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The Devil's LegionThe Last Gunfighter
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBecause of the thick growth of trees on the ridge, Frank Morgan smelled the smoke before he saw it. He reined the big Appaloosa called Stormy to a halt, and beside him, the wolflike cur known only as Dog stopped as well and sat down, ears cocked forward alertly.
Frank sniffed the smoke and didn't like the smell of it. Wood, without a doubt, but there was an undercurrent of something else in it, something that made the hairs on the back of Frank's neck prickle and an icy finger trail along his spine.
"Come on," he said to Stormy as he lifted the reins. "Let's go see about this." He rode through the trees, followed by Dog.
Whatever was happening, it was none of his business. He hadn't been in Arizona Territory for a good long while, and he didn't have any real reason for being here now. As could be expected from a man called by many The Drifter, he had ridden aimlessly in this direction after wrapping up that ruckus over in New Mexico Territory, where his son Conrad was building a railroad.
Frank Morgan didn't look like a rich man. He wore dusty range clothes and a somewhat battered old hat. But he had more money than you could shake a stick at in bank accountsin Denver and San Francisco, and he was a partner in that railroad, along with various other enterprises. Cash flowed into his accounts on a regular basis.
Frank didn't much care. As long as he had enough coins in his pocket to keep him in bacon and beans and flour and salt and sugar, to buy oats for Stormy when they came to a settlement, to maybe pick up a good soup bone from a butcher shop for Dog, and to see to it that there were plenty of bullets for the Colt .45 on his hip and the Winchester snugged into a saddle boot, Frank was happy.
At least, as happy as a man could be when he had seen way more than his share of death and suffering and folks tried to kill him on a semiregular basis.
Tall, broad-shouldered, and lean-hipped, with graying dark hair under his Stetson, Frank reached the edge of the pines and rode out to where the ridge dropped off to a broad valley. The Mogollon Rim loomed darkly, off to the northeast. Stretching southwestward were miles and miles of prime ranching country, lush valleys between ranges of thickly wooded mountains and hills. The grass in these high-country pastures was thick and tall and green.
The scene would have been truly beautiful had it not been for the column of black smoke rising from the burning cabin in the valley below Frank.
His mouth tightened into a grim slash as he studied the layout. The burning cabin had been small and crudely built, probably used as a line shack by punchers who rode for whatever spread controlled this range. Off to one side was a pole corral where three horses milled around nervously. They were so spooked they would probably bust down one side of the corral and run off pretty soon.
Frank wasn't worried about the horses. They were far enough away from the fire so that they weren't in danger from the flames, and if they got loose they would go back where they came from, in all likelihood the ranch headquarters.
He was more concerned with the two bodies sprawled motionless in front of the cabin door.
Three horses, two men, he thought. The third man was unaccounted for, but the smell in the air that put Frank's teeth on edge told him where that hombre was. It was the smell of burning flesh. The third man was still in the cabin.
The fire was burning so fiercely that Frank knew there was nothing he could do for the man inside the shack. But one or both of the other two might still be alive. "Let's go," he said to Stormy, and he guided the Appaloosa over the brink and down the steep slope of the ridge.
Stormy handled challenges such as this as if he were part mountain goat, picking his way down the incline with relative ease. Frank let the horse have his head. He knew that Stormy could be trusted. After a few minutes they reached the floor of the valley. Frank heeled the Appaloosa into a fast trot toward the blazing cabin.
When they got there, he reined in and swung down out of the saddle almost before Stormy stopped moving. Frank's right hand hovered near the well-worn walnut grips of his Colt as he approached the nearer of the two men on the ground. The man lay on his belly, and now Frank could see the large red stains on the back of his vest. A pool of blood had collected underneath him as well. The man had been shot through the body five or six times, maybe more. There was no way he could still be alive.
Heat from the flames beat at Frank's face as he hurried over to the second man. This one lay on his side, curled up almost as if he were simply sleeping. His shirt was bloody, too, but there didn't seem to be as much gore. Frank knelt, his eyes narrowing in discomfort from the heat, and felt for a pulse in the man's neck.
He found one, faint and thready but still there.
The fire was close enough so that the wounded man's eyebrows and some of his hair had been singed off. That added to the stink in the air. Frank hooked his hands under the man's arms and pulled him farther away from the flames, not stopping until a cool breeze blew over them both. In his delirium, the man muttered something that Frank couldn't make out.
Frank eased the man's head to the ground. There was a bloodstain on his left side, another on his right shoulder, yet another on his right thigh. He had been hit three times. Frank pulled up the man's shirt to check the wound in his side. It was a deep one, angling in, and there was no exit wound on his back. The slug was still in him somewhere. It had probably struck a rib and splintered, shattering the bone in the process and doing God knows how much other damage. Frank didn't figure the fella had much time left.
He whistled, and Stormy came trotting over. Frank straightened and got his canteen off the saddle. He knelt again, uncorked the canteen, and held it to the man's lips, letting a little water trickle into his mouth. The man sputtered and coughed and came awake. He sucked greedily at the canteen for a second or two before weakness overcame him and his head fell back.
"B-Bragan?" he gasped.
Frank glanced at the dead man. "If that was one of your pards, I'm afraid they've crossed the divide, fella. One's shot up real bad in front of the cabin, and the other is still inside."
The wounded man closed his eyes and let out a groan. "Sandeen," he said, and Frank realized that was what he had said a few moments earlier, as Frank was dragging him away from the inferno that until recently had been a line shack.
"Is that who did this to you?"
"His ... riders. Am I gonna ... be all right?"
"I don't know," Frank said honestly. "I'm not a doctor. It doesn't look good, though."
"Them ... sons o' bitches! They shot ... Wardell ... through the window ... set the shack on fire ... me'n Bragan stood it as long as we could ... then we come out shootin' ... bastards was waitin' for us ... cut us down ..."
That was what Frank figured had happened here, and now the guess had been confirmed. He had known from the start that white men had done this. In the past, Apaches had burned plenty of isolated cabins in Arizona Territory, but Geronimo, the last of the war chiefs, had surrendered to the Army seven or eight years earlier, effectively ending the Indian threat in the territory.
But there were still plenty of other dangers around here. The grisly scene Frank had come upon was proof of that.
"What's your name, son?" Frank asked quietly. The wounded man wasn't much over twenty years old.
"I'm called Rufe ... Rufe Blake."
"Anybody you'd like for me to write to?"
"You mean ... to tell 'em ... I'm dead?"
"Just in case," Frank said, although he was more convinced than ever that this young puncher had only minutes to live.
"My ma ... and sister ... live in Flagstaff. Ma's name is ... Alma Blake. My sister is ... Tess." A bloodstained hand lifted and clutched at Frank's arm. "I got wages comin' ... from the Lazy F. Spread's owned by ... Howard Flynn."
"I'll see to it that your ma and sister get what's coming to you, Rufe. Don't you worry."
The cowboy's fingers tightened on Frank's arm. "I'm ... obliged ... One more thing ..."
"What is it, Rufe?"
"If you ever see ... Ed Sandeen ... plug the mangy varmint!"
Rufe Blake's back arched slightly and his voice strengthened as he delivered that plea for vengeance, but as soon as the words were out of his mouth, he sagged back on the ground and a long sigh came from him. His eyes began to grow glassy as they stared up at the blue Arizona sky, as if he were watching his departed soul ascend toward Heaven.
Frank sighed, too. His long years of roaming the West had been filled with people dying. He had been forced to kill many of them himself. He had gotten used to death-but he had never grown to like it. He hoped he never did.
Leaving Rufe Blake's body where it lay, Frank stood up and went to the man he knew only as Bragan. He dragged Bragan's body over next to Rufe's. As for the man still inside the cabin-Wardell, Rufe had called him, Frank remembered-he would have to wait until the fire burned down and the ruins cooled off some before he could recover that body. He was sure it wouldn't be a pretty sight. A corpse never was.
In the meantime, he could start digging the graves. There wasn't much danger of the fire spreading, he judged. The area right around the line shack had been trampled down by horses and men until there wasn't much vegetation left on it to burn. Besides, there had been plenty of rain here in the Mogollon country in recent months, and everything was green. Still, Frank planned to keep a close eye on the fire to make sure no glowing ashes floated away to cause trouble.
He had a folding shovel in the pack that was lashed onto Stormy's back behind the saddle. As he went to get it, he thought about what he had learned in the past few minutes. Rufe Blake and his two companions had ridden for the Lazy F, a spread owned by a man called Howard Flynn. And gunmen who worked for Ed Sandeen, obviously an enemy of Flynn's, had torched the line shack and killed the three cowboys.
Frank had ridden into the middle of a range war.
He had encountered such things before and heard about many others, epic, bloody conflicts that could consume an entire range in killing. Often they continued until one side or the other was completely wiped out. As a younger man, Frank had taken part in range wars. Now he wanted nothing to do with this one-although the brutal way in which Rufe, Bragan, and Wardell had been killed rankled at him. Trapping men in a cabin, burning them out, and shooting them down like dogs was a coward's way of doing things. Frank could respect somebody who went at trouble straight up and head-on, even when he didn't agree with him. But this ...
This was nothing short of murder.
He had barely hung his hat on the saddle horn and started digging when Dog suddenly growled, a low, rumbling sound of menace and warning from deep in his throat. Frank pushed the blade of the shovel into the ground so that it would stand up and turned to see what had raised Dog's hackles. He heard what the big cur's keen hearing had picked up a few seconds earlier, a swift rataplan of hoofbeats. Frank saw several riders emerge from some trees on the far side of the valley and gallop toward him.
He suspected they were more riders for the Lazy F, who had spotted the smoke from the burning cabin and were coming to check it out. They could take over this burying chore, he thought. Once he told them what Rufe had said, he could ride on.
Things weren't going to be quite that simple, though, he realized a moment later when one of the men racing toward him shucked a repeating rifle from its saddle sheath and opened fire, sending bullets whipping through the air toward Frank.
Chapter TwoLuckily, the hurricane deck of a galloping horse was just about the worst place in the world for accurate shooting. One of the slugs came close enough for Frank to hear the whistling whine of its passage, but the others were even farther off the mark. Leaving the shovel where it was, he walked unhurriedly toward Stormy and pulled out his own Winchester. He levered a round into the chamber, laid the barrel across the saddle to steady it, and drew a bead. The Appaloosa stood stock-still, knowing from experience what was about to happen. When Frank pressed the trigger and the rifle cracked, the hat on the head of the man shooting at him suddenly jumped into the air. That hombre started sawing on the reins, trying to bring his mount to a halt. The men with him hauled in their horses, too.
Frank worked the rifle's lever again and then stood there waiting while the four riders milled around, obviously confused and unsure what to do next. He would let them call the play. If they came a-shootin' again, the odds were that he could pick off all of them before they got close enough to stand a good chance of hitting him.
Now, if they dismounted and opened fire with their rifles, that would be a different story. He would have to hunt some cover if that happened.
Instead, after a few minutes of heated conversation, the four men started forward again, but they walked their horses this time and didn't shoot at him. Frank watched them come. When Dog growled, he said, "Take it easy, old-timer. I reckon they want to parley."
When the riders were about fifty yards away, they stopped again, and one of the men-not the one who had been shooting earlier-shouted, "Hold your fire, mister! We just want to find out if our pards are all right!"
"Come ahead!" Frank called back. "But keep your hands where I can see 'em!"
The men advanced slowly. They were close enough now so that Frank could make out their rugged, unshaven faces. They looked rough as a cob and probably were, but for the moment at least, they weren't shooting. The one who had popped off those rounds earlier had a particularly unfriendly look on his face. He had slid his rifle back in the saddle boot, though, and as long as he didn't reach for it again, Frank was willing to let him live.
When they came to a stop again, they were about thirty feet away. The spokesman peered past Frank at the two bodies and said grimly, "That looks like a couple of our friends."
"One's Rufe Blake, and the other's called Bragan," Frank said. "That's all I know about him. Wardell's still in the cabin."
The men turned their heads to look at the shack. The roof had fallen in by now, and one of the walls was about to. The fire wasn't burning as strongly as it had been earlier, but it still gave off plenty of heat.
"What happened here?"
"I rode up and found the cabin on fire and those men lying out here. They'd been shot as they ran outside."
The trigger-happy hombre scowled at Frank and said loudly, "He's lyin', Buckston. I'll bet a hat he's the one who killed them boys."
"I'm telling it like it happened," Frank said, his voice hard as flint. "And I don't much cotton to being called a liar. I'd be willing to bet that Rufe Blake wouldn't have liked it, either."
The one called Buckston, who seemed to be in charge, frowned and asked, "What do you mean by that, mister?"
With his left hand, Frank flicked a gesture toward Rufe's body. "I mean that young puncher was still alive when I rode up. He's the one who told me what happened here. And before he died, he said that men who ride for somebody called Ed Sandeen were responsible for it."
"Sandeen," one of the other punchers said. He made it sound like the worst curse that could ever come out of his mouth.
"I reckon you men ride for the Lazy F," Frank went on. "That'd be Howard Flynn's spread?"
Buckston's eyes narrowed even more. "You seem to know a hell of a lot about what's goin' on in this part of the country for somebody who just rode in."
"All I know is what Rufe Blake told me, and what I can see with my own eyes," Frank said with a shrug. "It's pretty obvious that there's some sort of range war going on between Flynn and Sandeen. And judging by what happened here, Sandeen's men fight dirty."
Buckston leaned over and spit deliberately in the dust. "That's because Sandeen's a polecat, and he hires men just like him ... gunslingers, hired killers, men who been ridin' the hoot-owl trail. I'm convinced Sandeen used to ride that trail his own self, before he come here to the Mogollon country and tried to act all respectable-like. But once a polecat, always a polecat.
Excerpted from The Devil's Legion by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2006 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great characters and story. Surprise ending.