The guns come down the Colorado River, cases of army rifles that could mean life or death for the soldiers fighting the Indian Wars throughout the American West, and Dave Harmon is waiting for them. A grizzled, one-eyed freight captain, Harmon knows better than anyone how to drive cargo over the broad, merciless desert. The rifles could attract Apache, bandits, or worse, but none of that frightens him. The real trouble is one of the passengers: a major's beautiful daughter he's not sure he can trust.
Soon Harmon is fighting off not only ruthless outlaws and Apache determined to defend their land, but backstabbing members of his own wagon train. In order to reach Fort Whipple with the guns and the girl, he'll have to take on his enemies singlehandedly—and destroy them all.
Desert Crossing is a thrilling chase story featuring vibrant characters and rich, authentic western atmosphere from legendary author Luke Short.
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About the Author
Born in Kewanee, Illinois, Glidden graduated in 1930 from the University of Missouri where he studied journalism. After working for several newspapers, he became a trapper in Canada and, later, an archaeologist's assistant in New Mexico. His first story, “Six-Gun Lawyer,” was published in Cowboy Stories magazine in 1935 under the name F. D. Glidden. At the suggestion of his publisher, he used the pseudonym Luke Short, not realizing it was the name of a real gunman and gambler who was a friend of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. In addition to his prolific writing career, Glidden worked for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. He moved to Aspen, Colorado, in 1946, and became an active member of the Aspen Town Council, where he initiated the zoning laws that helped preserve the town.
Read an Excerpt
By Luke Short
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Frederick Glidden
All rights reserved.
The three-masted schooner Sprite lay in the Gulf of California just out of reach of the great tidal bore that surged into the wide mouth of the Colorado River. Lashed to either side of her was a flat-bottomed sternwheeler that was accepting cargo on this inferno of a June day. One of the steamers, the Cocopah, was loading goods destined for the river port of Ehrenburg some three hundred miles up the river. The steamboat Cavalier, on the other side, was receiving cargo for Yuma.
The last items of the Cocopah's cargo were thirty crates of army rifles, one hundred fifty in all, consigned to Fort Whipple, Arizona, and they were stowed carelessly on the steamer's foredeck. Two passengers, a man and a woman, were unloaded by bosun's chair, and the Cocopah's crew cast off frantically to take advantage of the favorable tide.
On the journey upriver, when the Cocopah was tied up at night to the shore to avoid grounding on unseen sand bars and through days of blasting heat, the rifles remained unnoticed on the foredeck. As the days went by and the Cocopah plodded on upriver past Yuma and Eureka, the heat melted the grease the guns were packed with, until oil puddled the deck and threatened other cargo. The crew turned the cases over, but they remained on the foredeck until the day the Cocopah slipped alongside the dock of the small port town of Ehrenburg.
Awaiting the boat was a crowd of Mexican, Indian, and white stevedores who swarmed over the steamboat and began unloading the cargo. They slipped on the oil leaking from the rifle cases and, to get this hazard out of the way, the rifles were almost the first cargo discharged. The crew unloading the rifles paused long enough to let the man and the woman down the gangplank, and inevitably the woman's skirts were stained with the oil her shoes had picked up.
After them came the stocky, grizzled master of the Cocopah, Captain Simons by name, with the cargo manifest in his hand; he shoved through the stevedores swarming up the gangplank and headed for a big man lounging against a newly unloaded barrel of flour.
Of the fifty-odd fiercely sweating men on the dock, Dave Harmon was easily the tallest. His height not only set him apart, but so did the black eyepatch he wore over his left eye. Perspiration coursed down his sunken cheeks in rivulets, some of it clinging to the full black mustaches over his wide mouth. Perhaps thirty-five, he was a black-browed, big-framed, work-hardened man in stained and careless cotton shirt and wide-brimmed sweat-stained hat. Set deep under his brow, his visible eye was as blue as the summer ocean.
Harmon and Captain Simons shook hands warmly, and Dave asked, "Have a good trip, Cap?"
Before answering, the captain turned and looked at the rolling, muddy Colorado River with a practiced eye. Here the river was several hundred yards wide, swollen by the runoff from the high mountains almost a thousand miles away.
"Too early to tell if it's a good trip, Dave. If this high water holds up until I can get up to Hardieville, it'll be a good one."
"You'll have a lot more freeboard after you've unloaded here."
Captain Simons nodded grimly. "Don't think I'm not counting on that. Just hurry up the unloading, will you?"
Harmon said soberly, "Why, Captain, I was counting on you spending a week with me and resting up."
A look of amazement crossed the captain's face, then Dave was unable to keep from smiling. Captain Simons smiled too.
"For a second there I believed you," the captain said. "Lord knows, I'd like to lay over, but if I do I'll be winching this scow off sand bars for the rest of the summer."
Dave grinned. "You'll be doing it later in the summer anyway, Cap. You always do."
"Don't I, though?" the captain said good-naturedly. He extended the papers. "Here's your manifest, Dave."
Dave accepted the papers and started to leaf through them. Turning back to the boat, the captain said, "See you later."
Without looking up, Harmon gestured good-bye and turned and moved warily through the toiling dock workers. Already the dock and the ground beyond were beginning to fill up with sacks, barrels, crates, casks, and kegs. Beyond them lay freight wagons of all sizes and descriptions which were beginning to be loaded in the hot afternoon. Those who had come to watch or to wait for their freight squatted in the shade of the big wagons, and as Harmon moved among them, toward the rear of the big adobe warehouse with attached corral, he greeted an occasional man. Today, he knew, marked the beginning of this summer's labor. The Cocopah was the first steamboat to reach Ehrenburg with supplies for the whole central Arizona Territory. There would be other steamers through the summer, of course, but by that time the freighters' wagons would be out scattering this cargo.
Harmon passed the big pole corral which, when full, held one hundred and fifty mules and horses. Now there was only a scattering of animals, for a number of the Harmon Freight Company wagons were down at the Cocopah. Dave entered the wide doorway, wide enough to accommodate his biggest wagon, and was immediately in the cooler darkness of the warehouse. Through the far front door he could see the jammed foot, horse, and wagon traffic of Ehrenburg's main thoroughfare.
He tramped down the wide aisle between sparse merchandise, and entered a small cubbyhole that constituted the office of the Harmon Freight Company. Inside was a man standing in the street doorway, a lighted cheroot in his mouth. Dave immediately tagged him as a townsman and the stranger off the Cocopah. At the sound of Dave's footsteps the man turned.
"I'm looking for Mister Harmon."
"You've found him," Dave said pleasantly.
The stranger was a stocky man wearing a townsman's linen suit and his full face was newly sunburned. His light Panama hat and the suit somehow hinted of Mexico, but his accent, Dave noted, was probably Middle Western. The few words he had spoken to Dave had an air of condescending authority, and his pale eyes held a half-concealed insolence. He might have been thirty-two, and the rounded belly under his coat suggested that he was used to good living. The breast pocket of his jacket was stuffed with cheroots, and now he changed the cheroot he was smoking from his right hand to his left.
"Somehow I expected a businessman at the head of a freight company."
Dave said drily, "I admit to being one. Maybe my clothes fooled you."
The stranger extended his hand. "Name's Thornton, John Thornton. If the name doesn't mean anything to you now, it will pretty soon."
Dave accepted his hand, which was soft and moist.
"How's that, Mister Thornton?"
"I'm a partner in the company that's just bought out the sutler's store at Fort Whipple. I'll be running it and you'll be supplying it."
"I always have," Dave agreed. "Pleasure to meet you."
"There must be a lot of goods consigned to Edwards that came up on the steamer along with me."
Dave only nodded.
"When do you think you can get loaded so we can move out of here?"
"The Cavalier's downstream, I hear. It has cargo for Whipple. Edwards' goods will be mixed in with both cargos."
"Two or three days, then?"
"I'd judge so."
Thornton scowled. "Well, do everything you can to hurry it up, will you? I'm in a hurry to get to Whipple." He took off his hat as he drew out a large handkerchief from his breast pocket, then blotted the perspiration from his forehead. "Is it always this confounded hot?"
Dave started toward his desk when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned to regard a squat, roughly dressed man of fifty, Becket Harney by name, who alternated as head teamster and office man in Dave's absence.
"Where you want those Army rifles, Dave?"
"With the Fort Whipple stuff, Beck. Keep 'em separate. Did the lieutenant say anything about posting guards?"
"They'll be here when we lock up, the lieutenant said." Harney nodded curtly and went out into the warehouse.
Turning, Harmon saw Thornton eyeing him curiously.
"Army guns?" Thornton asked.
Dave nodded. "I'm a contract freighter for the Army, too, Mister Thornton. You're lucky I am. Guns mean a military escort."
Harmon nodded again. "If it weren't for those guns the Army'd likely hold you here for a week, until they got enough people and goods headed for Whipple to warrant an escort. As it is, you'll be leaving in a couple of days."
Thornton smiled pleasantly. "Then I am glad you're under Army contract, Harmon. A week here and I'd be melted down. I don't think the lady could stand it either."
Harmon's heavy eyebrows lifted. "Your wife, Mister Thornton?"
"Oh, no, no. The daughter of Major Frost at Whipple. We came up on the Sprite and Cocopah from Panama together."
Harmon nodded, his face impassive. "The lieutenant of the detail will tell you the leaving day."
Thornton nodded, said "Good-bye, sir," and stepped out into Ehrenburg's main street.
A woman, Dave thought wryly. This would complicate traveling and camping. Well, she was no affair of his. The Army could look after her, since she was one of their own.
It was long after dark when Becket Harney stepped into the lamp-lit office where Dave was sorting out the shipping tallies for his share of the Cocopah's cargo. Harney locked the door into the warehouse and tossed the keys on the desk, saying, "Back doors are locked."
Dave looked up. "Guards posted?"
"Two in front, two in back." Becket slacked into a barrel chair and sighed. "Unless we get some wagons rolling tomorrow, Dave, we're out of space."
Dave leaned back in his chair. "Stack the stuff outside, Beck. With the soldiers on guard it ought to be safe."
Becket shrugged. "Soldiers go when the guns go, don't they?"
At Dave's nod, Becket said, "Why don't we see if old man Sais will rent us that empty store next door?"
Dave shook his head. "Not worth the trouble, Beck. In two-three days we'll have moved enough stuff so we have room. Then this won't happen again until next spring."
"Reckon you're right," Beck said, and stood up. "I figure to get me five fast drinks and some supper. You eaten?"
At Dave's nod, Beck said, "See you tomorrow," and stepped through the open street door. Dave, suddenly bored by his paper work, moved over to the door and looked out.
Ehrenburg, ordinarily a sleepy adobe hamlet of five hundred persons, was stirring with activity tonight. The arrival of the two steamers had brought in men and wagons from the remaining mining camps of La Paz; it had also brought in Mohave Indians from the north who were looking for stevedore work. The wide road before him could no more have been called a street than Ehrenburg, a scattered collection of adobe buildings, could be called a town. Freight wagons, riders, tall Mohave Indians, Mexicans, and immigrants milled aimlessly in the evening. Some of the immigrants were lined up at the ferry landing downstreet, waiting to be crossed over in the night, and some of their lanterns were already lighted. The only other lights in the wide dusty street came from the lamps in stores and saloons that faced the river.
Before he turned back to his desk, Dave noted the two slovenly dressed troopers in idle conversation before the runway door. Back at his desk, Dave stubbornly began to check his invoices against the cargo manifests. He was presently aware of a steady muffled pounding that he idly tried to identify and could not. Returning to his work, he was still aware of the noise. He rose and moved to the street door, and the sound seemed muted. Frowning, he moved back into the room, his head cocked, listening. Slowly then he went over to the runway door which Beck had locked, and put his ear to the panel. Now the sound was more distinct, seeming to come from inside the warehouse.
Swiftly, Dave went over to the desk, picked up the key, and blew out the lamp. Returning to the runway door, he drew his gun, quietly opened the door, and stepped into the utter darkness of the warehouse. Now the sound of the rhythmic pounding was more distinct and he moved slowly down the runway, its soft dust muffling his tread.
As he made his way stealthily down the runway, the noise seemed to increase in volume and acquire a different rhythm. There was another thudding sound, softer, that sometimes merged with the first and sometimes played a counterpoint. Moving closer, Dave heard the spill of dirt, and it came to him suddenly that someone was digging through the adobe wall. He moved quietly around the pile of trade goods destined for Fort Whipple and then, so close that he might have touched the speaker, a voice said in a faint whisper, "Take over."
Dave halted as the heavier noise ceased. The dimmer pounding went on. It came to Dave now that there were two men inside the warehouse tunneling through the warehouse wall; because the dimmer noise, hardly more than a jolt felt through the soles of his boots, continued. It occurred to him then that someone was working on the opposite side of this wall, which was a common one between Sais' abandoned store and the warehouse.
Dave now calculated his chances. If he struck a match and confronted these two men who had doubtless hidden in the warehouse while his teamsters were unloading freight from the Cocopah, he would have only the burning light of a match in which to disarm them. Once the match died, they would either rush him or break for the door, or hide among the goods in the jammed warehouse. It would be better, he knew, to retreat, alerting the troopers, and then investigate the man on the other side of the wall.
Softly now he backed, turned, and quietly made his way to the office door. The steady sound of the crowbar, which had led him to the men, was resumed. Slipping into the office, he went through it and emerged on the street, where he walked up to the two troopers, whose talk ceased at his approach.
"There are at least two thieves in the warehouse," Dave said quietly, tilting his head toward the door. "They're tunneling through the wall into that old store." He pointed toward Sais'. "One of you guard the office door. That's the only way out. The other come with me."
The two troopers, one young, the other middle-aged, looked at each other. The older one, with an old soldier's sure knowledge that survival lay in numbers, said to the younger, "You watch the office door, Toby. I'll go with him."
Dave promptly crossed him up. "Go round to the back of that empty building, soldier, and pick up the other two guards. I'll take the front."
The younger trooper moved off to take up his post alongside the office door and Dave gave the older trooper time to circle the building. Then, moving warily, he walked over to the front door of the building. What had been a window was boarded up, and he moved past it, halting at the door. Passers-by jostled him as he felt for the latch, found it, then hesitated.
He lifted the latch and leaned gently against the door. The latch cleared its catch and then the movement of the door stopped. Someone inside, he knew, had propped something against the door to keep it closed. Backing off, Dave ran for the door, the point of his shoulder leading. He hit it with a jolting impact that wrenched the door off its leather hinges. Tripping over the sill, Dave sprawled headlong into the dirt of the floor, and the door came pinwheeling back on top of him.
A gun flash blossomed to his right and Dave snapped a shot at it. He heard the sound of running feet on dirt, and then the back door was wrenched open. Two gun flashes from outside the rear of the store briefly silhouetted a man in the door. Dave heard him fall with a grunt. Now Dave shouldered the door off his back and ran blindly the length of the room. Nearing the rear door he called, "All right, troopers."
Then, suddenly remembering the lone trooper by the office door, he wheeled and ran for the street. He had almost achieved the door when he heard a single rifle shot, succeeded by two swift revolver shots. When he reached the street he saw the pedestrians and riders scattering. The young trooper was standing over the figure lying just outside the office door.
"You all right, soldier?" Dave called.
"Yes, sir. Here's one."
Excerpted from Desert Crossing by Luke Short. Copyright © 1961 Frederick Glidden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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