When Bronco Travis rides into the mining town of Silverton in Colorado Territory, his only thought is to avenge the death of his father. Nobody recognises the young son of the part-time marshal who had been brutally murdered eight years before by Jack Bowdrie and his gang. It appeared straightforward enough: just slip into town and get the job done. But Bowdrie has taken over the town and has no intention of being ousted from his profitable roost. So when the bodies begin to pile up, the gang boss takes swift action that almost ends in Bronco’s own demise. He will need all his wits and a lethal gun-hand if his deadly nemesis is to be defeated.
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Death Rides Alone
By Dale Graham
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2005 Dale Graham
All rights reserved.
RETURN TO SILVERTON
Cresting a low rise, the solitary rider drew his chestnut mount to a halt. Like a prowling cougar, he surveyed the once-familiar terrain. All around, jutting peaks vied for attention, their naked bones still mailed in ice, even in July. Nudging the horse forward he paused a second time, just inside the lonely Hillside Cemetery that overlooked the town of Baker's Park in central Colorado.
The broken gate hung askew on a single rusty hinge. Untended, the graves lay sad and forlorn, abandoned to the elements. A bleak look riveted on to a lichen-coated marker bearing the epitaph:
Shot dead on Blair Street
for doing his duty
15 May 1869.
Rest in Peace
Dark-grey eyes, brittle and ice-cold lay deep in shadow, hidden beneath the wide brim of a battered Plainsman. The man stepped down, removed the hat and held it tightly with both hands in front of his gunbelt. The bone handle of a Colt Frontier poked out from a cross-draw holster. Head bowed, the tight lips moved ever so slightly, offering a silent prayer to the deceased.
Eight years had passed since he had stood in this very same spot, desperately clutching his mother's trembling hand.
A single teardrop etched a pained furrow down the tanned visage, a face that appeared young yet exuded more heartache than anyone that young could be expected to bear.
Silence, grim and austere, broken only by the gentle sough of a low breeze, permeated the small graveyard. But only for a moment before a sinister echo bounced off the decaying tombstones. It was a discordant sound, out of place in this peaceful locale – the deadly click-click of a rotating cylinder as the stranger checked the loading of his well-oiled six-shooter.
Flicking the tear from his eye, as if guilty at showing such emotion, the young stranger brushed a stray lock of dark hair from his forehead, re-set his hat and mounted up. Only then did he fasten a stoical gaze on to the town below.
His demeanour hardened, once again resuming the tough exterior of a man inured to the demanding ways of the frontier. Baker's Park had altered immeasurably since his departure a little over eight years past following the untimely demise of his father.
The single main street was now twice its original length. A host of side roads branched off giving it the appearance of a giant chess-board. And clustered around the edges, a chaotic array of white canvas tents littered the valley floor. Gamely they struggled for acceptance in the buzzing metropolis.
A throbbing hum reached the young man's ears.
'Seems like things have changed some around here, Blaze,' he muttered to his horse. The animal flicked its ears in agreement, emitting a compressed snort. 'OK, I know,' responded the rider, patting the side of its head, 'You ain't the only one in need of solid meal and a bed for the night.'
The sun beat down with unrestrained fury. Only a few stray wisps of cloud offered any resistance to the torrid heat. The man untied his necker and carefully wiped a sweat-stained brow. He uncorked a water bottle, sprinkled the necker with the precious fluid and dabbed the horse's nose before tipping the remaining contents down his own parched gullet.
A myth often assumed by lowlanders was that the high valleys were a lot colder than the plains. Certainly in winter the snows could find Old Nick shivering his socks off. But at this time of year, there was little wind to disperse the heat from the sheltered valleys.
He nudged the chestnut gently with his knees, guiding her out of the cemetery and down the winding trail towards the huddle of buildings below. As they neared the eastern limit of settlement, piles of abandoned debris, the residue of high-profile mining activity, loomed head high on either side of the narrow rutted highway. And in this heat, to describe the smell as ripe was a distinct understatement. The stranger gave a barking cough as the stench bit deep.
Bearded miners hammered at the rough earth with picks while their partners avidly shovelled heaps of loose gravel into the long toms. Feverish looks of expectation that a major strike was theirs for the taking suffused the weary faces. Few bothered to note the arrival of a new face. Just one more prospector hoping to strike it rich.
The rider hauled rein and casually addressed the nearest miner. An old jasper busily sifting the tailings at the riffled end of the long-tom sluice paused.
'Hit pay-dirt yet?' asked the newcomer.
A suspicious look creased the rumpled visage.
'Maybe,' came back the reserved comment. 'Then again, maybe not.' It didn't do for a man to advertise any success he might have had. Too many others had been found down a back alley with a shiv stuck in their gut after announcing a rich strike to the world.
'Just that there's a heap of work goin' on around this berg, is all,' offered the newcomer, sensing the other's reticence.
'That's 'cos there's bin a new strike of silver at this end of the valley, if you hadn't noticed,' responded the miner with a bite of sarcasm. Nevada Jones took the meeting as a welcome opportunity to rest from his labours. 'New prospectors bin arrivin' every day,' The old-timer grunted disdainfully. 'But all the best claims have been staked if it's easy pickings you're after. Try Ouray over Red Mountain Pass.' He casually flipped a thumb towards the north end of the valley. 'Rumour has it there's bin a fresh strike over there. We'll be headin' that way ourselves if these diggin's run dry.'
It was clear that the miner didn't welcome anybody muscling in on his claim.
'I ain't no prospector, that's fer dang sure,' reacted the young man tersely. 'It's a mug's game if'n you ask me.'
'Nobody did, mister.'
Other miners on neighbouring claims had stopped to listen to the exchange. Bent backs straightened, tense with expectation.
The kid peered around, a cautious glint in his eye. He had no wish to have his visit terminated before he'd even arrived. Nor did he welcome the attention his caustic remark was attracting. Silently he cursed his quick temper. On too many occasions in the past it had bubbled over, leading to unwelcome complications.
He pulled his hat low over the darkly stubbled face, realizing he had to tread carefully.
'No offence, feller.' He apologized with a strained attempt at mollification. 'Just passin' through.' Then he quickly aimed a conciliatory question at the man. 'Now where can a thirsty traveller wash the trail dust from his gizzard?' An edgy laugh issued from compressed lips.
Their eyes locked. Age versus youth. A casual smile split the miner's weather-beaten contours. Uneven teeth yellowed by constant baccy-chewing were revealed. Nevada Jones visibly relaxed.
'Try the Bent Elbow,' he offered. 'Just follow your nose down the middle of Blair Street. You can't miss it.' The old guy aimed a finger down into the main huddle of clapboard shacks before asking: 'What they call you then, kid?'
'The name's Bronco Travis,' replied the newcomer, nudging his horse forward. 'I've been bustin' wild horses up around the Wind River in Wyoming for the last six months. Much obliged to you.'
In fact, Bronco had earned his nickname through being the youngest rider to break ten horses a day on a consistent basis. But that wasn't the end of the job. It then took a further five days to train the string to the high standard demanded by the cavalry selection committee. That was something even the regular busters struggled to achieve.
By his third week with the outfit, Vince Cole, the top wrangler, had figured him as a natural. So George Travis was christened 'Bronco'. It had been one of the proudest moments of his young life. But after six gruelling months of rising at the grey light of dawn and not finishing until after sunset, Bronco was feeling the strain. No job could have been tougher.
And it was more due to luck than good judgement that he had escaped serious injury. As the saying went. There ain't no horse that can't be rode, and there ain't no man that can't be throwed. It was a true enough adage.
But a poignant remark uttered by one of the hands eventually made up his mind to quit while he was still on top, so to speak.
'Take my advice Bronco,' advised his friend, 'Few bronc riders ever pass thirty. More'n likely they end up getting kicked into a funeral procession.'
Having drawn his pay, the kid had lit out the next day.
'Yep!' he reiterated casting a critical eye over the untidy settlement, 'Baker's Park sure has changed.'
Before Bronco had time to gig his mount forward the old miner spoke again.
'How long you bin away?' he asked. Not waiting for a reply, the old guy continued: "Cos things have changed more'n you figure.' Nevada Jones paused with a smirk breaking across his weathered features. The comment was backed up by a chorus of ribald guffawing from his cronies.
Bronco eased back the reins. a puzzled look on his face.
'What you warblin' about, old man?' A touch of impatience had once again crept into the kid's reaction.
'Either you're in the wrong place. Or you bin away above a coon's age. And seeing as you ain't more'n a kid —'
'Just spit it out, will yuh?' interrupted Bronco curtly, squaring his shoulders.
'This here's Silverton! Silverton, y'hear?' crowed Jones slapping his thigh, 'Leastways it's bin that way ever since I packed in a year ago.' He turned to his partner for confirmation. 'Ain't that the goldarned truth, Jim?'
Another grizzled veteran shovelling gravel at the top end of the sluice grunted without pausing in his labours. The chance of striking that elusive bonanza always assumed precedence over everything.
Bronco took that as an affirmative.
'Don't mind Old Virginity,' chortled Jones, eyeing his partner askance. 'He's just a tetchy old sourpuss.' He pointed a finger to his head, rolling his eyes. The meaning was obvious. The oldster gave a rabid cackle.
'Old Virginny's a sourpuss! Old Virginny's a sourpuss!' he sang out.
Veteran of mining-camps too numerous to mention, Jim Finney (known throughout the Rockies as 'Old Virginny') scowled at the newcomer. Ever since he'd been cheated out of a rightful share in the now famous Comstock Lode by Henry Comstock himself back in 1860, Jim had placed his trust in nobody. Excepting 'Old Betsy' that is, a Hawken long rifle that never left his side.
When others enquired after his success or otherwise, Jim Finney always took the opportunity to disparage his ex-partner's chicanery, the assertion being that his share of the fortune had been tricked out of him after a heavy bout of drinking.
'Took me for a sucker, did Comstock,' was the invariable waspish comment. 'He had a tongue as silvery as the diggings. Bought my share for naught but a bottle of cheap booze and a blind horse.' The ribald cackling that inevitably followed this tale did nothing to assuage Finney's bitterness.
Nevada Jones clucked, then added: 'Old Man Baker died in the cholera outbreak of '75. That's when the latest ore strike was made and the camp became known as Silverton.'
'Silverton or Baker's Park. Makes no difference to me. This is the right place, sure enough,' crackled Bronco.
'What's your business in Silverton then, Travis?'
Bronco laid his gaze on his rapt audience. Scanning the assemblage, he mumbled almost incoherently:
'Just some unfinished business that needs tying up.'
Then he spurred the chestnut away from the babble of comment at his back.
Care and patience were needed to pick his way along the rutted trail leading into the broad thoroughfare of the town. Stunned by the cacophony of sound that assailed his ears, Bronco hunched down into his light buckskin jacket, slowing the feisty Blaze to a steady walk.
The street was heaving.
Freight hauliers, their wagons piled high with pit-props and sawn timber held the centre, while horse-riders took the edge, carelessly pushing aside anybody foolish enough to get in their way. Cattle heading for the slaughterhouse at the far end of town heedlessly bludgeoned everybody in their path. And pedestrians stepping off the wooden boardwalks to cross the busy concourse took their lives in their hands.
This was Silverton – 1877. And definitely no Baker's Park.
Before he had left with his mother, eight years back, the town had been a quiet, sleepy, some might even say dull settlement. Nothing ever happened to break the gentle pace of life. The town did not even have its own law officer. That was until his father was persuaded against his better judgement to take on the job.
The reason for his presence in Silverton suddenly hit the young stranger like a slap in the face. His expression took on the umbered hue of an approaching thunderstorm. Frown lines creased his brow. Deep-set grey eyes, dark and brooding, recalled the dire sequence of events that had changed his life for ever that May afternoon back in 1869. On that fateful day, Bronco Travis had lost for ever his youthful innocence, his unbridled zest for life.
Horror-stricken at the abrupt confrontation that had violently terminated his father's life, the initial pain and shock had festered over the coming years to be replaced by a burning thirst for vengeance against the perpetrators.
'Them murderin' sons-of-bitches are gonna pay dear for what they done to me and mine,' he heard himself muttering into the ears of the chestnut. 'You pay heed to what I'm sayin', Blaze. This town will rue the day that Bronco Travis came a-callin'.' The horse trembled involuntarily, sensing the fierce tension squeezing at the innards of her young master.
A lone buzzard flew past cawing and flapping its large black wings before settling on the roof of one of numerous false-fronted establishments lining the busy street. Bronco eyed the flyer, a macabre omen of things to come. A couple more soon joined their comrade, bloodthirsty predators watching the newcomer and perhaps sensing a hint of gladiatorial sport in the air. Bronco chewed on his lower lip, a sneer of disdain effectively removing any hint of youthful virtue that might have lingered.
Lowering his gaze, the kid noted that the building opposite was a livery stable. The legend Ben Murphy – horse trader to the discerning rider was emblazoned in green lettering across the front. Bronco badly needed sustenance, but the chestnut was more important. She always took first place in the queue.
He stepped down and led the sweating animal into the cool interior of the barn, noting the tidy arrangement of the stalls and equipment. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Ben Murphy was obviously a man who cared about his work. Blaze would be well looked after here.
'Hello!' The call echoed round the plank walls. 'Anybody home.'
No reply was forthcoming.
The kid removed the heavy saddle and tied the lead rein to a post. Then he went in search of the elusive owner. The office at the rear was open but empty. Bronco shrugged. He would help himself to oats for his horse and fix the chestnut up with a stall. He could settle the bill later, after he'd seen to his own needs at the Bent Elbow.
After reassuring the horse, Bronco was about to head off down to the saloon.
An alien sound to his rear caused the kid to whirl on his heel. In a blur of speed that took less than a blink of the eye, the Frontier Colt leapt into his right hand. The ugly snout poked with menacing intent at the midriff of a tall, grey-haired man clutching a twin-pronged hay-fork.
'A man shouldn't oughta creep up on another like that, mister,' said Bronco coolly, his thumb curled around the cocked hammer of the deadly pistol. 'Feller could get hisself shot full of holes.'
In his mid-forties, the man was lean and clean-shaven with leather suspenders holding up a pair of brown whipcord pants. The open shirt revealed a well-muscled torso. He was sweating hard – and not from any perceived danger. This guy was no stranger to hard graft.
He held his ground, not in the slightest unnerved by the kid's threatening stance. A piercing gaze met the younger man's stare evenly. That was when Bronco noticed the three-inch scar down the left side of the ostler's tanned face. An insipid yellow, it gave the man a permanent scowl. A once-handsome face ruined.
'This is my establishment,' replied the ostler steadily. 'The name's Ben Murphy. And folks usually ask before taking it upon themselves to use my facilities.'
Bronco slowly and purposefully eased down the hammer, stepped back and slid the weapon back into its holster.
'Sorry about that, Mr Murphy,' he sighed. 'Couldn't find nobody to ask.'
Murphy relaxed, placing the fork aside. 'I was out back unloading some fresh hay for the bedding.'
'Sure appears like a well-run livery.'
'That's very kind of you, sir.'
This response to Bronco's compliment came from an unexpected source to his left. A flaxen-haired girl clad in check shirt and a split leather riding-skirt stood framed in the open doorway. A broad-brimmed Stetson was pushed to the back of her head. With an easy grace she led a black stallion into the stable.
Bronco couldn't help noticing the trim narrow waist, the hips swaying like a mesmerized cobra. Wavy hair like a ripening cornfield flowed down her back. She was indeed a sight for the proverbial sore eyes, and the first young female he had encountered for over half a year.
Excerpted from Death Rides Alone by Dale Graham. Copyright © 2005 Dale Graham. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ONE: RETURN TO SILVERTON,
TWO: STIRRING THE POT,
THREE: IN THE BEGINNING,
FOUR: THE WHIP HAND,
FIVE: LILY MAY CLANTON,
SIX: ONE CLOSE SHAVE,
SEVEN: PAYING THE PRICE,
EIGHT: REST AND RECOVERY,
NINE: THE PENNY DROPS,
TEN: IN THE OPEN,
ELEVEN: ENVOYS OF HOPE,
TWELVE: BAITING THE TRAP,
THIRTEEN: INTO THE JAWS,
FOURTEEN: TWIST OF FATE,
By the same author,