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|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
|Age Range:||14 - 17 Years|
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Chapter One It weren’t no secret Pa owned the best plot of land ’long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him. I was down at the water, yanking a haul ’cus the pump had gone and stuck dry again, when I saw the smoke. It were billowing up over the sick-looking trees like a signal to God himself. I heard the yelping next—men squawking like hawks attacking prey. The crows were flying frenzied too. I whistled for Silver and she came running from where she’d stooped for a drink. We rode outta there like two bats fleeing hell, but it were too late when we got back to the house. They’d only been hollering ’cus the job were already done. The house sat burning to its timber frame, and Pa were hanging from the mesquite tree out front, eyes wider than the moon. Dust puffed up to the south. I jumped from Silver and pulled my rifle from the saddle scabbard, then dropped to one knee. Eyes on the trail, sight, deep breath, exhale and squeeze. Just like Pa taught me. Just like we practiced for years and years and years. One dark shadow fell from his horse. The rest kept right on riding. “Who’d you say you were looking for again?” I glance up at the bartender. “I didn’t. More whiskey.” I push the shot glass at him, and he don’t seem too pleased ’bout that. But I got some coin and a vengeance strong enough to cut any throat that tries to cross me right now. The bartender tips a bit more my way and I take a slug. Tastes like fire. “It’s too early on a Sunday to be drinking like this, boy.” I ain’t a boy, but I sure am dressed like one. Trousers and boots. One of my flannels. A flat-brimmed Stetson. Helps I got my hair stuffed up under the hat too. When I ran into the house to try to save a few precious items, my hair caught fire. Now, with its singed ends hidden from view, I reckon I look like any other greasy, tired, drink-seeking gent on Whiskey Row. And a scrawny one at that, without so much as a whisker on my chin. But if I’s learned anything, it’s that drunk men don’t notice much in the way of details. Shame the bartender’s sober. “How old are ya?” the bartender nudges. “Old enough.” And I am. I turned eighteen two days ago. What I can’t figure is why they killed Pa only to run off without taking nothing. I itch at my ribs through the flannel and watch the son of a bitch in the cloudy mirror mounted behind the bar. He’s sitting in a corner, one grimy hand clutching a shot glass, the other wrapped round his stomach. It’s well past noon and the heat’s infernal, but he’s got a jacket on over his wool shirt. I can’t see his eyes ’cus his hat’s pulled down low, but his breathing’s uneasy. And he’s shivering. I give him another hour or two. Three tops. He fell from his horse hard when I shot him. That weren’t on account of an arm graze or shoulder nick. I thought for sure I’d shot him dead, but when Silver and I came up the trail after I buried Pa, it were nothing but dust and weeds and a few blood splatters leading to Prescott. The bastard was so hurt, tracking him those five miles were easy. Once in town, he rode up Whiskey Row. I found his horse outside the Quartz Rock Saloon—blood smeared on the saddle horn, another speckle or two showing his move inside. The bartender’s right ’bout one thing—the place is busy considering it’s the Lord’s day. What the stout fella don’t seem to realize is that a strong drink can numb the soul as good as any prayer. Hell, I muttered “Oh, God” ’bout a dozen times after I found Pa swinging, and it ain’t like it brought him back to life. He crumpled like a sack of grains when I cut him down. I had to press his eyelids shut and roll him onto his stomach ’cus I couldn’t bear looking at his face—bruised and beaten, blood trailing from his nose, what looked like a coiling spiral carved right into his forehead from when they tortured him for heavens knows what. They’d cleaned out his pockets and stolen his Colt right outta his belt. It were a beauty of a pistol—polished white grip, engraved barrel, a finish so pretty, it shined. The weapon in my holster matches. They were a set, and Pa split the pair to give one to me, and now I can’t even rejoin ’em. It weren’t easy work, digging the grave. Ma’s buried right beneath the mesquite tree Pa died swinging from. He put her there ’cus he said a soul should rest where it’s sheltered in the winter and shaded in the summer. He said it were a peaceful place, and I knew he’d’ve wanted the same. I was sweating like a hog by the time it were done, knowing right well that those men were slipping free as I shoveled earth. But Pa deserved a proper burial. More than any man, he deserved things to be done right in his memory. He landed slumped on his side when I rolled him into the grave, limbs bent at all the wrong angles, but at least he was facing Ma. He’ll sleep for all eternity with his eyes on her. After throwing earth back over him, I fashioned a wooden cross for the grave. I marked it with my pocketknife—HENRY ROSS THOMPSON, DIED JUNE 6, 1877 —hammered it into place with the backside of the shovel, and then rode into Prescott without a backwards glance. “More?” the bartender says, eyeing my empty glass. “More,” I says. But I don’t drink none of it this time. The first two distracted from the pain, but I need my mind sharp. Behind me, prospectors carry on ’bout elusive gold and lode claims businessmen won’t no longer bite at. A pair of uniforms from Fort Whipple sit to my right, hammering ’bout the Apache. And the girls—they’re weaving between the men, kicking up the folds of their dresses and bending down to show off the goods. I’m half jealous. The wrap I got over my chest to keep my shirt from looking suspiciously full is itching like hellfire. I paw at it again, knowing right well I shouldn’t carp. Pa and I rode into Prescott every week for supplies. I’s never set foot in the Quartz Rock before, but now ain’t the day to risk being recognized. Not with the deed my fingers are itching to do. I check the mirror. A whore’s approaching my mark. She bends and says something I ain’t in range to hear. He grumbles a response. She frowns but then slings an arm behind his neck anyways and tries to squeeze onto his lap. “I said I ain’t interested!” he growls, shoving her off. “Aw, come now. Ain’t no reason to be all ornery.” She pushes his hat back and I catch a glimpse of his eyes—narrowed and beady, gleaming like a demon done the devil’s work. “Just ’cus it’s Sunday don’t mean you can’t have no fun.” The whore reaches for his jacket. She’s meaning to haul him to his feet and lead him to the back rooms, but her hand hits where he’s injured. “Yer bleeding,” she says, looking at the smear of red on her fingers. She reaches for him again. “Jesus, yer—” He backhands her so hard, she goes flying into the prospectors’ table. Drinks clatter and crash. Cards fly up like snowflakes. The men take one look at the whore’s welted cheek and then they’re jumping to their feet. My mark draws his gun first. The prospectors freeze solid. The uniforms next to me tense. A stillness spreads through the saloon like a wave of heat rolling over plains, and alls this while I’m stoic at the bar, pretending to be interested in nothing but the glass clutched in my palm. Keeping the men in his sights, the murderous son of a bitch hobbles toward the door. He don’t take his eyes off the men, and they don’t dare draw their guns. It ain’t too early for drinking, but a shootout’s a different matter. My mark slips onto the street. Soon as the doors swing closed behind him, time unsticks. The whore stands. The prospectors right their table. I toss some coins onto the bar and follow the bastard. “Take care, kid,” says the bartender. I shove out the saloon without a word back. The heat’s pressing down like it’s fixing to suffocate, and the pale dirt street gleams up almost moonlike. Stirrups and rigging rings wink at me from the saddled horses lining Whiskey Row. Like they know. Like they’re urging me on. I trail the son of a bitch round the corner, where he stumbles for an outhouse and ducks inside. It’s quiet back here. Not even a breeze. I walk cautious, step nearer. Till I’m so close, I can see every last grain in the flimsy outhouse door. Till I swear I can smell the sweat and blood coming off the wretch on the other side. My revolver hums on my hip. I’ll kill him for you, Pa. I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him. I draw the pistol with my right hand, grip the door with my left. One deep breath and I yank it open, sighting the man before the door bangs to a stop ’gainst my shoulder. He’s sitting there on the pot, but his pants ain’t lowered. He’s checking the wound, shirt hanging open, fingers prodding flesh. Alls I can make out is a bloody mess ’long his left side that’s starting to soak the top of his trousers. He goes for his gun but sees mine’s already on him and that he ain’t got a chance. He freezes, showing me his palms. There’s blood covering ’em, and I wonder how much of it’s Pa’s. “Reach down real slow-like,” I says, “and unhook that pistol belt.” His lip twitches, but he does right in the end. The belt clatters onto the wooden seat the pot’s set into. I grab it and toss it onto the dirt behind me. “Who were you riding with?” He grunts. “I said, who the devil were you riding with?” Still nothing. I stare into his dark eyes and don’t see an ounce of remorse. My father died alone. Alone and cornered and in an unfair fight—a gang ’gainst one. This man could be the very same who slipped the rope over his head, heaved him high, and left him swinging. Blood’s pounding in my ears. “Why’d you do it?” I says. “You didn’t take nothing but his pistol. You just killed him and rode on, and for what?” “You don’t know?” The son of a bitch actually laughs. “A man lives with a secret like that his whole life and never tells his own son? Oh, that shines!” “Yer friends,” I says through a snarl, praying I look like I know whatever secret he’s on ’bout. “Where are they headed?” “You’ll never catch ’em, and if you do”—he grins up at me, flashing dark teeth—“they’ll string you up just like yer Pa.” I kick him right in his bleeding side and he howls. It weren’t a random raid. It were a hunt, with Pa being the target. “How did you find us?” I says. The bastard grunts. “I ain’t asking it twice.” “A clerk at Goldwaters,” he says. “Real cordial fellow. He pointed us to yer pa with a smile.” Morris. “Seems you ain’t the only boy ignorant of what’s walking round yer town,” the bastard says. He’s still grinning at me with those tarred teeth, and I wanna knock every last one loose. “Now you listen, and you listen good,” I says. “I’m going to Goldwaters, and I’m gonna get what you ain’t giving up. Then I’m gonna ride after yer friends and do to them exactly what’s in store for you—what’s in store for every yellow-bellied coward who goes round stringing up innocent men.” “That sounds real nice, boy,” he says. “Now for the love of God, lower that damn pistol.” “All right,” I says. And I do. Right after I shoot him through the skull.