In this Lucas Fume Western from the Spur Award-winning author of Vengeance at Sundown, no man is truly free until he puts his past—and his enemies—to rest.
Lucas Fume has been exonerated of the murder charge that put him in prison seven years ago. But he isn’t free yet. Not while his friend, former slave Zeke Henry, remains a fugitive wrongly accused of assaulting Senator Barlow’s daughter, Celia. Lucas wouldn’t have his freedom or wealth—let alone his life—if it weren’t for Zeke. And he knows that the only way to clear his friend’s name is to prove the identity of Celia’s true attacker: Senator Barlow himself.
Now Lucas has a plan to take on the powerful Senator—and his son John, aka Lanford Grips—once and for all. The only question is whether it will lead to freedom or the end of a noose.
About the Author
Larry D. Sweazy is the Spur Award- and Will Rogers Medallion Award-winning author of the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger series, including Vengeance at Sundown, The Gila Wars, The Coyote Tracker, The Cougar's Prey, The Badger's Revenge, The Scorpion Trail, and The Rattlesnake Season. He is also the author of the modern-day thriller The Devil's Bones and short stories appearing in numerous fiction anthologies and literary publications.
Read an Excerpt
Welcome to No Man’s Land
But a silence vastly deep, oh deeper than all these ties
Now, through the menacing miles, brooding between us lies.
—CLAUDE MCKAY, FROM “ABSENCE”
Lucas Fume stood on the rear platform of the train car, staring out over land so flat that it looked like a giant cast-iron skillet had fallen from the sky and smashed everything underneath it.
The wide-open view, the long-reaching vista was a far cry from the mountains and hills of his childhood home in Tennessee. That life, that green, lush landscape was just a memory now, and Lucas was certain that he would never return to it, never travel east again, across the Mississippi River, or back to what was once a perfect existence. Not out of fear, but out of self-preservation. He didn’t want to look back, be held by the chains of the past. Grief had become an unlikely bedfellow of recent, and it had, as far as he was concerned, warmed him for far too long. There was nothing left for him in Tennessee. Everything that he had ever loved was either dead and buried, or sold off; every bind cut by choice or by fate.
There was a constant wind that blew across the Kansas plains. It cut and turned and whistled, rising and falling over the grasses, making the millions of pointed blade tips in the vast lea look like waves of an ocean. Such a body of water he had never seen, nor could he imagine, even though at the moment he felt like the captain of a small ship. Trees were sparse, and towns even more so. The sky had free roam, deep and blue as a happy eye, reaching overhead forever. Clouds came and went so fast that it was hard to tell if they offered a threat or not.
Lucas was still uncertain of what the next second would bring after years spent unjustly locked up in a prison cell.
The law of the land had allowed him to move about as he wished, but his footing was not as confident as it once was. There were still elements in the world that sought to do him harm, inflict revenge on him for his past deeds. Just because he was free of all criminal charges didn’t mean that he didn’t have to concern himself with retribution. Freedom by decree only went so far, at least in the world in which he had previously traveled.
Lucas never forgot that he had enemies, or that it was prudent to take an extra second to look over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed—or watched.
And it was that desire—the desire to be able to see in all directions—that had brought him to where he was standing. On a railcar, detached from any visible train, sitting in the middle of a meadow that went on vacantly as far as the eye could see. It was like he had been left behind, left to forage for himself in a prebuilt pioneer shack—though one of many comforts—but that was hardly the case. The railcar belonged to him, or the lease of it, for the time being, and he wasn’t alone. Fending for himself only came at his pleasure, by his own choice. His loss of ties back East had left him a very wealthy man. It was a position to which he had once been accustomed, raised in, taken for granted, then lost to the war, the loss finalized by treachery, trickery, and ultimately, a betrayal so deep that it took the life of his one true love, and nearly his own.
If he had learned only one thing from that event, it was this: Comforts could be taken from you at any moment. Comforts and love.
Lucas would never take either for granted again—one, comfort, could be bought, while the other, love, was best left to the poets. Love was the furthest thing from his mind. He doubted that he would ever venture down that path again.
Birds and animals were strange and new, too, in this foreign country—the territories of the West. He had seen three buffalo on a recent hunt, thin at the ribs, and so straggly and sorrowful looking that he hadn’t been able to bring himself to shoot one of them. The steaks would have been a pleasure for their taste, but nothing more. There was no worry of food.
The railcar was staffed with a cook, Hobart “Hobie” Lawton, a hired man from a fine St. Louis hotel who had come highly recommended. So far, the cook had not been a disappointment. Lucas had already gained a tight waist on his pants, and had been forced to have a new set of trousers tailored in Abilene. His dinners were a far cry from the roach-filled gruel that the prison kitchen had served him. Still, it had taken more time than he would have ever imagined for his appetite to return.
From where he stood, Lucas thought the open field would be a fine place to stop, put down roots, but he knew that idea was just folly. The isolation would be too much to bear, and the winters too difficult to endure. He would have to move on soon, before the summer season offered a change—but for now, he enjoyed the long view before him, and waited.
Winter was a distant concern, and he was hardly alone. He enjoyed a comfortable isolation, and intended to make it as safe as possible.
A gunshot cracked off to Lucas’s right, reminding him of that very thing. He didn’t flinch, just sighed, looked over to the field to his right, and took in the sight of Zeke Henry, holding a smoking rifle, looking at it curiously, balancing it in his big skillet-sized hand without offering any readable judgment on his face.
“You haven’t made up your mind, yet?” Lucas called out. He made his way down the platform, off the steps, and onto the hard, unforgiving Kansas ground.
Zeke, well over six feet tall, and black as a mature thundercloud, shook his head. With a few more arms to offer as limbs, he would have made for one of the larger trees around. As it was, the Negro was of normal composition for his height, everything in perfect proportion, along with a smile that would light any dark room with his flawless ivory teeth. Zeke had been a houseboy once, and the air of that position had never left him.
Zeke looked away from the rifle, let it fall to his side. “Ain’t shore, Mistuh Lucas. Negro with a gun ain’t encouraged less you be in the Tenth Cavalry Regiment. I never was no soldier, though I could ride with those fellas in that troop, and be just fine, I suppose.”
Lucas stopped next to Zeke, and glanced over to the table that they stood in front of. It was loaded with weapons. Six-shooters, rifles, derringers of all makes and sizes, along with a few knives, both to carry in plain sight and to conceal. It was a wide array of firearms, old and new, from the personal armory that Lucas had amassed before leaving St. Louis. He had wanted to be prepared for anything that came their way.
The West was a mysterious land, with only the stories that had traveled back East over the years to navigate by. This was Lucas’s first venture deep into the territories, his first journey into the new land. He wanted to be as prepared as possible, and was still taking pains, and making the best plans he knew how.
“That’s why we’re here,” Lucas said. “So you can find one that fits you the best, that you’re comfortable with.”
“Ain’t necessary,” Zeke said. He put the rifle, a Springfield 1870, down onto the table, and shook his head.
“You don’t like this one?”
“No, suh, it ain’t that. Any would do. But you knows I’d just as well be on my own. I’d rather not carry a gun at all, if it all be the same to you.”
“Trouble’s coming for you, Zeke, you know that. A gun’s as necessary as a good horse. Especially here.”
“I does know that I be an object of capture, but you a free man now. Me, I’ll never be such. It is the hand I was dealt. You knows that. We got this great big country, and I hope to be a flea, and disappear down into the fur of the dog. Ain’t that what all this grass look like to you? I ain’t never seen such a thing.” Zeke shook his head in wonder, but there was melancholy in his voice.
“They’ll find you. You’ve got a price on your head.”
“Don’t want to spend my life runnin’ if it all be the same to you. It’d been best if I’d turned myself in back in St. Louis. Then you be free to explore this land free of any trials due to me.” Zeke shifted his shoulders, broad and straight as a two-by-six piece of lumber, like the shirt he was wearing was uncomfortable. He had been outfitted head to toe, boots to hat, in a new wardrobe himself, setting any doubters straight that he was not a convict on the run. With the bowler hat, fine linen shirt, maroon waistcoat with trousers to match, he passed more as a suave Negro carpetbagger than an escaped convict.
“They would’ve hung you on the spot, Zeke.”
“I can’t outrun the touch of Judgment Day. It’ll catch up with me no matter how many guns I carries, or how much you wishes it to be untrue. Fate is fate. I be a marked man for all my comin’ days.”
“You have done nothing wrong.”
“Say you.” Zeke picked up another rifle, a new model Winchester. He settled the butt of it into his shoulder, fired, pulled the lever down, fired again, and again, until all of the cartridges were gone. A nod of approval came as he placed the rifle back on the table.
“That rifle’s going to change the world,” Lucas said.
“Just means you can kill a man faster, Mistuh Lucas, ain’t nothin’ new gonna come from that. Just more blood. Always gonna be new ways for mans to make war on himself and those that disagree with his ideas. Sad that we bring that fight to this land. It look so pure that I feel like I shouldn’t be standin’ on it.”
“That Winchester just might be the blessing we’ve all been hoping for,” Lucas said, eyeing the horizon. “Get the war with the Indians over quicker.”
“Or, it may well be another curse.” Zeke followed Lucas’s gaze, and settled on the point, on the image, that Lucas had suddenly focused on. “Somebody’s a comin’.” He looked down to the table, and reached for another fully loaded Winchester.
“There’ll be no need for any weapons, Zeke,” Lucas said. “I’m expecting company for dinner.”
Zeke let his hand slip off the rifle, but he didn’t let it fall too far away. “I hope you’re expectin’ a lot of visitors then, Mistuh Lucas.”
Lucas followed Zeke’s gaze, and the contented look on his face fell away. Before he could say another word, a thunderous gunshot rang out, echoing across the flat land quickly and unexpectedly.
The bullet pinged off of one of the iron wheels of the railcar, and was followed by another foreign, unexpected sound. A chorus of whoops and hollers: an Indian call to charge and attack.
“Cheyenne,” Lucas said, reaching for the closest loaded rifle, another Springfield.
Zeke stood staring at the oncoming tide of Indians and horses, caught in a moment of fear, or awe, it was hard to tell which. “I ’spect I’ll need that rifle now.”
“You’ll need as many as you can carry,” Lucas said, firing the Springfield, backing up as fast as he could, dodging back and forth, trying to make himself as difficult a target as possible.
A flaming arrow arched through the air, descended rapidly, and stabbed into the ground with a resounding thud. The flame didn’t extinguish, just wavered in the wind.
Luckily there was little for the arrow to use for tinder. The grass was beat down from Lucas’s and Zeke’s presence, and moist from a recent rain. It sat there like a candle in the daylight—only it offered no comfort to Lucas—just fear. He glanced back to the railcar, and broke into a run. “Come on, Zeke, let’s go. Let’s go.”
But Zeke Henry didn’t move, didn’t act like he’d heard a word. He just stood there big and tall as a cottonwood tree, almost like he hoped one of the arrows, or bullets, would hit him just so he could see how it felt—or put an end to the hopeless wandering that lay before him.
Most days, Celia Barlow sat on the sanatorium’s veranda staring blankly into the distance. Words had been lost to her for longer than seemed possible. At least words that could roll off her tongue and slip from her mouth. It was like her tongue and throat had been glued shut, clamped tight, the ability to mutter something intelligible, to speak, had been a skill she had never possessed. But she was aware of far more than most people around her thought she was. The doctors and nursemaids talked like she wasn’t there, like she couldn’t comprehend anything they said, or didn’t say. She understood silent implications as well as any loud argument.
The reality that she would never be what she once was, that she wouldn’t heal, that there was no ending for her other than to just slip away one night into the sweet hands of death, was not lost on her. Celia prayed for death to come and take her away almost every minute of every hour.
She was also aware of patterns and schedules, and could recognize faces, voices, and certain touches. It had been in accordance to the time of day for her to be wheeled out in a chair, covered with a blanket, and left to drool on herself, as she looked out over the green valley, unable to swat at mosquitoes or flies, or scratch the tip of her nose, no matter the severity of the annoyance. Along with the ability to speak, she had also lost the ability to move. If she screamed, no one heard her. If she wanted to run, no one could catch her. She was trapped, a prisoner inside her own skin. Death was her only escape. And so far, it had been her hale physical health that had kept her alive and firmly planted in front of a path that she could not traverse, no matter the intensity of her desire to do so.
It was, however, at that moment that two shadows appeared, one on each side of her. There were no voices, no warning. One of the two men, who she had never seen before, stepped in front of her, and looked down at her like she was nothing more than a piece of meat. He smelled unfamiliar, of whiskey and tobacco, and it wasn’t until she was being lifted into the air that Celia thought to be afraid.
But who would she call out to? The nurse who had scowled in disgust when she fouled herself? Or the doctor who poked and probed her like she was a pincushion with no feeling? Just because she couldn’t scream didn’t mean she didn’t feel pain.
Celia thought she was either being kidnapped or rescued. Either way, she would be free of the walls that had held her prisoner for so long, free of the mush shoved down her throat to keep her alive, and the horrid-tasting medicines that did nothing but make her sleepier, and more immobile than she already was.
For all she knew, Death himself had answered her silent pleas, had come to visit her, and this was her voyage, deeper into the darkness, a final punishment. Punishment for the misdeed that had brought so much pain upon her, and her family, already.
If she would have been in her right mind, in her right body, she might have questioned the two men, asked them where they were taking her. But knowing full well that she couldn’t, she relaxed her mind, and prayed. Please, let it be soon. Please, this is no way to live. It was only true love that I surrendered to. How could that have been so wrong?
The senator stood at the window of the hotel, looking down the long street that ended at the Capitol building. He was as tall as a doorway, and thin as a rail. A long, well-groomed beard, gray like a winter sky, announced his age and stature from a distance. But it was his eyes that were his most distinguished feature. They were deep blue, black in the lack of light, hard like steel, and full of ambition, even though such a thing should have run its course long ago.
The hotel room was as lush and fine as the man’s clothes; it was a massive lion’s den, appointed in all the latest fashions. He had stayed in the suite on every visit to Washington since he had been elected. Now, it matched his personality, and was decorated and furnished just for him, for his unusual size.
Lancaster Barlow had been compared to Lincoln in height, but that was all. Barlow was not a homely man, but one the ladies still found attractive—though he was most often suspicious of their motives. Nor was he a great orator, though he could legislate with the best of men, write laws for man and his misdeeds, and wrangle votes with favors, and promises, like the best of senators were expected to do. Being a small-town litigator was the only skill that he had shared with the sixteenth president. But Lancaster Barlow had never enjoyed the practice of law, not like Lincoln had. People and their petty problems bored him. He had always aspired to something grander, bigger. Leaving his mark on the world meant far more to him than solving a crisis of debt—or murder. Being a lawyer had only been a means to an end: It had transported him to Washington, and the title that came with it meant more to him than almost anything else in his life.
Sadly, the opportunity to climb higher in political office was lost, too. His causes and reputation had taken a beating recently, and Barlow was old enough to know that he did not have the time, nor the treasury, to repair both. It would have to be one or the other. Cause or reputation. He was still trying to decide which to pursue.
A knock came from the door, startling him out of his thoughts. “Yes,” he said.
The door opened and a nervous looking man with glasses hurried inside the room, and closed the door behind him. “Sorry to bother you, Senator, but if you do not leave now, you will be late for the afternoon session, and I have news to report before you leave, sir.”
“Yes, Paulsen, I was just gathering my thoughts about the Hills Regulation.” It was a lie, of course. Barlow could have cared less about the latest attempt to encourage mining in his home state. His concerns for Tennessee were far and few between. “What news? Business or personal?”
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Of course. We are in Washington. Business is of the utmost, don’t you agree?”
Leland Paulsen sighed, and nodded. “The notes will be in the carriage.” The man wore round, rimmed glasses, and was just a little taller than most twelve-year-old boys—but there was no question that he was of an elder age. He was bald, with only a few stray graying hairs circling his head. Thin mutton-chop sideburns struggled down his cheeks like a dirty gray waterfall. He had been Barlow’s secretary of affairs since the senator had arrived in Washington, some twenty-odd years prior. There was a small quarters set aside for the man in the front of the suite.
“I expected such,” Barlow said, perusing Paulsen from head to toe. “Is there a problem, man?”
“Yes, sir. A reporter just left. He was asking questions about your son.”
Barlow stiffened. “What type of questions?”
“Whether you were aware of his business dealings with the railroads.”
“It is old news, Paulsen. I hope you sent the scallywag on his way with a swift kick in the ass. Election season is heating up early. I suspect I will have to face such nonsense if I seek to keep this office—which I no doubt will.”
“He was a persistent man,” Paulsen said.
“Roaches. The press is full of roaches, snakes, and traitors. I don’t have time for this drivel.” Barlow headed to the coatrack to retrieve his hat and cane. “My son is in prison for actions all of his own doing, and that is as it should be. I hope you told this reporter that that is my view. My son deserved the punishment he received.”
“I did, sir. But he questioned your involvement. He seemed to believe that your son couldn’t have maintained the contracts he held without your help, and that your hands, so to speak, were the ones that stirred the pot and still need washing.”
Barlow cast Paulsen a hard look at the mention of hands. His son had been relieved of his hands, cut off, leaving stumps at the wrist in an attempt of his own to complete an alibi, and propagate a story that ultimately had sent an innocent man to prison for his son’s false murder. It was a sad state of affairs, but Lancaster Barlow silently held his son in high regard for his commitment to the plan, and the execution of the deed.
Paulsen flinched at the look. “I’m sorry, sir, to have brought up such a sensitive subject.”
Barlow shrugged. “I broke no laws, I can assure you of that, Paulsen. There is no need to pussyfoot around about my son’s fate. He did it to himself, or had it done. So be it. That action cannot be changed, and now he lives with his choices like we all do.”
“It is not me who has to be satisfied with an answer, Senator Barlow.”
“You speak as if there is an inquiry being planned into this matter, Paulsen. Tell me, is this the news I should really be concerned about?”
Paulsen nodded. “The Speaker of the House is in the process of ordering a public investigation to your link in the matter, sir.”
“In the process?”
“Yes, from a reliable source. I understand the news will break a week before the filing deadline for the next election. Theobold Gladstone will take the lead in the investigation. It seems a matter of revenge, a public flogging, if you will.”
“Gladstone will do anything to see me escorted out of this city, or thrown into some brig, along with my son. But he will only go so far. I have made it known to him that I am aware of his unfortunate proclivities, and will be just as glad to air them through my own channels.”
“I am just doing my job, sir.”
“I appreciate the intelligence, Paulsen. Your networks are intact and functioning at the highest order. I’m glad to see that my investments are proving their worth and paying the expected dividends.” Barlow turned his lip up, and began to pace the length of the room. “These new Republicans are despicable in their quest for power. I shouldn’t be surprised, though I admired them more as Whigs. I would most likely do the same thing if I were in their shoes.” Senator Lancaster Barlow smiled then, stopped in front of Paulsen, and extended his hand straight out so that it rested on the short man’s shoulder. “You have proven to be a fine secretary. I am in your debt for the gain of this information.”
“I’m afraid,” Paulsen said, hesitantly, “that I have more news, sir. The personal side of the equation that I spoke of when I entered the room. I think you should sit down.”
“I take all my news standing up, Paulsen. You know that.”
“It is very bad news, sir.”
“Has there been a death?” Part of him would have been relieved if it was the news he thought it might be—hoped it might be—but would never say so out loud.
“No, sir. I believe it may be worse than death itself. A wire just came in. It is fresh news.”
“Tell me, man, of what do you speak? I am old and tired, wary of heart attacks and excitement. You have brought enough for me to consider on this day. My reputation is at stake, and now I know what must be done, where my focus must lie. I am grateful for that. Be on with it, time is ticking.”
“I was afraid to tell you, sir, but I must. It is your daughter, Senator Barlow. She has vanished.”
The second flaming arrow hit the railcar square in the middle. Fire hurried up the wood-paneled exterior like it was on a short fuse. More fire-tainted arrows rained onto the ground and into the railcar, pointed and sure in their target, coloring the once perfect sky with black smoke and fear.
Before long, the railcar would be nothing but firewood for a giant bonfire; there was no water to save it, nor was there time to expend such energy, under attack from the raiding Cheyenne.
The second fire-borne arrow had struck at the heart of the car, but others were piercing the roof at each end, ensuring total destruction of the elaborate abode.
Hobie Lawton ran out onto the platform where Lucas had stood just minutes before, and stopped dead in his tracks. “Redskins. Damned if I knew it weren’t redskins. Not even a month into the journey, and we draw heathens to our doorstep. Damn, if I didn’t know I should’ve stayed in St. Louis where it was safe from such nonsense.”
A gunshot crackled out across the wide meadow, and the bullet sliced into the door frame, inches from Hobie’s head. He looked upward, shocked at the closeness, then stepped back inside the burning railcar, out of harm’s way.
Lucas hadn’t really been listening to Hobie’s rant. The man always seemed to be bellyaching about something: the weather, the sway of the train, the speed of the train, the lack of ingredients to cook with, anything to hear himself talking. But Lucas was annoyed at his lack of action. “Would you grab a gun and help out, Hobie?” Lucas yelled.
Hobie, a man of normal height, and middle age, stuck his head out of the door and shrugged. “Don’t see how it’s gonna do any damn good. No, sir, don’t see it at all. Injuns got us two to one. I got half a head of hair. Be an ugly scalp on a belt, for sure, but they’ll take it and be proud of it.”
“Damn it, Hobie!” Lucas hollered out. “Get a gun!”
More arrows thudded into the railcar, and it was starting to burn in earnest. Flames crawled up the side of the car, just under the windows, in short, steady leaps, advancing to the roof, which was starting to blaze on its own with assured determination from the other arrows.
Zeke had woken up from his stupor, and now recognized the danger that they all were in. He scooped up as many of the rifles as he could, then knocked the table over to use for cover. He crouched behind it the best he could, aimed the Winchester ’73, and returned fire.
It was only a matter of seconds before an arrow sliced into the wood table, and it began to burn, too.
The black smoke fully engulfed the encampment, if it could have been called that, encouraging the attacking braves to scream and yell with delight. They were sure of their success, and Lucas couldn’t blame them.
Hobie disappeared back inside the railcar, opened the first window, jammed a rifle barrel out of it, and began to fire at the distant raiders.
Between Hobie and Zeke offering cover, Lucas had time to grab up a couple of single-action Army Colts, and the loaded ammunition belts that went with them. He crouched as close to the ground as he could, firing as he went, and hurried up onto the platform.
A quick glance over his shoulder told him that there were at least six in the raiding party; Dog Soldiers wearing wolf skins on their heads, faces painted red with white stripes flowing from their noses onto their chins and cheeks, feathers tied to their black hair, and their buckskins adorned with bone jewelry.
Lucas had been warned by the train’s engineer that it would be dangerous to unhook in Kansas, be left out in the open, but he had felt the risk was worth it, that he could handle anything that came his way. Now, he wasn’t so sure. He had been overconfident, and not nearly as prepared as he thought he was. An uncertain tremble was growing in his belly.
Hobie continued to fire, and the smell of gun smoke mixed with the burning railcar caused Lucas’s eyes to water and his lungs to complain. It was an unlikely and unexpected return to the battlefield, a place Lucas had hoped to never return again. He had hoped that the life of fighting, of killing to stay alive, was behind him, but he should have known better.
It was a different kind of fight that he had put himself into.
This was not a war between the states, but a war against a people whose land and life were being altered by the advancement of progress, of the opening of new territory for white men to inhabit and make their own. Lucas had no choice but to fight back. He had put himself squarely in that war, setting up the railcar, almost like bait, offering the Cheyenne an easy target. He saw that now. He should have listened to the engineer, but his pride and his desire for solitude had been stronger than common sense might have offered. He had needed some time to gather himself before moving on.
The Cheyenne rounded a rise about twenty yards straight out from the railcar, then joined together and leapt from their horses, almost in unison. The horses trailed off quickly behind them, out of sight, while the Indians took up prone positions, flat on the ground, and began to fire their single-shot rifles in unison.
“Zeke,” Lucas yelled out, “there’s only four of them under the ridge . . .”
Thunder cracked from behind them, and lead tore into the ground just at the big Negro’s feet, nicking his bootheel, before Lucas could shout another word of warning.
The shot was like rousing a sleeping giant. Zeke spun around with the Winchester, zeroed in on his targets, and started firing.
It was an astonishing sight to see the Winchester rifle in action, and even more gratifying to see Zeke’s skills matched with it. They were either latent, natural, or the Negro had been holding out about his comfort with a firearm.
Zeke’s first shot hit the closest Dog Soldier square in the forehead, sending him spiraling out of sight. The other attacker didn’t have time to react. The second shot sent him stumbling backward.
A slow smile eased across Lucas’s face—but it didn’t last long. The encroaching fire forced him off the platform with Hobie on his heels.
Flames jumped five feet into the air, and the whole of the roof was engulfed in hungry flames. The interior was starting to surrender to the rage of the fire, too.
There was plenty of tinder to offer as fuel inside the railcar. The walls were lined with mahogany paneling, and the floors were covered with Oriental carpets. Velvet draperies hung at the windows, and there was enough furniture inside to offer kindling for several fires, if the need had ever come. Other than clothes, there were very few personal effects at risk. Lucas had had little time to amass material wealth beyond what had come with the car when he had taken it on as his own. Anything that was inside the railcar was most certainly lost.
Hobie had armed himself with a Henry rifle. It was a lever-action rifle with a breech-loading tubular magazine, and fired copper rimfire cartridges. It was his own personal weapon, an 1860 model that he had carried through the War of Northern Aggression, and beyond. Used correctly, the rifle could fire twenty-eight rounds a minute. But Hobie was more adept with a spatula and skillet than the rifle. He’d been a battlefield cook. He was nearsighted, and was prone to leaving his spectacles lying next to the stove, claiming he could see to cut a carrot without them just fine. Which was true. But shooting at a great distance, even with a rifle such as the Henry, was a problem for him.
Hobie had nearly shot all of the rounds loaded in the Henry before the fire had forced him out of the railcar.
Zeke and Lucas fired at the remaining Cheyenne, staying low to the ground, hanging back behind the burning table. It wouldn’t be long before it, like the railcar, started to give into the fire. As it was, the table still offered cover.
Lucas looked over his shoulder, and saw Hobie running straight for them, firing as he came. About halfway between the platform and the table, the Henry jammed, and without thinking, obviously, Hobie came to a stop.
“Keep running!” Lucas screamed. But he was too late. A gunshot rang out, and lead hit Hobie directly in the chest. He stumbled backward, and looked more resigned than surprised. Another shot followed in a blink, and caught him square in the belly, sending the cook spiraling to the ground with a groan and a thud. A cloud of dust wafted over him for a brief second, then joined the smoke, becoming one with the cloud.
Zeke stood up and unloaded the fully loaded Winchester in a series of trigger pulls, lever cranks, and presses. The smoke surrounded the Negro like he had conjured it to hide in. The reports of the gunfire echoed across the lea—and were not immediately answered back.
Lucas peered over the burning table, and watched as two Cheyenne ran off, gathered up their horses, and beat hoof as fast as they could, north, away from them. “I think we ran them off.”
“They’ll be back,” Zeke said. He hurried to Hobie, and Lucas followed, though it was easy to see, even amidst the smoke and fire, that there was no saving the man.
They made no attempt to put out the fire. There was no close source of water, other than a thin stream that cut through the meadow about a hundred yards to the south of them. The railcar burned itself out. There was nothing left of it but a smoldering skeleton: iron frame on iron wheels, with some black timbers sticking up like charred toothpicks.
Nothing of value to either man had survived the fire. All that remained were the weapons that Zeke was trying out before the attack came. Nearly half of the ammunition had been used up in the attack.
Zeke had taken the chore of digging a grave for Hobie without being asked or told. Lucas had just wandered off, a Colt Army dangling from his right hand.
The ground was dry, easy to dig with big hands and the butt of a rifle. The shuffle of dirt sounded like the soles of shoes scraping across slate. There was music in the consistency of the digging, but it offered no joy. Death seemed to follow Lucas Fume wherever he went, and the thought of losing another man because of his escapades touched him deeply, in a dark black place in his soul. One that he avoided as often as possible.
The air still smelled of fire and soot, and the iron frame of the railcar was still hot to the touch. Blue sky had returned, and the perfection of the summer day seemed to have already forgotten, or ignored, the fight that had taken place.
Lucas overlooked Zeke and the task at hand as best he could, and made his way to the center of the railcar.
The railcar had belonged to John Barlow, the man who had faked his own death in order to see Lucas thrown into prison. The ploy had not worked—at least forever like Barlow, who had changed his name and identity to Lanford Grips, had hoped.
Lucas had survived countless attempts on his life, and had escaped the prison with Zeke. All that ugliness had been cleared up in St. Louis. But at a cost. First, Zeke Henry was still a wanted man—wanted for the brutal beating and rape of John Barlow’s sister, Celia. And then there was the loss of Charlotte Brogan, a woman Lucas had known, and loved, since he was a boy. She had died in his arms in St. Louis. He couldn’t save her. And now, any semblance of her presence was gone, burned to ashes and tossed to the wind.
Lucas had slept in her bed, in her quarters of the railcar, trying to inhale her smell for as long as it would last, trying to feel something other than guilt and shame. He had failed. Failed miserably, and could hardly find it in himself to take another step, to move on. He wished he could trade places with Hobie Lawton. Unfortunately, Lucas was going to be forced to live out his days with regret following him everywhere he went.
“Gonna be dark soon,” Zeke said. He walked steadily with three gun belts thrown over his shoulder, and two wrapped around his waist. Each had a Colt of some make in it. He carried the Winchester rifle, barrel down. Metal against metal clanked with each giant step he took, even when he walked slow, so Lucas could keep pace with him.
Lucas had on one gun belt, and carried Hobie’s Henry rifle. It was the only keepsake he had allowed himself. “We need to get as far away from there as possible.”
“They’ll find us if they want.”
“You buried the rest of those guns with Hobie?”
Zeke nodded. “Ain’t no Indian gonna look for them there from what I knows. Death is a repellent like no other.”
It was a small comfort for Lucas knowing those guns wouldn’t be used to kill anyone else, and he hoped Zeke was right. The Negro seemed to have a working knowledge of Indian ways that they had never discussed before. For now, Lucas decided to leave that conversation to another time. Truth be told, there was a lot about Zeke Henry that he didn’t know.
The ground was flat along the bank of the small stream that they navigated, doing their best not to leave a visible trail. Mosquitoes and flies buzzed about, glad for their presence, their offer of new blood. The insects seemed drunk with the prospect of flesh to eat, immune to fear, maniacal in their attacks. Lucas swatted at the swarms but it did no good. They hovered over his head in a cloud. “There’s no escaping creatures who want to see us dead, or do us harm,” he said, frustrated.
“You expected it to be different here, Mistuh Lucas?”
Lucas shrugged. “I had hoped for a new start for both of us.”
“You maybe. No such thing for me. Not now or in the future.”
“What if we could do something to free you? There has to be something I can do, that we can do.”
They continued walking, skirting the water, fighting off the marauding insects the best they could, listening for Cheyenne, or any other Indian, at every breath. It was a new skill to develop, but old in its very prospect. Lucas had fought in the war, but rarely as a soldier. Instead, he worked mostly as a spy, gathering intelligence, crossing enemy lines at will, donning getups and identities that allowed him such currency. But those skills were old, used up. Not forgotten. Just atrophied from too many years spent locked inside a prison cell.
“What’s done can’t be undone. You knows that, Mistuh Lucas.”
“She’s not dead,” Lucas said.
“Might as well be. Can’t talk. Can’t walk. Can’t do nothin’ to tell the truth of matters.”
There was a quiver in Zeke’s voice that Lucas had heard before. He remained quiet, said nothing more. What he had said was enough. The subject of Zeke’s crime always put the Negro deeper in the funk he already walked in.
The only sounds that followed them were the constant wind, the buzz of insects, an occasional bird offering a song, and the shuffle of their feet in the mud and gravel along the bank of the stream. Lucas had no clue where they were going, where they were. He just knew that they couldn’t stay near the railcar, and wait for another train to pass by and rescue them. It was too dangerous to stay there. The Cheyenne would come back; there was no doubt about that.
As much as both men were held in grief and regret, they both had carried the will to live, the appetite to put one foot in front of the other.
There had to be a town somewhere up the railroad line, a destination to walk to. Leavenworth was the next big train stop, a town of nearly thirty thousand people, so there had to be outliers close by, farms and such that would offer them direction and, hopefully, safety.
The land might have seemed desolate and lonely, but the Cheyenne and the Kiowa, and the other Plains Indians, were angry for a reason. Not only had the white man come into their territory and spoiled their hunting grounds, they had stayed. And now they were claiming the land as their own—a concept foreign to the Indians as much as the English that rolled off the white man’s tongue. Eleven railroad lines crisscrossed Kansas, and thousands of people poured into, or across, the state every week. The desolation and emptiness that Lucas had found himself in wouldn’t last long.
Lucas stopped, and stepped into ankle-deep water. His stomach growled with hunger, and at that moment, he would have given anything to hear Hobie bellyaching about the weather. “We best start looking for a place to camp. Doesn’t look like there’s going to be any place to stop any time soon,” he said.
Zeke nodded in agreement. “You ever think we shoulda stayed in Libertyville? Just found a life with them folks?”
Lucas looked at Zeke oddly. “You want to go back?”
“They ain’t there now. Moved on. Just askin’, that’s all. Far Jackson ain’t a bad man to follow.”
It was Lucas’s time to shake his head. He wasn’t following anyone, and he knew his presence, and Zeke’s, had brought the people of Libertyville a lot of trouble, and would only bring them more: raging prison guards with an axe to grind, and a quarry to catch. Carl the Hammer, who was dead now, would have just been replaced by someone else. The Klan would have seen to that. “We’re safer here,” he said.
“Hobie Lawton might argue that fact with you. But if you says so.”
“I do.” Lucas forged ahead then, deciding against stopping to camp. He wasn’t comfortable. There was still a little light left in the day, enough to find someplace safer—if that were possible.
He picked up his pace so he could put a little distance between him and Zeke. The question of safety had brought up another memory, another sorrow. How could he not think of Avadine, the Scottish woman who had nursed him to health, saw to it that his strength had returned, and welcomed him into her bed? And what had he done for her in return? He had left her. Ran out at the first chance he had, chased by men with guns, leaving her standing alone in the growing gloom of night, surviving fire and assault, her heart broken for all the world to see. He hoped never to see Avadine, or that look in a woman’s eyes, ever again. She was hopeless, enraged, full of hate and love at the same time.
Just at the onset of dusk, Lucas spied a spiral of smoke in the distance. He eased up his pace to allow Zeke to catch up with him. It didn’t take long for the clatter and clank of the guns to slide up next to him.
“Figured that something would come along this close to the crick,” Lucas said.
“Yup,” Zeke said.
They both stood there looking at the chimney smoke, and the little house, if it could be called that, from which it came.
“Never seen the like,” Lucas said.
“Me, neither. I spent most of my life in them Tennessee hills. Never seen so much brown and open spaces in my life,” Zeke said. “Or a house not made of wood.”
“Not a lot of trees out this way.”
“Was good for you.”
Lucas shrugged. It was true. The lack of trees in the West had made him, and his family, very wealthy. They had owned a few million acres of woodlands in Minnesota. Timber cut and floated down the Mississippi, and used as railroad ties, used to build the railroad lines west. But he owned nothing now. He had money in the bank, the clothes on his back, and the gun in his hand, and that was it—for what good any of it did him.
The way Lucas saw it, he had lost ten times more than he’d gained. His childhood home, his family dead and buried, and Charlotte Brogan killed, because of all the wealth, all of the money and its potential. Add in the betrayal of the one man he thought he could always trust, and he would have traded pasts with Zeke Henry in a heartbeat.
“I hope they’re used to strangers around here,” Lucas said.
Zeke eyed Lucas like he wanted to say something, but restrained himself.
Lucas struck out again, and headed straight for the sod house.
The sky was gray and the curtain of darkness was falling quickly. The day had slipped by, leaving Lucas and Zeke in a very familiar situation—on their own with little resources other than their skills and wits. And even those were rusty, dulled by recent events. Still, there was enough light and will left in them to make it to the house.
The closer they got, Lucas could see another building beyond the house. It was set inside a fence, bore large double doors, and windows with wood sashes and that was all. Low moos of settling cows told him that it was a barn. Something that he wouldn’t have guessed at first sight. Nothing was what it appeared to be in this new land. At least, not to Lucas.
Zeke caught up, walked beside Lucas, doing nothing to hold back the clink and clank of the guns he carried. They weren’t trying to sneak up on anybody.
A thin copse of cottonwoods stood about fifty yards from the front door of the house. Lucas thought nothing of it, and started to skirt the trees, avoiding the shadows that fell off of them.
“You both just stop right there,” a man said, stepping out from behind one of the taller trees. The trunk was just wide enough to hide him, but there was no mistaking the aim of the rifle in his hands.
Lucas and Zeke did what they were told, and automatically put their hands into the air.
“We mean you no harm, mister,” Lucas said.
The man stepped fully out from behind the tree, certain in his hold of the gun. On second look, it was a shotgun, not a rifle. He was about the same height as Lucas, which meant that Zeke towered over him. He seemed fit and clean. His clothes were typical of a man who farmed or tended a herd of animals: simple trousers, a linen shirt, sturdy boots, and a faded wide-brimmed felt hat that had soaked up its fair share of sweat.
“I think you all just need to put down all those weapons. Lord, what’d you do, rob an armory?” the man said.
Lucas unclasped his gun belt and eased it to the ground. Zeke followed suit, putting the gun belts and rifle he carried in a pile at his feet.
“Nothing of the sort,” Lucas said. “We were attacked by Cheyenne earlier today. We were trying these out when they rode in. Killed our cook, and burned the railcar to the ground, leaving us no choice but to move on with what we have left.”
“Thought we saw a stem of smoke east of here,” the man said. His face looked to place him about forty, weathered and cut with worry lines, but it was hard to say for sure. A man’s age was hard to judge under stressful circumstances and bad light. His eyes, though, were curious, and a tad fearful.
What People are Saying About This
“This new series takes us into the heart of our nation and the hearts of the people who were carving it out.”—Nuvo.com
Praise for Spur Award-winning Author Larry D. Sweazy
“A new star in the world of Western fiction.”—Western Fiction Review
“A lively blend of mystery, action, and historical realism.”—John D. Nesbitt, Spur Award–winning author of Death at the Whistling Swan
“Raw, wild, and all too human.”—Johnny D. Boggs, Spur Award–winning author