my friend," I said.
I knew him well enough to know he would have hidden it before letting Indians get their hands on it. You could tell by a few drag patterns that Manley had been dragged due south, either by the Tonkawa or by bears that came along and took what was left. I walked back north and scanned the horizon. It was all white. If I was going to do this, I was going to have to do it on my hands and knees, a few feet at a time. If I did get down there, I had serious doubts if I'd be able to get back up.
I don't rightly know how long I searched for that damn money. Time kind of bled all together like the light did. I stopped to rest frequently and slept a bit, too. Somewhere along the line, my knees and elbows folded up and left me stretched out across a bunch of rocks, another easy meat stick refreshment for a passing band of renegades.
In my dream, it was a woman's voice. Not just any woman's voice. It was Sunny, a colored girl left behind in Fort Worth. Only now I was back there with her in a big house called the Black Elephant, and she was coaxing me into a nice, warm bathtub.
"What are you doing down there? Wake up, you fool."
I opened my eyes to the sensation of lying naked in a place you shouldn't be naked. I reached down and fumbled around for my different parts. My clothing was soppy as a dishrag, but it was there. I looked up into the light, like a heathen looking into the face of God.
"I can't see a damn thing, Jack," I said.
Gentleman Jack Delaney. Probably the last person you would expect to see me with. The same Gentleman Jack Delaney whose father I had killed in Clara, Texas, the previous year. The same one that had me hung in downtown Fort Worth. Jack was something to see, if, in fact, you could see. He was wearing a new blue suit that looked like it was made from fancy brothel curtains. I might have questioned the suit's practicality, but I would have been given the speech on wind and sun damage and the importance of shielding yourself. He had proven right about that much, but I had heard it all before.
It wasn't exactly true that I couldn't see anything. I could see the shod front feet of the fastest quarter horse in all of Texas. I was pretty certain of it because she had caught me and Little Cuss even with a morning's head start the previous day, and I took no enjoyment at all in that fact. In my mind, that whole episode had been responsible for Little Cuss cutting his leg. If he hadn't been trying to prove something to himself, he'd still have been right there beneath me instead of the rocks and sand.
"Manley Pardon Clark is laying right over there against them rocks," he said.
Gentleman Jack Delaney waved his rifle, which cut through my white light like an angel of death slicing through fire.
"Think I don't know that?" I said. "I was the one who found him."
I listened to the man swing down from his horse and crunch his way toward me.
"No money?" he said.
I shook my head, and the world seemed to tilt and spin backward in reaction. I turned away from Jack and vomited a stream of clean water that polished the rocks beneath me. I suddenly recalled that I had done the same thing before. Just minutes, maybe hours or even a day ago, but at some earlier time.
"Should I trust you or search you?" Jack said.
I couldn't figure out how he was standing there, cool and composed, while I lay on the ground, closer to Manley Clark than Jack Delaney.
"Little Cuss hurt his leg," I said. "We need to go back and see if we can save him."
Jack laughed. Not so much like he was laughing at me. Just laughing at the ridiculous situation.
"Little Cuss didn't cut his leg, Wilkie John. Snake got hold of him."
It depended on how you looked at it. He may or may not have run up on a snake, but the bite threw him off-balance enough that I came off the tail end and Little Cuss went down. That was when he'd cut his leg. I was sure of it. Somehow, in my fall, I had totally missed the snake.
"Don't worry," Jack said. "I made a tourniquet and cut the bite out. Gave him some water. He'll probably make it."
He bent over and grinned down on me.
"You, I'm not so sure about."
I was just about as happy to see the man as I could have been, generally speaking. He'd spent considerable energy trying to kill me the year previous, and I'd sworn revenge on him for it. Now, back down in the lonesomest part of the state, I ran into him when he was running down Manley Pardon Clark, or Phantom Bill, and I was sitting around, trying to decide what to do next. To be specific, Jack had sent word to Fort Concho: he was looking for a soldier or two to help in the capture of the outlaw. Then he sent word again and made mention that the reward would be split in an equitable manner.
When still no soldier was provided, he showed up at the fort, looking exactly like himself. At six and a half foot tall, his legs were long for his horse, and he still insisted on wearing a top hat that made him look odd and even taller. He wore a suit that fit perfectly, even if it didn't befit the situation. Sure, it was important to dress well, to guard against all the things the desert might spring on you, but he was still dressing for a night out on the town, and that didn't appear to be in the cards.
"Manley Pardon Clark was here at Fort Concho three days before he held up the train," I said.
Neither Gentleman Jack nor I had any thought that Clark would be coming back that way again, but the stop at Concho had proven helpful. Two different soldiers, neither of whom had a clue who Clark was at the time, said he'd mentioned going to Chihuahua when he left. That information narrowed the trail enough that I was now out in the middle of hell and just a few yards from what remained of Phantom Bill himself. Seemed he hadn't been so much a phantom after all.
Neither soldier reported any mention of train robberies or other plans for misbehavior along the way. In fact, being told who they had been talking to, neither believed he was the man. Not him, they said. He didn't have it in him to do such a thing.
Now I was lying in the desert, half-blind and wondering where the money was.
"How hard would ten thousand dollars be to hide?" I said.
I was looking at Jack's suit and counting pockets. I didn't trust him as far as I could see him, and he was moving in and out of eyesight.
"A hundred hundred-dollar bills. Two hundred fifties," Jack said. "Not enough to slow you down a whole lot, Wilkie John."
I scanned the sand between me and Manley, like I was expecting a bill to come fluttering by on the wind.
"Hell, bears could've eat up the money, too," I said.
I had no idea how much time had passed, but I knew I was quickly running out of it. I had four more days to find the stolen loot and return it to the railway people in Alpine, Texas. After that, they were leaving for California and half of the reward money was going with them.
Gentleman Jack Delaney had asked me to come along for one reason. He was considerably more likely to find both Manley and the loot with me helping. He knew it, and he knew I knew it, too. I also knew something else, and I wasn't completely sure if he was aware I knew that part of the deal. He wasn't planning to split any reward money with me. Not a chance. In fact, he had no intention of taking the loot to Alpine at all. Why would he take ten thousand dollars into Alpine and get five thousand back when he could take ten thousand to Chihuahua? How did I know what he was doing? For all his faults, and they were numberless, he was too damn much like me. I wasn't interested in some reward money doled out by the railroad or the government. I also had no interest in vacationing in Chihuahua with Gentleman Jack. I would leave his bones with Phantom Bill for the devil to find.
Then again, he had saved my life and maybe even the life of my horse on that day we found the bones in the sand. And there was that thing about being a Texas Ranger. Damn. Things, as usual, were bound to get complicated.
Several days earlier
Becoming a Texas Ranger had an interesting effect on my life. Womenfolk took more notice of me. Maybe I walked a little taller. At least I didn't think of myself as so small anymore. I wasn't perfect, but it reminded me of something a Fort Worth preacher had once told me.
"Being saved doesn't make me perfect, but it makes my imperfection into something God can work with."
I didn't know about all that, but if you counted that the Rangers had saved me from a life of crime, it certainly did go on to make my weaknesses something easier to overlook. So even if Reverend Caliber had got the letter of the law wrong, he'd at least got the spirit of the thing. There was no question I was a better Ranger than I had ever been a non-Ranger.
I'd had it in mind to visit Indian Territory. In fact, I was in Meridian, Texas, and headed north, stopping only to pay respects at the gravesite of my older brother, Ira Lee, when word came that the Colorado and Concho rivers were flooding and there were German immigrant families stranded and possibly in danger of drowning. I went down there and, with the help of another Ranger from Leon Springs and a soldier from San Antonio, we brought out eight Germans of varying shapes and sizes and two Cherokee women with their children.
The soldier had already set up a camp on high ground by the time I arrived, and we carried our survivors there behind two mules. I call them survivors because we saw more than a few who weren't. A dead boy in a tree that spooked me good, the look on his face so real, I tried to talk him down before I realized he wasn't alive. There were several people washed up in bushes and against fence posts. Most looked like farmers, farmers' wives. We didn't move any of them. Where would we bring them? We didn't have the tools to dig graves, and, if we had, we'd have just dug into more water. The soldier said a solemn prayer over each of the bodies, and I was completely respectful.
"Which way you going from here?" the soldier said.
The rain was gone, but the Colorado had flooded its banks, and the water was still rising. You couldn't make out where the river began and ended. Standing on high ground and surveying the scene, it looked like the whole world had become the raging Colorado.
Half of the Germans wanted to stick it out. I couldn't get over that. With everything underwater or washed downstream, they wanted to stay put. Start over. The other half had had enough. There was nothing left to pack, nothing to save. They were ready to go back East right then.
"All I know, I'm moving upstream," I said.
I was like that half of the Germans. I'd seen enough water. I'd seen enough of what it could do. I was going elsewhere.
"You mind carrying these people over to Fort Concho?" the soldier said. "They'll be okay there until they can get a coach or maybe a train back to where they come from."
"No coach take us back to Bremerhaven," one of the ladies said.
She didn't appear to be talking to us, so I didn't answer.
By then, the Indians had slipped off, never to be seen again. There was no need to look for them, no need to worry. They could look after themselves.
It turned out Fort Concho was less than forty miles away, and, if it wasn't in my preferred northerly direction, at least it was out of the flood's path. And it was a direction I'd never taken before. I said yes, and we decided to go ahead and move out that afternoon, so we stood a good chance of arriving in camp the next day.
"Wait until tomorrow," said the Ranger, who turned out to be Roy Lee Deevers from San Antonio. "You don't want to travel by night."
But I did.
"There will be a full moon tonight. Plenty of light, and much cooler for the horses," I said. "Plus, maybe he will sleep."
I nodded to one of the German men, who had a badly broken leg. He wouldn't be easy to deal with. He was a mean son of a gun who didn't seem the least bit happy to have been saved from a more horrible fate than traveling back East.
The San Antonio Ranger cleaned up the break as best he could and made a real decent splint with one of the many sticks scattered around us. When the German argued against it and tried to get up and walk to prove his case, Roy Lee knocked him over the head with the butt end of his rifle.
"I've done just as much good with that end of the gun as the other," he said.
I drug the German and his family off in peace, making good time through the night. Watching the moon come up right in front of me, climbing up into the night even as we climbed into the hills. At one point I stopped and made them all look at the beautiful sight before us, split equally between the valley below us, the sand seeming to glow under the moonlight, and then the sky, so full of stars they seemed to be crowding each other out, trying to get in position to look down upon us. I saw a hundred rabbits and even some hyenas, one of which I drove away with a single shot from my gun. Overall, it was a perfect example of why I like to move at night and sleep during the day. To make it even better, we arrived at Fort Concho in time for a late breakfast of ham hocks and eggs.
Excerpted from "Dead and Buried"
Copyright © 2018 Tim Bryant.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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