Devil's Den (Trailsman Series #390)

Devil's Den (Trailsman Series #390)

by Jon Sharpe

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Overview

Devil's Den (Trailsman Series #390) by Jon Sharpe

Fargo is headed straight to hell...

After Skye Fargo runs afoul of the law, he’s more than happy to be set free to work for a pair of pretty sisters trying to operate a wagon run in the Ozarks. But when the competition gets deadly, the Trailsman has to send a pack of savage killers straight into the ground....

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451467942
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: Trailsman Series , #390
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,255,091
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jon Sharpe is the author of the long-running Trailsman western series, featuring the adventures of tracker Skye Fargo.

Read an Excerpt

Beginnings . . . they bend the tree and they mark the man. Skye Fargo was born when he was eighteen. Terror was his midwife, vengeance his first cry. Killing spawned Skye Fargo, ruthless, cold-blooded murder. Out of the acrid smoke of gunpowder still hanging in the air, he rose, cried out a promise never forgotten.

The Trailsman they began to call him all across the West: searcher, scout, hunter, the man who could see where others only looked, his skills for hire but not his soul, the man who lived each day to the fullest, yet trailed each tomorrow. Skye Fargo, the Trailsman, the seeker who could take the wildness of a land and the wanting of a woman and make them his own.

Devil’s Den, Northwest Arkansas, 1860—where Fargo locks horns with a pack of savage killers in a deadly corner of Ozark country.

1

Fargo hadn’t intended to knock Deputy Sheriff Harney Roscoe through the wall of the Hog’s Breath saloon. It just happened to be a thin wall and a solid haymaker.

Wood cracked, splinters flew and Roscoe did a backward Virginia reel, stumbling across the boardwalk and landing flat on his back in the wagon-rutted main street of Busted Flush, Arkansas.

Fargo stepped through the newly created exit just as Roscoe, his pasty face swollen and bleeding, slapped at his holster.

Fargo’s walnut-gripped Colt formed a blur from holster to hand.

“If you even sneeze,” Fargo warned in a deceptively soft tone, “you’ll never hear the gesundheit.”

A menacing, metallic click sounded on Fargo’s left.

“All right, Skye,” said an amiable voice, “toss that lead chucker down.”

Fargo did as ordered and glanced to his left. Sheriff Dub Gillycuddy, a big Colt’s Dragoon filling his hand, stood grinning at him.

“Trailsman,” he said, leathering the big gun, “most jaspers are content to just raise hell—you always have to tilt it a few inches. All right, what’s the larceny this time?”

“Hell, I didn’t start it, Dub. I was in a friendly game of pasteboards when Roscoe here horned in and declared table stakes. When I told him it was strictly a two-dollar limit, he took exception.”

“Uh-huh. And who tossed the first punch?”

“Well,” Fargo admitted, “that would be me. But only after Deputy Roscoe tried to jerk me outta my chair.”

The sheriff glanced at his vanquished deputy. “Is that the straight, Harney?”

But just then Roscoe made a sucking noise like a plugged drain and passed out.

Sheriff Gillycuddy studied his badly mauled deputy for a few moments, noting the split and swelling lips, bloodied nose and blue-black left eye already puffing up like a hot biscuit.

“Hell’s fire, Fargo! If you’d beat on him any longer, I’d have to pick him up with a blotter.”

“The son of a bitch bit me, Dub. I can’t abide that in a sporting fight, not from a man.”

A portly, balding man in a filthy apron stepped through the hole in the wall. “Sheriff, look at what Fargo done to my place!”

“Actually,” Fargo pointed out, “it was Roscoe who went through the wall.”

“At the end of your fist! Somebody owes me—”

Gillycuddy raised a hand to silence the sputtering barkeep. The sheriff was a handsome, avuncular man in his early fifties whose easygoing manner and broad-minded tolerance kept getting him elected although the law-and-order faction wondered how his monthly rent could be twice his salary.

“Just hold your horses, Silas. Who started this catarumpus?”

“I can’t rightly say. But Fargo seemed peaceful enough before Harney showed up.”

The sheriff cast another glance toward his supine deputy. “Hell, there ain’t nothing but bone twixt his jug handles and he’s always on the scrap. I’ll ’low as how it wasn’t likely you, Skye, who started the dustup. But I couldn’t just let you shoot my deputy. He’s also the town dogcatcher and hog reeve.”

“But my wall!” Silas protested. “That hole—”

“The town fund will pay for it,” Gillycuddy cut him off. “Skye, I’m gonna have to toss you in the pokey for one night. And there’ll be a five-dollar fine for disturbing the peace. Here, lend a hand . . .”

Fargo and the sheriff dragged Roscoe up onto the relative safety of the boardwalk. As the two men crossed the wide street toward the jailhouse, Fargo spoke up.

“Dub, I don’t mind a night in the calaboose. But as to that five-dollar fine . . . there’s a reason I was playing a limit game.”

“Light in the pockets, huh? Sorry, old son. If you can’t post the pony, it’s a dollar a day in jail.”

Fargo shrugged. The tall, broad-shouldered, slim-hipped frontiersman was clad in fringed buckskins and wore a dusty white hat with a bullet hole in the crown. A close-cropped beard and lake blue eyes set off his weather-bronzed face.

“Is the food any better,” he asked, “since last time you jugged me?”

“The eats are tolerable if you pick the weevils out. But I only got the one cell, and I’m ’fraid you’re gonna have to share it with the most foul-tempered Injin I ever met up with.”

“What tribe?”

“Ahh, I b’lieve he’s a half-breed Choctaw. That red son smells like a bear’s cave.”

“Jumped the rez?” Fargo meant the sprawling Indian Territory, which began only about ten miles west of this rugged corner of the Ozark region.

“I s’pose, but his English is mighty good—or at least his cussin’ is. I’m about to shoot that hot-jawing son of a buck. Won’t give me his name, but he don’t hesitate to give me the rough side of his tongue.”

The sheriff suddenly laughed. “Why, that blanket ass is plumb loco. His damn saddlebags was stuffed with tossed-out envelopes he took when the post office took out their trash. Won’t tell me why.”

Fargo’s growing nubbin of suspicion hardened into a certainty. “Now this Choctaw . . . is he heavyset with a string of bright-painted magic pebbles around his neck?”

Gillycuddy’s head snapped toward Fargo. “You know him?”

“He goes by the name of Cranky Man. He saved my life once a few miles from here near Lead Hill.”

“Cranky Man, huh? Well, mister, he is that. I mighta guessed you’d be chummy with a reprobate like him. The hell’s he want with all them envelopes?”

“He can’t read, so he thinks there’s big magic in white man’s handwriting. First time I ever saw him he was stealing old army contracts from one of my saddle pockets.”

“Yeah? Well, that Indian wasn’t born—he was squeezed out of a bar rag. When I arrested him he was drunker’n the lords of Creation. All he’s done since, when he ain’t cussin’ me out, is demand liquor. Claims his religion requires him to drink.”

Gillycuddy pulled up in front of the jailhouse door. “Le’me have that toothpick in your boot. And where’s your Henry?”

“Locked up at Drake’s livery,” Fargo replied, reluctantly surrendering his Arkansas toothpick. “I want a chit for these weapons.”

The sheriff grunted and led the way into a cubbyhole office with wanted dodgers plastered to the walls and a battered kneehole desk. Fargo immediately spotted Cranky Man in the cramped cell, sitting on one of two army cots and picking his teeth with a match. He saw Fargo and did a double take.

“Skye Fargo! Hell, I figured you were pegged out by now.”

“Sorry to disappoint you. Last time I saw you, you said you were headed back to Mississippi.”

“I say a lot of things I don’t do.” Cranky Man aimed a malevolent glance at the sheriff. “Won’t matter now. If these peckerwoods have their way, I’m gonna be the guest of honor at a hemp social.”

Gillycuddy stuffed Fargo’s knife and gun in a drawer and banged it shut. “That’s a lie on stilts, savage. I’m holding you until a tumbleweed wagon rolls through town and hauls your worthless, flea-bit ass back to the Nations, where Andy Jackson, in his infinite wisdom, sent you.”

“Fuck him and fuck you, starman,” the Choctaw shot back. “You and your whole cockeyed town can kiss my red ass.”

Fargo bit back a grin as he watched the sheriff’s normally mellow features suffuse with purple anger.

“You just keep pushing me, chief. You couldn’t lick snot off your upper lip, so don’t be playing top dog around me.”

“Who’d you kill?” Cranky Man asked Fargo when the sheriff admitted him into the cell.

“A little misunderstanding with a deputy,” Fargo replied, sitting on the empty cot.

The Choctaw had clearly fallen on hard times. Beggar’s lice leaped from his clothing, and the weathered grooves of his face had deepened. His beaded moccasins were frayed and torn, and some of the beadwork was missing from his deerskin shirt.

“Got any Indian burner?” Cranky Man asked hopefully.

“Nope.”

Cranky Man swore. “What I wouldn’t give right now to be a fish in an ocean of whiskey.”

A buckboard rattled to a stop outside and Sheriff Gillycuddy glanced out the window. If a voice could frown, his did now. “Stand by for a blast. Here comes Marcella and Malinda Scott.”

Fargo perked up at the mention of females. “Sisters or mother and daughter?”

“Sisters, and they’re both lookers. They moved here from someplace in Ohio to take over the Ozark West Transfer Line. This was after old Tubby Scott, their uncle, turned up dead. He left the business to them, but all they’ve done is bollix it up but good. It ain’t no job for calicos.”

“Tubby Scott,” Fargo repeated. “Yeah, I recall hearing about him—Orrin Scott. Made his pile hauling mail and freight between Fayetteville and Van Buren.”

The sheriff nodded. “Until he was found dead one morning in the crapper behind the station house. His neck was snapped so hard, his head flopped around like it was attached to a rubber tether.”

The door swung open to admit the prettiest whirling dervish Fargo had seen in some time. She flounced toward Gillycuddy’s desk in a froufrou of rustling skirts.

“Sheriff,” she demanded, “what are you going to do about Anslowe Deacon?”

Gillycuddy raised both hands like a priest blessing his flock. “Sheathe your horns, lady. You’re pretty as a speckled pony, Miss Marcella, but you always rare up like a she-grizz with cubs.”

Fargo sized up Marcella Scott with appreciative eyes. She had a startlingly pretty oval face with a high-bridged nose and green eyes blazing with indignation. Strawberry blond hair framed her face in a mass of ringlets.

“How pretty I am is nothing to the matter! If I were a man you’d take me more seriously!”

The sheriff shrugged indifferently. “No need to be so snippety. It ain’t my fault if Deacon runs a better short line than you do. That’s competition for you.”

“Competition? The man is a murdering criminal!”

The door opened again and a second breathtaking beauty—Malinda Scott, Fargo assumed—glided in much more de-murely. She was shapely and petite with sun-streaked auburn hair barely controlled by tortoiseshell combs. Her lacquered straw hat featured a brightly dyed ostrich feather and gay “follow me lads” ribbons.

“Well, now, as to criminals,” the sheriff told Marcella, “you’re the one who’s out of jail on bail, not Deacon. And bail can be revoked easy in Fayetteville.”

“I did not steal Truella Brubaker’s bracelet! I told you it was among the items taken from a locked desk in the station office—yet another crime you’ve done nothing about.”

Malinda, who hadn’t spoken a word yet, spotted Fargo and gave him a wide smile that threatened to crack her rosy cheeks.

“Yeah, well, I told you that’s Fayetteville jurisdiction. And about them stolen items—there was something else besides that bracelet that you’re agitated as all get-out about, Miss Marcella. Why’n’t you put your cards on the table? I will help you, but I have to know what I’m looking for.”

Fargo watched the imperious beauty blush. “Never mind that. Anslowe Deacon is a vicious criminal and you know it! You just lack the will and courage to do anything about it.”

Gillycuddy let out a weary sigh and caught Fargo’s eye. “You know, Trailsman, like they say—a pretty girl is a malady.”

For the first time Marcella noticed Fargo with frowning disapproval. “The Trailsman? I’ve heard my workers mention that name. Are you Skye Fargo?”

“I am in this case,” Fargo assured her, doffing his hat.

“And a criminal, I see.”

“Oh, he’s more or less law-abiding until he goes off on a bust,” the sheriff vouchsafed. “I’ve never locked him up for anything worse than brawling. And once for—ahh—violating the Sunday blue laws.”

“What you mean is that he fornicated on the Sabbath?”

“I wasn’t Bible raised,” Fargo offered in his own defense.

“Look at it this way, lady,” Cranky Man piped up. “Every time you whiteskins break one of them Ten Commandments of yours, you still got nine left.”

“Yes, well, I’m sure you two ruffians manage to break all ten in one day.”

“Usually by noon,” Fargo assured her.

Marcella studied Fargo in silence for perhaps ten seconds. “Well, right now I need a ruffian. Are you interested in a job?”

“Oh, let’s do hire him, sis,” Malinda spoke up in a lilting, musical voice she must have worked on. “He’s the most handsome, rugged man I’ve ever seen.”

“You’ll have to forgive my sister, Fargo,” Marcella said, anger spiking her voice. “I won’t call her a painted cat, but only because she doesn’t charge money.”

“Do tell?” Fargo said, raking his eyes over the comely lass.

“If I was paid what I’m worth,” Malinda put in to spite her sister, “I’d be richer than the Vanderbilts.”

“Well, now,” Fargo said, “what a delightful girl.”

Cranky Man snorted and Marcella slapped her sister. Malinda smiled at Fargo.

“Fargo, you best con this over good,” the sheriff warned. “There’s considerable stink brewing around here, all right, and it ain’t all blowing off that Choctaw. I know how you are about women, but these two pert skirts will get you killed.”

The acid-tongued Marcella whirled on the lawman. “Nobody asked you! If you’d do your job I wouldn’t need to hire someone.”

“I’ll take the job,” Fargo told her, “whatever it is. But only if you hire on Cranky Man here, too. He’s not as worthless as he looks.”

“I’m desperate,” Marcella admitted.

“How ’bout it, Dub?” Fargo asked the sheriff. “Will you spring us?”

Gillycuddy pushed to his feet and snatched the cell key from a wall peg. “This time you get the breaks, Fargo. I’ll even drop the fine. These gals could use your help, all right. ’Sides, I’m glad to get shut of this stinking savage. But don’t go killing every living thing you see. I can only ignore so much, and if the hotheads around here get too riled up, all three of us could end up doing a dance on nothing.”

He clanged the door open, then looked at Marcella. “Why are you ladies here, anyhow? Just to aggravate my ulcers?”

Marcella’s pretty face turned grim. “I saved that for last. Please come outside.”

All three men trooped out behind the women. Marcella pulled out the pin to drop the tailgate of the buckboard.

The sheriff’s face turned fish-belly white. “Katy Christ!”

The dead man lying inside, glazed eyes staring wide open at nothing, was missing at least a fifth of his head.

2

When he was over his first jolt of shock, Sheriff Gillycuddy studied the dead man’s blood-clotted face.

“I recognize that purple birthmark on his chin,” he said. “It’s Jimbo Miller.”

“Yes,” Marcella replied. “One of my best drivers murdered in cold blood. I thought you ought to see him before I take him to the undertaker. Just a little reminder of what happens when a duly sworn law officer shirks his duty.”

The indignation in her tone reminded Fargo that this newly arrived outlander from Ohio didn’t really yet understand her new home. The rugged and picturesque Ozark region was currently much more wide open and dangerous than many territories farther west favored by authors of the rapid-action whizbangs.

Missouri and Arkansas were two of the most violent places in America, home to criminal gangs—even small armies—that holed up in the remote, timber-girt hills and mountains, the countless caves, and struck with near impunity at travelers, then faded back to their outlaw camps. Gillycuddy could no more stem that violence than a broom could hold back the ocean.

“Miss Scott,” Fargo said, “I’m sorry about your driver. But it’s not fair to put this on the sheriff. He can’t do anything unless there’s reliable witnesses willing to come forward—witnesses who saw the shooter.”

“Were there?” Gillycuddy asked.

“Of course not. But Anslowe Deacon is behind this, Sheriff, just as he was behind the murder of my uncle, and you know it. His Fort Smith Express Company is trying to wrest a lucrative Butterfield Stage Line mail contract away from Ozark West Transfer, and his thugs have been harassing us mercilessly. If he can destroy our ability to keep schedule, that contract is his.”

“I happen to believe at least some of that, Miss Marcella,” Gillycuddy replied. “That’s why I let Fargo out of jail to help you.”

“This head shot,” Fargo said, “looks to me like it might’ve been done with a Big Fifty Sharps. Those bullets packed to seven hundred grains can drop an elephant.”

The sheriff nodded. “That shines. Unfortunately, even if it was, it’s a popular rifle in these parts. Where’d it happen?”

“One of my other drivers, Sebastian Kilroy, found him just south of West Fork.”

At this intelligence Fargo exchanged glances with the sheriff. West Fork was in the region known as Devil’s Den, a rugged area of ravines, crevices and fracture caves in the Boston Mountains—a wild section of the Ozark country and criminal campground from time to time.

“What about the wagon?” Fargo asked.

“That’s another clue. Neither the freight nor the mail was touched, although the two lead mules had been shot dead.”

“So it wasn’t a robbery,” the sheriff mused aloud. “Just deliberate, stone-cold murder.”

“Was there an express messenger along?” Fargo asked.

Marcella looked confused. “A what?”

“An armed guard with the driver.”

“Oh. No, not for this run—we’re short-handed.”

“It likely wouldn’t have mattered,” Fargo opined. “An express guard is mostly useful if road agents get close in to grab the swag. A Big Fifty or a high-caliber rifle like it can score kills from eight hundred yards out.”

Cranky Man elbowed Fargo’s ribs. “You see him?”

Fargo nodded. In the waning light he had already noticed the stubbled profile of a man watching the group around the buckboard from across the street. The small, unblinking eyes of a lizard seemed fixated on Marcella especially—not that Fargo could call that unusual. The frontier was woman-starved and these two gals were a cut above.

But the rifle tucked under his arm was clearly a Big Fifty.

“That hombre glomming us from across the way,” Fargo said, “anybody recognize him?”

“Eb Scofield,” the sheriff replied. “Shiftless hill trash. That whole Scofield clan ain’t worth the powder it would take to blow ’em to hell.”

Scofield suddenly sauntered into the Hog’s Breath.

“He watches me all the time,” Marcella complained. “But then, plenty of uncouth men around here stare at both of us. Some of my workers think the Scofields work for Anslowe Deacon.”

“I don’t mind men staring at me,” Malinda assured Fargo, sending him a come-thrill-me-knave smile.

“Get in the buckboard, you shameless hussy,” Marcella snapped at her sister. She looked at Fargo, eyes carefully avoiding Cranky Man. “After we stop at the undertaker’s we have a few errands to run. Do you know where the Ozark West home station is?”

Fargo nodded. “I’ve passed it a couple times since I rode in. Two miles due west of town on Old Granville Pike. Me and Cranky Man will pick up our horses and meet you there.”

“I’ll pay five dollars a day plus room and board,” she said. “Do you agree to those terms?”

“Sounds jake to me,” Fargo said. In fact, however, it wasn’t enough for the kind of work in the offing—not for two men. But he couldn’t blame her if she didn’t believe Cranky Man was worth wages. He looked like a prime candidate for a glue factory.

“But I won’t have Indians sleeping in the station house or eating at regular mealtimes. My workers won’t stand for it.”

Cranky Man flashed his trademark mirthless grin. “I won’t poop in that crapper, neither. Sounds deadly.”

She flushed to her earlobes.

“Bottle it,” Fargo snapped at the Choctaw. “He’ll be fine in the stock barn, Miss Scott, among his peers.”

The sheriff snorted. “Marcella, this lice-ridden redskin is trouble on two sticks. Keep the whiskey locked up. A liquored-up Injin is one holy show.”

By now the sun was setting in a blaze of gold glory behind the pine-forested mountains surrounding Busted Flush. The buckboard rattled off and Fargo and Cranky Man headed on foot toward Drake’s livery at the east end of town.

“Know what I think?” Cranky Man said.

“If I say yes, will you shut up?”

Cranky Man invited Fargo to perform an anatomical impossibility upon himself. Then:

“Way I see it I ain’t looking to die just so some high-toned white bitch can get rich. Hell, you seen that dead man—his skull looked like it was leaking cauliflower. I say we leave for a healthier climate. I know you’re all het up to poke that pretty little slut Malinda. But, hell, you can get women anywhere you go.”

“Look, we’re both broke. Five dollars a day is no fortune once it’s split two ways, but we’ll get our eats tossed in. I can’t blame you if you want to light a shuck, but I’m sticking.”

“I do need money for whiskey and tobacco,” Cranky Man conceded. “And long as I’m siding you we can use that story ’bout how I’m an Indian scout for the army—people tend to believe you, the fools. I’ll do anything to stay off that damn reservation.”

Fargo was no Indian lover, but he couldn’t blame him. All five Civilized Tribes—Choctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles—had been forced out of their ancient homelands in the Southeast and into the Nations, the Indian Territory just west of Arkansas.

An 1830 treaty had granted the Choctaw nation “a tract of land west of the Mississippi.” That tract, however, kept shifting and shrinking as white men found uses for the land.

“Yeah, I’m damned if I’d grub taters and answer roll calls,” Fargo said. “When a man feels the tormentin’ itch he likes to move on.”

“What about that peckerwood who was spying on us?” Cranky Man changed the subject. “Eb Scofield. I figure you noticed his rifle.”

“He just became one of our favorite boys,” Fargo replied. “Matter fact, keep your eyes peeled for him now.”

•   •   •

Both men stuck to the shadowy middle of the wide, washboard-rutted main street of Busted Flush, a jerkwater berg only a few miles south of Fayetteville. Oily yellow light spilled from windows and doorways, casting a foggy glow through which furtive, shadowy, sinister human forms flowed like aimless driftwood.

Bootheels raised a constant thump and shuffle along the raw-lumber boardwalks, punctuated by shouts, laughter, the ring of gold and silver coins on baize-topped tables. The metallic groan of hurdy-gurdies and the tinkle of player pianos added a note of desperate gaiety just waiting to be silenced by the inevitable authority of gunshots.

Fargo had seen and heard it hundreds of times before in countless flyblown settlements on the American frontier. Places like this were all right for an occasional carouse, but he was always glad to leave them behind for the solitude of a desert or the lonesomeness of the farthest corner of a canyon.

The two men swung into the hoof-packed yard of Drake’s livery. Lester Drake, a hoary-headed elder with a face wrinkled like a peach pit, sat in front of a packing crate playing checkers against himself in the lamplight. Fargo scraped up just enough money to pay the stable charge for his Ovaro and Cranky Man’s dish-faced skewbald.

Fargo’s pinto stallion greeted the Trailsman by pushing his nose into Fargo’s chest.

“Say, old roadster,” Fargo called over to Drake as he slid the bridle over the Ovaro’s ears and fastened the throat latch, “wha’d’ya know about the Scofield clan?”

“I know they’re the most low-down and dangerous sons of bitches in this neck of the woods, most especial the five Scofield boys. There’re three brothers sired by Rhodes Scofield and two cousins, both brothers, whelped by Lansford Scofield. Rhodes was et by his own hogs a few years back. Lansford died last year from straining too hard trying to take a shit. The man ate too damn much molasses.”

Lester paused to watch Cranky Man tie the surcingle of his stuffed buffalo-hide saddle. He hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat it just inches from the Choctaw’s feet. When Cranky Man failed to explode, Fargo guessed why and grinned.

“A-course,” Lester resumed, “when it comes to the Scofield clan, there ain’t a nickel’s worth of difference twixt a brother and a cousin—if you take my drift?”

Fargo took his meaning, all right. In the backwoods of Arkansas, a “virgin” was any girl who could run faster than her brothers.

“Say, Mr. Drake,” Cranky Man spoke up in his best beggar-Indian wheedling tone, “any chance you could spare me and Fargo a snort?”

“John, you was lucky I even let a red heathen board his horse here. Specially a horse that ugly.”

“Cranky Man’s old man was a white soldier,” Fargo put in truthfully, then tacked on a lie: “And this homely savage is working with me as an army scout.”

“Well,” Drake relented, retrieving a crockery jug from behind the crate, “I got paid a while back with some o’ that panther piss they brew up in the hills. But go gradual, boys—I call it Bullfrog Gin: drink a little, hop a little and croak.”

He shook with laughter at his own joke and handed the jug to Fargo, who would have preferred a beer to cut the dust. He took a careful sip and immediately his eyes turned hot and filmed. It felt like a hot coal in his mouth and he spat it out without swallowing.

“Holy shit!” he gasped, handing the jug to Cranky Man. “That’s liquid gunpowder. Take it easy.”

Cranky Man ignored him, propping the jug on his shoulder and guzzling from it like it was water as Fargo and Drake stared, slack-jawed with amazement.

Cranky Man took the contents down by several inches, then belched and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He handed the jug back to Lester.

“It could use a bit more kick,” the Choctaw opined. “I’d add a little more strychnine.”

“Christ, he ain’t a bit drunk!” Lester exclaimed.

“A man is never really drunk,” Cranky Man informed him, “if he can lie on the floor without holding on.”

“Let’s rustle,” Fargo said, swinging up into leather. “If that shit didn’t kill you, I doubt if a bullet from a Big Fifty could do any damage.”

3

A half hour’s ride outside of Busted Flat, in a low, brushy hollow among densely forested mountains, a mud-daubed cabin sat in a small clearing dotted with tree stumps and strewn with animal bones. Three brothers who were part of the five men known locally as the Scofield boys had moved into it after the previous owner was found dead in a bear trap.

There were no coroner’s courts in this stretch of the Ozark region, so nothing came of the rumors that the man caught by the right ankle in the trap also had a severely wrenched neck. But a few locals had noted that Tubby Scott, founder of the Ozark West Transfer Line, had died of exactly the same violent neck injury.

“Boys,” Eb Scofield said, “it rocked me back on my heels when I seen Fargo chewin’ the fat with them Scott sisters. They wasn’t discussing the price of cheese, neither. I’m thinking Marcella was hiring buckskin boy. And from what I been hearing the last couple days, he ain’t one for day labor.”

Eb and his brothers, Romer and Stanton, sat around a crude deal table upon which sat an old skunk-oil lamp. Romer had recently stolen a side of bacon, and the three brothers were eating some of it out of the frying pan with clasp knives, washing it down with mountain lightning.

“I ain’t frettin’ it overmuch,” declared Stanton, the oldest of the three and the brains of the Scofield outfit. He was skinny and knotty-muscled with a shrewd face and nervous manner that made others around him nervous too. “We know every holler and cave in this region, every old Indian trace and ambush nest. Fargo’s a gone-up case.”

Eb nodded. “We’ll do for him, all right. But Deacon is gonna shit strawberries into them fancy twilled britches of his when we tell him.”

Stanton grinned, wiping his greasy mouth with his shirttail. “Ain’t he, though? That sachet kitten won’t even be able to get it up to screw his Cherokee whore.”

Stanton swigged from the bottle and passed it over to Romer.

“That Cherokee is a nice little piece,” Stanton resumed. “But hey! Both them Scott girls is prime woman flesh. I’d like to shove my hard pizzle ’bout a mile up their bellies. And, by God, all of us will.”

At this talk Eb scowled darkly, his lizard eyes smoldering. “Women is all filthy harlots and I ain’t never touching ’em. It’s like Paw used to say: a woman’s got seven holes in her body, and the devil can enter any of them—especially the belly mouth.”

This prompted an explosion of laughter from Romer, a hairy brute with piglike eyes too small for his huge skull.

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Devil's Den (Trailsman Series #269) 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fell aslrrp.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She sat.