MEET JOE NOOSE. A GOOD BOUNTY HUNTER WITH A BAD ATTITUDE.
In the cutthroat world of bounty hunters, Joe Noose is as honest as they come. Which isn’t saying much. Just look at his less-than-honest colleagues. They framed Joe for a murder they committed. They made sure Joe’s face wound up on a wanted poster. Now they’re gonna hunt Joe down and collect the reward money. There’s just one problem: Joe Noose thinks it’s his bounty. It’s his reward. And it’s their funeral . . .
Praise for Eric Red’s The Guns of Santa Sangre and The Wolves 0f El Diablo
“Blood-soaked weird west story . . . Red places a premium on action. Readers will enjoy.”
“Readers will rediscover an Old West genre.”—True West
“In the Old West, there are bad guys and even badder guys. But Eric Red’s are the biggest baddest of all.”—Jack Ketchum, author of Off Season
“Bloody fights, desert vistas (and) a touch of romance make this a fast-paced adventure . . . should appeal to fans.”
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A lone wolf is an easy target.
Joe Noose considered this as he raised his Winchester rifle to his shoulder, settling the crosshairs of his gunsight on the distant figure standing by a horse near the Hoback River two hundred yards away.
Adjusting his aim an inch up and to the right of the figure's shoulder for trajectory in the northwesterly wind, he calculated for windage, elevation, and bullet drop as he felt the cold metal of the trigger resistance against his forefinger.
No mistaking his target even from this distance — nor the missing nose on his face from the wanted posters for Jim Henry Barrow that offered a thousand dollars reward for his capture, dead or alive.
Noose's gloved finger was tight on the trigger and his quarry in his rifle crosshairs had not spotted him yet.
The bounty hunter would try to take him in peacefully, picking his moment to call out the man's name and order him to put his hands behind his head.
If he resisted, Noose would put one in his shoulder, which usually subdued even the most uncooperative type.
He meant to take his target in alive like he always did.
Noose heard something. His finger loosened infinitesimally on the trigger, senses alert.
There it was again — a near-imperceptible disturbance in the distant woods like horses' hooves stepping on fallen leaves and twigs, but slow and quiet like the horses were being ridden with stealth.
It wasn't the first time the bounty hunter had heard the horses; he had heard them on and off all day throughout the full twelve miles he had ridden chasing down his latest meal ticket.
A twig snapped to the east a few hundred feet out.
Who they were and why they were following him, Noose didn't know, not yet at least, but he was aware of their presence. Being alert and ready was the most important part of avoiding an ambush. He doubted the unseen riders were part of any gang Barrow belonged to because Barrow, as far as he knew, rode alone. The thug was too stupid, drunk, and violent for even the most low-life gangs to claim as a member. Yet anything was possible.
These riders moved like ghosts. They were good. He had to give them that.
It had taken Joe Noose less than a week to catch up with Jim Henry Barrow.
While pulling a stickup, the bank robber had shot a guard in the Victor bank and fled across the Wyoming landscape up into the rugged and treacherous Hoback Canyon. He'd gotten away with a hundred and twenty three dollars and in the escape lost the handkerchief on his face so several customers had been able to identify him by his distinctive bullet scar that had taken his nose years before. Barrow had an hour head start on the local Victor lawmen who had been forced to turn back when one of their horses broke a leg. Noose happened to be dropping off a prisoner to the jail when he heard about the robbery and the killing. The sheriff had wired the U.S. Marshal's office in Jackson Hole and gotten the reward authorized and Noose had gone after it.
It had been a long hard ride across twelve miles of sheer forest and steep mountain range that was as hard going down as up. The trek had nearly killed his horse and he had to walk the animal half the time, but the outlaw's trail had been fresh. Noose expected, rightly so, that once Barrow made Jackson Hole, the big valley on the other side of the pass, he would get a boat and make off down the Snake River. Which was exactly what the man Noose was aiming at was doing this very second.
It was the tracks of the other horses that unnerved Noose. He made them out to number twelve, riding together.
In the last two days, he had crossed the fresh hoofprints twice while doubling back after a wrong turn. The bounty hunter figured it must be a gang. Who they were Noose didn't know but he wondered why all those men and horses had fetched up in the remote wilderness with him and Barrow. What worried him was whether Barrow had a gang Noose didn't know about and planned to meet up with them. It could be the presence of these others was sheer happenstance: a group of settlers or hunters passing through. But Noose didn't believe in coincidence; his belly tightened because he knew if it was a gang and they were with Barrow, it was going to get bloody, very bloody, very fast.
Another broken twig on a pine tree. A little piece of torn duster. More tracks. The riders' sign had caught his attention repeatedly during his pursuit of Barrow. Noose hadn't seen them because he had been staying out of sight, keeping downwind, not wanting to get made if whoever this gang was, was with the man with the thousand-dollar reward on his head. As far as Noose could tell, they had not noticed him, either. But who were they? he kept wondering.
Now, here, by the river, his man was alone and Noose had him in his gunsights — it was time to make his move.
"Barrow!" he shouted from his safe cover.
The outlaw suddenly straightened and made a quick break for his saddle and the rifle stock that jutted out. Quickly adjusting aim, Noose squeezed the trigger — the gun bucked, and an explosion of stones flew up at Barrow's feet, stopping him dead in his tracks. He winced, put his hands behind his head, and shouted up onto the ridge where Noose was dug in. "Don't shoot! I'm unarmed, dammit!"
"Throw down!" yelled the bounty hunter, leaping out of his cover and side-skidding his boots down the ridge, scattering pebbles and rocks, keeping his rifle leveled with one arm as he kept balance on the hill with the other. "Kiss the ground!"
The criminal lowered to his knees. "You the law?"
"Close enough," replied Noose, who had crossed the bank of the river in three long strides and produced a set of steel cuffs.
"You son of a bitch." The man flattened.
"Shut up." Noose patted him for weapons, confiscated a Colt Peacemaker, and cuffed him. In one swift move, the bounty hunter pulled the rifle from the man's saddle and quickly rummaged through the saddlebags for firearms or knives but found nothing but a ratty bedroll and some week-old jerky. Tossing the other rifle back toward the ridge, Noose grabbed the glum man by the scruff of the neck, heaving him to his feet and shoving him up into his saddle on his horse. The bounty hunter moved with practiced professionalism, like a well-oiled machine. "I'm taking you back to Idaho," he said. "We can do it the easy way or the hard way."
A big red flower bloomed in Jim Henry Barrow's chest, blossoming out his back, and he was catapulted clean out of the saddle, landing flat on his back on the ground, stone dead with his torso blown out. Blood pooled in a huge lake beneath the blasted corpse and ran into the river, in a spreading red discoloration.
Noose whirled, clenching his rifle with both hands, looking wildly around him for whoever shot the man.
Then the riders appeared. There were twelve. They rode down the ridge, across the river, and out of the trees.
Twelve rifles. Twelve Stetsons. Twelve dusters. Twelve killers blocking out the sun.
"He's ours," said the leader.
Noose gazed up at a tall, skeletal man with gaunt features and a handlebar mustache. He was looking down the barrel of a smoking Sharps rifle at him. The killer had black bullet eyes. "I would drop the gun," he advised.
So Noose did. Slow.
"You murdered him," Noose said coldly, keeping his empty hands in the open.
"Reward's the same either way." The leader smirked. "We just put paid to it."
"I was taking this man in alive," Noose said, unblinkingly holding the mounted man's mean gaze. "I had him disarmed and restrained. He was mine and that reward is mine."
The gaunt scarecrow of a bounty killer smiled. "We say it's us got him and we say the reward belongs to us. It's your word against ours, mister, twelve to one." He indicated his gang, a few of whom chuckled. "You can count, can't ya?"
"What's your name?" Noose snarled.
"I'm Frank Butler."
"I'll remember it."
"You do that. Now shut the hell up, you're sucking my air. You just lost money, you could lose a lot more," Butler said coldly. "Don't be stupid. Walk away. Our business is done here."
Noose just stood and looked on as one of the big feral bounty killers Butler addressed as Sharpless dismounted and heaved the bleeding corpse face-first over the dead man's empty saddle.
"Let's get back to town before this crud starts to stink," said Butler as he and his riders spurred their horses and rode off with the dead man's horse in tow.
Noose stood by the creek. He whistled to call his horse. It trotted out of the trees to him.
Five minutes passed before he swung into his saddle and followed the gang's tracks.
He figured he'd given them enough head start.CHAPTER 2
Times were tough for killers, Noose reckoned.
A thousand dollars wasn't much divvied up twelve ways.
The corpse was slumped sideways over the saddle, festering in the sun and buzzing with flies. The horse was tethered to the rail outside the bar, alongside the twelve other horses, who kept their distance from the other animal, tails swishing at the swarming insects. Noose could see why. Barrow was already starting to stink.
The men must be inside the bar.
There was nowhere else they could be, because other than the saloon there were few other buildings in Hoback, Wyoming. It was barely a town. Noose trotted slowly on his horse, eyeballing the feed store, the corral, and the U.S. Marshal's office. There were two horses in front of that.
The bounty hunter tethered his horse outside the corral. He swung out of his saddle onto the hard earth, checking to be sure both his Colt pistols were fully loaded before he entered the bar. He could use the drink, if not the company, but it was the company he was here to deal with. Shooting a glance to the hot sun overhead, he tipped his hat brim to shade his face.
Today was going to be a hot one.
So he entered the bar, and sure enough, there they all were.
As Noose pushed through the swinging doors, the twelve hulking figures of the big men assembled around the saloon became visible in the gloom, bent like a row of malignant vultures over the long wooden bar, just big shadows until Noose's eyes adjusted to the dim light and he could make out the faces. It was them, all right. Stink eyes slid buzzardlike to regard him over their hunched shoulders over their shot glasses of whiskey as he entered, spurs jingling, in the quiet room. Nobody moved.
The gang would be here in Hoback to see the local marshal and turn the body over to him for the reward. The lawman needed to sign off for the release of the money and that was whom the killers were waiting for now. It would be the marshal's duty to telegraph Jackson Hole for authorization, and soon the money would be waiting for pickup by these bounty killers. That was their plan.
Noose meant to interfere with it.
He figured his presence was a fly in the ointment for these badmen and seeing him here they must figure he was brave or crazy. Noose figured he risked getting shot but not before the marshal came and the men got their reward money.
His spurs jingled as he entered the bar. Crossing the spare barroom built of unfinished pine boards, Noose saw that besides the gang there was nobody else present other than the bartender, and he wasn't much, just an old coot. The saloon was little more than a hut. A table and two chairs. A clock. The clock was ticking. Sauntering up to the other end of the bar from the bounty killer gang, the lone bounty hunter signaled the bartender.
"Buy him a whiskey. Least we can do," said Butler, smiling quietly.
"It's paid for," replied Noose, flipping a coin onto the counter.
The barman grabbed a bottle from the rack, eyes cautiously taking in his fearsome customers and the cool new arrival, and poured a drink. Noose stood tall at the bar, his ten-gallon hat tipped low over his forehead, boot braced on the wooden rail, taking a slow sip of his drink and staring straight ahead. He didn't need to look at the men to know they were watching him. Each and every last one of them. He'd made an entrance for sure, he figured, because he was the last man any one of these killers had expected to see. But Noose didn't fully know whom he was dealing with, at least not yet, and had to be careful that while he'd entered the bar on his boots, he didn't leave it in a box.
Time passed. Just a bunch of guys drinking.
Smells of dust and wood and sweat and leather filled Noose's nostrils, then the stinging tang of the cheap whiskey as he raised it to his face and sipped. His senses were suddenly more alert, as they always were when facing death. What if this was his last drink? he thought. He swallowed and felt the good burn of the liquid down into his gullet. It numbed him. Facing death made the whiskey taste better.
Noose took inventory of the logistics of a gunfight. He was in a good position at the end of the bar because all the gang were stacked up down the bar one past the other and if any one of them drew they would be distracted for a split second trying to shoot around the others between them and him — he just had to turn to have both his irons out and pump lead into the badmen and send them falling like a row of dominoes. Noose would most likely die in the shootout, but he'd kill or mortally wound most of the rest.
They were clearly thinking the same thing.
Two of the gunmen stepped away from the bar. One took a seat at a table to his right, crossed his legs, and leaned back, spinning a spur with a gloved hand. The other killer sauntered to the beam against the wall behind Noose, hands dangling near his holsters, casually eyeballing the hot dirt street out the window.
These men were professionals.
The clock on the wall ticked. The barman, growing more nervous, cleaned glasses with a cloth.
"What are you doing here?" Butler finally asked.
Noose just took another sip of his drink. He heard a few random hollow clicks of hammers pulled back on pistols under dusters, heard the clink of his shot glass on the wood counter as he set it down, heard flies buzzing, and he even heard the faint splat of a drop of sweat pouring from one of the posse's foreheads onto the bar. Still he stared straight forward, feeling the hard eyes on him.
"I asked why you're here."
"Same reason as you."
"We got business with the marshal."
"So do I."
"That boy slung over that saddle out there is our'n."
"You murdered him."
"Mean to dispute the reward?"
Noose sipped his whiskey, staring straight forward. He didn't answer. He wasn't unduly worried about being shot because the gunmen were not going to shoot him without sufficient provocation: it would be messy to explain when the marshal got there with the bartender as witness and might complicate getting their reward for Barrow. And Noose knew they knew he knew it.
Butler looked into his own glass. "Reckon you want a cut of the reward?"
Noose shook his head. "Nope."
"Want the whole reward?"
Noose finally looked at Butler and the others, and his gaze was sure and steady. "I brung him in alive. You boys murdered him and you're gonna pay."
The leader of the bounty killers reared up from the bar and swept a huge, incredulous look across the amazed eyes of the hardened grizzled gunmen lining the bar. A chuckle passed through the men like the sizzling fuse on a stick of dynamite, burning down to Butler, who laughed cold and mercilessly.
Noose didn't laugh. "You boys must be desperate. I figure the reward for Barrow comes out to less than a hundred dollars each. Maybe you should get real jobs. You know what they say, boys ... you're worth what they pay you."
"Well, mister, what you got in mind to do about this here situation?"
"I'm gonna tell the marshal you killed Barrow."
"Twelve of us says different."
"We'll see." Noose just smiled to himself, which riled the killers. "Meantime, nothin' to do but wait."CHAPTER 3
Bess Sugarland had woken at dawn as usual that morning in Hoback, a few hours before the men rode in with the dead body over the saddle of the horse, and somehow she just knew there was going to be trouble.
The young woman was twenty-one. She was pretty, hardy, and fit from a life spent out of doors. After brushing her teeth and combing her short auburn hair in the mirror of the small room in back of the U.S. Marshal's office where she lived, Bess splashed bracing cold water on her freckled face. It was a cold and crisp Wyoming morning, and the sharp sunlight blasted in through the window on her unmade bed. A woodpecker was tapping outside the walls and a squirrel scampered through the roof, and she promised herself to take care of both later that day.
Bess dried her face off and cast a glance at the old photo of her father and mother on the wall. It was all she had to remember her mother by.
She pulled on her jeans over her lanky hips, tugged on her boots, and buttoned her denim shirt over her firm young bosom as she finished dressing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Noose"
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