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Black Horse Westerns Collection 1
By Dean Edwards, Tyler Hatch, Scott Connor, Abe Dancer
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2009 Robert Hale Limited
All rights reserved.
A merciless sun refused to stop burning everything below its vicious fury. Even the air was boiling as its vapour swirled around above the seemingly endless ocean of sand. Few men had ever ridden into a land like this willingly. The bleached bones of creatures that had made that fatal mistake were scattered in the white sand as far as the eye could see. Wherever the rider was, it had to be as close to Satan's lair as it was possible to get without actually being dead.
Even seeing was becoming harder and harder for the lone rider who eased back on his reins and brought the exhausted horse beneath him to a gentle halt. Encrusted salt from the perpetual sweat had almost glued his eyes shut. He lifted his hat and ran fingers through his wet hair before using it as a shield against the blistering rays of the sun. If there was a way out of this unholy place, he couldn't see it.
The horseman dropped from his saddle and stood beside his faithful mount. Every sinew in his young body hurt as though a wagon had ploughed over him. He panted like a hound dog and desperately attempted to find breathable air as his burning lungs inflated his aching chest.
Was there a way out of this place?
The question haunted him.
He clung to the long reins with gloved hands, as though afraid of losing his only chance of escaping this place. Yet if his eyes had not been caked with dried salt and sand he would have seen that his mount was even less capable of fleeing than he was himself.
Lathered sweat covered the exhausted animal. It looked as though it had reached the end of its own long ride. Its head hung as its blood boiled inside the once proud body. It snorted at the hot ground even more loudly than its master's own pitiful panting.
For what seemed like an eternity the man just knelt and watched his own sweat rain down from his head. Even doing this simple thing was not without pain. Within minutes he could feel the heat of the white-hot sand as it burned through the knees of his pants' legs.
A myriad thoughts washed through the mind of the horseman as he tried to fight off the inevitable death he knew awaited him if he were to close his eyes. He was tired but refused to succumb to the sleep he knew he would never awaken from.
The heat from the sand eventually managed to penetrate his clouded thoughts and bring him back to where he knelt.
Using all his remaining energy, Hal Harper gripped his stirrup and pulled himself back up to his feet. He leaned unsteadily against his saddle. He kept one hand holding the reins and the other gripping the latigo. Harper wanted to fall down and sleep the sleep of the dead, but he knew that as long as he kept gripping the saddle he could resist that desire.
His eyes tried vainly to make out the scenery but they felt as though branding-irons had been plunged into their sockets. He raised his arm and wiped his face in an atempt to dry the constant sweat that flowed like a waterfall from the hatband over his burned features. Yet his sleeve was like the rest of his bleached trail gear. It was soaked with sweat.
He lifted the canteen and shook it.
There was no reply.
It, like his throat, was bone-dry.
He then recalled having given the last of his precious water to the horse before sunup. It had been a futile gesture that he now regretted.
Was this where it would end? Out here in a land he neither recognized nor understood? Was thirst going to finish him off after he had managed to avoid the bullets which had tried to kill him?
The man reached beneath the belly of the horse. There was no way the animal could take him any further. He loosened the cinch strap, dragged his saddlebags from behind the cantle and dropped them on to the sand. They, like the canteen, were now empty. He patted the horse's neck and started walking with the animal in tow.
His high-heeled boots were not designed for walking. They were meant to fit into stirrups and hold a rider firm. Yet he was walking through the soft sand.
He exhaled and saw the shadows flash across the white ground before him. Startled, Harper's hand went for the holstered gun on his right hip. Then he realized what had spooked him. Four black wide-winged vultures circled above him.
They knew how close their next meal was.
Instinct had alerted them to the fact that there were two big meals getting closer and closer to their demise. They only had to wait as the hot thermals kept them floating above the horse and its owner. They had time to wait. Plenty of time to wait for such substantial meals.
Harper sighed heavily.
His thoughts returned to how he had found himself in this perilous place. He realized that if he had not run away from the guns which had tried to end his existence, he would not be in this unknown land. He would already be dead. Dead from lead poisoning.
Yet would that be any worse than this?
He was angry. If he had just taken the time to ensure his canteen was filled he might not be walking alongside a dying horse. But there had not been any time to do anything except flee the guns.
Harper staggered and heard the horse behind him do the same. Neither found the soft sand to their liking.
Harper could use his gun as well as if not better than most along the unmarked border, but he had never chosen to fight if there were an alternative. Now he doubted whether that had been wise. He should have killed all those who had tried to kill him.
But that had never been his way.
He tried to swallow but their was no spittle left to wet his throat. The dunes of sand rose in all directions like mysterious yellow mountains: mountains that seemed to move as if they actually were alive.
All the man could do was walk beneath them in the hope that their shadows would ease his and his horse's pain.
For nearly two days he had ridden.
For nearly two days they had chased him.
With every stride Harper asked himself the same question. Why had those men back in Senora opened up on him? He had barely been in the town thirty minutes when they had sought him out in the small cantina.
Somehow he had managed to escape their bullets. He had managed to leap through a window, find his horse, and then he had spurred.
But they had chased him.
Like hounds on the scent of a racoon they just refused to quit.
They chased him further and further south until the grass had ended and even the sagebrush no longer grew. Chased him into the endless dunes of sand and kept on coming.
Harper gave a sigh and led the slow horse up the side of a dune in an attempt to find a vantage point from where he might have a clue as to which direcion to take.
But tired legs, both human and animal, were not designed to walk up hills of dry sand that gave way with every step. Somehow he managed to reach the top of the dune. He carefully patted his mount on the neck and screwed up his burning eyes once more.
It was hard to see anything through the thick haze of burning air. The dunes rolled on for miles but there did seem to be something just before the horizon. The shimmering heat played tricks with Harper as he clung to his reins. It looked as though there was water out there!
Blue, inviting water.
Could there be a lake at the end of this torture? Again he tried to swallow.
Again he failed.
Could there really be water out there?
The question tormented Harper as he surveyed the rest of the land that encompassed him and his horse. Then as his unsteady legs turned him to look back over the sand he had already travelled across he felt his heart quicken.
Even the hot air could not conceal them from his burning eyes.
Five figures appeared, almost black against the arid landscape they were riding in. Harper rubbed his eyes again and focused for all he was worth at the riders, who seemed to vanish with every other beat of his pounding heart. The treacherous heat haze mocked him.
They were still chasing after him!
Or were they?
He gasped, steadied himself against the exhausted horse and gritted his teeth. It seemed impossible that anyone should keep hunting another soul through a land like this.
Were they insane? No sane man would ride into a land like this, he told himself.
Again he rubbed his eyes. Was it real or just another of the mirages that had tantalized him for the previous two days in this strange country?
Then Harper felt the heat of something pass within inches of him. The horse shied and instantly he knew what it had been. The sound of the gunfire echoed around him.
It was real.
They were still hunting him.CHAPTER 2
It had all begun two days earlier and forty miles north in a border town called Senora. Senora was by its very nature a dangerous place. So far away from the rest of civilized Texas, which was trying to rebuild itself after the war, Senora had become just another of those places where the law barely hung on to its tin stars long enough to find out the name of the men wearing them. The reality was that it was a town where outlaws and bandits found safe refuge knowing that the local sheriff would not do anything except keep his head down.
For the three months since the elections Tate Talbot had been sheriff of Senora. Unlike most of his predecessors Talbot had never been on the honest side of the law. It was also a fact that, until standing for office, Talbot had been known by many other names and was wanted dead or alive for each of them.
Tate Talbot sounded honest enough though.
Even if most of the townsfolk knew the truth they were not loco enough to mention it. For all of his thirty-nine years he had ridden along both sides of the long unmarked border between Texas and Mexico, using his skill at killing and rustling to make him wealthy beyond the dreams of most men. Becoming a sheriff had been his latest ploy to cash in on all the saloons, whorehouses and gambling halls within the sprawling, sun-bleached town's boundaries.
It had worked well and paid him handsomely.
In twelve weeks Talbot had managed to cream off ten per cent of every business in Senora. His personal wealth now accounted for more than half the money in the town's only bank.
Even the rest of the outlaws who used Senora as a place to rest their bones between rustling cattle knew that Tate Talbot was a man they could trust not to interfere with them as long as they gave him a cut of their profits.
Yet even Talbot could not resist the mouth-watering wanted posters that were sent to him once a month by stage. Most were for such paltry sums that it was not worth his while even considering trying to collect the bounties, but there were a few that just could not be ignored.
It was as tempting as honey to a hungry bear but the wily Talbot knew that he could not turn on the outlaws who filled the saloons and brothels and spent their ill-gotten gains in Senora without risking their retribution. If he were to collect reward money safely he had to figure a way of doing it while also keeping the free-spending drifters sweet.
But he kept looking at the wanted posters. He kept trying to think of a way in which he might be able to make that one big play that would enable him to be so rich that he could buy himself respectability far to the west, in a city like San Francisco. It was OK being rich in Senora but it meant nothing to a man who had always wanted more. To be rich in a city on the Californian coastline was a different matter. There his money could buy things which simply did not exist in this dust-weary town.
All Talbot had needed was that one wanted poster with a reward so large it would be worth the risk of incurring the wrath of the outlaws and bandits.
He knew that it would arrive one day. One day he would hold in his hands the key that could unlock him from the life he found himself living.
It had been close to sundown when the noon stage had eventually drawn into town. Talbot, a well-built man, had walked the fifty or so yards from his office to the stage depot and watched as the mail bag was thrown down by the shotgun guard to the depot clerk.
'Anythin' for me, Luke?' Talbot had asked the guard who was climbing over the various bags on the top of the coach.
The bearded man paused and looked down at the boardwalk where Talbot was standing with thumbs tucked into his gunbelt.
'Yep. I seen them put a whole heap of wanted posters in the mail bag for ya, Sheriff,' the guard said through a mouthful of broken teeth. 'Git Clem to give 'em to ya.'
Talbot nodded, turned and slowly trailed the clerk into the depot office. He rested his hands on the top of the desk and watched the clerk with eyes that had seen more than most in their time. Sunlight was low and its dying rays danced across the office wall.
'I'll have them posters, Clem,' Talbot said in a deep drawl.
The clerk opened up the bag and searched through the mail until he found the posters, tied together by blue string. He handed them to the lawman and tilted his head so he could see from under his black visor.
'Ya sure likes them posters, Tate,' he commented.
Talbot grinned. 'Yep. One day I'm gonna find me one with big money printed on it. Wanted dead or alive!'
'Ya itchin' to kill some critter, Sheriff?'
'Damn right!' Talbot smiled. 'I ain't killed nobody in a month of Sundays. A man can get rusty.'
The clerk gestured at the window, then struck a match and touched the wick of the candle on his desk. As the flame lit up the office the small man blew the match and tossed it out into the street.
'The town's full of outlaws, Tate. Ya could go kill some of them and make a few bucks. I reckon if ya just closed ya eyes and fired down the street you'd hit at least one varmint wanted for something.'
Talbot nodded. 'But most of them varmints are my pals, Clem. Besides, they ain't worth a new saddle between 'em. Ain't worth my while wasting lead on them.'
The clerk busied himself as the lawman walked out into the fading light and strolled back to his own office with the posters tucked under his left arm. The words had been true. Most of the outlaws and bandits who roamed freely in town were dangerous killers without an ounce of morality between them, yet for Talbot to go up against any of them would be suicidal for a man so close to the other side of the law. Talbot knew that if he were to try to claim the reward on anyone, it would have to be someone neither he nor any of the other trail trash in Senora had ever encountered. The bounty would also have to be in the thousands of dollars for him even to bother.
Upon arriving back in his office, Talbot had lit the lantern on his desk, turned up its brass wheel and sat down. He broke the string and placed the pile of posters before him. It was like looking at a potential meal. His mouth started to water in anticipation.
One after another he studied them, turning each one face down as he got to the next.
As always there were vague descriptions of the outlaws who seemed to have more names than any honest soul. Some had even more names than Talbot himself. Heights varied, as well as hair colouring. Few of the posters had any truly accurate information and none could even agree on the outlaws' ages. Thought to be between twenty and forty was printed on at least half of them. Only a few had crude photographic images which could have fitted nearly anyone in town. One poster after another turned into one disappointment after another.
Then as Talbot had almost reached the last poster his hand stopped turning and he drew the stiff paper closer to him. He turned the wheel of the lantern up once again. The office became brighter. This was the one poster he had never even imagined was in circulation.
It was the amount that had attracted his full attention first.
'Twenty thousand dollars, dead or alive!' Talbot muttered aloud.
A crooked smile etched itself on his face as he looked at the poster in his left hand. 'Diamond Bob Casey.'
He shook his head and laughed out loud. It was a joke only he understood. It was perfect. Diamond Bob Casey was wanted dead or alive for $20,000.
Tate Talbot rose from his chair with the poster clutched in his hand. He looked out of the window of the office as the street lights were being lit by a small man with a long pole and a flaming rag at its end.
He kept laughing.
Not one of the other wanted men in Senora knew why their sheriff was so amused. If they had they might have started shooting in his direction.
For, ten years earlier, Tate Talbot himself had used the name of Diamond Bob Casey. The lawman pulled a cigar from his vest pocket and placed it between his teeth. He leaned over the glass funnel of the lamp on his desk, lit the tip of the cigar in the flame, and sucked in the smoke. It filled his lungs as his mind raced. Of all the wanted outlaws in Texas and beyond, it was he himself who was the most valuable.
Excerpted from Black Horse Westerns Collection 1 by Dean Edwards, Tyler Hatch, Scott Connor, Abe Dancer. Copyright © 2009 Robert Hale Limited. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsLand of the Lost Dean Edwards,
Rawhide Ransom Tyler Hatch,
McGuire, Manhunter Scott Connor,
Rio Bonito Abe Dancer,