In a sudden ambush in a deserted valley, Walt Durand's horse is shot out from under him, and he's drawn into a deadly game of cat-and-mouse against four men who want nothing more than to kill him in cold blood.
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By Fred Grove
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2006 Fred Grove
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe trail to Red Cloud stretching out before Walt Durand near midday lay like a thin, dusty ribbon that beckoned across the prairie and wound lazily up to the sloping hills beyond. Although not a broad track, it was well defined, countless hoofs having churned into the soft earth, beaten down the blue stem grass, and pounded it into a hard-packed course.
And to Walt Durand, the manhunter, there was a feeling of comfort and security about the trail which he found pleasant, for he could scan the rolling swells on all sides and be certain of what lay around him. It gave him time to savor the country, and, manhunter or cowman, it made a rider envision great herds moving to market from the Indian Territory grasslands. His had been the one-man trail, the solitary camp, but here that was all distant, something to be put aside for a time. The open country was a relief to him after crossing the sand-tricky Arkansas where it bent southeast in its meandering division of the Osage and Pawnee nations. There, in the wooded bottomlands, he had first noticed a rider moving out ahead of him hurriedly. He sighted the man once more before he reached the flattening uplands, but had gradually dismissed him from his mind. A solitary horseman, moving in a hurry, was notunusual in the Territory.
Ahead of Durand now, arrow-straight to the northwest, curved the wandering course of a creek, and, beyond that, humped hills that squatted low and broad above the grass-rich flat lands like wary sentinels. Riding leisurely, he came to the tree-shadowed creek, pausing at the shallow, rocky ford to water his horse and roll a smoke. Here, out of the copper sun, the coolness of the trees and water smote him gently. As his horse heaved and raised its head, Durand mechanically inspected the opposite bank where the trail slanted up into a little valley before striding deeper into the hills. Many tracks had cut into the moist, dark footing, which was to be expected on a main trail, even to a small border bastion like Red Cloud. Yet the tracks were fresh and he had seen no one down the trail. It looked as if the riders had come from the valley to the creek, then turned back. To him tracks were like sign posts to the city traveler and he read them avidly, with a deep concentration and visualization. No shoeless Indian ponies' prints these; well shod cowmen's mounts had traveled this way.
So Durand left the creek's coolness and rode into the valley footing the hills, the question of the tracks not pressing, his thoughts concerned with Red Cloud and what might be there. Thus, when the first shot rang across the valley, he was in the open, an inviting target, and far from shelter. That blast, coming from the rim of the rocky ridge above him, staggered his horse as if the big dun-colored animal had been struck by the wild swing of a giant hand; a second shot sent the dun crashing down. Another bullet thudded into dying horseflesh before Durand could jerk free the short-barreled carbine. With the crack of high-powered rifles in his ears, he crouched behind the shuddering animal, hunting for a target in the glare of the sun.
After his horse went down, there was a short gap of silence; a restless, dangerous quiet it was, because the limestone ridge soon became alive with the steady crack of rifles from hidden gunmen. Durand detected no movement, and fierce anger, nettled by frustration at the lack of targets, ran through him like a fanned flame. It occurred to him that the well-concealed ambushers must have waited long for him and made sure of their positions. They had known he would pass through the valley. Now little geysers of dirt and loose rock sprang up near him like quick-groping mushrooms. He moved closer against the horse, virtually pinned there by the hail of lead. The safety of the tree-lined creek lay a good 200 yards behind him and nearby rocks offered less protection than the carcass of the horse. Sweat coursed down his body, and the carbine felt wet and slippery in his hands. Once, as he glanced up into the sun, a figure moved fleetingly behind a boulder high on the ridge. Durand snapped a shot and the Winchester bucked against his shoulder. An answering yelp of pain followed faintly and, for a moment, the hills and the little scooped-out valley were locked in silence. This was an unexpected turn for the riflemen-Durand was to be the marked meat of this bushwhacking trap. And to the sweating, tense man behind the dead horse, that cry of pain meant grim satisfaction as he swept the rocky slopes for another shot. Damn them, he thought, they're playing it safe. It was impossible to spot a man unless he moved. Seeing nothing, he settled down, depressing his long body as best he could and waiting for more bullets, and they came, not in spasmodic bursts, but steadily searching him out, probing for him. Sweat ran down his chest in rivulets. Smoke, pushed by a faint wind, drifted slowly across the valley, the wisps reminding him of buzzards he had seen hovering in a burning sky over dead horse or man.
So he lay there, sniping back when he could, wondering how long he could hold out, and waiting for night, when he figured he would hazard a desperate run for the creek behind him if his luck stayed stout and he didn't stop any lead. Scarcely any movement he made brought down a swarm of bumblebee sounds upon him, and he could hear the thunk-thunk of high velocity lead smashing into the barrier shielding him. The day wore on with half-step slowness. He thought it odd that his ambushers had made no attempt to outflank his position or get in behind him, but, when he looked at the uncovered slopes tapering toward the creek, he understood. Riding into this, high and open on a horse, he was supposed to have been dead by now, anyway. At first he had cursed the loss of a good horse; now he realized that its lifeless bulk and the scattered heap of rock rubble in which he lay were his salvation. From now until dark, it would be a game of waiting-and luck.
He figured he had ridden into the valley about noon. Now the sun, a great red furnace in the limitless, molten sky, showed mid-afternoon or later. This drygulching game puzzled him, the longer he thought about it, because there was no rhyme or reason to it so far as he could see. Larry Cramer was the only man he knew in Red Cloud and he was a stranger in this part of the country. Wryly he speculated if this could be a case of shooting at the wrong man. Or was it simply a trail killing and he happened to be the first unlucky rider who came along? Whatever it was, they had him cornered like a coyote run into a dead-end cañon. As best he could determine, at least three gunmen were blasting at him up there from the rock ledges and brush, and several times he thought he heard a fourth gun. On second thought, that many rifles seemed out of proportion for an ordinary hold-up or killing.
Durand peered again at the deadly ridge. His stirring brought an immediate response as lead slammed into the horse, knocked splinters from rocks, and sang past him. This was the game-a quick look for a shot, then duck and wait for the hail of lead that never failed to come like angry wasps. After that he gave up trying to unravel this, and lay motionless, cramped and sweating and sore-muscled, for a long time before risking another shot, merely watching. His shells were running low and he would need them tonight when he made his running fight afoot. He discovered presently, however, that conservation was impossible unless he allowed the rifleman on his left to move in closer. The killer had thrown two close slugs in succession at Durand's position, one bullet spitting dust into his face close to the ground. And Durand saw grimly that, unless that rifle was silenced or driven back from his flank, there would be no chance awaiting him after dark and he would go down like a trapped animal, helpless and unable to fight back. Abruptly, then, he rolled over, his carbine barked, and he fell back, awaiting a stormy answer from the ridge. It never came; the valley was wrapped in silence. For the first time he had shown himself and failed to draw fire. He could not understand this change in tactics, and he lay there, sweating, trying to read its meaning. It looked like a trap, a move to lure him out into the open and away from the horse. He grinned thinly-Why, this was one of the oldest tricks in the game.-and he decided to wait it out.
And then behind him suddenly sounded hoofs on flinty footing. He twisted around, braced for an attack from the rear. Were they coming in behind now? Over the barrel of his gun, as he lay, flat and grim, he saw a rider less than 100 yards away coming up the valley at a trot from the creek. He held the rider in his sights, hesitated, and lowered the carbine as he saw the man's hands were free of weapons. What sort of business was this? At the same time, the firing from the ridge had not been resumed. The horseman came on, oblivious to the life and death act being played here. Watching keenly, Durand gave a short exclamation of surprise. The rider was a woman!
Thinking of the guns on the ridge, he frantically tried to wave her back. The pot-shooting boys behind him couldn't be expected to miss a second victim. Yet a thick, wondering silence continued to grip the valley and the oncoming rider continued to ignore his signs and came on unconcernedly. As Durand looked again at the ridge, four men, two of them aiding a limping companion, disappeared over the top. So they were clearing out. The coming of this woman, this girl, had been his luck today, and he got up on his feet to face her.
This day had been jammed with the unexpected, but he was unprepared for what he saw: a slim young woman with surprisingly cool, yet friendly, gray eyes. A mighty good-looking young woman, he decided quickly, looked down at him with concern and gravity.
"You took a foolish chance, riding up here like this," Durand told her with reproach. "They're over the hill now, but they've been after me all afternoon." He looked back at the ridge again, half expecting to see the riflemen reappear. It was still empty of men and he turned back to her and reminded her: "I still say you took a long chance."
"I'll remember the lecture," she murmured, and he unconsciously liked her half smile and the way her eyes laughed back at him as she dismounted. He became aware of chestnut hair and a brown, oval face, delicately featured but strong. She wore a calf-skin vest over a white blouse, buckskin riding skirt, and the smallest boots he'd ever seen.
She exclaimed over the loss of his horse and told him: "I was out for a ride and heard the shots. I crossed the creek for a better look, then decided to come on closer and I guess they thought there might be others with me."
Her name, he learned after he made his known, was Ellen Winston and she lived at Red Cloud.
"You didn't say where you're from," she said.
"Sometimes it's a good idea not to be from anywhere," he observed with a slow smile.
"I shouldn't have asked that question. It's not considered good manners these days."
She gave him a low laugh and he saw the corners of her eyes crinkle. Her sense of humor, he was discovering, was sharp. "Nobody seems to be from anywhere in particular if you do get an answer," she went on, "but many of them are going somewhere ... in a hurry."
Durand looked ruefully at his horse. "If I was in a hurry, which I wasn't exactly, I'm slowed down now."
"I'll ride you to Red Cloud," she offered.
"Thanks, and I'll take it," he answered, and moved to salvage his gear from the dead animal, freeing the cinch and depositing saddle, blanket, and bridle under a rock up the ridge where they couldn't be spotted by a rider traveling the trail. His other belongings he wrapped in a long, yellow slicker to take with him.
"I see you travel light," she observed.
For a girl, he thought, she was keenly observant and seemed aware of the habits of men on the dodge. He replied: "Yes, it's handy and quick if you're in a hurry."
He saw her look at him closely. "I guess it's getting fashionable in this part of the country," she added.
Durand passed up comment on that observation to ask: "How far to this place you call Red Cloud?"
"About six miles."
"Not far. I'm thirsty and hungry. But first I'm going back to that creek for water."
"You can ride behind me."
She mounted easily, kicked her small left boot free from the stirrup, and he swung up behind her with the slicker under one arm. Her horse, he soon noticed, was a saddler and reached out smoothly down the trail under the double load. When they came to the creek, he dismounted while she watered the horse. Conscious of cramped shoulder muscles, he stepped to a place above the ford where the rocks spread out, low and flat. He took off his weather-scoured hat, showing dark hair, thick and matted with sweat, and bent down for his drink. He drank long and deeply, like a plainsman who often goes long without water and relishes each drop, bending shoulders over outspread hands anchored on the flat rocks. When he straightened up, at last, his face glistened with water, which he wiped off with his sleeve. He rolled a cigarette with rapid twists before coming back to where she waited, mounted. He drew the smoke into his lungs hungrily, and, when he turned to her, a half smile creased his wide mouth and his eyes followed her.
"I'm ready if you are," he said.
Durand swung up behind her again and they jogged northwest, back up the valley that had almost been a deathtrap, past Durand's dead horse, and up over the ridge's rim. Losing the horse had fired him like the jab of a Spanish spur, and, when they topped the rise and the country lay spread out before them, he looked again for horsemen, although figuring he would see none.
She reined up, asking: "Do you want to look around?"
He shook his head. "No, I'll get a fresh horse in Red Cloud and come back."
But he did inspect the rough, brush-littered slopes where the killers had hidden, and, as he looked down where his horse lay in the valley, he marveled how he had survived. They were both looking down and the puzzlement in his mind bobbed up as if he were thinking aloud. "I've been shot at before, but this is the first time I never had an idea what it was all about. I'm still trying to figure out why they jumped me. It don't make sense, unless they got the wrong man. Have any ideas? You know the country."
"If I did, I'd tell you," she said soberly. "A lot of things don't make sense in the Territory. There's no law to speak of below the Kansas line and hardly any above it. That may be exaggerated, but it's close to the truth. With all that, there's bound to be some ambushing, hold-ups, and just plain killings. We have a little of each around Red Cloud, but the bad men let the town pretty much alone because they can come and go there without much trouble."
"You mean it's an outlaw hangout?"
"Not exactly. The town happens to be the only trading point for a hundred miles for Territory riders and it's just inside the Kansas line. You might say it's just the location, though a sort of sanctuary in a way."
"Well," Durand said, "I'd've been good meat for the buzzards right now if you hadn't busted up the party planned for me. That puts me in your debt. I'll want to hang around Red Cloud a while to make up for it."
"Maybe you won't like the town. I don't think you will."
The warmth of her voice seemed to have ebbed, replaced by a strange coldness that surprised him. "You won't like it," she said decisively, "unless you're like the men who come there."
"I'd have to look them over to see which bunch I belong to," he countered evasively. "Red Cloud may not like me. So it may be the other way around."
Excerpted from Trouble Hunter by Fred Grove Copyright © 2006 by Fred Grove. Excerpted by permission.
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