Arizona Ranger Sam Burrack is back—and hot on the trail of the worst desperados in two countries
Following a tip from a prisoner in Yuma Penitentiary, Ranger Sam Burrack is riding to the Mexican Valley to hunt down the Cowboy Gang, notorious bandits who have topped the Most Wanted list for the past year. The crooks have fled to Río Malo and settled in under the protection of corrupt town officials. Now, with new recruits including the infamous Russian assassin Kura Stabitz, they’re robbing banks and trains on both sides of the border.
“I will tell you where they are,” Escalante had said, “only because I know that Stabitz will kill you and bleed you like a dying pig!” Burrack knows it won’t be easy. He won’t find the gunmen just waiting to be arrested in Bad River. But with patience—and a little luck—he will find them nearby, maybe in the limestone mountains, maybe in the caves above the old Quaker mission. He’ll smoke them out like rats if he has to. That was the job, and a ranger always gets the job done...
More than 4 million Ralph Cotton books in print!
Release date: October 26, 2021
Print pages: 304
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"Shoot him again, Earl!" Giles Tillis shouted, jerking his horse to a halt beside Earl Dupree. They stared down at the wounded guard struggling in a bloody belly crawl up the rocky hillside toward the trail. A moment earlier, Earl Dupree's rifle shot had sent the guard flying from his saddle, tumbling down over the rocks. A French pistol had flown from the guard's hand; it lay just out of his reach.
"I've got him," Dupree replied, jacking a fresh round into his rifle chamber. He looked down at the struggling guard and chuffed. "Crazy bastard. What does he think, if he gets that gun he'll come back up here and shoot all of us?"
"I don't know what he's thinking," Tillis said in a sharp tone. He glanced around at the roar of gunshots on the mining plateau behind them. Bodies of two mine workers and a guard lay scattered down the rocks. "Are you going to shoot him or not?" He cocked the big Colt in his hand.
"Hold your water, Giles. I said I've got him." Dupree raised his rifle and took aim, wondering for just a second if Giles Tillis meant to aim his Colt at him or the wounded guard.
The guard had managed to reach his pistol and place a weak hand on it. Dupree's shot ripped through his chest and slammed him backward.
"You were fooling around," said Tillis as the sound of the shot echoed across the rocky mountainsides. "People fool around, things go wrong. We need to make a good showing here."
He motioned his Colt toward the mine office, where their gunmen were loading bags of cash and silver onto a freight wagon. Guards and workers watched in silence as rifles pointed at them threateningly.
Earl Dupree chuckled behind his bandanna mask. "Jesus, Giles! Fooling around?" he said. "What are these workers going to say? 'While some gunmen loaded the wagon, others were out here fooling around, playing a harmonica and dancing a jig'?"
Tillis took a breath and tapped his pistol barrel against his masked cheek. "Watch your bandanna, Earl," he said to Dupree. "Take this serious."
"Hellfire, I reckon I will!" said Dupree, straightening his mask higher up on his nose. His rifle swung up to his shoulder and he fired shot after shot into the dead guard's body. When his smoking gun finally clicked on an empty chamber, he propped the butt of it on his thigh. "Is that serious enough, pard?" he asked. Gray smoke curled up from his rifle barrel.
"It'll do," said Tillis. "Reload. Let's get going."
He turned his horse toward the mine office as their gunmen stood around the loaded wagon and waited for orders.
Inside the office building, mine manager Bob Udall stared out through the dusty window in the direction of the rifle shots. In the room behind the window, the Gunmen's leader, Raeburn "Cree" Sims, stood at ease, a hip propped on the edge of a large oaken desk. He'd pulled his mask down below his chin. A Colt hung loosely in his right hand.
"Bob. Hey, Bob!" he said to the manager, raising his voice to get the man's attention. "Look around here."
When Udall turned from the window and faced him, Sims tipped his gun barrel up and down toward him. "You've got to keep your hands up and stay away from the window," Sims said. "This is supposed to be a robbery, remember?"
"Oh, I'm sorry! I forget myself!" Udall said, nervously raising his hands chest high.
The Russian Assassin stood near the office door, a big Remington revolver cocked, aimed and ready. The look on his face indicated he was well prepared to shoot anybody for any reason. A stiff four-inch-long black spade goatee covered his chin. He spoke in a gruff tone to the manager. "Maybe next time I shoot you in the head-you won't forget?"
The manager's face turned stark white. His lips trembled.
"Damn, Stabitz!" Sims cut in. He looked the Russian up and down. "Take a breath. Ease up some."
"I am eased up," said Stabitz in a coarse tone. He stared hard at Bob Udall as he spoke to Sims.
"Okay, better still, go on outside with the others, check the wagon," Sims said. "We're fixin' to go."
Stabitz only nodded, still staring at Udall. But he let the hammer down on the big Remington. Without reply, he turned and stepped out the front door.
"Holy God!" said Udall as the door closed behind the Russian. He clasped a hand to his chest, catching his breath. "What was the meaning of all that? I had no warning he was coming with you!"
Sims gave him a level stare. "We don't ask your opinion on how we pull off a robbery, Bob."
"No, of course not," said Udall. "But there're bodies lying out there. I was told there would be no killing!"
"That's too bad," said Sims. "But I don't know how to stop it without tipping our hand. Some people have to be martyrs."
The manager was still shaking terribly. Sims took note of it and said, "You ain't going to die on me, are you, Bob?"
"No, I'll be okay now," Udall said. "It's just that I wasn't expecting him to be with you. What was I to think, he shows up in my office? He's a known assassin after all."
Sims considered Udall's words for a moment, then gave a little chuff and said, "All right, I see how you might have thought I brought him here to kill you to make this look good. But you were wrong. If I wanted you dead, I wouldn't need Stabitz. I'd kill you myself."
"I can see that now," said Udall, settling a little. He swallowed a lump in his throat and pointed at his desk. "There's a bottle of whiskey in the drawer there. . . . Would you, please?"
Sims nodded. Stepping around the desk, he took a bottle from the top drawer, walked back and handed it to Udall. Udall threw back a long swig and let out a whiskey hiss.
Sims watched him intently with a slight smile. "I'll be better at this next time," said Udall, settling, wiping a hand across his mouth. "That man just gives me the willies, is all."
"Next time won't happen for a year or more," said Sims. "We have to keep things staggered out, not draw attention too much to any one place. There're likely a hundred mines or more up here within spitting distance. One's as fat and rich as the next." He took the bottle back from Udall, corked it and stood it on the desk.
"I understand," said Udall. "You set it up with the manager, rob some of the better ones about once a year. Rest of the time, you keep the other bandits away." He grinned. "It's a pretty sweet deal."
"Yes, it is," said Sims, "so long as everybody keeps their mouths shut and doesn't let themselves get rattled if anybody comes asking questions."
"If they ask, one gang of masked riders looks the same as the next," said Udall. "All these mines get robbed every once in a while anyway. It's a business cost these Frenchmen know they have to pay. But robbers don't have to get all of it. So what if we take something for ourselves once in a while?"
"That's the spirit, Bob." Sims grinned. "This is our third French mine. We'll get things running smoother in no time."
"Yes, sir, we will," said Udall. He gave a shaky grin, still settling his nerves. "You needn't worry any about us managers on this end keeping our mouths shut."
"I know that, Bob," Sims said in a peaceful tone. "Believe me, I'm not worried about any of you at all."
Outside the mine office, two men resting double-barreled shotguns across their laps sat on the wooden seat of the loaded freight wagon. Five other gunmen, including Kura Stabitz, had mounted their horses and gathered around the loaded wagon, ready to go. Their rifles still covered the miners and guards. All of the captive employees still held their hands up at chest height. One man let his hands droop a little, until he caught the eye of a mounted gunman named Harry Hanson.
"Keep 'em up!" Hanson shouted. "We're about done! You don't want to die this late in the game!"
Every captive's hands rose six inches higher.
Hearing Hanson warn the captives, Tillis and Dupree rode in from the edge of the mine yard.
"The hell's taking so long?" said Dupree. "We ought to be down the road by now."
As if on cue, a single gunshot roared from inside the mine office. All heads turned in unison.
"Uh-oh," Dupree said in a lowered tone.
All eyes watched Cree Sims step out of the office onto the dusty plank walkway. He corked the bottle of whiskey he'd taken from atop Udall's desk as he walked to his horse and stepped up into the saddle.
"Driver!" he called out in a strong voice to the man holding the wagon reins. "Turn this rig around. We're burning daylight!"
The driver, a new outlaw named Eli Denton, let down the long wooden brake handle and slapped the reins on the backs of the four big wagon horses pulling the heavy load. The animals stooped low into the weight to get the wagon moving, then pulled forward, raising dust in a quick wide circle, and headed out of the yard toward the trail.
The mounted gunmen set their horses, keeping the captive mine employees covered until the wagon was thirty yards away.
"All you squareheads, get back to work!" Sims shouted at the miners and guards. As he shouted, he turned his horse and rode a few yards away while the employees hurried to the mine office to get under cover and to see what the gunshot was about.
The rest of the mounted gunmen rode along with Sims. They stopped and gathered around him when he reined his horse down and looked back at the mine office.
Giles Tillis gave Sims a questioning look.
"That's right, Tillis," Sims said in a harsh tone. "He's deader than hell." He looked from face to face among the horsemen gathered around him. "Everybody hear that? The man back at the mine is deader than hell! He's dead because he was too damn nervous to live. Think about it on the way home. If you're born of a nervous spirit, you're riding with the wrong bunch."
The riders nodded in agreement. Their bandanna masks came down from their faces.
"We're none of us what you would call born of a nervous spirit, are we, pards?" Earl Dupree called out.
The horsemen laughed.
"Not a back-shooting one of us!" a strong voice shouted in reply as the contingent rolled on.
Near dark, the men on horseback followed the wagon as they weaved through a labyrinth of broken limestone boulders streaked with ancient lava spills. The men began looking all around, confused and suspicious. Instead of staying on the same trail they had followed to the mine from Bad River, Cree Sims had ridden in front of the line and gestured to the wagon driver to turn the rig into a steep, wide ravine. Above, on both sides of the ravine, riflemen stepped into sight.
"This is a straight-up ambush!" Dupree whispered to Tillis, riding beside him. He started to swing his rifle up from his boot toward Cree Sims.
Giles Tillis stopped him. "No, wait. It's not an ambush!" Tillis said.
He spoke loud enough for not only Dupree to hear him, but the rest of the men as well. Everybody's hand froze on their guns. But they held their fire, glancing back and forth at one another, tense, ready.
At the sight of the gunmen on the upper edges of the ravine, Cree Sims seemed to have vanished. The men looked around as they wondered what was going on. Now that they had listened to Giles Tillis and not started shooting, Sims reappeared from a rocky crevice and held his horse steady at the front of the wagon.
"All of you, listen up!" he called out. "This is the best part of this whole deal!"
The men watched him closely. Sims put his horse into a slow walk along the trail beside the wagon, right in the midst of the mounted gunmen, something no one would have done if this really were an ambush. He held sheets of paperwork above his head.
"Here is the value of all the smelted silver, raw ore and cash ingots we've got riding in this wagon. There's also a hefty amount of U.S. dollars and Mexican pesos that were headed to the bank in Bad River." He grinned. "The French mining company demanded it all be taken somewhere safe!"
Cautious laughter rose among the men. Sims continued. "Everything I totaled up here comes to a little over two hundred thousand dollars!" The men fell silent, stunned by the large amount. Sims waved the paperwork overhead with a dark chuckle. "That's the whole day's pay on paper," he added with a dark laugh. "Any of you want to go over all this, just say so. I'll bring it right to you. Otherwise, you can take every word I'm telling you as the living gospel."
A hand went up. All heads turned toward a newer gunman named Gus Baker, a killer out of Missouri. "I'll take a look at it," Baker said, "since you don't mind."
"Mind? Hell no, I don't mind," said Sims. "I was hoping somebody would ask." He gigged his horse back to where Baker sat on his mount, giving him a level gaze.
Two other riders backed their horses a step to make room.
"You Missourians always like being shown, don't you?" said Sims.
"Not that I don't trust you, Cree," said the new man with a half-smile.
"Here it is," said Sims. "Check it out good."
He held the shipping papers out with his left hand. When Baker reached for them, Sims's right hand pulled the trigger on his big Colt, blasting Baker from the saddle.
In the dead silence that hung over the roar of the shot, Earl Dupree leaned in his saddle toward Giles Tillis, who was mounted right beside him.
"I saw that coming a mile away," Dupree whispered, muffling a laugh.
"Good for you. Now shut up," Tillis leaned over and whispered in reply.
With his Colt smoking in his hand, Sims called, "Anybody else want to check all this out?" When no one replied, he called out, "Good. Looks like we all understand one another."
He gestured at a wide crevice in the rock wall of the ravine. As the men looked on, an elderly Mexican wearing a long serape led a large black-and-tan donkey and two saddled horses out onto the rocky path. Two sets of saddlebags hung across the mule's back. The two horses looked rested and ready for the trail.
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